Home Fires

by Christine "Roo" Toups


Dr. Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the property of the author. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.


This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it.

Carelessly, words and music by C. Kenny/N.Kenny/N. Ellis used without permission.

NOTE: © copyright 2000 One Bard Writin'

Alice Greenway leaned against the railing of the screened-in verandah and fanned herself with her wide-brimmed hat. It was October, high spring, and the heat at Coolinga Station was malevolent. The house and grounds, enveloped in a profusion of wildflowers and spinifex, broiled beneath an eiderdown of iron-gray clouds.

With more force than was necessary, Alice smacked opened the screen door and plunked down on the last of seven steps, digging the toe of her chukkas into the dark, red earth. Salty droplets stung the corners of her eyes and she wiped them away with a leisurely pass of her hand. She was bored. Bored stiff. Bored to tears. The four-legged remedy for her boredom stood grazing in the paddock, growing fat on Bahia hay. She launched herself from the steps and strode purposefully across the grounds. Minutes later, she emerged from the paddock astride a sturdy, though somewhat lethargic, gray gelding. She pulled the brim of her father's old hat down about her eyes and gathered the reins and a clump of silver mane in her hands. Squinting into the midday sun, youthful eyes picked out an oft-visited destination: a cool blackwater billabong nestled in the shade of a cathedral of fifty-foot silver ghost gums. Alice dug her heels into the belly of the horse and spurred him across the salt pan at a gallop.

* * * * * * * * * *

The cramped cockpit of the Lockheed Electra had none of the amenities usually associated with flying - no in-flight meals, no stewardess, no legroom; not that Janice Covington, at a mere five-feet-four-inches, required a great deal of legroom. The engine, for all its wear, ran smoothly, and the controls were crisp and responded immediately to her touch. As she steered with her knee, she unstoppered a water jug and drank deeply the last of her tepid water. She had removed her leather jacket upon takeoff, opting for shirt sleeves and now, three hours later, her thin cotton blouse was plastered uncomfortably to her back. She consoled herself with the knowledge that she was only a few short miles from her destination. Gazing out the dirty windscreen as far as she could see, flat, russet-colored earth swelled to meet the horizon, its monotony broken only occasionally by small water holes and stands of gums, silver in the season. One mile looked very much like another, and yet she had referred to her map only once since leaving the airfield at Birrubi, relying instead on a combination of instinct and luck to bring her into close orbit around Coolinga Station and its current proprietress, Melinda Pappas. She and Janice had not seen one another, or spoken, in more than six months - a fact which both angered and confounded Janice. As she gazed at a cluster of pinpricks gleaming like quicksilver on the horizon, she reflected that there is never a disaster so devastating that a determined person can not salvage something from the ashes.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the time it took to tether her horse to a low-hanging tree limb and cast off her boots, Alice was wading knee-deep in a cool, black velvet heaven, sharing the waters with a single bold finch whose kin decorated the branches of the gums like colorful buds. She sloshed across the pool, stirring the satiny silt to the surface, and plopped down on the sandy bank, her feet still dangling in the water. Gazing into the pool, she idly appraised her reflection: broad face, wide-spaced eyes, and aggressive auburn hair. She looked like her mother, which was not a bad thing. Her mother had been considered a beauty in her youth, after her marriage to Jack Greenway but before her exile to this island in the outback. Nine years of isolation and grinding drudgery, eking out a living in a land that would not willingly give up even a green blade of grass, had taken a physical and emotional toll on the woman and the marriage. The ink had not dried upon the divorce papers before Peggy Greenway packed both her possessions and her child off to her mother's small home on the coast.

Alice had spent the last three years shuttling between the neat green cottages in her Adelaide suburb and her father's beloved patch of saw grass in the outback. She loved her father dearly, but the downside of spending holidays at the station was the almost perpetual isolation, the nearest neighbor being three hours by car. The town of Church Hill, population 605, situated at the foot of the Kakadu Escarpments, was hardly a thriving metropolis. Even when she lived at the station year 'round, Alice could remember having visited Church Hill only a half dozen times. There had never been much there to interest a child - public houses, stockyards, a small grocery below a dilapidated boarding house - all populated by people her mother judiciously called sturdy colonial stock. Four-hundred miles west of Coolinga Station, in the heart of the outback, lay Birrubi. Slightly larger than Church Hill, it boasted yet more pubs and sturdy colonials, as well as a small movie house, an airstrip and a school, which her mother steadfastly refused to allow her to attend as it was populated almost exclusively with aborigine children. Thus, before the divorce, Alice's only contact with children her own age had been through the wireless school run by the government. What the faceless teacher did not offer in the way of stimulation, curriculum or companionship, Peggy Greenway sought to provide herself. The end result of such an insular upbringing among adults made for a quietly confident, eerily mature thirteen-year-old girl...who resembled her mother.

Alice's hand shot out, scooping the frowning visage up and across the pool in a sheet of water where it dispersed, landing in drops and dribbles upon the sandy bank, a fractured reflection. Before the water could calm and resolve itself into her likeness again, she withdrew her legs and trudged across the sand to a paperbark stump where she used her socks to brush the sand from the bottoms of her feet. She shook out her boots, in the event some scorpion had taken up squatter's rights, and slipped them on, all the while squinting at the outbuildings of Coolinga Station. The latest in a long line of potential stepmothers, house-sitting while Jack was in service to his country, was hard at work in the hangar on a project in which Alice didn't care to feign interest. Owing to Jack Greenway's weakness for younger women, Melinda Pappas was fifteen years his junior, a noted archeologist, and nothing less than striking. She was also kind and funny. In all honesty, the worst that could be said of Melinda was that she was American, a shortcoming Mel could do nothing to remedy.

Alice was startled out of her reverie by the distinct droning of a twin engine aircraft; she raised a hand to shield her eyes and caught the glint of sunlight on an aluminum fuselage substantial enough to be a DC-3. She wondered briefly if it were her father, home on leave early. The plane banked and whined, its engine running hot. Having logged a hundred hours at her father's side in the family Cessna, she recognized the telltale signs of a too-rich fuel mixture. As the aircraft aimed for the white windsock on the hangar roof, she knotted her boots and swung gracefully into the saddle.

* * * * * * * * * *

Janice popped open the wedge of glass at her left shoulder, but the rush of hot fresh air did nothing to relieve the stifling heat inside the cockpit. Again she observed the windsock drooping airless and impotent above the hangar. She throttled back, aiming the nose of the plane at a grassless patch roughly fifty feet wide and two thousand feet long. She throttled back again, cutting her speed by half, and the aircraft seemed to hang suspended and weightless above the makeshift runway before touching down hard on all three wheels. It bounced once, kicking up a cloud of red dust, wavered and touched down again, the tires finding the neat groove worn into the track. She coasted there, comfortable in that niche, applying the brakes evenly, toying with the flaps. At the runway's end she used just enough throttle and hard rudder to pivot the aircraft 180 degrees. As it turned facing into the sun, she cut the engine, blinking as the decelerating props sliced segments of sunlight. "Another textbook landing," she muttered, sliding her sweaty palms against her slacks. Somewhat self-consciously, she observed the adolescent face of rebuttal peering at her from the other side of the windscreen; though the smile on the child's face was pleasant enough, her posture - arms folded, weight on one hip - was clearly judgmental. Acknowledging the girl with a smiling nod, Janice threw her jacket over her arm and ran her fingers haphazardly through her honey-colored hair, gave up and slapped a battered brown fedora atop her head. At the rear of the cockpit, she reached above her head to pop the hatch. With the ease of a gymnast, she climbed through the hatch and onto the expansive port wing. The rubber grip tiles along the valley between fuselage and wing were soft and clingy from the heat, yielding the leather soles of her boots only when adequately persuaded. Janice's first impulse was to curse. "Son-of-a-bitch," she muttered under her breath.

Alice's disappointment at not finding her father behind the controls of the aircraft vanished upon sight of the first female pilot in her experience. "G'day!" she hailed enthusiastically.

Janice looked up to find the teenager regarding her with undisguised bemusement from her place beside one of the stilled props. "Afternoon," she replied, even as the girl possessively stroked the worn metal prop. "You like her, eh?" Janice encouraged with a wink, as she jumped down from the wing.

Alice nodded and smiled broadly. "She's beaut! A Lockheed Electra 10E, nine cylinder, air-cooled, eleven hundred horsepower. I suppose you know your fuel mixture is a bit off."

Janice laid the flat of her hand against the fuselage; her fingertips were touching Alice's. "I don't pretend to know the mechanics of flying, sweetheart...lift plus thrust equals my butt in the air." Janice turned and walked towards the tail of the aircraft, the curious girl on her heels. "I intend to fly this baby until it drops from the sky."

Alice cocked an eyebrow. "Then what?"

"Then," replied Janice, inserting her hand into a half-moon hollow on the cargo door, "I'll walk." She put her right shoulder into the door and pulled on the handle, lifting as she did so -- a combination that worked in lieu of a key. Without lowering the portable steps, she groped inside the door. "You mind?" She asked, holding a pair of chock blocks by the ropes connecting them.

"Aw, sure, no problem," Alice replied, trotting forward to wedge the chock blocks, one beneath each balding tire. "Your port tire's low," she said as she re-appeared at Janice's elbow. "We've got a portable pump in the hangar. If you like I could--"

Closing the cargo door, Janice quipped, "A good pilot doesn't need three tires." The girl smiled and laughed a trio of warm staccato chuckles that rang with sincerity. Yep...like her already. "You seem to know a little something about airplanes."

Alice shuffled. "My dad's a pilot in the Australian Air Force, and we have a Cessna in the hangar over there. When it's working, it's a sweet craft, but this-" Again, she stroked the metal skin of the Electra. "- this is just like the one flown by Miss Amelia Earhart on her 'round the world flight. Strewth, you even dress alike," she concluded breathlessly, as she gestured at Janice's jodhpurs and tall boots.

"One difference," quipped Janice. "We know where I am."

"Too right! Very good," said Alice, giving the stranger's hand a friendly pat. "I'm Alice Greenway." She extended her hand, expecting neither the iron grip nor the enthusiastic pump that followed.

"Pleasure to meet you, Alice. Janice Covington."

Alice went wide-eyed and let her grip slacken until she felt Janice's fingers slip from her own. "Doctor Janice Covington?"

For a brief moment, Janice wondered what Mel had told her potential new family about their relationship. "Hardly a household name."

"I read your book, The Xena Scrolls: Myth into History."

Janice fanned the black flies away from her face. "Fanny Hill it ain't."

"I thought it was fascinating," Alice reiterated. "What're you doing in Australia?"

"Currently, I'm standing here feeding the flies," she retorted, grinning good-naturedly. "More specifically, I'm heading an aboriginal dig at Kakadu."

Alice seemed to perk up at the mention of the dig. "Then you must be here for Mel."

Janice plucked the sweat-damp cotton blouse away from the small of her back. "I didn't know anyone but me called her Mel." Her eyes moved across the paddock to the sprawling white house beyond. Under the verandah was an aviary of twittering budgerigars, but no Mel. "Is she here?"

"In the hangar, last time I looked," replied Alice, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. She fell into step beside Janice as they walked towards the hangar.

They passed a horse, lathered with sweat, lungs working like a bellows. Janice said, "Kinda dangerous, isn't it? To run a horse in this heat?"

"I thought you were my dad come home. I wasn't thinking about the horse, particularly," the teen admitted without a hint of remorse.

A reproof knocked at the back of Janice's teeth; as the adult, she thought she ought to make some stern remark, but standing eye to eye, chatting with this mature teen, it was easy to forget, even briefly, that Alice was not a contemporary. In the end, she held her tongue, reasoning that it was not her place to reprimand or discipline another's child.

"Are you here to take Mel back with you?"

"I don't know, kid. I'd love to have her on the dig, naturally." Janice shrugged. "But she has a life here to consider."

"Did she really play such a large part in the discovery of the scrolls?"

"Well, you read my book. She was instrumental. I couldn't have done it without her."

Alice merely nodded, conversation closed. As they entered the hangar, Janice focused upon the green and white twin engine Cessna and the island of light puddled around the form with her back to them. She was painting, with infinite care and patience, the words Greenway Charters across the fuselage in a bold, no-nonsense script.

Alice called out experimentally, testing the waters for turbulence. "Hey, Mel?"

Without looking up, Mel replied in the accent that Janice had once quipped made Scarlett O'Hara sound like a carpetbagger. "I thought I heard you thunder up." She dipped the brush into the quart can at her feet and, steadying one hand upon the other, resumed her tedious work. "How many times have I told you not to run the horses in this heat?"

Alice muttered her stock reply, "Too many times."

"Uh hmm," murmured Mel reproachfully. Without looking up, she asked, "Was that the mail plane?"

Ignoring her baser instincts, Janice took her hat in her hand and slid neatly into the segue with, "Would you be terribly disappointed if it wasn't?"

Mel's back stiffened and she halted, brush poised on the downstroke. With deliberation, she placed the brush across the top of the open paint can and turned to face the speaker. Her face was a mask of polite detachment, and she struggled for the matching tone of voice. "Well," she said, taking in the unexpected arrival of Janice Covington. "This is a surprise."

Chapter 2

Janice shuffled and squashed the brim of her fedora against her thigh. A surprise. Non-committal. Neither good nor bad. Just a surprise. "You look good, Mel." Oversized, paint-stained coveralls, long hair pulled back in a paisley scarf, cateye glasses on the bridge of a nose daubed with black paint - she looked incredibly good to Janice.

Mel stopped just short of returning the compliment, so ingrained were her Southern good manners. "Well, Janice Covington," she drawled with forced nonchalance. "What brings you to my door?"

Alice piped in, "Dr. Covington's in charge of the Kakadu dig, the one you turned down."

Janice shrugged and interjected, "Professor Moffat did say I wasn't the university's first choice."

Mel approached, wiping her hands on a scrap of cloth. "Alice, run ahead and put the billy on." She moved her gaze to Janice. "You'll stay to tea?"

"Billy? Tea? You've gone bush, Mel," quipped Janice with genuine amusement.

"I've adapted, Janice. I hope you don't mind tea. Coffee's in short supply these days."

"Tea'll be fine," Janice conceded with a nod, even as Alice hurried out of the hangar at a trot. Alone at last, the pair could speak freely. "It's been a long time, Mel...how've you been?"

"Busy. Jack wants to start a charter business when he's discharged, so I've been--"

"I meant personally," interjected Janice. "How are you?"

"I'm a mess," Mel replied abruptly, making a preliminary swipe at the paint on her fingers. "I need to wash up."

"You look fine to me...except..." Janice took the cloth from Mel's hands, folded it to find a clean edge and wiped the smudge of paint from the end of Mel's nose. "There. All beautiful again."

Flustered, Mel's full lips parted to retort. "I...you...thank you."

Janice grinned, enjoying Mel's predicament; the brunette was seldom at a loss for words. "This is where you're supposed to say, 'You look good, too, Janice.'"

Mel looked up and regarded Janice coolly as they stepped from the hangar into the dazzling late afternoon sunshine. "You've lost weight."


Mel elaborated with an abrupt gesture to Janice's hips. "Where's your pistol and whip?"

"Will I need them?" Janice retorted playfully.

Mel squinted at the teenager bounding down the front steps of the house. "I don't want them where Alice can get at them."

"Relax, Mel," replied Janice, following her gaze. "They're in a locked strongbox in the cockpit, and I have the only key."

"I put the billy on," said Alice as she joined them. "Want me to put out the lemon biscuits Dad sent from Singapore last month? I was saving them for a special occasion."

Janice clapped the teen on the shoulder. "I'm flattered."

Alice beamed with appreciation. "Suppose I could get a look inside the Electra after tea?"

Janice looked sidelong at an ambivalent Mel. "If it's all right with Mel, I don't see why not. Mel?"

Mel directed her gaze at Alice. "You tend to that horse of yours before he drops of the heat, and I'll consider it."

Alice clucked her tongue. "No worries, Mel," she said, backpedaling towards the paddock. "Be in to tea in a few minutes."

"She's a good kid," Janice said once Alice was out of earshot.

"She's better than good," Mel replied, steering Janice towards the house. "She's her father's daughter."

"They're pretty close, huh."

"So close there isn't room for me between them," Mel muttered.

Janice sensed that there was real hurt behind the disclosure, but she decided to spare Mel her observations. She pushed the hat back on her head, gesturing broadly towards the resting Electra at the same time. "Whatta ya think of her?" Mel put her hands on her hips and idly appraised the aircraft. Its nicked and pitted props, balding tires, and worn aluminum fuselage spoke of thousands of hours of wear and tear. "I won it in a poker game a couple of months back." Janice patted the aluminum skin. "Nice, huh?"

Mel looked sideways at her ex-partner and sighed. "As if your life isn't dangerous enough, Janice Covington, you have to rise up to meet God halfway."

"Mel," quipped Janice, nudging her gently in the ribs. "Believe it or not, standing here next to you is the most dangerous thing I've done in months."

Mel's smile dissolved into a flat line. "Don't do that, Janice."

"Do what?"

Mel folded her arms. "Don't be charmin'," she warned, turning for the house.

Janice shrugged, tossed her jacket over one shoulder and muttered at Mel's retreating form, "Well...shit." She caught up with Mel on the steps. Conjuring up the right note of firm, yet injured dignity, she said, "Hold it right there."

Mel froze on the spot, her back to Janice and her hand on the iron doorknob. "What?" she inquired, her tone unmistakably hostile.

"Look, sweetheart," Janice began, her voice oozing sarcasm. "I came a long way to see you, the least you can do is pretend you're flattered." She swept the hat from her head and wiped her brow against the back of the same hand. "All I'm asking for is a little civility." She paused before adding, "You owe me that."

Mel didn't argue the point; her downcast eyes held a mixture of guilt and regret. "You're right," she said at last, regarding her guest. "I apologize."

Janice tilted her head slightly, gauging Mel's sincerity. It didn't surprise her that the apology, wrung from a gentle woman under duress, smacked of indifference. Janice didn't care. If it bought her time with Mel, she simply didn't care.

Chapter 3

The screen door opened with a protesting screech as Mel preceded Janice into the house, flicking a wall switch as she entered. A fan mounted on one of the exposed beams in the ceiling began stirring the warm air around. "Won't take long for it to cool down in here," Mel assured her as she pulled the scarf from her head and shook out her long raven tresses.

Janice made a noise of acknowledgment deep in her throat and gave the spacious room a glance. It oozed masculinity - trophy heads adorned the dark paneled walls, dusty volumes and faded yellowing pulps were heaped in stacks alongside bookcases of classics cured in leather and gold. Dead center of the room, facing a rather imposing stone fireplace, was a worn leather sofa, hand-made brocade pillows at each end the only perceptible evidence of a feminine presence in the house. The carpet beneath her feet was worn nearly colorless. "Nice room," she said at last, fanning herself with her fedora.

"It's a tomb," replied Mel with a shrug. "I feel right at home. Speakin' of tombs, how's the dig progressin'? Finding anythin' of interest?"

"Oh, the usual...cave paintings, pottery, burial sites...Kakadu boasts some of the earliest tropical settlements, but there's nothing as noteworthy as the Scrolls there, trust me. The whole site has a vaguely picked over feeling...like someone's been there before me and removed all the really fascinating bits."

Mel quipped, "I swear I haven't left this station in a month." She playfully crossed her heart for emphasis.

"Don't you miss it?"

"What?" Mel countered, plumping one of the brocade pillows. "Miss grubbin' about in the dirt? Hardly." She used her scarf to pat her glistening face. "I put that life behind me for good."

Janice thought that Mel's last claim lacked sincerity which both saddened and pleased her. "Well, if everything goes according to schedule, we should be wrapping things up by the end of the month, before the monsoon season."

"And then where will you go?" Mel asked, feigning nonchalance.

Janice shrugged. "Don't know really...have several interesting offers."

"Interestin' meaning risky?"

"Some more than others," Janice replied succinctly. Any further discussion on the matter was lost in the demanding whistle of a tea kettle. Janice followed Mel into the kitchen, which was easily the largest residential kitchen Janice had ever seen. It was dominated by an enormous oven and fireplace. Spacious cupboards with screened doors displayed shelves of canned goods, and the room held the tantalizing odor of seasoned meat. "Something smells good."

Mel turned down the fire under the kettle and cracked the oven door to study its contents. "Braised veal paprika."

"She cooks, too," Janice said with a wink.

"My nana insisted." Mel turned to the tea service Alice had prepared. "How do you take your tea?" she asked, filling a china cup from the kettle.

"Black, two sugars. Not to change the subject, but your mother wants you to call her."

"You spoke to my mama?" asked Mel in disbelief.

"She's worried about you." Janice rested her hands on the table top and leaned forward. "We both were. I cut a swath through Europe looking for you...Athens, Singapore, Beijing, Sydney. That's the path of a woman trying hard not to be found."

"Exactly," Mel replied, propelling the cup and saucer across the table with her fingertips.

"If it hadn't been for my connection in the State Department, I might have never have found you. Peter Mullins red flagged your passport -- when you docked in Sydney Harbor, I knew about it faster than you can say dramamine." Janice looked down, giving her tea a cursory stir with her spoon. "You left me high and dry in Athens," she began with infinite patience. Looking up, she concluded, "I think I deserve an explanation."

Mel locked eyes with Janice. "I thought I made things perfectly clear in my note," she said, absently chafing her hands together as if the room temperature had just dropped twenty degrees.

"Oh, yeah...the infamous note."

Mel watched in silence as Janice retrieved a slip of paper, folded and re-folded many times over, from the inside breast pocket of her jacket. You kept it.

"'Dear Janice...I'm sorry. Mel'." Janice clucked her tongue as she re-folded the note. "Five words scribbled on the back of an envelope... Even as 'Dear John' letters go, it's harsh." She folded her jacket deliberately and lay it over the back of a chair. When she looked up at Mel again, her eyes were level and serious. "Why, Mel?"

Mel's mouth twitched as she brought the cup to her lips. "Why?" she repeated pensively, looking out over the gently undulating brown liquid.

Janice folded her arms and settled her weight on one hip. "Why did you just walk out on me? Wasn't it good between us?"

"You know it was," Mel retorted, laying the cup down without sipping from it. "But... we don't...fit, Janice."

"We fit, Mel...We fit like spoons!"

Mel waved her hand dismissively. "I'm not talkin' about that. That was always fine."

Janice couldn't keep the smile from her face. "That has a name, Mel." She leaned forward slightly and bounced on the balls of her feet. "It's called sex. It's a word. Look it up."

"Shhh," admonished Mel, looking around for Alice. At last, her mesmerizing blue eyes fell on Janice, who returned the gaze with unspoken urgency. "I never meant to hurt you, Janice."

Janice softened at the confession. "Okay."

"I don't know... Maybe it was fear," Mel admitted in a whisper.

Stunned, Janice murmured, "You were afraid of me?"

Mel was quick to soothe her. "Not in the literal sense, no. You have to understand, Janice. Everythin' I ever had that was good in my life eventually turned on me - my father... my career in archeology..."

"Hey, now, that's unfair. The book -"

Mel silenced her with a look. "It's not about the book. You were never anythin' but generous and ethical when it came to our professional partnership. To use your phrase, I submarined myself in that arena."

"It's not too late, Mel," Janice said. "I hear professionals over 25 make brilliant comebacks all the time."

Mel laughed in spite of herself. "Stop bein' so accommodatin', will you?"

Janice approached Mel and captured her trembling hands in her own; she didn't fail to notice that Mel's manicure had succumbed to the elements. "Right now...the truth... tell me."

Mel inhaled sharply. "We burned white hot...for 35 days." She smiled sadly at the memory. "We burned so hot, so fast... Anythin' that burns that brightly has a short life. I just knew it wouldn't last...that one mornin' I would wake up, and you'd be gone."

"So...leaving me was a pre-emptive strike," Janice concluded as she released Mel's hands. She was silent as she walked the length of the room. At the sink, she turned and said, "You must think I fall in love every day."

Mel's resolve faltered. "I only know that I don't."

"Who do you think you are? Some damned oracle?" Janice charged across the room until she was standing toe to toe with the other woman. "You want to know what's on my mind, what my plans are - you ask me. It's that simple. All I can tell you is that I will be there. As long as my life is my own hands, I will be there. Trust me." Softening, she cupped Mel's face in her hands. "Can you...trust me, Mel?"

"Ahem..." Alice cleared her throat and wriggled her fingers, her polite smile withering under the gaze of two pairs of accusing eyes. "I'm sorry to interrupt." She shuffled. "Should I pretend I didn't hear any of that?"

Mel replied with an unequivocal, "Yes, please," and moved to the sink to busy herself with the dishes stacked there while Janice feigned interest in her tea. "Did you tend to the horse?"

"Cooled down, rubbed down, watered and fed." Alice reached for the icebox door. "I'm dry enough to spit chips! Can I have some lemon squeeze?" she asked, even as her fingers closed over the fluted handle on the pitcher.

"Have water," Mel replied as she filled a glass from the tap. "It's better for you."

Alice chose not to argue the point; there was enough tension in the room. She took the glass offered her and, between gulps, asked, "When's supper?"

"Not for another hour, at least." Mel turned to face them while drying her hands on a dish towel. "It'll be worth the wait, I promise."

"Are you staying to supper, Janice?" Alice asked hopefully.

Janice hesitated, took a pull of the tepid tea and frowned at Mel. "I haven't been asked."

Mel recognized the thinly-veiled dare. When Alice's gaze swung to her, she was quick to respond. "Apparently I've committed just the worst social faux pas by not invitin' you to supper in the first ten minutes of conversation."

Janice gave a small nod. "Forgiven."

"Would you like to stay for supper?" Mel folded the dishtowel in a square, disguising her emotions behind a veneer of polite indifference. "There's really too much for just two people."

"I thought you'd never ask," replied Janice, grateful that the emotional tide seemed to be going out at last. "It'll be a nice change...not to have to catch my dinner."

"Guest does the supper dishes, right, Mel?" Alice interjected looking sideways at Mel.

Mel nodded. "House rules," she explained to Janice. "The guest shows his or her appreciation by helpin' with the dishes."

"Oh. No problem," replied Janice, displaying her hands. "These hands could stand some soap and water. As a matter of fact," she took a delicate whiff and wrinkled her nose. "The whole body's in need of a bath."

Mel leaned into Janice. "I'm so glad you said it first."

Janice began backpedaling from the kitchen. "My bag's in the plane. Back in a jiff."

Chapter 4

"Idiot. I-am-a-complete-idiot," Janice muttered as she rummaged through the items in her satchel. "She doesn't want me here. A blind man could see that, but do I take the hint? Noooooo. Glutton for punishment." She slung a clean pair of slacks over the back of the co-pilot's seat, and pushed the other garments in the bag from one side to the other, searching in growing frustration. "Damn, how could I pack one and not the other? Maybe I can get by with this one..." She lifted one arm and took a judicious whiff. "...aaaaannnd maybe not. Come on, God..." she said, turning her eyes skyward; heaven was a grid of plates and rivets. "Give a girl a break." She sighed, balled up the slacks and stuffed them back into the satchel. In doing so, her fingers closed around a familiar cylinder - hand rolled, Cuban. "Ahhh," she sighed, closing her eyes briefly. "Someone up there likes me." She passed the cheroot under her nose, savoring its aroma. "Mel hates it when I smoke," she murmured aloud. "What the hell. It's my body," she proclaimed, putting the cheroot between her teeth. She groped about in the satchel; coming up empty, she patted her trouser pockets, turning up a single match, precious as gold. "You little bewdy," she crooned in the vernacular. She struck the match on the overhead. It flared to life on the first pass, seasoning the sweltering cockpit air with the tang of sulphur. As she touched the match to the tip of the cheroot, she heard the clatter of boots on the Electra's wing; cautiously, she peered out the cock-pit's windscreen.

She could see Mel returning her scrutiny from her place on the verandah - hands backwards on her hips, fingers splayed down her backside.


"Huh? Oh, shit!" Janice yelped, dropping the match to the floor. Fire, bad! She tucked her fingers between her teeth, cooling the singed flesh and looked up; Alice was leaning into the open hatch. "Oh, hiya, kid." She pinched the singed end of the cheroot and dropped it into the breast pocket of her shirt. "Need something?"

Alice fit her reply between roaming glances around the Electra's cockpit. "Uh...no...I was just wondering if you needed anything. Lotta room in there...our Cessna's no bigger than a cracker tin."

Janice scratched behind one ear, correctly interpreting Alice's expression of unadulterated curiosity; it was almost indecent. Thrusting her hands into her pockets, she rocked on her neatly shod heels. "Does Mel know you're here?"

Alice favored her with an innocent grin. "It was her idea. She told me to tell you she's running you a hot bath, and you're not to fritter about or...what was it? Oh, yeah, you're not to dawdle."

Fritter? Dawdle? A chink in the armor! Mel often fell back on the comforting rhythms and expressions of her homespun vernacular when excited or stressed. Janice was secretly delighted to know that her presence still had such an effect. Just for that, let the frittering begin! "Well, kid, what she doesn't know is that I'd prefer a cold bath!" Gesturing with a sweep of her arm, she said, "Welcome aboard."

"You mean it?" Alice crowed. She hauled herself up and spun about on her behind until her legs were dangling through the hatch; she felt Janice's strong hands at her hips, bearing her safely to the cockpit floor. "Strewth," the teen crooned, awestruck. Her fingers brushed the dials above the co-pilot's chair, swept the length of another instrument panel. "Just think: Miss Amelia Earhart piloted a plane like this one. Fred Noonan would've sat here..."

"More likely he'd be in the back, opposite a port window," corrected Janice. "Where he could spread out his charts." Alice nodded, her mouth agape. "Go on, have a seat."

Without further prodding, Alice slipped into the warm leather chair, her hands poised inches from the static wheel before her. At Janice's urging, she wrapped her fingers around it with something akin to reverence. "It's so heavy," she said, making a concerted effort to cut the wheel 45 degrees. "Like it's mired in treacle."

"This ain't no Cessna, sweetheart," replied Janice, sliding into the pilot's seat. "We're talking about 17,000 pounds of state-of-the-art aircraft. Amelia knew her planes, but she wasn't the best of pilots." Alice raised her head, stricken. Janice felt compelled to temper her slanderous disclosure with, "Bar room scuttlebutt, kid. I shouldn't have repeated it."

Alice was grateful that Janice cared enough to explain, refreshing in a household where the adult word was law and she was expected to smile and accept, and never to question authority. She turned back towards the instrument panel, comfortable in the knowledge that she was in the presence of someone who viewed her as an equal. Sweat beaded her upper lip as her gaze ranged over the array of gauges and dials within arm's reach. The brake pedals in the floor were a stretch, but she could reach both throttle and flaps with ease. "How fast does she go? A hundred?"

"She cruises comfortably at ninety, but I've had her as high as 170." The teen whistled appreciatively while Janice neglected to mention that the latter speed had been achieved during an uncontrolled power dive in the midst of heavy turbulence. She regretted the omission, but only as long as it took Alice to broach the topic of taking the Electra aloft. "I think the heat's gotten to you, sweetie," Janice said with a smile. She stood, reaching for Alice's arm. "Come on, up with you."

Unconsciously, Alice's hands closed firmly over the wheel. "Give me one good reason."

"I can give you a dozen, the most persuasive being that Mel would have my head and other pertinent body parts if your altitude exceeded eleven feet while in my presence."

Alice made noises of discontent, arguing with a child's logic that wasn't as much persuasive as it was pitiful. "You don't know that for certain. If you approach her the right way, take the right tack, she'll be a sport. Come on, Janice. This may be my one and only opportunity to fly an Electra."

Janice snorted in disbelief. "I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ground this flight of fancy."

"I've logged over a hundred hours in our Cessna, and I learn really fast. It's not like I'd be going up alone..." Alice's formerly pleasant voice was now one half octave from annoying, but to her credit, she recognized the potentially devastating effects of long-term whining. The last thing she wanted to do was alienate her new friend. Reigning in her enthusiasm, she appeared genuinely contrite as she focused on the artificial horizon. In time, she heard Janice reclaim her seat; it was a wordless demand for an apology. Licking her lips, tasting salt, she said, "I just get carried away when it comes to flying. My mum says I'm too young to feel truly passionate about anything, but I feel passionate about flying."

Janice was struck by the sincerity in Alice's voice. As her eyes lighted on the vacant doorway of the house, she knew that she and Alice had passion in common.

Chapter 5

Standing in the large master bath clad only in a camisole and panties, Mel swept a scented wash cloth over her arms and neck, inhaling deeply as the exotic fragrance of lilies and sweet sage rose from her chest. Toujours Moi. A gift purchased in haste from a street peddler in Athens, expensive at forty American dollars an ounce. In a very short time, it had become her signature scent. She'd rarely dressed without first daubing a bit at the hollow of her throat or between her breasts, until the day four months later she had discovered it open and half evaporated on the window sill, a casualty of the merciless outback heat. After that, she used it sparingly, or not at all. Emptying the last few precious drops into the pool of cool water in the sink, she soaked the cloth, letting her hands linger a moment while her gaze traveled to the cracked mirror above the vanity.

"Look at you," she said. Her voice sounded strange to her and she couldn't help but look around the room before returning to the scrutiny of her reflection. She hadn't been in a salon in two months, the length of her stay at Coolinga Station. Jack had taken the only car for the long trip to Sydney for his induction. So, here she stood, in the middle of the outback, without the amenities large cities could provide. Looking at her short, blunt nails in the water reminded her just how much she missed the little luxuries: a manicure, a facial. Her formerly alabaster skin was lightly tanned; the blue eyes some said were her best feature were naked, devoid of mascara or liner. Her raven hair was long, too long to wear in her trademark chignon, and so it hung loosely down her back, the way Janice liked it. Mel smiled, wringing out the cloth. Oh, if her genteel Southern mother could only see her now...She'd have apoplexy, she thought wryly.

She made one final pass down and under each arm with the cloth before pitching it into the hamper. Before leaving the bath, she took a moment to place a new cake of soap atop the towel draped over the side of a claw foot bathtub. She could no longer see steam rising from the water's surface, and without thrusting so much as a finger into its depths, she knew it was tepid, on its way to cool. "Serves her right..." she murmured as she moved through the alcove into the bedroom. A gray A-line skirt and simple print blouse had been laid out atop the faded bedspread. Both needed pressing, but they were clean. She dressed without thinking, slipping on a pair of black pumps, one of only two pairs of street shoes she'd brought with her. Facing the full-length mirror on the back of the door, she smoothed the lines of the skirt with her hands. She looked at her face in frank appraisal and thought that she just might join her mother in that fit of apoplexy.

* * * * * * * * * *

"So, Alice, what're your hobbies? Apart from flying, that is?...More throttle... more... we're running out of track...now, pull back on the wheel...gently, don't yank on it. That's it. God, I love that feeling -- the wings growing fat with lift...the way you feel that little drop in the pit of your stomach when the wheels leave the track...Pull back just a hair, or you're gonna take the tops off those trees." Alice responded accordingly, pulling the wheel back towards her chest. Janice watched her face intently and conceded that the kid had a flyer's instincts. "When you're not flying Electras, what do you like to do?"

"I like school...English especially. Sister Bonaventure says it's one of the reasons my vocabulary is so impressive. I like sketching, too. No shortage of subjects out here," she added, trapping the corner of her bottom lip between her teeth in a display of extreme concentration. Reaching above her head, she brought the flaps up another notch without being told; looking at Janice was an afterthought.

Janice conveyed approval with a subtle nod. "You ever sketch Mel?"

Alice never took her eyes off the horizon. "I don't do people." Her left hand drifted down to an instrument box anchored to the floor between the seats. "Throttle?"

"Listen for it. She'll let you know if you need more throttle... there'll be this little keening whine...Let her climb at her own rate...you don't rush a lady." She reached across the aisle and patted Alice's arm. "You're a natural, kid. Okay, when we reach two thousand feet..." she tapped one of the round gauges with her finger. "...watch this gauge...when that needle hits two-oh, level off and make your cruising speed eighty knots."

"Eighty knots. Check." Alice blew a soothing breath out between her lips and looked sideways at the altimeter.

"You like Mel, don't you?" Janice persisted.

Alice shrugged, grateful for the relief it brought her aching shoulders. "She's all right, I guess. Two thousand on the nose..." She brought the wheel forward slightly, until the artificial horizon reflected level flight. "I've learnt not to become too attached to them...Dad's girlfriends, I mean. They don't seem to stick around very long."

Janice thought the girl's voice sounded distinctly, and prematurely, cynical. "Mel hasn't said anything about leaving, has she?" She took note of the girl's white knuckles. "Loosen up on the wheel. Grip it like an egg."

Alice flexed her fingers briefly, her palms seated lightly against the surface of the wheel. "No, she hasn't said anything, but I don't think it'll be long."

Janice's brow furrowed. "What makes you say that?"

"Just a feeling. She seems...I dunno... unhappy. I think she misses her old life."

"Her old life..." Janice echoed. Her heart thumped in her chest; she was sure its deafening beat was reverberating off the walls of the cockpit, but Alice's ears were primed only for the voice of the Electra. "Okay, apply the left rudder...gently...and make a wide turn to the right...That's it. Take your time. You've got plenty of sky. What makes you think she misses her old life? Has she said anything?"

Alice eased off the rudder pedal, her face slick with perspiration. When she had once again achieved level flight, she chanced a sidelong look at her companion and wondered just how much she should divulge. What were her perceptions and opinions to Janice if the only thing she had to back them was a feeling, an instinct. Although, Janice was a pilot, and 'A good pilot,' her father had once said, 'keeps close company with instinct.' Alice decided to take the risk; the odds seemed in her favor. "She hasn't said so...not in so many words..." Following Janice's orders to throttle down a notch and look for Coolinga's track, she once again turned her studious gaze to the world outside the windscreen, a wide brown scene painted in a neat oblong frame. Comfortable with her newly-acquired flight skills, and thrilled at her instructor's seemingly nonchalant manner, Alice felt compelled to clarify her earlier statement. "She never said anything to me, but I could tell when university contacted her in September that she was interested. I just got the feeling that if Dad hadn't pressed her to give it up, she'd have been at Kakadu." Alice frowned, slightly uncomfortable with having voiced her father's shortcomings to a stranger. "Dad thinks a woman's place is in the kitchen, not on the dig."

"Philistine," grumbled Janice under her breath. She looked at Alice, who appeared not to have heard. "Okay...got the windsock in sight?"

Alice squinted at the horizon. "Yes, it's just over there..." She pointed an index finger as a gesture of clarity and adjusted the craft's flight path accordingly, turning the wheel forty degrees while sparing the altimeter and speed indicator a glance. "Eighty knots...isn't that too fast?"

"You might cut the throttle back...just a hair...you don't wanna stall." Janice leaned back in her chair, lacing her fingers across her middle, affecting an air of nonchalance. "So, other than that one disagreement about the Kakadu dig, you think Mel and your dad get along okay."

Alice's fingers grazed the flaps control above her head, her lips moving soundlessly for a moment before giving voice to her thoughts. "Promise this is just between you and me?"

Janice drew a cross over her heart and held up her hand. "Word of honor...Whatever you tell me doesn't leave this cockpit."

Alice nodded; it seemed like an oath she could live with. "I don't think she and Dad have...you know...done it."

"Done it," Janice repeated before realization dawned. "Oh. It." She shifted in her seat and peeled the shirt away from her skin; the air inside the small cockpit was rank and close.

Alice could sense Janice's discomfort. Sex, in general, was a source of curiosity for any healthy teen. Sex, or the lack of it, beneath her own roof was sufficient cause for speculation. Feathering the flaps back to half, she ventured, "You like her, don't you?"

Janice was unprepared for a frontal assault. "Mel? Of course I do."

"No, I mean...you like her. You love her."

Janice touched her tongue nervously to the center of her upper lip. "You know what, kiddo... it's none of your business."

At the same moment that Alice realized she had overstepped her bounds, the dusty red-track runway gained definition, rushing towards the nose of the Electra at breakneck speed. She twisted the wheel in her slick hands, her voice vaguely urgent. "Janice...should I cut the throttle or pull back on the wheel at this point?"

"At this point?" Janice gazed mildly out the windscreen and reached for the cigar in her breast pocket. "This is where you crash and burn, sweetheart."

Chapter 6

"Just like that?!" Alice was incredulous, unwilling to believe that a mere few seconds distraction could have such dire repercussions. "But I only took my eyes away for a second!" Those same eyes swept over the busy instrument panel where the gauges registered zero across the board: zero altitude, zero speed. She exhaled with force, collapsing like a rag doll against the steering column, her brow shiny with sweat. Momentarily she felt a hand on her shoulder and without looking up she knew Janice was crouched beside her. "Five seconds... five, tops..." she muttered, and her shoulder received a sympathetic squeeze. At last, she looked up and regarded Janice with genuine regret. "I killed us."

"Yup." Janice stood, tucking the cigar between her teeth before adding wistfully, "Such a waste. I was so young."

Alice threw up her hands in frustration and sat back so forcefully that the co-pilot's seat groaned in protest. Wetting her lips, she stared hard at the unslaked earth beyond the co-pilot's window, earth that a few seconds earlier she had regarded as the Electra's undoing. As her heartbeat slowed to normal, she marveled at the combined effect of Janice's powers of suggestion and her own vivid imagination. She looked at the perspiration pooled in the creases of her palms. It had seemed so real. Re-running the scenario in her mind, options that might've spared the Electra and her passengers occurred to her, and she was visibly eager to put them to the test. "Okay, Janice, I think I know what I did wrong before."

"Oh, you do."

"Can we take her up again?" Alice ventured. "This time for real. Just once around the field?"

Janice loosed a hoot. "I told you: Mel would have my head." She hefted the satchel and slung it over her shoulder. "Come on, I need a bath. I'm starting to offend myself." To her surprise, her pronouncement was accepted without argument or complaint, and by the time she had boosted Alice through the hatch, the conversation had shifted from Electras to the blurry orange sun beating down on them with ferocious commitment. "Is this what the locals call a fair cow of a day?"

"Crikey! You're joking,right?" replied Alice, as her rear made contact with the super-heated metal skin of the Electra. "The real heat hasn't even begun yet."

"Swell." Stepping on the arm of the pilot's seat, Janice passed the satchel into Alice's waiting hands. "Careful with that," she cautioned. "Precious cargo in there."

"I've got it," replied Alice. She slid down the fuselage to stand on the wing. She heard someone call her name from ground level and had to shield her eyes to make out two silhouettes framed in the sun. "Dinah?"

The smaller of the two figures stepped forward, into the shadow cast by one of the Electra's massive wings. "G'day, Alice." She smiled, her teeth a white slash in her ebony face. Her features were pinched and tight as she regarded her contemporary and the unfamiliar craft beneath her feet. "This is new. Is it yours?"

Alice squatted on the wing, bringing the satchel to rest at her side. "Wish it were. That your dad with you?" The second Aborigine, clad in wrinkled khakis and a denim shirt opened to the waist, joined Dinah in the welcomed shade of the wing; the ground was cool beneath his bare feet. Alice greeted him with casual respect. "G'day, Mr. Bonner."

Neville Bonner was heavy-browed and broad-nosed; as his large frame intimated, he both spoke and moved with economy. "Alice." He nodded at her, and then his large yellow eyes shifted to Janice as she emerged from the plane.

"Alice, who are you..." Janice froze momentarily, 120 pounds of startled archeologist suspended in the open hatch by her considerable upper body strength. Green eyes, as no-nonsense as a jeweler's scale moved from daughter to father as his long, ropy arms helped Alice to the ground.

"Janice, this is my friend, Dinah..." Alice put her arm around Dinah, as if to demonstrate the level of their friendship. "And her dad, Neville Bonner. This is Dr. Janice Covington... the Electra's hers."

Janice jumped from the wing unassisted. "G'day, Mr. Bonner." Tribal body paint, visible on his arms and chest, was similar to that adorning the bodies of her Aborigine diggers at Kakadu - hard-working, family-oriented men who kept to themselves. She watched a black fly make lazy progress across Bonner's brow as she struggled to recall the name of the tribe. She hazarded a guess. "Alawirrynu?"

Neville grinned, displaying teeth that had seen better days. "Gupapygnu."

"I was close," Janice conceded with a self-deprecating grin. "You're a long way from home."

"Not really," Dinah interjected, her eyes narrowing to slits as she scrutinized the young woman in masculine clothing. She had only met a dozen whites in her young lifetime, and she could, without a twinge of conscience, relegate half of that number to gumafj, the Gupapyg word for abyss, the place you never look back. But she liked Janice at once. "Our home is beyond the billabong...There..." She thrust a dark finger west, in the direction of the merciless sun, but not one of the four spared the locale a glance before she inquired delicately of Alice, "Your mum about?"

"She's back in Adelaide. She'll be flying up next month to collect me, so you're safe for now," replied Alice with a knowing wink.

"Well, if you'll excuse me..." Janice relieved Alice of her satchel. "I have a date with a bar of soap." Neville, who had been standing nearest her, smiled politely and nodded. "Nice to meet you both." Dinah, whom Janice perceived as garrulous by Aborigine standards, merely grunted and took Alice by the arm; the girls were head to head, immersed in whispered conversation before Janice set foot on the verandah.

The screen door opened with a tortured screech, and closed with the report of a gunshot. Janice's reaction was as ingrained as breathing: she ducked before she could stop herself. "Jesus!" she exclaimed.

"The spring's broken," said Mel. She stood at the kitchen threshold, holding the door open with the toe of her shoe. There was an apron tied loosely around her waist and her hands were dusted with flour. "You have to let it back gently."

"Thanks for the warning." Janice gave a nervous laugh and approached Mel, stopping halfway across the room, the large leather sofa between them. "You baked bread. I can smell it." Even from this distance, it was more than flour and paprika; on the warm air was the familiar scent of sage...it was an invitation to sweet memories.

"Sourdough," Mel replied simply, displaying her powdered palms. She let the door swing shut behind her, committed to the conversation.

My favorite. Janice's throat tightened, unwitting accomplice to the foolish grin that was no doubt pasted on her face. The situation begged for a snappy retort. A quick comeback was a damned religious imperative, but her brain wasn't on speaking terms with her tongue. No other person on earth could steal coherent thought from Janice Covington faster than Melinda Pappas...in an apron...with dough on her hands. She made a beautiful thief. "Sourdough." She blinked, as if waking from a coma. "Good." Sourdough good? Covington, you ole smoothy you! She's reduced you to a monosyllabic Neanderthal. Sourdough good. Very slick. She inhaled deeply, glad for the segue occasioned by an unfortunate whiff of herself. "Bathroom?"

"Through there." Mel gestured with her hand, raining flour upon the hardwood floor. "There's towels and soap...water's lukewarm, I'm afraid." She couldn't resist the dig, "You ought not'a dawdled."

Janice smiled unconsciously. "Yes, ma'am." She popped a mock salute, turned on her heel and left Mel to decipher the mood in the room.

Mel's puzzlement and the faint line between her brows faded with the feather-light touch at her elbow. "What...oh, Alice...I didn't hear you come in." She touched the girl's hair and face and smiled with genuine affection just before nag mode kicked in. Wrinkling her nose, she said, "You smell like a stable. Go and wash up for supper."

Alice tossed a glance over her shoulder at the fragmented silhouettes beyond the screen door, and followed Mel into the kitchen. "Can I help with something?"

"Hands," replied Mel. She gave her own a cursory swipe with the corner of her apron and then used the same corner to grip the oven door. Using a fork, she noted the consistency of the veal and the color of the juices bleeding from the puncture site. "Almost there."

Alice watched her from her place at the sink, hands thrust under the running water as she perfected her approach. "Mel, you remember my friend, Dinah, don't you?"

Mel's head disappeared into the icebox as she rooted around for the butter. "Who?"

"Dinah...you know...you met her last month when her father, Neville came to fix the loo; she's Neville's daughter."

"I think you have made that abundantly clear," replied Mel patiently. She set the butter dish on the butcher's block and closed the icebox door, giving Alice her undivided attention. "Now, is this conversation leading up to somethin', or are you just killin' time?"

Alice wiped her hands briefly on a dish towel, but they were still wringing wet as she tossed it aside. "Dinah and Neville are out front. There's a corroboree tonight. I've been invited."

"I see." Mel studied the girl's hopeful face and weighed the options: she had a responsibility to Jack and to Peggy. She had made promises to them both. Alice had been present at that same meeting in September, the day before her father's induction. Mel remembered that although Peggy Greenway had been cordial and polite, she had never set foot inside the house Jack and Mel shared. Instead she had leaned on her car, one arm draped protectively about her daughter and laid the ground rules out for all parties. She had been especially careful to wring a promise from Mel that Alice would have no intimate contact with the local aborigines, whom Peggy deemed to be a bad influence on her only child. She, Mel, had grudgingly agreed to keep the two apart, but she vividly remembered a clandestine wink in Alice's direction as she shook her mother's hand on the deal. She had so wanted to be the good guy in her new role as stepmother. Now, a thousand miles away, Peggy Greenway was calling her bluff. "I made a promise to your mother."

"I remember," replied Alice. "But Mel, this is different."

"How is it different?"

"Dinah's father is sending her to school in Perth. I won't see her again until next break." Alice advanced until she was within touching distance of Mel; she knew the value of passive intimidation. "The corroboree's a going away celebration. It's an honor to be invited." Mel nodded solemnly, feeling slightly claustrophobic. Alice applied a verbal wedge. "It would be an insult to refuse."

"And you were raised better than that, is that it?" Mel asked as she pushed open the kitchen door, Alice hot on her heels. She stopped short of the front door. She could see Dinah and Neville through the screen. As their boundaries had been set years before, both stood near the Electra, talking animatedly between themselves, as if the drama inside the house did not concern them. "The answer is no, Alice." Before Alice could open her mouth in protest, Mel elaborated. "We have company this evening. Imagine how Janice would feel if you abandoned her at the first opportunity."

Alice shifted where she stood, staring holes into Mel's back. "Janice would understand," she replied confidently. "Ask her."

Mel turned at the waist. "This is not a democracy. I am the adult." Sometimes adults make unpopular choices. "You are the child. Now, my mind is made up," she said, wishing her voice sounded more resolute.

Quietly, her voice void of bitterness, Alice said, "Can I ask why?"

Mel was impressed by the quiet strength in the girl's voice. "Because it's late...because I don't know their character..."

"You know mine," Alice countered levelly.

Mel nodded, tight-lipped. It was a good argument. She felt well and truly caught between Scylla and Charybdis, and it was a trap of her own making. A final guilty glance at the two figures beneath the Electra's wing, and she turned again for the kitchen. She stopped briefly, the flat of her hand against the swinging door and without turning, she said, "Go on and give them your regrets, and then come back in and set the table." She stood there, frozen, listening for an angry retort and heard only the indifferent groan of the door as it opened and closed on the meager rapport she had once shared with Alice.

"You okay?"

Mel felt a hand between her shoulder blades; it would have been so easy to turn around and melt into what would surely have been a welcomed embrace. "You heard?" The warm hand migrated to her arm, imparting an affirming squeeze. "Oh, Janice...I have just made a horrible mistake."

Janice turned her forcibly until they were face to face; the blue eyes that met hers were clearly troubled. "Nothing that can't be put right again. I mean, who but us is ever gonna know that -"

"I promised her mother I would look after her."

"And you're doing a great job; she's a terrific kid with a good head on her shoulders." Mel was quick to nod agreement, and Janice took advantage of that. "Then trust her."

"I want to, but if somethin' were to happen to her -"

"She'll be fine. She's more mature and more responsible than half the adults I know. I won't name names," she said smiling before her lips dissolved into a serious line. "Be her friend, Mel...She's got a mother." Mel's eyes shifted from anxious to wounded, and instantly Janice regretted her tendency to speak every thought on her mind. She had stepped into the middle of a situation where her opinion was not wanted, needed or welcomed. Worse still, she had offended her hostess and impugned her parenting skills. Open mouth, insert foot. "Well, I've insulted you. My work here is done," she announced, her cherubic face displaying a devilish grin that was just as likely to hinder as it was to help. She searched Mel's cherished face for signs of forgiveness; the smallest smile would have sent her off to soak with a lighter heart. She turned and walked towards the bedroom door, pulling the shirt tail from her jodhpurs, giving the offended party every opportunity to put her ill-mannered guest at ease. But once she was on the other side of the rough-hewn door, peeling the sticky blouse from her body, she gave up hopes that Mel could forgive her for this breach of etiquette. If she had harbored any doubts that she was welcomed at Coolinga, welcomed back into Mel's life, they had just been confirmed with deafening silence.

Chapter 7

Mel had taken up a position at the front door, her nose inches from the screen. On the other side, black flies buzzed and knitted their legs against the tightly-woven metal, and beyond the flies, under the searing outback sun Alice said her farewells to Dinah. She couldn't make out the words, but the gestures -hands swiping at tears, a last lingering embrace -spoke volumes. Neville Bonner, his dark face an impassive mask, endured in silence the girlish expressions of sadness and regret, but as his daughter dropped her arms to her sides at last, he stepped forward and took Alice by the shoulders. Mel watched as he spoke earnestly to her, gesturing once towards the house before placing his rough, dry lips against her forehead. Mel regretted that her position did not afford her a better view of Alice's face as Dinah moved away, walking backwards in her father's shadow returning Alice's wave before turning into the sun.

The solitary figure left standing by the plane placed her hands on her hips, her chest rising and falling in a long sigh of resignation. She turned and walked towards the house. Mel watched them, the retreating figures of Dinah and her father, and Alice as she approached the door; she was impressed that neither girl turned to look back at the other. She pushed the door open as Alice stepped onto the verandah, aware that she was probably the last person in the world the girl wanted to see at this moment.

"Thanks," Alice murmured as she brushed past Mel on her way to the kitchen.

Thanks? Okay, scan for sarcasm. Nothing. Mel closed the heavy door with care, and even before she pushed through the swinging kitchen door, she could hear the clatter of silverware being drawn from drawers.

Alice had spread a good quality lace cloth on the table beneath windows that opened onto a view of the paddock and windmill. As she carefully laid out the silver, the great knife on the outside, fork on the inside debate raged in her head. She heard Mel enter the room, and without looking up, she said, "You might want to check your bread."

Mel reacted as if startled. "My bread...?" A quick glance inside the oven. "Oh, my..." Using a couple of paper thin pot holders, she carefully moved the baking pan from oven to butcher's block. "I think it's alright," she said, poking the golden crust with a finger. "You just narrowly averted a disaster." Alice conjured up a smile and collected three mismatched plates from the cupboard. As she passed Mel to set the table, she was humming. "Just two place settings, Alice."

Alice turned the plates flat against her middle. "Am I sent to bed without supper?"

"I don't know what they're servin' at the corroboree," replied Mel quietly, moving the length of the kitchen. "Probably somethin' still wigglin'" She took the plates from Alice's hands and addressed her seriously, so there was no misunderstanding. "We'll miss your company at supper."

"You mean it?" Her face lit up with a jaw-breaking grin. "Aw, Mel, you're the best!"

Mel held up her hands in an attempt to stem the tide of enthusiasm. "Hold your horses now...Go splash some water on your face and run a brush through your hair..." She followed Alice into her bedroom, all the while issuing advice and directives. "I declare...you look like a ragamuffin. And you have Mr. Bonner walk you back afterwards. I don't care how late it is. I won't sleep a wink until you're back safe and sound."

"Can't I stay the night?" Alice dragged a brush through her hair, from roots to end. "Since it's Dinah's last night here...I could be home first thing in the morning."

Mel exhaled wearily. "I must have 'sucker' written all over my face. Alright," she conceded, jabbing an index finger at Alice's chest. "But you be home bright and early."

Alice tossed the brush onto her cluttered bureau and presented herself for inspection: dusty chambray work shirt, khaki slacks rife with horse hair and sweat. "Look alright?"

Mel knew her opinions didn't matter one way or the other, but she thought it sweet of the girl to ask. "You'll do...Better run if you wanna catch up to them."

"Strewth, yes!" Alice barreled out her bedroom door with the enthusiasm of a freshman fullback, leaving Mel rooted to the spot by sheer disbelief.

"Not so much as a thank you. Well..." She turned to leave and saw Alice's dirty battered hat, with its sweat-stained kangaroo-hide band, lying brim down on the bed. "Honestly," she said, picking it up. "Forget her head if it wasn't attached." She shrugged and caught her reflection in the mirror, breathing genuine surprise into the word, "Sucker."

"Hey, Mel?" Alice's reflection joined hers in the mirror. "I -"

"Forgot your hat," Mel finished for her as she settled the hat atop Alice's head, tilting it first to one side, then to the other, then back until it sat jauntily on the crown of her head. "Oh, well, you wear it however you like."

"I wanted to say thank you, Mel." Alice straightened the hat, and in the ensuing silence, she could tell that her expression of gratitude had caught Mel off guard. "Those should have been the first words out of my mouth. I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate this, and I promise," she elaborated, her words taking on the weight of a blood oath. "Not one word of this will ever reach my mother's ears."

"Better not," Mel cautioned, smiling crookedly. "Or you'll have company in the dog house." She tucked an errant strand of hair behind Alice's ear and ran her finger the length of a strong jaw; although Pappas family etiquette warranted a greater display of affection, she knew that not everyone was comfortable with such things. "Okay, scoot."

Alice stepped back, eager to be on her way and yet careful not to offend Mel with a too rapid exit. "You're okay, Mel."

Mel laughed. "The most tolerable in a long line of fiancées?"

"The most," Alice agreed, backpedaling from the room before turning and gaining momentum as she plunged through the screen door, heedless of the explosive return as it fell, unchecked, back to its jamb.

* * * * * * * * * *

CHHH-POK! Janice sat bolt upright, sending a small tidal wave over the side of the tub. She had drifted off in her tepid, wet cocoon only to awaken abruptly to the sound of a gunshot. Oh, Jesus. She's killed her. She put the soap, which had refused to lather in the hard water, back into the soap dish and stood up in the tub, murky water running off her well-toned body in sheets. She wrapped the large bath towel around her as she heard the bedroom door open. "Mel?" As there wasn't a shy bone in her body, Janice stepped around the corner and breathed a sigh of relief. "Mel...are you okay? I thought I heard a -"

"The door. Remember?" Mel cast a lingering glance over Janice's exposed body. There was little she hadn't seen - in half light, in Braille in the dark - but this was different. Full afternoon sunlight was cascading through the bedroom windows, bouncing off the damp blonde hair, soaking into the golden skin of her exposed legs and shoulders. Mel tilted her head; she didn't remember that little starburst-shaped scar on Janice's collarbone; it looked new. She had an almost uncontrollable urge to kiss it.

Janice was encouraged to be the subject of such thorough scrutiny, and so it took a supreme effort to pull the towel tightly around her and tuck a corner into her cleavage. She even managed to conjure up a suitably flustered expression. "Hey, how would you feel if I looked at you that way?"

Flattered. Mel blushed, and her eyes instantly found other targets on the floor of the room. "I'm sorry. I just came in..." She bent and gathered a discarded pair of jodhpurs and the grimy white blouse. "...to collect these. I'm startin' a load of wash."

"Mel, you don't have to do that...Matter of fact, I'd prefer it if you left the blouse especially. I don't have a clean one to wear."

"Well, if you think I am going to let you sit down at my supper table in this -" she held the blouse away from her body, out of respect for her nose. "You have another think comin'." She added the white brassiere to the pile in her arms.

"Aw, no, not that, too! C'mon, Mel...what am I supposed to do?" She threw up her hands. "Turn up in a towel?"

Mel backed towards the door, a quirky smile on her face. "Well, dinner will be informal."

Janice put her hands on her hips. "Don't tempt me, sweetheart."

Mel moved towards the open bedroom door, turning at the threshold. "I'll find you something to wear. Alice probably has somethin' that'll fit you. Be right back."

Janice dropped onto the bed and crossed her legs, the towel riding up to mid thigh. "So help me, she brings me anything with cute little animals on it, I'll be sick," she muttered, her fingers tented open on either side of her, testing the spring of the mattress. She hadn't slept in a bed in five weeks, and the clean linens and firm mattress were like a siren's call. She fell lazily backwards, eyes closed, with her hands cradling her head.

That's how Mel found her minutes later. She stood in the doorway, a starched white blouse dangling from the fingers of one hand, while those of the other established a deathgrip on the doorknob. There was nothing furtive in her observation; Janice need only look up to see her. In the end, it was precisely the idea of those jade green eyes opening and fixing on her own that prompted Mel to slip the clean blouse over the inside doorknob and leave the room.

Padding down the hall, mindful of the report of her heels on the hardwood floor, she wondered at her attraction to Janice Covington, a woman with a bit of dash and a predilection for hazard. She was a cynical, brilliant archeologist with the gift of keen insight. The image of Janice, stretched out on her bed clad only in a towel, crept into her mind, and she chased it away as counter-productive to her current retrospection.

That was her gift - to be able to switch mindsets in milliseconds and to concentrate her intellect on one thing exclusively. She made an audible sound of amusement as she entered the kitchen. Wonder who I got that from?

Her own background consisted of mostly-absentee parents; she had been raised by an affectionate grandmother, with only occasional input from her mother. There had been select boarding schools in the Carolinas, and she was an alumnus of the college where her father had been dean. Although she was not without intelligence, she had to concede that she had traded on the family name and her father's reputation more often than she cared to admit. The name Melvin Pappas, mentioned in the right circles, opened doors and minds alike. And after his accidental death on a dig in March of 1940, she had flown to Istanbul, at her mother's request, to close his affairs. Chief among those duties had been replying to unanswered correspondence. There had been stacks of letters, unopened bills, and a dozen yellowed telegrams, one of which led her to Macedonia where a hail of bullets awaited her. In the end, it had been her father's good name, dropped in the receptive ear of Dr. Janice Covington that led her back to the half-nude vision recumbent on her bed. She didn't know whether to curse her father or to thank him.

She gave the bread a half an hour to rest and used her time well, slicing the veal thin and layering it upon a garishly-painted platter. She ladled new potatoes and au jus over the meat and placed a few sprigs of parsley along the perimeter, hiding the chain of purple daisies that bordered the platter. Along with the bread and the fresh green beans she'd prepared, there were green olives and sweetbreads like her grandmother used to prepare. It was a great deal of food. She and Alice would be dining on leftovers for a week. She took the platter to the table then set a small dish of fresh butter beside the bread. After folding the linen napkins in a fan pattern, she swapped the placement of knives and forks and stood back to admire the table. "Well, it's not Delmonico's, but it'll have to do."

"It all looks and smells marvelous, Mel."

Mel jumped, her hand to her heart. "Janice...I didn't hear you come in. Did you have a nice nap?"

Janice shrugged and dug her hands into the front pockets of her slacks, feeling decidedly ill at ease in the borrowed blouse, which fit well about the waist and shoulders, but cut her just slightly across the bustline. It gave her a modicum of comfort to know that she couldn't slip effortlessly into the clothes of a thirteen year old girl. "You couldn't resist, could you?"

Mel's eyes jumped from the firm breasts beneath the straining buttons to Janice's face too quickly to disguise what could only be described as honest-to-goodness lust. "Beg pardon?"

Janice fingered the colorful embroidery just above her left breast. Whomever the seamstress was, she had been a true artisan - the words St. Ignatius' School for Young Ladies were plainly visible in Shelley-Volante font-style. "Is this your idea of a joke?"

Mel couldn't suppress a laugh. "Janice, honestly, I never even bothered to look. I chose that one because it's cut large." Janice merely grunted her displeasure and screwed her face into a scowl. "Would you rather it were emblazoned Our Lady of Perpetual Debauchery?"

Janice folded her arms across her chest. "Honestly? Yes." She smiled wryly and, in doing so, changed the whole complexion of the conversation. "But I suppose it'll have to do."

"You are truly magnanimous, Dr. Covington. Would you care to be seated?"

Mel held out a chair, indicating that Janice should take what was traditionally the head of the household's seat. The implication was not lost on Janice. "Only two place settings?" she inquired as she pulled the chair up to the table. "Alice not joining us?"

"I sent her on to the party." Mel opened the icebox. "It seemed the thing to do if I wanted to live with myself."

Janice swiveled in the chair and crossed one leg over the other. "Was she being difficult?"

"Just the opposite," came the muffled reply as Mel groped about in the icebox. "She was civil and mature." She poked her head above the door and narrowed her eyes at Janice. "You know how that grates on me."

"She's got you here, Mel," chided Janice, displaying an upturned pinky finger. "Admit it."

"I knew I could count on you to be sympathetic and understandin'. Remind me again why I asked you to supper?"

"Because maybe you missed me..." She pinched her thumb and forefinger together. "...maybe just this much?"

Rather than confirm or deny Janice's intimation, Mel opted to change the subject. "What would you like to drink?"

"What've you got?"

Mel moved items from front to side, clearing a path for her reach. "Simply everythin'.

There's milk and lemon squeeze...water, tea...oh, and some perfectly awful local beer." Mel displayed an unlabeled amber bottle. "I think it's bottled in a woolshed someplace. I don't recommend it."

"That'll do." Janice crossed the floor and took the bottle from Mel. Having been at the very back of the icebox for some time, it was half frozen, just the way she liked it. "You know me: I like living dangerously." She held the bottle up to the light as she walked back to the table and judged the meager amount of sediment floating within to be acceptable.

"Why don't you put on some music?" Mel, her hands occupied with condiments, gestured with her chin to a standing oak phonograph beneath a curio shelf.

"Any preferences?" Janice asked, as she raised the battered lid of the phonograph. "I think I spoke too soon." She picked up a sleeveless 78 with more care than it had previously been shown in its lifetime. "We have a very scratchy copy of...ooh, Noel Coward." She made a face as she looked at Mel. "I think I was ten when this was recorded."

"The phonograph was a wedding gift...for Jack and Peggy." Mel popped the cap from Janice's beer and began serving the veal. "I think those albums are probably original to it."

"Billie Holiday," Janice crooned. She removed the slick black record from its sleeve with care and held it by her fingertips. "With Teddy Wilson. Naw, Mel, this is relatively new." It wasn't just new, it was pristine, and had, in fact, probably never been played at all, very likely due to the color of the artist. Considering what little she knew of Peggy Greenway and her narrow opinion of the Aborigines, she marveled that the album had been allowed in the house at all. "You Go To My Head, More Than You Know..." Song titles that might have easily been describing Mel, a possibility that was given further credence by the next song title: Them There Eyes. She looked to the table, where Mel had taken the chair kitty corner from her own, and seated the record beneath the needle, setting the volume to 3 on the dial. She opened the double doors on the phonograph's face to reveal the speaker as You Go To My Head opened with a combustible alto sax. She was sitting beside Mel shaking the napkin into her lap as a clarinet riff paved the way for Holiday's one-of-a-kind vocal stylings. The timbre was just a touch cynical, and Janice knew, without actually knowing Holiday personally, that she had been burned at love before. "This is nice, Mel," she murmured, feeling decidedly warm beneath the thin blouse. She looked down at her plate, trisected neatly with meat, starch and vegetable, all carefully prepared by a talented cook, and yet nothing looked as enticing as the woman seated across the table from her.

"Janice..." Mel turned an anticipatory gaze on her guest. "You aren't eating."

"Savoring the moment, Mel," Janice replied. She sliced into her veal with enthusiasm, but it was all for show. Food no longer held any interest for her. Mel's proximity had whetted a different kind of appetite. She lay the knife across the edge of the plate, dropped her free hand into her lap and speared the vaguely rare meat with a fork. When she looked up, she found Mel's eyes waiting, alight. Before she had taken one bite of veal, she was already anticipating dessert.

Chapter 8

"...sandstone ramparts hundreds of feet high, miles wide, pockmarked with caves." Janice absently swirled the warm beer at the bottom of the bottle. "But you know something, Mel, and this might be the beer talking, but I think it's the sort of dig I could just walk away from. The whole place just has a...a feel about it...more churchyard than graveyard."

"Kakadu's a spiritual place," Mel replied. "Small wonder you're uncomfortable. Your workers...are they local to Kakadu?" Janice nodded. "There's your problem." The serving fork hovered over the meat platter, targeting a slice of veal. "More veal?"

Janice waved her hand, fending off a third helping. "It's standard practice to employ the natives, Mel."

"You haven't found anything they didn't permit you to find. The real finds, the genuine rarities will elude you as long as you use locals to point the way." Mel tucked an olive between her perfect white teeth before sucking the pimento from its salty green blanket.

Janice was entranced, holding the last sip of beer in her mouth briefly before swallowing. "And what would you have done differently? Hire outsiders?"

Mel lifted an eyebrow. "If I had taken the job, then, yes, I would have imported a crew, but that's a moot point, Janice. The dig is yours." She laid her fork and knife across the plate, signaling an end to the meal, and to the discussion.

But Janice was persistent. "Why didn't you take the job, Mel? You were local; you were Moffat's first choice --"

"Because I was local and for no other reason." Mel folded her napkin in quarters before tucking it beneath the edge of her plate. "Jack said it was probably because I work cheap, and it's true. I would've paid Moffat for the pleasure of headin' the dig."

"Instead, here you sit...one of a handful of warm bodies in a three hundred mile radius." Janice's voice held the unmistakable edge of sarcasm as she quipped, "Flies, heat, isolation: I can see what you like about it." Further conversation on the dubious virtues of the outback faded away on the dying strings of a violin passage. For a moment there

was only the ghost of a heartbeat, the rhythmic thump thump thump of the needle as it rode the groove of dead air between tracks before sliding into the last song on the record. Carelessly, Janice's personal favorite on an album full of memorable tunes, began with the incomparable piano work of Teddy Wilson. Two beers brave, carelessly might also have described the way she looked Mel in the eye and said, "So tell me about Jack."

Mel pursed her lips and sat up straight, lacing her fingers around her water glass. Her eyes held Janice whole as she groped for a response. One of the advantages of outback isolation had been the almost total lack of peer judgment. Unfortunately, that same isolation left her unprepared to field even the most harmless inquiries about her relationship with Jack. "What's there to say? He's divorced as you know...a cargo pilot in the RAAF...He's 42..." She let her voice trail off, giving the impression that she had imparted all that she knew about the man.

"Forty two..." Janice whistled softly, one short note of disbelief as she enjoyed Mel's discomfort. "What does he look like?"

"Dark hair, dark eyes...tall...my head fits just beneath his jaw when we dance," Mel replied with a little smile as a memory warmed her. In the smoky warmth of a first floor hotel room in Athens - champagne on the bedside table, Cole Porter on the radio, and a crown of honey-blonde hair tucked neatly beneath her chin while warm breath traveled the valley between her breasts and four bare feet interlocked, puzzle pieces on a hardwood floor... Indelible little details of first-time foreplay. The memory was so vivid, yet made painful by the realization that that life was behind her.

"He's tall, I got that much." Janice's fingers beat a lazy tattoo on the empty beer bottle. "What else? How did the two of you meet?" Mel stood abruptly, taking up her plate and glass. "Mel?" Her eyes followed Mel's retreating form across the kitchen. "What's wrong?"

"Nothin's wrong," Mel replied, as she stacked the dinner plates by the sink. "I don't understand your interest in Jack, that's all. Another beer?"

Janice waved a hand dismissively. "Hey, you brought him up. Besides, I think I deserve to know a little bit about the man. After all, I'm sitting in his chair...eating his food..."

"Sleepin' in his bed...Goldilocks." Mel returned to the table for the meat platter.

"Speaking of sleeping in his bed -" Janice began pointedly. "How is he in that area?"

Mel's jaw dropped noticeably. "I don't know why I'm surprised you asked that. With your ego, you'd be forever beggin' comparison."

Janice laughed, but there was no heart in it. "I have a healthy ego, as you pointed out."

"With good reason," Mel replied as she turned away. "You spoiled me for any future lovers."

"And that's a bad thing?"

"It is, yes," said Mel. "When you're tryin' to start a new life."

Janice shrugged. "What was so wrong with the old one?" A reply was not immediately forthcoming. Mel's back was to her, but Janice could see her hands were still and her head was down. "Mel?"

"He's a dear, dear, man, Janice." Mel began quietly. "He's kind, sympathetic, funny. I don't know where I would be if I hadn't met him when I did."

Janice fought to keep her composure. "You mean it was just a matter of timing."

"In a way...yes." At the butcher's block, Mel wrapped the leftover veal in waxed paper, secretly relieved to have something to do with her hands. "We met the very day my steamer docked in Sydney Harbor. I was comin' down the ramp; he was seein' his niece off. I broke a heel off my shoe and would've pitched right over the side if he hadn't been there."

"A real Sir Galahad," mumbled Janice, although it occurred to her, somewhat cynically, she conceded, that the niece Jack had been seeing off at the dock was very likely not his niece at all. Naturally, she was alone in her suspicions.

"He insisted I share his cab, waited with me while my shoe was repaired and bought me a lovely supper." Mel slid the wax package into the icebox and stood in the open doorway, savoring the chill air on her body. "It was the best possible introduction to the country."

"Better than gunfire and death threats?" quipped Janice with mock surprise.

"I know that tone, Janice," said Mel, moving reluctantly from the icebox to the table. "And it sounds suspiciously like jealousy."

"Not at all," replied Janice, quick to dismiss the notion. "On second thought, I will take another beer." She rose from her chair. "You want a beer, Mel?" She could feel Mel's eyes pursue her into the kitchen.

"You don't have to be jealous, Janice." Mel's voice was kind and soothing, and she meant well, but she couldn't help saying the wrong thing as a general rule. "You're not in competition with Jack."

"I know that, and I am not jealous." Janice opened and closed the icebox without removing anything. "What I am is hot. It's hot in here."

From her place at the table, Mel gazed out the window where the windmill cast long shadows upon the hard-baked ground, blood-red in the twilight. "Sun's settin'...Why don't we take this conversation out to the verandah...where it's cool?" She switched off the phonograph and closed the cover.

"Peachy." Janice bit back a more acidic retort, dismayed at the possibility of an in-depth conversation on the merits of her rival. Perhaps rival was not the right word, although it had seemed appropriate enough during the long flight to Coolinga. But now...here she was a guest in Jack Greenway's home, where his personality permeated everything as surely as a sponge soaks up water. His chair. His food. His woman. She followed Mel from the room, convinced that any hopes of a reconciliation were about to be finally and irrevocably dashed to pieces.

At the foyer, Mel continued out to the verandah, while Janice excused herself to visit the bathroom. She splashed water on her face and patted it dry with a hand towel, studying her fractured reflection in the cracked mirror as she did so. She had come to Coolinga convinced she would find Mel miserable, aching for the lover she left behind, but their reunion had been on the tepid side of passionate at best. Still, she was certain Mel had warmed to the idea of her presence. The woman had baked her sourdough bread. Sourdough bread, for Chrissakes! "If that isn't love, what is?" She was surprised to hear genuine confusion in her voice; she was unaccustomed to the feeling.

All her adult life she had been able to have her way, whether by skill, wits or sheer force of will. In a field rampant with male counterparts, she was unique and notable for far more than her gender. By age 25, she had made enough money to live comfortably and to have the luxury to pick and choose the archeological commissions which most interested her. With her gifts, came hard-won notoriety; she had the respect of her peers. What she didn't have, however, was what she wanted most. Ain't that always the way?

She pushed away from the counter and knelt on the bedroom floor to root through her satchel. To her relief, she found the object of her search nestled discreetly in a cocoon of woolen socks. Squat at the bottom, rising in a tall, graceful neck, the dark amber, 94 proof Tennessee Sipping Whiskey was the only Jack she was interested in at the moment. It had originally been intended as a gift to soothe the ruffled feathers of a mechanic to whom she owed money, but she would have to find another way around him. She broke the seal on the bottle, intending to down a generous swig or two before joining Mel on the verandah. She hefted the bottle carefully, almost reverently, tasting the full, sweet flavor of burnt caramel and vanilla at the back of her throat before a single drop of whiskey had touched her lips.

Tapping and her name uttered as a hiss. "Janisssss."

Janice opened her eyes, a revelation in itself, since she hadn't been conscious of closing them. Across the room, on the opposite side of a six-paned window, Mel rapped on the glass with her knuckle. She had seen the bottle, but there was no reproach in her voice as she said, "Bring that...and two glasses... and hurry, or you'll miss it!" She beckoned, conveying a sense of urgency before stepping out of view, leaving confusion in her wake.

Miss it. Miss what? Janice stopped in the parlor to collect two heavy glass tumblers from the sideboard and made her way onto the verandah, successfully navigating the explosive screen door without dropping her kit. Using the toe of her boot, she eased the door closed and looked for Mel, who was conspicuously absent. "Mel?" She set the whiskey and glasses down on a sturdy wicker table and sighed heavily, her frustration evident. "Where'd you go?"

Mel poked her head around the corner of the porch. "Over here...come see!"

Janice walked the length of the porch, her curiosity snuffling ahead of her like a keen beagle. Rounding the corner of the house, facing to the south, she saw Mel standing poised, dead center of the front stoop. Her head was tilted slightly back, and her mouth was opened in unabashed wonder. "What is it? If it's a dingo, I've seen plenty of those."

"Try not to sound so jaded, Janice Covington, and come here," Mel hissed reproachfully, fanning one hand to her, gathering the smaller woman under her shoulder. "Now," she whispered, as if more volume were an intrusion. "Stand just here..." She stepped back and guided Janice into her place on the worn gray boards. "Do you see it?"

Janice exhaled wearily, her eyes scanning the horizon, left to right, from soft sage and violet to a vivid spectrum of crimsons and yellows. It was breathtaking, and it wasn't a dingo. Points for Mel. "Yes," she whispered, trying to convey her pleasure. "It's beautiful, Mel." She felt warm fingers at her temples and a gentle upward pressure; unconsciously, she found herself leaning back into the support provided by Mel's lanky frame. She could feel two firm breasts, peaked, at attention, against the sensitive skin of her shoulder blades. She might have reveled in that feeling indefinitely if her breath hadn't been snatched without warning from her chest. Directly above her and to her left, divided by a line of native wattles, the sky was clear with a quarter moon and a blanket of dazzling stars; and to the right, off-set just slightly by the sagging tin roof of the house, the sun was setting, wallowing gloriously in the foothills, bathing the gums and mulga in raw, homespun gold. Day and night sharing the sky at the same moment. It was, Janice conceded, the oddest, most beautiful of dichotomies.

"It happens every sunset." Mel's mouth was just inches from Janice's ear, so close her breath stirred the tiny wisps of hair at her nape. "...a few minutes later every day. I find myself standin' out here, where you're standin' now...waiting. I know that must seem foolish to you, but I suppose I'm a simple woman."

Janice turned to face Mel, careful to maintain the physical and emotional connection that had been created. "You're not simple at all...you're a damned pioneer, Mel." She left those fathomless cerulean pools to turn her own eyes skyward again. "I mean, look at it..." The last vestiges of light were leaving the land, being replaced by a creeping carpet of mauve and ebony. It stole Janice's breath the way few things could. "I've been living in this land for six weeks...sleeping under the stars, and do you know, it never once occurred to me that this place had anything new to show me. How thick is that, I ask you?"

"Pretty thick," Mel echoed with a grin. She dropped her hands to her sides, unintentionally skimming Janice's hips as she did so. "Oh, sorry."

I'm not. Janice turned on her heel. "I got whiskey, remember?" At the little wicker table, she opened the bottle and turned to Mel, who had taken a seat on a wooden glider. "How do you take it? On the rocks? With water?"

Mel countered brightly, "Oh, however you like it is fine."

"Two fingers. Neat." She passed Mel a tumbler and seated herself in an old bleached rocker that overlooked the wide expanse of horizon. Shaking out her damp hair, she took her first sip of whiskey...center cut her father had called it...like the heart of a good watermelon...strong and flavorful and just what she needed. She sighed contentedly and stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. The sun was a molten sliver on the horizon, and the worst of the day's heat was over at last. Trees growing by the verandah were full of sparrows and finches twittering in concert with their counterparts inside the small aviary. Somewhere to her left, just beyond the hangar, a dingo howled. She was primed to notice everything, most especially the woman she loved, sitting across from her, making a face as she swallowed her whiskey in one gulp. Janice raised both eyebrows inquiringly as Mel choked. "Uh, Mel? You might want to take it easy there..."

Mel screwed her eyes shut, sputtered and nodded rapidly, holding her glass in front of her. "May I have..." cough "...another, please?"

Janice left her glass on the arm of the rocker and retrieved the whiskey bottle. "This is sipping whiskey, Mel...say it with me...sip-ping-whis-key..." She held the bottle over Mel's empty glass. "If you're not accustomed to it, it'll bite you back." Mel lifted her glass until it clinked against the bottle. "Okay, suit yourself." She refilled the glass, unable to shake the impression that Mel seemed to be marshaling her courage, fortifying herself for some earth-shattering admission. "What's on your mind?" she asked, giving voice to her thoughts; she toyed briefly with the possibilities, none of them favorable if your name happened to be Janice Covington.

"I was...I was mulling over the virtues of a really fine whiskey," Mel replied, her fingers grazing Janice's as they clasped the neck of the bottle. "I don't have a great deal of experience with drinkin', as you know, but I find that I quite have the knack for it." Mel took custody of the bottle. "This has a...a kinda smoky quality to it..." sip "...oak, I think."

"Probably aged in oak barrels. You sure you don't want me to take that?"

"Did you want another drink?" Mel asked as she held the bottle possessively between the pillows of her breasts.

Lucky bottle. Janice shook her head slowly, placing her hand over the wide mouth of the tumbler. She took two steps back, leaning against a support post. As she watched Mel go repeatedly to the well, she determined that at least one of them should stay sober.

Mel settled back into the glider, the open bottle of whiskey tucked between the armrest and her hip. She kicked off her shoes, heedless of where they fell. Her face was flushed, warmed by the liquor, and her eyes were luminous in the moonlight. Meeting Janice's expectant gaze, her courage waned temporarily. It wasn't until she'd cautiously tipped back another shot of whiskey, that she found her voice. "If you drink from a bottle marked poison, it's almost certain to disagree with you sooner or later."

"If you're referring to the whiskey..."

"It's from Alice in Wonderland, and I'm tryin' to make a point. Please, don't interrupt." Janice settled back against the post, suitably reproached, while Mel focused on a knothole in the floor boards. "Lewis Carroll as prophet...it's not an idea many people can warm to." She kept her eyes down, unable to bear either the confirmation or denial in the other's face, and she was grateful Janice had the presence of mind to remain silent. "All my life I knew what I wanted, what was expected of me as a woman, and as the daughter of Melvin Pappas. These things were seldom complementary of one another..." Mel's voice trailed off; she groped for the bottle at her side, but her hands were shaking and her aim was slightly off. She felt Janice's fingers close over her own. "One more...for luck."

"I think you've had enough, Mel." Janice set the bottle on the table between them. "Just...take a few deep breaths and spit it out...whatever it is." She took a long pull on her whiskey, reflecting miserably on her inability to cope with rejection, and braced for the worst.

"I've made some mistakes in my life, Janice," said Mel, the words leaping from her lips, a verbal suicide. "I have done some things that I've regretted, and people I cared about paid the price." She looked into the bottom of her glass and was afforded an unobstructed, if distorted, view of her bare feet. "Oh, my...look a' that..." She tilted her head in wonder. "I have big feet," she said, as if the discovery were a revelation.

Janice rolled her eyes. It's official: she's drunk. It's a damned record. The number one problem with drunks, in her opinion, was the propensity to be distracted by the smallest things. It was both blessing and curse. "You have nice feet, Mel," she said succinctly as she approached the glider. She took the empty tumbler from Mel's hands. "I think you should probably lie down for a while, sleep this off."

When Mel felt Janice's hand upon her elbow, she looked up into a pair of sparkling green eyes and felt compelled to apologize. "I'm sorry you came all this way, Janice." Strong fingers encircled her arm, drawing her into a standing position. "I know it must seem like a tremendous waste of time to you now, and if I'd known you were comin', I'd've stopped you."

Standing there, with Mel's arm wedged securely between her own hip and elbow, Janice felt her knees go to jelly. Here it comes. "Later, Mel...All this can wait till later." She stopped at the front door of a house settled with shadows. With her free hand, she groped for the lights.

"Did you bring the whiskey?"

"It's fine where it is," Janice replied, frustration bleeding into her voice. "God dammit, what're you people? Bats?!"

"I haven't always liked the choices I've made, Janice," said Mel, flipping a light switch on the opposite side of the door. "Erratic, my daddy would've said." She leaned heavily into the smaller woman. "You steer, I'll walk...Following my, my heart one minute, my head the next..."

"Can't go wrong with either of those. Whoa, watch your head." Janice guided her across the bedroom threshold, relieved to find the light switch on the first attempt. She backed Mel across the floor until her calves met the edge of the bed. "Okay. Sit."

"I made mistakes...Sit?"

Janice snorted. "Bend your knees...it'll happen by itself."

Mel's face softened. "You're so good to me, Janice," she said sincerely; the ache in her voice broke Janice's heart. "You and Jack...both so good to me."

Jack. There's my wake-up call. "Yeah, well..." As a sparkling retort, it failed miserably. "Get some rest, Mel."

"Did'ja ever do that? Try somethin' just to try it...to get it out of your system, like the cold or the flu...or to satisfy someone else's expectations..."

Better and better. Worse than a fling, an experiment. Janice set her jaw; there were no words to convey her hurt, her disappointment. When she turned to leave, it was all she could do not to bolt from the room.

"I've hurt people, Janice..." Mel's voice stopped her at the door. "I hurt you."

"Yeah. You did...but I'm tough, Mel," Janice replied, her back to the room. "I'll get over it."

"I won't. I can't. Janice...please look at me."

Look at her? Yes? No? Janice suspected that whatever steely resolve she still possessed would vanish at the first sight of tears. "That's probably not a good idea, Mel."

With supreme effort, Mel got to her feet, dizzy at first, then queasy. "Please...You're gonna walk out that door, and I'm never gonna see you again...I just know it...So you turn around and lemme say this one teeny tiny little thing."

Janice inhaled deeply and squared her shoulders like a boxer bracing for a blow. Mel swam into her field of vision...flushed and bleary-eyed, weaving just slightly as she smoothed her skirt with sweaty palms. Different picture, same effect. "Okay...I'm listening."

Continued in Part 2.

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