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'

Chapter 9

Mel blinked rapidly, astonishment plain on her face. Clearly, despite her heartfelt appeal for indulgence, she hadn't anticipated Janice would yield quickly, if at all. Her legs were watery, anesthetized by a combination of whiskey and anxiety, but she was determined to deliver this next bit of information standing, if for no other reason than it might give Janice pleasure to knock her down. A quick inhale and on the exhale, the words, "I love you, Janice." There was the smallest twitch between Janice's brows, easy to miss unless one knew what to look for; but seeing it was one thing, and translating it was another.

Janice's response was inflectionless and noncommittal. "I see." The two syllable equivalent of a polar bear in a white room.

Janice's apparent apathy took Mel by surprise and sent her scrambling for elaboration. "I plan on leavin' here when Jack returns next month." She shrugged. "Don't love him... love you." On the strength of that claim, Mel crossed the floor, knees shaking. "I'm askin' to come back, Janice... I'm askin' to be a part of your life again." Her eyes, swimming in hot, unspilt tears, scanned Janice's carefully-set face. "Well...say somethin'..."

Janice breathed in through her mouth; she could taste Mel on her tongue, a frothy concoction of whiskey and guilt and fear. There were few things that sobered a drunk faster than fear. "God knows, Mel, when I arrived here, I'd have forgiven you anything just to have you back in my life...And a few minutes ago, those words and your tears might've been enough to reconcile our differences. But frankly, now...I have to say I don't come that cheap."

Light-headed with fear and apprehension, Mel stammered, "What can I do? What do you want me to say? I've been as honest as I know how to be."

Janice was tight-lipped. "In vino veritas. Wine or whiskey, you had to knock back a third of a bottle to be honest with me...to confess the truth: I was a mistake, and our relationship was an experiment." Mel opened her mouth to argue, but was cut off abruptly. "Mel, you said as much." She turned her eyes to the sagging ceiling, struggling to recall the exact turn of phrase. "Did you ever try something just to get it out of your system...? Ring a bell?"

"If you're gonna go around quotin' me, at least get it right. I never referred to you as an experiment or a mistake. The truth is -" cough Mel fought down a brief wave of nausea, holding up a finger indicating that Janice should wait. "...the truth is..." cough

"The truth is you left me because you were afraid I would leave you. Somewhere in the back of my mind, that makes sense, in a paranoid, insecure kind of way. It's even kind of flattering. What I don't understand is your situation here and now…this mop-the- floors-laundry-on-the-line-dinner-on-the-stove domestic bent. I don't get the attraction, Mel. Granted, Alice is a great kid, any woman would be proud to have her as a daughter, but -"

"I can explain."

Janice waved her off. "It's okay, Mel. I understand. You were raised in a conservative, Southern household, by a conservative, Southern grandmother. Your future included white picket fences and babies, and a husband. But before you settled down to all of that, you wanted to sow your wild oats, as they say...experiment with different things. Well, I had a good time. I hope you did; and now that you've got it out of your system, you can settle down to marital bliss with the partner your parents always wanted you to have...someone with facial hair, who dresses left or right."

Indignation and embarrassment fought a pitched battle on Mel's face. "Now, you jes' hold on!"

"Although, I have to get my own two cents in here and say that you have lousy taste in men. I mean, I don't know Jack Greenway from Adam, but from everything I have heard and seen in the last few hours, I know that he's the last man on earth I would pair you with. What is it, Mel? Does he remind you of your daddy?" she asked facetiously.

"Are you through? Can I talk now?" Mel asked through clenched teeth, a reaction that was as much anger as it was a way to bite back her rising gorge; too late she had discovered that she was a proficient drinker, but a terrible drunk. "You keep sayin' you understand this, and you understand that. News flash, Janice: you don't understand anythin'." Mel looked seriously down into the youthful face of cynicism; it was one of those times when her height was an advantage. "Now...you sit." She thrust a finger at the bed. When Janice hesitated, she raised a single eyebrow and from somewhere deep in her ancestral line, summoned up 'The Look'. "Your butt on that bed. Now."

Janice lighted on the corner of the mattress, watching in silence as Mel struggled to maintain her upright position. "Maybe you should be the one sitting."

Mel took a step back and leaned against the wall for support. "You say you talked to my mama. Long conversation?"

"Ten minutes, thereabouts."

The corner of Mel's mouth twitched. "That's plenty time enough. Did you love your mama, Janice? I mean, before she left you and your daddy, did you have a good relationship?"

Janice scratched her ear and shrugged. "We were close, yeah. Is this going someplace?"

"Indulge me. Would it be safe to say that you did your utmost to please her?" Janice nodded and Mel countered, "Out of love and respect." Again, a nod. The tall Southerner melted against the wall, kept upright by sheer force of will. "You had ten minutes, long distance with Miss Julia Pappas. How was it?"

Janice labored for just the right word. "Interesting."

Mel coughed, and then laughed into the back of her hand. "Don't play the diplomat, Janice; it doesn't suit you."

"You want me to say she was cold and blunt? Okay, I will. One minute into the conversation, I was ready to throttle her."

"Get in line," Mel said, nodding sagely. "Knowin' my mama as I do, I'm gonna guess that she didn't tell you I called her from the airport in Athens the night I left."

"Funny...she didn't mention it."

"We had quite a long talk...or maybe I should say: she lectured and I listened, a first for me. All those years growin' up, I managed to tune out a lot of what she was sayin' and find my own way, my own paths, always to her dismay. I could never please her, and she never tired... tires... of remindin' me of my failures. The way she saw it, leavin' you was the smartest thing I'd ever done, which only reinforced my opinion of her. I had called for understandin' and sympathy and gotten a slap in the face. She said, 'Come home, Melinda. I forgive you.'...like lovin' you was some kinda crime. She even offered to wire me plane fare, but I didn't want anythin' from her." She flushed and weaved. Janice was at her side in an instant. "I have to sit for a spell..." Without speaking, Janice helped her back to the bed, though she herself remained standing. "Look at you," Mel said, her voice softly marveling. "Even now, as angry as you are with me, you have such good instincts, Janice; that was one of the things that drew me to you."

Janice softened just slightly, though it would take more than flattery to win her back. "And Jack..." she prompted with genuine curiosity. "What drew you to him?"

Mel closed her eyes briefly, as if conjuring forth the recollection. "His innate decency, I think. He spoke of his family, his daughter, with such affection."

Sitting on the bed, with some distance between them, Janice remarked on the only thing about Jack Greenway she liked, apart from his absence. "Like I said, Alice is a good kid. You had a ready-made family here."

Mel looked at her hands, trembling in her lap. "Certainly that was an attractive prospect. It wasn't until later in our relationship that I discovered I was merely the last in a long line of sweethearts. When he left here seven weeks ago, he gave me the house keys, two hundred dollars cash, and his word that he would be back. He gave me all that, but..." she held up her left hand and wiggled her fingers. "No ring." She shrugged. "You

don't give a ring to your house sitter."

"It never...well, it never went beyond that?"

Mel smiled, amused by Janice's delicate approach. "If you're askin' if we ever consummated the relationship, the answer is no. Oh, there were a couple of false starts, but I think he knew my heart wasn't in it. My first night here he took a blanket and pillow out to the sofa and never pressed the matter again."

Janice heaved a sigh of relief. At last, the 'experiment' had been identified and the only thing that shocked her more than the identity was Jack's surprising depth of character. "If you didn't love him, why did you stay, Mel?"

"Because I had nowhere else to go," Mel replied simply. "The truth is I got off that steamer flat broke, needin' isolation, time to think. This house provides all that. Jack. Well, I suppose you could say I fell in serious like with the man. He's kind and generous. He knows when to talk, and when to listen, and he doesn't hoard his emotions like a lot of folks do. So, when you ask if he reminds me of my daddy, I'll have to say -no, he most certainly does not."

Janice shuffled uncomfortably. "Touché'." She had closely watched Mel's face throughout her confession, gauging sincerity or deception based on her observations. Her instincts told her that what she was hearing was the truth, stripped bare of all pretense, absent of mitigating circumstances. She wanted to return that honesty with words, a touch, a kiss...a caress...yet something inside screamed for caution. She didn't trust her hands, so she sat on them. "I want to believe you, Mel."

Mel turned to face her. "I don't know what else I can say, Janice, except that you are and never have been anythin' but what I absolutely wanted out of life." She extended a hand and cupped the heart-shaped face lovingly in her palm. "Can you accept that I made an awful, horrible mistake the day I left you? Do you know how much that has hurt me every day since?" Her hand, unsupported by Janice's own, began to tremble with the fear that she had misread the situation and moved too soon. "Tell me you don't want me...Tell me there's not this huge achin' chasm where your heart used to be...Tell me you don't love me, and you can walk out of here and never hear from me again."

Janice swallowed hard; Mel's hand against her skin was almost painful. Beneath her thighs, her own hands scrunched the bedspread into fistfuls. "I don't think I can do that."

Mel dropped her hand slowly to her side, and swallowed deeply, audibly. "Do you hate me very much?" She dreaded the answer.

A smile turned up the corner of Janice's mouth. "Some day, I gotta compile a book of useless questions."

Mel almost wept with relief. Her plea, "Kiss me, Janice," carried all the weight of a dying man's cry for water, a request that, in good conscience, could not be denied. She leaned forward, meeting Janice halfway, and when warm lips connected, she felt a shudder run down her spine - hot and icy at the same time. "More..." she urged, her lips sliding against Janice's, an unquenchable thirst begging to be slaked. She plunged one hand into sweet-smelling honey hair, while the other slid beneath the blouse to cup a firm breast, its nipple made hard and erect by the single brush of a calloused thumb.

Janice was not prepared for the mindless lassitude that gripped her at the first touch of those talented hands. Heat coursed through her body like a fever. Had she not been able to taste the whiskey on Mel's lips, present in every kiss rained upon her face, she might have been content to endure such an assault indefinitely. She knew she should resist; it was the honorable thing to do, even if she would hate herself in the morning. "Mel...Mel, honey...we have to stop..." she murmured without conviction. She groaned, tilting her head back as feather-soft kisses grazed her from chin to cleavage, and fingers fumbled at the buttons of her blouse. "I mean it, Mel..." she protested, even as her nipples sprang to life, minds of their own. Traitors. Summoning up her last reserves of self-control, she wrested herself from Mel's embrace and stood. "I think we should stop..." She observed her lover laboring for breath, and she could see her reflection clearly in those wide, cerulean pools; it flattered her to be seen as an object of lust. "I gotta go splash some water on my face or...somethin'..."

Mel caught the retreating figure by the arm. "Janice...did I do somethin' wrong?"

"Aw, no, sweetheart, it's just...well..." Janice tugged at the front of the blouse, pinching the icon of St. Ignatius between her thumb and forefinger. "There's just somethin'...I don't know... indecent about being groped in this blouse."

"If it bothers you that much...take it off."

Janice chuckled. "Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"So would you," replied Mel pointedly. "Make love to me, Janice." She held Janice's gaze as her long fingers drifted down to the buttons of her own blouse.

Janice raised her eyes heavenward. "This is a test...it's gotta be." Passion's gauntlet. She shifted her gaze back to Mel, who was murmuring soft obscenities as she struggled with the top button of her blouse. "Not tonight, honey. You have a headache."

Mel got to her feet. "I am not drunk," she said adamantly.

"Oh, yeah?" She held up three fingers. "How many fingers?"

"Ohhh," Mel grinned slyly and groped Janice. "I like this game!"

Janice squealed and captured Mel's roaming hands in her own. "Jeeze Louise, Mel!"

Mel managed a genuinely wounded expression as she stood there, both hands pinned against her chest by Janice's strong grip. "I'm comin' on too strong, aren't I?"

"Oh, God...don't ask me that. I'm almost certain I'll lie." She released her grip and gathered Mel to her in an embrace that seemed to temporarily satisfy their mutual need for intimacy without jeopardizing either woman's integrity. They had been moving in a slow, almost indefinable circle for a full minute before Janice was conscious of the movement. With the covert introduction of a melody, it graduated from random motion to sensuous dance. The words of the song wound their way from Mel's lips to her ear in

a sweet, mournful sigh, taking on the aspect of a heartfelt confession. She would never again listen to the lyrics in the same way.

How carelessly you gave me your heart

And carelessly I broke it, sweetheart

I took each tender kiss you gave to me

Every kiss made you a slave to me

Then carelessly I told you good-bye

But now at night I wake up and cry

I wish I knew a way to find the

love I threw away so carelessly.

"That was nice, Mel," Janice murmured. "Reminds me of that night in Athens...remember? Our first night together?" She felt Mel nod against her shoulder. "Cole Porter on the radio, $8 champagne on ice...you and me in the bed...on the floor... against the wall. It was perfect."

Mel disengaged and stepped back, putting enough space between them so that she might look Janice seriously in the face. "I promise, Janice, never to be intimidated by perfection ever again."

Janice winked and once again pulled Mel into an embrace. "I'm gonna hold you to that," she replied. She spun Mel out to arm's length and held her briefly by the fingertips. "Dip?" With a snap of her wrist, she pulled her partner into her and dropped her in a dip that even Astaire would have envied. Grinning, she queried, "Am I good...or what?"

"Janice...would it spoil this moment for you if I threw up?"

Chapter 10

Mel groaned, awash in inarticulate misery as she clutched the white porcelain bowl. Janice sat behind her on a short footstool; one hand kept long, raven hair pulled back, out of harm's way, while the other grasped the chain pull. "Okay?" Nodding, Mel leaned against Janice's knee, surrendering to the pounding in her head as the water gushed and swirled counter-clockwise down the pipes. Janice put a glass of water into her trembling hands with the simple command, "Rinse. Spit." Mel obeyed without question, after which Janice pulled the chain again and helped Mel to her feet.

Leaning heavily on the smaller woman, Mel whispered, "I'm sorry 'bout your boots."

"Washed right off," replied Janice.

"And your blouse..."

"A little cold water...Okay, hang on just a sec..." Steadying Mel with one hand, she hastily turned down the bed with the other. "Okay, don't get any ideas now." Leaving her charge teetering at the edge of the bed, Janice snaked her arms around Mel's waist and groped for the button at the back of the A-line skirt.

Mel put her hands on Janice's shoulders for support. "You've come to your senses at last?"

"Nope." Janice popped the snap. "Still out of my tree." She passed the skirt over shapely hips and chased its descent with her hands until it fell in a puddle at Mel's feet. "Step out...first one foot...that's good, now the other - that's my girl...and she does it all without a net."

Mel sat heavily upon the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry to be so much trouble."

"Undressing you, Mel, is a lot of things, but trouble ain't one of them." Janice's hand moved deftly over the pearly buttons of Mel's blouse, popping each with a practiced, three-fingered maneuver that was normally a prelude to more strenuous activity. She slipped the blouse from Mel's slim shoulders and glanced appreciatively at the camisole draping tantalizing swells and curves in a fine satin sheen. "Nice. You do wonders for it."

"Wonders for what?" Mel asked groggily.

Janice rolled her eyes. "Never mind. You're too drunk to appreciate my wit."

Mel arched an eyebrow. "Maybe I'm not drunk enough."

Janice clucked her tongue, then replied, "I reserve comment," and plumped a couple of down-filled pillows before sliding Mel's legs beneath the blanket. "There now, you're all set."

Mel's fingers scrunched the blanket on either side of her hips. Her attractive face could best be described as panicked...and green. "Janice..." she sucked a breath over her teeth, "...the room's spinnin'..."

"Of course it's spinning," Janice retorted, tucking the blanket close. "Cheap whiskey will do that." Mel groaned, unable to appreciate the sarcasm. "Close your eyes. It helps." She stepped away to switch off the powerful overhead light in favor of the small lamp atop the dresser. The 40 watt bulb beneath a natty fringed shade cast the room in a soft yellow light more conducive to sleep. Kneeling beside the bed, she stroked Mel's pinched brow. "Better?"

Mel shook her head miserably and threw one arm over her eyes. "Shoot me, Janice, just shoot me now."

Janice laughed and kissed Mel's forehead. "Oh, no no...I have plans for you, Melinda Pappas."

Mel peeked out with one eye and conjured up the hint of a smile. "At last, a reason to live."

A few minutes later, Janice left her there, half-asleep in the half-dark. She kept the bedroom door open a few inches, should Mel should call for her, and padded quietly down the hall and into the kitchen. The scene awaiting her was tantamount to a battlefield: dirty dishes, pots and pans, food left on a cluttered table. Who knew that two people could generate such chaos? "No wonder I eat take out so often."

She tied the apron loosely about her waist and went to work clearing the table of leftovers. She didn't play favorites; everything from vegetables to sweet breads went to the icebox, although she found room in her full stomach for the last of the olives, simply because they reminded her of Athens, and Mel. She washed and dried the dinner dishes and made a half-hearted attempt to scrub clean a particularly dirty roasting pan before finally consigning it to soak overnight in soapy water. When she looked up at the old clock on the wall, she was surprised to see that it was nearly nine in the evening. "Time. It do fly," she quipped, mildly startled by the sound of her own voice in the large, unnaturally quiet house. While her hands were clean and dry, she opened the phonograph and carefully re-sheathed the Billie Holiday record; she suspected it wouldn't see further play in her absence. Small minds, she mused.

She turned, bundling the crumb-strewn tablecloth by its corners. As she prepared to shake it out, she pondered how long to let Mel sleep, while at the same time contemplating the merits of simply weaving her arms and legs into and around that lanky frame and drifting off to sleep beside her. There was another, decidedly less pleasant option which consisted of two fingers of whiskey, a good book and her feet up. The sole benefit of this scenario was that it required no explanation to an inquisitive child arriving home unexpectedly.

She opened the back door with the toe of her boot and flung out the linen, shaking it by two corners. Draping it over one arm, she stood in the open doorway, enjoying the smells and sounds carried on the night air -wattles in bloom, and dingoes, and the windmill rods pumping hard in the cool evening breeze. Tossing the tablecloth over the back of a chair, she stepped outside, closing the door behind her. The moon was just peeking over the backbone of the roof, shedding pale light across the yard, onto the bleached rail fence and the crude clothesline strung between the fence and the porch. She recognized her jodhpurs, still heavy with water, hanging limply from the line; in contrast, her white blouse and brassiere greeted her with an obscene wave. She fished inside the blouse's breast pocket with two fingers, seeking the cigar she had earlier secreted there, but came up empty. She muttered an oath and slung the blouse and brassiere over her shoulder just as something slithered, to papery effect, through the tall saw grass just beyond her line of sight; she was not inclined to investigate. Instead, she backpedaled towards the house nonchalantly, affecting a shiver, as if her abrupt departure had more to do with the brisk northerly wind than any creepy crawler, real or imagined.

Inside the house, the temperature had dropped to a cool 65 degrees, only slightly warmer than the air outside. Dropping the blouse and brassiere on the table, she slipped into the familiar warmth of her leather jacket as she left the kitchen to check on Mel. She glanced through the four-inch gap without touching the knob, because the bedroom door had the tendency to squeak. Mel lay facing her, a large pillow crushed to her chest by her long, slim arms. Her lips, slightly parted, breathed softly into the linen. A corner of the pillow lay trapped between the mattress and one exposed thigh. Janice's knees went weak; she had never wanted to be a pillow so badly in all her life. Down, girl. Turning to leave, she gave the luscious vision one last glance. Think baseball, baseball!

In the living room, she took a moment to peruse the rather impressive library Jack Greenway had amassed over the years - Hemingway, W.B. Yeats, Cervantes, Mark Twain -literary luminaries sandwiched between lesser-known local authors. She squinted at the spines on a set of technical digests, sounding out the titles aloud. "Secrets of Night Bass Fishing...Fly Casting and How to Tie Them...How to Land a Trophy Fish." She sighed heavily. Makes sense. What else would a land-locked man do but dream of fish? In the end, she selected Death in the Afternoon and adjourned to the glider on the verandah. She poured herself a drink, crossed her ankles atop a low wicker table and opened the book, flipping past the acknowledgments. But the whiskey, Hemingway's laconic writing style and 30 hours without sleep all combined with predictable effect. She surrendered to sleep before the first bull was bloodied.

Mel found her there sometime later, recumbent on the glider, the book tented open on her chest and an empty tumbler dangling precariously from her slackening fingers. From her place in the open doorway, the tall Southerner watched with a stillness she had forgotten; it occurred to her that Janice appeared younger when asleep. Her normally expressive face was cherubic and unlined, her full lips drawn into a strange little smile that was both innocent and provocative. Mel approached for a closer scrutiny, the bed sheet she had draped over her shoulders for warmth whispering against her bare legs as she walked. She rescued the tumbler from certain disaster and carefully extracted the volume of Hemingway, glancing at the title before laying it aside. Janice lay ripe for the picking. Sleeping Beauty. Once the analogy was in her head, Mel had no choice but to content herself with a single kiss, feather-light upon warm lips which fell open like the petals of a rose.

"Nice," Janice murmured, without opening her eyes. "But just one?"

"You were asleep," Mel retorted. "Give me credit for a little restraint." She pulled the sheet close around her and withdrew until her back was against a cool support post. "Pleasant dreams?"

"Very." Affecting nonchalance, Janice folded her trembling hands in her lap, but she could do little to calm the wild beating of her heart. Content to indulge in what seemed to be mutual appreciation, pale green eyes moved over an impressive physique every bit deserving of such patient scrutiny. The bed sheet, pale against Mel's pale skin, alternately clinging or draping at the whim of the wind, gave her the appearance of a living Greek sculpture. And it was all hers for the asking, once she found her voice. "You must be cold in that," she managed at last.

"Just the opposite." Mel relaxed her grip, and the sheet slipped down to reveal a bare shoulder. She dropped her voice an octave, drawing the slow, sensual tones from her throat like a weapon. "I'm very warm."

There was a hint of delicious friction as Janice uncrossed her ankles and stood. Over the noise of her blood, she heard herself say, "You look like you're feeling better."

"I'm sober as a judge, if that's what you mean," Mel replied. A small smile turned up the corners of her lips. "I'm not drunk, and you're not dreamin'...although I could pinch you if you like."

Janice raised an eyebrow. "Maybe later."

"Are you glued to that chair?" Janice erupted in a chuckle of nervous laughter that Mel found endearing. "What's the matter? More afraid of peace than war?"

"What would you like me to do, Mel?" Ohh, there's a loaded question.

"This is a seduction, Dr. Covington." Mel opened her fist and the sheet slid from her shoulders - over the soft roundness of her hips and the bared violin curve of her waist - until she was standing before Janice, nude. "Use your imagination."

Janice cut the space between them without delay, pinning Mel roughly against the clapboards of the house. Immersing her hands in loose raven tresses, she crushed Mel's lips to her own in a bruising kiss. She felt hands at her face, on her breasts, in what seemed a frenzied grope; while her own hands roamed, mapping the landscape of her lover's body -- peaks and valleys that stirred beneath her touch. Her left hand skimmed the flat plane of an abdomen, stroked the silky, damp nest of curls below, and drew one long forefinger through the wetness before coming to rest on a high, hard nub of flesh.

"Oh..." Mel's body froze at a peak. "There..." she murmured against Janice's neck. "...right...there....oh...ohmy..." she groaned. She used the pleasure pulsing through her body in waves to fuel her own exploration, trading skin for leather as she worked the jacket from Janice's body. "One of us..." she gasped, "...is over-dressed."

Janice answered the complaint with a deep kiss as she shucked off the jacket, flinging it carelessly aside in the rush to maintain crucial momentum. Tangled in Mel's grasping arms, she was groping for the buttons on her slacks when the howl of a dingo filtered through the blood pounding in her ears. "Jeez...that sounded close."

"Just a dingo..." Mel muttered breathlessly as she pushed the khakis down over Janice's hips. She seized handfuls of the white blouse, impatiently bypassing the buttons, choosing instead to ruck the material up and over her lover's head, exposing ample, round breasts. "Oh, God," she crooned, "I love your body." She was sure she growled

as she fell upon the deliciously swelling flesh, ringing the aureola inside her warm, wet lips while her tongue danced unseen over an erect nipple. Janice's groan of satisfaction was unmistakable. "So perfect..." Mel murmured as she peppered the washboard stomach with tiny, nipping kisses, and swirled her tongue in and around Janice's navel.

Accomplishing all of this while standing was awkward; even in bare feet she towered a full six inches above Janice's head. She scanned the plank floor at her feet for obstructions and was preparing to take their lovemaking to an entirely new level when she felt Janice stiffen in her arms. Mel's voice was a mixture of dread and disbelief. "Janice Covington, don't you dare! Not yet...not without me!"

Janice was too preoccupied to be offended. She dipped and hitched up her slacks. "We can't do this, Mel...not here."

"Why? Are you cold? C'mere," she coaxed. Her hands cupped Janice's backside, drawing their bodies together once more. "Lemme warm you..."

Janice reluctantly peeled herself away. "I swear, Mel, you've got more arms than Vishnu! Have you forgotten about Alice?"

"Alice." Mel shivered, the sweat on her body beginning to cool in the night air.

"Yeah. Thirteen, bright but impressionable? That Alice." Janice squinted into the surrounding blackness. "What if she were to come home and walk up on this...this anatomy lesson?! Have you thought about that?"

Mel crossed her arms and, grinning, replied, "Not once." She secretly wished for her glasses; the shock on Janice's face was no doubt, priceless.

"Where's my shirt? Criminy, Mel...put something on, will ya? You're distracting me!"

"Relax, Janice," Mel cooed, plucking the rumpled white blouse from a wattle branch. "It's just you and me."

Janice snatched the blouse from Mel's extended fingertips. "Thank you!" she snapped. "You know, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were enjoying this."

Mel retorted, "I was, up until a minute ago."

Janice narrowed her eyes and sputtered, "You know what I'm talking about. God dammit, where're the buttons on this thing!?"

Mel suppressed a giggle. "You have it on inside out. May I just say one teensy tiny little thing?"

Janice dropped her hands to her side and exhaled wearily. "What?"

There was a moment of anticipatory silence before Mel announced, "Alice is staying the night with her friend. We have the house to ourselves."

"Oh." Janice shifted where she stood; there was nothing worse than a thoroughly wasted tantrum. "You knew that all along, but you let me get dressed again?"

Mel approached her in a sensuous stroll. "Only because it's such fun undressin' you. Now," she said. "Why don't we see if we can't find a way to re-direct all that misplaced energy of yours?" She drew Janice closer with one hand while the other skimmed a bare midriff on its way south.

Janice captured Mel's lips with her own as fingers moved against her pleasantly aching flesh. As her hips rose to the caress of a skillful hand, she sucked in her breath, absolutely light-headed with pleasure. "Oh, God, Mel...that curls my toes..."

Mel responded by wiggling her thumb. "I have many skills."

Janice shuddered and sighed, "How f-fortunate for me," as she surrendered to gravity.

Chapter 11

In the close, palpable silence of a stranger's bedroom, Janice was primed to notice everything -- from the sweet, almost narcotic fog that hung in the air to the heat radiating from her body, reflecting off of Mel's as they lay tangled in the large bed. She felt good...good from the navel out in all directions. She knew there was a goofy contented smile on her face and the knowledge came as a revelation to her. She could count her pre-Mel sexual experiences on one hand -- two brief flings and one serious year-long relationship that ended badly -- a hundred or so sticky, passionate fumblings and never once the fuzzy-warm payoff of afterglow. She had written it off as romanticized claptrap...until she met Mel. Is that all it takes? The right person? Some small fraction of her suspected that the answer could not be reduced to something as fundamental as chemistry. Like all truly good things, love did not require close scrutiny. It simply was.

She lay quietly for some time, admiring her lover's profile and absently fingering feather-light swirls upon Mel's exposed skin while their intertwined bodies gathered moonlight. She had never felt more vulnerable than she did at this moment, lying in the arms of the one person capable of breaking her. She was visibly moved. An angel...I'm in love with an angel. "I deserve this," she said aloud.

"Hmm...wha'?" Mel responded groggily.

Smoothing sweat-dampened hair, Janice whispered, "Shh, go back to sleep."

Mel nuzzled Janice's neck, gazing up with sleep-heavy lids. "I don't wanna miss anythin'."

"Believe me, sweetheart," replied Janice. "There's nothing I could do alone that wouldn't be more fun with you. You warm enough?"

"Ummm." Mel smiled against the hollow of Janice's neck and curved an arm around her waist. "I had a real good time tonight."

"Me, too." Janice kissed a crown of dark hair and gathered her close. "Yep," she sighed. "This must be heaven."

"Until sunrise anyway," replied Mel. She wasn't by nature a clock watcher, but minutes and hours had never seemed so valuable as they did tonight. "What time do you s'pose it is?"

"Don't know, don't care," replied Janice airily.

Mel sat up quickly, as if stung; the blanket pooled unnoticed around her waist. "And it doesn't bother you that we only have a few short hours left together?"

Janice propped herself up on one elbow. "Mel, honey, the sun is going to rise tomorrow. No amount of wishing will change that. I simply choose not to dwell on the inevitable."

"Cynic," quipped Mel, groping for her glasses on the bedside table.

"Realist. There's a difference." She swung her feet to the floor and stood.

Mel caught her by the wrist. "Now I've gone and chased you outta bed."

"Oh, heart," Janice retorted. "You could never do that. However," she said, reaching for the dressing gown at the foot of the bed. "I do have to visit the little archaeologist's room."

Mel's lips curved in a playful line. "Oh, all right, if nature calls..." She watched as Janice thrust one arm into the flowing sleeve of the gown. "No. Don't," she said, capturing the hem of the garment in her fist. A smoldering gaze lingered over sculpted abs and firm, pert breasts. "It'd be like throwin' a tarp over a Da Vinci."

Janice lifted her eyebrows. "Mel, it's cold in here."

Mel migrated to the spot left warm by Janice's body and replied pointedly, "But it's warm in bed."

"I can't argue with that kind of logic." Janice stepped out of the gown. "Be right back."

Mel pushed the glasses up on her nose and said, "Besides, this way I get to see those two cute little dimples on your backside."

Janice scowled and looked over her shoulder. "The woman's a sucker for dimples. Who knew?"

"I love everythin' about your body," she purred, her voice dissolving into a slow, hypnotic drawl. "I could be a lifetime memorizing every curve and swell." Her finger traced a sizzling path to Janice's hip. "...every little scar and mole -- " Janice cleared her throat and raised one eyebrow in a dramatic gesture. "Beauty mark!" Mel amended with a sly smile. "Every little beauty mark."

"You are so good for my ego," laughed Janice. She knelt on the bed and met warm, parted lips halfway -- quick peck flowered into passionate kiss. Mel's hands worked in concert, one at the small of her back, pulling her inward, the other groping a full, sensitive breast until Janice groaned audibly into Mel's mouth. "Wait wait wait..." she gasped and pulled away with a feral grin. Blowing a breath between her lips she said, "Hold that thought."

Mel reclined into a cluster of pillows and pursed her lips in an audible pout. "Hurry back," she cooed as her hands curved provocatively beneath her breasts. "I'm missin' you already."

Janice was momentarily transfixed, her mouth watered -- but her bladder made a convincing argument. She held up a finger and looked Mel seriously in the eye. "One minute." She turned, navigating the moonlit room with unseemly haste. At the dresser, she caught sight of her featureless profile in the dark mirror; she gave Mel's hazy silhouette a considering look as if something had only this minute registered. "Da Vinci, huh? Well, at least you didn't say Picasso. What would I do with a third breast anyway?"

"More importantly: what would I do with it?" quipped Mel. She folded her glasses with care and laid them on the nightstand. "The light switch is just there on your left." There was an audible click before soft light illuminated the cul du sac and spilled into the bedroom proper. Mel laced her fingers behind her head and stared at the ceiling dappled with shadows and water stains. "How's it goin' in there? Need any help?" She inquired facetiously.

"No, thank you. I've been doing this alone since I was 2."

Over the flush of the toilet Mel quipped, "You didn't tell me you were a prodigy!"

Janice glowered at Mel as she soaped and rinsed her hands. "Oh, I'm gifted, darlin'." She tossed the towel over her shoulder and snapped off the light, groping her way to the bed, bunging her toes into the dresser only once -- "Gotdammittohell!" - before sliding beneath the blanket Mel opened for her. Sucking a breath between her teeth, she growled, "Stupid place for a dresser anyway..."

"Poor baby," crooned Mel; she lowered her voice a notch. "Let me kiss it and make it all better." She suckled on the soft hollow at the base of Janice's ear eliciting a groan of satisfaction. "You don't mind if I start at the top and work my way down now, do you?"

Janice closed her eyes, arching her throat into the kiss and replied, "As long as we both get there, sweetheart."

"Oh, don't you worry about ole Mel," she purred, straddling one of Janice's powerful thighs. "Now...where was I? Oh yes...beauty marks..." She drew her index finger beneath Janice's ribs, sending a shiver across the taut muscles. "Janice...what's this scar here? I don't 'member this."

Janice replied without opening her eyes. "I was 10...pitched right over the handlebars of my bike." Warm lips drew a cool, burning line across her skin. "Have you seen my appendectomy scar?" she quipped.

Mel traced the livid pink scar with her tongue before planting a kiss in the well of Janice's navel with the admonition, "You should be kinder to your body." Janice merely clucked her tongue and shrugged while Mel continued her macabre inventory. Long fingers gently skimmed the starburst-shaped scar where the neck and collarbone joined. "This is new."

"Gunshot, three months ago in Istanbul," Janice replied lightly, even as she began to flex and release the muscles of her thighs. "Never step between a man and the woman he's battering without first checking him for weapons. That's a little piece of advice from me to you."

"Ohhh, Janice," Mel's face was a strange combination of fear and regret and desire.

"I wish I had been there for you. Does it hurt much?"

"Let's not talk about pain," Janice replied. "Tonight is about pleasure." Her own breath quickened as Mel rocked, head thrown back, full lips parted in shameless ecstasy. "You're so beautiful," she murmured. Mel's knee, so advantageously placed, struck gold. She grasped Mel's hips as her own began to roll and sway in time with her lover. "Mine. My own flawless Mel..." she whispered as her heart clenched in joyful empathy.

"What?" Mel slowed her rhythm, breathing shallowly through her mouth as she tried to focus on the face beneath her. "Did you say somethin'?"

"Oh, God, Mel...whatever you do, don't stop!" Her heart hammered in her chest while the rhythm of their bodies slowed to a steady, less frenetic, ultimately less satisfying pace. She discovered, to her grief, that she could think...but only just. "Now -- what is it?"

Mel narrowed her eyes. "Did you just call me 'flawless'?"

Janice reached up, touching Mel's glistening face with a barely contained smile. "You got a problem with that?"

Mel stopped all motion, screwing her face into a scowl. "You need glasses more than I do. What do you call this?" She laid a finger atop her right breast.

Janice squeezed her eyes shut and pounded her forehead with her free hand. "Wait! Don't tell me. I know this one!"

Mel groaned and slapped her playfully across the cheek. "No, silly...look closer."

With little effort, Janice rolled Mel onto her back, straddling her sleek torso while pinning her arms above her head. "Well, looky there..." She made a show of examining the circular birthmark above what was otherwise a perfect breast. "How'd I ever miss that?"

At the first touch of a warm, wet tongue, Mel stretched and groaned, weaving her fingers into Janice's as first one breast, then the other was suckled upon until the nipples were aching peaks. She could feel the comforting weight of her lover's breasts, heavy and aroused against her ribcage, and the unparalleled warmth of her center as it married with her own. Articulate thought was the first casualty. "...so wet...fer me..."

"For you..." Janice bit an erect nipple, slavered her tongue around it. "Because of you. Now, may I finish what you started?" Green eyes met blue in a serious gaze as she transferred Mel's grasp to the spindles on the headboard. "Don't you let go," she warned in a low, throaty voice, her fingernails grazing the insides of long, supple arms. "The minute you let go...I stop."

The threat was implicit in word and tone. Mel licked her lips, trapping a corner of flesh between her teeth. Lips and tongue, white hot against glistening pale skin, murmured little endearments as they made lazy but determined progress down the length of her quivering, eager body. Legs parted, enveloping Janice's retreating form in a heady, fragrant embrace until her ankles crossed at the small of her back, drawing Janice into a needy union of flesh and teeth and tongue. At the first stroke, the master stroke - broad and rough and achingly slow - her hips left the bed in an instinctive spasm. Prickly, breath-snatching sensations, like tiny heart attacks, radiated outward from her groin. She screwed her eyes shut, in delicious agony. Hands, damp with sweat, closed into tight fists, wringing discordant squeaks from the wooden spindles of the headboard as Janice began her work in earnest, with a reverence generally reserved for prayer - the body as a temple. Minutes later, gathering breath for a scream, Mel's body arched like a bow under the expert ministrations of a devoted worshiper.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Make way! Hot, hot!" Emerging from the house, Janice moved briskly across the verandah clad only in one of Jack Greenway's voluminous shirts, balancing a thick slab of buttered sourdough bread atop the mug of hot tea. "Your tea."

Seated on the glider, Mel wordlessly opened the heavy blanket with one hand while accepting the proffered mug with the other. She was careful to hold the brimming hot liquid away from her as her partner situated herself against the warm niche of her hip. Once the glider had settled to a near standstill, she cooled her tea with a breath before taking a sip.

Janice bit into the slab of bread she had cut for herself and observed Mel over its glistening surface; the blue eyes that returned her gaze were casually expectant. "Wha'?" she asked, her teeth sunk into the cottony-soft bread. She chewed and swallowed hurriedly in an effort to expedite the conversation. "Something wrong with your tea?"

"I can't believe you actually bit me." Mel sipped her tea through a tight grimace and tried to sound angry as she said, "You're insatiable," but the phrase came across as more a compliment than an indictment.

"I barely broke the skin," Janice argued, pausing to lick a dollop of sweet butter from her fingers. "It didn't even bleed."

"Still an' all, you bit me."

"Hey, you could've let go at any time, remember? Now who's insatiable?" Janice tucked her bare feet beneath her like a bird, commandeering a little more of the blanket for herself. "I think I sprained my tongue, if that'll make you feel any better."

Mel looked horror-stricken for a moment as a thought struck her. "What if it scars?"

"It won't," countered Janice in breezy counterpoint.

"But if it does..." Mel persisted. "I mean, how does one explain bite marks there..."

Janice pulled away slightly, until she could no longer feel skin touching skin. "Why would you have to explain? C'mon, Mel," she coaxed playfully. "Think fast."

Equal to the challenge, Mel fired back, "My family doctor might ask."

Janice laughed. "Good answer." She popped the last morsel of bread into her mouth and, chewing thoughtfully, leaned into Mel, filling the hollows of her exquisite body like two spoons in a drawer. They sat in companionable silence for the next few minutes as the quarter moon descended below the foothills, briefly backlighting a stand of bare gum trees, their gnarled branches outstretched in an eerie, questing embrace. With the retreat of the moon, the breeze freshened, whispering through the tops of the trees. "This is beautiful, Mel." Janice's voice was furtive, as if she were imparting confidential information. "I can see what you love about the country."

"Mmm, but I've learned one thing in the last twelve hours..."

Janice snuggled closer, drawing her knees up and over Mel's thigh. "And that is?"

Encouraged by proximity and opportunity, Mel kissed her and replied, "That even the most breathtakin' panorama can be improved upon." Under the blanket, one hand absently caressed the sensitive skin behind Janice's knees. "Must be after two o'clock..."

Janice touched Mel's hand where it lay exposed, clasping the blanket closed around them. "Don't think about the time, Mel, no watches or clocks here. We have hours yet..." She threaded an arm around Mel's waist and felt her shiver. "Cold?"

Mel burrowed closer into her lover, until they exchanged breaths. "Maybe a little."

"Let's go inside." Janice set her feet on the ground, feeling the cool night air against her legs. "I can start a fire."

As Janice stood, Mel grabbed the dangling shirt tail and pulled her back into the fold of blanket. "Why don't you stay right here and start a fire?"

"Oh. Oh, I can do that, too."

* * * * * * * * * *

Janice awoke to find the sun coming over the horizon, washing the landscape in rich hues of sienna and gold. The horses in the paddock pawed the hard-packed earth and whinnied for their oats. A cloud of green finches wheeled with military precision in the translucent sky before lighting in a stand of pale gums to feast on the insects there. Bon appetite, guys. I could stand a little something myself. Two soft-boiled eggs, bacon crisp, hash browns scattered and smothered. Her mouth watered. As a prelude to breakfast, she stretched her arms and flexed her calves, rotated her ankles - minimal isometrics that began her every morning upon waking. Routine for routine's sake. It was the comforting weight upon her chest and the feel of a possessive arm across her middle that set this morning apart.

She drew the blanket over an exposed shoulder and peered intently into Mel's face, waiting for her to wake. Her anticipation was almost painful. She pursed her lips, preparing to blow a cool breath across impossibly long eyelashes when her eyes caught movement at the far end of the verandah. Seated cross-legged atop a weathered coffee table, placidly scratching charcoal on a piece of butcher's paper was Alice.

Chapter 12

Janice's first instinct was to smile and nod, even as her heart was beating wildly against her sternum. "Morning," she said in a whisper.

As hoped, Alice took the cue, adopting a conspiratorial voice as she set her charcoal and paper aside. "Good morning."

Innocent brown eyes observed the possessive lover's clinch, and it occurred to Janice that Alice was either oblivious to the implications, or too tactful to make inquiries. She hoped it was a bit of both. She shifted, careful not to disturb Mel. "Been sitting there long?"

Alice shrugged. "Not very...twenty minutes. You both seemed so peaceful lying there...I didn't want to wake you."

Janice was pleasantly baffled. "You look exhausted...happy, but exhausted."

"Oh, but I had a great time." Alice moved quietly across the verandah to sit in the chair opposite Janice where she elaborated in an enthusiastic whisper. "The blackfellas roasted pig and yams, and we danced 'round this huge fire, and Dinah and I stayed up talking almost the whole night."

Janice squinted into Alice's face. "Is that war paint?"

Alice made a tentative swipe at the dry circle of whitewash on her cheek. "Tribal totems, for Dinah's safe journey. It washes right off." She tilted her head and scanned the length of the glider. "Mel never lets me sleep in the glider overnight. Is it nice?"

Janice restrained her inclination to lie. "I've slept in sarcophagi more comfortable. Why don't you go inside and wash up? I'll dress and make you some kind of breakfast."

Alice stood. "It's already on the stove." One hand closed over the door handle. "I hope you like eggs and fried potatoes."

Janice's stomach growled audibly as a tantalizing aroma reached her nostrils. "Do I smell coffee?"

"Mr. Bonner gave me a quarter kilo of ground djumiya. It's what passes for coffee out here...strong enough to float an iron wedge, or so he said."

"Now there's an appetizing analogy," quipped Janice. "I tell you what: lemme wake Mel, and we'll be in in a few minutes." Alice nodded and disappeared inside the house. Janice listened for the sound of retreating footsteps before waking her companion. "Me...ellll..." she coaxed in a sing song voice. A little more forcefully, she crooned, "Mel, darlin'..." which succeeded in soliciting a murmur and a sleepy smile from her lover. Janice felt the weight of one long leg drape itself across her own, shinnying up her bare thighs while fingers trickled provocatively over her ribcage. She groaned in frustration. Be strong, Janice. "Mel," she said, raising her voice. "Wake up, the sun is rising."

Mel's eyes fluttered open briefly, "Five minutes..."

"The house is on fire."

Mel simply murmured, "Mmm, tha's nice..." and snuggled closer.

Janice rolled her eyes, shook Mel's shoulder and said sharply, "Mel, wake up. Alice is home."

Mel sat up quickly in the close confines of the glider, causing it to pitch and rock precariously. "Janice Covington," she scolded, narrowing her eyes to slits. "That was cruel." Gathering the blanket around her, Mel extracted herself from Janice's arms and stood, wiping the sleep from her eyes. "You definitely have a mean streak in you."

Uncovered and left to shiver in the chill morning air, Janice replied, "I thought we established that fact last night." She launched herself from the glider and squinted through the screen door just as Alice disappeared into the kitchen. The aroma of strong coffee wafted through the house, battering down her defenses. She shivered and wheeled where she stood. "Mel, you know I love you, but I gotta say that the attempt to break this to you gently is running neck and neck with my desire for a cup of coffee."

Mel opened her mouth to respond, preparing an acid retort, and instead tasted seasoned potatoes on her tongue. "You're really not jokin'." She took two quick strides to Janice's side and then was very still for a moment, separating the ambient sounds of nature from the clamor of activity in the kitchen. "How much did she see?"

By way of response, Janice picked up the charcoal drawing, an accurate, if primitive, rendering of the two lovers as observed by a third party. Shit. With some trepidation, she showed it to Mel. "What's that old saying? A picture's worth a thousand words?"

Mel's blue eyes went doe-eyed wide. "Oh my Jeezus..." she murmured.

"I dunno..." Janice regarded the drawing at an angle, as if considering a Picasso. "I think it's kinda sweet. Look there, she caught you perfectly."

Mel hissed indignantly, "I am so glad you find all of this amusin', Janice. You can afford to, after all...you're gonna get in that plane and take off, outta her life..." She hitched the blanket around her as it began to slip from her shoulders. "I, however, am committed to life under the same roof for just a while longer. What am I supposed to say to her?"

"Mel, relax." Janice put her hands on Mel's shoulders and steered her from the door. "I talked to her and -"

"You talked to her?" Mel was incredulous. "You talked to her over my sleepin' body?" she hissed. "Could you be any more casual?"

Janice clapped a hand across Mel's mouth and lowered her voice. "If you'd shut up for two seconds, I'm trying to say I talked to her and she seemed fine with everything. She's only 13 years old, Mel. She goes to a Catholic school, for Pete's sake." She peeled her hand away by degrees. "How much do you think she knows?"


"I didn't know anything at 13, and I went to Catholic schools," Janice retorted.

"Hardly a ringin' endorsement." Mel stepped to the door and peeked in. After a moment of consideration, she said, "I should go talk to her...say somethin'."

Janice put her hand on the doorknob. "I agree, but you might want to dress first," she quipped. She opened the door and pushed Mel, by the small of the back, over the threshold. Hugging the periphery of the room, prepared to make a mad dash if necessary, the pair proceeded down the hallway, breathing a sigh of relief only when the bedroom door closed and locked behind them. "Piece of cake," Janice said as she slid a pair of trousers over her hips.

Mel stepped into her dressing gown, tying it tightly around her waist as she gave her full length reflection a disapproving glance in the mirror. She felt a hand on her arm and turned to see Janice's worried face. "I don't have a clue what to say to her."

Janice touched Mel's face, a tender gesture as she imparted battlefield strategies. "Be honest, but brief. Answer direct questions, but don't volunteer any information."

There was a barely concealed glimmer of disapproval in Mel's eyes as she quipped, "Name, rank and serial number?"

Janice gave her a peck on the lips. "You catch on fast. No wonder I love you."

Mel laughed soundlessly and unlocked the bedroom door, turning back to look at Janice before leaving. "Any last words of advice?"

"Yeah," Janice replied sternly. "Smile. They can smell fear."

Chapter 13

"They can smell fear," Mel echoed as she made her way down the hall. At the kitchen door she stopped one hand flat against the smooth wood grain. She breathed deeply - in through the nose, out through the mouth - and entered the room with all the enthusiasm of a woman facing summary execution. Alice was at the stove, her back to the door as she fussed with the contents of a heavy iron skillet. Mel was grateful for the opportunity to pat the perspiration from her face before speaking. "Somethin' smells good," she said, laboring for nonchalance, though the smile that met Alice's gaze came without effort. "Good mornin'."

"Good morning." Alice gave the sizzling potatoes a cursory stir with a spatula. "Made 'em just the way you like 'em: sliced thin, fried crisp and plenty of onions. There's coffee, too. Have a seat. I'll get you a cup."

Though her mind was elsewhere, Mel's stomach voiced unmistakable approval. "I should be making you breakfast," she said, taking a chair at the table, content to be waited upon as it gave her the opportunity to fold Janice's freshly-washed blouse and brassiere into discreet packages. No doubt Janice was waiting on both items . . . sitting on the bed, half-dressed, vibrating with nervous energy. God above! You are so easily distracted, Melinda! Focus! She looked up as Alice approached with a cup and saucer. "You must be tired."

Alice shrugged. "I am a bit, I expect. I'll have a lay down after brekkie." As she hefted the kettle from the stove, she remarked that the coffee had been a gift from Neville Bonner. "--and I 'membered how you like your coffee." She set a cup on the table and filled it with a liquid so black it did not reflect light.

Mel wrinkled her nose at the contents of her cup, but managed an enthusiastic retort. "Well, it just smells wonderful. Thank you for thinkin' of me." Although she abhorred presumption as a rule, Mel poured liberally from the cream pitcher before tasting the coffee; the sludge in her cup swallowed the light with no discernable change in its own ebony complexion. "Fascinatin'," she muttered, reaching for the sugar bowl.

"Isn't Janice coming to breakfast?" Alice asked.

"When she's dressed." Mel spooned a third helping of coarse ground sugar into her cup. Keenly aware of Alice's scrutiny, she took a tentative sip; her lips puckered and pulled back simultaneously. "It's . . . interestin'," she said, struggling for a suitable word. "I've never had coffee with body before."

The response, meant to discourage, had the opposite effect. "Can I have a cup?"

Mel smiled. "I suppose it's useless to deny you anythin' at this point." Alice retrieved a cup from the cupboard and enthusiastically hefted the coffee kettle. "Half a cup," Mel cautioned. "...the rest milk, and then come and sit with me." She indicated a chair at the table. "I think we need to talk."

Alice furrowed her brow. "Talk about what?"

Mel patted the seat of the vacant chair. "Come and sit. I promise I'm not angry with you." With some trepidation, Alice took her cup and sat at the table. "Fix your coffee," Mel said, with a nod to the cream and sugar. Three heaping teaspoons of sugar and all of the remaining cream went into the effort to make Neville Bonner's coffee palatable, with little success if Alice's sour expression was any indication. "Strong stuff."

Alice nodded and pushed the cup from her. "What did you want to talk about, Mel?"

Mel pursed her lips and said, "I saw the drawin' you left on the verandah."

Alice's first instincts were defensive. "Honestly, I didn't mean to spy, Mel. I just -"

Mel reached across the table and covered Alice's hands with her own. "No, no . . . it's lovely. I think you're a wonderful artist."

Alice's voice conveyed surprise. "You're not angry then?"

"Well, I'd like to have had somethin' to say about the time and place, but no, I'm not angry. I am concerned, though . . . about you." Alice's brows came together in a dubious line. "I realize that what you saw between Janice and I may have left you feelin' a little . . . confused." Mel crossed her legs beneath the table. "I want you to know that I'm here to answer any questions you might have."

Alice wet her lips and met Mel's gaze. "Any questions?"

Gulp. "Within reason." Mel laced her fingers around her coffee mug and lifted her brows slightly to indicate her receptiveness. "Fire at will."

Alice leaned forward against the table and dropped her voice as she met Mel's eyes. "Are you still going to marry my dad?"

Quickly, like pulling out a splinter. "No," replied Mel, careful to return Alice's steady gaze with mutual, unblinking honesty. "There's someone else in my life. When your daddy returns home on leave next month, I intend to tell him."

"Good," Alice interjected briskly. "Because I have to say that if you weren't going to talk to him, I would've done. After all, he's not here to look after his own interests. No offense intended, Mel."

"None taken," replied Mel as she drummed her fingers against the hot porcelain cup.

"Do you mind if I ask why you don't love my dad? I mean, he's a good bloke, hardworking and a good father."

"I think I have seen enough of your father to echo those sentiments, Alice. The best that can be said of him is that he deserves a wife capable of loving him without reserve and in all honesty, I'm not that woman." She thought she saw a fleeting glimpse of regret on the child's face, though it may have been a trick of the early morning light. Mel looked thoughtfully into her coffee cup before speaking. "My nana always said that the wrong things aren't supposed to last."

Alice cocked her head, committing the epigram to memory, as she did most things. "You're in love with Janice." It was a simple statement of fact made poignant by the absence of rejection and contempt.

Mel had been prepared to defend her life choices, as she always had. Instead, she sat across the table from the very face of acceptance given physical form, and she was emboldened by the revelation. "Yes," she replied, the admission humming on an air of expectancy.

Alice nodded and fidgeted with the frayed ends of the table cloth. "It's more than just being the best of mates, isn't it?"

"I know this must be very difficult for you to understand, Alice; sometimes I have trouble understandin' it myself. I've spent the last 28 years livin' to please other people . . . one third of my life worryin' about what other people thought of me."

Delicately, but with conviction, Alice said, "I think you turned out all right, Mel."

"I'm glad you think so, too," replied Mel. Alice met her eyes briefly before turning her gaze toward the floor, actions Mel interpreted as anxious precursors to some momentous disclosure or question. "S'okay," she said quietly. "You can say anythin' to me."

Alice looked up, her face alight with genuine curiosity. "How do you know who to love?"

Mel scratched her head; the question was both naive and insightful. "That's a very good question, and I would be lyin' to you if I said I knew the answer. But the truth is -- where love is concerned, we adults make a dozen false starts in our lifetime . . . We succumb to peer pressure, we seek to please others and we are vulnerable to suggestion . . . Mistakes get made along the way."

"Like my mum and dad. Mum says they got married for all the wrong reasons."

Mel reserved comment. "I should just hold my tongue. I'm probably just confusin' you more."

Alice shook her head vigorously. "No, Mel. I understand. You're saying 'look carefully', don't be swayed by the opinions of others . . . and be true to myself."

Mel looked dumbfounded. "I said all that?" Momentarily, she reached across the table and touched Alice's hair. "You have an exceptional head on your shoulders, but use your heart, too. One of my old archeology professors once told me that it's possible to recognize somethin' by its absence . . . like a puzzle missin' one piece . . . you know the shape of what should be there, even if you don't know what color it is."

"Like Janice," elaborated Alice, grasping the parallel between intellect and intuition. "Your puzzle piece."

"Yes, just like that," Mel replied simply. "Promise me you won't ever settle for less than your heart's desire."

"I promise." Alice's smile faded as a thought occurred to her. "Will Janice be staying on?"

"No, I'm afraid not. She's returning to the dig site today. I think that's for the best . . . considerin'. Don't you?"

Alice replied, "I dunno. I think she and Dad would get on fine."

Oh, you are soooo young. "That might be a little too much to hope for," quipped Mel.

Again, there was a noncommittal shrug. "Guess so. This is really awful stuff," Alice said, indicating the coffee. "Is it all right if I chuck it?"

Mel intoned playfully, "Wasteful, wasteful . . . " She made a face at the black sludge in her own cup and then pushed it across the table by her fingertips. "I won't tell if you won't." As Alice rose, a cup in each hand, Mel asked, "Any other questions?" Alice responded with a brisk shake of her head, but Mel was doubtful. "Nothin'? You're sure?" Mel sighed in relief, and she wondered briefly if this registered on her face. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm hungry," she proclaimed aloud to Alice's retreating form. She gathered the small bundle of clothing to her and stood. "Why don't you dish up breakfast, and I'll see what's keepin' Janice?"

Alice nodded and began to clear the cluttered sink before drawing back her hand with the speed of one who is snake bit. "Hell's teeth!"

Mel wheeled at the profanity and found Alice standing at the sink, clutching one bleeding hand in the other; all thoughts of a reprimand vanished at the sight. Moving faster than she had all year, she bolted for the sink, leaving Janice's clothing on the floor where she had dropped it. "What did you do?" she exclaimed, observing the injury. Since there was too much blood to make an accurate assessment, she turned the spigot to a steady stream and tested the water temperature. "Here, put'cher hand under here."

Alice grimaced, squeezing her eyes shut as the tepid water washed over her hand. "All I did was reach into the sink to clear the dishes and . . . ssssshitthathurts!"

That's two. Mel would later credit a recessive mother gene with the compulsion to keep tabs on the use of profanity; she stored the information the same way a squirrel stores nuts. "Hurts like the blazes, doesn't it?" She dipped into the bloody water, moved aside the soaking roast pan and cautiously groped beneath it until she came away with a six inch, razor sharp French carving knife which she displayed briefly for Alice. "That's the last time we let Janice do the dishes." She laid the knife out of harm's way and shut off the running water. "Okay, lemme see." She cradled the injured hand in her own, squinting as a livid crimson line welled across the width of Alice's palm. Although the wound was fairly shallow, it bled profusely. "I know it's a lot of blood, but it looks worse than it is. Open and close your hand for me."

Alice complied, flexing the muscles cautiously, biting back the urge to curse, but there were tears in her voice as she asked, "You think it's all right?"

Mel marveled at Alice's glistening cheeks, and the brown eyes swimming with the first tears she had seen Alice cry. "Oh, sweetie," she crooned, wiping the tears away with the balls of her thumb. "I think it could've been much worse." She gingerly patted at the wound with a dry dish towel before wrapping it twice around the hand. "You look like you're about t' faint." She took Alice by the elbow and steered her toward the kitchen table. "Keep pressure on it, like this…" She pressed her fingers into the heavily bandaged palm and with her free hand pulled another chair close until she and Alice were knee to knee. "How does it feel?"

Alice sniffed. "It's throbbing." She shook her head and laughed self-consciously through her tears. "I feel like a great wally, grabbing a knife like that."

"Oh, like you're the only person ever to do somethin' careless." Mel tugged Alice's chin between her thumb and forefinger. "Keep the hand elevated and you'll be just fine, sweetie. Now, I want you to sit here for a few minutes and meditate on your surprising grasp of profanities while I scrounge around for somethin' to put on that."

A beat, followed by the quiet accusation: "You called me 'sweetie'."

There was a tiny prickle of fear at the base of Mel's spine; had she overstepped her bounds? She smoothed her dressing gown against her thighs and prepared for the backlash. "It just slipped out. Does it bother you?"

Alice wiped her tears against the back of her hand and looked at her feet. After a moment, she muttered, "My mum only ever calls me by my name."

Mel's mouth quivered; there was something decidedly mournful about Alice's disclosure. "It's a nice name . . . Alice."

When Alice looked up, there were fresh tears in her eyes. "I like it when you call me 'sweetie', Mel." Blue eyes met brown in perfect understanding. "You'd've made a good mother."

Mel cupped the girl's face in one hand and smiled. "You would've made it a joy."

Chapter 14

It began with paper thin slices of veal, slathered with spicy mustard and stacked between two pieces of sourdough. "It's not enough," Mel said aloud as she cut the sandwich in half, in effect creating two sandwiches. Still not enough. She wrapped each half separately in waxed paper and placed them in a paper sack, atop a wedge of sharp cheddar. Rooting through the icebox, her fingers closed around the last apple -- mealy but pleasantly tart; that, too, was consigned to the bag. Folding the sack closed, she murmured, "Woman is all appetite."

She wiped her hands on the apron tied loosely about her waist and studied the sack as if it were a sculpture, a work in progress. For all its contents, it was empty. There's a metaphor in there somewhere . . . Turning again to the icebox, she stared absently into its depths -- at the half-empty milk bottle -- an optimist would have called it half full -- and the bundle of leeks, beyond the anonymous waxed parcels backlit by a cold white light. Squinting into the middle shelf, she muttered, "Eggseggseggs…" She gathered three large brown eggs delicately in her hand, knocking a fourth from the bowl to the shelf, where it wobbled past an obstacle course of condiments before plummeting to the hardwood floor. A suicide, Mel mused, studying the glossy yellow pearls on the toes of her shoes. "Well, isn't that a fine mess."

Some minutes later, she left the eggs to boil atop the stove while she adjourned to the bedroom. The curtains were drawn, diffusing the morning sun and casting the room in a vague light that seemed to suit her dour mood. She stood in the doorway for some time, overwhelmed by the scene, noting the appearance and position of every article of discarded clothing or linen -- the bed sheet she had draped upon her body to such mutually satisfying effect, the voluminous white shirt that she knew, even now, would smell of Janice. She left both articles untouched where they had fallen and flicked on a small lamp, preferring its anemic illumination to the full frontal assault of the sun; she simply wasn't ready to view the room in daylight.

Janice's battered leather satchel lay open atop the unmade bed. She hefted the bag with an appreciation for how lightly her partner traveled: a toothbrush, trousers, a fountain pen and notebook, the latter plump and frayed, bound by single, fat elastic. The essentials. She wondered how a woman with such apparently simple needs could be so complex. It was that contrast -- the fine line between needs and desires -- that served to make Janice so appealing. She shook herself from the reverie occasioned by the weight of the bag in her hand and turned, avoiding the mirror because she didn't want a confrontation.

Stripping the blanket from the bed, she balled it up and pitched it into the corner, then grasped handfuls of the fitted sheet and pulled. It was warm work; despite the hour, the stifling heat was beginning to bleed through the walls and the panes of glass. By the time she had consigned two pale pillow cases to the pile of linens, there was a fine dew of perspiration on her face and arms. She exhaled audibly through her mouth and gathered the linens in a loose ball, dabbing her face absently with the corner of one sheet. Perhaps what happened next was automatic, certainly self-indulgent, if for no other reason in that no one was watching. She closed her eyes and brought the bundle to her face, stirring up olfactory ghosts -- salt and smoke, sweat and sex. Something primal in her could separate those elements of herself from everything that was Janice. More evocative than each of them individually was their essence as a couple...of what they did and who they were when in one another's arms; she could taste it on her tongue. In the heat of the room, she shivered and clutched the bundle more closely to her, reluctant to dismiss such a palpable rush too quickly.

This . . . was it. She would have to be content with memories, at least until she and Janice were reunited. Hot tears welled in her eyes. Strange, she thought, to be missing someone who had yet to leave. She dropped down onto the bare mattress, the sheets in her lap, hating that part of her which was unable to deal with loss. Naturally, she would not expire from the grief of a temporary separation. Janice had survived it, after all. Janice. In between heartbeats, she had an epiphany: I did this to her ... to Janice.

The cruel clarity of hindsight helped to paint a mental picture of Janice, distraught and abandoned, reading and re-reading the note she had left on the bedside table. Her throat constricted. Fear and pain rose in her like waves. She loosed a strangled cry of anguish before burying her face in the bundle where she sobbed for a full five minutes, unabated and inconsolable. When she pulled up, sniffling, her blue eyes wide, it was not because her tears were spent -- she had quarts in reserve. She had stopped, shutting them down as quickly as one might flick a switch, because of The Sound . . . a low rumble humming through the ground, up through the bedroom floor into the soles of her feet, then rising to a high-pitched whine so powerful it rattled the panes of glass in the windows. It took her muddled mind a second to identify the source, but once the message had made its way from her ears to her brain, she was on her feet in an instant.

She skidded to a stop on the verandah, spitting gravel and red dust beneath her feet as the screen door slammed unnoticed behind her. With her heart in her throat, she grasped the railing and watched as the Electra's spinning propellers rifled the saw grass on either side of the makeshift runway. "Janice!" The double tap on her shoulder was calculated for effect. Mel spun, hand over her heart, to find Janice leaning against the clapboards of the house, a sly smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Mel narrowed her eyes and opened her mouth to speak but realized the futility of words while the Electra held the monopoly on sound.

Janice winked and gazed beyond Mel's shoulder to a target in the cockpit window. She drew a finger across her throat -- momentarily, the engines died and the props chuffed to a halt. "It's nice to know you can really move when you're motivated. I was beginning to have my doubts."

"You -- are evil!" Mel accused, but it came away sounding complimentary. She watched Alice clamber nimbly out of the cockpit hatch. "I suppose you put her up to this."

Janice folded her arms across her chest. "Would it surprise you to know it was her idea?"

"She didn't have a cruel bone in her body before you showed up." Mel turned to the Electra, her body tense, her hands white knuckled at her sides. "Alice, mind your step gettin' outta there!"

Janice joined her partner at the top of the stairs. Perhaps it was a matter of proximity, or simply the profound connection they shared, but she could feel the energy coming off Mel in waves. It was the same provocative pheromone that had driven her to distraction last night -- the same, and yet different. She needed distance if she was to think clearly. "'nother hot one," she drawled, fanning the fedora past her face in large, lazy strokes. "Yup. Pur-ga-torial." She tipped back on her boot heels until her shoulder blades met a support post. This is better...just inane chatter and diesel fuel now...nothing to excite a body... Yeah, right. She scrutinized Mel's profile as lit by the sun; she had been crying. Janice was certain of that. The lips she had kissed time and again were the palest pink, parted and trembling... Tears had washed the color from her face and the blue from her eyes. Janice had the irresistible urge to touch, as if doing so could commit to memory this exquisite tintype brought to life. Extending her hand, she said, "You've been crying."

Mel's jaw bunched beneath Janice's touch and, tight-lipped, she responded without taking her eyes from Alice. "We have an audience..."

"So..." Janice let her arm fall naturally to her side, as if breaking contact were her idea. "Hiya, kiddo," she hailed brightly as Alice joined them. "You did good."

Alice's face lit up with pride. "Aww, it was beaut!" she said breathlessly. "I can't imagine anything better than flying! When I cranked that engine and closed my eyes, feeling all that power humming beneath me...I was almost light-headed...like I was cruising at 10,000 feet!"

"Oxygen deprivation," quipped Mel, finding her voice. "Can you really afford to lose any more brain cells? Lemme see your hand."

"It's fine, Mel," argued Alice with a sigh. She mounted the steps and thrust her injured hand in Mel's face. "See?"

Mel examined the grimy bandage, clucking her tongue in disappointment. "I told you to try and keep this clean," she admonished, putting her hands on her hips. "What am I gonna do with you?"

Janice nudged Alice in the ribs. "She's only asking because she doesn't have a clue." The three of them laughed for a moment, until, one by one, they peeled off to an awkward silence.

It was Alice who broke the silence, wrinkling her nose with the inquiry, "Is something burning?"

Mel's eyes widened. "Ohmigosh, the eggs! Alice, be a lamb and take them off the stove, will you?"

Replying with a confident, "Right, no problem, Mel," Alice stepped between them and made straight for the kitchen.

"I'll say it again," said Janice, her sharp green eyes following Alice's retreat. "Good kid."

Mel made a noise of assent and bowed her head, gazing at a knothole in the plank floor. She had left her glasses inside, beside the kitchen sink, but she didn't need them to know that she, too, was an object of interest. "You must be anxious to get back to the dig."

The corner of Janice's mouth twitched. It wasn't often that the right answer and the tactful answer were one and the same; this would be no exception. "Anxious, no. Obliged, yes. There are people depending on me for their paychecks."

"I guess," replied Mel as she traced the knothole's pattern with the toe of her shoe.

Janice hooked her thumbs into her trouser pockets, drumming her fingers absently on her thighs as she struggled for a retort. "Professor Moffat's expecting a detailed inventory by Tuesday next."

"That soon?" Mel moved her gaze to Janice's face, a paler reflection of her own misery.

"I'll need every spare minute to catalogue and pack the artifacts. If my luck holds, I should be back in Darwin no later than the 15th...Speaking of which..." She groped the pockets of her jacket, finally producing a battered business card. "This is the number of the hotel in Darwin where I'm staying..."

Mel turned the card over in her hand and squinted at the spiky script. "The Drake?"

"It's a dive," Janice elaborated wryly. "But the sheets are clean. Just call the front desk and ask for --"

"No phone." Mel held the card between her middle and index fingers. "Jack doesn't believe in them. And the radio's only got a range of a couple hundred miles."

Janice closed Mel's fingers around the card with the directive, "So? Shoot up a flare or send out a carrier pigeon..." She leaned in close and lowered her voice. "Think of me...I'll be here with bells on."

Won't you be awfully chilly? It was a pat response, coy, yet witty, and she'd almost said it aloud, so familiar were the rhythms of their conversation. Standing close enough to feel Janice's breath on her face, Mel was surprised at the effort it took to form a serious retort. "Don't you think it might be better if I came to you?" Even without her glasses, Mel could see Janice take a step back and set her jaw. "This isn't about logistics, you know. It's Jack." Mel paused, using the time to collect her thoughts. She walked the length of the verandah, settling comfortably into the glider before speaking. "He's been good to me, Janice."

Janice checked a molar with her tongue. "I know."

"He deserves better than --"

"A Dear John letter?" Sweet Mother of God, where did that come from? Janice stole a sideways glance at Mel, who regarded her with wide and wounded eyes. In the resulting silence, it was clear that each woman had made a conscious decision not to dwell on the remark. "I'd better make one last sweep of the house...Don't wanna forget anything." Without waiting for Mel to reply, Janice turned and disappeared into the house.

Chapter 15

Janice stood in the doorway, leather satchel swinging gently against her thigh as she scanned the spacious bedroom. It was a perfunctory act; she had everything. But having lingered noticeably longer in the house than it took to gather her possessions, the most she might be accused of was procrastination, which, she conceded, beat the hell out of cowardice. At last, she took a step backward into the hall, pulling the bedroom door shut behind her, leaving only memories in her wake.

She met Alice in the living room as the teen emerged from the kitchen with a small crate cradled between her good hand and her hip. "Got everything?"

Janice shrugged. "I'm leaving with more than I had when I arrived, so yeah, I'd say I have everything. Whatcha got there?"

Alice rested the crate on the back of the sofa and took inventory. Beside a bulging, but otherwise nondescript paper bag was the obvious. "Jug of fresh water; I saw that yours was bone dry."

"Thanks, kid. This for me, too?" Janice dropped the satchel at her feet and inspected the contents of the paper sack with a raised eyebrow and an appreciative whistle. "Holy Toledo...an apple, hard boiled eggs, cheese...I see all the food groups are represented. Did you do all this?"

Alice shook her head. "Mel. I expect she wants to make sure you don't go hungry."

"I expect," Janice echoed as she watched Alice juggle the crate with her uninjured hand. "Want me to take that?"

"Aw, no, I'm good." As she fell into step behind Janice, Alice said, "I wish you could stay on a bit longer. We hardly had a chance to talk at all."

Janice held the door open with the toe of her boot. "There'll be other opportunities."

"You mean it? You'll be back?"

Between roaming glances for the absent Mel, Janice tactfully replied, "I mean, you haven't seen the last of me." Her vantage point on the top step of the verandah afforded her an uninterrupted 180 degree view of the station and the surrounding bush, but her ability to see was hampered by the dazzling morning sun as it bounced off the Electra's gleaming fuselage. "You see Mel anywhere?"

Alice shaded her eyes with her free hand and squinted into the sun. "I see feet," she announced triumphantly. "On the other side of the plane..." She preceded Janice down the steps. "A dollar says she's plotting how to sabotage your departure."

"You'd lose your money, kid," Janice countered, fishing in her trouser pockets. "There's not a wicked bone in her body, trust me." She squinted at the broad face on her watch and glowered in disapproval. There were hundreds of miles to be covered on the return flight to the dig site and every minute she delayed left the Electra to bake in the sun. During her pre-flight check an hour earlier, the thermometer inside the cockpit had registered 87. Eighty seven degrees before 9AM...somewhere in the world, that's a crime. She pocketed the watch just as Mel emerged from around the nose of the aircraft. Acknowledging Mel's appearance with a smile, she struggled for something clever to say. "There you are." Covington, you wit, you!

Mel ducked beneath the wing, sliding her hand, palm side up to remind herself just how little room there was between her head and potential injury. "I've just been havin' a look around your airplane. It's bigger than I thought at first." She frowned at her dirty fingertips. "And dirtier."

Janice set her jaw and quipped gently, "The maid doesn't come until Wednesday." She popped the fuselage door with some effort and lifted her satchel.

"That's a door," Mel announced, gesturing with her chin. "If you've got a door, why do you come and go from the cockpit?"

"The cargo hatch doesn't lock from the inside; you have to fight with it a little." Using a handhold built into the fuselage, Janice pulled herself onto the wing. "Alice, wanna get the chocks for me?" Wordlessly, Alice lifted the crate up to Janice and scrambled to unwedge the chocks. "I had a peek inside," Janice said, referring to the sack lunch. "Thank you. You didn't have to do that."

"I couldn't send you off to God-knows-where without somethin' to put in your stomach." Mel loosened another button on her blouse and pulled the material away from her damp skin with a rapid, fluttery motion. "If there was any way I could keep you here..."

"...you would. I know." Janice leaned as far into the cockpit as she was able to without losing her footing and let the supply crate drop to the floor with a noisy clatter.

"To tell you the truth," Mel began coyly, "I did entertain wicked thoughts of puncturin' your tires." Janice reacted with genuine surprise, which prompted a further confession. "Or maybe puttin' a little sugar in your gas tank..."

Janice squatted in the wing valley to look Mel in the eye. "Sweet thought." She stole a kiss, catching Mel on the corner of the mouth. "And out here, it's called petrol...not gas." As Alice approached from the rear of the craft, Janice stepped onto the grounds of Coolinga Station for what was probably the last time. "Everything secure?"

"You're all set," replied Alice, stowing the chocks in the fuselage. She struggled with the door, putting weight behind her shoulder and irritation into her voice. "Close you damned thing!"

"Alice Greenway," Mel cautioned, her hands set on her hips. "Whatever has become of your mouth? Make a sailor blush, I swear..."

"I'm sorry, Mel," replied Alice, genuinely contrite. She moved aside to allow Janice to secure the door. Under Mel's withering gaze, her only recourse was the lame excuse, "It just sort of... slipped out."

"Uh huh." Mel was dubious. The look she shot Janice was rife with reproach.

"Hey, don't look at me." Janice surreptitiously put a dollar bill into Alice's hand. "You were right by the way."

Alice enjoyed a conspiratorial wink at Mel's expense and stuffed the ill-gotten gains into a pocket. "Oh, strewth, almost forgot. I've got something for you, Janice."

"You didn't have to do that, kid," retorted Janice, though she was obviously moved.

"Well, it's not much...but I have to get it...inside..." Alice backed towards the house, scrubbing her hands on the backside of her dungarees. "I might be a few minutes..." she allowed pointedly before turning on her heel for the house.

"Now what was all that about?" asked Mel.

"What was all what about?" Janice echoed innocently. "Excuse me," she said, easing Mel out of the way as she ran practiced hands over and around the port flaps, feeling for debris that might impede their function.

"Money changed hands...any particular reason?"

"My, my, my...you are nosy," said Janice as she withdrew from the business of pre-flight checks. With deliberation, she plucked a handkerchief from her back pocket and wiped her hands. "Look, Mel, since the kid was thoughtful enough to give us a few minutes to ourselves, don't you think the time would be better spent -"

"Sayin' goodbye." Mel was surprised at how much the words hurt. "I can't let you go, Janice...without first telling you how much I wish you would stay."

With a cautious glance towards the house, Janice took Mel by the hand and tugged her beneath the Electra's wing until they stood in its shade, out of the sun and away from curious eyes. "Mel, don't you know it's killing me to leave you here?"

"I know, I know," said Mel, blinking back tears. "I'm bein' unreasonable."

"And I love you for it. The truth is the only way I can go is knowing that you'll follow me." Janice looked seriously into her lover's eyes. "You will follow me...right?"

Mel's smile was automatic, as was the hand which stroked Janice's cheek. "I'll arrange passage on a mail run to Darwin; as soon as I've squared things away with Jack, I'll join you there."

Swiping the hat from her head, Janice leaned blissfully into Mel's caress. "Kiss me, Mel...make me a believer..." The fedora dropped unnoticed to the ground.

"Well, twist m'arm why don'tcha?" Cradling Janice's face in her hands, Mel kissed her with thorough expertise. In response, possessive arms circled her waist, drawing her closer. She settled against the trim, compact body with a murmur of contentment. In such close proximity, she was acutely conscious of fragrance, of the taste and texture of lips as they glided over hers and the little sounds of pleasure as their tongues dueled. It was, Mel decided, a torturous sampling of the million nuances that made up the woman. She was keenly aware that when the kiss ended, they would have to part. It was incentive enough to linger in the embrace, to trace salty lips with her tongue, to impart tender pecks at the corners of a provocative smile. She could have died happy in that moment.

As it was, it was Janice's selfish need for air which broke the spell. She surfaced to catch her breath. Clasping Mel's hands in her own, she confessed, "I'm gonna miss you."

Mel blushed warmly and retorted, "No you won't. You'll be busy with the dig and --"

"Mel --" Janice won the argument with a simple gesture of trust and affection; she placed one of Mel's hands inside her blouse, over her heart. "Do you feel that?"

Mel nodded as the warm pulse beat a frenetic tattoo beneath her palm. "Beatin' like a trip hammer," she replied, her voice softly marveling.

"You do that to me, Mel. It's not something a girl forgets."

"Why Janice Covington, beneath that leather jacket beats the heart of a romantic."

"Yeah, well, there are rumors of a bard somewhere in my ancestry." Janice plucked her hat from the ground and rapped it soundly against her thigh, stirring the dust from its brim. "What kind of person would I be if I couldn't call on that gift when my own words failed me?"

Mel laughed. "Oh, well, that's profound."

Janice slipped out of her leather jacket and cast her eyes upward in mock piety. "I'm a deep person. Wear your waders." The report of the screen door as it slammed shut was so well timed it might have been calculated for effect. Had Janice not been reasonably certain that she and Mel could not be seen from the house, she might have called Alice on the carpet for spying. As it was, she had given them a generous five minutes together. It went without saying that neither woman had had enough time to say all that was on her mind. "Here she comes," she said, as the girl came tripping down the verandah steps with an item in each hand. Slinging her jacket over one shoulder, Janice advised, "Put on your party face, doll."

"You're so glib," quipped Mel, marshaling her public facade. "Teach me that."

"Another time." Conjuring up just the right note of enthusiasm, Janice greeted the approaching teen. "Hey, kiddo, I was beginning to think you weren't gonna turn out for the Big Goodbye scene."

"Oh, no," countered Alice, tucking a nondescript flat parcel beneath her arm. She thrust a hardbound volume at Janice. "This might be my only opportunity to get your autograph." She proffered a fountain pen. "Would you mind?"

Janice passed Mel her jacket and accepted the book. "The Xena Scrolls," she intoned. "No doubt plucked from its place of honor beneath the uneven sofa leg, eh?" She opened the book and flipped past the copyright and the acknowledgements to a page bearing the simple dedication: For Harry Covington. As the pen hovered above the paper, she looked at Alice from beneath the brim of her hat. "My first autograph."

Mel grinned and quipped, "Now that's not exactly true."

"Parking tickets don't count," replied Janice good-naturedly as she committed her signature to paper with short, economical strokes. She chased the wet ink across the page with a warm breath before returning the book with the self-deprecating remark, "There you go. Be the envy of all your friends."

Mel inspected the familiar spiky scrawl with a grin. "You do realize, Alice, that this will prob'ly bring down the value of the book?"

Alice chuckled, her eyes moving possessively over the signature on the page. "I'll take my chances." She closed the book and reached for the parcel beneath her arm. "Now, I have something for you." A sandwich of cardboard and paper filled the space between the grinning teenager and Janice.

Gaulle's Premium Bond. Mel recognized the sketchpad as one of three she had purchased as a birthday gift for Alice the previous month; she made an educated guess regarding the contents. Assumptions aside, she held her breath as Janice lifted the flimsy cover to reveal the portrait which lay beneath rendered in raven black, stark white and muted shades of gray.

"Wow," whispered Janice. She had, of course, seen the drawing before, but conceded that she had been too startled and preoccupied at the time to see it as anything more than evidence. Her opinion then had been tainted by guilt and, if she were to be honest with herself, fear. Her eyes ranged across the page, studying the two subjects, appreciating the nuances created by a sharp eye and a talented hand. She was, more than anything else, profoundly grateful that the moment had been captured...frozen in time...not by the unforgiving eye of the camera, but with those same qualities reflected in the artist -maturity, affection...and innocence. She looked from the drawing to Alice and the delicate timbre of her voice surprised her. "This is swell, kid...I mean it. This is really something. I thought you didn't do people."

"Well, I don't normally. I'm not very good at them," replied Alice with a shrug.

"That's not true at all. I think it's a wonderful gift," interjected Mel. "You've got real talent."

"I had good subjects. You take it, Janice. I want you to have it."

"I will, but only if you'll sign it." Janice tilted the sketchpad and returned the pen. "Please."

Alice hesitated just a moment before uncapping the pen to scratch her signature across the bottom of the page. "Who knows? Maybe it'll be worth something some day."

Janice tweaked Alice's earlobe affectionately. "It's priceless now." Alice reddened at the compliment.

Mel slid an arm around Alice's shoulders and gave her an affectionate squeeze. "She blushes beautifully, don't you think?"

"Aw, Mel."

Tucking the sketchpad beneath her arm, Janice exhaled. "Well...I suppose I can't put this off any longer."

Mel's smile dissolved into a tremulous line. "So soon?"

Janice swept a strand of hair behind her ear and manufactured an air of bravado she didn't feel in the least. "Mel, you give new meaning to the word procrastination." She watched as tears made determined progress down finely-sculpted cheekbones. Under a third party's scrutiny, Janice could not permit her gaze to linger; it was with barely-disguised regret that she shifted her eyes from Mel to Alice and rummaged through her emotions for a smile. "Hug or a handshake?"

Alice extended her hand, determined to preserve the mood of composure and restraint; she hunted for just the right parting remark. Thumping the leather bound, newly-autographed first edition of The Xena Scrolls: Myth into History, she said, "I can't wait for the sequel."

Janice laughed. "You and me both, kid. Take care of yourself now. I expect big things from you."

Without further word, Alice smiled and backed away, clutching the book to her chest. From a distance, she watched Mel and Janice embrace briefly, exchange a few words...regrets and promises, or so she assumed; she had no burning desire to know the exact dialogue. As she mounted the verandah steps and wrapped her arm around a fat support post, she knew that, like any great film worth its salt, this story could be powerfully told in pictures alone. Janice's face, though partially obscured by the brim of her hat, was carefully set --shining eyes and a grim smile. Her thumbs were hooked into her belt, her feet set apart --like a derrick --for stability. She was totally unreadable, except for the effect her presence had upon Mel, whose back was to her. Despite that, Alice had no trouble interpreting her posture --arms clutching Janice's leather jacket to her chest, head dipping just slightly as her shoulders hitched. Crying. Love hurts, she decided. That was her first conclusion. It hurts, but people do it anyway. She made an audible sound of amazement. Until today she had only her parents as points of reference --two lonely, grasping people who expressed their love for her at the top of their lungs, in mile high letters while sniping at one another from behind barricades of anger and recrimination. She was a prize to be won, and though their love for her was genuine, it was also somehow...selfish.

Love, the way she saw it now, drawn in shades of discretion and restraint, was the whisper drowning out the scream, and the profound silences that follow a lingering touch. Love was the world writ small, two persons standing toe to toe in their last minutes together, scrambling for words as they endured a blistering sun...and an inquisitive audience. She dropped her gaze to the ground, suddenly more ashamed than curious. An ant crawled across the toe of her boot and she felt about that small.

"She still watchin'?"

Janice glanced surreptitiously over Mel's shoulder. "She's going into the house. She's curious, Mel; you can't blame her."

"All the same..." Mel lowered her head until her chin touched her chest. "I'll talk to her later...after..."

Janice shifted from one foot to the other. "Well, there can't be any 'after' if I don't leave so..." She laid a hand on Mel's arm.

Mel looked down at the fingers curled around her arm -tanned and strong and only as possessive as she needed them to be at any given moment. "Janice, I...I just..." She choked back a sob; she had no words to describe her churning emotions. Sometimes, she lamented, the English language is a futile, clumsy encumbrance.

Standing in the shadow of Mel's distress, Janice conceded that few things spoke more eloquently than profound silence. "Don't cry, Mel," she said quietly, diverting the tears with a strategic caress. "If I can't be around to kiss them away, they'll only go to waste." She tucked the flat of her thumb between her lips, savoring the suggestion of salt. "Now, I really gotta go." Her fingers curled around the collar of her jacket as it was crushed against Mel's chest and her voice was sweetly persuasive. "Mel, honey...my jacket?"

"Oh. Sorry." Mel looked down at her hands, empty and trembling. "What am I gonna do when you're gone?"

Janice slung the jacket over her shoulder, where she held it by two fingers. "You'll hardly miss me."

"Only every minute of every day," Mel retorted.

"I love you. Now, go get out of the sun. Have one of those awful beers and think cool, pleasant thoughts."

Mel squeezed Janice's fingers. "I'll think of you," she replied earnestly.

Janice loosed her grasp on Mel's hand and backed away a half dozen paces while her gaze remained fixed on her partner's face. "I'll see you in a few weeks."

Mel nodded, hands splayed on her hips as she turned towards the house. "Of course!"

Of course. Janice threaded her fingers through the metal handhold in the Electra's fuselage and pulled herself aboard the broad expanse of wing. She flung her jacket through the open hatch, then took careful aim and let the sketchpad drop dead center of the pilot's seat where it fell open. The nagging, brutal truth that had been gnawing at her subconscious since awakening that morning rode upon a wave of hot, rank air rising from the cockpit interior. She felt a self-indulgent tide of anger swell in her chest. Standing with her arms braced against the hatch, her eyes fixed on the simple drawing, she felt more than heat, more than unwell...she felt... Betrayed. Even as the word rumbled around inside her head, she felt sick. Oh, God, Janice...you're almost outta here...a clean getaway...Leave it be!

Going in search of Mel had been a pride-swallowing experience, but until this very moment, she had not acknowledged the depth of her humiliation. She blinked the sweat from her eyes. Blood hummed in her ears like static and although she was vaguely aware of Mel calling her name, she did not feel inclined to respond immediately. She swiped the hat from her head and dragged her forearm angrily across her eyes, over her brow, blotting sweat and tears alike; they were chemically similar. Both had bite. If she was going to live with herself, she knew she couldn't climb into that cockpit without first biting back.

"Janice, is somethin' the matter?"

Janice turned slowly, with deliberation to find Mel regarding her with polite confusion; she hadn't even heard her approach. She leaned against the fuselage, her hip to the searing metal - the discomfort was just enough to keep her grounded and focused in the face of confrontation. Wordlessly, she walked the wing valley and perched on the edge where the trim was rounded over and most sturdy. Fanning her hat across her face, she regarded her lover with a gaze as remote as the moon.

Finding herself on the receiving end of a particularly unnerving stare, Mel's fingers grazed Janice's boot, enveloping the slim but sturdy ankle in an anxious grip. After an interminable silence spent searching Janice's face with mild concern, she trolled for a response. "Y'alright?"

Tenting the fingers of her right hand against the hot steel, Janice vaulted gracefully to the ground. "Since you asked...no." Without offering an immediate explanation, she stuffed her hands into her trouser pockets, turned from Mel's puzzled gaze and walked the length of the wing in silence. She stopped at the wingtip and stood in a dwindling puddle of shade as her eyes sought some intangible target in the distance.

Mel put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. Although she was clearly perplexed by Janice's behavior, she was also obliged to indulge it. After all, the woman had crossed two continents looking for her --at the very least she owed her patience. "Take a moment. We've got nothin' but time," she said as Janice ground her boot heel into the earth as if extinguishing a lit cigar.

Janice studied her boots for a moment longer, aware that she, too, was the object of scrutiny. She could feel Mel's gaze beat down upon her with all the commitment of the rising sun; that kind of love was palpable, unstoppable. At least she hoped so. She dragged hot air over her teeth and deeply into her lungs before turning to speak. "Standing here, looking at you, a lot of things go through my mind." Mel's befuddled smile encouraged her to continue. "I can think of a thousand words to describe how you make me feel at any given moment, but here...right now one word stands out: trust. I don't...I don't trust you, Mel...anymore." There, I said it. God, I said it! Don't think, Janice, just talk. "I know this comes out of the blue, especially after last night, but the truth is, I wanted you back so badly that nothing else mattered -- I had you in my arms --I could put blinders on when it came to the rest."

Over the liquid thud of her heart, Mel stammered, "I hurt you. I know that. I'm so sorry."

Janice covered the distance between them in deliberate strides and laid a finger softly against her lips, she let her tears speak for her. "Don't apologize," said Janice, her voice taking on the flat, impersonal qualities of emotional self-preservation. She watched in mute fascination as tears again welled in Mel's eyes, reflecting her own miserable countenance in limpid pools briefly before a combination of surplus and gravity sent them cascading down the peaks and valleys of that finely chiseled face. "I don't want an apology, Mel," she reiterated, letting her hand drop to her side. "What I want is your word that it won't happen again. You ripped my heart from my chest once...and for a long time it was all I could do to haul my butt out of bed on a daily basis."

Mel swiped at the tears dribbling down her cheeks as she held Janice's stare fearlessly. "What can I say to you when my word is no longer good enough?"

Janice held up her hands defensively. "All I'm saying is that I would rather part here on my own terms than wake up one morning -- a month, or six months, or a year from now to find your side of the bed empty. I couldn't live through a repeat performance."

"I deserved that." Mel pinched the bridge of her nose, gazing at Janice as clearly as her astigmatism would permit. "If I am a lifetime rebuilding your trust in me, I have no one but myself to blame. But I swear to you, on my daddy's head that I will be there, Janice."

In counterpoint to her wildly beating heart, Janice's face was a carefully subdued mask. "Alright." She exhaled, leaving suggestions of doubt and bitterness to linger in the air between them. "Don't disappoint me, Mel. If you do, you'll regret it...not because I'll come looking for you..." She settled the fedora deeper on her head. "...but because I won't."

"I will never again put you in that position, Janice," Mel said, her voice resonant with obligation and resolve.

Janice narrowed her eyes and the little smile that touched her lips was almost wistful. "I want to believe you, Mel."

"And I want to be believed." Mel smiled, her blue eyes crinkling amiably at the corners. "Where the two flow together you fish, right?"

Suppressing a laugh, Janice scratched behind her ear. "Well, it's a good place to start anyway." Love may not make the world go 'round, she thought, but it sure as hell puts a spin on things. After a moment's hesitation, she hooked her thumb over her shoulder. "Look, I'd better be going."

Mel drummed her fingers along her hips. "No more bombs to drop?"

Janice could sense that she was only half-kidding and retorted with a cautious wink. "It's early yet." Without further delay, she pulled herself aboard the wing.

"I'm not gonna say 'goodbye'," Mel called from the ground. When Janice turned to face her she said, "I'm gonna say see you soon."

"And I am gonna hold you to that." She climbed aboard the hatch, legs dangling in the sweltering heat of the cockpit while the superheated fuselage bled aggressively through the seat of her pants; there would be no unnecessary lingering. "Stand back now, Mel."

Mel stepped clear of the plane, shading her eyes with one hand as she searched for Janice's face in the sun. "I love you!" she called.

As Janice turned for the pre-requisite last glance, all of the cool resolve she had worked so hard to sustain melted away in a fond glance. "I'm counting on it!" She tossed a wave over her shoulder and slipped into the cockpit, mindful of the truth spread open at her feet. She closed and locked the hatch behind her and hung her jacket over the back of the co-pilot's chair. She propped the opened sketchpad in the seat, according it a place of prominence where its beauty could be savored and its promise anticipated.

The warm pilot's seat felt strangely agreeable as it molded itself to the backs of her thighs and the small of her back, cradling her in its pliable leather embrace. She mashed her thumb down repeatedly on the fuel line to prime the engines. With the key in the ignition she turned on the master switch and the engines coughed to life on the first attempt. I must be livin' right. She drew her lap belt taut, opened the throttle and checked her peripherals -starboard and port -as the Electra began to trundle down the runway. For a fleeting moment, Mel's figure, poised on the verandah, filled the frame of the port window -hands on her hips, midnight hair trailing in the Electra's prop wash. It was a memory as indelible as any photograph.

Three weeks. It would be a lifetime.

The End

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