"Just like that?!" Alice was incredulous, unwilling to believe that a mere few second's distraction could have such dire repercussions. "But I only took my eyes away for a second!" Those same eyes swept over the busy instrument panel where the gauges registered zero across the board: zero altitude, zero speed. She exhaled with force, collapsing like a rag doll against the steering column, her brow shiny with sweat. Momentarily she felt a hand on her shoulder and without looking up, she knew Janice was crouched beside her. "Five seconds... five, tops..." she muttered and her shoulder received a sympathetic squeeze. At last, she looked up and regarded Janice with genuine regret. "I killed us."
"Yup," was the minimal reply. Janice stood, tucking the cigar between her teeth before adding wistfully, "Such a waste. I was so young."
Alice threw up her hands in frustration and sat back so forcefully that the co-pilot's seat groaned in protest. Wetting her lips, she stared hard at the unslaked earth beyond the co-pilot's window, earth that a few seconds earlier she had regarded as the Electra's undoing. As her heartbeat slowed to normal, she marveled at the combined effect of Janice's powers of suggestion and her own vivid imagination. She looked at the perspiration pooled in the creases of her palms. It had seemed so real. Re-running the scenario in her mind, options that might've spared the Electra and her passengers sprang to mind and she was visibly eager to put them to the test. "Okay, Janice, I think I know what I did wrong before."
"Oh, you do."
"Can we take her up again?" Alice ventured. "This time for real. Just once around the field?"
Janice loosed a hoot. "I told you: Mel would have my head." She hefted the satchel and slung it over her shoulder. "Come on, I need a bath. I'm starting to offend myself." To her surprise, her pronouncement was accepted without argument or complaint and by the time she had boosted Alice through the hatch, the conversation had shifted from Electras to the blurry orange sun beating down on them with ferocious commitment. "Is this what the locals call a fair cow of a day?"
"It's only spring, Janice," replied Alice, as her rear made contact with the super-heated metal skin of the Electra. "The real heat hasn't even begun yet."
Janice rolled her eyes. "Swell." Stepping on the arm of the pilot's seat, she passed the satchel through the hatch into Alice's waiting hands. "Careful with that," she cautioned. "Precious cargo in there."
"I've got it," replied Alice. She slid down the fuselage to stand on the wing. She heard someone call her name from ground level and had to shield her eyes to make out two silhouettes framed in the sun. "Dinah?"
The smaller of the two figures stepped forward, into the shadow cast by one of the Electra's massive wings. "G'day, Alice." She smiled, her teeth a white slash in her ebony face. Her features were pinched and tight as she regarded her contemporary and the unfamiliar craft beneath her feet. "This is new. Is it yours?"
Alice squatted on the wing, bringing the satchel to rest at her side. "Wish it were. That your dad with you?" The second Aborigine, clad in wrinkled khakis and a denim shirt opened to the waist, joined Dinah in the welcomed shade of the wing; the ground was cool beneath his bare feet. Alice greeted him with casual respect. "G'day, Mr. Bonner."
Neville Bonner was heavy-browed and broad-nosed; as his large frame suggested, he both spoke and moved with economy. "Alice." He nodded at her, and then his large yellow eyes shifted to Janice as she emerged from the plane.
"Alice, who're you..." Janice froze momentarily, 120 pounds of startled archeologist suspended in the open hatch by her considerable upper body strength. Green eyes, as no-nonsense as a jeweler's scale, moved from daughter to father as his long, ropey arms helped Alice to the ground.
"Janice, this is my friend, Dinah..." Alice put her arm around Dinah, as if to demonstrate the level of their friendship. "And her dad, Neville Bonner. This is Dr. Janice Covington... the Electra's hers."
Janice jumped from the wing unassisted. "G'day, Mr. Bonner." Tribal body paint, visible on his arms and chest, was similar to that adorning the bodies of her Aborigine diggers at Kakadu, hard- working, family-oriented men who kept to themselves. She watched a black fly make lazy progress across Bonner's brow as she struggled to recall the name of the tribe. "Alawirrynu?" she asked.
Neville grinned, displaying teeth that had seen better days. "Gupapygnu."
"I was close," Janice conceded with a self-deprecating grin. "You're a long way from home."
"Not really," Dinah interjected, her eyes narrowing to slits as she scrutinized the young woman in men's clothing. She had only ever met a dozen whites in her young lifetime and she could, without conscience, relegate half of that number to gumafj, the Gupapyg word for abyss, the place you never look back. But she liked Janice at once. "Our home is beyond the billabong...there..." She thrust a dark finger west, in the direction of the merciless sun, but not one of the four spared the locale a glance before she inquired delicately of Alice, "Is your mum about?"
"She's back in Adelaide. She'll be flying up next month to collect me, so you're safe for now," replied Alice with a knowing wink.
"Well, if you'll excuse me..." Janice relieved Alice of her satchel. "I have a date with a bar of soap." Neville, who had been standing nearest her, smiled politely and nodded. "Nice to meet you both." Dinah, whom Janice perceived as garrulous by Aborigine standards, merely grunted and took Alice by the arm; the girls were head to head, immersed in whispered conversation before Janice set foot on the verandah.
The screen door opened with a tortured screech, and closed with the report of a gunshot. Janice's reaction was as ingrained as breathing; she ducked before she could stop herself. "Jesus!" she exclaimed to the empty room.
"The spring's broken," said Mel, fighting the urge to laugh. She stood at the kitchen threshold, holding the door open with the toe of her shoe. There was an apron tied loosely around her waist and her hands were dusted with flour. "You have to let it back gently."
"Thanks for the warning." Janice gave a nervous laugh and approached Mel, stopping halfway across the room, the large leather sofa between them. "You baked bread. I can smell it." Even from this distance, it was more than flour and paprika; on the warm air was the familiar scent of sage...it was an invitation to sweet memories.
"Sourdough," Mel replied simply, displaying her powdered palms. She let the door swing shut behind her, committed to the conversation. "Your favorite."
My favorite. Janice's throat tightened, unwitting accomplice to the foolish grin that was no doubt pasted on her face. The situation begged for a snappy retort. A quick comeback was a damned religious imperative, but her brain wasn't on speaking terms with her tongue. No other person on earth could steal coherent thought from Janice Covington faster than Melinda Pappas...in an apron...with dough on her hands. She made a beautiful thief. "Sourdough." She blinked, as if waking from a coma. "Good." Sourdough good? Covington, you ole smoothy you! She's reduced you to a monosyllabic Neanderthal. Sourdough good. Very slick. She inhaled deeply, glad for the segue occasioned by an unfortunate whiff of herself. "Bathroom?"
"Through there." Mel gestured with her hand, raining flour upon the hardwood floor. "There's towels and soap...water's lukewarm, I'm afraid." She couldn't resist the dig, "You ought not'a dawdled."
Janice smiled unconsciously. "Yes, ma'am." She popped a mock salute, turned on her heel and left Mel to decipher the mood in the room.
Mel's puzzlement and the faint line between her brows faded with the feather-light touch at her elbow. "What...oh, Alice...I didn't hear you come in." She touched the girl's hair and face and smiled with genuine affection just before nag mode kicked in with, "You smell like a stable. Go and wash up for supper."
Alice tossed a glance over her shoulder, to the fragmented silhouettes beyond the screen door, and followed Mel into the kitchen. "Can I help with something?"
"Hands," replied Mel. She gave her own a cursory swipe with the corner of her apron and then used the same corner to grip the oven door. Using a fork, she noted the consistency of the veal and the color of the juices bleeding from the puncture site. "Almost there."
Alice watched her from her place at the sink, hands thrust under the running water as she perfected her approach. "Mel, you remember my friend, Dinah, don't you?"
Mel's head disappeared into the icebox as she rooted around for the butter. "Who?"
"Dinah...you know...you met her last month when her father, Neville came to fix the loo; she's Neville's daughter."
"I think you have made that abundantly clear," replied Mel patiently as she straightened. She set the butter dish on the butcher's block and closed the icebox door, giving Alice her undivided attention. "Now, is this conversation leading up to something or are you just killin' time?"
Alice wiped her hands briefly on a dish towel, but they were still wringing wet as she tossed it aside. "Dinah and Neville are out front. There's a corroboree tonight. I've been invited."
"I see." Mel studied the girl's hopeful face and weighed the options: she had a responsibility to Jack and to Peggy. She had made promises to them both. Alice had been present at that same meeting in September, the day before her father's induction. She had been, in essence, dropped on the doorstep by her mother, bag in hand. Mel remembered that although Peggy Greenway had been cordial and polite, she had never set foot inside the house Jack and Mel shared. Instead she had leaned on her car, one arm draped protectively about her daughter and laid the ground rules out for all parties. She had been especially careful to wring a promise from Mel that Alice would have no intimate contact with the local aborigines whom Peggy believed to be a bad influence on her only child. She, Mel, had begrudgingly agreed to keep the two apart, but she vividly remembered a clandestine wink in Alice's direction as she shook her mother's hand on the deal. She had so wanted to be the good guy in her new role as stepmother. Now, 2000 miles away, Peggy Greenway was calling her bluff. "I made a promise to your mother."
"I remember," replied Alice. "But Mel, this is different."
"How is it different?"
"Dinah's father is sending her to school in Perth. I won't see her again till next break." Alice advanced until she was within touching distance of Mel; she knew the value of passive intimidation. "The corroboree's a going away celebration. It's an honor to be invited." Mel nodded solemnly, feeling slightly claustrophobic. Alice applied a verbal wedge. "It would be an insult to refuse."
"And you were raised better than that, is that it?" Mel asked as she pushed open the kitchen door, Alice hot on her heels. She stopped short of the front door. She could see Dinah and Neville through the screen. As their boundaries had been set years before, both stood near the Electra, talking animatedly between themselves, as if the drama inside the house did not concern them. "The answer is no, Alice." Before Alice could open her mouth in protest, Mel elaborated. "We have company this evening. Imagine how Janice would feel if you abandoned her at the first opportunity."
Alice shifted where she stood, staring holes into Mel's back. "Janice would understand," she replied confidently. "Ask her."
Mel turned at the waist. "This is not a democracy. I am the adult." Sometimes adults make unpopular choices. "You are the child. Now, my mind is made up," she said, wishing her voice sounded more resolute.
Quietly, her voice absent of bitterness, Alice said, "Can I ask why?"
Mel was impressed by the quiet strength in the girl's voice. "Because it's late...because I don't know their character..."
"You know mine," Alice countered levelly.
Mel nodded, tight-lipped. It was a good argument. She felt well and truly caught between Scylla and Charybdis, and it was a trap of her own making. A final guilty glance at the two figures beneath the Electra's wing and she turned again for the kitchen. She stopped briefly, the flat of her hand against the swinging door and without turning, she said, "Go on and give them your regrets, and then come back in and set the table." She stood there, frozen, listening for an angry retort and heard only the indifferent groan of the door as it opened and closed on the meager rapport she had once shared with Alice.
Mel felt a hand between her shoulder blades; it would have been so easy to turn around and melt into what would surely have been a welcomed embrace. "You heard?" The warm hand migrated to her arm, imparting an affirming squeeze. "Oh, Janice...I have just made a horrible mistake."
Janice turned her forcibly until they were face to face; the blue eyes that met hers were clearly troubled. "Nothing that can't be put right again. I mean, who but us is ever gonna know that -"
"I promised her mother I would look after her."
"And you're doing a great job; she's a terrific kid with a good head on her shoulders." Mel was quick to nod agreement and Janice took advantage of that. "Then trust her."
"I want to, but if something were to happen to her -"
"She'll be fine. She's more mature and more responsible than half the adults I know. I won't name names," she said smiling before her lips dissolved into a serious line. "Be her friend, Mel...she's got a mother." Mel's eyes shifted from anxious to wounded, and instantly Janice regretted her tendency to speak every thought on her mind. She had stepped into the middle of a situation where her opinion was not wanted, needed nor welcomed. Worse still, she had offended her host and impugned her parenting skills. Open mouth, insert foot. "Well, I've insulted you. My work here is done," she announced, her cherubic face displaying a devilish grin that was just as likely to hinder as it was to help. She searched Mel's cherished face for signs of forgiveness; the smallest smile would have sent her off to soak with a lighter heart. She turned and walked towards the bedroom door, pulling the shirt tail from her jodhpurs, giving the offended party every opportunity to put her ill-mannered guest at ease. But once she was on the other side of the rough-hewn door, peeling the sticky blouse from her body, she had given up hopes that Mel could forgive her for this breach of etiquette. If she had harbored any doubts that she was welcomed at Coolinga, welcomed back into Mel's life, they had just been confirmed with deafening silence.
Mel had taken up a position at the front door, her nose inches from the screen; on the other side black flies buzzed and knitted their legs against the tightly-woven metal, and beyond the flies, under the searing outback sun, Alice said her farewells to Dinah. She couldn't make out the words, but the gestures hands swiping at tears, a last lingering embrace - spoke volumes. Neville Bonner, his dark face a passive mask, endured in silence the girlish expressions of sadness and regret, but as his daughter dropped her arms to her sides at last, he stepped forward and took Alice by the shoulders. Mel watched as he spoke earnestly to her, gesturing once towards the house before placing his rough, dry lips against her forehead. Mel regretted that her position did not afford her a better view of Alice's face as Dinah moved away, walking backwards in her father's shadow, returning Alice's wave before turning into the sun.
The solitary figure left standing by the plane placed her hands on her hips, her body rising and falling in a long sigh of resignation. She turned and walked towards the house. Mel watched them, the retreating figures of Dinah and her father, and Alice as she approached the door; she was impressed that neither girl turned to look back at the other. She pushed the door open as Alice stepped onto the verandah, aware that she was probably the last person in the world the girl wanted to see at this moment.
"Thanks," Alice murmured as she brushed past Mel on her way to the kitchen.
Thanks? Okay, scan for sarcasm. Nothing. Mel closed the heavy door with care and even before she pushed through the swinging kitchen door, she could hear the clatter of silverware being drawn from drawers.
Alice had spread a good quality lace cloth on the table beneath windows that opened onto a view of the paddock and windmill. As she carefully laid out the silver, the great knife on the outside, fork on the inside debate raged in her head. She had heard Mel enter the room and without looking up she said, "You might want to check your bread."
Mel reacted as if startled. "My bread..." A quick glance inside the oven. "Oh, my..." Using a couple of paper thin pot holders, she carefully moved the baking pan from oven to butcher's block. "I think it's alright," she said, poking the golden crust with a finger. "You just narrowly averted a disaster." Alice conjured up a smile and collected three mismatched plates from the cupboard to Mel's right. As she passed Mel to set the table, she was humming. "Just two place settings, Alice."
Alice turned, the plates flat against her middle. "Am I sent to bed without supper?"
"I don't know what they're servin' at the corroboree," replied Mel quietly, moving the length of the kitchen. "Probably somethin' still wigglin'." She took the plates from Alice's hands and addressed her seriously so there was no misunderstanding. "We'll miss your company at supper."
"You mean it? I can go?" Her face lit up with a jaw-breaking grin. "Rippa!"
Mel held up her hands in an attempt to stem the tide. "Hold your horses now...go splash some water on your face and run a brush through your hair..." She chased Alice from the kitchen into her bedroom, all the while issuing advice and directives. "I declare...you look like a ragamuffin. And you have Mr. Bonner walk you back afterwards. I don't care how late it is. I won't sleep a wink till you're back safe and sound."
"Can't I stay the night?" Alice dragged a brush through her hair, from roots to end. "Since it's Dinah's last night here...I could be home first thing in the morning."
Mel exhaled wearily. "I must have sucker written all over my face. All right," she conceded, jabbing an index finger at Alice's chest. "But you be home bright and early."
Alice tossed the brush onto her cluttered bureau and presented herself for inspection; dusty chambray work shirt, khaki slacks rife with horse hair and sweat. "Look all right?"
Mel knew her opinions didn't matter one way or the other, but she thought it sweet of the girl to ask. "You'll do...better run if you wanna catch up to them."
"Strewth, yes!" Alice barreled out her bedroom door with the enthusiasm of a freshman running back, leaving Mel alone in the room, rooted to the spot by sheer disbelief.
"Not so much as a thank you. Well..." She turned to leave and saw Alice's dirty battered hat, with its sweat-stained kangaroo-hide band lying brim down on the bed. "Honestly," she said, picking it up. "Forget her head if it wasn't attached." She shrugged and caught her reflection in the mirror, breathing genuine surprise into the word, "Sucker."
"Hey, Mel?" Alice's reflection joined her in the mirror. "I -"
"Forgot your hat," Mel finished for her as she settled the hat atop Alice's head, tilting it first to one side, then to the other, then back until it sat jauntily on the crown of her head. "Oh, well, you wear it however you like."
"I wanted to say thank you, Mel." Alice straightened the hat and in the ensuing silence, she could tell that her expression of gratitude had caught Mel off guard. "Those should have been the first words out of my mouth. I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate this, and I promise," she elaborated, her words taking on the weight of a blood oath. "Not one word of this will ever reach my mother's ears."
"Better not," Mel quipped, smiling crookedly. "Or you'll have company in the dog house." She tucked an errant strand of hair beneath Alice's ear and ran her finger the length of a strong jaw; although Pappas family etiquette warranted a larger display of affection, she knew that not everyone was comfortable with such things. "Okay, scoot."
Alice stepped back, eager to be on her way and yet careful not to offend Mel with a too rapid exit. "You're okay, Mel."
Mel laughed. "The most tolerable in a long line of fiancees?"
"The most," Alice agreed, backpedaling from the room before turning and gaining momentum as she plunged through the screen door, heedless of the explosive return as it fell unchecked back to its jamb.
* * * * * * * * * *
CHHH-POK! Janice sat bolt upright, sending a small tidal wave over the side of the tub. She had drifted off in her tepid, wet cocoon only to awaken abruptly to the sound of a gunshot. Oh, Jesus. She's killed her. She put the soap, which had refused to lather in the hard water, back into the soap dish and stood up in the tub, murky water running off her well-toned body in sheets. She wrapped the large bath towel around her and heard the bedroom door open. "Mel?" As there wasn't a shy bone in her body, Janice stepped around the corner and breathed a sigh of relief. "Mel...are you okay? I thought I heard a -"
"The door. Remember?" Mel cast a lingering glance over Janice's exposed body; there was little she hadn't seen - in half light, in Braille in the dark - but this was different. Full afternoon sunlight was cascading through the bedroom windows, bouncing off the damp blonde hair, soaking into the golden skin of her exposed legs and shoulders. Mel tilted her head; she didn't remember that little starburst-shaped scar on Janice's collarbone; it looked new. She had an almost uncontrollable urge to kiss it.
Janice was encouraged to be the subject of such thorough scrutiny and so it took supreme effort to pull the towel tightly around her and tuck a corner into her cleavage. She even managed to conjure up a suitably flustered expression. "Hey, how would you feel if I looked at you that way?"
Flattered. Mel blushed and her eyes instantly found other targets on the floor of the room. "I'm sorry. I just came into..." She bent and gathered a discarded pair of jodhpurs and the grimy white blouse. "...came into collect these. I'm startin' a load of wash."
"Mel, you don't have to do that...matter of fact, I'd prefer it if you left the blouse especially. I don't have a clean one to wear."
"Well, if you think I am going to let you sit down at my supper table in this -" she held the blouse away from her body, out of respect for her nose. " - you have another think comin'." She dipped and snagged the white brassiere, adding that to the pile in her arms.
"Aw, no, not that, too! C'mon, Mel...what am I supposed to do?" She threw up her hands. "Turn up in a towel?"
Mel backed towards the door, a quirky smile on her face. "Well, dinner will be informal."
Janice put her hands on her hips. "Don't tempt me, sweetheart."
Mel moved towards the open bedroom door, turning at the threshold. "I'll find you something to wear. Alice probably has somethin' that'll fit you. Be right back."
Janice plopped down onto the bed and crossed her legs, the towel riding up to mid thigh. "...so help me, she brings me anything with cute little animals on it, I'll be sick," she muttered, her fingers tented open on either side of her, testing the spring of the mattress. She hadn't slept in a bed in five weeks and the clean linens and firm mattress were like a siren's call. She fell lazily backwards, eyes closed, with her hands cradling her head.
That's how Mel found her minutes later. She stood in the doorway, a starched white blouse dangling from the fingers of one hand while those of the other maintained a deathgrip on the doorknob. There was nothing furtive in her observation; Janice need only look up to see her. In the end, it was the idea of those jade green eyes opening and fixing on her own that prompted Mel to slip the clean blouse over the inside doorknob and leave the room.
Padding down the hall, mindful of the sound of her heels on the hardwood floor, she wondered at her attraction to Janice Covington, a woman with a bit of dash and a predilection for hazard. She was a cynical, brilliant archeologist with the gift of keen insight. She was also world weary at twenty-five. The image of Janice, stretched out on her bed, clad only in a towel crept into her mind and she chased it away as counter-productive to her current retrospection. That was her gift, to be able to switch mindsets in milliseconds and to concentrate her intellect on one thing exclusively. She made an audible sound of amusement as she entered the kitchen. Wonder who I got that from?
Her own background consisted of mostly-absentee parents; she had been raised by an affectionate grandmother, with only occasional input from her mother. There had been select boarding schools in the Carolinas and she was an alumni of the college where her father had been dean. Although she was not without intelligence, she had to concede she had traded on the family name and her father's reputation more often than she cared to admit. The name Melvin Pappas, dropped in the right circles, opened doors and minds alike. And after his death on a dig in December of 1939, she had flown to Istanbul at her mother's request to close his affairs. Chief among those duties had been replying to unanswered correspondence. There had been stacks of letters, unopened bills, and a dozen yellowed telegrams, one of which led her to Macedonia where a hail of bullets awaited her. In the end, it had been her father's good name, dropped in the receptive ear of Dr. Janice Covington that led her back to the half-nude vision recumbent on her bed. She didn't know whether to curse her father or to thank him.
She gave the bread a half an hour to rest and used her time well, slicing the veal thin and layering it upon a garishly-painted platter. She ladled new potatoes and au jus over the meat and placed a few sprigs of parsley along the perimeter, hiding the chain of purple daises that bordered the platter. Along with the bread and the fresh green beans she'd prepared, there were black olives and sweetbreads like her mother used to make. It was a great deal of food. She and Alice would be dining on leftovers for a week. She took the platter to the table and lay a small dish of fresh butter beside the bread. After folding the linen napkins in a fan pattern, she swapped the placement of knives and forks and stood back to admire the table. "Well, it's not Delmonico's, but it'll have to do."
"It all looks and smells marvelous, Mel."
Mel jumped, her hand to heart. "Janice...I didn't hear you come in. Did you have a nice nap?"
Janice shrugged and dug her hands into the front pockets of her slacks, feeling decidedly at unease in the borrowed blouse, which fit well about the waist and shoulders, but cut her just slightly across the bust. It gave her a modicum of comfort to know that she couldn't slip effortlessly into the clothes of a thirteen year old girl. "You couldn't resist, could you?"
Mel's eyes jumped from the firm breasts beneath the straining buttons to Janice's face too quickly to disguise what could only be described as honest-to-goodness lust. "Beg pardon?"
Janice fingered the colorful embroidery just above her left breast. Whomever the seamstress was, she had been a true artisan; the words St. Ignatius' School for Young Ladies were plainly visible in Shelley-Volante font-style. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
Mel couldn't suppress a laugh. "Janice, honestly, I never even bothered to look. I chose that one because it's cut large." Janice merely grunted her displeasure and screwed her face into a scowl. "Would you rather it were emblazoned Our Lady of Perpetual Debauchery?"
Janice folded her arms across her chest. "Honestly? Yes." She smiled wryly and in doing so, changed the whole complexion of the conversation. "I suppose it, like your supper table, will have to do."
"You are magnanimous, Dr. Covington. Would you care to be seated?"
Mel held out a chair, indicating that Janice should take what was traditionally the head of the household's seat. The implication was not lost on Janice. "Only two place settings?" she inquired as she pulled the chair up to the table. "Alice not joining us?"
"I sent her on to the party," replied Mel with forced nonchalance as she opened the ice box. "It seemed the thing to do if I wanted to live with myself."
Janice swiveled in the chair and crossed one leg over the other. "Was she being difficult?"
"Just the opposite," came the muffled reply as Mel groped about in the dark ice box. "She was civil and mature." She poked her head above the door and narrowed her eyes at Janice. "You know how that grates on me."
"She's got you here, Mel," chided Janice, displaying an upturned pinky finger. "Admit it."
"I knew I could count on you to be sympathetic and understandin'. Remind me again why I asked you to supper?"
Janice's gaze was level and serious. "Maybe you missed me..." She held her thumb and forefinger apart in a little pinch. "...maybe just this much?"
Rather than confirm or deny Janice's suspicions, Mel opted to change the subject. "What would you like to drink?"
Okay. I can play that game. "What've you got?"
Mel moved items from front to back, clearing a path for her reach. "Simply everythin'."
"Got any virgin's blood?" Janice quipped, her face an unreadable mask.
"Fresh out," quipped Mel without sparing Janice a glance. "There's milk and lemon squeeze...water, tea...oh, and some perfectly awful local beer," Mel displayed a label-less amber bottle. "I think it's bottled in a wool shed someplace. I don't recommend it."
"That'll do." Janice crossed the floor and took the bottle from Mel; having been at the very back of the ice box for some time, it was half frozen, just the way she liked it. "You know me: I like living dangerously." She held the bottle up to the light as she walked back to the table and judged the meager amount of sediment floating within to be acceptable.
"Why don't you put on some music?" Mel, her hands occupied with condiments, gestured with her chin to a standing oak phonograph beneath a curio shelf.
"Any preferences?" Janice asked as she raised the battered lid of the phonograph. "I think I spoke too soon." She picked up a sleeveless 78 with more care than it had previously been shown in its lifetime. "We have a very scratchy copy of...ooh, Noel Coward." She made a face as she looked at Mel. "I think I was ten when this was recorded."
"The phonograph was a wedding gift...for Jack and Peggy." Mel popped the cap from Janice's beer and began serving the veal. "I think those albums are probably original to it."
"Billie Holiday," Janice crooned. She removed the slick black LP from its sleeve with care and held it by her fingertips. "With Teddy Wilson. Naw, Mel, this is relatively new." It wasn't just new, it was pristine, and had in fact probably never been played at all, very likely due to the color of the artist. Considering what little she knew of Peggy Greenway and her narrow opinion of the Aborigines, she marveled that the album had been allowed in the house at all. "You Go To My Head, More Than You Know..." She might have easily been describing Mel, an idea that was given credence by the next song title: Them There Eyes. She looked to the table, where Mel had taken the chair kitty corner from her own, and seated the LP beneath the needle, setting the volume to 3 on the dial. She opened the double doors on the phonograph's face to reveal the speaker as You Go To My Head opened with a combustible alto sax. She was sitting beside Mel, shaking the napkin into her lap as a clarinet riff paved the way for Holiday's one-of-a-kind vocal stylings; the timbre was just a touch cynical, and Janice knew, without actually knowing Holiday personally, that she had been burned at love before. "This is nice, Mel," she murmured, feeling decidedly warm beneath the thin blouse. She looked down at her plate, trisected neatly with meat, starch and vegetable, all carefully prepared by a talented cook and yet nothing looked as enticing as the woman seated across the table from her.
"Janice..." Mel turned an anticipatory gaze on her guest. "You aren't eating."
"Savoring the moment, Mel," replied Janice. She sliced into her veal with enthusiasm, but it was all for show. Food no longer held any interest for her. Mel's proximity had whetted a different kind of appetite. She lay the knife across the edge of the plate, dropped her free hand into her lap and speared the vaguely rare meat with a fork. When she looked up, she found Mel's eyes waiting, alight. Before she had taken one bite of veal, she was already anticipating dessert.
"...sandstone ramparts hundreds of feet high, miles wide, pockmarked with so many caves I couldn't count that high..." Janice absently swirled the warm beer at the bottom of the bottle. "But you know something, Mel, and this might be the beer talking, but I think it's the sort of dig I could just walk away from...the whole place just has a...a feel about it...more churchyard than graveyard."
"Kakadu's a spiritual place," Mel replied. "Small wonder you're uncomfortable. Your workers...are they local to Kakadu?" Janice nodded. "There's your problem." The serving fork hovered over the meat platter, targeting a slice of veal. "More veal?"
Janice waved her hand, fending off a third helping, but was careful not to lose her train of thought. "It's standard practice to employ the natives, Mel."
"You haven't found anything they didn't permit you to find. The real finds, the real rarities will elude you as long as you use locals to light the way," explained Mel as she tucked an olive between her perfect white teeth before sucking the pimento from its salty black blanket.
Janice was entranced, holding the last sip of beer in her mouth briefly before swallowing. "And what would you have done differently? Hire outsiders?"
Mel lifted an eyebrow. "If I had taken the job, then, yes, I would have imported a crew, but that's a moot point, Janice. The dig is yours." She lay her fork and knife across the plate, signaling an end to the meal,and to the discussion.
But Janice was persistent. "Why didn't you take the job, Mel? You were local, you were Moffat's first choice --"
"Because I was local and for no other reason." Mel folded her napkin in quarters before tucking it beneath the edge of her plate. "Jack said it was probably because I worked cheap, and it's true. I would've paid Moffat for the pleasure of headin' the dig."
"Instead, here you sit...one of a handful of warm bodies in a three hundred mile radius." Janice's voice held the unmistakable edge of sarcasm as she quipped, "Flies, heat, isolation. I can see what you like about it." Further conversation on the dubious virtues of the outback faded away on the dying strings of a violin passage. For a moment there was only the ghost of a heartbeat, the rhythmic thump thump thump of the needle as it rode the groove of dead air between tracks before sliding into the last song on the LP. Carelessly, Janice's personal favorite on an album full of memorable tunes, began with the incomparable piano work of Teddy Wilson. Two beers brave, carelessly might also have described the way she looked Mel in the eye and said, "So tell me about Jack."
Mel pursed her lips and sat up straight, lacing her fingers around her water glass. Her eyes held Janice whole as she groped for a response. One of the advantages of outback isolation had been the almost total lack of peer judgment. Unfortunately, that same isolation left her unprepared to field even the most harmless inquiries about her relationship with Jack. "What's there to say?" Her voice went up at the end, making two syllables of one, a tell-tale sign of unease. She recognized it...as did Janice. "He's divorced, as you know...a cargo pilot in the RAAF...he's 44..." she let her voice trail off, giving the impression that she had imparted all that she knew about the man.
"Forty four..." Janice whistled lowly, one short note of disbelief as she enjoyed Mel's discomfort. "What does he look like?"
"He's tall...my head fits just beneath his jaw when we dance," Mel replied with a little smile as a memory warmed her. In the smoky warmth of a first floor hotel room in Athens...cheap champagne on the bedside table, Cole Porter on the radio and a crown of honey-blonde hair tucked neatly beneath her chin while warm breath traveled the valley between her breasts and four bare feet interlocked, puzzle pieces on a hardwood floor... indelible little details of first-time foreplay. The memory was so vivid, yet made painful by the realization that that life was behind her.
"He's tall, I got that much." Janice's fingers beat a lazy tattoo on the empty beer bottle. "What else? How did the two of you meet?" Mel stood abruptly, taking up her plate and glass. "Mel?" Her eyes followed Mel's retreating form across the kitchen. "What's wrong?"
"Nothin's wrong," Mel replied as she stacked the dinner plates by the sink. "I don't understand your interest in Jack, that's all. Another beer?"
Janice waved a hand dismissively. "Hey, you brought him up. Besides, I think I deserve to know a little bit about the man. After all, I'm sitting in his chair...eating his food..."
"Sleeping in his bed...Goldilocks." Mel returned to the table for the meat platter.
"Speaking of sleeping in his bed -" Janice began pointedly. "How is he in that area?"
Mel's jaw dropped noticeably. "I don't know why I'm surprised you asked that. With your ego, you'd be forever beggin' comparison."
Janice laughed, but there was no heart in it. "I have a healthy ego, as you pointed out."
"With good reason," Mel replied as she turned away. "You spoiled me for any future lovers."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"It is, yes," said Mel. "When you're tryin' to start a new life."
Janice shrugged. "What was so wrong with the old one?" A reply was not immediately forthcoming. Mel's back was to her, but Janice could see her hands were still, and her head was down. "Mel?"
"He's a dear, dear, man, Janice..." Mel began quietly. "He's kind, sympathetic, funny...he came along when I needed it most."
Janice fought to keep her composure. "You mean, it was just a matter of timing."
"In a way...yes." At the butcher's block, Mel wrapped the leftover veal in waxed paper, secretly relieved to have something to do with her hands. "We met the very day my steamer docked in Sydney Harbor. I was comin' down the ramp, he was seein' off his niece. I broke a heel off my shoe and would've pitched right over the side if he hadn't been there."
"A real Sir Galahad," mumbled Janice, although it occurred to her, somewhat cynically, she conceded, that the niece Jack had been seeing off at the dock was very likely not his niece at all. Naturally, she was alone in her suspicions.
"He insisted I share his cab, waited with me while my shoe was repaired and bought me a lovely supper." Mel slid the wax package into the ice box and stood in the open doorway, savoring the chill air on her body. "It was the best possible introduction to the country."
"Better than gunfire and death threats?" quipped Janice with mock surprise.
"I know that tone, Janice," said Mel, moving reluctantly from the ice box to the table. "And it sounds suspiciously like jealousy."
"Not at all," replied Janice, quick to dismiss the notion. "On second thought, I will take another beer." She rose from her chair. "You want a beer, Mel?" She could feel Mel's eyes pursue her into the kitchen.
"You don't have to be jealous, Janice." Mel's voice was kind and soothing, and she meant well, but she couldn't help saying the wrong thing as a general rule. "You're not in competition with Jack."
"I know that, and I am not jealous." Janice opened and closed the ice box without removing anything. "What I am, is hot. It's hot in here."
From her place at the table, Mel gazed out the window where the windmill cast long shadows upon the hard-baked ground, blood-red in the twilight. "Sun's settin'...why don't we take this conversation out to the verandah...where it's cool?" She switched off the phonograph and closed the cover.
"Peachy." Janice bit back a more acidic retort, dismayed at the possibility of an in-depth conversation on the merits of her rival. Perhaps rival was not the right word, although it had seemed appropriate enough during the long flight to Coolinga. But now...here she was, a guest in Jack Greenway's home where his personality permeated everything as surely as a sponge soaks up water. His chair. His food. His woman. She followed Mel from the room, convinced that any hopes of a reconciliation were about to be finally and irrevocably dashed to pieces.
At the foyer, Mel continued out to the verandah while Janice excused herself to visit the bathroom. She splashed water on her face and patted it dry with a hand towel, studying her fractured reflection in the cracked mirror as she did so. She had come to Coolinga convinced she would find Mel miserable, aching for the lover she left behind, but their reunion had been the tepid side of passionate at best, although she was certain Mel had warmed to the idea of her presence. The woman had baked her sourdough bread. Sourdough bread, for Chrissakes! "If that isn't love, what is?" She was surprised to hear genuine confusion in her voice; she was unaccustomed to the feeling.
All her adult life she had been able to have her way, whether by skill, wits or sheer force of will. In a field rampant with male counterparts, she was unique and notable for more than her gender. At 25, she made enough money to live comfortably and to have the luxury to pick and choose the archeological commissions which most interested her. With her gifts, came hard-won notoriety; she had the respect of her peers. What she didn't have, however, was what she wanted most. Ain't that always the way?
She pushed away from the counter and knelt on the bedroom floor to root through her satchel. To her relief, she found the object of her search nestled discreetly in a cocoon of wool socks. Squat at the bottom, rising in a tall, graceful neck, the dark amber, 94 proof Tennessee Sipping Whiskey was the only Jack she was interested in at the moment. It had originally been intended as a gift to soothe the ruffled feathers of a mechanic to whom she owed money, but she would have to find another way around him. She broke the seal on the bottle, intending to down a generous swig, or two, before joining Mel on the verandah. She didn't know if she would brush, or simply pop a mint afterwards. She hadn't thought that far ahead. She hefted the bottle carefully, almost reverentially, tasting the full, sweet flavor of burnt caramel and vanilla at the back of her throat before a single drop of whiskey had touched her lips.
Tapping, and her name uttered as a hiss. "Janisssss."
Janice opened her eyes, a revelation since she hadn't been conscious of closing them. Across the room, on the opposite side of a six-paned window, Mel rapped on the glass with her knuckle. She had seen the bottle, but there was no reproach in her voice as she said, "Bring that...and two glasses... and hurry, or you'll miss it!" She waved, conveying a sense of urgency before stepping out of view, leaving confusion in her wake. Miss what? Janice stopped in the parlor to collect two heavy glass tumblers from the sideboard and made her way onto the verandah, successfully navigating the explosive screen door without dropping her kit. Using the toe of her boot, she let the door close and looked for Mel, who was conspicuously absent. "Mel?" She set the whiskey and glasses down on a sturdy wicker table and sighed heavily, her frustration evident. "Where'd you go?"
Mel poked her head around the corner of the wrap-around porch. "Over here...come see!"
Janice walked the length of the porch, her curiosity snuffling ahead of her like a keen beagle. Rounding the corner of the house, facing into the south, she saw Mel standing poised, dead center of the front stoop. Her hands were clasped atop her head, which was tilted slightly back, and her mouth was opened in unabashed wonder. "What is it? If it's a dingo, I've seen plenty of those."
"Try not to sound so jaded, Janice Covington, and come here," Mel hissed reproachfully, fanning one hand to her, gathering the smaller woman under her shoulder. "Now," she whispered, as if more volume were an intrusion. "Stand just here..." She stepped back and guided Janice into her place on the worn gray boards. "Do you see it?"
Janice exhaled wearily, her eyes scanning the horizon, left to right, from soft sage and violet to a vivid spectrum of crimsons and yellows. It was breathtaking, and it wasn't a dingo. Points for Mel. "Yes," she whispered, trying to convey her pleasure. "It's beautiful, Mel." She felt warm fingers at her temples and a gentle upward pressure; unconsciously, she found herself leaning back into the support provided by Mel's lanky frame. She could feel two firm breasts, peaked, at attention against the sensitive skin of her shoulder blades. She might have reveled in that feeling indefinitely if her breath hadn't been snatched without warning from her chest. Directly above her, and to her left, divided by a line of native wattles, the sky was clear with a quarter moon and a blanket of dazzling stars, and to the right, off-set just slightly by the sagging tin roof of the house, the sun was setting, wallowing gloriously in the foothills, using its last minutes to bathe the gums and mulga in raw, homespun gold. Day and night sharing the sky at the same moment. It was, Janice conceded, the oddest, most beautiful of dichotomies.
"It happens every sunset." Mel's mouth was just inches from Janice's ear, so close her breath stirred the tiny wisps of hair at her nape. "...a few minutes later every day. I find myself standing out here, where you're standing now...waiting. I know that must seem foolish to you, but I suppose I'm a simple woman."
Janice turned to face Mel, careful to maintain the physical and emotional connection that had been created. "You're not simple at all...you're a damned pioneer, Mel." She left those fathomless cerulean pools to turn her own eyes skyward again. "I mean, look at it..." The last vestiges of light were leaving the land, being replaced by a creeping carpet of mauve and ebony. It stole Janice's breath the way few things could. "I've been living in this land for six weeks...sleeping under the stars, and do you know, it never once occurred to me that this place had anything new to show me. How thick is that, I ask you?"
"Pretty thick," Mel echoed. She dropped her hands to her sides, unintentionally skimming Janice's hips as she did so. "Oh, sorry."
I'm not. "No problem." Janice backpedaled a step before turning on her heel. "I got whiskey, remember?" At the little wicker table, she opened the bottle and turned to Mel, who had taken a seat on a wooden glider. "How do you take it? Over the rocks? With water?"
Mel countered brightly, "Oh, however you like it is fine."
"Two fingers. Neat." She passed Mel a tumbler and seated herself in an old bleached rocker that overlooked the wide expanse of horizon. Shaking out her damp hair, she took her first sip of whiskey...center cut, her father had called it...like the heart of a good watermelon...strong and flavorful and just what she needed. She sighed contentedly and stretched her legs out, crossing them at the ankles. The sun was a molten sliver on the horizon and the worst of the day's heat was over at last. Trees growing by the verandah were full of twittering sparrows and finches, in concert with their counterparts inside the small aviary. Somewhere to her left, just beyond the hangar, a dingo howled. She was primed to notice everything, most especially the woman she loved, sitting across from her, making a face as she swallowed her whiskey in one gulp. Janice raised both eyebrows inquiringly as Mel choked. "Uh, Mel? You might want to slow down..."
Mel screwed her eyes shut, sputtered and nodded rapidly, holding her glass in front of her. "May I have..." cough "...another, please?"
Janice left her glass on the arm of the rocker and retrieved the whiskey bottle. "This is sipping whiskey, Mel...say it with me...sip-ping-whis-key..." She held the bottle over Mel's empty glass. "If you're not accustomed to it, it'll bite you back." Mel lifted her glass until it clinked against the bottle. "Okay, suit yourself." She refilled the glass, unable to shake the impression that Mel seemed to be marshaling her courage, fortifying herself for some earth-shattering admission. "What's on your mind?" She asked, giving voice to her thoughts; she toyed briefly with the possibilities, none of them favorable if your name happened to be Janice Covington.
"I was...I was mulling over the virtues of a really fine whiskey," Mel replied, her fingers grazing Janice's as they clasped the neck of the bottle. "I don't have a great deal of experience with drinkin' as you know, but I find that I quite have the knack for it." Mel took custody of the bottle. "This has a...a kinda smoky quality to it..."sip "...oak, I think." long sip "Yes, definitely oak."
"Probably aged in oak barrels. You sure you don't want me to take that?"
Mel held the bottle protectively to her. "Did you want another drink?"
Janice shook her head slowly, placing her hand over the wide mouth of the tumbler. She took two steps back, leaning into a support post. As she watched Mel go repeatedly to the well, she determined that at least one of them should stay sober.
Mel settled back into the glider, the open bottle of whiskey tucked between the armrest and her hip. She kicked off her shoes, heedless of where they fell. Her face was flushed, warmed by the liquor, and her eyes were luminous in the moonlight. Meeting Janice's expectant gaze, her courage waned temporarily. It wasn't until she'd cautiously tipped back another shot of whiskey, that she found her voice. "If you drink from a bottle marked poison, it's almost certain to disagree with you sooner or later."
"If you're referring to the whiskey..."
"It's from Alice in Wonderland, and I'm trying to make a point. Please don't interrupt." Janice settled back against the post, suitably reproached while Mel focused on a knothole in the floor boards. "Lewis Carroll as prophet...it's not an idea many people can warm to." She kept her eyes down, unable to bear either the confirmation or denial in the other's face and she was grateful Janice had the presence of mind to remain silent. "All my life I knew what I wanted, what was expected of me as a woman, and as the daughter of Melvin Pappas. These things were seldom complimentary of one another..." Mel's voice trailed off; she groped for the bottle at her side, but her hands were shaking and her aim was slightly off. She felt Janice's fingers close over her own. "One more...for luck."
"I think you've had enough, Mel." Janice set the bottle on the table between them. "Just...take a few deep breaths and spit it out...whatever it is." She took a long pull on her whiskey, reflecting miserably on her inability to cope with rejection, and braced for the worst.
"I've made some mistakes in my life, Janice," said Mel, the words leaping from her lips, a verbal suicide. "I have done some things that I've regretted and people I cared about paid the price." She looked into the bottom of her glass and was afforded an unobstructed, if distorted view of her bare feet. "Oh, my...look at that..." she tilted her head in wonder. "I have big feet," she said, as if the idea were a revelation.
Janice rolled her eyes. It's official: she's drunk. It's a damned record. The number one problem with drunks, in her opinion, was the propensity to be distracted by the smallest things. It was both blessing and curse. "You have nice feet, Mel," she said succinctly as she approached the glider. She took the empty tumbler from Mel's hands. "I think you should probably lay down for a while."
When Mel felt Janice's hand upon her elbow, she looked up into a pair of sparkling green eyes and felt compelled to apologize. "I'm sorry you came all this way, Janice." Strong fingers encircled her arm, drawing her into a standing position. "I know it must seem like a tremendous waste of time to you now, and if I'd known you were comin' I'd've stopped you."
Standing there, with Mel's arm wedged securely between her own hip and elbow, Janice felt her knees go to jelly. Here it comes. "Later, Mel...all this can wait till later." She stopped at the front door of a house settled with shadows. With her free hand, she groped for the lights.
"Did you bring the whiskey?"
"It's fine where it is," Janice replied, frustration bleeding through to her voice. "God dammit, what're you people? Bats?!"
"I haven't always liked the choices I've made, Janice," said Mel, flipping a light switch on the opposite side of the door. "Erratic, my daddy would've said." She leaned heavily into the smaller woman. "You steer, I'll walk...following my, my heart one minute, my head the next..."
"Can't go wrong with either of those, whoa, watch your head." Janice guided her through the bedroom threshold, relieved to find the light switch on the first attempt. She backed Mel across the floor until her calves met the bed. "Okay. Sit."
"I made mistakes...sit?"
Janice snorted. "Bend your knees...it'll happen by itself."
Mel's face softened. "You're so good to me, Janice," she said sincerely; the ache in her voice broke Janice's heart. "You and Jack...both so good to me."
Jack. There's my wake-up call. "Yeah, well..." As a sparkling retort, it failed miserably. "Get some rest, Mel."
"Did'ja ever do that? Try something just to try it...to get it out of your system, like the cold or the flu...or to satisfy someone else's expectations..."
Better and better. Worse than a fling. An experiment. Janice set her jaw; there were no words to convey her hurt, her disappointment. When she turned to leave, it was all she could do not to bolt from the room.
"I've hurt people, Janice..." Mel's voice stopped her at the door. "I hurt you."
"Yeah. You did...but I'm tough, Mel," Janice replied, her back to the room. "I'll get over it."
"I won't. I can't. Janice...please look at me."
Look at her? Yes? No? Janice suspected that whatever steely resolved she still possessed would vanish at the first sight of tears. "That's probably not a good idea, Mel."
The bed creaked as Mel stood. "Please...you're gonna walk out that door and I'm never gonna see you again...I just know it...so you turn around and lemme say this one teeny tiny little thing."
Janice inhaled deeply and squared her shoulders like a boxer bracing for a blow. Mel swam into her field of vision...flushed and bleary-eyed, weaving just slightly as she smoothed her skirt with sweaty palms.
Different picture, same effect. "Okay...I'm listening."
Carelessly, words and music by C. Kenny / N. Kenny / N. Ellis used without permission
DISCLAIMER: Please be advised that the following chapter contains scenes of consensual foreplay between consenting adults of the same sex. 'bout time!
Mel blinked rapidly, astonishment plain on her face. Clearly, despite her heartfelt appeal for indulgence, she hadn't anticipated Janice to yield. 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.
The response was inflectionless and noncommittal. "I see." The two syllable equivalent of a polar bear in awhite room.
Janice's apathy took Mel by surprise, and sent her scrambling for elaboration. "I plan on leaving here when Jack returns next month." She shrugged, "Don't love him...love you." On the strength of that claim, Mel crossed the floor on shaky knees. "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 and loose-lipped, Mel saw the folly of argument. "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." She clucked her tongue. "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 that 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 just 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 quipped 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; 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 anything." 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 some- where deep in her ancestral line, summoned up The Look'. "Your butt on that bed. Now."
Janice lighted on the corner of the mattress and watched in silence as Mel struggled to maintain both her composure, and her upright position. "Maybe you should be the one sitting."
In response, Mel took a step back and leaned against the wall for support. "You say you talked to my mother? Long conversation?"
"Ten minutes, thereabouts."
The corner of Mel's mouth twitched. "That's plenty time enough, trust me. Do you love your mother, Janice? Do you have a good relationship?"
Janice scratched her ear and shrugged. "We were close, yeah. She died when I was fifteen. Is this going someplace?"
"Indulge me. Would it be safe to say that, while she was alive, 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 abrupt? Okay, I will. One minute into the conversation, I was ready to throttle her."
"Perfectly natural response," Mel said, nodding sagely. "Knowing my mama as I do, I'm gonna venture a 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 growing up, I managed to tune out a lot of what she was saying and find my own way, my own paths, always to her dismay. I could never please her and she never tired... ...tires... of reminding me of my failures. The way she saw it, leaving 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 in cash and his word that he would be back. He gave me all that, but..." She held up her left hand and wriggled 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 fell in love," Mel replied simply. "With the country. You've seen enough of it to know what I'm talkin' about...there simply isn't another place on earth like it. 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 men do, so when you ask if he reminds me of my daddy, I'll have to say - no. He most certainly does not."
Janice reserved comment. She had closely watched Mel's face throughout her confession, gauging sincerity or deception based on what she saw there. 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 her 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 head on. "I don't know what else I can say, Janice, except that you are not and never have been anything 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's brow furrowed; Mel's hand against her skin was almost painful. Beneath her thighs, her own hands scrunched the bedspread into moist fistfuls. "I don't think I can do that, Mel."
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. 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...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 up. "I think we should stop..." Janice said as she observed her lover, laboring for breath, her eyes bright and slightly out of focus. Janice could see her reflection clearly in those wide, cerulean pools and it flattered her to be seen as an object of lust. Which made her self-denial all the more difficult. "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 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 unsuccessfully with the top button of her blouse. "Not tonight, honey. You have a headache."
Mel grabbed a handful of Janice's shoulder and pulled herself to her feet. "I am not drunk."
Mere inches from Mel's face, Janice could smell the proof. "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 inan 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?"She felt Mel nod against her shoulder. "Cole Porter on the radio, $8 champagne on ice...you and me...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 said, "Am I good...or what?"
"Janice...would it spoil this moment for you if I threw up?"
DISCLAIMER: Please be forewarned that the following chapter contains acts of consensual sex between two consenting female adults. *sigh* I know, I know. 'bout time!
Mel groaned, awash in inarticulate misery as she clutched the white porcelain bowl. Janice sat behind her on a short foot stool; 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. 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 decent with her hands until it fell in a puddle at Mel's feet. "Step out...first one foot...that's good, now the - 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 the 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, 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. "Good 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."
Janice left her there, half-asleep in the half-dark, a few minutes later. She kept the bedroom door open a few inches, in the event 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 ice box , although she found room in her full stomach for the last of the black 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 LP; she suspected it wouldn't see further play in her absence. Small minds, she mused.
She turned, bundling the crumb-strewn table cloth 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 that lanky frame and drifting off to sleep herself. There was another, 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 and finally draping it over one arm as she stood in the open doorway, enjoying the night air - wattles in bloom, and dingoes, and the windmill rods pumping hard in the cool evening breeze. Tossing the table cloth 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 clothes line strung between the fence and the porch. She recognized her jodhpurs, still heavy with water, hanging limply from the line; by 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 the 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, Mark Twain - literary luminaries sandwiched between lesser-known local authors. She squinted at the spines of 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 the 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 whispered 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 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 as 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. Anticipation was a powerful aphrodisiac, yet she was so unaccustomed to the feeling that it presented as pain. "You must be cold in that," she said 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."
Possessed of a vivid 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 mouth to her own in a kiss that was part passion, part combat, and all surrender. 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. Mel was peaks - oh, what wonderful, pebbly peaks that stirred beneath her touch and valleys... 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. So close. "Jeeze...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 her 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; Janice shuddered and squeezed her eyes shut. "I have many skills."
"How f-fortunate for me," Janice sighed and surrendered to gravity.
DISCLAIMER: Please be forewarned that the following chapter contains references to acts of consensual sex between two adults of the same sex.
The first few minutes after sex are commonly referred to as afterglow. The word was full of positive connotations, yet the idea mystified Janice. She could count her pre-Mel sexual experiences on one hand and she couldn't recall once ever having glowed. Today, tonight, this time...was different. She could feel the heat radiating from her body, reflecting off of Mel's as they lay tangled in one another in the large bed, and she was keenly aware of soft breath and super-heated flesh where it touched hers. Luxuriating in Mel's embrace, she realized that she never felt more feminine, nor more vulnerable than she did at this moment, lying in the arms of the one person capable of breaking her. Such a revelation was more intimate than any sex act conceivable in her imagination, and she understood the concept of afterglow at last. Is that all it takes? she asked herself. "The right person?"
"Hmm...wha'?" Mel responded groggily.
Smoothing sweat-damp 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'."
Janice gathered Mel more closely to her. "Believe me, there's nothing I could do alone that wouldn't be more fun with you."
Tucking her head beneath Janice's chin, she felt a warm chuckle rumble through her lover's chest. She sighed contentedly as she snaked an arm around Janice's waist. "I had a real good time tonight, Janice."
"Me, too." She kissed the top of Mel's head.
Mel drew her finger in a line beneath Janice's ribs, sending a shiver across the taut muscles. "What's this scar here?"
"I was 10...pitched right over the handlebars of my bicycle." She felt warm lips paint the old scar with gentle kisses. "Have you seen my appendectomy scar?" she quipped. It never bothered Janice to be the object of Mel's fervent scrutiny; she had no desire to keep secrets from her. When she felt long fingers draw a hook-shape on her inside right elbow, she willingly volunteered the information. "Split that open on some rocks when my truck overturned a couple of years back...needlework could be a little better, huh?"
Mel traced the livid pink ridge with her tongue before planting a kiss in the crook of the elbow with the admonition, "You should be kinder to your body." Janice merely clucked her tongue and shrugged while Mel continued her macabre inventory; her fingers gently skimmed the starburst - shaped scar where the neck and collarbone joined. "This is new."
"Gunshot, three months ago in Istanbul," she replied lightly; both the wound and the memory were still very fresh. "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 squeezed her tightly, her face a mixture of fear and regret. "I wish I had been there for you. Does it hurt much?"
"Less with each passing minute," she replied, anticipating and receiving another sizzling kiss upon the healing scar. "You don't have any scars, do you, Mel?" She drew her foot slowly up the length of Mel's leg. "You're flawless," she sighed.
Mel screwed her face into a scowl as she raised herself up on one elbow. "And you need glasses more than I do. What do you call this?" She lay a finger atop her right breast.
Janice squeezed her eyes shut and pounded her forehead with her free hand. "Wait...I know this one!"
Mel groaned and slapped her playfully across the cheek. "No, silly...look closer."
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. "...sowet...fer me..."
"For you..." Janice bit an erect nipple, slavered her tongue around it. "Because of you." 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 now," 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, pearly gates welcoming, 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. 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.
* * * * * * * * * *
Janice let the front door close with the care of a long-time resident. "Make way! Hot, hot!" She 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 in 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 buttered 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 tea through a tight grimace and tried to sound angry as she said, "You're insatiable," but the phrase came across as more compliment than indictment.
"I barely even 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?" 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." 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 weaved an arm around Mel's waist and felt her shiver. "Cold?"
Mel shrugged and 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."
Mel grabbed the dangling shirt tail as Janice stood 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 of Dreamtime in rich hues of sienna and gold. The horses in the paddock stirred, 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. 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 inhaled and 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 sketching charcoal on a piece of butcher's paper, was Alice.
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 slightly, taking care not to disturb Mel and inquired casually, "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 a 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 have a mean streak in you."
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 some 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 put her hands on her hips. "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." She stepped to the door and peaked 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 cupped Mel's face in her hand, 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 advice?"
"Yeah," Janice replied sternly. "Smile. They can smell fear."
End Chapter 12
To be continued - Conclusion
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