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The tall Kentuckian, Andrew Preston, was new to Australia.
And he'd come to the Northern Territory for a practical reason. He'd meant, with the help of his old friend Mick, to test the Territory's political waters. He needed support in his run for the presidency of the International Thoroughbred Racing Federation.
At the moment, though, the political waters were icy cold.
"Listen, Yank," the big man, Francis Bleak said. "Australian leadership should come from Oz. Reforms? We don't need none. We're doing fine as we are. Now I got work to do."
The Thoroughbred breeder turned his broad back and walked into the stable. The three men who'd stood by him, listening stony-faced, cast cold glances at Andrew and silently followed Bleak inside.
Andrew looked at Mick and Mick looked at Andrew.
Straight-faced, Andrew said, "This is starting out really well, eh?"
Mick, a breeder himself, ruddy and red-haired, shrugged.
"You told me to introduce you to some tough ones. I just did. It could have been worse. He could have shot you." Mick started toward his Jeep.
"Be quiet," Andrew cautioned. "We're not out of range yet. I take it he'll vote for Bullock."
"Righto," Mick said with a nod. "But I warned you about Bleak. Hey, I've known him all my life. He may raise horses, but he's an ass."
Mick and Andrew, both thirty-five, had once been roommates in grad school in Kentucky. Mick, squarely built and freckled, had returned to Australia, where he now was president of the Northern Territory Thoroughbred Association.
In Kentucky, Andrew had served two terms as executive director of the Thoroughbred Association of the Americas, Southern Region. He was a tall, lean and broad-shoulderedman. His dark hair was thick and wavy, his features finely carved. For generations, his family had bred and raced Thoroughbreds, and he moved with an expert horseman's physical confidence.
He loved the sport, but he had serious concerns about it. Serious enough to make him take action. When he'd been asked to run for the presidency of the International Thoroughbred Racing Federation, ITRF, he'd taken it as a great honor. But an even greater responsibility.
When he spoke of reforms, he meant reforms. Reforms in breeding, equine safetyand the ugly inroads crime had made into the sport. There were people, powerful people, who didn't like his ideas, especially about cleaning out the criminal element.
Mick had kept company with him this week to personally introduce Andrew to the racing set in the Northern Territory. He believed passionately in Andrew's cause and wanted it clear that Andrew had solid connections to Australiaboth family and friends.
Both men knew that Andrew faced a grueling fight against Aussie candidate Jackson Bullock. Australia was the deciding contest. There would be other elections the same day in smaller Pacific countries, but Australia was where the presidency would be won or lost. Bullock was the favorite here, a native son with longtime ties to the racing community.
Andrew's dark brows drew together. "Bullock's going all out to beat me?"
Mick's good-natured face clouded. "Right. He didn't expect you'd get so much support in Europe. He thought he'd win easy, and now he's pissed off. Here, he means to dominate you. On his airwaves. In his papers. Through all his media connections. He'll fight hard. And if he has to, he'll fight dirty."
A deep voice called from behind them. "Misterscan I speak with you?"
Andrew glanced over his shoulder and saw a dark-skinned man dressed in jeans, a bush shirt and cowboy hat. He was a burly fellow and carried a blacksmith's anvil as if it weighed but a few pounds. Mick stopped, and so did Andrew.
"Raddy." Mick grinned, "I didn't see you."
"I was just inside the stable," the man said with a laugh. "I came to borrow Barney's small anvil." He tucked the anvil under one brawny arm.
"Andrew, this is Conrad Nakumurrah, best blacksmith in the shire. Raddy, this is my Yank friend, Andrew Preston. He's running for prez for the ITRF."
"Pleased to meet," said Raddy. He shook Andrew's hand with a grip appropriately like iron. Andrew feared for his finger bones.
"Same here," he managed to say.
"I heard what you said to Bleak," Raddy told him. "I like what I heard. You have sympathy for horses. That's good. You going to my boss's place?"
"Dead cert," Mick answered. He started walking again, and the other two men fell in step on either side of him.
"My pickup's parked by your Jeep," Raddy said. He looked up at Andrew shrewdly. "I heard the way you talk about the animals. Some people" he nodded back toward Bleak's stable "they don't care for the horses. Only the money. Breed 'em for the long legs until the long legs break. And so forth. You are against such things, right?"
"Right," Andrew replied with a sideways smile.
Raddy cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. "You know about the Song Lines? The Dreaming Tracks?"
"Only a little," said Andrew. "I read a book about it."
"Ha! I hear you talk, I suspect you understand. Australia is part of a song the earth sings. Part of the dream the earth dreams."
Andrew smiled and nodded. "Yes. So is Kentucky. Where I come from."
"Ha!" Raddy exclaimed again. He turned to Mick and pointed at Andrew. "This is a good fellow, yes?"
"Yes," Mick agreed. "He is. But tell me, Raddy, how's your family."
"I have a new child. A beautiful boy child. It is odd you ask about my family."
"Why?" asked Mick.
"Because last night, my wife had a feeling that today something special would happen. She made a charm. ‘Someone will need this,' she said. ‘You'll know him when you see him,' she said. Aha!" Again he pointed at Andrew.
Andrew blinked in surprise. Mick gave Raddy a dubious look. "I can never tell about you. If you believe this stuff or if you're pulling my leg."
"Maybe I'm doing both at once," said Raddy, flashing a smile. But he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a wooden charm. It was a beautifully carved bird with a beak painted yellow, its body black and white and red. It hung on a necklace of red string.
"Here," Raddy said, handing Andrew the charm. "Wear this. It will bring you something important. My wife knows these things."
"It'swonderful," murmured Andrew, touched, yet puzzled. "What is it?"
"Put it on, put it on. It will bring change to your life. Because you know the earth sings songs, it dreams dreams."
Andrew put the string with the charm about his neck, feeling odd. Did he have the right to do this? But Raddy only smiled more broadly. He swung the anvil into the back of the truck, opened the door and got in. "I will see you later?"
Mick nodded. Raddy grinned. "Catch you then!" He backed up, changed gears, and drove off.
Andrew and Mick got into the Jeep. Andrew looked skeptically at the carved charm hanging from his neck. "What's it mean?"
"I don't know." He glanced at Andrew. "Do you believe all that rigmarole? Song lines and charms and stuff?"
Andrew shrugged. "What do you think of it? You understand it better than I do."
"I'm never sure. Sometimes I think the Aborigines see things we don't see. They know things we don't know. I'd treat that charm with respect, if I were you."
Andrew fingered it uneasily, then dropped it inside his blue shirt. Beneath the painted wood, his heart tingled strangely.
At that same moment in the Northern Territory, in the city of Darwin, Marie Lafayette had finished her day's classes at the university and fought the unusually heavy traffic.
She weaved and darted on her secondhand bike, moving with surprising speed for one so small. She was barely five foot two, hardly more than a hundred pounds, and although she was petite, her body was toned and muscular.
Legs pumping, she headed for the Royal Darwin Hospital where her mother lay in the critical care unit. A heart attack had felled Colette Lafayette, her thirdand worstattack in as many years.
Although it was February and still "the Wet," the rainy season, today the sun shone, and the clouds were distant. But Marie knew better than to trust the Northern Territory's fickle weather. She had a secondhand rain poncho in her secondhand backpack.
In the hospital parking lot, she chained her bike to a rack, and headed for the main entrance. The building, one of the tallest in Darwin, was a miracle of engineering, designed to withstand the cyclones that were the curse of the city.
Marie made her way to the elevator, pulling off her helmet and shaking her head. Her hair was thick and golden, and she trimmed it herself into a short, smooth bob. Her eyes were her most arresting feature; they were long-lashed and a pure crystalline light green, unmarked by even a touch of hazel.
Her high cheekbones, straight little nose and full lips gave her a delicate femininity in spite of her boxy unisex clothes. She wore the university uniform for cookery classes, a white shirt and plain black trousers.
She got off at the critical care facility. She no longer had to identify herself at the desk. The entire staff recognized her by now. She headed down the hall and quietly opened Colette's door.
Colette lay with her eyes closed, and Marie's heart tightened in alarm. Her mother looked even frailer than she had yesterday. But her eyes immediately fluttered open, as if she sensed that Marie was there.
"My good girl," she said in a small voice.
Marie caught Colette's hand in her own, as if she could pump some of her own strength and energy into her mother. "Mama," she said softly and bent to kiss her.
Colette smiled and stared up at her. "My good girl," she repeated. "This is a school day. Isn't it? How were classes?"
"Good, Mama. And my job at the Scepter's going well. Last night they told me they wanted to train me for management when I finish this round of certification."
Marie worked evenings waiting tables at the restaurant in the Scepter Hotel and Resort, one of Darwin's finest. The manager considered himself a perfectionist, but he'd said Marie had exceeded even his expectations.
Now the older woman sighed and smiled. "Ah. You're so smart, and you work so hard."
"Mama, let me bring you something homemade tomorrow. You're getting too thin. You're not used to hospital food."
Colette grimaced. "I have no appetite. Eating tires me."
Marie squeezed her hand more tightly. "Home cooking will make you feel better."
Colette shook her head. "What makes me feel best is how well you do. You've got an education, opportunity, prospects. That's what's important. You'll have a good futuresecure."
Marie swallowed. Education, opportunity, prospects, security.
These were things her mother had never had. But she'd worked unstintingly for Marie, and now it was Marie's turn to care for Colette. And she wouldshe was prepared to drop out of school for a semester, even take a leave of absence from her job if she had to.
"I'm doing fine, Mama. And you're going to be fine."
Colette's mood shifted strangely. "I've been thinking. I have something to tell you. Something I've held back. You know about Reynard and me."
Marie nodded, but was concerned: Colette had been repeating herself latelywas this a bad sign? She kept talking about the past as if she were struggling to make it clearer to Marie, although Marie knew it well.
Reynard was Colette's brother by law, but not by birth. The Lafayettes had first adopted Colette, then four years later, Reynard. But the family had almost been ruined by the 1950 cyclone. The cyclone, unnamed, destroyed the little building where the Lafayettes lived above their pastry shopeverything they had.
Colette's father, overwhelmed by depression, never recovered. The family began a spiral into near poverty. Neither Colette nor Reynard could finish their schooling.
"I told you I never knew who my birth mother was," Colette murmured.
Marie nodded; she knew that part of the story by heart. But then Colette surprised her. "But maybe I do know. I didn't know how to tell you. I started writing to people. A nurse in Queensland answered metwo years ago. This is her letter. Remember that little wooden box I asked you to bring? The letter was in it. But don't read it here. Read it at home and think about it. Yes, it's time I put it in your hands. I feel it."
It was time? She felt it. What did Colette mean? Marie fought down a wave of alarm. She forced a smile, as cheery as she could make it. "You're being very mysterious."
With an unsteady hand, Colette picked up an envelope from the bedside stand. "I didn't know what to believe, what to do, so I did nothing. I just have no idea "
Colette seemed exhausted. "So I'm passing it on to you. To find out orI'm so tired," she said. "I'm sorry. You've come all this way, but I think I'm going to fall asleep. It's all I do lately."
"Don't apologize. You need rest. Sweet dreams." Marie bent and kissed her mother's cheek again. Already Colette's eyelids were lowering, but she managed a smile.
Marie studied the envelope, feeling an indefinable uneasiness, and then tucked it into her backpack. She stared at Colette's face, once smooth and delicate, but now shadowed by illness.
Making her way to the elevators, Marie punched the down button, her stomach queasy with anxiety. She and Colette were not only mother and daughter, but the closest of friends. Colette had to recover. She had to. Life would be empty and loveless without her.
The elevator doors slid open, and Marie blinked in surprise. A cupid, a very tall, chubby cupid, stood inside. At first glance he seemed naked except for a large white diaper and two inadequate wings sprouting from his back. Cupid's blue eyes widened, and he gave Marie a smile and a leer.
She quickly realized he wasn't naked, but dressed in flesh tights and a leotard.
A gilded bow hung from one shoulder. Slung over the other was a little gold quiver of darts with pink heart-shaped tips. His mop of curly blond hair was clearly a wig.
"Hello, Dearie," he said, looking her up and down. "Happy Valentine's Day."
"It's a bit early for Valentine's Day," Marie returned, hardly in a mood for silliness. She noticed he carried two large pink tote bags, each labeled BNC for Bullock News Corporation and showing ajolly, smiling caricature of its founder, Jackson Bullock.
Cupid jiggled one of the bags, which seemed to be empty. "BNC's sending me to children's wards to hand out goodies candies and crackers and balloons."
"Very admirable," Marie said between clamped teeth.
"I got a lovely Scallywag biscuit left. Want it?"
"No, thank you," she said in the same tone.
"Aww," he said. "Troubled? You look worried. Shame, a pretty thing like you. You need Dan Cupid in your life. All of him you can get. How about a spot of supper tonight?"
She looked at him as if he were a bug. She rolled her eyes and muttered, "Puh-leese."
"Please pick you up? With pleasure. What time? Where do you live? Do you like the Pizza Shack?"