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The airport at Brisbane was crowded, just as Priscilla Johnson had expected. She'd left Australia a college girl, but her college days were now over. With graduation had come the slow, sad process of severing friendships in Honolulu and leaving Aunt Margaret's house, where she'd lived for five years. Now the future held a teaching career in Providence, a small town northwest of Brisbane across the rain forests of Queensland's Great Dividing Range.
She looked around excitedly for her father and mother, and smiled when she remembered how happy they'd been about her plans to teach in Australia. It had been touch and go, that decision. If Ronald
George hadn't been coming here to teach himself, if he hadn't prodded her
She shifted from one navy pumpclad foot to the other. Her blonde hair curled in short wisps around her delicate oval face with its wide green eyes and creamy complexion. Those eyes were quiet and confident and just a little mischievous even now as she approached her twentyfourth birthday. She walked with a fluid, easy grace, a result of the charm school classes her aunt Margaret had paid for. And in her white linen suit and powder blue blouse and navy accessories, she was a far cry from the teenager who'd left Australia so reluctantly five years ago to go away to college in Hawaii.
Priscilla shivered a little. Here in Australia it was spring in late September, not autumn as it had been in Hawaii. Her seasons, like her senses, were turned upside down. She'd had only two years in Queensland, after all, before college began. Her parents had left their native Alabama after Adam Johnson had applied and been accepted for a teaching position in Providence. He'd liked the idea of working in a small school mainly populated by children from three large cattle and sheep stations in the fairly remote area. Renee, Priscilla's mother, had been equally enthusiastic about the move. Neither of them had close family anymore: there were no other people to consider. All three of them had an adventurous
streak. So they'd packed up and moved to Australia. And so far none of them had regretted it. Except perhaps Priscilla.
She wondered how it would be to see him again. Inevitably she would. Providence and the surrounding country were sparsely inhabited, and everyone met sooner or later in the small town to buy supplies or go to church or just socialize. Her thin brows drew together in a worried frown. It had been five years. She was a different woman now. Besides, Ronald would be settling in soon, and she'd have someone to keep her mind off Jonathan Sterling.
John. It was impossible not to remember. Her green eyes grew hard, and she clutched her purse and carryon bag until her knuckles went white. Her memory hadn't dulled. Neither had the pain.
She was tired. It had been a long flight, and despite the fact that most of her luggage had already been shipped over and she was only carrying a small bag, she wished her parents would appear. She wanted to get back to the small cottage where they lived, on the fringe of the mammoth cattle and sheep station known as the Sterling Run.
Her eyes wandered quickly around the crowded terminal, but before they could sweep past the front entrance, she saw a broadshouldered man standing a full head above the crowd of travelers. Her heart slammed up against her throat, and she began to tremble. Perhaps she was mistaken! But no, his hair
was light brown with bleached blond streaks all through it, thick and slightly shaggy in back, and straight. He was wearing an old tweed jacket with gray slacks and dingo boots, but even so he drew women's eyes as he strode through the crowd.
His pale blue eyes swept the travelers, and he scowled. His dimpled chin jutted pugnaciously; his firm mouth was set in a thin line. There were new wrinkles in that strong craggy face. Her eyes searched him like hands, looking for breaks.
He hadn't recognized her yet. Of course not, she reminded herself. She'd left here a longlegged gangly teenager with waistlength blonde hair and illfitting clothing. Now she was much more poised, a sophisticated woman with confident carriage and designer clothing. No, she thought bitterly, he wouldn't recognize her.
She picked up her carryall and went toward him gracefully. He glanced at her with faint appreciation before his eyes took up their search of the crowd again. It wasn't until she stopped just in front of him that he looked at her once more, and his eyebrows shot together with the shock of recognition that flared in his pale eyes.
"Priss?" he asked uncertainly, his eyes punctuating his astonishment as they ran up and down her slender body.
"Yes, it's me," she said with a cool smile. "How are you, John?"
He didn't reply. If anything, he grew colder as he registered the new poise about her.
"I'm waiting for my parents," she continued. "Have you seen them?"
"I've come to fetch you on their behalf," he said coldly, in the familiar Australian drawl that she remembered so well. He towered over her, big and broad and sexy as he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, while his eyes followed the lift of her eyebrows. "They had to attend some sort of luncheon in Providence."
She shifted her weight slightly, hoping her parents hadn't arranged this whole thing out of misguided affection. "Oh."
"You don't have to spell it out," he said on a cold laugh. "I'm no more anxious for your company than you are for mine, I assure you. But I could hardly refuse when I was asked. And I did have to be in town today."
"I can always ride in the trunk, if you like," she returned with an arctic smile.
He didn't even bother to reply. He picked up her carryall and turned, starting toward the front of the terminal and leaving her to follow or not as she chose.
She had to practically run to keep up with him, and that made her angry. "Still the master of the situation,
I see," she threw at him. "You haven't changed at
He didn't turn his head or break stride. His face only grew harder. "Well, you have," he replied. He glanced sideways, and there were angry glints in his eyes. "I didn't recognize you."
Once a remark like that would have devastated her. But over the bitter years she'd learned control. She'd learned to hide her heart. So she only smiled carelessly. "It's been five years, after all, John," she reminded him, and had to bite her tongue to keep from asking if he liked the change.
"That suit must have cost a mint," he remarked.
She laughed up at him. "It did. Surely you didn't expect a ragged urchin, John?" she chided. Her eyes wandered over his own garb. "Odd, I remember you as being more immaculate."
His eyes darkened dangerously. "I'm a working man."
Her nose wrinkled. "Yes, I remember," she said. "Sheep and cattle and dust."
"There was a time when you didn't mind," he reminded her and abruptly turned out of the terminal, his voice sharper than she ever remembered hearing it.
Yes, she thought, there had been a time when she wouldn't have minded if he was caked in dust or covered with bits of wool. Her eyes closed for
an instant on a wave of pain and humiliation and grief that almost buckled her knees. But she had to be strong. She had to remember more than just the beginning. She had to remember the end.
Her head lifted, and her own eyes darkened. That would do it, she told herself. Remembering the end would do it every time.
"How's the college boy?" he queried as he unlocked the door of his latemodel white Ford and put her inside.
"Ronald George, you mean?" she asked.
He went around and got in himself and stretched his long powerful legs under the dash as he started the car. "Yes, Ronald George," he replied, making an insult of the name.
"He'll be here Monday," she told him, delivering the blow with cold satisfaction.
His eyes narrowed on her face. "What?"
"He's going to teach with Dad and me in Providence," she said. "He's looking forward to the experience of smalltown life."
"Why here?" he asked narrowly.
"Why not?" she said flippantly and smiled at him. "Ronald and I have a special relationship." Which was true. They were the very best of friends.
His eyes swept over her, and he turned back to ease the car out of the terminal parking lot with a low humorless laugh. "Well, I'm not all that surprised,"
he said. "You were ripe for an affair when you left Australia."
She flushed, turning her head out the window. She didn't like remembering how he knew that. "How's your mother?" she asked.
"She's doing very well, thanks," he replied after a minute. He put out his finished cigarette and lit another as they drove through Brisbane. "She tells me she loves California."
"California?" she asked. "Isn't she living with you anymore? I know she had a sister in California,
"She lives with her sister now."
He didn't offer more conversation, so she busied herself staring around at the landscape. Brisbane seemed as foreign as it had that first day when she'd come here with her parents from Alabama. She sighed, smiling at the tall palms and golden wattle and royal poinciana trees towering over the subtropical plants that reminded her of Hawaii. Brisbane was a city of almost a million people, with gardens and parks, museums and galleries. With the Gold Coast and the Great Barrier Reef nearby, it drew constant hordes of tourists. It was a city that Priss often had wished she'd had time to tour.
She would have loved to see Early Lane, which recreated a pioneer townincluding an aboriginal dwelling called a gunyah.John Sterling had two
aboriginal stockmen, named Big Ben and Little Ben, because they were father and son. Big Ben had tried unsuccessfully for days to try to teach Priss how to throw a boomerang. She smiled a little ruefully. Another place she had always wanted to see was New Farm Park, on the Brisbane River east of the city. Over 12,000 rosebushes were in wild bloom there from September through November, and the scent and color were reputed to be breathtaking. If she'd been with her parents, she would have asked them to drive there, even though it was out of the way. But she couldn't ask John.
He headed out of Brisbane, and she settled back in her seat, watching the countryside change. Outside the city, in the Great Dividing Range, was tropical rain forest. She could see copious orchids and scores of lorikeets and parakeets and other tropical birds flying from tree to tree. There were pythons in that forbidding glory, as well as several varieties of venomous snakes, and she shuddered at the thought of the early pioneers who had had to cut away that undergrowth in order to found the first big sheep and cattle stations. It must have taken a hardy breed. Men like John's grandfather, who'd founded the Sterling Run.