Authors: Diana Palmer
For two years Pricilla Johnson watched John Sterling manage his cattle station, and at the tender age of eighteen she innocently surrendered her young heart to him. He was big, brash, brazen and Australian. Everyone called it infatuation, Priss knew it was love.
But Pricilla had to move on with her life. Four years of college in Hawaii provided the time and distance to transform a naive girl into a desirable, mature woman.
Returning to Australia as a certified teacher, she was ready to put John to the test. And ready or not, he was about to learn a lesson he would never forget.
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 pump-clad 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 twenty-fourth 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. Renée, 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 carry-on 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 broad-shouldered 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 long-legged gangly teenager with waist-length blonde hair and ill-fitting 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 all!”
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 late-model 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 small-town 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, but...”
“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 re-created a pioneer town—including an aboriginal dwelling called a
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.
She glanced at the hard lines of his craggy broad face, and her eyes lingered helplessly on his wide chiseled mouth before she could drag them back to the window. That hard expert mouth had taught hers every single thing it knew about kissing...
She moved restlessly in the seat as the car wound over the gap in the range and they began descending again. In the distance were rolling grasslands that spread out to the horizon, to the great outback in the western part of the state, which was called the Channel Country. John had cousins out there, she knew.
Southwest of Brisbane were the Darling Downs, the richest agricultural land in Queensland. But northwest were some of the largest cattle stations in Australia, and that was where Providence sat, along a river that provided irrigation for its three sheep and cattle stations. One of those was the Sterling Run.
Priss wanted to ask why John was driving a Ford. It occurred to her that he’d had a silver Mercedes when she’d left Australia. He’d driven the Mercedes when he was going to town, and a Land Rover on the station. But then, she also wondered about his clothing. John had always worn a suit to town, and it had usually been an expensive one. She laughed bitterly to herself. Probably he didn’t feel he needed to waste his time dressing up for her. Her eyes closed. If she’d been Janie Weeks, no doubt he’d have been dressed to the back teeth. She wondered whatever had happened to seductive Janie, and why John hadn’t married her. Priss knew her mother would have told her if he had.
“Turn on the radio, if you like,” he said shortly.
“No, thanks,” she replied. “I don’t mind peace and quiet. After Monday, I’ll probably never know what it is again.”
He glanced at her through a cloud of cigarette smoke, his blue eyes searching.
“Why is it that you’re here before summer?” he asked curiously. “The new term won’t start until after vacation.”
“One of the school staff had to have surgery. I’ll be filling in until vacation time,” she returned. “Ronald is going to work as a supply teacher, too, until we both have full-time positions next year.”
He didn’t reply, but he looked unapproachable. She wondered at the change in him. The John Sterling she used to know had been an easygoing, humorous man with twinkling eyes and a ready smile. What a difference there was now!
“Dad said something about Randy being at the station now; he and Latrice,” she murmured, mentioning John’s brother. “Are the twins with them?”
“Yes, Gerry and Bobby,” he replied. “You’ll be teaching them.”
He looked sideways and laughed shortly. “You haven’t been introduced yet,” he said enigmatically.
“What happened to Randy’s own station in New South Wales?” she continued.
“That’s his business,” he said carelessly.
She flushed. It was mortifying to be told to mind her own affairs, and she resented his whole manner. “Excuse me,” she replied coldly. “I’ll keep my sticky nose to myself.”
“Why did you come back?” he asked, and there was a note in his voice that chilled her.
“Why don’t you do what you just told me to and mind your own business?” she challenged.
His head turned, and his eyes glittered at her. “You’ll never fit in here,” he said, letting his gaze punctuate his words. “You’re too much the sophisticate now.”
“In your opinion,” she returned with faint humor. “Frankly, John, your opinion doesn’t matter beans to me these days.”
“That goes double for me,” he told her.
So it was war, she thought. Good. This time she was armed, too. She ran a hand through her short hair. “Does it look like it’ll be a dry year?” she asked, changing the subject.