Ian Yarbro was in no mood for a party.
Dingoes had brought down four of his best sheep just since Monday.
Water holes all over the property were coming up dry.
And worst of all, Jacy Tiernan, damn her, was back from America.
The first two plights were sorry ones, all right, but a man had to expect a fair portion of grief if he undertook to raise sheep in South Australia. That last bit, though, that
was something personal, an individualized curse from God.
With a resounding sigh Ian leaned back against the south wall of the shearing shed, a mug of beer in one sore, lacerated hand, and scowled. Every muscle in his body throbbed, for he'd shorn more squirming woollies than any man on his crew in the days just past, and he felt as though he could sleep for a month, should the opportunity arise. That wasn't going to happen, of course, not with all he had to do around the place.
Ian took another sip from his beer, which had lost its appeal while he pondered his troubles, and surveyed the rustic festivities.
The music of the fiddles and mouth harps seemed to loop and swirl like invisible ribbon in the warm summer twilight. Shearers and roustabouts alike clomped round and round the long wooden floor of the shed, some dancing with women, some with each other. The night air was weighted with heat, since it was January, speckled with dust and bits of wool fiber and rife with the smells of sweat and brewer's yeast, cheap cologne and cigarette smoke.
And Jacy was back.
Ian muttered a curse. It had been bad enough, this past day or so, knowing Jacy was living right next door at Corroboree Springs, but at least she'd had the good grace to keep her distance. Until about five minutes before, that is, when she'd walked into the celebration with her father.
Ian could have ignored her completely, and would have, if it hadn't meant slighting Jake. Jacy's father was one of the best mates Ian had ever had, and he was just out of hospital as it was. Collie Kilbride had flown the pair of them, Jake and his daughter, up from Adelaide in his vintage plane the day before yesterday. If he was going to live with himself, Ian reasoned sourly, he'd have to go over to Jake and shake his hand and tell him it was good to see him up and about again. No need for so much as a glance in Jacy's direction, as far as he could see, but if an acknowledgment was required, he'd just nod at her in the most civil fashion he could manage.
Frowning, he pushed away from the wall, tossed what remained of his beer through the open doorway of the shed, and handed the mug off to Alice Wigget as he passed her. Wending his way between the spinning couples was like moving through the gears of some enormous machine.
The colored light from the paper lanterns dangling from the rafters played in Jacy's fair hair, which just reached her shoulders and curled riotously around her face. She'd put on a bit of weight since he'd seen her last, as well. Too bad, Ian thought uncharitably, that it had all settled nicely into just the right places.
Drawing nearer still, Ian saw that Jacy's blue-green eyes were luminous with affection as she gazed up at her father's face. She was good at looking
as if she gave a damn, but where had she been for all those years, while Jake's luck was getting worse and worse by the day? Where had she been when her dad's health had started failing?
Ian was seething by the time he reached them. He felt a muscle twitch in his cheek, set his jaw in an effort to control the response, then thrust out his hand to Jake.
"It's about time you got back and started tending your property, instead of leaving the whole place for your mates to look after," he said, half barking the words. Even though he tried hard, he couldn't force a smile to his mouth.
Jake, always good-natured and full of the devil, had no such problem. He beamed as he pumped Ian's hand, but his grasp was not the knuckle-crusher it had once been, and he was thin to the point of emaciation. There were deep shadows under Jake's pale blue eyes, and his face had a skeletal look about it.
"Well, then," Tiernan teased, "let's see what you've made of the job before you go complaining too loudly, Ian Yarbro. I've just been back for these two days, and for all I know, you've 'helped' me straight into the poorhouse."
Ian was painfully conscious of Jacy's nearness; he felt her gaze on him, caught the muted, musky scent of her perfume. And, God help him, he remembered too damned much about how things had been between them, once upon a time.
"Hello, Ian," she said. He felt her voice, too -- soft and smoky, evoking all kinds of sensory reactions.
She was going to force him to acknowledge her. He should have known it wouldn't be enough for her, just coming there and stirring up all those old memories again. He forced himself to look down into her upturned face and instantly regretted the decision. Jacy was twenty-eight now, as he was, and far more beautiful than she'd been at eighteen. He saw a flicker of some tentative, hopeful emotion in her eyes.
"Hello," he replied, and the word came out sounding gravelly and rusted, as though he hadn't used it in a long time. Jake and the shearers and the roustabouts and their women seemed to fade into a pounding void, and there was only Jacy. Ian hated knowing she could still affect him that way, and he hated her, too, for ripping open all the old wounds inside him.
The dancers pounded and thumped around them, shaking the weathered floorboards, and Ian had an unsteady feeling, as though he might tumble, headlong and helpless, into the depths of Jacy Tiernan's eyes. He didn't notice that the music had stopped until it started again, louder than before, and strangely shrill.
Jake put one hand on Jacy's back and one on Ian's, then pushed them toward each other with a gentle but effective thrust. I think I'll sit this one out, he shouted, to be heard over the din, and then he stumped away through the crowd.
By no wish of his own Ian found himself holding his first love in his arms. He swallowed hard, battling a schoolboy urge to bolt, and began to shuffle awkwardly back and forth, staring over the top of her head. Jacy moved with him, and they were both out of step with the music.
Nothing new in that.
"Is it really so terrible," she asked, in the familiar Yankee accent that had haunted his memories for a decade, "dancing with me?"
"Don't," he warned. The word was part warning, part plea.
Ian felt exasperation move through Jacy's body like a current, though he was barely touching her.
"Will you just lighten up?" she hissed, standing on tiptoe to speak into his ear. "You're not the only one who's uncomfortable, you know!"
Ian's emotions were complex, and he couldn't begin to sort them out. That nettled him, for he was a logical man, and he hated chaos, especially within himself. He wanted to shake Jacy Tiernan for all she'd put him through, but he also wanted to make love to her. He was furious that she'd come back, but at one and the same time he felt like scrambling onto the roof and shouting out the news of her return.
He clasped her forearm -- it was bare and smooth, since she was wearing a sleeveless cotton sundress -- and half dragged her to the door and down the wooden ramp to the ground. The farmyard was filled with cars and trucks, and the homestead was a long, low shadow some distance away.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded in an outraged whisper.
Jacy raised her chin and put her hands on her hips. Her pale yellow dress seemed to shimmer in the rich light of the moon and stars, and her eyes sparked with silver fire. "That depends on what you mean by 'here,'" she retorted just as furiously. "If you mean why am I here at this damn party, then the answer is, because my father wanted to come and see all his friends and neighbors, and I came along to make sure he didn't overdo and land himself back in the hospital. If, on the other hand, you meant why am I in Australia, well, that should be obvious. My dad had a heart attack, and I'm here to look after him."
Ian was fairly choking on the tangle of things he felt; he might have turned and put a fist through the rickety wall of the shed if his hands hadn't already been swollen and cut from all the times he'd caught his own flesh in the clippers while shearing sheep. "Ten years you stayed away," he said instead. "Ten years.
Do you think he didn't need you in all that time?" Do you think I didn't need you? he thought.
Her eyes brimmed with tears, and because Ian wasn't expecting that, he was wounded by the sight.
"Damn it, Ian," she said, "there's no need to make this so difficult! I'm here, and I plan to stay for an indefinite period of time. If you can't accept the fact, fine, just stay out of my way, and I'll stay out of yours. When we have the misfortune to run into each other, let's try to be civil, shall we? For Jake's sake, if nothing else."
Ian couldn't speak. He was reeling from her announcement that she wouldn't be leaving the area anytime soon. Only one thing would make him crazier than her absence, and that was having her live at Corroboree Springs day in and day out.
Naturally, she couldn't leave well enough alone and keep her mouth shut. Oh, no. That would never have done.
"Well?" she prompted with a sort of nasty sweetness.
Ian shoved a hand through his dark hair. With all the business of mustering and shearing the sheep, then dipping them in disinfectant to prevent infection in the inevitable scrapes and cuts and to keep the blowflies away, he'd let it grow too long, and it felt shaggy between his fingers.
"You should have stayed in America," he said stubbornly. "Jake has mates here. We'd have been glad to look after him, with no help from you."
She dried her eyes with the heel of one palm, smearing the stuff she wore on her lashes, and then tossed her head. "God, Ian, you can be such
a bastard. Woul...