by Claire McNab
The vast, forbidding Australian Outback… the grandeur of Ayers Rock… legendary Alice Springs… the Great Barrier Reef… the primal beauty of Cape Tribulation…
Two women, from different continents, with different values, collide with spectacular results… UNDER THE SOUTHERN CROSS.
American Lee Paynter has built her Small travel agency into an international tour company. Brash, confident, openly lesbian, her great love is her business. Women? They’re to enjoy and let go.
Alexandra Findlay is pursuing a career in Australian tourism with quiet focus and determination, convinced that her career is the best she can hope for in her arid, closeted emotional existence.
Now Alex has been assigned to accompany Lee on the American woman’s visit Down Under, to win Lee’s company over to Australian tourism. Suddenly Alex’s quiet life explodes… And Lee is challenged by a woman unlike any she has ever known.
I love flying, especially in small planes, where the experience gives me a little of the exhilaration birds must feel when they ride the wind.
This time I was sitting just behind the pilot in a little twenty-seater, leaning forward to see the green wrinkled water crawling by beneath us.
He grinned at me over his shoulder, raising his voice above the insect drone of the engines. “Paradise, eh, Alex?”
I smiled acknowledgment and he turned back to his instruments. He was right—it was paradise. Below us scattered islands lazed in the warm tropical sea by the flank of Queensland. From this height vegetation looked like verdant stubble and the water was so clear that I could see, as if on a gigantic contour map, the tones of green, aquamarine and blue that showed the gradations of depth. As our little plane advanced slowly over the shallow sea, its shadow flickering and dancing, each new island showed its unique underwater pattern of banks and channels, shaded here and there with darker patches of seaweed.
I knew that to the east, where the cold blue of the Pacific Ocean broke its might against the coral walls of the Great Barrier Reef, the continental shelf suddenly plunged to icy black depths. But here everything was drenched in light and the water was tamed, soothed by the warmth, lapping indolently against white coral beaches.
The pilot raised his voice so that the passengers crammed into the cabin could hear: “Tern Island ahead.”
It was almost a routine destination for me now, but the impact of its beauty had hardly been dulled by familiarity.
Two thirds of the island formed a national park protected from development, so the hills and valleys were blanketed with a heavy coating of virgin rainforest and at the sea’s edge mangrove swamps met the salty water. Tern Island Resort began where the thick natural cover met the manicured precision of a nine-hole golf course. From the air most of the buildings clustered around the pale crescent of Tern Beach were almost hidden by the luxuriance of tropical gardens.
We went into a shallow dive, swooping low over a couple of bright-sailed windsurfers scudding in zig-zag patterns across the turquoise water. As usual, the single tarmac strip of the airport looked far too small to me, but as we approached it seemed to stretch until it was a respectable length. I know that landings are the most dangerous part of air travel, so I always hold my breath in those last moments before touchdown. This time the wheels struck the gray-black surface with a pounding whoomp, then, shuddering, we scooted down the strip. The pilot was smiling: I wondered if he’d deliberately come in a little fast.
We made a wide circle and taxied back to the little terminal building, which was situated halfway down the strip. The door was opened, the steps extended the short distance to the ground, and a babble of different accents broke out as passengers extricated themselves from the cramped cabin and stretched in the moist, heavy warmth.
They were all seasoned travelers, so I didn’t follow them immediately, taking time to pin my identification to my white shirt. I’ve always hated being labeled, but Sir Frederick had insisted that during a convention, staff wear their names at all times. The badge was a large rectangle, conspicuous with Australia’s national colors of green and gold. The symbol for Australasian Pan Pacific is an elaborate representation of the initials within an outline of Australia. I checked to make sure the name ALEXANDRA FINDLAY was straight.
Confirming that my shirt was tucked neatly into my tailored white pants—“Appearance is eighty percent of success!” according to Sir Frederick—I joined the gaggle of passengers. As I shepherded them towards the diminutive blossom-and-creeper-covered building that served as Tern Island’s airport terminal, I saw that Steve Monahan was part of the welcoming committee waiting with glasses of champagne and orange.
“G’day,” Steve was saying cheerfully to each person as he handed out refreshments. As always, I was cynically amused at the up-market ultra-Australian impression he had created for himself. Tall, fair-haired, tanned, and with an engaging grin, he wore tight beige shorts with a thin snakeskin belt, a matching shirt with several superfluous pockets, and a sand-colored Akubra hat with a bright feather in the band and one side turned up in the approved fashion.
I was put on my guard when he smiled at me with special warmth. “Hi, Alex. Mind if I ask you a favor?”
Working with him had taught me that his friendliness concealed a strong self-interest and an unremittingly manipulative nature. I said shortly, “What?”
His amusement deepened at my lack of enthusiasm. “It’s not much to ask, love,” he said persuasively. “Just that there’s a few more VIPs flying in this afternoon about three and I can’t be here to meet the plane. Would you do it for me?”
“All right, but you owe me one, Steve.”
I lost his attention as his glance shifted to Hilary Ferguson, the representative for one of the British tour wholesalers. It’s not often that someone lives up to the description of ravishingly beautiful, but Hilary Ferguson did. Petite, with cornflower blue eyes and fresh, high skin color, she had masses of chestnut hair, a wide, white smile, and, in a fetching final touch, dimples. She spoke in the half-swallowed vowels that implied membership in the British elite, but in my short acquaintance with her I’d found her friendly and unpretentious.
Steve gave his best larrikin grin. “Well, g’day!”
I left him trying to impress Hilary with as many Aussie cliches as he could cram into his conversation, and began to apportion the guests to their respective mini-buses.
I’d just checked that everyone in my bus had their cabin luggage from the plane when Steve put his head through the door. “I forgot to tell you, Alex, that your special responsibility will be on that flight. It’ll impress Sir Frederick no end if you go out of your way to meet the woman.”
I stepped out of the bus so we wouldn’t be overheard. “Pity that discretion isn’t one of your major qualities, Steve.”
He ignored my criticism, saying with a tinge of malice, “You’re going to have your work cut out—Lee Paynter won’t be easy to please.”
“You know, Steve, sometimes I wonder how I got along before I had you to advise me.”
“Just being friendly, Alex,” he said, amused. “The woman’s pretty formidable, you know.”
“Makes me all the more surprised that you’re giving up the opportunity to meet Lee Paynter yourself. Would have thought you’d want to make an immediate impression on someone so influential.”
“We’ve met before, love, in the States, and I found her impervious to my charms.”
He grinned at my mockery. “Well, darl, I’m good, but not that good. Wouldn’t have a chance. Apart from the fact she’s married to her business, she’s also a lesbian.” He gave the word a strong emphasis, pausing for a moment before he added, “And she’s upfront about it, too.” His smile widened as he said teasingly, “You could always give it a go, Alex. Try a walk on the wild side for a change. You never know, she might just have a weakness for the dark sultry sort.”
I matched his flippant tone. “Whatever you may think, there’s a limit to what I’ll do for my career.”
He raised a scornful eyebrow. “There’s a limit to what you’d do for anything or anyone, love. I mean, you turned me down flat. You just don’t like to get involved, do you?”
“Try not to take it so much to heart,” I said, smiling to take the bite from my words.
Steve narrowed his eyes. “If I were you, I’d be careful. For instance, I’d certainly think twice before I turned Sir Frederick down…”
He gave me no chance for a caustic reply, leaping up into his bus with a cheerful, “Let her rip!” to the driver.
The little electric buses zipped along the narrow roadways, each taking its load of passengers and luggage to the appropriate section of the resort. I was on automatic, answering questions and responding politely when appreciative comments were made at the rich beauty of the vegetation whipping past the windows. Before the first passenger got out I gave a brief outline of the program for the rest of the day and the details of the seafood banquet in the evening which would be hosted by Sir Frederick Salway, Pan Pacific’s managing director.
It took an hour for me and the attentive Tern Island staff to settle each representative into his or her accommodation, and I was heartily tired of smiling when I finally stood alone on the veranda of my own little cabana.
Apart from the administration and entertainment center, most of the buildings on Tern Island were artfully concealed behind screens of exuberant tropical greenery. There were three grades of residences: two-story blocks of self-contained family units; luxurious cabins, each with a private garden; small cabanas—suitable for one or two—nestling in the coconut palms fringing the crescent of the beach.
The lazy heat of the island matched my own sudden uncharacteristic lethargy. I yawned as an imperious peacock spread his spectacular tail feathers for my inspection. “You’re very handsome,” I said. He eyed me with disdain before strutting off to examine an opulent bush. A breeze trifled with the heavy fronds of the palms arching above me, gaudy butterflies fluttered among the extravagant blooms—what more could I want from life than to be part of this beauty?
After checking that I had enough free time before my luncheon duties, I changed into a swimming costume, applied liberal amounts of sunscreen—even though I have olive skin and tan easily—and walked the short distance from my cabana to the bleached coral sand. Its fine grains squeaked under my bare feet and small crabs skittered sideways as my shadow fell across them. There was no surf—the Great Barrier Reef prevented the advance of the dark blue Pacific rollers, so here the pastel water lapped gently. I waded into the clear tepid liquid, enjoying its sensuous touch, and, when it was deep enough to swim, a few desultory strokes took me out from the beach. Turning on my back, I squinted through the dazzling glare.
It was a scene worthy of a glossy brochure. The white beach with strategically placed recliners and a sprinkling of sun-worshippers, a backdrop of coconut palms, and underneath their shade the rich colors of hibiscus blossoms set against the luscious green of fleshy plants and ferns. In contrast, the mangroves crowding into the water at the southern end of the beach were a darker, danker shade and, with their miniature forests of breathing roots thrusting up through the sand, somewhat sinister.
I didn’t want to leave the caress of the languid water, but I had a schedule of duties for the afternoon. I swam slowly back to shore, collected my towel and dark glasses, checked the time, and retreated for a few more minutes to the scanty shade provided by the fronds overhanging the upper edge of the beach.
As I reclined on the sand my thoughts shifted to Lee Paynter. For the past twelve months I’d been concentrating on tapping the potential of the European tourism market, but even so I was aware of the American’s name and reputation.
In the world travel market, Lee Paynter had been described as the archetypal American business operator, a spectacularly successful entrepreneur who had introduced her conducted tours to previously unreceptive countries, wheeling and dealing her way through the labyrinths of officialdom. It was rumored that she would bribe, blackmail, or use any of her contacts in the U.S. government if her considerable personal charm failed to achieve what she wanted.
I picked up a handful of the fine coral sand and let it filter between my fingers. The involvement of Lee Paynter’s company in the Pacific region would undoubtedly be advantageous to tourism, so Australasian Pan Pacific, the private industry body set up by Australian and New Zealand travel interests, had actively courted her interest. I knew it was a considerable coup to have a tour wholesaler with Lee Paynter’s clout involved in the convention, and an even more considerable achievement to have her agree to personally assess both the destinations and the Australian ground operators.
In Sydney at the briefing before the convention, Sir Frederick Salway, head of A.P.P., had said to me with his charismatic smile, “Alexandra, I want you to regard Lee Paynter as your special responsibility. You’ll be her minder, and I want you to keep her happy. Do whatever she asks…” Under his neat white mustache his mouth had twitched as he added, “…within reason, of course.”
Now I wondered if there had been a double meaning there—if he’d assumed I’d know that Lee Paynter was gay.
“And Alexandra,” he had concluded, “we’re giving you this opportunity to show us what you’re made of. Pull it off, and your career gets a boost—I can guarantee that.”
I loved my work—I’d been hooked on the industry ever since my first job in a travel agency—and now there was a real chance that A.P.P. would be creating an expanded network to encourage more Asians to visit Australia. With my European experience I’d have a good chance of being on the short list for area management.
Sir Frederick recognized my ambition and was simply giving me a range of opportunities to demonstrate my abilities. There was nothing personal in his attention, so I could safely ignore Steve’s snide remark…or could I? Lately I’d had the niggling feeling that there might be more to Sir Frederick’s attention than professional interest.
Hunger made me aware that I should be dressing for lunch. I stood, stretched, took one last regretful look at the curving beach, and walked the few steps to my cabana.
My thoughts returned to Lee Paynter. I had the strong conviction that dealing with her would present me with what management seminars euphemistically call “a challenge.” And I had to pull it off—no matter how difficult the woman could be. I felt as though I were about to engage in battle with a dangerous opponent. What armor could I use? And the answer was immediate: indifference, well-disguised with courtesy, was my best defense.
* * *
That afternoon, instead of riding back to the airport in a mini-bus, I decided to give myself time to walk the distance at a leisurely pace. As I strolled along the well-kept paths I admired the skillful way the resort was landscaped, so that the rich tropical growth seemed to naturally dispose itself to advantage, disguising buildings and lining the winding paths with color and lavish greenery.
A short, sturdy pier marked the end of the beach, and I paused to admire the yachts swinging at anchor. Beside the heavy wooden piles a white egret slowly waded, its attention fixed on the rippling water. Then with one swift thrust it extended its long neck to seize some marine tidbit. A rapid swallow, and it resumed its remorseless concentration. Amusing myself by imagining life from the perspective of a small crustacean, I decided that oblivion in the form of an egret snack would at least be quick.
I walked along the pier, my sandaled feet echoing hollowly on the worn wooden planks. A solitary black and white pelican eyed me dourly, its pouched beak sunk into its downy chest. I leaned against the railing and considered the yachts. The sunlight burnished the heaving water and the white vessels seemed to be testing their tethers as though anxious to be gone. I found myself smiling at them. One day, I promised myself, I’d sail the Queensland coast, enjoy the beauties of the Whitsunday Passage, stop at deserted islands at dusk, fish for dinner, lie on the deck and watch the Milky Way revolve overhead…
But I couldn’t do that alone—such an experience had to be shared.
Suddenly somber, I thought, then I’ll never do it.
I’d wasted time. Unless I hurried, I’d be late for the flight. The warm air, earlier a pleasure, now seemed a thick impediment to my progress. I swore at myself: first impressions are vital, and I wanted Lee Paynter to see me as cool, disciplined and efficient, not out of breath and sweating.
The plane wasn’t on schedule, no doubt keeping what’s derisively called “Queensland time,” so I could catch my breath and chat idly with others in the welcoming committee before the flight arrived.
“Hi, Alex. Want a hibiscus behind your ear?” Tony Englert, a cheerful, chubby extrovert, was Sir Frederick’s second in command. “It’ll give you a sort of raffish, laid-back air. Just the thing to impress your Yank.”
As I laughingly declined we heard the buzz of the approaching plane. In the distance it looked like an elaborate radio-controlled toy. It roared across the bay with noisy purpose, landed smoothly and taxied promptly to halt in front of the warm peach tints of the Welcome to Tern Island sign. I stood back, conscious that I felt a slight anxiety…perhaps wariness would be a better word.
First onto the tarmac was a woman immediately recognizable from press photographs I’d seen. Lee Paynter wore a severely cut pale blue summer‑weight suit. Silver jewelry flashed in the glaring sunlight as she walked briskly towards us, briefcase in hand, assurance in every step. Moving forward to greet her, I saw she was of medium height, although she seemed taller because she carried her chin confidently high and held her shoulders back. Her short, well-styled hair was blonde, but streaked with a few tawny shades. The lines of her face were definite: a slightly hooked nose, firm mouth and strong jawline. When she took her dark glasses off, I found myself assessed by direct, slate gray eyes.
I smiled, shook her hand. I thought, What are you seeing, other than a woman who is a little taller, a little heavier than you, with dark hair and eyes, and a carefully welcoming expression? Or am I simply someone in the background to smooth your way, and not worth a second look?
Lee Paynter glanced at my identification. “Do you go by Alexandra?”
“Alex will do.”
“Okay. And I’m Lee, of course.”
She had what I call a light American accent, a lilt that catches familiar words and gives them an unfamiliar spin. And blonde though she was, her voice had a dark quality, a low timbre that stopped just short of huskiness.
The pleasantries disposed of, Lee Paynter turned her attention to business. She looked past me at the staff engaged with the new arrivals. “I want to check the entry procedures here. What I’m looking for is unobtrusive, efficient service that can process a tour group quickly, get them settled in, ready to enjoy themselves.” Her focus returning to me, she added, “And then I’d like to unwind with a game of tennis. Can you match me with someone who can play?”
“I’ll give you a game.”
“Can you play well?”
Nettled, I said sharply, “Yes, I can.”
My vehemence earned me a slight smile from the American, but no comment. As we walked towards the mini-buses I began to outline the resort’s guest registration procedures, careful not to let my voice show the irritation this peremptory woman had caused in me.
My shoulders were tight. Already I sensed that indifference was an option I no longer had.
* * *