Authors: Elizabeth Haran
About the book
England, 1941: Lara Penrose is a young teacher who is transferred to Australia as a “punishment.” She finds herself in a remote town near the idyllic tributary of the Mary River. At first Lara is delighted, until she learns the river is home to hundreds of crocodiles who frequently besiege the hamlet, keeping the villagers in fear. The young teacher soon takes matters into her own hands by hiring a crocodile hunter. She gets wrapped up in his charm, which starts to put her already delicate relationship with Dr. Jerry at risk.
Additional titles of Elizabeth Haran, available as e-books: “River of Fortune,” “Under a Flaming Sky,” and “Island of Whispering Winds”.
For fans of adventurous romance novels set in exotic places, such as works by Sarah Lark or Rebecca Maly.
About the author
Elizabeth Haran was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia and migrated to Australia as a child. She lives with her family in Adelaide and has written fourteen novels set in Australia. Her heart-warming and beautifully written books have been published in ten countries and are bestsellers in Germany.
This book is dedicated to Michelle Horan who lost a bravely fought battle with cancer on February 10, 2013. Michelle was a kind, thoughtful, and truly selfless person; a loving and devoted mother to Michaela, a loyal life partner for Harry, a caring daughter and sister, and a very special friend to me.
Michelle, God needed another angel, and chose you. He may have taken you sooner than we wanted, but you'll always be in our hearts and never forgotten. I'll treasure the many years of our friendship and find comfort in knowing that when I join the angels, you'll be there to show me how to use my wings.
I also want to thank my sister, Kate Mezera, for joining me in Darwin to research this book. It was the first time in many, many years that we've spent time together, just the two of us, so it was very special.
Newmarket, County Suffolk, England,
“There you are, father,” Lara snapped, peering over the gate of a horse stall. She knew she sounded irritable, but it had taken far more courage than she expected to be standing right where she was. The smell of warm horse, fresh hay, saddle soap, and oiled leather conjured up confronting childhood memories, memories she thought she'd safely locked in the back of her mind.
Stables and horses were her father's world, but they were also a distressing reminder of how she'd lost her mother. She had to keep reminding herself that she was here for a good cause.
Lara could just see the top of her father's head. The rest of him was hidden behind a large horse, but that mop of brown curly hair was unmistakable. She'd been teasing him about getting it cut every morning for the past week. It grew so fast and it was so unruly, but Walter Penrose simply joked that the horses he looked after didn't mind what he looked like. In truth, neither did he. He'd never been a vain man.
Lara Penrose, fifth-grade teacher at Newmarket Elementary School, had searched nearly all of the thirty stalls at the polo ground and had become frustrated, thinking she might not find her father. At just five-feet-two-inches tall it was a struggle for her to see over the stall gates, let alone see anyone in the stalls.
Walter Penrose was on the far side of a dappled gray polo pony, head down and slightly stooped as he checked the stirrup had been adjusted correctly. Upon hearing a familiar voice he glanced over the horse's withers and blinked in surprise. Straightening up, he said, “Lara! What are you doing here?” This was the last place he expected to see his daughter, who rarely visited him at the stables, where he'd been manager for nearly ten years. She'd never been a fan of polo.
“I was looking for you. Actually, that's not quite the truth. I was looking for Harrison Hornsby and I thought he'd be with you,” Lara explained. The horse threw his head towards the gate, startling Lara, who stumbled backwards in fright.
“Whoa, steady on, Echo,” Walter said, with easy reassurance. He knew how Lara felt about horses, and why. “It's all right, Lara,” he added. “Echo won't hurt you.”
“Ugh,” Lara cried, as she looked down and crinkled her pert nose. “I've stepped in horse muck! I saved coupons for six months to buy these boots and this is the first time I've worn them. Where's the stable boy? He should've cleaned this mess up.”
“You shouldn't be here, Lara” whispered Walter and moved Echo to the back of the stall. He opened the gate, drew her inside, and hoped she hadn't been seen by Lord Roy Hornsby, his ill-tempered employer. “Only authorized people are allowed in the stables, Lara,” he said in a low voice. “You're aware of this for years. That includes me, the horse owners, polo players, stable hands, and strappers...”
“Yes, yes, I know who might be on the list of authorized people, father,” Lara said in an agitated whisper. She didn't mention that she'd already been stopped by a strapper no more than fifteen years old and told the same thing.
“A few of the strappers are girls, but you could hardly pass for one dressed like that,” Walter pointed out.
“I should hope not!” Lara said, tugging on the bottom of her tailored jacket. “Although it's nearly three years old, this suit cost the equivalent of a fortnight's wage. The hat was worn only a few times, so I consider it almost new,” she added smugly. “But I'm certainly unimpressed to have muck on my new boots.”
“You'd have to expect that in a stable, Lara,” Walter said patiently. “No one wears fashionable clothes and boots in a stable, especially if they want to stay clean.”
Despite the fact that there was a war going on, and London and other big cities were being bombed mercilessly, Lara did her best to look stylish. Today was no exception. Her calf-length, woolen skirt and matching double-breasted hip-length jacket were two shades darker than her blue eyes. Black, knee-length leather boots were matched with the softest kid leather gloves. Her head was adorned in a tasteful Cloche Brim Flapper hat in midnight-blue velvet, from which blond curls appeared around her faux-fur-trimmed collar. It was a bitterly cold and dreary Saturday and the brisk air had her cheeks glowing with health. With her bright-blue eyes, golden-blond hair, creamy complexion, and usually dazzling smile, Lara was a ray of warm sunlight on any gloomy day.
Walter had always found it impossible to be angry for more than a minute with his only progeny. In fact, he had no trouble understanding why grown men went weak at the knees when she smiled at them because she'd always been able to wrap him around her little finger. She'd broken more hearts than he cared to count, claiming men didn't take her seriously because she was petite, blond, beautiful, and most importantly, she had a good brain and could challenge them. Walter felt that was the reason that Lara had become a teacher. Society dictated that women marry and have children by a certain age. She assumed it would happen one day, but meanwhile, Lara wanted a fulfilling role in society and to be seen as a woman with an intelligent mind, not just a pretty package in stylish clothes.
At fifteen hands one inch, Echo, an Argentine-cross Criollo was a lot of pony for young Harrison Hornsby to handle ÂÂâ too much, Walter believed. The lad was ten years old and best described as scrawny, whereas Echo was a powerful animal and spirited. He needed a very firm hand. Unfortunately, the boy's father, Lord Roy Hornsby, disagreed with Walter. He thought giving Harrison such an experienced, talented horse, was doing him a favor. Echo was one of four high-strung ponies to be ridden by Harrison that day, each for one chukka, or a quarter of the polo match. If he managed to stay aboard and compete, it would be a miracle.
Walter glanced over the stall gate to see if anyone had spotted Lara.
“You mentioned Harrison, but why have you come here to see him, today of all days?” Walter asked.
“I've come to cheer him on in his polo match,” Lara replied defensively.
“You've never been interested in watching horse sports before,” Walter stated in mild surprise. In the back of his mind he understood why Lara avoided anything to do with horses. Her fears weren't rational, but she'd been four years old when she lost her mother in 1922. Even at such a tender age, she'd been deeply affected and had somehow understood that horses were the reason for her grief. Walter had never pushed her, but always hoped she'd overcome associating horses with deep loss. It always made him feel guilty because he earned his living by caring for animals that he loved very much.
“I know, but I am interested in poor Harrison's welfare. He didn't want to compete today. His pompous father has forced him to do it! It's such a pity that the gentry are the only people fortunate enough to be able to afford to keep horses during war time. The poor boy has suffered terrible anguish about this match all week. The least I can do is offer moral support.”
“Keep your voice down, Lara,” Walter said, worriedly, as he peered nervously out of the stall again. “Lord Hornsby is around here somewhere and he won't be my employer for long if he hears you criticizing him. I'm lucky to have a job I love when so many other men and women are forced to work for the war effort.”
“He might be your boss, father, but Harrison is my pupil. When he's anxious or upset, his schoolwork is seriously affected. He has the most sensitive stomach. Yesterday he spent more time in the bathroom than the classroom! The poor boy's nerves are absolutely shattered.”
Walter wasn't surprised to hear this, or that Lara's concern for her pupils extended beyond the classroom. While he was being given instructions for the match that morning, Harrison had excused himself twice to go to the bathroom. In fact, Walter suspected that's where he was at that moment.
“Harrison hates polo,” Lara added. “You know that, father. He has no interest in sport whatsoever! But does his father listen? No! What is wrong with the man? Perhaps if I had a word with him...”
“No, Lara, you can't interfere. Believe me, Lord Hornsby would be furious.”
“Surely he can't be oblivious to what he's doing to Harrison,” Lara stated, shaking her head.
“You know Lord Hornsby was once one of the best polo players in England,” Walter said. He wasn't making excuses for him. In fact, he didn't understand him, but he was trying. “He expects Harrison to emulate him.”
“It's not Harrison's fault that his father was injured in the war and can no longer play polo,” Lara said. “Harrison is his own person. He might not be interested in sports, but he has other interests. He's very fond of postage stamp collecting and bird watching. And he loves to read mystery novels. If only his father would take the time to notice. He might appreciate what a wonderful son he has.”
“I suppose it's only natural for a father to want his son to follow in his footsteps.” It was a sentiment that Walter felt, but he also understood what Lara was saying. He often found Lord Hornsby's relationship with Harrison hard to observe. Many times he'd had to bite his tongue when he wanted to defend the boy against one of his father's tirades. Unfortunately, a few weeks earlier he'd mumbled a criticism under his breath when Lord Hornsby was being particularly savage about something minor, and had been overheard. It was common knowledge in horse circles that he had a special gift with horses, and he was the best stable manager in the country. Even so, Roy Hornsby would've still fired him for the criticism if another good stable manager had been available and not off serving the country in a battle overseas.
Walter had been called up to fight, but failed his medical exam because he'd lost a kidney in his teens after a serious illness. Otherwise, he too, might've been fighting abroad. As it was, his âmistake' was still costly. Since that day, Lord Hornsby had constantly found fault with his work, making his daily life almost unbearable. He would've quit, but with the war going on, horse breeders were downsizing staff, not taking on new staff, and he needed an income.
“In my opinion, what he's doing to poor Harrison is causing him so much harm,” Lara said angrily. “It's verging on abuse!”
Echo shuffled restlessly and Lara pressed herself against the stall wall, terrified she was about to be trampled or kicked.
“Lara, please keep your voice down.” Walter looked out of the stall again and his eyes widened in alarm. He could see Lord Hornsby talking to Harrison in the distance. Fortunately he had his back to them. “You'd better go and take your seat in the grandstand if you are going to watch the match.” He opened the stall gate and then led her to a door nearby, thus avoiding a face-to-face confrontation with Roy Hornsby. “Please don't return to the stables, Lara. I'll see you at home.”
“I only wanted to wish Harrison good luck before the match,” Lara said indignantly as her father almost pushed her through the door.
“I'll tell him that you were here,” Walter promised before abruptly closing the door after her.
The polo match was painful to watch, even for someone with little knowledge of the rules. Lara cheered loudly, but it was agonizingly obvious that poor Harrison was incapable of putting up a contest. When he was passed the ball he no sooner had it under control when it was hooked by one of his opponents. Most of the time he couldn't keep up with the play or the umpire claimed he was off line. Lara was further saddened to overhear comments about his lack of skills from spectators close by.
It was also worrying that Harrison was struggling to handle the spirited Echo. Lara's heart broke for him. When play stopped between chukkas she would have wanted to rush to his side to comfort him.
The second chukka was no less hard to watch. In fact, Harrison looked to have even less confidence than in the first chukka. He was letting his team down badly. Lara could see Lord Hornsby standing on the sidelines. His profile was stern; his arms were crossed. Lord Roy Hornsby was a slightly built man of medium height, although his aura was that of a much bigger man. His shoulders, while narrow, were square and his back ramrod straight, befitting an officer with many years of training. He possessed an audacious air that made him unapproachable. He looked physically fit, but when he walked, it was with a slightly lopsided gait that was far worse in his mind than it was in reality. It made him feel less of a man and he overcompensated by subjecting everyone around him to a cold manner that was self-protective.
During the first days of the war he'd been seriously injured. His thighbone was shattered by enemy fire while riding in the mounted brigade. Much to his humiliation, when he didn't make a full recovery, he was given a honorable discharge and sent home.
Apparently even the very best doctors hadn't been able to mend the leg properly because the bone was too damaged, and the injured leg was now slightly shorter than his good leg. This he could've lived with, but he was unable to ride because the pain in his thigh was at times excruciating, especially in cold weather. Which was the reason his personality had changed, and it was not for the better.