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Authors: Margaret Tanner

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BOOK: Lauren's Dilemma
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“Of course
not. I'd like to come riding with you again, Dick. I've had a wonderful day.
Thank you for taking me to your beautiful, special place.”

On arrival
at the stables, Blair waited, his face black as thunder. “Where the hell have
you been?”

“Riding
with Dick.”

“I expected
you back an hour ago.” He held the horse's head as she dismounted. “Where did
you go?”

“Dick took
me to this pretty little place with a tinkling waterfall tumbling over shiny
white rocks. Did you know the wattle is already starting to bloom in the
gullies?”

“The young
fool took you all that way?”

“He took me
to his favorite place because he wanted to share it with me. Why are you so
angry?”

“He should
have had you back earlier. In fact the two of you shouldn’t have gone off
alone.
 
You seem to forget you're a
visitor in my home.”

“We forgot
the time. Heavens, Blair, this is 1916 not 1816. I don't need a chaperone. I've
never forgotten, not even for a moment, that I'm merely a visitor. You've made
my position very clear of late.”

He muffled
a curse. As soon as they entered the homestead, she excused herself. “I have to
tidy myself up.”

Dinner was
an uncomfortable meal. Blair chewed morosely. Glancing up suddenly, she caught
him watching her with a brooding puzzlement.

Helen
nibbled away, every now and again putting in a sulky, petulant complaint about
being bored.

“You can
take me into town tomorrow, Blair.”

He
swallowed a mouthful of food before answering, “I'll do no such thing. There's
a lot of work requiring my attention.”

“All you
ever think of is work.”

“There
happens to be a war on. I'm a dozen men short. What do you expect me to do?”

“Maybe
there's something I can do,” Laurie volunteered.

“No,
there's not,” he snapped. He held his head between his hands. “I'm sorry, both
of you. I'm not fit to be in company tonight. I've got a dreadful headache. My
skull feels like it’s going to split open.”

“Why didn't
you say something before? I'm sorry for coming back late. It was inconsiderate
of me.” Laurie felt immediate remorse.

“Forget
it.” He pushed his plate away. “I might have a lie down.” He passed a trembling
hand across his forehead.

“What am I
supposed to do this evening?” Helen pouted.

“Read a
book or something.” Laurie glared at her. What a selfish, petulant creature.

Blair rose
unsteadily to his feet. His face was drawn with pain even his eyes seemed half
closed because of it.

“Would you
like some help getting to bed?”

“I should
be able to manage, thanks.”

“I could
massage the back of your neck, it might help.”

“Thank you.
I feel absolutely hellish. Finish your meal first, though.”

In less
than fifteen minutes Laurie left a pouting Helen and walked into Blair's
bedroom. Why didn’t he use the main bedroom? He sat propped up against the
pillows, cradling his head in his hands.

“Here let
me.” She sat down on the bed. After gently removing his hands, she shifted the
lamp so the glare would not hurt his eyes. She massaged his neck, and within
minutes his tension eased.

“This is
like old times, remember? When you were at the convalescent hospital?”

“I'll never
forget your hands, so little and dainty, yet you have a magic touch. I'm
feeling better already.”

She did not
speak for a time, just kept up a gentle massage. “Feeling more relaxed now?”

“Yes, thank
you.” He gave a rueful laugh. “You always seem to be nursing me when I'm ill.”

“I don't
mind. Try to sleep now.” She adjusted his pillows so he could slip more
comfortably into the bed. As she leaned over to straighten the blankets, he
grasped her wrist.

“Don't
leave me yet. Stay until I go to sleep.” She curled her fingers around his, and
with her free hand caressed his forehead, smoothing away the wrinkles. He
closed his eyes and she stayed there.

In sleep he
appeared vulnerable, the harsh angry lines of his face softened and her heart
overflowed with tenderness. Time passed, the only sounds in the room being the
ticking of an antique clock on the dressing table and his deep, regular breathing.

Gently she
eased his fingers from around hers and placed his hand under the bedclothes
before slipping away.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Chapter Ten

 

Next
morning Laurie was eating a bowl of porridge at the kitchen table when Blair
strode in.

“How do you
feel?” she asked.

“Much
improved, thanks to you.”

He did
appear better. The drawn paleness had left his face, she decided, watching as
he hooked a chair over with one foot before sitting down. Helen was having
breakfast in her room, so it seemed almost like old times having Blair share
the table with her.

He was
dressed in his usual moleskins with black leggings, and he wore a comfortable,
shabby jacket over his shirt.

“Would you
like to come out riding with me today? I'm going into the hill country to check
on some scrub cattle. Angus thinks there's a number we could muster later on,
and today looks as if it will be fine.”

Laurie
couldn’t believe her ears, not after the way he had treated her since Helen’s
arrival. Was he trying to heal the rift between them?
 
Maybe, just maybe he did feel something
special for her. She was leaving herself open to more heartache her brain
hammered out the warning, but her poor foolish heart refused to listen. “I’d
love to come.”

“Good.
Could you make us up a few sandwiches for lunch, please, Fergie?”

The
housekeeper set about preparing the sandwiches. As soon as Laurie finished
eating she excused herself and hurried to her room to change, leaving Blair to
finish his breakfast. Within the space of ten minutes they were at the stables
collecting Firebrand and Bolinda Vale who were already saddled and waiting.

Laurie
waved to a grinning Jimmy as they rode off. Blair explained that Angus had left
a day earlier to check with the shepherds about their sheep.

“I bought a
small property before the war. I planned to raise the best merino sheep in the
state. Now I'm back, one of my first priorities is to build up the flock
again.”

It was
pleasant riding together. They headed towards the mountains, but not in the
same direction she had gone with Dick. They did not speak, but it was a
companionable silence. Please God, let this be the beginning of a thaw in his
anger.

They passed
gullies cut like deep clefts into the rocks and so densely wooded, numerous
cattle could hide there without detection.

For lunch
they lit a fire. While the billycan boiled, Laurie wandered down to the creek,
picking her way over hollow logs from which dainty tree ferns grew. Blair
joined her after a time. They stood together without speaking, gazing into the
crystal clear water.

“As a boy,
I used to fish here,” he finally said. “Mainly perch and black fish. I came to
tell you the water is boiled.”

When they
sat down to drink their tea, she couldn’t suppress a gasp of surprise. He had
toasted their sandwiches and they tasted delicious with an extra smoky flavor.
She leaned with her back against a tree. After lighting his pipe, he smoked it
thoughtfully, with his knees drawn up so he could rest his elbows on them.

“I love it
here, Blair; everything is so peaceful.”

“I used to
think of this place, when I was on Gallipoli. Men lay dying all around me, the
death and suffering was frightful. You could see it, smell it everywhere, but
you know the worst thing?”

She shook
her head. It was the first time he had spoken in depth about his experiences.

“The
incessant noise. It got everyone down. The bombardment would be so heavy
sometimes our ears rang for hours after it stopped. On the seventh of August we
attacked the Turks at the Nek.” He took an almost savage pull on his pipe.
“Pure, out-and-out slaughter. One wave of troops followed another over the top,
and each one gained an extra few yards of ground.”

He remained
silent for so long she thought he must have finished.

“One fellow
in my unit used to be a first class cricketer. When the Turks lobbed bombs into
our trenches they sometimes didn't go off, so we used to throw them back again.
This fellow used to lob them with such deadly accuracy he used to joke about
it, said he was pretending to be at Lords cricket ground, bowling a few balls
at the English Test Team.”

“What
happened to him?”

“I don't
know. We went over the top and I started running. I used to be my school's
sprint champion, so I was yards ahead of the others. I heard an almighty
explosion and remember being lifted up into the air, then nothing.” He gave a
long, drawn-out shudder. “I've got no idea what happened to him, probably
killed. I don't think there were many who survived that mad dash.”

“Don't
speak about it, if it upsets you.”

“I feel I
can tell you, Laurie. You understand as few others do. Sometimes I feel it
would be best to try and forget what happened; other times I feel like going
mad because I want to speak about it but can't.”

He started
retreating into a silent world of his own, where she did not like to intrude.
Would these men ever be the same again? Would the passage of time soften the
memories so they were not so painful, or would they forever remain, like some
festering wound that refused to heal?

“We’d best
head for home.” Blair sighed as he climbed to his feet.

She
stumbled against him as he pulled her up, and for a moment she felt his breath
stirring in her hair. Was it imagination, or did he hold her hand a little
longer than necessary? Wishful thinking, you fool, she castigated herself.

They
mounted their horses and rode off. The tree-covered mountains soared in the
background, dark and forbidding against the winter sky.

Blair told
her about a swagman who had become lost in the ranges. He wandered around for
days before being found half dead from exposure.

“How awful!
Was it on your property?”

“No, Guy
Webster's place. He lives not far from here, lost his arm on Gallipoli.

“Yes, I
remember seeing him and his wife at the party.”

Dusk had
fallen by the time they arrived back at the homestead. Laurie felt tired and
drained, which seemed strange, since it hadn’t been a long or strenuous day.
Helen met them on the verandah, absolutely livid. After a few moments of raving
and ranting, she burst into tears, so Laurie left Blair to console her.

Later, at
dinner, Helen smiled sweetly as she spoke about her friends and asked Laurie
about her father. So pleasant was she, in fact, that had Laurie not known her
cousin so well she would have begun to think they might be friends.

“Blair
promised to take me out riding.”

He gave
Laurie a rueful grin.

“I didn't
know you rode, Helen.”

“I've had a
few lessons on and off over the years. I did bring a riding habit with me. It’s
such a darling little thing, especially made for me in Sydney.”

She smiled
at Blair, and Laurie found herself in the unladylike position of having to
practically grind her teeth to stop from giving vent to her real feelings.

“Blair said
I could borrow your little horse.”

“Bolinda
Vale?” Laurie dropped her fork with a clatter.

“Those were
not my exact words. I merely suggested you ask Laurie whether she would loan
you the filly.”

“I'm sorry
Helen, but you can't have Bolinda Vale. No one rides her except me.”

“How can
you be so selfish? Anyone would think it was human, the way you carry on.
 
It's only a horse.”

“Only a
horse?
 
Bolinda Vale is beautiful, she's
almost human.”

“Do you
mind not arguing at the dinner table,” Blair broke in on them.

The apple
dumplings might well have been balls of paper for all the taste they had now.

“You can't
let Helen ride Bolinda Vale. She's got such a sensitive mouth. I mean, a novice
rider could ruin it.”

“I am not a
novice rider. Are you going to let her order you around, Blair? She's only here
because she tricked you.”

“I didn't
do it on purpose, it was a misunderstanding. I wanted to explain to Blair, but
I couldn't.”

“You wanted
to grab yourself a rich husband, admit the truth,” Helen sneered.

“You should
talk.” Laurie fought back. “You never once wrote to Blair while he was away.
You didn't even have the decency to answer his letters.”

BOOK: Lauren's Dilemma
13.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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