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Authors: Margaret Tanner

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“No,
thanks, Dad. I'll potter around here for a while. I haven't been sleeping well
these last few days, so I might have a lie-down later.”

As soon as
he left, she scribbled a short note, picked up her case and started the mild
long walk to the station. Luck seemed to be with her, less than a hundred yards
from home she met up with a neighbor who offered her a lift.

The train
steamed into the station. There was still time to return home. She swallowed
down her fear and guilt and entered a carriage containing two elderly people.
The woman sat knitting as if her life depended on it. Laurie had just enough
time to put her case in the overhead rack and sit down before the train started
moving. Slowly, at first, it steamed out of the station but quickly picked up
speed. Clickity-click—the woman’s knitting needles took up the rhythm of the
rotating wheels.

An elderly
man sat at a window seat reading a book. He had a round, cheerful face and
happy eyes. She returned his smile before rummaging around in her bag for a
book.

It was hard
concentrating on reading when her behavior had been nothing short of
disgraceful. Deceit had never been part of her nature. She had always prided
herself on being honest, yet over the last few days one lie had piled up on
another. Stop thinking like this .You're doing it for Danny. It would be their
last chance to be together for weeks, at best. At worst. No, she couldn’t think
about the worst scenario, it was too distressing. Too terrible to even
contemplate. Her stomach lurched fearfully and her chest tightened, making it
hard to breathe.

The train
rushed past green, impregnable bush. She forced herself to concentrate on this.
There were farms where cattle and sheep grazed on lush pastures, and the
distant mountains formed an attractive backdrop.

It would
take hours to reach Melbourne.
Every now and again they stopped at a railway siding or station to pick up
passengers or take on freight. Not many people traveled on the train, so she
had plenty of room to make herself comfortable.

There was a
chill in the air, so she rested her cold feet against a foot warmer in the
carriage. Uncle Richard had promised someone would be at the station to meet
the train, but what if no one came to meet her
. She had his
address written down on a slip of paper, but she had no idea how to get to the Melbourne suburb of
Elwood, where he lived.

This was
the first time she had ever traveled on a train by herself. Several years ago
she and her father had stayed with Uncle Richard for a few days. Her memories
were rather hazy. Except for her cousin being quite fair, she could remember
little about her. Helen was only twenty-three, so they should have a few things
in common, at least.

In a dark
green velvet jacket with matching skirt and a white lace blouse, Laurie felt
quite grown up. Maybe I should have put my hair up? It would make me look years
older.

What if
Danny had changed his mind and decided to spend his leave with his army
friends? Worse still, what if he had met up with another girl?
 
Would he still want to contact her? What if
she couldn’t find him? She worried and fretted. Uncle Richard would help,
surely. Apart from being wealthy, he moved in influential circles and would
know the right people to approach.

She closed
her eyes in an endeavor to rest. Guilt about deceiving her father and anxiety
over Danny had made sound sleep impossible for the last few nights. If she
greeted her relatives looking pale and drawn, they might become suspicious and
pack her off home straight away. The motion of the train lulled her as the
wheels whispered, “I'm taking you to Danny. I'm taking you to Danny.”

Laurie woke
up with a start. She blinked several times in quick succession before suddenly
remembering she was on a train heading for Melbourne. Yawning behind her hand, she stood
up to stretch her cramped limbs just as the train gave a sudden fierce jolt.
She saved herself from falling into an ungraceful heap by grabbing hold of a
seat.

When the
other occupants opened up their lunches, she did likewise. What she wouldn't give
for a nice hot cup of tea to wash the food down. If she had been traveling in
first class she could have gone to the dining car, but that was a luxury she
couldn’t afford. Watching the passing countryside through the window,
conversing with the lady opposite and dozing passed the time.

“Melbourne in ten minutes,”
the conductor announced as he passed from carriage to carriage. Ten minutes and
they would be there. Excitement surged though her, tinged with apprehension.

“Could I
get your case down for you, miss?”

“Yes, thank
you.” The elderly man lifted it from the luggage rack and deposited it on the
floor.

Laurie
gazed out of the window in amazement. So this was the city. Hundreds of houses
stuck together, and smoke belching from numerous factory chimneys. How lucky
she was living in the country with fresh clean air and plenty of open space to
move around in.

They
steamed into the station. She picked up her case, following the lady with the
knitting onto the platform. People milled around everywhere, chattering
excitedly, calling out greetings to friends and relatives. She smiled at the
elderly man who had shared her carriage, watching enviously as a group of
people surged towards him.

Anxiously
she glanced around, searching for someone who might be waiting for her. No one.
How quickly the platform cleared. Within a few minutes she stood alone.

What should
she do? She bit her lip, trying not to panic. What if there had been a mix-up
in times?
 
Worse still, perhaps her
father had somehow contacted Uncle Richard, on the assumption that if no one
met her she would return home. I won't. I'll find Danny on my own if I have to.

“Are you
Lauren Cunningham?” Oh, the relief on hearing the young woman's voice!

“Yes, I'm
Lauren. Are you Helen?” She looked at the beautiful blonde young woman in
sophisticated city clothes and felt young, insignificant.

“Here she
is, Blair.”

The man
standing a step or two behind Helen wore the uniform of an officer in the Light
Horse.

“Blair,
this is my cousin, Lauren Cunningham. Lauren, meet Captain Blair Sinclair, my
fiancé.”

“How are
you, Miss Cunningham?”

“Call her
Lauren, you're almost family now.” Helen made a moue with her lips.

“I'm well,
thank you, Captain.”

He smiled
and his white teeth flashed ever so briefly against his tanned, cleanly shaven
face. Inexplicably, her heart skipped a beat. He was a tall, slim, perfect
specimen of manhood from the top of his slouch hat to the shiny leggings he
wore over his khaki breeches. You're not as handsome as Danny. His eyes were
blue-gray, the kind that changed color with the weather, and fringed with
thick, dark lashes. He picked up her case in a slim, suntanned hand.

“I didn't
know you were engaged.” She walked beside Helen, who linked arms with the
Captain.

“It hasn't
been announced officially yet. Mother feels we should wait until this wretched
war business is over.”

“I do wish
you would reconsider, darling. The war might go on for months. I won't have a
moment’s peace until my ring is on your finger for everyone to see.” There was
authority in Blair’s cultured voice. He had private school written all over
him.

“Are you
leaving for the war soon, Captain?”

“Yes, some
of the infantry troops are embarking within a few days.”

“Danny,”
she uttered his name in a scared whisper.

“Lauren
came down to see her beau off to the war.” Helen gave a tinkling laugh. “Rather
sweet, don't you think?”

“You appear
rather young to have a beau.” His brief appraisal caused her cheeks to burn.

“I'm
seventeen.” She swallowed nervously. “Do you think he'll be among the troops
sailing in a few days?” Pain lanced her heart when she thought of Danny sailing
thousands of miles across the sea.

“I don't
know.” He frowned, as if something troubled him.

They were
out in the street by now. Laurie gasped in surprise when Captain Sinclair
strode up to a Ford four-seater motorcar and opened the passenger door.

“Is this
your motorcar?” Danny was forgotten in the excitement of being driven in a
motorcar for the first time. Wait until he heard about this, he would be green
with envy.

“The car
belongs to Father. He lets Blair borrow it,” Helen announced, as the Captain
assisted her into the front seat. His hand lingered on her arm a little longer
than necessary. When he turned to help Laurie, his touch seemed light, quite
impersonal. He deposited her case in the back, and she snuggled into the
comfortable seat. Uncle Richard must be wealthy to own a motorcar.

Captain
Sinclair drove with confidence. She forced herself not to keep staring at his
tanned, well-kept hands as he steered the vehicle through an assortment of
horse and motorized conveyances.

Helen’s
beauty was arresting. She wore her silver blonde hair up, drawn back from her
face with a few wispy tendrils escaping. Enormous cornflower blue eyes were
fringed with thick, fair lashes. Her skin looked creamy white, flawless. Such
perfection seemed somehow off-putting.

Laurie took
no part in the conversation as the other two whispered together. Easy to see
that Blair adored Helen's fair beauty. What man wouldn’t? His eyes kept
straying to her face as if he feared a puff of wind might blow her away.

“Is this
your first visit to Melbourne, Lauren?” The captain’s sudden question caused
her to blush. Had she been staring at him?

“I've been
here once before, a few years ago with my father. It seems so crowded. What a
noise! Even on sale day at home it isn't like this.”

“I can't
understand anyone wanting to live in the back of beyond. Give me the hustle and
excitement of a big city anytime.” Helen sounded slightly petulant.

“Darling,
country life is grand. After our marriage, we must spend some time at my
property. I can't leave things in the hands of an overseer for too long.”

“Well, you
can go up on your own. I won't be leaving Melbourne.
I told you before.” She tossed her head. “Sell the place.”

“Sell
it?
 
Impossible. There have been
Sinclairs at Coolibah for more than sixty years.” His voice took on an edge,
his jaw thrust out. Maybe Helen didn’t have him completely twisted around her
little finger, after all.

“Do you run
sheep or cattle, Captain Sinclair?” Laurie interrupted.

“Both, but
it's referred to as a cattle station. We have about thirty thousand acres.”

“Seems a
lot.”

“I suppose
it is a good holding, although some of it is still heavily timbered.”

“Have you
many horses?” Laurie found her shyness fast disappearing when they discussed a
topic close to her heart.

“Plenty of
work horses, but at the moment only a couple of thoroughbreds.”

“Whereabouts
is your station, Captain? I live at Sandy
Ridge, just out of
Benalla.”

“It’s at
Kilmore so, give or take eighty miles or so, we could call ourselves
neighbors.” He laughed, causing the rather somber planes of his face to relax,
and her heart fluttered like a caged sparrow.

“Here we
are.” Helen broke in on their discussion, giving the distinct impression of not
being pleased that Captain Sinclair's attention was diverted elsewhere, however
fleetingly.

Uncle
Richard lived in a mansion. No other word could describe the two-story
Georgian-style home where they stopped at the curb.

Laurie had
little time for looking around, as they had hardly stepped onto the verandah
before a maid ushered them inside. As Laurie followed Helen into a large
sitting room, she noticed the walls were lined with beaten copper.

Aunt Jane
rose from a burgundy velvet settee as the three of them entered. “Hello, Aunt
Jane.” She kissed the cool, powdered cheek.

“How are
you, Lauren?” Aunt Jane smiled before turning her attention to the others.
“Blair, will you and Helen be taking dinner with us?”

“We were
going to Fiona Everingham, Mother.” Helen pouted.

“Oh, did
you mention it before, darling?” The captain frowned. “I thought as this is
your cousin's first evening in Melbourne,
you might want to stay and entertain her.”

“Don't
worry about me, Captain Sinclair. If you and Helen have other arrangements, I
don't mind. I can give Aunt Jane and Uncle Richard all the news from home.”

“Of course
you can, dear. Your uncle should be here soon.”

“I knew
Lauren wouldn't mind.” Helen flashed a smile. “I'll go and change now.” She
swept out of the room, almost knocking over the young maid.

“Off you
go, Lauren. Mary can show you to your room. After you refresh yourself we’ll
share some coffee.”

The maid
picked up her rather shabby case and Laurie followed her out of the room. A
carpeted stairway led to a carved wooden door. As she entered her room, she
could not suppress a gasp. Pink satin curtains matched the cover on the carved
four-poster bed. Was that a Persian rug on the floor? You've stepped up a few
rungs on the social ladder. She frowned worriedly, wondering how to cope with
such opulence.

BOOK: Lauren's Dilemma
4.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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