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.
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 — 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 ‘mistake’ 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.
He didn’t speak to other parents alongside him and he was not cheering his son. She could only imagine how poor Harrison felt having his father glaring at him.
Harrison was astride another horse that seemed even more difficult to control than Echo. The horse was well trained but far too strong for him. It needed an experienced rider with sound horsemanship skills, and this was not Harrison. His teammates had become reluctant to pass him the ball, but suddenly, out of nowhere, it came in his direction, and he went to take a swing at it. Suddenly a much bigger opponent came alongside and shouldered him heavily. Lara watched, horrified, as almost in slow motion, Harrison toppled from the horse, landing awkwardly. She jumped to her feet as he hit the ground hard. With the horses all travelling fast, a rider on the opposing team was upon him and all Lara could see was hooves and horse legs over the top of Harrison. She gasped, as did many of the spectators around her. Her hand went to her mouth to stifle a scream as Harrison rolled onto his side and curled up. Then the horses moved away and for a few moments he lay still.
“Is he dead?” a woman nearby asked aloud.
“Perhaps he was trampled. It was hard to see,” the man alongside her answered.
Lara couldn’t listen. Pushing past the spectators, she hurried from the grandstand to the edge of the muddy field in the drizzling rain. By this time, medical personnel were taking a stretcher out to Harrison. When she saw Harrison moving, it was the first time she took a deep breath. Her heart was hammering wildly.
Lord Hornsby stood on the sidelines, his face expressionless and rigid. If he felt afraid or dismayed for his son’s welfare, he certainly didn’t show it. By this time, Harrison had rolled onto his back and was holding his leg and grimacing in pain, but his father did not rush to his side. This riled Lara. She had the urge to go and shake him and tell him how lucky he was that his son had not been killed.
Lara was undecided about what to do. She wanted to rush to Harrison’s side to see if he was all right, but she knew her father would be displeased if she interfered. He’d made that clear. Even so, she felt torn. She watched from a distance as Harrison was loaded onto a stretcher and then carried towards the boundary of the field, where Lord Hornsby was standing. She was also well aware that Lady Nicole Hornsby, Harrison’s mother, was not at the match. But Lord Hornsby had forbidden his wife to attend the match, saying Harrison needed toughening up, not mollycoddling.
He appeared to check Harrison over superficially, before taking him by the arm and pulling him to his feet. He then conducted a brusque discussion with the medical staff before literally marching a limping Harrison in the direction of the stables.
Lara was incredulous. Her emotions ranged between feeling furious and being heartbroken for poor Harrison. She decided she had to check on him and reassure him, as clearly he was not getting any sympathy from his father. As his teacher, she felt her concern was justified, and her own father would just have to understand.
By the time Lara reached the stables she could hear Lord Hornsby’s booming voice, although she couldn’t see him.
“You did everything wrong today, Harrison,” Lord Hornsby ranted. “Has nothing I’ve ever taught you stuck in your head?”
Following the sound of Lord Hornsby’s angry voice, Lara walked through the center of the stable, glancing into open stalls either side.
“Do you know how many times I’ve fallen from a polo horse? Too many to count. When a true sportsman falls, he gets back on the horse immediately,” Lord Hornsby growled. “He does not lie on the ground, sniveling like a wimp!”
Lara could hear Harrison sobbing and blowing his nose and her protective instincts were further aroused. Her search became as desperate as her need to defend him. Finally she came upon the end stall, where hay bales and bags of oats were stored. Harrison was sitting on a bale with his father looming over him, unleashing a verbal storm of criticism about how he came to be unseated by his opponent. Lara could see that one of Harrison’s trouser legs was ripped, and his knee was bleeding. He was holding his leg above the knee as it obviously hurt him very much. His injury, and the shock of landing heavily on the ground from the height of a horse, was too much, especially with his father yelling at him. The boy wanted and needed the comforting arms of his mother and some medical attention.
Lord Hornsby had his back to Lara. “Stop that blubbering,” he boomed at his son.
“You are not a baby, so stop acting like one,” Lord Hornsby shouted angrily.
Lara couldn’t believe that Harrison’s father would humiliate him by saying such a terrible thing. She could see that the boy was trying to pull himself together, trying to be grown up, but he couldn’t manage. His small shoulders lifted every time he struggled to catch his breath. He was also holding his side as well as his leg, obviously in pain. Lara was immediately worried that he’d cracked or broken ribs and she was angry with his father for not having him examined by a doctor. It took all her willpower not to rush to his side and take him in her arms. Unfortunately, her willpower did not extend to her tongue.
“Stop bullying your son,” she said angrily before she could stop herself. Pushing the gate wide open, she entered the stall, trembling and on the verge of really losing her temper. “Harrison is not a man! He’s a boy, with plenty of time to grow up and face adult life. And he doesn’t like horses or the sport of polo. If you weren’t so obsessed with living your sports ambitions through your son, you might know that.”
Harrison lifted his head to reveal a tear-stained face. For the moment he forgot his pain because he was so shocked to find Miss Penrose standing up to his father on his behalf. Lord Hornsby was equally startled. Virtually no one would dare to speak to him in such a manner and he was completely taken aback. This initial reaction was quickly replaced by outrage.
“How I treat my son is not any of your business, Miss Penrose,” Lord Hornsby snapped.
“He’s injured, perhaps with broken ribs, and all you can say is ‘get back on the horse and act like a man.’ He’s ten years old for goodness sake.”
“I won’t have him mollycoddled by a woman,” Roy Hornsby snapped. “It’s painfully obvious to me that he needs to toughen up if he’s to survive in this world. Being competitive is a good start to making a man of him.”
“I’m sorry you can’t ride anymore, Lord Hornsby, but forcing poor Harrison to compete will not make you feel any better.”
Lara had hoped to make Harrison’s father see that what he was doing was wrong, and he was trying to live his life vicariously through his son, but unwittingly, she couldn’t have said anything worse to him. His face turned florid and his lips compressed to a thin line, making him appear even crueler. His eyes flashed darkly, seeming to bore right through her.
“How dare you,” he spat furiously. He took a step towards Lara and despite her bravado; she felt more than a little intimidated. His temper was legendary, but experiencing it firsthand was far worse than she’d ever anticipated.
“You are just like your father,” Lord Hornsby growled, pointing an accusatory finger in her direction. “You overstep the bounds of your profession. Well, I won’t have it. I won’t have my employees talking to me as if we are peers. I certainly won’t have you criticizing how I treat my son.” His anger seemed to be growing — if that was possible. He took another step towards Lara. Despite how angry she felt, Lara at this moment regretted ever crossing swords with him. He was a frightening man, regardless of his stature. She had a very clear picture of exactly how poor Harrison felt and she would stand up to his father.
“As your son’s teacher, I’m very concerned about his welfare,” Lara said as calmly as she could. “He’s a sensitive boy...”
“You are the daughter of my stable manager,” Lord Hornsby shouted. “A man lucky to still be in my employment because, like you, he’s over-opinionated on matters that do not concern him. Neither you, nor your father, are my peers! You’d be wise to remember it.”
“You might consider us beneath you,” she said outwardly calm. “But that does not mean its right to treat Harrison so badly. He’s your flesh and blood.”
“I don’t need reminding of that!” Lord Hornsby shouted. “It’s because he’s a Hornsby that he needs to stand up for himself. As for you! I’ll see that you are fired for your insolence.”
Lara was incredulous and blinked. “Fired!”
“That’s right,” Roy Hornsby said with a confident sneer, leaving Lara in no doubt that he had the power to do it.
“For defending your son and worrying about his welfare?” She just couldn’t believe he’d go that far.
“For having the audacity to interfere in the way I raise my son.”
Lara’s anger simmered. If she was going to lose her position, she was going to have her say. What did she have to lose? “You, sir, are a bully,” she said venomously. “You use the power that comes with your title in a detrimental way. You use your former rank as a military officer to intimidate everyone around you. You are just a little man with an over-inflated sense of self-worth. Thankfully, Harrison is nothing like you.”
Lord Hornsby’s eyes narrowed with malice and his fists clenched at his sides. He looked about to erupt and Lara was more than aware that they were the only three people in the stables. She didn’t regret her words: he deserved them, but she couldn’t help feeling terribly afraid. She had no idea of what he was capable.
Anticipating that this arrogant man was going to come towards her again, perhaps to attack her, she sidestepped so that she was standing in the open gateway of the stall, where she could make a hasty retreat if she had to. As predicted, Lord Hornsby took a step in her direction, shaking his fist at her in outrage.
Suddenly, the handle of a rake flew out of the hay lying on the floor of the stall, striking him full force in the face, and knocking him off balance. Instantly, he fell backwards, hitting his head on a bucket left alongside the stall wall. He lay still. She noticed a trickle of blood running from his mouth. Lara’s eyes widened in shock. Did the fall kill him?
Lara could not believe what had happened. She glanced from Lord Hornsby’s body to the rake. It must been hidden in the hay on the floor and obviously he’d trodden hard on the head, causing the handle to fly up and hit him in the face.
Harrison looked at his father and then at Lara with a blank expression.
Lara pulled herself together. “Lord Hornsby,” she cried in panic and knelt beside him. Examining him, she found a pulse and sighed with relief. She moved him so that his head was no longer at an odd angle, and then turned his head to the side and opened his mouth. Blood ran out, along with his front tooth and she gasped. The back of his head wasn’t bleeding, fortunately, but a lump had already formed and it was growing bigger by the second.
“Is my father ... dead?” Harrison whimpered.
“No,” Lara said, standing. “He’s going to be all right, but he needs a doctor. And you need one too. I’m going to fetch help.”
“Don’t leave us,” Harrison cried pitifully.
The boy’s features were always pale, but Lara thought Harrison was unusually pasty. “Be brave, Harrison,” she said. “Watch your father while I go and get him help.”
“But what shall I do if he wakes up?”
“Nothing. Just keep him still if he tries to move. I won’t be long, I promise.”
Within an hour, Lord Hornsby was in the White Lodge Emergency Hospital on Exning Road, Newmarket, and had been medically assessed and put in a room for observation in case he had concussion. Lara got a glimpse of him from outside his room as nurses went in to attend him. She could hear him barking orders at them, so they were flustered and red faced when they reappeared. His face was bruised and his lip was swollen. She dreaded to think about how furious he must be about his missing front tooth.
“May I see Lord Hornsby?” Lara asked the nursing sister meekly.
“He won’t see anyone, miss. He wouldn’t even allow his wife in the room when she came to collect their son,” the sister said. She looked at Lara as if she was quite mad for wanting to spend any time with him.
“I have something for him,” Lara said, producing her handkerchief, which was neatly folded.
The nursing sister looked at the handkerchief. “He won’t need that,” she said confused.
Lara unfolded the handkerchief carefully and the sister glanced at what was inside. Just for a second her lips moved upwards in the merest of a cheeky smile, but then her face was a mask of professionalism again. She picked up the tooth. “I’ll see he gets this,” she said.
“Thank you,” Lara said, and left.
Lara went home, where she found her father in a flurry. At the stables he had been told that Lord Hornsby had been taken away in an ambulance. At first he’d thought there was some mistake because it was likely Harrison who’d needed treatment and care, and apparently he’d been in the ambulance, too. But then he’d been given vague details about his employer having fallen and been knocked unconscious.
“Where’ve you been, Lara?” Walter asked his daughter as soon as she came inside.
“At the hospital,” Lara said.
Walter blinked in astonishment. “Why?”
“I wanted to see if Lord Hornsby was all right.”
Walter did not understand. “Why?” he asked again.
“I was there when...” Lara began. She searched for the right words to explain what had happened.
Walter groaned. “Don’t tell me you had something to do with this, Lara.”
“It wasn’t my fault...”
“What do you mean? I told you to keep away from the stables,” Walter said irritably.
Before Lara could further explain, there was an insistent knock on the door. Walter opened it to find two constables.
“I’m Sergeant Andrews,” the elder of the two said. “And this is Constable Formby, sir. I believe a Miss Lara Penrose lives at this address.”
“She does,” Walter said.
“And you would be...”
“I’m Lara’s father, Walter Penrose.”
“Is Miss Penrose at home, sir?”
“We would like to speak with her, sir.”
“Of course, but what’s this about?” Walter asked in concern.
Hearing her name, Lara came forward. “I’m Miss Penrose,” she said. “Can I help you?” She suspected they had come to question her about what had happened at the polo ground.
Sergeant Andrews took her by the arm. “You are under arrest, Miss Penrose,” he said.
“Arrest!” Walter gasped. “What for?”
“For assaulting Lord Hornsby.”
“I didn’t assault him,” Lara cried insistently. “You can ask him.”
“Lord Hornsby says you did, Miss Penrose.”
Lara paled and her knees went weak. “There must be a mistake,” she said. “He wouldn’t have said that because it’s not true.”
“I suggest you get a lawyer for your daughter, sir,” the sergeant said to Walter as they marched Lara away.
“What? Where are you taking her?”
“To the police station on Vicarage Road, sir. She’ll be formally charged there.”
“Dad, this is a mistake,” Lara called over her shoulder.
If the situation had felt alarming at the time of her ‘arrest’, the prospect of being bundled into the police station at Newmarket officially turned it into a nightmare!
“This is ridiculous,” Lara yelled almost hysterically as Sergeant Andrews and Constable Formby physically escorted her through the police station doors like a common criminal. By now her composure had completely deserted her. If not for her stubborn pride, she might’ve dropped to her knees and begged them to let her go.
Lara had been pleading her case with the two police officers since the moment they’d taken her from her home. She was becoming really frustrated and upset that they wouldn’t even try to see her side of the story, let alone show her empathy.
“Surely you can’t possibly believe I assaulted Lord Hornsby,” Lara cried. “He’s a former military officer with combat training! I’m a woman — a petite one at that! You have to see that it just doesn’t make sense.”
“Obviously you took him by surprise and he didn’t see it coming,” Constable Formby commented with a smirk. He immediately received a reprimanding glare from his superior, who’d told him more than once that he had to be seen to be impartial.
Lara blinked in surprise. “That’s not true!”
“There’s no question that Lord Hornsby has been assaulted, and he claims you did it, Miss Penrose,” Sergeant Andrews said with strained patience. It was because Lord Hornsby was a former military officer that the sergeant believed him. Why would a man with his background say something like that if it wasn’t true? To be assaulted by a young woman of small stature would be humiliating for any man, let alone a former military man.
“It might look that way, but I’ve already told you, several times, that he stepped on a rake and it hit him in the face.” Lara’s voice was becoming louder in anger and dissatisfaction.
“So you’ve said.” The sergeant treated her to a disbelieving frown. He’d heard a lot of tall stories in his day but this was one for the books. That it was coming from such a pretty young woman made it all the more incredible. Even so, it was becoming evident that she had a temper.
“I know it sounds unbelievable... but ...”
“You’ll have your say in court, Miss Penrose, so save your explanations for the judge,” Sergeant Andrews insisted. “Until then, I suggest you say nothing more until you get advice from your solicitor.”
“I shouldn’t need a solicitor,” Lara said, succumbing to tears. “I’m innocent!” She became aware that she was being scrutinized by a man and a woman sitting on chairs against a wall. She quickly summed them up as likely offenders waiting to be processed, and she was soon to join them! She’d never felt more humiliated.
“Sit here while I do paperwork in regards to the charges against you,” Constable Formby said to Lara, ushering her towards the only available chair. Unfortunately, it happened to be sandwiched between the man and woman.
Lara panicked. “Can’t I wait somewhere else?” She lowered her voice. “Somewhere more private?” The situation was shameful enough, without being the object of conjecture.
“We don’t have any free offices.”
“I don’t mind waiting in a passageway, or even a corner, as long as it’s out of sight. You can see I’m not a criminal and we’ll have this sorted out within the hour.”
The man and woman looked mildly amused.
“You can wait in a cell if you’d prefer,” Constable Formby said unmoved.
Lara considered her options. “Are there people in the cells?”
“That’s what the cells are for,” the constable said intolerantly.
“Are they ... like these two?”
“Yes,” Constable Formby repeated. “This is a police station, Miss Penrose. The detainees are not usually the cream of society.”
“I’ll wait here,” Lara said, embarrassed and defeated.
Tugging on the hem of her jacket nervously, she tentatively sat down. She dried her tears, while pressing her elbows to her sides to avoid touching the man or woman. After a few moments she dared to glance nervously at the hard-looking woman alongside her, while trying to avoid eye contact with the man who was boldly looking at her legs.
Lara tugged on the hem of her skirt to cover as much of her legs as possible while regarding the woman. She was wearing an ill-fitted black dress with a plunging neckline. It hung on her skeletal frame, the gaping neckline exposing too much of bosoms that resembled two fried eggs. When the woman glanced in her direction, Lara averted her gaze, giving her full attention to the floor in front of her. She couldn’t help noticing the woman’s shoes were so badly scuffed and worn that the leather on the heels, which might’ve once been red, was curled up the sides. An unpleasant smell was coming from the woman. It made her feel queasy. Although there were barely inches to move, she shuffled to the far side of her chair to escape the smell, and accidentally touched the man’s right arm. She involuntarily jumped, as if he was on fire. She glanced at him in horror, barely containing the urge to wipe imaginary germs from her arm. Instead, she squirmed across the chair, closer to the woman.
The man turned to openly leer at her, giving her a head-to-toe assessment. She concluded that he was determining whether or not she was worth mugging. She glared back at him defiantly.
The woman could no longer contain her curiosity. “What ya done, love?” she asked, subjecting Lara to the smell of rotten teeth.
“Nothing,” she snapped upset. “But no one believes me.”
The woman uncrossed her skinny legs, unashamedly revealing a gaping hole in her left nylon. She laughed sardonically. “I’m innocent too,” she said mockingly.
“I am innocent,” Lara claimed tearfully. “Do I look like I’d assault anyone? I’m a school teacher, a trusted member of society.”
“Well, excuse me,” the woman said pretending to be impressed. “Ya hear that, Fred? We’re in the presence of a law-abiding schoolteacher. The criminals in Newmarket are becoming high-brow.” She cackled and his smirk grew wider.
Lara felt tears prick her eyes again.
“How much do ya reckon school teachers earn, Hazel?” the man asked, noting Lara’s tailored suit and leather boots.
“A lot more than I get standing on street corners,” Hazel whispered so the constable wouldn’t overhear. She cackled like a laying hen.
Realization suddenly dawned, and Lara’s mouth dropped open. Hazel was a streetwalker. A prostitute! Lara couldn’t believe the position she had found herself in, and all because she’d wanted to give Harrison Hornsby moral support! It was ludicrous.
Jumping to her feet, Lara approached the front desk. “This is past ridiculous,” she said to the sergeant who was filling out paperwork. “I’m going to the hospital to speak to Lord Hornsby. He will confirm I did not assault him.” She heard Hazel cackling again and turned to give her a withering glare. “I bet Lord what’s-his-name deserved what ya gave him. He should be man enough to admit it,” said the streetwalker.
“I didn’t assault Lord Hornsby and Harrison can confirm that,” Lara said, frustrated and outraged that no one believed her.
“Who’s Harrison? Yer boyfriend?” Fred asked, ogling Lara’s figure. His lewd thoughts couldn’t have been plainer if they’d been written across his forehead.
“Certainly not! He’s a ten-year-old boy and he just happens to be Lord Hornsby’s son and one of my pupils. He’s a sensitive boy. He had a bad fall this afternoon while playing polo, but instead of giving him sympathy and making sure his injuries were treated, his father verbally berated him, shattering his fragile self-esteem.”
Hazel’s eyes widened. “Oh, that’s terrible, isn’t it, Fred?” She pretended to be outraged but did a very bad job of it.
“I only intervened to defend Harrison,” Lara explained further.
“Of course you did,” Hazel patronized.
“As soon as I speak to Lord Hornsby, he’ll sort this misunderstanding out and all this nonsense will be forgotten.”
“Sounds like you had motive for walloping that toffee-nosed Lord,” Hazel claimed.
“I certainly didn’t wallop him, as you put it. I’d never do that,” Lara said aghast.
Sergeant Andrews came out from behind the front desk. “You are not going anywhere, so sit down, Miss Penrose,” he ordered. “If you don’t do as you are told, I will have Constable Formby put you in a cell sooner rather than later.”
“Why can’t I go to the hospital and get this straightened out? It will save us all a lot of trouble. I shouldn’t be here at all.”
“I already have Lord Hornsby’s statement, as I’ve told you many times.”
“Then he’s a liar,” Lara shouted. She’d reached the end of her tether.
Sergeant Andrews looked at Constable Formby and a silent message passed between them that made Lara nervous. The constable came from behind the desk and approached Lara, taking hold of one of her arms so firmly that it was painful.
Lara panicked. “Ouch!” she cried. “Let me go!” She suspected she was about to be dragged off to the cells and she was overwhelmed with fright. She struggled to free herself, pulling her arm with as much force as she could muster. Constable Formby’s grip slipped as the seam on the sleeve of her jacket ripped. Lara’s arm was suddenly free but the inertia made her lose her balance and her arm flung behind her. Unfortunately, Sergeant Andrews was standing behind her, and she struck him full force in the nose. His eyes widened in shock, as his head snapped backwards.
Realizing what she’d done, Lara gasped in disbelief. Blood started pouring from the sergeant’s nose and his eyes streamed with tears.
“You’ve broken my nose,” he growled angrily. He wiped the underside of his nose with the back of his hand and then glanced at the blood. His expression became grim.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that, sergeant,” Lara rushed to explain. “It was an accident,” she added.
“Take her away,” the sergeant hissed as he fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief to mop the blood running down his face. He didn’t fail to notice that Hazel and Fred were laughing.
Constable Formby took hold of Lara’s arm again. “Give me trouble again and I’ll slap the cuffs on you,” he threatened.
“You know that was an accident. Please don’t put me in a cell,” she begged. “I promise I won’t give you any trouble.”
“You’ve had your chance,” the constable said without empathy as he dragged her through another door.
“You know what happened was partly your fault,” Lara suggested, and received a scolding glare. “You didn’t mean it to happen and neither did I,” she added. “Just look what you’ve done to the sleeve of my beautiful jacket.”
Lara was being led down a short corridor on well-worn floorboards that creaked. They passed rows of bars on her right, making up four cells in all. Each cell contained a few prisoners, who made lewd and terrifying comments.
The constable unlocked the door to the last cell and pushed her inside. She was overwhelmed with the smell of stale urine and body odor.
“You now have two assault charges to deal with,” Constable Formby said as he locked the door again. “There’s a good chance you are facing a lengthy jail term.”
It took a few moments for his words to sink in. “Surely you can’t be serious,” Lara said incredulously.
The constable didn’t reply. He gave her a look that said he was deadly serious, which angered Lara. As he walked away, she called after him.
“I hope you are going to pay for the repairs to my jacket.” She immediately realized that her words were ridiculous. The state of her jacket was the least of her worries.
When Lara heard a door slam, she slowly turned around to face three pairs of curious eyes. Her cellmates looked like vagrants, disheveled and desperate. The women were middle aged, or perhaps time and their circumstances had been unkind. The man was quite elderly. He looked like many of the harmless vagrants around town. They were looking at her strangely.
“Do any of you have something to say to me?” Lara asked with uncharacteristic aggressiveness.
Neither the women nor the man were game to reply.
An hour later, Walter arrived at the police station with a man he’d known for many years. They were accompanied by another man, the uncle of Walter’s friend, a solicitor. After speaking to Constable Formby, they were allowed access to the cells. Lara had been sitting on the floor, as far from her cellmates as humanly possible in a confined space and had bemoaned her situation. She had even shed a few tears. Now she was deeply relieved to see her father. She rushed towards the bars that separated her from her father and clutched his hands.
Walter could see she’d been crying and it caused him deep anguish. “Are you all right, Lara?” he asked anxiously.
Lara nodded, almost too emotional to speak.
Walter noticed her jacket and glared at her cellmates. “What did you do to my daughter?”
“It wasn’t them, Dad,” Lara said wearily.
“Can you get me out of here?”
“We’re trying, but it’s not looking good,” Walter said worriedly. “Surely it isn’t true that you assaulted Sergeant Andrews, Lara?”
“It wasn’t like that, father. I pulled my arm free of Constable Formby’s grasp and accidently hit the sergeant in the face.”
Walter sighed in dismay. “Is that how your jacket got torn?”
Lara nodded. “It was Constable Formby’s fault as much as mine, but he’s not taking any responsibility.”
Walter had been hoping it wasn’t true. He didn’t know what to make of all that was happening. “You remember Bill Irving, Lara?”
“Yes,” Lara said, turning her attention to her dad’s friend of more than twenty years. “Hello, Mr. Irving.”
“Lara,” Bill said, gesturing towards an older man carrying a brief case. “This is my Uncle Herbert. He’s a solicitor.”
“Hello, Mr. Irving. Can you get me out of here?”
“I’d like to say I can,” Herbert said kindly. “But it won’t be easy. Apparently, Lord Hornsby is not allowing his son to be questioned, so there is no way to verify your story.”
“Can’t you do something about that?”
“No. Harrison is a minor. We need Lord Hornsby’s permission to question him. And now with the assault charge filed by the sergeant...”
Lara felt dismayed and her head dropped.
“But I’ll do all I can. You will be brought before the court very soon, I’m sure. Meanwhile, I’ll see if Sergeant Andrews will at least drop the charge of assault. Were there any impartial witnesses?”
“Witnesses?” Lara brightened. “Yes, there was a man and woman sitting on the seats in the reception area. Their names were Fred and Hazel. Hazel is a prostitute, but I’m not sure why Fred is here. They must still be in the reception area because they haven’t been brought through.”
“There wasn’t anyone when we came in,” Walter said.
“I don’t suppose you know their full names?” Herbert asked. “If you did, maybe we could find them.”
Lara shook her head.
“I’ll have a word with Sergeant Andrews. Perhaps he’s had time to cool down and see reason,” Herbert said, but he didn’t sound very confident.
“Thank you, Mr. Irving,” Lara said. “I had hoped I wouldn’t have to spend the night in here.”
“I’m sorry, Lara. That is quite likely,” Herbert said.
Herbert Irving could see how nervous Lara was when she was escorted into the courtroom and took her place beside him at her bail hearing. She had that I can’t believe this is happening expression that he’d seen so many times before on clients who were innocent, and he was sure that Lara was innocent. Bill had known Lara all her life, so he could vouch for her character, but apart from that, Herbert had represented people from all walks of life, so he could read them like a book. He had no doubt that Lord Hornsby had it in for Lara. He was sure the Lord knew what really happened but he was too humiliated to admit it.
After two nights in the cells, wearing the same clothes, Lara looked extremely wearisome and a little disheveled. Her father had wanted to bring her fresh clothes, but he’d been told by a junior constable at the police station that Sergeant Andrews, who’d taken leave to recover from his injuries, had left orders that Lara was not to be given any special privileges and that included visitors, other than her lawyer, or gifts.
The first thing Lara did was look for her father. He presented a solitary figure, standing not too far behind Herbert on the empty court gallery. Lara was unaware that many of the parents of her pupils had been denied access to the courtroom and were congregated on the court steps, protesting her innocence.
Lara thought her father had aged years in a few days, and felt terrible that the strain and worry over her predicament was affecting him so badly. He tried to smile bravely to reassure her, but she could see that he was at breaking point. She didn’t know that he’d tried, several times, to talk to Lord Hornsby but he had been turned away.
Herbert told Lara that he’d learned that Judge Winston Mitchell had a reputation for fairness. “Apparently he’s one of the best judges we could get,” he said, hoping to make her feel less anxious, if that was possible.
“So there’s a good chance I’ll be going home with my father this morning?” Lara suggested hopefully.
“I’m optimistic,” Herbert said, unable to hide the fact that he was exaggerating.
“How optimistic?” Lara pressed.
“Just a little,” Herbert confessed unwillingly. He patted her arm reassuringly.
Lara tried to relax, but it was almost impossible.
She was very worried that her father had already lost his position as stable manager for Lord Hornsby. If by some miracle he hadn’t, this situation was going to make things a whole lot worse for him. Although Lara disliked Lord Hornsby intently, she was well aware that her father had a very special relationship with the horses he looked after, each like a much-loved child to him. The bond between them was truly unique and Lord Hornsby had the sense to be aware of it. But Lara now knew he was a liar and a spiteful man, who was capable of anything. Nevertheless, Walter would be heartbroken to lose his position and access to the horses he loved. This, more than anything, had troubled Lara in the past two days.
Judge Mitchell listened intently as a written statement from Lord Hornsby was read to the court by his legal representation. Lara was dismayed, although not thoroughly surprised that her father’s employer described her as meddling, argumentative, and violent. He claimed she’d taken an exception to being told that she should not interfere in the way he raised his son. He went on to give an account of her striking him with a rake, knocking out one of his front teeth.
Sergeant Andrews had been on leave for two days. When he took the stand, the few people in the court were clearly shocked by his appearance, even Lara, who had not seen him since the ‘incident’. Both of his eyes were black and his nose was red, swollen, and askew, obviously broken. Judge Mitchell listened with interest as he gave his account of how Lara came to assault him. He described her as tempestuous, volatile, and a danger to the public.
Herbert Irving had intended to obtain a character reference from the head of the school where Lara worked. Apparently she was well liked by the staff and respected as a good teacher, so he was very surprised when the principal, Richard Dunn, refused to provide the reference. Herbert questioned him and soon learned that he was well acquainted with Lord Hornsby. Herbert asked if Lara was to be sacked from her teaching position, but Principal Dunn refused to give an answer. Herbert concluded that she wouldn’t have a job to return to, but decided now was not the time to tell her.
Most of the parents at the school had heard what had happened and they wanted to write testimonials to Lara’s good character. Herbert accepted three from the mothers of pupils in Lara’s class. He presented them to the court, and Judge Mitchell asked for a reference from her employer.
“I ... don’t have one, your honor,” Herbert admitted uncomfortably.
“Why not?” Judge Mitchell asked.
“I believe the school’s principal is closely acquainted with Lord Hornsby, so he felt he was in a conflicted position.”
“I see,” Judge Mitchell said, none too happy. He was well aware that Lord Hornsby’s influence stretched far and wide but a little surprised that Lara’s employer showed her no loyalty.
Herbert gave the court Lara’s version of the incidents resulting in the charges against her, claiming Lara was innocent of striking Lord Hornsby and innocent of purposely assaulting Sergeant Andrews. He added that Lara had ties and obligations to the community and her students and she would not put those in jeopardy. He suggested that Harrison could vouch for Lara’s innocence, but that Lord Hornsby would not allow the boy to be questioned and as Harrison was a minor, the court had no course of action.
“Were there any impartial witnesses to the assault of Sergeant Andrews?” Judge Mitchell asked.
“Yes, your honor, a man and a woman were present, but I’ve been unable to locate them as they have no fixed place of abode.”
“Are you telling the court that the witnesses are Gypsies?”
Herbert cleared his throat in embarrassment, as the travelers were not considered reliable witnesses. “It appears so, your honor.”
After a recess, Judge Mitchell said that he’d taken everything into account, but it had been very difficult to make a decision because of the lack of a reference from Lara’s employer to back her good character. He accepted the parents’ of her students kind words, but said he would’ve liked a reference from a prominent member of society. He concluded that he’d deny bail because of a concern expressed by Lord Hornsby that Lara might put pressure on Harrison at school, or treat him unfairly. Lara cried out that she’d never do something like that, but she was threatened with charges of contempt and silenced. Herbert Irving pleaded with the judge to grant bail with restrictions, but his application was denied. Lara was to be sent to the Hollesley Bay Prison, eight miles out of the village of Woodridge in Suffolk. Judge Mitchell did, however, promise her trial date would be confirmed as soon as possible.
“Nicole, you shouldn’t be here,” Winston Mitchell advised his sister as she entered his chamber in the county court.
“Why not? You are my brother,” Nicole protested.
“You know why. Just yesterday I rejected an application for bail in a case that involves your husband. I am meant to be impartial but it won’t look that way if you are seen in my chambers.” Winston had tried to get himself excused from the case, but no other judge had been available.
“The case against Miss Penrose is the reason I am here, Winston,” Lady Nicole said, as she removed her jacket and sat down. She was overly slim, due to her nervous disposition, with dark curly hair usually hidden by a fashionable hat. Her complexion was so fair that it was almost translucent, and her big green eyes were fringed by thick, dark lashes. She was, however, not a beautiful woman, but attractive in an ethereal way.
Winston was almost ten years older than Nicole and carried a little too much weight around his middle. His skin was pitted as he had bad acne as a boy and his hair was white after a serious illness in his twenties. He’d never married or had a family, but more than once he’d been asked if he was Nicole’s father.
“I cannot discuss the case, Nicole,” Winston said brusquely. “You know that.”
“I do, but if you don’t send Miss Penrose to jail for a period of time, my life with Roy will be unbearable. What she did to him has left him extremely bad tempered. He hasn’t been out of the house because of his missing front tooth. You know how vain he can be.”
“Then why doesn’t he visit a dentist and get the missing tooth replaced?”
“He won’t wear a dental plate because he’s afraid it will look out of place and be too noticeable.”
“I’ve always known him to be bad tempered and somewhat vain,” Winston added. “I don’t see how you can say he’s any different now.”
Nicole looked pained.
In reality, Winston had never liked Roy very much. As far as he was concerned, his brother-in-law wasn’t endowed with a shred of charm and he wasn’t especially good looking. This of course wouldn’t have mattered if he’d been a nice person, but that wasn’t the case. Winston believed it was only Roy’s inherited status as a wealthy lord that had paved an easy way through his life and attracted Nicole.
“I’m baffled how you’ve stayed married to the man anyway,” Winston told Nicole, not for the first time. She was well aware that her brother thought she had married Roy for the status. She enjoyed the finer things in life, and as Lady Nicole Hornsby, she had everything her heart desired; the grand house on an estate, jewels, clothes, a chauffeur driven car, and respect from the mere mortals who populated County Suffolk. But she paid a high price, too high in her brother’s opinion. “I cannot guarantee a custodial sentence for Lara Penrose, Nicole. It was a very difficult decision for me to reject bail.”
Nicole’s green eyes welled with tears. “I really need your help with this, Winston. I’m playing down how unbearable Roy is actually being. He’s threatened to...” Her voice wobbled.
“He threatened to what?” he asked in concern.
“He says he’ll ... divorce me if Miss Penrose goes free.”
“He’d be doing you an enormous favor,” Winston said with honesty.
“I’m quite serious,” Nicole dabbed tears.
“So am I,” Winston added curtly.
Nicole was annoyed with Winston. She needed his sympathy. “Roy feels Miss Penrose has made a complete fool of him. I think his reaction is overly sensitive but you know he has psychological issues relating to the war.”
“He was only in the war for a matter of weeks,” Winston said irritably. He didn’t like to play down what had happened, but he couldn’t tolerate it being an excuse for Roy’s ill treatment of his sister.
“His injury made him feel less of a man because he’s so competitive. Unfortunately, what Miss Penrose did has only added to the problem. I’m telling you it’s nearly pushed him over the edge. If she is not sufficiently punished he believes he’ll be the laughing stock of England.”
“That’s nonsense, Nicole,” Winston suggested with impatience.
“My life will be ruined if he divorces me, Winston. I can’t go back to being Nicole Mitchell from Yoxford.”
“Do you know how shallow you sound, Nicole?” Winston asked.
“It’s all right for you. You’re a magistrate with a good salary. Can you see me pouring pints of ale at The Black Bull Inn with mum and dad?” Their parents had owned the Inn for twenty years and it was now rather run down. To have to resort to that kind of work again would be a nightmare for Nicole.
Winston couldn’t imagine Nicole in her former life, but only because she was now spoiled. Even so, he was enjoying teasing her. “What’s it matter what you do, as long as you’re happy?”
Nicole’s big green eyes grew moist again. “This is serious, Winston, or I wouldn’t be here. Roy said he’d divorce me and take Harrison from me. I can’t live without my son.”
Winston’s mood darkened. He recalled that Nicole had lost several babies before carrying Harrison to full term. She’d been told she couldn’t have any more children but then she’d conceived Isabella, her miracle baby, five years later. “Surely he wouldn’t do that?”
“Do you seriously doubt he wouldn’t make good on his threat, Winston? What sort of life would Harrison have without me? Roy would be so hard on him, and he wouldn’t have me there to comfort and support him.”
Winston did love his nephew and he couldn’t deny that Nicole was a good mother. He thought Harrison was a fine boy, but he knew he was sensitive and that he struggled to cope with such a bombastic father.
“I understand your predicament, Nicole. I really do, but I won’t be blackmailed into sentencing Miss Penrose to a term in jail to save your marriage or Roy’s sanity. They are issues you and he will have to deal with.” That Roy was using Nicole to do his dirty work made Winston quite furious.
Nicole’s shoulders rounded as she stood up. She dabbed her tears again and then slipped her jacket on. “I’m sorry I came to you, Winston. You are a good man. I shouldn’t be putting you in this position. I just didn’t know what else to do...” Her composure crumbled and she began to sob. Winston put his arms around her. It broke his heart to see his young sister so upset.
Winston did not have any cases over which to adjudicate the following day, so he telephoned a dear friend who was in town and arranged to lunch together. He’d had a terrible night’s sleep, but he planned to seek Paul Fitzsimons counsel on Lara Penrose’s case, which was troubling him. Of course he couldn’t divulge personal details on the case, but there was always a way around that.
The Hot Pot Cafe was near Winston’s home and the food was delicious. Mrs. Fellowes served hearty soups and mouth-watering pies. Since the war began, business had been so much quieter, and today was no exception, especially as it was raining heavily. But Winston was actually quite pleased that the cafe was almost deserted. He didn’t want anyone to overhear his conversation with Paul. He arrived early and took a seat in the bay window.
At midday, Paul came in, removing his raincoat, and hanging it up by the door. He came over to Winston’s table with an extended hand and a huge smile. Winston had missed his friend and was overjoyed to see him.
“Your face is as brown as a hazelnut,” Winston observed.
“And yours is as familiarly white as flour,” Paul laughed. “Tell me, has it stopped raining at all since I left England?”
Winston smiled. “We did have one day of summer. Where’ve you been on your travels?”
“In Northern Australia, where it’s always hot. The mornings were predictably sunny and the afternoons terribly hot. It only rained in the wet season and then it poured, but it’s never cold. This is the first time I’ve worn a coat and a long-sleeved shirt in months.”
“Lucky you,” Winston commented. They ordered hearty chicken and vegetable soup and beef pies.
“You look worried about something, my friend,” Paul said as they waited for their food. “Is there a case you wish to discuss with me?”
“You know me well,” Winston replied. “I’ll be soon hearing a case that is troubling me.” He had no intention of mentioning the connection to his sister or her husband. Paul was a very good friend, but he couldn’t risk that.
“What’s it about?”
“A young woman who’s being accused of assaulting a member of the aristocracy and a police officer.”
“I’d say she’s looking at a jail sentence,” Paul said without hesitation.
“She claims she’s innocent of the first charge and the second charge was an accident. I actually believe her, but there are no witnesses to support her case. She’s a well-respected member of society, a teacher actually. Her pupils love her, their parents love her, and she’s never been in trouble before.”
“Then give her a bond. As she has no prior record that would be the most practical thing to do.”
“It’s not that simple. Both of her so-called victims want her to receive a custodial sentence.”
“That’s for the court to decide, not them,” Paul stated.
“If only it were that simple,” Winston mumbled, thinking of his sister. He would have liked to tell his friend about the problem, but that was impossible without revealing the difficulties of his sister. Instead he changed the subject. “Where should lead your next trip?” “Where will your travels take you next?” he added, wanting to change the subject.
“I’m here to see if there’s any way I can recruit teachers who would be willing to work in Northern Australia.”
“With so many men serving in the war, the children in Northern Australia are running amok. They hardly ever attend school so they get up to mischief and end up in trouble with the law. I fear most of them will be in jail as soon as they’re adults.”
“Why don’t they attend school?”
“The lifestyle is different in Northern Australia. The children want to be outside more. They are distracted by pursuits such as fishing and swimming. The schools are so short staffed that the numbers in the classes are double what they should be. So when students are missing, nothing is done about it. Some of the smaller schools don’t even have teachers, so they are forced to close.”
“Thankfully that problem does not exist here,” Winston said thoughtfully.
Sleeting rain washed over Lara’s face, plastering her hair to her head. She was hoeing weeds between a long line of cabbages and carrots. Her hands were raw with blisters and her back ached, but she was outside. That was all that mattered.
Lara was wearing an oversized raincoat and wellington boots, as were three other prisoners working between different rows of vegetables. Neither was adequate protection. Raindrops from her hair trickled down her neck and under the raincoat, soaking her back. The inside of her worn-out boots had also become damp. She wouldn’t complain though. She was able to breathe fresh air, something she’d never again take for granted. If it had been blowing a gale she still wouldn’t complain or go inside.
As someone being held without bail, it wasn’t mandatory for Lara to perform labor. For the first three days of being incarcerated she stared at the four walls in her cell in the Hollesley Bay Prison in a state of near panic. Finally, she begged the prison staff to let her work outside. It didn’t matter that she’d never tended a vegetable in her life. She volunteered to weed. That had been a week ago and four of the seven days since had been wet.
Lara would’ve done anything to avoid her claustrophobic, damp cell, inhabited by scuttling insects, where twenty-four hours felt like a week. Her bed was as hard as a plank of wood; her blankets smelt like dogs had slept on them, and they were itchy against her skin. They provided no warmth, so she shivered through sleepless nights with a cold breeze coming through the bars of the tiny window too high to afford a view. She’d cried so much that she felt she had no tears left. Fortunately, she didn’t share a cell, but she could still hear screams and anguished cries echoing in the corridors at all hours of the night. It was like being awake in the worst nightmare imaginable.
“Penrose! You’ve got a visitor,” one of the guards called from the shelter of an overhanging doorway on C block.
Lara dropped her hoe and trudged towards the androgynous guard dressed in navy blue, aware of the squelching mud beneath her boots. “Is it my solicitor?”
“No,” the guard said curtly.
“Is it my father?”
“Then who is it?” Lara was baffled as the guard jangled keys, unlocking and locking doors as they went down corridors.
“Do I look like your social director? You’ll find out soon enough.”
Lara was still taken aback each time she was spoken to with such hostility. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to being treated like a common criminal. She prayed she wouldn’t have to.
Dressed in a tunic as gray and drab as the day, Lara was escorted into a room twice the size of her cell. Like the rest of the prison, the walls were gray, the floor was gray, and the door was gray. The room was furnished with two old wooden chairs on either side of a wooden table, but had no window. A man was seated on one of the chairs, with his back to her. She was very surprised when he turned to face her. It was Judge Mitchell. He was wearing a well-cut, black suit and a burgundy scarf around his neck, which contrasted beautifully with his snow-white hair. He actually brightened up the room, but that didn’t stop Lara’s heart from thudding wildly. Why was he here, waiting to see her?
“Miss Penrose,” he said less formally than she expected, despite being quite startled by her appearance. He stood up courteously. He’d been prepared to see her appear tired, but her eyes were almost hollow in her overly pale face. Even though she was wearing a loose tunic, he could tell she’d lost a few pounds, weight she could ill afford to lose. He felt a twinge of guilt that he tried to ignore. “You’re wet,” he commented, noting her damp hair that she hadn’t had time to comb. Her tunic also had damp patches on her shoulders and back. She hadn’t seen her reflection for ten days, so she’d become unaware of her appearance. “Have you been out in the exercise yard in the rain?”
Having someone comment on her appearance made Lara self-conscious so she smoothed her hair with her hand. “I’ve been working in the vegetable garden,” she said softly.
Winston noted her blistered hands as she touched her hair. “In this weather? Are you being mistreated?” He glanced at the surly guard accusingly.
“No, I volunteered to go outside,” she said a little surprised he cared. “I like the fresh air.”
“You’ll catch your death of cold out there in this weather.”
“Right now a cold is the least of my problems. You wouldn’t have any idea what’s it’s like to be confined in a tiny space for days on end.” Her voice shook with emotion.
“No,” Winston admitted. “I wouldn’t. But then law abiding people don’t usually find themselves in that situation.”
Lara considered herself a law-abiding person, but she didn’t say so out loud. The look she gave the judge deemed it unnecessary. “You are the last person I expected to see, Judge Mitchell.” She immediately worried something was wrong. “Is my father all right?”
“As far as I know, Miss Penrose. I’ve no doubt my visit is unexpected. I can assure you I do not make a habit of visiting people who have appeared before me in court.”
“Then what makes me the exception?” Lara asked. She was curious.
“Please leave us alone,” Judge Mitchell asked the guard who left the room and locked the door behind her.
“Be seated, Miss Penrose.”
“Are you aware that you are due to face me in court in two days?”
“No,” Lara said, her heart racing. She hadn’t been told the date.
“Your lawyer will no doubt be notifying you later today.”
More than likely you will receive a custodial sentence.”
Lara gasped. “But I’m innocent!”
“Both of your victims do not see it that way.”
“So I will be spending years in this...” Lara couldn’t say the words that stuck in her throat.
“There might be an alternative. How would you feel about a teaching position at a different school instead of a jail sentence?”
Lara was gobsmacked. She lifted her chin and looked at him. “I don’t understand,” she said.
“If you were to accept, I would be willing to make that your punishment, but there is a stipulation.”
“What’s that?” she asked in a small voice.
“If at any time you leave the employment of that school before the end of two years, you’d be brought back here where you’d be incarcerated for two years.”
This was unexpected. Lara stared at Judge Mitchell, trying to work out why this offer sounded too good to be true. “It sounds as if you’ve made up your mind that I’m guilty before hearing any new evidence to prove my innocence,” she said.
“It will be a miracle if your solicitor comes up with anything to actually prove your innocence, with only Harrison Hornsby as a witness to what took place between you and his father. You know that and I know that. As for the other assault charge, even if the gypsies are found by Mr. Irving, they are generally not considered reliable witnesses.”
Lara knew he was right. Short of a miracle, she had no hope of being found innocent. “What is the difference between the school where I’m currently employed and the school you are referring to?” She suspected he was going to say it was in the Welsh mountains or the Scottish highlands, miles from a town. Or perhaps it was a school for students with severe problems. She didn’t know what to think.
“The school is in a small community a long way from here.”
Lara couldn’t believe she was right. “How far?”
“Many thousands of miles,” Winston admitted.
Lara’s mouth dropped open again. That distance ruled out Wales or Scotland. “Where exactly?” It crossed her mind he was banishing her to Iceland or Siberia, somewhere even more intolerable than the Hollesley Bay Prison.
“Northern Australia,” Winston said.
“Australia!” Lara was shocked. That was perhaps not as bad as Iceland or Siberia, but not far from it. “You want to banish me to a country on the other side of the world ... for something I didn’t do?”
“You shouldn’t look at it that way. From what I’ve learnt about you, you are a good teacher. It would be a terrible shame to allow your talents to be wasted when there are children in Australia who could benefit immensely. And Australia is not involved in the war.”
“What about my students here?”
“There’s no shortage of good teachers here, but apparently in remote communities in the Northern Territory it’s quite a different story. Think of the difference you could make to these children’s’ lives.”
Confused and angry, Lara stood up again. She loved her life in England. She didn’t want to leave her father. She began pacing, her thoughts in turmoil. On the other hand ... what choice did she have? Her condemnation was almost sure and she knew herself well enough to know that she never would be able to stay at this place for full two years. The alternative was to live in freedom and to work in the profession she loved — although it would be in a place she only knew from her schoolbooks. Wasn’t that clearly better? She felt that the judge waited for her decision.
“How would I get to Australia?” she asked, thinking of practicalities. “There is a war going on. Surely it’s dangerous to be travelling across the world.”
“A friend of mine has just returned from Australia by ship. It wasn’t a passenger liner because most of them are now troop carriers. It was a cargo ship also carrying passengers. He said it’s quite safe to travel across the Indian Ocean. I wouldn’t consider this option otherwise.”
“I’d be so far away from my father,” Lara muttered to herself. The thought was unbearable.
“That’s true, but apparently the weather in Northern Australia is always warm, even when it rains. I believe there are white, sandy beaches that stretch for miles and amazing plants and animals. My friend said it’s a most beautiful place. You’d be teaching in a small community at Shady Camp billabong, near the port of Darwin.”
“I’d be so far away from my father,” Lara muttered to herself. The thought was unbearable. It had been the two of them ever since she lost her mother.
“I need to speak to my father about this,” she said. It was a huge decision to make alone and it involved him, too.
“I want an answer from you before your court appearance,” Judge Mitchell said, getting to his feet. “If I don’t get word from you, then you know what to expect when you come to court on Thursday morning.”
“If I do agree to going to Australia, I want some reassurance that my father won’t lose his position at Fitzroy stables, if he hasn’t already.” She knew she was being brazen, but it was worth a try. “I’ll speak to Lord Hornsby and do my best to ensure your father keeps his position.” He knew from Nicole that Roy had allowed Walter to stay on for the time being, but only because he couldn’t find anyone as talented with horses to take his place. “Would you like me to arrange for you to see your father?”
“Yes, if you would, I’d be grateful.”
Lara’s tumultuous thoughts kept her awake all night. She wanted to be loyal to her pupils, but the hope of a miracle was slight. So she was in reality facing a two-year term in prison or the alternative, two years in a school in Australia. The next morning, however, the decision became a lot easier: her headmaster Richard Dunn sent her a letter of notice through his attorney. He said he could not employ a teacher who had been charged with a violent crime, innocent or not. Her heart broke just a little more, but that meant there was no reason not to accept the offer put forward by Judge Mitchell.
“Dad.” Lara was overwhelmed with emotion when she entered the visiting room later that day to find her father waiting for her. She wanted to rush into his outstretched arms, but a guard stepped between them, reinstating that they could not have physical contact. “It’s so wonderful to see you, Dad. How’ve you been?” she asked sitting down at the wooden table. When she noticed the trembling of his hands she added: “Oh, that was a silly question. I know how you’ve been.”
“I’ve been so worried, Lara. Is something wrong, other than the terrible situation you are in?”
“No, Dad. I need to discuss something with you.”
“What is it?”
“Judge Mitchell was here yesterday. He told me I’m looking at a custodial sentence of two years,” Lara said.
“Oh, Lara.” Walter went pale.
“Wait, Dad, there’s something more.” Her hand reached for his, but the guard cleared her throat, so Lara withdrew it. “He offered a two year teaching position in a different school as an alternative.”
Walter straightened up. “That sounds wonderful,” he said. “Is there a twist?”
“Sort of, Dad. The school is in another country,” Lara said, gauging his features carefully.
“Another country!” Walter looked concerned again.
His first thoughts were of the war and the danger to Lara.
“Australia, Dad. I would be sent to a remote community in Northern Australia for two years.”
“Australia is a long way from here,” Walter said, missing her already. But then he thought Australia was also a long way from the war in Europe and he worried about her every day, even though they were relatively safe in England. “But of course, it’s better than staying here.” He glanced at the gray walls of the visitor’s room. “You’d be free and doing what you enjoy. What do you think of the idea? You are going to accept the offer, aren’t you?”
“I was torn ... at first because obviously I didn’t want to be so far away from you and I didn’t want to let my pupils down. But this morning I received a letter from Richard Dunn, firing me for being charged with a violent crime. It doesn’t matter that I’m innocent.”
Walter frowned in anguish. He’d felt so helpless through all of this. Lord Hornsby had avoided him for days and then sent Bart Collins, a trainer, to tell him that he would not, and could not, discuss the court case with him, and that he was not to approach him, or he’d lose his position at Fitzroy. “I’m so sorry, Lara.”
“I know, Dad. At first I was angry when I heard the offer. It felt like I was being banished for a crime that I didn’t commit. But the more I think about it, the more I’m intrigued. In Northern Australia I’d be doing some good. I will be in a small community in a place called Shady Camp billabong.”
“That sounds nice.” Walter could see that the challenge excited Lara. He was happy for her and so relieved. “They’ll be lucky to have you, Lara,” he said, encouragingly. “You’ll probably really enjoy experiencing something new, too.”
“But what about you, Dad? I’ll be worried about you.”
“I’ll be fine,” he tried to sound positive. “I’ve still got my job, so that occupies a lot of my time. Lord Hornsby is avoiding me, but that suits me. I don’t want to see him. I’m looking for another position, but they’re scarce at the moment.”
“You love Fitzroy stables, Dad.”
“I do, but I don’t want to work for a man who’d have my daughter charged with assaulting him when it isn’t true. If not for the horses, I’d have walked out by now.”
Lara frowned. “Oh, Dad, you stay with the horses and forget about Lord Hornsby.”
“Don’t worry about me. Just worry about yourself,” Walter insisted.
“Are you sure you’ll be fine, Dad? It’s always been just the two of us.”
“ I’m going to miss you, dear, but knowing you are free and doing something you love will make me feel a whole lot better.”
Lara could see that he meant it and she understood.
“Two years will soon pass, and we can write to each other,” Walter added.
“You don’t write letters, Dad,” Lara smiled wryly.
“I will, for you,” Walter said. “But even if I don’t write frequently, I’ll enjoy hearing about what it’s like in Australia and all about your new school and the pupils.”
“Maybe you could visit.”
“That’s a good idea.” Walter didn’t actually see it happening, but it was a lovely thought.
“Then it looks like I’m going to Australia,” Lara said, hardly able to believe it was true.
“There you are, Lara,” Suzie Wilks said with a tinge of relief as she entered the open cabin door below the main deck. “A couple of your star pupils have been asking for you. I believe they have some questions about the pyramids and Giza, and none of us have a clue.”
Suzie was wearing a gaudy, floral sundress. It was one of only two she owned and certainly not Lara’s taste. The rather nauseating colors aside; a concoction of purple, green, and red, it was shapeless and did nothing to flatter her pear-shaped figure.
Lara’s dress, on the other hand, perfectly showed off her petite figure. It was peach in color, but unfortunately made of a synthetic fabric, so it clung to her like a raincoat that was wet on the inside. She’d gone from being repulsed by Suzie’s dress, to being envious of the cotton disaster. Suzie was also carrying her overly large straw hat that Lara had at first likened to a hideous Mexican sombrero, but she had to grudgingly admit it was perfect protection from the harsh sun when it wasn’t windy on deck. Suzie was now using it to fan her flushed face.
Although it was only a little after eight o’clock in the morning, it was already unbearably hot. Lara’s fashionable suits and high heels had become a joke aboard ship. She couldn’t wait to shop in Australia, but meanwhile she had to suffer, wearing her coolest long-sleeved blouse and skirt day after day. She’d given up wearing nylon stockings, and often went without shoes.
“When you weren’t at breakfast some of us were concerned,” Suzie said. “What are you doing down here when it’s already more than eighty degrees deck side?”
“I couldn’t face breakfast. Ever since we entered the Mediterranean Sea I’ve felt queasy,” Lara complained while lounging on a bunk in their cramped cabin aboard the MV Neptuna, a mixed cargo vessel with eleven crew and fifty-three passengers, including fifteen children. “Today I feel worse than usual. I guess I’m not used to the heat,” she added. “If Darwin’s weather is anything like this, I’m not sure I’m going to cope.”
Suzie was aware that Lara felt uncomfortable in confined spaces, so she knew she must have been feeling terrible if she felt retreating to their cabin was her only option.
“It’s a big change from the cold we left in England, but you’ll acclimatize.”
“I hope you are right,” Lara said with less conviction.
There were three sets of bunks in the cabin, so Lara was sharing with five other women that included Suzie, a former nurse whose husband had gone out to Australia ahead of her to find work in Perth and establish a home. Fortunately, Lara had a top bunk, near the porthole, which was open, although not a whisper of a breeze was coming in.