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"And her hair. What in the world would possess a woman to ... to chop it all off like that?"
"You're behind the times, aren't you? You've seen those women who come off the ships. Americans and British, most likely, I should think from the way they speak. And each of them with hair as short as this one."
"Who is she? Have you ever seen her before?"
"No, I can't say that I have. But you can tell, can't you? She's a fast one, that. I know I'll be watching my Robert more closely if she stays in town."
Helen Stanwood tensed at the counter in Bully's Dry Goods, her fingers cutting into the edge of her change purse. Not only was she completely uncertain as to which coins she should give to the man behind the counter, but she now had to pretend she couldn't hear the remarks coming from behind her.
She bit back the threat of tears, ignoring the tight throb that formed in her throat. Did the three women behind her think she couldn't hear them?
"Please, take what I owe you and I'll be on my way," she pleaded with the clerk, whose red nose and swollen features reminded her of Jack Dempsey after a prize fight.
With large, dirty fingers, he picked through the coins in her palm and turned to the register. Even the bells that rang out when he tendered her change mocked her.
In the back of her mind, her mother's strained and pinched voice spoke the oft-repeated words. You'll amount to nothing. If you don't mend your ways, everyone will know you for the whore you are.
She squeezed her eyes closed, hoping the motion would somehow close her ears to the vindictive noises she'd grown so accustomed to in San Francisco. It didn't work, and the echo of her mother's scolding continued. Perhaps the words wouldn't have hurt so much if they hadn't turned out to be true.
Thankfully, the three women behind her moved out of earshot. Helen was left with only the remnants of their taunts while she collected her purchase-two pieces of candy she no longer wanted-and left the store.
The street outside offered some comfort, despite the broiling heat. She'd finally arrived in Australia. Not only a land of magic and mystery, Australia also signified her only hope of a new beginning. Wiping the back of her hand over her brow, she scanned the dusty street. Along the boarded walk, several automobiles reflected the bright sunlight, although most of the bustling port city still used horses and draft wagons. She settled onto a bench near the door to wait for Dr. Mallory, opened her clutch, and withdrew a compact of powder. Her reflection looked tired and unkempt, but she powdered her nose anyway, then returned the offensive image to her purse.
The women who'd made those hurtful comments appeared at her side. One of them looked upon Helen as though she carried some life-threatening disease, and then she sneered, pulling her companions in the opposite direction.
They were young, the eldest probably somewhere around her own age of twenty-four years. The youngest was still a child. Each of them wore a long dress of greenish linen, obviously cut from the same bolt. Sisters. The family resemblance was apparent in more than their clothes. It was evident in the reddish blonde hair and in the three sets of blue eyes.
Helen glanced down at her own attire. For her first meeting with the doctor, she had chosen a loose-fitting tea dress and a pair of plain, sensible black shoes that buckled at the ankle. She looked perfectly fine, in her opinion. Respectable. Although her skirt did end just below her knees while the sneering sisters' dresses brushed the ground. And she couldn't hide her hair. Self-consciously, she fingered the tiny curls by her chin. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't control them. The straight bob looked better. Her cloche, the helmet-style hat that was all the rage in San Francisco, suddenly caused her forehead to itch. She pulled it off and slammed it to the bench at her side.
Two men on horseback rode slowly past. They looked much like all of the other men she'd seen in this wild, unruly landscape. Long, thick hair surrounded dirty faces covered with longer, thicker beards. The broader of the two men emitted a low whistle while he nodded at her. He said something to his companion she couldn't hear, laughed, then stared pointedly at her ankles. Heat born of a self-conscious dread all-too-familiar to her over the last few months crept up the back of her neck and settled in her cheeks. What century was it? To look around Port Hedland, it could have been the latter part of the nineteenth century, rather than more than two decades into the twentieth. Well, except for those few cars.
Still, she'd looked forward to a new start. San Francisco had become a prison, no matter how modern, and how she'd hoped she could prove herself here. She so desperately needed a new beginning. More than anyone knew. A chance to reinvent herself.
Based on her reception thus far, she would be disappointed. Unable to withstand the scathing, or far too appreciative looks coming not only from the two men who'd thankfully passed, but all of the citizens of Port Hedland, she studied her clasped fingers as though they held the secrets of the world.
If she kept her head down, and her mind elsewhere, perhaps she wouldn't notice or care that she stuck out here as much as she had back home. Of course, back home, there were others like her. Others who went to parties and drove cars and smoked cigarettes. And there had been Reginald ...
But those weren't the kind of people she was supposed to surround herself with.
"You look sad. Why are you sad?"
The voice came from her right with a soft, breezy lilt that took away any brusque quality the deep tenor might have caused. The owner of the voice was a black gentleman whose age was impossible to ascertain. He had grooves in the dark flesh beside his eyes, and a few lines around his full mouth, but he bore the fit, toned body of a young man. Brownish-black hair hung to his shoulders in dirt-shrouded strands while his eyes danced merrily, as though he had a secret he couldn't wait to share.
"I beg your pardon," she answered. "Are you talking to me?"
The man nodded before stealing his gaze away and looking directly into the sun. "It's a beautiful day, right? Anything is possible on a day like today."
"I don't know what you mean." Anything could happen? Like what?
"You could find what you've been looking for." The stranger moved to stand between Helen and the sun, rescuing her from the blinding glare. Standing there, he seemed much larger than his average height. Yellow and red paint, dried and flaking, decorated his bare chest, which was solid and sinewy with muscles used to hard work.
Just as Helen prepared to ask the man what he was talking about, the shopkeeper appeared in the doorway. "Blue, you crazy old bastard. Leave the sheila be and mind your business, for once."
The stranger ignored the comment, choosing instead to level a steady, mesmerizing gaze directly into Helen's eyes. A shiver of tense discomfort slid up her spine. Never before had she experienced the odd sensation of someone looking directly into her soul, but that's what it felt like. This old man commanded her attention even though there wasn't anything overwhelming about him. Still, it seemed as though he knew each and every one of her innermost thoughts. All of her secrets.
She couldn't have spoken if she'd tried, but she didn't have to. After what seemed like an eternity, the stranger sauntered away.
Helen stared after him, unable to break whatever connection he'd shared with her. What an odd fellow ... She wasn't certain she liked having her soul examined by a complete stranger.
The cheerful voice came from the street. Instantly more relieved than she'd ever been, she found Dr. Richard Mallory, her father's old friend and colleague and the reason she'd found a home here, seated in a buggy drawn by a single horse.
"Doc!" She leapt from the bench and hurried off the boardwalk.
When she reached the side of the buggy, she almost threw herself into the empty seat. The sooner Doc took her away from the accusing glares, the better. Unfortunately, Doc applied the brake and lumbered off the bench.
He was a large man, thick in his chest and waist, with white hair cropped short over his ears. For a man of his age-he had to be as old as her father, who had turned fifty-nine on his last birthday-he seemed fit and hearty. She supposed living in such a harsh landscape must contribute to most of the men keeping trim, even as they aged. If one didn't work hard, one didn't survive.
Doc's brown eyes danced beneath bushy eyebrows that had once been black, but had long ago turned a salt-and-pepper gray. Like the mysterious black man, deep lines were etched into the sides of his eyes and crinkled even more so when he smiled.
Circling the buggy, he opened his arms in a familiar greeting, as if he welcomed a member of the family instead of a child he hadn't seen in decades. "Helen. My, how you've grown."
"It has been more than twenty years."
"You look stunning, my dear," he whispered, gathering her in his thick arms for a paternal hug.
Finally he released her, holding her at arm's length and examining her from head to toe. "You look like your mother."
"Thank you," she managed.
He nodded as though satisfied, then dropped his gnarled hands. "Let's gather your things and get you settled into your flat, shall we?"
"Yes. I'd like that."
A few moments later, she sat on the bench beside Doc, her baggage neatly tied to the back of the vehicle. Doc clicked to the horse, and the animal struggled for a moment before pulling them away from the storefront.
"I trust you had a fine journey. It's a long way from America, even with the new ships."
"The trip only took six weeks."
"And you fared well?"
"Yes." She nodded. The ends of her hair tickled her beneath her left eye, and she tucked the strands behind her ear. "Several of the crew were infected with food poisoning during the voyage, and I was able to be of use." It was a lie. She had, in fact, met the ship's doctor, but for an altogether different reason. She hadn't been able to help him. She'd been a burden.
"A physician's work is never done, as I'm sure you've discovered on your own, my dear."
Helen shifted on the bench, turning to face her father's old friend. "I want to thank you, Doc. You can't possibly know how much this means to me."
"No need for thanks, child. Besides, I reckon I need the help. I'm not as young as I was."
"None of us are. Though I'm sure you have as much gumption now as I remember. I can see it in that little gleam in your eyes."
He winked at her and clicked to the horse again. "By the way, your hairstyle is lovely."
* * *
Moonlight sliced the banks of the De Grey River into a patchwork of silver and black. Nothing moved along the shore. Even the twisted mangrove trees seemed to hold their collective breaths. The night was heavy; the air, wet and suffocating. Paul Campbell removed his slouch hat, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, and handed the remnant of his days in the Lighthorse Regiment to Tim O'Leary, one of his best mates since before the Great War.
Somewhere in the darkness, Bessie Monro was waiting for him. A shiver of pure adrenaline rocked him to his bones. Well, it wasn't exactly pure. More than a few pints of Swan's beer fed the exhilaration that made his heart race.
Tim took the hat, shaking his head. "You're sure about this?"
Paul smiled. "Somebody has to do it, right? Might as well be me."
"She's a big one, you know. There isn't another lass like her in these parts, or anywhere, for that matter. She'll likely rip your heart out if you get too close."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Paul replied with a hint of sarcasm.
Did Tim think he was an idiot? Or too drunk to pull it off? He supposed he couldn't blame him, really. Of all the things he'd thought he might be doing tonight, jumping into the river to kill a giant croc hadn't been one of them. Making love to a beautiful woman was more what he'd had in mind. Even spending the night bellied up to the bar drinking himself into a nice, warm piss sounded better than having it out with twelve hundred pounds of angry reptile.
Unfortunately for his plans, there was no helping it. Bessie Monro had been terrorizing the settlers along the De Grey for coming up on two years. She'd slaughtered livestock and threatened the lives of the sheepherders' children. How she'd grown so large was a mystery, and she couldn't be allowed to roam free any longer.
When Grady Smith had dashed into Grogg's Pub shouting that the huge crocodile had been spotted only a few moments earlier in the wide billabong beside which Paul now stood, Paul had had little choice in the matter.
Perhaps his decision to take on the croc had been aided by the copious amounts of beer he'd consumed over the course of several hours. But that didn't matter. He'd developed a reputation of sorts since he'd come home from the war. Not that he cared much what others thought of him. The fact remained that folks around the Pilbara looked to him to help watch out for things.
Nobody else was going to draw Bessie out of the shadows. Nobody else was willing to risk his neck. Not Tim, who had a sheila and five little ones to provide for. Not Dale, whose wife was expecting their seventh. Paul didn't have any anklebiters to leave behind. No woman to mourn his passing if Bessie happened to win.
He wiped a hand over his mouth before removing his shirt. He dropped it onto the sand next to his boots. "Are they making bets yet?"
"You stand to take five quid. If you live."
Paul laughed. "Try not to worry so much, Tim. She's only a big lizard."
"Too right," his barrel-chested friend scoffed. "You're not the one who has to tell your mum there's nothing left to bury, are you?"
Glancing behind him at the small crowd gathered to watch the spectacle, he tossed them a wave. A cheer sounded as the men clapped and whistled their encouragement.
Paul retrieved his knife from its leather sheath. The wicked-looking blade curved slightly and reflected the moonlight. "If I don't come back, just tell me mum I ran away with a sassy sheila from Sydney." He smiled and winked. "Red hair and eyes like a wild sea. That'll get her where it hurts."
"You're a bloody lunatic, mate."
Tim was probably right. Even with the alcohol-based liquid courage pumping through his veins, he should know better than to take on a croc at night, especially in the water.
In the water, a croc was a god. Their strong tails propelled them through the river with amazing speed. They could stalk their land-based prey for hours, sitting as still as a statue with nothing but their eyes and nostrils above the surface. Waiting. Then lunge in the blink of an eye. Their victims were dead in mere seconds, drowned and mauled. Then eaten. That is, if they were lucky. The unlucky ones might survive the initial attack and suffer longer, pulled beneath the water and stuffed under a log or a rock, bleeding to death if they didn't drown first.
Unfortunately, she could easily disappear by morning. Hell, he didn't even know where she was now. She could be anywhere in the deepest shadows, blending into the myriad of knotted roots of the mangrove trees that lined the far side of the pool, their roots looking more like gnarled fingers than anything else.
Before the water reached his chest, he scanned the surface for any sign of the great beast. On his third visual pass, he caught a glowing reflection. Just inside the line of roots, roughly ten feet from the opposite shore, he spotted Bessie.
Cold, hard eyes, glowing red in the dim moonlight, glared at him. Crocs saw everything. They studied, and planned, and calculated exactly when to strike. They could strike with absolutely no warning-so quickly their victims rarely had time to think of their own deaths. Again, if they were lucky. There was always the spinning death roll. He'd forgotten about that one. Dread stiffened his resolve. Think of the children.
Paul placed his blade between his teeth and pushed into the deeper waters in the center of the pool. He should have put a guard on the old girl and come back in the morning with his rifle. Too late now for rational thought. Besides, where was the fun in that? Anybody could shoot a croc. Few could fight them and win, and five quid was five quid.
Excerpted from The Flyer by Marjorie Jones Copyright © 2007 by Marjorie Jones . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 9, 2008
In Port Hedand, Australia, Great War Lighthorse Regiment veteran Paul Campbell, believing this is one of his duties, dives into the water to battle Bessie the killer croc. He wins the watery skirmish killing the rogue, but suffers a severe wound. His best friend Tim takes Paul to see Dr. Richard Mallory to tend to the croc¿s bite. Instead of Dr. Mallory, twenty-four years old Helen Stanwood answers their knock. She explains she is a doctor from San Francisco whose father is a friend of Dr. Mallory. Dr. Stanwood expertly stitches up the wound.-------------- Paul courts Helen, who seems attracted to him, but rejects his advances. She is still suffering the burn of Reginald¿s rejection back in California. However, as Paul flies her all over the Outback to provide medical service to the needy and allows her to drive his motor car, they fall in love, but neither is ready to commit to the relationship demanded by such a strong emotion.------------- The sequel to the delightful historical THE LIGHT HORSEMAN, THE FLYER also soars as Marjorie Jones takes her audience back to post WWI Australia. The picturesque story line provides readers with a deep look at the Outback approximately in 1920 when medicine and doctors needed planes to reach the many spread out living there. The lead couple is a fine pairing of two likable protagonists who fear love and permanency. Historical romance readers will appreciate this fine early twentieth century tale of love between the expatriate American doctor and her war veteran pilot.------------- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.