“Friends and Lovers”…my Mills & Boon romance!!

Author’s Note…Sometimes the obstacles to love are played out through many varied and exhausting experiences, and sometimes the fulfillment of a true love will be triumphant even if it takes a lifetime,…or occassionally more than one lifetime. Because I believe the strength of love is greater than the boundaries of time or place, and what is meant to be, will be….

PROLOGUE…Sth. Australia 1854

Sarah was a bright and happy child. She had been born on the sheep station, and known no other life, but the harsh sun and drenching rains bordering the great Australian outback. Her father was a stern business man who to Sarah possessed no apparent human ‘weaknesses’, such as compassion, or a capacity for joy. Her mother was an austere woman, but somehow sad, which is why she probably gave Sarah much more freedom than was necessarily proper for a landowner’s daughter. Sarah was the only child on the property, except for Toby. He was Ruth’s son, the Aboriginal woman who worked helping the cook and housekeeper, and tending the kitchen gardens. Toby’s father had been one of the white itinerant workers who passed through the station from time to time. As far as Sarah knew he had never come back.
She would swim with Toby in the dam, and climb the large gum trees that grew around the water. And they would ride the horses to the closest boundary fence and back again. Sometimes she would take tea with him and Ruth, in the little lean-to that was Ruth’s own room off the kitchen, and Ruth would mesmerise them with stories of her childhood wandering from place to place. But as Sarah got older certain restrictions were gradually placed on her freedoms. She wasn’t allowed to swim anymore, and was forbidden to ride out of sight of the homestead. But Sarah was still happy to spend some evenings with Toby and Ruth taking supper and talking of times past, and her own dreams for the future; a child’s dreams.
Then one night her father unceremoniously announced over dinner that he had promised Sarah in marriage to the young widowed son of an old business friend from England. William cooper was making his way to Australia, and plans for the wedding should be made for his arrival in approximately six months time. Sarah was shocked and angry and hurt, but not naive enough to really doubt her father would have plans for her sooner or later, no matter how much she had tried to ignore it. But her disappointment was nothing compared to the utter distress she felt when she was forbidden to spend any time at all with Toby.
“You are an engaged woman now Sarah. You must start to learn to behave like one,” her father pronounced matter-of-factly. “And that boy is inappropriate,” he said with distaste, and an acute look at his wife. He took his pipe from his pocket and proceeded outside to the verandah.
Sarah looked to her mother, her eyes wide and pleading, but her mother merely looked meekly down at her empty plate.
Sarah spent her days pacing her room, wondering how she could rectify this state of affairs, or at least let Toby know she had not forsaken their friendship.
Lying sleepless yet again in her bed, Sarah could bear it no longer. She threw her robe on over her long cotton nightdress, and crept in the complete darkness and quiet of the night, to the small room beside the stables where Toby slept. She could see the dull yellow light from his lamp seeping through the cracks in the timber walls. She knocked softly on the door, the noise of the cicadas almost drowning out the sound. Toby answered the door shirtless, his hair still wet from his nightly ablutions. He slung the towel over his shoulder and looked at her in absolute horror.
“Sarah! What are you doing here?” he whispered hoarsely. “Get inside before somebody sees you!” he hissed, and pulled her roughly through the door, closing it quickly behind her, the light contained once again inside the four rough walls.
“I can’t stand not being able to see you Toby,” Sarah whispered, her eyes wide with distress. Toby’s countenance softened just barely.
“Do you know what would happen to me if they caught you here?” he implored. “I’d lose my job and probably be flogged, or even worse! I wouldn’t be surprised if he flogged you too!”
“You’ve got to go Sarah,” he said sternly, moving towards the door.
Sarah stamped her foot like the ten year old of her not too distant past. “I want to see you! I don’t understand why I can’t; you’ve been my friend forever!” she said defiantly, her eyes shining with determination.
At that, Toby grabbed her arm, pushing up the sleeve of her nightgown, putting his own arm alongside hers, his dark skin in stark contrast to the creamy hue of her forearm.
“That’s why Sarah! We don’t go together, we never will!” he spat, his voice starting to thicken with restrained emotion.
Sarah looked down at his skin next to hers, mesmerised by the beauty of the contrast in the low lamplight. She ran her fingers lightly up his forearm, and slowly up to the taut muscles of his chest and shoulders, the water from his hair trailing across his warm skin. She leant inwards letting her mouth catch the droplets that rolled across his chest, warm beneath her lips. She heard the sharp intake of his breath, and she felt his hands push the robe from her shoulders, his mouth descending to cover the white slope of her neck. His lips were thick and soft against hers, the cool water from his hair slowly soaking the front of her gown. Suddenly he pushed her roughly from his embrace, his hands falling clenched by his side.
“You have to go Sarah,” he repeated softly. “And you can’t come back. You understand don’t you?” he implored, his eyes wide with fear and longing.
“Yes,” she whispered, the tears escaping down her cheeks. “But I will love you forever Toby, no matter who my husband is,” she said, a passionate defiance returning to her tear-filled eyes.
Sarah slowly resigned herself to the imminent future that lay only mere months away, all semblance of her childhood gone. The one meagre joy of her daily existence was to wait on the verandah at the close of the day, to watch the men ride in from their days work, her heart soaring momentarily as she watched Toby pass by, their eyes meeting for a blissful instant. That moment would sustain her until the following evening. But the next day the men were late coming back, and Sarah paced the verandah anxiously, a rising terror clutching her heart. They carried Toby’s broken body on a litter behind one of the horses, killed instantly when the horse he was riding rolled on him after a fall.
Sarah ran inside to try and escape the terrible keening that was Ruth clutching at the lifeless body of her son, Sarah’s own tears frozen as if her heart had also stopped beating.
Sarah tried to look forward, but all she could see was a faceless man, her intended husband, who she imagined in her darkest hours, must be like her father. Just that glimpse of Toby each day had nourished her like a lifesaving mouthful of water in a trek across the desert. She had been able to go on then, even just imagining their respective children playing together some time in the future. She had almost been able to feel the pleasure of it. But now she couldn’t function in the simplest task, spending hours in bed, sometimes getting up only for dinner. One night, in the middle of winter, the despondency overtook her.
It didn’t hurt as much as she thought, just a momentary burning across her wrist. And as her consciousness faded, she was in awe at the beautiful contrast of the bright red against her lily white sheets. She felt a faint smile at the last, remembering the beauty of Toby’s brown skin against her own, then she closed her eyes, happy to be meeting him in a better time and place.
William Cooper stood over the fresh mound of earth, his tears watering yet another grave, his back bent with weariness from the months of travel, his broad shoulders slumped in grief, his fair hair veiling his handsome face. He clutched Sarah’s picture tightly in his hand, and bent to bury the tiny gold ring which was to be her wedding band, beneath the crude wooden cross. His heart broke to know she had suffered such sadness, and he wondered at the desparation that must have robbed her of all hope for her future. If only she had waited another few weeks. He knew in his heart that they were meant to save eacother; two lives robbed of their destiny, for this lifetime at least….

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