The Long Winding Road

by Jane Carver

The Long Winding Road by Jane Carver

Sarah Bannerman meets the man of her dreams. They share one weekend of perfection, discovering a friendship and an intimate relationship, love at first sight as it were.

Comes reality when Reagan Conley, world-renowned photojournalist, flies to one side of the world for his next assignment while Sarah flies in the opposite direction, returning to her teaching duties at Princeton University in New Jersey.

While Reagan dodges bullets and war, Sarah deals with a disturbed student who plans to disrupt her life. Sarah and Reagan share letters expressing their growing love. Even apart, they wait for the long winding road to bring them home—to each other.

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Release Date: November 14, 2023
Genre: Contemporary Romance


Chapter One

“I’ll be fine.” Sarah patted Sharon Bannerman’s arm in an attempt to reassure the older woman. “It’s a corner pub. The concierge assured us this place would be fine for a small meal and drink. He says the North Union Bull is a quiet corner for a pint.”

“I don’t know, dear.” Sharon cut her eyes to Harvey, her husband of fifty years. “You’re so quiet, Harvey. What do you think, dear?”

“I thought I’d wait until you asked for my opinion. Then you’d listen. If I butt in, you’d ignore me.” He sent a grin Sarah’s way. “That’s how it’s gone for years. I finally learned to be patient.”

“So? Will Sarah be safe in a corner pub alone until we get there?” Sharon picked up her purse and light sweater even as she asked.

“We’re only visiting for an hour, Sharon. Not spending the day. Sarah’s a big girl and can take care of herself. I mean, the concierge vouched for this place. What can happen?”


* * *


Sarah entered the North Union Bull pub with only a bit of trepidation. So far, their travel party, which included her, Sharon and Harvey Bannerman and Cary and Ann Switzer found Australia and Darwin, in particular, a delight. Sharon and Harvey were especially generous, friends of her parents. They invited her along on her semester break and paid for most of the trip, much to her dismay.

“A teaching salary doesn’t allow for great adventures, sweetheart,” Harvey told her when she tried to protest. “We’ve been to Australia several times and would love to show you places we enjoy. Now we’ll hear nothing else about it.”

So Sarah gave in graciously.

This particular day started out with a bit of chill, this country being south of the equator, nearing winter while at home in New Jersey, summer lay ahead. She had two weeks to explore the world of a man she admired and yearned to know personally. Never going to happen, she often reminded herself, but she never gave up that dream.

The interior of the corner pub featured a bar so like the ones she saw on the BBC mystery TV shows that she felt at home almost immediately. A wide corner broke up the bar top so people leaning against the wood could talk friendly-like to those at the other side.

“What can I get you, love?” A burly man stood behind the bar, its top so shiny that sunlight through the window created a glare off the polished wood. The man stood almost at attention behind the burnished bar, a spotless towel draped over one arm, with a satin vest layered over a crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

Sarah couldn’t catch her grin in time, and the man saw, didn’t frown exactly but did ask, “Problem, love?”

“I hope I haven’t offended you, but I expected an overweight man with a spotty apron tied around his middle to be handing out the drinks. You exceed my expectations, sir.”

Seeing that Sarah wasn’t mocking him or worse, criticizing him, the man waved her forward to the bar and nodded in a friendly way. “You’re from the States, I hear. Not the south part either, I’m thinking. What can I get you then?”

“Something local, I think. I can get all kinds of beers where I live on the east coast, but I want what the guys here drink. I’ll never make it to your country again, so I want some great memories to take home with me.”

“Right you are. One Toohey’s Old Dark Ale coming up. On the draft as it should be.” He turned to taps lined up behind him, pulled over two glasses but turned back to Sarah before pulling the handle. “A pint?” He held up a small brandy snifter-sized glass. “Or a pony?” This glass looked more like a typical draft beer glass.

Tempted as she was to have a pint, she was alone and would be for a bit, so she opted for the smaller brew. “Pony please. At least for starters.” She gave him a grin that promised to buy a second brew if this one suited her.

“One coldie right here. Sip this, and you may recognize a bit of chocolate and coffee with a slight hint of caramel.” He slid the glass in front of Sarah and braced his hands against the bar, apparently waiting on her opinion.

One sip and she gave a delicate cough which set the bar man to grinning.

“It’s a bit stronger than I’m used to, but that taste is amazing.” She took another sip but held this one on her tongue. Her taste buds analyzed the beer. After a slow swallow, she nodded and lifted the glass in respect. “Oh yeah, I caught the chocolate. Haven’t found the caramel yet but I think the coffee flavor hit the back of my tongue when I swallowed.”

“That’s a heap of good, miss.” The man fairly beamed. He gave her a satisfied jerk of a nod then headed to the other end of the bar where another customer called for him.

With the time somewhere between breakfast and lunch, Sarah knew better than to take more than sips and stretched the drink out. The bar man would plunk another in front of her as soon as she emptied this glass. Two of this dark ale and she might not be steady for lunch with Sharon and Harvey.

Thinking of that, she turned her back to the bar, drink in hand, and surveyed the small pub’s interior. Not more than three feet away were tables where four could sit for lunch. The tables were heavy affairs with wide legs and claw feet. Booths lined the walls along the window sides of the pub. The ceiling was lower than she expected, used to more spacious bars with tall ceilings in the states.

“Even a university prof gets to bars once in a while,” she muttered as she took another sip. Glancing down, she noted the glass was now half-empty. Her head still straight and her vision un-blurred, she figured she was good for another ten minutes or so before she reached the bottom of this pony.

She turned back to the bar, propped her elbows on the top and soaked up the atmosphere, imagining she could see her favorite BBC TV detectives having a pint along the other side. The door opened and closed a number of times. A few of the newcomers came to the bar for drinks then disappeared behind her at tables or booths. Satisfied with the world at the moment, she raised her pony of dark ale to the absent Sharon Bannerman. “I’m just fine.”

The words barely left her mouth before all hell broke loose behind her.

Two men standing toe to toe between the door and herself drew her attention. Voices rose, and cursing broke out.

“You sorry wanker! That’s my woman you made eyes at last night!”

“Bugger off. Your old woman’s a slagger.”

That did it! Suddenly her quiet little corner bar exploded into a full-scale fistfight. Chairs fell over, and a table skidded to one side. Dang, this was beginning to look just like a movie. Only problem was it was for real. And she had never seen men throw real punches and try to injure each other before.

The fight moved in her direction. Fists swinging and blows drawing groans, this was shaping up to be a major drama, and she wanted no part of it.

She leaned in closer to the bar, clutching her drink. Two men with a disagreement in this safe pub were turning the place into a boxing arena from the sounds of it.

Afraid to move, with no help coming from the bar man who was on the phone at the moment, no doubt calling the police, Sarah huddled near the corner of the bar, hoping the fight was short-lived and far from her. To be honest, though, no bigger than this pub was, the fight was probably within ten feet of her.

Finding an exit was uppermost in her mind. The two fighters were moving toward her fast. It was scaring the crap out of her especially when they pushed into her and slammed her into a man who grabbed her to keep her from going down in the middle of the intense situation.

He drew her body out of the way but kept his arms around her so she wouldn't fall, and he could pull her further away if needed. She wrapped her arms around him so tight, she figured she'd probably cut off his air, but just watching those guys punch and roll scared her.She buried her face into his neck as the two men fought on. She tried to crawl into the man’s skin she was that frightened!

At one point, one of the two men fighting picked up a piece of chair leg and threw it at the other man. But it bounced off the other assailant’s shoulder and flew straight at the pair at the bar. The protector pulled her even closer if that was possible and turned his back to the flying object. It struck him on the shoulder, but by then the object had lost a lot of momentum. Her left arm hugged the man’s ribs as her right arm clamped tightly onto his upper arm. The muscles there bunched and rippled as he maneuvered her against the bar with his back to the chaos that was erupting into a major ordeal.

“Stand still. I’ll catch the brunt of...” Ooof! Whoever stood between her and the men brawling must have caught a punch or else been shoved. Shoved, definitely, because the taller body protecting Sarah grunted and pushed into her backside.

“Are you all right?” she managed to ask though she wasn’t sure the man heard her.

The sound of shrill police whistles coming through the door drowned out his reply if he even made one. Within minutes, the police arrived and started breaking up the fight. Eventually they hauled off the two fighters.

“Good on you, Constable Young. Many thanks, mate,” called the bar man. “One free round on the house, mates.” He started setting up a round of drinks while a young man who worked there righted the furniture and tossed the odd broken chair leg behind the bar.

Though the comparative quiet was deafening, Sarah trembled with fright. She still had her head buried in the man’s neck. She didn't want to see the fight so hadn’t even looked up at him yet. The man talked quietly to her, trying to help her calm down.

“You all right, miss? I worried I’d not get to you in time or perhaps hurt you when those two backed up into me.”

His voice was deep and rumbled through his chest. She pulled her face out of his neck and laid it on his shoulder as she looked around. The chills that passed through her as the violence rolled around them began to subside. The man who held her so closely spoke tenderly and very low, speaking nonsense that she really wasn’t paying attention to, but heard. The sound of his voice was soothing.

At some point, she started listening to the man who still held her wrapped to him. And then she stiffened. It finally got through to her panic-filled brain that she knew that voice. He must have felt the change because he loosened his grip on her but remained with his arms around her. She still had not looked at him, but now she pulled her head back and slowly allowed her eyes to travel from his chest up the neck that really needed a shave to a chin that had dark stubble on it to eyes of forest green. There he was…the man she had loved for so long. Everything suddenly blurred and slowed as if the whole incident had been a dream leading her up to this precise moment in time.

All she could do was stare at him; perhaps her mouth fell open just a bit. He looked down at Sarah with a smile on those gorgeous lips. When she said nothing, his smile slowly disappeared. A small frown pulled the lines of his forehead together. He didn’t understand her reaction to him.

Where’s all the air? I can’t breathe! Sarah tried sucking in much needed air to speak…say anything. To thank this man she knew so well yet didn’t. What a contradiction. How would she even be able to breathe again after being in his arms? How would she ever live after stepping out of his arms?

Thankfully, a voice calling her from across the bar spared her attempt to make sense of her confused thinking. That sound broke the trance she had fallen in to.

“Sarah? Sweetheart, are you okay?” Sharon made her way through the remaining mess to stand next to the couple. Harvey followed close behind. “Dear, what happened?”

“An old-fashioned barroom fight, Sharon.” If Sarah’s smile sat a bit crooked on her face and her light laughter seemed a bit strained, that should have explained her pale face. “That’s what happened. But I’m all right. Really.” She added that because Sharon looked skeptical, her brows raised, one brow cocked up, her own complexion going a shade lighter.

“Are you sure, dear?” Sharon stepped up to Sarah and put her arms around her before pulling back to give her face a good long examination.

“Absolutely. I had protection.”

Sharon spoke just as Sarah said protection, so the older woman missed that intriguing comment.

“Harvey and I were just coming to find you and tell you we met some friends from the States who invited us up for the weekend, but we don’t want to leave you alone if something like this is going to happen.” Sharon wrung her hands together, as her eyes shot left then right, checking that no one lay bloodied on the floor. “Normally us going in different directions isn’t a problem. Now I’m not sure we should go. You really need protection, my dear.”

“I’ll take care of her.” The deep voice came from Sarah’s side. She forgot that her guardian still held her in an embrace against his side. Did he just offer to stay with her while the Bannermans visited friends? She wasn’t sure which emotion held her hardest: the thrill of the offer to spend a weekend with a man she’d admired for years—and maybe had a crush on—or the shock of his offer. While she knew all about this man, at least professionally, he knew nothing about her, professionally or otherwise.

Though Sharon might not have noticed the handsome man who held Sarah, Harvey had. “Sir, it seems you took care of Sarah while a tornado tore this bar apart,” he laughed, “but we don’t even know you.”

At that, Sarah came out of her daze and shook her head, knowing she could make introductions. Explanations to this man would have to wait until formalities were taken care of.

“I’m sorry. Sharon and Harvey Bannerman, this is Reagan Conley. Reagan, Sharon, Harvey and I, as well as another couple, are traveling together through this part of Australia. When we want to go our separate ways, we just let each other know and head off.” Sarah smiled at the older couple but was afraid to look up at Reagan.

She could tell by the way he clutched her waist when she spoke that he was full of questions. How in the world did she know him? That had to be what he was thinking. It was so blatantly obvious to her that it was a wonder the Bannermans didn’t ask him what was wrong. Of course, they knew some things that he didn’ Sarah’s lifelong love of his photography. Maybe they weren’t quite as aware of her love of him as a man, though she suspected Harvey knew.

Reagan Conley let go of Sarah long enough to shake Harvey’s hand and again offered to look after her over the weekend while they visited up country. With what appeared to be easy acceptance, the husband and wife thanked him. They each kissed Sarah on the cheek, told her they’d see her Monday morning and then they made their way out of the bar…all within five minutes of that earth-shattering fist fight.

So there they stood...still locked in an embrace. Sarah felt foolish, embarrassed. She owed him an explanation. But it really was impossible to think when the smell of warm skin, mild cologne and man floated around her. What a heady combination of aromas.

“You want to tell me what that was all about?” Reagan asked with a laugh in his voice. If Sarah lived to be a hundred, she would always be thankful that he didn’t get mad at her for what she had just put him through. It only made her love him more if that was possible.

“I owe you a big explanation, don’t I?” she asked as she examined his chest closely. She had trouble meeting his eyes.

Still holding her to his chest, Reagan leaned an elbow on the bar and, tucking his captive closer into one arm, he lifted her chin so she would finally meet his gaze. He tilted his head to one side, crocked a tiny smile at her, and waited.

The few photographs Sarah had of him and the short video of him narrating a lecture didn’t do Reagan Conley justice at all. Rich dark hair fell over his forehead and curled slightly behind his neck. Dark eyebrows arched up as he watched her watching him. Tiny crow’s feet arrowed out from the corners of his eyes, eyes that were the color of a forest...deep green. A straight nose broke the line of high cheekbones. His mouth was almost too small but curved into such a sweet line that one could be forgiven that last thought. A faint shadow indicated the tiny cleft in his chin. His shoulders were broad and well-muscled, as was the arm she still clutched. As her fingers spread out along the curve of his ribs, she could tell there was no fat on this man. He lived lean and hard. It was the nature of his job. They fit together so well...his body and hers.

Lord please, can I always stay this way? But that’s not possible. The time has come to explain.

So Sarah began.

“My name is Sarah Malloy. I’m a teaching doctor at Princeton University in New Jersey back in the States. I teach creative writing, and I use your photographs along with music and some films to motivate students to not only write but to exceed their own expectations. I’ve got every picture you’ve ever taken, I think. At least every one that’s been published.” She spoke slowly, for to speak fast would rob her of the air she needed to talk and admire this man at the same time. He was so perfect.

“It seems you know all about me,” he commented as he nodded to the bartender, indicating they would both have a beer.

“I know all about the photographs, but little about the man.” She could have kicked herself as soon as the words left her mouth, but it was too late. That was a pretty telling statement and almost sounded like an invitation. But he didn’t seem to take offense. If the man heard an invitation in her soft words, he didn’t indicate it.

“Another set up, mate?” he called to the bar man.

“Coming up.” The same man wearing that same satin vest who calmly called the police while a fight raged in his establishment placed a pint beside Reagan and another pony glass in front of her.

“Ta, mate,” Reagan told the man.

He turned Sarah toward the bar, while he stood just behind her. Moving the pony of Toohey’s to her hand, he grabbed his pint, lifted the brew and offered a salute.

“Here’s to knowing more about the man.” He waited for her to say something before he drank. Glancing over her shoulder at his face, she saw that he was once more smiling and relaxed. Raising her own glass, Sarah agreed with him.

“To the man,” she said and took a deep drink. Never had Sarah uttered such enticing words with so much promise just waiting to be claimed. She drank a good third of the beer as her heart raced.

What would the next few days offer? Hell, what would the next few minutes offer? He could laugh at her, thank her for admiring his work then walk out of her life as quickly as he had entered it. That thought alone terrified her. Him leaving? Never to see him? Never to touch him again?

Actually, it turned out to be quite easy. Sarah remained standing belly up to the bar while he leaned around her and again rested that elbow on the polished wood. “Still shaky after that dust up?” He sipped his beer while waiting for her to answer.

“I’ve never seen a real fist fight. Anyone that dares to say it’s exciting would be lying.” She twisted the glass round and round but only met his eyes on the word lying.

“I’ve seen more fights in places like this all over the world than you have time to listen to.”

His relaxed stance and knowing smile coupled with a faraway gaze drew Sarah’s attention.

“Who says I don’t have time to listen to those stories?” She sounded a little wicked perhaps, but her tiny smile kept the question from being too forward. 

“Good thing this place is on the outskirts of Darwin. I have a small bungalow on the beach about forty minutes from here. No tourists will bother us there. Come spend the afternoon with me, and we’ll talk of bar fights and schoolrooms.” Reagan still leaned against the bar, but the anticipation on his face belied his casual stance.

He’s serious! Sarah’s heart sped up again. A blush rose to her cheeks. A tiny tremble went through her again. He wants to spend time with me. How can I refuse? I can’t. No way.

“I’d like that very much, Reagan,” was her soft reply. She held her breath to see what he’d do when she agreed to his proposal.

He didn’t disappoint. He grinned so wide that she thought his face would split.

“Fantastic! Come on, then, finish the glass, and let’s go find that sand. Daylight’s wasting.” Throwing his head back, he knocked off the rest of his beer as if it were water. Barely allowing her time to swallow the last of her own drink, Reagan grabbed Sarah’s hand and swung her toward the door.

She couldn’t help the laugh that escaped. He’s so enthusiastic about an idea of spending an afternoon with me. Elation flooded her nerves, and she wanted to dance through the door.

“Daylight’s wasting’...really! It’s only one o’clock on Friday afternoon,” she called to him as he hustled her down the cobbled sidewalk.

This is the beginning of a perfect weekend, she prayed.


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