“I forbid it.”
Peg blinked. Those words had never come out of her mother’s mouth before. “You what?”
Mother rose from the kitchen table and poured herself another cup of coffee. Peg could see her hands shaking and her fingers white-knuckled on the mug. “You may not drop out of college. You’ve been to three different colleges already, Peg. Dropping out altogether is totally unacceptable.”
Peg tried to remain calm, though a moment of panic shot through her. She focused on the smell of coffee in the kitchen, which masked the more subtle odor of the strawberries she’d used in her yogurt that morning. Eventually though, the panic won out. “This is really about wrecking my new car, right?”
Turning back to the table, the older woman shook her head. “Not exactly. Though you were texting while driving—”
Peg interrupted. “I was stopped at a light!”
“You know how dangerous it is. I’ve told you a hundred times that you have to have some common sense where your phone is concerned. Honestly, Peg, if you were five years younger, I’d seriously consider spanking you.”
She held up her hand, her rings winking in the light from the kitchen windows. “No. Becoming a nature photographer is not the worst idea you’ve come up with, but you need to finish school first. There’s so much for you to learn before you pursue any career. You might change your mind again, you know.”
“I will not change my mind. All I want is some camera equipment. I’ll make you proud of me, Mother. I really will.”
“Peg, we’ve been down this road before. You have an allowance. You consistently spend beyond your means. I will not supply you with equipment to do something I do not approve of. Spend your birthday money. Or, better yet, give up this lunatic plan.”
“But, I was saving that birthday money for a trip with my friends. They want to go to Palm Springs for spring break, and I want to go, too.”
“If you’ve dropped out of school, spring break won’t be an issue. Instead, you should be working.” Peg gave her a surprised look. “Working at something reliable, Peg. Not nature photography.”
Peg rose from the table and squared her shoulders. She might not be very tall, but she was taller than her mother by an inch or two. She tried to look intimidating. “But photography is what I want to do, not working in some boring corporation. If you won’t help me, Dad will.”
If anything, Mother looked more perturbed than ever. “Not if I talk to him first.”
The intimidation factor was obviously not working. “Please?”
“No. Unequivocally, no. And that’s final.”
Peg threw her napkin on the marble counter and glared at her mother. “Fine. Be that way, but I’m definitely dropping out of college and pursuing my dream. You can’t stop me.”
“Maybe not, but I won’t support you. Your allowance is officially cut off.”
“You can’t do that!”
Her mother arched a dark eyebrow. “I can’t?”
“B-b-but…” Peg stuttered.
Mother hadn’t so much as sipped her full mug of coffee, but she put it down and turned to leave. “This argument is over. Do as you like, Peg, you’re twenty years old. I can’t stop you. But you’re on your own.”
Peg would have liked to have a snappy comeback to that, but instead her head ached. Her birthday money was enough to pay for the equipment she wanted, or she’d get some money from her dad. He always came through in a pinch, though she didn’t see him often. His long-distance support had been generous, even though her parents had divorced a long time ago. Dad would help. In fact, Peg decided, she’d go to Australia, where Dad lived, and take up her new career there. There were lots of animals in Australia.
Yes, Australia was the place for her, and her best option.
* * *
About a week later, Peg’s Aussie bush guide uttered the fateful words, “You can’t do that.”
She didn’t want to hear no. Peg looked at Darren and tried to stare him down. “I want to photograph those birds. The ones with the black and white wings. The… what did you call them?”
“Stone curlews. But, Peg, ya’d have to climb up into the crags to get a good shot. It’s dangerous. Ya don’t know the bush like I do. Let me take ya to someplace a little safer. There are lots of animals to be found just over that ridge.” He pointed at a small rise at the other side of the craggy rocks. So far, the guide hadn’t been wrong, but he was too focused on the marsupials and not enough on the birds. Peg liked the birds much better. He was too old and stuck in his ways to understand how important this was to her. He harped at her to be cautious all the time.
She had tried to be cooperative, but some safety had to be overlooked to get the best shots. Nothing was going to happen to her. She was more than capable of taking care of herself. Maybe she should have done this on her own. Unfortunately, she’d never even been camping in her life, let alone roughing it in the bush. “Darren, I know you mean well and want for me to remain safe, but I think some chances are worth taking.”
“Some chances, sure,” he said stubbornly, “but this is more than is needed. If it’s birds ya want, there are plenty in the trees over the rise. Ya can photograph them right from the trail. No need to tromp through the underbrush or climb into the crags.”
“But I want the curlews.” So far, he’d been a total pain in the tush. Safety, safety, safety. “I insist.”
“Look, miss, I’ve been patient with ya. I’ve taken ya to places where I shouldn’t’a. Ya need to have a care. If you were my daughter, I’d… well… never mind. It’s enough to say I could lose my license if anything happened to ya.”
“Nothing’s going to happen!”
“Ya don’t know what yer talkin’ about. It’s my job to keep ya on the right path.”
Peg stomped back to her Land Rover and got into the driver’s seat, irritated thoroughly. “Get in the car, Darren. I’m taking you back to town. You’re fired.”
His mouth formed a straight line, opened, then closed again. He straightened his shoulders and stalked back to the vehicle. Once inside, he told her in a cold voice. “Yer gonna get hurt out here.”
“Thank you for caring. It’s no longer your concern.”
They rode back in silence, the entire two hours back to Katherine.
Although she was reticent to do it, Peg hired another guide a few days later. This one seemed like a lot more fun, though. He had no compunction about taking her to the places where the animals were most plentiful. They trudged through miles of eucalypt forest in the Kakadu Park; she was perfectly safe.
They spotted a little family grouping of koalas up in the trees, and Peg pointed them out to Mick. Mick came from Sydney, so he understood how foreign the bush was for her. He was a little boastful and maybe a little too macho, but Peg had liked his attitude much better than Darren, the first guide.
“The koalas are so adorable!” she whispered to him, concerned about scaring the animals away. “I just want to cuddle one.”
“Ya want to hold one? I can get one for ya.”
“Really? We won’t scare them?”
“Nah. Look how slow and quiet they are. Nothing would faze ‘em. I’ve seen ‘em in the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. The handlers there treat ‘em like pets.”
“Okay. I want the one with the ratty ear. He looks like he could use a little hug.”
“Gimme a leg up, Peg. I’ll climb right up and nab one.”
Peg bent and offered her hands. With a single step, Mick started climbing the tree. He got very close to the koala and the animal moved away. He crawled closer and reached out to grab the little marsupial, but quick as could be, the animal’s claws lashed out and swiped at Mick’s face.
Peg gasped, both hands flying to her mouth to stifle a scream. Mick teetered on the branch, a scratch on his face. He’d been very lucky. Those three-inch claws could have torn his cheek or even his eye.
“R-right. He doesn’t look like he needs a cuddle after all.”
After a minute, Mick was on the ground again, nursing his scratched cheek. “Heh,” he said, putting a brave face on it. “Little mite was in a bad mood.”
Peg wondered what would have happened if Mick had managed to capture the animal and bring it back to the ground. It could have been Peg’s face that got scratched or worse. Mick’s guidance lost its luster. He might have made a better city guide than a bush one.
After sponging off Mick’s face with an antiseptic wipe back at the Land Rover, Peg tried to let him down gently, but the result was that he was fired. She’d need to find another guide or do it on her own.
* * *
A couple of days later, back in Perth, at her father’s condo, the situation just kept getting worse.
“I can do it myself. I have a book on ‘bushwalking’—that’s what they call it, you know.”
Peg’s father gave her a skeptical look. He’d been doing that a lot since she’d come to Perth. Although he was patient, he seemed to have become less so as the first month wore on. Peg had been a little afraid he’d actually lose his temper. He sat behind his home office desk and considered her over steepled fingers. “I know what they call it, Peg. I have to say, going through two guides in the first month of your career is too many. I’ll give you one more chance, but if that fails, you’ll have to go back to the US and do as your mother tells you.”
“But, Dad, I don’t actually need a guide. I’m really sure I can manage this on my own.”
“You do need a guide. I won’t allow you to go gallivanting around in the outback by yourself. I might not be an outdoorsman, but even I know how dangerous that would be. I’ll find the guide this time.”
Peg definitely did not want her father’s interference, but the alternative wasn’t very good either. “No. I’ll do it, if it’s so important to you.”
“I have to say, Peg, I don’t trust your judgment on this. You’ve been childish and undisciplined. I’ll do the choosing. I have some connections in the Northern Territory. I’ll network my way to a suitable guide.”
Undoubtedly, it would be another one whose concern for safety would ruin her chances of getting salable pictures. “Daddy… I’ll go back to Katherine and find someone. Leave it up to me. Please?”
“No. Take your pick. Either I choose the guide for you or you go back to Colorado.”
Not much of a choice. “Okay, okay. You hire the guide. See if you can find someone who won’t be bossing me around all the time.”
“Peg,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. Peg could smell his aftershave, the same one he’d worn for years. It was comforting, but not comforting enough to soften this conversation. “Peg, this is your last try. If you can’t manage with the guide I choose for you, that’s the end of the road. I won’t be paying for a fourth. Are we clear on that?”
“But what if he’s sucky?”
He picked up a pen off his desk. “You’ll just have to manage.”
“So that’s it? Get along or else?”
Nodding, he started shuffling papers. “Yes. I don’t want you endangering your life. I love you, Peg. You need to be safe.”
Sighing, Peg had taken her dismissal with as much grace as she could. Which, since she was going to be handcuffed to some old, stodgy safety nut of her father’s choosing, was not much.
* * *
“My daughter is a bit headstrong.”
Tripp considered that for a moment, looking absently around his dusty office in Katherine while he talked on the phone. “I’m not sure what ya mean, Mr. Fisk.”
“She’s… well, she’s already gone through two guides.” The older man sounded embarrassed.
Tripp needed the business, but was a commission worth the hassle of some spoiled American girl? “What happened?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure. She was upset over something in both cases. Look, I’m willing to double your fee. This is very important to her and I want to make sure she gets what she wants, but in a safe way. You come with good recommendations, young man. Lawrence Daton was very pleased with the way you guided his family group. He said you were trustworthy and knowledgeable. I have to say, I’m not one to trust my daughter to just anyone.”
“Thanks,” he said, anticipating the repairs he could do on his bush truck if he got double the going rate. “She’s headstrong?”
“Yes, a bit spoiled. Her mother overindulged her at every turn. I’m a senior geologist at G4Gold Corporation, and a very busy man. I haven’t been as hands-on as I should have been with Peg while she was growing up. A little discipline would have made a difference, I suppose. But, be that as it may, I’d be expecting you to take charge of her and make sure she gets the photos she wants without being eaten by a crocodile.”
Tripp chuckled. “I can make sure she’s not et by a croc. I don’t take any guff, though, Mr. Fisk. I want to make that clear up front. My job is to keep the tourists safe while they’re bushwalking.”
“I know. I assure you, I’ll make it worth your while. Use whatever methods you deem necessary.”
“You have full authority.”
So long as she wasn’t too difficult, the hassle would be worth it. “All right, sir. I’ll take the job.”
“Excellent! Her name is Peg, and she’ll be in Katherine tomorrow. She’s about five-foot-two, and slender. Rather petite. She has blond hair and brown eyes. She’ll be staying at the Best Western Pine Tree Hotel. I’ll give you her cell number—”
The girl sounded pretty. Would she be vain as well as spoiled?
“No need for the cell number, sir. The service out here is poor anyway.”
There was a sigh at the other end of the line. “She’ll hate that.”
Tripp was beginning to regret this agreement already.