Authors: Téa Cooper
Tea Cooper is an established Australian author of contemporary and historical fiction. In a past life she was a teacher, a journalist and a farmer. These days she haunts museums and indulges her passion for storytelling. She is the bestselling author of
The Horse Thief
, published by Harlequin in 2015.
The Horse Thief
Available in ebook
Jo, Ann, Kew and Sarah
this one's for you!
Even if time heals all wounds,
you still bear the scarsâ¦
Also by Tea Cooper
The road widened from a track to a well-worn thoroughfare and the chill afternoon air blended with the rank odour of civilisation, signalling the end of their long journey. The dray swayed past carts laden with goods and vendors hawking their wares. Women dressed in their Sunday best picked and pored over ribbons and gewgaws, everything from sweet baked delights to rabbit-skin hats, and layered beneath it all was the pungent scent of freshly cut timber.
Drawn by the spectacle, the driver eased to a halt and stood, shading his eyes from the sun. A mighty roar rose up, drowning out the catcalls and cheers, and the crowd stopped and turned, their fevered excitement palpable as they elbowed and jostled their way to a front-row spot.
Curiosity and her son's wriggling body won out and Roisin dragged herself to her feet. Beyond the walls of the inn a seething crowd blanketed the bright stretch of grass, heads craning to catch a glimpse. Silence fell and the sea of bodies parted.
Balanced on the shoulders of two enormous giants, a man sat brandishing an axe above his head, acknowledging the roar of adulation with a cocky grin before brushing aside the shock of damp black curls clinging around his lean, raw-boned face.
âAs if I couldn't guess. Carrick's done it again.' The dray driver raised his clenched fist in a salute. âGood on him.'
âWhat is it? What has he done?' Roisin deposited the squirming body of her son back onto the seat with a thump.
âWon. Won again. Champion.'
âWhat's he won?' Something very noteworthy and highly prized, judging by the reaction of the crowd and the look akin to worship on the dray driver's face.
âWon the Woodchop. Best cedar cutter in the district, probably the country.'
âCedar cutter?' Roisin turned away from the dirty champion clad in a stained, sleeveless vest and thigh-hugging moleskins.
âGood God, woman! Don't you know nuffink? Where you been all your life?'
âSydney.' She straightened her shoulders and lifted her nose. Sydney was hardly beyond the black stump. It was the largest and most advanced city in the country.
âRight.' The driver gave a dismissive snort. âCity girl born and bred. I'd forgotten.' He hawked his displeasure into the dirt before edging the dray through the press of people. âTown's on the up and up now the convict gangs have moved on. You won't find the likes of Sydney here. Much as the new settlers pretend otherwise.' He eased alongside another wagon. âGet your belongings off here and I'll move on. Can't block the road. The show's as good as over.'
The procession of men bore the cedar cutter closer, the slanting sunlight dancing on his sweat-soaked skin, and when he turned his muscles rippled like water over sand. The resounding cheers rent the air, then all sound receded as he fixed her with an intense stare and the strangest shiver tiptoed down her spine.
âOi! I'm talking to you.'
Roisin blinked as the raucous parade swarmed on its way and the cedar cutter disappeared in a sea of jubilation.
âI said stay there while I get your bags down.' The driver climbed out into the hurrying throng that wavered this way and that, a tide swelling, rising and falling. âThere you are.' He reached out his hand and she balanced on the wheel before scrambling down and landing with a thud on the dusty road.
Stretching up, he grabbed Ruan then deposited him and their bags beside her amidst the swirling chaos. With a wave of his hand he drew away, leaving her perched on the side of the road, Ruan's hand clasped firmly and two carpetbags languishing at her feet.
Her stomach turned three neat summersaults then righted itself. In the safety of Sydney Aunt Lil's plan had seemed like such a good idea. Put the past behind her, make an end of the fear, the constant over-the-shoulder glances, and strike out on her own. A new lifeâall she thought she wanted and all she knew Ruan needed.
The enormity of her decision sat as heavy as her carpetbags. Snatching a breath of the sticky, fetid air, she pulled Ruan closer, more for her own comfort than his. Now the whole prospect seemed the most foolish idea. If only she'd taken time to think it through instead of packing her bags and fleeing. It was too late for recriminations. She must find a room for the night then tomorrow â¦ tomorrow she'd take the next step.
Ruan squirmed from her grip, jiggling with pent-up energy, and dodged into the road.
âStop!' One of the bags crashed against her shin as she grabbed at his arm and searched the crowd. No one offered any assistance; they were far too busy going about their business, making their way home. Perhaps if she took Ruan inside the inn she could leave him there and come back for the bags, maybe find someone to help.
âYou're hurting me,' Ruan moaned, as she made an instant decision, left the bags and dragged him across the road.
âHurry up.' Holding her chin high, she marched the poor child towards the sign proudly proclaiming the Harp of Erin. It might be unseemly, a woman alone entering a place like this, but she had no option. She shouldered open the door and stepped over the threshold into the dim interior. Dust motes hung in the thin shafts of light illuminating the sultry gazes and appreciative stares of the gang of sweaty, half-dressed men lounging around the fire.
The woman behind the bar wiped her hands on a filthy apron and looked her up and down. âWhat can I do you for you, love?' Her wrinkled face creased into the semblance of something that could have been a smile.
âA room for the night, if you please. For myself and my son.'
Her son, Ruan, dangled from her hand, twirling around, his eyes as round as buttons as he took in the packed room.
âRuan, stay right beside me, here.' She stamped on the floor to emphasise the spot.
âJust for the one night will it be, love?'
âYes, that's all.' It wouldn't even be one night except for the fact they'd been travelling for longer than she could remember and they needed food and sleep.
âCome on Davy's dray, did you? From St Albans?'
The stares and the woman's questions set Roisin's teeth on edge. âRuan, stay still.' She sucked in a deep breath of rum-drenched air and willed herself to relax.
After hours of bumping along the rutted road, the boy had ants in his pants. Roisin could understand his impatience, every one of her bones seemed dislocated by the buffeting they'd received. The dray had rattled and banged all the way from St Albans, falling into every single one of the potholes lining the road. What she wouldn't give for a cup of tea.
âOnly got one left, it's round the back. Got a few people in town. The Woodchop, you know.'
âI'll take it.' She didn't care how small the room was or where as long as it was dry and they could find something to eat. If the wretched driver hadn't taken so long gawking at the crowds she'd have been inside ages ago and with her bags. Who knew how many light-fingered, dubious characters lurked in the shadows. There were enough in the cramped room of the inn to populate Hyde Park Barracks.
She glanced over her shoulder. âRuan?'
âThe man's got our bags.'
Roisin whipped around. The man in question, the woodcutter with the broad grin, had both her bags balanced on his shoulders, as though they weighed no more than a flimsy bolt of silk.
âWhere do you think you're going with those?' She took a couple of measured steps towards him, schooling the scowl on her face, hoping it would be enough to stall him in his tracks.
âDepends where you'd be liking them.' His intense blue eyes twinkled at her from under black-winged brows as he tossed the mess of curls off his forehead.
A man had no right to hair that beautiful. A man had no right to her bags, either. âJust put them down here, thank you.'
One eyebrow quirked and the corner of his mouth twisted into a slow mocking grin that would have done the devil proud.
âThe lady'd probably like them in her roomâout the back.' The woman tipped her head in the direction of a closed door behind the bar.
âRight you are.'
âJust a moment I â¦'
Unable to do anything but gape, she stood stock-still as his broad shoulders edged through the doorway into the dark recesses of the inn and disappeared. Scrambling to follow, she nudged Ruan in front of her, intent on keeping their possessions in sight.
âWoah! Not so fast, Missus. That'll be a shilling each for the bed and same again for a bowl of my very best Irish stew. And as much tea and damper as you can handle.'
âOh yes, of course.' She rummaged in the small drawstring reticule hung around her wrist while Ruan vanished through the door after the man. âRuan, wait for me. You'll get lost.' She slid the coins across the bar.
âHe'll be right. Carrick knows his way around the place.'
âCarrick? The woodcutter?'
âCarrick, the 'andsome bloke you couldn't take your eyes off, carrying those bags of yours.'
âOh, Carrick,' she stammered, batting down the flush scalding her cheeks. Something about the man, even in his sweat-stained clothes stirred a heated confusion in her. âRuan, come back here.' Her brain seethed. How could she find a man like that even remotely attractive? Most likely he was some ticket of leaver employed at the inn when he wasn't showing off with an axe.
âOff you go, and don't worry. Your little boy won't come to any harm unless Carrick sits him down and starts recounting his far-fetched yarns. He's got the gift of the gab, that scoundrel.'
âYarns,' Roisin echoed. She spun around, managing to catch her foot in the hem of her travelling skirt, before scuttling after Ruan's retreating back. The lack of light hit her the moment she passed under the timber lintel into the passageway. âRuan!'
âDown here, Mam.'
Following the sound of Ruan's high-pitched giggle and a burst of deeper laughter, she edged her way through the half-open door and stopped dead. âExcuse me!'
âJust testing the bed.' Carrick slammed the palms of his big hands down on the coverlet, making Ruan bounce in the cloud of ensuing dust.
More shrieks of laughter from Ruan reverberated around the crowded room and Roisin smothered a sneeze, then groped in the pocket of her jacket for a handkerchief.
â'Tis a very fine colour on you. Brings out the green in your eyes. Emerald like the green grass of home, enough to tweak a poor man's heartstrings.'
âCome along, Ruan. Now.' Roisin grasped at her son's hand. As much as she longed to, she didn't dare make eye contact with the owner of the dulcet tones. Not again. What man noticed the colour of a woman's clothes? Even more, appreciated the fact she'd chosen the colour because it was an exact match to her eyes. It served her right, payment for a foolish moment of vanity.
âThat will be all, thank you.'
In a flash the cutter was on his feet. His lopsided grin made a mockery of her cold words and his wretched eyes sparkled with amusement. âThe pleasure's mine, ma'am.' He tugged his forelock and winked at Ruan, before striding through the door, whistling some tune that reminded her of swirling skirts and madcap dancing.
âGet off that bed. I need to put the bags there. Where are they?'
Ruan struggled off the mattress and landed on the floor with a bump. âCarrick put them down over there so they'd be out of the way.' He pointed into the back corner of the room where both bags sat in a forlorn heap.
âI hope you said thank you to Mr â¦ Carrick.'
âYes. And he said mates didn't thank each other.' Ruan gave a delighted jump. âI'm going to like it here.'
âRuan, darling,' she sighed, âyou really must be a bit more sensible. You can't just go off with anyone who comes along. It's not the right thing to do.' Roisin couldn't bring herself to look into his eyes. Warnings like that belonged in Sydney, yet she couldn't shake her concerns. They'd become second nature after two years of looking over her shoulder every time she and Ruan set foot outside the house.
âI wasn't following
. I was following our blasted bags.' He slammed his hands on his hips and pouted.
âWhat is the matter with you? I shall scrub your mouth out with carbolic if I hear words like that again. And for that matter they're not
, they contain our livelihood, our possessions.' Her most precious possession, the pocket sewing machine Aunt Lil had given her, bought for a song from a gold digger's wife when the woman and her husband had run short. âI'll have you remember â¦' Roisin sucked in a deep breath and glared at Ruan, a mirror image standing hands on hips scowling back at her. Her shoulders sank. âOh, darling, I'm sorry. I'm tired after the long journey and you must be exhausted, too. I was worried. Come along, let's wash your face and hands and then we'll go and find some food.'
A jug and bowl sat atop the single corner cabinet. âYou're big enough to do this yourself.'
While Ruan threw handfuls of water across his face and the floor, she rummaged through their bags until her fingers touched the tasselled silk shawl covering her pocket machine. It was there, safe, just as Ruan was.
Ruan scrubbed at his face, then his green eyes met hers over the top of the cloth and her heart hitched. She hadn't made a mistake. Leaving Sydney was the right, no â¦ the
thing to do.
âMy turn and then we'll find something to eat.'
âI'm not putting my coat back on.'
Roisin nodded into the damp cloth as she patted her face, thankful to remove the grime from the journey. None of the raggle-taggle bunch hanging around the inn wore a jacket. She'd never seen such a collection of brawny arms and muscled shoulders. What she needed was a decent night's sleep and some food, then with a bit of luck, this time tomorrow they would be in their new home.
She patted the envelope tucked into the pocket of her skirt, relishing the reassuring crinkle of paper; a letter of introduction to the Reverend Benson, who would provide the key to the house. The owner, Mr Martin, had assured her there would be no problem, saying he was pleased the property could be used and the women in the town would more than welcome Roisin's services. She couldn't wait. This would mark the end to all of the uncertainty and the beginning of a lifelong dream. Every penny she'd saved, she'd gambled on this venture, and she had every intention of making it a success. The idea had grown from the moment Aunt Lil had told her half the businesses in Sydney were run by women, some of them even ex-convicts. That was when she began to think that perhaps her plan wasn't as far-fetched as she'd originally believed.
âCome on.' She smoothed Ruan's tousled hair behind his ears and opened the door. At least she didn't have the stigma of
hanging over her head. She was as free as the day her mam had birthed her. If convict women could make a go of a business, then so could she.
When they entered the front room of the inn the woman behind the bar tipped her head towards a small table tucked against the wall. âThere's room for you over there, lovey.'
âThank you, Mrs â¦'
âMe name's Maisie. And you'd be?'
âRoisin, Roisin Ogilvie.' She swallowed, praying Ruan didn't overhear her lie. âAnd my son, Ruan.' He was too busy staring around the room, wide-eyed. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation when Maisie pushed two huge helpings of stew across the counter.
âAnd you take this.' She leant across the bar and handed Ruan a basket full of sweet-smelling damper.
Roisin glanced across at the rough-looking men sprawled in front of the smoking fire, hogging the best spot.
âDon't worry about them. Just a bit rowdy. Celebrating Carrick's win.'
That confirmed it, as if she'd been in any doubt. Carrick was the
good-looking bloke she couldn't take her eyes off
. Her face flushed. Had she really made it so obvious? Nodding her thanks, she edged her way to an empty table tucked into the corner. The conversation lulled and then a large guffaw filled the room. Determined not to be intimidated, she concentrated on the task at hand, crossed the room and set the plates down and turned back to Ruan to take the damper.
The chair was whisked back from the table and she stared up, transfixed by the intent expression on the cutter's face. His eyes were an even deeper blue in the dim light, almost black, the colour intensified by his thick lashes. For the second time they stared at each other amidst the clatter and chaos for a long moment, the impact of his glance warming her skin and scoring a path deep down into her belly. âI can manage, thank you.'
âAh, you'd not be depriving a man of a bit of pleasure, would you?'
Pleasure? That wasn't a word to be discussing right now. Not in front of Ruan, not in connection with this man. âThank you Mr â¦'
âCarrick, Carrick O'Connor at your service.' He wiped a stained, roughened hand down his trousers then shook his head. âMaybe not. Cutter's hands.' He laughed and settled her into the chair. âAnd now for you, me lad.'
Before Roisin could speak, he swung Ruan onto the chair next to her. She turned aside, determined not to notice the muscles bunching in his arms, or the way his broad shoulders strained the seams of his stained shirt.
He pushed Ruan's stool up to the table. âMaisie does a rare mutton stew.'
âAre you going to have some?' Ruan gazed up at the big man with a look suspiciously like adoration.
Oh, for goodness sake. The prospect of having to spend another moment in his company set her heart rate scampering. She'd never experienced anything quite like it before. It had to stop. âNo, Ruan, the gentleman is busy with his friends. Now eat up and then it's time to sleep.'
âYour mam's right. Eat up, won't you?' With a wink at Ruan he strode back to his cronies by the fire, picking up an oversized tankard from Maisie on his way.
âHas Carrick eaten?' Ruan asked.
âI have no idea.' Roisin pushed her spoon through the mutton stew in an attempt to set Ruan an example, but her appetite had vanished.
For a moment there he'd believed his sanity had deserted him. He rubbed at the cold fingers of fate still prickling the hairs on the back of his neck. When he'd first caught sight of them standing on the side of the road, it was as though the very angels had answered his prayers. Now, even in the half-light of the inn, he could see his mistake.
Where was she going and why? Meeting up with a husband or a lover? The child was hers, no doubt about that. He shared her eyes and she made no attempt to hide the fact he belonged to her. And why was she travelling alone?
He sneaked a glance at her over his shoulder. She reminded him of days gone by, hair somewhere between the spun gold of the sunshine and the pure new cedar in the forest after the first axe stroke. And those eyes, flaming emeralds heightened by the artifice of her outrageous green jacket, the colour of new leaves, love and home. Certainly not a widow. He hadn't seen a woman dressed in a colour that bright since â¦ since ever.
Tossing back the last of his drink, he dragged his attention to the timber cutters' stories growing taller by the second as the free-flowing rum lubricated their imagination. Let them have their fun before they headed back to the forest for another bout of hard labour. The possibility of crossing the path of the delightful Miss â¦ he didn't even know her name. That wasn't good enough.
âWho's for another, for the road?' Clasping the eager, outstretched tankards, he made his way to the bar. âFill 'em up, Maisie. There's a girl.' His gaze strayed to the table in the corner, where they sat, heads close. Her hair was shades darker than the strawberry blond of the boy's.
âShe's a sweet young thing, is she not?'
âAye. And you needn't grin at me like that, you scheming old witch. I'm back to the forests tomorrow.' Back where he wanted to be, in the company of men relying on strength, nothing more. He'd not have his heart ripped out again, though it couldn't hurt to know her name. âHas the sweet young thing got a name?'
âWhat would that be to you if you're going back to your timber cutting?'
He shrugged his shoulders. âJust curious. The boy's Ruan. That's a good Irish name. Little red one.'
âAnd she's Roisin, another good Irish name.' Maisie winked one of her I-told-you-so looks. âThough there's not much poor Irish about her, dressed like that. That jacket would be worth as much as one of your cedar trees.'
âI'd be doubting that.' He picked up the drinks and made his way back. Full to the brim, the tankards slopped rum across the back of his hands and down his fingers. He plonked them onto the table and licked away the sticky mess. He'd be needing every drop tonight to keep the ghosts at bay. It didn't do for the boss to be heard thrashing and screaming. His cutters were hard men and it took an even harder one to keep them in line, to make them pull together in the forest and keep them safe. Complain as they did, they were happy enough when they divided the profits; better than slaving for the bleeding government.
âGive us a tune, Slinger.'
âWhere's your fiddle?'
âSomething from the old country. A taste of home.'
And so it all began again, the simple pattern of the last night free of the forest. Slinger caressed the old fiddle as a man would a woman. Perhaps it reminded him of someone he loved. Carrick had never asked. They'd cut together for years, from the days when they both wore the irons, and never asked questions. Rarely did a man tell of what went before. That was the realm of dreams, the land of what if and one day. So long as there was something to return to.
Slinger cut to a jig, fast, furious and snappy, making the men's feet stamp and the floor reverberate. Carrick rested his back against the warm chimneybreast, his ears ringing with the raucous shouts of encouragement. The increasing beat of the music soared and filled the four walls of the inn.
If he ducked his head just so, he could see Roisin. A good Irish name, as Maisie said. Her foot tapped in time to the music, her face now flushed with the warmth and a decent dollop of Maisie's stew. She wiped a trace of gravy from the lad's face with her finger and gave him a loving smile. They'd be off before long, tucked up for the night, though they'd need plugs for their ears if the cutters' shouting and carrying on took its usual path. Why was she travelling alone? There'd have to be a man waiting somewhere, a man with Irish blood if the child's looks were anything to go by. Not all of that came from his mam. His eyes were as wide and green as hers, but his skin was so pale, as if it had never seen the light of day, never run under a summer sky. A washed-out imitation of his mother, and thin. The boy had no meat on his long, ribbon-like bones. He had the look of the Irish immigrants running from the Famine. But
voiceâthat was pure English, not a lilt of Irish in it.
She pushed back her chair and stood, encouraging the lad to leave. He didn't want to go and glanced in Carrick's direction. Carrick started to rise, then sank back against the heat of the chimney stones. The lad needed his sleep; even from across the room the blue bruises under his eyes stood out.
She scooped him into her arms and sat him on her hip. A low whistle skimmed across his lips. Holy Mary, Mother of God. With that tilt of her hip she was enough to turn a man away from his rum. Tall, very tall. He narrowed his eyes and took another slug of the sticky drink and the penny dropped. Cornstalk. She was a cornstalk, born and bred right here in Australia. Never seen the verdant grass of home. Not Irish. Poor lass didn't know what she was missing.
Not that Ireland was worth seeing these days. The bloody English had seen to that with their laws and taxes. Bled the country dry. The irony in the fact so many Irish were making a place in Australia went some way to easing the pain. Beating the English at their game. They'd be a force to reckon with, given half a chance. Unruly, difficult to handle, struggling for independence for their homeland, even from across the seas. Seas he'd cross again soon enough. Scores he'd see settled.
Silence wrapped the village, low as the mist hovering in the valley. Roisin shivered and pulled the blanket up over Ruan's shoulders. It was much colder than she'd expected away from the coast and the whole of winter stretched out ahead of them. If their new home didn't have a fireplace, they'd be in trouble.
After the thrill and furore of yesterday, the enormity of the task ahead sat heavily on Roisin's shoulders. Not so Ruan. It had taken hours to get him to settle last night and now he looked as though he'd sleep the day through. She ran her hand over his forehead. Cool to the touch. His chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm with not a sign of the breathing sickness that had plagued him in Sydney, despite all the cold fresh air of the last few days.
Easing up from their bed, she tucked her shawl around him. Today was the beginning of their new life. She shook back her hair and the past, determined to dwell only on the promise of the future.
Armed with her letter, she felt her way along the dark corridor and pushed through into the taproom. The smell hit her with the force of a sledgehammer. Stale rum, sour beer, rancid sweat and the greasy overtones of last night's stew. Had she eaten that? Her stomach roiled and she clamped her mouth closed.
âYou'll be wanting some breakfast, then?' Maisie eased upright, rubbing the small of her back and grimacing. âBloody mess they leave, though I can't complain. They pay their dues. Still 'n all I'm glad it's over until next time.'
âDon't worry about breakfast. I couldn't.' Roisin edged towards the door, seeking some fresh air. âI have a letter. I need to find the Reverend Benson.'
âHe won't be up and about just yet. Not judging by the state of him when he left here last night.'
âI have to collect my key.'
âNow what would you be wanting with a key?'
âThe key to my premises. I have an arrangement with Mr Martin. I'm to rent the house behind the General Store.'
âOh you are, are you?'
What was the matter with the woman? Sticking her nose in. Checking up. Wanting to know it all. It wouldn't hurt to be a little more helpful. Roisin drew herself up to her full height. âI'd appreciate your assistance and then I'll be on my way.'
âWith no breakfast.'
God no. No breakfast.
âAnd what about your boy? He'll be needing something.'
He could have one of the apples left in her bag until she had the key. Curiosity would get the better of her long before Ruan suffered from starvation.
âAnd where would all your belongings be if you're planning on staying here?'
For goodness sake. âMy trunks will be delivered to Morpeth at a later date.' No need to explain it was all part of the intricate plan she and Aunt Lil had devised to ensure her destination remained a secret. Until she wrote and told Aunt Lil she was settled, the rest of her belongings would remain in Sydney.
âWell, then. Show us your letter. You're in luck. I have the key.' Like some ancient chatelaine, Maisie lifted the massive bunch of keys dangling around her waist and shuffled through them, tutting loudly. âCan't be seeing a thing in there. Come outside.' She elbowed her way through the door and stood in a patch of frail sunlight. âRight. Key to the girls' house.'
âThat's what it's been known as. Don't be bothering yourself.'
She didn't care what it was called. âI was told there was a house, and the parlour would suit my business.'
âThat there is. There's rooms out the back that'll make a fine place to live after a decent scrub and the parlour has a window onto the street, with glass even. You'd have noticed that when you arrived.'
Roisin shook her head. With the throngs of people lining the streets and all the noise and carry-on from Mr O'Connor and his loud-mouthed, bumptious cutters she'd hardly noticed anything. They'd passed a couple of fine houses on the outskirts of town, one belonging to the magistrate, according to the dray driver, and some small farm holdings; other than that she hadn't seen much more.
âNo. Maybe not. Not yesterday with all the hullaballoo. Here it is.' Maisie handed over a large ornate key.
Roisin clasped it in her palm, hefting the unexpected weight, and then traced the intricate swirls and patterns with her forefinger. The idea of the lock it belonged to and the prospects set her pulse racing.
âDown the street, past the General Store. If you get as far as the millpond and the cemetery you've gone too far. We'll be as good as neighbours. See the verandah of the General Store? It's just the other side. Stick your head in and introduce yourself to old Elsie, that way she won't attack you with her broomstick. She can be a bit territorial.'
Old Elsie sounded more like one of the dogs that guarded the Sydney Barracks than the local shop owner. It didn't bode well.
âIf you follow the footpath past the store, you'll see a narrow alley on your left, cut down through the timber gate and you're there.'
âI'll go and wake Ruan and bring our bags down.'
âLeave the wee mite sleeping. I'll keep an eye on him. You go and check out your new home.'
Leave Ruan? It went against every fibre of her being. âNo, thank you. I'll wake him and â¦'
âOff you go.' Maisie's hand landed firmly in the small of her back and propelled her across the road. âYou're not in the big city anymore. We take care of our own in Wollombi. You go and have a look-see and by the time you come back your boy'll be up and breakfasted. I'll make sure he doesn't get into any trouble.'
She gulped back another refusal. Wasn't that the very reason she'd fled Sydney? It was time to put the past behind them, just as Aunt Lil had said. The road outside was as quiet as anything, as though the chaos of yesterday was nothing more than the tendrils of another frantic dream. She'd run down the road and be back in no time.
âThank you. I won't be a moment.'
Lifting her skirts she took off down the street, past the church and the courthouse. When she reached the shadow the awning of the General Store threw across the flagstone footpath, she slowed before pushing open the door.
The air was rife with the smell of onions, their skins crackling like tissue paper as an apple-faced woman with flyaway, greying hair bustled around sorting them into bins.
The woman's shrewd eyes scanned her from top to toe, making Roisin smooth her skirt and straighten her collar. âI'm the new tenant of the house and shop at the back. Maisie said I should introduce myself.' She held up the key to prove her point.
âYou are, are you?' The woman dropped the last remaining onions into the barrel and thumped her hands onto her ample hips. âI won't be standing for no competition, I'm telling you.'
Roisin sketched a look around the well-stocked store. âI don't think we will be in competition. I intend to open a dressmaking business. More likely I'll improve your business buying my supplies here.'
The woman's head snapped up. âSo you'll not be setting up a general store?'
Roisin shook her head and offered a tentative smile.
The light returned to the woman's eyes and she wiped her hands down her apron, and then stuck out her hand. âName's Elsie.' When Roisin took her hand she pumped it up and down like a recalcitrant water pump. âCome on, then, I'll show you through.'
âMy name's Roisin, Roisin Ogilvie.' There, the second time she'd used Aunt Lil's name and it wasn't difficult.
âPleased to meet you, Roisin. We don't stand on ceremony here.' Elsie led her out of the door back into the street. âSee this alley here? Your place is just at the end. Bit narrow. It opens up once you get inside the gate. Or you can use the entrance around the back and come in by the brook.'
Before they'd made it as far as the garden gate, Ruan's voice, ten times louder than she'd ever heard it before, echoed down the street. âWait for us!' Perched on the woodcutter's broad shoulders, he threw her a cocky grin and waved like a mad thing.
Her stomach turned over and her knees sagged. âGet down from there before you fall.' She shouldn't have left him with Maisie, she should have woken him up. What was the man doing with him?
âNow that's no way to greet a jockey in training.' Carrick O'Connor's voice boomed out as big as the rest of him. Huge. He swung Ruan over his head and deposited him at her feet.
Would nothing turn out the way she expected? Maisie said she'd keep Ruan out of trouble and here he was careering down the street balanced on the wretched cutter's shoulders.
She drew herself to her full height and glared up at him. âThank you, Mr O'Connor. Ruan, come here.' Grabbing Ruan's hand, she pulled him close to her skirts.
Whatever was happening? Maisie promised to keep an eye on him, not hand him over to the first person that crossed his path. And anyway what was O'Connor doing here? Hadn't Maisie said the timber cutters would be leaving for their camp at first light? The whole idea of leaving Sydney was to keep Ruan safe, not to expose him to strangers who picked him up and carried him around without a second thought.
The cheeky wretch winked at her as though he could read her thoughts. âFear not. Yer lad's as safe as houses. We'll be leaving soon.' He turned on his heel and strode back down the street to the inn.
The corners of Ruan's mouth tipped down in disappointment as his newfound friend disappeared. âBye, Carrick.'
O'Connor turned and grinned over his shoulder. âBack in two shakes of a lamb's tail, me little mate.'
That brought the smile to Ruan's face again. âHe's gone to get our bags, I bet.'
âCome with me. I've got the key to our new house.' With any luck it would divert Ruan's attention. She didn't like the way O'Connor had taken possession of him, treated him like long-lost family.
She towed Ruan behind her down the narrow alley to a timber gate hanging crooked on its hinges.
Elsie pattered behind, huffing and puffing. âBeen a while since the last lot left and they didn't spend too much time on house keepin', I can tell you.'
Roisin lifted the gate, propped it open and stepped into the overgrown garden. Wild grass almost as high as Ruan's head edged the path, and pull as he might she refused to let go of his hand. âStay with me.' This wasn't like the city. There'd be snakes lurking in grass that long and heavens knew what beyond the door.
âThere we are,' Elsie wheezed, her apple cheeks blooming with the exertion.
The door sported a hefty lock and Roisin inserted the key and jiggled it a few times until with a creak and groan the door swung open. Catching a breath, she stepped over the threshold. For a moment she wanted to do nothing more than turn on her heel and run, run back to anything that was familiar. In the last few days since they'd left Sydney, she'd covered more miles and seen more than ever before in her lifetime. Gritting her teeth she stepped further inside. âCome on, Ruan. Let's explore our new home.'
The smell hit her first, dusty but not damp, as though the house had lain waiting for her to slip the key into the lock. A beam of sunlight infiltrated the narrow hall and she stepped inside where flecks floated in the stale air and her heels clicked on the wide timber floorboards. She eased open the first door on her left and peered inside. The front room, the parlour, was largish with a good-sized mullioned window facing the street; it would make a perfect place to conduct her business. At least it would when she'd given it a decent clean. The glass in the window was an unexpected bonus. She ran her hand along the mantle above the fire, thick with dust and ancient soot, and a shiver of recognition darted up her spine.