Bendigo, Victoria, mid-1890s
Linley Seymour stared at the sleeping baby in his crib.
He stirred in his firm swaddling, his sweet face reflecting a happy sleep, a dream floating across his features. His little mouth pouted, ruby-red lips working as if he needed to say a few words.
He is so beautiful.
Something surged deep inside her, shifted in her chest, a force of emotion, and a yawning chasm opened at her feet. She stepped back, the shock of it making her heart race. A moment, a beat later when it slowed, she leaned cautiously over the cradle again.
Solemnly, his wide-open eyes stared back at her. He frowned a moment and let it go, drifting back to sleep.
‘You are so beautiful,’ she whispered to him. ‘And I love you with all my heart.’
But this tiny creature, this serene-looking infant, had, through no fault of his own, created havoc from the moment he was conceived.
She stopped herself short. What was she thinking? Her Aunt CeeCee wouldn’t let a thought like that creep in. CeeCee didn’t judge anyone. In her work she offered refuge to mothers and babies like this one, not judgement. She wouldn’t blame a little child for the sins of his mother.
Or his father.
That was another matter. The bristling needled up Linley’s back. She put a hand to her throat as heat crept over her neck, and herded her thoughts back to her aunt. A few townsfolk knew how CeeCee kept herself occupied. Certainly, some did pass judgement, but there were others who were very happy someone offered refuge, just as long as it wasn’t asked of them.
Linley rubbed her arms. At times she despaired for CeeCee and their work. Of course it was important, and sometimes dangerous, so it had to be clandestine. The few folk who did know thought they were foolhardy, not brave or enlightened. It kept Linley on her toes to go about their business as quietly as possible.
That meant life with CeeCee was lively and engaging, if a little unsettling at times. Yet it seemed that the nature of her vocation had not had the slightest impact on her aunt’s bearing. At just over forty, she was still dark-haired, slim and elegant, vibrant, and certainly not solitary. Linley was none of those things. She often joked that she and Aunt CeeCee were perhaps not related. CeeCee assured her that was not true—they were definitely related by blood: aunt and niece.
Of course, Linley didn’t know enough of her father’s side to attest to hair colour or any other attributes. She didn’t remember him, and he was certainly never spoken of, ever. Perhaps it was all his fault, her freckles and her dark copper hair.
The baby’s tuft of black hair caught Linley’s eye. Idly, she wondered if her hair colour and her green eyes would appear in a baby of her own if she married a certain black-haired man—
Stop that nonsense right this minute!
She focused. The baby. Concentrate only on the baby in his crib. This beautiful baby … Take a deep breath.
So, now that she had at last decided on a name for him, she should announce it. She was sure that this last month she’d driven everyone mad with her ponderings and musings. Mary Bonner, the baby’s mother, had had only a few hours with him before she died, and hadn’t given him a name. Yet she had made sure that in the event of her death, Linley would be the one to make that decision, not her husband.
Though why on earth Mary hoped I would take on her child and rear him as my own, I don’t know … Do I?
She’d shied away from that very thought, hour by hour, day by day. Ever since Miss Juno first placed the poor neglected, wretched little soul in her arms at that terrible house. Miss Juno was from the solicitor’s office, and had nominated herself to be Linley’s agent. The day Mary had died, Miss Juno had accompanied CeeCee and Linley to get the baby from Gareth Wilkin’s house.
It was best not to keep wondering why Mary did anything because Linley was only deluding herself. She knew the reason behind Mary’s decision, even if the words of it lay unspoken, buried deep in her heart.
Gazing down at the baby, she had a sudden, urgent desire to pick him up, to snuffle into that new-baby smell of him. She puffed involuntarily, resisting the urge until it eased. It was harder than ever to do and lately she’d found herself not resisting one bit. His was a comfortable and familiar weight in her arms these days. She looked forward to it, craved it at times, and it soothed a relentless longing. She’d gotten to love the way her body moved when she held him and quieted him, as if she had, at some other time, been a mother with her own babe and knew what to do.
This baby—oh, for goodness sake, Linley, use his new name … how could he possibly be hers to keep? Yet Mary had given him to her. How would she, with her job in the tea-rooms, manage to look after him? But without her job, how would she manage to keep him? Of course she had CeeCee’s continued support, but what would everybody think?
What everybody thinks is not a priority, Linley Seymour. She heard CeeCee’s voice as clearly as if her aunt was in the room and had spoken to her.
CeeCee was staunch in rallying to the cause. Of course she was. Had she not rallied when Linley herself was a needy child? Besides, the wet nurse would still come for the baby, or Linley would take him to the nurse. At least that sort of feeding was taken care of, although she had no clue how long it would last. She should ask.
The baby stirred again and this time when he looked at her, Ard O’Rourke sprang to mind. A blush warmed her cheeks.
Ard O’Rourke. Had her scalding letter to him blistered his fingers when he read the news, the terrible, terrible news of Mary’s death? That, and the fact that Linley knew Mary’s husband, Gareth Wilkin, wasn’t the baby’s father.
She pressed a hand to her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut. Time and time again she’d agonised over why she’d rushed to put her furious words on paper. What had possessed her? Why had she marched with one-eyed determination to the post office and mailed the letter? Why had she marched all the way home then instantly, horribly regretted it?
She’d run back to the post office in a desperate fever hoping to retrieve the letter and tear it to bits. Only to see the mail coach charging around the corner, out of reach then out of sight.
Linley called to mind that day of the picnic by Lake Weeroona. The day he left. She remembered clearly. It had started out like she always hoped it would, full of easy laughter with friends, and the chance to finally wander off to be close to Ard. Perhaps today would be the day he’d ask her to let him court her.
Ard, leaning against a tree, as she stood inches in front of him.
Her clothes felt tight. Her voice stuck in her throat, and that peculiar heat pounded through her veins like an exhilarating flutter of a thousand butterflies. And yet … and yet how madly euphoric and exciting the thrill of it.
Those black eyes of his had watched her, a small quirk at his mouth deepening a line in his face. It wasn’t a smile, more that a thought had crossed his mind and had vexed him. His dark brows furrowed a little. The beard stubble roughened his cheeks and neck—perhaps two days without a shave—and the blue-black of his wavy hair crept at the back of his collar.
And none of that old-fashioned, silly-looking moustache and stringy beard thing for Ard O’Rourke. One day he had two days’ growth and a mop of dusty, sweat-grimed hair, the next he was clean-shaven, with his hair silky-washed and thrust back from his forehead in a long sweep, the loose dense curls waiting for her shaking hands to reach. He had a certain air about him, a leonine grace, as if nothing fazed him or got in his way. A big man, not so tall, but elegant in his movements—
But he was. Supple. Fluid. And he well knew his worth. Aunt CeeCee had once commented he was more gentlemanly than the gentlemen she’d observed in Melbourne.
Ard had let her gaze trawl over him, his only movement a resting of his shoulders back against the tree trunk.
Then he spoke. ‘All I have is some beef jerky.’ He held up a ragged piece, then took a bite, a quick clamp and tug of teeth. He held her gaze only a moment then looked away.
Her blush rushed to deepen, and her heartbeat thudded in every pulse point of her body. Something was not right.
She stood, transfixed, waiting. Would he reach out and hold her?
Damn and bother. It didn’t appear that he would. After all these years. They were finally adults, and still he would not gather her to him and declare …?
They’d grown up together. For long years they’d glanced furtively at each other, touched hands or fingers, almost as if in a game since they were children. Trailed each other from classroom to paddock to stream, and to their respective families’ sitting rooms. Though nothing was formalised between them, Linley had expected that she and Ard would soon step out as a couple, and court, and finally be married. But no, he was so determined to find his way in the world first. Well, she would wait, hard as it was.
She was losing sleep because of him. Going mad because of him, with thoughts and feelings and needs she couldn’t explain … Languid, heavy warmth tingled between her legs, softened her. A delicious fear of something she couldn’t name rippled inside.
He stood without moving. Her hand rose and rested on the wall of his chest and she felt a muscle jump beneath. A quick glance at his face revealed nothing, just the immoveable stare.
Suddenly, he was not all cool and masculine grace, but heat and
She snatched her hand back, but too late. He’d snapped it within his and wouldn’t let go, as unbreakable a bond as if she were bound in steel.
But then his bewildering words. They were uttered without so much as a change in his expression—except for a light in his eyes, which, for an instant, were like glistening onyx.
‘I’m going away, Linley. To Renmark, where my parents are, to help out there, try to make something of my life. I’ll get wages at last, maybe prove I can support a wife. But I don’t know when I’ll be back. This depression steals everything, and I—’ He dropped her hand. ‘My uncle Liam can look after the orchard here. Don’t wait for me to come back. I can’t promise anything.’ He’d lowered his head. ‘I never could.’
Her face burned anew. Her cheeks would now be as red as her hair—that much her aunt used to tell her.
She snatched her hand away. ‘Don’t wait?’ She began to sputter. ‘I don’t care how much money you have.’
He pushed off the tree. ‘I shouldn’t even be here now, Linley. I’ve no right. I’ve nothing to offer, nothing to give you. Whatever was there is gone.’ His frown was a deep scowl and a dimple in his cheek worked as if by itself. His mouth was downturned, his stare flinty.
‘I’ll come back, sometime. Sometime when I’ve made something of myself.’ He looked despairing. ‘But don’t wait for me. I can’t give you what you want. I can’t be who you need me to be. Not yet.’
Words rushed out. ‘That’s rubbish, Ard O’Rourke. We can start now, with nothing. I don’t mind.’
‘I do. I won’t be talked around.’
‘That’s just pride. We could live at the orchard. I could try and ask for more work at Mrs Tilley’s shop.’
Ard’s frown deepened. ‘Aye, a woman supporting a man. I’ll not do it, Linley. If I can’t support my wife, I’ll not be taking a wife.’ He straightened abruptly. ‘I never courted you properly, Linley, because there was no prospect of ever …’
Linley gaped at him. ‘You’ve already made up your mind. You never once said that you’d go away.’
He threw the jerky to the ground. ‘Things have just got worse and worse here. I can’t stay. There’s no money, no jobs.’
‘But not to discuss anything, just to announce you’re going off somewhere?’
‘I can’t sit around here any longer and wonder if I’ll ever earn a living.’ He stood so close, seemed so angry.
Linley knew she was losing the fight, knew she wouldn’t be able to change his mind. Her life, her hopes of a life with Ard, were slipping away.
She gripped his arms. ‘Ard, I could come, too. We could …’ She hesitated only a moment, a desperate, pleading moment. ‘I don’t need to be married if that’s what you’re—’
He shook off her hands, his black eyes flashing and his mouth set. ‘Don’t ever say that to me. Ever.’ He turned his face away, rubbing his eyes. ‘I’ve already made up my mind. I need to have work. It’s been too long already.’ He let out a ragged breath. ‘I’ll
go to Renmark.’
He leaned in a little and she thought her heart would give way. He only let his cheek warm the air beside hers, a quick touch of his fingers on hers, a sweep of his gaze over her face. And he turned and walked away.
Ard O’Rourke walked away.
Linley could only stand there, staring. If she ran after him, what could she do? He was not a man to change his mind. And she would not beg again.
Her cry was silent then, but walking home along the edge of the lake, alone, with not a word to the others at the picnic, she whispered his name over and over.
That had been months and months ago. And now, if she ever saw Ard O’Rourke again she would take him to the authorities.
She would brand him a scoundrel and a shirker of his right and proper duty and—
And what? Never talk to him again? Shun him? Refuse to invite him for tea?
As for Mary! Carefree, always with her skirts held high as she ran through the dusty paddocks at the back of the town … Seems like she’d held her skirts high once too often … with Ard O’Rourke.
Linley’s blush flared again. She’d warned Mary about being too frivolous and light hearted with the boys who’d been her childhood friends.
‘But we are only friends, Miss Linley,’ Mary had said, waving off the well-meaning concerns. ‘I’ve been friends with them all since we were born almost. Do not worry about the prattle and the gossips. I can take care of myself.’ There’d been a gleam of high excitement in her eye.
Gleeful in life, she was. Appearing unconcerned about society’s mores, she was free with her affections, and with no thought to any consequences. Silly, silly girl. Her old aunt had often scolded her, but had always protected her.
Linley shut out Mary’s pixie-like face laughing at her from the afterlife. Mary had thought this life was a fun game. However, without a doubt, the end days of her life were nothing like fun at all.
You were a foolish girl, Mary Bonner, but you didn’t deserve your type of death.
She checked the baby once more and again he stared at her, wide-eyed, fascinated. He squirmed in the firm swaddle and when she reached out and touched a finger to his cheek, he smiled with a toothless happiness that shot a bolt of pleasure through her.
Her heartbeat thudded in her throat. She reached down and scooped him up, hugging him to her chest. Something familiar stirred, yet not. Something deep inside, but not what she recognised as belonging to her. It was in a place she hardly dared explore.
Ard O’Rourke. He makes me feel hot and melting and sad and bursting
with rage …
And I’m holding his baby close to my heart.
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