Authors: Margaret Tanner
A WICKED DECEPTION
Books We Love Ltd.
(Electronic Book Publishers)
Chestermere, Alberta, Canada
Copyright 2013 by Margaret Tanner
Cover Art Copyright 2013 by Michelle Lee
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
goldfields – Australia – 1854
Melanie O’Dea jumped
as the door was thrown open with such force it banged against the wall. A shower of sparks flew from the kitchen fire and landed on the hearth.
Her brother James stormed inside.
“What’s the matter? Has something happened to Robbie?” Her heart pounded with dread. Fear gripped her in its vice-like jaws. Robbie lived on a knife edge, always just one step ahead of the authorities.
Please, don’t let anything happen to him
, she beseeched God.
“No, he’ll be here in a minute.”
She sagged with relief, and James took several gasping breaths to get his temper under control.
“Sorry if I frightened you
.” He tossed his hat on the dresser.
Angry and in full flight, James’ presence overwhelmed the kitchen.
Tall and powerfully built, with a bushy red beard and flame colored hair, he presented a fearsome sight.
“That bloody Michael Guilford,” he
What’s he….” Melanie stopped mid-sentence when Robbie swept into the room, slamming the door behind him.
“Good evening, Mel.”
Flopping into a chair, he aimed his hat at the table. It missed and landed on the floor several feet away.
As always, Melanie’s
breathing quickened on seeing the slim, clean-shaven young man who was her soul mate. They were meant to be together. Why couldn’t James see this? The soft golden curls she often ran her fingers through, even though she shouldn’t, had been crushed into submission by his hat. Brilliantly blue, his eyes burned with reckless bravado. Robbie feared nothing and no one, but his agitation for better working conditions on the nearby goldfields had gained him powerful enemies.
“I hope you’re hungry
.” She forced her wandering attention back to dishing up their evening meal, ladling generous portions of rabbit stew onto each man’s plate. Pity coursed through her on thinking about the thousands of people living in the sprawling tent city on the goldfields. Bitterly cold winds gusting over the diggings would chill the poor things to the bone. When it rained the mud and slush oozed into their boots with every step, because there was no proper drainage. Lack of decent food and the worry of mine cave-ins all added to the intolerable conditions.
She barely had time to sit down at the table before the men started eating ravenously, soaking up the juices with slabs of bread.
“Mm, good.” Robbie somehow managed to grin even with a full mouth. “You’re the best cook in Ballarat, Mel. That’s why I want to marry you.”
James snorted. “Don’t bother asking me again for permission to marry Melanie, because you won’t get it until you’ve made something of yourself.”
That could take years, she wanted to scream, but bit back the words. She nudged Robbie’s foot under the table to stop him arguing with James. It would only make her brother more determined to withhold his consent.
ve there been any large nuggets found lately?” She tried to diffuse the undercurrents of tension throbbing between the two men.
not. Bloody fools. You and Uncle Alex are killing yourselves for nothing.” James glared at Robbie. “If you’d help me, this farm could flourish. I’ve less than a hundred head of sheep left now. The way things are going, I’ll end up with none.”
e farm isn’t big enough to support all of us.” Robbie pushed his plate away. “I don’t intend being a miner all my life.”
James thrust out his jaw, his eyes flash
ed. “Remember, you gave me your word about Melanie and I expect you to keep it. I won’t have my sister living a pauper’s life in some cramped tent on the goldfields.”
“I’ll strike it rich one day
,” Robbie predicted with a brash confidence. “Then I’ll buy the largest farm in Ballarat.”
“What did Michael do to make you so angry?” she asked James
, in a deliberate change of subject.
He damn well walked straight past us in the street.”
“Michael wouldn’t do such a thing.” She defended the young Englishman she had once imagined herself to be in love with.
She was eighteen now and loved Robbie, but James seemed hell-bent on keeping them apart. It could be years before Robbie made good. Once she came of age, she’d marry him no matter what.
Trouble simmered on the goldfields, and Robbie was up to his neck in it. She had to get him away before something terrible happened.
An idea popped into her head. James turned twenty-eight a few weeks ago. Time he took a wife. If she could find him a bride, maybe he would relent and let her marry Robbie and she could get him away from the goldfields. She racked her brain trying to think of someone suitable, but couldn’t come up with even one likely candidate.
“Melanie.” Robbie snapped his fingers in front of her face to bring her out of her trance. “Is there any pudding?”
“Um, apple dumplings.”
“Thinking of the Honorable Michael Guilford?”
James asked with a sting in his voice.
“Oh yes,” she lied. Thank goodness James couldn’t read her mind. “Remember how it used to be when mother was alive and he came over for supper?”
James snorted in disgust. “He doesn’t give a damn about us anymore. Too busy consorting with the landed gentry to bother about small landowners like us.”
“What do you mean?”
Robbie interrupted. “He’s trying to tell you, the high and mighty Michael thinks he’s too good for folk like us now. Collaborating with the authorities, exploiting the workers every chance he gets. Cut us dead in the street.”
“He wouldn’t do such an awful thing
. Maybe he didn’t see you.” She dished up the pudding.
“He saw us all right
. I could have reached out and touched him. You should have seen his haughty lady friend, stared at James and me like we were smelly muck stuck to her shoe. She’s the daughter of an earl, probably going to be the new mistress of Guilford Lodge.”
ichael mingles with the gentry now,” James sneered. “I hear he’s a member of the exclusive Melbourne Club, too.”
“There’s going to be real trouble soon
,” Robbie changed the topic. “This bloody license hunting is getting out of control. The troopers are becoming more brutal each day.”
“A lot of those mounted police are ex-convicts
.” James scowled. “The dregs of the colony.”
“Ex-convicts? How awful
. Why does the government persist in employing such horrible men?” she asked.
“Brutal animals most of them.” Robbie attacked his apple dumpling
, as if it were the police that he’d like to slice open. “The diggers won’t stand much more of it. Carted off to jail or manacled to a tree like some rabid dog if you don’t produce your license on demand. Even if you have it back in your tent, they won’t listen. A fine of five pounds!” He banged his fist on the table and the crockery bounced. “What working man can afford that? Of course, corrupt police get to keep half of it.”
“I thought the
y introduced the licenses to keep the number of miners down,” she said. “And to make some of the men leave the diggings and go back to their jobs.”
That’s how it started out. Now it’s nothing more than a government revenue raiser,” Robbie went on furiously. “Sucking the lifeblood out of miners.”
“I know,” she soothed. “Don’t get so worked up about it, you’ll end up with indigestion.”
It isn’t fair. We work like slaves. Barely scratching out enough to live on, yet we have to pay thirty shillings a month for a miner’s license to work a twelve foot square piece of land. They don’t care whether we bloody well find anything or not.”
She spooned some pudding into her mouth so
her angry words of support wouldn’t spill out. James was already in a filthy mood and she didn’t want to stir up Robbie’s outrage any further.
“Thanks, I enjoyed the meal.” James rose to his feet and wandered towards the fire
. “Sorry for snarling at you before and swearing.” Propping one arm against the fireplace, he slowly filled his pipe.
“Careful, you might get burned,” she warned.
“No I won’t.” His lips quirked into a smile.
Thank goodness his good humor had returned
“You need a wife, James.” Robbie pushed his chair back and stood up
, grinning. Melanie laughed, uncanny how her and Robbie’s thoughts could be so alike.
he used to tell her he had the gift of second sight. Utter rubbish, of course, but she had been gullible enough to believe him.
“Maybe I do
.” James stroked his beard. “It would be company for you, Melanie. It’s no life for a young girl being stuck here on her own all the time.” He surveyed her thoughtfully. “Trouble is there aren’t many girls of marriageable age around. Those who are want to marry a digger who has struck it rich.”
Robbie stole a glance at Melanie. She was only a slight little thing, barely reaching his shoulder.
Thick lashes fringed her soft hazel eyes. She had a peaches and cream English complexion, which strangely did not seem to mind the hot Australian sun. Her chestnut hair reached to below waist level when released from its pins, and he liked nothing better than to bury his face in the thick curls. James would horsewhip him if he caught him taking such liberties.
He loved Melanie so much it scared him
. He couldn’t offer marriage yet, not until the problems with the miners had been resolved. It was hard keeping his feelings in check when he wanted her so desperately.
“I won two tickets to the
commissioner’s ball,” he announced, trying to divert his desire. “Will you come with me, Mel?”
!” She clapped her hands. “I’ve always dreamed of going to a ball.” How often had she enviously read about the lavish functions attended by rich Melbourne society women?
“I don’t know about you going.” James frowned
. “What if there’s trouble?”
“There won’t be. I’ll look after her,” Robbie vowed. “
You know I’d give my life for Melanie.”
“Please, I’ve never been to anything as grand as a ball before,” she beseeched her brother
. He had to let her go, he just had to.
James gnawed his lower lip
. “What about a chaperone? Oh very well, I suppose it will be all right, if you’ve got your heart set on it.”
Excitement surged through her, tempered by worry about what to wear.
A triumphant grin lit up
Robbie’s face. “Come and see me off.” Jamming on his hat, he strode towards the door.
“When will you be back?” she asked
, following him outside.
“I don’t know
. Before the ball, though.” Their lips clung together for a few exquisite seconds before he pulled away. He ran a trembling finger down her cheek.
“I love you, Robbie.”
The declaration came out on a long soft sigh. “I love you so much.”
“Good,” he flung over his shoulder, trying to sound careless
. Her eyes would darken with hurt bewilderment, he knew. He acted offhand only because he had to. If he really started kissing her now, no power on earth could make him stop at just a few chaste pecks.
God, he had to make a decent strike soon.
Desperation wore him down. Not only did he have to look after Melanie, but care for his father also. He would have to work longer hours, maybe get some other paid work away from the diggings to supplement his income.
ed on the gold fields. The authorities sat on a powder keg and stupidly didn’t realize it. He had to continue fighting for justice for the miners, a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, improved conditions on the goldfields and a stop to the persecution. He owed it to his digger mates. One more obstacle to climb over damn it, while a selfish, aristocratic toff like Michael Guilford got everything handed to him on a silver platter.
Melanie once fancied herself in love with
that English fop, but thank God she grew out of such nonsense. Michael, a heavy gambler, would bring her nothing but heartache, and so will I if I’m not careful.
Honesty pared his soul wide open. James was right, Melanie deserved much more than he could give her at the moment.
One day I’ll be rich.
Was it too much to ask that he have some luck?
Melanie closed the door after Robbie departed
. Taking several steadying breaths she tried to compose herself before joining James at the fireplace. Did her lips have a just been kissed look? She used her fingertips to smooth out the quivering pucker.
y had a comfortable home even if it did have newspaper-lined walls. She had made mats from chaff bags embroidered with colorful scraps of cloth, and they added a bright touch. In this room, their kitchen and parlor combined, the timber of the scrubbed pine table and chairs exactly matched the dresser that held their late mother’s best china.