Despite their growing attraction, both Peter and Elizabeth have secrets that will come between them.
New South Wales, 1887
Peter Rowe’s life is in the city, but his soul is in Australia’s southern tablelands – a place he’s never seen. Taking the new land manager’s position on the thriving estate of Endmoor is the chance he needs to discover what happened to the family he has never met. What he doesn’t expect to find in the bush is his employer’s talented, beautiful sister.
Elizabeth Farrer’s world is changing rapidly. An artist whose work has begun to gain acclaim, her brother’s marriage has made her redundant in her own home and she intends to leave the country and make a life of her own. Her plans would take her far from her beloved New South Wales, but with the arrival of Endmoor’s newest employee – a man unlike any other she has met – she discovers there might just be a reason to stay right where she is.
Just as they conquer their most difficult obstacles, old prejudices rise up and threaten to keep them apart …
Southern Tablelands, New South Wales
Elizabeth Farrer devoted two exasperating hours to her work before she put down her charcoal and admitted defeat.
‘This is hopeless,’ she muttered from her spot under the old eucalypt far out on her family’s estate. Looking up from her sketchbook, she took in the expanse of dry, yellowed grass that stretched to the foothills of the Brindabellas. A pair of white butterflies fluttered by—such a bucolic vision that it hardly seemed real. A perfectly lovely afternoon, even if punctuated by the relentless bleating of a veritable army of sheep.
Light filtered through the leaves above, dappling the ground where her bare feet poked out from the sprawled skirts of her old burnt umber gown. So far out on the land it didn’t matter if she gave up on a little propriety. She was hardly likely to outrage a kangaroo.
She had all the inspiration she could possibly want. And yet … and yet. There wasn’t a single spark of creativity in her that afternoon, just as there’d not been the day before, nor the day before that.
Cross, and grumbling not unlike her infant nephew, she gripped her charcoal determinedly to give it one last try and began shaping the curve of the creek on the page, drawing as much from memory as from sight. A few minutes later she paused and gave her effort a frank inspection.
Setting her work—such as it was—aside, she groaned and brought the heels of her hands to her forehead, closing her eyes against the beautiful day. With the new accountant due to arrive from Sydney any moment, she really ought to get back in time to greet him. She might not be mistress of the house now her brother was married, but that didn’t mean she could abandon all her manners.
‘You’re no decent company, I’ll have you know,’ she called to the largest kangaroo, a grey male with a suspicious look about him. He’d stirred the instant she did, ready to come at her with claws if she showed too much interest in his brood.
Reaching for her stockings and her boots, she put herself back to rights, preparing for the long walk home. Pushing to her feet, she strolled around the clearing to work out the discomforts of sitting still for far too long, kicking at a couple of little rocks that lay in amongst the grass. Not for the first time in the past few weeks she found herself thinking of a childhood in Cumberland, and the deep greens of the English countryside. Nostalgia was a dangerous thing.
Her wandering brought her to the fence that divided Farrer land from the countryside beyond. A couple of old huts nobody in particular laid claim to, the structures occasionally shelters for people passing through the valley, stood dilapidating on the other side. Leaning against a post, Elizabeth peered over at them, taking note of the dangerously overgrown surroundings and the weeds springing up out of the connecting path. There was an absolute stillness to the place.
Mr Towner had moved on again then. The old squatter rarely stayed for long, and because nobody could agree whose land the Irishman was actually squatting on, people tended to leave him be. He was far from the only man to pass through the valley and make use of the space, but he was certainly the most frequent visitor.
Or, Elizabeth thought, with a dawning and awful realisation, perhaps he’d died in there, and been forgotten all about …
‘Oh, Lord,’ she said, cursing the sudden return of her imagination. Now, she’d no choice but to check and see for certain.
Risking splinters in unfortunate places, she vaulted the fence at the post, catching the hem of her skirts more than once. Hovering there a moment, she uttered a few words she bet her family wasn’t aware she knew.
Despite the few precarious seconds, she survived the trip over in one piece. After disentangling herself from the barrier and stomping her way up the path to scare off snakes, she hopped over a fallen branch blocking the way and reached the door of the more habitable of the buildings sooner than she would have liked.
Bracing for something awful, she lifted a charcoal-marked hand to knock on the weather-battered wood.
The railway station was so new it just about gleamed.
Peter propped his hands on his hips, tipped his face up to the near-blindingly blue sky, and drew in a long breath. Here he was, then, in Barracks Flat, the town he’d be calling home for the coming months; his first time so far south in the colony. After being in the city, it felt as if he’d entered a different world.
It may have been early in the season, but the spring air already held a great deal of warmth. It was a dry sort of heat, different from the humidity of the coast—harsher, somehow.
Around him new arrivals bustled with baggage and called greetings to various people, most of the travellers returning home rather than beginning a new adventure. As an outsider he was attracting a few curious looks, but nobody approached. The locomotive that had just deposited them in this dusty southern outpost of New South Wales steamed and hissed and spat like a restless animal eager to be on its way again.
An odd emotion stirred deep in his belly, but he was determined to ignore it for the time being and deal with practical matters first. These weren’t the circumstances he’d ever imagined would bring him to the region, but he hoped to God it took to him the way he was determined to take to it.
‘You’re Mr Rowe? Peter Rowe?’
He turned to see a man of middle years standing beside him, battered hat on his head. He had a wizened country look to him that spoke of many hours spent in the sun.
Peter didn’t miss the man’s swift, assessing glance over his features, taking in the hints that his heritage wasn’t entirely English. He was used to it, and the older fellow had the decency to not pry.
‘William Adamson. I’m here from Endmoor to collect you.’ He bent to pick up a bag, slung it over his shoulder, and then crouched to lift a larger one—all efficiency and genial gruffness even as he staggered back a step under the weight.
Peter stepped forwards ‘Let me help you.’
The man was comically aghast at the suggestion. ‘I won’t be havin’ that. Leave it to me, if you don’t mind. You’ll find Mr Farrer out with the coach.’ He pointed in the obvious direction, where a pathway beyond the station led passengers to the road.
Peter began to put up another protest, but realised a moment later it was a matter of pride on the other fellow’s part. Feeling decidedly uncomfortable about the whole thing, he headed in the direction he’d been sent.
Vehicles of various kinds awaited their passengers. Families gathered, eyes wide, some with rudimentary bouquets clutched in their hands, scanning the travellers for a familiar face. Servants hovered, ready to jump into action the instant they were required. Gigs and wagons lined the curved drive, and people from the surrounding farms perched around them, fresh produce on display. It was hardly the ordered chaos of an arrival at Sydney Terminal, but for a town so far from the city it spoke of a region on the rise.
It was not hard to find the carriage, seeing as it was the only one in sight. Nor was it hard to find the vehicle’s owner. The man leaned against its door, arms folded, pose casual, watching Peter’s approach steadily from the shadow of a grand, mature plane tree.
Robert Farrer was a young man of about thirty, tall, brown-haired, and—at present—giving him a curious, appraising look. Peter stopped a few feet from his new employer, stayed still for the scrutiny, and knew then all the obvious, usual questions would begin.
The assessment took only a matter of seconds, but it might as well have been an hour. Their gazes held while parrots chattered from the tree. Decision made, Farrer straightened and stepped towards him, emerging from the shade. He came to a stop in front of him, gaze assessing.
‘Maurice Rowe is a man of about sixty-five,’ he finally said, and—relieved—Peter grinned.
‘My father had to stay in the city.’ It was more or less the truth. ‘He sent me instead. You should have received a telegram about the changed circumstances.’
The other man grunted.
‘We didn’t. But it doesn’t matter either way.’ He held out his hand and shook Peter’s firmly.
Pleasantries were exchanged, the luggage was loaded, and minutes later Peter found himself in the vehicle and off down the road.
They climbed the hill up from the station and then rolled through a town that was clearly in a time of transformation. Fashionable two-storey terraces rose up alongside smaller cottages and shops that looked like they’d been there a good few decades. A few people were milling around; others hurrying from one building to the next, focused on their errands.
Gum trees mingled with European imports along the roadsides, and the white seeds of the blossoming kapok trees floated around like fluffy snowflakes in the warm afternoon air.
‘We’re so grateful to have found someone so fast,’ Farrer said as they passed one church, and then another. ‘With John, my business partner, abroad trying to convince Europeans they really do want to buy Australian riesling, it’s been a hard slog to take care of the property and the books. We’ll be grateful for your help over the next few months.’
‘Books are what I’m best at,’ Peter replied absently, absorbing his surroundings. It was far too early to rush to judgement. Everything had happened so fast, from his father calling him into his office to inform him there’d been a change of plans, to packing his belongings before he could even question why he—at thirty-two—was doing the man’s bidding without putting forward an argument first, to the journey southwest into the country.
Talk moved on to the usual things strangers spoke of in order to sound polite. The cricket was the obvious first choice, with England’s recently finished tour of the colonies.
‘And to think of Moses with that left-handed batting. I’d love to have seen it,’ Farrer said while they passed the last of the terraces and took the route westwards, past a park and then off the main road. The bush slowly enveloped them.
‘It’s not quite the city, but we’re not complete bumpkins. Business picked up faster than we’d expected, and while I don’t want to complain about it, it’s been … well.’ Farrer chuckled. ‘I do want to complain about it. A little break from the chaos would be welcome.’
The road got a little rougher and Peter braced his arm against the carriage’s door. They passed an abandoned old wagon and then the trees took over completely as the sounds of wheels and hooves in the dust rose up around them. They passed a dirt track here and a scrubby clearing there. Small symbols of human occupation, small markings on the land.
Peter saw signs of the Endmoor estate long before they reached it. The bush had become tamer. The carpet of debris on the ground thinned. And then the trees cleared, giving him views here and there of a paddock off in the distance, merinos well camouflaged in their surroundings. And with each peek into the wide expanse of the valley, he was afforded glimpses of the green-blue foliage of the mountains far beyond.
They reached a set of gates and a large drive beyond it. Adamson paused to let them through, and then they were approaching a grand house that Peter estimated couldn’t have stood on the land for much more than twenty years.
They rolled to a stop and then the door was opened for them. People began to emerge from various buildings, curiosity piqued.
‘So, this is Endmoor.’
Farrer inclined his head and indicated for Peter to step down first. ‘So it is.’
The door opened at the touch of Elizabeth’s knuckles, swinging inwards and revealing a dark, one-room space with a table, a bed and a crooked old chair. An assortment of rubbish was scattered across the table—signs of past occupation, and of a resident who didn’t much care about the mess he left behind—but when her eyes adjusted to the low light she saw the fireplace hadn’t been used in some time.
The hut was empty.
Letting out a sigh of relief, she pulled the door closed and trudged across the clearing to peer into the second, even smaller building. She found it as dark and deserted as the first, and only then did she let out a full breath.
‘Well. That’s a relief.’
With that settled she headed back the way she came, pausing once at a scrabbling sound in the weeds until a startled, harmless skink darted away. Back up over the fence she went, catching her skirts all over again, but this time reining in the vulgar language.
Once she was safely on the other side she headed back over to her tree, brushing at something on her cheek as she walked, and then stopping still in surprise to stare at fingers that came away wet.
Why was she crying?
Oh, but she knew, because it had happened with more and more frequency in recent months, to her mortification. It was a private pain, one more than two years in the making, and—selfishly on her part—it had very little to do with concern for an old, crotchety nomad who was off somewhere roaming the hills.
Edward … So much anger and frustration tied up in one name. And, to her constant consternation, heartache was bundled in along with the other emotions.
‘You’re absurd, Elizabeth Farrer,’ she admonished, and began to pack her supplies away. She’d heard of people becoming maudlin around anniversaries, but it was no special time now. Just Wednesday.
Too much sitting around on her own, that was it. She couldn’t change the past, but she could certainly change her future. Judging by the angle of the sun the train was due into town very soon, which meant she’d have to save the rest of her moping for another day.
The sketchbook went back in its bag, and the charcoal in its box. All the while the kangaroos watched her from some twenty yards away, pairs of pointy ears sticking out the top of the overgrowth.
She offered them a frustrated look and a wave goodbye; they ought to know by now she hadn’t any plans to shoot them. And then she gathered everything in her arms and set off east.
It didn’t take long for the melancholy to pass. Once she got walking she spotted a giant wattle bush flowering, bright yellow and smelling divine, and soon after that stopped at the sight of a still-grey baby magpie chasing its parents and begging for food in high, ridiculous squeaks, his mottled feathers sticking haphazardly in every direction.
Almost home she paused one final time, removing her old hat before walking on to the house, smoothing her hair with her fingertips and trying to regain some semblance of tidiness. Holding the hat by its ribbons with one hand and her bag with the other, she climbed the last gentle slope of the land as the family homestead of Endmoor emerged from the landscape.
The sunshine reflected on the corrugated iron of the roof and veranda, and the garden, tamed and blooming with the first wave of spring, dazzled with its array of flowers. The main house was surrounded by a series of other buildings: stables and sheds in various states of newness and decay.
And, descending from a vehicle on the carriage drive were two gentlemen.
Robert turned her way first. The stranger, whose attention had been fixed somewhere off towards the mountains, removed his own hat and then turned too, revealing a wealth of jet-black hair and a set of strong, broad shoulders Elizabeth wished she’d not noticed.
It was brief before it was disguised, but she caught the change in his posture, the sudden alertness, and oh … It had been a long time since someone had looked at her that way.
And it had been a long time since she’d looked at a man that way. This couldn’t be the new employee. Her brother had told her to prepare for someone much older.
Elizabeth closed the distance between them and prayed nobody would notice she looked like she’d just emerged from a trek through the Amazon, or that her gown was so old the fabric was beginning to tear at the seams. Burnt umber—of all the colours in the world to choose. What had she been thinking?
Robert beamed broadly and stepped forward.
‘Mr Peter Rowe, this is my sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, Mr Rowe is from—’
‘Rowe and Son Accountants,’ she finished for him, and then set her things at her feet and made herself look directly at the most interesting person to arrive at the estate in a long time.
‘It seems there’s been a change of plans, and we’ve been saddled with Mr Rowe, the younger.’
Robert, in the way of brothers, didn’t seem to notice anything was amiss. He continued the introductions, all good breeding and fine manners. There hadn’t been many times over the years Elizabeth felt the need to strangle the man, but right then the urge was gargantuan.
All the usual pleasantries were exchanged, and Elizabeth supposed she said the right things at the right time, enquiring about the journey, remarking on the quality of the new railway that’d only reached town mere days before. She was fairly sure something was said about the weather. And she absolutely refused to break out in romantical shivers simply because a handsome man stood so close to her.
And then Alice, her sister-in-law, came out of the house, crossed the veranda, and proceeded to help lug a bag inside, and Robert was off to stop her, an admonishment on his lips and an indulgent smile on his face. Leaving Elizabeth and Mr Rowe alone and watching each other with caution and masked interest. It was dangerous, she knew, to put too much stock in first impressions, but as the world continued around them and she sought desperately for something halfway intelligent to say to fill the silence she struggled to take her own good advice.
While she dithered Alice won her debate with her husband, and Elizabeth latched onto the sight of the two of them walking off together wrestling a case.
‘You might find us a little … odd from time to time, this far out in the country,’ she eventually said, and watched as a smile broke across the man’s face, dazzling her into forgetting the rest of her words.
Well. If she’d been looking for a change in her world, she’d certainly just found it.
Sonya Heaney began her professional life aged eight, as the Changeling in Queensland Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After many more years of hard work, even more blisters, and plenty of pretty tutus, one too many injuries forced her out of her pointe shoes.
Between then and now she has worked in a posh Dublin hotel (that didn’t last long), pulled pints in London pubs (that lasted years), taught English in Korea (her apartment was broken into and her computer was stolen—along with many half-finished manuscripts), and worked on costumes backstage in various theatres (it was always chaos).
Sonya holds a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing, and spent years putting it to use in nonfiction fields before turning her hand to romance.
After working her way around the world, she once again calls Canberra, Australia’s gorgeous capital city, home.