Gold is a fever. Will it lead her to love … or death? A suspenseful romance set on the turbulent goldfields of 1870s Australia, for readers of The Postmistress and The Woman in the Green Dress.
‘There are people in this town with the gleam of gold in their eyes and cold steel in their hearts.’
1873. Eliza Penrose arrives in the gold mining town of Maiden’s Creek in search of her brother, planning to make a new life for herself. Instead she finds a tragic mystery – and hints of betrayals by those closest to her.
Mining engineer Alec McLeod left Scotland to escape the memory of his dead wife and child. Despite the best efforts of the eligible ladies of Maiden’s Creek, Alec is determined never to give his heart again.
As lies and deceit threaten Eliza’s life, Alec steps in – although he has problems of his own, as he risks his livelihood and those he holds dear to oppose the dangerous work practices at the Maiden’s Creek Mine.
When disaster draws the pieces of the puzzle together, Eliza and Alec must save each other – but is it too late?
20 June 1873
Maiden’s Creek, Victoria
‘Out of the way, woman!’
Eliza Penrose jumped back, tripping on the wooden boardwalk as a chestnut horse careered down the road, avoiding bullock carts and pack horses and sending pedestrians jumping for safety. She fell backwards into an undignified heap, gasping for breath as a small crowd began to gather around her. A child laughed.
‘Are you ’urt?’ Amos Burrell, the coachman who had brought her to Maiden’s Creek, crouched next to her, concern written on his broad, friendly face, a beefy hand outstretched to help.
Only her dignity.
‘Don’t you have eyes in your head?’ The rider’s angry voice was tinged with the soft consonants of a Scottish burr.
Her face burning, Eliza allowed Burrell to help her to her feet and managed a shaky thanks to the coachman before turning to the inconsiderate rider, who had brought his horse to a halt and now glared down at her.
‘Look what you’ve done!’ She held out the mud-streaked skirts of her green travelling coat, her anger masking a sudden, irratio-nal urge to burst into tears. She had not come all the way from England to greet her brother in this dishevelled state.
The Scotsman looked her up and down. Even in the saddle he sat straight and tall, his broad shoulders straining beneath a heavy woollen jacket. Brown hair curled beneath his wide-brimmed felt hat. He leaned on the pommel of his saddle and said, ‘And you, madam, shouldn’t have been standing in the middle of the road.’
‘Now then, Mr McLeod,’ the coachman said, ‘be fair—you were riding like the devil.’
‘And with good cause.’ McLeod swept his hand toward a dray making its ponderous way down the treacherous road that wound into Maiden’s Creek. A massive iron boiler, no doubt bound for one of the mines, had been strapped to it but now appeared to have slipped, threatening to take the entire dray over the side of the descent.
At the end of the long, tiring coach journey that had begun in Melbourne two days ago, the Shady Creek to Maiden’s Creek coach had passed the dray on the narrow track some miles back and Eliza had leaned out of the window, fascinated by the sight of the ten huge bullocks straining at their collars as the bullocky’s whip circled their heads. It had taken all the coachman’s skill to steer a safe course between the dray and a plunge down the steep slope.
‘I am looking for someone. Besides, where am I supposed to stand?’ Eliza demanded, indicating the narrow boardwalk outside the Empress Hotel, which was stacked with luggage.
‘Melbourne?’ McLeod’s lips curled in a wry smile. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I must see to my boiler.’ He touched his fingers to his hat and put his heels to the horse, leaving Eliza standing on the boardwalk in her ruined travelling clothes, seething with impotent fury.
‘Who was that oaf?’ she asked Burrell.
He smiled. ‘McLeod. ’e’s the mine superintendent up at the Maiden’s Creek Mine.’
Eliza’s heart lurched and she turned to watch the rider. He had reached the stricken dray and dismounted, lending his shoulder to right the heavy boiler. Mine superintendent at Maiden’s Creek had been the position her brother William had held until the opportunity to invest and manage a new mine, The Shenandoah, had come his way more than twelve months earlier.
She huffed out a breath. Regardless of the situation, there had been no call for the man to be so rude. She looked forward to sharing her thoughts on the manners of the citizenry of Maiden’s Creek when her brother turned up.
From the safety of the boardwalk, she adjusted her fashionable green hat with its now bedraggled red feather and glanced up and down the bustling main street, looking for her brother’s familiar face among the strangers. Plenty gave her a curious glance but she could not find the person she sought. Punctuality had never been Will’s greatest virtue and from what she understood of the local geography, Pretty Sally, where he now lived, was some miles out of Maiden’s Creek. Perhaps he had simply misjudged the distance he needed to travel. Or had a problem at the Shenandoah Mine required his urgent attention?
Maybe he hadn’t received the letter she had sent from Melbourne? A missive addressed merely to Mr W J Penrose C/- Pretty Sally General Store did seem somewhat vague.
Eliza’s chest tightened with disappointment that Will wasn’t here to meet her. She had spent the uncomfortable coach trip imagining their reunion after all these years. So much to say … and, of course, sad news to impart. Will had always been close to their mother and her death would be a grief to him.
‘Are you expecting someone to meet you?’ Burrell asked.
‘I thought my brother …’ She cleared her throat and raised her voice to be heard over the cursing and shouting of the bullockies and the incessant thump from several batteries of gold stampers. It had been years since the cadence of the mines had marked the passing of her days, the rhythm of the stampers as familiar as her own heartbeat.
She squared her shoulders beneath her fashionable, but now ruined, coat and addressed the coachman. ‘Would you be so good as to direct me to the house of Charles Cowper?’
Burrell raised an eyebrow. ‘Charles Cowper? What would be your business with ’im?’
‘He’s my uncle.’
‘Your uncle?’ Burrell scratched his nose and frowned. His eyes widened as he made the connection. ‘Then you’ll be Will Penrose’s sister? Should’ve seen it when I took you on board at Shady Creek.’ A wave of relief washed over her. ‘Yes, I am. I thought he would be here to greet me. I sent him a message, but as he appears to be detained, I’ll go to my uncle’s house and wait for him there.’
Burrell’s gaze slid to the coach and he cleared his throat. ‘I’d best be seeing to me ’orses. Cowper’s ’ouse is up there.’ He indi-cated a neat white weatherboard house on the hill above the town. ‘You’ll be after some ’elp with your luggage?’
He signalled a couple of men who were leaning against the wall of the Empress Hotel and indicated Eliza’s heavy iron-bound trunk and leather portmanteau. ‘You two. Be so good as to carry this lady’s luggage up to Mr Cowper’s ’ouse.’
The men regarded the trunk and cast a quizzical look at its owner. ‘Travelling light are we, lady?’
‘There’ll be a shilling in it for you,’ Eliza said.
The older of the two rasped his beard and glanced up the hill at her uncle’s house.
‘Hope you’ve got a stout pair of boots in there,’ he said. ‘You’re going to need ’em.’
Eliza glanced down at her mud-caked leather town boots and sighed. Perhaps it was just as well Will had not been there to meet her.
She thanked Burrell for his assistance and lifted her bedraggled hem. Dodging puddles, pack horses and wagons, she made her way up the main road to the zig-zagging track that led to her uncle’s house, followed by the two men carrying her luggage. She arrived breathless from the exertion of the steep climb to the front door. As she waited for her knock to be answered, Eliza glanced back at the way she had come. The town lay below her, snaking its way haphazardly along the line of what had once been a stream but now looked—and smelled—like an open sewer. A large tail-ings heap at the north end of the town marked the existence of a sizeable mine, the newly crushed rock bright against the older slopes that rose behind the buildings and machinery. That had to be her uncle’s mine, the Maiden’s Creek Mine that Will had described in his infrequent letters. The slopes that rose above the town had been largely denuded of vegetation, apart from occa-sional clumps of raggedy eucalypts and sad tree ferns, and she had a clear view of the troublesome bullock dray, its load now righted, picking its way down the road into the town, guided by the dis-respectful Scot on his chestnut horse.
Melbourne indeed! She had no intention of going back to Melbourne or England or anywhere else. After the years cast adrift from her family, her place was here beside her brother, building a new life together.‘Yes? Can I help you?’
Eliza started and turned back to the house. A small, neat woman in a brown gingham dress under a spotless white apron held the door open, her brow creased in suspicion.
Eliza summoned a smile. ‘Good afternoon. My name is Eliza Penrose and I’m here to see my uncle.’
The colour drained from the woman’s face and she took a step back. ‘Miss Penrose? Mr Cowper said nothing about expecting you.’
‘I presumed my brother, William, would have told him that I had left England and would be joining him here at Maiden’s Creek,’ Eliza said, too exhausted to be polite.
The woman took a breath and shook her head. ‘No. Mr Penrose said nothing to us.’ She ran her hands down her apron and, as if remembering herself, said with stiff formality, ‘I’m Mr Cowper’s housekeeper, Mrs Harris. Mr Cowper’s at the mine but it’s the work of a moment to fetch him. Come in, Miss Penrose, you look all done in—and what happened to your pretty coat?’
‘Some ill-mannered oaf on a horse knocked me into the mud.’ Mrs Harris clucked her tongue in sympathy. ‘Weather’s been foul this last week. Folk are saying it’s going to be a bad winter. Now give me that coat and hat.’Eliza gratefully divested herself of her sodden coat, hat and gloves into the hands of the housekeeper, who showed her into a small but well-furnished parlour with a pretty bay window. She settled Eliza into a comfortable chair beside a cheerful fire and left her with a promise of tea.
Eliza sank into the chair, conscious of her aching muscles and lack of decent sleep for nearly two days. She closed her eyes, grate-ful for the warmth and glad that the long journey that had com-menced when she sailed from Liverpool in early March had at last come to an end. She dozed, waking to the rattle of tea cups.
‘I should’ve let you sleep.’ Mrs Harris set the tray down. ‘It’s a trek to get here, isn’t it?’
Eliza managed a smile. ‘It is, but nothing a good cup of tea won’t cure. Tell me, is Pretty Sally far from here? Is there some sort of transport I can hire to take me up there?’
Mrs Harris stood quite still, her smile frozen on her face. ‘Don’t you worry about that for now,’ she said. ‘I’ve sent the boy for your uncle; he’ll be here presently. You just sit quiet and enjoy your tea. There’s some Dundee cake for you too. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.’
Alone again and revived by the tea and cake, Eliza rose to her feet and examined her appearance in the mirror by the door. She pulled out her handkerchief and rubbed at a mud smear on her cheek. She took the pins from her hair and tried to restore it to an orderly knot. She had barely finished the rough toilette when the front door crashed open.
‘Where is she?’
Her heart jumped at her uncle’s familiar voice. She didn’t hear Mrs Harris’s response as the parlour door opened and Cowper stood in the doorway, flushed and panting as if he had run from the mine. She barely recognised him. Before Charles Cowper left England he had worked with her father and been very much a part of her life, but it had been years since she’d last seen him. The years had added inches to his waist and seen the loss of most of his hair. Only a luxuriant moustache compensated for the lack of follicles on his head.
‘Eliza, my dear …’ he began but had to pause to catch his breath. ‘What in the good Lord’s name are you doing here?’
Eliza frowned. ‘Didn’t Will tell you I was on my way?’ Cowper coughed. ‘Will was want to keep his own counsel.’ Eliza caught the past tense and her nerves tingled. Something was wrong. ‘Where is he?’ She glanced at the door, half expecting her brother to walk through it.
Charles Cowper placed a hand under her elbow and guided her back to the chair by the fire. He drew another chair up and, holding her hands in his, sucked in his moustache. ‘My dear, you cannot have got my telegram or letter …’
She shook her head. ‘I’ve been on a ship for over three months. We only docked a few days ago in Melbourne. Has something happened—’
She saw the answer in Cowper’s face even as he said, ‘Will is dead.’
‘But he wrote to me …’ she began uselessly, as if saying it made the fact of his death no longer true. She pulled her hands free from her uncle’s grasp and he sat back in his chair. ‘When? How?’
‘Barely six weeks ago,’ Cowper said. ‘An accident at the mine.’ He glanced out of the window. ‘The Maiden’s Creek, not the Shenandoah.’
Eliza shook her head. ‘I don’t understand. What was he doing at Maiden’s Creek? Didn’t he cease working there a year ago?’
‘He did, and it is as much a mystery to me as to everybody else. The fact remains he was found dead at the foot of the tailings. The doctor was of the opinion that he had been dead at least six hours before he was discovered by the early shift.’
Eliza tore at the strings of her purse, pulling out Will’s last let-ter to her, dated May the previous year and crumpled and stained from much re-reading. She handed it to Cowper but she knew every word by heart.
Fortune has smiled on us. I have settled our father’s debts with my uncle and left his employ to strike out on my own as manager and shareholder of a mine outside Maiden’s Creek. The Shenandoah is already showing great prospects and I am confident in suggesting that you join me in this brave new country. We can make a good life for ourselves here. When you have made your plans, you can write to me care of the General Store at Pretty Sally. Come as soon as you are able.
Yr. Loving bro
W J Penrose (Will)
Her uncle read the letter and shook his head. ‘He was a fine young man and a brilliant engineer. He had such a promising future.’ He sighed as he returned the letter to her. ‘Sadly, we were not on the best of terms in recent months. We argued about him throwing away his prospects at Maiden’s Creek for such a risky venture as the Shenandoah Mine and once he had removed him-self to Pretty Sally, we met only on very few occasions. At no time did he mention the prospect of you joining him.’ He ran a hand over his eyes. ‘I regret my angry words, but it is too late now to tell him how proud I was of him and of the remarkable work he had done with the Maiden’s Creek Mine and the Shenandoah.’
Eliza hardly heard him. She focussed on her hands, twisting them in her lap, fighting the resolve not to howl her grief to the wind. In the last few months, she had lost her mother and now her brother. With the exception of this man and her aunt in Bath, she was entirely alone in the world. Disbelief, anger and despair caught in a knot in her throat.
Cowper coughed. ‘The fact we did not know of your coming does not make you any less welcome, Eliza. I have a spare room and I’m sure Mrs Harris is already heating water for a bath.’ He reached over and patted her hand. ‘You must be exhausted, my dear. Even in good weather the journey over the mountains is difficult.’
She nodded and stared into the fire for a long time before find-ing the courage to impart the sad news she in her turn brought with her.
‘I would have come sooner but Mama’s health was failing. At my aunt’s request, I gave up my position at the school to go to Bath to be with her.’ She raised her brimming eyes. ‘She died in late January. I would have written but we agreed it would be bet-ter to bring the news to you and Will in person.’
Charles Cowper nodded, his mouth a hard, thin line. ‘So, it seems we are both bearers of bad news. Did my sister suffer?’
‘It was not an easy death. The doctors said it was a cancerous growth. They could do nothing to save her and all Aunt Margaret and I could do was watch as it consumed her. I have a letter from my aunt for you in my luggage.’ Eliza looked away, pressing her hand to her mouth to stop the tears. ‘She is all alone too. I hated leaving her …’
Cowper stood and laid a hand on her shoulder. ‘You’ve had a terrible shock. There will be time enough for talk later when you have had a chance to compose yourself. Unfortunately, I have a business to run so, if you will excuse me, dear girl, I must return to my duties.’
After he had left her, she sat staring into the flames, too tired and numb to truly comprehend that, without Will, she was alone in this strange and unfamiliar country. All the plans, hopes and dreams that had sustained her on the long voyage were gone. Her future loomed before her like the flames in the hearth, wavering and dancing, falling into embers.