A woman alone and a charismatic private detective are caught up in a dangerous quest to discover her true identity in this thrilling historical adventure romance set in 19th century Victoria, from a bestselling Australian author.
1898, Geelong, Victoria. Stella Truehart is all alone in the world. Her good-for-nothing husband has died violently at the hands of an unknown assailant. Her mother is dead, her father deserted them before she was born, and now her kindly Truehart grandparents are also in their graves.
Private detective Bendigo Barrett has been tasked with finding Stella. He believes his client’s intentions are good, but it is evident that someone with darker motives is also seeking her. For her own part Stella is fiercely independent, but as danger mounts she agrees to work with Bendigo and before long they travel together to Sydney to meet his mysterious client where they discover more questions than answers.
What role do a stolen precious jewel and a long-ago US Civil War ship play in Stella’s story? Will sudden bloodshed prevent the resolution of the mystery and stand in the way of her feelings for Bendigo? It is time, at last, for the truth to be revealed …
PRAISE FOR DARRY FRASER
‘A fabulous storyteller who underlies this compelling plot with strong female characters who challenge the status quo…Fast paced historical fiction, first-hand experience of the South Australian landscape, and the added bonus of a plot line that has been drawn from Darry Fraser’s very own family history make this an authentic, seamless and riveting tale.’ Better Reading
‘A story of personal integrity, courage, stamina, companionship and responsibility, The Good Woman of Renmark is a powerful ode to life in former times, as our nation was beginning to take shape.’ Mrs B’s Book Reviews
‘Outstanding prose that flows and ripples through every page.’- Starts at 60
Stella spun from her mother’s gravestone, instantly wary. There was a man, but thankfully he didn’t look like the tall person she thought she’d seen lurking near her house the other day. She calmed herself, blinked hard to clear the threatening tears, and shook the dripping umbrella before closing it. He stood straight.
He’d taken his hat off, and his dark hair, barely damp after the recent downpour, featured a streak of white from the widow’s peak at his forehead. The man’s eyes were intense and alight with interest.
Her heart leapt. She hoped that in her surprise her eyes hadn’t lit up nor that she’d inadvertently offered a smile. But there was something about him, something in that instant that charged her pulse—
How could that be? She didn’t know him, had never met him. Sense flooded in, and with it came a fierce blush, the likes of which had cursed her all her life.
He’d addressed her by her married name—he knew her or thought he did. She hadn’t used that name for some time. All the same, why would anyone be here at the cemetery on a day such as this, asking after her? The thought started a shake.
‘Mrs Hayward,’ he repeated. ‘I’m sorry to have startled you.’
His candid stare unsettled her still. Taking a moment more to steady herself, she inclined her head at the stranger. ‘It’s not a name by which I call myself these days. Who might you be?’ she clipped. A sliver of fear scuttled down her spine. Might he be one of Lowry’s shady acquaintances come after some perceived gain from her? The police had warned of it.
He indicated the headstones. ‘I don’t wish to intrude if you’re still paying your respects. I would make an appointment—’
‘Conversations with my mother and my grandparents can be made at any time, Mr …?’
‘I am Bendigo Barrett, ma’am.’ He bowed slightly.
When he offered no more, she shook her umbrella, careful that no drops of rain splashed either of them. ‘Bendigo?’
‘Exactly named for the town in which I was born,’ he pre-empted, clearly used to the query his name prompted. ‘Such was the imagination of my parents. I’m only glad I wasn’t born later, I might have been called Sandhurst.’ He smiled a little.
Stella knew the town name changed to Sandhurst, and fol-lowing a plebiscite recently had reverted to Bendigo. She smiled politely in return but wasn’t yet prepared to share humour with the stranger. ‘I haven’t made your acquaintance before, have I? I would remember such a name.’ And your face.
‘No, Mrs Hayward—I beg your pardon. How do you prefer to be addressed?’
‘I now call myself Mrs Truehart-Smith.’
He shook water from his hat and put it on his head. ‘Ah. You have taken your family names,’ he said and nodded towards the graves.
How did he know they were family names? She stared at him.
A light patter of rain began again. Mr Barrett stood to one side as she shook the umbrella. ‘Perhaps we could move to the rotunda; it affords some cover from the weather,’ he said.
‘I see no reason to do any such thing.’ This is all disconcerting. ‘You’ve made no prior appointment with me, and I have no idea why you’ve sought me out at the cemetery, of all places. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.’ With a lift of the brolly, she stalked past him, clutching her skirt in one hand and dodging the puddles as she headed for her buggy.
‘You have no driver?’ he called after her.
‘I have no need of a driver. I drive myself. And my horse is perfectly capable of taking instruction.’ Did she just hear him stifle a laugh?
‘So you’ll not hear me out?’ he called out again.
‘If you know anyone in the district I might know, please have them introduce us. They might drop their card in my post box requesting afternoon tea at Mack’s Hotel on Corio.’
She heard him step along the path behind her, the gravel crunching under his boots as rain began to plop heavy drops and then fall in a rush from the dense clouds. At that, she turned, fully aware she hadn’t been mannerly, and thinking that perhaps she should at least offer the shelter of her umbrella. She beckoned him and he caught up, ducking underneath with her and removing his hat to shake it. ‘You have a buggy nearby?’ she asked.
As they neared her small two-seater, she said hesitantly, ‘I could take you to your lodgings. This weather looks to be set in.’
‘I appreciate the gesture but it’s not necessary.’
He just stood there, drenched from earlier, and staring at her with a small smile as if he couldn’t be happier being sodden. Perhaps he’s one of these poor afflicted people who just go about grinning at strangers all day long. She placed her foot onto the buggy’s step and hauled herself up. Settled in the seat, she thrust the umbrella at him. ‘Do take this, then.’
He accepted it with a gracious nod, and opened it over his head. ‘My thanks.’
Gathering up the reins and feeling strange, quite peculiar in fact—her heart pounding, her hands shaking—wanting to flee, she said loudly over the pelting rain,
‘Good day, Mr Barrett.’
‘Mrs Truehart-Smith, did your mother leave you any papers, any family business?’ His hazel gaze was earnest now. Gone was the smile and a slight frown puckered an otherwise smooth forehead.
Stopped cold by the question, Stella glared. ‘What sort of papers?’
He raised his voice over the downpour. ‘Anything about your father?’
‘I know nothing about my father,’ she snapped. She thrust off the buggy’s brake. Flustered, aware she hadn’t answered his question, she said, ‘Excuse me.’ She cracked the reins and her horse startled forward.
He stepped back. ‘I have information about him.’
Her horse was leading away. Impatient, she pulled him up. ‘What information could you possibly have? This is most’—she waved skywards—‘inconvenient.’ The heavens had well and truly opened.
He dipped his head as heavy rain smacked the umbrella. ‘It is inconvenient. But as you suggest, I’ll have a card delivered to your post box and will await summons to Mack’s Hotel.’ Bendigo Barrett doffed his hat. ‘Good day.’ Then he turned on his heels and squelched off in the opposite direction.
Well might he squelch, she decided and flicked the reins again. Await summons. The cheek. He was mocking her and it gave her pause. She frowned as she drove.
Who of her friends would know such a man? And what information could a stranger possibly have about her father, a man about whom she knew little? He’d absconded to parts unknown, disappeared on the day he married her mother.
Stella never knew any more than that—as far as she was aware, Alice hadn’t received a word from him in thirty-three years. He was most probably dead, anyway. She hardly thought any longer about what type of man he’d been. No point—he’d absconded. She could wonder all she liked, there’d be no answers. But Pa Henny had said that he’d liked ‘the lad’. He said that Stella had Leo’s looks—the same chestnut brown hair, the dark eyes and an olive complexion—due to some marauding Spaniard no doubt, Henny had winked—and a big, ready smile matching Leo’s happy personality. When she was happy, Henny conceded. Stella had liked his description of Leo, but when she’d ask Henny for more information, he’d just shaken his head. ‘We’ll never know more, my little Truehart.’
You were my champion, Pa Henny. How I miss you. Stella’s chest expanded as the memories came flooding in: his soothing voice close to her ear after she’d had a fall, or his solemn face as he listened to her relate a bad day at school or following a nasty comment in the street. ‘Bear up now, Stella,’ he’d whisper. ‘You’re our last Truehart.’ She would stand taller under his encouragement, her bottom lip still thrust out, tears unshed. She’d loved hearing she was a Truehart but knew never to say anything about that in front of her mother. Alice had said over and over that she her-self had married a Smith, and therefore her daughter Stella was a Smith.
I know whose name I’d rather have.
Grandmama Ellen would put a finger to her lips whenever Alice was in earshot of the conversation. What little more there was to learn about Stella’s father had come from Ellen: a woman with a delight for the humour in life, and a sense of que sera, sera. Over the years, what will be, will be had been the old lady’s answer to Stella’s many questions.
Stella’s mother Alice would simply scoff at the merest mention of the man who was her absent husband. She’d fob Stella off with a wave of her hand, her face grim and say, ‘Not worth bothering about, dear child.’
The rain continued to pelt. Stella drove on, careful not to flick the reins incessantly. Inflicting her frustration on Clod, her horse, would not do; a buggy accident and an injured horse would mess things up completely—she had no extra funds to cope with a disaster. Not to mention the heartache that losing the faithful old horse would cause. Since Ellen had passed away two months ago, the house and the horse and cart had come to Stella but with only a little cash. Most of the family’s hard-earned savings had all gone to Alice’s medical care, such as it was, and what with the banks on a downturn, and Lowry, her husband—
Oh, for heaven’s sake. I have an income, slight as it is. I have the house, and it’s paid for. I just need to be careful.
Stella had often wondered if she should look for a cheaper house, in a cheaper area, sell up so she could realise some cash. As always, though, she came back to the fact that her friends lived here, and that as a widow now without extended family, she was on her own—more in need of friends than ever.
The other side of that, of course, was as a widow, she’d begun to feel as if her two married female friends were wary of her. Stella hadn’t been invited to tea by either of the women lately. Despite herself, she gave a little laugh. Real friends would have known her better. Truly, their husbands were among the least attractive men she knew. Their habits, their condescension … she was unimpressed. Perhaps the women weren’t friends, after all.
Constance and Isabella Leonard, however, were definitely her good friends. She was at ease with them, trusted them, enjoyed their light-hearted, teasing banter. In their company she rarely needed to be reticent or mindful; she could be herself, unguarded and have some fun. They knew of her sleeplessness, and of the nightmares that had begun to plague her and ruin what little sleep she managed.
She’d met the sisters in their father’s pawnbroking shop when she’d visited one day. They’d agreed, even as strangers, that a piece she’d chosen, a simple brooch for her grandmother, was a wise and delightful choice. Over time, their beaming open smiles and happy hearts had chipped away her icy diffidence born of Alice’s reserve and latterly Lowry’s ill-treatment. Their kindness was unconditional; they’d even offered to go to the morgue with Stella to be there for her when she identified her husband’s body. She’d spared them that horror.
They were a little younger; had a spark of life about them, open warmth and were not dulled by the drudgery of housewifely duties and all its ties. They were modern women, like she was. Her mother at least had taught her to think for herself.
Stella’s only lapse of judgement, in hindsight, anyway, was Lowry Hayward. And what a lapse that was. He’d taken her for a fool—and she had been, she’d admit it. She’d allowed him to sweet-talk his way past her prickly exterior and win her over. At first after they married, it seemed that life would be all right. He’d treated her well, in the marital bed too at that time (she shuddered now), never lifted his voice but then it all changed. Something to do with jewellery. They fought about it and he began to stay out of an evening, would tell her he took loose women one after the other, and she’d heard rumours of his stealing. She then had to suffer his profanities, ‘you dull, cold bitch’, and worse, while he’d scream at her to hand over this jewellery she was supposed to have had. The worst of it was the beating. It was easy to keep quiet about it for there were never marks on her face. In any case, to whom would she complain? She was married, so she just got on with things as best she could. Ellen had known, though. Ellen always knew; she appeared at Stella’s house each time she was most needed, a pot of arnica cream emerging from her bag to help soothe the deep bruises. Other bruises couldn’t be soothed; after she’d thought Lowry dead, the nightmares had begun. Why on earth would that be? It was as if something inside her had been damaged and was screaming for attention, trying to tell her something. But what? She never remembered what the horrors were once she’d woken, only that her heart pounded, and terror filled her. How could she fix what was broken if she didn’t know what it was?
Clod faltered. Rain was coming down so hard it looked like an impenetrable grey wall immediately ahead. She directed the poor horse to the side of the road.
Braking, and tucking herself to the back of the buggy under its cover, she wished that she hadn’t—in a fit of unaccustomed generosity—given her umbrella to the enigmatic Mr Barrett. It might have protected her boots from getting wet.
Bendigo Barrett. He’d introduced himself in a well-modulated calm voice and with a smile. She’d been instantly entranced at the sight of that angled, shaded jaw, the dramatic white streak in his hair, and the candid dark-eyed gaze. His large hands, stained perhaps by ink or the earth, had gripped his sodden hat. Caution now slowed her gleefully idiotic racing pulse and she remembered what he’d said … information about him. Her father.
Silently bewailing her saturated skirt, she remembered that Ellen had a box of papers and such. She’d kept ‘things’ she believed to be of importance to the family.
Stella knew that Grandmama Ellen had long ago put Alice’s ‘things’ into that tin box. At the time of her mother’s death, Stella had not been too curious, or keen, to fossick her way through any of it. She hadn’t thought to look at the box again until Ellen had passed. Even then, Stella could still not face what else might have been in there. Three of her most valuable treasures—her mother and her two grandparents—would be represented in some way, and she couldn’t bring herself to look. Too painful handling mementoes or letters. Or was she simply delaying the inevitable? The grief would be overwhelming. Time and again she wondered how to release it, and not have to endure the strangling weight of it locked inside. Time and again, she shied away from letting it go. She hadn’t gone near the box.
Perhaps now it was time.
The rain eased, and with it the grey wall parted like flimsy curtains revealing the way ahead. First, home and stable Clod. Inside the house, secure the back door. Take the poker at the oven for a weapon and check each room. Inspect the windows for damage. Only then, convinced of her security, could she be satisfied.
Then she’d change out of her wet clothes. Boil the kettle. She would seek out Grandmama Ellen’s Box of Things. She’d face whatever was in there, step into the grief, and go forward.