New South Wales, 1885
When Alice Ryan wakes to find thugs surrounding her cottage, on the hunt for her no-good brother, she escapes into the surrounding bush.
It is wealthy landowner Robert Farrer who finds her the next morning, dishevelled, injured, and utterly unwilling to share what she knows. With criminals on the loose and rumours that reckless bushrangers have returned to the area, Robert is determined to keep Alice out of danger, and insists on taking her into his home-despite the scandal it may cause. Convincing her to stay on with him for her own safety, however, is going to take some work.
What Robert doesn’t expect is his growing attraction to the forthright, unruly woman staying in his home. Before either of them can settle into their odd new situation, their home and wellbeing come under threat and they will need to trust each other to survive. But they are both keeping secrets, secrets that have the potential to ruin their burgeoning love, their livelihood … and their lives.
Southern Tablelands, New South Wales
Late April, 1885
Alice Ryan woke at the first shout, and sat bolt upright at the second.
With her mind still muddled by sleep, her body shook with fright before she even realised what was happening. She felt the unease, the disturbance in the night. This far out the bush was usually still, the quietness punctuated only by the odd scuffle of a possum or rustle of wind in the trees. But right now there was an energy that didn’t belong.
Curling her fingers into the counterpane, she waited in dreadful anticipation.
There. A voice—faint, but distinct—reached her ears, becoming louder as she sat frozen in place.
Someone was out there, in the dark.
‘Ian?’ she whispered, uncertain. Who else could it be but her brother, and yet … Some instinct stopped her from calling out and confirming she was home. And just as it took complete hold, a second voice joined the first.
Slipping free of the blanket and pressing her bare feet to the floor, she clutched the bed’s footboard and waited. And waited.
The light of a flame—so dim at first she thought she’d imagined it—flashed not too far beyond the cottage’s small window. It wasn’t much, but it was so foreign in the darkness of the scrub.
She strained to make out any sounds that weren’t meant to be there, but heard next to nothing over the pounding in her ears. Moments later the light flashed by again. It was closer this time.
Alice startled; clapped a hand to her mouth.
This was all wrong. Nobody had a reason to be there, on a road that led to nothing but her home. This far out she was all alone, except for—
If she could slip out unnoticed, she could reach the big homestead beyond the trees on foot—thieves or troublemakers would be mad to try anything with Robert Farrer. The landowner was too wealthy, with too many men on his property, and no doubt he had better weapons than she did if it came to that.
Alice made her decision in an instant.
Moving fast, she struggled into her frock and grabbed her shawl from the end of the bed before slipping a hand beneath the mattress for the small packet she kept hidden there. She stuffed it down the front of her bodice, shaking with fright and determination.
Trying her best to be quiet, she scrambled across to press her back against the cool wall near the door.
One of the men spoke again but she still couldn’t make out the words. There were at least two of them and they weren’t just talking, but laughing. Whacks echoed through the night air, as though they were hitting at the scrub with sticks, and then she heard more laughter in amongst the other sounds of the night.
Whatever they were about, it was a game to them. Likely a drunken game …
Alice curled her toes against the freezing floor and hugged herself tightly, willing them to just go, just leave her be and make their fun elsewhere. The voices came more loudly from the front of the house. Her only way of escape was through there.
Cursing her rotten luck, her absent brother, and all the trouble life brought down on her, she took a big breath for courage and lurched past the window as fast as she could, scrambling in the darkness for the small knife she’d left on the table.
‘Ian, you bastard!’ The call came from so close by her heart nearly stopped.
Desperation took over then, and she chose speed over silence. Fumbling in the shadows with frozen fingers, shoving her way through the bits and pieces she’d left on the table that evening, she patted about desperately until they hit a strip of cold metal. The knife.
‘Help me, help me,’ she whispered to a God who’d never listened before, and gripped the handle firmly, her other hand shaking, while she once again backed up against the wall.
Bracing herself for anything, she pulled back the curtain only enough to get a glimpse of the clearing around the porch. In a sliver of moonlight she could just make out the figures of grown men dotted around the clearing. Further down the trail, near the road, she saw more forms and shadows. Horses, she realised with even more dread in her belly. She sure as hell couldn’t outrun those.
Shaking more, she cast her mind out beyond them all, mapping herself a route of escape. If they were here for Ian, they were out of luck. As usual he was nowhere to be found.
She let the curtain slip back through her fingers and then bent to grasp the laces of the boots left beside the door. There was no time to tug them on, nor to find her stockings.
She nearly shrieked with surprise when something whacked directly against the outside of the house, but held fast and slapped a hand over her mouth again as she waited for what’d come next.
‘Are you comin’ out, or are we comin’ to get you?’ one of them called. It was not a familiar voice.
‘We don’t have all night!’ yelled another.
There was more laughing. More jokes.
Alice rose carefully, quickly tugging the shawl more tightly around herself without letting her grip on the knife loosen. She edged the door open the tiniest amount, trying to peer beyond the intruders to find the fastest direction into the trees. The boots banged lightly against the old wood, and she pressed her lips tightly together in frustration.
‘Maybe there’s no one ’ere. I swear, James, if we’re out ’ere freezin’ our bloody arses off for no reason …’
‘Someone’s ’ere. There’s smoke comin’ from the chimney and I saw movement at the window just now.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Alice whispered, becoming number and shakier than before. ‘Bloody, bloody hell.’
There was silence then except for the shuffling of shoes in the dirt. And then a third man spoke.
‘Maybe it’s the sister.’
‘There’s a sister?’
An awful pause followed. And then, ‘Is she pretty?’
Alice wished the bottom of the floor would open up and swallow her whole. Fear icier than the chill in the air ran over her from head-top to heels. She knew more about physical fighting than any proper lady ever would, but she was still a scrap of a thing and not likely to get far before they …
‘There’s only one way to find out.’ The first man said. ‘James? Kick in the door.’
‘Not bloody likely,’ she whispered. She’d go to the devil before she let that happen or let a single one of them put his grubby paws on her.
And with those thoughts giving her fresh determination, she flung the door open and ran.
There was a shout of surprise, and then a bark of amusement at the sight of her, but all she focused on was the security of the trees ahead. She bolted like a barefooted colt for an opening between two old eucalypts.
Gasping in pain at the scrapes of sticks on the ground and—worse—the dull thuds of bone connecting with rocks buried in the dirt, in her urgency she almost smacked face-first into the nearest tree. A low branch scraped along her cheek as she slipped into the cover of the bush, and she sucked in a short breath at the sting.
She ducked behind a big gum tree and stared hard into the night, willing her eyes to adjust to the frightening, sudden darkness while more calls came from close by.
She needed those boots on before she ruined her feet too much to run. Stuffing the knife quickly into a pocket, she dropped down and slipped her bare feet into the worn leather; there was no time to bother with the laces. It was going to rub terribly, but she’d had blisters before and there were worse things in the world.
Rising with a hand against the trunk to steady herself, she knotted the shawl at her breast as tightly as she could, gathering her courage to leave the cover of the plants, and ran on.
The men tracking her had no such qualms about keeping quiet; she bit her lip hard when they spoke again.
‘Ian, we saw you, you fool. Are ya goin’ to hide in the bush all night?’
‘Are you daft? That’s not Ryan, not unless he’s wearing a frock.’
That set them all off laughing. The whole night was just so much fun for the lot of them. And then they took up the chase with a thunder of footsteps as they dived after her full into the scrub.
Alice gasped for breath, the autumn chill in the air burning her throat, and only fear of stumbling into a dark ditch and breaking an ankle made her moderate her steps. This part of the land dipped and rose at the oddest times, which was why her father had never bothered with the clearing of it.
A rustle and a thud came from not far away, followed by a string of swearing. One of them had gone and smacked into a branch.
Using the cover of their shouts to pick up a little more speed, she darted to the left, taking herself closer to those horses the intruders had arrived on, hoping against hope they’d not expect that. She’d no real idea what her plan was, but surely making it to the road was better than being tracked through the trees for the rest of the night.
If those louts knew Ian, and if her brother owed them something, then none of this was good news. It wasn’t as though the either of them had anything much to hand over.
Her pursuers veered off to her right and Alice realised she’d chosen the best path. With a pace increased to match her growing confidence, she picked her way along on the tips of her toes in an attempt to disguise her steps, and kept one hand outstretched to feel her way and not meet the same fate as the fellow with the branch, the handle of the knife in the other.
Don’t go and stab yourself, Alice Ryan.
The boots rubbed at the backs of her heels, and she hissed and then hissed some more at the sting of it.
She was going to kill Ian the next time she saw him. And if she got back home in the morning and discovered those men had destroyed her neat house and eaten all of her food, she was going to board up the door and never let her useless brother back in.
The next shout stopped her in her tracks and ripped her from her temper.
It had come from in front of her.
Alice dropped behind the nearest bush and clung to its rough branches as an argument unfolded up ahead. The tone of the words was harsh, carrying across to her only in indecipherable sounds at first. She snatched her hand back from a prickle when she grasped a twig too hard as she strained to hear.
A crack of a branch and the shriek of a bat decided things for her: she used the cover of the quarrel to dart ahead, again risking sound for speed.
‘You want to wait out the whole winter? You’re daft if you do.’
‘It’ll be worth it, I reckon. Yes, I say we wait for the date like we’re told to.’
‘Madness. We don’t need Ian Ryan’s help for that.’
Alice covered another ten or fifteen yards before the argument became louder, shouts echoing across the night, reverberating around her, surrounding her and lighting up the shadows. She no longer had any idea where the men were, only that she couldn’t risk running any more.
Panting desperately, her heart beating so fast she thought she’d faint, she collapsed on the ground by a fallen tree, clasped her little knife tighter still, huddled into a ball, and waited.
‘Incredible, is it not, that the fellow survived the night?’
Robert Farrer grimaced and inclined his head in agreement as he and John, his closest friend, walked east along the town road. Between them Robert’s heeler darted and weaved, nose to the ground as he investigated each and every new scent.
The fog had rolled in some time over the course of the night, the first one of the season, and now it was slow to clear. Sunlight had begun to force its way through the haze, and dewdrops sparkled on the leaves of the bushes around them.
Endmoor had been shocked awake hours earlier, long before dawn.
The gunshot that’d brought the night to life had echoed around the valley, setting the dogs off barking and the men scrambling for weapons and coats.
Confusion had reigned first. The Southern Tablelands were hardly a hotbed for violence anymore. No … that’d all gone by the wayside in the Sixties, with the demise of the likes of Hall and Gardiner. Now there was a lot more peace in the region than there was excitement.
It was Robert himself who’d all but tripped over the wounded yet still living man soon after they’d set out. In the dim light he’d been nothing more than a slumped silhouette on the side of the road—but an ominous one. The fellow had had enough energy to demand that no physician be called for, just about making a run for it when Robert would have sent a message to town anyway, and then he’d fallen into a fever of pain they’d not been able to wake him from.
One man, one bullet wound, and nobody else in sight, bar the tracks of multiple horses that had only become visible some time later. The knowledge of how close it’d happened to Endmoor’s gates sent another chill through him.
He and one of his farmhands had transported the chap back to the homestead and done their best to patch him up, and by the time John Stanford had ridden out to see Robert after breakfast, the whole property was alive with activity and unease.
‘I wouldn’t say he was out of the woods yet,’ Robert said, glancing at his friend as they kept pace with each other, senses cast outwards, braced for anyone or anything to emerge from the bush.
In fact, Robert wasn’t at all confident the fellow would see out the remainder of the day, God help him. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, and his fingers flexed on his weapon.
Young, roughly dressed, and looking as though he’d not seen a bath for a considerable amount of time, the stranger was not a familiar face to Robert or to John, nor to any of the curious locals who’d poked their head into the staff quarters in the past couple of hours.
John grunted in agreement, jaw tight. ‘It’s a nasty wound, that one. Never heard of a shot like that meeting a happy ending.’
They trudged along, footfalls deliberately heavy in the dry, overgrown grass as a deterrent to reptiles that bit when startled. The sun climbed higher into the sky as the autumn mist gave way to another brilliantly sunny day. The new season had hit quite suddenly the week before, taking with it the worst of the summer heat, but leaving the land parched and brown and dangerous.
‘Are we allowed to mention bushrangers yet?’ his friend asked after another moment’s thought. ‘Or would that be too alarming a thought for our neighbours to hear at this point?’
Robert smiled tightly and without humour. For decades the Southern Tablelands had been infamous for armed highwaymen terrorising the roads, but they’d thought the gold rush had moved them on years ago.
‘God knows. I’ve no doubt half the town will be speaking of it enthusiastically before the day is out, and the other half will be cowering in terror at the mere suggestion.’
A crack sounded up ahead in the trees, setting off a flock of cockatoos, dozens of them fleeing as one, their deafening calls blocking the men’s ability to hear anything else.
They stopped as one, tensed and ready for anything.
Robert met John’s eyes as the bush settled again and the birds departed, a streak of white across the sky. The dog, Hutton, paused too, alert for signs neither man could sense.
‘It’s all right over here!’ a male voice came from deeper in the trees. ‘’Tis only us!’
‘It’s old Adamson.’ Robert recognised the voice and shook his head, smiling in spite of himself. The senior most member of his staff was likely capable of taking on a gang of criminals alone.
Robert relaxed his grip on his pistol as they walked on. Boots crunched through the carpet of fallen leaves and bark. Hutton trotted onwards, stopping here and there to investigate a scrubby plant, a tree.
Up ahead was the Ryan cottage, the last stop before a man found himself well and truly out of town. He should probably check in there on the way back, Robert thought. He’d mixed feelings about the family and their patchy behaviour, but they were the closest thing he had to neighbours.
The men made it another thirty yards or so when the dog barked once sharply and darted off to the left.
‘What is it, Hutton?’ he called, picking up his pace as he changed direction to follow.
As the heeler led him through a gap in the prickly bushes nowhere near big enough for a man, he swore and then ducked around another way, keeping the wagging grey tail in sight.
The dog barked again, and then stopped suddenly, prancing in a circle once before bending to something on the ground.
Robert approached silently, just as John did from the other side, their tread careful and cautious. Together they stepped over the rocky surface, nearing whatever it was that’d captured the animal’s interest.
He saw the boot first. Unlaced and sticking out from behind a fallen tree, it brought him up short. He paused a few seconds, bracing for sudden movement, and yet the dog only bent closer to his find, whining a little as he pawed at the figure on the ground.
Robert edged around the log, saw the sweep of serviceable grey fabric spread across the dirt, and finally registered what he should have before.
It was a lady’s boot.
‘Hutton, that’s enough,’ Robert said once he’d ascertained there was no immediate danger, and then gently eased himself between dog and woman, kneeling beside her and placing his pistol within reach.
The dog subsided immediately, settling down beside them and letting out one final, low whine.
He knew this woman, this girl, Robert realised immediately, even if he’d never seen her like this before, with her wheat-blonde hair loose around her face and her skirts covered in debris and tangled around her legs.
With a surprisingly shaky hand he reached out to feel for her pulse, holding his hand there even after realising it was still beating, and was shocked by the warmth of her skin in the chill of the morning.
‘She’s alive,’ he told John as his friend drew nearer, steps crunching dry leaves. He ran his eyes over her from head to toe, searching for obvious injuries, but finding nothing of the kind.
Terrible assumptions began to flood his mind as he regarded her yet he shoved them aside. A young woman alone and criminals on the loose was a dreadful combination, but he’d not draw the worst conclusions yet. Other than a small, reddened scratch on her cheek, its line leading up to her closed eyes, and a flush beneath it that stood in stark contradiction to the small shivers running through her, she did not seem too worse for wear. Except she’d not stirred at their arrival.
‘Miss Ryan,’ he said, touching a hand to hers. Her fingers moved slightly and he held tighter, curling his around her own and repeating her name.
‘Alice,’ he tried when he received no further reaction, and watched as a frown flit across her features before it could set in.
John knelt on the other side. He exchanged a concerned look with Robert, but didn’t speak.
‘Miss Ryan. Alice. Where are you harmed?’
She frowned again and then murmured with a sigh of annoyance, struggling her way out of unconsciousness.
‘What …?’ It was a whisper, but at least it was something. ‘Ian?’
‘No, it’s—not your brother. Miss Ryan, where are you hurt?’
He received the smallest of shrugs and then she drifted back to sleep.
‘Damn,’ he said under his breath, and barely resisted the urge to shake her awake and tell her his name. Instead, feeling guilt at the need for it to be done, he moved his hands carefully along her body, not sure if he felt relief at finding nothing broken, or worry that she didn’t react to the contact at all.
A sudden crack of a twig nearby had both men and the dog looking up, and no one relaxed until yet another cockatoo emerged from the foliage above, showering them with chewed-off debris from the branch where it watched.
It was a warning of their vulnerability.
‘John,’ Robert said then, full of new urgency, ‘will you help me.’
Together they lifted her, Stanford untangling her skirts as dispassionately as possible while Robert got a knee and then his arms under her upper body. It was a struggle with the weapons they carried, and with a dog whose attempts at help involved enthusiastically winding his way around their legs, but they were driven by necessity and managed.
With Hutton finally giving up and trotting ahead, they made slow progress out of the bushland and back in the direction of the road. Robert swore once quietly as he stumbled over something he couldn’t see, and adjusted his hold on the Ryan girl, hefting her higher into his arms.
‘Go ahead and call for the physician,’ he said when they came free of the eucalypts. ‘I’ll take her the rest of the way.’
John only paused a fraction of a moment. ‘I’ll go for my horse. Can you manage?’
‘I’m determined to.’
His friend took one final look at the girl in Robert’s arms, no doubt seeing the heated flush to her cheeks that Robert felt against his chest, and nodded.
John was off then, jogging ahead with the dog caught up in the excitement of it all and bounding alongside him. Robert firmed his hold on Miss Ryan, scooping an arm under her as he broke entirely from the scrub.
Somewhere on the journey back he became aware of her wakening again, of the tension that entered her body, and the small noises of discomfort she made as he stepped over a rock here and a rut in the road there.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said under his spent breath, but already she was going limp again, a shiver wracking her.
Had he not seen her on his ride home only the day before? He was almost certain of it, but in Barracks Flat people tended to see their neighbours with such regularity that one day blended into another. If it had been yesterday, she’d not looked sick in the slightest. Whenever it was, she’d made it this far on her own.
‘What happened?’ he asked, not hopeful of an answer.
When he received none, he hoisted her higher, the fabric of her skirts tangling and her bodice crinkling, searching for a better grip on her legs so she wouldn’t slip through his grasp.
As he did, with a cry of pain Alice Ryan finally came fully awake.
The suddenness of it nearly startled him senseless. He fumbled, recovered, and then looked down into grey-blue eyes awash with confusion and hurt.
‘What is it?’ he asked urgently, even as he put more speed into his tread. If he moved any faster, he was in danger of losing his grip on her, but his heart hammered so loudly it was hard to moderate his steps.
‘Miss Ryan, what is it?’
Only, she was too busy trying to climb his body to respond, scrambling and grasping at his shoulders at the same time as kicking weakly with one of her legs. It was an effort to hold her when she was determined to not be held, her panic and stubbornness blinding her to sense. He hurried on, feeling the pounding of his feet on the compacted dirt and the way it reverberated through him, through her.
He just had to get her to the house, but still he was too far away to even catch a glimpse of the place.
‘Ankle. Or … foot,’ she said on a couple of gasps.
The worst of thoughts hit him then, and he stopped still in an instant, dropping to the ground with her still in his arms. His knees protested the impact but there wasn’t time to worry about that.
Dumping her unceremoniously on the dirt in his haste, he tipped the brim of his hat up and reached for her skirts, hefting them up to her knees.
‘Which one? For goodness’ sake, Alice, which one?’
He received his answer when he reached for her right foot and she instantly shied away. Grunting in frustration, he grabbed her by the unlaced boot when it was clear she’d not have any part of the aid voluntarily and held her firm. She wore no stockings—had she had to flee that fast?—and the puffy, reddened skin where her foot met her leg sent fear through him.
‘What was it? Did you see what did this to you, what it was?’
She shook her head and looked very deliberately in the opposite direction. ‘No … idea …’ she managed before taking a great gulp of air as though she would be sick.
‘Are there marks?’ she asked a second later, in an even smaller voice.
‘Puncture wounds?’ Robert bent closer and strained to see, but if it was a snakebite, it wasn’t like anything he’d seen on the farm or heard of before.
‘I don’t think so.’ But bloody hell, he just couldn’t say for certain.
If a snake was the culprit, then he shouldn’t be lugging her about the way he was and risk spreading the poison further, but what were his alternatives? Staying put was hardly a sensible choice.
‘When did this happen? Alice,’ he used her name again as her fear was overtaken by fatigue and her eyes fell closed once more. She gave him a brief, ferocious scowl as he woke her; he needed answers if he was to be of any use to her.
‘Miss Ryan, when did this happen to you?’
It seemed as though it took all the strength in the world to answer; for a moment he didn’t think she would.
‘Don’t know. It was dark.’ A short breath and a ripple of pain came across her features, and then another.
‘It was … dark,’ she said again. Her vagueness was alarming. ‘Last night?’
An answer framed as a question, but Robert had no response for her. If she didn’t know, he didn’t have a clue. Storing the rest of his interrogation away for later, he bent over her leg again, trying to satisfy himself he wasn’t going to do more harm by moving her further.
Up ahead John was long gone, and Robert prayed that he was already at his horse, ready to make the ride into town for help. Endmoor wasn’t far from the heart of the community, but right then it might as well have been in Sydney.
Last night, when it was dark …
The sun had been up for a while, which meant that she had been out there for some time already. In Robert’s experience fatal bites struck their victims down within the first few hours. If she’d not been taken away by it yet, surely that was good news.
He looked at her ankle another time before removing the boot entirely and then tugging her skirts back down. He still could not say for certain what’d caused the discomfort, the swelling, or the fever, but it was a sensible time to consider the worst possible scenario.
There were those who claimed he should suck the wound to remove the poison, and others who—Heaven help them both—claimed he should destroy the damaged area with gunpowder to save the rest of her. Yet if it was a snake who’d taken a bite there should have been two obvious puncture wounds, and there weren’t. There was no chance he could bring himself to do such things to her without knowing they were absolutely needed, and at any rate they couldn’t stay out there on the road for the remainder of the morning.
With no real option other than to continue on to the house, he slipped his arms around her again, taking a deep breath, eyes on the road ahead, and stood.
The jostling began again as the man carried her along the uneven road. Alice heard the slapping of feet against the earth, and the heavy breathing where she had her cheek pressed to the soft fabric of his waistcoat. The pain in her foot came and went, and then came and stayed, radiating from one spot that felt like it was on fire.
She tried not to make any more noises, biting her lip and drifting in and out of awareness as she shivered again and again. Fever or illness? She could no longer tell. Perhaps it was simply that she’d been asleep in the cool wilderness through the hours overnight.
The pain had first come before the sun rose, at some point in the endless night of hiding and waiting. She couldn’t remember exactly when she’d realised the men had given up on the chase of her and left, but it was about the time she’d given into the unexpected pull of sleep.
The severe ache was worse now, though. From toes to hips, she hurt.
She was too afeared to ask the man—and she was vaguely aware it was Robert Farrer himself who was lugging her along—what time it was, or what day. Everything was muddled in her mind, and if his reaction to seeing her ankle told her anything, it was that the situation weren’t so good. There were too many ways to be killed in the bush, and Alice was nowhere near ready for death. Life was hard, but she’d always thought she’d at least reach twenty years of age before she carked it.
Lost in her misery, she knew vaguely that he paused, and then turned a corner. Once more he hauled her higher in his arms, and she felt him fumbling with something—a gate, she thought—before continuing on.
After what seemed like an age, he started up some steps, and she forced her eyes open in time to see him carry her past the butler and through the front door of the grand house of the Farrer estate.
Of all the reasons to be invited inside, she thought, it had to be because I’m dyin’.
‘In here, in here.’ A woman’s voice joined Mister Farrer’s low murmurs, and she opened her eyes to see the rounded, motherly housekeeper approaching.
Her rescuer took a sudden turn and then Alice was placed on a bed softer than she knew a bed could be. She drew in a hiss of breath as her poor leg was jostled again, and then struggled up onto her elbows as the master and several servants carried on a low conversation about her.
‘Pardon?’ she said—or at least she thought she’d said it aloud. Nobody spoke to her directly.
‘I beg your pardon?’ she tried again.
But either they didn’t hear or they didn’t care to include her in the discussion. She closed her eyes in frustration and drifted a little, coming back to the present with a start of surprise when her foot was unceremoniously propped up onto cushions.
Alice only hoped the housekeeper, Mrs Adamson, knew what she was doing, because it seemed she was at the woman’s mercy.
‘What?’ she tried when the conversation picked up around her again, giving up on her manners. It was hard to concentrate when her teeth chattered and rattled so loudly. Fever, someone mentioned. Ankle, someone else added. This was not new information to her.
Snakebite, said the only male voice in the room, and Alice shuddered and sent up a silent plea everyone would get that terrible notion out of their heads. A couple of years back a man around those parts been bitten by a brown snake, and the poor old bloke was dead the same day.
After that the voices fell to whispers, which couldn’t mean anything good.
Alice shuddered again and tried lifting her foot. Now she was determined to see it, if only to prove them wrong, to prove that—
The sharp stab of pain took her by surprise and she groaned in discomfort, but at least the noise she made finally shut everyone else up.
‘Miss Ryan, stay still!’
Mrs Adamson wasn’t her mother, but a person wouldn’t have known it by the tone. Within seconds she’d been deftly pushed back onto the bed to lay like a corpse and await her fate.
‘What kind of snake was it?’ she asked, but thought her voice sounded funny. Must’ve sounded funny to them, too, because she was asked to repeat herself.
When she finally made herself understood, the older woman shushed her.
‘Nobody said it was a snake.’
Alice thought that unless she’d also lost her hearing overnight, that was a big bloody lie, but she couldn’t say things like that aloud in such a fancy house.
Mister Farrer came up to the side of the bed then, and bent so that his face was close to hers. He had brown eyes, dark brown with black lashes—of all the things for her to notice at such a time.
‘Miss Ryan, I don’t think it was a snake. I didn’t see the puncture marks I would expect if it was. Mr Stanford has gone for the physician, and we’ll know more then. Do not panic yet.’
Alice should’ve asked when she was allowed to panic if not then, but decided that even with concessions made because she was ill, that was also too rude to say aloud.
The master of the house reached halfway across to her like he might touch her, and then drew his hand back and stepped away.
Pity, Alice thought as he left the room with another quiet word to Mrs Adamson. If she was going to be dead soon, she wouldn’t’ve minded being touched by him one last time.
‘You’d best be listening to him, Miss Ryan,’ the housekeeper said once he’d gone, in a voice just as firm, but twice as loud. ‘He’s a clever young man. Tends to say how things will be, and then makes them so.’
Well, then. Maybe she’d still be living by the time the physician rode in, no matter how much she hurt all over.
Everyone knew Mister Farrer was the closest thing to a genius they had in the Southern Tablelands. He knew science and farming and crops, and had come from far away in England, and if not even he could find a snakebite on her foot, it was a good sign.
The maid entered the room again and handed the housekeeper a handful of fabric, and before Alice had a chance to snatch her foot away in fright, she was muscled into place and bandaged from knee to toe-tips.
‘What’s that for, then?’ she asked through gritted teeth as the pressure became greater and greater. She trusted the lady, but surely that bandage was tighter than anybody with sense would recommend.
‘I beg your pardon, my dear?’
It was a talent the woman had, to be speaking all polite whilst torturing someone.
‘Why’do I need bandagin’, d’you reckon?’
‘It’s only a precaution,’ the older woman explained as she tucked the end of the fabric into the rest of it. ‘You didn’t see how swollen your ankle was?’
Answering was slow to come, because a flood of queasiness hit her so fast, it was all Alice could do to grab her belly and try not to moan too loudly. She saw swirls and sparks and had to force her focus to return to her torturer.
‘Mrs Adamson, I might be dyin’ right now. I didn’t see a thing.’