They might be able to solve a crime – but can they build a life together? A compelling historical romance with a murder mystery at its core, for readers of Darry Fraser and Tea Cooper.
1892. It has been almost twenty years since Charlie O’Reilly left Maiden’s Creek, the town where she once knew only injustice and fear. Now she returns as acting matron of the local hospital, determined to prove her worth – and to escape the attentions of a man she would rather forget.
Despite his wealth and busy practice as a criminal lawyer, Danny Hunt has never found contentment. He is still haunted by memories of his childhood in Maiden’s Creek and the strange and desperate man who was his father.
When a court case goes wrong and Danny’s life is threatened, he seizes the opportunity to visit Maiden’s Creek with his friend Robert, whose sister, a nurse at the hospital, is the only woman Danny has ever proposed to.
But danger follows Danny and Charlie and when a nurse is violently murdered, they are thrown together in a desperate bid to prove the innocence of a friend. When a devastating storm hits, threatening the hospital, old hurts and secrets come to the surface.
Both can see that they make the perfect team, but Charlie is committed to her work and has one secret she plans never to reveal …
‘Betrayal, secrets and dastardly deeds abound in this page-turning story of ambition, revenge, and love. Another thrilling book from Alison Stuart’ – Mary-Lou Stephens, author of The Last of the Apple Blossom
Saturday 5 May 1883
Menzies Hotel, Melbourne, Victoria
Charlie O’Reilly stood, ignored, by the door of the most talked-about event in Melbourne, overwhelmed by the knowledge that despite her beautiful dress and her kindly patrons, she did not belong. What would her mother say? Something about silk purses and sow’s ears?
In her last term at the East Melbourne Academy for Young Ladies, Charlotte O’Reilly—Charlie to her closest friends and family—had no idea how her benefactress Eliza McLeod had secured her an invitation to the social event of the year, a party thrown by the prominent member of the Legislative Council, Caleb Hunt, and his wife Adelaide to celebrate both the safe return of their eldest son, Daniel, from his travels abroad, and his coming of age.
When the invitation arrived, Charlie had cracked the seal on the heavy cream envelope and withdrawn the stiff, gilt-edged card with Miss C. O’Reilly inscribed in copperplate at the top. Her school friends oohed and ahhed and told her how lucky she was, but she knew that behind her back they probably laughed and sneered.
Eliza McLeod had taken her to a dressmaker in Collins Street, as excited as any Mama would be about a daughter’s first proper ball. Madame tutted at Charlie’s height—‘Too tall!’—and lack of feminine proportions—‘Too thin!’—but the green silk evening dress she produced was the most beautiful thing Charlie had ever owned. Eliza smiled and said it brought out the green in Charlie’s eyes. Eliza’s nine-year-old daughter, Cecilia, who had accompanied her mother on the shopping expedition, clapped her hands and declared that Charlie looked like a princess.
On the night of the party, those of her schoolmates not invited helped her dress. They twisted and curled her hair into fashion-able ringlets and gushed over the lustrous emerald earrings and necklace that Eliza McLeod had loaned her. For all her physical failings Charlie thought, as she turned to admire herself in the mirror, she had scrubbed up quite well. Her mother would not recognise her.
But nothing in her rough-and-tumble upbringing or even the years at the academy had really prepared her for such a high-society party. Several girls from the school were there, dancing attendance on the scion of the Hunt household, but even with Eliza and her husband Alec McLeod beside her, Charlie felt awkward, out of place and alone.
She peeked over her fan at the centre of attention. Although the McLeods and the Hunts were close friends, she’d not met Daniel before tonight. On the very few occasions she had been in the company of the Hunts, Daniel had been at school and, in more recent years, at Oxford.
He was not as tall as his father, Caleb, a handsome man with dark hair, greying at the temples, and a taste for colourful waist-coats. Daniel’s hair was a lighter brown. In fact, it struck her, he looked nothing like his father, more closely resembling his mother with her striking light grey eyes.
Eliza and Alec McLeod were distracted by people they knew and, overwhelmed by the crowd, Charlie accepted a glass of champagne and retreated into an alcove, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor behind a large potted palm where she could watch unobserved as her school friends simpered and cooed around Daniel Hunt and several of his male friends.
She had no way of knowing if he enjoyed the attention. He had been far too well brought up to give any sign of discomfort. In the room next door, the orchestra struck up, and Charlie strained to see if Eliza and Alec were taking to the floor.
Too late she looked up to see Daniel Hunt looking down at her, a bemused smile on his face. ‘What on earth are you doing?’ he asked.
A perfectly reasonable question in the circumstances but words failed her and the heat rose to her cheeks. ‘I … I …’ she stuttered.
‘Who are you?’ he said.
‘Char … Charlotte O’Reilly.’ She tried to smile but, conscious of how strange she must look sitting cross-legged behind a potted palm, clutching a glass of champagne, her smile faltered.
Daniel Hunt considered her for a long moment. ‘Mind if I join you?’
She moved over and he squeezed in beside her, drawing up his knees. They sat in silence for several long minutes, drinking their now warm glasses of champagne.
‘It’s your party,’ Charlie said.
‘I know but I hate large crowds of people and I don’t know half of the people here. Do you know anyone?’
Charlie shook her head. ‘No one. Apart from Mr and Mrs McLeod, and a couple of girls from school.’
‘Duck,’ Daniel said. ‘Mother is looking for me.’
They pulled in tighter to the shadows of their hiding place as Adelaide Hunt came sallying forth.
‘It’s time for the speeches. Has anyone seen Daniel?’ Charlie heard her ask one of the other guests.
Beside her Daniel groaned and rose to his feet. ‘I’d better get back to it. Nice to meet you, Charlotte.’
He smiled down at her. ‘May I claim a dance later?’
She nodded and handed him her empty card. He pencilled his name beside a waltz and left her sitting in a crumpled heap on the parquet floor in her lovely green silk dress, with an empty glass in her hand.
Tuesday 12 July 1892
Maiden’s Creek, Victoria
They say you can never go back.
Charlotte O’Reilly, Sister O’Reilly to her colleagues, and Charlie to everyone who knew her, couldn’t recall where she had heard that aphorism but now every clack of the train seemed to echo those words. Don’t go back. Don’t go back.
And yet that was exactly what she was doing … returning to Maiden’s Creek, back to the memories of a miserable childhood, back to … somewhere safe and familiar. She needed the safety of the familiar mountains, the perfect place to hide … to forget … to escape from the ill-judged relationship on which she had once built so much hope. She had foolishly thought a few years of exile in London long enough to mend her broken heart but while her heart had mended, she had not counted on the man’s arrogant belief that she had returned to him.
She leaned an elbow on the sill and stared out at the passing scenery—a blur of tree ferns and steep gullies, little creeks and tall mountain ash. The scent of the eucalypts on the cold winter air mingled with the smoke drifting back from the train engine. She breathed it in and knew, whatever her reasons, that she needed to return, to lay other, older memories and ghosts to rest and, maybe, to prove, if only to herself, that the child that everyone dismissed as lost had been found.
The train whistle screeched, echoing around the valley, and she smiled. She would never have imagined a train would come to Maiden’s Creek. The only way out of the little town that nestled in the steep, impenetrable valley had been a treacherous road plied by Amos Burrell’s stagecoach from Shady Creek. The journey from Melbourne to Maiden’s Creek would take two to three days if the weather was good, longer in winter. Now it barely took a day.
Too fast to travel back in time. She needed those long, slow days to reflect and adjust to what waited for her. Without the adjustment she felt she had been uprooted from her position at the Women’s Hospital in Melbourne, to be replanted into a town she no longer knew and would probably not even recognise.
Around her the other passengers, more familiar with the train line, straightened in their seats and began reaching for bags and parcels as the train rounded a bend and a neat station painted in cream and burgundy came into view.
‘It’s made such a difference, having the train,’ the large woman who had been sitting opposite Charlie said. ‘We get daytrippers now! Who’d have thought it. You ever been to Maiden’s Creek?’
‘A long time ago,’ Charlie replied.
‘What brings you back?’
Memories, Charlie thought.
The woman stared at her expectantly, so she smiled and said, ‘I’ve taken a position at the hospital.’
The woman’s eyes widened. ‘The hospital? Plenty to keep you busy, dear. Are you a nurse?’
Charlie nodded and added, ‘It’s only for a couple of months while Matron Birch takes leave.’
The woman gave her a knowing look. ‘It’s that kind of town, isn’t it? No one stays.’
Release date: 2023-01-04