Authors: Tea Cooper
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Western, #Historical Romance, #Westerns
An unconventional woman clashes with colonial society in this spicy and sweet Australian-set historical romance.
His carefree bachelor days over, Christopher Matcham returns to Sydney to take responsibility for his mother, two stepsisters, and the family property. Fortune smiles on him when he is introduced to Matilda Sweet, a woman in need of work. Though unusual, Christopher senses that her fresh ideals and positive outlook can only benefit his sisters, so he hires her as a companion.
By the time they arrive at Christopher’s family home, the two are fast friends. But Matilda’s unorthodox ways and her convict heritage make her a second class citizen to the family. Christopher has responsibilities, and they include an advantageous match. A breeches-wearing, fish-pond-swimming, plain-talking convict’s daughter will never figure in. After all, romance is a luxury the upper classes cannot afford…
Téa Cooper lives in a stone cottage on one hundred acres of bushland, just outside the time-warp village of Wollombi. When she is not writing, Téa can be found haunting the local museum or chatting to the locals, who provide her with a never-ending source of inspiration.
Where to begin? First and foremost, thanks to my critique partners Eva Scott and Annie Seaton who were there from the first moment Matilda drew breath. I’d also like to acknowledge Carl Hoipo—Wollombi’s favourite historian—for his invaluable assistance, The Gate Gallery for allowing me to steal their name, and everyone in Wollombi today. You’ve all been so encouraging.
Further afield, I would also like to thank Escape Publishing and Kate Cuthbert for offering me this opportunity, and all the members of Romance Writers Australia for their ongoing support and friendship.
To Katy, with all my love, always.
Sydney, Autumn 1856
‘Paris is a city of contradictions—rich and poor, the glamorous and the debauched—and I loved every moment of it.’
Christopher Matcham turned his head as the girl’s breath caught, although he was uncertain whether the sound was from shock or delight. In another situation, he might have interpreted it as a sign of pleasure. Rocking back in his chair, he stared across the table at the delectable Miss Matilda Sweet.
Matilda radiated vitality and vivacity. In the flickering candlelight, her skin had an almost amber hue, highlighting her honeyed hair. Her wide eyes beckoned to him, and a tiny pulse flickered along her elegant neck. She might be a currency lass and of convict stock, but her looks were far from disappointing. She was so different from the women of Sydney society—and that of Paris.
‘Kit, I think you’re getting worse with age instead of better. Remember, there are ladies present.’
The delighted grin on Emily Bainbridge’s face belied her husband’s words. ‘Richard, don’t be such a stuffed shirt. I would love to hear about Paris. We get so little news from elsewhere, and I’m sure Matilda doesn’t mind.’
The girl smiled and lowered her eyes behind lashes that would have done a courtesan proud. Her hand fluttered to the column of her throat.
‘I am totally fascinated. I cannot imagine what Paris must be like. They say half the world visited the city for the
Matilda’s low contralto rippled across his skin like a warm brandy, and the temptation to lean across the table and inhale her scent was almost overpowering. Clearing his throat, Christopher dragged his eyes away from her generous mouth and made an effort to pay due attention to his host and hostess.
‘Paris is certainly a fascinating city, full of intriguing layers. The upper classes cling to the skirts of the Emperor and Empress while on the seamier side, the commoners flex their muscles and enjoy life. The cafés are open day and night, and the entertainment is outrageous.
dancers have claimed the streets as their own. Their acrobatic skills are phenomenal. The dancers kick their legs so high they can remove a man’s hat and then, of course, display delightful glimpses of their under—’
Richard coughed and placed a restraining hand on Christopher’s arm. ‘Kit, I think perhaps we should adjourn to my study for brandy and cigars while the ladies talk.’ He pushed himself to his feet.
‘Sit down, Richard. You will do no such thing. Please, Kit—continue.’ Emily turned to Matilda. ‘Matilda and I are enthralled, are we not?’
Matilda’s head dropped in a demure nod that did little to camouflage the impudent grin on her face or the flash in her brilliant blue eyes. The cheeky minx was enjoying every moment of it.
‘You were about to tell us about their undergarments, I think.’
‘Emily, that is enough!’
He’d known Richard and Emily long enough to talk in front of them in such a risqué manner. They were apart from the hidebound colonial society of Sydney—why else would they entertain the daughter of a convict?
‘I’ll attempt to temper my remarks, Richard, but I must still satisfy the ladies’ curiosity.’ He turned to them. ‘The dancers wear skirts shorter than fashion decrees, just grazing their ankles, and their voluminous petticoats are frilled. With each high kick, they display much of their petticoats and long pantaloons. It’s all very much in fun, of course.’
Just as Kit had anticipated, colour blossomed on her cheeks. To watch those cobalt eyes widen and the tinge of pink rise on her cheeks was to risk temptation. A shiver of anticipation streaked across his groin; he found himself shifting in his seat. Richard was right—all this talk of petticoats and high kicks had to stop. It was disconcerting for him to be so aroused while sitting at the dinner table. Still, something about the girl intrigued him.
‘Mr Matcham …’ Matilda’s moist, pink tongue traced her lips.
‘Christopher, in fact, but everyone calls me Kit.’
‘Kit.’ Her voice turned the word into a caress. ‘I would very much like to hear about the
A change of subject
‘Superlatives seem to fit the bill—enormous, impressive, startling. The site stretched across forty acres along the Avenues de Champs-Élysées, and over five million people attended during the six months the exhibition was open. I believe there were representatives there from over thirty-four countries.’ He watched her lean forward, her face captivating in the candlelight. ‘I found the industrial arts exhibition hall particularly interesting. I have imported some machinery from the event for my vineyard in Wollombi and also some stock from Bordeaux. France has recently introduced a classification system for wine, so a small number of us in the Hunter Valley have begun to plant grapes. Some of the original vines from the First Fleet ended up there, you know.’
Matilda twirled her fingers around the stem of her glass and then lifted it to her lips. She sniffed delicately before taking a small sip, almost as if she was trying to immerse herself in his words and the wine.
Christopher continued, watching those full lips as they almost caressed the glass. ‘The King and Queen also paid a visit to the event. Emily, you would have loved the beautiful, handpainted floral silks. The designs could have been taken straight from your garden. The Queen was particularly taken with them, and I believe Albert intends to design a dress from them for her.’
‘We shall have to think twice about our spring wardrobes then, Matilda, will we not?’
‘That is not something I will be doing for a while.’ Her satiny-smooth shoulders rose and fell as she sighed, her elegant fingers interlacing as she rested her chin on them. She stared into the flickering candles at the centre of the table. He had no idea what she was seeing in those flames, but it appeared her mind was no longer on the delights of Paris.
‘Now, Kit, what about those political aspirations you were nurturing before you left for Paris?’ Richard asked. ‘Do you intend to pursue them now you are home?’
‘An interesting question.’ He glanced at Matilda, who had grown quiet and distant. It was almost as if she were no longer in the room. ‘As you know, I wasn’t anticipating returning home for another twelve months, but my trip was cut short when I received news of my stepfather’s untimely passing. My mother has taken it very hard and has been confined to her bed.’ He frowned. ‘I think I will put my plans on hold until I have the new vines planted and the mechanised mower in working order. I know my mother won’t be happy, but my responsibility to her and my step-sisters far outweigh any political ambitions.’
‘Very noble sentiments, Kit. I commend you. Your mother’s gain, however, is our loss. As soon as you are settled and able to return to Sydney, we will discuss it further.’
Kit turned his attention back to Matilda and mulled over Richard’s earlier comments. Apparently, the girl had suffered a family tragedy and was looking for some way of supporting herself. Most women would have run screaming to their nearest male relative for charity, not taken the weight on their own delectable shoulders.
He should make his offer sooner rather than later. Matilda needed a position, and his stepsisters needed a companion—someone to keep them amused and out of harm’s way. It would be a good match. Plus, she appeared to be a well-brought-up girl despite her dubious heritage, and her experience of country life could be an added advantage.
Time was of the essence.
Kit stood behind Matilda’s chair and eased it backward to help her rise. His hands rested on the timber uprights, the heat of his body warming her. A faint prickle of awareness rippled across her skin as his sleeve brushed her arm.
She was being ridiculous—this was chivalry, good manners, and nothing more. She’d spent most of her life working shoulder-to-shoulder with her father and the itinerant labourers he’d employed on their paltry holdings, and yet she had never reacted this way before.
The dark rumble of his voice sent shivers down her spine. He settled her hand in the crook of his arm and led her down the passageway to the sitting room.
‘May I say how delightful you look this evening? Being my first night back in Australia, it is a wonderful reminder of how much I have been missing.’
Christopher raked her with a sizzling glance. The compliment pleased her but she knew it meant nothing. How could a simple Australian girl compete with the Parisians? Nevertheless, she found that she enjoyed the novelty, for such a thing would never have happened at home.
Home, she mused. No, it was no longer home but simply an investment for the future—a piece of paper. The fire had taken care of the rest. She had much to arrange before she could call it home again, and the most pressing concern was to find a position … and, eventually, a husband.
Kit led Matilda to the sofa and seated her next to Emily.
‘Kit was kind enough to bring us some coffee,’ Emily said, offering her a cup.
Matilda accepted it. ‘It’s quite a luxury.’ As steam rose from the cup, she closed her eyes and inhaled. The smell was strange and almost burned. She would have preferred a cup of tea from a billy and with a hint of eucalyptus, but she wasn’t about to offend her hosts after they had been so very kind. They had offered her accommodation at the drop of a hat; if only the rest of her problems could be so easily solved.
‘So, Matilda, tell me what the most important things are for you in Sydney? Friends, the theatre, dressmakers?’ Kit pinned her with a fixed stare. Her cup rattled slightly in the saucer, and she gripped it more firmly as he continued. ‘It is a great pity I shall be leaving tomorrow evening for Morpeth. I would have been delighted to show you some of the sights and reacquaint myself at the same time.’
‘It is more important that I find a position than visit the dressmaker,’ she stated bluntly.
‘Matilda is looking for some form of employment to tide her over until the matter of her family estate is finalised,’ Richard said. She silently thanked him for stepping in and covering her outburst.
‘I think perhaps we could come to an arrangement that may suit both our situations.’ The mood in the room changed in an instant. Emily’s gaze was on Kit as he stood up and rested his arm along the mantelpiece.