Authors: Tea Cooper
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Western, #Historical Romance, #Westerns
Kit nodded in agreement. ‘Are you up for a canter?’ The hint of a smile on his full lips seemed to offer an unspoken challenge, and she felt the thrill of anticipation.
‘The trees clear at the top here, so we can cross to the back fence there. It doesn’t hit the boundary of the property, but we call it the back fence because it’s as far as we have cleared. Also, the cattle generally run here.’
The trees thinned. Matilda gasped in surprise at the sight of the herd of shiny black cattle grazing peacefully in the lush grass. The creek, edged with white-flowering tea trees, meandered its way through the paddock. The tableau was idyllic and so different from the barren terrain where she and her family had tried to eke out a living.
‘Race.’ The words flew over his shoulder as he spurred his stallion into a gallop. Never one to resist a challenge, Matilda was soon racing along right behind him as they galloped neck-and-neck across the creek flats. The rhythmic pounding of their horse’s hooves on the grass reverberated in her chest, and her breath caught. She rose up in her stirrups and yelled her enthusiasm.
As they neared a majestic gum tree standing guard over a bend in the creek, Kit slowed and let out a victorious whoop.
‘I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to gallop freely across the open countryside. I missed it so much while I was away.’
‘It’s beautiful, Kit. The land is so verdant, and the cattle look wonderfully healthy.’
‘Such are the delights of the Wollombi Valley. The valley floor is made up of rich alluvial soil that has been washed down from the hillsides over hundreds of years. We get quite heavy rains and the odd flood or two where the creeks meet, but it’s those floods that make the valley as fertile as it is. We can grow wheat here, and there’s a flourmill in Wollombi now, so we’ve become much less dependent on Sydney for basic supplies. Having water on hand and fertile soil makes all the difference.’
‘Where are you going to plant your vineyard?’ Matilda asked, shading her eyes from the sun as she looked from side-to-side, taking in the lay of the land.
‘Over there,’ Kit said, as he leaned closer. She was enveloped in his scent of bergamot and musk and was close enough to see his eyes turn an even darker shade of brown. His voice was low as he continued, ‘Oddly enough, the vines do better on the poorer soil, but there
an ideal spot in the foothills. I’ll show you where another day, though.’
Matilda swayed slightly in the saddle, wanting to lean in even closer to him. She felt so peculiar, as if they were having two conversations—one with their voices, the other with their bodies.
Swallowing loudly, she tried to drag her mind away from the man. ‘This would be an ideal area to bring the girls riding while they gain some confidence. Will your mother mind?’
‘I can’t see why she should. It’s an excellent idea.’ Kit straightened up. ‘Let’s ride up to the creek and then follow it back to the house.’
Matilda nodded, and they rode on together across the open country until they’d again reached the fast-running creek. The clear water sparkled, and Matilda was certain she’d be able to spot a platypus or two in its dappled shadows, but that was something for another day. Today, she simply wanted to get a feel for the place.
Despite the amount of time Matilda had spent in Kit’s company over the last few days, his contrary nature still fascinated her. His obvious love of the land showed in his eyes and had from the moment they had first entered the valley, but why then had he spent so much time overseas? Was it as simple as he had said—for an education, a desire to travel, and to see the Paris exhibition?
Although his behaviour last night had been impeccable—that of a gentleman—the tension in the air between them had been palpable. Today, the same undercurrent punctuated their every exchange. Regardless of her present circumstances, Matilda would find it nigh on impossible to resist his advances and—the traitorous thought slipped into her mind again—he
make a wonderful husband.
Kit pushed open the door to the house and stood back to allow Matilda entry into the cool dark passageway. She straightened her shirt and ran her fingers over her hair, tightening her braid. Silence greeted them. The door to the dining room stood open.
‘Mother usually breakfasts in bed, and I am sure today will be no different,’ Kit said as they reached the dining room.
‘I love to ride in the morning, and being out in the fresh air always makes me hungry. I am absolutely ravenous.’ Gazing up at his attractive face, she felt her stomach lurch.
‘Then we will make a habit of it.’ He stopped and stepped aside so she could enter the first. She turned and grinned at him over her shoulder. His consideration and gentlemanly nature made her feel valued.
‘I thought Matilda was to be employed as a companion for the girls, not for your private amusement.’ The caustic tones washed over her, pushing away the morning’s pleasure in one fell swoop. ‘You don’t want to give her ideas above her station.’
‘Good morning, Mother.’ Kit dropped a kiss on her cheek and ignored the stinging comment.
He walked around the table and held the chair out for Matilda. Her morning greeting to the old woman died on her lips as Mrs Barclay continued. ‘And perhaps, Matilda, you should think about getting changed before you appear in my presence dressed like a lackey.’
Speechless, Matilda stood behind the chair like an errant schoolgirl incapable of framing a response. The woman hadn’t been excited to see her yesterday, but in the harsh light of morning, it seemed Mrs Barclay was intent on causing more of a scene. She threw a panicked glance at Kit.
‘Matilda’s outfit is perfectly acceptable, for she intends to ride after breakfast with the girls and ascertain their abilities. There is very little point in her changing her clothes beforehand.’ Kit moved the chair slightly, indicating Matilda should ignore his mother’s comment. She slipped into the same seat she had occupied the night before. ‘I presume you have no objection to the way I am dressed, Mother? Perhaps you would prefer us to eat in the kitchen?’
Hannah and Beth studied her every move as she sat down, their eyes bright with curiosity. Matilda resisted the temptation to squirm as Mrs Barclay’s beady gaze followed her. Instead, mindful of her plan to start a rapport with the family, she offered what she hoped was a conciliatory smile. Mrs Barclay, however, rolled her eyes and turned her full attention to her right, where her son was seated.
‘Have you given any more thought to our discussion last night, Kit?’
‘Which discussion was that?’ Kit said, his tone relaxed and non-committal.
‘Which discussion? Why, Kit, the most important discussion of all—your intended nuptials.’
Matilda chest constricted as she remembered Mrs Barclay’s comment about the patter of tiny feet.
Intended nuptials, indeed
Her earlier thoughts flew out of the window on the morning breeze. Mrs Barclay was correct—she did have ideas above her station.
‘I hardly think intended nuptials are quite the way I would describe them, Mother.’
Matilda’s heart slowed as she stirred her tea and then absently spread a large portion of jam on the piece of bread and butter in front of her.
‘There is nothing wrong with being positive. I think the perfect solution would be for us to invite Eliza here to stay. I will write to the Ramsbottoms today.’
‘Are you sure you are well enough? Bonnie told me that previously you had been confined most days to your bed.’ Kit’s fingers drummed on the tabletop.
‘Darling, your return has breathed new life into this frail, old body.’
‘Hardly old, Mother. Now I am home and can take the responsibility from your shoulders, I am sure that you will find life much easier.’
The conversation ebbed and flowed across the table. Matilda made a show of eating, but with such a dry mouth, she found it almost impossible to swallow the bread.
‘Did you not say to me that you intended to return to Sydney and arrange for the shipment of your toys?’
‘Not toys, mother. But, yes, I did say I would return to Sydney once everything was under control here.’
‘Well, then that is the perfect opportunity. I will invite Eliza to the party I intend for Hannah’s fifteenth birthday. She may also wish to bring her mother, which I think would be suitable. So you will return to Sydney, organise your shipping needs, and escort Eliza and her mother back here—it is the ideal solution. This house has been in mourning for too long.
‘But, Mother, I …’ Kit’s voice trailed off. He shook his head and stared out at the large mulberry tree in the garden.
‘Don’t argue with me. It will be delightful for the girls to have something to look forward to and will give you the opportunity to put your plans into effect. The sooner your vineyard is sorted, the sooner you can look to your political career and our return to Sydney. The girls need to prepare for their entry into society, and I intend for Hannah to be presented to the governor, so it is important we look to the future and rekindle our connections in town.’
Kit took his time folding his napkin and then rose from the table, fully ignoring his mother’s comments. The tension in the room pressed heavily upon Matilda, made worse by the difference between their easy camaraderie during their ride and the unspoken discord at the table.
In an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, Matilda turned to the girls. ‘Would you like to ride this morning? The weather is still relatively cool, and it would give me the opportunity to assess your skills.’
Beth’s face broke into a delighted smile; Hannah turned to her mother for confirmation. Mrs Barclay gave a curt nod—obviously a sign of dismissal—and the two girls rose from the table.
‘We’ll go and change.’ Beth pulled a face behind her mother’s back and grinned at Kit. ‘Bonnie has found some breeches that belonged to you when you were little. I’m going to wear those.’
In a perfect imitation of her mother’s snort, Hannah lifted her pert little nose and said, ‘
will be wearing my riding habit.’
Kit assumed an apologetic expression. Matilda managed to control an urge to elbow him in the ribs because she knew if she did he would laugh. Instead, remembering her intention to soothe the situation, she stood. ‘I’ll meet you in the stables when you are ready, girls.’
Staring out across the paddocks and over the hills beyond, Matilda debated the conundrum she found herself in. Her position was tenuous—if she wanted to maintain the deeds to her family’s property, she would need a means of support while Mr Bainbridge found a lessee. At that point, she would be able to pay the taxes and not have to relinquish the deed.
As her only link to the past, she was determined to keep the land, no matter what. Her position at The Gate provided her with a roof over her head, and as uncomfortable as the situation with Mrs Barclay was, she intended to make the best of it. Nevertheless, Matilda longed for something more—commitment, a family, and perhaps even love. The words unfurled deep inside her and twisted in a painful knot. Even the curious relationship Kit shared with his mother was obviously grounded in love.
She pushed aside her thoughts. Wallowing in self-pity would not improve her situation, and she needed to make the best of the opportunities presented to her.
Kit moved to the dining room window, listening with half an ear to Beth’s excited chatter as she and Hannah left the room. As much as he cared for his mother’s opinion, he was now the head of the family and he would make the decisions. She had a tendency to fuss and panic.
With closed eyes, Mrs Barclay leaned back in her chair, fanning her face as though it was all too much to bear—and it wasn’t even hot yet.
‘How like a man,’ she said.
Kit sighed. He’d heard it all before.
‘If I leave it to you, I will never see my grandchildren, and my poor Barclay will be left without an heir. All his work and effort will have gone to waste.’
Through the window, Kit saw Matilda leaning against the fence beyond the garden. She had been so full of joy and laughter this morning, but by the time she had left the dining room, an air of misery had hung over her like a cloud. He held himself partially responsible. She seemingly couldn’t wait to get away from the house, which was hardly surprising when he considered how his mother had treated her.
‘Mother, I have paperwork to do. Please, excuse me.’ Piles of the wretched stuff covered the desk in Barclay’s office—his office now. He had returned to take care of the situation and would do exactly that, but first he needed a quick word with Matilda.
He threw down his napkin and rose from the table, ignoring his mother’s disappointed glance.
Kit quickly walked across the garden and stood by Matilda’s side. ‘I must apologise for my mother’s attitude. She is sick and frightened, and that is why she’s so keen to make plans. Barclay’s death has taken its toll, and she is determined to get things back on an even keel.’
Matilda tilted her head up against the light and peered at him. A sprinkling of freckles covered her nose like flakes of gold and highlighted the sun-kissed glow of her skin. She nodded.
‘I understand, Kit. It will take time for us to establish a satisfactory arrangement. Everything has happened in such a rush, so it is only to be expected.’ Her wide blue eyes had recovered their sparkle and met his with a mixture of defiance and amusement. ‘I think the girls are beginning to like the idea of having a companion. I am sure we will soon become fast friends, and then your mother will see my arrival was for the best.’
Matilda’s enthusiasm and
joie de vivre
were contagious and filled him with warmth. He wanted to touch her face and rest his fingers against the pulse faintly beating in her neck. As her mouth tilted with the beginnings of a smile, Kit gazed at her with regret. What he really wanted to do was cover her with kisses, yet that pleasure would have to wait until another day. Today, it would only inflame matters.
‘Matilda! Matilda!’ Hannah’s voice, far happier and more vibrant than it had been earlier, interrupted his thoughts. Kit pushed aside his yearning and reminded himself of the pile of mind-numbing paperwork awaiting him.