Authors: Tea Cooper
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Western, #Historical Romance, #Westerns
‘Yes, Hannah, I’m ready’. Matilda turned from him and walked off to meet his sisters. Feeling curiously bereft, he walked back into the shadowed hallway. It was as though the sun had gone behind a cloud.
Matilda relished the gentle routine of the days as they passed. She would take a ride before breakfast with Kit and then give riding lessons to the girls. Afterwards, they would gather for lunch; in the unnaturally warm autumn afternoons, they would spend their time lazing on the veranda reading or following the atlas of Kit’s trip and discussing the places they all wanted to visit. Kit would wander in or out occasionally and contribute to the conversation, but more often than not he spent his time locked in his study or with his mother. Matilda would have happily spent more time in Kit’s easy company, but she had to continually remind herself of her position within the household.
‘I am indescribably hot,’ Beth complained, wiping the palm of her hand across her forehead.
Hannah tossed her head. ‘I expect it is because you insisted on dressing in those ridiculous breeches all day. You would be much cooler in a dress.’
‘Nonsense.’ Beth lifted herself from her seat on the veranda and stood next to her sister’s chair, tilting her chin. ‘You wear breeches.’
‘I admit I do wear them now for riding. I can see the sense in it, but I do not lounge around all day in men’s clothing. Ladies’ attire is cooler.’
Beth stepped closer and ran her finger across her sister’s damp forehead. ‘You are just as hot as I am,’ she said triumphantly. ‘It has nothing to do with clothing, just the temperature,’
‘Stop complaining. There’s not very much either of us can do about it, other than go and lie down in a shady room.’
Matilda agreed with Hannah—the heat was getting to them all. The unexpected burst of warmth lay trapped in the valley; it was still and humid, and felt more like the middle of summer. If she had been at home, she would have sneaked away to the bend in the river for a swim, or maybe caught a fish or two and brought it home to cook over the fire with her father. Then they’d sit in the cool of the evening and eat on the veranda in peace and quiet and with comfortable company. No stuffy drawing room, napkins or silverware.
‘Why don’t we go down to the creek for a swim?’ The words were out of her mouth before she’d thought of the consequences, and it was too late to take them back.
‘A swim?’ Beth’s voice reached a ridiculously high pitch as she leaped to her feet, the nagging annoyance of the heat forgotten in her excitement. ‘I’ve never been swimming!’ She jumped up and down in front of her sister. ‘Come on, Hannah. What do you think? Just imagine the cool water. Oh! It would be bliss.’
‘I don’t think Mother or Kit would allow it,’ said Hannah.
‘Well, we don’t have to tell them. We can just go down there.’ Beth’s hands landed on her hips. ‘We don’t have to swim properly, just paddle our feet in the water. Oh, Hannah, come on. It will be fun.’
Temptation blossomed in Hannah’s eyes and in the half-hidden grin on her face. ‘We mustn’t tell Mama, or Kit.’
‘In that case I don’t think we should go,’ Matilda said, striving to be responsible.
‘Mama is resting and would hate it if we disturbed her, and Kit is locked in his study with his accounts.’ Beth jiggled around on the sandstone veranda, her eyes sparkling with excitement. ‘We could tell them afterwards, and then we wouldn’t have been irresponsible.’
The hopeful look on Beth’s face proved to be Matilda’s undoing. After all, Kit had told her she was accountable for the girls’ wellbeing during the day.
She made a snap decision. ‘We’ll ride over to the creek. We won’t swim, but we will dangle our feet in the water and see if we can find a suitable swimming hole for another time.’
Feeling pleased with her sensible compromise, she stood up and brushed her damp hands on her breeches. ‘Hannah, you’ll need to go and change if you would like to come with us. You’ll chafe your legs if you ride astride in a dress.’
‘Of course I’m coming with you.’ Hannah flew through the doors and headed for the bedroom she and Beth shared. ‘I’ll see you in the stables.’
‘Yes, Miss Matilda. I’m here.’
‘We’re going down to the creek to see if we can find a suitable swimming hole, so we need you to resaddle the horses. I was also wondering if you had any stockmen’s hats around that we could borrow. The girls need to keep their faces out of the sun.’
He crooked his finger and led Matilda around to the tack room. Then he pointed to a row of hats hanging on nails.
‘Take your pick. Mrs Barclay will be thrilled to know the girls are keeping the sun off their faces,’ Jimmy said with a wink.
Matilda clamped a broad-brimmed felt hat down hard on her head and picked out two cabbage palm hats for the two girls. Then she wandered out to the small yard, where their horses were grazing under the shade of the trees.
Beth was already there. As she mounted, Matilda passed her up a hat. ‘Put this on; otherwise, you’ll end up with a nose the colour of one of Bonnie’s strawberries.’
Beth rammed it down on her head and looked up from under the brim at Matilda. ‘How do I look?’
‘Good,’ Beth mumbled and fidgeted in the saddle. ‘I wish Hannah would hurry up.’
‘She’s coming now.’
Hannah was almost running down the path to the stables, throwing in a few, high-spirited skips along the way. In the few weeks since Matilda’s arrival, she’d turned from a pale, indeterminate sop into someone completely different. Matilda realised that change was nowhere more evident than in the clothes she’d chosen to wear. Dressed in her riding clothes—a pair of blue breeches and a white shirt Bonnie had found for her amongst Kit’s childhood possessions—she was animated and fun. But once back in her lawn dress—all ribbons, bows and petticoats—she immediately reverted to a childlike replica of her mother.
Matilda handed her the hat. ‘Put this on. We don’t want you getting burned and it is very hot this afternoon.’
Hannah turned the hat in her hand and looked dubiously at the inside. ‘Whose is it?’
‘I borrowed it from the stable along with the others.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Mother would—’
‘It’s very practical,’ piped up Beth. ‘Your nose will look like one of Bonnie’s strawberries if you don’t wear it.’
Matilda stifled a laugh. If imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, she had just been paid a huge compliment.
Hannah clamped the hat on her head and pulled a face. ‘It smells.’
‘Only of horses. Come on, let’s go. I’m tired of waiting.’ Beth wheeled her pony around with a skill that belied her experience and raced ahead. Matilda waited for Hannah to mount and then followed her down the track to the open paddock.
Once clear of the trees, both girls flew across the paddock. They wouldn’t have won any prizes in a competition, but at least now they were enjoying themselves and were not restricted to the immediate area around the house. Bonnie reckoned there had been a huge increase in their appetites, and that their skin was clearer.
Matilda could see that their eyes now had a sparkle almost rivalling their brother’s attentive gaze. If nothing else, she had taught them the delights of fresh air and exercise.
As they neared the creek, the trees increased in number, and they were soon at the edge of the water. Beth slid down the bank and stood there, kicking the shallow water with the toes of her boots, while Hannah stared hesitantly about as though she wasn’t really sure what she should do next. Matilda’s heart went out to them. How many simple pleasures had they forfeited in their short lives?
She tethered the horses, and then sat down and removed her riding boots. The raucous call of a kookaburra broke the awed silence. It seemed to be mocking her compassionate thoughts. Beth and Hannah had led a more privileged life than she, but no matter how much that jackass bird laughed at her, she couldn’t help but appreciate the freedoms she’d enjoyed.
‘Beth! Don’t you dare take your boots off.’
Matilda swung around, expecting to see Mrs Barclay standing on the edge of the bank. Her error became obvious as she saw Hannah’s white face and the horrified stare she was directing at her sister. Beth was struggling to remove her boots.
‘There might be snakes or spiders,’ Hannah said, shuddering, ‘or any manner of dangerous creatures. Or worse,’ her voice dropped to a whisper, ‘we might be watched by the stockmen.’
Unable to contain her mirth, Matilda’s laughter rang out. ‘I’m sure we are quite safe by the water’s edge of this sandy bank. It’s only in the long grass that some creature might be hiding.’ Hannah, her eyes widening with fright, skittered down the bank and ended up right next to Matilda.
‘It’ll be all right, Hannah. You don’t have to take your boots off if you don’t want to. Just sit down here in the shade. It’s much cooler here with the breeze blowing across the water.’
Hannah sat down on a rock, her back poker straight and her hands clasped in her lap.
‘Come on, Matilda, hurry up! I want to paddle my feet in the water,’ Beth cried out, hopping up and down, unable to contain her excitement. Matilda left her boots with Hannah and picked her way across the shallow water to Beth.
Sitting loosely in the saddle, Kit let his legs hang free of the stirrups and allowed the horse to amble at its own pace. The shadows cast along the track by the eucalyptus trees were taking the edge off the afternoon heat. What had ever possessed him to agree to leave this place?
When Barclay had first brought up the idea of the
Kit had been thrilled at the prospect of a trip to Europe. No colonial in their right mind would give away the opportunity to travel the world, and his introduction to John Portus had steeled his resolve. The man was a genius, his ideas nothing short of revolutionary. Portus had singlehandedly dragged the Hunter Valley kicking and screaming into the industrial era, and his flourmills and steam engines were now set to revolutionise the area.
Kit gazed impatiently at the long paddock. The grass bobbed in the breeze, begging to be slashed. When he picked up the machinery from Sydney, the very first thing he would do was cut the paddock down and bale the grass. That would give them enough feed to last the animals through the winter and ensure a top selling price at the cattle sales.
A shrill screech from the direction of the creek pulled him up short.
What in heaven’s name is happening?
From the splashing and thrashing of the water, it sounded as though an animal was in trouble, but the cry he’d heard had sounded more like a bird’s. Kit dismounted, pulling a length of rope from his saddle and tethering his horse to one of the tea trees lining the water. He strode purposefully to the bank. And stopped in his tracks.
Laughter and excited chatter filled the air. Hannah would shriek like a scalded cat every time a drop of water came within an inch of her. Not so with Beth and Matilda—they were standing up to their thighs in the babbling water, scooping up handfuls and throwing them delightedly into the air at each other. The crystal drops glittered as they hung momentarily in the sky, flashing rainbows of colour in the bright sunshine.
Captivated by a picture worthy of a canvas, Kit stopped in his tracks and leaned against the gnarled trunk of a tree. Matilda appeared to have successfully broken down his stepsisters’ reserves. Even Hannah was jumping up and down with excitement but somehow still managed to retain a vague air of propriety.
Beth and Matilda’s clothes were thoroughly wet, and their breeches were rolled up to just below their knees. Matilda, who usually wore her hair braided or twisted in a knot at the base of her head, had loosened her golden locks. They had hung down her back like a silken curtain, rippling in the shadows and sunlight.
His body thrummed with awareness as his gaze moved to the almost transparent material of her white shirt. It clung to her delightful curves, and even from this distance, he could make out the thrust of her nipples.
Kit stifled a groan, feeling the sound low in his chest as he tightened his fingers around the rope. The sight of Matilda’s breeches clinging wetly to her shapely thighs and of rivulets of water trickling down her luscious breasts sent a spike of arousal arcing through him. His palms tingled at the prospect of touching her, of pulling her shirt aside and nuzzling her damp skin.
A breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding escaped in a long loud sigh. Matilda glanced up at him through the shower of tiny droplets Beth was throwing over her head, and their eyes locked. For a moment, time stood still. Nothing existed but the spark of attraction sizzling between them.
‘Matilda! Matilda!’ Beth’s cries vanished in a splash of water as she disappeared beneath the surface.
In three determined strides, Kit had descended the bank and reached the creek. He pushed against the weight of the water, cursing his heavy boots. His gaze was firmly fixed on the spot where Beth had been standing only moments before.
Kit launched himself across the water, gasping at the surprising chill of the creek. His hands stretched forwards, and he prayed he could grab some part of his little sister’s anatomy so that he could pull her to the surface. The pain of his knees grazing the bottom of the creek brought him up short, and with a sudden, embarrassed jolt, he pushed himself upright in the shallow water. He shook his head to clear the water from his eyes.
His heart thundered in his chest, and his blood pounded in his ears.
‘Kit, are you alright?’
Hands reached for him, and he shook them off impatiently. Standing upright, he gazed at the two grinning faces in front of him. ‘What in God’s name do you think you are playing at?’
‘I can swim, Kit. Watch.’ Beth launched herself across the water again. He grabbed her ankle and pulled her back, lifting her under her arms and standing her firmly back on her feet. A mixture of fury and relief surged through him.
‘Go back up on the bank with your sister—now!’ He pushed her gently away from him. Matilda stood up, her legs balancing easily. The water was lapping somewhere between her knees and the sodden vee of her wet breeches.