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Authors: Karen Robards

Tags: #Australia, #Indentured Servants, #Ranchers, #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical

Dark Torment

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Dark Torments
Karen Robards
Table of Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVII

CHAPTER XXVIII

Epilogue

Chapter I

“I don’t know what Pa can have been thinking about,
telling us to meet him down here!” As Liza Markham stared over the high
wheels of the pony trap her sister was driving, she wrinkled her pert, freckled
nose at the slovenly looking men and painted women who crowded the plank
sidewalks along the packed-earth street. With its motley collection of wool
warehouses, saloons, and other establishments of dubious nature, the area would
have given pause to a far more intrepid young lady than Liza.

“I imagine he was thinking that it would be simpler for us
to come to the docks than for him to haul a wagonload of convicts through town.
This trip wasn’t for your exclusive benefit, you know. Pa and Mr.
Percival had business to attend to. You were the one who insisted on coming.
Remember?” Sarah Markham’s usually serene voice was acidic as she
cast an irritated look at her young stepsister. Liza was slouched dispiritedly
against the trap’s curved, padded side. The younger girl looked hot,
Sarah thought with a niggle of guilt at her own crossness. But then, Sarah
reminded herself, so was she. So, probably, was every resident of Melbourne,
Australia, on this scorching afternoon in January 1838. The area surrounding
Melbourne had been caught in a heatwave for weeks, and there was no respite in
sight. Tempers had been flaring as quickly as the grass plains surrounding the
town.

“I needed some new slippers.”

“You didn’t get any!”

“Is it my fault they didn’t have the right
color?”

Sarah mentally counted to ten at Liza’s sulky response. Her
hands tightened automatically on the reins. The piebald mare drawing the trap
along at a slow trot threw up her head in surprise. One brown eye rolled back
to look reproachfully at Sarah.

“Sorry, Clare,” Sarah murmured contritely. Liza gave
her a burning look. Sarah knew that her habit of talking to animals—dumb
beasts, as Liza and her mother, Lydia, characterized them—annoyed her
sister. Nearly everything she did, from running the house to taking care of the
station’s books to keeping a reluctant but necessary eye on Liza, seemed
to annoy one or the other of them. But then, they annoyed her, too, Lydia more
than Liza, who at sixteen—six years Sarah’s junior—had at
least her youth to excuse her behavior. But over the seven years since
Sarah’s father had married Liza’s mother, Sarah had learned to
ignore the petty irritations that Liza and Lydia subjected her to daily.
Ordinarily she would not have been so vexed by Liza’s insistence on
accompanying their father and his foreman to town, which necessitated her own
presence as chaperone. But then, ordinarily a trip to town did not entail
spending the better part of five hours being dragged about Melbourne’s
many seamstresses’ and cobblers’ establishments in the middle of a
heatwave in search of a pair of rose-pink satin dancing slippers, which Sarah
had told her sister at the outset were not to be found. But Liza, of course,
had refused to listen. Gritting her teeth, Sarah had vowed once again to let
experience be Liza’s teacher. Liza tended to be willful—Sarah
thought that
spoiled
was a better word for it—and over the years
Sarah had learned the folly of expecting mere words of caution or advice to
carry much weight. Liza learned that a stove was hot only after burning her
hand on it, and so it had been with the dancing slippers. Until the very last
possible source had been explored and found wanting, she had insisted that the
slippers would be found. By then—a scant half-hour ago—Sarah had
been hot, thirsty, sweaty, tired, and thoroughly out of temper. A state from
which she had not yet begun to recover.

“Oh well, I suppose I shall just have to wear my black
ones.”

“I suppose so.” Sarah’s sarcasm was lost on
Liza, as Sarah had known it would be. Liza’s despised black slippers were
less than three months old; to Sarah’s certain knowledge, they had never
been worn. But Liza was determined to make a splash at her upcoming
seventeenth-birthday ball, which would mark her first official appearance in
squattocracy society. She had been planning every detail of her apparel for
months, including the acquisition of a pair of dancing slippers to match the
rose-pink satin ballgown that Melbourne’s leading modiste was now making
for her. Sarah thought of the price of that gown and barely repressed a sigh.
She was afraid that Liza, with her love of finery, would shortly be as big a
drain on the station’s funds as her mother was. Ordinarily, Lowella was a
thriving sheep operation, but the drought had played havoc with profits.
Without sufficient water, the sheep that were their primary source of income
were dropping like flies.

“There’s Mr. Percival.” Liza spoke with obvious
relief, as Sarah turned the trap down the narrow street parallel to the wharf,
and pointed in a very unladylike manner. Sarah supposed she should reprove her,
but at this moment she didn’t have the patience or the energy to cope
with the quarrel that would inevitably follow. Instead, she followed her
sister’s gesture with her eyes to where a stocky man in his mid-forties,
wearing a wide-brimmed black hat pushed far back on his head, was silhouetted
against the tall-masted ships along the wharf.

As usual, Melbourne’s wharf was a scene of bustling
activity. Provisions and convicts were continually being offloaded and their
places on the ships being taken by wool, which was Australia’s primary
export. The smell of uncured wool lying in bales beneath the broiling sun was
nearly overpowering. Combined with the odor of rotting fish, tar, and the salt
air of the bay, it assaulted Sarah’s nostrils with the force of a
bare-knuckled prizefighter. She swallowed, refusing to give in to a sudden
surge of queasiness. Determinedly she focused on the sights and sounds: white
sails flapping as they were raised or lowered; the gray boards of the wharf
groaning as heavy, brass-bound barrels of rum and molasses were wheeled over
them; shirtless men with glistening bare backs grunting and cursing as they
hefted a variety of items on and off the ships; the raucous cries of red-winged
parrots and gaudy cockatoos wheeling in the azure sky and the sudden flutter of
their wings as they swooped to snatch a bit of plunder from the wharf. The
scene was crude, yet, in the way it spoke of distant lands and travel,
exciting. At least, Sarah thought, it would have been exciting were it not for
the nauseating odor.

When Liza groaned, Sarah looked over to see her sister pressing a
dainty bit of perfumed hanky to her nose. Just like Liza to have one when she
needs it, Sarah reflected wryly, knowing that there was no point in searching
the pockets of her own serviceable dun-colored skirt for any such item. In the
usual run of things, she had no use for such fripperies. But then, in the usual
run of things, the world didn’t smell so bad, either.

“Let’s collect Pa and Mr. Percival and
go,

Liza said with distaste. As Sarah reined the horse near the wharf, she silently
concurred. But as the trap drew to a halt, she saw that Pa was nowhere in
sight. Percival stood with his back to them, alone, staring into the glaring
sun at one of the ships docked nearby. Securing the reins to the small hitch
protruding from the front of the trap, Sarah tried to follow his gaze. But with
the sun nearly blinding her she could see little more than the dark outline of
denuded masts against the endlessly blue sky.

“Why, Miss Sarah, Miss Liza,” Percival exclaimed,
turning, his attention attracted by the sound of Clare’s hooves as she
pawed the ground. “Finished your shopping?”

Neither Sarah nor Liza chose to reply to this still-sore point,
but Percival didn’t wait for an answer. While Sarah was making one last
loop in the reins, he stepped off the weathered boards of the wharf and came
around the trap to Sarah’s side, his boots raising little puffs of dust
as he walked. Percival was the only man of European descent working for her
father who was not a convict; Sarah knew that this was not the only reason why
he had been made overseer, but it was the most important. A former seaman who
had, she had gathered from various tidbits he had let drop, grown up in a
bucolic English shire, Percival had a deep hankering to be a gentleman. When
the merchant ship on which he had been second mate had docked in Melbourne some
ten years before, and he had discovered that in Australia, if a man was not a
convict or the descendant of convicts and was of European descent he was
considered gentry, he had decided to make England’s burgeoning penal
colony his home. Six years ago he had come to Lowella, and he had never left. A
hard worker with a knack for persuading or coercing those who worked under him
into being the same, he had been made overseer within a year. Now Edward
Markham consulted him on most decisions, and Percival ran the station with an
amazing degree of autonomy.

At the moment, dressed in a black frock coat and intricately tied
cravat despite the heat, he looked very much the prosperous grazier. A pleased
smile split his seamed face as he looked up at Sarah, lending him a geniality
he did not always possess. Sarah returned that smile coolly. But her coolness
seemed never to penetrate his thick hide. He was determined to court her no
matter how clearly she indicated that his attentions were not welcome. Sarah
knew that Lydia and her father—and Percival himself—expected her to
encourage him. After all, she was, at twenty-two, decidedly on the matrimonial
shelf. No other suitor was likely to come along, and she was not getting
younger, as Lydia took great pains to remind her. John Percival, being
relatively young (forty was not old, said Lydia, who was some years past it),
in good health, and not physically repulsive, seemed in her family’s view
ideal husband material for a prim spinster who was not likely to get another
offer. But Sarah determinedly resisted their coercion. If she could not find a
man who sparked some degree of warmth in her (Percival sparked nothing but
distaste), then she would not marry at all. Which would not bother her in the
least!

Liza, however, had none of Sarah’s reservations where
Percival was concerned. In her newly discovered guise of femme
fatale—enhanced, Sarah suspected, by a female impulse to steal her elder
sister’s only suitor—Liza turned the full force of her
sixteen-year-old smile on Percival. Which, Sarah acknowledged to herself, was
really quite something to see. Dressed in a flouncy muslin afternoon dress in
her favorite rose pink, with her dusky curls pinned high beneath the floppy
straw hat designed to protect her creamy olive complexion from the sun, her
coffee-brown eyes sparkling, her white teeth gleaming against lips that had
been rubbed with rose petals to match the shade of her dress, Liza gave promise
of becoming quite a beauty. If her nose was slightly snub, the sparkle in her
eyes made up for it. If her chin was a trifle square, the cupid’s-bow
mouth with its willful pout compensated beautifully. The freckles dusting her
nose did not detract but called attention to the smoothness of her skin. And
she was petite, as was the fashion; small but voluptuously rounded, sure to
appeal to all susceptible males. To Percival’s credit, he did not appear
to be much affected by Liza’s efforts to captivate him. He responded to
her dazzling smile with a perfunctory one of his own, and turned his eyes back
to Sarah. Sarah could not help feeling a flicker of amusement at Liza’s
sudden pout. In consequence, Sarah’s second smile at Percival was warmer
than any she had previously bestowed upon him. Encouraged, he took off his hat,
self-consciously shook his head to settle his untidy, coarse brown hair, and
held up his hand to her.

“Wouldn’t you like to get down for a minute, Miss
Sarah, and stretch your limbs? Mr. Markham had to go aboard the
Septimus
there, and he may be some time yet.”

“Trouble, Mr. Percival?” Sarah frowned, hesitated,
then placed her gloved hand in his large, stubby-fingered one. She knew her
father hated the convict ships, and only the most dire necessity would make him
set foot on one.

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