Read Whispers of Heaven Online

Authors: Candice Proctor

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

Whispers of Heaven

CHAPTER ONE

Tasmania, September 1840

Jesmond Corbett tightened her gloved hand around the strap, the starched skirts of her poplin traveling gown crackling as she leaned forward in anticipation, her gaze fixed on the familiar weeping gums and silver wattles flashing past the open carriage window.
Soon,
she thought, her heart humming with joy. Soon.

The sharp snap of the driver's whip cut through the crisp spring air to mingle with the thud of hooves on the trampled road and the creak of harness as her brother's team of smart dapple grays plunged up the incline. The finely built carriage bumped and swayed around a wide bend; then a thick stand of native beech gave way to an outcropping of bare sandstone, and she could see the lush, gently undulating valley spreading out below her. Jessie held her breath, and waited.

Two years. It had been two long years since she had been home. She had never been away before, so she hadn't expected to miss it so very badly. Oh, she hadn't let her homesickness spoil the excitement of learning new things and meeting new people. Yet each day away had held its own private pain. And as she caught sight of her childhood home's cluster of soaring chimneys and single, golden stone tower thrusting above the feathery treetops, she knew a rush of emotion that caught at her chest and brought the tingle of unshed tears to her face.

"Warrick—" She grasped the arm of the elegantly dressed

young man who slouched on the maroon leather seat beside her. "Stop here. Please. I want to get down."

Her brother shifted sideways and stared at her. "Get down? Here? At the quarry?" He thumped the carriage roof to order the coachman to stop, then cast a significant glance at the hillside above the road, where a dozen or so ragged, sullen convicts toiled with pickax, wedge, and sledgehammer to cut blocks of golden sandstone from the Corbett estate's yawning quarry. "Whatever for?"

"Because you get the best view of the house from here." Gathering her rose-colored skirts in one fist, she thrust open the carriage door.

"Did you miss it so much?" said Warrick, an odd smile touching the edges of his gently sculpted lips. "I thought you
wanted
to go."

Without waiting for one of the men to let down the steps, she jumped to the road, her low-heeled kid boots landing softly in the dirt, her poplin skirts twirling about her ankles as she turned to watch her brother straighten languidly from the seat. "Just because I wanted to go to London to study doesn't mean I wanted to leave Tasmania." She tilted her head as she looked up at him. "Haven't you ever wanted two contradictory things at the same time?"

He paused, his hands braced against the sides of the carriage doorway, the smile fading slowly from his features to be replaced by a sad, haunted look. "No. Never. In fact, I can't think of anything I've truly wanted for years now."

Yes, you can,
she almost said, but swallowed the words along with a lump of emotion in her throat.

He hesitated another moment, then hopped lightly to the road beside her. He'd grown taller while she was away, she noticed; taller, and, at twenty-two, broader through the shoulders. Yet he was still slender, and very fair. With his head of flaxen curls and smooth, almost too-beautiful face, he had often reminded Jessie of one of Botticelli's angels. Except that there was nothing angelic about the brooding slant that often spoiled the curve of his full, graceful lips, or the dan- gerous, discontented fire that could smolder as it did now in the depths of his strange, crystal-gray eyes.

A sudden silence yawned between them, filled with unspoken thoughts oddly underlined by the
thwack
of metal hitting stone and the sharp crack of splintering rock from the quarry. The tang of dust and sweat mingled with the scent of eucalyptus riding on the September breeze, and Jessie shifted her gaze to the hillside above, where the swinging pickaxes and hunched backs of the convicts working the quarry rose and fell with monotonous predictability.

She had been born and bred here, in the Colonies, so the sight of convicts didn't shock her the way it did settlers newly arrived from England. Gangs of convicts were as much a part of the Tasmanian landscape as the vast herds of sheep and fields of grain that brought so much wealth to the island's free land owners. Of course, most people called them "government men," rather than convicts—as if the term
convict
was somehow more demeaning than the chains that so often dragged from their wrists and ankles, or the cat-o'-nine-tails and triangle that brought fear and humiliation to the men's existence. Whatever term one used, nothing could alter the reality of what the men working the quarry really were.

As she watched, one of the men near the edge of the hillside straightened. He was a wiry man of above-average height, his bare, sweat-slicked torso slim but well-formed, his even features set into a hard, angry line. Irish, she thought, by the look of him, with that midnight-black hair and sharp- edged, aggressive bone structure. And young; he probably wasn't that much older than Warrick. For one, unexpected moment, his narrowed, hooded gaze met hers across the distance that separated them. Then the man beside him clapped him on the shoulder and said something that made the Irishman shake his head and swing away.

Jessie had grown up surrounded by convicts: convict house servants, convict grooms—she'd even had a convict dancing instructor. She didn't usually give them a second thought. But today, perhaps because of her long absence, the sight of this unknown man's shuttered face and the thought of his shattered, wasted life, suddenly filled her with an unexpected, desperate kind of sadness.

Turning her back on the workers, she nodded toward the roughly cut stone blocks stacked at the side of the road. "What are you building?"

"Well, let's see ..." Warrick blew out his breath in a long, exasperated sigh. "I
was
expanding the stables. But Mother decided the old picket fence around the cemetery needed to be replaced with a stone wall, so of course the stables will just have to wait."

Jessie laughed softly. "She hasn't changed, I gather."

Warrick arched his eyebrows in surprise. "Did you think she would?"

"I thought, perhaps, with Papa gone ..." She swallowed hard, the thought too painful to finish. Anselm Corbett had been a healthy, energetic man in his fifties when Jessie sailed for England. But he had died of a seizure just three short weeks later, although she hadn't heard about it for six months. Even now, she found it difficult to believe he wasn't waiting for her in that big stone house he had built in the valley below.

"She's the same," said Warrick, his gaze drifting over the activity in the quarry, his features impassive. "Only, more so. She has embraced the images and duties of widowhood with the same brutal correctness as she shouldered the roles of wife and mother all these years—although perhaps
embraced
is too passionate a word to apply to our mother."

"You're not very kind to her, Warrick."

He swung his head to look at Jessie, his eyes wide and a little wild. "Am I not? And when was she ever kind to us, sister?"

"Many times," said Jessie, warmed by gentle memories of bedtime lullabies and veranda-shaded, white-linen tea parties attended only by a little girl's collection of beloved and well- worn dolls. "You know she loves us."

"Ah, yes." Warrick's smile was tight enough to make his mouth pull white at the corners. "But it's a ruthless, unforgiving sort of love, don't you think?"

"She only wants what's best for us," said Jessie softly. "It's what all mothers want for their children, isn't it?"

Warrick sucked in a quick, shallow breath, but before he could answer, a high-pitched, nervous whinny jerked their attention to the road behind the carriage, where a magnificent, blood bay Irish Hunter stallion cavorted impatiently, its noble neck arching, its mane and tail flowing, its powerful haunches rippling muscle beneath sleek hide as it danced and pranced around the groom holding its lead. Its name was Finnegan's Luck, and Jessie had purchased the champion hunter at her brother's request and brought it back with her from England. Watching the stallion, now, Warrick visibly relaxed, a gleam of excitement banishing the sullen anger from his eyes.

"I've got to hand it to you, Jess; I don't think I've ever set eyes on such a splendid animal." He flashed her one of his wide, angelic smiles. "I knew I could count on you to choose well. This lad's colts are going to make my herds the envy of the island."

Jessie looked into her brother's shining eyes and knew a craven impulse to keep her mouth shut. Instead, she said, her voice coming out hollow, "Do you plan to hunt him?"

"He's a champion jumper, isn't he? Of course I'll hunt him. Why wouldn't I?"

Jessie loosened the strings of her bonnet, which suddenly felt as if they were strangling her. "It's just that he has this one bad habit—"

Warrick cut her off with a laugh. "Don't we all. I'm certain it's nothing I can't handle."

"Warrick, I need to tell you—"

"Tell me tonight." Taking her elbow, he began to steer her back toward the carriage. "We're late. Mother has probably been picturing you drowned this last half hour or more."

Jessie held back, her hand twisting around to grab her brother's forearm. "Warrick, there are things you need to know about Finnegan's Luck before you ride him."

Warrick grinned. "What do you think he's going to do? Buck me off and break my precious neck?" The smile turned nasty. "My, my, what would Mother do then? More importantly, dear sister, what would you do? All the weight of maintaining the family's honor and position would then fall to
you.
And you have a hard enough time trying to be what Mother wants you to be, as it is."

An inexplicable sensation gripped Jessie's chest, twisting, squeezing, until she thought it might squeeze the life out of her. She pushed the feeling away with a shaky laugh. "I can still be myself around you, though. Can't I?"

His features relaxing, Warrick linked one of his fine, slender hands with hers. "Always."

Her fingers still laced through his, their joined hands swinging back and forth the way they used to do when they were children together, she turned to look out over the valley below. "It's good to be home," she said softly, drinking in the sight of wide, green fields cut by a deep-flowing river still brown with spring runoff from the rainforest-covered mountains rising purple and steep in the distance. "It's so beautiful here."

He let out a soft huff that wasn't a laugh, and shook his head. "Is it? I'm afraid you've always been far more attached to the place than I."

"It's beautiful." She drew the fresh, heady air of the island deep into her lungs, then let it out slowly in a long, contented sigh. "I think Tasmania is the most beautiful place on earth. And I don't intend to leave here ever again."

Lucas Gallagher let the pickax fly forward, felt the sharp point bite deep, felt the muscles in his arms flex and relax, flex and relax with each effortless series of movements.

There was a rhythm to the swing of a pickax, a flowing cadence of arc and rebound, arc and rebound. Once a man acquired the hang of it, once his hands callused over and ceased to bleed, once the appropriate muscles in his arms, legs, and back stopped screaming and hardened up, then each indi- vidual stroke required surprisingly little effort and no conscious thought.

Gallagher had acquired the hang of it long ago. Before being assigned here, to the Corbett estate, he'd spent a year on a chain gang. And on a chain gang, a man either learned to swing a pickax with thirty pounds of iron chained to his ankles, rain slashing at him out of a cold, dark sky, and hunger gnawing at his belly, or he died. It was as simple as that.

Now, with decent sleep, and good food starting to fill out his frame, Lucas let his arms rise and fall in an effortless blur of movement, the spring breeze cooling the sweat on his face, his thoughts far away from the mindless work in the dusty quarry.

Compared to those on the chain gangs, men assigned to private estates such as the Corbetts' had it easy. But that didn't make it any less irksome for a man like Lucas Gallagher to have to acknowledge another man as his master, didn't mean that Lucas no longer ran the risk of one day feeling the cat-o'-nine-tails rip again at the flesh and sinew of his back, didn't keep him safe from being sent back to the chain gangs or to someplace worse, someplace like Port Arthur or Norfolk Island, where men were known to commit murder simply because a quick death via the hangman's noose was seen as infinitely preferable to continued existence in such a hell on earth.

Once, Gallagher had thought he could survive the seven or so years normally required for a transported convict to earn a ticket-of-leave and the relative freedom it brought. But then he'd realized that there would be no ticket-of-leave for a man who'd done what he'd done. And he'd realized something else: that no matter how strong he might be, a man cannot suffer degradation without being degraded, can't be treated like an animal without becoming brutish or broken. Already, Lucas could see himself changing, and he didn't want to be the man he knew he would become after even another year of this. He
refused
to become that man. And so at some point during those long, hideous months on the chain gang, Lucas had made up his mind: as soon as he regained the relative freedom available to an assigned servant, then he would escape.

Or die trying.

"Sure if that isn't the handsomest horse this side of Ireland," said Daniel O'Leary, pausing beside Lucas and nodding toward the bay hunter cavorting in the road below. Like Gallagher, O'Leary was an Irishman, only Daniel was built big and brawny, with broad features and a shock of red hair and a thick scattering of freckles across skin so fair it still burned painfully in the hot Australian summer, even after all these years. He'd been transported eighteen years ago, at the age of ten, for killing an English magistrate's dog. He should have been released by now, but Daniel had a quick temper and a passion for trying to run away—or
bolt,
as they called it out here. He'd reoffended so many times that his sentence was now for life. Like Gallagher's.

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