Terrifying to think about it, but my first book with Harlequin/HarperCollins, The Landowner’s Secret, is out next week.
Here is what it’s about:
New South Wales, 1885
When Alice Ryan wakes to find thugs surrounding her cottage, on the hunt for her no-good brother, she escapes into the surrounding bush.
It is wealthy landowner Robert Farrer who finds her the next morning, dishevelled, injured, and utterly unwilling to share what she knows. With criminals on the loose and rumours that reckless bushrangers have returned to the area, Robert is determined to keep Alice out of danger, and insists on taking her into his home-despite the scandal it may cause. Convincing her to stay on with him for her own safety, however, is going to take some work.
What Robert doesn’t expect is his growing attraction to the forthright, unruly woman staying in his home. Before either of them can settle into their odd new situation, their home and wellbeing come under threat and they will need to trust each other to survive. But they are both keeping secrets, secrets that have the potential to ruin their burgeoning love, their livelihood … and their lives.
And here are the first few pages:
Southern Tablelands, New South Wales
Late April, 1885
Alice Ryan woke at the first shout, and sat bolt upright at the second.
With her mind still muddled by sleep, her body shook with fright before she even realised what was happening. She felt the unease, the disturbance in the night. This far out the bush was usually still, the quietness punctuated only by the odd scuffle of a possum or rustle of wind in the trees. But right now there was an energy that didn’t belong.
Curling her fingers into the counterpane, she waited in dreadful anticipation.
There. A voice—faint, but distinct—reached her ears, becoming louder as she sat frozen in place.
Someone was out there, in the dark.
‘Ian?’ she whispered, uncertain. Who else could it be but her brother, and yet … Some instinct stopped her from calling out and confirming she was home. And just as it took complete hold, a second voice joined the first.
Slipping free of the blanket and pressing her bare feet to the floor, she clutched the bed’s footboard and waited. And waited.
The light of a flame—so dim at first she thought she’d imagined it—flashed not too far beyond the cottage’s small window. It wasn’t much, but it was so foreign in the darkness of the scrub.
She strained to make out any sounds that weren’t meant to be there, but heard next to nothing over the pounding in her ears. Moments later the light flashed by again. It was closer this time.
Alice startled; clapped a hand to her mouth.
This was all wrong. Nobody had a reason to be there, on a road that led to nothing but her home. This far out she was all alone, except for—
If she could slip out unnoticed, she could reach the big homestead beyond the trees on foot—thieves or troublemakers would be mad to try anything with Robert Farrer. The landowner was too wealthy, with too many men on his property, and no doubt he had better weapons than she did if it came to that.
Alice made her decision in an instant.
Moving fast, she struggled into her frock and grabbed her shawl from the end of the bed before slipping a hand beneath the mattress for the small packet she kept hidden there. She stuffed it down the front of her bodice, shaking with fright and determination.
Trying her best to be quiet, she scrambled across to press her back against the cool wall near the door.
One of the men spoke again but she still couldn’t make out the words. There were at least two of them and they weren’t just talking, but laughing. Whacks echoed through the night air, as though they were hitting at the scrub with sticks, and then she heard more laughter in amongst the other sounds of the night.
Whatever they were about, it was a game to them. Likely a drunken game …
Alice curled her toes against the freezing floor and hugged herself tightly, willing them to just go, just leave her be and make their fun elsewhere. The voices came more loudly from the front of the house. Her only way of escape was through there.
Cursing her rotten luck, her absent brother, and all the trouble life brought down on her, she took a big breath for courage and lurched past the window as fast as she could, scrambling in the darkness for the small knife she’d left on the table.
‘Ian, you bastard!’ The call came from so close by her heart nearly stopped.
Desperation took over then, and she chose speed over silence. Fumbling in the shadows with frozen fingers, shoving her way through the bits and pieces she’d left on the table that evening, she patted about desperately until they hit a strip of cold metal. The knife.
‘Help me, help me,’ she whispered to a God who’d never listened before, and gripped the handle firmly, her other hand shaking, while she once again backed up against the wall.
Bracing herself for anything, she pulled back the curtain only enough to get a glimpse of the clearing around the porch. In a sliver of moonlight she could just make out the figures of grown men dotted around the clearing. Further down the trail, near the road, she saw more forms and shadows. Horses, she realised with even more dread in her belly. She sure as hell couldn’t outrun those.
Shaking more, she cast her mind out beyond them all, mapping herself a route of escape. If they were here for Ian, they were out of luck. As usual he was nowhere to be found.
She let the curtain slip back through her fingers and then bent to grasp the laces of the boots left beside the door. There was no time to tug them on, nor to find her stockings.
She nearly shrieked with surprise when something whacked directly against the outside of the house, but held fast and slapped a hand over her mouth again as she waited for what’d come next.
‘Are you comin’ out, or are we comin’ to get you?’ one of them called. It was not a familiar voice.
‘We don’t have all night!’ yelled another.
There was more laughing. More jokes.
Alice rose carefully, quickly tugging the shawl more tightly around herself without letting her grip on the knife loosen. She edged the door open the tiniest amount, trying to peer beyond the intruders to find the fastest direction into the trees. The boots banged lightly against the old wood, and she pressed her lips tightly together in frustration.
‘Maybe there’s no-one ’ere. I swear, James, if we’re out ’ere freezin’ our bloody arses off for no reason …’
‘Someone’s ’ere. There’s smoke comin’ from the chimney and I saw movement at the window just now.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Alice whispered, becoming number and shakier than before. ‘Bloody, bloody hell.’
There was silence then except for the shuffling of shoes in the dirt. And then a third man spoke.
‘Maybe it’s the sister.’
‘There’s a sister?’
An awful pause followed. And then, ‘Is she pretty?’
Alice wished the bottom of the floor would open up and swallow her whole. Fear icier than the chill in the air ran over her from head-top to heels. She knew more about physical fighting than any proper lady ever would, but she was still a scrap of a thing and not likely to get far before they …
‘There’s only one way to find out.’ The first man said. ‘James? Kick in the door.’
‘Not bloody likely,’ she whispered. She’d go to the devil before she let that happen or let a single one of them put his grubby paws on her.
And with those thoughts giving her fresh determination, she flung the door open and ran.
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