The Song of the Magpie

(Please note that this novel has not yet been released and is subject to change.)

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Chapter 1

 

Sydney, New South Wales, 1824

Caitlin stared at the chaotic, curved lines that crowded the dirty paper, her jaw clenched so hard it seemed her teeth might crack. Of course, she could make neither heads nor tails of any of it, but the trader didn’t know that. And it was a good thing, too. That look she’d glimpsed on his face just now, like a sly cat licking cream off his whiskers . . . 

It wouldn’t do to show any weakness.

She set her face into what she hoped was an intimidating look—pursed lips, arched brow—then raised her gaze from the contract and met Mr. Staples’s beady black eyes. “Thirteen shillings a bushel? John told me you’d promised ‘im fourteen.”

The man shrugged. “That was six months ago. Crop’s better than expected.” He stuck his finger deep in his ear and scratched. 

Caitlin swallowed back the wave of revulsion. She narrowed her gaze. “And how’ll I be paid?”

“Well, that’s right here, innit?” He used the finger that had just been in his ear to point at a spot near the bottom of the page. “Payment will be made in ready money,” he read aloud, as if to a child, “when the wheat’s sold.” 

“And when’ll that be?”

He shrugged again, and that oily smirk spread back over his face. “Hard to say now, innit? Four months? Five? It’ll need to be milled first, of course. That could take anywhere from a few weeks to a—”

An idea struck. “May I have this?” She gently lifted the paper from the desk, not taking her eyes off the man’s face.

“Have. It?” Mr. Staples’s smile wavered.

“I’d like to show it a friend before I sign. Make sure all’s fair.”

The trader’s eyes narrowed. He breathed out heavily through his teeth, and Caitlin winced at the smell of his breath: stale grog and rancid meat. 

She’d dragged herself out of bed before dawn this morning so she'd have time to bathe in preparation for this meeting. What a waste.

And yet, here she was. Perhaps the deal could still be salvaged. 

She kept hold of the paper, her eyes locked on the man behind the desk. Would he chase her if she turned tail and ran out with his contract? The Flemmings’s store was just down the street. If she could get it there, Mrs. Flemming could read it, and at least Caitlin would know what it said. 

At last, he shook his head. “Nah.” He closed his mouth and loudly sucked the snot into his throat, then swallowed. “I need this business finished by the end o’ the week. I’ve limited space in my store, you see, and other sellers wantin’ to—”

“I’ll have it back within the hour.” She retreated a step.

Mr. Staples leaned forward in his chair. “I’m afraid I can’t allow it, madam.” His voice rose. “I can’t risk any fraud.”

Fraud? Caitlin’s cheeks heated, and she bit down hard to keep the angry words from flying out. There was only one person attempting fraud here, and it wasn’t her. 

She shot him a tight smile. Stay polite. “What are you afraid of, Mr. Staples?” She backed up another step toward the door, her jaw almost too tight to get the words out. “I simply want some time to look it over.”

“I said no.” Mr. Staples stood abruptly, his chair scraping loudly against the floor. 

He really didn’t want her taking it. The bloody cheat.

She wheeled around and darted for the open door, but he was too quick. He dashed around the desk, put his back to the threshold, and spread his arms wide to prevent her escape. His face had reddened, and his chest heaved. 

Caitlin steadied her breath, but her heart was beating a mile a minute, and she knew her cheeks were flaming red. The insults were itching at her tongue. 

She wanted nothing more than to tell him off. Or duck under his arm and make her escape, but . . . 

But Mr. Staples had been John’s chief trading partner. He was the only wheat buyer she knew in Sydney, and on top of that, he still owed her for the hogs they’d sold him last fall. She needed that debt paid if she were to settle the bill with the man she’d bought the hogs from

If she knew what was good for her, she’d just sign his dirty contract, whatever it said.

But before she could force herself admit defeat, Mr. Staples’s lips curled upward. His eyes took on an ominous gleam. “You’re a sassy one, aren’t ye?” He spoke quietly, as if to himself. His eyes lowered to her breasts, her hips, then rose back up to her face.

Caitlin’s skin crawled. The bile roiled in her stomach. Contract be damned, she had to get out of here. Now. 

She darted forward, ducking under his arm, and practically ran through the passage to the outer door.

“Wait!” Mr. Staples’s heavy footfalls thudded behind her. Just before she reached the door, he reappeared, blocking her way once more. “Mrs. Blackwell.” He flashed her a lewd grin, showing his tobacco-stained teeth. “I hadn’t thought of it before, but now that your husband’s gone . . .” He wrung one filthy hand with the other, a red flush spreading up his neck. “I—I wondered if perhaps you’d consider an . . . arrangement?” His brows rose. “I’ve been thinkin’ of taking on a woman, ye see, and you . . . well . . .” He flinched. “Yer Irish, but . . .” Tentatively, as if trying to tame a wild dog, he reached a hand toward her.

“But what, Mr. Staples?” The heat in Caitlin’s cheeks flared. She backed away, clutching the paper to her chest like a shield. “I’m fuckable, am I?” Then another thought. Of course. “Or is it me farm you want?”

“I—well—The thing is, if you agree . . .” He took a step forward, his arm still reaching for her. She retreated further until she hit the wall beside the office door. “You wouldn’t have to worry about the price o’ wheat, now, would you? Or what’s written in any contract.”

The grinder. Caitlin pressed her back against the wall. She was trapped, the man’s hand mere inches from her face. A slow smile spread over his pudgy lips as his dirty palm made contact with her cheek. Then, slowly, his eyes lost their focus, and he leaned in as if he meant to kiss her. “I’m a well-off man, Mrs. Blackwell. I’d be honored to—”

She slapped him. 

She didn’t intend to. It happened with the speed of lightning, quicker than thought could form. Staples’s eyes widened as her palm met his skin.

Sweet Lord, what had she done? 

Caitlin watched, almost unbelieving, as her hand retreated. Three white stripes marred his cheek where her fingers had landed. The streaks turned pink as, finally, he backed away, giving her room to breathe. 

His mouth hung open with shock, but that lecherous gleam still lurked in his eyes. 

Caitlin’s rage broke free. “Honored? To steal me farm? To shag an Irish strap like me?” She advanced on him. “You’ll not set foot on me farm. And if you touch me again—”  

“But you could move off the farm,” he pleaded. “I’d find an overseer. You could come into town. Have a servant or two. I’d—”

Never.” It took every bit of her willpower to resist spitting on the man. That’s what an Irish street wench might do, or a convict fresh off the ship, and Caitlin was neither one of those. Not any longer.

She pushed past him and pried the door open, then stepped out into the blinding sun.

It was only after the door had shut behind her that she realized she was still holding the man’s contract. The dirty thing.

Scorching anger still burned through her as she made her way to the dray, but as she untied the mare from the post and met the animal’s gentle, trusting eyes, her sense returned. She sagged against the wagon’s bed, gazing up at the full bags of wheat. 

She’d come all this way—a full day’s drive—for nothing. Less than nothing. She had a wagon full of wheat and no buyer. Not to mention the rest of the crop, for this was only the beginning. This year’s wheat was only half in, and already it looked to be the best harvest they’d had since the flood years. Then there was the money she’d been counting on from the hogs. John’s name was on that contract, not hers. There was no way Staples would pay her now.

Melia murder. What had got into her? Even if he was cheating her a shilling or two, what did it matter? It would be better than turning around home with a load of unsold wheat. 

If she’d only kept her temper in check and signed the bloody thing . . . 

John had always taken care of this part of business. Caitlin had thought—hoped—she’d be able to muddle her way through, but that had been foolish. She couldn’t even read the man’s contract.  

Shakily, she climbed up to the wagon box and gripped the reins, then sat, watching the traffic pass by. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and the dust rose in great clouds. It mixed with the steam in the air and the smells of people and animals and their waste, all of it baking under the hot sun.

The mare looked back at her questioningly.

All Caitlin wanted was to turn north toward home, to the sweet, green fields and fresh air of the farm. To get away from the stink and the crowds. But—

Her jaw tightened. She couldn’t. Couldn’t go home with a full wagon. She must find a way. 

But how? It wasn’t as if she could sell her wheat on the street like a bagman. 

Her eyes settled on a shopfront just down the way. Flemming’s.

She no longer needed someone to read the contract. That was a lost cause. And of course, the Flemmings would have no interest in buying the thirty-five bushel of un-milled wheat Caitlin had in her dray. But perhaps they knew of a trustworthy buyer she could call on. 

Caitlin had only known Mr. and Mrs. Flemming for a few months. The last time she’d been in Sydney with John, only a few weeks before he’d died, the grocer she regularly sold candles to had been boarded up, obviously closed for good. There was a new shop next door though, the dry goods displayed in the window and the wheel of cheese on the sign clearly marking it as a grocer’s. Not knowing what else to do, she’d poked her head in and been met by Mr. Flemming at the counter. He’d been happy to pay a good price for the gallon of honey and two dozen tapers she’d brought. He and his wife had just opened up shop, he’d explained, and they had no suppliers for such fine things. 

The next time she’d come to town, just after John died, Mr. Flemming had been away, but his wife had been there and purchased more candles. After doing business, Mrs. Flemming—Emily, she’d told Caitlin to call her—had offered her a cup of tea. They’d talked of John’s death and Emily’s children, and of how the family had come to be in the colony. They were Scots from near Glasgow. The husband had been convicted of some political offense, and Emily had followed with the children.

They were kind, fair people. It was worth a try.

Caitlin squared her shoulders and gently slapped the reins. “Giddyap.” Then she maneuvered the heavy wagon onto the street and toward the Flemmings’ store.