In 1867 Nicola Douglas attends a London lecture that inspires her to change her life. With no family, but a good education, she boards a ship to Australia with high hopes of a fresh start in a new country as a governess. But Sydney is full of young women with similar hopes and equally poor prospects. When Nicola is at her lowest, she meets Nathaniel West. Try as she might, her attraction to Nathaniel West grows. She also meets a visiting American, Hilton Warner. As both men shower her with attention, Nicola reaches a crisis. She came to Australia expecting to be a governess, but finding love, and being married, shows how empty her life has been since her parents' death. Her achievements at the Governess Home are vital to her. Can she have both? To reject both men would relegate her to spinsterhood, but if she makes that choice, would her career ever be enough to sustain her?
Nat shook the sweat from his eyes, ducking his head and weaving to the side, making sure he kept his shoulders and fists up high to protect his chin. From the corner of the chalked square, he made out the old hunched-back man, who stood and, holding the brass bell aloft, rang it heartily three times. Cheers and shouts went up, there was a surge towards the fighters but the organiser’s men held the rowdy mass back.
“Christ man, what’s taking you so long?” Tristan thumped Nat’s back, laughing. “You should have had him in the first minute. The man is lead-footed.”
Nat wheezed the air into his lungs and wiped the sweat from his eyes. “I want to keep out of his reach, he can hit like a hammer.”
“Nonsense, man. He’s like a windmill, arms everywhere.”
“Shut up will you, and get me some water.” Nat closed his eyes for a moment, trying to block out the sight and noise of men baying for his blood. What possessed him to agree to this fight? He was no longer a young man of twenty. It’d been a few years since he celebrated his thirtieth birthday, which should have been enough warning to give up this sort of sport and stick to cricket. He hadn’t been practising in months, and it showed.
Tristan thrust a crude tin cup into his hands and water sloshed over his wrist. “It’s only water, perhaps you need something stronger.”
“Sod off.” He gulped the water down just as the hunchback rang the bell again. Surging to his feet, he berated himself once more in agreeing to this madness. Already his opponent, some dockland fellow with missing teeth, had jabbed him in the ribs, which ached when he moved. Another lucky punch had caught his eye and likely tomorrow he’d have the bruise to show for it.
He raised his fists, keeping light on his feet as he’d been taught as a schoolboy back home in England. His wiry opponent gave a little jab, testing the way it was to be in this round, but Nat was tired of the game. It’d been a spur of the moment decision to enter the square, a desperate need to burn off some restless energy that bedding with his current mistress didn’t do last night.
Weaving, ducking, he circled the opposite man, looking for a way to end the match so he could return to his club and drown his sorrows for another day. He thought of her then, the woman who’d haunted his mind. Nicola Douglas. His blood grew thick in his veins as an image of her face swarmed before him.
He never saw the punch, just felt the intense pain of the other man’s fist hitting his jaw. The impact made him bite his tongue and the stinging pain joined the thudding ache of his face. He staggered, tasted blood. The crowd, mainly all working class, shouted encouragement to their champion and jeered at Nat when he readied himself again.
Anger cursed through Nat and brought him awake and into focus. Thinking of that damned woman had been his downfall. He’d be on his back if he didn’t concentrate.
Uttering a filthy swear word, he pivoted on one foot, danced a side-step and taking the fellow unawares gave him a quick three jab attack that sent the man to his knees. Nat jigged away, hopping from foot to foot at the edge of the square, waiting to see if he regained his feet, but the fellow knew he was beat and surrendered the purse.
Declared the winner by Mr Kent, the organiser, Nat was given the purse of four guineas. The unruly crowd went into a frenzy, the shouts and yelling growing into a deafening roar, as not many had backed Nat. He knew their thinking, a workingman’s strength up against a toff who did nothing but sit around in his club all day. But who’d got the last laugh this time? Little did they know that he enjoyed physical pursuits and had been fighting since he was a small boy. Not many had the better of him.
“Excellently done, West.” Tristan once more thumped his back and gave Nat his shirt and coat. Nat winced, moving his shoulders to ease on the shirt over the wet stickiness of his sweat-soaked body.
“Let’s get out of here.” Nat grabbed the rest of his belongings from Tristan. Now the fight was over, it wouldn’t pay to stay in this rough neighbourhood. The four guineas was hardly worth it really, but then it’d never been about the money, just the sheer joy of beating another. However, today the win left him with a sour taste in his mouth that had nothing to do with the bloodied tongue and lip.
“Wait, I’ve yet to collect.” Tristan disappeared into the press of workingmen.
Nat groaned in frustration. Hanging around would only be asking for trouble. Already he was sensing a change in the atmosphere. He kept his head down but managed to glance around, taking in the situation. Mr Kent was arguing in the corner with five men, all baying for blood. They’d lost heavily by the looks of it. Shrugging on his jacket, Nat walked backwards a bit, heading towards the barn doors and the alley beyond. Damn Tristan, where was he?
Nat swung around and waited for Kent to wield a path through the thick of the crowd towards him. “I’ve an appointment, Kent, got to go.”
“Can I book you in for another fight next month?”
“No, not this time.” He wasn’t stupid. Kent had scored a high profit today.
Tristan joined them, hurriedly stashing coins into his bulging pockets like a child stealing sweets. “Nice afternoon’s entertainment,” he said with a grin.
“Let us go.” Nat made for the door, glaring at any man who made eye contact with him. Lord, he was stupid to risk his neck at these back alley fights. If anything happened to him, Frances would be alone.
Once clear of the old barn, he squinted in the harsh sunlight. The squeal of pigs came from the slaughterhouse on the right. He shivered, despite the mild spring warmth of the September day.
“Shall we have a drink at the club?” Tristan replaced his hat as they headed left.
“I don’t particularly care. I just want to be clear of that lot in there.”
“You think it could have turned ugly?”
“I’m sure of it. Too much money changed hands. Kent has pulled a fast one I think. He’s seen me fight before but that was a new crowd.” As if to justify his words, a shout came from behind them. When Nat turned and saw the dozen or so men spilling out of the barn, yelling fit to be tied, his guts squeezed dread. He turned to Tristan and had to smile at the shock on his face. “Well, friend, I hope you can run fast.”