Love can overcome anything, thought Hannah Bradshaw as she stepped out of the modest theater and looked down the street toward the center of Sydney Town. It had only been three years since that terrible winter in 1804 when she’d first set foot in this community as a prisoner. It felt like a lifetime ago.
New South Wales was growing up. The town bustled with activity. There were clothing shops, apothecaries, bakeries, a bank, and even a fine restaurant. A carriage moved past, its inhabitants hidden inside. Glancing up at her husband, Hannah thought, Life is perfect.
“What a splendid day,” John said. “Even if it is unseasonably cool for autumn.”
“I’m almost afraid to feel this happy.” Hannah rested a hand on his arm, liking the feel of his wool coat. She leaned against him; thankfulness for his enduring devotion enveloped her in warmth. Although they’d begun their journey together under dire circumstances, they’d managed to find love and, together, had stood resiliently against the world’s storms. He smiled down at her and Hannah felt her heart quicken—John still had the power to take her breath away.
She looked at her friends. So much had happened since coming to New South Wales. She’d met Lydia onboard the prison ship and they’d been chums since. And then there was Perry who had grown up on the streets of London but stood with John through the excruciating days onboard the ghastly ship and then the terror that met them in Sydney Town. Perry’s new bride, Gwen, had been employed at the Athertons’ when Hannah had joined the household, and she’d welcomed her right off, brightening her days there. Even David, who’d been raised among the wellto- do in London, was a valued friend. He’d become Parramatta’s physician and Lydia’s husband. And was a gift to them all.
Perry pulled Gwen protectively under one arm. He smiled down at her. “How did I manage to get along without ye?”
Her eyes alight, Gwen snuggled in close to her husband. “I don’t know.” She giggled. “How did ye?”
Lydia tucked an arm into David’s. “Love is grand. It conquers all. Don’t ye agree, husband?”
“I do at that.” David startled her by brushing her lips with his.
A rare blush colored her cheeks. “David! We’re in public.”
“You two behave as if you’re still newly wed,” John said with a laugh.
“We are.” Lydia gave David a tender look. “It’s been a scant two months since we said our vows.”
Perry nuzzled Gwen’s neck and she giggled. He pulled her closer. “And for us, two days.” He grinned devilishly. “How ’bout we go back to the hotel, luv?”
Blushing, Gwen leaned against him.
Hannah smiled at her friends, their ardor reminding her of how it had been for her and John in the beginning. Her passion and John’s love had taken her by surprise.
“We’ll see ye later.” Perry grasped Gwen’s hand and the two hurried toward the hotel.
John’s arm went around Hannah. “Remember?”
“It’s not been that long ago.” She gave him a playful squeeze.
“So, luv, what did you think of the play?” John asked.
“I think Shakespeare is a masterful playwright.”
“That he is. And The Merry Wives of Windsor was quite amusing.”
“It was at that.” Hannah met his hazel eyes. “With all the tomfoolery, I was beginning to wonder if Anne and Fenton would end up together. I’m glad they did. They were meant for each other.” Admiring the way John’s dark curls framed his strong angular face, she was tempted to brush a strand of untamed hair off his forehead, but she refrained.
His attention moved to something across the street. The color drained from his face.
“John. What is it?” Hannah followed his gaze, searching for whatever was distressing her husband. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Normal foot traffic moved up and down the street, and a woman stood outside the boardinghouse. Although quite handsome, there didn’t seem to be anything unusual about her. Reddish brown hair had been tucked up beneath a stylish hat. Eyes so dark they were nearly black found John and stared back at him. A look of surprise touched them, then changed to delight.
Hannah felt a thump of alarm. “John?” She grabbed his arm. He seemed unaware of her.
“What’s gotten into ye? Do ye know her?” Lydia folded her arms over her chest and stared at the stranger. “Who is it?”
John made no reply, but Hannah could feel the tension in his body.
“John?” Hannah tried to draw him closer, but he was unyielding and she let loose of his arm. “Who is she?” Her fear mounted. Why did this stranger have such a profound effect on her husband?
After glancing up and down the street, the auburn-haired stranger crossed and walked purposefully toward John. She moved with confidence, her arms swinging freely at her sides and her hips swaying. Hannah’s insides churned. Something was terribly wrong. Who was this woman? And why was John staring at her as if he were seeing an apparition?
He took a step away from Hannah. Holding his back rigid and his jaw locked, he waited as if for an assault.
The woman was close now. Smiling, she showed off perfect teeth. “John, I can barely believe my luck at finding you so quickly.” She took his hands in hers, stood at arm’s length, and gazed at him.
John’s eyes were hard and accusing.
“After all this time, I’d think you’d have something to say. Aren’t you happy to see me?”
“Margaret,” he whispered.
Like the roar of a cannon, the name reverberated through Hannah’s mind. Margaret was his late wife’s name.
“Why are you looking at me so?” the woman asked.
“I thought you dead.”
“Dead?” Shock flashed across Margaret’s face. “I can assure you I’m very much alive. Although I nearly died from a stomach ailment . . . after you disappeared.” Sorrow creased her face. “I needed you so badly.” She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “By the time I was recovered enough to search for you, you’d been transported.” Tears pooled and spilled onto her cheeks. “I thought I’d lost you forever.” She managed a tremulous smile. “But I’ve found you. It’s like a miracle. I’ve been searching so long.”
John’s expression remained harsh.
Margaret’s eyes went to David and Lydia and then rested on Hannah. “Don’t you think you ought to introduce your . . . friends?”
As if waking from a trance, John looked at his companions. With a nod he said, “This is David and Lydia Gelson.” He moved closer to Hannah and rested a hand on her back. “This is Hannah . . . my wife.”
Margaret pressed her fingers to her lips. “Your wife?” She turned dark eyes on Hannah as if looking at something fearful, and then looked back to John. “Then . . . who am I?”
Hannah could feel her pulse throbbing throughout her body. Trying to keep her voice from trembling, she asked, “John?”
Without looking at Hannah, he squared his jaw and said austerely, “This is Margaret.”
“I’ve heard her name before, but who is she?”
John didn’t answer.
Margaret’s gaze returned to Hannah’s. “I’m his wife. I’ve been trying to find him since he left London.” She turned to John. “And now I have and . . . and . . .” She seemed to fight to control her emotions. “And you’re married to someone else?”
Lydia stepped forward. “This is some sort of horrible trick. John can’t have another wife. He’s married to Hannah.”
“Lydia.” David took her arm. “Perhaps you and I should go to the hotel and give John and Hannah and . . . Margaret time alone.”
Alone? Hannah thought. There are three of us. How can we be alone? Her heart thrummed so hard she wondered if it might fly out of her chest. She stared at the woman and then looked at John. “You said she had died.”
“I thought she had. That’s what I was told.” His eyes implored Hannah to believe him.
Feeling as if she might shatter into pieces, Hannah grabbed for something solid to hang on to and finally pressed a hand against a storefront wall. She looked at Lydia, who could not conceal her shock and sympathy. Hannah took a step back. Blackness enveloped her and she thought she might be sick. “I . . . I’m going to our room.” She looked from John to Margaret, unable to believe what she was seeing, and then turned and hurried toward the hotel. Don’t faint. Don’t faint, she thought, keeping a hand on the wall and walking as swiftly as she could manage.
She stepped into the hotel lobby. Lord, how can this be? What am I to do? She fought back tears, not wanting anyone to see her anguish.
“Hannah, wait.” John’s voice carried through the hotel lobby.
She hurried her steps. She couldn’t look at him, couldn’t speak to him. He was married . . . to someone else. Dear Lord!
His steps echoed behind her, moving closer. “Hannah. Please. Wait. I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”
Hannah walked faster. “Leave me be. I can’t speak to you now.” She kept her eyes forward and continued walking. She could barely see and felt as if she were moving through a dark tunnel. “Go away.”
“Hannah, please listen. I thought she was dead. And now . . . that she’s not, it changes nothing. I’ll have naught to do with her. She betrayed me—she and Henry. They took everything of value to me. I want nothing to do with her. I love only you. Please believe me.”
Standing behind the dressing panel, Hannah shivered as she slipped her sleeping gown over her head. She hugged herself, not wanting to step outside of the protective shield. John was there, morose and silent. He shouldn’t even be in her room. He had another wife.
Trying to slow her breathing and quiet her trembling, Hannah moved from behind the panel and crossed to the bureau. Releasing her dark hair from its pins, she gave it several strokes with a brush. Without a glance at John, she moved to the bed and slipped between cold sheets. She lay down and pulled the blankets up over her, holding her body stiff and still. The window had been left open and a chill breeze ruffled the curtains.
John sat in a straight-backed chair, his arms pressed against his thighs, hands clasped as if in prayer. He stared at the floor.
Hannah knew he anguished just as she did, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. She put out the lamp and the night enveloped them. Lying on her back, she remained still, staring at the ceiling hidden by the blackness. Night sounds carried in from outside—a frog chirped and someone’s growling cough carried up from the city street; distant voices chatted. And then it was quiet.
Hannah was thankful for the refuge of the darkness. God help me. I don’t know what to do. She closed her eyes and Margaret’s handsome face popped into her mind. Trepidation and misery pressed down on her. Did she have to be so stunning? Hannah felt plain in comparison.
The chair creaked, and Hannah heard the sounds of John undressing. He draped his shirt and then his pants over the chair, then crossed the room. Hannah couldn’t see him, but she knew he stood beside the bed . . . for a long while. She waited, breathing shallowly. The mattress gave and John lay down, lying motionless.
Hannah remained still. How can we live like this? It’s impossible. Knowing the question had to be raised, she asked, “What are we to do?”
For a long moment, John made no reply, then he whispered, “I don’t know.”
He reached for Hannah’s hand, but she withdrew, unable to bear his touch.
“I’ll divorce her.”
“Divorce is not a solution. You know it’s almost never allowed.”
“She deceived me. She and my cousin Henry took my company, the business my father built, and every penny I had. She’s not my wife. She never was, not really. What wife would treat her husband so? It was all a sham.”
Hannah didn’t want to defend Margaret, but she and John must face the truth. “How do you know she did those things?”
“I just know. She was seen leaving our home with Henry. They went away together, and then the money disappeared from my bank account. I was told Henry made the withdrawal.”
“Henry, not Margaret.” Hannah pushed up on one elbow, facing John. “If she dishonored you that way, then why would she come here now? Perhaps you’ve misjudged her.” Hannah didn’t want to voice what was in her mind, but it must be said. “I saw love in her eyes, John. Love for you.”
Silence, like a dark presence, spread through the room. When John spoke, his voice was heavy and thick. “Even if that’s true . . . it doesn’t matter. I don’t love her anymore. You’re my only love. You’re my wife.”
“You’re already married, John. Don’t you see? We’re not husband and wife.”
“We are.” John’s voice was resolute.
“No, John, we’re not.”