March 1818 Sydney Cove.
A wind as hot as the devil 's breath sent the longboat rocking. Isabella tried not to think about her roiling stomach as she raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun that blazed down on them. Fear, like some deadly snake, coiled itself around her innards, sliding viciously into every muscle and bone, every part of her body, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth.
The woman Isabella now counted as a true friend groaned. "S 'pose we'll 'ave to get used to this heat," she muttered as she ran a hand around her nape and blew a strand of greasy hair out of her eyes. "'Tis hotter 'ere than it was on the stinking ship when we was anchored off Rio de Janeiro!"
Isabella grimaced. "That 's a fact, Gracie." They had been forced to get used to a lot of things, a deep and abiding despair more than anything else.
"These blooming six days we 've been stuck out on the water 'ave seemed longer than the whole bloody voyage," Gracie grumbled. "Gawd but it'll be good to get me old feet on solid ground again."
Isabella wrapped her arms about her middle and shuddered, swallowing the bile that threatened to choke her. "I don 't ever want to see the ocean again as long as I live, Gracie." Much as she might wish she were back in Stepney, she would never want to repeat that dreadful voyage. A violent storm lasting for nearly two days coming round the Cape had caused such wretchedness they'd feared they would all perish. No, she wouldn't care if she never saw the ocean again.
Gracie nudged Isabella as the wharf loomed before them. "Well, girl, 'ere we go, 'ow d'ya feel, eh?"
"As if a mess of worms are wriggling about inside me, that 's how."
Even when evading the constables in the alleyways and back lanes of Stepney Isabella had always felt that one day things wo uld improve. That certainty died on the day of her arrest. Gracie had tried to give her some hope for better days ahead, but Isabella knew that a woman in her position had little hope for anything in life, least of all a bright future.
Gracie winked broadly at one of the sailors, now getting ready to stow the oars. He blew a raspberry and she chortled. Isabella had no idea how she would get by without Gracie. The older woman had been like a rock on the awful voyage. Dougal too. She saw the Scot now on one of the other longboats, which was carrying cargo. She waved and his plain face reddened as he shot her a cautious grin.
The first mate made a rude gesture. "Right, y ou lot," he shouted. "Get a move on. The time has arrived for you to leave this illustrious vessel. Steady now, we don't want you falling in the drink and spoiling your nice clothes, do we?" He sketched a bow. "This here's Government Wharf."
Isabella felt like pushing him into the sea, but the small moment 's triumph wouldn't be worth the punishment she knew him capable of dishing out. How she hated him. Sweat trickled between her breasts and ran down her legs and she trembled as much with fear as with anticipation.
The man leered and suddenly grabbed her arm. "Now we 'll see 'ow you'll manage without that Scottish dolt watching over you every step of the way. You got away with it on the ship, slut, but let's see how you like having one of those toffs putting his hands under your shift, eh?" He grinned evilly as he nodded to the men milling about on the wharf. "And not only his hands. He'll be poking on you with more than his hands, mark my words."
Isabella squirmed. "Let me go!" But he tightened his grip until she thought her arm might break.
"I will, after you gives me a little thank you kiss for being so nice to you." Before she could back off he pressed his wet sloppy mouth over hers.
He was pushed aside, and forced to let her go or head into the water, as the women jostled to be first off the boat.
"All right, all right, don 't shove," one shouted, elbowing Gracie.
Gracie threw herself bodily at the first mate. "Whoops, must 'ave tripped," she said with a grin.
Isabella wiped her mouth on the hem of her skirt, and jumped swiftly onto the dock. The first mate shook a fist at Gracie and she waved audaciously. He cursed loudly.
Gracie muttered, "Just look at that Marjorie, carrying on like the doxie she is."
A buxom woman on one of the other boats lifted her skirts and shook a leg, making the boat wobble dangerously. The sailors guffawed. Some of the women made lewd gestures and shouted obscenely to the sailors as they climbed out, adding to the
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