Santo Innis is developing a revolutionary new engine to counter the lethal effects of high-pressure steam. His backer is Richard Vaughan, heir to Frederick Tregarron, owner of Gillyvean estate.
Following the tragic deaths of his wife and baby son, Richard immersed himself in work. But his world is turned upside down by the unexpected arrival at Gillyvean of Melanie Tregarron, a talented artist and Frederick’s illegitimate youngest daughter.
Desperate to prove the viability of his invention, Santo persuades Richard to let him fit one at Gillyvean’s brewhouse.
But when Bronnen Jewell - worried about her mother's suffering at her father's hands - arrives to brew the harvest beer she's horrified, fearing loss of the income on which she depends.
As the lives of these four become entwined, a shocking revelation shatters Bronnen’s world; desperate for money Santo makes a choice that costs him everything; Melanie fears she will never be free of her past; and Richard has to face his deepest fear.
Santo Innis glanced up from his roast beef sandwich as the mail coach clattered past the window. Moments later, passengers started coming into the large, low-ceilinged room. They moved stiffly, flexing shoulders and backs stiff from the jolting ride.
Two couples, one young, the other of middle age, crossed to booths along one wall formed by high-backed settles on either side of oblong tables. A maid followed, ready to take their order, for breaks were short and food had to be eaten quickly. Within fifteen minutes a fresh team would be harnessed and the coach would leave again.
Washing down the sandwich with the last of his ale, Santo saw a young woman hesitate in the doorway, glance nervously over her shoulder, then step inside the taproom.
Her dress of dark green plaid had full sleeves tapering to a band at the wrist and a flat cape collar with a small white ruff at the neck. Beneath the brim of her straw bonnet he glimpsed chestnut hair and a heart-shaped face flushed with distress. A long cloak of dark green serge was bundled over one arm and she clutched a small bag decorated with embroidery.
Her clothes proclaimed her as well-to-do. So where was her travelling companion? Lurching in behind her, a middle-aged man tried to grasp her arm. She wrenched free.
Behind the counter, the landlord shook his head. The couples watched with open disapproval. The girl’s blush deepened and though she tilted her chin – she didn’t lack courage – Santo saw desperation in her grey eyes.
Hoping he had not misread the situation, for he had no wish to intrude on a family quarrel, Santo rose and went to her.
‘Everything all right, miss?’
‘No,’ she whispered.
‘Piss off,’ the drunk slurred, thrusting his face up to Santo’s. ‘I saw her first.’
Gripping the man’s forearm Santo beckoned the maid then turned to the trembling girl, speaking softly. ‘Best if you sit down.’
As she obeyed, her mortified flush drained away leaving her face milk-white but for shadows like bruises under her eyes.
‘Here, what –’ the drunk began then winced as Santo tightened his grip. ‘Let me go!’
‘Hot chocolate for the lady,’ Santo told the maid, then propelled the loudly protesting man into the passage and out of the open front door.
‘Get off me!’ The man wrenched free. ‘You got no right –’
Santo’s hand shot out and gripped the man’s throat, choking off the complaint. ‘The way I see it,’ he said, tightening his fingers, ‘you got a choice.’ He waited until the now scarlet-faced man stopped struggling, then released him.
The man coughed, blinked and swayed. ‘What choice?’
‘You can sit topside for the rest of your journey. Or –’
‘But I paid for inside.’
‘Or,’ Santo ignored the interruption, ‘you can wait for the next coach.’
‘You can’t make me.’
Santo leaned forward. ‘You want to bet on that?’