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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Romance  ➡  Coming of age

Mara: A Georgian Romance

Mara

The SWEET & CLEAN ROMANCE edition of “Of Angels and Orphans”

 

By Barbara T. Cerny

 

Copyright © 2016 Barbara T. Cerny

 

Shakespir Edition

 

YA and teen reading material. Appropriate for ages ten through adult, male and female.

 

Thank you for downloading this eBook. This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this eBook with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and didn’t purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. Your support and respect for the property of this author is appreciated.

 

What others are saying about this book:

 

Five-stars. Excellent story. Very well told. Really enjoyed it. Melinda Edgington.

 

Awesome. Five-stars. Read many, many books; never taken the time to write a review. This book was so amazing; 5 stars just didn’t do it justice. Noththereviewtype on iTunes.

 

Five-stars. I just want to hug the book. This book is amazing. I couldn’t stop reading it and it is a very good mind movie for me. It is one of the best books I have ever read. iTunes reviewer.

 

Five-stars. What a wonderful story and a wonderful story teller!!! I could read these books forever. And I will. Sunshinewoman83 on iTunes.

 

Five-stars… More than another romance. I’ve read 3 books by this author and although I rarely do this, I have to leave a review. All three books, Tress, Grays Hill, and now this one have wonderfully rich stories. This is not just another romance author. This is not your run-of-the-mill dime store novel. There is fullness and completeness in each book. The characters are endearing and believable and the plot lines are unique and fascinating. The love story between characters is developed beautifully. Simply wonderful writing. Timnanna on iTunes.

 

*****

 

Visit my Shakespir author page at

https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/barbaratcerny

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Synopsis

 

A poor little rich girl meets a poor orphan boy and their friendship soars. Mara tells the romantic yet realistic tale of an overweight, neglected, posh young girl who befriends a poor, courageous orphan and his three friends.

Mara Markham is a lonely 10-year-old born into privilege. The granddaughter of a viscount, she is ridiculed by her spoiled and spiteful family. The unloved little girl seeks solace in the guise of food. In another part of London, Jacob Abbot, 13, lives a wretched life and is forced to steal food to survive. Living in squalid conditions at the local orphanage, he and three friends are rescued by Audra from their plight, and thus their adventure begins.

This story will appeal to readers of all ages, as it chronicles two lost souls trying to find their place in life, despite the tensions of poverty, neglect, and cruelty. This unique novel tells of two lovers from very different upbringings who are united by their individual struggles and discover an unbreakable bond.

 

Chapter 1

 

Jacob Abbot ran hard through the streets of London as fast as his legs would carry him. Just a few minutes earlier, he succeeded in stealing a melon from a street vendor, but the man spotted Jake as he made a hasty exit. He dropped the precious but heavy fruit in order to keep one step ahead of his pursuer.

Jake hated stealing food, but he and the other boys did it often. It was either steal or die of starvation. Not much of a choice. That bloody orphanage didn’t provide enough food to keep a mouse alive, let alone boys in the middle of growth spurts.

His orphan buddies, Luke Holloway, Alvin Bitters, and Pete Smithers, scouted out different food stands to rob. They were all to meet later with their contraband at their hideout under the back stairs of the brothel. It wasn’t the most desirable place for a hideout, but no one had ever discovered them there, so it served its purpose.

Jake, at thirteen, was the oldest of the four boys, and the ringleader of the small gang. His gangly long legs and too long arms told of a future as a tall man, if he ever made it to manhood. He already stood a half a head taller than the overbearing director of the orphanage, Sir Percy Snellings.

God, how Jake hated that man! Snellings was cruel, malicious, and repulsive—the last man on earth who should have been running an orphanage. He regularly beat the orphans and kept for himself most of the food donated by the queen’s kitchens.

Jake hadn’t always been an orphan. His parents, Charles and Gloria Abbot, had died five years earlier, in 1791, during an influenza epidemic that swept through London. Charles, the vicar of a small parish on the outskirts of London, had been tending to his congregation and contracted the horrible malady, bringing it home to his family. Gloria, Charles, and Jake’s little sister, Mary, all succumbed to the deadly disease, leaving eight-year-old Jake to fend for himself. Neighbors packed him off to the Queen’s Children’s Home immediately after his family’s burial in the small cemetery attached to the chapel, as no one in the borough could afford yet another mouth to feed.

From that moment, Jake’s life rapidly descended into hell. Snellings couldn’t stand Jake, for he was not a typical street urchin. The boy could read, write, and do rudimentary mathematics. He spoke with a softer accent, and used proper language. Snellings saw Jake as a threat, and went out of his way to make the boy’s life miserable.

So here Jake was, on the street, becoming that very street urchin, forced to steal to live, and now running for his freedom. He was so malnourished he couldn’t run as fast as he used to. He knew he had to hide, and soon. He turned the corner and saw a high wall across the street with a border of bushes. There it was, the perfect hiding place—a break in the bushes, just large enough for him to squeeze through. He quickly dodged the horses and carriages and other pedestrians, hoping that zigzagging through them would hide his movements enough so he could reach the bushes unnoticed. Jake nearly crashed into a trotting horse, and received a tongue lashing from the rider. He paid no attention, as he ran headlong into the break in the bushes and crouched down behind the thick branches. A few seconds later he heard footsteps near his hiding place, and a man’s voice emitting curses.

“Where’d you go, you bloody little thief? You can’t get away from me!” Jake peered out through the thick leaves at a pair of filthy boots and brown pant legs. He held his breath, and tried not to make a sound.

Please go away. Move it, move it! he thought, as he drew a small slow breath and held it again. Go. Go. Go. GO!

After what seemed like an eternity, the man in the dirty boots moved back across the street and disappeared from sight. Jake took a deep breath, happy to have escaped capture and punishment this time. One of these days his luck would run out, and he would be caught.

Now that the danger had passed, Jake took a moment to examine his hiding place more closely. Looking up ahead, he saw that the bushes were far enough away from the wall that he could crawl on his hands and knees between them for quite a ways. He couldn’t stand up because the branches above him pressed up against the wall, but he was perfectly content to crawl along the ground to see what lay ahead.

He moved forward, praying for another break in the bushes, his hands and knees beginning to feel the pain of the rocks and dirt under them. The pain in his empty stomach was far worse, however, so he brushed aside the stinging in his palms. He’d probably ruin the knees of his britches, but they were already in sorry shape. He was about to turn back when he noticed a pile of rubble up ahead. Crawling a little faster, he came upon what looked like an old gate or entry way that had been poorly filled in, and part of it crumbled away.

After moving some of the rock debris out of the way, Jake found that the hole was just big enough for him to squeeze through. However, once through the hole, the boy found himself in the same predicament—smashed between the wall and another length of bushes, with only room to move near the roots. He sighed and continued to crawl, wondering where this would possibly lead him.

 

Chapter 2

 

The copse was very quiet on this fine spring day, as ten-year-old Mara Markham sat on the stone bench, reading. Her nanny, Cecilia, had sewn a pillow set for her many years ago to rest upon the stone and keep her comfortable as she read in her favorite spot. Mara read voraciously, much to her mother’s dismay. Lady Maureen, daughter of a baron and wife to Lord Evelyn Markham, wanted Mara to learn the genteel ways of a woman and keep her nose out of books. Fortunately, Mara did not have to endure her mother’s criticisms often, for Maureen paid more attention to Mara’s brothers, Edwin and Bertram, and left her daughter to her own devices. This pleased Mara to no end. She hated being around her family members, who always seemed to make her self-conscious about her extra-large size. She avoided them as much as possible, and hiding in the gardens suited her requirement just fine. Cecilia, who felt more like mother to the child, ensured that Mara had as many peaceful moments as possible away from the cruel taunts of her brothers and thoughtless comments from her parents.

This morning, however, a strange rustling in the bushes along the outer wall disturbed Mara’s reading. She peered through the trellis of clematis, and stared in the direction of the noise for a few moments. Suddenly, she saw a figure in the shadows moving on hands and knees through the underside of the brush. And not very quietly, either. It appeared to be a boy. He paused, moved a bit, paused, and then moved a bit again. He acted as if he listened to see if he could hear anyone the other side.

Surprised that someone would invade the garden, Mara quietly stood up and tiptoed around the end of the trellis, across the lawn, and toward the end of the bush line where she knew the intruder would eventually have to emerge. She waited, prepared to use the heavy book she carried as a weapon, if necessary.

Jake crawled almost to the end of the bushes when he noticed a pair of shoes and what looked like the hem of a yellow dress near the place he had planned to emerge. Blimey, he thought. Now what? Should he crawl back, or take his chances with the woman? He stopped and looked for more shoes, legs, hems, or other evidence of additional people he might have to face. Seeing none, he decided to take his chances. He popped out of the bushes, rolled forward, jumped up, and faced the woman with one hand cocked behind him, ready to strike.

Mara and Jake stared at each other in surprise. Jake never expected a fat little girl with the curliest red hair and greenest eyes he’d ever seen, holding a book over her shoulder, ready to hit him back.

Mara never expected a tall, dirty, emaciated boy with long, blondish, unkempt hair, holding his fist over his shoulder to defend himself. After staring at each other for a minute, she lowered her book and stood awkwardly, not sure what to do next.

Jake followed suit and dropped his hand to his side. “Uhhh,” he started, “Queen Charlotte, I presume?”

Mara burst into giggles. Of all the things she supposed the boy would say, that didn’t even come close! She liked him instantly, and decided he wasn’t a threat after all.

The girl had a contagious giggle, and Jake found himself giggling, too. What started as a dangerous encounter ended with him enjoying the best laugh he’d had in years. He felt relieved the girl didn’t find a reason to smack him with that very heavy book.

Jake bowed deeply. “I am honored to meet you, m’lady. Jacob Abbot, at your service.”

She held out her hand, backside up, and gave a deep courtesy. “The pleasure is all mine, Sir Abbot. I am Mistress Mara Markham.” He took her hand, kissed it in a gentlemanly fashion, and then straightened back up.

Introductions over, they again stared at one another. Jake noticed Mara had a little space between her two front teeth, which gave her a waifish look.

“Umm, I have a bit of lunch in the basket, Sir Abbot. Would you care to join me?”

Food! She offered him food! He melted. “YES!” he exclaimed, a little too loudly, causing Mara to flinch. “I mean, yes, m’lady,” Jake replied, much softer this time. “A spot of lunch would be marvelous.”

Mara looked at Jake appraisingly. Due to his incredible thinness and his reaction to her offer of food, she had the distinct impression he didn’t eat very often. Suddenly, she became very self-conscious about the extra stones she carried due to the copious amounts of food she consumed. Jake didn’t sound like a commoner; he spoke like her, with a soft manner and an educated verbiage. However, the rags he wore made him look like he lived on the streets. Enough with the appraisal, she thought. I have a guest to feed. Gently, she took Jake’s dirty hand in hers and led him back around the end of the trellis into her special copse in the garden. She motioned for him to sit down on her favorite bench, pulled the basket out from under it, and placed it next to him.

“Please, Sir Abbot, partake of anything you wish.” Mara laid the red and white tablecloth on the ground. She then pulled the food from the picnic basket, and arranged it around the tablecloth.

Jake could only gape at the display of food this one young girl spread out before him. The spread consisted of fruit, bread, cheese, cider, sweets, and MEAT! Oh, my God! She had chicken. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had chicken. He looked up from the repast in front of him, and his eyes met Mara’s. She immediately saw the awe, as well as the hunger in his eyes, and at once knew she would never allow him to go hungry again. She quickly looked away and picked up a baguette, broke off a large chunk, and handed it to him.

Jake took the bread and devoured it. Mara had never before seen anyone eat so fast. She handed him a chunk of cheese that disappeared as fast as the bread, followed by a cup of the cider, more bread, and two chicken legs. Mara nibbled on some bread and cheese, allowing Jake to eat as much as his stomach could hold.

Jake ate like a condemned man. He showed no manners, shoveling the food into his mouth, as he filled a belly that had gone too long without good, nutritious food. A part of his brain told him to slow down, that he would make himself sick, but he couldn’t stop himself, and only halted when he had eaten everything. Then, with a great belch of satisfaction, he put his hands on his belly, laid down on the pillows, and stared at the flowered canopy above him with a huge smile on his face.

“I think I made a pig of myself, m’lady, and I must apologize for my behavior,” he said to the air above him. A shadow moved over him, and he looked up into Mara’s concerned, pudgy face. “Why are you so hungry?” she asked. “Doesn’t your family have any food?”

He closed his eyes and frowned, embarrassed. He generally didn’t talk about his life to others. The people on the street didn’t want to know anyway. His appearance screamed no-good street urchin. But after having devoured Mara’s lunch, he probably owed her some sort of explanation for his gluttony. Flinging his arm over his face so he couldn’t see the scorn in her eyes, he started to tell his tale.

“I have no family; at least I haven’t for a very long time. I was born on the Grafton side of London, where I lived with my family until about five years ago, when they all died of the influenza. I now live in the Queen’s Children’s Home, a fancy name for an orphanage, where they starve us and beat us and sell us to the highest bidder. I roam the streets during the day to look for food to steal.”

His voice became softer, more distant. “I hate doing it, but it is the only way to survive from day to day. So many children at the orphanage don’t survive. So if we don’t want to die we have to forage for food. Sometimes, we can find it in the garbage bins, but most of the time we have to filch it.”

He slowly pulled his arm to his forehead and cautiously opened one eye. Mara still bent over him, staring down at his face. He grimaced a little, expecting her to be appalled at his statements. But instead, her brows were furrowed in even deeper concern, her mouth open slightly.

Jake pulled himself up into a sitting position, and Mara sat next to him. “My friends and I were at the fruit stands today, and a man caught me snitching a melon. I ran, hid in the bushes on the outside of your wall, and then found my way into your garden, where you caught me.” He hung his head in shame.

Mara dropped her jaw, aghast. Not at his stealing, but at his need to steal. She had no idea people outside the four walls that protected her family home were in such dire straits. This boy and others like him were starving to death, blocks away from her house of plenty! How could that be? Her ten-year-old mind couldn’t quite grasp the situation.

“You can come here and eat any time you want.”

Jake looked at her, surprised. “You want me to come back?”

“Yes.” Her simple statement told the truth. Tears stung the backs of his eyes at the straightforward invitation. He blinked back the wetness and started giggling again, which also sent Mara into a fit of giggles. Pretty soon, he laughed so hard he had a stomachache.

Then they talked. She told him all about her life, and he told her all about his. He talked about the years before he lost his parents, the vicarage, and the people he remembered in the congregation. He told her about Luke, Alvin, and Pete, and their escapades and escapes. He left out the darker details to protect himself from answering the hard questions he she could ask.

Mara told him about her brothers, and how malevolent they were to her. She told of her cousins, and how nasty they were to her. She told of her parents, and how disinterested they were in her life. Mara talked to Jake about the people who served her family, and how they cared for her and she cared for them, and about the house and her room and her dolls and the books she read.

Jake picked up the book she had, and haltingly read a few passages out loud. It had been awhile since he’d had a book in his hands, and it felt good to be reading again. And they laughed some more.

They came from two different worlds, but felt a connection of friendship that transcended their stations in life. The bond forged from a shared need for love and family.

All too soon the sun began to set. Mara stood up to return to the house before someone came searching and found Jake in the garden with her.

“Come tomorrow, and we’ll have lunch together again. And I will bring enough for you to take back to Luke and Pete and Alvin, too. I will never let you go hungry again. I won’t let my friends starve.”

Jake melted. He hadn’t had anyone take care of him in a very long time, and this girl would feed him and his friends. He didn’t know what to say. Jake decided Mara was the kindest, most wonderful, most beautiful person he had ever seen. He thought of her as his angel, and he would go to the ends of the earth for her. The tears threatened again, so he hurriedly turned away to leave.

“I will see you tomorrow,” he croaked, and then disappeared into the bushes.

 

Chapter 3

 

The next day, true to her word, Mara waited for Jake in the copse with a full picnic basket. She also gripped in her pudgy fingers a white linen bag with clumsy handles that looked very similar to a couple of old napkins sewn together. It held food for the other boys. Jake once again ate his fill, then he and Mara spent the afternoon talking. She gave him a book to help him brush up on his reading. The publisher intended it for a younger reader, but Mara knew Jake probably needed to start from the beginning again.

They continued to meet daily for most of the month of April. Mara had to start sneaking food in order to keep the staff from becoming suspicious. She was a big girl, and ate a lot to comfort herself. Now, though, she set aside most of her lunch for these four very hungry young men, and doing her best to bring them as much additional food as possible. She sewed several linen bags out of old napkins she pilfered from the bottom of the great cabinet in the pantry for Jake to use to carry food to the boys.

She quickly learned how hard it must be for the boys to steal food from strangers on the streets. She had enough trouble gathering what she needed from under the noses of a friendly household staff! She had to get up very early in the morning to take food before the staff began to stir. She also had to locate a good hiding place that wouldn’t be found by the dog, Lilac; the cook, Mr. Fout; or his staff, Jessie and Gigi. She had to escape from sweet Cecilia, who as an adult couldn’t be trusted. Mara had to avoid the three maids—Beth, Portia, and Nettie—plus Termins, the butler. Outside the house, she had to steer clear of Calvin, the stable master and coachman; Higgins, the stable hand; and Rory and Basil, the gardeners.

Mara had long ago established that the copse with the trellis belonged exclusively to her, so the servants rarely disturbed her there except to call her to meals or other events. She felt fairly confident she and Jake could continue to meet there without being discovered. By nature, Mara didn’t generally like to be sneaky. As time went on, she developed a sense of it. By the end of April, she had become an expert sneaker. She even pilfered some old clothes from trunks in the attic for the boys to wear. She gave them hairbrushes and shoes and other items she had found in those trunks as well. She even gave each of them one of those new-fangled toothbrushes her mother thought were so wonderful. Mara also thought they were wonderful.

She met the other boys for the first time about three weeks after Jake had come through the wall. She sat in the copse, anticipating his arrival, when a loud commotion in the bushes frightened her.

“Hey, mate, get off my hand!”

“Sorry, ass puss, that ain’t me!”

“Well, bugger!”

“Bloody hell, man.”

“Hey, guys, watch your language and pipe down, will you? You’re gonna wake the dead!” That last voice belonged to Jake, and Mara realized that Luke, Alvin, and Pete were with him. Her heart skipped a beat when she realized Jake finally had brought them around for her to meet! She had heard so much about them, she assumed she’d recognize them on the spot. She did.

Jake popped out first, followed by a boy with a scar running along his left cheek. Pete, she surmised. Behind him came a boy with the lightest blond hair she’d ever seen—Alvin. Luke crawled through last. Small and cute as a button, he had sparkling grey eyes full of life. Pete was twelve, and Luke and Alvin were both eleven, although Luke looked more like he was seven or eight. All three were just as skinny as Jake. Two weeks of filling lunches had kept the hunger pangs from biting but hadn’t done a thing to eliminate their gauntness. But they were all dressed in the clothes she had picked out for them based on Jake’s descriptions, and they looked considerably better than Jake had when she first met him. Luckily, the staff at the Queen’s Children’s Home didn’t pay too much attention to the orphans’ clothing, so they were able to wear the hand-me-downs without repercussions.

“Come, fellas. Say hi to Angel Mara, our savior!”

“God, Jake, you didn’t tell us she how fat she…” Jake clamped a hand over Pete’s mouth and looked at Mara, mortified.

Mara cringed inside, but she did not react outwardly to Pete’s thoughtless comment. She endured similar barbs and insults from her brothers and their friends all the time, and had learned not to show pain, since that only brought on more of the same torture.

“Sorry, Mara. This one has no manners,” Jake said, yelling “no!” in Pete’s ear.

“Sorry, Mara.” Pete hung his head in shame, and dug into the dirt with his toe.

Mara didn’t hear remorse very often and the warmth in her soul she felt following Pete’s sincere apology stunned her.

“I forgive you, Pete. Friends?” With that, she stuck out her hand for a shake. He looked up at her, surprise all over his face, took her hand, and pumped it heartily.

“Gads, Pete!” interjected Alvin, “let her go before you break her!” Alvin pushed Pete out of the way so he could take her now-empty hand and shook it enthusiastically. “So happy to meet you finally. You don’t know whatcha mean to us.”

Luke finally stepped forward, and smiled a smile that could melt ice. He gave her hand one firm shake, and then moved back again. Then the boys all started talking at once, trying to be the center of attention, while showering Mara with profound thanks for the food she’d been sharing with them.

 

Chapter 4

 

For the next few weeks, Mara and the boys spent several hours a day in the copse and the gardens playing hide and seek, rolling around with Lilac, eating lunch, telling stories, and talking about their dreams. The boys didn’t seem to care that Mara carried all those extra pounds, and when she interacted with them, she never thought about it. She just felt like one of the boys. Sometimes, she would bring her sewing kit and repair tears or sew on new buttons or hem trousers. Because of Jake’s height, Mara let out all the hems of his pants and took them in to fit his skinny waist. She just wished she could do more for the boys than give them a little food and some clothes.

The boys stopped stealing for the moment, and were happy to escape the confines of the orphanage for a bit every day. The more they stayed away, the less punishment Snellings could dole out. But with Jake growing bigger and stronger, they all knew Snellings would soon sell him as an apprentice. That thought scared them all.

Mara spent May, June, and part of July at the Rochcliffe House, the ancestral family home in the country. Her father’s older brother, Cecil Markham, the Viscount Rochdale, now occupied the manor. This temporary move forced the boys to go back to their old ways, waiting for the day when Mara returned and they could once again stop roaming the streets. They still crawled through the wall and play with Lilac most days. They loved that dog.

Mara arrived back the first week in July, and the boys were ecstatic.

Later that month, they had cherry tarts for Pete’s thirteenth birthday. In September, they ate peach cobbler for Jake’s fourteenth birthday. In October, they celebrated Mara’s eleventh birthday with leftover gooey chocolate cake. They would have been deliriously happy if it weren’t for the feeling of impending doom that Jake or Pete could be sent off to work in a sweatshop somewhere.

As the weather became colder, Mara found the boys old coats to wear. With the change in seasons, the friends were able to spend only lunch in the copse before the boys had to go find warmer shelter, usually straight back to the orphanage. Mara wished she could sneak them into the house, but they all knew they pushed their luck already. They had to be content to eat and run. Particularly stormy or cold days forced Mara to leave the bag under the bench, hoping the food would still be edible by the time one of them came to retrieve it. She also had to lock Lilac in the stables to ensure that the dog didn’t eat the food she left for the boys.

In December, her chance to do more than simply feed the boys came in the most unexpected way. Old Higgins, the footman, who had been in the family since her father was a small boy, caught a cold and didn’t recover. Mara was saddened by the death of the dear, sweet man who always had a kind word and a pat on the head for her. Her family didn’t even seem to notice, which made her even sadder.

A few days after they buried Higgins, she had gone to the stables to feed squash rinds to the horses when she overheard Calvin and Rory talking. Since Rory couldn’t garden in the winter, he helped with home repairs or assisted Calvin in the stables repairing horse trappings.

On this particular day, they were discussing how to replace old Higgins. Termins, the butler, had all responsibility for hiring and firing the staff, but he wouldn’t dare hire a stable hand without input from Calvin. Calvin was at a complete loss. Usually his neighborhood sources could recommend skilled people for hire, but lately the need for knowledgeable stable hands had increased, and there were none available in the area. And Calvin didn’t want to look in a different neighborhood, at candidates he didn’t know. “I’d probably end up with a ruffian”, he muttered.

The two of them mumbled about the lack of good workers, and what London was coming to.

“Ahem.”

They looked up, startled, to see Mara staring at them.

“Ahem.” She cleared her throat again, and then began speaking rapidly, before they could stop her.

“I know of a perfectly fine apprentice who is willing to work hard. He can read and write and do numbers. He is well spoken and is in need of a job right now. I will vouch for him and his background. He may not know much about horses, but he is really smart and will figure it out fast.”

Mara stood there, rooted to the spot, wondering if her impromptu speech had been helpful or harmful to her cause. She held her breath, waiting for Calvin to say something.

“Well, Miss Mara,” he said slowly, “that is an unusual notion, but I am willing to meet this young man.” Calvin had no idea where Miss Mara could have found a young apprentice in need of a job, since she rarely ventured outside the house and garden. Nevertheless, he wanted to meet the young man.

“Bring him by when you can, but don’t wait too long.”

“Oh, thank you! I will bring him by after lunch.” With that, she dropped her treats and ran off, leaving the poor horses to bend to the ground and rummage for the squash rinds. Rory and Calvin looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and continued to moan about the state of the current workforce.

Mara was so excited she wasn’t as careful as usual while gathering lunch food from the kitchen, and was almost caught by Mr. Fout. That brought her activities to a grinding halt, and forced her to gather her wits again before venturing off to the copse, now very aware of who might be watching. She could hardly contain herself as she waited for Jake to arrive.

The boys had barely popped out of the bushes before she told them the news, her words pouring out in an excited jumble.

“Hey! Wait a minute, Miss Mara,” said Pete, putting his hand on her shoulder in an attempt to calm her down. “We canna understand a word you said.”

“Okay, okay,” she caught her breath and started again. “I may have a job for Jake. Higgins must be replaced, and I talked Calvin into meeting Jake.”

The boys’ jaws all dropped at once. “Talk about fate,” said Alvin. “At least one of us is now safe.”

“You don’t have the job yet,” Mara said to Jake, bouncing up and down and taking his hand into hers. “But at least you have a chance. You just need to convince Calvin you are the man for the job. I promised him you would be a really fast learner.”

Jake let go of her hands, dropped to his knees, rocked back and forth, and laughed until he was almost hysterical. “Oh, God, oh God,” he repeated, over and over.

Mara looked at Luke for an explanation of Jake’s very odd behavior.

“Jake and Alvin canna go back to the orphanage. Snellings, the jackass, has chosen them to go to the fish hut at the pier and shuck fish bones all day long. We hoped to hide them out here somewhere. Jake said some pretty ugly things to Snellings, and then hit him before running off. Pete and I waited awhile, then followed them here. They’ve been hiding in the bushes.” Luke looked at Jake. “I don’t know if his brain is frozen from being out in this cold, or he is relieved to be saved from the fishes.”

“Yeah,” interjected Pete. “You shoulda seen the punch Jake threw. Blimey, ‘twas a thing of beauty! Nailed the bastard right between the eyes. Bossman never saw it coming, and it laid the bloody arse to rest just like that.” He snapped his fingers, emphasizing the word that.

Jake had done a good job laying Snellings down, but it meant he was now a marked man.

 

*****

 

Jake awoke that morning like every other morning in the orphanage, cold and hungry, wishing to be anywhere but there. He dreamed every night about life with his family, and wondered what it would be like now if they hadn’t died.

He and the boys sat down to a breakfast of runny gruel and a piece of bread. The cook made the meager food supply go as far as possible; hence, the awful, watered-down gruel was more liquid than substance. The bread was always the best part of the day, as it was made fresh every morning. However, each orphan received only one tiny slice per meal.

Depressed, cold, hungry children filled the room. Jake looked around and wished he could do something about it. But what could he, a mere boy, do against the establishment? The only bright spot in his life was Mara.

As he contemplated the disheartening situation, Snellings came in the room and demanded the orphan’s attention. Jake sighed. Snellings’ arrival at meal time never brought good news. He usually ate his own feasts in his quarters upstairs.

“Abbot!” he boomed across the room. Jake’s shoulders shrank even further than normal. “Bitters!” Alvin glanced over at Jake, fear in his eyes.

“Now, you stinking piles of garbage, not next week!”

Jake and Alvin slowly rose and walked over to Snellings, all eyes upon them. Pete reached out and grabbed Luke’s arm in horror as he watched his friends walk between the long tables and benches toward Snellings. This could only mean one thing—they were about to be sent to a workhouse somewhere. What they all feared had come at last.

Snellings addressed Jake and Alvin in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the meal hall. “Seems the last fool I sent to the fish hut de-boned and filleted himself. So, because little, stupid Simon Bottoms was a pathetic, useless apprentice at gutting fish, I have to send you two dim-witted scum to replace his sorry dead ass.” He laughed out loud, as if he had made a big joke.

Alvin gasped. Working at the fish market gutting, heading, nobbing, skinning, filleting, and bone separating fish was the worst job in the world. Snellings seemed to send more orphans there than anywhere else, and they usually didn’t last more than a year. Snellings had just handed them death warrants.

Jake’s head spun. He hated taking insult after insult from this fat pig. The fact that Snellings found mirth in Simon’s death sent Jake over the edge. Simon had been a real nice boy, with a kind disposition. The floodgates opened, and years of loathing for this man flowed out like water over a dam.

“How dare you, you son of a bitch!” Jake yelled, poking Snellings in the chest with his forefinger. “Simon meant more to humanity that you ever will. How dare you laugh at his death, you fat pig! You feed your fat ugly face and take your fat bribes while you starve us, beat us, and sell us to the highest bidder. You are the ugliest, sorriest, most cowardly piece of filth that ever lived!”

Snellings stopped laughing, his face turning red with anger at the audacity of this little twerp standing in front of him. Abbot had always been a thorn in his side, standing up to him at every turn. He had been waiting to send Jake to the worst possible place as an apprentice. He reached out to grab Jake’s collar. “Why you dirty—” but he never finished his sentence.

As soon as Snellings touched his shirt front, Jake’s swung his arm hard, his closed fist connecting square with Snellings’ plump, smug face. Snellings let go of the boy’s shirt and flew backwards, landing with a sickening thud on the floor several feet away. A collective gasp rose up throughout the meal hall, as the orphans witnessed one of their own strike down the director of the orphanage. When Snellings didn’t rise up, they looked at Jake with a mixture of horror and hero worship on their faces.

Jake and Alvin stared at the prone, motionless figure of Snellings, blood running freely out of his now-crooked nose. It took Jake only a couple of seconds to realize what he had done, and that he and Alvin were now in mortal danger. He grabbed Alvin’s arm and pulled him hard, causing him to nearly fall over the director’s dead-looking body.

“We gotta get outta here, come on!” The two ran out of the room and into the hall, grabbed their Markham family hand-me-down coats off the hooks along the wall, and pushed their way out into the cold morning.

 

*****

 

Back in the copse, Jake put his hands over his face, his manic laughter abating. Stone sober, he moaned. “Oh, God. What does it matter? I just killed a man. They will hunt me down no matter where I try to hide.”

Pete piped up. “He ain’t dead, man. You broke his nose good, that’s all. He was out cold for about ten minutes. But after he woke up, he ranted and raved ‘bout killing you!”

Alvin sank down hard on the bench, and put his head in his hands. “What am I to do? You guys gonna let me get thrown to the fishes?”

Jake arose from his knees and brushed the dirt from his pant leg, extremely relieved to hear Snellings still lived. “Al, we aren’t gonna let him send you to the fish market. We’ll think of something, even if we have to hide you in horse poop all winter!”

They all started laughing, and sat down to eat and discuss their options. The best idea was for Mara to ask Calvin to hire Alvin, too.

“Well,” she said, “nothing ventured is nothing gained, so I will see what I can do.” With that, Pete and Luke shook Jake and Alvin’s hands for good luck, packed up the leftovers, and went back through the bushes as Alvin, Mara, and Jake walked to the stables.

Jake and Alvin gasped as they came through the trees and saw Mara’s house for the first time. It was a thing of beauty, constructed out of natural stone in the English Tudor style. Several additions and fireplaces broke the roof line giving it a distinctive look. It was terraced on two levels. The main house featured a large front door with three steps off the veranda to the cobbled driveway which ran from the front gates across the main house to the attached stables and carriage house on the other side. An angled breezeway ran from the kitchens in the back of the main house to the stables adding space for the servants to live, pantries for food staples, and an outdoor nook for the gardeners to plant small trees and flowers. The three large doors into the carriage house matched the style and forest green color of the front door. The second floor of the stables also added more room for the servants’ sleeping quarters. Standard brown Tudor planking trimmed the entire house, which added depth and character.

The main house had two stories, plus the attic. On the first floor was the family dining room, with a large rectangular table that could seat thirty, the parlor in the front to the left of the main door, the great room to the right side of the main door, and the study/library. Another breezeway in the back led to the kitchens and a large pantry used to store the china, silver, and serving trays needed for the dining room. On the second floor were six bedchambers. Lord and Lady Markham and each of the children had a separate sleeping space, leaving one room empty.

The west wing sat lower by a level so that the first floor of the main hall branched off between the parlor and the family dining room, and emptied out into the second floor of the west wing. The bottom floor of the wing contained the gigantic and resplendent ballroom; the upper consisted of six separate rooms set aside as guest quarters.

The complete grounds of the house took up a full city block, and the gardens were some of the most beautiful and best loved in the city. Many a lord and lady came to visit the Markhams’ home to enjoy a stroll in the gardens, taking in the lush green grass, the numerous and varied trees, and the plethora of color provided by the thousands of annuals and perennials that filled the flowerbeds.

Mara had to practically drag the boys away from staring at the main house to get them to go into the carriage house.

Calvin and Rory were working under the carriage on a wheel when they heard the same little ahem they had heard a few hours earlier. They walked around the coach and came up short when they saw two dirty, shivering boys standing behind Mara. One was very tall and so skinny he’d blow away if a strong wind came along. The other was a towhead who looked like invisible demons tortured him, the sorrow on his face was so pronounced.

“Calvin, Rory,” Mara swept her hand toward the boys, “meet Nathanial Abbot and Alvin Bitters. Boys, meet Calvin, our coachman and Rory, our head gardener.”

Calvin’s face exploded in surprise. Egads! Mara did have boys up her sleeves. Where in God’s name did these two come from? He’d never seen them before, and had no idea where Miss Mara could have found them. Her father would beat her within an inch of her life if he found out about her “friends.” He couldn’t wait to hear this story!

Rory finally regained his wits, and extended his hand to shake with Jake and Alvin. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Abbot, Mr. Bitters.”

Jake shook Rory’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Rory. The pleasure is all mine. Please call me Jake. All my friends do.”

Alvin spoke up, as he shook hands all around. “Just Alvin is fine, gentlemen. I be pleased, too.”

Calvin raised an eyebrow. Miss Mara was right. The tall, skinny one did speak with the refined dialect of a boy who could read and write and do numbers. His lack of a Cockney accent, so evident in Alvin’s speech, was quite noticeable.

While Calvin and Rory appraised the boys, Mara spoke up again. “Alvin is in need of a job, too, so if you could see it in your heart to hire two boys, I would greatly appreciate it.” And she smiled that sweet smile that could melt any heart except those belonging to her family members. Calvin capitulated immediately.

“Now scoot along, Miss Mara. This is man’s business, and you need to tend to woman’s business. Back to the house and a warm fire for you!”

Mara smiled again at the men and ran back to the house, praying they would hire the boys and save them from the fish hut.

After she left, Calvin and Rory turned toward the boys and motioned for them to sit on the tack boxes. Alvin nervously looked around the stables, but Jake looked Calvin right in the eye, trying to act confident and assured. He assumed these were characteristics Calvin would be looking for in a new hire. But inside, he felt even more nervous than Alvin, and tried to keep from hyperventilating by silently counting his breaths. One, two, three, four, in; one, two, three, four, out.

Calvin finally spoke up. “How on earth did the two of you meet Miss Mara? It’s not like she wanders the streets during the day looking for wayward children.”

Jake and Alvin looked at each other. Did they dare tell the truth, or should they concoct a lie? Jake finally decided to tell the truth and told Calvin and Rory pertinent details of the story. However, he did not mention Pete or Luke, or that he and Alvin were wearing clothes that Mara had pilfered for them from the attic. Rory listened to the story in amazement. “So the two of you have been crawling through the old north gate for months, and Mara has been feeding you bread and cheese from the house pantries?” They nodded. “Well, I’ll be! Never knew it, either. You young ‘uns are good at sneaking around, that I will grant ye!”

Jake smiled a crooked smile. “Comes with being an orphan, I guess. But we really want to stop sneaking around and have a real home and a real job and not be afraid every day and not have to worry about starving to death anymore, and have real clothes that fit and…and…and you can’t let them sell us to the fishery! It’s worse than the orphanage. We’ll die there.”

“How do I know I can I trust you two?” Calvin’s question was a serious one. He didn’t want to hire two young hoodlums.

Alvin finally spoke up. “Because Miss Mara is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I would go to the ends of the earth for her. I would never do anything to hurt her! And being a bad boy after she got us a job would definitely hurt her!” He spoke with such sincerity that Calvin had no choice but to believe him.

Rory pondered Alvin’s statement for a moment. “How old are you, boy?”

“Eleven. My birthday’s in January.”

“Well, you’re a mite young, but I can always use another hand to tend the grounds, and you seem to have a strong back and a willing spirit. If Mr. Calvin here is willin’ to take a chance on Jake, I am willin’ to take a chance on you.”

Alvin bounced up, grabbed Rory’s hand, and shook it vigorously. “I will not let you down, Mr. Rory! I will be the best gardener in London. You wait and see. I will be. I will be!” Rory had to laugh at the boy’s enthusiasm. He just hoped he still had it when it was hot and the weeds threatened to overtake the lawn.

Jake looked at Calvin, barely containing himself as he waited for his answer. Calvin looked back at Jake, enjoying the squirming. “How old you be?”

“Fourteen, sir. My birthday was in September.”

Calvin considered the boy again. Finally, he also stood up and held out his hand. “Welcome aboard, boy! I hope you don’t get your head kicked in by a horse, ‘cause I don’t want to face Miss Mara if you get hurt on my watch!”

Jake took the offered hand, and smiled the biggest smile he could. “I will not let you down, Mr. Calvin. I won’t let Miss Mara down, either. She’s the best thing that has ever happened to me, too.”

Jake and Alvin jumped with joy. Their Angel Mara had saved them once again.

 

*****

 

Mara went back to the house like she had been told, but she didn’t find a warm fire. Instead, she sat on the parlor window seat and leaned her head against the cold glass to watch the stables and wait for the boys to come out. She waited patiently for nearly an hour before the boys finally emerged.

She grabbed her cape and ran out of the house toward the boys. “Well?” she yelled as she ran. “What happened?” Jake picked her up in a big bear hug, and swung her around and around. “We are hired!” He put her down, and the three of them held each other in a ferocious group hug and laughed. They were saved and Mara had her friends out in the open, living on the estate. Life was good. Life was very good.

 

Chapter 5

 

The silly outing he had to attend at the palace put Lord Markham in his first foul mood. Then this letter had arrived from his dim-witted brother, setting his teeth on edge. He was the smart one in the family. He was the one who could turn a shilling into a pound. He was the one with all the business savvy. He was the one who kept that worthless brother of his and their family’s estate solvent. He was the one held in high esteem in the peerage. But his good-for-nothing brother, Cecil, had the good fortune to be born first. That never-do-well Cecil held the title of Viscount Rochdale. That ugly mouse of a wife of his was the viscountess instead of his own beautiful Maureen. Cecil’s irresponsible brat was the heir to the Rochdale title. And now, once again, the viscount held out his hand for yet another pile of pounds to keep the roof from caving in on the ancestral home in Waltham. Rochcliffe House was once again “about to fall in around our ears!” according to his foolish brother.

Lord Markham not only kept his own family of five well-heeled in London on the sweat of his toils, but kept the viscount family estate intact and supported the five Rochdales as well. The viscount knew Lord Markham would never see his beloved family estate go to rot, so he used it against him time and time again. Such was his lot in life, and it made him angry. However, due to his brother’s negligence and improper handling of the estate, Markham was able to wrestle this London house out of his brother many years ago, not long after he and Lady Maureen were engaged. His brother had a gambling debt that Markham had paid off, but the price was the deed to the Viscount Rochdale’s London home.

The butler, Termins, interrupted Markham’s thoughts. “Sir, the carriage awaits.” Markham stuffed the letter in his coat pocket and wished he could hit his irresponsible elder brother right between the eyes.

 

*****

 

The coach sat in front of the house, waiting for the family to emerge. Calvin did a last-minute inspection of every inch of the carriage and horses as Jake stood at the door of the coach to help the Markham women into the conveyance. Being his first time serving as a footman, he mumbled to himself the detailed instructions Calvin had given him. He certainly didn’t want to fail on his first ride! He had polished the dark blue wagon until it shone. He had wiped and cleaned and brushed the interior until the dark blue velvet looked new. He had also scrubbed the horses’ hooves, and combed their manes and tails. Jake now proudly surveyed the shining result of his hard labor. Lord Markham’s steed, Zeus, looked well-groomed and ready. Markham enjoyed riding his horse instead of being cooped up in the carriage with the family.

Jake felt the February cold through his coat, but he kept from stomping his feet or blowing on his hands, as he didn’t think that would be proper behavior on his first day out.

Lord Markham and Lady Maureen came out of the house first, followed by Bertram and Edwin. Expensive fur-collared coats, with fur muffs and hats to match, protected the family. They looked like they’d never felt the cold, no matter what the temperature.

Coming down the stairs, Edwin argued that he, at thirteen, was now old enough to ride horseback instead of in the carriage with the women and children. He pushed his brother Bertram as he emphasized the word children.

Lord Markham fondly tousled the top of Edwin’s head—or, more precisely, the top of his fur hat—and laughed while shaking his head. “Not yet, m’boy. Not yet! I will tell you when you are ready!”

Edwin shrugged his shoulders, then turned toward his brother. “Race you! Let’s grab the good seats before fatso up there does,” nodding toward to the door where their sister emerged. Bertram turned around and yelled at Mara. “Catch us if you can, lard ass!” and sprinted down the stairs.

“Bertram!” snapped his mother. “Watch your language! I will not have you using that word in my presence.”

“Sorry, Mother.” Bertram didn’t look contrite nor like he would stop.

What sickened Jake was the fact that Lady Maureen corrected her son’s use of the word “ass,” but did not chastise him for calling his sister “lard ass.” His own mother would have berated him severely for treating a member of the family so poorly in front of other people, and he wouldn’t have been able to sit properly for a week as a result of the spanking his father would have given him!

Mara trailed as usual, with her head down, trying to look small and insignificant. She wore a mousy brown-colored cape that made her look even larger than normal. Her mother dressed her in the worst clothes, as if intentionally trying to accentuate her size. Jake hated seeing Mara dressed so inappropriately and looking so downtrodden, since he knew she was by far a more beautiful and worthy human being than the rest of her family put together. He hated the way they treated her—as if she were of no consequence in their lives. And Jake wished he could do something about it. But his station in life wouldn’t allow him to rescue Mara from the bosom of her kin, and that tore him apart. He stared ahead and stewed in silence. At least the ugly emotion that welled inside of him warmed him up a bit.

Edwin came to a halt in front of Jake and looked at him appraisingly, as if he had never seen him before. However, since Jake looked after his horse as well as his father’s, the two crossed paths often. “Blimey! Isn’t that my old jacket? How’d you come by my jacket, you thief!”

Jake looked down at the jacket he wore. It was his favorite; Mara had given it to him last year, and had let out the sleeves twice to accommodate his growth. He enjoyed the soft wool material in a deep forest green with a deep collar and the bright buttons. He didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t stolen it, but he didn’t want to cause trouble for Mara.

“I didn’t steal it,” he said softly. “I thought it was mine to wear for occasions like this.”

“What do you mean, you thought it was yours to wear? You took it from my wardrobe, you crook. I will see you whipped for this!”

By now, the Markham servants were watching the drama unfold on the front drive. Gigi and Jessie came out of the breezeway door and watched from the little garden nook. Cecilia and Termins had been at the front door seeing the family off, and now stood in the shadows of the hall, peering out. Of course, Calvin and Rory knew Mara had given the jacket to Jake, as she had outfitted both Jake and Alvin with Edwin’s castoffs.

By this time, Lord Markham stepped into the conversation and also confronted Jake. “Speak up, boy! Confess you stole that garment from Lord Edwin’s room.”

“I…I…I found it hanging on a hook in the stable, and thought it was for the footman, sir. That’s me. The footman.” Jake couldn’t look Lord Markham in the eye, even though he stood almost the same height. Instead, he looked down at the man’s boots. The lord was about to fire him.

“Take the coat off, boy.”

Threats dripped in the man’s voice. Lord Markham clearly believed Jake had stolen the coat, and would now dole out a punishment. Jake slowly removed the jacket, and put it in Edwin’s open hand, eyes still averted from his master’s.

Mara watched from the front steps, not knowing what to say or do. She had no idea what her father would say, but she wouldn’t allow her father fire Jake for taking a jacket she had pulled out of an attic trunk and given to him.

But before she could react, her father raised his right arm and struck. Not with a fist or a hand, but with the riding crop in his grasp. Everyone except Edwin gasped as the whip hit Jake square in the chest and snaked over his right shoulder onto his back, narrowly missing his face. Edwin stood with the jacket in his folded arms, and watched with a satisfied look on his face as his father meted out the harsh punishment.

Jake fell back against the coach as pain exploded across his body. He barely felt his head snap back and hit the side of the carriage. He collapsed to his hands and knees as the second blow came, this time across his back and buttocks. Then came the third and the fourth, causing shockwaves of pain through his body. Just before he blacked out, he heard Mara shouting, but his now foggy brain couldn’t make out her words.

Mara watched the horrific scene unfold, unable to move. She froze in shock as she watched her father unjustly whip her best friend. However, when Jake buckled completely to the ground, she snapped into action, and ran as fast as she could to put herself between her father and Jake’s crumpled body.

“Stop!” she screamed, at the top of her lungs, putting her arms up to protect herself from her father’s next blow. “Stop! He didn’t steal it. He didn’t steal it!”

Lord Markham stopped just before unleashing the whip once more upon the boy. He looked at his daughter, anger flashing in his eyes. Mara’s stared at him defiantly, her hood fallen back, the wind thrashing her hair wildly around her face. Markham’s fury bubbled up. His daughter had just defied him, and made him look foolish in front of his servants. How dare she! “What do you know about it?” he yelled as he grabbed her arm with his left hand and shook her. “Are you in cahoots with him?”

“Father, please listen.” Mara panted from the exertion of running over to Jake and from the emotion that had overtaken her, but she wasn’t about to let her father hit Jake again. “I took the jacket from the attic,” she said, jamming her thumb at her chest to emphasize the word I. “And I gave it to him so he would have something nice to wear for family outings like this. I believe our servants should be properly dressed. Edwin doesn’t wear that old jacket anymore. It was in a trunk, in a trunk in the attic. I wanted to be nice to the new footman. You are beating him for no reason!”

Lord Markham’s anger grew. Mara took the family’s clothing and gave it away to servants? Then this impertinent, useless girl announced to everyone that his punishment of the footman was unjust!

“How dare you. How dare you!” he repeated. “You will never again steal from this house, girl. Do you understand? You will never again give what is not yours to classless scum like him. I have a mind to whip you, too! Get out of my sight; I never want to lay eyes on you again!” He looked at Calvin as he rolled Jake over on his back with his boot. “Move this thing out of my sight, too!”

Mara put her hand over her mouth to suppress the sobs racking her body, and ran up the front steps and into the house for cover. Her father’s words hurt her more that his whip ever could.

Rory and Termins went quickly over to Jake and, grabbing him under each arm, half dragged and half carried the unconscious young man to the stables. The rest of the family stepped up into the carriage, as if nothing had happened. Calvin had no choice but to close the coach door and climb up onto the driver seat. Lord Markham mounted his horse, and took off down the drive toward the gate. Calvin sighed as he looked back at the receding forms of Termins and Rory struggling to carry Jake. He sometimes really hated working for Lord Markham. Jake was a great boy with lots of potential, and the master didn’t understand his daughter at all. He just wished he could help. He clicked his tongue and tapped the reigns; the horses followed the master out through the gates.

Mara ran all the way to her room and threw herself on the bed, crying like she had never cried before. She was used to the fat jokes and the taunts about her looks, but she had never seen her father so angry, nor had she ever seen another human take a whipping. The horror-stricken look on Jake’s face as he had been struck etched itself deep into her memory. He seemed stunned, yes, but the look betrayal haunted Mara. Shame washed over her as she realized she had allowed her father to strike Jake three or four times before she could wrap her mind around the situation and move to intervene. Oh, my God! What had she done? How could Jake ever forgive her? What would happen now? She sobbed until she couldn’t breathe.

God, she hated her father! She hated him with all the hate she could muster. She buried her head in her coverlet and let the hatred wash out, along with the pain of failing to protect her friend.

Cecilia stood at the open door, her heart breaking as she watched her charge cry so pitifully. She knew that Mara had been pilfering items from the house for Jake and Alvin for some time, but she had let it go since Mara’s heart was in the right place. Feeding those poor boys was the right thing to do, but Cecilia didn’t know how to comfort Mara, because she herself stood on pins and needles at the moment. Cecilia had never seen the master so enraged and out of control either, and it scared her—for herself, for Jake, but most of all, for Mara.

“Miss Mara, honey,” she started. Then she paused, as Mara stopped sobbing and looked up. “Why don’t you go to Jake and help wash his wounds.” Cecilia sensed that if Mara helped heal Jake’s wounds, it would also be balm for her emotional wounds. Mara immediately arose from the bed, wiped her eyes on her skirt, grabbed her cloak off the floor, and ran out the door, down the stairs, out of the house, and to the stables. She wasn’t ready for the sight that confronted her when she arrived in the little room above the stables that served as home to Jake and Calvin.

Jake laid spread eagle on the cot, bare backed, his arms hanging down over the sides of the small bed. His eyes were closed, thankfully still unconscious.

Jesse had run back into the kitchen and poured hot water from the kettle into a pail and tested it for temperature before using it to wash Jake’s wounds. Rory stripped long lengths of cloth from what looked like an old sheet, and Termins struggled to pull a pair of Edwin’s old boots off Jake’s feet.

Jesse stood up to stop Mara. “No, Miss Mara, don’t look. You don’t want to be in here right now. You shouldn’t see this.” Mara defiantly pushed past her and stood, astounded, in front of the bed. Jake had a series of huge red, bloody welts across his back that ran from his left shoulder down to his lower right back, disappearing under Edwin’s old trousers. Her stomach churned, and she thought she might faint. But she was determined not to desert Jake again in his time of need. So she fought the urge to run, and instead knelt down next to the bed, picked up a strip of cloth, wet it in the pail, and started dabbing the wounds gently, holding back the bile rising in her throat. It took all her strength not to vomit at the sight of Jake’s scourged flesh.

Jesse looked at Termins for help in getting Mara to leave. He simply shrugged his shoulders and went back to work pulling off Jake’s stockings and trousers. Rory ripped off a slightly larger strip of cloth, and laid it over Jake’s buttocks as Termins pulled off his pants.

Together they worked for over an hour, cleaning and rinsing the wounds, applying a liberal amount of Lady Maureen’s salve brought down by Cecilia, and then binding up the wounds with clean strips. When the time came to turn Jake over to dress his chest wounds, Jesse and Cecilia insisted that Mara leave. She reluctantly agreed, and walked back to the house. She returned some time later with a comfortable chair.

“Who is that for, Miss Mara?” queried Jesse. Mara smiled. “Me. I am going to stay with Jake until he wakes up. Then we will take turns. He will become feverish, I am sure, and we have to keep him cool. I don’t want him left alone, ever.” Mara stood silently in the stable until Termins called them back into the small room, where she promptly set up the chair at Jake’s head and sat down to carry out her vigil.

 

Chapter 6

 

Jake heard someone crying. Actually, it sounded more like a painful drawing of breath with slight sobs in between. He couldn’t determine the source of the noise, but he wished it would stop so he could go back to sleep. As he wakened more fully, he felt a searing pain across his back and chest. He couldn’t breathe! What had happened? He heard Mara’s voice, soothing him. Then he realized the sobbing noise came from him!

He opened his eyes to see Mara’s beautifully pudgy face and lovely green eyes staring down at him. He laid on his stomach, drawing his breaths quickly, and making a strange mewling noise. But he noticed the painful throbbing the most. Then it all came back to him in a huge wave pounding into his brain. The whipping! Oh, my God! His skin felt on fire! He hurt so bad he wanted to die. But there sat Angel Mara, stroking his brow and holding a moist cloth to his exposed cheek and forehead.

“Shhhh. You are going to be okay. I am here. I won’t let you die, Jake. I am here.” She babbled little soothing phrases as she dipped the cloth into cool water and pressed it against his hairline again and again, comforting, reassuring. He felt his breathing return to normal, but he doubted if he would ever feel pain-free again. There wasn’t an inch of his skin that didn’t ache the most horrific ache. But Mara was right. He wouldn’t die. Not now. Not until he freed her from her chains. He closed his eyes and slept a healing sleep once again.

Termins, Jesse, and Rory helped Mara nurse Jake back to health. He was young. He was strong. And he was determined.

They changed his bandages daily, carefully cleaning the wounds to keep out infection. Jake remained awake for the procedure, but wished to God he didn’t. A few times the searing pain of the dressing coming off caused him to pass out, as the cloth pulled on the wounds and sometimes tore his skin again. He lay there on his stomach, in a pair of old cotton pajama bottoms Termins found in the house, all sense of modesty and decorum thrown out the window. He didn’t care who came into his room, as long as they brought him food, care, and company.

But Jake liked it best when Mara changed his dressings. Her hands were soft and gentle, and so warm. She murmured sweet words while ministering to him, and sang beautiful songs to keep his mind off the pain. It worked to a point, but nothing could eliminate the pain completely. He also had a fever, but his caretakers were not overly concerned. The daily cleansing kept infection at bay. Lilac helped in her own way, sitting by his bed and licking his fingers.

Mara ran through her lessons every morning as fast as she could, and hurriedly completed her chores before rushing through the breezeway to the stables and up the narrow staircase to Jake’s bedroom. Her father would kill her if he knew she spent time in a servant boy’s bedroom, but she didn’t care. Jake was her responsibility; his wounds were the result of her actions. Besides, she loved the feel of his skin under her hands as she cleaned his chest, back, and upper buttocks, gently rubbing salve on the angry red welts left by the horse whip. She loved to hold his hand and read to him to keep his mind off the pain. She loved just being with him, talking to him, taking care of him. Jake was her best friend in the whole world. When she sat with him, she forgot about her own sorry life, her nasty brothers, her hateful father, and her absent mother. She could finally connect with another human being on her level in her way. She forgot that she was fat and ugly, and concentrated on just being a friend to someone in need.

After five days of bed rest, Jake finally had enough strength to stand up and take short walks around the room. After ten days, he didn’t stoop over anymore, and walked the grounds. After a fortnight, he began working with the horses again, being careful to stay out of the sights of Lord Markham and his horrible sons. In three weeks, he still bore the scars, but the pain diminished daily. In a month, he took food to Luke and Pete and joked around as if nothing had happened. Alvin and Mara did their best to keep him focused on the stables and their friendship, as Jake tended to brood now at odd moments, staring at the front of the house in deep anger, as if blaming it for his pain.

In between their chores, Mara began teaching Alvin to read and write and do simple numbers. She lent lots of books to Jake, who pored over them at night in bed by candlelight. Mara was glad he liked the books, but she constantly warned him not to burn down the stables!

Most of all, they played and laughed and were children once again.

 

Chapter 7

 

The children grew, and their friendship deepened. Having both Jake and Alvin working on the estate helped keep them together. It was definitely easier to feed Luke and Pete with three of them watching for opportunities to snitch food. Jake and Alvin began filling out now that they were eating three square meals a day with plenty of meat to fuel their growing bodies.

Luke remained small and would probably always be about five foot three, but he didn’t seem to mind. He was the only one who could still crawl through the bushes and the crack in the wall, so it fell to him to retrieve food left there by the three insiders. Mara had to sew several napkin bags, as they wore out rather quickly. She never again gave clothes to Jake and Alvin for fear of inciting another beating, but she did give clothing to Luke and Pete, since her father would probably never lay eyes on them.

 

*****

 

Mara spent her mornings with Miss Perkins, her tutor. Bertram and Edwin attended boarding schools, so Mara was Miss Perkins’ only pupil. Miss Perkins taught her French, history and math. Mara loved to learn, and spent hours reading the Greek philosophers Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid, and compared their ideas to those of Hobbes, Descartes, Bacon, Machiavelli, and Aquinas. Miss Perkins enjoyed the sharpness of Mara’s mind, her desire to learn, and her inquisitiveness, and thus generally indulged her desire to discuss politics and philosophy.

Miss Perkins knew Mara was much smarter than her brothers, and tried her best to feed the child’s mind a solid educational diet. Where the tutor fell short on knowledge, the two would explore together, poring over volumes in Lord Markham’s library. Mara’s understanding of the proletariat surprised Miss Perkins, despite the girl’s life of seclusion behind the estate walls. She had some real insight, that girl. Little did Miss Perkins know how much the orphans were teaching the young lady about real life in the city streets.

Mara passed on as much of her education as possible, teaching the boys what they could take in during their lunches and afternoons together. Luke was her least cooperative pupil. She taught him to spell his name and do simple math, but not much else. He had no desire to “book learn,” but did understand the advantages of learning the basics. Alvin and Pete actually took books and read them just to make Mara happy. They saw the value of reading, writing, and math in their working-class world. These were valuable skills not often found among those in their class, and would probably serve them well. But only Jake had an interest in a real education. He loved to debate philosophy and politics with Mara while, in turn, giving her all those nuggets of information about the working masses that awed her tutor. He also devoured books, reading at night. Calvin, who shared a room with him, teased him constantly about wanting to be above his station in life, but the teasing was in good humor, so Jake just smiled and kept on reading.

 

*****

 

A favorite time of the year for the Markham family was the two-and-a-half months they spent at Rochcliffe House in the summer. The house, a castle really, was big enough to accommodate all of the viscount’s family as well as his brother’s family. Despite so many people under one roof, they all usually behaved fairly well in each other’s company. For Mara, she hated leaving Luke and Pete behind to once again fend for themselves.

Much of the London staff came along as well, since doubling the family size doubled the work for the servants. Being the stable hand, Jake had to go, and Alvin convinced Rory that he needed to go to learn about the plants and flowers of the various regions of England to be the best gardener in the British Isles. Rory laughed, and sent him along with the family to the country estate.

Lord Markham spent quite a bit of time wandering the countryside doing business with the landed gentry in the area. Mara really didn’t know much about her father’s business dealings, but he talked about land and development and factories and banking every night at the dinner table.

During the day, she spent most of her time at the stables with Calvin, Jake, and the horses. She named her horse Hebe, after the daughter of Zeus, the Greek Goddess of youth. Zeus was her father’s horse. Most people didn’t understand the history lesson in the names.

Jake usually rode a mount called Python, and Calvin rode Angelo, short for Michelangelo, which was too large a name for the poor coachman to wrap his tongue around. Both Python and Angelo doubled as the carriage horses.

“Why can’t I ride straddling the horse like you do?” Mara asked Calvin one day, as they were saddling up to ride around the estate.

“Cause you’re a lady, and ladies ride sidesaddle.”

“That’s a dumb answer. Sidesaddle is uncomfortable and hard. I think I should be able to ride straddling the horse.” Mara hated sidesaddles, and hated being a lady even more.

“And just how do you think ye’d look with your skirt all over the place showing off your bloomers riding like a man?” Calvin cocked an eyebrow at the eleven-year-old Mara.

“Free.”

“That don’t make no sense to me. You be free already. Jake and me be the slaves around here!”

Mara shrugged her shoulders, knowing she would not win this battle with Calvin.

As they rode out around the estate, Mara stopped Jake, letting Calvin go ahead.

“Trade me horses.”

“Huh?”

“Trade me horses!”

“What? And make me ride sidesaddle? No way!”

“Why? You make me ride sidesaddle all the time.”

“But you’re a girl. You’re supposed to ride sidesaddle.”

“I hate it. Give me your horse!”

They sat there on Python and Hebe, staring each other down—the tall, lanky stable boy and the fat little mistress of the manor.

She won.

With a huff, Jake dismounted Python, and reached up to help Mara off Hebe.

“I’m not helping you up. You want to ride in a man’s saddle, then put yourself into it.”

She grabbed the reins from his hand, giving him a dirty look. For years, she had watched men mount horses. It didn’t look too hard. However, Mara realized immediately that she wasn’t tall enough to put her foot in the stirrup to even start the process. She needed a mounting block. She turned around to ask Jake for help, only to find he’d already mounted Hebe and followed Calvin, uncomfortably sitting astride, trying to keep himself from being impaled on the horn, taking out the family jewels.

“Fine!” she yelled after him. “Fine,” she muttered to no one in particular.

She looked around the trees for a stump, big rock, or anything else she could use as a mounting block. She spotted a stump up ahead, and walked Python over to it. She then pulled Python up to the stump, climbed on top, and put her foot in the stirrup. Grabbing the horn, she pulled herself up and over, swinging her leg just like she had seen the men do a thousand times. “So there!” she yelled after Jake.

Mara moved around a bit in the saddle, not used to the feel of the saddle between her thighs. Suddenly, she realized her feet were not in the stirrups. Jake stood a good ten inches taller than she, and he was mostly legs. She’d never reach those stirrups.

“Damn him,” she muttered under her breath, knowing her mother would be mortified if she heard her daughter swear. Spending time with the orphan boys had given her a more colorful lingual education than Miss Perkins could provide.

So with her feet dangling free, she clicked her tongue and urged Python forward, holding on with her thighs for dear life, and bravely putting on a game face for the stable hands now waiting for her up ahead.

She walked Python up to them and stopped, staring them down as if to say, See? No big deal. Then she clicked her tongue and continued on her way.

Jake and Calvin looked at each other, and could only smile and follow along.

“She’s certainly got a mind o’ her own!”

Jake watched the proud girl ride away, and had to agree. “That she does, Calvin. That she does.”

Of course she couldn’t walk straight the next day, but she wasn’t about to let them know that. But from then on, Jake put a man’s saddle on Hebe, the stirrups properly adjusted for Mara’s short, fat legs, and they rode together in happiness.

Even in the country, Mara insisted on continuing Alvin and Jake’s lessons. After dinner every evening, the boys met her in the nursery and, surrounded by the toys of childhood, they practiced reading and writing and arithmetic.

 

*****

 

One day, as Mara walked to the stables, her cousin Oakley, five years her senior, saw her and called out, “Hey, fatso. When you going to lose all that weight and stop being such a cow? You’re an embarrassment to the family.”

Alvin was pulling weeds in front of the house, and heard Oakley’s words.

“Well, at least being extra big ain’t as bad as being extra stupid.”

Oakley turned around to see who had just insulted him. Horrified, Alvin realized he had just spoken his thoughts out loud. He dropped his trowel, and ran like the wind around the side of the house. Oakley gave chase.

Mortified, Mara ran to the stables, screaming for help. Calvin, Jake, and one of the estate’s stable hands, Ike, came running out.

“Oakley’s gonna kill him! Stop him!”

Calvin grabbed Mara by the shoulders. “Who, what, where?”

“Alvin just called Oakley stupid, and ran around the house. Oakley is chasing him!”

Calvin pointed around the left. “Ike, go that way. Jake ye’re with me.” And they followed Alvin and Oakley’s trail around the house.

It didn’t take them long to find the two boys, the larger sixteen-year old and the skinny twelve-year old, tussling in the back yard. Oakley had Alvin pinned on the ground, and had just punched him in the chin. But Alvin wasn’t down and out yet. Years on the street had taught him a thing or two about surviving a fight. He had a hold of Oakley’s other wrist, and twisted it brutally just as Oakley drew back to hit him again.

“Owwwwwwwwwww,” howled Oakley, as he rolled off Alvin. The younger boy quickly popped up and was about to deliver a vicious kick when Calvin caught him from behind, lifting him in the air.

“Enough, you two! Enough!”

Oakley stood up to lunge at the now-trapped Alvin; Jake tackled him from the side. Ike went after Jake to keep the boy from also diving into the fray. Between the three of them, they finally managed to separate Oakley and Alvin.

Calvin put Alvin down again, holding him tight around the chest with his sinewy arm.

By this time, Mara had come trotting up, puffing heavily from the exertion.

Oakley tried to pull away from Ike and Jake, who each had a hold of one of his arms. “That no good son of a bitch called me stupid!”

“Well, that’s because you are!” yelled Alvin, also straining to break free.

“How dare you insult me, the son of the viscount!”

“And how dare you insult Miss Mara, the granddaughter o’ a viscount!”

“Well, she is fat! I am just telling the truth!”

“She is also the nicest person in this family, so you have no need to be calling her fat!”

“Boys, BOYS!” yelled Calvin, trying to keep them from screaming at each other. “This stops here and now! Lord Oakley, I suggest you stop insulting your cousin. And you, young man,” he gave Alvin a good shake, “had better learn your manners and position!” With his arm still around Alvin’s waist, Calvin half carried, half dragged the kicking boy off toward the stables, thinking a dunking in the horses’ trough would cool him off.

Oakley shook Ike off him, but had a harder time shaking off Jake. Jake squeezed his arm tighter and leaned in close. “I hear you ever call her fat again and I will rip you apart limb from limb.” The low, threatening tone of Jake’s voice caught Oakley by surprise, and frightened him a little. Jake threw down Oakley’s arm and walked over to Mara.

“Come, Miss Mara. I will take you riding.” Mara took his arm and, before walking away from her cousin, turned around and stuck her tongue out at him.

“Master Oakley,” started Ike, “best if you—”

“Oh, shut up!” snapped Oakley, as he stomped off toward the house in a huff. Ike shrugged his shoulders and followed the others back to the stables.

Calvin arrived back at the stables with a still belligerent and shouting Alvin tucked under one arm. He promptly threw the lad into the trough, hoping the cold water would cool off his temper.

“Are you daft, you idiot? Do you realize that boy could get you fired in an instant? What the hell did you think you were doin’?”

Alvin sputtered, and tried to pull himself up out of the water. “That no good son o’ a bitch needs to learn to keep his yap shut!”

Calvin pushed Alvin back into the trough. “NO! you need to learn to keep your stinking yap shut! you wanna be back on the streets o’ London by morning? That kinda behavior will get you fired, you little arse. And you best learn not to talk back to me, either! you got that, mister?”

Alvin finally decided it was wiser to comply. “Yes, sir,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Whaddya say, boy?”

“Yes, sir!” shouted Alvin.

Calvin stomped off, incredibly angry at the boy for forgetting his place. He knew the master would be talking to him by nightfall.

Jake, Ike, and Mara had arrived, and stood silently watching Calvin put Alvin in his place. Once Calvin walked off, Ike followed, leaving the three children to their own devices. Jake put out his hand to Alvin to help him out of the trough.

“Shit heads. They all be shit heads.”

“El, be quiet. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”

Mara finally spoke up, and threw her arms around the wet boy. “I think you are brave and gallant. Thank you. Thank you for defending me.”

Alvin put his arms around Mara to hug her back, soaking her through. He kissed her forehead, and gave Jake a sideways grin. “Angel, that almost makes it worth it.”

“Hey, man. You had better find some dry clothes. Mara’s will probably dry out as we ride. And if I were you, Al, I’d hide out in the bushes for the rest of the day. Maybe the rest of the summer. The last thing I want is to see you on the receiving end of a whip.”

“Blimey. You think that arse is gonna get me whipped?”

Jake shrugged his shoulders. “The lord whipped me for far less.”

Mara realized the danger Alvin was in, and decided she had better talk to her father and uncle before Oakley did. Neither was home at the moment, but all hell could break loose when they arrived.

After her daily ride, Mara sat on the stoop of the house and waited for the men to arrive home.

As they pulled up in the phaeton just before dinner, she ran up to meet them.

“Father, Uncle Cecil. How was your day?” she asked politely, giving a deep curtsey.

Her father looked at his daughter in puzzlement. She never greeted him. What was this about?

“Fine, Mara, just fine,” boomed her uncle, giving her a deep bow back.

“Father, Uncle Cecil. May I ask a question?”

“Of course,” the viscount replied. He stood in front of her, hands on hips, with a smile on his face.

“If a woman is insulted, should a man stand up for her?”

“Well, of course, my girl, of course! It is a man’s duty to protect the honor of a woman.”

“Any man or any woman, even if they aren’t in the peerage or related?”

“I am sure that even commoners want to protect their women from insult. After all, men must protect the weaker sex, whether they are related to them or not.”

Lord Markham quickly became impatient with this exchange, and cut in. “Why are you asking all these silly questions?”

“Father,” Mara paused, wanting to phrase her words carefully. “Today Oakley insulted me by calling me fatso, and a cow, and an embarrassment to the family.” She turned red repeating the words, and bowed her head, as she continued. “And when one of the gardeners who overheard the insults tried to defend my honor, Oakley started a fist fight with him. I thought it was gallant and brave for the gardener to come to my aid, but I don’t think Oakley saw it that way.”

Markham became very angry, not at Oakley but at the servant. “Do I have to whip that Abbot again?”

“Father, it wasn’t Abbot, it was our apprentice gardener, Alvin Bitters. He’s the one who valiantly came to my defense. Talk to Ike and Calvin, too. They will confirm that I am telling the truth.”

The viscount put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you for telling us your side of the story, Mara. Oakley should never have said those horrible things to you. We’ll see what we can do. Now run along.”

As soon as she walked out of earshot, Markham turned to his brother. “I’d find out Oakley’s side of the story before making any decisions. Mara’s too close to the servants for her own good. She protects them ferociously, whether they need protection or not. She stopped me from whipping the stable hand who stole from Edwin by telling me she took the items herself. I still don’t know if I believe her.”

“They’re all just children, Evelyn, and boys will be boys. However, Oakley shouldn’t be saying those things to Mara. But we don’t need our servants fist fighting with our children, either. Let’s hear Oakley’s side before we pass judgment.”

Mara had rationally stated her case, with calm conviction. Oakley, on the other hand, told his side of the story in a profanity-laced rant. He denied insulting Mara, stating that Alvin had insulted him for no reason. Markham wanted to whip the gardener, but the viscount decided to first talk to Ike and Calvin to hear their side of the story. He questioned them separately, and each confirmed that Oakley admitted to calling Mara fat.

Convinced that Oakley had lied about not insulting Mara, the viscount decided to lay the matter to rest. Markham was furious, but eventually the storm settled, and the summer continued on without further incident.

And from then on, year after year, Jake, Alvin and Mara did their best to avoid the male Markham cousins to keep the peace at the estate.

 

Chapter 8

 

As time went by, Jake and Alvin came to trust the adults around them, and began to tell them about life at the orphanage. The servants were shocked to learn about the extreme cruelty of Percy Snellings, the director, and the horrible life the orphans had to endure. About a year after they were hired, the boys knew they had to intervene for Pete and Luke, who were on the cusp of being sold to the highest bidder.

“Calvin?”

The older man looked up from cleaning one of the horse’s hooves, and saw Jake and Alvin standing there.

Oh, oh. Looks like trouble, he thought.

“We need to ask you a great favor.”

Yup. Definitely trouble. “What is it?”

Jake didn’t know how to broach the subject of finding work for Luke and Pete. “Um…we need more jobs.”

“Well, you could start by cleaning out the tack boxes, and determining what is still useful and what needs to be repaired or replaced. And I am sure the garden isn’t completely weed-free, Mr. Bitters.” Calvin always had a list of a hundred jobs to do around the estate. What was that youngster talking about?

“No, no. I mean, sure, yes, I can do that. But I am not talking about me and Al.” Calvin looked up again, now really wondering what the boys were up to. “Luke and Pete need apprenticeships that won’t kill them, and won’t put any money in Snellings’ pockets, either.”

“Ah. So I am to come to the rescue once again, am I? You two ain’t enough? I gotta save everyone else, too?” But Calvin wasn’t really angry. He had known this request would come eventually, as Jake and Alvin were very passionate about their friends and wanting to save them from that terrible orphanage.

Alvin’s concern showed in his face. “Mr. Calvin, the situation is very grave, you see. They is growin’ to the age where Snellings will sell them out in an instant, and we dinna want them hurt since they be our friends.” Calvin rolled his eyes. That boy was too sincere for his own good.

“Now Al, I dinna say I was not gonna help! Don’t get your hackles all ruffled, boy!”

Jake and Alvin stood there with huge grins on their faces. Calvin rolled his eyes again. Why couldn’t he ever say no to these two? He swore he was becoming as silly as an old woman when it came to his boys. His boys! Listen to him. Now he was thinking of them as his boys. What was he coming to?

He sighed a deep sigh. “I’ll do what I can. Bring them by so I can see them proper.” Alvin ran over and gave Calvin a big hug, nearly knocking the man off his feet. “Okay, okay, out with you now! Out!” Alvin ran out, leaving Jake staring at Calvin with that same wide grin on his face. “You too! Get to work on those tack boxes!”

“Yes, sir!” Jake plopped down by the nearest box, and happily whistled as he started his task.

 

*****

 

Calvin stuck to his word. He, along with Rory and Basil, scoured the neighborhood, looking for appropriate work for Pete and Luke. Based on the current size of Pete’s wrists, hands, and feet, they knew he would grow up to be a big man, and could handle real labor. However, Luke presented a problem as he was a true runt, and not sturdy enough for physical labor which would probably kill him.

They spent the next few weeks talking to every shop owner and businessman or woman within a ten-block area of the estate. Surprisingly, they found work for twelve-year-old Luke first, in a cobbler shop. Luke would learn to make boots and shoes, a profession that didn’t depend on a man’s size. And that suited Luke just fine. The math skills he had acquired would come in handy. The cobbler needed someone who knew how to work numbers while measuring feet, and he was very pleased with his new apprentice.

Of course, Snellings was livid when Luke disappeared one day. After Jake had disappeared, he called the constabulary to report Jake’s assault on him. Snellings’ nose was still crooked because of that punch. But with Luke, he didn’t think a call to the constabulary was worth the trouble.

Finding a job for Pete turned out to be more problematic. But two weeks after the men started the search, they met with success ten blocks away. A local smithy needed a strong young man to help out with the billows and the heavy lifting. So Pete skipped off to the blacksmith’s, happy to be free of the orphanage.

Snellings fumed. Two runaways in a few days! He decided to beat a few more snotty brats over the course of the next week just to make sure no one else put ideas in their heads about running away. Little did he know his days as the director of the Queen’s Children’s Home were numbered.

 

Chapter 9

 

With Pete and Luke now safe from Snellings, the boys did not hold back in describing to the other servants how horrid the orphanage was. They had nothing left to protect.

Jesse finally couldn’t take it anymore. “Termins,” she said to the butler one day, “isn’t there something we can do about that orphanage? I can’t stand the idea of all them poor babies being beat and starved like that, and that horrid Percy Snellings making a mint off our queen’s generosity.”

“I don’t like it either, Jesse, but what do you think we servants can do about it?”

“Call in the constabulary?”

“And what will they do? Snellings already seems capable of passing inspection. I’m sure he knows how to deal with the constabulary.”

“Maybe we just need to do something ourselves.”

Termins became irritated with Jesse. “Like what? We have no power in this situation. There is nothing we can do!”

Jesse refused to be thwarted. She decided to approach Jake. At fifteen, he was now big enough and old enough to do something about it. And, as a product of the orphanage, Jake would think of something.

“Wow, Jesse,” he exclaimed when she talked to him. “You think we’re gonna invade it or something? We’re just a bunch of boys.”

“Oh, sure. you whine and complain about it and tell us all these nasty stories, but you won’t do anything about it. Well, Jacob Abbot, I believed you had a backbone, but you are just as spineless as a baby jellyfish, you are! So just shut your yap about the whole bloody subject, ’cause I ain’t listenin’ no more!” With that, she turned her back, and left a steaming Jake in her wake.

That did it. No one would ever get away with calling him spineless!

He ran after Jesse and grabbed her by the arm. “All right, we’ll do something, but you’ll have to convince the entire staff to support this, and you have to pay attention to me. You want me do something? Well, then, I am in charge of it!”

Jesse smiled. Men are so easily manipulated, she thought.

 

*****

 

Jake arranged for the children to all meet the next night. He rode out that afternoon to the cobbler shop and the smithy to fetch the boys.

Luke and Pete had to sneak in the main gate, as only Luke could still fit through the old north gate. The five of them sat in the copse, the chilly late September evening air enveloping them. Lilac sat across Luke’s lap and let him scratch her belly.

“We gotta come up with a plan to shut down Snellings and find a better director for that place. We need to have proof of all he is doing, and use it against him.”

“I asked Miss Perkins what it was called when a witness wrote a report for the constabulary,” piped up Mara. “It is called an affidavit.”

“Half a David? That’s a weird name for a report!”

“Not half a David, you nitwit, affidavit.”

Luke still didn’t understand. Sounded like half a David to him. He stuck his tongue out at Mara, who stuck hers out at him.

“Anyway,” interrupted Jake, “we all need to write an affidavit of our experiences at the orphanage—what we saw, who Snellings sold and where, who he beat, the food situation, all that stuff. We need to have enough evidence to prove our point.”

“You want me to write? That’ll take me forever!” moaned Luke.

“You can dictate to me and I will write for you,” Mara replied. “You’ll just need to sign the papers.”

“What’s Dick take, and where’s he taking it?”

“You are so ignorant!” There went the tongues again. Jake rolled his eyes. This was like planning to take over a coconut tree with a bunch of monkeys.

 

*****

 

The crew enlisted the help of all the orphans still under Snellings’ watch. Since Jake couldn’t risk being seen by Snellings, Luke had to go back and recruit the work force. He whispered to one of the older boys to have as many of the orphans as possible meet them in a park a few blocks away just after dinner on Friday, and they’d explain everything.

Jake, Luke, Pete, and Alvin waited on a park bench as the orphans trickled in a few at a time. About twenty showed up altogether. Many of them remembered Jake, and had been in the meal hall when he slugged Snellings last year. He was a bit of a folk hero to them.

“Wow, mate. You be alive! We’ve been wonderin’ about you for months!”

“What’s this all about?”

“Where have you all been? You all just disappeared!”

“We thought ye’d be dead by now!”

“You look good, mates. What you been doin’ all this time?”

The questions came in rapid succession, with a dozen conversations going on at once.

Jake finally held up his hand to silence everyone. “We are here to lead an invasion of the orphanage, and rid the place of Snellings once and for all.”

The orphans stood in stunned silence, and then started yelling and clapping.

Jake held his hand up again to quiet them down. “And we need your help.” The children looked around at each other, nodding their heads in assent and smiling. “As you know, Luke, Pete, Al, and I can’t show our faces in the orphanage anymore, so you all have to be our eyes and ears.”

He had their attention now.

 

*****

 

Each evening, Mara and Jake waited in the copse for the orphans to come with their reports. The boys had shown them the secret entrance under the bushes, so they could come and go without detection. The orphans had arranged to follow Snellings, the cook, the delivery man, and other adults around to gather evidence of their activities. They changed places often so the adults wouldn’t become suspicious. Plus, by their very circumstances, the orphans were already good at sneaking around and hiding in small places.

Mara wrote it all down hurriedly in strange shorthand only she could decipher. After her morning lessons, she transcribed it all neatly onto nice writing paper. She was aghast at the cruel and barbaric activities going on in the place. It was worse than the boys had let on.

Mara and the boys always took food with them to the copse, using newly-sewn bags made from napkins. They gave food as payment for the information, and the orphans were very grateful.

Within three weeks, they had compiled a vast amount of evidence, with names, dates, and places. With the affidavits from the four older boys, they felt they were ready to move. Mara put the evidence neatly together in a package.

They first let Termins read the document. They then briefed all the staff late one night as they gathered in the dining room, the Markhams having left for a dinner party. Only Calvin and Jake were missing, as they had to take the lord and lady to the event.

Mara slowly read each report and each day’s activities to the staff, who responded with gasps, moans, and cries.

Each morning, the delivery cart arrived at the orphanage with the day’s allotment of food. The food came from Buckingham Palace, straight from the royal kitchens. The cook pulled about one-quarter of the vegetables and flour from the wagon for the orphans; sometimes the staff took a single carton of meat. The wagon crew delivered the rest to various taverns in neighborhoods several blocks away. The orphans had no problem asking people on the street the names of the taverns and the tavern owners receiving the rations.

Once a week, the orphans followed Percy Snellings as he rode from tavern to tavern and collected money from the owners as payment for the food deliveries.

One bold orphan actually asked a tavern owner who that man was and was told, “Mr. Cannon, the food merchant. He’s a good man to deal with. Always on time. Always good quality food. Always a good price.”

A shipment of clothing came in from the ladies’ guild while they were on the case. The head mistress picked through it for a few items, but most of them ended up at a clothing store several blocks away. A few days later, the boys followed Snellings back to the store where he received money from the proprietor.

 

*****

 

The worst stories were about the children being beaten and sold.

Jake and Mara interviewed the orphans as they came to the copse, and recorded all the eyewitness accounts from as far back as the children could remember.

Snellings sold boys all around the city. He spent a good part of each week riding around to merchants, extolling the virtues of the boys in his orphanage. He didn’t receive much for them, as there were always neighborhood boys available to take many of the available jobs.

Girls were always sold to the brothels. They brought the best prices, as young girls were always a commodity for which gentlemen would pay a premium. The horrified women on the Markham staff put their hands over their mouths when they heard this, tears streaming down their cheeks. Mara read the list of girls’ names, their ages, and the places they went. Most were gone from the orphanage by the age of twelve or thirteen.

What no one knew, however, was what happened to the money.

Snellings’ apartment was on the third floor of the building that housed the orphanage, and any orphan found near it would receive a severe beating. Therefore, none took the risk.

But they all realized someone would have to sneak inside to see what was going on. Jake had told Mara that he and Alvin would probably have to break into the apartment to get the evidence they needed. They weren’t sure how the servants would feel about committing the crime of breaking and entering, so they decided to ask them.

The staff agreed the break-in was necessary. They talked for a while about how best to break into Snellings’ apartment. They finally concluded that Jake and Alvin had to do it while Snellings was on his tavern run, and the other orphans would need to distract the cook and head mistress. A plan began to form. Mara sat back, thrilled that the adults were taking a major role in the rescue mission. This just might work, she thought.

The first thing the boys would have to do was pick a lock. Since no one knew how to do that, Basil dismantled a door knob from one of the guest rooms and took it to the stables. He, Jake, and Alvin worked on it for several days, figuring out how the locking mechanism worked. They then reassembled it and spent a couple more days trying to pick it using their newfound knowledge. They tried every manner of tool on the estate. Pete and Luke brought in tools from the smithy and the cobbler shop as well. Alvin finally succeeded in picking the lock with one of the cobbler tools used to pull laces through small holes.

After that, nothing could him. Within the week, Alvin could pick every lock in the house in under a minute. Jake could also pick them, but it took him three times longer. Basil didn’t even try. Alvin became a lock-picking expert.

Lord Markham noticed a difference in his staff that week. They were everywhere at once, and very distracted. He saw them hanging out in hallways, and they seemed to be watching him and Lady Maureen more closely than usual. When he questioned Termins, he just mumbled something about cabin fever and the staff needing fresh air.

They waited until Thursday, all the while continuing to gather information from the orphans who were still trailing the adults at the orphanage. Mara’s package now had a full month’s worth of information, places, and dates.

 

*****

 

Jake and Alvin positioned themselves on the corner two buildings away from the Queen’s Children’s Home, both wearing dark clothes and hats with wide brims to hide their faces. At nine o’clock sharp, Snellings left the attached stable on horseback, and rode past the boys on the way to his rounds. About five minutes later, a small girl walked up to them and told them to come with her.

As they followed her to the back door, they heard a commotion inside the building.

“They be havin’ a big fight,” the little girl whispered as she let them in. “We are all going to pretend to be in it.” And off she ran to join in the melee.

Jake and Alvin wasted no time finding the back stairs, and climbed silently to the top floor. Alvin knelt in front of the door, while Jake looked down the staircase.

In seconds, Alvin had picked the lock, and they were in, closing the door behind them. “El,” said Jake, “I hope you remain a gardener and don’t take up a new profession.”

“Blimey, man. I don’t think I wanna do this for a living. My heart couldn’t take it.”

They looked around the apartment. It was very well appointed. In fact, it was full of expensive furniture, paintings, and accessories. It was more richly decorated than the Markham home. Jake and Alvin were astonished. The orphans lived like rats, while the orphan master lived like a king.

After shaking off their initial shock, the two boys made their way to the study, and searched through all the drawers, looking for something that would lead them to the money.

Alvin opened a cabinet, and found an entire stack of ledgers on the bottom shelf.

“Look at these!”

“Oh, my God. These go back for years.”

“The arse’s wrote every penny.”

“Jackpot!”

“This ain’t the most current one.”

“Let’s just grab one of the recent ones, and get out of here!”

“This one is from January through April of this year.”

“Perfect, hand it to me.”

Jake tucked the thin book into the back of his pants, and pulled his shirt over it.

Alvin opened the door slowly, peeking out to make sure no one wandered the hallway. Seeing nothing but open space, the two boys crept down the stairs and out the back door, and then ran like the devil was on their tail.

 

Chapter 10

 

Now it was up to Mara.

“Mother?”

“Yes, my dear?” Lady Maureen sat in the parlor, working on some needlepoint.

“I need to speak with you about the Queen’s Children’s Home. Do you know about it?”

“Of course, child. It is one of the charities our ladies’ guild sponsors. How did you hear about it?”

“Jake and Alvin came from there.”

“Who?” Lady Maureen didn’t even look up from her task.

Mara blew out air in frustration. She sometimes wondered if her mother even lived here. “Jacob Abbot, our stable hand, and Alvin Bitters, our gardener apprentice.”

“Oh, yes! I didn’t know they had come from there. We did a lovely thing then, hiring them.”

“Yes, we did a lovely thing,” mocked Mara, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, Mother, I have a tale to tell, and I need your undivided attention, so please put down your needlepoint for a while.”

Lady Maureen complied, looking at her daughter and wondering for the umpteenth time how she was ever going to find a husband for this poor, fat child.

“Mother, I want to read you an affidavit. Please bear with me, as it is rather long, but you need to hear it all.”

Just as she had with the staff, Mara read the entire report to her mother.

When she read the part about the brothels, her mother stood up, dropping her needlepoint to the floor. “NO! NO!”

Mara smiled inwardly. She had her mother now. She finished reading the report, as her mother paced around the room. “Mother, I want to do something. I want to put Mr. Snellings in jail. I want a real director put in charge who will take care of the children. I need your help, though.”

“Did all this come from Jacob and Alvin?”

“No, the other orphans have been gathering the information for us. We sent them out to follow Mr. Snellings and the other adults in order to compile this report.”

“I haven’t seen any children in here. On our grounds? Where have you been meeting them?”

“They crawled through a hole in the wall next to the old north gate, and met me in my little copse. I then took notes and wrote the final report.”

Lady Maureen stared at her daughter amazed that the girl wanted to help the orphans, and that she had come up with a plan to collect all the information. Miss Perkins always told her Mara was the smartest of her three children, and Lady Maureen began to believe it.

“Of course. What do you want me to do? I assume you have a plan worked out”

“Yes. We need you to arrange for Jacob to meet with the queen’s inspector. We want him to have all the evidence so he can do something about Mr. Snellings.”

“My pleasure.”

 

Chapter 11

 

Not only did Lady Maureen stick to her word, she did even more than promised.

Several days later, a letter arrived for her from the palace.

They were not just going to meet with the inspector; they had an audience with the queen herself! The head of the ladies’ guild, Lady Patricia, the Countess of Bute, was a first cousin to the queen. She arranged for the audience with Queen Charlotte.

Lady Maureen immediately launched into action. She had until ten o’clock the following morning to prepare young Jacob to appear before royalty.

As soon as she read the letter, she told Termins to ready Peaches and a horse for Jake, as they had some shopping to do. In fifteen minutes, they were out the gate and on their way to a clothing shop. The tailor fitted Jake for a completely new outfit: pants, shirt, jacket, and even stockings. Lady Maureen paid a premium to have them tailored and at the house by eight that night.

As the tailor measured Jake, Mara’s mother looked at the boy closely for the first time. He was a handsome young man. He had a strong, square jaw and a well-formed Roman nose. There was a slight cleft in his chin that made her want to touch it. His lips were full, and his cheeks had the images of dimples. She was sure his smile must be deadly. He had a full head of wavy, dark-blond hair, tied back. She noted long eyelashes surrounding intense and intelligent hazel eyes. And he was tall. Lady Maureen imagined this boy could hold his own in the aristocracy if only he had been born to the right parents.

Next, Lady Maureen dragged Jake to a barber, where he winced as they cut off his ponytail. Blimey, it’s gonna take me a couple of years to grow that back! he thought. But the professional haircut did feel nice.

The last stop was at a cobbler shop—unfortunately not the one where Luke worked. This cobbler had ready-made shoes, and Jake tried on several pair before finding one that would work.

“A bit too tight, but they will do in a pinch!” he declared, and then smiled a big, crooked smile.

After a short pause, everyone in hearing distance laughed heartily. Lady Maureen looked at the disarming grin on her stable hand’s face and thought, yes, this one is definitely a charmer!

Upon returning home, she ordered Jake a hot bath and scrub himself from top to bottom. He was mortified when Lady Maureen came in to personally scrub his nails and make sure they were spotless. Jake sat there with his legs pulled tight to his chest in the tin tub, trying to hide his privates, as she tortured the ends of his fingers. She also cleaned behind his ears for good measure.

The staff just laughed.

The clothes arrived just before eight.

The next morning, Jake, looking clean and handsome in his new suit, drove Lady Maureen in the phaeton to the palace. They arrived with time to spare before their audience. Lady Maureen spent that time making Jake practice his bow and introduction. Jake was thankful he was only a stable hand, as he couldn’t stand to do this every day.

“Stop playing with your collar, Jacob!”

Jake dropped his hands. That stiff collar choked him.

Lady Patricia arrived about ten minutes before the audience. Jake practiced his bow and introduction on her.

“M’lady,” he said bowing deeply, kissing the back of her hand, “it is my pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Who is this handsome young man, Maureen? Surely not one of your sons!”

“Oh, no, Lady Patricia. This is our stable hand, Jacob. He is one of the orphans from the Children’s Home. He is here to give the inspector and our queen the report on Mr. Snellings’ dishonesty.”

Doesn’t look like a stable hand to me, thought Lady Patricia. None of my servants are that good looking, or that well-dressed!

In no time at all, the inspector, Albert Biggs, joined them, and they were called into the throne room to meet the queen.

The opulence of the room astonished Jake. The entire nation could be fed for a year on the wealth contained in that one room!

The floor was marble, inlaid in an intricate pattern of many colors. A long, single Persian runner carpeted the length of the room from the door to the throne divan. Columns with gold inlay stood like sentinels along the runner, creating alcoves behind which chairs and settees were placed for those waiting to see the king or queen. Along the walls were paintings from various masters.

Jake was awed and quite overcome by the room alone. Facing the queen would probably be the death of him. His knees shook, and he barely breathed. He prayed he wouldn’t pass out or throw up.

He nervously followed the ladies up the aisle, forcing his shaky legs to move forward. He certainly didn’t want to embarrass Lady Maureen, since that would probably result in his earning another whipping. Facing the queen had to be easier than that!

They arrived at the two thrones. Queen Charlotte sat regally in one of the lavish chairs. The other remained empty. Both Lady Patricia and Lady Maureen curtsied deeply; Jake and Biggs followed suit with their bows. They each, in turn, stepped up on the divan, kissed the queen’s ring, and then backed down the steps onto the floor. Step one completed flawlessly.

“Well, Patricia, I understand you have some upsetting news about the Children’s Home,” she said in a soft and feminine voice. Jake relaxed a bit. She wasn’t an ogre after all.

“Yes, my queen. I received this news from Lady Maureen Markham, who learned of it from her stable hand, a boy who lived in the Children’s Home for six years. If it would please you, your majesty, I will let Lady Maureen tell you her story.”

“It pleases me.” Queen Charlotte focused on Lady Maureen.

“Your majesty,” Lady Maureen began deferentially, “my daughter came to me with this information, and I decided I had to do something about it. Mr. Snellings is abusing these children horribly by starving them, beating them, and selling them to the highest bidder. I could not stand by and allow your youngest and most vulnerable citizens to be treated thusly.”

The queen raised an eyebrow, and looked at her inspector. “What do you know of this, Mr. Biggs? Have you observed this behavior?”

“Why no, my queen. I check the home twice a year, and the orphans have always told me they are treated well.”

“That’s because we were forced to, under threat of a severe beating!”

The adults had forgotten the stable hand was in the room, and looked at him now in disbelief at this breach of etiquette. Lady Maureen quickly tried to cover his poor manners.

“My queen, please forgive the boy for his outburst. He is a product of the Children’s Home, and is here as an eyewitness. He is now a servant at our home, and is not trained in the ways of the aristocracy.”

The queen nodded to Lady Maureen to acknowledge her statements, and then turned toward Jake, who neither looked nor spoke like a servant.

“Come closer, young man. Tell me your name.”

“Jacob Abbot, at your service, my queen.” He bowed once again, like Lady Maureen had taught him. “Forgive my outburst, but I have lived through the horror they call the Queen’s Children’s Home, and only wish to keep other children from experiencing that same misery.”

“It is not—” began Biggs.

The queen put up her hand. “I will listen to this young man, inspector.”

Biggs bowed his head, and remained silent.

The queen nodded at Jake. “Mr. Abbot, I will listen to your account.”

Jake took a deep breath, and began telling his story. He had the report in his hands, but he did not read it. Instead, he spoke to the queen from his heart about what he had experienced at the home. He began with his own background, and how he had come to be a resident there. He told tales of being starved, beaten, having to steal to survive, being sold to the fish market, hitting Snellings and running, and being hired by Calvin and Rory. He did not mention his initial meeting with Mara, or the existence of Luke and Pete. But otherwise, he kept his account accurate and passionate. Talking to the queen accomplished more than reading the report ever could.

The queen sat quietly, listening to this articulate young man eloquently chronicle the wrongdoings of the director of the Queen’s Children’s Home. His tale held her spellbound.

As Jake spoke, Albert Biggs saw his position slipping away from him. If even half of this boy’s tale was true, he had missed everything.

At the end, Jake held out the report and the ledger. “Here is the proof of Mr. Snellings’ illegal activities.”

The queen began to read the ledger.

“If it pleases the queen,” Biggs began, now trying to save his own backside, “I would like to ask the boy a question.”

“Of course.” She nodded her permission, without looking up from her reading.

“Mr. Abbot. Do you have proof of these beatings? Proof that Mr. Snellings beat you?”

“I …”

“Jacob,” Lady Maureen quickly interrupted, “remove your shirt and show the inspector your scars.”

Jake looked at Lady Maureen in disbelief. She knew full well the scars were the result of the beating her husband had delivered, not Snellings.

“Jacob,” she urged again. “I know you are embarrassed by the scarring, but the queen needs to see it.”

Jake had no choice. He removed his jacket, which Lady Maureen took, unbuttoned his shirt, and took it off. He then turned slowly so that all could see the three ugly marks that ran down his back and the one across his chest and shoulder.

The queen looked at Jake’s body, appalled at the damage inflicted on such a young boy. “There is your proof, Mr. Biggs. Any other questions?” her voice no longer soft, but angry.

Biggs tried to look small and insignificant. His question had only made things worse for him, his attempt backfiring royally. “No, your majesty.”

The queen read in silence for a few more minutes, while Jake put his shirt and jacket back on.

The queen then stood. They all bowed low. “Edwards,” she said to her major domo, “find the chief of the constabulary immediately. He will entertain these good people in the yellow parlor. Hand him these documents, and have him arrest Percy Snellings at the Queen’s Children’s Home. And throw Mr. Biggs out of the palace. I am in need of a new inspector.”

With a regal nod of her head, she exited the room through a side door. Everyone stayed bowed low until they heard the door close.

Jake smiled inwardly. He had survived and his queen knew the truth.

 

*****

 

Lady Patricia did not stay to meet with the chief constabulary, Keith Bivens. She had other matters to attend to. And since the inspector had been thrown out of the palace, only Jake and Lady Maureen were escorted to the yellow parlor to await Mr. Bivens’ arrival. They talked a bit while they waited. Jake straightened his clothing.

“M’lady, I do not understand your decision to disrobe me. Those are not scars from Snellings.”

“I know. I never said they were. Neither did you. I simply let everyone draw their own conclusions.”

Jake blinked hard. He learned a lot in that moment.

After hearing Jake speak to the queen, Lady Maureen was now very curious about her servant. “I didn’t realize you were not born a commoner. I am highly impressed by the way you related your story to the queen. You are not uneducated.”

“I can read and write. Not well, though, as my formal education stopped when I was eight. But you are right, I am not common born.”

“Tell me your lineage.”

“I don’t know much. My mother talked about being the granddaughter of a baron, but I don’t know who. Her maiden name was Abrams, if that helps. I didn’t pay much attention to her stories. I was an eight-year-old who just wanted to play with his chums.”

She nodded in understanding. Her own boys couldn’t care less about such things. “Well, you did an excellent job before the queen, Jacob. I am proud of you.”

“Thank you, m’lady.”

When Bivens arrived, they related everything again to him, letting him read the report in its entirety, as well as look through the ledger.

“Lady Maureen, you may return home. I think your role in this is complete. I want to protect you from the rest of the unpleasantries. Mr. Abbot, after you take her home, come to the orphanage. I will meet you outside with a couple of my men, at say”—he glanced at his fob—“five o’clock?”

They nodded in agreement.

The staff waited for their return with a late lunch and baited breath. Lady Maureen and Jake repeated the whole story again as they ate, although they did not mention Jake showing his scars to the queen. That would forever remain their secret.

“You get to be a part of the arrest!” exclaimed Alvin jealously. “I wish I could be there!”

“Why not? Come with me. All they can do is say no”

“YES!”

 

*****

 

At five o’clock, Jake, Alvin, Bivens, and two of his men assembled. They talked a little strategy, then walked into the building.

They were met by one of the orphans who, seeing Jake and Alvin, smiled grandly before running to find the head mistress, Mrs. Williams.

The head mistress looked at the older men appraisingly, seemingly not noticing the boys. “Gentlemen, what can I do for you? The orphanage is not open for business. We take appointments only. May I set an appointment?”

Chief Bivens introduced them all around and demanded to see Mr. Snellings immediately.

Finally recognizing Jake and Alvin, Mrs. Williams sent the group up to the apartment, and then left the building, never to return. It was a very smart move on her part.

The three men and two boys climbed the stairs and stopped at the apartment door. One of the men knocked and yelled, “Open up, Mr. Snellings!”

They could hear scurrying around behind the door. “Open up, Mr. Snellings!” the constable repeated. Still no one came.

“Should I knock it in, gov’nor?” the man asked Bivens.

Before he could answer, Alvin spoke up. “May I?”

Bivens looked down at the thirteen-year-old boy. “And what do you think you can do?”

“Unlock it.”

Bivens raised an eyebrow, but motioned for his man to stand aside. Alvin knelt down in front of the door, pulled out the lacing tool, and in thirty seconds had the door open.

“I’d best not catch you doing that anywhere else, son,” warned Bivens, impressed nonetheless.

Alvin simply smiled.

As prearranged, Jake and Alvin stayed in the hallway until they were called.

They heard the tussle. “Percy Snellings! You are under arrest for theft of the queen’s property, the mistreatment of minors, and the illegal selling of minors.”

“What? Take your bloody hands off me!” The boys instantly recognized the pompous voice of Percy Snellings. “You have no right to be here. This is my apartment. You have no proof of such activities. This is slander! I will have the queen take your heads for this insult.”

“I am not too concerned about that. The queen is the one who sent us!”

“What proof do you have?”

“Boys!”

Jake and Alvin entered the apartment. One of Bivens’ men stood on either side of the red-faced and very agitated Snellings, holding him tight.

Snellings stopped struggling when he saw Jake.

“Abbot, you son of a bitch! Arrest that boy. He assaulted me when he left here last year. Broke my nose, he did. Arrest him!”

Jake held up the ledger. “Don’t think so, Percy. We have all we need to put you away for a very, very long time. I only regret I didn’t hit you hard enough to send you to your grave.”

Alvin had gone to the study during this exchange, and returned with several of the ledgers.

“A very long time, Percy. Nice to see you again, man. you be looking well. But after a few years in the clink, you will be lookin’ more like one of the starving orphans instead.”

Percy hung his head.

 

Chapter 12

 

Life returned to normal, and the months flew by. Jake, Mara, Alvin, Pete, and Luke had their little adventures, but nothing could compare to saving the orphanage. They loved to re-live that escapade over and over again.

Lady Maureen had adopted the Queen’s Children’s Home as her personal project, and made sure the new director was competent and loving. She visited once a month, unannounced, to keep an eye on things.

Life was good for the five English children growing into young adults.

 

*****

 

Lord Markham decided to downsize his staff by one, thinking that his children—now sixteen, fourteen, and twelve—didn’t need a nanny anymore. He gave Cecilia her two-week notice.

The decision horrified Mara.

“Mother, you can’t let Father do this! She is my nanny. I need her!”

“My dear, you are almost a grown girl. You don’t need a nanny anymore.”

“But I need Cecilia. You can’t take her away from me!” said Mara desperately. Cecilia was like a mother to her, more so than her own.

“Some day you will need a ladies’ maid, but that day is still years away. You don’t need anyone right now.”

Despondent, no one could help Mara out of her blue mood.

After overhearing a conversation the staff had in the kitchen about a week later, Mara figured out a way to save Cecilia.

She learned that Nettie decided to marry a local merchant in the spring, and would be leaving the service of the Markhams.

“Mother, Nettie is leaving, so please let Cecilia stay. She can take Nettie’s place until I am old enough for a ladies’ maid, at which time you and Father can hire another maid. Cecilia doesn’t need training; she is well suited for the job, and is well liked by the staff.”

Lady Maureen couldn’t fault her daughter’s logic, and neither could Lord Markham when Lady Maureen took the idea to him. It saved him the expense of having to advertise and interview for a new maid.

Cecilia stayed.

 

*****

 

That summer, little changed in their lives. As usual, they vacationed at Rochcliffe House, where they played and enjoyed being young. Jake and Alvin spent their days doing chores. In the evenings, they met Mara in their nursery hideaway, where she continued to teach them reading, writing, and math.

Alvin had planted and nurtured a beautiful bed of calla lilies. These particular flowers were Mara’s favorite. She spent time daily saying hello to each calla lily, and named them all. Jake thought she was out of her mind, but it flattered Alvin that she loved his work so much.

Jake escorted Lady Maureen and the viscountess on their morning rides through the parkland surrounding the manor house, and Mara on her afternoon rides. He thought it a shame the women didn’t include Mara on their rides and in their lives, but Jake didn’t complain, for that meant he had Mara all to himself every afternoon.

While at the country estate, Calvin would sometimes give Jake and Alvin an afternoon off to enjoy themselves. On such occasions, the boys usually went skinny dipping in the manor pond. Jake had found an old rope a couple of years back, and hung it off one of the large tree branches. He and Alvin spent hours swinging from the rope and doing acrobatics into the water.

One fine day in late June, the boys were enjoying one of their rare days off. Little did they know the manor had a secret visitor.

Mara fumed at having to give up her afternoon ride so the boys could frolic in the water. She was also angry they hadn’t asked her to join them! She told Calvin to saddle Hebe, and rode to the pond by herself. After watching the boys undress and run into the water, she quietly snuck over to take their clothes, shoes, and towels. She pushed the booty into her saddle bags, and smugly rode around the estate on her own, enjoying sweet revenge. She wished she could see the looks on the boys’ faces when they found their items gone!

A couple of hours later, Alvin screeched so loudly Jake thought he’d been bitten by a snake.

“Our clothes! Where be our bloody clothes?”

Jake came running up beside Alvin to look at the bare space. Their items were nowhere in sight. And they both knew who had taken them.

“I am gonna kill her.”

“What do you think we should do?”

Jake started laughing. Mara had certainly had the last laugh in this case. He didn’t think she had it in her to do something like this. He just wondered how long she had watched the two of them swim and swing from the rope. “Hope she received an eyeful,” he chuckled.

Alvin paused, and also started laughing when he realized what Mara must have seen. “Hope she saw me good side!” he joked as he sashayed around showing off his manly wares, which made them both laugh even harder.

The boys could do nothing except start the long trek back to the paddock. They boldly walked down the middle of the horse trail, as there was no one around to see their dripping wet, naked bodies.

They had gone only a hundred yards or so when Jake grabbed Alvin’s arm. “I hear voices. Quick, over here!” He dragged Alvin into some bushes and crouched down, pulling Alvin down with him.

“Wha …?”

Jake put his hand over Alvin’s mouth. “Shhhhh.”

Soon, several riders came into view. The Markham adults, plus Edwin and Bertram, were out for an afternoon ride—an unusual occurrence, and poorly timed. Since Calvin had given Jake the afternoon off, he and Ike had to saddle the six horses by themselves.

Just as the riders were passing by, Alvin moved his foot to better position himself, snapping a twig in half. The sound reverberated like a shot in the woods.

The viscount stopped his horse, and looked toward the noise. He could just make out a human form in the shadows.

“You there. Show yourself!” he commanded.

Alvin dropped his jaw, mortified. Jake stared at him with venom in his eyes.

“I can see you, come out now!” the lord of the manor repeated.

“Sir,” called out Jake, his voice cracking, “please don’t ask me to do that.”

Lord Markham recognized the voice of his footman. “Abbot!” he yelled angrily. “Come out before I have to reprimand you again!”

“Please, sir, I beg of you. That would be a very, very bad idea.”

“Abbot! Don’t make me dismount this horse and come in after you!” Jake recognized the cruelty in that voice, and decided he and Alvin had better do as they were told.

The riders heard some rustling and snapping, and were then shocked to see two naked, wet boys with branches covering their private parts emerge from the bushes. Both boys were red with embarrassment.

The viscountess and Lady Maureen turned their heads and began tittering. Edwin and Bertram snorted out loud, and the viscount threw back his head in uproarious laughter.

Jake took a big breath, stood proudly at his full height, and looked his boss straight in the eye, trying to act unperturbed by the whole awkward situation. “We were swimming in the pond, sir, and someone stole our clothes.”

Both ladies turned their heads back to look at the spectacle, and began to laugh without restraint. Jake and Alvin turned even deeper shades of red.

Even Markham’s mouth began to twitch at the corners at the very amusing and entertaining situation. He sat on Zeus, contemplating how long he should allow his two young servants to sweat and be laughed at.

Alvin finally broke through the mirth in a small and timid voice. “Sir, may we go now?”

The laughter pealed once more, this time Markham joining it with a chuckle.

“Carry on, boys, no need to keep hanging around.” Another round of laughter followed his joke.

Jake and Alvin retreated backwards into the bushes as fast as they could. They crouched down again, waiting until the laughter melted into the distance.

Alvin was livid. He had never been so embarrassed in his life. He stood up and looked in the direction of the retreating riders. “I am gonna kill her when I see her.”

“No you’re not, ‘cause there won’t be anything left of her when I’m done with her.”

“Hey, man, you can’t have all of her! You gotta leave a bit of her for me to kill.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yea, you do.”

“Nope.”

“Yup.”

And thus they argued all the way back to the paddock, as they timidly stepped through the gardens, hiding in the landscape to avoid any more embarrassing encounters.

They finally snuck back into the stables and up into their room without being detected. There, they found their clothes and towels, perfectly folded, lying on their cots, their shoes neatly placed underneath.

As the boys dressed, they plotted their revenge. Once clothed, they went in search of their tormentor. They found her sitting prettily on a bench in the front garden, reading a book.

Mara looked up and smiled sweetly, until she saw the looks on her friends’ faces. They were not amused, and had murder in their eyes. Mara quickly arose from the bench, dropped her book, and started to run. Alvin and Jake easily caught up with her, and grabbed her under her arms, dragging her backwards toward the stables.

Mara began to struggle and call out for help, not knowing what mischief they had in store for her. She soon found out. With a great heave, the boys picked her up and threw her into the horses’ trough.

She came back up from the depths of the cold water, sputtered, and tried to rise up, but Jake held her down in the water, allowing only her now soaking-wet head to remain above. “Jake, let—”

He cut her off. “That, my lovely lady, was not amusing.”

Alvin leaned way over to look her straight in the eye. “Having to face your father buck naked was definitely not amusing, my dear.”

Mara’s eyes grew wide with fear. “My father!” she whispered. Having her father encounter the boys had not been part of her plan. What if Jake received a beating again due to her careless actions?

“How’d you see my father?”

Jake, too, leaned over so that his face, along with Alvin’s, was right on top of hers. “Could it be that your father, mother, brothers, aunt, and uncle decided to take a ride around the grounds? Could it be that they ran into us as we were walking back home? Could it be that we had to stand there dripping wet with only branches covering our tenders while they enjoyed a good laugh at our expense? Could it be that we are now so mortified that we may not be able to show our faces to your family for the rest of the summer? Could it be—”

Mara cut him off. “Tell me this didn’t happen!” She looked back and forth from face to face, and realized that every word they said was true. Now she was mortified.

Jake pushed her head back under the water, and then walked away to let her contemplate her actions and their consequences. Alvin watched to make sure Mara re-emerged from the trough before following Jake into the stables. Mara stood up and watched her two best friends walk away, a look of bitter regret on her face.

It took several days of Mara apologizing, begging, cajoling, and bringing them goodies from the French chef before they talked to her again. It took the rest of the summer at Rochcliffe House before the Markhams stopped laughing every time they saw one the boys. And even then, from time to time over the next few years, either Edwin or Bertram would mock Jake or Alvin, pretending to stand there with branches over their crotches.

This was one prank never to be repeated. Or forgotten.

 

Chapter 13

 

As they arrived at Rochcliffe House one late spring, the Markham family and staff found an unexpected guest at the estate. Lady Sarah Hastings, Lady Bernice’s youngest sister, had come to visit. And since the cousins weren’t there, none of the youngsters complained.

At the age of twenty, Lady Sarah had been forced into an arranged marriage with a much older man, and by twenty-five she found herself rich and widowed. Now twenty-eight, she spent her time on the hunt, her need for male attention insatiable. Lady Bernice didn’t approve of her sister’s behavior and hated the gossip it caused, but she couldn’t very well turn her away, either.

Usually Lady Sarah spent the late summer in the country when the London heat became most unbearable. This year, however, she had dallied with a married man, and decided it would be wise to leave for the countryside immediately rather than face the wrath of his jealous wife.

Rochcliffe House was just the ticket. She usually only spent two weeks with her sister’s family, as she found country living rather dull, with no suitable men to keep her company. But here she was, hiding out, bored to tears after only three days, when the rest of the Markham clan showed up.

Jake had turned seventeen that year, and took on more and more responsibility caring for the horses. He had learned a great deal from Calvin during the past three years, and was a natural with horseflesh. As soon as they arrived at Rochcliffe House, Jake and Calvin began the arduous task of cooling and brushing the horses, cleaning the harnesses and other tack, and putting away the carriage and wagon. Ike, as usual, was there to help.

“Whoa!” said Jake as he put Zeus in his stall. “Who is this beauty?”

“That be Lady Sarah’s horse, Lighting Bolt. Good ol’ Bolt is quite a handful. Only Lady Sarah rides him.”

Jake gave a low appreciative whistle as he walked into Bolt’s stall, talking and cooing as he stroked the huge pure-black horse. He was sleek and muscular, built for racing. Jake fell in love. He’d worked with horses now for over three years and had never seen a more magnificent animal. Bolt made Zeus look like a child’s pony by comparison. Jake’s hands and legs itched to put Bolt through his paces.

 

*****

 

Lady Sarah arose early the day after Evelyn and Maureen had arrived at the estate. She loved an early morning ride on Lightning Bolt. Today was no different.

When she arrived at the stables, she found Bolt’s stall empty. Her horse and Ike were nowhere to be found.

Lady Sarah headed out the open back door of the building, curious about the status of her horse. She arrived at the corral, and was quite surprised at the scene before her.

A handsome young man rode her steed. She watched in amazement as the boy in work clothes put her horse through his paces, his dark blond hair streaming behind him. Bolt had never before allowed a strange saddle on him, and had never allowed anyone but her on his back. She had seen him throw many an accomplished rider over the years. But here was this tall, thin, boy/man riding Bolt around the corral as if they had always been together. She stared in awe.

Jake had awakened earlier than usual, determined to satisfy his itch to ride Lightning Bolt. It took some coaxing, but his tender touch and experienced manner soon had the horse calm enough to take his saddle. He had led Bolt into the corral and spent about ten minutes stroking and talking to the huge beast until he could gently lower himself onto the saddle from a standing position on the fence. Bolt was initially very skittish, trying to unseat the unfamiliar weight and saddle, but soon responded positively to Jake’s calm, soothing voice, and gentle but firm touch.

Jake was exhilarated. This horse was beyond magnificent! He was trained to perfection, rode like a dream, and took to the lead immediately, never hesitating before following Jake’s commands on the reigns. Jake was so focused on riding this majestic animal that he failed to notice Ike coming to watch, followed shortly thereafter by the horse’s mistress.

Lady Sarah walked to the corral fence and leaned on it next to Ike.

He took note of her presence. “Beats me, m’lady. I dinna know how the boy got him to take him, but there you be! Perfection in motion.”

“I agree, Ike. Perfection in motion. Saddle another horse for me. I think that young man and I are going for a ride.”

Ike smiled. “I’ll put you on Python, that be the horse young Jake usually rides.”

“Jake. Is he a cousin to Lady Maureen? I’ve never seen him before.”

Ike laughed. “Good lord, no! Jake be the stable hand for Lady Maureen and Lord Markham. He be just like me, m’lady,” chuckled Ike as he walked off to saddle Python.

Lady Sarah was shocked to learn that Jake was a servant! How could such an accomplished rider and good-looking young man be a servant? She noted his supple young muscles that matched the rippling muscles of Bolt as they rode as one unit. One thing was certain: despite what Ike said, he and this young man were not just alike!

Ike returned a few minutes later with Lady Sarah’s side saddle on Python. He helped her up.

“Yo, Jake!” Ike yelled. “Bring that horse over here!”

Jake looked over at Ike and then at the lovely woman sitting on Python, resplendent in a bronze riding outfit with matching hat and scarf. Ah, he thought, she must be the owner of this wonderful horse!

He rode over and dismounted, giving Lady Sarah a deep bow, just like he’d been taught before his audience with the queen.

“Jacob Abbot, at your service, m’lady. Most people just call me Jake. I apologize for riding Lighting Bolt without your permission, but he is such a beautiful mount, I couldn’t resist.”

She looked at Jake appraisingly, impressed by his command of the Queen ’s English and lack of common accent. “Since Bolt allowed you to ride him, I forgive you. Mount back up. I want to see you handle him on the open road.”

Jake smiled broadly. Yes! Full gallop on this horse would be like riding the wind. He couldn’t wait, and eagerly mounted again.

Lady Sarah took note of that striking smile over those perfect white teeth, and smiled back. Without a backward glance, she led them down the drive and out of sight.

Once on the main road, she looked at the boy/man on her steed, and egged him on. “I’ll race you!”

Jake needed no more encouragement. He clicked his tongue, dug in his heels, and rode at full gallop, laughing at the sheer joy of the speed and feel of the powerful animal under him.

Lady Sarah did her best to keep up with Jake. But poor Python was built more for hauling a coach than racing against Bolt. Nevertheless, she was more than happy to watch the young man on her horse, as his pure joy was a pleasure to see. She rarely saw such raw delight, and enjoyed it even more in the handsome stable hand.

Jake arrived at the end of the drive as it made a T-intersection with the main highway, and pulled Bolt to a stop.

He turned around and trotted back to meet Lady Sarah, his face flushed and completely consumed by an open-mouthed smile and gleeful laughter.

“Oh, m’lady! I so envy you with this horse. He is glorious! I could ride him all day long.”

“Come, young Jake. Let’s ride through the trees to cool off.”

Jake was so overjoyed; he would have followed her anywhere.

They talked easily as they cooled off the horses. Lady Sarah was astonished at Jake’s intelligence and insights on politics, philosophy, and current events. He was certainly not an average stable hand!

She asked him where he was from.

Jake told her much the same story he had related to the queen, again leaving out Mara’s role in his rescue, and any mention of Luke and Pete. By now, he and Alvin had settled on a story. They had heard that the Markham family needed a stable hand, and had boldly walked onto the grounds and asked Calvin and Rory for jobs. The lie came easily now.

Sarah asked Jake all kinds of questions, and they debated many issues. She found him open, honest, and filled with ideas that usually didn’t spring from the minds of the peerage. He was a refreshing change from her usual crowd of boorish fops and half-brained women. And he was easy to look at as well!

They came to a small opening in the trees—a little meadow filled with soft, flowing grass and little white flowers. Jake dismounted, and helped Lady Sarah down off Python.

“I can switch the saddles if you would like to ride your horse back.”

“No, leave them be.”

Jake tied the horses to a nearby tree as Lady Sarah smoothed out her skirt, and took off her hat and scarf. She sat on a log and patted the space next to her. Jake sat down, a little nervous.

“How did you come into employment with Evelyn?” she asked.

Jake told her much the same story as he told the Queen leaving out, once again, Mara’s role and Luke and Pete. By now, he and Alvin had settled on a story of hearing about the Markham family needing a stable hand and just boldly walking into the grounds and asking for the jobs from Calvin and Rory. The lie came easily now.

Sarah asked Jake all kinds of questions and they debated many issues. She found him open, honest, and with ideas that usually didn’t spring from the minds of the peerage. She found him a refreshing change from her usual crowd of boorish fops and half-brained women. Plus, she found him easy to look at!

 

*****

 

Jake could hardly eat that day or sleep that night, the morning’s events running through his mind. That horse was amazing and he truly enjoyed Lady Sarah’s attention. He told Mara all about his little adventure when they went riding that afternoon.

Mara became very quiet. Jealousy raged in her breast as she listened to him go on and on about his time with the intruder. She couldn’t stand the fact that Jake blathered on about another woman. Especially such a pretty, slim, and older woman. It was all she could do not to shout out for him to shut up about her and his little adventure. This wasn’t going to be an easy visit. She wasn’t used to or ready to share Jake with anyone else except the other boys. Her heart was heavy but she was too proud to show her hurt on the outside.

 

*****

 

Jake awoke the next day to Calvin poking him hard.

“There you be!” He looked exasperated. “I have saddled Python and Lightning Bolt for you and Lady Sarah as she instructed, and we have been looking for you for nigh on twenty minutes. Get out there, will ye!”

Jake happily left his room and went out to the paddock. Sure enough, there was Lady Sarah on Bolt, wearing another lovely riding outfit, a smile on her lips.

Looking at Lightning Bolt with longing, he mounted Python and led the way down the drive.

Halfway down the drive he couldn’t take it anymore. “Lady Sarah,” he asked timidly, “Can I ride Bolt again today?”

Sarah laughed and nodded her head. “Don’t worry, my young man, you will receive your chance. I just want a ride him too. Come on; see if you can keep up.”

She took off like lightning, enjoying her ride more than she had in years. Seeing Jake on Bolt yesterday gave her a new perspective for the magnificence of her mount. The young man had taught her basic joy again, something she had lost over the past few years of her life. Jake had awakened her to the enjoyment of the moment, something that had been missing since the marriage to her late husband.

They ended up in the same meadow as yesterday where they switched horses. Sarah also pulled breakfast out of her saddle bags.

The two became fast friends, going out for a ride and breakfast every morning. Sarah forgot about her life back in London, the wine and the parties and began to realize she was missing the point of her life.

Jake learned from his new mentor many aspects of the way the peerage worked, who was who, and how things worked in the English political system.

Mara came to hate the woman and the time she was taking in Jake’s life. She couldn’t wait for the lady to leave them alone.

 

*****

 

On Lady Sarah’s last morning before leaving to return to London, she posed a question to her young friend. “Jake, I want you to return to London with me. I want to hire you as my stable hand. You are amazing with Bolt, and we are amazing together. I want you with me always.”

Jake nearly jumped out of his skin. Her question caught him completely off guard. He thought a moment before responding. “M’lady, I am extremely flattered you would do that for me. But I can’t. I can’t leave the Markham family.”

“Why not? They mean nothing to you, and you mean nothing to them. I know Evelyn well. One stable hand is as good as another. I will treat you like a king. I can bring you out; make you a member of society. We can research your great-grandfather so your true pedigree would be known. You have the breeding; you just need the right connections.”

Jake shook his head. “Lord Markham and Lady Maureen mean nothing to me, but I could never leave Mara.”

“Mara, that ugly fat child! What could she possibly be to you?”

Jake winced at her words, feeling his anger flare. He stood up and walked over to Bolt, rage deepening in his chest.

Sarah looked bewildered. His emotional reaction to her words seemed to confuse her.

“What do you know about it?” he yelled. “Mara is the kindest, gentlest, most wonderful person in the world, and all you see is what you want to see. You people are all so shallow it’s sickening!”

Lady Sarah stood, her own anger rising. “Why are you so offended? I didn’t mean to insult Mara, or anger you. I simply described her as I see her.”

She watched him tighten Bolt’s saddle in jerking movements. Sarah realized she had made a mistake. She spoke again, calmly, trying to diffuse the situation. She put her hands on Jake’s shoulders. “Obviously you see her differently than the rest of us. Don’t yell at me; help me understand.”

Jake looked down at the beautiful face of his mentor. The sincerity in her eyes made him stop wrenching on the saddle and sit back down. Sarah might be spoiled and overbearing sometimes, but she wasn’t cruel.

He drew in a breath. “I told you half-truths during our first morning together.” He looked at her face and saw only concern in her eyes. He continued. “Mara is the reason Alvin and I aren’t in prison or dead by now.”

Sarah raised an eyebrow, her expression encouraging him to continue.

This time he told the truth, although he still did not mention Pete or Luke. He and Alvin protected those two at all costs. Jake told Sarah how he and Alvin had met Mara, how she had saved them, fed them, clothed them, helped them find their jobs, and educated them. He choked on his words as he told Sarah about the whipping and Mara rescuing him even then. Sarah was aghast to learn that Evelyn had been the one to whip the boy so viciously for naught.

Jake told Sarah about Mara’s giggle, her warm heart, her intelligence, her sense of fairness. He told her about the cruelty of her brothers and cousins, and how he and Alvin protected her from them as much as they could. He told her about the fight between Alvin and Oakley. He told her the story of the rescue of the orphanage, and how Mara had led the charge.

As Jake was relating his story, Sarah saw love in his eyes whenever he spoke Mara’s name, and felt the tenderness of his words when he described her. Jake was completely and totally in love with Mara; that was as plain as the nose on his face. And Sarah knew she could never compete with that.

Sarah was now the one who felt sorrow. There were tears in her eyes when Jake finished his tale.

“You are amazing, Jacob Abbot,” she said warmly, her hands lightly touching his arms. “Your soul runs very deep. You have been able to see through the shell and into the girl. That is a rare gift, and Mara is a very lucky girl to have you to love her. Unless she loses four or five stone in weight between now and twenty, you may be her only chance for happiness and marriage. I hope you can claim her as yours.” She sighed, and touched his cheek affectionately. “I think you have just taught me more than I could ever possibly teach you.”

Jake blushed and looked at the ground. Sarah lifted his head back up by cupping her hand under his chin. “I just wish I could find someone like you, Jake. Although, I have to wonder what you think about me, behind my outer shell, a spoiled drunk.”

Jake smiled at her. “I think you hide behind that drinking afraid to find what you are looking for. You are looking in all the wrong places, madam, for your own happiness. It comes from the heart, not from the drink and the party-life.”

Lady Sarah Hastings only wished she could believe that.

 

*****

 

That afternoon, Jake told Mara that Lady Sarah had asked him to go back to London with her as her stable hand.

Mara’s heart stopped as she reigned in Hebe. “So what did you tell her?” she asked hesitantly, terrified the answer might be yes.

Jake stopped Python and turned to look Mara in the eye. He could see the fear in her eyes, and it tore him apart that she might think he could leave her. “I said no, Mara. I could never leave you and Alvin behind. My life is here, my family is here. I…” He stopped short of telling her he loved her. He wasn’t sure he was ready to say it, or that she was ready to hear it.

Mara’s face broke into a smile, as relief swept through her. Lady Sarah would leave in the morning, and Jake would stay here with her. Nothing could be better.

To hide his awkwardness, Jake turned Python back around and walked the horse for a bit before asking Mara about a matter he’d been pondering. “Lady Sarah said she’d help me trace my ancestry and bring me out if I went with her. I would still like to do that. Is it possible, when all I know is my mother’s maiden name, her mother’s name, and that my great-grandfather was a baron?”

Mara’s mind quickly embraced this new challenge, all thoughts of Lady Sarah and her jealousy of the beautiful, worldly woman leaving her mind completely. “I don’t know. I will ask Miss Perkins when we return home.”

“I really don’t know much,” Jake continued. “My grandmother’s name was Millie. I remember her visiting only once when I was very little.” He paused as he struggled to recall the memory, long lost in the horrors of being in the orphanage. “I don’t think she ever came after Mary was born. I had the feeling Grandmother Millie didn’t like my father much. So there you have it. Charles and Gloria Abbot, Millie Abrams, and some ghost of a baron as a great-grandfather.”

Mara was now caught up in the possibilities of what lay ahead. “It might be difficult, but I promise you I won’t stop until I find him, Jake. You deserve your real family.”

Jake turned to his best friend and smiled. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her, either.

 

Chapter 14

 

True to her word, the minute they arrived back in London, Mara set to work. She asked Miss Perkins to take her to the library two to three times a week to do research. Miss Perkins was an accomplished driver of a phaeton, so they were able to go on their own schedule, with permission from Lady Maureen.

The search turned out to be very difficult. The books that listed the peerage were quite disorganized, and the two ladies worked backward instead of forward. The books were organized mainly by title; however, some of the titles were buried in other titles, as they were created for already-titled peers or non-titled siblings who had done some great deed for a king or queen. New pages and entries were constantly being added, and sometimes a whole new book was created.

The books were a jumble of words and family trees and branches that went from page to page, and then skipped several pages. Blank pages might be followed by a page that contained information from a hundred years prior. It was a ghastly mess. There was nothing more to do than start at the beginning with the Baron of Amherst and go through the books alphabetically. They hoped and prayed that the information about the Abrams family wasn’t in the book for the Baron of Walsingham!

 

*****

 

Nine weeks later, Mara was sure she was going blind and crazy. Pages started blurring and the family trees looked like moving snakes. She practically lost all ability to focus, and dragged herself to the library each morning out of sheer determination. Miss Perkins felt the same pain. Today the search was too much for her as she laid her head on the Baron of Porchester’s book and fell fast asleep.

Mara slowly made her way through one of the volumes, when she finally found what they had been looking for all these weeks. She wanted to shout for joy, but stopped herself just in time before disturbing the other library clientele. “I found it, Miss Perkins!” she whispered. “Here it is!”

Miss Perkins jerked her head off the book and blinked a few times to wake up. She was instantly alert, and moved her chair closer to Mara’s. Mara began to read, pointing out the family tree as she went.

“Baron Petre of Writtle was created in the county of Essex on 21 July 1603. Chief seats are located in Writtle, Thorndon, and Ingatestone in the county of Essex.

“See here, there is a William Thomas, the fourth Lord Petre. The fifth Lord Petre, Joseph Howard, died almost immediately upon receiving the title. So it went to his brother, Thomas Adam, who became the sixth Lord Petre. Thomas had three children—Millicent June, Robert Edward, and William Thomas. Robert Edward became the seventh Lord Petre.

“Robert Edward married Anne, daughter and heiress of Philip, grandson of Henry, sixth Duke of Norfolk.” She stopped reading to look up at Miss Perkins, who was completely absorbed in the Petre family tree. “How nice, there is a duke in the family. But let me show you where it becomes most interesting.”

She turned the page to show the siblings of Robert Edward, the seventh Lord Petre. “Here is his sister, Millicent June, who married Edward Jacob Abrams of Beckforth Castle in the county of Somerset. They had one daughter, Gloria Millie, who married Charles Patrick Abbot in 1781. See! Jake was born in 1782 to a Charles and Gloria Abbot, and his grandmother was Millie. This has to be them!”

Mara was so excited she could barely sit still. “Jake is the great-grandson of Thomas Adam Petre, sixth Baron Petre of Writtle!”

Miss Perkins was now just as excited as her charge. There it was in black and white, written in the ancient pages of the Petre family history—the entire ancestry of one young Jacob James Abbot. His name was missing from the page, but that could be rectified.

“Does he have living cousins? Does the family still exist?”

Mara turned back to the previous page and followed the trail. “Let’s see. Robert James, eighth Lord Petre, was born in 1763 and married Anne, daughter of James Ratcliffe, Earl of Derwentwater. They had four children: Robert Edward, who must be the present and ninth Lord Petre, for there is not a date of death listed. He is married to Juliana Barbara, sister of Bernard Edward, heir apparent of the Duke of Norfolk. Nothing like keeping the Duke of Norfolk in the family for a second generation, eh?”

Mara looked up at her teacher, and they shared a small laugh before continuing. “Catherine, married to George Heneage of Hainton in the county of Lincoln, esquire; Barbara, married to Thomas Gifford of Chillington in the county of Stafford, esquire; and Julia, married to Edward Weld of Lulworth Castle in the county of Dorset, esquire.

“Yes, he has living cousins—Robert, the ninth Baron of Petre, and his sisters Catherine, Barbara, and Julia. How marvelous!”

Miss Perkins looked around the library for the librarian. “We should at least have them update the tree with Jake’s name, and then see if we can find out where the ninth Lord Petre lives.”

“Let me copy all this down first so we can take it with us,” Mara said excitedly. She spent the next hour painstakingly writing down all she could find on the Petre family, while her tutor looked up the address of the town of Writtle in Essex.

After taking the book back to the counter, they explained the family relationships and then watched as the librarian carefully wrote Jake and Mary’s names and birthdates into the book, as well as the dates that Jake’s parents and Mary had died. Mara smiled at the handiwork, proud that Jake’s name was now properly in the peerage. He could now prove he was more than a mere stable hand. She was glad she would no longer have to make the one-hour trek to the library several times a week!

Jake, Alvin, and Mara gathered in the nursery after dinner and pored over the history of the Petre family. Jake was amazed Mara had been able to find the elusive baron his mother had mentioned.

“We had the librarian complete your page, so your name and Mary’s have been entered into the book, along with the dates that your parents and Mary died. You are now officially peerage, or at least you are in the Baron of Petre book.”

“So what are you gonna do now, Jake?”

“I don’t know, Al. I never really thought Mara would succeed.” Mara stuck her tongue out at him. Jake started talking rapidly to overcome his blunder. “I mean, you are wonderfully talented and intelligent, but you yourself said it would be like searching for a needle in a haystack. I just didn’t want to dwell on false hope.”

Mara immediately gave her two cents’ worth. “I think you need to write a letter to the ninth Lord of Petre and see what happens.” She passed him the paper with the address for the town of Writtle.

Jake took it gingerly and stared at the words on the page. There was a huge lump in his throat. He had to admit to himself that he was scared. Scared of his past, scared of his future, scared of the ninth Baron of Petre. Scared that he would once again, nine years later, be unwanted and left orphaned. He now fervently wished he had never opened his mouth and asked Mara to help him. Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.

“Well?” Alvin’s voice brought him back out of his reverie.

Jake sighed. “I guess I will write a letter.”

Mara helped him write an eloquent letter to the ninth Baron of Petre. Jake talked about being orphaned, and the long search he had undergone to discover the baron in his family. He stated that he only wanted to know his roots; he did not want to give the impression that he wanted anything other than a connection to his family.

Mara had Termins mail the letter. Now there was nothing left to do except wait for a response and do their chores and schoolwork.

A little over a month later, the response arrived. Termins made a big deal about delivering it to the young stable hand. Jake didn’t want to read it, so Mara agreed to do it for him. It wasn’t from the baron himself; instead, an estate manager had signed it and sealed it.

 

Dear Mr. Abbot,

 

Thank you for your letter to my employer, the Baron of Petre.

I am writing to let you know that your letter was received.

The family is well aware of your mother, Gloria, and her husband, Charles. However, you and your sister’s birth are news.

I am sorry that your parents and sister are now gone, but there is no reason for you to reconnect with the current barony. Your grandmother, Millicent Petre Abrams, left the bosom of the family under terrible circumstances, and your letter opened up many old wounds. It is best to leave it be. Please send no more missives to this address.

Good luck in your future endeavors.

 

Sincerely,

Gregory Egerton

Estate Manager

 

Mara’s voice trailed off as she finished reading the letter. Alvin reached out to touch Jake’s shoulder. Jake felt the tears threaten behind his eyes. His worst fear had come true, and now he deeply regretted having tried to find his family. He stood up and walked out of the stables, down the drive, and out of the gates into the streets of London. Mara and Alvin could do nothing except watch him go.

Alvin destroyed the demoralizing letter, and it was never mentioned again.

 

Chapter 15

 

At sixteen, Mara had grown into a beautiful girl—her skin flawless; her long, red hair still wild but framing her round face perfectly; and her eyes sparkling with life. The little space between her front teeth added an extra aura of sensuality instead of detracting from her looks. Others outside her immediate family remarked on the beauty of her face, but her parents and brothers never saw it against the weight of her body. The orphaned boys noticed, however, and remarked to each other that it was a shame no one else recognized how magnificent their Angel was.

The boys were no longer boys, either. Jake, at nineteen, had filled out, his frame still lanky but muscular. His six-foot-two height put him well above most others in the neighborhood, and his dark-blond hair framed a ruggedly handsome face. When he went to the shops to purchase items for the Markhams’ horses, stables, or gardens, the saleswomen gazed longingly at him.

Alvin, at seventeen, was four inches shorter than Jake, and still retained his white-blond hair. He had filled out a bit more than Jake, beginning to take on a solid and hefty appearance. Sweets were his downfall, and the kitchen staff had always allowed him more than his share.

Luke was still as short as could be and, at seventeen, had more experience with women than the rest of them put together. His cute looks and boyish charm won over most women, and he was rarely without a girlfriend or two.

Pete had changed the most since leaving the orphanage. He was now eighteen, and at six foot tall, he, too, had filled out, putting muscles on top of muscles while working at the smithy. He was now an imposing man. The childhood scar that ran across his face gave him a dreadful mean look that belied his usually sweet demeanor.

Alvin, Luke, and Pete enjoyed bragging about their latest romantic conquests, but Jake never joined in the conversation. The others wondered why he seemed to have no luck with the ladies. They didn’t realize that Jake was completely smitten with their Angel Mara, and was hoping that someday he could claim her for his own.

 

*****

 

The winter after Mara’s sixteenth birthday, influenza hit the city once again. The Markhams decided to go to the Rochcliffe estate to escape the rising death toll.

Mara left Cecilia to finish packing her things, and ran through the breezeway to find Jake and Alvin.

“I’ve never been to Rochcliffe in the winter,” she began, “but I bet it is just as fun as the summer, and we’ll have a good time.”

Jake looked at her cockeyed. “We aren’t going. Only the family is leaving London. I think only Beth and Calvin will be going along.”

Mara was quite taken aback. “What do you mean? You can’t stay here. What about the influenza?”

“As if your dad and mum care if we catch it and die,” Alvin scoffed.

Mara ran back to Cecilia. “Tell me it isn’t true.”

“What, my dear?” asked her ladies’ maid.

“That only the family is going to Rochcliffe,” the young girl replied.

Cecilia sighed. “Yes, love, only the five Markhams, Beth, and Calvin will leave. The rest of us will stay here to defend ourselves.”

Mara was completely outraged.

Cecilia tried to assuage her young charge’s emotions. “We will be fine. We won’t wander into the city much, and we have plenty of food in the larder.”

Mara wouldn’t hear of it, however, and argued with her parents. She finally threatened not to go if the servants couldn’t go with them.

They simply left without her. That alone let her know where she stood in their esteem—pretty much at the bottom of the heap.

Mara was happy to see her parents go. She could now spend time at the estate without having to answer to them. She, Jake, and Alvin ventured out several times that week, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city. Mara relished these trips away from the house. Her parents rarely allowed her to leave the grounds, and she viewed her home as a gilded cage.

One day, she and Jake had visited Luke in the cobbler shop and Pete in the smithy. They watched Luke make a pair of wonderful leather boots for Lady May, the daughter of the Duke of Cleveland. Mara was enthralled by them. She tried to pull the finished one on, but her calf was way too big. Luke said he’d be happy to make her a pair; all that was needed was for her mother to send round the order. But they all knew Lady Maureen would never outfit Mara in such beautiful shoes.

At the smithy, Mara, Alvin, and Jake watched the rippling muscles on Pete’s bare back and arms as he pounded out a new pair of horseshoes for a handsome animal standing outside the shop. The air inside quickly became too warm for Mara, and she stepped outside the shop to breathe the cool, winter air and clear her lungs. She petted the horse waiting for his new shoes, and murmured sweet nothings in his ear. She decided she’d rather be a cobbler than a smithy!

They took their time walking home, having spent most of the afternoon in town.

By bedtime, Mara felt ill.

The next morning, she was sweating profusely, complaining of a sore throat, and had a dry hacking cough with severe body aches. She wouldn’t eat soup, tea or water, and by nightfall had fallen into a feverish and deadly unconsciousness. She had somehow caught the influenza.

Jake and Alvin felt terrible about it. They had let her talk them into taking her out, and had escorted her around. They realized they must have taken her to the place where she contracted the disease. They felt horrible that their Angel had the awful malady, yet they had escaped unscathed.

Jake felt so bad that he decided to stay up with her all night, every night, until the fever left her. He was terrified that she might die. Memories came flooding back of the awful days and nights of eleven years ago when he had watched his parents and sister succumb one by one to the influenza. Blimey! He wasn’t going to let that happen to the only girl he’d ever loved! He couldn’t face losing someone else in his young life. So he kept his vigil at Mara’s bedside all night, calming her during her ranting and raving, wiping her brow with a cool cloth, coaxing water down to keep her hydrated, and cleaning her up when her stomach rejected it.

He helped Cecilia, Beth, and Portia in every way. They changed her nightclothes, but he changed her bed sheets, carried her to the toilet closet as she needed it, and cleaned up the room. He took his nursing responsibility very seriously, and sat up nights with Mara to let the ladies rest. He slept in little snatches throughout the night and day, the circles under his eyes growing darker with each passing day. This is what Mara had done for him after her father whipped him, and this is what he would do for her.

Pete and Luke both stopped by. The staff had met them when Calvin and Rory had found them jobs, but no one else in the house knew about them. They and Alvin remained outside Mara’s bedroom door, afraid to enter the sanctum of a girl’s room. But they came every evening after work, and gave their respects to the servants and Mara. Not being religious men, they still prayed in their own way. And the household staff took silent vows to never speak of the boys to the other Markham family members.

Even Lilac, as old as she was, jumped on Mara’s bed and lay next to her to give comfort.

In her delirium, Mara relived her life. She saw flashes of her two brothers taunting her. Her three male cousins—Oscar, Oakley, and Orville—joined forces so five boys ganged up on her. She relived their taunts, her pain, her humiliation, her turning to food for comfort. She remembered the way they hurt her and laughed at her, and the way she cried.

Then she was in the country. She saw the interior of Rochcliffe House, which she loved almost as much as her father did. She listened to the stories her Uncle Cecil told of days of yore, of the family history, her grandparents and great-grandparents, of the importance of the viscount and its heritage. In her mind she roamed the rooms, playing make-believe, imagining herself to be a thin and beautiful princess transported back to medieval times when great warriors roamed the earth. How she loved to ride around the estate! She knew exactly why her father wanted it so much. It was the one thing she and her father had in common, the one and only bond they shared.

She relived her schooling, sitting with Miss Perkins and learning ancient Greek mythology. She roamed the house, pretending to be a Greek goddess lording lovingly over her subjects. She remembered her math and science and geography. Doing homework and discussing politics with Miss Perkins flashed through her mind.

Thoughts of watching the grand balls through the railings of the guest hallways came to her, and she longed to be beautiful and alive and loved like those gorgeous women in their fashionable and colorful gowns on the dance floor.

Mara dreamed dreams of the orphans, how they met, how she took them in, how they found jobs, how their friendship grew. She relived Jake’s beating, crying as she tended his wounds and shouting her hatred at her father.

But mostly she dreamed of Jake. She dreamed of his face, his hand holding hers, his smile, and her heart stopping when he looked at her in just that special way. She dreamed of him returning her love, of taking her in his arms and kissing her. She dreamed of calling out to him and saying, “I love you, Jake.” She dreamed of him taking her away and marrying her. She dreamed of a life with Jake instead of with her family.

The fevers took her hard, and as he stood watch over her each night, Jake heard every word she said in her delirium, and felt right with the world. She said she was his. And he had known for years he was hers.

 

Chapter 16

 

Jake sat in the chair next to Mara’s bed, his torso and head leaning over and on the bed, resting just inches from her. He was fast asleep and had been for several hours, finding it hard to stay awake if she wasn’t talking through her feverish state. Actually, for the past couple of days and nights, her talking had abated almost completely, giving him a chance to sleep instead of wiping her hot face and neck with a cool cloth, dripping water into her mouth, and murmuring to her, just like she had done for him five years ago.

She felt his presence first. She heard his breathing, and wondered through a thick and aching mind where they could possibly be that he was sleeping next to her. Her first thought was that she was eleven again, taking care of him after his whipping. She thought she was asleep on the edge of his cot.

She stirred and opened her eyes, searching in the dark for the boy/man she knew was nearby. She reached up and touched her fingers to the blond head that was resting so close to her own. She then realized she was in her own room, and that Jake was partially in a chair and partially in her bed. Their roles were completely reversed.

Jake felt her touch and raised his head. She was awake! He sat up and took her hand, running his other hand through his mop of hair and then wiping sleep from his eyes.

“Hey, beautiful. Nice to see you join the world of the living again.”

Mara opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Her tongue felt like it was glued to the roof of her mouth, and was three times its normal size.

Jake turned around in his chair and pulled a glass off the table behind him. It had about two spoonfuls of water in it that he helped her drink. Holding her head up slightly, he put the glass to her lips. She sipped the cool liquid, which gave her tongue new life.

“What are you doing here?” Her voice sounded like a croaking frog. “Why are you in my room?”

“I’ve been here every night for eight nights taking care of you. Cecilia takes the day shift, and I take the night shift. You don’t remember any of it?”

She shook her head. Eight days! She’s been here eight days without remembering a thing? “What…?”

“What’s wrong?” Jake supplied the words. She nodded. “You have had the influenza, the same illness that killed my family. I was not about to lose you, too. Just like you cared for me after the whipping, I have cared for you. Turnabout is fair play, they say.” He smiled at her in the darkness.

“More…”

“More water?”

She nodded.

He turned around again and picked up the water pitcher on the bedside table, pouring a few more spoonfuls into the glass.

This time, as he set the glass on her mattress, Jake pulled her toward him and gathered her up in his arms. Her head fell back against his shoulder as he wiped her wild hair away from her face. After eight days, it was matted against her head, but a few hearty strands bravely kept popping up and into her eyes. He then picked up the glass and held it to her like a mother would a child. She drank greedily, weakly trying to hold the bottom of it herself.

“Eight days, really?”

“Really.” He gently dropped the empty glass to the rug.

“I feel so weak and tired.”

“You will for a while.” He traced her face with his fingertips, and pushed that stray hair out of her eyes again. “But you are fine now, my love. You are fine now.” He nuzzled her forehead with his cheek.

“My love?” Her eyes probed his as he looked down at her again.

“Yes, my love.” And with that, he covered her mouth with his and gave her a love’s first kiss.

Mara’s heart burst into flame. Her throat burned, her lips caught fire, her head exploded, and she saw stars. She lifted her arms to wrap them around him, but could only raise them as far as his arm, and had to be content with softly holding on there.

Jake’s whole body reacted to this kiss in a way that he didn’t expect. His whole being shuddered and he felt tingling from his toes to his nose. It was as if every nerve in his body was being charged with invisible static. They lost themselves in the kiss, and in their own thoughts and bodies.

Jake broke off the kiss, bringing his hand up to trace her lips. “I love you, Mara Markham. I’ve loved you from the first day I met you after crawling through that crumbling wall. You were so kind to share your food with a stranger. Then you took my friends under your wing and took care of them, too. You saved me from Snellings by convincing Calvin to hire me. I have loved you more and more every day since that first day. And I will love you until the end of time.”

His voice was a mere whisper, but to Mara’s ears he was shouting from the rooftops. He loved her! Jake—handsome, intelligent, wonderful Jake—loved her! He loved fat, ugly Mara. She didn’t know why and she didn’t know how, but she wasn’t about to argue with him.

“Kiss me again,” she murmured. “Kiss me forever.”

Jake pulled her back into a kiss, more tenderly this time, kissing the corners of her mouth, kissing her chin, kissing her nose, before locking his lips with hers in another deep, wonderful kiss that only awakens with first love.

Knowing that she should rest, Jake once again broke off their lovely kiss, straightened the bedclothes, covered her up to her chin, and leaned back in the chair. He crossed his arms. “You had best be resting more, Miss Mara. I need you strong and healthy if we are going to continue this in the future.” She smiled back at him in the darkness, feeling sleep overcoming her, drifting off with the touch of his lips seared into her memory.

 

Chapter 17

 

The next morning when Mara awoke, Jake was no longer at her bedside. Cecilia was pouring water into the basin on the table.

“My, my, Miss Mara. You certainly did give us a scare! When Jake came running down the stairs this morning to tell us you woke up for a couple of minutes last night and asked for water, we were mighty happy, we were. Thank the Lord!” Cecilia was rambling on about how sick Mara had been, and how everyone had thought they were going to lose her. Mara felt like going back to sleep as Cecilia kept droning on and on.

Mara finally interrupted. “Where is Jake?”

Cecilia looked appraisingly at Mara, as the tone in her voice spoke more than Mara probably realized. “Why, he’s back in the stables where he belongs. He’s been working days and sitting in that chair at nights keeping you cool and giving me a chance to rest. It’s amazing him and me haven’t caught the influenza as well.”

“I’ll have to thank him, then,” said Mara, not willing to look Cecilia in the eye, for fear she might suspect something. Mara still couldn’t believe what happened between her and Jake last night, and wasn’t willing to talk too much about him just in case. Perhaps the kiss had been part of her delirious dream. Did he really call her his love and kiss her so passionately? She was becoming excited again just thinking about it, and closed her eyes to keep Cecilia from seeing the eagerness in them.

She couldn’t wait to see Jake again.

Mara spent the next couple of hours receiving a good cleaning. She was too weak to walk to the bath, but Cecilia and Beth gave her a good scrubbing with washcloths and warm, soapy water. She felt better just being clean, but couldn’t really bring herself to do more than let them move her to the chair while they changed the bed clothes and then moved her back to bed. Mostly, she slept. Gigi came up from the kitchen with a broth for her to eat. It felt good going down, but after eating about half the bowl, she couldn’t face it anymore. She slept again. As night closed in, she felt more rested, but knew she would sleep again most of the night. She was still very dehydrated, and they were pushing as much tea, water, and coffee down her as she could hold.

Her first real disappointment came when Cecilia told her Jake wouldn’t be coming to watch over her since her condition had improved. Darn it all! The thought of him coming to her was what helped get her through the day! She couldn’t wait to taste his lips again.

 

*****

 

On the third day after she awoke, Mara felt strong enough for a bath, and asked Cecilia to set one up. She desperately wanted her hair washed, and was tired of cloth baths in bed. The biggest challenge would be walking to the tub. Portia and Beth brought the tub in and began the difficult task of filling it with water, which had to be brought up from the kitchen in pails. Cecilia pulled a chair close to the tub for Mara to sit while she undressed.

The maids tried to lift Mara up off the bed, but to no avail. She had lost some weight during her illness, but her legs were still too weak to support her, and Beth and Portia weren’t strong enough to carry her meaty frame, either.

Cecilia went for help. She spotted Termins in the dining room, but he didn’t think his old back would be much help in lifting Mara either, so went outside to fetch Jake. Jake followed Cecilia into the room a few minutes later.

“Hey, I hear it is bath day. Good for you, Miss Mara! You must be feeling a lot better.” Jake tried to sound cheery and bright to hide the unbridled joy he felt at the sight of his loved one. He hadn’t seen Mara since the night she woke up, and he had spent two very frustrated nights since then tossing and turning on his little cot.

The memory of their kisses was almost too much for him to bear, and he wasn’t sure how he was going to keep his emotions hidden when others were around the two of them. So here he was, doing the best acting job of his life, pretending that Mara was his superior, and he was just doing his job.

Mara’s heart leapt out of her chest when Jake walked in the door. She, too, had been suffering deeply, and wanted to run to his arms and kiss him again. But she was brought back to reality by his silly salutation, and responded in kind. “Yes, I do feel much better. I understand I owe you thanks for keeping watch over me during the nights while I was so sick.”

Blimey! I’m never going to be able to keep this up, he thought, as he simply put a silly grin on his face.

Cecilia looked from Mara to Jake, and knew instantly there was something more than met the eye. But she would have to pursue that another time. Right now, they had a date with the bath.

“Get under her arm, Jake, and help lift her. You’re here to help us carry her to the tub, not have a conversation with her!” Cecilia’s words put Jake into action as he walked over to the bed and stood on Mara’s right side. Portia moved to Mara’s left side, Mara flung her arms around their shoulders and, on the count of three, they all stood up at once. Portia hardly noticed the weight, as it seemed Jake was doing most of the lifting. Jake hardly noticed the weight of his love, so happy was he just to be near her again.

No one noticed the commotion at Mara’s door until a loud, angry voice exclaimed, “What the hell is going on here?” Standing in the doorway was Lord Markham, a look of fury on his face.

“Father. You are back!” Mara almost lost her hold on Jake and Portia, and fear gripped her at the sight of her father’s angry countenance. Portia stopped dead in her tracks and Cecilia inhaled sharply. Jake could only look at Lord Markham in dread, and felt the blood drain from his face.

“What is he doing in your bedroom? Why are you being carried around?” The master’s voice was full of his bad humor.

Cecilia spoke up first, trying to diffuse the situation. “M’lord! When did you arrive home? Had we known, we’d have put off Mara’s bath until later.”

Markham didn’t seem to hear Cecilia, as he was fixated on that thief of a stable hand holding his daughter, clad only in her nightgown, in her bedroom. Markham looked at Jake as if he could read the thoughts he’d had about Mara just a few moments earlier. In Markham’s mind, his daughter had been violated, and they were trying to destroy the evidence.

“Move the hell out of my daughter’s room right now, scum.”

Jake looked from Markham, to Portia, to Cecilia, to Beth, and back again. They all knew that the moment he let go of Mara, she would collapse straight to the floor. Cecilia moved quickly to Jake’s side and motioned for him to leave. Jake tried to carefully extract himself and hand over the weight of his charge to Cecilia but, as expected, neither Cecilia nor Portia could hold her up, and Mara slid to the floor in a heap. Jake turned to pick her up, but Markham growled at him again.

“Don’t you dare touch her, you bastard. Out of my house, now!”

Jake again looked from woman to woman; with their eyes they told him to go.

He turned on his heel and walked with as much dignity as possible out the bedroom door, down the stairs, and out of the house.

Markham watched his footman walk down the stairs, and then looked back at the scene on the bedroom floor. “What’s wrong with her?” Not waiting for an answer, he walked over to the bed and ripped off the top sheet to examine the sheet on the bottom. He half expected to see the blood of lost virginity, and was quite surprised when he found nothing. He turned back toward Mara. “I said, what’s wrong with your legs, girl?”

“I’ve been very ill, Father.”

“With child?”

Mara’s eyes flew wide open. The other three ladies gasped, now fully understanding Lord Markham’s curious search of the bed clothes.

Portia stepped in this time. “No, no, sir, she had the influenza.”

Markham snorted. “So that’s your story, eh?” He grunted in disgust again, flung the sheets on the floor, and left the room.

The ladies looked at each other, breathed a collective sigh of relief, and began the arduous task of lifting Mara back onto the bed all by themselves.

 

Chapter 18

 

Blimey, thought Jake, as he ran back to the stables through the breezeway. Why does that man hate me so? Why does he think the worst thoughts about people? Why am I always in the wrong place at the wrong time? He sat down on the tack box, and put his head in his hands. I am a goner for sure this time.

 

*****

 

Lord Markham had one thing and one thing only on his mind as he came down the stairs. He was going to whip that street rat to death this time, and finish what he started five years ago! He had stopped first at Bertram’s room and then Edwin’s on his way down, and yelled for them to rise up, dress, and meet him in the front hallway. At fourteen and eighteen, his sons were old enough and strong enough to hold the bloody bastard down while he whipped the life out of him. Plus, it was time the boys learned how to handle troublemakers. And this time, if the scum passed out, Markham intended to dunk his head in cold water to wake him for more punishment.

He put on his coat and picked up his leather whip. Since it was early March, it was still cold. He waited.

“Father,” whined Bertram, as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “It’s so early, and we just arrived back. Why did you wake us?”

“I have to wonder the same thing, Father,” echoed Edwin, still buttoning his shirt as he came down the front staircase.

“I intend to whip the life out of the boy who dared to touch your sister,” he said without emotion, as he handed coats to the two slowly moving teens.

Edwin finally woke up with that statement. “Who would bloody wanna touch her?”

“For God’s sake, Father, that’s gross!” Bertram made a ghastly face. “Who’d want to have anything to do with that fat cow?”

Markham ignored Bertram and faced Edwin. “The stable hand, Abbot, that’s who. Go find him and bring him round to the mounting step.” Markham opened the front door and pointed to the stables. He didn’t want his sons to go through the breezeway and stir up the household. The mounting step was a large block of bricks used by women and children to mount a horse. It was located off the corner of the carriage house, and would be the perfect place to lay Abbot across for his beating.

“Abbot? Are you jesting, Father? A servant! Holy Mother of God!”

“I’m surprised even he’d stoop that low.” But Bertram’s words were lost in the air, as his father pushed him out the door.

Bertram and Edwin mumbled disbelief all the way to the stables. They had no trouble finding Abbot, who calmly sat on a box with his head in his hands. He looked up as they entered, and jumped off the box in alarm. Now what? he wondered. This can’t be good.

“Hey, horse’s arse. We gotta take you somewhere.”

“Like where?” asked Jake, very wary of these two. He began to back up, looking for a way to escape.

Edwin lunged at him, and the two of them locked in a struggle. Bertram whooped in delight and jumped into the fray, punching freely whatever came his way. Unfortunately for Jake, one of the punches caught him square in the jaw, and sent him reeling backwards.

The boys pounced on the now-disoriented Jake and dragged him out of the stables and over to the mounting block. Before Jake could gather his wits and clear the stars, he found himself splayed across the mounting block, his upper body hanging mostly off of it, his knees on the ground, his thighs pressed up one side, and his pelvis and lower stomach pressed across the top to stabilize the awkward position. He lay there, coatless, staring at the cold ground, pinned on both sides by a brother, each with one of his arms awkwardly and painfully stretched upward and behind him.

“What have we here, boys?” As he heard Lord Markham’s voice, Jake’s blood turned to ice water. He instantly realized another beating was about to commence. He looked around wildly to see if anyone was there to stop it, but he saw no one else in the yard.

Markham continued speaking to his sons. “Thank you, boys. You brought me the son of a bitch who touched your sister, and now I am going to make him pay for his sins.” He bent down and grabbed Jake’s hair, forcing him to look him in the eye. “You just don’t learn, do you, boy? I thought I taught you a good lesson last time when you acted above your station and made Lady Mara take your blame. But I guess it wasn’t enough. This time, you will definitely remember to keep your place and your filthy hands off my property.” The cruelty in his voice was almost palpable. Markham threw Jake’s head down, stepped back, and fingered his whip for a few minutes, torturing Jake with silent anticipation long before he raised his hand and let the whip fly.

Jake bit his lip as the whip finally hit him straight across the back, curling around his right side and stinging him halfway across his chest. The pain was more intense than he remembered, and he fought to stay conscious as the second blow came. He strained against the stronghold the brothers had on his arms as they pulled his shoulders harder, bringing his arms even higher up and backwards, nearly popping them out of their sockets. Both sons eyed the whip to make sure they didn’t stand too close.

A moan escaped Jake’s lips as he forced himself to breathe. He tried to take himself out of his body to another place. As the third strike came, he turned his head to look at Markham. “To bloody hell with you,” he whispered defiantly under his breath, though unfortunately he lacked the strength to make himself heard. He hung his head again as the whip struck a fourth time, wrapping around his back, side, and chest. Jake cried out desperately, praying for the strength to survive.

 

*****

 

Cecilia and the maids finally succeeded in moving Mara back to the bed. She lay on her back and flopped sideways across the mattress, breathing heavily and wondering if her body would ever function normally again. She felt so weak and helpless, but most of all she feared what her father would do to Jake.

With child! Did he really think she was pregnant? Why would her father immediately come to that conclusion when all the evidence pointed toward simply taking a bath?

Why was her family so awful? She knew there were wonderful people in the world, like those who worked here at the house, and the orphaned boys. Her Uncle Cecil and Aunt Bernice also treated her well. They may have been spoiled, but they were decent human beings.

She closed her eyes and prayed Jake would find a good hiding place until her father cooled off.

Cecilia had similar thoughts, and went to the window to see if there was any activity in the stables. Mara’s window was the only other one in the house from which to view the stables as it was directly above the parlor with the same bay window with one pane facing that direction. Cecilia saw Bertram and Edwin run to the stables, and wondered what mischief they were up to. A few minutes later she saw Lord Markham come out the front door while pulling on his gloves, carrying something under his arm. She then saw the boys drag Jake out of the stables and drape him over the mounting block. Horrified, she watched as Markham pulled the whip out from under his arm and slowly started walking across the driveway.

“Oh, my God. Not again!” Cecilia put her hand over her mouth, and then ran from the room to find Termins to intercede for Jake.

“What?” yelled Mara, struggling to sit up on the bed. But Cecilia was already well out of earshot. Mara looked toward the window, realizing she was on her own if she wanted to see what was going on. She took a deep breath and half rolled, half swung her legs to the other side of the bed and wriggled until she was leaning with her feet on the floor and her backside on the bed. She leaned over and pulled the chair to her and then swiveled until she was seated on it. Then she pushed as hard as she could with her weakened legs, scooting backwards inches at a time across the two feet to the window seat. This only took a few minutes, but to an exhausted Mara, it seemed an eternity.

Just when she was about to give up, she felt the back of the chair hit the window bench. She turned and strained to look out the window, and nearly collapsed when she realized Jake was suffering another cruel and unjust whipping at her father’s hand. “NO! OH MY GOD, NO!” She screamed at the top of her lungs. She continued to scream until Portia and Beth came running into the room.

“Miss Mara! What are you—?” Portia stopped dead in her tracks as she looked out the window at the drama unfolding outside the stables. She immediately grabbed a hold of Mara, pulling Mara’s face and upper body into her own breast, to comfort her and prevent her from watching the beating. Mara wrapped her arms around Portia’s waist, burying her face into the maid’s body, and screaming, “NO, NO, NO! OH, MY GOD! NO!”

Beth immediately turned and ran out the door, down the hallway, down the front stairs, and to the front door just in time to see Termins run up to Lord Markham and stand between the master and the boy. She stopped at the door, panting and praying the boy was all right.

 

Chapter 19

 

Termins sprang into action the moment Cecilia had found him in the cellars pulling out wine for the day’s meals.

“He’s gonna whip him again! You gotta stop him!” One look at Cecilia’s face and Termins knew exactly who the “he” and “him” were. The old butler ran up the cellar stairs as fast as his sixty-year-old legs could manage, down the breezeway, up the main hallway, and out the door, not even stopping for his coat. Leaving the door wide open, he ran across the driveway, praying he’d arrive before Lord Markham killed the boy. He had no idea why Markham felt it necessary to whip Jake again, but he was determined to stop it.

“M’lord, stop! Please, m’lord, stop!” Termins stood between the master and the boy, just as Mara had done five years ago, fully expecting to feel the whip himself.

Lord Markham paused, his hand still up for another strike, highly annoyed that he was once again being thwarted from finishing the job he had set out to do.

“What do you know? I leave the house for a couple of weeks, and this bastard starts taking privileges with my daughter. Not in my house! Now get out of my way!” Markham tried to push Termins aside.

“Sir,” said Termins, deliberately holding his ground, the reason for the whipping now becoming clear to him. “Mara spent eight days and nights in a fever brought on by influenza. She was in no condition for any privileges, and is now so weak she canna walk on her own. I’m the one who brought the boy to her bedroom this morning to help carry her to the bath. I’m the one you should be beating. He was carrying out my direct order!” The old man was panting as he finished the statement, mostly from the run, but also from the fear he felt at standing up to his master.

This was the most Termins had ever said in one breath in all the years anyone had known him, and it surprised even Markham. He lowered his arm and squinted at the butler.

“What are you talking about? I saw him in her bedroom, holding her, and all she had on was a nightgown.”

“That is right, m’Lord. But who else did you see in her bedchamber? Cecilia, Portia, and Beth, correct? Were Mara and the boy alone, or were there others with them?” Termins paused, as Markham thought back to the scene.

“They were going to give her a bath, sir. A bath. He was only transporting her from the bed to the bath, nothing more.” And the two men—the master and the servant, the middle-aged man and the old man, one wrong, one right—stared each other down.

Markham finally accepted Termins’ words as truth and acquiesced, since Termins had faithfully served his father and him for decades. There was no reason to doubt him.

“Let him go, sons. Let’s go find some breakfast.” He turned on his heel and walked slowly back to the open front door, wiping the blood from his whip with a handkerchief as he went. Bertram and Edwin, also miffed that the sadistic exhibition had been prematurely halted, threw Jake’s arms down in disgust, and followed their father into the house.

Termins turned and knelt at Jake’s bent head and torso, holding him up by bloody shoulders. “Jake, Jacob! Can you hear me, boy?”

Jake had been fading in and out during the entire exchange, and now lifted his head just enough to look into the old butler’s face. “One day, I swear, I am gonna kill that bastard,” he whispered, and then passed out.

Calvin had come up behind Termins in time to hear Jake’s threatening words. He touched the old man’s shoulder. “Here we go again. Come, Basil,” he yelled, as Basil ran over from the back of the stables. “Help me drag him up to his room. How this boy keeps ending up on the wrong side of the whip, I’ll never know.” He glanced at Jake’s bloody back as he grabbed him under the right armpit. “There are some scars that will never heal. I only hope he doesn’t one day make good on that threat.”

 

Chapter 20

 

The house quieted once again; the subject of Jake’s beating finally no longer the main topic of the whispered conversations between the servants. No one could believe the master had whipped the boy again for nothing more than helping a weakened Mara walk across her room. And they could only shake their heads and be glad it hadn’t been one of them he spotted in Miss Mara’s room.

Jesse, Rory, Alvin, and Basil again cleaned Jake’s wounds, stripped old sheets to make bandages, applied salve, and kept a vigil to prevent fever. Jake had to lay on his left side, as now the whip marks burned across his back, wrapped around his right side, and continued halfway down his chest. The caregivers pulled his bed away from the wall so they could walk around both sides without having to disturb Jake’s position.

Over the next couple of days, he came in and out of consciousness and called out Mara’s name in his dreams. He kept reaching for her with his hands, but couldn’t find her, his hatred for her father and his love for her mixing in painful nightmares.

Jesse plied him with wine and whiskey, hoping they would dull the pain. She performed most of the nursing duties, listening to his ranting and raving, gathering that there was more to his relationship with Mara than met the eye. But Jesse vowed not to say a word to anyone. She would keep his secret and let the two youngsters be. Miss Mara would never make a good match in her aristocratic world, but she would have a fine young man to love her, even if it had to be illicitly.

 

*****

 

Mara, of course, spent her time healing as well.

She worked very hard to regain her strength so she could go to the stables to be with Jake, but it seemed that at least one of her parents was constantly hovering over her, which was very unusual for them. They were acting like they actually cared that she had almost died and was still bedridden due to the fever, and lack of food and exercise. Either that or they suspected her relationship with Jake had become romantic, and were trying to make sure the two of them were never alone together. That was a thought she couldn’t bear.

So she concentrated on eating broth and soup and drinking plenty of fluids and moving her arms and legs around to become strong enough to leave her bed. She had plenty of time to plot a way to escape to the stables unnoticed. She planned to sneak down the back staircase in the middle of the night and go through the breezeway to Jake’s room above the stable. But she couldn’t even make it across the bedroom yet without becoming completely exhausted; sneaking up and down two staircases at this point was out of the question.

Mara still lost weight, as her stomach could not yet tolerate solid foods. She survived mostly on broth and light soups. She had already lost about a stone. She could feel the difference, and actually liked it. She breathed better and her bones felt better, and she decided that maybe it was time to lose the extra weight; after all, she was sixteen and no longer a child!

During the four days following Jake’s beating, she worked day and night to regain enough strength to accomplish her mission.

On the fourth night, she decided she was ready. She slept a little longer during her afternoon nap so she could lie awake long after the household had quieted down for the night.

At midnight, certain everyone in the house slept, she thought it safe to venture out. She arose from the bed, put on her clothes (God forbid if she was caught going to Jake’s room in her nightgown!), and silently walked down the hallway to the stairs. Her knees shook a little, but she wasn’t sure if it was from weakness or fear. Not willing to take chances, she sat down on the top step and moved down the stairs one at a time on her backside, scooting slowly down to the bottom. So far, so good. All those years of sneaking food and clothing for the boys paid off!

The back staircase emptied out into the breezeway. If she went straight, she’d end up in the stables; if she turned around, she would go back into the kitchens. Glancing around to make sure she was alone, she began her trek across the breezeway and into the stables. The door seemed heavier than usual, and she struggled to keep silent. Once through the door, she stood on the other side for a moment to catch her breath. Her legs were very shaky now, but she was too close to stop. Ahead of her were the narrow stairs leading up to the loft area and Jake’s room.

This time, she crawled on her hands and knees up the stairs, hiking her skirts up so they wouldn’t get caught. This would be the worst place to be seen with her bare legs showing and her skirt hitched up around her waist! She grinned at the thought of someone’s view from below—at least her undergarments were clean!

Mara finally made it to the top, and stopped for a minute to catch her breath. Then she stood up and went to Jake’s room. Calvin had moved out to keep from disturbing Jake with his horrible snoring. Mara glanced at his bed just to make sure it was empty, and then swiftly moved to Jake’s side. The chair was on the opposite side of the bed this time, as his back was facing the door.

Mara went around the bed and knelt next to his head. He lay there with both arms on his pillow, away from the wounds on his side. Even in his sleep, his brow was furrowed in pain, his eyes tightly shut, his breathing ragged and shallow. His mouth opened slightly and he made those little mewling noises she remembered from last time, as if he labored through his breathing and the movement hurt him.

She reached out and brushed the hair away from his forehead so she could check his temperature by putting the back of her hand to his temple. He seemed okay. She stared at his face, trying to make out his handsome features in the inky blackness. A faint beam of moonlight shone through the window over his bed, but the moon was in quarter and not much help. She was afraid to light a candle and draw attention to the room.

Mara put her hands in-between and over his, content to just kneel there and hold his hands. His breathing changed slightly, seeming to calm a bit for the next few minutes. As she lifted her hand to stroke his hair again, Jake opened his eyes.

“I knew you were here,” he whispered, pain coming through his voice. “I could feel you.”

“Oh God, Jake.” She moved her face closer to his so they wouldn’t be heard. “I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry.”

With great effort, he lifted his right arm and stroked her face with his hand. “Not your fault. He’s been a bastard from the start, and at least Termins was there to stop him this time. He really wanted to kill me. I could see it in his eyes, and hear it in his voice. He wanted me dead.”

“Shhhh. Don’t think of him anymore. He isn’t worth the energy it takes to think about him. Shhhh.”

“I am so glad you are here. That means you are better.”

“I am fine. A little weak still, but fine. Now we need to concentrate on your healing. I couldn’t stay away from you any longer. I can only think of you and that night, and your kisses…” Her voice trailed off as she choked on her emotions.

Jake swallowed hard and closed his eyes, the effort of speaking overcoming him, but not as much as the thought of that night when they shared their first kiss. Was that only five or six nights ago? It seemed like years to his tortured mind and body. But he wanted to relive the moment, to recapture the feeling of that night, to remember the stunning fire that had burned inside, to forget the dreadful fire that now burned outside. He opened his eyes and stared at the hidden face of his love, obscured by the darkness, backlit by the sliver of moonlight coming through the window. “Kiss me again,” he whispered hoarsely. “Kiss me now, Mara.”

She followed the line of his cheek and chin with her hand, feeling for his lips with her fingers. Then she moved her head so she could replace her fingers with her lips. His body cried out in pain as he rolled slightly to meet her kiss and hold onto her arm with his free hand.

Just like before, when their lips met, the world around them exploded with passion. Mara felt the kiss all the way to her toes, her mind focusing sharply on the intimacy of the touch. Jake moaned in both pain and pleasure, his body screaming as he rolled on his fresh wounds. But his heart and soul sang at the joy her kiss brought him.

He moved his hand to the back of her head, pulling her even closer to him, searching the depths of her mouth with his tongue. She responded fully with a search of her own. There was nothing tentative about her exploration. It was as if she knew exactly what to do, what she was meant to do, what they were meant to do together. There were no secrets between them, no hesitation. They were a perfect match.

Mara broke the kiss, knowing the danger of this encounter. “I love you,” she whispered, lip to lip. “I am yours forever.”

“I’ve loved you forever, and I will never leave you, no matter what they do to me.”

She pulled away from him, grasping his hand with both of hers. “Good night, my love. You need to sleep. I will come back tomorrow.” As she moved away, he kept hold of her hand until the last moment, and listened to her walk out of his room.

Jake smiled as he slipped back into an easier sleep, her kiss still fresh on his lips.

 

Chapter 21

 

The next day, Lady Maureen stood in her daughter’s bedchamber, combing Mara’s curly red hair, which tended to knot if it wasn’t brushed each morning and evening. It had been years since her mother had brushed her hair for her, and it sent Mara back to when she was a toddler and her mother performed this little act of love every day.

But Mara’s thoughts soon turned to Jake and the kiss they had shared last night; she desperately wanted to see him again! Her mother hummed some song while she was brushing, and a thought occurred to Mara.

“Mother, let’s go see how Jake is doing.”

“Who, my dear?”

“Jacob. Father whipped him again last week. Go see how he is doing.”

“Now, Mara. You know better than to pay attention to the servants’ gossip. Your father didn’t beat Jacob again.”

Mara caught the brush in her hand and turned to stare at her mother, incredulous at such a ridiculous statement. How was it possible her mother didn’t know what happened?

“Mother! That isn’t servants’ gossip. I saw it happen! I was sitting at the window and watched Father whip him. Bertram and Edwin were holding him down. How could you possibly think it is gossip?”

Lady Maureen looked at her daughter, not quite believing her. Bertram and Edwin were there, too? They helped? “Now, dear, you are recovering from being sick, and don’t need to be worrying about that.”

“Mother!” Mara’s exasperation really showed. How could her mother be so obtuse? “I will prove it to you. Come.”

Mara stood up, grabbed her mother by the hand, and led her out the bedroom door and down the back stairs. Her mother complained the entire way.

“My dear! Why do you insist on using these horribly narrow back stairs? Can’t we use the main staircase?”

She dragged her mother out the door and into the breezeway. They continued on until they reached the stables, and then began climbing up the little stairs to the loft.

Her mother’s complaining continued. “Oh my! Are you sure these rickety old things are safe?”

Mara put up with the whining, as she needed to use the blabbering woman as a leaning post, since she was still quite weak.

They entered Jake and Calvin’s room. Jake was shirtless, sitting backwards in the chair, straddling the back with his legs, resting his forehead on his crossed arms and holding the chair back knobs tightly with his hands. Lilac lay at his feet, looking very sad. Jesse carefully removed the old bandages to clean the wounds before applying new bandages. No matter how careful she was, the bandages pulled on the forming scabs, sometimes pulling them off, causing fresh bleeding. Jake tried hard not to complain, but moans and gasps escaped his lips anyway, as the pain was still very intense.

Lady Maureen tentatively stepped over to Jake, taking up a spot opposite Jesse. She looked at Jake’s scabbed and scarred back, and put her hand over her mouth in horror at the sight. “Oh, my God, Jacob. What has he done to you?”

Jake realized someone besides Jesse was in the room. He looked up and first saw Mara standing in the doorway, then turned to see her mother at his side. He looked back at Mara and gave a half smile before laying his forehead back down on his arms. He didn’t have the energy or the will to do more than that.

Lady Maureen wasn’t unkind. She’d proven that when she helped rescue the orphanage a few years back. She was just usually too distracted by her social obligations to pay much attention to her daughter and the world outside of entertaining or being entertained. But now her compassion for Jake overwhelmed her, and she immediately started helping Jesse by cleaning the areas already uncovered.

Mara took a three-legged stool from the corner and placed it in front of Jake. She sat down and wrapped her hands around each of his. All she could do was provide moral support. She was glad she thought to include her mother. Jake would receive the best care now.

The ladies worked for about forty-five more minutes, finally pulling off all the old bandages. During that time, Maureen asked Mara and Jake to tell her what had happened.

Mara began by telling her mother she had wanted a bath on the third morning after waking from her delirium. She told her about Cecilia, Beth, and Portia not being able to put her into the tub, and Cecilia going to find help. She talked about Jake coming in and starting to help her to the tub, and her father interrupting and demanding that Jake let go and her, and how she fell to the floor. She talked about her father’s behavior with the bed sheets and his accusing her of being pregnant. Jake looked up at her in surprise at this statement, as he didn’t know about that part of the story. Lady Maureen looked very disturbed.

Mara told her mother about Cecilia looking out the window and seeing Bertram and Edwin dragging Jake out of the stables and realizing what they were doing and then running to find Termins. She talked about how hard it was for her to scoot to the window. She choked on her emotions as she described the beating, and Portia and Beth running to the bedroom to comfort her and also witnessing the event.

Then it was Jake’s turn. At Lady Maureen’s gentle prodding, he related his side of the story, struggling to talk through the pain. Jake left nothing out, except his own threat to kill Lord Markham. He talked about Bertram and Edwin’s roles in the beating and what her husband had said to him, the severe pain of each strike, Termins’ intervention, and waking up in his room a few hours later as they were dressing his wounds. After he had finished, Lady Maureen realized the story must be true in light of the physical evidence on Jake’s body. However, that realization was so painful that she refused to discuss the matter further.

As they worked, Jesse and Lady Maureen talked easily about lighter topics—the garden that would be planted, and past and future dinner parties. They talked about what Lady Maureen would wear to the Masque coming up in October. The Masque was the biggest non-royal event of the year. Guests invited to this exclusive party came dressed in costume, and spared no expense to come up with unique and wonderful outfits. Designing and constructing these elaborate costumes sometimes took three or four months. The Masque was hosted by the Duke of Cleveland, an aging peer who had lost his wife of thirty years a few months ago. Lady Maureen and Jesse wondered if he would be able to enjoy the party without her.

When the ladies finished bandaging Jake’s back and right side, they asked him to turn around so they could tend to the wounds on his chest. He was a compliant patient, letting them do what they needed to do, but the women in the room also knew he was in severe pain. Mara could do nothing more than sit on the stool and stare at Jake’s back, tracing with her eyes the crisscross of old scars with new scabs. She counted eight new marks across his back. Eight! It was a miracle Jake had survived. Jesse eventually asked her to change the sheets on Jake’s bed, which Mara did gladly, as she wanted to do something other than stare at the mess that was now Jake’s back.

Now that he was facing her, Lady Maureen looked at Jake again closely, something she hadn’t done for four years. Even though his forehead was furrowed in pain, his eyes screwed shut, and his teeth clenched, he was still a handsome young man. He tightly pressed his lips together against the pain, but his cheeks had deeper images of those lovely dimples she remembered. His dark-blond hair was long again and once more tied back. And he was taller, much taller.

To apply fresh bandages, they asked Jake to stand up so they could easily reach and circle around him to wrap him. He interlocked his fingers and put his hands on top of his head to keep his arms out of the way. That pained him anew, as the muscles in his shoulders had been severely damaged by Bertram and Edwin pulling his arms back.

When they finished, they helped him back into bed. Jesse and Lady Maureen talked about Jake’s care, and made plans to come back the next day to change the bandages again. They agreed that keeping everything clean was the best way to fight against fever. They even agreed that a doctor’s visit was in order.

Before leaving, Lady Maureen went over to Jake’s bed and looked in his face. She touched his cheek, bent over to kiss his forehead, and gave a sympathetic smile. Then she and Mara were gone. Jake closed his eyes. He’d be okay.

 

*****

 

For the next few nights, Mara continued her midnight expeditions to the stables, each visit consisting of a few minutes of whispered conversation, and a couple of passionate kisses.

Each day, she and her mother visited to help Jesse change bandages. The doctor came and told them to continue doing exactly what they were doing, as the wounds were healing nicely. Nicely, thought Jake. Not a word he’d use to describe the situation! But he took his stolen moments with Mara any way he could get them, and was very happy her mother was engaged in the process.

Lady Maureen was appalled at her own sons’ involvement and her husband’s cruelty. She made her thoughts on the situation clear to them in no uncertain terms. The boys were away at school, but she expressed her disgust at their behavior in letters first, and then later in person when they came home on holiday.

 

Chapter 22

 

March rolled into April, and Jake and Mara slowly returned to health. Pete and Luke had to stop coming around due to the Markhams being home again, but Alvin gave them updates whenever he came into town to run his gardening errands.

Mara and Jake had to cool their passions, as others were now constantly hovering over them. Since Calvin had moved back into his room, the midnight visits came to a grinding halt. They now spent lonely nights apart, dreaming the same dreams of being together and of their few shared kisses.

Spring blossomed, the routine becoming a bit dull. By the end of April, the household busily prepared for the annual trip to Rochcliffe House. This time, the footman was told to stay behind, which upset Jake and Mara to no end, as that meant two-and-a-half months apart—pure torture! Usually the trip to the country was their favorite part of the year, since they spent so much time riding horses and exploring the grounds. This year, what was Mara going to do without Jake, with only her brothers and cousins for company?

So it was with a heavy heart that Mara climbed into the coach with her parents. Behind the coach was a wagon of luggage and servants. Gigi, Termins, and Portia stayed behind to handle the house, and Jake and Alvin remained behind to maintain the gardens. Basil and Rory were going to the country to tend the Rochcliffe gardens that the viscount seemed to have difficulty maintaining. And since Lady Maureen wasn’t fond of the French cuisine served by the cook at the manor house, she insisted on bringing Mr. Fout. Mara’s brothers would join them all later when school was out.

As the family and other servants left that morning in early May, those left behind waved, one of them his heart heavy with brutal loneliness.

 

*****

 

Mara was despondent. She hadn’t been to the country without Jake for the past five years. And it didn’t sit well with her. The trip seemed to take twice as long as normal. If the trip up felt that long, what would the following two-and-a-half months feel like?

The day after they arrived, Mara stood at the paddock watching the stable hands exercise the horses. She loved watching the horses’ rippling muscles and their smooth movements as they walked, trotted, and galloped in circles around the paddock. In years past, she had enjoyed helping Jake and Calvin work the horses, but without Jake here the stables just weren’t that interesting.

As she stood watching, a thought crossed her mind. Calvin had once told her that they exercised the horses to keep them strong and sleek. Lots of food with little exercise ruined a horses’ ability to take a rider or pull a carriage, so exercising them was very important. Exercise. Strong. Sleek. Sleek, she thought again. I need to be sleek. She had continued to lose weight after her illness, due to her stomach having shrunk and her feeling fuller faster. She estimated she was down about two stone or so, as her clothes were quite loose. No one except Jake and Alvin had seemed to notice, however.

She leaned against the paddock railing, thinking about exercise and sleekness. How would a human do what the horses do? Walk, trot, gallop. Walk, trot, gallop. Maybe she should walk, trot, and gallop, too. She looked down at her too-big dress and shoes, which were not much more than slippers. She couldn’t exercise in this outfit! She watched Calvin for a while longer as he exercised Zeus. Calvin would trot along sometimes. Other times he would just turn in a circle, tapping the horses’ hindquarters with a long pole and whip. Calvin moved well in trousers and thick work boots. Maybe she needed trousers and work boots, too. Having found the boys lots of clothes in the attic of the London house, she thought maybe she could find items for herself in the attic here.

Mara turned on her heels and quickly went to the small castle that was the ancestral home. There had been Markhams in this place for two centuries. The attics should be a treasure trove!

She wound her way up the main staircase, then the stairs to the third floor where the servants slept, then to the attic stairs, slipping not-so-silently though a squeaky door. She listened for a moment to see if the squeak had caught anyone’s attention. Not hearing anything, she began to wander around the attic, looking in various trunks and boxes. She sneezed several times, as the amount of dust was astounding. However, the attic was a lot emptier than she had expected. Little did she know that her Uncle Cecil had been selling most everything of value to keep his family solvent. So all the good items from the attic were long gone.

She finally found a pair of gabardine trousers that looked like they might fit if she hemmed the legs a bit. Then she unearthed a shirt and belt. Shoes were now the object of her search, and after a while she found some crusty old work shoes that fit. They just needed a little cleaning to be serviceable. So off she went with her items to her room to prepare for exercise.

She worked all evening, sewing the trousers until they fit like a glove. The shoes came back to life as she cleaned them with a stiff brush and some soap and water. The soles were intact, and she pulled laces from her own shoes to replace the rotted ones in the work shoes.

Then she went to sleep, dreaming of her new exercise regimen.

 

*****

 

Mara ate a good breakfast of eggs and fruit, trying to stay away from the bacon dripping in fat and the sweet pastries made with lard. She figured that fat begat fat, so she’d avoid eating fat!

She returned to her room to change into the pants, shirt, belt, and work shoes, putting her dress back over the top. Then, with book in hand, she found Cecilia and her mother in the parlor with Aunt Bernice, tatting and sewing. “I am going to find a comfortable place in the gardens to read,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“Have a nice time, dear,” replied her mother, waving her hand a bit as Mara left the room.

Cecilia smiled. “That girl just loves to read. Maybe she will be a famous author herself someday.”

“What she needs to be is a good wife and mother, but she has no interest in the workings of a household or taking care of her looks or finding a husband,” Lady Maureen sighed. “She told me she didn’t want to marry. Can you imagine? I just don’t know what to do with her.”

Lady Bernice patted her sister-in-law on the arm. “She’ll eventually come around. She’s still very young, and doesn’t yet understand the womanly ways. Give her time. If, by nineteen or twenty, she is still acting that way, then you and I can worry about it!” Lady Maureen smiled back at her.

“You are so right. At sixteen, she is still a child. Edwin is eighteen, and barely making it through school. It is probably he that I should be worrying about at the moment!” The ladies laughed and chatted merrily on a myriad of topics as they continued their needlework.

 

Chapter 23

 

Mara found a lovely private spot in the garden, away from the house. She pulled off her dress, folding it up and placing it behind a rock. She laid her book on the bench, open and face down. Anyone coming by would think she was taking a break from reading, and wouldn’t think to look for her.

She had started down the path in a walk, warming up her muscles, and then she trotted for a while in the woods, and then ran for about twenty yards. She repeated this sequence of walking, trotting, and running around the entire path.

Now she was utterly exhausted, and hurt everywhere. Egad! Is losing a little weight worth this kind of torture? she wondered. She wasn’t sure, but at least it kept her mind off her loneliness, and gave her a goal to work toward. So she put her gown back on and began to read her book in earnest.

The next morning she was quite sore so she only walked, but by the following day, she could trot a bit again.

She spent the next two months eating smaller portions and doing her daily exercises. The weight began melting off. She had no way of knowing how much she weighed when she started, or how much weight she lost. She could only gauge her progress by how her clothes fit. And they started to hang off her.

She didn’t want anyone to know she was losing weight. It was her secret, and she was afraid that if people noticed, it would be harder for her. So she devised a way to look her old size under her dresses while hiding her new size.

Mara took two towels, one larger than the other, and a strip of cloth that she could tie all the way around her. She rolled the towels around the strip, side by side with about five to six inches between them and tied them in place with string. She then placed the larger towel mass over her breasts and the smaller on her upper back, the cloth going around her under her arms and ending where she could tie a small knot. When she put on her dress over this makeshift padding, the device made her look bigger.

And it worked like a charm, since only Cecilia gave her odd looks now and then as if she knew something was different, but couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

“Child,” she said one day, “what is going on with you? You are very secretive, and your face looks different.”

“Just too much fresh air, I guess. See, I have a lovely tan.”

“Lovely sunburn is more like it, with your fair skin.”

“I am really enjoying my time in the gardens just reading.”

“You make sure you are just reading. If Jake were here, I’d suspect you two were up to something, as you, he, and Al are always up to something. But without them here…” Cecilia shrugged her shoulders.

“I’m fine, Cecilia. Really. Just enjoying my solitude, that’s all.” Mara gave a sweet smile. “Since all the boys are now home from school, avoiding them is a good thing, don’t you think?”

If all this was to avoid the brothers and cousins, then Cecilia was fine with it. But there was still something nagging at her, and she just couldn’t figure it out.

 

*****

 

Jake had his own tough time back in London. There wasn’t enough to keep him busy, with only two horses in the stables. Once he exercised them in the mornings, and played with Lilac for a bit, he was done for the day and bored out of his mind. There wasn’t a lot of repair work to do, and Alvin didn’t want him anywhere near the gardens, since he couldn’t tell the difference between a bush and a tree, let alone between a weed and Basil’s precious petunias.

After being kicked out of the gardens by Alvin, out of the kitchens by Gigi, and out of the house by Termins, he decided that Luke and Pete would be better company, and went to visit them. He had Gigi pack him a big lunch, and left everyone at the estate to their own devices while he wandered into town.

Luke kicked him out, too, as he had loads of work to do, and Jake drove him crazy. So off he went to Pete’s, where at least he could help keep the fires burning or do some heavy lifting.

“So why didn’t you go to the country, man?”

“Punishment, I suspect. Beating me for no good reason obviously wasn’t enough, so keeping me away from the family is just more of the same.”

“Stupid, stupid, stupid. What that is doing is punishing Cal, who now ‘as to do your work as well as his. Markham is a horse’s ass.”

“I couldn’t agree more. And our Angel is stuck out there with her brothers and cousins all by herself, having to put up with their high jinx as well.”

“Haven’t they outgrown making Miss Mara’s life miserable?” Pete cocked his head to the side, quizzically.

“Nope. We really like it when they are at school and not around to bother us. Even Al is happier, as Bertram likes to torment him to no end by stomping on the flower beds and kicking dirt all over him while he works.”

“Money. They think it buys you the right to act like a bunch of arses. I just dinna get it.”

“You and I should run the world, Pete. Not the likes of the Markhams.”

“You got that, brother. you got that right!”

After working the bellows for Pete, Jake was hot and sweaty, so he pulled off his shirt and turned around to hang it on a hook.”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God!” Pete yelled as he saw the scars on Jake’s back.

Jake turned around with arms out to show Pete his chest too. “Like it? I had it custom made at the Lord Markham tattoo parlor down the road a piece. No other like it. Four strikes the first time, eight the second. Even dozen.”

“Blimey, man. There ain’t an inch o’ skin on your back that is unmarked!” exclaimed Pete as he walked around Jake to appraise the damage. “I’ll be damned. Ain’t never seen anything like this. Look at your side and chest, too! I’m surprised you didn’t die, man!”

“Believe me, I thought I was going to.”

Pete shook his head in awe and went back to work, never again mentioning the scars.

The banter continued for hours, day after day. Jake’s wounds healed with the hard work, and he began to build muscles to match.

“If you wanna be as strong as an ox, you need to be a smithy,” Pete’s boss, Max, had told the boys years ago, just after he had taken on Pete as an apprentice. Jake absolutely believed it.

The work felt good, the muscles felt good, and the company felt great. Pete was an able doctor for Jake’s soul, helping to heal his emotional wounds. Jake was no longer fixated on killing Markham. Escape seemed a better option, but how? That was the big question. How to take Mara along was the bigger question.

 

*****

 

The day finally came for the Markham family to pack up the carriage and wagon and return to London. Lord Markham’s business dealings required his attention. It wasn’t that he stopped doing business at Rochcliffe House; it just took more effort from afar.

Yet he considered this trip to have been a success, for he finally called in all the chits and IOUs from his brother. The viscount was shocked when he saw the total amount he’d borrowed from his brother over the years to keep himself solvent. The bastard had kept every chit, not letting a single pound go by unchecked.

The viscount had sold heirlooms from the estate as well, and when Markham found out, he was furious. For years, Cecil was forced to allow Evelyn first right of refusal to buy any heirloom, which made it harder to make money. Evelyn had most of the items Cecil had sold, along with tens of thousands of pounds worth of IOUs he was calling in. Cecil had always been the weak one, but being firstborn meant the title, land, and most of the family fortune had come to him. Evelyn had taken the small inheritance he received and turned it into a gold mine of businesses around the British Isles, but Cecil had squandered his share.

Now Markham demanded Rochcliffe House in exchange for all the chits. The viscount was heartbroken. His son, Oscar, would inherit the title, but nothing else. Markham would allow the viscount and the viscountess to live in the castle for the rest of their lives, but he would not house or support their three sons past the age of twenty-one. Oscar was already twenty-four; his middle son, Oakley, twenty-one; and his youngest, Orville, eighteen.

Cecil had a choice to make—either go to debtors’ prison, or give the ancestral home to Evelyn. Neither sat well with him, but living in his brother’s keep was better than languishing in prison. So he handed over the deed to the estate in Waltham in front of a group of overzealous barristers. Now he had the unpleasant task of telling Oscar and Oakley they would have to find jobs and housing. Their best recourse at this juncture would be to find wealthy women to marry.

 

Chapter 24

 

Mara could barely contain herself on the trip back to London. It seemed like they would never arrive home, and when the carriage finally pulled into the gate, she almost jumped out before it stopped. No one paid any attention to her as she ran up the front stairs, down the back stairs, through the breezeway, and into the stables to look for Jake. But he was nowhere to be found, upstairs or down. Blimey! She picked up a book on the table, opened it, and laid it face down on his bed, hoping he’d realize only she would do that. Then she went back to the house to wait.

After dinner, Jesse stopped Mara as she exited the dining room to tell her Jake waited in the garden.

Grinning from ear to ear, she went up to her room to remove her “fat” towels before running out of the house and across the drive and lawn to their special copse, certain Jake would be there. Only he wasn’t. Darn it all! So she waited.

Jake watched his love run by (and run well, too!) on her way to the copse. He hid in the shadows of the trees, watching to make sure no one followed her. He couldn’t be too careful now; he would be in grave danger if they were ever caught together again. After about five minutes, he decided it was safe, and worked his way to the trellis.

There she stood in the dusk—his sweet, familiar love. But something was different about her. As he was trying to figure out what it was, she saw him and opened her arms. He rushed the last few feet, caught her up in his arms and swung her around, pressing his lips to hers.

Jake put her back down almost immediately, shocked. He drew back and took both sides of her dress in his hands, gathering the loose material until finally he could see the outline of her new body underneath all that cloth. Even though she wasn’t slim yet, she had lost a tremendous amount of weight, and was much thinner, with lovely curves. The word voluptuous came to Jake’s mind.

“Hey, gorgeous! Where’d you go? You’ve disappeared! Who are you, and what have you done with my big, beautiful Mara?”

Mara giggled. “Do you like the new me?”

“Like? I am in awe of you, my love. Look at you!” And with that, he gathered her up to him again, and gave her the most sensual kiss he could muster.

Mara had been waiting for this moment for over two months, and released all those weeks of pent-up frustration and passion through her lips, her tongue, her roaming hands, and her body, as she pressed herself against him as hard as she could. She noted new curves of his own, muscles shaping across his arms and back.

Jake felt the passion burning through him. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t remember who or where he was. He was totally consumed by her touch, her lips, and her passionate embrace.

He moved his hands over the vast material of her dress, trying to find her under all that extra cloth. He finally moved his hands to her face, cupping her chin in them before moving his right hand over her shoulder. With his left hand he caressed the back of her neck, drinking of her mouth and tongue under his power.

She moaned, allowing him to explore her mouth, wanting him to explore her, imploring him silently to explore her. She moved her hands over his chest and neck and face, matching his interest with her own.

Jake moved his hand to her arm, slowly rubbing it before entwining her hand in his.

Before she sank deeper into the kiss, Mara’s rational mind returned, and she realized the danger of if anyone saw them.

“Stop. Please, stop,” she panted. “We must not…”

Jake groaned from the depths of his very soul. He wanted this kiss to go on forever. It tore him apart to stop and pull away. Some part of his brain knew she was right. He dropped her hand and wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her close.

“It’s too dangerous, especially for you. If we are found like this, no one will be able to stop Father from killing you.”

“I know. I know. Damn! It’s just so hard to love you as much as I do and not be able to show you my love.”

“You show me your love every day, and you have for years, Jake.” She looked up at him, locking his eyes with hers. “We just need to keep our love safe and secret.”

He tenderly touched her face. “Someday I want you to have my child. I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than you bearing my children.”

“I want to have your children, too. More than anything in the world I want to be with you, be your wife, and bear your children. But until that time, we must be careful.”

Jake closed his eyes as he held Mara close, rocking her back and forth, allowing time for his emotions to subside.

This was going to be the longest summer of his life.

He took her hand, and they moved to the bench. He sat long ways with his back to the trellis, his right leg bent and on the bench, his left on the ground. Mara sat in front of him, her back resting against his chest. Then he wrapped his arms around her and rested his head on hers. They sat like that in the ever-growing darkness, content just to be together.

“So tell me about the new Mara. How did you become so fit and trim?”

“So tell me about the new Jacob. How did you become so muscular?”

Jake roared with laughter. “Okay, you first, though.”

Mara explained how she had finally been victorious over her lifelong struggle with weight. He her horse analogy highly amused him, and picturing her trotting and galloping in a pair of man’s pants made him laugh louder.

“So, what are you going to do now that you can no longer prance around Rochcliffe House in trousers?”

“Are you laughing at me?”

“No. Yes. No.”

“What kind of answer is that?”

“An honest one. I can’t help but laugh at your description of trotting around!”

She hit his leg.

“Ouch!”

“I won’t talk anymore if you are going to laugh at me.”

“Mara, I am laughing with you. I am so proud of you, and I want you to continue. So what are you going to do now?”

“Trot around the ballroom.” She smiled. “There are stairs on either side, and I discovered at Rochcliffe House that running up and down stairs is great exercise, too. I can run up one set, across the balcony and down the other set, across the ballroom, and back up. The ballroom is rarely used, so I shouldn’t be disturbed. Now tell me your story.”

“I’ve been spending time with Pete at the smithy. I am pretty good at pounding out horseshoes now, and the work has helped me regain my strength.”

“I wondered where you were all afternoon. The smithy was as good for you as the trotting was for me. I am just thrilled to be together with you again, my love.” She bent her head back so she could see him. “Kiss me, you fine young man.” And he did.

 

Chapter 25

 

Jake and Mara spent the summer trying to share stolen moments without being caught. They were careful to avoid each other when others were around, as they were afraid they’d give themselves away. Alvin, however, had figured it out after seeing them in the copse one night, cuddled on the bench.

He approached Jake the next afternoon as Jake beat a couple of horse blankets on the side of the stables. “So….what is going on, man?”

“Nothing much, Al. What’s going on with you?” He sneezed from the dust he was creating.

“Bless you. Well, I might be kinda slow, but I finally figured out why you never go a lookin’ for women in town with the rest of us.”

“I don’t want to catch anything I can’t get rid of.”

“Funny.”

Alvin continued to stare at Jake. He stopped beating the blankets, and eyed Alvin.

“You and Angel Mara. There’s something going on between the two of you.”

Jake swallowed. “What do you mean? Don’t see much of her lately.”

“Yeah right, you dinna get to see her lately. That’s a rash of shit, Jacob Abbot. you have been holding out vital information on the exact nature of your relationship with our Angel. I saw you two sitting pretty close on the bench yesterday. Spit it out.”

“Did anyone else see?” Jake was frightened now. Keeping it from Alvin wasn’t the problem; making sure only Alvin knew was the problem.

“Don’t think so. Basil and Rory were in the back most of yesterday, but the copse ain’t so safe with them able to be anywhere in the garden at any time.

“God, Al.” Jake sat down on the very mounting block where he had been whipped. “I’ve loved her since the day I came through the hedge and she fed me. And the amazing thing is that she loves me back. We know we are playing with fire but …” he trailed off. “I just can’t help myself.”

“Are you daft, man? What if she get preggers? Then what? She’s a lady and you’re a bloody stable ‘and!” Alvin plopped down on the ground next to the mounting block.

“I haven’t made love to her…yet,” he paused, “so she won’t become pregnant, but the difference in our social stations is a bit problematic.”

“A bit problematic? A bit problematic? That’s the understatement of the century, and it’s only 1803!”

Jake had to laugh at that one. His problem would not be the biggest one of the century. But Alvin was right that it was more than a bit problematic.

“All right, my friend, what do you suggest?”

“Blimey, man. ‘Ow should I know? you be the smart one of us all, and you be the one acting like an arse! What, two whippings within an inch of your life ain’t enough?”

“That’s what scares the devil out of me, I admit. The next time will be the death of me. That’s why we can’t be caught.”

“Well, you know I will help the best way I can, but gads, Jacob. Egad.” All Alvin could do was shake his head.

“Thanks, mate. Glad to hear you support me.”

“Jake, I love Angel Mara more than anybody in the world, but I don’t love her like a lover. How you crossed over that line, I will never know, but for both of your sakes, stay the hell out of sight!”

With that, Alvin stood up, brushed the dirt off his backside, and wandered back into the gardens, leaving Jake to his own work and jumbled thoughts.

 

*****

 

The next day, after dinner, Jake found Alvin working on some paving stones in the driveway that needed to be leveled and repacked with sand.

“Come.”

“Come where, man? I got work to do.”

“Quit your whining and come.”

Alvin put his tools aside where they wouldn’t be stepped on, and followed his friend into the garden.

They joined Mara in the copse.

Mara said hello to Alvin, and looked quizzically at Jake.

“He knows.”

She was relieved. “It’s actually nice that one of our friends knows. Welcome to our secret lives, Al. How’d you find out?”

Alvin repeated his story.

“Al promised to help out, so I thought he could play lookout.”

“What! you want me to watch you two groping’ and clawing’ at each other? That just ain’t fair, man!”

Jake laughed. “No, you idiot. Not watch us. Watch out for them, and make sure we aren’t seen!”

“Oh, oh! So I just ‘ide in the trees and make sure you two have a bit o’ privacy. I see how you are. This is really pushing’ our friendship to the limit.”

Mara rolled her eyes. “No need to be so dramatic, Al.”

“Fine. But you get to ‘slain to Rory why me own work ain’t gittin’ done because I have to play looky out for you two!” And with that he huffed off and plopped down on a rock just outside the copse to keep watch.

Mara laughed. Alvin was a good friend, despite all the drama he created. And he gave the two of them the privacy they needed to snatch a few hugs and kisses every evening in the copse.

 

*****

 

July melted into August, and August into September. Pete turned eighteen, and Calvin, Rory, Alvin, Jake, and Mara brought a huge cake made by Jesse and Gigi to the smithy to celebrate. Calvin and Rory were able to escape with Alvin, Jake, and Mara for the event. Max loved it. He caused a great scene outside by inviting everyone in for a “bit o’ lovely sweets” for his apprentice who now could be called a journeyman.

They celebrated Jake’s twentieth birthday with apple pie in the kitchens, with all the servants attending. Apple pie was Jake’s favorite, and he ate half of a pie all by himself!

Mara continued to lose weight, doing her daily “walk, trot, run” around the ballroom. The stairs had added an element of toughness to her exercise regimen, and her thighs, buttocks, and calves were shaping up quite nicely. She started working on her arms by lifting buckets of water Alvin left for her in the back yard, adding more water each week to make the workout more difficult. The weight loss left behind loose skin that only her exercise regimen could help tighten.

Jake laughed at her “fat towels,” and really didn’t understand her desire to keep the weight loss a secret, but he let her do what she wanted. Never having been overweight himself, he didn’t understand the fat person’s psyche, and didn’t want to try.

Lady Maureen desperately wanted Mara to become more of a lady, and insisted she take social lessons again. Mara humored her mother, but didn’t really put a lot of effort into the lessons, much to her mother’s dismay. But soon Lady Maureen became busy overseeing the final touches to the costumes the family members would wear to the great Masque, and the lessons were dropped once again.

Mara worked on her own costume for the Masque. She decided this event was the perfect time to unveil her new, thinner self. Jake gave her his full support, as he thought it was high time she shed those horrid dresses and “fat towels” and show off her figure a bit. He secretly hoped her family members would change their behavior toward her, and start treating her like a daughter and sister instead of a pariah.

Cecilia had discovered Mara’s weight loss some time ago when she walked in on Mara early one morning as Mara took off her workout trousers and shoes.

“Holy Mother!” she exclaimed, and quickly shut and locked the door behind her. “What…?” Cecilia was flabbergasted as she looked at the now slim and trim Mara, in pants!

“Shhhhhhhh,” implored Mara. “Please, please don’t tell anyone. I am not ready to hear them talk about it and me yet. Please.”

“Miss Mara, you look amazing! I knew something was going on, but I never guessed this!”

Mara smiled. “It is rather amazing, isn’t it? I’ve worked my bottom off, quite literally, all spring and summer. What do you think?” She twirled around in her camisole and bloomers.

“I can’t believe it is you. How have you looked fat all this time when you are not anymore?”

“With these.” She pulled her fat towels out of the bottom of her wardrobe and demonstrated putting them on. She then pulled a dress over her head. “See, instant fatty again.”

“But why? Why pretend to still be fat?”

“It’s hard to explain, but I have spent my entire life in the shadows, being ignored by my family. I just wasn’t ready for them to know. I felt I would lose something when I did let it be known, that my life would change completely, and I wasn’t ready. But I would love to reveal my new self at the Masque. Will you help me?”

“Of course. I would love to! You are going to make heads spin and jaws drop. You have always been the kindest, sweetest girl in London. Now you are also the most beautiful girl in London.”

Mara ran over to Cecilia and hugged her. “Thank you for being such a good friend to me.”

“Here I thought the big secret was that you were in love with Jake. But it’s actually that you have lost weight. How silly of me, huh.”

Mara quickly turned away from Cecilia to hide her facial expression. “Yes, how silly. Ha, ha, ha. Just me losing weight. That’s my big secret.”

“Tell me what you have in mind for the Masque.”

And the two of them began to plan Mara’s big debut.

 

Chapter 26

 

The night of the Masque finally arrived. Cecilia, Jake, and Alvin had all been working to prepare Mara for her “coming out.” Alvin continued to stand watch while Mara and Jake planned in the copse, ensuring they would not be disturbed.

They celebrated Mara’s seventeenth birthday the night before, but even on her birthday she wasn’t the center of attention. Her parents mostly talked about the Masque. Such was Mara’s lot in life.

Cecilia searched the sewing room and found some Oriental silk in orange, yellow, and red. It appeared to have been there for some time, possibly purchased by Mara’s grandmother. It would be perfect for their plan to transform Mara into an Asian lady. Her hair was a problem, since it was immediately recognizable, so she would need to wear some sort of head piece.

Mara, very familiar with the contents of the attic trunks by now, remembered having seen a head piece full of beads and sequins and dangling glass, and was able to find it again easily. It was a sight to behold, and they couldn’t imagine how it had originally been used, but they were able to refashion it into a dazzling display for the Masque. They attached a black mask to the head piece, and decorated it with beads and bits of the silk fabric fashioned into feathers. Mara would certainly make an impression in the flamboyant headdress!

The week before the Masque, Lady Maureen retrieved the family’s costumes from the clothiers. Mara’s was drab and shapeless as usual—the material was a ghastly beige brocade. What she was supposed to be, they didn’t know, but “the tent” worked very well to cover her real costume.

At last it was time to embark. Everyone entered the carriage, with Jake at the foot and Calvin driving. In the compartment under the seats Jake had placed the headdress and a flat package containing items that would complete the costume.

They arrived at the Duke of Cleveland’s London house a half hour later. Aside from Buckingham Palace, the duke’s home, Stafford House, was the noblest palace in London. And tonight it was the place everyone wanted to be. Even King George III, Queen Charlotte, and their adult children attended the Masque.

As soon as the carriage stopped at the curved marble steps leading up to the grand front entrance, Jake opened the door to allow Lord and Lady Markham to descend. Edwin had a date for the evening with the granddaughter of the Earl of Lonsdale, and would be coming in their carriage; Bertram was still in school, and too young to attend. Mara pretended to follow, but as soon as her parents started up the stairs, she hopped back into the carriage. Jake leapt on, and Calvin drove off.

After going two blocks, Calvin parked the carriage along the street. Jake opened the door again, and Mara re-emerged.

“Okay you two. What are you up to now? I dinna know why I agreed to this, but I just canna say no to you two young ‘uns.”

“You’ll see why in a minute, Calvin. Just hold on while I help Mara out of her dress.”

“What! You will not be taking off her dress in the street, man!”

“Calvin!” said Mara, trying to calm him down. “I have other clothes on underneath. It’s all right.”

“Oh. That’s a relief.” He watched as the tent dress came off, revealing the new, slim Mara underneath. “Holy Mary, Mother of God! What…?”

Jake helped Mara take off the fat towels. Calvin’s jaw dropped at the vision of loveliness before him.

Mara was wearing the Oriental silk which had been styled like a kimono, tight to her body. It showed off every new, luscious curve of her now near-perfect shape. Calvin was shocked. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“I’ve lost a little weight, Calvin. How do I look?” Mara teased. Calvin could only sputter.

Jake lifted the seat and took out the box that held the headdress. He also unwrapped the package, which contained a pair of matching slippers and set of silk wings, fashioned from the same material as the dress. He tied the wings onto Mara with matching ties, one around her waist and one around her chest above her breasts and under her armpits feeding the ties through clever slits in the sides of the costume to hide the front of the tie. Then he tied two beautiful bows in the back. Mara looked like a graceful, stunning butterfly.

“I’ve been practicing tying those bows. Pretty good, eh? What better costume than a beautiful butterfly! It is like you are emerging out of your chrysalis tonight,” said Jake, as he put the headdress on her head and tucked in stray hairs. She had put her hair up in a tight bun earlier in the evening so it would be easier for Jake to secure the head piece.

The last thing he did was pull the mask down over her eyes. Then, in full view of Calvin, Jake took Mara in his arms and kissed her passionately. “For luck, my love. For luck.”

Jake looked at Calvin as Mara sashayed down the sidewalk. “What?” he said, and smiled that crooked, devastating smile of his.

Calvin was so overcome he clasped his hands to his chest, pretending to have a heart attack right there on the spot.

 

*****

 

Mara felt extremely nervous. Her heart pounded so hard it threatened to pop out of her chest, and her knees shook so badly she thought she would splat face first on the ground. During the walk back to Stafford House, she did deep breathing exercises to keep herself calm.

She walked up the grand marble steps, through the doorway, and into the Masque. A servant directed her down the hallway to the entrance to the ballroom. As she entered the ballroom, the major domo smiled, obviously pleased with her appearance. “Your name, m’lady?”

She took a deep breath and said clearly, “Madame Butterfly,” and without looking back, began descending the staircase to the floor of the ballroom.

“Madame Butterfly!” she heard the major domo loudly announce. A few heads turned to look. Then a few more, and then a few more. Soon, like a wave, all eyes were on her as she carefully, slowly, and gracefully descended the staircase. Thank goodness she had paid attention during some of those lessons in social graces! She made it down the stairs without tripping, her back straight, her head up, and with some semblance of grace and style. The only thing missing was Jake. How handsome he would look, all dressed up like the gentlemen here. How wonderful it would be to dance with him all night long!

She heard the buzz of people whispering, “Who is she?” as she walked by, slightly nodding her head in salutation, and smiling a closed-mouth smile. She was afraid the space between her teeth would give her away, as it was as distinctive as her wild, red hair.

An older gentleman approached her. She remembered having seen him before, but couldn’t recall when or where. He held out his hand and bowed, kissing the back of her hand. “Adair Glenn, Duke of Cleveland, at your service, m’lady.” It was all Mara could do not to pull her hand away in disgust. The touch of his papery, dry, cold hand made her skin crawl. She wasn’t sure why, but this man repulsed her. It took all the restraint she could muster not to run in the opposite direction.

Mara bent in a deep curtsey and smiled her sly, closed-mouth smile without saying a word. She had decided that not saying anything this night would be the best course of action.

“Ah, a shy lady butterfly. I will have to make you feel at home until you come out of your shell. Come, m’lady. You look hungry.” And the Duke of Cleveland led his new guest to the enormous buffet table, where Mara busied herself dishing food onto a lovely glass plate. If she spent a lot of time eating, he couldn’t hold her hand.

After she had filled her plate, the duke led her to his table, and pulled out a chair for her to sit.

They played twenty questions, with Mara either smiling and nodding, or pursing her lips and shaking her head. She ate daintily, trying to keep her teeth from showing, chewing every bite slowly and deliberately. A couple of times, the duke’s attention was averted by other guests, and Mara could then look around the grand ballroom at the Masque’s beautifully-attired guests. She wanted to locate her family so she could avoid them, even though they would never figure out who she was.

The women in the crowd strained to see the stunning creature sitting with the duke. No one could recall ever having seen her before. “Madame Butterfly,” they jealously harrumphed. The gossip flew as they speculated on her identity.

The next few hours passed quickly. Mara was asked to dance first by the duke, and then by many other gentlemen, curious about the beautiful stranger’s identity. She neither spoke nor opened her mouth, answering question after question with a shy smile and a nod or shake. She was the talk of the party. Even King George asked for a dance, but was no more successful in getting this young beauty to reveal her identity than any of the others. The men were enjoying the game enormously; the women were ready to tear out the butterfly’s eyes.

The Duke of Cleveland hardly left her alone all evening, even claiming her immediately after every dance she didn’t dance with him. He pranced around with his hand on her elbow, escorting her from person to person, introducing her to his guests. She gritted her teeth beneath her closed lips, grimacing at his touch. She wished she spent the evening with anyone but him!

“Madame Butterfly, meet the Marquis of Rockingham.”

“This is the Earl of Chatham. We went to Cambridge together. Remember the game…” Mara’s mind wandered, her Mona Lisa smile pasted on her face.

“My dear, this is the Duke of Grafton and his lovely bride, Lady Desiree. Lady Desiree is my sister, so I guess I have to claim him, too. Ha, ha, ha!”

Smile, Mara, she said to herself. Just smile. Why couldn’t a young, dashing man have attached himself to her instead of this old, boorish fop?

“Henry Addington! Come meet my little butterfly. He is the Prime Minister, my dear.”

Yes, I know, thought Mara. I know. To escape, she boldly took Mr. Addington’s hand, and led him to the dance floor. She had had enough!

The gossip about her continued, as the guests watched her charm the PM.

 

*****

 

Back at the carriage, Calvin finally overcame his shock and spoke. “What the bloody…?”

“Come, Cal. Gigi packed us some food. It’s here in a basket under the seat. Let’s eat, and I will tell you everything.”

They leaned back in the comfortable seats, and ate the delicious meal Mr. Fout had prepared. Jake told Calvin all about Mara’s weight loss over the past seven months, and about her idea to “come out” at the Masque.

“Cecilia and Mara did most of the work. That costume is truly a masterpiece. I fashioned the wire for the wings, but they did the rest. I was just there mainly for moral support, and to help her dress tonight.”

“I canna believe how beautiful our little Miss Mara has grown to be. Her face has always been lovely, but now her whole being is lovely. I just canna get over it!”

“It is quite a transformation, I agree.”

They ate in silence for a few minutes. Jake took a drink of mead. “But I do have to ask you a favor.”

“About that kiss?”

Jake chuckled. “Yeah, about that kiss.”

“Just dinna get caught by the master. Even God canna save you from him then. And a third whipping would be the end of you.”

“Thanks, Cal. I knew you would understand.”

“Understand, my arse. You’ve been makin’ goo goo eyes at that girl for years. Only blind people and her family haven’t noticed. It’s been written all over your face since the day you came to work for me.”

“That bad, eh?”

“You got it bad, all right. Real bad.”

 

*****

 

At 11:30 pm, thirty minutes before the unmasking, Mara excused herself to go to the ladies’ retiring room, and then slipped out of the duke’s home. She ran all the way back to the carriage, and found Jake and Calvin snoozing in the coach.

“Wake up, you two worthless bums! Help me out of this costume.”

Jake and Calvin jumped out of the coach and helped Mara back into her fat towels and original party clothes before leaving to pick up her parents and brother.

In no time, they were on their way to Stafford House, to wait in line with the rest of the coaches. Jake walked alongside the carriage, as Mara gave him a whispered update through the open window.

“The Duke of Cleveland was horrid. There is something about him that makes my skin crawl. He kept holding my hand and touching my elbow and putting his hands on my waist. He referred to me as ‘his butterfly’ all evening. He was awful.”

Jake was green with envy listening to Mara talk about another man touching her. True, the duke was old, but he was still a man!

She told him about her dance with King George.

“You danced with the King? Great gads! That is amazing. How did you manage to stay silent in the king’s presence? The king, by God!”

“By then it was a great game, and gentlemen were asking the silliest questions just to see me react. I was having the best time playacting. I think I could make a living on stage!”

“Not my wife,” Jake growled, giving her a smoldering look.

She gave him a smoldering look back. He growled again and walked away, afraid of what he’d do if they continued this game.

In time, her parents emerged from Stafford House and got into in the carriage. Jake closed the door, climbed onto the footman’s post, and off they went. Inside, Mara’s parents and brother kept falling all over each other’s sentences as they talked about the mysterious, stunningly beautiful Madame Butterfly. Mara sat in the dark corner, and smiled her Mona Lisa smile.

 

Chapter 27

 

The entire town gossiped about the Masque and the beautiful Madame Butterfly. The women spent hours poring over lists of people who were known to have been there, eliminating as many names as they could. But the mystery remained. Madame Butterfly was obviously a woman of breeding. Could she have been a real Madame? The men were delighted by that thought—a Madame flagrantly running around in front of their wives. That idea raised up their passions, but raised up the women’s ire.

They all finally decided she must be a foreigner. That must be why she didn’t talk, so as not to betray her accent. So they looked over the guest list again, and still came up empty. But it was better than thinking she was a real Madame, so the ladies settled on that idea.

The person most obsessed with Madame Butterfly was Adair Glenn, Duke of Cleveland. He was a widower with two daughters but no son to inherit, was over the age of fifty, and thought Madame Butterfly would make a perfect second Duchess of Cleveland. He started his own search for the elusive beauty, calling upon the London constabulary and his own barristers to assist him.

 

*****

 

By the middle of November, people were no longer talking about the Masque, and Mara felt it was time to tell her family the truth. Her brothers were in school, leaving only her parents to confront.

One night after dinner, she asked Termins to have her parents meet her in the parlor to discuss a matter of importance. Cecilia helped her dress as Madame Butterfly, and she walked down the stairs to the parlor, where she would meet her parents.

She was more nervous now than she had been at the Masque. Coming out was harder than staying in her shell, and she almost ran back up the stairs, and probably would have if Cecilia hadn’t been behind her, encouraging her along.

She walked into the parlor and stopped, standing as straight as she could, and with as much dignity as she could muster.

Lady Maureen gasped, and Lord Markham stood up so rapidly the papers on his lap fell to the floor, scaring the resting Lilac, who scuttled off to a corner.

“Madame Butterfly?” Lady Maureen sputtered, not sure if she asked a question or made a statement.

Mara reached up and slowly pulled off the mask and headdress.

“I am Madame Butterfly, Mother, Father.” Her parents could only stare, stunned.

Where was their fat daughter? When had she slimmed down? When did she become so beautiful? Where did she find that dress? How did they miss this?

Mara realized they were too shocked to say anything, so she started to rapidly explain.

“It all began when I was so sick and couldn’t eat. I started losing weight, and decided to lose it all. I worked on it all summer and fall, hiding it from you because I was afraid of how you would react. I decided to become Madame Butterfly at the Masque because, for once in my life, I wanted to be bold, and beautiful, and thin, and the Masque was the perfect opportunity, and…” her voice trailed off.

Lady Maureen started to cry. Now it was Mara’s turn to stand in bewildered silence. Now what? Her mother stood up from the settee and came to Mara with open arms to give her striking daughter a hug. Then Mara started to cry, hugging her mother back. All was forgiven, all was right.

Lord Markham was astonished. Could this vision of loveliness be his fat, ugly daughter? When had she become such a gorgeous young woman? When did the butterfly emerge? How had he missed this event? He sat back down before he fell down.

“Father?”

He stared at her tear-stained face. “You’re beautiful. I don’t understand, but you are beautiful and I’ve missed it all these years. I… I…” He stopped, overcome with emotion. But that didn’t last long. The businessman in him soon took over, when he realized what she was now truly worth to him.

 

*****

 

Mara was as happy as she had ever been. Her mother immediately took her under her wing, and doted on her every need. Her father proudly showed her off to his peers.

The ladies went shopping almost daily through the month of November, not only to Lady Maureen’s favorite couturier to acquire a proper wardrobe for her daughter, but also to shops to buy hats, ribbons, shoes, and scarves.

The clothier was French, of course. Madame Poitier was renowned for her sense of style and being au courant with the haute couture of the continent, usually adding flair of her own. Madame moved her eyes over Mara’s new figure, and immediately set out among her materials, tossing bolts either to her assistants, on the floor, or off to the side, mumbling in French about color and texture.

No more dull browns and beiges for Mara! Her new clothes would be made of fabrics in bold peacock blue, emerald green, fire red, soft peach, royal purple and canary yellow, to set off her hair and eyes.

“She has the body of a goddess!” exclaimed Madame Poitier. “I must outfit her like Athena.” And with the generous budget set by Lord Markham, Madame thought even Athena never had such a wardrobe!

Mara was measured, pinned, poked, and prodded, but the results would be worth it. Madame would sew for her a couple of dozen day gowns, five evening gowns, two riding outfits, and all new undergarments made from the softest materials imaginable—muslins for everyday wear and batistes for evening. Madame Poitier was in her element. Mara was her palette, and what a palette she was!

Mara insisted on buying a new pair of boots from the cobbler, dragging her mother to see Luke.

His jaw dropped when he saw the face of his Angel Mara walk into the shop, now with the body of an angel as well.

He recovered quickly. “Ladies, you are like a ray of sunshine on my otherwise dark and lifeless day. Come in, come in!” Luke poured on the charm, as he bowed deeply to kiss Lady Maureen’s hand. He looked over Mara’s hand quizzically as he kissed it, and saw the warning in her eye. He promptly realized he needed to play dumb, as her mother was by her side.

“Young sir, I am in need of a pair of new boots.”

Luke’s face broke out in a huge smile.

“M’lady, I have the perfect pair in mind for a flower as fair as you. The softest leather from the hide of a yearling calf, flawlessly tanned to perfection by the hands of virgin maidens. Only the best for the rare and delightful beauty you possess.” Mara now understood why the girls chased him. Even her mother looked a bit smitten by the charms of cute, little Luke.

“Here, here. Sit and let me take your measurements.” He led Mara to a leather chair, removed her shoe, and expertly measured her foot, arch, ankle, and lower leg, all the while extolling her and her mother’s virtues.

“And does your sister wish to have new boots as well?” Luke’s eyes sparkled.

Lady Maureen tittered. Sister! My goodness! But she let Luke lead her to the chair for her own fitting.

“I am Miss Mara’s mother.”

“NO!”

“Yes.”

“It ain’t possible! You canna be more than ten years older than this young girl, m’lady. You are so young yourself!”

“Thank you, kind boy. You are good for my old ego.”

“Old and you canna fit into the same sentence together. You are as lovely, fresh, and new as the sunrise itself, bringing life to an old and dreary world.”

So not only did Mara acquire new shoes that day, but she would also have a pair of boots just like Lady May’s.

Her mother was also quite happy to have met a wonderful new cobbler.

Luke felt thrilled for his Angel, and his master clapped in joy with the new boot orders and a new client.

 

*****

 

Lady Maureen took Mara everywhere, introducing her anew to friends and acquaintances, showing off her lovely daughter to all who would come and look. Mara was afraid she’d become fat again from all the teas she was forced to attend, and had to double her morning efforts on the ballroom stairs to keep up with the intake. She felt like she was on parade.

“Lady Muriel, this is my daughter, Mara. Mara, may I present the Duchess of Devonshire.”

“Lord Herbert! So nice to see you again. This is my daughter, Mara. My dear, meet the Earl of Lonsdale. Edwin escorted his granddaughter to the Masque, remember?”

“Lord Newbury is the Duke of Wellington. My daughter, Mara.”

“Mara, please welcome the Marquis and Marchioness of Westminster.”

“Sir Philip Sidney…”

“The Earl of Devon, Lord Brooke…”

“The Marchioness of Bath…”

“The Countess of Bute. She is the one who helped us with the Queen’s Children’s Home…”

“The Earl and Countess of Rosebury…”

“Viscount Twistleton…”

Mara’s head swam with all the social events and people. She couldn’t possibly remember any of their names. Just like at the Masque, they all looked alike, they all sounded alike, they all talked alike. They drove her insane. All she wanted was to be at the house with Jake and Alvin, away from all these blathering fops.

Conversing with the women was the worst. All they wanted to do was gossip and talk about who was seen with whom, and who was sleeping with whom. Whenever she brought up politics, philosophy, or current events, they looked at her with blank stares on their faces.

The men, married or not, ogled and pawed at her, making forward and sometimes lewd advances. She spent most of her time swatting away their octopus hands.

She began to wish she had stayed overweight and not come out of her protective shell.

 

Chapter 28

 

Evelyn Markham sat in the plush den of the Duke of Cleveland’s home, slowly swirling the amber liquid of a brandy around in the snifter.

The duke dismissed the butler after the drinks were poured, and looked over his own glass at Markham.

“Well now, what’s on your mind, today, Evelyn? I liked the last deal we made, as it turned out quite profitably for me. How did you know that land would double in price?”

“Adair, that is my secret. It is how I stay in business, and continue to line your and my pockets with gold.”

The duke laughed. “I would never dare take away any secrets from you that continue to fill my coffers. Lead on, my dear man. Lead on!” He raised his glass. “So what is the new venture? More land, development, purchase of a factory?”

“Nothing so commonplace this time around. This is more a deal of, shall we say, the heart?”

“Oh?”

“I understand you have been searching for the elusive Madame Butterfly.”

The duke looked sideways at Lord Markham. “Yes…”

“Tell me, Adair. What is finding Madame Butterfly worth to you?”

The duke put his glass down and leaned forward. Evelyn had his full attention now.

“What do you mean, worth?”

“I mean, in terms of time, money, prestige—what is she worth to you?”

The duke straightened his back, took a deep breath, and let it out again before rising up and wandering over to the window. Christmas was right around the corner, and the weather threatened snow. “Worth. Hmmmm. Interesting question. What is a son worth to a father? What is a title worth to an heir? What is beauty worth? Can you put a price on that?”

“Yes. You can put a price on anything. Maybe not monetary worth, but there is emotional worth, physical worth, spiritual worth.” Markham paused, letting his words sink in. “So what is she worth? What would you trade if I could deliver her to you?”

“Can you?” The words were out of his mouth like a shot.

“It depends on the business deal we make.”

The duke came back to the chair and sat down again. “I am an aging man without a male heir, Evelyn. You may not have the title, but you have the sons.” He picked up his glass of brandy and took a swig. “I was completely intrigued and smitten by the young lady. I need a wife, a young wife, a woman who can bear me an heir. And I have chosen the Butterfly. I would do almost anything to have her.”

“Ahhh. A duchess is what you need. Her worth is great then. A title, a son who would be heir to the duchy.” Markham smiled the smile he gave when he knew he was about to close a deal.

“I will deliver her, only if you agree to the following terms. You will publicly announce your engagement and make her the Duchess of Cleveland as soon as possible. You will not receive a dowry. You will pay for the wedding in its entirety. And you will extend your vast influence to her two brothers to help find proper and wealthy wives for them among the titled peerage. And, of course, you and I will continue in our profitable ventures together.”

“That is quite a proposal. Marrying her will cost me a pretty penny, but I suppose she is worth it.” He looked at Markham through slit eyes. “How do I know you will deliver the real Butterfly to me?”

“Because of this.” Markham pulled out the flat box he had been carrying when he arrived. “Open it.”

The duke took the box and opened the lid. Laying there was the dress he remembered the Butterfly wearing the night of the Masque. He pulled the fabric to his face, and drank deeply of the smell of her perfume. “You can deliver her! Who is she?”

Markham put out his hand toward the duke. “Do we have a deal?” Cleveland grabbed Markham’s hand, and shook it vigorously.

“Yes, we have an accord. I immediately announce our engagement, make her the duchess as soon as possible, pay for the wedding, and find two bachelors rich wives among the titled peerage. I have it. Who is she?”

“Mara Markham. My daughter.”

The duke knocked back his head and laughed from deep within.

“You sly dog, you! I should have known. You drive a very hard bargain. But you have a deal, my man. You have a deal.”

“Merry Christmas, Cleveland!”

“Merry Christmas indeed, Evelyn. Merry Christmas indeed!”

The two men shook hands again, and celebrated the sale of Mara with a brandy.

 

Chapter 29

 

The next morning, Lady Maureen was atwitter, her turmoil caused by the upcoming visit of the Duke of Cleveland that evening with an important announcement for the family. The staff was incredibly curious but had little time to gossip about the event, as Lady Maureen kept them very busy preparing for the night’s festivities.

Edwin and Bertram were home for the holidays, so it would be the entire family plus the duke for dinner. Lord Markham had told his wife the reason for the visit, and Lady Maureen was giddy with joy. Mara didn’t realize what a brilliant investment her Madame Butterfly costume had turned out to be!

Lady Maureen had a hard time keeping the secret. She could barely wait until dinner. In her wildest dreams she never thought her once fat, ugly daughter would grow up to be an exquisite swan and land the biggest title in the country next to royalty. It was incredible—unbelievable! This would greatly elevate Lady Maureen’s own status; her social engagements would double and triple, as she’d be invited to the biggest events in London.

Mara inwardly moaned when she learned about the dinner guest. That aging fop in her house! Gads. What next? She just hoped she wouldn’t have to sit next to him. The thought of him touching her all night long made her skin crawl. Long sleeves would definitely be in order!

She had told Cecilia about her night at the Masque, and how this man physically repulsed her. So the two of them went through her wardrobe to find the thickest evening gown she owned to protect her from his pawing. They settled on a heavy silver brocade with lace high on the bodice and around the wrists. It was absolutely lovely in its design, and would cover her from neck to toe.

“Dear, God,” she rolled her eyes at Cecilia, “just let me make it until dessert when I can make my excuses and run. Sometimes I wish I were the ladies’ maid!”

“Now, Miss Mara. It is only dinner, and he can’t be that bad.”

“Oh, yes he can!” They both giggled as Cecilia helped her dress and fixed her hair, pulling it back from her face with combs on the sides, allowing it to cascade down her back. A simple hairdo would be fine for the evening, since dinner would be in the family dining room.

Mara sat in the parlor with her mother to await the arrival of their guest. Her mother kept smiling and winking at her. Mara wondered if her mother had started early with the wine.

She sat there with her arms crossed, listening to her brothers talk about school, their chums, and sports. She did what she always did—let her mind drift to pleasant thoughts of Jake.

Her brothers had come home from school to face the shock of their lives when presented with their sister’s new looks. Edwin had spent many a night dreaming of having Madame Butterfly for himself, and couldn’t get over the fact that the object of his lustful dreams had been his own sister. He now sat in a chair with a drink in his hands, staring at his sister’s profile in awe. Bertram’s comment had simply been “about time you lost all that fat!”

Mara and Edwin were brought out of their separate reveries by the sound of horses’ hooves in the drive. The duke had arrived. Mara sighed. The dreaded evening began.

Immediately upon entering the house, the duke came to Mara’s side and took her hand in his. He gave her knowing glances, taking more liberties than she thought were proper on this, their first meeting. She had no reason to believe he knew she was Madame Butterfly, so his possessive behavior confused her.

The duke sat next to her at dinner, and put his hand on hers often. Mara had at least been looking forward to the delicious roast beef dinner, but he was even ruining that! She tried not to look at him, moved her hands so he couldn’t touch them, answered his questions in a monotone with few words, and tried to act absolutely disinterested, for she was. Why did he acting all cozy when she did everything she could to rebuff his advances?

Besides, he was older than her father! What was he thinking?

Her mother watched her constantly, as did her father. Didn’t they see this old coot repelled her? She turned her back on the duke most of the meal looking at the wall on the opposite side of the room. The meal quickly become intolerable! It took everything she had not to stab him with her fork.

As soon as the dessert dishes were carried away, Mara stood up. “If you would all excuse me, please, I am very tired, have a headache, and would like to retire for the evening. Father, Mother, Your Grace, good night.”

Before she moved an inch, her father replied sharply.

“You are not excused, young lady. Sit back down.”

She sat. As she sat, she turned her body away from the duke, putting her hands to the opposite side of her lap. Gads. More torture. Please dear, God, release me from this dinner! she thought.

This time the duke stood up, his wine glass in hand. “I would like to thank you all for a delightful evening, and a wonderful meal. Your cook is marvelous, my dear Maureen, simply marvelous.” Lady Maureen simpered.

“But as wonderful as dinner was, it is not as wonderful as the rest of the evening will be!”

Edwin and Bertram nearly burst into laughter at this pompous announcement. Lady and Lord Markham leaned forward in anticipation. Mara turned further away from the duke and rolled her eyes, causing her brothers even more amusement.

The duke turned to Mara. “I would like to make a toast to the most beautiful woman in England, the woman who will become the Duchess of Cleveland.” He paused dramatically. “Lord and Lady Markham have consented to give me the hand of the lovely Madame Butterfly in marriage, my most beautiful Mara.”

Mara fell out of her chair in a dead faint.

 

*****

 

She awoke in the parlor on the divan, her mother pressing smelling salts under her nose. She looked around in confusion, until her eyes came to the Duke of Cleveland.

Mara popped up off the divan, nearly knocking over her mother, and screamed at the top of her lungs, “NO, I WON’T DO IT AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” With that, she ran from the room and up to her bedroom, slammed the door, locked it, and then slid down onto the floor in a heap, sobbing uncontrollably.

Nothing had prepared her for what her parents and the duke had planned. She never saw it coming. The shock made her stomach convulse. She stood up from the floor and ran to the chamber pot just in time to lose her dinner.

Mara heaved and sobbed, sobbed and heaved, until she could heave no more. She sank once again to the floor in a heap. She wanted to die. Nothing could feel as bad as this. Her entire being was awash with fear and pain, hatred and dread. She desperately needed Jake’s arms around her.

Cecilia heard the news from Gigi, who had been in the dining room when the announcement was made. She now stood at Mara’s door listening to the sounds of her misery. The girl’s sobs wrenched the maid’s heart.

She knocked gently. “Miss Mara, dear, please open the door.”

“Go away!”

Lady Maureen joined Cecilia at the door.

“My dear, please open the door.”

“How could you do this to me? Go away! I hate you! I want to die!”

“Now dear, please stop being so dramatic. Just unlock the door, and we will calmly discuss this.”

“I am not calm! I will not marry that horrid man! Leave me alone!”

Lady Maureen looked at Cecilia. “Is there a way to open this door?”

Cecilia immediately thought of Alvin’s skill at picking locks. That had been years ago, but maybe he could still do it.

“I’ll be right back.”

Cecilia ran all the way to the stables to find Alvin. He and Basil were in Jake and Calvin’s room, playing cards. There was a little pile of money in the middle of the table, and it looked like Alvin was raking it in. Jake scowled. He was losing badly.

All looked up as Cecilia came bursting in. “You will never believe what happened. We need to break into Mara’s room. I am afraid she’s gonna hurt herself.”

Jake stood up so fast he almost toppled the table. “What happened?”

Cecilia paused to catch her breath. “Lord Markham has promised Mara’s hand in marriage to the Duke of Cleveland, and she’s locked herself in her room. She’s so upset she says she wants to die!”

Jake froze, mortified.

“Alvin,” Cecilia continued, “can you pick her lock?”

“Absolutely. Let me go find my tool, and I will be right up.”

Cecilia left to return to the house, and Alvin followed soon after.

The blood left Jake’s head, the room began to spin, and if it hadn’t been for Basil and Calvin, he’d have hit the floor.

“Put you head between your knees, boy!”

“Here…drink this.”

Jake took the mead, and drank the half pint in one gulp. He started to hyperventilate. Basil pushed the young man’s head back between his legs.

“Breathe slowly, Jake. Your gonna make yourself pass out.”

Jake’s equilibrium slowly returned, and he looked up. “They can’t make her marry someone she doesn’t want to, can they? Especially him. He’s older than her father!”

“Yes, unfortunately they can.”

“I gotta go see her.” He stood up.

“You ain’t gotta do any such thing!” Basil pushed him back down. “She is out of your league, out of your ‘ands, out of your class. We know you love her, but she is not yours to have!”

Jake collapsed on his cot, put his head in his hands, and let the tears come. He had dreaded this moment for years.

All Basil and Calvin could do was sit and watch the young man’s heart break into a thousand pieces.

 

*****

 

Alvin had Mara’s door open in two minutes. He was out of practice, after all.

Lady Maureen watched in amazement.

“It’s how they retrieved the ledger from Percy Snellings’ apartment,” Cecilia explained.

Lady Maureen simply nodded her head.

As soon as the door swung open, they all rushed in to find Mara lying on the floor curled up in a silver brocade ball gown, still sobbing. Having accomplished his task, Alvin left, closing the door behind him. His heart broke for Mara and Jake. Real love didn’t come along very often, and theirs was an eternal love. But it would never survive their circumstances, and they were powerless to do anything about it.

He returned to Jake and Calvin’s room to find a crying Jake and a solemn Basil and Calvin. All he could do was sit on the cot next to his best friend and put his arm around him in a show of support.

 

*****

 

Cecilia and Lady Maureen attended to Mara as best they could with her still ranting and raving and saying hateful things about her parents, the duke, her life, and the peerage. Her mother was quite appalled at the profanities her daughter uttered; it was the influence of Jacob and Alvin, she was sure.

They were finally able to remove her dress and put the poor girl in a nightgown before tucking her into bed. The two women could do nothing more. Cecilia said she’d sit vigil for a couple of hours to make sure the girl didn’t do anything foolish.

 

*****

 

At midnight, everyone in the house slept except for a tall, lean figure silently creeping up the stairs.

The figure stopped at the door of Mara’s bedroom and silently turned the knob. Once in the room, he closed the door and made his way toward the bed.

“Jake! What are you doing here?” The whispered voice nearly sent him out of his skin.

“Shhhhh! I had to see her to make sure she’s all right.”

Cecilia stood up from the reading chair and grabbed Jake by the arm. “Are you crazy? If Markham finds you in here, he will kill you!”

“Blimey, Cecilia. I can’t let them do this to her. I… I…”

Cecilia softened. Still whispering, she took his hands in hers. “Look Jake. We all know you love her dearly. It is as clear as the nose on your face, but you have to realize she is not yours to have. You have to let her go.”

Tears welled up in his eyes. He thought he’d cried it all out, but the tears flowed freely once again.

Cecilia gently guided him to the door and let him out. “Let her go,” she repeated, and closed and locked the door.

Jake looked back at the closed door in the darkness. Never, he thought. Never will I let her go. She is the reason I breathe. She is the beat of my heart, the blood in my veins, and the heat in my soul. Without her, I am nothing. I can never let her go.

 

Chapter 30

 

They were all in the stables pacing around except Mara, who sat on one of the tack boxes, beautiful in her green cape with fur collar and matching fur hat and muff. The green of the cape usually brought out the vibrant green of her eyes, but today those eyes were dull and lifeless.

What would she do? That horrid Duke of Cleveland was bound and determined to have her, and she was beside herself. The thought of him kissing her made her shudder and want to wretch. Every time his image crossed her mind, bile rose up in her throat, and she had to fight to push it back down.

Jake had been thinking out loud, muttering to himself as he wandered around the interior of the carriage house.

“There has to be a way out of this madness.” He stopped pacing, and turned to them “We could kill the duke!”

“Like that‘s gonna solve anything! Then we’d all be in prison with the rats, and how’s that to help Miss Mara? You wanna leave her completely alone in the ‘ands of her family? That would certainly do it!” Alvin wasn’t sure he liked the direction Jake’s thoughts were taking them. Except for picking a couple of locks, he hadn’t committed a crime since meeting Mara over seven years ago, and starting down the criminal path again didn’t appeal to him very much. “What we need to do is escape. Get the hell outa here. Take her away to a safe house. Find a place to ‘ide her.”

Mara moaned. “Like where? We’d need money, and people to help us. We’d need disguises.”

“Bloody hell! Cleveland is as rich as the king. Make him pay for our escape. That would be justice!”

“Maybe I’ll kill myself.”

Alvin definitely didn’t like the direction her thoughts were taking! “Mara, you ain’t gonna kill yourself. Dumb girl. How would that help you and Jake?”

Jake lowered his eyelids in a devious squint, his handsome face looking sinister as his lips curled. “Alvin, you are a genius!”

“Huh?”

“No, ladies and gentlemen, no one needs to die, but someone does need to be kidnapped.”

“Huh?” Alvin’s verbal skills were rapidly deteriorating.

“Ransom money! Yes!” Mara jumped up, seeing the possibilities. “You hide me, he pays for me, we take the money, and we run. You are brilliant!” She hugged Jake who quickly hugged her back, pressing her to him and closing his eyes. God, he loved her! He’d do anything to make her his, and it was all he could do not to lift her face to his, and kiss her passionately right there, Alvin be damned.

“So what’s the plan?”

“Slow down a bit. I gotta think a little here.” He let go of Mara, and started pacing again. “We need to proceed carefully, and Pete and Luke have to help. We’ll need to first figure out where to go and when. And how to take the ransom money. Give me a couple of days to think things through. You two have to think on it as well. We’ll meet back in the gardener’s shed tomorrow after lunch to start planning.”

He pulled Mara close to him again. “There is no way in God’s name I am going to let you marry that bloody old man. You are mine, and only mine.” He covered her mouth with one of his kisses.

Alvin whistled and turned the other way, pretending to be somewhere else. He felt Jake’s hand on his shoulder a moment later. “Let’s get back to work. There are tools we gotta repair this afternoon.”

 

*****

 

Mara thought about the escape and kidnapping all night long, tossing and turning in bed, binding the sheets around her legs. She finally got up and walked over to the window, staring out into the cold winter night. Eventually, she got a chill that forced her to crawl back under the covers, but her mind continued to spin. Their escape would only be successful if the details were carefully planned out:

Money.

A place to go.

A day to do it.

Ransom notes.

It all swam in her head until finally she fell into a fitful sleep. But in her dreams, she dreamed of a place to go and a day to do it.

 

*****

 

The next afternoon, the three squeezed into the cold gardener’s shed, moving about the tools and buckets and planters so they’d have room to sit.

“This is the safest place I could think of, since it isn’t used in the winter.”

“We’re gonna freeze to death in here, man. Let’s keep this meeting short.”

“Wear more next time, idiot.”

“This is my only jacket, jackass—where do I find more to wear?”

“Okay, gentlemen, stop acting like children, and let’s continue planning. I have ideas.”

“Me too.”

“Not me.”

“Thanks a lot, Al. You’re a real big help.”

“Hey! It ain’t my idea!”

“It was your idea.”

“Boys! Enough!” Mara loved these two dearly, but sometimes their silly bantering drove her crazy. “We are going to America.”

Their mouths dropped open. Well, at least it shut them up.

“Are you nuts?”

“Are you jestin’?”

Okay, so it didn’t shut them up.

“No, I am not making a joke. If we are escaping, we need to do it right, and we are all escaping. All five of us. We are in this together until the end. Once I am gone, my father and the duke will stop at nothing to find me. But I don’t think they will go so far as to come to America looking for me.”

“But if we all go, they will know we ‘ad something to do with it, so ‘ow do we collect the ransom money?” Alvin still wasn’t seeing the big picture.

“I’m kinda with Al on this…how do we find money for passage and gather the ransom money?”

“We’ll work on it, but hear me out. The best day to do it is the wedding day.”

“Wow! Nothing like waiting until the last possible moment!”

“That’ll really get him in the ol’ groin.”

“What do women wear on their wedding day?” Mara quizzed.

“A big, fluffy, white dress.” answered Alvin, smugly.

Jake furrowed his brow and began to understand what Mara had in mind. “Yes, Al, but more than that. The bride always wears the biggest, brightest, most expensive jewels the family owns, and so do all the other women who attend.”

“So if you kidnap me on my wedding day, where is the money coming from?”

“Lots and lots of diamonds, silver, and gold!”

“Right. Lots and lots of jewels. I’m sure my doting husband-to-be will provide me with a tiara, a necklace, a ring, a bracelet or two, a pair of earrings…” she said as she counted off fingers.

“I like the way you think.”

“I like the way you kiss.”

“I like the way you…”

“Okay already! I dinna wanna hear what you like! We have a plan beginnin’ to formulate here, and you two need to concentrate on the plan. The bloody plan, man, the plan.”

Jake and Mara laughed at Alvin’s discomfort. “All right. Mara, your ideas have real merit, but we need to think carefully about the details. How exactly will we stage your kidnapping? Also, we need a way to carry and sell the jewels, different clothes and disguises, and different names to book passage. We need to find out when a passenger ship sails, and set the wedding date for the day before. Yeah. I like it. I really like it.”

Mara smiled. “I’m not daft after all, eh?”

“Can we take all the wedding gifts, too? They’ll be worth a lot, won’t they?”

Mara and Jake stared at Alvin. “Al, you are a bloomin’ genius. We don’t need you to come up with plans, just with ideas. We’ll handle the details. First kidnapping Mara, then kidnapping the wedding gifts, too. Blimey. I think you are onto something, Al! I think you are onto something!”

And with that they began to flesh out the plan to kidnap Mara.

 

Chapter 31

 

They met again the next day to continue making plans. They talked for about an hour in the cold shed, trying to determine the best course of action. Many questions still needed to be answered. How would they collect the ransom money? Would Mara’s jewels provide enough capital to fund their journey to America? How would they sell the jewels? Should they use the services of a messenger?

Finally they decided to write a series of letters to make everyone think they were still somewhere in the British Isles. Mara would write them, using her vast knowledge of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Voltaire, and others to come up with good stories.

Questions remained about how best to deal with the jewels. They walked away with much to consider. They also walked away chilled to the bone. They’d all end up with pneumonia if they kept meeting in the gardener’s shed.

 

*****

 

Mara decided their next meeting should be in the attic, at midnight. They would be tired, but warmer.

Luke joined them that night, sneaking onto the grounds and into the stables to meet Alvin and Jake. They all crept silently into the house and up to the attic. The door squeaked horribly, and Jake decided he and Alvin had to do something about it, or they would all be doomed.

Luke listened as the group repeated the ideas they had discussed days prior. They debated more.

“Okay. I get the gist of the plan. ‘Ow many ladies are we talking about here?” Alvin and Jake rolled their eyes. Of course, Casanova had women on his mind.

“What ladies?”

“Well I assume Mara won’t be going to the wedding all by herself; someone will be with her. We will steal their jewelry, too. The more the merrier.”

They all looked at Mara. “Yeah, how do weddings work?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never been to a wedding!”

“You think we have?”

“Okay, okay. I will need to speak with Mother to learn more about weddings. I understand.”

“Mother. At least you mum will be in the carriage, right?”

“I assume so. My aunt, too. Probably also Cecilia, my ladies’ maid.”

“Ah,” said Jake. “There’s a problem in the making.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Cecilia. How are we going to keep her nose out of all this?”

“That could be a problem, mate, could be.”

Mara frowned. What would happen to Cecilia when they were all gone? Without Mara, Cecilia would be out of a job, and her father would terminate her immediately. He’d already tried once. And this time, he’d succeed.

“Take her along? Make her an accomplice?”

That threw them into another long and heated discussion about secrecy and commitment and confidentiality and trust.

They finally decided that Cecilia would be a good ally to have, and would probably end up going to America with them. It was up to Mara to broach the subject with her without giving anything away, to see where Cecilia’s loyalties lay.

They agreed to meet again in two days, giving all the ideas a chance to simmer in their minds a bit.

 

*****

 

Mara closed and locked her bedroom door, then turned to her maid.

“Cecilia?”

“Yes, m’lady?”

“I wish to speak with you about the wedding.”

Cecilia glanced up from her sewing, and looked at her young charge. Mara had been ranting and moping over her engagement since that fateful night, and Cecilia wasn’t sure she wanted to hear more. It wasn’t that she didn’t sympathize with Mara—she did! But she knew there was no way out of the marriage, and a maid certainly had no say in the matter.

She sighed. “Of course, m’lady.”

“I am not going to marry the duke.”

Here we go again, thought Cecilia. She lowered her gaze to her sewing once more.

“I don’t believe you have a choice in the matter, Miss Mara.” Her voice sounded resigned.

“You may have given up, but I haven’t!” Mara exclaimed. “And neither have the boys.”

Cecilia looked up again. Uh, oh. The boys always spelled trouble.

“Now don’t you be gettin’ foolish ideas in your heads. Those boys can do nothing for you, Miss Mara. Nothing.”

“Do you want me to be miserable for the rest of my life? Do you want me to throw away my love for Jake and submit to a man whose touch makes my skin crawl? Do you want me to marry a man older than my father? Do you hate me so much that you don’t care that at the age of seventeen I am being thrown to the wolves?”

Cecilia sighed again. Mara’s revelation of her love for Jake wasn’t startling, but it did add another complication to an already difficult situation. She had suspected for some time that the nature of their relationship had changed. With Jake arriving to Mara’s bedchamber a few nights ago, she wondered how far they had gone in their relationship.

“Of course I care, my dear. But you and I, Jake and Alvin and all the money in the world can’t do a thing for you. You are a young lady, and must do as your father says. You are the granddaughter of a viscount and the betrothed of a duke, a member of the aristocracy. You are going to be a duchess.” She paused, waiting to see if her words had sunk in.

“There are worse things in the world,” she continued. “Besides, what alternatives are there? Marry Jake? And live on what? He barely makes enough money to support himself! Your father would first beat him senseless and then fire him without references. Then where would you two be? You’d have plenty of love, but nowhere to live, and no money to live on!”

“You will be in the same boat, you know,” Mara replied. “As soon as I am gone, you won’t be needed.”

Cecilia nodded and pursed her lips. She was well aware that her position at the Markham household would end the day after the wedding.

Mara’s next question to Cecilia was carefully phrased. “What if there was a way to keep the marriage from happening? Would you help me if you could?”

Cecilia loved this child with all her being. She knew her young charge’s heart shattered at the situation, causing her own to ache. But what could she do to help? Nothing would change the fact that Mara was a girl and her father had jurisdiction over her. She didn’t see a way out of this betrothal and marriage. Besides, marrying a duke was the dream of every other girl in the aristocracy, and definitely the dream of every mother of a girl in the peerage. If it weren’t for Jake, Mara would probably be thrilled at the thought of becoming a duchess.

“My dear,” she said cautiously. “I would go to the ends of the earth for you, but the end isn’t far enough to run from your father.”

“Is America far enough?”

Cecilia gave Mara a sideways glance, wondering where this conversation turned.

“Cecilia, before I say any more, I need to know if you are with us or against us.”

The older woman sighed. “What do you have in mind?”

“We are going to run away to America,” answered Mara emphatically.

Cecilia stared at the girl in stunned silence. She had no idea Mara had been making such drastic plans.

“I want to protect you too, Cecilia, because when Jake and I are gone, what will you do? You already admitted Father will let you go. He tried once before, and you won’t be needed in the household anymore. Come to America with us. Start a new life. Be my friend and confidant for the rest of our lives.”

Cecilia gaped at Mara, trying to put her mind around what the child had just said.

“Will you come with us?” Mara asked softly. “I would miss you terribly if you weren’t with me in America. You’ve been more of a mother to me than my real mother.”

Cecilia closed her eyes, fighting back tears. How could she not agree to help the girl she had loved like a daughter all these years? How could she not help her reach for her dreams? How could she throw her to the wolves?

“I am with you, my child. I have always been with you, and I will always be with you.”

Mara ran over and threw her arms around Cecilia. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love you so much! I am so glad you are staying with me. You won’t regret it.”

I hope not, thought Cecilia, as she held her charge close. I certainly hope not.

 

*****

 

Cecilia proved to be a tremendous help to them. She knew all about weddings. She knew about dresses and wardrobes and invitations and wedding gifts and packing. What she didn’t know, she had ways of finding out. She knew all the shopkeepers and street vendors. She could learn everything the group needed to know.

For the plan to work, Mara would need her parents’ cooperation. But, of course, they couldn’t realize they were helping her escape. She spent quite a bit of time thinking about how best to approach them. Finally, she was ready.

“Mother, Father, I wish to speak with you about my marriage to the duke.”

The Markhams held their breath. They were probably in for another temper-driven onslaught, and they braced themselves.

“I am resigned to the fact that I am to marry a duke. I could do a lot worse in this life, and I will make the best of it.”

Her parents looked at each other, surprised at the change in her attitude.

“My dear! We are so pleased you have come to your senses and finally see what a great match this is for you.”

Mara smiled at her father. Great match, my arse, she thought.

“I want my wedding to be spectacular—the talk of the town.”

“Of course, my dearest,” cooed her mother. “Nothing but the best for the future wife of a duke.”

“I have a few small requests.”

Her parents glanced at each other again. Her father shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t care what she wanted. After all, the duke was paying for the entire thing!

“I would like the wedding to be in the spring or early summer, when the weather is lovely.”

They nodded. It would take time to plan a spectacular wedding, and that would give her time.

“I would like all wedding gifts sent here before the wedding so I can see them, catalog them, pack them, and write thank-you notes so that I can simply enjoy my honeymoon without worrying about protocol.”

They nodded again. Unusual, but logical.

“I want to invite everyone of importance in the peerage. After all, this will be the social event of the season!”

Mara’s mother smiled. “The reception can be held in the ballroom at Stafford House; that will accommodate several hundred people. The duke’s major domo can tell you exactly. I think it is wonderful you want to include all the London gentry. It will show that you are a generous and gracious hostess. Don’t you agree, Evelyn?” Lord Markham nodded. He wasn’t paying for it—he didn’t care if Mara invited all of bloody England!

“I want Lady May and Lady April to be my bridesmaids.”

“Splendid idea! The duke’s daughters and his bride all at the altar with him. How lovely!”

“Oh, thank you so much Mother, Father. I am actually starting to look forward to my wedding.” Mara gave a little bow and left her parents to marvel over the change in their daughter. Markham leaned back comfortably and drank his libation. Ah, he smiled to himself. Working perfectly. Working perfectly.

 

Chapter 32

 

Cecilia decided that Jake had to act the part as well. Everyone on the staff knew he loved Mara desperately, as his face hid nothing of that love. But he seemed to take this engagement a little too well.

So he started acting depressed. Maybe even overacting. He stopped eating, picking at his food, even pushing aside the delicious apple pies Gigi made especially for him. Alvin snuck food into his room at night so he wouldn’t starve.

Jake moped around, his shoulders bent, looking at the ground.

He went about his work halfheartedly, taking twice as long to do even simple tasks. He drove Cal crazy.

He tried to look tired as if he couldn’t sleep, rubbing his eyes and sighing a lot.

He neglected his personal hygiene, no longer combing his hair, and wearing his clothes longer than he should before a washing. He stopped shaving, and the itchy beard drove him crazy. Mara at least made him brush his teeth. She drew the line at dirty teeth.

He did such a good job he depressed the rest of the staff as well. Even Alvin and Cecilia, who knew it was an act, were miserable around him. Pretty soon, a somber mood took over the entire household. The servants were all saddened as they watched Jake lose the love of his life to the duke, and seemingly lose his mind, too.

 

*****

 

Cecilia and Mara were sitting in Mara’s room, mending some of Mara’s underthings, when an idea suddenly came to Mara.

“Why don’t we sew the jewels into our clothing?”

Cecilia looked at the chemise in her lap, up at Mara, then back at the chemise.

“Yes,” she answered slowly. “That is possible. Make a little pocket right here,” she pointed to the front of the chemise, right between the breasts.

“No, not there. Too many prying eyes looking at my décolletage. Someone might discover what we are doing. But little pockets are the right thing.”

Mara stood up quickly, letting her sewing drop to the floor. She pulled open her wardrobe and started rustling around. Not finding what she wanted, she pulled open her dresser drawers, tossing garments right and left. She finally pulled out a petticoat and looked at it appraisingly.

Cecilia had put her own sewing down to follow Mara around the room and retrieved the clothing her charge tossed everywhere.

“I wonder, hmmm.” She sat back down. “Cecilia, do you have some patches of material?”

Cecilia looked through her kit, and pulled out a swatch of white linen. “Will this do?”

“Perfect.” Mara cut the little bit of material into a perfect square, and then carefully sewed three of the four sides to the petticoat. Then she went to her dresser, picked up a small earring, and dropped it into the makeshift pocket.

“That is very clever. We must find a way to close it, though, to keep the gems from falling out.”

“We could fill an entire petticoat with various-sized pockets to hold different types of jewelry. I will be able to walk around carrying a lot of weight in jewels, and no one will be the wiser.”

“We’d have to make a petticoat out of sturdy material to keep it from ripping. Cotton or linen would work best. Wool or brocade would be too heavy and too hot.”

“And it would have to tie around the waist so that either you or I could wear it, depending on the circumstances.”

Cecilia smiled. “Brilliant, Miss Mara. Simply brilliant!”

Mara smiled back. “We are quite the devious pair, aren’t we?”

 

*****

 

The wedding dress became the focal point of their plan. It couldn’t be a typical wedding gown, as Mara had to wear it inconspicuously during the kidnapping, and wedding dresses were conspicuous by nature. The lovely dresses Madame Poitier had made for her were hardly appropriate for a foray into the wilds of America.

The dress could not be made by Madame Poitier, as she could not be trusted to keep their secret. So Cecilia consulted her network of merchant friends to find a good couturier who could keep her mouth shut. They found her in Madame Le Strange. Her shop was a fair distance, but that wasn’t a problem, since they had Jake to take them there in the carriage.

Mara approached her parents with a second set of requests.

“Mother, Father, I ask that you would grant me one more favor regarding the wedding.”

“Of course, my dear. What now?”

She turned to her mother. “I wish to use another seamstress to design and sew my wedding gown. It must be spectacular, and I want it to be a complete surprise. Please tell me what my budget is for the gown, and I will handle all the details.”

Lady Maureen was highly disappointed. “My dear, I was so looking forward to visiting Madame Poitier with you!”

“Mother, you may do whatever you like with the invitations and the catering, but I want to be responsible for the gown myself.” Mara stated this so emphatically that her mother reluctantly agreed. They would receive a budget from the duke, and ask him to set up an account at the clothier.

They were just happy Mara’s outbursts had ceased, and that she seemed to be warming to the idea of marrying the duke.

 

*****

 

Madame Le Strange turned out to be perfect. Mara gave the duke her requirements at their next evening out, and he immediately set up a very generous account with the seamstress.

Madame Le Strange took one look at Mara and clapped in delight to be creating a gown for such a fine specimen of a girl. Lady Mara had some unusual requests, but Madame Le Strange caught on quickly and realized this girl wanted to use the dress more than once. Clever, clever! Plus, she wanted some of the budgeted monies to go toward items for her ladies’ maid and her husband-to-be, who wouldn’t come to the store but whose measurements she’d be given. Again unusual, but Lady Mara must have a very generous heart to be thinking of the needs of others at a time like this.

At their first meeting, Madame Le Strange took Mara’s measurements, talked about the design of the gown, and picked out materials for the other dresses and men’s clothing. She would spend the time until their next appointment determining the cost of the other items Mara had requested, so Mara would know how much money was left for the gown itself. That would determine the materials and design.

Jake drove the women back and forth, and ran errands of his own while they were with Madame Le Strange. He went to the docks and spoke with the dock master to find out as much as he could about traveling to America.

It was now mid-January, and passenger ships would begin sailing into London in the spring. Crates were the easiest to load, and the dock master showed Jake some crates that were awaiting loading. Jake took notes and measurements. Even horses and carriages of any size and shape could be shipped. On most ships, passengers had choices of full cabins, single rooms, or shared rooms with two, four, six, or eight occupants.

The Charleston usually arrived in port the second week of April. It remained docked for three weeks for repairs, and to load supplies and new passengers. It would leave port April 28th. The Fleetwood, a much larger ship, would arrive in port the last week of April, and launch on June 4th. The journey to America would take six weeks.

Mara set the wedding date for June 3rd.

 

*****

 

Several times a week, Mara forced herself to endure chaperoned “dates” with the duke. He was the most attentive fiancé, which drove Mara to distraction. He constantly gave her gifts, and forever popped to the house to pick her up for this social event or that soirée. She couldn’t turn him down, lest anyone become suspicious. So she put on a brave smile and endured his attentions and his frail, cold touch. She would never get used to his touch, which sent the wrong kind of shivers up her spine. Jake’s stroking sent shivers of love and hope and desire throughout her being. The duke’s touch sent shivers of dread and disgust up and down her back. But it was essential to keep up the pretense so no one would become suspicious about what brewed beneath the surface.

 

*****

 

One evening, Mara attended a dinner party at the charming home of the Earl and Countess of Shelburne. Mara was, as usual, the youngest woman in attendance, and men constantly fawned over, pawed, and ogled at her.

The twenty attendees were in the parlor after dinner, having a bit of wine or brandy. Mara had been cornered by a peer and looked around in desperation, as she had a difficult time keeping the man’s hands to himself. She felt a warm and gentle touch on her arm, just as the Earl of Chatham moved his hand a little too low on her back.

“Bernard,” said a very feminine voice, “I must steal this lovely young lady from you to discuss a matter of importance. The wedding, you know.”

Mara turned to find Lady Sarah Hastings at her side. She had noticed her aunt’s sister during dinner, but had been seated at the other end of the table, and had not yet spoken with her.

The earl grunted in disappointment, but didn’t want to be anywhere near women when they were conversing about a wedding! He moved on, looking for greener pastures elsewhere.

Mara happily allowed Lady Sarah to lead her out of the parlor and into the dining room again, which was empty except for a couple of servants whisking away the dirty dinnerware.

“Lady Sarah,” she exclaimed. “You have no idea how happy I am to see you! That man is such a bore, and tries to take such liberties. I need eight arms to keep up with his roving hands!”

Lady Sarah chuckled. “You probably wish you were fat and invisible again. I was actually very surprised to hear you were Madame Butterfly. Until I saw you tonight, I wasn’t able to conceive of the fat little girl I saw at Rochcliffe House transformed into the incredible vision of beauty at the Masque. But now that I see you, I realize why the duke is so enamored with you, and men like the earl wish to pester you. The life of a beautiful woman is not easy, as I am sure you have discovered.”

Mara stared at Lady Sarah, wondering how the older woman could so easily understand how she was feeling. How many times had she wished she had stayed fat and happy with Jake and the boys? How many times had she regretted debuting as Madame Butterfly? How many times had she wished she had never told her parents the truth? She would not be facing this horrendous marriage if she had remained fat, invisible Mara.

Lady Sarah watched the range of emotions that crossed Mara’s face, and she knew she had hit home with that comment. This young woman regretted every moment of her life since becoming Madame Butterfly, and that was as plain as the nose on her lovely face.

She looked around to see where the servants were. Then she leaned in close to Mara and said in a low voice, “What are you doing with the duke? What about Jake? He loves you to distraction, you know. How could you do this to him?”

Mara gulped. How should she to respond to this woman? She couldn’t reveal the truth of her feelings for Jake. “I know. But he is…is a stable boy…and I…am a member of the aristocracy. He and I…it wouldn’t…”

“You are lying, Mara. This is killing you, and I know it must be destroying Jake.”

Mara hung her in head in shame, her red hair falling to her knees. “It is killing us,” she whispered. “But there is nothing we can do. And you are right. I wish I still was fat and invisible. My family made me so miserable that I just didn’t want to be fat and ugly anymore. I thought being thin and pretty would make me happy, and make my family love me. Alas, it has simply ruined my life completely.”

Lady Sarah patted Mara’s knee sympathetically as she let the girl continue talking. “Jake and I don’t even see each other that often, as one of my parents is almost always with me whenever I am not with the duke. It is almost as if they think I will run away or do something improper. And believe me, I think about doing something improper quite often.” She sighed. “I feel so desperate.”

“Well, my dear, don’t do anything foolish.” Lady Sarah picked up both of Mara’s hands in hers. “Although I think your mother and my sister believe this is the best thing that ever happened to a Markham.” They both smiled at the obvious truth behind that statement.

Lady Sarah continued. “I am going to give you a bit of practical advice. It might be hard to hear, but it is the way life works. Marry the duke, no matter how unpleasant that may be. Once you are a duchess, you will be quite powerful, and the world will be in your hands. Jake can be a part of your world. Spend as much time away from London at the country estates as possible, and bring Jake along. Tell the duke he is an excellent stable hand, and you couldn’t do without him. Bring that young gardener with you, too, so it doesn’t look so obvious. Then take Jake as your lover. It is the way of the aristocracy—the way we all keep our sanity. Marriages are made for money and titles; mistresses and lovers are taken for happiness.”

Mara looked aghast. She couldn’t imagine marrying the duke and relegating Jake to the position of secret lover. That would devastate him. She knew they had a good plan in place; all she had to do was placate Lady Sarah. “I…I suppose that is good advice. I can see where it is very practical, if not very moral.”

“Morals have nothing to do with it, darling. You are being sold to the highest bidder by your parents, so you need to fight back any way you can. Taking a lover as a duchess is a very acceptable way of fighting back. And who knows; perhaps a couple of vigorous encounters with the duke in the boudoir just might bring an end to the old goat, and then you will be free. It has worked wonders for me.”

Mara remembered Sarah had had to endure a similar arranged marriage, but that she was now her own woman with money, status, and title. She couldn’t blame the woman for her jaded view of marriage, as she had also been bartered away by her parents. Mara wondered if there would ever be a time when marriage would no longer be a financial transaction, where women were bought and sold like chattel.

The conversation with Lady Sarah made Mara even more desperate to escape her current situation. Living in America with Jake would be much better than keeping him as a lover at the duke’s estate.

 

Chapter 33

 

They needed to book the trip. The Fleetwood had arrived, and their fares had to be paid. The ship would leave in a little over five weeks. Two problems remained: what names would they use, and where would they get the money to finance the trip?

“Our new names must be ones we’ll remember, or we will never answer to them or remember to use them.” Mara’s logic seemed sound to the others.

Jake laid his head back and closed his eyes. They were in their customary gathering place—the attic—late at night.

“Mmmm. Jacob James Abbot. What do you do with that?”

“Use James,” suggested Alvin.

“My name is Mara Elizabeth Markham. I can be Elizabeth.”

“I am Ellen then, as my middle name is Ellen,” commented Cecilia.

“I would be George.”

They all looked at Pete, who hung his head. “I will get laughed at.”

They all promised not to laugh.

“Pierson.”

“Your middle name is Pierson? Where on earth did that come from?”

“It was my mother’s maiden name, I think.”

“Brilliant! My mother’s maiden name was Abrams. I will be James Abrams!”

“Ellen Fullington!”

“George Martin!”

“Pierson Pierson?”

They all laughed again.

“I think you had best pick a name out of a hat, Pete. That ain’t gonna work!” Luke poked him in the ribs.

“Well, Max’s last name is Davis. I should be able to remember that, as I hear it all the time at the smithy and am used to it.”

“There we go!” Mara clapped her hands in delight. We are James, Elizabeth, Ellen, Pierson, and George. Alvin, you will keep your name, as you must remain behind.”

“I wish I was going with you. I feel so left out sometimes.”

Mara patted his leg. “Alvin, you have the most important job of all. For an entire year, you must keep people believing we are still in England. You must sneak the letters to my parents. You must make people believe you are mourning the loss of friends. You have to keep them from learning the truth. And then you have to travel to America by yourself. That is no small role, my friend. No small role at all.”

Alvin puffed out his chest at her words of praise and encouragement. “You are right. Ain’t gonna be easy under the scrutiny of you father, so I have to be the best actor of us all!”

The rest of them mumbled their assent as they talked among themselves for a few moments.

Jake finally got their attention again. “We need to sell some jewels. That is the only way we have to pay for passage. We need £118.”

“One hundred and eighteen pounds? Blimey! That is a fortune, man. Just to take a bloody ship across the ocean?”

“Actually we need £128 so we will have enough to leave with Alvin for his voyage. When I talked to the man at the ticket office, he said the ship will fill up fast. They start selling travel documents four weeks out—that would be next week.” He looked down at a piece of paper he had taken from his back pocket.

“Since Mara and I will book a suite, we are £15 each. Cecilia is another £10, as she will be in the smaller room in the suite. Pete and Luke are £8 each, and I want to leave ten behind for Alvin just in case the cost of a ticket rises between now and next year. That will also allow him a few shillings to give to the boys who deliver the letters. The horses are £5 each, for a total of £50, and we will pay transport fees for the two wagons, the carriage, and the crates at a cost of £12. That in grand total is £128.”

They all stared at him, mouths gaping wide. “Bloody fortune!” Pete repeated.

“We will also have to pay for food for ourselves and the animals. Many people don’t have money to cover all their costs, and will become indentured servants for seven years when they arrive in America. We should consider ourselves lucky. At least that is what the ticket man said.”

Jake looked at Mara. “You must decide which piece of jewelry we can sell now—the one hopefully no one will notice is missing. Earrings or a bracelet may be best. We will take the piece apart, selling the stones and gold separately.” He then looked at Pete. “We need to smelt the gold for sale.” He made a small circle with his finger and thumb. “You have something at the smithy for that?”

Pete thought for a minute, a look of concentration on his face. “We have some molds for buttons. Would those work?”

“Are they traceable back to you and Max? I mean…are they distinctive enough that someone would know they came from your smithy?”

“Hmmm. Yeah. That’s no good then. I will come up with something though, dinna you worry ‘bout that.”

“Okay. Tomorrow I will deliver to you the gold to smelt. Then you will need to exchange it for pounds. Hopefully, you won’t have to answer too many questions; just tell them someone paid for some work with the gold. They’ll believe you. Bartering is still legal tender these days.” Pete nodded.

“Mara,” Jake continued, “I’ll come to you tomorrow by noon, so have the jewels separated and ready for me.”

She gave a big sigh, but also nodded.

They all looked at each other. Until now, most of their work had been preparation, packing up wedding gifts for Mara, or taking items from the attic which belonged to Mara or the family. Now they were moving to serious thievery. Their plans and actions were becoming very dangerous. After tomorrow, they would all be bona fide criminals.

 

*****

 

Mara looked through the jewelry the duke had given her. Each time he took her to an event, he gave her a new piece. That was fine with her. The more, the better! She had a red velvet case with five drawers in which she kept all the jewelry. She opened each drawer and considered the earrings and bracelets. Most of them were parts of matched sets, and it would not be wise to wear one without the other. She finally decided on some heavy gold earrings with emeralds, thinking they should sell for at least £100, if not more. She had no real idea what such items were worth. And she wasn’t willing to ask anyone, for fear their plans would be uncovered.

Mara stuffed the earrings into her pocket, her heart pounding in her chest. This was more difficult than she had imagined. Talking about it and actually doing it were two entirely different things. She had just stolen expensive jewels from a duke! Once the earrings left her hands, they were gone forever. If she was caught, she would go to prison.

She leaned against her bedroom door, trying to calm her breathing and her emotions. What in God’s name were they doing? Was it really possible they could succeed with this?

Her courage waned quickly. She had to see Jake immediately and stop the madness. They couldn’t go through with it. She put her friends in grave danger, and she couldn’t allow that to happen.

Bolstered by her decision, she left her room and walked to the stables to find Jake. He was cleaning out one of Python’s hooves. He looked around quickly to see if they were alone before putting out his hand for the jewelry.

Mara shook her head, tears threatening to fall. Jake went over and held her close. “What’s the matter, sweetheart? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

She closed her eyes and concentrated on the feel of his arms around her, his warmth and strength seeping slowly into her. She realized if she stopped things now, she would be saying goodbye to Jake forever, as she would never convince the duke to allow Jake to work for them. If she stopped now, she would have to lie with the duke, feeling his arms around her instead of Jake’s, his kisses upon her lips instead of Jake’s… she shuddered inside, to her core.

Strengthened by his arms around her and her love for him, Mara reached into her pocket and pulled out the earrings. “This is the point of no return, I hope you know. Once we do this, there is no going back.”

“You want to stop it?”

“I was scared when I first walked in here, but I’d rather hang from the gallows than spend the rest of my life without you.”

“I love you,” he whispered. “We will be okay. I promise.”

 

*****

 

Jake walked briskly toward the smithy. The jewels in his pocket pressed into his skin. He understood Mara’s fear. This crime was much more serious than stealing fruit from the market, and would result in hanging if they were caught. That knowledge enveloped him in a kind of dread. He glanced at the people around him, fearful that they knew and were going to turn him in. He swallowed hard and drew in a sharp breath. He had to grab a hold of himself. No regrets, no regrets now. Steady, he thought. It will be okay.

He kept up this talk in his head the entire ten blocks, and arrived at the smithy feeling a little better than when he had started.

Pete waited. “I found a block with little round cutouts. I think it is used for decoration on armor and such. It will work.”

“Good.” Jake pulled out the earrings, and struggled to remove the emeralds from the settings with shaky hands.

“Give me that here, Jake. You are gonna drop them.”

Jake happily turned over the booty to the smithy. Pete took one look at the settings and pulled a tool from the shelf. In no time, the six emeralds lay on the table, and the gold was in a small iron pot and pushed into the fire. Pete handed the emeralds back to Jake.

“You is done here. Get before someone sees you. I have this end under control.”

Jake tried to smile at Pete, but didn’t think his lips actually formed one. Pete looked at his friend, and put his hands on Jake’s shoulders. “We all feel the same way, mate. This ain’t easy for any of us.”

Jake patted one of Pete’s hands. “Thanks, man. Thanks for everything.” Jake then gave Pete’s shoulder a friendly squeeze, and left him to complete his task.

 

*****

 

The next day, Jake rode Python into town, making excuses to Calvin about needing to purchase leather for a new set of reigns. He went straight to the jewel merchant, several blocks outside of their immediate neighborhood. He would sell three gems at the jewel merchant, and try selling the other three at the goldsmith’s.

Jake’s stomach physically ached from the tension. He had barely slept the night before, images of prison and the gallows swimming in his head. His life as a vicar’s son came back to haunt him in a big way. Stealing food to survive was one thing; this was another entirely. But then an image of Mara marrying the duke flashed in his mind, and he resolutely pushed open the door to the merchant.

The interior was quite nice, well lit, with a pleasant odor of flowers. The gentleman behind the counter was older and well dressed.

“Come in, come in, young sir! What can I do for you?”

“Uhm. I…I…”

“Spit it out, young man! Time’s a wasting!” The merchant smiled broadly at Jake.

“Our family had fallen on hard times and…” Jake paused, “…and we have to sell a few things.”

The man looked sympathetic. “My son, I know it is difficult for you to come in here, being highly embarrassed by your current state of affairs. But, I am here to help, not criticize you. Let me see what you have.” He put a velvet cloth on the table.

Jake reached into his pocket and pulled out three emeralds. The other three were in his other pocket.

The merchant took an eyeglass from his breast pocket, picked up one gem, and moved over to the window where the light was better.

“Ah. Mmmm. Oh. Yes,” the gentleman muttered to himself. He picked up the other two stones and examined them as well. He then took out a measuring device and measured all three, writing notes on a piece of paper. Lastly, he consulted a book.

“These are fine stones, my lad. Flawless, premium cut, straight baguettes, four carats each. You took them out of something and sold the gold, yes?”

Jake nodded. How did he know that? Jake wondered.

“I could tell since there are minute scratches from the setting.”

Oh. Minute scratches. Of course.

“We sold the gold awhile back. Things are becoming worse now…” he allowed his voice to trail off. It wasn’t hard to do, as he felt every emotion of selling these gems fully and deeply.

“Each stone is worth about £50. But as I must deal with a profit margin and will have them set for resale, I can only give you £115 pounds for the three of them.”

The room began to swim in front of Jake. Oh, Mary, Mother of God! He put his head on the counter to keep himself from passing out. The proprietor was quite concerned.

“Are you all right, my boy?”

“I…you…I…Oh.” One hundred and fifteen pounds! For three of the emeralds alone! Jake was absolutely overwhelmed and fought to carry on the conversation. “You have just saved my family, dear sir. You have just saved my family.” Jake felt his stomach churn. He kept his head on the counter until the feelings passed.

“Breathe deep, my boy! Breathe deep. I have had lots of people in your circumstances in my shop, but none have fainted dead away on me, and I don’t want you to be the first.”

Jake laughed. It felt good to laugh. It felt normal. It helped bring him back from the brink.

The man laughed with him.

Jake’s head finally stopped swimming, and he was able to lift it from the counter. He smiled his cock-eyed grin at the merchant.

“My kind sir. You don’t know how much this means to us. I will take your £115. You have a deal!”

The man put the emeralds in his coat pocket, and disappeared behind the curtain in the back of the room. Jake stood in disbelief at what had just happened. All those Cleveland jewels must be worth a fortune! They’d be able to buy half of bloody America if they pulled off the heist! He felt much, much better.

The jewel merchant returned with a wad of bills in his hands, and carefully counted out the money. Jake had never before seen notes in these denominations, and was awed at the money put into his hands.

The two shook hands as Jake stuffed the money into his pants pockets. He then left the store, mounted Python, and returned home. Enough adventure for one day!

 

*****

 

Pete came into the stables well after dark and crept up to Jake’s room. Calvin snored loudly as usual, never moving a muscle as Pete tiptoed over to Jake’s bed. He put his hand over Jake’s mouth so he wouldn’t make a noise and possibly wake Calvin.

“Mmmmm?”

“Shhhhh. I have the money. Got £12 for the gold. It was twenty-four carrot, whatever that means. Here it is.” He pressed the money into Jake’s hand. “How’d you fare?”

“Have enough now for the passage. We did well.”

“Great! See you later.”

“Bye.”

They both looked at the snoring Calvin to make sure they hadn’t disturbed him. Pete snuck back out, and Jake went back to sleep after tucking the money under his pillow, the stress of the day wearing on him.

 

Chapter 34

 

Mara approached her parents with a third set of requests.

“I would like two new wagons to be made, each for four horses. Here are the specifications. They must hold two crates apiece, in which will go all the wedding gifts plus my wardrobe and other things I will need to transport to my new husband’s house. Here are the specifications for the four crates.”

She handed two pieces of paper to her father, who raised an eyebrow but took them graciously. His daughter’s oddness never ceased to amaze him. Beautiful as she had turned out to be, she was still peculiar.

This wedding was turning out to be highly unusual.

 

*****

 

In March, Luke and Pete announced to their bosses, Max and Tilly, that they were going to America. They would sail on the Charleston the end of April. In reality, they were going into hiding, but everyone had to believe they were on a ship headed for America before the wedding date.

 

*****

 

The crates arrived in March, the wagons in April. They looked funny sitting next to the stables, taking up most of the drive around the building to the paddock. The crates and wagons were unique in their design; the staff thought they were brilliantly conceived. Instead of the four sides of the wagon being fixed, both the back and one side unlatched and swung down on hinges, a single post left in the back corner where the sides would reattach when back in position. The crates had hinged doors on the ends for easy access. The ends of the crates faced the side of the wagon that dropped down, allowing for easy loading and unloading of the crates. They could be locked for security. Each wagon held two crates, with enough space left for two trunks side by side in the back.

Alvin designed the wagons and crates; everyone told him what a genius he was. He strutted around like a peacock in heat at their praise.

The crates would be packed with the wedding gifts and everything else they wanted to take to America.

Take they did. Mara and Cecilia had already been through the attic, and sorted and tagged anything that was useful or could be made useful. They tagged beds, cabinets, tables, and chairs. In the trunks, they removed everything they didn’t want, and packed them instead with lamps, bedding, pictures, bric-a-brac, and other treasures. The attic was full of many things that would prove useful to start a new life in America. And judging by the amount of dust covering everything, no one ever came up there, so no one would notice anything missing.

Late at night, Alvin and Jake would go up to the attic and take one or two things and pack them in the crates. They didn’t want to raise the alarm so they took things little by little, over several weeks.

 

*****

 

To the relief of the staff, Jake seemed to partially come out of his depression and start taking care of himself again. He shaved, ate more, and combed his hair. He still moped around, but he wasn’t as depressing to be around anymore. Maybe he was overcoming his broken heart.

When asked, Jake simply said he was resigned to his fate; the duke had won. But the truth was, he simply couldn’t stand his slovenly self anymore.

 

*****

 

On April 27th, Max hosted a big farewell party for Luke and Pete prior to their departure to America. He invited the entire staff of the Markham estate, as well as merchants from around the neighborhood. Mr. Fout, Gigi, and Jesse contributed a lot of good food for the event. The tavern owner next door supplied mead. It was a great party, with everyone dancing and drinking and eating. The evening ended with tearful goodbyes all around.

The next day, Luke and Pete packed up their tools and clothing, and Calvin gave them a ride to the shipyards. The day after that, Jake picked them back up and took them to an inn where they would live for the next month, growing beards and doing their best to look slovenly and menacing. If they were to pass as kidnappers and highway robbers, they would need to look the part.

 

Chapter 35

 

A few weeks before the wedding, as her parents were preparing to enter the carriage to attend a small dinner party given by some old friends, Mara, riding Hebe astride, came rushing out of the stables at a full gallop, past her parents, laughing as she continued right out the gates and onto the streets of London.

Jake, realizing the danger she could be in, let go of the carriage door and ran into the stables, throwing a bit on the first horse he came to. Jumping on Zeus bareback, he raced out of the stables, yelling, “I’m after her!” as he passed her parents.

Markham angrily watched Abbot ride after his daughter on his horse. “Calvin! Saddle a horse for me, now!”

Calvin ran into the stables and prepared the only mountable horse there, Lady Maureen’s gentle Peaches, named for its love of the fuzzy, soft fruit. Peaches balked at the heaviness of the master’s saddle, but Calvin had no choice as he readied the horse as quickly as possible.

In no time at all, he had Peaches standing next to his master, who snorted at the sight. “Blimey! My dear,” he said to his wife, “go on to the party without me. I will join you later after I find my daughter and my horse!”

With that, he raced out of the gate to follow Mara and Jake through the streets of London. He couldn’t let anything happen to his investment so close to the wedding. All he could see was his deal with the duke falling apart, and it would be the fault of that obstinate daughter of his.

“What, pray tell, was that all about, Calvin?” asked Lady Maureen.

“M’lady, don’t ask me to figure out the ways of a woman. There is no way I can tell you what is going on in that young girl’s head. I am sure Jake will find her lickety split and have her right back here.”

She sighed. Soon headstrong Mara would be the duke’s problem, not hers. “Well, I guess I might as well go on to the party. Help me up, Calvin.”

“Yes, m’lady, here you go.” With that, he put Lady Maureen in the carriage and drove slowly out the gate and to the dinner engagement.

 

*****

 

Mara had ridden to the walled cemetery of a church a few blocks from the house, a rarely used and well-hidden spot, arriving in a roundabout way, to shake any followers she might have. She and Jake had planned this rendezvous, and she thought it went rather well. A woman rushing off into danger, a man rushing off to find her—no one would be the wiser. She stood next to a stone bench in front of a statue of an angel, looking like an angel herself in her deep purple riding outfit.

In less than five minutes, after having crossed a few unnecessary side streets himself, Jake was by her side, the horses tied to a nearby tree.

“That was most exhilarating!” Mara exclaimed.

“I think I hurt something important rushing here bareback,” Jake replied.

They stood facing each other, holding hands. He bent to kiss her deeply. Moments like this were rare these days.

He finished his kiss and pulled her down on the bench. “We can’t stay long. They will come looking.”

“I know. I just wanted to be with you for a few minutes without people around. I feel so overwhelmed these days. I mean, we are really going through with this and if frightens me so.” Mara gave a deep sigh.

Jake tried to sound braver than he felt. “I promise we will be okay. We have planned this operation to the minutest detail. We are handling it well.”

They spent another few minutes kissing and holding each other before Jake stood up. “I love you,” he whispered.

He bent down to give her one last kiss before untying Zeus and in less than twenty minutes after arriving in the cemetery, he headed out to “look for her” in the wild streets of London.

Jake bent down to give her one last kiss before untying Zeus, and in less than twenty minutes after arriving at the cemetery, he was heading out to “look for her” in the wild streets of London.

Pretending to search for her, Jake asked people along the way if they had seen a woman with red hair and a purple dress on a bay horse come this way. Of course, no one had, but Jake needed to keep up the pretense.

He was bending over talking loudly to an old woman who couldn’t hear well when he heard someone shout, “Abbot! Abbot!”

Blimey, he thought, his heart nearly leaping out of his chest in fright. It’s Lord Markham! He didn’t go to the dinner party? How long has he been out here?

“M’lord,” Jake replied, “I am so sorry, but I haven’t found her yet. I have asked every street vendor from here to Berkshire Square covering all west of the house. I am about to go to the north and begin again.”

“I just came from the north, and I, too, had no luck.” He eyed the younger man sitting bareback on his steed. “Can I at least have my horse back, Abbot?”

Jake looked down at Zeus in faked surprise. “Oh, of course, sir. I only grabbed the first horse I came to in the stables. Forgive me, m’lord for taking yours.”

“No harm done, I guess. Pull this saddle off.” The two of them switched horses, giving passersby something to whisper about, since grown gentlemen didn’t generally swap horses in the middle of the street. Jake was soon bareback on Peaches, Markham comfortably back in his saddle on his horse.

“I suggest, Abbot, that you take the south now and I will go east. Someone had to have noticed a beautiful girl in purple by herself.

“Good idea, sir.” He turned and went south of the house to continue the facade.

An hour later, as dusk grew into night, a weary Markham returned through his gates to find Alvin brushing Hebe.

“She’s back!”

“Yes, m’lord, about ten minutes ago. Says she ‘ad found a lovely spot to read—just needed to get away for a while. I gave her a piece of my mind, as she gave the entire staff the scare of our lives.”

“Good for you. I think I will give her a piece of my mind too. Is Abbot back?”

“No, m’lord but I doubt he’ll stay out much longer now that it is dark.”

“Brush Zeus when you’ve finished Hebe.”

“Of course, Lord Markham.”

A few minutes later, Jake arrived home. “She’s back!” he exclaimed, continuing to act the part.

“Yup!” sighed Alvin, irritated to be repeating a whole conversation. “’Bout fifteen minutes ago. She had found a spot somewhere to read and get away. I told her off already, and her father’s about to do the same. You wanna piece of her too? You gonna have to wait in line!”

“Yeah, I want a piece of her…” he smiled, as he turned away from Alvin. It was now his turn to take care of the three horses.

 

*****

 

Gigi set a plate of food in front of Mara, who calmly sat at the dinner table when her father stormed into the room.

“Father!” Mara was very surprised and frightened. He was supposed to be at the Marquis and Marchioness of Rockingham’s dinner party! What was he doing home?

“Gigi, leave us, and close the door.”

Gigi bowed and left in a hurry.

“What in God’s name do you think you are doing, girl? How foolish to run off into the streets of London alone in approaching darkness! Are you just dimwitted, or are you asking for trouble?” Markham practically screamed, making Mara cringe in her seat.

“Do you know what could happen to you out there? You had Abbot and me running circles around London looking for you, without regard to my evening plans. How dare you behave so recklessly just before your wedding! Are you trying to ruin everything I have worked for?” He stopped suddenly, realizing the strategic mistake he had just made.

Mara slammed down her knife and fork and stood up to her father, no longer frightened. “Ruin everything you have worked for? You have worked for?” She moved closer to him.

“Oh, it is becoming clear to me now. I am not a daughter to you. I am simply the next deal, the next investment. Well, Father,”—she spat out the word father—“I am not chattel to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Is that why I am becoming a duchess?”

The floodgates opened, and Mara poured out the emotions that had built up from a lifetime of her father’s mistreatment. “You are so bloody determined to have a title in the family that you don’t care who you destroy in the process! So tell me,” she screamed, remembering her conversation with Lady Sarah Hastings about being sold into marriage. “The Duke of Cleveland was the highest bidder? The best deal maker? Offered the best price for my head? Well, I guess you can’t do much better than a duke, since the king of England happens to be taken!”

“No, that is not the way it is…”

“Don’t lie to me! I have never been anything to you! I will never be anything to you!” She paused, hoping he would deny it, but he remained silent.

Tears formed and slowly rolled down her cheeks. “At least when I am the Duchess of Cleveland, I won’t be a damned Markham anymore! I hate you! I hate everything you are, and what you stand for. I HATE YOU!” Mara turned and ran out of the dining room and up the stairs to her room, slamming the door behind her.

Markham stood for a few moments in the dining room, his daughter’s words of truth reverberating around the walls. He turned on his heels and walked briskly out of the house to the stables, yelling for Abbot.

Jake had just finished putting away the tack when he heard the master call. Now what? he thought.

“Sir, I am here. How may I serve you?”

“Saddle my horse. I am going out!”

Trying not to roll his eyes, Jake pulled the tack back off the wall and saddled the newly brushed Zeus. “I know, boy, I know.” He patted the confused horse.

Markham mounted Zeus, and rode out the gate to the nearest club. Tonight was a good night for libations.

 

Chapter 36

 

One week before the wedding, they finished packing the crates. All wedding gifts had arrived, and Mara, Cecilia, and the boys had carefully counted and catalogued each one. The thank-you cards had been written, and were in a box in the parlor, ready for Termins to send out the day before the wedding. The duke rented eight horses, all of solid quality, and four coachmen to drive the wagons to Barnard Castle, the duke’s country estate. The coachmen would travel from London to High Force, towards Darlington, and past Raby Castle on the way there.

They were instructed to spend the night in a little tavern at A Fall of the Tees, a sleepy little burg along the route.

The four coachmen left London with their precious cargo on a trip that should take about a week.

On the second night, they made it to the tavern in A Fall of the Tees. There they met two very happy and generous blokes, one huge and one little, both grungy and bearded, who offered to buy a round.

“Hey, mateys! Where you be heading?” the big one asked.

“Barnard Castle,” replied the one named Martin. “This here be Marlon and Ellery. Aithley is out back doing his business.”

They all laughed. “My name is Gus, this be Chuck. We be headed into London. Gotta find us some proper work, we do.”

“Gotta find us some proper women, we do!” Chuck slammed down his tankard, and they all laughed some more.

Aithley soon joined them, and the six men sat down to some serious drinking, no one noticing that Gus and Chuck nursed the same pint all night long.

By the time midnight rolled around, the six were singing bawdy tavern songs and hanging off each other, barely able to walk. The tavern owner watched over them delighted, as this was the best night he’d had all week. Let them drink!

Gus helped Marlon and Martin out the door, having no problem handling two of them due to his size and strength. Chuck carried one of the men over his shoulder, and promised to return for the other in a minute.

By the time Luke arrived back at the wagons, Pete had already loaded his two passengers in the space left for a trunk. Pete heaved Ellery in the other wagon, and went back for Aithley. They then waited in the dark for the tavern master to turn off all the lights and go up to bed.

In the moonlight, they silently pulled the eight horses out of the barn, hitched them back up, and drove the two coaches back toward London, taking a completely different route.

They tied up the four men in the early hours of the morning and dropped them off, blindfolded, at a farmhouse. The farmer and his wife promised to keep them tied up until June 5th in exchange for £15—a fortune to the poor family. They’d keep them in the barn, feed them, then blindfold them again and take them out somewhere to be found. The men would spend the rest of their lives telling their sorry tale.

When they entered London, Luke and Pete drove the wagons to the docks to be loaded onto the ship. Then they went straight to a tavern to sleep. They had to be completely refreshed for the roles they would play in a few days.

 

Chapter 37

 

As the wedding day approached, Mara still had many details to attend to. She often had to go to town to deal with this matter or that, and she and Jake used these occasions to find stolen moments to share. On the day of Mara’s final dress fitting, Jake drove her and Cecilia to the couturier. However, instead of going straight there, he pulled up in front of a large church with a magnificent bell tower. He dismounted and opened the door for Mara. He heard her trying to explain to Cecilia why they were making this unscheduled stop.

“Cecilia, please. Just thirty minutes. Jake and I never have any time for each other. When we are together at home, all we do is talk about the escape. We just want to find a little space in the church to talk about other things and hold hands. Please, just stay in the coach for a little while.”

“In a church?” Cecilia looked out the door and up at the church. “Well, I guess that would be all right. You can’t find too much trouble in a church with God and the priest watching you. Go along. Thirty minutes, my dear. Not a minute longer, as we do have an appointment with Madame Le Strange.”

Mara gave her maid a quick hug and climbed out of the carriage.

Jake, careful not to touch her in public, followed her up the steps to the church, opened the large front door and bowed in servitude as she entered. He quickly followed her, pulling her off to a side staircase in the foyer instead of the main cathedral.

“Where are we going?” she whispered.

“Up. Way up.”

They climbed the spiral stone staircase in silence, passing landings and other doors that led off to secret spaces in the church. At last they could go no higher, and Jake pushed up on a trap door in the low ceiling. He then lifted Mara through the hole and pulled himself up after her.

Mara was spellbound. They were in the bell tower, high above the city, and she could see forever. It took her breath away.

“Oh, Jake,” she exclaimed, “this is incredible!”

He wrapped his arms around her from behind and stood there looking at the magnificent sight, holding the woman he loved.

“I painted it just for you, my darling.”

She closed her eyes and breathed in the air of London, listening to the faint sounds of the city, feeling the strength of his arms around her and his chest behind her. She turned in his arms and hugged him tight. They were so close to the wedding and the kidnapping and she needed to hold onto Jake for strength.

Jake put his hand under her chin to pull her into a deep passionate kiss. Mara closed her eyes and let her mind and soul live in the moment. This is why she was born, to be with this man forever, to love this man, to be his wife and bear his children. This is why she was committing the crimes they had planned. This was making it all worth it.

Mara opened her eyes, reluctant to break the spell. She looked into his eyes to see her own amazing thoughts and feelings reflected in their hazel depths. How she was lucky enough to find her soul mate, she’d never know. God had granted her a miracle and its name was Jacob.

 

Chapter 38

 

The final fitting with Madame Le Strange went very well, the gown made perfectly to Lady Mara’s very odd specifications. Madame Le Strange knew to keep these matters confidential, so as not to damage her business, which included keeping quiet about the personal doings of her clientele. Plus, making the wedding dress for the new Duchess of Cleveland would be a tremendous boon to her business! Once people saw this vision of loveliness walk down the aisle, they would flock to her store. In addition, Lady Mara paid for a series of day gowns and split riding skirts. The items were unusual in their plainness and utility, but every lady had her quirks. And who was she to question these quirks or gossip about them?

 

*****

 

While Mara was at the fitting, Jake sold the other three emeralds. They fetched £94. He was more collected this time, knowing what to expect.

When they returned to the house, he put £10 in an envelope with a letter, addressed it to a warehouse manager, and rode Python to the block in which the manager’s office was located. He found a young boy, gave him a couple of shillings, and watched him from around the corner deliver it to the man.

Done.

 

Chapter 39

 

The wedding day dawned, a beautiful morning in early June. Mara awoke early in the morning, the nervous tension too much for her to bear. She paced and bit her nails, but forced herself to eat a good breakfast, knowing she would not be eating lunch. Her mother attributed her behavior to pre-wedding jitters, as she remembered how nervous she had been on her wedding day. Mara, however, wasn’t even thinking of the wedding. It and the duke were the last things on her mind. Instead, she thought about all the details of the kidnapping.

She found it hard to wait.

The wedding would be at noon, followed by a sumptuous and expensive luncheon at Strafford House. The carriage carrying the bride, her two bridesmaids, her mother and aunt, and her ladies’ maid would leave the house at eleven-fifteen in order to arrive at the church right on time. The coachman and footman would both be with the bride.

Her bridesmaids—the duke’s grown daughters, April and May (he always rolled his eyes at his first wife’s perverse sense of humor)—had spent the night with their own husbands at the Markham estate, as had Viscount Rochdale and his family. The house was quite full.

The men would go ahead, to take a drink or two at the club down the street from the cathedral before the big event, their valets completing their dressing at the club. The Markham sons would take the phaeton, their father would ride Zeus, and the guests would arrive in various conveyances they owned.

By nine in the morning, Mara sat at her dresser, allowing Cecilia to style her hair. Lady May insisted on helping, and was actually quite an artist when it came to taming Mara’s wild tresses. They pulled and brushed and pinned and coaxed until Mara didn’t even recognize herself in the mirror. Her hair was up in an intricate French knot, sprinkled with little white flowers and pins with real diamonds on the ends—the same pins her mother wore on her wedding day. A few tendrils were allowed loose around her face and neck to soften the French knot. The final piece was the small tiara that would also form the base of her veil. The look was stunning.

“Thank you, Lady May. I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life.”

“You are welcome, Mara. I still don’t approve of Father marrying someone so young, but I don’t want the peerage to think you aren’t welcome in our family.”

That was as close to a welcome as Mara would receive. She wouldn’t be thrilled either if their roles were reversed.

After Lady May left, Cecilia closed and locked the door. She turned around and took a deep breath, letting it out in a rush.

“Are you sure we are ready for this? What if something goes wrong?”

“Too late to stop now, Cecilia. Come, help me dress.” She already wore her camisole, bloomers, stockings, and shoes. She now had to put on the pocketed petticoat and then the dress itself.

Madame Le Strange had done a wonderful job on the wedding gown. It was a thing of beauty, as well as a mechanical work of art. The outer material was pure white satin, soft and creamy. The bodice was subtly beaded in the design of calla lilies, just enough to add depth and interest. The satin skirt was overlaid with fine lace, attached at certain points with dangling glass beads and real pearls, adding the shimmering look of rain drops. The sleeves were made of the same sheer lace that came to a point on the back of Mara’s hands.

The design of the dress was ingenious; it could be turned into a completely different outfit in minutes. At the waist was a wide satin ribbon, embroidered with the same calla lilies in a fine gold thread. The ribbon was not only ornamental but also hid a series of hooks underneath that held the flaps in place. From each side seam to the back, the dress was actually folded in half, with an extra amount of material underneath. Down the back of the skirt was another wide ribbon to match the one around the waist that also hid a series of hooks. The veil would cover this well.

The back of the bodice looked like the back of the skirt, with a ribbon hiding hooks and an extra fold of material coming from the sides. An added feature was a yoke of material that partially covered Mara’s back, looking like a ruffle but not as elaborate. It, too, covered hooks and extra material.

When Mara discarded the waist ribbon and lifted the back ribbons, she could unhook all the hooks, flip the material around to the front, hook them back up and place down a new set of ribbons to hide the hooks. She could remove the sleeves, leaving only a wisp of white satin shaped in leaves at the top. In essence, she could quickly and easily transform the wedding gown into a plain ice-blue satin dress. Only the yoke and the sleeve tops would remain the same. If someone saw a glimpse of the ice blue material under the gown, it blended well enough into the white that people would think it was a mere shadow or play of light.

Her hair would go into a bonnet and scarf, which would completely cover its unique color. Cecilia would have the bonnet tied to her lower leg under her skirt. The ability to transform the dress was the real reason Mara had wanted to use a seamstress completely unknown to her mother.

As Cecilia dressed Mara, she checked and rechecked the hooks, making sure nothing was improperly exposed.

Just before eleven-fifteen, Cecilia tied the bonnet securely to her leg, and opened the door of Mara’s room to watch her beloved charge walk regally down the hall to her destiny.

All the servants, as well as the ladies, were waiting in the great hallway for Mara’s entrance. And what an entrance it was. As she turned the corner and stood at the top of the stairs, she heard several people gasp and Portia exclaim, “She’s an angel from heaven!”

Mara held her head high as she gracefully descended the staircase, focused on the people below watching her. The dress shimmered in the light streaming through the windows, the bouquet of calla lilies she held seemed alive in her hands, and her veil billowed lightly around her face as she moved. She appeared calm and serene, a Mona Lisa smile on her lips.

Lady April came up and grabbed both of Mara’s hands. “You are the most beautiful woman in London! No wonder Father picked you!”

Termins bowed deeply. “My dearest Lady Mara. I am honored to have served you for so many years. On behalf of the staff, may I extend to you my heartiest congratulations on this, your wedding day.”

“Thank you, Termins. Thank you for caring for me for the past seventeen years. I will never forget you or any of the staff.” She looked at each of them to commit their faces to memory, knowing this was her final goodbye to them. She fought back tears as Termins took her arm and escorted her to the carriage.

Calvin and Jake stood at the carriage, which had been decorated with white satin ribbons and calla lilies. They were both dressed to the nines. Lord Markham had outfitted them in new liveries of emerald green linen, resplendent with gold braid and heavy brass buttons. Calvin looked quite uncomfortable. He would much rather have been wearing his normal trousers, and not these “namby-pamby” pants and the jacket with all the “dangly things” on it, but Jake didn’t mind at all. The new clothes fit him like a glove, accentuating his handsome face and strong physique. And they would be perfect for the kidnapping.

Calvin’s jaw dropped when he saw Mara, and Jake almost collapsed as his knees turned to jelly. Before him was a vision of exquisiteness that any man would kill to possess. And this vision belonged to him! He stopped breathing, and he thought maybe his heart stopped, too. If he hadn’t been holding onto the carriage door, he might have fallen flat on his face.

Mara and the old butler finally reached the coach, and Mara turned to give Termins a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered. Jake held out his hand to help her into the coach and then, in turn, helped her mother, the viscountess, Lady April, Lady May, and finally Cecilia, who squeezed his hand in encouragement. “God, she’s spectacular,” he croaked softly. Cecilia nodded her assent as she, too, climbed into the carriage.

Jake and Calvin climbed onto the carriage to take their respective positions. Jake took a deep breath and thought, let the games begin.

Fifteen minutes later, they passed by the corner of Gopsall Street, where the warehouse was located. Jake’s stomach was a mass of butterflies, and he had a hard time breathing. He just hoped he didn’t hyperventilate before they hijacked the carriage and drove it to the warehouse. He felt like a ten-year-old boy on the streets again instead of a twenty-year-old man taking charge of his own destiny. The next couple of hours would be the hardest in his life—in all their lives. If they didn’t pull this off, they would all be hanging from the gallows in the main square by morning, the crows pecking at their dead eyes.

They were about to commit the crime of the century.

Then it happened. As Hyde Road turned into Hoxton Hill, they heard a whooping as four masked men ran out from the buildings on both sides of the carriage and attacked. Two immediately jumped up on either side of Calvin, and struggled with him for control of the vehicle. The other two jumped Jake, and roughly pulled him off the carriage, tossing him to the ground.

Jake rolled and stood up, checking to make sure he wasn’t hurt, and began badly limping after the carriage, screaming at the top of his lungs. The carriage turned down Cingars Street, Jake in slow pursuit. Then came the part of the plan that was hardest for all of them: taking out Calvin. Jake grimaced as one of the men pitched Calvin from the driver’s seat. He hit the ground with a horrible thud. The carriage continued up Newton Street as Jake stopped to help Calvin. Thank God he still breathed.

A few people had come around to see what was going on, since they had just witnessed two men being thrown from a carriage. Jake told them in a pained voice, doing his best to act hurt himself, to please help Calvin, as their coach had just been hijacked and he was going after it. He didn’t tell them to whom the carriage belonged, and no one asked. They were all concerned with Calvin, which is exactly what Jake had hoped for. As he turned up Grange Road and out of sight of the crowd, he stopped limping and ran like the wind the remaining few blocks to the side door of the warehouse. He looked around carefully to make sure no one had followed him.

Inside the warehouse, pandemonium had broken loose. The four men had pulled the carriage into the rented warehouse and shut the big doors. They were yelling instructions to the women inside the carriage over the din of the women crying and screaming and pleading. Finally, the big one yanked open the door of the carriage and simply took hold of the first woman and dragged her to a set of chairs facing the wall in the back of the large bay. He sat her down hard and tied her tightly to the chair, then gagged and blindfolded her. The other kidnappers followed suit, dragging out and tying up all the women except Mara.

Jake waited silently for his cue to enter the bay. As soon as he heard someone shout, “They be tied up, boss!” he banged through the door, making as much noise as possible.

“Jake!” he heard Mara scream. “Oh God, Jake.” She stood there smiling at him doing a little wave with her fingers. From now on, it was all an act for the benefit of the women tied up in the back of the warehouse. Pete, Luke and two older boys from the orphanage had taken off their broad hats and the handkerchiefs that had covered their faces. The two younger boys knew this was their cue to leave, and quietly went out through the door Jake had just entered. He gave them a thumbs up on their way out.

“Let her go!” He turned his attention back to the playacting.

“Hey, man. She’s ours now, so you best leave or else.”

“I said, let her go!”

“Or what, man? Looks like you be a bit outnumbered here. Come, try to take me if you can. I’ll show you who’s in charge!”

Pete picked up a piece of metal he had forged just for this occasion. He pinged it hard with a metal rod; it sounded exactly like the retort of a pistol. The four kidnappers watched as the five bound women jumped at the sound, unmistakable in its meaning. Aunt Bernice screamed through her gag, and Lady May started sobbing uncontrollably.

“Oh my God, you shot him! You shot him! Jake, Jake, oh Jake, please don’t die.”

“Get away from him. You’ll get blood all over that perty gown of yours.”

“Take your hands off me!”

“Tie her up and put her in the carriage.”

Mara started sobbing, too, screaming Jake’s name over and over and how they’d killed him, as she went about changing her dress around and transforming. Mara tossed her veil on the ground and then tore apart her bouquet of calla lilies, scattering them around the floor. Jake helped her unhook the back of her dress before moving back toward the side door. He first poured most of a bottle of pig’s blood on the floor. He then took off his jacket, and used the metal rod to put a hole in it about where his heart would be. He wrapped it around a log and dragged it through the pig’s blood, across the floor to the carriage, leaving behind a bloody trail. He then unwrapped the log and tossed it in the corner. The now-bloody jacket he dropped on the ground near the carriage. All this created the illusion that he had been shot, dropped to the ground, bled a lot, and then been dragged to the carriage. Not bad, Jake thought as he looked at his handiwork.

Cecilia sat there listening to the commotion, making sure the scene played out as it should. Everyone was executing his or her part to perfection. That really did sound like a gunshot. No way the ladies would believe otherwise. Too bad her only role was to sit there and act scared.

As the men kept up their banter (Jake as silent as the grave, of course), they began to transform the coach and horses. They had black paint to cover the royal blue of the coach and charcoal to rub into the coats of the horses to change their looks. Jake first tore off the ribbons and flowers decorating the coach, and then handled the horses while Pete and Luke started painting. They had to be careful not to spill any, leaving evidence of what they had done. The ladies might smell the paint, but some things could not be avoided. They just hoped the chaos of the moment would keep them from remembering that detail.

“I canna believe you shot ‘him, you idiot. His lordship is gonna kill us.”

“What else was I to do?”

“We could have taken him down and tied him up with the ladies.”

“Stupid, he saw our faces.”

“What you think we should do with him?”

“I guess we’ll take his body with us and dump it in the Thames along the way.”

Cecilia sat listening to Pete and Luke, as well as the sobbing ladies beside her. She was anxious to do her part and leave the place. She also thought about hanging from a rope in the square if anything went wrong, and that thought wasn’t sitting well with her right now. She was definitely too old for this. Definitely too old.

Luke had stopped painting to assume a different role in the play’s next act. “Well, ladies, I am gonna have to snitch a few things from your perty necks, as our payment from his lordship is whatever you have to give us.”

The gang chose Luke for this part because of his skills with the ladies. He wasn’t going to just take their jewelry; he was also going to use his charms to take their minds off what the others were doing, and give them all more time to finish their assigned tasks. A clever stalling technique, to be sure.

He stood in front of Lady May first, and ran his hand across her jaw line and then down her neck, moving slowly. Lady May’s jaw quivered. “Ah, m’lady, you have the softest skin I’ve ever felt. Do you mind if I touch you here?”

Lady May made a gurgling sound, fear rippling through her. Cecilia rolled her eyes under her binding. Luke made the most of his part!

Luke put both hands around the back of Lady May’s neck and massaged her sensuously before unclasping her necklace. Since all the women were blindfolded, he felt extremely bold. As he pulled off her earrings, he kissed each ear, then trailed his mouth down to the back of her neck. Lady May made that strangled gurgling sound again, and Luke had to bite his lips to keep from laughing. He really enjoyed this part of the plan. He should have gone into professional kidnapping instead of shoemaking! So much more satisfying.

Luke pulled out the diamond pins from Lady May’s hair, letting it cascade gently around her shoulders. He pulled the brown tresses to his nose and smelled deeply of their fragrance. “Hmmm. Lavender.”

He went around to the back of the chair where her hands were tied. He removed each ring, kissing every finger afterward. He kissed the inside of each wrist as he took her bracelets. Finally, he walked around to the front of Lady May again and pulled down her gag, giving her a deep kiss he hoped she’d never forget. He put the gag back over her mouth and whispered in her ear, “Ye, m’lady, make me feel like a real man. Oh, the things I would like to do to ye” He smiled broadly, and she gurgled again.

The viscountess sat beside Lady May. She tried to be brave and regal, sitting perfectly still and straight. She would not let this common criminal see fear in her. Her bearing impressed Luke. He took it as a personal challenge to break through that imperial manner and bring her down. He walked behind her chair and put his hands on her shoulders, giving her a light massage. He then ran his fingers along her neck and up to her ears, along her jaw line, and finally down her chest into the top of her bodice.

“You deserve the best, m’lady, so the best is what you will get.” Lady Bernice shuddered and swallowed hard, but didn’t bend. She felt his lips begin to follow his hands as he kissed the back of her neck and her shoulders.

Luke released her necklace and earrings and removed the tiara from her hair during his kissing session; she didn’t even feel them go. As he removed each item, he slipped it into a satchel hanging from his belt. His lips followed the viscountess’ bare arm down to her fingers, kissing the inside of her elbow and wrist. Lady Bernice curled her fingers and toes, trying to keep her body from reacting to this stranger’s tender ministrations. Luke kissed her palms and licked each finger as he pulled off her rings, sucking lightly on her fingertips. He then lightly massaged her bare fingers and wrists.

Finally, he walked around to face the viscountess, sat on her lap, removed her gag, and pulled her face to his for a long, deep, passionate kiss. That was her undoing. Luke got up from her lap, leaving her breathless, her lips still parted, quivering slightly. No one had ever kissed her like that, and she wasn’t sure how to react.

Luke replaced her gag, smiling broadly as he moved next to Lady Maureen. He didn’t feel quite as randy with Mara’s mother, so he simply removed all her jewelry, the tiara on her head, and the pins in her hair, placing the booty in his satchel.

Lady April had listened to the stranger’s encounters with her sister and the viscountess, and sobbed through her gag. “Ah, m’lady, do not be afraid,” Luke said soothingly. “I am not here to hurt you, I am just gonna show you a couple of things your husband should learn.” He started by running his fingers all over her exposed neck and upper chest, and slightly down into her bodice. His touch completely traumatized Lady April. She began shaking her head back and forth, moaning unintelligibly through her gag. Luke stepped back a bit, not wanting to terrorize her. Letting her calm down some, he reached over and took off her necklace, earrings, and bracelets, playfully kissing her fingers and wrists. Just as he had done with Lady May and Lady Bernice, Luke pulled down Lady April’s gag and gave her a deep, passionate kiss. “See,” he whispered, “that ain’t so bad.” Lady April continued to sob.

Luke came next to Cecilia. “What, no jewels?”

Cecilia started screaming at him through the gag, rocking her chair and kicking in his general direction. “Hey, woman! Is that any way for you to act?” That was Pete’s cue to come back. He put down his brush and walked to the line of women.

“What’s going on? What’s taking you so long?”

“This one is givin’ me a bit o’ trouble.”

Cecilia strained against her binds, making as much noise as possible while gagged and tied to a chair.

“Shut up, woman!” yelled Pete. Luke moved quietly back to the painting job, tossing the satchel into Mara’s hands. It was her job to take apart the jewelry, separating the stones from the settings and putting them in the little pockets of her petticoat. She sat in the carriage with some small tools bought just for the occasion. Having almost finished dismantling her own jewels, she sighed heavily as the new deposit came to her. She opened the satchel. There appeared to be a hundred thousand pounds worth of jewels inside. If they were caught, they would be facing a firing squad.

In the back, Cecilia continued to struggle and Pete continued to rail at her, slapping his hand to make it sound as if he were slapping her face. He finally made a huge amount of noise, and then laid Cecilia on her back, the chair tipped over. Cecilia silenced immediately. Pete dripped the final drops of pig’s blood on the floor around her head.

“What was that?”

“She won’t be givin’ us any more trouble.”

“Good. Let’s finish fast.” The painting was coming along nicely—it just took time to cover an entire carriage. Jake finished the four horses, and picked up a brush. He was quite happy to keep quiet and just work.

Mara began reciting her lines, asking in a loud, whining voice, “What are you going to do with me?”

“Ah, the little lady finally speaks.”

“Answer my question, please.”

“Well, his lordship decided he wanted Madame Butterfly more than the Duke of Cleveland wanted her!”

“His lordship?”

“Yeah, his lordship but you ain’t gonna get his name out o’ me!”

“You are a right perty woman, and he wants you all to himself. We are takin’ you to his house in the country.”

“He is gonna make you his mistress, and from the looks of you, a fine mistress you will make, too!”

Mara sobbed loudly. “Oh my God, please let me go, please! The duke will pay you handsomely.”

“We are already being paid handsomely, love. Them jewels will set us up for the rest of our lives.”

“To bad we canna have you first, but we are to bring you all virginal and everything, so hands off!”

“Blimey. She looks like a mighty fine piece of meat, boss.”

“Yeah, she sure do, but his lordship would have our heads if we touched her.”

Mara pitched in again. “But how is he going to keep me a secret? There is no way he can keep me a secret in England.”

“Lady, that is his problem, not mine!”

“In fact, we have a letter to give your mum. It explains everything.”

Luke walked over to the ladies and dropped a letter on Lady Maureen’s lap.

“Hey boss, I think there is something wrong with the lady you kicked over.”

“What now?”

“I think her neck is broke. Come look at her.”

First Jake, and now Cecilia? The thought of her being dead too sent the other four ladies into sobbing fits. They were truly petrified now.

“Bloody hell. Another dead body. Put her in the carriage with him.”

Mara sobbed again, too.

Pete and Luke dragged Cecilia and her chair across the floor, trying to make realistic noises, then untied her, and let her climb into the carriage. Mara screamed when she saw the “dead” body. “Oh, my God, Cecilia. What have they done to you? How could you kill Cecilia, you brutes!”

Ignoring Mara’s ranting and raving, Cecilia promptly started to help with the jewelry.

“Let’s clean up and move on out of here.”

Luke went back to the ladies, pulling down their gags one by one, stalling again, and giving each of them a passionate kiss, and stroking their chins and jaw lines. Even Mara’s mother received a fond farewell kiss. “Goodbye, my loves. I’d love to take you all along, but his lordship said no.” He smiled as Lady May began gurgling again. He wasn’t sure if she was going to be sick or have a passionate release!

While Luke distracted the ladies, Jake gathered up the last of the painting items, the floppy hats and handkerchiefs, the sheet of metal, the rod, the bloody jacket, and the bottle of pig’s blood, and put them all into the coach, pulling himself in after them. Earlier, Mara had taken the curtains off and turned them around so the white linings would be facing outside instead of the blue velvet. She now made sure the curtains were closed, hiding the occupants.

Pete climbed into the driver’s seat as Luke opened the large warehouse doors. Pete pulled the carriage out into the street, now jet black with white curtains and pulled by darker horses that didn’t look a thing like Angelo and Python. Luke closed the doors again and stepped onto the footman’s pedestal, and they drove unhurriedly down toward the pier.

 

Chapter 40

 

At the cathedral, everyone knew something was terribly wrong. Lord Markham had sent Edwin on Zeus to look for the carriage. It was 12:30, and the bridal party was nowhere in sight.

“An accident?” whispered the waiting guests. “A runaway bride?”

Both the duke and Markham were pacing back and forth, each worried for their own reasons. Markham was frantic that his deal was falling through, and the duke was angry that the prize wasn’t his yet. He was bound and determined to possess the Butterfly, and at the last minute something had gone intolerably wrong.

At 1:00, the Duke of Cleveland sent out the general alarm, calling in the London constabulary to find his bride-to-be. He sent all the guests to Stafford House to consume the food on which he’d spent a fortune.

By 1:30, as Pete and Luke pulled the newly-painted carriage out of the warehouse, the duke and Lord Markham sat in the phaeton searching the streets of London between the cathedral and the Markham house, desperate to find the carriage and the missing women. This was no runaway bride situation; six women were missing, as well as two able-bodied coachmen.

At 4:15, a little boy ran into a tavern, dropped off a note on the bar, and ran back out. It took the tavern master a few minutes to find someone who could read. The man who read the note gathered a group of men from the bar and walked the few blocks to a warehouse on Gopsall Street to find a bloody mess—flowers, ribbons, and a wedding veil scattered all around, and four completely traumatized women tied to chairs.

At 4:35, Termins received a message from the hospital that someone named Calvin Beech had been admitted, and demanded to see Lord Evelyn Markham. He seemingly ranted and raved about a bridal party being hijacked. Termins immediately left for the hospital.

By 6:00, all the men except Termins and Calvin gathered in the dining room at the Markham house, reading the note left behind by the kidnappers. The ladies were upstairs with their maids, being coddled, and given baths and sleeping draughts. Lady Maureen had spent the last half hour telling the men the horrific details of their abduction.

“We could hear Calvin and Jacob shouting at someone, but we weren’t sure what had happened at first. There were a lot of bumps and noises, and Jake’s voice became more and more distant, as if we had left him behind. Then we saw Calvin fall off the coach—later I realized he’d been thrown, because someone drove the carriage.”

She paused and took a sip of brandy.

“They drove us a few blocks, it didn’t take long. We didn’t know what we should do. We were all just petrified.” Markham patted her hand. “They pulled into a building, large enough for the horses and carriage to fit into. Then they roughly pulled us out of the cab and tied us up. We couldn’t see, we couldn’t speak, we couldn’t move. We could only hear what they were doing.”

“What did they look like? How many were there?” asked the new chief constable, Abner Perrin.

“They were wearing floppy hats, and had kerchiefs around their faces. We could only see their eyes. I think there were two men. I could only make out two voices.”

Perrin nodded his head. These guys were definitely pros. “Go on, m’lady.”

“Just seconds after they tied us up, we heard a crash and Jacob’s voice again. I was so relieved, as I just knew Jacob would rescue us. Mara called out his name, so I knew she was fine also, and at that time I realized she wasn’t tied up with us. But…but…” Lady Maureen started to cry, trying to hold back the sobs. Markham put his arms around his wife to console her. He handed her his handkerchief, which she accepted gratefully.

She drew in a breath. “Jacob told them to let us go and they… they shot him and killed him!”

“What!” The men recoiled in shock.

“They shot him. The gun was so loud.” She breathed heavily. “Mara screamed, you killed him! or something like that, and then they argued over what to do with the body. They finally decided to throw it in the Thames.” She sniffled, tears flowing freely down her cheeks.

“That explains the blood,” said the chief. “There was a lot of it in the warehouse. Looked as if something had been dragged through it, too.”

Lady Maureen nodded. “That’s when they tied up Mara, but I think they put her in the carriage. She screamed and carried on terribly. It was so hard to listen to one of our staff die like that.”

The Duke of Cleveland sat down next to her, and took her hand in his. “I am sure it was, m’lady. No one should be put through what you went through today, especially ladies of breeding.”

Markham stood there stunned. He’d been trying to rid himself of that boy for years, but now that Abbot was dead, he actually felt remorse. Then he felt anger. No one was allowed to shoot his servant and get away with it. No one!

Chief Perrin gently prodded Lady Maureen. “What happened next, m’lady?”

“They also stole all our jewelry. They said it was payment for the work they were doing. They said his lordship several times, and that they were taking Mara to his lordship to be his mistress.”

The duke stood up like a shot at this statement. His mouth fell open, and his breathing quickened. Someone else would have his prize! The men in the room all started talking at once.

“Please, gentlemen, please!” Perrin raised his arms to silence the room. “Let the lady continue. The more time we spend here, the more time this lordship has to move Mara away from London.” All talking stopped. Perrin nodded at Lady Maureen to continue.

“As he stole our jewelry, I could hear him, I could hear him,” she swallowed hard, trying to describe what he had said to Lady Bernice, May, and April. “I could hear him touching them.”

Lady May’s husband snapped. “Touching them!”

She nodded. “He talked about their soft skin and their pretty hair, and I could hear him kissing them. It was horrible. Simply horrible.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “And he kissed me, too.” She shuddered at the recollection.

Both Lady May and Lady April’s husbands dashed from the room to go see their wives. The other men were rooted to the spot.

“When he moved on to Cecilia, she started to really struggle. I could hear her trying to lash out. The other one came over then, and I heard a struggle and a crash, and then silence.” She stopped again, as tears ran down her cheeks and she sobbed uncontrollably.

“What happened then, my dear?” encouraged Markham, his arm still around her.

“One of them said her neck looked funny. I think they broke her neck, as they then talked about having to dispose of another body. I heard them drag her away. I think they killed Cecilia, too!” She put her face into her hands and cried.

Lord Markham looked up at Perrin. His daughter had been kidnapped, and two of his servants killed today! He had a hard time wrapping his mind around his wife’s words. He looked back at Lady Maureen. “She’s done for now.”

Perrin nodded.

Markham called for Termins, but Mr. Fout showed up instead. “Please take Lady Maureen upstairs now, Mr. Fout.”

“Yes, m’lord.”

And so the men gathered to look at the note the kidnappers had left on Lady Maureen’s lap. “The handwriting is a little sloppy,” said Perrin. “Almost as if the author was trying to hide his true handwriting.”

 

Dear Lord Markham,

 

I want to thank you for letting me have your daughter. I have loved her from the moment I first laid eyes on her, and decided that I must have Madame Butterfly for my own. Of course, I couldn’t compete in the title and financial arena with the Duke of Cleveland, so I had to devise my own way of securing the lovely Butterfly for myself.

I will take extremely good care of your daughter. I wish her no harm, and in time I hope she will come to love me as I love her.

I am sorry that I had to hire hooligans to do the dirty work, but I am sure you realize I couldn’t have done it myself. They demanded payment, and the ladies, I assume, provided ample payment in the form of their jewelry. Mara was allowed to keep hers, of course.

I will allow your daughter to write to you as soon as I think she is ready.

I hope I didn’t inconvenience you in any way.

 

Sincerely,

Lord Phantom

 

Markham looked up at Perrin. “Find him,” he growled. “Find him, whip him to the edge of life, and then hang him from the towers of Westminster Abbey.”

 

Chapter 41

 

Pete pulled the coach up to the little church a couple of blocks from the pier. He could see the ship’s mast in the distance, and could taste freedom. Just a few more hours. Just a few more hours.

The carriage door flew open, and out popped Jake, Mara, and Cecilia. Jake held the blood-stained jacket with all the other items wrapped inside. He and Luke took the items, plus Cecilia’s shawl, and disappeared behind the church. The yard butted up against the Thames—a perfect spot from which to toss the items into the river. They were hoping the jacket or the shawl would be found, and the other things would simply sink to the bottom of the river. After the two friends threw the objects into the river, they returned to the women standing outside the church.

“Ready?”

“I’ve been ready for years.”

They all started laughing at Jake’s response, mostly to release the tension of the last few hours, and of the last few months. So far, so good, but they weren’t out of the woods yet.

The four entered the church, leaving Pete to watch the carriage. The jewel-laden petticoat weighed Mara down, and she had problems adjusting to the heaviness and awkward feeling. It would take time to learn to move naturally in it. The way she moved now, people would think she had a crippled leg or hip!

“Vicar! Vicar Darrell?” Jake called out in the quiet nave.

“Here I am, come in, come in! It is 3:10, and you are right on time, between 3:00 and 3:30 just like you promised.” The elderly vicar came to greet Mr. Abbot and his bride. He looked at the young woman in the ice-blue satin gown, and nodded appreciatively. “She’s a beauty, all right. Did mighty fine for yourself, lad. Mighty fine.”

“Thank you, sir. Can we move on with the ceremony?”

The vicar laughed. “You young ‘uns are always in a hurry. Come along, everything is ready for you.”

He led them to the altar stairs, struggling to climb up the two steps. “You have only two witnesses?”

“That is all you said we needed, Vicar Darrell.”

“You are right, my boy, you are right. Just making sure.”

Mara held Jake’s hand tightly. This was her real wedding. She was about to marry the man who held her heart, her mind, her body, and her soul. This was the reason for the elaborate charade of the past several hours—so they could legally be united as one.

“Please kneel.” The vicar stood over them, pulled out his prayer book, and read from it.

Cecilia and Luke stood silently behind the bride and groom, both beaming with joy, as the vicar read the marriage passages. He droned on for a while before coming to the vows.

“Jacob James Abbot, do you take Mara to be your lawfully wedded wife?”

Jake looked into Mara’s eyes, holding both of her hands in his, and said with all his heart those two simple words. “I do.”

“Mara Elizabeth Markham, do you take Jacob to be your lawfully wedded husband?”

“I do.” The words were a mere whisper, as the emotion in her heart made it difficult for her to speak.

“The ring, please.”

Jake had no ring of his own to give his bride, so they had decided the ring the duke had given her would do. He had removed it from her finger earlier, and put it in his pocket. Now he retrieved it and, before putting it on her, kissed her finger tenderly. “I seal this spot with my love, binding you to me forever, this circle representing our never-ending love and commitment.” Then he put the beautiful diamond on her left ring finger. Tears slid down Mara’s cheeks.

“You may kiss the bride.”

Jake stood up and helped Mara to stand before pulling her gently to him and slowly, tenderly, giving her their marriage kiss. Cecilia burst into tears of happiness and started clapping. Luke joined her in clapping, and laughed. “You did it, man! you did it!” He slapped Jake on the back, effectively stopping the sweet kiss.

“Yes, I did. Yes, we did.” Jake turned to the vicar. “The paperwork, please.”

“Of course, have it right here.” He turned and pulled the marriage certificate off the altar, and handed it to Jake, who carefully folded it and put it in his back pocket. “I just need for all of you to sign the official register over here, and then you may be on your way.”

He slowly walked with them to the register, where all four signed their real names, quite illegibly. Anyone looking at the register wouldn’t be able to make out even one of the names, they were all written so poorly. This was intentional, to cover their tracks.

 

*****

 

Mara could hardly contain herself. She was finally Mrs. Abbot! She had just married Jake. It all seemed so surreal, like a dream. This day had been the strangest but also the best of her life! She sat next to Jake in the carriage and hung onto his arm, afraid she’d wake up to find that it had all been just a dream. Jake looked down at her and smiled that crooked smile that made her heart spin.

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you more!” he responded, and bent to continue the kiss they had shared in the church. Cecilia looked up at the ceiling. She couldn’t look out of the carriage, as the curtains were still closed.

They left the church, stopping just one block away, at a tavern. Luke and Pete went in, paid for a room, and spent half an hour shaving. Cecilia cut their hair.

Jake and Mara stayed in the coach.

Jake stopped kissing Mara when the coach came to a halt again a few blocks later. He peered out from behind the curtain. The ship loomed over them.

“Our passage to freedom,” he said. “We are at the ship.”

The Fleetwood sailed under an American flag. She had been used by the Americans as a cargo ship during their war with Britain. Her proud captain had converted her to a passenger ship after the war to bring new citizens to the brave new world.

They dismounted the carriage, and started the long process of having it loaded onto the ship. The horses had to be unharnessed, and the carriage partially dismantled and prepped for the long journey. A stevedore came to oversee the process, allowing Jake, Mara, and Cecilia to climb the gangplank to the ship. Luke and Pete would eventually go take care of Python and Angelo.

The captain saw them arrive, and went to the top of the gangplank to greet them.

“Mr. Abrams. How delightful to see you again! And this must be your lovely wife.” Captain Carrington bowed deep before Mara. “She is a rare beauty. Best never leave her side on this trip, for even I might be tempted by her loveliness.”

Jake, now going by the name James Abrams, bowed to the Captain, and then turned to introduce his wife. “This is Elizabeth Abrams, my wife, and her ladies’ maid, Ellen Fullington. My dear, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Captain Robert Carrington, the master of this fine ship.”

Captain Carrington held out his arm toward Mara. “Mrs. Abrams, may I show you to your quarters?” Mara took his arm and followed him, listening to him talk about his ship, her features and measurements, capacity, and crew size. She batted her eyelashes, and hung on his every word. He was smitten.

“Your belongings arrived the day before yesterday, and we packed the four crates and the two wagons in the hold. The eight horses are in the animal holding area, with plenty of food. They won’t be happy, but they will be well taken care of during the journey. I’ve not lost a horse yet, and I don’t intend to start now.”

Mara murmured her gratitude, and let him drone on. “We took the liberty of putting the trunks in your rooms. We had to guess which was which, so if we didn’t choose correctly, just tell a crew member and we will switch them around for you. Anything you want, you just tell ol’ Captain Carrington, and it will be done.”

“You are so kind and gracious, sir. I know this will be the most pleasant of journeys because of your personal attention to detail, and your faultless hospitality. I am sure no ship on the open seas is as wonderful as the Fleetwood.”

Carrington’s chest puffed up. “No ma’am! She is the top of the line. You will travel to America in the most modern style on the seas today. Ah, here we are at your cabin, m’lady. I will leave you to settle in now, and we’ll resume our chat at dinner tonight.”

The captain bowed low and kissed Mara’s hand. With a click of his heels, he was off to attend to other business prior to their departure. He glanced at his fob watch. As charming as Mrs. Abrams was, he had a ship to undock in less than fifteen hours.

The cabin was a three-room suite, with a tiny water closet. The trunks sat in the middle of the small sitting room, waiting for their owners to claim them. The room consisted of a settee, a single end table with a lamp, a tiny writing desk, a reading chair, and a smaller straight-back chair. In the middle of the floor was a dark oriental rug. To the right was a small bedroom, with a double bed, dresser, and wardrobe. There was barely enough room to walk between the furniture. “I now know why the trunks are in the sitting room!” exclaimed Cecilia. “You can’t even breathe in this room.”

“Yours is worse,” said Jake, as he nodded toward the door on the opposite side. The room was barely more than a closet, with a set of narrow beds, one above the other, a small nightstand with two drawers, and hooks on the wall for clothes. “I guess we will stack the trunks along the wall in the sitting room when we’ve unpacked what we need.”

“Where are Pete and Luke staying?”

“You mean Pierson and George?”

Mara smiled. “I mean Pierson and George, my dearest James.”

“They have a room a level below us, with bunk beds and hooks on the wall, just like Cecilia’s—I mean, Ellen’s. They will be fine.”

“Well, Lady Elizabeth,” said Cecilia, “we might as well unpack!” Giggling, the women began to settle into the tight quarters, while Jake went to check on their crates, wagons, and horses.

 

Chapter 42

 

Captain Carrington was highly disappointed when Mr. Abrams showed up to dinner alone, stating that Mrs. Abrams had a headache. He understood, however, and allowed Mr. Abrams to eat a quick dinner and then carry back two plates of food for the ladies. Jake felt it was safest for Mara to remain in their room until they were on the high seas. At that point, Markham and Cleveland would be powerless to stop them. Since Jake was believed to be dead at the bottom of the Thames, he felt safe wandering around the ship. No one would be looking for him.

He kicked the door lightly with his boot, and waited for Cecilia, the other dead one, to open it.

“Brought food, ladies!”

“Thank God!” exclaimed Mara. “I am starving. We haven’t had a bite to eat since breakfast.”

Cecilia took the plates and set them on the writing table.

Jake pulled silverware, a corkscrew, and napkins from his pocket, and put down a bottle of wine he had been carrying under his arm. “It is the best I could do under the circumstances. We’ll have Cecilia—I mean, Ellen—return the dishes later. Are there glasses in here, or must we drink from the bottle?”

“We’ll drink from the bottle. Not a problem. Manners be damned tonight!” Jake handed Mara the uncorked bottle. She took a swig and then lifted it high into the air. “To us—the best kidnappers and thieves in the British Isles!”

“Maybe in the entire continent!” added Cecilia, as she took a drink.

Jake seized the bottle and also took a swig. “Me thinks the entire planet, m’ladies!” They all laughed and drank and ate and relived the entire day, step by step, still finding it hard to believe they had actually pulled it off.

 

*****

 

After dinner, Cecilia took the plates back to the kitchens, giving Jake and Mara a little time to themselves. They sat next to each other on the settee, relaxing and basking in the glow of their success. Mara loved being tucked beneath his arm and leaning against his side. It was such a relief to be completely in the open with their relationship, letting others besides Pete, Luke, Alvin, and Cecilia see them together.

Mara swung her legs up and over his lap so she partially lay across him and snuggled closer, hugging him tight.

“I never thought I’d see this day, Jake—the day I became Mrs. Jacob Abbot, and truly yours forever.”

“I’ve dreamed of this moment for seven years.” He closed his eyes, dropping his head back onto the settee. “I still remember the day we met. Your yellow dress, your wild hair, your big green eyes staring at me after I came through that hole in the wall. I thought for sure you were going to knock me senseless with that big book of yours.” They laughed at the memory. “I remember your giggle when I asked if you were the queen, but mostly I remember the feeling of finding a kindred soul. Someone as broken and lonely as I was.”

He lifted his head and looked at her. “But I am not broken and lonely anymore. You have healed my soul, and given me a family. You kept us together, saving Pete and Luke and Alvin and me from horrible futures, and probably early deaths. You kept us from starving. You are truly our Angel Mara.” He squeezed her in a tight hug. “I fell more in love with you with each passing day.”

“But I was so fat and ugly.”

“Weight is not what defines a person, Mara. And you were never ugly.” His hand traced her face.

“I didn’t fall in love with your outside, which I do like mighty well, by the way, but I fell in love with my kindred soul. I fell for the big heart that gave four hooligan boys a chance, a home, and direction in their lives. I fell for the giggle that wells up from deep inside you, bringing pure joy to the world. I fell for the incredibly bright mind behind all that curly, red hair. How could a bit o’ fat compete with all those amazing qualities? It mattered little to me.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks. Everyone else in her life had seen only the fat and never the girl inside. For her, Jake did the saving. It wasn’t until he came into her life that she had experienced real love. Cecilia and the other servants were devoted to her, but she never believed they dearly loved her like Jake and the other boys. They, too, had tsked-tsked behind closed doors at her weight, but the boys had never mentioned it after that first day. She was grateful to him, to them.

She stood up. “Stay here a minute,” she whispered. She went into the other room and closed the door. He raised an eyebrow, but stayed put. He laid his head back and closed his eyes. He was dead tired. This day had put a lot of stress on all of them. If they knew he was alive, Jake would be the most wanted lawbreaker in all of England, and that laid heavy on his mind. Not that he wouldn’t do it again in an instant, but to go from stable hand to criminal mastermind was a mind-boggling and exhausting experience.

He had almost dropped off to sleep when he heard the bedroom door open. He peeled one eye open. He awoke instantly when he saw Mara. She had changed into a creamy silk nightgown and matching robe. It hung on her curves invitingly, the décolletage dipping low between her breasts, hinting at the rewards that were his to claim.

“Come,” she said huskily, as she took his hand, “let me show my husband how much this kindred soul appreciates him.”

Jake smiled and allowed himself to be led to the tiny bedroom by his beautiful bride.

 

*****

 

They awoke the next morning—arms, legs and bedclothes tangled—to the lurching of the boat as it left its moorings. They had fought in their sleep the age-old “who owns the covers?” battle, and it looked like Jake had claimed the sheet and Mara the coverlet. They smiled at the mess.

Jake and Mara lay in each other’s arms, holding their breath as the great ship left the dock and sailed toward the open seas. They dared not hope yet that they were scot-free after pulling off the biggest crime in London in recent memory. The evidence they carefully left behind would hopefully befuddle the constabulary, Markham, and Cleveland long enough to keep them from thinking of searching the shipyards.

After the shuddering stopped and the ship seemed to be sailing smoothly toward the Atlantic, Jake turned to Mara. “Good morning, Mrs. Abbot—I mean, Mrs. Abrams. I hope you had a good night’s sleep.”

“The best in years. I had no idea how lovely it was to sleep next to a tossing and turning cover-stealing brute.”

“You were the one stealing my covers, m’lady! I was only trying to receive back my due.”

She laughed and struggled to arise. “Let’s straighten up this mess and start all over again.”

He growled, and shook off the sheets. She growled back. They smoothed down the bedclothes, tucking the ends back in. Then he growled again and chased her, leaping over the top of the bed. She gave a little shriek and ran around the bed, trying to avoid him and the furniture. There was little room for escape in this minute room!

Jake caught her easily and pulled her down on the bed, pouncing and tickling.

“Stop it, Jake, stop it!” She was incredibly ticklish, and he had always loved tickling her into giggling fits when they were children. The only place he was ticklish was the bottoms of his feet, and she’d never been able to touch those before.

She struggled against him, and was finally able to grab an ankle, held on for all she was worth, and tickle his foot. Jake started laughing uncontrollably, none too gently kicking his leg, trying to push her off his foot.

“I have you now, you animal!”

What they didn’t realize was that their laughter could be heard through the thin walls, ceilings, and floors, giving other passengers around them a good laugh, too. Cecilia pulled her pillow over her head to block out the noise.

Jake grabbed Mara’s legs and pulled with all his might, finally dislodging her from his sensitive foot. In a flash, he was on top of her, kissing her greedily like a famished man who’d been left in the desert for too long. In no time at all, the laughter was replaced by the sounds of two people in love.

 

Chapter 43

 

The next six weeks stretched out before them. They took up an easy routine of walking the decks, talking with other passengers, and planning their next steps when they reached America. The Fleetwood would dock in New York, in the northern part of the new country. They asked hundreds of questions of the captain and crew in order to understand better this new world and the customs of the country they were about to adopt as their own.

Most of the passengers were not of the peerage; they were commoners, hoping for a new and better life. Mr. and Mrs. Abrams (as they were known aboard ship) were the unofficial lord and lady of the voyage, sought after by almost everyone on board at one time or another. Mara and Cecilia were among only a couple of dozen women, as most of the passengers were men looking for work and a home before sending for their wives, mothers, sisters, and children who had remained behind in England.

The women usually gathered in the mess or dining facility to mend clothes, knit, embroider, and chat about the things women chat about. Mara hated these sessions, but knew she had to play the part.

Jake, Luke, and Pete looked after the horses, and talked to the other men at length about the workings of the ship. It was important to make as many friends and acquaintances as possible on this voyage, as these people would help them find the right support in New York. They may have escaped England, but they still had to tread the unfamiliar ground of America and settle in anonymity.

Mara kept up her exercise routine as much as possible, running around the deck in the wee hours of the morning before most of the passengers were up. She also ran up and down the stairs to the captain’s cabin and around the wheel house. The crew became used to seeing the lovely lady in men’s breeches on her morning jog; it amused them to no end. Jake would sometimes join her, but he mostly stood on deck watching her make her laps, jawing with the crew. Running was for horses, not men!

 

*****

 

Mara awoke in the middle of the night and couldn’t return to sleep. Too many thoughts were running through her head. In only two weeks they would arrive in New York, and the list of things she had to do was long. She ran over details in her mind.

She looked at her sleeping husband’s back. He had taken the sheets again, leaving her with the comforter which was half on, half off the bed. Mara sighed. They were going to need a bigger bed and better bedclothes in their new home, or she’d end up on the floor with the coverlet most of the time!

After tossing and turning for a bit, she gave up trying to sleep. Maybe exercise would help relax her and work the worry out of her head. She silently dressed in her pants, shirt, and work shoes, and noiselessly let herself out of the cabin.

Out on the deck, Mara took a deep breath of fresh sea air. This is what I need, she thought. Fresh air. She began briskly walking her first lap to warm up her muscles before breaking into a jog. It was a bit tricky in the dark, but she’d done it so often during the day that she knew where every barrel and post and gun mount lay.

On her seventh lap she heard a noise off to one side, but assumed it was one of the crew beginning his day a tad early.

A man watched her in the darkness. Harry Paulus was also on his way to the new world. He was a banker by trade, a man who could afford a ticket over, but he lacked the wealth of the Abrams. He looked for more opportunity than he would ever have in England—the reason most men were on their way to America. He was also avoiding jail time, after having swindled a few thousand pound notes from his bank.

Paulus had met the Abrams clan, of course, and had had a few lively discourses with James and his two servants, George and Pierson, on horses, politics and philosophy. Being an educated man, he enjoyed the company of other educated men. He’d also eyed the gorgeous Mrs. Abrams lustfully. She was educated herself, intelligent, and flirty, with a quick wit and a ready smile. And here she was, alone on deck, running around in the dark like a fool for the taking. And taking was on Paulus’ mind.

He moved into position in the shadows of the wheel house, and waited for her to come by on her next lap.

Mara turned around the wheel house on her eighth lap, thinking two more would do it. She was tired again, and knew she’d be able to sleep now. Just then, two arms roughly grabbed her from behind, one around her waist lifting her off the ground, the other over her mouth.

Mara struggled against her assailant, and bit his hand hard. “Ouch, you bitch!”

She screamed, but it was immediately cut off by an arm going around her neck and into her windpipe.

 

*****

 

Jake turned over in his sleep and threw his arm out to embrace his wife, but found her side of the bed empty. He opened his eyes and patted the bed, looking for her. Then he glanced over at the floor where the coverlet was. No Mara. Water closet? He waited a few minutes for her to return. When she didn’t and he heard nothing, he stood up and put on his pants, walking out to the sitting room. Mara wasn’t there, either. He opened Cecilia’s door. She stirred.

“M’lady?”

“I’m looking for her. She’s not in here?”

Cecilia was fully awake now. “No, sir, not here.”

“Stay here. I’m going to go look for her.”

Cecilia stood up and put a robe on over her nightgown. “I will wait up.”

Jake, in bare feet and dressed only in his breeches, pulled open the door and realized it was unlocked. Blimey, he thought, where’d she go? He started running down the hallway to the ladder that would take him up on deck.

 

*****

 

Was that a scream? thought Captain Carrington, as he slowly wakened from a sound sleep. He sat up in bed, trying to figure out what had wakened him. He heard some banging below his cabin, and a grunt. Definitely a scream, he concluded, and arose to see what trouble his crew was into now.

 

*****

 

Paulus turned Mara around, pressed her hard against the wall of the wheel house, and covered her mouth with his in a fierce kiss. “Shhhh,” he shushed, “Don’t fight me. I just want to steal a few sweet kisses, m’love.” He moved his hand upward from her waist to her shoulder, his body imprisoning hers against the wood. She squirmed and squealed under his lips, and pushed against his chest with all her might, but couldn’t budge him.

He forced her lips apart savagely as he thrust his tongue between them. Her lips were bruised as he kissed her hungrily without restraint, his hands bruising her tender skin.

Mara was truly petrified now, as she felt utterly helpless against her attacker. She tried screaming again, only to have him once more cut off her windpipe with his forearm. She began struggling with all her might, painfully scratching her back against the rough wood of the wheel house through the thin material of her shirt.

 

*****

 

Jake wandered about the huge deck for a few minutes, trying to find his bearings in the dark. He was about to go see the captain, when he saw Carrington exit his cabin, pulling on his boots. At that very moment they heard grunting and a thud below the captain’s quarters. Jake took off like a flash, his bare feet slapping on the deck. Carrington pulled on his second boot with a painful tug, and vaulted over the side of the ladder half way down.

Jake became enraged when he saw a man brutally kissing his wife in the faint moonlight. He grabbed the assailant around the waist, and threw him across the deck. Paulus landed hard, but popped back up immediately, only to take the full swing of Jake’s punch right in the jaw. He staggered backwards, then pitched forward as he bore the full brunt of a one-two punch to the stomach. Jake then brought up his knee into the man’s face as he fell forward. As Carrington came upon the scene, he saw what looked like Mr. Abrams pummeling the life out of someone. He quickly ran to restrain James, for he looked as if he might kill the man. He grabbed James from behind, and threw him across the deck.

“Lay off! You’re gonna kill him!” Jake was immediately up and crouched, ready to pounce again. Carrington put up his hands. “James! I will take care of this bastard. You take care of your wife!”

Jake recovered quickly at the mention of Mara, and ran over to the figure lying in a little ball on the deck.

“Jake, oh my God, Jake!” He covered her mouth with his as he picked her up to keep her from saying his real name. “It’s James, baby,” he reminded her, talking into her mouth softly, “I am here. You are safe.” She sobbed hysterically, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck.

They heard footsteps, as some of the crew members arrived on the scene. Then they heard Carrington giving orders to his men to deal with the attacker.

Carrington turned to Jake and Mara. “Take her to the infirmary. Doctor Hathaway’s room adjoins it. I’ll meet you there as soon as I deal with him.” He jerked his head toward the prone, silent figure of the attacker. Jake nodded and half-walked, half-ran to the infirmary. The hardest part was handling the ladder into the hold while carrying Mara.

Upon arriving at the infirmary. Jake opened the unlocked door and laid Mara down carefully on the examination table, gently peeling her arms from around his neck. He then knocked loudly on the doctor’s door, barely finding it in the darkened room.

“What?” came the sleepy reply.

“I need your help. My wife was attacked!” called Jake through he closed door.

The door flew open, and out stepped a disheveled, white-haired man in a nightshirt, putting on a pair of spectacles. Doctor Hathaway tended to the crew, and also served as the ship’s veterinarian. He treated all living creatures, no matter what their ailments. He had begun his practice ministering to people, but at times his patients asked him to treat their sick animals as well. In his later years, he had taken this job on the Fleetwood, which suited him well.

He took one look at the crying woman curled up in a ball on his table, and grasped the situation immediately.

He rushed over to her, and started to gently brush the hair back from her face. “Please light every lamp in the place. Over there is the flint.” He nodded toward the corner table.

Jake did as he was told. Dr. Hathaway cooed to Mara, telling her she was safe now. As more light streamed into the room, Hathaway could better assess the damage. Her shirt was untucked in the back and peppered with little bloody marks. Upon lifting her shirt up, he could see her back was full of little cuts and splinters from the rough wood, and that her face was bruised. He’d have to pry her apart to assess the rest of her, but that could wait. “There’s a sheet under the table,” he told Jake. “Please find it and cover her.” He glanced up as he said this, and gasped. Jake was not wearing a shirt, and his crisscrossing scars shocked the doctor.

Jake looked down and quickly realized the tactical mistake of not putting on a shirt before leaving the cabin. He bent to retrieve the sheet, and put it over his wife.

Hathaway’s eyes moved from Jake’s disfigured torso to focus back on his charge.

“Mrs. Abrams. Mrs. Abrams. I know this is hard for you, but I have to ask you where else you hurt.”

Mara pulled into a tighter ball. Jake put his hands on her shoulder and face, kissing her cheek. “I love you,” he whispered. “I will always love you.”

Mara began to relax a bit under his gently stroking fingers. “Honey, please. Tell the doctor so he can care for you properly.”

“He kissed me so hard,” she finally whispered, struggling to say the words. “He hurt me.”

They jumped at the knock on the door. It opened, and Carrington stuck his head in.

One glance at Jake and he, too, stared in wonder at the scars on the young man’s skin.

The captain stepped into the room, looking from the doctor to the patient to the husband. “I think we need to talk, young man. Doctor, is she okay?”

“A few bumps, bruises, and scratches, but those will heal. The emotional damage will be harder to deal with.”

Carrington curtly nodded. “We’ll send her ladies’ maid in.” He opened the door, and motioned for Jake to exit. “After you, Mr. Abrams. After you.”

The two men arrived back at the Abrams’ cabin. Jake opened the door to find a worried Cecilia, now fully dressed, sitting in the reading chair. “Mr. Abrams!” She jumped up. Not seeing Mara, but seeing the captain instead, she panicked. “Where is Miss Elizabeth?”

Carrington eyed Jake, who silently went to his room to grab a shirt.

He turned back to the maid. “Another passenger attacked her.” Cecilia’s hand flew to her mouth in horror. “She is fine, but she needs you. She is in the infirmary with Dr. Hathaway. Please join her there.”

Without another word, Cecilia ran past the captain and straight to the infirmary.

Jake came out of the room, pulling a shirt around his shoulders. They walked back to the captain’s quarters in silence, as Jake buttoned it.

Once they arrived, Carrington closed the door. “Sit.”

Jake sat. He leaned his head back on the chair, and closed his eyes. He was bone tired, and his hands hurt like hell from beating Paulus. His wife had been attacked, and he wasn’t with her to take care of her. The emotions in him were hard to categorize. And now he was about to be interrogated.

“The man who attacked your wife is Harry Paulus, the banker.”

“What?” exclaimed Jake, his head coming off the chair. He expected the attacker to be one of the crew, or at least a commoner. “That is pretty bad behavior for a banker! I would not have believed him capable of that.”

“Who knows what kind of behavior a gentleman is capable of.” Jake didn’t miss the double meaning of the captain’s statement.

“James—if that is truly your name, for I heard your wife called you Jake—I find myself having to ask you a few questions. One is about your scars. Gentlemen rarely find themselves on the wrong end of a whip. Judging by the scars on your back, that is quite a whipping or series of whippings you must have received.”

Jake took a deep breath. This was going to be tough. “Abrams is family name.” He hoped the captain didn’t notice him leaving out the article “the” in his sentence. “Father is a brutal and cruel man. The whip was his favorite choice of punishment for me as a child. And he castigated quickly, without trial or mercy.”

He thought back to the lesson Lady Maureen taught him when he showed the queen his scars. Half-truths were sometimes necessary. He’d tell the truth as much as possible, leaving the family relationships to the captain’s own conclusions. So he stretched it a bit here: father, father-in-law. Same difference, right? He glanced at Carrington, who was watching him closely, his elbows on the chair arms, and his hands together at the fingertips.

“Father only thinks about wealth. His family means little to him. He lost the family title to his elder brother, the heir. He avenges the hand dealt to him by increasing his wealth. He is a fine business man, well respected in the community, but behind closed doors, he is a horrible father, and a horrible man.”

Carrington waited for Jake to continue, tapping his fingers together.

“My name is James. James Jacob Abrams. Jake is a pet name that comes from my middle name. I have known Elizabeth since we were children. We grew up together, we played together, and we learned our lessons together. It is how we met. We lived around the corner from each other. I fell in love with her years ago.”

“Are you running away?”

“No. Yes…kind of.”

Carrington waited again.

Jake sighed, and stared straight into the captain’s eyes. “Life with my father became intolerable for me. The older I grew, the worse it became. And I could care less about the family fortune, and making money for the sake of making money. Our families are both at their country estates right now. We left London without saying anything; they don’t know we’re gone, and they don’t know we were married. Well, maybe they do by now.” He looked at the floor, acting ashamed.

His voice lowered to a whisper. “They wanted to marry her off to another man, and we couldn’t…that would have destroyed us. We…” His voice choked with real emotions, as he thought about how close he had come to losing Mara.

Jake stopped talking.

The captain broke the silence. “I’d say living with a man who would do that to his own son is intolerable.” He nodded, and looked toward Jake’s chest. “And watching the love of your life be given to another is just as intolerable. I guess I don’t blame you.” Carrington paused. “What about your servants. Didn’t they balk at running away?”

Jake smiled for the first time since they started the conversation. “Ellen practically raised Elizabeth. She won’t ever leave her. She is more a mother to her than her own mother is. Pierson and George are the sons of Father’s servants. Elizabeth and I grew up with them, too. We all played together. We are friends, not master and servants. They also want a better life, and America will offer them the freedom to become more than what they are now. Pierson is a journeyman blacksmith. And he’s a bloody good one, too. George is a journeyman cobbler. He can make a pair of boots that will make your feet sing. These will be useful skills in America, allowing them to rise to the middle class—something they could never do in England.”

“What are you going to do—you, who don’t want to make lots and lots of money.”

“I am a horseman. I know a lot about horses. I have ten good ones on board this ship. I plan to build a breeding farm. It is what I know; it is what I love.”

Carrington considered Jake’s words for a moment, and then stood up abruptly. “I think we are done here, Abrams. I thank you for your honesty.”

They shook hands. Jake was amazed at how easily the half-truths came. His mother was probably spinning in her Christian grave.

 

*****

 

Mara lay in their bed, sleeping soundly, when Jake returned. Hathaway had cleaned her wounds and given her a sleeping draught. Cecilia slept in the reading chair. Jake tiptoed into the bedroom and undressed. All he wanted to do was crawl into bed and put his arms around his love. The last couple of hours had been hard on them all.

He gathered Mara up in his arms and promptly fell asleep, dreaming of hanging Harry Paulus from the highest mast on the ship.

 

*****

 

Mara stirred in her sleep. She hurt all over and didn’t want to wake up. Then, in a rush, the night’s events invaded her mind, and she sat straight up in bed, screaming.

Jake immediately awoke and held her tightly to him, stroking her and whispering his love into her ear.

“You’re safe, my love. I am here. You are safe. He will never touch you again. I am here. You are safe.”

She clutched him tightly, sobbing uncontrollably. Having heard the scream, Cecilia softly opened the door to see if Mara was okay.

Jake looked over his wife’s head at the ladies’ maid. “I have her. It’s okay.” Cecilia nodded, and shut the door again.

“I am so sorry,” she sobbed.

“What do you have to be sorry about? You were the victim of a vicious attack. You have no reason to be sorry.”

“I am sorry I was foolish enough to go out by myself. I should have known better.”

“Shhh. It’s not your fault.” He gently pulled her back down on the bed, holding her close in his arms.

‘I feel so stupid.”

“Foolish, perhaps, but never stupid.”

“Jake?”

“Yes, my love.”

“Do you still love me?”

Jake closed his eyes. “You are mine,” he croaked, emotion filling his breast. “You will always be mine, and only mine. Woe to any man who thinks or acts otherwise. I will love you, no matter what, until the end of time. Never believe otherwise. Never.”

She nodded, secure in her husband’s arms.

 

*****

 

The next morning, Jake walked to the captain’s cabin once again, ensuring that Paulus would be securely locked away where he could no longer be a danger to Mara, or any other woman on board.

“My young man,” the captain assured Jake. “This ship is equipped with a sturdy brig that will keep Paulus well secured for the rest of the trip. I will personally turn him over to the constabulary once we arrive in New York. He will not be committing any more crimes on my ship!”

Jake smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. They wouldn’t have to worry about Paulus for the rest of the trip, but he’d make sure Mara no longer took dawn exercise runs by herself, just in case.

 

Chapter 44

 

A week after the kidnapping, a constable walked into Chief Perrin’s office with a package. “Here, sir. I think you need to see this.”

Perrin took the package, untied the string, and unwrapped the brown paper. He closed his eyes and let out a big breath when he saw the contents. He wrapped and tied it back up.

“Where’d it come from?”

“A bloke fishing on the bridge snagged it. Seeing the dark stains and the hole, he decided to bring it in.”

Perrin rubbed his tired eyes. This case was going to be the death of him. He had the entire peerage breathing down his neck. Even the king was asking tough questions. But at least he could corroborate the murder of the footman now.

Two hours later, he arrived at the Markham estate with the package.

Termins announced his entrance to his lord, who worked at his desk in the library.

“Send him in.”

Perrin stood ramrod straight as he handed the package to Lord Markham. Termins didn’t leave the room, and no one asked him to.

“What is this?”

“Evidence of the murder of your footman, m’lord. A fisherman pulled it out of the Thames.”

Markham untied and unwrapped the package. Just like Perrin, he closed his eyes and sighed. Except he pulled the item out.

There was Jake’s livery; once resplendent in its opulence, it was now a dark and soiled reminder of the events of last week. It was stained with blood; a hole marred its left breast, the gold braid now tarnished and cheerless. Markham put his finger through the hole. Abbot was definitely done for. No one survived a wound to the heart and the loss of that much blood.

“Is there someone besides you who can confirm this jacket belongs to Abbot?” Markham gave Perrin an odd look. “Just following procedures, m’lord.”

“Find Calvin and that young gardener who was friends with Abbot.” Termins nodded, and left on his errand.

“We are never going to find her, are we?”

“M’lord, there is always hope. But Lord Phantom is a very clever man, a man of means, and a man determined. All these things are very hard to overcome in an investigation. We can only hope he slips up, or that your daughter is able to escape.”

Perrin started fidgeting with the brim of his hat. “We have all the jewel merchants and goldsmiths in the city on the lookout for the jewels. The kidnappers have to sell them somewhere, and the ladies gave good descriptions of most of the pieces. We have a list of all the guests who attended the Masque last year, and are following up with each man on the list. From the letter the kidnapper wrote, we believe he was there. However, since identities were hidden for a good part of the evening, he could have been an uninvited guest and left well before the unmasking at midnight. Your daughter did that as well.” Markham sat chewing his nails.

The chief continued. “We are scouring the area around the warehouse for information. The owner of the warehouse rented it for the week, but never met the renter. All transactions occurred though missives delivered by young boys. We have all the letters. Same handwriting as the note left with Lady Maureen. It was arranged for back in the winter, so we know Lord Phantom had been planning this for quite a while.” He nodded toward the jacket. “And now we have this. But none of it helps us discover who he is, or where he has hidden your daughter.”

Termins arrived back with Calvin and Alvin.

Markham waved his hand toward the grubby jacket. “Is that Abbot’s? We just want to make sure.”

Alvin played his part brilliantly. He walked on unsteady legs over to the table, and tentatively picked up the once-green jacket. His hands trembled as he held it up and took in the amazing sight. Blimey, they did a great job! And the hole looked quite authentic. Plus, a few days in the river added a lot of dinginess to it.

The other men watched as the youth looked at the jacket. They weren’t exactly sure how to react when Alvin sank to his knees and started sobbing, pressing the jacket close to his chest. “Jake, oh my God, Jake.” He buried his face in the foul-smelling cloth, and cried like a baby.

Calvin was beside himself. Jake was like a son to him, and Alvin’s crying caused tears to now fall down his own cheeks. He went gently over to Alvin and pried the jacket from his hands, placing it back on the table. Holding him around the shoulders, Calvin helped Alvin up and guided him out of the room, boy and man crying helplessly. All Markham and Perrin could do was listen to the echoes of their grief, and become lost in their own thoughts.

 

*****

 

Two other people in London greatly mourned the death of Jacob Abbot. One was Queen Charlotte, who had been very impressed by the young man with the courage to bring his story to her and protect his friends in the orphanage. She was very saddened to learn her country lost this fine young man. And lost him while he was again trying to rescue others.

His mentor was also one of his mourners. Lady Sarah Hastings had heard the news much like most of the members of the aristocracy—through word of mouth first, and then from reports published in the newspaper.

She had first heard the news at a luncheon three days after the kidnapping. Like all other guests, she arrived at Stafford House for the lavish reception wondering what had happened to the bridal party. They had taken part in the lovely repast set for them in somber silence, barely able to whisper their musings to each other. No one could remember anything like this ever happening before.

Lady May attended the luncheon, and was the center of attention as she tearfully relayed the events of the day. Lady Sarah almost fainted when she heard that Jake had tried to rescue the women, and was shot and killed for his efforts. She barely made it through the meal.

That night she cried herself to sleep. She cried for Mara and the loss of her beloved. She cried for herself and the loss of a cherished friend. But most of all, she cried for the loss of a vibrant young man whom she could still see galloping down the lane on Lightning Bolt, laughing in pure delight.

 

*****

 

The letters began to arrive within the month. A small boy knocked on the front door and practically threw the first one at Termins, before running off again.

The letter was written on plain paper, inside a plain envelope, giving away nothing of its origin or owner. Lord and Lady Markham sat in the parlor and read the first letter from their missing daughter.

 

Dear Mother and Father,

 

I am writing to let you know I am well. The journey has been frightening, and losing both Jake and Cecilia to those two contemptuous villains was horrible beyond description. I screamed and fought with them during the entire ride to wherever I am now, giving quite a few bruises to the one sitting in the carriage with me. Those murderers had explicit orders not to hurt anyone, and the despicable Lord Phantom (I must call him Lord Phantom or he will not allow me to send you missives) was very angry, and sends his regrets at their loss. I miss Jake and Cecilia terribly, and have nightmares every night about their awful deaths. I miss my home and all who are in it.

That vile lord treats me well, letting me have whatever I want on the estate, within reason. I am not allowed out of the house, and am locked up or followed everywhere I go. I am a prisoner in every sense of the word. I tried climbing out a window my first night here, and now a maid sleeps in my room every night to keep me from escaping. I am only allowed pen and paper to write to you, and he is reading this as I write. He laughs every time I call him “despicable.”

He has so far been a gentleman, catering to my every whim except for letting me leave, which is the only true wish I have.

He insists I tell you that he loves me and will never let any harm come to me. But he did harm me irreparably when he allowed Jake and Cecilia to be killed. A bit of me died with them, and the Loathsome One will never have my esteem, let alone my love. I will close for now, and write again later.

 

Your devoted daughter,

Mara

 

The Markhams sent for Chief Perrin, who could only look at the letter and shake his head. It revealed no clues that would help them find her.

They took a trip to Stafford House to show the letter to the despondent Duke of Cleveland. The man was actually quite depressed, and no one could lighten his mood. The letter didn’t help much.

Besides Mara being gone, the other great mystery was the disappearance of all the jewelry the duke had given her before the wedding. He had come to claim it back, and the Markhams had searched the house for it, even opening the safe for the duke to inspect. In it was only one necklace that he’d given his bride-to-be. In desperation, the duke was about to accuse Lord Markham of theft if all the pieces weren’t returned. Lord Markham began to ask the staff, while the duke was in the room, if they knew anything.

Each remembered seeing her ladyship wear many of the beautiful pieces on her evenings out with the duke. It was Calvin who finally cleared up the mystery.

“Of course I knows where they be, m’lord. It was my job to see to their safety during the wedding ceremony.”

The duke grabbed Calvin and shook him. “Where are they?”

Calvin cringed. “I don’t know now. They were in a box, under the seat in the carriage. You see, the seat lifts up to store things in it.”

Lord Markham groaned and sat heavily upon the divan, head in hands. He felt his stomach lurch. Lady Maureen turned ghost white.

Calvin swallowed and continued. “Miss Mara wanted to carry them in a velvet box first to the church, then on to Stafford House to properly store them. She gave the box to me that morning, and I put it inside the seat.”

The duke let go of Calvin and fell to his knees, sobbing. It was all too much for him to bear.

 

*****

 

The second letter arrived about a month after the first. Rory found it early one morning as he was pruning the potted plants on the front stoop.

Mara’s parents sat once again in the parlor, and read the note.

 

Dear Mother and Father,

 

Lord Dreadful sends his salutations. He laughs at me again, vile creature. He has given me more freedoms around the house, and I am now directing the actions of the servants. They do my bidding, with the exception of helping me escape. I am also able to ride again, accompanied by two servants who are expert riders so that I can’t try to escape. I do try often, but they have almost turned it into a game. Lord Distasteful told me he let the villagers know that his new bride is delicate and easily confused, so even if I were to escape, they would simply return me to the manor house.

That horrid man had a vicar stop by a few days ago to marry us, so now I am Lady Vile Creature. I hate him so much. I strain constantly against the fetters that bind me in my prison, as nice as the estate is, but Lord Disgraceful insists I will someday come to love him and the manor house, as it now belongs to me.

He treats me well, for a prisoner. I am a very reluctant and unenthusiastic wife.

I believe I shall never see you again. Lord Appalling will never let me leave, for he would then have to pay for his crimes with his life. (I personally see nothing wrong with that, murderer.) I am sure the ladies are not pleased that their jewelry was stolen. It doesn’t sit well with me, either.

I still have the entire set of the duke’s jewelry, as it was in the carriage under the seat when I was kidnapped. The hoodlums didn’t find it, because they didn’t know it was there. I would dearly love to return it in person, but that is impossible. Lord Vile Creature just started laughing and told me to relay his thanks to the duke for the unexpected gift. He says I look breathtaking in all those Cleveland jewels.

I will close now, and write again later.

 

Your dedicated, chafing-at-the-bit daughter,

Mara

 

Lord Markham again sent for the chief, although he knew he would not be able to help. But it made them all feel like they were doing something. They debated showing this latest letter to the duke, since it was now apparent that Mara belonged to another man. However, in the end they decided he needed to be told. Plus, the statements about the Cleveland jewelry proved that Markham didn’t have it.

The duke read the letter, without comment. The finality of what had happened—and what was to be—sunk in. He had lost. He had lost Madame Butterfly and a goodly chunk of the Cleveland jewels to this phantom. He needed to pull himself together and move on with his life.

 

*****

 

The third letter arrived six weeks later. This time, it was lying in the middle of the driveway. No one had any idea that Alvin delivered the letters. The family and staff fell for the ploy completely. Alvin realized that his role was indeed a very important one. He was the one feeding the fire of doubt and redirection.

 

Dear Mother and Father,

 

I am slowly becoming accustomed to the prison I now call home. The servants treat me well, and Lord Vile Creature tries to be gracious, generous, and gentle. If he hadn’t kidnapped me and was the cause of Jake and Cecilia’s deaths, he would probably be the kind of man you would have liked to come calling on me.

Unfortunately, I can’t yet forgive and forget the kidnapping, murders, betrayal, and imprisonment that he foisted upon me. I didn’t want to marry the duke, but at least he went about the whole process in a civilized manner. This brute has done nothing except force his will upon you and me, and caused the death of two dear people. He is laughing over my shoulder as I write this, assured that I will eventually love him. He says we have nothing but time on our hands and that in the end, he will win. I don’t agree, and so the struggle continues.

He has sent my measurements to a seamstress for an entire new wardrobe, so I will be well attired for a country lady. I wish I could describe my surroundings, but Lord Phantom won’t allow it, for fear I will give away clues. Just know that the house and grounds are not hateful, and I enjoy my daily rides around the estate.

 

Your dedicated daughter,

Mara

 

This time, they didn’t bother to tell the duke. They would never forget Mara, but had returned to the normal ebb and flow of their daily lives, all talk of the heist and kidnapping having waned. After all, three-and-a-half months had passed. The Markhams were no longer the center of attention, as other gossipy news took over.

Chief Perrin queried all the seamstresses about a large order for a small woman. None could help. Madame Le Strange remembered the additional clothing Mara had requested, but her motto was that loose lips sinks ships, and this was one ship she didn’t want to board. She only admitted to having made Mara’s wedding gown.

The trail had grown cold, and they were at a dead end once again.

 

Chapter 45

 

The rest of the journey passed pleasantly enough, with the five runaways spending lots of time in the cabin in the evenings, playing cards and talking about New York.

Without Alvin the card shark, the rest of them took turns winning their hands. They bet with the jewels, taking them out of the little petticoat purses and dividing them up. At the end of the evening, they put all the jewels back, not really caring who won or lost. They were just having fun with the varied and brilliantly-colored stones.

 

*****

 

Jake decided to approach Carrington one day, to see if he could recommend a barrister in town. He also wanted to learn more about the immigration process so they could determine how best to proceed.

He found the good captain at the wheel one afternoon.

“James! Come on in, my good man. You want to try your hand at the wheel? Mighty different from driving your horses!” He laughed heartily at his own joke.

“Sure, I’d love to.”

Carrington spent the next few minutes teaching Jake the basics of steering a ship. Soon Jake had the wheel of the massive ship.

“Captain, I need your help.”

“You’re doing just fine, lad. Keep her steady.”

“Not with the wheel, sir, with our landing. How will we be processed when we arrive in New York?”

“Simple. You stand in line, you sign your name and where you were born in the big book, you receive a stamped entrance card, and you are done. Everyone over the age of five has to do this.”

“What about people who can’t write?”

“You simply tell the man behind the book your name and he writes it down, spelling not withstanding!”

The both laughed.

“What if we don’t want to be found? Can anyone look at those books?”

“They are open to review once they are put in the archives.” Carrington gave Jake a squinty-eyed look. “You worried about your father coming after you?”

Jake nodded. “It might have been a grave error for us to use our real names to book passage. I’ve been thinking about it since our talk the night Elizabeth was attacked.”

“I see your point. I guess it is up to you. I don’t think the books are used for anything official again. Those stamped cards are not an official form of identification. I’ve never seen anyone actually use them for anything.”

Jake stared out into the great blue yonder.

“I would also like the name of a reputable barrister. I need to set up our accounts, buy land, prepare to travel to our homestead—all things I believe a good barrister could guide me through.”

“We call them attorneys over here. Mine is Cavendish. Bernard Cavendish. I’d trust him with my life. Actually, I do. He takes care of things while I am at sea. You can find him on Duane Street next to the Turkey Shoot Tavern which, by the way, is a good place to stay if you don’t want to spend a bundle or be seen by the socialites. With your background, you may not want to be seen by society in case you are recognized.”

Jake nodded. That was a great piece of information!

“How do I find this Mr. Cavendish?”

“Follow Broad Way to the north, which means go around Battery Park and turn on Broad Way. It will intersect Duane about fifteen streets up. Turn right, and look for the Turkey Shoot. Can’t miss it.”

“In order to keep you out of this mess, please don’t mention me to Mr. Cavendish just in case I have to, um, give him a false name. I would hate to drag you into our mire.”

Carrington slapped Jake so hard on the back he nearly fell over the top of the wheel. “No problem, my man. Your secret is safe with me!”

Jake smiled, and enjoyed the rest of his time on the wheel.

 

Chapter 46

 

The day the ship landed dawned hot and clear. It was July 18th, and New York City was at her sticky best.

The excitement on the ship was palpable. Mara and Cecilia, on their last day as Elizabeth Abrams and Ellen Fullington, finished packing and awaited their departure from the ship.

As the Fleetwood docked to a cheering crowd, the passengers waved from the deck. Jake’s arms were around Cecilia on one side and Mara on the other, Pete and Luke on either end. The five stood arm in arm as they landed in their new country. Emotions overwhelmed Mara, and tears of joy and wonder rolled down her cheeks.

She couldn’t believe it! Since that horrible night in December when the duke proposed, she, Jake, and her friends had done some amazing things to arrive at this point, here in New York, a mere eight months later. She finally felt that they were safe. Once on shore, it would be nearly impossible for her family to find her, especially since they still thought her to be on English soil.

They purposely waited to disembark last because they didn’t want anyone behind them in line as they signed the immigration book. They had decided to put their real names in the book to make their entrance into the United States of America official. They were throwing off the veil of their fake personas as soon as they set foot on the docks.

As the last person disappeared into the immigration building, the five finally walked down the plank to the dock. Pete dropped to his hands and knees and kissed the deck. They all laughed heartily. He had turned green many a time in rough waters, and was happy to be on terra firma once again.

The immigration office was nearly empty when they entered. Without much ado, Jake went to the book and wrote down his name and London, England. He then clearly printed his name on the card he was handed. The other four did the same.

Welcome to America.

 

*****

 

They had the most luggage of any other passenger group, and it took them the longest to disembark. They were able to unload the carriage, Python, and Angelo first, and then Jake drove the women to the Turkey Shoot Tavern. He paid for a week’s lodging and food for the group, rented a storage area for the carriage and two wagons, and rented stalls for the ten horses before returning to the docks to help Pete and Luke. Luckily, English pounds were still just as welcome as American dollars.

The men finally returned about eleven that evening, tired after the long, eventful day. They put away the horses, ensured the crates were locked, and then crawled into bed, exhausted.

 

*****

 

The next morning, the men missed breakfast downstairs, so the women carried the meal upstairs to them on trays. Cecilia simply dumped her trays on Luke and Pete, leaving them to their own devices, whereas Mara served up herself to Jake, along with the food. Jake decided he liked the way they served breakfast in America!

 

*****

 

After long baths all around and clean clothes from the trunks, they set out to meet the local merchants. Luke and Cecilia searched for jewelers and goldsmiths, while Pete hunted down various banking establishments. The group put him in charge of converting all the pounds to dollars. To avoid arousing suspicion, he divided the pounds into smaller batches, and converted them at different locations. Jake and Mara went straight to Mr. Cavendish’s office to start the process of buying land.

Mr. Cavendish was happy to see Mr. and Mrs. Abbot, especially when Mr. Abbot and his incredibly gorgeous wife plopped cash on the desk to retain his services. All they asked for was help in finding and then moving to new land. In addition, they gave him a letter to retain, with instructions for another who would arrive next summer. They asked Cavendish to keep all these matters private. As a lawyer, he knew how to be discreet. It was easy money.

“You should first meet Gray Thomas of Thomas’ Land and Title. He is the arm of the U.S. Government that handles the buying and selling of land in the northern states and territories.”

He looked at Mrs. Abbot as he spoke, completely undone by her grace and beauty.

“And moving and building services?” Jake asked

Cavendish came out of his reverie, and continued. “Kenny Maher is the man for that. He has several teams of builders that will build almost anything anywhere. I will write both their names and addresses down for you with directions.”

He was true to his word, and in no time at all they shook hands and promised to keep in touch, his lips lingering over the back of Mrs. Abbot’s hand. Mr. Cavendish invited the Abbots to dinner on Saturday night, giving them directions to his home as well.

 

*****

 

Over the next eight weeks, the five friends were extremely busy wandering the city, selling jewels and gold and putting money in five separate accounts in five separate banks, each person with an account of his or her own. They used their aliases in the selling transactions, but opened the bank accounts in their real names. Jake and Mara decided to spread the wealth, as Cecilia, Luke, and Pete had worked just as hard to gain their freedom.

Mr. Cavendish proved to be a great help to them. He told them where to find the best jeweler, the best goldsmiths, the best banks, the best horse stables, and the best places to stay in New York. He earned his retainer after all.

After they had sold a good portion of the jewels and had banked tens of thousands of dollars, Jake decided to begin searching for horses to purchase.

They only had Python and Angelo for riding, as the rest were work horses, trained only for pulling heavy loads. Python and Angelo and the other two male horses were all geldings, which wouldn’t be much help on a breeding farm. Jake needed a stud. In fact, he wanted two. He also needed two brood mares cut from a finer cloth than the work horses. He wanted to find four horses that met his standard, and that standard had always been Lightning Bolt.

He worked the horses in the rented paddock each morning, ensuring they were exercised. He then took off through the streets of New York City on Python, seated in a new saddle with new bridle and reins, as they hadn’t brought any riding tack with them. Jake was in his element, searching for stables with mounts to sell.

At each stable, he described in detail Lightning Bolt, his height, his strength, his intelligence, and his build. He always left his name and address in case the stable owner came across such a magnificent beast.

He wandered the better parts of town, looking at the horses the American aristocracy rode. He talked to coachmen and footmen, asking if their employers had stock to sell.

Despite all this work, he came up empty-handed, and was highly frustrated.

“Are no quality horses for sale in this god-forsaken country?” he blurted out in exasperation to the group at the tavern one night as they sat eating dinner. “I can’t believe America is so bereft of good horse flesh!”

Luke spoke up. “I think you have set the bar too high, Jake. There will never be another Lightning Bolt. you need to look for solid quality without putting your hopes into a dream that canna be met.”

Jake gave him a piercing look, and put his head on the table. “It is not a dream. Bolt existed, darn it.”

“Bolt existed, but like our Angel Mara, he be one of a kind. There be none more like him.” Now Pete was giving up on him, too. Jake sighed into the table.

Mara stroked the back of her husband’s head. “You are looking for four Bolts. Finding one horse like Bolt will be a miracle. Maybe you should look for one Bolt and three very good horses. You might be more successful.”

He mumbled something into the table again. The rest of them shrugged their shoulders and finished eating, letting him stew.

 

*****

 

In late August, his break finally came. He was in the paddock working the horses, when he heard someone enter.

“Mr. Abbot? Your wife said I could find you here.”

Jake looked up to see a young boy with a yearling mare in tow, staring earnestly at him.

“That’s me. What can I do for you?” Jake let go of the reins of the work horse, and wiped his hands on his thighs.

“I am Billy Devons. I have a horse to sell. And the man at the stables said you were looking to buy one.”

Jake smiled at the boldness of the boy. The child reminded Jake of himself ten or so years ago.

“So I need to buy it, eh? What’s so special about this horse that I need to own it?”

The boy pointed down on the other side of the fence. “It’s my yearling, Empress. She is a good horse.”

Jake walked to the paddock gate and opened it up. “Well, bring her in here so I can take a look.”

And into the corral the boy led Jake’s dream horse. Empress was as black as coal, with a white star on her forehead and four white forelocks. She walked regally, every step perfection in motion. She stared at Jake with intelligent, knowing eyes. She was a year old, and would not be a large horse, but she would be magnificent.

Jake took the lead from Billy, his heart pounding in his chest. He rubbed his hands all over the animal’s supple body, feeling her muscles and bone structure.

“Has she taken a rider yet?”

Billy shook his head.

“Why are you selling her?”

Billy looked at his feet, embarrassed. Jake immediately understood that look, and that feeling. He bent down on one knee and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders.

“I can see you love this horse. You have taken great care of Empress, and she is a wonderful animal.” He paused, making sure the boy listened. “But I also know that your family needs money right now more than you need a horse.”

Jake cupped the boy’s chin with his hand, and looked him in the eye. “There is nothing to be ashamed of. Being poor or in need is not shameful. Keeping it hidden and not doing anything about it is.”

Billy returned Jake’s look and saw the understanding in his eyes. He really did understand, this man with the English accent and the crooked smile. Billy smiled back.

“Well, my boy,” Jake stood back up, and touched Empress again. “This is a fine piece of horseflesh that will bring you top dollar. I would like to go to your house and talk price with your parents. You have sold yourself a horse.”

He stuck out his hand. Billy took the proffered hand and shook. This tall man would take good care of Empress; he could feel it in his bones.

Jake put Empress in the stall with Angelo, knowing that the gentle horse wouldn’t mind in the least. Angelo and Empress immediately nuzzled and stood like they’d known each other all their lives. He then saddled Python, and pulled the boy up behind him.

Next, the two stopped at the apartment to tell Mara and Cecilia where they were going. Mara was all smiles. Jake was about to own his first quality breeding horse!

They stopped at the bank to pick up some cash. Jake had the boy sit in a chair near the door so Billy couldn’t see how much he withdrew.

After a spot of lunch at a tavern near the bank, the two ventured into the city to see Billy’s parents. The boy had walked a long ways that morning to sell his precious horse.

They dismounted at a small apartment building on Bleecher and Wooster that looked like it was in need of repair. Billy ran ahead to tell his mother that a man was on his way up. The Devons’ apartment was on the third floor.

A harried-looking woman opened the door to reveal a loud and boisterous home. There seemed to be a dozen children running around inside. Even the orphanage didn’t seem this chaotic, thought Jake.

Mrs. Devons held out her hand. “Mr. Abbot, kindly come in. Billy tells me you are going to buy his Empress.”

Jake gave his best bow, and kissed the back of her hand as if she were royalty. Mrs. Devons was highly impressed. “He is right on that account, m’lady. Empress is a beauty, and she will be the finest horse on my breeding farm. She should breed exceptional foals.”

She looked around at the mess. “I wish I could offer you tea or something, Mr. Abbot, but I am afraid…” her words trailed off.

“My dear Mrs. Devons. I am here only to complete the transaction for Empress, not to cause you more work.” Jake had taken a nice bit of money from the bank for Empress, thinking he’d have room for negotiation and probably end up buying the horse for half or two-thirds the amount he’d withdrawn. But seeing the desperation on Mrs. Devons’ face and the brood she had, Jake decided to give her the entire amount and be done with it. Mara would probably have his head, but he kept thinking of his days in the orphanage, of being deprived and doing without, and knew he had to do more for the people in this room. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the roll of money. He grabbed her hand and put the money into it, folding her fingers over it.

“Mrs. Devons, I believe Empress is of such high quality that she would be worth this amount at the auction block. So that is what I have brought with me today. Do we have a deal?”

Jake thought Mrs. Devons would faint right then and there. He laughed inside, remembering when he had been paid £115 pounds for the three emeralds. She gave the exact same reaction.

“I have been where you are, m’lady,” he whispered just so she could hear. “I understand completely.” Then Mrs. Devons’ knight in shining armor left her standing there in utter disbelief.

 

*****

 

Jake and Mara finally went to Thomas’ Land and Title to buy land for their horse farm. The other three would go later to buy smaller parcels of land near the farm. They would all be land owners in the new world.

Mr. Thomas was a mountain of a man. He was huge in both stature and weight. He was taller than Jake, which in itself was highly unusual, but he also outweighed him by a couple hundred pounds. Despite his imposing appearance, he was jovial, outgoing, and extremely happy to help the newlyweds in their quest for a horse farm.

He pulled out several maps.

“Right now we are concentrating on several areas. There is the Ohio Valley, which extends through the new state of Ohio and borders Kentucky along the river here,” he pointed to the river on the map, “as well as Kentucky itself and most parts of the Northwest Territory. If you want to purchase land in Tennessee or southward, I will have to send you to our office in Charleston, South Carolina, as that office is handling all transactions in those states and territories.”

Mara grabbed Jake’s arm. This was so exciting! Jake looked down at his wife and kissed the top of her head. Mr. Thomas made note of the tender and loving act. These two are very much in love, he thought, smiling to himself.

Mara could barely contain herself. “What are the prices per acre in the various territories and states? We want to build a horse farm, so we need flat ground or gently rolling hills, water, and grasslands.”

Mr. Thomas laughed heartily. “Well, my little lady. We have all that and more. Ohio is mostly farmland; the soil is excellent, the rainfall plentiful, and the land is nearly flat.” He pointed back on the map. “This area is building up rapidly. You’ll pay about three to six dollars per acre and six dollars per section for the survey fee.”

“What is considered a section?” Jake knew this conversation would quickly be over his head, and hoped Mara would be able to understand all the business terminology.

“Could be anywhere from 160 to 640 acres. The Harrison Land Act of 1800 allowed for the sale of farm land in portions of square miles.”

He pointed again at the map. “We’ve divided up the counties and land in square miles which break down to 640 acres a square mile, 320 per one half square mile, and 160 per one quarter square mile. One-fourth of the price is required at purchase, and the balance in installments within four years, with an additional year to make up arrears.”

Jake wondered what a “rears” was.

Mara rapidly made calculations in her head. At five dollars an acre, that would be $5,000 per 1,000 acres plus another ten dollars or so for the survey. So at $5,010 per 1,000 acres they could afford 10,000 acres or $50,100. Jake looked at his wife and could tell her wheels were turning, since she chewed on her lower lip.

“We would like a tract of 10,000 acres, about sixteen square miles or so. Plus an additional four tracts of two square miles each adjoining our property. All of the land must have water access.”

Mr. Thomas blinked heavily a few times. These youngsters must be made of money! They certainly didn’t come to the new world poverty-stricken. And this young beauty had some math skills behind that gorgeous red hair of hers!

“My,” he finally said, “that’s a tall order. Maybe we could look in Kentucky.” He pulled out another map and went to a shelf to pull out a ledger as well.

“Let’s see…” he referred to both the map and the ledger.

“Barren County was formed in 1799. It is located in the Pennyrile region of the state. The elevation in the county ranges from 465 to 1,068 feet above sea level. It holds a land area of 490 square miles. The county seat is Glasgow. Like in Scotland.” He looked up at them expectantly. Neither Jake nor Mara said anything.

“Okay.” He pointed to another area and read from his book. “Adair County was formed in 1802. It is also located in the Pennyrile region of the state. The elevation in the county ranges from 585 to 1,120 feet. It has a land area of over four hundred square miles. The county seat is Columbia.”

Mr. and Mrs. Abbot came alive. “What did you say the county name was?”

“Adair.”

They both looked at him in disbelief, then at each other, and simultaneously burst into a fit of laughter.

Mr. Thomas started laughing, too. At what he didn’t know, but their laughter was contagious.

“Adair!”

“Oh my God! Adair!”

They laughed so hard they had to hold each other up.

“Perfect!”

“Better than perfect! Ha, ha, ha!”

“Oh, my God. My sides hurt.”

“Sweet Jesus, it is too much!”

“The others will never believe it! Ho, ho, ho!”

They finally stopped laughing, gasping for air.

“We’ll take it. Adair is where we will live.” Mara tried to suppress more giggles, as she relayed this information.

“Now what?” Jake also tried to hold back laughter.

“I will need some time to find you 10,000 acres. I must calculate all the figures. Can you come back next Tuesday? I will be done by then.”

“We will be here.”

“Ten o’clock in the morning, and bring a bank draft for $13,000 as the down payment.”

They shook hands, and Mara and Jake left Thomas’ Land and Title, still giggling at the inner joke.

 

Chapter 47

 

“Cannot be true! Are you jesting with me?” Cecilia was amazed.

“Adair County. There is a good joke for you.” Pete was highly amused at the name of their new home county. “I canna believe it is named Adair.”

“The duke would be spinning in his grave if he be dead!” Luke laughed.

They were eating dinner in their apartment on Warrant Street. It was now the end of September. Due to the oncoming winter and the lack of available wagon trains, they were going to have to live in New York for the winter. They didn’t want to live in taverns until spring, so they had found an apartment with three bedrooms, a kitchen, a parlor, and a dining room. They rented stable space in a place three blocks away.

The men had unpacked the four crates and carried all the contents up the staircase to the second-level apartment. They unpacked the furniture and wedding gifts and set the place up nicely. All the packing material went back in the locked crates for the trip west next spring.

They felt like a family.

Mara and Cecilia inventoried everything again, trying to determine what was necessary for the trip, what would fetch a good price in New York, and what needed repair. They sent many a piece of furniture to a Scotsman named Duncan Phyfe for re-stuffing, re-upholstery, or repair, making the apartment quite functional. Mr. Phyfe also added his own flair to the old furniture, making it elegant as well.

Jake and Mara purchased a nice big bed from Mr. Phyfe. They bought another for Cecilia and one for Alvin, which they put in a crate. They had brought only two with them from the Markham family attic. They couldn’t buy too much, as they only had the two wagons and carriage in which to carry everything, so they stuck to necessities, like kitchen utensils and pots and pans.

Jake’s favorite wedding gift was a full-length portrait of Mara, commissioned by the queen. Jake’s least favorite wedding gift was a full-length portrait of the Duke of Cleveland, commissioned by the queen.

Mara wore her Madame Butterfly outfit in her portrait, complete with wings but sans mask and headdress. Her hair was pulled back on the sides and fell over her shoulders and back, softly framing her face. The dress showed off her perfect figure, and the painter had captured her sparkling green eyes and her teeth showing the little gap. She had fought with the painter over that space—he wanted to paint it out, but she wanted it left in. She won.

The portrait had been painted in the ballroom at Stafford House. Mara had spent hours sitting for it. She left the dress behind on purpose, to let the duke keep something of his precious Butterfly. Jake loved looking at the portrait, and had it hanging on the largest wall in the parlor.

The duke’s portrait was in the crate.

After laughing at the name of the county where they would live, Jake remembered the portrait.

“Too bad we have to carry Adair with us. Maybe we can hang him in the barn on the new farm.”

Cecilia shook her head. “I think we need to sell the canvas to a poor artist, who could re-use it, and then sell the frame separately. That frame is probably worth hundreds of dollars alone. We can’t just let it hang in a barn!”

“I just wish it were a portrait of you instead, Jake. That would please me the most.”

Pete stared at Mara. “Why not? If you are gonna sell the canvas anyway, have the artist paint a picture of Jake over it. Then you can have a matched set again.”

Mara hugged Pete. “You are a genius! Of course!”

 

*****

 

The new portrait wasn’t perfect; the body was a bit short and the hands were wrong, but the painter did a fine job of painting Jake over the duke. Instead of starting from scratch, the portrait artist, a talented man named Gilbert Stuart, suggested he use what was already there and replace the man in the painting with Jake. Change heads, but keep the body, narrowing it for the much leaner Jake. Mr. Stuart left the background untouched, so that it matched the style of the other portrait.

The process enthralled Jake who happily spent many hours sitting for the man.

In the end, Stuart signed his name on the opposite side from the original painter, and they all laughed at how art critics of the future would wonder about the two signatures.

Now not-quite-right Jake hung in his proper place in the parlor next to Madame Butterfly.

 

*****

 

Luke and Pete decided to find jobs in the city. They had skills they didn’t want to lose, and each found work in his respective field.

The two craftsmen had carried the paperwork of journeymen from their old posts, and were accepted with ease into their new ones. The young men now had enough money to buy good tools and equipment, and were becoming well established in their new lives. If they had planned to stay in New York City, they would have bought storefronts and set up their own businesses. But for now, they were content just doing what they knew how to do best—smithy and cobble.

Cecilia and Mara kept house while Jake handled most of the errands for the trip out west. He took Mara along when he thought her business acumen would be helpful.

 

*****

 

They found several shops around town that would either buy the wedding gifts outright or sell them on consignment. The sold items they knew would have no worth on the breeding farm or were too heavy to carry. Members of the burgeoning middle- and upper-middle classes in New York City were hungry for items from England, including high-quality jewels and household items to make them look moneyed.

They sold the heavy silver service, a huge crystal punch bowl, eight paintings by various artists, large silver serving platters, two sets of porcelain dishes, fragile crystal goblets, snuff boxes, vases, figurines, and all manner of wedding gifts that would be out of place in the wilds of America.

The money rolled in, and the apartment emptied out. Alvin’s idea to take the wedding gifts proved highly profitable, as did the jewels they still sold a few at a time over the course of the fall and winter.

 

*****

 

The ladies needed to learn to cook. The men were patient and non-complaining, but both women knew their fare was barely worth serving and eating. Neither had much experience in the kitchen, so Jake finally hired an Irish maiden away from a local tavern. Deirdre O’Shea was a black-haired, blue-eyed, feisty little wench with a perky attitude and a flirty nature who was a darn good cook. She had grown up on a farm in Ireland, and knew hundreds of things the group would need to know.

She moved in with Cecilia, and the two became fast friends.

Deirdre took Cecilia and Mara to the markets in the morning, and showed them how to pick the best fruits and vegetables, and determine the freshness of fish and meat. She showed them what kinds of flour and yeast were needed for different kinds of breads and sweets. She showed them how to can their own food and store dry goods properly. Deirdre was a godsend. They all started eating well once more. The men were grateful that Deirdre had saved them from starvation.

And Luke fell in love. Deirdre wasn’t sure if she wanted to be courted by a man who was four years her junior, and she led him on a merry chase. But to Luke, the chase was the best part.

Deirdre had to admit, small in stature though he was, Lucas Holloway could be quite charming.

 

*****

 

At ten o’clock Tuesday morning, Mara and Jake arrived at Thomas’ Land and Title with a bank draft for $13,000. They had stopped at Mr. Cavendish’s a few days earlier to ask how loans and interest worked. They decided they’d pay in cash for the land—less of a paper trail for someone to follow. They would give Mr. Thomas the down payment now, and pay the rest in small amounts each week over the winter until they had covered the entire amount.

Mr. Thomas was delighted to see his two young and wealthy clients again.

“I have found the perfect spot for your breeding farm!” he exclaimed.

He already had the map out on the counter with some official-looking papers and a certificate. “Located here in Adair County bordering Green River is a section, or several sections actually, that make up 10,240 acres.”

He was very excited as he described the land to them. “You have another creek, yet unnamed, running through the property that empties into the Green River here. This is all virgin forest, spotted with several areas of grassland. Right here is a high ridgeline that runs the length of the southern edge. It is a distinctive feature, and will be a beautiful addition to your landscape.” His smile covered his face from side to side.

Mara clapped her hands in excitement. Thomas continued. “Here are the other four properties, each 1,208 acres. These two border either side of the same unnamed creek; the other two border the Green River. Your property runs between them here and here, as well as bordering them to the south.”

He paused. “I have the paperwork here. Do you have the down payment?”

In no time at all, papers and money changed hands, and Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Abbot owned a horse farm in the young state of Kentucky. Alvin, Luke, Pete, and Cecilia each owned two square miles, to do with as they pleased.

 

*****

 

America was still a wild and untamed country, and they were going to have to cross over 850 miles of it to reach Adair County. It would take them forty-five to sixty days. Mr. Cavendish suggested they learn how to use pistols, rifles, and rapiers, and arm themselves appropriately.

Luke turned out to be a crack shot with both the pistol and rifle, and took to them as if he had been born with a gun in his hand. The fine motor skills he had developed as a cobbler gave him just the right touch on the trigger for near perfect accuracy. His ability to load a weapon in record speed impressed them all.

Jake and Pete turned out to be pretty good shots, Mara competent, and Cecilia awful. They teased her that she would end up shooting herself before she shot an Indian or highway robber. But at least she could use a pistol if she had to. She refused to try the rifle after her dismal performance on the pistol.

Swordplay was another matter altogether. Swords were used less frequently, as firearms were quickly becoming the weapon of choice. But since many pistols were still hard to handle, hard to load, and hard to fire accurately, a sword could still come in handy. Rapid footwork was key to good swordplay, and Mara outmaneuvered them all.

They practiced, using dull swords with no points, wearing padded vests. When it came to brute strength, Pete, of course, could best any of them. But he had to catch them first. And he rarely caught Mara who could run, dart, turn, leap, and roll, much to the delight of their coach, Monsieur Evan Guempes. He was enchanted by the young woman in man’s pants who could run like the wind, leap like a tiger, and had boundless energy.

“Mon cheri! You have bested him again. You are not a proper lady. You are a man in disguise, I know this!” Monsieur Guempes teased.

Mara had just leapt over a chair and then a low bench to come at Pete from behind and poke him in the back. Pete was panting heavily, his muscle-bound blacksmith’s body unable to outperform Mara’s sleek athletic form.

“Gads, I sometimes wish you were still fat! I’d best you then, wench!”

Mara giggled and stuck him again for good measure.

“No, she is definitely a woman. I can surely attest to that,” Jake’s voice came from the other side of the room, where he was trying to make Cecilia pay attention and keep her sword up.

They all laughed heartily.

Jake gave up on Cecilia and came over to Mara. He put up his sword and pointed it at her. “En garde, mon petit chou chou!” Mara rolled her eyes. His French pronunciation was appalling, and for some reason he loved calling her “his little cabbage.” She’d show him! Mara came around from behind Pete and lifted her sword in contest. The others sat down on the benches along the walls and watched in anticipation.

The man and wife lunged and parried for a couple of moments, feeling each other out. All that could be heard was the clink of steel on steel, the footfalls of the two combatants, and their labored breathing as they concentrated on their task.

Jake was stronger, his arms longer, his reach further. But Mara had audacity and speed on her side. She had to use two hands much of the time, as her arms did not have the strength required for a sword. She often wondered how Joan of Arc had been so skillful with a sword so many centuries ago!

Jake slowly backed her into a corner, and she knew her arms would tire and he’d have her. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a large table, one of the many props left in the training room to teach people how to use the world around them in a sporting match.

She stopped her defense, tucked her sword into her chest and rolled gracefully under the table coming up on the other side. Before Jake could react, she was on top of the table, now in a superior position.

Jake simply moved away from the table and leaned on the blunt tip of his training sword. She’d have to come down to play. He flashed his crooked smile, and motioned to her with his index finger to come down and fight.

“Fine!” She jumped off the table and came at him again, once more in the open.

As they performed their lunges and parries, Jake caught her sword with his and twisted it from her hand. It skidded under a bench. Mara was trapped. Jake dropped his own sword, and growled. Mara growled back, and they both crouched as they had so many times since childhood, in playful hand-to-hand combat.

The rest of the party watched in amusement as Jake grabbed her up in his arms and wrestled her to the floor, then into a full lip lock, both of them spread eagle on the ground.

“Mes amours!” exclaimed Monsieur Guempes. “I know you two are very much in love, but this I cannot have! A Frenchman cannot allow such behavior!” He smiled broadly, however.

“Poppycock, you old fool,” chortled Cecilia. “I thought the French invented the kiss!”

“Oui, Oui, Madame. But if we let this kiss continue, I believe we will have more than a show of swordplay on the floor today. Mon dieu!”

Jake pulled Mara up off the floor. The two shared a brief laugh, and then concentrated once again on their swordplay.

 

Chapter 48

 

The letter arrived from Luke and Pete in late November, having crossed the ocean on a ship of supplies from the Americas.

Alvin had never received mail before, so the entire staff was very excited for him.

There in Pete’s loopy, childish handwriting was a five-page tale of their trip across the Atlantic. Everyone gathered around in the kitchen as Alvin read it out loud.

They laughed at the two friends’ silly adventures on the ship, moving through immigration, and their first days on American soil. They had met a man named Cavendish at the Turkey Shoot Tavern on Duane Street. Cavendish lived next door to the tavern, and had helped them find jobs. They were happy, established, and wanted Alvin and Jake to join them. As they noted in the letter, now that Mara was married to the duke, there was no reason they shouldn’t.

The staff quieted down when Alvin read the part about him and Jake joining the two adventurers. Five months had passed, but the pain of Jake and Cecilia’s deaths and Mara’s kidnapping was still with them all. Tears welled up in the women’s eyes. Of course, they believed Pete and Luke knew nothing of these events. They had left long before the aborted wedding and the two murders.

Alvin silently folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. He stood up.

“I am going to join them. I have to tell them about Jake and Mara, and I canna do it in a letter. There is nothing holding me here, and my best friends are half a world away. I have to go. I canna stay here.”

Jesse stepped over to the young lad, and put her arms around him to comfort him. “Of course, you have to leave. We understand completely.”

Alvin sighed in relief. He was almost free. All he had to do was find Mr. Cavendish on Duane Street next to the Turkey Shoot Tavern, and he would know how to join the others.

 

*****

 

The final letter arrived the night of the Masque. Like the others, it was delivered by a young boy. He ran up to one of the staff who was helping people exit from the carriages. The staff member gave it to the major domo, who gave it to a footman, who tracked down the Markhams. Lady Maureen broke down and cried when she saw the envelope addressed to them in her daughter’s handwriting. It had all started a year ago at this very place, and the emotions of the past months ripped through her chest.

 

Dear Mother and Father,

 

I have bittersweet news to share. You are to be grandparents. It is sweet in the fact that I have always wanted children, but bitter because I still do not love the child’s father. He is a kidnapper and complicit in the murders of two people I loved dearly.

I am still resistant to my fate in life, having to spend the rest of my days a prisoner raising Lord Hateful’s children. When Lord Vile Creature is in his grave, I will be able to leave again, but by then no one will care or remember me. I only hope I can love his children, and that none of my contempt for their father will ever be known to them.

I write this with a heavy hand, as it is the last letter I am allowed to send you. Lord Phantom says enough is enough—you know I am safe and loved (so he says!), and taken care of. He is afraid my letters may one day reveal information that will put him in danger.

Goodbye forever, my dear, dear family. Goodbye.

 

Your dedicated daughter,

Mara

 

Below Mara’s signature was another message, written by a different hand.

 

Thank you for sharing your beautiful daughter with me. Mara has brought this old house lots of joy and graciousness. She will be a superb mother, if her skills with the servants and their children are any indication. I am proud to have her for my wife. I wish I could tell you my sentiments in person but, for obvious reasons, letter writing will have to do. Know that I will keep her safe and secure for the rest of her days. And she will come to love me over time. I deeply regret the deaths of the two servants, as my orders were that no one should be harmed. The two hoodlums were dealt with appropriately.

I will repeat my lovely Madame Butterfly’s last goodbye—forever.

 

Sincerely,

Lord Phantom

 

Lord Phantom certainly had impeccable timing. The arrival of this last communiqué at the Masque, where the duke had first found Mara, re-ignited the gossip about Madame Butterfly, the aborted wedding, the kidnapping, and the jewelry heist once again.

Alvin had delivered his last note, and would book passage on the Charleston in the spring to join the rest of the group in America. It was done. His time to leave arrived at last.

 

Chapter 49

 

Jake went to Kenny Maher’s to look at building plans and gather information about how to buy materials, ship them, and construct a house and stables on their land in Kentucky.

After looking at many drawings, Jake decided on one he thought Mara would like in the Federal style, by an American architect named Charles Bulfinch. Kenny said the style would easily allow additional wings to be added as the family and fortunes grew.

Kenny explained how they would arrange to have the house built so far away from the city. “First, one of my clerks will meticulously copy this architectural drawing for you to take with you. We will manufacture the materials, except bricks, here in New York, and then ship them via wagon train to Kentucky. Best if they go on the same wagon train as you. To make it worth the trip back for my men and wagons, we will want to fill the wagons with timber from your land. You’ll need to clear a space for the house anyway; we will haul the finer logs back here and mill them for the next customer.”

Jake nodded his assent. It made sense to him, and what would he do with all those felled trees anyway?

“What about bricks? You said we will take everything with us, except bricks.”

“They are much too heavy to haul, so you will need to make them when you arrive. Most river beds will have appropriate clay. My men will help you find materials, and show you how to make bricks. You can buy molds from me. The kiln you will have to make on the site.”

Jake’s head started spinning. Make bricks? Clay? Kiln? What were they getting themselves into?

“There is one problem, however. I have fifteen building crews, but they are all spoken for until the summer next. I will put you down for the first available one. Store the materials you buy from me under heavy tarps, and spend the winter making your bricks. My crew will be able to come out to you in early spring.”

“A year?” Jake almost panicked. “Where do we live until then?”

Kenny smiled. “In tents. I will sell you those, too, along with the tarps to cover your supplies. When my crew finishes the house, they will buy back the tents and tarps, depreciated appropriately for wear and tear.”

Jake nodded and wondered what “dee appreciated” was.

“Can we survive a winter in tents?”

“I suggest you build a simple log cabin as soon as you arrive. After the main house is built, you can use the cabin as a guest house, or for the servants. I have plans and instructions for building these cabins, too.”

“Of course you do.” Both men laughed.

“One stop shop, my man,” said Maher, as he slapped Jake on the back. “I try to think of everything. This is my business, after all. You know horses, I know construction.”

They shook hands, sealing the deal. “After I determine the materials and number of wagons you will need, go see Gus DeGinder. He is a wagon train master. He owns and runs most of the wagon trains going in and out of the city. Big, big operation. He hauls all of my materials. I trust him and his teams implicitly.”

 

*****

 

Gus DeGinder was a big booming German-born man. He knew wagon trains, and he knew Kenny Maher. In no time at all, Jake had booked them on the early April wagon train which would travel through the Cumberland Pass into the Ohio Valley and the great American West.

The Abbot clan would have the three wagons they owned to carry them and their personal belongings, plus ten wagons of materials for the house. They would be paying for food for their party of six, plus twenty men to drive the ten wagons. This was turning out to be a huge operation.

It was all coming together.

 

*****

 

Luke had been chasing Deirdre for several months. He now understood Jake’s infatuation with Mara, and why Jake wouldn’t go rutting into town with them back in London. Once a woman has her hooks into you, no other woman will do.

Pete knew Luke had it bad when he wouldn’t go with him to seek a little feminine company. Yup, Luke was a goner for sure.

Mara and Cecilia talked about the men, and especially about Luke when Deirdre was around, extolling his virtues. They weren’t sure what her hesitancy was, but they were hoping she would come around and at least give Luke a chance.

She finally agreed to a real date in early December.

Mara planned it. If she left it to Luke, he’d botch it up for sure.

She and Cecilia found a lovely spot for an indoor picnic inside the library at Columbia College, about seven blocks down Broad Way and to the right off of Barclay. Mara had talked to the librarian, Mr. Snodgrass, to enlist his aid. He was happy to help with the budding romance, being a romantic at heart himself. And he was completely smitten with the redheaded beauty who came into the library on occasion to read his books. Her wish was his command! Most students were home for the holidays anyway, so the library was normally empty this time of year. The fireplace in the central part of the library would be a nice, cozy, private place for a picnic.

Mara and Cecilia packed a basket full of bread, cheese, mead, wine, chicken, and fruit. Jake hitched the draft horses to the carriage, and they all waved goodbye as the two rode off.

“They are so cute together!” exclaimed Mara, as the carriage pulled away from the apartment building.

“That’s because they look like two little pixies. I swear they are the exact same height and weight. Their children will all be midgets.” Jake held his thumb and forefinger apart about an inch. Mara backhanded him across his chest.

“It’ll be a miracle,” said Pete, “if he pulls this one off!”

“Miracles happen every day, Pete,” admonished Cecilia. “We’ve seen enough of them to know that is true.”

Pete chuckled. “Aye, that be true, Cecilia. That certainly be true!”

The library at Columbia College was a beautiful set of rooms, paneled in wood, with shelves and stacks that went from floor to ceiling. Mara had discovered it while looking for a place to find books, and a merchant had suggested not only the local bookstore but also this magnificent library.

The central feature of the library was the gigantic hearth and fireplace, which warmed the main room during the winter months. Students would collect their books from the outer rooms, and then gather there to read and study. There were several sofas, divans, settees, and reading chairs. A giant woven rug covered the space in front of the fireplace.

Mr. Snodgrass had moved the furniture to accommodate a little picnic in front of the fire, and put extra logs on for the day’s event. He wasn’t permitted to leave the room, so he decided to hide in a large reading chair set well away from the scene, and read his favorite volume of Chaucer.

Mr. Snodgrass was surprised at the two short people who entered the library with a huge basket between them. But he just smiled and escorted them to the fireplace, then disappeared around the side of his big chair set well in the back of the room.

Deirdre and Luke spread out the blanket Mara had packed, and emptied out all the luscious goodies from the basket. Luke pulled a few pillows from the settees, and dropped them in various places around the blanket before settling in for some good food and even better company.

Deirdre also settled in, feeling a bit uncomfortable. She was duly impressed with the well-appointed room, but she hadn’t been on a date in a long time.

They conversed easily on all sorts of topics, ranging from the horrid weather to the overcrowding in the city, as more and more immigrants poured into Battery Park on a seemingly daily basis.

After they finished their meal, Luke leaned back into a pile of pillows with a tankard of mead. He drank a few sips and then set it down to pick up one of Deirdre’s hands.

“You have wonderful hands,” he said, as he gently massaged her palm and between her fingers with his thumb.

She laughed. “I have ugly hands! It is Mara who has beautiful hands!”

“I dinna say beautiful, I said wonderful.” She looked at him curiously.

Luke continued. “You have wonderful hands, strong hands, knowledgeable hands. Hands that serve others with strength and dignity. Hands that prepare food that makes eating a pleasure. You have amazing hands, Deirdre O’Shea.” This whole time he tenderly touched every part of her hand. When he was done, he kissed the palm of her hand, which sent little shivers up her spine. Deirdre had to admit, Luke was charming. And cute.

“So what exactly brought you to America, Deirdre? You’ve pretty well been told our story but you haven’t told us yours.” (Of course, she’d been told a less-than-truthful version. Jake and Mara’s past was completely hidden in lies.)

Deirdre quieted, thinking about how to best tell her story. She knew they’d eventually hear the truth, but it was still difficult for her to talk about.

“A man,” she said simply.

“Musta been quite a man to get you to follow him across the ocean to America. What happened to him?” Luke was still tenderly massaging her hand with his fingers, and she was enjoying the sensation immensely.

She gave a small smile. “No, I dinna follow him here. I left him there.”

Luke waited patiently, knowing she would tell her tale in her own time. He stopped massaging her hand but continued to hold it as he laid back on the pillows.

“I…” she stopped and looked around the room at the dark wood, somber and majestic. Instead of seeing the library room, she saw the old musty walls of the barn on her family’s farm. “I made a mistake and fell in love with the wrong man.”

Deirdre glanced at Luke to see his reaction. He squeezed her hand in encouragement. Heartened, she continued.

“When I was seventeen, I met and fell in love with a man named Sean O’Connell. He was everything a girl could dream of: tall, handsome, dashing, a bit of a rogue.” She looked into Luke’s eyes. “Every girl wishes for a bit of a rogue for excitement and adventure.”

Luke thought he certainly fit that bill! He gave her a wink.

“Sean wooed me fiercely and, being young and naïve, I believed everything he told me. And after a time, I gave myself to him.” She moved her hand away from Luke’s, pulled her legs toward her, and wrapped her arms around her knees as if to protect herself. Luke remained still and let her continue at her own pace. Gaining her trust was crucial at this point.

“Everything was so wonderful! He lavished me with the gift of his time and his love. I had never been so happy. Sean was mine and I was completely his, and he was the most wonderful man in the world! There was only one thing missing and that was legitimacy to our love. I kept asking him to set a date for our wedding, but he kept putting me off. I should have realized there was something wrong.” Deirdre put her head on her knees, still folded up in front of her.

“We had…one night. Afterwards, I asked him again about marriage. He became very angry, and he left in a huff. I was so hurt, but I didn’t want to lose him. I thought maybe I was the problem—that I was pushing him too hard. I waited a few minutes, and then ran after him to apologize. Before I could catch up to him, I saw him go into a house that belonged to one of the village widows. I was curious why he’d visit her at that time of night, and went to the door. It was ajar, so I opened it a little bit, and saw them, kissing…” She lifted her head and looked at Luke. “He had just left me and went straight to another woman.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “How could he do that? How could he?”

Luke sat up and put his arm around her and held her close, letting her cry it out.

She sniffled, and after a minute or two, continued. “I left two weeks later, my father selling my dowry for passage. Five other families were making the trip, and I pretended to be one of their daughters. I found a job cooking in the tavern not long after we arrived.”

She sighed. “So now that you know, I am sure you want nothing to do with a soiled woman.”

Luke kissed her soothingly on the forehead. “You be not a soiled woman, Deirdre. you be a girl torn apart in the heart for makin’ the wrong choice at the wrong time. I canna fault you for that. That bastard be the bad one in this story, not you.”

He moved in front of her, kneeling. “If we all threw out the man or the woman with the garbage for their pasts, no one would make it past twenty-five. I have done things even in my short life I am not proud of. But my friends—Mara, Jake, Pete, Alvin, and Cecilia—have always believed in me, and I made it to where I am now because of their support. I believe in you, Deirdre. Never forget that. I am not givin’ up on you, either.”

Deirdre reached out and touched Luke’s face. His words touched her heart. His eyes shone in the firelight with truth and love. Maybe my heart can heal, she thought, and Luke just might be the way to that healing.

 

Chapter 50

 

Christmas Day found Mara in a foul mood. She ached all over and felt bloated, teary and bleary. She snapped at Jake for not moving quickly enough to go to church. She barked at Cecilia for not cooking the eggs right, because she had thrown up right after breakfast. In fact, she’d been out of sorts for a couple of weeks now.

The rest of the group decided to avoid her as much as possible.

Cecilia took a hard look at her young lady while they were peeling potatoes for Christmas dinner.

Mara’s face looked rounder, and her cheeks blotched. Her hair seemed thicker, and her chest strained against her bodice. Cecilia had a hunch.

“Mara.”

“What!” she snapped back.

“When was your last menses?”

Mara stared at Cecilia, trying to remember. Suddenly, a look of understanding appeared on her drawn face.

“Oh, my God. The first week of November! Do you think…” Mara smiled her first smile of the day.

Cecilia simply nodded, and went back to peeling potatoes.

Mara put her hands on her belly, then on her breasts, then on her face. That would certainly explain her mood swings, that bloated feeling, the bad taste in her mouth most of the time, and her achy muscles.

She was going to have a baby!

Her foul mood left instantly, and she ran out of the kitchen to find Jake, who had gone into hiding.

She found him in their bedroom, reading by the window, trying to find the best New York afternoon winter light.

He inwardly groaned when she burst through the door, as he was not ready for another one of her moody outbursts. He cringed when she closed and locked the door.

Mara jumped on Jake, nearly knocking him and the chair over, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him.

“Whoa!” he exclaimed, putting one hand against the wall to save them both from tumbling over. “What brought this on?”

“Guess what? Guess what? You’ll never guess!”

Jake had to laugh at the complete change in his wife’s demeanor. “All right! I’ll never guess!”

“You’re going to be a papa.” She beamed.

Jake stood up so fast he dumped Mara onto the floor.

“A what?” His jaw dropped, and his eyes popped out of his skull, as he stared at the heap on the floor that was his beloved.

“Thank you kindly for that. You want to help me up?”

He put out his hand, and pulled her off the floor. “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure.”

Jake grabbed her up in his arms and swung her around in a circle, planting a big wet kiss on her lips. What wonderful news!

It was all they could talk about at dinner that night. Mara and Jake made their announcement immediately after joining the rest of the family.

Pete was concerned about the trip to Kentucky. “Won’t the wagon train be too hard on you and the wee one?”

“If Cecilia and I calculated right, I am due in mid-August. We leave in early April, when I will be just under five months. I will be riding in the carriage most of the time, so I should be fine.”

She paused. “Besides, I can’t live here another year. I want to go home to Kentucky!”

They all had to agree with her on that point.

 

*****

 

In mid-January, Deirdre decided she would stop the chase and let Luke catch her.

After the family ate dinner, Deirdre asked Luke to help her with the dishes. He jumped at the chance to be with her, no matter what dreary task he had to perform.

Earlier in the day, she arranged for the others to leave by suggesting that they all take a pint at the tavern after the evening meal. Mara caught on immediately, and took Jake into her confidence. They didn’t have too much trouble convincing Pete and Cecilia to accompany them to the tavern. Pete always had a pint on his mind.

They bundled up against the cold and left quietly as soon as Luke and Deirdre were in the kitchen with their wash buckets. Three hours ought to be sufficient, thought Mara, smiling her Mona Lisa smile. She wondered if the dishes would actually get done.

Deirdre and Luke talked and laughed as they cleaned up the kitchen, Deirdre washing and rinsing, Luke drying and putting away.

After pouring out the dirty water, they went into the now-empty parlor.

“Hey! Where did everybody go?”

“I asked them to leave.”

Luke turned around just as Deirdre came up to him, put her arms around his neck, and kissed him. Luke moaned and grabbed her, crushing her up against him. “Thank you for that, woman,” he whispered.

Deirdre wondered what had taken her so long to let Luke love her.

 

*****

 

Luke and Deirdre married two weeks later in the little church the group attended. The men hated going to church, but silently endured the weekly outing every Sunday to please their women.

Cecilia and Mara made Deirdre a beautiful cream-colored gown, complete with silk ribbon flowers for her bouquet, as there were no fresh flowers in New York in January.

Luke beamed and thought Deirdre was the most beautiful woman on earth. Deirdre glowed and thought Luke was the most wonderful man ever born.

Pete was extremely happy for his best friend, but now felt like the odd man out.

Cecilia fully understood.

 

Chapter 51

 

Winter turned to early spring, and preparations for the move to Kentucky were now under way. They would leave in three weeks. Two crates were already fully packed and locked. Only beds, clothes, the tub, the dining room table, and necessary kitchen items remained. The apartment looked rather sparse.

They sold the remaining jewels and the wedding gifts that would be of no use to them in their new home.

Jake found three more horses—two solid studs named Beaumont and Geoffrey, and another brood mare named Parisian. Pete had bought a gelding named Crookshanks. They now had fifteen horses.

Luke and Pete both resigned from their positions and packed their trade implements. They were both hoping Columbia, Kentucky could use a good smithy and cobbler.

Their lives were run by lists—lists of people to visit, lists of things to do, lists of things to pack, lists of things to buy, lists of foods to make and store. They were all very tired of lists. They even had a list of things for Alvin to do when he arrived in a few months. They left that list with Mr. Cavendish.

Mara and Cecilia tore apart the old pocket petticoat and sewed on new pockets, big enough to hold money. They had to make a money petticoat for Cecilia and Deirdre as well, since money was much larger and heavier than jewels. They would haul cash this time, as all the jewels except for a couple of simple brooches and necklaces had been converted into American dollars. Each one of them withdrew money from their bank accounts every few days and packed it in the petticoats.

One morning, Mara awoke to some small cramps in her stomach. She initially thought it was something she ate, and that it would pass.

By noon the cramping was worse. She finally mentioned it to Cecilia, who put her right to bed.

Two hours later, she started bleeding and the cramps became excruciating.

Cecilia had Deirdre boil water and gather clean sheets. Cecilia wished the men hadn’t gone to see Mr. DeGinder about some last-minute arrangements for the trip.

“What’s happening, Cecilia? What’s happening?” Mara cried hard, doubled over in pain.

“You’re losing the baby, honey. And there is nothing we can do except let it happen.”

“I can’t lose the baby, please don’t let me lose the baby!” Deirdre held Mara close as she lay there in pain, writhing and hurting.

Deirdre smoothed her forehead with a cool wet compress, talking slowly and tenderly.

There was nothing else they could do but wait for the fetus to pass.

 

*****

 

Cecilia met the men at the door when she heard them arrive.

She immediately pulled Jake off to the side, whispering the news to him. He bolted to the bedroom to find Mara sleeping. He lay down next to her and gathered her up in his arms. He didn’t know what else to do; his heart broke over the loss of their baby, and for what Mara must have been through today without him.

She felt him near her and opened her eyes. She burst into tears.

“I’m so sorry, Jake. I’m so sorry.”

“We are all sorry, sweetheart.” He kissed her face and let her cry it out, tears dripping down his own cheeks.

 

*****

 

It was a somber group that completed preparations for the trip over the next three weeks. They coddled Mara, not allowing her to lift heavy objects, and letting her sleep as much as she wanted. She had to grieve in her own way, and the rest supported her and Jake as best they could. Jake hardly left her side, holding her hand, kissing her brow, touching her arm or back. Any little show of love and support he could give her, he gave. At night they lay in each other’s arms, silently mourning their loss.

 

*****

 

The last day in the apartment was a frantic one. Everyone woke up very early to complete the final packing before leaving. They had decided to be at the wagon train departure point two days early to allow time to fully inventory the building materials. They also needed to test out their lean-to that would be made from one of the tarps hooked onto the carriage. They needed to ensure that the bedrolls and sleeping mats were adequate. And they’d have time to do last-minute shopping, if necessary.

Laden down with cash, Deirdre and Cecilia finally climbed into the carriage, while Mara joined Jake on the driver’s seat. They made their way up Broad Way to Canal and then off to the docks and the Hoboken Ferry crossing. People waved to them as they rode down the street, the men in their wide-brimmed hats, the women in their bonnets, the wagons full—all telltale signs of a family leaving for the west.

Luke and Pete drove the two wagons pulled by the eight horses they had stolen from Martin, Marlon, Ellery, and Aithley. Angelo and Python pulled the carriage. Jake tied up five horses they had purchased in New York behind the wagons and carriage, each laden down with full saddlebags. Empress didn’t need to be tied up. She never left Angelo’s side as they moved through the city. She would travel the entire way to Kentucky unfettered.

They left New York City behind with both excitement and melancholy. New York had been very good to them, as they had found a rich society willing to pay top dollar for high quality jewels and gold, and people willing to help them build a good life. It was hard to say goodbye.

Deirdre said it best as she threw a huge kiss back at the city and cried, “I love you, New York! Wish me well in my new life!”

Luke and Jake had taken a trip to the departure site a few weeks back, and knew where they were headed. Luke led the small wagon train, and at a pace of two to three miles per hour, it took them most of the day to reach Newark, New Jersey. They still had two more ferry boat crossings to get through.

Food for the journey took up a lot of space. They had been told to provide for each of them at least two hundred pounds of flour, one hundred fifty pounds of bacon, dried meat or dried fish, ten pounds of coffee, twenty pounds of sugar, twenty pounds of rice, and ten pounds of salt. Being English, they substituted tea for the coffee and had to convert stones to pounds. The travelers were packed to the gills. The carriage would only hold two people due to the foodstuffs packed inside, so one of the women would always be sitting next to the driver or on one of the horses. They all had their sleeping pillows to sit on, since the hard board of the driver’s seat would kill them after a couple of days.

The entire trip would be more than 850 miles, through New Jersey, into Pennsylvania, and across a small stretch of Maryland. They would cover Virginia from east to west, finally landing in a place called Fort Chiswell. From there it would still be an additional 325 miles to Columbia, Kentucky.

In 1805, wagon trains could travel one of two routes. The first was Zane’s Trace, the name for a frontier road constructed under the direction of Colonel Ebenezer Zane through the Northwest Territory. The road was constructed in 1796 and 1797, and ran from Wheeling, West Virginia to Maysville in Kentucky. Zane’s Trace was a little over 230 miles long. The Trace was constructed through heavily forested, hilly terrain, and was not easily traveled by wagon.

The second choice, and the route the DeGinder Wagon Train would take, was the Wilderness Road, the principal route used by American and immigrant settlers into and across Kentucky. Thirty years earlier, an American pioneer named Daniel Boone blazed a trail for the Transylvania Company from Fort Chiswell through the Cumberland Gap into central Kentucky. It followed prehistoric trails to reach the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville.

At first, the trail was steep and rough, and could only be traversed by foot or on horseback. However, under new taxation, by 1796, an improved, all-weather road was opened for wagon and carriage travel.

The entire road made a long loop from Virginia down to Tennessee and then up to Kentucky, a distance of almost a thousand miles. The southern part of Wilderness Road passed over the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee via the Cumberland River to Nashville. The northern arc split into two parts: the eastern spur went into the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky at Boonesborough on the Kentucky River near Lexington; the western spur ran to the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville. The Abbot clan would split off from the main wagon train at Middlesboro, and travel the last 130 miles with a few other families also going to the middle of Kentucky.

They arrived at the departure point around dinner time. Kenny Maher’s man, Ulysses Beresford, and his nineteen men were already there with the ten wagons filled with building materials for the Abbots’ house.

They pulled the wagons and carriage up to the other wagons, and started the process of settling in for the night. First, they needed to find one of the tarps.

That located, Jake, Pete, and Luke tried to figure out how to hook one end on the top of the carriage, pull it out, and stake it into the ground in a manner that created a lean-to for them to sleep under. After a few abortive attempts and a lot of colorful language learned in the gutters of London, it was done.

“Glad you decided to try this before we ‘it the road!”

“Bloody thing.”

“Can I just sleep in the carriage?”

“No!”

“Bloody git.”

“Get that rope outta me face, arse!”

“Get you outta me life, bloody bastard!”

“Blimey. What do you think you are doing over there?”

“Boys!” Mara was tired of the complaining. “Act your ages and like gentlemen, will you!”

“I ain’t no gentlemen.”

“Come, make me.”

“Here, if you think you can do better.”

“It is going to be a very long trip,” muttered Mara, as she walked away to find Mr. Beresford. At least he might be a little more civilized!

After they ate and cleaned up, the men started to jockey for the best sleeping positions.

Cecilia finally put her foot down. “The women will sleep closest to the carriage in the middle and the men will sleep around the edges of the lean-to. Period. Understand, boys?”

“Yes, mum.”

“Got it.”

“Right.”

Cecilia had to remember that at nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one, these men were still too young for the responsibilities that had been laid on their shoulders. Even Deirdre, at twenty-three, was worldlier than the three former orphans. Married or not, the boys hadn’t yet fully grown up. This trip would either make men out of them or kill them in the process.

The next morning dawned early. The group had tossed and turned most of the night, as they were not used to sleeping on mats in bedrolls on the ground, and they definitely were not used to sleeping practically on top of one another. Only forty-five to sixty more days of this, thought Mara. She realized the miscarriage might have been a blessing in disguise, given the discomfort she had already experienced. Her healing was nearly complete, both physically and emotionally.

They spent the day inventorying the building materials.

“Why are there bricks and mortar here?” Jake asked. “I thought we were to make those in Kentucky.”

“Those are for building the kiln. You have to have materials to build that.”

Jake nodded. “Okay. One kiln. Hope you know how to use that thing, because we are in over our heads here.”

Beresford smiled. “We will not leave until your tents are up, your house space is cleared, your materials are under tarp, your kiln is made, your cabin floor laid, and we’ve taught you the basics to finish the cabin and make bricks. Mr. Maher would kill us if we left a paid customer in the lurch.”

“You and your men do this all the time? I mean, travel every year on a wagon train or two?”

“It isn’t a bad life for them; besides, this is the longest we’ve ever traveled. Usually we are only gone a week or two—into Virginia or Pennsylvania, upstate New York. Closer places.” Beresford looked up from his invoice list, and leaned against the wagon. “When the men marry, the wives want them to stay closer to home. But for the single men, this job pays well, and it is always an adventure. Someone has to run supplies back and forth from the frontier and the outer regions, and these men enjoy it.”

“God bless you.”

Beresford laughed. “Besides, where else are you able to fight Indians and highway robbers, and push wagons up Cumberland Gap? It is not for the meek or the weak. It will make a man out of you, boy.”

“I just hope it doesn’t kill me.”

“You hardly look weak, but growing up in the English aristocracy probably didn’t prepare you for the wilds of America. We generally see the common stock of folk out here.” Beresford nodded to the Abbot clan. “Protect your wives and mother over there. They are in the most danger. That big guy you have with you, what’s his name?”

“Pete.”

“Keep him near. He is your best protection. The little one probably won’t help much.”

Jake raised an eyebrow. “You’ve never seen Luke shoot, have you? Best not ever find yourself looking down the barrel of his gun.”

“Good shot, eh?”

“The best.”

“Then keep him near, too. He’s your outside protection. Pete is your inside protection. Men will be men, and your women will be targets. Especially the two younger ones. Your wife is a real beauty, and the other one is awfully pretty too.”

“Thanks for the advice. I will absolutely take it.” Jake and Mara had become much more cautious after Mara had been attacked by Harry Paulus aboard ship. He realized they would need to continue to be vigilant and alert throughout the rest of their journey.

Other pioneers had started arriving, and by nightfall half the wagon train was formed. They had even hitched up the horses and practiced their first march formation and circling the wagons, which they would do every night. It was beginning to look like a real wagon train. They would leave in two days. Whoever did not show up by tomorrow would be left behind. The train would be almost a hundred wagons strong.

Two days later, they began the long journey to their new home.

It turned out to be the hardest thing they had ever done.

This was not like riding from London to Rochcliffe House. It was dusty, chaotic, loud, boring, exhausting, and butt-wrenching.

They all silently wished they had stayed in New York.

The roads were rough and crude, sometimes barely wide enough for the wagons to pass through.

 

*****

 

The success of a DeGinder Wagon Train depended on the wagon master—in this case, Gus DeGinder himself. He led a train once every two years, and this happened to be his trip.

DeGinder’s company had written by-laws the pioneers had to abide by when disagreements threatened to worsen. The DeGinder by-laws included rules for camping and marching, and restrictions on gambling and drinking. There were penalties for infractions, social security for the sick or bereaved, and rules for dividing up property if someone died on the trail.

He would give the members of the wagon train about a week to get to know one another, and then hold elections for officers. The officers would dole out punishment for infractions, which could include extra security duty, movement to the back of the march, or even banishment from the train.

Since everyone believed Jake was a member of the English peerage, he was elected to the board, against his wishes. The people of the wagon train assumed he’d be well versed in governing, and he couldn’t really deny it without bringing on questions he didn’t want to answer. So, not only did he have the work of moving his family to Kentucky in one piece, he had the job of helping keep the peace. He dropped into bed exhausted every night, sleeping like a stone. He and Mara had barely even kissed since leaving New York City. In fact, they were too exhausted to do more than ride the wagons, eat, and sleep.

A typical day started before dawn, with breakfast of coffee, bacon, and dry bread. The group then packed up their mats and bedrolls, saw to the animals, and repacked the breakfast items in time to be under way by seven o’clock.

At noon, the train stopped for a cold meal of coffee, beans, and bacon or game prepared that morning.

Then it was back on the road again. Around five in the afternoon, after traveling an average of fifteen miles, they circled the wagons for the evening. There were enough wagons in this train for a double circle, and after a few days of practice, the group was able to get into formation fairly quickly. The Abbot party had wagons twenty-two through thirty-six in the train—a solid place to be in the march order.

Luke, Pete, and Jake secured the animals and made any needed repairs, while Mara, Deirdre, and Cecilia cooked a hot meal of boiled rice with dried beef or codfish, and tea.

In the evenings, the travelers held school for the children. Sometimes they sang, danced, and told stories around the campfire. The Abbot clan usually did not participate, having little extra energy and not much use for camp songs.

DeGinder reserved only Sunday morning for religious activities, and pushed on during the afternoon.

In addition to giving the oxen, horses, and other animals a needed break on Sunday mornings, the women also had a chance to tend to domestic chores. Occasionally, when they arrived at a source of clean water, the wagon train would stop for everyone to do laundry. It seemed as if the dust on the Wilderness Road pervaded every article of clothing!

River crossings were dangerous. Even if the current was slow and the water shallow, wagon wheels could be damaged by unseen rocks or become mired in the muddy bottom. And this land seemed to be teeming with creeks and rivers. But at least a dip in the creek allowed for a quick, fully clothed wash down. The travelers plunged in after taking off socks and shoes.

Many a time animals from other wagons were unhitched to turn back and help a wagon stuck in the mud. Pete, Luke, and Jake were called upon again and again to go help wagons in trouble. They knew that if their own wagons ever needed help, the people they helped would reciprocate.

It was the carriage they worried about the most, and spent many evenings maintaining and repairing it. They just hoped it would make it. The carriage had not been designed to handle such rough terrain.

The tiring pace of the journey—fifteen or so miles a day, almost always on foot—got to them all.

Pete did double duty as a blacksmith, since one of the horses or oxen always seemed to need a new or repaired shoe. Luke repaired road-weary shoes and boots.

The women sometimes had to drive the wagons. When the men were assigned security duty once or twice a week for a couple of hours during the night, they would then sleep in the carriage in the morning, and the women would take over for a few hours. Cecilia ended up being a highly competent driver. She couldn’t shoot, but she could handle a team of four!

The horses, too, were bearing the brunt of the wear and tear. Jake had been forced to rotate the riding horses with the work horses so they didn’t kill their stock. Beaumont, Geoffrey, Parisian, and Crookshanks took turns pulling the wagons to let the others rest. The wagons carrying the building materials were pulled by oxen, a better animal for the trail. This was a lesson learned by the Abbot clan.

 

Chapter 52

 

The trail was a dangerous place. Accidents were a common occurrence. One man shot himself, another shot a good friend, and yet a third killed one of his oxen when his gun discharged accidentally. All the Abbot clan except Luke unloaded their weapons, keeping the bullets in a pocket.

One man was killed while pushing a wagon up Cumberland Gap. He slipped and was crushed beneath the wheels.

Another was crushed between two oxen that became belligerent.

A young boy drowned on a river crossing.

It wasn’t just Indians they had to worry about. Disease and accidents took the greatest toll on the DeGinder Wagon Train. This trip was literally killing them.

They had lost five people to infection, or worse.

One day, a horrific bout of dysentery gripped the travelers, bringing the wagon train to a complete halt for a day-and-a-half. More than half the folks were in its clutches, including all of the Abbot clan except Jake. The ones who were unaffected stood guard so the ones who were sick could run back and forth into the woods as each spasm took them. Two small children and one elderly woman died, their bodies unable to handle the dehydration.

To treat diseases and wounds, DeGinder carried medical supplies such as “physicing” pills, castor oil, rum or whiskey, peppermint oil, quinine for malaria, hartshorn for snakebites, and citric acid for scurvy. He also had opium, laudanum, morphine, calomel, and tincture of camphor. But no pills or potions helped with the diarrhea, and those affected simply had to wait for it to run its course.

DeGinder was right—this journey was not for the meek or mild. The Abbot clan was glad they were all young and healthy. They all were secretly glad now that Mara was no longer pregnant. She certainly would have miscarried under these conditions, and it would have been worse out here in the rough country.

One night, Mara and Jake lay on their bedrolls, holding hands. They were both worn to the bone, and Mara blurted out, “I think life might have been easier if I had married the duke.”

Jake grunted.

She fell asleep before she could determine if his response was a yes or a no. Truth be told, she really didn’t care.

Another night, Jake sat on a barrel leaning against DeGinder’s wagon, his eyes closed, trying to force his weary body to get up and walk back to his own wagon. He and the other council members had just finished pronouncing judgment on two men who had caused a fight earlier that day.

“You impress me, Abbot,” DeGinder said matter-of-factly.

Jake didn’t move. “Thanks. What did I do to deserve such praise?”

“I’ve been watching you on the council, and you seem to really understand what makes people tick. You empathize with their plight, and try to understand the heart of the matter. It is like you’ve been in their shoes, and know what it is like to be there.”

Jake opened his eyes and turned his head to look at Gus.

“Maybe I do.”

“Yeah,” DeGinder snorted. “You who was born with a silver spoon in your mouth.”

“Money doesn’t solve every problem. Nor does it make you civilized. Father was a brute. Rich, but a thug in every sense of the word.” He stared up at the vast expanse of stars, not really seeing them. “Yea, verily. I have been there.”

Jake stood up and walked off, leaving Gus to ponder the young man’s words. Abbot’s soul runs deep, he thought. That boy’s soul runs very deep.

 

*****

 

By the time they reached Middlesboro, Mara was sure she had gone insane. They were gaunt, fatigued, and at the end of their ropes. They left the DeGinder Wagon Train, as it continued on to Tennessee. They and eight other families traveling on to Kentucky decided to stay in Middlesboro for a couple of days to rest and regain their sanity.

Jake was once again the de facto government. Beresford was the navigator. He had the maps and the compass, and kept them on the straight and narrow.

The carriage was now the lead vehicle, with Beresford’s right behind. Jake acted on autopilot, his brain ceasing to function most of the day. The rest of them were only two steps behind him on their own voyage to losing their minds.

Jake had grown from boy to man on this journey. The heavy burden of responsibility for so many people forced him to mature practically overnight. He felt as if the young Jake Abbot had been left behind along the trail, replaced with a new grown-up Jake Abbot, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Two months on a wagon train pushed his spirit to a new place, a harder place, an unforgiving place.

He was a pretender, forced to think about every move he made in order to playact the English gentleman. It lay heavy on his psyche. Playacting on the ship where he had no responsibilities was easy. Playacting on this wagon train, where he had to fight daily to keep his brood alive, was brutal beyond all comprehension.

 

*****

 

With much joy in their hearts, the group arrived in Columbia, Kentucky, on May 31st—sixty-two days after leaving Newark.

They circled the wagons just outside of town. Jake wasn’t sure what else to do.

Beresford offered advice. “Go and find the mayor, or the sheriff, or some other town official, and introduce yourself. You want to be on the good side of the law from the start.”

Jake and Mara shook off as much dust as possible, and rode Crookshanks and Beaumont into town, leaving the rest to settle in for the night.

It took them no time at all to find the Commonwealth Tavern, and the sheriff. He was at the bar, having a half pint.

Jake almost started frothing at the mouth at the sight of mead. It had been so long since he’d had any, he actually couldn’t recall the taste of it.

He put out his hand. “Jacob Abbot, at your service, sheriff. This is my wife, Mara. I am the wagon master for the twenty-three wagons that just pulled up outside of town.”

Sheriff Wiley put his hand out, appraising these two road-weary youngsters. “John Wiley. Welcome to Columbia. Glad to meet you, Jake! And your lovely wife, Mara.” He put his lips to her hand. “You hardly look old enough to be a wagon master. What are you—nineteen, twenty?”

“Twenty-one. I agree, but seeing as how I was the only English-born gentleman on the wagon train, the position fell to me.”

Sheriff Wiley laughed, pounding Jake on the back, nearly knocking him over. “Well, at least you survived it, kid!”

“Yes, we survived—barely,” muttered Mara. Her dress was torn and road-worn; her hands scabbed and cracked, her shoes barely hanging on her feet.

“Mrs. Abbot, I think you would be beautiful wearing rags and sporting a beard and mustache. You are lovely.”

Mara gave him her best smile. She liked this man!

He took her by the arm. “I would be mighty pleased if you would escort me out to the wagons and introduce me around to my new citizens.”

Jake watched as the sheriff and his wife chatted easily all the way to the horses. Wiley helped her mount Crookshanks before mounting his own horse. They didn’t even wait for Jake. He would have to remind Mara later who was her man! Jake slowly mounted Beaumont and followed.

Two days later, the Abbot clan and the Maher folk pulled up to a shallow, babbling creek. Beresford pulled out his map and the directions given by the sheriff. “I think we are here, Jake. Welcome to your land.”

Jake pulled the carriage through the creek and up the other side, moving far enough forward for all the wagons to safely traverse the water. To his left and south was the ridge Thomas had told them about back in New York. That seemed like a lifetime ago! They had just crossed the unnamed creek that cut through their land. Ahead about four miles would be the Green River. To the north would lie Alvin, Pete, Luke, and Cecilia’s land.

Jake helped Mara down from the carriage, and hand-in-hand they walked around through the trees. The emotion welling up in him was hard to describe. He had started life as a vicar’s son, then became an orphan, a stable hand, and a jewel thief. Now he was the largest land holder in the county and, if the Sheriff was correct, maybe in all of Kentucky. Mara squeezed his hand. He looked down at her. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, causing streaks through the dust on her face. He could tell she felt the same way.

He pulled her to him and gave her a long, deep kiss, cracked lips to cracked lips, dirty face to dirty face, dusty body to dusty body. “Welcome, home, my love. Welcome home,” he whispered, and continued the kiss.

Mara’s heart leapt in her breast. None of her love for Jake had been lost, just suppressed by 850 miles of hardship and heartache. She drank in his kiss.

“Ahem.”

They had completely forgotten there were other people around. In fact, there stood twenty men, plus their own family.

They stopped kissing, and Mara blushed, looking down at her feet.

Luke spoke up first. “I know it ‘as been a long time, wagon master. I would like to kiss me own wife, but first things first. We gotta organize before dusk.”

They all laughed, and started on the business of settling into their new home.

 

*****

 

The next morning, Mara and Jake left the little camp and took a walk up the creek, looking for a place to bathe. Jake left explicit instructions that no one was to follow them. The others understood, and wouldn’t have dared follow.

Mara couldn’t wait to wash her hair and scrub the dirt out from cracks and crevices she didn’t know were on her body.

As soon as they found a little spot where the creek created a pool, Mara quickly undressed and jumped in the water. She came up sputtering. “Oh, my Lord, that’s cold!”

Jake undressed and jumped in after her. He, too, gasped. “Whew! I think I just froze my insides!”

Mara laughed and splashed him and they spent the next hour cleaning and playing around in the water, carefree and happy again

 

Chapter 53

 

Right on schedule, Alvin boarded the Charleston, and headed for America. The six-week trip was rather uneventful; he spent the time working with the crew mainly for something to do. He learned a lot about sails, booms, rudders, masts, and such. He was so happy to be on his way, nothing could put a damper on his high spirits.

He arrived in New York the second week of June, ten weeks after the rest of the group had left for Kentucky. He immediately set out to find the Turkey Shoot Tavern, and Mr. Robert Cavendish.

Mr. Cavendish warmly welcomed him. “Any friend of Jake and Mara Abbot’s is a friend of mine!” he boomed.

They sat down to do business.

The envelope Jake and Mara had left behind was quite large. In it was an unsigned deed for 1,280 acres of land in Adair County, Kentucky. Adair! Alvin burst out laughing. Mr. Cavendish stared blankly at him, not understanding the joke.

“You will have to go see Mr. Thomas at the title company, as he has the rest of the paperwork for your land. Sign here on this deed, however.” Alvin signed, a smile lighting up his face. He was a landowner! It was unbelievable. “Did everyone buy 1,280 acres?” he asked.

“The Abbots bought over ten thousand, my boy!”

Alvin nearly fell out of his chair.

Also in the envelope was an invoice to a stable. It was good for a horse, tack, and a pack mule with four saddle bags.

Next was an invoice for a pistol, a rifle, two holsters, bullets, powder, cleaning kit, and lessons from a local sharpshooter. Another invoice was for a sword and sheath and fencing lessons.

The fourth invoice was for supplies and a spot on a wagon train that would leave in three weeks.

Lastly was a packet of five hundred American dollars—a princely sum—for his trip and other expenses. Alvin was flabbergasted. That jewelry had truly been worth a bloody fortune!

He stayed in the Turkey Shoot Tavern and spent the next three weeks learning how to shoot and then fence with Monsieur Guempes. The good Monsieur kept Alvin in stitches telling him about the lessons he had given to his friends.

In no time at all, he sat on his new horse, Stargazer, pulling a pack mule he named Boxcar, as part of a large wagon train heading west.

 

*****

 

Maher’s men truly knew what they were doing. For the next several weeks, they picked the spot to build the house—a partially treeless area. They then cleared three acres of woods in and around the little meadow for the house, paddock, and barn. They also marked the trees to be used for the log cabin and those to be taken back east.

The creek was lined with white oaks so they named it White Oak Creek.

The property also contained hundreds of mature chestnut trees which would be used to build the cabin and rail fences for the paddock. Chestnut would also be split into shingles for the roof to cover the cabin and eventually the barns. Luke was happy to see these trees, as the bark was used to make tannic acid for tanning and dyeing—much needed in his trade. The women could use the nuts in cooking as well.

They now spent their days felling trees. After the trees were cut down, all the branches and limbs had to be cut off the logs before they could be used to build the cabin or shipped back east. It was backbreaking work, and they were exhausted every night, but it was a good kind of fatigue. They knew all of their hard work would benefit them and their future.

They built platforms from the felled trees on which to store the materials for the house. The tarps covered the various woods and trims to protect them from the weather during the next year.

They now had their three tents up, a roofed lean-to under which went the crates, a hen house built by the women, and a paddock.

They built a platform for the cabin—a thirty-five-foot by thirty-foot structure with four eight-foot by ten-foot bedrooms and one large central space which would house both the fireplace and the kiln behind it. Along the front wall was a five-foot roofed porch. The kiln would not only make the bricks, but heat the cabin in the winter. The platform consisted of logs laid on leveled ground and cut, rough-hewn planks carted from New York nailed to the logs to make the floor.

As soon as the platform for the cabin was complete, Beresford marked off the placement of the inner and outer walls. They built the kiln using the standard bricks they brought from New York, and then lined it with firebricks. The kiln, in turn, would be used to make bricks for the cabin’s fireplace.

Jake was impressed by the efficiency and effectiveness of the Maher crew, and wrote a letter of thanks for Beresford to take back with him, stating his pleasure with the entire operation.

A few of Beresford’s men trekked up and down the creek and then the Green River to find the right kind of clay for the bricks and lime for the mortar. The clay was found two miles up the river, a six-mile hike one way from the kiln. They located lime a mile in the other direction. The trees were too thick for the wagons to pass, so they fashioned litters for the horses to haul the clay and limestone back to the kiln. The Abbot clan was then taught how to make bricks using the clay, sand, and dried grass. They had to combine these materials in the right proportions, and then pack the mixture into molds that fit perfectly in the kiln. Beresford taught them to make mortar out of sand, limestone, and water.

The fireplace, again lined with firebricks, went up quickly once they had the process down. Deirdre had the right touch and could tell if the brick mixture was right just by putting her hand in the bucket and squishing it between her fingers.

When the time came for the Maher crew to leave, it was like saying goodbye to family. The cabin wasn’t complete, but Jake, Pete, and Luke would be able to finish it before winter set in.

 

*****

 

Alvin arrived at the farm midday, having spent the night in Columbia. He crossed a creek in a well-traveled spot, and stopped partway up a rutted drive to take in the view.

He saw a large clearing where a homestead was being built. Three tents were on one side, a makeshift paddock in the back, and a partially built log cabin on the other side. Jake led two horses that were each pulling a large log on a chain. Pete and Luke hewed another large log, prepping it to form part of the cabin wall.

Emotion caught in Alvin’s throat as he watched his friends—brothers he hadn’t seen in over a year. He had to swallow hard and blink to keep the tears at bay.

“Alvin!” He heard Mara’s voice and looked at the front of one of the tents as she emerged and spotted him. Mara ran to him. He dismounted and raced to meet her, picking her up and swinging her around in circles, planting a kiss fully on her lips. He put her down and they continued a fierce hug until the rest of them ran up and pulled them down in a huge dog pile.

“Alvin!”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God! It be great to see you!”

“Gad, I missed you, man!”

Cecilia followed in a more sedate manner, laughing with joy to see the last of her brood in their new home. “Welcome home, son. Welcome home.”

They all finally stood up, brushing off grass and leaves, but still hugging and kissing Alvin.

Deirdre walked down the drive, curious to meet this Alvin everyone talked about so frequently with such love.

He spotted her and stood still, awed by her blue eyed, black-haired loveliness. “Who be this fine lady?”

Luke rushed up to Deirdre and put his arm around her waist.

“Alvin, meet me charming wife, Deirdre.”

“Wife!” Alvin’s jaw dropped in amazement. Luke, the rutting boar, married? Never in a million years would Alvin have guessed this turn of events. Pete, maybe, but Luke? This lass must be worth her weight in gold.

He put out his hand to shake hers. Having none of that, Deirdre threw her arms around him, and gave him a kiss of welcome. “I have heard so much about you, Alvin. I am so glad to meet you at last.” She took him by the arm and led him up the path, chatting the entire way. Alvin looked over his shoulders in wonder at the rest. They all just shrugged their shoulders and followed the two back to the homestead, Pete leading Stargazer and Boxcar.

It was good to finally be a whole family again.

 

Chapter 54

 

Harry Paulus awoke in his cell to the sounds of a very drunk and belligerent man being thrown in with him. He turned his back, covered his head with the pillow and went back to sleep. Stupid drunks. How come the drunks were always thrown in his cell?

The next morning, he appraised the young gentleman snoring loudly on the bunk next to his. Usually the drunks were common folk, dressed in the dirty clothes of the poor. This man, barely out of boyhood, was very well dressed—obviously not a poor drunk.

Paulus thought once again about his own lot in life. He had been on his way to America when he had succumbed to the flirtations of one Mrs. Abrams. After their encounter, the goddamned captain had thrown him in the ship’s brig, and kept him locked up for the remainder of the trip across the Atlantic. He had then been turned over to the police in America and again locked up. The judge had convicted Paulus based on what the captain had reported about the attack, what the doctor said about the wounds he treated, and what Mrs. Abrams had told him. The judge had completely ignored Paulus’ side of the story, and he was extremely bitter over the whole thing. He was sentenced to two years in this goddamned cell as a result. Six more months to go, and then he was going to hunt down that beautiful Mrs. Abrams and finish what he started.

The drunk awoke when breakfast arrived.

The two men ate in silence, trays on their laps, appraising each other across the narrow space.

The new man spoke first. “So, what are you in for?” He spoke with a cultured English accent.

Paulus replied in the same cultured English accent. “Assault.”

The new man nodded. “I obviously had a little too much of the libations at the tavern, and found myself in a bit of a scuffle.” He put out his hand to shake. “Edwin Markham, at your service, my good man.”

Paulus took the proffered hand. “Harry Paulus. You’re obviously English, and a member of the aristocracy, given your speech and dress.”

Edwin snorted. “Was. Now I am a refugee in America.”

“There is probably a story in there somewhere, my good man. Care to share it?”

Edwin gave another snort, crossed his arms, and leaned back against the wall.

“I ran away from a contemptuous father, and a more contemptuous fate.”

Harry also leaned back against the wall. This might be a good tale!

He listened while Markham talked about his father’s quest for a title—if not for himself, then for his sons and grandsons. His father had arranged for Edwin to marry a woman who was five years his senior, and looked like a horse with a long face, big nose, patchy skin, and skinny body. Lady Betty’s one redeeming quality was that she had access to a title. She was the only child of an earl; her son would one day bear the title. The plan was for Edwin to father that young earl, putting his own father’s branch of the Markham family back into the titled aristocracy.

Edwin went along with this scheme for a while, until he realized he couldn’t even bring himself to kiss Lady Betty, let alone father a child with her. Being saddled with this homely woman for the rest of his life was more than the twenty-one-year old could bear. He and his father had several terrible rows over it, the final one coming to blows.

“And then, he had the temerity to take out his horse whip and whip me as if I were a common stable hand like Abbot!”

Paulus raised an eyebrow. Sometime in the past, he’d heard about another boy being whipped by his father. He searched his memory, trying to place the story.

Markham stood up and walked to the bars, resting his arms through two of the vertical steel slats. “Abbot, now there’s a tale to tell.”

“We have nothing but time in here, mate, so you might as well tell that tale also. But first, finish telling me how you ended up here.”

Markham picked at some lint on his sleeve, as he thought about his sister’s kidnapping. It may have all started with that—if she hadn’t been kidnapped and had produced a male heir for the duke, he’d probably never have been forced into the situation with Betty. He blamed Lord Phantom for his fate.

“After father whipped me, I went crazy and thrashed him soundly. I had to run for it. He’d have killed me if I had stayed. You don’t know my father. He is very rich, and very influential in London society. I jumped on the first ship sailing for America, and here I am.”

The men were silent for a few minutes, each lost in their own thoughts.

“You mentioned an Abbot. What does he have to do with all this”?

“Everything and nothing. It is actually a story about my sister, Mara.” He returned to his cot and sat back down.

“When my sister was young, she was the fattest child you could imagine.” Paulus listened intently as Edwin talked about his sister, her weight, and how they had teased her. He told him about the stable hand, Abbot, and the gardener, Alvin, who protected her from Edwin and his brother, and their cousins. He described how his father had whipped Abbot, and Mara and Termins had come to his rescue.

“Then there was the Masque. You have heard of it, yes?” Paulus nodded. Everyone in London society knew about the Masque.

“Mara came to the Masque dressed as Madame Butterfly, in this incredible dress and wings with a headdress of beads and a mask of feathers. She looked stunning, and we didn’t know who she was. Somehow, she had lost a lot weight but kept it a secret from us by pretending to still be fat. No one could figure it out. All of us men desperately wanted to meet her, but in the end, the Duke of Cleveland caught her. My father finally figured out that Mara was Madame Butterfly, I guess, and arranged for her to marry the duke.”

He paused in his reverie. “If she hadn’t been my sister, I’d…” He looked at Harry. “She had this incredible head of curly red hair and the most unbelievable green eyes and flawless skin. And finally, she somehow managed to get the body of a goddess to match her good looks. She was the most beautiful woman in London.”

Harry sat up straight. His new bunkmate described Elizabeth Abrams! Could there be two women like that in England? Harry’s brain sparked on fire.

Markham went on to describe the wedding day, the kidnapping, the deaths of Abbot and Cecilia, the jewel heist, the letters from Lord Phantom, and the final blow to the duke when he realized the Cleveland family jewels were gone forever.

“I don’t remember hearing about this. Surely it was the talk of the town!”

“Absolutely! The London aristocracy talked of nothing else for months.”

“When did all this take place?”

“June 3rd of last year.”

Paulus’ jaw dropped. The Fleetwood had sailed on June 4th.

“And do you know the worst of it?” continued Edwin. “We found out later that the crates and wagons carrying all the wedding gifts to the duke’s country estate had been taken by highway robbers! It was as if the entire event had been cursed by the gods. Nothing went right, everything went wrong, and the duke lost it all.”

Crates, wagons, June, red-headed woman, whippings. Paulus’ head swam. “Describe the crates and wagons.”

Odd question, thought Edwin.

He described the crates. “They were a marvel really, designed by the apprentice gardener. They were hinged on the side and back, and were built to fit exactly in the wagons. The crates had these doors that opened to the sides for easy loading and unloading. Very clever design. My father had a set made for us a few months after the kidnapping.”

Paulus put his head in his hands. Those were exactly like the crates and wagons James Abrams showed him on the ship. Abrams had been very proud of the design, and showed them off to the banker during one of their conversations. Paulus became certain there was a connection between the people he’d met on the Fleetwood and the Markham family. He kept digging deeper.

“Describe Abbot.”

“Why?” Edwin thought that was another most unusual request. “Why describe a dead man?”

“Because, I don’t think your sister was kidnapped, and I don’t think Abbot is dead. I think she planned or participated in the whole event to run away with him. To escape England and your father, like you did.”

Edwin stood up. “WHAT?!”

“Sit, man, and describe Abbot.”

Edwin sat, confused and agitated. “Um, very tall, lean. The ladies think he’s good looking. Blond hair, good teeth, smiles with only half his face. Don’t think I ever noticed his eye color.”

“Abrams.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Describe the supposedly dead maid.”

He gave Harry a sideways glance, extremely curious now at the odd line of questioning. “Fortyish, black hair beginning to gray, pulled in a tight bun, average size, mole on chin about here.” He pointed at his own chin.

“Ellen.”

“What are you talking about, man? Who are Abrams and Ellen?”

“Your Abbot posed as James Abrams on the Fleetwood—the ship I sailed on eighteen months ago. We left on June 4th, the day after the kidnapping. Your sister posed as his wife, Elizabeth Abrams. The maid posed as a woman named Ellen.”

Edwin stared at Harry, flabbergasted. “Elizabeth? Of course!” He slapped his forehead. “Mara Elizabeth Markham. Elizabeth Abrams. Oh, my God!”

The puzzle pieces began to come together. Edwin finally understood what had really happened. The room spun, and he had to put his head between his legs before he passed out. It all made perfect sense. All of London had been duped completely.

Now it was Paulus’ turn to talk. He told Edwin all about the trip over, his conversations with Abrams and his two men, Pierson and George, the rumor about Abrams having scars from a whipping, the wagons and crates, the ladies’ maid, the two male servants. He described the very attractive redheaded Elizabeth. “And she has this little space between her two front teeth that gives her the most sensual smile.”

A space between her teeth. Mara. Edwin now knew, without a doubt, that Mara and Jake had planned and pulled off the most elaborate criminal coup in the history of London.

It was all a lie, an elaborate lie, and they had gotten away with it. Until now.

Markham began to pace the tiny space.

Paulus was thoughtful. “Here I am in this godforsaken cell for two bloody years for an assault on a woman. But look what she has done—stolen a fortune in jewels and wedding gifts, faked two murders, and led the London constabulary on a wild goose chase. She is free and I am locked up—where is the justice in that?!” He growled deep in the back of his throat. “I want revenge, and I am sure you do, too!”

Edwin looked at his cell mate. “The assault was on my sister?” Amazingly, he wasn’t enraged. How could he be, when he’d had the same thoughts himself of stealing kisses after her dramatic metamorphosis?

Harry shrugged his shoulders.

“You are right, Paulus. We both want revenge. I want the bloody fortune and Abbot’s head, and you want my sister. Where do we start?”

“We first have to be released from here.”

 

*****

 

The sheriff released Markham later that evening, on his own recognizance. Paulus still had six months remaining on his sentence. He and Edwin would use those six months to plan their revenge.

Edwin immediately went on a quest to locate his sister and the others. Now that he had purpose once again, the taverns and the mead no longer controlled him.

His father had set him up with his own accounts on his twenty-first birthday, and had deposited several thousand pounds in anticipation of Edwin’s marriage to the earl’s daughter. Money wasn’t an issue. He had removed the funds immediately upon running away and had deposited in a bank in New York upon his arrival.

His first stop was immigration. The government clerk was most helpful. After all, these were public records, and he was the public!

He expected to see James and Elizabeth Abrams listed, and was shocked to find the following names clearly written in the registry under the date July 18th of last year.

 

Jacob James Abbot

Mara Elizabeth Abbot

Lucas George Holloway

Peter Pierson Smithers

Cecilia Ellen Montgomery

 

The bloody fools had used their real names! Cocky bastards must have thought they’d never be found. He now had the names of the two men who had acted as kidnappers and had stolen the wagons and crates—Lucas Holloway and Peter Smithers. Edwin had no idea how Holloway and Smithers fit into this whole scheme, or where Jake and Mara had found them, but the connection between all of them stared him in the face.

James, Elizabeth, George, Pierson, and Ellen—the players on the Fleetwood. Jake, Mara, Lucas, Peter, and Cecilia—the players in the kidnapping and jewelry heist. Perfect.

Even if Abbot and his sister had lived in sin on the ship, he was sure they were properly married by now. He would search church records next.

Then he’d be off to the land and title companies for a search, as he was sure they had bought land. Abbot had told Paulus of his desire to breed horses. With the ten he had stolen, plus whatever they might have bought in New York, they’d need plenty of land for a breeding farm.

His search of church records led him nowhere. After two weeks of visiting church after church and coming up empty-handed, he gave up. Not important anyway.

He visited Thomas’ Land and Title Company, and hit the jackpot.

Jacob and Mara Abbot had purchased over ten thousand acres of virgin land in a place called Adair County, Kentucky. Adair! The irony of the name was not lost on him. You had to give them credit for a sense of humor, thought Edwin.

The clerk meticulously copied the location information on a piece of paper for Edwin, and on another for Lord Markham. Edwin now knew exactly where to find them.

He then sat and wrote a long letter to his father with all the details he and Paulus had compiled about the crime and fraud. His father would not stand for this kind of deception, and would immediately issue a warrant for Abbot’s arrest. Abbot wouldn’t live long enough for the government to act on that warrant, since Edwin planned to take care of the bastard himself. However, the arrest warrant would allow Edwin to kill Abbot without repercussion, since he would be a known and wanted criminal.

He put the letter and the copy of the land grant in an envelope and posted it back to England. He smiled as the clerk put the postage on the envelope and dropped it in the bin. The wheels had started turning.

 

*****

 

The letter from the wayward son, Edwin, arrived in the weekly post. Termins delivered it straightaway to the master.

Lord Markham took one look at the handwriting, and threw it in the trash bin. “Edwin is no longer my son. I have one child left, Bertram, who is now betrothed to Lady Betty. My grandson son will be an earl.”

Termins sighed knowing that on his eighteenth birthday, Bertram would wed the unattractive woman. He returned to the library after dinner, and pulled the letter out of the trash. He tucked it in his jacket pocket. He had decided during the day that he’d read it himself, and if there was anything Lady Maureen needed to know, he’d tell her when she returned from visiting her cousin.

He took the letter to his room, and read it by candlelight. The emotions it elicited were conflicting and overwhelming—surprise, joy, shock, and disbelief. Jake and Cecilia alive! Mara had planned the kidnapping! They were in America with the two kidnappers. Luke and Pete hadn’t left when everyone thought they had. It was more than his old mind could fathom.

He tucked the letter in the far back corner of a drawer. He’d have to think about his next move. If he told Lady Maureen about the contents of the letter, he’d be putting Jake and Mara and the others in grave danger. If he didn’t tell her, he’d be complicit in a major robbery and swindle. Termins needed to sleep on it and determine where his loyalties lay.

Termins relived the entire ordeal in his mind during the night, replacing events with facts he now knew. He realized the brilliance of the scheme and the brilliance of the playacting. They had all played their parts magnificently—Luke and Pete pretending to go to America weeks ahead of the wedding, Mara’s calm resignation at having to marry the duke, and Jake’s deep depression.

He knew now that Alvin had been a part of it, too. He figured Alvin delivered all the pre-written and trumped-up letters from Lord Phantom, and had acted the part of the grieving friend. Now he, too, was no doubt with the group in America.

Brilliant, bloody brilliant. A bunch of youngsters had duped the entire British aristocracy and constabulary. He was actually impressed at their audacity and courage, all because two young people had fallen in love. Never underestimate the power of the heart.

The next morning, a tired but resolute Termins got out of bed, walked straight to the kitchen, and threw the letter into the fire, watching until the flames consumed it completely. Let sleeping dogs lay, he thought. Jake and Mara deserved their happiness, and the others deserved a new life.

Their secret would die with him.

 

Chapter 55

 

With the arrival of Alvin, the whole atmosphere changed. Another pair of hands really sped up the building process.

Alvin spent countless hours telling them all the news from England. If Deirdre was out of earshot, he talked about what had happened after the kidnapping.

“Leaving your jacket behind for them to find was brilliant, I tell you. Just brilliant!” Alvin said, flashing a smile at Jake. “Anyone looking at it would know you be deader than a cockroach on the bottom of my boot.”

“So they all really believed our tale?”

“Lady Maureen and the others couldn’t have been better storytellers. And Luke, I dinna know what you did to them, but your method of stealing their jewels was the talk o’ the town!”

Luke laughed heartily, and relayed his actions to a gaping Alvin.

“You dinna!”

“Oh yes, he did,” acknowledged Jake. “It was a thing of beauty to hear Lady May choking in her gag!”

They laughed again. “I really wished I coulda been there.”

“Yes, but you had such an important role to play.”

“They accepted as true the letters as well. Those were perfect.”

“The whole bloody plan was perfect.”

Their peals of laughter caused the women to pause, and look their way.

“Shhhh.”

“Lord Phantom is the most wanted man in England. King George has put up a princely sum for information leading to his arrest and hanging.”

Jake put his hands to his neck in mock horror. “Oh, my poor neck!”

The giggling was good for what ailed them.

 

*****

 

Just in time for Mara’s nineteenth birthday, they moved into the cabin. She and Jake had the bedroom on the right and back, their side wall against the end of the fireplace and nearest the kiln, located behind the fireplace. Luke and Deirdre had the far left bedroom, Cecilia the middle room, and Pete and Alvin the room closest to the front door.

The group was overjoyed to be able to unpack the crates and bring in the furniture in order to sleep in real beds again.

Their new lives finally came together. Kentucky was now a real home.

But soon, Pete became bored with the simple country life. Since he had no interest in breeding horses, he decided to see about setting up a blacksmith shop in town.

 

*****

 

Pete found the perfect spot. A former resident who couldn’t make ends meet had abandoned a piece of property in Columbia not far from the town square. The town now owned it, and looked for a buyer. It had formerly been a general store, with an apartment above it. The store itself had a front door for customers, and a larger back door for deliveries. The square footage was sufficient for a blacksmith’s shop. Pete just needed to build the fireplaces.

With the cabin complete and winter coming on, Alvin and Luke were able to help Pete construct the fireplaces. In return, Pete gave Luke a corner of the store behind the old counter to set up a cobbler shop. Luke would live at the cabin most of the time, but would come to town two or three times a month to take orders and deliver finished shoes and boots. Pete would now live in town permanently.

Being experts at making bricks, the settlers had no problems supplying the materials to build the big furnaces for the smithy. In no time at all, Pete was a working blacksmith with paying customers. Columbia had needed a competent smithy for a long time, and was glad to have the huge young man around.

 

*****

 

Pete soon settled into a comfortable routine. He would put in long days at the shop, but it was work he enjoyed, and he left feeling fulfilled each evening. Deirdre traveled to town once a week to bring him food, since he wasn’t much of a cook. Some evenings he took his meals at the Commonwealth Tavern. The fare was simple, but delicious. Pete always spent time talking to the cook when he ate there. Bess was over fifty, and loved the sweet attention Pete gave her, almost as much as his generous tips!

One evening, as Pete enjoyed a bowl of Bess’ tasty beef stew, he heard a noise outside the tavern. After finishing his dinner and giving Bess a thank-you kiss on the cheek, he decided to find out what all the commotion was about. He put on his coat to ward off the cold January air, and walked toward the center of town.

His height allowed him to see over the heads of the people gathered there. Two men were holding onto something at the end of a rope and were hawking it to the men in the crowd.

Curious, he worked his way to the front, his size allowing him to easily push others aside. What he saw appalled him.

At the end of the rope, in tattered animal skins, knelt a young girl—an Indian, by the looks of her. A rope was around her neck, and another around her waist. There were deep rope burns on her neck and wrists. Her waist-long black hair was matted, and hung lifeless about her face. Her body was filthy and gaunt. Her eyes were closed, her lips cracked with dried blood. Her arms were around her in a protective stance, and she rocked back and forth, keening silently.

The two men were trying to sell her for sport to the townsmen.

Pete was outraged. Having been abused himself as a child, he had no tolerance for the abuse of others.

“You let her go right now!”

The crowd hushed, as the two men turned toward Pete.

“Why? She’s ours. We found her, we aim to keep her! You want her, you pay for your sport and return her to us.” The man crossed his arms, and stepped up to Pete.

“She be a human being, and you dinna treat her like that!” Pete’s fury grew.

“And what do you think you’re gonna do about it, boy? She’s an Injun, and Injuns aren’t human. Everyone knows that. She’s a savage.”

Pete’s eyes narrowed. “The only savages I see here are the men standing at the end of that rope.”

“I don’t need no English bastard telling me I am a savage.” The man clenched his fists.

“Maynard,” the other man warned, “he’s a really big guy.”

“Shut up, Josh. I will handle this youngster.”

“I may be young, but I know right from wrong, and you be very wrong treatin’ her like that. I will say this only one more time. Let her go!” Pete’s teeth were clenched, and so were his fists.

Then Maynard made his one and only mistake. He took a swing at Pete, only to have the boy stop his strike cold in the middle of the swing by catching his hand. Pete didn’t have to hit Maynard; he only had to take that captured fist, squeeze it and turn it backwards toward his opponent.

Maynard screamed in pain, and dropped to his knees.

“I said let her go!” He squeezed and twisted the fist harder.

“Okay! Okay! Let her go,” Maynard screamed, the pain in his wrist and fingers unbearable. “Josh, for God’s sake, let her go!” Josh dropped the ropes and ran. Pete dropped Maynard’s hand and walked over to the girl. Maynard lay on the ground trying to catch his breath, waiting for the paralyzing pain in his hand and wrist to subside.

The crowd watched in silent wonder. The men decided they would never do anything to anger their new smithy.

Pete unwrapped the rope from the girl’s neck. She opened her eyes, and looked up at this huge man in terror.

“I dinna know if you can understand me, but I am going to help you,” he said gently, as he unwrapped the rope from her waist. When he was done, he picked her up and carried her to his smithy. He saddled Crookshanks, and put water and food in his saddlebags for the ride out to the farm. He didn’t have the necessary skill to heal this young girl, but he knew Cecilia, Mara, and Deirdre could help.

The girl watched him, her fright beginning to abate as this man talked softly to her while he went about his work.

“I will be taking you to Cecilia, she will know how to heal you. I canna do it, you being a woman and all. Besides, I need to get you out of town where ye’ll be safe.”

He led Crookshanks out of the yard and into the street. He then went back for the girl, wrapping her in a blanket to protect her from the cold January air. He mounted the horse, putting her in front of him, and rode out of Columbia.

The entire way to the farm, he talked gently to the girl. “I dinna know you name, can you understand English?”

No response.

“Can you hear me?” He clicked his fingers off to her right. She looked at the noise.

“At least you can hear. That’s good. you be an Indian, so I will call you Indy for now. Is that okay?”

No response.

“Indy it is then. If you ever talk or learn English, we can learn your real name.”

He pulled some bread from his saddle bag, and offered it to her.

“Are you hungry? Miss Bess made this, and it is really good.”

Indy looked at the bread for a second, then snatched it from his hand and shoved it in her mouth. Pete felt pangs in his gut as he remembered doing the same thing as a child. He easily recalled the pain of a stomach too long empty. He reached in for more and handed it to her. Indy devoured that roll, too. They kept this up until his saddle bag was empty, and she had drunk most of his canteen of water.

Sometime during the fifteen-mile trip, Indy fell asleep. Pete held her tightly to him, to keep her from falling off the horse.

It was past ten o’clock when they arrived at the farm. All the lights were out. Everyone was in bed.

Pete woke up Indy, dismounted, and helped her down off the saddle. He walked and she limped into the cabin.

“Indy, sit here.” He indicated to a chair before knocking on Cecilia’s door. He then knocked on Alvin’s door, the Holloways’ door, and finally the Abbots’ door. One by one they sleepily emerged and filed into the main room, very surprised to see Pete standing there with an Indian girl.

At the sight of all these strangers staring at her, Indy ran to Pete and hid behind him.

“I think you all be frightening her. Please sit and be quiet.”

Mara spoke up first. “What’s this all about, Pete? Who is this girl, and why are you here with her?”

Pete told the story. As he talked, Indy peaked out from behind him at all the people in the room.

“I just know I canna keep her at the smithy. That ain’t proper, and I ain’t able to heal her. Plus, I dinna need Maynard and Josh finding her. Can I leave her here with ye?”

Cecilia stood up. “Of course you can! We have never turned down an orphan yet, have we?”

They all laughed at that, the noise sending Indy back behind Pete again.

‘I fed her on the way here so I think a good night’s sleep is in order.”

“I will find a bedroll. She has lice, and God only knows what else, so she shouldn’t share a bed with any of us,” said Deirdre.

She retrieved a bedroll from the back room, took it into Cecilia’s room, and laid it on the floor. Deirdre came back out and indicated to Indy that she could sleep there.

Indy followed her into the room, picked up the bedroll, and went right back out to Pete. She looked up at him, expectantly.

Mara smiled. “I think she wants to sleep with you, Pete.”

Pete looked aghast. “She’s a she! She canna do that! I… I…”

Jake laughed. “Mara is right; you have yourself a pet Indian.”

Pete looked at those big brown eyes staring up at him, his own pale blue eyes now wide with fright.

Luke patted Pete on the back. “I hear they only sleep on the ground, so she should be happy on the floor while you sleep in the bed. Go for it, me man!”

The rest of them went back into their respective rooms, turning off lamps as they went, leaving Pete and Indy alone in the dark.

Pete finally turned toward his old room, with Indy trailing behind. Alvin was already on the top bunk, smiling in the dark.

“Good night, Pete.”

“Oh, shut up.”

She did sleep on the floor. Pete dreamed of young Indian girls turning into pet dogs and sleeping at his feet.

 

*****

 

The next morning, Indy wandered out into the main room, tentatively watching the three women as they worked. The white women smiled at her, and nodded in encouragement. None of them approached her.

She sidled out of the front door and into the woods to do her morning business. She watched the front of the wooden teepee for a moment, wondering if she should run away. But the smell of food wafting out of the house lured her back to it.

“Good morning Indy. Nice to see you!”

“Welcome to the Abbot Horse Breeding Farm. We just call it the farm for short. We really didn’t have a proper introduction last night.”

“Do you speak or understand English?”

“Do you have a preference for breakfast? The boys like eggs and bacon with toasted bread and jam. Is that okay for you, too?”

“We made our own jam this summer. Turned out pretty good for our first time, considering we really didn’t know what we were doing. Wild berry something or other, but it is good.”

The women kept up the light conversation. Indy eventually turned back into the bedroom to wake up Pete. This was the first time since her capture that Indy, her Cherokee name being Alini, had not been sexually abused by the man who bought her for the night. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of this big man—boy really, as he looked so young—who untied her ropes and fed her and brought her to this white man’s teepee in the woods.

Pete awoke to find a wide-eyed Indy kneeling by his bed, staring intently at him. He looked at her in fear and jumped back, pulling the covers up over his bare chest. She was amused, and smiled at him. He tentatively smiled back.

She patted him on the hand, stood up, and indicated for him to follow her out of the room.

Pete paused and then got out of bed. He had pulled off his shirt and shoes and stockings before going to bed, but he still had his breeches on, so was partially decent. He put on his shirt, and padded barefoot after her.

The ladies looked up to see a disheveled Pete following Indy out of the room. They smiled at him in amusement.

Jake, Alvin, and Luke soon returned from the morning chores of feeding the chickens, chopping some wood, and making sure the horses had water. Mara had already gathered the eggs for breakfast.

Everyone took their place at the table; Indy sat on the floor next to Pete. She seemed comfortable there, so they let her be. Pete gave her a plate and tableware and passed her food as it came around the table. Indy dropped the spoon and fork to the floor and used the knife and her fingers.

“I haven’t heard her mutter a sound since I found her.”

“Look at those rope burns,” said Cecilia, appraising Indy’s neck. “They probably have damaged her voice.”

“Could be fright,” said Alvin. “I remember many an orphan acting the same way when they were first brought to the children’s home.”

After breakfast, the women cleared the table and started the dishes. Indy came over and watched in amazement. She started touching everything.

“Good sign,” said Cecilia. “She’s becoming more comfortable around us. Maybe she will agree to a bath this morning. We need to clean her up before we can assess the real damage.”

Pete spoke up. “I’ll go find the tub.” He left to go pull it out of the crate. Indy ran after him.

She followed him as he brought it into the cabin. She followed him as he drew water from the creek. She followed him as he heated up the water. She followed him to the outhouse, but realized what it was for and let him go in by himself. She followed him as he took an apple to Crookshanks.

The other men watched in amusement. “Yup, the family pet we always wanted but didn’t know how to find,” Jake chuckled.

“He is never gonna rid himself of her now. I hope his future wife wants an Indian for a pet!”

They laughed.

The bath posed new problems for Pete. Indy wouldn’t let him leave the room. He finally just had to turn his back, sit in a chair, and pretend he wasn’t there.

As soon as the water was ready and Mara indicated the bath was for Indy, the Indian girl stripped and stepped in. She hadn’t had a proper bath for as long as she could remember. And this water was warm! She allowed the women to wash her hair, and sat patiently as they combed out the knots and the nits.

Cecilia picked up what was left of her buckskin dress between her thumb and finger. “This is awful, and I don’t think we can clean it.”

“I wouldn’t dare throw it away,” said Mara. “That is probably all she has from her former life. We’ll try to wash it when we are finished with her bath.”

The ladies drew water from the tub as it became dirty and scooped the lice from the top. They added hot water to keep it warm. When they finished scrubbing away all that grime and filth, a lovely young woman with bronze skin emerged: big, dark-brown eyes; and thick, pure-black hair.

“Well, that is certainly an improvement,” remarked Mara. “Before we cleaned her up, she looked like I remember the boys looking when I first met them—thin as a rail, half starved, dirty. The only thing missing was the rope burns.”

Deirdre looked at Pete’s massive back. ”Wouldn’t know it by the looks of him now, would you?” They all giggled.

“Hey! I resemble that remark!” Pete threw back over his shoulder. They laughed some more, and even Indy smiled, not really sure what they were laughing at, but happy to hear joyful laughter again after months of cruel laughter at the hands of her captors.

After the bath, they handed Indy a set of bloomers and a camisole to put on. She shook her head, and grabbed her buckskin.

Deirdre took the buckskin and pretended to scrub it, so Indy would know they wanted to wash it. Deirdre then pointed back to the bloomers and camisole. Indy thought for a minute, and then decided the buckskin could use a washing. She washed it herself. And she put it back on the instant it was dry. It still looked awful.

Luke came up with the solution. He’d already been tanning hides for shoes, mainly smaller animal skins like rabbit and raccoon. He would hunt a deer and tan the hide for Indy to use to make a new buckskin.

Indy actually tanned the hide herself. Luke watched, marveling at her skills as she expertly created a lovely soft piece of leather for her new outfit. She was a natural working with animal skins. He could definitely use her skills at the cobbler shop.

Communication was the main problem. Indy still wasn’t talking, and they weren’t sure if she even understood English. So they had to rely on hand signals and gestures to explain things to her. Pete walked around, pointing to various items, telling Indy their English names. “Tree. Flower. Cabin. Water.”

Indy quickly learned each person’s name. Her favorite was the big man with the gentle voice named Pete. She still followed him everywhere, and slept on the floor next to his bed.

Pete wanted to learn more about Indy. One day, he decided to try to find out how old she was. He sat down with her at the table, and drew a circle on a piece of paper. At the bottom he drew a tree with no leaves and a snowflake; at the top, he drew a tree with leaves and an apple. To the right, he sketched a tree with flowers, and to the left a tree with most of its leaves on the ground. Indy looked at the picture, and recognized the seasons.

He next drew a stick figure standing sideways with breasts and a big belly near the tree with the apples. Then he drew a stick figure of a baby with diapers and a rattle, and made a rocking motion with his arms. Indy nodded in understanding. Pete pointed to the baby and said “Pete”; then, he pointed to himself. He then marked a tick mark on the paper as he went around the circle to indicate years of life. After five rotations, he just made sixteen more tick marks.

Indy understood that Pete had seen twenty-one summers.

She picked up the pencil and drew a stick figure of a baby near the fall tree. Then she made seventeen tick marks.

Pete gave her a hug, and Indy enjoyed the feel of his embrace. She realized that there were good white people and bad white people, just as there were good Cherokees and bad Cherokees. Pete and his friends were good white people, she decided.

On Thursday, Pete prepared to go back to town. He had a business to run, and probably had Maynard and Josh to deal with as well. He saddled Crookshanks, trying to explain to Indy that he had to leave, but that she would see him again in a few days.

Indy was frantic. She didn’t want Pete to leave her. The others were nice, but it was Pete who kept her safe and the nightmares away.

He sat down with paper at the table again. He drew a circle and wrote Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday spaced around the circle. He put a sun on top of each word and a crescent moon under each word.

Indy nodded, indicating she understood what Pete had drawn. Each word represented a day of the week.

He touched the word Thursday and pointed to the floor and said, “Thursday, today.” He pointed outside and then to Thursday’s sun.

She nodded. That was this morning, that sun.

Pete then drew the cabin in the woods at one end of the paper. She smiled. He drew several buildings on the other end of the paper. Then he put a stick horse in the middle. “Pete goes to town today, Thursday. Indy goes to town Saturday night.” He motioned while he talked.

Indy understood. She would see him again in two days. She threw her arms around him and hugged him.

Mara thought Pete was a brilliant communicator. Luke just thought Pete was smitten.

 

*****

 

Pete was right about Maynard and Josh. Sheriff Wiley practically met him at the smithy door when he returned.

“Good morning to you, sheriff. Come on in.” He unlocked the door and led the sheriff into the shop.

Once inside, Pete leaned up against the counter and crossed his arms, staring Wiley down.

Wiley looked a little uncomfortable. Pete was a good man, and an expert blacksmith. He liked the entire Abbot clan. But he couldn’t allow Pete to get away with stealing another man’s property, especially in front of a couple dozen witnesses.

“I’m assuming she is at the farm.”

“Yup.”

“You aren’t in trouble for the fist fight, as I understand he swung first. You have the right to defend yourself.”

“Twasn’t no fight.”

“Pete, you aren’t making this any easier.”

“And you think it is easy for me? I find two men abusing a young girl, ropes tied around her neck, and I am the one who done wrong here?”

“Now, Pete,” Wiley started.

“Dinna you now, Pete me! Slavery ain’t right, and neither is treatin’ another human being like that right!”

“Pete, damn it, you stole another man’s property!”

“Wiley, blimey hell, I rescued a girl from a fate worse than death! you canna own another person!”

“Yes, Pete, in America you can own another person. Slavery is legal in most states. You are in the wrong here!”

Pete looked at the ground. Slavery legal! He’d run out of arguments. “I ain’t giving her back. I canna. I canna let Maynard and Josh abuse Indy again. I won’t.”

Sheriff Wiley looked at the ceiling. He had every right to arrest Pete right then and there and go straight out to the farm to reclaim the Indian. But he wasn’t dealing with a common thief or a common theft. The Englishman standing in front of him truly believed he had rescued the girl, not stolen her. Unfortunately, the law was not on his side.

Pete lowered his gaze again and started talking in a low tone. “You see, sheriff, I am an orphan. From the time I was two until I turned fourteen, I grew up in an orphanage under the care of a cruel and horrible man. I was regularly beat and starved—just for existing, not for any crimes. I had to steal food on the streets of London in order to live to see another day. If it weren’t for Mara, I’d not be here now.”

Pete paused, remembering those godforsaken years. “You dinna see her, Wiley. you dinna see what those bastards had done to her. I have been there, and I will not let another be there if I can help it. I canna give her back.”

Wiley took in a deep breath and sighed heavily. “Pete, I am supposed to be arresting you right now, not having a philosophical discussion on human rights. The law is on their side, not yours.” He watched Pete’s whole demeanor crumble. “But, I will go talk to them and tell them you are willing to buy her from them. She would then be your legal property. That is the only way I can let her stay on the farm”

Pete opened his mouth in protest. Wiley put up his hand. “Do you want to rescue her or not?”

Pete shut his mouth and nodded.

“Then you best be buying her. Period.”

Pete was beside himself. “I just have one thing to ask then, sheriff. Please dinna ever let another soul know I bought her. It just goes again’ everything I believe in.”

The sheriff put out his hand. “Deal.” The two shook hands, the sheriff agreeing to keep Pete’s secret. “I’ll be back to collect the money and write the deed.”

Two hours later, Pete owned a slave named Indy. And it broke his heart. He hid the deed behind the old shelving unit left by the previous shop owners. He hoped Indy never found out.

Just as Pete had promised, Indy saw him again after two days had passed. The Abbot clan had taken to coming into town on Saturday nights. They slept on their bedrolls in Pete’s apartment, and then went to church the next morning. They would eat at Bess’s place, spend a few hours together, and then return to the farm Sunday evening. They also picked up supplies for the week. They would leave their order with Pete who would have it ready for pickup when they arrived the following weekend.

Luke would arrive on Friday night two or three times a month for business, to take measurements, and deliver goods on Saturdays.

Indy would sometimes come to town with Luke on a Friday to watch Pete work at the smithy. She was a very good cobbler, and tanned most of Luke’s leather. She made Cherokee-style moccasins, which the townspeople loved, as they were so soft and comfortable.

Pete couldn’t wait to see her each week. To him, it seemed she blossomed and became more beautiful under the care of Mara, Deirdre, and Cecilia.

Luke was right—Pete was besotted. When Indy arrived on Saturday night, his face shone with pure joy. And when she left again Sunday evening, the sadness in his eyes was unmistakable.

The residents of Columbia had a great time gossiping about the Indian girl Pete rescued who now lived on the Abbot Horse Breeding Farm. They strained to see her in church, in the cobbler shop, in the Commonwealth Tavern over lunch, and walking around town with their young blacksmith. And she didn’t seem like a savage at all. In fact, since she couldn’t utter a sound, she seemed quite docile and polite. Not what most expected from an Injun.

At the farm, Indy learned the ways of the white man, and the clan learned the ways of the Cherokee. She rapidly learned English, and could understand most everything they said to her now. They had created a language of facial, hand, and arm signals with a few body moves thrown in, and it was very effective.

Mara, ever the tutor, taught Indy to read and write. Language was still a barrier, but Indy could write the alphabet and recognize small words written on a slate. Indy loved to look at the white man’s writing. It could do so much! The Cherokee had their own written language, developed by a Cherokee silversmith named Sequoyah, but Indy thought the white man’s writing was much more versatile. And once she learned it, she could use her slate and chalk as well as her hands to communicate.

 

*****

 

In July, six months after her rescue, Indy decided it was time to let Pete know how she felt about him. If she waited for her shy Pete to make the first move, she’d be old and gray before she caught her man!

She had long realized she could never go back to her own tribe. They would not accept her back into their fold and even if they did, no brave would marry her since she had been touched by white men. Her best bet for happiness was with the gentle giant who had rescued her from her hellish former life.

She had come to town on Friday with Luke. As usual, they ate dinner at the tavern and she and Pete took a walk about town, just enjoying each other’s company. When it grew dark, they returned to the smithy.

Mara had painted signs to advertise Luke and Pete’s businesses. They were hanging in front of the building. Indy looked up at them and pointed. Pete smiled at his new signs. “I like them a lot. That one is mine and it says ‘Smithers’ Blacksmith Shoppe.’ Pretty funny that a man named Smithers became a smithy. Kinda like Jake’s dad becoming a vicar. The other one says ‘Holloway’s Cobbler Shoppe.’ Mara did a great job on them.”

Indy squeezed his hand as they entered the shops.

As usual, they each got ready for bed. Pete’s apartment was very similar to the apartment the group had shared in New York City. It had three bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. Right now, all Pete had was a bed and a table with four chairs he had bought from Worthington’s Emporium down the street. The rest brought their bedrolls and mats with them on their weekend visits. Mara and Jake slept in one room, and Luke and Deirdre in another. Alvin was in with Pete, and Cecilia and Indy slept in the living room.

Indy lay on her sleeping mat, and waited for Luke and Pete to fall asleep. If she didn’t make her move tonight, Alvin would be there the following night, and she’d have to wait another whole week.

Indy finally mustered all her courage, stood up, and stealthily entered Pete’s room. She watched him sleeping for a moment. He was lying on his side, facing the door. Indy walked over to the bed, lifted the covers ever so slightly, and climbed in. She lay with her back toward Pete, so they fit like spoons. She carefully picked up his arm, wrapped it around her, and then placed the covers back over them. Then she happily went to sleep, figuring he’d notice her eventually.

And he did.

In the middle of the night, Pete tried to roll over, but found there was something in his way. “What…?”

A warm body was pressed up against him. He lifted himself up on one arm, and peered over it in the dark. “Indy?”

He lay back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling. He’d thought about this moment for weeks. He looked at her again, her shoulder peeking out from under the sheet. He was lost.

Pete kissed that shoulder, kissed the neck attached to it, then the ear, then the shoulder again. Indy awoke and turned around to meet him. Pete gathered her in his arms and covered her mouth with his.

Pete kissed that shoulder, then kissed the neck attached to it, then the ear, then the shoulder again. Indy awoke and turned around to meet him. Pete gathered her in his arms, and covered her mouth with his.

Indy’s heart burned, her lips caught fire. She lifted her arms around him and returned his kiss drinking him in. Her emotions awoke fully. She had never felt anything like this before.

Pete’s whole body shuddered in reaction to this kiss. He had kissed many a woman in his life but none had made his heart tingle. They each lost themselves in their first kiss, a desperately needed healing kiss for Indy.

Pete broke off the kiss, bringing his hand up to trace her face. “I love you Indy. I think I have loved you since the day I took you from your captors. And I will love you for the rest of our time.”

Indy held her man and knew it to be true. She had finally found a home again.

 

*****

 

The next morning, Luke sat in the kitchen, leaning back in a chair, his arms crossed, eyes glued to Pete’s bedroom door.

It wasn’t too hard to figure out where the missing Indy was, since her blanket lay in front of that very door.

Luke smiled. Now they only had Alvin to worry about.

 

Chapter 56

 

In late spring, the first foals were born on the farm. Just after they had arrived in Kentucky, Jake had bred Beaumont with Parisian and two of the draft mares. He also bred Geoffrey with two of the other four draft mares. He had bred the last two mares a few weeks ago, one with each stud, and would wait one more year for Empress to mature before breeding her. Five foals were born within three weeks of each other, keeping Jake and Alvin up many nights as they aided in the birthing process.

Luke drew the line at sticking his hand up a brood mare to pull out a foal. Deirdre called him “chicken.” He said his hands were made for other things, and showed her exactly what. She called him “chicken” every day so he’d keep showing her.

Mara referred to the foals as her “babies,” and was in love with all of them. Jake was relieved to have successfully bred horses. He kept meticulous notes on the sire and mare, how each pregnancy progressed, the size of each foal, the characteristics, and the birthing process. He planned to watch them in the first year to mark quality of breeding and pairings. He also advertised the new foals in town, and several men came out to look them over.

The Abbot Horse Breeding Farm was finally in real business.

 

*****

 

Maher’s people showed up in mid-June, one year after the Abbot clan arrived in Adair County. The men had several wagons full of tools and supplies, and were very happy to be done with that god-awful wagon train and on the building site. They, too, never again wanted to be on another DeGinder wagon train longer than two weeks! They hoped the trip back would be better.

The two dozen men were led by Scott Lonergan, the head builder, and his right-hand man, Ted Wallace.

Mara and Jake were ecstatic. The cabin was fine, but they couldn’t wait for a real house on their beloved farm. They had also decided that once the house was built, they would dismantle the cabin and move it to Luke’s land along the Green River, so he and Deirdre could have their own house.

While the Maher crew began building the house, the Abbot folks continued to construct the barn and improve the paddock. They also started to fence in a five-acre meadow that stretched along the White Oak Creek for the horses to run. The summer turned out to be another busy, back-breaking time in their lives.

The summer also turned out to be the season of love for Cecilia.

Scott Lonergan was a forty-five-year-old wiry first-generation American, born to Irish immigrants. He had worked for Maher for eighteen years, content to be a man’s man, building homes all over the east coast and traveling throughout New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and sometimes to Vermont and beyond. He called no place home, comfortable living in tents and taverns all over the northeast. Before meeting Maher, he had worked on construction projects in Boston, which was growing at a rapid rate. As a young adult, he had fought in the new country’s war of independence from England. Scott Lonergan had great stories to tell.

Lonergan and his men started immediately on the house, measuring and marking where it would stand and leveling the ground. He was happy to see an immense pile of bricks ready for them to use, and congratulated Deirdre on her ability to tell when the mixture was just right. These were fine Kentucky bricks. Deirdre beamed.

She had taken several of the bricks into town to display them at the Commonwealth Tavern and the smithy. She had started her own little brick-making company, and this was a good way to advertise. They would move the kiln closer to the river and build a small shop for it. Deirdre hoped to eventually hire some people to work Holloway’s Brickworks. She was an entrepreneur at heart, and had found her niche in bricks.

Cecilia took pity on the poor Maher workers, who were existing on trail food. She made them bread. She slathered butter and the ladies’ homemade preserves on it and serve it at lunch time. She also make sure the men had plenty of fruit and vegetables to keep them strong and healthy. But most of all, she loved to sit and listen to Lonergan tell stories, spellbound by all his adventures.

It wasn’t long before they were taking little walks around the property, talking about their lives and their dreams and sharing more stories. Lonergan’s men raised their eyebrows at this behavior, so foreign to their boss.

Scott was impressed that Cecilia was a landowner in her own right. He also liked her lady-like English demeanor, soft voice, and charming accent.

He had never had much use for women, except for the occasional romp in the hay to satisfy the physical itch, but Cecilia made him step back and think about his future as he swung his hammer, spending his days building someone else’s house.

At forty-five, he knew he couldn’t keep up this pace forever. There weren’t many good years left in him. The more he swung his hammer, the more he thought about Cecilia. The more he thought about Cecilia, the more he thought about his future. The more he thought about his future, the more he thought now might be the right time to settle down with a good woman. And Cecilia was a good woman. He had no illusions about children. They were both over forty so that wouldn’t happen, but it would be nice to have someone to grow old with. So he approached Jake, the head of the Abbot household, one fine late-July afternoon.

Jake was digging post holes for the new pasture fence. Sweat poured down his face, and his shirt was utterly soaked.

“Why don’t you take your shirt off, my good man? You’ll sweat less.”

Jake never took his shirt off in public. He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t like to burn, so I leave it on. Tender skin.”

Scott looked at Jake’s bronzed arms, neck, and face. “Doesn’t look too tender to me.” But who was he to tell a grown man how to dress. Enough small talk, he thought. Get to the matter at hand.

“I want to talk to you about Cecilia.”

Jake stopped digging and raised an eyebrow.

“I would like your permission to court Cecilia.”

Jake stared at him for a moment, and then burst out laughing.

“It’s not funny! Don’t you think I am good enough for her?” Lonergan clenched his fists; his ire grew wildly at this young whippersnapper laughing at him.

Jake took off a work glove and put his hand on Scott’s shoulder, trying to contain his mirth. “No, man, I am laughing at the fact you are asking my permission! She’s old enough to be my mother, used to be Mara’s nanny and ladies’ maid, is no relation to me, and you want my permission?” He slapped his knee in glee. “Ha, ha, ha!”

Lonergan smiled. “Guess that means yes?”

“Guess so! Have at it, man. She’s yours for the taking!”

“You English aren’t as stuffy as I imagined you to be.”

“I am not exactly what most people imagine me to be.” He gave his best crooked smile. “Good luck, Scott. Hope she’ll have you!” Jake started laughing heartily again. This mirth would see him through at least a half dozen more post holes.

Scott walked away, heartened by Jake’s endorsement. He just hoped Cecilia would have him.

 

*****

 

During their evening walk that night, Lonergan stopped and took Cecilia in his arms, planting a tender kiss on her lips. Cecilia not only didn’t pull away, but threw her arms around him and kissed him back with fervent emotion. Scott inwardly smiled as their kiss continued and deepened.

Guess she’ll have me, he thought, his heart bursting with elation.

 

Chapter 57

 

Paulus and Edwin had little problem finding Columbia, Kentucky, since the wagon trains frequently passed through Middlesboro. Nor did they have any problem finding the Abbot Horse Breeding Farm.

The shop keeper pointed them straight to it. “Shore ‘nough! They have the biggest patch o’ land this side of the Appalachians. Everybody knows the Abbots. Right nice people. From England, like you gentlemen.” He blathered on. “You gonna buy some horses? They have several new colts and fillies that will be for sale soon.”

“We want to look at those very horses. Thanks for the information.” Edwin was well pleased with his detective skills. His prey was close.

They found the land and spotted the cabin, barn, and tent used for storage. They also spotted the near-complete house and the construction crew. The workers would be a problem—a couple of dozen men Paulus and Edwin hadn’t expected.

They set up camp about a mile away, next to a ridge line, well away from the house and the work crew who were about half a mile from the house in the opposite direction. The two men then created a sentry post closer to the cabin to watch the residents for a while.

Harry and Edwin waited until a day when Luke and Alvin left the cabin. They had hooked up a wagon to two of the draft horses before dawn, and looked as if they would be gone the entire day on a supply run to town, if not overnight.

Perfect.

That left only Abbot and four women to contend with at the cabin. And once Abbot was dead, the women should be too frightened to put up much of a fight.

They needed to wait until the five were in the house together. It would be easier to take them all out at once.

The two men continued to split sentry duty during the day, keeping an eye on both the cabin and on the rut that served as a lane up to the cabin. Paulus watched Mara closely, sordid thoughts running through his mind. Revenge tasted sweet already, and he had a hard time waiting.

It was late evening and nearing dinner when Edwin went back for Harry, finally having counted all five entering the cabin and noting that the entire house crew had gone for the evening.

Paulus checked to make sure both his pistols were loaded and ready to go. Edwin did the same.

They boldly rode through the yard, dismounted, and went straight to the cabin.

The farm residents were getting ready to enjoy a nice dinner, when suddenly the door slammed open, and a man with a raised pistol entered, looked around, and fired straight at Jake who stood at the head of the table, nibbling at some food. Deirdre had just slapped his hand and told him to behave when the door opened and a shot rang out.

The shot threw Jake back against the wall, and he sank to the floor. Deirdre immediately ran over to him, pulling up her apron to staunch the blood flowing from his shoulder. Cecilia screamed. The man advanced, putting the spent pistol in its holster and transferring another loaded one into his right hand.

Mara stood at the opposite end of the table, closest to the door. She had been setting a plate of food on the table, when the men barged into the house.

After shooting Jake, the man pointed the gun at her.

“Well, well. What have we here?” he drawled. “A thief, a kidnapper, Madame Butterfly, a succulent wench, and an Indian. Quite an eclectic collection, wouldn’t you say, Harry?”

Mara stared at the two men in shock. Her beloved Jake had just been shot, and there stood her brother, Edwin, now pointing a deadly pistol at her! Behind him stood Harry Paulus, the man who had brutally stolen kisses from her on the Fleetwood. How…? What…? Her mind almost ceased to function.

Paulus came around Edwin and took Mara roughly by the arm. “Mrs. Abrams, I presume? Or should I say Mrs. Abbot? I think you and I began a little tête-à-tête some time ago that we have yet to finish. Should we do it right here in front of these good people, or should we retire to the boudoir?”

Mara recovered. “Remove your slimy hands from me, you filthy rat!”

“Goodness! A couple of years in America have done wonders for your language and deportment, m’lady,” Paulus sneered. “I think I need to publicly teach you a lesson.” He threw her down on the floor in the middle of the room, straddling her.

Cecilia looked from Jake and Deirdre to Mara and Paulus to the gun barrel now pointed at her chest. She couldn’t believe Edwin was the man behind the gun and that he’d just shot Jake. This was a child she had raised from birth until he went to boarding school. She had to do something.

“Edwin. Edwin Markham! Think about what you are doing. Are you really going to let that man touch your sister? What has happened to you? You are better than this.”

“Shut up, bitch. This is my show now.” He waved the gun at her menacingly. “I only want two things: Abbot dead and the fortune in jewels you all stole. Abbot was the mastermind behind the kidnapping and jewel heist, and he has to die. And by the looks of it, he may already be dead.” He glanced over at the unconscious Jake, with Deirdre still pressing her apron into his wound. “Harry wants Mara. That was our bargain. He can have her.”

Mara fought against Harry with everything she had. Years of exercise and the hard work of building this farm had left her strong and muscular. Harry had a hard time controlling her. He finally backhanded her across the cheek.

Mara saw stars and stopped struggling. “Rot in hell, Paulus,” she managed to spit out, blood trailing out the side of her mouth where her teeth had dug into her cheek when he hit her.

Amidst this pandemonium, no one saw Indy pull her knife from its leg sheath. With it in her hand, hidden behind her back, she edged her way around the table until she had a clear shot at the man attacking her friend, Mara. Then, in one graceful and swift movement, she raised her hand, aimed, and let the knife fly straight toward its mark.

All of a sudden, Paulus arched his back, a silent scream forming on his lips before he fell forward onto Mara. She quickly rolled him off of her and stood up. In the middle of his back was a large hunting knife, buried to the hilt. The handle was made of braided hemp with a few beads hanging off the end. Indy’s knife was accurate and deadly.

Edwin looked at Paulus in disbelief. Where had the knife come from? He didn’t have much time to think, as Mara launched at him, emitting a strange guttural cry. He turned the pistol toward her and fired. The lead round harmlessly whizzed past her head and hit a jar of preserves on the shelf, splattering its deep red contents all over the wall.

Fury consumed Mara. Her brother had killed her darling Jake, and all she saw was blood. She knocked Edwin over, and they hit the floor in a heap. Edwin threw her off, rolled out of the way, and stood up again. He spotted a set of rapiers on the wall near the door, and grabbed one. He had done some fencing in school, and was competent with a blade. He pointed it at his sister and attacked.

Mara easily avoided his initial lunge with the footwork of a beat parry, then leapt over the table, using its broad width as protection. Cecilia immediately went to Jake’s side to help Deirdre keep him safe from the fight she knew was about to ensue. Indy stood rooted to her spot, watching for an opportunity to help Mara.

Edwin had only one way to go around the table, as Jake and the women blocked the other end. He moved slowly, keeping his eyes locked with his sister’s. She backed away from him, throwing chairs down to hinder his passage.

Indy inched toward the door and pulled another sword out of its sheath.

When Mara arrived at the end of the table, she rolled over the top of it, landed neatly on the other side, and caught the sword that Indy threw to her.

Edwin slowly came back the route he had just taken, laughing. “Nice catch. So you think you can best me with a sword, sister. A girl against a man trained in the art of fencing. Ha, ha! I think not.”

He won’t be laughing much longer, thought Cecilia, knowing Mara could handle a blade with ease.

Mara said nothing, but attacked her brother with fevered skill, her hatred of him flowing from her heart, down her arm, and into the blade.

Edwin took her series of lunges, realizing quickly that his sister was no untrained fencer. Silence ensued as the two siblings locked in mortal combat. All in the room knew only one would emerge from this battle alive.

Sweat poured down Edwin’s face. Years of easy living and drinking had made him soft and out of shape. Mara acted like a wild beast, putting years of loathing for her brother into her thrusts. Mara kept up the frantic pace, driven by the demons in her heart. Edwin quickly tired under the torrent of her thrusts and lunges, his parries completely defensive.

She had already moved to two-handed fighting, swinging the sword more like a broadsword than a rapier. Edwin found that he, too, had to use his second hand to guard against blow after blow.

Mara finally saw her opening when Edwin moved to block a high swing, leaving his torso exposed. She went to a one-handed grip again, and thrust her sword toward Edwin with everything she had. She felt it hit his body, then slice into him. She triumphantly buried it as far as she could drive it.

Edwin dropped his weapon. He looked down at the sword sticking out of his stomach, then looked back up at his sister. He grabbed the hilt with both hands, and sank to his knees.

“What have you done?” he whispered, before collapsing to the floor.

Mara stood there, panting and trying to catch her breath. She looked at the carnage around her. Paulus, Edwin, her beloved Jake. Tears streamed down her cheeks. It was all so wrong, so wrong.

 

*****

 

Lonergan and his men sat around their campfire eating stew when they heard the sound of a distant gunshot. They listened for a minute to see if they heard another one.

Wallace spoke up. “Do you think they are okay?”

Lonergan stood up, brushing the dirt off his pants. “I don’t know. Luke and Alvin are in Columbia, and Jake isn’t really much of a hunter. Plus, I can’t imagine what he’d be hunting at this time of evening.”

One of the other men spoke up. “Could be trying to scare off an animal or something. I mean, who else is out here? We have never seen anyone just pass by. We aren’t exactly on the beaten path.”

Lonergan sat again and picked up his stew. They ate in silence for a minute or two. When a second shot rang out, Lonergan jumped up.

“Wallace. This isn’t sitting well with me. Grab your rifle. Let’s go.”

“I’m on it, boss.”

He looked at his men. “If you hear another gunshot, run your butts down there pronto. I will fire a shot if we need you.”

They nodded. Then Lonergan and Wallace disappeared into the rapidly darkening woods.

 

*****

 

Mara felt Indy come up behind her and put her arms around her shoulders. Indy tugged on her. She followed, spent and dazed. All life was gone from her, as she realized she was alone without Jake.

Cecilia took charge.

“Ladies, we need to move Jake out of this corner. Indy and Mara, roll Paulus out of the way. Here, grab Jake’s arms and legs and pull him to the center of the room.”

“He’s alive!” Mara came out of her trance, overjoyed that Jake wasn’t dead. Her heart began to beat once again.

“He won’t be for long if we don’t remove the bullet and stop this bleeding.”

The women struggled to move the dead men. They finally dragged them out of the way so they could move Jake to an open spot on the floor to begin working on him.

The movement roused him. He opened his eyes.

“Jake.” He heard his beloved wife’s voice, which helped him focus. “Mara,” he croaked.

“You’ll be okay. We have to remove a bullet from your shoulder.”

He looked to his right and saw a man’s body with a knife sticking out of it.

“What happened?”

“Shhhhh. We’ll explain later. This is going to hurt.”

“It already hurts.”

“More or less than the whipping?” Deirdre looked oddly at Mara, thinking, what whipping?

“A devil of a lot less.”

“Good.”

During this exchange, Indy took a butter knife and a sharp knife from the dinner table. Deirdre grabbed the bottle of whiskey off the mantle. Cecilia pulled a sheet off Mara and Jake’s bed and began to cut it into sections with a pair of scissors. She then knelt to put part of the sheet under Jake to protect him from the floor.

Indy pushed Cecilia out of the way, making all kinds of hand gestures. She made cutting movements with her fingers. Cecilia handed her the scissors. Indy cut Jake’s shirt away from his shoulder and neck, pulling it down to his waist. Both she and Deirdre stopped cold as they looked at the scars.

“Oh, sweet Jesus!” yelled Deirdre, recoiling.

Jake answered back through clenched teeth. “Forget the bloody scars, and just do what you have to do!”

Indy used a strip of the sheet to wipe away as much blood as possible, then doused the area with some of the whiskey. Jake cried out in pain.

“Blimey, woman! Let me drink that! It’d probably hurt less.” She handed the whiskey to Mara.

Mara lifted Jake’s head and let him drink a good swig or two.

Indy then put the butter knife crossways in Jake’s mouth, indicating with her teeth to bite down on it. He did.

She poured some whiskey on the other knife, and then dug into the wound.

Jake arched his back and cried out, sounding like a wounded animal in its death throws.

“OKAY! Hurts…more…than…whipping…now!” he said through teeth clenched down on the knife. Deirdre did her best to hold his other shoulder down. Cecilia straddled him and sat down on his stomach to keep him from writhing. Mara knelt at his head, stroking his hair and face gently and talking to him softly.

“We have to remove the bullet, honey. Just a little longer. You’re doing great. I love you so much. Stay strong.”

Just when Jake thought he couldn’t take the pain any longer, Indy plunked a bloodied chunk of lead down on his chest. He looked at it, and then spit out the knife. “Thank God.” His face was as white as a sheet, and drenched with sweat.

Indy shook her head.

“There’s more?” Jake groaned.

She took the knife and wiped the blood off with one of the sheet strips. She then walked over to the fireplace and held the blade in the flame.

Jake started struggling against the women. “What’s she going to do with that knife now?” he said in a panicked voice.

“I think she’s going to cauterize the wound,” said Cecilia, just as nervous as Jake.

Indy finished heating the knife and walked back over to Jake. She motioned for Mara to sit with Cecilia, on top of Jake’s chest. She stuck the butter knife back in his mouth and poured some more whisky on the wound.

Then she placed the hot blade over the bullet hole. Jake’s guttural cry could be heard across the farm, sounding like a man who was being tortured by the devil himself. This was the sound Lonergan and Wallace heard as they came through the trees in front of the cabin.

“What the…?”

“That sounds like Jake!”

They raced the rest of the way to the cabin, noting two unknown saddled horses in the yard.

Once in the cabin, the two men were shocked at the scene before them.

One man laid in a pool of blood, a sword sticking through his belly. Indy’s knife stuck out of the back of another man. Blood ran everywhere. On the floor near the hearth lay Jake, screaming in pain, with Cecilia and Mara both straddling him, holding him down. Indy was sticking a knife into his shoulder.

Deirdre looked up as Wallace and Lonergan entered the room.

“Don’t just stand there. Help us hold him down!”

Both men did just that. Jake blessedly passed out.

It was over—the bullet removed, the wound cleaned with whiskey and cauterized.

Lonergan stood up from the floor and looked at Jake. “Well, I understand now why he never takes off his shirt. How’d he get those?”

The lie came easily now. “His father beat him brutally. Money doesn’t buy you civility.”

Wallace gave a low whistle. “I guess not.”

Deirdre remade the bed with clean sheets while the men finished stripping Jake down to his trousers. Mara and Indy did the best they could to clean the blood off his chest, shoulder, arm, and back. It took all of them to drag the unconscious Jake to the bed.

Then they surveyed the damage.

“Is someone going to tell us what happened here?” asked Lonergan.

Mara phrased her words very carefully. “Those two men, whom none of us have ever seen before…” she began. The other women then joined in, stepping all over each other’s sentences. Even Indy was telling it her way, arms and fingers flying.

When they finished, Mara looked at the bloodbath on the floor. “We have to do something about the two dead bodies in our parlor.”

“I say bury them,” Wallace suggested.

“I say we need the Columbia sheriff,” said Lonergan.

“I say put them in a box and ship them back to England tied up with a nice pink bow,” deadpanned Cecilia.

They all laughed, easing the evening’s tension a bit. Mara finally stood up. “Scott, saddle a couple of horses. Ride to Columbia and bring the sheriff out here. We need to do this right.”

“But won’t he arrest you?” Wallace asked, worried.

“For what? Two strange men barge in here, shoot Jake, attack me, threaten to kill Cecilia, and we can’t protect ourselves? Sheriff Wiley is a reasonable man. He will do what is right.”

The men agreed, and saddled Python and Angelo for the ride into town.

 

*****

 

Mara watched them go, and then turned to the ladies. “We need to hide the fact that Cecilia, Jake, and I know these men.” She pushed Cecilia out the door. “Search their belongings and see if there is anything that identifies them.”

She turned next to Indy. “Could you track down their camp and then show us where it is? They had to have been watching us. It is too much of a coincidence that they attacked while Luke and Alvin are gone.” Indy nodded, grabbed some food, and left into the night.

Deirdre stared at Mara. Mara put up her hand. “Not yet.” Then she searched Paulus and Edwin’s pockets.

Cecilia arrived back with a few papers. Mara looked at them and threw them in the fire. Then the questions started to fly.

“How’d they find us?” asked Mara.

“How’d they find each other?” queried Cecilia.

“He’s your brother? For real?” exclaimed Deirdre. Mara nodded. “Dear God!” Deirdre murmured.

Mara and Cecilia went back and forth. “Edwin said he wanted Jake dead? What was that about?”

“He wanted the jewels, too. That means he knows. How?”

“Do you think anyone else knows?”

“Should we move again?”

“What are you talking about? What did you all do?” Deirdre queried. Her mind reeled with questions. Why would Mara keep her relationship with her brother from Lonergan and Wallace? When had Jake been whipped? What was the story behind the jewels and kidnapping Edwin had mentioned?

All conversation stopped.

“He,” Deirdre pointed to Edwin’s body, “mentioned Jake masterminding a kidnapping and jewel heist. Is that true?”

Silence.

Finally, Mara spoke. “Yes. But you have to hear the whole story before you pass judgment. We’ll wait until Indy returns.”

There was nothing left to do but wait the few hours until Lonergan and Wallace returned with the sheriff. So they ate dinner, and after Indy returned from finding Edwin and Harry’s camp, Mara and Cecilia told the astonished Indy and Deirdre the entire story, starting with Mara’s first encounter with Jake until they met Deirdre in New York, this time not leaving out any details.

“Oh, my God!” exclaimed Deirdre. “Jake isn’t gentle born? It was your father who whipped him! Your wealth was stolen?” She put her head in her hands. “When Luke said he’d done some things he wasn’t proud of, I thought he meant stealing food to live as a boy. I never would have believed he was a jewel thief and a highway robber! Nor you and Jake.” It was too much for Deirdre to comprehend.

There was a lot of the story Indy didn’t understand. But she definitely understood about the whipping, the stealing, and the running away. She, too, was going to have to come to grips with the truth about her husband-to-be and his role in all this.

Just before midnight, leaving Edwin and Paulus where they lay, the ladies went to bed, exhausted.

 

*****

 

True to Mara’s prediction, Sheriff Wiley believed their story of the unprovoked attack. The members of the Abbot clan were good people, and he had no problem with tracking the events that unfolded, as the evidence backed it all up. There was the unconscious Jake with the bullet wound. There were four pistols and three empty holsters on the two men. There was the jar of smashed preserves with a bullet hole in the wall. There were the two dead men—a sword in one, and a knife in the other.

The camp wasn’t mentioned, nor did the sheriff think to ask. Mara and the other women decided to clean that up later in the day.

Pete, Luke, and Alvin returned. They—along with Lonergan, Wallace, and the sheriff—helped clean the cabin. Pete eventually drove a wagon back to town with the bodies. He gave Indy a kiss, hugged each of the ladies, and checked in on Jake again before going back to town.

Sheriff Wiley left the horses and tack with the Abbots. He felt that was just payment for the grievous wounds they had suffered that night. Besides, he was too tired to figure out what else to do with them.

The rector buried Paulus and Edwin in unmarked graves in the Columbia church cemetery, and the past was buried with them. No one ever came to look for them or to claim them.

 

Chapter 58

 

Jake awoke late the next morning, in pain but improving. His appetite had returned, and he had enough energy to be very angry over the entire ordeal. He didn’t like that Deirdre and Indy now knew the truth. The more people who knew, the more dangerous their situation. Mara said she’d had no choice, given what Edwin had said.

“How did they take the news?”

“As well as can be expected.” She laid in the crook of his good arm, touching his face and bare chest lovingly. “I am sure Deirdre questioned Luke for most of the morning, as she was quite shocked to discover she’d married a jewel thief.”

“What did Indy do?”

“Hard to say. I am not sure how much she understood, but I am sure Pete will have some placating to do as well.”

“It just makes it tougher on us all.”

“I know. I know.”

She pulled him closer. “I thought I lost you last night. After Edwin shot you, I thought you were dead. I lost my mind. I can’t even remember most of the fight with Edwin, just the fury that swept through me knowing he was the one who had taken you from me. I was completely insane in my grief. I can’t imagine life without you.”

Jake hugged her to him, and kissed her. “I have been whipped brutally twice …you think a little bullet is going to keep me down?”

She smiled.

“Just don’t let that Indian near me with a knife again, okay?”

Mara laughed and agreed. “I don’t want her anywhere near me, either! You should have seen the looks on Harry and Edwin’s faces when her knife went into Harry’s back. He never knew what hit him, and Edwin didn’t have any idea where the knife came from.” She kissed his good shoulder. “But you have to admit, she did a fine job pulling out the bullet and cauterizing the wound.”

“You call that a fine job? You weren’t the one on the receiving end, woman!”

“Baby.”

“Sadist.”

“Actually, I’d like to be on the receiving end of something else, but you are probably too weak for that.”

He pulled her into a deep kiss. “Try me.”

She did.

 

*****

 

Mara wasn’t wrong about Deirdre interrogating Luke that morning. She was very upset and distressed at having a jewel thief for a husband.

Luke lay propped up on pillows on their bed, and let her rant and rave as she paced back and forth across their bedroom. He thought she looked ravishing all angry and bothered, her hair messed, still in her nightgown. When she finally ran out of breath, he patted the bed. “Sit down, me love.”

She stared him down.

“Okay, then stand, but you gotta know our side of the story.”

“Mara told me your side of the story!”

“Then let me put it in perspective for you. ‘Ave you ever been an orphan?”

She shook her head.

“Beat up to an inch of your life?”

She shook her head.

“Starved until you were forced to steal food to survive?”

“No,” she whispered, shaking her head again.

“My life was hell until Mara came along. You can never know what it be like to be six years old and starving. When Jake came to the children’s home, he at least brought some protection for Pete, Alvin, and me. Before that, we was on the brink of dying. Jake stood up to Snellings. He took a lot of punishment because of it, but he knew right from wrong, and did what he could to right them wrongs.”

Luke paused to let his words sink in. “And remember, I be the runt of the litter so I had it worst.”

Deirdre sat on the edge of the bed.

“Put yourself in Mara’s shoes, Deirdre. If you had known me for seven years and had loved me since the day you saw me, then your Dad decided to marry you off to another, how would you feel?”

Deirdre looked at the floor.

“How would you feel if I was forced to leave you now?”

She swallowed, trying to contain her emotions. “I wouldn’t let you go, I couldn’t.”

“And neither could Jake let Mara go. It woulda killed him. And we couldna stand by and let them be ripped apart. Until I met you, no one meant more to me in the world than Jake and Mara. No one. I would go to the ends of the earth for them.”

He moved next to her, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.

“I am not proud of what we did. None of us is. But I’d do it again in an instant if it meant saving the ones I love. The wedding gifts belonged to Mara, so we dinna steal them. There was no kidnapping, as Mara came along on her own. The jewels, yes. Some we stole. But some were gifts to Mara from the duke, so they were kinda already hers if you stretch the truth a bit. Those stones and gold bought this land, this cabin, the new house, our new lives. We expected to buy passage over and then have to use our skills to make a living, nothing more. And, unfortunately, the cursed things got Paulus and Edwin killed.”

Luke stood up to face his wife. He cupped her chin with his hand, and raised her head to look her in the eye. “Who did we hurt? A bunch of mean, nasty, horrid men who were willing to sell Mara for money, power, and a title. A man who twice whipped Jake to within an inch of his life, for no good reason. A man old enough to be Mara’s father, who wanted only her beauty for a prize. Men who could well afford what we took. We were lookin’ for enough to leave London, and ended up with a bloody fortune! Face it, my love. You married a one-time, never-to-be-repeated jewel thief, who loves you more than life itself. Take me, or leave me.”

This time Luke stared Deirdre down.

He won.

 

*****

 

Pete and Indy and Cecilia and Scott married in a double ceremony in mid-September, less than a month after the attack. Bess, Deirdre, and Mara worked themselves to the bone cooking up a feast fit for a king for the wedding reception.

They coupled invited the entire town. The entire town came.

The party was of the likes never before seen in Kentucky, and it would not be repeated any time soon.

Twasn’t every day double weddings took place, especially when one of the couples was an Englishman and a mute Indian! But anyone with eyes could see that Pete the blacksmith was utterly and completely smitten with the lovely savage. This would give the townspeople gossip fodder for years to come.

Indy moved into town with her husband, and Cecilia and Scott moved into Cecilia’s room in the cabin. They planned to eventually build a house of their own on her property. Soon, only Jake, Mara, and Alvin would be living at the farm.

 

*****

 

In the next few weeks, Lonergan’s men completed the new Federal-style home for the Abbots. Mara thought it was the most beautiful house in the world. The woods became quiet when the men left, well paid for their labor.

Jake was quite exasperated that he was completely out of commission for a while, and had to let others do his work on the pasture fence. He really hated being an invalid. The bullet wound took longer to heal than the whipping wounds had, for it was a deeper muscle wound. He was frustrated at being limited to working the horses, and often pushed himself until his shoulder ached so much it drove him to bed.

Four equine pregnancies were coming along nicely, and the five foals born in the spring grew like weeds. Jake had already sold three of the foals—they would leave the farm in the next couple of weeks.

Edwin’s horse was a gelding, of no use for breeding. Paulus’ horse, however, was a mare of prime breeding age. Both horses were trained riding stock, so Angelo and Python could now be used almost exclusively for hauling. Mara named the gelding Egbert, after the first King of England, and the mare Hebe, after her own horse back in England. They gave Egbert to Luke and Deirdre.

To grow his stock more rapidly, Jake bred Parisian with one of the draft horses in mid-summer when they came into heat. By the end of next summer, if all went well and the other two foals didn’t sell, he’d have six Abbot Farm foals and yearlings. One or two would hopefully be a solid stud or mare to add to the stables for quality breeding.

But the best news by far was that he and Mara would be adding a resident to the farm. Baby Abbot was due in late June.

 

*****

 

The winter passed uneventfully, the new house now giving them shelter. The men spent the fair-weather days clearing land for the cabin on Luke and Deirdre’s acres, and then clearing land for a house on Cecilia and Scott’s parcel. Jake did what he could, but his shoulder often kept him from helping with the hard, manual labor.

Deirdre had a contract to make bricks, and the women made as many as they could in their spare time after cleaning, cooking, mending, taking care of chickens, and canning. Jake found brick making easier work on his shoulder than clearing land. Even though he grumbled about it, he was secretly happy he could still be somewhat productive.

 

*****

 

That spring found Mara and Jake Abbot standing arm in arm on the ridge overlooking their property. Mara’s belly was ripe with their first child, Jake’s hand protectively resting on it.

From this vantage point, they could see their house, the barn, the paddock, henhouse, storage sheds, pasture, and White Oak Creek. The cabin was partially dismantled, logs numbered and carefully stacked to re-assemble on the Holloways’ land.

They had accomplished so much in the nearly two years since their arrival in Adair County.

“What are you thinking, my pet?”

“What a lucky woman I am to have all this, and you, too.”

“No, I am the lucky one, Angel Mara. I am the lucky one.” He bent to kiss her, passion flaring up in the core of his being. As they finished their long, tender kiss and turned to gaze on the land once again, their life-long shared love gave them strength and courage, and they knew without a doubt that their kindred souls had found a place to call home.

 

EPILOGUE

 

Jacob James Abbot IV stood on the ridge overlooking the Abbot Horse Farm. He knew he would be in deep trouble again. The thirteen-year old couldn’t keep his head in his books when there were creeks to cross, trees to climb, and slimy things to catch and put down his sister’s back. He watched as his best pals, Calvin Smithers and Johnny Holloway, climbed up the ridge to meet him. They, too, had snuck out of school that morning to go fishing in the hollow.

His mother forever ranted and raved how he needed a good education if he was going to take over running the farm from his father someday. But his grandfather, Jake Abbot II, would just laugh from his comfortable chair by the fireplace and say, “Now, now, Nancy. He’s just like my father, so let him be. Jako will grow up to be a great horse breeder—” he’d then pause dramatically and continue, “—or a great horse thief,” and laugh at some inside joke only he understood.

But today, in the late spring of the year of our Lord 1860, Jako just wanted to be a fisherman and have fun with his mates. He’d ask Grandpapa again about his great-grandpa Jake and the horse thief later. Grandpapa never told the secret, but it was fun to ask anyway.

 

###

 

Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave me a review at your favorite retailer? You can link directly to this book from my website at https://barbaracernybooks.wordpress.com/mara/ and it will point you to the retailers directly.

 

Thanks!

Barb Cerny

 

Other Novels by Barbara T. Cerny

Of Angels and Orphans

Grays Hill

Tressa

The Tiefling

The Walled Cat

 

The Palidine Series

 

Shield of the Palidine

Magic Thief of Gavalos

2017 release: Book of the Arionon

 

*****

 

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Mara: A Georgian Romance

A poor little rich girl meets an orphan boy and their friendship soars. Mara tells the romantic yet realistic tale of an overweight, neglected, posh young girl who befriends a poor, courageous orphan and his three friends. Mara Markham is a lonely 10 year old born into privilege. The granddaughter of a viscount, she is ridiculed by her spoiled and spiteful family. The unloved little girl seeks solace in the guise of food. In another part of London, Jacob Abbot, 13, lives a wretched life and is forced to steal food to survive. Living in squalid conditions at the local orphanage, he and three friends are rescued by Mara from their plight, and thus their adventure begins. This story will appeal to readers of all ages, as it chronicles two lost souls trying to find their place in life, despite the tensions of poverty, neglect, and cruelty. This unique novel tells of two lovers from very different upbringings who are united by their individual struggles and discover an unbreakable bond

  • Author: Barbara T. Cerny
  • Published: 2016-11-12 18:20:21
  • Words: 113758
Mara: A Georgian Romance Mara: A Georgian Romance