Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 3

Listen Audio


She’d fooled everyone, including herself, into thinking she was the epitome of practicality and efficiency. Now, as a result of Sheridan’s boundless overconfidence, Charise was going to spend her life married to an ordinary Mister, instead of a Milord, a man who could make her life utterly miserable if he chose. If Charise’s father didn’t die of his fury and heartbreak, he was undoubtedly going to spend the rest of his life thinking of effective ways to make Sheridan’s and Aunt Cornelia’s lives miserable. And poor, timid Meg, who’d been Charise’s overworked maid for five long years, was surely going to be turned out without a reference, which would effectively destroy her future prospects for obtaining a decent position. And these were the best possibilities!

These prospects were based on the assumption that Sheridan and Meg might somehow be able to return home. If Meg was correct, and Sheridan was half-convinced she was, then Meg was going to spend the rest of her life in a dungeon, and Sheridan Bromleigh—“sensible, competent” Sheridan Bromleigh—was going to be her cell mate.

Tears of fear and guilt stung Sherry’s eyes as she thought of the calamities she’d caused, and all because of her naive overconfidence and her foolish desire to see the glittering city of London and the fashionable aristocracy she’d read about in her novels. She should have listened to Aunt Cornelia, who’d lectured her for years that longing to see such wondrous sights was tantamount to reaching beyond one’s station in life; that pride was as sinful in the eyes of the Lord as greed and sloth; and that modesty in a female was far more attractive to gentlemen than mere beauty.

Aunt Cornelia had been right in the first two of those beliefs, Sheridan belatedly realized. Sherry had tried to heed her aunt’s warnings, but there was one major dissimilarity between her aunt and herself that made those warnings about going to England terribly difficult for Sherry to accept: Aunt Cornelia loved predictability. She thrived on rituals, treasured the identical day-to-day routines that sometimes made Sherry feel like weeping with despair.

4

As she stared blindly across the tiny cabin at poor Meg, Sherry wished very devoutly that she were back in Richmond, sitting across from her aunt in the tiny little three-room house they shared, enjoying a nice, routine pot of tepid tea, and looking forward to an entire lifetime of tepid tea and tedium.

But if Meg was right about British laws . . . then Sheridan wouldn’t be going home ever, wouldn’t set eyes on her aunt again, and that thought was almost her undoing.

Six years ago, when she first went to live with her mother’s elder sister, the prospect of never seeing Cornelia Faraday again would have made Sheridan positively gleeful, but Sheridan’s father hadn’t given her a choice. Until then, he had let her travel with him in a wagon loaded with all manner of goods, from fur pelts and perfume to iron pots and pitchforks, luxuries and necessaries that he sold or bartered at farmhouses and cabins along their “route.”

Their “route” was whichever fork in the road took their fancy when they came upon it—usually heading south, along the eastern seaboard, in winter and north in summer. Sometimes they turned west when a particularly glorious sunset beckoned, or they angled southwest because a gurgling stream angled in that direction. In winter, when the snow sometimes made travelling difficult or impossible, there was always a farmer or a storekeeper who had need of an extra pair of willing hands, and her Irish father would trade his labor for a few nights’ lodging.

As a result, by the time Sheridan was twelve, she’d slept in everything from a blanket in a hayloft to a feather bed in a house populated by a bevy of laughing ladies who wore vivid satin gowns with necklines so low their bosoms seemed to be in danger of toppling right out of them. But whether the mistress of their lodgings was a robust farmer’s wife or a stern-faced preacher’s wife or a lady in a purple satin dress trimmed with black feathers, their hostesses nearly always ended up doting on Patrick and fussing maternally over Sheridan. Charmed by his ready smile, his unfailing courtesy, and his willingness to work hard and long for bed and board, the ladies soon began cooking extra-large portions for him, baking his favorite desserts, and volunteering to mend his clothing.

Their goodwill extended to Sheridan too. They teased her affectionately about her mop of bright red hair and laughed when her father referred to her as his “little carrot.” They let her stand on a stool when she volunteered to help wash dishes, and when she left, they gave her scraps of cloth or precious needles so she could fashion a new blanket or dress for her doll, Amanda. Sheridan hugged them and told them that she and Amanda were both very grateful, and they smiled because they knew she meant it. They kissed her good-bye and whispered that she was going to be very beautiful someday, and Sheridan laughed because she knew they couldn’t possibly mean it. Then they watched Sheridan and her papa drive off in the wagon while they waved good-bye and called out “Godspeed” and “Come back soon.”

Sometimes the people they stayed with hinted that her papa ought to remain to court one of their daughters or a neighbor’s daughter, and the smile would remain on his handsome Irish face, but his eyes would darken as he said, ‘?“I thank you, but no.’ ’Twould be bigamy, since Sheridan’s mama is still alive in my heart.”

The mention of Sheridan’s mama was the one thing that could dim the smile in his eyes, and Sheridan always grew tense until he was himself again. For months after her mama and baby brother died from an illness called the flux, her papa behaved like a silent stranger, sitting beside the fire in their tiny cabin, drinking whiskey, ignoring the crops that were dying in the field and not bothering to plant more. He didn’t talk, didn’t shave, hardly ate, and seemed not to care whether their mule starved or not. Sheridan, who was six at the time and accustomed to helping her mama, tried to take over her mother’s chores.

Her father seemed as unaware of Sheridan’s efforts as he was of her failures and her grief. Then one fateful day, she burned both her arm and the eggs she’d cooked for him. Trying not to cry from the pain in her arm or the pain in her heart, she had lugged the wash down to the stream along with what was left of the lye soap. As she knelt on the bank and gingerly lowered her father’s flannel shirt into the water, scenes from the happy past at this same spot came back to haunt her. She remembered the way her mama used to hum as she did the wash here while Sheridan supervised little Jamie’s bath. She remembered the way Jamie used to sit in the water, gurgling happily, his chubby hands smacking the water in playful glee. Mama had loved to sing; she’d taught Sheridan songs from England and sung them with her while they worked. Sometimes she would stop singing and simply listen to Sheridan, her head tipped to the side, a strange, proud smile on her face. Often she would wrap Sheridan in a tight hug and say something wonderful, like, “Your voice is very sweet and very special—just like you are.”

Memories of those idyllic days made Sheridan’s eyes ache as she knelt at the stream. The words of her mama’s favorite song whispered in her mind, along with the memory of her mama smiling, first at Jamie as he giggled and splashed, and then at Sheridan, who was usually getting soaked too. “Sing something for us,” she would say. “Sing for us, angel. . . .”

Sheridan tried to obey the remembered request, but her voice broke and her eyes flooded with tears. With the heels of her hands, she rubbed the tears away only to discover that her father’s shirt was now floating downstream, already out of her reach, and then Sheridan lost the battle to be brave and grown-up. Drawing her knees against her chest, she buried her face in her mama’s apron and sobbed with grief and terror. Surrounded by summer wildflowers and the scent of fresh grass, she rocked back and forth, crying until her throat ached and her words were only a croaking whispered chant. “Mama,” she wept, “I miss you, I miss you, I miss you. I miss Jamie. Please come back to Papa and me. Please come back, please come back. Oh, please. I can’t do it alone, Mama. I can’t do it. I can’t, I can’t—”

Her litany of grief was suddenly interrupted by her father’s voice—not the dull, lifeless, terrif

yingly unfamiliar voice he’d had for months, but his old voice—hoarse now with concern and love. Crouching beside her, he’d pulled her into his arms. “I can’t do it alone either,” he’d said, cradling her tightly against him. “But I’ll wager we can do it together, sweeting.”

Later, after he’d mopped her tears, he’d said, “How would you like to leave here and go travelling, just you and me? We’ll make every day an adventure. I used to have great adventures. That’s how I met your mama—I was having an adventure in England, in Sherwyn’s Glen. Someday, we’ll go back to Sherwyn’s Glen, you and me. Only not the way your mama and I left. This time, we’ll go back in grand style.”

Before Sheridan’s mama died, she’d talked nostalgically about the picturesque village in England where she’d been born, about its beautiful countryside, its treelined lanes, and the dances she’d attended at the assembly rooms there. She’d even named Sheridan after a particular kind of rose that bloomed at the parsonage, a special species of red rose that she said bloomed in gay profusion along the white fence surrounding the parsonage.

Sheridan’s father’s preoccupation with returning to Sherwyn’s Glen seemed to start after her mother’s death. What puzzled Sheridan for a long while, however, was exactly why her papa wanted to go back there so badly, particularly when the most important man in the village seemed to be an evil, proud, monster of a man named Squire Faraday who lorded it over everyone and who would not make a good neighbor at all when her papa built his mansion right next to his home, which was his intention.

She knew her papa had first met Squire Faraday when he delivered a very valuable horse from Ireland that the squire had purchased for his daughter, and she knew that since her father had no close family alive in Ireland, he’d decided to stay on and work for the squire as a groom and horse trainer. But not until she was eleven years old did she discover that the wicked, coldhearted, hateful, arrogant Squire Faraday was actually her mama’s own father!

She’d always wondered why her father had taken her mother away from her beloved village and then spirited her off to America, along with her mother’s elder sister, who then settled in Richmond and refused to budge another inch. It had always seemed a little strange that the only thing they took with them, besides the clothing on their persons and a small sum of money, was a horse called Finish Line—a horse that her mama had loved enough to bring along and pay his passage, and yet one she had sold soon after they arrived in America.

The few times her parents had spoken of their departure from England, it had always seemed hasty somehow, and vaguely unhappy too, but she couldn’t imagine why that would have been so. Unfortunately, her father was adamantly unwilling to satisfy her curiosity on that score, which left her with no choice except to rein in her curiosity and wait until they built their mansion in Sherwyn’s Glen so that she could find out for herself. She planned to accomplish her goal by asking all sorts of carefully veiled questions once she got there. As far as she could tell, her father intended to accomplish his goal by gambling at cards and dice, with whatever money they could actually spare and as often as he found a good game of either underway. The fact that he simply wasn’t lucky at cards and dice was apparent to both of them, but he believed all that would change someday. “All I need, darlin’,” he would say with a grin, “is just one nice, long lucky streak at the right table. I’ve had a few of those in my time, and my time is comin’ again. I can feel it.”

Since he never lied to her, Sherry believed it too. And so they travelled together, talking to each other about subjects as mundane as the habits of ants and as grand as the creation of the universe. To some people, their vagabond lifestyle must have seemed strange. It had seemed that way at first to Sherry too, strange and frightening, but she soon came to love it. Before they’d left the farm, she’d truly thought the whole wide world looked exactly like their own little patch of meadow and that hardly anyone existed beyond its boundaries. Now there were new sights to see around every bend in the road and the happy expectation of meeting interesting people along their route who were heading in the same direction—travellers who were bound for, or en route from, places as distant and exotic as Mississippi, or Ohio, or even Mexico!

From them, she heard wondrous stories of far-off places, amazing customs, and strange ways of life. And because she treated everyone as her papa did—with friendliness, courtesy, and interest—many of them chose to match their pace to the Bromleighs’ wagon for days at a time or even weeks. Along the way, Sheridan learned even more: Ezekiel and Mary, a Negro couple with skin like smooth shiny coal, springy black hair, and hesitant smiles told her about a place called Africa, where their names had been different. They taught her a strange, rhythmic chant that wasn’t quite a song, yet it made her spirits heighten and quicken.

A year after Mary and Ezekiel went their own way, a white-haired Indian with skin as weathered and wrinkled as dried leather appeared around a bend in the road one gray winter day, mounted upon a beautiful spotted horse that was as young and energetic as his rider was old and weary. After considerable encouragement from Sheridan’s father, he tied his horse to the back of the wagon, climbed aboard, and, in answer to Sheridan’s inquiry, he said his name was Dog Lies Sleeping. That night, seated at their campfire, he responded to Sheridan’s question about Indian songs by giving a strange demonstration of one, a demonstration that seemed to consist of guttural sounds accompanied by the beating of his palms on his knees. It sounded so odd and unmelodic that Sheridan had to bite back a smile for fear of hurting his feelings, and even then he seemed to sense her bewildered amusement. He broke off abruptly and narrowed his eyes. “Now,” he said, in his abrupt, commanding voice, “you make song.”

By then, Sheridan was as used to sitting around campfires and singing with strangers as she was speaking to them, and so she sang—an Irish song that her papa had taught her about a young man who lost his love. When she got to the part about the young man weeping in his heart for his beautiful lassie, Dog Lies Sleeping made a strangled noise in his throat that sounded like a snort and a laugh. A swift glance across the fire at his appalled expression proved her guess was correct, and this time it was Sheridan who broke off in mid-note.

“Weeping,” the Indian informed her, in a lofty, superior tone while pointing his finger at her, “is for women.”

“Oh,” she said, chagrined. “I-I guess Irish men are, well, different because the song says they cry, and Papa taught it to me, and he’s Irish.” She looked for confirmation to her father and said hesitantly, “Men from the old country do cry, don’t they, Papa?”

He shot her a laughing look as he dumped the dregs of his coffee onto the fire and said, “Well, now, darlin’, what if I say they do, and Mr. Dog Lies Sleeping leaves us thinkin’ for all time that Ireland’s a sad place filled with sorry lads all weepin’ their hearts out and wearin’ them on their sleeves? That wouldn’t be a good thing, would it? And yet, if I say they don’t cry, then you might end up thinkin’ the song and I lied, and that wouldn’t be good, either.” With a conspiratorial wink, he finished, “What if I say you misremembered the song, and it’s really the Italians who cry?”

He’d phrased all that as if it were part of their favorite game of “What If,” a game they’d invented and played often to pass the time during the three years they’d travelled together. Sometimes the game was about serious possibilities, such as “What if the horse went lame.” Sometimes it was silly, like “What if a fairy came and gave us one wish,” but regardless of the premise, the goal was always to reach the best possible solution in the minimum amount of time. Sheridan had become so good at it that her father proudly declared that she made him work hard to stay even with her.

Sheridan’s brow furrowed in concentration for a brief moment, then she announced her solution with a merry giggle: “I think you’d best pretend there’s something you have to do right now, so you don’t have to answer the question. If you say anything at all, it will land you in the briar

s for sure.”

“You’re right,” he said, laughing, then he took her advice after bidding Dog Lies Sleeping a polite goodnight. The lighthearted exchange didn’t win even a glimmer of a smile from the stoic Indian, but across the fire, he gave Sheridan a long, intense look, then rolled to his feet and vanished into the woods for the night without a word.

The following morning, Dog Lies Sleeping offered to let her ride his horse—an honor that Sheridan suspected sprang from his desire to ride in the more comfortable wagon without actually having to admit it, and thereby save face. Sheridan, who had never ridden anything but the old, swaybacked horse that pulled their wagon, eyed the beautiful, spirited animal with a little excitement and a great deal of nervous panic. She was about to refuse when she caught the challenging look in the Indian’s face. Carefully injecting a regretful tone into her voice, she pointed out that they didn’t have a saddle. Dog Lies Sleeping gave her another of his lofty, superior looks and informed her that Indian maidens rode bareback and astride.

His unblinking stare, combined with the feeling that he knew she was afraid, was more than Sheridan could endure. Prepared to risk her life and limb rather than give him a reason to have a low opinion of her, and all Irish children as well, she marched over to him and took the horse’s rope from his hand. He didn’t offer to help her mount, so she led the horse over to the wagon, climbed into it, then spent several minutes trying to maneuver the horse into a position close enough to swing her leg over its back.

Once she was mounted, she wished she weren’t. From atop the horse, the ground looked very far away, and very, very hard. She fell off five times that day, and she could practically feel the Indian and his obstinate horse laughing at her. As she prepared to mount for her sixth attempt, she was so furious and so sore that she jerked on the lead rope, grabbed the horse’s ear and called him a devil, using a German word for it that she’d been taught by a German couple heading for Pennsylvania, then she hoisted herself aboard and angrily took command of her mount. It took several minutes before she realized that Indian horses apparently responded better to rudeness than timidity, because the animal stopped sidestepping and bolting and settled into an exhilarating soft trot.


Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
Source: www.freenovel24.com