About the book
He will protect her from anything. But the enemy is closer than he thinks...
Raised in a God-fearing family, Mary Thompson suffocates under her parents’ constant control. When her strict father announces she is to marry a man she despises, she flees. Alone in unfamiliar territory, she has but one choice to ensure her survival: she poses as a voiceless maid.
Leith Balloch, son of the Laird of Lenichton, is determined to find the cure to his father’s inexplicable madness. What he stumbles across instead is a breathtaking English lass that instantly captures all of his senses.
Lost in their all-consuming feelings for each other, they fail to realize that someone knows. And someone always tells. A threatening note appears on Mary's bed, along with a promise of doom.
When Mary is thrown into the dungeons for bearing witness to an abominable act with the potential to destroy them all, Leith has to fight his demons in order to save her. And sometimes those demons wear a familiar face...
Harlington, England, 1670
Forgive me God, but this man is…repugnant. Is this truthfully the man my parents want me to marry? He’s almost three times my age!
Mary Thompson’s sapphire eyes were fixed on James Darby, the Viscount of Blackmore, with dismay. Seated across from him on the dinner table in her father’s house, Mary had to force her face.
The man, aged over fifty years, was touted to be as pious as her parents but how was he so odious? What part did piety have with gluttony? The man had two-and-a-half chins, for God’s sake, and was built like the carriage he had come in.
This was the third time she had been with the lord, and without fail, he had not done a thing to impress her. On his first visit, he had spoken endlessly about the misdeeds of King Charles the Second. She had pretended to pay attention, but his droning voice had almost put her to sleep.
Then, on his second, they had taken a walk but merely twenty steps in the man had begun wheezing. He couldn’t even coordinate walking and talking. Now, she was seeing another side of him that moved her impression of him from dismay to pure repulsion.
Her appetite had vanished after she had seen the lord pile five portions of roasted fowl on his plate. He sloshed wine down his chin when he guzzled his drink and did not refuse the polite offers for a second helping.
The man was a glutton. How could her parents not see that? She looked over her father, Oliver Thompson, the Baron of Harlington, begging him with her eyes to see what she saw in James.
Her father was not looking at her, instead, he was staring impassively at James from the head of the table. Her mother, Rebecca, was quoting something from the Old Testament that Mary could not follow because she had not heard what had come before it. Her attention was trapped with James.
“Isn’t that right, Mary?”
Calmly shifting her gaze to her mother who had asked the question, she nodded, “Yes, Mother, it is.”
Truthfully, she had not the faintest idea what her mother had said, but she had learned a long time ago to just nod and say yes in these instances.
She forced herself to pick the fork back up and spear a chunk of meat. Chewing it was a chore, but she managed to get it down. She began to ache to get out of this room, away from this man, and away from her parents. Did they not want her to enjoy her life? How could she be with this man?
“Cromwell did a service to this country,” Lord Blackmore said while dabbing his chin. Well, one of them anyway. “If only the people could have seen that.”
Her father, Oliver Thompson, the Lord of Harlington, nodded and took his drink, “I agree. Even now, the Anglican Church needs to be purified of the influence of the Catholic heresies.”
Sighing into her food, Mary tried to remember the inside of a church but could not. The last time she believed she had set foot into an Anglican church had been over fifteen years ago when she was eight.
One morning, her father told them that he’d been given a vision from God who told him to separate himself and his family from the Anglican church. They had become puritans that same day and held worship at home. They prayed three times a day, and she was banned from being in the presence of boys until she was sixteen. The only respite she had was that they had allowed her to know how to ride.
Mary had been young and impressionable at that age, but as she grew, she began to despise her life. The few friends she had, she had met at church and with her father separating them from the one place where she could go to socialize with other girls her age, she’d been cut off. Slowly, she began to pray for freedom from this repression. She had hoped a good, handsome, kind husband would save her, but now…this man was far from what she had envisioned.
Closing her utensils, she hoped her drink would be somewhat palatable. She knew the wine was sweet but it felt bitter to her taste. She had to tell her parents that this man would not be her husband, that she would spend the rest of her life in an abbey if it came to that, but she was not going to marry this man.
Her father called for a servant to clear the plates away and put before them slices of pudding as their dessert. The small sweet cake with figs and molasses was her favorite, but she could not even summon the appetite to bite into it.
“Dear?” her mother asked, “Aren’t you hungry? This is your favorite pudding.”
“I’m rather full, Mother,” she lied. Disgusted really. “Please, pardon me.”
Again, they paused to bless this meal, and over the rim of her goblet, she watched her parents and Lord Blackmore eat. She knew that when this meal was over, her parents would give her and Lord Blackmore time to talk. She knew she had to beg off from that. She heard the tines of the fork clink on the plates with dread inside her.
She then pressed a hand to her head and sighed, looking up with deep sorrow in her eyes she said, “Father, I am not feeling well, may I be excused?”
Her mother’s sharp eyes shot to her with suspicion while her father’s had more pity. “Are you sure, Mary? We wanted you to speak with Lord Blackmore for a bit.”
“I suppose, I can try and hold out for a little while, but I really have a headache,” she said, while mentally begging God to forgive her for lying. She set her goblet down and smiled faintly.
“I won’t take much of your time, Miss Thompson,” the lord said while wiping his mouth. “I just need to tell you a few things. Where shall we go to, Harlington?”
Her father stood with a slight scrape of his chair, “The drawing room I think is best.”
Standing, she followed in step with her father and her soon-to-be husband. She must do something to stop this. She hoped her father had not given the man a definite yes on her hand.
They came to the drawing room that had a very austere look with simple chairs, a single carpet under the coffee table and a single piece of artwork on the wall, that of the Virgin Mary. Lord Blackmore sat on a curlicue chair, and Mary sat on the adjacent one with a carefully crafted notch resting between her chestnut brows.
Mary folded her hands on her blue dress as her father briefly rested his hand on her shoulder before he took his seat to supervise. It would have galled any other woman to be under such scrutiny, but Mary had grown immune to it. Her father was silent between this meeting but she felt his eyes on the back of her neck.
“Lord Blackmore?” she asked quietly. “Is something wrong?”
The man plucked a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed at his face that was beading with sweat “I must say that I am overjoyed about this engagement, but though, I am eager to have your hand, I am told I must journey to London. Our wedding was to be in three days…”
Mary snapped her head to her father, her eyes wide and full of disbelief. How could her father do this? Was he going to wait until the very day to tell her she was going to be married? She sat quietly, but inside she was bristling. It was a miracle her hair was not standing up on end like wet cat’s. She kept her eyes from narrowing and her shoulders from stiffening but kept her eyes on the lord.
“…but I must be absent. Please pardon me for those few days.”
Mary bit her tongue and nodded, “You are pardoned, My Lord.”
Lord Blackmore dabbed his face once more, his dark beady eyes holding a tinge of nervousness. “And when we are wed…we will be moving to Chelmsford.”
Her eyes did pop at that time. Chelmsford! Halfway across England? This did not feel right.
“H…how long will you be gone?” she asked trying to cover the tremble in her voice.
“A week or possibly more depending on how it goes with parliament and the King,” the Lord replied. “Never fear, when we are married you will be free to accompany me. I happen to know where in the countryside the queen consort of England, Catherine of Braganza, goes for her favorite pastimes. I am assured I can get you an audience with her.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Mary saw her father’s jaw stiffen and for good reason—the Queen was devoutly Catholic and they were puritans. Her father would not like it if she mixed with those who they termed heretics.
“I’ll…consider that,” Mary said cautiously with her eye on her father. “so, I suppose the only thing I can tell you is safe travels.”
She stood as the lord did and took his hand. “Send me word on your safe arrival.”
His chin jiggled when he shook her hand and plopped his hat on his head. “I will see you soon, Miss Thompson, and you have my regards, Lord Harlington.”
Stepping aside to let a footman usher the lord to the door, she waited until he came back with the report that Lord Blackmore was in his carriage and was off.
When he was dismissed, she turned to her father and said, “When were you going to tell me about the marriage day, Father? I believed we had much more time than this.”
“That was my doing,” Lady Harlington said from the doorway. “I thought it best to have you married quickly.” The lady came in, the skirts of her dark dress brushing on the carpet. “You’re young, Mary, I think there is little time for you to bear a child with this man.”
Bear a child? God forbid!
“Mother…” Mary said quietly, “I will not marry this man.”
Her mother stared at her then calmly said. “Pardon?”
Nerves began trembling her spine at her mother’s calm tone, but she carried on, “I will not marry that man. He is odious and has a bland personality. I will suffocate if I marry him.”
Her mother came closer and gently took Mary’s chin. Her smile was soft, “You are so young, Mary. I understand your fear, but no one is better for you. He is safe, has a good income, and you will have an easy life.”
“An easy life? Mother!” Mary exclaimed. “What about a life I would want to live; one I can be happy with a man I love?”
“Love?” Lady Harlington’s tone dipped to a warning and hint of scorn, “This has nothing to do with love, dear. This is about your future, your life, and your well-being.”
“Well-being?” Mary said askance, “The man spoke for over an hour on the way silk is made. I’d die for boredom under his well-being!” Shooting a desperate look to her silent father, she said, “And why not love? You married father because you loved him? Why can’t I do the same?”
“The situations where your Mother and I met were different,” her father finally interjected, his tone still and stern. “Our parents were dear friends and we were raised closely. We did fall in love along the way but we chose to raise you differently. We did not want you to be mingled with men folk too early.”
“You mean not at all,” Mary said stiffly, “so, you felt comfortable with making me lose any contact with a man who might love me just because of your selfishness.”
Her mother yanked her hand away and her face darkened, “Go to your room and get on your knees. Repent to God for your disrespect and beg his mercy. Do it now! You will not leave this house for three days. How can you be so insolent?”
“Father?” Mary cried. “You must see my point.”
“Your Mother is right,” her father said as he came to stand by her mother, “Go to your room and pray.”
Looking between the two, she did not see any waiver in their gazes and so spun and hurried to her room. She did not want to disrespect her parents but could they not see that they were being unfair? She would die if her life was linked to that man. She needed what any other woman would want, the chance to meet the man who completed her and who she could love until the day he parted this life.
Lord Blackmore could only offer her a life that slowly dwindled to the death of her soul. She got to the room and shut the door behind her forcefully. Looking around through tearful eyes, she decided with grief in her heart, if they won’t save me from that life…I will save myself.
The grim faces of those that hurried past by Leith Balloch, as he came into the great hall of his ancestral home, had him grimacing. He was already tired from days of tracking and overtaking the last set of thieves who had made away with his village’s goats and calves, but now he felt utterly drained.
On the way back home, he had envisioned a calm night, a warm bath and some good food, but sadly he was not going to have that. He unlatched his sword and handed it off to a boy and instructed him to run to his rooms and place it there.
He then took the stairs to his parents’ rooms but from the corridor, he could hear his father yelling. “Get away from me! I know ye, wench! Get ye me wife!”
Leith could bet his last shilling that wench his father, Aaron Balloch, the Laird of Lenichton, was yelling to was his wife, but he did not recognize her. The sole son of the pair knew that his mother, Sarah Balloch, was nearing the end of her rope with his father. For the last six months, he was acting very bad tempered, suspicious and hostile accusing everyone within ten feet of him of being a traitor.
His mother never raised her voice and was a thin wisp of a woman, looking more like a reed when compared to his father who was thick in all forms. Aaron Balloch had been confined to his rooms with two hefty guards, Dugald and Finlay, at his doors at all times, not only when the delusions took him and he was on a rampage, but when he was weak and bedridden.
Dugald, who first saw him, nudged Finlay and then both bowed their heads to him. Leith raked a hand through his grimy hair and tiredly asked, “How long has he been this way?”
“About a hoor-and-half, Sir,” Finlay said gruffly, his rough northern accent making his words heavy. “Me Lady went in just after he began.”
“Thank ye for—”
The splintering crash of something on the wall had Leith yanking the outside bolt from its lock, shoving the door open, and running in to see his mother sitting on the floor. Her thin face pale with fright and her trembling arms were braced behind her.
It was clear that she had fallen backward and for good reason. On the wall behind her was the white stain of pease porridge dripping down and, on the floor, the remains of the pewter bowl lay shattered. He could see that she had ducked to save her life.
He rushed to his mother and helped her up. Her thin, spindly hands were clutching to him with fright. He kissed her forehead and said, “Come, Mother, I’ll take care of Father.”
She nodded speechlessly as he guided her to the door and ordered Dugald to take her to the kitchens to get some tea. He did not get to see her leave as he quickly shut the door behind her and went to his father who was pacing the room and muttering to himself.
Leith watched him closely, “Faither.”
Aaron still paced. “…spies…murderers…someone is after me, someone wants to hurt me…”
Edging closer to his father, Leith reached out to him but drew back when the man brushed past him. He got closer, and when his father made a second round, he grabbed him and held him fast, expecting his father to react and react he did.
His father tried to yank his arms out of Leith’s grip, but though the younger warrior was tired, he had the strength to hold his thrashing father until he calmed. “Faither, calm ye down, calm yerself. Nay one is here to hurt ye.”
Aaron gave no reply but continued to pace and mutter under his breath. Leith tried again to tell his father that he was safe, and no one was going to harm him, but his words fell on deaf ears. He tried a third time, but his father continued to ignore him.
Sagging into his seat, Leith watched with hopeless eyes the fall of a mighty man. Aaron Balloch was renowned in the highland of Badenoch. His power on the battlefield some thirty years ago had spawned tales that were still told to this day. Aaron was a master of tactics and strategy, going so far as to even advise England’s Lord Cromwell’s military governor in Scotland against the Dutch.
His father was a stalwart in making sure justice was served. He hated liars, defectors, and traitors with a burning passion. His father’s brilliance, wisdom and calm control had served many, near and far, and now for Leith to see his father devolving into this unstable, suspicious and erratic stranger pained him dearly.
Leith watched tiredly as the man paced himself to tiredness, and when he did begin to slow down and his mumbled became a long string of jumbled sound, Leith acted. He went to take hold of the other man and saw a frailness he had never seen in his father’s eyes before.
The madness had not left his father’s grey eyes, a shade that Leigh saw every day in the mirrors. He had taken almost every feature from his father as his eyes were grey, his height of six-foot-three was taken from Aaron, and so was his broad-shouldered, muscular body. His thick brown hair alone was his inheritance from his mother.
He grabbed him and held him fast, “Faither…do ye ken who I am?”
When he was excepting a calm response, his father yanked his arm away and hissed. “Nay! Get ye away from me. Yer trying to kill me, like everyone is. I can feel it. Get away from me!”
“Nay, Faither, I am nay here to harm ye,” he said.
Aaron snarled. “Ye ken I am a fool, dinnae ye? I ken yer here to slay me. Get away from me!”
“I swear to ye that I’m nay here to do evil to ye,” Leith swore. “I am yer son, Faither. I’m Leith.”
“Leith isnae here,” Aaron spat, “He went out to do honorable work for our people. Get ye away, ye imposter!”
Leith’s hands dropped in sorrow before he lifted them in surrender. Seeing as there was nothing else that he could do with his father in this state, he backed away from the stranger who inhabited his father’s body. “All right, all right, I’m goin’, see, I’m goin’.”
As he backed out of the room, he closed the door behind him and bolted it. Sighing, he looked at the sole guard, “Keep an eye on him, Finlay.”
The guard nodded with a grim face. “Aye, Sir.”
Leith breathed out a long shuddery breath. He was not the Laird of Lenichton yet, his father was, but since Aaron had taken ill, many began to take him for their leader, even though he had not stepped on the appointing stone yet.
Rubbing his face, Leith asked, “Has me Mother returned to her rooms yet?”
“I dinnae ken, Sir,” Finlay replied. “I suppose ye would find her back in the kitchen as Dugald hasnae returned.”
Nodding, Leith made his way to the kitchens and walked into the wide, warm and aromatic chamber to see his mother sitting at a table; her slim shoulders hunched over a cup of tea. Dugald was balancing his large self precariously on a little stool, sipping tea with his mother. The cup disappeared in his beefy hand and Leith took pity on him.
He tapped the big man’s shoulder and said, “It’s all right, go back to yer post.”
Dugald looked relieved, as he stood, careful to not let the stool topple over. “Aye, Sir.”
As he went, Leith took his seat and reached over to grasp his mother’s thin hand. She looked up, her watery blue eyes meeting his with deep grief. “He’s gone, Leith, me husband is gone from ye and me.”
Leith could see her despair, and though he could feel her pain and hopelessness, he wanted to hang onto the lingering thread of hope. He felt that, if he let go all hope for his father, a part of his soul would splinter away.
“Mother, I ken yer losing hope, but ye have to stand strong for him,” Leith advised. “Faither will come back to us, one day, I ken it as much as I ken the sky is blue.”
Sarah shook her head, slowly, her thin lips pressed tight. “I want to believe ye, but everything I see is contrary to what is before me eyes.”
“I ken yer heart, Leith,” his mother said while tapping his hand. “I ken ye are so kindhearted and want to see the best, but one day we will have to face the truth. I do pray he will be well soon but we still have to prepare for what will come.”
His mother stood with a faint smile. “Get some rest, son. I can see yer tired. I’ll send the water up for ye.”
“Ye dinnae have to do that, Mother,” Leith began to protest, but she stopped him with a look, and he sank back to the stool with a chuckle. “Aye, Mother.”
After she directed water to be heated, and left, he requested some food. A servant woman, slender with dark hair and curvy body named Fiona, deposited a bowl of stew and hunks of warm bread before him. Her bodice was cut so low he could see the tempting rounds of her breasts.
“Is that all ye need, Sir?” she asked quietly.
“Aye,” he responded.
“Are ye going to be well tonight?” she asked again, her voice dipping lower with seductive tones. “I’d be happy to be yer company.”
The mention of that kind of company had a long-repressed feeling prick at his mind. It had been a while since he had felt the soft warmness of woman and though the temptation of having a pleasant body to join with was strong, he was not going to lay with her. Over the past few years, her attempts to sleep with him had gotten subtler but stronger.
“Nay,” he shook his head while taking his spoon, “but thank ye.”
She leaned in closer, the movement baring the fullness the tops of her breasts to him as she whispered sultrily into his ear, “Are ye sure, Sir?”
Now, Leith was getting exasperated, “Nay, lass, nay this time.” Or any other time for that matter.
“I am ready to be with ye wherever ye need,” she winked and walked off with a seductive sway of her hips.
Chucking into his food, Leith ate the stew with tired relish but finished with a cup of water. Many would have drunk wine or cider, but because of one terrible incident when he was younger—one that had nearly cost his life—he had been scared straight and had sworn off drinking spirits.
He never failed to be ridiculed and mocked about it when his comrades went to the taverns. He tolerated the jeering with good spirits, though, as no one was going to make him break his vow.
He was told the water was ready and being finished himself, he followed the servant women to his rooms and went to disrobe when they filled the copper tub. He was shirtless when the women called to say they were finished.
Emerging, he held back his smile when he felt their eyes run over his chest. His chest, broad and honed to ridged perfection, was lightly dusted with short, dark, springy hair and flat, dark nipples.
“Thank ye,” he nodded and turned away as they left. He slipped his boots, kilt, and his smallclothes off and then sank into the water. The warmth of the water was soothing to his aching body. His head lolled back as a soft groan left his lips. “Oh, thank ye, God.”
Feeling the warmth penetrate his tired limbs and soothe the strained muscles, he felt his mind wander back to his father. Six months had passed and each day his father was getting worse. They had sought the help of six healers already but none of them had come with a cure. He felt that he needed to find more, to seek any cure as small and obscure as it could be.
Even if he had to travel the length and breadth of Scotland, he would do it. He owed his father everything, down to his life, for it was Aaron’s seed who made him.
“I’ll do right by ye, Father,” he said with his eyes closed. “I swear it.”
His mind ran over the events after his father to the woman in the kitchen. He could have had the lass in his bed now, but he had refused her offer for good reason. He was tired of joining with women just for the sake of feeling carnal pleasure.
“I dinnae need just a woman, I need…I need a wife,” sighing, he lolled his head back, “but I have to fix me Faither first.”
As he lifted up from the water and went to dry himself, he made a mental note to ask around for the best healers in the lowlands and even the midlands. By God's strength, he would find each and every one of them.
In a long clean léine, he went to bed, determined to find a cure for his father.
“I would leave this place and live like a pauper before I am forced to marry that man,” Mary said dourly. Her arms were braced on the wooden banister of the balcony of her room while staring out at the trees dressed in their red-autumn clothing.
Her maid, Tina, a tiny woman, five-foot-nothing, slender with dark blue eyes and brown hair came close. Tina rested her arms inches away from hers, “I understand, Miss, but do you think it best to run? Is there any way you can make a living out of it?”
Twisting her head, Mary looked at her friend, “Surely, you are jesting? Have you seen him? He will suck all the life out of me. And if I do stay here, I will still be under the bondage of my parents, no matter how far we move away.”
Turning away from the beginning of the warm sunset, Mary flattened her lips. “I need to run, Tina, there is no other option for me. I know that they are making plans for my marriage, even now, with the lord saying that he will be in London for a week. I would prefer to be a vagabond than to be married to a man that I know I will never love.”
Sticking a finger in her high-necked dress to tug her collar out, Tina cleared her throat. “If you feel that strongly, Miss, I will help you run, but where though?”
With her eyes stuck on a fraction of the stone wall, Mary said, “Far away, as far as I can go. Ireland, the United Colonies, even Scotland.”
“I don’t know about those first too, but I can tell you about Scotland,” Tina said, “Do you know my heritage, Miss?”
Shaking her head slowly, Mary felt ashamed that she did not know what she should have known about her friend. A friend that she had lived with for over ten years. “I am dismayed to say that I don’t, why though?”
“I was an orphan at eight years old,” Tina said without a hint of sorrow. “My aunt Linda, who lives close to the borders, took me in. She is a lovely woman. If you go there, you might be able to stay there for a few days until you decide what to do and where to go.”
Mary’s chest immediately filled with hope, and she felt the emotion clogged her throat. “Really?!”
Flagging her down, Tina said. “Hush, hush, please, speak softly. I was raised with her, and I was raised Catholic which I had to hide from your parents to work here. But yes, it may be possible.”
The word ‘may’ dampened her spirit. “Why do you say ‘may?’”
“I haven’t written to Aunt Linda for ages and I don’t know if she still lives there,” Tina said abashedly. Her mouth twisted into a slant. “And if I do write a letter, it would take weeks to get there and by that time you would be married off. Even if I do get a response, your parents would intervene and figure out where you are.”
Mary knew what her maid was saying and nodded. “It might be wise to leave that avenue alone. What do I do then?”
Pausing to think, with a tiny furrow in her forehead, Tina face cleared and she grabbed Mary to tug her into the rooms. “Where are the sets of maps that your father gave you last spring?”
Catching on, Mary went to the drawer were a hand drawn and very expensive map of the county of Northampton, where her home of Harlington rested, and took it out. Unfolding it, she looked over the delicate lines that marked the various town borders to the part where it marked the border of England and Scotland.
Handing the map over to Tina, Mary sat as her maid studied it. Watching keenly, Mary saw when light leaped into Tina’s eyes and she placed the paper on the table with her finger jabbed at the spot.
“I need a quill pen,” Tina said hurriedly. “I’ve found where my aunt lives. Thank God, she is near a river or I would have never found her.”
As she reached for a pen and an ink well, she heard knocks at her door. Mary froze temporarily before gesturing to Tina to put the map away. Just as she did, the door was pushed open and her mother, Rebecca, came in and looked at the two of them.
“Am I interrupting something?”
“No, Mother,” Mary said while shaking her head, “Tina was just telling me about her favorite childhood doll.”
“It was a raggedy thing,” Tina said smoothly. “I carried it everywhere I went until it became so torn it had to be thrown away.”
“I see,” Rebecca said quietly, “and what was the purpose of that story?”
“Nothing much,” Mary said. “We just happened to get on the topic of our childhood. What may I help you with, Mother?”
“Your father and I need to speak with you in the prayer room,” the lady replied. “I don’t think it will take long. Tina, please be free to prepare a bath for Miss Thompson before supper.”
Standing and curtsying, Tina nodded, “Yes, My Lady.”
Following her mother, Mary’s palms dampened as she began to wonder why this meeting was called. Had her parents reconsidered this marriage? Were they going to listen to her and do away with it? She spared a moment to look over her shoulder to Tina and mouth, ‘Mark it’, before she took the corridor after her mother. She needed to know where to go if her parents were indeed going through with this marriage.
They got to the prayer room where her father was sitting. His hands were clasped on his lap and his face was nondescript. His calmness did not sit right with Mary, but she had to hear what was on his mind before her feelings could be corroborated.
“Mary,” he said, “please sit.”
Nodding, she did as was told to and smoothed her skirts under her. Rebeca took her seat by her husband and rested her hand on his knee.
“Mary,” her father began, “three days ago you expressed very vociferously about not marrying Lord Blackmore. We sensed your distress and wondered if we were doing the right thing.”
A surge of hope began to build in her chest as her father continued. “We prayed about it for three nights on end, and we have come to the conclusions that…” Mary held her breath in “yes, you will marry Lord Blackmore.”
Her breath whooshed out of her in one fell swoop. “What? But I told you—”
“It is not a situation about feelings or emotions, Mary,” Rebecca said sternly, “It is about your safety and being provided for. We know you’re scared. We know marriage is a large leap from what you know and what you are used to. Every stage of life is frightening at first, but change is inevitable. We will be here whenever you need us, Mary. Lord Blackmore is just as devoted and committed to the cause of serving the Lord in the right way, just as we are.”
“But you don’t understand,” she tried, “I am not averse to marriage; it is who I am being married to that is the problem. If the man was different, younger, more lively, unconstrained, I suppose, and without those double chins, I’d be much happier.”
“Younger men are boys, Mary,” her mother said. “They will not understand or respect a woman of your stature. An older man will care for you; a younger man will not be there for you as much as the older one will be.”
Her father nodded, “A younger man’s mind will be elsewhere but with you, Mary. His friends, business and even social events will take his time. I know because I was one.”
But in a few years, I won’t be Lord Blackmore’s wife…I will be his nurse or his widow. Is that how you want me to live my life?
Looking between the two, Mary felt it would be a waste of time to try and debate with them. They had made their decision, and she was going to make hers. “I understand. Will you excuse me?”
“Don’t you want supper?” her mother asked.
“Send it to my room. I have my own…” she paused while thinking quickly, “prayers to do. I need my own confirmation from God about this matter.”
Her words earned her a pleased look passing between her parents, but Mary was not happy about deceiving them. She was not going to pray…she was going to plan. She had to escape this house and this benign betrayal from her own parents.
“God will see you through,” her mother said sweetly. “I am certain He will say to you, just as He has told us.”
She spun to take a good look at both of them, knowing that she wouldn’t see them again. Both of her parents were looking pleased. Her mother's soft-brown hair was curling around her shoulder and her smile was satisfied.
Her father’s dark-blue eyes held the same emotion under his thick brows. His face, normally stern, was relaxed as well. She forced herself to remember them as they were then, her father's dark hair streaked with gray at the sides and her mother’s oval face.
Nodding, she said, “Good night.”
She took the corridors, walking slowly through the walkways and committing what she saw to her memory. She looked at the somber paintings of Christ and the wooden frames, the padded chairs, the only divan, and the austere carpets.
Taking the stairs, she trailed her fingertips up the wooden banister and took the steps slowly. She entered her room with grief building in her heart. She did not want to run, it hurt her dearly, but her parents had not given her a choice.
Mary saw Tina sitting in the same seat she had left her, but on the table was the map. She came closer, took up the map and saw the tiny circle and the ‘x’ marked on a spot near a river. Tina stood and came closer.
“This is the place?” Mary asked.
“As close as I can give you,” Tina said. “It is a big farmhouse with a barn to the side and three wooden posts painted white in the front yard. You cannot miss it, Miss, if you get there safely.”
Scanning the map, she spoke to Tina over her shoulder, “Pack a bag for me and have it ready at all times. Choose three dresses as old as they can be and use marsh grass to scrub patches into them to make it look poorer. Pack a cloak and a few rags. We will have to act soon, not tonight but soon.”
Tina wrapped an arm around Mary’s waist and laid her head on her mistress’s arm. “I am going to miss you.”
“Me too, but…” Mary dropped the map to hug her back, “I will call for you when I get somewhere safe. My parents will blame you, and I will not let you suffer for me.”
“Just mention my name to my aunt and tell her you are a friend of mine,” Tina said, “and she will look after you.”
They broke apart when someone knocked on the door, and after Mary gave permission to enter, her supper was carried in. Smiling, Mary went to eat, knowing that soon this luxury would be gone.
Mary sat at the window, dressed in a thick cotton dress and her coat, with her bag in her hand and a satchel where the map rested. A few gold coins were sewn into the hem of her cloak. Mary sat in anxiety waiting. It was three days after her mother and father had told her that she was going to be married off. This was the night she was going to run.
Her eyes kept flitting to the doorway, with her anxiety mounting. Tina was supposed to come to her door and knock thrice. That was the signal telling her that all was well, her parents were asleep, and she was clear to run.
Her gaze trailed around the room, looking at the four-poster bed, the thin carpet underfoot and the bare wooden furniture. She had lived in this room from the day she was old enough to move from her nursery. The room had grown with her, as did her dresses and shoes.
She would not miss this room, rather, she would miss the comfort it gave her. Her heart leaped into her throat and she dropped the bag in fright when the knock came. She stood on wobbly legs but managed to stride confidently to the door with her bag in her hand.
Pushing the door out as softly as she could, Mary stepped out into the dark corridor. Tina took her bag from her and led her down the stairs and toward one of the servants’ doors. Mary kept glancing up in fear that her father or mother would wake up and discover her. Thankfully, neither did.
She went through the door and stepped on dew-wet grass. To her surprise, Tina led her not toward the stables but directly to the back gate. There, a horse was already saddled and waiting for her. Had Tina done all this?
“Tina,” Mary asked as she grasped the horse’s pommel. “Did you do this? Did you organize all this?”
“That, Miss,” Tina sounded pleased as she latched the sack on the back of the horse, “is for me to know. Just be assured that all is well.”
Gasping her hand, Mary hugged her tight and spoke though a clogged throat, “Thank you, darling. You’ve been so good to me for many years, I will never forget you.”
With ease, even clad in a dress, Mary mounted the horse and flicked the cowl of her cloak up and grasped the reins. “Please go back to bed and try to sleep, Tina.”
Making sure to not look at her friend in case she would start crying outright, Mary rode through the gate and took the road. It was dark but she had good eyesight and the moon was full and bright.
At the bottom of the road, she looked up to see her home, a shadowy edifice resting on a slight hill, looming over the lane above it. She felt her stomach wrench with pain in knowing that this—running away—was what she was being forced to do. Stifling a cry, she turned away and rode off.
The moon’s silver rays highlighted the way through the countryside road. This far out in the rural terrain the houses were far placed. A pair of neighbors had a few miles of forest between them and were strangers.
Mary could not remember the last time she had gone to the Baxter’s, their closest neighbors, where twin girls called home. Her horse trotted quickly down the crushed gravel road toward the town. From there, she would turn north and then she was on her way to Scotland.
“God, please guide my way,” she prayed as the horse rode on. “Please keep me safe and bar all harm and danger from my way. I may not have happiness or true love, but please give me peace.”
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