Read an Excerpt
Her Wicked Sin
A Sins of Salem Novel
By Sarah Ballance, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Sarah Ballance
All rights reserved.
Lydia Colson's nightmare lived and breathed on these moonless nights. When the world was at its darkest, remnants of her haunted past seemed to lurk in every shadow, denying her again and again the chance to start anew. No matter how justified the actions of her past, the peace she had hoped to find in Salem Village escaped her. It was her burden to bear.
The cruelly twisted body in her path was not.
Though stationary, the sight had crept upon her with silent ease, an aberration on a cold, lonely stretch of road with nothing but the woods to keep her company. Lydia purposefully avoided night travels here, but babies did not keep time, and Goody Louder's child had chosen to make entry in the witching hour. As a physician and midwife, it was Lydia's purpose to see to the birth, and what a child he was. Healthy and rowdy, the stout babe named John had a roar not to be ignored. The first instance of life never failed to bring joy, to make Lydia forget. But now an unsavory reminder of her past misdeed rested in the dirt, nearly buried in forest litter.
And he was not alone. A stallion, the same pitch as the night, danced and pawed the earth. Its capsized rider jerked, his long frame shuddering when the hooves clipped his torso. Might he be alive?
"Easy," Lydia said, fighting for her own control as she edged closer. She placed her hand on the animal's rump, her fingers tingling alongside the quivering flesh. The contact revealed tightly bunched muscles alongside a tension made visible in the rolling whites of the beast's eyes. "Easy, boy."
At the more intimate distance, she could see the man's leg caught in the stirrup and bent unnaturally to his position on the ground. He'd fallen from his mount. Had he been dragged? What bit of the path visible in the night showed little sign of disturbance, though the wind might easily have stirred the leaves to hide remnants of a struggle.
A smell of sweat mingled with a distant trace of smoke, hinting danger. The horse snorted and hopped, the strain on the stirrup eliciting a groan from the prone man. Would he lash out from his pain?
Lydia bundled her nerves against the perceived threat and scoffed at her insecurities. This stranger was in no position to cause her harm, but should he try, the mistake would be his.
She had killed before, and she would gather within herself to do it again.
Lydia offered her hand to the stallion. The animal stilled with its inspection, offering the chance for her to grasp the leathers.
She repeated the refrain in prayer, for any illusion of control she could own over the horse would be just that. She was a mere wisp of a woman, no match for the power of the steed.
The leathers were supple in her hand. Buttery soft, they spoke of riches. Whoever the rider, he was either a man of means or a common thief. But no, something of him spoke of wealth — even in this state of disarray, he was too clean and well-groomed to be a beggar.
With an eye on the man, Lydia soothed the horseflesh with long strokes and eased to the ground, the grip of the reins a small comfort. Verily, she would be trampled alongside the stranger should the steed take mind to part ways.
"Goodman?" She addressed the rider as an equal, though certainly his station was above hers. His breeches showed little wear, save for their current run in the dirt. A fine leather boot with a silver buckle that shone in the dark was positioned near her head, wedged in the iron. Her hands shook as she set to releasing his leg, and as she watched him for a reaction she studied him further. A richly tailored topcoat was askew over a crisp, white, linen shirt that she noted beneath his thick wool greatcoat. He wore not a wig, which seemed to contradict his apparent status, though it was just as well, as his balance had already proven insufficient without the added weight.
"Be still," she said to man and horse, in hopes both would heed. She turned the stirrup leather, working it over the man's boot. With the new angle he freed so suddenly she didn't catch the limb before it hit the ground with an unwelcome thump.
The horse shied — gratefully in the away direction — but settled as soon as the reins grew taut. After a moment the animal stepped closer, lowering his head to nudge the stranger with a soft nicker.
"Willard, you beast." A round of profanity followed the utterance. Though the stranger's words were foul, they offered for his equine companion both comfort and reassurance. Their soothing cadence eased the alarm from the horse's eyes, leading his ears to relax from their pinned state.
Lydia found herself enchanted by the man's tones and by his obvious affection for the horse.
He shifted in the leaves, still facing away, and he had yet to acknowledge her. She should flee. She had freed him from his quandary, and his voice tinged itself not with pain, but with humor. She would feel no remorse for moving past, yet her feet did not budge.
If she remained silent, would he not know her there? No, eventually he would wonder what held the reins aloft. She watched, waiting for that moment. Through the profound darkness, she noticed his hair was a nutty brown and longer than that of a Puritan man, though its richness showed no trace of the powder worn by many wealthy travelers. He was a study of contrasts, this man. For all of his finery, he seemed to shun the ways of society, and his roguish nature appealed to those innermost desires she had thought long lost. Her husband, as he were, had ruined her womanhood.
This stranger, in the most insignificant ways, had roused it.
"I owe a debt of gratitude, Good Puritan," he said.
Those melodic tones, this time addressed to her. And he thought her a Puritan! A twinge of relief eased through her. She had thoroughly escaped the past. She need not fear every stranger for his intention. "I am a physician. Are you well enough?"
"Aside this daft horse, I am." He shifted then and groaned fiercely, but the pain did not alter the kindness of his features.
"Where is the hurt?" she asked.
"I am afraid there is no explanation within the confines of propriety," he said, his grin sheepish.
She tried not to match his smile, for she found his demeanor appealing but her trust lacking. "I assure I have heard worse."
He looked her up and down again until she felt in a state of undress. "Well, then," he said after a long study. "I shall say it is my seat that is the trouble."
Willard chose that moment to nod his head, jerking the reins from her distracted grip.
"You old fool." The man chided, reaching easily to take the fallen leathers.
"He stayed faithful," Lydia said in the horse's defense. "Had he taken down the path, your injuries would number more."
"I am afraid they already do. I cannot feel my leg, though from damage or cold I am unsure."
Lydia hesitated. From the angle of his body upon discovery, she had thought the man perished. Of course, it was expected his injuries numbered more than his seat.
"I will compensate you for your services," he said.
She nearly laughed. He was far from having escaped his compromising position, yet seemed ready to close business and move on. "Think nothing of it," she said. "I have merely assisted as would any passerby."
"In that case, I am grateful our travels allowed our paths to cross." He turned his attention to Willard, tugging until the horse stepped close and dutifully lowered his head. The stranger wrapped his arms around the neck and, with a number of grunts, leveraged himself upward to one knee. The second leg — the one she'd rescued — appeared not to cooperate.
"You are badly hurt."
"Yes. More than my seat, it seems."
"Let me help you." The words were automatic, as was the accompanying flush of heat when she thought of touching him. The night was far too cold for such a rise, but she dared not take credit of her awareness from the handsome stranger. Without waiting for an answer, she moved close and grasped his forearm.
Using Lydia as a post, he rose with an agony well-versed in a string of unspeakable words, for which he quickly uttered apology. "I assure it is only the pain that hath relieved me of my manners. Perhaps if I can get another four legs beneath me," he said, gesturing to the horse, "I may be on my way."
She opened her mouth, then closed it without speaking. He expected no more from her, but her sensibilities tugged. Were he a woman, Lydia would insist on extending aid. What was it about this man that lent her such pause? Could it be his appeal, or was she fearful of something unnamed? It mattered not. She was duty bound. She found her tongue. "The nearest place of public shelter is a long ride. I suspect you are in no condition to find trouble a second time."
"That much is true, Goodwife."
"Lydia," she said. No man's wife, but as long as he thought her attached, perhaps she could offer him shelter for the night. "My house is just up the path. You are welcome to shelter there."
"Well, then. Lydia." He tried her name with such curiosity she felt she heard it anew. "Please call me Henry, and know I do not wish to return your kindness with scandal."
"Fear it not. I have cared for others, and by morn you will be on your way."
"Your generosity is a blessing." He looked to Willard, then to his injured leg.
Lydia smiled in spite of her lingering doubts. "May I help you aloft?"
Asking for help must have been under his station, for he seemed to blush a bit within himself, or as much as the dark revealed. But he did position himself near Willard, who had tired of the excitement and now stood dozing with his nose to the ground. "It appears I am in need of a leg," he said.
Even in the dark, his eyes sparkled with humor.
"That you are," she said, boosting him with some effort into the saddle.
He lay awkwardly across Willard's back for a moment before clumsily swinging his leg over to straddle the horse. "I feel I should offer the mount to the lady," he commented. His words were terse, presumably with pain. "What brings you out alone this late night? Does your husband not fear for your safety?"
Lydia did not tell him how very far from the truth his words had proven. "A neighbor Goodwife was with child. Her pains began, and with her husband gone to trade she sent her young son for help. Once the babe was born, she had only the child to watch over them. Though he was quite the gentleman offering to accompany my return, he is but a boy of only four. His mother needed him far more than I."
"Quite the honorable lad indeed. Your husband did not come for you?"
"He is ... detained with his business. It is not the first I've been summoned for a late night birth. Babes keep their own time."
"True enough. As does a four-footed sod." He favored a weak laugh and patted Willard's neck with undisguised affection.
Glad for the change of subject, she asked, "Do you remember your fall?"
"I remember the oaf jumping sideways due to the sound of the wind. He unseated me, but not before my boot took to my stirrup."
"Some might call that poor rider position," she said with a smile. His good nature charmed her.
He made a sound like a chuckle, but quickly stifled it. His trunk had taken a blow from Willard's hooves, so his pain concerned her and she took note.
"This is true," he said, "but not as poor as lying on the ground with such a weighty creature overhead."
"He is a good boy. He stood quite loyally as I approached."
"I am quite sure he was too lazy to drag me far," he said with another weary laugh.
"The night's rest will serve you well," she said. "It is just ahead."
The remainder of the short trek to Lydia's modest home passed in companionable silence, but for the quiet cacophony of dead leaves jostling underfoot. Once they arrived, Lydia helped to steer Willard to the rear porch so her guest would have a shorter dismount.
Lydia looked from her guest to the small paddock and modest lean-to behind the house, unsure whether she should see first to horse or man. "Does he ground tie," she asked, "or is that only when anchored?"
Rich brown eyes grazed her. "You are a woman of good humor," he replied. "Have you a companion for him?"
She thought with sadness of the favored mare she'd had to leave behind when she had fled Cambridge a winter ago. "I have not. Will he mind?"
"It is for the better. He can be quite the bully."
Lydia had seen no such evidence from the well-mannered equine, but kept her opinion to herself. "I will check the fence and see to him, then. Please feel free to help yourself inside."
"Let me wait here, lest another stranger happen by in hopes of your company."
His words drew from her a shiver having nothing to do with the cold. Was it his reminder of the ever-present promise of harm in the shadows? Or was it the genuine concern in his voice? She was well-used to caring for others, but to have a man — aside from the drunken louts tarrying alongside taverns in neighboring Salem Town — center his attention on her was another matter. For the briefest of moments, she regretted that he thought her married. Though she knew nothing of him, he well enchanted her and was quite easy on the eyes.
She left Henry on the porch, as was his desire, and despite his opinion to the contrary, Willard remained a perfect gentleman when taken to his quarters. Lydia checked the fencing and, upon finding it satisfactory, removed his tack. He responded by flopping to the ground and having a good roll. Though she had not any grain, the spent summer grass lay tall and brown under the fallen leaves and would serve him well enough. Collections of rainwater offered drink. Satisfied Willard was settled enough for what remained of the night, she gathered the tack for the shed and headed back to the house.
Little more than a divided room plus a privy, Lydia's simple clapboard home had never been indulgent, but once inside she discovered Henry had a way of filling her space. Lydia couldn't remember when a man unaccompanied by wife or child had last breached her threshold, but the moment had left no clear impression on her such as this. So she wouldn't have to ponder the meaning of Henry's effect on her, she busied herself readying a quilt for him to rest upon. Though she was not of means, she did offer some comforts, including a fair amount of clean linen for the only bed. Once she had prepared a fire for warmth and a spot for him to possess, she assisted Henry across the room and helped him sit.
He grimaced, though once settled he quickly offered a pinched smile. "Thank you again for your hospitality."
"Would you like a drink to ease your discomfort?"
His eyes twinkled. "Is it a groaning ale you offer, Midwife?"
Lydia stilled in her surprise with his knowledge of the bracer. "You are married with child?"
"No. Many young siblings, though. Father liked to claim the groaning drink Mother took for her pains was more robust than his own ale."
She laughed. "Indeed, it is usually the case. Is that your preference?"
"Rum, if you have it. I will groan for a taste if that is your pleasure."
Lydia busied herself with his drink. "You are likely to groan whether I pleasure it or not, Good Sir."
He chuckled, the pain momentarily lifting from his handsome features. He bore a straight nose, kind eyes, and full lips cultivated not of a hard life. "Please do call me Henry," he said.
His gentle tones soothed her into a complacency she thought dangerous.
"Henry." She tried the name, deciding she liked it upon her tongue. She knew not of his purpose in Salem Village, but could not fathom it nefarious. She favored his gentle nature and felt it rooted innately to his character, for no man could entertain such kindness in his compromised state without being pure at heart.
Henry tasted the drink with a sip, then finished it with a swallow. "Thank you again."
Lydia studied his movement, intentionally leaving him to reach the reclining position without help. Though he did not react as if he felt sudden pain, she had not forgotten the toil of his uncooperative leg.
Suddenly bashful, she sought her voice. "Perhaps I should look at you."
"I would delight in that," he said with coy cheer. "But should your husband enter in the midst of your inspection, I do not wish to have another accident tonight."
"You need not worry about his return," she told him. "He will not be back this eve."
He looked at her a very long time before responding. Then, gently, quietly, he said, "While I would think that favorable if I am to enjoy your ministrations, I fear what my presence here will do for your reputation."
"I am a physician tending a patient. Nothing more." As if to ascertain her point, she approached and parted his coats. Though she would do well to check his bruises, the thought of undressing the traveler left her nervous and unsure. As it were, she felt through his fine linen shirt, finding nothing obviously out of place but her own curiosity ... until Henry's hand came to rest on her arm.
Excerpted from Her Wicked Sin by Sarah Ballance, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Sarah Ballance. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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