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Laird of Ballanclaire
By Jackie Ivie
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Jackie Ivie
All rights reserved.
She was going to have to think of a better punishment, because denial wasn't working.
Constant shoved the butter paddle, mumbling and keeping rhythm the entire time. "One, two, three, four! I hate my name. I hate my name. One, two, three, four! Hate, hate, hate it! And he knows it! One, two, three ... oh! The little runt will be lucky to get fresh bread, let alone butter!"
She looked up to spear her tormentor with a glare. He was nearly out of sight. Already. Constant grimaced and turned to her sister Prudence's youngest daughter.
"Hester? Be a dear and go and see what he's up to." Constant wiped at the moisture beneath her cap before swiping it on her skirt. Despite the chill in the air, Constant had worked up a sweat. Wasn't that grand?
The little girl leaped from the porch, her petticoat bright in contrast to the dark skirt she wore.
"No? Why, you little—!" Constant dropped the paddle and grabbed at her skirts.
"Oh ... let her go. She only speaks so to get you chasing. Besides ... she's checking on Henry. And isn't that what you wanted?"
Constant bit back a reply and watched the little girl's progress from the edge of the porch. It was just like her next-older sister to interfere.
"Have I asked for your assist, Charity?" Constant turned back to the churn.
"Don't get all uppity with me, Constant Ridgely. Is it my fault I cannot be of help?"
Oh, how she longed to answer with the proper words! Constant's inner turmoil transferred to the churn. Of course it wasn't Charity's fault that she could hardly negotiate stairs over her bulk. Nor was it anyone's fault her baby was overdue. Constant stopped her motions and cupped a hand to her forehead to scan the yard.
"You see? Now I've lost both of them." Constant sighed and put both hands on her ample hips. If she were expecting a child, it would have been birthed by now.
"How far can they go? You know they won't miss sup, although we'll be fortunate if anyone eats, at this rate."
"If I don't finish my chores, we might starve? Is that what you're saying?" Constant bent back to the butter churn.
"I didn't say that," Charity replied.
"Did too. You spend every waking moment speaking of my laziness!"
"I do not!" Charity replied.
Constant pounded at the churn, feeling the resistance in the cream. Her last strokes had been angrily delivered, quickening it to butter.
"Girls! Cease this bickering! It's upsetting to the babe. Any change, Charity?"
Their mother stepped from the steamy warmth of the house, the sharpness of her voice belying her worried expression.
"None. But I'd have a better time of it if I had more peace," Charity replied. "I can't even sit on the porch without being disturbed."
Constant barely had time to look innocent before Mother turned.
"Of course you would. As for you, Constant ... I'm ashamed at your actions. Whatever possessed you?"
"Constant only thinks of herself, Mother. She doesn't care for anyone else. It must chafe that Thomas Esterbrook hasn't declared—"
"You leave Thomas out of this!" Constant cried, goaded into revealing how unrepentant she really was.
"Constant!" Mother stepped in front of Charity. "I can think of more chores today, young woman ... chores your father has put off. Do you take my meaning?"
Of course she did. Until Henry was of an age where he could help, Constant had most of the chores. No wonder she was big and strong! She hefted the ax, chopped and carried wood, cleaned out stables, handled the livestock ... she ought to feel lucky she looked feminine at all.
"Apologize, and then go hunt down Henry. You know better than to let him run free. Honestly, Constant! I don't know what ..."
Constant watched the dirt sift through the floorboard at her feet while her mother continued admonishing her. She should've kept her tongue.
"We're waiting, Constant."
She swallowed. "I'm sorry I spoke as I did, Charity." Charity? The woman hasn't a charitable bone in her frame.
"Thank you, Constant. That was prettily said. Now fetch Henry before your father hears of this. You're in luck he's hunting. And what of Hester? What have you done with her? Prudence will be back from shopping in Boston on the morrow and you've lost her daughter, too?"
"She sent Hester running after Henry. I just hope nothing happens to them."
Charity had best stay hidden behind their mother if she wished to escape with those words.
"You couldn't! You didn't! Of all the thoughtless ... reckless—"
Mother said more. Constant didn't stay to hear about her laziness, her misguided judgment, her lack of decorum, her thoughtlessness—she'd heard it all so many times.
It wasn't that Thomas Esterbrook wasn't going to offer for her, either. They'd been promised to each other since they could talk. They'd grown up together, and until she'd grown taller than Thomas, they'd been inseparable. Then she started outweighing him, but that couldn't be the reason he didn't come courting ... could it? Of course not. Charity was just jealous. Thomas was so much better-looking than all the other boys. Boys? Why had she thought that? He was already eighteen.
Constant shoved the toe of her boot into the dry dirt of the lane as she walked, her thoughts delaying her. Thomas was just caught up in his work with his family print shop. That's why she rarely saw him anymore.
"Henry! Hester!" She scanned the trees lining the lane. Falling leaves left the limbs near-naked, but there was still enough concealment for two impish children.
"I—I think he's dead, Henry!"
Constant could just make out two heads of red hair in a leaf-choked gully. Henry knew better than this! There was always danger of flash flooding, and he'd been told time and again to stay away.
"He doesn't move ... watch!"
Hester squealed as Henry must be putting motion to his words. Stupid children! If they were playing with an animal, Mother would harangue Constant for hours.
"He's not dead. See?"
Constant stumbled through the leaves, her passage so loud she was amazed the children didn't hear. Henry's head disappeared. Fear caused Constant to trip, sliding over the edge of the wash, coming to rest beside what felt like a very large, disembodied, stiff feathered object. And then she saw the dried blood mixed through the down.
"Get help ... lad!" Words wheezed from the feather-covered form that held on to Henry with one arm.
"Constant! Don't just sit there! Make him let me go! Help me! Constant!" Henry's terror made his voice squeak.
"Con ... stant?"
Whatever strength he had must've been spent. The man's arm dropped. Constant's brother fell. She'd never seen a man tarred and feathered before, but she instantly knew what had happened. She also guessed why. The only ones earning this kind of punishment were tax revenue agents who wouldn't take no for an answer.
"Help me ... please?"
He licked his lips, looked into her eyes, and Constant's heart skipped a beat. Raggedly. She hadn't been around men much. And she'd never been needed by one. She should grab the children and leave. Report him to her mother. She shouldn't get involved. She was a dutiful daughter ... and then a tremor ran through him, his eyes narrowing in what could be pain.
"I beg you, lass ..."
Constant hushed him with a finger to his lips. A spark shot through her lower arm, tingling and enervating. Surprising. He was frowning as if he'd felt it, too. And that's what decided her.
"Who is he?" Hester asked.
Constant looked at her coconspirators. "Help me get him to an out-shed so we can find out. Can you keep a secret?"
Henry and Hester beamed and nodded rapidly. Constant squatted beside the man, gripped his arm in one of hers, lifted his chest so she could maneuver beneath him, and tried to stand. He was much heavier than she expected. Constant's legs trembled and then collapsed, dropping him. His grunt held pain. Bleary, red-rimmed eyes showed how much.
"I'll be back," she whispered. "I promise."
She pushed from him and scrambled to her feet, the children at her heels. "Come, children! We've got to steal a quilt from the line! Henry! Scout ahead. Don't let anyone see us!"
Within the hour they had the man not only rolled into a quilt but inside a shed, too. But then she didn't know what to do. She had an injured man on her hands, two five-year-olds for help, and a houseful of gossipy, backstabbing women. The only good news looked to be that the men, gone hunting, weren't expected until the end of the week. That gave her four days. Worse, she still had to finish her chores and get supper, all the while pretending nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
The evening was as worrisome as she'd anticipated. She expected either Henry or Hester to blurt something at any moment. That they kept each other company made it easier. Their whispering looked normal, as was their inability to sit still. But the real reason nobody noticed was that Charity finally went into labor.
As an unwed daughter, Constant wasn't required to assist with childbirth. She got every other chore instead. Without supervision, she tossed dishes from wash water to rinse, flung the drying cloth about them, and clattered them into cabinets with haste. Night had fallen as she placed the remainder of sup in the cooling house, folded sheets, stoked the fire, pumped buckets and more buckets of water for heating, told any within hearing that she was going out to feed animals with Henry and Hester, and then she was out.
Her hands were shaking as she turned the hasp on the padlock. She fully expected he'd be dead. She warned the children to stay out long enough for her to check, and then she crept in.
They'd put him in the shed for drying hides. It had an unpalatable odor that wasn't conducive to a sick ward, but she hadn't many options. She didn't know what the punishment for harboring a revenue agent was. She might be tarred and feathered, too. Or ... at the very least, be put in the stocks.
The mound of quilt hadn't moved. Constant knelt beside it, touched the man's cheek, and then put her palm beneath his nose. Warm breath made her own restart. She hadn't even realized she'd held it.
"It's all right, Henry and Hester. You can come in. Bring the lard."
"Lard?" The feather-covered form spoke.
"I don't know about removing tar. I thought we'd try lard."
He chuckled, then stilled with a quick intake of breath.
"I'm going to try it on your shoulder."
There was blood oozing between some of the feathers coating him. Constant swallowed any reaction and slid fingers full of grease onto his shoulder. Feathers came off while the black, leatherlike sheath over his skin appeared to soften.
"Does ... it work?" he asked.
"I can't tell."
"Did you bring ... water?"
"Water won't work," she replied.
"To ... drink."
"Oh. Henry? Pull a bucket from the well. Can you do that for me?"
Henry dashed off before she finished. Constant put another layer of grease on the featherless portion of the man's shoulder before she picked up a cheesecloth and wiped at it again. All that happened was the grease came off. The tar was immobile.
"Well?" he asked.
She sighed and dropped the cheesecloth in her lap.
"It doesn't work."
"Peel it. It makes horrid scars ... but it comes off."
"Won't that hurt?"
"You think ... it does na' ... already?"
He had an odd accent she couldn't place. Nor should she try. Constant looked at the softened ridge of tar covering his shoulder. From that small portion she could tell how strong he was. This was a fully grown male. Virile. Mature. Muscled. Extremely muscled. And he was right at her fingertips. That was a new experience. Heady. Exciting. Illicit. Scary.
"Go on, lass. You can do it."
"Are you a handsome sort?"
He choked, and caught it with another intake of breath. "To some," he finally answered.
"It would be a shame to damage you, then. Let me see ..." She eased a fingernail beneath a crack in the tar. Then she lifted it. He stiffened the moment she tried.
The curse came through gritted teeth and Hester put her hands to her ears. Constant removed her fingernail. She bent closer to lift the tar piece just slightly. She could see a layer of fine hair between the tar and his skin.
"I have an idea. I'll be right back. Don't move."
"Doona' move, she says ... when I'm tarred ... into position. You're a strange angel of mercy, my love."
My love? Her ears heard it as she squatted next to him.
She had to clear her throat to get Hester's attention.
"Come with me, Hester."
"Doona' leave me alone ... with the lad."
"I won't. Look. Here's Henry. He's got some water. You'd best not drink too much, sir. Uh ... until we have some of this off ... uh ..."
"The parts I'll be needing. I ken."
Constant's face reddened so much it burned. Henry dipped a cup and handed it to her.
"I'm going to ease my arm under your head and lift you. Ready?"
He stiffened when she did it. She guessed the black mass on him was pulling and tearing with each movement. She only hoped when she had it off, there wouldn't be too many open wounds to deal with. If she got it off.
He drained the cup she held to his lips. His light brown eyes thanked her, although they were still so red-rimmed, the color was hard to decipher. One thing was clear, though. If his eyes were any indicator, he was definitely a handsome sort.
"Come along, Henry and Hester. We've got to feed our patient. We also have to get a paring knife. One of my apple ones. Come on," she directed as she stood up.
"A knife?" Henry asked.
"I have an idea. It may work. It may not. It's better than the alternative."
"Con ... stant?" The man choked on her name and she bent close to him.
"Doona' let the bairns see this." He fell back with a groan.
Constant frowned slightly. Even said oddly, using an unfamiliar word, she knew what he meant. But she didn't have a choice. If she didn't let the children follow her, they'd be telling, and then she'd be in terrible trouble. They were all she had, and that was that. Her frown cleared.
"Come along, you two. We've got to steal our man some sup. I fancy a bit of pumpkin bread, a piece of squab pie, and some cider. That might work." She bent near his ear. "I'll return. I promise."
She didn't hear his reply or even if he gave one.
No one was about when they raided the kitchens and no one noticed that Hester and Henry still weren't abed, thanks to Charity. Moans filtered through the hall and into the kitchen, masking their activities.
Constant took her smallest knife, a sharpening stone, and a candle with her. If she didn't miss her guess, it was going to be a long night.
Her patient hadn't moved. She shut the door, told both children to find a comfortable spot if they wanted to stay, and knelt next to the man.
"I'm here," she whispered. Then she opened the lamp to light it with her candle. The fright in his eyes startled her. Constant lit the wick and set it beside her knee. "It's all right. I need it to see."
"I'm going to try to cut the tar away."
The fright was back in his eyes again. Constant had never felt such power. She wasn't certain she liked it.
"Yes," she replied finally. "Cut."
She put her left hand on his shoulder as if it were one big apple, put the blade of her paring knife beneath the edge of the tar she'd greased, and did the best skinning job she could manage. A thin strip of tar came up, curling as it did so, and if she didn't miss her guess, beneath it was unblemished skin. Constant bent and checked. It was definitely skin, unblemished and slightly pink, but otherwise undamaged. She did it again, scraping another swath that left just a trace of rawness.
"It works," she cried. "Sweet heaven, it works!"
"You should start with ... my back."
He swiveled his head to look at her. "To prevent black rot. 'Tis likely a mass of dried blood now."
Excerpted from Laird of Ballanclaire by Jackie Ivie. Copyright © 2013 Jackie Ivie. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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