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A Proper Marriage
By Dorothy Love
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Dorothy Love
All rights reserved.
A mountain road in western North Carolina
Sitting next to Luke Mackenzie as the wagon crossed the rickety wooden bridge, Olivia clutched the seat and braced herself against its roll and sway, fighting the waves of nausea rising in her throat. She shifted her weight, hoping to ease the dull pain in her back. Though they'd left only hours ago, her discomfort and apprehension made her feel as if they'd traveled for days.
This morning in the steel-colored predawn light, Luke had loaded the wagon with a barrel of dishes, their trunks, and a few pieces of furniture—a table, two chairs, a small chest of drawers that had been her mother's—and they'd set off before Blue Gap was awake. Now a weak sun rose, chasing the chill from the cold blue mountain morning and casting a pale glow on the surface of the river. Laden with broken branches from yesterday's storm, the water rushed beneath them, roiling with pieces of broken tree limbs and masses of swirling leaves. Olivia watched a sturdy branch tangled with new leaves as it bobbed and tumbled in the turbulent river.
They reached the far side of the bridge. The horse strained in his traces, drawing the wagon along the narrow road that wound upward through thick stands of scrub oak and pine.
"You all right, Olivia?" Luke regarded her from beneath the brim of his worn felt hat. "We can stop a minute if you need to."
She shook her head and turned away, hiding her tears. This was not at all the life she'd imagined for herself, the dream she'd concocted in the soft darkness of the room she shared with her younger sister, Ruth. This was supposed to be a day of happiness and quiet joy, but everything about it was wrong. The wrong time, the wrong place. The wrong man.
It wasn't that Luke was unappealing. He was slender, a head taller than she, with sun-browned skin and dark, intelligent eyes. He earned a decent living farming and working as a cooper, turning out sturdy buckets and barrels made of cedar. Even now, the clean smell of the new wood clung to his clothes and his shock of shaggy brown hair. He could read and write, which was more than she could say for many in Blue Gap. Certainly he had proved to be a person of exemplary life and ardent faith. In the battle between love and moral conviction, Luke had chosen to do the right thing. The only problem with Luke Mackenzie was that he wasn't his older brother.
Despite everything George had done to hurt her, the deep longing for him would not cease. His every word and gesture had branded themselves on her heart. Every time she closed her eyes, she could see his exuberant grin and laughing eyes, challenging her to recklessness.
Delighted by their mutual fascination and with no experience to destroy her belief in his sincerity, she had taken that challenge. She couldn't explain even to herself the powerful attraction that had sprung up between them, blinding her to everything else. Until it was all over, she hadn't realized the enormous energy required to go to George in secret whenever he sent for her, to be ready with some plausible excuse for her father every time she left the house.
And now she would pay the price. She had forfeited her right to happiness. Maybe she didn't deserve to be happy after what she'd done, but perhaps one day she would find contentment. Some feeling that her past was over and done, her debt paid, her future a clean slate upon which to write a better story of her life.
"Look, Olivia." Luke pointed to a doe and two fawns standing motionless in the clearing. "I reckon the fawns aren't more than a couple of days old."
She watched as the doe and her babies ambled through a wood alive with early spring foliage. A cool wind stirred the newly-leafed trees and the clumps of jasmine surrounding them. Here and there, patches of weak sunlight dappled the glade. Olivia wished for charcoal and sketchbook, but they were buried in the bottom of her trunk at the back of the wagon. Rescued mere moments before her father, in his rage, would have consigned them—like most of her other belongings—to the flames.
The wagon crested a hill. Below them lay a collection of houses and outbuildings scattered haphazardly across undulating hills. In the distance, the blue-green mountains that marked the westernmost boundary of the state were shrouded in clouds. On the other side lay her future—and Tennessee.
"Almost there." Luke took a deep breath and sent her an uncertain smile. "Are you ready?"
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. They drove into town, past a row of rough-hewn, unpainted houses, a whitewashed church, a blacksmith shop. Outside the general store, farm wives in faded poke bonnets paused in their conversations to stare as Luke halted the wagon and jumped down.
"Wait here," he said. "I'll be right back."
Olivia smoothed her skirt and raked her hair out of her eyes, wishing for a sip of fresh water, something to eat, and a privy. Not necessarily in that order. But all of that would have to wait. Overcome with lassitude, she waited for Luke, listening to the rattle of harness, the banter of a group of boys playing in the dirt street, the ring of the anvil on iron. The world began to darken and spin. She closed her eyes and willed herself not to faint.
"He'll do it." Luke returned and lifted Olivia off the wagon, setting her gently onto the ground. "The preacher says he'll marry us."
Relief and apprehension warred inside her. She squared her shoulders. "Let's go."
"You might try to look as if you're at least willing."
She pinched some color into her cheeks and forced a smile.
"Much better. I know it doesn't mean beans coming from me, Olivia, but you'd make any man proud."
"Any man except—"
"Don't say his name. Not now, not ever."
They crossed the yard and went into the house. In the book-filled parlor a small fire danced in the grate. A chime clock announced the half hour. The overly heated room and the smells of burned coffee and greasy bacon made her stomach roil. Olivia gulped air as the preacher, a big, graying man with a potbelly protruding from beneath his rough woolen shirt, lumbered into the room. Taking a pen and a sheet of paper from his desk, he smiled down at Olivia. "You must be the bride."
He wrote it down and cocked an eyebrow at Luke.
The preacher scribbled on the paper. "I know that name. Are you by any chance kin to George Mackenzie over in Blue Gap?"
Luke's eyes went hard. "No."
"Well then." The preacher picked up his Bible and flipped the well-worn pages. "You two stand over there and take ahold hands, and I'll do the honors."
Holding Luke's hand, Olivia repeated her vows and tried not to think about the consequences. Years ago her mother had remarked that when love is gone, when even the liking has dissipated, the marriage contract remained. What was happening here in the preacher's parlor would not easily be undone. She let her gaze roam over the books in the preacher's glass-fronted bookcase—a tattered copy of Emerson's essays, stories by Hawthorne and Dickens, a leather-bound copy of the complete works of Shakespeare.
"I do." Luke squeezed her hand and smiled into her eyes. It was over. The preacher beamed at them and handed Olivia her marriage certificate. "Good luck to you both. And remember that the calendar holds not an evil day for those who are made one by love."
Luke helped her onto the wagon and drove to the livery where he paid to have the horse fed and watered. After checking Pegasus's feet, Luke released him from the traces and nuzzled the horse's nose. "You did a right fair job today, old man. You just rest easy now."
The big bay calmed under his master's familiar touch, nickering softly and tossing his sleek head before nudging the bag of oats the livery man held out to him. Olivia watched the easy affection between man and horse. Luke had always had a gentle way about him that set him apart from many others in Blue Gap. He might not cause her heart to beat faster, but he was kind and steady. With him, she would be safe.
With a nod to the livery owner, Luke turned to Olivia. "I reckon Pegasus is all set. Ready, Mrs. Mackenzie?"
Mrs. Mackenzie. The name sounded strange in her ears. As if it belonged to someone else. Nerves taut as piano wire, she nodded. Luke took their valises from the wagon, and they headed for the run-down inn at the end of the street.
Behind the scarred wooden counter sat a thin woman with a foxlike face—sharp angles and pointed chin, small dark eyes, and lips that pulled into a half smile. "Come on in. I've been expecting you."
"Oh?" Luke set down their luggage and removed his hat.
"Preacher's wife was just in here. Said you got hitched a few minutes ago."
"News travels fast," Luke said. "We'd like rooms for the night. And something to eat. We've been on the road since sunup."
"Rooms I got. Ladies on the second floor, gents just down the hall there. Dining room's closed until breakfast tomorra. But the Dumbartons will take care of you."
"I didn't see a restaurant on the way in."
"Dumbartons ain't a restaurant. They're Quakers here in town. They make it their business to look after travelers. Quite a few folks get stranded here when the weather's bad up on the mountain."
"Theirs is the yellow house behind the blacksmith shop. Just tell 'em I sent you. That'll be three dollars for the rooms. There's soap and towels in the rooms, and extry quilts if you get chilled. Privy's out back, behind the barn. I don't allow smokin', swearin', chewin' tobacco, or drinkin'."
Luke counted out the money and slid it across the counter. The innkeeper handed Olivia a key. "Your room's number seven. Top of the stairs and to your right. Your mister here will be in number three." She winked. "If one of you decides to go visitin' during the night, I won't say a thing."
Olivia ducked her head to hide the rush of heat suffusing her face and followed Luke up a flight of creaking stairs into a room furnished with four narrow beds. A single nightstand held a basin, a ewer, and a single cake of soap. Two small, grimy windows set high on the wall framed patches of gray sky.
Two of the beds were unmade and strewn with clothing, shoes, hats, and valises. A pair of wet stockings was draped over the foot of one bed, dripping water onto the bare wooden floor. Luke set Olivia's valise on a bed nearest the window. "Will this be all right?"'
"Fine. I'm so tired I could sleep till next Christmas. If I weren't so hungry."
"I'll leave you to wash up, and we'll go find the Quakers. I'm hungry too."
He turned to go.
"Luke?" Nervous flutterings filled her chest.
"I ... I'm ... thank you. I'll try to be a good wife."
He nodded. "I know you will. I'll wait for you downstairs."CHAPTER 2
Twenty minutes later they walked down the road to the yellow house and knocked on the door. A wiry man with springy red hair and penetrating brown eyes opened it and peered out. "Yes?"
"Mr. Dumbarton?" Luke removed his hat. "We're staying at the inn, and—"
"Come in, son. We are almost ready to eat."
"We're sorry to interrupt."
"Don't be. We're glad for the company and blessed to share." He ushered them into a small parlor furnished with simple pine furniture. A woman in an unadorned gray dress emerged from the next room wiping her hands on a red-checked towel. Her dark-brown hair was pulled into a neat bun, her full cheeks flushed.
"Visitors, Silas?" She smiled at Olivia. Olivia tried to smile back, but the events of the day, the long trip, the lack of food, caught up with her. Black spots danced behind her eyes. Her skin prickled.
"Luke Mackenzie," she heard him say before the room began to spin and she sagged toward the floor.
She was vaguely aware of Luke helping her onto a chair. Then the acrid fumes of smelling salts burned her nostrils. She breathed deeply and massaged her temples.
"This is Olivia," Luke said. "My wife. She is—" He paused and studied Olivia's face as if making up his mind about something. "She is worn out from our long trip."
Olivia straightened in her chair. "I'm sorry to be such a bother."
"It's no bother at all," Mrs. Dumbarton said, patting Olivia's shoulder. "Sit there and rest. Supper's almost ready. Silas, go fetch their things from the inn." She peered at Olivia. "We will lodge our guests here tonight."
"We can't!" Luke and Olivia said together. Luke said, "That is, we wouldn't want to put you to any more trouble."
Mrs. Dumbarton waved one hand. "No trouble. Our daughters' room is empty just now. They are away, visiting the Friends meeting at Albermarle. The truth is we miss them. It will be our blessing to give thee shelter for the night."
Silas nodded. "Indeed it will. Come along, Mr. Mackenzie."
"But we've already paid for the rooms."
"That may be, but the inn is no place for gentlefolk. Some of the ... ladies who live there hardly deserve the name. And my Emma's cooking is better than anything the inn has to offer."
Olivia saw that the prospect of a clean bed and a decent meal had weakened Luke's resolve. She didn't want to share a room with him, much less a bed, but they were famished and exhausted. They'd work something out, even if it meant one of them would sleep on the floor. "Thank you. We're grateful."
Luke and Silas left. Emma bustled about Olivia, bringing a footstool, a glass of cool milk, and a slice of buttered bread. "Here, my dear. Have a little something to quell the hunger pangs until the chicken gets done."
Emma nodded. "Nothing wears a body out more than travel, especially on the mountain roads. When Silas brought me here as a new bride, I was so exhausted I slept for a week."
She gave Olivia's arm another motherly pat. "Rest now, child, while I tend to supper. My husband invited friends to join us. Sometimes the discussions become quite spirited. I hope it won't be too taxing after such a long journey."
"I'll be fine."
Luke and Silas returned with their things. Silas showed Luke to a room off the kitchen and lit a fire in the parlor against the growing chill. Emma turned up the wick in the lamp and set the table. Two other couples arrived. They were about the same age as the Dumbartons, Olivia guessed, and dressed in the same sort of plain clothes, the men in hand-sewn trousers and long-sleeved shirts, the women in somber dresses and black, round-toed shoes. Small white caps covered their hair. But it was their stillness, the calm appraisal in their eyes as introductions were made, that Olivia found most strange and unsettling. It was as if they saw past flesh and bone to the center of her soul—and just now her soul could not bear such close scrutiny.
Fighting the urge to sleep, Olivia barely registered the names—the Spauldings and the Owenses. They all sat down, and after Silas's blessing, bowls of potatoes and beans, a platter of roast chicken, and a tin of cherry pie were passed around the table.
While they ate, the men discussed the prospects for spring crops and their hopes for the new lumbermill going up just outside town. Mr. Spaulding stirred butter into his potatoes and reported on a recently completed trip to a Friends meeting in Georgia.
"So, Mr. Spaulding, tell us," Emma said when after a time he paused for breath, "has there been any progress at all with the slaveholders down there?"
"Not much, I fear. As nearly as we can make out, Georgia is holding nearly three hundred thousand human beings in bondage. We spoke to several of the largest slaveholders—Mr. Dent, the Hamiltons, the Butlers—but we may as well have been speaking to the wind." He sipped his coffee. "I fear I have failed in my sacred duty."
"It will take more than one man," his wife said, "more than one group of men, to turn the tide. But we must not shirk our responsibility."
Silas nodded, his expression thoughtful. "I recollect when Governor McDuffie down in South Carolina made that speech defending slavery as 'the cornerstone of the republican edifice.'"
Mrs. Owens shook her head. "Pompous words from a pompous man." She cocked her head, birdlike, and looked at Olivia and Luke across the table. "You are too young to recollect it, but that speech caused quite a furor. Even some of the northern papers took note of it."
"I remember it," Luke said. "Or at least I remember hearing my daddy talk about it."
Excerpted from A Proper Marriage by Dorothy Love. Copyright © 2014 Dorothy Love. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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