Authors: Irina Shapiro
Tags: #Romance, #Time Travel, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Historical
The church clock chimed two a.m., but Frances couldn’t get to sleep. She pushed aside the bed hangings and threw open the shutters, watching as thick flakes of snow fell from a strangely colorless sky onto the rooftops just visible from her window. The night was eerily quiet, only the chimes of the clock disturbing the deep peace that had settled onto the city as it often did when it snowed. Tonight had been a surprise on many counts, and she’d experienced feelings that were foreign to her, having spent most of her young life shut away from society.
Normally, she felt sorrow and pain, but never joy. The gathering at Luke Marsden’s house had been a glittering affair with beautifully attired guests, delicious tidbits passed around by liveried servants, and a singer whose sublime voice transported Frances to an unfamiliar emotional plane. She had no idea what the woman was singing about, but her throaty voice carried Frances off to another place, a place where anything was possible, and a heart could soar to the heavens, freed of its constraints. She hadn’t realized that she was crying until Luke gently wiped her tears away with his handkerchief. He reached out and took her gloved hand, planting a feather-light kiss on the inch of exposed wrist as his eyes caressed hers. Frances smiled at the memory of Hugo’s indignant scowl, but he hadn’t said a word and allowed Luke to woo her, which was surprising.
Frances supposed that it was natural for Lord Everly to wish her to wed. After all, she wasn’t his kin, and he had no obligation to her past whatever he chose to accept. He wouldn’t force her, she was sure of that, but he wanted her future assured. So did she. Of course, marriage was the only way forward for someone like her, but she wouldn’t enter into anything without being sure of her intended’s character; not after Lionel. Was Hugo steering her toward Luke Marsden? she wondered. His endorsement would mean the world to her since Hugo Everly was the one man she trusted implicitly; him and Archie.
Frances closed her eyes and pictured Luke’s face. He’d been elaborately coifed and attired for his soiree, but no amount of rice powder or rouge could disguise his masculinity. Luke was an impressive man, with eyes that were like bits of melted chocolate, warm and inviting. Beneath his wig, he wore his hair cut short, and it was a dark blond, streaked with gold from time spent outdoors. His touch had been gentle, as if she were a porcelain doll that he was afraid to break. Luke was wealthy and well-connected due to his position. Did he really wish to court her, or were his overtures just the opening act in a game of seduction intended to make her his mistress?
Lord Everly would never approve of that
, Frances thought. If Luke was paying court to her, it had to be with honorable intentions. The thought of marrying again made good sense, but the reality of what it entailed made Frances shake with nerves. The memory of Lionel was still fresh, her skin recoiling from any contact that hinted at pain. How could she possibly consent to be any man’s wife when she couldn’t bear the thought of being touched? What if a man who appeared to be gentle dropped the mask as soon as they were wed and subjected her to the same humiliation and brutality that Lionel had?
Frances had been pondering all these things when they arrived at home only to hear the heartrending screams coming from upstairs. She had been galvanized into action, desperate to help Neve, but seeing that sweet baby nearly tore her heart to pieces. She wanted to hold it and pretend for just a moment that it was her Gabriel, but instead she turned away and allowed Neve and Hugo their moment of parental joy.
They deserve this baby a lot more than I deserved Gabriel
, she thought bitterly. Valentine had been created in love and joy, while Gabriel had been a product of violence and fear, a child of hatred, not meant to thrive. But he had been so beautiful, so innocent, and so vulnerable. Surely there had been some measure of redemption in his birth, which had ended in further heartbreak. No physical pain that Lionel had inflicted on Frances hurt as much as holding her lifeless son in her arms, knowing that he was gone from her forever, and that in time, she would forget his face and the way he smelled, the weight of him in her arms, and the joy she felt for one fleeting moment in time.
She would like another baby eventually, but getting with child involved bedding, the thought of which made her heart skip a beat with anxiety. Frances flopped onto her stomach and hugged the pillow. What was it like to feel desire and freely give yourself to a man? She’d noticed the glances exchanged between Hugo and Neve, had seen him kiss her, and her melt into him as he pulled her closer. She trusted him completely, and he accepted her trust and made himself worthy of it. Neve wanted Hugo’s baby, and had not felt the soul-crushing resentment that Frances had endured while carrying a child of the man she’d despised. She thought she’d despise the baby as well, but oh, what a surprise he had been. When she got with child again, she wanted it to be with a man she loved and trusted, a man who cherished her the way Hugo cherished Neve.
Of course, there was one man Frances trusted, and that was Archie. Frances rolled onto her back and threw off the covers, suddenly hot. Archie. He was her friend, her protector, and her guard, per Hugo’s instructions. An idea began to form in Frances’s mind as she considered her future. It was several hours before she was finally able to sleep, but the terrible restlessness had subsided, and by the time her eyes finally closed there was a secret little smile on her face.
Barbados, West Indies
The sound of dirt hitting the plain wooden coffin echoed in Max’s memory as he mindlessly cut the cane. His back burned with tension, and the cotton shirt he’d been issued was plastered to his back with sweat, but it was still hours until quitting time. They’d started an hour later this morning, having been herded to the low building that served as a chapel. Djimon, the boy who’d been flogged last week, had died the day before and a brief funeral was held, followed by burial in the adjacent graveyard. Djimon’s relations stood together, hands held, as the coffin was lowered into the ground. Johansson stated that Djimon died of an illness, but everyone knew the truth. He’d died of infection following the flogging. Max thought it might have been sepsis, but he was no doctor. The boy’s mother had applied some kind of salve to the wounds, but Lord only knew what it contained.
Several women had begun to sing in their native tongue, the tune mournful and eerie in the silence of the morning. Johansson ordered them all to work as soon as the first shovelful of dirt hit the coffin, but the pall remained as the crowd dispersed. Dido had stood next to the boy’s mother, her green eyes narrowed in anger and grief; the color accentuated by the green streaks in her yellow and orange turban. She’d stared at him again, one eyebrow raised in an unspoken challenge. What was it she’d been thinking as her eyes met his? She was a beautiful, proud woman, not meek and frightened like the rest of the female slaves. The one word that Max would use to describe Dido was “defiant.” He liked that about her, although her demeanor might be the result of certain knowledge that Johansson would protect her. Rumor had it that she was his creature, but somehow Max doubted that; she didn’t seem the type to prostitute herself, at least not willingly. He’d seen Johansson eyeing her speculatively, but it wasn’t a look of possession or even desire, more fear, if Max had to put a name to it. Truth be told, there was something about the woman that inspired trepidation, but unlike most men, Max found that attractive, or at least he would have had he been free to feel.
Max hadn’t felt anything resembling sexual desire since he’d been arrested in Cranley, but when he looked at Dido, he felt faint stirrings of arousal. It felt so odd after all this time that he was almost frightened by the feelings. He preferred to remain numb; that was the only way to survive. He was too exhausted to masturbate, much less actually expend energy on sex, not that it was on offer. He supposed some of the slaves copulated, but there were no white women among the indentures, and the Negro women never interacted with white men.
Max stopped cutting cane for a minute, but remained bent for fear that Johansson would notice that he wasn’t working. He would give his right arm for a pint of cold beer right now, or even a cup of iced water, but the best he could hope for was warm water with dead insects swimming in it. His tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth, and his hands slick with sweat on his machete as he raised his arm and cut a few more stalks. The machete felt heavy in his hand, the blade glinting in the sunlight as it came down.
There were nearly two hundred workers in the field, all wielding sharp weapons. Strange that no one ever thought to use them to regain their freedom. How easy it would be to butcher the few men who were in charge, Max mused, but the problem wasn’t overpowering the men. The problem was the next step. Killing Johansson and his minions would be easy enough, but the Negro slaves had nowhere to go and would be recaptured by the authorities as soon as they tried to flee, and the indentures had no means of getting back home to Europe unless they burglarized the plantation house and took care of Greene and his family in the process. Still, even with money enough to buy passage home, they’d be executed if caught, so the risk was not worth it. They were trapped here, and so was he. The only way out was to turn the weapon on himself, but Max pushed the idea out of his mind. He wasn’t a coward, nor was he a quitter. He would survive, he swore to himself as he hacked at the cane viciously. He would survive.
I polished off a plate of eggs, accompanied by fresh bread liberally spread with butter, and a tankard of ale. I’d been starving since giving birth four days ago. It was as if my body turned on itself, devouring every bit of nutrition I was giving it. The doctor Hugo had found assured me that it was normal for a nursing mother to be hungry, and advised me to drink ale since it aided the production of milk. He was a very young man, one who considered himself to be on the cutting edge of medicine. I couldn’t help smiling at his self-assurance and pomp. He carefully examined me and pronounced me to be recovering from the birth admirably. I held my breath as he bent over Valentine.
“I don’t see anything wrong with her,” he proclaimed as he handed the baby back to me with a mild look of revulsion. “You must keep her completely isolated until the baptism to avoid evil spirits,” he advised Hugo, who stood off to the side now that he was allowed back into the room.
“Of course, your wife must lie-in for a minimum of thirty days, and then be churched before re-entering society. She’s considered unclean until then. I’ve no doubt you’ll see to that,
. It’s regrettable that Doctor Durant could not attend the birth; he’s gravely ill I hear, poor man. I’ve no doubt it’s the result of a curse invoked by one of the witches he’d evicted from assisting during a birth. Your wife and child are that much safer having been delivered from being attended by a midwife. They deal in evil and superstition.”
I nearly gagged at that, considering what the young fool had just said, but rearranged my face into an expression of utmost respect. “These women try to reduce the pain and ease the birth,” he went on, “when it is the Lord’s will that a woman should suffer in childbirth to atone for the sins of Eve.”
“Isn’t it true, Doctor, that one in two women die in childbirth?” I asked, wondering if he believed that to be God’s will.
“It is, madam, but we still have plenty of women to go around.” My reaction to this statement was to want to grab a hot poker and shove it up the man’s pompous ass, but Hugo gave me a warning look. He knew what I was thinking.
“Well, we do appreciate your visit, Doctor,” Hugo said as he took the man by the arm and practically shoved him out the room. “We’ll be sure to call on you again should the need arise.” Hugo’s tone suggested that he would sooner call on a coven of witches to cast out evil spirits, but the doctor preened with pride and gave Hugo an elaborate bow.
“Glad to be of service to you and your lady,
“If you ever let that man near me again, I will divorce you,” I said as I put Valentine to my breast. That was the worst threat I could think of to issue to a Catholic man. “Wherever did you find him?”
“He came highly recommended,” Hugo replied as he sat down to watch me nurse. “You will need to be churched, as he said,” he added carefully.
“And what exactly does that entail?” I would not submit to some barbaric ritual. I’d read somewhere that in medieval times, the birth canal had been packed with earth as part of a cleansing process after giving birth. I couldn’t imagine anything less hygienic or misguided. I had no idea what churching meant, but couldn’t imagine that times had changed much where the Church was concerned.
“It’s nothing invasive, Neve. Being churched refers to going to church after the lying-in to be blessed by a priest before you start accepting sacraments again. We should have Valentine baptized as soon as possible as well,” Hugo added.
He tried to sound casual, but I knew exactly what he was thinking, and it sent a chill down my spine, although I understood his reasoning. A child who died before being baptized into the Church was denied a proper burial, relegated to either being buried in some remote spot or secretly placed into someone else’s coffin. Some women tried to bury their stillborn children and infants by the cemetery wall in an effort to have them lie as close to consecrated ground as possible. The Church’s position was cruel and unfair, but it wouldn’t change for centuries to come. The thought of losing my little girl was more than I could bear, but Hugo dealt in practicalities; that was his nature.
“May I hold you?” he asked as Valentine finished nursing and fell asleep with a sigh of contentment. I was surprised by the question, but allowed him to take the baby from me and put her in her cot.
“I miss you,” Hugo said simply. He pulled off his boots, climbed into bed with me, and pulled me into his arms. It felt good to be held, but my body recoiled when Hugo bent his head to kiss my breast. I wasn’t ready for anything more than a hug. Fifty percent of women died in childbirth, and I had survived. It was a miracle, but one that wouldn’t necessarily happen next time. I wanted to be free to love Hugo, but another pregnancy was not in the cards as far as I was concerned, not anytime soon. Hugo was besotted with his daughter, but he still wanted a son, and soon. He hadn’t said as much, but I knew that was his heart’s desire. Only a son would carry on the family name and inherit the title he’d fought so hard not to have to forfeit, and the Catholic Church’s views on birth control were clear. I would make my feelings known, but wasn’t ready to broach the subject just yet.