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Authors: Arianna Eastland

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Too Far to Whisper

BOOK: Too Far to Whisper
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TOO FAR TO WHISPER

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2012
Arianna Eastland

cover design copyright 2012 Arianna Eastland

 

This book is a work of fiction. Although some of the cities and locations actually exist, they are used in a fictitious manner for purposes of this work. All characters also are works of fiction. Any names or characteristics similar to those of any person, past or present, are purely coincidental.

 

 

 

DEDICATED TO JOHN

My inspiration for Shadow Runner

and to

DICTIONARY.COM

My source for 17
th
-century word origins!

PROLOGUE

New England – 1648

 

 

She thought he was a bear…

It was nightfall when the girl regained consciousness.  She was lying on her back on something soft, something that felt like fur. She could hear the wind still angrily whipping at the trees, yet, for reasons she could not fathom, she no longer feared it.

She turned her head to the side and saw a crackling fire but a few feet from her. Its brightness temporarily blinded her, causing her to clamp her eyes shut. She allowed several minutes to pass before she made a second attempt to scan her surroundings.

Above her was a crude roof made of interwoven pine boughs, which sagged beneath the weight of the snow. Her eyes momentarily were drawn to a hole in the center of it, through which the smoke from the fire curled upward and dissipated.  Desperately, she struggled to collect her thoughts, hoping for some flash of memory, some clue that would lead her to recall how she had come to be at this unfamiliar place.

She remembered going out to the woodshed to fetch some firewood just after the blizzard had begun, and spying a doe, injured and limping, near the edge of the woods. Concerned, she had followed it until the fiercely blowing snow had covered the deer’s tracks and her own…and everything else that was familiar to her. With no visible landmarks to guide her, and a constant sea of whiteness swirling around her, she had wandered in circles for hours. The bone-chilling cold had at first been painful, then numbing, until she no longer was able to feel anything from her knees to the soles of her feet. She remembered her body finally defying her and refusing to move, no matter how strongly she willed it to. Defeated, she had curled into a fetal position in the snow and awaited her death.

Yet here she lay, still very much alive.

Slowly, she lifted her head. She saw him then, sitting directly across from her. He was draped in bearskin from head to foot and sat hunched over with his chin resting on his drawn-up knees. She could not see his face from beneath his cloak of fur, only his black eyes, which reflected the firelight and made him, she thought, appear more beastlike than human. He studied her silently, unblinkingly, until she began to feel as if she were some innocent prey, about to be devoured.

She looked away from him in an effort to ease her discomfort. Her eyes came to rest on something that made her gasp out loud. There, spread out next to the fire, was all of the clothing she had been wearing…including her undergarments. Her heartbeat quickened and her breath came in short gasps as she struggled to sit up. The action caused the blanket of pelts that had been covering her to fall to her waist. Her gaze dropped to her naked breasts, her pale pink nipples erect from their sudden exposure to the air. Her head snapped in the direction of the stranger. His eyes were fixed on her breasts.

She tugged the furs up around her neck and scooted on her bottom, farther away from the unrelenting eyes.

At that same moment, the man-beast moved to a hands-and-knees position and began to slowly crawl toward her.

In the flickering shadows of the fire, the outline of his form, moving on all fours with the bearskin still draped around it, made the girl believe he truly was not human at all.

Pressing the back of her hand to her mouth, she stifled a scream.

CHAPTER ONE

New England – 1654

 

Thus far, the day had been an emotional one for Rosalind Chandler. She had dreaded its arrival for weeks, knowing it would bring about a significant change in her life. And now that it was here, her only desire was to see it over with in all possible haste.

She took a sip of sweet sack-posset, the traditional wedding drink, then nibbled absently on her piece of bride cake. Try as she might, she could not deny that her brother Benjamin’s undisguised joy as he had spoken his wedding vows but an hour before had thoroughly warmed her heart. His bride, Faith Abbott, was a lovely, well-bred girl, and it was apparent from her radiant smile that she returned Ben’s feelings twofold.

But as Rosalind eyed the beaming couple being congratulated by one of the thirty or more guests who had gathered in the Abbotts’ home for the celebration, she was unable to share their joy. She knew she was being selfish, but she could not help the way she felt. She was losing her older brother. No longer would he be within earshot whenever she needed him or she wanted to share her thoughts with him. No longer would she and her two younger sisters enjoy his tall tales each night as they sat by the fire. Since their father’s passing six months earlier, Ben had become the only man she could rely upon. And now he was leaving her.

“Why the frown?” a male voice interrupted her thoughts.

Rosalind lifted her gaze to meet her brother’s concerned blue eyes, the color of which was identical to her own. She thought he had never looked more handsome. Attired in a crisp white shirt and gray waistcoat, with his blond hair neatly groomed, Ben made an impressive groom.

“I am missing you already,” Rosalind said. “The house will be unbearably empty without you.”

Ben’s look of concern turned to one of amusement. “Good Lord, girl, you speak of me as though I have died! I shall be but a stone’s throw away.”

“Too soon you will have a family of your own to care for.  We shall be fortunate if we
ever
see you.”

“I assure you, you are worrying yourself for naught.” Ben paused to accept a congratulatory handshake from one of the wedding guests, then returned his attention to his sister. “Think not that you are losing a brother, think that you are gaining a sister.”

“Sisters, I do not need,” Rosalind said. “With you gone, there no longer will be a man in the house. We shall be four women alone.”

“Then perhaps you should seriously consider filling that void…with a husband.”

Rosalind stiffened. “As I have told you repeatedly, I fully intend to remain unwed.”

“Nonsense!” Ben dismissed her statement with a wave of his hand. “You are far too pretty, too loving in nature, to forsake marriage and children for spinsterhood. The townspeople already are puzzling over the reason why a woman of twenty exhibits no interest whatsoever in finding a husband.”

“And what concern is it of theirs?” Rosalind said. “’Tis
my
life! I, and only I, shall decide when or if the time shall ever be right for me to wed!”

“By then, all of the eligible men in town will be bald, lame and toothless!” Ben shook his head and sighed. “Oft times I wonder if you fear men, Rosalind. You certainly have done naught to prove otherwise. Perhaps if you had a man in your life, you would not be standing here looking as though you have just witnessed a funeral.”

Rosalind narrowed her eyes at her brother, but held her tongue. Somehow he always managed to shift the topic to her lack of eagerness to become a bride. Still, she could not fault him for his concern, for she never had offered him a proper explanation as to why she so adamantly discouraged any man who wished to court her.  She knew she never could tell Ben – or anyone else – the real reason; not without bringing irrevocable shame upon herself and her family.

“Have you seen Mother?” Rosalind purposely changed the subject. She did not wish to spend one more second on the topic of marriage.

“Last I saw her, she was in the company of Elias Corwin.”

“The magistrate?” Rosalind’s eyebrows rose. “I was not aware that he and Mother were acquainted.”

“Well, they appeared to lack naught for conversation when I witnessed them. One would think they were dear friends.”

“Now you have aroused my curiosity,” Rosalind said. “I think I shall attempt to find them, if you will excuse me.” She smoothed the folds of her plain, blue dress and tucked a stray blond curl beneath her white cap, then slowly made her way through the maze of guests.

She spied her mother and Elias Corwin standing in a corner near the hearth. So deep was their conversation, they appeared oblivious to all activity around them. Elias, a portly, balding man, punctuated his statements with exaggerated arm movements that strained the fabric of his already too-snug shirt. Rosalind’s mother seemed to be hanging on to his every word, her eyes embracing his round face.

Most of the townspeople feared Elias Corwin. According to rumor, the man thrived on power and upheld the laws to the extreme. Even young children, whose crimes were no more severe than talking too loudly in church, were said to have felt the sting of the magistrate’s whip.

Elias owned an impressive estate and financed the operation of the Fox and Raven Tavern in town. His two sons, Nathaniel, a ship’s captain, and Matthew, a student at Harvard College, were away more often than at home. Although Rosalind had never had the opportunity to meet, or even catch more than a brief glimpse of either of the Corwin brothers, she had heard it was not difficult to determine when one of them was about. The steady stream of tittering young ladies carrying their finest baked goods or sweets to the Corwins’ door was said to be a telltale sign that either Matthew or Nathaniel was within.

“Hello, Mother, Mr. Corwin.” Rosalind greeted each of them with a nod.

“Rosalind!” Her mother’s delight at seeing her daughter was obvious. “We were just speaking of you!” When her mother smiled, Rosalind thought she was truly beautiful, appearing much younger than her years. But since Rosalind’s father’s passing, her mother’s smile had become much too rare.

“Oh?” Rosalind said. “And for what purpose was my name being mentioned?”

“Actually, we were discussing my wife, Abigail,” Elias Corwin replied, transferring his attention to Rosalind. “I am greatly concerned about her failing health. At times, I am consumed with guilt because my duties afford me such little time to spend with her. I fear of late, she cares not whether she lives or dies.”

Rosalind stared bewilderedly at him. Why, she wondered, did he believe that she, someone he did not even know, cared to hear the details of his family’s problems?

“My two servants already have too many chores, which prevent them from tending to my wife’s needs,” Elias continued. “’Twould greatly please my wife to engage a live-in companion to care for her.” He paused to retrieve a handkerchief from his waistcoat, then used it to dab at the beads of perspiration that dotted his brow. “Your mother tells me you have a strong spirit and a kind heart, Mistress Chandler, as well as boundless energy. We both believe you would make a perfect companion for my Abigail.”

“I?” Rosalind’s eyebrows arched. “You wish for me to be a companion to your wife?”

“’Tis a great honor that the magistrate wishes to entrust his wife’s care to you, is it not?” her mother interrupted. “Granted, ‘twill be no small task, but Mr. Corwin and I have every faith in you.”

Before Rosalind could speak, Elias added, “You will be provided with a bedchamber adjoining my wife’s and I shall pay you a fair wage. You will lack for naught, you have my word.”

Rosalind did not know how to respond. She had no desire to leave her family, nor did she wish to live with a fearsome man who whipped children, and an ailing woman who cared not whether she lived or died.

“May I be allowed some time to consider your offer?” Rosalind softly asked.

Her mother visibly blanched at her words. “Rosalind!” Her tone was firm, inviting no argument. “Mr. Corwin has made you a most generous offer and you will gratefully accept it!”

“Yes, Mother,” she whispered, her eyes downcast.

“Excellent!” Elias clasped his hands together. “I shall anticipate your arrival on the morrow, then!”

Rosalind’s head snapped up. “So soon?”

“Nellie, Elizabeth and I shall help you pack your belongings,” her mother hastily offered, then turned to Elias. “She will commence her duties bright and early.”

“Fine, fine.” He nodded. “Abigail will be
so
pleased to hear the news!”

Rosalind forced a weak smile. She felt as if she were a choice cow that had just been auctioned off to the highest bidder.  And was she just imagining it, or had her mother seemed just a bit too eager to be rid of her? Rosalind had predicted that Ben’s wedding day would bring about a change in her life, but certainly not one of this magnitude.

Well, she thought defeatedly, she had vowed never to become any man’s dutiful wife, so why not become some woman’s dutiful nursemaid? Perhaps, she reasoned, her work at the Corwins’ would, if little else, serve to provide her with some small sense of accomplishment. And – God forgive her for thinking it – there always was the possibility her stay at the Corwins’ might be cut short if Abigail’s health worsened…and the woman died.

 

* * * * *

The sun barely had begun its ascent the next morning when Rosalind, struggling with her bundles – and to keep her breakfast in her stomach – set out on her journey to the Corwins’.

A distance of ten kilometers separated the two houses, but in her lack of eagerness to reach her destination, she found herself wishing it were a thousand. Her family lived on the outskirts of town in a small community comprised mostly of families that struggled from day to day to get by. They did not own horses, did not have any special trades, did not possess much more than their parcels of land, gardens and simple, sparsely furnished houses.  The Corwins, however, lived in town in an area where the wealthy, successful and educated dwelled.  Rosalind wondered how she ever would fit in with such people, for she had nothing in common with them.

She had lain awake most of the previous night, apprehension knotting her stomach until the pain had become unbearable. It was no wonder her stomach ached, she thought. In the space of twelve short hours, she had been cast from the only home she had ever known and thrust into the arms of strangers.

She deliberately walked slowly, not only because she wanted to delay her arrival, but also because she wanted to memorize every tree, house, wildflower and field along the way, for fear she would not see them again for a very long time. She breathed deeply, filling her lungs with the fresh spring air, not knowing when or if she would be allowed any time outdoors at the Corwins’ house, especially if Abigail was bedridden and confined to her chamber.

“Looks as though you could use a bit of help.”

Rosalind spun around to face her brother.

“Ben!” She dropped her bundles and ran to embrace him. “What brings you here?”

“’Tis not safe for a woman to go wandering about unescorted,” he answered. Too abruptly he broke away from her and bent to pick up her belongings. “Besides, I thought you might be in need of some encouragement.”

“That I am.  In fact, I’m sorely tempted to march right back home, crawl into bed and pull the quilt over my head!”

Ben spared her a tired smile. Rosalind thought he looked as though he had not slept a wink, which she supposed was understandable, considering last night had been his wedding night. Unlike most of the girls her age, Rosalind was well aware of what occurred on wedding nights. On more than one occasion she had overheard her brother and his friends, two of whom already were wed, discussing such matters in some detail, especially as Ben’s wedding day grew nearer.

“Why are you not with Faith on this, the first day of your marriage?” Rosalind asked her brother.  The two of them walked side by side along the winding dirt path that snaked through a forest of thick pines. Rosalind welcomed the pine-scented air, hoping it would help settle her stomach.

Ben sighed. “Truth be known, from the moment I awoke this morn, I was eager for some excuse to leave the house.”

Rosalind halted, her eyes widening. “But why?”

Ben continued walking. “You would not understand.”

Rosalind had to run to catch up with him. “How do you know I will not understand unless you first tell me what it is?”

Again, he sighed. “Please just do me the favor of dropping the subject.”

“You say you are eager to leave your new wife on the very morn after your wedding and you want me to forget it?  How do you propose I do that?”

Ben ceased walking but did not turn to look at her. “’Tis just that in my eagerness to consummate our marriage last night, I did not allow Faith time to…prepare…sufficiently for me. As a result, I caused her undue pain…and now she recoils from my touch.”

Rosalind regarded him puzzledly. “By what means do you ‘prepare’ a woman?”

Ben looked up at the sky and shook his head. “Did I not tell you that you would not understand?” He resumed walking.

Rosalind fell into step at his side. “Then you must
make
me understand!”

BOOK: Too Far to Whisper
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