True heart, p.13

True Heart, page 13

 

True Heart
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  That luxury had been the easiest to lose. This battle would be the hardest to win. Mama had been a bond servant. She’d been quick to admit that her servitude had been performed with dignity. If she knew the horror Virginia had endured, her eyes would cloud with pity and she’d shoulder the blame. Virginia could not permit that.

  “Thank you, Mama.”

  Ushering the servants out, Juliet closed the door. “We’ll get you a maid of your own . . . one of the Widow Forbes’s girls. Unless you’d rather a girl from that plantation?”

  “No. I know of no one. I mean no one suitable for the household of a duke.” Including herself, but with time that would change.

  “You mustn’t be afraid.”

  “I’m not afraid,” which was the truth. “Not in a fearful sense. I am uncertain about many things . . . a stranger, you know.”

  “We were bereft when we lost you. I thought your father would go mad with grief, and poor Agnes was inconsolable until Cameron returned.”

  He had said as much to Virginia, but she still didn’t understand Agnes’s role. “Why was Agnes inconsolable?”

  “Because she was responsible for you that day.”

  Now Virginia understood. On that day so long ago, she had manipulated Agnes into taking her to the docks. Under her dress, she’d worn her riding breeches. When Agnes had spotted her beau, Virginia had begged money for something to eat and made her escape. All these years Agnes had blamed herself. How would Virginia right that wrong? She didn’t know.

  “I’m sorry for causing her pain.”

  “She’s happy now.”

  “She and Cameron looked everywhere for me. They went all the way to China.”

  “That they did. Now tell me. Have you questions? What do you need, love?”

  “Time, I think, is all I need.”

  “Money. You should have money of your own.”

  “I have my wages.”

  “How much?”

  Virginia hadn’t asked Mrs. Parker-Jones how much a housekeeper was paid, and she couldn’t tell her mother how she’d come about the money. So she told a truth. “I have one hundred pounds.”

  “A tidy sum.”

  Virginia felt a burst of pride because her mother had always valued honest work, praised those who took care of their own. Liars and laggards she disdained. Thank the saints Virginia was only one of those.

  “But you’ll need a bigger purse than that.” Mama pulled off her gloves and untied her bonnet. Putting them on the small desk, she sat on the bed and patted the place beside her. “Your father will insist on paying your accounts.”

  Virginia didn’t deserve such generosity, not when she lied to those who loved her. It seemed like charity or, at the least, ill-gotten gains.

  The feather mattress ballooned as she sat down. “Do you also insist?”

  “Insist? I chose the wrong word. You are our firstborn. Your father is a duke, and although the Hanoverian court is bothersome with its pomp and circumstance, we have a position to maintain, appearances to make. But not often. For your father’s sake, will you allow him to be generous?”

  Virginia despaired of ever fitting in. She repeated a pledge she’d made to her father. “I’ll do my best.”

  In a gesture of both encouragement and understanding, Mama patted Virginia’s leg. “Lachian MacKenzie is a prideful man. Too much of it, he has, that’s for certain. But you are one of the few people who can break his heart. Please do not. He asks little of us when it comes to his rank in nobility. After caring for his family, governing his people and seeing to their welfare are his foremost concerns.”

  Before Papa’s return to Tain and his dukedom, the people of Ross were in turmoil. With fairness and great patience, the community had prospered. Other nobles and men of authority were frequent visitors to Rosshaven Castle. Parties and large suppers were regular affairs. Knowing she’d be expected to participate, Virginia said, “Very well. I’ll need some new gowns.” A quick comparison of her mother’s fine dress to Virginia’s passed-down cotton frock pushed her to admit, “Mine are unsuitable.”

  Taking Virginia’s chin in her hand, Mama turned her until they were face-to-face. “Never be ashamed of your circumstances. You are well loved by the finest of people.” And then, as if it were a crown to wear, she said, “You are a MacKenzie.”

  “A MacKenzie.”

  “Aye. Agnes said you were the housekeeper at Poplar Knoll.”

  If Virginia could convince them that her memory was returning slowly, all would be well. “I may be more like you than my father.”

  “Papa,” she said. “He insists that his children call him Papa. You look just like him.”

  Everyone had always said so. “Yes, I do.”

  “We’ll visit a dressmaker tomorrow and see if they can manage a few things on short notice. Once we’re home, you’ll have a new wardrobe. It’s colder in Scotland, and you’ll need warmer clothing.”

  On the short voyage to Norfolk, Agnes had been a font of knowledge on everything from renovations at Rosshaven Castle to the sleeping habits of Virginia’s younger siblings. “Agnes said Lottie designs dresses for everyone in the family.”

  “She does and receives fifty pounds for each gown.”

  “Fifty pounds?” Virginia had no idea how much a dress cost, but she’d find out this afternoon at the market. Fifty pounds sounded like a fortune.

  “Don’t look so shocked, Virginia, and never give the money a thought.”

  “But—”

  “But nothing. Commissioning Lottie to design a few dresses for you will do two things. First, it will allow your father his pride in seeing to your needs, and second, it will enable Lottie to repay a small portion of the debt she owes David. He’s her husband.”

  Debt? Agnes had not mentioned that Lottie owed a debt. Surely her dowry was enough to satisfy David Smithson. Virginia remembered his name but not the man himself. “How can a wife be indebted to her husband?”

  Mama sighed. “Because, upon their wedding day, Lottie foolishly proclaimed she’d bear as many children as she chose and declared that her husband had no say in it. David grew stubborn, as you would expect—if you remembered him. Lottie was so sure of herself, she wagered a million pounds on it.”

  “Does she have a million pounds?”

  “No, and that is a constant dilemma for her because David held her to the bet and to date has given her only four children.”

  Virginia knew about procreation; the slaves were encouraged to be fruitful, and the women, devoid of normal propriety, spoke freely on the subject. She’d learned in odd ways the workings of her own body. Even when viewed from the distance of time, the experiences were repulsive.

  “We haven’t that kind of wealth, and even if we did, your father would not squander money on a wager of that nature. But Lottie is one of his own. So he commissions each of us one dress per month at fifty pounds each. David says the work keeps her out of mischief.”

  “Even at that, she could never repay such a debt, not in an average lifetime.”

  She laughed, and the sound was so familiar Virginia grew melancholy.

  “You always were quick with sums.”

  Thanks to Mama’s tutoring. The scholarly Sarah had also influenced Virginia. “I practice often, although I cannot fathom counting a million pounds.”

  “Neither can Lottie, yet she loves David more than herself. She designed this gown.” Mama stood and untied a ribbon at the waist, which held the panniered overskirt in place. “Divine and clever, isn’t it?”

  The dress was beyond divine. Rather than yards of lace and furbelows, the blue gown, designed for travel, was decorated at the hem and cuffs with bands of piping in sunny yellow, which complimented Mama’s fair hair. Without the formal overskirt, the gown became a practical garment of the kind Virginia remembered from her youth.

  Virginia said the first thing that popped into her head. “You look too young to be my mother.”

  Juliet’s cheeks flushed with
modesty. “I used to be as slender as Agnes.” She placed her hands on her waist. “Having children thickens us in the most unflattering places.”

  It was easy to say, “You’re beautiful.”

  She grasped Virginia’s hands. “You were ever a delightful little girl. I suspect that you are a remarkable woman.”

  At the sweet words, a new heartache assailed Virginia. “Cameron says I was spoiled.”

  “He did most of the spoiling,” she chided, but affection for him shone through. “Together, you two were as bright as God’s own sunbeams. It was a rare friendship for a lad and a girl.” Her voice dropped. “He suffered, Virginia. It was as if the heart had been cut from him.”

  Virginia knew well that pain. Too much the coward to dwell on past suffering, she broached the question that had concerned her since they’d arrived at the inn. “Papa was angry with Cameron downstairs. Why?”

  “You’ve been told about the betrothal?”

  “Yes. Cameron told me.”

  “Much has happened since the contract was made. You cannot know if you still want to marry him.”

  Oh, but Virginia did.

  “And he—”

  Keen to her mother’s halting speech, Virginia said, “He what?”

  Mama turned her attention to the piping on her sleeves. “In any event, you needn’t decide now about marriage. You can’t know if Cameron is the right man for you. Scotland is chocked full of eligible, young men. Lindsay has an interesting heir, and there’s that exciting breaker of hearts, Cyril MacCrary. The women call him Cy.” She spoke the name like a sigh. “One of Michael Elliot’s friends, Michael’s Sarah’s husband, has a friend who is a sultan with more charm than you’ve ever seen.”

  She was avoiding the subject of the betrothal. But it was too important to let lie. “Why hasn’t Cameron wed?”

  “Do not ask that of me.” Regret tightened her mouth. “I could sooner tell Agnes’s secrets to Mary. I think you should ask him, Virginia.”

  “I have, with embarrassing results. Won’t you please tell me?”

  “You must understand. He is as a son to me. His mother, Suisan, wiped my brow and encouraged me through each of my travails. He watched you when I grew big with your sisters Lily and Rowena. When your papa ordered me to stay off my feet, Cameron visited me every day. He built me a lap loom and showed me how to weave to pass the time. I am sorry, but that must come from Cameron. Remember, both of your lives have changed.”

  Perhaps he’d outgrown his love for Virginia. Then why was he so protective of her, and if love did not inspire his kisses, was that enough?

  “Enough about that handsome Cunningham. Agnes tells me you wish to go to Glasgow rather than come home with us to Tain. I’d like to know why.”

  * * *

  A short time later, Juliet’s and Lachian’s trunks arrived. Mama went to supervise the unpacking. Virginia donned her tartan shawl and went downstairs. She felt light-headed with joy over the simple event of going to the market. She saw Cameron and her father in a corner of the tavern, but they were too deep in conversation to notice her departure.

  Outside, her feet barely touched the boardwalk. She was alone, free. She could decide for herself the smallest of things—which direction to walk in, what to purchase. She could look people in the eye. No one would question her or look on her with pity.

  The late-afternoon sunshine cast long shadows on the rutted lane. A haywagon rumbled past, and the boardwalk was crowded with all kinds of people. Seamen on shore leave tipped their hats as they passed. An elderly gentleman moved aside to give her the clean edge of the lane. Well-dressed matrons maneuvered their panniered skirts through storefronts, and children crowded around a carnival hawker who walked on stilts and tossed tin pennies.

  The sound of conversations buzzed in Virginia’s ears and reminded her of Sunday mornings in the slave hamlet.

  The first regret blindsided her. She’d never see Merriweather again. Georgieboy could be sold to the neighbor, Mr. Pendergrast. Virginia would be spared the pain of watching him, chained and dragged away from his family.

  “Thank you, God,” she murmured on a trembling breath. “Thank you for answering my prayers.”

  In the mercer’s shop, she bought ribbons, soap, embroidery thread, and two plain sleeping gowns.

  “Two pounds, three,” said the clerk as she wrapped the items and tied the bundle with string.

  Virginia counted out the coins. The clerk’s eager expression made her smile and wonder. “Is the price fair?”

  “Of course, my lady.”

  A second clerk hissed, “She’s the MacKenzie they come to fetch.”

  “So? If that’s true, she’s got a long purse.”

  Was Virginia being cheated because of who she was? Did everyone know? She cringed at the thought of strangers gossiping about her. She also realized that quality clothes didn’t matter; she might as well be dressed in book muslin again.

  Regardless, she would not let it spoil her first adventure by herself.

  “Her hair’s too short for quality folks,” the clerk said to her partner. To Virginia, she said, “Have the lice, did you?”

  Virginia couldn’t work in the fields with waistlength hair. The notion was laughable. Only house servants and sluggards who lived with lice had long hair, and Virginia couldn’t abide filth.

  Ignoring the remark seemed best. “Have you silver hair pins?”

  “Got wood ones and combs too. You’ll need the heavy ones.”

  She brought out a box with dozens of hair ornaments. Given so many choices, Virginia grew confused. She chose several, plus a brush, comb, and hand mirror. The mirror was a luxury, but she wanted it.

  “Sure you won’t be needin’ something for the lice?”

  Virginia considered what Agnes or her mother would do in the situation. Perform a kindness, surely. So, she counted out four pence and put the coins on the counter. “Here’s tuppence for each of you.”

  The clerk withered in shame but still took the money. Her cohort stood tall. “Anyone speaks poorly of you, my lady, and they’ll answer to my brother. He’s a blacksmith.”

  “Good day to you then.” Clutching the parcel, she returned to the excitement of the land.

  “Virginia!”

  Half a block away, she saw Cameron in a crowd, one arm raised to get her attention. Her heart fluttered at the sound of her name.

  “What are you doing?” he asked.

  He looked like a fire ready to spark. She wouldn’t be the one to ignite it. “Following your advice. Why do you look ready to cosh someone?”

  He took notice of his hands, balled into fists. Frowning, he propped them on his hips. “You shouldn’t have gone out alone.”

  From the bottom of her heart, she said, “I’m not ten years old any more.”

  His expression turned possessive. “I know. If you do not discover my honest attributes before we get home to Scotland, I’ll lose you to a horde of eligible dukes.”

  Confused and happy at once, she responded in kind. “Who told you that?”

  “ ’Twas an auspicious message of sorts.”

  She thought of their trips to the children’s circus in Tain. “A fortune teller?”

  “Actually, ’twas a message I found in a bottle floating in the sea.”

  She could tease with him on this subject. “Which sea?”

  His expression turned comical. “May as well have been the Dead Sea for all the good it did me.” He held out his arm. “May I accompany you?”

  Yes, yes, her heart cried. Never in her adult life had anyone asked her permission, but in a thousand maidenly dreams, Cam had. She hooked her arm in his.

  “Mother thinks I should consider marrying Lindsay’s heir.”

  “If you wish to talk about other men, I shall go back to the tavern and drink myself below the table.”

  “Will you carry my package?”

  “I’ll carry you if you tire.”

  She couldn’t stifle a g
asp.

  “Or if you’d just like to be carried.”

  “I’d like to have a conversation with you without being outraged at every turn.”

  “I’m on my Sunday-best behavior. How are you feeling?”

  Now was not the time for honesty; she must put her plan into action. “I’m fine, except—I don’t know where I belong.”

  “Then I pray that is the first thing you recall.”

  Virginia braced herself, for the game of remembering events of the past must begin. “I’m sorry to say it was not.”

  “Was?” He stopped and probed her with a curious gaze. “What have you remembered?”

  They’d created a jam in the foot traffic. An alcove between the milner and the jam shop offered a measure of privacy. Tugging his arm, she moved there.

  “Well?”

  She stared at his fancy neckcloth. “I remembered that you used to spit in my palm.”

  “Truly?” He sounded relieved. Chuckling, he put his hand over his heart. “I promise never to do it again.”

  She had expected him to hug her, to celebrate the moment. A longing for his affection had driven her to chose something about him for the first remembrance of her forgotten past.

  “Must I sign a pact to convince you?”

  Virginia shelved her disappointment. She hoped to return to the happy girl she’d been, but she was forced to concede that today was not the day.

  Looking up at him, she squinted, even though they stood in shade. “Agnes was right about you.”

  “Ha! Agnes has never been correct about me.”

  “Even when she said you were a hero to the Scottish people?”

  “My mother did the work. I only presented the request to Parliament.”

  From Agnes she’d learned that the text of his speech had been sent to the king, who had considered knighting Cameron. “A man so modest would never spit in a girl’s palm.”

  He glanced up and followed the flight of a pigeon. Narrowing his eyes, he smiled. “What would you like for supper?”

  “A companion who does not divert the conversation.”

  His expression warmed. “Diversions can be pleasant.”

 
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