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Authors: Margaret Miles

A Wicked Way to Burn (10 page)

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“Since Sunday night, this time. He’s popped up before—stays a while, and then he’s off again, with a few more butterflies in his bottles, or pickled voles, or whatever it is he’s after at the moment. I can’t say he doesn’t pay me, and he certainly eats well enough, which adds a great deal to my profit. But I feel as if he might bring trouble with him, too, which is something I have very little desire for—especially now, with this other nonsense.”

And with a pace far more subdued than the one used by Mr. Lee, Jonathan Pratt squeezed his way down the narrow stairway, while Charlotte stepped lightly behind.

IT WAS ONLY
a few more yards to the second reason for her visit to the inn. Charlotte walked briskly back along the front of the red-painted coach house, past the stables, and on to the old log smithy.

A hammer rang rhythmically near the open doorway, as it bounced on a crescent of glowing iron. Upon seeing her, Nathan plunged the horseshoe into a pail of water where it hissed and steamed, and emerged a midnight blue. The smith set the shoe and tongs aside, and wiped his gritty brow.

Outside, Charlotte waited under a tall beech, near a thin horse grazing in the shade.

“Is this,” she called, “Middleton’s mount?”

“It is. And it would certainly be a piece of luck for the poor animal if Middleton never returned. Looks like he’s been mistreated as a rule, even whipped to bleeding a day or two ago. Brought in tired and hungry, besides. But he’s better now … the cuts are healing quite well. Keeping him out in the air helps.”

Nathan flicked away a flake of metal from the curling hairs on his broad arm, and stood watching her run a hand over cruel ridges on the animal’s side. There did seem, thought Charlotte, to be a large number of old wounds there.

“Maybe he was a bad horseman, more used to a carriage.”

“Whatever his excuse, I consider it a sin to harm a good servant.”

Charlotte agreed. Nathan, she thought, was a fair man, and not afraid to tell the world what he thought of it.

“Speaking of servants, have you any idea what caused Mary Frye to faint on the road last night?” she asked.

“Mary wouldn’t tell me anything, but I expect it has to do with a long string of troubles. You must have heard the talk,” he answered, walking out and squinting up at the clouds.

“Some. Nathan, you didn’t take Mary out there last night yourself?”

The smith let out a groan.

“No, she went out alone. Probably to meet her young Leander—a lad called Gabriel Fortier.”

“In that case, wouldn’t she have been afraid of being seen by the miller?”

“They probably planned to walk on the east side of the bridge, down along the river path. Very private after
dark, if you overlook others there with the same idea. As I imagine you might recall.” He grinned suddenly, but a new idea soon sobered him. “I’d guess he wasn’t waiting for her where he promised, because of the trouble over at the Blue Boar.”

Nathan told her the story of the near-brawl he’d already heard twice that morning, from early customers. So that, she thought, explained the Frenchman of Jack’s tale!

“I knew Peter Lynch was an admirer of Mary’s,” she admitted, unable to suppress a shudder, “but then, when I saw her fall into
your
arms, I imagined … something else.”

Nathan’s face grew grave again, and she asked herself if she’d touched a sore spot, or only a tender one. In his position at the inn, he’d seen Mary every day for a year now. He might view himself as her protector, from Lydia and from the occasional traveler who made overtures. Might it also have occurred to Nathan to hope for something more?

Charlotte remembered back to when the smith first made his appearance in Bracebridge, shortly after her own world had turned upside down. At the time, each of them enjoyed a new acquaintance who could talk about something besides the past. On her almost daily visits to the inn, they had frequent opportunity to discuss the town and its habits, as well as its visitors.

But all of this was before Jonathan married, late in ’61. Since then, cold words from Lydia, and piercing looks when he transgressed, kept Nathan close to his forge, and away from the inn’s halls and taproom. No one quite knew why Lydia Pratt treated those who helped her as badly as she did; it had simply become an unquestioned habit for them to avoid her, whenever possible.

Naturally, Mary Frye would have looked for ways to
get around Lydia, and she, too, would have enjoyed speaking with a man who had a sympathetic heart. She might even have encouraged him as a likely provider for her future. Until she met Gabriel Fortier.

Nathan was still thinking about the Frenchman, as well.

“Mary told me she met him in Worcester over Christmas, when she went home for a few days. You’ve seem him around since then, I expect, though you probably weren’t introduced. He’s a Neutral, you know.”

So that was it. Fortier was one of the Acadians, some six thousand French-speaking British subjects who’d been transported from Nova Scotia. They had settled that island themselves, long before the British took over, and had remained there peacefully under British rule for fifty years. But in ’55 it was feared they might turn against their rulers, especially if French troops were to arrive and give them aid. So the Acadians were offered a loyalty oath to sign. Those who refused had been sent south. Charlotte had seen one or two of a handful of families who’d settled near Worcester. They’d lived up to their name, and caused no trouble during the late war. But some of their neighbors still distrusted them because they kept to themselves, and held on to their own language and customs.

Nathan brushed at a horsefly that attempted to land on his sweat-beaded forehead.

“Once the miller got wind of it, he made quite a fuss. You know Mary’s father promised her to Peter Lynch, once her indenture’s over. That’ll be in two more years.”

“She’s so young …”

“Lynch wanted to marry her last year, when she was only fourteen! But old Elias Frye balked. I suppose he saw more money to be made by sending her out first. Now, he’s said he’ll promise the next of her sisters to another of his friends, unless Mary’s willing to accept the
miller in the end. At least she’s not beaten here,” he added with a black scowl.

“Do you suppose her father hoped she’d find someone better to marry while she worked here at the inn?”

“I think Elias did hope she’d find a man who’d offer her more. With or without marriage,” Nathan added, averting his eyes. “But Jonathan, and Lydia too, I suppose, have kept her from that. So there’s no reason for Mary to feel sorry yet.”

“Except that she wants something that’s forbidden to her. Is Gabriel Fortier a decent man?”

“That’s hard for me to say. What I do know is there’s a good chance that if Mary runs away with the Frenchman, Lynch will try to get her back, if only for appearances. There’s no telling how far he’d go if he’s made to look a fool before his friends—especially the ones in Worcester. A raw lot, from what I’ve seen.”

“Then what’s Mary to do?”

Nathan shrugged. He unmatted his damp, curling hair with thick fingers.

“They’ll still need her father’s consent to marry, or the law will be against them. But she has time—and who knows what might happen? Even though Lynch has offered more than was paid for her bond, Jonathan won’t let her go.”

The blacksmith grasped a branch over his head, and shook it until a few blazing leaves fell down.

“If there’s one thing I hate to see,” he continued, “it’s a man who gets his way by frightening people … especially young girls. But Peter Lynch isn’t the only man who’s been given a strong arm in this world.” The smith looked up at his clenched fist thoughtfully. “And two years,” he concluded, “is a long time.”

“It might even seem like an eternity,” said Charlotte. In her heart, she felt another small bundle of trouble
store itself in an empty spot, without waiting to be invited.

When she left Nathan a short while later (after arranging for the delivery of some coal she didn’t need) her thoughts rushed and tumbled like water in a mountain stream. And behind her, the red iron the blacksmith returned to was again forced to conform to his will—this time, under even fiercer blows.

Chapter 8

H
ER WAIST WAS
held straight by the whalebone under the tight top of her silk gown, but Diana Longfellow managed to lean back in her chair as she yawned with contentment. It was a thing Diana wouldn’t have allowed herself to do in Boston, thought her hostess with a drowsy smile.

“They say life in the country flows like cold molasses,” Charlotte’s guest continued. “I must admit, I do feel unusually sweet today.”

After a twenty-mile ride, Richard and his considerably younger half-sister had arrived with good appetites. Foreseeing this, Charlotte had asked Hannah Sloan to kill and pluck a large hen. Later, she had done the rest. The fowl had been pan-fried, and then simmered into a golden fricassee that included onion, carrots, and woodland mushrooms. Finally, it had been graced with a gravy of stock, egg yolks, and cream. This was offered up with a
dish of potatoes and parsnips, mashed together and laced with butter and parsley. There was a small plate of boiled autumn spinach, as well. Everything on the table but the service and the salt, Charlotte thought with pride, came from her own farm.

They sat in the front room, across from a cold hearth. However, its chimney-mate in the kitchen crackled audibly, and Hannah perspired freely while she served them. The rich air that moved between the two rooms was further warmed by bright sunlight that had passed through a filigree of waving leaves outside. And a small current of Canadian air, delightfully fresh, was democratically allowed in under one of the sashes to mingle with the more fashionable variety inside.

Entertainment during the ample meal had come mostly from Diana, who now seemed in danger of becoming overheated. The young woman fanned herself while she continued to relate anecdotes of city life and its hardships, most of them imaginary. Once again, her brother was reminded of countless English fops, as well as certain home-grown ones, who were in her thrall, men who dressed in enough satins and ribbons to delight the heart of a child: perfumed men with embroidered speech, and too little sense to cultivate any interests besides the ladies, or food, or fashion, or possibly the regiment to which they belonged. They saw Diana, approaching twenty, as an heiress more than old enough to marry. But she remained undecided, while her suitors multiplied. Her brother imagined she enjoyed the single state too well to choose for quite a while. After all, it gave her an opportunity to hear a great deal of good about the charms of her person, as well as a chance to tweak the noses of those around her, both male and female. Not that he blamed her for that, he thought charitably, laughing at an anecdote she told. Still, he would have
been happier to have her settled and out of his hands … if indeed she ever thought of herself as in them, which he rather doubted.

Charlotte watched and held her own thoughts, while brother and sister continued to banter and exchange tidbits about people and places. It was said that Diana Longfellow had the cool, proud nature one expected in a beauty, and she
did
often hold herself aloof from the world. But in several years of visits to Bracebridge, the elegant young woman’s facade had developed a succession of small doors that she sometimes left ajar, to give brief views into well decorated, if rather disorganized, rooms.

This afternoon, her eyes, at the moment almost an emerald green, danced to the varying tunes of lively conversation, exposing a quick spirit much like her brother’s. Until, of course, she wanted to be certain of having her own way. Then, Diana’s dark lashes fell while she turned up a pretty ear under her elaborate auburn curls, exposing a long, downy neck. It was a pose that invariably led gentlemen, if not always ladies, to see things from Diana’s point of view. Surprisingly, it often worked on her brother, as well.

Hannah brought in the last course—syllabubs made of whipped cream, sherry, sugar, and lemon mixed together, and floated in wine glasses on top of hard cider. While they sipped, the talk revolved again to the disappearance of Duncan Middleton. The subject had barely caused Diana’s fine eyebrows to rise when it had first been mentioned earlier. It was not, she had implied then, the kind of thing one took much notice of, in her society. But now, she had apparently changed her mind.

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