Dorset, England, 1808
Millie narrowed her eyes slightly as they darted back and forth between the two most important people in her life. She gazed at the restless figure sitting across from her on the worn blanket before shifting to the hesitant one leaning against a nearby tree. Their reaction to a simple suggestion was baffling. Both should be leaping at the opportunity. Millie blinked with clear frustration. Her eyes were a strange shade of lavender, the large purple depths often mistaken for blue in dim light. But no one ever mistook them to be conciliatory. And Millie was certainly not going to surrender now.
Being what she considered an exceptionally mature twelve-year-old, Millie Aldon knew there were very few absolute truths in life. The first she discovered at age six, soon after her mother’s death: A true friend was one of the rarest things in the world. And she had two. At eight, Millie had decided the male species had no idea how to have fun, and by the time she turned ten, she realized a boy’s capacity for dullness only worsened with age. But the latest truth she had stumbled upon only last night, while spying on the various guests invited to the Wentworths’ country estate.
Her original intention was to see if parties became more interesting as the night progressed, and from what she could tell, they did not. However, the night was not a total waste of time and planning. Overhearing one simple comment had made it more than worthwhile. Marriage, for a wealthy noblewoman, was not a requirement, but a
“It would work!” Millie stressed again, throwing the loose strands of her long dark hair behind her shoulder.
“No one is keeping you from swearing off marriage, Millie,” came a quiet reply.
Millie pursed her lips and huffed. “But we must
agree; otherwise, why do it? The pact is not just to protect us from a life of boring rules and pointless parties, but it’s to keep us together! If we don’t
make the pledge . . . well, why bother?” Millie challenged, throwing her hands up in the air for emphasis.
A young, willowy blond girl with curls bounding all around her face turned away from her view of the sea, walked over, and daintily sat down on the woolen blanket. Aimee glanced at Millie and took her time before responding, even though she knew how the exaggerated pause would excite her impatient friend to even higher levels. Millie loved drama, and considering all the accidents she had ever been in, one could easily believe that drama loved Millie in return. And while Millie had a point, Aimee was not about to sacrifice her dreams of an ideal future.
Picking a field flower, Aimee twirled it between her finger and thumb. “I have decided to join your pledge, Millie, but only if I can have one exception—Reece Hamilton.” She jutted her chin defiantly and awaited her friend’s expected explosion.
“Lord, Aimee, Reece Hamilton!” Millie cried, flailing back onto the blanket. Aimee retorted with silence. Sitting back up, Millie licked her lips and tried another tactic. “Reece Hamilton’s interests are solely ships and the sea. You would need to have a hull and sails before he would notice you. Besides, he’s old.”
“He is not!” Aimee bristled, crossing her arms. She arched her eyebrows and said knowingly, “I think our age difference is just perfect. When I am old enough to wed, he will be ready to marry and have a family. Go ahead and roll your eyes, Millie, but I am quite serious.”
“Really, Aimee?” chimed in Jennelle, the redhead of the trio. “And all this time I thought it was your brother, Charles, who was the serious one.”
Aimee refused to yield. “I am indeed serious, Jennelle. And I will join the pact only if I can marry Reece Hamilton when he asks me.” Although Reece was ten years older, Aimee had been positive since the age of six that they were destined for each other. He was smart, handsome, and from a good family. But most of all, he was the only boy she knew who was always going to be taller than she was. How she wished she could be small and petite like Millie, or perfectly shaped like Jennelle, but she was destined to be tall and slender like her mother.
Millie wrinkled her nose and adjusted herself so that she was sitting on her knees. “I don’t know why you would want to marry your brother’s best friend. He and Charlie have both interfered enough over the years with our adventures. Reece is too tall, and he’s too big. And I highly doubt he would let you play with us anymore.”
“One more word, Millie Aldon, and I swear I will get up and leave,” Aimee warned. Her clover-green eyes flashed with anger. Aimee was as sweet as her beauty portrayed her to be, but she was far from a wilting flower and could stand up to her friends when riled.
“No, you won’t,” Jennelle countered calmly. With no mother and her father consumed with his research, Jennelle had matured faster than her years. “Since we are staying with you this summer, Aimee, we will simply get up and follow you. And, Millie, stop provoking her. You know she has been in love with him for years.”
Aimee’s blond curls started bobbing. “I have, I really have. Reece is so wonderful and handsome. If I cannot have him, I would want no other.”
Millie inhaled exaggeratedly. “Hmm, if you absolutely insist, then . . . fine. Since the chance of Mr. Reece Hamilton asking for your hand in marriage is highly unlikely, I suppose we can allow that one exception,” Millie reasoned.
Always full of energy and curiosity, Millie longed for excitement and was continually persuading her friends to participate in her unusual plots to seek and have fun. And from her point of view, the possibilities of losing her friendships and freedom were unacceptable results that too often accompanied wedding vows. Pledging her life to a man was the one promise she would never make. “So, let us swear an oath that none of us will ever agree to marry, unless the interfering . . .” Millie gulped as she caught Aimee’s evil glare and quickly added, “and
Reece Hamilton asks Aimee to marry him.”
She outstretched her hand. Aimee grasped it to seal the pledge, but Jennelle refrained. “I, too, would like to make an exception.”
Millie stood up, frowning in exasperation. “Jennelle! Do not tell me you are in love as well? How could you!”
Jennelle leaned back and waved her hands, unperturbed by Millie’s dramatics. “Oh no, I have not fallen in love, nor do I expect to. However, I would like to reserve the right to marry if an exception comes along,” she said in her typical logical voice. Jennelle, like her father, had a passion for reading, especially history. As a result, she tended to be pragmatic and often quoted the lessons she had learned from her studies.
“Well, you have to be more specific than that!” Millie stated, stomping her foot in frustration. “What good is a no-marriage pact if you can so easily get out of it?”
“Millie, calm down. You become so excitable over nothing,” Jennelle coaxed, and moved to sit in the sun. The bright afternoon light captured the fiery red highlights of her hair. Aimee’s mother called it rich auburn and constantly remarked how strange it was that the redhead of the group exhibited the most composure and self-control.
“And you are so
,” Millie retorted, trying to re-pin her hair so that it stayed out of her face.
Jennelle rolled her eyes. “My exception will be for someone who loves adventures as we do, is willing to take risks,
he must be a strong philosopher who enjoys reading, contemplation, and, on occasion, a good debate.”
Millie brightened. The likelihood of Jennelle meeting and falling in love with such a person was even less likely than Reece swooning over Aimee’s female charms. “A most excellent exception! That combination of traits surely does not exist within a single soul in all of England!”
“Do I not have those traits?” Jennelle asked, raising her voice slightly. “I believe I have accompanied you on many risky ventures, Millie Aldon.”
Millie was instantly contrite. In truth, Jennelle was quite the adventurer. She was often willing to try new, unfamiliar things when Aimee refused. “Of course you do. Those traits and more! I just meant that it was doubtful the combination you want exists in a
,” Millie clarified. “So, for our pact . . .” She stretched out her hand to start again.
“But what about you?” Aimee interrupted. “Do you not want an exception? The pact isn’t fair unless we all have exceptions. Is that not so, Jennelle?”
Jennelle nodded in agreement. “She is right, Millie. For our pledge to be equal, we must all have one, and only one, means of breaking our promise.”
Millie started pacing, considering the facts carefully. As usual, it was difficult to argue with Jennelle’s logic. Millie suddenly stopped and knelt down by her friends.
“Fine. This is my exception. I promise never, ever to marry unless I find a man who allows me to hunt, ride astride, climb trees,
explore caves. He must not ever be dull, have an aversion to following rules, and possess as strong a passion as I have for adventures,” Millie finished, smiling confidently.
“Lord, with that list you are surely safe from any and all men,” Jennelle commented. Millie’s grin grew, hearing the assessment. Jennelle shrugged her shoulders and continued. “But it does work as an exception. I am content. Aimee? Are you satisfied?”
“Oh yes. This is the best pact ever. Isn’t it, Millie?” Aimee asked, smiling.
Millie enthusiastically agreed. “The very best. It will ensure our friendship will last forever. What better pledge could there be?”
“Oh, but, Millie, our pledge is ever so much more than that. We are promising to marry only for love,” sighed Aimee. A romantic at heart, Aimee sought and usually found love everywhere. Her paintings, songs, and stories all reflected the affection she felt around her.
Jennelle gathered her knees up under her chin. She understood Aimee’s reason for pledging, but it was not love that motivated Jennelle to make the lifelong promise. “I think it is a pledge of protection. Yes, with the way we have stated our exceptions, if we ever do marry, it will be to someone who is our true friend. And, believe me, I have seen how horrid it can be to marry someone you dislike and who dislikes you,” Jennelle commented, remembering the numerous fights between Uncle Harry and Aunt Ethel. As a young child, she had often asked her father if her mama ever hollered at him. Every time, he replied that he had married his best friend, and best friends protected each other, and never sought to hurt the other.
Millie was not too sure she agreed with Jennelle or Aimee, but she didn’t care. This pact was one of lifelong friendship. No boy could ever understand or respect each other’s passions as she and her friends did.
“I believe we are now of accord,” Jennelle announced. “All we have to do now is to find something that binds our pledge.”
“Excellent idea!” Millie exclaimed.
Aimee’s eyes grew wide with shock at Jennelle’s declaration. She then glanced at Millie and realized her friend enthusiastically supported the idea. “Oh, not blood. Please, Millie, not blood,” Aimee cried.
“I’m not partial to blood, either,” Millie said absently, thinking on what they could use to bind their promise. “Besides, we have nothing with which to cut ourselves.”
“And,” interjected Jennelle, “Mother Wentworth would lock us up forever if she found out.”
“I believe she would understand,” asserted Millie in defense of Lady Chaselton. “She is a great supporter of our adventures.”
Millie’s and Aimee’s mothers had been childhood playmates whose strong friendship continued into adulthood. When Millie was six, her mother had suddenly taken ill and passed away, and Cecilia Wentworth took it upon herself to help look after her best friend’s daughter. That same summer, during a weekend country party, Aimee and Millie met Jennelle, who had also lost her mother. Seeing the inseparable bond grow between the three girls, Cecilia decided to nurture their friendship, foster their love for adventure, and, when possible, act as the mother Millie and Jennelle longed for. Soon they began calling her “Mother” Wentworth and often sought her counsel.
Every summer, Millie and Jennelle visited Aimee at the Wentworth country estate in Dorset. For three months, they explored and pursued adventure wherever they could find it. They considered themselves enterprising, while most adults—especially Aimee’s older brother, Charles—considered them reckless. Mother Wentworth creatively supported their efforts, calling them the clever “Daring Three,” which was often shortened by family and close friends to just the “Three.”
Millie clapped her hands together. “I know! Lavender! We can burn it in the fireplace this evening. Lots of cultures burn items to seal a promise. Is that not correct, Jennelle?” Millie asked rhetorically.
“Well, yes. That is true. Not often, though. And I have never read about any culture that used lavender, Millie. Usually it is a flag, or some symbol, and, of course, blood. But a flower?” Jennelle wondered.
“Sure. Why not?” Millie asked pointedly.
Jennelle shrugged her shoulders, conceding to the idea. It was better than blood.
“Lavender, Millie? Do we have any?” Aimee asked.
“We do! Remember? I put some in the cave we found. I’ll go get it,” Millie said as she prepared to run and search for the hidden dried flowers. Aimee grabbed Millie’s skirt just in time to keep her from disappearing. When Millie was on a mission, she could run faster than anyone.