Seabourne, Virginia April 1842
Esther Cherrett removed the sketchbook from her satchel and lifted it to the highest shelf in the armoire. She didn't need pictures of men whose form existed simply in her imagination's portrayals, in colored chalks—not where she was going. And drawings of her family would only make her sad. Make her feel guilty.
She didn't need the satchel either. Its packets of herbs, rolls of bandages, and canvas apron for protecting her dresses during a lying-in would be of as little use in her new position as were the drawings. She started to hoist it up to the shelf too, but her arms shook as though the black leather bag weighed a hundred pounds instead of ten, and she let it drop.
It landed on the blue floral rug with a thud. The latch sprang open and poked up like an accusing finger. You shouldn't be doing this, it seemed to say in the voice of Letty O'Tool, the eldest congregant in the church. You aren't answering to your calling.
Esther snapped the latch back into place, then popped it open again, retrieved the sketchbook from its shelf, and shoved it amongst the instruments of the profession she had determined to leave behind in Seabourne. Leave behind with the scorn and ridicule she'd faced over the past four months.
"I'm ready now." She glanced around the room growing dim in the April twilight to see if she had forgotten anything essential for a 350-mile trek across the mountains and her new life beyond the Blue Ridge. Nothing on the dressing table, inside the armoire, beneath the bed. She had squeezed all she could manage into two carpetbags and an oilskin pouch. Everything else must remain behind.
"Except—" She dove beneath the bed and reached up between headboard and wall. Her fingers encountered stiff paper, and she yanked at it.
A bundle of foolscap and fine stationery tied together with a black ribbon dropped into her hand. She should either take the letters or burn them before she departed, whatever necessary so her parents didn't find the condemnatory, derisive, even threatening words from people they thought they knew well—her father's parishioners, her mother's patients. People her parents thought liked them and respected them, but who condemned them as well in the missives.
"Once I'm gone, they'll see it's not your fault," Esther said to the mental pictures of her parents.
She shoved the written messages into the oilskin pouch amongst her books, then turned to the door. The time had come to tell her parents about her plans to spare them all from more heartache.
Head high, knees wobbly, she descended the steps to the first floor—the ground floor, Papa called it in his confusing English way. At that moment, on that late April evening with the celebration of her youngest brother's wedding behind them and the guests about to depart, it was the crowded floor. Laughter and the clink of china cups on saucers rang out from the parlor. In the music room, someone played the pianoforte, accompanied by the chime of silverware in the dining room, where the maids cleared away the supper dishes. The scent of lilacs and squeals of delight drifted through the open windows as children chased moths through Momma's garden.
Momma herself stood in the front hall, a shawl flung around her shoulders and her satchel in hand. She glanced at Esther, and her heart-shaped face lit with the warmth of her smile. "Are you coming with me after all?"
"Coming with you?" Esther blinked. "There's a lying-in?"
"Yes, Mrs. Parker's time has come." Momma's eyes glowed as they always did at the prospect of bringing a new life into the world. "I thought you would have heard their boy come to fetch me. But no matter. I can wait a few minutes if you wish to come."
Momma's half smile, her downcast eyes, conveyed her longing for Esther to say yes, she would go. The cord that had held her to her mother's profession for nearly six years tugged at Esther's heart, urging her to go, to experience the moments she had found so precious. She took a half step forward.
Then she saw the words from more than one missive emblazoned on her mind's eye. Jezebel was the kindest of them. If she went, she could further harm the career of midwifery at which her mother had worked for over forty years.
Esther retreated to the first step, her back against the balustrade. "Thank you, but I. . . can't." Esther's eyes burned, and she looked away to avoid seeing Momma's tightened lips.
Six years ago—no, six months ago—she would have been the one waiting for Momma before dashing out the door. For most of her life, she had eagerly awaited the day she would become Tabitha Eckles Cherrett's new apprentice midwife, carrying on a family tradition that had been passed from mother to daughter for generations, beginning in England and continuing in America. And now Esther must break the chain so Momma could continue her work of delivering babies and healing.
"I came down to—to speak to you and Papa for a few minutes," Esther added. "But if you must leave . . ."
She would have to tell Papa and let him break the news to Momma. Surely that would be easier than seeing Momma's heart break.
"It can wait a bit," Esther continued.
"Not if you're troubled." Momma set down her satchel. "I'll send the boy ahead to tell them I'm on my way. They're only across the square, so if there's a need for me to be there sooner, I can run over." She turned toward the kitchen, where the Parkers' servant would be waiting to accompany the midwife across the darkening town square. "Your father is in his office looking for a book."
"Her father is now in the hall to see why his two best ladies are talking about his whereabouts." Papa emerged from behind the staircase with the languid stride not in the least diminished by his fifty-seven years. "Going out, Tabby?"
Momma turned to him like a compass to the North Star, her mouth relaxing into a smile again, her eyes more shining blue than gray. "Yes, Mrs. Parker's time has come."
"That's wonderful news." Papa laid his hand on her cheek and kissed her on her widow's peak.
Esther clutched the newel post and fought a surge of pain in her middle strong enough to give her nausea. Since she'd turned sixteen, she had sought for a man who would make her look at him as Momma did Papa, and the other way around. She had conjured his image in her mind and set her dreams in colored chalks in her sketchbook. She observed her brothers courting, marrying, and the eldest two producing children. At the same time she watched the men on the eastern shore of Virginia shy away from her, call her Queen Esther behind her back, and end up marrying other females who didn't have an English marquess for an uncle, a mother who knew all the town's secrets, and a profession of her own.
Now the eligible young men simply ran from her as though fearing for their virtue.
"Are you going with her, Esther?" Papa turned to her, eyes wide.
"No, I—" Esther made the mistake of looking into his face, the eyes she dared not call beautiful since the same dark brown orbs with their gold flecks and ridiculously long lashes peered back at her from every mirrored surface, as did her own delicate version of his aristocratic features.
She flicked her gaze right and down, concentrated on a drift of lilac petals fallen from a vase and onto the polished floorboards. "I still can't. I—" She took a long, shuddering breath and gripped the newel post with both hands, curling her fingers into the carved leaf design like marlinespikes holding a sail line in place—holding herself in place before she raised her eyes to her parents' faces. "I'm leaving Seabourne."
Momma caught her breath and pressed her hand to her lips.
Papa's eyes widened further, and his chin hardened. "By whose leave, young lady?"
"Mine. That is—" A lifetime of obedience crowded down upon her shoulders. "I have to go. I have ... no future here now."
"Of course you do." Momma spoke hastily. Perhaps too hastily. "Your sweet spirit will overcome the talk."
"When some new scandal comes along?" Esther cast her parents a smile that barely moved her lips up at the corners. "Perhaps in another thirty years or so?"
"Sarcasm is not attractive in a young lady," Papa said. Then he sighed. "But I wish it didn't hold at least a drop of truth." He closed the distance between them and rested his hand over hers on the newel post. "You aren't going to brazen this out, my dear? Have I raised a craven for a daughter?”
I think so." Esther blinked back tears and would not meet his gaze. "I'm running away, I am well aware. And I see no other choice."
"You could have discussed it with us." Momma joined them at the foot of the steps. "If you want to go, we can send you back west with the Dochertys."
"I thought about that." Esther glanced toward the parlor and the remaining guests who had come for the wedding. "But they know."
"They'll never tell anyone," Momma said.
Esther nodded. "I agree. But they know, and perhaps they have their doubts about me. About whether or not I'm telling the truth." She removed her hand from beneath Papa's and backed up a step. "I just wanted to tell you of my plans so you wouldn't worry."
"As if we won't." Papa reached out his hand to her.
Esther's fingers twitched to take it and go down to him and Momma, let them hold her as they had when she was small, as they had four months earlier, as they had every time she hurt and needed comfort. The idea of living without their loving arms around her whenever she needed reassurance, which seemed like every day now, felt like a hole ripping open inside her.
She backed up another step, out of arm's reach. "I need to go where no one knows anything more about me than they need to."
"But you can't, child," Momma protested. "How will you live? You might not be safe on your own."
Esther bit down on her tongue to stop herself from reminding them that she hadn't been safe living at home.
"I won't be on my own," she said instead. "The families I'll be working for are coming to fetch me."
"Indeed." Papa's supercilious eyebrows arched toward a hairline now more silver than the deep
brown shot with copper and bronze that Esther had inherited. "And when is this, and who are
Esther crossed her arms over her chest. "S-soon, and no one you ever heard of. They live on the other side of the commonwealth. I didn't want to leave without letting you know first."
"I suppose we are honored," Papa murmured.
Momma laid her hand on his arm. "Sarcasm, love."
"Ah, yes, my dear conscience." He smiled at Momma.
Esther's heart crushed down on her stomach, it hurt so much to see how deeply they loved one another even after thirty-three years of marriage. She had dreamed of having that kind of future with her husband. Now she would never have a husband.
"Please," she whispered, clasping her upper arms with her hands, "just let me go."
Papa gazed up at her, the corners of his mouth tight. "Esther, we would be neglecting our God-ordained duty if we let you go without knowing to whom and to where."
"And if they are godly men and women," Momma added before drawing her lower lip between her teeth. She failed to stop a tear from slipping from one corner of her eye.
Esther's own eyes burned. "I can't. I mean, I'd rather no one here know so the letters can't—" She clapped her hand over her mouth.
Papa's eyes narrowed. "What letters?"
"Nothing." She started to turn away.
"Do not!" Papa surged past her up the steps and blocked her way. "Esther Phoebe Cherrett, what letters?"
She looked up at him without meeting his eyes. "Some notes people have sent me, is all."
"And why were we not told about them?" Papa demanded.
Esther shrugged, realized how disrespectful that was, and shook her head. "Please don't make me tell you. They were mean."
"Did they suggest you leave town?" Momma asked. Esther nodded.
Papa ground his teeth. "And you think you'll give in?" "To protect all of you, yes." "Protect us?" Momma began.
"Regardless of why," Papa said at the same time, "you will go nowhere without telling us where and with whom."
"Nor without us meeting—" Pounding on the front door interrupted Momma.
"Mrs. Cherrett," a shrill voice called through the panels. "Mrs. Cherrett, quick."
Momma dropped her head for a moment, then straightened her shoulders. "Dominick, I am so sorry to have to leave you, but duty calls."
"I know, Tabby. It is quite all right." Again he gave her that devastating smile that must have melted Momma's heart the first time she met him.
Esther closed her eyes and considered making a dash for the rear staircase while he was distracted with Momma's departure. She took a step down.
The parlor door opened, and her four brothers, their wives, and two guest couples spilled out, chattering and laughing and talking about joining the children on the lawn. People Esther loved so much she couldn't breathe. Her heart raced at what she was about to do, but she had no choice. She flung herself into their midst and followed them into the yard and the growing darkness. Behind her, Papa said something about her coming back. She ignored him. If she turned back and read the pain on his face, she wouldn't be able to leave for anyone's sake.
The cool, damp air of mid-spring wrapped its arms around her, a contrast to the cold fog that had clutched her as she ran home in January. Ran away from the disaster she had surely brought upon herself.
Run. Run. Run now and don't look back.
Not yet. She couldn't leave her things behind. She wanted to see her family one more time.
She ran to the garden gate and opened the latch. The wrought iron swung out on well-oiled hinges.
And two shadows detached themselves from either side of the opening.
She gasped, choking on a cry, and flattened herself against the gate, hand groping for the latch.
"You're safe." The voice belonged to a female, gentle and low with the hint of a mountain twang. "I'm Hannah Gosnoll. My brother Zachary Brooks and I are here to carry you west."
"But I thought—I thought—" Esther's breathing and heart raced as though she'd been running. She took a deep breath to steady herself. "I thought the Tollivers were coming to fetch me."
"They were." The voice of the taller shadow—presumably Zachary Brooks—was deeper, smoother than his sister's. "But our cousin Griffin suffered an unfortunate accident on his way here."
"An accident?" Esther's mind raced over the letter she had received from Mrs. Tolliver, the plea to take the work for the sake of her younger children. She had warned that life in the mountains could be difficult but not dangerous. "What sort of an accident?"
"Nothing serious," Hannah said.
"As long," Zachary added, "as that knife in his belly didn't go through his innards."
Esther Cherrett comes from a proud line of midwives and was trained by her mother to take over the family calling. When a terrible scandal threatens all she holds dear, Esther flees, taking a position as a teacher in the wild western mountains of Virginia. But instead of the refuge she was seeking, Esther finds herself in the midst of a deadly family feud--and courted by two men on opposite sides of the conflict. All she wants is to run away again.
Yet could it be that her past holds the key to reconciliation--and love?