“I’m going to see to the horses, Lillian!”
My voice carried across the open room, echoing slightly between the high ceiling and supporting rafters. Only three customers were inside at the moment, two seated at a corner wood table. They spoke over candlelight. A few wicks were already burning, scattered about numerous thick, wooden tables that filled up the majority of the space. A cozy blaze burned in the fireplace, framed by a wall of gray rock. These flickering flames compensated for an early darkness, the result of stormy skies outside.
A third man stood facing me, drenched to the bone from the downpour he’d escaped stepping inside the inn. He was a grouchy and impatient character the moment he arrived, demanding his horses be sheltered and watered immediately. Being the only one available, I figured I’d see to it myself. I peered through the shutters to size up his ride; two brown mares tied to a cart protected by a canvas cover. Lillian’s loud voice carried from the kitchen around the corner.
“Where’s Thomas? He and Stephen can see to the animals!”
“Stephen and Walter are with Henry! I don’t know where Thomas is!”
I noticed how the man had removed his riding gloves and was now slapping the leather against a cupped hand. His hair, though wet, was a black mess of curls. His face lacked any whiskers which made it easy to read the hard, disgruntled line on his lips. I had a difficult time keeping eye contact with his piercing stare, especially when one dark brow perked in a ‘V’ like a flock of migrating geese.
“My horses are drowning out there,” he complained.
“Yes, sir. I’ll see to them now, sir,” I said. While stepping over to the door, I told him, “The innkeeper’s wife will be right out. She’ll show you to a room.”
A shadow fell over me in an instant and I turned, startled to find the stranger close at my back. He grumbled over my head. “I might as well help you in the stable. I’m drenched anyway. Why this place hired a girl to do a man’s job….”
He trailed off about the same time Lillian made her appearance. Though a woman, she was visibly a force to be reckoned with; a tall, broad, husky figure in an apron and skirt. Her hair was always a dark, thick knot at her back. The mere sight of her made the average man hesitate. The fry pan she frequently carted around probably had a little to do with it.
I froze with my hand on the door handle. The man beside me did the same, pausing with his hand above my head on the wood trim.
“You aren’t goin’ anywhere, Missy. ‘Specially not with the likes of some self-seeking stranger.”
We both dropped our reach at the sight of her evil eye. It was a look she often used on her boys, husband included. That unforgiving stare was presently focused on the man dripping wet beside me.
“Oh no, no, no, no, no,” he denied her unspoken allegations, “All I wanted was to get my horses out of the rain, that’s all! I was merely offering my assistance…”
“I bet you were,” Lillian growled. Her eyes dropped to me, changing from suspicious to irritated. “Where in the bloody streets of London is Thomas?”
I shrugged, though I was fairly sure he wasn’t anywhere near London. It never made any sense to me why she and Henry always said that.
Lillian grumbled in her throat, then pointed the tip of her frying pan at our latest guest. “You need a room?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he nodded once. I thought I saw him flinch just a hair.
Lillian gestured with the pan to the door behind us. “Them horses of yours’ll wait for Thomas or Henry. One of ‘em will show shortly. The little Missy here knows bugger all about tending to horses anyway.”
I felt slightly insulted, but held my tongue. I was certain I knew as much as Thomas did.
The man nodded, accepting the lady innkeeper’s terms, though his mouth frowned unhappily.
Lillian lowered the fry pan to her side and gestured with her head this time. “Come on then. You can sign in and I’ll get you a warm, private room.” She jerked her chin at me. “Get your skinny backside into that kitchen, girl, and see to the pile of dishes you been neglecting. I don’t know what in the devil I pay you for!”
“You don’t pay me, Lilly,” I muttered.
“Don’t give me any of your cheek,” she warned, widening an eye at me. Then she hummed in her throat as though seriously contemplating the matter for a moment. “Well then, I don’t know what in the devil I let you hang around for!” She winked at me to let me know she was teasing.
“To wash all your grimy dishes,” I grumbled, smiling crookedly to let her know I was playing along. Then I disappeared around the corner into a hot and humid kitchen that echoed with every iron-kettle ‘clink’ and ‘clang’.
I was elbow-deep in hot water and suds, listening to the sporadic crack of wicked thunder outside when the backdoor flew open. The sudden gust caught my hair and tossed it away from my face. Though the air was chilly, it actually felt good in contrast to the hot and sweaty steam bath I was bent over. I saw Thomas’ blonde head peek inside, his blue eyes darting here and there checking for a sign of his mother. Both broad shoulders cleared the light when his tall figure leaned halfway through the entry. I was about to murmur his name reproachfully when his big eyes landed on me. He called me to him with both a hushed voice and an urgent gesture.
“Michelle, come here! Hurry up!”
I hesitated for a moment, certain that Lillian would be upset if she came to find her kitchen entirely empty of any help. My pause seemed to irritate Thomas, and his wide eyes narrowed.
“Come on, Michelle!” he insisted.
I tossed my dish rag aside and hustled out the door with him.
Thomas had my wrist within his tight grasp as he pulled me along to the stables. I had to run to keep up with his wide gait. The sky was a dark grey cloak, marred by a muted, red tinge on the western edge. I kept my head down as we ran, shoulders slouched and tense, withering beneath the downpour. As Thomas pulled me inside the sheltering walls of the stable, a violent crash of thunder made me cringe into him. Thomas didn’t seem to mind my closeness. Three seconds later the sky lit up like midday; a bright staggering show of lightning. I noticed the brown mares contained in separate stalls. Apparently Thomas had attended to the animals before seeking me out.
“Does your mother know you’re here?” I asked.
As dark as it was, I could still see his lips curl up unattractively, making a scornful expression that answered the question for me.
“Thomas, Lillian’s looking for you. Your brothers and your father are all gone, which leaves no one else to tend to the men’s work but you. I nearly had to see to the horses myself to cover for you. And I would have had your mother not objected.”
Thomas snickered. “You? Right. You can barely do women’s work with any amount of competency.”
His lack of faith in me stung. “I could do it,” I murmured under my breath, “I’m more capable than you think.”
“You’re just a girl,” he groaned, rolling his eyes in perfect time with a staggering boom of thunder.
I winced at the ferocity of nature’s voice, then overcompensated for my show of fear by rising on tiptoes, sticking out my chin high and proud. “I’m no girl anymore. I’m nearly seventeen, a grown woman.”
“You’re sixteen. An ignorant baby and a useless pest incapable of any real, hard labor. You’re as soft and delicate as your mother was.”
“You leave my mother out of this or so help me!” I growled, glaring at him with the intention of physically backing up my threat, capable or not. A brief look of pity let me know he was both sorry and not intimidated.
“Look, Michelle.” Thomas pulled a folded envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket. He held it in his palm and let it fall open. The protected paper in between stared face up at me. It was a single, thin printed sheet, both stamped and dated.
“What’s this?” I asked. My eyes scanned over the big print, taking in bits and pieces but making no sense of it.
The Marcus Hill……. William McCorkell & Co. Ltd…..
Captain Archibald……..May the fifth…….. the Americas……
My eyes suddenly grew wide with understanding. “Thomas? You bought a ticket to America? You’re sailing away?”
“Shhhhh,” he said, his brows tightening over scrunched eyes. He took me by the shoulder and pulled me further into the stable, back against a tall stack of hay.
I found myself reacting in a panic. Not that Thomas was ever really all that nice to me, but I never wished for him to run away. I didn’t want him to leave!
“Why? Where did you even get the money? Does your mother know? Does your father know? Thomas, no! You can’t go!”
“I can so!” he declared, straightening himself up squarely. His eyes transformed in a flash, from bright and eager to severe and determined. “I’m nineteen years old now. A real man of the world who wants more from life than a future watering horses and chopping wood and catering to rude patrons at some rundown waterfront inn.”
“But….but…..but…” I couldn’t manage to stammer out a coherent argument.
“But nothing,” he said, raising both brows in a challenging manner. “I’m master of my own destiny, Michelle, and I’ve chosen it. I’ll be bound for America in three days. I’m leaving without a word to anyone, except you.” His eyes changed again, falling soft and earnest. “Michelle, I want you to say goodbye to my family for me after I’m gone.”
My head shook all on it’s own; small, frantic movements.
He moved to loom over me in a daunting manner while his lips pursed and his eyes narrowed. “You’ll do as you’re told, woman!”
I scrunched my hazel eyes and stared up at him. “I thought you said I was merely a girl.”
“You know what I mean.”
We stared nose-to-nose for a long moment, both too stubborn to turn away immediately. I was first to give in, however, weakened by the sorrow penetrating my heart. I couldn’t bear the thought of Lillian and Henry’s family breaking up. I’d spent over two years under their roof, picked on and misused to some degree, but accepted and cared for nonetheless. It hurt too much to imagine Thomas gone. It felt like my life was at the brink of unraveling again; those I’d trusted to hold me up, suddenly letting go and disappearing…….forever.
“Please, Thomas, don’t go,” I begged, “Your mother will be heartbroken.”
He tucked the printed ticket into his jacket and crossed his arms mulishly, leaning back against the tall pile of hay. “Well now, that’s just too bad. I’m not her baby anymore. It won’t do for me to hide under the old hen’s wings forever.”
It was clear there’d be no talking him out of this lunacy. He’d probably spent months thinking it through, planning and saving for his adventure. So, I resorted to the only tactic I could think of. I spun around on my heels and headed for the inn, admonishing him over my shoulder.
“I’m going to tell on you. Your father will tear up that ticket! He’ll never let you go! He’ll never allow you to break Lillian’s heart.”
Within a crack of thunder, before the trailing flash of lightning, I was shoved up against the hay bales, held in place by Thomas’ firm hands. His face had lost it’s smugness, now a desperate glower only inches from mine.
“You’ll keep your gob shut or I’ll strangle the last breath out of you! Nobody in this whole town’d miss the likes of a bratty orphan girl.”
I dropped my gaze, hoping he couldn’t see how much that hurt me. His grip on my arms tightened, shaking me now and then as he tried to make me understand his motivation. His dream.
“I have to go, Michelle. There’s a life out there for me, one that calls to me and haunts my dreams. Sometimes I envision it with such clarity that I can taste and smell and nearly grasp the reins with my fingers. I’ve heard so many stories about the Americas, I can actually picture the wide-open fields stretching on for miles, unclaimed and ripe, waiting to be tilled or mined or built upon or whatever it is a man desires to do! I can see acres of farmland, green crops popping up in endless rows. And a log cabin built by my own hands sitting on the very edge.”
A fist that had clenched in a show of hard labor opened, his palm coming near my face but not quite touching.
“And a pretty girl, a woman, standing inside the doorway, smiling at me, calling me husband. I can see a pack of boys, all mine, good strapping lads running the farm, my farm, milking cows and maybe herding a few sheep. Maybe we’d even raise some chickens or pigs or goats, I dunno. All I know is, none of that could ever be mine here. None of it. In England all I got is a miserable destiny as some cranky, old innkeeper. I don’t want that, Michelle. I want my dream. I want to make it a reality through my own hard work and initiative. And in America it can happen. That’s where my hope lies. I have to go, Michelle, can’t you see that?”
I’d never been much for dreams. They seemed a luxury meant for people of means. But I could see in Thomas’ eyes how much he believed that his was within reach.
“I’ll miss you,” I gasped. I couldn’t believe how much my voice sounded like a sob. Why in the world should I cry over the mean, teasing, bully, Thomas? He never did anything but boss me around and pull my hair and criticize me and get me into trouble with his parents. I should be glad to see him go. But I wasn’t.
I felt a tear betray me; spill over my lower lid and glide down my cheek. I turned my profile to him, hoping the dark would hide the evidence of my sensitive emotions. Apparently he caught my mistake, because he turned my face back and wiped away the rebel tear.
“I wish I could take you with me, Michelle.”
My eyes shot up, wide with incredulity. “You do?”
He nodded, but it was the softness in his gaze that really got to me. I’d swear his expression was one of genuine sincerity. Another tear escaped, and I quickly wiped at my eyes to keep anymore moisture from making me appear weak.
“I’m sorry, Michelle,” I heard him breath over my head, “But I spent every last bit of money I had to buy my own transport. It’s not a fancy vessel, but it’s headed in the right direction. It took me forever to save up enough for the fare. Truth be told, I swiped a few coins from Father’s purse. Please don’t tell.”
I shook my head. Of course I wouldn’t tell.
The air vibrated with a loud bang and I flinched, my muscles tensing in Thomas’ grip. My heartbeat doubled in time, startled by the thunder. Then I felt his fingers release my arm and slip tenderly against my neck. His touch was a hot spark that meshed perfectly with the sudden flash of white lightning. I shuddered. The momentary illumination of his features made him look..….well…..beautiful. His thumb brushed against my jaw.
“You don’t have to be afraid, Michelle. It’s just nature talking to you.”
“Shouting at me,” I said, with one awkward chuckle.
Thomas smiled. My heartbeat pounded so fast I feared it might actually drown out the thunder.
“Have you ever kissed a boy in a thunderstorm before?”
“Wh…what?” His question took me completely off guard. His thumb stopped near my lips and rested.
“I’m just asking,” he said with an innocent shrug.
I shrugged too, not really an answer but a way to put off the truth. I felt hot, flushed. It seemed like he was a little too close to me, though I wasn’t aware he’d moved any.
“Have you ever kissed a boy?” he asked. I scrunched my eyes, searching his face for some sign that he was teasing me; another cruel joke. I found no duplicity in his gaze.
I swallowed. “You ever kissed a girl?” I asked.
His eyes dropped for a split-second as he admitted, “No.”
“Me neither,” I breathed. His lips grinned with humor, and I quickly corrected my blunder. “I mean, I’ve never kissed a boy, not a girl. Not that I’ve ever kissed a girl either, except for my mother.”
I bit my lip to keep from babbling on foolishly any longer. The thumb near my mouth began to move again, brushing lightly along the lower lip. His touch drew sparks all along it’s path.
“I think it’d be a good idea for me to kiss a girl before I leave. I mean, if I’m to be a man, I can’t be ignorant in the ways of love. That wouldn’t be right, now, would it?”
I didn’t say anything. I was too distracted by his touch and his closeness and this inconsistency in my brain between Thomas, the bully, and Thomas, the beautiful man looking down longingly at me. I could hear my mother’s voice whispering in my head, a remembrance from when I was a young girl.
“Be wary of boys, Michelle. They like girls too much. Get used to saying ‘no’, that is until you’re married to one of them. Never forget, your chastity is a gem. Protect it. Don’t let any boy steal it from you.”
“No,” I muttered, repeating the word from my memory.
“No,” Thomas repeated, “I agree, that wouldn’t be right.”
I didn’t understand at first. Then I realized he’d taken my utterance as an answer to his question.
The stable walls shook at an exceptionally loud crack of thunder. The blinding flash of lightning to follow was almost instantaneous. I cringed at the clamor, pressing my back into the hay bales. But Thomas had other ideas. He pulled me into him and wrapped his arms around me. His lips came down firmly on mine, pressing us together with nearly as much energy as the exploding sky outside. At first it was too aggressive and I pushed against his chest, seeking release. But he kept me tight in his embrace and softened his attack. An objectionable whimper mellowed into a moan as his mouth molded to fit with mine, his tongue daring to taste the passion. There was no physical space between us and yet I felt myself move closer, my will merging with his. The feeling was beyond mere sparks and heat and pleasure, it was…..bliss.
When Thomas pulled his lips away, we both suffered shallow breaths. We grinned simultaneously, then blushed.
“My heart’s racing as fast as a …” He paused as if at a loss for words.
“As quick as a lark,” I offered.
“Yes, like that,” he smiled. He breathed deeply in and out, exhaling with a tremble. “I um, I think that was……….really good.”
I felt my cheeks warm even more. “Really?”
Still wrapped snugly in his arms, I nudged him, a little embarrassed. He moved back, forcing me to stand straighter and hold my own weight.
“You know, I was wrong about something.” I heard him speak over my head, his voice and breathing returned to normal. I tensed, fearing the beautiful Thomas I’d just shared my first kiss with was reverting back into the cruel imp I knew too well. I felt my heart sink, preparing for a critical remark. “You’re no girl,” he said.
I braced myself for the hurtful punch line.
“You are definitely a woman, Michelle. An incredible one.”
I was speechless.
His hand lifted and fell gently on my cheek. Then his other hand moved so he could hold my face by each side. I stared into his fervent gaze, knowing what was coming. The thunder boomed, but I didn’t flinch. Then he kissed me again, and my world lit up as brightly as the stormy sky.
I’m not sure how long we kissed, but the thunderstorm passed during that time. The rain ceased to patter on the rooftop. My hair was entangled with straw bits and the back of my dress probably just as messy when we both heard Henry calling out for his son. Thomas bit my lip, startled by his father’s voice.
“Ouch,” I whimpered.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, patting my mouth gently with his fingers. His blue eyes darted here and there as he scanned the stable for a quick hiding place. His fingers slipped between my own, gripping my hand and pulling me along toward the horse stalls. I couldn’t help but smile giddily. During the two years we’d known each other Thomas had dragged me around plenty of times, but always with a tight hold on my wrist. He’d never held my hand before.
We hustled into an empty stall, and Thomas kindly helped me to the ground. He then removed his jacket and draped it over my shoulders.
“Stay put. And stay quiet. I’ll take care of father.”
I nodded. Oddly, I wasn’t worried nor concerned about parental wrath. My head was too dizzy, enthralled by the gentlemanly way Thomas was behaving toward me.
“Thomas! Tommy, are you out here, boy?!”
“I’m here father! I’m with the new mares!”
I heard the scuffle of heavy footfall, understanding that Henry had walked in. The corner of my empty stall was a perfect place to eavesdrop on their conversation.
“Where in the bloody streets of London have you been? You been dossin’ all day, boy?”
“No, father. I’ve been busy working on things.”
“Really? Well, your mother’s runnin’ a nice, tight string of tizzies, I’ll tell you. She says she hasn’t seen hide nor hair of you all day, and now our little Missy’s run off as well. Left a basin full of dishes soaking. Your mother’s gonna drag ‘er in by the ear if she finds the girl. You ain’t seen her around, have you?”
I caught a hint of hesitation in Thomas’ reply. “I did see her in the kitchen, earlier.”
“You been in the kitchen?”
“A man gets hungry.”
“A boy too, I ’spose.”
Henry laughed. I didn’t hear the slightest chuckle from Thomas and got a glimpse of why he felt so inclined to set out on a journey to prove himself. My heart wilted slightly, reminded that he’d be gone in three short days.
“I told Michelle I’d finish those dishes for her. I was gonna do it earlier, but it slipped my mind. It’s not her fault they didn’t get done. It’s mine.”
My mouth gaped silently. I was in a state of shock and could only imagine by the prolonged silence that Henry was too.
“You offered to do Michelle’s chores?”
“Am I missing something here, boy?”
“No, father. I mean, um…..Michelle was coughing, working over the hot water. It bothered me, I guess. You know, reminded me of how her mother died working in the laundresses, all starting from a simple cough. I was afraid her daughter might share the same delicate lungs. I sent her to lie down so she wouldn’t catch her death.”
“Mighty thoughtful.” Henry spoke the words with a clear ring of skepticism. I didn’t blame him. Thomas wasn’t popular for being considerate of others. Especially not me.
“It’s not like I want the brat to die or anything,” Thomas groaned in his own defense.
“Aye,” Henry agreed. “Well, you better let your mother in on this. And you better get a move on those dishes if they’re your charge now. I guess I’ll head over and check on the little Missy then. She’s probably been sleepin’ out the storm in her room.”
I heard Henry’s footsteps fade as he headed away. Thomas was at my side in a flash, yanking me up off the ground. His fingers interlaced with mine as he hurried us both to the stable’s wide entry. There he paused to peek outside, checking for any sign of figures moving about. A portion of the full moon was visible, the hidden part a glowing aura enhanced by hazy cloud cover. The evening smelled clean and fresh, like hand-picked flowers and sliced cucumbers. It seemed too dark for a thorough look at the yard, but Thomas appeared confident enough when he dragged me along in a near sprint toward the rear corner of the inn. We stopped beside an elm tree, twice the height of the two-story building.
He reclaimed his jacket, then looked me over before turning me around and swatting at my skirt, brushing away bits of clinging straw. My fingers combed frantically through my dark lengths of hair, trying to dislodge the grass that had attached itself to me. Thomas helped. Then he urged me up the tree, climbing right behind me. A thick, sturdy bough stretched about two feet from an upstairs window that happened to grant admittance to an empty room only three doors down from my assigned accommodations.
“Hurry, Michelle,” Thomas urged.
I’d hesitated on the limb, but reached for the shutters with him holding fast to my waist. It wasn’t too difficult stepping across the breach to climb safely inside.
Thomas remained in the elm’s branches, staring at me the same way I stared back at him from the window. He smiled, a soft expression of approval. Then his features turned suddenly serious.
“You better get to your room before father does.”
I nodded in agreement, but found it difficult to turn away from him.
“I’ll come by and see you later tonight.” Thomas said, quickly adding, “If that’s alright with you?” His brows slanted a hair, eager for my response.
Again, I nodded. He smiled elatedly and I mirrored the expression.
“Get going, Michelle,” he finally ordered, flicking his hand in the air as though he’d swat me along.
I turned and hustled to my room, snuggling my happy heart beneath a heavy quilt only minutes before Henry quietly cracked open the door to check on me.
“Night, little Missy,” he whispered, “Sweet dreams.”
My lips thinned unconsciously, beaming like the sun in the darkness. Who needed dreams when real life was far sweeter?
Copyright 2012 Richelle E. Goodrich