Until You (Westmoreland Saga #3) - Page 6

Until You (Westmoreland Saga #3) - Page 6

Their "route" was whichever fork in the road took their fancy when they came upon it—usually heading south, along the eastern seaboard, in winter and north in summer. Sometimes they turned west when a particularly glorious sunset beckoned, or they angled southwest because a gurgling stream angled in that direction. In winter, when the snow sometimes made travelling difficult or impossible, there was always a farmer or a storekeeper who had need of an extra pair of willing hands, and her Irish father would trade his labor for a few nights' lodging.

As a result, by the time Sheridan was twelve, she'd slept in everything from a blanket in a hayloft to a feather bed in a house populated by a bevy of laughing ladies who wore vivid satin gowns with necklines so low their bosoms seemed to be in danger of toppling right out of them. But whether the mistress of their lodgings was a robust farmer's wife or a stern-faced preacher's wife or a lady in a purple satin dress trimmed with black feathers, their hostesses nearly always ended up doting on Patrick and fussing maternally over Sheridan. Charmed by his ready smile, his unfailing courtesy, and his willingness to work hard and long for bed and board, the ladies soon began cooking extra-large portions for him, baking his favorite desserts, and volunteering to mend his clothing.

Their goodwill extended to Sheridan too. They teased her affectionately about her mop of bright red hair and laughed when her father referred to her as his "little carrot." They let her stand on a stool when she volunteered to help wash dishes, and when she left, they gave her scraps of cloth or precious needles so she could fashion a new blanket or dress for her doll, Amanda. Sheridan hugged them and told them that she and Amanda were both very grateful, and they smiled because they knew she meant it. They kissed her good-bye and whispered that she was going to be very beautiful someday, and Sheridan laughed because she knew they couldn't possibly mean it. Then they watched Sheridan and her papa drive off in the wagon while they waved good-bye and called out "Godspeed" and "Come back soon."

Sometimes the people they stayed with hinted that her papa ought to remain to court one of their daughters or a neighbor's daughter, and the smile would remain on his handsome Irish face, but his eyes would darken as he said, " 'I thank you, but no.' 'Twould be bigamy, since Sheridan's mama is still alive in my heart."

The mention of Sheridan's mama was the one thing that could dim the smile in his eyes, and Sheridan always grew tense until he was himself again. For months after her mama and baby brother died from an illness called the flux, her papa behaved like a silent stranger, sitting beside the fire in their tiny cabin, drinking whiskey, ignoring the crops that were dying in the field and not bothering to plant more. He didn't talk, didn't shave, hardly ate, and seemed not to care whether their mule starved or not. Sheridan, who was six at the time and accustomed to helping her mama, tried to take over her mother's chores.

Her father seemed as unaware of Sheridan's efforts as he was of her failures and her grief. Then one fateful day, she burned both her arm and the eggs she'd cooked for him. Trying not to cry from the pain in her arm or the pain in her heart, she had lugged the wash down to the stream along with what was left of the lye soap. As she knelt on the bank and gingerly lowered her father's flannel shirt into the water, scenes from the happy past at this same spot came back to haunt her. She remembered the way her mama used to hum as she did the wash here while Sheridan supervised little Jamie's bath. She remembered the way Jamie used to sit in the water, gurgling happily, his chubby hands smacking the water in playful glee. Mama had loved to sing; she'd taught Sheridan songs from England and sung them with her while they worked. Sometimes she would stop singing and simply listen to Sheridan, her head tipped to the side, a strange, proud smile on her face. Often she would wrap Sheridan in a tight hug and say something wonderful, like, "Your voice is very sweet and very special—just like you are."

Memories of those idyllic days made Sheridan's eyes ache as she knelt at the stream. The words of her mama's favorite song whispered in her mind, along with the memory of her mama smiling, first at Jamie as he giggled and splashed, and then at Sheridan, who was usually getting soaked too. "Sing something for us," she would say. "Sing for us, angel…"

Sheridan tried to obey the remembered request, but her voice broke and her eyes flooded with tears. With the heels of her hands, she rubbed the tears away only to discover that her father's shirt was now floating downstream, already out of her reach, and then Sheridan lost the battle to be brave and grown-up. Drawing her knees against her chest, she buried her face in her mama's apron and sobbed with grief and terror. Surrounded by summer wildflowers and the scent of fresh grass, she rocked back and forth, crying until her throat ached and her words were only a croaking whispered chant. "Mama," she wept, "I miss you, I miss you, I miss you. I miss Jamie. Please come back to Papa and me. Please come back, please come back. Oh, please. I can't do it alone, Mama. I can't do it. I can't, I can't—"

Her litany of grief was suddenly interrupted by her father's voice—not the dull, lifeless, terrifyingly unfamiliar voice he'd had for months, but his old voice—hoarse now with concern and love. Crouching beside her, he'd pulled her into his arms. "I can't do it alone either," he'd said, cradling her tightly against him. "But I'll wager we can do it together, sweeting."

Later, after he'd mopped her tears, he'd said, "How would you like to leave here and go travelling, just you and me? We'll make every day an adventure. I used to have great adventures. That's how I met your mama—I was having an adventure in England, in Sherwyn's Glen. Someday, we'll go back to Sherwyn's Glen, you and me. Only not the way your mama and I left. This time, we'll go back in grand style."

Before Sheridan's mama died, she'd talked nostalgically about the picturesque village in England where she'd been born, about its beautiful countryside, its treelined lanes, and the dances she'd attended at the assembly rooms there. She'd even named Sheridan after a particular kind of rose that bloomed at the parsonage, a special species of red rose that she said bloomed in g.a.y profusion along the white fence surrounding the parsonage.

Sheridan's father's preoccupation with returning to Sherwyn's Glen seemed to start after her mother's death. What puzzled Sheridan for a long while, however, was exactly why her papa wanted to go back there so badly, particularly when the most important man in the village seemed to be an evil, proud, monster of a man named Squire Faraday who lorded it over everyone and who would not make a good neighbor at all when her papa built his mansion right next to his home, which was his intention.

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