Wages of Sin – Jen Yates

‘Race you to the lake.’ A Levi-challenge. Levi-challenges could never be resisted. Heels nudging her pony’s ribs Lady Liberty Davencourt set off in pursuit of her ‘particeps criminis’ as his mother had termed them on more than one occasion throughout their childhood. She might be two years younger, but Liberty was determined there was nothing the miller’s son could do that she couldn’t match. It had been so since they’d first met, since his mother had come to work at Stannesford Hall as companion to her mother and as governess to the children of the Earl and Countess of Stannesford. Since they’d shared a schoolroom. His father might only be the miller but his mother had been raised a lady—and well educated. Somewhat unusual. But much about the household at Stannesford Hall was unusual. Mrs. Longfellow and her children fit right in, which made the school room a lively place. Levi Longfellow’s brother, Philip, and her sister, Charity, plodding on ancient ponies in their wake, could never keep up with them on a mad tear, which was the point of their wild gallops. They could lose the younger ones and for a few precious minutes it would be just the two of them and the wide rolling meadows of Stannesford. Those were the times Levi dreamed up his wickedest ideas and wildest escapades—which earned their worst punishments.

Separated and banished to opposite sides of the schoolroom, they’d spend the next couple of days dutifully bent over their books, scratching on their slates and sneaking teasing-eyed grins at one another as they remembered mischief shared, daring dared. They’d already forgotten bottoms bared. ‘I’m going for a swim. Come on.’ With a wild whoop, Levi slid off his pony and pulled his shirt over his head before the animal skidded to a halt. He was ever the leader but Liberty was never far behind. By the time her feet hit the ground, he was removing his boots. They hadn’t done this since last summer when Longie had given them a thorough chastisement. But chastisement from a year ago was no deterrent. This was one of their adventures.

It was Levi’s twelfth birthday which gave him the right to choose their mischief. And if Levi was racing headlong into transgression Liberty would match him sin for sin. She easily dismissed the internal voice that warned she might not like the probable repercussions. Levi never considered them anyway. When she was with him she discarded decorum, resigned responsibility and embraced excitement. The wilder his idea, the quicker she abandoned her responsible, earl’s-elder-daughter persona. By the time Philip and Charity arrived at the lakeside, their clothes decorated the bank as if rambunctious puppies had been playing in the laundry basket and she was darting away from Levi like a minnow through the water lilies, knowing he wouldn’t resist the chase. When she dived down he followed, sleek and agile as an otter in the water. ‘I’m going to tell,’ Charity yelled as Liberty popped up, flinging her heavy wet braid behind her. Philip sat stoically astride his pony and watched.

They’d done it many times before, but this time, as Levi’s teasing fingers curled around Liberty’s ankles and dragged her under, it felt naughty and kind of exciting and she deeply resented Philip and Charity’s intrusion on their stolen moment. Deeply resented being reminded that last time they’d done this her father had sternly decreed it should not happen again. Deeply resented her father’s decree Levi would no longer be able to come each day to the Hall with his mother and brother and sisters if he inveigled her into one more wicked escapade. Too late to remember that now, with Charity’s heels pounding into her fat little pony as she rode for home—to tattle. An infinitely better name for her sister would be Uncharitable. ‘She’s going to get us into trouble,’ Liberty howled, rancor blistering her throat. ‘Tell-tale tit!’ she yelled at the rapidly diminishing horse and rider. Levi’s deep blue eyes spared a brief assessing glance for the spoiler of their fun, fish-tailed under the water and gripped Liberty’s waist, pulling her under with him. The consequences of Charity’s disclosure, Longie’s dismay, or Papa’s displeasure all floated off with the bubbles of air as the water closed over her head. Levi’s face appeared before her, smaltine eyes gleaming and focused through the sun-shot lake water, dark hair floating about his head like sentient strands of weed.

Just the two of them. His teasing mouth touched hers, brief and hard and—awakening—before they bobbed to the surface of the water to stare at one another, wide-eyed and a little shocked. Aware. For the first time in their short lives. Aware and knowing. Levi had kissed her. And it had felt—momentous. As if in that instant she’d understood the essence of life itself, could see clearly into the future, as she occasionally did. Stood on the verge of some fundamental truth. Aware her connection to Levi, like the universe itself, was ancient and inevitable.

But like a dream, what she’d seen dissolved on awakening. Rising through the surface of the water, she was left with a sense of unbelievable loss and the promise of the kind of excitement she knew, even at ten years old, she would only ever find with Levi. Levi had kissed her. As if he’d discovered some new and salacious fact of life and his eyes, the deep luminous blue of lapis lazuli shot through with flecks of gold, glowed with satisfaction. With hunger. Vision, excitement, delight in the moment vanished hard on the heels of Fat Nat carrying Charity home to relate their latest indiscretion to Papa. ‘Papa is going to be angry. He said if we did this again we would not like the consequences. I hate Charity.’ Liberty scrambled out of the lake and attempted to wring the water from her thick redgold plait.

No way would it dry before they got home. There would be no denying what they’d been doing. ‘You’ll probably get a whipping and I—’ She could hear the accusation and apprehension in her voice and knew, though she wanted to rail at Charity and pull her pigtails until she screamed, it was really their own fault. For being so thoughtless, forgetful, uncaring as they always were in the face of adventure. It was that last her mind stuttered over as she sorted their clothes into two piles. Not caring would be their undoing. But when they were together all other considerations faded into so much haze on a far horizon. When she was with him she forgot her responsibilities as the eldest sibling and her duties as an earl’s daughter and forgot how she hated it when her actions caused Papa to be displeased with her. Displeased, Papa was formidable. ‘It’s hot,’ Levi shouted across the water at her, truculence and defiance cracking in his adolescent voice, ‘and your papa won’t whip me because he needs my mama to be governess and help your mama.

’ But Liberty knew, in the clear way she sometimes did, their idyllic childhood was over. *** Chapter 1. Mayday Fair 1805 on Stannesford Village Green. With Verity clinging tightly to her hand, Liberty stepped through the gaudily dyed red, yellow and purple curtain hung across the doorway of the fortune teller’s tent, excitement bursting in her chest and congealing in her throat. A clogging mass. ‘Cross my palm with silver to hear your future.’ If she’d been able, she would have laughed at the gypsy’s false, husky voice. Beneath the glorious colorful costume was her old nurse, Nanette, as knowing as any gypsy, but as French as the frills on her lace-trimmed drawers. Liberty and her sisters had gone out early in the morning with Mama and the old woman to wash their faces in the morning dew as was the local custom, to ensure their beauty for the coming year. Then they’d gathered blue bells, forget-me-nots, cowslips and sycamore twigs and Nanette’s gnarled fingers had proved quite adept at twisting their collections into garlands to wear on their heads.

Liberty easily recognized Nanette’s poorly disguised French accents. But Verity, who spent most of her time in a world of make-believe, waited wide-eyed and credulous at her side. Not wishing to spoil the fantasy for her faerie-like sibling, Liberty solemnly handed over her coin. Nanette had told Liberty to be sure to bring all the young ladies to visit her in the fortunetelling tent for she had a special gift and message for each one. There were five great houses situated about the village of Stannesford and eight young ladies ranging in age from Lady Caroline Weatherby who was seventeen to Liberty’s baby sister, Verity, who was nine. All except Caroline were dressed in white with spring green overskirts and later they would dance around the Maypole. Since Caroline was the May Queen, Liberty was the eldest and in charge of the younger ones. She was beyond impatient, having waited until the others had their readings before taking her turn. What message would the gypsy have for her? The image of Levi as she’d seen him in church last Sunday, blazed into her mind. Unruly dark hair slicked down.

His best suit of clothes hiding brawny muscular forearms and any hint of the tanned throat usually exposed by his working shirt. A solemn, almost expressionless gaze gliding over her with the merest hint of a drooping eyelid. And a small white clover flower twirling absently in his fingers. As if he’d just plucked it for something to keep his hands occupied. White clover—‘think of me’. A pity she couldn’t make herself believe the brief homily she’d just delivered to all the younger ones in her care. The gypsy’s messages were just a bit of fun, a way of fund-raising for the orphanage her parent’s supported near Oxford. Not to be taken seriously. ‘Good morning, Madame Jessamine. Please tell my fortune.

’ Beside Nanette a single candle burned, its flame dancing with pregnant mystery in the large crystal ball resting on a piece of dark velvet cloth. Muttering softly under her breath, she cupped her lace-mittened hands about the mysterious orb and fixed her gaze on it. The heavily painted features stilled and the kohl-rimmed eyes widened then quickly narrowed. ‘What do you see?’ Liberty asked, desperately trying to hold and project the vision of the tall, dark, forbidden perfection of Levi Longfellow, the miller’s son. Could Nanette see him in her future? The wrinkles of scrutiny on Nanette’s face smoothed into a painted mask of emptiness and a frisson of chill premonition shivered down Liberty’s spine. ‘You will travel. I see a ship—and horses running in the wind—grass—shimmering and wavering in the breeze—as far as the eye can see.’ She was not going to say any more, Liberty knew, and a kernel of something that felt like an omen of fate nestled into her chest, deep behind her breast-bone. Foolishness. Nanette was only play-acting.

‘That’s all I see—and this is for you.’ Nanette handed her a polished green gemstone. ‘Your talisman. Your lucky stone. Gypsy blessed.’ Travel? Away from England? She did not want to be anywhere that took her away from Levi. And that’s all she saw? No tall dark lover in her future? Had she really been so naive as to think Nanette would see something she could interpret to mean her childhood playmate was her soulmate? The man she would marry? She was a naïve fool for entertaining that dream, but it would not be banished from her fantasies, waking or sleeping. In the years since he’d stopped coming to the Hall they’d kept in contact by leaving random messages and tokens in a jar secreted in a hole in the lightning tree. The old oak, a favored hide-out from childhood, remained their place, and nurtured their karmic connection to one another. That connection had been spasmodic at best, since getting away to the tree alone and being able to check the jar unseen was extremely difficult.

But Liberty treasured the small collection of dead flower heads and exquisitely executed pencil drawings of flora she’d found on her rare visits, sometimes two or three at once, from weeks apart. He’d always been able to draw better than she. It was easy to imagine him with that unruly lock of black hair kissing his frown lines and his tongue tucked into the corner of his cheek as he concentrated, focused on the drawing. Focused on her. When they’d discovered the language of flowers one wet afternoon in the Stannesford Hall library they’d been fascinated, immediately embracing the magic of it, the challenge. She was sure they’d been meant to find the book for the secret messages now constituted their only means of communication. Their favorites were the wallflower—fidelity in the face of adversity, white clover—think of me, and leaves from the old oak itself for strength and courage. Levi Longfellow was her soul’s kin. When she tried to visualize her future without him in it she could only see—and feel—desolation, a void unbelievably dark and lonely. No one understood how deeply her childish heart had broken when he’d stopped coming to the Hall every day with his mother.

No one, before or since, could fill the chasm his absence from her life had left. No day was better than the rare occasions their paths crossed in the village. To pass one another in the street with only the barest intimation of acknowledgement was almost more painful than satisfying. Levi’s sapphire eyes that could dance with blue-lightning mischief followed her, lured her, burned for her with a midnight wasteland of pain and longing. The only way she could stop herself from going to him, lifting a hand to caress the contours of that face now more manly than boyish, from pressing her mouth to his, was by standing absolutely still in the street until he’d passed by. Even then she always turned to see if he looked back. He never did but the rigid lines of his back and the stiffness of his gait told her it wasn’t because he didn’t want to. He dared not. For her sake. But she’d invariably spy a single ivy leaf, plucked from where it clambered up the walls of the mill, dangling from his fingers as he walked.

Constancy and enduring fidelity. As if he always carried a leaf in his pocket in case he saw her. And she knew his quick, hungry glance had noted the sprig of tiny blue forget-me-not flowers she always wore tucked into the ribbons of her bonnet. Try though she did, Liberty couldn’t keep her gaze from lingering whenever she chanced to meet him. He’d now been working for his father in the mill and the stables for several years and the linen shirt and leather jerkin he wore for work clearly exposed the fact naked swimming with Levi now would be much more exciting, inciting and downright tempting than it had been when he was twelve. Sundays were the best days. Liberty imagined she’d eventually fry in hell for the prayers and thoughts she entertained while sitting demurely in the Earl of Stannesford’s pew, head bowed and hands folded in her lap. How could she not be thinking of Levi when his presence at the back of the church paced like tiny hedgehogs up and down her spine? How could she make polite conversation to the squire or his pimply faced son when her whole consciousness was centered on sharing one private smile with Levi? How could she manage even the slightest brush of hands as she passed by him on the way out of the church? It was six years since they’d ridden, plotted mischief and faced the consequences together, unbelieving their idyllic hours could ever be curtailed. ‘Everyone has to grow up,’ Mama had said. ‘The miller’s son is not a fit companion for an earl’s daughter,’ Papa had said.

She loved Papa, but sometimes he was so aloof and cold. She didn’t think he understood about hearts and dreams and love. He seemed only to care about appearances and the estate and Mama— and butterflies. She had to concede he took great care of Mama. To the extent when he was with her there might as well have been no one else present. Possibly because Mama was beautiful and ephemeral as a butterfly. Liberty was not. If she had to be likened to an insect she thought she had more in common with the energetic waywardness of the chaser dragonfly. Closing her fingers around the green stone, she drew her baby sister forward. Every bit as ethereally beautiful and fey as their mother, Verity was a responsibility Liberty gladly shouldered.

Someone had to, otherwise the child would likely flit off with the fairies. Delighted with Madame Jessamine’s promise she’d one day meet and marry a tall dark stranger, and with a polished red stone clutched in her delicate fingers, she followed Liberty from the tent. ‘Madame Jessamine is right,’ Verity giggled happily. ‘I see him in my dreams—and he’s very handsome.’ Liberty took her sister’s hand and smiled indulgently down at her. ‘You’re only nine years old, Very. What would you know of tall dark—?’ A large hand gripped Liberty’s arm and tugged her behind the tent. She landed with an oomph against a broad hard chest and was wrapped by strong arms and the scent of horses and leather and healthy male sweat. Midnight blue eyes blazed down at her and all else ceased to register. The fair.

Her sister. Right or wrong. She was in Levi’s arms and his lips were hovering above hers, tilted at one corner in that way they had when he was contemplating something wicked. Six years since they’d played and dared one another to wickedness. Childish wickedness. They were no longer children. Kissing him would be wicked. Enormously wicked. Deliciously wicked. Levi kissing her.

Dreams could come true. ‘Levi?’ ‘Hush, Liberty-Lou, we shouldn’t do this—but dammit, I have to. Just once.’ Only he ever called her Liberty-Lou. Eyes and mouth wide open with the sheer bliss of his presence, Liberty breathed him in. The empty place inside her filled and swelled with a deeply painful happiness. Could happiness be painful? He’d missed her as much as she’d missed him. His pain was hers. Then he pressed his mouth to hers and the memory of that long ago childish meeting of lips beneath the lake was searingly eclipsed. Warm and hungry, his flesh molded to the shape of hers, infused her heart with joy and an all too brief sense of completeness.

It was more than she’d ever believed they would have—and nowhere near enough. But she would accept with gratitude what the universe had flung into her arms and relish what she might. Their bodies melded from chins to knees and her untutored hands flew into his hair, gripping his head and holding him to her. Levi’s mouth, taste, breath, heat flowed into her, healing the void that had bloomed with his absence from her life. She’d not realized what it would mean to touch him, to feel the heated reality of him again. As a man not a boy. Against her body. Under her fingertips. ‘Dear Lord, I’ve missed you.’ ‘Missed you too, Liberty-Lou.

Need you.’ The words were the abracadabra flaying her heart open to a bitter truth. The enduring bruise of wanting Levi the boy in no way prepared her for the agonizing wound of wanting Levi the man. His lips moved over her face, tracing, caressing, memorizing. Like a daisy, Liberty lifted her face to the sun, to Levi. Every sense alert and quivering, she curled her body into his embrace, buried her face against his neck and inhaled. Levi. For the first time in six years she was whole. ‘Libby?’ Verity tugged at her gown. ‘What are you doing? Papa said you’re not allowed to talk to Levi.

He’s—he’s just—a village brat.’ Heart thumping against her breast bone with need and pain and guilt, she jerked back out of his claiming embrace to stare up into bluer than blue unrepentance. So Levi. All dare and never a hint of contrition. A lump of hysteria blocked her throat, compounded of loss, excitement, nervousness, and twisted amusement at Verity’s comment. Calling Levi Longfellow a ‘village brat’ was akin to calling a Percheron stallion a pony. ‘God, Levi,’ she whispered, ‘if Papa caught us, he would—have you horse-whipped. Your mama couldn’t stop him now.’ His lips clamped tight and his squared chin jutted forward as if he ground something to powder between his teeth. ‘I know, Lou.

But I’ve wanted to kiss you, hold you—and more—since that day in the lake. It’s worth a horse-whipping. Tell me you haven’t wanted it too.’ The intensity of his words, the deep timbre of his voice tightened her lungs, compressing her chest as if the Percheron stallion had stomped on it. ‘Of course I want it,’ she whispered, pressing more desperately into the ungiving muscular body, ‘but we can’t—’ ‘We will,’ he whispered fiercely. ‘Somehow we will. I love you, Lou.’ He sounded so certain. ‘And I love you,’ she whispered back. Pressing her head into the hollow of this throat she touched her lips to the soft skin there.

He tasted faintly salty, manly—delicious. Her hands clutched greedily at the strength of his upper arms, tracing, learning and memorizing the carved bulk and hard masculine contours of bone and muscle. ‘Libby!’ Verity tugged at her skirt again. ‘Come on. I want to show Mama my stone.’ Stomach clenched, breath arrested and her heart slammed against her ribcage. Mama and Papa were both at the fair and could come upon them at any moment. She was a fool to risk being caught even talking to him, let alone with her arms wrapped around his neck and her body around his—like ivy seeking purchase on a tree trunk. Before she could make herself let go, he stole another sweet lash of lips and whispered, ‘Wait for me.’ Then he was gone, his lithe, athletic body moving with an easy grace over the ropes at the back of the fair tents.

He didn’t look back. Lost in a trance of heated longing and forbidden desires, the pain of his leaving six years ago buckled her heart all over again. The depth of that pain had multiplied exponentially with each passing year. At sixteen she understood so much more of what she was being denied than she had at ten. What bitter fortune decreed they could be nothing to each other? How did one argue with fortune? With pedigree? With Papa? Wait for me.

.

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