Excerpt - Whispers on the River

Excerpt - Whispers on the River

Book 4: Whisper Falls Series

Narrow blades of grass covered my mother’s grave with a carpet of velvet green. In the months since her death, nature had moved on, even if we had not.

Footsteps crunched behind me on the path, their familiar gait drawing steadily nearer. I froze on the bench beneath an old oak. My father would not welcome the sight of me.

He stopped by Maman’s gravestone, his hands clasped before him, his mournful sigh drifting on the humid air. “I miss you, my dearest.”

His grief was private. I should not be here.

As if he overheard my thoughts, he looked over his shoulder and flinched. “Why have you come, Abigail?”

I rose and left the shadows. “I miss her too, Papa.”

“Yet her blood stains your hands.”

As always when he made the accusation, my limbs trembled. “I did not kill my mother.”

“Neither did you intervene.”

His words chilled me. If only she had kept my secrets, I would not be facing this misery now.

Whenever Maman had nursed a patient, she had taken me along, for I could always sense the source of their distress. I thought that my inexplicable talent for knowing would stay between us, but she had told Papa, and he had misunderstood. Perceiving a person’s illness was not the same as healing them. “There are afflictions that have no cure.”

“Your mother thought otherwise.”

“Papa, please. It is past. When will you cease?”

“Never.”

I had assumed there could be no greater pain than losing my mother to death until I lost my father to bitterness. Spinning on my heel, I walked to the gate.

“Mr. Sewell has asked to court you.”

I faltered to a stop, unable to mask my shudder of revulsion. Did Papa not know about my feelings? Surely, Maman had told him. Swallowing against a dry throat, I said, “I do not wish to receive his attentions.”

“He is a man of loyalty and wisdom.”

“Perhaps to you, but those qualities have not been shown to me.” Nor, if the chatter was to be believed, to his servants and slaves.

“I have already given my consent.”

Flushing, I looked away. This would be another cause for conflict between us. “I would rather remain a spinster for the entirety of my life than marry Mr. Sewell.”

“Nevertheless, he will come to call, and you will receive him.”

Inclining my head, I stepped through the gate.

“Abigail.”

I halted again, this time facing forward.

“Do not fight me on this.”

My head buzzed with worry as I continued along the path to the house. Although my words had been brave, they had not been completely honest. I had no wish for the pitiable life of a spinster, at the mercy of others, doomed to drudgery and expected to be grateful. Yet this description could easily apply to a wife in an unhappy match.

Marriage would force me to move from the only home I had ever known. I memorized it now, the plantation spreading about me in a patchwork quilt of color. The pinks of the rose garden. The red brick of our residence. Whitewashed dependencies, squatting around the main house like gray-capped boxes: stables, kitchen, laundry, dairy. In the distance lay the dappled blue of the Trent River, snaking through fields of gold and green. It would take a worthy man to tempt me from Ashton Grove.

When I reached the house, I climbed the stairs to the upper floor and joined my sisters in the family parlor.

Cornelia reclined on a window seat, a book in her lap, her gaze on something beyond my view.

Martha perched on the settee, her fingers stitching bees and vines onto a linen scarf. “Where have you been?”

“Maman’s grave.”

My youngest sister’s face fell. She dipped her head over her embroidery with feigned concentration.

“Was Papa there?” Cornelia asked.

“He was.”

“Did you argue about Mr. Sewell?”

“We did.” I could no longer remember the precise moment I realized Randolph Sewell was a loathsome man. His behavior toward me and my sisters—and even our mother, when Papa was not looking—had always been abrupt. I had dismissed it as simply the way of most men.

It took his willful discourtesy to our staff for me to recognize the truth. Randolph was pleasant only to those who could advance his plans. I had avoided him since, until a day I could not.

“Abigail.” Cornelia sighed. “Do not provoke Papa. It will not go well for you.”

Martha’s nose wrinkled delicately. “Mr. Sewell? I thought Mr. Watson asked to court you.”

I joined her on the settee. “I declined the honor.”

“What is wrong with him?”

The subject of courtship made me uncomfortable. I was eighteen; there was no hurry. I would divert the conversation. “He has bad teeth.”

Cornelia struggled to contain a smile. “This disqualifies him as a suitor?”

“Indeed. I should not like to marry a man with brown, chipped teeth.”

Martha bit her lip uncertainly. “Is that enough?”

“No, it is not,” Cornelia said. “Abigail is teasing you.”

I should not joke with Martha about so important a topic. She deserved sincerity. I chose my words with care. “If I loved him, I would not care about his teeth. My real reason is that Mr. Watson has nine children, some who are my age. I hope to be a first wife. To discover marriage together with a man I cherish.”

“Most gentlemen of our acquaintance are widowed.”

“Perhaps we ought to meet new gentlemen.”

My sisters laughed, a sound cut off by the banging of the front door. Heavy feet thundered up the stairs. Our father stormed into the parlor in a parade of noise and pomposity.

“We shall have a ball. It is to be arranged for the twenty-third of July.”

Martha gasped with excitement. Cornelia’s lips curved sweetly. Only I watched him with a caution bordering on dismay.

“We are still in mourning.”

He dismissed my concern with a wave. “Six months is time enough.”

I smoothed my expression. “I shall begin the preparations.”

“No need. Perry will handle them.”

“Mr. Perry?” A secretary should not be entrusted with the complexities of a ball. “Papa, why can I not arrange—?”

“A dressmaker will travel here from New Bern on Thursday. She will measure you for new gowns.”

Martha clapped her hands. “I should very much like a frock that is not black.”

And I should very much like to understand what lay behind the wicked glint in Papa’s eyes.

 

The night was a sultry one, with thick clouds playing a vain game to hide the moon. The windows in my sisters’ bedchamber stood open wide.

Across the room, Martha wiggled in her cot, its frame creaking. Cornelia and I huddled in her bed, whispering.

“Abigail, why do you anger Papa so?”

“Mr. Sewell is not my destiny.”

“Who is?”

“I do not believe I have met him.”

Cornelia rolled to her back, her profile thrown in sharp relief by moonlight. “Papa has suggested George Whitcomb for me.”

A denial leapt to my lips, but I hesitated. Despite his advanced years, George Whitcomb could be an acceptable match for Cornelia. Even a wise choice. He would dote on her, although—with a husband of his age—she would likely become a wealthy widow before long. “I can think of no immediate reasons to object.”

She smiled. “Not all widowed gentlemen concern you?”

“Of course not. Kindness and generosity are attractive qualities at any age.”

“That is all I hope for.” Her eyes seemed luminous in the dark. “You may dream of love, but I shall be content with kindness.”

“I have no doubt you will find it. Good-night, sweet sister.” I wiggled from the bed, crossed the hall, and entered my bedchamber. In the shadows of the dressing room, our lady’s maid stirred sleepily before yawning and settling again. I crept into my bed but left the covers alone, having no desire for another layer of cloth in the heat of the summer night.

But rest did not come. My worries over Papa’s plans would not relinquish their hold on my thoughts. The clock struck midnight before sleep claimed me.