Authors: Lynette Vinet
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McChesney Manor, 1646
“Promise me you shall care for her.”
The woman's voice barely reached the man who sat beside her on the large bed, sheets stained with perspiration and blood. But he heard her and clutched her thin fingers when her hand sought his.
He was unable to say anything. A huge lump lodged in his throat. The beautiful raven-haired baby, delivered an hour earlier by this woman he loved, whimpered in her cradle beside the bed. Though he felt his wife's eyes upon him from the doorway, he refused to leave Sara's side. Sara was the woman he loved, would always love, and Debra must accept that fact.
Placing Sara's cold fingers to his lips, Lord Walter McChesney, Earl of McChesney Manor, kissed them gently before speaking. “Our daughter shall be raised with Lucy and will take her rightful place in my household. I promise you.”
The sound of the door slamming was the only indication that his wife, Debra, had departed the room. He hated hurting Debra, but there was no alternative. She would have to live with the bargain they had struck, just as he would be forced to live with the knowledge that his Sara had died because of a moment of weakness on his part. If he hadn't fallen in love with his wife's sister, Sara would be sitting across from him now, gazing at him with her gentle gray-colored eyes. Instead, her face which had been rosy and round and framed by a glorious abundance of ebony tresses, was now pale. Not even the dancing reddish-gold flames from the hearth highlighted the lusterless hair which rested on the pillow.
“I love you,” Sara said, but Walter scarcely heard her above the howling wind as it whipped around the Tudor-style house, enclosing all within from the midwinter assault.
“My love, my love,” Walter murmured. He glanced up at his older daughter's nursemaid, Maddie, as she entered the room from the adjoining nursery.
“See to the baby's wants,” Walter indicated with a nod to the infant.
Maddie who was a new mother herself, tiptoed to the cradle. She picked up the infant and carried her into the nursery where she fed the newborn from one breast and her two-month-old son, Fletcher, from the other.
When Walter heard Sara's voice, a trifle stronger, whisper, “Love her,” he knew she meant their daughter.
Tears stung his eyes. He had shed tears only once, when his father died. It was then that Walter learned that his father had been in debt to the Earl of Somerset, Debra's and Sara's father. To retain the estate he loved with all his heart, Walter had been forced to wed Debra, the Earl's sharp-tongued elder daughter. Walter protested before the marriage that it was the gentle Sara he loved, but Somerset was adamant. Debra needed a husband. So, since Sara was much younger and beautiful, the Earl wasn't likely to give her in a love match. By marrying Debra off to the desperate young Walter, he'd save Sara for a propitious marriage to someone else.
But the Earl hadn't bargained on Walter's and Sara's earlier passion igniting when she came to visit her sister for an extended stay. When the fact came to light that Sara was pregnant, the Earl disinherited her along with Walter and Debra. Immediately he named his nephew's young son as heir. This gave Debra reason to hate her sister twofold. Not only had Sara taken her husband's affections, but she had also forced their father's hand. Still worse, Walter had forced her to swear that Sara's child would be raised with their own Lucy. To the world's eyes, Debra would be the child's mother. Sara's reputation must be protected, he had said, and their child mustn't live life stigmatized by an accident of birth. Debra had given her reluctant acquiescence, but Walter knew the road ahead would be troubled. As he watched his gentle Sara slip away from him, he couldn't help but wish that it was Debra who lay dying and felt ashamed.
A shock of dark hair fell across his forehead, and his tears spilled onto Sara's fingertips. “I love you, sweet. Don't leave me.” But it was too late. Already her eyes glazed, and her head tilted to the side. Her hand felt like stone in his.
He closed her lids over the dove-gray eyes which had gazed at him with desire and love. He sat and watched her, unable to summon the strength to leave her. Though the fire in the hearth still blazed brightly, he shivered. He realized that the date was January 20, 1646. The date of his love's passing. The date of his daughter's birth. He thought it was a horribly cold night to die â¦ or to be born.
Finally he rose and walked into the nursery. Maddie rocked his daughter while her son slept peacefully in a crib. Though Walter's doublet was covered in sweat, he felt chilled. Stopping before the huge hearth fire that warmed the nursery, he held out his hands to the flames and rubbed them together. He glanced only once towards the small bed in the alcove where seven-year-old Lucy slept.
He turned and spoke to Maddie. “No one must know the circumstances of the child's birth.” He didn't need to say this, for Maddie was trustworthy and her mouth like a clam. She had been the one to care for Lady Sara Somerset during the long months of pregnancy while confined to her room. She, also, had padded his wife's gowns to give the impression that she was heavy with child.
Maddie patted the baby's back. “I won't breathe a word, my lord. Would you care to take a peek at your daughter now?”
Walter was drawn to the sight of the tiny black head resting on Maddie's ample bosom. A baby girl. Sara's gift to him. He peered at the child, gently stroked the cherubic cheek, a rosy cheek like Sara's. Love coursed through him, hitting him with its intensity. His Sara wasn't gone. No! He would pet and spoil this child in ways he'd been unable to do for Sara. And one day she would marry for love. He'd see to it.
When he arrived at his bedroom moments later, Debra was waiting for him. A strand of red hair escaped from under her white cap, and she looked the model wife in her plain Puritan attire. Walter didn't share her religious beliefs. Despite her claim to believe in God, Walter had always found Debra to be uncharitable and shrewish. But he refused to allow her rapier-sharp tongue to find its mark this night.
“How is your brat?” she spat.
“The child is fine. Sara is dead.”
A choking sound escaped her throat. “She'd be alive if not for your lust!”
“You loved her so much then?”
“Sara was my sister, lest you forget.”
Walter threw himself into a large, cushioned chair and propped his feet on a stool. He pulled a comforter around him, feeling chilled to his very soul. “Arrangements must be made for her burial.”
“I shall attend to it, as I take care of all in this house.”
He knew she would. Debra was quite capable. Rubbing his forehead with trembling fingers, he said to her after a few silent moments, “You'll honor our bargain.”
“Bargain? There is no bargain. Sara is dead.”
“Sara's child isn't. And you shall raise her as your own, or I'll hasten to inform everyone who her mother and father are.”
“What a horrid man you are!” she blurted out, but she knew he'd delight in humiliating her by carrying out his threat. He truly hated her, had always hated her because he had been forced to marry her. How she ached to dare him to tell the truth to one and all! But above all else, Debra was a practical woman and very much aware of people's opinions. She'd loathe being the object of gossip, of people's pity. She held her nose high and sniffed the air. “I'll raise her. What is her name to be?”
Walter hadn't thought about a name. “Sara” rose unbidden to his lips, but he suppressed it, knowing it would be unfair to Debra. Shivering in the cold January night, unable to find, warmth beneath the heavy blanket, he chose a name that aptly fit the way he felt.
“We'll call her Wynter,” he said. “Wynter McChesney.”
Debra left him alone, and when he finally drifted into a troubled sleep near dawn, he dreamed of Sara.
But in the nursery a thin, red-haired girl peeked into Wynter's cradle. Her nightrail reached to her bare feet which were chilled by the stone floor. She shook her braided head in wonderment.
“A fairy must have brought it,” she decided aloud, her gaze lingering on the baby's face. There hadn't been a baby there when she went to sleep, except for Fletcher, whom she dismissed as unimportant.
As the morning sun hazed the nursery in a golden glow, Wynter did indeed resemble something a fairy might have brought, with her pink, cherubic features. Lucy sighed. She realized this child would grow up to be beautiful, whereas she herself would always be plain and skinny. Would her father love this baby more than herself, she wondered? She decided he would. He didn't show her much affection now. She tired so much of her mother constantly telling her that since she was plain, she must make up for her unattractiveness by pious deeds and by showing people how good she was. Well, she wasn't good and she knew it. Lucy hated pretending to be good so people would overlook her carrot-colored hair, her freckles. But Maddie was on to her and told her she wasn't fooled by those downcast eyes. “You've got the devil in you, girl!” Maddie had said more than once after Lucy was caught in some naughtiness.
Lucy shrugged. So what if the devil was inside her? Goodness wouldn't guarantee she'd grow up to be pretty like this baby would one day be. But the thought struck her that she'd always be older than this child, and she felt a small sense of power.
Leaning over the sleeping Wynter, she said, “One day your prettiness won't be enough, little baby. I'll make sure of it.”
With that terse remark hanging in the cold morning air, she swung around. Her long braid swished in her wake, and she didn't give Maddie's son an extra look when he began to fuss.