Authors: Theresa Ragan
Return of the Rose
Copyright 2011 by Theresa Ragan
These stories are works of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from Theresa Ragan.
Many thanks to Cathy Katz, my sister and friend, for her never-ending encouragement and support. Cathy read my book too many times to count, killing off characters and brainstorming scenes while busy earning a degree in English Literature.
Much love to my husband, Joe, for filling my life with laughter and love and always encouraging me to follow my dreams.
I would also like to acknowledge the following people for helping in the making of this ebook:
Copy Editor: Faith Williams
Cover art: Dara England
Formatting: LK E-Book Formatting Service
“You have twin daughters, my lord, but the second born is not faring well. There is naught that can be done to save her.”
Richard Forrester, Earl of Silverwood, stood in his bedchamber and gazed upon his sleeping wife, the midwife’s words still swirling about in his mind. Tenderness for the woman he loved flowed through him, and something else as well…a protective instinct so strong his hands curled into fists. What now? What could he do? Gladly, he would fell a thousand knights to preserve his family’s safety. But this…he was helpless against this.
Tearing his gaze away, he left his wife’s side and headed for the nursery. With a curt wave of his hand, Richard dismissed the attendants and then knelt by his daughters’ cradles. The first-born’s smooth skin gleamed a healthy color of ivory flushed with coral. The other baby was a pale, bluish shade.
He lifted his sickly daughter in his arms and brought her close, until her small hand brushed against his bearded jaw, and he could smell the sweet newness of her.
“Don’t fret, my little one,” he murmured. “I will find someone to cure your raspy breathing.” But the promise rang empty, for he could see that she struggled hard for each breath. A tear wet his cheek.
God help me, I will not let you die
The earl’s shoulders jounced in rhythm with the movement of the carriage as he sat alone, cradling his newborn daughter in the crook of one arm. Apprehension gnawed at his insides, along with fear. His daughter was not yet a day old and yet he’d been driven to such a desperate measure.
Briefly, he considered returning to the castle, but one glance at the ailing babe, hastily named Morgeanna after his grandmother, gave him the courage to continue on.
Pushing the window covering aside, Richard glanced outside as the carriage made a sharp left into a forest glade. A decrepit cottage, nearly hidden by the waxy green leaves of ivy and small nameless flowers, came into view. The thatched roof was singed in one corner, as though it had survived a fire, and the wattle and daub walls were crumbling. A well stood just outside the front door, along with a foul-smelling privy.
In the midst of it all stood the Witch of Devonshire, as if she had been expecting him. He’d heard rumors that she used potions and magic to cure the sick. Although he did not believe in witchcraft or wizardry, he did believe in miracles. And now it seemed a divine act of God and an enormous amount of faith were his only hope.
With a tap to the ceiling, Richard signaled the driver to come to a halt. He wrapped the baby tighter in her fur-lined coverlet and stepped out into the cool morning air. His gaze met the old woman’s, prompting him to hold Morgeanna closer to his chest.
“So you came after all,” she said, her voice hoarse, as though she seldom spoke.
“Aye. How did you know?”
Her laugh erupted as a sharp crow.
“Let me see her,” the woman snapped. Her gaze riveted to the bundle in his arms and her thin fingers shook with apparent anticipation.
The earl stopped short of the crone’s grasp. “Can you help her?”
“Do you know what you ask of me?”
“Her lungs are weak. She needs your help,” Richard pleaded.
“She cannot make it here.”
The woman’s claw-like hands waved him to silence as she hovered closer, her eyes still feasting on the babe. “There is a place. Or rather, a time.”
A time? The witch spoke in riddles. Richard nearly turned away but Morgeanna’s skin had purpled like a plum. The babe wouldn’t survive the ride home. “Speak plainly, witch, or I shan’t leave her.”
“You have no choice and we both know it. There is naught anyone can do for the child. Give her to me.”
She was right. He’d already visited two physicians before dawn. He had no choice. “What will you do?”
“I will send her to a new tomorrow, another day. And she will live.”
With moisture filling his eyes, Richard placed a leather pouch filled with coins on the ground. “Tell no one,” he said. “My people have been sworn to secrecy and my wife knows naught of this twin. Why should she suffer?”
“I promise only that the child will live.”
Swiftly kissing the dewy-cheeked babe, Richard fastened a strand of leather from which hung a rose-shaped amethyst around her small neck and whispered, “I send you away to give you life, Morgeanna, with all my love.”
Then he relinquished his daughter to the old woman’s gnarled hands and returned to the carriage, never once looking back, trusting in God…and the Witch of Devonshire.
Lafayette, CA - Present Time
Morgan Hayes rushed into her mother’s antique store and changed the
. “Mom, wait until you see this!”
Her mother finished pricing her newest acquisition, a Windsor chair with a spindle back, before making her way across the room. Together they gazed upon a drawing of a fully armored knight sitting straight and tall upon a cloud-white horse.
“It really is him,” her mother said, her voice brimming with excitement. “I can tell by the intricate detailing of the brigandine.”
“And the gold inlay of his visor,” Morgan added, tapping the drawing. “He’s definitely our knight. It says here that the armor once belonged to a man known as the Earl of Kensington.”
Her mother took the leather bound book from her and began to read while Morgan went to where the armor stood before the front window, the sun radiating off the silver plates like streaks of lightning. Morgan was nine when her mother had acquired the armor, and still, her heart pounded every time she looked at him. She brushed her fingers across the smooth hard steel of his breastplate and closed her eyes, imagining for the millionth time what he might have looked like back when he was alive and breathing. “It’s hard to believe he finally has a name.”
“And an earl at that,” her mother said. “It says here on page twelve that ‘the Earl of Kensington was forced to marry and even found himself taken with his new wife. Unfortunately, he was bitterly disappointed in the end.’”
Morgan crossed the room and leaned over her mother’s shoulder as she read.
“‘The earl believed his wife betrayed him. When his wife left him he did nothing to stop her. Soon after, the earl came to believe he’d been wrong about her. Sadly, in his haste to find his wife he was struck down and killed in an ambush near Swan Lake. He died in 1444.’”
“Swan Lake,” Morgan said as she skimmed the text, hoping to learn what became of the woman who had stolen the Earl of Kensington’s heart. According to the tale, the woman had simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
Later, as they set about closing shop, Morgan set the book aside and regarded her mother with open fondness. Years ago her mother had lost her husband and daughter in a fatal car accident, and yet she never complained. Neither did she ever talk about the little girl she lost. But Morgan knew her mother ached for her daughter because more than once she’d awoken to her mother’s anguished cries as she called out for her little girl named Ashley.
Morgan’s thoughts turned to her biological parents and the thought that they hadn’t loved her enough to keep her…instead, they left her on a stranger’s doorstep. They didn’t deserve a second thought but today was Morgan’s twenty-fourth birthday and once again she found herself wondering if she had her mother’s smile or her father’s eyes. Where were they now and did they ever think about the daughter they gave up so long ago?
Her mother dusted off an old box as she came to stand before her. “Are you going out tonight?”
Morgan shook her head. “I think I’ll just hang out here a while longer and get the bookkeeping up to date.”
Her mother set the box on a chair, removed the lid, and drew out a blanket. “This is for you.”
Morgan stood and scooped the old blanket into her arms. She smoothed her fingers over the crushed red velvet intricately embroidered with gold thread and lined with fur, surprised by the odd pang she felt in her chest. “It’s beautiful.”
“It was wrapped around you when you came to me all those years ago. I was saving it for when you had children of your own,” she added thoughtfully, “but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. You should have it…it’s yours. And what better time to give it to you than on your birthday?”
Morgan hugged her mother tight. Then she held the richly woven fabric to her cheek. Closing her eyes, she inhaled the strange musty smell of it, hoping to breathe in some sense of where she came from, maybe get a glimpse of the person who had wrapped her in it long ago.
Instinctively she felt for the necklace she always wore around her neck. Like the blanket, it had been left with her when she was a baby. The leather string had been replaced with a chain but the rose-shaped amethyst was still the same.
Tears glistened in her mother’s eyes. “I’m sorry I kept it from you for so long.”
“Oh, Mom.” Her throat tightened as she drew her mother close again.
“I’m heading home now,” her mother said after Morgan released her.
“Thanks for the gift, Mom. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
By the time Morgan finished tallying the receipts for the day a strong wind stirred the trees, making the branches dance. The air, suddenly too cold for a summer night, chilled her as she shut and locked the windows. Morgan turned off the lights except for one small lamplight and picked up the blanket her mother had given her earlier. Then she noticed the Earl of Kensington’s armor in the shadows.
She moved toward him and pressed up close to the hard steel of his armor as she looked up at his closed visor. “Time for me to go home,” she said with a sigh, wiping dust from his metal shoulder. “Why do I feel completely alone in the world except when I’m near you? Can you tell me that, Mr. Metal Man?”
Outside, thunder rumbled. Strange, she thought, that a storm might be brewing in the middle of summer. She tried to step away from the armor, but her T-shirt had become snagged in the metal plates. As she struggled for her freedom, the humor of her predicament struck her, making her laugh. “We really must stop meeting like this.”
Standing on tiptoe, she tried to peek beneath his visor. The coldness of the steel touched her face. Her chest ached to think that this hollow suit of armor could never be her true, flesh and blood knight.
But still, it pained her to know that he would never remove his armor as she’d often imagined him doing in her dreams. She’d never see his smile or feel his warm hands about hers.
Thunder boomed. She clung to the armor. Fingers of lightning struck the front window, rattling the glass. Her heart drummed against her ribs. The armor suddenly became a blinding blur of metal and bright light.
What was happening?
As her body became weightless, her panic mounted.
She thought of her mother…smiling, comforting her, and she reached out a hand to fight for normalcy. Desperately struggling to return to the dimly lit room, she tried to focus on the familiar…the antique cash register, the upholstered settee where her mother used to read to her when she was small, and the Pembroke table. But all of her mother’s treasures grew dim, shrinking in size, until it all disappeared.
And then darkness swallowed her whole.