Authors: Irina Shapiro
Tags: #Romance, #Time Travel, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Historical
A Game of Shadows
The Hands of Time: Book 4
3 by Irina Shapiro
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for quotations in printed reviews, without permission in writing from the author.
All characters are fictional. Any resemblances to actual people (except those who are actual historical figures) are purely coincidental.
The carriage swayed dangerously just as another bolt of lightning split the pewter sky down the middle, electricity almost tangible in the ozone-scented air. Thunder boomed somewhere to the east, the relentless downpour continuing to soak the already oversaturated countryside. It had been raining mercilessly since they left London, making their progress painstakingly slow and trying. Now the carriage was stuck in the mud again and Valerie nearly screamed with frustration as she saw the apologetic face of the coachman through the window. The poor man was drenched; rivulets of rainwater running down his face and into his mouth as he threw her a pitying look and addressed Alec.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t go much further tonight. The wheels are stuck again
, and the mud is knee-deep in some places. There’s a village just up ahead. I’m afraid you will have to escort the ladies on foot while I try to free the coach.”
“Thank you, Wilks, but I’m not leaving you here alone with night approaching. I
’ll help you free the coach, and we’ll do our best to get to the village. I trust there’s an inn of some sort we can stop at?” Alec didn’t wait for an answer as he got out of the coach, much to the relief of the coachman who had no chance in hell of freeing the wheels without help. The two men disappeared into the encroaching darkness, as Valerie quietly dissolved into tears so as not to wake up Louisa, who’d fallen asleep lulled by the rocking of the carriage.
Stop crying, you ninny
you are made of sterner stuff
, Valerie scolded herself fiercely, but the tears just wouldn’t stop. Her nerves were stretched to the limit, and this was the last straw. She was tired, hungry and frustrated beyond all reason. Nothing had gone right since last summer. Nothing. All their plans for visiting Finn and then traveling to England had to be put on hold as one crisis after another prevented them from leaving the colony. The estate had suffered greatly during the famine, and Alec had to put all his energies into recovery efforts, not just of Rosewood Manor, but of the Jamestown community. Many families had lost their menfolk and needed help to survive and prepare for next winter. Alec spent much time at the Selby estate helping Mrs. Selby, who was left with three children under the age of eighteen and no husband. The Selbys were the closest Catholic family to Rosewood Manor, and Alec felt it his Christian duty to help them as much as he could, as no one else would.
Valerie secretly hoped that they might
finally leave after the harvest, but it proved impossible. Annabel had announced her second pregnancy during the summer, thrilled to be with child at last. She and Charles had been trying for some time, and she was beginning to despair of providing a sibling for Harry. Annabel’s first pregnancy had been a breeze, but the second one had been completely different. Plagued with crippling morning sickness, Annabel became severely undernourished and needed to be fed every hour just to keep up her strength. She was too weak to get out of bed for the duration of the pregnancy, leaving it to Valerie and Louisa to take care of little Harry and nurse her around the clock. Valerie thought of Bridget often, wishing she could have asked for her help and advice. She felt her absence every day, never realizing until Bridget was gone how much she had taken her friendship for granted, and how much she’d relied on her for companionship and advice.
Much to everyone’s relief, Annabel delivered a healthy baby girl in early February, but was too
weak to care for her for the first month, needing to get her strength back after months of illness. Valerie took over the caring of the baby, bringing Millicent to Annabel only for feedings. She worried about her sister-in-law, but kept her concerns to herself, assuring Charles at every opportunity that Annabel would soon recover. Poor Charles had aged ten years since the famine, driven to further despair by his wife’s illness. Valerie knew he was more terrified of losing her than he’d ever admit. He had slept on a cot in their room, afraid of unnecessarily disturbing her, but needing to be close to her and the baby. Valerie had to admit that she had never expected such devotion from her self-absorbed brother-in-law, but they had all changed in the past year. The loss of Finn and the subsequent famine had brought them all to the brink, reminding them that loss was never too far away, just lurking in the shadows ready to claim its next victim.
If it hadn’t been for Frederick Taylor
, they might have fared much worse. He had made it his mission to help the family get through this dark time, going foraging several times a week and bringing back anything he thought edible. He forced the workers to eat raw onions, and doled out a teaspoon of strawberry or raspberry preserves to everyone weekly to prevent the onset of scurvy. Many people in town had suffered from bleeding gums and loose teeth, but no one at Rosewood Manor showed any symptoms. Valerie had to admit that although she sometimes secretly blamed Mr. Taylor for losing Finn, she was grateful to him for his tireless efforts. The funny thing was that the gray, tired old man had become a robust octogenarian full of purpose and vigor. Marrying Cook and helping the Whitfields through the famine gave him a sense of purpose that he’d been lacking for many years, and he found himself taking an interest in life again and finding joy in being a part of a family.
Taylor had taken a hand in helping Annabel as well. He had Cook add items to her diet which would help her recover, such as liver, eggs, greens, and lots of ale. Annabel normally ate very sparingly, consuming mostly porridge and broth, but the extra protein and vitamins helped her get back on her feet and produce enough milk for the hungry baby. She finally began to recover by March, freeing Valerie and Alec to visit Finn for his birthday.
They’d debated telling Charles and Louisa the truth about Valerie’s past and Finn’s whereabouts, but finally decided that it would serve little purpose and possibly put Valerie in danger. In a time when a woman could be burned at the stake for witchery, any hint of anything supernatural would arouse suspicion and give the leaders of the colony cause to investigate. Of course, no one would betray anyone willingly, but it was safer to keep the secret to as few people as
possible. So it was decided that Valerie and Alec would travel to North Carolina to visit Finn’s grave for his birthday. Charles accepted the reason easily enough, but the only way Louisa could be persuaded to stay was with the argument that Annabel couldn’t manage without her help. Louisa loved the children and took great pride in being able to take care of Millicent on her own. She agreed to stay back and let Valerie and Alec make the journey.
Valerie closed her eyes
, blocking out the sound of the lashing rain and the grunts of the men as they tried to push the carriage out of the knee-deep mud, as she pictured Finn in her mind. They hadn’t seen him in nearly a year and a half and the boy they’d left behind had become a man. His voice was velvety and deep, and the sparse beard he was sporting at sixteen was now coarse stubble by suppertime. Working on the farm had made him strong and muscular, the fabric of his shirt straining across his chest and upper arms.
Abbie had changed as well. The sweet young girl had grown into a beautiful woman, ready for marriage and motherhood. Valerie couldn’t have imagined herself getting married at seventeen, but Abbie and Finn seemed more than ready, their commitment to each other
absolute. They seemed to share a bond that few couples had after years of marriage. The wedding was planned for April, and the preparations were in full swing by the time Valerie and Alec turned up mid-March. Mrs. Mallory was sewing Abbie a wedding dress, and Martha popped by periodically with baby Joe on her hip to comment on the menu for the wedding supper and generally put in her two cents. Gil never came with her, probably overjoyed to have a few moments of peace from his bossy wife.
The day of the wedding dawned crisp and bright, more than a hint of spring in the April air. The wedding service would take place at noon, followed by a party at the Mallory house. A great bonfire would be lit after dark, lighting up the yard and chasing away the chill of the spring evening. Two
trestle tables had been set up, ready to be piled with countless dishes of food and pitchers of beer and ale. Valerie squeezed Alec’s hand as Mr. Mallory walked his daughter down the aisle, her golden hair hanging to her waist, adorned with a few early blooms. It wasn’t the fashion for brides to wear their hair down, but Abbie had insisted, knowing how much Finn loved seeing her hair loose, and shocking her parents and the minister who thought it wanton. Valerie thought she looked beautiful, and the look on her son’s face nearly broke her heart as he took Abbie’s hands in his, promising to love and cherish her forever. How achingly young and in love they looked as they were pronounced man and wife and made their way out of the church to the heartfelt congratulations of the congregation.
Valerie could remember very little of the party afterwards
, except for being whirled around the bonfire by Alec and then Mr. Mallory, and the sweet sound of the violin playing a haunting melody once the guests grew tired of dancing and sat down to catch their breath and have a last drink before heading home to their beds. Valerie noticed Jonah disappearing into the barn, possibly to meet some girl, as Sarah and Annie fell asleep on a bench, their arms around each other for warmth.
No one mentioned it, but the absence of Sam was felt by everyone. T
he British had just taken New York and made it their base of operations in the Colonies, forcing the Continental Army to retreat. The Committee would need people who were willing to live among the enemy in order to spy and pass back information. Sam was already there, and their impetuous son had volunteered to join him and would be leaving shortly with Abbie in tow. Valerie tried to talk Finn out of going, but he was adamant; his commitment to the cause of freedom stronger than ever. He would have liked to leave Abbie at home with her parents, but she wouldn’t hear of it and was already making plans for their journey north. Valerie prayed that they would be safe and not fall into enemy hands. She told Finn everything she could remember of the Revolutionary War, but it was precious little, and the basic facts she could recall would hardly keep them safe.
Returning home, they were greeted with the news that King James had decided to declare war on Spain. Traveling to England would be a risky venture, especially once hostilities actually broke out and played out on the stage of the Atlantic. Valerie begged Alec to leave for England before it was too late. She hadn’t seen Louisa since the night Finn disappeared, and not a day went by that she didn’t long for her sister. The letters came sporadically, taking months to reach them with news that was no longer current. Valerie read and reread the letters, cherishing every word and dreaming of a day when they would be reunited. If she had to wait much longer to see Louisa, she would go mad with longing, not knowing how long the war would last or when they would see each other again. To her great surprise, Alec gave in to her pleas and agreed to travel to England.
The voyage had been plagued by storms, but at least they made it across safely
, only to arrive in London and learn that they missed the Sheridans by a few weeks. They had left for their country estate, Willowbrook, leaving the city for the summer as was the custom for wealthy Londoners, in order to avoid the outbreak of sickness that usually came with warm weather. And now, they had been traveling for days, hampered by rain, muddy roads and the unbearable heat that was so uncommon for England. Valerie wiped her eyes, finally getting hold of herself. They would just have to spend the night in this village and hope that they finally reached Willowbrook tomorrow. The thought of seeing Louisa, Kit, and the children made her smile, forgetting her earlier outburst. They would be together again, and that was all that mattered. Another day would only make their reunion sweeter.
Valerie handed Alec her handkerchief as he got back into the carriage. The embroidered square of lawn
would do nothing to help him, but it was about the only thing she could do. Alec was soaked through, covered with mud up to his thighs and scowling so fiercely that Valerie started to giggle. Alec joined in until they were laughing so hard they woke up Louisa.
“I’ve never realized how strange the two of you are until today,” she growled, furious at being awoken. “What’s funny?”
“Nothing,” Alec answered, “absolutely nothing.”