With American independence won, her brother George dead, and the shame of bankruptcy threatening her beloved aunt, Hester Mackay accepts Benjamin Blake’s proposal of marriage, despite him being an English gunrunner. But her happiness at the Georgia plantation house is short-lived as Hester learns that her new husband has already killed two wives. Can this be true, and is he now trying to kill her?
Later than evening, after Aunt Kizzy had retired for the night, Benjamin stayed on the porch with Hester, as had become their habit. Hester had noticed, to her amusement, that Aunt Kizzy had taken to retiring earlier and earlier as if she had no wish to intrude upon them. On this particular evening she’d gone to bed almost as soon as supper was over declaring she was exhausted having spent an hour closeted with her man of business. Now, in the softness of the Southern darkness, Benjamin began at last to talk.
‘There’s been something on my mind for some time, Hester, that should be said, perhaps before it is too late.’
Hester’s hands stilled and she set aside her sewing. It was too dark now in any case, but she regretted the loss of the occupation. ‘That sounds dreadfully serious,’ she said with an attempt at a smile, but Benjamin was not smiling. He was not even looking at her. His eyes were fixed somewhere out in the middle distance, or perhaps way back into his life.
‘Perhaps it is. Or perhaps I am worrying unduly.’ He drew in a deep breath. `If this hurts you then I apologize in advance, for it is the last thing I intended.’
‘I understand.’ Did she? She rather thought not. What was it that troubled him so, that made him look so grim?
‘There was once someone in my life. We’d grown up together and so were good friends, at least I thought that was the case. I was used to her being around. Her name was Sarah. But I didn’t think of her as a woman, as my woman, if you take my meaning.’
‘I think so.’
‘That was not the case with Sarah.’ Benjamin got up from the rocker to stroll restlessly down the garden path and Hester was obliged to follow him. ‘Her fondness for me grew to a level beyond friendship.’ Hester held her breath. What was he trying to tell her? ‘It became almost obsessive. I could go nowhere without Sarah tagging on behind. Whatever I did, she watched me. Wherever I walked, she followed. She tried to pre-empt my every need, handing me things I had never asked for, buying me gifts I did not want. She would even stand outside the door of my home for hour upon hour, waiting for me to come out. It was unnerving.’
Hester felt herself grow tense. ‘It must have been difficult.’
Benjamin turned to face her and even in the half-light the grim, almost angry expression upon the planes of his handsome face was only too clear. ‘Never could I allow that to happen again. She should have married Stefan, who loved her, but she was obsessed by me, with catastrophic results. Stefan took it very badly and has borne me a grudge ever since. I could never risk a recurrence of such uncompromising devotion for it very nearly destroyed my life, do you see? A person must be allowed to live his or her own life without let or hindrance, make his own decisions and mistakes, and not be pushed into a corner simply out of pity.’
She saw only too clearly. He was telling her not to grow too fond, not to fall in love with him. But it was too late. He was telling her that he ran from England to escape this Sarah, and would run from her if she too was foolish enough to try to capture his love. And he was telling her that on no account must she attempt to follow him to England when the time came for him to leave. That was the invisible line she had crossed earlier as they had talked down by the harbour, and he had seen the dawning love for him written in her face. But, much as she might wish it otherwise, whatever damage had been done to him in the past, he was making it abundantly clear that he wanted none of Hester’s help now to mend it. She was trembling so much he must be aware of it. Her palms felt clammy and a pain was beating at her temples. She must not let him see how she felt. Only the residue of her pride could save her now.
Hester managed a sympathetic smile. ‘Poor girl. If you did not love her in return it must have made her most miserable. That is partly the reason I am constantly trying to disengage myself from Carter Lois, for I have no wish to hurt him, but it is so difficult for he is a very determined gentleman.’ She was gabbling now, attempting to prove herself unaffected so that her true feelings would not be laid bare, exposed to his censure.
‘You are right to keep your distance from Carter Lois. Oh, you are shivering, Hester. Are you cold? How thoughtless of me to keep you talking out here simply to get an old worry off my chest.’
He slipped his coat about her shoulders and the pain of nestling into a garment which still carried the residual warmth and male scent of his body was almost the undoing of her. But she managed to hold herself together as he led her back through the knot of box-edged paths, past the old kitchen where Susie prepared most of the meals safely away from any danger of setting fire to the house, and back up the steps of the piazza. He placed his hands gently upon her shoulders and his touch almost scorched her through the thick cloth of his jacket. ‘Forgive me if I said it all too clumsily. But you are young, and vulnerable to the presence of a newcomer in your home. We are still friends, I hope, Hester, but you must not read into that more than there is, nor hope for more than there can be.’
He could not have been plainer. Hester snatched the jacket from her shoulders and, thrusting it into his hands, gazed at him unseeing through tear-blurred eyes. ‘You need have no fear on that score. I can do nothing about my youth but my vulnerability, as you call it, is quite another matter. For your information Mr Blake, I am well able to take care of myself and would not dream of inconveniencing or embarrassing you in any way. Goodnight to you.’
Whereupon, she fled into the house, to her bed, where she poured out all her misery and despair into a balled-up kerchief and a yielding pillow which would tell no tales on the morrow. And at breakfast she was able to serve Benjamin his eggs and biscuits without a tremor.
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