“But, Da, must I go to the Cutters this morning? Oralena is home, and I do not wish another encounter with the spoiled princess. May I not wait until next week when she returns to Boston?” Liam bellyached while ruffling the mane of a two-week-old foal.
“Ahem.” Will Channel cleared his voice before answering, “Master Cutter instructed us to return the mare and her foal as soon as they are fit for travel.”
Liam leaned against the corral rails and crossed his long growing legs one over the other. While cleaning his fingernails with a pen knife, he continued protesting the task. “Are they truly naming this foal Nocturn? And what does it mean, Da?”
“I am unsure, son. Something to do with the night since it looks as if he will turn coal-black.”
“Upmh. Tis a foolish name for a horse. That priggish bookworm Marilee Cutter is probably the one who thought of the silly name. At any rate, Saul and Mika are expecting me to help them fire and bend the bands for the new carriage wheels today.”
“I am certain Joshua’s boys are capable of blacksmithing without your help. Now, stop shillyshallying or you will not return here before dusk and your mother begins to fret. And tomorrow, you are expected at the Dearbourne Estate to secure two colts for gelding.”
“If I arrive with urgency, that saucy brat will not have the opportunity to bedevil me. Oralena will not leave me be, Da, chasing after me all these years, asking impertinent questions such as do I sleep in the pig sty or the hay loft.” He picked at a healing pimple on his chin. “Now she makes tease of my red spots and asks why my sideboards are sparse? Last time I was there, she ordered me to boost her into the saddle. I had her boot in my hand and was giving her a lift when she went flying backward, and we both landed on the ground with her sitting atop me.”
Liam’s father snickered, remembering a long-ago incident in which Finnie had slipped on her first attempt to pull herself onto a side saddle. With her skirts bunched and her limbs splayed, her rump had landed on his belly. As was her habit at age seventeen, she cursed in the Irish. The moment was one of his fondest memories.
“Twas not humorous, Da. Oralena lifts herself into the saddle all the time without help or hindrance. I believe it was a deliberate attempt to humiliate me. Then, she commanded me to ride out with her as if I am her servant. And when I refused, she cracked a whip above my head. Well, I cannot mind my manners when it comes to Oralena Cutter. She is a rude little tart.”
Will stopped picking debris from the hooves of the mare and cleared his throat again before chiding his son. “Liam, I have heard this same argument for many years now. Perhaps Oralena wishes to befriend you, but you continue to act in the impudent manner of an ill-mannered stable boy, proving her accusations to be founded. How many times has your mother boxed your ears for referring to the Cutter daughters in such insulting terms?”
Uninhibited to a degree around his father, Liam did not use vulgar terms in front of his Irish mother whose temperament included a do as I say not as I do philosophy. Through years of scolding, ear-tugging, arm-pinching, and an occasional tongue-washing with lye soap, he had learned manners and respect. At fifteen, he towered over his petite mother, but never did he consider back-talking or defying her.
“Your mother is coming with your supper, Liam. Mind your tongue.”
Liam took the bundle containing victuals from his mother, pecked her on the cheek, and climbed onto the saddle horse. Before she could warn him not to behave like a hooligan, he picked up the reins to the mare and headed out to the Cutter’s La Belle Plantation with the wobbly foal scampering close behind its mother. Over his shoulders, he paid his respects to his parents who always maintained a vigil when he departed the farm. “Ma, thank you for the vittles; I love you. Good day, Da; till the evening tide.”
Will drew his wife into his arms and nuzzled her neck. “What are you planning to feed me, wife?”
Finnie pushed her husband away with a playful rib. “Ah, ye beast. The last time Liam rode out, me husband took me to the hayloft in the broad daylight to have his way. Now, he’s askin’ what it tis I shall be feedin’ his stomach.”
“Finnie, darlin’, I have mud on my boots, sweat on my blouse, and horse dung on my hands. The only clean part of me is my mouth. Will you give us a kiss then?”
“I shant. Ye do in deed smell as if ye wallowed with the hogs.”
“I must ride to the north pasture and bring home the Arabian mare who has escaped the fence again. I know naught how the old thing manages. If I bathe later, may I take you to the hayloft or the meadow on the hill? I promise to earn my supper....” He winked wickedly and attempted to kiss her cheek.
Finnie smirked at his foolishness while ducking away. “Iris is fixin’ the goose and yams, and we’ll be havin’ our supper served on the terrace promptly at twelve. Do not tarry while searchin’ for that mindless old nag or you’ll go without.” Before returning to the house and her chores, she giggled, “I shall take ye up on that promise, leannan. Make sure ye clean behind them ears.”
Will followed his wife of eighteen years with his eyes. After the many seasons, her nearness resulted in the same giddiness as the day she had fallen on his person. As a grown woman and mother, Finnie was more beautiful to him than when she had been a wee lassie and first trussed up in the garb of a scullery maid. With bright-green eyes full of devilment, blonde hair peaking from beneath her lace cap, freckles dotting her impish nose, and full lips made for kissing, the very sight of her made him feel like a colt, ready to frolic across the fields and kick up his heels.
There was a bit of gray streaking Will’s dark hair and the grooves around his eyes were deep due to the elements. He held his muscular body with pride and performed his job as the indentured stablemaster on Lady Belle Equestrian Farm in the James River Valley of County Surry without tiring. Not for one moment of the day since landing on Virginia soil in seventeen hundred and two had he wanted more in life than his wife, his son, and his work. He was young in all respects, and it was his contentment which kept him so.
* * *
Liam moseyed along the road on his return to Lady Belle, fussing and grumbling all the way to no one but himself and the horse. “‘Oh, Liam,’ she says, ‘Watch me. Watch me, please.’ Umph. Never said please before in her life. She is a frivolous female, and has no business riding around astride a horse and cracking a whip. She knew full well I was in a hurry, but she bragged, ‘I am able to pluck a pebble off yonder log with one crack.’ And by Jove, she did it. That pebble went flying off into the air like it had wings. Aye, twas a right smart trick, and I was ready to give her praise before she began to crow like a satisfied rooster. ‘I bet you cannot crack a whip in such a manner, Liam.’ That is when I told her I could crack a whip if I had time to squander on pointless amusements. Well, the goad sent her into a red-tainted tizzy, with cheeks puffed like a chipmunk and eyes bulging from their sockets before the hellion cracked that whip over my head. Sounded akin to thunder striking next to my ear and so close my hair stood on end. I intended to drag her off the horse and spank her unmentionable when I stepped toward her with my hands fisted. She must have seen I was serious mad because she smacked that horse on the rump, and they went tearing home to her papa.
“Aye, horse, I just might take me up some whip works and....” Liam stopped talking to himself and reined his horse to a halt. “What are you two doing out here?” His father’s huge work horse was trotting down the middle of the road toward home with an empty saddle, and Zidayah, the old Arabian clipping behind. “Whoa, Goliath, whoa.” At the signal, his horse trotted up beside the pair, and Liam took hold of the Quarter Horse’s loose reins. Goliath’s eyes were wild, and a sheen of white lather covered his chestnut colored chest and withers. Liam glanced around before calling for his father. “Da, can you hear me? Where are you, Da?” There was no answer. He glanced at the horse again and noticed something dark on his rump. Leaning over, he ran his fingers over the spot—the liquid was sticky and crimson. “My God, tis blood.”
Following the death of her beloved Will, Finnie remained inside the hall of Lady Belle, pacing the floor, wringing her hands, talking aloud to his ghost. Sleep would not relieve her grief, and she rarely made an appearance beyond the boundaries of her quarters. After eight weeks of isolation, Finnie surfaced, her body a mere skeleton. She did not venture far from the front porch where she kept a vigil of the stable where Will had worked, where his precious horses still whinnied and stomped in their stalls as if they missed the raspy voice of their master. The rocking chair where she had rocked her son and the sons of Joshua and Iris, remained in constant motion, its soft squeak a balm to quiet her mind.
While hulling beans one afternoon, a shawl wrapped around the black dress which hung on her emaciated frame, Finnie’s head shot up when Redcoats came riding into the yard. The sight of their scarlet uniforms sent a wave of panic through her, and she rose to her feet, timorous as a sparrow. Madame Lucille heard the noise of multiple riders from the parlor and joined her friend on the porch.
Having returned from Philadelphia upon hearing of the death of Will Channel, Lucille Trammel took charge, politely asking the Redcoats to state their business.
The soldiers remained on their horses, but the captain responded with a tip of his black-feathered hat, announcing himself as Captain Morris of His Majesty’s army. What he proclaimed next, shocked Finnie to the core. “I have orders to seize the boy Liam Channel and take him to the magistrate in Norfolk. There is an obligation of indenture, and, as the son of William Channel, it has been determined the boy be held until the debt is paid.”
Rage fermenting in her belly, Finnie gripped the arm of the rocker for support while Lucille remained stoic. As the owner of the farm, it was Madame Trammel’s responsibility to display authority. “Captain Morris, William Channel was murdered only eight weeks past. And here stands his widow. You may observe for yourself she is in mourning and has suffered greatly due to her husband’s passing. And now you come for her son? What manner of callousness is this?”
“Beg pardon Madame Trammel, Mistress Channel. None-the-less, I have my orders. Where is the boy?’”
Finnie rushed off the porch and flew at the captain. One would have thought she had no strength left, but she flailed at him like a demon and hung onto his leg as he signaled his horse to turn toward the stable. Finnie cried, “He’s free. He was born a free person. What are ye sayin’? Ye shant take him.…” She was dragged through the yard as his horse marched toward the stable, her constant pleas for mercy heard above his orders for his men to search the place until they found the boy.
There were too many of the lobsterbacks to fight when they grabbed the youngster off Goliath as he prepared to ride to Cutter’s La Belle Plantation for a job of gelding. Questions were asked but went unanswered as the captain commanded Liam be put on an extra horse brought along for the purpose, and his hands to be tied to the pommel. He rode off the property of Lady Belle peacefully, but with tears in his eyes at the sight of his mother lying in the dirt, sobbing and cursing in Gaelic, Madame Lucille’s arms around her.
* * *
Liam was thrown in the Norfolk jail and left to consider his fate for a week. The magistrate, an elderly man with a reputation for dispensing justice depending upon who possessed the bigger purse, scoffed at him daily, rattling the bars of the rat-infested cell, making such statements as, “they shall pay.” Liam did not understand the pretense of his incarceration, other than the notion the greedy Horace Belcher had found a way to profit from his father’s death.
His mother and Madame Lucille visited Liam on the seventh day of his imprisonment, and the scheme became evident. Belcher claimed himself to be a staunch Loyalist to the Crown, and considered contracts written by a London judge to be sacred. When Madame Lucille reported Will Channel’s murder several weeks prior and insisted Belcher search for the killer, he made a snide comment regarding the remaining five years of the indenture contract. She left his office not knowing why he fretted over a dead man’s unpaid debt, and he made no commitment to locate the murderer.
Remembering the conversation, Lucille was prepared to bribe the avaricious magistrate for Liam’s release, and offered twenty-five pounds. Belcher sniggered at the bribe, responding the payment was insufficient. When he quoted the sum, twenty-five pounds for each year remaining on the five-year indenture, Lucille was reduced to shock.
Upon visiting Liam in his cell, Finnie promised, “I’ll get ye out of here, son, if I have to kill that mangy dog of a magistrate and drag his gluttonous carcass through the streets of Norfolk.”
Lucille interceded in Finnie’s harangue. “Liam, we shall not abandon you. I shall sell the Arabians to pay the fee....”
Liam argued, “Nay, Madame Lucille, you cannot sell your prized Arabians. The future of Lady Belle and all its people depend upon those horses. Tell Belcher I shall gladly complete Father’s contract as an indentured servant reporting to whomever he selects.”
To Finnie’s boisterous rejections complete with Gaelic profanity, Lucille made the offer to Belcher. The magistrate harrumphed and refused the deal. Liam remained in jail another several days.
The outcome to the puzzle became evident on day thirteen. Liam was brought out of his cell, filthy and louse-ridden, and forced to stand shackled as if a thief in front of Belcher and two other men. With their backs to him, Liam did not at first recognize Captain Elias Dearbourne of the Dearbourne Estate or Dutton Cutter of La Belle Plantation, who were arguing noisily regarding his worth.
“Mister Belcher, I protest most vehemently,” Dearbourne shouted, his fist slamming down on the desk Belcher was cowering behind. “I have previously agreed to pay the one hundred fifty pounds in exchange for the boy’s indenture.”
Dutton Cutter was in the process of upping the ante. “I am offering two hundred pounds for Liam Channel. I expect the court to record the indenture as a five-year contract and at its conclusion, he will be accorded a full release and granted the fifty acres promised to his father by The Crown.” Cutter was not in the least intimidated by Belcher’s rank or Dearbourne’s posturing.
Dearbourne was most displeased to hear his neighbor and fellow farmer outbid him. His aristocratic face went red with fury and his powdered wig became saturated with sweat.
Liam, standing quietly behind the men who appeared close to fisticuffs, suddenly had the audacity to laugh aloud at the spectacle. After all, he was but fifteen, and never had he dreamed his slight contribution to the horse profession was considered so treasured.
For his outburst, Belcher added contempt to the court fees, a calculated total of two hundred ten pounds. At this point, Captain Dearbourne must have determined Liam was not worth the sum, called Belcher a double-crossing skunk, threw up his hands, and stormed out. The expression on Belcher’s face was as if he had eaten a lemon, but he quickly palmed the notes Cutter counted out to him. Having been caught with his corruption exposed, Belcher was overly strict in his final warning to Master Cutter, issuing mandates which were recorded as a non-forfeitable Indenture Contract. Further, the records stipulated Liam Channel must be held to account and: be maintained in Cutter’s custody for five years, not be allowed to leave Surry County, not be allowed to own property or paid wages, not be allowed to marry, and some other not alloweds Liam could not recall.
On the way home to Lady Belle, Cutter informed Liam, “Belcher’s mandates did not specify on what property you must work. I shall ask Madame Lucille to reimburse me the sum of one pound per year to allow you to continue working at Lady Belle. Twill be our secret. I have asked Réne Lambert to oversee the farm in the interim, until Madame secures a new stablemaster or determines you are able to handle the job. Should there ever be any concerns with Lambert or of any matter, do not hesitate to come to me.”
“Sire, why have you been so generous with your purse? The amount you paid to the Court, to Belcher’s pocket, is extravagant. How shall I ever repay this debt?” Liam asked while scratching at his head.
“Tis no debt you owe, Liam. The Trammels and the Channels have been loyal friends and neighbors all these years, and I have faith you will someday extend a favor. The only thing I ask is for you to become the best stablemaster in Virginia, and to think of me when you go on your own. I would have many horses trained by a son of William Channel.” Cutter squelched a snicker. “Uh, Liam, I believe your mother will have a few choice words of Irish to say about your stay at the Norfolk jail—your hair is moving.”
When Liam returned to Lady Belle, there was cause for celebration, but not before Liam was given the treatment in the washhouse. After being scalded and scrubbed, he was given the choice of a scalping or a combing. He wanted the delousing chore over and done quickly instead of having a mixture of vinegar and salt scrubbed into his head and then a coating of lard applied. Having to sit in the washhouse overnight while the lard smothered the nits, followed by another vinegar wash and tedious combing of the nits, was more bother than he cared to endure. He opted for having his long hair shorn to the scalp.
With Liam back in the fold, Finnie’s spirits were bright. She continued to watch the barns and the fields from her rocking chair on the porch, but now it was to keep Liam in her sights. She grew nearly mad with worry when he left the farm on horse business, watching for his return, vexing when he was but an hour delayed.
Concerned with Finnie’s state of mind, Madame Lucille announced, “Michelle’s youngest son Pierre will be celebrating a birthday, and I shall be there to congratulate him and to act as Grandmere Lucy to my other grandchildren who barely know me. Now, hear me, mon ami, you are moving with me to Philadelphia, and I shall have no argument about the matter. We leave in one week, so prepare yourself.” Lucille had resorted to her status as the mistress of the farm, making demands upon the woman who was previously her indentured maid but whom she considered a friend and treated as if a niece. Rose, the girl who was abused by Jack Robbins and who never left Lucille’s side, as well as Joshua’s younger son Mika, were invited along, and preparations for the journey commenced.
The day had turned gray and rainy, but plans were not delayed. When the wagons were loaded with Madame Lucille’s fine china, silver, and imported silk frocks, as well as the personal belonging of the other travelers, the rocking chair was set on the flat bed of the third wagon. Finnie, having never debated the matter, sat with her head facing the stables, rocking back and forth as the wagons pulled out of the yard down the road leading away from Lady Belle, and out of the Virginia where she and Will had landed twenty-three years past.
* * *
The story of their lives was etched on Finnie’s heart. Through the years, she had told the tale often to those who would hear, particularly to her son Liam. While making the trip out of Virginia to this new place called Philadelphia, she mentally relived every detail of her life, little noticing as the scenery changed about her....
William Channel had been imprisoned at Newgate Prison in London in seventeen and one for beating the foreman of the carriage house where he worked. The foreman had been abusive to the horses, and Will had put a stop to it by hitting the man over the head with a beam and hiding the horses. After several months in prison, Will was bonded to Lord Byron Trammel because of his youth and experience with horses. The indenture contract was for twenty-five years, an abnormally long indenture due to the unscrupulous practices of the English courts.
On the ocean crossing to the colonies where Trammel owned a large tobacco and cotton plantation as well as a prosperous horse farm named La Belle Plantation, a lad named Finn Carroll was assigned to assist Will with the valuable Arabians Lord Trammel had purchased. Finn, a runt of a lad with a feisty attitude and a willingness to fight anyone who crossed him, had boarded ship as a stowaway. When he was found, he admitted he was after finding a new life in the colonies. Well into the journey, Will discovered Finn was actually Fionnuala, a scrawny lassie of fourteen escaping the hardships of Ireland following the death of her Aunt Cori. Finnie, as she was later called, had disguised herself as a boy to protect herself from untoward advantage. Trammel was exasperated at her audacity, but offered her an indenture of five years as a maid to his wife Madame Lucille Trammel. Finnie fought like a wildcat and cursed like a sailor when she was forced into skirts, but she finally succumbed to her fate and learned to tame her Irish temper over the next couple of years. Will was assigned to the plantation stables as groomer and trainer, and watched Finnie grow from a reluctant house maid to a beautiful and clever woman. Another indenture, a malicious man named Jack Robbins, also took an interest in Finnie and attempted to woo her, but Will was the one she chose. When Finnie came of age, the Trammels allowed her to marry Will, although they were both still bonded.
The newly wed Channels were happy for a few years on Trammel’s La Belle Plantation, until everything turned to wrack and ruin. Jack Robbins was found guilty of abusing the young slave girl Rose, and Trammel sold his contract to Ronald Blackshire, a scheming and malevolent neighbor. Robbins, seeking revenge for his downfall and for Will’s marriage to Finnie, murdered Lord Trammel and assisted Blackshire in securing ownership of Will’s indenture as well as the papers for a slave by the name of Joshua Belle. Will and Joshua’s family were sent to Blackshire Plantation where they were starved and worked beyond tolerance in the fields. Finnie, having completed her five years of indenture, followed Will only to find herself entangled in Blackshire’s deceitful web. Bribing the magistrate in Norfolk to declare the marriage between my Will and Finnie illegal based on their bondsmanship, Blackshire promised he would send Joshua’s family back to La Belle and allow Will to resume his position as a horse trainer at Blackshire Plantation if Finnie would consent to marry him. Unable to conscience the lives of those she loved to continue in peril, she consented. Blackshire held to his promise, but he kept Will in chains knowing he would go mad when he learned his wife was to marry his new master.
Another slave owned by Ronald Blackshire was a man referred to as Runaway—a label earned for his propensity to attempt escape from the cruelties of his enslavement. Blackshire tortured the man on more than one occasion by flailing him, branding him, gouging out an eye, and removing his tongue. No one knew for certain, but it was suspected Runaway set fire to the Blackshire mansion shortly before Blackshire and Finnie were to be married. While the mansion was burning with Blackshire’s body in it, Jack Robbins stole away Finnie, intending to take her to New Orleans and wed her himself. With the fire raging, Will managed to escape his shackles and follow Robbins on a stolen horse. When he finally caught up with Robbins near a river crossing on the James River, there was a scuffle in which Robbin’s leg was broken, and Will was sorely injured by a stray shot from the pistol he had stolen from Blackshire’s stock of weapons.
While Finnie was undoing the ropes holding her onto the saddle where Robbins had secured her the night before, the wounded Robbins crawled off like a snake. On bare feet, she went in search of the man who had brought so much misery to their lives. He had fallen off a cliff in his attempt to escape, and as Finnie approached, he begged her for mercy and assistance. Neither were given. With her hands held above her head, she plunged a knife into his heart. She was in shock when the deed was done and Robbins lay stone cold with his dead eyes staring up at her. Her white night-gown was splattered with his blood, a butcher knife in her hand, waiting to kill him again if he was resurrected. Will took the knife from her hand, but as he led her away, he succumbed to his injuries.
The James River crossing was controlled by thugs and scoundrels. Fearful the river men would become curious about the shooting and discover Finnie indisposed in her nightgown and Will unable to defend her, she proceeded with gallant plans. It pained her to resort to thievery, but robbing Robbins’ dead body was done to provide her with bribery money as well as clothes to disguise herself as a young man. After cutting her lovely blonde hair, she perched Robbin’s bowler on her head and sparred with the river men, claiming she had in her possession the man who had killed Ronald Blackshire whom she was returning to the magistrate. The river men laughed at the scrawny Finn Carroll, but believed him when he hitched his pants, spat in the dirt, and spoke a bawdy bravado. Exposing Robbin’s gun in her belt and offering two horses for payment of the services, the scheme worked, and the men ferried her and Will downriver to Norfolk. Afraid they might be spotted by either Blackshire’s overseers or Redcoats looking for the escaped indenture Will Channel suspected in Blackshire’s demise, Finnie and Will were not yet out the woods. After securing a doctor to tend Will’s wounds, they both dressed as Redcoats and made their way home to Lady Belle.
Seven months later, Liam Channel was born. Fifteen years later, William Channel was dead and her son was no longer a free person.
As the wagon carried her away from the farm and her past, Finnie could find no solace in the horses grazing in lovely meadows, the green of undulating hills, the roaring waters running through the mighty James River, or the warm sunshine beating down on her head. Lady Belle Equestrian Farm of Virginia was no longer home.
The heady fragrance of horse clings to the trainer’s clothes and body like the natural freshness of a baby’s skin. Its earthy permanence is virtually unnoticeable to him or those with whom he toils and calls friends. It is of minor discernment and of absolutely no concern to Villa, whose own scent is a mixture of lye and yeast, bacon and linseed oil, perspiration and woman.
While waiting for the trainer at the back door of Manchester Hall and listening intently for the sound of horses to come clomping down the alleyway, Villa dried her chapped hands on a soiled apron and pushed a wisp of limp hair away from her temple. With the daily drudge of never ending duties semi-complete, she leaned against the broom she no longer pretended to utilize. She chewed on her bottom lip while her head swiveled in the direction of every clip-clop, every whiney and snort, each whoa and giddyup, echoing from the busy streets and allies surrounding the massive brick house.
Ah, there he is. That would be his fine voice I hear sweet talking those dumb beasts as if they were human things. Cannot get him to speak such pretty words to me for the shyness in him. Oh well, he is a good lad for one raised in a barn. Short on house manners, he is, but full of common sense and decency. And there is no meanness about him. His heart is full of kindness and gentleness albeit strength and character come spilling out of his dear soul leaving a lass believing she may lean on him even when he is not yet a man mature in his skin and bones. Villa inhaled deeply as her musings were pushed aside by a practical heed to action. This would be the night she would compel him, beg, and plead with him if she had to. It would be too late if her plot was stalled much longer.
With deliberate nonchalance, she strolled toward the carriage house where the trainer had taken the horse. Just outside the large arched entrance to the stable, she hesitated for a moment to observe quietly and with admiration as the young man skillfully settled the exquisite mahogany colored carriage horse which was half of a perfectly matched pair of Cleveland Bays. The horse’s estranged partner snorted and stomped his feet excitedly in his stall in recognition and welcome for his missing companion. The prodigal mare swished her tail briskly while the trainer calmed them both with foreign horse talk and soothing pats to their quivering flesh. The familiar sound of his lulling voice and the practiced movements of his deft hands brought the two to a workable level of calm.
“You stroke them beasts like you would a woman, Mister Channel.”
Startled by the voice and embarrassed by the gist, Liam Channel turned toward the speaker of his name and smirked before clearing his throat. “Ahem. And what would you know about the treatment of a woman, Villa Brooks, being you are yet a girl yourself?”
“I know more about being a woman grown than you know about being a full-fledged man, Mister Channel, else you would know to come and steal a kiss before the masters come home to find you doing other than what you were hired to do.”
While brushing his hands on his breeches and wiping a sleeve across his mouth in preparation for an overdue kiss, Liam took two long strides toward the maid leaning casually against the door frame. “Do you promise, Villa, woman grown, that a kiss from the scullery maid is worth fifteen lashes to my backside?”
Villa pushed away from the door and sauntered coyly toward Liam, now paused in his tracks and appearing cocky. With her head thrown back, she mocked him. “T’would definitely be a hale and hardy man who would risk lashes for a willfully given kiss from a simple scullery maid. I make this promise to you, Liam Channel: my tender kiss and loving embrace will linger in your heart and disturb your nightly rest.” With the unabashed pledge thus spoken, Villa breeched the last remaining distance between them. With one hand encircling his neck and nimble fingers grabbing a lock of nape hair, she pulled herself to him pressing her breasts firmly against his chest. On tiptoes, she kissed his mouth fully and firmly. Not the usual sisterly kiss reserved for chaste young maidens whose betrothal was at stake, the brazen kiss was laden with challenge and purpose. She clung to him, pressing into his form, her heavy skirts precariously enveloping his limbs so that she could detect his pelvis thrusting uncontrollably forward.
“Villa! What has got…we must not…what are you doing to me?” Wide-eyed and breathless, Liam forced her to arm’s length.
“I am attempting to tantalize you, Liam, but it appears you are not for it. How is it you are able to resist my charms?” Villa stomped her foot and pursed her lips.
“Charms? Good Lord, Villa. You will land us both in the hay pile with your skirts over your head. Your charms have me randy as a stud horse, and we have too much respect for one another to allow our bestial nature to interfere with decent behavior.”
Pretending to be insulted, Villa’s eyes flew wide as did her mouth before she shrieked, “Bestial nature? Why you…you addle-pated stable boy. I love you to distraction, Liam, and I do not care for my lovemaking being compared to the instinctive breeding of stupid animals.” She managed to squeeze a genuine tear out of her right eye by pinching her own palm. “Holy Mother, I did not consider I would be shamed for demonstrating my true affection. You have spurned the love I give so freely and left me feeling a foolish tart.”
Dumbfounded, Liam realized the high and gallant road he had chosen was the incorrect route, especially at such a heated moment. His experience with the female sex was a constant trial, and he had lost this test. “I, uh, I am truly sorry, Villa. I did not mean to rebuff your affections. I am simply attempting to control my own manly appetites. Tis out of my love and high regard for you that I must show restraint. Please forgive me for failing to express myself in a more gentlemanly manner.”
“Gentleman, humph!” Her back was to him, her arms folded tightly across her breasts, huffing in feigned annoyance.
Liam placed his hands delicately on her shoulders and pivoted her toward him. He rested his forehead upon hers and slipped his hands clumsily around her waist. “I would fancy that kiss now, if you so dare, my sweet.”
With genuine appreciation, she peered up into his bright green eyes and responded, “Why, Liam, this is the first time you have made use of an endearment. I fancy that: my sweet. Very well, but I should like being the one who is kissed, if you would be so kind.” She closed her eyes and waited patiently.