Authors: Eileen K. Barnes
Rescuing Mr. Gracey
By: Eileen K. Barnes
To Richard, my real life romantic story and my family who I will always love.
~ 1 ~
“’Twas on the twelfth day of July in the year of ’49
Ten Hundreds of our Orangemen together did combine…”
Ireland, May 1849
I’m going to die! They don’t see me…
Trapped between the narrow carriage road and a steep knoll, Mary Smyth flattened into the moss-covered indent and prayed against impact. The elegant coach weaved like a great devouring monster and hurtled even closer.
Feet tucked, fists clutched to grass and heather, her eyes widened as two huffing horses rolled past, so close she could have swiped at the animals’ bulging flanks, so near, pungent white sweat choked the air.
She heard a thunderous command to veer away and saw a dark-haired man lean from the window, his expression at once anxious and angry. Mary slammed her eyes shut, her breath trapped within her chest, waiting, waiting for the impact.
Instead, mud and rock showered her. She opened one eye and dared a fragile exhale.
Signing the cross, she whispered a prayer of thanksgiving, then wobbled onto the road. Nausea rose in her throat, but Mary pressed her lips together and brushed her filthy dress with determined, trembling fingers.
Don’t think of it now, Mary Smyth.
Raising her chin, she brushed tumbled hair from her eyes. “Arrogant invaders, driving at twice the speed!” she said, intending to give the disappearing coach an infuriated scowl.
Her breath caught.
The carriage had stopped up ahead, and the dark-haired passenger now twisted from the window, straining to view her. Was he getting her physical description to report her? Any witness to the near-fatal accident could attest she’d emerged from the private forest owned by Lord Annesley.
Startled by her own thoughts, she ignored the pain when she stepped on sharp rocks and biting ruts in her effort to skitter quickly away from the new threat.
Oh, to have my shoes right now, even if they pinch and blister!
One final leap landed her on the soft forest floor. Her speed increased. Running down the slight path, she crossed over the old stone bridge and pushed through a row of hedges. A quick glance back assured her the stranger had not followed.
“Mary, I ’bout gave up on ya!” Lily, her life-long friend, shouted. “Did ya get trapped by a dark fairy?”
Mary scrambled down the slight embankment and entered the cove. Checking behind her one last time, she covered her erratic heart with her hand. “I fell from the ridge to the road below. A speeding coach nearly crushed me.”
Lily’s mouth formed a wide O. “I feared crossin’ there meself. Ya can’t see t’ the other side,” she whispered.
“Aye, well, truth be told, I lost my balance while practicing dance steps for tonight.” Mary shook her head at her foolishness. “I must take some blame, as much as I’d like to lay it upon the rich coach.”
Lily tossed her lumpy brown braid over her shoulder. “Aye, well, I’d wager no one stopped to see if ya fared well.”
Mary’s stomach tightened. She hoped the coach’s occupant had long forgotten her. “I’ve no wish to dwell on reckless drivers this day.” Lifting her blood-crusted foot, she mumbled beneath her breath, “By the grace of God, and no help from the coachman, I survived with only cuts and scrapes.” She brushed the wet, splattered clothes before stripping the filthy dress and dropping it to the ground. “To say nothing about a large layer of mud.”
Mary left her chemise in place, then lifted items from her
cloth bag—a fresh muslin work dress, precious scrapings of rose-scented soap, and her comb—aligning each upon the tree trunk. “I’m determined to forget the accident and thank the Lord for providing beautiful weather and a lovely lake to wash away the hard week just past.” With a nod that brooked no argument, she said, “And that’s all I’ll be thinking on.”
“Well…” Lily sighed. Dropping back to her stomach, she rested her chin atop clasped hands. “I’m thinkin’ o’ winkin’ at Timothy O’Neil tonight.”
Mary untied her waist-length hair. “Waste of your time. He’s too enamored with his bony cow to notice humans.”
“Aye. Men are like bagpipes. They don’t work proper without a lass puffin’ up their pride.”
Mary laughed and tested the water with a dip of her toe.
Squeezing her eyes, she gulped air and plunged. “Whew. ’Tis cold, but lovely,” she called as her startled muscles retracted with shocked little shivers.
“I’ll take ya word for it. ’Tis ice in there.”
Invigorated by its bracing temperature, Mary dove once more and allowed mud and sweat to be swept away by crystal-blue water. Head tilted, Mary soaped her hair and lifted her face to the afternoon’s sun. “’Tis rare to have such a warm day in early May. I’m thinking you should take a dip.” She shifted her attention to Lily.
“No, thank ya, Mary.”
Lily’s facial features were pleasant—small nose, oval face, blue eyes—but she had likely not bathed since Easter. “I’ve brought the scrapings of rose soap left from the laundry this week. You know my clients pay extra just for the sweet scent upon their clothes.”
Lily wrinkled her pert nose. “Don’t start preachin’, Mary. I’ve been to Mass this day.” She rolled onto her back, her skirt raised to bare knees, knotted hair splayed on the grass.
Mary pressed her lips together, halting further comment. Lily had lost her mother and two siblings from typhus three years ago. Since that time, manners and hygiene had deteriorated to… nonexistence. Of course, having a drunken father who appeared only to steal hard-earned wages did not help.
“Well then,” Mary said, her fond gaze sweeping over the rolling hills that hugged the lake on three sides with emerald-green grass and brightly colored spring flowers. To her back, a thickly wooded forest sheltered the lake. “May I suggest you carry a cow bell about to get Tim O’Neil’s attention?”
“Shame on ya, girl, pokin’ fun at the simple lad. Perhaps I should see if the earl’s son himself is wantin’ to court.”
Floating on her back, Mary followed the lazy path of a puffy cloud. “’Twill please the village, no doubt, to have you wed a Protestant rake.” She glanced over at Lily, waiting for her retort.
Lily tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I’d do it in a blink for the food. And no cuttin’ turf, and me own servants waitin’ on me night and day…”
“Oh, Lily, if you lie down with dogs, you’ll rise up with fleas.”
Lily yawned. “I’d live with fleas if they’d come with food.” Rolling once more, she cradled her head on her arms. “Ya need a dream, Mary.”
“Dreams are for Protestants.” Lifting her foot, she washed around a deep scratch. “But, I do plan to encourage Sean Dennison tonight. He’d make a fine husband.”
Lily scoffed. “How long has the lad been comin’ to ya house? Eatin’ Sunday dinner? Drinkin’ ya da’s ale? All the while, he’s twiddlin’ his thumbs and lookin’ for a better prize.”
Wincing at the harsh words, Mary started out of the water. “’Tis just the hard times he fears.” She stepped gingerly toward the grassy edge, shuddering with cold. “All he’s needing is…”
Twigs snapped to her left. Her breath halted. Two men—one very tall, one very hefty—emerged from the forest.
She recognized the tall one as the gentleman from the coach.
They followed me.
Her own blood thundered, muffling Lily’s scream. Tripping backward, panic thick and heavy, she sank farther into the liquid ice. They were trapped in the lake valley—her dry clothes out of reach, swimming to the opposite side impossible, and the hills that surrounded them were too steep to run up. Lily had edged toward the hedges, but the men blocked the outlet.
Mary opened her mouth.
Make them leave.
A pitiful mouse-like sound squeezed through the lump in her throat.
The tall, dark-haired stranger blinked as if awakened from a daze. His quizzical brow lifted. His gaze swept the lakefront, pausing at Lily before lingering overlong at the sight of clothes laid upon a fallen tree trunk. His attention swerved back to Mary quivering in the lake.
Stepping forward, he cleared his throat. She stumbled back.
Like a hideous nightmare, her numb limbs refused the simplest command. Her teeth tapped like a woodpecker, preventing even one pleading word.
“We meant neither harm nor intrusion,” he said with warm-honey softness.
Flicking a hopeful glance at the shorter gentleman, she felt her stomach clench, for instead of offering reassurance, the heavy man’s red brows drew into a sharp, disapproving scowl, and his lips twisted as if tasting something sour. Her clogged throat refused to squeeze in frozen air.
“Need help warming from your chill?” His leering gaze traveled slowly, deliberately, from her neck to her chest.
The taller man cleared his throat and redirected her chaotic panic. Pointing toward the forest, he said, “I saw you tumble from the ridge and worried our coach may have caused you harm.” His hand dropped, and an apologetic smile followed. “We did not mean to alarm you, but seek assurance you are not injured or in need of assistance.”
Calm, unthreatening, his expression gentled her erratic heartbeat, but violent shivers weakened her balance.
She wanted to leave the water…she
to leave! Her toes were numb and every limb quaked, but her wet chemise afforded little protection from the heavy man’s probing eyes.
The dark-haired stranger unexpectedly shrugged off his jacket. “Will you accept my coat?” Without pause, he placed the cover beside the water’s edge. “I pledge your safety.”
Locking a muscular arm about the shorter man, he walked them to the opposite side of the sandy beach, then leaned a hip against a tree, his back to her. “I give my word there is nothing to fear but frostbite,” he called over his shoulder.
Numb limbs stumbled from the lake; shaky fingers whisked up the jacket. Shards of pain cut through her legs and feet like broken glass. Mary gritted her teeth and burrowed deeper into the jacket before hobbling toward the cover of the trees, her makeshift dressing area. Shivers took possession of her, and she could do little more than close her eyes and inhale the gentleman’s lingering heat and spicy clove scent.
“Me name’s ’Lizabeth,” she heard her friend say.
Mary’s eyes flew opened. She tensed.
“But ya gents call me Lily. Lily Connelly. Me friend’s name be Mary Smyth.”
Lily gives names too easily.
Peering from the pocket of trees, she noted that the shorter gentleman scowled.
“James and Alexander,” he snapped.
Clenching her jaw, she understood the insult too well. In polite society, introduction without last names meant that either the redhead thought the women below societal manners or he above them.
Either way, I must get us out of here!
Commanding her wrinkled fingers to stop shaking, she slid from the coat, careful to place it upon the fallen log before slipping from her dripping undergarment.
“Me own pleasure, to be sure,” she heard Lily say. “We live at Dolly’s Brae, on the other side of the coach road. Are ye from these parts?”
The question went rudely unanswered. Peeking between trees, Mary caught the men bouncing meaningful looks as if cueing each other for silence.
Mary growled, tugging the dry dress against the resistance of wet arms and neck. Urgency thickened her movements. Lily, oblivious to the mounting danger, continued smiling and flirting with careless abandon.
Please don’t let Lily spill any more information
Fingers tangled with her long hair while the restless strands refused to enter the disorderly braid. Her breathing echoed inside the dark enclosure; each motion, each tick of time, magnified the slowness of her actions. Belongings now stuffed into the little bag, Mary pushed through the cluster of trees and hurried toward the tall stranger.
“Thank you for your consideration, sir.” The tremble in her voice revealed the level of her anxiety.
Braced against the tall tree, he shifted, then twisted toward her. A gentle smile played at his lips. “Ah. The Irish mermaid speaks at last.”