A New Life
A/N: I would like to thank those who reviewed on chapter 8:
KAC: I've read the Scarlet Letter, but I'm afraid I don't remember who Mr. Chillingworth was. I do remember plodding through the book; however, because of my evil English teacher. There were so many words that I got lost ;) Anywho, thanks for reviewing!
Kate: Thanks for reviewing!!!!! I love reviews (so long as their positive). I'm glad you enjoyed reading what I have so far, I really hope it keeps going as well as it is.
Cathrine5: Thank you so much for reviewing. I'm glad you are enjoying the story!
Loralak: Thank you for the review. Yes, Jonathon does sound rather heavenly, doesn't he?
BTW, Fictionpress erases the stars I use to separate different sections of the chapter so I'm going to try italicizing the first line of each new section.We took our picnic out into the countryside. I was rather surprised that Jonathon chose to go as far away from civilization as he did, but I found I did not mind all that much.
He pulled on the reins of the horses and dropped to the ground before the trap-which he had borrowed from Ellie-came to a complete stop. Quickly hobbling the horses in order to keep them from wandering far, he turned to me.
"May I assist you, miss?" he asked, grinning up at me as he offered his hand. I took it, instantly regretting the gloves I had slipped on before leaving the house, and stepped down from the vehicle.
"Why of course, dear sir," I replied after I had reached the ground. His grin widened and he pulled me close for a brief kiss. I was torn between allowing him to continue kissing me with such familiarity and asking him to please keep his distance. Propriety demanded that I push him away before his lips got anywhere near mine, but I did not care much for what was considered decent behavior when he was kissing me. Perhaps I will wait until tomorrow before I chastise him and ask him to stop, I silently decided as we kissed again.
"I don't know about you, but I am positively famished," Jonathon exclaimed, releasing my hand in order to retrieve the picnic basket. I noticed his limp became more apparent as he hauled the heavy basket to a nearby cluster of trees. Still, he made good time and was quickly leaving me behind as I stood near the trap watching him. Grabbing the blanket we had brought along, I hurried to catch up. By the time I reached him, he had already set down the basket and was just unlatching the leather straps that held it shut.
"There you are!" He laughed as I spread the blanket on the ground. "I was beginning to think I was going to have to eat all of this myself." Pulling the lid open, he gasped before giving another chuckle. "Why, Connie, it seems you were under the impression that we would be feeding the entire Confederate army." He rifled through the cold chicken and ham sandwiches, fresh vegetables, and cake Sally had packed. When he unearthed a jug of lemonade he practically jumped up and down. "Is this what I think it is?" he asked excitedly as he uncorked it and sniffed the contents. "It is! I don't believe it. How ever did you get your hands on some lemons?"
I shrugged and bent down to unpack the food Jonathon's hands had been digging through. "You'd have to ask Sally that; or Ellie. And I can't take the credit for the amount of food. When Sally caught me going through the cupboards she shooed me out of the kitchen with a broom and insisted that I let her pack a decent meal. Apparently she doubts my ability at creating a meal with leftovers despite all these months I have been helping her in the kitchen." I added impishly.
Jonathon nodded, still holding the jug as though it were some sort of prize. "Um, did she think of how we're going to drink this?" he asked as he sat down. I quickly produced two wooden mugs wrapped in kitchen towels from my pockets and handed them over. Sally had threatened me within an inch of my life if they were not kept on my person at all times during the ride to and from wherever we were going. I had not pointed out that they were made of wood and had a better chance in the basket than the lemonade did. Instead I had simply accepted the assignment and stuck them into the deep pockets of my dress that were hidden by the folds of fabric.
"That woman thinks of everything," he commented as he carefully poured lemonade into the mugs. I nodded as I took a seat on the blanket and proceeded to load one of the wooden plates (which Sally had ironically insisted would be fine in the basket) with food. Jonathon, on the other hand, took a sip of the beverage and closed his eyes as though he were experiencing the most pleasurable thing in the world. I laughed and threw some grass at him.
"Careful!" he scolded lightly, opening his eyes and covering his mug with his hand, "You'll get grass in my lemonade." I stuck my tongue out at him and considered throwing more grass. My hunger won out; however, and I took a bite of my sandwich instead.
"This is quite a pretty spot," I commented, taking in our surroundings. Jonathon's mouth was currently full of cake and he didn't answer. "Is this where you bring all your female friends?" I teased, taking advantage of his occupied mouth. He shook his head and swallowed.
"I brought Anna and a couple of the other girls up here once," he said and I felt a pang of jealousy and disappointment pierce me. My doubts concerning his relationship with the brothel had returned full force. "But you're the first girl I have brought that I cared for as more than a friend," he added, taking my hand and kissing it. Warmth flooded through me and my doubts flew to the back of my mind where they continued to pester me, only more quietly.
"Y-you care for me?" I stammered, focusing on what he had said. I forced my negative thoughts to be silent.
He lifted an eyebrow. "Do you think I would kiss just anyone?" he asked lightly. Yes, was the immediate thought that came to mind. Really, Connie, the poor boy has told you he has never used the brothel. He's saving himself for his wife! Why can you not believe him and enjoy his company? Feeling ashamed of myself, I glanced at the half eaten sandwich in my hand.
"I've seen you greet Ellie and a few others with a kiss on the cheek," I replied, knowing I sounded silly. But how else could I cover up my hesitation in answering?
Jonathon chuckled at my comment and took my hand again. He waited until I lifted my eyes to look at him. "You know what I meant, Constance," he said softly. An intensity came into his eyes that startled and excited me at the same time. We both leaned forward simultaneously, but before our lips met we were interrupted by a jolly plump fellow shouting a greeting.
"Why, Jonathon Briggs!" the man exclaimed when he had reached us. Jonathon rose from the ground and helped me stand before shaking the man's hand.
"Good afternoon, Amos," Jonathon replied, a wide grin on his face. The man's gaze shifted to me and then back to Jonathon. "I would like you to meet Miss Constance Briant. Constance, this is Amos Steffield. He owns the land we are picnicking on."
"Not that I mind, of course," Amos said hastily. He must have seen the worry that crossed my face. "No, no, I told Jonny here that he was more than welcome to use this field whenever he wanted. Especially when he needed a place to woo a pretty young lady," he added, winking at Jonathon. He flushed a deep red and I was glad to not be the only one with a seeming partiality to the color. "I proposed to my wife on this field," he continued, clearly enjoying Jonathon's discomfiture. "Course, she turned me down at first, but I got her to come around to my way of thinking in the end."
Jonathon cleared his throat. "How is Margaret?" he asked pointedly. Amos must have decided to take pity on him, for he went along with the change of subject.
"Oh, she's fine. She's even been walking around her garden lately, although she has leave the tending of it to our youngest. By the way, she finished that book you lent to her."
"Did she?" Jonathon asked in a perfectly normal tone. "I'll have to loan her another."
"Why don't you stop by the house after you've finished up here and pick it up?" Amos suggested. Jonathon was silent for a moment. "I'll do that," he finally replied. Amos nodded and bid us a good afternoon before leaving us to our dinner. I watched him walk away for a moment and for the first time noticed a house across the field. When I turned around, Jonathon had returned to the blanket and was munching on a carrot.
"Amos's wife's health has been poor ever since their last daughter was born," Jonathon explained, though I had asked no questions. I sat down beside him and took up my plate. "I loan her books from time to time to keep her occupied. She has read all of her own, you see."
"Why doesn't Mr. Steffield buy her more?" I asked, thinking that a man who could afford the large piece of property we were on would surely be able to afford some books for his sick wife.
Jonathon shook his head and took a bite of his sandwich. "Amos doesn't have that kind of money. He did when he was a plantation owner, but then he had a few years that were bad financially. Had to sell his slaves and most of his land to pay his debts. The house and this bit of land are the only property he has left. This was always more of a park and flower garden," he added in reference to the field.
I opened my mouth to ask what Mr. Steffield did now for a living, but Jonathon spoke before the words got out. "I'm glad we got to do this, Constance," he said, smiling at me. I felt my heart beat faster.
"So am I," I replied. For a moment I considered asking him the question that had been on my mind ever since he had arrived at the brothel specifically asking for me. Might as well, how else are you going to find out? "You know," I said, hoping I sounded nonchalant, "I am still a bit surprised that you were able to come and see me."
"What do you mean?"
A sense of my own idiocy overcame me and I stared at my lap. I took a deep breath and plunged in. "Well, I thought that . . .well, that Mr. Wright would not like it." Pulling my eyes up, I looked into his eyes and immediately wished I hadn't. He was giving me the oddest look.
"What does it matter what Mr. Wright thinks about my calling on you?" he asked softly. I felt a blush creeping up my face and fought to keep it down.
"Well, he is funding your gun shop," I said slowly, picking nonexistent lint off my skirt. I shrugged. "I don't know, I just thought he might have said . . ." my voice drifted away. Oh how I regretted bringing this up. We had been having such a fine time.
"Mr. Wright and I have a business relationship," Jonathon's voice was strained. "We only speak of business."
I nodded; relieved to know that Mr. Wright had not threatened him to stay away from me. Yet. The word resounded through my head ominously. Glancing at Jonathon, I noticed that our conversation seemed to have left him agitated. We finished our meal in silence.
"We'd better pack this up and get going," he said finally, glancing at the darkening sky. "We still need to stop by Amos's and pick up that book." I helped him put away the food and fold the blanket. By the time we reached the trap, Jonathon's anxiety had increased and I was becoming rather alarmed.
"Are you feeling well, Jonathon?" I asked as he helped me into the trap. He made no reply and it wasn't until he was sitting next to me and picking up the reigns that he looked at me.
"Do you have feelings for Mr. Wright?" he asked. If his voice hadn't sounded so worried and sincere, I would have thought he was joking. Still, it was hard not laugh in response. At the same time I felt a wave of revulsion rise within me from the thought.
"Of course not!" I said indignantly. An involuntary shudder ran through my body. "How could you think that I would have feelings for such a man?" Especially when I have made it obvious that I care only for you.
His face reddened and he half-shrugged. "Why else would you want to know his reaction to my calling on you?" He flicked the reigns and the horses started pulling us in the direction of the Steffields'.
"That's not why, I can assure you," I replied, laying my head on his shoulder. The gesture seemed to reassure him and he put both reigns in one hand and slipped his arm around my shoulders. The moment would have been perfect if his curiosity hadn't reared its ugly head.
"Why did you ask, then?" he whispered. Closing my eyes in an effort to stop that tears that immediately threatened to flow, I straightened.
"I'd rather not talk about it," I managed to choke out. An uneasy silence came between us the rest of the way to the Steffields' although Jonathon kept an arm around me. Feeling that he deserved some sort of explanation, I grabbed his hand as he brought the horses to a halt beside the backdoor of Amos's house. "If you must know, Jonathon, don't ask me. It hurts me to talk about it. But both Ellie and Anna know and will tell you." This seemed to satisfy him and he kissed me on the cheek before climbing out of the trap.
He returned moments later and tossed a book into my lap before getting in. "Hold that for me, will you?" he asked. I glanced down at the worn cover of the old book and felt a jolt of astonishment shoot through me. The words: Othello by William Shakespeare glared up at me in the dim light provided by the setting sun.
We arrived at the brothel just as the sun plunged below the horizon. Though I assured him that he only needed to escort me as far as the door, Jonathon insisted on seeing me inside. The reason for this became apparent almost immediately after entering the parlor.
"Jonathon, Connie, you're back!" Ellie greeted us, rising from the sofa where she had been reading. Our current disagreement was temporarily forgotten, although, I noticed that she greeted Jonathon with a hug and a kiss and me with a mere nod. "I was beginning to think that you had made off with my errand girl," she teased her nephew.
"It was tempting," Jonathon replied, winking at me. I was surprised to realize that I was not blushing in reaction.
"Bah," Ellie scoffed. "Connie knows better than to run off with a rogue like you. Don't you, my deah?" She smiled at me, but it didn't quite reach her eyes and she seemed to look over my head rather than directly at me. What's she upset with me for? I inwardly fumed. She's the one who's being naïve about the whole Carmen business. Just because most of the girls and I disagree with her!
I had missed the end of the conversation and Jonathon was now asking his aunt if he could speak to her privately. Instinctively I knew he was going to ask her about our earlier conversation. Doubt seized me and I wondered if it was wise to allow someone beside myself to tell him. There was no doubt in my mind that he ought to know, but was it right for me to shirk the duty onto someone else. Still, it was a situation that gave me pain when so much as referred to.
"Thank you for the lovely evening, Constance," Jonathon said, kissing my cheek. The gesture effectively returned me to the present, albeit, a little late. He and Ellie were already leaving the parlor.
"Thank you" I mumbled, even though I knew he wouldn't hear. It didn't matter now whether having Ellie tell him was right or not, they'd already entered the office and closed the door. It doesn't really matter who tells him as long as he is told, I reassured myself as I started up the staircase. As I entered my room, I was suddenly overcome with exhaustion and collapsed onto the bed still fully dressed
Days had passed since Jonathon and I had gone on our picnic and I had heard nothing from him. I began to fear that perhaps Mr. Wright had gotten around to warning him to keep away from me. This thought was only slightly better than the small fear I had that perhaps he found he did not care for me as much as he had thought.
Though I realized that if Mr. Wright had persuaded Jonathon to end our relationship there was a good chance he would not call me. Still, I held out hope that he would come visit his aunt and that I would at least get a glimpse of him. In the meantime, I kept myself busy being Liza's model, the girls' hairdresser, and Ellie's errand girl.
"Constance, there you are!" Anna said as she entered the study where I had been perusing the shelves. "Ellie needs you to take care of some errands and pick up some things. Here's the list and some money." She thrust a small pouch and a list written in elegant script into my hands.
"What?" I asked, somewhat confused as to what was going on. Ellie had mentioned sending me to run the errands before, but she had never gone through with it. I had begun to think it was simply her way of letting me know I was not a prisoner and was free to leave the property whenever I wished.
Anna placed her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Connie, sometimes you can be so daft. Sally has fallen ill and Ellie needs some things taken care of in town. I'm sure you understand why none of us can go, but you are the 'errand girl' so . . . We'll send you with the trap, of course. There's much too much to be done for you to simply carry it back in your arms."
I glanced at the list and then back up at Anna. The thought of getting away from the brothel for just a few hours delighted me. Just as I prepared to leave the study thoughts of Mr. Wright, the lawyers, and my grandmother assaulted me.
"Surely you don't intend for me to go alone?" I asked, hoping she wouldn't think me cowardly.
A frown creased Anna's brow as she contemplated my question. "No, I suppose you're right," she said at last, "The streets aren't very safe for a young lady who is alone these days." Suddenly a smile lit up her features. "Of course, Ellie thought of that as well." Walking out of the study, she beckoned me to follow. As we entered the parlor my jaw dropped and my eyes widened. Before me stood a man whose appearance was indescribably perfect. Wide green eyes stared at me from a finely chiseled face. His blonde hair was shoulder length and tied neatly back with a brown ribbon that matched his impeccably fine apparel. Yet, despite his appearance, I could not help but feel disappointed that it was not Jonathon.
"Constance Briant, this is Charles Ackerman, your escort for today." Charles smiled at me and stepped forward.
"It's a pleasure, Miss Briant," he said in a husky voice that did not seem to match his genteel exterior.
I was so caught up in wondering why they had chosen this stranger over Jonathon that it took me a moment before my manners returned to me. I extended my hand for him to take. He bent low over it and I was relieved when he refrained from bestowing a kiss as well.
"If you'll excuse me, Mr. Ackerman," I managed to say without a trace of my disappointment. "I must get ready to go into town." Without another word to either him or Anna, I hurried up the stairs and had just shut the door of my room behind me when the tears I had been holding back escaped me. What are they thinking sending me into town with him? I don't even know him! Are they trying to make me forget Jonathon by presenting me with this unearthly handsome man? Surely they realize that if Mr. Wright removes Jonathon from the situation only to find Charles in his stead, he'll fine a way to remove Charles as well! A knock on my door interrupted these thoughts and Anna entered before I could reply.
"I hope you don't mind, Connie," she said, shutting the door behind her, "We asked Jonathon if he would mind taking you, but it seems our 'dear' Mr. Wright has finally gotten around to advising him to keep away 'lest his business venture fails.' Poor Jonathon is afraid to even come here to see his aunt." She sighed and offered to help me undo the top buttons of my dress before she continued. "Charles is Jonathon's best friend and he asked him to come in his stead. He doesn't want us finding someone else to take you on outings who might try and steal you away." She added, grinning mischievously.
Relief flooded through me that the man downstairs was someone Jonathon trusted and not some scheme of Ellie's to help me forget her nephew. "I'll leave you to getting ready then," Anna said in response to my silence. Once the door was shut, I pulled off my yellow silk gown and replaced it with my nicest cotton dress. I didn't want to go into town looking like I was Charles's mistress, but I didn't want to look like a beggar either.
Taking a deep breath, I returned to the parlor. Charles immediately rose from the sofa he had been sitting on and offered me his arm. I smiled at him and accepted it. There was no need for me to worry about ulterior motives with him; after all, he was Jonathon's best and most trusted friend.
"I'm glad to be gone from there," Charles muttered under his breath once we had gotten the trap onto the road. Though he said it quietly, I still heard him.
"What was that?" I asked, drawing my cloak more around me. A brisk October wind had started up soon after I had stepped outside and we were now riding against it.
Charles was silent for a moment. Then a wide grin split across his handsome features and he gave low self-ridiculing chuckle. "You weren't supposed to hear me," he said accusingly. "Oh well, I might as well tell you. I've never been in a . . . on of those places . . . before. It was rather uncomfortable for me." He fell quiet and we rode in companionable silence for a few moments. I could tell already that Charles was going to be enjoyable to be around, even if he wasn't Jonathon.
"I must say, when Jonathon told me he had met a lovely, virtuous girl at his aunt's I was astounded!" Charles went on, apparently feeling the need to speak. "After all, I have long known what Miss Briggs does for a living and I found it hard to believe that there would be an untouched young lady within her establishment's walls. Of course, once he relayed the whole story to me . . ." He paused here and shot a glance at me. "It is alright that he told me of your . . . situation?"
For a moment I considered telling him that it was none of his business and that I had a mind to go and tell Jonathon as well, but my resentment was quickly quelled when I realized that if he hadn't told Charles the story, his friend would have likely not believed him. Or, at least, not seen the need of him calling on me when it was clear that Jonathon wanted to do so.
"It's perfectly fine," I replied, "Just don't go telling all you acquaintances about it."
He smiled and turned his attention back to the road. "I have no intention of that, Miss Briant," he assured me. "Jonathon asked me to call on you from time to time and maybe take you on outings since he can't do so himself. I suggested that perhaps I could act as mediator between you two and maybe even help you two see each other behind Mr. Wright's back."
My eyes widened at the thought that perhaps all hope was not lost for Jonathon and me after all. "That's very kind of you, Mr. Ackerman," I began, but he cut me off with a wave of his hand.
"Not at all. I'm afraid my motives for offering help are purely selfish. It's the thought of sneaking around Old Willy Wright's back that urged me to make the offer."
I raised my eyebrows. "Oh? Do you know Mr. Wright, then?"
Charles snorted in disgust. "Know him? Why, Miss Briant, can't you see the resemblance? I'm his illegitimate son!" A gasp escaped me before I could stop it. "I hope this knowledge won't make you trust me any less, Miss Briant," he added, "I have no loyalty to the man. My mother was his mistress until she got pregnant. Then he beat her and accused her of cavorting with other men. In the end, he put her on the streets beaten, desolate, and three months pregnant. She would have died if he hadn't bragged about the incident to a few gentlemen. James Ackerman was one of them and, upon hearing what Mr. Wright had done, he set out to find my mother and took her to his home where he had her nursed to health. They fell in love and were married soon after I was born. Mr. Ackerman has raised me as though I were his own." We had entered the main part of town where all the shops were and Charles pulled on the reins and the trap slowed to a near stop.
"What's the first thing on the list?" he asked, turning to me as though he had not just shared a story of a personal nature with someone he barely knew.
"Liza wants us to see if there is any mail for her." She's probably hoping to hear from Ronald. Charles nodded and urged the horses back to a steady trot.