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When Adam Wyatt came to the vicarage back door, hat in hand and shoulders hunched, she was in the midst of laundry. She had the door open to expel steam and although there was a narrow passage— utilized as a mud-room— between the kitchen arch and the back door, she could just see his shadow standing there. Or hovering, rather, like a humbled ogre emerging from the vapor.
"Mr. Cleary is out, I'm afraid," she called to him through the billowing steam. "He'll be back in an hour or two."
"Oh...well...I..." His shade across the flagged stone floor, paused and then half turned away, hesitating, head bowed. But then, with a resolved lift of his great shoulders, he came back, taking one long step through the door and into the narrow passage, as if he crossed a treacherous crevasse by entering the premises. "It were you I came to see."
"Me?" She set down the scrubbing board and wiped both hands on her apron. "What can I do for you, Mr. Wyatt?"
He came into the kitchen, no longer a shadow but a flesh and blood male, ducking his head under the low arch. "I see you're busy. Perhaps I should come back?"
"Not at all, sir. Please do come in. I was about to rest a moment and renew my strength with a cup of tea." Sarah wiped a forearm across her damp brow and realized what a crumpled wet mess she must look. She quickly rolled down her sleeves, having caught his sly glance at the scarred skin on her arms. "Will you join me?"
"If you're sure I'm not in the way, Miss."
Moving a pile of petticoats and little boy’s shirts, she pulled up a chair for him at the table and smiled. "It is always pleasant to have a visitor to break up the day's toil." It must be something very important he wanted to see her about, she reasoned. Usually he avoided her — hiding away in his forge if he saw her coming along the lane on one of her errands.
Now he stood there, looking around his feet, as if he might have lost something.
"The eldest two are upstairs with their mama," she explained, thinking he looked for the Cleary children. "Mrs. Cleary likes to check on their schooling. The middle boy has gone out with his father and the two youngest are taking their naps. You have me to yourself at present."
He looked a little dark in the face— was it a blush?
"So we'd best make the most of it," she added rather naughtily.
Oh, yes, definitely a blush. Sarah was charmed and amused by it. Such a rare sight in a man. Especially one of his bulk.
Finally he sat, lowering his backside very cautiously to the seat, while she set the kettle on the stove and smoothed quick hands over her damp hair. She wished she had some herbal water at hand to make it fragrant. Even if she had no hope of looking pretty, she might at least smell pleasant.
"How do you like Slowly Fell, now you've been here a while, Miss Wetherby?" he mumbled.
"I like it very well. It's extraordinary, but...somehow I feel as if..." she stopped and shrugged. "No matter."
"What is it?" he urged.
"You did say you don't need much to make yourself feel at home," he reminded her.
"Yes, but this is different. Deeper. In the earth itself. Or from it. I cannot explain." The story Iris Cleary had told her was stuck in her mind, and she supposed that might account for her odd nerves. Stories of ghosts and witches didn't generally trouble her, but this one had seemed all too real. As if she knew it already and was a part of it herself.
He looked at her with solemn brown eyes, still trying to puzzle her out. "Perhaps you never knew what home felt like before. You just thought you knew what it meant, miss."
There was something new about him today, she realized. Had he shaved? Combed his hair? He seemed younger and his clothes looked clean. "Were you going somewhere special today, Mr. Wyatt? Back to Slowly Rising perhaps?"
He squinted. "Not today."
"It's just that you're dressed as if it's a Sunday."
"Well, I...er...I came to see you, didn't I?"
"Oh." Her heart skipped a few beats and fell into a very odd rhythm. "Me?" Nobody ever dressed up for her. Why would they?
Adam Wyatt cleared his throat and set his hat on the table. "I have a favor to ask of you. Or rather Miss Marguerite Wilding does."
"Of me?" What a pity it was not something he wanted, she thought with a heavy, heated pang that was most unlike her.
"A letter that needs writing to her solicitor in Shrewsbury. She's got nobody else fit to write it, won't have another man in the house, and her own hands are bent up with rheumatism. I thought of you."
Well, she was the "Coping Girl". Of course she could help. But when he said, I thought of you, Sarah had never felt quite so gratified by words from any man's lips.
I thought of you. Had he really said that? Yes. The man was looking at her, was he not?
Oh, she felt that quiver of wild excitement again, something she could barely contain or keep down. Like bubbles of air escaping her lungs.
"I could take you to Slowly Rising," he added. "On your next day off. She'll pay you a shilling and—"
"But I thought the Wildings didn't welcome strangers."
"She's no choice, has she, if she wants that letter written?"
"Can't you write it?"
He paused, eyes narrowed. "I can't write that sort o' letter. Not like you can. I'm not...never had no schooling. Never read no books." With one finger he tugged on his collar and she saw the movement in his neck when he swallowed.
She licked her lips and murmured, "Right then."
"So...you will come?"
I thought of you.
Did he have any idea of how often she thought of him? It was foolish, of course. A silly fancy. Lady Bramley would say it was inevitable that she suffer one of these eventually.
It was just odd that it should be now, in this place that felt so strange and yet familiar.
And he was not at all what she'd expected for her first fancy. Aunt Clothilde would be horrified that she lusted after an uneducated blacksmith with grimy fingernails. Such a waste of pink ribbons.
Besides, clever minds were what usually attracted Sarah to other people, not well-hewn muscles or handsome faces.
But then again, who said he wasn't clever?
Clever didn't have to come from books.
"I suppose I can write her letter. On my day off. She needn't pay me a shilling."
He frowned. "But she will. I'll see to it. Don't start letting folk take advantage."
Sarah was very curious to meet Miss Marguerite Wilding and her pulse quickened at the thought of going to Slowly Rising. But then he added a warning.
"Don't act as if you're curious when you're there. I know you shall be, Miss Wetherby, even though you'll say otherwise." She almost got a smile from him then. "But if you act as if you're not interested in her business, she'll be more content to have you there."
"I get the sense this was your idea and she was reluctant."
"It was. And she was."
"But you got around her."
She supposed he got around a lot of women. Few would deny him.
Good thing she was too busy to spend much time thinking about him.
I thought of you.
Had she just popped into his mind? She longed to know how she'd ended up there. Did she creep in and hang about, sometimes in a state of partial undress, the way he did in her own devious mind?
Really, anybody would think her a giggling girl of sixteen if they ever read her mind.
Sarah got up to spoon tea-leaves into the pot, measuring it out carefully, knowing the cost and always aware of not taking too much for herself, even though the Clearys were generous folk.
"Do you have much family here, Mr. Wyatt?" She hadn't wanted to ask the Clearys too much about him although Iris had assured her that Adam Wyatt was not married, had never been engaged and lived alone, but for a young apprentice. For fear of what people might think she had not pried too far into his life, but she was desperately curious.
"My father died five years ago," he replied. "He taught me everything I know and left the forge to me. My mother died when I was born, so I never knew her."
"Like mine," she exclaimed, always interested to find a fellow motherless child. "So you have no brothers or sisters?"
His face darkened and his lips struggled to push out a pained reply. "My father did have another wife, but no more children...none that survived."
Children too often died in infancy or soon after birth, of course. Sarah had seen enough tragedy in her travels to know that, and the sadness in his face urged her not to push the subject further. After a slight pause, while he watched her pour hot water from the kettle into the pot, he said awkwardly, "You? Brothers and sisters?" It was as if he thrust the words out under great duress and now his gaze spun around the kitchen, avoiding hers.
"I have a half-brother, Samuel," she said. "He is almost nineteen now, a young man and away at university."
"Must be a smart lad," he grumbled, looking at his sleeves.
"We're hoping to make him into one." She smiled, but he missed it, still not looking at her.
"My widowed Aunt Clothilde and I. Oh, and Lady Bramley who most kindly sponsored his education."
Now he looked up. "Where's your aunt then?"
"In Bath. A small apartment there. She takes the waters for her health."
"And she approves of her niece traveling about the country, taking care of strangers, does she?"
Sarah fetched cups from the dresser. "How else could her rent be afforded? Bath is not so fashionable as it once was, but it remains costly."
"I've got four hundred pounds."
It had exploded out of him under considerable tension and seemed to clear a space through the damp laundry mist.
She didn't know what to say.
"Saved," he added. "In a safe place."
"That's good," she offered gently.
He cleared his throat. "A relative I never met left it to my father and then it came to me. I don't know what to do with it."
"Well, I think saving it is a very good idea until you know what you want."
A small sound escaped his mouth— something like a groan but not quite. "I saved four hundred more than that too. Of my own earnings."
Apparently she was not the only one who felt the need to confide. But why tell her?
"Made a good place for myself here," he continued, looking at the table. "Always busy. Always got work."
"Yes. I'm sure."
"But I ... I'd like to go somewhere new one day. Once I've enough saved. Leave this nothing place and move on. See more of the world. Like you have."
Sarah couldn't imagine anybody who had been born in Slowly Fell ever wanting to leave. Yes, there were some awful busybodies, but then it was the same in most small villages. Here there was also beauty, tranquility, something in the air that she'd never felt anywhere else in all her travels.
"But the village would need a new blacksmith," she muttered, one hand pressing on a sudden ache under her ribs. "What would they do without you? Surely you can't leave. They won't let you."
"They?" He looked up in surprise and a good measure of scorn. "I'm sure they'd manage."
"Are you not happy here?" Sarah fumbled for the strainer, set it over a cup and poured tea into it. "You said you've made a good place."
"'Tis my father's place I took and he took his father's place before that. A man ought to know more of the world. Travel about."
"I don't know why you wouldn't be satisfied here." She also didn't know why it angered her so much. Why it was so important to her that he want to stay there? It was none of her business, was it?
Apparently he agreed. "You're just a chit of a girl and you've seen so much. I'm thirty and never been farther than Shrewsbury."
She sighed. "I can tell you, Mr. Wyatt, that there isn't much better out there. You might be disappointed. You might wish you'd never left." Then she banged the tea cup down in front of him. "And I'm not a chit of a girl. Kindly stop referring to me as such!"
His lip snaked up at one side and his eyes twinkled before he lowered his eyelashes to hide behind. "What are you then?"
"A grown, capable woman of six and twenty."
"Who sleeps in a cupboard." He jerked his head toward the almery by the wall behind him and looked smug.
She stuck her hands on her waist and glowered down at him. "My sleeping habits are now the talk of the village, are they?"
He shook his head and wagged a condescending finger at her across the table. "That's the bad thing about a village this size. Nobody has any secrets. See? You think this place so wonderful, but you wouldn't feel that way if you were stuck here forever and could not put one foot before t'other without the entire village knowing all about it."
"I sleep in the almery because it is warm by the fire and I can keep an eye on the house in case of intruders."
"And what would you do? Bite 'em in the ankle?"
"Bite them somewhere painful, you may be sure."
He was still shaking his head, his lips tight, eyes down.
"I can look after myself, Mr. Wyatt. As I told you before. I know where to wound a man."
"Well, thanks to the Cleary children, everybody knows where you spend your nights, so the criminals of Slowly Fell are warned already. If I were you I'd go to bed and get a proper sleep."
"If you were me you wouldn't fit in the almery."
He looked up at her then and there was almost a chuckle. "Aye. There's no room for me in there. I liked to spread out when I'm in bed."
Sarah cleared her throat and turned away to set the kettle back on the range. The sudden, alarming vision that came into her mind was far too vivid and naughty. She feared it might show all over her face.
* * * *
Read more about Sarah and Adam here.
(Images: The Laundry Maid by William Henry Margetson and February Fill Dyke by Benjamin Williams)