England, August, 1836
The faint wind wafted in through the open doors, the young lady, with hair the color of pale, yellow sunlight, leaned against one of those doors, sniffing at the air appreciatively.
She listened to the wind; its only sound the dim rustle of the curtains against the draft.
Below her lay the Colchester townhouse's ponds and gardens, the grounds so richly manicured that not a single branch of any one bush lay out of place. Despite the lateness in the year, flowers still bloomed here, carefully cultivated. There were late-year roses, mums of all different colors, daisies, coreopsis. But it was the scent of the wild rose that drifted up to her now. Closing her eyes, she inhaled slowly, deeply.
Ah, it reminded her of other times, other places, other people... She moaned. It brought back to mind images of the American West; the wild, beloved, American West. It caused her to remember him.
She pulled up her thoughts quickly, as though she had committed a terrible faux pas. She hadn't allowed herself to think of him in years. Why now?
"Excuse me, M'lady--"
The Lady Estrela turned around quickly, catching the young servant's grin, but as though the maid suddenly remembered herself, she stifled the gesture. "Estrela?" And then the maid stumbled, "I mean Lady--Mistress--Estrela--"
Lady Estrela laughed. "They've told you then," she said.
"I tried to send word to you."
"I didn't want you to be shocked."
"What is this, yes, M'lady? Do you know no other phrases?"
The young servant thought a moment and then, grinning, said, "No, M'lady."
Estrela smiled and, shaking her head, said, "Oh, Anna, how I've missed you." Blonde ringlets of springy curls fell to her ladyship's shoulders as she spoke. "I've missed your friendship. It's been most...overwhelming here."
"Yes, Mistress, I kin imagine."
"In the armoire is the blue gown I've been told would be suitable for the parade today," Estrela said. "If you can get it for me, I'll tell you what happened while you were gone. Would you like to hear it?"
Anna grinned. "Yes, M'lady."
Estrela twisted back around to gaze outside once more. The day was overcast and cloudy, but the sight of the flowers below, the fresh smell of cut bushes and drying grasses, the unmistakable scent of fall in the air, all conspired to enhance and brighten what would have been an otherwise gloomy day. The wind rushed by her. It seemed to moan, as though it tried to speak to her, but--"You know it happened in the dining hall, don't you?"
"Did it, now?"
Lady Estrela stood up a little straighter as she glanced outside. But in her stockinged feet she had to stand on tiptoe to gaze beyond the balcony railing. She was just too petite, but she wished to show Anna where it had all taken place, so she had to step out onto the balcony. She did so now and at once, the wind whipped around her, blowing her hair back from her face, whispering to her in her ear.
Had it spoken to her? She listened, nothing.
"Is this the one?"
Estrela twirled around to face Anna. Startled, Estrela stared, but the maid merely held up a blue gown for her mistress's inspection, and Estrela, after a quick glance, said, "Yes. But, Anna..." Estrela motioned to her servant, "...come here, won't you?"
"Yes, M'lady." Anna laid the gown over a chair and, picking up her own skirts, paced toward the balcony.
"It was there." Estrela drew her arm through Anna's and pointed to the dining hall, toward the northern wing, which was directly to the left of the balcony. Estrela's light-blue eyes gazed over to it now. "It was over a month ago." As she spoke, she turned and tread back into the room, bringing Anna with her. "The Housekeeper had sent me into the dining hall to attend to the Duchess. You know I had never been there before, being a kitchen maid. It all happened so quickly, I was never sure what... She screamed when she saw me."
"She screamed?" Anna asked. "Who? T' Duc'ess of Colchester?"
Estrela nodded. "The same. And I almost fainted. The housekeeper burst back into the dining hall. She grabbed me, was marching me out of the room when the Duchess recovered enough to order her to stop, turn around and bring me back."
Anna gasped. "What 'appened then?"
"Fainted? The housekeeper or t' Duchess?"
"If she fainted then 'ow did ye--"
"It was the Duke. He had come around the table to see what all the commotion was, and then he spotted me. And Anna, he went white. The Duke looked as though he had seen a ghost. It was the strangest feeling, standing there, watching him look at me as though I were a phantom."
Anna gazed at her mistress and friend as they tread across the room. "I 'ave seen t' painting of 'is mother. Ye look jest like 'er. I should 'ave seen it meself."
Estrela smiled. "The Duke told me then that it was like looking at his mother as she had been at nineteen. He took me aside, he asked me how I had come to be in his household as a servant and when I told him a friend had sent me, the Earl of Langsford, the Duke had looked distant. He had known the Earl from their youth. And the Duke told me that he could tell, just from my likeness to his mother, that I was related to the Colchester family--and that he intended to find out just how I had been lost from the family. That was the beginning of this whole thing. In truth, he and his wife have been most kind to me, have lavished me with all sorts of gowns and pretty things, given me my own rooms, my own chamber--made me a part of their home. I only wish..."
"I only wish other things could turn out so well."
"Other things? There's more?"
"No. Yes, Anna." Estrela glanced away, toward the doors. "Did I ever tell you of my Indian heritage?"
Anna paused. "No, not really. But I knew it was t'ere."
Estrela looked back. "You did?"
"Was 'ard t' miss, M'lady. Ye 'ad some strange ways when ye first came to us."
Estrela smiled. Yes, she supposed she'd had some "strange ways" when she'd reached England, almost five years ago.
Anna bent over to pick up the blue gown, holding it out toward her mistress. But Estrela, caught up in her own thoughts, turned slowly away, striding back toward the windows. She laid a hand on the door at the same time a breeze blew in, bringing with it something else...an effusive fragrance...his scent.
A memory stirred, a vision; without her willing it, the sweet image of him swept before her. And as though caught in a dream she could neither change nor control, she remembered other things. His touch. The taste of his lips. The feel of his body against hers. She inhaled sharply. She swayed. And all at once the fragrance from the garden was her undoing. It was the same scent, the same rosy fragrance that had been there that last day. The last day she had seen him.
Estrela closed her eyes and for just a moment, one delicate instant in time, she allowed herself to remember.
She moaned. She shouldn't. Estrela tried to pull up her thoughts, but it was useless. She could not keep them at bay.
It was a warm spring day, and the Earl of Langsford waited for her as she and Mato Sapa returned to camp, the two young people's moccasined feet making little sound over the newly washed, green grasses. Estrela sniffed at the air appreciatively, noting the fragrance of the wild rose and of the welcoming campfires that scented the moist air. They strode into camp, the Indian brave in front, Estrela following. Both she and Mato Sapa were trying to restrain their joy. Estrela was looking down so she didn't see the Earl until she was almost upon him.
"Ma!" she exclaimed, the Indian interjection proclaiming her surprise. She hadn't known the Earl had returned and, at first, all she registered was astonishment, though her shock gradually subsided into a shy smile. Still she dared not look up at the Earl, observing a form of Lakota courtesy.
Four years. Four years the Earl had been gone. It was a long time for the man to be away. A long time to wait. And so much had happened during that time. Why, she was thirteen winters now, marriageable age by Indian standards, having passed into womanhood almost one year ago today.
Estrela smiled and darted a glance upward at last. It was perfect. The Earl had returned and would soon learn of her good fortune. Mato Sapa, Black Bear, had at last asked her to become as one with him; to share his sleeping robes, his adventures, his very life. And she had told him she would accept his hand in marriage. It was wonderful. And her old friend, the Earl, would be here to witness her happiness. After all, wasn't Mato Sapa going to offer his two new ponies to her Indian parents today? And wouldn't her parents accept his proposal? Hadn't she already spoken to her father and mother?
Estrela, her blond hair gathered in two neat braids at each side of her head, waited the required time that good manners dictated she wait, until at length, she said in Lakota, almost under her breath, "Ma! Cokanhiyuciya. Welcome home."
"Ah, Estrela." The Earl spoke to her in a foreign language that Estrela had not heard for so long, she at first barely understood.
She gulped. "Es-tre-la?" And though she easily spoke the words, they still sounded strained--and so foreign.
"Do you not remember your own language, my girl? Has it been so long?" the Earl asked.
She understood what he said. Strange. Though his speech was odd, she could comprehend him. She answered, however, in Lakota.
"Wa-ksuya. I remember," she said. "And yes, it has been a long time."
"I've come to bring you home."
"Yes," the Earl said. "I have come to take you home."
She looked up at the Earl then, catching his glance and gazing straight into his eyes.
"I am home," she said.
"No, my girl," the Earl said, still in English, "this is not your home."
Mato Sapa stepped between the two of them. He glanced at Estrela, then at the Earl. His eyes narrowed. "You are upsetting her and I do not understand what you have said that would make her nervous. Speak in a language I understand," he demanded, "so that I, too, can know what it is that distresses her."
"You," the Earl accused, speaking in Lakota, "have no right to speak to me like this."
Mato Sapa raised his chin. "I am her husband."
He nodded. "Soon."
The Earl's gaze flicked over the young man, down once, back up, inspecting Mato Sapa as though the old Englishman had never before seen an Indian. At length the Earl asked, "Soon?"
Mato Sapa folded his arms over his chest. "Today, I will give her parents my ponies and all that I own. Today, she will be mine. Tonight we will celebrate. You may join us in celebration."
"Then you are not yet married?"
"Whether we are joined now or not is immaterial. We are as good as married. You will have to speak with me."
The old Earl raised one eyebrow. He smiled. "We will see," he said in English, making Mato Sapa frown. And before the young Indian could say another word, the Earl spun around, catching one of the Brule band chiefs by the arm and speaking to him in Lakota. Both men disappeared into the chief's tepee.
Mato Sapa turned to Estrela. "What did he say to you?"
Estrela didn't answer at first, instead looking down. At last, though, she spoke, her voice barely over a whisper. "He said he is taking me home."
"You are home."
"Back over the sea."
"Hiya! No! He cannot do this. I will not allow it."
"Mato Sapa." Estrela actually looked up at him, gazing directly into his eyes, unaware that her gaze held a plea. "I sense that you should offer for me now to my parents, before the Earl speaks with all the chiefs. Something is wrong. I fear it."
Mato Sapa set his lips firmly closed. "I do not take orders from a woman," he said and as Estrela sighed, he continued, "but I think I should listen beneath the tepee flap where our chief and your guardian speak. I agree with you. Something is wrong." He smiled at her then. "Do not worry. Am I not already a great warrior? Have I not already taken many coups? Can I not defend your honor? I swear to you, you are mine. Let him try to take you from me. He will not be successful. And if he does succeed in taking you from me, I will follow. This"--he raised his chin--"I promise you."
But in the end he could not keep her old guardian from taking her away. Mato Sapa did listen to the conversation between the Earl and the chief, but before the young Indian had the opportunity to gather his horses all together and confront Estrela's parents, a counsel had already been held--the chiefs all in agreement. Estrela was to leave, was to return to her "home" across the great water. And no matter her protest, no matter the anger, the speeches, the demands of Mato Sapa, by evening Estrela was packed and sitting atop one of her Indian father's prized ponies.
Her gaze sought out Mato Sapa, lingered there. She would not lower her eyes as was Indian custom; she would remember him, her love, now, forever; his solemn face, his long, dark hair rushing back against the wind, his chin jutting forward in anger. And using her hands in the age-old language of sign, she promised him, "I will return to you. Wait for me." It was all she could say, all she could permit herself to communicate, for with one more gesture, one more sign, she knew she would break down, embarrassing not only herself, but all her friends and her parents.
And so she looked away, not seeing that Mato Sapa, Black Bear, brave warrior of the Teton Brule Tribe, signed back, vowing to love her, to protect her, to honor her always; in word, in thought, in deed.
But she didn't see, she didn't hear his shouted words above the noise of the crowd. She turned away instead, just as a storm wind blew up behind her.
As she left, she almost swore that the wind spoke to her, and if she listened closely, she could hear it speak as though it were Black Bear, saying, "You are mine. It is so now. It will always be so. Do not forget it."
Estrela shook her head, pulling herself back to the present. What had come over her? How could she have let herself reminisce? It was useless now. She had nothing to gain from indulging in memory. Nothing. Not anymore. Once though, she...
She drew her hand over her heart, as though this action alone could erase the ache. If only it could be different. What would it have been like if the Earl hadn't found her again, hadn't demanded she return to England? If the Earl hadn't forced her on his deathbed to vow--
She drew a deep breath. It was pointless to remember. Black Bear was not here. And she could not return--ever. Why torture herself?
Glancing around, Estrela saw the soft rays of light filtering into the room, and she looked out to catch a momentary glimpse of sunshine.
"Anna, what is wrong with me?" Her voice was so low it caused Anna to strain forward.
The maid paused. "I...er, ye...per'aps..."
"I cannot rid myself of his memory. I try. And yet it's always there, and each time I think of him, the feelings are a little stronger, not less."
"'im? I...are ye in love?"
"Yes, I...no...perhaps. I...yes." She stopped, and staring down into the fragrant beauty of the stately garden below, she felt again the bitterness of something she could not change.
It had been sudden. The Earl of Langsford hadn't expected to die on the return voyage to England, hadn't expected his heart to fail him. And yet it had.
He'd had to act quickly; there hadn't been time. And he'd had to convince his young charge; persuading her so thoroughly to do as he'd wanted that she'd had no choice but to break a vow; a vow she had made to Black Bear, a man she had loved--loved even still today.
A small sound escaped Estrela's throat.
Why did she torture herself with this?
It had been so long ago. What did it matter now? It was all a part of the past she could not change.
Perhaps if the Earl had taken the time to explain things to her, she wouldn't now feel this ache, wouldn't now yearn for something she could never have.
It was not to be.
The Earl had been desperate. He'd shown her papers--legal papers--giving him the right to do what he asked of her. He had reasoned with her, pleading with her. He'd summoned the captain of their ship to his bedside.
But Estrela had remained adamant. She'd made a vow to her love, to Mato Sapa, Black Bear, and she couldn't, she wouldn't break it.
In the end, though, she had realized this was the Earl's last request. He lay dying before her. He lay in pain. He'd pleaded with her. And Estrela, looking at him then, could not continue her argument. The Earl's need had been more than hers.
And so she had done as he'd asked.
She had married.
Married a man by proxy. A man she had never met; a man she knew nothing about; a man she could not find.
She stood at the doors now and sighed.
She shouldn't have thought about him. Hadn't she learned, long ago, that thoughts of the American West, his memory brought pain? Hadn't she taught herself to keep away from his memory? It was the wind that had done it today. It was the wind that had brought him back to her after so many years, carrying his scent to her. It was the breeze, which even now, seemed to whisper his name.
And though the Indians believed one should always listen to the wind, Estrela balked at doing so.
"M'lady? Please forgive me. I shouldna 'ave asked ye if ye still loved the man."
Estrela felt Anna's hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry. It's not your fault," Estrela said. "I don't know why, but I can't seem to stop thinking of him. I can't stop thinking of my home on the plains. And this after all these years of carefully burying those memories." She paused. "Yes, Anna," she said. "I fell in love."
Anna was quiet for several moments. At last, clearing her throat, she ventured, "Ye could return."
Estrela might have cried. How many times had she wished that? But it was not to be. "I can never return," she said. "I can never go back."
"And why could ye not?"
"I broke a promise I'd made to someone there."
"'Tis not a sin. Ye could still go back."
"Anna." Estrela squeezed the hand that still lay on her shoulder. "I made a vow to a man there to marry him. If I go back, I would have to marry him, and I can't."
"I still dunna understand. Did ye love t'is man?"
"Anna," Estrela cried, turning around. "I am married to another."
Anna said nothing--not even a murmur.
"'Tis a long story."
"I 'ave time."
Estrela glanced at her friend briefly before setting her gaze onto something else. "You must swear to me that you will not repeat what I am to tell you. I was once told by a trusted friend that if anyone else knew of this, my life would be in grave danger."
Anna nodded. "I swear. I am 'onored t'at ye would trust me so."
Estrela, her glance focused elsewhere, hesitated only a moment, before saying, "The Earl of Langsford--have you ever heard of him?"
Estrela sighed. "He was friend of my grandfather and my mother, though I have no knowledge, or memory, of either. But my grandfather had enemies who forced the Earl to flee the country with me--to save my life. Why, I do not know--nor do I remember. The Earl, a true friend to me, died on the voyage back to England and whatever knowledge he had died with him. He was not ill, you understand. And perhaps he meant to tell me about my early life and my family, about the man he insisted I marry, but he was unable to; his heart failed him, his final appeal to me being that I was to seek out the Duke of Colchester when I arrived in England if I could not find the man he forced me to marry."
"I still dunna understand. Who did ye marry? Why?"
Estrela looked over her shoulder to the garden below. "I married someone named 'Sir Connie' as the Earl called him. I married him because the Earl insisted upon it. Insisted that if I did not do this, I would die when I reached England. I married him by proxy--the Earl having papers giving him this right."
"And ye canna find this man 'ere in England? What is 'is full name?"
"I don't know."
Anna remained silent.
"I should have asked for the papers the Earl carried. I should have paid more attention to the marriage papers I signed. I was distraught at the time. Not only had my friend died, but I was married to a man I did not love, a man I do not know. Plus, I had broken a vow to a man back in the American West to whom I had promised to return, to marry. I should have paid more attention to the names, to the Earl. I didn't. I thought I would have no trouble finding this 'Sir Connie.' The Earl made it appear as though this man would be waiting for me when I arrived in England. But this, too, was not to be. When I arrived here, no one met me at the docks, no one knew me or was there to help me."
Anna gasped. "Why did ye never tell me this?"
"The Earl swore me to silence," Estrela said. "He begged me to trust no one; only Sir Connie and the Duke of Colchester. I could not find Sir Connie, and so I came to the Duke of Colchester's home. And you know the rest of the story. No one here knew me, and I was pressed into service for these past five years in order to survive. In truth, I didn't mind it. The work kept me from thinking, kept me from the pain of remembering."
"Did ye ever return to t' ship? Would not t' captain there 'ave knowledge of t' man ye married?"
Estrela smiled, though the gesture contained no humor. "A servant has little free time, as you know. As soon as I could, I sought out the ship, the captain of the ship, but I was too late. The ship had sailed and I could find no trace of the captain, the papers, the marriage."
"Per'aps ye are not truly married. T' marriage is not consummated. Ye could still--"
"Perhaps. Yet I am still bound. The Earl made me promise to find Sir Connie. Made me promise to tell him all that had happened; made me vow before God to honor the marriage. No, I am truly bound; bound by my promise to a friend--unable to fulfill a vow made to another."
Anna stood before her friend, her silence encouraging Estrela to continue.
"'Tis all I know," Estrela said, "except one other thing. I possess dim memories of a childhood where it appears I played amidst great wealth. Only since I have been here in England do these memories haunt me. Before this, they were hidden to me."
Anna gasped. "Estrela, ye 'ave spoken of danger. I fear fer ye. 'Tis odd. From t' first moment I met ye, I 'ave felt there was menace for ye. But until now I 'ave thought it was only my own fears."
Estrela stared at her friend. "I did not tell you this for you to worry. I do know that as long as I remain with the Duke of Colchester, I am safe. But safe from what? If only I could remember. Perhaps the answer lies in Sir Connie. The man I cannot find. The man I married."
Neither Lady nor maid spoke, letting those final words fade into the room as though never voiced.
At length, Anna reached out and squeezed her mistress's hand. "'Ave ye asked the Duke of Colchester about this Sir Connie?"
"Yes," Estrela said. "But the Duke looked vague, thought it over and said no. He told me the name sounded as though it were a nickname. A nickname! He could be anybody--or he might not even be in England and I..." Estrela released her hand from that of her friend's and looked away. "It doesn't matter, anymore. By not returning to the Americas at once, the man I love will probably be married by now. And I must learn to live with nothing but my memories of him. 'Tis not so difficult. Besides, as I have said, through the Duke, I have learned that I may yet have family here. I know that the Duke is determined to discover just how it is that I am related to his family. And this, perhaps only this, gives me reason to live, reason to stay here, reason to keep looking for--Sir Connie."
"I dunna know, m' friend," Anna said. "If ye still carry these feelings fer this man back in t' Colonies, per'aps 'e still cares fer ye too. Per'aps ye should go back there if that is where yer 'eart is."
"No, Anna. I cannot. I cannot follow my heart. I cannot return. I cannot face him." Estrela hesitated. "I made a vow to one man, Anna. I broke a vow to another. But what was I to do? It was the Earl's dying request. I could not say no. And now, I could no more end my pledge to the Earl than I could..."
Estrela didn't finish and Anna didn't speak out at once. At length, Anna said, "Ye will look fer yer family 'ere, then, look for this Sir Connie?"
"Yes." Estrela nodded. "In truth, it may be all that I have or will ever have. For I cannot marry the man of my own choosing, the man I promised to marry, the man who probably hates me now."
Anna remained silent for several moments before she at last said, "Yes, M'lady."
Estrela suddenly looked to her friend. "Why do you call me, M'lady? Anna, you are my best friend. It has been so ever since I arrived in England. You are my lady's maid because I've asked for you. In public, you are my maid, if need be, but in private, you are my friend."
"Yes, M'lady," Anna said, staring away. "It will be 'ard. Ye must realize that ye are a lady of position now. 'Tis not done to 'ave a friend from the lower classes. Please forgive me, M'lady, but 'tis best that ye understand this now. We were..." Anna gazed back at her mistress, "...best friends. Once we were t' grandest of friends."
"The best," Lady Estrela said. "And friends we are still. Good friends. This will not change. I will not allow it."
Anna paused, then, looking into Estrela's eyes, she said, "I dunna think so. But I appreciate yer loyalty to me. Ye may 'ave a change of 'eart. Ye are still too new to t' ways of t' court."
Estrela kept her gaze steady as she said, "And if these 'ways' insist that I break a friendship, then may I never learn them."
A moment passed, another, as both girls stared at one another until at last Anna grasped her friend's hand firmly in her own.
Estrela drew a deep breath. "Come, Anna. I linger here a little too long, I think. The royal parade will not wait for me and I cannot keep His Grace waiting. He has been too kind to me. Will you help me with the dress? I do not understand these styles."
Anna smiled, saying, "Yes, M'lady." Then she picked up the pale blue gown, but before she explained the latest styles of the English court, she said, "Do not give up 'ope, m'friend. There may yet be a way out. 'Tis always 'ope."
Estrela shrugged and though she couldn't fully share Anna's optimism, she repeated, "Yes, Anna. 'Tis always hope."
And as Estrela dressed, she forced her attention into the present; her movements, her actions intended to sweep all thoughts of him from her mind.
But Estrela, completely honest with herself, admitted total and utter defeat.