An estate outside Philadelphia
Blinking against wind-driven sleet, Corwin Whitfield followed the stout man through the front door of the massive stone house, far larger than he’d imagined. A dozen cabins or Indian lodges put together could fit inside and still leave ample room. With winter lashing at their heels, Uncle Randolph had pressed both man and beast hard to reach Whitfield Place before nightfall. Icy pellets hit the door as his uncle shut the solid wooden barrier.
Better than a skin flap, Corwin supposed. He was well accustomed to the wet and cold, but a fire would feel good. His gloved fingers were numb from riding over snowy roads all day, not to mention all the previous days. Puddles spread at his boots on the flagstone floor in the entryway.
“Welcome home, Mister Whitfield.”
By the light of the small glass lamp on the stand inside the door, he saw a woman in an apron, severe skirts and gray shawl. The cap engulfed her pinched face. Inclining her head and curtsying, she said, “How was your journey, sir?”
“Wretched, Mistress Stokes.” Uncle Randolph waved a gloved hand at Corwin. “My nephew.” He swiped a paw at her. “My housekeeper,” he added by way of introduction. “Fifth cousin of my late wife’s, or some such connection.”
“Indeed.” Mistress Stokes curtsied to Corwin. “Welcome to Whitfield Place.”
He considered the etiquette drilled into him by his uncle and offered a brief nod. A bow didn’t seem required.
Uncle Randolph scowled. “Foul weather.”
She seemed unperturbed by his gruff manner. “Yes sir.”
“Bound to worsen. See to it the fires are built up.” Unbuttoning his brown caped coat, Uncle Randolph flung it onto the high-backed bench along one wall. He peeled off his gloves, tossing them and his tricorn onto the sodden heap.
Corwin did the same with his newly acquired garments. He couldn’t fault his uncle’s generosity, but the man had the temperament of an old he-bear.
Uncle Randolph ran thickened fingers over gray hair pulled back at his neck and tied with a black ribbon. “Where’s Miss Dimity keeping herself? Is she well?” Corwin detected a trace of anxiety in his tone.
The dour woman gave a nod. “Quite well, sir. She’s in the drawing room just after having her tea.”
“Good,” his uncle grunted. “Tell cook we’ll have our supper in there. Stew, pastries, and ale will serve. Don’t neglect the Madeira.”
Another curtsy and the housekeeper turned away to pad down a hall partly lit by sconces wrought of iron. His uncle frowned after her. “She’s a good body and keeps this place tidy but tends to be lax on the fires. We mustn’t risk Dimity taking ill. Delicate girl. Cold as a tomb in here.”
Corwin found Whitfield Place equally as welcoming as a grave. The chill was pervasive. A furlined wican would be warmer. He followed his uncle across the frigid entryway and through a wide double door. His relation paused just inside the spacious room and Corwin halted beside him.
“There she is,” Uncle Randolph said with the hint of a smile in his normally reluctant features. “My ward, Miss Dimity Scott. The little Quaker as I call her.”
Corwin thought it highly doubtful this staunch Anglican had taken in an actual Quaker. Looking past assorted tables, gilt-covered chairs and a gold couch, he spotted the feminine figure seated before the glowing hearth. A padded armchair the color of ripe berries hid much of her slender form. His first impression was of fair curls, like corn silk, piled on her head beneath a circle of lace; his second, that the young woman bent over her embroidery seemed oblivious of all else.
One this unaware would never survive in the frontier. He’d been taught to move with the silence of a winged owl while observing all around him. “Why does she not look up at our coming?”
“Ah, well, that’s a matter I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.” The hesitancy in his uncle’s tone was unlike this man who knew his own mind and was swift to instruct others.
He squinted at Corwin with his good eye; the other perpetually squinted from an injury he’d received in a duel. “I trust you’ll not hold it against the poor girl as a sign of weakness, my boy. Warriors sometimes do and you’ve kept company with those savages far too long.”
It wasn’t like his uncle to ramble, and Corwin shifted impatiently upon hearing his adopted people disparaged again. “What are you saying, Uncle?”
He rubbed his fingers over a chin grizzled with whiskers. “Dimity cannot hear us.”
“Not a sound, unfortunately. Though she is able to detect the vibrations of music. Odd, that.”
Like the beating of Indian drums. “Has she always been without hearing?”
“No. A bad bout of scarlet fever nearly took her life and left her deaf. Pox claimed her mother and war her father, my good friend, Colonel Scott. Like a daughter she is to me now.” Uncle Randolph glanced at Corwin with a peculiar expression. “I’ve made generous provision for her, though my estate will pass to you after my death.”
“Shall you never remarry?”
“No. I have ample female companionship in town. I expect Dimity will remain here with us at Whitfield Place. It is my hope that you will share in her guardianship.”
Corwin concealed how little inclination he had in that regard. As far as he was concerned, Miss Dimity Scott could inherit the entire estate. She’d have fortune enough to hire servants and live comfortably after his uncle had passed on. As for Corwin, his needs were simple: a horse, some food, arms. Freedom.
This sole surviving relative had come to claim him as a result of that infamous peace treaty. After journeying from the Indian village to Fort Pitt, where all captives were to be accounted for, then on to Whitfield Place he was sick to death of the entire business. He’d accept his uncle’s hospitality for a while and then—
The big man beckoned to him. “Come meet Dimity. She’s expecting us.”
“How can she be?”
“I sent a courier with a letter advising her of our impending arrival. She can read, just not hear.”
Corwin walked across the carpet patterned with birds and flowers. His Shawnee mother would cherish the rich hues, but it would never fit in their wican. He spotted what must be a pianoforte in the corner and wondered if Dimity played the musical instrument.
Uncle Randolph paused behind her armchair, and still she took no notice of them. A panther could seize her by the throat or an enemy fall upon her before she knew. It was well she dwelt here in safety.
Not wishing to alarm her by his sudden appearance, Corwin stopped a few yards short of the chair. A second armchair, the twin of the one occupied by her, faced the crackling fire. That must be his uncle’s usual place. Though not a snug room, the heavy drapes helped keep out the wind and Dimity was wrapped in a creamy wool shawl. A sweet perfume Corwin could only think was violets wafted lightly from her in contrast to the aroma of wood smoke. He hadn’t expected this, or his uncle’s mild manner.
The usually undemonstrative man laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and she glanced around. Granted, she had an appealing face. Her smooth complexion was free from scars, her forehead, nose, and chin well proportioned, and her mouth a soft rose. But she wasn’t a beauty. Corwin was used to women with dark eyes and hair and vibrant spirits; this one seemed colorless by comparison, her gaze too pale.
Then she smiled.
Corwin wasn’t in any way prepared for the radiance charging her blue eyes, like sunlight dancing on lake water. Her entire being seemed shot through with light. He almost staggered back as if struck, but fought to hold his ground and conceal his volatile reaction. Dimity was good, he realized, with a sudden, acute awareness of his shortcomings.
Laying her sewing on a small table beside the chair, she sprang to her feet and threw her arms around what she could encompass of Uncle Randolph. Her blond head reached midway up his chest. “Mister Whitfield, you’ve come at last!”
Her accent was strange, but she’d spoken. How was this possible?
His uncle gathered her in a hearty embrace with a great deal more affection than he’d ever shown Corwin. “Dimity remembers speech from her hearing days,” he said over his shoulder. “And mind what you say. She can read lips.”
As a keen warrior read faces. That would aid her as long as she clearly saw the speaker. In the dark, she would be lost.
Now why had Corwin just envisioned himself alone with Dimity in the dark? The old bear would have his hide.~
A Warrior for Christmas is the first story in An American Rose Christmas Anthology available in print or digital download from The Wild Rose Press, Amazon and other online booksellers.
*I borrowed some British actors to illustrate my characters in the story
*The formal room is from Mt. Vernon
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