Elinor stood in the garden looking out over green fields and hills that never seemed to end. The black mountains rose behind her, thick with dark green conifers and boulders as big as a horse. Aunt Maggie had insisted that she come to Blackcliff manor as soon as she was better. She’d hear of nothing else and Elinor had to admit, she was glad her parents had agreed. There was a distinct wildness to this place that she had not expected.
It had been almost a month since her near death in the ocean and she was finally feeling like herself again. Aunt Maggie’s five children kept her busy and there was never a shortage of tasks to complete around the manor. Even with servants Aunt Maggie was very involved in daily life, helping to lay fresh rushes, collecting eggs, feeding the animals. She did it all with a smile and laughter.
Elinor rubbed her hands along the shawl that encased her shoulders. The family had traveled to a neighbor’s for a visit and she had elected to stay behind. Some time to herself was important right now. Her thoughts needed untangling now that she’d had time to grieve. It had been almost three months now since Benjamin’s passing and with winter approaching her new husband would come to claim her.
Yes, that was an apt description. It was still rather unsettling to think of herself as a claim to be made. Even the thought that this new man would be her Stranger, although enough to make her heart flutter, left her with a vague sense of unease. She was a pawn and until now had always been comfortable with that. Her life had been planned from her childhood and there was comfort in that. Certainty.
Benjamin’s death, followed quickly by her own near drowning had opened her eyes to several tantalizing and strange thoughts. What if she were her own master, free to make her own decisions? What would it feel like to be treated with respect, not for her status as a married woman, but for herself? Would her life even get better with marriage, or would it become even more restricted?
She had no answers and that was frustrating.
Walking might help. She left the garden, nimbly climbing down the stone steps that led between the hedges. It had taken some getting used to, but the hills did have a strange appeal. Elinor headed along a narrow trail leading away from the manor to the back pastures closer to the cliffs. The wind on these hills was glorious when a storm was coming in over the cliffs. On a calm day like this there was just a pleasant breeze. The burning in her chest from the exertion was welcome and she smiled as she continued on up the winding path.
Her stranger. What would she do about him? He’d been so unusual, not at all like the others, even unlike Benjamin. For all his tenderness, Benjamin had seen her as the woman who would bear his children, care for his house and represent a worthy alliance. He had been kind and tender but that was not because he knew her, or really cared for her. She’d believed that once. Believed that tenderness or kindness showed that the person cared for her and who she was. Nearly drowning had snapped something in her.
She’d watched her rescuer, William, with his sweetheart, and seen the difference. There had been more than tenderness, or kindness in him, he had cherished her. Her smiles were reflected in his eyes and when he touched her it was a caress, not a deliberate movement but a sensual one. Before she would never have noticed. Never have seen the difference. Her own parents, for all their tenderness and love toward their children were not affectionate with each other. Theirs was a marriage of convenience and though she knew there was a sort of admiration between them, her father doted on his Hetty, it was more a friendly partnership than love.
Elinor stood at the foot of the jagged black mountains that rose forbidding as a cliff before her. The dark undergrowth both beckoned and menaced her with its shadows and pools of light. It was not unlike the life she would soon face. Her stranger. He was a mystery to her, equal parts enticing and menacing. He came from the mountains along the western coast. Aunt Maggie had been quite interested when she’d heard his name. Her husband regularly traded with the Tethras family and said their lands were vast and the family very wealthy. Lord Tethras was a schemer but she’d heard that his son was quite different. But how different? What if she was a pawn to him and their meeting on the beach had not been chance at all?
Elinor perched on the stone fence that divided the meadow from the wood and looked at the gently waving grass. What would she do? Nothing. She could do nothing except wait and see. She could pray, the village friar would admonish her to do so, but prayers had not done Benjamin any good. Why should they help her now? She bounced her heels against the stones as she swung her legs. Her stranger. What would she do about him? Do not fear going inland. There are wild things there too. The words he had spoken at their parting bounced inside her skull. What did he mean? Had he known who she was?
He must have.
Then why would he be so open? Why would he speak so freely to her, like she was…an equal? An equal. He had talked to her, not at her. What was it Aunt Maggie had said…he’d spent sometime abroad studying. Perhaps he had learned different manners there? She would have to explore this when she met him again. Elinor set her hand down on the stones and flinched as pain blossomed there. She looked down.
A lovely yellow rose lay across the stones, it had grown over the fence from the forest side and a single thorn shone with her blood. Just like her bouquet had pricked her the morning of her wedding. The petals curled outward, welcoming the bees to drink and the nose to smell. Welcoming and lovely, yet…she looked down at her hand, not defenseless. She wiped the blood away with her thumb. Perhaps she could be more than just a lovely prize. What if she could make him see her? Was it possible to make herself more than just a lovely flower? What if she could prove herself to be a rose? A woman worth cherishing, with both beauty and strength as her weapons.
Elinor bent and sniffed the rose, the sweet perfume saturated her senses. She smiled softly and hopped down from the wall. So many thoughts had surfaced in these past weeks. So many questions without answers, but at least now she knew where they led. They all led to him, to Thomas Tethras, her Stranger. Who was he really? Would he even come home?
She looked over her shoulder at the forbidding wilderness and that single yellow rose. Whether he did or not, she would be ready. It was time to stop letting everyone make her decisions for her. She wasn’t going to waste her life. It was time she, Elinor Hartley, made something of herself.
It was time she became a Rose, not just another pretty flower.