Short Story: Love’s Sacrifice
It has been a long time since I’ve tried to write something short. Lately, I’ve been exploring what it means to be brief, mostly because I simply don’t have enough time to write full-length novels for all of my ideas. Much as I’d love to be able to, I’d need ten of me at minimum. Here is the result from my first short story in…years. If it reads like it should be a novel, well, poke me on Twitter or email me to tell me I better write the full book or else!
Children’s laughter bathed Maura in more light and warmth than the sun. Smiling, she removed her bonnet and used the stiff brim to fan herself beneath the elm’s dappled shade. Not quite reaching the older boy’s shoulder, her son, Dylan, jumped to try to retrieve the ball. Grinning, John pointed to the other corner of the vicar’s modest stone cottage. Once Dylan ambled to the other end of the yard and held his arms open, John threw the ball.
Dylan missed, but the ear-to-ear smile bespoke happiness. Maura rubbed the palpable ache in her chest at the thought of dimming that joy, even if she must.
A shadow stirred on her peripheral vision. Dropping the bonnet, she fumbled for the sharp penknife she kept in her reticule for self-defense. Her thundering heart drowned out the sound of the vicar, Robert Morland’s voice as he retrieved her bonnet. He wore a look of concern on his clean-shaven face as he held out the article. Numbly, she accepted it.
When the roar in her ears abated, she pieced together his words from their distant sound and the movement of his lips.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, Mrs. Talbot.”
Her throat constricted, as it did every time she heard the fictitious name spoken aloud.
“Think nothing of it, Reverend. I should have paid closer heed to my surroundings.” After years, she should have grown accustomed to always being on her guard. “I thought to give my son a few more moments before collecting him.”
The vicar nodded, solemn. The shade cast over his aristocratic profile and dark sweep of his hair over his forehead reminded her of—
She stamped out the thought before pain enveloped her. She never should have remained in this village for so long. Damn him for putting her in this situation! Blinking back tears, she returned her attention to the children.
“I hear you’ve been asking after the public coach.”
Blast the gossips in his small village! She’d chosen the location hoping to go unnoticed. Although close enough to London to rouse the traffic for her arrival not to cause a stir, the village was as plain and staid as could be found. In the months since she’d arrived, she’d managed to earn a welcome here, largely due to Reverend Morland’s generosity.
“Will you leave for good?” His voice was nonchalant.
“And Dylan? Whatever you are running from, don’t punish him. He deserves stability.”
Her voice thick with tears, she answered, “He is my son. I cannot leave him.”
“He would be better off left out of the danger you court. I can raise him alongside John.”
Loosening her death’s grip on her bonnet, she tied it onto her head with more force than necessary. The strings pinched her jaw.
“You have been too generous to us by half. I cannot ask more of you.”
You cannot take my son. Maura wouldn’t run if not for his safety. Lately, the scrutiny of men passing through raised her hackles. Her son wasn’t safe here—and neither was she.
“Nonsense. He’s become like family.” Reverend Morland turned, his dark eyes cutting into her. If not for those eyes, he would be reminiscent of…
“Sir, I will not leave my son.” She held his gaze with the same steel she injected into her voice.
After a moment, he looked away. “If you’d elect to stay and tell me who you’re running from, I can protect you both. I know you claim he’s dead, but if you fear harm from your lover or husband… My family is well-connected.”
If she’d feared a single man, perhaps the vicar might be able to help. No, they fled the enemies a single man had made. Because of his devotion to a job with more danger than reward, Dylan would never know his father. And Maura could never stop running.
“Forgive me, but I must go.”
Reverend Morland’s voice turned as hollow as his expression. It reminded her of the day she’d fled London, pregnant with no other choice.
“Allow me to arrange a private carriage to take you to your next destination.”
Maura didn’t yet know where that was. Nevertheless, she relented. “If you’ll arrange to take us to Cambridge, we’ll take a coach from there.”
“Very well. It will take a day or two to arrange, if you’ll wait that long.”
After a moment’s hesitation, she nodded. “Thank you.”
Dylan’s cheeks were still grimy with tears as the carriage rolled to a stop. Maura stroked his hair away from his forehead, resting on her lap in sleep. Tears stung her eyes. She hadn’t meant to hurt him by forcing him to leave his friends, but they had no choice. At four years old, Dylan was too young to understand the enemies his father had made as a Crown spy.
The door opened to reveal the stocky driver. “We’ve arrived at the inn, Mrs. Talbot. May I take him?”
“Only for a moment. Please try not to wake him.”
The moment her slippers kiss the packed dirt, she reclaimed her sleeping son. He was growing too large to carry, but she willed her arms not to tremble as she crossed toward the light spilling from the two-story inn. With the arrangements already made by Reverend Morland, she wasted no time in ascending to her room.
The innkeeper swung the door open and gestured into the candlelit room. “Here you are, madam.”
Maura stepped inside.
“I’ll return shortly with supper for you and your husband.”
Husband? Maura held her son tighter as the door clicked shut. He stirred.
Her heartbeat quickened as a man’s silhouette stood from the chair in front of the unlit hearth. Save for his icy blue eyes, he might have been the vicar’s brother. She hadn’t seen him in five years. Setting her son on his feet, she shielded the boy behind her skirts and straightened.
“How did you find us?” If he’d discovered them, so might…
“Robert is my cousin. He alerted me.” David’s deep voice swept through her, evoking memories and shivers in its wake.
“Mama, who is this?” Despite the sleepy note in his voice, Dylan’s eyes widened as he peeked around her figure.
Maura swallowed a tide of emotion as she met the man’s blue gaze. Was he the same honorable man he’d once been? “Dylan, this is Lord Arlington. Your father.”
After holding her gaze a moment more, David’s expression softened. He crouched and held out his hand. “Come, Dylan. You’re safe with me. You don’t have to run anymore.” Lifting his gaze to meet Maura’s, he added, “That, I promise.”