She stumbled down the dirt road, her footing made precarious by the ruts caused by wagon wheels in the recent rain. Tears stung her eyes, but Bethann was too proud and too furious to let them fall. Mrs. Batykefer's voice rang in her ears, the tone soft and conciliatory, the words sharp and painful as a filleting knife.
"You understand, my dear. Isaac simply must marry Caroline Mabry. Her father is a banker and will see Isaac has the money he needs to improve his business." Here the woman had hesitated. "And the social connections to raise him in the community."
When Isaac made a bleat of dismay, his mother turned her implacable gaze to him. "You do realize your 'understanding' with Miss Iver is simply the result of a youthful infatuation. It will pass."
If Isaac replied, Bethann didn't hear it. She threw him a look of anguish and recrimination before whirling about. He let her go without a word of protest.
Isaac's store was failing. He failed to keep accurate accounts. He failed to impress upon his customers the need to pay promptly. He didn't know how to order goods his female customers would buy.
She knew what actions would improve the store more than any influx of money, but could she could persuade Isaac of this and encourage him to stand up to his mother? If only the store's success was the only thing that mattered.
One hot, salty tear rolled down her face as she contemplated what she could not give him—the social connections Mrs. Batykefer had dangled before his eyes. She knew how Isaac admired his "betters," bowing and scraping over a rich cotton planter's wife while ignoring a poor farmer. Mrs. Batykefer herself boasted a distant uncle who was a Lord. Her pride had been humbled when she married Isaac's father, a mere merchant. After his death and her second marriage, she had become even more determined her son should rise to what in her mind was his destined place in society. And to rise, Isaac had to marry well.
Bethann did not come from a family of wealth and prestige. Her name opened no doors.
She didn't hear the carriage coming up behind her until the jingle of harness and a horse's soft whicker interrupted her thoughts.
"Elizabeth Ann, what in the world are you doing out here? I thought you were spending the day with Isaac. Did you two have a quarrel?"
Glancing up, Bethann shaded her eyes against the blazing, late afternoon sun. "Not exactly."
"Get in. Your shoes are ruined and you've torn the hem of your skirt. If you didn't exactly quarrel, you should have let Isaac bring you home as he intended. It's much too far to walk. In those shoes," he added with a frown.
"Oh, Luke." At his words Bethann let the tears she had been holding back fall in a furious flood. She took her brother-in-law's hand and let him haul her up to join him on the padded seat of the open, two-person conveyance. "Missis McLeod—I mean Missis Batykefer—told Isaac he cannot marry me as we planned. He must marry Miss Mabry to gain access to her father's money and connections." Her voice rose to a wail. "And he stood there like a great lump of dough and let her lead him by the nose to a marriage he doesn't want."
Luke's jay-blue eyes hardened. "If he's so weak, you can't want him. Let Miss Mabry have him and consider yourself fortunate."
Not answering, Bethann searched in her reticule for a handkerchief. Pulling it out, she wiped her cheeks and then blew her nose. Then she studied Luke's face. As usual, his straw-colored hair was tied back for convenience, hidden now under an old-fashioned three-cornered hat. She decided to confide in him, encouraged by the concern in his eyes.
"You are right—he let me go as easily as brushing a feather off his vest. There is only one thing I want now—to find out who I am. Missis McLeod didn't say it, but she hinted I was not worthy of her son's hand because I have no family. Not even my name is my own."
"You have a family." Luke's words were curt, bitten off. "Morven and I are your family. It saddens me you think otherwise."
Instantly contrite, Bethann wadded the now-sodden handkerchief in her hands. "I know, and I am grateful. I'm grateful Grandmamma Iver so graciously gave her name to me, an orphan girl with no memory of her past. I'm grateful Morven didn't see me as just another burden when Missis Iver offered to take me in, just as she accepted Morven into her household when her mother died. And I'm grateful that you married Morven and joined our family." Although this last part was not quite true.
She turned to gaze in Luke's face. "It would be perfect if Grandmamma were still alive." A new freshet of tears threatened to ensue.
Luke's expression softened. "Then we'll hear no more about it. There are plenty of young men who would jump at the chance to court you. You've kept yourself so close to that young buffoon for so long they've given up. Once they learn you are free ..." He chirruped to the horse, which laid back its ears and increased its walk to a smart trot.
Bethann didn't answer. There were few young men her age about in a county populated by farms separated by miles of cotton or other crops, and none of them were eager to court a girl with no name. A girl whose early, hungry years had so stunted her growth she was as small as a twelve-year-old. A girl with unruly red curls and curious leaf-green eyes, and freckles splattered across her nose no matter how many poultices she put on it.
Morven told her she was pretty and petite.
Bethann knew the words were meant to soothe, but she did not believe them.
The two rode on in silence, Luke occasionally flicking the reins to encourage the little gray mare. When they reached the lane leading to the house and outbuildings, he allowed her to slow down until they reached the back of the house where a kitchen garden was laid out in neat rows.
Luke pulled the buggy to a halt. "Go wash your face. Tell Morven I'll be in as soon as I get Molly unhitched and wiped down."
Bethann obeyed, splashing water on her face from the basin set on a bench by the back door and drying it with the rough toweling hung on a nail. Once inside, she took off her bonnet and shawl and hung them on a peg.
Morven was stirring venison stew in a pot on the hearth, her chestnut hair neatly tucked beneath her white muslin cap. She straightened and sent Bethann a smile. "You are home early." The smile faded and her amber eyes sharpened. "What's wrong? What happened?"
Bethann repeated her story again, this time without tears, and ended with, "If I can't marry Isaac, I refuse to marry anybody. All men are weak fools, and I want nothing more to do with them." Sensing Morven's little movement of dismay, she said hastily, "Except Luke. But there aren't many men like Luke around and I doubt if any would have me if there were."
Instead of offering false consolation, Morven sat down in a nearby chair. "Indeed. In that case, what do you propose to do?"
"Obviously, you aren't going to marry Isaac and help run the store. Now you say you won't marry anybody. You started to train as a midwife under Mary Dunbar, but gave it up the first time something bad happened."
Bethann shuddered at the memory. "It was more than bad—it was horrible. I cannot bear to go through it again."
A shadow of sympathy swept over Morven's face, but she kept on. "The herbs you gather for Mary earn you only a few pennies, not enough to support yourself."
Realization dawned. "You want me to leave!" A great chasm yawned open beneath her feet.
"No, no, honey! But you must look to your future. If you don't wed, there are very few options open to you. You can stay with us as long as you want, but is it truly what you want? To be dependent on others? To be described as a spinster of the parish in the roll books?"
"I can help you around the house. Milk Susie and collect the eggs, weed the kitchen garden ..."
"Sweetheart, Tamsen already does these things. Would you put her out to pasture like an old mule?"
As if summoned, Tamsen came in the door, followed by her son, Alex. "You're home early," she said as Alex ran to Bethann for a hug.
Stroking the little boy's light brown curls, Bethann told her story again. This time, it didn't seem to hurt as much.
"What are you going to do?" Tamsen inquired.
Bethann lifted her head, hugging the child who had first called her Bethann when he couldn't lisp her full name, Elisabeth Ann.
"I am going to find out who my parents were. Somebody must know something."