Behind her, Martha gave a sharp exclamation. “What a rude display. I was only making conversation!”

As Perry bent to soothe his mother, Sara strode out of the house. She had never been angry in front of Perry before—she had always tolerated his mother with patience and courtesy. For some reason she had finally reached her limit. Swearing under her breath, she began the walk home. Her spine stiffened as she became aware of Perry hurrying to catch up with her. He had rushed outside without even stopping to put on a coat.

“I can’t believe you would storm off in such a manner,” Perry exclaimed. “Sara, stop and let me talk to you for a minute!”

She continued without even breaking stride. “I don’t feel like talking.”

“Don’t be angry with Mother.”

“I’m not angry with her. I’m angry with you for not defending me!”

“Sara, I can hardly tell her she’s not free to express her own opinions in her own house! You’re making too much of this.”

“She was insufferable!”

Perry gave a harassed sigh and adjusted his pace to match hers. “Mother was in high dudgeon today,” he admitted. “I don’t know what put her in such a state.”

“I think it’s safe to say I did. I always do, Perry. Haven’t you ever realized how much she dislikes me and any other woman that you associate with?”

“What has made you so sensitive?” he asked in astonishment. “It’s not like you to take offense easily. I must say it’s not an attractive side of you, Sara, not at all!”

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Now that she had begun to let the barricades down, she felt an immense relief at being able to speak her mind. “Oh? Well, I don’t find it attractive when you let your mother needle me like that. And what’s worse, you expect me to swallow it with a smile!”

Perry’s face turned sullen. “I don’t wish to argue with you, Sara. We never have before.”

Her eyes began to sting. “That’s because I thought if I was understanding and long-suffering enough, you would finally be moved to propose to me. I’ve had to wait four years, Perry, hanging all my hopes on your mother’s approval. Well, she’s never going to give her blessing to a marriage between you and me.” Impatiently she brushed away a few angry tears. “You’ve always asked me to wait, as if we had time in abundance. But time is too precious, Perry. We’ve wasted years, when we could have been with each other. Don’t you understand how much even one day of loving each other is worth? Some people are separated by distances they can never cross. All they can do is dream about each other for a lifetime, never having what they want most. How foolish, how wasteful to have love within your reach and not take it!” She damped her teeth on her trembling bottom lip to steady herself. “Let me tell you something, Perry Kingswood—it would be unwise of you to assume that I’ll be happy to wait forever!”

“What do you mean by that?” he asked, stunned by her tirade.

She stopped and faced him squarely. “If you truly wanted me, you wouldn’t be able to stand being apart from me. You wouldn’t let anyone come between us. A-and you would have seduced me by now!”

“Sara,” he exclaimed, staring at her in disbelief. “I’ve never seen you like this. You’re not yourself. What happened to you in London?”

“Nothing. I’ve just been taking stock of things.” Regaining control of herself, she gazed at him with a mixture of resolve and longing. “I’ve made a decision, Perry.”

“Oh, you have,” he said, the sulky curve of his lips deepening. “Well, I won’t be dictated to, my girl!”

“I hope that’s true. I’m afraid you’ll let your mother’s wishes guide you in this. You know as well as I that she has done her best to stand in our way. I have always tried to avoid making you choose between us, but I can’t see any other way to resolve this.” Sara took a long breath. “I want to marry you, Perry. I want to take care of you, and be a loving helpmate. But this ‘courtship,’ or whatever it is that has been going on for the past four years, must end one way or another. If you don’t propose to me soon—very soon—I will end our relationship for good.”

His face turned pallid. They stared at each other in silence, both of them amazed that such forceful words had come from her. Sara read the dawning anger and hurt in his eyes, but she continued to stare at him resolutely.

A breeze cut through Perry’s shirt and vest, and he shivered. “I’m cold,” he muttered. Without another word, he turned and left her, hurrying back to the manor where his mother waited.

As always Sara felt soothed by the sight of her family’s cottage, perched at the top of a gentle hill. There were four rooms in the little house, a privy with a thatched roof in the garden, and a combination stable and cart shed. Her elderly parents had lived there for nearly forty years, after inheriting it from Sara’s grandparents. No matter what troubles befell them in the outside world, home meant safety and peace.

As she approached the cottage, Sara saw that the small rectangular windows were glowing with light. The silhouettes of many heads showed plainly. Visitors. Her heart sank. Sometimes her parents’ elderly friends would stay for hours, socializing over countless cups of tea. Sara didn’t want to face a crowd at the moment, but there was no way to avoid it. Pulling her lips into a halfhearted smile, she opened the front door and walked in. As she had expected, every piece of worn furniture was filled with guests…the Hughes, the Brownes, and Archie Burrows, a recent widower.

“Sara, you’re back early,” her father, Isaac, exclaimed. He was a short man with broad shoulders and a shock of silver-gray hair. His leathery face creased with an infectious smile. He patted the cushioned footstool near his chair. “Have one of the delicious cakes Mrs. Hughes brought.”

“No, thank you,” Sara said while her mother helped to remove her cloak. “I believe I’ll have a rest after my walk.”

“Why, look,” Mrs. Browne exclaimed. “The poor girl’s cheeks are all red from the cold. The wind has a vicious bite today, doesn’t it?”

“It certainly does,” Sara murmured, declining to explain that it was emotion, rather than cold, that had brought the color to her cheeks.

“How is young Mr. Kingswood?” one of the elderly ladies inquired, and they all watched her with great interest. “As handsome as ever, isn’t he?”

“Oh, very.” Sara managed to give the group a strained smile before she retreated to the privacy of her room.

Sitting on her narrow bed, she folded her hands in her lap and stared at the picture on the wall, a water-color landscape that had been painted by one of her friends years ago. The artist was Mary Marcum, a friend exactly her age who had married the local blacksmith and was now the mother of three children. A wave of self-pity came over Sara. She had never felt so much like a spinster. Gritting her teeth with frustration, she wiped her dampening eyes with her sleeve. At that moment her mother entered the room and closed the door.

“What happened?” Katie asked quietly, easing her plump body onto the bed and folding her hands on her lap. Although her skin was lined with age, her brown eyes were youthful and warm. A halo of soft white curls framed her face becomingly.

“What about your guests—” Sara began.

“Oh, they’re perfectly happy to listen to your father telling his ancient jokes. We’ve finally reached the age when they all sound new again.”

They chuckled together, and then Sara shook her head miserably. “I think I may have made a mistake,” she confessed, and told Katie about the scene with the Kingswoods and the ultimatum she had given Perry afterward.

Katie’s forehead was wreathed in concern. She held Sara’s hand comfortingly. “I don’t believe it was a mistake, Sara. You did what you felt was right. You won’t go wrong by listening to your heart.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Sara said ruefully, dragging her sleeve across her wet face. “My heart was telling me some very strange things a few days ago.”

Her mother’s hand loosened slightly. “About your Mr. Craven.”

Sara glanced at her, startled. “How did you know?”

“It was the way you talked about him. There was something in your voice I’d never heard before.”

Although Sara had mentioned just a few scant details about the gambling club and the man who owned it, she should have known her mother would sense the things that were left unsaid. She lowered her head. “Mr. Craven is a wicked man, Mama,” she whispered. “He’s done terrible things in his life.”

“But you found something in him to care about, didn’t you?”

A few tears splashed into Sara’s lap. “If he’d had someone to teach him about right and wrong, someone to love and care for him as a child, he would have grown up to be a fine man. A very fine man.” She wondered what Derek Craven might have been like if he’d been born to one of the families in Greenwood Corners. He would have been a handsome little boy with innocent green eyes and a sturdy, well-nourished body, running through the meadows with the other village children. But the image dissolved, and she could only see him as a scrawny climbing boy, choking on soot as he crawled upward through chimney stacks. Sara twisted her fingers together in agitation. “The club factotum told me that Mr. Craven is a man of ruined potential. He was absolutely right.”

Katie watched her closely. “Sara, did this man admit to having feelings for you?”

“Oh, no,” Sara said hastily. “At least…not the kind of feelings you and Papa would approve of.”

She flushed, while her mother took unexpected amusement in the comment. “Of course I approve of those feelings,” Katie said, chuckling. “Within the bonds of matrimony.”

Sara dragged her fingers through her own hair, ruining the smooth coiffure and pulling out the pins that seemed to jab into her scalp. “There’s no point in talking about Mr. Craven,” she said dully. “Perry is the only man I want, and the only one I was likely to get, and it’s possible I’ve just ruined all chance of marrying him!”

“No one can know for certain,” Katie mused. “But I think you might have given him the prodding he needed. Deep in his heart, Perry doesn’t want to be alone with his mother forever. He can never really be a man until he leaves her and begins to make decisions for himself—and she’s made that well-nigh impossible. In a way she’s created a prison for him. What worries me, Sara, is that instead of escaping the prison, he may want you to join him there.”

“Oh, no.” Sara’s chin wobbled. “I couldn’t bear a lifetime of being under Martha Kingswood’s thumb!”

“It’s something you should think about,” Katie said gently. “Lord bless you both, it may be the only way you can have Perry.” Giving Sara’s arm a squeeze, she smiled warmly. “Dry your face, dear, and come out to visit with the guests. Mrs. Browne has been asking about Mathilda again, and I never remember what I’m supposed to tell her.”

Sara gave her a dark look and obediently followed her to the front room.

The following day was spent washing clothes and preparing a “pepper pot” for supper. Cutting carrots, turnips, and onions into small pieces for the stew, Sara talked and laughed with her mother. As they worked, they sang a selection of the love ballads with sweetly tragic endings that were so popular in the village. Finally Isaac called to them from the parlor, where he sat on the floor fixing the cracked leg of a chair. “Don’t the two of you know any songs in which no one dies or loses his sweetheart? I began the day in a happy mood, and now after these dirges I’m hard-pressed not to be wiping a tear from my eye!”

“Will hymns do?” Sara asked, scraping the vegetables into a pot of boiling water. Later they would add equal parts of mutton and fish, and season the whole with cayenne pepper.

“Aye, something to uplift the soul!”

They launched into a vigorous hymn, pausing to giggle as they heard Isaac’s off-kilter baritone join in. “Your father has his share of faults,” Katie murmured to Sara in the lull after the hymn was finished. “He gave me a trying time, to be sure, especially in his youth. He had a quick temper back then, and a tendency to brood.” A reminiscent smile curved her mouth. “But that dear man has loved me every day of his life. He’s been true to me all these forty years. And after all this time, he still makes me laugh. Marry a man like that, Sara…and if it pleases God, you’ll be as happy as I’ve been.”

* * *

Retiring early for the night, Sara lay very still in her bed and waited for her ice-cold toes to warm. Perry had been in her thoughts all day. Fervently she prayed that she hadn’t driven him away for good. She had loved him for so many years. He had always been a part of her life. When he was in one of his boyish moods, teasing her and pressing careless kisses on her lips, she sometimes feared she would expire of happiness. The afternoon picnics with him, long walks through the countryside, snuggling against his shoulder as he read aloud to her…the memories had brought her hours of pleasure as she recounted each golden moment. If by some miracle she became his wife, she would be able to wake up every morning and find him next to her, his blond hair softly tumbled, his sleepy blue eyes smiling at her.

Tense with anxious hope, Sara clenched her arms around her pillow. “Perry,” she said aloud, her voice muffled. “Perry, I can’t lose you. I can’t.”

She fell asleep with Perry’s name on her lips. But when she dreamed, it was of Derek Craven, his dark presence filtering through her sleep like a ghost.

She played a game of hide-and-seek with him, running through the empty club, giggling wildly as she sensed him drawing near. He followed her intently, closing in until she knew there was no chance of escape…except one. After finding a secret door, she disappeared into a tunnel of darkness, concealing herself. But suddenly she heard the sound of his breathing. He was with her in the shadows. He caught her easily and pinned her against the wall, laughing at her startled gasp. “You’ll never get away from me,” he whispered, his hands sliding roughly over her body. “You’re mine forever…only mine…”

Sara was awakened suddenly by a tapping on her door. Her father’s voice was groggy and tempered with annoyance. “Sara? Sara, we have company. Dress yourself, daughter, and come to the front room.”