Bethany House Publishers
Nicodemus? Surely not!
Lilly Verdue traced one finger along the deep V-shaped neckline of her bright red dress. The crimson shade of her gown highlighted the mind-numbing drabness of this town as much as it accentuated her soft toffee-brown skin. What a wretched place.
Dust billowed from beneath the wheels of the freight wagon as it slowed to a stop. This couldn't be the town where Ezekiel had chosen to settle with his family, could it? Stunned into an uncharacteristic silence, Lilly stared down the street. A livery stable, a sod church, and a pitiable general store that appeared to double as the local post office lined one side of the street. On the northeast corner of Washington Avenue and Third Street, she saw a frame drugstore flanked by a small sod building advertising hotel rooms for rent. Lilly nearly laughed aloud as she read the signage. The building more closely resembled a ramshackle privy than a hotel or boardinghouse. Who would even consider paying to room in such a place?
Farther down the street, she spied another sod church, a lumber merchant offering limited supplies of wood, and a real estate office. A torn broadside nailed to the door of the real estate office boasted fair prices for farmland in Nicodemus Township.
"Little wonder!" Lilly muttered. "They'd have to pay me to own land in this forsaken place." No millinery shop, no dress shop, and no saloon or dance hall--yet a church on each corner.
Yes. This would be a town Ezekiel would choose for his family.
Lilly pulled a lace handkerchief from her beaded reticule and waved at two men standing outside the blacksmith's shop. As the wagon passed by, she straightened to full advantage, enjoying the stares of unrestrained interest. Perhaps she didn't need to worry about her age--it seemed she still had enough flair to garner attention from members of the opposite gender.
Dismissing the driver's condemning look, Lilly settled back against the hard wooden seat and sighed. "Any of these dwellings or businesses belong to Ezekiel Harban?"
The driver shook his head. "No, but you's lucky. Ezekiel's place is only a couple miles outside of town."
Lilly arched her perfectly shaped brows and curled her upper lip. She wouldn't argue with the driver, for if he thought there was good fortune connected with living anywhere near this place, he wasn't apt to understand a word she could say. Why waste her breath? Obviously this man was no different from her brother-in-law. He likely thought life must be filled with nothing more than hard work, austere surroundings, and religion. Oh yes, lots and lots of religion--the kind that was filled with a generous measure of fire and brimstone.
Mouth agape, Jarena Harban gawked at the flamboyantly attired woman. She could neither close her mouth nor turn her eyes from the mysterious sight. The strange visitor sat patiently, lips pursed and hands folded, while Jarena's father walked around the freight wagon and reached up a hand to assist her down from the conveyance.
Though her father's eyebrows were knit together in a fuzzy worry line--which was not a good sign--the woman appeared completely unruffled. In fact, she seemed the personification of tranquillity. With her tawny skin and perfectly coiffed sable hair, she was a vision to behold in a dress of red silk adorned with countless tiny beads. The stitched embellishments shimmered like diamonds as the woman slowly sashayed toward Jarena and her younger sister Grace. The woman came to a halt only inches in front of Jarena, who inhaled deeply and then lifted her nose into the air. Her nostrils filled with an unidentifiable scent--sweet, yet not too sweet--a most enjoyable experience.
A gleam of satisfaction shone in the woman's eyes as she appeared to notice Jarena's actions. "My own mixture," she announced proudly. When Jarena said nothing, the visitor pulled off one glove and extended her wrist until it hovered directly beneath Jarena's nose.
"The perfume--it's my own mixture," she explained. "I'm Lilly Verdue. Aunt Lilly to you and your sisters. And I suggest you close your mouth. Otherwise, you'll soon be catching flies."
Jarena immediately smacked her lips together. The woman nodded once, and Jarena let out a breath. For some inexplicable reason, the woman's sign of approval was important. Jarena wanted to impress this stranger, yet she wasn't certain why. Most of all, she didn't want to appear ill-mannered to such a stylish-appearing relative.
However, a quick glance at her father proved he didn't share her concerns. His eyes burned with anger, and his craggy features were twisted into a dark scowl. Jarena looked back and forth between her father and the outlandishly clad woman and waited for him to say something--anything. Instead, silence hung in the air like the stillness before a storm.
Unnerved, Jarena turned her attention to their guest. "So you're Aunt Lilly? Why didn't you tell us she planned to visit us, Pappy? We could have made arrangements before her arrival."
A throaty laugh escaped Lilly's lips, and Jarena noted it was one of those evocative sounds that caused men to take notice. Unfortunately for Aunt Lilly, Jarena's father didn't seem impressed in the least. Nor did he bother to answer Jarena's question. Without fanfare, he hauled Lilly's trunk from the back of the wagon.
As their father passed Jarena and Grace, he tilted his head toward the wagon. "Grab them other two satchels, gals."
Jarena stepped forward and grasped the worn straps of the larger bag while Grace picked up the smaller satchel. As she made the proper introductions, Jarena led her aunt toward the house and explained that their sister, Truth, had taken employment in Hill City. She glanced over her shoulder with an apologetic smile. "Had I known you were coming, we would have been better prepared."
Ezekiel frowned at his eldest daughter. "An' how wouldja prepare? We eat what we eat, and we sleep where we sleep. Ain't nothin' or nobody gonna change them things, so what's to prepare?"
Jarena could feel the heat rise beneath the frayed collar of her wrinkled calico dress. Her father's sullen behavior was uncalled for--so far as she was concerned, anyway. No matter how much her father disliked Aunt Lilly's past behavior, she was still their kin. Allowances were made for kinfolk. At least that's what her mama had always told her.
"Your father knew I was scheduled to arrive. Didn't you, Ezekiel?" Aunt Lilly's voice had the timbre of a cat's purr.
Jarena sunk her teeth into her lower lip. If Aunt Lilly thought batting her lashes and speaking in a sultry tone would endear her to the patriarch of their small family, she was sadly mistaken.
"I got yo' letters--all of 'em," her father replied curtly before striding off toward the door of their sod house.
With a determined step, Jarena hurried after her father. "What? But the only letter I ever knew of from her was the one that arrived shortly after we moved to Nicodemus--and I penned a reply. Who read the other letters to you, and why didn't you mention them?"
Before Ezekiel could reply, Lilly stepped forward. She wagged her index finger and frowned at him as though he were an errant schoolboy. "You didn't tell the girls I wanted to keep in touch with them? Ezekiel! Jennie's daughters are my only living relatives."
"There weren't no need to discuss you or dem letters with nobody. Anyway, I know what each of dem letters said--every last word. Iffen there was anything important, I woulda tol' the girls. They's my daughters, and I know what's best."
"But you can't read, Pappy," Jarena whispered.
"Didn't have to. Dr. Boyle and Moses read 'em. They even wrote answers to them letters for me. I tol' you the girls was doin' fine, Lilly. But it weren't jest the girls you was interested in, and we both knows that, don' we? Ain't heard you mention my last letter, Lilly. You gonna tell me you never did get the mail I sent you?"
Lilly traced one long painted fingernail along the folds of her silky skirt while peering at Ezekiel from beneath charcoaled eyelids. "Why, Ezekiel! Would I lie to you?"
Ezekiel came to an abrupt halt in front of the door. "Hmmph! Wouldn't be the first time, and I doubt it'd be the last."
Lilly shook her head as she gently patted Jarena's shoulder. "Don't you mind what your pappy says about me. He always did have a hard heart toward me."
Ezekiel grunted as he edged through the doorway and dropped the humpbacked trunk onto the dirt floor. "You ain' answered. Did you get my letter?"
Jarena followed Lilly into the house and watched as the older woman surveyed the dreary interior of the room. Jarena sighed. "As you can see, living out here in the middle of the prairie forces folks to live in strange habitats. But this soddy is much nicer than the dugout we called home until we moved from town. At least our sod house is completely above ground."
Scorn came into Lilly's eyes. "Those few stores and churches aren't a town! New Orleans--now there's a town."
Jarena frowned, considering her response carefully. "Folks around these parts have worked hard, and we're making great progress. The town may be small, but it's growing. Why, only three years ago there was nothing here but open prairie. With all the folks that moved here from Mississippi in the last couple of years, we'll likely expand to the size of Ellis in no time."
Obviously unimpressed, Lilly shrugged and continued to scrutinize the soddy before directing a pitying smirk at Jarena. "Your father never was one to care much about the home he provided for my dear sister or you children. I gave him plenty of opportunities to come down to New Orleans and make a decent living, but do you think he'd listen?"
"That's enough, Lilly! Don' need to be fillin' the girl's head with your half-truths and empty promises. You still ain' answered me. Did you get my letter?"
"Which one? I received several. Let's see ..." She thoughtfully tapped her index finger on the tip of her chin. "There was a letter about three years ago. If memory serves me, Jarena penned that one. You'd only been in Kansas for a short time, and you said I shouldn't plan to visit. Then there was a brief missive about a year ago saying much the same thing--I believe someone named Moses wrote that one for you. I don't recall that I ever received a letter penned by any Dr. Boyle. In fact, when I didn't receive a response to my latest letter, I assumed you were prepared to welcome me with open arms."
"I sent my last letter a couple months ago. Ain' no reason why you shouldn'ta got it long ago."
Lilly pulled one of the rough-hewn chairs away from the wooden table and flicked the seat with her lace-edged handkerchief before sitting down. Jarena flinched at her aunt's conduct. Did the woman believe their furniture required dusting before it could be sat upon? Their house might be primitive, but it wasn't dirty. She and Grace exchanged a look.
"I departed New Orleans shortly after posting my last letter to you," Lilly explained. "I suppose that could account for my not receiving your reply. Land alive, but it's hot inside this ... this ..."
"Soddy," Jarena finished.
"Soddy." Lilly shuddered as she repeated the word.
"Don' know how you can complain 'bout the heat in Kansas," Ezekiel said. "Reckon it's sweltering down in New Orleans. How come you didn't mention you was gonna be movin' after postin' your last letter? How'd you expect me ta get word to you?"
"I made my decision rather ... umm ... hastily."
Ezekiel directed a harsh look at his sister-in-law. "What you's truly saying is that some folks caught on to your schemin' ways and run you out of town. Ain't that right?"
"Not exactly." Lilly looked at Jarena and Grace. "Come on over here, girls. Jarena, why is a beautiful girl like you still living at home and taking care of her pappy? You should be married and tending to babies of your own."
Jarena stopped in her tracks. Grace quickly dropped onto one of the empty chairs with a sturdy thud. "How come you don't have a husband, Aunt Lilly?"
"I did. He died a long time ago. I've never found another man who could measure up to my Henri."
"Ha!" Ezekiel slapped his beefy hand on the table. "Truth is, Henri Verdue died two weeks after you married him, and you ain' never found another man willing to marry you--an' we both know why."
The air crackled with tension. Jarena stared at her father in stunned disbelief. His eyes shone with disdain. She knew he didn't approve of Aunt Lilly--she'd known that fact for years. Yet she obviously hadn't realized the depth of his anger and contempt. She'd never known him to harbor such opinions against another person, especially a woman.
"What about children? You have any children?" Grace asked.
Before Aunt Lilly could reply, Ezekiel forged on with his barrage. "You ain't foolin' me, Lilly. You got yerself in some kind of trouble and come runnin' out here to hide among strangers. Thing is, with them fancy clothes and your eyes charcoaled an' cheeks rouged, you's gonna stick out like a sore thumb. We's hardworking, plain-livin' folks."
Lilly waved her handkerchief as if to shoo away the comments. "Not to worry, Ezekiel. I think I can adjust in due time. I'm certain to find some opportunities out here in the West. Now tell me, Jarena, do you have a beau?"
Jarena worried the edge of her threadbare apron. "I'm corresponding with a soldier--Thomas Grayson, but we're not yet betrothed."
"Then you need not waste your time on him. Surely there must be some other eligible young men in this ... wilderness. Furthermore, I could tell you stories about soldiers that would make your=--"
Jarena's father pointed a warning finger at Lilly. "That's enough! Thomas is a fine young man. Ain't no cause for you to be suggestin' otherwise. Jest 'cause you kept company with the wrong kinda folks all your life don't mean you gotta imply the worst 'bout others."
Aunt Lilly grinned slyly. "I do admit to leading a much more colorful life than you and Jennie."
At that, Ezekiel grabbed his worn wide-brimmed hat from a peg near the door. "We both know what you been doin' down in New Orleans--you was involved with them voodoo witches or whatever they's called." He turned to his eldest daughter. "There's chores that need tendin' to. I'll be back in time for supper, Jarena. You gals ain't got time to be sittin' around talkin' all afternoon."
Jarena and Grace agreed and stood in unison. The moment their father was out the door, Jarena waved toward the door and asked Grace to bring in the laundry. Jarena announced she needed to snap the beans for supper and then would begin cleaning off a few shelves for their aunt's belongings. Grace lingered, digging her toe into the hard dirt floor as she longingly glanced toward Lilly's trunk--likely believing the hefty container was filled with wondrous treasures.
"Tell you what," Lilly offered to Grace. "How about if Jarena clears off the shelves and then she and I will come outside to snap the beans and talk with you? It's too hot to remain indoors. I can unpack that trunk later."
Grace's eyes sparkled with excitement. "Then you're gonna stay on for a while?"
Lilly beamed an enchanting smile at the younger girl. "Of course! You didn't think a few cross words from your pappy would run me off, did you? Now hurry on outside, and we'll soon join you."
Grace flitted out the door as if her feet had sprouted wings. Jarena pondered how to use the next few minutes with her aunt. She didn't want to offend Lilly, yet if they were all going to live under the same roof and maintain some modicum of peace, she'd best speak up now. Jarena sucked in a deep breath. Carefully choosing her words, she asked that Lilly refrain from questioning her father's authority, live by their rules, and wear modest attire. She exhaled a sigh of relief after completing the requests.
Lilly's dark eyes glimmered with amusement. "Is that it? I thought you were going to give me chores. Do you suppose your pappy would prefer that I help with the womanly duties, or shall I plan to work in the fields? Which do you think more appropriate for a woman of my many talents and abilities?" The words slipped over her aunt's tongue like butter melting on a hot biscuit.
Jarena stared at the woman. Perhaps her father's assessment was correct--perhaps Aunt Lilly did enchant people and place them under her spell. Though she couldn't be absolutely certain, Jarena felt as though someone else had taken control of her being. She couldn't think of a single thing to say.
Lilly snapped her fingers in front of Jarena's face. "Cat got your tongue?"
Hoping to clear her mind, Jarena shook her head before finally looking up to meet her aunt's piercing gaze. "I think Pappy would rather you spent your time helping with the housework. Grace helps in the fields sometimes, but I don't think you'd easily adapt to such strenuous work."
Lilly chortled. "I won't easily adapt to housework, either. I'm accustomed to a more ... umm ... leisurely life."
Jarena shifted her focus to the dirt floor. "Then you've truly come to the wrong place, for Pappy will never allow you to sit idle. From what you've told me thus far, I can't imagine why you came here at all. I'm sure you realized you wouldn't find a life of luxury and ease out here on the prairie in a town that's only been in existence for three years."
Lilly brushed the folds of her dress. "I knew life would be less than comfortable--just as I knew your father would attempt to sweep me from his doorstep. I came to Kansas because I couldn't think of anyplace else where I would be out of harm's way." She leaned closer and lowered her voice. "Aside from you and your sisters, your mother was my last living relative. And even though we were as different as night and day, I never felt so alone as the day I received the letter saying she had died. Your mother was never willing to compromise her beliefs in order to gain advantage." She grinned mischievously. "I, on the other hand, found the practice of give-and-take quite advantageous."
Jarena clasped her hands together; she didn't want Aunt Lilly to see them tremble. "What do you mean about being out of harm's way? Was Pappy right? Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"Let's just say there are people who encouraged me to leave New Orleans. You surely know there are those who take pleasure in blaming others for their difficulties. Throughout the years, I've become a favored target. That fact sometimes places me in a perilous position."
Jarena licked her dry lips. "What kind of difficulties?"
Lilly shrugged. "Anything from lost fortunes to the death of a loved one."
"But how could anyone truly believe that you have the power to influence such things?"
A combination of anger and triumph flashed across Lilly's face, and though the temperature in the soddy remained sweltering, a shiver coursed through Jarena's body. Her aunt squared her shoulders and peered across the table with an undeniable intensity. Jarena knew her question had been misguided.
"Don't underestimate my powers, Jarena. Many have suffered from such folly."
"No disrespect, Aunt Lilly, but if you hold such power, why did you leave New Orleans? Couldn't you have cast one of your spells on those people who threatened you? Not that I think such behavior is acceptable under any circumstances."
Lilly arched her brows. "So you don't believe in voodoo or any of the magical spells associated with witchcraft?"
Jarena shook her head. A tapping noise at the front door was soon followed by Miss Hattie's familiar voice. The old woman glanced about the room as she entered. "Who you talkin' to, Jarena?"
"Afternoon, Miss Hattie. This is my aunt Lilly. She's come from New Orleans for a visit."
Miss Hattie plopped her ample body onto one of the too-narrow chairs and cautiously eyed the newcomer. "A visit, huh? You brought a lot of baggage for a visit. Hope you brought along some decent clothes, 'cause what you got on ain't proper garb for these here parts." She added under her breath, "Ain't proper nowhere, for that matter."
"I believe my clothing is quite acceptable most anyplace, though after seeing the attire you ladies wear, I'll admit I am a bit overdressed."
"Um-hum," Miss Hattie confirmed.
Jarena watched the scene unfold with curiosity. Both Miss Hattie and Aunt Lilly were strong women, she knew that much, yet they were opposites--like spring rain and summer drought.
Jarena flashed a look of caution toward her aunt. "Before you arrived, Miss Hattie, Aunt Lilly mentioned she knew that she needed to change into more suitable attire. And she's already planning to help with the household chores."
"So you done seen the error of yer ways," she said, her features beginning to relax, "and you come out here to begin a new life--that the way of things?"
After a long moment of hesitation during which Jarena fidgeted nervously, Aunt Lilly said, "Something akin to that, yes. At least that's my plan for now."
Miss Hattie bobbed her head up and down. "Then there ain't no time like the present to begin learnin' 'bout your new life. Get outta them clothes and come on outside when you's changed. I's gonna make a special effort to teach you all we's learned about survivin' out here on the prairie. That way Jarena won't be slowed down teachin' you while she's tryin' to keep up with her chores. Come on, Jarena. Reckon we got us beans that need snappin' and clothes to be folded."
The older woman used the heavy wooden table for leverage as she lifted her body from the narrow chair. "I know your pappy made these chairs hisself, but they is the most uncomfortable thing I ever set on."
Lilly bent over her trunk and unlatched the metal hasp. "A woman should always take care with her appearance. After all, it's beauty that provides us our greatest advantage."
"Hmmph! Men is more interested in fine vittles than that fancy-smelling perfume you's wearing," Miss Hattie retorted.
"You can go on believing that nonsense about a man and his stomach, but I know better," Aunt Lilly replied.
Jarena looked back and forth between the two women as the sparring began again. Life was going to be interesting with Lilly Verdue around!
New York City
M acia slumped forward, unable to control herself. She gasped for air as her upper body came to rest atop the polished oak desk. The familiar scent of lemon oil filled her nostrils while the cool wood soothed her fevered cheek. In the distance, she heard a faint tapping--perhaps a woodpecker drumming his beak on the ancient walnut tree outside the window. The tapping grew louder and more insistent. A slight breeze dusted her cheek as a loud thwack sounded directly beside her ear.
Her eyelids fluttered open and she settled her bleary gaze upon the wooden rod lying beside her face. She wanted to lift her head--she told herself to move, say something, sit up, do anything--but all to no avail. The stick moved from sight and was replaced by her French instructor's face. Mr. Gautier's head was tilted to the side, and he looked directly into her eyes.
"Est-ce que je vous dérange, Mademoiselle Boyle?"
The words jumbled in her mind as Macia attempted to translate the question into English. "Oui, I must take a nap."
"Levez-vous, s'il vous plaît!"
"I can't sit up--my head."
She listened to the sound of Mr. Gautier's departing footsteps, but she was still unable to move.
Rennie grasped Macia by the shoulders. "Macia! You must sit up." Macia's dead weight settled against the chair back. "Mr. Gautier has gone to report you to Mrs. Rutledge. This is the third day he's caught you sleeping during class. He's very angry, Macia."
"I'm ill, Rennie. I can't sit here. Please help me upstairs; I must lie down."
Inez's voice came from a couple of desks away. "You'd best not, Rennie. You'll get in trouble, too. Macia's likely pretending to be ill again because she hasn't completed her lessons."
If she'd had enough strength, Macia would have hurled her lesson book across the room at Inez. The girl was frightfully mean-spirited and certainly not someone Macia would ever count a friend. In fact, finding fault, either real or imagined, with others was the only thing that seemed to give Inez pleasure.
Macia handed Rennie her lesson book. "You can turn this in for me, Rennie, but I'm going upstairs, even if I must crawl on my hands and knees."
Amanda hurried to Macia's desk and encircled Macia's waist with her right arm. "I'll help you to your room, Macia. If Mr. Gautier wants to refund my parents' money, I'd like nothing more than to return home. I didn't want to come here in the first place."
"We'll both help you." Rennie gathered their lesson books and handed them to Lucy. "Here, Lucy, please turn in the lesson books for all three of us."
Lucy took the books, though she was obviously vacillating between fear and admiration as she danced from foot to foot. "What should I say to Mr. Gautier?"
"The truth. Tell him we've assisted Macia to bed, and when we feel it's appropriate to leave her alone, we'll return to class--which may not be today." Rennie grinned. "Though you need not add my final remark."
Macia groaned as the girls helped her to her feet. Her legs felt as though they'd been pumped full of jelly. Her knees buckled with each step. Amanda and Rennie tightened their hold as she began to sink toward the floor. She could feel perspiration on her forehead and upper lip as the girls hauled her to the stairs. By the time they had reached the upper hallway, she couldn't move her own body. The last thing she remembered was the heavy breathing of her friends as they attempted to pull her along toward the bedroom.
When Macia finally opened her eyes, she was greeted by the soft glow of her bedside lamp. She was lying in bed, still wearing the navy skirt and white shirtwaist required by the school, and Rennie was sitting in a chair across the room. "What time is it?"
"Nearly midnight. How do you feel?"
"Somewhat better, I think. Have you been with me all this time?"
Rennie smiled and drew her chair closer. "Amanda and I have been spelling each other. She's scheduled to return at three o'clock; then I'll sleep until breakfast."
"I'm so sorry. You must be exhausted." Macia licked her parched lips. "I do hope the two of you didn't get in trouble with Mr. Gautier or Mrs. Rutledge."
Rennie poured a cup of water and lifted it to Macia's lips. "Here, take a sip. You need not worry about us. Mrs. Rutledge doesn't want to refund money to our parents, so she's not going to say anything--at least for the time being." Rennie set the cup on the bedside table. "We must discover what is wrong with you. I think Inez may be taking ill, too. Janet told Mrs. Rutledge Inez had taken to her bed after classes today and wasn't well enough to come down for supper this evening."
"I do hope she managed to complete her lessons," Macia said with a feeble grin.
Rennie giggled. "She is a heartless one, isn't she?"
"I think she's anxious to impress Mr. Laird."
"You think she's enamored with him? Oh, how fun! Inez besotted by Mr. Laird. He's too old for her, don't you think?"
"Some girls like older men. Besides, he's not so much older--perhaps twelve years."
Rennie wrinkled her nose. "I want a man my own age, not some stick-in-the-mud who wants to sit home by the fire with a wool throw over his knees."
"Oh, Rennie, I always feel so much better when you're around to make me laugh."
The door swung open and Mrs. Rutledge entered the room. "She's dressed to receive visitors," she told Mr. Laird, beckoning him forward.
"You've come to call on me after midnight?"
"We were concerned about your health. And why aren't you in bed, Miss Kruger? You'll be falling asleep in class tomorrow. After missing your lessons today, you can ill afford such lackadaisical behavior. Your parents deserve better--and so does Rutledge Academy."
Rennie shrugged. "I'm more concerned about Macia's health than a few French lessons. Besides, my parents won't care a jot. They've grown quite accustomed to my failing marks in school."
Mr. Laird stepped closer. "Instead of intruding in Miss Boyle's health problems, why don't you surprise your parents and attend to your studies--just this once. We are the ones entrusted to look after Miss Boyle."
Rennie remained in her chair. "Well, you're not doing a very good job. Why don't you telegraph her father and ask his opinion? He's a doctor."
Macia sat up a bit straighter. "Perhaps I should contact my father and set forth my complaints. He will likely have some idea of what ails me."
"No need, my dear," Mrs. Rutledge said. "We've already written a lengthy letter to your father explaining your illness. We don't want to overly upset him--after all, you've already explained he can't leave your mother. And you do appear to be feeling much better tonight."
"Yes, that's true. I suppose you're right."
"Of course I am. Rennie, why don't you go along to your room? Macia's feeling better, and you both need to sleep."
Rennie leaned forward and grasped Macia's hand. "I'm happy to stay with you for the remainder of the night."
"No need. You go along. We can both sleep for a few hours before breakfast."
Mrs. Rutledge took Rennie's hand and walked her to the door. "Sleep well, my dear."
The moment the door closed behind Rennie, Mrs. Rutledge drew near and put her hand on Macia's forehead while Mr. Laird poured a small amount of water into a cup. He held out the cup, and Macia took a small sip. Pushing the cup forward, Mr. Laird insisted Macia empty the contents, for she remained somewhat feverish. In spite of the foul taste, Macia drank the liquid, though she did ask if Rennie could bring her fresh water the next morning.
"We have servants to see to such things. Daisy will bring you a pitcher first thing in the morning. You should change into your nightgown. We'll see you at breakfast in the morning."
Macia waited until they departed and then removed her navy blue serge uniform. Her skin didn't feel warm, and she wondered if she truly had a fever. She didn't like Mr. and Mrs. Rutledge--or Mr. Laird. There was something disturbing about the trio that ran this school. Though she doubted whether sleep would come after a full day in bed, Macia slipped between the sheets.
The sun was beaming in her window when she finally awakened the next day. Surely breakfast had been completed hours ago. She stood up, and her knees wobbled as she crossed the room. Leaning her head against the doorjamb, she turned the knob and peeked into the hall. Daisy sat on the floor outside her door. She appeared startled but quickly gained her wits and inquired if there was anything Macia needed.
Macia frowned. "Has breakfast been served?"
The colored girl stood up and smiled. "Breakfast and dinner. It's almost two o'clock, Miss Boyle. I brung a fresh pitcher of water this morning, but you was fast asleep."
Dizziness once again overcame Macia, and she grabbed the doorknob to steady herself before attempting to send Daisy on her way. After all, there was no need for Daisy to sit outside her door all day. Macia certainly didn't want someone guarding her door. She'd feel as though her bedroom had become a prison cell.
However, Daisy was adamant she must remain. She'd been instructed by Mr. Laird to wait outside the door and report everything Macia said or did. Stating she would return as soon as she reported Macia was awake, Daisy turned to leave.
Macia grasped the girl's arm and had soon convinced her there was no need to tell Mr. Laird, for she would be asleep again within minutes. Macia invited her to stand watch until she'd fallen asleep.
The girl shook her head and motioned for Macia to go on to bed as Daisy slid back into position alongside the door. Macia leaned against the cool wood and gathered her strength before wobbling across the floor and falling into bed. She shivered in the warm room. Why was Daisy guarding her door and reporting to Mr. Laird? What was going on in this place?