“What do you mean I cannot have her?” I struggled to keep my voice even. I had quickly learned that any show of emotion was inevitably ascribed to my perceived insanity and affected my credibility.
He continued scribbling, dipping staccato-like into the black ink pot, then scribbling some more.
He looked up finally when he realized I was not leaving, sighed loudly, then closed the heavy leather bound ledger with a deafening slam that caused me to start involuntarily.
“You are an unfit, unwed mother.” He enunciated carefully, as if he were explaining to an imbecile.
“I was wrongly imprisoned and I am widowed.” I spoke through my teeth to keep from screaming at him. “Those are not crimes!”
“Nooooo…. They are not. Wrongly is up for interpretation, but they are enough to keep you from getting your daughter back.” He held me in his stoney gaze, unmoved. “Furthermore, you will be required to pay an allowance to Mrs. Greer towards the care of your daughter.”
“Please.” The lump forming in my throat made it difficult to speak. I blinked, my eyes burning with the promise of tears still left unshed. “She is all I have left in this world.”
“No. She is a ward of the crown and will remain so.” He stood, the wooden chair scraping on the stone floor as it was pushed back. “Now leave.”
I was frozen in place, panic rising.
What else can I do? Fall to my hands and knees to beg? Offer up my body?
My body. It was used up, spent. Nothing to be desired anymore. There were scars that ran deeper than what the eyes could see. Things had been done…
My mind stopped there. It could go no further, think no other thought than that I was lost.
Anne was lost.
How to get her back? Kidnap her? Would that even be possible? Maybe…
A hand appeared on my shoulder and pulled me away. I turned to look at the owner and recoiled reflexively in spite of myself at the pock marked and scarred face. His right eye was opaque, unseeing. It still caught me off guard from time to time.
Heaven had turned its back on us all it seemed.
“Come.” He spoke firmly.
We walked outside the courts, onto the streets.
No solicitor would take my case. A woman shamed. No one believed that I should have my child back.
I could not give up!
He paused to a stop by a lamp post. The sky was gloomy and overcast and the flames had already been lit. I pulled the wrap around my shoulders tighter against the chill that suddenly passed through me.
“I have a question,” he said softly, taking my free hand.
Oh, please. No. Please don’t ask me anything. Not today.
“I do not know if it will help matters but I offer myself to you as a husband.” There was earnestness, kindness showing in his one good eye.
I could barely hold his gaze. I felt ashamed. I was relying upon him heavily to help me navigate the courts. Using him.
I do not love you.
Maybe I had once.
Yes. I had.
What had changed?
I was used up, spent. An empty shell.
To refuse him would be to alienate my one remaining friend. To accept would be to lie to him. I had no intention of ever following through with marrying anyone, not until I could put the ghost of my past to rest. Edinburgh was far away but any promise of that pulled too strongly now. I was haunted and it was a terrifying, unrelenting obsession. The name, Nathaniel Brierly, repeated day and night in my head, invading even my panicked thoughts of Anne.
A woman in deep red silk brushed past and my heart skipped a beat until I realized it was no one I knew. The gait was wrong, the waist was wider, the hair a different shade…
One month until that letter was to arrive. One month to stall him. One month to plan stealing back my Anne.
Lies. I would need many, many lies. I had plenty of room for them now, inside the empty shell that had once been me.
We were two broken shadow people standing in the street, beneath a gas lamp.
“Oh.” I smiled at him gratefully. “Of course… Thank you.”
He squeezed my hand, smiled, relieved that he had not been rebuffed.
A yes without saying yes. I could call it a misunderstanding later.
Yes, a misunderstanding. I took his arm and we walked onward together.