Lois Cloarec Hart
This is a romantic flight of fancy, inspired by the season and my own dear Valentine.
My thanks as always to my wonderful coterie of beta readers, Day, Betty, Carol, and my Mom.
If you would like to comment, you can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
For you always, my love...
In the darkness, Kicker could barely see the branches of the oak tree, but driven from her bed by all that had happened that night, she sought solace in a familiar refuge. With a quick look around to confirm that she was unobserved, the young woman scaled the old tree and found her favourite branch. Bracing her back against the trunk, one leg extended in front of her and a boot set firmly on a lower branch, she settled in to ponder her options, and the events that had led to this fateful night wherein she agonized over a life-altering choice.
Staring up through the thick foliage, she let the sight of the midnight stars soothe her as her mind wandered back over the years to her childhood. Kicker had entered life in the usual manner, over two decades ago. She had been the fourteenth child of twenty-one, sixteen of whom had survived their impoverished and unlikely beginnings to make it at least to their teens. Her name had come courtesy of her older brother, Adam, who had taken one look at the newborn and said, "Damn, shes a helluva kicker, aint she?" Their exhausted mother, having run out of names for the moment, had let the moniker stick.
The daughter of Henry Stuart, a blacksmith, and Mary, his hardworking, overwhelmed, and prolific housewife, Kicker had learned early to be self-sufficient and stay out of the way. Luckily it had been discovered that she had a real gift with horses, and she had begun helping her father in the stable adjacent to his fire pit from the time she was seven years old. Given that motorcars were still an unusual sight in that remote part of the English countryside, Henry made a good living; at least he wouldve if they hadnt had to stretch his income so far.
Adam, who was apprenticed to their father after the two oldest sons left home to be soldiers, was Kickers constant companion. The townsfolk called her Adams shadow, and indeed she was rarely too far away from her big brother. Eight years older, he was more of a parent than their overworked folks had time to be. So it came about that he intervened and changed the course of her life one eventful week six years previously.
Mary, in a rare moment of examining her seventh daughter, had realized that Kicker more closely resembled one of her sons than a daughter. The girl was wiry and tough, with short, shaggy, dark brown curls and large, wary black eyes. She had worn her brothers hand-me-downs from the moment she could talk, having disdained her sisters dresses. The patched and stained trousers were more appropriate for the work Kicker did for her father, so her mother rarely protested, but in this instance she wanted her daughter to make a good impression.
The new cleric in town had three sons of marriageable age. Kicker was only 14, but Mary, having been given in marriage when she was 15, decided that her oddball daughter would be included along with her three unmarried older sisters in the display of available females when the cleric dutifully came to call. To that end, Mary ordered all the girls into their best clothes, and spent a whole morning washing and curling unruly hair. When it came to Kicker however, she met full-scale rebellion. The girl refused to don one of her sisters dresses for the occasion, and when her mother grabbed her arm and tried to force her up the stairs to get dressed, she broke free and tore out of the house.
Adam was sent to find her, and he headed straight for her usual hiding place, knowing he would find her down by the creek, nestled in amongst the bushes that overhung the slow moving water. When he squirmed in next to her, folding his six-foot frame into the small space with difficulty, she scowled at him.
"Don even ask! I don care what Ma wants, I aint puttin on a dress for anyone, let alone Preacher Dodds pig-ass sons!"
Her brother smiled gently at his favourite sister. "I know, Kicker,
and Im not here to ask you to go back. I just thought you might
want to talk about it, is all."
The girls expression softened, and became more puzzled than fierce. "Whyd she do it, Adam? I tol her over and over that I aint never gonna marry. Why don she believe me?"
Wrapping his arm around her thin shoulders, he gave her an affectionate hug. "Because she doesnt really know you, thats why. You gotta cut Ma some slack, Kicker. She really thinks that the best she can do for all of us is see us married off and starting families of our own."
Kicker shuddered. "Damned if Im ever going to marry. No way Im gonna pop babies out every year til I drop dead from exhaustion."
Adam regarded her with sad understanding. "Its not just not wanting babies, is it, Kicker?"
She stared at her stained, too-large boots uncomfortably, then glanced up shyly. "Nah, not really." She fell silent for a moment, then burst out, "I jus don get it, Adam. What all the fuss is about, I mean. Even when I was in school, I thought the girls were being so silly, fussin and fawnin over the boys. Hell, I could beat any of em in wrestling or knife toss. They wasnt no big deal."
That got a chuckle from her brother. "Youll understand someday, little sister. Someone will come along that will steal your heart clean away, cuz you know - there is a little bit more to life than wrasslin and knife throwin, sweetie."
"I know that," she scoffed. "Theres horses."
When Adam finally stopped laughing, he promised his sister that he would make things better. As always, he went one step further than convincing their mother that Kicker was a poor candidate for matrimony. Within a month, he had arranged a position for his sister as a stable hand at the nearby Grindleshire Academy for Young Ladies, a finishing school for daughters of upper class families who didnt have quite enough influence to secure more elite placements.
Kicker was unaware that she secured her unconventional employment because of a hushed up scandal at the school. Two young women had been sent home in disgrace, and a raffish stable hand, reading his cards accurately, disappeared before he could be brought up on charges. When Adam approached the stable master, Old Thomas, the man was actually relieved to hire the girl, though puzzled why any female would want to accept such coarse employment.
The day Kicker was to leave the only home she had ever known, she was torn between relief that shed be escaping her mothers hectoring disapproval, and sorrow that she would no longer see her beloved brother on a daily basis. But once she entered the stone gates of the Academy, having trudged the five miles from her home with her meagre possessions on her back, everything else was forgotten in the excitement of beginning a new life.
The massive, imposing old stone building with its ostentatious turrets on all four corners housed an academic wing, student dormitories, teacher and household staff quarters, and even Mr. and Mrs. Grindleshires private suite, in four wings that enclosed a cobble-stoned courtyard. Its position on a rise dominated the grounds - two hundred acres of lush green lawns, manicured gardens, and thick forest along a turbulent river. The stable, barn, attached paddocks and maintenance buildings lay off to the side of the Academy, and several small cottages for the more senior members of the staff flanked the vast vegetable gardens behind the edifice that supplied the schools kitchen.
As she walked up the long driveway, Kicker felt she had never seen anything as grand. Students wandered the manicured lawns and lingered among the lush gardens, and though most of the girls were about her age, she felt their differences keenly. She nodded politely at two girls who crossed her path, only to be stung by their disdainful looks and the giggles that trailed after her as she hastily detoured off the long driveway towards the stable.
The mortifying encounter with the students made her momentarily question her decision to follow Adams advice and accept the position there. Kicker had no illusions about her lot in life, but she had never before ventured outside the safe, if boring, confines of her hometown, and thus rarely gave any thought to class distinctions. The moment she entered the stable and met the genial stable master however, her sense of security returned.
Vowing to keep as much distance as possible between herself and the Academys students, she settled in quickly, making herself invaluable to Old Thomas with her quiet, industrious ways and sure touch with the horses. It wasnt a large stable, and most of the animals were a docile lot kept for pulling buggies into town or the occasional Sunday afternoon ride. Well-schooled by her father in the farriers art, Kicker quickly took over the duties that the stable masters increasingly arthritic hands had trouble handling, and within a couple of years it was generally accepted about the Academy that she would eventually take Old Thomas place when he retired.
Kicker was content. She had a small room all to herself off the stablea luxury she had never experienced beforework that she enjoyed, and the congenial company of a boss that she respected. She would never grow wealthy on the wages she earned, but the cook had taken a liking to her and she was eating better than she ever had. Old Thomas even allowed her to borrow one of the horses for an occasional visit to her home. The only fly in her ointment was that Adam had married a year after shed left home, and she didnt see her favourite brother as often as she wouldve liked.
The day her unremarkable world tilted on its axis had started like any other in the five years she had spent at the school. She had just finished shoeing the elderly bay that the Grindleshires favoured for their excursions to the finer homes in the county when Old Thomas beckoned her aside.
"Need you to pick up the new teacher comin in on the afternoon train."
Kicker nodded. She was often sent to make pick-ups at the station, and she had half been expecting this one, as scuttlebutt in the kitchen was that someone new was coming in to replace a teacher that had left to get married.
Old Thomas frowned slightly as he regarded her. "An try to clean up a bit before you go. We don want her thinkin were a bunch of clods just cuz were outta spittin distance of civilization."
Unused to giving any thought to her appearance, Kicker glanced down at herself. She had to admit she probably wouldnt be welcomed in any of the finer salons of what passed for society in this neck of the woods, but then, she snorted to herself, she could be dressed like royalty and she still wouldnt be welcomed. Shrugging, she stepped toward the trough at the edge of the paddock to rinse off the evidence of her duties, but stopped on hearing Old Thomas growl.
"Go use some soap, and put on a clean shirt."
Instantly resentful of the unknown woman who was responsible for her having to bathe when it wasnt even Saturday, Kicker stomped into the stable, muttering under her breath.
"Wouldnt wanna offend Miss High n Mighty now, would we?" Ignoring the sleepy eyed chestnut that nuzzled her as she strode past the mares stall, she continued, "God forbid she breathe in a little sweat an horse shit!"
Pausing to kick her boots against the post outside her door, she was forced to admit that there was more than a little manure clinging to them. Sighing, she entered her room and stripped off her boots and clothes, tossing the latter over her only chair and giving the former a cursory brushing. Pouring water from the chipped pitcher into the tin basin and seizing the sliver of soap, she made hasty work of her ablutions. Shivering, she dried herself on the threadbare towel, then dragged her brush through short, riotous curls.
The small, cracked mirror reflected a young woman barely two inches taller than the girl who had fled her mothers ill-fated designs five years before. Small breasted and deeply tanned from long hours in the sun, visitors to the Academy often mistook Kicker for a boy, and she never bothered to correct anyones assumptions. Still as wiry as she had ever been, her sinewy arms and leanly muscled back bespoke the manual labour that filled her days.
Turning away with her customary disregard of the mirrors image, Kicker sought out her Sunday shirt and trousers. Mr. Grindleshires rules insisted that everyone - from the lowliest stable hand to the headmistress - had to attend Sunday services in the schools chapel, so she had learned early to keep one of her three changes of clothing in respectable condition.
Dressing quickly, she headed outside to find that Old Thomas had already harnessed the sleepy-eyed chestnut to the schools carriage. The bold maroon lettering on the side identified the small surrey as belonging to Grindleshire Academy, so Kicker had no worries that the new teacher would not be able to find her ride.
As she sprang lightly to the seat and took up the reins, Old Thomas laid a hand on the buggys edge.
"Trainll be in at three if its on time. The teachers name is Miss Madelyn Bristow, and shell likely have a trunk or two with her. Take her straight up to the school when you get here, direct her in to see Mrs. Sheridan, and put her things in her room. Got all that?"
He didnt offer written instructions, as Kickers literacy skills were wanting and Old Thomas were non-existent, but the young woman and the old man traded nods of perfect understanding.
"Got it. See you in a coupla hours."
Kicker enjoyed the drive into town along quiet, country lanes. A familiar sight now to those she passed on the road and in the fields, many greeted her cheerfully and she quickly forgot her earlier pique in the pleasure of the late summers afternoon.
Arriving at the station, she was informed that the train was running late, so she settled in to wait, musing idly on the new teacher. In her experience, Grindleshire attracted hidebound spinsters who had taught so long that they could do it with their eyes and minds shut, or young teachers barely out of school themselves, who would only stay in the profession until the first proposal of marriage came their way.
When the train pulled in, Kicker eyed the descending passengers, easily disregarding the matrons returning from London and the young mothers shepherding their noisy broods, looking for a woman who had teacher stamped all over her. Much to her surprise, when Miss Madelyn Bristow finally stepped down to the platform, she didnt fit neatly into either stereotypical category.
The woman looked to be in her late twenties, elegantly dressed in a pale blue shirtwaist and ankle-length, darker blue skirt, gathered neatly at her slim waist with a wide black belt. Under a wide-brimmed hat, her coppery red hair was pulled back in a twist, and bright, inquisitive green eyes assessed her surroundings. Before Kicker could approach, the woman spotted her and began striding quickly towards the carriage, a large handbag swinging freely on her arm. The stable hand jumped down from the seat to greet the new teacher, noting that the other woman had a good five or six inches in height on her.
"Yes. Youre from the Academy."
It wasnt so much a question as a statement of fact, but Kicker nodded.
"Yes, Miss. Dya have a trunk, Miss?"
The teacher gestured over her shoulder where Kicker could now see a trainman hauling a large chest toward the carriage. She hastened to help him, and between them, they swung the trunk up on the back of the carriage. Tying it down, she rushed to assist the teacher into the buggy, but was surprised when Miss Bristow insisted on riding up front with her rather than in the more comfortable passenger seat.
As Kicker guided the horse away from the station and onto the road out of town, she stole a sideways glance at her unusual passenger. This was no shy, awkward neophyte, nor was it a rigid, humourless old maid. Lost as to how to categorize the new teacher, she maintained her silence while Miss Bristow took in her surroundings with evident interest. Kicker was startled when the other woman spoke in a firm but friendly manner.
"You have the advantage of me, my dear. What is your name?"
"Um, Kicker Stuart, Miss."
She could feel the older womans stare boring into her, and she kept her eyes firmly on the road, feeling herself colour under the intense scrutiny.
"Kicker, is it?"
The words werent critical, only curious, and rather than taking refuge in her usual reticence, Kicker felt oddly compelled to explain.
"Mbrother named me. Guess my Ma thought it fit me good. Neer called me anythin else since the day I was born."
"Hmm. So Miss Kicker Stuart, tell me about Grindleshire Academy for Young Ladies."
It didnt exactly feel like an order, but Miss Bristows expectant gaze and firm voice made it apparent she was confident of a full and informative answer.
Bet she dont have no discipline problems in her classroom!
With a slight grin at the thought, Kicker gave a half shrug. "Not too sure what to tell you, Miss. I don stray too far from the stables most days. I kin tell you Missus Sheridan, the headmistress, is a fair hand as long as you don cross her. Shes really the boss even though Mistr Grindleshire owns the place. You gotta duck ifn Missus Sheridan and Missus Grindleshire gets to arguin, cuz they kin shake the tiles ofn the roof and you don wanna get betwixt them. If you need anythin in yer room ask Missus Devlin, the housekeepr. Shes a good sort, though kinda frazzled like. I kin tell you that Cook aint got no patience if yer late fer meals, and she won be savin you anythin either. I kin tell you that Pastor Hubble preaches the boringest sermons in the Empire, but yer gonna hafta pretend to listen cuz the teachers all sit up front and Missus Sheridan will see you if ya doze off.
Kicker thought the sound of Miss Bristows laughter must surely be the stuff angesl songs were made of, but then she blinked and wondered where on earth that thought had come from.
"Well, Ill certainly do my best not to fall asleep then, Miss Stuart."
"Its Kicker, Miss. Everone calls me that." Kicker blushed a little at correcting such a lady, but was reassured by the older womans friendly smile and twinkling eyes.
"Thank you for the invaluable briefing, Kicker. I shall remember to be on time for dinner, submit to Mrs. Sheridans dictates, stay out of the line of fire between the two eminent grande dames, butter up Mrs. Devlin, and pay strict attention to Pastor Hubble."
Kicker wondered if the teacher was pulling her leg, but before she could allow the suspicion to fester, Miss Bristow went on.
"So what do you do for entertainment in these parts, Kicker?"
She hesitated. Surely the teacher meant what the other teachers did. She couldnt possibly care what a stable hand did, could she? Hesitantly, she replied.
"Cook said there was a poetry readin last weekend, and I know a buncha the teachers wen on a picnic two weeks ago. Oh, and the Grindleshires arrange a trip to the city come spring for alla the teachers that wanna go. Young Mistr Grindleshire helps with that, cuz he lives in the city." She shrugged. "Thats bout all I know, but Missus Sheridan kin probly tell you more."
Miss Bristow was quiet for a moment, then she asked,
"And what about you, Kicker? What do you like to do for fun?"
Kicker glanced sharply sideways, but the other womans expression was calmly inquisitive, and she decided that for some unknown reason the apparent interest was genuine.
"Uh, well, I go fishin quite a bit. Cook likes it when I bring her fresh trout. An sometimes on my half-days, Old Thomas lets me take Banner home to see my family."
Kicker warmed to the subject of her favourite horse. "Yes, Miss. Banner, hes the smartest one in the stables. Times are you look in his eyes, an you jus know hes fixin to put one over on you, so you gotta keep a tight rein, but boy, kin he run! Get up on his back, give him his head, and you feel like yer ridin the wind! If he aint bin out all day, I ofn take him out for a run inna evenin."
"You like to ride, then?"
The younger woman was surprised at the wistful tone in the teachers voice. "Why, yes, Miss. That I do."
"I always wanted to ride, but I grew up in the city and worked there since I started teaching, so I never really got the chance. I mean - I have ridden a little in the parks of course, but its not exactly the same thing."
Perhaps it was the awareness that she was in the presence of a fellow horse enthusiast, but Kicker found the nerve to ask, "Whadda you like to do then, Miss? Fer fun, I mean."
Miss Bristow smiled wryly. "Well, Kicker, I practice those time honoured feminine arts of needlepoint and watercolours, though not well." She laughed, but Kicker didnt think it was a happy sound. "I also read extensively, and write very bad poetry. In fact, one of the courses Ill be teaching is 18th and 19th century poetry. Add in 17th century literature and Advanced Principles of Deportment, and I shall no doubt enjoy a full life at the Grindleshire Academy for Young Ladies."
She fell silent then, leaving Kicker to ponder the undertone of bitterness in the womans voice. Unsure what to say, she concentrated on the road, even though the sleepy-eyed chestnut could have plodded the whole way with blinders on. She was startled when the teacher spoke again, several minutes later.
"Are staff allowed to take the horses out on pleasure rides?"
"Yes, Miss, but not many of em do."
"Your horse...Banner, was it? Do you think I might ride him now and again?"
Kicker blinked, absorbing the undertone of nervous anticipation in the womans voice. "Well, he ain mine, Miss. He blongs to the Academy, but if I might say, ifn you aint done much ridin, you might wanna start with ole Cherry here. Shes as gentle as they come." She gestured at the chestnut who bobbed her head as if aware she was the subject of conversation. "She won run off with you like Banner probly would."
The teacher laid a warm hand on Kickers forearm, almost causing the stable hand to drop the reins in surprise. "But I want to ride the way you described, Kicker - feeling free and unfettered, like Im harnessing the wind!"
Kicker had no idea what unfettered meant, but grasping the gist of the teachers desire, she urged, "I know, and you kin do that one day, but start with Cherry here first please, Miss. I don wanna see you break yer neck or somepin."
The warm hand now squeezed Kickers tanned forearm, and the younger woman gulped, thrown by the unusual sensations that coursed through her body.
"Will you teach me please, Kicker? Teach me how to ride. Teach me to taste the freedom that you enjoy so?"
Much later, when she lay in her rough, narrow bed visualizing the unusual events over and over, Kicker would remember two things most vividly: the underlying desperation of the teachers plea and the heat of the womans hand against her skin.
Kicker agreed to the unusual request, but she stipulated that Miss Bristow had to start with Cherry and work her way through the stables horses before she tried to ride Banner. The delight in those brilliant green eyes would become one of the stable hands favourite memories, and one she replayed endlessly in the dark nights to come when even the scent and sounds of her beloved horses couldnt soothe her to sleep.
So began the curious friendship between the teacher and the stable hand. When Miss Bristow discovered, quite by accident, that Kicker lacked all but the rudiments of literacy, she added reading and writing lessons into their agreement.
One day the teacher had sent a note down to the stable when she was unavoidably delayed for their riding lesson, but unable to read the graceful script and ashamed to ask anyone for help, Kicker had waited three hours for her student, passing up on dinner for fear of missing the teachers arrival.
Hungry, and disappointed by what she perceived as the teachers cavalier treatment, she was terse and laconic when Miss Bristow finally arrived. Surprised by the absence of Kickers usual enthusiastic greeting, the teacher had insisted on eliciting the reason. On learning that the stable hand hadnt understood her note, Miss Bristow became remorseful and apologized.
Kicker couldnt meet her eyes, unwilling to see the pity or contempt she was sure would greet her confession, but the teacher stretched out a gentle hand and tipped the sullen face up until their eyes met. The stable hand was surprised to see only compassion and determination in the older womans expression.
"I shall teach you, my dear Kicker. After all, its only fair. Youve given me a gift of immeasurable value. Allow me to return the favour and initiate you into the beautiful universe of words. Please."
The stable hand blanched. She had hated the dark, musty, village schoolhouse dominated by a teacher who wielded his thick, leather strap with an unstinting and enthusiastic hand. She had escaped that prison at every opportunity, despite the punishment she knew would await her unwilling return. Finally her father had stepped in and brusquely ordered that she be allowed to spend her days helping him, rather than be forced to expand her rudimentary education. But Miss Bristow would not be swayed, and truthfully, Kicker welcomed any excuse to be in her company, even the dreary prospect of book learning.
Much to her surprise, the teacher made the whole endeavour painless. During the cold winter months, Cook, who had fallen to the engaging teachers charm every bit as much as Kicker had, allowed the two to utilize a corner of the large, warm, aromatic kitchen, as long as they didnt get in the way of her staff. Once the weather turned warm again, Miss Bristow would bring her slate and books in a saddlebag, and theyd stop for a lesson in a green meadow or alongside the river, their horses grazing nearby.
One half-day, when Kicker decided to visit her brother and his growing family, Adam took her out for a walk in the fields behind his small cottage.
They hadnt gone far before he started to grill her. "So, little sister, why is this the first time in three months that youve managed to get over to see us?"
She looked up to see a half-grin on his bearded face, and she elbowed him. "Hasnt bin that long!"
"Has too!" Adam insisted. "Young Jeremy had just gone two when you last came by."
Kicker thought about that as she automatically quickened her step to keep up with her brothers long stride. Had it been that long? Ruefully she had to admit that it had. Most of her half-days off she spent with Miss Bristow if she could.
"I guess I kinda los track of time," she said nervously, unwilling to confess even to Adam that everything else in her life now came second to spending every possible moment with the lovely teacher. "Ill try to do bettr, honest."
Adam stopped, and turned to face his sister, but Kicker refused to meet his eyes, toeing the dirt with her boot.
"Okay, fess up, Kicker. Whats going on?" When she remained silent, a surprised, then delighted look came over his face. "Kicker! Did you meet someone? Has someone finally stolen your heart?"
"No! Of course not!" Kicker was panicked at the thought of having her feelings for her teacher hauled out into the harsh light of day. This was Adam, who had loved and protected her for as long as she could remember, but even so she couldnt tell him.
He regarded her quietly, then turned to resume their walk. After a long silence, he spoke softly, his voice troubled. "Its okay, you know, Kicker. I mean if there is some...someone. Its okay. Just...be really careful, okay? Its probably not something you should talk about anyway. Not everyone would understand, you know?"
She nodded mutely, and was deeply grateful when he turned the subject to their second youngest brother, Brians flight from the family home to join his two eldest brothers in the army. Later that day, when she was riding Banner back to the Academy, she finally allowed her mind to contemplate what Adam had said. He knew her better than anyone else. Would he be shocked if she had told him about her feelings for Miss Bristow? She shook her head in confusion. What do I feel?
Kicker didnt know how to define their relationship. What she did know was that the social gulf between teacher and stable hand was a sharply defined class distinction, and never to be crossed. Even their unlikely friendship was only tolerated because Miss Bristow was regarded as something of a harmless eccentric...a talented and popular teacher, but one with an unusual fascination for riding that the stable hand, as was proper, facilitated on demand.
The young woman didnt dare to aspire to more than what they already had. She never sought Miss Bristow out between their scheduled lessons, though it was not unusual for the teacher to stroll down to the stables at unexpected times. She would often look up from grooming Banner or one of her other charges to find the teacher watching her from just inside the stable door. Sometimes they would speak, and sometimes the teacher would simply give her an enigmatic smile and go on her way.
Kicker knew the teacher was fond of her. Many times Miss Bristow had urged her to call her by her Christian name when they were out alone, but fearful of forgetting her place in front of others, the stable hand had not allowed herself to do so, though she often rolled the lovely name over in her mind in the solitude of her bed.
Madelyn. Madelyn Elizabeth. Madelyn Elizabeth Bristow.
Having pushed, prodded and cajoled Kicker into a reasonable semblance of literacy over the past eight months, Miss Bristow had recently decided to expand her students horizons. Kicker found she had an unexpected liking for poetry. Or perhaps it was the way her teacher recited it to her, ardent green eyes barely glancing at the page while she intoned Lord Byrons immortal words to her rapt audience.
And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
The younger woman often felt that she could drown in those eyes fixed so intently on her own. Recalling the way the soft, husky voice caressed the evocative words sent shivers up her spine, and often she would repeat phrases to herself that seemed to speak right to her heart.
One day Kicker discovered that by climbing a certain oak tree, she could watch Miss Bristow conduct her afternoon class on 17th century literature without anyone being the wiser. For weeks she took her lunch break at that hour if she could, until Cook chastised her for missing so many meals. Nervously she reminded herself of Adams warning, knowing she should be more careful. She made more frequent appearances in the kitchen after that, but was helpless to keep herself completely away from the oak tree.
Things could have gone on like that for years, but one day in late May Mr. Grindleshires youngest son, Merrick, arrived to make arrangements for the staffs annual weekend in the city.
The evening that Mr. Grindleshire the younger arrived, Miss Bristow was down at the barn behind the stable, inspecting the latest batch of kittens the barn cat had birthed a week previously. Hearing the commotion of a rider coming in fast and hard, Kicker jumped up from the hay where she and Miss Bristow had been stroking the tiny creatures and rushed to the door.
There she frowned as she saw who was galloping up the long, curving entrance road. Kicker didnt approve of Merrick Grindleshire, though she would never be so brash as to say so. The man rode his horses hard, with little regard for their welfare, and she was only grateful that he never requisitioned Banner after having been tossed off by the big grey gelding a couple of years earlier. It had taken Old Thomas intervention with the senior Mr. Grindleshire to prevent Banner from being put down as an incorrigible animal, and Kicker would never forgive the arrogant young man for that.
Cook had reported that Merrick had been overheard bragging about his intention to acquire one of those new-fangled horseless carriages, and Kicker had uttered a small prayer that he would do it soon, and spare the magnificent animals unlucky enough to fall into his hands.
Brushing off the straw, Kicker began walking quickly up to the main house, well aware that Merrick would never deign to bring his mount down to the stable himself. He was more likely to simply abandon it when he dismounted, and it would be on Kickers head if the horse ended up amidst the flower gardens.
Miss Bristow fell into step beside her. "So, whos our visitor, Kicker?"
The younger woman frowned as she noticed the teacher regarding the new arrival with curiosity. "Thats Mistr Grindleshires son, Miss. I spect hes come about the teachers trip to the city. Since he lives there mos of the time, his da makes him help with the staff weekend. Says its good for their morals or somethin."
A low chuckle greeted her words. "I think that might be their morale, Kicker. Hopefully their morals are already in high order."
Kicker scowled. She had been working hard at improving her language, wanting nothing more than Miss Bristows approval, but she knew her rough ways still needed a lot of refining. Worse, her teacher didnt even seem to notice her students injured feelings, caught up as she was in meeting the stranger.
Merrick appeared to be equally interested, as after greeting his father who had come out to meet him, he turned to wait for the approaching women, his eyes fixed on Miss Bristow.
Without a word, Kicker parted from the teacher and made her way to the horse, which was still snorting hard from the exertion of their arrival. Running her expert hands over the sweating flanks, she listened to the conversation between the three.
The older mans voice boomed cheerfully. "Ah, there you are, Miss Bristow. I want you to meet my son, just down from the city for a visit. Madelyn Bristow, this is my youngest, Merrick. Merrick, Miss Bristow joined us last summer, and has established herself as an excellent teacher, as well as a very promising poet in her own right."
"Enchanted, my dear Miss Bristow. It is truly a pleasure to meet you."
Kicker clenched her teeth at the smooth, ingratiating voice.
"The pleasure is mine, Mr. Grindleshire. Are you down for long?"
The stable hand winced, picturing the young mans unctuous grin. "Well, I hadnt planned to be, but perhaps I may find reason to extend my visit. And please, call me Merrick."
Kicker glanced under the horses neck and grimaced at the sight of the young man still holding her teachers hand. As she watched, he drew Miss Bristows arm through his and guided her up the stairs, flanked by the two men.
Merricks buttery tones floated back to the stable hand. "So tell me, Madelyn, if I may call you that, do you ever give readings of your poetry? Ive quite a passion for verse myself. At one time I even fancied myself another Browning."
Her response was inaudible as the trio entered the front door, and Kicker stood there feeling as if Banner had just kicked her in the stomach. Her beloved teacher hadnt even bidden her goodnight. Glowering, she gathered the horses reins and began to lead him down to the stable. Her mind reeled at how readily she felt she had been disregarded, and her heart was filled with a sense of betrayal, even though her mind argued that she had no right to feel thus.
Leading the horse first to the water trough, she monitored his drinking closely as she considered the man she couldnt help regarding as competition. She supposed that some would consider him handsome enough, though in her opinion his blond hair was getting noticeably thin and his watery blue eyes were shifty and weak.
"Bin eatin a bit too well from the cut of his vest these days too," she muttered, pulling the horse away from the trough.
"Didya say somepin, Kicker?" Old Thomas asked, as he passed her in the stable doorway.
She shook her head, and began to unsaddle the tired animal.
"I see the lad is down from the city," the old man commented with a wry grin. Jerking his thumb up at the mansion, he went on. "That means all the fillies will be tumblin all over themselves to catch his eye. Wisht hed just pick one of em and settle down so we don have to go through all this foolishness ever time the princeling comes back to the school. Ever time his royal highness visits, theyre all atwitter up there, busy setting their caps to snare him."
Like all the downstairs staff, Kicker had hung avidly on Cooks tales of the younger Mr. Grindleshires legendary dalliances each time he visited, but it had meant nothing more to her than a brief moments entertainment...at least until now.
Currying the horse with vigorous strokes, she let her mind stray to the unthinkable. Would Miss Bristow fall under the mans questionable spell? Surely she was far too intelligent to do so. The teacher was not some callow girl to fall for a handsome face and superficial charm...was she? And if she did, would she marry the man and leave Grindleshire Academy for the city?
Kicker had no experience with affairs of the heart, and those questions plagued her long after she bade Old Thomas goodnight as he headed for his cottage and his wife. Sitting on the top rail of the paddock fence, by the dim light of a scant moon, her gaze flickered across the rows of lights on the schools top floor, counting off until she reached Miss Bristows window, illuminated brightly by the gaslight within. Being very familiar with her teachers habits, she knew that normally the light would be long off by now. She didnt know if she should be troubled by that break in routine, or pleased that at least the teacher was safely in the solitude of her room.
But what if she wasnt in her room? What if she had merely left a light on, knowing that she would be coming back later than usual in the dark that night?
After torturing herself for over an hour, Kicker finally heaved a sigh of relief when the light in Miss Bristows room dimmed. Sliding off the rail, she became aware that she had been perched in the uncomfortable spot far too long. Grimacing, she tried to coax some feeling back into her numb flesh as she headed for bed herself, but once she reached that sanctuary, her mind would still not allow her any peace.
Over and over Kicker pondered the improvements she had tried to make in herself this past many months. She had studied hard, her literacy skills hard-won, but solid. She had taken to bathing on a frequent basis so as not to offend the teachers ladylike senses. She washed her clothes more often and spoke more carefully, even when she wasnt around the teacher. She would beg choice bits from Cook to take with them on their excursions, and she taught the teacher to ride with as much dedication as she herself had been taught grammar, spelling and composition.
Even Cook and Old Thomas had noticed the changes, with the former bestowing her approval for the betterment, and the latter teasing her about the reasons for her self-improvement drive. Yet it did not seem to make any difference to the only person that mattered, at least as far as Kicker could see.
Miss Bristow treated her kindly, but then she had from the moment they met. She offered encouragement and praise in lavish measure, but Kicker had watched her do the same with her students in 17th century literature. Sometimes she could almost convince herself that the teacher felt more for her than as just another student, but then the harsh reality of their respective positions would set in, and she would chastise herself for being so foolish.
Wracked with unspoken longings and unfulfilled dreams, Kicker spent a sleepless night, rising at dawn to begin her duties with a heavy heart and sullen demeanour. Even Old Thomas couldnt get a smile from her when he brought her some of his wifes breakfast cakes wrapped in brown paper.
When Miss Bristow came down to the stables the next evening, Kicker silently saddled Banner for her and stepped aside. When her teacher looked at her with puzzlement and asked if she werent coming along, the stable hand muttered that she had too much work to do to go willy-nilly across the fields. She was too lost in her misery to notice the distress in the teachers eyes as the woman reluctantly left the paddock alone.
To her lack of surprise, Merrick arrived at the stable moments after Miss Bristow had departed, and ordered his horse to be saddled at once. Kicker barely had time to tighten the cinch before he was swinging up and galloping off in the direction the teacher had taken. Bitterly she stared after him, half-wishing shed left the cinch loose, but knowing it wasnt in her.
When the two of them rode back into the stable yard, Kicker stubbornly kept her back turned while she worked on a bit that had separated from an old bridle.
"Girl!" The peremptory demand was impossible to ignore, and Kicker slowly turned to face the couple.
"Her name is Kicker," Miss Bristow said coolly. Kicker assumed the displeasure in her voice was directed at the stable hands earlier abruptness, and refused to meet the green eyes that regarded her sadly.
"Mmm? Oh, whatever. Kicker, then, come here and take our horses." Merrick swung down, and having issued his order, turned his attention to his companion, flattering her with his brightest smile and offering his hand. "You ride very well, my dear, though Im surprised that you shun the customary side saddle. Ive never seen a lady ride thus. I would think it would be difficult to find the appropriate dress."
Miss Bristow accepted the proffered hand and dismounted gracefully. Kicker took the reins of both horses and began to lead them away, her ears straining to hear the couples conversation even as she castigated herself for caring what was said.
"I find I can control my mount better astride, and I simply modified some of my clothing to accommodate my preferred style."
"Well, you certainly maintain excellent control of that beast." A note of petulance had crept into Merricks voice. "Really though, do you think you should chance riding that one? I happen to know that he can be very headstrong and highly unpredictable. Perhaps you should select a different mount for our next ride."
Kicker only focused on the mans assertion of them riding together again, and failed to detect the chilly tones of the teachers voice as they moved away.
"I assure you, Mr. Grindleshire, Banner is a delight to ride, and has always been utterly well mannered for me."
"Merrick, please, my dear Madelyn. And of course I dont doubt your skill, but..."
The voices faded across the lawn, and with a sigh Kicker began to groom the horses. She tried to console herself that the obnoxious Merrick would soon tire of his pursuits in the quiet countryside and return to his city life.
The next four weeks were the longest of Kickers life. The teachers excursion to the city had come and gone, and still the younger Mr. Grindleshire lingered on. Talk in the kitchen was that the man was smitten by the beautiful Miss Bristow, and it would only be a matter of time before the Academy would host a splendid wedding. Betting was fierce amongst the household staff, and based on the lustful looks bestowed on the teacher by her ardent swain, odds were running heavily that a marriage would take place before summers end when the students returned for the new term.
In the days following the conclusion of the school year, Kicker and Old Thomas were kept busy ferrying students and their baggage into town to catch the trains that dispersed them back to their families. With little time for reflection, the young stable hand was still keenly aware that the staff would be leaving next, after wrapping up their final affairs. A few of the older, single teachers stayed on through the summer, as did many of the household staff, but most left, to return at the end of the summer a week or two before the students.
Kicker hadnt had a private conversation with Miss Bristow since Merricks arrival, and had no idea what the teachers plans were, though she could guess from the kitchen gossip. Sick at heart, one evening she took advantage of a lull in the constant travel between the Academy and the town to take Banner out for a ride.
She rode hard, urging the big horse to a gallop, giving him his head and letting the wind whip the tears away from her eyes as she strove for a peace that was so elusive these days. When finally he slowed to a canter, then to a walk, she wasnt surprised to see he had brought her down to the river, to a spot she and Miss Bristow had often visited.
"Aye, you know, doncha, old boy," she murmured as she slid off his back, patting his damp neck affectionately. He nuzzled her, then turned away to graze as she knotted the reins loosely over his withers and walked to the edge of the bank.
Staring at the river, Kicker reflected on the past year, wearily wondering if she would be able to stand working at the Academy once Miss Bristow married the younger Mr. Grindleshire. It would be agony to see her on his arm, his possessive, victorious smirk clear evidence that she now completely and irrevocably belonged to him.
"Like there was evr any chance..."
Kicker couldnt even put it into words. The most she had ever allowed herself to fantasize about was years of uninterrupted friendship with the teacher; of perhaps one day allowing herself to call the older woman by her Christian name when they were alone. She didnt dare dream of taking any further liberties, but even without substance, unformed desires haunted her, denying her rest and depriving her days of the harmony that had characterized them these past six years.
Lost in her thoughts and hypnotized by the turbulent water, Kicker failed to notice the sound of an approaching horse, or Banners welcoming whicker to his stable mate. When she finally sensed another horse approaching the river she spun around, only to gape at the sight of Miss Bristow on Cherrys back. Automatically she glanced past the teacher, looking for the womans inevitable companion, but there was no sign of Merrick Grindleshire.
Pulling her wits together, Kicker hurried to the teachers side, taking Cherrys reins as the woman slid to the ground.
"Is everythin all right, Miss? Am I needed back at the Academy?"
Miss Bristow looked at her almost angrily. "At the Academy? No...not at the Academy."
Uneasy at the teachers unusual demeanour, Kicker stepped out of the way, allowing Cherry to amble over to Banners side and the teacher to stride over to the riverbank.
She said nothing, merely staring into the waters that had so captured Kickers attention mere moments before. Nervously, the stable hand stood quietly to the side, fumbling for something to say and saddened at the unease that had replaced their once warm, effortless rapport.
"Um, are you alright, Miss Bristow?"
The teachers shoulders tightened and her head snapped up. Kicker took an involuntary step backwards. When the woman spoke, her voice was low, tight, and controlled.
"Alright? Yes, I suppose you could say I was fine, Kicker. Probably better than fine, really. After all, it isnt every day that a woman gets a proposal from a wealthy young man from a fine family who is obviously besotted with her, is it?"
The stable hand froze. So Merrick had finally done it. But even as the grief began to close her throat, a thought struck her. If he had proposed that evening, what was her teacher doing out here? Shouldnt she be celebrating with the Grindleshire family and her fellow teachers? Confused, Kicker shook her head, just as Miss Bristow turned to stare at her.
"What? You dont believe that Merrick Grindleshire would propose to me, my young friend? You dont think Id be a fine catch for such a gentleman?"
The words were light, but it seemed to a baffled Kicker as if the teacher were mocking herself.
"Uh, no, Miss. I think yer a real catch, and anyone would be lucky to have you."
Miss Bristow advanced on the flustered young woman, never taking her eyes from Kickers face. "Anyone? Really, Kicker? Then youd approve if someone, say...the Prince of Wales for instance was to propose a union?"
The Prince? But I thought... Well, dint Mistr Grindleshire prpose? Aloud, Kicker just mumbled her agreement, disconcerted by the intent glitter in the teachers eyes.
"So if you think Im good enough to marry a prince, then I should be good enough for just about anyoneis that what youre saying, Kicker?"
The teacher was now close enough that the younger woman could feel the warmth of her body, and smell the familiar scent of her lavender toilet water.
Kicker nodded numbly, not trusting her voice, and conscious that she was trembling.
Miss Bristows face softened and she reached out to caress Kickers face, drawing her fingers lightly over a tanned cheekbone and down a strong jaw to linger on lips that had parted unconsciously. Quietly now she asked, "And if I am good enough for those illustrious gentlemen, am I not good enough for you?"
"Fr me?" Kicker was amazed that she was able to produce even that squeak. "But, Miss, Im not...I mean Im not even fitn..."
The teacher sighed, taking Kickers head firmly in both hands. She murmured, "Yes, you are, my dearest. You most surely are..." Then she lowered her head and gave the younger woman her first kiss.
Stunned, Kicker just stood passively for a long moment, but as her lips absorbed the stunning sensation of the warm, silky, demanding mouth that covered her own, her whole body began to respond. With growing urgency, she strained against the slender woman, engulfed by a feeling that overwhelmed her. Convinced that she was seconds from bursting into flame, she was almost grateful when the teacher broke their kiss with a joyful laugh.
"I knew youd be a quick learner, Kicker. You always were my best pupil."
"No. You cant kiss me like that and still call me Miss Bristow." The teachers voice was mirthful but firm.
"Madelyn..." Kicker rolled the sound on her tongue, then grinned up into dancing eyes. "Madelyn, what about...him?"
"Let him find his own lady, my dearest. I found mine many months ago, though she was a stubborn sort and wouldnt see what lay before her very eyes."
Madelyns voice was teasing, and part of Kicker just wanted to let the unpleasantness go and return to kissing, but she had to know.
"You turnd im down, Miss...Madelyn?"
The teachers fingers had strayed, stroking Kickers shoulders and drawing a low moan as they traced a path down the strong back. When those mischievous hands tugged her shirt from her trousers and slipped underneath, Kickers eyes closed in delight. Only a tiny vestige of her stubborn nature kept her from surrendering without another word, but she forced herself to ask, "Mistr Grindleshire? What about him?"
Madelyn sighed deeply, and her hands stilled. Resting her cheek on Kickers hair, she murmured, "I suppose I do owe you the whole story, dearest." Easing her hands out from under the younger womans shirt, she took her hand and led her to the bank of the river, tugging her down to sit beside her as they dangled their feet above the waters edge.
"I suppose the long and the short of it is that Merrick asked me to marry him tonight, and I declined." She turned her head to look at Kicker. "I turned him down for several reasons, but the main one was that Im in love with another."
"Another?" For an instant, Kicker wondered if there were a man back in the city that she didnt know about, and that this had all simply been a misunderstanding.
Madelyn chuckled at the confusion on Kickers face. "You, my sweet girl. Ive been in love with you for ever so long."
"But, you spent all yer time with him. I thought you were gonna marry him fer sure," Kicker protested, even as part of her mind told her to simply shut up and accept Madelyns declaration at face value. "You evn went to the city with him."
"And his parents and twenty-two other women," Madelyn said dryly. "Initially I tried to bow out, but all the Grindleshires put pressure on me. Finally I decided it would actually be a good opportunity to take care of some matters with my familys barrister." She squeezed Kickers hand. "Besides, by then you were avoiding me and I couldnt even get you to come for a ride with me."
Kicker hung her head, studying the small eddy at the edge of the water intently. She mumbled her reply. "He was always hangin round, and I dint wanna get inna way."
"Oh, Kicker," Madelyn said sadly, "how could you think so little of me that you would think Id possibly be interested in such a pompous, tedious, simpering ass?"
Stung, Kicker shot back. "Hes rich, an handsome, and alla the other teachers are after him. Warnt hard to see he was smittn with you. Figured all he had to do was crook his fingr an youd agree to marry him."
Madelyn shook her head emphatically. "Marry him? Never! Ive no desire to become some mans chattel; to lose control over my body and mind and property; to be dictated to like some feeble minded child for the rest of my life; to never again taste the freedom that youve taught me is out there. That I should take his name, bend to his will, and go to his bed... Would you wish that for me, Kicker?"
"No, but tothers seem to want it right enuff," Kicker protested. "They was allus fallin all over him like he was kin to the Queen!"
Her voice mildly exasperated, Madelyn declared, "And Im sure that one of them will make Merrick a fine wife, but its not going to be me." Her voice lowered and softened as she continued, "I far prefer a most handsome lass, with thick, dark curls that my fingers long to get lost in; big, black eyes that look out on the world with such innocence, intelligence, and curiosity; and a mind and heart that have drawn my own from the first moment we met." She turned full around to face her companion, taking both Kickers hands tightly in her own. "I know all your objections before you even voice them, my dearest. Its not as if we can march up to Pastor Hubbles door and demand that he marry us. Nor can we even spend a night together without causing a scandal at the Academy. Its not even like society would approve of us being friends, were it not for our unique situation here."
Kicker nodded soberly. She had never dared to dream of more than friendship, but now that Madelyn had opened the gates to much greater aspirations, the impossibility of it all began to sink in. "Tis hopeless, is it not?"
She expected to be told that they would have to content themselves with stolen moments, and was startled by Madelyns next words.
"Maybe not, dearest. There may be a way, but it wont be easy." Madelyn bit her lip, and for the first time Kicker saw uncertainty on her face, but it cleared and in a resolute voice she continued, "I saw early on that Merrick had set his mind on marrying me though I tried to dissuade him, and from what I knew of him, I realized he would not take a rejection of his proposal gracefully."
She released Kickers hands and rose fluidly to her feet, pacing back and forth in the grass. The younger woman was reminded of all the times she had watched the teacher pace in front of her classroom: instructing, questioning and debating.
"The thing is, Kicker, when I turned him down tonight, I as much as ended my time here at Grindleshires. Theyll not have me back after I refused the honour of marrying their precious son and heir."
Kicker gaped at the teacher. She had not even considered that aspect, but as soon as Madelyn put it into words, she knew it for the truth. The Grindleshires, mother, father and five older sisters, had spoiled and doted on the only male scion since his birth, and would not tolerate the continued presence of any woman who had so insulted him.
Springing to her feet, Kicker stepped into Madelyns path and slipped her arms around the teachers waist. Calmly she asked, "So, what is our plan?"
Madelyn stared at her, a smile slowly beginning to cross her face. "Oh, I have chosen well, dearest. I could not ask for a truer companion, nor stouter heart in what is to be done."
Kicker appreciated the words, but she appreciated the kiss that punctuated them even more. This time they took their time, exploring each other avidly until they sank down to the grass, bodies entwined. When at long last they stilled, bodies nestled and touches lingering, they found that the long summers evening had begun to dim.
"Were gonna have to get back soon," Kicker breathed, not really wishing to move. "They might start to worry."
"I know, my love," Madelyn agreed languidly. Then her voice became urgent. "We dont have much time, though. Merrick will no doubt have told his parents by now, and Im sure Ill be summoned to Mr. Grindleshires office to be dismissed on the morn."
Reluctantly Kicker drew out of her companions embrace just enough to rise up on her elbow so that she could gaze down on the teachers face. Fighting the urge to steal another kiss, she asked again, "What is our plan?"
"When I was in my last position in London, I got involved with a group working towards womens suffrage," Madelyn began. With a wry grin she admitted, "Actually, thats why I was asked to leave my last post. The headmistress feared I might corrupt the impressionable young minds in my care."
"Youre a suffragette," Kicker asked, mildly surprised. She had heard of the movement, though it had never meant anything to her.
"Well, not lately, but I have kept in touch with several of the women I knew back then. I think one of them may hold the key to our freedom." Excitedly she sat up. "Dearest, have you ever given any thought to leaving England? To going to a new country and making a life there?"
Leave England? Leave Adam and her family and the Academy? Kicker shook her head. She had assumed that she would always live and work within a few miles of the place she had been born. "Ive barely the money to take the train to the city, Madelyn. I don know what it costs to take ship, but..."
Madelyn sat up and leaned toward her, resting her hands on Kickers thighs. "I have enough for both of us, plus a stake to get us started in Alberta, where my friend and her husband have settled. Kicker, thats what I did when I went to London. I settled my affairs, and booked us passage to Canada for later this month."
"To Canada?" Kicker was dumfounded. It had been a night of firsts for her, and now, without warning, she was being asked to uproot her whole life for this woman. For the first time she hesitated, and doubts began to creep in. A small voice reminded her that even if Madelyn had to leave the Academy, she did not, and could go on working in the stables for the rest of her life.
As always, Madelyn read her easily. "I know the magnitude of what Im asking, dearest, but think of the possibilities. Its a young land, a growing land, and part of the Empire too. It wont be easy, but the opportunities are endless for those with the courage and determination to seize them. If we find we dont like it in Canada, we can always try America. We can do whatever we want, Kicker! Just you and I, together."
Kicker shook her head. "Why dyou think itll be any easier for us to be together, even there?"
Her voice stubborn, Madelyn answered. "Because we can reinvent ourselves, my love. We can pose as sisters, and no one will question our living together. According to my friend, theres a desperate need for teachers; and your skill with horses will always be in high demand."
The younger woman mulled over her words, then raised a couple of objections. "No un will blieve were sisters. We don look alike, and we sure don talk alike. An what happens when some man sets his eye on you agin? Well have to keep movin alla time."
"Cousins, then, and well keep working on your speech. Youve already made wonderful progress," Madelyn assured her. "As for men courting me, Ill wear a ring and say my husband is a soldier on foreign duty. Hes sent me on ahead and intends to join me once his tour is done. After a suitable period, Ill get word of his passing and enter a period of mourning. Ill refuse to ever countenance any offers of marriage out of loyalty to his memory."
Kicker stared at her in amazement. "Youve got it all worked out, aint you?"
Madelyn smiled wryly. "Merrick made no bones about his intentions almost from the start, dearest. I had to think quickly."
"An you say you booked us both passage? You was that sure of me?" Kicker wasnt sure if she should feel taken for granted.
At that, Madelyns gaze dropped. "No, Kicker, I wasnt sure at all. I only hoped and prayed that you felt the same as I did." She looked up, her eyes bright even in the diminishing twilight. "If you...I mean if you dont...well, I can probably sell your ticket to someone else whos looking to book passage, but I am going, my love."
She waited quietly, giving Kicker time to think. Finally the younger woman spoke.
"I don know, Madelyn. I don know what to tell you. I do love you, but to leave all I have ever known...tis a harsh thing you ask of me."
"I know, dearest, and I would not ask it of you so quickly had we more time, but the hours grow short." She sighed. "I will try to delay my leaving one day, to give you more time to decide. If you still have not reached a decision, I will give you my address in London before I leave. If you decide to take a chance on me...on us, come to me by the twenty third, or it will be too late."
She stood, and Kicker followed. Wordlessly they walked over to the horses, which had wandered a short distance away. The ride back to the Academy was quiet, both women lost in deep thought. It was only when they had dismounted that Madelyn finally spoke.
"Whatever you decide, dearest, please know that it wont change my love for you." She turned away before Kicker could reach for her, and the young woman watched her walk towards the Academy, finally disappearing into a side door.
Numbly Kicker cared for the horses, ignoring Banners injured look at the cursory brushing she gave them both before leaving them stabled and fed for the night. Flopping down on her bed, she tried to quiet her mind and consider her decision, but wild and conflicting emotions drove her from her stifling room to the old oak tree that had so often sheltered her.
Now, snug against the trunk and staring up at the stars, she wrestled with her choices. Every time she thought she had made up her mind one way, her heart swayed her in the other direction.
Finally in disgust, she admonished herself, "Grow up, you feckless whelp! Will you hang onto yer familys coatstrings, muckin out stables for the rest of yer life whilst the woman you love sails alone to a new land? Or will you take the life she offers when you know damn well thats whatcha want?"
And as simply as that, Kicker made up her mind. She would miss Adam terribly, as well as the rest of her family, Old Thomas and Cook, but she would learn to live with their memories. If Madelyn left without her...that she didnt think she could ever learn to live with.
Cheered, she scrambled out of her haven determined to tell Madelyn that instant. Undaunted by the fact that she had only been to the teachers room once, the day she had brought her from the train station the previous year, and only long enough to deposit her trunk, she made her way unerringly to the small side door that her lover had disappeared into a few hours earlier.
Once inside the dark, quiet building, it occurred to Kicker that it would be very hard to explain her presence should any of the residents wake up and confront her, so she climbed the stairs to the top floor with deliberate stealth. On reaching the top, she listened carefully before venturing into the hallway.
The doors were all neatly labelled with their inhabitants names, but it was far too dark for Kicker to read, so she counted off until she reached the room she was pretty sure belonged to Madelyn.
For a long moment, she stood silently, staring at the door and aware she was about to cross her own Rubicon. Then the thought of the woman sleeping beyond that door drove everything else out of her mind, and drawing a deep breath, she tapped softly, hoping that Madelyn was a light sleeper.
When no one answered, Kicker began to worry that she had the wrong door, and she stepped back to count again. Just as she did, the door eased open, and Madelyn stood there. Though dressed in a white nightgown, she had none of the look of a sleeper roused. Without a word, she reached out and drew the younger woman into the room.
Once the door closed behind her, Kicker began to speak, only to feel Madelyns finger over her lips.
"Hush one moment, dearest. Let me light a lamp first."
Heeding the whispered words, Kicker held her tongue, though she longed to blurt out her news. As the lamp flared, then steadied, Madelyn turned to look at her companions face. Instantly a smile broke over her face.
"Youll come with me then?"
"Now and always," Kicker vowed, stepping forward into the arms that awaited her. Burying her face in Madelyns neck, she felt the promise of the slender arms that held her tightly.
"Wither thou goest... Oh, sweetheart, I swear to you, youll never regret this!"
Kicker pulled back a little and looked at the teacher with twinkling eyes. "Well, I couldnt let you go by yerself. Who knows what kinda trouble youd get into without me about? They might not take kindly to Byron-quotin suffragettes over there." She sobered then. "All I ask is that we go into town early enough that I kin talk to Adam before we leave. Ill not leave him without a word."
Madelyn nodded her agreement. "Whatever you need to do, well make time for, my love." She grimaced. "There was a note under my door demanding my presence in Mr. Grindleshires office immediately after breakfast." She gestured at the trunk sitting open at the foot of her bed. "Ive already packed up most of my belongings."
"Are you sad then, to be leavin here?" Kicker asked sympathetically, knowing that the mornings confrontation would not be an easy one.
The teacher cocked her head and smiled at her young lover. "Why would I be when Im taking the best part of Grindleshire Academy with me?" She shrugged a little. "Not that Im thrilled to be terminated on Merricks account, mind you."
Kicker allowed herself to indulge in a few seconds of revenge fantasies against the callow young man who had ended their idyll, then she was distracted as Madelyn tugged her over to the bed, drawing her down beside her.
Flustered, she began to protest. "Uh, Madelyn, I think Id best get back to the stables now. Twould be trouble if anyone caught me in here."
"Shhh," Madelyn soothed. "I wont rush you, my love, but rest here with me for a little while. When I went to bed this night, I didnt know if I would ever get a chance to hold you again, and I could not sleep for the fear. Just hold me a little while until I sleep, please?"
Helpless to resist, and lacking any real desire to do so anyway, Kicker quickly unlaced her boots and set them aside. Madelyn had drawn closer to the wall to make room on the narrow bed, but when the stable hand lay down, she found the lack of space well to her liking.
Resting their heads on the pillow, the softness of which Kicker had never felt the like, their heads were scant inches apart. By an unspoken alchemy, they surged together until limbs entangled and lips pressed wild demands.
Kickers whole body shook with nervous excitement, having no experience at all and little certainty what she should do next. With obvious effort Madelyn broke their kiss and stilled her hands, which had been roving under the younger womans shirt.
Breathing heavily, she dropped her head on Kickers shoulders. "Im sorry, my love. I really didnt mean to rush you. I promise Ill behave." She rose up a little and smiled down at the younger woman. "At least for now."
Depositing one last, lingering kiss on eager lips, Madelyn rolled over and snuggled back into Kickers body. The stable hand, her arms holding her lover securely, felt the moment when the older woman finally drifted off, but no sleep came for her. Her body still hummed with excitement, and although she was grateful that the teacher was allowing her to set the pace, she longed for the next opportunity to continue what they had begun that night.
When finally the first light began to illuminate the clouds, Kicker slipped out of bed, soundlessly leaving her lover with a delicate kiss as she carried her boots out of the room. Encountering no one, she made her way out of the Academy and back to the stable just as dawn broke. With a quick splash of cold water to try and wake up, she began her morning routine.
Kicker had decided that she would keep things as normal as possible until she got word from Madelyn that it was time to leave. After feeding all the horses, she indulged in a long, careful grooming of her favourite. Murmuring softly to Banner, she told him how much she would miss him, and instructed him firmly to behave himself for Old Thomas.
Her heart lurched when she finally had to set the currycomb down. Wrapping her arms around the greys neck, she hugged him gently.
"Thank you," she whispered. "Ill never forget you." Turning away, she brushed a tear from her eye, then resolutely began the walk to the kitchen for her last breakfast under Cooks affectionately bossy eye.
Sitting at the table with most of the household staff, she wasnt a bit surprised to hear that talk was already of Miss Bristow refusing Merricks proposal. The general consensus was that the teacher must be mad, but when Cook pronounced her opinion that the woman had made a wise choice, it stifled any further gossip. Kicker was grateful when the housekeeper ordered everyone to their duties. With only the kitchen staff left, she made a point of going over to Cook and thanking her effusively for breakfast.
For a moment Kicker thought shed given herself away, as Cook eyed her shrewdly, but then the large woman just laughed.
"Twasnt anything more than yeve eaten since ye first sat yer scrawny body at my table. Now be off with ye. An don ye be hidin in the hay catchin forty winks either. Ye look like a blessed raccoon this mornin, lass."
Kicker grinned, and headed for the back door. Before she reached it though, she couldve sworn she heard a gruff, "Yere welcome, lass." By the time she got back to the stable, Old Thomas was already harnessing the matched chocolate-coloured mares, Daisy and Brownie, to the large carriage.
"More runs to make tday," he commented, then raised an eyebrow as he got a good look at his stable hand. "Good Lord, girl, did you sleep at all las night?"
Kicker shook her head ruefully. "Not much," she admitted, then deflected the conversation. "So, whens the first run?" She was hoping that Old Thomas would take it so that she could be around when Madelyn came to let her know what had happened.
"Got four teachers goin in on the noon train," the stable master said, adjusting a buckle. "Word is that therell be at least one on the late train, too." He turned and looked at Kicker expectantly. "Did ya hear about yer frien, Miz Bristow?"
"I did," Kicker admitted. "It was all the talk in the kitchen. They said she turned Mistr Grindleshire down las night."
"Aye, and you can bet shell be on the late train out. Himself won be allowin her to stay after this." Finishing his task, Old Thomas came over to lean on the rail beside Kicker. They watched the spring foals gambol around the paddock as their dams grazed peacefully. "Guess youll be wantin to take her into town then?"
Kicker nodded. There was a long silence between them, a comfortable, familiar interlude between two naturally reticent people. Finally the young woman said, "You know Norman, the gardeners boy?"
"Aye, I do."
"Seems to me hed be a lot of help around here. Hes old enough now, and has a fair hand with the horses."
There was an even longer silence, but neither moved to break it, until finally Old Thomas gave a deep sigh. "Thats the way of it then, ist?"
The man nodded, his face showing little emotion. "Thought it might be." He pushed himself back. "Spose Norman will do then." He began to walk away, then added without turning around, "Won have yer touch though."
Kicker felt an overwhelming sadness that the decent old man who had given her a chance when most would not have, would be burdened by her departure. For the rest of the morning, she moved about her chores in a haze of mingled excitement, exhaustion, and sorrow for the pleasant life that was swiftly slipping away.
Old Thomas had taken the four teachers into town when Madelyn showed up at the stable. Her gait was jerky and her shoulders were rigid, as she approached the forge where Kicker was working.
The younger woman stopped hammering, and set the tongs aside as she waited.
Without preliminaries, Madelyn snapped, "Well, as expected, Ive been dismissed summarily and ordered to be out of here by evening." She drew in a deep breath, visibly struggling to calm herself.
"Im sorry," Kicker offered sincerely.
Madelyn forced a wry smile. "Well, I suppose it couldve been worse, though I couldve done without being called everything from Jezebel to the Devils temptress... Mrs. Grindleshires contribution, by the way." She shrugged. "I guess I should be grateful that Mr. Grindleshire found gumption enough to defy his wife and give me references. Perhaps theres still some decency that harridan hasnt erased in him."
Kicker longed to take the woman in her arms and soothe the pain of the injustice, but conscious of the broad light of day and her own dirty, sweat streaked body, she restrained herself.
"Ive been instructed to take the five oclock train. Apparently the Grindleshires are taking Merrick to meet the three oclock train and dont wish to run any risk of encountering me." Madelyn shook her head. "I suppose Ive become something of an untouchable."
"Not to me," Kicker said softly. The womens eyes met and memories of what had begun the previous night flared between them.
"Im counting on that," Madelyn said with quiet intensity.
Kicker nodded, barely able to speak above the thunder of her heart. "As am I."
"Walk me back?" Madelyn suggested wistfully.
Regretfully Kicker shook her head. "Best not, but Ill come and pick up your trunk at mid-afternoon, and well head into town then."
Plans made, the two separated. When Old Thomas returned from town, Kicker told him of the next departure. She offered to press Norman into service to bring the carriage back, but he gruffly refused, suggesting she might want to ride Banner while he drove the wagon. Understanding what he offered, she agreed, and hours later, cleaned up and packed, she said a silent farewell to the place that had been her home for six years as, mounted on Banner, she followed the carriage carrying Madelyn and Old Thomas out of the Academys stone gates.
They had barely turned onto the road when Madelyn suggested that she ride ahead, and go see Adam, promising to meet at the station. Within moments Kicker was flying down the road, Banner revelling in the chance to have his head. When they reached town, she slowed the horse, turning him down the road that would lead to her familys home. She knew at this hour Adam would be at their fathers smithery, and counted on seeing him there.
Her brother and father looked up in surprise when she cantered into the yard and slid off the horse.
"Kin I talk to Adam, Da?" she asked.
Her father frowned, then shrugged. "Don be long. Hes work to do."
She nodded, and her brother fell into step as they walked away from the forge, Banner trailing complacently behind them. Without preliminaries, Kicker blurted, "Im goin away."
Adam blinked. "You are? Where? When?"
"Today. To Canada."
"What! Whaddaya mean to Canada? You cant just up and sail across the ocean all by yourself," Adam insisted, his voice reflecting his astonishment.
Kicker almost laughed aloud at her brothers expression. She couldnt resist teasing him a little. "Why not? People do it every day."
"Not my little sister! What in Gods name put this foolish notion in yer head?"
Relenting, Kicker soothed, "Its not foolish, Adam. An Im not goin alone. Im goin with someone special to make a new life. We cant do that here, so we have to try someplace new."
The young mans shoulders sagged, and his sister saw the reluctant acceptance enter his eyes. "So I was right. There was someone then." A worried expression crossed his face. "Yer not in trouble, are you, Kicker?"
She laughed. "No. Well at least, not really, but we do have to leave to be together."
They had headed automatically for the creek side that had hosted so many of their talks over the years. Adam was quiet for a long time, then he asked pensively, "Is she worth it?"
Kicker nodded, not at all surprised that he knew. "You can meet her if you want to come to the station with me."
He considered that, chewing on his scraggly moustache. "Are you telling Da?"
"No, nor Ma. I thought you could tell em once Im off."
That got a wry grin. "Coward!"
She shrugged, not denying the charge.
"Well then, its up to me to meet her and make sure she knows to take care of my baby sister," Adam said seriously.
They had reached the creek, and watched as Banner waded in to get a drink. When hed had his fill, they turned back towards the house, their conversation now deliberately avoiding what was to come. Kicker left her brother to make whatever excuse he could come up with while she went into the house.
She found her mother in the kitchen, two small children hanging off her apron, while she yelled at another for spilling flour.
Mary turned in surprise. "Kicker? Whatre you doin ere mid-week?"
Kicker found her throat unexpectedly tight. "Hadda run an errand so I thought Id drop by. Howre you doin, Ma?"
Her mother waved her hand around the chaotic kitchen. "Sames always. Things never change, you know that." She snatched at a pitcher that one of the children was dangerously close to knocking over, and Kicker watched the familiar scene as her mother took her wooden spoon to the offender, who ran squalling from the room.
"Sometimes they do, Ma. Sometimes they do," she whispered. Then quickly hugging the startled woman, she dashed out of the room, trying frantically to stop the tears welling up in her eyes.
By the time she reached the forge, she was tenuously under control. Adam had saddled his horse and was waiting for her. Mounting Banner, she called out to her father, "Be well, Da."
Barely looking up, he responded, "Godspeed, Kicker. See you later."
The tears threatened to overflow again as she turned Banner out of the yard. With Adam cantering beside her, she twisted in the saddle for one last look, trying to imprint it on her memory.
"Youll carry it...and us, in your heart, Kicker," Adam said softly, a suspicious break in his voice.
"I know." At that moment, she couldnt have said more to save her life.
When they arrived at the station, Madelyn and Old Thomas were just pulling in. The stable master volunteered to go get their tickets, and Madelyn handed him the money, before turning back as Kicker made introductions.
He eyed the teacher intently, and she returned his gaze steadily. Finally he gave a quick nod, brusquely demanding, "Youll be good to her? Take care of her always?"
"I will." It was as solemn a promise as any heard in a church, and it seemed to satisfy Adam. He offered his hand, and Madelyn took it willingly. They shook firmly, sealing the vow.
"An make sure she don fergit us!" Adam added with a smile.
"She wont," Madelyn assured him, her smile equally amused. "Ill make sure she writes at least once a month.
Kicker rolled her eyes, feeling like an errant schoolgirl. Old Thomas could be seen returning from the wicket, and Adam drew her aside.
"She seems like a good un," he allowed, bestowing his blessing. "But you remember you kin always come home if you want. No shame in admittin when you made a mistake."
He looked half hopeful as he admonished her, and Kicker grinned at him.
"Maybe you and Anne will join us, Adam," she suggested mischievously. "Lots of room to raise a growin family out there. You could have land of yer own, and a buncha men workin for you, stead of slavin for Da for the nex tweny years."
She was surprised to see an interested gleam in his dark eyes, but he just pulled her into his arms. "You write n let us know where you are, soons you get there," he ordered fiercely.
Kicker buried her face in his stained tunic, breathing deeply of the sweat and forge smoke shed associated with him for so long. Now the tears ran freely, and she made no effort to stop them, hugging him with all her strength.
"Love you," she muttered, the words almost inaudible against his chest.
"Love you right back, little sister. God, you better take care of yerself, or Im going to kick yer butt all the way ta..."
"Canada?" She pulled back, a giggle breaking through the tears.
He cuffed her lightly, then let her go. "An don think I wont," he mock threatened. Then kissing her lightly on the forehead, he turned to go. Without a backwards glance, he sprang up on his horse and trotted away.
Kicker stared after him until he rounded the corner and disappeared from her view, then reluctantly she turned away, to find Madelyn and Old Thomas engaged in quiet conversation, politely facing away from the teary leave taking. Mopping her face on her sleeve, she walked over to them.
Banner was now tied to the back of the carriage, and Madelyns trunk, as well as Kickers small bag, were piled on the platform. Old Thomas handed Kicker a thin leather purse.
"Yer final wages, lass. Thought ya might have need of em."
Kicker hoped her eyes conveyed all she felt. "Thank you...for everythin."
He shrugged. Then with a nod that took in both of them, said hoarsely, "Best o luck to both of ye." Pulling himself laboriously up into the carriage, he raised his hand and gave them a sly grin.
"Nex time Im hiring one of em eunuchs!"
With a deep guffaw Old Thomas departed the station, leaving the two women gaping after him in shock. Then as he heard laughter behind him, he chuckled and told his team, "Theyll be fine, right nuff. You jus wait n see."