Fauquier County, Virginia Colony
“Can you keep a secret?”
Anna Asbury looked up from stirring a kettle of simmering blackberry preserves to where her older brother, Joseph, stood in the kitchen doorway, sawdust clinging to his hair and clothes.
She set down the wooden spoon. “You know I can. Is the secret the truth of when you and Benjamin will finish readying my house? If it be, I hope the answer is ‘before the wedding.’”
“O ye of little faith! I’m stung.”
“Then what news? Please don’t make me guess.”
“Ben held me to my honor not to give it away, but since you doubt my ability to keep to a schedule, I’ll tell you this: he and I are nearly done with the repairs. Thomas also came to help today, now that the last of the orchard harvest is in.” He chuckled. “Thomas has been a good friend to me, and will make you a fine brother-in-law, but his clowning and funny tales slowed the work, so we sent him out on an errand. The house has everything you asked for: a new roof, a stout door, windows, and a chimney that draws. If you’d like to bring some more of your things over, you can inspect my craftsmanship for yourself.”
“I’d love to. It’s to be my house in two weeks, and I’ve barely set foot inside it.” She swung the cast iron hook that held the kettle away from the flames so it could simmer unattended. “I’m ready now.”
“You might want to put on a fresh kerchief before we go.”
She glanced down and frowned at a bright purple stain on the white gauze. “That I will, but I’m not the only Asbury who’s a mess at the moment. Mother and Aunt Jean will have a fit if you track all that sawdust inside.”
He made a show of brushing off his broad shoulders before he crossed to the hearth and dipped up a spoonful of the fragrant preserves. Forgetting that she was nearly twenty, Anna made a face at him. They both burst out laughing, and she hurried from the room.
In the chamber she shared with her mother, Anna put on a clean kerchief, set the stained one to soak, and to her relief, found no other errant splashes of preserves on her gown. The saffron-yellow woolen with narrow indigo stripes was her favorite. She loved the way the stripes met in a chevron pattern at the center of the bodice front, and how the polonaise overskirt draped back over the solid blue petticoat beneath. She checked her reflection in the looking glass to make sure her face was clean and her mahogany-colored curls were neatly subdued inside her cap.
While preparing her trousseau, she’d stitched the bed linens, towels, coverlets, and the quilted counterpane that were now tied in an old sheet and lying on her trunk. She hefted the bundle into her arms, and when she returned to the kitchen, Joseph took it from her and slung it over his shoulder while she put on her cloak.
Most of the roads that wound through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural northern Virginia were little more than dirt paths dotted with stumps and boulders, so it was faster and easier to travel on horseback, or even on foot, than by wagon. Anna saddled Nelly, a roan three-year-old that was a recent addition to her uncle’s stables, while Joseph secured her bundle behind his saddle. The house that was soon to be hers stood on a rise overlooking fields and orchards that had once belonged to the elder Thomas Stone. Now, Thomas and Benjamin, his two oldest sons, worked their adjoining lands together. The dressed-log structure, though sound, had been unoccupied for some time.
As they drew near, she could see her husband-to-be up on the ladder that leaned against the gable end of the house. Throughout their courtship, most of their time spent together had been at church, family gatherings, or other social functions, and now her pulse quickened at the sight of him alone, working bareheaded and coatless with his sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Instead of sawdust, his homespun shirt and breeches showed smudges of the mud-and-straw daubing he was using to fill the gaps between the logs and make the house weather tight.
He turned at the sound of their approach, and his smile lit up his tanned face when he saw her. He jumped off the ladder, wiped his hands on a rag, and pushed a lock of dark hair off his forehead before helping her down. His hands lingered at her waist for longer than was proper, and she let him steal a kiss as soon as Joseph’s back was turned.
Joseph gave the gable end of the house a critical look. “Did you get more mud on yourself than on the walls?”
Benjamin released Anna and threw the rag at him with a grin. “Ah, you malign me when you neglect to tell her I’ve been wearing these same work clothes for a week.”
Joseph caught the rag and stuffed it into his pocket. “My apologies. You’re the neatest dauber I’ve ever seen. Ever. That’s the truth of it.”
Benjamin lowered his voice as he took her arm and put his head near hers. “I don’t mind doing the lowly tasks and leaving the fine work to Joseph. I want our home to please you, and your brother’s master trained him well.”
While Joseph carried in her bundle of linens, Benjamin led Anna around the outside of the house to show off the two windows, sparkling-clean, their mullion frames painted a deep brick red. He ran a hand over one of the squared-off logs in the wall. “It’s not as grand as you’re used to, but in a year or two, we’ll be able to side it and paint it, like Thomas and Betsy’s house.”
“A grand house does not always make for the most pleasant home.” She gave his arm a gentle squeeze to get his full attention. “Joseph’s mention of a secret has piqued my curiosity. What is it?”
He shrugged noncommittally, but a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
She tried to wheedle it out of him with a sideways glance and a pretty pout. “Where did Thomas go on his errand?”
“This day, my older brother may prove to be as useful as yours.” He would volunteer nothing more.
Joseph came back out, and Anna saw him flash Benjamin a questioning look. Benjamin shook his head slightly, and, turning his attention back to her, gestured toward the open door. “Allow me to show off your brother’s carpentry skills.”
Golden autumn sunlight streamed into the room, and as she stepped over the threshold, Anna inhaled the tangy scent of the fresh lumber used to repair the roof.
The ceiling was newly whitewashed between the heavy, dark beams, and she could tell the stones in the fireplace and the floor around the hearth had been scrubbed until years’ worth of soot stains were barely visible. Her small collection of copper pots and pans gleamed from their hooks on the wall near the wide hearth, where a three-legged iron spider and a roasting spit were ready for use. The trestle board stood in the middle of the room, chairs pulled up on either side. A pitcher of late-blooming fire wheel daisies, goldenrod, and bittersweet in the center made a bright, cheerful splash of orange and yellow.
She eagerly inspected the dish dresser that had been left behind by the house’s last tenants. Joseph had sanded and oiled it until it gleamed, and placed it under the narrow stairs that led to the loft. The pewter plates and bowls that were part of her dowry were neatly stacked on the shelves, and their set of six knives, forks, and spoons in the drawer.
From that corner, her eyes lingered on the bedstead on the far side of the fireplace. The straw mattress and feather bed were already in place with two plump pillows against the headboard, and wanted only for the bedding she’d brought with her. For now, this room would serve as living, dining, and bedchamber. She nodded her approval. “It is just enough, and soon it will be ours. The flowers do brighten the room.”
“Betsy sent them over with Thomas.” He shut the door and put his hands on her shoulders, gazing down at her with an intensity that puzzled her. “In that yellow gown, you brighten this place more than any blossom ever could.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Thank you, kind sir. You’re very good at avoiding my question. A moment more and I shall be vexed. Tell me--what is the secret Joseph spoke of?”
“We can be married today.” He spoke in a rush, and tightened his grip on her shoulders.
The energy communicated in his touch sent a thrill through her, and the color rose in her cheeks. “What haste when everything’s arranged? The priest has agreed to perform the ceremony at my uncle’s house, and has announced the banns in church once already. It’s just two more weeks to wait.”
“But Brother Craig will marry us in the Baptist faith. When I asked you to be my wife, I thought we’d be forced to have a priest we’d never met conduct the ceremony. Craig will break the law for us if we go to him now, in secret. It will make being married even sweeter, knowing that we’ve not had to compromise our convictions to see it done.”
When she cast her eyes down for a moment to think, he brushed off his shirt and hastened to add, “I brought a clean set of clothes, in case you consented.”
She smiled at his concern for the details, and raised her chin to meet his gaze. “You know I share your desire to be married in our chosen faith, but tell me true. Is this act of nuptial defiance your idea, or your brother’s?”
“Indeed, ‘twas Thomas who forged the plan.” He ran his hands down her arms, and they came to rest at her waist as he spoke close to her ear. “But now that you’re here, I find I scarce can wait another day, or even another hour, to make you my wife.”
His warm breath on her cheek sent a frisson down her spine. She watched his chest rise and fall, and dropped her gaze again, this time to suppress the urge to let him kiss her. Her heart was pounding so that, with any small encouragement, their wedding and bedding could end up occurring in the wrong order.
He went on earnestly. “Thomas would have done the same if he’d thought of it before he and Betsy were wed. They and Joseph will be our witnesses, and Brother Craig’s tobacco barn will serve as the chapel. That is, if you agree. Will you?”
Rather than admit she’d already warmed to the idea, she tilted her head as though still considering. “So, Mister Stone, let me understand. You would marry me to make a political statement? Am I but a pawn?”
He pretended to be affronted. “My dear Miss Asbury, you are no pawn, but a queen, for indeed, you make me want to take risks. For you, I would defy the Crown, the priest, and your mother—not necessarily in that order—to marry you and begin our lives together as we choose. Now, what say you? Will you be Missus Stone before the day is out?”
His lips touched hers, gently at first, then with a growing urgency that left her breathless. When his hands slid up from her waist, she pulled away, touching a finger to his lips to check him.
“What will my mother and my uncle say when they find out we have gone against their wishes? Mother won’t be able to hold her head up if our union is not recorded in the courthouse register. You know they’ll refuse if we’re married by other than the parish priest.”
He caught hold of her fluttering hands. “What does any of that matter as long as we know God smiles on us? The government should have no role in a marriage, but as long as the King is head of the Anglican Church, every dissenter who wishes to wed in Virginia is under the government’s boot heel.
“Be my partner in this fight, Anna. Together we’ll strike a blow for liberty, so someday our children will be allowed to think, to speak, and to worship as they please under the full protection of the law.”
She looked down at the sun-browned hands that clasped hers so passionately, and nodded. “Yes.”
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