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Ours is just a little so.., p.1
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       Ours Is Just a Little Sorrow, p.1

           Gwen Hayes
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Ours Is Just a Little Sorrow

  Copyright © 2012 by Gwen Hayes

  Ours is Just a Little Sorrow

  First Edition

  All Rights Reserved.

  Photo credits to Lilystox at DeviantArt

  This book is a work of fiction.

  For Shane

  THE FIRST time I ever laid eyes on Colonel Malcolm Winston, he was purchasing me at a private sale arranged for his convenience.

  The brass of his buttons shone like stars against the navy of his uniform as he pointed his walking stick at me lazily, as if he were already bored with the duty. A sneering bulldog carved from ivory, or perhaps bone, topped the cane. The Colonel shook it a little harder at me, in another impatient gesture, when nobody made a move quick enough to his liking.

  Mrs. Witherspoon inclined her head in acquiescence and gestured me back into the line with her sharp gaze. I jerked into place beside the others. The blood rushed to my cheeks in a hot wave, and then absented them just as quickly, leaving me weak from its sudden change of course. Why had he chosen me? All five of us were outfitted in the same dark gray gowns. Our hair done in the same practical shape. Our boots all the same shabby, well-worn leather. What had set me apart from the other four?

  "She'll do," he said gruffly.

  I didn't raise my eyes to his again, but I could feel his scrutinizing gaze on me as if he were touching me with embers from a fire. Instead, I stared at the scuffed planks of the floor.

  My life would forever change because I would do.

  My valise was already packed when I returned to our sleeping quarters. It hadn't been my valise an hour ago, of course, as I never had reason to pack my meager belongings before. I hadn't slept a night away from Witherspoon Academy of Fine Ladies of Suitable Nature since I'd been brought there at the age of six. I had no family, save my academy sisters, and I was loath to leave them, even the bratty ones. I always knew this day would come, and yet somehow, I felt so unprepared for it.

  The dormitory already seemed like a memory, even as I stood in it. Nothing in the room had changed in twelve years, save the girls that came and went. The beds lined one long wall, serviceable and plain, yet always comfortable and clean. The academy had been a haven, even if it had been an oppressive one.

  Shelby, my dearest friend, sent me a watery smile as we found my bag far more ready to leave than I was. Bless her. I would miss that face and those round spectacles. Shelby was my age, according to the records, but she always seemed younger. Perhaps it was the reluctance of the baby fat to leave her cheeks, but I suspected it was the childlike innocence that clung to her despite the harsh lot she'd been given.

  "I suppose the Colonel is waiting," Shelby said. Alongside the tremor, there was a hint of something else in her voice. Wonderment maybe. It must have occurred to her that it might have just as easily been her leaving this time.

  I nodded and reached for one last hug. "I won't forget you, Shelby. If given the occasion to, I will write you as often as I can."

  "Oh, Violet," she cried. She squeezed hard, threatening injury to my ribs. As we pulled away from the embrace, Penelope slid around the corner through the doorway, breathless and sweating.

  "A governess," she blurted on a loud exhale from her exertion. "I found the file on Witherspoon's PEAD. The Colonel is here only for a governess."

  "Oh, thank God," Shelby said, dangerously close to swooning.

  I didn't want to know how Penelope had once again cracked the password on Mrs. Witherspoon's Personal Engine Analytical Device; I was just so very glad she'd been able to. Penny had never met a difference engine she couldn't hack. A hazardous and unseemly talent, and yet one that had benefited me more than once.

  A governess. That I could do. Relief claimed my lungs, forcing out a sigh.

  Witherspoon's Academy of Fine Ladies of Suitable Nature had always been intended to provide its clients with exemplary governesses or ladies' companions. The last two of our sisters, however, were sold as brides. We'd been trained for that, too, of course. The thought was daunting just the same. Mrs. Witherspoon hadn't been happy about it, but the market had dictated that she often make difficult choices.

  While nobody especially liked Mrs. Witherspoon and her pinched expressions, we all respected her. She never put what was best for one above what was best for the school. I'd never been asked to make a sacrifice that didn't benefit all my sisters, the current and future ones.

  And because of Mrs. Witherspoon's hard decisions, I was about to embark on a life far different than the one I'd have had without the help of the good citizens of New Geneva. The children of my own planet, Earth, fought hard to chisel a life that ended at an average age of five and twenty. Their existence was one of hunger and violence, while I had grown up with a full belly and clean sheets.

  And now, I was to make my way in the world armed with an education of quality, an education that was not only of books, but lessons in practicality as well. I owed the irritable Mrs. Witherspoon, whose lack of husband made the "Mrs." part of her name dubious at best, more than I could ever repay.

  The girls lined the hall outside the dormitory for farewells. Shelby did not join them; our goodbye was private and tearful. My duty to my other sisters was quite different. I was already changed. No longer one of them, I needed to project an attitude of a calm lady, not an emotional schoolgirl. It was for them that I soldiered my spine and remained polite, but slightly aloof, as I bid them farewell one last time. I did not want to leave them worried or anxious of their own future, though I was terrified of my own.

  At the end of the line, Mrs. Witherspoon looked down her hawk nose at me for a long moment. In her gaze, I glimpsed the woman, not the headmistress, and I was grateful for the short connection.

  She nodded briskly. "Very well, Miss Merriweather."

  And that was that.

  Mrs. Witherspoon accompanied me to the door. Outside a pneumatic hover taxi waited. I was surprised, as I had expected the Colonel would have saved the money and ensconced me in the coach with him. It seemed an extravagant waste to send two carriages to one address. Perhaps he thought I needed a little time alone to acclimate myself to my new life and position. Maybe he had no interest in being cooped up with me for the long trip. Likelier, he felt I wasn't important enough to ride in his own coach.

  It mattered not. I chose to be grateful for the time alone. There was never much opportunity to be singularly alone at the academy. Often, I would stay awake long into the night just to hear myself think.

  The coachman barely waited for me to buckle my harness before we were in motion. Even at the speed that I'm sure at times doubled the legal limit, it still took more than an hour to reach our destination. As we climbed altitude, higher and higher, there were fewer and fewer signs of civilization. In the middle of nothing it seemed, the coachman stopped the vehicle at a black iron gate almost hidden in the brush. We sat motionless while a robotical avian left its perch on one of the spires and flew around the taxi, stopping like a hummingbird in front of each window. Its copper "feathers" made a tiny mechanical grinding noise as it flapped its wings. Its beady red eyes relayed our electromagnetic optical images to someone on the other side of the gate who would decide whether or not we were welcome.

  I half-hoped we were not.

  As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I discounted it and chided myself. How foolish to be put off my future by a flying automaton. Just the same, I didn't like its red-devil eyes.

  The gate opened slowly to a forest. A rather dense forest. The coachman groaned at the sight of the very narrow and twisting path before us. The further we ventured, the fewer the aether gaslamps became, and the darker our environment grew. As we had to travel at reduced speed to stay on the path, I had more
opportunity than I wished for to watch my surroundings. The trees held secrets and they whispered to each other in the rustling of leaves. The avian automaton followed us as if we were being herded. I wondered if it had other uses, besides spying. Perhaps it was also a weapon to be used against those who didn't wish to be herded. I imagined sharp lightning bolts striking me from those horrible red eyes.

  At last we came to a clearing, and there, obstructing views to all else, loomed an imposing castle with angry turrets poking the sky. There were too many raw angles and too much rock. It seemed like teeth of a huge creature more than a home. My new home, it would seem.

  As the coachman help me to the ground, a bitter wind kicked up a prickling message of warning wherever it touched my skin. I shivered, but thrust out my chin with fortitude and marched up the steps. I would not be deterred by childish fears. The wind could not hurt me unless I chose to let it signify something nefarious.

  A tall, lanky servant opened the door and directed a footman to retrieve my valise from the coachman. The butler, I assumed, introduced himself as Oliver and showed me to a salon where I might take refreshment whilst I waited. Waited for what, I didn't know, for Oliver was less than communicative. He walked slowly, his droopy Basset hound eyes staring straight ahead. I believed he was the most depressed person I had ever met, and I grew up in an orphanage.

  Despite the serious nature of the castle's exterior and its butler, the salon was welcoming. Though heavy drapes were pulled against the sun, many lamps burned from wall sconces and table tops, corded by tubes glowing with liquideous aether. The clean scent of lemons fragranced the air, a testament to the highly polished gleam of every surface. On the mantel, several framed lithographs changed their image on a loop. Mesmerized, I watched the ancestors of the Colonel flash by, one after the other.

  "If you happen across one with two young boys baring their bottoms at the lake, I can assure you I will never tell you which bottom belongs to me."

  At the sound of the male voice, I turned abruptly towards the door.

  The young man was, perhaps, five years my senior, dressed impeccably, and smiling at me with a slightly incorrigible, but mostly pleasant fashion. He bowed politely, and I returned with an automatic curtsy. As he continued his entrance into the room, his smile grew warmer, as did my cheeks. Good heavens, he was quite the figure of a man.

  "Aren't you going to ask?" he wondered.

  "Ask what, sir?"

  "Which bottom belongs to me?"

  I am sure my face matched the red velvet drapery, but as was my way, I didn't let embarrassment hinder forward progress. "Unfortunately, good sir, I hadn't had the fortune of coming upon that particular image as of yet."

  He stopped right in front of me. His eyes were a beautiful shade of blue, like the skies on a cloudless day. "Welcome to Thornfield Abbey. Are you the new governess, then?"

  I curtsied again. "Violet Merriweather. I am pleased to make your acquaintance."

  "I'm John Winston, the Colonel's son." He smiled again, his face obviously used to the action, so unlike his father's.

  Goodness. My heart pattered much too hard. Were I given to swooning and fainting, I should have required salts. Instead, I returned his easy smile. "Surely, you are not my new charge?"

  John Winston barked with an unexpected laugh. "Alas, no. It is my younger brother in need of chaperonage."

  Another voice joined us then. A deeper, richer voice, laced with a sardonic quality I didn't believe John could possess. "Indeed, that I am."

  Leaning against the jamb, a young man leered at us before he drank from the amber liquid in his glass. From across the room, it was apparent that his clothes were quality, like John's, but the stranger wore them with a disheveled grace. His white shirt was not fastened all the way, exposing far more of his throat than was proper. His jacket was slung over his arm, and a cravat hung loose and undone around his neck. His hair, darker than midnight, was shrubbed about as if he'd recently left his pillow.

  He straightened and bowed like John had, only it seemed the opposite of courteous. His eyes held mine in challenge as he inclined his head and body, and as my body responded in a curtsey by habit, I somehow felt judged for it being so rote. As if my well practiced manners were an affront to him.

  "Miss Merriweather," John said tightly. "May I present to you my younger brother, Gideon Winston, as he darkens the door way." John seemed resigned, as if an introduction were a bad idea. "Gideon, this is Violet Merriweather, the new governess."

  Gideon crossed the room in a graceful gliding fashion, and I imagined suddenly that he would be a wonderful dancer. He reached for my hand and kissed the inside my wrist just above the line of my glove while he stared into my eyes like he was daring me.

  My pulse skittered madly from the shock of his lips on my bare skin. I wished for the first time that I were the swooning type, anything to end this wild moment that seemed to stretch longer and longer, pulling me into an abyss of feeling I didn't understand. His eyes were blue also, but not like the day lit skies of John's eyes, rather the color of the ocean at storm. And that storm was thrashing me about, pushing me under the waves of Gideon's making. He seemed to understand his power over me, for at that moment he winked and dropped my hand as if it had never happened.

  "Certainly you are not my charge either," I stammered, resisting the urge to rub my still tingling wrist.

  "No, Miss Merriweather," John said, his voice like a life preserver in the tumultuous seas I'd been treading. I clung to the rope of his words and let him reel me back to safety. "Though Gideon could use a chaperone more than anyone I know, it is our youngest brother, Phillip, who will require your services. He's to turn five next month."

  Briskly nodding, my pulse slowed and my breath returned to a natural cadence. I stood like the tip of a triangle between the two brothers, each so different from each other, and though I was reluctant to believe in such things, a sense of foreboding settled into my bones as they looked first at each other and then to me. I should not like to find myself in this geometric position, but I felt hopeless to stop what seemed so inevitable. It was as if we were all aware that our future was being written in that moment, and we were all powerless to fight the furious quill.

  AS IF SENT from God or the devil himself to break the tension filled moment I was sharing with the brothers Winston, a whirling dervish of what I assumed was young master Phillip, spun through the room chasing an aero-winged flyer that had gotten free from his control.

  "Ho there!" John cried as he ducked just in time to avoid serious head injury. "I say, Phillip, turn that thing off."

  "It won't listen," Phillip complained, holding aloft the metal box of gears that should have controlled the flight.

  John raced to the flyer while Gideon beckoned me to join him as he dashed to the pianoforte. He pushed me under first and then took shelter next to me. We watched the show while John tried to catch the aeroship. He tagged it once with an athletic jump into the air, but the toy eluded his grasp while maintaining a now dodgier flight owing to its bent wing.

  The aeroship turned on Phillip then, so I waved him to our hiding spot. It chased him all the way to the pianoforte, until he dove into our nook. Gideon snatched the box from him while I tucked the young boy into my side protectively.

  "Who are you?" he asked.

  I looked into his sweet face and fell into instant adoration. He had Gideon's eyes and dark hair, but his quick toothless grin reminded me instantly of John. The brothers Winston definitely knew how to entangle a girl quickly.

  "I am your new governess, Phillip. You may call me Miss Merriweather in the company of others, but you will likely call me a bitter, hissing crone when you are alone for I intend to make you study very hard and become a great man."

  The aeroship whizzed by us once more, making a sick choking sound.

  Phillip smiled at me. "I don't like reading, but maths and art ain't so bad."

  "They aren't so bad," I corrected.

; At that moment, the flying toy crashed into a display of vases just as a voice boomed from the doorway. "What is the damned ruckus?"

  Phillip shrank into my side a little deeper while John explained to the Colonel the happenstance we'd found ourselves, pausing while he trapped the ship against the wall. The Colonel glared in turn at each of us. It perhaps wasn't the best first impression of a governess to find her crouching under one's pianoforte, but then again, it could be said that it was his own fault for not interviewing me properly.

  Not that I had any intention of telling him that.

  The Colonel's face was mottled red and he seethed unhappily while John took apart the toy with a tool he had in his pocket. I wondered why he carried such a tool with him, whether this kind of occurrence was, perhaps, not unusual.

  To my relief, the Colonel left the room, containing his rage to one slam of the door. The ornate tick-tocker on the wall began to play its chimes to signify it was tea time. I crawled from my spot, dismayed that not one of the Winstons offered me assistance. I sat on my knees and looked over my shoulder to Phillip.

  "Phillip, when you find yourself hiding under a pianoforte with a lady, it is customary to stand first and then offer a hand to help her rise."

  While Phillip scrambled from the nook to do his duty, Gideon smirked at me. "Customary, you say, Miss Merriweather? Do ladies hide under pianofortes often then?"

  I ignored his pithy remark and allowed young Phillip to be a gentleman, though I could have used a little more heft than he had to offer. John barely registered our movement, so intent on fiddling with the aeroship that I think he'd quite forgotten the rest of us were in the room.

  Since there seemed to be no Mrs. Winston about, I rang for tea, pulling the long tasseled cord. I sat as if nothing were amiss, though I felt the pins sliding through my hair awkwardly releasing my twist. What a day I'd already had.

  John absently took a seat, still distracted by the mechanisms of the broken toy. Like John, Gideon also took a seat, but unlike John, there was nothing absent about his motions. He was far too intense, I decided. The way he watched me waiting for tea made me nervous.

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