England Summer, 1849
Everyone called her Princess.
Gabe just called her brat.
Of course, she weren’t no princess, just a duke’s daughter, and his Da said she was a “poor wee thing” cause they kept her locked away in a schoolroom, where she learned to tally and read as though she were a bloody bookkeeper.
That’s what his Da said.
For his part, Gabe kept his gob shut, because no one knew Maggie Willingham stole away from her studies each day to come and play with him. No one ever searched for her, and Gabe supposed they must be keeping her locked away in that room because her Da simply didn’t wish to see her.
That’s what Gabe thought, cause her Da was a slimy toad, who croaked more’n he breathed.
Laying belly down on his brand-new pasteboard at the crest of their favorite hill, he peered down through the tall, swaying grass at the girl seated below.
His heart raced as he shimmied closer, parting weeds and windflowers to get a better look.
Every day they met here, same time, same place—ever since the day they’d met in that garden his father tended. He was eight years old that day, Maggie was seven, and they’d become fast friends, racing through the maze of her family’s garden and rolling beneath hedges, giggling as they escaped monstrous creatures—mostly her bellowin’ Da, with his puffed out red cheeks and nose.
But now that Gabe was thirteen... his heart was beginning to do peculiar things whenever he saw her. It beat so fiercely at times that he thought it might grow legs, burst from his chest, and run away.
And his lungs—hells bells—he could never seem to catch his breath anymore. It was happening again. Right now.
He knit his brows as he watched her, and drew in a breath, inhaling a tickly weed, only to sneeze it out again. Then he peered down the hill to see if she’d heard.
He didn’t know why he was hiding; maybe because he was afraid to face her. She was his very best friend in the whole world, and she was only a silly little girl. If his fellows ever discovered he still met with her every day, he’d never, ever hear the end of it.
He thought about leaving now—picking up his pasteboard and skulking away—until she slumped forward, and her great, heaving sobs reached his ears. Driven by concern, he lifted himself up, slapping at his clothes to relieve them of dirt, and then, abandoned his pasteboard at the thought of her distress, marching down the hill.
She was fine, he reassured himself. She’d probably only tripped over her dumb dress. Hells bells. He sorely missed the clothes she used to wear.... and even more the way they used to play together, scuffling in the dirt.
She didn’t even seem to notice him once he was standing behind her, so preoccupied was she with her caterwauling and Gabe stood awkwardly, waiting for her to look up. Was it rude to interrupt a girl while crying? His mother and sisters didn’t do much caterwauling, so he didn’t rightly know.
Used to be he might have popped her on the head and took off running. She would have run after him screaming. Now, he couldn’t even bring himself to touch her.
Her hair was so pretty, her curls artfully arranged in such a manner that even her earnest wailing couldn’t properly muss them up. He stood, mesmerized by the way the sunlight glistened over her lustrous strawberry curls, and his heart did a few more flappity-flops as he waited for her to notice he was there. All the while, he had the most disconcerting urge to sit down beside her and hug her... stroke her beautiful hair… comfort her.
It really wasn’t like her to cry. In fact, he couldn’t remember ever seeing her shed so many tears. One time, she’d scolded him for sobbing after he’d turned and run into the naked statue in her father’s maze—the one with the leaf over his man parts. Afterward, he’d grown a knot on his forehead the size of an apple, but she’d told him to grow up and boxed his ears for good measure. Devil take her, if she’d been a boy, he would have boxed her back.
But, of course, she wasn’t a boy. That fact was becoming more and more apparent by the day. Even now, his heart thumped faster, and his face grew warm as he stood waiting, wondering if he should speak up... or maybe tap her on the head just to get her attention. For the first time in all the years he’d known her, he felt like running away before she noticed him. Longingly, he gauged the distance to the crest of the hill and considered dashing back up and diving for cover behind the tall grass. But… he didn’t move; he simply stood, his feet planted to the ground. And then suddenly, she glanced up, and Gabe felt a disconcerting leap in his breast.
Watery green eyes met his blue. She gave a shriek, and he leapt back in surprise, responding with a yelp of his own. But then she didn’t move, and he thought perhaps she couldn’t get up in that stupid, awful dress.
“You scared me!” she said, and didn’t look one bit grateful for his presence.
“I... er...” He glanced away, up the hill where his pasteboard sat hidden, waiting, feeling suddenly quite timid, as though she had caught him at something he wasn’t supposed to be doing—but that didn’t make sense, cause he wasn’t doing anything at all. He’d merely wished to show her his new pasteboard... and he wanted to take her sliding, and maybe hear her gleeful giggles. Only now, the thought of being so close to her, putting his arms around her middle… it made his chest ache. “I saw you blubbering,” he said lamely.
“Well!” Her brows drew together, and her hands went to her hips. It almost eased him to see the spark of fury in her eyes. Almost, though not quite, because there was something different about the way she looked at him today.
“Well what?” he snapped, annoyed that she was staring at him as though he had a wart-covered face.
“You could have said something,” she said, and then added plaintively, “I’ve been waiting for you.” Precisely as she had without fail for the past four years, so why did that thought make Gabe feel so light-headed? Hells bloody bells.
“Well,” he countered, trying to sound more collected than he actually was. “I’m here now, aren’t I?” He swiped a damp palm across his trousers and frowned at the strange catch in his voice. “Did you... um... fall? Is that why you’re crying like a baby?”
“No.” Her voice sounded odd.
Gabe scratched his head, and asked, “Are you hot?”
He knelt beside her in the grass. “You look hot to me.”
“No.” Her eyes misted.
“Then why’s your face so red, why are you crying?”
Maggie shrugged, looking not at all like herself.
“What’s the matter, brat?” he taunted, and then, once again, fat tears slid from her lucid green eyes. Gabe sobered. “Maggie? Oh, Maggie! What’s wrong?”
She began to weep in earnest once again, casting her head into her lap, and Gabe, without a thought, sat, and scooted close to her, placing an arm around her shoulders. He lowered his head to her wet cheek and whispered against her face. “What is it, Maggie? It can’t be so awful as that.”
“Oh, but it is!” she cried, and buried her head deeper into her crossed arms. Gabe moved closer, heat rising into his face as he did so. She shrugged away in hysteria, elbowing his cheek in the process, and his face burned hotter as he realized how close he’d come. He winced but didn’t shy away. He couldn’t leave her. She smelled so nice, like her father’s roses after a gentle rain. He tried to concentrate on her words but couldn’t manage.
“Don’t you understand?”
Gabriel blinked. God only knew, he didn’t. He hadn’t heard a single word she’d said. And what was more, he didn’t even recognize his own body—or his voice—or even the girl he’d known so long. He rubbed at his cheek to ease the sting from her elbow.
“I will never see you again,” she exclaimed. “Never! Don’t you understand?”
Good grief, she was even beginning to act like a silly girl. “Hells bells, Maggie,” Gabe said, reasoning with her. “You see me every day.”
“Not anymore,” she said brokenly, and she shook her head sadly, sobbing as she lifted her gaze.
Gabe frowned. He understood she was telling him something important, but he couldn’t concentrate on her words with those sweet green eyes focused on him so intently.
“My father says never again—oh, Gabe!” she cried so woefully. “He says I will never see you again, and he’s going to make your papa send you away.”
Her words registered at last.
Gabriel blinked. “Send me away?” She nodded, her cheeks rosy and streaked with tears. He felt the blow of her words like a fist to his gut. “Why?”
“Because he says ’tis unseemly I should play with you—a boy—and if your papa wishes to remain employed here at Blackwood, he must send you far, far away.”
Gabe felt numb. There was a roiling in his gut. “But… where would I go?”
She shrugged. “Away to school, I believe.” Her brows slanted sadly. “He says your papa will do it because he knows what’s best.”
Gabe sank from his knees to his bottom and said, “My Da would never send me away.” But even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t so. His Da had seven mouths to feed, including his own, and he would always do whatever it took to be certain the entire family was safe and sure. If the duke of Blackwood meant to send Gabriel away... away Gabe would go.
He stared for the longest while at the windflowers dancing with a gentle breeze. “When?” he asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” she said, and then she threw her arms about Gabriel, embracing him. “Oh, my dearest, Gabe!”
“Hells bells,” he said quietly, and sat, confused by a barrage of emotions he couldn’t begin to untangle. He thought perhaps he loathed her father, but he wasn’t about to say so.
He put his arms about Maggie, returning her embrace, uncertain whether the tears that stung at his eyes were for the family he knew he would leave very soon... or for the best friend he didn’t think he could live without.
Together, they sat, for a long, long while, embracing, and Gabe didn’t feel the least bit ashamed for the peck he bestowed on her cheek.
She peered up at him, green eyes glistening with tears, and Gabe looked down into that face he knew so well and simply stared, memorizing the contour of her face, the curve of her lips, every freckle on her nose.
She’d been his best friend for more than five years, his confidant, his playmate. And now he realized with a terrible jolt that he was losing her... and in his heart he’d begun to think of her as something more.
“Promise you won’t forget me,” she implored, tears spilling from his face onto his shoulders and sleeves.
“I promise,” he said. And he meant it with every fiber of his soul. He plucked a windflower, then pressed it into Maggie’s hand. “Promise you won’t forget me either, Maggie.”
She hugged him tight. “I Promise,” she said.
His senses reeled. The scent of her teased him. The feel of her hair, sticking to his face with her tears, the softness of her cheek again his own… it dizzied him. “I… I... I love you,” he said, with a bewildered sense of self-discovery.
“I…I… love you, too,” she said in return.
And together they sat, merely embracing when words were too difficult to speak.
Someday, he would come back for her. Someday, he would be good enough—not merely a gardener’s son.