Excerpt from Samantha's Secret

Charles Town, South Carolina – 1782
     As night fell upon Samantha McAlester's herb garden, she cringed as barks of laughter interspersed the hum of her party guests' conversation, increasing in volume along with the flow of wine. The harvest celebration seemed at odds with the tension permeating the town. Standing on the steps of the white-washed gazebo, draped in dormant climbing rose vines, she hesitated to follow two of her closest friends, Amy Abernathy and Benjamin Hanson, as they strolled away from her, arm in arm down the crushed seashell and pea gravel path toward the tables laden with a variety of foods. So much had happened over the past year, month, even day, she couldn't imagine what more awaited in the near future as the fight for America's independence ended in victory.
     The gazebo nestled at the back of the garden, the site of numerous tea parties with her dear friends, Amy and Emily. Benjamin escorted Amy down the path, newly engaged to each other as of mere minutes ago, his hand possessing hers where it lay on his crooked arm. His skirmish with renegade loyalists earlier in the morning resulted in his left arm in a sling from a gunshot wound to his shoulder, his slightly bowed carriage revealing pain plagued him. She'd mix up some pain relief simples for him to take home after the feast. And definitely keep a close watch on his condition. Her reputation as a healer was at stake, especially now that young Dr. Cunningham had arrived in town.
     "They're so perfect for each other." Emily Sullivan smoothed a wrinkle from one elbow-length white glove. "Who could have guessed she and I would be betrothed so soon after our clandestine tea and joint vow."
     "Who indeed." Samantha tossed her head, her ebony locks settling between her shoulders.
     So much had changed in such a short period of time. Last month the three friends had made a vow to remain unmarried. Now both Amy and Emily were making wedding plans for the end of the holiday season, a joint affair on Twelfth Night.
     "At least you have managed to stay faithful to your promise." Emily's teeth shone in the light from the many hanging lamps decorating the edges of the gazebo. "And if Frank hadn't protected my reputation in that duel, I'd never have let him convince me of his affection."
     "He could have died for your honor, too." Samantha scanned the crowd mingling in the open space between the bushes and plants and strolling the many winding paths through the garden. "Speaking of whom, someone appears to be seeking you out."
     Emily's smile widened. "It's about time for your speech, so I'll just go with Frank and…"
     "Right. You two should find a good place to watch. Go on." Samantha shooed her friend toward the tall blond man striding purposefully toward where the ladies conversed.
     Frank Thomson appeared at Emily's side, taking her hand in his with a smile and a nod of greeting to Benjamin and Amy. Emily had once vehemently declared she would never marry. Samantha permitted her lips to curve into a smile, having anticipated that the two cousins would succumb to the desires of the men accompanying them.
     Her guests included all of her family and her friends as well as the new lawyer and a few merchants she'd not been introduced to yet. The invitation list had not changed much over the years. Her parents had held a harvest feast each November for the past ten years, war or no war. This garden, replete with medicinal herbs and flowers, soothed her chaotic thoughts and turmoil of emotion. Mingled scents of jasmine and rosemary tickled the noses of the throng of guests. Her father had bowed to her midwife mother's demands to forego the typical small decorative garden most people in town had added to surround their two-story piazzas. Instead, they created an extravagant oasis of flowers, bushes, and trees. She pulled her silver shawl around her shoulders, her midnight blue skirts swishing against the wooden floor of the gazebo when she pivoted to peruse the happy group milling amongst the plants she could identify by name and medicinal purpose.
     Samantha remained to carry on alone in this vow of remaining unmarried. A sigh wiggled from her before she could suppress it. The past must remain so even as she faced an uncertain future.
      Despite being late November, the evening air remained soft and welcoming after the tragic events of the day. Her gaze drifted to the stars emerging to surround the crescent moon hanging in the sky. The heavenly stars beckoned, guiding her healing endeavors as much as her day to day activities. She glanced to the dark bedroom window, imagining Amy's sister Evelyn and her infant sequestered and tearful over the death of the little boy's father earlier in the morning. Tomorrow would be soon enough to discuss the widow's plans.
     Tonight, in this candlelit garden, Samantha intended to enjoy a respite from the tension and horror of the occupied town and the rampant violence across the countryside. Her neighbors, her friends, fellow patriots all, had gathered to celebrate as they did every year, even though the repast proved less than what they enjoyed before the war and the British occupation of Charles Town. She shook off the feeling of sadness, determined to focus on the approaching evacuation by the Britons, once the unusually active hurricane season ended and they could safely navigate out of the harbor.
     Tonight bespoke the times. The strange blend of horror and hope pervading the days and nights. This morning the three friends barely escaped with their lives when renegade loyalists attacked Evelyn's home. Tonight a celebration. She would not lie and say she'd miss Walter, not after his abuse and, she suspected, attempted poisoning of Evelyn. The stomach cramps and pangs Evelyn agonized through completely vanished after Emily assumed responsibility for the cooking at the country home. Walter only reluctantly admitted the three ladies to invade his dwelling to care for his wife during her travails and lying in. He said he would die protecting his wife and property. And so he did. His death had not been for nothing.
     She eased down the steps, bracing herself on the hand rail to prevent her injured leg from failing her. Despite her best efforts, the limb was not as strong as she'd like. No falling down among her guests and embarrassing herself. The puncture wound where the thorny stick had pierced through her thigh days ago would eventually heal, no thanks to the tumble she took followed by the forced march by the renegades. If not for Amy standing up to the loyalists, she may well have had to fend for herself, drag herself up the steep bank bathed in pine needles and back to Evelyn and Walter's home. All before a mountain lion or other wild animal happened upon her. Thank goodness they'd all made it safely back to town. She forced her thoughts to the present, ignoring all the pain and anguish of the previous forty-eight hours.
     "Samantha, we're ready for the toast," Amy called to her from across the open garden.
     "Coming." Samantha sped up her pace, rehearsing her little speech as she limped along the seashell path reflecting the moonlight.
     From a side path, her parents strolled toward her, arm in arm. They carried flutes of wine like candlesticks against a dark night. Aaron's burly frame dwarfed his petite wife, Cynthia. They each sported gray in their otherwise dark heads of hair, brought on no doubt from the tension in town. With the Britons preparing to leave, they had become more and more withdrawn from her. She wondered at the change but had yet to discover the cause.
     "My darling, you look beautiful this evening." Her father stopped before her and glanced at her mother. "Don't you agree?"
     "Yes, of course." Cynthia sipped her wine, cutting off any further comment she may have made.
     "Thank you. I'm so pleased the weather cooperated so we could enjoy the garden tonight." Samantha skimmed the mingling crowd. "Another week and it will be too chilly to entertain out of doors."
     "Indeed, indeed." Aaron's smile faded as he scanned the area, finally focusing on the two-story home. "This house has served us well for many years. It would be hard to find another as fine."
     Samantha darted a look at her father, then noted her mother's harsh glance and quick squeeze of his arm. "It is a good thing, then, that won't be necessary. The British will pull out ere long and the town can return to normal."
     "You speak the truth." Aaron patted his wife's hand where it still gripped his arm.
     Yet something in his tone—a quaver, a hesitation—suggested something amiss. She peered at his face. Worry lines carved valleys between his brows, surrounded his lips. Her mother's face held no expression other than a bland look bordering on boredom. That hinted at her agitation beneath when she schooled her features into such a rigid mask.
     "How is Evelyn?" Cynthia asked, abruptly changing the subject. "Pray tell me she is not still crying over that man."
     "It is to be expected she'd grieve the death of the father of her child," Samantha said, shaking her head, "even if he did treat her abysmally in the end. At one time, she must have felt something for him."
     "I'll take her some soothing tea after everyone has eaten. Which reminds me, did she have a plate taken to her?"
     "Amy carried a small plate up a while ago," Samantha said. "Whether the poor woman eats it or not is up to her."
     "She still must provide for her infant," Cynthia said on a sigh. "Evelyn's life has certainly been filled with sorrows and challenges."
     "Hopefully, that will change for the better while she resides in town," Samantha said. "Tomorrow I'll talk with her about her plans for the future."
     "Ah, you're being sought out." Aaron motioned for her to precede him down the path. "Time for the annual salute. Are you ready?"
     She nodded, aware of a sense of relief emanating from her parents, and made her way down the path, her shoes crunching the shells with each step. She drew in a breath, savoring the sweet aroma emanating from the massive rosemary bush huddled in the corner. Eager faces, alight with smiles and sparkling eyes, surrounded her. The quartet played Haydn in the background.
     Benjamin handed her a flute of sparkling wine when she reached the group of people gathered by the banquet table. She frowned, worry blooming inside. His lips pinched together as though he fought pain. His face appeared ashen in the flickering shadows of the lamplight. Still, the touch of his hand when she took the flute from him, left moisture on her fingers. She peered closer.
     "Benjamin, are you feeling well?" Samantha studied his expression.
     "I'm fine, a touch tired after the day's exertions." He wiped his hand down his dove gray evening coat then raised his gaze to look over Samantha's head. "You made it!"
     She turned to see who Benjamin greeted and froze, her flute trembling in her fingers, the liquid sloshing within the fragile crystal. Dr. Trenton Cunningham. His sandy blond hair waved back from his open expression, his crystal blue eyes echoing the wide smile revealing even white teeth. Broad shoulders filled the dark blue evening coat he wore, a canary yellow cravat neatly tied at his throat and tucked into an elaborately embroidered waistcoat. Creamy breeches and black leather boots completed his attire. Despite the formality of his clothes, Dr. Trent appeared as though he'd recently arrived on board a ship from some distant port. Fresh and windblown and ready for adventure.
     "Benjamin, should you be out here?" Trent strode to stand by his friend, inspecting Benjamin with a sweeping glance. "You look terrible."
     "I'm fine. Can't miss Samantha's toast, after all." Benjamin shook Trent's hand and then drew Amy up to his side. "Congratulate me, my friend. Miss Amy has agreed to be my betrothed."
     Trent nodded at Amy, who beamed in her newly donned role as fiancée. "My heartfelt wishes to you both." He gazed at Samantha and half bowed. "Miss Samantha, I'm honored to be included in your gathering this evening."
     "I'm pleased your schedule permitted you to attend." She dipped a curtsy, her thigh jerking in protest.
     Trent grasped her arm to steady her as she caught her balance, the contact jolting along every inch of her skin. She stepped away, out of his reach. "Thank you for your assistance."
     He half bowed again, gaze intent on her face. "My pleasure."
     Although she'd been in his presence a couple times before, mainly when he challenged her abilities as a healer, she couldn't deny the impact he had on her. Trent was a gorgeous man, strong and clever, and extraordinarily dangerous to her sense of wellbeing. She forced herself to remain still, appear calm, even as her heart raced. This feeling of imbalance and rushing emotions had never happened to her before.
     Trent's currently smiling eyes had been furious the last time she saw him, furious at what he called her ineptitude treating Emily's young nephew when he was bitten by a snake. He'd been wrong, of course, as little Tommy had fully recovered without the doctor actually doing much more than administering a small dose of emetic and then bathing the fever that followed her treatment. But she'd never had the opportunity to discuss the proper treatment so he continued to act as though her skills proved inferior to his. Bah.
     Though aware that Benjamin had summoned the young doctor, she had hoped he would not arrive until after the party ended. Or at least after she'd given her short speech. But he'd shown up a while ago, unsettling her composure preceding her annual duty. Perhaps she should change the speech, but to what? Indeed, time had slipped away and the moment had arrived. She turned back to face the remaining guests, and raised her glass, the wine trembling in the flute.
     "My friends, we gather this evening as in years past to rejoice in the bounty we've realized this year. As our country begins to define our government and create a new society, consider the wise words from the lauded Anna Bradstreet, some folks called the Tenth Muse back in her day, in her wonderful Meditations, Divine and Moral."
     Trent locked eyes with her, disconcerting her already roiling thoughts. Strange how his presence caused such a reaction inside her. Was it the animosity she sensed flowing from him like sea foam after a storm? Or could it be more of an underlying awareness triggered by similar interests? She blinked to break the near trance and focused instead on the cluster of her closest friends and her parents. She took a breath and smiled at the gathering.
      "She reminded us that, 'Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.' Pray keep this thought in mind as the year draws to a close and we face new challenges. Our governor and other state leaders will need our support and God's guidance."
     Glasses clinked all around her to the accompaniment of "Huzza! Huzza!"
     She sipped the wine, the cheer of the moment echoing inside her heart. Scanning the crowd, she watched as others mimicked her actions. All but two anyway. Her parents turned and walked away. A chill froze her smile into place.
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