Maddie's GiftbySedonia Guillone©
New Abbey, Scotland, 1914
One. Two. Three. Four. Four steps would bring Madeline Welby to her brother's bedroom door. Maddie's heart pounded painfully in her chest and her body trembled, teeth chattering as she stared ahead of her in the dark hallway. With each step, she could feel the brush of the carpet under her bare feet. A late winter rainstorm was approaching outside, and the rumble of the thunder matched the rumble inside her being.
Maddie took the first step. I'm barmy! she thought. Completely barmy! Michael would never let her into his bed this night, not with his fiancée, Melody, and Melody's parents sleeping under the same roof. But even if they'd been alone, Maddie would have had to beg Michael to unlock his door and let her in. That's what she'd had to do ever since the gossip started and Michael became ashamed. She'd had to stand at the door, crying and scratching, begging him until he relented. And he almost always did relent, because deep down, he still loved her. At least that's what he'd told her, so many, many times.
The second step. A bolt of lightning sliced the dark sky. Bluish light poured into the window at the end of the hall, illuminating Maddie like a ghost in her flowing white nightgown. She berated herself for her lack of pride and dignity, for not accepting Michael's decision. He had chosen his path and moved on, announcing his engagement to Melody at the supper table this very evening, in front of everyone, including John and Fanny, the servants. Maddie had been relegated back to her role as Michael's sister again. But she could not accept the change. Maddie was her mother's daughter to her bones, and Caroline Welby had always bled openly and willingly in her desperation for love. Like her mother had been, Maddie was a living, breathing wound and could not rally herself to conceal her heartache, no matter how much Michael demanded it of her.
He, on the other hand, had ended up like their father, Jonathan Welby, the Oxford professor, a reserved man who worshiped intellect and defined himself by the opinions of others. Michael denied his sister's accusations that he had become his father, countering that he was now laird of Welby Manor, a role his father had refused in favor of academia. As for defining himself through the eyes of others, Michael had nothing to say, for he had thrown Maddie out of his bed six months ago when Rosalie Brown had espied the brother and sister embracing at the edge of the meadow. By that evening the gossip had begun to make its rounds of New Abbey, traveling all the way to Dumfries. The laird prefers to graze in his own pasture, folks were saying, among other choice things. That had been the end.
Maddie took the third step as a hard icy rain began to pelt the window, the torrent from the sky pounding in her ears. She wanted Michael to hold her, just for a little while; just to tell her he loved her. He probably wouldn't, but she would beg him to all the same.
As she went to take the final step to Michael's door, an unbidden thought came to her mind. It was of Padraic, so close by in the caretaker's cottage. Padraic's father had been the caretaker of Welby Manor before Padraic. Michael and Madeline had long ago adopted Padraic as one of the family, seeing as the man had practically raised them. Padraic had been there at the supper table when Michael announced his engagement to Melody. Seated next to Maddie, Padraic had reached for her hand under the table, squeezing the delicate fingers gently between his own, as if he could siphon out the grief he knew she felt into him and take it from her. He'd invited her to come back to the cottage with him after supper so she wouldn't have to be alone with Michael and his future bride and in-laws. And though Maddie had wanted to go, she was stubborn and had refused, desperate to wait for the bedtime hour so she could go to Michael's room and wring assurances from him. At her refusal, Padraic had shaken his head sadly and put his large, gentle hands on Maddie's shoulders. His dark eyes had bore into hers, his handsome, bearded face a mask of frustration. "How long will you go on this way, Maddie?" he'd said. "I can't bear to see you suffer anymore." Maddie's shoulders sagged under his hands, though his touch was pleasurable and made her want to fall into his arms. "I can't help it, Padraic," she'd answered. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
Padraic had reached up and touched her cheek. "I'm here for you, Maddie," he said before he left.
Maddie had watched him disappear down the path. He had been there for her all the twenty-one years of her life, the father she'd craved, the friend who stood by her and Michael through everything, including their parents' deaths in the fire down at Oxford, the gossip, and Michael's betrayal. He'd never judged her and Michael or tried to change them, and it was Padraic who'd taught Michael how to run the estate when Michael had decided to take his place as laird instead of following his father to Oxford. Padraic had introduced Michael to all the crofters on the estate, teaching him how to negotiate with them and keep them contented.
When Maddie was twelve, Padraic had been the first man to capture her budding woman's heart. He had been her mother's age then, thirty-seven and so handsome, the broadchested, bearded clansman who'd come down from the Highlands to steal her heart. Of course, Padraic had lived his whole life on the Lowland estate, but Maddie was lonely and given to her romantic fancies. She'd needed them, for Padraic was not to be hers. Maddie was not yet a woman then, and Padraic was her mother's lover, giving Caroline Welby the love and passion she craved and could not milk from her stone of a husband.
You should go to Padraic, Maddie told herself as she began to reach for the doorknob. You never stopped loving him. But Maddie set her jaw in determination. She refused to be like her mother who had loved two men, one of them Padraic, and had torn her family apart because of it. The woman's conscience had wracked her, yet she'd been unable to give Padraic up, running back and forth like a madwoman from the estate to Oxford. Her children, however, who loved and needed her, had gone ignored. Maddie had hated her mother for her weakness and believed that she wouldn't have turned to her own brother in the first place if it hadn't been for Caroline's adultery.
Maddie sighed in her sadness, realizing the folly of pushing at Michael and trying to wring love from him the way her mother had with Jonathan Welby. Maddie had no need to be torn by conscience when there was no family now to tear apart by loving Padraic. The path was clear, really. And if she were honest with herself, Padraic was her only family now.
She almost turned away, but her stubbornness captured her yet again. She was fairly certain that Padraic didn't love her that way. Chances were he still saw her as the wee lass he'd raised and felt only fatherly toward. But Maddie wanted to feel desired. She wanted to know that a man's blood raced for her, and that she was beautiful and loveable, now that she felt so ugly and unlovable. She could not have borne Padraic's rejection as well as Michael's. Padraic was the one man in the world she trusted. She felt as if his rejection of her as a woman would destroy her.
Maddie took the final step and put her hand on the knob. Quietly, gently, she turned it and pushed the door open. Too late, she realized her mistake. The door had been unlocked! Not once in six months had Maddie come here and found it unlocked as she had now. She froze when she realized Michael hadn't unlocked it for her.
Michael's room was dark, illumined only by the flashes of lightning outside the window. Maddie wanted to flee, but felt rooted to the spot where she stood, wickedly, insanely curious. In spite of the hard rain outside, Maddie's ears picked up sounds from the depths of the room. She heard a woman giggle softly in the direction of Michael's bed, followed by the rhythmic creaking of the bedsprings and masculine sighs of pleasure.
Maddie's blood turned to ice in her veins and she clamped her hands over her mouth, stifling her cry of pain. She had to get out of there, yet couldn't move. Then, suddenly, she felt strange, as if a fluffy cloud were enveloping her entire body, lifting her into the air in a soundless, mindless void. An eerie strength from a mysterious source seeped into her body, enabling her to turn and leave the room noiselessly before her presence was known, a gift of grace, a suspension in time that had allowed her to escape.
Back in the hallway, Maddie paused, her eyes closed, her breath coming heavily. The grace she had just experienced was still with her, directing her mind, making her path clear. Suddenly, she didn't care anymore how Padraic loved her. Love was love. And she desperately needed love and comfort. She would honor that truth, and this hell with Michael be damned!
Without another thought, Maddie turned and ran to the end of the hall, down the large grand staircase, through the dining room to the dark kitchen where she let herself out the back door. Fanny and John were asleep in the servants' quarters and did not hear her. No one did as she ran out into the freezing night, the rain biting like icy fingers at her skin, soaking her hair and nightgown as she fled across the back lawn and onto a dirt path. The path had turned to mud in the rain and spattered Maddie's bare legs and nightgown as she ran toward the road, the road that led to the caretaker's cottage.
Padraic thought only of Maddie as he stared into the hearth fire. The storm howled and thundered outside the cottage, pelting the windows with sheets of icy rain. But inside, the fire was warm and cozy. It would have been cozier if he were curled up on the sofa, holding Maddie in his arms. The poor lass! Padraic's heart ached for her, especially this evening when Michael had announced his engagement.
In truth, he felt for Michael as well. The lad was only twenty-three, and Padraic knew how young he'd been himself at that age. He also knew what it was to take on the responsibility of running this estate. He'd done it then too, though for different reasons. Padraic had wanted to impress Katherine Adams, to show her he could be a responsible man instead of drinking and fighting in the pubs in Dumfries. He'd had to put aside his anger at life in order to get her to marry him. For Michael, however, becoming the laird of Welby Manor had been a rebellion against his father. Understandable. Padraic had grown up with Jonathan Welby. He would not have wanted to be that man's son. Not for anything.
But at least Michael had the estate. He had wealth and property. Maddie had none of that. And now, she didn't even have Michael. Maddie was beautiful and sweet, everything Caroline had been and more. Padraic had fallen in love with Maddie in the last year, his feelings only intensifying after Michael had thrown her over as he'd done. Many times he'd wanted to tell her how he felt, but had restrained himself, knowing how much like her mother Maddie was. The lass would have gone round the bend if faced with the possibility of going to another man while she was in love with one. Telling her his feelings wouldn't have helped. At least that's what Padraic thought.
Padraic rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. Ach! He blamed himself for the way things were now. If he hadn't bedded their mother all those years ago, perhaps Michael and Maddie wouldn't have turned to each for comfort. Maybe they would have felt they could turn to him in their unhappiness. Perhaps if he could have promised Maddie the future when she was twelve, when he saw how she looked at him. When you're a woman, Maddie, in a few short years, was all he'd have needed to say. But he couldn't. Not then. He'd been too gone on her mother. And then he'd lost Caroline to the fire...
Padraic tried to shake himself from his reverie of self-blame. Even Maddie and Michael didn't blame him. They loved him and trusted him. He'd proven himself to them countless times and had gained their forgiveness. He even knew the moment when he'd won their undying loyalty. It was when he'd found out about their secret relationship and hadn't judged them along with the rest of the world. Leave them be, he'd thought to himself at the time. They've been through hell. He didn't judge anyone for taking comfort where it was to be found. Besides, he'd had a long-term adulterous affair with their mother. He'd made love to Caroline right here in front of this fire while his own wife, Katherine, lay upstairs, dying of the consumption, and Eric was a wee lad, asleep in his bed. Who was he to judge anyone?
The knocking at the front door pulled Padraic from his musings. The sounds were little taps at first, barely audible above the rain, then loud, hard raps on the wood. Padraic rose from his chair, hurrying as fast as he could to the front door. In this weather, the leg wound he'd received in the Egyptian wars hurt like the dickens and he limped worse than usual. When he drew closer, he heard the cries. A woman's voice was calling him. She sounded hysterical, as if Lord Death himself were chasing her. Then he realized who it was. God's teeth! It was Maddie! What the hell was she doing out on a night like this?
Padraic yanked open the door. Maddie was standing there in her nightgown, muddy, soaked, teeth chattering, crying hysterically. "Holy shite, woman!" he growled at the sight of her. He grabbed her and pulled her inside, slamming the door behind them against the wind and rain. He pulled Maddie to him and she fell into his arms. He picked her up and carried her immediately over to the fire, setting her down on the warm hearthstones. Grasping her shoulders, Padraic peered into her face, streaming with a mixture of rain and tears. "Good God, Maddie!" he said. "What are you doing? You could catch your death!"
But Maddie didn't answer and only continued sobbing, reaching out for Padraic to hold her.
As much as he wanted to hold Maddie, Padraic feared more for her life and wanted only to get her warm and dry. He held her shoulders and pressed her firmly in place. "Not yet," he said gently. "Not until I know you're safe. I won't lose another woman I love." He rushed off for an armload of towels. Then he limped quickly upstairs to his bedroom and pulled one of Katherine's old nightgowns from the chest of drawers. The gown would be too big for Maddie, he knew, for Katherine had been a tall, busty Celt of a woman. But at least the thing was clean and dry. With the gown and towels in his arms he went back.
Maddie was standing where he'd left her, sobbing and dripping, a puddle of rainwater collecting on the hearthstones at her feet. "Maddie," he said touching the sleeve of her nightgown, "Get this thing off." Padraic set the towels down on the chair in which he'd been sitting. "Here are towels to dry yourself and a gown to change into. I'm going to make you some tea." When Maddie did not respond, Padraic put his hands on her shoulders. "Do you hear me, lass?"
Maddie continued to sob, but Padraic saw her sodden head bob up and down in a nod. He left her and went to put on the kettle, the sounds of the crying young woman following him all the way to the kitchen. Padraic lit the stove and put the kettle on to boil. He fixed a pot of tea, returning with it, and a flask of whiskey to the living room.
When he saw Maddie, he swore under his breath, for she hadn't removed her wet gown. The pile of towels sat on the chair, untouched, and Maddie had dropped to her knees, her face buried in her hands, her body rocking back and forth.
Quickly, Padraic set down the tray and lightly grasped Maddie's arm. "For God's sake, woman!" he scolded softly, lifting her gently but firmly to her feet. He'd waited for her to change while he was in the kitchen out of respect for her privacy. But now, he felt she'd endangered her life and had forfeited this right. In one swift movement, he lifted the sopping, mud-stained nightgown up over her head and threw it to the floor. He grabbed a towel, unfolded it, and began to rub Maddie's skin dry.
Had he not been so afraid for her health, Padraic would have wanted to savor Maddie's beauty, as she stood naked before him. Her skin was pale and smooth, like fresh cream. The dusky pink buds of her nipples were erect from the cold, and the shape of her body, the slopes and curves, the supple flesh of her woman's stomach, the pale blond down on her arms and thighs made Padraic hunger to caress her, to explore every inch of her with his fingertips and mouth.
Padraic worked quickly to dry Maddie, who stood like a rag doll under his hands, allowing him to rub the towel all over her, even down below, over her mound of dark blond curls. He knelt down before her, drying the springy curls with the towel before moving onto her thighs and mud-spattered calves. He felt the tightening in his groin as he passed the towel over her mound. Maddie was so quiet and submissive, he sensed he could have laid her back on the sofa and taken her right then. He wouldn't have done it that way, not without her consent. But she was so lovely in her nakedness, and it seemed so unreal that she was here like this, a gift that had fallen on his doorstep this stormy night that the thought came to his mind, with its accompanying threat of an erection.
Maddie's teeth had stopped chattering and her body relaxed somewhat as he dried her skin and the fire warmed her. Padraic sensed the danger to her health had largely passed as he wiped the last of the mud from her feet. In a moment, he would have to put Katherine's nightgown on her. His whole being rebelled against it. How he didn't want to conceal her beauty from his gaze! He dared to let his eyes rest just a moment longer on that secret part of her which was just level with his sight. Had he the freedom, he would have pressed his lips to the soft hair, breathing in her woman's musk, and let his tongue steal between the folds of skin to taste the nectar within. He would have held her buttocks, letting the creamy flesh fill his hands while he caressed the sensitive pearl between her thighs with the tip of his tongue. His beard would tickle the supple skin of her inner thighs, and she would moan softly from the pleasure he'd give her. He'd make her forget everything else...
Padraic snatched up Katherine's nightgown and helped Maddie on with it. He caught himself on the verge of groaning with disappointment as the white cloth slipped down over her body, swallowing it up, away from his sight. He berated himself inwardly for his weakness, for the way he let his desire for her cloud his compassion.
Maddie was silent now, the flow of her tears stopped for the time being. She let Padraic lead her to the sofa and gently sit her down. He picked up an afghan that Katherine had crocheted years ago when she was pregnant with Eric, and wrapped it around her. He then took another towel and wrapped Maddie's wet hair in it. When he had finished, he sat down in front of her and looked into her tearstained face. He reached out and touched her cheek. "What happened, love, to put you in such a state?" As if he didn't know!
At his question, Maddie sputtered to life again, fresh tears gathering and spilling from her eyes. As she had before, Maddie reached out her arms like a small child needing to be held. This time, Padraic reached for her and gathered her to him, letting her cry in his arms.
"Michael...and...Melody!" Maddie sobbed, choking out the words between gasps for breath. "In his...room!" Her body began to heave violently as grief wracked her. "They were...I could hear!" Then she fell to her guttural tears, unable to speak anymore.
Padraic held Maddie close, rocking her gently as she cried. "Oh, Maddie," he said softly. "I'm so sorry." With one hand he caressed her back. "Go on, let it all out."