The ever-difficult Jacqueline Gale is a small town teacher with secrets… secrets that two very different men hope to pry from her. The school ma’am find herself caught between the playful young man from the manor down the hill and her tumultuous fellow school teacher. One adores her as she has never been adored, while the other takes charge of her in a way she has always secretly craved. Can she choose between the two? Will she ever move past the first love she lost long ago? And can she truly trust either with her heavy past… and present?
Set in the fictional land of FireLight, a place with old-fashioned charm and modern wit and humor, Berry Patches is a story about breaking free and allowing yourself to find happiness again… sometimes upon an unexpected new path.
As soon as Father died she was going to pick up and see the world ? without a husband ? though a certain young gentleman would be disappointed.
The teacher’s gaze occasionally darted about the room in search of straying eyes, but the rules were well known and they were well heeded, so she allowed herself to sink somewhat into the pleasantry before her whilst test-taking ensued around her. It was among the few pleasantries she was allowed, this filling of pages with shapes and slopes and shading, and it was only allowed because it never saw the light of day long enough to come to light.
When not residing beneath her charcoal, the yellow-worn pages of the little book resided with the shadows, coin concealed, papers protected, and memories concluded.
To be sure, the sketches were innocent. Only scenery. Only memories. Only a mother’s face over quaint scenes of pie baking, and brothers’ games by ponds of blue, and home life, and everything gone now. Sometimes she would draw what she imagined to be that source of mysterious music that sang in her garden come the cold night: a dryad with a violin, or a pixie imprisoned, forced to play the stars into assembly with each fresh falling dark.
?She only brought back flickers, fainter than a frail candlelight, of things that once were.
But for her, the secret was as potent as anything that festers.
Mr. Blaire must have rung the bell in her stead. The dark haired Jacqueline was stirred suddenly from her occupation by the clatter of pencils being dropped, and papers being swept up and placed upon her desk. She shut her book briskly, and stood before the classroom had chance to clear.?
“You will be contacted with the results of your essay and exam by post. And you will return with fresh charcoal for the start of the new semester. I don’t make nearly what I’m worth, and certainly not enough to keep up this pencil charity.”
Her chilly tone was ignored, her students being well accustomed to blatancy.?
“Everyone is now dismissed.” And the testers began to clear ? one particular girl among them. “Everyone except foryou, Brenda.”
Brenda turned to stare at Jacqueline with bunny-about-to-be-eaten eyes. But Jacqueline said nothing while the other students remained. She only began putting books away.
“Yes… Miss Gale?”
She was quiet as the few stragglers loitered in the door, continuing to gather her things. At long last, the lingerers fled. “Brenda,” Jacqueline began, as her hands still worked, scooping up papers. “Are there snowballs in hell?”
“No. No more than you are the original author of this essay.” She reached into the front pouch of her satchel and tossed the stack of papers before the girl. “Do you know what plagiarism is, Brenda?”
They’d been over this last semester, but undeniably, she did not expect the girl to retain it. She certainly wouldn’t be among those to test into the higher class. But why tell her? Everyone ought to have their hopes dashed upon the craggy shards of reality at least once, but it didn’t help to rub it in.
She looked as though being quizzed. “It’s… a kind of a foot massage?”
“No. It’s stealing. The person who wrote that essay is a good writer. You are not a good writer, so turning that in was turning in a lie. So now you’re a thief and a liar.”
“Oh Miss Gale, I didn’t think of it that way!” The girl looked as though she might cry.
And Jacqueline fought a scowl. Tears never served anyone, and tears from those who had never been given a real reason to cry were nearly intolerable.
“Criminals never do. But don’t snivel Brenda, have I ever punished someone for something they didn’t know to be wrong? I cannot grade this essay and it will thus receive a failing grade, but now you know. So never do it again.”?
“Oh I won’t Miss Gale, thank you Miss Gale?”
“Do save your breath for prayers that you pass the exam. Good afternoon, Brenda.”
“Yes, Teacher. You too!”
Jacqueline sank into her chair, Brenda fled, and the room was finally quiet. She often lingered in the classroom to finish grading, and sometimes ? so long as Mr. Blaire was gone ? to scribble in her book. But today she had time to do neither before a woman appeared on the threshold.?
* * *
Mallory Snow fingered her medallion, graced with the symbol of a stag, and gazed about at the lush thatch of land that the schoolhouse belonged to. Her schoolhouse.Her little castle in which to share the magic of learning. She trotted up the steps, catching the delightful scent of pages and chalkboards as she stepped into the first schoolroom.?
There was a woman there. A dark haired woman, with dark eyes, and dark circles under her eyes, and a dark expression. But an elegant woman, nonetheless, dressed in a quaint ? but also dark ? dress.
“Oh! Forgive me! I wasn’t expecting anyone.”?
The woman stood. She had almost the deliberate indifference of a man in the way she carried herself ? but a cold kind of femininity also. All she offered in response was, “Exams. For those who wish to test into a higher class.”
“Oh yes, of course!” said Mallory. “That was today. I ought to know, I suppose, I’m the new headmistress. Mallory Snow.”
And the other stared. It was an eerie stare. Somehow colder, while keeping all indifferent appearances. It was truly impossible to capture in word.?
“They gave the position to a little girl?”
“Oh?” Mallory laughed, so breezy she quite breezed the statement by before digesting it. “It was a terrible shock. I heard tell there were many in the running.”?
“And what makes you so,” the dark brown eyes appraised her, “preferable?”
“Well, I’m sure there’s nothing special about me at all. It was probably only a number of coincidental questions on their part that led to discovering I was friends with a noble in HillSlope, and she put in a good recommendation. Though,” she gazed about this sunny classroom, one among several, and swelled inside to think of happy memories in school, her happiest place. “I’d call it far less coincidental and far more meant to be!”
“You are here because you know nobility.”
“Well, I don’t suppose?”
“So you didn’t work for this.”
And Mallory’s breeziness flickered some. “Forgive me?” It struck her that she ought not tolerate such chilliness from a teacher who would very soon be under her leadership. But she had not looked forward to this sort of assertiveness, nor so soon. “Forgive me, Miss?”
“Jacqueline Gale. Not Jackie, and not Jack, and not J-Bird, but Jacqueline, thank you.”
“Well, forgive me, Jacqueline Gale, but I have worked hard all of my life.”?
“Yes, a goat girl, I’ve heard tell.”
“Among the hardest work there is, farming. I’ve also done my fair share of teaching.”
“The goats, I suppose.”?
“I beg your pardon?”
“If you will pardon me, I must be leaving.” And she finished her packing up with one fell swoop of pages.
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” said Mallory simply, as the woman swept by. The dark creature offered no response. Once she was gone, Mal breathed a sigh like relief.?
A male voice rang from the doorway, “Don’t mind J-Bird.”
The woman turned to see a youthful and golden-haired man in the doorway.
“Blaire at your service. John Paul Blaire.”
He had a handsome face and pleasant expression that was a brilliantly sunny contrast to the coldness dwelling in the room moments ago. But there was an edge to the gentleman’s demeanor, perhaps? a dark austerity beneath the pleasantry.
“A pleasure!” said Mal, rather too enthusiastically, and introduced herself.
“Again, J-bird ? she’s no bother if you don’t let her be. Rather makes life interesting actually. She is burdened with a dark and tragic secret.”?
“Oh? Are you privy to that secret?”
“Nope. That’s part of the fun ? the mystery, you know. It keeps me compassionate to her plight of woe, at least, and that’s what I need in order to be a peaceful colleague.”
She grinned at him, even though her stomach was beginning to turn a little. “Well, if intrigue and sympathy create peacefully coexisting colleagues, I’ll set them up as our creed.” Might as well be upfront about what she wanted. “Anything to keep me out of drama, and into teaching.” If that woman’s presence would soon darken her daily existence, she had a feeling she might indeed try anything.
She hastily changed the subject. “Are you ready for a new semester then, Mr. Blaire?”?
“A new semester indeed. And new devil children, this time around, but such also make life interesting. Carter Buford won’t leave us with a dull moment, but don’t let me scare you away either, Miss Snow.”
For all his reassuring, Mallory’s insides already felt a grip of terror.
As farewells were said and Mr. Blaire departed, the schoolteacher’s one consolation was how interesting it would be, unearthing certain dark secrets.
Intrigue might prove her one solace after all.
* * *
The lad didn’t miss a beat, darting forward to get the gate for Jacqueline.
Without looking up at him she acknowledged, “Thank you, Laurence.” She didn’t have to work exceptionally hard to guess that her sudden companion was the young Laurence Clark.
“But of course.” He fell into stride beside her. She recalled a time when he was shorter than she. “How was your day, Milady Jacqueline?”
“I met the new headmistress. So galling. Satanic creature. And now I must tarry ‘til three o’clock because Father believes that school is still in session.”
He raised an eyebrow, and smiled. “All summer?”?
“So far as my father knows and can comprehend, school is in session on Saturdays and Sundays.”
“Well, if for all the summer you haven’t been shut up at home, why haven’t we been bashing about together?” He looked starkly disappointed.
She shrugged. “I’ve been at the school. I might as well organize lesson plans and things ahead of time.”
“Are you aware that John Blaire doesn’t organize his lessons ‘til the Saturday before?”
“I am not John Blaire.”
She lifted her skirts slightly as they crossed over a low fence, and felt him watching, but sought to disregard the acknowledgement. “And what would we have done with these long and drear summer days, Laurence?”
“Why, fish and picnic and walk and talk, and if mothers are to be listened to, pick out wedding bands?”
“Yes, I ran into your mother at the market and she made quite certain to assure me of your enraptured affection, in so many words.”
He laughed. “You’re only the best school ma’am this little town has seen. What a busy little wife you’ll make!” He laughed as though at a great joke. “Mum is charmed.”
“She pities me, they all do, and as I am the last girl from our class unmarried, she will settle.”?
“Not at all, Jackie girl! She only has enough motherly wisdom to see that you and I will make the happiest pair ever to grace FireLight.”
Her cheeks singed, her heart hammered, and she clutched her books closer to her chest. She could live in indifference to his company until he went like this. Laurence had been unrelenting in his ploys and implores for courtship from about the day they had graduated together. For some weeks and months it would die, only to flare again like a wretched fever. She loved and hated him for it. She would never make the buoyant and boyish Laurence happy, and would never attempt to. She loved him far too dearly for that. ?
“Laurence, you are, what? Seventeen?” It had been insufferable when ? due to advanced placement testing, his brilliance for numbers, and an unspoken competition betwixt himself and Jacqueline ? he graduated with her class. He was the only student ahead of her in marks, although only by two points.
He scowled, for the one thing she could do to swipe that glow from his face was to bring up his age. “Nineteen. Almost twenty.”
“Well I am twenty-three,” she said, as though that settled the matter.
“I assure you it will be quite proper and I am quite matured, if that is what frightens you, J-Bird!”
“I am not frightened,” she said firmly. “But I tutor nineteen year olds. I think of you as a child. And if we were to marry, I should feel I were molesting a child.”
His mouth popped open, and his eyes fastened to her, momentarily appalled, and then he laughed. Laughed hard.
“I don’t see the humor in the matter.”
“So you won’t let me call for you?” He snorted. “Yet?”
“I will not let you come calling in that way ever, Laurie.”
He finally settled into companionable silence, and they walked the lush stretches in quiet, for a long while. She was very aware of his closeness, and fought not to entertain deluded visions of his hand slipping into hers.
She severed the tender silence. “I will have the pleasure of enduring all manner of uncomfortable teas and suppers, come next weekend.” Though undeniably, dinner anywhere apart from home sounded pleasant.
“To welcome the new headmistress. And John and I need be present to be compared to, that they can gawk at us and wonder what put us out of the running. We must attend; for to decline would be in ill taste towards our new school lady, of course.”
But her stomach churned at the mention of dinner. She would stop at the berry patches, her one sustenance, before making home.
* * *
She arrived at home to find Father sulking. Blast. She didn’t want to stay around to find out why. She tried to hurry past.
But he snarled after her, “Jacqueline. Your dog got into the pantry again.”
That would explain why Barkley hadn’t come to greet her. Probably hiding in a corner somewhere. “It’s not as though it matters,” she retorted, heading for the stairs. “You’ll only give up whatever’s in there to Dawson when he comes calling.”
“Jacqueline Gale,” he snapped.
She faltered on the steps. She knew his many tones. And though she didn’t fear that tone so much as others, it still struck her with a tinge of dread.
“Your mouth is getting old.”
She fidgeted absently on the bottom step, hoping he might let her go. “I’m sorry. What I meant was, I will start taking him to school with me again. Are you satisfied?” That last query might have held more venom than she meant.
“You’re never satisfied ‘til you get on my last nerve, are you? Come here, Jacqueline.”
The prickle of fear struck her again, trailed down her spine and pooled in her stomach. Great Stag, she was twenty-three years old. She folded her arms, still stiff upon the stair, hoping against hope his wrath might blow past. “Father. Really. I don’t have time for this.”
“Well neither do I, so I do wish you’d stop begging for it.”
Her stomach shriveled as he began to unfasten the buckle of his belt.
* * *
Laurence stepped upon the manor porch, and came to a halt as a sound drifted from the old farmhouse up the hill. A sound that greatly resembled a plea of distress.
Half unable to help it, he smirked and muttered to himself, “J-bird’s mouth gone too far again, I imagine.”
Rather than stepping into the building as intended, he snatched up a handful of mistberries from a basket on the porch, turned, and went for the gazebo. If anyone happened across him, the berries were his alibi.
If it were darker, he might traipse to her back garden gate, in undeniable hopes of catching more than just the sound. But as the sun was only just descending towards syrupy sunset, she might spot him there. So he settled upon the gazebo steps, listening as her distant pleas become more insistent.
A small prickle of guilt chilled him.
When he was eight years old he had first seen Jacqueline’s adorable bottom bared to her father’s hand, and he had never quite outgrown the sight. He had seen that bottom through the cabin’s window and from its front porch on numerous occasions. He had seen her and those charming cheeks blossom over the years. But, apparently, maturity failed to dampen her sharp tongue and cruel wit.??
In more paranoid moments he wondered if she resisted him because she had somehow guessed. Guessed that he was? that kind of man. There were rumors that the Blaire family was full of them. That kind. The kind who loved their women in a unique fashion.
He ached to tell her that he was nothing like her father. He was not unfair. He wanted to protect her. To check that thoughtless tongue, yes, and warm some of those chilly edges, but above any of that he wanted to love her.
But that love would no doubt manifest itself as tough love, upon occasion. He had developed a taste for it over the years as he saw not only how it affected him, but also how it affected Jacqueline. It was almost as though the only moments of peace she experienced came after a round with a rapid paddle or a stinging strap. As a boy he had seen her fall asleep through the window after. She always fell asleep quietly, tear stained but at peace.
He heard her cries dim, if only a notch, stifled to sniffling whimpers as the sharp blows fell. He knew they were dropping flush against her very bare and very vulnerable skin. She was always brave. He admired that.
He had more than enough visual recollections to supply his imagination. She was struggling, kicking, or bucking by now. She always began bucking just before yielding. Helpless and beautiful. The last rapid fight of hers thrilled him the most, and it had always tormented his boyhood dreams. Someday, he dreamt that she would buck with such desperate fervor across his own knees.
He wondered sometimes, if Mr. Gale hurt her worse, behind closed doors. He had asked. She had insisted otherwise. Spankings, very well. Beatings, he couldn’t withstand the thought of Jacqueline being really and truly hurt.
As Jacqueline dissolved into tears, by the sound of it, some of the randy eagerness to hear her get her due faded.
Could she love him if she knew?
* * *
Jacqueline was reduced to sobs, as the blows became piercingly insistent, the belt’s bites no longer distinguishable as singular blows, but just a blur of mortifying pain. So she resorted to her last recourse. Begging. “Daddy? please? I’m sorry? I’ll watch my tongue? please! I’m sore!”?
At long last, the blows lightened, and then ceased. The pain, however, persisted, still sizzling across her delicate skin.
She quickly stood and lowered her skirts, cheeks ? both sets ? aflame. She prayed to God that no one had come close enough to the house to catch sight through the window. The twenty-three year old schoolteacher still taking whippings like any one of her students.
She ducked her head, and whispered, “I’ll take Barkley for a walk,” before sweeping, still trembling, from the cabin without the dog.
Once in the cooling dusk, she was almost tempted to lift her skirts again, and let the chill breeze cool her skin. But of course, as they lived in full view of the manor below and its many residents and servants, she did not. Her eyes settled upon the manor just then and she cringed. Laurie was sitting upon the gazebo steps, munching berries and staring into the night.
She wondered if perhaps he had heard. Great Stag, how humiliating.
* * *
Jacqueline woke in the earliest part of pale dawn to lift open the window, savoring the summer air, and undeniably a little thrill, though she quickly snuffed it, over the start of a new school season.
Then she stepped over the snoring lump of fur that was her hound, and made for the wall upon which was a painting of a butterfly-filled garden. She pushed aside the artwork and pried open the drawer built into the wall. All of the rooms in the farmhouse were drab and dim, encompassing too many trees and too many shadowy secrets. But Mother had made the children’s bedrooms better than the rest, with pleasant paintings and secrets to thrill childish souls.
“This is between you and me, and the night fairies,” Mother had said of her secret drawer. “As you know, night fairies do adore flowers, leaves, and pretty stones. In fact, if you leave some here for them, they might leave you gifts in return.”?? ?
So she had left leaves and pretty stones for the fairies, and they had left berry tarts, and childish poems.
They had departed with Mama, who didn’t know how to love Papa. How unfair, to tote about someone you didn’t know how to properly love.
Laurie would never be able to take her in hand. If ever she succumbed to a man he would have to be strong. Firm. Severe, even. Father had been proof of that.
Today, the drawer held only what she had put into it: her sketch book, her favorite ink pens and drawing charcoals, her pastels, her stash of coin, the papers for her dog, and the love notes from his breeder.
There was poetry from Mother, also known as the night fairy, and a button from Laurie’s coat that she had snatched from the muddy ground in a moment of youthful sensibilities, and never returned.
She kept Mother’s ring and necklace beneath her pillow. She liked to wear them to chapel, and liked to bring them out before bed, just to look at them. It was stupid, but she did it anyway.?
She selected her sketchbook, and stuffed it into a secret pouch of her bag, before readying for the day. Her undergarments were riddled with yet more fringes of wear, but the plan was for no one to see them, so she ignored their condition, and worried more over the fraying threads in the hem of her black dress.
Barkley roused out of his slumber, and his tail began to flicker about with happy abandon to see his mistress. He began to sing the song of his canine people with a glad moan.
“Shush you noisy lard.” But she reached down to rub his floppy ears, and he sought to fling his whole self into her embrace. She kissed the soft fur of his head. “That mess yesterday all started because of you, I’ll have you know.” She stood. “Will you come with me to school today, Barkley? You’ll have to wait in the schoolyard.”
His ears perked at the word ‘school.’
“I’d have taken you yesterday but you were sleeping, big sluggish lump that you are!” She made for the door, and he followed with a spring in his step.
Papa was sleeping, so she got together a breakfast of oatmeal, no garnishes or flavorings, with stealthy quiet. She covered the pot with a lid from Shaladan ? a leftover from Mother that would keep it warm ? took a hard slice of stale bread and a slightly withering apple for herself, and made for the door. It was later than she was accustomed to leaving, but she had needed every moment of rest and recovery. Last night was more than exhausting.
Along the way, she stopped at the berry patch to add mistberries to her miniscule sack of lunch. Most days, she couldn’t stomach breakfast. “I imagine it will be an unbearable day, dodging the presence of our lovely new headmistress.”
Barkley plodded along, happy.
“This world favors only the handsome, Barkley. And that is why life is so easy for you.”
But he didn’t answer. He never did, being a dog. So she made do with silence ‘til her eyes lit upon the schoolhouse, sitting decorous, bright, and clean. She liked schoolhouses and liked children; the few rooms were more a home than any home she had ever known.
She ignored the approach of a horse and the chirp of “Good morning!” from Mallory Snow, and stepped over the threshold.
Seven or eight students were already chatting boisterously, seated on desks and windowsills and everywhere but within seats, unwilling to yield up the last rays of freedom that summer afforded them, and succumb to the clutches of a chair.
But Jacqueline was more than glad to sink into her place at the head of the room ? though with slow caution for a still stinging behind. She had been here throughout the summer, but it was not at all the same as being here to teach.
This schoolhouse was the one place in the world where she did some good, and needn’t feign. Somehow she excelled as an instructor. She had from her first semester, hurled into a teaching position where her pupils consisted entirely of grown men ? men who all promptly went off to lucrative fields. Her students liked her straightforward manner, and found her sharp tongue humorous. She was honest with them about where they were, and it awakened them to where they could be.
They thrived. She was, for the first time in her life, in control. And teacher and pupils coexisted productively, if not always peacefully.?
“Mr. Perry? Are you constipated? Or in the pig family?”
The boy, who had been fascinated with making rude noises with fervor, paused. “No?”
“Then you would do well to stop making those unmannered noises.”?
The now-scarlet faced John Perry was the first to shrink into his desk. “Yes, ma’am.”
The other children were laughing. “Miss Gale is back with a vengeance.”
The room was soon fraught with talkative young folk, slowly making the perilous decline into chairs.
This year she was to take the younger classes, as she had proven to do so well with them last semester ? several different classes being in the same room.
There were new students, among them children she knew well enough from town functions to be troublemakers. They eyed her with cold suspicion, which she was glad to stifle by ignoring it.
“ ‘Morning, Miss Gale.”
She turned, about to rebuke the parent for arriving late with their child, but froze. It was a pair of tepid blue eyes ? much too much like his son’s. Her throat closed. “Mr. Harrison.”
“Sorry we’re late. Sarah’s a little nervous. First day.”
Until now, all of the Harrison girls had been schooled at home. Until Mrs. Harrison lost her fervor for it, in these recent years. She needed work, and something new to occupy herself, in order to move on.
The little girl was hiding behind her father’s legs, but she peered around them to whisper, “Hi Jackie.”
Several summers ago, Sarah had been a sister to her. Before the accident.