He that would the daughter win must with the mother first begin.
YORK COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
’Twas time for his daughters to wed, Papa said. But he had a curious way of bringing wedded bliss about, sending all the way to Philadelphia for a suitor. Eden Lee felt the dread of it clear to her toes. The ticking of the tall case clock turned the quiet, candlelit room more tense. Was it her imagination, or was her father about to do something rash? For days she’d sensed something was coming, something that would turn their predictable, unhappy world upside down— and now this unexpected letter from the city . . .
Liege Lee stood by the hearth, his firm-jawed face darkening as he looked down at the paper in his hand. Beside him, Louise Lee piped a rare request.
“Liege, please, we have so little news from the East. Read it aloud.”
Eden smiled a bit tremulously at her mother’s quiet plea, her gaze falling from her father’s sternness to the soft contours of her sister’s face as she sat mending by candlelight. Yet her attention kept returning to the post, her own sewing forgotten, as his gravelly voice resounded to the room’s cold corners.
“The trade guild promised me another apprentice several months ago. At last we have a letter.” He unfolded the crumpled paper, spectacles perched on the end of his narrow, pockmarked nose. “This man is a Scot, trained in his home country before being bound to an American master in Philadelphia. Since the war’s end he’s been at a forge manned with a dozen apprentices in the heart of the city. His master has died, and he’s seeking a position in the West to finish his training. He comes well recommended.” Clearing his throat, he returned to the paper in hand. “The man writes, ‘I am unsure if this post will reach its destination. Likely the package I am sending will not. My hope is that one or the other of us will arrive safe and sound by December’s end.’”
There was a stilted pause, then a gasp. “December’s end!”
The linen slipped from Mama’s work-worn hands into her lap.
“Any day now? But I thought he wasn’t coming till spring!”
“Aye, any day,” Papa growled, turning to take his daughters in.
He lingered longest on Elspeth, Eden noticed, and with good reason. But her great roundness was buried beneath her sewing, and she didn’t so much as lift an eyebrow at Papa’s stern scrutiny. Any day now Elspeth’s child would be born. But which would come first? The apprentice or the babe?
This was what worried her father, Eden knew. He had plans for her wayward sister that couldn’t be breached by the early arrival of the stranger.
“You both know what this man’s coming means?” he thundered across the small parlor. The stern words made Eden’s insides curl. She looked up, waiting for Elspeth to do the same, but her sister was simply ignoring her father, as she was prone to do when she disliked his dictums.
She finally snapped to attention, light and shadow playing across her lovely face, and met her father’s eyes.
“You both know what this means, aye? You and Eden?”
“Yes, Papa,” Elspeth murmured dutifully.
Eden’s needle stilled and she simply nodded, grieved, barely detecting the telling sympathy in Mama’s eyes at their predicament.
“The plan is this,” he went on. “If the apprentice comes before the babe, the jig is up and he’s to wed Eden. If he comes after the babe is born, he’s yours, Elspeth. You know how things stand with an apprentice.”
Mama nodded, her wistful expression revealing she knew of such matters firsthand. Years before, Papa was apprenticed to her father, a master gunsmith, and she’d been part and parcel of the contract. Though rumored that she loved another, tradition held sway. ’Twas a time-honored practice that apprentices marry into their master’s family, as if some ironclad rule passed down from King George himself. Though times were changing and the war had been won, Papa was holding on to the past with both fists.
Studying his craggy face in the low glare of lamplight as he pondered the letter, Eden bit her lip. She suspected Papa’s scheming had less to do with marrying them off than tying the man down for more mercenary purposes. Though every eligible suitor in the entire county trooped into their blacksmith shop to beg, barter, or pay coin for the ironwork turned out, none had yet passed muster—or could abide the thought of her father as father-in-law. How like Papa to forge a liaison with a complete stranger, one who knew nothing of their affairs.
Oh, if she could but protest! Warm words festered on her tongue and raced round her head as she returned to her mending. In all fairness, Father, this stranger you speak of is hardly a youth. He’s at the tail end of his apprenticeship and shouldn’t be coerced into keeping such a tradition. Besides, there’s such a thing as love.
But she couldn’t be contrary. Her father’s word was as unyielding as the metal he worked. Once, when she was five, she had spoken up—sassed him when she should have stayed silent—and had born a welt on her backside for a fortnight or better. Any backtalk had since been confined to her head.
“What’s the man’s name, Liege?” Mama asked, hands idle atop her lap.
“Ballantyne,” he replied, perusing the accompanying package. “Silas Ballantyne.”