Secret Chapter – A Wicked Woman

© 2017 Vanessa Vale

CHAPTER ONE

Eve

“I beg your pardon?” I asked, my voice a thready whisper. I could barely hear the odious man because my heartbeat was thrumming in my ears. “Did you say I was relieved of my duties?”

I sat in a straight-backed chair in front of a long table where the Clancy town council sat in judgement. The town hall was otherwise empty. There were six of them, all men with stern expressions and sour demeanors.

“That’s correct, Miss Jamison.” When Mr. Polk nodded his head, his jowls quivered.

I’d worked years, years, to get this job. I’d wanted to be the town’s schoolteacher for so long, too long for it to slip away like this.

These six men held my fate, a fate I thought had been settled a month ago when I was given the plum role. The Clancy schoolteacher job was mine. I’d been hired based on my newly acquired teacher’s certificate, the fact that I was a local who knew the children and the families and that I’d gone to the school myself.

“It has been brought to our attention—” The man pursed his lips as if he’d swallowed a lemon. “—your behavior has been… uncharacteristic of a schoolteacher.”

I felt my forehead crinkle. I knew Tara would say it would give me wrinkles, but I couldn’t help it. Not now. I couldn’t remain placid if I was losing my job.

“My behavior?”

The gentlemen seemed to squirm as a group. One mopped his brow with a handkerchief. I wanted to shift in my seat, fiddle my fingers, even wipe the sweat that was dotting on my upper lip. But no. I couldn’t show the least bit of emotion. Nothing, for I needed this job. It was my life.

Mr. Polk glanced left and right at the fellow members, cleared his throat. “We aren’t one to speak of such things, especially in front of a lady, but when it’s the lady in question…” He paused, perhaps to try to get me to admit to something. When I didn’t, he continued. “You were caught with your yard man in a very compromising position.”

My mouth fell open and my face went slack. Perhaps Tara would now think I looked like a fish. “I… compromising… with Mr. Nevil?” My voice got softer, but rose in pitch, as I pushed my glasses up my nose.

Several of the men nodded their heads.

Mr. Nevil was ten years older than I and had worked for my father since he was a teenager. I’d known him most of my life and while we were friendly, we were nothing more. I’d never once been alone with him to be caught doing anything compromising. I’d never been alone with any man. Who would be interested in me? I was a bluestocking. I had brown hair that curled wildly and was always untamed. I was short, plump, had freckles. I wore glasses. The list was long for the reasons why a man would not look twice at me, all of them brought to light again and again by my stepsisters. Since no man would want me, the schoolteacher role was perfect. One requirement was to be unmarried.

“We are disappointed, Miss Jamison, for a woman of your ilk to stumble so.”

I licked my lips. My breakfast settled greasily in my stomach. “Mr. Polk, I have not done anything inappropriate with Mr. Nevil or any other man.”

“You were witnessed,” he countered quickly.

It was in that moment, I knew.

I closed my eyes briefly, letting the gravity of the situation settle. This was all lies, of course, but it mattered not. It was machinations of Tara and Marina. My stepsisters hated me. While hated was a harsh word, it was apt for those two. They hated me enough to use Mr. Nevil’s good name to hurt me. And this was the ultimate cruelty.

They’d known I’d wanted to be a schoolteacher ever since my father married their mother and they moved into the house when they were fourteen. I was a year older, but no match for the duo. Never had been. They’d tortured me mercilessly ever since. Not a day went by when they didn’t taunt me or belittle me, hurt me physically or ruin my clothes. Their mother, Victoria Jamison, didn’t dissuade them. In fact, she disliked me as much as her daughters did. She’d wanted my father’s money, not me, when they married. When my father died a year after their nuptials, she was not pleased to be stuck with me—she couldn’t just toss me out onto the street and make herself look bad—and reminded me of that. The extent of their actions was so vast that I had become immune to their behavior. Until now.

With the schoolteacher role, I was to move out of the house and into the small cottage that was offered with the position this week, away from them and on my own. I was to be free of them entirely, except perhaps at church or crossing paths on the main street. But none of it was to be.

Why? Why were they being so cruel?

If they’d stabbed me in the chest with a knife, it would have hurt less. The men were watching me with shame in their eyes. I could not redeem myself. If they knew, then surely their wives did as well. Everyone would know within the hour, if not already. I could only imagine what Tara and Marina were doing while I sat here shamed by the town council.

I had to know, to be sure of the source of my downfall. I swallowed, tried to get the words past the knot of tears trapped in my throat. “Witnessed by whom?”

“Your sister Tara saw you with the man when she came from taking baskets of food to the needy.”

Tara, take food to the needy? I wanted to stand up and stomp my foot, to tell them the truth, but it would only paint me in a harsher light. It would only cast me as spiteful.

“And what of Mr. Nevil?” I wondered. How had he fared in this scandal? He was a nice man and I could only imagine how mad he would be to be used in such a way.

“A man can’t be helped if a woman tosses herself at him and lures him with her wicked ways.” That was Mr. Craft, who was the eldest of the group. He’d been married two decades before the War Between the States.

Tosses?” I replied, then bit my lip hard to remind myself to remain silent. I wanted to toss Tara right on her head, but that would do me no good. How could these men not even be mad at Mr. Nevil—even if he was innocent—and give me such harsh consequences?

“You have yet to take over the schoolteacher’s house, which is good. Your sister will be able to move in without delay.”

Mr. Polk’s words had me blinking. Had I heard him correctly? “My sister?” I whispered. I was sure my heart skipped a beat.

The men offered gentle smiles. “Yes, Miss Tara Jamison been kind enough to volunteer to fill the position until another teacher can be found.”

“She can’t count unless she uses her fingers,” I replied hastily. “How is she going to be able to teach the children?”

“Your spiteful behavior is unbecoming,” Mr. Seamus said, his brows high on his bald head. He sat at the far right and had his hands folded in his lap. His daughter, Miranda, was a friend of mine. He, more than any of the men, should know that Tara was not very studious.

“Mr. Seamus, you’ve known me for years. You all have.” I looked each man in the eye. “Does this seem like something I would do? Have I ever been known to be spiteful?”

“That is why it is so shocking,” Mr. Polk added.

“I may not represent myself?” I asked. They believed my sisters’ lies readily enough. Why wouldn’t they listen to the truth?

All of the men shook their heads, and Mr. Polk seemed to speak for the group. “Perhaps, Miss Jamison, some time with God will point you in the right direction. I am just thankful that your character has come to light now, before you were in front of the children of the community. You should hope that the ladies will be charitable toward you.”

I wasn’t just cast aside for the job, but I was now a pariah in Clancy. Everyone would know the council rescinded the schoolteacher job on the grounds of moral turpitude and because of this, everyone would consider the lies my stepsisters spread as truth. They would believe them because so many people thrived on titillating gossip. Everyone always did.

“You may go.”

That was it. After so much dreaming, years of study and then within ten minutes, it was all crushed and ruined beneath my stepsister’s booted foot. I had to give it one last effort, for none of it was true. It was so unfair! “But—”

“Miss Jamison, good day.” Mr. Polk’s voice now had a sharp bite and I knew there was no chance for further discussion. I was painted the harlot.

Slowly, I stood, but the men did not rise as would be courteous and respectful befitting a lady. Swallowing down a lump that formed in my throat, I went to the door and walked out into the bright sunshine. Wiping a tear that slipped down my cheek, I turned toward home. The sun was bright and reflected off my glasses, making me squint.

“It is almost too unbelievable. Someone like you being caught with the brawny Mr. Nevil.”

I looked over my shoulder toward the screeching voice. My stomach dropped. “Marina.”

Of course, they would be waiting for me. Surely they wanted to see my reaction to the news. It was part of the joy for them, to witness the outcome of their efforts. How had I not seen them, lying in wait and ready to gloat, to preen over my misfortune? Not wanting to chat, I turned back and continued toward home, ignoring them.

I heard their footsteps behind me, following. “You’re too homely for him, even if he is just a gardener. For any man, really.”

I could feel their gazes on my back, most likely looking down their noses at me, seeing my plain brown dress, my hair that was coming loose from its pins.

“But beggars can’t be choosers, can they?”

Marina’s words sliced deep as they always did. The scars from their countless wounds made me tough though. But I was weakened by what they’d done, for this was the cruelest yet. I had to know why.

Turning about, I faced both of my stepsisters, hands on my hips. They stopped abruptly and their curved eyebrows winged up in surprise. Marina was dark while her twin, Tara, was fair. They looked nothing alike, but their personalities matched perfectly. Ruthless, cunning and cruel. Where I was short and squat, they were tall and lithe, with long necks, perfect slight curves, perfectly coiffed hair.

“You don’t even like children,” I said, thinking of all the times Tara avoided assisting with Sunday school.

She smiled, although it was full of malice instead of warmth. “Children? I didn’t do all this for the children.”

“Then why?” I was close to tears and I tried so hard to remain stoic.

Marina patted her hair and shrugged. “We were bored and because we could. Now, Tara will have the lovely schoolteacher house and you will not.”

They ruined my life because they were bored. I couldn’t take any more restraint and the tears fell then. Both ladies tsked me and each took an arm, spun me about and led me down the street away from the house. “What kind of lady are you, crying in the street?”

Even with watery eyes, I saw Tara reach into her reticule and pull out a piece of paper.

“Here.”

She foisted it at me, but I couldn’t read with my tears. I needed to wipe my glasses.

“Oh, yes, you can’t see, can you?” After her gentle reminder at another deficiency of mine, she began to read. “Proxy marriage of Miss Eve Jamison to Mr. Melvin Thomkins of Slate Springs, Colorado.”

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