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Chapter 26, Part 2-1

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She leaned over the washbasin and splashed her face with water.

Nina approached. "You shouldn't worry about it," she said, her hand on Mara's back.

The Oathtaker stood up and looked at Nina. Her eyes narrowed. "Worry about what?"

"Oh, you know, about Dixon's teasing you. He's just trying to rile you up."

Mara dried her face. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Really, you've nothing to worry about."

"I'm not worried. About Dixon? Don't be ridiculous."

"He respects you enormously, you know."

Mara pursed her lips. She was at a loss for words.

"And," Nina continued, "he was jealous out there."

"Nina, there's nothing between Dixon and me. We have a job to do, that's all." She turned away.

"Now who's being ridiculous?" Nina murmured.

"Excuse me?" Mara turned back suddenly. She could hear herself, the frustration in her voice.

"I'm just saying—"

"Let it go." Mara would have to have a talk with the woman one day. She'd have to explain how impossible it was for her to be attached to Dixon—or to anyone for that matter—so long as she was subject to her oath.

She took Eden from Adele, then sat to cuddle the infant. She closed her eyes, confused. Nina had set her to thinking. Why had she kept Dixon with her anyway? Why had she been so insistent about getting him back from the palace? Was it because she needed him to help her to protect the girls? Or because she just wanted to have him near her?

Her thoughts wandered. She'd chosen to be an Oathtaker. She knew that upon taking her oath, she'd given up any chance of being connected to anyone, or of having her own family—possibly for a very long time. The rules did not permit it—and it was just as well. One time had been enough anyway. That one time, so long ago, had been enough.

She generally discouraged looking back, and since swearing her oath, she'd refused to do so, even for a minute. But today she found herself stepping back in time, into her memories, her hauntings, her pains.

As her past invaded her thoughts, she grew tense. Flashes of images ran through her mind, as vivid and intense emotions coursed through her body—feelings of longing, abandonment, betrayal, pain, loneliness, and confusion. She weakly attempted to hold them back, then succumbed to their power.

She'd been so young, so innocent, so trusting and naïve when Jack had come into her life—handsome, captivating, Jack, whose smile brought a twinkle to his eyes and dimples to his cheeks. She saw him so clearly in her mind. She could almost smell the ever-present scent of mint that he wore.

Just seventeen, she'd been ignorant of the ways of the world. Jack charged into her life, wooed her. He stirred emotions she'd never before experienced. She thought he'd be there always, that she was the only one for him, and that she need have no fear for the days to come. He would meet any troubles alongside her. She was moved by his presence, his power, his . . . charm. The thought made her frown.

But then . . .

Then, along came Jo; Jo, the youngest; Jo, Mother's favorite; Jo, who never did anything honorable, but whom Mother could never admit did any wrong.

It had taken Mara years to appreciate how that could be. Then one day, a revelation came to her: Jo was exactly like Mother. She epitomized everything Mother was, everything she believed deep inside herself, and everything she wanted to be, or to have been. Mother allowed Jo her every flaw because Jo's flaws were her own. The only difference was that Jo was willing to act on things Mother had only dreamed of doing.

Jo always wanted whatever belonged to Mara. So naturally, when she discovered Jack, she set her eyes upon him. Younger than Mara by just a year, Jo pursued him wherever he went. She seduced him with her smiles and her favors.

It was only afterward that Mara discovered what Jo had done.

Afterward. But am I really at fault for abandoning the little one? Hadn't it been the only way? I wonder, where is he now? She saw his face in her mind. She counted his little fingers, his toes. She felt his smooth skin, the warmth of his rosy cheeks.

She didn't want to revisit these emotions. She didn't want to remember her failure. She didn't want to go back. She'd been with the girls for weeks now and had successfully managed not to reflect, not to remember.

"Mara?"

She jolted upright.

"Are you all right?"

She looked at Nina. She fought to bring herself under control, to put a figurative finger in the dam that would hold back her emotional journey. "Yes, of course."

"Are you crying? I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to—"

The Oathtaker wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She hadn't meant to reveal her emotions. "No, of course not."

"Truly, I'm sorry. Really, I didn't mean—"

"Forget it, Nina. I'm not angry. I'm just tired, I guess. This journeying wears on a body."

"We're all right then? You and I?"

"Sure. Why wouldn't we be?"

"You know. What I said before?"

"Forget it, Nina. I have."

Someone knocked at the door.

"Care to tell me what color is on the other side?" the young woman asked, in an effort to lighten the mood.

Mara smirked. "I don't need to. I can hear what they're thinking."

"That works too," Nina chuckled, clearly relieved that the tension between them had dissipated.

"It's Therese and the others." Mara opened the door to them.

By the time everyone had cleaned up and changed clothes, it was getting late. They were all hungry—except for the twins, both of whom Nina had just nursed.

"Want to dine in?" Dixon asked.

"No, I think we should all go down. These quarters are going to feel cramped soon enough as it is," Mara said.

"Great. Do we all sit together? One big group?"

"Mmmm, no. I think we stay in the same two separate groups. That way, we can better observe whether anyone pays us any undue attention."

"I like it." He turned to Samuel and Jules. "We'll go now. You come along whenever you're comfortable."

As they made their way to the pub, he turned to Mara. "You know, Nancy was just having a bit of fun with us, right?"

"Sure. Of course." She kept her eyes forward. She was unsure of her own feelings and didn't want to give the wrong impression. Her trip down memory lane had momentarily weakened her.

"We go way back."

She stopped short. "Is there some reason you're telling me all this, Dixon?" She willed herself not to disclose her discomfort.

"No . . . I just didn't want you to get the wrong impression."

"I didn't get any kind of impression." She continued forward.


***Thank you for taking time with Oathtaker. I sincerely appreciate your votes and welcome your comments.***

Oathtaker is an award-winner in the 2014 Readers' Favorite International Book Award contest. A completed work, it is currently available in print form at CreateSpace at createspace.com/4767727, in print and for your Kindle on Amazon (see the link) and from Barnes and Noble for your Nook.

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