Chapter 34, Part 3

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She stood and paced, trying to hold her tears in check. Finally, she returned to Dixon's side.

"I knew by then that I couldn't meet Seth's needs myself. So with the assistance of a friend from the local sanctuary, I left him with a couple that had longed for a child for many years." Tears rolled down her cheeks. "I thought my heart would break." She sucked in a deep breath.

"Shortly after that, I joined the Oathtakers. I didn't want to think about families or children or risk ever having to lose someone, anyone, ever again.

"When I first became the girls' Oathtaker, I started thinking back to those days. I had stuffed my feelings of anger and betrayal and . . . failure and guilt, down, very deep, for a long time. I thought I had it all under control," she held back a cry, "until we left for Polesk and I had to leave the girls. And even then, I denied my feelings. But once we got back to the inn, back to them, I just . . ." She wept. "Well, the thought of leaving them again is like thinking about breathing in . . . mud.

"So you see, even if it could be—and you know it cannot—I wouldn't be worthy of you. I'm not someone whose word you can trust. I worry every day that I'll break the oath I swore to protect the twins, that I'll not live up to the demands, that I'm . . . unworthy of them."

He looked away.

"I'm sorry, Dixon. I should have been more careful. I shouldn't have chanced your coming with me from the beginning. This is all my fault."

He remained quiet for a long time, watching the starlight sparkle upon the water. Finally, he spoke. "So let me get this straight. Because you decided not to abide by a promise forced from you, you think your life is over. Because you were so horrible as to surrender a child to a better life, to parents who would love him and could care for him, you've no right to expect a future of your own. Because—"

"Don't, Dixon," she whispered. "It cannot be."

"Because you thought of someone else's needs over your own—"

"I said, 'Don't!'"

"Wheewww! Don't you see? Everything you say confirms what I know and reveals what you're saying for the falsehood it is."

Her eyes flashed his way. "What do you mean?"

"Mara," he said quietly, "you think you broke an oath. All right, you feel guilty. I understand that. But I think you're wrong. Not only was the promise you gave forced from you—but you abided by it. You did care for Seth. You did the best thing for him that you could. But even if I'm wrong, even if you should shoulder some blame for what happened, it seems to me you're paying a heavier price than necessary. And who would I be to hold anything against you?" He caught her eye. "What? You think I've never done anything I was ashamed of or felt badly about? Shall we have a contest here? Let's see, there was the time—"

"Stop it, Dixon."

He looked down. "You're being too hard on yourself. Do you know anyone who's perfect? Anyone who's never made a mistake or questioned their own judgment about a decision they made? If you do, please, I beg of you, don't ever introduce him to me."

He watched a longboat float past. "You were taken advantage of and you did what you could to right the wrong. I can't help but think that both you and Seth are better off for what you did. Don't you think that one day you might have blamed him for your feeling so helpless?" Glancing Mara's way again, he exhaled slowly. "From everything you just said, you did all you could to make things right."

"But I left him!" She jumped to her feet. "And after promising to care for him."

He reached up and grasped her hand. She tried to shake his grip loose, but he held on more tightly. "Sit," he commanded as he pulled her forward.

Reluctantly, she conceded.

"Hear me out. It's time you put this behind you. You were able to see that Jo used you, but you seem unable to understand that you're not to blame for that."

She looked away. A tear spilled.

"Mara, do you know how difficult it would have been to raise that child on your own? Have you any idea how much a child needs a family? You may think you broke a promise, one unfairly gained from you I might add, but you gave Seth the most and best you could. A real chance at a good life."

She bit her lip. "Somehow it all seems so clear when you say it that way."

"It is clear."

"So maybe Grandmother was right. Jo accepted the consequences but . . . I didn't. And I shouldn't have had to pay the price for her actions."

"It seems so."

She chuckled softly. "She was a good and most brilliant woman, my grandmother."

"And it seems you've followed in her footsteps."

"I don't know. I guess I'd like to think goodness could skip a generation and still re-appear."

"What do you mean?"

"Mother."

"What about her?"

"She's something else."

"Tell me about her."

Mara shook her head. "I guess to understand Mother is to understand Jo. I never really got that until . . . Jack."

Dixon listened quietly.

"Jo was—is still, I assume—difficult. No," she continued, holding her hand up as though physically arresting something, "wait a minute. That's too kind . . . and not altogether honest. Jo is willful, selfish, completely egocentric. She always got what she wanted, which was usually what I had, then she tossed it away like so much trash."

"And Mother?"

"Mother supported everything Jo did. If I did something wrong, Jo could hold it against me for an eternity. Mother would say we had to be understanding and patient. If Jo did something wrong, Mother said we had to be longsuffering and forgiving. If I held something against Jo, I was being judgmental. If Jo held something against me, she was simply misunderstood. We needed to give her time to get over her disappointments. 'Life had been hard on her,' Mother said."

Mara sighed. "Jo thought I was bitchy. I thought she was immature. Jo thought I was unforgiving. I thought she was unrepentant. Jo thought I was judgmental. I thought she was self-centered and completely thoughtless. Mother always backed her, making it a virtual certainty that she'd never grow up."

"Why do you suppose that was?"

"Ha! Why Mother always backed Jo? In short?" She glanced at Dixon. "Mother lived vicariously through Jo. I think on some level she admired that Jo did what Mother only longed to do. The more outrageous Jo's behavior, the more Mother backed her. There was no competing with that. And in the end, I'd never known such peace as I've known since I left home. I don't ever intend to go back."

The sounds of a boat floating down the canal drifted upward. The water splashed quietly as the oarsmen lifted and pushed, lifted and pushed.

Dixon patted out a rhythm on his thigh. "So this explains why you don't want to leave the girls."

She nodded. "I feel better about it now though." She looked at him, held his gaze. "I guess it did me good to talk about it. Thank you."

He smiled weakly. "So . . . where does this leave us?"    


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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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