Armored Hearts
Author:Melissa Turner Lee

Armored Hearts - By Melissa Turner Lee

Chapter 1

Twelve-year-old Tristan Gareth Smyth gripped the armrests of his wheelchair and said, “This will do. I can make it the rest of the way on my own from here.”

His eyes trained up the landmark tree, and he had that stirring in his heart again. The vapor of a memory, maybe a dream. He always had that feeling when he looked up at the broad branches of this particular oak. Then he remembered who he was talking to and his face hardened.

The maid, Sarah, with her strong Scottish burr, patted him on the shoulder. Gareth refused to look at her. He stared down at his knee pants instead.

“Are ye sure ye will be all right? I dona mind walking with ye the rest of the way to Mr. Strong’s house.”

Gareth clenched his hands into fists. “I’ll be fine.”

“Too bad he didn’t like coming out to the manor. Remember how green Mr. Strong got when he choked on me spice cake that day and ran off.” She laughed but tried to cover it with a cough. “I thought that would be the end of ’im but he worked it out with yer grandfather to instruct ye in town. Funny, me spice didna bother the rest of ye.”

She bent down in front of Gareth, attempting to make eye contact. “There are lots of children in this section of town. Her arms swept toward the houses along the road. “Ye might try making friends with ’em.”

He turned away and clenched his jaw. Children never wanted to make friends with him. The chair made them uncomfortable. And what did he care anyway? He attempted to give her as stern a look as his grandfather would. “I know the way from here, and I won’t be late. You can go on to market now.”

The breeze picked up and blew wisps of red hair into the woman’s round face. She smiled. “Oh, it’s such a pretty day. This fresh air will do ye good, fer certain.”

Was she making fun of him? Gareth scowled.

She patted her hands on her knees and stood straight again. “Well, then, I’ll leave ye to it. I’ve got to run off to the baker’s. Be sure to get to Mr. Strong’s in a timely manner. Though I think yer old governess was doing a fine job. Not sure why ye need Mr. Strong. But I guess it’s none of me concern.”

She was a servant, in uniform, and he was the future Earl of Pensees. Following his instruction was her duty. She and her husband, Thompton, had been employed by his grandfather as far back as Gareth could remember, but regardless, they might find themselves out of work and heading back to Scotland if she kept voicing that sort of opinion.

No, Gareth could never really get them fired. But he’d make her think he could. He shook his head in the same disapproving manner he’d seen his grandfather use.

The sunlight played in the golden highlights of the woman’s ruby hair. Although her green eyes twinkled, she continued to voice her cutting opinion. She placed one hand on his shoulder. “It’s not being stuck in this chair that keeps ye lonely. It’s yer surly attitude.”

Gareth couldn’t help but let his forehead scrunch a little. He crossed his arms and turned his face from her.

Her accent was thick and melodic, familiar in a way. His mother had been Scottish though he hardly remembered her. Still, Gareth kept his pout in place. The truth was, he didn’t know how to relate to others. Even people who could feel at ease talking to perfect strangers stammered or spoke quickly to him and walked away. The wheelchair did more than keep him from playing.

She straightened the collar of his waistcoat. “Look, there’s a little girl comin’ now. She looks to be about Tabitha’s age. Maybe a wee bit older.”

He did glance then, but just under his lashes, not to give the impression that he cared. Easier to act like he didn’t care than to show he truly did. He refused to give anyone more reason to feel sorry for him. No one pities an angry person.

He missed Tabitha…Tabitha Fitzgerald, his grandfather, Lord Gerald Smyth, Earl of Pensees’s bastard daughter. But ward was her polite title. At five years old, she had been the only person he allowed to get close. Maybe it was the way she would climb up in his lap, never caring about the wheelchair. She didn’t see it when she looked at him; she only saw Gareth.

He never spoke to Tabitha about who her parents really were, but she knew. For some reason, servants believed children to be both deaf and dumb and gossiped openly around them. That’s how Gareth knew the truth about his own mother. He was told she died, but he’d overheard the maids say she had run back home to Scotland and how they didn’t blame her. It’s also how he’d learned the truth of his own father’s death—shot by his mistress’s jealous husband.

“I’m heading off. I’ll be sure to get ye a sweet roll for later.”

Gareth only grunted in response.

When the maid turned away, Gareth allowed himself to watch the little girl play. Her hair was a darker blonde than Tabitha’s and had streaks of amber. She looked to be a bit taller, too, as she ran around in a green day dress and stockings. She pushed a hoop along until she reached the tree. Once there, she looked both ways. Her eyes met Gareth’s, and for a moment, he was tempted to turn away to keep her from doing it first. Instead, she smiled broadly and beckoned him closer.

Gareth wheeled his chair to the tree trunk, his curiosity getting the better of him. The girl dropped the hoop on the ground and took hold of the lowest branch. She whispered in an accent he didn’t recognize, “Keep watch for me and call out if you see anyone coming.”

His chin tucked in and his eyes grew wide. She took it as assent and nodded, starting her climb. She was spirited like Tabitha. The thought of being able to climb a tree at all pricked at Gareth’s heart. He would never get to climb a tree.

Again he put on his bored expression. No one needed to know he was jealous of the girl. Gareth made a habit of never owning his true feelings. It was his protective covering. With his lids half closed, he tried not to watch the girl or keep an eye out for anyone else’s approach. Without his permission, his gaze returned to the girl’s powder-white limbs as she climbed higher than most children did.

Soon she was too high up.

Gareth adjusted himself in his seat, his eyes darting around. Instead of keeping lookout, he hoped for some adult to show up and tell the girl to come down.

The girl called in a harsh whisper. “Look! Watch this.”

She scooted out on a branch, making her way to a bird’s nest. The limb wobbled as she got closer to the end.

He was about to call out a warning to her when it was too late. The branch snapped. The little girl was falling with barely a squeal.

All Gareth could think was that he needed to do something. He rushed toward her and blinked. How? He didn’t know how he had caught her but he had. Her giant brown eyes grew as he held her, several feet above the ground. Then she looked down and her eyes became wider. He swallowed hard and in a rush, touched the ground, placed the girl on the grass, and flew back to his chair.

His heart still pounded in his ears as he sat. He tried to mask his confusion as he masked all other uncomfortable emotions, but it wasn’t working. The girl stared at him, but said nothing as a dark-haired woman rushed toward her.

“Sweeting, are you ok?” The woman swept the girl up into her arms. “I got here as fast as I could. I can’t believe you did that. I thought I told you not to climb that tree.”

She put the girl back down and looked her over, grabbing her head and looking for a sign of injury. “Aren’t you hurt at all? I saw you falling from the window upstairs.”

The girl shook her head too quickly, like she was still in shock.

“Come on back to the house,” the pinch-faced woman snapped, ushering the little girl away.

The girl yanked her hand free of the woman’s grasp and rushed back to Gareth. She placed an object in his hand and kissed his cheek.

“You were amazing,” she whispered and turned back to the woman who called out her name.

Gareth’s cheeks burned. What did the woman say the girl’s name was? He didn’t hear with the blood rushing to his ear drums. Jessie? Jenny?

The woman scolded the girl as she returned to her. “What did you do? Where are your manners? You don’t talk to cripples. Best to act like you don’t see them at all.”

The words struck Gareth like a bucket of cold water, but he let it slide off him as he thought about the fact that he had actually flown. He watched after the girl as her dark eyes stared back. His mind was muddled at what had happened. The muscles in his face hardened, and he stared at the woman’s back as they retreated.

Shaking his head, he remembered he was supposed to be heading to Mr. Strong’s house. He pushed the wheels of his chair down the road again. He’d forgotten he was holding something, and nearly dropped it. The small, pale blue-green stone had a few dark wrinkles, but almost looked like a robin’s egg. He put it to his nose. The flowery scent of the stone smelled just like the girl.

Gareth was so caught up in staring at how tiny the stone was in his palm, he’d forgotten all about Mr. Strong until the man called, “Master Tristan, what are you doing out here? You were to report to my house a quarter of an hour ago.”

“I prefer Gareth.” He narrowed his eyes at the pale, feeble man.

Mr. Strong ran a hand through his sparse, blond hair and smiled, his lips forming a thin line. “Yes, of course.”

Mr. Strong placed himself behind Gareth’s chair and pushed down the lane. “I have an excellent plan for your studies today. I see you’ve brought no supplies from your home but no matter, I have plenty of paper and pens to practice your lettering…”

Gareth rolled his eyes, knowing Mr. Strong couldn’t see. The man’s cheerful babble continued as he pushed him toward the house past the inn. The stone rolled between Gareth’s fingers, and he remembered the feeling of the girl’s lips on his cheek.

***

Gareth sat alone at dinner that evening, only picking at his plate. The long hardwood table seemed bigger than usual and the house was hollow and quiet with Tabitha away. Grandfather and Tabitha would be in London until the end of the month.

Grandfather could stay in town forever as far as Gareth was concerned. It was Tabitha he missed. His grandfather couldn’t even look him in the eye. Every time Grandfather’s hard gaze laid on Gareth, it accused him of falling short of what a legitimate heir should be. Accused him of being worthless because he was a cripple.

He swallowed hard and choked down the cold bite of food he’d taken. It clawed its way down his constricted throat. If only he could walk and run like the other boys. Then maybe he’d be at boarding school with them instead of the empty house. Or at least in London with Tabitha. He blinked hard when he remembered. He could fly.

But had he really flown? Maybe it was some sort of fantasy he’d let get out of control. But there was the little girl. She was too real to be fantasy. Her body had been warm and soft against his, and her giant brown eyes had locked on him when he caught her. She’d smelled like flowers. He pulled the stone from his pocket and sniffed it again, closing his eyes.

It had to be real. If he flew once, could he do it again?

Gareth normally waited at the table for a servant to push him to the stairs, pick him up from his chair, and carry him to his chamber. He decided to wheel himself. The winding staircase of the Waverly Park unfolded before him like an uncurled tongue. He glanced about, just as the little girl had done before climbing the tree.

First he thought the word ‘fly,’ but nothing happened. He tried lifting his rear off the seat and pushing himself forward, but let out a stifled yelp of pain as his shoulder hit the railing before he fell onto the red carpet on the stairs.

Gareth pulled himself by the railing and stood. His legs wobbled but held. He rubbed his upper arm. It was sure to sport a bruise the next day. Strange how he was able to kick and stand but not able to walk. He used his leg to pull the chair closer. No doctor could explain it. His grandfather accused him of faking—like Gareth would choose to be stuck in the blasted chair.

He narrowed his eyes at the ugly, brown, wooden chair on wheels that kept him separated from life. His grandfather took Tabitha to the city every few months. Gareth had never been. His grandfather said making accommodations for him and his chair was too much trouble. He was almost a grown man, and yet a male servant bathed him. He hated the chair.

Gareth glanced up the stairs toward his chamber door. He thought about how he wanted to be there—to go there on his own, without a servant carrying him and going back for his chair. He stared at the door and willed himself there.

The door drew closer and closer. He glanced down. The stairs lay beneath him along with his chair. He was floating upward and toward his bed chamber. He thought he heard a servant coming and willed himself to go faster, like he’d done that morning in order to catch the little girl.

He pushed the door open and flew inside, kicking the door behind him. It slammed shut. The freedom of this new discovery made his soul take flight. Gareth flew to the ceiling and got a close-up view of the cherubs there and smiled. That was a rare thing, for Gareth to smile with Tabitha away. Until that moment, she was the only one capable of pulling one out of him.

A knock came from the door. Gareth hurried his descent and was seated on the bed by the time the door opened. Sarah peeked in. “Lord Gareth, are ye in here?”

Gareth gave her his usual grumpy look. “Where else would I be?”

“But yer chair is still downstairs and ye didna ring the bell fer Roberts. How’d ye get up here?”

Gareth’s words stumbled on his tongue as he made up an answer. “I…he… walked by me at the bottom of the stairs, and I had him carry me up.”

“He must’a fergot to go back fer yer chair. I’ll go fetch it fer ye.”

“No! I don’t want it in here.”

Sarah stepped in, her eyebrows furrowed. “Allow me to get ye ready fer bed.”

“No! I’m old enough to do that myself, too.”

“How?”

Gareth exploded. “I am the lord here when my grandfather is absent. Do not question me!”

Sarah bowed, eyes to the floor. “Yes m’lord. Sorry fer bein impertinent.” She left without looking up again and closed the door behind her.

Gareth bounded from his bed and grabbed hold of the wing chair in his room. He pushed it against his chamber door. His grandfather didn’t allow him a proper lock. He circled around, hovering just above the floorboards. What to do next? His gaze fell on the balcony doors.

He flew toward them and threw them open. The breeze blew through the leaves of the tree across from the window. With a smile, he soared over the railing. Gareth had never been in a tree before. He’d envied the little girl that morning and her ability to explore. Now he had his chance.

But not this tree. It was small and weak. He wanted to sit in his favorite tree. It was dark so no one would be out and about in the town’s square. He flew faster and faster through the graying darkness. The wind rushing through his hair tickled and he laughed freely. Gareth blinked against the chill night wind.

Within minutes Gareth found the town’s square and settled on a tree limb. His favorite oak tree now had a new memory. The tree the girl had climbed that very morning. The tree he’d watched countless little boys climb. Now he was there.

He looked down the path toward the house the little girl had gone back into earlier. He’d have to find out who she was and convince her to keep his secret.

Gareth took off toward the house and peered into one of the upstairs windows, but the room was empty. The bed was made, and stark white sheets covered the rest of the furniture. He made his way to the next window. It too was dark, empty, and dust sheets covered all the furniture. The whole house was devoid of life.

Was she a ghost after all? A phantom?

He fingered the stone in his waistcoat pocket. It was still there. Gareth heard a rustling sound below and looked down. Fear gripped at his chest at the thought of being discovered, but it was only a dog. It looked like Tabitha’s speckled brown mutt.

Gareth left the town and soared over open pastures and empty fields. It wasn’t until bats flew by and spooked him that he decided to go home.

He flew through his balcony doors. Standing in the middle of his room was wide-eyed Tabitha. Her orange tabby cat circled her legs.

“Gareth?”

His eyes shot to the door. The chair legs had made two deep scratches in the hardwood floor, and the door stood open only six inches. Enough for Tabitha to squeeze through. He quickly made his way to the door and slammed it shut. The chair nearly struck the floor. He righted it before flying to Tabitha and setting his feet on the floor in front of her. Blonde ringlets framed her face and fell into her eyes. Gareth pushed them aside, revealing round baby-cheeks.

“Hey, my favorite girl. Did you have fun in London?”

Her pupils nearly swallowed the blue of her eyes. She whispered, “You were flying. Like in the fairy stories Sarah tells me.”

Gareth calmed his racing heart. Would treating flying as normal be the best way to deal with this? “Yes, it’s a new trick I learned today. Want me to take you for a fly? It’s even better than a ride in my chair.”

She nodded enthusiastically and raised her arms to him. A smile grew on her lips. He lifted his little aunt to his hip and cradled her. “All right. But just a short trip around the room.”

He held her close as he buzzed around the ceiling a half dozen times. He reversed his path to keep them both from growing dizzy.

She giggled wildly until he shushed her. “Now this must be our secret. You can’t tell Lord Gerald or Sarah or anyone.”

“Why not?”

Gareth lowered his feet to the ground and set Tabitha on the floor before sitting on the bed. He raised his brows causing his forehead to wrinkle for emphasis. “Because then it wouldn’t be our secret. I never tell Lord Gerald about the animals you find and bring home, now do I?”

She shook her head. “No, you never do.”

“So can you keep this secret for me?”

Tabitha’s cat pawed and scratched at Gareth’s door. He flew over to it and quickly let it out. He turned back to face the blue-eyed little girl looking up at him. “Can you promise?”

Her eyes were like giant blueberries. “Yes, I promise.”

He patted her on the head. “Good girl. Now why are you back already?”

“I told Lord Gerald, I missed you too much.”

The words pulled that string in his heart again, making him feel sad and happy at the same time. Gareth took her in his arms and held the child to his chest. “I’m glad you’re back. I missed you, too. The house is empty with you gone.”

A knock sounded at the door.

“Yes?” Gareth called out.

Sarah peeked in. “Have ye seen… oh there ye are, little missy. Come now. Time to get ready for bed.”

Sarah stared at the grooves in the floor and eyed the chair sitting in an odd place. Her green eyes met his with a questioning glance, and he returned her look steadily. Neither said a word.

Tabitha took the maid’s offered hand. Sarah dropped her eyes and lead the child out, closing the door behind her.

For the very first time in his life, Gareth dressed himself. After pulling the stone from the pocket, he wadded his waistcoat into a bundle and threw it in a corner. He set the stone in a special place on top of his wardrobe where no one would find it. With a nod, he settled himself on his bed, lying down and pulling up the covers.

A new sense of life filled Gareth. He’d need to be careful. The staff was more alert with the old man home.

Gareth smiled as he drifted off to sleep. He dreamed of flying off and never coming back. But another dream intermingled with that one, filled with a honey-blonde girl and large brown eyes. A girl he’d never seen before and wondered if he’d ever see again.