The Old Claddagh Ring

 

New York City, 1861

 

“We can’t possible separate them!” Frances Blake gaped at her older sister, her eyes wide with horror. “Not after everything they’ve already been through. Oh, Rachel, it would be too cruel!”

 

“What else can we do?” Her sister regarded her with cold blue eyes. “You can’t take them both on—not when you and Charlie are about to join the wagon train. And I certainly can’t …my delicate constitution, you know.” Rachel Fayerweather dabbed at her brow with an exquisitely embroidered hand-kerchief.

 

I wonder how many mouths that handkerchief could feed. Frances’s eyes narrowed. Rachel had a ‘delicate constitution’ only when it suited her. Though perhaps she was being uncharitable. At this moment, Rachel had every good reason to be delicate. “But they’re such tiny little angels…”

 

“Tiny enough and young enough to forget.” Rachel glanced at the two small girls who clung desperately to each other. Their pretty violet eyes had rounded with confusion and misery, their hair curled around their delicate little faces in identical golden ringlets.

 

Frances, too, gazed down at the girls. They’re two peas in a pod. Even their dimples are identical, though Lord knows the poor little scraps have had little to smile about since the accident.

 

Rachel grabbed a hand and stared down into the haunted little face. “I’ll take this one.”

 

Anna Clare stared up at Aunt Rachel. That’s who Mr. Foxworth had said she was. They’d said her two aunts would come to see her and her sister, now that Mama and Papa…

 

“Which one are you?”

 

“M-my name is Anna Clare.”

 

“Very well, then, Anna Clare. As Mr. Foxworth informed you, I am your Aunt Rachel. You will live with me and your Uncle Andrew.”

 

Horror freezing her, Anna Clare fought to free herself from her aunt’s iron grip. “No, no! Don’t wanna go wif you! Wanna stay wif Sissie. Wanna stay with Anna Lynn!”

 

“Anna Lynn will live with your Aunt Frances and Uncle Charles. They are going—”

 

Aunt Frances knelt before Anna Clare. She was younger than Aunt Rachel, her face softer, but sadness dimmed her kind blue eyes. She reached out to tuck a few strands of Anna Clare’s hair behind her ear. Anna Clare began to tremble. “We are going to be very happy to have Sissie, Anna Clare, and you will be able to visit her often.”

 

Two tears slid down Anna Clare’s face. She gazed from Frances to Rachel before her eyes locked with Sissie’s. “Wanna stay wif Sissie.” She cast a scathing look up at Aunt Rachel. “She says you’re going away.”

 

Aunt Frances glared up at Aunt Rachel. Could this strange, scary woman really be Mama’s sister? Mama, who was kind and gentle and loving. Pain exploded in Anna Clare’s chest and her eyes blurred. Why had Mama and Papa gone away? Why weren’t they here?

 

Aunt Rachel gave a shrug. “Really, Frances, why lie to the child? She will have to know eventually.”

 

Anna Clare stared up into Aunt Rachel’s set face. It was true. Aunt Frances was going away, and she would take Anna Lynn with her. And there was nothing Anna Clare could do to stop her.

 

Something tore through Anna Clare’s soul, rending in in half. Shrieking sobs burst from her throat. She broke free from her aunt’s restraining grasp and flew to embrace her sister, holding her close in a desperate effort to absorb her comforting warmth, her smell, her spirit.

 

“Come along now, girls, that is quite enough!” Anna Clare scarcely heard Aunt Rachel’s voice over her own frightened sobs. Her sister clung fiercely to her, her head nestled against Anna Clare’s shoulder, trembling violently. How could she leave Sissie? Mama had made her promise to take care of her. Sissie needed her.

 

Aunt Rachel jerked hard on Anna Clare’s arm. “Say your good-byes now, girls.”

 

“No!” Anna Clare’s scream rose above her sister’s mewling sobs. She tore free and flung her arms about her sister once more. “Sissie needs me! Wanna stay wif her! Wanna stay wif Sissie!”

 

Her thin, high-pitched wail sent shivers down Frances’s spine. They were doing a terrible thing. These girls were twins. It was all very well for Rachel to say they’d forget. Frances wasn’t so sure. She threw an appealing gaze at Rachel.

 

“What else can we do? You’re going west, and you’re six months pregnant. You can’t take on any more. It’s for the best, Frances.”

 

Before Anna Clare understood what was happening, Aunt Rachel pulled her away from Anna Lynn and lifted her into her arms. She screamed and struggled against the unyielding grip, but Aunt Rachel held her tight and turned to go.

 

“Anna Clare.” Anna Lynn spoke for the first time, her tiny whisper slicing through Anna Clare’s screams. Anna Clare whipped around, the shining strands of her hair striking Rachel’s face. Anna Lynn’s plump little arms reached in vain for her. Her mouth trembled, her face streaked with tears.

 

Her own arms went out to Anna Lynn, who sobbed quietly and rubbed her eyes with one plump fist. “Sissie! Sissie!” She beat at her aunt’s shoulders, squirming frantically. Aunt Rachel must let her go. She must make her let her go! “Oh, don’t take me away, Aunt Rachel, please don’t take me away! Sissie needs me!” Her voice dissolved into screaming, heartbroken sobs.

 

Aunt Rachel ignored her desperate pleas as she carried her from the house. Anna Clare fought to be free, jerking violently from side to side, kicking, screaming, and arching her back.

 

Before she knew it, they were outside. The bright sunshine hurt her reddened eyes, and she squeezed them shut. When she opened them again, she saw the great black carriage. Her screams subsided to harsh gulping sobs. “Sissie.” Her voice dropped to a small, hopeless whisper. Pain slashed her small, trembling body. “Want Sissie.”

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