This time, she prayed until her dry tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and her tears would no longer come. Her stomach, too empty to churn, seized with the acid flavor of terror. After two days, she barely had the strength to sit up, so she lay against the stone wall, her blanket wrapped around her.
I don't think he means to let me out this time.
The realization opened up the void within her. The one where the light used to be, where God used to live.
The hinges on the cellar window protested as the vicar yanked them open, and a bucket of water sloshed as her father lowered it to the ground with uncharacteristic haste.
Cecelia pushed herself to sit on trembling arms.
"You drink and wash, just in case," her father barked. "But if you make a sound whilst they're here, you'll never again see the outside of this room, do you mark me, girl?"
He didn't wait for her reply. The window banged shut and he walked away without bothering to lock it.
Cecelia sat in frozen astonishment for a few breaths before scrambling toward the bucket. She didn't heed the filth of her hands as she cupped them into the vessel and greedily slurped the contents. Unable to slake her thirst thus, she lifted the entire bucket to her lips and all but drowned herself in the process of tipping it back to wet her greedy throat.
Footsteps marched overhead, a short, staccato sound very different than that of her father's heavy-soled boots.
They were upstairs. Who were they, that could alarm her father so?
Setting the bucket down quietly, she climbed the stairs and crept to the door, crouching to listen beneath the crack. "Where y'all keeping her, Preacher?" a foreign feminine voice demanded in an accent Cecelia couldn't have conceived of even if her mind hadn't been muddled by hunger.
She pressed her hand to the cool wood of the door. Were they looking for her? Had her prayers been answered after all these tearful years?
"The whereabouts of my daughter is of no concern to a whore."
This was no great clue to the identity of the woman. To Josiah Teague, every daughter of Eve was likely also a secret prostitute.
"Not a whore, just a businesswoman," the lady had the audacity to correct her father as she moved closer. "I was warned you were a sanctimonious charlatan. You look down on us, pray for and pity us. You condemn and humiliate us, all the while unaware that we do nothing but sit around and laugh about that limp, useless little appendage swinging between your legs."
"You dare to—" The rest of the words cut off in a whoosh, as though they'd been stolen from him by a blow to the gut.
"Oh, Hortense told us all about your impotence," continued the woman. "We are all aware you're not that child's daddy."
Hortense. Her mother.
At this revelation, Cecelia must have fainted because the next thing she knew she was being scooped off the floor and clutched against the plump, pillowy bosoms of a stranger. "Why, you poor darlin'," a syrupy voice cooed.
"Bless your sweet, little heart. How long has that mean old preacher kept you cooped up down here?"
"I..." Frightened, uncertain, Cecelia glanced up the stairs to see her forbidding father being held at bay by a man significantly shorter than he, but wide enough to fill the entire door.
Her questions were answered the moment the reverend's eyes met hers. Black eyes, the same color as his hair.
As his soul.
No...not her father. He was lean, tall, and sharp, his nose long and his chin severe.
When Cecelia had studied her soft round features in the mirror, she'd never noted the slightest hint of him, and now she knew why.
She didn't belong to him.