"You are agreeable to this?" Ethan asked, wanting to know her honest opinion. He tried to keep his tone flat, giving her a chance to revise her decision.
She walked toward him, looking as uncertain as he felt. "I'm not sure I know a better option," she said.
"I hate to admit it," he offered, "but this might be the best way to keep you safe." He reached his hand to her, hoping she saw his action as an open gesture, without concealed intent. "As soon as I can find a way out of this," he tried to assure her, "I'll grant you your freedom. I promise."
"I hate to intrude, but I am in a rush," the pastor interrupted. The clergyman pointed to the lower section on the paper, and Ethan obediently signed the document. Strangely enough, his hand didn't shake as he affixed his name above Grace's.
"Fine. Fine." The pastor sanded the wet ink, and then opened his Bible.
"Ethan Tanner, do you solemnly promise to take this woman, Grace Blackstone, as your wife, providing for her and protecting her all of your days while in the sight of God?"
The words weighed heavy on Ethan's shoulders. All of your days. He had just promised Grace he'd find a way to free her, now the pastor asked him to affirm to the contrary. Deep red and purple abrasions encircled her throat next to the collar of the dress she wore. He hadn't seen them before, but Addie assured him, these marks were not isolated incidents. He'd swear an oath to both God and Grace, and hope that one pledge wasn't contingent on the other.
"I promise," he said.
The minister turned to Grace. "Grace Blackstone, do you promise to accept Ethan Tanner as your husband, abiding in his household and obeying his commands?"
Grace nodded slowly as though unsure. She lifted her eyes to Ethan and her chin rose assertively. "I promise."
Addie sniffled behind them, and Ethan cringed. This had been an impromptu ceremony. What would she have done with a year to prepare?
"You are husband and wife," Pastor Whitten proclaimed. "May your life be filled with many children. Now that this is done, I'll be on my way to the Clancy farm to discuss the details for tomorrow." He touched the signatures with his fingertip, folded the paper, and then placed it inside his Bible. Tucking everything under his arm, he waved to them in passing. "Good day," he said, and then disappeared through the opened doorway.
Ethan stared awkwardly after the minister, not completely certain what to do next. He supposed he should take his wife and sister home. His wife. When he started out this morning, he hadn't thought his day would end with a marriage ceremony. He glanced over at his bride. She was caught in Addie's tight embrace, being rocked from side to side.
Lavender oil should soothe her abrasions, but he doubted her internal scars would heal as easily. Other than give her time to forget what had happened to her, he didn't know how else to help her. He looked to the bruised skin at the cuffs of her sleeve, feeling as responsible for her pain as if he'd personally clamped the constraints against her delicate skin. He'd taken two vows tonight, and while he wasn't sure how, he planned to honor them both. Whether successful or not, one thing was certain, no one would lay a hand to her again while he lived. But more importantly, Bennett would pay for what he did to this woman…his wife.