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Authors: Joan Wolf

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Change of Heart

BOOK: Change of Heart
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Joan Wolf


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Chapter 1

It was a gray, cold February afternoon and Cecelia Vargas was teaching her Wednesday after-school class of beginners when she glanced over and saw a little girl in the doorway of the riding arena. “I’ll be right with you,” she called. The child, and the gray-haired man accompanying her, nodded in acknowledgment.

When she had the children walking out their ponies Cecelia crossed the arena to the doorway. “Jennifer?” she asked with a smile.

“Yes,” came the soft reply. Jennifer Archer was a very pretty, fair-haired nine-year-old whose deep blue eyes looked gravely back at the slim dark girl who was addressing her.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Cecelia. My father asked me to give you your lesson.”

“I thought Señor Vargas was going to teach Jennifer,” said the man.

Cecelia’s large dark eyes moved from the child to his weather-beaten face. “Daddy never teaches the beginners,” she said simply. “I’m sorry he didn’t explain that to you when you called, Mr. Archer.”

The ruddy face broke into a grin. “I’m not Mr. Archer, Miss Vargas. I’m the chauffeur. Name’s Frank Ross. I hope you don’t mind if I watch?”

“Of course not. And you needn’t worry, Mr. Ross. I’ve been teaching children for years.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Can’t have been for too many years, miss. But if your father says it’s all right, I’ll go along with it. Mr. Archer had him checked out before he allowed Jennifer to come.”

Cecelia’s beautiful mouth looked suddenly sardonic. Her large luminous eyes glinted. “Yes, Daddy has a good reputation,” was all she said though.

Frank knew he was staring, and with an effort he turned his eyes to the little girl. “Are you ready, Jennifer?” he asked.

“Yes,” the child said again.

Cecelia looked at her quiet little face and smiled warmly. Frank felt himself staring once again. “Come along with me, Jenny, and we’ll find you a hat,” Cecelia said. “If you’re going to continue riding you’ll have to get one. I have very strict rules about riding with a hat.” They moved off together across the stable yard.

* * * *

The lesson was successful and Jennifer made an appointment to ride again the following afternoon, Cecelia told her father about it as they sat together over dinner that evening. “She’s a very quiet child,” she added, “but she seemed to like it.”

“If she’s coming again tomorrow she must have liked it,” her father responded.

“Gilbert Archer had you checked out before he allowed her to come.” She cocked an amused eyebrow at him. “The chauffeur expected you to handle the lesson.”

“Oh?” Ricardo raised his eyebrows in an identical gesture. They were still black even though his thick hair had long since begun to gray. “Did you explain that you taught all the beginners?” His English was fluent, with only the slightest hint of an accent to betray his Argentine origins.

“Yes. And he graciously allowed me to do the job. Gilbert Archer would probably have insisted on you.”

Ricardo finished the last of the stew on his plate, “Men like Gilbert Archer are accustomed to commanding only the best.” He put his knife and fork down and smiled at his daughter. “And in you that is what he has gotten,

She smiled back affectionately. “Do you want some more stew, Daddy?”


She took his plate and went over to the stove. “Poor little Jennifer,” she said. “I feel sorry for her. She seems such a perfect example of the ‘poor little rich girl’ syndrome.”

“What makes you say that?” Ricardo asked.

“Marie Rice, Major’s owner, teaches at Central

Grammar and she has Jennifer in class. She says the child is painfully quiet. It can’t have been easy on her, losing her mother in a car crash and then  being sent to live with a father she hardly knew.”

“It must be difficult for a man as busy as Gilbert Archer to find time for a child,” Ricardo agreed. “But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care for her. He moved to Connecticut so that she would be out of New York and in the country. Surely that says something. I’m sure the commute into the city is a nuisance for him.”

“How do you know why he moved?” Cecelia asked curiously.

“Jim Johnson at Berkeley Realtors sold him The Birches.” Jim Johnson had been a friend of Ricardo’s for years. “He paid a small fortune for it, I might add.”

“I imagine he must have,” Cecelia agreed. “But I wonder how much time
spends there.”

“He is a busy and important man,” Ricardo said calmly. “Such men, in my experience, are rarely home.”

Cecelia rose to clear away the dishes. “Poor Jennifer,” she repeated as she stacked them in the sink. She had lost her own mother when she was ten, which was one of the reasons she felt such sympathy for Jennifer. She smiled at her father and said, “I always had you.”

He smiled back, “What’s for dessert?” he asked.

“Ice cream,” she replied and opened the refrigerator.

* * * *

Conversation in the kitchen of The Birches was revolving around the riding lesson as well. “How did Jennifer do this afternoon?” Nora Ross asked her husband. The Rosses had been with Gilbert Archer for the last five years, ever since Frank had retired from the army. Nora functioned as housekeeper and cook and Frank as chauffeur and handyman. Since the death of the ex-Mrs. Archer eight months ago, the Rosses’ chores had come to include looking after Jennifer as well.

“Very well,” Frank replied. “Vargas didn’t give her the lesson, his daughter did. But she seemed to know what she was doing. Jennifer talked about it all the way home.”

“Did she?” Nora was surprised; like Cecelia, the Rosses too had found Jennifer to be unusually quiet.

“Yes. She made an appointment to go tomorrow as well. I’ll check it out with Mr. Archer, but I don’t think he’ll mind.”

“He’ll be glad she’s found something she likes to do,” Nora prophesied.

Frank grinned teasingly at his wife. “I’ll tell you what, Nora. I won’t mind if Jennifer wants to take a lesson every day.”

Nora peered at him closely. “Why?”

“Cecelia Vargas,” he answered simply, “is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever laid eyes on in my life.”

“You old goat,” his wife said with amused affection. “Eat your dinner.”

* * * *

When Gilbert Archer came home that evening it was after nine-thirty, but he went anyway to peek into his daughter’s room. She was still awake. “Hi, Daddy,” she said from her pretty white-painted bed.

“You should be asleep, sweetheart,” he answered, but he came into the room and sat on the edge of the bed.

“I had a riding lesson today, Daddy,” the little girl said. “It was super.”

“Was it?” He looked thoughtfully at her suddenly vivacious face.

“Yes. I’m going tomorrow, too. Cecelia says I need a hat, though. And boots. Can I get them, Daddy?”

“Sure,” he answered. “Who is Cecelia?”

“She’s the girl who’s teaching me. She’s super too.”

“I thought Señor Vargas was going to give you your lesson,” her father said, his lair brows slightly knitted.

“Cecelia says he never teaches beginners. She’s his daughter, you know. Frank said she knows her stuff.”

Gilbert Archer could not ever remember seeing his daughter this animated. “Well, I’m glad you liked it, Jen. I’ll tell Nora to take you shopping for the proper clothes.” He bent his head to kiss her, and for a moment the two silver-blond heads were close together on the pillow. “Good night, sweetheart,” he murmured softly.

“Good night, Daddy.”

* * * *

Two months later Cecelia was working a big chestnut gelding over some jumps in the arena when a woman appeared in the doorway. She watched with undisguised interest as Cecelia took the horse over a spread fence, then circled him and made him take it again, this time taking off much closer to the jump. “Good boy!” she said, patting him approvingly. She began to walk him out and the woman led her own horse into the arena and swung up into the saddle. “Czar is looking good,” she called to Cecelia as she began to walk her gray around the ring.

“Isn’t he?” Cecelia called back. “If I can only get him to wait on the spreads!”

Marie Rice eased her horse in next to Cecelia’s. “I’ve been meaning to tell you what a good job you’re doing with Jennifer Archer. She’s even started to lose some of her shyness in school.”

Cecelia smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. She’s a darling child.”

“She’s a very lonely child,” said Marie.

“It’s hard, at that age, to lose your mother.” Cecelia’s lovely face was somber.

“From what I hear, Jennifer’s mother was no loss,” replied Marie bluntly. “She and Gilbert Archer were divorced when Jennifer was two and she went on to play around with a whole series of other men. She was the type who spent the winter skiing at St. Moritz, the spring shopping in Paris, and the summer cruising on somebody’s private yacht.”

“But where was Jennifer?” asked Cecelia in a startled voice.

“Home with the servants.”

“Oh.” Cecelia leaned forward to feel if Czar was still hot, “From what I gather, the situation hasn’t changed much. The chauffeur brings her here and takes her home.”

“Yes. Well to be fair, Gilbert Archer is a busy man. And at least he’s spending his time doing something worthwhile, not just jet-setting around the world.”

“I suppose that’s true.
News Report
is a very highly regarded magazine. Daddy says it’s the only North American journal that has even an inkling of what Latin America is all about.”

“I’ve been taking it for years,” Marie answered. “Well, come on, Major, time for your morning exercise. I have to be at school in an hour and a half,” She urged the gray into a trot while Cecelia dismounted and led Czar back to the barn.

As she curried his coat she reflected on some of the things Marie had told her. She knew that Jennifer’s parents had been divorced and, unconsciously, she had assumed the fault was Gilbert Archer’s. She had done some reading up on him since Jennifer had begun to ride at Hilltop Farm and had discovered that the founder and editor of
News Report
was a very powerful and influential man indeed. His magazine was one of the most widely respected journals in the country, famous for its in-depth and balanced reporting, and its editor was known for personally reporting on many stories himself. Cecelia had seen his picture on several occasions now, and had been surprised by his youth. She had supposed he must be an older man, but according to the article she had read recently in the
he was only thirty-five.

She finished doing Czar and put him in his stall with his blanket on. She patted his nose, murmured, “You can go out and play later,” and left the barn, carefully closing the door to keep the heat in. She wondered briefly if Gilbert Archer ever planned to come by and see how his daughter was progressing.

He came that afternoon. Jennifer had joined the five other girls in Cecelia’s beginners class, and the ponies were all trotting briskly around the ring when a tall, leanly built man appeared in the arena doorway. “Half seat everyone,” Cecelia called, and as the children all leaned forward into jumping position she noticed the stranger. She was just about to ask if she could help him when Jennifer called, “Hi, Daddy!”

“Hi, sweetheart,” he returned in a deep and pleasant voice.

So this was Gilbert Archer. Cecelia stared curiously at him from her position in the middle of the arena. He wore a tan golf jacket over brown corduroy pants. His hands were in his pockets and he looked very much at ease as he stood there in the wide doorway, his eyes on his daughter. Cecelia’s eyes followed his. “Flatten your back, Jenny,” she called. Then: “That’s right. That looks good.” Her eyes went to the next child. “Stand in your heels, Meredith, not your irons,” she commanded and the lesson continued.

At five-thirty Cecelia called a halt and Jenny walked her pony over to her father. They exchanged a few words and then the little girl began to walk the pony out. Gilbert Archer remained in the doorway.

“Make sure they all have their blankets on,” Cecelia instructed the children, “and be sure the tack is cleaned properly. Meredith, Sunday gets his feet oiled.” She picked up her appointment book and began to walk purposefully toward the man in the doorway. “Hello, Mr. Archer,” she said as she reached him. “I’m Cecelia Vargas.” She held out her hand.

He looked like his pictures, but what the pictures didn’t show was the indefinable aura of easy authority and power that he exuded. His thin, chiseled face was surprisingly suntanned, his chin had a cleft in it that she had not noticed in his photographs, and his eyes were not blue like Jennifer’s but a light gray.

She looked at him with the unself-conscious gaze of a child, completely unaware of the picture she herself presented in her red sweater with her hair pulled loosely off her face and falling in a long braid down her back.

“So you are ‘Cecelia says’! ...” His voice had a thread of amusement in it. He took her hand in his; it was warm from his pocket and his clasp was firm.

BOOK: Change of Heart
11.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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