Read Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt Online

Authors: Jennifer Chiaverini

Tags: #Historical, #Adult, #Romance, #Mystery

Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt (5 page)

BOOK: Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt
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After a second dance, Cyrus escorted her from the floor, explaining that his mother had made him promise to see to it that no young lady was allowed to remain a wallflower at one of her parties.

Dorothea regarded him, eyebrows raised. “Is that why you danced with me?”

“Miss Granger, I believe you know the answer to that.” He gave her a wicked grin as he bowed over her hand, then he moved off into the crowd.

“He is full of fancy manners, that one,” said Dorothea’s best friend, Mary, appearing at her side, her light brown hair braided into a knot at the nape of her slender neck. “I suppose he thinks he’s charming.”

Dorothea watched him depart, his golden curls visible above most of the other men in the crowd. “I’m sure he is not alone in that opinion.”

Mary sniffed. “I hope you do not share it.”

Dorothea hid a smile. From the time they were children, Mary had secretly admired Cyrus—so secretly that no one else but Dorothea knew of it—but Cyrus had never noticed her. Mary had never spared a kind word for any girl who did attract his attention, and after she fell in love with a more receptive young man, she had nothing good to say about Cyrus, either.

“Cyrus is neither as fine as you once thought nor as terrible as you think now,” teased Dorothea.

“I do not believe your parents would approve,” warned Mary. “It is no secret where his mother stands on the slavery issue. I confess I do not always share your parents’ fervor, but unlike Violet Pearson Engle, at least my heart is in the right place.”

“Cyrus Pearson is not his mother,” said Dorothea. “I would no more condemn him for his mother’s sins than I would have anyone condemn me for the wrongs my parents have committed.”

She smiled to soften her words, but slipped away before Mary asked her which wrongs she meant.

By that time the newlyweds’ home had filled almost to bursting with what appeared to be nearly every resident of Creek’s Crossing within the range of Mrs. Engle’s condescension. Dorothea found her father engrossed in conversation with the mayor, but merely waved to him on her way to the kitchen, where she found her mother chatting with the colored cook about abolition and woman’s suffrage. The cook regarded Dorothea’s mother curiously and with some wariness, as if she did not know what to make of this white woman who spoke so passionately about impossibilities in the heat of the kitchen, rather than enjoy the laughter and music of the party. Dorothea was so accustomed to her mother that she sometimes forgot that others often found her inscrutable.

Dorothea’s mother greeted her affectionately and introduced her to the cook, who nodded a greeting as she removed a pan from the oven and looked Dorothea over with renewed cautious curiosity.

“So, Dorothea,” her mother said. “How was your conversation with Mr. Nelson?”

“I have not met him yet. I had hoped someone would offer a toast to him so that I might be able to pick him out of the crowd.”

“You must have gone out of your way to avoid him.” Mother described him—a bespectacled, brown-haired man, slender, somewhat pale—and pointed out that he would be one of the very few people in the familiar crowd Dorothea did not already know. “Swallow your pride and meet him soon,” she added. “We must leave before long or all the evening chores will be left to your uncle.”

With a sigh of resignation, Dorothea left the kitchen and made her way to the parlor, where she spied a man chatting with Cyrus Pearson who fit her mother’s description. He was not quite as tall as Cyrus, but he wore a finer suit with an overlarge but not unattractive boutonniere on his lapel. Dorothea made her way to an unoccupied spot nearby, where she could await a suitable moment to introduce herself, if Cyrus did not see her there first and take care of the formalities.

She fixed a pleasant smile in place and observed the dancing. Abner whirled Mary about; Mrs. Claverton waggled her fingers and called out a greeting as she and her husband passed. Dorothea returned the greeting with a smile and looked around the room for Charlotte, hoping for the girl’s sake that her parents had possessed the sense to allow her to remain home, as befitting her age.

“You have not danced one single set all afternoon,” Dorothea overheard Cyrus chide the young Mr. Nelson, if that was, in fact, who he was. “Surely your health cannot be as bad as all that.”

“It is not for my health that I refrain,” came the reply, in a voice both deeper and more disdainful than Dorothea expected.

“What is it, then? Come, now, my mother made me promise that there would be no young ladies unattended at her party, and I insist you help me.”

“While I regret disappointing the woman who so kindly organized this gathering for me,” said Mr. Nelson, “you will have to satisfy your obligations to your mother yourself. I dance when I am inclined to do so, and at this moment, I am not so inclined.”

“Why not? Look—there are three, four, no, five ladies not engaged at present. Your legs are obviously not broken whatever else might ail you. You will not do yourself an injury if you take one turn about the floor.”

“Nevertheless, I decline.” He paused and gave Cyrus a slight bow. “With my apologies.”

“I cannot understand you, Nelson. You are newly arrived in Creek’s Crossing, and apparently you mean to stay. Surely you wish to make the acquaintance of our charming local beauties.”

Mr. Nelson frowned and indicated his boutonniere. “If their taste in conversation resembles their taste in flowers, we will have very little to say to each other.”

Cyrus laughed, incredulous. “You cannot mean it. I am as well traveled as you, sir, and I defy you to say the ladies of Creek’s Crossing are not as pretty or as charming as those of New York, Paris, or London, without all their artificial graces.”

“Pretty?” Mr. Nelson paused. “Yes, perhaps one or two of them are somewhat pretty, but I do not find ignorant country girls amusing. It is far better for me to avoid them than to subject us both to an excruciating attempt at conversation.”

“I cannot believe you seriously mean this. What about her?”

Dorothea closed her eyes, hoping fervently that Cyrus was directing Mr. Nelson’s attention toward the other side of the room.

“That young lady is Dorothea Granger,” said Cyrus, with a suggestion of pride. “Surely you can see how lovely she is. She is not yet twenty, and yet she is so clever she was appointed interim schoolteacher after your predecessor stepped down.”

“That says more about your school board’s standards than her cleverness. In any event, the manner in which she gazes so longingly at the dance floor suggests that she has not set foot on one in quite some time. I assure you, I have no intention of directing my attention to any woman ignored by other men, especially those here, who know her character.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Cyrus. “Some may say she is too clever for her own good, but no one would ever question her strength of character. Let me introduce you. Miss Granger?”

When he called to her, Dorothea took a quick, steadying breath before turning around to face them. “Yes, Mr. Pearson?”

“Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Thomas Nelson, our guest of honor. He just finished telling me how very much he wishes to make your acquaintance.”

Mr. Nelson masked his annoyance poorly as he bowed to her.

“Welcome to Creek’s Crossing,” said Dorothea. “I regret that so far you have found very little to like about it.”

Mr. Nelson gave not a flicker of acknowledgment, but Cyrus had the decency to appear mortified. “Miss Granger, please accept my apologies for my companion’s boorish remarks. You were not meant to overhear them.”

“You are not the one who should apologize.”

Mr. Nelson gestured impatiently to his boutonniere. “If you refer to my criticism of this collection of twigs and vegetable matter—”

“I do not refer to it, but since you mention it, I must speak in its defense.” Dorothea gave the boutonniere a quick survey. “It is an unusual arrangement, but its maker’s intention is evident. Those twigs, as you call them, are maple seeds, and maple sugar is a significant part of our local economy. These are the leaves of the elm, which grow in abundance throughout the valley and whose beauty is a particular source of pride for us. The leaves of the rose, here and here, represent hope, while the water lily symbolizes purity of heart. The ribbon I recognize—the mayor’s wife wears a similar trim on her spring bonnet. To speak plainly, this nosegay that you disparage welcomes you to enjoy the beauty and prosperity of the Elm Creek Valley, with hopes that you will remain honest and true to your calling as the educator of our youth.”

“You could hardly ask for a better welcome than that,” remarked Cyrus.

“What I would ask for,” said Mr. Nelson, “is to be permitted to wear the flower of my choosing.”

Dorothea glanced at his hands. “Would that have been a blossom plucked from a round cluster of small white flowers growing on a rather tall stem?”

He almost managed to hide his surprise. “Yes, that’s right. Queen Anne’s lace. You must have seen me discard it.”

Dorothea let out a small laugh. “No, I assure you, I was not paying you that much attention. Nor was your flower Queen Anne’s lace. We call it cow parsnip, although it is actually a member of the carrot family. Curiously enough, while it is edible, it is a particularly noxious weed to the touch. The rash on the back of your hands will pass in two or three weeks, longer if you scratch it. I would offer you a healing salve, but as I am merely an ignorant country girl, I am sure my humble medicines are beneath your regard. Next time, if you wish to choose an appropriate flower, I would recommend a narcissus.” She turned a blistering smile on Cyrus and ignored his companion. “Good afternoon, Mr. Pearson.”

She quickly departed, nearly bumping into Mary as she and Abner left the dance floor. “Goodness, Dorothea, what’s wrong?” asked Mary. “Your face is so flushed! Are you ill?”

“I am not ill.” Dorothea refused to allow Mr. Nelson and Cyrus to see how angry she was. “Abner, will you excuse us, please?” She linked her arm through Mary’s and drew her toward the far end of the room, where she asked, “Have you had an opportunity to meet our new schoolmaster?”

Mary nodded. “Mrs. Engle introduced us. He’s handsome in a bookish way, but I suppose that suits his profession. He certainly doesn’t look much like a farmer. Would you like to meet him?”

“No! No, thank you. I know him as well as I care to.” She told Mary about the encounter.

Mary glanced at the ill-humored schoolmaster and turned away quickly, unable to contain her amusement. “Honestly, Dorothea! Mrs. Deakins may have little talent for flowers, but she meant well, and he had no call to be so unkind. In your place, I would have been tempted to slap him.”

“I did not say I wasn’t tempted.”

“I considered him somewhat aloof when we were introduced, but I had no idea he was so rude.” Mary’s eyes widened and she grasped Dorothea’s arm. “Oh, he’s looking this way. He surely knows we’re talking about him. But I suppose he doesn’t care about the opinion of a couple of ignorant country girls.”

“I suppose not,” said Dorothea, laughing. “Ignore him. We cannot let him think he is important enough to be the subject of our conversation.”

At that moment, she felt a hand on her elbow. “I’m afraid you must bid your friend good-bye,” said her father, her mother at his side. “We have chores to attend to at home.”

Dorothea let out an exaggerated sigh. “That’s fine, Father. I was merely gazing longingly at the dance floor, wondering if I shall ever set foot on one again.”

Mary giggled as Dorothea’s parents exchanged a puzzled look. Then Dorothea’s mother said, “You did find an opportunity to speak to Mr. Nelson?”

“Yes, I spoke to him, the odious man.”

Lorena’s eyebrows shot up, but before she could inquire, Dorothea hugged Mary good-bye and promised to call on her soon. After giving their regards to the hostess, the Grangers left the party.

“I gather,” said Robert carefully as they walked to the livery stable, “that Mr. Nelson did not make a favorable impression upon you?”

“Entirely the opposite,” said Dorothea, and she told them what had happened.

“What a rude young man,” said Lorena, but she smiled. “Of course, he assumed he was speaking in confidence, unaware of your eavesdropping.”

“I was not eavesdropping. I was merely waiting for an appropriate moment to introduce myself,” said Dorothea. “Besides, you have often told me one should not do in secret what one would be unwilling to have known in public.”

“Not all deeds fall into that neat category, dear. Nor all words.”

Her father shook his head. “Are you sure you did not misunderstand him, Dorothea? His father is such a reasonable, just man. I considered him a friend and was disappointed when he returned to the East. It is difficult to believe his son could be so unlike him.”

“I understood every word with perfect clarity.” Dorothea threw up her hands and quickened her step. “I cannot bear for you two to defend him! Whatever fine qualities his father may possess, Mr. Nelson the younger does not share them.”

“Still, it was a fine party,” offered her father.

“He seemed as oblivious to its charms as to those of everything else in Creek’s Crossing,” retorted Dorothea, quickly outpacing her parents.

“Cheer up,” called her mother. “He has only just met us. Perhaps once he knows us better, he will decide to move on to some other town, where the women have greater skill with flowers.”

BOOK: Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt
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