Authors: Hope Denney,Linda Au
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance
A figure on horseback approached them, and Somerset pulled on the reins to slow Hector. It was Sawyer, she knew, from the size of the horse and the dappled gray coloring. Her heart thudded in her chest.
He approached them, the corners of his mouth twitching because he guessed where they were going.
“Hello, ladies. Good afternoon, Joseph.”
“Where are you headed in the middle of the day?” asked Joseph.
“I’m headed to Orchard Rest. Mr. Forrest and I were going to look at a draft horse over at Old Man McKennasaw’s farm this afternoon.”
Somerset clenched her fists and groaned inside. Just as she had worried, she was going to miss an opportunity to talk alone with Sawyer because she was kind enough to take Joseph courting. She looked up at him, shielding her eyes with her hand. She would have given anything to be back at Orchard Rest and it showed as she stared at him. She thought he looked down on her as if he could read her mind.
“Draft horse?” said Joseph. “What do you need with another draft horse?”
Sawyer and Joseph launched into an animated discussion of how many horses Sawyer thought he needed versus how many Joseph thought he could get by with. Victoria laughed in all the right places at their jokes, but Somerset held the reins taut in both hands and concentrated on not glancing too often at Sawyer.
“I maintain you’re too picky,” finished Joseph. “I would have bought the last animal and been done with it. I’m glad the war didn’t turn me into a connoisseur of horse flesh.”
“Ladies, this is the only way in which he’s ever failed me as a friend. He’s ignorant of horses,” said Sawyer in an aside.
“We’ll argue about it later. I have somewhere I have to be,” retorted Joseph.
“Ah, yes. Well, Mother and I saw Miss Buchanan step off the train this morning. She looked well. I’ll leave you to your mission. Good seeing you all. I’ll call on you later in the week, Somerset.”
“I’ll be seeing you,” said Somerset.
Somerset whipped the lines across Hector’s back.
“He must be a nice beau,” Victoria said when she was sure Sawyer was out of earshot.
“He isn’t moving things along like I thought he would,” said Joseph.
“We don’t all get engaged after a couple of months like you,” said Somerset.
Joseph was not deterred.
“Have I ever told you about the first time I saw Fairlee?”
“No,” said Victoria at the same time Somerset declared she knew the story by heart.
“Oh, Somerset, sit through the story one last time. Victoria hasn’t heard it. I was out riding with Eric Rutherford. The two of you weren’t courting yet, Somerset, although it would just be a matter of time. We had been racing all afternoon, and we were hot, tired, and starving. It was almost time to go home when Eric remembered he had something in his saddlebags—a quilt pattern or something else frilly—that his mother wanted dropped off at Buchanan Loft. He didn’t want to go up there so he was determined that I go, too.
“I didn’t want to go either. I can’t think of a man in Century Grove who can abide Mrs. Buchanan, and I made excuses to get home. So Eric just turned it into a competition. He said he bet he’d win in a race against me to the Loft. Well, he’d beat me all day. Somerset, I never did win a single race against Eric. Just the same, I couldn’t stand the idea of forfeiting a race to him, and before I could speak, he offered five dollars if I won so I took him up on his bet. We set off down Marauder’s Lane at breakneck speed. He stayed a good five yards ahead of me the whole time—I’ll never know how he could ride like that.
“We barreled up the hill to the Buchanan place. The house was in sight, and we passed all the outbuildings. We were a sight, too, all covered in scum from the pond, dirt from the fields, and sweating for all we were worth. Suddenly, when we passed the stables, a horse came flying out past us. It was flying so fast that it tore all the sod off the lawn in two solid lines all the way up to the house. We were both ill because whoever was going to win had seen us coming from the stables and was cheating by joining in at the last minute. The horse beat us both by several yards.
“I was getting ready to say just what I thought of it all when the rider dismounted and I saw she was wearing skirts. This girl started laughing and asked if she had won anything. I told her no because I thought that I was on the winning end of things after all. She pulled off her bonnet and long, curling blond hair fell down around her shoulders. The sight of her was the only time I’ve ever been struck dumb. I invited myself to supper that night and she gave me every bit as good as she got when I recovered my power of speech. I like a feisty girl like Fairlee. Feistiness just makes the good times fun and the bad times entertaining.”
“It’s a thrilling way to meet the girl you’re going to marry, Joseph, but how did it take so long to meet Fairlee when the Buchanans are such close neighbors?” asked Victoria.
“Evelyn Buchanan is Mr. Buchanan’s second wife. He was a widower when they married, and Fairlee spent most of her young years in school,” said Joseph. “She has opinions about everything. She’s splendid to talk with.”
“They argue a good bit, too,” said Somerset, “but I can’t deny that seems to be a large part of the attraction. Do you think she’ll stay this time, Joseph? Did she hint in any of your correspondences?”
“I intend to convince her to stay this time. I’d like to be settled.”
“So would I,” added Victoria.
“There aren’t many men left to marry,” acknowledged Joseph. “Those who made it home aren’t healthy either, so you wouldn’t want to marry them. I think girls do well to take their time and be picky choosing because you don’t know what you’re getting in a man who came from the army.”
Somerset studied Victoria’s youthful features. She was pretty with her clear white skin and long dark curls. She had inherited their mother’s red full lips and high cheekbones. She was slender but round. She had become quieter and more sensitive since the war, particularly after the violence of Wilson’s raid, but she was eager to make more friends and find her place in life. Warren was her child, although few in Century Grove acknowledged it, and it handicapped her chances of finding a husband. Somerset hoped that Sawyer would be willing to let Victoria and Warren live with them when married. He played big brother to Victoria, chatting with her while he waited for Somerset most evenings, and took Warren on frequent horseback rides and carved toys for him, so she felt optimistic. Somerset believed getting them both away from Blanche’s overreaching style of motherhood would help them grow the most.
Joseph clapped his hands.
“Buchanan’s Loft is just ahead and Fairlee is only minutes away from me.”
Buchanan’s Loft sat at the top of the hill they were ascending. It was the oldest house in Century Grove and one of the smallest. Somerset, completely entranced with the unique touches of her own home, felt that the Greek revival plantation lacked a good deal of charm. It was in need of repairs. Mr. Buchanan had lost more money during the war than any of their neighbors during the war. She knew Joseph hoped to help turn things around for them after he and Fairlee married.
She pulled up to the house. There were only two hired servants left at the Loft so Somerset climbed down over the wheel of the wagon and secured Hector to the hitching post. She gave a hand to Victoria and helped her down. Then they reached up and grabbed Joseph on each side as he managed to clumsily slide on his bottom out of the wagon and land hard on his good leg. Somerset supported him on his weak side while Victoria retrieved his cane from the seat. Joseph panted from the exertion but his eyes were free of pain as they followed close behind him up the front steps.
They paused outside the door.
“Fairlee hasn’t had time to get a proper meal much less bathe and change after traveling,” whispered Somerset. “We’ll keep this visit brief, and maybe everyone will be open to us returning again.”
Victoria nodded in agreement, but Joseph turned his back and clunked the door knocker loud enough that it echoed.
Sounds of shuffling and much rearranging within the house met their ears. Joseph knocked again, louder. The door inched open, and Evelyn Buchanan’s hard features greeted them.
“Good afternoon,” said Somerset.
Evelyn smiled as only a lady would as she took in the sight of three unannounced adults crowding her front porch. Her aquiline face prevented her from looking neighborly, so no matter how she felt, she seemed to be suppressing a bit of a sneer.
“Mother has been meaning to send you some of her preserves and she also sent some of Bess’s liniment because she knows how Mr. Buchanan likes it,” said Somerset.
“Thank Mrs. Forrest for me,” Evelyn said. “Mr. Buchanan’s back has been in a frightful state since the spring, and I know he’ll appreciate it. Mr. Forrest, are you almost recovered?”
The door didn’t open any wider, although Somerset held the heavy basket out.
She could hear the underlying message in the words as they were spoken: that Evelyn wasn’t going to mention Fairlee to them and give them excuse to come in, that she was prepared to stand at the door and play cordial all day without inviting them in or telling them to leave, that she was still showing more manners than any of them because times are busy and one can’t just show up uninvited to someone’s home and expect the world to stop.
Somerset forced the basket into the opening of the door so that Evelyn would have to take it from her.
“My leg is improving,” said Joseph. “I didn’t know you knew of my accident. It hurts a good deal to stand on it as you can see, but I’m out of danger now. I’m not allowed to work yet, but it is such a nice day I thought I’d accompany my sisters out to drop their parcel off.”
A shower of footsteps scattered down the staircase like buckshot.
“I hear voices! We have visitors. Do I hear Joseph? Oh, it can’t be!”
With that the door flung wide open and Fairlee’s beaming face greeted them all.
“Somerset, it isn’t fair that you’ve grown better looking. You brought Victoria, too! Hello, dear. I don’t believe my eyes. Joseph Forrest, oh my word. You and that cane!”
Fairlee’s large curls bounced as she embraced each girl. Then she looked up at Joseph with eyes far mistier than Somerset could believe, given her jovial tone, and, mindless of his cane, she hugged him despite Evelyn’s presence.
“Come in. Come in!”
She ushered them into the house. The victory wasn’t hers, but Somerset couldn’t help but feel smug as she nodded at Mrs. Buchanan on her way in.
Fairlee looked well, as Sawyer had said. Her hair was buttery and her eyes were full of mirth. She was almost as tall as Joseph and her figure was still buxom. She wore the sapphire ring Joseph presented her with as an engagement ring, which Thomas gave to Blanche on her sixteenth birthday. Somerset felt blatant relief that Fairlee wasn’t dressed to the nines. She was in a pink gingham work dress that made her peachy complexion glow, but she was bedraggled from the train ride. Joseph was looking at her the way Somerset imagined a hanging man might survey the ground.
“Sit down,” said Fairlee. “I’d hoped you might stop in, but I didn’t actually believe you would. Titus just took my trunk upstairs. Were you afraid I wouldn’t come visit you, Joseph?”
Joseph, too stunned for words for the second time in life, stumbled over some witty rejoinder and chewed his tongue.
Somerset took a seat on the davenport and accepted a cup of coffee from a tray that Mrs. Buchanan summoned for them. The good lady disappeared from the room, checking to see what food was in the house in case her guests stayed for dinner.
“He thought we should meet you at the depot,” she said as she sipped. “I hope you’ll forgive us for stumbling in like this when you’re undoubtedly tired, hungry, and at loose ends. It wasn’t the most civilized behavior for all of us to pile in on you like this, we admit, but Joseph felt compelled to come here and see you today.”
Fairlee sat down on the settee facing Somerset and patted the seat next to her with a beckoning look at Joseph.
“Don’t tell me you came all this way on a lame leg just to stand across the room and gape at me,” she laughed. “I’ve missed you, Joseph! Come sit beside me!”
Fairlee’s laughter crawled across the room, making Somerset think of dripping honey.
Joseph bounded across the room—if a crippled man could be said to bound—and sat down beside Fairlee with a groan. She reached out to take his cane from him, and he took her hand, kissed it, and then laid it for a moment on his cheek with such a lack of inhibition that Somerset and Victoria looked at the braided rugs on the floor.
“Couldn’t you have come home sooner?” he asked. His voice was husky.
“No, I couldn’t have,” said Fairlee. She sounded unapologetic. “Grandmother Faulks is terribly sick, and with Aunt Rowena still in Atlanta, there was nothing else to do. If my mother were living it would be different, of course, but there aren’t many remedies for lack of family, are there? Aunt Rowena should sell everything in Atlanta by the end of fall if we’re lucky and be completely settled at Grandmother’s by winter.”
“You’ll be back and forth until then?” asked Joseph.
“I’ll be here for two weeks, and then I won’t be home again until winter.”