“Stop! Stop right here!”
Elizabeth Morrison didn’t mean to bark the order, but her voice was hardly audible over the carriage’s rattle as it was, and she had to tap the driver on the back of his shirt to get his attention.
“We have to stop!”
She couldn’t see the four horses that had been pulling them through the Texan countryside for more than three hours, but she felt the carriage slowing down, and she breathed a sigh. If what she saw out of the corner of the window had truly been there – if she was right . . .
“Leave the door madam – you will do yourself an injury! See now, let me give you a hand, and be careful. Comanche Indians could be anywhere,” were the ignored words of the driver as he struggled to pull his top hat and greatcoat on before stepping down to open the door.
Elizabeth was already gone, door flung wide open and long skirts gathered in her arms as she ran back down the dirt track that passed for a road in this wild place. What care she for Comanches? Surely it could not be she – it seemed too ridiculous that just as she had given up hope of ever finding her, she would drive past her on the way to El Seco.
“Kitty!” She called to the figure who was walking away from her, struggling with the skirts heavy with embroidery, far grander than she was accustomed to. “Katherine!”
Her heart started to sink as she got closer; Katherine was taller than that, surely, and her hair wasn’t that color. But the journey had been long, and there was just enough desperation in her heart to convince herself that it was her sister.
“Katherine?” Elizabeth was close enough now to reach out to the woman, and the moment before her hand touched the shoulder of the stranger, she knew it wasn’t her, snatching her hand away in embarrassment.
“Katherine?” The woman blinked at her. “I do not know a Katherine, I am afraid.”
She looked startled, and somewhat afraid. Elizabeth realized what she must look like; a complete mad woman. This was 1840, for goodness sake; no respectable woman threw herself from a carriage and raced after a complete stranger shouting someone else’s name at the top of her lungs. Even in Texas.
“My apologies,” Elizabeth offered gently, her hand falling back to her side. “You . . . you reminded me of someone that I know. That I used to know. I thought . . .”
The embarrassment was still strong on the woman’s features, and Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders hopelessly. “It does not matter, I am sorry to have disturbed you, Miss . . ?”
The girl – and now Elizabeth looked more closely at her, that was probably a more accurate description. Although dressed formally in the long skirt and tight bodice of the time, it was a little out of date; a hand me down from an older sister to a younger, if Elizabeth was any judge.
“Abigail. Abigail Bryant.” The words were almost a whisper, and fingers twisted the ribbon of her bonnet, falling from her hands, into knots.
It was quite clear to Elizabeth that the poor child just wanted to be left alone. “Good day to you, Miss Bryant – and again, my apologies for disturbing your walk.”
Turning, she faced the carriage, and sighed. It had been five years since her sister had disappeared; what made her think that she would be able to even recognize her anymore? Five years had certainly changed her own features, moving it from childhood to adulthood, and Katherine had always had that fairylike trick of looking different in different lights.
There was nothing for it than get back into the carriage and continue. The search for a new home, and for her sister, was not yet over. Elizabeth closed her eyes in silent pain, and sent a quick prayer to the Lord – the same prayer that had weighed upon her heart for five years. Please, Father, keep her safe. Wherever she is.
Elizabeth took a deep breath to fortify herself for the journey, and found that instead of the damp leather smell of the seats or the dry sandy smell of the road, she could smell . . . surely that could not be . . . apples?
“I am going to explore,” she called out to the driver, eyes snapping open. The last thing she wanted to do in this Texan heat was to return to that stuffy carriage. Not now she was wearing three petticoats instead of her usual one, as newfound decorum dictated. “I can never resist an apple, and I think there is a tree somewhere here.”
“More’n a tree,” was the grunt that she received in response, top hat placed back beside him and handkerchief now mopping his brow. “I reckon that there’s the orchard.”
The orchard? They didn’t seem to be any closer to El Seco than when they had left, and yet if Elizabeth craned her neck, she could see just over the brow of the hill –
Not just an orchard indeed. Fields upon fields of orchards, all wild and overgrown, like a palace that had been forgotten. The apple trees were overladen with fruit, some of it spilt onto the ground, much of it rotting. Each tree seemed arched over as though trying to embrace the ground. There were some buildings a little way off, all higgled together, and even from this distance she could see they were in disrepair.
But this was the opposite of where she had come from; the smoke and the noise of San Antonio, the loneliness of the house, the harshness of her grandparents, the emptiness of her heart without Katherine. And even beyond her there was the war with Mexico, the disputes with the United States of America, and the debate on slavery that went around and around in circles. Elizabeth sighed loudly. She wanted out of the whirlpool that was life, always threatening at any moment to drag her down and envelop her in its crashing waves. This was sanctuary from the world and all its troubles. This was a gentle life, where she could be fully alive, and the sweet smell of the growing apples danced across the breeze. She had not even realized that her journey was taking her here, until she had arrived.
“This is it,” Elizabeth murmured to herself. “This is what I will spend my inheritance on – there is no one else to share it with now, so why not spend it on a little piece of paradise?”
Just a few steps forward brought her to the first line of trees, and just by her shoulder was a juicy red apple, just crying out to be picked. It had been nothing but dried ham and pork pie to eat that day, as the last coaching inn was not particularly obliging when it came to prepared luncheon.
Elizabeth’s stomach gurgled. Well, it was not as though it was stealing, after all; this place was obviously abandoned, and it would be hers soon anyway. The vast fortune she had inherited from her grandparents was surely enough to buy the entire orchard.
Lifting her travelling cloak from the ground where it had fallen when her mouth had dropped open, she pulled out a small pocketknife, and cut the apple from the tree.
“What in blazes do you think you are doing?”
(Love this book? You can buy it here! Or you can keep reading the second half of this chapter to find out more . . . )
The woman, whoever she was, didn’t seem to have any care for trespassing at all – she just walked straight up to the nearest tree, and cut down an apple.
“Cannot you read?” Jonathan Bryant stormed towards the intruder, his voice loud so it would carry over the distance before he did. For some reason, his hands were shaking as he tried to button up his waistcoat over his linen shirt, and retain some element of respectability. “This is Sweet Grove, and snoopers are not welcome.”
“Snoopers?” The woman’s nose crinkled as she beheld him, and he was suddenly very aware that he was in his working clothes, and the shirt he was currently wearing was rather stained with oil and sweat. “I do not think I have been a snooper a single day of my life.”
Jonathan glared, pushing his long dark hair from his face. Jett barked softly and danced around his feet, but he did not look down at the young puppy. “Then there is a first for everything, because you are not welcome here, snooper.”
The woman stared at him for a moment, and her long dark curls that were pinned together seemed at any moment about to fall past her neck and down her back. She was slender, with a beautiful expression across her face, something that Jonathan couldn’t put his finger on. Joy? The sun gleamed in those blue eyes. Was it the sun? And then she laughed.
“Come now, we are not eight years old.” She thrust out the hand that didn’t contain the apple in it. “I am Elizabeth Morrison, and I am going to be buying this place – Sweet Grove, did you call it? What a beautiful name, I will not change a thing.”
Jonathan blinked. “You . . . you are going to buy it?”
The moment he had seen the woman wandering through what he considered his Top Field, he knew that she would be trouble – but he hadn’t bargained on this. Buy Sweet Grove?
A prickling on the back of his neck told him that his gaze was unwanted. His eyes hadn’t left her, and the smile on her face had faltered. Clearly, she was not so confident as she was trying to appear.
“Yes.” She nodded, and perhaps as an excuse to look away from him, took a bite out of the apple and knelt to pat the young dog. “Oh my, this apple is delicious! Have you any idea what type it is?”
“Variety.” Jonathan shifted on his feet, and swallowed. This conversation was getting completely out of control, and the heat of the day was starting to overpower him slightly. Worse, Jett was completely betraying him, rolling over immediately to allow her to tickle his tummy.
Miss Morrison stared at him, her free hand smoothing out her skirt that had got tangled. “Variety?”
He nodded, and pushed a hand through his beard, his calloused hands rougher than the wiry tangle, then tugged at his long hair. He had never noticed it had reached past his shoulders before. “Each type of apple is called a variety, and – I do apologize, madam, did you say that you are buying Sweet Grove?”
Looking her up and down, he could hardly believe it himself. Of course, you could not always immediately tell when it came to ladies, he certainly did not have the head for fashions like his sister did – but this Miss Elizabeth Morrison did not seem dressed in the latest vogue. True, her gown did pinch in under the bust and flow outwards, but didn’t every dress?
The sun burst from a cloud in the sky, and they were bathed in sunlight. For a moment, it was as though she had a halo around her dark curls that were pinned loosely back.
Jonathan shook himself. This was not the time to get carried away – you need to find out what is going on. And besides, she was talking over Jett’s baby yelps. And to think he had brought him out here to train him.
“. . . if that is what this place is called.”
“You cannot buy it.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Jonathan regretted them. Why argue with a stranger in a field? She probably didn’t have the money to buy Sweet Grove anyway.
She looked ponderously at him. “You know, I think I can. I mean, I do not know exactly how much the inheritance is, but I have been told by my lawyer – yes, I know, I have a lawyer, it is all very impressive and strange – that it is quite a substantial bit of money, and that I should choose an estate immediately. I am not sure whether he had an orchard in mind, particularly, but I mean, look at it.”
Miss Morrison’s arms swept outwards, as if for dramatic effect, but Jonathan knew that Sweet Grove didn’t need it. This was the sweetest part of Texas that he had ever seen, and he had never thought to leave it.
“I know there is no written intention of sale on the fence,” she continued, throwing her arm back behind her, “but I am sure that no one is really caring for it – I mean, look, it is practically wild.”
“I am doing the best I can,” Jonathan snapped. “It is not easy caring for over two hundred acres alone. Not when Comanches are roaming, and the rains never come, and you are on your own.”
There was a moment of stillness. Even Jett stilled, looking from one to the other in confusion. Heat flew through the air and into his veins, and his chest was heaving slightly. Something softer seemed to seep into Miss Morrison’s eyes, and she lowered her arm.
“My word,” she said quietly. “I had no idea that it was yours.”
Bitterness wrenched at Jonathan’s insides, and though he tried to keep his voice civil, even he could feel the anger welling up in his throat. “Did I say it was mine?”
“Well,” Miss Morrison looked at the ground. All attempt at polite conversation was clearly at an end. The sun went behind another cloud. “No, I suppose not, but – ”
“I tend it,” spat Jonathan. “That is all. It belongs to the Scott family now, save the buildings down there where Abigail and I live. And I am sure they would sell it to you; money is the only thing they value, and they cannot see Sweet Grove for what it is worth, never have. Good day to you.”
He didn’t look at her directly, didn’t want to see her embarrassment, or even censure. All he wanted to do was get back to the Lower Field and finish the picking of the Hewes crab apples with Jett snapping at his heels playfully. Beautiful women who strode across fields and announced that they were buying your ancestral home were best ignored.
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