Caroline Fyffe

Excerpt: Heather

Book 4: The McCutcheon Family Series

Chapter One

St. Louis, Missouri, 1886

OH, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE! Heather Stanford swatted at a fly buzzing about her face and blew a wayward strand of hair from her eyes before it stuck to her moist forehead. Although they stood in the shade, the temperature was warm and growing hotter. She longed to go inside, especially as the scent of the livery yard drifted on the light breeze.

Heather glanced from beneath her lashes at the group gathered in the backyard. All the bride hopefuls were there listening to Mr. De Rosa teach them about planting seasons, when to put in herbs for your kitchen garden, and how to keep pesky critters—Heather swatted at a bee this time—from stealing the best of what they grew.

She nibbled at her bottom lip, thinking how the crooked little man with the pointed leather cap reminded her of a troll from the battered copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales she used to read to her younger sisters at bedtime. But Mr. De Rosa wasn’t mean at all. He had a heart of pure gold. His eyes came alight anytime a bride hopeful asked a rare question, and a smile was never far from his lips.

Rumor had it he was sweet on Dona, the cook, but Heather had never seen proof of that. It was difficult to picture the two of them together, him short, her tall and strong as an ox. Lina had found them face-to-face in the pantry, Dona with an expression of guilt, as if they’d been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Heather’s lips twitched.

Angelina Napolitano, or Lina as she liked to be called, nudged her when the sound of heavy iron wheels on brick and the clanging of cables was impossible to miss. “Listen. The cable car,” she whispered, leaning toward Heather.

Heather tilted her head, singling out the sound amidst the chirping birds, buzzing from the honeycomb high in the alder, and Mr. De Rosa’s voice droning on and on and on.

She nodded. “I hear it.” St. Louis’s first cable car line stopped only one street over on the corner of Knoll and Franklin. The conveyance’s distinctive chugging along Franklin Avenue permeated the air, then the conductor’s shrill voice called out the stop. All the girls turned, and Mr. De Rosa smiled and stopped talking. The novelty of this new mode of transportation had not worn off.

“Attention, p-please, ladies,” Mr. De Rosa stuttered, calling them back to what they were doing. He held a pencil in his dirt-covered fingers. “Now, t-take the pencil and p-p-poke it into your prepared soil, three to f-four inches deep. Then p-p-plaaace your rosemary cutting inside.” He went about doing just that, a little hum coming from his throat as his son, Ernie, a good twenty feet away, pruned the dwarf plum at the back of the carp pond with large hedge shears.

“Let’s plan an outing when we have time, ride the cable car. Just down to Locust Street and back,” Lina whispered. “We can visit the flower shop, then have a cup of tea in a charming little café. I’ve seen just the one. I’m dying to go.”

“I don’t know…” Heather didn’t want to dampen Lina’s enthusiasm, but she didn’t have money to spare. Even five cents was too much.

“And it’s my treat.” As always, it seemed Lina had read her thoughts. “No argument from you. Remember, you just helped me hem that horrible skirt with yards and yards of fabric. If left to my own devices, I would have donated the garment to the church. Your stitches were much tighter and smoother than mine.” She gave Heather an affectionate look. “Consider it a thank-you for your kindness.”

Mr. De Rosa lifted his head and gave them the stop-whispering eye and pay- attention look.

Lina was Heather’s closest friend. The curvy Italian with the nurturing spirit had recognized Heather’s reluctance to be a mail-order bride right off.

At twenty-six, Lina was older than Heather by four years, and for the prior eight years had been a nanny for a fine family on the East side. After her boys, as she called them, had grown up and gone off to boarding school, she didn’t want to return to her crowded family home. Instead, she hoped to be a mail-order bride. She was sincere and smart, and Heather considered her the older sister she didn’t have. They were roommates, along with Bertha Bucholtz, in the attic dormitory.

Kathryn Ford, the well-off socialite from Mount Vernon, inched forward. “I’ve never liked to work with the soil, really.” She held up her perfect, made-for-playing-the-piano fingers, studied them for a moment, then clasped them behind her back.

Heather hid a smile. Her friend Kathryn was here in defiance of the man her father had picked out for her the day she was born. Imagine that. “A boor and domineering,” Kathryn had called him one afternoon when they were talking. Heather admired the young woman’s inner strength to go up against her formidable father like that, a powerful businessman in Boston. The delicate cape of Kathryn’s yellow chiffon dress, one much too expensive to be worn while gardening, draped elegantly around her shoulders, accentuating the golden highlights in her wavy chestnut hair.

Heather’s heart, full of love and too many regrets, twisted a little more. She missed her family, especially her youngest sister, Melba. The fourteen-year-old grew frailer by the day. The whole family was worried sick, and the doctors couldn’t seem to figure out what was behind her deteriorating constitution. Heather clenched her eyes in frustration and willed away the fear that threatened to darken her heart.

“It’s as ea-easy as that!” Mr. De Rosa smiled warmly at the group, and Heather was snapped back to the present. “And with th-that, we’re finished.” He set his things down, took a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his shiny forehead.

Darcy Russell and Bertha Bucholtz meandered toward Heather’s group, joining them.

“I’m h-hot,” a female voice said from behind a bush, the mimicking tone malicious.

The girls turned.

Prudence Crawford stepped out. She laughed and threw a knowing look at the good-hearted gardener as she swished her fan in front of her apple-red face. “Aren’t y-y-yooooou?”

In that moment, Heather disliked Prudence even more than she already did. With each passing day, the woman thought up new ways to be mean and cruel. She often picked on the poor gardener, but any of them could also be her target.

“I’m a little tired,” Heather said, choosing to ignore the cruel mockery. She tried to avoid Prudence at all costs. Someday she might lose her patience and box her ears, as she’d had to do a time or two with her little brothers. “I think I’ll head upstairs. Freshen up for supper. Won’t be long before Dona rings the dinner bell.” Heather smiled, even though the action felt stilted. “As you know, Dona doesn’t appreciate it if we’re late.”

“That I do,” Lina agreed. “Yesterday I thought she was going to explode as I hurried in one minute past seven. Her eyes gave me a silent dressing down that scorched me to my pantaloons.” Lina winked one of her sparkling eyes.

Darcy nodded, sending tendrils of honey-brown hair waving around her face. “I guess I can’t blame her, though? She takes pride in the sumptuous suppers she prepares for us. We’re really quite lucky to be treated in such a manner.”

Heather took in the beautiful backyard. Yes, lucky indeed. Mrs. Seymour,the owner of the agency, took good care of her charges. She looked after her girls as if they were her own.

Heather had been at the agency for a little over two weeks, and Mrs. Seymour had yet to call her into her office for “a talk.” A talk was a good thing—that is if you wanted a husband. But Heather didn’t. All she wanted was a way to support herself, so she could contribute to the pool of money that had kept her family’s business afloat since her father’s passing. Times were hard. Had always been hard for them as far back as she could remember. And now that the doctor bills…

All the other brides, however, did want a husband, and continually chattered about which kind they preferred. A summons to the matron’s office was the news the prospective brides longed to receive. The meeting meant Mrs. Seymour had found a potential match, and the woman fit the requirements of a particular bachelor looking for a bride.

Once presented with the details of the suitor, the prospective wife-to-be had to decide whether he fit her dreams and desires as well. Then she wrote back to see if a match could be made.

“Did I tell you what Dona did to me the day after I arrived?” Bertha looked over her shoulder toward the house, as if to make sure the cook wasn’t within hearing distance. The young woman’s eyes danced and her full cheeks blossomed pink. Her green dress billowed out around her in the shape of a church bell, accentuating her thick waist and stout body. “I was five minutes late to the dining room because I couldn’t find my fan. When I finally arrived, my plate had been removed!” Bertha blinked several times in rapid, unbelieving succession. “I had to go to bed hungry—just like when I was a girl.”

“Really?” Kathryn looked at her, incredulous. “That seems awful harsh.”

Bertha tittered and shrugged. “I suppose. But I’ve been ten minutes early to every meal since.”

Prudence cleared her throat loudly, then waited until all eyes were on her. “I’m not surprised, Bertha,” she said. “Your stomach is like a homing pigeon. It draws your feet and nose to the tiniest hint of food.”

Heather couldn’t believe her ears. Bertha’s smile crumpled. “Prudence!” Heather scolded. “Say you’re sorry this instant!”

The house troublemaker was up to her usual tricks. Nasty and mean were her middle names. She enjoyed making others feel bad about themselves, and she especially liked to pick on Bertha.

Prudence straightened her long, reed-thin body and patted the side of her glossy black bun. She liked to flaunt her shape, or lack of it, in front of Bertha, who was as plump as she was sweet.

Prudence’s incensed gaze bored into Heather, challenging. “I will do no such thing, Miss Stanford. I haven’t said anything that everyone in this room has not thought to herself.”

Bertha’s face flushed pinker, if that were possible, and her eyes blinked in pain. She spun and gathered the fan and bonnet she had set on a nearby chair, as if to hurry away.

Everyone else remained frozen in shocked silence, as bees buzzed and the sun continued to shine. Heather feared Bertha might break into tears.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, Pru!” Lina said, stepping to Heather’s side in solidarity. “I believe you enjoy hurting other people’s feelings. Why are you so cruel? Now that Evie is gone, it seems Bertha is your new target.”

“Don’t listen to a word that comes out of Prudence’s uncharitable mouth, Bertha.” Heather touched the woman’s shoulder. “We don’t think those things about you. Prudence is just frustrated because she’s been at the agency so long—with no prospect of a match. The poor woman needs our prayers and understanding.” She leveled a scrutinizing gaze at Prudence. “How long have you been here, Pru?”

Prudence’s sharp intake of breath sounded around the yard. Her lips curled over her teeth, and her chin jutted out like a knife. A second later, a violent trembling overtook her arms and legs and she reminded Heather of a starving dog ready to fight to keep its bone.

Heather didn’t dare back down. Lina inched closer, as did the other young women. Ernie, pruning shears at his side, watched. Seemed they’d all chosen sides, and ended up with her.

Prudence turned and stomped away.

With their tormenter gone, Darcy, Kathryn, and Lina huddled around Bertha, drawing her into hugs of their own.

“With Mrs. Seymour away visiting Evie, Prudence thinks she has the run of the place,” Darcy said. “The cook’s authority has little effect on that shrew, especially since Dona hardly comes out of the kitchen to see what’s going on.”

A small smile crept back onto Bertha’s face. The buoyant, happy spirit resurfaced in her eyes. “When Prudence started to shake, I thought she was about to pounce on you, Heather. You’ve made an enemy standing up to her like that.”

Heather laughed. “Oh, pooh. Prudence doesn’t scare me. Bullies are usually afraid of their own shadows.”

Bertha took Heather’s hands in her own. “Still, I want you to keep your wits about you. I don’t trust Prudence one little bit.”

Heather smiled, thinking how the group of women reminded her of her own sisters. Her heart gave another sad squeeze. If she married and moved west, this might be the last few days she spent with them. And what about her little sister Melba, with her failing health? What would become of her?

“If it’ll make you feel better,” Heather said, shoving her disturbing thoughts aside. “I’ll be on the lookout at all times.”

Kathryn nodded. “I think we all should. Since Trudy Bauer’s marriage, Prudence has become bolder. Trudy had a calming effect on her. She’d always change the subject at just the right time.”

A thoughtful acknowledgment rippled through the group of girls as they remembered their friend. Trudy’s soothing force at the agency had been well appreciated, especially where Prudence was concerned. Trudy’s match had been made a couple of weeks prior, and she’d traveled west to Sweetwater Springs to marry Seth Flanigan.

“I think we should all skedaddle and get ready for supper.” Heather glanced around. “Supper bell will be ringing soon enough.”

Heads nodded in agreement.

In the house, Heather took the handrail and started for the attic dormitory. The talk of Trudy made her think of her other friend, Evie Davenport Holcomb, the agency’s longtime maid who’d sneaked away early one morning and traveled west. The girl was almost a hero around the house. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Seymour, and in search of true love, the maid had secretly taken letters that had been sent to the agency from an eligible bachelor. Without telling anyone, she began a correspondence with him, and in no time he asked her to wed. Such a romantic story! Later, when Mrs. Seymour learned Evie’s whereabouts, she packed her bags and went after her. That was over two weeks ago. Thank goodness the matron was due home tomorrow.

“Heather,” a voice called.

Heather turned to find Lina hurrying up the stairs to catch up. Her friend held up the folds of the buttery-colored cotton dress so she wouldn’t catch the hem with the toe of her boot. The fitted bodice and scooped neckline were beautiful, and complemented Lina’s near perfect olive skin.

Lina tipped her head. “Are you all right, Heather? Seems like something is troubling you. Besides Pru, I mean.”

They continued up the stairs side by side.

“I’m just worried about Melba.”

“How is she?”

Last week, Heather had confided in Lina about her youngest sister’s precarious health. Sharing her fears had made them a bit more bearable. “About the same. I received a letter today from Sally, my other sister. Mother is beside herself. The doctors don’t have any answers.”

“I’m so sorry.”

They paused on the second-story landing. Lina put a hand on Heather’s shoulders. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Heather shook her head. Her brothers were already living at their uncle’s house to ease the financial burden. There was talk of Sally’s going to live at Aunt Tillie’s.

“Maybe Mrs. Seymour will have a match for you when she returns. Several letters have arrived since she left.”

“Perhaps. But…” Heather felt her face heat, and she turned away.

Lina stepped closer, and with a gentle touch to Heather’s chin, turned her back. “But what?”

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but—I don’t want a match.” Finally saying the words she’d been keeping to herself felt good.

“What?” Lina’s brows drew together. “I’m confused.”

Heather nodded, resigned to her plight. “The only reason I’m here is to help my family. Money is tight. Food is hard to come by. I had to talk until I was blue in the face so my mother would believe going west to get married was my greatest heart’s desire—and be a mail-order bride.”

“Oh, Heather, you can’t mean that! You don’t want to marry? To have a husband?”

Heather straightened. “I do mean it, Lina. I’ve had this notion all my life that I wouldn’t marry. That maybe I’d work in the medical field in some capacity. I knew I could never afford the schooling, but I always listened and learned from my mother and our neighborhood doctor. As I got older, being the daughter of a blacksmith, there weren’t many options open for me if I did want to marry. No one was beating down the door when I came of age, and the few that were, I had no interest in. I wanted more out of life than being a slave to some tavern-loving…”

She stopped, knowing that Lena was excited about being a bride. She didn’t want to spoil her friend’s enthusiasm about getting married.

Just because Heather’s father hadn’t been the best husband to her mother, or father to her and her brothers and sisters, didn’t mean there weren’t other good, decent men out there. She had no desire to raise a family all by herself and have her man come home with beer on his breath after too many hours away, and too much money spent. Regardless of his faults, she’d loved her father. She just didn’t want a husband like him. Her uncharitable thoughts kept her awake at night, along with her gnawing stomach—a heavy burden for a young girl to have.

She smiled ruefully. “This year and last, I’d hoped to find some kind of position in St. Louis that would help ease my family’s plight. I wanted to remain living at home—helping my mother. Remember, I have nine brothers and sisters. I feel strongly about my three youngest sisters, Sally, Anita, and Melba finishing their educations.” Not Melba now. She gulped at the reality of what that thought meant. “An education is the most important thing a woman can have.”

The look in Lina’s eyes gave her courage to go on. “But last year the smithy slowed down even more. Since my father’s passing, and new smithies open, work is harder and harder for my brothers to find. Longtime clients have died off. If I go west, there will be one less person to feed, and things will be easier. If I can’t help by working and bringing in an income, I can help by starting a new life somewhere else.”

She shrugged and glanced away, a shiver of uncertainty running up her spine. “As hard as I tried, no one needed a doctor’s assistant, or any other type of employee. I would’ve taken Evie’s job here as maid if Mrs. Seymour hadn’t filled the position so quickly with Juniper. If I truly want to help my family, finding a husband and moving out is the best thing I can do.”

Lina looked skeptical. “But the other day, when we were all talking about husbands and the kind of man we wanted, you joined in.”

“That’s because I didn’t want anyone to know how I truly felt. If the matron finds out, she may not match me up with anyone. One way or the other, seems I’m going to have a husband. I may as well accept this cross gracefully, as Mrs. Seymour likes to say.”

A smile played around the corners of Lina’s mouth. “You may be surprised. Marriage might agree with you. Who knows whom you’ll be matched with. Tall, dark, and handsome?” She made a slight curtsy, and then pretended to slip into the arms of an imaginary suitor. She waltzed gracefully around the second-floor landing as if at a ball.

Heather couldn’t stifle a small laugh. Lina and her fanciful ways could always lighten her mood. “I don’t think so. Have you forgotten about my brothers, Travis, Morgan, Ben, Peter, Curtis, and Sam? The opposite sex is no mystery to me! They’d as soon box my ears as hold me in their arms and dance around the room.” Besides, being the oldest daughter and my father and mother needing my help, there was no time—or money—for dancing lessons. “Promise me something?”

Lina stopped waltzing and tipped her head. “Anything.”

“That we’ll always be friends. That we’ll stay in touch—no matter what. Moving away and leaving my family will be hard enough. I don’t want to lose you, too. You’re the only one I can confide in.”

The bedroom door nearest the stairway opened, and Prudence stepped out. She drew up, surprised, then her eyes glittered and a deceptive smile played around her thin lips, making Heather take a tiny step back. Yes, she actually would heed Bertha’s warning. Prudence’s bitter soul might be capable of anything.

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