Updated Version as of 9/2011...A Historical Romance set in 1875 Midwest.
|My latest Historical. This is still the second edit version which means I have gone over it a couple times but is still under construction. I always enjoy feedback. Enjoy!
Bonne Terre, Missouri 1875
Lizzie hurried to pull the apple pie from the oven. She sighed in relief when she saw that it was cooked to perfection and hadn’t burned while she had been picking the green beans from the garden. She set it on the wooden sideboard to cool and went to wash the beans and began snapping them. She pushed a lock of her ash blonde hair from her eyes and sighed, wiping the sweat from her brow. She snapped the beans methodically as her eyes gazed out at her prized garden.
Her garden was the only place she felt she belonged and wouldn’t be bothered by her family. Nobody desired to get their hands dirty helping her out there. She chuckled to herself. If the truth be told, no one desired to help her period. They were more than content letting her do all the work around the house. She cooked, cleaned, mended, did the shopping, tended the garden, and did the laundry. She did it all and neither her brothers nor her stepsister seemed to think she needed a lick of help.
Truthfully, she really preferred it that way. She got to do things the way she wanted them done and she didn’t need to rely on anyone. She had always enjoyed cooking and preparing dinner and it had become one of her favorite times of the day. Her brothers always appreciated having a good dinner waiting when they returned from their day at the mine in Bonne Terre. It was the least she could do for all of them, as it was their job at the mine that provided the income to keep up the payments on the house and land they were all raised in. She and her brothers hoped to eventually be able to farm the land which was left to them by her parents, but first they must pay off the mortgage the bank held on the property.
It had come as quite a shock to them after their mother’s death to find that she had mortgaged the property to help start their stepfather’s new livery business. Her brothers had been hoping to raise cattle by mortgaging the property for the money to buy their first hundred head, but instead had been forced to get jobs at the iron mill to help earn enough money to keep up on the mortgage payments.
She frowned thinking back to her stepfather’s refusal to pay back the mortgage, especially now his livery was a successful business and he could easily take out a loan at the local bank. She didn’t understand how he felt it was their responsibility to earn the money to pay for the house. Not to mention the payment was to pay back money he had used for his business. It was completely unfair! Not that anything Morgan McAllister did was fair. She never had understood what her mother saw in the man that made her decide to marry him in the first place.
Lizzie sighed deeply. Next month it would be two years since her mother had died, and she still missed her. She knew she always would. She often wondered if her life would be any different. Would she be married instead of acting as mother, wife, and housekeeper to her brothers, stepfather, and stepsister? She was sure her mother would have arranged to have her meet many eligible men had she lived, but instead she had become sick and frail and eventually had succumb to her illness. It was left up to Lizzie to continue to keep the house running while her brothers and stepfather worked.
“Oh Lizzie!” Lizzie’s shoulders tensed as she heard her stepsister Karen’s voice float into the kitchen. She tried not to cringe at the syrupy sound of it and she turned, drying her hands on a nearby towel.
“I just had to come see what smelled so good down here. What are you making for dinner?”
“Pork roast, green beans, and potatoes. What you probably smell is the first apple pie this season.”
Karen’s eyes perused the sideboard eagerly. “Oh there it is. It is baked to perfection as usual. I just am so glad you are so handy around the house. I am such an absolute failure at domestic tasks. I think it troubles father greatly.”
Lizzie tried not to roll her eyes as her stepsister spoke. Karen never lifted a finger to do anything around the house. It had nothing to do with be “handy” and everything to do with actual work, which Karen avoided at all costs. Lizzie was certain the fact didn’t bother her father at all, Morgan was more than happy to dote to his seventeen year old daughter’s every whim.
“It is really too bad you never married. You would have made some man a great wife.”
Lizzie turned to hide the flush of anger she felt in her cheeks. Just because she was twenty three and not yet married, Karen thought she was an old maid. Karen might be younger, and if the truth be told, prettier than herself, but that didn’t mean that she would never marry.
“You never know. I may marry someday.”
“Someday? Why you are nearly twenty three! Who is going to want someone so old? It is just a good thing that Michael, James, and my father need you so much. Lizzie, you need to resign yourself to the fact that no one is going to want an old maid for a wife. Besides, it isn’t like you have a pretty girlish figure either. Not like me, anyway.” Karen turned around dramatically and placed her hands on her corset admiring her narrow waist. “You are built much more like your mother, who was pretty—but not exactly the most petite woman alive.”
Lizzie didn’t bother to answer. Karen sat down at the trestle table and continued to rattle on about her dreams of a handsome beau and marrying a wealthy man. She was used to such prattle from Karen, and she always ignored her ill-mannered and hurtful comments. It wasn’t as if the girl was purposefully being mean, she just didn’t think before she said anything. Karen was not spiteful or cruel, just brutally honest. Lizzie knew she was well past prime marrying age, and she also knew she was not the most attractive woman in the world. Her mother’s German ancestry had left her with far too much height, broad shoulders, and large bones. Although she was a woman, she was nearly as tall and as broad through the shoulders as her brothers. She wasn’t heavy, but she did not have a lithe, graceful figure like Karen. It didn’t matter whether she bound herself in corsets or not, she would never have a waist a man could span with his hands.
She tried not to let the fact that she may not ever find someone who would want to marry her and have the opportunity to raise a family on her own bother her. Her family lived nearly a mile outside a very small community with a majority of the population being of German descent, and she was certain she was related to at least half of the eligible men in and around the small town of Bonne Terre.
It wasn’t as if she was much interested in being a miner’s wife anyway, which was the primary source of employment in the area. She had been raised on this farm and she felt her roots tied to this land. She could never see herself leaving it. She was the one who had been adamant about keeping the land after their mother’s death when Morgan had wanted to sell. Her brother’s had backed her in her decision, but they had to make the compromise that Morgan and Karen could continue to live with them and in return, once the mortgage was paid, Morgan would sign over the deed to the land.
Lizzie could hardly wait for that day. After all, it had been her idea to travel to Saint Louis and buy cattle to raise and sell at the local market. With the mining community and talk of new roads being constructed in the area, she was sure they couldn’t lose on their investment. However, finding the money to invest was the difficulty. She sighed softly.
“So do you think father will buy me that new dress, Lizzie?” Karen was blissfully unaware her stepsister hadn’t been listening to her at all.
“I am sure he will. You know how he likes to please you.” Lizzie said softly, feeling very saddened by the fact no one seemed to care about her wants and desires. She knew her brothers loved her dearly, but she also knew their minds were on a multitude of other things besides their oldest sister. The amount of young, pretty, and eligible girls in town was sure to be at the top of that list. She wondered if they would even remember her birthday which was in less than a week’s time.
“Well I better go freshen up for dinner. I am sure I just look frightful.”
“Yes, it is getting to be that time. Your father will be home soon.” Lizzie threw the beans into the water boiling on the stove and watched as Karen rose from the table. Her dark brown locks were pulled back in a coiled bun and her hair was smooth and supple. Her cheeks bloomed with the perfect hint of color and her gown still looked freshly pressed. If she thinks she looks frightful, she must think I am hideous. Lizzie thought to herself with a shake of her head, looking down at her faded gown and knew her hair was probably falling out of her bun as usual.
“Although, I know I really shouldn’t eat it, I am looking forward to that pie.” Karen hurried over and gave Lizzie a quick kiss on the cheek and quickly hurried from the room. Lizzie smiled slightly. Karen could be a sweet girl. She only wished Karen talked about half as much and wasn’t so inclined to be lazy. She wondered how it would feel to sleep to eleven and only worry about how one looked all day. Lizzie was certain she couldn’t stand to be so frivolous. She couldn’t sleep past six if she tried. She chuckled at the thought as she turned back to cut up the potatoes.
Lizzie sat the last dish down in front of her family and sat opposite of her stepfather at the head of the table. She always felt slightly strange sitting where her mother always had. She clasped her hands and bowed her head as Morgan said grace. They all repeated Amen to close the prayer and James and Michael immediately picked up the platters and began to help themselves to the delicious fare placed in front of them. The dishes were passed around and everyone began eating in their typically silent fashion.
Lizzie stared at her plate remembering how lively dinner time had been when she had been young and her parents had still been alive. Now, every night began in silence and occasionally someone would speak up and mention some interesting event that occurred in town. James and Michael almost never spoke until after they had eaten their fill. They didn’t have a chance to eat much at the mine, so they always returned home with monstrous appetites
“I have a piece of interesting news.” Morgan announced quietly and Lizzie looked up at her stepfather quizzically. He was a handsome enough man she supposed. He was lean, and kept his dark brown salt and peppered hair carefully trimmed, and his mustache well groomed. His brown eyes met hers before drifting around the table.
“What is it father?” Karen eagerly asked.
“An old friend of mine has a son who will be arriving in Bonne Terre tomorrow from Saint Louis. It seems the young man is searching for a place to set up a flour mill and is considering our area due to it’s proximity to St. Louis.”
James looked up from his plate. “That is interesting. Does he think he will be able to get enough workers with St. Joes already here?” James asked referring to the iron mine.
“I am sure more people will arrive if they find out there are jobs to be had. It is the way of things. It would be a further boom for our town if it occurred.”
“If the town grows it will mean there are that many more people to sell beef too. Right Lizzie?” Michael piped in with a smile at his sister.
“It would, but as Morgan stated. The man is only looking for a place right now. It would take a year or more to build a mill and get it operational.” Lizzie ignored the grim look from her stepfather. He did not like for her to call him by his first name, but Lizzie had never and would never call the man father. He was not her father and never would be.
“All the more opportunity to get the note paid at the bank.” James replied with a grin at his brother.
“I am glad you are all in favor of this idea.” Morgan replied with the slightest of smiles.
Lizzie had learned to become leery of those smiles and she set her fork down and looked at him. “Why is that?”
“Because I have invited him to come stay with us while he is in town.”
“And where exactly are we supposed to house this man? We have no spare rooms,” Lizzie inquired in a firm voice. James and Michael looked at each other and dropped their gaze to their plates. They never enjoyed the confrontations between their older sister and their stepfather.
“I figured James and Michael could bunk together for a few nights, and Derek can take one of their rooms.”
“Derek, is that his name? I like the sound of that. How old is he father? Is he married?” Morgan gave his daughter a reproving look and she fell silent.
“So, I am to get a room, the house, and a meal ready for an unknown and unexpected guest in less than a day?” Lizzie asked feeling more than a little angry. “I’m not sure it’s possible. I don’t have an extra set of clean sheets or a quilt to put on the bed. Why should he stay here? There is a perfectly good hotel in town.”
Morgan knew out of everyone, Lizzie was going to be the hardest to convince. She was always a thorn in his side. If it wasn’t for her, he would no longer be living in this godforsaken farmhouse, but a new house in town.
“Elizabeth,” He used her formal name, even though he knew she detested it. It seemed only fitting since she had always insisted in using his.
“You are a woman with a mind for business. Which do you think makes a more favorable impression on a man who is looking for a new home for his latest enterprise? A warm welcome by a friend of his father’s, who kindly offers a comfortable place to stay and home cooked meals? Or a slightly run down hotel, with mediocre food and only passable service? Not to mention he would have to sit and share his meals with the mining community, which we all know, can be slightly off color. This man is from one of the very elite families in Chicago, I don’t think he would appreciate some of our mining culture. Besides, if this boy decides to build a mill in the community, it will only benefit your future enterprise, so I would think you would be delighted to attempt to make a favorable impression on this gentleman.”
Lizzie considered his words. She hated when Morgan was right and unfortunately she was far too practical to not see the wisdom in his thinking.
“I can see your point. What, pray tell, do you receive out of this arrangement?” If she knew one thing, it was her stepfather never did anything without expecting to receive something in return.
“Nothing beside the knowledge I may further help my community by bringing in much needed jobs and commerce.”
Lizzie didn’t believe that was his only motivation. “Which of course would only further the success of your own business.”
“There is that.” Morgan returned his attention to his plate and Lizzie knew the subject was now considered closed. She heaved a soft sigh and began eating. Nothing more was said until she brought out dessert and both of her brothers’ eyes lit up when she served them a large slice of the apple pie.
“Lizzie! You’ve outdone yourself tonight. I think this is the best meal you’ve made all month.” Michael exclaimed grabbing her hand and kissing the back of it quickly. Lizzie gave him a bright smile and finished handing out the dessert. She sat down to her own dish and was surprised when even Morgan complimented her after his first bite. She could almost forgive him for foisting a stranger on them with so little notice.
All the men had a second piece of pie and as they finished Lizzie started clearing the table.
Morgan looked up at his daughter who was studying her fingernails. “Karen, since Elizabeth has much to do to get ready for our guest, I want you to help her in whatever way you can. Help her clear the table and put up the dishes.”
Lizzie would have laughed at the shocked look on Karen’s face if she hadn’t been so surprised herself. Morgan McAllister was actually requesting his sweet, helpless daughter do work? She couldn’t have heard him correctly.
“Father! I couldn’t possibly do that! I may break a dish, or worse, the water may chap my hands and make them look dreadful. Look at Lizzie’s! Her hands don’t even look soft or womanly.”
Lizzie flushed and self consciously looked at her hands, which were slightly red from the harsh soaps she used and she noticed the calluses she had developed for the first time.
“First of all, my dear, that was a completely rude thing to say about Elizabeth. Second of all, it is high time you learn some more of the more important skills of being a wife and mother. Elizabeth is the perfect person to help you learn.” He held up a hand before she could protest.
“You are the one who has been dreaming of marriage. The men around here find it important to have a woman who he feels is capable to run the home.”
“Well, I never dreamed of marrying a dirty miner.” James and Michael both frowned at her statement. “I was hoping you would allow me to go to some of the debutante balls in St. Louis.”
“You know I can not just up and leave the business to parade you around St. Louis. Even if I did, I would still insist on you learning some domestic tasks. Wouldn’t you like to be able to make one of the wonderful pies like Elizabeth made tonight?”
Karen stared at him with a mulish look for a moment before she picked up her dish and flounced into the kitchen.
Lizzie followed slowly behind her, wondering exactly what was at the root of Morgan’s sudden desire for his daughter to learn about domestic tasks. She had a distinct feeling it had to do with a certain guest that was to be arriving tomorrow. She wondered exactly how helpful Karen was going to be, and she figured it wouldn’t be too much.
The next day proved to be one of the more trying in Lizzie’s recent memory. Karen tried to do everything she could to not be helpful. She was certain she would have been able to accomplish more throughout her day if she hadn’t been forced to deal with the sulking, pouting, young woman who was very unhappy about being forced to actually work.
Lizzie's day had started fine. She had woke up with the sun and immediately started breakfast for the men and once breakfast was finished immediately went to strip James’ and Michael’s sheets and quilts from their bed to wash. She was in the middle of scrubbing the sheets when Karen was ushered into the wash area by her father and told to “be a good girl and help out.”
It was obvious from the set of Karen’s chin and the mutinous look in her eyes; she would rather do anything but help out. Lizzie tried to be kind and told her to sit and eat some breakfast before she started to work. Karen did sit down with a piece of thick bread and honey, but merely nibbled on it for well over a half an hour. When she could finally waste no more time she came and sat beside Lizzie complaining of how unfair her father was being and he couldn’t possibly expect her to do such grueling work.
Lizzie had heard the same excuses many times. Karen truly believed she was too young, too weak, and too frail for manual labor. She told Lizzie for at least the hundredth time how her own mother had been a fine lady, but had been worked to her death on the rugged frontier that her father had so desperately wanted to explore. Of course Lizzie knew from her own mother, Morgan’s former wife had died while trying to give birth to their second child. The child had lived for only a few days before following it mother in death. Lizzie had always thought it was due to their deaths that Morgan had doted on his only daughter so much.
Karen was simply spoiled. Morgan had never expected his daughter to do anything. When Karen moved in with them, she had been twelve, but she had never lifted a finger to do anything and that had never changed in the last five years. Out of love for her mother, Lizzie had seen to the girl’s needs and tried to make her feel part of the family. She realized now all she had accomplished was to make her stepsister consider her as a personal maid.
She listened to Karen’s complaints as she finished the wash. Lizzie handed her the basket of wet laundry to hang on the line to dry in the warm, late August sun. Karen stared at the bundle of wet sheets with a frown and Lizzie left her to dump the wash water. When she returned she found Karen had attempted to hang the laundry, but hadn’t pinned the sheets firmly enough to the line and within minutes they blew off and she was forced to wash them again.
Once the sheets were washed for the second time Lizzie gave Karen a cloth and asked her to dust the house as she swept. The girl listlessly went to each of the shelves and tables and began to polish the items in the formal parlor. Karen nearly broke one of her mother’s favorite pieces of china and Lizzie immediately took the cloth away from her and gave her the broom. She didn’t accomplish much with the broom and after she was finished dusting, Lizzie was forced to sweep again.
They moved into Michael’s bedroom where Lizzie had decided she would house their guest. His room was the best choice because it was shaded most the day by a large elm and caught the best breeze. She listened as Karen continued to complain about her father, and wonder what the mysterious Derek would look like. Karen sat upon the bed and wondered if he would be as handsome as he was wealthy. Karen didn’t dare believe this man may not have amassed a fortune and was just starting out as Lizzie suggested. She was certain a man who had a goal of such great proportions must be as rich as Midas.
In the afternoon, Lizzie tried to give Karen the simple task of snapping peas as she prepared several chickens to fry. Karen was still working on the peas when she finished butchering and dressing out the chickens and she left her to that task as she cleaned up and took the dry sheets and quilts and went upstairs to make up the beds. She finished straightening the guest room and went straight back down to the kitchen to finish preparing dinner and found Karen was still working on the peas. Lizzie took a deep breath to prevent herself from scolding the girl and instead relieved her of the bowl of half finished peas and sent her upstairs to clean up. Karen did not waste a moment and quickly got up and ran from the kitchen. It was the fastest Lizzie had seen her move all day. She took a deep breath, feeling no small relief the girl was out of her hair and set about finishing her preparations for dinner in relative peace.
Derek Cargill got off the stage in the small town of Bonne Terre and stretched as he waited for his bags to be removed from the coach. He was exceedingly glad to be off the stage as he had always detested the cramped way of traveling and preferred to have his own mount or take the train, which was a much faster means of transportation. He studied the small town as he looked around casually. It seemed to be fairly prosperous and he could see several large well maintained buildings surrounding him that he guessed belonged to the mining company he knew resided here. The streets were clean and well kept and the store fronts nearby were tidy. His father was not wrong in stating Bonne Terre might be a very promising location for his latest venture. At first glance it was already better than the last three towns he had been to. He gathered up his single bag and turned to study the livery behind him.
The livery was a large barn like building with a wide door in the front to accommodate the horses and wagons housed inside. He knew very little of his father’s old friend, Morgan McAllister, but had been pleased and pleasantly surprised to receive the telegram inviting him to stay at McAllister’s home while he was in town.
The only thing Derek detested more than the stage ride was staying at small local hotels, which were not always the cleanest and most accommodating places one could find. He much preferred the warmth and hospitality of a good host to the sterile and unwelcoming environment of a hotel, not to mention the food was generally better. His stomach rumbled noisily and he hoped that McAllister’s wife was a good cook, as he had not had a decent meal in the two days it had taken him to arrive here from St Louis.
Derek knew some considered him a bit of a dandy and spoiled because of his discriminating tastes, but he merely considered himself refined. Was there anything wrong with desiring a good meal and a decent bed? He knew he liked the finer things in life and had been raised in a household where he had been lucky enough to indulge in such pleasures. His mother and father were from good families that had invested in the railroad industry and the boom in that area had made life very easy for him. He had never had to worry about trying to afford his finer tastes.
He walked into the livery and stood in the open doorway wondering where he might find Morgan McAllister. He walked over to a fine looking roan stallion and patted him on the forehead. He was a fine animal and it surprised him such a beast was to be found this far out of an urban area. An older man of about fifty approached him with a smile.
“You must be Derek. I am Morgan McAllister. It is a pleasure to meet you. I trust your journey here was uneventful.”
Derek shook the man’s hand with a friendly smile.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, sir. And yes, quite uneventful. I am happy to be here and away from my traveling companions. Two days is a long time to spend confined with a crying infant.”
Morgan winced slightly. “I can understand completely—especially one that is not your own.”
“And I am lucky enough to have not taken that step as of yet, and after the last two days, I may not well into the future. This is a fine mount you have here. Is he yours?” Derek turned his attention back to the roan.
“No, I just purchased him from a man headed further west a few days back. He needed the money to buy more supplies and was traveling out of Tennessee. There seems to be some nice stock coming out of there these days.”
“My father agrees with you. He just purchased one of those fiery thoroughbreds last year. I am not sure if I would want to own such a temperamental mount, but this one is obviously a different breed.”
“Yes the man called him a quarter cross. He has a nice wide chest and good legs, I thought he may be of some use to my local clientele. How has your father been these days? Is he still living in Chicago?”
“Yes, he is quite set on remaining there. He is doing well, prospering as always, the railroad business has been good to us.”
“That is good to hear,” Morgan stated. He often regretted his decision to not go in with his friend on his railroad business venture. His wife had been too afraid they would lose everything, and had insisted he move back to Saint Louis to help her family. In the end they had still lost everything when the family shipping business had gone belly up and his first wife died in childbirth.
“I want to thank you for your generous offer to let me reside at your home for the next couple weeks while I do my surveys in the area. It was most unexpected and appreciated.”
“It is no problem at all and the least I can do for my old friend Jack. It gives me a chance to catch up on all that has transpired over the years since we lost touch. I was just as surprised to get a telegram from you. I had no idea Jack knew where I had moved once I left Saint Louis.”
“My father is good at keeping up on his friends, even if he doesn’t contact them directly. He specifically told me to write you and to make sure I stopped in and introduced myself. I must say it will also be nice to have someone local to give me a general idea of how the town would view an undertaking such as the one I am considering. Not everyone is in favor of progress.”
Morgan nodded in understanding. “Well as I told you, we already are making progress here in Bonne Terra with the mining industry, but I don’t think it hurts to open our doors to future ventures. But we can talk of this when we are both relaxed with a glass of brandy. I was just about to close up shop. Can I interest you in the roan as a mount for the next couple weeks? I will get him saddled for you.”
“Yes, I will try him out for you. I am more than ready to get my legs around my own mode of transportation for a change. I have not had my own mount since I left Chicago.”
“Give me ten minutes and we will be ready to go.”
Derek pulled his mount to a halt outside a well maintained farmhouse just outside of town. Morgan had given him directions and explained he would be right behind him after he closed up the livery. Derek had enjoyed his ride and allowed his mount to stretch his legs a bit and found he was fleet and sure footed. He decided instead of traveling back on the stage he just might purchase the horse from McAllister.
He dismounted and took the horse into the barn. The barn was a large one with over ten open stalls and he picked a one that did not look used and led his mount inside. He quickly took off his tack and rubbed him down, giving him a small helping of oats he found in a bin nearby. He walked the long length of the barn, surprised to see only a handful of chickens and a lone horse wandering outside in the expansive pasture. Strange such an obviously well equipped and prosperous looking farm had no cattle or more horses milling about. He did not even see a lone milk cow.
He walked back through the barn, noticing the large empty hayloft which should have been full of hay for the coming winter. He glanced at the sheep and hog pens, which only contained a couple small pigs, a hog, and a couple of goats. He walked out of the far side of the barn and saw all the fields lay fallow and his brows drew down in consternation. Perhaps McAllister had just bought this farm and the previous owners had not planted it this year. It was a shame such viable land was not being utilized.
He walked back towards the house and wondered if he should knock upon the front door or just go in. He didn’t want to surprise or startle McAllister’s wife. He was certain at this time of day she would most likely be in the kitchen. He looked up at the two story house, wondering if perhaps he should just wait until Morgan arrived. There was an old swing hanging to one side of the front porch and he walked over to it to await his host. He did not have a chance to sit down before he caught a scent on the breeze of fresh baked bread and fried chicken. His stomach growled again and he walked off the side of the porch and through a gate in the white picket fence surrounding the garden.
The garden was large and obviously well tended. He saw squash, beans, late peas, corn, pumpkins, turnips, onions, and peppers all thriving in their respective areas with not a single weed in sight. It was clear that the garden was a much loved and well visited site for the lady of the house and he smiled at the quaint picture it painted in the late afternoon sun filtering through the trees and falling in dappled patches among the vegetables. He noted the trees blocking the sun on the far side of the fence was comprised of large apple, peach, and pear trees all laden heavily with fruit. He continued to follow the path to the door of the kitchen, The upper half of the door stood open with the delightful smells wafting outside.
Derek leaned over the door and looked inside and saw a young woman with dark blonde hair standing over the stove frying chicken. Her cheeks were rosy from the heat of the kitchen and her apron was dusty with the flour she had coated the meat in for frying. She had a smudge of flour upon her forehead and her hair was in slight disarray and he smiled at the sight. She reminded him of a much younger version of his beloved cook at home and the food smelled heavenly. She bore no resemblance at all to his host, so he assumed this woman must be his wife. McAllister was a lucky man to find such a lovely, young wife, and if her food was as delicious as it smelled, she was also a wonderful cook as well.
“Good afternoon.” Derek called from the doorway.
Lizzie jumped slightly when she heard the deep voice from the doorway and she looked up and stared in shock at the vibrant green eyes of the stranger standing there. The man before her was impeccably dressed and he took his hat off his head and stepped inside. Under his hat he had a thick mane of short, dark hair and he shut the partition and gave her a friendly smile. She could only assume this was their expected guest, although why he was alone and not with Morgan she was not certain. She had not expected him to be so striking and his tall, broad frame filled the doorway. “Good afternoon.” She replied a little warily.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, I am Derek Cargill. You must be Mrs. McAllister?”
He set his bag and his hat just inside the door, eyeing the absolutely delicious looking peach cobbler sitting on the sideboard.
Lizzie smiled widely at his assumption, fighting the urge to laugh at the horrible thought. “Oh, heavens no!” She exclaimed vehemently. “I am Lizzie, Morgan’s stepdaughter. It is a pleasure to meet you.” She stepped away from the stove and wiped the flour from her hands before politely offering it to him.
Derek was taken slightly aback by that smile. Her smile seemed to transform her face into pure light, changing her features from nondescript to stunning in mere moments. He stepped forward and took the outstretched hand and kissed the back of it briefly, meeting the eyes which were surprisingly nearly level with his. He did not think he had ever met a woman so tall. She was only a few inches shorter than he and his stature was not the shortest at six feet. She had the loveliest blue gray eyes, and they sparkled with good humor.
“I was thinking Morgan was a very lucky man when I walked in and saw you. I was wondering how he accomplished finding such a young and lovely wife. My father must not have known Morgan had remarried.”
He watched as the girl blushed at his offhand compliment and quickly removed her hand from his as she smoothed her apron self consciously, obviously concerned about her appearance.
“Yes, he married my mother over five years ago.”
Derek watched as she tucked a stray piece of her hair behind her ear, and he found the self conscious movement endearing. He found himself wondering how old she was. Old enough to be married, although he noticed she didn’t wear a ring. “I see. Is your mother around? I should introduce myself.”
“No, she died nearly two years ago.” The girl quickly moved back to the stove and turned the chicken over in the grease.
“My sincerest apologies, I did not intend to bring up such bad memories.”
“No, don’t apologize, you couldn’t have known. You are welcome to sit down, although you run the risk of getting something on your clothes.” She waved at the bench at the table. “I was not quite ready for your arrival, nor did I expect to have a guest in my kitchen. I had assumed you would arrive with Morgan.”
“He sent me ahead since he had to close up shop.” Derek sat down comfortably at the bench, noticing the leftover pea pods nearby and the plate covered in flour she had been using to bread the chicken. He always loved the kitchen at his home. He loved the warmth, the smells, and most of all the food. His fingers itched to reach for the piece of freshly cut bread lying on a board before him.
“Yes, he also waits for my brothers to get off of work as well. James and Michael, ride back and forth to town with him since they work at the mine.”
Lizzie looked back and obviously noted he was eyeing the bread and she smiled slightly. “Are you hungry? We will be eating as soon as everyone arrives, but you are welcome to help yourself to a slice of fresh bread, if you like. I have more in the oven.”
Her words were like music to his ears and he wasted no time in picking out a thick piece of the still warm bread. “You are too kind. I will admit it was the smell of this bread which led me back to your kitchen. The meals I had on the route left a bit to be desired.” He took a bite of the flaky crust, the inside soft and sweet, just the way he liked it.
Lizzie pulled out a jar of honey, the butter, and a knife. “Well help yourself if you aren’t afraid of spoiling your dinner.” She knew she sounded just like her mother and she had to smile at the way his eyes lit when he saw the large jar of fresh honey. He reminded her of her brothers. His demeanor led her to believe he was closer to Michael’s eighteen years than James’ twenty, although somehow he seemed older than both of them.
He returned her warm smile with a large grin. “Thank you. I have never, and I repeat never, spoiled my dinner. Our cook says I could eat an entire horse and still be hungry. She is always bemoaning my huge appetite.”
She noted from his casual mention of having a cook that his family must be wealthy enough to have hired help. Looks like Karen was right about him being rich after all, especially when she took in the cut and quality of his finely made suit. “Well, you will just be one of the crowd here. I swear my brothers can eat their weight in food every day. There is always plenty to go around, but Morgan is complains I make enough to feed a small army. It is funny how none ever seems to go to waste.” She pulled out the chicken and put in more to fry.
Derek opened the honey and spooned some liberally on his slice of bread. He polished off his first piece and took a second. “This is the finest bread I have had in weeks, Miss umm…what is your last name?”
“It’s Jennings actually. I kept my father’s name.” She turned and watched him butter his second piece very pleased by his compliment. She had never cooked for anyone besides her family and although they always seemed to enjoy her cooking it was nice to hear an unbiased compliment. “But please just call me Lizzie, just like everyone else. We don’t go by too many formalities out here.”
“Lizzie…short for Elizabeth?” He asked between bites.
“Yes. Elizabeth is my given name, but I don’t like it much…it is too severe. It makes me feel old.” She told him seriously.
He didn’t figure this girl could be much over twenty. “Of course, no woman wishes to feel old before their time. Alright, Lizzie it is. You know, if that chicken tastes as good as it smells, you are going to be my most favorite person in Bonne Terre.”
Lizzie chuckled at his comment and turned back to her cooking. She was pretty sure she would get along just fine with her guest. She had been afraid he might be a wealthy snob of a man that would look down on their rather meager surroundings, but he didn’t seem aloof or snobbish at all. She found that fact to be somewhat of a relief.
“Would you like a sample?” She forked up a small piece of meat that had torn away from the backbone.
“I would never turn down a beautiful woman offering me food,” he replied cheekily.
She blushed again and dropped her eyes from his as she offered him the fork with the piece of meat and went back to her fry pan. She didn’t think she had ever been called beautiful, much less twice in ten minutes. She knew he was simply being polite and kind, but his forward behavior unnerved her a bit. It probably didn’t help he was by far the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Well, she supposed beautiful wasn’t the appropriate term, but certainly more than handsome. Derek Cargill could not be described as anything but striking with his brilliant, laughing, green eyes which were only made more noticeable by sun bronzed skin and black hair.
“This is truly wonderful! You have saved a starving man. I owe you a great debt of thanks.”
Lizzie couldn’t help but laugh outright at his outrageous comment. “You don’t look all that skinny to me. You’re sure you were on the brink of starvation?”
Derek grinned at her laughter, enjoying the uninhibited sound. “Positively. You don’t realize some of the awful stuff I was given on the journey here. Stale bread and moldy cheese—and once sour milk, it has been awful.”
“Lizzie? Who are you talking to—oh!” Karen floated into the room and stopped short as she encountered the gaze of the very attractive man at the kitchen table.
Lizzie watched as their gazes met and locked and she sighed. Well, so much for her being this young man’s favorite person. Karen had gone to great lengths in preparing her appearance tonight. Her dark nut brown hair was brushed and pulled back artfully. It glimmered like satin in the afternoon sun and she wore one of her more fashionable gowns made of green and white silk. The neckline plunged far too low in Lizzie’s opinion and showed far too much skin. Her dark eyes were big and round as they confronted the stranger in mock innocence and Lizzie wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or be sick. She could never get away with looking at a man like that.
“Karen this is your father’s guest, Derek Cargill. Derek, this is Morgan’s daughter, Karen.” She felt obligated to make the introductions since no one else was around.
“It is my pleasure to meet you, Miss McAllister.” Derek promptly rose and took the Karen’s hand.
Karen nearly shivered as his deep voice rolled over her name. He bent and pressed his lips to her hand and she nearly swooned. Derek was more handsome than she could have imagined with his rakish grin and intense eyes. His broad shoulders filled the cut of his coat to perfection and she knew immediately this was the man she wanted. “The pleasure is mine, I would like to welcome you to our home.”
Lizzie rolled her eyes. It was the same everywhere they went. Men always talked and joked with her and then fell over themselves trying to impress the exquisite and ever lovely Karen. Well, maybe Karen and this man would fall head over heals in love and she would get married and move away. If she were lucky, maybe Morgan would go with her and she could finally have her family’s home back. She chided herself for such an uncharitable thought. After all, Morgan had never been cruel or mean. He was just a bit selfish and tight with the purse strings.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be here instead of a hotel. Your kindness in opening your home to me is most appreciated.”
“We worked all day to ready the house for your arrival. I do hope you will find our accommodations acceptable. I am sure you are used to much grander surroundings.”
Karen had worked all day? Lizzie wondered where she had been at the time her stepsister had been slaving away, and she smothered the laugh that jumped to her throat. Both Karen and Derek looked at her, and she turned toward the stove quickly.
“Karen, why don’t you show Derek his room? He can put his things away and freshen up a bit before dinner.” She could not stand to watch this performance of Karen’s again. She reacted the same way to every attractive man she met. After they were alone, Karen would tell Lizzie how she was certain this man would be the one who would sweep her off her feet. She would bat her eyelashes over her big doe eyes and wait for the men to melt and do whatever she wished.
“Why, I would be happy too. Mr. Cargill, if you would follow me I will show you the way.”
Derek walked to the door to retrieve his bag and his hat. As he picked up the items, he turned, and gave Lizzie one last smile and a nod.
“I am very much obliged for your warm welcome. I am greatly looking forward to dinner.”
Lizzie was surprised when he gave her a wink and left to follow Karen. She shook her head a little at the strange encounter and went back to finishing dinner.