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Read A Bride in the Bargain Part 21

A Bride in the Bargain is a web novel created by Deeanne Gist.
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“No.”

“Simply because you like chestnuts?”

He continued to work, and just when she thought he wasn’t going to answer, he surprised her by saying, “It’s my wife’s.”

“What?”

“The tree. I planted it for her.”

Anna glanced out the window. “Your late wife? You planted a chestnut tree for her?”

“She had one in her yard back home that she loved. I was going to surprise her with this one.”

Yet Anna knew the late Mrs. Denton hadn’t lived to see it. She pictured the tree in her mind. So big. He must have lost his wife many years ago if it was a sapling when he’d planted it.

She moistened her lips. A chestnut tree. A beautiful home. Twinflower blooms. The man certainly cherished what was his.

The darkness outside and throughout the rest of the house always made the kitchen a cozy haven in the evenings, but with the addition of the rain beating against the windows, the atmosphere shifted from cozy to intimate.

She wanted to ask him more questions about his wife. She wanted to ask him if he’d like his hair trimmed so it wouldn’t get in his eyes. She wanted to thank him for the fabric.

But she turned her back instead and concentrated on the fritters.

Keep it impersonal, she reminded herself. Pouring a portion of the boiling water into a bowl of flour, she began to beat it into a stiff paste. It wasn’t until she set it aside to cool that she realized the sc.r.a.ping of Joe’s ax had ceased.

She glanced over her shoulder. He stared at her hips, blade and stone forgotten. She quickly spun around to face him. He raised his eyes to hers. The intensity of his gaze triggered an immediate response deep within her.

Say something. Anything.

“Why are the ax handles so long?”

Joe looked down as if just discovering what he held in his hands. “The handles? Well, I have to be able to reach the center of the redwoods from my springboard.”

She frowned. “That wouldn’t reach the center of a Douglas fir, much less a redwood.”

He touched the edge of his blade, a tiny drop of blood springing to the surface of his finger. “No. No, it wouldn’t. Not from the springboard, anyway. We actually have to stand inside the undercut to reach the heart of the trunk.”

She pictured the giant wedge they’d begun to cut into the redwood she’d seen yesterday. They stood inside that wedge? Wouldn’t the tree collapse and squash them?

But she didn’t ask. Instead, she retrieved a frying pan, scooped a goodly portion of lard into it, and set it on the stove.

“Would you like me to read to you while you finish those?” he asked.

Anna paused in reaching for the eggs. “Read to me?”

“Yes. The Taming of the Shrew. Would you like me to read it to you?”

She loved being read to. Her father used to read to the family all the time. And with the rain, it was the perfect night for it, but she was afraid it would create too intimate a mood. Still, if he were reading, he’d not be able to ogle her.

“Yes, please. If you don’t mind.”

Placing the ax in the corner, he wiped his hands on the seat of his pants, then went to retrieve the book.

She braced herself against the pastry table and took two deep breaths. Impersonal, Anna. You must keep things impersonal.

At the sound of his return, she grabbed an egg and began to separate out its yolk.

“Where did you leave off?” he asked, settling into his chair.

“The beginning of Act Two. The disguised schoolmasters had just left, and Petruchio was asking Signior Baptista what Katharina’s dowry was.”

He thumbed through the book, then flipped back and forth between a few pages. “Here we are. Petruchio is speaking.” He cleared his throat. ” ‘Then tell me, if I get your daughter’s love, what dowry shall I have with her to wife?’ “

Joe’s voice was so full of expression and life that Anna soon lost herself in the story. She beat the eggs into her mixture, then dropped it a spoonful at a time into the boiling lard.

“Everyone exits but Petruchio,” Joe said. ” ‘I will attend her here, and woo her with some spirit when she comes. Say that she rail; why then I’ll tell her plain she sings as sweetly as a nightingale. Say that she frown; I’ll say she looks as clear as morning roses newly wash’d with dew.’ “

Anna chuckled, watching the fritters rise into b.a.l.l.s, then flipped them when the first side turned a light brown. Katharina entered, and the sparring between her and Petruchio quickly escalated, each constructing new metaphors from the other’s comments until Katharina became so furious she hit him. Hard.

” ‘I swear I’ll cuff you, if you strike again,’ ” Joe said, dropping the register of his voice.

Spooning all but two of the fritters onto a drying cloth to drain, Anna placed the ones she’d held back onto a plate, sprinkled them with sugar, and sat at Joe’s feet.

Watching him read was like watching the actual play. A myriad of expressions crossed his face. Coupled with the dialogue, it pulled her deeply into the story. When Petruchio told Katharina she was mild, gentle, and affable, Anna threw back her head and laughed. And on some finite level, she realized she hadn’t laughed, really laughed, in years. The realization sobered her.

As if sensing her mood, the character Petruchio also turned serious.

” ‘Marry, so I mean, sweet Katharine.’ “

Anna took a bite of her fritter.

” ‘Your father hath consented that you shall be my wife; your dowry ‘greed on.’ ” Joe lifted his gaze and looked directly at her. ” ‘And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.’ “

She couldn’t swallow, her bite of fritter sticking in her throat. The rain continued to tap against the windows. The sweet smell of fried pastries filled the room.

Lowering the book, Joe removed the other half of her fritter from her hand and placed it in his mouth. Without breaking eye contact, he swallowed, stood, then slowly placed the book on the chair. “Good night, Anna. I’ll see you in the morning.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

The kitchen was empty. The fire cold. The oven untouched. Joe stood in the doorway. Usually when he first came from the barn in the morning, he’d find Anna bustling about.

He glanced at the staircase. Was she ill? Or had she merely overslept?

He crept up the steps and placed his ear to her door. Nothing. He tapped against it lightly. No response.

With great care to make no noise, he turned the k.n.o.b and cracked the door open. The white-and-blue bed hangings had not been drawn but were still tied back at the posts with heavy ta.s.sels. Anna lay on her stomach in her nightdress, the cotton covers tangled in her legs, her thick honey-colored braid draped across her pillow.

He wanted to touch her to check for fever, but he didn’t quite have the nerve to enter her room without permission. Squinting, he was able to determine her cheeks were neither too flushed nor too pale. Perhaps she was simply worn out.

The smell of twinflower p.r.i.c.kled his nose. He scanned the room, spotting several of the wild flower’s blooms tied to a string and hanging upside down from her mirror. She was drying them?

He looked at her again and hesitated, tempted once more to go closer while he had a chance. Was her nightdress as threadbare as the rest of her meager wardrobe? But his conscience kicked in, and he, instead, eased the door closed.

Crossing to his room, he opened a drawer and found his clothing laundered, ironed, and folded neatly inside. He’d only expected Anna to cook, but never had his home looked so fine or his clothes so fresh.

Pulling on his drawers, he smiled to himself. She couldn’t possibly handle such intimate apparel without thinking of what he might look like wearing them. Even coming into his room and opening his dressing chest was an extremely personal thing to do.

But she’d certainly been skittish since he’d read to her the other night. Perhaps he’d been too direct. Too obvious.

It had barely been a week, after all. He had time to slow things down some. Give her a false sense of security.

Picking up his razor, he sc.r.a.ped it against a strap. He’d offered to read to her again, but she’d politely declined.

“No, thank you. I think I’ll just listen to the rain.”

He’d bit back his smile and decided to let her have her way. Still, he wondered if she had proceeded with the book on her own.

He’d searched out Shrew and found the volume tucked safely back in his breakfront. Had she put it away because she didn’t wish to finish or because she’d been too busy with her st.i.tching?

She hadn’t said anything about the fabric, but she worked with it every evening, sometimes quite late. Just last night he’d left her sewing while he retired. Perhaps she’d burned the midnight oil and that was why she was still abed.

Lathering his face, he considered his next strategy. Maybe he should shave in the kitchen. Anna had either become used to his washing up or by virtue of will kept her attention diverted. Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to introduce something new into the mix.

But not yet. Perhaps on Sunday, when it would be just the two of them. Until then he’d mind his p’s and q’s. Let her think she could drop her guard.

He finished his toilet, pulled on the rest of his clothes, and hastened downstairs.

Safely back in the kitchen, he quickly grabbed some jerky and a few lunch buckets. He wanted to catch the men before they reached the house, because once they did, Anna would wake and he didn’t want her disturbed.

He set off toward the bunkhouse, remembering the profusion of raspberries close to their logging site. The boys could pick those as a supplement for their jerky. They’d be sorely disappointed about missing breakfast, but they’d manage.

Still, Joe would go back before noon and check on Anna. Once he established she was all right, he would tease her a bit, then help her put together a cold lunch and bring it to the men.

Yawning, Anna rolled onto her side, then sat up with a jolt. It was light outside! She flew from the bed, jerked back the curtains, and gasped. Not just light, but well past dawn. A robin with its jaunty cheerily-cheery-up-cheery-o swept from one tree to another.

How on earth had she slept through all that and why hadn’t Joe woken her? Flinging off her nightdress, she dropped it on the floor and scrambled into her clothes. She took no time to wash her face, comb her hair, or straighten her room.

The kitchen was just as she’d left it the night before. Her gaze darted to the clock. Eight-thirty! Those poor men. They must be starved.

She wasted no time in lighting the oven and starting on the bread. Working feverishly, she whipped up potato pancakes, boiled eggs, crispy bacon, and dandelion dressing. She sliced up tomatoes from the garden and washed several more.

Never in her life had she slept late. Even on board the ship, she would awaken before dawn. Would Joe be angry? He may like her well enough, but she was first and foremost his cook and she had a debt to pay. Setting the bread dough aside, she ran to the barn in search of a wheelbarrow.

She flew past the chicken coop, the pigpen, and the milking cows. The wheelbarrow was way too c.u.mbersome and smelled of animals. But in the stall where Joe slept was a barrel, two chairs, a deck of cards, and a child’s wagon. Briefly wondering why Joe would need a child’s wagon, she pulled it behind her, its bed jumping in protest to her rapid pace.

Once back at the house, she glanced at the mantel again. Almost ten o’clock. No time to repair her person. The men had been in the forest for hours now and needed something to eat.

Leaving the bread dough to rise, she lined the wagon with cloths and filled it with her trappings. It wouldn’t all fit. Spinning in a circle, she searched for another container, gave up, then dashed to her room for a pillow sack.

Packed and ready, she forced herself to walk at a reasonable speed so as not to topple the wagon or damage the eggs and tomatoes slung in the sack across her back.

The closer she came to the logging site, the more embarra.s.sed she felt. And all because of that silly gown.

She’d wanted so badly to see it complete. So she’d stayed up. But nothing went as it should, and the next thing she knew, it was only a couple of hours before she’d need to rise again and the gown still wasn’t complete. She sighed. She’d thought to catch only a little bit of rest, not sleep all the way through breakfast.

As she topped the rise her thoughts came to a halt. The bowl-shaped area in which the men worked was rife with activity. Fish and Wardle sliced up felled trees into logs. Ronny used a long pole with a blade at the end to strip bark from the cut logs.

Gibbs, in floppy hat and galluses, poked a pair of oxen with a stick. “Hump, you, Sh.e.l.ley! Move, Keats!”

The giant animals towed a pair of logs to the skid road. Already a pile of them were lined up end to end waiting for their journey to the sawmill.

Young Milton-whom the boys called Bunny due to the size of his two front teeth-ceased tr.i.m.m.i.n.g the ends of a log to help Gibbs with his load.

Thirsty worked an ax into a pine tree. A man called Pelican was overseeing construction of the chute.

In the middle of the site, Red and Joe stood high up on springboards, each opposite the other and sawing a mighty redwood with the crosscut Joe had sharpened on Sunday.

Back and forth. Back and forth. Sweat poured from both men, but it was Joe who drew her attention. His back and shoulders bulged with each pull of the saw, his knees bending in rhythm to their movements.

She wondered where the stairway of springboards was. Red had one board below him. But Joe had none. He stood on a solitary plank two dozen feet above the ground. How on earth had he gotten up there?

“Miss Ivey!” Thirsty tossed down his ax and jogged up toward her.

As a group, the men stopped what they were doing and looked her way. She glanced at Joe in time to see him leap into the wedge of the redwood, jerk his springboard free, toss it to the ground, then jump.

“You all right, Miss Ivey?” Thirsty asked, taking the wagon handle from her.

She looked again to a.s.sure herself Joe had landed safely, then turned her attention to Thirsty. “Am I all right? What about you? You must be practically dying of hunger. I’m so, so sorry I overslept.”

“Oh, now, that’s all right, miss.”

Ronny sprinted up the hill. “Is that food you got in that wagon, Miss Ivey? I surely hope it is. I’m so starved my belly thought my throat was cut!”

Thirsty rounded on him and laid him out flat with one punch.

Anna gasped. “Thirsty! What on earth?”

Before she could get to Ronny, he jumped back up like a jack-in-the-box and touched his jaw. “What was that for, Thirst?”

“You were talking when you should’ve been listening, so I reached you one.” His tone was mild. Affectionate, even. “If you don’t mind your manners, I’ll finish this conversation with my hands.”

———-

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