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Twitch was just screwing up his nerve to awaken the Thain when he heard a rap on the carriage roof. Sighing with relief, he reached down and slid open the screen. “Aye, sir?” he asked.
“Take the Southfarthing road for a few miles, then stop. We will picnic off the road for our elevenses,” Ferumbras said.
“Aye, sir,” Twitch said, heart sinking. He was already regretting not stopping at the inn. The food from the picnic baskets had smelled wonderful earlier that morning, but the inn looked inviting and a far more amiable place to stretch one’s legs. At the very least, he would be able to eat in the stables and hear some of the local gossip. Not to mention that if they were taking their elevenses off the road, then it was quite likely they were still some distance from their destination.
Twitch closed the screen again and steered the ponies down the Southfarthing road. Only a few small farms lay on this side of the market, and Twitch urged the ponies faster as the foot traffic thinned the farther from town they rode. Soon enough, the last building was far behind them and he noticed a likely spot to pull over for a brief stop. A pair of alders stood close together, almost appearing as one tree split from the same trunk. They offered shade and the grass grew high, which would delight the ponies to no end.
Twitch pulled off the road and urged the ponies to a halt. The Thain didn’t wait for him to clamber down from the coach’s seat but instead let himself out. Twitch grabbed the second picnic basket and jumped down from his seat. The Thain took the basket and began to set out the food while Twitch saw to the ponies. He left them hitched and poured some water from a jug into a bucket and placed it between them.
The beasts content, Twitch walked to the spot where the Thain had chosen to eat, a patch of grass just on the edges of the shade. He sat where the Thain indicated and they ate in silence. When the meal ended and he was preparing to stand, the Thain met his eyes and smile jovially.
“So lad, tell me something of yourself.”
Chapter 13: Home Again
Whitwell was just over ten miles down the main southern road from Michel Delving. Sprig and Nab had the carriages ready and loaded by the time Adalgrim and his family finished first breakfast. The ponies were brushed and fed, and Sprig and Nab stood next to the carriage doors, ready to receive their passengers.
Ami asked to sit atop the carriage again, and Adalgrim had not the heart to deny her. After her initial tears, she had cheered up considerably, but they had all noticed the effort she put into it as they ate. She attempted to make herself look presentable before leaving the room but there was little she could do about the redness in her eyes and the puffiness of her cheeks. A little sunshine and fresh air was the cure for that, she told herself.
She chose to ride with Sprig again, and Esme joined her this time. Pally sat with Nab, and once everyone was settled they were on their way. Ami didn’t look as the fairgrounds disappeared behind them, and she turned away from the bakery on their slow ride through town. Esme kept a firm grasp on her hand but let her sit in silence until she was ready to talk.
The noise and bustle of Michel Delving was soon behind them, but the road was not much faster as they followed a line of other fairgoers out of town. Sprig watched the road with an eagle eye. The carts and carriages were not of any concern, except their speed, but there were many on foot or ponyback who were not so easy to see. Constantly looking down while in motion had made him queasy when he first started his apprenticeship, but he had accustomed himself to it and learned that looking up from time to time helped greatly.
Despite his attention to the road, he couldn’t help but notice Ami’s silence so it surprised him when she finally spoke.
“I feel I’ve hardly seen you, Sprig,” she said about a mile out of town. “Did you enjoy the fair?”
“Yes, Miss Ami,” he answered promptly and honestly. “Thank you for speaking with the master ostler and requesting more time off for us.” He needn’t tell her that neither he nor Nab had taken advantage of it.
“You did what?” Esme said but seeing Ami’s frown she quickly added, sincerely, “That was very kind of you, Darling.”
“You’re welcome, Sprig,” Ami said. “Do you have plans for Yule? Will you be going to see your family then?”
“Nay, I go in early spring,” Sprig said. “Both my folks have their birthdays then, so it’s the best time to go for visits. I stay on at the Smials for Yule, but they let half of us take the day off on First Yule, and the other half on Second Yule.”
“Planning on making more bets at cards are you?” Esme asked.
Sprig grinned. “The trick to that one is to not get drunk.”
Ami and Esme laughed. “So that’s how you do it then. Always wise to have a strategy,” Esme said.
“Indeed it is,” Sprig said. “May I ask, what is Yule like in Whitwell? I’ve not been there afore.”
They spoke cordially all the way to Whitwell. The traffic thinned out the farther from Michel Delving they rode, and Sprig was able to pay more attention to what they were saying even as he urged the ponies faster.
Adalgrim had given orders not to pull over for a stretch, since it was only a three-hour ride. Even so, Sprig kept an eye on his passengers, ready to pull over the moment the sun and heat became too much for them to bare. They made no complaints however and despite the mild heat there was a gentle breeze, refreshing and invigorating.
They reached the outskirts of Whitwell just after eleven, and Sprig began looking around for the roads he would need to take to get to the Took farm. Adalgrim had given them both directions, taking care to describe landmarks and buildings. With Ami and Esme riding with him, these proved to be unnecessary as they pointed out the upcoming turns yards ahead of time.
Soon enough they were pulling into the long drive that led to the Took farm, though it looked more like a ranch to Sprig’s eyes. Acres of head-high wheat bowed and danced in the wind, and there were plots for herb and kitchen gardens, a stable, barn, chicken coop, a small nursery, and of course the house, built to resemble a smial as much as was possible. There was even a glasshouse for growing things out of season, not something that most could afford. Having seen Adalgrim, Sprig had to wonder just how much he actually lent his hand to the farming. Not much, was Sprig’s guess and the farmhands walking to and fro confirmed this.
Sprig pulled the carriage around so the door faced the house and gently tugged on the reins for a slow stop. He dismounted and helped Ami and Esme down before opening the door for Adalgrim and Clematis. Behind them, Nab was likewise helping Amber, Heather and Arlo from the carriage; Pally had dismounted on his own and was greeting the servants and farmhands who were lining up to welcome home their master and mistress.
Nab and Sprig began to unload the carriages with the help of some of the servants. They watched discreetly as the family finished their greetings and went inside, no doubt to change and eat elevenses, though not necessarily in that order. Their own stomachs grumbled but they kept their eyes to their work.
Once the carriages were unloaded and the trunks and baggage carried inside and set in the appropriate rooms, they were ushered into the kitchen by an elderly maid named Posy. “Will you be returning right away or staying o’ernight?” she asked as she set plates piled with cut apples and bread in front of them.
“Right away, so far as we know,” Nab said politely before digging into his food.
“We best find out for certain,” Posy said and swooped away in a flurry of skirts and apron strings.
“So what’d you and your precious Darling talk about?” Nab whispered as soon as they were alone.
Sprig frowned into his bite of rye. “She’s not my precious anything,” he said.
“Come off it. You like her,” Nab said. “Don’t even try to deny it.”
“What of it? It’s naught as though I’ve a chance with the likes of her,” Sprig said.
Nab nodded with a wink. “Bout time you see it. She’ll have forgot all about you before we even reach the end of the lane, is my thinking.”
“She’s not so callous as that,” Sprig said but any other argument died instantly in his throat as Posy returned.
She stopped in the doorway, eyeing them warily. Had she heard them? They concentrated on their food, their faces flooding with guilt. “Mistress says as you can stay in the stables tonight and start off fresh in the morrow, if you’re wanting.”
They met eyes briefly, agreeing in an instant. “We’ll head off today if it’s all the same,” Nab said.
“Hmph,” she said, clearly thinking this was for the best as well. “I’ll gather some traveling provision for you.”
“We’ve food,” Nab said, not wanting to bother the forbidding matron more than they needed to. “Thank you kindly.”
She narrowed her eyes at them again, paused, then turned and left them to eat in peace. They let out breaths they hadn’t realized they were holding and ate the rest of their meal in silence. When at last their plates were empty, they stood and stretched. They should bid farewell to the master before leaving, but neither of them felt comfortable wandering through the house without escort. The longer they stood there, the more it seemed they had been left on their own. They were just deciding to let themselves out the side door to prepare the carriages and ponies for leaving, then knocking on the front door when they were ready to depart, when Ami came into the kitchen.
“Oh good! You’re still here!” she said, her cheeks dimpling. “I was glad to be able to talk once more.”
“Aye,” Sprig said, suddenly at a loss for words. She had freshened up and changed out of her traveling dress into a spring dress the color of lilacs. He tried not to be too obviously in his staring.
“We’re just leaving, Miss Amaryllis,” Nab said.
“You’re not staying overnight?” She frowned.
“They’ll be needing the carriages and ponies home,” Nab said, though he knew a half-day’s ride would hardly make a difference.
“Is your father about?” Sprig asked, finally finding his voice.
“He went outside to walk the grounds,” Ami supplied. “I’ll find him for you.”
“We can find him,” Nab said.
“Nonsense,” Ami said, waving a hand. She went out the kitchen door, clearly expecting them to follow her.
They walked around the front of the house, where Ami motioned for them to wait. They prepared to leave as Ami trotted off to the barn to fetch her father. By the time she returned with Adalgrim, they were ready and waiting. Adalgrim offered them each his hand.
“You both did a fine job. I’ll be letting the Thain know,” he said with a grin.
“Thank you,” they said, blushing.
“Travel safely now,” he said and with final shake of hands he left them to return to the barn.
“Take care,” Ami said.
“We will,” Nab said and mounted his carriage.
“Miss Ami,” Sprig started, but paused. He really had nothing to say to her. The only thing he had ever been planning to talk to her about was that Nettleburr chap, but as the chances of seeing that lad again were nil at best he hardly saw any reason to bring up his misgivings about the lad now. After floundering for a bit he finally settled on saying, “Thank you for your kindness.”
Ami smiled brightly, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’ll see you next summer. Or perhaps earlier, in the spring. I’m thinking of requesting an apprenticeship with my cousin Gardenia. I enjoyed learning carpentry. It’s such joy to work with your hands.”
Sprig frowned inwardly at that, dismayed at the thought of her smooth, flawless hands covered in welts and addled with splinters. “I’ll see you then, Miss Ami,” he said at length and stuck out his hand. He had to resist the urge to kiss her hand and let go sooner than was polite. He nodded curtly then mounted his own carriage. With a flick of the reins, he was leading the way down the lane back to the road and home.
By the end of the day the Tooks were once again settled into their home. Heather, Amber and Arlo quartered in the guest cottage near the main house, as they usually did on visits. Amber and Heather were unpacking their fair luggage and making sure that their other luggage had arrived safely from Tuckborough when a knock sounded on the door. Heather answered to find Ami and Esme standing on the stoop.
“We’re going into town for some supplies and thought we’d take Arlo to the sweets shop, if he wants to go.”
“Can I, Mummy?” Arlo asked, looking hopeful. His lower lip pouted out ever so slightly.
“Of course, dear,” Amber said. “Be mindful of the sun though.”
“I will!” Arlo promised, already halfway down the lane. Ami and Esme ran to catch up.
Heather watched them to the end of the lane and closed the door. “What do you think?”
“About?” Amber asked.
“Ami and Rumbi? It’s odd. He told me about it yesterday, but Ami is just telling us this morning.”
Heather nodded. “Before the Fair’s End Feast. He looked heartbroken, poor dear, but when I saw Ami later she looked normal as ever. Now this morning, she’s crying. What do you think it means?”
“Maybe she’s changed her mind about saying no,” Amber said, looking up from her sorting. “Maybe she thinks it’s too late to tell him.”
Heather shook her head. “No, she knows if she changed her mind, Rumbi will take her back before she can blink. That’s not what bothers me.”
“Well, if she told him yesterday afternoon, then where was she this morning?”
“Probably off wondering if she did the right thing,” Amber said with a shrug. “You know Darling. She may not be one for sitting and thinking, but she can still fret with the best of them.”
“I suppose. Still, I think we should talk to her, make sure she’s all right,” Heather said, shoving the laundry pile in the bins for the servants to pick up later.
“Actually, I need to talk to you.” Amber paused in folding Arlo’s waistcoats and sat on her bed, facing Heather. She had been going over how to approach this subject with Heather, to little avail. She took a deep breath and held her sister’s gaze. “I’ve decided not to stay for the winter, but I think you should. You’ve been doing such a good job of taking care of Arlo and me, and it’s time I do the same for you. You need this time away, but I’m ready to go home. I’ll be leaving after Yule.”
“Are you certain?”
“I am. If I’m to honor Mallard and the life we had, then I need to get back to living it, even if I will be living it without him. I’ve got Arlo after all, and the other children who need their lessons; I’m ready to start teaching them again.
“You on the other hand haven’t taken any time for yourself, not really. You’ve left a lot undecided. Are you going to stay with me in the Smials, get your own apartments there, or go back to Chaco’s family or even remain here in Whitwell? Do you think one day you may want to marry again, have children of your own? You’ve always wanted your own family and you can still have that. Chaco wouldn’t want you to give up on that. You have to sort these things out and you won’t do it while you’re fretting over me and Arlo.”
Heather sat next to her and took her hand. “Thank you.”
Amber hugged her. “You’re welcome, dear sister.”
After Esme and Ami made their rounds of the shops for the supplies they needed for their various art and sewing projects, they took Arlo to the sweets shop, where he was promised he could have as many sweets as he could hold in one hand. Proving himself to be sharp as a nail, he grabbed a handful of salted taffies and grinned at his aunts. They made their way back home, walking at a leisurely pace. Esme was lost in thought, no doubt daydreaming about what she would do with all the lace in her basket, but Ami looked around the town, surprised by how different it seemed.
They had only been away for a couple of months, hardly the longest stay they ever had in Tuckborough, but for Ami it seemed like a lifetime had passed. She felt as though she was seeing everything through an odd sort of haze, or perhaps it was the opposite and she was seeing more clearly than she ever had before. She couldn’t pinpoint the change, couldn’t put into words why everything seemed at once familiar and strange, so small and confined.
She wondered what Rumbi was doing. Had he told his mother already? Was he already contemplating which lass would make a good future Lady and wife? Was he slouched in the carriage, wishing never to see Michel Delving again? She smiled at that last ridiculous image. His pride might be wounded, but she knew he would never do anything self-pitying. He was a practical lad and he would have brushed himself off and moved on by now, or so she told herself.
She wondered what Perry was doing. He was still at the fairgrounds, waiting out the crowds. He was a mere three hours away, so close yet the distance felt impassible.
She tried to imagine the home that awaited him and found it an impossible task. She had never known anyone who didn’t have a proper roof over their heads. It was such an unusual idea, so far removed from anything she had ever known. She simply couldn’t contemplate it. Surely, they must have some sort of shelter. What about the rain? What about the snow?
It had been clear from the start that Perry considered himself an outsider. She hadn’t understood why until that morning, and she marveled again at his bravery in setting out for the fair. It truly was Outside for him. She tried to imagine herself heading for the bounds, stepping over them into the Blue and the unknown, and shuddered. She wasn’t nearly as brave as he was, no matter what he thought.
She remembered the press of his lips against hers, and she was flooded with warmth again. She had been kissed before but never like that. No, actually, just like that - sweet, careful, tentative - and yet it had felt so... alive, if a kiss could be considered something that lived. She remembered the solid strength of his chest beneath her fingertips, which tingled still at the memory, the surprise of finding that strength there when she had expected only bones and sunken flesh.
She jumped and realized belatedly that Esme had asked her something. She felt the burn of flush in her cheeks, and thanked the stars for the heat and sun to explain it away. Arlo was trotting ahead of them, working away at one of his taffies, and in the distance their house was growing larger. They were nearly to the lane, the mailbox a mere fifty yards away. Why did the post messengers never leave the post there? They always brought it to the house. She realized with a jolt that the mailbox was for the servants.
“Hm?” she asked, concentrating with effort.
Esme looked at her with narrowed eyes. She didn’t say anything until they reached the end of the lane. She called to Arlo and handed him the bag of taffies with orders to hand them out. He dashed up the lane, eager to complete his errand.
“Where were you this morning?” Esme asked once Arlo was out of earshot.
“It’s just that I thought you had decided days ago about Rumbi. I know you talked to him yesterday and you seemed fine then.” She waited but when Ami said nothing, she pressed on. “Why the sudden outburst? Are you having second thoughts?”
“No, no second thoughts,” Ami said. “I just needed to clear my head.”
“Why, if you weren’t having doubts?” Esme pressed.
Ami should have realized she wouldn’t be able to fool Esme. She had just hoped it would take longer, perhaps so long that Esme would forget.
“Do you promise not to tell anyone?” Ami asked. Esme’s eyes widened and she nodded. “I was saying farewell to Perry Nettleburr.”
“Perry Nettleburr? Who is-? Not that scroungy shepherd lad? I knew it! I knew you were about to kiss him the other night! Did you kiss him this morning?”
“He’s not scroungy!” Ami shot back. “And yes, I did kiss him, and it was wonderful.”
“Was it then? He didn’t try to take advantage?”
“Of course not! He was so sweet. We watched the sunrise together and it was marvelous. Then we kissed. I don’t know who was more nervous. But it was lovely, like... I don’t know. Like strawberries with cream.”
Esme frowned but didn’t say anything right away. She needed to sort out her thoughts, of which she had many. When she did finally speak, it was with a delicacy with which she usually wouldn’t waste time. “I can understand the appeal of someone mysterious. I used to have dreams about Bard the Bowman, from Bilbo’s stories, only in my dreams he was a hobbit naturally. And I do agree with you that there is more to someone’s worth than the coins in their pockets. I’m sure Perry is a nice enough lad. I trust this was just a summer tryst, a Free Fair... affair if you will. It would hardly be the first time such a thing ever happened, nor will it be the last. But it’s over now.”
Ami could have said many things in response to that speech but she knew it would be pointless. She knew very well all the reasons why her feelings for Perry should be shut away and forgotten. Not that she intended to forget them.
She realized that Esme was watching her again, studying her face in the late afternoon sun. She nodded stiffly. “It’s over.”
“Good. So then, if you won’t take Rumbi for a husband, we’ll have to find you a respectable suitor,” Esme said. “You’re going to be of age in a year. You’re not going to be able to put this decision off much longer. What do you think of Phineas Longbottom?”
“He’s twice my age!”
“He’s not that old! He’s only forty-five, two years younger than Rumbi I might add.”
“Most bachelors who reach that age are bachelors out of choice. I doubt he’s interested in marriage.”
“All right then. What about Marcho Hornblower? He’s a sweet lad, quite handsome.”
Ami shrugged. “He’s certainly polite. We did court once before though. It didn’t last. Obviously.”
“That’s because you decided you didn’t like the way he parted his hair,” Esme said. “I’m sure if you just told him, he’d change it. Why don’t you give it another try? I happen to know he’s not courting anyone else at the moment.”
“I don’t know...” Ami trailed off. She didn’t want Marcho or Phineas. She wanted a lad she could never have, could never be with for numerous reasons. She could not consider the notion of courting someone else when all she wanted to do was retrieve a pony from the stables and go back to the fair before Perry could leave. “I’ll consider it.” She regretted it already.
Esme nodded and said nothing. Up ahead, Arlo was dashing up to the guest cottage, waving the bag of taffies with excited squeals.
That night was one of the longest in Ami’s memory. She feigned exhaustion shortly after dinner and went to bed early. She pretended to be asleep when Esme came into the room a few hours later, keeping still and breathing deeply until she heard Esme settle into bed, her own deep breaths of slumber following soon after. Ami rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling, watching the moonlight drift across it from the bedroom window. She listened as her brother then her parents went to their rooms, and an hour or so later, the servants to theirs. She waited until it was well past midnight before slipping out of bed and sitting on the windowsill, staring out over the darkened fields towards Michel Delving. She brought her knees up to her chest and hugged them to her, to prevent herself from jumping up and running for the door as much as for comfort, and rested her head against the window frame.
She itched to get up, to dress and leave, to find Perry and not look back, but what good would that be to anyone? Just a week ago, she wouldn’t have stopped to think about it. She would have followed her impulse to wherever it took her, never once considering the consequences. Well, no, that wasn’t true, despite what others might think. She did a good amount of thinking over the big things, and if her feelings for Perry weren’t to be considered substantial, she didn’t what else could be. She had decisions to make, but she was at a loss of how to make them, not while he was so close and so impossibly far away. All she could do now was remember that morning, laying in the field next to Perry and watching the sun rise, chasing away the dark.
Morning found her still on the sill, asleep against the cool glass.
The summer passed warm and languid. The long days were often passed in the shade or inside, out of the sun as much as possible, and the nights spent outside in the cooling air, fire pits roasting pheasant or boiling soup.
After the first few weeks of finding themselves adrift in their former home, Amber and Heather settled into the guest cottage. They were delighted that their parents didn’t push them to dine with the rest of the family or join in the quilting circle at the town’s fabric store. They were able to join in these activities and more as they wished, and over the course of the summer and early autumn, without even realizing it, they were laughing and smiling more than they had all year. If they felt any twinges of worry about the quickly approaching winter, they hid them well.
Paladin found that he had a shadow in the shape and size of Arlo. When Arlo wasn’t playing with the servants’ children, he was following Pally around the farm and surrounding lands, going with him on surveys and errands. Their favorite shared activity was fishing. There wasn’t much to it really, just prop the poles up against some rocks and then lay down and relax. Arlo wasn’t very good at relaxing though, so Pally passed the time by having the lad go around and count as many rocks, twigs, bugs and flowers as he could find. They often came home with more toads, worms and clipped flowers than they did fish. When he could get away from Arlo, he went hunting or hiking with his friends and every Highday night could find him at the tavern enjoying the brew and flirtations of the barmaids.
Ami and Esme returned to their routine of sewing, painting and social teas with the other ladies and lasses of influence that lived in and near Whitwell. Their days were filled with planning parties, writing letters and invitations, hunting for fabrics and paints, and creating their art in the sewing room or along riverbanks. There had been an avalanche of mail from Ami’s friends and cousins in Tuckborough when word got around that she had turned down Rumbi’s proposal, but she answered all these letters politely and resolutely, then went on to write about other topics, mainly the many socials and teas she was enjoying.
During many of the teas, Marcho Hornblower would be in attendance and Ami found herself seated next to him more often than not. She enjoyed his company as much as she always had and she was grateful when he didn’t offer anything more than friendship. She wondered if Esme was coaching him; Ami walked into them speaking in the pantry once and Esme’s immediately blush of shame said more than her averted eyes and stammering did.
Amber and Heather both attempted to speak with Ami soon after returning from the Fair, but once Ami established that she was not experiencing regrets over Ferumbras, she had nothing further to say on the matter. They had no better luck getting answers out of Esme, who was unusually tight-lipped about the whole thing, which only made them more curious. They decided not to push the subject though. If Ami wanted to talk to them, she knew where to find them.
Clematis did not share their sentiment. She couldn’t help but notice Ami’s distraction. Ami being easily distracted was nothing new, but this was different from the carefree and light-hearted distraction she was accustomed to. Ami wasn’t going off with friends at the spur of the moment and forgetting her chores, or remembering an obligation and forgetting to join her friends. Instead, she would suddenly stop in the middle of whatever she was doing and seem to forget everything around her. It was a quiet form of distraction, something internal, and it worried Clematis enough that she finally decided to say something.
She found Ami one day near the end of Afterlithe as Ami was fashioning mittens out of some hides she had acquired at the Fair. Clematis admired the handiwork of the hides, which were dyed the color of a sunrise, wishing she had seen them to buy for herself. She waited until Ami noticed her and put down her sewing. Clematis had wisely brought ginger biscuits and sweet tea, which she now placed on the table next to the chair where Ami sat. Ami smiled and plucked up a biscuit, careful to put the hides aside so she wouldn’t drop crumbs on them.
“You look tired, Darling. Is everything all right?” Clematis asked.
Ami nodded. “I woke up early this morning. Other than that, I’m quite well.” She laughed at her own joke and munched on the biscuit.
“Have you heard from Ferumbras? Or Lalia?” Clematis watched the post with dread of seeing that familiar hand, hard and round. She wondered why Lalia hadn’t written, or if she had simply missed the missive. If Lalia hadn’t written, it couldn’t mean anything good.
Surprisingly, Ami nodded. “Not from Lalia, but Rumbi wrote the other day. Apparently there was some to-do at the Smials last week. Some of the tweens got into the wine cellar and had themselves a little party. Fortinbras is quite put out by it. He ordered for the tweens to be sent out to the stables and fields to work themselves into exhaustion for the rest of the summer.”
“Lads do have a penchant for trouble.”
“They weren’t all lads. The lasses are doing whatever it is lasses do in the fields.”
Clematis frowned at the idea of lasses sneaking into wine cellars but continued on. “I’m glad to hear that you and Rumbi have remained friends,” she said.
“Of course we’d still be friends,” Ami said.
“Are you sure you’re feeling all right, Darling? You haven’t been yourself.”
“I’m fine, Mother.”
Mother. She never said Mother.
Ami sighed and looked down at her hands. How much could she tell her mother without revealing everything? She still received the occasional suspicious glance from Esme. She didn’t need it from her mother as well.
“I suppose I just regret the way things turned out. I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” she said, toeing the line between truth and lie.
“Of course you didn’t, Darling. I’m sure that Rumbi understands. Though if you are regretting it so, perhaps you should reconsider.” Clematis poured them each some tea.
“I don’t love Rumbi that way,” Ami said.
“What about Marcho Hornblower? He’s taken quite a shine to you.”
“He is nice, and handsome, and courteous.”
Ami sighed and bit into a biscuit. She munched in deep contemplation, analyzing the flavor and spices in the biscuit as much as her feelings. She swallowed and at last said, “I don’t think I can love him either.”
“Are you sure you’re not simply being persnickety? No one is going to be exactly what you want. You must learn to be lenient, or you’ll find yourself an old maid with no family of your own. I know that isn’t what you want for yourself.”
“I know, Mum. You’re right. I’ll try to be less fussy of Marcho.” Though how she would do that was beyond her. She wasn’t fussy about him now. She did enjoy his company and friendship, and perhaps if things were different, she might have considered courting him more seriously. For now, her heart was still too sore from losing Perry.
“He’s a good lad. He’d make a fine husband,” Clematis said. “Perhaps I should invite him and his family for dinner one night, the next time they’re in town?”
“They’re visiting all summer,” Ami said. She smiled again but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“Do you want me to invite them?” Clematis asked. “I don’t want to give them the wrong impression.”
“Perhaps dinner can wait then,” Ami said.
“You do know you can talk to me about anything, right?”
“So then? You’ve been sulking all month. Out with it.”
Ami frowned and popped the rest of her biscuit into her mouth to give herself time to think. She had to swallow eventually though and when she did, she sighed and met her mother’s eyes.
“I met a lad at the Fair, only he’s not what you might consider a proper lad,” Ami started, then hurried on before her mother could interrupt. “I mean to say, he’s smart and considerate and kind and caring, but he’s poor. Poorer than poor actually. I don’t care about that, but I know it will make things difficult for everyone.”
“Can he provide for you?” Clematis asked, watching in wonder as her daughter’s face lit up as she spoke of this lad.
“He’s trying so hard to be able to provide properly for his family and those who rely on him. It’s undoubtedly a lot of pressure, too much for such a young lad to bear - he can’t be much older than myself - but he bears it like he was meant to carry the burden. He says he has no idea what he’s doing, and yet he’s making he all the right choices without even knowing it. He’s going to see his home improved, I know he is. He can make it happen.”
“Who is this lad? Do we know him?”
Ami shook her head. “Did you, by chance, happen to hear about the shepherd lad I was escorting over the fields the day before opening day?”
Ami was avoiding her eyes now, so she missed it when Clematis’s frown deepened. “Everyone heard about that. Your father and I didn’t think there was anything to it, so we didn’t say anything. It’s him then?”
Ami nodded and looked up, her eyes full of hope. “It is.” She held her breath and waited.
Clematis stirred some more sugar into her tea to give herself something to do while she quickly sorted through her thoughts. How had her daughter fallen in love without her noticing it? And how had she fallen in love with such a derelict? Yet she could not disregard her daughter’s feelings, even if she hoped it was just a passing thing.
She clicked the spoon against her teacup and returned it to the plate. She took a sip to fortify herself before responding.
“Did I ever tell you that I was going to marry someone else before your father?”
Ami’s eyes popped open in surprise. She shook her head. “No. What happened?”
“I realized that while he appeared to be everything that I wanted, that once I started spending more time with him, there was simply no joy. Not that we didn’t get along, for we did, but he simply wasn’t the right match. He was from a different town, much smaller than Overhill, and they had a different way of seeing things and doing things that didn’t fit with the way I was raised, and he realized the same thing. We knew that no matter how much we tried, we wouldn’t be able to overcome that distance between us. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Ami held her gaze a moment before searching for another biscuit. It was her turn to avoid eye contact, to hide her thoughts and disappointment. “I understand. Thank you.”
“You’ll find the right lad for you. You just need to make yourself open to possibilities,” Clematis said.
“I will. Why don’t you invite the Hornblowers to tea on Highday? I can make strawberry-creme pie.”
“That sounds delightful.”
Ami smiled and reached for another biscuit.
Summer faded into autumn and harvest quickly approached. One night around the dinner table, Adalgrim announced that a nursery on one of his farms would need to be expanded before the spring breeding season and that a new home was going to be built to accommodate the extra hired hands needed for the expansion of another farm. Both needed to be done as soon as the harvest was finished and before the cold weather set in. Winters were usually mild, but rain was inevitable and he wanted the buildings finished before it grew too wet and muddy to ensure firm foundations.
Ami waited until the following night before approaching her father in his study after dinner. She knocked on the doorframe and waited until her father bade her to enter. She sat next to his desk and sat up straight and sure. “I want to help with the construction of the home and the nursery on Bell Point and South End,” she said. “It will be good practice for me, if I’m to be apprenticed to Gardenia in the spring.”
Adalgrim’s quill slowed to a stop. He paused, stuck the quill in its well and looked up over his spectacles. He studied his daughter closely for a moment or two. “Gardenia will be teaching you to make furniture, specialty items.”
“Which requires more or less the same tools necessary for a nursery expansion or a house raising,” Ami said, excitement sparkling in her eyes. “It will be a worthy experience for me. Gardenia said I should not let my hands sit idle, lest they forget the feel of a hammer or chisel. Blistering makes it harder to use the tools and will slow down my learning. It would be best to toughen my hands now, and it will be an extra pair of hands for you, which you said you needed. I’m a quick learner; they won’t have to dawdle over me. I’ll pay attention to everything they tell me and I won’t forget anything, I promise.”
“I’m sure you’ll be more than helpful,” Adalgrim said, considering. “Lasses don’t typically do such work. It’s physically demanding. Injuries are common even for the strongest of lads.”
“I won’t do anything that will be a strain to me. I’ll stand out of the way and watch and learn. But I’m sure there must be something I can help with.” She looked up hopefully, not exactly a pout but close enough.
“I’ll think about it,” he promised.
“You told her what?” Clematis asked him later that night as they lay in bed, waiting for sleep.
“You should have seen how excited she was,” he said. “I haven’t seen her that alight in months. You don’t think she’s still sulking over this lad she met at the Fair do you?”
“No, but anything to distract her from that couldn’t hurt. Perhaps you should consider it. If Marcho were part of the crew, it would give them more time together doing something they both enjoy. I think Darling’s forgotten that the reason she took an interest in carpentry in the first place was because of Marcho.”
“I can send a letter to Tobold and request his son’s assistance. Then I’ll speak with the forehobbit tomorrow and see if there is anything she can do for him. If nothing else, she can help to cut the wood and lay the tile.”
“I’d feel more comfortable if she was helping to fix the food to feed the workers.” Clematis sighed. “She hasn’t responded to Marcho’s latest letter.”
“It only just arrived this morning.”
“If she were serious about him, she would have responded straight away. What is she waiting for?”
She wasn’t talking just about Marcho. There were too many possible answers to that question and no way of knowing if any of them were right.
Adalgrim found her hand under the covers and squeezed. “Perhaps this will buy us two cakes for the price of one.”
“We can hope. Perhaps Ami can help with the design process, if the floor plans haven’t been drawn yet. That should satisfy her.”
“That’s brilliant. I’ll tell Ted in the morning.”
Those decisions made, they snuggled further into the sheets and soon drifted off to sleep.
To be continued...
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