BLURB: Angel Taylor had her life all figured out until her best friend shoved Elias Harper off on her. What's she need with a boy anyway? But Marta said he liked to dance and somehow that was appealing. However, something strange is happening in town and this right before Christmas. Is Elias involved? What is the secret he keeps from her? And what should she do when her life changes for good?
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1868, Central Florida
"No!" I flung my hands on my hips and glared at her.
"But, Angel ..."
"But, Angel, nothing. You'll not pawn another one off on me."
"But this one is handsome." She punctuated this statement with a stomp of her foot.
I backed up behind the counter of my papa’s store and pretended to be busy. "You said that last time and look how that turned out!"
Her lip stuck out in a pout. "I said that one was charming. This one is handsome."
"What's the difference?" I groused.
She tossed her head, her dark black locks tumbling around her face. "Charming is external. Handsome comes from the inside."
I raised my eyebrows at this and frowned. "So last year you sent me someone with no internal value. That's what you're admitting?"
She huffed then, and the puff of air blew her bangs upward. "You're being really difficult this morning."
"I'm being practical. It's Christmas, and I do not want to spend it saddled with yet another of your male cousins."
She laid her hand on my arm. "This is my favorite cousin. He's by far the sweetest, and he's a good dancer. You like dancing. Think how you'll feel at the Christmas Eve dance … alone on the wall again." Her large brown eyes focused on mine.
But I wasn’t fooled. "Don't look at me like that," I fumed. "I was alone on the wall because your cousin dumped me for Sally." And that had been humiliating, especially since it was Sally.
Her gaze didn't change, and my determination wavered. Since I was three, Marta and I had been best friends. My toughness balanced out her chaos. At least that’s what she always said. However, in my thinking, sometimes she ought to organize her chaos a little better. I couldn’t believe I was actually considering helping her out ... again.
"I'm sorry about that," she said. "How was I to know he liked redheads?"
"Redheads with freckles and large noses.”
She laughed at me. "He apologized to you, and besides, you didn’t want a boyfriend anyway."
No, I didn’t. Single and independent was fine with me, despite what everyone else thought and said. "He made me look foolish, you know," I countered. “Second fiddle.”
"Well, then this one is perfect for you! He doesn't want an attachment either. But he does like to dance."
My will crumbled beneath the weight of her arguments and the stare of her doe-like eyes. "If he embarrasses me, I swear ..." I let the threat remain unfinished.
Her face lit like a lamp and tossing a peck on my cheek, she shot out the door of the store, calling, "You're the best!"
"When's he coming anyway?" I yelled.
Her answer trailed in as the door whooshed shut. "Tomorrow. I’ll bring him by."
"Tomorrow?” But she couldn't hear me because she was gone. "I would have liked more warning," I mumbled to the wall.
Another ring of the doorbell drew my attention, and a wide smile crossed my face. "Good morning, Mrs. Pinser.”
Offering a tentative smile, she pushed her rounded shape into the store. "You're alone today,” she said.
I nodded, and coming out from behind the counter, knelt at her feet. "How are you, Paula?" Two pudgy hands unwrapped themselves from her mother's skirts and transferred to my chest. I admired the child’s sparkling blue eyes and pink cheeks.
"No baby yet, huh?" I remarked to her mother, and I returned to my feet.
Mrs. Pinser shook her head. "He's holding out for Christmas," she laughed. She rubbed her hand distractedly over her distended belly.
I walked behind the counter, little Paula’s hand in mine, and her eyes widened at the sight of the candy jar. "Would you like one?" I asked. She gave a vigorous nod, and so reaching into the jar, I extracted a sugar stick and pressed it into her hand. She broke into a grin.
"I can pay ..." Mrs. Pinser said, but I interrupted her.
"No, Papa says you can have anything you want. Your husband gave his life for this nation, and that's his way of paying back."
Her eyes turned sad then, and I regretted bringing up her loss. She'd lost her first husband at the battle of Gettysburg five years ago. Then she’d remarried last year, but her second husband passed away of the fever.
"I am only grateful the war is over," she said softly.
Happy noises echoed in my ear of Paula sucking furiously on the sugar stick. I touched her head of curls. Her father had never seen her, and that was inexpressibly horrible to me for I loved my Papa. He'd raised my brothers and I on his own after Mama passed.
I attempted to lighten the mood. "Well now, maybe you'll have that baby before Christmas and he can play baby Jesus in the Nativity. It'd be nice to have a real baby for once and not the corncob doll we used the past three years."
She chuckled. "If you can keep the goat from eatin' him this year."
And we both broke into laughter.
"Martin, stop shoveling," Papa warned, his voice stern.
Martin paused, a forkful of peas halfway to his mouth. "Sorry," he mumbled as a pea shot off the fork and across the table.
Steven plucked it up between his finger and thumb and squashed it. "Like I was sayin'. I heard this cousin's been in some trouble and that's why he's comin'."
"What kind of trouble?" I asked. "And who'd you hear that from anyway?" I made a face at him.
He smeared the smashed pea onto his napkin.
"He heard it from Hans."
I turned my gaze toward Brian, who sat with a lopsided smile on his face. What were they up to?
Steven reclined in his chair, his arm thrown over the back. "What he said," he replied, shooting his thumb over his shoulder.
"Out with it!" I demanded. Brian looked more and more like the cat who ate the canary. Marta's brother, Hans, was a reliable source, but given the expressions passing between my two brothers, there had to be more to the story.
Brian shrugged. "Hans said he was banished from his house and had nowhere else to go. Perhaps that's why she's shoving him off on you.”
I looked down at my plate and stabbed the slice of ham.
"It's already dead," Brian chuckled.
This drew my glare.
"Why do you keep helping her out?" Steven said. "She did this to you last year."
My reply fell to a low murmur. "She said he liked to dance." Secretly, I hoped he wouldn't hear me.
However, he sat forward, his arms crossed on the table. "Speak louder, Sis."
I cleared my throat, directing my gaze to his face, and allowed sparks to fly from my eyes. "She said," I paused dramatically. "He liked to dance."
The next five minutes descended into chaos as my brothers collapsed on each other spurting raucous laughter. Papa eventually banged on the table, and they attempted to recover themselves. I stood to my feet.
"Where you goin'?" Steven asked, a crooked smile on his lips.
"I’m going," I stressed the word, "to bed."
I turned to Papa. "I think I'll go out for a turkey in the morning."
Steven butted in. "But I thought you were meeting Marta's cousin." His eyes twinkled.
I whirled around. "Then you'll know where to tell him to find me. Won't you?"
I stomped from the room, my feet pounding on the boards. "Honestly," I muttered beneath my breath. "If she thinks I'm going to keep track of some no-good, lousy, untamed, ingrate ..." I'd let her have it next time I saw her.
Plopping down on the bed, I stared at the ceiling and an overwhelming longing for Mama swept over me. Growing up in an all-male household often left me with no female companionship or advice. My brothers never coddled me, instead treating me like "one of the boys." This never bothered me except when I didn't know how to behave. More than once, I was ignored in invites to tea parties or girls' birthday outings because after all, "that Taylor girl" had no manners.
"Look at how she behaves, just like a boy!”
“Spends all her days in the woods.”
But the woods accepted me. There in the depths of the oak hammock beneath the gnarled limbs twisting in a maze overhead and with the brown leaves lying underfoot, there amongst the scampering of woodland creatures–gray squirrels, possums, armadillos–and birds of all sizes–blue jays, woodpeckers, cardinals, titmouse, and tall, graceful Sandhill cranes–I felt most at home. There, I could be myself.
Dancing was the only girly thing about me. Mama taught me how when I was ten, and to their chagrin, she'd made my brothers spin me around. They'd never admit to that though. Dancing never failed to take me back to her, and perhaps that was why I liked it.
I rolled over and gazed out the window, my thoughts turning over and over. So Marta thought I’d babysit another cousin. Well, I'd show her. When she showed up tomorrow with her illustrious relative, I'd be long gone, and I dare them to find me.
I rose way before dawn and donned a pair of cast-off trousers and a flannel shirt. Then tucking my hair beneath a wide-brimmed hat, I slung my rifle over my shoulder, reveling in the scent of oiled metal and gunpowder.
This rifle was my treasure. Papa gave it to me when I was fifteen and I outshot my brothers. One afternoon, he lined us up one hundred paces from the target, offering the rifle as the reward. That was all the prompting I needed. My brothers couldn’t believe I won, and Brian didn’t speak to me for a week.
I wandered through the living room and into the kitchen, snatching a couple cold biscuits on my way out the door. Early morning fog swept the yard as I walked toward the trees. Fog would make hunting more difficult. I craned my head back for a view of the still-darkened sky. Though if I timed it right, the rising sun would burn it off before I got there.
A barred owl hooted in the distance, its eerie call welcoming me on my walk. Mama used to tell me how different the forests were across the country. When she was a girl up north, the forests were fir trees, spruce, and great, triangular pines, but here in Florida, it was primarily live oaks and slash pine with a sprinkling of cabbage palms and the ever-present saw palmetto. At the swamp, these changed to willow trees, bald cypress, and a wide variety of water-loving plants.
I found the swamp fascinating, and I spent much time there. But you had to watch out for alligators.
After an hour of trekking through the woods, the sun at last peeked through the limbs. I settled myself against a tree and removed a turkey call from my pocket. I'd fashioned it from the wing bones of a previously-caught turkey. By blowing through the bones just so, you created the perfect sound to attract any nearby toms, and I'd seen a big fat tom at this spot a few days earlier.
He'd make a nice Christmas meal. Of course, I'd have to let Papa or Steven cook it because I was terrible in the kitchen–yet another one of my flaws.
"She can shoot straight, just don't ask her to cook," Brian always said.
The cool air raised gooseflesh on my skin, even through the flannel shirt, until a beam of sun hit me full in the face. Squinting against it, I shifted away from the glare and stared right into the slanted eyes of a bobcat. My heart pounded. I'd seen bobcats before, but always at a distance.
However, this one sat right in front of me, and he licked his chops. He lowered his head, his gaze narrowed to slits, as if inspecting me for prey. I held my breath and didn't move. Bobcats deserved respect, and unless threatened by one, I’d never shoot. Eventually, he stretched his neck and shook his feet one at a time, evidently deciding I was no harm, and then wandered from the scene.
I'd have to sit even longer now to catch that tom and so leaned back to wait.
Elias stared at the back of Marta's head as it bobbed up and down.
"Hunting? It's noontime! She was supposed to be here!" She threw her hands in the air.
The boy leaning in the doorway picked his teeth and spat. "All I can tell you is she's been gone all mornin'." He nodded his head toward the trees. "You're welcome to find her." At that, he laughed.
"She did this on purpose!" she declared, and snorting, she spun around.
Elias met her fierce expression. Why'd he have to meet some girl anyhow? He had no interest whatsoever in girls, yet his cousin, Marta, insisted.
"She's my best friend," she'd said last night. "I think you'll like her."
"Marta, stop playing matchmaker.” This caution came from Hans.
But she'd only carried on harder, extolling all her friend's virtues. Tired from traveling, her words eventually blurred in his head, and his eyelids drooped. Yet this morning, she'd picked the ball back up, still yapping about meeting her friend.
Elias' glanced toward the trees, and his brow furrowed. What kind of girl went hunting anyway? Girls sewed, cooked, and read poetry. Right? His eyes widened as a vision appeared from the trees, and he swallowed heavily. Maybe not girls with rifles, girls wearing ... pants. He blinked twice. But no, he wasn't imagining things. This girl, her slim figure hugged by tight-fitting trousers, held a rifle on one shoulder and an enormous turkey on the other.
"Where’ve you been?" Marta stomped from the porch and across the sandy soil, dirt spitting from her shoes. The girl paused, her eyebrows raised, and licked her lips. Elias fixated on her mouth.
"I went for a turkey."
He shook his head to remove the sight only to stare instead at the beads of sweat racing down her temples.
"You were supposed to be here!" Marta continued.
The girl glanced at the sky, and then back at Marta with a shrug. "I'm here. Ain't I?" She shifted the turkey’s weight on her shoulder.
"Yes, but you're dressed like ... like that, and I thought ..."
"Well, you thought wrong."
Marta placed her hands on her hips, and her voice fell silent. Then in a snit, she grabbed Elias’ sleeve and shoved him forward. "Elias, this is my best friend, Angel Taylor."
Angel? This wasn't any angel. Angels didn't wear pants, spend hours in the woods, and go hunting alone. She liked to dance?
Marta’d laid that one on him this morning.
However, he hadn't come here to dance or to meet some ... girl or even to spend time with Marta's family. In fact, if it'd been left up to him, he'd not come here at all. He was perfectly fine where he was. So what, he'd gotten into a few scrapes. Granted that last was the worst, and it did bother him a lot. Why wouldn't people let him alone?
"You'll go stay with your cousins and that's final," his mama had said.
"But mama, I'm old enough to decide how ..."
"And yet not smart enough," she interrupted. "Eighteen years does not make you an adult until you can act like one."
He wrinkled his nose as the smell of the girl wafted up his nostrils. Well, despite how she looked in pants, and that picture would perhaps never leave his thinking, she was about as uncouth as they come. Great job, Marta, he scowled. You can pick 'em.
Placing his feet on the polished surface of the desk, the man crossed his arms behind his head and studied the boy before him. He hated he was so young.
The boy fidgeted in his seat. "Christmas Eve might be the best time, sir," he continued. His voice broke at the end and so he cleared his throat. "‘Cause no one will expect it. All you need is a distraction."
The man smiled at that thought and inclined his head. "Indeed," he replied. "And you have one in mind?"
The boy's face grew red. "No," he blurted. "But I'm workin' on it."
The man dropped his feet to the ground with a thump. "Well, you have three days. I won't wait longer than that before I do this my way. I've coddled you long enough."
With a nod, the boy lurched to his feet, his left leg dragging behind him.
The man stared after him. Trusting the boy could be a huge mistake. But what other choice did he have? This had to be done carefully.
A cry from the other room pierced the air, and with a grunt, he rose from his seat. "Don't cry, love," he cooed. He laid his hand on his wife's head, stroking gently. "It'll all be right soon. I promise." She clung to his coat sleeve and sobbed.
Suzanne D. Williams
Suzanne Williams Photography
Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.