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A Path Toward Love
By Caralynn James
THOMAS NELSONCopyright © 2012 Carolyn James Slaughter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHernando County, Florida
Katherine Osborne couldn't escape the numbers. She dragged her gaze from the lush orange groves right outside her office window to the ledger open on her desk. Why had she ever believed she could run a business with little experience and less capital? The numbers screamed bankruptcy and the end of her dream—unless she quickly obtained a loan to tide her over. She hoped an answer would come in the afternoon post. All she needed was a little more time ... surely business would improve.
For a few moments she gave in to her mounting fears and buried her head in her hands, allowing the warmth and stillness of the afternoon to wash through her. But at the sound of footsteps, Katherine glanced up and smiled at her maid. Etta Mae, young and pretty, strode through the doorway holding out a stack of mail. "For you, Miz Osborne." She grinned and her teeth glistened white against her dark skin.
"Is there a letter from the bank?" Etta Mae always riffled through the mail before she turned it over to Katherine.
The maid shook her head. "Sorry, ma'am."
Katherine nodded. No word from the loan officer killed her hopes, but only for the day. Perhaps tomorrow she'd finally receive her response.
"There is a letter from New York," Etta Mae said, holding out the envelope.
Katherine ripped it open and scanned the creamy page filled with her mother's spidery script.
My dearest Katherine,
Papa is on his way to Florida to visit you at Buena Vista. I expect he'll stay for a week or so, possibly longer. He's scheduled to arrive late afternoon on Monday. I do hope this letter precedes his arrival so that you can give him a proper welcome.
Today! Katherine's heart sputtered at the thought of Papa coming to Buena Vista. She missed him terribly, though a pinch of anxiety tempered her joy. Why was he traveling all the way from New York in the heat of the summer? Her family always spent the season at their camp on Raquette Lake tucked into the rugged Adirondack Mountains. The air was cool and fresh—nothing like Florida. Only something important would drive Papa from Camp Birchwood in July. She'd wager it involved her mounting problems with keeping the citrus groves operating.
Katherine glanced at her pocket watch pinned on her plain cotton shirtwaist. Papa's train would probably arrive within an hour or two. She needed to tidy up her appearance, and above all, calm her nerves. She continued to read Mama's letter.
I do so wish I could join Papa, but I'm afraid my social obligations prevent me from traveling so far.
Aunt Letty is with me at Camp Birchwood for the summer. Our weather is delightful. That's such a blessing since we have a houseful of guests to entertain. I do wish you could be here to vacation with us. Try to join us whenever you can, my dear.
Katherine placed the letter on her lap. How she wished she could visit her family. She hadn't seen any of them in eight years, ever since she'd eloped with Charles against her parents' wishes. They'd never extended invitations to spend summers in the Adirondacks when he was still alive. They detested him—with good reason, as she discovered too late. With a deep sigh rising from the depth of her lungs, Katherine lowered her gaze and read the next few pages of the chatty letter. At the bottom of the last page she found a postscript.
P.S. I neglected to mention that your old friend, Andrew Townsend, will accompany Papa to Florida. I'm sure you'll be anxious to see them both.
The letter fluttered to the floor in a humid breeze that blew through the window. Why was Andrew coming too? She couldn't begin to imagine. A picture of her tall, blond neighbor flashed across her mind. They'd been the best of friends for most of their youth. But when she married Charles, he ceased communication. There'd only been one brief note from him when her husband died.
She rose and went to the window, staring outside at the acres of lawn edged with flowering bushes. Her heart squeezed painfully at the memory of arguing with Andrew in the parlor of her parents' Fifth Avenue home right before her marriage. Red faced, her usually mild-mannered friend succumbed to his frustration as he paced the length of the parlor.
"Please don't marry him, Katherine. You'll live to regret it."
"You're maligning a wonderful man," she countered. Anger swirled through her, and she exploded with the hurt of Andrew's criticism. But at eighteen, how could she know Charles was not the gentleman he seemed to be? His suave manners and dashing clothing had swept her off her feet. Why hadn't she seen the real man beneath the facade of wealth and good looks? She thought he loved her deeply. In her naive mind, she imagined she'd become the center of his universe. How could she have been so wrong?
Her romantic notions had all been in her young and foolish mind. She'd rejected Andrew's sage advice and run off with Charles the very next day. Now here she was: a widow with little money, a business in shambles, and bitter memories of a marriage gone bad.
Would Andrew remind her of his warning? Katherine shuddered to think what he'd say about her life now. She had little to show for her endless work except a business teetering on the edge of extinction.
Katherine tucked the letter back in its envelope and locked it in her rolltop desk. She slapped the ledger shut and retreated to the kitchen for a glass of ginger ale to calm her jittery stomach, then upstairs to find something appropriate to wear.
Etta Mae, who doubled as her personal maid, helped her into a plain, plum-colored frock with a lace collar and cuffs, the most festive of all her drab garments. It was odd that she'd never before noticed how worn and faded her dresses looked. But day in, day out she donned the same frocks, skirts, and shirtwaists without a thought to their condition or style. Two years after Charles's death, she'd finished mourning. But even if she'd found the time or money to order a new wardrobe, she wouldn't have bothered. There were too many other things to think about. Pressing things.
Perched at her dressing table, Katherine glanced into the oval mirror. Her eyes stared back at her like hollow holes encircled by dark shadows. Her mouth turned downward in a frown. Was this weary expression her permanent look? She seldom scrutinized her appearance for more than a moment, and then only to ensure she looked neat and presentable. The carefully groomed debutante of another time and place had faded into a gaunt businesswoman with more on her mind than fashion.
Etta Mae brushed her hair and carefully arranged it in a full pompadour, using silver clips to secure it in place. Katherine brushed powder across her nose and pinched her cheeks for a bit of color. Satisfied, she thanked the girl. Etta Mae disappeared downstairs.
Five minutes later the maid reappeared. "Excuse me, ma'am. Mr. Herne is waiting for you in the parlor."
Nodding, Katherine smoothed her skirt and hurried downstairs. She entered the parlor, the largest and airiest room of the Queen Anne house, to meet Mr. Herne, the manager of her citrus groves. The parlor boasted delicate furniture old Mr. Osborne had bought for his wife in Paris years before and a carved wooden mantelpiece with silver candelabra on each side. The tall windows were raised to the height of a door, letting in a mild breeze and a flood of light.
"Good morning, Mr. Herne."
He paced in front of the unlit fireplace, hands clasped behind his back. His long frame matched his long face, and his chin drooped into a scrawny neck. He averted his eyes for several long seconds and then focused them directly on her. She flinched at his sorrowful look.
"I have something to tell you, Miz Osborne, and I'm not sure how to say it."
Her throat clenched with apprehension. "Say it quickly," she urged. "It's easier that way."
He jerked a nod. "You're right, ma'am." Just the same, he paused again. Katherine held her breath. "I'm afraid I have bad news. I—I'll be leaving here soon."
Startled, Katherine struggled to control her shock. "But why?"
Of course, she knew deep down. They hadn't turned a profit in seven years, ever since old Mr. Osborne passed on. A severe frost in '95 devastated Florida's citrus crop, and their orange and grapefruit trees were wiped out. Charles's father replanted. The trees slowly grew and produced good fruit, but production was not yet back to previous numbers. It was tough to make it even when her father-in-law lived, but under Charles's neglect and mismanagement, the business spiraled downward toward insolvency.
During the past two years, she and Mr. Herne had fought to revive the groves but with only marginal success. So far. But they'd improved, little by little. Had he given up? Or had he merely accepted reality? A chill slithered down her spine.
"I got another job. It's in Georgia, closer to my kin. I'm sorry, Miz Osborne. You've been the best employer a man could ever want, but I got to think of my wife and kids. So I'll be moving on by the end of the week. I hope you understand it's not personal. I just hate doing this to you."
Katherine grabbed the back of a chair to steady herself. "I do understand." He had no choice. Loyalty to his family came first. Given the small crops, she hadn't been able to pay him what he needed to adequately support his family. Who could blame him? She forced a weary smile. "We tried hard, and we were a good team. I'm sorry to see you go." Indeed, Michael Herne labored with all the enthusiasm and competence of an owner, not an employee. But the time had come; practicality ruled. "I shall miss you very much."
Tears pooled in his eyes. "You've been good to me and my family. I hate to leave you high and dry. Can you find someone to take my place?"
Her mouth twisted in a wry smile. "No one can really take your place, Mr. Herne. You must know that. But I'll put out the word I need a new manager. I'm certain someone will come along."
Katherine wasn't sure at all, but she wouldn't allow this hardworking man to feel guilty about his decision. She had so little to offer him anymore. They needed more workers to plant trees and another manager to supervise. But would anyone work for the meager salary she'd been paying Mr. Herne? And who would want to work for a business on the verge of bankruptcy? A headache began to mushroom.
With leaden feet, Katherine walked toward her office, Mr. Herne at her heels. "Let me give you your pay, and then you can leave whenever you're ready to go."
"Thank you, ma'am. I appreciate your thoughtfulness."
She forced a confident smile. She tamped down the terror slowly swelling in her chest with a prayer.
Lord, I haven't prayed in such a long time, but please hear me anyway. Please. I need Your strength right now, or I'll start blubbering all over poor Mr. Herne, and he'll feel like such a cad for leaving me in the lurch. Help me to act strong and capable, even though I'm neither. And help Mr. Herne with his new job. Amen.
With shaky hands, Katherine opened the wall safe, counted out the correct bills and added a few extra. "Here you go. God be with you."
His eyes widened and his voice crackled. "Thank you kindly. I know you don't have money to spare."
She raised her palm. "I wish I could offer you more to properly thank you for sticking by me through such hard times." Clearing her throat, she continued, "Thank you so very much."
He nodded and hurried out the door, Etta Mae peering after him.
Katherine sank into the parlor settee and buried her head in her hands. If she could only arrange for that bank loan, she'd have enough cash to pay the workers and bring in the harvest. She sat up straight and pounded her fist into the palm of her other hand. She'd make the groves show a profit even if she had to work morning, noon, and night. The laborers depended upon Buena Vista for their livelihood. How could she turn them out and still live with herself? She'd fight for them, and for herself.
Thoughts of meeting Charles's loan, as well as a new one, dimmed Katherine's hopes. She already scrimped one very household expense possible; where would she find the cash to meet another bill? She couldn't surrender. Not yet. Not when every year the harvest edged the groves back toward profitability ...
She'd failed at her marriage to Charles, but she refused to fail in the business he'd left her.
* * *
Later, Katherine moved out to the front porch and watched for a carriage to turn up her long driveway lined with crepe myrtle trees bursting with pink blooms. Several oaks dripping with strands of Spanish moss dotted the lawn. When she finally spotted a buggy with three men and a pile of luggage, she sprang to her feet and waved. Tears welled in her eyes, but she quickly wiped them away. The carriage halted in front of the house and Papa carefully descended, followed by his ancient valet, Royce. And then came Andrew, from the far side, smiling broadly.
Katherine rushed toward her father, her arms outstretched. "Oh, Papa, how grand to see you again!"
He looked nearly the same—tall, rugged, and a bit too robust—though wavy, gray hair now receded from his tanned hairline. He still sported a distinguished, well-trimmed, salt-and-pepper mustache and beard. But Katherine noticed there was more salt than pepper these days as she flew into his arms and nestled against his silk vest. A bubble of joy blocked her throat and tears spilled down her cheeks. With an embarrassed laugh, she dabbed them with a handkerchief he whipped from his pocket. His infectious grin was a balm to her heart.
"My little princess. Lovely to see you again. It's been far too long." Papa encircled her in a tight hug, and for a few moments, all was well in her world.
He stepped back and his affectionate gaze swept her from head to toe. "Let me look at you, honey. My goodness, you're all grown up." His smile faded a little and then veered toward a frown. "But you're so thin. You need some meat on your bones. Have you been working too hard?"
"Perhaps I have. A little," she said, trying to brush off his concern. "But I promise to slow down while you're here. And eat more."
"Good. But not just while I'm visiting, I hope."
Katherine nodded obediently. But inside, she wondered just where she'd find the time to eat, let alone rest.
* * *
Andrew stood beside Mr. Wainwright, satchel in hand. His eyes widened and his breath caught in his throat. Katherine was even lovelier than when he'd last seen her as an eighteen-year-old, long legged and girlish. Her expressive blue eyes contained a new depth; her honey-colored hair had darkened to a pleasing blend of shades of gold. She was still as slender as a willow branch. But as her father had noted, her frame seemed too thin, even beneath the full skirt of her purple dress. Her waist looked no bigger than a hand span. But he still found her very attractive. Too attractive.
When she turned toward him, a wide smile on her lips, his heart started bouncing in his chest like a Ping-Pong ball. But then he noted her hollow cheeks in place of the round, rosy ones he remembered, and her heart-shaped face now came to a sharper point at her chin.
Was the job of managing citrus groves too overwhelming for her? He'd find out over the course of the next week while he stayed at Buena Vista with Mr. Wainwright.
"Andrew," she called in her soft voice, "I can't believe you're here! I'm so happy to see you." Her genuine joy warmed him.
He swallowed hard. "It's wonderful to see you too, Katherine."
They chatted for a few minutes before a maid opened the front door and Mr. Wainwright lumbered over the threshold. "If you wouldn't mind, my princess, I'd like to go directly to my room, unpack, and take a short nap. It's a strenuous journey down the East Coast, even in my own railcar." He removed his bowler and waited for Etta Mae and Royce to bring in the trunks and valises. Together they hauled the luggage up the stairs. Katherine's father followed more slowly.
Once he made his way past the bend in the staircase, Katherine took Andrew's hands and pressed them tightly. She flashed an amused smile. "If you could only see your face. You look as if I'm going to bite. Truly, I'm not."
He gave her a sheepish grin and shifted from one booted foot to the other. "I can see that now. But I wasn't sure of my reception. After the way we left things, I didn't know if you'd forgiven me."
Sadness flickered across her face and then vanished. "Andrew, I forgave you long ago."
Her eyes were as welcoming as the sunshine, and his anxiety slid away. "I was wrong to interfere in your life, Katherine, giving you unwanted advice about Charles." He knew he had to apologize, but under similar circumstances, he'd probably repeat the offense. After all, how could he, in good conscience, let her run off with his disreputable college classmate without trying to warn her? "I'm sorry we parted on such a sour note."
Excerpted from A Path Toward Love by Caralynn James Copyright © 2012 by Carolyn James Slaughter. Excerpted by permission of THOMAS NELSON. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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