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Her Good Namea novel
By RUTH AXTELL
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2012 Ruth Axtell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHOLLISTON, MAINE, JUNE 1892
Why are you in such deep thought, Brenty?"
Espy Estrada stepped from behind the thick trunk of an elm tree, blocking Warren Brentwood's path.
He jerked to a stop. Embarrassed at being startled, then annoyed at being embarrassed, Warren only managed a stiff nod. "Hello, Espy."
"Hello yourself, Warren." She planted one slim hand on her hip, leaned a shoulder forward. Amusement lit the depths of her thickly lashed eyes, her irises an unusual shade like umber, halfway between amber and brown.
The sunshine dappled her smooth skin through the tall elms shading the road. "What's the matter, cat got your tongue?"
Her lips curved upward as if she knew exactly how distracting her smile was and would use the knowledge to her advantage. Such straight white teeth—for someone who'd grown up in the shanty town in the outlying district of Holliston, Warren would expect her to have lost one or two by now. Against her tawny skin, they shone all the more vividly.
"Where did you come from?"
"I was here all along. You sure seemed lost in thought. What were you thinking about?"
He swallowed, resisting the urge to step back a pace. Lately, their paths seemed to cross often. Since he'd returned to Holliston a few weeks ago, every time he ran into her—or she into him—it struck him forcefully what a young woman she'd become from the little barefoot girl in her faded calico dress sitting in the front row of the one-room schoolhouse they'd once attended.
Instead of replying to her question, he asked his own. "What are you doing on Elm Street?" It certainly wasn't anywhere near her part of town.
If his pointed question ruffled her, she didn't show it. Thrusting out her bottom lip slightly, she focused her large, deep-set eyes at him.
"I have an ap-point-ment here this afternoon." She enunciated the syllables as if to stress the importance of the event.
"Do you?" He couldn't help the surprise in his tone.
She nodded, a saucy look in her eyes. He noted the soft curve of her cheek. It was golden, showing the Portuguese origin on her father's side, unlike the fashionable peaches and cream women of his acquaintance. It complemented her hair, which was gathered in a loose chignon, tendrils curved like glossy serpents against the slim neck. Her straw bonnet had fallen back, held only by the ribbon pulling against her collarbone.
He noticed her outfits hadn't changed much, although what was inside them definitely had. He quickly averted his gaze, disconcerted by the direction of his thoughts.
With an abrupt nod, he made a move as if to walk past her. "If you'll excuse me, Miss Estrada, I was on my way back to the office."
"I love it when you call me Miss Estrada, all stiff and starchy like. Is that the voice you use all day in your office, sitting behind the great big desk at the mill?"
He stared at her, wondering what she meant by her words. Before he could think of a suitable rejoinder, she matched her steps to his, swinging her bare arms on either side of her. He couldn't help a quick glance up the street, to see who was about.
What an incongruous couple they would make, he in his suit—her description of "starchy" came back to him—and she ... he let his eyes stray once more over her silhouette, in a dark blue cotton skirt and gingham blouse with elbow-length sleeves. He glanced downward, surprised she wasn't barefoot, the way she'd run around in summer as a girl. But dusty lace-up boots were visible beneath the hem of her petticoat.
"Aren't you curious where I'm going?"
He picked up his pace to make it clear he had no time or inclination to stand about making small talk. Instead of answering with a decisive "no," and ridding himself of her once and for all, he found himself saying, "Where are you going?"
His eyes widened. George Stockton was a professor at the local high school academy.
"That's right." She clasped her hands behind her. From the scrawny, underfed looking girl of eight or so, she had grown into a tall, willowy woman.
A flush crept up his neck.
"Mrs. Stockton might hire me," she continued.
"I see." Of course, a position as maid.
"What is that supposed to mean, 'I see'?" She mimicked his tone.
Had he really sounded so pompous? The mimicry after the description of "stiff and starchy" rankled.
"I assumed it meant Mrs. Stockton might wish to hire you to help her around the house."
The dancing light disappeared from her eyes and her mouth pouted. He averted his gaze and forced himself to focus on what she was saying.
"I overheard her talking to Mrs. Ellison the other day at Watt's Clothing. She told Mrs. Ellison that Annie had up and left her and she needed a girl to help clean and do the heavier work." Her smile reappeared. "So, I'm going to quit my job at the cannery and go to work for the Stocktons. Mrs. Stockton said I could dust her husband's library."
The professor, a history teacher, had a well-stocked library. Warren had borrowed many a book throughout his high school years. "That should certainly keep you busy."
"Maybe he'll let me read some of his books."
He raised his eyebrows a fraction. "Do you like to read?" Espy had been a few years behind him in grammar school, so he hadn't paid much attention to her. When he'd gone off to the high school academy, his world had no longer overlapped hers.
"I adore reading! But I don't have much of a chance to get my hands on books. That's one of the reasons I'm interested in working at the Stocktons'."
She had been a bright student in grammar school from the little he recalled. He frowned. "Doesn't the cannery pay better?"
"Yes, but pay isn't everything."
The words, coming from her, gave him pause. "I would think the pay you bring home from the cannery would help your mother to a great degree. Don't you have quite a few brothers and sisters still in school?"
He'd never been able to keep track of all the Estradas. There always seemed to be a new one entering school each fall, the younger ones trailing after the older ones.
"Six are in school, Alvaro and Angela are all finished, and the two youngest are still home.
Warren's mind swirled at the list. "How many are you in all?"
She lifted her pert chin. "Eleven."
He tried to think of something to say. "What are the oldest doing these days?"
"Angela's at the cannery. Between us working different shifts, she and Mama and I are able to look after the younger ones. Alvaro's looking for work." Espy glanced sidelong at him. "Maybe he could work at Brentwood sawmills."
He nodded, his interest waning. Most able-bodied young men ended up employed at the mills if they weren't fishermen. "Sure, just tell him to apply."
"I thought maybe you could put in a good word for him, you know, since your dad put you in charge now."
"We'll see." He took out his watch and glanced at it. Father was a stickler for punctuality. "Well, Miss Estrada, I really must be getting along."
"What's your hurry?" She plucked at her bonnet ribbon, drawing his focus to her collarbone. "You always seem to be in such a rush."
His irritation growing, he raised an eyebrow. "Don't you have an appointment? I shouldn't think you'd want to keep Mrs. Stockton waiting."
Espy shrugged. "Mrs. Stockton said to drop by any time this afternoon."
"I, on the other hand, have to be back at the office at one, so if there's nothing in particular you wished to see me about—" he lifted his hat from his head an inch and then set it back down, in the exact gesture he'd seen his father use hundreds of times when he wished to cut short an encounter without appearing rude, and finding the same inflection in his tone as he parroted his father's words "—I shall bid you goodbye—"
Before the words were completely out of his mouth, she smiled. "That's all right; we can walk a few minutes."
"As you wish." The words came out clipped.
As they continued walking, Espy chattered on about the people and goings on of Holliston while he'd been away, so happy to have a few minutes in Warren Brentwood's company.
At the bend in the road before the bridge, Espy stopped and smiled at Warren. "Maybe we'll run into each other again tomorrow."
"Perhaps." With a brief tip of his hat, he left her, his long stride carrying him toward the bridge.
His one-word reply was neither encouraging nor discouraging. She'd have to content herself that he hadn't said no.
She watched Warren a few moments longer, disappearing onto the covered bridge spanning that portion of the river. If anything, Warren Brentwood had grown handsomer than she'd remembered him. She'd always admired him from afar, as a high school star whose athletic achievements matched his scholarly accomplishments, making him the most lauded student in the community.
Of course, she had never gotten as far as high school. Around that time, her dad had been injured, and as the eldest child, Espy had had to go to work at the cannery to help out.
But she'd watched Warren on the ball field and read about him in the Holliston News.
Those years away at college had only broadened his already broad shoulders and deepened the hue of his green eyes. It had certainly added ... she searched her mind for an adequate word and couldn't come up with any. But he seemed more a man than any of the local men his age. Her mother would say, "He's a looker."
Espy knew there was more to Warren Brentwood than good looks. He not only had a good head on his shoulders, but he had a heart. She remembered his kindnesses to younger children in grammar school days. He was a leader; others followed the good example he set. And he was no sissy. He'd beat up any boy who dared tease a girl or bully a younger child.
But each time she had encountered him since his return home, his manner was either excessively reserved or he was rushing off somewhere. Had the time at a fancy private college and a couple of years traveling to all parts of the globe turned him into a replica of his father? She certainly hoped not.
Fiddling with her bonnet ribbon, she wondered how Warren remembered her. A skinny, young girl in pigtails? Well, she planned to make sure Warren Brentwood noticed how much she had changed in the intervening years.
She smoothed down the front of her skirt with a nod of satisfaction. She'd come a long way from that girl. A knot of doubt formed in her stomach. Could Warren see the attractive woman behind the faded work clothes? She was prettier than most girls of her acquaintance. She checked her thoughts. Forgive my vain thoughts, Lord, but I know it's true. I just hope Warren notices. With neither money nor education, her looks were one of her few assets, and she knew she had to use them to advantage while they lasted.
She started, realizing she was still standing gawking down the empty road. If she didn't go to her appointment, she'd never get the job and then could forget about running into Warren Brentwood again.
With a pat to her hair, she turned her attention to the white mansion standing back from the rising swath of bright green, neatly clipped grass. Not a dandelion leaf in sight, she noted, comparing it to her own front yard.
As she approached the picket fence, Espy straightened her apron at the waist and uttered a last minute prayer. You know how badlyIwant it, God. Taking a deep breath, feeling like Scheherazade preparing to tell her story to the king in the tattered copy of The Arabian Nights she'd read in school, she unhitched the latch of the white picket fence.
The gate opened silently. Clicking it shut with trembling fingers, she turned and proceeded up the flagstone path to the front door. Shiny black rectangular shutters were evenly spaced at each of the eight windows of the equally rectangular white clapboard structure. Window boxes spilling over with brightly colored petunias and geraniums were the only nongeometric form, like splashes of paint against a bleached white canvas.
It had once been a sea captain's mansion, built on the bluff overlooking the river. For the last few years it had been occupied by the professor and his wife. Standing before the black door, Espy took a deep breath before grasping the brass knocker. She let it fall with a thud. After a moment, she wondered if she should knock again.
Before she could decide, the door swung open and Mrs. Stockton herself appeared in the shadowy entrance hall. She was a middle-aged woman of medium height and build, with nondescript brown hair pulled back in a careless bun. She smiled at Espy. "There you are. I was expecting you. Come in."
Espy bobbed her head. "Thank you, Mrs. Stockton. I came as soon as I cleared up the dinner dishes at home."
"I understand. Well, come out of that hot sun. It's a scorcher today, isn't it? It's a good thing we live on the river. It never gets too hot inside here with the breeze blowing in through the back porch."
Espy stepped inside, welcoming the coolness. It must have been at least ten degrees lower than the unshaded portions of the street.
She glanced about her, falling in love immediately. There was something so restful and elegant about this old house with its wide, uneven floorboards covered in soft carpets. A bouquet of flowers sat in a shiny copper pitcher in the entry. Not wildflowers like she picked, but a variety of garden flowers.
Espy followed Mrs. Stockton down the hallway bisecting the house, glimpsing a tall case clock with brass pendulum and weights, dark wood cabinets, tables topped by curious ornaments, and gilt-framed paintings on papered walls. She barely had time to note these things before they entered a sunny kitchen at the rear of the house.
"Please, have a seat, Esperanza."
"Everyone calls me that," she said with a smile. "Since I was a girl."
"Very well, Espy it shall be."
Mrs. Stockton's features were mild, her skin pale. She reminded Espy a little of her mother, though clearly this woman wasn't as careworn.
"I am so glad you heard of my need for a girl of all work. This is a large house, too much for me alone. I am not always well, you know. We have a cook and a handyman, but I need a good strong girl to do the daily housework."
Espy smiled, growing more confident. "I'm your girl then."
Mrs. Stockton went on to detail some of her health problems and Espy made sympathetic noises and nodded her head. She'd learned to do that with Mama every time she complained of something. "You just show me what needs doing and you don't have to worry, it'll get done. I've got the energy of two people, my mama always says."
"That is exactly the kind of person I need. Let me take you around and tell you what I would like you to do. You may start today if you will. The downstairs rooms need dusting something awful. I will introduce you to Mr. Stockton. He is home for the summer, you know, with school out. But he spends a good deal of time in his study."
Espy nodded, impressed by a gentleman who would have his own room just to study.
They toured the ground floor rooms of the large house, Espy oohing and aahing at each one, which seemed to please her new employer. Last of all, Mrs. Stockton gave a soft knock on the only closed door.
At the masculine voice bidding them enter, she opened it and ushered Espy in. "Dear, I would like you to meet Espy. She is replacing Annie as our new housemaid. I hope you will let her dust in here this afternoon."
Mr. Stockton looked up from a large slant-top desk. Espy recognized him from church and the academy although she'd never attended the school. It was a private high school in East Holliston. Even though Holliston had boasted its own high school since mid-century, the academy had existed since colonial times, and was where the Brentwoods and other lumber barons sent their sons and daughters to board.
Espy was in awe of Mr. Stockton as a scholar. He and his wife had only lived in Holliston a few years but had quickly gained the community's respect. He was considered an authority on history and his wife was admired for her civic work on various committees and charities.
He rose as soon as the two women entered and held out his hand. "Hello, Miss Esperanza, how do you do?"
He was in his forties, Espy would judge, with short cropped brown hair a shade darker than his wife's, and mutton-chop whiskers and moustache enhancing the strong planes of his face.
Grayish-blue eyes smiled down into hers.
She found herself blushing at the intent way he was looking at her. "Oh, please, it's just Espy. Everyone calls me that."
"Well, then, Espy it is. Welcome to our home. I hope you will find the job rewarding."
"I know I will." Her eyes couldn't help roaming over the books lining the walls. "It looks like a real library in here."
He followed her gaze. "Do you like to read?"
Excerpted from Her Good Name by RUTH AXTELL Copyright © 2012 by Ruth Axtell. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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