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Lucie McNeil noticed the yacht's approach as she swept the front steps of the large Queen Anne-style house positioned high on a bluff overlooking Nantucket Bay. The Hunters' home had originally been built as a spacious summer cottage for the then-prosperous Hunter family. It was near enough to town to allow shopping for supplies to be convenient, yet far enough away that it offered privacy and solitude.
She glanced across the yard to where sixty-year-old Emma Hunter sat under the lone tree that broke up the spare landscape. Her employer suffered from heart palpitations and shortness of breath, which often left her so weak she could barely stand without assistance. A quilt frame dwarfed her as she sewed row after row of tiny, perfectly matched stitches across the face of the gaily colored quilt.
At the far side of the pasture, Emma's husband, Colonel Jonathan Hunter, worked on the repair of a fence, his snow-white hair blowing in the gentle breeze of the unseasonably warm May morning. In just three months Lucie had come to think of him as the father she'd never hadnot that she hadn't known her father or lived in his house back in Ireland. But he had been cruel and self-centered. Jonathan Hunter was not only a gentleman he was a gentle man, at peace with his world and God and wishing the same for anyone he met.
Lucie put the broom aside and crossed the yard to Emma. She adjusted the lap robe that covered the older woman's increasingly useless legs.
"Now, y'all just stop fussing over me, Lucie," Emma chided in the sweet Southern drawl that had not disappeared in spite of over forty years living in the North.
"Yes, ma'am," Lucie replied, but adjusted thecover anyway.
Emma frowned. "Now, Lucie, we have discussed this enough. I am Emmanot 'ma'am' or 'Mrs. Hunter' or any such nonsense. I stood on ceremony growing up in Charleston and even after the colonel and I were married, and where did it get me, or anyone else for that matter?" She let the threaded needle drop to the stretched fabric as she collapsed against the pressed back of her wooden wheelchair.
Still unused to these energetic outbursts of conversation, often followed by sheer exhaustion, Lucie knelt next to Emma's chair. "Would you like to go inside?"
"I met my Jonathan on a morning like this," Emma said dreamily, as if Lucie hadn't spoken. "It was at the end of the war and he was a naval officer for the Yankees. Daddy had a plantation overlooking the Charleston harbor and when I saw the deep blue of the man's uniform and the sun glinting off his gold officer's buttons, I just knew he was about to change my life."
Accepting the fact that she might as well sit and make herself useful by helping with the quilting, Lucie pulled an extra needle from the unbound edge of the quilt top and threaded it. As she knotted the thread, she glanced toward the harbor and saw that the yacht was not passing as she had assumed, but had moved closer and seemed prepared to drop anchor. Emma was oblivious to the possible approach of visitors as she continued her story. "Mama insisted that I mind my manners and offer the gentleman a cool drink and a seat on the veranda while she sent Sudie, our house slaveour servantto fetch Daddy. 'Be sweet,' she told me." Emma sighed. "Mama was weakmaybe it was the war. It had made her so afraid " Her voice drifted off and Lucie glanced over to see if the older woman had dozed off, as she often did.
"Not me," she mumbled. "The war had made me strongerand angrier," she added and returned to her quilting as if she'd never begun the story. "Did you say we are to have seafood chowder for the noon meal, my dear? Colonel Hunter will be famished."
"I'll just go stir the chowder." When she looked back, Emma was fast asleep. Lucie smiled, guessing that having begun the story, Emma would dream of her first meeting with her beloved colonel. Emma's dreams always seemed to bring her such pleasure. Not at all like the nightmares that haunted Lucie's own sleep. She glanced out to sea as she walked back to the cottage. The yacht bobbed in the light, choppy waters of the bay. Perhaps it was an outing for some rich city dwellers after all.
After checking on the chowder and the bread she had placed in the oven of the old wood-burning kitchen stove, she returned to the porch and her sweeping. She kept her eye on the yacht, now part of a seascape against a background of the deep blue waters of the bay and the translucent blue of the sky. She shaded her eyes against the morning sun and watched as a dinghy with a single occupant was lowered into the water by the yacht's crew. The man began to row toward the shore.
Lucie fingered the small silver cross that hung from a thin chain at her collar as she watched the man drag the dinghy to a spot high above the tide line and start hiking across the beach. A thick field of sea oats at the crest of the dunes parted as he kept coming. When he reached the top of the bluff, he lifted his head and fixed his gaze on her and the cottage. Lucie had the sense that nothing short of God himselfwould deter this man from his purpose.
Bill collector, Lucie thought, her eyes narrowing. Back in Ireland, she'd seen them often enough, striding across the fallow, dead fields that had once been farmed by her father. More times than she liked to recall, her mother had hustled her and her siblings inside the tiny, dark cottage, barring the door against the pounding of the bill collector. Her father was usually off at the local pub, drowning his sorrows and using the last of their meager funds to do it.
The Hunters were responsible and cautious souls religious and pious people who firmly believed in "rendering unto Caesar." But they were also up in years. Perhaps Colonel Hunter had failed to meet some deadline for paying the mortgage or rent? Or it might be a tax collector.
But as the stranger came closer, she realized that everything in his demeanor spoke of money and power and the expectation that his word would be obeyed. This was a man like those she'd seen come down from the fashionable mansions of Boston to see how they might squeeze one more rent-producing space out of an already overcrowded tenement. No matter that the risk of disease, fire or other calamities grew with every additional tenant. She had seen men like this one evict a woman and her crying children into the night with no more thought of where those souls might go than he might give to whether he would have jam or jelly for breakfast.
Halfway across the grassy expanse that lay between the fenced yard and the dunes, the man paused and shed his coat, throwing it over one arm as he continued his trek toward the cottage. Every motion was performed with elegance and dignity. He was obviously a man of refinement and polish, and Lucie had learned that in America, those were men to be carefully watched. Yet in spite of her doubts, she felt drawn to him, curious to find out who he was and what he wanted of the Hunters.
She crossed the yard to where Emma dozed. "Emma," she said quietly as the man opened the gate and closed it carefully behind him.
Emma Hunter glanced up and looked around, a little confused as she came back to the present from the past she seemed to prefer these days. She saw the man and smiled. "Why, it's Gabriel," she said with obvious surprise and delight. "Where is the colonel?"
"Repairing the fence in the pasture," Lucie replied, glancing back at the man. "Shall I go and fetch him?"
"No, meet our son first and then you can go for the colonel."
So, this was Gabriel Hunter. His name had come up frequently in the weeks since Lucie had come to work for the Hunters. The parents often spoke of the boytheir only child, who had delighted them so and then gone to Boston at sixteen to make his fortune. They were extremely proud of him.
"How do I look?" Emma asked nervously, pinching her cheeks to bring color.
Lucie understood that Emma was asking not about her beauty but about her robustness. In her short time with the Hunters Lucie had learned that their son was a successful and powerful man in Boston. The younger Hunter wanted his parents to move to the city to live with him. The Hunters wanted to stay where they had shared their happiest times. They planned to die on this island, and since that day might come sooner than later for Emma, they had hired Lucie, believing her presence would help reassure their son that they had everything they needed right here.
"You look just fine," Lucie assured her, pressing her hands over her apron and tucking an errant strand of hair back into her tight bun as she sat in the vacant chair across from Emma and looked up to judge the man's progress.
Her breath caught. She recognized him, and yet could not say from where. He removed his hat out of respect for his mother. Lucie picked up her needle and began a fresh row of stitches.
"Mother," he called.
"Hello, Gabriel dear. Lovely of y'all to visit, and on a weekday, too."
Lucie hid a smile. Emma's Southern roots were showing in both the hint of a drawl and the very subtle reprimand. But all traces of levity were forgotten as Lucie glanced up and into the ocean-blue, deep-set eyes of Gabriel Hunter. He looked at her as if in a single glance he knew all there was to know of her, and had dismissed her entirely from his thoughts. His brow furrowed as he returned his attention to his mother.
"You're looking well."
"It's the sea air. I've always told you that. From the time I was a child back in Charleston " Her voice trailed off as she stared across the yard and out to the sea beyond.
Lucie had grown used to these momentary lapses, but feared that Emma's son would look upon them with alarm.
"Perhaps a glass of water, young woman," Gabriel ordered without so much as a glance in Lucie's direction.
"Don't be rude," Emma instructed, snapping back to the present from whatever daydream had captured her momentarily. "Miss McNeil is our boarder, not your servant, Gabe. If you want a glass of water, surely you haven't been gone so long that you've forgotten how to locate the pump yourself."
"Yes, ma'am," he said immediately. "I thought perhaps The water was for you."
"Well, that's thoughtful, dear, but I also know where the pump is and can serve myself in my own home. Now, why have you come?"
Lucie noticed that Gabriel Hunter seemed unsure of himself for the first time since his arrival. He shifted from one long leg to the other as he slowly turned his hat in his hands.
"Oh, now where are my manners?" Emma chastised herself before he could reply. "Lucie, dear, this is our son, Gabriel. You've heard the colonel speak of him. Lucie comes to us from Ireland, Gabe. She has the loveliest lilt to her speech, though certainly the cat seems to have taken her tongue at the moment. Lucinda, isn't it? Lucinda McNeil, my son, Gabriel Hunter."
Lucie paused in her sewing and nodded her head. "I'm pleased to "
"I wonder if my mother and I might have a moment alone, Miss McNeil."
"Lucie," Emma corrected. "And anything you and I have to talk about can be said with Lucie right here. She is like family."
Gabriel frowned and looked directly at Lucie. Clearly he expected her to excuse herself, but she took her direction from her employers and those were Colonel Jonathan and Mrs. Emma Hunter, not Mr. Gabriel Hunter. She picked up her needle and resumed her sewing, risking a glance up at Gabriel and seeing that her action had further irritated him.
"Father wrote that he had hired a housekeeper someone to help out," he said in a voice that was barely audible.
"Well, Lucie is more boarder than hired girl," Emma explained. "She has taken one of our upstairs rooms and has her meals with us. In return she cooks and helps with just about everything else." Emma flung her arm in a wide arc that encompassed the cottage and the grounds. "It's in her nature to be helpful, but the true bonus lies in the companionship. She's an angel from God."
"When did you start using the wheelchair?" Gabriel asked, ignoring this last comment.
Lucie saw that the question had been unexpected and had flustered the older woman. "It was my suggestion," Lucie said. "Using the wheelchair makes it easier for her to traverse the uneven ground between here and the house. There isn't enough space inside to set up her quilt frame, and she wants to finish this project and begin her next. It's a wedding giftfor your wedding, I believe."
Lucie continued her quilting but could feel his eyes on her. He was frowning. She suspected that her response had been neither expected nor wanted.
He focused his attention on Emma. "Then you should have ample time to finish it, mother, since, as you well know, I am not betrothed."
"That's not what the Witherspoons think," Emma muttered as she filled her mouth with straight pins that she proceeded to poke into the layers of the quilt with unnecessary fervor. "Gabe has a business partner," Emma explained to Lucie as if Gabriel had suddenly vanished. "Thurgood Witherspoonsilly, pretentious name, but it suits. Thurgood has a daughter, Jeanne, and "