At 18, Charlotte fell in love with a young man, Sam Wilder, but his family convinced her to walk away from their relationship. She did, and then became engaged to another man, who later died before they were married. Now, more than a decade later, Charlotte finds that she still has feelings for her first love. Initially thrilled to learn that Sam has come home to Middlebury, Texas, Charlotte is devastated to learn that he’s brought someone with him: his fiancée. But all is not lost when the townsfolk decide to get involved. Will Charlotte and Sam find their way back to each other?
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A Marriage in Middlebury
By Anita Higman
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Anita Higman
All rights reserved.
Charlotte Rose Hill always said that a good tearoom should be a gathering place where customers were like family, troubles melted like butter on hot scones, and homemade was a given. Of course, it was also the place where the local grapevine got its bloom. As well as its blush.
Charlotte yoo-hooed to her cook, "Remember, use a light touch folding those capers into the chicken salad, Lil. Think of them like lovers whose hearts you can't bear to break."
One of the younger waitresses, Eliza, pulled Charlotte to the side and said in a blustery whisper, "Got two problems already. Our jolly old elf, Mr. LaGrange, is hiding by the fireplace again, and he's packing a flask of something that he keeps pouring into his tea. Man, you could fuel a flame with that breath of his."
"Yeah, he's been spiking the tea with schnapps for years."
Eliza's facial muscles, which usually got a workout, went deadpan. "You mean you knew about LaGrange and his drinking?"
"Someday when I find the right words I'll say something to him. Hmm. It's a good thing it's springtime and there's no blaze in the fireplace. Otherwise he might blow himself up. What's the other problem?"
"Oh, it's not a problem, but I saw a guy on the street earlier when I set out the tearoom sign for today's specials."
"Yeah, well that happens a lot in Middlebury. You know, men and women milling around, living their lives."
"Cute. But this guy ... well, he looks just like Jude Law. Didn't you say one time you had an old sweetheart that looked a lot like him?"
Charlotte leaned against the doorframe to steady herself.
"Wow, you've gone as pale as those daisies on the tables," Eliza said. "You okay?"
"I'm fine." Was it Sam? After all these years, could it be her Sam?
"So you think it could be this mystery guy you refuse to talk about? I want details."
Charlotte gave Eliza's cheek a pat. "Thanks for the heads-up."
Eliza tugged on a loose thread on Charlotte's sweater. "That's all the juice you're going to give me? Hey, I'm the one who spotted him."
"And I appreciate it. Really. But we have guests." Charlotte grinned and then made her way over to one of her regulars, a retired teacher named Edith Mosley. "How's that tea?"
Edith's iron gray eyes softened a little. "Hits the spot on a nippy spring morning, but you can't keep giving me free pots of fancy tea. You'll come to ruin if you're not careful."
"Whatever you say." Charlotte let the comment wash over her. Eliza knew the routine. She'd slip the money back into Edith's purse later, since she needed the money for her electric bill. "How's your daughter?"
Edith's fingers tightened around the handle of the china cup like knotted roots.
Charlotte could always tell a person's frame of mind by the way he or she held the teacup.
"Mmm. My daughter's the same ... fit as a fiddleback and just as poisonous." Edith chuckled.
"Oh?" Charlotte hoped Edith wouldn't rehash the list of her daughter's insufficiencies. She had them memorized.
"My daughter and I strain for love like two asthmatics trying to take in air." Her laughter turned into a rattling cough. "I guess we need one of those refresh buttons. Isn't that what you young people call it? Something we can push so we can wipe away the past. Start over." Edith took a long swig of her tea. "Oh, that apricot ginger tea is good today."
"Thanks," Charlotte said. "We all need a refresh button, Edith." She reached into her apron pocket to feel the river stone, something she'd kept from her past. It was a reminder of the smooth things in life that brought delight and in the hard things—those potentially sanctifying moments that tumbled off the rough edges and turned humans into real people. Poor Edith was being tumbled.
"Go on now. Get." Edith shooed her with both hands. "You've got paying customers to tend to. And don't forget to eat one of those Darcy Scones for me. You're looking thin-ish."
"First time I've ever heard that a size 10 was thin-ish." Charlotte poured the older woman another cup of tea from the little pot. Then she busied herself with chores here and there as her thoughts wandered back to the man Eliza had seen on the street. Could it be Sam and would he stop by the tearoom? Every time the bell jingled on the front door, she jumped and then looked. She would need to keep her wits about her, so she deliberately calmed herself and strolled over to one of the high schoolers who frequented her tearoom. "Hey, Mindy. How's it going?"
Mindy—who was a real drama queen if there ever was one—handed Charlotte a note. Her fingers trembled as if the piece of paper were a newly discovered fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. "This guy I like," Mindy said, "named Brenner, well, he's been texting me a lot, but this is an email he sent me today. I want you to tell me if you think Brenner is like, you know, enraptured."
Charlotte unfolded the note and read Brenner's e-mail.
Saw you across a crowded cafeteria yesterday. As your new lab partner, I thought you should hear the truth. Your clothes, well, they look like rejects from a secondhand store. And what's up with your hair? It looks scared like it's seen a slasher movie. You're welcome to thank me for my candidness by bringing me some of your homemade cookies. Brenner.
Charlotte wanted to throttle Brenner. Who did he think he was? "Mindy, why do you care about this guy?" She handed the note back. "It's obvious he's nothing but a royal—"
"But didn't Shakespeare say 'methinks you protest too much'?" Mindy jerked on her jacket zipper, making it ride up and down. "I mean, Brenner is going to so much trouble to be mean, well, maybe he really likes me."
Charlotte sat down across from Mindy. "Look, Brenner doesn't need your attention. He's needs detention."
Mindy tugged on her long braid. "That's clever, Char."
"Well, you asked my opinion. Brenner is infantile and rude."
"But he makes me laugh and forget that sometimes life can be like this total chasm of misery. Nobody else can do it. And Brenner does know how to be all that genteel stuff when he wants to be." For a moment, Mindy traded her cocky expression for a more vulnerable one. "You really don't see any covert signals of interest?"
"No, I don't. But listen, someone in the tearoom asked about you the other day."
"Oh, yeah? Who? No. Come on. Please don't tell me it was Raymond 'the sniffer' Kolowsky." Mindy rolled her eyes. "He sniffs everything. He tries to hide it, but he's got some kind of OCD thing about odors."
"Well, I told him I'd pass his greetings on to you."
"Great. Now he'll think he's got some kind of cosmic connection to me, so I'll have this pet following me around everywhere." Mindy tossed the last bite of the strawberry cake in her mouth and said through chews, "Actually, Raymond is worse than a pet. He's kind of a brain-freak. You know, all grey matter and no social skills. He can't stop talking about star clusters and celestial dust."
"Well, that sounds romantic ... if you looked at it from a certain vantage point."
"Yeah, all the way from the moon."
Charlotte laughed. "But you should keep an open mind. Didn't you say a lot of the guys at school were mimes who just copy what everybody else is doing?"
"Yeah, I said that." Mindy licked her fingers one by one, flicking each one in the air as if she could make them fly. "Best frosting goo ever, Char. It's like sweet pink lava." She wiped her palms off on her raggedy jeans, slipped her shoes back on, and grimaced.
Charlotte rose from the table and looked at Mindy's feet. "Shoes too tight?"
"They're the coolest stilettos ever, and I can't stop wearing them, but they're like smooshing and molding my feet into these angry little gargoyles."
Charlotte chuckled. "Guess it's hard to let go, even when something or someone is pinching the life out of us."
Mindy stroked her peacock-feathered earrings as she stared at her. "I get it. You thirty-something women love coming up with those double entendres."
"Yeah, it's what we old ladies live for." Charlotte gave Mindy's sleeve a tug and then tidied the shelves of stuffed animals that she kept around for the wee ones.
She glanced around her world, and once again, felt a wave of gratitude. The old Riley house really had become a good place to create a tea cottage. It had been marvelous fun decorating each room with murals, depicting all the faraway lands she hoped to visit one day. And just like all the countless times when she played tea growing up, running The Rose Hill Cottage Tearoom was all she imagined it to be. It was a sanctuary for her and for all of Middlebury. She just wished her parents had been alive to see it.
Charlotte smiled, thinking of her various customers. They reminded her of the teacups they drank from—precious finds in spite of an occasional chip or two. She couldn't imagine changing her life, except to have someone to share her joy with. As that thought rolled itself around like a silver tea ball on the counter, she let her fingers rest on the pearl necklace Sam had given her before he left, before their world fell apart.
Some new arrivals caught Charlotte's attention, and then the bell jangled again. When she glanced over to the door, this time the man Eliza had seen was standing in the entry. It was Sam Wilder—her Sam. She would have recognized him anywhere. In that moment the years distilled into pure memory. That Wilder boy—oh, how he had wrapped her in his love, and how he had melted his heart to hers like they were two chocolates left out in a warm sun. It was so long ago, and yet it felt as if no time had passed.
Charlotte tightened her fingers around her necklace—enough to burst the strand apart. Pearls spilled from her neck and onto the wooden floor. A mania of bouncing beads ensued, and several of the children made a game of chasing after the runaway pearls.
Sam glanced around at the children, but he seemed to be searching for something—someone. Her. When he found her face, he lit up like a sunburst.
"Hi, Charlotte. It's been a long time." Sam started to pick up some of the beads along with the children.
"Yes, it has. Much too long." Charlotte chuckled. "Apparently, I've come undone." She scooped up the last two pearls.
"I see that." One of the kids filled Sam's palm with the beads. He ruffled the boy's hair. "Thanks." He took a few steps over to Charlotte and gingerly poured the pearls into her cupped hands. "I hear your tearoom is becoming quite the place to be in Middlebury."
"That was my intention. I want people to feel good here ... like a second home."
Sam stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jacket. "I guess I've waited a long time to ask you this."
"Ask me ... what?" Goodness. Had she forgotten how to breathe?
"Got tea?"CHAPTER 2
Tea? Oh. I do, of course. Your favorite." Charlotte glanced away, embarrassed that she had thought he might have meant more than tea. She wished she'd had time to color the gray out of that mousey blonde hair of hers. Or put something else on besides her casual clothes. Or at least freshen her makeup? Too late. She poured the pearls into her pocket and gave him her best welcoming smile, one she hoped would compensate for the deficiencies in an older face and figure.
"It's good to be back in Middlebury," he said. "Good to be here too."
Oh, my. Sam Wilder. There he was, standing before her and heaven, dressed in jeans and tweed and looking like the Sam she'd always loved. Of course, at thirty-seven, he was seasoned: a bit beefier around the middle, a sprinkling of wrinkles here and there, and yet his eyes were still as blue, and he was just as striking as ever—in an earthy kind of way. The intensity in his expression, though, looked new. The boyish twinkle was replaced by an assessing tilt of his head. "I'm so glad to see you, Sam."
He pulled her into a hug. "I hated living in the city. Too much hurry and noise and fumes. I missed everything about this town."
"You did?" Sam's embrace pulled a thousand tiny strings, and they were all attached to her heart. Oh, if they could only go back in time. If only she'd had more courage in her youth, perhaps things would have worked out differently. By now, they would have had a couple of children together; they would have been a family.
"You smell like mint leaves." Sam let her go without ceremony, but as he moved away there was mist in his eyes. "I hear you blend your own teas."
"Yes. Just like I did in high school. The mint comes from my herb garden out back." Charlotte clasped her hands together to keep them from flailing around. "Would you like some tea? I know your favorite was always China white with a sprinkling of rose petals."
Sam chuckled. "Guess we'd better not let that news out on any social media sites."
Charlotte grinned and touched her cheek, the warm spot where his jacket had tickled her skin.
"By the way, that was the tea I loved back then, but I guess my tastes have changed over the years. I love a different kind of tea now."
"Oh? You do?" Why did that tiny confession sound so forlorn? "What is it?"
"Sweet tea ... lots of ice." Sam gazed at her. "You know, except for the shorter hair, you seem just the same to me, Lotty. Even the way you rest your hand over your cheek."
Sam had been the only one to call her by that endearment. Lotty. How she had missed it.
"This is an incredible place." His hand lighted across the antique table and the framed needlepoint design. "It's so you. Homey. Welcoming. Like those cinnamon rolls you used to bake me."
Charlotte fingered the pearls that tumbled around in her apron pocket. Someday she'd have her necklace mended. Someday. "It means a lot to me to hear you say that."
"I wished I'd stopped by through the years," he said, "but as I'm sure you remember, my dad and I weren't close, so I've never really come home much. I just thought it was easier if I—"
"Sam, I understand. There's no need to explain."
Sam looked toward the front door.
Was he expecting to meet someone? The customers munched and chatted, but some of them stole glances at him.
Sam shifted his weight from one foot to another. "I guess you heard about my father."
"Yes. I'm so sorry." She reached out to his hand but didn't touch him. "Is his heart any better?"
"I'm afraid not. Nelly called me and told me I'd better come home to see him." Sam stroked his chin. "I want to talk to you about that but first there's something else I need to tell you."
The bell on the front door rang and Sam looked back again. "I have someone I want you to meet."
"Meet?" While Sam was occupied looking toward the doorway, Charlotte fluffed her short bob, but then feeling silly, she scooped her hair behind her ears.
Sam gestured behind him, motioning for a woman to join him. "Audrey?"
A petite, young woman with bouncy chestnut hair, walked through the tearoom and over to her.
"It's good to finally meet you." The woman stuck out her hand. "I'm Audrey Anderson."
Charlotte gave Audrey's hand a friendly shake. She seemed pleasant enough, and with her amethyst-colored suit and her violet eyes, she looked as pretty as wisteria blossoms in full bloom. It was only natural for Sam to have a girlfriend. Even a pretty one.
Sam patted Audrey's hand. "Charlotte, what I've wanted to tell you is ... Audrey is my, well, she's my fiancée."
Forks clanked, and some of the customers stopped eating. Edith may have coughed. Curiosity was a palatable thing in Middlebury—as potent and heady as her black current tea. But for Charlotte, this was one curiosity that she wished would not have come to visit. "What a surprise. You're getting married." Charlotte took a step back, wondering if he noticed the flush on her face. "Congratulations. You should both stay for lunch. It'll be on the house. To celebrate." Her beloved Sam was engaged. There would be no going back now.
Sam's fiancée wiggled her engagement ring in front of Charlotte. The diamond, large and domelike, could have outshined the Enchanted Rock of Texas.
Charlotte remembered to breathe. "Your ring is lovely."
Audrey circled her arm though Sam's. "That's sweet of you to offer us lunch to celebrate. He said you were like this, you know."
"Like what?" Charlotte drew up her brows, wanting desperately to understand. And wanting desperately to crawl under a table.
Excerpted from A Marriage in Middlebury by Anita Higman. Copyright © 2013 Anita Higman. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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