Eliza was up with the sun, determined to be out and working on the chores when Thomas arrived. She wasn’t sure what her aunt was up too by bringing Mr. Perry into her affairs, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. But she wasn’t about to allow either Aunt Clara or Mr. Randal Perry the opportunity to “help” her. She was in the barn when Thomas arrived, and this time he didn’t surprise her. “Good morning, Thomas.” She greeted him.
“Good Morning, Miss Eliza.” He replied with a smile. “Getting started early, I see?”
“Yes.” She said, spreading hay for the horses. “We’ve only got two hands a piece, and plenty for the both of them.” She said. She stopped raking hay and thought. “I got an offer for free helping hands yesterday,” she told him.
“Yes, Mr. Perry thought I’d need extra help, and offered to provide it. Not his own two hands, of course.”
“I plan to decline.” She looked at him, wondering if he’d be disappointed in her, for expecting him to work more.
“Good,” he said, and grabbed a pitchfork full of hay.
“Good? Why good?” she asked. “You wouldn’t want help?”
“No,” he paused, spreading his own pile of hay. “No, it’d be nice. I wouldn’t take anything for free from anyone by the name Perry, at least not in this town.” He didn’t even look up from his work when he said it, he was so sure.
“Why’s that?” she asked, curious. “I knew Randal Perry from school, he’s older than I, so I don’t know him well. Except what I’ve heard in whispers around town.” She turned away from the slight blush. To call him “a bit of a flirt” was putting it lightly. Very lightly.
“The Perry’s of this town are not to be trusted.” He said, turning to her, looking her square in the eyes this time. “If they offer you anything for free, they will get what they’re owed, any means necessary.” He paused, glanced down for a moment, then looked back up. “Your father may have had some business with the senior Perry. I don’t know the extent of it, but I had suggested he not do business with him.” Another pause. “Your father was a kind, hopeful man who saw the best in everyone.”
“Oh,” she whispered. She was unnerved by both his demeanor, and his mention of her father. “What sort of business, do you think? Should I be worried?”
Thomas sighed heavily. “I do not know. But I would be cautious of both Perry’s.”
“I will, Thomas. Thank you.” She put a hand on his arm. “And thank you for being frank with me. I know I can trust you, as my father did.”
He smiled at her and stared into her eyes for a moment. He reached up toward her face and she wasn’t sure how to react. He reached up to her hair. She didn’t realize she was holding her breath until he spoke. “You have hay.” He held up the piece he’d retrieved. “All in your hair.”
They both chuckled, and she silently chided herself for whatever she might have been thinking.
A few hours later, it was time to go into town and retrieve Joanna. She left Thomas to the chores and went to get cleaned up. Upstairs she passed the open door to her parents’ room. She’d been thinking about what mystery business her father might have had with the elder Perry, and passing the room made her think about the will her parents had written.
Their room had never been a forbidden place, their parents had welcomed them into it. Eliza herself had often had her own treasure hunting expeditions in that room, looking in bottom drawers to see what trinkets her mother might have hidden away. But there was always one place they’d never allowed them to explore. “Parents have their own little secrets they have to keep from children! We must always have a little bit of mystery!” her mother would whisper to her.
A door in the ceiling of their room that opened into a small attic space. Eliza stared up at it, remembering the day she’d asked her mother about it. She’d been sitting on the bed next to her mother who was nursing her then baby sister Joanna. She’d pointed up to the “hole in the ceiling” and asked what it was. “It’s a secret hiding place! We keep important things protected there.” She told her daughter. “Your father will make up some silly story about a fairy or something, but don’t tell him I told you that!” They’d both laughed.
As she contemplated it, she remembered that he’d tried to tell her that it was “How the sandman got into the house to make sure they all had sweet dreams.” She smiled at the thought, then left the room.
Thomas had the horse and carriage ready to go when she’d stepped out of the house, and he waved her goodbye as she climbed in and headed to town. Once she made it into town and parked the carriage, she tied the horse to the post and walked across the street to fetch her sister. Children began to file out almost immediately and she saw her sister bounding down the steps. She was happy to see Joanna smiling, when something made her turn her head.
Standing on the porch of the only motel in town was Aunt Clara. It seemed like she’d been waiting on her niece to show up, and Eliza couldn’t help but wish she’d already left town.
Aunt Clara was determined to speak to Eliza as she crossed the street in a hurry. Eliza sighed and steeled herself for whatever nonsense her aunt might have in store for her today.
Joanna had reached the carriage a moment before Clara had. She too had seen her aunt coming, and her cheerful demeanor from moments before had faded. She’d yet to warm up to her aunt, and Clara’s hawk-like determination didn’t help matters. Joanna clung to her sister’s skirts, hiding from her aunt.
“Are we still shy, dear?” Aunt Clara asked her. “What a shame. Boarding school would help that.” She narrowed her eyes at Eliza.
“Hello, Aunt Clara.” Eliza said curtly. “We’ve discussed that already, we will not discuss it further, thank you.” She held her sister’s hand. “Can I help you?”
“So formal, dear. I’m your aunt. There’s no need for that.” She paused, once again pretending hurt. “I was just curious as to your decision about our discussion yesterday.”
“I’ve made my decision, and should Mr. Perry ask for it, I shall tell him then.”
“Oh well, dear. I’m sure I can relay the message, if you like. Your uncle and I are having dinner with the Perry’s tomorrow evening.”
“Are you? I’d thought you’d be ready to return home by now.”
“I did as well, but who knew the people of this tiny town would be so friendly! And the Perry’s are lovely, people, with class.”
“Are they now?” Eliza asked. “So, its not so bad as you thought, with the Perry’s here. Despite your bother having lived her for many years?” From what she’d been told, the town hadn’t been good enough for her father’s family before. “I guess you didn’t know how rich it was then?”
“Excuse me, dear?” Aunt Clara asked, glaring.
“You can inform Mr. Perry that I’ll not be taking him up on his offer. Thank you.” Despite needing to visit the general store, she urged Joanna into the carriage and climbed in after her. “And despite all efforts, none of my decisions will be changed. Good evening, Aunt Clara.”
She watched Aunt Clara storm off, nose in the air, holding the reigns. She wanted to make sure her aunt didn’t see her when she stepped back out of the carriage to until the horse from the post. In her haste she’d forgotten. Groaning to herself, she was about to step back down, when she heard a voice.
“Going somewhere?” Randal Perry stood leaning on said post, tapping his fingers on the ropes.
Audibly sighing she replied, “Clearly, I am not, yet. You have interesting timing, sir.” She paused. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough.” He replied. “You are quite like your father.”
“How well did you know my father,” she thought but didn’t say. “You know this in only two meetings, Mr. Perry?” She said instead.
“Randal,” he said. “And yes. It’s not hard to see that you are determined to succeed, to proud to ask for help, and too stubborn to admit you might need it.” His response sounded harsh, but he was smiling. “and we may have only formally met yesterday. But I do know of you.”
“If what you know comes from my aunt, she doesn’t know me either, Mr. Perry.”
“Your family may have spent most of its time out on that farm, but people get to know people through other means than gatherings. There was quite the turn out paying their respects, wasn’t there?”
“You’re implying that what you know you’ve learned about me you’ve learned second hand. The same can be said for what I’ve heard about you.” She paused. “I’m not sure what might be said about me, but I’m positive you know what might have been said for you.” The most recent added fuel to the flame that he couldn’t be trusted.
“I’m sure I do,” he said. He stared at her intently, a whisper of a smile still lingering on his lips and in his eyes. He was making her uncomfortable with that staring and the smile. She wasn’t quite sure in what way.
Finally, he broke eye contact and straightened up. “I was just coming into town to remind Mrs. Clara of dinner tomorrow evening.” He paused, hands still on the ropes tying the horse to the post. “Consider this a formal invitation for you and your sister.” He smiled at Joanna. “I’m sure she knows I have a sister about her age.” He untied the ropes and walked around to Eliza’s side of the carriage. He held out his hand to shake, and knowing what he’d do with hers, she took it. He kissed her knuckles and said, “I do hope you’ll come.”
With that, he smiled again, released her hand, and walked toward the hotel.
Eliza turned the carriage back toward home, Joanna sitting close to her side. She thought of the dinner and wondered if she should go. On the one hand she’d have to endure an evening with not only her aunt but Randal Perry as well. But she might also be able to get some insight into what Aunt Clara might have up her sleeve with Randal Perry.