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Eliza was up bright and early the next morning, back to routine, to get her day started. She thought it was high time she got back to normal, as best she could, and not let all the new things happening around her change that. Because of her determination she had breakfast made and Joanna out the door to the schoolhouse in record time.

When she’d made it back to the house, Thomas was already hard at work, and she quickly joined him. Back in their old rhythm they made quick work of most of the morning chores. They’d paused their work to discuss possible future repairs to the tool shed when they both heard hooves coming up the dirt drive to the house. They both turned toward the sound. Eliza squinted toward the mysterious visitor, shielding her eyes from the sun. “I better go see who it is.” She told Thomas. “Hopefully it won’t keep me too long.” She said to herself.

She didn’t recognize the horse they road, and despite the decreasing distance she still couldn’t tell who road it. She walked quickly to the house to hopefully beat them to the front door. When she stepped into the kitchen, she grabbed a towel from the counter and wiped her face and hands of what dust and grime she imagined coated her skin.

She made it to the door just as the visitor knocked and she opened it and went to greet Randall Perry with a surprised smile. “Mr. Perry.” She said, a little shock on her face.

“Surprised to see me?” He asked, his typical sly smile peeking out.

“I didn’t expect visitors,” She replied. “Especially not you, no offense intended.” She gestured him inside. “At least it’s not Aunt Clara,” she told herself.

“None taken.” She smiled and stepped into the living room where she’d led him. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“I was just working on the daily chores.” She told him. “We have quite a lot to do when you’re in charge of a home and farm. Was there something I could help you with?” She asked as they sat.

“Oh, no. I was just hoping to visit with you.” He said. “Just the two of us.” That smile, the one she wasn’t sure she could trust, widened.

“Well, Thomas is outside working still.” She told him, unsure. “But I suppose I can spare a few moments.” She realized they were sitting in the same places where they’d sat when she’d received him and her aunt last time. “Can I get you anything? Tea perhaps?” She asked.

“No thank you.” He replied kindly. “I was wondering, though, if you’ve decided whether or not to join us in the city?” He asked. “We will be planning on leaving in the next few weeks or so.”

“I have not.” She paused to come up with an excuse. “I’m just not sure I’d be a good idea to miss a day of work here.” She said. “What with having to get used to doing it all on my own now. Without my parents.” She lied. Mostly. “I’m sure you don’t have to worry yourself much about getting work done on your property.”

“I’ll have you know,” he began, “I have done my fair share of farm labor.” He said, half serious.

“Oh, I’m sure you have. You just don’t seem the type for every day farm tasks.” She glances slyly at his perfect hands and neat nails. Not a callus in sight. She made a point to tuck hers away.

“While I have been helping my father with more of the business side of late, I still get my hands dirty once in a while,” he smiled. “I assure you, I’m just as capable as anyone else.”

“I’m sure you are, Mr. Perry,” She said. “But for now I have my own work to take care of. I’m sure Thomas is wondering where I’ve gotten off too.”

As if on cue, they both heard the door open and close in the kitchen, and Thomas calling. “Eliza, the hay has been delivered,” he began, pausing when he walked into the room and saw Mr. Perry. He cleared his throat as Eliza and her guest stood.

“Good morning, Mr. Fox.”

“Good morning,” Thomas practically grunted. He turned to Eliza. “I just wanted to let you know. I go start unloading now.”

“I’ll be right out to help you, Thomas,” Eliza said, about to make excuses to Randall.

“I would be glad to offer my assistance, Miss Alcott.” He said. “I’d be happy to help Thomas myself.

“That’s completely unnecessary,” Eliza started.

“I can take care of if myself,” Thomas looked at Eliza, waiting for her to agree.

“I insist. With both of us, Thomas, I’m sure we’ll make quick work.” He turned to Eliza. “And since you rejected my previous offer of hired help, I think you could at least allow me this.” He smiled that of his, the one that she couldn’t help but wonder if many young women have resisted.

After a moment of deliberation she relented. “Fine,” She said despite Thomas’ poorly hidden look of shock. “It’ll get the job done quickly, and we can get back to regular chores.” She told them both. She really just wanted to see if Mr. Randall Perry could handle a little hard labor. And maybe see if he and Thomas could actually stare each other to death.

In a few short minutes the three of them were out back, Eliza purposely standing out of their way, as the wagonload of hay bales was backed closer to the barn. Randall had removed his jacket and left it in the kitchen as they’d walked through the house, and he rolled the sleeves of his expensive white shirt up to his elbows.

As the two men began work, they expertly avoided each other, not speaking but not clashing or getting in each other’s way either. Eliza watched them work, climbing in and out of the wagon, tossing bales of hay. Had she done the same work, as she’d planned, it would have taken her twice as long, and she’d have been out of breath after a few bales. They unloaded the bales, and the delivery driver rode off with his empty wagon, as Thomas and Randall took turns loading the bales into barn and up to the loft.

The morning sun was turning into a heated afternoon as the men finished up. Eliza drew two buckets of water from the well, and set them out for Thomas and Randall to cool off when they finished. As she watched them splash cool water on their faces and necks, she had to admit she was surprised my Randal’s hard work. She knew Thomas could do it, that came as no surprise. But seeing Mr. Perry, of all people, able to keep up with someone she considered a strong, hard worker, it was safe to say he’d proven himself. She was loath to admit it out loud, just as she was loath to admit she noticed that the water dampening his shirt may or may not have made it sheer.

After they’d finished cooling off, she watched as Thomas turned to Randall. She couldn’t make out what he said, but she could tell he wasn’t happy about offering his hand to Randall. They shook, barely nodded at each other, but didn’t smile. Eliza wondered what they had against each other as Randall walked over to her.

“Have I proven myself a hard worker yet?” He asked smiling, and still a little damp.

“You can throw a bale of hay or two. But I thought you were just offering assistance.” She said, “Where you just trying to prove yourself?”

He laughed, throwing his head back, dark hair sticking to his forehead. “You are a hard woman to please, Miss. Alcott.” He took her hand from her side and bent down kissed her knuckles, as had become habit. When he did so, Eliza saw Thomas looked in their direction, clearly unhappy.

When Randall looked back up at her, he was still smiling. “Although I hate to see this evening end, I must me going. Maybe next time you’ll have made your decision about the trip?”

“Maybe,” She said.

Some time later, Eliza was preparing to head out to get Joanna from school, when she returned to the barn where Thomas was. He was prepping the horse and wagon for her, and she rubbed the mare’s nose when she neared. “Are you upset that I took him up on his offer to help?” She asked.

After a moment of silence he responded. “This is your home and farm, it’s not up to me who you bring in to help.”

“I didn’t bring him in, Thomas. He offered.” She clarified. “And I just wanted to see if he could actually work.” She admitted with a shrug.

“He can.” He said. “I knew he could.”

“Well, I didn’t. How do you know?” She asked, curious now.

“I’ve worked for his family before.” He revealed. Still not looking at her. “Against my better judgement.”

She was surprised, considering all his protestations that the Perrys were not to be trusted. Why would he work for

someone he didn’t trust? “When? You spend so much time here, when have you been able to work elsewhere?”

“Are you angry that I take my skills elsewhere?” He asked, rather shortly for his typical behavior.

“No, Thomas, of course not.” She said, taken aback. “If you needed more work, more money you could have told me. I’m trying to make things work financially, but—.”

“Not you, not in some time.” He blurted, afraid he’d upset her. “Before,” he paused. “Before you’re parents passed.”

Eliza looked at him, confused. When had they not paid him? Has there been money problems much longer than she’d thought.

“Don’t worry about it. I have what I need now. I’ll help here as long as I’m needed, regardless.” He said. “Put the place and the finances to rights, I’ll be here. As long as you’ll have me, Eliza.” He placed a hand on her upper arm and squeezed, trying to comfort the worry that was plain on her face.

They stood there for a moment, as his hand lingered and they held each other’s gaze. Then, as if she knew the moment was growing long, and it was time to go, the mare snorted and nudge Eliza. Startled, Eliza stumbled into Thomas, and they both laughed at the horse. When they stopped, his arms were around her, and her hands were on his chest.

They smiled up at each other, then they realized how very close they were. They cleared their throats. “I should go, Joanna will be waiting.”

“Yes, I’ll finish up here.” Thomas said.

They parted and Eliza climbed into the wagon seat. She settled herself in and urged the horse forward with a gentle snap if the reigns. When she glanced back after pulling out of the barn, Thomas was watching her go. She smiled at their moment, blushing. She couldn’t decide if she was glad the horse interrupted or not.

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