Dark Night of the Moon, Book 2
I am part of the earth and stars
And the gusts of far and near,
Of lush valleys and snow-crested mountains,
Of flora, fauna, and deer.
~ Unknown ~
Lauren McCain Gatlin glanced between two sets of garments on her bed. The first, a black, split riding skirt and matching jacket, the second, Uncle Mason's woolen trousers and a twill pullover Aunt Estelle had cast aside. Her heart leaned toward the black ensemble; her brain toward the hand-me-downs. If she encountered her aunt in the kitchen, the woman would remind her they were cutting down a Christmas tree, not attending a horse race. Therein lay the problem. She didn't plan to accompany Aunt Estelle this morning.
With a sigh, she plucked the twill jersey from the bed, slipped it over her head and stepped into the trousers. The scent of coffee drifted up the stairwell; Daphne had started breakfast. If she hurried, she'd have time to convince her father, an early riser, to stand in for her so she could go riding. She needed time to think.
She entered the kitchen with her son on her hip and smiled when Daphne set a cup of coffee in front of her. "Good morning, Father…Daphne. Do I smell fried ham and wheat cakes?"
"Yes, child," the black woman said. "Your favorite."
Drew lowered his newspaper, smiled at his grandson and greeted Lauren. "Morning, daughter. You're dressed for the elements, I see."
"After Uncle Mason died, Estelle couldn't bear to look at his clothing every day. Before the trunk went to the attic, I pilfered a pair of his trousers. He wasn't much taller than me, you remember."
"I miss the old coot."
"We all do," she said with a regretful sigh.”
Daphne set down platters of ham and flapjacks on the table—the perfect opportunity for Lauren to change the subject. "Father?"
Sage, Wanapaya, and the children will arrive in a day or two and I want Full Circle to look festive. There's been so much sorrow, so many deaths…."
"You shall have your wish, dear. Festive it will be."
"Thank you. The Gatlins will be here Christmas Eve—Belle, her husband, Simon, Emily and her fiancé Frank, Polly and her children."
"You didn't mention Creed." He watched her face. "Will he be joining us for the holiday?"
She ruffled her son's hair and offered him a spoonful of flapjacks. Named after Finn Gatlin, the brother killed during the Civil War, the boy looked like his father, Creed. "One never knows about him. He's more reclusive than ever since the war, the deaths of his father, brother and sister."
"I can imagine." His voice low, he stepped into the next subject with care. "Lauren, you have to think about burying Brand soon."
Her shoulders sagged. "Not that again."
"A memorial service to put finality to his death."
Her eyes widened. "How does one put finality to a death without-without a body?"
"We've discussed this over and over. Your husband's body might never be recovered, but we have to face facts."
"We've heard nothing from him and he hasn't returned."
She rubbed her temples, her tone sharp. "No one knows that better than me." Drawing a breath, she softened her voice. "Sorry, didn't mean to bite your head off. I need more time."
"Very well, how much time?"
"Let's get through the holiday, the first since the uprising and all the sorrow. I promise I'll make a decision in the spring. If we've heard nothing by then, I'll hold a proper funeral."
After another bite, Finn squirmed to get down from her lap. Daphne stepped in and lifted the boy to the floor.
"It's for your own good, Lauren. You cannot continue to hang on to ghosts. You'll lose Creed too."
Tears brimmed in her eyes. "How does one lose someone they never had?"
"Creed loves you, girl. He had nothing to do with his brother's death, no one did."
"I feel like Judas," she said with a frown. "Brand missing for less than a year and I fall into his brother's arms."
"Brand is not missing; he's gone from us forever." Her father gave up a half-chuckle, half-snort and nodded toward little Finn. "I think you fell into Creed's arms a long time ago."
She placed her fork down and smiled at him across the table. "I don't know what I'd do without you. You have a way of turning dark to light."
"No sense going through life with a dismal view on everything. On a serious note, I'm proud of the woman you've become, Lauren."
She wiped single tear from her cheek. "You are?"
"Proud enough to help me out this morning?"
"Of course, what do you need?"
"Aunt Estelle is off this morning to cut down a jack pine for the hearth. She'd like me to accompany her."
"I thought I'd go riding, clear my head." She glanced at her son. "Creed is coming today to see Finn."
"You don't want to be here when he arrives?"
"Our relationship is strained right now; hard on both."
Her father smiled. "I'm familiar with the need for solitude, and yes, I'll tag along with Estelle, cover for you."
Standing over the cookstove, Daphne offered a snort. "It snowed last night."
"So it did," Lauren said.
"It ain't right you gallivanting around the countryside on your own."
Lauren rolled her eyes. "Rules of etiquette aren't the same here."
Her nanny hadn't changed since she saw her one year ago—in personality or appearance. Her black, wiry hair had acquired more silver strands, but the stubborn tilt of her chin remained. Daphne had taken care of her from the day she entered the world, and no one at Grand Cove trifled with the woman. Aunt Estelle even relied on the woman now.
With outthrust chin, Daphne tapped a slender finger on the table. "Best I can tell these country folks have no rules."
Drew interjected, "I tend to agree. But our Lauren is a grown woman now and accustomed to making her own decisions. I think she knows the landscape well."
"Humph." Daphne glanced from Drew to Lauren. "Still doan set right with me."
Lauren slid from the chair, walked around the table and hugged her father. "Thank you. I'll be here when you return from your jaunt in the woods with Aunt Estelle."
"Mind your surroundings. Daphne won't be fit to live with if something happens to you."
Grabbing her cloak from a hook on the wall, Lauren scurried out the kitchen door and headed for the barn.
* * *
Drew watched his daughter's long, dark hair swish across her back as she raced out and then he allowed his mind to wander. In appearance, Lauren reminded him of his late wife, the same round, brown eyes, slanted upward at the corners, the flawless skin and full pink lips. Unlike his gentle-bred Clarissa, his daughter had always been headstrong, with a strong desire to steer her own course in life. So far, she'd made quite a mess of it.
He shouldered some of the responsibility. Perhaps if he'd accompanied her to Minnesota she wouldn't be in this quagmire—married to Brand Gatlin and in love with his brother, Creed, the father of her son. She hadn't shared her feelings with him, but he knew her well enough to recognize the look of love on her face whenever Creed entered a room. Most said Brand died in the woods the day the natives attacked New Ulm, but until his body was found, until Lauren had proof of his death, she wouldn't turn to Creed.
Daphne's voice broke into his musings. "Ya shoulda gone with her. I got a bad feeling."
"Not another premonition?"
"No, I ain't had no vision, but black luck be knockin' at the door."
Drew gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "We can't keep treating her like a child. She's a married woman with a child now."
"Who has a child?" Estelle burst into the kitchen, pinning an errant strand of hair in place.
"We were discussing Lauren. Daphne's all worked up because she went riding alone this morning."
His late wife's sister settled into a chair. "Hard to sway that girl from something once she sets her mind."
"I hope you won't be disappointed, Stella, but I'll be accompanying you to cut down that tree."
"I'm delighted, Drew." Estelle offered a smirk. "I promised Polly we'd stop by when we're done."
Drew knew the reason for the woman's smirk. He'd fielded a lot of questions, and teasing, about his relationship with Brand and Creed's mother. So far, he'd been quite adept at keeping the curious at bay, but soon he'd have to own up to the strong bond that had blossomed between them since his arrival. The union made perfect sense. Polly had lost her husband Sam during the massacre and Drew had been a widower for quite some time now. Why shouldn't two people in the twilight of their lives steal a little happiness?
While he ruminated, Estelle downed a hearty breakfast, and then pushed away from the table. "Ready to tackle that tree, Drew?"
Near the stove, Daphne glanced his way and her words snaked through his mind, 'Black luck be knockin' at the door." He dismissed her warning from his mind, came to his feet and followed Estelle out the door.