Beaufort, North Carolina
Lauren McCain paced her father's library with diary in hand... her late mother's diary. Now and then, she'd stop in front of the nine-pane window, her restless gaze fixed on the cobblestone drive below. Her father's carriage should arrive soon.
She had to speak with him before his daily ledgers and a multitude of tasks demanded his attention. He'd stop by the library for a short glass of whiskey before rolling up his sleeves, like he did every day for as long as she could remember.
Moments later, the muted sound of horses' hooves clanked against the paved stones below. Lauren smoothed the bodice of her dress with her hands, tucked the diary into the folds of her skirt, and waited.
Moments later, the massive door creaked open and Drew McCain entered with a smile. "I'm happy you're here, Lauren. I intended to seek out Daphne, ask her where you were hiding this morning."
"I've been waiting for you to return from town."
He crossed the room and planted a kiss to her forehead. "Is there something you want to discuss with me?"
"Very well." He took a step back, dug into the pocket of his overcoat and handed her an envelope. "First, I have a surprise for you."
"From Aunt Estelle and Uncle Mason." A squeal left her lips as she took the envelope from him. "What's the news from Minnesota?"
He chuckled. "It's addressed to you, dear, although I admit, I'd love to know what your mother's sister is up to now."
Lauren cherished Estelle's letters, had missed her aunt and uncle after they left the Carolinas a decade ago. As stale as last week's bread, the news from Full Circle intrigued Lauren. She pretended to be the first to learn of the inane gossip—such as, Mrs. Tilberry's calico cat Bitty had adopted an orphaned pup owned by Mrs. Petters, her aunt's neighbor to the east.
Lauren hesitated before opening the letter and wondered how to approach her father about the diary she'd found that morning. She didn't have to wonder long.
Her father's eyes narrowed when he looked down at the hand buried in her skirt. "What are you hiding there? Whatever it is, it can't be serious enough to merit a frown." He stretched his hand out. "Is this what you wanted to discuss with me?"
Handing him the journal, she nodded.
He fingered the leather cover. "What's this?"
Staring at the book, he grew still, as if to open it would dredge up a cauldron of painful memories.
"You do remember what day it is?" She expected him to shake his head.
"Yes, of course. Twelve years ago today, your mother, my beloved wife, died."
Her voice cracked, even after all these years. "And baby Forbes."
"Lauren, please don't engage in tortuous thoughts. The sun always rises and life goes on."
Tears filled her eyes. "I don't dwell on bad memories for the most part but today I felt a strong desire to touch her things, inhale her scent again." She paused. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I haven't read your mother's diary. What didn't I tell you?"
Lauren walked to the window and focused on the distant horizon. February clouds hung from the sky like a winding river of gray smoke. "I opened the oak chest, the one Wilma relegated to the attic after you married her."
"I know you don't approve of Wilma—"
She waved a hand in the air. "It doesn't matter whether I care for your new bride or not. Your happiness is all that matters to me."
"Lauren, what would I have done without you all these years?"
A stab of guilt tore through her. For his sake, she should've accepted his wife with open arms, but didn't and couldn't; not after the woman had removed her mother's belongings from the manor.
"Finish what you were saying, girl. You opened the chest and then?"
"I removed Mother's clothing from the trunk—the fine satins, woolen shawls and voile dresses. Even her linen handkerchiefs trimmed in fancy lace."
"Please, Father, it's time we talk about it."
"Very well." His voice sounded tired.
"I discovered the black book embossed with her initials." She looked over her shoulder and her heart wrenched to find her father running his long fingers over the cover. "When I felt certain Wilma or Daphne hadn't followed me, I read through the first several pages. Mother wrote about her first days at Grand Cove as a new bride."
Ah," he said. "Glorious times."
"I felt her presence, and when I closed my eyes, heard her voice." She turned to him with a smile. "She spoke about her aches and pains while with child and felt she looked like a heifer."
"I beg to differ." He graced her with a smile. "I never saw her more lovely."
"Mother penned the next entry during and after my birth. She recited in detail the agonizing pain, wrote about the skills of the midwife, a woman named Evrasina."
"A woman of German descent your mother insisted on. In hindsight, perhaps a mistake."
She jumped on the opening. "Because my twin died at birth?"
His eyebrows rose. "Your mother wrote about the event?"
"She did, and about her sorrow in the ensuing months." Lauren's hand shook when she placed it on her chest. "Why didn't you tell me I had a twin?"
"We agreed never to discuss it for that very reason." He expelled a long breath of air. "Believe me when I say we didn't keep it from you to hurt you, but the subject brought your mother unbearable pain."
"And after mother died giving birth to little Forbes, you still didn't think it newsworthy?"
"So many years had passed. Like the items in the trunk, I thought it best to pack away the bad memories, concentrate on the living."
"Why have I never seen the infant's grave? I know you, Father, and you would not neglect your duties in this regard."
He closed his eyes, his chest rising with another breath. "There wasn't a body to bury."
"What?" She crossed the distance separating them. "What are you telling me?"
"The truth. Odd as it sounds, the midwife disappeared after the births and we don't know where she buried the child." His expression a mixture of pain and sorrow, he added, "Worried over your mother's fragile state, I devoted my attention to her. Ol' Biddle went to the midwife's abode in the woods, conducted a thorough search and returned claiming the woman had vanished into thin air."
"No sign of the infant or her grave?"
"None." An exasperated sigh left his lips. "Lauren, I want you to forget about this. Twenty years is a long time, and there's no reason to dredge it up now." He put his arms around her and she leaned against him, comforted by his strength. "Please, open the letter from your Aunt Estelle and read it to me."
For his sake, she'd relent, but wouldn't be able to dispel the haunting words from her mother's diary for a long time. Her father always knew best, and no sense stirring the pot. She couldn't hurt the one person who meant more to her than anyone in the world. He'd been her rock throughout her childhood, and she didn't want to be the cause of his pain.
Lauren tore open the envelope and read aloud.
Our Dearest Niece,
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Mason and I celebrate twenty-five years of wedded bliss today. Where have the years gone? It seems only yesterday your mother and I were children, chasing flutter bees through the vast gardens of Bradford Estate. When next I looked, I was a young bride of eighteen, clinging to the arm of a dashing, young cotton grower from South Carolina. You and I know him as Mason Morse, dear.
Since coming to this magnificent territory, your Uncle Mason has been a busy man. A fine judge of horse flesh, he's been busier than a coon hound chasing his tail. I hope you'll continue with your riding lessons. Should your father consent to a visit to Minnesota, you'll put those sessions to good use.
The massive oaks have shed their leaves; harvest has come and gone. Soon we'll be wading through drifts to reach the barn, sliding on icy patches and no doubt landing on our bums. Such is life in this rugged land.
How I wish you were here to share the magnificent views. I am putting a bee in your bonnet, Lauren. Oh, to think your father might agree to a visit.
I must close now with a snippet of news. You will remember I told you about Bitty, the neighbor's cat who became a surrogate mother to a mongrel puppy? The whelp is now the size of a Mastiff! Uncle Mason had great hopes Brutus would defend our property with the tenacity of a badger, but alas, the canine spends most of his day sleeping in front of the hearth. Can you picture it, dear, a Mastiff with a sassy calico cat for a mother?
We remain, your loving Aunt and Uncle, Estelle and Mason
Lauren didn't miss her father's frown or his terse words when she spun around. "Out of the question."
"Can we at least discuss it?"
"You have no idea the hardships they face. Wild heathens roam about and temperatures drop below zero in the winter."
Lauren placed the letter down on a nearby table, faced him, and prepared for battle. "Father, you forget, I'm a grown woman now."
"Last month you were an innocent nineteen, but now you're a woman of the world at twenty. Is that it, Lauren?"
She tapped an impatient foot against the floor. "Aunt Estelle and Mother were married at eighteen."
"They were," he countered. "To southerners they'd known most of their lives, and that brings me to another subject. It's always been my hope you'd remain in Beaufort, marry into a financially sound family─the old bluebloods of the city."
She wrinkled up her nose and recalled the young men who'd called on her in the last few years, not one suitable.
"You're the belle of the county, could have your pick of suitors." He walked to the desk and poured a drink. "It's time you settle down, marry well and raise a family. Here," he said for emphasis.
Her chin came out. "I'm not ready for domesticity. I've met every beau in the county and marriage right now is out of the question." Her voice softened. "I've no desire to wed yet, Father."
"Yet you harbor a desire to travel hundreds of miles to a heathen territory?"
She nodded. "I need to leave Beaufort, see another part of the world." At his crushed expression, she touched his arm. "For a short time, that is."
"You've no idea how their life differs from ours."
She'd beg if need be. "You know I'll be in good hands. Full Circle is a rambling ranch, not some shoddy hut in a barren wasteland." She turned her best smile on him. "Your sister-in-law and brother-in-law have always had my best interests at heart."
"Dear daughter, there's another matter we must discuss, perhaps the most important."
Knowing the topic before he uttered a word, her spine stiffened. "If you think to dissuade me with another tiresome lecture on secession and war, it won't work."
"Lecture?" His handsome features hardened. "War looms; it is a reality. Mississippi held a convention, and soon after joined South Carolina in secession. Florida joined their ranks the next day. Alabama passed her secession resolution the following day, and then Georgia." A frown puckered his brow. "A week later, Louisiana became the sixth state to leave the Union.
Lauren hesitated and prepared to counter. "Secession does not mean war. The slavery debate has been active for thirty years, and President Lincoln vowed to restore the Union, not abolish slavery."
"That's what politicians do best, daughter, make promises they don't intend to keep."
The discussion had taken a bad turn. She had to convince him. Softening her voice, she tried another approach. "Father, let's say for the sake of argument you are correct, war looms."
His eyes narrowed, his guarded gaze studying her.
"Where do you think the war will be fought? On southern soil, do you not agree?"
He stammered. "Well I-I suppose that's true."
"In that event, wouldn't I be safer with Aunt Estelle and Uncle Mason?"
While he paced the study, she wrung her hands. Dare she hope he saw her point? Stopping in midstride, he turned to her with a defeated look in his eyes. "As much as I'd like to, I can't argue the point."
"Will you give me your blessing then?"
"Argh." He groaned. "I will mull it over, but if I sanction this ill-fated scheme, Ol' Biddle and Nelly must accompany you."
Biddle, her father's manservant, had been a part of her life since the day she entered the world. A stooped, elderly man with caramel-colored skin and white bushy hair, Lauren loved him dearly.
Nelly, her personal servant and childhood friend, never let Lauren forget their three-year age difference. Along with her bossiness, the woman possessed a stubborn streak and sassy mouth. Tall, lean and wiry, black ringlets framed her honey-colored skin and symmetrical features. Lauren relied on Nelly over the years to watch her back, raise her up right after her mother died.
She clapped her moist palms. "Agreed, and I won't be gone forever. Before you can blink, I'll return to Grand Cove."
"I believe I've just been hoodwinked." With a shake of his head, her father downed the whisky, reached for the bottle and filled his glass again.
"Thank you, Father, thank you." She dashed across the room and hugged him.
"One more thing... when you return, do you promise to settle down and think about raising a family? It's time I had grandchildren to spoil."
She planted a kiss to his cheek. "And what a wonderful grandfather you'll be." Before he had time to change his mind, Lauren rushed from the library and headed for her bedchamber, eager to pen a letter to Aunt Estelle.
In the following weeks, Lauren prepared for her journey by rifling through several atlases and geographical maps in her father's library. They'd take a ship to New York and then travel overland by covered wagon to Wisconsin. On the last leg of their journey, they'd board a steamer in Eau Claire and chug down the Mississippi until they reached the town of Red Wing. Aunt Estelle and Uncle Mason would meet them there.
Moments of doubt assailed Lauren as the winter months droned on. How could she leave her father, her childhood home? But then bouts of giddiness claimed her when she thought about the new adventures awaiting her in this distant land called Minnesota.
On the morning of their departure, Father drove them to the harbor, his black-lacquered carriage creaking beneath the weight of their trunks. Moist eyes bore evidence of the man's angst as he helped her from the transport.
After a lengthy string of instructions to Ol' Biddle, he drew her into his arms. "Write me upon your arrival."
The moment at hand, her resolve faltered as she kissed him on the cheek. "Take care of yourself and see that Mother's flowerbeds are tended."
"I'll think of you every time I stroll among the blossoms."
With Ol' Biddle and Nelly on her heels, Lauren followed the men carrying their trunks to the vessel. Clutching the brass railing, she remained on deck until her father and Beaufort faded in the distance.
She attributed her tear-stained cheeks to a sudden spurt of sea spray.
* * *
Swathed in a blanket of snow, Red Wing rested in a valley surrounded by towering adobe cliffs. Spiced with the scents of spring—wildflowers, the heady aroma of the earth and fresh rain—Lauren drew a deep breath and searched for Aunt Estelle and Uncle Mason.
Moments later, her aunt surprised her by drawing her into a hearty embrace and then arched her neck back and apprised her. "As the day is long, you're the mirror image of your mother."
A giggle found Lauren. "That's what Mother's friends in Beaufort claim."
Mason fussed over her traveling companions. "This can't be Nelly?" He turned to Ol' Biddle, patted him on the back and smiled. "Drew must have had a moment of insanity sending you on a long journey at your age?"
Biddle didn't acknowledge the comment, but rather looked toward the ground, his ebony eyes wide. "Lawd in heaven, my feets on solid ground again."
Not one to tarry, Estelle cajoled two strangers on the street into loading their trunks into the buckboard and ushered her guests into the waiting transport. While navigating the muddy ruts of town, Lauren took a moment to study her aunt and uncle.
Estelle hadn't changed much through the years. Strands of gray streaked her dark brown hair now, and her eyes were unmistakably Bradford, large and slanted upward at the corners. Slight of frame, Estelle still maintained the distinct graceful carriage embodied by highbred Southern women.
Uncle Mason looked like the picture sitting atop the mantle at Grand Cove. Short and rotund, he remained as debonair, his long white hair matching his mustache and beard. Lauren had always been close to her mother's kin, and neither time nor distance had diminished that bond.
Several miles later, the distance between the roofs of farms and ranches lengthened, but the red, clay cliffs still reached skyward.
A tinge of awe laced Lauren's voice. "The picture books don't do the scenery justice."
Mason clucked to the team and followed her gaze. "The jagged rock formations are christened mountain of water by the local natives."
The setting sun clung to the horizon as Uncle Mason turned the wagon down a long, wide drive an hour later. Lauren released an audible gasp when the ranch came into view. Surrounded by massive hardwoods and towering pines, Full Circle was the quintessence of rugged splendor.
Smoke billowed from a chimney on the side of the house, rose above the treetops, and drifted skyward. Painted charcoal grey, the impressive structure boasted a pair of white pillars anchoring a wide, sweeping verandah. Three stories high, twin dormers jutted from the dark gray roof above the second story and glistened beneath the fading amber rays of the sun.
After Mason brought the team to a halt, Estelle escorted them through the front door. A soothing palette of colors in the great room greeted Lauren—hues of fawn, buttercup gold, and a rich, earthy brown. In the middle of the room, a wide staircase led to the second level. Estelle ushered Biddle and Nelly into the kitchen for a cup of hot tea and then showed Lauren the rest of the rooms on the first floor―a kitchen with adjoining pantry, two cozy sleeping rooms, a dining room, and the library. On the second level, two spacious bedchambers resided, one for Estelle and Mason, the other a guest room.
After traipsing up a short flight of stairs, Aunt Estelle ushered her into a third bedchamber. "This is your room, Lauren."
Shifting ribbons of sunlight swathed the room, eliciting a squeal of delight from Lauren. "Cream and rose. How did you know?"
"Your mother's favorite colors."
With tears in her eyes, she planted a kiss to her aunt's cheek. "I'm going to love it here. I feel it in my bones."
"Of course you will, dear. Your Uncle Mace claims we're holding on to our own little piece of heaven here." She reached up and brushed Lauren's cheek with her fingers. "Come now, you must be exhausted, and our evening meal is ready."
Lauren allowed her gaze to sweep over the room a final time before she turned and followed her aunt through the door. She'd fallen in love with Full Circle and hadn't even met the horses yet.