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Masterpiece Marriage Excerpt - Chapter 2

Masterpiece Marriage: Quilts of Love
Abingdon Press
Copyright © 2014 by Gina Welborn ISBN-13: 978-1-4267-7363-1
All rights reserved.

Chapter 2

Eastern Shore, Virginia
The following morning


Headmistress Whitacre warned that a lack of dedication to drawing class would one day lead to ruin.

Mary Varrs refolded the letter from her father, the fold of each crease earning a shake of her head. Left. Then over. Once more. Then, with precise care, she returned it to the envelope. Wax-sealed. Not gummed like practically everyone else in the world used. Only fools tossed away tradition for ease, or so her father believed. Her eyes burned. What was wrong with photographs? They captured accurate images. Botanical illustrations were nothing more than Gibson Girl versions of the truth. All she had worked for during the last two years—her future—now hinged on a set of botanical illustrations. Illustrations she had absolutely no ability to draw.

Two years. Wasted.

She twisted the edges of the envelope. It could have been mailed four months earlier after Director Preston—her father’s supervisor—had been hired. His waiting until this stage . . .

He couldn’t want her to fail. Could he?

Mary sniffed, rubbing the tip of her nose, blinking rapidly to rid the tears before anyone noticed. Before someone asked what was wrong. Before she broke.

She laid the envelope on the table then stared absently at the Bumblebee Café’s Sunday Breakfast Special: chicken spinach quiche with a side of fresh fruit. The plate had been delivered while she read her father’s latest correspondence and as a burnt smell from the kitchen spread into the eating area. All the relaxation brought from her hour-long walk disappeared. Two years of dedicated work and persistent hope.

Wasted. Wasted. Wasted.

The motorized ceiling fans turned the air about in the stuffy, open-windowed room. Yet perspiration beaded on her forehead like the condensation on her goblet of lemonade.

Her stomach growled. Mary blinked repeatedly to ensure every last tear was destroyed. Then she forked a piece of quiche and ate with precise monotony. One bite. Another. The usually well-prepared lunch here in this tiny hamlet in the Commonwealth of Virginia fed her stomach but did little to ease the ache in her soul. She swallowed the dry-as-her-straw-hat quiche before sipping the lemonade and almost spitting the watered-down beverage back in the goblet. Her list of the day’s frustrations kept increasing.

(1) Napoleon’s gastronomic distress
(2) A broken bulb in her germination light heater
(3) A flat tire on her bicycle
(4) This tasteless food
(5) The letter from her father should have been received yesterday, but Postmaster Hamilton “miraculously” found it on the floor of the post office this morning when he returned for the spectacles he’d “accidentally” left there the night before. Of course, knowing she always took her meals at the café, he insisted on “personally” delivering the letter.
(6) Herself for whining about all she had (justifiably) to whine
about. This was not the person she wanted to be.

Mary rested her goblet on the table with a soft thud, earning her several curious glances. None of the dozen Belle Haven residents in the café needed cause to look her way. From the moment she arrived in town, she’d become their object of curiosity and obsession—and much disdain like a stunning heiress in her London debut. Few would declare her a classical beauty. Too sun-lightened brown hair. Too sun-bronzed skin. Too deep-set eyes. Nor was she an heiress. Although, she was the granddaughter of a marquess, which counted for little in the academic field—the one world in which she desired success.

She sighed. Her heart hurt too much for her to care who heard the dejection in the sound.

Eleven days—all the time she had left to produce those illustrations. Her father would not give her another chance to prove her merit. Mother would not give her more time to be free. And Prince Ercole . . .

My darling Mary, I expect to see a great return on my investment.

For all he had done for her, she owed him.

She stabbed a melon wedge, then, upon second thought, laid her fork across her plate. Harvested too soon, the melon tasted like cucumber. She didn’t dislike cucumber. It merely tasted better combined with, say, tomatoes in vinaigrette.

“Excuse m-m-me, M-M-Miss Varrs?” came the voice, deep for a woman.

Mary glanced up to see the café owner’s gaze intent on her letter. More likely intent on the Blacksburg postmark.

Those in the café went silent.

Mary left the envelope where it was, because snatching it from view would look suspicious. “Yes, Mrs. Taylor?”

“Would you c-c-care for a slice of blackberry p-p-pie? Fresh baked.”

“Your pies are commendable, but today I shall pass.” Mary placed her napkin on the table, avoiding the gaze of all in the café. “Thank you for the offer.” She reached inside a pocket in her Turkish trousers to retrieve the coins to pay for her meal.

Mrs. Taylor wiped her hands on the apron she wore around the skirt of her simple yet practical calico gown, typical of what she wore while working at the café. “M-m-my sister’s grandson attends Virginia Agricultural and M-M-Mechanical College. First in the family.”

Mary didn’t even try to look shocked upon the news Mrs. Taylor knew someone who lived in Blacksburg. Three hours from now, during church, at least a dozen Belle Havenians would feel the need to inform her of a friend or family member who lived in Blacksburg.

And then they would wish to discuss who she knew who lived there. The more the Belle Havenians determined to see who could discover the most information, the more she determined to keep as much as possible private.

What did shock her was this shy woman who rarely spoke to anyone—and who was rarely spoken to—because of her stutter had begun a conversation. With her. And Mrs. Taylor seemed to want to
continue it because she was genuinely proud of her great-nephew’s achievement.

“Virginia A&M is an excellent school for those interested in the sciences,” Mary responded, placing the coins next to her half-eaten meal.

“He’s m-m-majoring in it. Science, that is. Chemistry.”

“It’s a fitting career path for men,” Mr. Hamilton, the postmaster, called out from the table he shared with the mayor. “God created women to be a man’s helpmate, not scientists.”

Listen to me, Mary Varrs, women are not meant to be scientists.

Headmistress Whitacre’s words a decade earlier during one of Mary’s “improving” sessions lived in perpetuity in her mind. Someday, though, the evergreen belief espoused at Wellons & Whitacre School for Young Ladies in Brighton—and in Mr. Hamilton’s words—would come to an end. Had to.

“Mrs. Taylor, I see a prosperous future for your sister’s grandson.” The moment the words left her mouth, Mary wanted to take them back. She sounded as pompous as the fortune-teller Edward had coaxed her into seeing in Paris. Life’s decisions should not be left to the roll of the dice or turn of a tarot card.

Mrs. Taylor glanced from Mary to Mr. Hamilton then back to Mary. “I suppose,” she said quietly, “a p-p-person would need to be dedicated to earn a science degree. Let alone two.”

At this tidbit of gossip—a minor detail Mary had shared with Arel Dewey when they first met—Mary looked to the café owner. Really looked. No more eyes demurely fixed on the ground. Mrs. Taylor gazed at her with awe. It was as if she was saying, albeit silently, I am impressed with your accomplishment, even if no one else is.

Mary’s eyes burned again. How she envied the Americans’ ability to treat everyone, even those common, like a familiar friend. She wanted to. One simply did not forget all she’d been taught as easily as shedding a cloak. Not as if she hadn’t tried. Those few attempts at allowing people into her life, into her heart, always resulted in a disaster.

She offered a timid smile in return. “Mrs. Taylor, I appreciate being able to take meals here. You are”—her voice tightened, weakened—“a blessing. Please save me a slice of pie for lunch.”

Mrs. Taylor nodded.

Mary nodded too, because . . . well, nodding was an easier form of response than crying. Ugh. What had come over her? She had never been such an emotional person before today.

“Mrs. Taylor, by chance, do you draw? Sketch?”

She shook her head.

Mary looked about the room. Twelve sets of eyes watching her. Regardless if they heard, she would not pose the question to them. She claimed her letter from the tabletop and slid it between the wide triangular front collars of her brown tailored jacket. The blue poplin bloomers and double-breasted jacket, crafted for a cyclist, were ideal attire for tending to her garden. Not the ideal attire, though, for blending in.

Her chair scraped against the pine floor as she stood and turned to leave.

“Who do you receive weekly letters from?” Mayor Erstwhile asked, blocking Mary’s path to the exit. His head tilted as he looked up at her. “I’ve heard of a group of socialists who meet in Blacksburg. Are you a spy for England? Darwinist like the Linwoods? Union worker?”

Mary winced at the hardness Americans gave to words ending in “r.”

“Why are you really here?” he said with his dark eyes narrowed.

“Harold,” Mrs. Taylor warned. She took a step closer to Mary. “M-M-Miss Varrs, you don’t have to answer him.”

Mr. Hamilton, sitting at the table next to Mary’s, leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs, and slid his hand between the first and second button of his black suit coat. “I wager Miss Varrs has a suitor in Blacksburg.” Like many Americans she’d come across in her travels, the postmaster spoke slowly and tonally. “It would explain the twice-weekly correspondence to and from there.”

How gracious of him to share.

“I hope the news was good,” the woman who lived across the street from Mary practically yelled, as if Mary being English also meant she was deaf.

“Miss Varrs picked at her food, sister,” said the gray-haired woman at the table with her. “A lady does not do so if the news is good.”

Their eyes focused on Mary, expecting her to explain. As if they, save Mrs. Taylor, all believed with their collective mind power, they could pressure her into a confession. The only pressure Mary felt was tension between her temples.

The rotating whuuump whuuump whuuump of the overhead fans filled the awkward silence. Only two escape routes. Either past the stout and almost-a-foot-shorter Mr. Erstwhile. Or past a still-silent
trio of ladies whose names she couldn’t remember, but whose disapproving and judgmental glares she knew too well. Despite the desire to slump and lower herself to a more womanly height, Mary held her shoulders level.

“I am neither socialist, unionist, Darwinist, nor spy,” she answered with a tug at her jacket’s buttoned-front. “Now, if you would excuse me, I must hurry home and ready for church.” She tipped her head in their direction. “Good day to you all.”

Mary eased past Mr. Erstwhile and quickly exited the café.

She stepped into the immediate stickiness from the May humidity. Thankfully, when she began her sunrise constitutional—a brisk walk instead of her usual bicycle ride—the temperature had been
moderate. Her straw hat shielded her face from earning additional bronzing as she strolled down the sidewalk toward her spring home. Occasionally the heels of her black boots would hit an errant brick, jutting slightly where flooding from last summer’s hurricane damaged the sidewalk. Carriages, wagons, horse riders, pedestrians, and bicyclists added to the traffic and morning noise.

Any one of them could be an artist. But how could she go about asking without dozens claiming skill for the purpose of learning why she needed help?

Tomorrow she would post personal ads in the Richmond Times and the Maryland Gazette. God would bless her with an immediate answer. She chose to believe it. To be hopeful. To ignore the doubts.

Mary breathed in the clean, salty air, satisfied with her strategy. Sea breeze. Loblolly pines. Dogwoods in bloom. For all she didn’t like about the snoops of Belle Haven, she loved how Virginia smelled.

As she passed a lamppost, the pair of seagulls resting on it jolted into flight. They raced across the street and landed on the lamppost besides a two-story brick building. Little Archie Blanchard paused in washing the window of his father’s mercantile. He waved, and she returned the motion. For a child of ten, he was clever and restrained. Perhaps she would accept the Reverend Jaeger’s invitation for her to attend Children’s Hour at the library and to speak about botany. Every child and youth she had met, thus far, in Belle Haven behaved like Archie. The simple truth—and one quite contrary to the prevalent view that being a mother was a woman’s highest calling—was that disliking children did not go hand-in-hand with not wishing to have any of one’s own.

“Mary Varrs! Miss Mary Varrs!”

Mary stopped at the intersection. She glanced over her shoulder to see who called. “Splendid,” she muttered under her breath.

Arel Dewey, the leading local suffragist, came running up the sidewalk. Six of her friends followed. Each wearing similar cotton blouses and pleated linen skirts. Each holding a wooden sign. For women who championed individual thought and equality, they came across as nothing more than pretty sheep to Miss Dewey’s even-prettier shepherdess. Unless Miss Dewey elected to attend college, she doubted any would consider venturing into academia.

Mary turned to face them as they stopped in front of her, their gazes all direct and unshrinking. A bit unnerving. “Yes?”

Miss Dewey reached forward and shook Mary’s hand. “Arel, Arel Dewey. It’s so good to see you again, Mary Varrs.” From their first meeting and subsequent ones, the gregarious younger woman
began the conversation by introducing herself and shaking hands, which had not taken Mary long to learn she did with everyone who she didn’t know well.

“Is there something I can help you with?” Mary asked, more so because it was polite than because she had the inclination.

Miss Dewey smiled. “In fact, there is.”

Panic slid along with beads of perspiration down the sides of Mary’s face. The day was too humid to have a conversation outside.

Yet the petite beauty named Miss Dewey didn’t look to have a drop of sweat on her. “Tomorrow we are participating in a rally. We depart for Richmond on the four o’clock train today, and we wish for you to come along as our mentor and chaperone.” Her fun-loving grin was as tightly fixed in place as her wheat-colored chignon. “It’s vital we take a stand, as our forefathers did more than a hundred years ago against a deaf tyrant, and ensure our voice is heard. The women’s revolution is at hand.”

“We’ve made signs,” a curly-haired lamb explained, holding hers up. Painted in red were the words Marriage = Slavery.

Oh, good gracious. Mary managed to keep her eyes from rolling.

“Since 1869,” a lamb Mary thought was Postmaster Hamilton’s daughter, said, “women in Wyoming have been allowed to vote, which has set a precedent.” The brown-eyed girl looked to Miss Dewey, who nodded approvingly at words Mary remembered hearing in the first conversation she and Miss Dewey had had two months ago, an hour after Mary had arrived in Belle Haven.

Whatever could be said of Arel Dewey, she was the most welcoming person in town. And the most talkative. The fact she couldn’t bake an edible pie made the list, too.

Mary looked from girl to girl whom she guessed to be between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two. All idealistic, adoring, hopeful, and a bit angry. Papa, why is he so angry? she’d once asked after her
grandsire returned home after the year’s first Parliament session. Politics steals one’s joy, her father had interjected, and it must have been true because Lord Iddesdowne never denied it.

She focused on Miss Dewey, who still didn’t look to have a drop of perspiration on her. “As someone who is not a citizen of this land, I am unqualified to be your political mentor. Nor do your parents
know me well enough to approve me as your chaperone. Do know, however, I am honored you thought of me.”

“But—” Miss Dewey’s eyes, as dark and large as an owl’s, shifted to Mary’s Turkish trousers. “You are one of us.”

Mary released a frustrated breath. The pertness of American girls—and their candor—never ceased to surprise her. “My clothing choice, Miss Dewey, is a matter of practicality, not political posturing. Now if you would excuse me, I need to ready for church.”

She turned and hurried across the street.

“I’ll see you there!” Miss Dewey called out.

Mary raised a hand high enough to acknowledge young lady’s words.

While she understood, even applauded, the reasons for votes for women, she had too many of her own woes to manage.

~*~

The mile walk from the café never seemed so long.

Mary reached the front yard of the three-story, white-framed house, the lone residence on the street surrounded by an iron fence. The gingerbread trim, dark blue shutters, and abundant flora in the front and back of Linwood House reminded her of the Honeymoon Cottage on Grandsire’s country estate. She hurried over the bricked path and up the steps to the covered porch. The Linwoods’ piebald English bulldog, Napoleon, peeked between the curtains and the window and whined.

She moved to open the door, something ivory catching in her peripheral vision. She opened the door to let Napoleon out, then stepped to the wicker table. In the center sat an envelope atop a napkin-covered plate. The script on the envelope unrecognizable, yet elegant.

Miss Mary Varrs

“I see we had a visitor,” she said as Napoleon attended to his business. She opened the flap and withdrew a card.

Dear Miss Varrs,

You are cordially invited to attend my annual Quilting Bee beginning this Monday and continuing each weekday over the next two weeks. We will be working on a Bride’s Quilt for Miss Lydia Puryear. Breakfast will be served promptly at eight, with quilting immediately following the meal. Lunch is potluck. Following the evening meal, the menfolk will join us for outdoor festivities. Music by the esteemed Lovell Brothers. I do hope you will come.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Priscilla Dane Osbourne


P.S. I do pray the elixir helped Napoleon.

A quilting bee? Needles, thread, fabric, and room full of talkative omen?

Mary shuddered.

Yet, as the moments passed, Mrs. Osbourne’s missive in her hand weighed as heavy as the letter from her father inside her jacket. Neither invited her to something enjoyable.

Heart chilled, she sat in one of the wicker chairs and looked to the Georgian-style house next door where Mrs. Osbourne lived. Napoleon curled at her feet. She had far greater issues to occupy her day than to stitch a quilt with those whose prime mission was to find out everything they could about “the strange and aloof Englishwoman.” Namely, her.

Unless those ladies were more like Mrs. Taylor than like Mr. Hamilton and Mayor Erstwhile. Could she be sociable? Was it worth the risk?

Her gaze fell to the covered plate. Curiosity getting the best of her, she lifted the napkin. Shortbread biscuits with some type of yellowy glaze. Perhaps lemon.

“Look here, Napoleon,” said Mary, “Mrs. Osbourne made us biscuits. What do you Americans call them?”

Napoleon whined.

“Oh yes, cookies. Alas, your persnickety bowels need none.” From the looks of the finger-length biscuits—and the smell—they were freshly baked. The last time she had tried to bake biscuits, the dough wouldn’t adhere into a workable consistency until she added additional water. They’d tasted like sugary sawdust.

Her stomach growled. Considering how unappetizing her meal at the café had been, a midday snack couldn’t harm anything. Besides, after the day she’d had so far, she needed a moment of bliss. She exchanged the card for a biscuit. As she took a bite, the almond-flavored crust crumbled onto her tongue and dissolved. She closed her eyes in delight.

“Mmmm.” Perfect lemon buttery blissfulness.

Napoleon sat up and whined.

She looked at him. “No.”

He whined again.

“Shall I give you more elixir?”

He flopped down, head resting on her boots.

“Smart boy.” Mary grabbed another biscuit. She took a bite of the crisp shortbread and groaned again, licking the crumbs off her lips.

If she knew her way around a kitchen like the woman who made these biscuits, she would never visit a café for another meal. She popped the remaining bit in her mouth, brushed the crumbs off her hands and lap, and then took another biscuit from the plate. As she ate, her gaze settled on the card. She turned it over and stopped chewing. Brow furrowed. Head tilted.

Goosebumps raced from one arm to the next.

There, on the front, was an expertly sketched illustration of a dogwood branch in bloom. In the corner—the initials PDO.

“Priscilla Dane Osbourne drew this?”

She looked across the yard, mouth gaping, heartbeat pounding in her chest. The answer to her dilemma lived next door. But between now and the deadline to have her study submitted to Director Preston at the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, the esteemed Widow Osbourne was hosting a quilting bee. The same bee to which she’d invited Mary. The woman had won numerous county, state, and world’s fair ribbons with her quilts, and she didn’t share her patterns with anyone—information Miss Arel Dewey provided during their first meeting. She wouldn’t relinquish quilting and hostess duties to draw pictures.

Unless—

“Napoleon, do you think she would work a trade with me?” She looked down, but his eyes were closed.

Leaning back in her chair, Mary nibbled on another biscuit she didn’t need to eat but, heaven help her, they were so delicious. She had to think of something to offer to be enticing enough to sway Mrs. Osbourne away from quilting and into sketching. Even if she had exorbitant wealth to offer beyond the dwindling allowance set up by the prince, the railroad investor’s widow didn’t need more.

And Mary’s abysmal cooking skills were Arel Dewey level.

The singular worthwhile skills she had were gardening and canning, both part of her duties to the Linwoods this spring in exchange for living in their home—and for caring for their pampered he never likes to leave home dog. None of which Mrs. Osbourne needed. She could also fish and hunt (thanks to Prince Ercole) and maneuver a canoe through a swamp, the latter skill learned by necessity, not desire. Upon occasion, she made a tasty porridge, the only food she could cook well.

But . . . quilting?

She picked up the card and reread the invitation. The palpitations in her chest increased. In rhythm. In noise. Go. Go. Go. GO.

She tossed the card back onto the table. “I shan’t.”

There had to be another person in Virginia or Maryland who could draw botanical illustrations. Had. To. Be. To find someone else meant spending time searching. Spending time searching meant wasting time. Why waste any time when she knew a skilled artist lived next door? Who was also hosting a quilting bee. To which she’d invited Mary. Oh dear.

Go go go go gogogogogo.

She leaned forward. Elbows on knees, forehead against open palms. She breathed deep. Slow. Steady. To ease the anxiety in her pulse. In her spirit. In her mind. If she wanted to be a research assistant at the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station in Blacksburg, she needed to ask Mrs. Osbourne for help. Had to. Today. After church.

It was the best solution.

And the worst.

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