Alexia exits the one next to it just as she reaches it, one with a plant painted on the overhead sign. In her hand she holds a small sack. “Oh, Cora!” she exclaims, a little flustered at her sudden appearance. “Ready to go?”
“Yes,” she sighs in relief.
They walk together toward the wagon and Cora unties the horses and pulls herself up into the wagon. Before long, they’re back on the road toward the mountains. Toward home. And as they ride, Cora can’t help but think of what Adam Spruce said about her being most comfortable with men. How had he gathered that within a few moments of meeting her? And how had he discovered her desire for comfort and certainty? Was she so transparent?
“Who was that man you were speaking with?” Alexia wonders playfully. “I saw him through the shop window. He was dreadfully handsome.”
“His name is Adam Spruce. He gave me directions to the shop.”
“You must have gotten really turned around then.”
Cora flattens her lips. “Something like that.”
“I was actually speaking with him earlier. He was interested in some of my jewellery.”
“And for what purpose would a man like that have for jewellery?”
Alexia laughs lightly. “To please a lady, of course!” she titters, as if it’s obvious.
“I think he’d rather antagonize them,” Cora mutters. “How did you do with your jewellery by the way?”
“Well I managed to sell all of it and buy Mikael some special herbs for his fever. I hope they help.”
“Me too.” I hope this trip wasn’t useless.
“Did you see much of Hale while I was in the shops?” Alexia wonders.
“It’s the smallest and poorest of the three plains’ towns near Atherton. Bannerford is the farthest and the largest...” Alexia continues talking about the towns, their aspects, people, particulars of trade. She mentions something about a place called “Garnet Manor” and its “world of secrets.” Cora lets her mind drift, trying to dislodge the statement from her mind: Where’s the thrill in always remaining comfortable?
How dare he judge her. Every man in Atherton immediately accepted her when she began work at the mill. Her father encouraged it. She never pays much attention to the women in town. She doesn’t come across them very often. Cora much prefers the company of men, that much is true. It seems they understand her much better. So why, then, is it wrong to remain where she is accepted? What good is a short thrill when she is already perfectly happy and content?
The trip back up the mountain seems much longer than the trip down was, but when they finally pull into Atherton, Cora relaxes and sighs. She can forget about this trip and return to work, at least for a little while. It looks like the workers are nearly finished. She quickly parks the wagon and leaps out, immediately at home in this lovely little town, comforted by the familiar glances of the men as they greet her. This place is home. Things will never have to change.
Papa appears from the door of Sawmill Cabin.
“How was your first time in Hale, Cora-Mae?” he asks, wiping a small gear from one of his contraptions with an already blackened cloth. He always keeps his tone light and his displays of affection limited while they’re with the men, but she knows he’s been worrying the entire time they’ve been gone.
“Great,” she replies, and he knows she’ll tell him more later.
“Thank you so much, Cora,” Alexia says.
“It was my pleasure,” Cora replies a tad stiffly. “I hope Mikael is well soon.”
Alexia smiles as she touches her arm, then turns and departs. Papa approaches and watches her go. “It seems your dislike for Alexia has waned.”
“She showed her a new side of herself today. I’m not certain, but I think I’d like it if we were friends.”
Papa nods. “I’d like that too. It’d be nice for you to get to know another woman.”
She eyes him in bewilderment. “What? Why?”
Before he has a chance to answer, Lucas steps down from the sawmill platform and grins. But Cora knows that smile, when his green eyes seem too bright, his grin too wide. He’s uneasy about something. “Cora,” he says, “can we speak privately for a moment?”
She’s immediately uneasy too. “What’s wrong?”
His grin softens and he gestures ahead of himself, to the path that leads to the forest, then takes a step toward it. She wordlessly follows him down the path, casting a brief glance back at Papa, who’s already disappeared into the cabin. What’s going on?
Lucas leads her down the trail until they’re far enough away that they can’t hear the town anymore. “Why are we out here?” she wonders as he falls in step beside her.
“Cora, we’ve known each other all our lives,” he begins, “and, over the years, I assume you’ve never seen me as anything more than a companion.” Cora’s heart begins to pound wildly as she realizes where this is going. “But I haven’t seen you as just a companion.” He stops and turns her to him, his eyelids blinking with nervousness. “I...I love you, Cora, and I’ve asked your father for permission to marry you.”
Coraleth has no words. She finds herself staring into the eyes of a person she’s known from the day she was born. She’s unconsciously memorized every feature on his face. The dimple on only one cheek. The way a wisp of his light brown hair sticks up on the right side. Every fleck of colour in his green eyes. She knows the way he works, inside and out, like the contraptions Papa builds and maintains. She knows what will make him angry and what will calm him down. She knows him better than she knows herself. He is familiarity. Comfort.
She squeeze her eyes shut. Where’s the thrill?
And she hates that that is the first complete thought she forms when her best friend asks to marry her.
“What do you say?” Lucas asks after a moment. She notices the tremor in his voice and feels it in her own heart.
This isn’t happening. Lucas Kayde, my best friend, is not asking me to marry him. Doesn’t he realize how strange the very thought is? Doesn’t he know how life will change if we get married? Isn’t he content with the way things are?
Obviously not. So why is she?
“I...I have to think about it,” she stammers out.
Then she turns and runs.