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Mansfield

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Chapter 2: Maid in Mansfield

Edmund felt a surge of anticipation as he maneuvered his pickup truck onto the packed dirt driveway in front of the house. The truck, which he had lovingly christened ‘Tonto,’ shuddered and gave an almighty splutter as Edmund killed the engine. “Good boy,” he said, patting the dash affectionately before climbing out. When the truck had been new it was sort of a pearly white with black stripes (hence the name), but now tumors of rust crept in around the edges, metastasizing the paint as the poor thing aged.

The sight of Edmund’s childhood home widened the smile already in place. The large house had a natural, rustic feel to it. Weathered beams of wood made up the exterior of the spacious one-level rancher, and a wraparound porch surrounded the house, complete with a creaky old porch swing. To the right was the paddock where the horses regularly exercised, and straight ahead was the barn that housed them. Though Edmund had been looking forward to seeing his silver stallion, Hunter, he bypassed the barn and headed straight into the house. There was a certain someone he was excited to see even more.

The ancient screen door gave a creek of protest and banged shut behind him, causing his mother to lift her eyes from a needlepoint project in her lap.

“Oh, you made it, dear. I’m so glad!”

Edmund bent to kiss her on the cheek. “Hi, mom.” To say that Dolly Ann Bertram was something of a worrier would be an understatement. “Nora,” he added with a nod to his aunt.

Aunt Nora looked up with something like forced politeness, but said nothing by way of greeting. Just as well. She would no doubt find her voice very soon, and the only person who could ever effectively silence her—his father—happened to be away at the moment.

“Where’s Ani?” Edmund asked his mother, noticing Nora’s mouth doing that pucker thing it always did at the mention of her unofficial niece.

“I think she’s cleaning cabins, poor thing.”

Nora tutted. “Oh, come now, Dolly. Elbow grease never killed anybody. Besides, after all you and T.R. have done for her, taking her in like you did, feeding her, clothing her, it’s the least she can do.”

Time to leave. Edmund didn’t want Nora’s bitterness to ruin the high of surprising Ani. Backtracking through the front door, he jogged down the stairs and veered toward the cabins.

As he walked, Edmund took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air, filling his lungs with the stuff until he felt something like a balloon. The Bertram family had run Mansfield Nature Park—a rustic resort on the outskirts of West Yellowstone—for generations. The cabins would soon be occupied with summer tourists, booked solid through the summer months. The horses would soon be bearing Mansfield’s guests along the scenic trails, treating them to the splendor of Yellowstone. Edmund often found himself wondering how people could bear leaving when it came time to go back to reality; he always found it nearly impossible himself. A rush of wellbeing came over him as he considered again his status as a college graduate. He would be home for the foreseeable future, and didn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

Of course, his graduate status also filled him with not a small amount of dread. Breaking the news to his father that he had no intention of putting on a suit and getting a big city job just because he had a bachelor’s degree in business wouldn’t be pleasant.

No, Edmund Bertram had other plans for his degree, and those plans didn’t include leaving Mansfield. He still hadn’t worked out quite how to present his business plan to his father, who protested change in all its forms. But truthfully, T.R. was getting too old to keep up with the park on his own. Tom, the eldest son, had made it clear that he had no intention of taking over the family business, and the twins were chomping at their respective twenty-one-year-old bits to get out of the house. Once they made their escape, Mansfield would be down two equestrian staff: Ani and himself. Edmund just had to let T.R. know of his career ambitions without getting his hackles up.

As Edmund neared the row of six cabins that stretched out diagonally from the house, he saw number three’s door open, a broom and mop propped up on the porch. Anticipation took him over again, tingling in his fingertips and speeding his steps.

As far as Ani knew, Edmund wouldn’t be home until the following week, and he had sworn the family to secrecy. If he did nothing else right for the rest of the day, the rest of the week, even, this would be enough. Making Ani happy had always been so effortless; such short work. Her being so easy to please was the natural result of having little to no expectations of humanity in general. When no one took care of you—least of all those who had been entrusted with the task—every kindness, no matter how insignificant, was felt profoundly.

As he drew near the cabin, he could hear Ani singing, her soft voice floating out on the sunlit air. The slightly off key tone told Edmund that she had her earbuds in.

He had always loved listening to Ani sing. She had a soft, breathy, grainy sort of voice that made him think of static on a television screen. Or maybe that’s how her singing made him feel: like his insides were restless and looking for a place to settle down. He thought he’d heard the tune she sang now on the country station he always listened to, but he couldn’t come up with the ballad name right away.

Edmund had every intention of sneaking up on Ani. After all, hearing her squeal would be half the fun. But when he stepped up onto the porch and looked into the little cabin, he found himself just standing and staring.

Ani, down on her hands and knees scouring the bathroom floor, wore a pair of holey blue jeans and an old T-shirt. Her mahogany hair lay over one shoulder in a messy braid, a sweep of it catching on the fringe of her dark eyelashes. Ani had never really caked on the eye makeup like his sisters did. She was too genuine for that. Her authenticity was something he’d always loved about her. Her usually pale skin had darkened to a light olive, telling Edmund that she’d already spent a good amount of time outdoors, probably helping the twins prepare the horses for busy season. Looking at her made him feel as if he’d tried to capture the wind.

Telling himself that his euphoria was on account of surprising her was only half of the story. He’d be lying to himself if he said that he wasn’t just as anxious to see her as to be seen by her. While away at college, Edmund felt their separation like a physical ache in his bones, one that no amount of painkiller could appease.

As Edmund watched her, he decided that something was distinctly though subtly different about Ani. It had only been a few months since he’d seen her. Surely she couldn’t have changed so much in that time. Maybe knowing that she would graduate high school in a couple of days—blowing by that last childhood rite of passage—had his stomach in knots. Looking at her now, Edmund couldn’t fathom that he’d ever thought of her as a child. Swallowing the lump that felt the size of a golf ball, he moved toward her.

Anika Price swiped a wrist across her forehead with one hand, then continued scrubbing the cabin floor. It might have seemed strange that the mop stood unused on the front porch, but Anika had always preferred cleaning the floor by hand. One simply couldn’t reach all the little corners and crannies that needed reaching with a mop. She stifled a dark sigh. No doubt, if Nora saw her scrubbing away Cinderella-style, her adoptive aunt would chide her for resorting to such primitive means while being secretly pleased that the unwelcome addition to the Bertram family had finally learned her place on the totem pole: way down at the bottom, somewhere between the help and horse droppings.

Shaking herself out of her negative thoughts, Anika directed her efforts toward a stubborn spot of mildew on the floor as she sang along with the latest song she’d downloaded—a snappy country song called Dibs. Nothing would bring her down today—not when the countdown was almost at an end.

Though still days away, Edmund’s homecoming gave Anika a pleasant little swoop in her stomach. She hadn’t seen him since Christmas—only five months ago—not really all that long. Five months was nothing, except perhaps to an expectant mother, to the wife of a deployed soldier, or to a teenage girl whose best friend in the world had gone off to college. When Edmund left home four years ago, Anika’s heart had separated, and a large portion of it seemed to have hitched itself to the back of Tonto as he’d driven away. She’d never really been whole since.

Anika knew the bond she had with Edmund wasn’t ordinary; for most people an age gap of five years was enough to prevent such a connection. But Edmund and Anika’s relationship was difficult to describe. They weren’t blood brother and sister. Anika’s adoption into the Bertram family had been an unofficial one with no legalities. ‘Best friends’ wasn’t quite adequate either, and they definitely weren’t boyfriend/girlfriend. She felt herself blush at the thought.

Whatever they were, they both felt and acknowledged it—though she wasn’t entirely certain either of them could define it.

Catching a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye, Anika turned her head toward the door—and stilled. Her eyes must be playing tricks on her, conjuring up a corporeal being from the thoughts in her head. But after a breath, she realized that the fantasy being looked a little too substantial, the ice blue eyes too stunning to be phantom, the crinkle lines at their corners too familiar. He appeared somehow different than in her cherished memories—different than he had been five months ago. It took her a moment to realize that it was his unshaven face—layered with facial hair—that had thrown her off. When his beautiful lips broke into a hesitant smile, Anika got unsteadily to her feet. Heart beating in her throat, she clumsily tugged on the cord of her earbuds.

“Edmund?” His name came out on a whisper of breath, her throat clogged as it was.

“Hey, Skywalker.”

He’d called her that since she was a little girl, since she’d told him that her middle name was Sky, and that her first name being Anika hadn’t been a mistake. Her parents being Star Wars geeks in their youth was one of the few things they had going for them.

At the sound of his voice, Anika found herself moving forward, not really sure if she’d given her legs the command or if they ran on auto pilot. Either way, she found herself standing before him, her mouth open in disbelief as she argued with herself over the reality of his presence.

Then the smile grew, reaching up to his eyes, flooding them with warmth.

“Edmund!” she squeaked, and threw her arms around his neck. He crushed her against himself, leaning back and supporting her weight on his torso. She squeezed as hard as she could, her awe finally giving way to intense joy when she decided that he wasn’t a hallucination.

When he set her down, Anika didn’t realize her feet were back on solid ground. She might as well have been flying.

“What are you doing here?!” she asked, breathless with delight. “I thought you weren’t coming in ’til next week?”

“That’s what you were supposed to think.” He winked. “Would I really miss your graduation?”

“Um, yes, actually—since you should be attending your own.” She tried to eye him severely, but couldn’t quite manage it through the irrepressible grin.

He shrugged. “Walking’s not as big a deal in college as it is in high school.”

Edmund had missed his own graduation ceremony to be at hers? Anika felt as though someone had just poured a steaming cup of chamomile tea right into her soul. Speechless, she circled her arms around his waist and pressed her cheek into his chest. His arms closed around her again and she breathed in, committing Edmund’s leather-and-earth scent to memory. He was far too practical for anything like cologne, which suited Anika just fine. No one else smelled just like Edmund. His scent filled her with a sense of security, with belonging, with the sensation of coming home. Edmund’s cheek settled against the top of Anika’s head, which fit precisely under his chin as if the two of them had been cut from the same material.

“Did I surprise you?” he said into her hair a moment later.

“More like gave me a heart attack,” she murmured.

He chuckled. “Not really what I was going for.”

They stood for a moment, embracing in silence. Then something occurred to Anika: Edmund might smell like heaven, but she most certainly did not. Face flushing with heat, she stiffed and extricated herself.

“Ugh, sorry, I’m all sweaty. I haven’t showered today . . . I must be a real sight.”

“Yeah, you’re a mess all right,” Edmund teased, tugging on her braid. “Your hair’s longer.”

“You too.” After a short hesitation, Anika scuffed her palm against his jaw. His face somehow scratchy and soft at the same time.

“Oh, yeah. That’s my, uh . . .” his face ripened with chagrin. “. . . Attempt at a beard. What do you think? Manly?”

Anika laughed when Edmund stretched his neck and tried to look self-important. “Very mature and sophisticated,” she pronounced. Very rugged. Very hard to take my eyes off.

“Sophisticated, huh?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “What about . . . future business owner?” Edmund sat down on the freshly made bed and looked up with an expectant expression.

“Definitely,” she said after pretending to think about it. “Did you talk to your dad yet?”

Edmund took off his worn leather jacket, laying it aside. “Not yet. It’s kind of a better in-person thing, don’t you think? I can’t really do it over the phone. Besides, you know how dad gets when he’s on the road.”

Anika did know. Every summer T.R. traveled up to western Canada to help his younger brother with the Calgary Stampede. Though the event itself only spanned about a week in July, preparation and clean-up made it a month-long thing. And this year, T.R. had left even earlier to deliver twenty head of cattle to an old friend on the way. He wouldn’t return until sometime in July. T.R.’s absence during the park’s busiest time wasn’t ideal, but Edmund had somehow managed to convince his father that he could hold down the financial fort until he returned.

Add to that the fact that T.R. was a man of few words, with an obvious aversion to all things electronic, and phone conversations were rare.

“You’re probably right, but it’s not going to be any easier if you wait.”

“Sure it will. Waiting gives me time to come up with a plan of attack.”

“You make it sound like a battle.”

“More like the apocalypse,” Edmund joked darkly.

Anika sat beside him and listed her head, conceding the point. Last Christmas, Edmund had come home and announced that he wanted to take over the family business. T.R. wouldn’t live forever, after all; somebody would have to take over at some point. Why not Edmund?

Incensed at the suggestion, T.R. forbade Edmund from mentioning it ever again. “Sounds like lettin’ yer education go te waste,” T.R. had said.

Edmund’s career aspirations had come as no surprise to Anika, however. Edmund loathed dressing up, and asking him to sit behind a desk all day would be like expecting a spirited horse never to gallop.

“I’ve kind of been working on a business proposal to show him,” Edmund said, drawing Anika from the memory. “I think it may help if he sees it on paper.”

Anika raised her eyebrows. She doubted it—the patriarch of the family wasn’t so much a numbers man as set in his ways. He didn’t like change. Another thing he didn’t like was being wrong. And though he never would’ve admitted it, T.R. had been dead wrong to think that his eldest son Tom would have any interest in Mansfield Park—aside from its keeping him in Coronas and giving him pocket change to gamble with. No, all the Bertrams knew that when it came time for T.R. to hang his hat, it wouldn’t be Tom stepping into his boots.

“You’re quiet,” Edmund mused, taking Anika’s hand between his in a mindless sort of way. “What are you thinking about?”

“I was thinking that eventually his mind will change out of necessity,” Anika said, glad that her words hadn’t followed suit with her heart, stuttering at his touch.

“That’s true. I guess I’ll have to thank Tom for flunking out of MSU in his first semester.”

“And the twins for choosing rodeo over education,” Anika added.

Edmund grinned. “And then there’s Ani, the constant one.” He slipped his fingers into the spaces between hers, just like he had done hundreds, probably thousands of times before. And still, goose bumps erupted along her skin.

While Anika endeavored to keep Edmund from seeing this, he stroked a thumb along the side of her hand. “I missed you.”

“Me too.” He would never know how much, of course.

After a moment, Anika sighed. “Speaking of being constant, I have to get the rest of these cabins ready before guests start showing this weekend.”

“We have bookings already?”

It was late May, which in Yellowstone usually meant that a good bit of snow still covered the ground. Things didn’t usually pick up until mid-June, when the hiking trails thawed and dried.

“Number two is booked for the whole summer by the same people,” Anika said, collecting her iPod and the cleaning caddy. Edmund followed her out onto the porch, locking the door behind them. “They’re checking in Saturday.”

“The same people for the whole summer? Really?”

“Yep. A brother and sister,” Anika said, heading to the next cabin. “I think they’re foreign.”

Edmund relieved her of the cleaning caddy. “Okay. I’ll help, then.”

“You don’t have to,” Anika argued. “Besides, don’t you have a certain business proposition to prepare?”

“I’ve got time. Many hands make light work, right?”

Anika gave him a disparaging look. “Dragging your feet will only make it more unpleasant, you know.”

“I’m not dragging my feet. I’m . . . letting it percolate. Anyway, I thought we could do some star watching later, and you can’t very well do that if you’re knee-deep in Scrubbing Bubbles, can you?”

Anika glared sideways at him while they walked. She tried to come up with another angle for her argument, but honestly there was nothing she would rather have right now than Edmund’s company. She sighed in defeat.

Edmund grinned. “I know, I know—I’m hopeless. “But you love me anyway.”

Slinging an arm around Ani’s shoulders, he pulled her into step beside himself as they headed for cabin number four.

He had a point there.

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