A new-found friend...
Aniela stepped into the kitchen, and the silence of the household was almost stifling. A wave of loneliness like she has never known took hold and clutched at her insides. There was no hearing Brydon’s youthful jibber-jabber. No sounds of Jessie and Lucian’s love tapped banter. And, no echoing of Olivia’s cries resounding through the desolate halls.
Her arms folded around her torso as she examined the spacious kitchen for anybody to crack the oppressive emptiness. As she turned around, the sun beamed into the windows causing her to safeguard her eyes from its blinding glare. The sound of water boiling drew her attention towards the stove. There was no Nettie and no housemaids to attend the nearly boiling over the pot. So, she set it upon herself to remedy the situation and hoist the bulky pot away from the hot fire.
The side door suddenly kicked open, and Aniela almost leaped out of her skin at the loud intrusion into her sober thoughts.
“Miss Aniela,” Nettie huffed as she carried an armload of firewood to the stove and stockpiled it on the floor. “You are up early. Is everything okay?”
She shivered from the crisp air that swirled in from the opened door. “Yes,” Aniela sighed. “I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t think you would mind that I came and sat with you for a while. The house seems awfully quiet, and a silent house causes me to feel...” Her voice faded and a shudder traveled through her body again.
Nettie went to her and gently grasped her hand. “Of course I don’t mind,” she smiled, leading Aniela to a waiting stool. “You sit down right here, Miss and I will prepare you something to eat.”
Aniela shook her head. “That’s unnecessary, Nettie,” she responded, giving her a weak smile. “I’m not very hungry at the moment.”
Nettie’s head cocked to the side, and her eyes softened like soulful brown puddles. “How about I just give you a slice of warm bread with apple butter?” she suggested with a crooked smile. “You eat what you wish and what you don’t want; Edgar will eat later.”
She nodded and watched Nettie turn to busy herself cutting a few slices of bread from a newly baked loaf. Once finished, she whirled back around and set a plate with two steaming slices in front of her. The aroma from the bread plumed up, filling her nostrils. It should have caused her mouth water, but instead, nausea gripped her belly. But she didn’t want to hurt Nettie’s feelings, so she picked up a knife and prepared to spread apple butter over one slice.
Turning back towards the stove, Nettie lifted the steaming pot back onto the fire and proceeded to babble on about the day’s activities.
“Jeeessssiiieee,” came a clamorous cry from behind them.
A terrifying scream flowed from Aniela’s lips just as she was heaved into the air.
Nettie turned just in time to witness someone had engulfed Aniela from behind in a suffocating bear hug. She approached the pair with a broad smile, but the smile evaporated when she scrutinized the terror depicted on Aniela’s face.
Her arms flailed in front of her, kicking and struggling with whoever it was that seized her. A sense to defend herself prompted Aniela to lift the knife she held in one hand and bring it down with all the force she could muster, plunging it into his arm.
The jovial cry from a moment ago was swiftly turned into a wailing screech of pain, and he hastily freed her, sending her tumbling to the floor.
“You stabbed me,” he yelped with a high-pitched wail and disbelief trimming his eyes.
Nettie rushed to assist both of them. “Joseph,” she admonished. “What are you doing? This isn’t Miss Jessie! This here is Miss Aniela!” She instantly dropped to her knees in front of Aniela. “Are you okay, Miss?”
Aniela had scampered across the floor until her back pressed tight against the wall. She nodded her head but couldn’t form words to deliver her confirmation. Her heart pounded fiercely in her breast, and her breathing came in short, gasping bursts. She peered past Nettie to stare at the tall, dark-haired man that was now seated on the stool where she once sat. His face had turned milky white, and looked like he was on the brink of passing out.
She presumed it was because of the sizeable pearling knife that was now protruding from his forearm and his blood puddling beneath him on the floor.
Nettie lowered her head to be eye level with Aniela. “Take deep breathes, Miss Aniela,” she said, attempting to calm her down. “This young man is Joseph Harlow. He is a good friend of Miss Jessie’s, and he would never seek to harm you.”
“What-what is he doing here?” she asked, struggling to suppress the hysteria in her voice.
Harlow turned and looked at them both with a grimace on his face. “Jessie invited me,” he asserted, glancing from Aniela to Nettie, then back to his bleeding arm. “Are either one of you going to help me?”
Nettie offered her hand and waited for Aniela to take it; then, she quickly drew her back up onto her feet.
Again she peered past Nettie to give this man Joseph Harlow a distrustful glance while her hands pressed down on her dress, seeking to make certain everything was smooth and back in its place. Her hands immediately felt a dampness on her side, and when she glanced down, she detected a glaringly dark stain about the size of a small apple smeared on her dress.
In the past, she had never been one to become anxious over the sight of blood, but matters have altered since those carefree times in her life. She lifted her hand and noticed Joseph’s blood lingered on her skin. A cold surge of anxiousness coiled in her abdomen, and she stepped hastily to a water basin needing to scrub it away.
She plunged a cloth into the water and fumbled with a small bar of soap, then fretfully rubbed at the stain, but her efforts were creating the stain to expand. She turned and glanced at Nettie, but she appeared to be fussing over Joseph now. Tears started to build in her eyes, and she terminated her failing attempt. She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and drew deep breaths needing to calm her surging emotions.
A sad laugh flowed from her lips, and she lifted a trembling hand to wipe at her pooling tears. She recognized it was silly to weep over a minuscule amount of blood, ruining a dress. Especially one she could have replaced tomorrow is she so desired. She drew in a few longer breathes and closed her eyes, seeking to clear her mind of its unpleasant thoughts. After a few moments, she could feel her heartbeat begin to slow, and she felt a calmness settle over her.
Opening her eyes, she glanced back down at the bloodstain with a recognition the lavender dress was undoubtedly ruined, but she suddenly didn’t care anymore.
Dropping the soap, she turned to glance over her shoulder at Nettie and Jessie’s friend Joseph. Nettie was still struggling to calm him down, and the knife remained protruding from his arm like a flagpole erected in the ground. Biting her lower lip, she cautiously stepped towards them to observe the damage done.
Joseph’s head hung down, and he held it in his empty hand, while sad and pitiful moans flowed from his lips. His muffled cries prompted Aniela to bring a hand to her mouth to suppress a chuckle.
Nettie gave her a disapproving glance, then surveyed Josephs’s wound to figure out her forward plan to pull out the knife without inducing further pain and anymore unwanted bleeding.
Aniela swallowed back her shame. “I’m sorry,” she mused in a half-whisper, trying to conceal her giggle. “I didn’t mean to stab or hurt you in any way.”
Joseph’s head jerked up. “Then why did you?” he exclaimed with a pitched voice.
“Joseph!” Nettie scolded with narrowed eyes, giving his arm a disapproving tap. “You can’t speak to Miss Aniela in that manner.”
His free hand waved dramatically in the air before him. “Why not?” He asserted. “She stabbed me!”
“You snuck up on me,” Aniela countered, not even trying to suppress the condemnation in her voice.
Joseph rolled his eyes in incredulity, and a low laugh rumbled from his lips. “So do you stab all unsuspecting people who sneak up on you?”
“You rich people are something else,” he fumed, shaking his head.
“Joseph!” Nettie gasped, stamping one foot. “I will not stand here and allow you to insult Miss Aniela.”
His one eyebrow raised. “What? I insulted her because I called her rich. Oh, I’m sorry. Please accept my apologies. I had no idea...”
Joseph’s lecture was halted when Aniela gripped the knife and yanked it free from his arm.
They all remained fixed for a moment while blood exuded from his wound and a fresh puddle started to form beneath him on the floor.
“Aaahhhhhhhh,” Joseph howled with wide eyes. “What did you doooooooo?”
Aniela started to back away, not yearning to get any further blood on her clothing. She watched as Nettie ran across the room and seized a towel.
“Hold this over the wound,” she instructed, passing the towel to Aniela. “I need to find a needle and silk so I can stitch him shut.”
“What?” Aniela gasped, shaking her head. “No! I can’t!”
Nettie refused to accept no for an answer. “You can, and you will. I can’t do this all by myself. You should have considered that before you pull the knife free. Now git back over there and hold pressure on it until I come back.”
Glancing back at him, Aniela tugged on her bottom lip and stepped hesitantly to him. Embarrassed, she averted her gazed while she lifted the towel and placed it on his arm. They remained silent for a moment when she finally gained the fortitude to speak. “I am genuinely sorry,” she murmured in a remorse-ladened voice. She watched him lift his head, and she noticed he appeared paler than he was five minutes ago. She prayed he wasn’t going to pass out. “I didn’t mean to cause you pain,” she added. “I merely sought to have you quit talking, and I determined that pulling the knife free was the best means to do it.” He gawked at her blankly, and she noticed the beads of perspiration dotting his brow. She glanced towards the door, praying Nettie would come back soon.
“A time ago, Jessie had informed me that she had a sister,” Joseph mumbled. “I presume she failed to point out that the two of you were twins. So, my apologies for startling you the way I did.”
They both released an awkward laugh; then Nettie came dashing back into the room with a needle, a spool of silk, and a bottle of whiskey in hand.
Nettie sat down beside them and lifted the towel to survey the damage to his arm. She then shifted and poured whiskey into a waiting cup. “Drink this,” she directed, handing it to Joseph.
He obliged her without contention and drained the cup’s contents.
She poured a modest amount of whiskey over the needle and wound, then peered at Aniela. “Hold his arm,” she charged. They both studied at her like she abruptly lost all mental function.
“What?” Aniela gasped. “Certainly, you don’t believe me to be strong enough to keep him still?”
Nettie rolled her eyes. “Then Joseph will have to make sure he doesn’t struggle against the pain too much.” She shifted her gaze on him, daring him to argue. When he conceded with a nod, she inserted the needle through his skin, employing the first stitch.
Joseph bulked, whined, and twitched with each pinch of the needle.
Turning her head away from him, Aniela tried to conceal the grin that was forming on her lips. It was the first time in weeks she indeed felt like smiling. It was at that moment she decided she could grow to like this man, Joseph Harlow.
Pulling the last stitch tight, Nettie bent down and surveyed her work. “All finished,” she stated, admiring her sewing and snipping the last thread. “I imagine you will end up with a slight scar, but declare it as a battle wound.”
Aniela went to the washbasin to fetch a damp cloth and returned to clean the dried blood caked on his arm. “This might hurt a little,” she advised before she began to scrub.
“Ouch,” Joseph whined, pulling his arm away. “Jesus, woman, please be gentle.” He tentatively laid his arm back down, but not before he presented her with a warning frown.
She moved her hand up to cover her mouth and again had to stifle a laugh. “My goodness, you are as delicate as a newborn baby,” she laughed.
His jaw dropped open, and he feigned being even more wounded. “I can already tell you and Jessie are blood-related. I have no doubt she would have likewise offered the same biting remarks.”
They laughed together. “I like you, Joseph Harlow,” she admitted shyly and adverting her gaze. “It’s been a long time since I have truly laughed.”
Nettie handed him a roll of gauze, and he, in turn, gave it to Aniela. He watched her begin gently wrap it around his forearm. “I would like to express that I also like you,” he responded, bestowing her a crooked grin. “But, first impressions are everything, and my first impression of you has flown south with the crows.” He wavered to lean on his elbow and beamed into her green eyes. “I mean, who stabs someone during their first introduction?”
Aniela didn’t answer him. Instead, she mocked him and leaned on her elbow until their faces were almost touching. “I believe I have just discovered a very good friend,” she announced in a flat whisper.
Joseph smirked. “You madame could possibly be correct,” he concurred with mischievous eyes. “You need to know, though. All my good friends call me Harlow.”
“Well, then,” she said. “Harlow, it is.”
After stabling his horse, Jaylon walked up the snowy path to the back door leading to the kitchen. He kicked the snow off his boots and opened the door. Immediately he heard Aniela’s laughter drift to his ears from the kitchen. He hesitated for a moment, noting the sun was still yet low on the horizon in the East, and she undoubtedly shouldn’t be out of bed yet.
He brushed off his coat and strode down the hallway when an unexpected thought struck him.
The stable held an extra horse that wasn’t there when he departed late last night. He patted his chin; he considered it was most probably Michaels. Another volley of laughter drifted down the corridor and prompted him to pick up the pace as a sense of alarm settled over him.
When he stepped over the threshold to where they were all seated on bar stools around the large table centering the room, a stampede of bulls could have plowed him over at what laid before him.
Aniela and Camille sat entranced on either side of a handsome young man. They both appeared to be quite enamored with what this gentleman was saying and pinned on his every word.
None of the three noticed Jaylon as he strolled into the room and leaned on the counter with arms crossed at his chest. That is, not until Camille caught him in her line of sight.
“Jay,” she gushed, rising quickly to step in his direction. She clutched his hand and drew him towards their guest. “Jaylon, this is Joseph Harlow. He is one of Jessie’s very good friends.”
Jaylon nodded his acknowledgment but chose not to speak to him. His eyes were held firmly on Aniela and the bloodstain covering her dress. “Why does your dress have blood all over it?” He demanded, capturing her hand and moving to pull her to her feet.
Her eyes drew together, and she pulled her hand from his grasp. “Jaylon, you are being impolite,” she murmured, trying to suppress her displeasure.
Harlow rose from his chair and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you, Sir Veltre,” he greeted with a pensive smile. “We met once before. I was just telling Lady Camille...”
Jaylon ignored him and shifted back towards Aniela. “Are you going to answer me?”
Camille’s mouth dropped open at her brother’s rudeness, and she glanced at Aniela. “Jay, don’t be so obtuse,” she asserted, trying to assuage the tension in the room. “Do you recall that dingy little bar along the docks? Oh... what was it called?” She paused, staring at the floor and tapping her chin. “The pirate’s table? No, that’s not it.”
“The Mate’s Table,” Jaylon corrected her while his eyes remained fixed on Aniela.
“Yes,” Camille perked up, pointing at him. “Anyway, remember it was the Mate’s Table where we first met Jessie? Harlow was likewise there. Do you recall meeting him?”
Jaylon did remember him. He turned deliberately and allowed his eyes to travel the length of this, Joseph Harlow. “So, you are an acquaintance of Jessie’s?”
“I am,” Harlow gushed, drawing a step towards him. But he balked when he noticed Jaylon’s sullen face.
“Why are you here?” Jaylon inquired, shifting his attention back to Aniela.
“That’s none of your business,” Aniela snapped, not caring for his tone. “This is my home, so you have no say in who visits here.”
He stepped towards her and gripped her arm none too gently. “I do have to say, when I am here to protect you,” Jaylon claimed, drawing her away to the other side of the room. “Where did the blood come from, Aniela?”
“It’s mine,” Harlow exclaimed, taking a few strides in their direction. “Jessie invited me to come and visit when my classes finished in the spring. I thought Miss Aniela was Jessie, and I crept up on her.” He faltered when he saw Jaylon turn and glower at him. “I-I presume she was defending herself when she stabbed me. But I’m okay...”
“You stabbed him?” Jaylon said, gaping down at her.
Her eyes narrowed, and she tore her arm from his grasp.
Camille looked around the room, knowing things were about to shift out of hand. “It’s just a minor flesh wound,” Camille announced with a fraudulent smile. “Isn’t that right, Joseph?”
He perked up when she spoke to him. “Oh yes,” Harlow confirmed. “It’s a minor wound. The volume of blood makes it appear worse than it actually is.”
“So when can we expect your departure?” Jaylon asked in a flat tone.
Harlow’s eyes grew wide. “Ummm,” he stumbled to offer his answer, and his gaze drifted between them. “Jessie invited me to reside here until my schooling resumes in late summer.”
Camille clapped her blessing. “That’s marvelous,” she gasped with a smile and sought to present him a congratulatory hug.
But Jaylon halted his sister. “Cami, can you find Nettie please, so we can have this matter dealt with?”
Suddenly as if on cue, Nettie walked back through the swinging doors. She immediately ceased when the tension in the room struck her almost like a physical blow. The four of them turned at once and faced at her. “Is something amiss?” She inquired, as her eyes searched all their faces.
Aniela surged forward. “No,” she contended, giving Jaylon a cautionary glance. “Harlow was just expressing to us how Jessie and Lucian allowed him to live here while he is on a class break.”
Understanding now, Nettie glanced at Jaylon before she answered. “Yes, that is correct,” she confirmed. Then she peered over at Harlow with a hesitant glance. “I already had your belongings taken to your bed-chamber. I hope that was okay?”
The silence in the room permeated between them.
Harlow fidgeted, then cleared his throat. “I can find someplace else to stay,” he declared unexpectedly. “I-I don’t desire to be a bother.”
“No!” Aniela and Camille shouted simultaneously. They glanced at each other, then Aniela finished explaining. “If Jessie welcomed you in our home, then I will do the same.” She turned and glowered at Jaylon, daring him to oppose her charge.
He held her gaze for a moment; then his eyes shifted to the floor while a low guttural laugh spilled from his lips.
Knowing her brother well, she sensed he was about to explode. She walked over to him and casually linked her arm through his in an attempt to draw him from the room.
But he wouldn’t budge an inch.
So she tugged on his shoulder, and he bowed down for her to whisper in his ear. His facial expressions changed with virtually every word Camille spoke to him. When she was through, Jaylon straightened up, and she faced the rest of them with a knowing smile.
Jaylon cleared his throat. “Mr. Harlow, may I have a word with you in private?”
Harlow’s eyes flashed between Nettie and Aniela. “Yes, of course.” He turned to leave the kitchen, but Jaylon halted him.
“No. I desire to have this discussion in the stables. If that is likewise acceptable to you?”
His mouth dropped open, and he stammered to form words. “I-I guess that’s okay.”
Aniela surged forward and grabbed Jaylon’s arm. “What are you doing?”
His eyes raked over her. “I am going to have a conversation with your new-found friend. To establish that he understands the rules of this house.”
Her jaw clenched. “The rules of this house don’t concern you, Jaylon.”
He chuckled. “They do until Lucian and Jessie return.” He didn’t stick around for her to respond or for Harlow to accompany him. He turned and proceeded down the corridor, then out the back door.