Touch of Heaven

Touch of Heaven

Virginia Brown

July 2018 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-893896-96-3

Death is just the beginning for Tabitha Tidwell . . .

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Death is just the beginning for Tabitha Tidwell . . .

Heaven has been a bit of a disappointment until now. It's been a long time since the Elizabethan era of her day, and Tabitha has become rather bored with Shakespeare’s plays and Beethoven’s concerts. So, helping out her American descendant in 19th century Texas sounds not only enlightening but entertaining.

Life on Earth needs a touch of Heaven . . .

Susan Whitten has just inherited two problems: a centuries-old brooch, complete with a curse, and a cattle ranch about to be lost. The only solution she sees is to ask the new merchant in town for credit. The trouble is, Hunter Carson has a reputation as a tough man to persuade.

Sparks fly at Susan and Hunter’s first meeting, and although Tabitha has never believed in true love, this guardian angel soon finds herself battling age-old forces that threaten to tear the lovers apart. Can she triumph over greed, jealousy, and old curses?

Only Heaven knows . . .

Since her first romance novel came out in 1984, Virginia Brown has written over 50 novels. Many of her books have been nominated for Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, Career Achievement Award for Adventure, EPIC eBook nomination for Historical Romance, and she received the RT Career Achievement Award for Historical Adventure, as well as the EPIC eBook Award for Mainstream Fiction. Her works have regularly appeared on national bestseller lists. She lives near her children in North Mississippi, surrounded by a menagerie of beloved dogs and cats while she writes.


"Virginia Brown’s novels sparkle with adventure, humor, and sizzling romance!” –Romantic Times


The Arrival


HOT WINDS SWEPT across a West Texas hillside, whirling in circles, stirring up choking clouds of dust that filled the air and drifted upward. The sudden dust devil left behind a tall, white-robed man and a woman garbed in a wide farthingale, red velvet skirts, and stiff cambric ruff that framed her neck and head. Both began coughing violently.

"Does Gabriel have to be so melodramatic about this?” the woman gasped out. Henna-red curls quivered with every motion of her head. Her companion shrugged between spasms of coughing.

"He does lean to the theatrical side, I suppose,” he finally said a bit dubiously.

"God’s toenails, Horatio,” the woman snapped when her coughing ceased. "Why didn’t you tell me we were going to the moon?” She swept out one arm in a dramatic motion that indicated the barren ground stud­ded with small clumps of prickly cactus and yucca. "I thought you said I had to—”

"This is America, the New World, just as I told you,” Horatio replied in a tone of weary patience. "We’re in a place named Texas. And I do wish you would not use such epithets, Tabitha.”

"Eh? Oh. You mean ‘God’s toenails.’ Sorry. I keep forgetting myself.” Tabitha energetically brushed dust from her clothes. A frown knit her plucked brows. "I still don’t understand why I must be forced to come to this godforsaken spot—oh, not that, either? Anyway, I’ve only just got to the Hereafter, and you’re already plaguing me with this ‘improve thyself’ nonsense.”

"Remember the proper vernacular, Miss Tidwell,” Horatio warned. "Your speech is important, and should you choose to engage your descendant in conversation, it could be embarrassing if you forget. Besides, you’ve been in the Hereafter for over three hundred years, plenty of time to improve and learn the art of suitable modern con­versation.”

Her sniff contained a wealth of disdain. "It certainly doesn’t feel like that long. Time does fly past, I suppose. Horatio, are you absolutely certain we are standing on Earth? This heat is dreadful. It certainly feels more like—well, the netherworld. Do people really live in this desolate land?”

"Positive. Just look over that ridge, and you will see her ranch.”

"Ah, yes,” Tabitha murmured, squinting against the sun as she peered at the scattered buildings below. "Now, you say this girl is a descendant of mine?”

"Exactly so. And she has just inherited the Lynnfield brooch.”

Tabitha’s jaw dropped, and she whirled to stare at Horatio. Red velvet skirts spun against the dirt, and her chin caught on the white pleated folds of ruff that bristled around her neck and throat. "Mybrooch?”

"Not yours, the Lynnfield family brooch, remember?”

"But this girl is—what did you call her? An American? How can someone who isn’t English inherit my brooch?” she demanded.

"Her grandmother was Mrs. Harriet Cabot, née Lynnfield. She was born in Surrey and married a Colonial in 1822, and—”

"How vulgar,” Tabitha muttered.

Horatio sighed.

"Sorry. Do go on,” she said rather impatiently.

"And came to America,” he finished. "The Cabots moved west in 1848 when Harriet was fifty-two and her daughter Charlotte was twenty. Charlotte married in 1852, and young Susan was born in 1853. She is the only living Lynnfield female of direct lineage to be found.”

"Good God,” Tabitha exclaimed. "All of them died out?”

"All the females, it seems,” Horatio replied dryly. "I believe that Lord Neville’s daughter was the last to die, and he passed the brooch on down the bloodline the best he could.”

"Blithering idiot,” Tabitha muttered in disgust. "I cannot counte­nance the fact that my brooch has fallen into the hands of commoners.”

"Miss Tidwell, all men are equal in the eyes—”

"I know, I know,” she interrupted hastily. "But not down here. That’s not the way it works, and no one knows that better than I do. The Lynnfield brooch in America!” She took a step forward, her heavy skirts swinging over dust and clumps of yucca. "What will they do next,” she blurted, "bring over London Bridge?”

"One never knows. At any rate, your purpose for being sent here is to help out your young descendant. She is about to be in serious trouble.” With a wave of one hand he indicated a cloud of dust rolling slowly along the road. It was a small buggy, and it bowled over ruts and dust as it passed through the gate leaving the ranch.

"The brooch has just been delivered,” Horatio said softly, and Tabitha couldn’t help an eager step forward.

"My brooch.”

"Tabitha, it isn’t your brooch. It is a family heirloom that now belongs to Miss Whitten.”

"I thought her name was Cabot. And besides, I have more of a right to it than anyone, don’t I? I died with the damned thing pinned to my chest, after all.”

"Miss Tidwell...

"Well, I did. Fell right down the stairs and broke my neck quick as a flash. Didn’t destroy the brooch, though.” She sniffed. "The least they could have done was bury me with it.”

"It is a Lynnfield family tradition to pass it down to the next female in line,” Horatio chided, and Tabitha glared at him.

"Don’t I know that? How do you think I got it?” Her plump cheeks quivered slightly. "Dreadful thing, really. I cannot forget how pale and bloodless Anna looked lying there with poison still on her lips. She was just before me, you know. I was next to inherit. Ah, well, she took her own life over a man. It was quite dreadful. There must be something to that curse business, though it does smack of—”

Taking Tabitha by the elbow, Horatio tactfully switched the subject. "Shall we begin helping Susan instead of debating ancient history? Her ranch is about to be lost because of a long drought that has dried up all the grass for the cattle, and—”

"Ancient history? It wasn’t that long ago.”

"... and it will not help her keep her father’s ranch if we mull over her wretched circumstances instead of taking action. That is your department, Miss Tidwell, and you must begin at once.”

Muttering under her breath, Tabitha lifted her full skirts from the dust and set off down the slope beside Horatio. This promised to be a most uncomfortable ordeal.

There were times, Tabitha thought gloomily, when she wasn’t certain exactly where in the Hereafter she had landed. The first hundred years or so had been quite pleasant, but now all this foolery about building character and other nonsense was beginning to make her think she had been duped. Perhaps this wasn’t Paradise after all. In the old days, she’d have assumed she was in Purgatory, but that was before King Henry VIII and the Reformation, of course, and no one except Catholics believed in that now. What a surprise they all had gotten when first arriving! What had been most important when alive underwent serious alterations once a person died. Where she had gone, a person’s moral character meant a lot more than prayer beads or pious pretenses. She had been quite relieved to discover that death did not necessarily mean there was no chance for redemption.

While Horatio may be a nuisance at times, he had undertaken to instruct her in all her shortcomings and how to improve. She had, of course, agreed to cooperate. It was not always easy, however.

Well, there was nothing to do now but see how she could help this silly chit who had managed to inherit nothing but dust and sky. And her brooch.

Surveying the scene below, miles of dust, dirt, and barren hills occasionally interspersed with clumps of bleached grass and cow bones, she nodded thoughtfully.

"A drought, you say? Perhaps a good rain will fix it all, and I can get back before Beethoven’s next concert begins.” She lifted her arms with a dramatic flourish.




"MISS SUSAN,” DORIS Wheeler cried, racing toward her employer with a frightened cry. "Miss Susan! Flash flood!”

Susan Cabot Whitten jerked up from the chair behind her father’s desk. For an instant she quivered in shock. A tumble of dark hair fell over her eyes, and she pushed it back with an impatient swipe of her hand, smudging ink across her nose in the process.

"Flash flood?” Susan came out from behind the desk, catching her skirt on an open drawer, then giving it a sharp tug that rent the material. She turned toward the window. "But it hasn’t rained in months.”

"It is now. It must have rained up in the hills.... Oh, do hurry, Miss Susan, or we’ll be drowned! Pete says it’s headed right toward us, and we need to get to higher ground.”

Susan groaned. "All right, I’m coming—you get Arthur for me.”

Pausing in the doorway, Doris flung Susan a reproachful glance. "You know I don’t like Arthur, Miss Susan. Let him run or swim.”

"Arthur can’t swim,” Susan said, "and you don’t have to like him to carry him out to the wagon, do you?”

"All right,” Doris grumbled with a scowl, "but I’d like to know what you’re going to be doing while I try and find that pig.”

"I have to get vital papers from the safe—and rescue my new legacy.” She said the last self-mockingly.

Whatever good would an heirloom brooch do her if she couldn’t sell it or use it as collateral to save her ranch? But there was no time to worry about that now. Not with a flash flood bearing down on them.

She scurried toward the safe hidden in the stones of the fireplace. Nothing seemed to go right lately, she thought as she fumbled with the safe door. Not once had anything good happened in the past two years. First her parents had died. Then the long drought had scorched fields so badly that her cattle would have starved without the hay she had bought with the last of her money.

Susan shook her head as she drew out a thick envelope and the small wooden box with the strange brooch inside. Under normal cir­cum­stances some precipitation would have been a blessing; instead, heavy rain could turn into a dangerous flood. Now here she had to grab what she could in the face of disaster.

Doris met Susan at the door, her brown curls in wild disarray. "I can’t find Arthur,” she gasped, her breath moving her heavy bosom up and down like a bellows.

Susan groaned again. "Did you look under the kitchen table? In the parlor? The pantry?”

"All his favorite hiding places, Miss Susan.”

"The cubby in the root cellar?”

"Oh... I forgot there...” Doris disappeared in a whirl of cotton skirts, muttering grim insults about the absent Arthur as she ran.

Susan yanked open the front door. Outside, a towering thun­derhead hovered atop her ranch. Rain poured down in a steady curtain over the ranch’s dry hills and drier gullies. The air smelled of wet dust and cattle. Dry creek beds and parched gullies filled swiftly, overflowing to become small rivers clogged with debris. An uprooted tree swept past the front gate, pushing precious hay bales with it. Water licked at corral posts, and penned cattle milled nervously. They would have to be set free to have any chance of reaching higher ground.

Beyond the Lazy W the sky shone blue and cloudless. Susan stared, shocked and mystified by the sudden deluge.

Well, she thought grimly, they were going to have to run for it. She could at least help Pete Sheridan open gates and then bring the wagon around for Doris and Arthur so they’d get to higher ground.

As she reached the edge of the porch Susan glimpsed the looming destruction of a wall of water rising high beyond the ranch. Runoff from the hills. Though the immense wall was still far away, she had no il­lu­sions about how swiftly disaster would reach them if creeks had already run over their banks. She ducked her head and lifted her skirts up around her knees, then leaped off the porch and raced through mud for the barn.

Pete Sheridan, foreman at the Lazy W for almost twenty years, met her at the barn door. Dripping wet, she ducked inside.

"Already opened the cattle gates and got the wagon hitched,” he drawled, his voice betraying no hint of stress or trouble. "Whar’s Miss Doris?”

"She’s finding Arthur. I’ll drive the wagon to the front door to get her. Can you get the dogs? I’ll take them too.”

Pete gave Susan’s drenched face a bemused glance. Even in the face of disaster, he wouldn’t have sent Miss Doris to look for Arthur. Susan knew that. Not once in all the twenty-three years of her life had she done anything remotely comprehensible to the sun-hardened cowboy, and he had ceased showing surprise.

"Get in the wagon,” Pete said, "and I’ll drive you.”

Susan shook her head "No, I’ll drive us. You take care of the livestock. I know how you feel about that hot-tempered stallion in the box stall, and you’d never forgive me if I let him drown.”

Bending her head to keep the pounding rain from blinding her, Susan climbed up to the seat and slapped the reins against horse rumps to send them bounding forward. Somewhere ahead sat the long, low ranch house built of stone and cedar logs. She made her way mostly by instinct; it was nearly impossible to see far ahead. She’d never seen it rain like this before. Snorting nervously, the horses halted in front of the long porch attached to the house.

"Doris,” she screamed over the noise of rain and a sudden clap of thunder. "Doris!”

The front door banged open, and Doris stood briefly outlined. "I’m here. And if you want Arthur to come out, you’d best come in and get him. I can’t drag him out of the root cellar.”

Glancing at the restive horses dancing and pulling at the reins she held firmly, Susan paused. "Could you give it one more try?” she begged, but the older woman’s mouth tightened into a thin line of refusal. Doris would never be able to hold the spooked horses steady. She was Arthur’s only chance. "Oh, please do try. You know how I love Arthur. It would take a miracle for him to survive if he doesn’t come with us... try an apple to lure him out.”

Throwing up her hands, Doris disappeared back into the house. But as she reappeared moments later with a squealing, struggling Arthur in her arms, Susan stared up at the sky instead of the door. The rain had abruptly stopped, and the wall of water that had been threatening now swept downhill to disappear into a deep gully.

Susan watched in stunned silence as rivulets of water seeped from the gully to spread onto flatter land. Where had it come from? She’d lived here most of her life and should know about a ditch deep enough to handle that amount of runoff. After all, she’d ridden these hills since she’d been old enough to sit atop a fat pony and would certainly remember a gulch just beside the ranch house. Had the torrent of water suddenly eroded ground to that extent? It was most mysterious, but at least it had saved the buildings. The sound of rushing water faded into the distance. Clouds scudded away as quickly as they’d rolled up, almost as if by magic.

"What happened?” Doris asked from the doorway, sounding bewildered. When she turned toward her, Susan recognized the same astonished incomprehension on Doris’s face.

"I have no earthly idea,” she said, shaking her head in wonder. "It’s a miracle we aren’t already swimming for our lives.”

Doris looked frazzled, hair loose from her bun and straggling over her shoulders as she stared at the mud and debris left behind with an expression of utter confusion. Normally tidy, her skirt was rucked up where she held a squirming Arthur, her apron hanging half off, and dust from the cellar smeared her forehead and jaw.

Susan had to laugh. "Oh, Doris, you should see your face,” she said, still chuckling. "And Arthur looks quite disgruntled.”

Releasing Arthur immediately, Doris tried to regain any dignity she had lost in dragging the struggling pig up from the root cellar.

"Miss Susan,” she began in a dangerously quiet voice, "I have been with your family for over fifteen years, and I have rarely been asked to do something that I didn’t want to do. But now I draw the line. No matter how much you care for Arthur, I will not go through anything like this again. Ever. He’s spoiled and stubborn. I don’t know how you can stand him.”

Susan regarded her companion and housekeeper fondly. "I’m sorry. It looks as if everything will be all right now, though.” Her gaze shifted to Arthur, who looked singularly unrepentant. "Arthur,” she addressed him sternly, "you’ve been very naughty. You’ve upset Auntie Doris— oops,” she added when Doris made an indignant sound, "I mean, Mrs. Wheeler. Tell her you’re sorry.”

Arthur turned and stuck his snout between Doris’s knees, getting his head tangled in her skirts. Doris threw her hands up in exasperation, and Susan laughed as she secured the brake and climbed down from the wagon.

"He’ll learn manners when he’s older,” she assured Doris as she knelt to pull Arthur away. The plump pink and tan pig wriggled contentedly, and as Susan fondled his floppy ears he grunted with swin­ish ecstasy. She sank down on the floor of the front porch and frowned as she looked out over the muddy yard. Sunlight reflected in large puddles. "It’s been the oddest day, don’t you think?’

Doris, who seemed about to offer an unsolicited comment on the likelihood of Arthur’s manners improving, was caught by her remark. "Why, yes, Miss Susan, you know it has. First that odd-speaking gentleman, then the dust devil that hung atop the hill, so queer like. No hint of rain, and then boom!—a flash flood. It does that a little farther east, maybe, but not out here. Not without some warning.”

"Yes,” Susan murmured, pushing a wet strand of dark hair from her eyes, "that’s what I thought. There was no warning at all.”

A few moments later Pete Sheridan strode briskly toward the house, and she noted with a hidden smile Doris’s quick efforts to smooth her hair. Pete walked with the rolling gait of a man who has spent most of his life straddling a horse. He was lean, with a sun- weathered complexion and confidence that made Susan wonder if he’d been that way since he was a boy.

"Hi, Pete,” she greeted him cheerfully, hiding a smile when he took his hat from his head and nodded to her without really seeing her. He looked everywhere but at Doris, but it would have been obvious to a goat where his attention lay. Hiding a smile, Susan asked, "What do you think of the flash flood disappearing so quickly? Do you think the ground eroded to form that gully?”

"Could have.” He scratched his jaw thoughtfully, staring at a porch post right by Doris. "Blamed odd, though.”

"Very odd,” she agreed. "Guess we’re safe, huh?”

"Yes, Miss Susan, I guess we are.” Pete hesitated, then said to the wood planks of the porch, "Hello, Miss Doris.”

"Hello, Mr. Sheridan.” Doris paused awkwardly. "I suppose I should go begin supper. You will eat with us, Mr. Sheridan?” she asked as if he didn’t eat with them every night except Sunday.

"Yes, Miss Doris, I’d be proud to eat with you.”

"You two ought to get married,” Susan observed when Doris had disappeared into the house and she still sat on the porch holding Arthur. The pig began to struggle, and she pushed him from her lap to the floorboards of the porch.

Pete ignored that comment, watching as Arthur shook himself, then crossed the porch with his trotters clicking energetically. "I don’t know why you keep that pig in the house,” he observed. "It ain’t natcheral.”

"Maybe not for some pigs, but Arthur’s special. He’s so tiny.”

Pete shrugged, shoulders lifting the faded plaid work shirt. "So, what are you going to do? That rain took most of the hay we had left with it. Probably strowed down the road a mile or two by now.”

Susan stared glumly past Pete. "I don’t know. Guess I might try what some have done and ask for an extension of credit on my feed bill from the new owner of the granary and supplier.”

Pete whistled long and slow. "You’ve heard the rumors about Carson, haven’t you?”

"Mostly what Evan has told me, and you know how gossipy he is, especially for a man.” Annoyance swept her as she propped her chin in her palm and her elbow on one drawn-up knee. Wet skirts clung to her ankles. "I can’t imagine how Evan Elliott turned out to be such a fussy kind of man. He wasn’t that way when we were young.”

Chuckling, Pete shook his head. "He wasn’t in love with you when you were both young’uns.”

Susan regarded him sternly. Rain still dripped from the eaves of the roof and made small craters in the mud. "Evan isn’t in love with me—he loves himself too much.”

Pete scratched his jaw. "Miss Susan, you’ve always been blunt- speakin’, and I admire that. But one of these days you’re gonna speak out at th’ wrong time, and it’s gonna get you in trouble.”

She sighed. "You’re right, Pete, I know you are. I can’t help myself. I think something, and before I know it, I’ve said it out loud. It’s a family failing, I’m afraid. You know how Mama always was.”

Sheridan smiled. "Yes, Miss Susan. The missus was always out­spoken, too.”

They were both silent for a moment, listening to the muted plop of rain from the roof and remembering Susan’s parents.

"She never did lose her Virginia drawl,” Susan commented several moments later. "Even when Papa used to tease her about it.”

"No, reckon she didn’t,” Pete agreed. "Didn’t lose her fine manners none, neither.”

Susan laughed softly. "Papa never could understand why Mama insisted upon a fine linen tablecloth on our table every night or the good china on Sundays.”

"Jake Whitten wasn’t a man to take to those kind of things easy,” Pete agreed. "He always claimed he liked eatin’ beans off a tin plate better than roast beef off a china plate.” He paused, then added with a grin, "Noticed that he didn’t complain too much after a while, though.”

Susan’s eyes stung, and to avoid tears, she rose from the porch. "Guess I’ll go into town tomorrow, Pete. I’ll meet this Hunter Carson and see if he’s as big a rogue as Evan claims.”

"Aw, Evan’s just mad ‘cause Carson turned him down about a loan extension.” Pete’s weathered face creased into a scowl. "Don’t blame Carson none, there. That Elliott boy never did learn how to manage money—or cows.”

"Well, Evan isn’t the quickest, I admit that. He is my friend, though. I shouldn’t complain about him.”

Pete was silent, then shrugged. "You’ve got a good heart, Miss Susan.”

"And a wet skirt,” she said, laughing. "I’m going to go in and change into dry clothes. Then I’ll come help round up cattle.”

"I’ll unhitch the wagon and saddle our horses.” He tilted a glance up at the clear sky and shook his head, then climbed into the wagon and released the brake. Harness chains rattled as the horses turned the wagon back toward the barn, Pete clucking gently at them.

After removing her boots, she scooped up Arthur and went into the house in her stockinged feet, letting the door shut gently behind her.

"BUT, SUSAN,” EVAN Elliott argued, "I’ve already told you what a ruthless bandit he is. Why won’t you believe me?”

"Because I don’t have any alternative but to ask for an extended loan, Evan,” she replied bluntly. "Mr. Carson can only say no, after all, and what other options do I have?”

"You could sell that brooch, for one,” Evan snapped. He pushed a hand through his red hair and sighed. "Or you could marry me,” he added hopefully. "That would end your problems.”

"Oh, Evan. We’ve been through that so many times—and anyway, that would just double our problems. Your ranch is in as bad a shape as mine. This drought has hurt everyone in the area.” Seated at her kitchen table, Susan rested her chin in her palm, her smile meant to erase any sting her words might have left. "I would use the brooch as collateral, but I can’t sell it, or a dire and dreadful curse will befall me. Or at least, that’s what that stuffy barrister from England said when he gave it to me.”

"He had to be joking, Susan. That’s ridiculous.”

"Isn’t it?” she agreed. "I thought at first it had to be a jest. I’m still not sure it isn’t.”

"It’s a whopping big diamond,” Evan said with a glance toward the small wooden box. "Are you sure you’re safe, having it here?”

She laughed. "No one knows I have it except you and Doris, because I told her. But Doris would never tell anyone, and I know you won’t either.” Rising from her chair at the kitchen table, Susan crossed to the cast iron step-stove against the wall to lift the blue enamel coffee pot. "More coffee?” When he nodded, she poured herself another cup, then one for him. "I have other things to worry about without wasting time worrying about family heirlooms,” she said frankly. "The cattle will soon be hungry, the flash flood took most of my hay, and even with a freak cloudburst, the grass is still dry and parched. I have to do some­thing.”

"Too bad your ranch was the only one to get any rain,” Evan said gloomily. "Mine sure could have used it.”

"Odd, isn’t it? But if you’d seen that wall of water barreling down the hill, you wouldn’t have welcomed the rain.” Susan shook back a strand of dark hair from her eyes and wiped perspiration from her brow. "It was awful. In just seconds, farm tools were swept away by water, and we were drenched. We looked like drowned rats.”

"If I’d been here, I would have carried you to safety,” Evan said swiftly. "I’d risk my life for you, Susan.”

"Don’t say things like that,” she said sharply. "You know it only makes me mad to hear you carry on like a lovesick calf. It’s not like you to do that, and I don’t like feeling uneasy around you.”

"You get mad quicker than any blamed girl I know, Susan Whitten,” Evan grumbled. "Have you ever thought of sugarcoating your words so they’d be easier for me to swallow?”

"Not for a moment,” was her prompt answer. "You’d think I was sick if I did, and you know it.”

Evan just gazed at her, his eyes glazed as if he’d gone into a trance. Susan snapped her fingers above his head. "Evan? Evan, are you in there?”

He flushed, his face turning red. "Yeah, I was just... just thinking.”

She laughed, teasing, "Well, thinking looked quite painful for you.”

Grinning, he retorted, "Sometimes it is. Now, are you going to listen to me and let me talk to Carson for you?”

Her smile faded. "I don’t need anyone to do my begging for me, thank you. I’m quite capable of bending my own knees and hurling heartfelt pleas at stone faces.”

#"I can’t imagine anyone would refuse you anything, Susan,” Evan said.

He sighed when she retorted, "Oh, Evan, I hate it when you get serious. You’re the boy I used to go fishing with, held hands with as we jumped out of haylofts and got into trouble for it. You’re my best friend. Isn’t that enough for us?”

He grinned and playfully shook his head. "It’s enough for now. Maybe one day you’ll decide you can’t live without me.”

"Well, I don’t want to live without you in my life. Friends are not always easy to find.”

The moment had become awkward, and she searched for the words to make it better.

Fortunately, Arthur chose that moment to intrude, emerging from the root cellar to appear at the kitchen door. "Come here, Arthur,” Susan coaxed, and the pig trotted across the kitchen floor with swinish squeals of ecstasy. She bent and fondled his ears, and snuffling delight­edly, Arthur thrust his snout into the folds of skirt material draped over Susan’s knees.

Evan gazed at the pet with disgust. "Why do you insist on having a dirty pig in the house?”

Susan looked at him, her brows knit in irritation. "Arthur isn’t dirty. And I like him. He never asks rude questions.”

"Only because he can’t talk,” Evan observed dryly as he rose to his feet. "I reckon I can take a hint.”

"I’m not pushing you out, but I’ve got to get ready and go into Los Alamos to sweet-talk the robber baron.”

Evan gazed at her for a long moment. "You know I wish you luck, Susan. I just don’t want that Carson fellow to hurt your feelings or your pride. Or insult you.”

"The worst insult is having to ask for an extension on my credit. Jake Whitten would have shot himself in the foot before he’d asked for credit, but his daughter doesn’t have his determination, I guess.” Susan shook her head ruefully. "I’m not even tempted.”

"You’ve got more determination in your little toe than Jake ever had,” Evan said. He seemed more relaxed than he’d been since he arrived. "Well, don’t you let Carson sweet-talk you. I heard he’s got half the female population of Los Alamos panting after him already.”

"All two of them? My, my, he must be a devilishly handsome wretch to make old Mrs. Simpson swoon. She’s getting on to ninety if she’s a day.”

"Susan, you know what I’m trying to tell you.”

She ignored his exasperation and gave him a shove toward the kitchen door. "Go on, now. I’ve got to put on my beggar’s rags.”

Pausing in the open door, he stuck his head around it to say, "One of these days, Susan Whitten, you’re going to give in and marry me.”

"I like you too much to do that to you, Evan. I’d end up being lynched for inhumane cruelty. Now go.”

He let her push him firmly out the door, then crossed the porch and mounted his horse, turning it toward the front gate. She watched him ride away, relieved he’d taken rejection so well.

SEATED IN A BENT willow rocker on the porch, Tabitha ignored Horatio’s cool gaze. "What a country. Who would have thought a little rain would create such problems?”

Horatio shook his head. "As I’ve mentioned before, you must carefully weigh all possible consequences before acting. Perhaps, instead of a grandiose and swift solution to your descendant’s problems, you should consider all the options. Cautious options. I may not be quick enough to avert the next calamity you cause.”

Tabitha sighed regretfully. "Perhaps you’re right. I suppose this calls for a more thorough examination of all the wretched chit’s prob­lems.”

"Quite possibly so.”

"So much for the Beethoven concert I planned to attend,” Tabitha said with another sigh. "I do so enjoy listening to him play—ah well, perhaps I can make it back in time to listen to that new young man— what was his name? Chopin?”

"I believe so,” was Horatio’s dry comment. "And I would not count on that, either.”

Tabitha pursed her lips in pique. "How inconvenient. And how, may I ask, am I expected to solve all her problems in a short time?”

"You’ll find the answer to that in the solution of them,” Horatio replied. "It is part of your growth. First you must arrange your priorities.”

Tabitha was struck by that answer and nodded thoughtfully. "Aye, I suppose that is true enough. I think that I may just watch and listen for a time. Then a solution might present itself to me.”

Horatio smiled. "I do believe you are improving.”

Tabitha was pleased. "Am I? What do you mean?”

"One is supposed to carefully weigh all the details of problems before making any decisions.”

"Is that right? I always prided myself on making quick, instinctive decisions.” She paused. "Perhaps they were not always the right ones, however.”

"Which may be the reason you are here now,” Horatio pointed out. "To learn what you did not understand then.”

Tabitha exclaimed, "Oh! I suppose that may be true. It seems such a bother, but you’re very insistent about expanding my education in these matters, it seems.”

"Yes. One must learn the lessons of the universe.”

Tabitha stared at him, blinking rapidly. "You say the oddest things at times. Forsooth, ‘tis a most bewildering state of affairs. I shall study this situation more carefully.”

"Excellent notion.”

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