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Trust in Love (Persimmon Hollow Legacy Novella 1)

By Gerri Bauer

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Trust in Love
by Gerri Bauer

Chapter One

Persimmon Hollow, Florida
December 1891

Margaret’s wrist trembled from the weight of the serving tray balanced on her shoulder and upturned fingertips. She overcompensated to alleviate the pressure, causing the tray to tilt. Stoneware clattered on the dry-sink counter.

She steadied the cutlery and crocks before anything else crashed. “Saints in heaven, please don’t let another thing break,” she muttered.

The cook scowled at her from across the kitchen. “That’ll be coming out of your paycheck, for sure.” Tired eyes stared out of her doughy face. “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

Don’t I know it, thought Margaret. She’d already broken a soup bowl and glass pitcher earlier in the week. Now something else would go on her demerit list. Soon she’d be owing money to the Persimmon Hollow Railroad Hotel instead of the other way around. She had worked as a maid and nanny since she was fifteen and had never in those ten years felt so inept as she did at this hotel service.

As she squatted to get the tray level with the counter and slide the laden platter onto its surface, her body rebelled. She grappled to hold back the sliding stoneware and the tray finally steadied.
“’Tis a miracle, for sure and for certain,” she said.

“No, just me,” came a voice behind her.

Margaret gave a start, but instinct, trained by wariness, rooted her in place. She kept her hands glued on the tray. “Who?” She glanced over her shoulder, wide-eyed, straight into the gaze of a grinning Francesco Bartolomeo, who stood inches behind her with one hand steading the tray on her shoulder. The Francesco Bartolomeo. She blinked, willed her heart to stop its ridiculous rush of beats, and aimed to wrestle command of the situation.

“Thank you,” she said, with a slight tilt of her head. She knew she looked a fright, her hair frizzing in the Florida humidity and her clothes clinging to her clammy skin, but nothing could be done for it. They were too far inland for a sea breeze to stir the air.

“There, on the end, there’s some room.” He pushed back a jumble of dirty plates, mugs, pitchers, and bowls with a muscled arm, then lifted the tray and set it down. “It’s not fit for you to carry such weight.”

“Many thanks, but I can manage,” Margaret said. She ignored the welcome release in her shoulder and wrist muscles, and concentrated instead on yet another barb to her inadequacy at the hateful job. “I’m up to the task.” She transferred dishes from tray to counter.

Francesco stepped back as she edged him aside. “Absolutely. Of course you are. I meant no disrespect.”

She glanced up, searching for a spark of sarcasm, but saw sincerity in his gaze. A hint of perplexity, even. Margaret frowned but managed another nod and focused on the job at hand. Unload the dishes. Carefully. Without breaking anything else. Go back to the dining room and wait on a table. Repeat. Thank the Lord for sending this most able and agreeable assistance in this most strange and inhospitable job in an unfamiliar land.

As she covertly eyed him, she bit back the smile that threatened to rise. She could hardly believe that the handsomest man on the premises was helping her. No, make that the most dangerous man on the premises. Even she, outsider on the staff that she was, had been warned about his overly friendly ways.

Yet, that was just it. He was being friendly. Nothing more. She sensed no leering, no forwardness, none of the preening and pushiness she’d seen among men of questionable character. None of the attitude she’d encountered in— She stopped herself. She wouldn’t think about the past. She pushed aside memories of the incidents that’d precipitated her detour to this backwater, a place so raw some buildings still smelled of sawdust.

Persimmon Hollow was growing, or so she was told. Downtown was expanding beyond its four-block, wooden-sidewalk main thoroughfare. The academy just north of downtown was almost finished constructing an additional building, for study of science and music, she’d heard. Citrus groves wrapped around homesteads and hotels. For such a small town, Persimmon Hollow had five hotels. She worked at the most impressive one. Still, Florida was a frontier compared to the city streets she’d known since arriving in America.

Maybe the men in Florida were different than up north. No, that would be silly. A man was a man. She wished she weren’t so aware of this one, but she knew all about him and his work. The other waitresses loved to gossip about him.

Her gaze strayed to his hands as he quietly resumed helping her clear the tray. Strong and clean. Some nicks and scrapes and calluses, to be expected when one blacksmithed and drove wagons, she supposed.

The kitchen door banged open. “Miss Margaret Murphy, where are you? Your tables are waiting!” Mrs. Pendleton’s voice rang out.

“Ah, sounds like you better go,” Francesco said.

“Indeed,” said Margaret, again not sure if he were being sarcastic or not. “Mrs. P has little patience with me.” She wiped her hands on her apron and reached to shake his hand. “I do thank you.” Keep things nice and impersonal, Margaret.

“At your service.” Francesco gave a slight bow. A thick lock of his dark hair dropped over his forehead as he straightened. “Glad I showed up at just the right time.” He glanced at her outstretched hand and then to her eyes, and then away.

Oh, he’s good, she thought. Advance and retreat. The others were right to warn about him. She drew back her hand and busied it with smoothing her apron.

“Miss Murphy!”

For once she was pleased to hear Mrs. P’s demanding voice. “Coming!” she said, and hurried off without saying goodbye to Francesco.

- - -

Margaret hurried across the room, careful to not let the heels of her shoes clatter on the wooden floor, and met her coworker Hortense under a wide window that gave the diners a view of the hotel grounds. Her eyes were drawn to the cedar and pine trees that edged a winding walkway that led to the main road. The view was nice, but they all would have fared better with cooler temperatures.

Hortense had her back to the window, instead concentrating on the crowded room. “You think they’d have added more help when they doubled the size of the dining room,”

Margaret plunked down her empty tray on the serving station the two shared. Around her she heard the murmur of dinner talk and clink of cutlery on ceramicware.

“But no,” continued Hortense, “I heard the cook even has to fill in as dishwasher today. Can you believe it? The dishwasher went home sick. Let’s hope he gets well or finds some friend or relative to take the spot, or it might be one of us back there, arms in dirty dishwater up to our elbows.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time for me,” Margaret said and pitched in to help after checking the needs of her assigned tables. She had four more to clear after the diners left, plus the big one in the back where the patrons appeared in no hurry to move. There’d be no time for crochet work tonight. Again.

“Dishwashing is not my job,” Hortense said. “Or yours. Oh, look!” Hortense glanced out one of the side windows as she moved away from the workstation. “There goes that Francesco. Looks like he came out the kitchen door. Did you see him in there?”

Margaret resisted answering. She wasn’t usually welcomed into the embrace of chatter about the blacksmith-driver. She wasn’t an outcast, she just wasn’t included. Why give Hortense anything she and the others would dissect later?

“You did, didn’t you?” Hortense declared. “You’re not answering, you must have. Gosh. Listen to what I warned you: be careful around that one. You’re still new here. You don’t know. He’s a ladies man for sure, the way he looks at everyone with those blue eyes and makes everyone think they’re his special friend. Who knows what else he wants. You can’t tell with these foreigners. On top of that, I heard he’s Catholic. Oh, sorry, Margaret, I didn’t mean anything bad. I know you live at that orphanage run by the religious ladies on the next property. It’s just...” Her voice trailed.

Margaret was relieved to hear the clink of silverware tapped against a glass. One of the diners at the back table signaled to her. She hurried over, hoping the housekeeper hadn’t noticed that a patron had to call for service, but mostly glad to end the conversation with Hortense. She’d felt the sting of Hortense’s words. She wondered whether staff members gossiped about her, also a foreigner and a Catholic, when she wasn’t around.

Hortense was friendlier to her than others on the staff. But they were worlds apart in many ways. Margaret was on unfamiliar ground, new to the pioneer town, so small after her city life, and new to the job. And clumsy at it. She wasn’t accustomed to the fast pace of the hotel and the worldliness of the people who visited and worked there. Best to stay on her guard.

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