Mathilde giggled. "Not in so many words," she said. I breathed a sigh of relief. "But we dream of a time when we can be together."
"You dream of such a time," I said. "You and every innkeeper's daughter on his route."
"Not everyone. Not you. But then again, you don't know how to dream, do you?" With that, she turned and flounced off to the henhouse.
I strode off to the milking, my lips pressed into a tight line. So what if I didn't dream? There was no point to it, not when I knew exactly what my future was to be. Why imagine impossible futures that would only serve to make real life duller and less satisfying than it already was? It seemed foolish at best, and at worst—considering we were our mother's daughters—it could be dangerous.
Two days after Jacques's visit, Mathilde and I were in the orchard, bringing in the harvest. Papa had nearly an acre of apples. It would take us a week to pick them, working dawn to dusk, laboring until our necks were stiff and shoulders ached from looking up. Four times a day, we would pull the full cart back to the cider house, where Papa was manning the press. Our livelihood depended on putting up a supply of cider to see us through the year. The rest of France had their grapes and their famous wines. We Bretons had our cider.
Of course, I picked three bushels for every one Mathilde carried to the cart. A pretty girl has a duty to herself and others to allow herself to be wooed, after all. She was the one with prospects and with eager boys happy to oblige her. While I stripped branch after branch of apples, hauling my ladder from one tree to the next, I was accompanied by the soft prattle and giggles of my sister and whatever young man happened to be assisting her at any moment, meaning that neither of them was getting much done. More than once over the years I had asked Papa to find a task for her in the press, but he had always refused.
"It wouldn't be proper to send you into a field full of hired hands alone," he would insist. "And anyway, I need you to keep an eye on Mathilde." By which he meant he wanted to give Mathilde a chance to be paraded before the men of the village, shown for the choice morsel she was, but discreetly. Respectably. Under the watchful eye of her plain, matronly sister.
Papa was most hopeful of Pierre, the butcher's son. Such a match would not only mean a secure future for Mathilde but also a greater profit for the inn, securing our meat supply at a discount. Pierre was eager to comply and for three years now had volunteered to help us during the apple harvest, where he followed Mathilde like a smitten puppy. She gave him smiles and merry conversation, as she did all the boys, but she was careful not to favor him above the others.
"Who wants to marry a man who smells of blood and death?" she would say, wrinkling her petite nose at the thought whenever I made mention of it. Still, I tried to steer her gently toward the idea, treating him with kindness and encouraging him in the suit whenever I could. I knew, even if Mathilde did not, that in the end her fate would be Papa's decision, not hers. In that, at least, we were not so different, Mathilde and me. So, despite the lack of help, I was not entirely displeased when, while carrying my next full basket back to the cart, I saw her sitting on a branch, swinging her legs, and listening with a rapt expression to some tale being told to her by the butcher's ruddy son.
My bushel was the last that the cart would hold, so not wanting to disturb Pierre when he finally seemed to be making a bit of progress, I called over one of the hired hands to help me haul the cart to the cider house, which stood on the edge of the innyard, flanked by the stable on one side and the cheese shed on the other.
As we rounded the end of the stable, toiling and sweating under the weight of the cart, I was surprised to see a man on a huge horse in the innyard. It was only midmorning, an odd time for a traveler to arrive, but there he was, astride his mount and gazing impatiently around him as if expecting an attendant.
"A moment, monsieur!" I called.
He watched as we pulled the creaking cart to the door of the cider house and struggled to tip it up and dump the apples into the pile. It was almost more than the two of us could manage, but the visitor made no offer of assistance. He just watched us or, more specifically, watched me, while his horse rattled its harness impatiently. Perhaps he was surprised to see a girl doing such manly work. Perhaps he was wondering if I was female at all. I gritted my teeth and strained harder against the cart, meaning to show him my worth and squelch the part of me that wished he would make a gallant offer of help.
When the cart was empty, I sent the hired man back to the orchard and I turned to the traveler, reminding myself I had a duty to serve him courteously, as a customer.
The sun was behind him, casting him as a towering silhouette, and for a moment my breath caught as I had the impression of a knight of old atop a great charger. But as I stepped toward him across the yard, the inn blocked the sun and the idiotic idea faded. His steed was no charger, but one of the sturdy Breton draft horses common to the estates west of our village.
The man resembled his mount—large, well-muscled, and shaggy. I might have thought him a farmhand on his master's plow horse but for his commanding presence and the horse's fine tack—not rich, but of good quality and sturdy, for long hours on the road. I shaded my face with my hand to better see him as I gazed upward. His hair was dark, and his face well tanned. His eyes were fixed on me with a gaze so intense it bordered on indecent.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book THE LOST DREAMER by Lizz Huerta.