Home > Her First Desire(7)

Her First Desire(7)
Author: Cathy Maxwell

Ale tankards were everywhere, lining the bar, stacked on a table, thrown on the floor . . .

And the air had the wretched smell of stale drink, old ash—and urine.

She covered her mouth with the scarf around her neck and pushed open the nearest window. That is when she noticed that someone had put a hole in the glass pane.

Her uncle would weep to see his inn now. She felt the sting of tears in her eyes for him. He had always been so proud of his establishment, and now it was in shambles.

Against a far wall was a chair splintered into pieces as if thrown in anger, and she’d wager it wasn’t the only one with broken rungs. Soot covered the walls and here and there were handprints. On another wall, behind the bar, someone had made marks as if keeping score.

Gemma dared to move toward the bar and glanced behind it. She wouldn’t be surprised to see a body sleeping there. Instead, pewter tankards had apparently been stacked for a bowling game. She hesitated to imagine what had been used to throw at them. The cups that Andrew had once polished until they shone were tarnished and dented as if they’d been the target of many games.

She moved to the taproom that separated the main room from the kitchen.

When last she’d been here, there had been numerous kegs stacked against one stone wall. The kegs were still here except they had been emptied and left in a haphazard fashion so that she had to pick several up and pile them in a corner in order to pass through the room.

A tapped keg rested in a set of brackets to hold it on its side for serving. She turned the spigot and only a few drips came out. They’d drank their fill of every drop in the place and left the tavern a disaster.

She brushed the tap’s stickiness from her gloved hands and peeked around the corner. The kitchen, too, was a mess, although Gemma was no longer reacting with surprise. Still, it was better than what she’d seen in the main room. At least the furniture was not in pieces.

Brown pottery plates, some crusted with food, covered the table and cupboard. The hearth was poorly kept but the ash was not as deep. Gemma walked in and looked over the pots and plates on the table. There were signs that mice and who knows what else had been feasting here.

She glanced over at the oven built into the hearth that had been her uncle’s pride. She wondered if anyone had used it since his death and was thankful to see the kettle still hung from a hook over the firepit. Gemma remembered the evening she’d spent with him.

Andrew had been kindness itself. She had arrived without warning or fanfare but he’d welcomed her as if he’d been expecting her all along, and she’d felt herself relax in a way she couldn’t remember since before her father took ill.

She could even hear her uncle’s voice welcoming her. “A sight you are,” he’d said, his brogue starting to thicken as he spoke as if seeing her reminded him of the dialect of his youth. “I’m blessed with your visit. Here, sit. A cup of tea? Of course. You are like your dear mother. So much like her. My heart almost stopped when I saw you standing in the door.”

“Gran and I always said we would pay you a visit,” she’d answered.

“I always meant to travel to Glasgow for a visit, but life got by me until it was too late. I miss my mum.” He had set the steeping teapot and a brown pottery mug before her. “Lemongrass and black,” he’d informed her. “The way the MacMhuirichs like it.”

The tea had reminded her of summers spent with her gran. Her mother had married a man from Manchester and had loved him enough to leave her country, just as Andrew had. Gemma could barely remember Andrew’s visit to Manchester back when her mother was alive. She’d died of a fever, just about the time that Andrew had purchased The Garland. Gemma’s father had never recovered from losing his wife, and Gran had been Gemma’s saving grace. The summers spent with her had been magic times.

In the kitchen, Gemma’s eye caught on the pottery teapot on the highest shelf of the cupboard. It appeared unscathed in the middle of the mess, and her throat tightened. Death was a scheming bastard. It had taken everyone she’d loved from her.

She swallowed back her tears. She was done crying; she was not defeated . . . and yet, look at what had happened to The Garland in the short months since Andrew’s death.

Look at what had happened to her in the three short years since she’d agreed to marry Paul Estep.

Suddenly, Gemma burst into laughter. A mad, untamed sound.

She had traveled from a terrible situation to one that was worse. She’d thought to claim The Garland because she remembered it as it had been. However, like so much in her life, what she’d believed, what she’d hoped for, was a fantasy.

The place was in ruins. Yes, there were four walls and a roof but those walls were probably full of mice, and the roof would leak and she would catch her death from the damp and cold and—

Just as abruptly, the shrill laughter changed into the tears she had sworn she would no longer shed. A huge, shattering sob robbed her of breath and then she saw that she’d not been wrong about the mice in the walls. A trio of them had apparently been hiding and had now decided they had nothing to fear from her. They made a bold dash across the floor heading straight for Gemma as if to chase her out—and they did.

She ran for the back door, shoving it open and practically falling forward. She caught herself just in time, taking a few stumbling steps before she righted herself, and then let out a gasp of surprise.

Where the inside had been filthy and musty, the world in the back garden was alive with the magical force of a rushing stream. The air danced with the sound of it.

The last time Gemma had been here, she’d been too worried to notice or appreciate the water. Her head had been full of doubts about her husband, and the good expanse of lawn leading to the bank of the stream had been lined with makeshift tables in preparation for the next day’s lecture. She’d not even registered the music of the water racing over rocks.

It hit her with full force now.

And everything growing around the stream promised it was ready to spring to life. Buds were already appearing on some of the trees and there was the scent of rich earth and promise.

Here was a safe place for a weary soul. In fact, two worn wooden chairs had been pulled over to the stream as if friends had shared a confidence here.

Oh, how she wished she had known during her first visit what she did now. Then she would never have left Maidenshop for London but would have taken shelter here with her uncle. She would have gardened, creating beds that would rival the ones her gran had boasted—and Andrew might still be alive . . . because he wouldn’t have been alone.

She wouldn’t have been alone, either.

Gemma removed her gloves and knelt. She dug a bit under the grass. The earth was dark and fertile. She flattened her hand upon it as if she could feel a heartbeat, something she had watched her gran do many a time.

Her mind’s eye began to transform the expanse of lawn into a lovely garden full of herbs and flowers, the ones her gran had taught her to blend into healing potions as was the way of the MacMhuirichs.

What is mine is yours.

That is what Andrew had written, a promise he’d made, and she was going to accept him at his word.

She’d not been wrong to come here. He wanted her to have The Garland. She could feel it in her bones . . . and she began to see a vision of what The Garland could be. Over there would be the bed of coneflowers and chamomile. By the door would be the kitchen herbs, the lettuces, the carrots, and peas. She’d have them climbing up a trellis so that all she had to do was reach out the back door to snap off a few for her supper.

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