On my way downstairs, I noticed Rhoda, my eldest, had also taken leave of the festivities. At the window in the front hall, she blew out one of the bayberry candles standing amid laurel leaves and a scattering of red winterberries on the sill. She inhaled with eyes closed and then touched the smoking wick to the flame of another candle to relight it.
“What are you doing?”
She turned. “Bayberry smells best right after I snuff the flame.”
“So it does. Back to the party, love.” I put my free arm around her shoulders. In the parlor, Aunt Jean played a sprightly tune on the pianoforte while Mollie and Nancy danced on the polished wood floor.
Rhoda sighed as she watched their skirts swirl. “There’s no one to dance with me.”
My heart went out to my little girl. She was lonely in this house full of adults with only her brothers, who were too young to be real playmates, for company. No doubt she would have preferred to spend the holiday with her cousin Sadie, Thomas and Betsy’s daughter, who was close to her age.
Determined to make the best of things, I stepped around my middle child, two-year-old Elijah, and settled into the wing chair beside my mother’s. Uncle William stood near the crackling fire, a cut-glass cup of rum punch in hand, presiding over the celebration in a manner befitting the patriarch of a household full of women, children, and servants.
Rhoda sighed again and leaned on the arm of my chair, chin on her hands. “There’s no one to dance with you either, Mother.”
I rescued the end of my kerchief from the baby’s grasp and stood him up on my lap. “You’d like to dance, wouldn’t you, William?” The chubby little boy churned his legs and squealed.
At this, Rhoda frowned. “Elijah and William are too young to care about dancing.”
“Come, Rhoda. I’ll be your partner!” Seventeen-year-old Nancy saved the day when she danced over to our corner, bowed, and extended her hand. Rhoda’s frown turned to giggles. She dropped a curtsey and skipped into the center of the room. Turning the baby so he could watch Rhoda, I bounced him in time to the music and mouthed a thank-you to Nancy. Elijah, who cared naught about dancing, beat one of his blocks on the floor.
A blast of wintry air set the fire flickering as it swept through the parlor. I leaned forward in my chair and saw a dark-haired, broad-shouldered man in the hall shed his cloak and hand it and his cocked hat to the butler. Could it be? A squeak was all I could manage as I rose to my feet.
Aunt Jean heard my soft exclamation and stopped playing. Everyone turned to follow my gaze, and I held my breath until light fell upon the man’s face.
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