The British Brides Collection, including my novella Apple of HIs Eyes, set in Victorian England will be in stores where books are sold and online bookstores in March. I’m particularly excited about having this novella come to life again, because it was based and inspirted by a true story in my family history. In real life, Long John Gaymer was given the recipe for the cyder by his father-in-law when he married the man’s daughter, Mary Chapman. The cyder business grew and eventually became a well-known cyder in England as was a royal warrant cyder for both Queen Mary and later Queen Elizabeth.
The cyder has been sold to another wine company near Glastonbury but the name Gaymer remains on the cyder to this day. One of my joys is to have found a real English Gaymer Cyder Jug in an antique store and still have it today. You’ll see it between the rocker and the commode table.
The opening scene provides the mood for a romance that was not meant to be, set in the amazing time of the Crystal Palace, Queen Victoria and social standards, protocol and manners of that era. First Scene of Apple Of His Eye.
Sarah Hampton peeked through her lacy bedroom curtain into the flower beds along the garden wall. “Who is the stranger tending the flower beds, Dulcie?”
The young maid eyed the stranger. “The new orchard keeper, Miss.”
“The orchardist? But. . .if he is the orchard keeper, why is he in the garden? Where is Benson?” Sarah asked, fond of the old gentleman who brought her apples from the orchard and rosebuds from the garden.
“He’s ill, Miss.” The maid fastened the buttons of Sarah’s chintz morning dress though the clock had already chimed twelve noon.
“Very ill?” Sarah peered through the lace.
Dulcie shrugged. “Ill enough to need time to mend.”
Sarah faced her. “Then the young orchard keeper will do the gardening until Benson returns, I suppose.”
“You ask a passel of questions, Miss Sarah.” The servant shook her head and patted the dressing table stool. “Now if you’ll sit, I’ll dress your hair.”
“No, Dulcie, I’ll just tie it back with a ribbon, please.” She pulled a ribbon from a wooden chest on her dresser. “See. It’s cherry, the same color as the ribbons on my dress.”
Dulcie made a tsk noise. “Let me at least make the bow. Your mother will be after me if I let you out of your room looking like a ragamuffin. You’re a young woman, now—enjoying your coming out.”
“Piffle, I’m but a child.” She waved the ribbon like a flag, wishing her coming out had never been thrust upon her.
The maid snorted at her comment and caught the red streamer in her hand.
Acquiescing, Sarah pivoted on the dressing stool, allowing the maid to tie the ribbon, but her mind rested on the new orchard keeper whom she’d seen from the window.
Filled with anxious curiosity, she yearned to run into the out-of-doors and see the man more closely. Even from above, he looked like a giant of a man, much taller than her father who seemed a tower in Sarah’s eyes.
Dulcie completed the bow, then turned to dispose of Sarah’s discarded nightgown.
After one last look in the mirror at her white gown and bright ribbons, Sarah hastened from the room and down the stairs. With the dining room empty, she snatched a piece of bread from the sideboard, smeared it with jam, and hurried through the side door to the garden.
To her disappointment, the new orchard keeper had vanished from the border beds. Intrigued, Sarah slipped through the garden gate and sank onto the stone bench inside the wall, cooled by the dappled shade. She bit into the thick slice of bread and licked the fruity spread from her lips, her gaze darting from one side of the garden to the other. Suspecting the stranger had gone to the orchard, she nibbled the bread and waited.
Having overlooked her morning prayers in he exuberance, Sarah closed her eyes and asked God’s blessing on her family and country. . .and for strength to face her eighteenth birthday. Soon her parents expected her to be courted and married, but Sarah had little desire for the convention. She’d danced and accepted callers, but none had won her interest. Not one had sent her heart on a merry chase. Squeezing her eyes closed, she prayed for God to guide her to the man of her heart.
When she lifted her eyelids, a shadow had stretched along the ground to her feet. Timidly, she tipped her head upward and looked at the mountainous man. Her heart jolted with such force it took her breath away. She gaped at him as he neared.
His attention did not settle, but passed her by. He moved away to distant beds and went about his business, adding compost around the base of the budding flowers. She observed him and ate her jam bread.
Sarah had always talked with the older gardener, Benson. She’d known him from childhood, and with his white hair and leathery wrinkles, he seemed like the grandfather she’d never had. When she’d grown to nearly a woman, her mother scolded her for lingering in the garden and bothering the gardener. But he seemed kind, and Sarah loved to smell the earth and blossoming flowers, all God’s handiwork.
Though knowing she behaved improperly, Sarah couldn’t help but stare at the tall, lanky man. While his size seemed almost fearful, his gentle face and handsome features calmed her scurrying pulse. He so concentrated on his work that he seemed to ignore Sarah until she wondered if he’d even seen her at all. But she could tell one thing, he loved the earth as much as she did.
Swallowing her upbringing and the last of her breakfast, she rose and stepped away from the bench into the sunlight, calling to him. “Good morning.”
He dropped the trowel and jumped to his feet, rising a striking distance above her head. Instead of speaking, he only gave a bow and tipped his cap, then retrieved the garden tool and returned to his work.
Feeling ignored, Sarah scowled. Yet, she understood his hesitation. The young man belonged in her father’s employ and knew his station. Regardless, she longed to hear his voice, venturing it would be deep and vibrant coming from the depth of his massive chest.
“Do you have a name, Gardener?” she asked.
He turned to her, removing his cap, shifting toward the house and back again as if he waited for the hand of God to smite him if he should speak. “John Banning, Miss.” His resonant bass voice sparked on the air.
“Don’t be apprehensive, Mr. Banning. If my father is about, I’ll explain that I spoke to you first.”
He gave her a grateful look, slipped on his cap, and turned back to his compost and trowel.
With daring, she moved closer and scooped up a handful of moist earth, breathing in the loom’s rich aroma.
He faced her fully and a frown settled on his brow. “Please, Miss, don’t dirty your hands.” He pulled a kerchief from his pocket and handed it to her.
“Thank you, Mr. Banning. You’re a gentleman.” She brushed her hands with the cloth, but viewing the soiled fabric, she did not return it. Instead, she clutched the kerchief and drew in a deeper breath. “I love the earth. Everything in nature. You, too, I would imagine.”
He nodded, seeming to avoid her eyes.
“We come from the earth, you know,” she said. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
“ ‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground.’ ” John glanced her way, then lowered his gaze.
Sarah’s pulse tripped. She studied the man’s sensitive profile, feeling something sweet and lovely happening in her chest. “You’ve quoted from Genesis. You are a Christian man.”
He nodded and wiped the perspiration from his brow with the back of his hand, his nervousness evident in his shifting stance.
Sarah tilted her head to capture his gaze. “ ‘And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone.’ ”
John faltered backward and shook his head. “I must return to my work, Miss.”
Good sense washed over her, and she nodded, withdrawing to the garden wall and letting the man continue his tasks. But instead of leaving, she lowered herself to the bench and fingered his soiled kerchief. No grown man had ever been so gallant toward her. He had treated her as if she were a true lady.
In silence, she watched him work, wondering about his age and background. Did he live in Barnham? If so, why had she never seen him? Sarah let her mind play on his name. John Banning? She’d heard his family name before, but the time and place failed her memory.
Finishing, John gathered his equipment and strode across the garden toward the tool shed with only the faintest nod.
Sarah watched him go, the sunlight reflecting on his broad back, his dark hair curling at the nape of his neck. The man’s gentle manner stirred her. She could see his love for the earth—his kindness, offering her his kerchief, and his respect. Benson had been thoughtful as well, but he had not stirred such unknown feelings within her.
Recalling the fearful look in his questioning eyes, she admitted she’d been wrong to speak with him without a proper introduction. Tonight in prayer, she would ask God’s forgiveness.
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