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AFTERNOON TEA by J. R. LaGreca, Historical Fiction/Mystery, Fiction With Intrigue!

AFTERNOON TEA by J. R. LaGreca
Chapter One
The Roses

The town of Clinton, Connecticut lay beneath mounds of freshly fallen
snow. A lone shadow against the New England landscape, Lawrence Gray’s
gnarled form veered alongside the cathedral to the Saint James Cemetery.
The skeleton trees exaggerated the old man’s pallor while the bouquet of
roses he clutched contrasted to the winter and season of his life. Steadied
by his cane with his head bowed in remorse, Lawrence struggled as his
footsteps imprinted a path in the snow.

Lawrence visited the same gravesite everyday, the granite one adjacent
to a twisted oak. The gravesite looked oddly picturesque, smothered with
roses and glittering snow.

Meg Bailey spied him as she rushed off to church. This silhouette of a
man stirred her heart, and Meg vowed she would pray for him. The mourner
with the red roses, the bent old man with the cane, the pathetic romantic,
whatever his motivations were, Meg wondered, “Why had the graveyard
become his daily salvation?”

After the Sunday sermon ended, Meg engaged the priest, Father Dale,
in their usual pleasantries as they walked out of Saint James Church side
by side. “Father Dale, I’ve been meaning to ask you, do you know the old
man with the cane who visits the cemetery every morning?”

“Yes, he’s Lawrence Gray.” Father Dale’s jovial expression in the
aftermath of prayer became somber. “I have often referred to him as ‘a
lover of graveyard stone’. His wife has been laid out by the sanctuary for
forty years now. I buried her myself. What a pitiful day that was. It was
the dead of winter, coldest day I could ever remember.”

Father Dale’s blue eyes became clouded as he struggled to gain his
composure. “Lawrence is in his eighties by now. A poor old soul he is.
Maybe if he would walk inside the church to pray every now and then it
might bring him back to the Lord and give him faith; but not Lawrence
Gray, oh no, he’d rather be out in the cemetery, consorting with the devil
to try and bring his beloved wife back.”

“That’s so sad. Do you know where he lives?”

“He lives by himself in the old Tudor on the corner of Haines Street.
Lawrence lives for his memories. I have never seen a man so devoted to a
woman, let alone one who is deceased.”

At that juncture Fanny Brund, the town historian, slipped in-between
the two as another congregant diverted Father Dale’s attention. “Fanny, do
you happen to know Lawrence Gray?” asked Meg.

“Lawrence Gray and his red roses,” Fanny’s blue eyes twinkled. “I would
venture to say Lawrence is the last of the true romantics.”

“Fanny, I hate to admit I’m envying the dead,” Meg chuckled wryly. “But
at twenty-one years old I’ve never even received flowers from a sweetheart.
As much as I’d love getting roses I’m not willing to die for them.”

“Be patient, Meg, with your good looks and charm love will come.”

Meg smoothed away a dark lock of hair as she smiled hopefully. “It’s
ironic how people often receive more flowers after they die than when
they’re alive. I watch Lawrence Gray from my kitchen window every
morning and like clockwork, he brings his wife a new bouquet before the
old one even has a chance to wither, no matter what the weather. I’ve often
wondered about him. Does he have any family?”

“Yes, his daughter Emma often stops by to see me whenever she’s in
town. She threatened to take away the keys to his car after his crash up
when he plowed into a tree on his way to the cemetery, and broke his leg.
He was incapacitated for quite some time.”

“It’s no wonder it looks like he has trouble making it down the street.
Haines Street is quite a distance from here . . . Not to mention forty years
is a long time for a man to grieve.”

“Forty years is nothing when a man is wracked with guilt. The truth is
Lawrence felt responsible for his wife’s death. His daughter Emma told
me he moved back to Connecticut because he felt he owed it to her.” Fanny
divulged in a shaky voice.

“What on earth would ever make him feel responsible for his wife’s
death?” The whites of Meg’s eyes illuminated curiously.

Fanny placed her arm on Meg’s shoulder. “I’m one of the few people in
Clinton who knows the real story. Stop by my house on your way home,
and I’ll tell you all about it. I live right around the corner on Brentwood.
I could certainly use a cup of hot tea.”

“So could I, the cold goes right through you. I can’t even imagine how
Lawrence Gray has the constitution to bear up under these brutal New
England winters at his age.” Meg’s teeth began to chatter as the icy winds
stung her cheeks.

There in the living room of Fanny’s Victorian house beamed a fireplace.
“Oh good, my husband has put on a fresh log. Come Meg, sit by the fire
where it’s nice and warm.”

Meg took a seat on the velvet couch facing the incandescent flames.
Fanny disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a silver tray of
afternoon tea and crumpets. She placed the tea on the coffee table, and
poured Meg a cup before she served the crumpets.

“Meg, I’m about to divulge a mystery to you which has perplexed the
entire town of Clinton ever since Lawrence Gray moved back here a
year ago.” Fanny’s silver hair glistened by the light of the fire as she
began the saga.

* * *
In the spring of 1895, the young Lawrence Gray and his father William
were traveling through the New England countryside in search of work. In
their aimless wandering, they came upon the Reed Estate of Fairway.

William’s face became enlivened. “This place looks like a palace!
Believe it or not, Philip Reed and I were boyhood buddies. Do I dare ask
for him looking like this?” William brushed off his seedy black overcoat,
and readjusted his hat over his windblown, salt, and pepper hair.

“Father, true friends aren’t concerned about appearances. If the way
you look bothers Philip Reed then nothing is lost anyway.”

“Well, I suppose you’re right. It’s certainly worth a try, and with an
estate like this there must be plenty of work.” Weary from travel the men
settled their horses and buggy, before William sounded the brass knocker
of Fairway.

Philip Reed’s eldest son, fifteen-year-old Hal, opened the door. He
stood nearly six feet tall with a shock of blonde hair. “Can I help you?”
he inquired in a cold, flat tone.

“May I speak to Mr. Reed?” William sheepishly asked.

“Whom shall I say is calling on the master of this estate?” Hal shot
back, glaring at father and son in disdain.

“I’m William Gray and this is my son, Lawrence. Are you Mr. Reed’s
son?”

“Yes, I am. And may I ask why you request to see my father?”

“I’m an old friend of your father’s from boarding school,” William
meekly answered as he absentmindedly straightened his lapel.

Much to their surprise, excitement stirred as the name William Gray
echoed throughout the mansion. Philip Reed quickly came forth. He resembled
a Viking, impeccably dressed with blonde, sun-streaked hair, and broad
shoulders. In contrast, William looked like a beggar in shabby work clothes
with an unshaven face. The two men shared a gregarious greeting, full of
backslapping and sentiment. It seemed as if a day had not passed between the
men even though it had been thirty years since they had last seen each other.

Just then a beautiful creature with golden curls and blue eyes as ethereal
as the sky gracefully stepped down the winding staircase. Her minuscule
waist was cinched into an ecru gown full of ruffles and ribbons. The cameo
brooch fastened onto the top of her bodice could not compete with her
porcelain complexion.

As she reached the bottom of the stairs, Philip gently slipped her arm
into his and led her over to his guests. “Emily, I would like you to make the
acquaintance of an old friend of mine from boarding school, Mr. William
Gray. William, this is my daughter Emily.”

William tipped his worn hat, “Pleased to meet you, Miss Emily.”

Emily curtsied while she and Lawrence’s eyes became locked, as a
magnet drew them inward. Electricity sparked in the air as they each felt
the unexpected shock of the other. Lawrence was an impressive sight with
thick black hair, an olive complexion, and an ironclad physique. A welcome
change from the upper echelon of society; there before Emily stood a
rugged man who smelled like the good earth intermingled with the wind.

Emily coquettishly turned her shoulders toward Lawrence as William
Gray interjected, “Miss Emily Reed, allow me to introduce you to my son,
Lawrence Gray.”

Emily’s dainty hand melted beneath Lawrence’s strong grasp, and
lingered in a sweet aftermath. “How do you do, Miss Emily?” Lawrence
emanated in a powerful vibrato before he tipped his riding hat with
finesse.

“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Lawrence.” Their eyes linked
in the magic; their thoughts concealed.

“How old are you, Lawrence, my boy?” Philip inquired with a piercing
glance.

“I’ll be eighteen on June 23, Mr. Reed.”

“You and Emily are only two months apart; she will turn eighteen in
April.” Philip’s eyes narrowed in scrutiny. “If I may ask, what brings you
gentlemen to this part of town?”

“My boy and I were looking for work when we chanced upon your
estate. We were forced to sell our farm after my wife Henrietta passed
away, God rest her soul. I don’t mean to put you in an awkward position,
Philip, if you have no work for us, we’ll just be on our way and move on.”
William sighed despondently.

“No need to look any further, my old friend, William. There is
plenty of work for you and your son out in the fields. I will send for
the stable boys to turn in your horses at once, and show you to the
guest quarters.” Philip gave William’s burdened shoulders another back
slapping welcome.

Emily looked delighted by the arrangement as she trailed behind the
men. Her father led Lawrence to his chamber down the hall from her
damask room. On the marble table outside his chamber, Lawrence spied
the book The Mystery of Love Courtship and Marriage Explained, published
by Wehman Brothers in 1890.

Lawrence lifted the book tentatively, as he stifled a smile. He had the
identical volume inside his trunk, though he dared not to admit it in mixed
company.

“That is the precious possession of Miss Emily,” Philip chuckled
lightheartedly. “Young girls are all alike with their heads in the clouds.”

“My head is not in the clouds, Father,” Emily blushed. “We ladies of
marriageable age must acquaint ourselves with proper protocol.”

“It seems one day they’re playing with dolls, and the next they’re
looking for a husband. I still cannot believe my little girl will be having
her Debutante Ball next month. My wife Margaret has been counting the
days before Emily will get scooped up by one of New England’s most
eligible bachelors.” Philip Reed gushed with pride.

Philip opened the door to Lawrence’s handsome quarters. “Here is your
chamber, Lawrence, my boy. Your father and I used to be like brothers, so
settle down and relax before I send up a tray with supper.”

“The library is at the end of the hallway, if you’re not too tired, Lawrence,
maybe we could read poetry later,” Emily suggested with a shy smile.
Philip chuckled. “Oh, Emily and her poetry, girls are such fanciful
creatures!”

“Actually I’m fond of poetry, especially Shakespeare and Lord Byron,”
Lawrence divulged with a smile while his forlorn eyes made him resemble
a stray cat in a pleasing new environment.

“You’re a better man than me, Lawrence.” Philip smirked. “I have
absolutely no patience for abstract images, put me in front of a history
book and I’m content.”

“Well, you were always a history buff,” William interjected as he
shuffled his worn out shoes down the pristine hallway of ivory walls.

Philip showed William to his handsome chamber. It had a Chippendale
poster bed and a nice view of the garden. “William, old boy, it’s great to
see you after all these years.”

Philip’s hard angled face softened as he smiled. “My wife Margaret
and I spend a lot of time in Europe buying and selling rare treasures.
My sons Hal and Charles are usually away at private school so it’s pretty
quiet around here. Maggie’s sister Lilly stays to look after Emily when we
travel. Girls are a lot more trouble than the boys.” Philip rolled his eyes
in amusement.

“Your daughter Emily is perfectly charming. There’s no doubt she will
get snatched up by one of New England’s finest.” William’s face became
sullen in self-reflection. “You’re a lucky man, Philip. Henrietta and I had
always wanted a daughter.”

“You have luck as well. Lawrence is a fine young man, William. He
reminds me a lot of you. Well, I’ll have Miss Lydia bring up supper so
you can unwind and get a good night’s sleep. The men start working in the
fields at the crack of dawn, so be prepared.”

After supper, Lawrence found Emily at the mahogany table in the library
mulling over a pile of books. Emily looked delighted as he entered the
room. “Good evening, Lawrence,” she greeted in a soft voice.

“Good evening, Miss Emily, I was hoping I might find you here when
I noticed the light on.” Lawrence gave her an awkward half-smile.

“You can find me here every evening. I would much rather sit and read
than stay in the parlor with my mother and entertain whoever happens to
stop by. It’s always the same meaningless chatter. Shakespeare has said
it all ages ago. Nothing in human nature or life has changed one iota, yet
these highfalutin members of high society think they own the world.” Emily
laughed as Lawrence sat across from her and their eyes locked.

“That’s the cycle of life. It’s like when parents have a baby, they feel
like it’s the first baby ever born. Humor them.” Lawrence’s dazzling smile
lit up his face.

“You figured that out fast for a newcomer,” Emily quipped. “All I
ever do is humor everyone, that’s why my father says, ‘My head is in the
clouds.’”

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a newcomer in the true sense of
the word. If anyone’s head is in the clouds it’s mine, from working out in
the fields before we sold our farm, and now thanks to your father, I’ll be
working in the fields with my head in the clouds once again.” Lawrence
chuckled lustily.

“Well, I see we have a lot in common,” Emily’s blue eyes gazed deeply
into his. “We both have our heads in the clouds while everyone else is
eating themselves into oblivion.”

Unable to contain her laughter, Emily whispered, “Just between you
and me, my mother cannot even fit into the dress she intends to wear to
my Debutante Ball. She had it released two times already, which is another
reason I prefer the library to the parlor where every imaginable dessert
is set out.”

“I’ve never known that life, Miss Emily. I’m practically self-taught.
After working on the farm all day, I used to either read or set up an easel
and paint. My specialty is painting portraits.”

“I bet you’re a fine artist, Lawrence,” Emily enthused. “I can tell by your
hands; they look very strong and capable. They reveal you’re a hardworking
man who has character and heart. I always look at a man’s hands; they tell
me a lot about him.”

“And if I was to say I always look at a lady’s hands, and then tried to
steal a peak at yours; I’m sure I would be slapped,” Lawrence teased with
a playful grin.

“Not by me.” Emily lifted her tiny hands from her lap and placed them
on the table. “So what do my hands tell you, Lawrence?” Emily coyly
asked.

“You’ve been protecting them with white gloves your entire life. They’re
perfect.” Lawrence’s voice deepened from the pit of his chest. “You’re a
delicate creature, Miss Emily, and I wouldn’t want to say anything out of
line. I have a distinct feeling your father would not appreciate me admiring
your hands.”

“Maybe, but then again, my father doesn’t have the slightest
understanding of what makes me happy. That’s why I drown myself in
Shakespeare and Jane Austen . . . Lawrence, listen to the first line of Jane
Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,” Emily opened up the Jane Austen novel on
the table.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession
of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Emily grimaced. “Does that
mean if a man doesn’t have a good fortune he does not want a wife? The
title sums it up; high society is all about ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Not me, I
look at a man for who he is, and how his circumstance has shaped him.
I admire how resourceful a man is, and what’s inside his soul, not what’s
inside his bank account. The truth is money can make men boring and
arrogant.”

“That’s a provocative outlook. I suppose it explains why you’re treating
me so cordially. It’s quite unexpected, Miss Emily, and I must thank you
for that.”

“And I thank my lucky stars I finally have someone to talk to, Lawrence,
and please call me Emily.” Her eyes softened to his penetrating gaze.

Lawrence’s face flushed. “Emily, I have traveled a long, hard road
before arriving at Fairway. I often wonder about the people who
come into my life. I believe it’s Divine providence. I hope I’m not
offending you, but when I saw you walk down the stairs today you
reminded me of an angel. Everything about you is light and airy.”
Lawrence sighed as he bent his head downward, “While everything
about me is dark and brooding.”

“No, Lawrence, a son is a barometer of his father, and my father attests
to your father’s kind heart and flawless character. I’m sure my father will
become as fond of you as he is of your father,” Emily exclaimed with
conviction.

“As long as I know my place, and do my job well, hopefully your father
will find favor in me,” Lawrence replied as his eyes became downcast.

“Just so you know I have found favor in you, Lawrence.” Emily beamed.
“I feel like I’m in another world sitting here with you. It’s as if I know you
for my entire life.”

www.jrlagreca.com

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