The Dowry, April 2nd Release, Chapter 1

I have commented that the Dowry is a Paranormal Romance and something unlike my previous works. That is not entirely true. Many of my proofers noted that the story, while not in their normal reading Genera, was in fact, surprisingly enjoyable. To perhaps entice you, my Sci Fi and Fantasy readers, to give it a try, I am posting Chapter 1 as a teaser.

From a Spiritual Guide, written long ago;

 It is unwise to develop strong attachments to places or things, lest you find yourself bound to them for all eternity. It is said that loving something with all your heart and soul exposes you to dangers, should you come to an untimely end.

Half of your soul will bind to that which is safe and familiar, while the other half will be left to wander the earth, returning again and again in hopes of joining and becoming whole once more. Only in loving someone, a united love, can they become one again.

 Author Unknown. 

Chapter 1

 

Somewhere on the St. John’s River, South of Jacksonville, FL. 1857

 

“I have marked all the trees I want saved with a piece of ribbon, the rest you are free to cut,” Charlotte said firmly to the man towering over her.

“Yes, Miss Charlotte,” he replied respectfully, his sweat-stained work clothes covered in dust.

“And be sure the choppers and hewers take care in their felling and clearing; we need good, long, timber for the sawmill,” she admonished the man.

“Yes, Miss Charlotte. The rigging crew should be here before noon tomorrow, but we can start cutting at first light,” the man added, referring to the team that strung the ropes and pulleys used to pull the cut timber, stripped of branches, to the water’s edge. They would need quite a few horses to move logs of the size they expected.

With a nod of acknowledgement, she watched the foreman turn and head back up the wooden pier toward the cleared path between the trees. What was once a heavily wooded area beyond the end of the dock had been cleared and worked into what would eventually be the road to this very spot.

At its end, seventeen-year-old Charlotte Foxworth stood in her bare feet at the edge of the newly constructed pier, looking out onto the river. The blossoming full moon was just beginning to reflect off the water in the fading sunlight. The warm evening air still held a tinge of the day’s humidity, but the coolness felt good against her bare arms.

Standing in a light cotton dress, a hand-me-down from her mother, she could feel it still sticking to her body in places from the sweat of the day. She could feel the roughhewn timber, coarse against her bare feet, and it sent a thrill of excitement through her. The wood had been acquired in trade from a local mill for recently cut trees lining the path from inland to the water’s edge.

The pier she stood on was long and straight, flaring to a T at its end, providing plenty of length for a boat to tie up. It was quite sturdy and had taken more time than expected to finish. The workmen had to drive the pilings far out into the river to accommodate the draft of her father’s three largest steamboats. They had made it wide and strong to accommodate the heavy loads expected from the farmers in the surrounding area.

The oldest daughter of a steamboat captain, Charlotte had seen her father grow their family business from one small boat, brought south with their move to Florida, into a small fleet that now traveled the St. John’s River. The boats roamed the waterway, taking travelers and farm goods upriver to Jacksonville or further south to the settlements along its banks, reaching deep into central and southern Florida.

At just twelve years old, the unexpected death of her mother had required her to grow up far quicker than her friends. The elder of two daughters, she had watched her mother die of illness while her father was away. At that time, her father was on the river, sometimes gone for days, so she had needed to step up to the challenges left by the family loss. As the lady of the house, she had cared for her younger sister while handling the business side of their small commercial shipping empire.

Over the span of years, she had learned to be a savvy business woman. At first it was almost a game, but a few dishonest cheats had taught her hard life lessons. Whenever she had been swindled, she would never tell her father, she just found ways to compensate for the losses incurred. One particular incident had required her to sell her favorite dress–one gifted her by her departed mother–to recover the lost funds. Her father never learned of the matter.

Now, her father was home and more involved in managing the day-to-day operations of the business, while others captained the ships on the water. In growing the enterprise even further, they had decided to buy some land and build a landing far south on the river, but central to their travel routes. It needed to be a place where the local growers could bring their produce and either pay to transport it or sell it all outright to the shipper. Either option was intended to save days of travel to and from the markets in Jacksonville.

Once her father had acquired the parcel, Charlotte was delighted to learn that the landing was to be hers to manage, with a pier and a grand house that would be her dowry. Besides the income from her portion of the transport fees, she could provide lodging for travelers, those waiting for the next boat up or down the river from her landing.

With the pier completed, her excitement at overseeing the start of construction on the house had her anxious to begin work. Her father had been quite insistent that the pier be completed before the house construction could start, so the delay had been frustrating. While she understood that the pier represented the income required to build the house, her excitement compounded her concern over the delay. While the weather was currently pleasant, the coming summer heat would make work miserable.

Behind her, she could hear small footsteps on the wooden planking. Turning from the water, she could see a boy approaching, the cook’s assistant. Beyond she could see the tents in the torchlight that would be her home for the next six months or more. There were still trees to be felled and transported north to one of the sawmills near town. There, the timber would be cut and sorted, prepared for transport back to the building site.

Her father had already negotiated payment for all the work in the form of excess timber with the mill owner. As they cleared the land, men knowledgeable in such things would sort the trees, marking those to be returned as cut lumber. Those not marked would stay with the mill owner as payment for his services.

“Miss Charlotte, supper is ready,” the boy announced as he neared her.

“I’ll be right there,” she replied, as she watched him turn to hurry back.

Tomorrow at first light the cutting to clear her home site would begin. The thought filled her with joy as she sprinted back, anxious for the morning to come.

Somewhere near the St. John’s River, South of Jacksonville, FL. Present day

Robert Garrison was not having a banner day and he was becoming increasingly frustrated. A self-acknowledged perfectionist, he tended to pour his heart and soul into everything he did. Currently, he had been searching for just the right house to restart his life, and was having no luck whatsoever.  His agent, at his request, had been researching the local listings, trying to uncover just the right property for Robert to restore, and today they were viewing her selections.

An architect by education, Robert had graduated college via an ROTC scholarship from the Army. Taking his commission, he became a combat engineer and served two combat tours in the Middle East with the Combat Engineers. By the time he had made Captain, he had reached his limit of unfulfilled efforts in his military career.

Time and again, he watched their hard-earned endeavors turned to rubble by the insurgents fighting the Americans, as the locals stood by watching. He felt for the people there, but acknowledged that some things you just have to do for yourselves. After leaving the Army, he used his degree and experience and went into business restoring old houses for Historic Societies around the country.

His time in the Middle East had given him a true appreciation for ancient structures. At every opportunity he would stop and marvel at the ageless buildings, things that had withstood the test of time. The craftsmanship he had witnessed there had inspired him in his own efforts. The reputation he had built for quality workmanship and accuracy to detail had earned him a top notch standing in the national restoration community.

It had also provided him with a very lucrative income. Most of his clients had very high standards and little concern for cost. Currently, his bank account was bursting as he had been working nonstop of late, leaving little time to spend the hard-earned commissions from his various projects. A romantic at heart, he put the loving attention one might associate in a relationship with every project he took on.

He had recently tried to put that effort into marriage, attempting a true connection with another person, but his now ex-wife found his work and travel schedule akin to her maintaining a single life and decided to move on without him. She complained that she couldn’t compete with his many work mistresses, every new project a source of contention between them. Although he officially resided in San Francisco, where he lived before the divorce, he had yet to set down roots anywhere permanently in the aftermath.

At the thought of his ex-wife, his phone rang with her ring tone, as if his thoughts of her triggered the event.

“Hello?” he asked without bothering to look at the phone to check the caller ID.

“Where are you now?” a familiar voice asked in irritation.

“I told you I had a job to bid in Florida,” he replied, trying to stay calm.

“You said bid, not that you actually needed to go there. What about the house?” she replied sternly.

His ex-wife was referring to the Victorian home he had restored for the two of them just after they married. Intended as a bonding experience, where the two of them could work together on a labor of love, it proved less than successful. While the house turned out perfectly, the marriage didn’t weather the experience as nicely.

“Heather, you know perfectly well I need to survey the structures before submitting the final bid,” he responded patiently.

“You promised that the house would be ready to sell this week,” she snapped back at him.

“The house is already listed; the agent will start showing it this weekend. You should be happy, without Hunter and me there, it will stay clean,” he replied, referring to his hound dog.

“Fine, just get it sold!” she replied before hanging up on him.

Robert expected the sale of their renovated 19th Century San Francisco home to clear between four and a half to five million dollars after expenses, a sum he was required to split with his ex. It was clear to him that she was far more passionate about receiving her cut of the sale than she had ever been about their marriage.

Glancing over at his agent, he could see she had been doing her best to ignore the exchange, focusing on the road ahead.

“Your wife?” she asked hesitantly.

“Ex-wife actually. Yes, she is anxious to sell our last joint asset,” he responded flatly.

“And you aren’t?” she asked, apparently noting the reluctance in his tone.

“I love the house, hate the location. Probably best it’s sold,” he replied honestly. Never big on the San Francisco crowds, Robert had only agreed to settle there for Heather.

Looking past the woman as she drove, he could see the houses on the far side, most stately modern construction on spacious lots.

“Hey, stop here,” he suddenly burst out as they were traveling down the back-country road.

His agent quickly pulled over to the side of the road and Robert just as quickly stepped out of the car, briskly moving around behind it. Before him was a brick and iron fence, running parallel to the street, with a double wrought iron gate. As he walked up to the gates, he could see a broad driveway, overgrown with vegetation, and cluttered with fallen branches from the trees that lined the track up to the house. The Spanish Moss draping from the tree limbs gave the scene a very southern look, exactly the kind of charm Robert was looking for.

Set back from the road a good distance, he could see what appeared to be a Victorian structure made in the Queen Anne style, faded from neglect and surrounded by trees. The tall two-story house had a porch that wrapped around the left side of the first floor, the windows following across the front and around the side. From the height of the roofline, he suspected the high gabled roof held a large attic space above the living area. The cluster of trees to the left shielded the rest from view.

“This house is not for sale,” Robert heard his agent comment as she stepped up next to him.

“What’s the story here? It doesn’t look like it’s been lived in for years,” he asked absently as he studied the house.

“This is Foxworth House, I believe the family who owns the house moved out in the late 40s, leaving it vacant ever since. It was strange as they moved out not too long after the last renovation was completed. I do know it was built in 1858, by a local businessman who made his money transporting people and goods up and down the river. Unfortunately, from here you can’t see the river on the other side of the house.”

“It’s beautiful,” Robert commented as he continued to study the structure.

“I understand there have been several attempts to buy the place and tear it down. Developers want it badly as it sits on prime riverfront property, but the family won’t sell,” his agent added.

“Tear it down? That would be a crime!” Robert replied aloud as he studied the lines of the rooftop.

“This is exactly what I am looking for. What I could do for this place to bring it back to life,” Robert said sadly as he finally turned back to the car.

“I can check and see if it’s still off the market, if you like,” his agent replied as she hurried to catch up to him.

“Please do, I would kill for that house,” Robert said emphatically as she started the car, heading to the next listing she had lined up for the afternoon.

Robert had a particular fondness for Victorian homes. He felt the architecture embodied the romance of the period, a time when people took the time to really get to know one another. It was that same romantic attitude that had inspired him to choose the house in San Francisco with Heather. Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to embrace the same romantic notions as he.

They had been introduced through a mutual acquaintance. Robert had restored a home for the woman and Heather had her as a client in her PR firm. They had hit it off well in the beginning, both sharing a love of the older historic areas of San Francisco. However, while Robert focused on the historic value of the properties they explored, he learned all too late that Heather was more concerned about the monetary value.

—-*—-

 

The following morning, Robert rose early, more out of habit than necessity, and went to see if the morning paper had arrived. Robert was still a bit old fashioned, reading actual books and subscribing to a daily paper back home. It was a practice he had developed overseas, where one might not be able to charge one of the electronic devices so prevalent now days.

Here, at an extended stay hotel, more like an apartment than just a room, they included a daily local newspaper, which worked fine for him. Upon opening the door, something dropped to his bare feet. Reaching down, he picked up a faded parchment envelope, a wax seal ensuring the content’s integrity. Robert studied the seal on the back, a capitol F centered in the red wax.

Grabbing the newspaper, he turned and went back into the kitchen, where he poured a cup of coffee before taking everything to the dining room table. Sitting down, he carefully opened the sealed envelope and removed a parchment paper, folded in half. Opening the paper, he found a meticulously handwritten note.

 

You are cordially invited to a private showing of Foxworth House, on this day, promptly at noon. Come alone, agent attendance is not required.”

 

Robert was a bit taken aback by the reference to the agent, surprised at the comment. It was quite unusual for a real estate agent to forgo attending a home showing for their client. He quickly verified that the address was in fact the Victorian house he had seen the day before. As his agent was the only person on the planet who knew of his interest, he assumed she had arranged for the showing.

Checking his watch, he noted he had a few hours before he needed to leave, the travel time eating up almost two hours from the location of his current rental. Preparing a quick breakfast, he found himself becoming excited at the prospect of acquiring the old house, but was concerned about the asking price. His agent had mentioned in passing the value of the property alone was significant.

Recalling the agent’s comments the day before, he cringed at the idea of what a 1940s renovation attempt on the old structure might have done. The Victorian he restored in San Francisco had been one of those where the previous repairs had nearly destroyed the originality of the place. In his line of work, he had seen several examples of the best intentions obliterating vintage craftsmanship. He only hoped that this house had been spared that fate.

By the time he had finished eating, showered, and getting dressed, he was anxious to be on his way. Letting the dog out, he watched as the hound sniffed his way around the small backyard offered for this purpose. A pet friendly facility, he readied the handy cleanup bag provided by the hotel.

“Hurry up Hunter, I need to go,” Robert explained to the distracted hound. A Blue Tick Coon Hound mix, Hunter hardly paid him any attention as he inspected every corner of his temporary domain. Finally satisfied, he did his business and then rushed inside. Robert made quick work of the cleanup and went inside himself to wash his hands before heading to the front door.

“Not today, buddy,” Robert said as the dog waited by the door, looking expectantly at the leash hanging nearby.

“Maybe when I get back,” he added as he slipped past the disappointed hound and locked the door behind him. Robert took the dog everywhere with him, by plane, ship or train. He likely had more travel miles than most people did. While the dog voiced a quick objection, Robert heard him quiet down before he reached his ride.

Climbing into the rented Jeep, he started the vehicle and backed out onto the empty street. Originally only intending to stay in town a few days, he had not bothered to drive cross country using his own truck, rather choosing to fly in for the occasion. He had been asked to bid on several restoration projects here in town, recommended by a friend and business associate. His house hunting had been a whim, inspired by the events in California as he was soon to be homeless.

Meeting separately with each of the prospective renovation property owners the first day in town, he was awarded both the jobs on the spot.  His reputation had sealed the deal, but he suspected his friend’s recommendation had carried some weight in the end.

He then found himself with time to kill before his next flight, a few days away, and no real desire to return home. Even though he and Heather had been first separated and then divorced for almost a year, he still struggled with the loss. While the pair remained on cordial terms, Heather had a way of reminding him he had made the right decision to split.

So, rather than leave Florida early, returning to an empty house, he decided to pursue his first love and contacted a local agent whom he knew specialized in older historic homes. Outlining his wish list on the phone, he reassured her he was a buyer and not just a looker. They had then spent the following day traveling all around the surrounding countryside looking at various properties, to no avail.

Retracing the route from memory, Robert eventually found himself back on the two-lane country road leading to the house. He could see the open fields and woods intermingled with the occasional house. Ahead, he noted a car stopped along the side of the road, facing him.

Slowing as he passed, he could see the driver side rear tire was flat and there was a young woman sitting inside, staring at her cell phone in clear frustration. Robert quickly pulled over and slowly backed up until his window was opposite the young woman’s. Lowering his window, but not exiting the Jeep to keep from alarming her, he waved to get her attention.

“Problem?” he asked after she lowered her window about half way.

“I have a flat and my cell has no coverage here at all,” she explained on the edge of tears.

Robert could now see that the woman was more of a girl, probably no more than eighteen to twenty.

“Do you have a spare?” he asked while checking his watch.

This was going to make him late, but there was just no way he could just drive off and leave her here.

“I don’t know,” she replied unsurely.

“Look, stay in the car, pop the trunk and let me look,” he replied as he checked the road for traffic before exiting the Jeep. They were the only two vehicles on the road, which was another reason he took care in reassuring the young woman.

Crossing over to her car, he lifted the trunk lid and found both the spare and the jack inside. Moving quickly to try and minimize his delay, he was thankful that he wasn’t wearing his good clothes that morning. While not NASCAR worthy, he changed the tire quickly and soon had everything back in the trunk. As he worked, he could see the girl peeking out the open window, still only half open, watching him.

“You are good to go now, but be sure and get that tire fixed or next time you will be stranded,” he replied as he stepped up to her window while brushing himself off.

“I can’t pay you much,” she started, cash in hand, before Robert cut her off.

“Good, because I won’t take it anyway; you just drive safe,” he answered with a wave as he quickly crossed the road. Climbing back in his Jeep, he waited until he saw the young woman pull back onto the road and head off before doing the same himself.

Trying not to rush to make up the lost time, he soon found himself in front of the old Victorian once more, only this time the gates stood wide open and the drive had been cleared of debris. Slowly pulling in past the aged wrought iron gates, he could see an older Mercedes sedan parked in front of the house, and someone sitting on the front porch.

Stopping the Jeep next to the car, he quickly surveyed the area before getting out. To his left stood a large carriage house, unnoticed when he was here before as it stood partially hidden from the street by a stand of trees. The two-story structure was so old it had once been used for horse and buggy storage, but appeared solid.

Perhaps it was the pending sale of the house in California, or the hesitancy of throwing his all into a new project intended for himself. Either way, he found himself just a tad nervous.

“Well, here goes nothing!” he said to himself as he got out of the Jeep.

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