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Something soft and furry pressed against Mira’s face. She swatted it away, but it came back and pushed harder. Opening her eyes, she found bright green eyes staring back from a fluffy gray face. A loud purr and a soft meow accompanied another round of head butting.
“Good morning to you, too.” She scratched under his chin as she glanced around the dark room. “Frank, I’m not sure it’s morning yet. Move over so I can see the clock.”
She gently shoved him out of the way. The glowing red numbers from the digital clock on the nightstand stared back. Frank rubbed his head on her nose, blocking her view again.
“Okay, you win.” She sighed and sat up. “Six o’clock is morning, but this time of year it sure doesn’t look like it.”
The cat meowed again and looked pointedly at the door.
“All right!” She shook her head and smiled. Purebred cats were just as demanding as the strays she’d always owned. “Let me get dressed, and then I’ll see if I can find your food.”
Frank sat on the foot of the bed while she dressed in the clothes she’d worn the previous night. A few quick strokes of her brush, and she called her hair done. She crept out of her room, not wanting to disturb Tabby if she was still asleep. As she went down the stairs, she glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, Frank trailed her. A cat that big obviously never missed the opportunity for a meal. Light shone through the open kitchen door, and quiet voices drifted into the hall. Were the Montaignes early risers?
Lucas sat at the table with two women in neat black uniforms. All three of them had partially eaten breakfasts in front of them.
“Miss Mira, you’re up early.” Lucas offered a friendly smile.
“Somebody decided he was hungry.” She glanced at the cat winding around her legs.
“Frank! You naughty cat.” The younger woman stood. “You know better than to wake the guests.” She scooped him up and sent Mira an apologetic look. “I’m sorry he disturbed you, miss.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She smiled, hoping to put the woman at ease. “I’m used to cats waking me up and early mornings. I lived on a farm for years, and the animals all liked to be fed before seven.”
“I’m so relieved he didn’t upset you, miss.” She stroked the cat’s head. “Let’s go feed you, Frank.”
The other woman stood as the first left the room. “I’m Charlotte, the cook. Can I fix you something to eat?”
“I guess so.” The Montaignes had a cook?
“What would you like?”
“Anything is fine.” How were you supposed to deal with a cook? She’d never had one.
“Honey, I’m all out of anything, so you’re going to have to be a little more specific.”
Mira drew a blank on American breakfast foods. She doubted the hummus she’d grown up eating was common in Ohio, but she couldn’t think of another dish.
“Hey, Charlotte, isn’t there still some sausage gravy left?” Lucas asked and glanced at Mira. “Do you like biscuits and gravy?”
Her brain kicked in again at the mention of one of her favorite American breakfast foods. “I haven’t had biscuits and gravy in months.”
“Well, have a seat, and I’ll dish up a plate for you.” Charlotte moved to the large gas stove.
Mira sat across from Lucas as the younger woman returned to her seat, minus the cat.
“Anita, here, is the live-in maid,” Lucas said. “There were two, but Nancy left and Miss Della hasn’t found a replacement yet.”
“But she did arrange to have someone come in days to help,” Anita added.
Charlotte set a plate of mouth-watering biscuits and sausage gravy in front of Mira. “Here you go, honey.”
“Thanks.” She inhaled the warm, slightly spicy aroma. “This looks delicious.”
Charlotte sat down and watched her take the first bite.
Pure bliss filled Mira as she tasted the creamy gravy and flaky biscuit. “I think this might be better than Marnie’s.”
“Thank you.” A pleased smile spread across the cook’s face. “I’m glad you like it.”
“I do.” Mira took another bite.
“Who’s Marnie?” Lucas asked.
“She was some kind of cousin to my mother.” She understood his curiosity about the stranger the Montaignes had taken in. She’d be curious too. “I lived with her and her husband Harley after I came to this country.”
Anita leaned forward. “Where are you from?”
“I was born in Palestine and lived there until I was thirteen.” She hoped she wouldn’t have to explain why she’d immigrated to live with her mother’s cousins.
Silence fell, but Charlotte broke it after only a moment. “Why don’t we get to work and let Miss Mira eat in peace?”
Guilt pinged Mira, and she lifted her head. “You don’t have to leave on my account.”
The cook reached across the table and gave her arm a pat. “I know, honey, but Anita and I have work to do. I’m sure Lucas has things that need his attention as well.”
She and Anita rose and cleared their places, but Lucas stayed in his seat and drank his coffee. While Mira ate, he told her about the horses the Montaignes owned. She finished the last bite, and Charlotte appeared beside her.
“Would you like some more?”
“No, thanks. That was plenty,” Mira said with a smile.
Charlotte gathered the dishes and carried them to the sink. Lucas stood and picked up his own dishes then looked at Mira.
“Would you like to come down to the stable with me and see the horses? I bet old Dan would like to see you, too.”
“Sure.” She gave him a curious look as she rose. “Where is Dan? I haven’t seen him since we got here.”
“He lives with me above the stable. Miss Della doesn’t like to have him in the house, so he’s taken up residence in my apartment.”
“Oh.” After her years in West Virginia, she couldn’t imagine not letting a pet dog in the house. Back in Palestine, however, any dogs had been forbidden to enter the house. Was Della’s dislike of a dog in the house religious? It couldn’t be cultural, since so many Americans didn’t have a problem with it. “I need to go get my coat, and then I’ll be ready to go.”
“I’ll wait here for you.”
Mira ran up to her room and retrieved her coat. When she returned downstairs, she found Lucas waiting outside the kitchen, already wearing his coat. He led the way down the hall, past some closed doors, and opened the door at the end to reveal a mudroom. They passed through it and out into the cold predawn air. A well-kept gravel walk led to a large stable. Lights shone through the windows. Lucas opened the door, and warmth wrapped around them the moment they stepped inside. The familiar scents of horses, hay, and leather eased her tension.
A handsome man about Mira’s age with curly black hair, brown eyes, and an olive complexion similar to hers stepped out of one of the stalls.
“I got everybody fed. I’ll start on the stalls in a few minutes.” His gaze landed on Mira, and his expression changed to a mix of surprise and curiosity. “Hello.”
“Ben Petros, Mira Hassan,” Lucas said. “Mira’s staying with the Montaignes for a while.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Ben’s straight, white smile set her heart racing.
“Ben’s a local college student who works here in the mornings,” Lucas said. “He managed to arrange his schedule so that his earliest class is at noon.”
Ben grinned. “I’d rather work with horses early in the morning than study the history of the modern world.”
Lucas laughed and Mira smiled as she looked around, her thoughts on the mutt she’d befriended in West Virginia.
“He’s in the tack room being lazy,” Ben said. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
She followed him down the wide cement aisle between the stalls and peeked in at the horses they passed. “These are beautiful animals.”
“Most of them are well-trained, too. The most recent arrival is another story. She’s a Thoroughbred mare that’s barely trained and can be spooked by her own shadow.” He stopped beside an open door. “Here’s the tack room.”
Mira looked inside and the large, mixed-breed hound lying there thumped his tail on the floor. It warmed her heart to see evidence he still considered her a friend. She walked over and knelt beside him. As she rubbed his head, the tail picked up tempo.
“I see you and Dan know each other,” Ben said from the doorway.
“Yeah, we met a few days ago when Bill was in West Virginia.” She stood and dusted the loose dog hair from her hands.
“That’s cool.” He glanced toward the barn aisle. “I need to start mucking out stalls. If you want to hang around here for a while, you can put your coat on one of the hooks over there.”
He left to do his work, and she hung her coat where he had indicated. As she took in the expensive tack around her, it sank in that all the saddles were English style. The only kind she had ever used were the larger Western saddles. Dan stretched into a standing position and followed Mira as she left the tack room. She found Lucas brushing a large bay.
“Ben said there’s a horse what’s been giving y’all trouble,” she said, petting the bay’s nose.
“She just needs a bit more training.” He came around the horse to stand beside her.
“I might be able to help. I used to help Harley with the horses.”
Lucas studied her as the bay sniffed her pockets as if it expected to find a carrot hidden in one.
“Well, I guess I can show her to you, but Dan has to stay in the tack room.” He reached for the bay’s halter and the crossties attached to it. “Maggie’s more nervous than usual when he’s around.”
“Is that the mare’s name?” she asked as he led the bay to a nearby stall.
“It’s actually Magnolia Dream, but we call her Maggie,” he said, coming out of the stall and securing the door.
They left Dan in the tack room with the door closed. Mira followed Lucas down to the end of the row of stalls. He grabbed a lead rope hanging on a hook screwed into the wall and cautiously opened the last stall. He entered with slow, deliberate steps, speaking in a low tone to the horse stamping her feet inside. Mira stayed back as Lucas led the nervous animal out of her stall. He stopped a big gray in the center of the aisle.
“This is Magnolia Dream, a four-year-old Thoroughbred. Maggie is seventeen hands, barely trained, and as you can see, she has a nervous disposition.”
The beautiful mare pranced a bit at the end of the lead rope. Everything about the horse reminded Mira so much of a pair of horses Harley had rescued. Maybe the same things would work on her that had worked on them. She spoke soothing words in Hebrew as she stepped toward Maggie. The horse pricked her ears and calmed a little. With a careful, steady movement, Mira raised her open hand, palm up, and let the horse investigate. Maggie calmed further, and Mira raised her other hand to rub the mare’s forehead. She could feel Lucas’s eyes on her as the horse lowered her head and allowed Mira to scratch behind her ears.
“I’ve never seen Maggie this calm,” he said in a low tone.
She smiled and continued to pet the horse, showing she meant no harm. “You just have to know how to talk to her. Do you have a place to exercise her?”
“There’s an indoor arena on the other side of these stalls.” A crease furrowed his brow. “You’re not thinking of riding her, are you?”
“No, I was going to ask for a longe line.”
“There’s one in the tack room.”
“I’ll hold Maggie, if you’ll go get it.”
Lucas looked at the animal continuing to relax under her gentle touch. “Okay, but if you need any help, just call out.”
“All right, but I won’t need help,” Mira said with a smile as she took the lead rope from him.
He walked to the tack room as quickly as he dared without spooking Maggie. Mira went back to softly speaking Hebrew as she ran her fingers down the mare’s soft neck. Lucas returned a moment later carrying a longe line and a long whip. Maggie began to dance at the end of the lead rope, her nostrils flaring and her eyes showing white.