“You're so dumb,” the voice taunted. “You're so dumb, you don't even know how to climb a tree.”
Samantha examined her scraped knee and scowled. The fall from the oak branch hadn't hurt her too much but Grandmary would not be pleased to see her ripped stocking. The most embarrassing part of falling out of the tree was having such a display witnessed by one's least favorite neighbor. She glared at the bushes.
“Go away, Eddie.”
But the voice did not go away; it only laughed. “You're so dumb you probably think three times four is twelve.”
She gave an unladylike huff. For once, his wild guesses at math were correct. He may be two grades above her in school, but no one could tell by his obviously stupid remarks. “Three times four is twelve.”
“Samantha, you're so dumb...”
She turned away. Why wouldn't he just leave her alone? “Eddie, go away!”
The voice cackled as a sticky face appeared from the bushes. “Samantha's dumb! Samantha's dumb!” It cried as it came closer, filling her vision until she could see nothing else.
“Stop it, Eddie!”
“Samantha! Wake up!”
With a gasp, Samantha Parkington sat straight up in bed. Her hand flew to her knee, still covered by the blankets. Even with the cloth under her fingers, she knew instantly that there was no scrape discoloring her skin. The voice was gone, the bushes all but a distant memory. She was no longer that little nine-year-old girl with ripped stockings. No, she was far from that.
She felt someone gently touch her forehead. “Are you feeling ill, Samantha?”
“I'm fine.” Samantha pushed Nellie's anxious hand away. “It was only a dream.”
Her adopted sister regarded her critically. “More of a nightmare, if you ask me. You cried out more than once and woke me up.”
Samantha fell back onto her pillows and pulled the blankets up to her chin. “I'm sorry.”
But Nellie wasn't finished. She leaned over Samantha, placing one hand on the iron-wrought headboard to steady herself. “You were yelling at Eddie.”
“Next-door nuisance,” Samantha mumbled, rolling over to avoid Nellie's eyes.
Her sister sighed. “Why are you letting that bother you still? I thought you left those nightmares behind you. That was almost ten years ago!”
“Eight years,” Samantha corrected. “And I don't know! Can I help it that the dream came back?”
Nellie grabbed her shoulder and forced her back over. “Samantha, that's all past now. Eddie Ryland isn't here, and we most likely never see him again. Didn't his mother send him off to some obscure college somewhere? Don't let him bother you anymore. Besides,” she continued, “you're not dumb. You're the smartest girl I know.” She gave Samantha a friendly poke in the shoulder. “Who graduated from the academy with the highest honors? Who received the most status for academic achievements? Who astonished the teachers beyond recall with excellence and deportment?”
Samantha couldn't keep her grin back. “Me.”
“Yes, you! Not Eddie.” Nellie's eyes flashed excitedly. “Now just tell that to your nightmares.” She left the bed and walked across the room. “Are you hungry?”
“Not very. What time is it?” Samantha glanced at the clock resting on her nightstand. The elegant hands were small but easy enough to read – six thirty. Grandmary wouldn't be up yet, although the Admiral would be just returning to the hotel after his morning walk. If they hurried, they could meet him when he returned to the suite. He was fond of two smiling faces greeting him at the door, as she and Nellie both knew.
She threw the blankets off and leaped out of bed as Nellie pulled their dresses from the wardrobe.
“Can you believe that it's already our last day in Paris? I never imagined our tour to go this quickly!” She exclaimed, studying the dresses with an expert eye. “Just think – next week we'll be on the RMS Titanic, sailing home, and then we'll be in New York City in time for your eighteenth birthday.” She frowned and cast a quick look at Samantha. “Do you want the white one or the pink one?”
“Pink,” Samantha said without even glancing at the dresses. The white was pretty enough, but the collar on the pink one proved most flattering with her locket she never took off. For a moment, she let her fingers rest on the tiny, gold heart. Inside were two faded pictures, though she hardly had to look at them anymore to remember what they looked like and to recall the beloved faces smiling back at her.
I miss you, Mother and Father, her heart whispered as a brief tear clung to her eye. I wish I could have known you longer. I wish we could have been a family.
“Samantha?” Nellie was holding the pink dress out to her, watching her with a curious expression. Her face softened as she caught sight of her sister's hand clutching the locket. She nodded, understanding. “I know, I miss mine, too.”
Samantha accepted the dress blindly. “I still don't understand why they had to die. Why I was never really given a chance to know them.”
“Would you wish them back?”
“Why wouldn't I?”
Nellie looked away. “But what about everything you have now? Would you change any of that?”
Samantha's heart sunk. She knew to what Nellie was referring. “No, I wouldn't change it. I mean, it's not every day that my best friend would become my sister. And everything we have in New York – Bridget, Jenny, little William, Uncle Gard, Aunt Cornelia, and all the others – I wouldn't give them up for anything. But... but don't you sometimes find yourself yearning for your real parents next to you? A mother to sympathize with you, a father to seek advice from?”
“Of course I do,” Nellie answered, rubbing her hands against the dress she'd chosen, a blue silk with dark gray trimming. “But we can't change the past, Sam. I think these things were all meant to happen for a reason. We can't control the universe and how it works, even though we may try to. I think there are things bigger than us, some things we can't even comprehend.”
Samantha snorted, eagerly dashing away all former signs of sorrow. “When you can find something bigger at work than the matchmaking Mrs. Woodbourne, let me know. I seriously doubt anything could be bigger than her.”
Nellie lost her somber air to an instant fit of giggles. “It's not her fault that she loves cake.”
“And cookies, and pies, and breads, and...” Samantha rolled her eyes and rounded a list out of the rotund lady's favorite foods. Nellie's giggles didn't cease, so neither did her sister's tongue. But the time Samantha had gotten around to breaded pork and beef tenderloin, Nellie had to sit down lest her laughter cause her to fall over.
“Oh, Samantha, stop!” She cried, holding her side. “Please!”
With a grin, Samantha added one last food item: “And pickled livers.”
The oddity had the expected result. Nellie's jollity vanished into a disgusted expression. “Jeepers, Sam! That's horrid!”
Now it was Samantha's turn to laugh. “Come on; we'd better hurry. The Admiral will think we've abandoned him.”