“Are you sure we’re in the right place?”
“Just as sure as the last two times you asked.”
Elsa gave her sister a reproachful look.
“I’m sorry,” Anna replied, “but we’re definitely in the right place. He’ll be here soon.” She hoped, she really hoped.
There wasn’t even a proper station. They were sitting on their trunk, in the shade of a piece of fence, an hour after the train had left. They’d received a few curious glances, but no one had spoken to them since the conductor had taken their luggage off the train and left it here.
Ready to face the enemy, Anna thought, hearing it as she always did in their mother’s voice. She remembered her saying it before they went down for her first ball, an evening that seemed much further away than the length of the train journey, or the two years that had passed. Her parents had hosted the party. A month later they were both dead.
“What if it’s awful?” Elsa said now, twisting her handkerchief in her hands.
“Then we’ll leave.”
“You won’t be able to leave, if you’re married to him.”
“I’ve got legs, haven’t I?”
Elsa pulled a face. Anna bit her lower lip over a sigh and scanned the horizon. There was a farm wagon heading towards the little cluster of town buildings, but she had no way of knowing if that was who they were waiting for.
“It’ll be fine,” she said, as confidently as she could manage. “I’ll scrub the floors and you’ll darn socks and get well. It’ll be perfect, this is just what we needed.”
Elsa pursed her lips again and looked straight ahead. Anna knew she was just anxious and fretting but at the same time she wanted to shout, I am TRYING, what else was there to do? Watch you fade away to nothing in that crowded, choking city? Starve in genteel poverty, but at least I wouldn’t ruin my complexion?
The wagon was definitely coming this way. Squinting, Anna could see that its only occupant was the man driving, but she couldn’t make out his face; it was in shadow below the brim of his hat. Heart hammering, she stood and waited for him to approach.
Up close, the man looked both better and worse. He was young, as she had known; and he looked healthy, and from his build, hard-working; but he also looked tired, and in need of a shave, and his clothes were worn and not particularly clean.
“Miss Rendell?” he said as he climbed down from the wagon seat. Then, “And Miss Rendell, I assume,” and he looked them both up and down.
“Yes,” Anna said, “How d’you do? You must be Mr Kristoff Bjorgman - I assume - I mean, no one else knows we’re here so you must be - anyway. I’m Miss Anna Rendell and this is my sister. Elsa. Hello!” She smiled, but didn’t receive a smile in return. Elsa was standing now, and he just kept looking from one of them to the other, brow furrowed. Then he turned to Anna.
“Miss Rendell - what are you doing here?”
“I wrote, we wrote - what do you mean?”
He took her hand and turned it over to look at the palm, the skin pale and soft and unblemished. Anna snatched it back again.
“Go home,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re looking for but you won’t find it here. This isn’t the place for you.”
“There isn’t any other place either. We don’t have a home, we’re orphans. I told you that.”
“With the greatest respect, Miss Rendell, that isn’t my problem. I need someone who can help me. You assured me you were prepared to do farm work, and run a home, and it doesn’t look to me like you know much about either of those things.”
“I can learn. I will learn.”
“Well, did you have any other replies to your advertisement? You must have, there’s quite a line of women here, waiting for this opportunity, isn’t there? We could hardly move for them, on the train.”
“Anna,” Elsa said under her breath.
Kristoff looked them up and down again, but now there was a smile, just on the very edge of his lips.
“I told you when I wrote,” he said, “I can’t take two women back to my homestead if neither of them is my wife.”
“I know. I understand.”
Anna nodded firmly. “Yes.”
He nodded, and turned away without another word to lift the trunk and throw it in the back of the wagon. “Come on, then. The judge is expecting us.”