Just in case anyone wants to know what I’m working on... This hasn’t been edited, it’s just a DRAFT of what I’m writing this month, for National Novel Writing Month. This is the first scene of a Christmas story that is technically part of my Branches series, though it does not deal directly with the family members we all know and love. Does anyone remember Mr. Ellsworth from Courting the Vicar’s Daughter? He’s now Harry’s steward, and this is how his love story begins.
Chapter 1, Scene 1
The shop bell at Carter’s Haberdashery jingled merrily, announcing Robert’s entrance to the shopkeeper and his assistant. Robert removed closed his umbrella before fully entering and dropped it in the small barrel near the door. Despite the mud-filled streets, Mr. Carter’s floor was as neat as ever, which made Robert hesitate to come fully inside.
“Ah, Mr. Ellsworth. Come in, come in.” Mr. Carter himself stood behind the counter, beaming at Robert. “Have you come for your gloves?”
“I have, Mr. Carter. Are they ready?” Robert came further in, keenly aware of the mud on the heels of his boots. Despite the cold drizzle, he had spent most of his morning walking from one end of the village to the other to see to matters of business for his employer.
A young man stuck his head out between the curtains separating the front of the shop from the back. “Is that Mr. Ellsworth?”
“Yes, Rowlins. Bring his gloves out, if you would.”
The haberdashery was also the local glove shop for gentlemen, and oftentimes the place for them to obtain other odds and ends that for which larger towns, such as London, would dedicate individual shops. Robert had been measured for new leather gloves the week before.
The apprentice hatter brought out the black leather gloves and handed them to Mr. Carter, but the older man shook his head. “No, Rollins. You did the work. You present them.”
Robert’s heart sank slightly, but he kept a cheerful smile upon his face. No use discouraging the lad. It wasn’t Rollins’s fault that Robert was no longer important enough to merit the attention of the master rather than the apprentice. A mere steward might accept the work of someone new to the trade while an established gentleman could expect more consideration from the proprietor.
The boy’s work, when Robert examined the gloves, looked well enough. When he put the gloves on, they fit snuggle and he could open and close his fingers without straining the seems. “Well done, Mr. Rollins.” He looked the young man directly in the eyes as he paid the sincere compliment. “They’re as fine a pair of gloves as I have ever worn before.”
The boy’s ears turned pink and he bowed slightly. “I am pleased to hear it, Mr. Ellsworth.” Robert paid the agreed-upon price, then added a few extra coins for the young man. He began to turn away from the counter when Mr. Carter cleared his throat.
“Mr. Ellsworth, I wonder if you might know, does Mr. Devon have need of our services before he goes to London for the Season?”
Robert maintained his cheerful demeanor. “I do not know, sir. Nothing in the house books indicates one way or the other if the family will make clothing purchases before leaving.” The question was far beneath his position, yet he well understood Carter’s desire to secure business before the wealthier members of the community left for the larger town and shops. He took up his umbrella from the barrel, flexed his hands in the new gloves, and stepped outside.
The rain had let up for the moment. Without knowing how long the sky would grant such a reprieve, Robert moved at a hurried pace down the lane. Since early December, the weather had been biting cold and wet. There were talks of flooding in other parts of the county and in London itself. The deluge was unusual for the season, and no one was prepared for it.
At least most crops were in. Mr. Devon’s lands were high enough that the water did not settle in his fields, the tenants’ cottages were newly built and free from leaks and drafts, which meant Robert had little to trouble his duties in relation to the weather.
A fat drop of rain fell past the tip of his nose, and another off the brim of his hat. Grumbling to himself about the state of the roads, Robert rushed to raise his umbrella before him and slid it open. A startled exclamation made him hastily hold the umbrella upward. “I beg your pardon—”
The apology died upon his lips when his eyes took in the woman before him, her large golden-brown eyes rendered larger by her surprise. One red-gloved hand rested over her chest, as though to calm her heart. Deep brown curls peeked out from beneath her emerald-green bonnet.
“Penny.” The childhood name fell from his lips like a sigh. “What are you doing here?”
Her eyes narrowed and her lips parted as though she wanted to correct the familiarity, but as swiftly the expression cleared, and her bright smile appeared.
“Robert, is that you? Oh, I cannot believe it.” She held out the same hand that had been pressed over her heart.
He took it in his own, a tingle dancing up his fingers as they came in contact with hers, despite both of them wearing gloves. He bowed over her hand. “It is wonderful to see you.” He straightened after she curtsied. “Whatever are you doing in Annesbury? I never thought to see you here again.”
Her gaze dropped to the ground. “My aunt has come to visit an old school friend. Since this is where my brothers and I spent our childhood, she invited us to come, too. We are staying with Mr. and Mrs. George Brody.” She peered up at him from beneath the brim of her bonnet. “I am glad to find you here. I did not know whether you were still in the neighborhood. I heard about your father’s passing. I am sorry for that, Robert.”
“Thank you.” Robert’s father had passed away in the spring, after fighting a long illness that had left him often confused and weak. His heart clenched at the memory of his father’s last days, of how hopeless and gray things had been. He cleared his throat and forced a smile upon his face. “How long will you visit?”
Penny accepted the change in topic gracefully, raising her head and presenting him with a brighter smile. “A fortnight. We will be here through January seventh.”
“Ah, all twelve days of Christmas.” Robert shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I will make a point of visiting. I imagine there are many in the neighborhood who will be happy to renew their acquaintance with you.”
“I doubt many remember me.” Her hand fluttered as though to brush away the idea of anyone having missed her. But Robert had missed her. He had thoughts of her hundreds of times, perhaps thousands, since she and her brothers had gone away to be raised by her aunt and uncle. He had often thought of writing, but never worked up the courage. What did a boy of seventeen have to write to a girl of fifteen? A girl who had lost her parents and her home?
To have her standing before him again, more beautiful than he remembered, made Robert’s heart swell up so that it nearly choked him.
A childhood affection should not affect him in such a way.
“I will be at the Earl of Annesbury’s famous Christmas ball tomorrow evening,” she admitted when he had been quiet too long.
Robert forced himself to speak, to keep his tone light. “Wonderful. My brother and I received invitations as well.” He ought to ask her to dance. Secure her hand for the supper dance, or a waltz, or an entire set. “We will see one another tomorrow evening, then.”
If she did not think him a dolt before, she certainly would after that.
A mischievous light kindled in her eyes, one he knew well from their childhood adventures together. We had better, Mr. Ellsworth. When we do, I expect you to ask me to dance, too.” She curtsied and he bowed instinctively, putting an end to their conversation.
A scent of cinnamon teased his nose as she walked around him, her pink lips curved upward as though she held a secret—she was probably laughing at him. Then she was gone, her deep green spencer cut in such a way to emphasize the pleasing curves of her form. He watched as she joined an older woman at the door of a shop, the two of them linking arms before they continued down the street.
Penny’s head started to turn, as though she would look over her shoulder at him, and Robert hastened to walk away before she caught him staring.
Penelope Clark had returned to the neighborhood, and she had changed from the trim, freckled girl of his acquaintance, a childhood playmate, to a woman grown. Yet he had known her the instant their eyes met, recognized the girl he had cherished and adored throughout their friendship.
At least he had never told her, never worked up the courage as a youth, to reveal to her the truth of his feelings. Robert’s hesitation on that point had saved him from humiliation. All for the best. The loss of her parents took Penny and her brothers away. The loss of his father forced him into employment as a steward, a position far beneath what Penny deserved.
(What do you think? Interested in where this one is going?)
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