Send Charlotte, she is by far the properest person to go. Yes, yes, she has not a wife’s grief. Of course, send sensible, staid Charlotte!
Charlotte huffed and flung her shawl across her shoulders. The door was already open, so she darted out without so much as a goodbye over her shoulder. Little did her feelings matter. It was not as if anyone believed she even had them anyway.
Her throat pinched and eyes stung. The Bennet sisters had been her closest friends—perhaps her only friends. Now they were gone and married, few could see past her useful, sensible façade.
Uncle Gates had been one who could. She dragged her sleeve across her eyes and fumbled to find a handkerchief. He used to take time to talk with her, discover her opinions, her dreams. Who else even knew she had them? He took her seriously and even promised—
A sob tore through her and escaped through her clenched jaws. She dashed into the alleyway shadows as it overtook her with wracking shudders and stolen breath. She braced her hand against the dusty side of the stone building and leaned her head on her arm.
She had to bring herself under better regulation. It would not do to be found like this, crying in the streets of Meryton. But if she did not cry now, the pressure of holding it all within may well drive her mad. Tears flowed down her cheeks, dropping to the dusty ground in miniature puddles before the dirt absorbed them as though they had never been there at all.
Uncle understood her as none other did or ever would. He alone held hope that she was not yet on the shelf. He even promised to introduce her this spring to his connections in Bedford. New society might just be the thing. He was sure he would be the one to find her an amiable husband.
But now, that was over. Her own father had given up hope. Even Mama no longer brought up the possibility. John’s new wife had begun talking about her coming to live with them. She too mentioned new society, but Charlotte could see through the ruse.
She straightened and dabbed her eyes. It was foolish of her to stand here, sobbing like a little girl. Things were as they were and she best accustom herself to it. Moreover, she would not continue to be a burden on her father or her brothers. After she picked up the mourning jewelry, she would visit Mrs. Ames. If she could find a position as a lady’s companion for cranky Miss Rhodes, she could find one for sensible mild Miss Lucas. That was simply the way things had to be and the sooner she accepted it, the better.
She wiped her face and tucked the handkerchief into her reticule. A tug on her spencer, an adjustment of her bonnet and she could face the streets of Meryton once more.
She stepped out of the alley’s shadow and paused, blinking in a ray of sunlight.
Something struck her shoulder and she cried out.
“Pray excuse me, Miss!”
She jumped aside, dodging a falling leather case. Another case teetered, barely perched atop a considerable pile carried by someone entirely unfamiliar. It fell, revealing a face.
It was a man’s face, neither young nor old. Not quite plain, but neither was he dashing. His nose was a might too large for handsome, but his soft brown eyes did much to make up the fault.
“Pray excuse me, Miss. I was blinded in the sun and could not see you there.” He glanced about, probably looking for his dropped parcels, but his eyes always returned to her.
She blushed, foolish though it was. “No harm done, sir.”
“Might I trouble you for your help?”
She picked up the fallen boxes.
“If you will just place them—” He started to bend his knees.
“No, I fear that will be too dangerous. Let me carry them for you.”
He straightened. My, he was quite tall, fully head and shoulders above her.
“I do not have far to go. Just to the jeweler’s shop.” He pointed his chin in the general direction.
“I am going there myself, so it shall be no trouble at all.”
He craned his neck around the packages in his arms and peered down at her. His lips drew up into a lopsided, endearing smile. He reminded her of a very well loved stuffed toy her youngest brother carried with him whilst he was in the nursery.
“I will accept your help most gladly then. I could not bear being an inconvenience to you.”
They set off down the street. He was lanky, almost gangly and walked with the same awkwardness of her brothers when they had grown so tall so fast.
“This is a lovely little town,” he said, “and the people here are very friendly, so much friendlier than London.”
“I have never been to London, but I do agree, Meryton is a most agreeable place.”
“I am much relieved, then to be correct in my assessment.” He grinned—at her!
What an odd, open temper he possessed. It could not be bad though, not with the delightful fluttering it stirred in her belly.
A small dog darted across their path. He tripped over his own feet and staggered several steps, swerving wildly to balance his load. “Great goodness, that was close!” He chuckled. “I must say, that was a smart little dog though. Do you like dogs?”
She cocked her head. Had she heard him correctly? “Yes, I do.”
“Very glad to hear it. I am quite fond of them myself. I always say it shows a great deal when a person does not like dogs.”
“I quite agree.” She should not be smiling so, but it would not be suppressed.
“I mean to have several, you know, dogs I mean. As soon as I get a bit more settled, I shall seek myself a puppy—”
“My father expects his hound to have a littler soon if you have a preference for—”
“Capital! I knew Providence would put me in the way of the exact means of acquiring my four-legged companion.”
“Perhaps you should see my father’s dog first?” She lifted her brows.
“If you insist, but I am sure she is a perfectly delightful creature.”
Was it wrong to be so pleased she might have his company again?
He stumbled against a step, barely catching himself and his packages. He was so skilled at preventing them from tumbling down, perhaps he was a street juggler in London. “Oh well, bother that. Forgive my clumsiness, Miss. I do believe we have arrived.”
She opened the door for him.
“Forgive me for imposing on you once again.” He edged past her.
“Not at all.”
“If you would just set those on the table there.” He pointed with his elbow.
She turned, set the boxes down, and turned back. He disappeared down a narrow, dark hall. She was alone once more.
The shop’s silence ached in her ears. She drew her shawl tighter and cast about for any sign of occupants. But none presented itself in the cold, unnaturally clean store front. Jewelry glittered, hard and cold, from the glass topped cases. Even the sunbeams through the window lost their warmth.
She sniffed and gulped back the pressure in her throat. What a fool she was—
Shuffling footsteps broke through the thick blanket of silence. “Miss Lucas.”
She turned. Mr. Wells, the jeweler shambled in. Short and round, his full beard must have contained the hair displaced from his bald head. He pushed thick glasses up his nose with a very long, nimble finger.
“Good day, Miss Lucas. Are you here for your locket or the mourning rings?”
“I came for the rings. I do not know of any locket.”
“I guess it was to have been a surprise. Still, though, I think old Gates would want you to have it.” He shuffled to one of the glass cases and unlocked a drawer beneath.
He pulled a velvet bag form the drawer and spilled it on the glass case. A dozen mourning rings clinked and bounced upon the glass. Black enamel ovals bore Uncle’s initials. Tiny gold beads surrounded the enamel.
She picked one up and held it in the light. It was just Uncle’s taste—and hers. She slipped it on her finger.
“Gates commissioned me to make a locket—he said it was a gift for you. I do not know the occasion. Seeing how he is gone now, I don’t suppose it matters much. He paid for it up front, though, so I have no reason to keep it.” He looked over his shoulder. “Albert, bring me that locket you just finished.”
Her tall clumsy friend appeared from the narrow hall. He showed something to Mr. Wells who nodded and pointed at Charlotte.
“Miss Lucas, may I present my nephew, Mr. Lamb. He’s come to work with me here. He fashioned this piece for Gates.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Lucas.” He grinned, eyes sparkling.
Warmth flooded the room. Her cheeks prickled. “Likewise, I am sure.” She curtsied.
He handed her a locket.
She cradled it in her palm. The large oval held a woven plait of red hair shot with silver. It could only be her uncle’s. A tear stole down her cheek. Tiny seed pearls surrounded it, with a slightly larger red stone after every third pearl. She swallowed hard. Uncle was the only one who knew how much she loved garnets.
“It is lovely,” she whispered, the words tearing at her throat like thorns.
“I wish he could have been here to present it himself,” Mr. Lamb said. “Would you like to wear it?”
He walked behind her, took the ends of the chain, and fastened it around her neck.
She brushed the locket with her fingertips. “Thank you.”
Mr. Lamb stared down at her. “I can see he meant a great deal to you. I am sorry you have lost him.”
It would have been nice to speak, but she could only blink up at him. If her lips did not remain tightly pressed, she would certainly cry again.
“I am glad you are pleased, Miss Lucas. My nephew does excellent work.”
“Yes, he does.” She sniffled. “I—I should be going now. Thank you for everything.” She turned and hurried out.
The bright sun brought more tears to her eyes. She wiped them on her sleeve a she strode down the street.
She stopped and turned toward the voice.
Mr. Lamb closed in with great length strides. “Please wait.” He reached out his hand. “You forgot these.”
The rings! What a noddy she was. She screwed her eyes shut. “Thank you.”
He pressed the black velvet bag into her palm. “It would be a shame for you to have come out for them only to leave without them.”
“Yes, of course. I am sorry, must think me—”
“Very pretty, indeed.”
She shook her head, eyes widening.
He slapped his hand over his mouth. “Forgive me. I have the most shocking tendency to speak my mind at the least appropriate moments. I hope I have not offended.”
Her cheeks burned. He thought her pretty? No man save her uncle ever called her that. “It is quite all right. Thank you.”
“I…I…that is to say—” he raked a fallen lock from his face. “May I…may I call upon you…tomorrow perhaps.”
“To see my father’s hound?”
“Yes—no—I mean—” he huffed and rubbed his forehead. “I would like to see the hound, yes, but if you do not already have a gentleman caller…”
She met his gaze. How incredibly intense it had become. All awkwardness had melted away, replaced by something she had never seen before and dearly hoped to see again, often. “I do not.”
“That is very welcome news, very welcome indeed.” His grin returned, but did not entirely displace the fiery glimmer in his eyes. “I would very much like it if I might call upon you. If you would welcome me, I mean.”
She bit her lip and drew a deep breath. “I…I would welcome you very much.”
He pulled himself up straighter. Oh he was so very tall! His grinned broadened, if that were even possible.
“Capital. I…I guess I will see you tomorrow then.” He bowed from his shoulders, touched the brim of his hat and sauntered away, at least a hand span taller than when he arrived.
She stared after him until he disappeared into the jeweler’s shop. Lightheadedness threatened. Oh, she must remember to breathe. Would he keep the promise to call? His grin assured he would.
The memory of his smile and the expression in his eyes would keep her awake tonight. The locket shifted against her neck. She traced the line of pearls and garnets. Perhaps Uncle had managed to keep his promise to her after all. Her visit to Mrs. Ames would definitely wait.