Theodosia Cecil dipped her head, hoping her gray bonnet would hide her tall form amongst the crowd of Burlington Arcade shoppers. Her heart beat a rhythm of fear as her brow fevered with questions.
Could it be him?
Why was he haunting her now?
She spun, praying her wobbly legs would support her flight from the ghost. Spying a path between a chatty woman and her admirer, Theodosia claimed it and swayed toward the open door.
Safe in the shop, she put a hand to her thumping heart. Seeing the face of someone dead It shook her, forced too many memories. The image of Ewan, her deceased first love, had to be a figment of Theodosias conscience, nothing more. Why would this vision rear up nowquestioning her resolve to be in town garnering letters offering matrimony from strangers?
Her hands trembled, puckering the stiff seams of her new kid gloves as she stuffed the sealed papers into her reticule. What if shed dropped them in her mad dash? With all the people milling beneath the sparkling glass roof of the Arcade, the responses wouldve been lost, and with them, her dream of protecting her son. Hope in her plan slipped from her grasp, even with her onyx mitts. This time, there would be no kind Mathew Cecil to pick her up and wipe her clean.
She missed her late husband and his endless patience. He should be the only dead man in her head. Yet, there stood Ewan Fitzwilliams ghost, vividly in her imagination. Perhaps it was her heart crying out at this unromantic way of finding a new husband.
Maam, may I help you?
Theodosia lifted her gaze from her gloves to a small cherry-red face.
Our store has much to offer, the young girl said. Did ye come for something special, Mrs. Cecil?
Startling at the girls use of her name, Theodosia raised her chin, then scanned from side to side at the pots. She took a breath and smelled sweet roses and lilacs. What is this place? A perfumer?
Yes, Mrs. Cecil, and we use Cecil flowers to make the best fragrances.
The girl knew who she was, and the lilt in the young blondes voice made Theodosias lips lift. Respect always felt good.
A little less jittery, she nodded at the girl then turned to the walnut shelf and poked the lid of a greenish jar. The scent of lavender filled the air. Pride in her and her husbands accomplishment inflated her lungs. Cecil flowers are the best.
The calm ushered in from the soft, sweet scents allowed her thoughts to right. Ghosts didnt exist. If they did, then it would be Mathew visiting her, guiding her, pushing her cold feet forward whenever she felt she couldnt do something, as hed often done during their five short years of marriage. He had died almost a year ago.
The shop girl came beside her, dusting the shelves. Would you like some of the lavender, Mrs. Cecil?
That beautiful name, the only last name shed ever possessedthe repetition of it inspired questions. You know me from the flower fields? Have we met?
Everyone knew Mr. Cecil. God rest his soul. And all the flower girls know you. If a Blackamoor Sorry, if a shop girl could be more, then we all can.
Theodosia, dark skin and all, an inspiration to others?If those shop girls knew the whole of things, they would be scandalized.Horrified at the things shed done, Theodosia became teary-eyed. Shed received unmerited favor catching Mathew Cecils eye and his mercy.
Sorry, I didnt mean nothing.
Theodosia nodded and tugged at her sleeve, hitting her reticule against her buttons, which clinked like serving bells. Her fine clothes hid the past, the fatigue and hunger of living on the streets. She forced a smile. Becoming more is the beginning.
Yes, maam. Quite a good ne.
From the outside, it must look like that, but some secrets were best kept in the grave. She turned from the almost-hero worship look in the shop girls eyes and counted the brightly colored decanters in hues of salmon and cobalt blue lining a near table. This is a lovely place. Have you done well since the shops opening?
Some days. Some mornings, were good and busy. Others, slow and easy. So much different than selling on the streets.
That worn-out heart of Theodosias started moving within her chest. She caught the girls shy gaze and said, Slow days mean no money, but they can give ease to the back. With her palm, she cupped her mouth. I meant selling flowers long days. There were worse things for the back than an honest days work selling flowers. Her mothers work at a brothelthat had been hard.
The younger woman nodded, but frowned as a shadow engulfed her.
A thick, portly fellow wearing a heavy burlap apron stepped from behind them. Do ye belong here, m-m-miss?
Theodosia blinked then stared at the man who stood with arms folded, disapproval flexing each meaty muscle. Are you sure youre supposed to be here? Black servants dont come unattended. Blackamoor or whatever you are?
Sir, this is Mr. Cecils widow, the shop girl said as her gaze dropped.
The man gawked as he glared at Theodosia. After an eternity of seconds, he said, Oh that Mrs. Cecil.
The pride shed felt at hearing the Cecil name slipped away. It fell to the floor, ready to be trampled by her own short heels. With silk ribbons trailing her bonnet and an onyx walking dress stitched with heavy brass buttons, he still saw her as low. Was he thinking, as she often did:mistress, half-breed, by-blow, whore?
No matter what Theodosia felt about her past, shed not let the sour shop clerk, or anyone else, stuff her into one of those names. She was a widow to a good man. Im not a servant, sir. In fact, you are one of the many vendors who use my familys wares for your livelihood. She took a step closer to the man. Im your business partner.
The man turned a lovely shade of purple, darker than fallen bee orchid buds. The veins on his neck pulsed.
As wonderful as it was to make him uncomfortable, it was never good to leave a bull enraged. Mathew had taught her that. She jangled her reticule, letting thetink-tinksound of clanging coins speak for her. Id like to be a patron.
The man harrumphed over his glasses. We have many items. He pivoted to the shop girl. Sally, go dust in the back. Ill take care of Mrs. Cecil.
The young woman nodded. Good meeting you, maam. She offered another smile then pattered away.
Theodosia forced her shoulders to straighten and paced around the man. As a free woman and a proper widow with money, she could shop here. A glance to the left helped her settle on a practical item. Id like to purchase some soap.
The man nodded and pointed her to a table skirted in crimson silk. He dogged her footfalls, following close behind, as if shed steal something.
She sighed. Hopefully, she wouldnt have to become used to this treatment again. The last year of grieving had protected her from outsiders, and the years of having her late Mathews guidance had almost made her forget.
She pressed her gloved fingertips against a jar colored lapis blue. What type of soap is inside?
The clerk pushed up his thick spectacles that had slid down his condescending nose. A fine lavender. Very expensive, about four shillings a piece. Not so much for Cecils widow.
Though she had the money to buy most things, years of thrift and haggling still pumped in her blood. She poked at the glass, tilting its heavy lid. The fragrance, honey-like, wafted from the pressed bars, stroking her nose. Surely, they had been made from Cecil spike lavandinfor nothing else could hold such strong perfume.
This had to be a sign from Mathew. He must approve of her actions to marry again in order to protect the son hed so loved. She must buy the soap. She stroked the jar. Ill take two pieces, and wrap it in paper. Make sure the scale is clear of fingers. Id hate to pay more than whats necessary.
The man picked up the container. His head bobbed up and down as if it had taken this long to see past her face to her wealth. Ill weigh this out maam, without a finger on the scale.
Half watching the clerk, half watching the window glass, she decided the store front was more interesting than the mans balding head. She filled her vision with the sea of sleek top hats and crisp bonnets passing through the Arcade. None of them an apparition. She sighed again, the tight grip of apprehension further loosing from her spine. The vision had been her nerves.
Slowly, carefully, and in full view of the clerk, she dipped her fingers into her reticule pulling out the foolscap letters shed retrieved from the stationer. She flipped to the first, a thin sheet of light gray paper, and mouthed the address. This was the second correspondence from a man with the rank of squire to her marriage advertisement. Though his crisp writing of her name, Mrs. Cecil, denoted elegance, their meeting last week had been far from elegant. It had been dull, lifeless, and made worse by his obvious discomfort in talking with her. He hadnt even had the courage to hold her gaze.
Surely, between the folds sat a politeno, and for that shed be grateful. Theodosia was in want of a mans protection, but a new husband needed to be like Mathew, a Boaz protector. Yes, one of those gentlemanly fellows who cherished family above everything and whod never be ashamed to be seen with her son.
What if it was ayes? She tapped the second letter to her bosom. If she had another offer shed get her friend Ester to help pen a rejection to the squire. Esters chaste brain had to be filled with clever ways of saying no.
Chuckling silently, she switched to the next response. This one addressed her advertisement number not her name. A first correspondence. New air filled her chest.
The primrose-colored paper felt thick beneath her fingers, and the thick glob of red wax sealing the note held an indentation of a crest. Could it be from a gentleman? Maybe someone titled? Maybe this could be the man who would stand up for her boy. The notion of such decency lifted her lips, even the bottom one she chewed when nervous or frightened.
Mada Mrs. Cecil. The shopkeepers impatient voice sounded, cutting through her woolgathering. Ive more paper in the back. Another minute.
The heat from her kid glove made the wax melt a little. She should open it now and read the particulars, his age and situation, but having her dearest friends dueling perspectives would help make sure she wasnt getting too excited. All the money in the world could not make a man want to father a sickly child and wouldnt help fight for the boys interests.
Loud voices sounded from the backroom. The door opened and a shaking Sally came out. The blonde twisted her hands within her long apron. The stocky clerk passed in front of her and stood behind the counter. That will be eight shillings.
Theodosia shoved her letters under the crook of her arm and fished out a half guinea.
The bright shine of the gold coin reflected in his widened eyes. They bulged like greedy hot air balloons. Is there anything else you wish to buy?
She shook her head and waited for two shillings and sixpence change. Everything her late husband had told her was truemoney trumped questions. Pity all men werent like her honest Mathew, or dreamers like her apparition. No, most were manipulative, lying as soon as they opened their mouths.
She picked up her package, shifting the treasure between her palms, and looked at the hurt painting the shop girls face. She looked like Theodosia had used to look, contemplating the wrong choices. That couldnt happen. She flicked the edge of her parcel, making a hole. Sir, might I have more paper? I dont want to lose these.
The man slapped the counter. Aye. Picky. Seems money makes you the same as the rest.
Theodosia bit her tongue, then her lip, to keep a tart reply inside her mouth. She needed a moment alone with the girl.
As soon as the clerk headed into the back, Theodosia came alongside her. Sally, was it? If you ever need an honest job, where you will be paid fairly for a good days work, come visit Cecil Farms. Tell them Mrs. Cecil said to hire you. Whatever you decide, come to our Flora Festival in a few weeks. She dipped into her reticule and gave her three shillings to pay for transportation. The farm was a post ride out of London.
Amber eyes smiled at her. Thank you, Mrs. Cecil.
The man returned, harrumphed, then settled the jar between them on the shelf. Heres your paper, maam.
Theodosia took the blue material and carefully wrapped her soaps. Feeling good at being able to help another, she turned to the door. Thank you, sir. Keeping another woman from making mistakes would honor Mathews memory. Even Ewans ghost would smile, if the shop girl could find a way to dream.
As she stepped back into the crowded throughway, her letters slipped and landed near a mans boot. She bent to retrieve them, but the fellow grabbed them first and held them out to her.
Thank you. The words crawled out slowly as her gaze traveled up his bottle-green waistcoat and broad chest, past his lean cravat and thick neck, to a familiar scar on his chin. She didnt need to see his thick, wavy, raven hair. She stopped at his eyes, the bluest eyes, bluer than the sky stirred clean by a thunderstorm.
Itisyou, Theo, said the man.
Her heart ceased beating. Theodosia looked down to see if it had flopped outside of her stiff corset. Ewan Fitzwilliam stood in front of her. He wasnt dead. Didnt look the least bit distressed or deceased from the war. And he was no ghost, unless hell made apparitions look this good.