Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 13

Spring came again to Edinburgh. The naked tree branches turned varied shades of greens and reds, and blossomed in great clouds of white and pink. Crocus, violets, and daffodils filled the gardens and commons, and on street corners, girls hawked them to gentlemen for their ladies. The air was full of the scent of renewal, as winter melted away, replaced by warmer weather, allowing new life to spring from the thawed ground.

Mike’s latest foray had taken him to a ribbon stall in the market during his lunchtime one day. He was tiring of his current conquest, and he thought a trinket would help ease his departure. He held up two bright ribbons for examination, and with them in hand he turned towards the light of the sun to see them better. As he did, he bumped into a pert young woman who was also examining the offerings of the stall.

“Oh, I beg your pardon, Miss,” he said as he adjusted his hat back into position, while holding a ribbon in each hand.

“No harm done, Sir,” she replied, taking a half step back, adjusting her bonnet and her wrap. She looked up into his handsome, smiling face, and was struck dumb.

“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” he asked noticing how flushed she was, and that she stared at him open-mouthed. He reached out and touched her elbow, “Miss—?”

Suddenly aware of her lack of manners, she gave her blonde curls a quick shake. “I am well. No damage done.” She forced herself to look away from him. Mike was familiar with that look. She was smitten. She was pleasant to look at, and he was, after all, about to break off his association with another girl, which would leave him free to see someone else. He quickly dropped the ribbons back in their place, and lifting his hat, he held it to his chest.

“My name is Mike Harrington,” he offered.

“Amelia Martin. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” She gave him a coquettish sidelong glance.

“Well, Miss Martin, a lovely creature like you is surely not shopping alone.”

“Of course not!” she blushed, “My maid is just—well, she was just here. Esther? Esther!” she called as she turned to look for the errant maid.

“I’m relieved to know you are escorted. Otherwise some forward gentleman would certainly take advantage of such a pretty young lady.” That brought her attention back fully to him. She was looking at him, wondering what to do next, he thought.

“Your concern is very kind—Mr. Harrington—but as I said, my maid is here and we have Father’s carriage.”

“Oh, of course. Well, it was nice to meet you, Miss Martin. Perhaps we shall meet again sometime, and be properly introduced.”

She smiled and seemed pleased by his boldness.

“Yes, possibly.” She offered her hand, which he took briefly, giving her a slight bow, and again lifted his hat slightly. Her free hand flew to her heart in delight. She seemed to be having trouble speaking, but she managed to blurt out after him, as he turned to leave, “Perhaps I’ll see you at the concert in the park this evening? My cousin Clara and I shall be there.”

He smiled his most charming smile, touched the brim of his hat, and said, “Perhaps. It will be a lovely evening for the event.” He turned and walked away, leaving her to stare longingly after him. There was a little spring in his step as he walked the rest of the way back to work, his mission to buy a trinket completely forgotten.

When Tom returned home that evening, Mike had already decided he would need help in this latest endeavor. The girls he usually courted were easy to get alone, but this was no shop girl. She was a lady, with a lady’s manners and customs. To get her off by herself, away from her cousin, he would need an assistant. Tom would do nicely.

“A concert?” Tom said, incredulous. “Mike, I’m bone weary. I’ve worked all day. I don’t want to get all dressed up and go out just to help you seduce a girl. I want to see Mary for a little while, and then get some sleep.”

“Please, Tom. You can sleep at the concert. People do it all the time. Just come with me, and distract her cousin so I can spend a little time alone with her,” he begged. “This will be your chance to rub elbows with people like those you work for as an equal,” he coaxed.

“I’ve seen enough of people like I work for. Enough to know I don’t want to be anything like ’em.” He sat on his cot and tugged off his shoes, dropping them to the floor one at a time with a thud.

“When have I ever asked you to do something like this for me? I’m tired of all the chippies I have been seeing. Please, Tom. I won’t ask you to do it again. This girl is a lady. I just want to have a chance to be among people like I used to know for a change.”

After Mike begged and pleaded unrelentingly for several minutes, he finally agreed, and went along.

They strolled around the park with the other people, milling about looking for seats. Tom was definitely not as enthusiastic as Mike about looking at all the people in their finery, and he wore a scowl for most of the evening. The concert was the first entertainment of the season in the park, and it was clear that people were anxious to shake off the long seclusion of the winter.

The mild dusk was melting into indigo, with stars twinkling above the blossoming trees that graced the park. The scent of the blossoms mingled with the perfumes of the gathering women, giving the night its own aroma.

Lanterns hung from the branches of the trees, casting little halos of golden light in the approaching darkness. Plank benches placed in semi-circular rows stood around the bandstand, where the orchestra members were tuning their instruments. Around the edges of the seating area, there were vendors with carts and baskets, hawking flowers and tasty wares, adding to the cacophony of sights and smells.

“There they are!” he whispered, pointing across a row of seated people. Mike elbowed Tom from his lassitude. Amelia stood fanning herself while talking to another woman. She was a cloud of pink ruffles and flounces. The neckline of her gown, cut to the fashionable low, exposed her milky shoulders, her wrap dangling carelessly from her elbows. Her hair was pinned high on her head with a long golden curl dangling over each ear.

Before Amelia turned her head and spotted him, Mike took note of her companion. The vision that met his eyes was not what he had expected. She stood, politely listening to Amelia babble and gesture. Her hands, clasp in front of her, held an unopened fan and a tiny reticule, and her wrap was sensibly up around her shoulders. Her gown was not as garish as Amelia’s, but was obviously expensive, made simply but tastefully, and did not expose her shoulders as brazenly as Amelia’s. Her dark hair, swept up fashionably neat, framed her fair complexion and gentle, indulgent smile.

Mike’s heart skipped a beat. He thought she was the most exquisite creature he had ever seen, and he was sure, she was quite out of his reach. But, the thought of actually being in her presence overwhelmed him.

He stood, mesmerized by this unknown beauty, when he heard Amelia “yoo-hoo!” across the crowd. Her animated wave seemed to embarrass her companion, who tugged at her arm in an effort to subdue her. Mike smiled and nodded toward them.

“Come on Tom, let’s go meet the ladies,” he said with a twinkle in his eye and a sappy grin on his face.

Tom glanced from the waiting women to Mike, puzzled by his unusually awestruck expression. “You find that ball of pink fluff that attractive?” he ventured.

“Huh? Wha—pink fluff?” he pulled his attention back to reality. “Actually, the one in the pink is the one I met this afternoon, but I do believe I prefer her companion. Have you ever seen such a beautiful sight?” he lowered his voice as they neared.

“So, what is it you want me to do, then?” Tom whispered. He did not know whether to be annoyed, or amused.

“I’m not so sure now. I didn’t actually agree to meet her here. So, I’m not truly obligated to her for the evening.” He thought quickly as they took their last few strides.

Tom looked like he felt awkward, but Mike was not the least bit nervous, now. Tom puzzled over the situation for a moment.

“Look, I realize you was raised to know all those manners, and how to hobnob with people of money. This must be natural to you, but it ain’t to me,” he hissed.

“Just be polite, and we’ll see how things play out,” was all he managed before they were beside the girls. Tom strained uncomfortably at his cravat as Mike spoke with the ladies.

“Why, hello! Miss Martin, wasn’t it?”

“Why, yes, Mr. Harrington. It is nice to see you this evening,” she blushed coquettishly. “May I introduce my cousin, Clara Martin?” She looked at her companion, and put her fan to her face and giggled.

Mike bowed to her, politely keeping his eyes fixed on hers. “I’m very charmed to make your acquaintance, Miss Martin.” She in turn made a quick polite nod. “May I introduce my friend, Tom Albert?” Tom made his version of a bow to the ladies, who in turn nodded their acknowledgement to him.

They took seats, all four in a row, with eyes fixed on the quieting orchestra. The tap-tap-tap of the baton came from the front of the seating area, and the audience hushed as the conductor raised his baton. Soon the merry strains of Mozart were filling the evening air. Amelia smiled and fanned herself, often looking at Mike seated next to her. Mike occasionally rewarded her with a polite non-committal smile in return, while appearing to concentrate on the music. But, every chance he got, he looked hungrily at the girl seated between her and Tom. Tom squirmed uncomfortably in his seat beside Clara, who sat rigidly beside Amelia, as though she was afraid any movement on her part might send improper impressions. Her expression was wooden, and her smiles forced, throughout the concert.

Afterward, when the audience was dispersing, and standing about conversing, Amelia was still fluttering and prattling. Fanning herself vigorously she said, “I believe I’m quite thirsty!”

Mike seized the opportunity. He slipped a couple coins from his waistcoat pocket and into Tom’s hand, and then addressed Amelia.

“Mr. Albert was just saying the same thing a moment ago, weren’t you, Tom?” Mike’s elbow nudged him, and when he turned furrowed brows to Mike, he winked at him and moved his head slightly in the direction of the vendors, away from where they were standing. “Perhaps he would be kind enough to buy you something to drink.” Mike stared hard at Tom, his eyes wide, full of meaning.

Tom understood his hint, but was reluctant to participate in whatever it was Mike was planning. He finally forced a little smile at Amelia, and offered her his arm, “Certainly. Would you care to join me, Miss Martin?” He was anything but enthusiastic, but they strolled off toward the vendors.

Mike turned his attention upon a nervous Clara. She tugged her wrap tighter around her shoulders and pretended to be looking after them.

“It has been a very lovely evening, hasn’t it?” he ventured. She glanced briefly at him, and nodded before turning back. Amused by her nervousness and determination not to pay attention to him, he was more determined to get that attention. “Would you care for refreshment?” He watched her obvious indecision with amusement. “I promise I won’t bite.” She glanced up to see his most charming smile.

With what appeared to be a difficult decision, she pulled her wrap tighter around her shoulders and nodded. Mike smiled and offered his arm. “Shall we?” Gingerly she placed her hand on his arm, and they walked toward the vendors.

“Do you live in Edinburgh, Miss Martin?” Mike tried for conversation after they had their glasses, and stood sipping from them.

“No.”

“What brings you here tonight?”

“I am visiting my aunt and uncle.”

“Oh, I see. May I ask from where?” He smiled at her purpose not to converse freely.

“Leicester.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever been there. Is it as lively as Edinburgh?”

“We have our moments.”

Resolved to get this beautiful woman to like him a little, Mike changed his tact. “I must apologize. I seem to have offended you is some way. I am sorry for that.”

Clara was startled. “I—oh, no, you have done nothing to offend me, Mr. Harrington.” She began fanning herself.

“I’m glad of that. I find you most enchanting, and I would not want to give you cause to dislike me.”

She seemed embarrassed to have been so obvious in her attempt not to like this man. She had truly behaved all evening as if she found him disagreeable. Mike suspected it was because Amelia had felt hopeful of him. But, in spite of her behavior, Mike thought she had found him, at least, attractive.

“This is not my usual behavior,” she offered stiffly. “I seldom hold conversations with complete strangers, and would normally not spend an evening with one. I was under the impression you and Amelia were seeing each other.”

“We met by chance this afternoon in a market stall. She mentioned she was attending the concert tonight, and hoped we might meet here. I am sorry if she made any other assumption beyond that.”

“Oh! I’m afraid she did. She seems to think you are, in some way, involved.”

Mike smiled sadly at her. “I’m sorry she feels that way. I certainly did not try to give her that impression. I must confess, I would much rather get to know you. You seem much more sensible. An attractive quality in a very attractive woman, I might add.”

Clara flushed and kept her fan before her face. “Here come Amelia and Mr. Albert.”

Mike silently cursed their timing, and turned to greet them. “Here you are! Did you find refreshment, then?”

Tom glowered at him, and Amelia beamed. “Yes we did, thank you very much.” She sidled up to Mike, and batted her eyelashes.

Clara rolled her eyes, then said, “I believe I see Uncle George coming this way. He and Aunt Mary must be ready to leave.”

Amelia pushed her lower lip out, and lightly stamped her foot. “They have no sense of the romantic. I’m so sorry we didn’t have a chance to get to know each other Mr. Harrington.”

Mike doffed his hat and made a bow. “Regrettable.” He took her offered hand, and gently squeezed her fingers. Then he turned to Clara and bowed. “Miss Martin, it has truly been a pleasure to talk with you.” He took her gloved fingers and held them softly. “May I call on you some time?”

Clara was flustered. “Well, I don’t know. I won’t be in Edinburgh much longer.”

“I would be delighted to call any time you agree.” His gaze was most solicitous.

“Well, I suppose it would be acceptable if you came by for Sunday dinner. Uncle George lives at number three Charles Street.”

“I shall see you then.” He bowed again, and watched as the two women turned, and joined an older couple crossing the lawn toward them. It was obvious by their behavior that Amelia was very annoyed with Clara.

Tom jammed his hat back onto his head, and turned to leave. “That was the most ridiculous thing you have ever asked me to do.”

“How do you mean?” Mike had turned to join him, and they strode quickly away from the departing crowd.

“I thought you wanted the blonde. Then you send me off with her. What a simpering little twit!”

“I’m afraid I was taken in by the beauty of her cousin. I’ve never met a woman like her. I think I’ll have to take time to get to know her very well.”

“Won’t that be awkward? Isn’t she staying with Amelia’s family?”

“Yes. It could be a bit touchy. But I think she will be well worth it.”

Mike lay awake that night, remembering every detail of Clara Martin. He could hardly wait for Sunday dinner.

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