Chapter 24

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December 1870

"Louisa Nelson is having a party!" Catherine exclaims in delight outside of church the following Sunday. I make a face at the sound of her name causing Catherine to burst into giggles and Harrison to fight off a smile. Searching the streets around us, I try to convince myself that I'm not looking for him but feel quite defeated when I don't see Jackson anywhere. I haven't been able to stop thinking about our kiss and looking forward to the next one. It's been some time now and I'm beginning to feel like he's avoiding me. 

"I doubt Louisa plans on inviting me."  

"How about you allow me to escort you," Harrison asks casually. I feel uneasy at the idea of attending the party with him. It's a road that I know could lead to no good. However it's also the road that leads back into the house that Jackson is staying in. I frown as I weigh my options. Catherine bursts out laughing in the most un-ladylike way, causing her mother to bark out her name in warning from across the street. Catherine glowers back at her, but chokes down the last of her giggles as she whispers to me. 

"That's exactly why you should do Ellie! Go with Harrison. I'd love to see her smug little face when you walk in." I smile mischievously getting caught up in her excitement and begin to accept Harrison's offer before stopping myself. 

"Are you sure you don't want to ask someone else Harrison? Harriet Arnold? Janice Kay? Milly Brewer perhaps?" He shakes his head at each name and some of the girls even get faces, especially poor Milly, but who can blame him there. I shouldn't have even bothered to mention her, not after the display with his father. 

"It's sad to say Ellie but you're the best of the lot." He sighs melodramatically and I try not to take offense as I shake my head. Poor Harrison, lovelorn again in this lifetime. 

"That doesn't speak much to this town then," I snort. "And what about you Catherine, which fine gentleman will it be for this occasion?" I tease her because Catherine has been known to go through bouts of infatuation with many different men in town. They never last very long. She smiles slyly at me. 

"I'm going with Marcus Hart." She mistakes my shock for happiness and squeals with glee. She starts hopping up and down as her blond curls bounce up around her face. "I know," she gushes. "It will be amazing even if it is Louisa's party!" Harrison looks over to his parents as his mother gestures for the two of them to return. 

"So is that a yes then Ellie?" He asks cocking an eyebrow up expectantly. I playfully swat him with my hand. 

"Yes that's a yes, and thank you. But-" Catherine cuts in. 

"We know, you have nothing to wear." She rolls her eyes like this is a nonissue. "I'll have a dress sent over to you." 

"Will your mother be at Louisa's?" She nods. I remember the last time she saw me out in one of Catherine's dresses and asked me not to treat her daughter's closet as my own. "I can't take the dress." Catherine immediately knows why.  

"Ellie," she sounds almost embarrassed, "this isn't new one like the last time. I have dresses that were being donated to the church." Oh. Catherine looks uncomfortable. I'm not sure why; it's not like it's news that I'm poor. 

"That sounds wonderful thenl. Your mother can't be upset about that. Thank you Catherine." I squeeze her arm trying to assure her that it's okay, as she kisses me goodbye. Harrison leans over next. 

"You'll still be the prettiest one there." I place my hand on his cheek even though I can feel his mother boring holes into me with her eyes. I look around him and watch as she pats down her blond chignon, making sure a strand isn't out of place. She catches my eyes and glares at me from afar. I notice that his father, Tristan, is watching us too with a look of keen interest on his face as he runs his thumb over his lip. I quickly pull away from Harrison and mumble a goodbye. With my head down, I hurry home not waiting to say hello to Felix and Jonah, not if Tristan Akenbrand has noticed me.

Things are slow around the shop the next afternoon. Felix is downstairs doing inventory and Jonah has gone out to make some deliveries. I volunteered to help out front and right now, I'm regretting it. We haven't had a customer in over an hour and I'm growing restless. I scrub down the counter for what feels like the tenth time today. I'm startled when the bell on the door finally rings, but instantly dismayed when I see who comes walking in. Marcus saunters up to the counter like he's bigger than the place. 

"So this is where you've been hiding?"  

"How can I help you Mr. Hart?" I'm not mentally prepared to deal with Marcus right now. He looks me over like most people standing at the counter look over the bread selection, and leans in.  

"Is everything in the shop as tasty as you look?" Leaning down on the counter, I register his surprise when I get close to his face. I can feel his cool breath; so much like Martin's that it chills my skin. 

"Do these lines work on most women?" I whisper as coolly as I can manage. He looks very content being this close to me and nods, smiling, like he's made some sort of victory. "Well go find one of them," I snap, standing upright and shattering any delusions he might have had about me falling for his game. It takes a moment before Marcus begins to laugh. 

"No one around here seems as much fun as you Miss Blackwell." I raise an eyebrow at him. I know that can't be true. 

"Not even Catherine?" Regretfully he shakes his head.  

"Not even Miss Akenbrand." I find myself disappointed in him. Catherine seems much more invested in him than Charlotte was with Martin. "What?" he asks innocently. 

"She's my friend. You should let her know if you don't have any intentions with her." 

"What makes you think I don't?" he asks elusively.  

"Why are you taking her to Louisa Nelson's party?"  

"You heard about that did you?" He seems to think I'm jealous and his smile continues to grow as I go back to my work.  

"Yes I heard. I'm going with Harrison." I continue to wipe down the counters but from the corner of my eye I notice Marcus pause at this news.  

"Oh? I didn't realize. Cinderella are you? And is that what you're wearing?" He sneers down at my outfit. Self-consciously I look over my old dress and dirty apron and blaze with anger. 

"No Catherine is loaning me something." Marcus crosses his arms over his lean chest and continues to shake his head.  

"Now isn't that a shame, a pretty girl like you wearing cast-offs." I try ignoring him but he just stands there. 

"Catherine is not giving me her castoffs," I lie.  

"So... Harrison? I didn't realize you two were...involved." I don't bother to correct his misconception hoping that maybe it will make him leave me alone. But I have forgotten who I'm dealing with here. "That must make for interesting sleepovers." I whip my head back towards him, glaring, but he just winks at me. I've had about enough!  

"Is there something I can help you with Mr. Hart? Would you like to buy something?" I'm losing my patience with him. Marcus looks around me and seems to notice the bread for the first time and sneers. 

"I don't do my own shopping. Miss Blackwell." Nodding nonchalantly at me, he turns and leaves the store. I take a deep breath glad to be free from that tension. It's just like I remember with Martin. I put my head in my hands and worry what about what I'm up against next.

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