With a last look up Providence Street at the row of neat storefronts with colorful awnings, Rose went inside to check on the merchandise she’d purchased from the market earlier that morning. One must be at Covent Garden before dawn to meet the growers of fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables brought in from the country. But Rose didn’t mind rising far earlier than the sun. It reminded her of when she was small and would go with Gram to sort through the floral remains on the cobblestones. She and Gram would then spend the day selling nosegays to the toffs. Much had changed since then, yet a part of her would always be that skinny, knobby-kneed girl wearing a too-large, patched dress.
Rose banished memories and focused on pulling dead leaves and flower heads. She gave the flowers a spray of water to keep them fresh. The multi-colored blooms in buckets were set on risers of varying levels to create a wall of color on one side of the shop.
From the back room, she brought up an arrangement for the display window. The bouquet was so wide and tall, she could not see over the flowers. The loaded urn grew heavier with each step as she staggered blindly toward the front window.
“Let me help you with that!”
Rose yipped in surprise. The door was propped open to catch any stray breeze, so the bell had not announced a customer’s arrival. Unseen hands touched hers in an attempt to relieve her of the urn. Rose did not let go, and for a moment, she and her invisible helper played tug-o-war over possession of the flowers.
They both released their grip at the same time. The urn slipped from her grasp.
“No!” Rose had spent nearly an hour and used many expensive flowers to create the elaborate bouquet intended to catch the eye of passers-by. It was a sales tool she could not afford to lose.
The customer grappled with the urn, caught it, staggered backward, and ended up on his knees with the arrangement clutched to his chest. Through the greenery, hazel eyes peered at Rose through round spectacles. “Sorry! I was trying to help.”
“And a capital job you did of it, old boy,” a familiar voice drew Rose’s attention from her would-be rescuer to Guy Hardy, her investor and friend.
Guy relieved the sandy-haired man of his burden of flowers. When the fellow rose, he unfolded like a long-legged bird to tower nearly a head above Guy, who was not a short man by any means. The stork helped Guy place the arrangement in the window with the best blooms facing the street.
“Whew!” Guy exclaimed. “You’ll give yourself a bad back, Copper Top. I recommend smaller and lighter bouquets.”
“Large ornate ones draw the eye, and please, stop calling me Copper Top,” Rose chided Hardy, who had become more like a brother to her than either of her own. Neither Dale nor Danny had helped make improvements on the storefront she rented, although to be fair, they worked all day and Dale had a family to look after. Meanwhile, Guy had been here almost every day, painting, building and performing other tasks she could not afford to hire out. Part of his reason for dedicating so much labor had been to distract himself from his heartache over losing Hattie. Still, Rose had still appreciated the help.
Guy patted her head then drew his hand away as if burned. “Maybe Fire Top would be better. It is so very red.”
Rose clicked her tongue in feigned annoyance. Her gaze turned to the tall stranger, clearly a friend of Guy’s.
Guy clapped him on the back, driving him a step closer to Rose. “Miss Rose Gardener, may I introduce you to my friend, Mr. William Carmody, whom you may have heard me mention before.”
Rose nodded. “My chum Will” had featured in a number of Guy’s stories. They partnered in tennis, fencing and other club activities reserved for rich men. But this fellow was not the man Rose had pictured. For an athlete, Mr. Carmody seemed incredibly awkward. His broad shoulders hunched—a tall man’s attempt to appear shorter—and he did not quite meet her gaze as they were introduced.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Gardener.” Carmody pushed his glasses up his nose with one finger.
Rose smiled at him. “Thank you for trying to help me.”
“‘Trying’ being the operative word,” Guy joked.
“I’m sorry I nearly dropped your flowers. Clumsy of me.” The man’s low-pitched voice seemed cool somehow, like a smooth stream flowing by without a ripple. Rose wanted to dip her hand in the water and ruffle its surface.
“How do you do, Mr. Carmody. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” She used careful diction as she held out her hand.
He stared at it for a moment as if deciding whether to shake hands with a mere shop girl. Had she made a social error? Rose’s smile evaporated, but before she could withdraw, his large hand engulfed hers in a single pump before letting go.
“Your store is very nice. I admire your, um”—he gestured toward the buckets—“flowers.”
“Thank you,” she replied. Mr. Carmody’s stiff manner put her off, even if he had tried to help her carry the urn. Guy’s friend or no, it seemed Carmody was snobbish and superior with his formality and refusal to look at her.
Rose turned her attention to Guy. “Will you be stopping by the millinery next, or have you already been?”
Since Guy and Hattie’s happy reunion several months ago, they rarely spent a day apart. He was always either coming or going from the milliner’s shop.
“I thought I’d bring my fiancée a bouquet to brighten her day, before Carmody and I engage in a fencing match. Peonies, please. Such a delightful scent.”
“They are not in season. But she should like these pink roses.”
Rose went to select the blooms for her friend’s bouquet. As she passed Mr. Carmody, he moved out of her way, bumping his elbow into a metal stand holding cards for funeral wreaths: At rest with Our Savior, Long Loved—Too Soon Lost, and so on. He caught the display before it could topple and steadied it.
“Sorry. I’m so sorry.” He knelt to gather the heartfelt pronouncements from the floor and place them back into the rack.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Carmody. I will take care of those later.” Rose would have liked to suggest he leave the shop before he created a more serious disaster, but this was Guy’s dearest friend, so she remained polite.
“Listen, Red…” Guy ignored Carmody as if he were used to his friend’s clumsiness. “Can you make a bouquet that proclaims Please set a date? It has been some time since I presented Hattie with a ring. I’m ready for newly-wed bliss, but my dearest is ever cautious, as you well know.”
“That’s a lot to ask of a bouquet. I would not apply too much pressure. When Hattie has considered the matter from every angle she will be ready. Wasn’t I right when I told you to wait for her forgiveness?”
“Yes, my wise counselor, you did.”
“Then don’t rush her about this once-in-a-lifetime decision.” Rose said, as she wrapped the plump pink roses in paper and handed the bouquet to Guy.
He sighed dramatically. “I will rein in my impatience and hold my tongue. I just needed you to tell me so.”
Rose glanced at the giant who had withdrawn to a corner, one hand crossed over the other in front of him as if to keep them from flailing about. Guy was apparently not shy about expressing his emotions in front of his friend. If he deemed Will Carmody trustworthy and loyal, perhaps the man was not so bad.
Rose offered Carmody another smile.
He grimaced and looked away. What a snob!
Just then, the first actual customer of the day entered the shop, so Guy bid Rose farewell.
Mr. Carmody did, too. “Good morning. That is, good day, Miss Gardener. Nice to have met. It was your pleasure…that is, a pleasure to have met. You. Today.”
He ducked his head to avoid the lintel as he passed through the doorway.
Rose shook her head and rolled her eyes.
After that, she had no time, or reason, to think of the odd man until much later when she picked up one of the funeral notes from the floor: Gone but Not Forgotten.
She thought of Carmody’s height and looming presence—somewhat as she had envisioned Frankenstein’s monster in Mrs. Shelley’s thrilling book, though not stitched together from body parts. And the monster would not have worn a scholarly pair of spectacles perched upon his nose. The thought of Carmody’s large hands seizing her body to carry her away made her shiver. Oddly enough, it wasn’t fear, but another sort of inexplicable excitement that zipped through her with the speed of lightning.
What was it about Mr. Carmody that haunted her long after his rangy frame no longer filled her doorway? He might be ungainly, but there was a strange magnetism about his presence that made him difficult to forget. If Guy Hardy was pure energy filling any room he entered and drawing all attention, William Carmody was his dark counterpart, the shadow to his light.
Too bad Carmody was also stuck up. Under other circumstances, Rose might have been interested in knowing him better. After all, he was her investor’s best mate.
Idiot! Fool! Clumsy buffoon! No wonder pretty Miss Rose had laughed at him standing in the corner like a troll. She was probably laughing still at his clownish ways. And the stammering! He had hardly been able to put two intelligible words together.
“Are you suffering heatstroke, Carmody?” Guy asked. “Perhaps you should go home and lie down with a damp cloth on your head rather than engage in a strenuous fencing match which you know I will ultimately win.”
Will closed his fingers together. “Shut it.”
Guy laughed as he led the way to Hattie Glover’s Millinery several doors down from the florist. Will would be equally uncomfortable in a room full of ladies’ hats and sundries, but at least there was no Miss Gardener to make him act like an utter fool.
“Good morning, William,” Hattie greeted him, when he entered.
“Good morning, Mrs. Glover.” Will remained near the door this time so he would not knock over a mannequin head.
Hardy offered his fiancée the roses. “Good morning, my dearest.”
She buried her nose in a bloom and inhaled deeply. “They are beautiful.”
“The petals are not as soft as your lips.” Guy leaned over the display counter to murmur something that earned an even bigger smile.
How at ease the fellow was with women. All women. Not only his beloved, but the entire gender. Will had never been able to speak easily with females, except for Penny. He wasn’t certain how he’d become shy. In the luck of the draw, his elder brother Rupert and younger sister Penelope had inherited charisma and confidence, while Will ended up with insecurity and self-doubt.
He was only truly good at one thing—study, and he’d made it his life’s work to learn all he could about every subject under the sun. With his extensive library and prodigious memory, this made for a lot of information crammed into his brain. But to what purpose? What did it matter if he knew everything in the world? That was a mystery he had yet to solve.