Before Eliza could open the journal she had in her hand, she heard a knock at the front door. She replaced the journal and stood, but as she was walking out of the bedroom, she heard Joanna shout, “I’ll get it!”
She hadn’t quite made it down the stairs when she heard Aunt Clara’s voice echoing in the front hall. “Hello, dear,” Aunt Clara spoke to Joanna. “Still playing shy are we?” When she made it downstairs she could see Joanna hiding behind the banister. They both saw her when she stepped off the stairs, and Joanna ran to hide behind her legs.
“Hello Eliza, dear,” Clara greeted her, knowing she hated being called ‘dear’. She smiled again, “I trust we’re doing well on this lovely afternoon?”
“Fine, thank you.” Eliza said curtly. It would take a great deal for her to begin to trust her aunt. “I would have thought you’d have gone back to the city by now.” Eliza asked. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit today?”
“Oh, not unite yet, dear. Spring Haven might be growing on me.” she replied. “I was just wondering what your decision was regarding the Perrys’ offer to include you on their trip into the city.” She said, still smiling in that unnerving way of hers. “I wanted to extend an offer to purchase you both new dresses for the trip.” She said, eyeballing what both of them were currently wearing.
Eliza felt Joanna’s excitement upon hearing the part about new dresses. But she had to force herself not to reply in anger at the look her aunt had given them. Instead she said, “I hadn’t yet decided, Aunt Clara.” She paused, then continued. “And as soon as I do, the Perrys will be the first to know.” She could tell that affected her aunt.
“Hmmm.” Clara paused, but the smile returned to her face. “Well, dear. Please allow me the pleasure of treating you both to a new dress, regardless of your decision.” She said. “It’s the least I could do for my dear nieces.” She paused. “Make up for lost time?”
Despite her wholehearted desire to never take anything from her aunt, she couldn’t deny she’d noticed Joanna’s obvious response to the thought of a new dress. She did so love her dresses. So, against her better judgement she replied, “I’m sure that would be fine, Aunt Clara.”
“Oh how lovely, dear!” Clara seemed genuinely excited. “I do love buying dresses.” Joanna was practically shaking with excitement at her sister’s side. “We shall meet in town tomorrow afternoon!” Clara turned to the door. “Now I must be going, I shall see you both tomorrow!”
Eliza watched and waited as Aunt Clara climbed into the waiting carriage and pulled away, horses’ hooves and carriage wheels kicking up dust behind. Eliza’s tense nerves began to relax the further away the carriage became.
“Why did you tell her you hadn’t decided, when to told Thomas you had?” Joanna asked.
“You heard that, this morning, did you?” Joanna smiled sheepishly. Eliza smiled back, “Sometimes people say and do things without taking the time to think about them, and they only realize afterward they may have made a mistake,” she explained. “I hadn’t given myself enough time to really think about it, and its important to do that, especially since we don’t know the Perrys all that well yet.” She paused. “Do you understand?”
Joanna thought about it a moment, then nodded. “Yes.” Then she smiled widely and said, “At least we’re getting new dresses!” They both giggled and Eliza said, smiling, “And who doesn’t love a new dress? Now, what shall we have for dinner?”
Dinner was almost finished cooking and Eliza had sent Joanna to set the table, Eliza walked into the dinning room to see three place settings instead of their usual two. “Joanna, have you invited someone to dinner without telling me?” She asked her sister, smiling.
“Uh, maybe?” She heard Joanna say from behind her. She turned to see Thomas standing behind her sister in the doorway. “I thought maybe he could eat with us. Is that okay?” Despite whatever happened between him and Eliza, Thomas had always seemed to be the the only adult, besides herself and their parents, that Joanna had ever been comfortable around. It might have been because she grew up with him in her life, but it was true.
“Its perfectly fine,” Eliza smiled, hoping there would be no tension. She’d had enough of that.
“Thank you,” he nodded in her direction. He then smiled down at Joanna, and said to her, “Thank you for inviting me.” As always Joanna smiled widely at her friend and pulled him to his seat, next to Eliza’s.
Thomas, when he was younger, had often eaten dinner with the Alcott’s. Rose had insisted, as she knew that his family didn’t have much themselves, and she’d always sent him home with an abundance of leftovers. But when he was in his late teens, the last of his family, his father, had died, leaving Thomas all they’d had left. He’d stopped staying for dinner, claiming his own chores to take care of.
This night’s dinner was as if he’d never stopped staying. They all laughed and talked, and enjoyed their meal. The only hitch for Eliza was remembering what they were missing, who they were missing. But she tried not to let the somber thoughts show through, she was just glad to see Joanna happy.
Once the meal was finished, Joanna helped Eliza clear the table, both refusing to let Thomas help. “You’re the guest!” Joanna said. He laughed and raised his hands up as if to surrender. “You’re the boss!” He smiled at her. When the work was done they stood at the doorway and said their good nights. Joanna hugged Thomas and he gave her a gentle squeeze in return.
“Now,” Eliza said, “Time for bed, you!” She told her sister, kissing her forehead. “You’ve got school in the morning. I’ll be right up to tuck you in.”
Eliza watched Joanna go, glad to see her sister finally starting to cheer, but quickly realized that she was alone with Thomas once again. She sighed and turned her attention back to him. But he spoke before she could.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He was quiet a moment, rubbing his work roughened hands together nervously. She realized she’d never really looked at his hands before. “For today. And last night. I was rude today and it was poor manners. I might not have be blessed with a fine education,” he paused, “like some. But I was taught manners, and I’ve let them slip.” He stopped, took a breath. “Will you forgive me?” He asked.
“Oh Thomas,” she said, putting a hand on his. “It’s alright. I was a little irrational myself.” She said, smiling. “I forgive you.”
He smiled in return and squeezed her hand, “Thank you.” For a flicker of a moment his expression changed, so quick that if she hadn’t been looking, for something, she might have missed it. There was a little of what she’d seen last night. But it was gone as quickly as it has come. Then he did something she did not at all expect. He leaned in and kissed her cheek, but his lips lingered against her skin just slightly longer than any old kiss on the cheek should.
Then with a barely audible, “Goodnight Eliza,” he was outside, closing the door behind him.
Eliza stood a moment before really registering what had just happened. When she finally had, she smiled widely, blushing in spite of herself.