The next morning Eliza woke with smile on her face and a blush still lingering in her cheeks. She had vague memories of dreaming of Thomas’ kiss. It surely wouldn’t be much to anyone else, but in her young life, it was something special.
She smiled from the moment she climbed out of bed through breakfast with Joanna. After they’d eaten and cleared the table, they climbed in the wagon and rode into town to the schoolhouse. Once she’d waved goodbye to her sister, she headed back home to do more chores. She had plenty to keep her busy until she had to go back into town, get Joanna and meet their aunt Clara at the dress shop. When she arrived home, she saw that Thomas was already working.
“I wonder what today will be like?” She asked herself. After a moment that between them that ended awkwardly two nights ago, then the rollercoaster that was yesterday, she could only hope for no tension this time.
“Good morning, Thomas,” she greeted him as he approached. A blush bloomed on her cheeks as she unwillingly remembered the night before. She hoped he couldn’t tell in the bright morning sunshine.
“Good morning, Miss Eliza,” he said quietly, a smile on his face. “How was Miss Joanna this morning?” He asked as he filled one of the water buckets at the well.
The morning was already looking better than the one before. “Fine,” she said, “She loves to learn so she was glad to be back to it.” She smiled and grabbed a bucket to help him water the horses. “How are you this morning?”
Thomas waited to set the bucket down before he answered. “I’m well,” he smiled down at her. “Thank you for having me at dinner last night.”
“Oh,” she began, “Joanna did invite you without telling me!” She laughed. “But you are welcome, always.” She told him honestly. They smiled at each other for a moment, not realizing how long they’d lingered, until a horse snorted in their direction.
Both laughed awkwardly, the proceeded to fill the trough with water.
The rest of the morning went smoothly—almost like before her parents had died—except for the not-so-unpleasant awkwardness between them. That was new.
By afternoon they were nearly done, and Eliza had to go into town. She told him goodbye, then went to change out of her farm worn clothes and into something fresh.
Once into town her first stop before the schoolhouse was Spring Haven’s only general store, where she needed to pick up some items for farm and home.
A tiny bell tinkled as she stepped inside Harold’s General Store, alerting Harold himself in the back room. He stepped out as Eliza was browsing his wares. “Good afternoon, Miss Alcott!” He greeted cheerfully.
Harold was always friendly and had been quite close to Arthur Alcott. Eliza could remember many afternoons spent in this very store, listening as her father and Harold chatted and bargained. “Hello Harold!” She smiled, “How are you today?”
“Why, quite well, indeed! I hope all is well with you and young Joanna?”
“Very well, thank you Harold.” She answered. “I’m just needing a few items today,” she told him pulling out a slip of paper with her list penciled on it. She handed it to him and he pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked it over.
“Why I can take care of all this. Matter of fact,” he said, “We just got a load of chicken feed in yesterday. We can have it all loaded in a few minutes.”
“Lovely,” she said. “I have the wagon parked right out front. I just have to walk over to the schoolhouse if that’s alright?”
“Perfect, Miss Alcott,” Harold replied. He paused a moment, his smile fading just slightly. “And will you be paying today, or placing it on the family account?” He asked quietly.
“Today, if that’s alright.” She answered. “I know my father’s account needs paid, Harold. I don’t want to add more to it.” She said solemnly.
“Oh, now,” Harold sighed. “I know he was good for it. He just didn’t get the chance to settle it.” Harold seemed sad, suddenly.
“I’m not sure how he planned to, unless he’s stashed something away,” Eliza tried to sound cheerful as she handed over payment. “But I will take care of it,” she promised him.
“Whenever you can, there’s no rush. He was a friend.” He said. “As was your mother, and as you and Miss Joanna remain.” He was smiling once more.
Eliza was just a bit on edge when she stepped out of the general store a few minutes later. Thinking of the finances left behind after her parents’ passing always made her tense. But she would have to get used to it, it was her responsibility now. She made herself put a smile on her face, as she walked down the street to the schoolhouse.
She only had to wait a few minutes for Joanna to come bouncing out of the schoolhouse door. She immediately spotted her big sister and bounded over and hugged her. This would always put a smile on Eliza’s face.
“Did you have a good day?” Eliza asked sarcastically.
Joanna giggled. “Yes! We’re learning to read more words, and I couldn’t help thinking about our new dresses!” Eliza
had to force herself not to tense up, remembering her Aunt Clara.
“That’s our first stop!” She told her.
The dress shop was just a short walk away, Spring Haven was a small town. And like the general store there was only one dress shop in town as well. “Mrs. Hattie’s Dresses” it was called, and while they’d shopped there before, most of the dresses had been mended and repaired by their mother. Mrs. Hattie herself had offered Rose a job a time or two.
Stepping into the store Eliza and Joanna were immediately greeted with the colors and textures of all manner of fabric and lace. There wasn’t anything quite like a dress shop to make a girl feel more feminine. And living on a farm with chores in the dirt often took that feeling away.
Joanna was touching a lovely pink sample of fabric when they heard Aunt Clara’s all to familiar voice. “My dear nieces! You finally made it!” She said, making it sound as if she’d waited for hours.
“Hello Aunt Clara.” Eliza was already dreading the experience.
Mrs. Hattie stepped into the room and greeted the girls. Her cheerful bubbly demeanor was a welcome interruption. “Eliza and oh, little Joanna, you both have grown so much!” She squeezed the girls in a friendly hug, a hug that Eliza would imagine an aunt would give. Just not the one they had.
“Mrs. Hattie,” Eliza began with a smile. “Its not been a week since you saw us last, how could we have grown that much?” She asked, laughing.
“Oh, pish tosh, Eliza.” She chuckled. “Black isn’t very becoming on anyone, dear!” They both glanced at Aunt Clara, who, it seemed, had yet to come out of her mourning clothes. “Oh, I cannot wait to work on dresses for the both of you!”
“Well, that is what we’re here for, after all.” Clara finally spoke up. She’d been looking down her nose at a swatch of fabric. “Do you have any sample dresses?” She asked, letting a fabric swatch fall as if it disgusted her. “We’d love to get some ideas.”
“Of course, Mrs. Wilkes!” Hattie said cheerfully. “They’re right this way.” She led the girls to a separate room where dresses were stored on hangers, packed in an open wardrobe. “I have all the latest styles and patterns! Ordered straight from Newfield!” Hattie was proud of her selection.
Eliza figured Clara would brighten at the sound of her favorite place. “Well, that should do nicely.” Clara templed her fingers together. “Let’s try on dresses shall we, dear?!”
Eliza groaned inwardly and looked down at Joanna, who was positively shaking with joy. “This is going to be a long afternoon,” she thought.
After what felt like hours and hundreds of dresses, Eliza finally found one that she didn’t hate, and her aunt approved of. There were more ruffles than she cared for, but much less than the last several. Joanna, of course loved all the trimmings, and had picked a lovely pattern with ruffles and lace and had chosen a lovely blush pink.
Eliza was still standing in her selection, as Hattie and Aunt Clara discussed colors. She was tired and wanted nothing more than to go home, put on her farm dress, and get her hands dirty. She was just contemplating getting to roll up her sleeves and pluck a chicken for dinner when she heard the door to the shop open. “Hello.”
All the ladies turned to see where the voice came from. It was none other than Randal Perry. What was he doing in Mrs. Hattie’s Dress Shoppe? “Oh, hello ladies.” He smiled broadly at each of them, focusing last on Eliza. “Am I interrupting?”
“Oh, Mr. Perry!” Aunt Clara exclaimed. She was quite excited to see him.
“Mrs. Wilkes, a pleasure as always.” He kissed her offered hand. “I was just here to pick up my mother’s dress.” He looked at Mrs. Hattie. “You said it would be ready.” He smiled his smile at her, the one that confused Eliza. It apparently did different things to other people.
Mrs. Hattie giggled and grinned at him, fluttering her eyes, apparently flattered that he’d even looked her way. “Oh, yes, Mr. Perry!” She smiled broadly. “It’s right in the back, I’ll just go fetch it!” She hurried off in a flutter to fetch the dress and he returned his attention to the rest of them.
“Miss Joanna.” He spoke, smiling down at the girl. “How are you?” Joanna, her usual shy self, hid herself as best she could in a bundle of skirts handing on a rack. Mr. Perry chuckled pleasantly. “My sister is looking forward to seeing you again.” Joanna peaked out of the dresses at him and smiled sheepishly. “Perhaps you could come to the house one evening?” He asked.
Joanna simply looked at Eliza, leading Randal Perry’s eyes to her as well. “Only if your big sister approves?” He asked.
Eliza cleared her suddenly dry throat. “We shall see.” She told him.
“We shall,” he said. He paused, and Eliza could see and feel him looking at her, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “You look lovely,” he said.
After a long silence that seemed to last hours, she managed, “Thank you,” just as Mrs. Hattie entered the room, a garment bag held gently in her arms.
“Here we are, Mr. Perry!” She said cheerfully, as usual. The thick air was lightened and Eliza was pulled out of her trance and turned away.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hattie. I’m sure mother will be glad to have it back.” She smiled at him. “Please put it on our bill.” He said. “Ladies, its been a pleasure,” he smiled at each of them. Eliza could see the reflection of his eyes lingering on her from the mirror.
Once he was out the door, Aunt Clara spoke up. “Have the Perry’s been customers of yours for a while?” She asked.
“Why yes, as long as I’ve been in business!” She said. “Lovely people, really.”
“Well,” Clara began. “I knew I had good taste.” She said, as if she hadn’t been critical of Mrs. Hattie’s wares the moment she’d walked in. “Now, lets get started on these lovely dresses!”
Sometime later, everyone was tired, especially Joanna, who’d begun to doze in the corner near a pile of scrap fabric, and Hattie and Clara were just finishing the order for the dresses. “Thank you, again, Hattie, for staying so late with us,” Eliza said. “I know you must be exhausted.”
She laughed, “Not quite as tired as that one.” She tipped her head in Joanna’s direction and smiled sweetly at the girl. “It was lovely to see you both.” She walked over to Eliza and hugged her tightly. “If you ever need anything, you be sure to let me know.” She insisted as she let her go.
“I shall, Hattie. Thank you.”
As they were walking to the wagon, Eliza practically carrying the sleepy Joanna, she could help but wish her Aunt Cara was a little more like Mrs. Hattie.
When they’d reached home, Thomas was still there, despite the sun having nearly set, and he helped by unloading the wagon in the barn while Eliza tucked Joanna into bed. She waved goodbye to him as he rode away for the night.
When she finally crawled into bed herself, she couldn’t help but wish her mother and father were there to tell her goodnight and wish her sweet dreams. Would her life be less complicated if they were still alive? As she drifted off to sleep, she was sure it would.