The Bachelor’s Bride – Holly Bush

“NO! NO, YOU WİLL NOT, JAMES.” “I will do as I wish,” he thundered, slamming his hand on the thick wooden table, making the crockery dance. “I am the head of this family, and I say you will not breathe a word of this to our brother or sisters,” Muireall Thompson said through gritted teeth. “Head of the family, are you, lass?” “I am the oldest.” “And a real sibling to boot,” James said and marched out of the kitchen. Elspeth hunched under the stairwell outside the kitchens and watched her brother hurry past, his leather boots slapping against the stone floors, nearly masking his whispered curse words. He slammed the door at the top of the steps. She jumped when Aunt Murdoch spoke to her, just inches from her ear. “What are you doing, child?” she asked. “I was eavesdropping on an argument between Muireall and James.” “Does anything good ever come from eavesdropping?” “Nay. Never,” Elspeth said. “But that won’t stop me from doing it.” One side of Aunt’s mouth turned up. “There’s no denying you’re a MacTavish, with that sassy tongue of yours.

” “MacTavish, Aunt? I’ve heard you call one of us that on occasion, but I never understood why. Are they our ancestors? A clan we’d best forget?” “Shush,” Aunt Murdoch hissed. “Have you finished the mending? Or are you just lazing about, listening to others’ private talks?” Elspeth looked into Aunt Murdoch’s filmy blue eyes. There were some mysteries surrounding her family, the Thompsons. Some secrets. She’d overheard snippets over the years as some had not realized she was in the same room with them, but lips immediately clenched when they did realize, or when her younger sister, Kirsty, or her younger brother, Payden, were nearby. Aunt knew all the secrets, she was certain, but she was just as certain that she would never reveal any of them. “I need more blue thread to fix one of Kirsty’s church dresses. I’ll be going to Mrs. Fendale’s for more.

” “Then get there and get back,” Aunt said and went through the door to the kitchens, no doubt to harass Muireall. Elspeth found James in the parlor, repairing the floor where a nail had come up through one of the varnished boards. “If you pound that any harder, you’re going to fall through,” she said, wondering what he could have possibly meant by real sibling when he was arguing with Muireall. “Better than fighting with our sister,” he said, each word punctuated by a pound of the hammer. He sat back on his heels and looked up at her as she pulled on her short linen jacket. “Where are you off to?” “Mrs. Fendale’s for thread.” “You shouldn’t be going to that part of town alone,” James said as he stood. “I have to see about this beet delivery today, but I’ll take you tomorrow.” “I’ll be fine, James,” she said to his sputtering.

She stopped at the front door and pulled on her bonnet, examining herself in the mirror above the marble table. James was still telling her she wasn’t allowed to leave without him, as she was a stubborn and foolish girl, when she pulled the door closed behind her. She set out north toward the edge of Society Hill where they lived, crossing Chestnut Street, enjoying the spring air. Streets were crowded with carriages and wagons and horses, and all types of people too. Elspeth’s family knew their neighbors, and she waved at old Mrs. Cartwright sweeping her steps and watched Mr. Abrams shaking his finger at his children as their heads nodded in agreement. The sun was shining, one of the first March days to be warm, and it seemed as though everyone was out of their homes and enjoying the weather after a particularly long and cold winter. Three blocks more and she was less likely to wave or shout a hallo. She stared straight ahead, glimpsing the swinging sign over the door of her destination, and did not listen to the ridiculous and inappropriate comments some young men were directing at her.

In just their shirtsleeves, no jacket or four-in-hand tie, and even some without a vest, they were hanging about a stairwell to a basement or coal chute or leaning against the gas streetlight posts, hooting and hollering at each other and at others on the street. Once she crossed Arch Street into Southwark, the houses were a little shabby, the streets had a little more garbage strewn about, and the residents looked a little more downtrodden, but she could see Mrs. Fendale’s Millinery shop, not half a block away. Unfortunately, she’d have to pass the bawdy house—not that she was supposed to know it was a bawdy house or even know what a bawdy house was, but she did have ears and a brain between them and would have been hard-pressed not to understand the conversation she’d overheard between James and his friend MacAvoy. But as it was just ten in the morning, hopefully those ladies would still be abed. It was quiet as she passed by, with one lone woman hanging out a second-floor window in a sheer chemise, one shoulder strap hanging down her arm, with a shiny corset over top of it, which was scandalous enough, but it was red—bright, blood red! All satin and lace and nothing like her own white cotton undergarments. She wondered why a woman would want to wear such a thing, but then, with a second glance at the woman, now smiling at her and tapping a thin cigar against the brick sill, she knew. It would entice a man, but what kind? Surely not a good one! Elspeth shivered and hurried her steps. A bell rang over her head as she entered the seamstress’s shop. “Hello, Mrs.

Fendale! How are you this beautiful spring day?” “Miss Thompson! How good to see you after this long winter! What may I help you with? A new hat, perhaps?” Elspeth shook her head. “Oh no. I’m just doing some mending and have run out of blue thread.” She ran her fingertips over lace lying out on the glass-top counter. “How beautiful! Maybe I will take a yard or two of this to add to Kirsty’s best dress.” “It’s a very lovely lace, made right here in our neighborhood,” Mrs. Fendale said with a smile. “How much shall I cut for you?” “I think two yards. It will be perfect to liven up one of last year’s dresses.” While Mrs.

Fendale tied the cut ends of the lace and wrapped the purchases, her son Ezra came out from between the dark hanging curtains that led to the back of the shop where the seamstresses and hatmakers worked. His head dipped into a nod as he smiled shyly, and a blush crept up his face. “Good morning, Ezra.” Elspeth smiled at the younger man. “G-G-Good morning, Miss Thompson,” he said and swallowed. “Here, Ezra.” Mrs. Fendale handed her packages to him. “Carry Miss Thompson’s things for her until she crosses the street.” “I’ll be fine, Mrs.

Fendale. No need to take Ezra away from whatever work he’s doing for you.” “His work will still be here when he returns, and I’ll feel better knowing he’s with you until you’ve passed this block,” she said and shook her head. “To think that those hussies ply . ” Mrs. Fenway glanced at her wide-eyed son and then at Elspeth and closed her mouth. “Good day to you, Mrs. Fenway, and thank you,” Elspeth said with a smile. “Good day, Miss Thompson.” Ezra followed her out of his mother’s shop, holding the wrapped lace under his arm.

“You needn’t walk behind me, Ezra.” She took the lace from his hands and put it in her bag along with the thread. The young man hurried to walk beside her, keeping pace with her swift stride. Elspeth tilted her face to the sun, feeling its warmth, letting it seep into her muscles and make her feel as if all things she’d dreamed of were possible. That pleasurable feeling did not last long. “Get your hands off me, you filthy copper,” a woman shouted. Elspeth looked up at the doorway of the bawdy house she was nearing. There was an older man, with mutton chops and a nearly bald head, being dragged out the door by a younger man in a dark suit. The woman who had shouted, the one in the chemise and red corset Elspeth had seen earlier, was hanging on to the bald man’s sleeve, trying to drag him back inside the brick row house. There were no policemen in sight, but a crowd had gathered, mostly consisting of the young men who’d taunted Elspeth on her walk to Mrs.

Fenway’s. “’E ain’t going nowheres until ’e ’ands over me fee,” she screamed and yanked on the bald man’s jacket. Elspeth heard a ripping sound. The woman reached around the bald man and kicked at the younger man with a pointy-toed shoe. “Ouch,” he said and rubbed his thigh with his loose. “Let go of him, and I’ll pay you.” The woman spit at the younger man, and the bald one found his footing and cuffed the woman hard across the face. She crumbled to the stoop with a cry, holding her face in her hands. “Fucking whore telling me what to pay,” the red-faced bald man shouted to cheers from the crowd of popinjays. The woman looked up from where she cowered, and Elspeth could see blood running from her nose and lip.

She’d seen enough. “Stop!” she shouted as she picked up her skirts and hurried up the steps. “Stop this instant!” Elspeth crouched down and pulled a handkerchief from her drawstring bag. She handed it to the woman, who looked up at her guardedly. Elspeth leaned forward and dabbed the blood from the woman’s chin and mouth while the young men on the street in front of the house continued their taunts. She stood quickly and turned to the bald man. “Pay her! Pay her this minute,” she said. The young man stepped between them. “There’s no reason for you to get involved, miss. Please be on your way.

” She batted his hand away when he reached for her. “Don’t you dare touch me! You and your . your father are here together? How disgusting you are!” The crowd roared their approval, and she could see Mrs. Fenway and Ezra at the edge of the crowd. The shop owner said something to her son, and he raced down the street, away from his mother’s shop. “This is not my . ” the young man said, clearly affronted. “Then why are you here with him? What need do you have to frequent this house?” The young man’s mouth twitched, and that was when she noticed he was startlingly handsome. Strikingly so. The crowd on the street was taunting him, asking him to tell her about his need.

She felt her face go red and wished she could have taken back her words, but it was too late. She would have to brazen it out and was about to repeat her question when the bald man leaned close to her. “What do you know of this house, girl? Are you looking to audition? I’ll be happy to recommend you if you meet my expectations.” He let his eyes drift down to her bosom and farther still. Elspeth stared at the bald man, three times her size, covered in the finest herringbone wool—yards of it, she estimated—his purple four-in-hand held in place with a glittering diamond stick pin. She did not retreat, not one inch, but held completely still, her eyes riveted on his. She would not be the one to look away. He turned suddenly and swept his hand in a wide arc. “I think she likes me! I think she’s fallen under my spell! And she’ll like my long, fat sausage too, won’t she, boys?” He turned to look at her, bending his knees just a bit to grab his crotch and thrust his hips at her. The men in the crowd roared their approval.

The young man was pulling on his arm. “Schmitt! That’s enough. Come away.” Elspeth speared him with her glare. “Make an escape now after your da’s had his way and not paid her and hit her too? Coward!” The muscles in the young man’s neck stood out white against the red color of his face and throat. He leaned around the bald man. “He is not my father, miss. You should go before you are caught up in something ugly. Go.” “As if this is not ugly enough, a grown man in a fine suit hitting a woman on the stoop of her home!” “It could get worse.

Go!” he growled as the crowd shouted their appreciation at whatever crude comments Schmitt had just made. “I’ll see her—” Elspeth began and stopped abruptly as her brother James shouldered past Schmitt and the young red-faced man. He put his hand under her arm, none too lightly, and turned her to go down the steps. Schmitt stepped in front of them. “I saw her first, boy,” he said. “Go on about your business.” “Come along, Elspeth,” James said quietly without a glance at Schmitt. “I’m sorry, miss,” the young man said and reached out his hand as if hoping to shake hers. “Mr. Schmitt lost his head for a moment.

” James leaned in and spoke quietly. “Don’t touch my sister. Ever. And tell your friend to back out of our way.” “Or what, boy?” Schmitt asked and turned with a broad smile and a sweep of his arm to the crowd. “Or what?”

.

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