“Cheers, my girl.”
“Cheers.” I nibbled at it as my eyes turned to the window, which had claimed my attention once again. Miss Ellis saw where they landed. Kyle was hauling mulch bags over his shoulder effortlessly, even though they must have weighed a great deal.
“It’ll do you no good to moon over that one.”
I jerked my head around, embarrassed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You know exactly what I mean. The McCarthy boy. He’s not . . . available.”
“Well, let me put it this way. He’s on summer break from school in Durham. But not just any school. It’s called Ushaw College.” She rested her elbow on the bureau and regarded me with a strangely apologetic expression.
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“I wouldn’t have expected you to. It’s a seminary.”
“A seminary? You mean, he’s going to be some kind of minister?”
“Not a minister like we know it, you and I. He’s a Catholic, Miss Westcott. He’s going to be a priest.”
The clock downstairs chimed twice, its baritone echo hollering all the way to the second floor, calling me home.
I stood in front of my mirror and held the two dresses at my shoulders. Flowing white eyelet dress: innocence. Clingy tan ensemble: sophistication. That would be the one. The sleek skirt came just past my knees. I pulled out a green scarf and played with the variations, deciding I’d wear it in a knot under my neck. The green accentuated my eyes, or so I was told. I turned right and left, assessing my reflection. Just right. This was what I would wear to Bootle.
I heard a wolfish whistle behind me and turned toward my door with a start.
He leaned on the door frame, arms crossed. “Well, look at you. I thought you were just going to the talkies with Lucille.”
I slipped my foot into a gold-toned low heel and grinned.
“No one calls them talkies anymore. You’re funny.” I pulled the other shoe out of its box, parting the layers of pastel tissue, and wriggled my foot into it. There was no room to move my toes, but the salesgirl had said that the leather would stretch in time. And, more important, they looked sensational.
“Well, I’ll never understand women. I certainly wouldn’t want to sit for a couple of hours in a skirt and heels.”
“I should hope not! That would be a sight.”
We laughed, and his face reddened. He moved over to me and placed his hands on my shoulders. “I’ll save you that humiliation.”
I pecked him on the cheek and wiped the trace of gloss that was left behind. “I have to go.”
He put his hand on my arm. “Hold on there, Princess. I came to tell you that there won’t be any movie today.”
His jovial tone had turned grave. I froze. Had he discovered my trips to Bootle? I didn’t think so, though sometimes I wished that he would. Then I could at last ask the questions that hesitated on my tongue.
“Some IRA hoodlums were arrested outside one of the warehouses last night,” he said. “Mavis is overly nervous, as usual, and won’t come in to work today. I need your help with the bookkeeping.”
They hadn’t yet terrorized Liverpool, but the growing rumors indicated that commerce along the coasts was in jeopardy. Father’s warehouses and customs clearance office at Albert Dock would certainly be desirable targets. His unflappable demeanor had lately given way to anti-Catholic rants and staunch support of war with Germany.
“I’ll come with you,” I said through a forced smile. I hid my dejection over this new plan. He never asked me for much, and we did usually enjoy days at the docks together. We would have lunch delivered from a place of my choosing and sit on packing crates in a makeshift picnic.
“Good. Meet me downstairs in ten minutes. Betty is making breakfast, and we can head out after that.” As if on cue, I could smell the sausages frying downstairs.
He turned toward my door and then back to me. “There’s always tomorrow. I’m sure Lucille will understand.”
Of course she would. If that had been the actual plan. But Bootle couldn’t wait another day. If I didn’t go now, it would be another week. Kyle worked there only on Saturdays, a titbit I’d learned from Miss Ellis after subtle attempts to mine for more information. And having learned this, I was prepared to visit more often than I had in the past.
I was surprised by this preoccupation with the gardener who was so attentive to my brother. Lucille often reproached me for my resigned indifference to that sort of thing. “Dogs will fly and monkeys will talk the day that Julianne Westcott chooses a beau,” she’d say. “And elephants will sing,” I’d agree.
Her ribbing was lighthearted, but she knew the truth. I existed in the shadow of my mother, a woman enlivened by invitations extended and received, darling of society. Painstakingly preserving her legendary beauty with creams and ointments. Delaying the day when time would steal it away. And when it faded, I was to be her successor among the elite. The hostess. The wife. The replica. No detours on the path she paved.
Now my practiced detachment was failing me, and my mind had become saturated with thoughts of Kyle. His genial eyes, his strength of body and character. The way the corner of his mouth upturned, confident and lively. Even the pale, pinky-sized birthmark that I’d noticed along the side of his neck. I daydreamed in scattered images where his kisses grazed my skin and the clandestine giggles of girls who read petticoat novellas tucked inside schoolbooks suddenly made sense.
But the precaution that Miss Ellis had laid upon me infected the visions. One word: priest. I didn’t fully understand what that meant, as I didn’t know any Catholics. Father wouldn’t even do business with them if he could help it. It was my understanding that a priest couldn’t get married. They were celibate. Did that mean that they couldn’t fall in love?
“I’ll be right down!” I shook off my broodings and exchanged the dress for a white blouse and navy skirt more appropriate for a day at the docks.
I made it to Bootle the following week, arousing the amused curiosity of Miss Ellis, for whom my feeble protestations of “I just wanted to visit with Charles” were all too transparent. I had never come out there more than once a month. And then there was the dress, the shoes.