“They’re back!” Fidelia Hayward burst into the Summerfield Mercantile, one hand to her heaving chest, the other steadying her hat,
which tipped precariously over her left ear.
Her daughter, Lila, looked up from the stack of tea towels she was folding. “I assume you mean the Westons.”
Mother yanked her hat off, getting both her chin and her words tangled in the bow. “Of course I mean the Westons. Summerfield
Manor is abuzz with news of their return.”
“So you’ve been to the manor?”
“Of course not.” She pointed to the village square where every nuance of village life was collected, dissected, and directed. “But
if you’d care to walk outside with me, you’ll hear the news yourself.”
Lila patted the top of the stack and handed them to their clerk, Rose. “You can be our correspondent, Mother. I’m content to get
the news secondhand.”
“As am I.” Papa winked at Lila, then shared a smile with Rose, completing the usual relay of responses to Mother’s flutter and flurry.
Mother dug her fists into her hips. “Your lack of curiosity is abominable. And since you’re not curious, I shall not tell you the latest
gossip about Lady Clarissa.”
“All right,” Lila said, turning her attention to a messy stack of handkerchiefs, the need to hide her smile finding refuge in busyness.
Papa nodded toward the stack. “It appears our inventory is low. How many should I buy, next trip to London?”
Lila counted the men’s larger handkerchiefs, then the women’s smaller ones. “We could use six more of each, I think.”
Mother strode to the handkerchiefs, grabbed the entire stack, and tossed it into the air. “Listen to me! There’s news!”
As the last handkerchief floated to the floor, Lila suffered an inward sigh. They were used to histrionics, but the act of throwing
things elevated Mother’s news beyond the usual gossip. Yet to concede by giving Mother full attention was not in her nature.
When Rose knelt to retrieve the fallen handkerchiefs, Lila joined her. If they didn’t do it themselves, it wouldn’t get done.
“Stop!” Mother put a hand on Lila’s arm. “Listen. To. Me.” She turned to her husband. “Jack, make them listen.”
“If it will calm you.” He nodded at Lila. “Give your mother your full attention, so the world can move on.”
Lila stood shoulder to shoulder with Rose, and they each took a breath and smoothed their skirts. “All right. We’re ready. Tell us
Mother peered at them suspiciously. “I’m not sure I want to, what with all the trouble you’ve put me through.”
Lila sighed. Her mother was a mistress of hoops—making people jump through them for her own entertainment. Lila did her duty.
“Please tell us. We’re dying to know.”
Mother set her hat on the counter and smoothed the ribbons. “I heard it on good authority that Lady Clarissa did not find a match
during the London season. It’s been three years since she’s come out, and three years without a betrothal.”
That was it? That was the news? It was like hearing that today the sky would be blue.
And Lila wasn’t surprised by it. Lady Clarissa was fickle and rebellious. Word had returned to Summerfield that during Clarissa’s
presentation to Queen Victoria, she’d refused to wear the three-feather Prince-of-Wales plume with her sweeping veil, wanting
instead to wear a tiara—an honor reserved for married women. Cooler heads prevailed, but everyone knew Lady Clarissa pressed
her own wishes above all others.
“Obviously she hasn’t found a man to love,” Rose said.
“What’s love got to do with it?” Mother asked.
“Yes, yes, love should be important, but we all know the gentry set usually marries for title, money, or status, with love a distant
“Then I feel sorry for them,” Papa said.
“Me too,” Rose said. “I loved my Ben for the entire twenty years of our marriage, and now that he’s gone, I still love him. If Lady
Clarissa doesn’t love anyone, then she shouldn’t get married.”
“Hear, hear!” Lila said, more as an affirmation of her own views than care for Lady Clarissa’s happiness—which no doubt would be
achieved by some ancestral entitlement whether she married for love or not.
Mother pointed a finger in her direction. “You’re as picky as she is, and it won’t do either of you any good. Timothy is a fine man,
and you ought—”
As if summoned by his name, Timothy Billings walked in the mercantile. When he removed his cap, a shimmering of sawdust
sprinkled to the floor. He immediately stopped when he saw four sets of eyes upon him. “Am I interrupting something?”
Mother slipped her arm through his and led him over to Lila. “Not a thing, Timothy. Lila was just telling us how eager she was to
His eyebrows rose, and he looked to Lila for affirmation.
She hated that Mother had put her in this position. She found Timothy quite affable but knew his feelings for her ran far deeper
than her own. Yet not wanting to hurt him, she offered him a smile. “Mother just shared the news that the Westons are back from
the London season.”
“They are,” he said. “And I’ve just been summoned to the manor to speak with the dowager countess about some special letter
box she saw in London. She wants me to build a similar one for her.”
“Good for you,” Papa said. “Your carpentry skills will take you far.”
“And make you a fine living,” Mother added. “Soon you’ll be set to assume full responsibility of your father’s shop.”
Mother’s version of subtlety was like too much pepper in a soup, and Lila felt her face grow hot, but Timothy took it all in stride.
“There’s time enough for that. My father’s in very good health and works harder than I do,” he said. “And there’s still much to learn.”
“That’s the right attitude,” Papa said. “Believe it or not, our generation does have a thing or two to teach the younger set.” He gave
Mother a pointed look.
“I know what you’re implying, Jack,” Mother said. “But I still think it’s important our own son gains a formal education away from
“A useless one,” Papa said. “Morgan doesn’t need extra schooling to run a mercantile.”
“When is he coming home?”
Lila was glad for Timothy’s interruption. She wasn’t up to enduring another argument regarding her brother, whose attributes,
flaws, and future were juggled daily whether he was present at the juggling or not.
“I expected him by now,” Papa said. “His term is long over, and he was instructed to stop in London and bring home a shipment.
Save me a trip.”
“So he lingered in London for a holiday,” Mother said. “A well-deserved one after his hard scholarship. Although I can’t wait to see
him, I don’t begrudge him his fun.”
Of course not. In their mother’s eyes, Morgan was king, prince, and emperor. If he weren’t such a self-deprecating man, Lila could
have easily hated him. Instead, she allowed her resentment to flow toward his enabler.
Timothy leaned close to Lila. “Wish me luck at the manor.”
“Good luck,” she said, meaning it. Whether or not she and Timothy ever married, she wished him the best. Getting a foot-in with
the Westons was important. Since those who had money were willing to spend it, they might as well spend it within the boundaries
of the village rather than ordering from London.
As Timothy left, Mother moved to the windows that served as her personal window to the world of Summerfield even as it displayed
the goods of the mercantile. Once at her post, she mumbled her grievances to the bins of buttons and combs. “Lila, you need to
snatch him up before you lose him to some other Summerfield girl.”
“I don’t plan to snatch anyone,” she said. “Finding a mate deserves contemplation and care.” Though as time passed she thought
she might be guilty of too much of each.
“For those who have time for such luxuries. At twenty, you’re much too choosy. I still don’t see why you ignored Andrew Smith the
last time we were in London. His father owns a bank. Andrew has to be worth a thousand a year.”
“And he has a nose as hooked as one of those puppets in a Punch and Judy show.” Papa said, smiling at Lila. “I wouldn’t want my
daughter peering at such a face for the rest of her life.”
Lila appreciated his support. Andrew’s face was but the half of it. A woman could overlook an unfortunate nose. It was Andrew’s
eyes that provoked shivers. The man didn’t look at her, he leered.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Mother sniffed.
Mother let out a breath but quickly drew in another, her voice indicating she was about to favor them with another bout of sarcasm.
“The Taylors hired a new farmhand,” she said. “Perhaps he’ll find a mature shopkeeper’s daughter to his liking.”
Mature. Lila turned toward the shelves and busied herself by restacking some porcelain bowls lest Mother see her tears. The cool
touch of the china was a balm to the heat of the moment.
Rose stepped close. “She didn’t mean it,” she whispered.
Yes, she did. In spite of Lila’s attempts to ignore her mother’s barbs, they left a fresh mark. And it was clear she was being sarcastic,
for Mother was all about status—constantly decrying her lack of it and scrambling for more. She might pretend Lila should marry a
hired hand, but if Lila were to actually fall in love with such a man, Mother would lock her in her room and drop the key inside her
bodice, never to be found again.
If Lila was honest, she was concerned about her unmarried state and her prospects in tiny Summerfield. Beyond Timothy, the pool
of eligible men was lacking. Chances were that Lila would have to find a husband in London during one of their buying trips. But the
thought of a city man . . . He’d never find her witty or worldly enough. And Lila hated the noises, smells, soot, and commotion of
London. . .
Copyright 2015 Nancy Moser
Mustard Seed Press