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Pearlman, Michigan June 15, 1920
Today, Felicity Kensington was going to meet her future husband. He didn't know this yet, of course, but he had a full two months to come to that conclusion.
She pinched her cheeks for color and took a deep breath for courage. The vanity mirror revealed every imperfection. Her eyes were an odd hue of green, and she was a bit too tall for most men, but Daddy's money could overcome those deficiencies. She pinned her chignon and checked that every pleat of her skirt fell in place. Crisp, conservative, and irresistibly efficient. Mr. Robert Blevins, civil engineer, had to fall in love with her.
A hand bell tinkled downstairs. "Felicity, you're late."
Mother. She was the only hitch in an otherwise flawless plan. She insisted Felicity attend this afternoon's Ladies' Aid Society meeting to greet the new pastor, but that meant she'd miss Mr. Blevins's train. All the other eligible girls would see him before she did. Felicity had to reach the train first.
Hopefully Mother would accept a mere engineer as a soninlaw. He did hail from New York, and Mother always espoused the social superiority of Easterners. If society mattered to Mother, distance was the key for Felicity. Robert Blevins would take her far from Mother's manipulations.
"Felicity." The bell ran with greater urgency. "We're waiting."
Felicity shooed Ms. Priss, the neighbor's sociable cat, out the window with parting advice. "Don't let her see you." The cat wisely scampered across the porch roof and onto the limb of an overhanging elm.
After brushing the bed free of cat hair, which then necessitated cleaning Grandmama's sterling hairbrush, she took a deep breath, cast a quick prayer for courage and descended the sweeping staircase with its polished mahogany rail. Little rainbows danced off the crystals of the hall chandelier and flitted across her arm, but the beauty couldn't calm Felicity's nerves.
"Why did you take so long?" Mother primped in front of the mirror, poking her tight dark curls into place. She looked perfect in her fawncolored suit. She always looked perfect. "You know we need to leave early so your father can pick up Reverend Meeks."
Reverend Meeks what a ghastly name. He'd surely be thin and pale with pox scars, a hawkish nose and a receding hairline. He'd never smile or grant the slightest leniency. He would conduct fire and brimstone sermons. Children would cower. Congregants would scurry away, chastened.
Thankfully, she'd be gone soon, married in the wedding of the centuryat least for Pearlman. Pearlman, whose cultural center was the drugstore. Pearlman, with its gravel Main Street and single cinema. Pearlman, where everyone knew everything about everyone. She could not wait to arrive in New York City as Mrs. Robert Blevins.
Mother rang the servant's bell, and Smithson, the butler, glided from the kitchen to the front door and opened it without a word. Now was the time to act, before Mother trapped her in the motorcar. "I'd like to"
"Don't forget the letter." Mother pressed the ivory vellum envelope from the National Academy of Design into Felicity's hand. "You'll want to show it to everyone."
Felicity wanted to crumple that letter and throw it in the fireplace. The whole idea was Mother's. She was the one who wanted to go to art school. She was the one with talent. Felicity couldn't draw a straight line. Aside from the humiliation of being the only nonartist at the prestigious art school, Mother would never leave her alone. She'd visit for weeks at a time and fix every one of Felicity's projects. Art school could not happen, and if all went as planned, she'd never set foot in the National Academy.
Mother, of course, never noticed her discomfort. She swooped down the granite steps to the Packard, and Felicity had no choice but to followas usual.
Daddy stood by a marble pillar, idly stroking his walrus mustache. He'd gained a little weight around the midsection and had to wear his spectacles all the time now, but he still saw her as his little girl.
"Good luck." He winked at Felicity.
Mother clucked her tongue while she waited for Smithson to open the motorcar's passenger door. "Branford, I thought you were in a hurry. Quit lollygagging."
Daddy rolled his eyes behind his presidential spectacles and sauntered toward the Packard while Smithson opened the rear door for Felicity.
This was her last chance. Though her fingertips tingled and her pulse raced, she mustered the calm smile preached by the Highbury School for Girls, the New York boarding school she'd attended. "I believe I'll walk."
"Walk?" Mother glared through her open window. "In this heat? Your dress will wilt, and you'll perspire." She said the last word as if it was the most sinful thing in the world. "That's not the image to project when you want to curry favor."
"But I don't want to curry favor."
"Of course you do. It's the only way to get elected chairwoman of the Beautification Committee. You'll ride, and that's that."
Felicity didn't want to chair the Beautification of the Sanctuary Committee, nor did she have the faintest idea how to go about Mother's latest pet project, commissioning a new stainedglass window. The best solution was to avoid the meeting altogether.
"I prefer to walk." She proceeded down the steps and away from the car.
"Now is not the time to show your independence, child." Mother pressed a handkerchief to her forehead. "If only you could have inherited my good sense."
"Eugenia," Daddy warned.
Mother ignored him as always. "Felicity, come here. You are giving me a headache."
Daddy paused at the driver's door, walrus mustache bristling and linen jacket unbuttoned. "A walk'll do her good, Eugenia. Get a little color in her cheeks. Want to make a good impression on the new pastor."
Forget the pastor. Felicity had set her sights on the engineer.
Daddy started the car and put it into gear before Mother gathered wind for the next protest, but as the Packard lurched forward, she found her voice. "Don't be late. Sophie Grattan will hold it over my head forever."
Her plea trailed off as the car rolled down the driveway, leaving Felicity in wondrous calm. The birds chattered. Ms. Priss crouched beneath a sugar maple, intent on a pair of cardinals who scolded and stayed well out of reach.
She had fortyfive minutes until the train arrived, plenty of time to get to the depot before Sally Neidecker and the rest of the girls. The way they'd twittered about Mr. Blevins all week was sickening.
She strolled down the hill through Kensington Estates, passing the Neidecker home with its quaint Victorian gingerbread and the Williams's squat prairiestyle house. At the junction of Elm and Main, motorcars mixed with the occasional horse and buggy, and the wood sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians. If Daddy had his way with the city council, the street would be paved by autumn.
Mr. Neidecker's PierceArrow glided past, and she realized Daddy might drive by and catch her before she reached the train station. She quickened her step and passed the drugstore with scarcely a glance in the windows. The early summer heat dampened her brow and made her feel a bit lightheaded, but she had to hurry.
She checked the clock on city hall. Threeten. Daddy would have left Mother at the church by now and headed for the station. If he spotted her, he'd cart her back to the church, but if he didn't see her until after the train arrived, it would be too late, and she would have her Mr. Blevins.
"Good aft'noon." Dennis Allington, the depot manager, crossed the street in front of her.
She nodded slightly and hurried on. She should have taken State Road instead. It was longer and dustier, but Daddy would never have driven the Packard through those potholes.
"Felicity? I'm surprised to see you here." Mrs. Grattan stepped out of Kensington Mercantile and stopped directly in front of her. Ruddy and heavyjowled, she epitomized the farm wife. Her thick arms could strangle a goose or birth a calf. "Aren't you going to the meeting?"
Felicity stalled. She'd never considered what to say if she met a society member, and Mrs. Grattan always managed to terrify her. Lowering her eyelids, she shrank behind the polite facade preached at Highbury.
"Please inform my mother that I may be a little late."
"Late?" Mrs. Grattan clucked her tongue. "With the new minister coming?"
Felicity gritted her teeth behind an artificial smile. Mrs. Grattan and her husband acted like they held the patent on righteousness, as if owning a dairy farm and a halfdozen delivery trucks made them moral authorities.
"My Eloise can hardly wait to meet him," Mrs. Grattan stated.
Felicity's smile faded. "Eloise is attending?" The eldest Grattan girl never went to society meetings.
"Of course." Mrs. Grattan acted like it was obvious that Eloise, still unwed at twentyfour, would be there.
With a start, Felicity remembered one key fact about the new pastor. Pearlman wasn't welcoming just one bachelor into town today; it was welcoming two. Well, as far as she was concerned, Eloise Grattan could have weaselly, pockfaced Reverend Meeks.
"Wish her luck." She giggled at the thought of the bovine Eloise standing beside a miserly Reverend Meeks.
Mrs. Grattan's eyes narrowed to dots. "No woman can do better than a man of God, Felicity Kensington."
Felicity cringed. "I didn't mean " she began, but Mrs. Grattan turned away with a harrumph and stalked toward the church.
Discombobulated, Felicity took a few steps in the wrong direction. Then to her horror, she spied Daddy's Packard coming down Main Street. Oh, no. He couldn't see her. Not yet. She looked for an escape and, seeing as she was nearly out of time, slipped into Kensington Mercantile.
The little bell above the door tinkled as she entered, and the clerk, one of the younger Billingsley brothers, nodded at her before returning his attention to Mrs. Evans. Felicity walked just far enough inside so Daddy wouldn't spy her and pretended to examine the contents of the display case.
Since her brother, Blake, had taken over managing Daddy's store, they stocked plain, useful goods that anyone in Pearlman could afford. The few luxuries on hand were displayed in the locked glass display case atop the long oaken counter. A cloisonne jewelry box, scrimshaw ivory pipe, sterling vanity box, pocket watches, assorted pendants and rings and a red leather satchel nestled on royal blue satin. A small sign noted that the satchel was perfect for the university student.
"May I help you decide?" The warm, masculine voice flowed over her like melted chocolate.
Felicity sought the source of that rich baritone and was surprised to find a man perhaps three years older than her, certainly no more than twentyfive. She'd never seen him in town before. Unruly brown curls went unchecked by comb or hat, and his shirtsleeves had been rolled up like a common worker's. His eyes sparkled in a most unnerving way, and his smile suggested mischief.
That smile could disarm the most hardened woman, and Felicity was no exception. She stared at the merchandise as she struggled to regain her composure. "Do you work here?" She didn't recall Blake saying he'd hired anyone new.
"No, but I thought I might help." His reflection in the mirrored back of the case proved just as potent as the real thing, and she prayed he didn't notice the pink hue creeping up her cheeks.
"I don't require any assistance."
He took the hint and stepped away, but she couldn't help watching him in the mirror. First he scanned the nearby bookshelf and then perused the dress goods. A man buying fabric? She couldn't resist a peek. The man strolled back to the books and picked up the volume of Coleridge that had been on the shelf for years. What common worker read poetry?
He looked up, and his eyes met hers. "Are you sure I can't help?"
"No." She jerked her gaze back to the display case. "No, thank you." If she stood in just the right place, she could see him in the mirror. One curl fell across his forehead as he studied the volume. She caught her breath. He was handsome.
Oh, dear. He closed the book and headed her way.
"I don't think anything here will do." She darted a panicked glance out the window. Daddy must have driven past by now.
"There are a lot of fine things here." The man stood so close that her skin tingled.
"Are you certain you don't work here?" Her voice squeaked like a schoolgirl asked to her first dance. She swallowed and tried again. "You sound like a salesman."
"I suppose I am, in a manner of speaking." His lips quirked into a semismile, and a tremor shook her. What was wrong with her?
"II should be going." She stepped into the welcome breeze from an electric fan. The train would be arriving at any moment. "I need to leave."
"But we haven't even met." He extended a hand.
She stared. If she shook his hand, she'd lose all control. Leave, and everyone would know he'd affected her. She chose the lesser of the two evils and dashed for the door. Unfortunately, her hip caught the corner of a table and jostled the display of canned rhubarb.
"Excuse me," she said too loudly as she stilled the wobbling jars.
Mrs. Evans stared. Josh Billingsley snickered. She didn't even want to know what the stranger thought.
Without a glance back, she yanked open the door and rushed out into the heat of the afternoon, glad to hear the soft shwooft of the door settling shut behind her. After looking up and down Main Street, she spotted Daddy's Packard parked in front of the bank. She'd never had to go into the mercantile at all. If only she'd walked on. If only she'd kept her composure.
A lady always remembers her station and acts accordingly. Mother had drilled the rules for ladylike behavior into her from childhood. Yet she'd forgotten every single one when she needed them most. She should have politely excused herself. She should never have engaged in such personal conversation, but he flustered her so that she couldn't think straight.
Oh, dear. What had she done? And Robert Blevins was due at any moment. She fanned her face with her handbag. He couldn't see her blushing over another man.
The clock on city hall read nearly threethirty. The train would arrive at any moment. Felicity hurried toward the depot, perspiration trickling between her shoulder blades and her head buzzing.
Soon the businesses gave way to bungalows with bare yards and unpainted fences. This was the poor part of town where people like the Simmonses lived.
She yelped as the stranger from the mercantile planted himself before her. "Why are you following me?" She ducked around him. "I don't want to buy anything." She hurried on, hoping he'd leave her alone.
He didn't. "I'm sorry I startled you. I thought you heard me." He matched her pace. "I've been calling out for you since you left the store."
"Well, I'm not interested in whatever you have to sell. Good day, sir." She strode as fast as she could, but he easily kept up.
"I'm not selling anything. I wondered if this might be yours." He held up an envelopean ivory vellum envelope.
She halted. The National Academy letter. She must have dropped it in the store. The man wasn't harassing her; he was trying to return her letter.