Visit Paula Martin's BWL Author page to purchase her novel
A Family’s Secrets
Follow Your Heart Book 1
Part 1 Liverpool, 1844
Betsy Roberts shivered and pulled her black woollen shawl tighter around her shoulders. She didn’t dare to run for fear of slipping on the icy cobbles, and glanced around apprehensively after passing the dim streetlamp near the pawn shop.
Earlier in the evening, the dark street, with its long terrace of grimy houses, would have been thronged with dock labourers and shipyard workers. Now it was deserted. Everyone had rushed home or to one of the ale houses to escape the bitter cold of this January evening.
She breathed a sigh of relief when the faint light from the window of Dottie Hughes’ corner shop provided a welcome break in the darkness. A second later, someone lunged at her from the narrow alleyway leading to the overcrowded and squalid Myrtle Court.
Alarm jolted though her as he grabbed her arms, held them in a vice-tight grip, and yanked her against him. He reeked of beer and sweat, and she struggled to free herself.
‘Aww, come on,’ he growled.
Fright gave way to terror, and she forced her hands up to his shoulders, pushing with all her strength. ‘No! Let go of me!’
Twisting her head from side to side, she searched for an escape from the slobbering mouth trying to kiss her. Her scream came out as a croak, and the man continued to thrust against her.
‘Oh, dear God, no,’ she whimpered.
Confused memories raced through her mind…six months ago…Mary Ann Stanley…dragged into Rigby Court…raped and strangled.
Despite being rigid with fear, she summoned up enough strength to call out, ‘Help! Help! Someone – please help—’
A man’s voice, calm and authoritative, broke into her panic: ‘Let the lady go, Charlie. Charlie, let her go!’
She almost fell backwards when her rescuer hauled the man away from her. One of his hands grasped her arm to stop her from falling; his other hand held her assailant by the collar of his scruffy jacket.
‘Go home, Charlie. Go home to yer mam now, there’s a good lad.’ The man shoved Charlie in the direction of the narrow alley between the tall houses, waited until he staggered off into the darkness, and said, ‘Did he hurt you, miss?’
‘No, but he–he scared me.’ Betsy hastened to straighten her felt bonnet which had been knocked askew in the struggle and dragged her shawl around her shoulders again. Her heart thumped against her ribs, and the man still held her arm, but she managed to bob a small curtsey. ‘Thank you, sir. I’m ever so grateful to you.’
‘What’s goin’ on out here?’
Betsy turned at the sound of a woman’s voice. Dottie Hughes stood in the doorway of her shop, her arms folded across her bosom.
‘It was Charlie Moore, Mam,’ her rescuer said. ‘He was drunk again and scaring this young lady out of her wits.’ He looked down at her. ‘Come inside the shop to compose yourself, miss.’
‘I-I don’t want to be any trouble.’
‘No trouble at all. Besides, you’re shaking.’
Betsy realised her trembling legs wouldn’t carry her more than a couple of steps once the man released his hold on her arm. ‘Th-thank you. I would like to sit down for a few minutes. If it’s convenient, I mean.’
‘Mam, put the kettle on,’ he called. ‘The young lady needs a good strong cuppa to help her recover.’
She let him lead her into the shop, sank down on the wooden chair next to the counter, and gripped the sides of the seat tightly in an effort to stop shaking. Dottie disappeared through the curtained doorway behind the counter, and after the man closed the shop door, she had her first proper look at him in the flickering light from the wall-mounted oil lamps.
Since he’d called Dottie ‘Mam’, he was obviously one of her two sons.
‘Both of them mariners,’ Dottie always said proudly. ‘They get their love of the sea from my pa. Sailed all over the world, he did.’
This son was tall, and nearer to thirty than twenty, she guessed. He was clean-shaven apart from dark side-whiskers which reached to about an inch below his earlobes, and he wore a navy-blue jacket with two rows of brass buttons, and a loosely knotted white cravat. When he removed his woollen peaked cap and dropped it on the counter, his thick, wavy hair fell forward, half covering his broad forehead.
Her stomach performed a weird kind of contraction as she studied his handsome features, and an even weirder jerk when he gave her a reassuring smile.
‘I hope you’re recovering from your fright, Miss—uh?’
‘Roberts. Elizabeth Roberts – but everyone calls me Betsy.’
The man inclined his head. ‘And I’m John Hughes. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Roberts, despite the – uh, unfortunate circumstances.’
Her trembling eased now she was in the safety of Dottie’s well-stocked grocery store, and she ventured a question. ‘That man – Charlie – do you know him?’
‘I’ve known him since we were children. He’s a couple of years younger than me, and despite how it must have appeared, he’s quite harmless. Just a bit simple in the head, if you understand me.’
‘Yes, but he—’ Betsy stopped when the heat rose to her cheeks. Modesty prevented her from finding the words to describe his crude actions.
John nodded, and she was grateful for his recognition of her embarrassment. ‘Charlie has no understanding of the rules of acceptable behaviour,’ he said, ‘and, unfortunately, less so when he’s drunk too much ale. He is – how can I explain it? – he’s like a child in a man’s body.’
‘I blame Tom Murphy,’ grunted Dottie as she returned to the shop.
Her buxom figure was encased in a black crepe dress, even though she’d been a widow for well over five years, and she had a round, motherly face beneath a white lace cap. Her son, Betsy decided, must take after his father, since his face was longer, with a well-defined chin and jawline.
Dottie carried a tray with a teapot, cups, jug, and sugar bowl, and placed it on the counter. ‘Tom should have more sense than to serve him more than two pints, but of course he doesn’t care so long as Charlie’s got the money to pay for them.’
‘Especially on a Saturday evening when he knows Charlie has his week’s wages in his pocket,’ John added.
Dottie huffed as she poured tea into the cups. ‘I don’t know how his mam copes with him, I really don’t. Anyhow, do you like milk and sugar with your tea, Betsy?’
Betsy nodded. ‘Just milk, please.’
John’s eyes widened. ‘Are you acquainted with Miss Roberts, Mam?’
‘’Course I am. She and her friend Jane often pop in here on their way home from work.’ Dottie frowned. ‘Ye’re very late tonight, Betsy.’
‘I stayed to finish an urgent order, a silk blouse for Lady Molyneux, but it took longer than I expected because of all the frills around the cuffs.’ She smiled as Dottie handed a cup of tea to her. ‘Thank you.’
‘You make sure you get paid for yer overtime then.’ Dottie passed another cup to her son and tutted as she shook her head. ‘You shouldn’t be expected to walk home alone at this time, neither. It’s nearly ten o’clock.’
Betsy sipped the strong, hot tea. ‘I was more scared of slipping on the ice than being – um – accosted. That’s never happened before. The men drinking outside Murphy’s Bar sometimes yell bawdy things, but Jane and I just laugh and tell them to shut up.’
‘Where’s Jane tonight?’ Dottie asked.
‘She offered to stay late to help, but Miss Latham said she wanted me to finish the blouse because – well, because Jane tends to rush things and make mistakes.’
John raised his eyebrows. ‘Honora Latham? The old dragon?’
Betsy stifled a giggle. ‘That’s what we sometimes call her. In private, of course.’ She took another sip of her tea before quickly defending her employer. ‘But she’s trained me well, and I’d rather work as a seamstress than a scullery maid like our Annie. It’d drive me mad, scrubbing kitchen floors and tables all day long for a bad-tempered cook.’
John tilted his head as he studied her. ‘Does Miss Latham treat you well, Miss Roberts? I believe she is extremely strict with her workers.’
Betsy looked directly at him. ‘She has high standards, Mr. Hughes, but I have no quarrel with that, because so have I.’
‘And are you a good seamstress?’
She held his gaze steadily, despite her uncertainty about the expression in his dark eyes. Was he mocking her? ‘I do my best, and I think I am, sir.’
‘’Course she is,’ Dottie said, ‘else why would Miss Lah-di-dah Latham ask her to stitch a blouse for Her Ladyship?’
John drank some more of his tea before saying, ‘Do you take orders?’
‘Orders?’ Betsy frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, are your stitching skills limited to Miss Latham’s workshop, or do you make clothes in your own time? Dresses and so on?’
‘I’ve made dresses for myself and my sisters, and I buy jackets, shirts, and trousers from the rag man and alter them to fit my brothers.’ After gulping the last mouthful of her tea, she put the cup back on the saucer. ‘Anyhow, I’ve taken up enough of your time, Dottie, but thank you for the tea. And thank you for rescuing me, Mr. Hughes. I must go home now. Mam will be worried about me being so late.’
As she stood, John reached for his cap. ‘Allow me to escort you, Miss Roberts.’
‘Oh!’ Her heart fluttered with unexpected excitement. In the next second, she told herself he was only being gentlemanly, and shook her head. ‘Thank you, but that really isn’t necessary. I’m sure I won’t have any further problems.’
‘I insist,’ he said, in a tone which brooked no argument. Pushing back his hair from his forehead, he fixed his cap on his head, held open the shop door for her, and turned to his mother. ‘I’ll probably be back in Liverpool on Wednesday morning, Mam. Depends on the weather, of course.’
Dottie nodded. ‘Aye. Take care, son.’
When they stepped into the street, Betsy knew her inner trembling wasn’t due to the icy weather or her earlier fright. It was caused solely by the tall figure, who moved protectively to her right-hand side when the night-soil man’s horse and cart rumbled past them. Holding her breath against the stench until the cart continued further along the street, it occurred to her that Ned Tanner would never think to shield her from any passing cart when she walked out with him. But Ned was just a timber yard labourer, not a gentleman like John Hughes.
It took a minute or so before her eyes adjusted to the darkness, during which neither of them spoke. Feeling stupidly tongue-tied, she racked her brain for something sensible to say.
‘Are you sailing—?’
‘Where do you—?’
They both started at the same time, but as Betsy glanced around, intending to apologise and let John ask his question first, the sole of her boot skidded on a patch of ice. Involuntarily, she gripped the side of his jacket. Her sudden movement caused him to slip too. He flailed his arms wildly and shot one arm around her back, dragging at her shawl as he fought to recover his balance.
Once they regained their equilibrium, Betsy couldn’t stop herself from dissolving into giggles when she realised how comical they must both have appeared. ‘It’s very slippy, isn’t it, Mr. Hughes?’
A deep guffaw broke from him, and for a few moments they faced each other, both shaking with laughter. Despite the freezing air which condensed their breaths into clouds, a hot flame raced through Betsy’s veins.
Eventually, John coughed to control himself, but smiled as he tilted his head in acknowledgement. ‘Miss Roberts, I applaud you for your profound statement. You’re correct, it is very slippy, so unless we both want to end up sprawling inelegantly on the road, I suggest—’ He raised her arm to link it through his. ‘I suggest we offer each other some mutual support.’
Betsy’s heart danced as he held her close to him, and they continued carefully across Frederick Street toward the dye factory.
‘I think, before our recent antics on the ice, I was about to ask where you live,’ John said.
‘In Manor Street, near the timber yard.’
‘I know it. And what was your question?’
‘My question?’ Walking arm-in-arm with him was befuddling her brain, and she struggled to remember. ‘Oh yes, I was going to ask whether you were sailing tonight.’
‘No, but I have to supervise a delivery of coal at six in the morning, so I’ll spend the night at my lodging house. It’s less than three minutes’ walk from the Prince’s Dock where Mona’s Isle is moored.’
‘Mona’s Isle? The Isle of Man boat?’
‘Yes, indeed. A fast and handsome vessel, and the first of the company’s ships to be awarded the Royal Mail Warrant.’
‘Have you always worked for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company?’ she ventured.
‘I’ve been with them for about six years.’
She wanted to ask him more, but after passing the dye factory, they turned into Barlow Street where Ned Tanner lived, and she tensed. Ned’s grandmother, old Ma Tanner, usually sat by the front window – and she was renowned for being a gossip. What if she saw Betsy with a strange man? It would be all over the neighbourhood by tomorrow, and then what would Ned say?
Come to think of it, why was she walking arm-in-arm with John Hughes? She’d only met him about an hour ago. Nineteen-year-old girls didn’t walk out with complete strangers. At least, not girls like her, who’d been brought up to protect their reputations.
Yet, strangely, she felt so comfortable, so relaxed – so right, somehow.
‘Speaking of the Isle of Man, I have a favour to ask you.’
John’s voice diverted her from the problem of Ned and his grandmother, and she raised her eyebrows. ‘A favour?’
‘Do you recall me asking if you took orders for your sewing?’
‘Yes, but I’ve only made clothes for my family and sometimes for friends. However, I’m sure Miss Latham would be only too pleased to—’
John waved his free hand dismissively. ‘I’m not interested in the likes of Honora Latham, who pays her workers a pittance and keeps the rest for herself. I’ll wager Lady Molyneux is paying her considerably more than you’ll earn for stitching her blouse. But, to come to the point, I have a friend – a lady in Douglas Town – who has been badly let down by two dressmakers on the island, and is seeking a seamstress here in Liverpool. Would you be interested? She is willing to pay well for quality work.’
Betsy blinked several times as her mind raced. Occasionally, she’d dreamed the impossible dream of having her own clientele, like Miss Latham had, and of designing and making silk and satin dresses for those rich enough to afford them. It would be so tempting to agree to John’s request, but her practical instinct surfaced.
‘I would be interested, but—’ she gave him a wry smile ‘—I’m not sure how I would make a dress for someone who lives on an island in the middle of the Irish Sea. You see, Miss Latham insists on measuring her clients very carefully to ensure the best possible fit for their garments.’
John chuckled. ‘I doubt Eleanor would appreciate me offering to take her measurements, but she did anticipate the problem of employing a dressmaker in Liverpool rather than one at home. Her suggestion was to send one of her dresses, one whose fit she is happy with. Would that help?’
As they passed the Tanner house, Betsy kept her face turned to John in the hope that anyone looking through the window wouldn’t recognise her.
‘Yes, it would be useful, but won’t your friend want to see an example of my work before she trusts me with an order?’
‘My dear Miss Roberts, once I tell her you have made a garment for Lady Isabella Molyneux, she will trust you implicitly. In fact, I can almost hear her now, boasting to all her friends that her new seamstress works for the aristocracy.’
Betsy laughed. ‘I think that might be a slight exaggeration.’
‘It will make her happy.’
When they reached the corner of Manor Street, she halted. Although unwilling to end this agreeable interlude with John Hughes, she was reluctant to have him accompany her to the house. Too many questions would be asked, especially if Pa opened the door and realised John was a mariner. He had strongly voiced and usually offensive opinions of the hordes of sailors who frequented the dockland ale houses and brothels, and had warned her many times to stay away from them.
She gave John a tentative smile. ‘Thank you for escorting me, Mr. Hughes, but it’s late, and I’m sure you’ll want to proceed to your lodging house.’
He glanced past her along the narrow street and frowned. ‘I’m concerned you might slip again.’
‘I’ll be careful, I assure you.’ She released her arm from his. ‘If you continue down here past the timber yard, and turn right, you’ll reach the wharf. Goodnight, Mr. Hughes, and thank you again.’
‘In that case, I’ll bid you goodnight, Miss Roberts. It has been a real pleasure to meet you.’
Betsy’s heart raced as she picked her way cautiously on the icy cobbles. When she reached the front door, she paused before opening it, and peered toward the end of the street. To her surprise, she could still see the white of John’s cravat, and a jolt of pleasure shot through her. He’d waited to ensure she got home safely.
It didn’t mean anything, she told herself quickly. It was simply what a gentleman did – unlike Ned, who invariably left her at the end of the street with a casual, ‘Ta-ra, luv. See yer tomorrow,’ and carried on to his own home.
Regret surged through her. It was unlikely she’d ever meet John Hughes again, despite his inquiry about her sewing skills. He was simply making polite conversation. Besides, he’d mentioned a lady friend in the Isle of Man.
Why, then, did she feel as if he had ignited something inside her – a small spark of attraction which would be difficult to extinguish?
Betsy lay awake for what seemed like hours that night. Countless times she let herself recall every minute of her encounter with John Hughes. Small tremors skittered through her as she recalled the pressure of his hand on her arm when he rescued her, the intense gaze in his dark eyes in the shop, and their shared laughter after they slipped on the ice. Even more indelibly etched in her memory was the walk home, with her arm linked through his, and her heart racing at the warmth from his body and the attractive timbre of his deep voice.
No matter how often she told herself he had probably not given her another thought, she clung to the hope that his interest in her sewing skills might lead to another meeting with him. He’d told his mother he would be back in Liverpool on Wednesday – so should she call into Dottie’s shop to see if he had left any message for her about his friend’s dress? Or would that seem impertinent? She didn’t want him – or his mother, either – to think she was too forward.
The dilemma continued to occupy her mind.
On Sunday morning, snow fell from leaden skies for a couple of hours and settled in a white blanket. Only about two inches, but enough to soften the harshness of the soot-blackened streets and houses in this dockland area of the busy port.
Betsy leaned against the frame of the front door, keeping an eye on three-year-old Martha, who slithered uncertainly in the snow. Her other young siblings, Will, Sally and Janey ran around the street, shrieking and laughing as they threw snowballs at each other and at the neighbours’ children who also came out to play.
Later, Harry, her seventeen-year-old brother, joined in the fun when Ned Tanner arrived with a rough wooden sled. They took turns in pulling the excited youngsters to the end of the street and back, until Betsy called them inside for bowls of potato soup, which her mother had heated in the cast-iron pot on the range.
Ned slurped his soup noisily and grinned at her. ‘Want a walk in the park this afternoon, Bet? I reckon it’ll look real pretty in this snow.’
Relieved that his grandmother hadn’t seen her with John the previous evening, otherwise Ned would have demanded who, what and why, Betsy gave an apologetic shrug. ‘Sorry, Ned, but I’ll be needed to help with washing and drying clothes. Sally and Janey were soaked to the skin after their snowball fights, and Will has split his pants, so I’ll have to mend them.’
She was glad she had an excuse. Although she and Ned sometimes walked to the park or along the river to Dingle beach, they weren’t officially ‘courting’, whatever the busybody neighbours, including his grandmother, might think.
She’d known him since they were children; their mothers had once lived next door to each other, and their fathers worked as shipwrights at Royden’s yard near the King’s Dock. Eighteen months older than her, with straight, fair hair and baby blue eyes in a round face, Ned was more like a brother than a suitor or future husband. She’d told him as much last summer when he tried to kiss her one evening when they’d been to a band concert in the newly opened Prince’s Park. After a short period of awkwardness between them, they resumed their casual friendship, though she suspected Ned still hoped she might eventually change her mind.
Henry, her pa, made no secret of his approval. ‘He’s a good lad,’ he once said. ‘Better than those damned sailors who are here today and gone tomorrow. Mebbe he’s not the sharpest knife in the box, but he has a steady job at the timber yard. You could do a lot worse, Betsy.’
Sarah, her mother, had been more cautionary. ‘You make up your own mind, love. That’s what I should have done, but my pa – your grandpa Catterall – wouldn’t allow it.’
‘Wouldn’t allow it?’ Betsy asked. ‘What do you mean?’
Sarah shrugged. ‘Henry wasn’t my choice. He was the man Pa chose for me.’ When Betsy’s jaw dropped, she went on, ‘Oh, we rub along all right, even though he can be cantankerous and pig-headed, and you know yerself how he won’t ever admit to being wrong about anything. But he’s a skilled carpenter and works hard, I’ll give him that, and he only goes to the Peacock twice a week with George Tanner, not like those who get drunk every night. That’s why he can afford the rent for this house, so we don’t have to live in a cramped room in those courts off Frederick Street, but sometimes I wonder—’
‘Wonder what?’ Betsy prompted when her mother stopped.
Flustered, Sarah wiped her hands on her apron. ‘Nothing. Forget it. Except – well, best advice I can give you is to listen to yer heart and pay no mind to what anyone else says.’
Betsy had mulled over her words and hoped her own heart would give her the right answers when the time came.
* * *
The next morning, the snow had melted into grey slush, and Betsy and her friend Jane Knowles, who lived further along Manor Street, held up their woollen skirts as they stepped carefully over the slimy cobbles and avoided the scum-surfaced puddles on their way to work.
‘Did you finish Her Ladyship’s blouse on Saturday?’ Jane asked.
‘I did, but you’ll never guess what happened when I was walking home.’
By the time they reached Miss Latham’s house, Betsy had given Jane a full account of the Saturday evening’s events, and Jane’s eyes lit up.
‘You’ve taken a real liking to John Hughes, haven’t you?’
Betsy blushed. ‘Of course not.’
‘Yes, you have. You go red every time you say his name.’
‘I do not.’ She gave her friend a sheepish grin. ‘All right, maybe I do, but it’s not every day a gentleman escorts you home.’
‘Betsy, he’s a sailor.’
‘But he’s not like those drunken jacks who hang around outside Murphy’s.’
‘You mean he’s a captain or something?’
‘I didn’t ask him. All I know is he works for the Isle of Man company.’ With a small grimace, she went on, ‘And you can stop getting any daft ideas in your head, because he has a lady friend on the island.’
‘And he asked you about making a dress for her.’
‘He didn’t suggest meeting again, so I doubt I’ll hear any more about it.’
Jane thought for a moment. ‘You said he told his mam he’d be back here on Wednesday, didn’t you? So let’s visit Dottie’s shop that evening and then you can ask to speak to John.’
Betsy gaped at her. ‘I couldn’t come straight out with a question like that! It wouldn’t be – ye know, seemly, would it?’
Jane giggled as she pushed open the front door of Miss Latham’s three-storey house on Frederick Street. ‘You could say it was a business matter. No need to tell her you’ve fallen in love with him.’
‘Now you’re being silly. You don’t fall in love with someone when you’ve only known them for about an hour.’
Betsy was relieved she was behind Jane as they climbed the steep stairs to the top floor workshop. At least her friend couldn’t see the tell-tale blush which rose to her cheeks.
* * *
By late afternoon on Wednesday, Betsy was still in a quandary about what she should do. Mona’s Isle had probably returned to Liverpool on the morning tide, but she doubted she could be bold enough to ask Dottie about John. On the other hand, unless he’d been very observant on Saturday evening, he might not remember which house she’d stopped outside. After all, it had been dark, and all the houses in the long terrace looked the same, so how would he be able to contact her again? Always assuming he hadn’t completely forgotten about her, of course.
Miss Latham’s stern voice broke into her thoughts. ‘Roberts, this stitching is uneven. Unpick it and do it again.’
Betsy’s heart sank when the linen sleeve was tossed onto the large table around which the six seamstresses sat. The other girls kept their heads down as she looked up at the steely grey eyes of her employer with a suitably apologetic expression. ‘Yes, Miss Latham. I’m sorry, Miss Latham.’
She started to unpick the seam, but as soon as Miss Latham bent to inspect the work of one of the other seamstresses, Jane nudged her.
‘Are we going to Dottie’s shop?’ she mouthed.
Betsy cast a cautious eye at Miss Latham’s back and shook her head. ‘I don’t know,’ she mouthed back.
She yanked the last piece of thread from the rejected seam, suppressing a small sigh as she re-pinned it and tried to concentrate on her sewing.
At seven o’clock, with the seam re-done to Miss Latham’s satisfaction, Betsy followed Jane down the stairs and into the dark street.
‘One stitch out of line, and I have to unpick the whole bloomin’ thing,’ she grumbled.
‘It’s not like you to make mistakes,’ Jane said and grinned. ‘I’m guessing you were distracted by other matters. Like a certain mariner returning to Liverpool?’
‘I keep changing my mind about what to do.’ Taking a deep breath, Betsy made a decision. ‘Perhaps we could stop off at Dottie’s, like you suggested. I’ve enough money for two ounces of tea, so that’s a good enough reason to go into the shop, isn’t it? And then – well, I might have a chance to say how grateful I was to John for rescuing me from Charlie Moore. That would be better than asking if he’s back in Liverpool. What do you think?’
Jane tucked her arm through Betsy’s. ‘Perfect.’
When they approached the dim light from the window of Dottie’s corner shop, Betsy’s heart quickened. She tried to tell herself that John was unlikely to be there, but admitted she’d be disappointed if he wasn’t.
The metal bell above the door clanged as they entered the shop. Dottie was serving Mrs. Mills, the vicar’s wife, but looked up from wrapping a wedge of cheese.
‘Ah, it’s you, Betsy,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you stopped by, because my son has a package for you. John!’ she called over her shoulder.
Betsy gave Jane a startled glance, while Dottie handed the cheese wedge to Mrs. Mills. Seconds later, her heart jerked when a tall figure emerged through the curtained doorway behind the counter.
A begrimed twill apron covered John’s white shirt which was collarless and open at the neck. His sleeves were rolled up above his elbows, and the sight of his strong, muscled forearms sent all her senses spinning.
‘What is it, Mam?’ he said, before his eyes widened. ‘Oh!’
Hastily, he pulled his leather braces from his arms up to his shoulders. ‘My apologies, ladies.’ A smile lit up his face. ‘Miss Roberts, I’m more than delighted to see you again.’
Betsy’s cheeks heated, but she let her gaze meet John’s dark eyes. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you again too, Mr. Hughes.’
Dottie’s voice interrupted her confused thoughts. ‘Here’s yer change, Mrs. Mills. I hope you and the Reverend enjoy the cheese.’
‘I’m sure we will. Thank you, Dottie.’
After Mrs. Mills left the shop, John grinned at his mother. ‘Sorry, Mam. I didn’t forget my manners, but I doubt the vicar’s wife would want to soil her glove by shaking my hand.’ He chuckled as he held up his hands, the palms of which were black, and winked at Betsy. ‘I’ve been black-leading the fireplace.’
Dottie nodded. ‘Aye, Kitty Nugent, who cleans for me, never does it properly, and my knees won’t let me do it now,’ she explained to Betsy and Jane, and turned to her son. ‘D’you want me to fetch the parcel you’ve brought for Betsy, John?’
‘No, no, just give me a minute to wash my hands.’
After he disappeared through the curtained doorway, Dottie tilted her head. ‘You may as well go through there, Betsy.’
Betsy raised her eyebrows. ‘Are you sure?’
‘’Course I am. Get along with you. We don’t stand on no ceremony here.’
‘I’ll wait here and keep Dottie company,’ Jane said.
Her heart pounding against her ribs, Betsy made her way around the counter and past the curtain into Dottie’s parlour. The prospect of being alone with John Hughes excited and unnerved her at the same time.
Betsy gazed around Dottie’s parlour in awe. It boasted wallpaper with green leaves on a lighter green background – a complete contrast to her own home, where the whitewash paint on bare plaster was stained by smoke from the fireplace. Not that much of Dottie’s wallpaper was visible, since wood-framed paintings of ships, landscapes, and flowers covered most of the walls.
A heavy oak dresser held an impressive array of china plates and cups, glassware, and even some silverware, and next to the window was a polished drop-leaf table with an ornate brass oil lamp. Two armchairs flanked the cast iron fireplace, one covered in dark green velour, the other in worn brown leather.
The mantelshelf above the fire was cluttered with polished wood carvings of animals and other strange objects. She couldn’t move closer to inspect them because of the cotton sheet in front of the fire with an assortment of cleaning materials: a bucket of water, several brushes and cloths, and a block of black-lead.
Trying to picture John kneeling there, she spun around when he said, ‘Oh! Miss Roberts, I didn’t expect—’
She rushed to explain. ‘Your mother said it was all right for me to come in here.’
‘Yes – yes, of course it is.’
After a momentary silence, she glanced down at the gleaming grate and smiled. ‘I’m impressed by your cleaning, Mr. Hughes. My father wouldn’t have the first idea how to black-lead a fireplace.’
John returned her smile as he dried his hands on a cloth. ‘I’m a mariner, Miss Roberts. We can turn our hands to many things, from mending a boiler to stitching a torn sail, although I doubt my sewing skills would match yours. Speaking of which—’
He dropped the cloth on the table and leaned down behind the leather armchair. Picking up a bulky parcel, wrapped in waxed brown paper, he balanced it on the top of the chair back. ‘Eleanor says this contains a dress, a length of material, and other accessories. She mentioned buttons and braiding, but I forget what else.’
Betsy stared at the parcel while conflicting thoughts raced through her mind. Her pleasure that John had remembered mingled with a sense of disquiet about this Eleanor, whoever she was, but overriding everything was panic. She raised her head to face him as she voiced her most urgent concern. ‘Does the lady want the dress to be the same style as the one she has sent?’
‘The dress is simply to give you an idea of her measurements, and I understand she has enclosed an illustration from a ladies’ magazine she received from her sister in London. Will that suffice?’
‘I – yes, I think so.’
John smiled. ‘There is no need for anxiety, Miss Roberts. Eleanor said she would like “something similar”, which I take to mean she does not require an exact replica of the illustration.’
‘I will study it carefully. Did the lady say when she requires the garment to be finished?’
‘I explained how you work long hours and would be making this one in your own time, and she understands that.’ His eyebrows lifted. ‘How long does it take to make a dress?’
‘It depends on the style. A simple cotton dress may take only a day or so at Miss Latham’s, with several of us working on it. A more elaborate silk dress with frills and decorative stitching will take longer, of course. Especially in winter.’
‘Winter? Why?’ The furrow on John’s brow cleared. ‘Ah, because there are fewer hours of daylight?’
‘Yes. I will need to work in the evenings, and the flickering light from a candle limits how much I can do before my eyes become tired. Sewing is so much easier in the lighter summer evenings.’
‘I understand, so please don’t feel under any pressure to complete this dress.’ John hesitated. ‘Now I should offer to carry this parcel home for you but—’ he glanced down at his grubby apron, and inspected a black smudge on his shirt sleeve ‘—I need some time to make myself more presentable.’
‘Please don’t concern yourself on my account, Mr. Hughes. I’m sure Jane and I can carry the parcel between us.’
As soon as she said the words, she wanted to kick herself. She’d just talked herself out of having John as an escort again.
He nodded. ‘I assume Jane is the young lady who was with you in the shop.’
‘Yes, we live in the same street.’
Was it her imagination or did disappointment flicker across his face?
She went on quickly, ‘Once I’ve seen the style of the dress, I’ll be able to give you a better idea of when I can complete it.’ Realising what she had implied, she corrected herself. ‘I mean, I can leave a message with your mother.’
‘Yes – yes, indeed, but—’ He studied her for a long moment, and went on, ‘But I was wondering if – if I may call on you?’
Betsy’s heart missed a beat and heat flooded her cheeks. ‘Call on me?’
‘I was – uh – I was thinking – hoping – we might walk together in the park or along the river next Sunday? If the weather is suitable, and if you are agreeable, of course.’
Now her heart thumped rapidly. ‘Yes, but—’
‘But?’ he prompted, with a small frown.
She had no alternative but to come straight out with it. ‘I’m afraid my father has a low regard for sailors.’
To her surprise, John chuckled. ‘He is a man of sound judgement, Miss Roberts.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘You disapprove of your fellow mariners?’
‘Not all, no, of course not. But, unfortunately, the behaviour of some reflects on us all, and I would not like to incur your father’s displeasure. Perhaps I should ask his permission to – shall we say, to become better acquainted with you?’
The delight which skittered through her at his words was followed by alarm as she imagined Pa’s reaction. ‘I-I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’
‘What about you?’ His dark brown eyes met hers. ‘Do you think my suggestion is a good idea? That we might become better acquainted?’
She struggled to breathe normally, and eventually found her voice. ‘Yes – yes, I would like that, Mr. Hughes.’
A satisfied smile replaced the uncertain expression on his face. ‘Excellent. And please, my name is John.’
‘Yes, Elizabeth – or Betsy. I remember. Which do you prefer?’
‘Everyone calls me Betsy.’
‘Then Betsy it is.’ His gaze rested on her for a few moments until he cleared his throat. ‘I’ll be away from tomorrow until Sunday morning, but perhaps you would let my mother know what time it would be convenient for me to call on Sunday afternoon?’
‘Yes.’ She’d worry later about the reception John might receive from her father. For the moment, it was more than enough that he wanted to meet her again. ‘I shall look forward to it.’
‘No more than I shall.’ His smile set her heart fluttering, but he went on, ‘Now let me take this parcel into the shop and ensure it’s not too heavy for you and your friend to carry.’
Betsy decided not to tell him how she and Jane frequently hauled large rolls of cloth up the steep stairs to Miss Latham’s workshop. He held aside the woollen curtain, and she smiled her thanks as they entered the shop.
‘How long will he be away?’ Jane was asking.
Dottie turned to them. ‘Ah, there you are. I was telling Jane about our Isaac working on the Atlantic ships.’
John nodded. ‘Aye, he’s on his way to Charleston again to pick up another load of cotton and, in answer to your question, the crossing usually takes two or three weeks, depending on the weather. And it is a pleasure to meet you, Miss – erm?’ He held out his hand to her and smiled. ‘As you can see, I now have clean hands.’
Jane shook his hand. ‘I’m Jane Knowles, and I’m pleased to meet you too. Have you been to America like your brother, Mr. Hughes?’
‘Several times, and many other countries.’
‘And always brought me something back from all those exotic places he visited,’ Dottie added. ‘Carved elephant from India, some weird beetle from Egypt—’
‘A scarab beetle, Mam. They’re worshipped by the Egyptians.’
‘Is that right?’ Dottie’s voice was sceptical. ‘Well, they can keep them, thank you very much. Ugly things.’
Betsy smiled. At least that explained the strange collection of ornaments on the mantel in the parlour. At the same time, she couldn’t help wondering why John had exchanged an exciting life visiting places she could only dream of for the more mundane journeys to and from the small island in the middle of the Irish Sea.
She wanted to ask him, wanted to find out more about this man. Since Saturday evening, she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him, but didn’t understand why he had awakened a tingling awareness she’d never experienced before. After all, she’d hardly spent any time with him.
But he wished to see her again. It was a tantalising prospect, albeit accompanied by a frisson of uneasiness. John Hughes had travelled the world, so how could she, a lowly seamstress who had never even crossed the River Mersey, hope to hold his interest?
Self-consciously, she smoothed a few strands of hair behind the ribbon of her bonnet and stepped around the counter to join Jane.
When John placed the parcel on the counter, his mother glared at him. ‘Surely you don’t expect the young ladies to carry—’
Betsy smiled. ‘We can manage it, Dottie. Here, Jane, you grab the string at that end, and I’ll take this side.’ Between them, they lifted the parcel, which was lighter than she anticipated, and she turned to John with another smile. ‘At least the streets are not slippy tonight.’
‘Safer, I agree, but not quite as amusing.’
Her heart warmed, as their exchange of glances told her he remembered their lurching skids on Saturday evening and their laughter when they recovered their balance.
‘And not as painful as a fall might have been, of course,’ she added, and loved the tilt of his head and the amusement twinkling in his eyes.
Half-embarrassed by Dottie’s glance flitting from her to John, she turned to Jane. ‘We need to go now, don’t we?’
Jane nudged her. ‘I thought you wanted some tea, Betsy.’
‘Oh yes, I almost forgot.’ She let Jane take the weight of the parcel while she fumbled in her cloth purse for some coins. ‘Two ounces, please, Dottie.’
Dottie reached for a packet of tea from the shelf behind the counter. ‘Here you are.’
Betsy handed over the coins and tucked the packet into her purse. ‘We’ll probably call in again later this week, Dottie.’
‘Any time, girls. Ye’re always welcome.’
‘And you’ll let Mam know about Sunday, will you, Betsy?’ John said.
Aware of the blush staining her cheeks, Betsy nodded. ‘Yes, of course. Well – goodnight.’ She gave him a final smile as they left the shop.
Outside in the street, she and Jane adjusted the parcel between them, and Jane gave her a shrewd glance. ‘Come on, then.’
‘Come on where?’ Betsy said, deliberately misunderstanding.
Jane snorted. ‘Stop acting the innocent with me, Betsy Roberts. I want to know what’s happened. What did he say, and what’s that about Sunday?’
‘Actually, we talked about the dress his friend wants me to make, and how long it will take me.’
‘And that’s all?’
Betsy smiled at the disappointment in her friend’s voice and pretended to think for a moment. ‘Oh yes, he also said he would like to call on me on Sunday.’
Jane stopped abruptly, almost dropping her end of the parcel. ‘Call on you? You mean—?’
‘He wants us to become better acquainted.’ Anticipation tingled up and down Betsy’s spine, and she inhaled deeply before giving Jane a tentative smile. ‘I can’t deny I’m pleased, but I’m also a bit worried.’
‘His friend Eleanor, for a start. What if my pa is right about sailors having a girl in every port?’
Jane grinned. ‘At least he only visits two ports.’ She straightened her face. ‘Sorry, Betsy, that’s not helpful, is it? But you could ask him about Eleanor when you meet him on Sunday. She might be – oh, I don’t know – his lodging house proprietor?’
‘Yes, maybe.’ Betsy wrinkled her nose as she mulled over an even bigger problem. ‘There’s another thing that worries me.’
‘What my pa might say to him if he comes to the house. You know Pa has no time for sailors. He says they’re either drunkards or only after bedding innocent young girls before going off to sea again.’
‘Well, some of them are like that, you must admit.’
‘You’re right, but John seems like a gentleman compared to those loud-mouthed jacks who hang around Murphy’s.’
‘He has handsome features too.’
Betsy smiled. ‘He does. A kind of distinguished-looking face, and lovely dark brown eyes. They light up when he smiles or laughs.’
‘You’re a lost cause, my friend,’ Jane said with a laugh.
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Listen to yerself. You’re already smitten with him.’
‘Aw, shut up.’ Betsy’s cheeks burned. ‘It’s only like you talk about your James.’
‘Well, James and me, we’ve been courting for nearly a year now, so I’m allowed to sing his praises. But I’ll be real happy for you if you decide John Hughes is your man. I thought at one time you were going to settle for Ned Tanner.’
‘Ned Tanner is definitely not my man, but I don’t know anything yet about John, do I?’ Betsy heaved a despondent sigh when they reached Manor Street. ‘Besides, Pa will either insult him or throw him out of the house, and that will be the end of it. So there’s no point in building up my hopes, is there?’
To read the rest of A Family's Secrets click on this link for your choice of booksellers. https://books2read.com/A-Familys-Secrets
Lovely beginning. Thanks for sharing it.ReplyDelete