The bell over the mercantile door rang, but Sara did not look back to see who had entered. Someone jostled her where she stood in line, causing her to stumble slightly. She gave a weak smile at the apology, but didn’t look directly at the culprit.
Be calm, be calm, she said to herself. It’s not a large crowd. She took a deep breath, steadying her nerves.
She did not normally fetch the post on Saturday afternoons, but Louisa had needed her assistance this Thursday past, so she decided to fetch it between the charity meeting and arranging the flowers at the church. George was already unloading the baskets; Claire had gone to visit the dressmaker and would meet her at the church later. She had not thought it would take long to see Mrs. Yardley.
She had thought wrong. The shop was so crowded that Sara was considering leaving and returning later. Both Mr. and Mrs. Yardley were much occupied trying to keep their more vocal customers happy.
The bell rang again, a clanging over the din of voices that made her wince. The man behind her in line began to brush against her back, his sweaty odor filling the air. He was speaking loudly with his friend about the coming planting season and the litter of piglets his prize sow had just delivered. Their frequent guffawing in her ear made her cringe.
Sara stepped forward, closer to the counter, only two more people and then she would be able to fetch the post and leave. Two more, two more. She focused on her breathing.
The bell rang again; the men laughed loudly. She cringed and again wished she had waited to visit the shop.
“You do not enjoy crowds.”
The deep, quiet voice close to her ear surprised her and she jerked her head up toward the owner. A pair of pale blue eyes regarded her solemnly, filled with understanding.
Sara froze, the memory of his lips against hers coupled with the humiliation she had felt paralyzing her. The ants clogged her throat, ruthless in making their presence known.
Mr. Grant glanced around. “It is hectic, is it not?”
She could barely swallow, her throat was so tight. She could feel the noose settle around her neck and she prayed she would not have an episode here where everyone could see her. Ironically, that thought started the tightening of the noose.
Mr. Grant shifted until he stood half-behind her, discreetly pushing the odorous, loud men away from her, using his cane to take up more space. “Better?” he questioned, his voice still quiet.
Sara kept herself facing the service counter, her eyes wide but unseeing. In two three four, out two three four.
“The trouble with crowds,” he was saying, his voice quiet in her ear and intended for her alone, “is that you cannot control who you come into contact with. For instance, the men behind us. You weren’t facing them, but I could clearly see that you were not enjoying their presence.”
Sara felt her face catch on fire, hating that he had seen that.
“Oh, Mr. Grant!”
A high-pitched voice interrupted their conversation. Recognizing the voice, Sara’s eyes closed. Could this day get any worse? She felt him turn in the direction of the voice as the noose cinched more tightly.
“See?” he muttered. “I cannot control this. Mrs. Glendoe,” he spoke more loudly. He nodded to the lady and her daughter. “Miss Glendoe, good afternoon.”
Both ladies smiled, dropping appropriate curtseys. “Good afternoon Mr. Grant. What a fine day to be shopping in town.”
Sara’s eyes flew open when she felt strong fingers close around her elbow. Surprised, she looked up at Mr. Grant to see him smiling at the two ladies; she could smell the insincerity of it. “Actually,” he said, “I was just discussing with Miss Collins the preference for avoiding crowds.”
Mrs. Glendoe twittered, adding a sharp glance at her before saying. “Oh, Miss Collins, I did not notice you there.”
Sara instinctively stepped back, but that put her back right up against Mr. Grant’s front. He was every bit as solid as he had been the few days prior. Even through the layers of clothing, heat spread from where they touched and his grip tightened on her elbow, giving her an encouraging squeeze.
Mrs. Glendoe turned her attention back to him. “What brings you into the mercantile today, sir?”
“The pleasurable company, of course.”
How could she tell that he was being sarcastic? Both the Glendoes smiled at his comment, but Sara knew deep down that he didn’t mean a word he said. But it definitely was what the older lady wanted to hear. Miss Glendoe met Sara’s eyes, her gaze apologetic.
Mrs. Yardley finished with another customer, meaning only one more customer until Sara’s turn. She stepped forward, noting that Mr. Grant stepped with her and that the Glendoe ladies followed him. One more, one more, one more. She tamped down the urge to flee the shop; she hadn’t waited this long for Mrs. Yardley to run away now.
“Is there anything you need help finding?” Mrs. Glendoe asked. She pushed her daughter toward him. “My daughter is quite familiar with the shop.”
“Mother,” Miss Glendoe said in an exasperated whisper. She gave Mr. Grant a rueful look.
“Actually,” Mr. Grant said, using his grip on Sara’s elbow to pull her closer, “Miss Collins has already agreed to help me find some new ribbons. My niece’s birthday is approaching.”
He looked down at her, the piercing blue chilling her. “Come Miss Collins, I have no talent for this.” He dragged her away from the Glendoes. Sara looked forlornly over her shoulder as the men who had been behind her stepped up and took her place.
“Where are the ribbons?” Mr. Grant asked. Unable to do anything else, Sara pointed at their location and he led her there. “We must make this look genuine.”
They stopped and Sara stared at the assortment of colors; the height of the shelf shielded them from the others in the shop. He had done it again, acted without thought to her desires, treating her as a lesser being who had no say over her own life. An ache was growing in her chest that had nothing to do with the ants or noose; indeed, this ache was displacing them, allowing her to breathe. Her chest rose and fell with this foreign indignation and the back of her eyes began to burn with anger.
He kept talking. “You rescued me. I cannot fully express my gratitude.”
Sara found her voice. It was tight and quiet, laced with resentment. “I doubt being forced into doing something would be considered a genuine rescue.”
“Ah, she speaks. I wondered when that would happen today.”
She ignored that, choosing to focus on her present anger. “I had been waiting for Mrs. Yardley for nearly twenty minutes.” She could not keep the heat from her voice. “It was nearly my turn to be assisted and you dragged me over here, to something I have no wish to look at.”
“Tsk, and speaking with anger. How intriguing.”
Sara was still staring at the ribbons, not seeing them. “Why is it you believe I deserve such treatment from you? Every encounter I have with you leaves me feeling humiliated and dismissed.”
“Every encounter . . . Sara?”
At the sound of him saying her name, she looked up to see him watching her intently, a pair of white ribbons, the exact shade of those from her ruined bonnet, dangling from the hand he was holding up.
He took a step closer and lowered his voice. “Society would say I owe you an apology, but I make it habit to not regret the things I do.”
“You apologized to me the other day,” she pointed out, trying to ignore the way his closeness made her pulse jump.
“An aberration. I assure you I will do my best to not let it happen again.”
“I suppose that must be convenient to never have to apologize,” Sara retorted. “It saves you the pain of having a conscience. Have you no consideration for the effect your actions have on others?”
Something flared in his eyes and he tilted his head. “Has anyone told you how you look when you are angry?”
She huffed. “I am never angry.”
His brows raised and the corners of his mouth tugged slightly. “It appears you and I both experience occasional lapses of our general characters, then.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You think you are far superior for having lived in London, sir. We may not be as worldly or have any of the town bronze you so proudly display, but we are decent people here. Your wit, your flip comments and jibes will gain you no footing, no respect in our little town; that may work in London, but not here. We judge a man based on his character and on how he treats others. We and every other decent person in Christendom live by the Biblical teaching that we are to treat others the way we want to be treated.”
Mr. Grant took another step toward her. This time he was so close Sara had to tilt her head back to look at him. He met her eyes, the glint in them matching his sardonic smile. “Does that mean you are going to kiss me?”
He continued. “I really wouldn’t object. Perhaps not quite here,” he allowed with a quick glance around. “I prefer not to have an audience. But if you are amenable . . .”
Sara turned her back on him, holding herself stiffly. She could not look at the man. She took several deep breaths to calm herself, her mind reeling from her uncharacteristic confidence and the flash of awareness his words had brought. “I can see now, sir, that it is not town bronze I see but a rusty, tarnished soul.”
She heard him move and heat flushed down her back where he pressed himself against her. She closed her eyes, the sensations from the other day returning and she gripped the edge of the shelf, fighting the urge to lean back into him, to feel him more completely.
His hot breath caressed her ear. “I would settle for you dreaming of me,” he whispered. “It seems only fair as you visit my dreams every night, Nymph.”
Sara’s eyes flew open when she felt his tongue touch her ear with a sensual stroke. Not looking back, she marched away from him, needing space between them.
“Wouldn’t that be treating me how I treated you?” he called out after her, laughter tingeing his words.
Sara didn’t stop marching until she was out of the shop, post forgotten, and in the church.