Rain cascaded off the overhanging roof, pinging against the walkway that ran parallel to the warehouse. Men were dashing to and fro in the unfortunately timed sun shower, some boarding the keelboats docked in Rhoswen’s harbor while the rest carted cargo back and forth, ducking their heads against the deluge.
Kentworth watched on from the safe, dry strip of walkway beneath the roof, alongside some fellow dockworkers. They had been standing there for a quarter of an hour by then, missing it raining on their shift by a matter of minutes.
“Poor saps,” said one of them, watching their fellows splash their way between the docks and warehouse.
“This is nothin’, Fisher,” piped up a wiry old man across from Kentworth; he looked to be the eldest of them and wore a brimmed hat over gray hair. “You’ve only been here a month yet, you missed that storm we had—what was it, has to be a few hundred years back, now. Flooded the foreman’s office! Nearly drowned the boats, too, ain’t that right?”
“Almost drowned us,” chuckled a third, rather burly man as he fumbled in his pocket, pulling out a small tin.
“Sure did, ain’t it the truth!”
The first man, Fisher, nodded to the man with the tin. “Those smokes?”
The man offered the open tin to him, letting him retract a parchment-colored stick before taking one for himself.
“And the foreman,” continued the old man over them, “you should’ve seen him, standing on his desk to keep his fancy shoes dry! Back then we didn’t have a boss who worked his way up like us; nah, it was some paper-pusher, used to do finances for the flower shop—”
“Shippy,” a fourth man interjected, “you tell the same damn story every time we get a new guy. We’re all sick of it.”
“The new guy ain’t, he never even heard it! And you interrupted the whole thing right before the best part!”
“The best part’s when it’s over.”
Kentworth, mostly day-dreaming until then, turned to frown at him. “Hey, be nice! And besides, I like this story!”
“Yeah, go on, Shippy,” said the burly man with the smokes, chuckling. “Tell Fisher your flood story. . . .”
“Yeah, go ahead, Shippy!”
The old man picked up the story as if there’d been no interruption, and with the rain as their backdrop, he spun the tale; everyone except the fourth, disapproving man joined in on the laughter at the end, although no one laughed harder than Kentworth.
“I never get tired of that!” he said, wiping his eyes. “Imagine our foreman acting like that? Making them bring a damn canoe in the office?”
The burly man gave a hollow laugh, letting smoke pour from his lips. “Boughey? More likely he’d get in a fistfight with the flood.”
Kentworth sputtered in laughter. “How d’you fistfight a flood?”
“Hell if I know.”
“Boughey’d win, too!” said Shippy enthusiastically. “You seen the badges and awards in that foreman’s office, Fisher? Your new boss’s decorated!”
Fisher made an appreciative sound while taking a drag.
“Military man,” Shippy clarified. “Back in Nyoko, when them Mountain Elves were barraging the town to get their jewels. That toughens a man up, fighting those beasts. That’s why all them Forest Elves are such good fighters, don’t you know!”
“And now we get a fuckin’ history lesson,” the fourth man grumbled. Shippy carried on, not hearing a word, but a mortified Kentworth leaned in to mutter from the corner of his mouth.
“Lay off him, will ya? He’s got nobody else to talk to.”
“My ass, he talks to everybody all day.”
Flapping a hand to quiet him, Kentworth said, “He’s right there, don’t—”
“FISHER, WOODSBLISS, SHIPMAN! BACK ON SHIFT!”
Kentworth jumped despite his name being omitted. Glaring at them from the other end of the walkway was a muscular old man. He swallowed hard. It was foreman Boughey.
There came a chorus of “Yes, sir” and “Right away, Boss” as his friends put out their smokes and went back to work. Yet Boughey continued to scrutinize those standing around, making Kentworth’s nervousness grow. What had they done wrong?
“You on break, Dockman?” his boss demanded, and there was a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Why him?
“Y-yes, sir. I’ve got the rest of break and then an hour for lunch.”
“Stopping by the mayor’s again today?”
The question threw him for a momentary loop.
“Oh!” he said in surprise. “Uh, yeah. I mean—yes, sir.”
“Good. You can drop off some paperwork for me.”
Boughey leaned on his knobbed walking stick and headed back to his office.
Exchanging a glance with his remaining co-worker, Kentworth apprehensively followed after the foreman—but he’d hardly taken a few steps when his boss paused and glared over a muscled shoulder, seeming to consider him.
“Finish your break, son,” he said at last. “I expect you in my office in ten.”
And he walked off, leaving Kentworth gaping at his back.
“Was he—was he nice to you?” marveled his co-worker. All he could do was shrug; it was the last thing he’d expected, too. “Damn, what’d you do to get on his good side? Didn’t even know he had one.”
“I didn’t . . . I dunno!”
“. . . It’s gotta be ‘cause you’re in with the mayor.”
“What? No way!”
His co-worker shrugged and pushed off of the wall, checking his bronze pocket watch. “Don’t know why else it’d be. He’s a callous jackass to everyone else.”
As the man walked off to return to work, Kentworth stayed behind, more confused than ever; even though he’d been rude about it, his co-worker made a good point.
“He isn’t ever nice,” he realized aloud. So then . . . why him?
A sudden voice next to his ear said: “C’mon, he’s not that bad!”
Kentworth leapt around with a jolt. Leaning against the warehouse wall was a well-built young man; his arms were crossed, the shoulders of his shirt soaked through from the rain, and he was laughing under his breath at Kentworth’s expression.
“Are you trying to give me a heart attack?!” said Kentworth. “Quit doing that!”
“Quit reacting then,” retorted the youth, pulling a smoke tin and book of matches from his pocket. Kentworth threw his arms up in the air in disbelief.
“Am I ever gunna win with you, Anatole?!”
The young man, Anatole, chuckled as he struck a match, his response muffled by the stick between his lips. “Probably not. Guess I’ll keep doin’ it so we can find out.”
Kentworth shook his head, watching his friend take a long drag. It took him a moment to remember what the young man had said before.
“Wait, so . . . you like Mr. Boughey?”
“Mm,” grunted Anatole, exhaling smoke. “He’s all right. Nothing wrong with him.”
Letting this sink in, Kentworth took in their view of the river. The rain was lessening to a drizzle, so the other dockworkers were loading a ship with cargo at a more leisured pace.
He watched them absently as he thought. Anatole was younger than him—and working the docks for only a few decades compared to his own much longer tenure—but he’d noticed that Anatole was pretty sharp when it came to figuring out a person’s character; he was also well aware that his friend was more of a realist, whereas he himself tended to assume the best of everyone even when evidence said otherwise.
Yet this time they’d had a role reversal. It made him feel guilty for being so judgmental of the foreman. What if Anatole knew something he didn’t?
Kentworth cleared his throat. “So, you don’t think he’s . . . well . . .”
“No!” Mortified, Kentworth nervously checked for eavesdroppers. “I just mean—you know what I mean! Anyways, why do you think he’s suddenly being so nice to me?”
Anatole raised his eyebrows, making faint lines appear on his forehead. “Maybe ‘cause you’re so nice to him. You ever think of that?”
“But I never did anything specific! He’s the boss so I’m polite to him and stuff, but I never went out of my way to be extra nice or anything. . . .”
“You’re already ‘extra nice’.”
“What’s that s’posed to mean?”
Making a sound of disbelief, Anatole exhaled smoke with a huff. “You honestly don’t realize you’re nicer than—pretty much everybody?”
“Hey! Everybody’s not so bad. . . .”
“Yeah well, while everybody’s busy being ‘not so bad’, you’re running around befriending the world, sticking up for people who never knew they had a friend. . . .”
Kentworth frowned, starting to feel self-conscious; there was an edge to his friend’s tone that almost sounded patronizing. “Well . . . so what, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with being nice?”
Anatole leaned his head back against the wall.
“Nothing, just—listen, you give everyone a chance, right? You’re on a first-name basis with every dockworker, and you’re doing that palace thing, representing everyone in town. . . . You don’t think Boughey’s noticed any of that?”
More confused than ever, Kentworth said, “How come everyone thinks the palace job’s got anything to do with it?”
“Because you’re representing the whole town!”
“So that includes Boughey, too.”
This made Kentworth pause in genuine. He’d never thought of that.
“Yeah, okay,” he said, “but I’ve been doing that for almost half a year, that wouldn’t—”
“It’s because he respects you, Ken. Everybody does.”
The sun was beginning to fight against the drizzle and clouds, but Kentworth hardly noticed the weather. He couldn’t believe it was true; the foreman—the man he could barely look in the eye, the man he only referred to as mister or sir, the man he admittedly was a little bit afraid of—respected him, Kentworth?
He continued to marvel at the possibility until Anatole spoke up.
“Aren’t you due in his office?”
Suppressing a curse, Kentworth fumbled to check his pocket watch. He went cold when he saw the time; he was about to be late.
Spinning to start on his way, he made it a half-dozen paces before he recalled something and turned back around. “OH, HEY! Are you working cargo today, or . . . ?”
His friend took a final long drag, shaking his head. “Shipyard. Keeler’s teaching me to fix steam engines.”
“Oh. Well, did you have lunch yet?”
“Just got back from it.”
“What! Ugh, come on! Well—wanna go with us to the wrestling gym tonight? All the guys are gunna be there!”
“Can’t.” Anatole grimaced and dropped the remains of his smoke, crushing it beneath his boot. “I’ve got work at the bar tonight.”
“What bar?! I thought you worked at a restaurant!”
“Wasn’t my style. Anyway, I already went to the gym today.”
Kentworth’s jaw dropped in indignation. “When?”
“Without us?! How come?”
Splaying his hands, Anatole called back, “Because I go there to work out, not stand around guffawing with a bunch of dolts!”
“Well FINE! Don’t come, see if we care!” Kentworth made a great show of turning on his heel, but only went a few steps before glancing back. “Lunch tomorrow, maybe?”
“. . . Sure.”
“Okay, good! Don’t work yourself to death before then!”
Kentworth bent double with laughter as his friend stalked off for the shipyard. Just then, however, he heard a door open behind him.
“Dockman, are you picking up this paperwork or what?”
He staggered to stand upright at the sound of Boughey’s voice. The foreman was glaring at him from his office doorway.
“Yes sir. Sorry.”
And trying to quell his smile, he hurried into the office.
By the time Kentworth left the mayor’s later that afternoon, the sun was in full reign, leaving glistening puddles in wake of the storm. He wound his way down the cobbled roads of Rhoswen, taking a short-cut through one of the residential districts that would get him to Market Street a little faster. He still needed to find a place to get lunch, but before then, he had a stop to make. . . .
Now that the short-lived rainfall was over, a lot of people seemed to be out and about. In this area of town there were few other manual laborers like him; he passed plenty of women carrying baskets on their arms, on their way to or from the market, and some men, all so well-dressed. No one paid him much mind or acted like he didn’t belong, but as always, he noticed the contrast between his patched work clothes and the clean-cut suits donned by the men that strode past, checking their watches on their way to what he imagined were important business meetings. Did any of them realize he was now Rhoswen’s town representative? And if they did, what did they think of that?
It made Kentworth recall his brief meeting with the mayor, where he’d dropped off the foreman’s paperwork and picked up some for himself. He nervously patted his pocket to check it was safe; there were some important documents he had to read through before the next meeting at the palace. . . .
Still, he couldn’t help but be amazed by how happy the mayor had seemed when he’d shown up, like he was greeting an old friend. It made him feel a little more confident about the enormous responsibility he’d taken on, not to mention wonder—perhaps a bit egotistically—if Anatole hadn’t been right. Maybe foreman Boughey did respect him now. . . .
The thought put a spring in his step as he went on his way.
Soon after, Kentworth spotted the alleyway that led to Market Street. He squeezed his way through, turning his shoulder to side-step past brick walls, and abruptly found himself in an exciting, albeit familiar, district.
The cobbled road was wide, the buildings tall, creating an isolated world of activity. Shop doors were thrown open all down the street, many places sporting outdoor signs listing their daily specials; carts were piled high with fruits and vegetables of every color, and Kentworth breathed deeply as he ambled past, inhaling the scent of aromatic herbs. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was getting. . . .
All the while he was winding his way through a crowd more diverse than the residential district. He saw children now, a pair of them playing catch with a piece of fruit, and some men and women who were dressed in work clothes just like him. He’d always had a soft spot for Market Street. Something about it simply made Rhoswen feel like home . . . and part of that something was straight up ahead.
It was impossible to miss its bright sign and
colorful interior, especially with the gleeful children dashing in and out of a
door held wide open to admit them. Kentworth grinned as he approached, pausing
to check the sidewalk sign outside.
His jaw dropping at the final line, he scrambled in through the open door.
Everything in the shop was perfectly placed to draw his eye from each mouth-watering confection to the next: tablets of nougat mixed with every sweet ingredient imaginable; round slabs of cake topped with thick icing and berries, from the size of wagon wheels to ones he could’ve swallowed in half a bite; glistening candied fruits on sticks, tubs of rosewater whipped cream, candied almonds and caramel drops.
Despite being distracted by everything in sight, Kentworth forced himself to mind where he was going since glass jars, delicate sugared roses, and small children were around every corner. It would’ve been an admirable feat to make it through the store without knocking into a display even if he wasn’t twice the height and width of everyone else, so he had to take extra care.
Some hapless parents trying to keep up with
their children threw him curious looks, hurrying to move out of his way as he
apologized in turn for being in theirs, until he reached the display case that
doubled as a counter by the far wall. The generous light of a nearby window made the
contents in the display case shine, revealing row upon row of tiny molded
animals with innocuous expressions, something like minuscule toys.
But he knew better. They weren’t toys, but instead were what he’d been so excited about when he’d seen the sign outside—and it was the reason he’d been asked to stop there that day, although he hadn’t realized it at the time.
The honey marzipan.
While Kentworth gaped at all of it in awe, a gaggle of kids ran up to the adjacent display case, pressing their noses to the glass to ooh and aah at the contents. Huh . . . he hadn’t seen what was in there yet. . . .
“Look, flowers!” squealed a girl who barely reached his knee. “Ooh, I want a rose one!”
Raising his brows in interest, Kentworth sidled to stand behind them and peered in over the tops of their heads. Above a shelf of tressa cakes was a second shelf of marzipan creations, but these weren’t animals: they were various objects and plants, many of which were flowers like the little girl had said. His jaw dropping, he leaned over their heads to get a better look, none of them noticing him in the slightest.
“Can I have a rose?” the little girl continued, pulling on a boy’s sleeve. He looked like he might’ve been her older brother.
“No way!” he exclaimed. “We’ve gotta get the sword one!”
“But I want a rooose!”
“Hey look!” said another boy, jabbing a finger at the glass. “That one’s an emerose! I bet it tastes like one, too.”
“Ooh, I want the emerose!”
“I want the snowflake!”
“I want the boat!” Kentworth joined in.
The kids gasped, pressing back against the display case to take in his enormous frame. A couple of them snapped their mouths shut and the little girl goggled up at him, wide-eyed.
“It’s right there, see?” he continued, ignoring their reaction. “Next to the anchor!”
Once they realized they weren’t in trouble, the kids seemed a bit more keen to re-investigate the shelf, although with less enthusiasm as if still wary of him.
“There’s a fish, too,” he added. “Anybody like fish?”
A couple of the boys converged on their friend, elbowing him.
“Xabier does! His dad’s a fishmonger!”
“No I don’t!” said Xabier, but none of them were listening; Kentworth had just pointed out another marzipan figure and the kids were scrambling to find it.
“And then over here there’s a bunch of leaf ones!” he said, indicating a dozen candies on the very end of the shelf. “Have you guys been studying your leaves in school? D’you know which ones they are?”
“That’s an oak leaf!” said one boy eagerly, tapping the glass. “And that’s a scalebark leaf, and that’s an emerose leaf—!”
“And that’s a rose!” said the little girl in glee. Kentworth doubled over in silent laughter behind them.
“A rose isn’t a leaf, Lucy!” said her brother in exasperation. “Sheesh!”
“Hey, mister?” It was one of the smallest boys, peering up at Kentworth. “How come you like this stuff? I always thought grown-ups didn’t like sweets.”
Kentworth’s mouth fell open. “Says who?!”
“Says my parents. They never wanna come here ‘cause they say this store’s for kids.”
A new voice, melodious, female, and upbeat, rose from beyond the counter:
“He is a kid! Just a big one!”
The children burst into giggles. With a roll of his eyes, Kentworth grinned at the person who had appeared at the marble work-table behind the display case.
A tall plump woman smiled back at him. Tightly curled ringlets framed her round face in quite a flattering manner, and she had a look about her that was cheerful and robust, what with the natural blush of her cheeks and her bright blue eyes that rivaled Kentworth’s own, particularly in their twinkle.
“But he’s too big to be a kid!” said the little girl.
“Now, now!” laughed the woman. “You’re never too big to be a kid!”
“But he’s too old!”
“. . . Hey!” said the man in question.
“You’re never too old, either,” said the woman succinctly. “Why do you think I run this sweetshop, hm? If treats were only for all of you, then I certainly couldn’t do that, could I?”
This gave the children pause. Meanwhile, the woman bent to retrieve a mortar and pestle from beneath the counter, then poured a bowl of almonds into it.
“Um, ‘scuse me, ma’am?” said one of the kids. “Can we buy some marzipan?”
“We even brought money this time!”
“I earned mine!” added the little girl, stretching to hold up a coin. “I pulled a weed!”
Kentworth covered his mouth to stop from laughing aloud as the sweetshop’s owner walked the children through their purchase. Once she jotted down their choices, she gathered a few small, colorful boxes from a shelf on the back wall.
“I’ll get all the ones you asked for,” she said, reaching over the counter to accept a handful of coins from many small fists. “Until then, have you all seen the cinnamon stick dragon in the front corner? It’s really quite something!”
The children dispersed to go find it, and the moment they were gone, Kentworth leaned on the counter and let out a held breath.
“Pollyanna, how dare you not tell me you were making marzipan!”
The woman practically cackled as she boxed the children’s candy. “But I did tell you! I told you to stop by today, didn’t I?”
“Cryptic hints!” he said in mock outrage. “Mysterious clues!”
“I told you to come into the shop today, how in the world is that mysterious?”
Kentworth sighed, dropping a hand in defeat. “Polly, that’s no way to treat your brother, holding out on me like that. It’s torture!”
At her exasperated expression, he burst into a grin and leaned a little closer.
“So I guess you finally got that shipment of honey?” he asked.
“Yes, thank the Forest! We were so relieved when the crates came in from Estra.”
Scanning the display case, Kentworth furrowed his brows. “This looks like it would’ve taken ages, though. Isn’t it a lot of work, making stuff like this?”
“It certainly is! We’ve been working for three days straight to get them all done in time for today.”
His jaw dropping in indignation, Kentworth said, “Three—three days? You had honey for three whole days and you didn’t even tell me?!”
“It’s for the shop! What, would you like updates on all of our inventory? Don’t answer that!” she added when he eagerly opened his mouth. “Honestly, Kenny, don’t be absurd. I wanted to keep it a surprise for you, that’s all.”
“So that’s what torture’s called nowadays, a surprise?”
“Oh please. . . . Well! What would you like me to do to make up for it, then?”
For him that was a no-brainer. Putting on his best wide-eyed innocent look, he asked, “Can I be the taste-tester?”
“I’m sorry to say that two dozen people beat you to it this afternoon.”
“Yeah, but they’re not the unofficial taste-tester and brother of the confectioner so it doesn’t count! Right?”
Polly finished wrapping the kid’s purchases with a tut and reached under the prep table, bringing out a small box, complete with a ribbon, that she slid across the counter.
“There,” she said, putting a hand on her hip. “Satisfied?”
Kentworth blinked at it. “. . . What’s that?”
“Oh for goodness’ sake, it’s for you!”
“It is?!” he gasped in genuine astonishment, and he gently picked up the box as if it were made of porcelain.
“I spent some time putting it together this morning.” Polly reached across the counter, grabbed the collar of his shirt, and yanked him close enough to kiss on the cheek. “Give me your professional taste-tester opinion later. I have to get back to work, we’ve been swamped and we’re running low on almond flour.”
“Well, where’s Theo?” Kentworth said, frowning. “I thought he was s’posed to help you nowadays, now that you’re married!”
“He’s over by the cinnamon dragon doing a demonstration.”
“I didn’t see him. . . .”
“You must have walked right past him, dear.”
Kentworth surveyed the crowd, spotting a knot of people in the front corner all gathered at a table. With his height advantage he easily located his corpulent brother-in-law, who was showing a few children how to construct what looked like a dragon’s wing out of thin sheets of nougat and cinnamon sticks.
He tried turning back to his sister but she had already abandoned the mortar and pestle to serve a customer. He frowned again, clutching his box of marzipan as he watched the exchange; and when he was sure she wasn’t looking, he took out a few coins and quietly placed them in the tip jar. He’d been planning on buying something, anyway.
Moving back through the store, Kentworth weaved by the center displays in the opposite direction he’d come in from to instead pass the cinnamon dragon. When he got there, he paused to watch his brother-in-law instructing the kids, eyeing the incredible creation on the table. It looked like it was made from a lot more than cinnamon sticks; maybe caramel for holding everything together, and little chopped nuts for scales. He never could’ve made anything like that, that’s for sure. . . .
“KENNY!” His brother-in-law had straightened up to wave at him with great enthusiasm. Despite being much older than Polly, and therefore quite a lot older than Kentworth, the man had a youthful aura well-suited to the sweetshop. “We’re making dragons, son, come over!”
Although sorely tempted by the offer, he was also still on the clock.
. . . Oh, and an adult. Yes, that.
“Sorry, Theo, I can’t! I’m on lunch break and I haven’t even eaten yet.”
“Eat some of this!” The man held up a fistful of cinnamon sticks. “Come on Ken, come on over here! The kids love it, I daresay you’ll love it—!”
Some parents and older children were muttering, so Kentworth tried to look a little more serious and a little less like he was on the fence about joining in.
“I’ll leave it to the kids, Theo! See you later!”
And he stepped out of the store at last.
It was hardly any brighter out in the street since the shop had such large windows, but he took note of the thinned-out crowds. He supposed everyone was lunching by then.
Kentworth started down the street on his search for food, bypassing a few specialty cafes where prices ran high. Instead, he took a side alley onto an adjacent street, Larosa, lined with restaurants. Prices at many of these places were hardly better, but that was life in Rhoswen; if he wanted the cheapest fare, he would have to head all the way back to the docks, and his stomach was already grumbling.
And so he roamed the wide boulevard, slowing to peruse his options. He’d been right to think a lot of people were lunching; when it came to outdoor seating, there were hardly any available tables . Either way, he didn’t have a ton of time; he’d have to go somewhere quick.
He passed a few likely places, trying to decide what he was in the mood for, when he saw a soup stand with open tables, one he’d been to before. The fare was good, not to mention inexpensive. In fact, there wasn’t even a line.
“What can we interest you in today?” said the man behind the counter as Kentworth approached hesitantly, still reading the menu hanging behind the man’s head.
“Uh . . . could I get a bowl of white soup? With fish?”
“Certainly! Would you like that thickened with bread crumbs, or rice?”
He halfheartedly checked the prices on the board, already knowing he didn’t have the money for rice. “Bread, please.”
Once he paid, Kentworth sat at an empty table facing the most interesting cluster of restaurants, the corner where Larosa turned onto Bellamy. The outdoor tables at the restaurants opposite him were full, but he was too ravenous to people-watch; so, to stave off his hunger, he eagerly started opening the box from his sister.
He untied the ribbon, slid the cover off, and, with growing excitement, pulled the tissue paper aside. Sure enough it was marzipan, but he was astonished at how many pieces he’d been given: the box was divided into six sections, each holding an individual candy.
As happy as he was that his sister had been so thoughtful, he suddenly felt very glad that he’d put coins into the tip jar. Honey was an expensive commodity. She had surely lost profits by giving him so much. . . .
Even so, he was grinning as he investigated each candy hand-crafted just for him. The first two were shaped like a boat and anchor, which he figured symbolized his job, then there was a bright orange oak leaf, then a pink rose, then a white rose, then—
The final candy was spherical, decorated to be a face featuring a large happy mouth, two blue dots for eyes, and a dark crop of frosted hair on top. Kentworth did a double-take. It was him.
Torn between exasperation and amusement, he picked the candy out of the box to take a closer look. It even had a tiny ponytail on the back.
Well at least I know which one I’m eating first!
Before he got the chance, however, his lunch was delivered to the table. He accepted it gratefully, and—with some reluctance—pushed the candy aside for now.
The first bite of stew felt like heaven to his empty stomach. He sat daydreaming while he ate, just people-watching and reflecting upon his day so far. He was glad Polly had gotten the honey in stock, and not just for his own sake; her shop was quite popular and Rhoswenians expected high-quality ingredients and flavors, considering the town’s reputation as a hub of trade. If she wanted to keep the clientele she’d worked so hard to build, then an item like honey was a must.
And that was how his sister had met her husband, too. He’d been one of her best customers until he’d fallen for more than her confectionery skills . . . and now, of course, he was helping her run the place. . . .
It made him think back on his own job, or rather, both of them. He recalled that the papers from the mayor were stowed in his pocket and toyed with the idea of taking them out to read—but then again, he didn’t want anything to happen to them; they were important documents, and the last thing he needed was to show up at the palace with them covered in soup. Best to wait ‘til he finished. . . .
Plenty of people meandered by on their way to and from the eateries, a few of them being friends from the docks, gym, or town hall who greeted Kentworth with enthusiasm as they passed. It made him feel more cheerful, and by the time he pushed his empty bowl off to the side, he was positively upbeat, even more so when he realized he still had twenty minutes to kill before he was due back at work.
Feeling quite satisfied, he pulled out the paperwork to begin looking it over. He had nowhere else he wanted to go anyway, and scanning over it now would give him something to think about once he was lugging cargo around.
Or so he thought. Trying to take in the formal sentences was no easy task with the sun shining as if it had never rained, with birds singing, and happy, interesting-looking people talking with animated gestures at the tables on both sides of the street.
Kentworth gave a massive sigh, his shoulders drooping, and gazed vacantly at the restaurant diagonal from him, wondering if he ought to do something else. He wanted to return to reading, but—(the man he was idly watching made a conversational gesture with his hand)—he knew he should return to reading, before he got home and didn’t feel like it—(the man was sitting with a woman whose back was turned to Kentworth)—and . . .
. . . And . . .
He lowered the papers, looking more closely at the couple. He squinted at the man—someone average height and thin as a rail—until he was absolutely positive it was him.
Kentworth’s mouth fell open. He was here? In Rhoswen?
Curious against his better judgment, he kept his paperwork upright to give the illusion of reading while his eyes stayed on the table down the road. It was definitely him. As for the woman, Kentworth didn’t have a clue, but he assumed it must’ve been his wife; he knew the guy had a wife and a son. . . .
With his curiosity getting the best of him and his mind groping for an alternative to reading the documents, Kentworth couldn’t help but wonder if he should go say hello. He hadn’t yet attended any palace meetings without the mayor being present, and at this stage, it just made sense to be friendly with the other members of the council, to make an effort to get to know them. Not to mention the couple he was watching didn’t seem to yet have food. This, then, would be the time to do it.
Plucking up his courage, he gathered the papers and refolded them to fit his pocket, rising and pushing in his chair. He would just go say hello, that’s all. No big deal . . . nothing to get nervous about. . . .
Kentworth started down the boulevard towards the restaurant, trying not to look too determined or suspicious; he tried to look natural, like he’d only just noticed their table in case one of them spotted him, but the harder he tried, the more obvious he felt. Much faster than he expected he was feet from the table, hovering uncertainly behind the woman while facing the man he recognized, who was in the midst of explaining something.
“—might be a good fit, as the opening is for teaching children as well as adults. However, I won’t be making a final decision until—” The man paused, doing a double-take over the woman’s shoulder, his fair brows contracting. “. . . Mr. Dockman?”
“Yeah, hi sir,” said Kentworth, now a little unsure of his random decision to approach the Chief Magician. But he smiled anyway. “Sorry to interrupt. . . .”
The woman turned to look at him, but he didn’t dare break eye contact with the man.
“It’s fine. We’re nearly done here.” The man’s demeanor was a bit stiff and formal, and although Kentworth had met him before, it only now struck him that the Chief Magician reminded him of a less aggressive foreman Boughey. “Was there—anything in particular—?”
“Oh, no! I—I was just heading back to work and saw you, that’s all. I didn’t expect to see you in Rhoswen, so . . . I came over to say hi.”
The magician appeared a bit surprised. “Oh. I’m here often enough. I have a study on the outskirts of town.”
“Really? I never knew that!”
Kentworth was trying his hardest to be friendly without seeming rude, and so, still not looking at the Chief Magician’s wife, he started to take a step back from the table, about to excuse himself and leave.
“By all means, take the third chair,” said the magician, surprising Kentworth very much. “So long as you don’t mind that we finish our discussion.”
“Oh! Oh, no, no of course not. Thanks.”
He was just thinking that everything was going better than he’d ever planned when he pulled out the chair and sat down . . . and that was when it happened. He finally looked at the woman.
She was much younger than he expected—why, around his own age, it seemed—with an elegant square-shaped face. All of her black tresses but for a few escaped curls were pulled into a side braid, accentuating her neck, while her sunny yellow dress enriched her natural tan, making her complexion look flawless but for a few scattered freckles.
And she was smiling. At him.
Something in Kentworth skipped a beat. This girl was his age! She couldn’t possibly . . . she couldn’t actually be the Chief Magician’s—!
“This is Miss Lockwood,” offered the magician in short before returning to the girl. So he was right; she wasn’t his wife. “As I was saying, I will make a final decision once I’ve interviewed the other candidates. At that time you will receive a letter informing you of the decision. If you could just verify your address,” he said, sliding a paper towards her.
Kentworth watched her review the paper with his heart in his throat. She bent her neck over the sheet, touching it with the tips of her fingers in such a ladylike gesture.
. . . Why was it suddenly so hard to breathe?
“Yes, this is correct,” she said, her voice delicate and soft, like petals. He swallowed as he watched her hand the paper back. “I hope everything’s in order, then?”
The magician gave a nod, gathering his paperwork into a folder. “You can expect a letter within two to three weeks. If you’re selected then you’ll undergo the training I described.”
“Thank you so much. You were such a help answering my questions.”
The Chief Magician stood, readying to leave, and held out a hand to shake Miss Lockwood’s. “Of course. However—” Quite abruptly he was scrutinizing Kentworth, who felt his stomach do a flip. “You, Mr. Dockman . . . you’ve recently begun working at the palace. Perhaps you could answer Miss Lockwood’s questions about the experience more fully than I was able to do.”
Kentworth had no idea what he was talking about. Ever since he’d sat at their table, his brain was going slower than grass growing. “Uh . . . ?”
“She’s applying for a teaching position,” the man clarified as he pushed in his chair, “and asked what it was like working at the palace. But as I’ve been there since I was a child, I’m desensitized to much of it.”
“O-oh. . . . I mean, yeah! Yeah, sure! I can do that.”
Next he knew, the magician’s hand was extended to him as well. Kentworth was relieved to take it, as it distracted him from the girl sitting beside him.
“I suppose we’ll be seeing each other at the next meeting,” said the magician.
“That’s right, I’ll be there!”
“Well . . . until then, Mr. Dockman.”
“Oh, no, you can just call me Kentworth.”
The magician paused on the verge of walking away; something, perhaps tiredness or an unwillingness to argue, overtook his posture, melting the rigidity in his shoulders.
“Kentworth, then,” he said. “And in that case, you may call me Rizol.”
Kentworth wouldn’t dare do any such thing but he wasn’t about to say so; he simply waved goodbye as the Chief Magician, in his gold-trimmed robes, hurried off down the boulevard.
Left with no alternative, Kentworth swallowed hard and shifted in his chair to face Miss Lockwood. She was wearing a curious, albeit shy, smile, looking slightly out of sorts like him. It seemed he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t expected this.
He tried to smile back at her despite his lungs refusing to take in more than shallow, insufficient breaths.
“. . . So!” he began. “Uh—so, so it sounds like you’re a teacher?”
She gave another shy smile. He couldn’t believe how cute she was. How in the world had this happened?
“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “I teach here in Rhoswen, but I’ve always thought it might be nice to see more of the Forest.”
“Have you ever been to the palace before?”
“No, I’m afraid I haven’t. Everything I know about it comes from paintings or books I’ve read . . . so that’s why I was wondering about other peoples’ experiences there.”
There was a questioning look in her eyes, and so, bracing himself, Kentworth dove into his own story of going to the palace for the first time. He wanted to be honest with her; to explain how nerve-wracking it had been, walking into such a prestigious place with his new title as the mayor’s representative . . . but more so, he did not want to sound stupid in front of this girl. He would be mortified with himself if he did.
And so even though he didn’t lie, he didn’t reveal the full extent of his own anxieties—just that, the first time, he’d been a bit nervous.
“Everyone there’s real nice, though,” he rounded off his explanation. “I dunno too much about the teachers there, but a couple are on the council.”
“I know the Chief Magician is one.”
“Yeah, that’s right! And then his dad—his uh, father, I mean—is too. And both of them seem like pretty good people to me.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Thank you for being so helpful.”
Kentworth felt himself turning pink and reached up to scratch his head. “I don’t feel like I really helped you that much, though. I mean, I’ve only been there a few times. . . .”
“Oh no, I found your story to be very helpful!” she said emphatically. “You’ve only just started working there so your experiences are fresh. You’re the perfect person to have told me all of this.”
Whatever he’d been about to say evaporated from his brain. “Really?”
“Yes, of course. Thank you so much again.”
“Any time,” he said in earnest.
There was an awkward moment of silence.
“Uh, I—I have to go back to work now,” said Kentworth with great reluctance. “I’m only on lunch break.”
The girl pulled at a silver chain around her neck, revealing a heart-shaped pendant with a tiny clock face. “Yes, I’d best be going as well. It’s getting a bit late.”
Their chairs scraped back. The moment both of them were on their feet, Kentworth scrambled, a little clumsily, to push in the girl’s chair for her.
“Oh!” she said, her cheeks flushing. “Thank you. . . .”
“Yeah, of course!”
Neither of them moved. Kentworth’s mind was racing a mile a minute as he opened his mouth to say something, anything, trying to think. . . .
“Uh, I—where’re you going?” he blurted. Miss Lockwood blinked up at him, making him hurry to add, “I was just—I was wondering, you know . . . if we were, um . . . going in the same direction, maybe?”
The blush in Miss Lockwood’s cheeks glowed brighter than ever.
“I’m only heading home now,” she replied shyly. “I live in Summerhays Court.”
His heart sank a little. Summerhays Court was one of many wealthier streets, where the homes sported large outdoor gardens and gates made of sparkling white stone. He’d known the moment he saw Miss Lockwood that she was likely to live in a place like that, but it still made him feel a little alienated and a lot more unsure—especially wearing his dirty work clothes while she was dressed so nicely.
“Do you know where that is?” she asked, seeming to take his silence for confusion.
“Oh—yeah, I know. I’ve walked past there before, the houses are really beautiful.”
And not just the houses, he thought in desperation. But how could he ask to walk her there now like he’d originally wanted to? He had no idea what to do. . . .
“. . . You said you had to go back to work?” she prompted.
Kentworth let out a deep breath and gave up. There was just no way around it. “Yeah, unfortunately. I’m really sorry I couldn’t help you more.”
Miss Lockwood, however, paused; she was clutching her pocketbook in front of her and looked almost hesitant about something.
“Actually, um . . . Mr. Dockman—”
“Kentworth,” he corrected mechanically.
“. . . Kentworth,” she amended, still blushing. “I was actually wondering—I believe you mentioned you’ve stayed overnight at the palace before? If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to hear more about that.”
His heart soared with nervous excitement. “Y-you would?”
“Well, if I do get accepted for teaching then I’m sure I’d be staying there overnight from time to time. It would be nice to know what to expect.”
It was abruptly hard to breathe again as he groped for words.
“I can walk you back and tell you more on the way!” he offered. “If—only if you want me to, that is. . . .”
“It wouldn’t be out of your way?”
“No way, I know all the shortcuts! Once we get to Summerhays I can get back to the docks in no time.”
In reality, he knew that walking her there might make him late, but he didn’t care. Her smile was enough to convince him that this was worth it; he could make up the time at work later that night.
Kentworth let Miss Lockwood lead the way from the restaurant. He’d noticed right when she stood up, but it was now more evident than ever that he positively towered over her like some big dumb Mountain Elf. It was bad enough that he was hyper aware of each lumbering step he took and the stupid way his arms were swinging while they walked, but the contrast between him and her exquisite, slender frame and sunshine-colored dress made him feel like he was from another world.
How . . . had this . . . happened?
“So, Mr.—I mean, Kentworth,” she said, not quite meeting his eye. “I can only imagine what it must’ve been like taking a room at the palace. What did you think of it?”
The palace room had taken his breath away; but of course it did, he didn’t fit with that sort of thing. To a girl like this, however . . . “There’s anything you could ever need there. It was a surprise, honestly. I thought they were gunna shove me in a little corner room to get rid of me—” He heard her giggle and it made him grin. “—but I guess they must’ve liked me or something. I got my own bathroom and access to the kitchens and everything!”
“Oh my, I hadn’t even considered food. . . .”
“Don’t worry, they won’t starve you or anything. I mean, a girl like you . . .” He glanced at her, feeling himself blush. “I bet you’d probably get a queen’s suite.”
“Oh my!” laughed Miss Lockwood, covering her mouth. “I’m just a teacher, not an important town representative. They wouldn’t do something like that.”
Kentworth’s heart skipped a beat. Important representative. That was him. She’d said that about him. . . .
“The food there’s great!” he blurted, flushing a furious shade of red. “And the bathroom! I mean, you get one, in the room! And—hey, have you ever taken this shortcut?!” He paused at the mouth of an alleyway and she stopped, too, looking a little taken aback. “Um, it’s really good! I mean, it goes to the next street over. . . .”
Kentworth had hardly ever felt so stupid. Miss Lockwood’s hand was still over her mouth, clearly trying to hide her smile.
“Sorry,” said Kentworth, completely mortified. “We can go the normal way—”
“Oh no, it’s all right. I never knew this shortcut before. I thought I was the teacher, but it seems you’re teaching me all sorts of things this afternoon.”
Some of his embarrassment faded and he made himself smile. “If you say so. C’mon, it’s this way!”
And he led her into the alleyway, where the stone walls on either side were covered in ivy and moss. It was slightly dimmer and cooler there and felt kind of nice.
But Kentworth also realized, quite abruptly, that some innocent girl had agreed to follow him into an alley. Sure, it was daytime . . . but still.
Maybe he simply didn’t seem dangerous; she’d been laughing at him, after all. . . . So maybe, just maybe, despite towering more than a foot over her and clearly being far stronger than her, she didn’t find him intimidating.
It elated him yet worried him. A girl like Miss Lockwood was sure to be carrying a decent sum of money on her. Even with Rhoswen’s crime rate so low, shouldn’t she be more careful than this? Kentworth frowned, thinking it over, but there wasn’t much he could say; he’d only just met her and it wasn’t his place to start giving out advice.
The alley gave way to the top of Market Street, which met a residential road in a T-shape. If they went that way, they’d go past his family’s house. The very idea made him sweat; he didn’t want her to see where he lived. . . .
“How about we go this way?” he said, pointing to a different off-shooting street. “And—and then I can tell you more on the way.”
“All right. . . .”
Kentworth led her onward, dodging other pedestrians with her at his side. He was quite conscious of the faces glancing at them and couldn’t help but wonder what they looked like together. Probably like a princess and a servant, for crying out loud.
“So,” she prompted, “you were telling me about the rooms?”
“. . . Oh, right! Yeah, so like I said, there’s everything you could need there . . . and everything’s decorated so fancy, kind of like if you’ve ever been in town hall here? High ceilings, everything’s white and green and gold, the floors have got woven rugs. . . . Oh! And I forgot to say, you’re allowed in the palace library, too. Or—I’m pretty sure you would be, anyway; I bet teachers get to go in there!”
Miss Lockwood turned to him in surprise. “The palace library? Really?”
“Yeah! I bet you’d get access to that, being a teacher. You might need books or to look something up, wouldn’t you?”
He’d already been glancing her way, but now he could hardly take his eyes from her. At the mention of the library, her face was aglow with subtle enthusiasm, her happiness and smile contagious—and also a dead giveaway.
“I bet you like books, huh?” he guessed.
“Oh! Was I that obvious?”
“A little,” said Kentworth, grinning, “but I just sort of figured. You’re a teacher and you seem so . . . you’re, what’s that word . . . eloquent! You’re not an English teacher, are you?”
“Not usually. I substitute for someone sometimes and do literature, but I usually teach arithmetic and geography. Nothing too impressive.”
Kentworth laughed in disbelief. “Hey, that’s pretty impressive to me! And no wonder you wanna see more of the Forest; you’re a geography expert!”
“Oh, no, I’m really not,” she hastened to say. “I haven’t even been to the palace.”
“Well there’s a first time for everything! I’d never been there either ‘til last year. But you must’ve traveled to other interesting places, right?”
“. . . Mm, a little bit. We used to take vacations to Mina-Ren and stay in a cottage in the countryside. It was lovely.”
A trickle of discomfort dripped into Kentworth’s stomach, and the more he let it sink in, the more he couldn’t help but ask, “Oh . . . um, who—who’s ‘we’?”
For a moment Miss Lockwood didn’t seem to understand. Then she turned pink.
“I meant my family,” she said timidly, “not—not a husband, or . . .”
Relief flooded Kentworth like a tidal wave.
“Oh! No, I wasn’t thinking that!” he exclaimed, holding up his hands.“Um, so . . . so anyways, have you been anywhere else? I’ve heard Taura’s like Rhoswen but I’ve never gone there, have you?”
“No, I haven’t. But we—that is, my sister and I—have gone to Runa.”
“Right, they’ve got the huge library. No wonder you wanted to go there: more books!”
Miss Lockwood laughed from behind her hand. “Not only that! My sister’s a librarian, and our town and theirs were trading some books between, so she offered to go sign for everything. She asked if I’d like to go, too, and we had a wonderful time. It’s quite different from Rhoswen.”
One thing in particular from her story stood out to Kentworth.
“You have a sister?” he asked in interest.
“Oh, I thought I’d said so a minute ago, but yes, I do.”
“Me too! An older sister, and I’ve got an older brother.”
Miss Lockwood looked him over in polite surprise. “You’re the youngest?”
“Yeah!” Kentworth stood to his full height. “And the tallest!”
A giggle escaped her, making him feel quite good about himself; when she didn’t say anything more, however, he went on and asked: “So you said your sister’s a librarian here?”
“Mhmm. That’s right.”
“Boy, you’re both doing something so useful. . . .” Kentworth remarked, watching the scenery with a slight frown; they were heading uphill on a road that would take them to Summerhays Court. “Even my brother, too; he’s a postman. And then my sister, Polly, she runs the confectionery down on Market Street—”
Miss Lockwood gasped. “You’re kidding! My grandmother adores Something Sweet!”
“No way!” said Kentworth, gawking at her. “Really?!”
“Oh yes, of course! She used to go there all the time, but . . . well, she’s been having a bit of trouble lately, and she can’t get there as often.”
They were passing cottages with flowering vines patch-worked over their roofs. Normally when Kentworth passed these sort of Rhoswen abodes, he took them in with longing—now, however, they were reduced to nothing but vague buildings in the backdrop, for his mind was racing, his hand in his pocket over the box of marzipan his sister had given him.
They were fast approaching a circular court where four houses faced each other across a central fountain. Several similar streets were up ahead, but he was almost certain the first of these was Summerhays.
Sure enough, Miss Lockwood slowed when they reached the white walls that flanked the court. Kentworth stopped behind her, glancing in at the beautiful homes while he made a final decision.
“Um,” he said, making her pause to look back at him. “Here, I—I’ve got something.”
And he pulled he box of candy from his pocket.
Miss Lockwood didn’t seem to understand. Without explaining himself, he took off the lid of the box and folded back the tissue paper so that there, in the dappled light beneath the trees bordering the lane, the marzipan candies sparkled.
“I got these from my sister,” he said. “But I can get more. I think I’d . . . I’d really like you to have them, instead.”
Miss Lockwood’s hand was over her mouth again, but this time she wasn’t smiling.
“There’s nothing wrong with them!” said Kentworth, tilting the box so she could see inside. “My sister gave them to me today, she only just made them.” The girl took a couple steps closer, peering into the box without speaking. “I . . . I just thought, maybe . . . maybe you could give them to your grandmother. . . .”
They stood in silence, the girl’s hesitance only making his anxiety grow.
“Did your sister make these for you?” asked Miss Lockwood, and Kentworth reluctantly met her gaze.
“Well, yeah. Her and her husband make everything in the shop—”
“No, I mean . . . did she make these especially for you?”
“. . . Yeah.” The box drooped in his hands. “But . . .”
Smiling, Miss Lockwood interjected. “Your offer is so kind, but I couldn’t. These look like they were made with a lot of love. Don’t you think your sister might be upset if you gave them away to a stranger?”
Kentworth stared into the box, at the handcrafted candies Polly had made with him in mind, and he knew she was right. He’d just gotten swept up in the moment; desperate to do something to make Miss Lockwood remember him. He couldn’t give them all away. . . .
But there was something else he could do.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he conceded. “But—well, can you c’mere for a second?”
Kentworth headed for the nearest garden wall, hoping she would follow and feeling so nervous he could hardly stand it. Looking curious, she came along with him.
The moment he reached the wall, he set down the box and began to pull it apart, making sure to keep the candies safe while he took out the tissue paper. He took out each individual marzipan and delicately placed them inside the lid, and when the box was empty, he pulled out the cardboard separator and freed the decorative white doily underneath.
In truth, he wasn’t the most artistic man; he didn’t really know how to make what he was doing look good. But he tried not to worry about that as he unfolded the tissue paper to its full size, placed the doily in its center, and then, looking back at his collection of candies with a frown, chose both of the rose-shaped ones and placed them in the center, too.
“Oh!” Miss Lockwood exclaimed, but Kentworth carried on, plucking from his pocket the ribbon that had originally tied the box. With it in hand, he took the four corners of the tissue paper, brought them together, and began tying it like a small bundle. “Oh my, no, no I really couldn’t—!”
“I’ve got enough of ‘em, trust me,” he insisted. “And besides, uh . . . the rose ones are probably flavored like roses and that’s not my favorite flavor anyway, so . . .”
And he held the package out to her, feeling his face go red.
At first, Miss Lockwood didn’t so much as blink; then, as if afraid of startling him, she cautiously moved closer and took the handmade package.
“Thank you,” she said, wearing a soft smile.
Kentworth’s heart felt like it was about to burst. He just smiled back, returned to the mess he’d made of the sweets box, and began to put it back together.
“You’re welcome. . . .”
He fumbled with the pieces of the box, his heart thumping. He finally felt like he’d gotten something right, and yet . . . he didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to walk away and never see her again.
“I’ll be able to share these with my grandmother,” said Miss Lockwood. “I’m sure she’ll think I bought them, but . . . I think it can be our secret.”
Kentworth looked over his shoulder at her while he worked.
“I can get you more, too!” he blurted.
“Oh my goodness, your poor sister will go out of business!”
“Nah, it’s fine! I usually pay for something when I go in there, so—so . . .” He trailed off at her sudden giggling and realized, in complete embarrassment, that he’d been trying to put the lid on upside down. He laughed nervously and turned it the right way. “Sheesh, I’m a mess. I guess I . . . I must be pretty embarrassing to be around, huh?”
Miss Lockwood was smiling behind her hand again.
“It’s all right,” she said. “But don’t you have to be back to work?”
A bad feeling rose in the pit of Kentworth’s stomach. He was definitely about to be late.
Trying to hide his worry, he thought fast and said, “Yeah, but it’s okay. When I get back I can blame it on the mayor and the Chief Magician. I’m practically never late and nobody can yell at those two, so it’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.”
“I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble on my account. . . .”
“It’d be worth it!” he said without thinking, and anxiously rushed to clarify. “I just—all I mean is . . . I just really had a good time talking to you. That’s what I mean.”
Miss Lockwood’s curled hand rested at her chin, highlighting her smile so that, to Kentworth, she looked cuter than ever.
“I had a nice time talking to you, as well,” she said. “Thank you for all your helpful information. And this,” she added with a slight blush, holding up the candy.
“It’s all my pleasure, seriously!”
They lingered there on the quiet road, birdsong rising in the distance, and Kentworth took a deep breath. This was it.
“Well . . . it was great meeting you, Miss Lockwood,” he said. “I really hope you get that teaching job.”
“Thank you, it was a pleasure meeting you, too. . . . Well—goodbye.”
“. . . Bye.”
Kentworth watched her turn and start walking. Clutching his depleted box of marzipan, he gave another deep sigh before, feeling even heavier than usual, he turned to go too.
“Um . . .”
He spun around at the sound of her voice. She was standing at the entrance to her street, looking unsure.
“My given name is Elise,” she said. “I thought . . . I thought you might like to know, since you asked me to call you by your first name, as well.”
“. . . Yeah!” said Kentworth, his heart in his throat. “Yeah, that’s—yeah, thanks!”
“I thought—just in case we ever run into each other again. I’m sure I’ve seen you around town before today, so . . .” She paused to meet his eye, but with his heart hammering against his Adam’s apple, he could say nothing; she looked shyly away from his windswept expression. “Well, goodbye then.”
“Bye for now,” he said before he could stop himself.
Starting to turn red again and not wanting her to see, he hurried back down the lane towards town. He was going to have to jog back to work if he wanted to avoid getting a pay cut, so his lateness was a good excuse to pick up the pace.
But in the Forest’s name . . . who cared about work?
That—that—had actually happened to him. He couldn’t even begin to process it all, but her expressions, their exchanges, and the blush of her cheeks were on loop in his mind, replaying every stupid thing he’d done and all the ways she had responded; all the moments she could have excused herself and went off without him but merely laughed and let him stay. She’d even said that she had a nice time talking to him. To him!
Kentworth laughed aloud as he jogged down the street. It was like some crazy dream. A girl like that, who had actually liked talking to him. . . .
And now he knew her full name: Elise Lockwood.
Elise . . . it was pretty in a very simple, elegant way, so well-suited to her dainty physique and impeccable manners. It sounded gentle, too, like the soft smile she’d given him when he’d tried to give her the sweets box. She’d been modest, and cute, and a really good conversationalist. Everything about her seemed wonderful.
And he couldn’t believe she’d seen him around town and hadn’t mentioned it until then, right before they said goodbye! What was up with that?!
Kentworth laughed again. Who was he kidding? If it meant he got to see her again, he couldn’t have cared less. At the very least he knew he had a better chance of running into her if he frequented the library. And if she got that teaching job, they might even see each other at the palace!
As he reached the city center of town , he couldn’t hold back a grin despite the fact that he was literally running down the street to get back to the docks, where he knew he was going to get chewed out for being late. The people he passed on the street looked alarmed and steered clear, but for once, he didn’t care what anybody thought. Nothing was going to ruin his mood. Nothing.Somehow, his lunch break had turned into a lucky break.