The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 7)
She wasn’t ready to explain herself, so she did the next-best thing: she baked. In between customers, she bustled around the kitchen attached to the parlor, carefully cracking eggs and measuring out flour and sugar as her mother had always done when nervous, despite the pet shop’s ongoing agreement with the baker across the street. Around lunchtime, she flipped the sign on the door, locked it, and headed upstairs with a heavy tray.
Thom looked up as she stood in the doorway, a wobbling smile on her face.
“Hungry?” she said too brightly.
He stilled to watch her, his gaze cautious but warm. “Verra, thanks.”
She was surprised that he hadn’t made more progress in five hours alone. She’d heard a little bit of sawing, a little bit of hammering, but the room was still dark, a curtain covering the window.
Wait. It was her new curtain, which she had left folded neatly on the table. Her bed was made, the corners neat. The bright blue floor had been swept, the charred wood and ashes removed. Good gracious, the man had put everything to rights!
“The bed is fixed,” he said softly, holding up the side of the blanket to show shining new wood where charred, ancient boards had been.
“My. You do work fast.” She set the tray on the now empty table and put up a hand to touch the curtain, but he grinned and gestured for her to move back.
“Wait. The grand reveal.”
Careful to give her space, careful not to touch her again, he waited for her to step away before whipping the curtain aside. When she gasped this time, it was with happiness.
“Just a little something I found,” he said.
“So you’re a sailor, a firefighter, a handyman . . . and a miracle worker?”
“I get around.”
She put a finger to the dimpled glass. It was nothing special, as windows went. Two simple panes of thick glass, but clean and bright and thin enough to show her the world outside, which the old window had never done.
Without Thom, she would have had to pay someone to board the window over with scavenged wood. It would have been months before she had saved up enough money to pay someone else to install the cheapest glass available.
“It doesn’t seem like words are enough, but thank you,” she said.
Although Thom seemed on the verge of stepping closer, he held himself away. She felt his eyes on her, careful and taking her measure. He had the same quiet, contained comfort she had cultivated when taming small birds. They were excitable, flighty, and untrusting, and they needed space, understanding, and time before they would step up onto her finger. Frannie smiled to herself. So she was more like a sparrow than she’d thought, then. And he was more patient than she had expected. She suddenly realized that she had to see him again.
“Do you like music?”
The question caught him off-guard, and he warily said, “I don’t dislike it.”
He glanced about the room, probably looking for a gramophone or some other modern contraption for enjoying music in the home—and forcing it on unwitting victims. But her bedroom was a small, tidy spot, and he’d seen everything but the closet, so far as she knew. She narrowed her eyes at the door, wondering. But if he had opened it, she’d have heard the squeal of the hinges, and he would have had a few choice questions for her by now.
“I’ve a box at the Vauxhall for Friday night and would appreciate an escort,” she began, and a small smile quirked his full lips.
“I’m not really the theater type, lass,” he said. “Big brute like me.” But he was teasing, and she knew it. And liked it.
“I’m not, either. But if someone’s running about throwing incendiary devices through my window, I’d be glad to have my own personal brute in tow. For safety, you understand.”
The gleam in his eyes said he understood just fine, but he continued to play along. “Well, if it’s a public service, I can’t really say no, aye?”
“I knew I could count on your altruism. You seem amenable to helping a lady in need.”
“It’s no’ a habit, but I do make exceptions. And I doubt you’re helpless at all. Ye seem a very apt lass, to me. Running this place all alone, keeping up the creatures and sorting your own house. I was raised by just my mother, and she was worn ragged from the running of things. Ye do fine.”
She couldn’t help blushing. It was hard work, but she’d honestly never considered anything else. What else could she have done when Bertram passed? Her parents were gone in a horseless-carriage accident, and all her wider family were dour, religious folk who had never supported the idea of a pet shop. When she’d turned down her grandmother’s offer that Frannie move in and act as maid, companion, and cook, that was the last she’d heard of the humorless biddy. She’d let no one close enough to see the truth of her life, not in a long time. Except Maisie, but their relationship was based on wisdom disguised as grumbled complaints. And she never left her own courtyard, either.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Thom. Please let me know what I owe you for your work and materials.”
He glanced at the window, his mouth twisting. “I don’t think—”
“Just enjoy your lunch and send me a bill, aye?”
He grinned. “I’ll do that. Before the theater on Friday.”
Later that afternoon, an urchin arrived bearing a letter and a mynah bird in a rough wooden cage. In the wobbly, loopy hand of a man accustomed to being at sea, it read:
To: Miss Frannie Pleasance, Tamer of Beasts
Bill for: Acts of Altruism
Fee: One ticket to the theater
From: Thomas Maccallan, Finder of Lost Things
Frannie gave the courier a copper and tucked the note into her jacket pocket. She held her finger out, gratified when the mynah stepped up and ruffled its feathers. As soon as it was settled back in its usual cage, it said, “Naughty lad. Naughty lad, don’t eat that. She’s a pretty lass, no?”
She couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day.
The next morning, Casper swaggered down the stairs and into the pet shop, clearly not dressed for helping out with the muck. Then again, she hadn’t expected him to be, not after he’d overpaid her so generously.
“You’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning, eh?”
He looked up with a winning grin. “It’s recently been brought to my attention that I can come across as a bit disreputable. I’m trying to clean up my act.”
“I’ll admit you look sharper without sick all over your shirt.”
He winced and brushed a few stray feathers off his slightly-too-fine jacket. “That was one unfortunate incident that I’m going to blame on a concussion. I’m a talented, self-supporting male in my prime. A star on the rise.”
“And a pet-shop assistant?”
He clutched his chest and rolled his eyes. “Anything to impress a lady fair.”
She rolled her eyes right back. “You’re not my type, lad.”
“I’ll keep trying.”
She spun on her heel, and he put a hand on her arm as she passed. “Frannie, come on—”
Smacking his hand away, she balled her fists and turned on him. “Who do you think you are? With your grins and your pretty words and your money? Do you think you can buy me, Casper Sterling?”
The look of utter confusion and mortification on his face made her slightly less angry. “Buy you? God, no. I just . . . have kind of a crush on you.”
“A crush?” She snorted. “You’ve known me for three days, and most of that time, you were drunk or asleep. Just because I dragged you out of the gutter doesn’t mean you can grab me and start asking favors.”
“It’s not like that.”
“What’s it like, then?”
Casper walked to the counter, hopping up to sit on her ledger and receiving another death glare for his trouble. “Things just don’t seem to work in London the way they work elsewhere. How does a guy show polite interest in a nice girl here? I keep mucking it up.”
“I saw the rouge stains on your chest, lad. Something tells me you know exactly what you’re doing.”
It was his turn to snort and shake his head. “There’s a certain kind of woman who throws herself at me. I know how to handle that, but it’s never serious. It’s never real. This is the second time I’ve told a girl here I genuinely liked her, and she’s treated me like I’m a total ass.” He looked at his bare fingers with confusion. “Why do the good girls always say no?”
Frannie chuckled and sighed, punching him lightly on the arm in a sisterly fashion. “Saying no to fellows like you is what keeps us good girls good.”
“But what if I want to be good, too?”
She stood back to look him up and down.
He made a token fuss at his cravat, held his arms out wide, and smiled a winning, dimpled smile.
“You’re not good. You might want to be, but you’re reckless and foolish and smooth and sly. And any girl worth her salt will notice and run away.”
“Maybe you’re asking the wrong person.” She raised her eyebrows at him, and he looked down as if the answers were written on the floor.
As Frannie headed upstairs on an imaginary errand, she realized that she knew exactly what Casper’s problem was. He may have thought he wanted to be good, but he was a rake at heart. A dashing devil with a dimpled smile and a hunger for more than Frannie and her quiet life could provide. A girl knew the signs of a fellow who would always be looking over his shoulder for something new, once such a man had preyed upon her. If she let herself get attached to him, he would hurt her. So, as with most of the creatures in her pet shop, she wouldn’t even dream of getting attached.
Upstairs in her room, she pulled back the curtains a little more, glad for the light. The mirror proved that she was the same Frannie as ever, even if something about her had attracted two lads in the same week. She was a pretty lass, to be sure. But with a very busy job and the situation with Bertram, she hadn’t given much thought to finding love.