New York City, 1895
A man was watching her from the other side of the glass.
Grace did her best to ignore the tall, well-dressed stranger and focus on her task. She’d been hired four weeks ago at McCall & Armstrong’s—or Mac & Arm’s as it was often called—to assist with designing Christmas window displays. Mac & Arm’s was the finest department store in New York City, catering to the very best clientele. Her boss, Mr. Bernard, would not be pleased if Grace failed to complete this window tonight.
“Finish this all before you leave, Miss Shipley,” Mr. Bernard had said in a French accent, though she knew he hailed from Poughkeepsie. “Remember, exactly as I have sketched it out for you. Exactement.” As if she didn’t already know the plans intimately. She had drawn the rough draft of each window design, after all.
Christmas was less than a month away. Eight displays needed to be installed in the next few days. This would be the first year for holiday windows at Mac & Arm’s, and Mr. McCall had overseen many of the details himself. He seemed like a nice man, and it was easy to see why he’d been successful in business. Rumor held Mr. Armstrong was pricklier, which must explain why he kept to the top floor. Grace hadn’t ever met the man. Instead, Mr. McCall routinely dealt with the store’s staff.
The job had been interesting thus far, putting her love of color and fabric to good use. The designs were based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, with each window representing a different story. The pieces were being finished downstairs in the basement and, as the only staff member without a family to go home to, Grace had been asked to assemble those pieces in the windows themselves.
She wiped the beads of sweat from her brow. Small and cramped, the window boxes had poor ventilation. Brown paper covered the glass, which made it a bit like standing in a burlap sack. However, it was late, after the store had closed, so she hadn’t seen the harm in peeling back a section of said brown paper to see the vibrant city surrounding the Twenty-Third Street store.
New York City never stopped moving, its pace endlessly fascinating, and Grace hated to miss a minute of the excitement. Someday, after she’d saved enough, she would be part of that chaos, going to dinner here and shows there. Dancing at the Haymarket. Shopping Ladies’ Mile. But for now, her view of the city at night was through one small missing section in the brown paper.
Unfortunately, thanks to this small opening, a man was now observing her from the sidewalk.
He’d been looming there for at least two minutes. Dressed in a well-fitted black coat, he held a brown leather satchel in one hand, the other wrapped around the silver handle of an ebony cane. A derby sat perched on a head full of brown hair. He didn’t smile, wink, or even nod at her. He just observed her with an intensity that would’ve made her nervous under other circumstances…such as, if she weren’t encased in a safe—albeit hot—glass tomb.
Why was he there? Perhaps he worked for Macy’s or Lord & Taylor’s and had decided to size up the competition. Well, she couldn’t help that now. He’d already seen the contents of the window, so it hardly made sense to cover the glass back up. The best thing to do would be to finish quickly and leave for the night. If she were taken to task in the morning for revealing the windows to a competitor, then she’d own up to it.
A lie weights down your soul, her mother used to say.
She decided to ignore him and concentrate on the next item on her to-do list: assemble the lily pads. She collected the pieces and approached the small pond she’d created on the right side of the display. They had used a shallow round tub to hold the water, with metal poles coming up from the bottom to lift the lily pads.
Bending, she began to fit the poles together. When the last two lily pads remained, she sighed. Her arms weren’t long enough to reach the empty poles. “Rats,” she muttered. Really, why on earth hadn’t she waited to fill the tub until after the lily pads were installed? This was why she much preferred drawing and planning than executing the designs.
Grace carefully climbed onto the edge of the pond, raising her skirts to keep them out of the water. She put a hand to the wall to steady herself as she shuffled her feet, but she misjudged the lip of the tub on her next step. Off-balance, she wobbled for a few seconds before her right foot dropped into the water. The leather of her shoe instantly soaked through, all the way down to her woolen stockings, chilling her skin.
“Double rats.” Nothing to be done for it now. Grace shivered and then remembered her audience. Had he…?
Her head snapped up. The man was still there, his dark eyes round and lips parted in surprise. She shifted and water squelched out of her boot. No wonder he was staring at her like that. She must look an absolute fool.
She laughed. Unsurprising that she’d fallen into the water; her clumsiness was legendary in the Shipley family. And of course, a handsome stranger had witnessed this debacle. Didn’t that perfectly sum up Grace’s romantic life?
You can’t always be perfect, so be genuine instead.
Grace had taken her grandmother’s advice to heart, both in relationships and her art. So instead of cowering in embarrassment, she locked eyes with the man on the other side of the glass and gave a proper curtsy.
No laugh. No smile. Instead, he blinked a few times, spun on his heel, and strode out of her line of sight.
Disappointed, but not surprised, she climbed out of the pond and tried to wring out her skirts. Removing her boot was impossible while fully dressed, so she stomped the wet foot to remove some of the moisture. Every path has a few puddles. Goodness, Grace never thought she’d experience that bit of family wisdom literally.
Water had dripped onto the floor, but thankfully none of the display pieces were ruined. Yet. She needed to find a way to quickly clean up the mess. This window display had to be completed tonight. She couldn’t risk losing her position.
This job was the first step in her life plan. One day, she’d be the most popular dressmaker in all of New York. She’d been crafting her own clothes for years, and a career in clothing design was her dream. Getting fired meant never working her way up higher in the Mac & Arm’s dress design department.
The door in the rear of the display suddenly opened, startling her. The man from the sidewalk appeared. How on earth had he gotten inside the store? Had the guards let him in?
He held out a new cloth. “Here.” His voice was deep, the one word said with authority. Grace’s stomach flipped.
“Did you take that off the store’s shelf?” was all she could think to say.
He tilted his head, and the lines on his brow deepened. “Yes.”
“Then I cannot use it. That’s stealing.” Never mind that she desperately needed a towel. However, she couldn’t use anything belonging to the store. She hadn’t a way to pay for it.
He opened his mouth, and then closed it. His expression grew even more perplexed. “Do not worry. I’ll cover the cost. Please, take it.”
“You’ll cover it, how? The store is closed.”
“I’ll pay for it tomorrow.”
Ah, so he did work here. That explained why the night guard had allowed him inside. “That is not necessary. I’ll pay for the towel.” Somehow. She’d figure it out. Perhaps Mr. Bernard would agree to an advance on her wages.
He stepped farther into the box. In the electric light, she could see that his brown eyes were actually hazel with a hint of green. He was striking this close up. So striking that she felt flustered. His handsomeness was not the romantic, classical kind, soft and gentle, the type reserved for actors and poets. Instead, it was like a punch to the solar plexus. As if you were standing in the presence of a fine marble statue, art so beautiful and raw it stole your breath.
And he saw you fall into the pool. He feels sorry for you.
“Miss Shipley, I promise to compensate the store for the cloth.”
“Cross your heart?”
The harsh lines of his face eased, as if she amused him. “Yes, cross my heart. I’ll pay for the cloth first thing in the morning.”
Normally she didn’t accept gifts from strangers, especially men, but it seemed like an exception could be made in this case. “Fine.” She closed the distance between them and accepted the soft cotton. “If you forget, send a note to the design department. I’ll work something out with Mr. Bernard as far as payment.”
He gave a brisk nod. “I’ll leave you to it. Good night.”
© Joanna Shupe