Haste to the Wedding
by Pam

*************************************************
Come haste to the wedding ye friends and ye neighbors,
The lovers their bliss can no longer delay.
Forget all your sorrows your cares and your labors,
And let every heart beat with rapture today.
Come, come one and all, attend to my call,
And revel in pleasures that never can cloy.
Come see rural felicity,
Which love and innocence ever enjoy.

--"Haste to the Wedding," collected from Eunice Carew's songbook, 1790

October 1802

Done. William Bush tossed the last potato he'd unearthed into the waiting
basket and sank back onto the soft loam of the garden, with a sigh of relief.
That should be more than enough vegetables for the stew tonight. He'd bring
them inside once he'd caught his breath. For now, however, it was pleasant
to sit quietly, listening to the faint tinkling of the pianoforte from the
cottage, as his sister Catherine instructed two of her pupils in music, and
inhaling the rich smells of earth, ripening apples, and woodsmoke. He was no
farmer, never had been, but there were moments when he could almost
understand the appeal of such a life.

The scar across his midsection twinged suddenly, and he rubbed it, grimacing.
Autumn had been fairly mild so far, but in the last few days a certain
dampness had crept into the air, a dampness that Bush's ten-month-old wounds
clearly disliked.

Ten months. Bush shook his head in bewilderment. Had ever a year seen so
many changes? Ten months ago he'd been fighting for his life in the West
Indies, seven months ago he'd stood on the deck of the Renown and learned
that peace preliminaries had been signed, five months ago the Renown had been
paid off, like every nine out of ten ships in peacetime, and his life as an
unemployed lieutenant on half-pay had begun.

Five months. The longest he'd ever spent ashore since joining the navy, and
most of it spent here, in the Chichester cottage he shared with his young
unmarried sisters.

Not unmarried for long, though. In a fortnight's time, Kate would finally wed
the curate who had been courting her these last two years. And then there
were those three young men who eyed Anne acquisitively every Sunday at
church--no doubt they'd be beating a path to the Bush cottage as soon as her
elder sister was safely married.

Bush grimaced again, dug irritably at the ground with his trowel. He did not
begrudge his sisters their prospects--they were the dearest girls in the
world and deserved to make good matches. Adam Fenton was hard-working,
honest, and devoted to Kate. And it was no bad thing that the daughter of a
yeoman farmer should wed a curate--many would regard it as a step up in the
world for her. Perhaps Anne too would fare equally well, when her time came.
It was natural for a woman to desire a home and family of her own.

Except that it left *him* at something of a loss. For the last ten years,
since his father's death and the sale of the struggling Bush farm, *he* had
been the family mainstay, sending home half his pay to his sisters, receiving
his reward in their continued well-being and the care they lavished upon him
during his infrequent periods of leave. Was it pique, then, that lay at the
heart of his current discontent? Resentment that he was no longer the most
important man in his sisters' lives? Perhaps there was something of
that--but Bush felt fairly sure that jealousy was not the entire cause of his
growing restlessness.

Nothing endures but change. And all around him, the world he knew, the family
he knew, was changing, settling into new rhythms and patterns. While *he,*
William Bush, remained tethered to his moorings, useless as the retired
warships now lying at anchor in Spithead and countless other British harbors.
When just a year before--

Enough. Bush got to his feet with a grunt of self-disgust; he was becoming
maudlin. It did not do to dwell overlong upon the past, to relive battles
already fought and decided, to brood over comrades lost. It did no good to
think, wistfully, of Hornblower, recently promoted and perhaps sailing his
sloop in distant waters, or, sorrowfully, of Kennedy, lying in his grave.
Life in the service was full of partings, some more painful than others.
Meanwhile, the present beckoned, in the shape of weeds in the garden, mutton
stew for supper, and excursions into town for wedding clothes. Or so he had
promised Kate once she finished with the Misses Fell. Picking up the basket
of vegetables, Bush made his way inside.

Two pairs of reproachful blue eyes looked up at him as he entered the parlor.

"William, you're late!" Kate accused. "The Misses Fell left ten minutes ago!"

Bush blinked at his usually serene sister, now fretting her lower lip in
agitation. "Forgive me, my dear. I did not hear them leave."

Anne rolled her eyes. "Men!" she announced to the world at large. "They
never notice anything unless it's shot out of a cannon!"

"If we don't hurry, the best part of the day will be over before we go into
town!" Kate wrung her hands.

"It's barely noon, my dear," Bush replied soothingly. "And it'll take me but
a few minutes to wash and change my clothes, then we'll be off."

"Oh, very well," Kate sighed, apparently mollified by his calm, "senior
officer" tones.

Smiling to himself, Bush carried the vegetables into the kitchen and set them
down on the table before stripping off his shirt and beginning his ablutions
under the kitchen pump. In the parlor, he could hear his sisters talking.

"So which *should* it be, Anne? For the gown--Grantley & Thorpe, or Madame
Mignonette's?"

"Both," his youngest sister replied. "That is, we *call* at both places and
see what each has to offer. I understand Grantley & Thorpe have some gowns
half made, which would be most convenient. Yet I've heard there's no one to
equal Madame for wedding frocks, and her prices are quite reasonable, on the
whole."

"And for bonnets?"

"Oh, that's easy! Gillian's, of course."

Bush shook his head as he toweled himself dry. He could offer no assistance
in this matter; indeed, the finer details of women's apparel defeated him.
But Anne was always bandbox neat when she left the house, so presumably she
was in a position to know which establishments they should frequent. He only
hoped the price would not be *too* dear and deprive Kate of something she had
set her heart on.

"William?" Kate peered in at the kitchen doorway. "Will you please wear your
uniform when we go into town?"

Bush glanced at her quizzically. "Of course, if it'll please you. But may I
ask why?"

"Well," she colored prettily, "it *might* impress the merchants enough to
offer us a more reasonable price. And you do look so very dashing in it!"

Bush surprised himself by laughing aloud. "A good thing I'm not immune to
flattery, even from my sisters! Very well--I'll get it out of my sea chest."

He only hoped, after months of his sisters' cooking, that the trousers still
fit.
***********************************
When the shop bell tinged, Jennet was instantly alert. Administering a last
tweak to the display of bonnets in the near alcove, she smoothed her
dishevelled brown curls, shook out her dove-grey skirts, and went to greet
the customers.

Three of them--two young ladies and a gentleman, the latter wearing the
uniform of a naval lieutenant. Navy blue and Army scarlet . . . an
increasingly familiar sight in the streets of Chichester now that peace had
been declared. *No battles to fight, no troops to drill, no ships to
sail--how do they pass the time these days?*

"Good afternoon." Jennet pitched her voice to be both pleasant and carrying.
"I am Mrs. Reed. How might I help you today?"

The taller woman turned towards her, smiling. "Good afternoon. I am Miss
Bush. I am to be married in two weeks, and I hear you sell the loveliest
hats!"

"But, of course." Jennet smiled back. "Are you looking for something to wear
at your wedding, or on your travels, afterward, Miss Bush?"

The young lady blushed slightly. "Oh, for the wedding, certainly! I confess,
I hadn't thought much about the trip afterwards."

"Perfectly understandable, Miss Bush. A wedding is such a pivotal event in a
young woman's life. Is your gown to be white?"

"I . . . had not yet decided, Mrs. Reed. My intended's favorite color is
blue, though I incline towards white, myself."

"Both are excellent colors for a wedding gown," Jennet remarked. "White is
easiest to match, of course, in terms of trimmings, but we carry many hats
that would suit either color beautifully. I am certain you and your
intended," she nodded towards the lieutenant, "will find the perfect hat
among our stock."

The lieutenant blinked at her in mild surprise. "Your pardon, ma'am, I am
Miss Bush's brother, not her betrothed."

"Ah! Then I must ask *your* pardon, lieutenant, for my misapprehension; it
is merely that affianced couples often visit my shop together." Now that
Miss Bush had removed her bonnet, Jennet could see the likeness more clearly,
though Miss Bush was fair and her brother dark. "I hope you and your other
sister," she nodded towards the other young lady whose resemblance to
Lieutenant Bush was more obvious, "will grant us the benefit of your own
taste and judgement, sir."

Sober blue eyes betrayed an unexpected glint of amusement. "I will offer
what assistance I can in this matter, ma'am," the lieutenant said gravely.

Smiling her thanks, Jennet beckoned to Nell Dobbs, her chief assistant who,
with her usual efficiency, had already brought out one possible contender
among the shop's array of wedding bonnets. Lifting the hat--a pale yellow
straw with white roses festooning the brim--out of the box for her customer's
inspection, Jennet could tell at a glance that the crown was slightly too
high. Miss Bush's delicate prettiness would be shown to best advantage by a
more moderate crown, a somewhat narrower brim. Nonetheless, this was
established practice in the shop--to lead up from the hats that were not *quit
e* right to the hats that suited to perfection, so the customer herself could
see the difference.

And so it was that the fifth hat--white satin straw trimmed with narrow
butter-yellow ribbon and a scattering of tiny golden flowers--provided the
best match, drawing a pleased murmur from Miss Bush and an appreciative one
from her sister, Miss Anne. Lieutenant Bush merely smiled benignly and
nodded when asked for his opinion.

Miss Bush turned her head this way and that in the mirror. "This is so very
near to what I want, almost perfect in fact--only. . . " she looked
apologetically at Jennet, "have you this *same* hat, only trimmed in blue, in
your shop?"

"Not at present, Miss Bush, but it is simple enough to arrange," Jennet
replied easily. "Gillian's trims hats to order, at the customer's request.
Do you know what shade of blue your gown might be? We do not want the colors
to clash."

Miss Bush shook her head, looking somewhat apprehensive. "Oh dear, I'm
afraid I *hadn't* quite made up my mind yet . . . "

"Might I suggest, Miss Bush, that *should* you opt for a blue gown, you bring
in a bit of the cloth? That will make the task much easier."

"Of course," Miss Bush agreed, her anxiety giving way to relief. "Will it
take very long to finish the hat?"

"Only a few days. Once the customer knows what she wants, the process goes
quite quickly." Mind you, Jennet thought wryly, it was the part about the
customer knowing--or rather, *not* knowing--what she wanted that usually
caused the most bother! Difficult to tell what category Miss Bush would fall
into at this point; prospective brides were an unpredictable lot, but Jennet
fully intended to be prepared for either eventuality.

For now, however, Miss Bush appeared serene enough, smiling as she surveyed
some of the other hats prominently displayed in the shop. "Now, what would
you recommend for my sister, Mrs. Reed? She's to be my attendant, after all."

"Kate!" Miss Anne protested. "There's no need for this! I can still wear my
Sunday best!"

"Nonsense, it's over two years old! If I'm to have a new bonnet for the
wedding, so must you!"

"*You're* the bride! Everyone will be looking at *you*, not me! Besides,
it'll be far too dear . . . "

Jennet broke in smoothly, "If you'll pardon the interruption, Miss Bush, Miss
Anne--it's Gillian's invariable custom to make *substantial* reductions when
a lady wishes to purchase *several* hats."

Two pairs of surprised--and pleased--blue eyes gazed up at her. Lieutenant
Bush coughed slightly, concealing a smile behind his hand. Jennet forbore to
look at him. *Well, sir, what would you? I AM a woman of business, after
all.*

"Truly?" Miss Anne gazed at her searchingly.

"Our *invariable* custom," Jennet repeated, for the Bush sisters' benefit.
"Miss Anne, if you will permit Miss Dobbs to show you some of our stock?"

Soon enough, both sisters were deeply engrossed in debating the merits of
pink or white flowers on Miss Anne's bonnet. Jennet handed the white satin
straw to her younger apprentice, Betsy, with instructions to place it in the
sewing room for the time being. Among the raw straw hats that had arrived
from the country two days ago and were now being damped and molded upon
blocks in the workshed, she was fairly certain there was an exact duplicate
of this model, to be trimmed as Miss Bush requested. Nonetheless, a hat in
the hand . . .

"Well done, ma'am."

Jennet glanced up to see Lieutenant Bush standing beside her. "Sir?"

A smile softened his saturnine features. "I know nothing of hats, Mrs. Reed,
but I enjoy seeing my sisters so happy."

"Oh, " Jennet shrugged lightly, hiding her surprise, "I just think everyone
should have the chance of looking their best at a wedding, sir."

"It can make quite a difference, with regard to confidence," he agreed,
indulgently watching his sisters as they tried on bonnets before the mirror.

"Is it to be a large wedding, Lieutenant Bush?"

"No, not at all," he replied. " Just family and friends. A quiet, simple
ceremony, with no fuss."

"Ah," said Jennet knowingly. She permitted herself a small, tolerant smile.
*Poor man--he has no idea what he's in for.*
***********************

(Two days later)

"How is one *ever* supposed to decide?" Kate lamented, glancing wildly over
the samples of cloth Madam Mignonette had given her and no nearer, Bush
feared as he skulked behind a copy of the Naval Chronicle, to making a choice.

"You could always line them all up on the table, close your eyes, and jab at
one with a pin," Anne suggested, rather tartly.

Bush suppressed a smile. One of the few amusing aspects of this whole process
had been watching his sisters appear to trade dispositions. Until now, he
had always thought Anne the more volatile, the more preoccupied with trifles.
Perhaps it took something as involved as these wedding preparations were
rapidly becoming to upset one's preconceived notions about one's family.

Kate glared at her sister. "That is not in the least amusing, Anne Amelia
Bush!"

"Have you come up with a better solution, Catherine Sarah Bush?" Anne
countered. "You've done nothing but dither, dither, dither for the last two
days! If you don't decide soon, Madame won't have enough time to complete
your frock before the wedding!"

"That will do, both of you!"Aunt Lucy remonstrated, coming into the parlor
with a pot of tea and a plate of shortbread on a tray. "You'll not settle
this matter any faster by quarreling amongst yourselves!"

Bush laid aside his periodical and smiled fondly at her. Since the death of
their mother five years ago, Lucy Bush had guided his sisters through the
last stages of their passage from girlhood to womanhood. He was grateful
beyond all measure that she was here to oversee this particular milestone as
well. Beneath their aunt's stern but loving eye, Kate and Anne murmured
apologies to each other and the discussion, incomprehensible though it was to
Bush himself, resumed in a more rational manner.

"Truly, Aunt Lucy, I *don't* know how to choose!" Kate gestured helplessly
at the fabric samples again. "Should I go with white or blue?"

"White *is* traditional for weddings," her aunt remarked as she poured out
the tea.

"Yes, but Adam's favorite color is blue."

"A blue wedding gown might become you well, child. *But* I have always
believed that a married woman should have both a good black dress *and* a
good white dress in her wardrobe. A white wedding gown would fulfill that
need admirably--especially since you know it will have to last you a few
years."

"I suppose you're right," Kate admitted. "And I must own, I rather incline
towards white myself--though I should like to find a way to please Adam too."

"You can always wear a blue sash," Anne pointed out, accepting a cup of tea
from her aunt and carrying a second over to her brother. "Or ask Madame to
trim your gown with blue bows, perhaps."

"Ye-es." Kate fingered the cloth samples again. "But of what fabric should
my gown be? Madame suggested muslin but mightn't it be too thin for the
season? But everything else seems so dear. . . "

"Better to spend more *now* than a year from now, replacing something that
didn't wear well!" Aunt Lucy said firmly.

Bush retreated behind the Naval Chronicle again as the conversation turned to
the merits of muslin versus cotton, taffeta versus damask. He himself could
not have told the difference between dimity, jaconet, and mull--not if his
life depended on it, and he was glad that it did not. Shaking his head, he
delved once more into the accounts of ships recently paid off and accidents
to local fishermen that the periodical now resorted to, in an effort to fill
its skimpy pages during peacetime.

He roused, though, at the sound of a familiar name.

". . . and of course, aunt, you *must* visit Gillian's in town."

"For heaven's sake, child, I don't need a new hat!"

"Maybe not, but, after all you've done for us over the years, you *deserve*
one!" Kate countered.

"Come, aunt, you *know* Uncle Jonathan would have agreed!" Anne urged. "You
remember how tickled he was whenever you put on your best?"

At the mention of her late husband, Aunt Lucy smiled reminiscently. "'All
done up like Christmas beef, love,' he'd say, with that broad grin of his."
She sighed. "I wish he'd lived to see this day!"

"So do we all." Kate squeezed her aunt's shoulders. "Now, dear ma'am, you
*must* let us take you to Gillian's tomorrow! She has the loveliest
bonnets--and some fine lace caps, if you'd prefer."

"The proprietress, Mrs. Reed, seems quite skilled at her trade," Bush said
abruptly, surprising himself more than anyone by speaking up. "And it's her
practice to reduce the price if a known customer purchases several hats."

His remark drew a sharp, appraising glance from Anne but Kate, fortunately,
remained oblivious. "It's just as William says! Her prices are quite
reasonable. You know that Esther Fenton will likely come with us? She's to
be my second attendant--and of course, all of us will need shoes and
stockings. We can make a proper outing of it tomorrow--the cobbler's, the
dressmaker's, *and* the milliner's!"

Aunt Lucy had no fault to find with this scheme and the discussion of dress
materials began again, until cut short by a brisk knock on the cottage door.

Kate jumped up from the sofa, her cheeks prettily flushed. "That will be
Adam, and Esther too!"

"Let Tilda answer the door, child." Aunt Lucy gently drew her niece back down
to the sofa.

The Bushes' maid-of-all-work showed the new arrivals into the parlor.
"Reverend Fenton, Miss Fenton," she announced and tactfully withdrew to the
kitchen.

"Good evening, everybody." The Reverend Adam Fenton smiled warmly at all
assembled but, Bush noticed, as he rose to greet his future brother-in-law,
his eyes rested longest on his betrothed. "I hope I am not too late--I was
visiting one of my parishioners."

"Not at all," Aunt Lucy said briskly. "Do have a seat, Mr. Fenton, Miss
Fenton--and let me pour you some tea."

Once the Fentons were seated and the refreshments passed around, Kate eagerly
apprised both guests of her plans for the morrow. "And I hope you can indeed
accompany us, Esther!" she concluded with a bright smile.

Miss Fenton professed herself delighted at the prospect, especially since she
had never patronized Madame Mignonette's or Gillian's. Bush's sisters were
quick to chime in about the virtues of both establishments but mindful of the
way Anne had looked at him earlier, Bush offered no comment himself,
especially since he did not entirely understand *why* he had spoken up in the
first place. Inevitably, the talk turned once more to clothes.

"I've decided on a white wedding gown," Kate declared emphatically. "I do
not like to disappoint you, Adam, but I truly feel it to be the most suitable
color for the occasion."

"Just as you please, my dear," her betrothed replied easily.

"So you do not object, to my *not* wearing blue--although it's your favorite
color?"

"Not at all. I believe you should have everything just as you like it on our
wedding day."

Kate looked slightly taken aback by his complaisance, but rallied with a
brilliant smile. "What about the fabric, then?" She rose from the sofa to
show Adam the cloth samples. "We had not reached a decision there--muslin or
something heavier, like taffeta? It *is* October, but I should not like your
parishioners to think me too extravagant--"

"Whatever you choose, Kate," Adam said fondly. "Whatever becomes you, lies
within your means, and pleases you, pleases *me* as well. The rest can make
no difference."

Bush's gaze flickered uneasily from the smiling, expansive curate to his
increasingly perturbed sister. Something was *not* going well . . .

"You mean," Kate faltered, looking somewhat hurt, "you have no opinion to
offer?"

"My dearest," Adam said earnestly, "I assure you, it doesn't matter to me
*what* you wear!"

Bush closed his eyes. Even *he* could see that his future brother-in-law had
just made a tactical blunder of monumental proportions.

Kate's eyes suddenly brimmed, and her voice rose in an incredulous wail.
"You don't *care* how I *look*? On our *wedding* day?"

"My dear--" Adam protested.

"Ohhh!" Kate cast herself down upon the sofa and gave way to tears.

"My dear child!" Aunt Lucy expostulated, moving to take the afflicted one in
her arms. In an instant, the other ladies in the cottage also surrounded her,
cooing sympathetically and offering handkerchiefs and spirits of hartshorn.

Miss Fenton threw a reproachful glance at her brother. "Oh, Adam--how could
you?"

"But--but--" Adam stammered.

"Come." Bush grasped the hapless curate by the arm and began towing him
towards the front door. "There's a publican's house not fifteen minutes down
the road. They serve an excellent home-brewed ale."

"Are you sure we should--"

"You can thank me later," Bush said firmly, ushering his future
brother-in-law outside.
*********
The October sunshine was mild but bright enough to make Bush wince as he
stepped outside the cobbler's shop. Gingerly, he rubbed the part of his
forehead--just above his eyes--behind which a slight headache throbbed. He
could, he knew, expect little sympathy on that score from his relations,
after returning Adam in a somewhat tipsy condition the previous night.
Kate's intended had a rather weak head for spirits, even ale--but it had
taken several pints to convince that earnest young man that assertions that
the flesh was merely the unimportant covering for the soul would not be
welcome to a young lady attempting to choose her wedding gown, any more than
dilations upon "the lilies of the field" would be. Fortunately, by the time
both men made their way back to the cottage, Adam was incapable of such
pontifications and merely greeted his betrothed with a silly, slightly
apologetic grin. After plying her curate with strong tea and looking daggers
at her brother, a much calmer Kate had asked Aunt Lucy to take both Fentons
home in her dogcart.

The shopping expedition, meanwhile, had proceeded as planned the following
morning--they had already frequented the dressmaker's, the glover's, and now
the cobbler's. His stomach slightly unsettled--after the night's
excesses--by the strong smells of leather and kid, Bush had made his excuses
to the ladies, fully occupied in debating the merits of slippers versus
half-boots. A walk might clear his head, he'd told them--and he'd meet them
at the milliner's in a half-hour's time.

Tilting the brim of his cocked hat downwards reduced the glare to some
extent. Bush inhaled a lungful of cool autumn air and, hands clasped behind
his back, began a gradual promenade down the street, occasionally pausing to
peer into a shop window before moving on. His uniform drew hardly a glance
from other passers-by; he supposed the sight of an unemployed king's officer
wandering the streets was commonplace these days. And was there anything
more useless than a sailor without a ship? Perhaps he should consider
resigning his commission altogether. Uneasily, he thought of his most recent
allotment of half-pay--four-and-a-half weeks it had to last, and with the
wedding expenses to consider, he'd be stretching each shilling until it
shrieked . . .

Bush grimaced, feeling somewhat ashamed of himself. He had no business to
complain, as his needs for the wedding were trifling--his dress uniform,
cleaned and pressed, would do well enough. And his sisters knew how to
economize: Kate had enough put by, from her earnings as a music teacher and
from what their parents had bequeathed her, to pay for her own wedding
clothes. Anne too had money saved. Both had gently refused his offer to
increase his own contribution--"You may need to lay something in store for
your own wedding," Anne had said, only half-teasing.

*Not bloody likely,* Bush thought, shaking his head. Oh, there had been
women here and there, over the years--but always with the mutual
understanding that what they shared was transitory. On the whole, most women
seemed to prefer husbands who came home and slept beside them every night,
rather than ones whom they saw only every few years. A sailor's wife had a
harder lot than that of a soldier's wife, who could at least follow the drum.
No, the sea was and likely always would be Bush's true mistress--he could
not give up even the hope of returning to her one day, not even in exchange
for security on land.

A blaze of gold and scarlet some twenty feet away caught his attention.
Blinking, he stopped in his tracks once he recognized it as a hat--and then
recognized the person beneath it.

*Of course,* he thought, a bit dazedly. *The best way to advertise one's
wares was to wear them oneself.* Mrs. Reed's chestnut curls rioted
becomingly under the brim of a chip hat, trimmed with a profusion of flowers
as bright as a bonfire and a band of wide red ribbon, fastened under her
softly rounded chin. Her shape, too, was softly rounded, under a frock the
gold-brown color of old sherry, secured at the waist with a scarlet cord the
same shade as her hat's ribbon.

Bush realized he was staring, mouth slightly agape--he closed it, irritably.
*Get a hold of yourself, man. It's not as if you haven't seen a woman in six
months!* Still . . . sisters were different. He did not sit in the cottage
and watch Kate or Anne simply--move about, for the pleasure it gave him.

*I grant I never saw a goddess go, / My mistress when she walks treads on the
ground.* The memory the words evoked made him smile, a little sadly. One
night, on the Renown, he'd come up to relieve Kennedy of his watch, found him
reciting poetry under his breath to stay awake. Some time later, when they
were on friendlier terms, Bush had asked about that poem. The younger officer
had blinked, grinned, then declaimed the entire sonnet for him with
considerable verve.

Mrs. Reed certainly trod upon the ground--but with a pleasantly springy step
that made Bush think of an unbroken colt, though the lady herself was not in
her first youth. *But then, neither am I . . . *

*Stop that,* Bush told himself sternly. Whatever her years, the lady deserved
better than to be so ogled--her serene, faintly abstracted expression
revealed her complete unawareness of the attention she was attracting.
Belatedly, he noticed the wide wicker basket slung over one arm--about her
errands, no doubt.

Even as he watched, Mrs. Reed turned to her right and entered one of the
shops, closing the door behind her. From the display in the window, it
appeared to be the cloth merchant's. No telling how long she would remain
inside . . .

*I must be mad.* Bush shook his head. *For all I know, she could have a
husband and six children at home.*

Nonetheless, prompted by an impulse he barely understood, he strolled
unhurriedly to the baker's shop, just across from the cloth-merchant's,
propped his back and shoulders against the nearest wall . . . and waited for
her to come out.

******

Custom had been slow that morning, but Jennet accepted that with a
philosophical shrug. Autumn could be a difficult season for selling hats,
especially a mild one like this year's. Leaving Nell in charge of the shop,
she donned the most becoming of her own hats and sallied forth to the
cloth-merchant's. Ribbons, silk flowers, silk linings--all needed to be
restocked.

The first person she saw on entering the shop was a thin, fashionably dressed
dark woman with cat-green eyes--Madame Mignonette, whom Jennet had known
since she was plain Minnie Talbot from the farm four miles down the road from
Jennet's own childhood home. The dressmaker responded to Jennet's smile
with a wry quirk of her lips before stooping to examine the bolt of white
taffeta in front of her.

"Difficult morning?" Jennet asked, pausing to finger a bolt of blue satin in
her turn.

Minnie rolled her eyes. "You've no idea. I've had just one customer but she
made enough fuss for three! She must have changed her mind four times about
the cloth for her wedding gown, and with less than a fortnight to go before
the ceremony!"

"Less than a--this . . .wouldn't happen to be Miss Bush, would it?"

"The very same. You've had dealings with her too?"

"Only this once. She's buying a wedding bonnet from me."

Minnie made a face. "Then you'd best prepare yourself for a *great* deal of
dithering!" She hoisted the bolt of cloth under one arm. "At least she
*finally* opted for white!"

"Well, that should make *my* task a little easier when she comes in again,"
Jennet remarked cheerfully.

Her friend snorted. "Mark my words, Jennet--dealing with brides-to-be is
*never* easy!" She glanced broodingly at her selection. "I only hope she
doesn't change her mind, about either her dress *or* her future husband!"

"I've heard he's a man of the cloth," Jennet said comfortingly. "She probably
wouldn't dare."

Minnie smiled thinly at that, bade her farewell, and went in search of a
clerk to help her with her purchases. Alone, Jennet set about making her
own selections--ribbons in blue, pink, yellow, and red; silks in slightly
paler shades; and a variety of artificial posies. As per arrangement, she
received a reduced price, the cloth merchant being well-aware of Gillian's
position as the foremost hat shop in Chichester.

It was past noon when her business was concluded and the bright sun dazzled
her despite the wide brim of her hat. So she was momentarily startled by the
deep voice at her shoulder.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Reed."

"Lieutenant Bush." Jennet relaxed and smiled up at him cordially. "An
unexpected pleasure, sir. Have you accompanied your sister into town today?"

"Indeed, ma'am. Both my sisters, as it happens. They are at the cobbler's
now, but I've pledged to meet them at your shop. Are you--returning there?'

"Yes. I know I can depend on Miss Dobbs in my absence, but I do not like to
be away from it for too long."

"Then, might I escort you, ma'am?"

Jennet paused a moment before replying. "Why, yes, liuetenant--thank you."

He fell into step beside her, matching his stride to hers as they proceeded
along the street.

From beneath the sheltering brim of her hat, Jennet glanced at her companion.
A proper man--not especially tall but with an air of authority that
compensated for any lack of inches. No doubt he walked a quarter-deck with
the same calm assurance. Lean, attractively craggy features, wavy dark hair
just visible beneath his cocked hat, blue eyes that gazed levelly out at the
world. Thirty, perhaps? Certainly no older than thirty-five . . .

"Does business prosper, ma'am?'

She pulled her attention back to the subject at hand. "Well enough, sir.
Autumn is not always the best season for selling hats. If it is mild--as
this year's has been--most ladies wear their summer hats until the weather
turns. And then they want winter bonnets!"

"A difficulty indeed," he said gravely. "Nonetheless, your shop seems to be
very well-known in town. A pretty name, too--Gillian's."

There were two possible responses to that comment. After a moment's
reflection, she chose the less usual one. "Thank you. It suited my mother
right down to the ground."

"Your mother? Then you are--?"

"Jennet. My mother was a milliner's apprentice until she married my father.
She trimmed all her own hats--and mine too, when I was growing up. Most of
what I know, I learned at her knee."

"And Mr. Reed--is *he* a hatter too?"

She weighed her words a moment, then suddenly threw them aside, and responded
with complete frankness. "What I do can be *no* concern of Mr. Reed's
anymore!"

Lieutenant Bush blinked, slightly taken aback by her vehemence. "Your pardon,
ma'am--but . . . is he still living?"

Jennet shrugged. "For aught I know. But not with *me.* I've not set eyes
on him for over six years--nor wished to." She glanced up at her companion,
saw with some surprise that his expression appeared less censorious than
genuinely concerned. "We wedded young," she explained after a brief pause.
"Likely, *too* young. He was a farmer--I can't say whether he was any good
at it, he drank whatever profit he made. One day, he took all our savings
and walked out. That was the last I ever saw of him."

The lieutenant was frowning. "If you'll forgive my presumption, ma'am--I'd
say you were well rid of the rascal."

She shrugged again. "I'm not the first to have married a 'bad 'un,' sir.
Nor will I be the last. Since *I* was no hand at farming, either, I sold the
place to his brother and opened the shop with the proceeds."

"And made a success of it. I commend you, ma'am."

Jennet felt her cheeks growing warm. "I thank you for the kind words, sir."

"It's truth as much as kindness. You put out a good product," his eyes rested
with apparent approval on her own hat, "and there is quite a demand for it."

"Except in autumn."

"Well, I can promise you two more customers this very afternoon. My aunt and
the sister of the bridegroom accompanied us into town today, expressly for
the purpose of visiting your establishment."

Jennet laughed. "Customers *and* compliments in the same day! I am in your
debt, sir," she added lightly.

By now they had reached the door of the shop.

"Allow me, ma'am." Lieutenant Bush opened the door to let her pass through.
Jennet could feel his eyes on her as she walked by him--and she had lived
long enough to know when, precisely, she was being *looked at.* The
experience, this time, did not displease her. *See something you like, do
you? Well, maybe I do, too.*
*******

"How does one *ever* decide!" The by-now-familiar wail went up in the front
room of Gillian's shop.

"Eventually one *does.*" Anne's tone was dry.

Kate glowered at her. "I'll remind you of that when *your* time comes, Miss
Anne." A worried pucker between her brows, she bent again to what lay in
front of her on the counter.

Bush just managed not to sigh aloud. Just when he had thought the conflict
between white and blue resolved, it had reared its head once more as Kate
dithered--there was, alas, no *other* word for it--over which color the silk
lining her new bonnet should be. And that was not even addressing the
question of which flowers should ornament the brim.

He stole a glance at Mrs. Reed--Jennet, as he was starting to think of
her--but her expression was perfectly calm and pleasant. With her usual
expertise, she had matched Aunt Lucy with a highly becoming lace cap edged in
palest pink ribbon and Miss Fenton with a pale straw bonnet trimmed with
daisies and sunny yellow ribbon that flattered the young lady's red-brown
hair and pink-and-white complexion. The difficulty had arisen when Jennet
brought out the untrimmed model of Kate's bonnet and invited her to choose
among an array of silks, ribbons, and artificial posies for decoration.
Within minutes, his sister had been reduced to a mass of nerves and quivering
indecision. How on earth, Bush wondered, did Jennet--and for that matter,
anyone else having business dealings with Kate before her wedding--put up
with this?

He glanced down at the heap of silks in a vain effort to make sense of the
problem. "My dear," he ventured at last, "since your gown is to be white,
why not choose a *white* silk lining?"

"But which *shade* of white, William?" Kate gestured wildly at the samples
before her. "There's white tinged with pink, white tinged with yellow, with
blue, mauve, even grey!"

"I'm afraid they all look the same to me," Bush confessed, admitting defeat.

"William!" Another reproachful wail. "How can you *say* that?"

Bush stared in dismay as his sister's eyes brimmed and she sought refuge in
her handkerchief. "Forgive me, my dear," he said lamely. "You know this is
not among my strengths!"

Anne leaned forward with the air of one determined to find a solution.
"Well, I think you can eliminate both the pale pink *and* the white tinted
with pink. If you're to have *blue* flowers, a pink or pinkish lining will
merely look silly!"

Kate dabbed her eyes, sniffing daintily. "That is true," she conceded.

Aunt Lucy now leaned forward in her turn. "As for the rest, my dear--I
believe the grey and pearl-white might be better suited to a bride of more
mature years. For my part, I own that I am partial to the cream--or the
blue."

"But cream always make me look sallow!" Kate protested. "At least I can never
wear a cream-colored gown without looking positively *jaundiced*!"

"Have the blue then," her aunt replied, unruffled.

"But the deep blue--or the pale blue?"

"Why not ask Mrs. Reed?" Esther Fenton suggested.

"Of course!" Kate looked up eagerly. "Mrs. Reed, if you would be so
obliging . . . which do you think is more suitable as a lining?"

Thus appealed to, Jennet paused a moment before responding with
characteristic aplomb. "Both bring out the color of your eyes, Miss Bush, in
a most flattering way. Perhaps, though--the *lighter* shade might provide
more of a contrast to the flowers and ribbon you choose."

"The flowers!" Kate's eyes widened in dismay as she glanced at the posies.
"Violets, bluebells, forget-me-nots--I had not thought there were so many
different kinds of *blue* flowers! Will not the choice of lining be affected
by which ones I decide upon?"

"Just so, Miss Bush." Sensing another flurry of anxiety in the offing, Jennet
quickly moved to counteract it. "If you don't mind the suggestion, you may
want to bear in mind the *language* of flowers when making your choice."

"The language of flowers?"

Jennet smiled. "People have long believed that certain flowers had a
particular *meaning* or *message*--since the time of Good Queen Bess, as it
happens!"

"Of course!" Miss Fenton exclaimed, smiling. "I believe I read of it, once.
Roses always mean 'love', do they not? And lilies 'purity.'"

"Indeed they do, Miss Fenton," Jennet confirmed, smiling back.

"Pity there are no such things as blue roses," Kate sighed.

"But blue flowers have their meanings as well," Jennet assured her.

"Bluebells mean 'constancy,'" Esther contributed.

Kate's expression brightened as she toyed with a posy. "*That* would be
fitting!"

"And violets mean 'modesty,' which is a desirable and proper quality in a
bride." Jennet warmed to her theme. "And did you know that 'bachelor's
buttons' mean 'delicacy'? Appropriate too. As for the forget-me-not . . .
there's a very romantic story attached to that as well, which my own mother
told me. A knight was walking with his fair lady beside a river, when they
saw some blue flowers growing at the water's edge. The lady asked the knight
to pick her some, but he slipped and fell into the water. He couldn't swim
because of his armor and the current bore him away. But with a mighty
effort, he threw the flowers onto the bank for his love and shouted with his
last breath, 'Forget me not!'"

"Oughtn't he to have shouted, 'Get a rope!', instead?" Bush murmured.

"Hush!" Anne nudged him reprovingly.

A corner of Jennet's mouth quivered suspiciously but her voice was only
slightly unsteady as she continued her story. "The lady never forgot him and
called the flowers 'forget-me-not' in his memory. And ever since, the
forget-me-not has always meant 'true love.'"

Kate's eyes were starry. "How lovely! And not a word of blame or reproach
from the knight to the lady for her whims. A true chevalier!"

"A true *something*, at any rate," Bush remarked, again under his breath. He
subsided at another glare from his youngest sister.

Kate bent over the silk blossoms once more. "You are right, Mrs.
Reed--knowing the language of flowers *does* make my choice easier. I *will*
have the forget-me-nots, and the matching ribbon. And," her fingers sifted
through the swatches of fabric heaped before her, "the *paler* blue silk for
the lining. I believe you are right and there *is* more of a contrast."

Bush exhaled covertly as Jennet cheerfully commended his sister's choice and
handed both bonnet and trimmings to her younger apprentice, with instructions
to take them into the sewing room. Within a matter of minutes, the rest of
the business was concluded--and the hats selected for his aunt and Miss
Fenton boxed, tied, and paid for. And Miss Bush's bonnet, Jennet informed
them, would be ready in three days' time. Smiles and thanks were exchanged
on both sides, then Miss Dobbs was opening the door for them, and the
shopping party found themselves once more standing in the bright afternoon
sunshine.

"A most efficient young woman!" Aunt Lucy declared admiringly. "She seems to
know *just* what would suit one!"

"The best at her profession, I should think." Bush did not realize until too
late that he had spoken the thought aloud.

This time Kate, as well as Anne, fixed him with a penetrating stare. "High
praise indeed, William!" the future bride remarked.

"Not *too* high--as I believe, she has proven today!" Bush retorted, slightly
nettled by the intense scrutiny.

"It does not at all surprise me that she is accounted the foremost milliner
in Chichester," Aunt Lucy said placidly. "Now, my dears, I own I'm quite
famished after all that. I believe there is an inn not too far away--shall
we perhaps have tea and some sandwiches?"

The other ladies adopted this suggestion with alacrity. Bush bethought
himself of some unfinished business in town, however, and enjoined them to
proceed to the inn without him--he would meet them presently.

They went, talking blithely among themselves. Bush waited until they were
half a street away, then quietly reentered the hat shop, reaching up to still
the bell before it could ring too loudly. Neither Jennet, Miss Dobbs, nor
Betsy was in sight--indeed, the front room was deserted entirely. Slightly
perturbed, Bush paced quietly towards the back of the shop, peered into a
small room just off to the left . . . and located the proprietress of
Gillian's, standing with her back to him, her shoulders shaking violently.

"Mrs. Reed!" Bush exclaimed in alarm. "Jennet--"

She whirled to face him and he saw that she had her handkerchief pressed
against her mouth; above it, her hazel eyes brimmed with tears of laughter.
"Wretch!" she choked. "'Get a rope!', indeed!"

Relieved, Bush smiled back. "Well, ma'am, you *must* admit that there's an
element of the absurd to that story!"

"I said that it was *romantic*, not sensible, lieutenant!" she retorted,
dabbing her eyes.

"Indeed you did." She had dimples, he noticed distractedly, bracketing each
side of a generous mouth.

Jennet sighed, gradually regaining her countenance. "It's true enough, sir,
that romance and common sense *rarely* go together. The lion and the lamb
make a more likely pair!"

"Still, your story had the virtue of helping my sister into making up her
mind at last," Bush remarked. "I can't remember a time, save for childhood,
when her disposition seemed so unreasonable!"

"*Many* brides are unreasonable, sir, in the days leading up to their
weddings. It is best to humor them--and offer a little advice. If solicited,
of course. *Unsolicited* advice is seldom appreciated or heeded."

"So, your advice took the form of that story?"

"In a manner of speaking. I was prepared to abide by whatever choice of
trimmings your sister made. But I thought perhaps the legend of the
forget-me-not would appeal to her--comments from the gallery
notwithstanding!" Her eyes crinkled as she smiled mischievously up at him.
"I pray you will say nothing further to cast me into whoops, sir--the effort
to suppress them in polite company might cause me serious injury!"

"Believe me, ma'am, causing you injury is the last thing I should *ever* wish
to do!"

Jennet's breath caught at that and they stared at each other, the silence
thick as syrup around them yet oddly electric as well. Time, too, ceased
to have meaning, as her eyes looked into his.

The sharp silver "ting" of the bell from the front room jarred them back to
the present. They could hear Miss Dobbs' voice as she greeted a "Mrs. Brown"
and assured her that "Mrs. Reed" would be there shortly.

Jennet ran a smoothing hand over her curls. "I must attend my customer, sir."

"Indeed." Bush stepped aside to let her pass. "Doubtless I shall be here,
again--when my sister comes for her bonnet."

Jennet swallowed, managing to force words past the sudden tightness in her
throat. "Doubtless you will, sir." Head high and smiling formally, she
moved into the front room to greet Mrs. Brown.

****************

(Three days later)

"Oh, but Kate! It's simply perfect!" the bride's sister said earnestly as
Miss Bush, a faint frown creasing her brows, tried on her now-completed
wedding bonnet.

*Laying it on a bit thick, aren't you, miss?* Jennet thought, concealing a
smile. Not, of course, that she didn't appreciate the praise. She
suspected, though, that Miss Anne's motives were rooted more in a desire to
placate the nervous bride-to-be. On the other hand, she could hardly be
blamed for that, since she had to *live* with her.

"Do you think so, truly?" Miss Bush turned her head this way and that as she
studied herself in the glass. "Mrs. Reed?"

"Most becoming, if I do say so, myself," Jennet replied bracingly. "You've
made an excellent choice in trimmings, Miss Bush." She deliberately avoided
looking at the bride's brother as she spoke.

"But--" Miss Bush gnawed her lower lip, "oughtn't I to have a veil?"

Out of the corner of her eye, Jennet saw Lieutenant Bush and Miss Anne
stiffen, as though in anticipation of a looming disaster. "I understand that
choice varies from bride to bride. Should you desire one, it is simple
enough to arrange. On such a bonnet as you have chosen, a length of veiling
can be pinned or even loosely stitched to the brim. That way, the veil can be
removed easily, should you wish to wear the bonnet on other occasions."

"Might I--think it over for a few days?"

"Of course, Miss Bush."

"I'll settle my account *now,* though," the bride-to-be declared. "I'm on my
way to a fitting at the dressmaker's and I should like to see how the bonnet
looks with my gown."

"Very well, miss." Jennet led the way to the counter, noting with amusement
that the bride's brother and sister were looking distinctly relieved. But
Miss Bush paid what was owed like the lady she was, without fuss or
complaints. No sooner was her account settled, however, then the bell rang,
and a matron trailed by three daughters entered the shop. There was barely
enough time to exchange polite farewells before the new arrivals approached an
d the Bushes were on the other side of the door.

Without--this time--a single word exchanged between herself and the
lieutenant, nor any promise of one in future . . .

*About your work, my girl*, Jennet chided herself, refusing to explore her
sudden pang of regret at the thought. *You are here to sell hats--not to
fraternize with naval officers.* Three days had passed since that odd little
exchange in her storeroom--doubtless Lieutenant Bush had thought better of
whatever he had been about to start and chosen to put the entire incident
from his mind. *All that remains is for me to do the same.*

Having made that resolution, it was a considerable surprise when she emerged
from her shop some forty-five minutes later to find him standing
outside--almost as if he had been waiting for her.

**********

A thousand pities, Bush reflected, that Mrs. Reed's shop carried merchandise
only for women. As things stood, he had little excuse for loitering
there--not unless he wished to make all of Chichester privy to his intentions.

It would help, of course, if he knew exactly what his intentions *were.*
Matrimonial? Unlikely--given his own poor prospects and the possibility of
Mrs. Reed's husband still being alive. Carnal? That would imply that he
sought the lady out only in the hopes of satisfying an appetite . . . and it
diminished both Jennet and himself to think that way. Desire was certainly
part of the equation--but not the entire sum. In his five months ashore, he
had seen and met other women--some were friends with his sisters, most were
pleasing enough to look upon, several were undeniably pretty. But none had
engaged his interest to the point where he anticipated their next meeting
with any great eagerness.

Jennet Reed, though . . . stirred a myriad of emotions in him. He respected
her skill at her trade, however little he understood it; he appreciated the
patience and good humor with which she handled difficult customers
(especially since he was beginning to suspect that there was nobody more
difficult to deal with than a bride-to-be); and he admired her candor, the
clear-eyed honesty with which she faced the world, making no apologies for
anything she had done in the past. It did not hurt, either, that he found
her remarkably easy to look upon.

All of which led--where? He only wished he knew. Yet here he was, standing
a few doors away from the entrance of her shop, feeling like some lovesick
schoolboy. Embarrassing though that was, however, it was still better than
dancing attendance on his increasingly fretful and temperamental sister!

The door to Gillian's opened and, to his relief, Jennet emerged, wicker
basket again slung over her arm. Bush hoped he was not imagining the spark
of pleasure in her eyes when she caught sight of him.

"Good afternoon, lieutenant. Did you decide not to accompany your sisters to
the dressmaker?"

"On the contrary, ma'am, I spent nearly half-an-hour there with them, before
deciding it best that I leave." In response to her questioning glance, he
elaborated further. "I wish to avoid being placed in a situation where my
opinion will be solicited--especially since I cannot seem to offer it without
distressing the bride!"

She smiled sympathetically. "Well, it could be worse, sir. You could be *the
groom*!"

"Indeed." Bush fell into step beside her. "It's as well that *his* duties
keep him fully occupied--else I fear there might not be a wedding at all!"

"That bad, sir?"

"Yesterday my sister burst into tears over the gown--she was convinced it
made her look a dowd. Madame Mignonette was none too pleased."

"Poor Minnie. She does take infinite pains, though--and I feel certain your
sister *will* be satisfied with the end result."

"Minnie?"

"Oh . . ." Jennet colored slightly. "I'm afraid I never *can* think of
Madame by any other name! Our families were neighbors when we were growing
up--and I consider her a friend."

"No professional rivalry between you?"

"Good heavens, why should there be? Quite the opposite in fact. She was one
of the first to--invest in my business when it opened. Her own shop had been
running for close on three years then, after her man went for a soldier and
was killed in the first months of the war."

True enough, Bush reflected soberly, that the war had made many widows, and,
in some cases, a pension only went so far. The more credit, then, to those
women who managed to prosper, despite the loss of their husbands and
breadwinners to war--or other circumstances. He wondered how his sisters
would have fared had he been among the fallen this past year, and was
suddenly grateful for the devotion of their suitors.

"At any rate," Jennet continued, "Minnie and I have both dealt with our share
of prospective brides over the years."

"Does it become any easier, as the big day approaches?" Bush asked hopefully.

Jennet chuckled. "I'm afraid not, sir! Most brides seem to lose both their
sense of humor *and* their sense of proportion in the week leading up to the
wedding."

Bush shuddered. "Six more days of this! It'll be a miracle if the cottage is
still standing, afterwards!"

"If it's any consolation, your sister is far from being the worst I've
encountered. There was a young lady, two years ago, who changed her mind
*five* times about her bonnet and gown . . . and then, at the altar, she
changed her mind about the fellow too!" Jennet shook her head, a reminiscent
smile playing about her lips. "I oughtn't to complain--at least she settled
her account, afterwards."

"It was only just that she *should,*" Bush remarked. "Well, I suppose I
haven't any serious doubts about my sister and her betrothed. They've been
courting two years and seem truly devoted to each other. I feel certain that
they will be very happy together."

Jennet's smile warmed him. "You are certainly doing *your* part to promote
that happiness, sir. It's not every brother who would be so completely at
his sister's beck and call in the days before her wedding."

"Well, it's not as though I have anything better to do. How many times a day
can a man weed the vegetable garden?" Bush grimaced at the bitterness he
could hear in his own voice. "Forgive me, ma'am--I've no right to indulge in
self-pity when many are worse off."

"I daresay time lies heavy on your hands these days, lieutenant. As for
weeding the vegetable garden," her eyes glinted at him with a mixture of
amusement and sympathy, "I'd say once every few days was ample! But at least
you haven't crawled into a bottle and pulled the cork in after you!"

The sudden vehemence in her tone made him blink, remembering what she'd told
him about her estranged husband, but in the next moment Jennet continued more
calmly, "Nor squandered your substance at the tables either, like some of the
half-pay officers I see about town. It must be very difficult for all those
who were in the service to adjust to life in peacetime."

He smiled wryly. "Even now it feels strange not to have a deck beneath my
feet!"

"Did you join the navy very young?"

"I was fifteen. My sisters were five and three." Bush thrust his hands into
his trousers' pockets, remembering. "There had been two others, who died in
infancy--so I grew up an only child, for the most part. Then, after I turned
ten, my parents presented me with two younger sisters."

"I can understand how you might feel especially responsible for them."

"I adored them both. But when I went to sea, I left behind two little
girls in pinafores playing with their dolls. I come back to find two young
ladies in long skirts with their hair pinned up. There were so many moments
in their lives that I missed. I suppose, in spite of the chaos of the last
week, I am--glad to be here to share *this* one."

She smiled again. "I suspect, in time, you'll remember only the joy of your
sister's wedding day, rather than the confusion that accompanied it!"

"Difficult to imagine, ma'am, but I'll take your word for it!"

In the course of their walk, they'd arrived at the entrance of an
establishment Bush did not recognize. He raised quizzical brows. "More
ribbons, ma'am?"

"Oh, not at present, sir. But I do need to purchase trimmings for winter
bonnets--ostrich plumes, of course, and wax fruit."

"Wax fruit?" The revelation startled an incredulous laugh from him.

"Yes, it's become quite the fashion, I understand, to trim hats with clusters
of wax grapes or cherries."

"And wax apples?" Bush suggested, with a crooked smile.

Jennet shook her head. "Too large and too heavy! I *did* see a bonnet trimmed
with wax strawberries once, but that was in the spring."

Bush shook his own head. "The ways of ladies' fashion defeat me, ma'am. I
can offer you no assistance within the shop but . . . might I offer you my
escort once your business here is concluded?"

Jennet tilted her head to one side like a curious wren. "Oughtn't you to be
returning to the dressmaker's, sir? Your sisters will be surely be missing
you."

"Not at all, ma'am. I suspect they will not be looking for me for quite some
time yet--Madame Mignonette expressed her intention of beginning on Anne's
gown today after she had finished with Kate's."

"Very well, then. I should be glad of the escort, sir--and my thanks to you."

Bush touched the brim of his cocked hat. "I await your pleasure, ma'am," he
said gravely, and moved to open the door for her.

*********

Once inside the trimmings shop, Jennet drew a long, slow breath and resisted
the temptation to lean against the door behind her for support. To her vast
exasperation, her pulse insisted on fluttering like a bird on the wing and
her heart seemed to be beating double-time as well.

Several women were clustered around the front counter, exclaiming over the
gewgaws and furbelows they had found there. Well and good. She could use the
time the clerks spent attending to them all to collect her own thoughts and
regain her composure.

How many years had it been? Long enough, it appeared, to dim the memory of
how pleasant a man's company and conversation could be. Again, well and
good. As long as no one made the mistake of becoming too . . . earnest
about things.

*He's an officer in His Majesty's Navy,* Jennet reminded herself sternly. *A
sailor. If he receives a billet, he will be gone, straightaway. Whatever . .
. flirtations he engages in while on land cannot, *should not*, be taken
seriously.*

But then, how serious was *she*? Frowning, Jennet examined her own
conscience.

She did not want to marry again. Once had been enough--more than enough. And
when she thought back on that time, which she did as seldom as possible, it
was always with a reminiscent shudder and a sense of relief that it was
indeed behind her. Years of hardship, so much of it determined by things
beyond mortal control; failed crops, scanty harvests, ailing
livestock--and Alf, drinking himself into morose insensibility by the fire.
And for herself . . . tiptoeing around her husband when the black mood was on
him, dodging his blows--not always successfully--when that black mood erupted
into red rage, tying her kerchief and adjusting her sleeves so that the
bruises would not show, afterwards . . .

*The one decent thing he did in years was LEAVE. Even though, to this day, I
have no idea whether he is drunk in a gutter or dead in a ditch.* If the
latter, he was in God's keeping now, if the former . . . well, perhaps the
angels who watched over fools, knaves, and drunkards had their eye on him.
She wished Alfred Reed no ill, for all that she never wanted to live as his
wife ever again.

And for now--there was Lieutenant Bush, whose society she enjoyed and who
appeared to enjoy hers, in turn. It need not be any more complicated than
that. *A king's officer and a tradeswoman, both of mature years--I daresay
we can look to ourselves. And if we derive satisfaction from our occasional
meetings and conversations, then what does anyone else have to say about it?*
Sufficient unto the day . . .

And in the meantime, that gaggle of women by the counter was *finally*
clearing out, and she had a rendezvous to keep with wax grapes, wax cherries,
and ostrich plumes!
**********************

(Five days before the wedding)

"Good afternoon, lieutenant. What brings you here today?"

Bush held up the hatbox by way of explanation. "My sister has decided that
she does indeed wish to have a veil attached. I trust that will not be a
problem?"

"Not at all," Jennet assured him with a smile as she placed the hatbox on the
counter and began to rummage through a drawer for the necessary fabric
samples. "Will she be stopping in today?"

Bush nodded. "She'll be along presently--within the next quarter-hour, if
all goes well. She was having her final fitting at the dressmaker's, so I
offered to bring the bonnet along to your shop, let you know what was
required."

"Final fitting? Then she is pleased with her gown?"

"It seems so. At least she *appears* satisfied." Bush found himself smiling
reminiscently. "I had the chance to see her in it myself. Admittedly, I'm
biased, but I think my future brother-in-law . . . is a very lucky man."

Jennet's hazel eyes looked suspiciously misty. "I'm sure Miss Bush makes a
lovely bride. And I've always thought one could never go wrong with a white
wedding gown. 'Married in white, you have chosen right.'"

Bush blinked at her. "What?"

Jennet laughed. "It's a rhyme, lieutenant! Young girls all seem to learn it
about the time they first start thinking about marriage and husbands of their
own." She cleared her throat and recited with twinkling eyes and a
portentuous air:

"Married in White, you have chosen right,
Married in Black, you will wish yourself back,
Married in Red, you will wish yourself dead,
Married in Grey, you will go far away,
Married in Green, ashamed to be seen,
Married in Blue, you will always be true,
Married in Yellow, ashamed of your fellow,
Married in Brown, you will live in the town,
Married in Pearl, you will live in a whirl,
Married in Pink, your spirit will sink."

Bush shook his head. "It sounds as though the only *safe* colors to marry in
are white and blue!"

"Ye-es." It was said on a sigh, as Jennet's smile turned slightly crooked.
"I suppose, given the way things turned out, *I* should have worn primrose
yellow myself. No, that's not fair," she corrected herself, with a faint
grimace and a shake of her chestnut curls. "I was fond enough of him on our
wedding day. He was high-spirited and handsome--if he liked his liquor a bit
too well, even then. But perhaps . . . a better wife might have been able to
wean him from it."

"Do not reproach yourself, ma'am." Bush leaned forward, barely resisting the
temptation to touch the hand resting on the counter, mere inches from his
own. "I have known a few such as you describe--and believe me, unless the
will to abstain is there, no tears or pleas from loved ones can deter them."

Jennet blinked a few moments, then replied huskily, "I shall pray then, that
he *found* that will-- before 'twas too late." She mustered up a slightly
more successful smile. "Now, lieutenant, do you think Miss Bush would prefer
lace or chiffon for the veil?"

The ting of the bell and the arrival of his sisters fortunately prevented him
from having to answer.

*************
(Three days before the wedding)

"There!" Jennet carefully draped the soft folds of chiffon over the brim of
the bonnet, before settling the entire hat carefully back into its box and
replacing the lid. "I trust this will be satisfactory! But if Miss Bush has
any further questions, she has but to stop by and ask."

Bush retied the ribbon around the box. "Most obliging of you, ma'am.
Although I'm hoping that my sister can now rest at ease about her wedding
clothes, if nothing else!"

"Did she accompany you into town today?"

"No, she and my aunt are back at the cottage, trying to plan the wedding
breakfast. My other sister came with me, though, for *her* final fitting.
Need I say, it's proceeding far more smoothly than the bride's?"

Jennet chuckled. "No doubt it is! But then being a bridal attendant is not
half so detrimental to the nerves." She brushed a stray curl back from her
forehead (rather to Bush's disappointment, since he'd been debating making
the same move himself). "I understand your sisters are quite close, sir. Wi
ll Miss Anne not be lonely after Miss Bush weds?"

"Quite the contrary, ma'am. You see, Mr. Fenton is going to move into the
cottage with us, when they return from the honeymoon. We've decided among
ourselves to add two more rooms for their particular use. Kate would prefer
a home of her own to living with his parents but enlarging the cottage seems
a fair compromise."

"Oh, then you'll be having the builders in, of course."

"The builders?"

"Well, to start with. And then the carpenters, the stonemasons, the
plasterers, and the roofers--" she broke off, noticing Bush's sudden pallor.
"Are you feeling quite well, lieutenant?"

He closed his eyes. "Perhaps, something *restful* will occur in the interim
. . . like the war resuming!"

Jennet stared at him, then suddenly broke into laughter.

Bush smiled. The more often he could elicit that response from her, the
better pleased he was.

*******
(One day before the wedding)

"Good afternoon, ma'am. Another tryst with wax fruit today?"

"Not today--I've quite enough for now. It's ribbons I'll be needing, in
darker shades for winter." Jennet glanced quizzically at the box Bush had
tucked under his arm. "Something for the wedding, lieutenant? I understand
tomorrow is the big day."

A most peculiar expression stole over his face, like that of a man who'd
stood too close to a cannon when it went off and whose ears were still
ringing. No, Jennet amended hastily, it was the expression of a man trying to
cope with the last-minute wedding preparations of a close relative. The
glassy eyes and waxen pallor gave it away every time!

"My sister . . . changed her mind about the shoes she wanted to wear
tomorrow. The cobbler's had *one* pair of white kid half-boots left in her
size!"

"Then it was very fortunate that you called in there today," Jennet said
bracingly. "And now that that's settled, surely everything else will go
smoothly."

"Let us hope," Bush said dryly. "Might I escort you, ma'am? I am
not--entirely ready to return home just yet. Not until my aunt and sister
have settled between them the matter of cold turkey or cold ham at the
wedding breakfast!"

Jennet hid a smile. "Of course, sir."

He sighed in evident relief, matching his stride to hers with what looked
unsettlingly like the ease of long habit. They had traveled perhaps half the
length of the street before he spoke again. "You are humming, ma'am!"

"Was I? I hadn't realized. I'll stop if it bothers you."

"No, no, I was just wondering. It sounded a trifle familiar--?"

Jennet thought for a moment, then suddenly giggled. "Oh, dear. It was 'Haste
to the Wedding'! At least, that was the *tune.* I believe it has words too,
though I can't recall them at present." She hummed a little more of it.

"A lively air," Bush remarked. "And most suitable for a celebration."

"Yes," Jennet said, with another little gurgle of laughter. "Although I can
never quite hear it now with an entirely straight face."

"Oh?" He glanced at her, eyes narrowed in amused speculation.

Jennet glanced back, mouth curving mischievously, and obliged. "Several
years ago, a good friend of mine served as the organist at our church
services. One spring, a wedding was to be held there, and my friend played
several tunes, some religious, some secular, before the ceremony. Except
that while she was playing 'Haste to the Wedding,' she noticed that a large
portion of the congregation all seemed to be laughing and whispering amongst
themselves. She thought little of it at first--at least not until the
bride's aunt sought her out and suggested that, given the particular
circumstances of the affianced couple, she play something else!"

"You mean--?"

"That the wedding was followed, in fairly short order, by a christening."

Bush's lips twitched. "Ah," he said with commendable gravity. "Well, that
too may count as a wedding tradition of sorts!"

"My friend, of course, was mortally embarrassed, and thereafter would never
again play 'Haste to the Wedding,' unless *specifically* requested. A pity,
because, now I think on it, I believe the lyrics were quite unexceptionable!"

They had reached the door of the cloth merchant's by now, but were lingering
outside, strangely reluctant to part.

*This couldn't last forever,* Jennet reminded herself sternly. *Tomorrow
likely marks the end of--whatever this was. He's an officer and a
gentleman--and I . . . well, I smell of the shop. Millinery may be a
respectable trade, but it's a trade, all the same. Still, if his sisters
continue to patronize Gillian's, we might see each other sometimes. Even
converse, if we're so inclined . . . *

*Tomorrow,* Bush reflected somberly. *After tomorrow, I'll no longer have a
reason or an excuse to visit Gillian's. Or even to be in the vicinity when
Jennet runs her errands. Perhaps it's best this way. She owns a thriving
business, no doubt there are countless men in Chichester who'd come running
if she so much as crooked her finger at them. Successful men, who can offer
her . . . far more than I can. Damn, damn, and damn.*

"I should not keep you any longer, sir," Jennet said, lifting her chin
resolutely. "I know your sister will be waiting for her shoes."

"Yes," Bush admitted reluctantly. "I suppose I *should* start back. There's
still so much that needs to be done before tomorrow."

"I wish you luck, then, sir. But I am sure it will all go splendidly. Good
afternoon, lieutenant." Jennet summoned up a smile and turned to enter the
cloth merchant's.

Inspiration suddenly struck. "Ma'am!" Bush called after her.

She turned back, lifted inquiring brows. "Sir?"

"You've become . . . such a part of all these preparations. Might I--stop
by, afterwards, and tell you about the wedding?"

A considering silence, then a sun-bright smile, more brilliant than any he'd
seen before, illuminated her face. "Yes, thank you, lieutenant. I should be
delighted if you would."

*One day more.* The thought was uppermost in both their minds as they turned
to go their separate ways. *One day more.*

***************************

Let Envy, Let Pride, Let Hate & Ambition,
Still Crowd to, & beat at the breast of the Great,
To Such Wretched Passions we Give no admission,
But Leave them alone to the wise ones of State,
We Boast of No wealth, but Contentment & Health,
In mirth & in friends, our moments employ
Come see rural felicity,
Which love and innocence ever enjoy.

*******

*Distracted is the bride the sun shines on.*

Bush didn't even want to *think* about what his sister's state of mind would
have been if it were raining. Last night, just after dusk, a light misty
drizzle had fallen and Kate had been beside herself. Fortunately, the day
had dawned bright and clear. The ground was moist but not a quagmire as Kate
had feared; her fine new half-boots would not lodge themselves in mud.
Besides, Bush reflected, if worse came to worse, he could always *carry* his
sister from the cottage to the dog cart in her wedding finery!

At breakfast, the bride had been too nervous to do more than nibble at toast,
take a few sips of tea. Fortunately, Aunt Lucy and Esther Fenton had
arrived soon after and, along with Anne, borne her off to her own room to
start dressing her for the ceremony.

It had taken little enough time for Bush to make his own preparations. He'd
washed, shaved, combed his hair into submission, and donned his best uniform,
cleaned and newly pressed, in under twenty minutes. Anne, passing by with
flowers from the garden, assured him that he looked most dashing before
hurrying again to her sister's side.

Propping his shoulders against the opposite wall, Bush listened idly to the
fretful expostulations, soothing murmurs, and occasional nervous giggles
drifting from the bride's room.

"Do I have it all?" Kate's voice rose querulously. "The 'something old,
something new, something blue--'"

"'Something borrowed, something blue,'" Anne amended calmly. "I believe so.
You have Mother's necklace, which was old. Your gown is new, the flowers and
ribbons on your bonnet are blue . . . that just leaves the 'something
borrowed.'"

"You may have one of my handkerchiefs, dear." Aunt Lucy's voice was tranquil.
"I embroidered it myself--and you can carry it folded in your bodice or
tucked up your sleeve."

"The very thing." Anne's tone was approving. "Do compose yourself, Kate.
There's no further call to worry, and you look just beautiful. Do you not
agree, William?" She pitched her voice to carry out into the hall.

Recognizing his cue, Bush pushed himself away from the wall and came to stand
in the doorway. But what he saw nearly took his breath away.

As Jennet had said, Madame Mignonette took infinite pains. Although no judge
of fashion, Bush could see that the wedding gown was very fine
indeed--snow-white taffeta, high-waisted and long-sleeved, the full rustling
skirts and rounded neckline edged with lace. But it was the bride,
bright-eyed and becomingly flushed, who set off the dress, not the other way
around.

"Well?" Kate gazed up at him searchingly.

"My dear," Bush paused to clear his throat, "my dear, you have never looked
lovelier."

Aunt Lucy smiled benignly on them both. "You see, child? You have your own
brother's assurance that you are in your best looks."

"And if that's not enough, think of Adam!" Esther Fenton giggled. "I suspect
the vicar will have to prompt him to speak his vows when he sees you coming
towards him."

"Do you?" Kate looked both amused and entranced by this prospect.

"The entire congregation will be dumbstruck, " Anne said lightly, approaching
her with a beribboned bouquet of white asters. "The bride's bonnet,
Esther--if you would?"

The bridegroom's sister lifted the item in question from the dressing table
and placed it with exquisite care on Kate's shining head, taking pains not to
disturb a single curl. "There!" Her fingers tied a perfect bow under the
bride's chin.

Bush had dutifully admired the charms of Kate's wedding bonnet before. Now,
however, seeing it paired with the wedding gown, he had to admit the effect
was nothing less than stunning. Beneath the gentle curve of the brim, Kate's
eyes glowed brilliantly blue, more than a match for the silk forget-me-nots
wreathing the crown. The misty folds of veiling softened but did not dim the
blush on her cheeks. Anne and Esther, clad in rose-pink and jonquil muslin,
respectively, flanked her, smiling almost as brightly. Resplendent in her
best grey moire and new lace cap, Aunt Lucy rustled up to stand beside them.

"Beauty ashore", indeed, even if they *were* his own kin. "I'll be the envy
of every man in Chichester," Bush remarked, "to be seen in the company of
such fine ladies." Walking up to Kate, he offered her his arm. "Well, my
dear--are you ready to be married?'

The bride smiled up at him radiantly. "More than ready, dear brother!"

Bush turned to offer his other arm to Aunt Lucy. "Then let's to the
church--the carriage awaits!"

*************

"Look!" Minnie nudged Jennet's arm as they proceeded along the main
thoroughfare of Chichester.

Jennet glanced in the direction indicated and broke into a smile. A party of
people, dressed in their finest, were alighting from a dogcart drawn up
before St. Mary's Church . . . a familiar figure in a naval uniform,
assisting a pleasant-looking woman in late middle-age, then two young women
in colored muslins, and finally, in a billow of white taffeta, the bride
herself. The ladies gathered on the steps of the church as Lieutenant Bush
led the dogcart around to where the other carriages and equipages stood
waiting. Mellow autumn sunlight played upon the bridesmaids' pastel skirts,
heightened the snowy brilliance of the bride's, enhanced the rich colors and
textures of flowers and ribbons.

Jennet released a breath she did not even realize she had been holding.
"Everyone looks splendid. Just as I thought they would."

"Hmmph." The dressmaker was eying the bride with mild disfavor. "Considering
the effort we went to on her behalf, Miss Bush might have at least invited us
to the wedding!"

Jennet shrugged. "It's supposed to be a very small ceremony, I'm told. Only
family and close friends of the bride and groom." Still smiling, she watched
Lieutenant Bush join the rest of the wedding party on the steps as they
prepared to enter the church. "You must admit, Miss Bush makes a lovely
bride."

Minnie's cat-green eyes softened slightly. "Well, she does us credit--I will
say that. Perhaps it'll bring us more business in the coming months. I've
heard that Christmas weddings are becoming fashionable again!"

************

Standing at the back of the church, Bush squared his shoulders and took a
deep breath as the soft pealing of the organ reached him. He could see
friends and relatives seated in the pews on either side of the aisle; Aunt
Lucy had already gone down on the strong arm of her eldest son, Samuel, who'd
succeeded his father as the town blacksmith. Adam Fenton, looking very
young and anxious, waited at the altar with his groomsman and the vicar.
Bush could have sworn he saw the curate swallow hard as first Esther, then
Anne glided down the aisle.

And now it had arrived . . . the big moment.

"Nervous, my dear?" Bush murmured to Kate, as she clung to his arm.

"Oh, no," she breathed.

Bush took a closer look and discovered that she was speaking no less than the
truth. Bearing and demeanor were perfectly, seraphically tranquil and calm.
Amazing. One would never have supposed that this serene bride-to-be had ever
dithered over her bonnet, burst into tears over her gown, or changed her mind
three times about her shoes. Beneath the veil, his sister's face wore an
expression of beatific self-absorption.

*I suspect, in time, you'll remember only the joy of your sister's wedding
day, rather than the confusion that accompanied it.*

Perhaps he would at that. Bush said a silent thank-you to Jennet Reed for the
clear-eyed sanity that had helped him--had helped *all* of them, really--to
navigate this matrimonial Cape Horn. Then as the organist struck up the
processional, Bush drew himself upright, gave his sister's gloved hand a last
reassuring squeeze, and prepared to take the first step down the aisle that
would lead Kate to her new life and future husband.

********

Aunt Lucy had prevailed and a fine ham was the main feature of the wedding
breakfast. But as a concession to the bride, there were two plump boiled
fowls, dusted with parsley; a cheese-and-egg pie; and a piece of pickled
salmon. For the sweet course, there were preserved pears, apple tart, a few
syllabubs. And, of course, towering over all, the wedding cake, lavishly
iced and ornamented with sugar flowers. Cider, ale, coffee, and tea to
drink--although the health of the newly married couple was toasted with a
fine Canary wine.

Wandering through the garden, where the trestle table had been set up, Bush
nursed a tankard of ale and glanced idly over at the bride and groom as they
smilingly received the good wishes of still more guests, thanked them for
attending, agreed that yes, it had been a lovely ceremony, and never quite
took their eyes off each other the entire time.

Well, it *had* been a lovely ceremony, Bush conceded. Almost lovely enough
to make one forget the chaos that preceded it. Kate had been exquisite,
speaking her vows with shining eyes and nary a quaver in her voice. Adam had
been the nervous one; contrary to Esther's prediction, he hadn't needed the
vicar's prompting but he'd stammered noticeably throughout his recital and
his hands had been shaking when he placed the ring on his bride's finger. No
sign of panic now, however. Quite the contrary--the young man radiated
complacency.

Anne's trio of suitors, Bush noted with amusement, radiated something else
entirely. As he had foreseen, the threesome had stepped up their pursuit of
his youngest sister with a vengeance now that Kate was officially wed. One
had hurried to heap a plate with viands for her, another had jumped to fill
her cup the moment it was half-empty, and the third had managed to secure her
as a partner for when the dancing started. His two rivals had looked quite
crestfallen by this discovery--until Anne promised them dances of their own.

The bone of contention, teacup in hand, was even now strolling in his
direction. Bush watched her approach, tried viewing her through a stranger's
eyes; it was true that Anne lacked Kate's dimpled, porcelain prettiness but
the combination of her wavy dark hair and piercing blue eyes was striking,
and the rose shade of her gown flattered her complexion. The slightly
acerbic intelligence in her face also held an attraction for the discerning.

"Enjoying yourself, my dear?" Bush inquired by way of greeting.

"Oh, yes. I'd say everything went off splendidly, wouldn't you? Especially
now that Kate has calmed down."

He could not refrain from smiling. "I had not thought a wedding could cause
so much upheaval. I must confess, I'm not in any great hurry to experience
one again!"

"Heaven forfend," Anne said piously.

"Speaking of weddings . . . what happened to your court?"

She did not pretend to misunderstand him. "I saw them not ten minutes ago at
the far end of the garden. I believe each is contriving to find a way to be
the last of the three to leave today!"

Bush shook his head. "Do you mean to put any of them out of their misery any
time soon?"

"One day, perhaps." Anne sipped demurely from her teacup. "And what of *your*
courtship, William? Does it prosper?"

"I am sure I do not understand what you mean, my dear."

"I am sure you understand exactly *whom* I mean, brother! Really, William,
one would have had to be deaf, blind, or *Kate* not to have noticed what was
going on these last few weeks!" Anne eyed him with the liveliest
exasperation, then just as suddenly softened. "Is it the presence of *Mr*
Reed that is the impediment?"

"Mr. Reed . . . is *not* a factor."

"Then what is stopping you?"

"My prospects--or rather, the lack of them. I am an unemployed king's
officer--and likely to remain so, as long as this peace lasts. What can I
offer, while facing such an uncertain future?"

"The future is *always* uncertain, William. But it needn't be lonely too."
She kissed him on the cheek. "Please--think on what I have said."

******

A moderately succesful day, Jennet decided, counting up what there was in the
till before preparing to lock up the drawer securely. Several matrons, most
with daughters in tow, had visited the shop, perhaps feeling the nip of
approaching winter in the air and desiring something warm as well as
fashionable. She was glad she had started the apprentices on the velvet
bonnets a few weeks early. Most of the ones she had on display had sold--and
she'd taken orders for more.

The bell tinged and Jennet frowned slightly in vexation. "I'm sorry but
Gillian's is about to close for the day," she announced, politely but firmly,
without looking up from her task.

"Then I've clearly chosen the right time, haven't I?"

"Lieutenant Bush!" Jennet smiled brilliantly. "I'd about given you up, sir!"

He removed his cocked hat, smoothed down a recalcitrant forelock. "Forgive
me, ma'am. I'd have been here sooner but we had to see the bride and groom
off on their wedding trip."

"No need for apologies, sir. Are they traveling very far?"

"Not too distant--Brighton. My sister is very excited to be visiting a place
the Prince of Wales has made famous, despite its being a bit late in the year
for sea-bathing."

Jennet rather suspected that sea-bathing was not among the newly married
Fentons' top priorities, but it would be indelicate to say as much. Instead,
she let her eyes rest on the pleasing sight of Lieutenant Bush, every inch
the proper officer in his dress uniform. Despite the demands of the day,
his white lapels were still spotless, providing a striking contrast with the
dark blue broadcloth. Breeches too were impeccable and the buckles on his
shoes gleamed with a mirror-like brightness. Only the wavy dark hair showed
slight signs of dishevelment. "All went well at the wedding, I trust?"

"Very well. Near perfect, in fact. You were right, ma'am--everything came
together at the last."

"I'm so glad. And I'm sure your sister and her husband will share many happy
years."

"More sunshine than shadows. That's what we want for anyone we love." Bush
rested his right arm on the counter and for the first time Jennet noticed the
small, beribboned box dangling from his wrist.

"I' ve brought you a piece of wedding-cake, ma'am," he explained, sliding the
loop of ribbon from his wrist and gently pushing the box towards her.
"There was more than enough . . . and I wanted to thank you for your part, in
helping things run so smoothly."

Jennet studied the box before her, then looked up with the air of one who had
come to an important decision. "Then--most assuredly, sir, you must share
this with me. And at home, I've a flask of currant wine--my mother's
recipe--to wash it down with."

Bush's eyes met hers. "Then, ma'am . . . may I see you home?"

"Of course." Taking a key from her pocket, Jennet went up to the front door,
locked it, then shot the bolt home for good measure before turning to face
her startled visitor.

"Ma'am--"

She could not help smiling at his confusion. "I live above my shop, sir.
Did you not guess?"

He shook his head, starting to smile in his turn. "I own you took me by
surprise again, ma'am. I only hope . . . you will continue to do so, for a
long time to come." Handing over the box, he offered her his arm and they
proceeded from the front room down a short hallway, at the end of which stood
another locked door.

Jennet reached into her pocket again, drew out a second key. "This shouldn't
take a moment--"

"Ma'am." His voice was low and warm. "Jennet . . . "

*Oh, my.* Slowly, she turned around, mouth dry and knees weak as water.
What she saw in his eyes took her breath away. Then his hands, callused and
sea-roughened, cupped her face with infinite gentleness, and his warm mouth
descended on hers. Closing her eyes, she leaned into the kiss--and was lost.
Drowning . . .

****
How long had it been--for him as well as for her? Long enough for some
initial awkwardness on both parts that, fortunately, erupted into shared
laughter. Not so long as to blur all recollection of what was expected . . .
and desired. They took their time, each learning what the other liked best,
exploring each other's bodies with the utmost tenderness, touching, tasting,
communicating in whispers and murmurs of pleasure. He found the sensitive
area just below her ear, while she discovered to her delight that he was
ticklish.

When the moment of joining came, she was ready for him, wrapping her arms
around his neck and her legs around his hips. He muffled her cries with
kisses, rode the wave until it broke around them. Together, entwined, they
sank into sated oblivion.

*******
Some hours later, the moon rose, casting a soft, silvery radiance through
Jennet's bedroom window. It shone first upon an empty plate and two
glasses--still holding faint crimson dregs--standing upon a bedside table,
and, finally, upon two naked forms lying in bed, the man contentedly supine,
the woman turned slightly on her side as she contemplated the body next to
her.

"So where did you get this?" Jennet drew one forefinger gently along the
length of Bush's most recent scar. After nearly twenty years at sea, he had
a full complement of scars, but this was particularly startling: a vivid
pink slash almost bisecting his middle.

"The West Indies. We'd captured an enemy fort, but some Spanish prisoners
escaped from the hold and armed themselves. We retook our ship--but not
without considerable loss of life. I was one of the lucky ones."

"Lucky!" Jennet shook her head, lips pursed sympathetically. "It must have
been terrible!"

"It was," Bush paused, "a difficult sail, even before the uprising. The
captain had held his rank for many years, but he was . . . failing badly.
And the first lieutenant was not up to the burdens of command. For a time,
we were all under a cloud." His brow darkened at the memory, then as suddenly
cleared. "It wasn't all terrible, though. There were these two young
lieutenants, just under me--very brave and clever. It was an honor to serve
with them. I learned more from my juniors on that voyage than I did from my
superiors."

"What happened to them?"

"One was promoted to commander and assigned to a sloop of war. The other,
sadly, died of wounds in Kingston."

"From the same battle that gave you *this*?" At his nod, Jennet again traced
the livid scar across his midsection. "Nearly made *two* of you, it did!"

Bush eyed her slyly. "If it had, which one would you have preferred?"

"Some questions," Jennet said severely, "do not deserve an answer." She
immediately took the sting out of the words by kissing him.

Bush pulled her closer, savoring the taste and feel of her mouth against his
own. That, in turn, led to other things, and it was some time before they
once again lay peacefully entwined.

Replete, Bush trailed idle fingers through the chestnut curls lying in
disarray across his shoulder--then sighed as a thought struck him. "I do not
know how long I can stay. No, no," he hastened to explain as she glanced at
him quizzically, "I meant, in Chichester. Very soon I'll have to go to
Portsmouth--to pick up my next allotment of half-pay. And after that . . . "
His voice trailed off.

Her hazel eyes met his steadily. "And after that?"

"Further afield. London perhaps, though I don't know if my resources will
stretch that far." He sighed again. "I was thinking of applying for a billet
in the merchant service, as mate. Competition's bound to be ferocious,
though, with so many ships being paid off."

"They'd be lucky to have you," she asserted staunchly.

"Well, twenty years of seamanship ought to count for *something.*"

She leaned in to kiss the bitterness from his mouth.

He looked up at her with troubled eyes. "If I go . . . I cannot say how soon
I'll return."

"You do what you must . . . William." Her voice speaking his name was among
the sweetest sounds he'd ever heard. "For now, at least--we have what we
have."

*********

(Six months later)

Cheerfully bidding the day's last customers farewell, Jennet shivered
slightly in the draught that managed to sweep in before the door was entirely
shut. She pulled her shawl closer about her shoulders, turned the sign in
the front window around to read "Closed", and thankfully sought refuge behind
the counter where it was noticeably warmer. True to the old proverb, March
had indeed come in like a lion, with heavy rains and freezing winds, but this
gust seemed to carry with it the faintest breath of spring and the promise of
renewal. A promise that would be welcome to all.

Not that winter had been without certain compensations, she acknowledged with
a private smile as she reckoned up the day's accounts. William had been gone
for several weeks in November, seeking a place in the merchant service.
That, unfortunately, had come to nothing--and he'd returned to Chichester by
the end of the month. Jennet had sympathized with his discouragement but
could not deny that she was happy to have his company again. They'd spent
most of December--including Christmas--together. Fortunately, Lieutenant
Bush's sisters seemed cautiously supportive of their relationship. At least,
Miss Anne did; the new Mrs. Fenton was apparently in the way of making her
brother an uncle in the summer, which occupied most of her attention.

In January, Bush had returned from his monthly excursion into Portsmouth with
a distressing story to tell. He had encountered Hornblower, the surviving
junior lieutenant from the Renown, unemployed and down-at-heel. The outbreak
of peace had prevented the young officer's promotion to commander from being
confirmed--now he played cards in the Long Rooms for his living, his next
meal wholly dependent on his run of luck. Jennet believed she understood
the reason for William's increased anxiety ever since that meeting: on the
one hand, there was concern over seeing his former shipmate in such dire
financial straits; on the other . . . if a man as brilliant as Hornblower
could not find employment in his chosen profession, what chance was there for
Bush who, by his own admission, was capable and competent but *not* brilliant?

The worry had gnawed at him through February, though he was too considerate
to let it poison their time together. For her part, Jennet tried to listen
attentively when he felt like speaking of his situation and to respect his
silence when he did not. That was not always easy--her shop had done very
well this winter and she had tentatively offered to loan him money during a
particularly lean period, but William had adamantly refused, had even asked
her not to broach the subject again. That had happened some time ago, and
while the constraint between them afterwards had not lasted long, the memory
could still cause embarrassment.

During the last few days, Bush had been away again--in Portsmouth, collecting
his half-pay and seeing Hornblower who'd offered him a bed for the night the
next time he visited. No doubt there were frustrations one out-of-work naval
officer could express only to another out-of-work naval officer; Jennet hoped
both men would benefit from their meeting.

The chime of the bell and another gust of wind as the door swung open
recalled her to the present, but her protests died on her lips when she saw
Bush standing there, hair dishevelled, face ruddy with cold but wearing
something suspiciously close to a smile.

"My dear!" She hurried across the room to take his hands in hers. "Have you
just got back? You must be chilled to the bone--and your hands are like ice!"

"They'll be warm soon enough in yours." He bent to kiss her. "I've news,
Jennet! Good news--well, perhaps, not *good* news from one standpoint, but it
makes all the difference to my situation. Hornblower's too, for that matter."

She gazed up at him searchingly. "You've--gotten a berth?" Then, at his nod,
"*Not* in the merchant service?"

Bush shook his head, somber again. "Last night, we saw a press gang going
about. And this morning, it was in the London papers. War is imminent--it's
only a matter of time before the peace is over. Some are saying Bonaparte
never intended it to last in the first place, that he'd break it as soon as
it suited his purpose. Hornblower's been confirmed as a
commander--officially, this time--and he's asked me to sail with him as first
lieutenant. We'll likely be joining the Channel Fleet."

*Keep breathing*, Jennet told herself sternly. *This is what he has been
waiting for all these months.* Ignoring the sharp pang in her breast, she
summoned up one of her best smiles. "I am so happy for you, my dear." And
that was true enough: he was returning to his rightful place and the sorrow
was hers alone to bear. Sorrow, but not regret, *never* regret. She owed it
to him--on account of these last six months--to make their parting as
painless as possible. She swallowed past the tightness in her throat, smiled
more brilliantly than ever. "And I wish you safe voyage!"

His eyes crinkled with a mixture of surprise and amusement. "I'm not about
to weigh anchor this second, my love. Indeed, I had something of importance
to discuss with you." He glanced pointedly at the door, which she hastened
to lock.

"Something of importance?" Jennet queried, curiosity overriding sadness for
the moment. "You have my full attention, I assure you!"

Bush cleared his throat, thrust one hand into the pocket of his pea coat.
"As you know, I have collected my latest allotment of half-pay. And I will
be back on full-pay soon enough. This was not possible before, though the
thought had crossed my mind: I wish to invest in your business, if you will
permit me. Now, granted," he continued hastily as she stared at him, "I do
not know how much a share will cost, nor how many I can purchase at this
time. But you may trust me to reimburse you for the balance as soon as I
have the funds." He fumbled in his pocket a moment longer, drew out a
crumpled five-pound note. "Well, my dear ma'am--will this do for an initial
stake?"

Abruptly, Jennet found her voice again. "I--I do believe it will suffice, si
r. You may invest more at a later date, if you so choose. Of course, as
my establishment is located *exclusively* in Chichester, I strongly advise
you to make regular inquiries as to the status of your investment--to what .
. . profits and proceeds you are entitled."

"Indeed, I had rather counted on doing so," Bush replied affably. "As
frequently as possible, given my profession, and always in person. Letters
alone lack--a certain something."

They exchanged a smile then, of complete relief and understanding.
Abandoning his businesslike facade, Bush reached into his pocket once more.
"There is something else I have for you, my dear."

Jennet stared at the object in his palm,--a beautifully carved ivory comb,
its handle shaped like a plait of hair--then raised startled eyes to his
face. "Oh, William, the cost! And you still on half-pay! My dear, you
didn't need to--"

"It belonged to my mother," Bush interrupted, quite rightly ignoring this
outburst. "I think it would please her, that I should give it to *you.*" He
drew a finger lightly down the curve of her cheek. "Will you oblige me,
Jennet, by trying this in your hair? I believe it would suit you admirably.
Do you still keep a mirror behind the counter?"

"Indeed I do." Jennet shivered with pleasure as he ran a hand through her
hair, gathering her curls into one fist. "Although . . . in case you had
forgotten, sir, there is a larger mirror--upstairs."

Bush smiled. "Indeed there is, ma'am. And I assure you--I have forgotten
*nothing.*"

**************
(Several hours later)

"I knew it would suit you." Bush's tone was laden with satisfaction.

Jennet laughed softly. "Sweet William--I wore it in my hair not five minutes
before everything else came off!"

"I must confess, ma'am, to preferring you in nothing at all."

She ran one hand caressingly down the inside of his thigh. "Then I must make
a similar disclosure, sir--and admit to finding you as irresistible *out* of
uniform as you are in it!"

"That is indeed unprecedented!" A long kiss, then Bush sank back onto the
pillows with a sigh. "If *anything* could tempt me to the landsman's life .
. . "

"Belay that, sir! A man *must* have an occupation, after all. Not that I
won't miss you terribly while you're away."

"As I'll miss you." Bush grimaced. "I'm afraid the Channel Fleet stays away
for months, even years, at a time. I don't know when we'll be in England
again."

"Then I shall write you a great many letters, sir, to keep the memory of your
native shore alive for you!"

"And I'll reply," he promised, "though I fear I've no great skills as a
correspondent."

"How long before you sail?"

"A few weeks yet--Hornblower's sloop will need to be provisioned and
fitted-out for active service again. And then there's that damned
entanglement of his . . . " Bush's voice trailed off, his brows knitting in
apparent vexation.

"Entanglement?"

He grimaced again. "He's bound himself to a girl he met in Portsmouth. And
now they are to marry before he returns to sea--I'll have to be on hand to
help with that, I suppose."

Jennet eyed him searchingly. "You disapprove?"

Bush shrugged. "It's not my place to approve or disapprove of what my captain
chooses to do with his personal life. I was thinking it was damned ironic,
though, that two strangers can marry so quickly while two people who truly
know and value each other should be unable to do so because . . . because of
various things."

She had grown very still beside him. "Are you jealous, then, of Captain
Hornblower and his young lady? Because they can be legally wed and--*we* canno
t?"

Swiftly, he turned on his side, took her in his arms. "Jennet, you *must*
know that if our circumstances were different, I would ask you to m--"

"Hush!" She laid gentle fingers against his lips. "Ah, Will--it takes more
than lines and a ring to make a marriage! I know that better than anyone.
And if *we* have . . . what truly matters, as I think we do," he nodded in
response to the querying note in her voice, "then I am more than willing to
forego the rest!"

Some of the tension left his body; he held her more easily, if no less
ardently. "I am," he said on a long sigh, "a fortunate man, indeed."

"I quite agree," she teased, leaning into his embrace. "Now, tell me more
about your friend's wedding--for you do consider Captain Hornblower a friend
as well as a superior officer, do you not?"

"I hardly know what to say," Bush admitted ruefully. "I should like to wish
them happy but I cannot be altogether confident that matters will turn out
well."

"But surely he's not the first man in the service to marry before going off
to war. Nor would she be the first bride to be left in that situation. If
she has a sound head on her shoulders and a cheerful disposition, she should
manage well enough in his absence."

"Her disposition seems amiable enough. I can make no judgement regarding her
intelligence--except to say that it does not appear to be of the same order
as Hornblower's."

Jennet blinked, dismayed. It was not unusual for a man to marry a woman
whose understanding was inferior to his own, but such an inequity of
intelligence did not necessarily lead to happiness. Quite the opposite, in
many cases. "Is she--pretty, at least?"

Bush's expression on being asked that question perfectly illustrated the
quandary of a man who did not wish to say anything wounding or unkind--but
was still too honest to lie. "I am afraid . . . she would be considered a
plain girl in any company."

Worse and worse. "Does Captain Hornblower *love* this girl? For that matter
does she love *him*?"

"Ah." Bush rubbed a hand over his face. "I can reassure you as to the last,
Jennet. It's plain to see that the young lady's affections for Hornblower
are genuine. As for Hornblower himself . . . I believe, at the very least,
he feels a sense of obligation towards her, on account of her kindness
towards him during the peace."

*A sense of obligation*? Oh, dear. Jennet winced inwardly, feeling a pang of
pity for this unloved and unlovely girl, whom Bush's friend was marrying out
of duty rather than affection. Perhaps it was just as well that the bride's
understanding was not superior, so that she could not distinguish between the
two. Or perhaps she *could,* but had decided to pretend otherwise because of
the depth of her own feelings. Either way it was a coil. Aloud she asked,
"Is it to be a very grand affair?"

"I doubt it. Neither Hornblower nor Miss Mason has a feather to fly with--it
will probably be a small ceremony in Portsmouth."

Jennet frowned to herself, idly running a forefinger up and down Bush's
breastbone. "A plain girl, you said? Is she dark or fair?"

Bush captured the forefinger and carried it to his lips before replying.
"Dark. With a somewhat--florid complexion."

"Tall or short?"

"Short--and she may run to stoutness later. My sisters would probably
describe her as 'a little dab of a thing.'"

Jennet's frown deepened as she contemplated the unprepossessing figure taking
shape in her mind's eye. Not too high a crown, not too wide a brim. Nothing
to call attention to the wearer's lack of inches or excess of girth. Nothing
that would clash with an over-ruddy complexion. A formidable task. Was
there such a thing as a bride-proof bonnet?

"Yellow," she decided at last. "Yellow flowers and ribbon, a short or flat
crown, a very narrow brim. That would be *my* choice for her, sight unseen.
No doubt there's something close enough to it in my stockroom--now that
spring's nearly here."

Bush raised himself on one elbow. "Jennet, are you--"

"Offering to provide a wedding bonnet for Captain Hornblower's bride? Indeed
I am!"

"But Miss Mason doesn't come from a wealthy or even comfortably situated
family. I fear a hat from Gillian's would be beyond her means."

"Not if I reduced the price--as a courtesy to the most junior partner in the
firm. Or simply let said partner have the item on credit. To be settled in
the fullness of time, of course."

"You'd do that--for a woman you don't even know?"

Jennet shrugged lightly. "I just think everyone should have the chance of
looking their best at a wedding. Especially the bride."

Bush smiled reminiscently. "You said something like that the first time we
met. I believe I lost a piece of my heart to you even then."

"*Only* a piece?"

He planted a trail of kisses running from her brow to her mouth."The rest was
quick to follow."

"Seriously, William," she paused to push a shock of curls back from her face,
her hazel eyes unusually earnest, "if the wedding *does* go through as
planned, with everyone keeping to the same mind, why not give the bonnet to
the captain to give to his bride? Surely it could do no harm."

"No harm," Bush agreed, "and perhaps even some good. A kind thought, my dear
ma'am, and one to be taken to heart. The circumstances of *this* marriage
may not be ideal, but it would be churlish to mar whatever pleasure Miss
Mason chooses to find in it."

Jennet sighed, relaxing against him. "Thank you."

"I'll tell Hornblower the bonnet was made by the foremost milliner in
Chichester." Bush's arm tightened possessively around her. "Who also happens
to be my inamorata--although he certainly doesn't need to know *that*!"

"Inamo-what?"

"An Italian word, Jennet, meaning--"

"Hmmph!" said his woman decidedly. "I can guess what it means and I don't
need any fancy words--Italian or English--to explain what we are to each
other, William Bush!"

"Would you rather I called you my 'bit of muslin'?" Bush's tone was dry.
"Or, perhaps, my 'guinea-hen'?"

Jennet smiled. "I prefer 'light-o'-love', myself." And leaning over, she
blew out the candle and settled down against him for the night.

END

With Reason we taste of Each Heart Stirring pleasure,
With Reason we Drink of the full flowing Bowl,
Are Jocund & Gay, But 'tis all within measure,
For fatal excess will enslave the free Soul,
Then Come at our bidding to this Happy wedding,
No Care Shall obtrude here, our Bliss to annoy,
Come see rural felicity,
Which love and innocence ever enjoy.

*************************************

Author's Note: A special thanks to the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones, who
inadvertently taught me a great deal about the millinery business in a small
town. Also, thanks to my beta-reader Del and to everybody who egged me on
while I was posting this in WIP form. This wedding, as it turns out, was
anything *but* hasty to write!