Giles Raeburn paused on the threshold to the nursery and frowned slightly at the sight of his eight-year-old niece kneeling on her bed, her face pressed against the window.
"What are you looking at, Pippin?" She turned her head and beckoned frantically,
"Come see, Uncle." Giles crossed the room and knelt next to her.
"Down there. See? The lady in the brown pelisse." Giles followed the little girl's finger and located the woman that was causing such interest. She wore a chocolate brown pelisse with a matching bonnet and the swirl of gray skirts could be seen as the wind tugged at her clothing.
"She looks like a little sparrow," he commented outloud, eliciting a giggle from his niece. Pleased to hear the sound, he drew back from the glass, tugging Pippa down onto the bed to sit beside him and then tucking her snugly into the crook of his arm.
"So, Pip, what is so fascinating about her?"
"She waves at me, Uncle Giles. Every morning when she goes out, she looks up at me and smiles and waves."
The loneliness in the child's voice tugged at Giles' heartstrings and he swallowed hard before gently smoothing back the tumbled curls that were only just growing back after being cut short during her fever. She was still so very pale, he noted, her blue eyes ringed with dark circles, her cheeks hollow with the weight she had lost.
More than anything he longed to remove Pippa back to his country estate where the clean air might put the roses back in her cheeks and he might return to his satisfying life as a landowner. He bitterly regretted the promise to his mother that brought him and the precious little girl to town and exposed her to the infection.
"That's very kind of her," he managed after a moment. Pippa sighed and huddled closer against him. "Tired, Pip? Shall I read to you?"
"All right, Uncle." Troubled by her lack of enthusiasm, but not knowing how else to cheer her, Giles went to collect a book.
The sparrow woman never quite left his mind and a short time later, his niece safely sleeping and watched over by the nursery maid, he returned to his study and called his butler to him.
"You asked to see me, sir?"
"Paddon, yes. What can you tell me about the woman next door?"
"Miss Harvey, sir? The lady who lives to our left at number 16?" At Giles' nod, the butler continued, "I believe she lives with her aunt, a Mrs. Dean. Most respectable ladies, sir, but living retired from society." That told him very little. For the past few weeks Giles had attended none of the parties of the ton and even before his niece's fever he had avoided the entertainments where possible.
"What kind of woman is she, Paddon?" The butler looked at him blankly,
"I'm not sure I understand...." Giles interrupted impatiently,
"Is she kind? A good-hearted woman? Do her servants speak well of her? Come, come, Paddon, you must know something! I'm well aware of how servants talk." The butler's face stiffened at the implication that he engaged in something so common as chat with the servants and Giles sighed softly,
"She waves at Pippa every morning, Paddon," he explained in a calmer tone, "indeed, it is the only animation I have seen on the child's face in weeks." The rigid lines on the older man's face eased into an expression of fond regard, as Giles had known it would.
His entire household doted on the little girl and he had forgotten the number of times he had come across a weeping maid or a grim-faced footman during the worst period of the illness. He was touched by their devotion, but so far, despite the best efforts of everyone from the tweeny to the butler, Pippa remained sadly pulled and blue-deviled.
"She is well-spoken of, sir and, I believe, regarded with a great deal of affection." Giles nodded but said nothing in response.
"Do you.... Forgive me, sir, but do you have something in mind?" A wry smile touched Giles' lips as he realised how unusual this conversation was.
"I was wondering if it might cheer Pippa to meet the woman." He was grasping at straws. What a ridiculous notion to consider: inviting a stranger into his home in the hope that it might cheer his niece.
"Of course," he continued, thinking aloud, "I cannot possibly call on her... If only Mother were here... What a time for Lady Margrave to take ill and request her presence." The butler cleared his throat,
"If I might suggest, sir.... A letter?" Giles examined the idea. It sounded almost as improper as the visit.
"Perhaps," he murmured, unwilling to squash the man's suggestion completely. "Thank you for your help, Paddon." The butler bowed and left the room.
Maybe if he hadn't later ascended the stairs to the nursery and been forced to watch his niece pick apathetically at a single piece of bread and butter, he would have dismissed the idea altogether.
"What is, my dear?" Blinking myopically, Mrs. Dean raised her head from her needlework to gaze questioningly at her niece.
"This letter." Amy raised her eyes from the paper to look at her aunt. "It is from our neighbour."
"Mrs. Miller?" Mrs. Dean looked confused.
"No, Mr. Raeburn. Mr. Giles Raeburn." Amy ducked her head from her aunt's suddenly acute gaze and was thankful that she was old enough now to have stopped blushing. Apparently her aunt had not missed how Amy's eyes were wont to follow the man down the street or how she looked up at the house whenever she went out.
"He has written you a letter?" Amy forgot her abashment at this reminder.
"Yes." She rose and held the paper out to other woman. "I'm not at all sure what to think." Mrs. Dean accepted it and bent her head over it.
"How extraordinary!" she exclaimed a few moments later, echoing Amy's earlier words. "Scarlet fever, that poor child! You were really waving at her, Amy?"
"She had such a forlorn little face, Aunt Josie. I couldn't resist." Mrs. Dean nodded,
"And he asks if you would come to tea, today if possible. An impatient man."
"No," Amy said slowly, "not that, Aunt. I shouldn't think Mr. Raeburn impatient."
"Oh? And on what do you base that conclusion?" Amy frowned, not entirely sure herself what had prompted the words.
"It is obvious that he cares deeply for his niece. So much so that he asks total strangers to call, all because my waving has made her smile."
"I should call that an act of desperation," Mrs. Dean observed tartly.
"Yes, but not one of impatience." Mrs. Dean contemplated this in silence and Amy hurried on, "and I happen to know from Martha that Mr. Raeburn has hardly stirred from the house since his niece took ill. Indeed, she said that his servants have been as worried for their master as the girl."
"Servant gossip," Mrs. Dean sniffed, but Amy could see the light of concern in her eyes.
"Would it be so terrible to take tea, Auntie? After all, I am hardly a green girl that it could be thought improper, especially with you there to take care of the proprieties."
"You are still the veriest innocent in the ways of the world," her aunt pointed out briskly. Amy suppressed a smile, aware that the older woman was weakening.
"We could take the little girl a gift," she suggested, knowing that this mention of the child would secure her aunt's endorsement to the outing. "Something small. I saw a dissected picture of Puss In Boots that I am sure she would like." Her aunt eyed her, well aware of how her niece was playing on her heartstrings.
"Amy, you are a shameless minx." Amy allowed the smile to curve her lips and went to her knees in front of the other woman,
"Best of aunts," she murmured fondly. The answering smile on Mrs. Dean's lips died and she smoothed back a lock of Amy's lamentably straight brown hair.
"My dear, do not go looking for more into this invitation." Amy didn't pretend to misunderstand her.
"It is hardly likely that Mr. Raeburn shall look at a dab of a female such as I."
"I am not worried about where Mr. Raeburn shall look," Mrs. Dean pointed out, hiding her worry behind a peevish tone. Amy ducked her head,
"Do not worry, Aunt," she replied quietly, "I shall be careful of my heart." Mrs. Dean stroked the bent head,
"That's all I ask, my dear. I should hate to see you hurt." Amy gave her a quick hug before moving over to the escritoire to draft an acceptance.
She wouldn't cut up her aunt's peace any further by saying that it was already too late and that the care she was taking was that her heart should not be worn on her sleeve.
Miss Harvey looked even more like a sparrow from the front, in fact, she was positively bran-faced.
Giles felt instantly ashamed of this thought when an expressive pair of brown eyes were lifted to meet his and he was recalled to the reason behind this unorthodox meeting.
"Mrs. Dean. Miss Harvey. How kind of you to come." He stepped forward with a bow and smile of welcome.
"Mr. Raeburn." The Sparrow smiled, revealing a pretty dimple and a row of even white teeth and Giles was aware of an odd sensation inside. Nerves, he decided.
"Pippa has been anxiously awaiting your arrival." He gave a rueful smile, "I think perhaps it might have been wiser to say nothing, but..." he spread his hands eloquently and was oddly pleased to note the understanding and amusement that brightened his Sparrow's brown eyes. His Sparrow? He went on quickly, cutting off the thought,
"Would you mind taking your tea in the nursery?"
"That would be lovely," Miss Harvey said warmly. She had a pleasing voice, low and clear. "I am looking forward to making the acquaintance of your niece." Mrs. Dean nodded agreeably,
"As am I."
Pippa almost bounced from the bed when the three entered the room, but Giles found himself unable to fully enjoy her happiness. He watched Miss Harvey with anxious eyes; hanging back as the two women approached the bed under the window.
"Pippa, may I introduce Miss Harvey and her aunt, Mrs. Dean."
"How do you do?" Pippa murmured, a sudden shyness washing over her in an almost visible wave. Giles tensed, ready to whisk the two women out of the nursery, a deluge of doubts churning his stomach.
"Very well, I thank you," Miss Harvey spoke formally, but the same warmth that had coloured her voice in her greeting to him could clearly be heard now. "But I understand that you have not been at all well." Pippa shook her head,
"I had Scarlet Fever," she said importantly. "But I'm better now," she added hastily, as if worried that the visit would be abruptly cut short. Miss Harvey threw a quick look over her shoulder at him, her eyes so brimful of laughter that Giles found himself hard-pressed not to smile.
"We have brought you a present," Mrs. Dean spoke up from where she had taken a seat near the bed.
"Oh!" Pippa straightened quickly and then hesitated, the thrill of pleasure on her face dimming a little as she turned towards Giles. Miss Harvey spoke first however,
"It is to encourage you to get better quickly," she held out the box, "I am sure your uncle would approve of such a gift."
"Indeed," Giles stepped closer to the bed, "if it will make you well, Pip, I think you must accept it!" Pippa shyly accepted the box,
"You are very kind. Thank you very much."
"You are very welcome. Might I sit with you while you open it?" At Pippa's nod, Miss Harvey seated herself on the bed. Pippa stared at the pieces inside.
"It is a dissected picture of Puss In Boots," Miss Harvey explained. "See, here is the picture that you can follow."
"Remarkable," Giles leaned over the bed to take a closer look. "I have never seen those before."
"The shop assistant assured me that it was ideal for Miss Pippa's age." She looked more than ever like a little bird, Giles thought, as she tilted her head back to look up at him for a moment before turning back to his niece. "Do you have a tray? I could help you piece it together if you like?"
"Oh, would you?" Pippa beamed up at Miss Harvey.
A cold knot in the pit of his stomach, a constant feature since Pippa's fever, began to relax its grip at the natural way the little Sparrow set the girl at ease. He had done the right thing.
"She's a dear," Amy remarked as she lifted off her bonnet.
"A little darling," Mrs. Dean agreed quietly, observing the becoming flush to her niece's cheeks with great misgivings.
"He must love her very much. I don't think I've ever seen a man look so care-worn. Did you notice how protective he was of her? I think he would have swept us out of the house if we had shown the tiniest sign of hurting her in some way." It occurred to Amy that her aunt was being unusually silent.
"Aunt?" Mrs. Dean slowly lowered herself onto the sofa next to Amy and took her niece's hands.
"My dear," she began and the stopped. Amy raised her eyebrows questioningly,
"Auntie? What is wrong?" Mrs. Dean took a breath,
"Amy, I very much fear... Oh dear, I never expected... Not now after all these years..." Thoroughly alarmed, Amy clutched the hands holding hers,
"Aunt Josie what is it? Are you ill?"
"Oh no, nothing like that. Amy, my dear, have you... I think you have fallen in love with Mr. Raeburn." Amy felt hot colour flood her cheeks and she looked down swiftly.
"I barely know him, Aunt." Mrs. Dean regarded her with a sapient eye,
"I think, Amelia, that you know him better than you say."
"Aunt!" Amy pulled away, using her shock as an excuse to rise to her feet and prudently turn her back on Mrs. Dean.
"You have been speaking with the servants... Observing him... And certainly love can strike at the most inexplicable of moments. You have now spent an hour in his close company..."
"Aunt, I am eight and twenty. A plain, freckled, undowered spinster, reliant on your kindness for the roof over my head, for the clothes on my back, for the food and he would never look at me that way..." Her voice choked over the lump in her throat and she fled the room.
Mrs. Dean, always a model of ladylike conduct and decorum, forgot herself so far as to declare:
Giles was disturbed. He liked to think of himself as a sensible man, not prone to flights of fancy and yet the oddest sensations tumbled about inside him every time Miss Harvey entered his home.
He sighed heavily and lifted a crossed sheet of paper from his desk. Perhaps it was this latest letter from his mother that was causing these strange feelings. Once again she was inquiring as to his future plans, reminding him of his need for an heir and a mother for Pippa. In the past he had always managed to push the intrusive questions aside. After all, it wasn't so easy to find a woman that he could live with and would also love and be loved by his cherished niece. Until now.
Rising to his feet, Giles left the letter on his desk and quietly went up to the nursery. The sound of childish giggling and ladylike laughter greeted his arrival and he paused in the doorway. They were unaware of his arrival, giving him the leisure to observe them together, their heads bent over something on the bed.
Miss Harvey had come every morning for the past eight days and he had been informed by his niece that they were making fancy dress costumes for her dolls and that they were going to hold a ball as soon as they had finished. Giles had gravely accepted his invitation to attend and then had to hurriedly turn away to hide overly bright eyes at his joy at this change in Pippa.
"Voilá!" Miss Harvey held up a doll dressed in excruciatingly bright colours that were a study in bad taste, "Mrs. Sophronia Asdell-Lownes, mother to Miss Diamantina Asdell-Lownes, our heroine." Pippa's laughter shook her narrow shoulders and she clutched at her stomach helplessly as Miss Harvey, putting on an affected voice, informed her,
"Diamantina! Acquire some Countenance! What will Don Salvador González Martín y Cañedo Rodríguez de Arcos think! And he so Rich! So Handsome! So... Available" She moved her hand as she spoke so that the doll's silk rustled in an imperious counterpoint and Giles was unable to prevent a little chuckle at the sight.
Bless the little Sparrow, he thought fervently, looking at the bright colour in Pippa's cheeks and the renewed sparkle in her blue eyes
"Uncle! Come see! Miss Amy is so clever!"
"Miss Amy?" Giles trod across the room to stand beside the bed, aware of a curious ache when Miss Harvey looked up with a smile of welcome.
"It is a compromise," she informed him, "since she did not feel totally comfortable using my given name on its own."
"Uncle!" Pippa demanded his attention, in a manner she used for weeks, "see what Miss Amy has done? This is Mrs. Sopha... Sopro..."
"Mrs. Sophronia Asdell-Lownes," Miss Harvey offered helpfully. Close up, the colours were even more dramatic and he winced slightly as Pippa held the doll up for his inspection.
"Very... er... striking..." He caught Miss Harvey's eyes and had to hurriedly look away from the demon of mischief dancing in their depths. "Pippa said that it was to be a costume ball," he managed, his voice shaking very slightly as he valiantly avoided catching the Sparrow's gaze again.
"It is," Pippa put in.
"And... er," he cleared his throat, "what is... Mrs. Soph...." His mirth threatened to break free and he trailed off. Miss Harvey rescued him,
"Sir! I can assure you that Mrs. Sophronia Asdell-Lownes of the Yorkshire Asdell-Lownes of Ryedale Hall, would never dream of so demeaning herself as to dress in costume. So lowering!" Her playacting destroyed his control and he burst out laughing and was forced to resort to his handkerchief to mop at his streaming eyes.
"Miss Harvey..." He gave up at the innocently raised eyebrows as his Sparrow somehow managed to maintain her composure.
"Uncle Giles, Mrs. Asdell-Lownes has Nerves like Great Aunt Eugenia," Pippa's ingenuous words undid him completely and Giles dropped weakly onto the bed next to Miss Harvey and then hastily jumped to his feet again as his thigh brushed against hers, his colour high, all amusement fled,
"Ah... Miss Harvey.... Forgive me..." The woman's cheeks were pink and she ducked her head,
"It was nothing, sir, please..." Giles backed out of the room,
"I had better go back downstairs.... Work.... Estate business..." He made an undignified exit and to add to his mortification heard Pippa's high voice declaiming,
"I think Uncle Giles likes you, Miss Amy."
"Oh, Pippa, you mustn't...."
"He calls you a Little Sparrow." Giles groaned and hurried down the stairs so that Miss Harvey's response went unheard by him.
A few minutes of agitated pacing calmed him sufficiently to be ashamed of his hasty departure. He was an intelligent man and had never before run from a difficult scene. This uncharacteristic act perturbed him greatly and now, not only did he have to sort out his own feelings, he was also faced with the complication of finding something to say to Miss Harvey after Pippa's revelation.
He leaned his arm against the mantelpiece and stared, unseeing, at the fire burning in the grate.
"Mr. Raeburn?" A soft voice broke through his musings and he spun to find Miss Harvey hovering uncertainly on the threshold, dressed in her pelisse and bonnet. "I beg your pardon, but the door was open..." She looked very uncomfortable, but the rosy colour in her cheeks was, he had to admit, very attractive.
"I cannot stay," she interrupted, "I think... I think it better that I return home now..."
"No! Please," he held out his hand and she took an involuntary step towards him, her own hand lifting and then she pulled back.
"Goodbye, sir." He strode after her, but she was gone. "Come back, Sparrow," he whispered.
A scant few minutes later there came another knock on the door and Paddon announced,
"Mrs. Dean." The older woman followed the butler into the room a distraught expression on her face.
"Mr. Raeburn!" Giles bowed politely.
"Mrs. Dean. Please, won't you sit down?" She did so and then started up again, forcing Giles to remain standing just as he had been about to take a seat. He watched her move distractedly to the fireplace and then back again to the sofa.
"Mrs. Dean?" He questioned gently. She turned to face him, clutching her reticule like a shield before her.
"Mr. Raeburn, my niece has just returned to the house in a most agitated state." Giles felt his heart sink as he realised where this conversation was likely to lead. "I would like to know what was said to upset her so!"
"Mrs. Dean, please, won't you sit down and.... I will try to explain." Though how he was to do that when he wasn't even sure himself what had happened was beyond him.
Thankfully, the woman followed his suggestion and he went to pour her a glass of wine, using the time to gather his thoughts.
"Thank you," she accepted the glass absently and took a sip as he seated himself.
"You have a very charming niece, Ma'am," he began quietly, "and I apologise for any distress I have caused her. I assure you, it was entirely unintentional and I deeply regret it."
"But sir, what has happened?" Finding himself unable to remain seated, Giles rose to his feet and moved back over to the fireplace.
"I do not know," he admitted finally, after running the scene between him, his Sparrow and Pippa over in his mind. The wine appeared to have had the desired calming effect and when she spoke, her voice was steady,
"You cannot be entirely unaware, sir... my niece is not indifferent to you," she said delicately. It took a moment for the full meaning behind the words to sink in and then Giles was aware of the strangest mixture of emotions.
"Uncle?" A small voice spoke from the door and Giles looked up.
"Philippa! What are you doing downstairs?"
"I beg your pardon, Uncle." Pippa gave a little curtsey to Mrs. Dean, an act that looked odd considering that she was wearing her nightgown. "But I think I have done something wrong." Her chin quivered and he saw tears welling up in her eyes and instinctively opened his arms to her. She ran across the room to throw herself into them.
"Sweetheart." He sat down onto the sofa and settled her comfortably onto his lap. He sent an apologetic glance at his visitor who smiled reassuringly before removing her shawl and tucking it securely around Pippa's bare feet.
"There, my dear, can't have you catching cold, can we," she said gently. Giles nodded appreciatively,
"Thank you, Mrs. Dean. Now, Pippin, what is that you think you have done?"
"I think I made Miss Amy angry. I told her that you liked her and that you called her a Little Sparrow and then her face looked all funny." Giles caressed the golden curls,
"It wasn't your fault, Pippin."
"You do like her, don't you, Uncle Giles?" Giles glanced at Mrs. Dean, who was taking an unashamed interest in the conversation before replying,
"Yes, sweetheart, very much."
"I like her too."
"I'm glad." He watched his niece's expressive face as she considered her next question, waiting patiently.
"Uncle Giles? Do you think... do you think she'll come back?" Giles felt his mouth work helplessly, unable to offer false comfort.
"She has to attend your ball, my dear!" Mrs. Dean's words helped him over the hurdle and he gave her a grateful look. Pippa brightened,
"And we haven't finished Diamantina's costume yet either. Thank you, Uncle!" She wriggled off his lap and handed the shawl back to Mrs. Dean with another little curtsey,
"Thank you, Ma'am." Before Giles could react, she had disappeared upstairs.
"You have a very charming niece, Mr. Raeburn." Giles met Mrs. Dean's amused brown eyes as she returned the compliment he had offered earlier.
"Thank you, Mr. Dean, I am well aware of it." She rose to her feet and busied herself with placing her shawl around her shoulders before looking up at him.
"Might I make a suggestion, Mr. Raeburn?"
"Speak honestly to Amy."
"I had every intention of doing so." She looked at him thoughtfully before saying,
"She is... vulnerable." Giles' face softened,
"It is one of her greatest charms," he said and had the satisfaction of seeing her face relax. She gave him a little nod,
"I shall make sure she comes to you tomorrow morning as usual."
"I shall be ready," he promised and escorted her to the door where he surprised both her and himself by taking her hand and pressing a kiss to her knuckles. "Thank you, Ma'am." Blushing like a schoolroom miss, Mrs. Dean took her leave.
Paddon ushered Miss Harvey into his study at ten o' clock the next morning. She looked distinctly nervous and sat down on the very edge of the chair he offered her.
"Mr. Raeburn..." They spoke at the same time and broke off, each looking self-conscious. Giles gestured slightly,
"Ladies' first." She looked at him mutely.
"I... I don't know what to say," she admitted finally. Giles suppressed a smile, which he felt might be taken the wrong way and also curbed an urge to take her restless little hands in his.
"Well, I do," he assured her, "I would like to apologise."
"But there is no need."
"I believe there is. Pippa has told me what she said to you, though, to be honest, I overheard..." He paused a moment, "it was never meant as an insult, Miss Harvey. I saw you out of the window just after you had waved to my niece and the observation slipped out." Her hands worked with the handle of her reticule,
"I know I am not pretty..." Giles could bear it no longer and leaned forward to seize her hands.
"I will not allow that!" She looked up, surprised at his vehemence,
"But... my freckles..."
"Are utterly charming," he assured her.
Giles had come to several conclusions during that long night, the foremost of which was that his life without Miss Harvey would be very empty indeed. He had also realised that his initial impression of Miss Harvey's physical features had somehow, without his noticing, faded into the background as unimportant, leaving him only with the memory of her warmth, her kindness, her sweetness of character, her lively sense of humour.
As much as he regretted the promise that had brought him and Pippa to town and the subsequent fever, it had at least given him the opportunity to meet the woman who would not only fill the empty spaces in his life, but would adore his niece as he did.
"I will not allow you to list your imperfections," he said adamantly when she would have continued. "Goodness knows that I have many faults of my own."
"Oh no," she whispered shyly. Giles smiled at this championship.
"Ah, Sparrow, it is not just your freckles that are charming..." The words were pulled from him involuntarily, spoken more to himself than to her. She looked first startled to hear them and then began to smile.
"Giles," he interrupted.
"Oh... I don't think..."
"If we are to get to know each other better, Sparrow, I think it would be best if you were to call me Giles."
"Get to know each other better?" She looked at him, a tentative hope in her eye
"Please, Amy?" He was delighted to see the delightful colour rise in her cheeks once more.
"Oh... I.... Mr. Ra... Giles." He nodded firmly,
"I shall take that as a yes, then." She bit her lip and looked up at him from under her lashes.
"Yes. Oh dear," she whispered, her hands rising to her hot cheeks.
"What is it?" Giles looked at her anxiously, but relief flooded through him at her next words,
"I thought I had outgrown blushing. It is so...."
"Enchanting," he finished as she paused to search for the word.
"Oh no...." A wise man, accustomed from long exposure to his niece and mother, Giles foresaw the argument and moved to cut it off before it could begin.
He had to admit, it was a much more satisfying way of occupying her lips.
© 2001 Copyright held by the author.