Lost and Found
The little bell tinkled above the door as someone pushed it open and Halli turned from where she was rearranging the books on the shelves, shivering slightly at the icy blast of air that swept in with her customer. He was tall and broad of shoulder, filling the shop with his presence, even though he stepped only far enough over the threshold to let the door swing shut.
Big, Halli thought, he was very big and yet, as the wind disappeared with the closing door and his heavy winter coat was allowed to fall open, she saw that he was actually too thin for the size of his frame. His face was gaunt, the jaw and cheekbones sharply outlined under the lights. His eyes were sunken and made to look more so by the dark circles that ringed them.
Halli suppressed another shiver, though not of cold this time. For some reason, with the entrance of this man into her bookshop, her world had just tilted around her.
"May I help you, sir, or are you just browsing?" She tried to break past the odd feeling using a familiar greeting.
"I'm looking for Esther Bannen, can you help me?" His voice was deep and resonant with a soft lilt that only added to its charm and the odd things happening inside her.
"I'm sorry, the name isn't familiar." she replied, feeling a curious sense of loss that this big man wasn't actually looking for her. His shoulders sagged a little and she took an involuntary step forward, thinking that the tremor would spread further and take him to the floor. He looked so ill.
"Are you all right?" she questioned anxiously. He passed a weary hand across his eyes and then gave her a smile. It was an amazing smile. It curved the corners of his lips only slightly, but in a way that was so soft and tender that Halli found herself wishing that she were this Esther Bannen.
"I'm fine, thank you." He swayed, immediately showing that his words were untruthful and Halli took the final step necessary to grab his arm. It would be like trying to stop a tree from falling, but she couldn't just let it happen without offering some help. A large hand clutched convulsively at her shoulder for a moment, spreading such a pattern of warmth through her whole body that Halli gasped.
"I'm sorry." He quickly released his hold and rocked back against the doorframe, "I hope I didn't hurt you?" Halli stared up at him. He was actually more worried for her than for himself.
"No, no, I'm fine. You just..." she paused a moment, uncertain of what exactly he had done, "startled me," she finished lamely. He smiled again and Halli felt her knees go weak.
"Sorry," he apologized again. She tore her eyes from his with difficulty and tried to focus her mind.
"Perhaps you should sit down," she suggested tentatively. He nodded and let her lead him to the chair behind the desk. He sank onto it with a grateful sigh.
"Thank you. I'm not going to collapse on you, I promise. It's just been a long day." Halli eyed him worriedly, he was very pale.
"Could I offer you something to drink?"
"If it isn't too much bother, I'd appreciate a glass of water."
The short break away from him allowed her time to regain her mental balance. She didn't know this man. He was probably looking for his girlfriend. Or his wife. With this particular thought uppermost in her mind, Halli couldn't quite manage a smile as she handed him the glass, but she managed to summon up what she hoped was a pleasant expression.
"I am sorry to intrude like this," he began after taking a small sip. "I hope I didn't frighten you." His smile was noticeably fainter and the hand holding the glass began to tremble. Halli rescued it and eyed him with concern, her own chaotic emotions pushed to the background for the moment.
"Sir? Are you ill?" One hand reached down to tightly grip the seat of the chair and the other balled into a fist. "Should I call a doctor?"
"I'll be all right in a moment. It's just... I've had the ‘flu... I'll be better in a moment." His voice was strained and she reached out, instinctively trying to offer support and comfort. She covered his fist with her hand; a part of her noting how small it looked compared to his. His clenched fingers relaxed and wrapped around hers.
"You're very kind," he murmured and Halli knew she was lost. She had never been certain whether she believe in love at first sight, it had always seemed to her a convenient plot point in the books she read, but there was no mistaking this feeling; her mother had been right. She bit down on her lip to stop the foolish tears and gave him a weak smile.
"You probably shouldn't be out yet. Is there anything I can do to help?" He gave her that smile again and she carefully shifted so that her legs pressed back against the support of the desk. He released her hand and, with an effort, Halli straightened and took a step away from him. Otherwise she might just throw herself into his lap.
"Not unless you know where I might find Esther Bannen," he said tiredly. His words were like a dose of cold water and she took several shaky breaths before replying,
"No I'm afraid that I don't, but I've only recently moved here. Did you have this address specifically?"
"Not this one, now. Unfortunately, the details I do have are very vague." The man fished into a pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. He held it out to her,
"Perhaps you might be able to shed some light on it? I'd appreciate any help." Halli reached out and took the paper, her fingers brushing for a heart-stopping moment against his. The note was brief, detailing the name: Esther Bannen, printed at the top and the part of town below: one of the shops above the Market, before the White Lion. The directions were imprecise, covering probably half the town.
"I've been into every shop in this street." He sounded so weary that Halli was hard pressed not to reach out to him again and offer him comfort with her touch.
"Maybe she's closed down," she suggested, feeling helpless.
"There's no chance she might have worked here before you? Or owned this shop?" Halli shook her head regretfully.
"It belonged to my aunt." He nodded and rose to his feet.
"I had better be going. I don't want to waste anymore of your time. Maybe I'll have more success in one of the other shops. Thank you for your help, you've been very kind." He treated her to that amazing smile one more time and Halli clamped her lips shut to stop herself from preventing his leaving.
"You're welcome," she whispered, as the little bell jingled again. He glanced back over his shoulder, a strange expression in his gaze and then he was gone. Halli stood motionless for several minutes and then sank into the chair that he had so recently vacated.
A bunch of flowers was delivered to the shop the next morning; one of those wrapped in cellophane with its own water at the bottom. Halli propped it on the desk and read the card. It was written in a bold, masculine hand:
In gratitude for your kindness to a stranger.
I thought that you might like to know: I found Esther Bannen -- her grandson owns the last shop in this road. My grandmother is very happy, they were best friends some years ago and are now happily engaged in catching up and sharing memories.
Grandson. Not his girlfriend or wife, but a friend of his grandmother's.
At least she knew his name now, though somehow that only made her heart ache even more. She sat down at her desk, trying not to think of the fact that she was sitting where he had and stared blindly at the flowers. She had cried all her tears last night.
The little bell above the door jingled and she swallowed painfully before fixing a bright smile on her lips. It faded just as quickly. He stood there.
"Hello," he said quietly into the silence.
"Hello." Her voice wavered, even on those simple syllables and she swallowed, "thank you for the flowers." His eyes flickered for a moment to the bouquet on the desk,
"You're welcome." He cleared his throat, breaking the quiet that had fallen again and stepped up to the desk. It had only been a few hours, but Halli had already forgotten how tall he was, how big and yet she didn't feel dwarfed, just safe. "I'm hoping you'll let me introduce myself," he said. It was an odd turn of phrase and there was such wistful hope in his voice that Halli found the courage to look up into his eyes. He thrust out his hand as she did so,
"Aaron Sarre." Hesitantly, Halli took his hand, and his fingers closed firmly over hers.
"Halli Carlisle." He smiled, and the clasp on his hand shifted until it could no longer be called a handshake.
"I should like the opportunity to get to know you better, Miss Carlisle." Halli smiled shyly,
"I would like that."
© 2000 Copyright held by the author.
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