The Gilded Hour Page 163

“If I’m nervous about anything—” she began.

He leaned over and kissed her temple. “You don’t have to explain. Not to me.”

She relaxed against him for the barest moment, and then turned to usher Tonino into the mercantile.

But the boy stood aside, his whole body tensed as if for flight. Something had frightened him, but what? Jack saw all that and handled it without the slightest hesitation.

He said, “Let’s see what kind of ice cream Rob has today.”

It was one way to test Tonino’s hearing—and his English—but he gave no sign that he had heard or understood.

A voice came out of the shop, rough with age or tobacco.

“Did I hear a Mezzanotte asking for ice cream?” An older man came out of the shadows, wiping his hands on a rag the size of a tablecloth.

“You heard right,” Jack said, walking forward to shake the man’s hand. “How are you, Rob?”

“Surprised. You’ve got a lady with you. Don’t think you’ve ever brought one by here before.”

Jack said, “I’ve never had a wife before.”

Sparse white brows climbed high on a freckled forehead. “You don’t say. I heard a rumor, but I wasn’t going to bite until I saw the proof. And here she is.”

“Anna Savard Mezzanotte,” Jack said. “Or Dr. Savard. This is Rob Carlisle. He runs most everything in the town of Greenwood. And he makes the best ice cream in twenty miles.”

“The only ice cream,” corrected the older man. “But I’ve got a batch made with the first of the strawberries, maybe the best ever. Can I offer you a dish? And that young man hanging back by the carriage, he’s welcome to a dish too.”

“I have to go run a quick errand,” Jack said. “Rather than bore Anna and Tonino I thought I’d leave them here to sample your ice cream. Tonino’s a little shy—”

“He can have his outside,” said Rob Carlisle. “In fact, we all can. Nothing like ice cream on a warm summer afternoon, sitting in the sun.”

•   •   •

THERE WAS A picnic table on a patch of lawn beside the mercantile where they sat down with their ice cream, but sooner had Rob picked up his spoon did a dray pull up, spilling children in every direction while a mother called warnings after them.

“Duty calls,” Rob said. He sighed dramatically over his untouched ice cream and then looked at Tonino. “You watch that for me now, will you?” And without waiting for an answer he scuttled off to take care of his customers.

At first the ice cream seemed to puzzle Tonino. He ignored his spoon and used one finger to poke the small mound, studied what he had found, and with some reservations, stuck the finger in his mouth. His expression went from neutral to deeply suspicious, his whole face contorting into a frown. With that he looked so much like Rosa that any doubt of his identity was banished.

For the next few minutes he just watched Anna eating her ice cream, his eyes following the spoon from dish to mouth and back again. His own dish remained untouched and so when Anna finished hers, she very deliberately reached for it.

For the first time she saw some emotion move over his face. His hand darted out to pull the dish back, and he bent his arm around it like a fortress.

“There you are,” Anna said. “Very nice to meet you again, Tonino.”

With great solemnity he picked up his spoon and dug into the melting ice cream. He never took his eyes from her or his arm from around the bowl as he shoveled the tremendous spoonful into his mouth. He swallowed with an audible gulp, licked his lips, and dug back in. Table manners were the last thing that worried her, but Anna thought of Margaret, and wondered whether he would adore her, as most little boys seemed to, or resent her instruction.

•   •   •

FROM INSIDE THE mercantile came the sound of children quarreling. Tonino inched away on the bench, taking both his and Rob Carlisle’s dishes along. Anna watched him and tried to read from his expression what he was feeling. Who had caused him such pain that he would withdraw from the world so completely?

As watchful as he was, she saw his eyelids begin to droop. Anna found herself holding back a yawn, but Tonino just put his head down on the table and fell asleep. He slept like an infant, in a world that Anna could hardly imagine. There would be nightmares, almost certainly, and behaviors more typical of a much younger child. Mothers came to her often in despair over bed-wetting and thumb sucking, expecting solutions when she had less experience with such things than they did. Along with Sophie she had had long discussions with Aunt Quinlan and Mrs. Lee, who between them had raised ten children and dealt with every challenge imaginable.

Anna would do her best, but she would depend on the two women who had raised her to lead the way, and on Margaret. There would need to be a very frank discussion at the start, where all the adults in the two households worked out some ground rules. As they should have thought to do when the girls came. But there were far worse things for this boy than a household full of adults dedicated to his welfare and happiness.

The sound of the rockaway pulling up in front of the store roused her out of a half doze. Anna resisted the urge to jump up for fear of startling Tonino and saw that he was awake, all his attention focused on the carriage.

Jack had seen them, but Lia and Rosa were so wound up in a difference of opinion that they took no note. That meant that Jack hadn’t told them where they were going, or why. Now he made a small movement with his head that Anna understood as a request that she wait. A reasonable course of action, for any number of reasons, and still, perspiration broke out on her throat and face. Suddenly she was sure they had made a mistake, that this wasn’t Tonino, or that this was not the Tonino the girls were looking for. That they would be frightened by the changes they saw in him.

Lia was turning to Jack to engage his support in this newest disagreement with her older sister when she caught sight of Anna. A smile broke out on her face and disappeared almost immediately as she took in the boy. It was the blank look on Lia’s face that made Rosa look around herself.

The girls rose so slowly that they might have been puppets being drawn to a standing position. In a sudden explosion of movement they made to jump from the carriage, but Jack had been prepared for this and he held on to them both, talking rapidly.

Rosa twisted at the waist to look at her brother.


The boy, reserved and watchful, studied the girls in the carriage as he might have studied a painting of some creature out of his sphere of experience. His sisters had disappeared once before; maybe he had convinced himself that he would never see them again. Or, it occurred to Anna, he could be angry to have been left behind and alone.

Jack helped the girls down and they came flying toward the table, both of them calling his name and weeping.

Anna thought of encouraging him, of telling him to go to them, but some instinct made her hold back. To intrude now might be disastrous. The boy was so tightly wound, so tense, that she could almost feel him vibrating.

Then the girls came to a skidding stop in front of their brother. Anna moved out of the way, and Lia climbed up on the bench to take her spot while Rosa took the other side. Anna couldn’t see Tonino’s face because they had their arms wrapped around him. They were talking more quietly now, their voices hitching and catching.

There was no sound from Tonino. He was trembling, and his face was wet with tears, but he didn’t seem able to bring forth a single word. Anna walked over to Jack and leaned into him.

“Did you ask the girls about—”

“I asked if he was as good as Lia at telling stories, and they had a discussion that made it clear that he can hear and speak.”

It was almost bad news; if he were deaf, the challenges would be clear-cut. But a boy who simply would not or could not talk was a much more difficult puzzle.

When she thought she could not stand one more second of not knowing, the three children shifted a little on the bench, and a single hand—a little rough, browned by the sun—came around to rest on Lia’s narrow back, and patted.

Anna realized then that she had feared the worst: that he wouldn’t want to see the sisters who had mourned him. And here was proof that she was wrong: whatever he had endured, the boy he had been—the brother he had been—was still there. Torn and fearful and angry, but enough himself to touch his sister gently. He patted Lia’s back to comfort her, and took the comfort the girls offered him in turn.

•   •   •

THE THREE CHILDREN sat on the rear carriage bench pressed together and very quiet. Anna had still not heard Tonino say a word, but then the girls had asked him no questions, as far as she could tell. They whispered to him now and then, and twice Lia gave a low giggle, but otherwise they had closed themselves off, cocooned together. She wondered if they had told him about their father, and decided that they had not, and did not know how to share this news.

For a moment Anna felt the same light-headed sense of unreality that overcame her after an important exam. She would have liked a few hours to catch her breath, but another exam was before her. All the calm reserve she had drawn around herself simply leaked away, and she shivered.

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