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Birthday Gift

For Lola

It was the first time Mrs Devine had left me in charge of the shop. I could tell she was not really happy about it but there was nothing else she could do. Her sister had sent word her babe was about to be born and she needed help with the rest of her brood. I had not worked in the shop for long but I knew Mrs Devine disapproved of her sister’s husband whose only talents seemed to lie in getting his wife with child almost as soon as she had been delivered of the previous one. Any work he managed to find never lasted long, and what little money he was able to get his hands on he spent at Beechworth’s less reputable establishments. Mrs Devine was used to being called upon to help her poor sister, and on receiving word of the latest emergency, she immediately picked up her shawl and made ready to hasten out the door.

“Now Anna, I do not like to close the shop early as people expect you to be reliable when you run a business. Fortunately there is only an hour to closing time so I expect you will be fine. If Mrs Richardson should call in, tell her I am expecting her dress to be here tomorrow and she need not trouble herself about collecting it, I will personally take it to her as soon as it arrives.”

The bell on the door tinkled as Mrs Devine closed it behind her and I stood peering out the window, watching her disappear down the street. Then I turned and walked around the shop, gently running my fingers over the beautiful dresses, imagining how I would look wearing them. My favourite was a gown in deep red heavy silk; it was unlike anything I had ever seen, and I had been surprised to see Mrs Devine unpack it from the latest consignment from Melbourne. She had muttered that no respectable woman would wear it but running a business, one had to offer something for all the customers. I had already noticed that the shop got a lot of custom from the girls at The Star Hotel, and they were always asking for dresses in bolder colours, colours that made the Beechworth society matrons frown with disapproval.

I held the dress against myself, luxuriating in the feel of the silk against my skin, wishing I could put it on, just once... I imagined dancing in a grand room, somewhere in Melbourne perhaps, and smiling, I twirled around with the dress in my arms. Just at that moment, the bell above the door tinkled and I came face to face with Joseph Byrne as he stepped into the shop, carefully pulling the door shut behind him. I froze, embarrassed at being caught out in my little fantasy and just stared, unable to utter a word. I had never met him before but of course everyone in Beechworth knew who Joe Byrne was. I had heard the matrons talk about him in the most disapproving terms, while the girls from The Star giggled and whispered to each other. Now here he was, larger than life, standing in front of me with a twinkle in his blue eyes.

“Ah, I heard tell this were a shop of outstanding service but you have surpassed all my expectations lass, by anticipatin’ my needs! That dress you are holdin’ there is exactly what I came here lookin’ for!”

He stepped forward and took the dress from me, turning it this way and that.

“Would I be right in thinkin’ this would be yer size? You see, I am lookin’ for a birthday gift for a good friend of mine and you would seem to be the same size as her. Would yer mind..?”

Without waiting for an answer, he put the dress down across a chair and stood in front of me, smiling down into my eyes. Then he let his eyes drop and I swear I could feel them move down from my throat to my chest to my waist and lower. I was quite breathless when his eyes met mine again and he placed his hands on either side of my waist, the heat from his palms burning my skin through the fabric of my dress. I was rooted to the spot and if Mrs Devine herself had walked in the door, I do not think I could have moved.

“Yes, I would say you are exactly the same size as her.”

His lips were inches from my ear and I could feel his breath against my cheek.

“I do not suppose you could put the dress on so I could make sure..”

He pulled back to see the shocked expression on my face and let out a quiet laugh, his blue eyes dancing.

“Ah to be sure I am jestin’ lass. Just wrap it up nicely for me, will yer.”

Somehow I managed to wrap up the dress, all the while conscious of him watching me, the small shop full of his presence. He paid and tucked the parcel under his arm. At the door, with his hand on the handle, he turned back towards me.

“Thank you, lass! I shall be seein’ you.”

A wink and a grin and he was gone, the sound of the bell echoing in the quiet shop. With a sigh, shaking my head at my own foolishness, I locked up.

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