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5: The Shop

It was a beautiful Wednesday morning when Edie knew she could not hold it off any longer. She was running low on paints and she had to venture out of the safety of her uncle's home and into the harsh daylight of busy streets, filled with members of the ton.

It wasn't that Edie was accosted each time she left Henry's home, but she did grow so weary of the sidelong looks she got. Pitying mamas and their scandalized daughters, words of caution and embellished tales whispered behind her back. Some gentlemen of the ton, (Edie considered herself being gracious in naming these particular men as gentlemen), were as bad as the women, but were far worse at hiding their stares.

Every once in a while, her curiosity would grow and she would wonder what they said, and very often, when she sought it out, she would regret it.

She was a tease, she was cruel, she should have known, she should have been more mindful, she should have refused him sooner, pulled him along like a cat with a string, foolish girl, poor girl.

How infuriating. So many thought they knew the truth of it, and whispered about it when they saw her, but never once did someone ask.

Even so, Edie couldn't very well live her life as a hermit as well as a spinster, and she did quite enjoy getting out of the house, attention be damned. So, with Isabelle's help, Edie dressed in one of her prettier dresses, a fine thing of sage green that made her dark hair appear even darker, finished with a golden ribbon about her waist. She dismissed the short, strangling string of pearls, and decided to wear the locket her younger brother had gifted the year of her debut. It was still empty, as Willie had told her it was for a lock of her children's hair, whenever she had them.

Alas, here she was, twenty-six and destined to die alone.

Once she thought herself perfectly lovely enough to emerge from the depths of obscurity, Edie stepped out of the house, accompanied by Isabelle. Truly, at her age, she hardly needed a walking companion, but facing the world was a lot less frightening with someone familiar at your side.

The sun was warm and bright when she locked Henry's door behind her. Sadly, that was the last she felt of the warm, summer sun.

There were more people on the street that she recognized than Edie would have liked. A few passing ladies with children looked to be the friends she'd made seven years ago, during her first season. Fellow debutants, past the first budding bloom of youth, now flourishing with husbands and children and homes of their own. When they walked by, none looked at her longer than a passing glance, and none dared stop to say hello. Women seemed to think ugliness was as catching as pregnancy. Perhaps it is, she thought, for who can claim to have an ugly friend and hold her head up before the dreaded mother in law?

After passing a third former friend, Edie could feel her brows narrow into a frown, her mouth tightening as she carried on down the street as thought nothing had happened. Isabelle must have seen this, for she leaned closer to Edie's ear.

"Mrs. Cornwell," she whispered. "Her lady's maid is a friend of a friend. Says her husband spends more time in Scotland with his mistress than he does with her."

A disbelieving laugh broke out from Edie's throat, turning to look at Isabelle. "Isabelle!" she scolded with a grin. The maid just gave a cheeky smile and continued.

"Rumour is, that she isn't as lonely as one might assume. Mister Cornwell's brother does visit at least twice a week, though last I heard, he was quite happy in his home in Wales." The suggestive hint at the end of the sentence sent a delightful thrill through Edie, perverse and wretched as she was to take joy in the misery of a former friend. Winifred Cornwell neé Blake, had been a nice enough girl, a girl she had counted as a friend, a confidant with whom she could share her thoughts on the men who wanted to court her. Including, one Thomas Haken.

The girl had smiled and listened and offered all the sound advice a girl of eighteen could offer, and then, when the Incident changed everything, Winifred Cornwell neé Blake had shunned her without a backwards glance. Edith owed her no allegiance, and there was a sweet, bitter joy in Winifred's misery. For surely, if one was sleeping with her husband's brother and had a child off him, one could not be content.

"Poor thing," Edie said anyway, hardly a hint of sincerity in her tone. The women turned the corner, the art shop three doors away. "I do hope there is never a dispute over their son." Mrs. Cornwell had three children already, but the eldest boy was the one who would inherit his father's properties, assets and legacy. Needless to say, if the boy was not his own, the woman's life would become more unbearable than Edith's. At least as a disfigured creature, Edie had no worry that rumours would break out that she was wanton.

"Pardon, my lady, but the husband, the brother, what is truly the difference? They look alike, as brothers, I assume. Why call attention to it?" Isabelle asked, her eyes still sparked with sass. The nagging sense of propriety wanted to remind Isabelle of the consequences of infidelity for a woman, but the air was warm and light, and she would not throw a raincloud atop it.

Instead she arched her brow and said, "Mister Cornwell's sense of pride, I suppose. And whether or not he minds seeing his brother's face in his son." The two shared a smile, continuing on towards Hammonds Paints.

The shop was the closest one that sold the oil paints Edith enjoyed. Her frequent trips to Hammonds had earned her some friendly affection from the shop owners, Mr. Hammond and his wife Louise. Though a bit standoffish, they were never unpleasant and always willing to answer her questions or mix a particular shade she needed.

When the two stopped at the entrance to the shop, Edie slipped a few coins into Isabelle's hand. Isabelle was no artist, and apart from her modeling, she had no interest in paints and charcoal and canvases. And Edie did not wish to spend an afternoon with someone who would be bored or miserable the entire time. There was no ill will between the two, they simply recognized that they would both be happier apart for the next handful of hours.

With a sweet smile, Isabelle turned and continued on down the street, while Edith pushed open the door to the shop, grinning when the bell chimed.

"You again?" Mister Hammond said once he caught sight of her

Edie paused, giving the old man one of her most fearsome scowls. "Keep speaking to me like that, and I shall never again grace your shop."

"Ha!" the old man threw his head back. "I'll still have bread on my table thanks to the Bridgertons."

Edie's frown melted into one of confusion. Stepping forward, she rested her gloved hands on the shining mahogany of his till. "I had no idea you were so destitute that you had to rely on charity." Mr. Hammond was the only man who was sharp and quick enough to tolerate her barbs and still welcome her back around.

Mr. Hammond scoffed, his double chin jiggling. "That second Bridgerton lad comes by at least half as much as you." Benedict? Edie felt her face warm, the blood rushing into her cheeks because the moment she thought of his name, the image of him kissing that woman came to mind. The hands that had cradled her back with such tenderness were of particular interest to Edie, for such lovely, long fingers had artistic talent and grace. And yet, they were large, too. Capable of harming and rough handling, but they always seemed so gentle…

Not that she would dare admit it. In fact, she absolutely did not have three separate sketches of those hands hidden beneath her pillow.

Thinking of those hands had sufficiently distracted her from Mr. Hammond's long ramblings about…about? Edie had no idea.

"…Comes in once a week for a new sketch pad, or a new set of charcoals, or coloured pencils."

Edie nodded, pretending to have been listening the entire time. "If he comes around so much, then why haven't I seen him?"

"Oh, he's been coming around more often these days. It's a good thing too, having a little variety in my customers." The old man fixed her with a sly look. Mr. Hammond was entering into his sixties, his hair still thick even as it greyed and whitened, his face lined with age and hard work. Edie had no idea why he seemed to be fond of her, but she had a suspicion that it was rooted in pity. It was a bitter truth to accept, but it was rare for his prickly exterior to slip away and reveal the soft heart beneath. And friends were so hard to come by, so Edith found it easy to forget that Mister Hammond saw the scar first. Everyone did, only Mister Hammond was better at hiding it.

"Oh please, please keep at it and I will promptly turn around and never return."

"Don't threaten me with a good time, young Miss Granville." He countered, turning away to reach up to the shelves stacked on the wall behind him. He brought down a little wooden case and set it in front of her on the till. Edie grinned. "Greens and blues, ready and waiting for your brush." Edie opened the box eagerly, pulling one of the ten little jars out to examine it closer. It was a pretty blue, soft and warm like the sky during spring.

"I shall need some browns and whites as well. Maybe a bit of red too?" she asked, still turning the jar over in her hands. Her next project was currently sketched and sitting in her room. She had two paintings planned, really. The one that gripped her attention most was the one from Henry's last party, where she wanted to catch the delightful haze of colour and beauty and honesty in a swirl of warm, amber tones. In her head, she saw dabs of red here and there, as well as gentle blues and a vase of white daisies that had not graced Granville house since she was a debutant.

The second piece was requested by her father as a gift for her mother's upcoming birthday. Honestly, it was something she was far less excited about. It was a scene from nature, a scene from the seaside to be exact, with nothing but rolling waves and overgrown grass and jagged rocks. Truly boring to behold, but once her brush was streaking and dabbing across the canvas, her heart would lift. Still, it was a long march from here to the easel.

Mr. Hammond had turned away to climb atop the stool to retrieve her paints when the bell hanging above the door chimed.

"Ah! The second Bridgerton!" Mr. Hammond grinned widely, looking very pleased with himself.

Edie sighed, turning her head to see the man pause at the doorway, a befuddled frown drawing his brows closer.

"Benedict," she corrected, raising a brow. "He does prefer Benedict, does he not?"

The second born son smiled, "I also accept The Pointy Critic, but only from the likes of one Miss Granville." Damn him, she thought, smiling against herself. "Good day, Miss Granville, Mister Hammond." He offered a courteous nod to the shop keep, reaching up to remove his hat.

"Good day," she replied, slipping back into the courtesy her governess had instilled in her at an early age. Edie returned her gaze back to Mr. Hammond. "Now about those browns, whites, and reds?"

"Before I forget," he began, pulling off his spectacles. "More for landscapes?"

"No." she replied, offering no more explanation. "More for portraits and clothing."

If he had a witty retort to her curtness, Mr. Hammond did not voice it. He was aware that their strange friendliness could attract unsavory rumours, and so he only traded barbs with her when there were no prying eyes about. "I believe I have a package with a variety of different tones that you would enjoy. I shall go fish it out of the back." With a quick smile, the blasted old man left the two alone in a very heavy silence.

It was Benedict who broke the quiet. "You paint portraits, Miss Granville?"

"Yes," she replied after a beat, turning her body to lean against the till. "Very well, I would say.".

The man nodded, looking down to focus intently on the hat in his hands. He turned it over, pretending to brush away some dirt. "I should be most honoured to see your work. If the work you started on last Friday was of any indication, a portrait piece would be something to behold."

Edie eyed him carefully. No one had ever said something so kind about her work. She found it suspicious. "Laying it on a little thick, aren't you?"

But the Bridgerton only laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Perhaps," he conceited. "But I believe you have the talent to deserve it."

Edie hadn't a thought what to do with that statement. Men she were not related to, were never kind to her for no reason. In fact, the kindness usually ended in pain for her if she let them come too close. For half a moment, she let herself accept it, to feel the long forgotten warmth spread tentatively through her insides. It was…nice, warm and for a sweet moment, she let herself feel happy.

Though she resented the gossip that surrounded her, Edith did read Lady Whistledown's paper each week. Reading over the words carefully, her eye catching familiar names and noting who she knew and who she did not with excitement and interest. The Bridgerton family was frequently mentioned in the sheet, and so she knew Benedict was not entirely like his rakish brother, who had as many mistresses as she had unfinished paintings.

No. Instead, Lady Whistledown named him kind, courteous, curious and most of all, charming.

And still, fear made her reject the compliment with a witty retort.

"Goodness, such praise unto a mere mortal." The man let out the most peculiar laugh, awkward and disjointed that provoked a look of confusion from the woman across from him. "Are you quite alright?" she asked, turning her body to face him fully. Perhaps Whistledown had it wrong, and the man was only charming when in the company of beautiful people.

He cleared his throat, the strained smile slipping from his lips. "Forgive me, Miss Granville, I can't help but think I have offended you, somehow."

Edie, unused to her general disdain for most people to be voiced, shifted uncomfortably. "No more than any other passing member of the ton has offended me, sir." And it was true. Mostly. While the ton looked and stared and sometimes whispered, the most she had sensed from the Bridgerton man was a stare or two, perhaps pity and awkwardness as well.

But, in the darkest, ugliest, most far from sober moments in her life, Edie could admit she was jealous. Jealous and afraid of people like Benedict and his family. Beautiful, wealthy, kind people. People far beyond her reaches, people who never looked twice at her unless it was to grimace or pity.

The ton was unkind, and Edie had become unkind as well.

Benedict's breath left him in a disbelieving huff, strangely offended at being lumped in with the rest of the members of polite society. It felt rather like an insult, one made from the very heart of her, which twisted him in an unexpected way. Life had not been kind to Edith Granville, that he knew, but he did not want to be amalgamated with those who still thought to ostracize her. She was not what he expected, and yet he found himself enjoying her company, her uncontrolled sarcasm and wit, the talent she nurtured without pause, her fearlessness…Benedict had never known a woman like her.

"In what way?" he asked, looking back to her face, his eye catching the deep line that broke her cheek in two. It no longer had the red-pink flame of a fresh wound, but had taken on the paleness of an old one. Yet it was clear to his perceptive eye that it still pained her all the same. "I hold myself no more above you than as a man with a love for the arts, which, I can see as clear as water, that you share. A man who has seen your work in it's infancy and wishes to see it's final state." He remembered the sketch he'd observed over her shoulder, remembered watching her fingers move slowly and across the paper, the tips stained black from charcoal. He had been captured by the rough lines, and hoped she continued until a fine work sat on her wall.

Edith's mouth tightened, her eyes sharp and careful. She was thinking, and judging by the way she studied his face, she was thinking about what to make of him. Finally, after a moment she sighed, her mouth opening.

But whatever she thought to say was interrupted by Mr. Hammond reappearing with a wood box in his hands.

"Here we are!" Mr. Hammond called out, oblivious to the quiet tension of the room. The two turned to face the old man, identical looked of discomfort marring their faces. "Almost thought I had sold the last of it, but I knew—" he fixed Edie's face with a stern but playful eye. "—I knew, I was saving it." Edie gave a shy smile, setting her purse on the table. Mr. Hammond seemed quite pleased that he had found the palette she had requested, too pleased to notice her face. He named his price, and Edie carefully fished it from her purse, feeling the blue eyes of Benedict on her back.

"Thank you." She murmured, holding her new palette tightly as she turned away. Mr. Bridgerton cast his eyes over her once before he rushed forward, telling the old man he would like two new sketch pad and a short knife to sharpen his pencils.

Edie stopped short of the door, casting a long look back at the man who waited, feeling stupidly terrible for upsetting him. For offending him. So she lingered, backing into a display that held a painting done by a nameless doner, a patron to Mr. Hammond. It was a simple work, a water colour of a sunset that would be easy enough to replicate and perfect, but the colours and blends were something to admire.

Unseen, she waited for Benedict, waited for his order to arrive.

Edie did not understand why she felt badly, why she cared that she had offended the man. He was nothing to her, a new friend to her uncle, a man who had many, many friends. He was a stranger, a member of the ton, a man who had paid her nothing more than a dance once or twice when she had been a hopeful debutant. Nothing, no one, an inconsequential artist who would pass through Henry's studio, and just as quickly leave.

But still, she stood rooted to her stop, half heartedly thinking of ways to improve the sunrise before her while she waited for Benedict to pay.

"Yes, thank you, Mr. Hammond." It was then that Edie moved, stepping out of her comforting obscurity to speak a man.

"Mr. Bridgerton," she began, stopping him short. He still held his hat in his hands, a fine thing of blue velvet, his gloved hands a stark white against it. Edith swallowed, making herself look at his face. "You are too harsh with yourself."

Benedict frowned, confusion drawing his thick brows closer in a frown that Edie found stupidly sweet. She had to clarify, to remove that look from his face before any more stupid thoughts came forth. "I beg your pardon?"

"Your lines." She paused, watching at his furrowed brow remained unchanged. "That first night you came to my uncle's home. After I retired. My bedroom sits right above the studio." That night, she'd laid in bed, trying to sleep, and had nearly been there when Benedict's voice rose through the wood floor, grumbling about how the lines he drew weren't right. At the time, she'd cured his name, but the next morning, she'd crept downstairs to the studio.

She had found the easel Benedict Bridgerton had claimed for his own, still unmoved, still holding the sketch he'd toiled away on the night before. It had been lovely, depicting Cath and Isabelle's graceful curves and elegant shadows with careful precision. A beautiful illustration. One she could not see destroyed, and so she had saved it. "Your sketch, it was quite lovely, even to my critical eye." No one's eye was quite as critical as hers and she made sure everyone knew it. "You are too harsh with yourself. Perhaps I am too."

Benedict only stared, even when she looked away to tug her gloves a little higher. "You may come to see what I have completed tomorrow, if you so wish to. Lucy will be home all day." With that, Edith left the shop, feeling like a coward who had fled. And more than that, she felt like a fool who invited an enemy into her own home.

complicated feelings, that's for sure