Rainy Days for the Harpers Girl- Rosie Clarke (Digital Sample)

Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Rainy Days for the Harpers Girls’ by Rosie Clarke.

Rainy Days for the Harpers’ Girls

Book 3

It’s war boys!

Rosie Clarke

Chapter 1

Could it really be almost two years since Harpers Oxford Street Store came into existence? Ben Harper opened one eye and watched as the wife he adored eased herself up from the sitting position she’d assumed on the floor. Sally had taken up a form of yoga to calm herself and bring health to her and her unborn child, due sometime in the first weeks of June that year, and, at first amused, Ben now enjoyed watching her as she breathed deeply and performed the gentle exercise routine she’d set for herself. She was so beautiful, the line of her arms serene and elegant as she went through the positions she’d taught herself from her library book. His wonderful Sally, the wife he’d never thought could be his, and now his reason for being.

Married the previous September, it was early March 1914 now and they’d been man and wife for nearly six months. She’d fallen for their first child soon after their wedding and was blossoming with every day that passed. Ben knew that he was fortunate to have her and, although the thought of being a father scared him, it also thrilled him. He would have his own son or daughter to follow on and inherit the store one day. Ben was filled with a desire to make Harpers the most magnificent emporium in London’s wonderful Oxford Street. Life was so good it terrified him, because he couldn’t believe his luck would last.

Sally had reminded him three weeks ago that the second anniversary of the store’s opening was coming up that month. Not that Ben had forgotten, but he’d let her think it, because he knew she had so many plans and he’d wanted to hear them. She and Marco, their talented and brilliant window dresser, had been planning the windows in secret for weeks.

A slight frown creased his brow, because he wasn’t sure his artistic friend had yet recovered from the loss of his young lover and companion, Julien. Theirs had been a deep and close relationship and Julien’s death was a tragedy. The more so because it was caused by a father whose pride wouldn’t let him understand that his son was different – and that was all it was really, Ben thought. Julien’s father had let his old-school morals and fear of scandal overrule his love for his son and now bitterly regretted it, though he blamed Marco. Ben wanted to shake the man and make him see sense, make him forget his stiff-necked pride, but he supposed that the family reputation would not allow it. If Julien’s father admitted the truth, then he must take responsibility for his son’s death.

Yet why had his prejudice caused him to ruin both his son’s and Marco’s lives? Ben pondered the question. People were not the same to look at, so why should they feel the same when it came to falling in love? Attitudes were changing and many would no longer condemn such a love, no longer see it as black and white. Ben did not understand why Marco had loved a young man rather than a girl, but he knew that love was real – as real as his own was for Sally. To lose Sally would leave Ben feeling empty and devastated and he knew Marco had suffered terrible agony and remorse over Julien’s death, blaming himself, though it was not his fault but another’s. Ben respected Marco both as a professional and as a person and he’d done his best to help his friend in every way he could since the tragedy that had devastated his life. Marco was quietly carrying on, living with dignity, his deep grief hidden from the world but there to see when you looked into his eyes.

Sally was standing now and looking down at him in the bed, her dark hair slightly longer than usual, with the morning light highlighting the hints of red as it waved on to her shoulders. Ben’s gaze dwelled on the curve of her stomach and he felt a surge of love and pride. It was his child she was carrying – a boy, Sally said, though she had no way of knowing, but for Ben, Sally was usually right. Her advice concerning the store was always good and, so far, she hadn’t put a foot wrong. Her own departments were the most successful, but trade was steady throughout the store and Ben had been busy with his own plans of late, secrets he hadn’t yet told his wife, because he needed to be sure and he wanted them to be a surprise. When he’d first heard that the tobacconist next door to Harpers Emporium, was to be sold he’d taken the first opportunity to view it. Although not a large property in itself, its relatively cheap price meant that he could just afford to buy it and expand the departments. Sally thought they needed bigger shoe and lingerie departments and Ben wanted a toy department as well as a confectionary hall and a florist. He’d already had meetings with the district council about the change of purpose for the flat above the tobacconist’s shop and it was there he would put the confectionary, next to the florists. The toy shop would be in the old shop, once it had been opened out, with as little disruption as he could manage. Sally could take the middle floor for whatever she wanted, when all the building work had finished. She was keen to build up her cosmetics department by importing some of the wonderful perfumes, creams and other toiletries that were becoming all the rage in New York.

Would she be pleased with her surprise or annoyed that he hadn’t told her of his plans? Ben hoped it would be the first and felt slightly guilty that he hadn’t shared earlier. He held out his hand and she took it, sitting on the edge of the bed and bending down to kiss him. She smelled gorgeous, of some soft flowery perfume she said she wanted to stock in the shop. Made by Yardley, now of Bond Street, London, the toilet water was an English product and well established. Sally had tried the whole range and approved it before ordering: soaps, talcum powder, bath salts and a light cologne for the store. Ben liked it too, thought it was very Sally and encouraged her to buy everything. He wasn’t sure how well it was selling yet, but he’d seen the discreet and pretty display on the ground floor, together with some special creams his sister Jenni had sent over from Elizabeth Arden’s store.

‘What are you thinking?’ Sally asked suddenly. He realised she was looking at him intently, a hint of mischief in her face. ‘You’re hiding something – I know it. Is it to do with the anniversary of the store?’

‘In a way,’ he said and laughed up at her. ‘You read me just like a book, don’t you?’

‘No, but I know when you want to tell me something and can’t…’

Ben laughed and caught her, bringing her down to him for a lingering kiss. ‘We opened two years ago in March 1912 and now it’s March 1914 – and today I sign for the premises next door to Harpers, which will give us over two thousand extra square feet of selling space…’

‘You got it!’ Sally gave a squeal of pleasure and flung herself on him, hugging and kissing him. ‘I was sure you were trying for it, but you didn’t even tell Mr Marco or Mr Stockbridge…’

‘I wanted it to be a surprise for you,’ he said and grinned as he sat up and brought his long bare brown legs from the bed. As he stood, he towered over his wife by a head and shoulders, strong, confident and full of life. ‘I know you want bigger lingerie and shoe departments. I’ve planned for a confectionary hall and a florist upstairs and a toy shop on the ground floor – you can use the middle bit as you like…’

Sally nodded. ‘Lovely! I think florists and confectionary yes, and I knew you wanted the toy department – but I think that should be on the top floor.’

Ben’s eyebrows rose but he didn’t contest her statement, waiting for the explanation he knew would come.

‘Because mothers and fathers will take the lift up for their children’s gifts but flowers and sweets are often impromptu purchases and should be within easy reach.’ She looked at him thoughtfully. ‘Belgian and Swiss, of course, but I think we should try to find sources nearer to home, too – someone that is selling something different and special, and needs more exposure and would be glad to get a large order from Harpers…’

‘And I suppose you already have an idea about that?’

Sally nodded, eyes sparkling. ‘I just might…’

‘What would I do without you?’ he asked and nodded. ‘As usual, you’re right, Sally. I was thinking of the children eager to dive in to the toy shop – but you’re the sensible one. Mothers and fathers who can afford it will spend the earth on their children and taking the lift to the top floor is nothing.’

Sally nodded and rubbed her swollen belly gently. ‘You’ll do anything for your children,’ she said lovingly. ‘Sweets are often for a loved one, but sometimes just because you want to treat yourself and no one will bother with the lift then, even if they are delicious – you do mean them to be extra special, I hope?’

‘I certainly do,’ Ben grinned. ‘Belgian chocolates, handmade and packed in paper cases and fancy boxes. That’s the way to sell the finest chocolates, I believe, do you agree, my love? Beautiful chocolate cakes and fluffy meringues too – and some of the children’s favourites, like burnt toffee pieces, coconut ice and pear drops… big jars of them that the children can purchase two ounces of if they want.’

‘It all sounds wonderful,’ Sally said. ‘It makes my mouth water just to think of it. I’m so glad you managed to get the extra space, Ben…’

He watched as she moved away to take off her silky dressing robe, which she’d worn to do her exercises, and replace it with her delicate lingerie and a smart black dress with a white lace collar and a loose jacket that discreetly covered her bump.

‘Are you going into work today?’ he asked. ‘I thought we might go somewhere special for lunch to celebrate?’

‘Yes, we could easily do that,’ Sally agreed. ‘I have two appointments early this morning and then I’ve finished for the day. We might try that new restaurant of Mick’s…’ She glanced over her shoulder at him and smiled. ‘He sent us an invitation for the opening… I think I put it on your desk somewhere.’

‘Yes, I saw it,’ Ben said and nodded complacently. He’d been jealous of her Irish friend, Mr Michael O’Sullivan, at one time, but he now needed no convincing that Sally loved him and only him. ‘All right, we’ll go there if you like…’

‘It’s just a suggestion,’ she said and her eyes teased him. ‘Are you going to stay there all day and watch me?’

‘I was enjoying the view,’ he said. ‘My appointment with the solicitor is at eleven this morning. I’ll pick you up at twelve thirty at the store and you can tell me where to go.’

‘I’d better book to be on the safe side, because Mick’s restaurants usually get busy…’

Ben nodded, making for the bathroom as his wife finished dressing. Mick was becoming quite the businessman. He owned a half share in three restaurants now and they had all been reviewed in various newspapers and magazines as being good food at sensible prices and he was about to open a fourth. Mick was clearly bent on becoming successful in his own way. However, he’d sent flowers and chocolates to both of them at Christmas and Ben had sent him an invitation to the event he was holding at Harpers on its second anniversary. They were both of them businessmen and it couldn’t hurt to keep in touch. It was always better to make friends in business rather than enemies. Sally had told him how Mick had helped her when her friend Sylvia had been in trouble; it hadn’t completely erased Ben’s jealousy but it had subdued it.

Selecting a pale blue shirt and a deep blue tie to match with the navy pinstripe suit he’d chosen, Ben smoothed back his dark hair, straightened his tie and then picked up his wallet and keys. He actually had two appointments that morning, not one – and the second was one he had no intention of telling his wife about just yet…

* * *

Sally spoke to the two representatives one after the other. Both were exactly on time and she gave each of them sizeable orders for leather handbags and a variety of silk scarves.

Glancing at her watch, she saw that she had an hour before Ben was due to pick her up and decided to make a tour of the various departments, starting with the men’s before coming down to the ladies’ fashions and then her favourite: hats, bags, gloves, scarves and jewellery.

Sally reflected that she’d always thought fashions were her favourite area, but since she’d been the buyer for Harpers, she’d discovered a love of beautiful jewellery and quality bags. Also, it was where she’d begun her career at Harpers and where her friends worked; at least, Beth and Maggie still worked there. Rachel was now the official floor walker – which meant she toured each floor of the store in turn, watching out for anything out of place or needing attention. If any of the staff had a problem, they could consult Rachel and she would either sort it or take it to Mr Stockbridge, the store’s general manager – though Rachel often brought little things to Sally, because she would solve it quickly and without fuss.

‘Poor Mr Stockbridge always seems to be up to his eyes in advertising accounts, staff requests and stock lists,’ Rachel had confided in Sally once. ‘He probably needs his own secretary, but Miss Summers does yours and Mr Harper’s work as well as his…’

Sally had taken her hint and interviewed a few girls from the agency, picking a young woman to help her and promoting Miss Summers to be Mr Stockbridge’s assistant, which meant grateful smiles all round.

Sally thought Ben had been catapulted into running the store before he was really ready. When his Uncle Gerald had died a few weeks before Harpers was due to open and bequeathed partial ownership to Ben and his sister, it had cast them into a crisis of funding. It was left to Ben to finish setting it up as best he could and perhaps a few corners had been cut, resulting in the staffing being less than adequate. Then, before Ben could get things moving, tragedy had struck and he’d been forced to return to America to sort out the personal grief of his sick wife. No one had known that he’d been supporting her for years in a hospital, where she was kept alive only by the excellent nursing he’d paid for until her death, which had in the end been a relief for her.

During his absence, Sally, Mr Stockbridge, Mr Marco and the various department heads had somehow managed to keep the store afloat and make a small profit. Ben’s sister Jenni had contributed to this success with her experience and encouragement, but it had been a difficult time and could have resulted in the store’s collapse.

Ben had returned to London once he’d cleared his affairs in New York and his presence had made a huge difference, not just to Sally, though his whirlwind courtship had swept her off her feet, but to the store. Since then, more girls had been taken on, and Fred Burrows had two younger men working under him in the basement. Stanley Kirk was in his thirties, strong and energetic, able to heft the heaviest of boxes with ease, and young Luke Redding was sixteen, willing to learn and a bit on the cheeky side. Even so, there were times when they were rushed to keep up with restocking all the departments. Goodness knows how Fred had managed alone! If Ben’s new departments were to work, Harpers would need more staff, in the basement as well as on the floors.

The wage bill was already huge – together with lighting, heating, stock, insurance and taxes, it took a small fortune to keep the store solvent. Sally knew they were very fortunate that they didn’t have to pay rent and owned the building – but would Ben need to borrow to fund the new space?

She shrugged off the slight worry. Finance was Ben’s department. Sally didn’t ask and she didn’t interfere. Although she believed that he didn’t have a great deal of cash to spare, he was always generous to her, buying her small gifts and taking her out for meals. As yet they hadn’t been away for one of the foreign holidays Ben had promised her, but that was due to her being busy and carrying their first child. Sally had kept remarkably well, apart from a small amount of sickness in the first weeks, but the doctor had advised her not to go on long journeys either by car or train. She was just over six months into her pregnancy now and expected the birth in late May or early June.

‘Your ankles have swollen slightly,’ the doctor had told her when she last visited his practice. ‘Nothing to worry about – and much better to keep active than to sit about. Go for walks rather than sit at your desk, Mrs Harper…’

‘Yes, I shall,’ Sally had said and she’d walked to the library and taken out the book on yoga, which she did regularly each morning now when she rose. The exercise helped to ease any aches in her back and it made her feel calm; the swelling had not got any worse.

Walking into the hat department that morning, she saw that someone had done a beautiful display of the new styles she’d bought for the spring and summer: pinks and blues and a deep maroon looked wonderful together.

‘That looks lovely,’ she said to the young woman who was just adjusting a stand. ‘I think that maroon straw is priced at thirty-five shillings – quite a lot, I know, but it is rather special… so it’s good you’ve made a feature of it.’

‘Yes, it is, Mrs Harper,’ Janice Browning agreed, an odd expression in her eyes. ‘Just right if you can afford it and you’re going to a garden party or a wedding…’

‘Mrs Harper…’ Beth Burrows said, coming up to her. ‘Lovely to see you – you look very well…’

‘I feel it,’ Sally said. ‘I think the yoga exercises are making all the difference…’ Her gaze moved over her friend anxiously. Beth had lost her first baby the previous year, just before Christmas, and it had upset her terribly. Sally herself was feeling so lucky. She had to pinch herself sometimes to make sure it wasn’t all a dream – a girl from a convent school, abandoned by her mother as a baby and forced to find her own living from the age of sixteen and now happily married to the man she loved and carrying their first baby. Was it possible she could really be this happy? ‘How are you, love?’

‘Oh, much better,’ Beth replied and smiled. ‘No, really, I’m over my disappointment now.’

Beth was making light of what had happened, Sally felt. She’d been attacked by the man who had first married and then caused her aunt’s death and consequently lost her own baby. Sally had read in the paper a report that said Gerald Makepeace’s trial was coming up soon. He was being charged with one count of murder, three of embezzlement and one of grievous bodily harm. It was likely the man would hang, and if ever a rogue deserved it, it was surely the man who had deceived and then beaten and killed Beth’s aunt for the insurance money and the shares she’d secretly left to her niece, which had become so valuable now and enabled Beth to set aside money for her and her husband’s future. Beth hadn’t expected anything and she’d been stunned by the value of the shares, doubled because her mother had also owned shares they’d all believed worthless. Because of the bequest, Beth’s husband, Jack, had been able to buy a controlling interest in the hotel he’d always wanted and was doing well, making it into a profitable business.

Sally wondered how the news of Gerald’s trial was affecting Beth. Did she feel satisfaction that Gerald was going to pay for his crimes or was she still too upset over it to even read the reports in the newspapers?

Clearly, she didn’t want to talk about it, so Sally smiled and said, ‘Is Jack pleased with the way the hotel is going?’

‘Yes, I think so,’ Beth said and then saw a customer making her way towards her counter. ‘Excuse me, Mrs Harper, I should serve that lady. I know just what she’s come for…’

Sally nodded and moved away, watching as Beth smoothly served the woman with a beautiful silver locket and chain and a leather bag. They were good friends but at work called each other by their surnames, as was the practice at Harpers.

Sally had been buying in extra stock since Christmas where she could. Some things were seasonal and she couldn’t lay in extra because fashions change, but wherever she could, she’d bought more than they would normally need so that while she was confined with the birth, the various departments she was in charge of buying for would survive her absence without suffering.

Wandering over to the counter selling scarves, Sally spoke to the junior who was wrapping one gentleman’s purchase of a pair of ladies red leather gloves, while Maggie Gibbs served a young woman with a pretty pink and blue silk scarf. Marion Kaye, the junior salesgirl, blushed, clearly overwhelmed to be noticed by the boss’s wife, but went on with her task without faltering.

Sally spoke with all of the staff before moving on and taking the lift to the ground floor. There were sufficient customers for her to feel that all was well as she moved from counter to counter, noting stock levels. The exquisite French overlaid glass vases that Jenni Harper had ordered and sent over were sticking a little; Sally had thought them expensive at the start and an idea came to her as she took the lift back to the top floor. She would suggest it to Ben over lunch…

For a moment as she stepped out of the lift her head seemed to spin and she clutched at the wall. She felt slightly nauseous and stood for a moment to steady herself.

‘Are you unwell, Mrs Harper?’ Ruth Canning, the girl she’d employed as her personal secretary looked at her anxiously as she entered her office. ‘May I get you a drink of water – or a cup of tea?’

Sally drew herself upright. She wasn’t going to give into a silly little dizzy spell. ‘I should like a cup of tea when you’re ready,’ she said, glancing at a sheaf of papers in Ruth’s hand. ‘Is that the stock list I requested from the men’s department?’

‘Yes, Mrs Harper,’ Ruth said. ‘I was just going to check one of the figures with Mr Simpson. It didn’t look right to me…’

‘I’ll deal with it,’ Sally said and took the sheaf of papers. Ruth was an excellent helper and if she said there was a mistake there would be one, but any challenge must come from her, Ben or Mr Stockbridge. She could just imagine the reaction of the head of the men’s department if her secretary challenged him. Ruth was eager and bright but apt to charge in too quickly.

‘Yes, Mrs Harper. I just thought he might like to correct it himself before it came to your attention…’

‘He probably would,’ Sally said, ‘but that won’t do, Miss Canning. You must leave these things to my discretion…’ the reprimand was mild, hidden by a smile, but it was there. The staff had a hierarchy all its own and any breach of etiquette was frowned on by the supervisors. However, Sally knew that she’d done much the same when she was just a new buyer and not the wife of the Store’s owner. So, she didn’t want to scold Ruth for what she knew was a good intention. ‘Thank you for pointing it out to me… your sharp eyes are such a help…’

Ruth beamed with pleasure and Sally reflected that it did far more good to praise than to scold. ‘Now, I could just murder that pot of tea…’

Sitting in her comfortable office chair, Sally realised that the brief moment of dizziness had passed, just as it had twice before. There was nothing wrong. It was all part of carrying a baby, but if she told Ben, he would wrap her in cotton wool for the last months of her pregnancy and that was the last thing she wanted…

 

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