Ellie entered. She stopped for a moment, her eyes wary, and her hand against her stomach as if she were holding in her breath.
“Ellie?” Ben called her. “Ellie Banneker?
Her shoulders relaxed, and her breath came out in a whoosh. She paused for another breath before making her way down the center aisle toward Ben. The door closed behind her with a muffled thump, shutting out the murmurs of those who remained in the lobby. The theater dropped into an eerie quiet. Now that they were face-to-face, Benjamin’s excitement was replaced by overwhelming self-consciousness. He ran his sweaty palms through his hair, smoothing the runaway brown locks his mother would say needed trimming. He was suddenly aware of the way he was dressed―he looked like a ragamuffin compared to the upper class men Ellie must be used to. Her chestnut hair shone in the light, her green eyes wary but bright.Ben stopped near the first row, a lump in his throat, hoping she wouldn’t notice the scuffed tops of his shoes and his frayed shirt cuffs, and let her approach him.
“Benjamin Grimm? It is you.” Her smile widened, and it was as if the curtain had gone up in her eyes. The sadness Ben had seen before lifted, and she became a girl of seventeen. She reached out to him with her bare hand.
His nervousness evaporated like morning fog. He wiped his hand on his pants and then grasped hers tightly, catching the slight scent of soap and rose water.
Ben had expected the soft hand of the daughter of a prominent banker; hands used to doing embroidery and playing the piano. But there were calluses on her palm, the nails short and ragged. Her skin was pink and chapped. His expression must have given away some of his surprise, because when he released her hand, Ellie tucked it into the folds of her skirt. “I can’t believe that you… It’s been so long, Ben. You’ve grown.”
The look in her eyes made Ben decide to keep quiet about her hands. He was glad she had come in to see him. Having spent years under her stepmother’s care, he had worried she might have turned into a snob. “As have you, my lady.” His grin was large as he bent over in an exaggerated bow.
“Oh, please don’t. Ben, stop it this minute.” Ellie put her hands to her blushing cheeks, as if trying to hold back her smile. Ben stood, laughing, and thrust his hands in his pockets. “I was hiding in the loft above the lobby and saw you come in tonight. I… didn’t recognize you at first. You’ve, uh, changed.” It was his turn to blush again as he remembered what he had been thinking about her curves.
“You’ve changed, too.” She squinted and looked closely at his face. “I can’t see any dirt. So your mother finally wrestled you into submission about keeping clean.”
Ben didn’t answer, only smirked and scratched the back of his head. “I tried to think how many years it’s been since I saw you last.”
“Seven.” Ellie’s reply was so soft he almost didn’t hear it. “Seven years. The last time I saw you, we were both ten, after…” she hesitated. “After my mother died.”
Ben’s smile faltered. “Yes, that’s right.” He felt stupid for forgetting, even more stupid for making her bring up something so obviously painful. His own mother had cried for days after her employer’s passing. Ellie’s mother had been a lovely woman, who had provided him with a seemingly endless supply of sweets.
Ellie shook her head as if shaking herself free of the edge of melancholy that had dropped over the conversation. “How is your dear mother? And your little brother? I’m sure he’s no longer the chubby-cheeked baby I remember.”
Ben shrugged. “Mother’s fine. She keeps busy running the bookshop. Harry is… he’s a little brother.” Ellie wrinkled her nose and narrowed her eyes.
“Being as I have no little brothers, I’ll have to assume you mean you love him dearly and can’t imagine life without him.” “Not exactly, but I don’t want to ruin your image of me as a wholesome young man, so I won’t tell you what I really think about him. It wouldn’t be proper for me to say in front of a lady, anyway.”
“You think I’m a lady, do you? You might be surprised at some of the words I’ve used when no one is listening.” Ellie’s gaze wandered over the theater’s ceiling. There was a teasing note in her voice. “I never thought I’d see you working here. If I remember correctly, you said if you were going to be in the theater, it would be in front of the footlights. A magician, I believe it was?”
“I’m still working on that.” Ben’s reply was touched with defensiveness. “But now it’s illusion instead of straight magic, don’t you know that? It’s all the rage in Europe. Until I can find a backer, I need to work. My father, he’s the stage manager now. He got me the job, said it would do me good to learn a real skill.” He rolled his eyes.
Ellie raised an eyebrow. “He doesn’t approve of your career aspirations?” Ben shook his head. “He lets me keep my workshop, but thinks I’m wasting my time.” He shrugged. “It’s better than the brickyard.”
Ellie laughed out loud, a pretty sound that rolled around the inside of the theater. She covered her mouth and glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one else had heard. When she stopped giggling, she looked at Ben and sighed. “I can’t stay, Ben. I don’t want to keep my stepmother waiting.” She glanced over her shoulder and back to Ben. “It was so good to see you again.”
Ben felt the words were weighted somehow, like a current pulling beneath the calm surface of a river. “It was good to see you again, too, Ellie.” There was so much more Ben wanted to say, seven years’ worth. He didn’t dare ask to see her again, though, and resigned himself to only having this stolen moment.
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