Of course Mrs. Uno decided to dispatch an invitation for afternoon tea to the newly arrived Mr. Fernández straight away. She did not want the neighbors to reach him first and make her appear unwelcoming. Hearing he was handsome, and charming, she decided not to send her husband with the invitation, but her eldest, Shoma, in masculine attire. It would not do for a young lady to call on a gentleman they did not know.
Shoma hated it. They hated it because they knew their mother was matchmaking, and they felt particularly feminine that day. They wanted nothing more than to wear their soft green dress with the pale sleeves. It was striking, as all their dresses were, and they were sure they could render a better impression upon Mr. Fernández this time than they had with a drizzling mouthful of strawberries.
As it was, Shoma stomped down the lane around the back of their estate, and then through the woods, to the Orser Estate. Their Hessian boots chafed in the summer heat, and they sweated through their shirt and gold waistcoat, all the way through their navy tailcoat, until they were sticky and wiping perspiration from their face. The pit of their stomach was lead from worrying that Mr. Fernández would recognize them and they would be mortified, not just by dress, but by the possibility this handsome stranger would find them very queer indeed. Everything felt miserable and soggy as they approached Orser Manor.
Garden beds, left fallow for years, sprouted bugle, wild strawberries which made their mouth water, pignut, stitchwort, and foxglove, as well as a few early, nodding nightshade. It was such an untidy mess Shoma could hear their mother tsking over the whole thing. But they thought it was lovely, in a wild way, and contrasted the solemn gold columns in front of the manor. Flocks of turquoise shuttered windows were flown open to catch the thin, sunny breeze.
Shoma knocked on the front door and waited.
The door burst open and a second sun, smiling and handsome, peered down at them. They instantly felt mortified and shy. Mortified for him, because he wore only his waistcoat and shirt, and didn’t have any servants to answer the door, and shy because Mr. Fernández was still impossibly handsome. Forgetting themselves, they curtsied. Mr. Fernández looked confused, then curtsied back.
They stared at each other in awkward silence.
“I am sure it is some country custom for men to curtsey?” Mr. Fernández said.
“No, I --” Shoma muttered and bowed.
Mr. Fernández bowed in return, though his eyebrows were raised.
Shoma held their mother’s invitation out to Mr. Fernández, avoiding his gaze in case he recognized them.
“Oh, thank you,” Mr. Fernández said as he took the letter.
He had such a beautiful, vibrant accent.
“My mother, Mrs. Uno, requests your presence at Dunbriar Manor tomorrow, at three o’clock, for tea.”
“How splendid. I shall be there.”
Shoma looked at Mr. Fernández. He seemed not to recognize them as being the same person as that “young lady”. This stung, briefly, but it was also a relief. Shoma could start anew.
“I am sorry. I would invite you in, but the place is a mess,” Mr. Fernández said. “I have no servants with me and everything is covered in cloth.”
The next thing Shoma said surprised them. They were shy, quiet most of the time. But they felt a swell of boldness in their chest.
“Perhaps I could assist you in the coming weeks,” they said.
“That is kind of you Mr. --”
“I apologize,” Shoma said. “I forgot to introduce myself. I am Mrs. Uno’s oldest, Shoma Uno.”
Shoma wasn’t sure why they did not introduce themselves as M. Uno. Perhaps because they did not desire to be rebuffed as “odd” or “strange” by Mr. Fernández. Which in and of itself was peculiar, since Shoma rarely cared about who was made uneasy by their sex.*
“We both forgot, I’m afraid,” Mr. Fernández laughed, a sound which allayed Shoma’s anxieties.
“But I expect you know me. I am Mr. Javier Fernández, of the Orser Estate.”
They bowed again, smiling. They stood for a moment looking at one another and Shoma felt something they had not before. Like the sweet, spicy scent of dog roses as they blossomed at high summer.
“We will look forward to receiving you tomorrow,” Shoma said.
Usually when they said something like that it was a lie.
“I look forward to being received!” Mr. Fernández said with a great deal of zeal.
He seemed to be vibrating out of his waistcoat as he spoke.
Shoma blushed. They felt it along their jaw.
“I must go,” they fumbled before turning around, hoping that Mr. Fernández did not see their flush.