The plaintive voice outside Beguiling's front door interruped Henry in midsentence, and he peered around the display rack loaded with his new release to see its source.
"Any plans yet for what?" Jessica prompted, bobbing up from behind the cash register with her handbag. She must not have heard. "Henry?"
"I thought I heard someone outside," he explained. "Looks like we have a latecomer."
"Are they kidding? You should have been out of here at least an hour ago!" Pulling on her jacket, she moved around to where she could see the girl on the sidewalk. "Oh. Hang on a minute, I'll handle it."
Without waiting for an answer, she went over and turned the lock, opening the door partway. "Hey, Coreen. You know it's after eleven, right?"
"I know, I know. Maggie called in sick, and of course we got slammed because it's midterms and everybody wants -- " She heaved a slightly melodramatic sigh. "Never mind. It was worth a shot, huh? I'll just... catch him next time."
"You caught him this time." Henry belatedly set a hand on Jessica's back when she jumped; he should have made sure she knew he was there before speaking over her shoulder. "It's all right," he told her. "You go ahead and finish locking up."
The girl's face lit up, clear blue eyes going wide inside rings of smoky makeup. Seventeen, maybe eighteen, not a day more, buttoned into a sweeping velvet opera coat that flapped in the fall breeze to reveal coltish legs in striped stockings. "Ohmigosh, thank you so much! I know it's really late -- "
"It's all right," Henry repeated with a smile.
"Okay, then. Have a good one." Jessica shrugged, pulling the door the rest of the way open and stepping back for him to pass. Yawning, she added in a mutter, "Crazy night people."
"Thank you," the girl mouthed at her as she locked the door behind Henry. Jessica waved and shook her head.
Henry turned back to his public of one, drawing a pen from his jacket pocket. "So... Coreen, did she say?"
"Oh! Yes. I'm Coreen. Hi." She bounced on the balls of her feet, heart racing, a human-shaped bundle of nervous energy. If she were any cuter, she would have to be animated. "It's really great to meet you."
"You too," he chuckled. He gestured to the trade paperback clutched to her chest. "White Poppies? You haven't had a chance to pick up the new one? Jessica probably isn't out the back door yet."
"No! I mean no, don't bother her. I feel bad enough as it is... but yes, I got it. Read it. Loved it, really, it's just..." She held the earlier volume out to him, her smile turning wistful. "This one is special."
Henry accepted it, taking note of where the telltale lines of multiple readings scored the spine. "Estelle?"
She nodded, duly impressed. It was hardly a difficult guess, of course, though he didn't tell her that. All the little goth girls loved Estelle and her tragic fairy tale. Born into mourning, bound to her fate as guardian of the terrible secret at the heart of her family's château, the princess in the tower who died before she truly lived. They haunted his infrequent signings and penned naïvely poetic fan letters, in the adolescent throes of emotions too big and too wild for their safe suburban lives.
He hadn't set out with the intent of giving them a channel for that passion, but couldn't help being touched by the way they had claimed Estelle as their own. Ninety years had passed since he had failed to save her. Now a thousand young hearts would carry her spirit into a thousand unknown destinies.
"C-O-R...?" He opened the cover and looked up at her expectantly.
"Oh! Yes. One R, two Es, one N." She did her best to stand still as she waited, and managed to keep it down to shifting her weight from one foot to the other and back again. But she didn't try to see what he was writing. Maybe she liked surprises.
For Coreen --
"Live to dare
and dare to live"
He glanced up at the open young face before him, vibrant life glowing through a veil of rice powder. Impulsively, he added the line of a profile beneath the words. Almost of their own accord, Estelle's features took shape in a few spare strokes, glancing sidelong out of the page with the hint of an impish smile. Under this, he finished the inscription:
...as she could not.
All the best,
He held it in one hand to dry, carefully angling the freshly signed page out of its owner's line of sight, while he put away his pen. Coreen held onto her patience by a thread, grinning nervously at him but not moving to take the book until he closed the cover and held it out to her.
Taking it back with something resembling restraint -- it was clearly a prized possession -- she flipped it open, her jaw dropping at the unexpected little gift. "Oh, this is..." she breathed. "Oh, thank you!"
He saw the hug coming, of course, but didn't decide whether to stop her before she was on tiptoe, flinging her arms around his neck. Her heart pounded inches from his own for a handful of beats before she pulled back, blushing furiously.
"I'm sorry. That was... Um. Sorry."
"Don't be," he replied, smoothing down a strand of hair that had gone askew in her enthusiasm. "I didn't need to remind you of her motto, did I?"
"I keep talking to people who don't get what it means." Did she know she had stopped fidgeting? "They think it's like 'the point of living is to dare,' but she means it like 'live so you get a chance to dare.' Because she didn't. Right?"
"Exactly right." The smile he gave her was genuine, not calculated to draw her in, but the effect was the same. Her balance shifted forward slightly, a headier note creeping into her clean scent.
If he chose, it would take no effort at all to lead her into the shadows a few steps away. He had heard Jessica's car pull away from the back of the store minutes before, and while there was still some light foot traffic on this part of Queen West at this hour, any passerby who might chance to spot a young couple stealing a moment's passion would think nothing of it.
Probably too young, certainly too innocent, for the standards to which he held himself in this complicated age. He had fed before arriving here, of course. It had been perfunctory, but sufficient to ensure a clear head as he signed and smiled his way through a long line of variously keyed-up people. The idea of tasting this one was no less appealing for that, but he would choose his actions rationally.
Coreen might not -- could hardly be expected to, over the demands of her teenaged body and romantic nature. She swayed further toward him, a hair's breadth from committing to either meeting his lips or losing her balance. One hand drifted up to touch his face and draw it closer.
As soon as her palm settled against his cheek, she pulled it back hurriedly, saucer-eyed and fidgety all over again. "Ohmigosh, you're freezing! I have kept you standing out here way too long, I am so sorry -- "
"You didn't do anything wrong," he assured her, watching her reaction to gauge whether she would need more than words to persuade her of that. It was no more than the truth, but that was no guarantee, and the last thing he wanted was for her memory of their brief connection to be eclipsed by embarrassment.
"Okay." She took half a step back, gracefully enough, and sighed in genuine relief. Good. "But I should really let you go. Thank you again, so much."
"You're very welcome. I'm glad you caught me before I left." That, too, was no more than the truth. "Good night."
She took her leave with a cheery wave, striding briskly to the bus stop half a block away. Henry kept an ear on her as he headed the other direction, toward his car, and waited an extra minute after sliding behind the wheel, until the bus arrived and she stepped safely aboard.