Penelope smiled as she sighed. Nothing, she decided, was going to spoil the perfect day. It was her anniversary after all, and she was going to make it perfect.
She held the picnic basket in her hand without gripping too tightly. The arthritis in her fingers made it difficult to do much of anything with them. But, instead of damning them again, she thanked God that she had a place to keep her ring.
It was the spring of 1947. Post-war England was a bleak and desolate place, even surrounded by the beauty of the North Yorkshire Moors. The heather was in bloom, turning the hills around Whitby a brilliant shade of purple.
Penny hadn’t any petrol rations left, so she decided to walk the moors one spring morning. The fog had barely lifted, and if she didn’t know where she was going, she would have lost her way in its thickness.
While she didn’t have her petrol rations, she did have her sweet ration. Pulling the small piece of chocolate from her pocket, she inhaled the sweet aroma of her favourite Cadbury bar. As always, however, the smell was only a fraction as good as its taste. Her normally reserved self fell to the wayside as she stuck the whole thing in her mouth at once. Biting down would have been a cardinal sin, so she sucked on the creamy goodness and decided nothing else on Earth was better than a quiet morning walk and a breakfast of chocolate.
Her reverie was broke by the sound of a car coming up fast behind her. She spun in time to see the black machine come out of the fog and barrel towards her.
Penny threw herself to the ground as the car came to a screeching stop. She tried to look behind her to see which imbecilic driver would receive the sharp edge of her tongue, but something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
She couldn’t breathe.
She was choking on that bloody chocolate.
“Miss? Are you alright? Please tell me you’re alright.”
In some corner of her mind, Penny processed the facts that he was very obviously American, and he sounded frantic. The rest of her brain was trying to work out how to get her lungs to function again. She crouched on all fours, trying to get the sweet out of her throat.
“Miss?” he called again. “Are your hurt?”
Penny heaved more, and then used all her remaining energy to point to her throat.
“Oh, God!” The driver knelt beside her and gave a hard whack to her back.
She felt it dislodge slightly. She screamed silently for him to do it again, and by some miracle, he heard her. He hit her three more times before she managed spit it out onto the ground.
Penny drew several deep breaths. Never in her life had she been more thankful for air. She collapsed on the dirt beneath her, the last of her strength gone.
She thought she must have passed out, because the next thing she knew, she was being rocked back and forth in the lap of a stranger.
“I’m so sorry.” It was the American, whispering to her.
I’m not dead. She tried to tell him so, but her mouth wasn’t working so well.
She hadn’t passed out after all. She was crying.
Sobs racked her body for no reason she could fathom – except the fact she had just nearly died. A few deep breaths calmed her, and she wiped the tears away with the back of her hand.
“I’m okay,” she said.
The tenseness vanished from his body. “Thank God. I was afraid I’d killed you.”
“You very nearly did.” Penny managed to get to her feet, however shakily. The driver helped her, steadying her balance more than once. She brushed the dirt and bits of heather from her dress. “Why are you driving like a maniac out here anyway?”
“One could ask why you are walking in the middle of the road.”
“Well, I’m afraid I’m not accustomed to idiotic Americans using the moors as a raceway!”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, Lady, this little bit of dirt hardly counts as a road!” He kicked the bits of gravel for emphasis.
“So sorry, but we simple English don’t have a problem sharing their ‘little bits of dirt’ without nearly killing someone!”
The American had no comeback for her. They stared at each other, waiting to see who would break first.
The driver cracked a smile, and then tried to stifle a giggle. He failed splendidly. A moment later, he was doubled over with laughter.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline wearing off, or the thought of how ridiculous they both much have looked shouting at each other. Whatever it was, though, made Penny laugh right along with him.
It was several minutes before they managed to collect themselves enough to speak. “Really, miss, I am very sorry.”
“It’s Penelope. Penelope Cross,” she offered. “And please, it’s fine, really.”
“Francis.” He held out his hand for hers. She expected a handshake, and was pleasantly surprised when he turned her hand around and kissed the back of it. “Francis Carter, but please call me Frank. Only my parents called me Francis, and even then only when I was in trouble.”
Penny laughed once more. It was easy to like Frank, she decided. His hair was ginger and he had freckles which gave him an easy, friendly look. He had dimples when he smiled wide. But most alluring of all were his eyes – clear and blue as the ocean.
“Well, Frank, it was lovely to meet you, but I must be going.”
“Wait, don’t leave yet. I have to make things up to you.” He moved back toward the car. “Let me at least drive you home.”
Penny arched an eyebrow at him. “You expect me to get in that thing with you driving?”
Frank shrugged his shoulders. “What if I promise to be extra careful and drive extra slow?”
“I don’t know…”
“Miss Penelope,” he said, pulling his hat off his head and bowing deep at the waist. “Please allow me the distinct honour of driving you home as a feeble repayment of bringing harm to your lovely person.”
Penny bit her bottom lip as she smiled. “Well, I suppose that since you are trying to make amends, it would be rude for me to refuse.” She curtsied to him. “I shall allow you to drive me home, and your debt to me shall be repaid.”
Frank sighed. “You are most generous, Miss Penelope.”
H e nodded. “Miss Penny.” Frank opened the passenger door for her, waited until she was settled, then closed it and raced to the driver’s side. “Just point the way.”
“Follow the dirt path,” she said with a grin, “slowly.”
“Of course, my Lady Penny.”
They both stared ahead, Frank trying to pick his way through the still thick fog. Every once in a while, she caught herself stealing a glance in his direction. She couldn’t help it. Curiosity finally got the better of her. “May I ask you a question, if it wouldn’t be prying?”
“Tell me what an American is doing in Yorkshire.”
“Short answer is that I work for the United States Army.”
“You don’t look like a soldier.”
Frank smiled and shook his head. “I’m an engineer.”
“Okay, so what’s the long answer?”
“I work for the US Army as an engineer.”
She eyed him with suspicion. “Ah, I see. One of those.”
“One of what?”
“They say some American missile base or something is being built around here, and you’re obviously one of those building it.”
“Why the contempt?”
“It’s not a very popular idea in this area.”
“I can imagine. But all I am is a simple engineer.”
Penny seriously doubted that there was anything simple about him.
“Turn right here,” she instructed. “Second cottage on the left.”
“We’re here already?” She nodded. “Well, I must say that that I don’t feel I have adequately repaid my debt to you.” He parked the car in front of the gate to her family cottage. “You must allow me another opportunity to make things right.”
Penny knew she should just get out of the car, say goodbye, and put Francis Carter out of her mind forever.
She made no move to leave. “What did you have in mind?”
“I am on my way to Durham, but I’ll be free on Friday evening, about seven. Let me take you to dinner.”
The logical part of her brain again told her to politely refuse, leave, and never see Frank again.
“As long as we walk to dinner.”
Frank held a hand over his heart. “I drove you all the way home without incident. Granted, it was no longer than three minutes, but that’s beside the point. Don’t you trust my driving skills?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re never going to let me forget this, are you?”
“Fair enough. We’ll walk then.” He got out of the car and ran to open her door before she could do it herself. She accepted his hand and exited.
Franks kissed the back of her hand again. “Until Friday, my Lady Penny.”
Penny gave his hand a final squeeze before letting go and opening her font gate. She walked the path to her door, determined not to look back at Frank. She almost made it as well, but when she undid the latch, she caught sight of him from the corner of her eye.
He was watching her the entire way to the door with that wide, dimple-inducing smile.
“Is that you, Eleanor?”
Penny closed her eyes as she entered her home. “No, Dad. It’s Penny.”
“Where have you been, love?”
She placed a kiss on her forehead. “Just out for a morning walk.”
“That’s nice. Your mother was worried, though. You may want to tell her where you’re going next time.”
Tears pricked the back of her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. “Yes, Dad. I’ll tell her.”
Penny knew exactly how long eternity lasted: three days.
She’d learned it years before, and it was proving true again. The three days between Tuesday morning and Friday night dragged on imperceptibly.
She didn’t understand why she felt like this about a man – and an American no less – whom she’d known for less than ten minutes. A man that had nearly killed her. But all she had to do was think of those ocean-blue eyes and dimpled smile and she went weak in the knees.
“Stop it!” she said out loud. She caught herself smiling again at the thought of Frank. “You are not some young schoolgirl, Penelope. Pull yourself together.”
Frank’s face came into her head again, but she did nothing to remove it.
When Friday finally did arrive, Penny couldn’t sit still. She was fidgety and anxious and nervous and excited all at once. It made no sense. It was, after all, only a date.
She picked out her favourite dress. She’d gotten it long before the war, so she sure it was out of style. It didn’t matter, though. The green matched her eyes and the cut flattered her figure without revealing too much. She tied a matching ribbon in her fine, brown hair.
At ten minutes to seven, Penny dabbed powder on her face, applied the palest pink lipstick, and pinched her cheeks – mother had always hated rouge, and had passed that on to her daughter.
“You look very nice, love.”
Penny turned to James. “Thank you, Dad.”
“Yes, just to the pub.”
“In my day, a young lady wouldn’t go to the pub on her own.”
Here it comes. “I’m not going alone, Dad.”
“Oh no? One of your girlfriends going with you? Though I must say that I’ve never seen you dress like that for your friends.”
She decided to make the situation easier for both of them. She knew he wasn’t going to let the matter rest. “I’m going with a man, Dad.”
James settled back in his chair. “I see.”
Penny suddenly felt four years old again and on inspection to make sure she was a good little girl.
She faltered. She had no idea how old Frank was. “Twenty-three,” she said with a firmness she didn’t feel. It was only a guess, but placing him three years older than herself seemed like a good gamble.
He got her, and he knew it. She shook her head. “I don’t know, Dad. We are only going to have dinner. Straight there, straight back.”
The grandfather clock across the room struck seven, followed by a soft knock at the front door. “At least he’s punctual.”
Penny followed her father to the door, praying under her breath for him to behave.
Frank stood on the doorstep, hat in one hand, a single red rose in the other. “Evening, sir.” He shuffled his hat under his arm and held out his hand. “Frank Carter. Wonderful to meet you.”
To her surprise, her father’s visage changed completely. He became the easy-going lovable man she had grown up with. He accepted the handshake and smiled warmly. “James Cross.” He stepped aside to allow Penny out the door. “You two have fun. Next time, you’ll have to meet my wife. She’s not feeling well this evening.”
Penny had to get them out of there. She kissed her father on the cheek. “We’ll be back in a few hours. Don’t forget your medicine.”
“Don’t forget your shawl.” He held out the white wrap, which she took with sincere gratitude. “Have fun, Love.”
She hooked her arm through Frank’s and pulled him away from the door. “Let’s go, Frank.”
He held the gate open for her. “I’m sorry I couldn’t meet your mother. Is she very sick?”
Penny lost her step. Her appetite vanished. “She’s dead.”
“She died about four years ago.”
“But your dad –”
She shook her head. “I’d rather not talk about it now.”
Frank stopped walking and looked at her. “You don’t want to eat right now, do you?”
“Do you just want to walk for a bit?”
She sighed. “That would be great, as long as we’re not going to get run over.”
“You really aren’t going to let that go, are you?”
Penny laughed in response. “Let’s just find a little bit of dirt to get lost on.”
The moon was full and the sky cloudless, so they had no trouble finding their way. As they went, they talked about anything that came to mind. She found out that they both loved books, he was a decent chef, and he even understood how to play cricket. The more they talked, the more she liked Frank. He was so unlike any man she’d ever met. It was no wonder he made her feel like she’d never felt before. She didn’t dare say what she felt – she didn’t even allow herself to think it. But every time he pulled her just a little closer, wanted to melt into him.
Hours later, they ended up on a hill overlooking the town of Whitby. She pointed out different places of interest. “And that over there,” she said, pointing to a ruin on the cliff overlooking the sea, “is Whitby Abbey. It’s what gave Bram Stoker the inspiration for Dracula.”
“It does look rather ominous.”
“Yes, it really is, and it’s beautiful.”
“You’re right. Truly beautiful.”
Frank was looking directly at her. She forgot what she was going to say next. “I…uh…” She was dangerously close to getting lost in those eyes again. She redirected her gaze back to the Abbey. “Too bad the Germans used it for target practice. Made more rubble out of it.”
Frank cupped a cheek with his hand and gently turned her to face him again. “Penny?”
“Yes?” It was no more than a breath escaping her.
“I would like to do something.”
“I would like to kiss you.”
“Yes.” She leaned into him, and allowed him to bring his mouth to hers. Electricity passed between them. Her knees threatened to buckle beneath her, and would have done so, had Frank’s arms not been holding her tight against his body. She wound her arms over his shoulders and around his neck. Her fingers danced in his hair.
They broke apart when neither could breathe. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I did that.”
“It’s okay, I wanted you to do that.”
“So did I.”
A moment of silence passed. “I had two older brothers, you know.”
“The war. George and Henry were their names. Henry died in 1942 in France. Mother and Dad were upset, understandably. When George was killed almost a month later, it was more than my mother could bear. She died of a broken heart within a week. With her gone, Dad lost his mind completely. He thinks Mother is still here, and that George and Harry are still at war.” Frank looked at her with complete sympathy. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I told you all that.”
He smiled and pulled her into a tight embrace. “It’s okay, I wanted you to tell me.”
She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around him. “So did I.”
Penny didn’t get home until after two in the morning and not until she had shared many more kisses with Frank and gotten a promise to see him again Sunday afternoon.
The day passed in a blur. She was sure she didn’t walk at all – she floated. There was no doubt about it.
Penny was totally and completely in love with Francis Carter.
Penny woke up a little before four in the morning. It took a few minutes before she realised why.
Frank was knocking on her window.
She swung it open. “What are you doing?”
“I have to talk to you. Now.”
“Frank, I’m assuming you know what time it is.”
“I know. But it’s important.” His eyes pleaded with her. “Please, trust me. I need you to come with me.”
Penny knew there was no denying those eyes. “Let me just get my shawl. I’ll meet you at the front door in five minutes.” His kissed the back of her hand, and without a word, ran from the window.
She made short work of getting dressed. She threw on the first dress her hand landed on in the closet, did away with the stockings, and slid on the most comfortable pair of shoes she owned. The hairbrush made one quick pass through her hair. She walked as quickly as she dared without waking her father, grabbed her shawl from the coat rack by the front door, and was kissing Frank good morning less than three minutes from when he had left her window.
He took her hand and interlaced their fingers. “Come walk with me.” His voice was low; it matched the rest of the morning. It was all so deathly quiet, and speaking would surely wake someone, no matter how far away they were.
“Frank, what is going on?”
He squeezed her hand and smiled. “Sorry, that’s classified. Though I may be willing to make an exception in your case.”
Penny shook her head, but her smiled betrayed her feigned annoyance. “Lead on, then.”
They walked up the hill from her cottage in silence. She may not have known Frank for more than a day, but she knew that something odd was going on.
Frank turned right as the crested the hill. Where was he taking her?
“You have to close your eyes now,” he instructed.
She did as she was asked and allowed him to lead her. A couple minutes later he stopped her, her back to a stone wall. “Alright, you can open them now.”
Penny’s breath caught in her chest. On the ground, in the precise spot where they had met, a blanket was laid out. At least a dozen candles held the edges down. In the middle was a bunch of light pink roses and a basket.
“Do you like it?” He looked at her with a desperate need for approval.
She held a hand over her mouth and nodded. She didn’t trust herself to say anything, knowing she was only break down in tears.
Frank let out a sigh of relief. “Come sit, please.” He led her to the middle of the blanket. She sat and he opened the basket. “I feel bad about ruining your breakfast last week, so…well…here.” He pulled out a small box with a blue ribbon and handed it to her.
Penny undid the ribbon, opened the lid, and did her best not to cry when she saw its contents. “Chocolate,” she breathed.
“I hope it’s what you like. I wasn’t –”
Penny dropped the chocolate and threw herself at him, cutting him off with a rough and fervent kiss.
She pulled away first, panting. “It’s perfect. I love it so much.”
“That’s good. Really, you deserve perfection.” He ran his fingers over her cheeks, through her hair. “I know we haven’t known each other long, but the moment I first saw you, something changed in me. I felt like, for the first time in my life, I was,” he paused, searching for a word. “I was whole.” He looked away, embarrassed. “I’m not good at this, so I hope you don’t think I’m being forward. But I have to say this to you.” He looked in her eyes. “Penny, I…I love you.”
Again, his entire face begged her for approval, for validation. Penny searched her heart and soul, and it didn’t take long to find a response. She put her hands on either side of his face. “Francis Carter, I love you too.”
They made love that morning, next to the stone wall, beneath a waning moon and the stars, in the place they had first met. It was beautiful and exciting and everything first love should be. And when they were finished, they held one another in their arms, and they pledged their love to each other again.
That morning, in the entire world, there was Penny and Frank, a box of chocolates, pink roses, and the soft light of a dozen candles.
Penny was humming again, and that was fine by her. Her father had asked a few times what had gotten into her, and she just kissed his forehead and said that all was well.
It wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t the entire truth either. Penny just figured her father didn’t need all the details.
A little before six, she was busy in the kitchen, preparing dinner. There wasn’t much to making cottage pie, and it was her father’s favourite.
She didn’t hear the knock at the door, but she heard her father’s voice travel down the corridor. “She’s in the kitchen, I’ll get her.”
She looked up as James entered. “That nice young man Francis is here. I asked him to wait on the bench in the front garden.”
Penny couldn’t help the smile on her face. “Thanks, Dad. Dinner’s in the oven, so I guess it’s good timing.” She took off her apron and headed out the door.
“That it is,” he agreed. “I’ll keep an eye on it, but please don’t take too long. You know your mother likes to eat on time.”
She paused midstride. “I’ll only be a few minutes,” she replied, then put the situation out of her mind; she’d deal with it later. All she wanted to deal with was the man on her garden bench.
Frank stood as she approached. There was something wrong, she knew it. The apprehension in the air was palpable. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
He gestured for her to sit, and he did likewise. “There’s no easy way to say this, so I guess I’ll just get right to it.” He sighed heavily and pulled a scrap of paper from his breast pocket. “I got a telegram today from my department. I have to leave tomorrow.” He offered her the paper.
She took it and read the words over and over again. She felt a crushing weight on her chest. This couldn’t be happening. Not now, not when they had just met. Tears prick the back of her eyes. She looked at him, and saw tears brimming in his eyes as well. “I don’t know what to say.”
He shook his head. “Then don’t say anything. Just think for a minute.”
“Think about what? You’re leaving!”
“I know, Darling, I know.” He smoothed the hair from her face. “I am leaving, and I want you to come with me.”
Penny was sure her heart had stopped. “Come with you? I can’t –”
“Don’t answer me now; I really do want you to think about it. My train leaves Durham tomorrow at ten of nine. It gets to Whitby at nine fifteen in the morning. If you want to come with me, be on that platform tomorrow morning. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll have my answer that way as well.”
“Frank, I –”
He pulled a gold ring from his little finger. “Here,” he said, holding it out to her. “I want you to have this, regardless of your decision.” He kissed her fist as he closed it around his ring. “Just promise me you’ll think about it.”
She stared at her fist, and then nodded. “I’ll think about it.”
Frank kissed her, lips ghosting over hers. “Then I should go, give you time.” He stood and bowed. “I hope to see you in the morning, Lady Penny.” He didn’t wait for her answer, instead turning to leave her to her thoughts. It was for the best. If he’s stayed, there was no way Penny would have ever let him go.
It was no surprise to Penny that she hadn’t slept at all that night. She weighed the pros and cons, and it really came down to two people: Frank and her father. They were the two men she loved more than any other in the world. How could she possibly choose one over the other?
Time was growing short. She had a suitcase already packed on the bed, letters written to her father and several people in the village. There were a few people in town she could trust to take care of him, and maybe she could send for him once she and Frank were settled.
But then the little seed of doubt would plant itself in her brain. How could her father make it without her?
He would survive, she decided. She needed her own life, her own love. Surely, she deserved some of the happiness her parents had had during their lives.
Suitcase in hand, she made her way to the front door. She lifted the latch and opened it.
“Is that you, Eleanor?”
Penny closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “No, Dad, it’s Penny.”
James came around the corner. He eyed her, then the suitcase. “Going somewhere?”
She shook her head. “Margaret wants to borrow the suitcase.”
“Oh yes? Is she outside?”
“No,” she replied, and shut the door. “I was just letting the cat out.”
In the other room, she heard the grandfather clock strike nine. There was no way she could have made it to the train station in time.
Her decision had been made.
Penny sat against the wall on the hill, in the spot where she had met Frank over sixty years earlier. She mused about her life, and decided that overall it had been a good one. The only regret she had was not leaving with Frank.
James had lived another ten years after that, sinking deeper and deeper into his dementia. By the time he mercifully died, it was too late to find Frank. She didn’t know anything about him really, except his name and that he had once worked for the United States government. It wasn’t a lot to go on, and she had tried, but met a dead end every time. All she had left of him was his gold ring, which never left her finger, and the memories of the few glorious days they had spent together.
The sun rose and she took a small bite of the chocolate she had brought with her. Every year, on the anniversary of the day they met, she made the hike up the hill from the cottage she still lived in, sat against the wall, and had her breakfast of chocolate at sunrise.
A man in a dark robe appeared next to her. He sat without being asked, and stared into the sunrise with her. She turned to see a man with greying hair, but his eyes were unmistakable.
“Frank?” she whispered.
The man shrugged. “If that’s how you see me.”
“Ah,” she replied, understanding. For some reason, when she had thought of the Angel of Death, this was never what she had pictured. He was beautiful. “Will it hurt?”
Death smiled. “No, it won’t.”
“Good. I was worried about that.” She took a deep breath and leaned back against the wall. “I’m ready.”
Death leans down and places a feather-light kiss on her lips. Penelope Cross sighs one last time and passes to the next life, where a man with ginger hair and ocean-blue eyes waits for her.