Sophie Harrington closed her eyes and prayed for patience. This was going to be a long afternoon.
She’d desperately hoped for a pleasant time decorating the church for Appleby’s October Apple Week. Instead here she was, babysitting her two younger sisters who’d rather be anywhere else, and facing down a crabby nuisance who looked on the verge of staging a sit-in at the altar.
The joys of being the vicar’s eldest daughter.
She opened her eyes and the crabby old prune was still there.
“No! Not there, you silly girl.” Mrs Buchard fixed Anna with a squinty glare and jabbed her walking stick towards the church altar. “Put them in the middle. Otherwise how will anyone see them?”
Anna glowered at the spindly old woman and stuffed the forlorn-looking flower arrangement into Sophie’s hands. “It’d be a mercy if no one sees them,” she muttered, swiping her blue-streaked dark hair back from her eyes.
But her voice drowned beneath the rousing strains of Joy To The World being thumped out on the wheezy church organ in one corner of the altar.
“Eh? What? What did you say, girl?” Mrs Buchard cupped a hand to her ear and wobbled closer.
Sophie tucked back a strand of her long dark hair that had escaped her practical ponytail and dredged up the best placating smile she could. “I’m sorry, but there’s no space for them on the altar, Mrs Buchard,” she shouted, and indicated the already overflowing altar where pink and white roses cascaded down the sides and front.
Good thing their father, the Reverend Ian Harrington, wasn’t allergic to flowers. Otherwise all his sermons over Apple Week would have been a string of sneezes punctuated by wild curses.
“Make space then!” The squinty glare now pinned Sophie. “Don’t tell me two fit young girls can’t sweep aside a few roses for my flowers.”
If they could be called flowers.
Sophie studied the arrangement in her hands. A bunch of bobbly purple eyesores—looking like a cross between someone’s privates and a queasy wasp—was surrounded by a collar of hairy green ferns. And it all sprouted willy-nilly from a fat green bucket. If she were to place the lot on one of the graves in the graveyard the dead would leap up in anger.
“I spent all of yesterday making it,” Mrs Buchard huffed. “I wanted flowers that were just the right colour for the altar.”
Sophie looked back at the altar. The autumn sun glinted jewel colours through the towering stained-glass window and dappled the roses in reds, blues and golds, but not a smidgen of purple anywhere. Red tulips or golden sunflowers made sense, but purple bobbly things? Still, the old woman had lavished time creating her beloved masterpiece, and Sophie hadn’t the heart to send her away disappointed.
Perhaps they could hide the purple horrors away at the back, behind a pile of roses, never to be seen on this earth again.
She gave Mrs Buchard a hopeful smile. “Let me see if I can—”
The organ clamoured to a stop, cutting her off. Joy To The World ended and the haunting notes of Liszt’s Dreams of Love soared into the air. One of her favourite tunes. Sophie glanced at the ancient organ where Kitty, her youngest sister, was sitting prisoner and thumping her belligerent way through tune after tune. Two notes dropped to be replaced by a bloop and a whistle from the organ pipes, and Sophie winced, her musical fingers itching to get over there and play that music right. But Kitty looked up and catching Sophie’s stare, smirked, then with a toss of her long blonde locks returned to attacking the keys with a vengeance.
Sophie wearily shook her head. They would have done better without the background music at this rate. Kitty wasn’t the most patient of musicians, but today she was outplaying even her worst, most likely to make their father regret ever trapping her there.
Their father had decided music would lend an air of relaxation as the flowers went up. Sophie would have gladly played since the organ was her special place in the church. But he’d stuck her with the organizing like the good little secretary he saw her as, and then he’d cajoled and threatened Kitty in equal parts into playing.
“Will you put them on the altar or not?” Mrs Buchard’s annoyed voice snapped Sophie’s attention back to her.
Sophie sighed and glanced at the altar again. “We could find space…”
But Anna quickly plonked herself in front of it, arms crossed, and with a glare in her bright green eyes that said over my dead body.
Well, fantastic. And shooting Anna an evil look, Sophie cleared her throat and tried bargaining. “They’re… um… unique flowers, Mrs Buchard…”
“Orchids. They’re orchids.”
“Oh, I see.”
Mrs Buchard tottered forward until she was eye level with Sophie’s shoulder. “I made this especially for you, my dear.” She gave Sophie a gummy smile. “Your mother’s been telling everyone how she despairs you’ll ever find yourself a nice young man. Twenty-five and still not chosen, and now with your younger sisters coming to attention too. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Sophie’s cheeks flamed, but the old woman wasn’t done. “These will solve your troubles. It’s said that keeping a purple orchid in a maiden’s sight will quickly bring her true love to her. And in my ninety-two years, I haven’t seen it fail.” The beady eyes squidged up slyly. “It’s how I found mine.”
Sophie stared at her. Old Mr Buchard had died two years ago. Sure, that had been one long and successful marriage, and who didn’t want that? But for heaven’s sake, the ‘not chosen one’? Really? The entire village and her mother were labelling her as so desperate, they were even resorting to magical orchids now.
The music changed again. Dreams of Love died a violent death and The Pink Panther bonged onstage.
And as if that triggered an idea in her, Mrs Buchard gave Sophie another winning smile. “Why don’t you keep these orchids by that organ of yours? Then you and everyone can see them, and you’ll be swept off your feet in no time. There’s no reason why a pretty thing like you shouldn’t be attracting attention.”
“I’m not sure I’m looking for attention, Mrs Buchard,” Sophie said faintly, as Kitty’s Pink Panther made Anna glower in the direction of the organ and mouth ‘Are you crazy?’
Keep the dratted flowers on the organ, her own little corner of the church? No thank you. Not in a million Sundays.
“Of course you want attention!” Mrs Buchard snapped. “Now that your best friend has married, you don’t want to wither on the vine, do you?”
“I don’t want to wither anywhere.”
But even though she was overjoyed for Molly, who’d found her true love in Jake and jetted off on her Paris honeymoon a week ago, Sophie couldn’t help the twinge of envy that reminded her she was stuck here in Appleby, alone, while her childhood friend had an exciting new life and love ahead of her.
“Then do something about it,” Mrs Buchard said, poking her stick meaningfully at the orchids in Sophie’s hands. “You won’t be pretty forever, you know.”
Sophie grappled with her patience. ‘Pretty’ belonged to her sisters who had every young man in Appleby swooning over them.
Life wasn’t fair sometimes…