Brisbane, March 1914
HE CAME to the counter at the same time every day with his small bundle of letters and a shy smile. I tried to ensure I was the one to serve him, but I had to be careful. Mr. Steinberg watched all of us, checking the large watch on his fob chain regularly. I had already been warned about being too friendly with the customers.
The young man stepped forward, his earnest blue gaze fastened on my face. He passed the letters over the counter and waited while I calculated the postage owed. I flipped through the stamp book, tearing the correct number of stamps from the right sections. His hand landed on mine as I pushed the envelopes back across the counter, his warm, slim fingers sending a jolt of awareness through me. A surreptitious glance showed Mr. Steinberg frowning at Edgar, the other teller. I raised my gaze and smiled at the young man in front of me as I slowly withdrew my hand.
“I’d like to send a telegram today.”
I nodded, assuming my professional visage again. “Of course, sir,” I murmured as I reached under the counter for the book of telegram forms. “Who is it to?”
He leaned over the counter, creating a cell of intimacy that quickened my breathing. I bent my head lower over the paper and felt a couple of strands of my hair catch in his carefully styled blond locks. A shadow appeared at my side, the thick odor of cheap cigars coming with it.
“Is everything all right here, Mr. Harrison?”
I lifted my head a little but didn’t stand straight. It would gain me a stern talking to before I finished for the day, but I didn’t care. Bent over the counter as I was filled my lungs with the green-grass scent of the man opposite.
“Mr. Harrison is most ably assisting me with the wording of a telegram.” The young man’s voice carried the surety of youth in its light tenor.
Mr. Steinberg murmured something to the man opposite me and moved away again. I looked up into laughing blue eyes that invited the same response of me. My lips twitched before I remembered my supervisor and once again dropped my gaze to the paper between us.
The wording of the telegram took an inordinate amount of time and required several sheets of paper from the telegram book. The young man was still frowning at the cost when we’d reduced the message as much as we could.
“Perhaps I could suggest something, Mr. George.” By now I knew his name from the information at the top of the telegram. He looked up at me curiously. “Might I suggest you simply say you are well and will write soon? That way your folks will know you are well, and they will happily await a longer missive.”
Mr. George glanced at the large clock on the wall behind me and gasped. “I hadn’t realized we’d spent so much time on the telegram. My lunch break is almost over.” Those blue eyes caught and held mine again. I was helpless to look away from his solemn expression. “I always do the mail before my lunch break and stop by the river before returning to work.”
My breath snagged, and I glanced around for Mr. Steinberg before swallowing. It was a risk that could bring about my termination and worse, but I knew I’d do it anyway. “My lunch break usually starts around this time. Perhaps we’ll see each other along the bank one day.”
It was a vague comment, promising nothing, so I was taken aback when Mr. George grinned at me. It transformed his expression from serious and focused to a joy that brought beads of sweat popping out on my brow.
“I’ll look for you tomorrow.” His smile died, replaced by endearing embarrassment. “Of course, only if you….” His voice faded at the same time color flooded his face. “I mean—”
I glanced to the side again. Mr. Steinberg shifted on his feet. Never a good sign.
“Tomorrow it is.” I smiled. “About this time?”
He nodded eagerly and gathered his stamped letters, ready to drop them in the box.
“What about the telegram?” I asked.
Color washed his cheeks again. “Oh, I think I’ll follow your advice and write instead. I’ll be able to give them all the news then.” He ducked his head and hurried from the post office.
A throat clearing beside me wiped the grin from my face, and I stood straighter.