Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE

"I do not truly wish for all my dreams to come true. After all, nightmares are one type of dream." —Diary of a Substitute Countess

Spitalfields, London's East End, 1871

For one blessed moment I was beautiful. The flickering gaslights of Church Street illuminated my reflection in a window, and I gasped at the vision of loveliness framed on the grimy pane of Bryn and Saunders Textiles. I paused and twirled my hair up, looking with wonder at the whole of me in this luscious borrowed gown—shapely, trim, and utterly feminine. For the first time in my life, my willowy body was fitted in a garment with shape and form.

Mercy gracious, I looked like a normal woman.

A flash of vanity lighted my heart, but it was snuffed by chilly fear a moment later. The grim reflection of a fine- suited gentleman lurked behind my image in the window, moving

steadily toward me. He must be coming for the gown and shoes.

With a shiver, I dropped my upswept hair and slipped into the shadows of the building, heart thudding with powerful force as I hurried away. The stranger's shoes clicked on the damp street behind me, splatting over little rivulets of rainwater as they moved toward me with purpose. I had only meant to borrow them and return them before they were missed, but what could I do now—strip down to my dirty chemise and run through the streets?

"You there." His low voice thudded through my senses, sparking me into action.

I sprinted past my rag cart and down a narrow, unlit street. I never should have touched the thing. The gown had been lying across a chair in the Hollingsworths' laundry cellar, and the maid had left me alone with it while she'd gone to fetch the castoffs for me. Once I glimpsed the ivory organza, and the little jeweled slippers cast under a stool, I hadn't the strength to leave them alone. I'd intended to return them within minutes. An hour at most.

Yet there was no point in stopping for explanations, for I was a rag woman, as much a castoff as the rags I peddled. People called me Ragna, a cruel twist on my real name, Raina. I sprinted with all my might, loose rocks skittering under my feet as I hurtled through the shadows, dodging the yellow glow of streetlights. I stumbled as one of those ridiculous slippers came loose, and I kicked it off, darting on one shoe and bare toes into the first alley I saw. I stumbled into the dark and 'thunk—' my shins collided with something wooden, sending me sprawling over the broken cobblestones in a pile of crinoline and mud.

Miserable crates.

My pursuer turned the corner into the alley too, and I glanced back to find myself in a dead end with walls surrounding me on three sides, the man blocking my only escape and closing the distance between us. Cornered, I wrenched the other jeweled shoe off and held it aloft. The long, dark shadow of the man approached with steady confidence, and I realized he'd kill me and 'then' drag my dead body to the constable. Defeat stole over me as I gripped the accidentally pilfered shoe. I'd survived twenty- two years in this slum, fought off every evil around me like a cornered tiger, only to be hanged for this—a mere moment of weakness.

I scrambled back into the alley's shadow as the steady rhythm of his approaching footsteps continued. Rooted to the spot by fear, I prayed to God that the foreboding stranger who most certainly did not belong in this section of London would simply ignore the pile of finery tangled in long limbs and move on.

Yet it seemed God had other plans, for the man strode through the dark right up to me, the tips of his shiny leather shoes coming to a stop before the hem of the once- white gown. I looked up into the finest face I ever remembered seeing inside of Spitalfields as the gaslights along the main street highlighted his confident features. Fear drowned my voice into silence as the fine gent crouched before me with a conspiratorial smile and held out the shoe I'd abandoned.

"Pardon me, have you lost a glass slipper?"

Shock pulsed through me. His handsome blond curls caught the moon's glow as a smile warmed his face. I forced myself to breathe.

He reached toward my dirty bare foot and his nearness sent me scrambling upright, leveling a glare at him as I brushed smudges of mud off my bare arm.

Men grew uncomfortably brazen as the sun set over this cramped little section of town. Did he think his fine appearance would earn whatever he wanted from me? "Thank you kindly for the shoe, sir, but if you'll excuse me." I felt the sting of my words, but I'd lived long enough to know that kindness from strangers must be clearly snubbed. Anything less would find a girl helpless and ruined.

"You are excused." But he merely rose to stand before me, remaining in my path with his arms crossed over his chest. He tipped his head and smiled down at me. "Are you all right, then? No harm came from your tumble?"

"Perfectly well, thank you." I smoothed the limp dress over my body and attempted to duck around him, but he stepped easily in front of me.

"If you'll give me but a moment, I believe I can help."

Help, indeed. "You're blocking my way."

...

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