"That's long past. We've been nothing but rag vendors since I was small." It was the cost of progress. If only those merchants who'd begun importing silks knew what their prosperity had cost an entire community of local artisans. The Huguenots were no longer a respected immigrant community spinning silk from behind tall, sunny windows. I barely remembered what it was like to wear ribbons in my hair as I recited my lessons in the schoolroom. We'd never been as wealthy as our ancestors, but we'd been respectable.
"Ah, but you've got a touch of the old blood in you, coursing through like a vein of gold. The way you talk, the look of your face...There's something noble about you, lass. Finally someone else stood up and took notice of it too, and you'll not refuse the brilliant man who's had the sense to see it." She lifted sharp old eyes to meet mine. "I'll miss you something fierce, but don't you ever come back. You've always belonged somewhere better'n here."
I frowned. "What do they want with the likes of me at an abbey, anyway? It's an odd place to find a position."
Her eyes sparkled beneath the frizz of gray hair. "Did Abraham require the good Lord to give him a description of the place where he was being sent? You'd best go and find out."
When she took herself away to her little cot in the corner again, I turned back toward the distant station where I was supposed to meet the mysterious man on the morrow. For years that station had symbolized the hope of Sully's return, but now it meant the opposite. Leaving on that train would sever the last connection we had—a lifetime of memories in Spitalfields. Could I give up that dream to risk another?
It struck me then that I'd never see on his face the great love he wrote of, never hear him say it in his own voice. For years we'd been the best of friends, and somewhere along the way I'd fallen deeply in love with the man so full of life and music, but I hadn't dared to hope he'd return it. Until he left for sea after a row with his father and the letters started to come.
Oh, those letters!
Once again I drew them out of the little broken place in the wall and flipped open the first, sinking back against the blanket in the windowsill.
'My dear Raina,' it began, and that was enough to saturate my heart, for his every action since I'd known him had proven I was exactly that. He was one of the few who called me by my true name, and his use of it always touched me. The rest of the letter was doused with words from a passionate heart that had lain hidden behind the playful, lively exterior I'd always known. Why had he never spoken these words aloud before he'd left? He couldn't have feared rejection from me, for I'd loved him fervently before I even understood what the word meant.
What would I do, come morning's light? I could go two ways—one was bleak, offering nothing, and the other was beckoning me away to adventure, which had been my weakness since childhood. It lured and fascinated me, causing me trouble and constantly disrupting the ruts of life. Though now there was no Sully to rescue me from my scrapes.
But neither would there be if I remained in Spitalfields, pining away after his memory.
So it was that I found myself taking one final walk through Spitalfields the following morning as the sun dawned over a new day and a new life, a limp carpetbag swinging against my leg, anxiety and excitement chasing each other through my veins. I slipped the carefully freshened gown and slippers back into the laundry cellar of Mrs. Hollingsworth and turned toward the station. Widow McCall had made the situation seem so natural, almost inevitable, but now that I reached my destination, the oddness of it all pricked me again.
As the sun heated my skin, I stood on the platform until the throng of travelers parted to reveal the stranger who had slipped into my life and upended my future, and I tensed at the sight of such a finely dressed man smiling at me. What was that odd sensation he elicited in me with a mere look? I couldn't tell if it was thrilling or scary. Either way, it was addictive.
He strode over and, with a small smile of victory, scooped up my bag. As I watched him stride away with everything I owned, panic unfurled inside. I hugged my patched old shawl about me, a tangible reminder of who I truly was, because it seemed I'd forgotten. I dreamed so often of normal clothing and a world of acceptance, but I still awoke every morning—including this one—as Ragna the seller of rags.
Yet this gent wanted me. Quite ardently. Something was not right.
I caught up to him as steam huffed from under the train. "I don't even know your name."
"It is Prendergast. Victor Eugene Prendergast. I am the private solicitor for Rothburne Abbey." He considered me with amusement. "Would you also like to see my character references?"
I looked up into his tolerant face. "What is Rothburne? What could I possibly do at an abbey?"
"It's a monastic fortress renovated into a private estate. It's now the country home of the Countess of Enderly."