Today's Reading

"Or perhaps enticing you to take an entirely new one." He lowered his voice. "No woman ought to live this way."

"Hoping to save the lot of us poor folk, then? That'll take a fair bit of time, sir, and all your fortune." I watched him, breathing hard and poised to escape this odd encounter at the first chance. Whatever it was he offered, it could hardly be chivalrous.

"Won't you give me but a moment of your time? I only wish to help, and I've a splendid opportunity in mind."

"I'm not in need of one." I shoved past him and limped toward the main street on two sticks of throbbing pain but my chin up, leaving this darkly clad stranger with as much conviction as any high- bred lady might. When it came to these sorts of men, don't run and they won't chase—every Spitalfields lass knew the rule, but this was my first chance to test the old adage.

But even as I walked away, the word 'opportunity' settled into my mind and ignited a bloom of fanciful notions. They came almost unbidden, for I had been born with both a spirited imagination and a life that demanded regular escape into it.

I slowed and snuck another glance behind me. The odd stranger appeared both sober and sane. His trim gray cutaway coat with perfect black buttons contrasted sharply with the surrounding grime and decay, and made me both suspicious and fascinated in whatever drove him to continue pursuing me.

I strode on with my head high, some wicked part of me willing him to catch up and quench my curiosity. A few paces later, he did at least grant the first part of that wish. His shoes 'splat- splatted' over the rain pooled in the ruts of the cobbled road, and he again stepped before me, halting my progress. "I noticed you did not say no." The defined 'M' of his upper lip uncurled into an enticing smile as he held out the little jeweled shoe.

"Only because I cannot bring myself to take you seriously."

"No, it's more than that. Admit it—some little part of you desperately wants to hear what sort of adventure this stranger is attempting to offer you."

I dropped my gaze, for surely my entire personality must be in vivid display upon my face. How else could he have spoken so directly into my secret heart? His smoothly spoken word "adventure" inflamed a desire in me so great, it tempted me to cast aside everything I knew and follow him.

"I've passed hundreds of other women in need before now, but you're the first to catch my attention, to inspire me to do more." He paused when I remained silent, cocking his head at a charming angle. "You seem to doubt my sincerity. Shall I tell you more specifically what I find so enchanting about you?"

The dress—it must be this magical dress. I touched its wilted skirts as my fickle heart struggled to remain aloof. "I'll not believe you. You're either lying or...or mad."

"What a monstrous thing to say to someone who's just paid you a compliment." He offered his arm with a smile. "Your punishment is that you must endure my company for the duration of your walk home."

Unease sliced through me at these words and I stepped back. The man would not come near the flat occupied only by myself and an elderly widow. "I bid you good evening, sir." Tingling with fear—or maybe excitement—I turned, but he laid a hand on the wall to bar me from leaving. The effect was surprisingly arresting.

"What if I could manage a respectable position for you at a magnificent estate, among the finest gowns and fields of flowers, and all you had to do was come with me and step into it?"

His words pulled at me at the heart level, where a love of beauty was buried, yet I resisted with all my might. If only he knew how he tortured me. "I couldn't simply walk away from—"

"From what, all this?" He spread wide his arms in the dank alley thick with the odor of trapped moisture. "Come, what would you be leaving behind, truly? Have you a family at home? A respectable man waiting for you?"

In an instant, images of the man I loved engulfed my heart with a familiar pain. My mind saw him as he was years ago, swinging upside down from a rusted stair rail, fueling our lives with music and joy, saluting his farewell with a lopsided grin from the 'Maiden Faire' as it sailed into the fog. That dear face and the marvelous personality behind it, forever gone with the sunken ship.

Oh yes, I had a man. A splendid, big- hearted, gallant one who was no less mine simply because he was dead.

But that wasn't what he meant, of course. I fisted my hands against the wall and forced myself to answer over the wave of fresh pain. "I suppose not." My parents were dead, all my older siblings long gone from Spitalfields, and my younger brother Paul was stationed somewhere in the West Indies with no desire to return.

And why would he? Nothing about Spitalfields could ever feel like home, even to those who lived here. Even my rag cart was now lost to me, abandoned in my haste. I studied the man's waiting face, tempted to cut the slender threads that bound me to this place and walk into whatever it was he offered. I cradled the idea in my mind even as I searched feebly for reasons—any reason—that I should refuse him.

...

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