His smile revealed perfect white teeth. Too perfect. "Have you ever heard of Rothburne Abbey? It's far from here, where green fields spread out like gentle carpet and flowers bloom on every doorstep. The position pays one hundred a year."
I coughed. "'Pounds'?" My brain immediately sifted that sum into a thousand possible uses. First, I would have the pure pleasure of writing to Paul that he could keep the pittance he sent me out of his pay, that his sister was finally earning her independence and would no longer be his burden to bear. "I'm naught more than a rag woman, you know."
"I see so much more in you, in that restrained fire in your eyes, that poise in your spine, and I see what could be."
My lashes fluttered at the weight of the temptation before me. I could work endlessly and never see reward, or I could step into this opportunity and fill both my pockets and my soul. Still, anything that seemed too good to be true usually was.
"At least come see it. You owe yourself that much. You already know what it is to be here, barely surviving and cowering from every stranger. Empty pockets, empty belly, empty future. There's so much more you can do with your life."
I stared at him as a parched person eyes an icy lemonade.
"Now that I have you sufficiently intrigued, I'll leave you to your normal routine and see if you still find it worth holding so tightly. Tomorrow morning I'll be at the train. I pray the night will not torment your mind to a great degree with indecision." With a sweeping bow, he handed me the little jeweled shoe, replaced his hat, and followed his shadow back into the darkness from which he had come.
A powerful shiver ran through me. I slipped on the shoe and paced home, my sore feet crossing back and forth over the drain gutter running down the center of the rain- drenched street. All manner of rationalizations flooded my tired brain, tugging me this way and that.
Soon I ducked beneath the flapping sheet strung across my alley and stood before the broken shutters and ugly chipped brick of my tenement building. I was hemmed in with no evidence of God's creation around except the starless sky above, but it was my life. My reality. What right had I to hope for more?
With a sigh, I lifted my skirt to climb the steps and glimpsed the jeweled slipper he'd left with me, inviting me into a Cinderella story. I found myself surprisingly immune to his charm on the whole, having already spent my entire heart on one man with no desire to retrieve it, but the hope of his offered adventure flared through my heart. I looked up and suddenly my building seemed ten times more wretched and grimy than it had when I'd left at dawn. With a whole world of possibilities offered to me outside this cramped district, it suddenly felt impossible to remain here.
I settled before the open window that night with a view of the distant train station, churning the decision through my mind. If I left, that meant admitting Sully wasn't coming home. His ship was gone and my Sully with it. He'd be my most treasured memory, captured in my mind like a miniature in a locket—his wide smile, the jaunty blue cap he always wore. I'd made it for him in return for him teaching me to read so many years ago, and he'd worn it so often it seemed a part of him.
I jerked as Widow McCall's voice carried through our flat from her curtained- off cot, and I swiped madly at my tears.
"Oh, and look at you, lassie! I've never seen you looking so fine, even if the gown do have a bit of extra trimmings to it." Her shrunken form sailed through the room to finger the mud stains on the lovely skirt, and the frown that contorted her warted features made me smile. "And just what is my li'l lass doing out after dark? Only God is invincible, you know. Ach, you and trouble ought to be the closest chums, the way you always go together."
"This time my trouble may have brought about some good." I unleashed the tale, and with every turbulent sentence, the encounter seemed more unbelievable. I told her about Rothburne Abbey and showed her the little slippers, wondering if I'd stumbled into the pages of a fairy tale on my way home. What other reason would a gentleman have for imploring the woman who sold castoff rags to follow him to a life of splendor? It wasn't as if I even had experience in service or letters to recommend me.
"I shouldn't do it, should I? It's too odd. Too risky."
Her eyes glistened. "Precisely why you should, love. This place holds you in its grip, but it doesn't define you. It's as if fate is plucking your pretty little self out of this mess and placing you where you belonged from the start."
"Oh no, I—"
"Now, now, don't argue with an old woman. I have eyes, don't I?" She reached out and rubbed the ends of my curls between her gnarled fingers. "A sort of queen is what you are, stepping through the rubbish like you was balancing a crown on that pretty head of yours. I suppose it's in your blood, being one of them wealthy Huguenot silk people."