London, November 1761
Shivering in the brisk wind cutting straight through her thin gown, Violet Carlton trudged across the small dirt-packed backyard, littered with tufts of dead grass and scattered brown and red leaves. Teeth clenched to stop their chattering, she mounted the short three steps of the back stoop, straightened her shoulders, and rapped three times on the dull gray door of the silvery clapboard house. Beyond the weathered board fence of the house next door a dog barked, but no one stirred. No prying eyes to witness her shame.
The door opened a crack, and a lad of about twelve stuck his head out. “What you doin’ ’ere this time o’ day?”
“I would like to speak with Madame Vestry, please.” Perhaps she should have waited until later in the morning. Such an establishment would obviously keep late hours. But the ache in her belly had forced her here as soon as the sun had risen.
“She’s still sleep. Come back later today.” He started to push the door closed but Violet rammed her boot between it and the jamb. The boy kept shoving, squeezing her foot until she winced in pain, but she gritted her teeth, put her shoulder to the door and pushed back. If she didn’t do this now, she wouldn’t have the courage, or the strength, to come back.
“I need to see her now.” She raised her voice, and threw her weight against the rough boards. Despite her small stature, she was stronger. He staggered back and she fell into a narrow back foyer with a row of coat hooks and the devastating yeasty smell of baking bread. Her mouth watered and her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t eaten for days.
Blond hair straggling from under a mobcap, a girl, maybe fourteen, rushed into the room. “What the hell’s going on in here Willie?” She wiped her hands on her apron, streaked with flour and grease. Warily, her gaze shifted from Willie to Violet. “Who are you?”
“I’ve come to see Madame Vestry.” Violet focused on the girl’s narrowed eyes. “I need to talk to her, please.” Her heart gave a sickening lurch.
In one practiced glance, the girl took in her appearance, from what used to be her second-best hat to the rumpled and stained deep-purple dress to her scuffed black boots, and sniffed. “I see you do.”
The appraisal stung, but was probably fair. She’d come down fast in the months since her grandmother’s death. Her possessions long gone, her wardrobe—reduced to two dresses and a well-worn cloak—had been sold, leaving her with only the dress she stood up in. These clothes wouldn’t fetch a shilling in a secondhand shop now.
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