By Beverley Oakley
Another job in another grand, fashionable West End townhouse, Grace thought wearily as she paused on the step of the hansom cab the jarvey put down for her. Until desperation had forced her to London, Grace had spent her entire life in the country working for a family who, like their rich and titled friends, decamped to the capital for the sitting of parliament and to further their ambitions through the social pleasures of the season—probably peppered with clandestine visits by girls such as herself.
No doubt she was the icing on the cake for a spoiled rich boy destined for some dreary, horsey-looking wife.
She was surprised when the lady of the house answered. But then, absolute discretion would be required, Grace reasoned, slanting a glance up at her from beneath the little spotted veil which hung from her neat flower-festooned straw hat—a suitably concealing millinery confection she was immediately grateful for as she found herself staring into the familiar cold blue eyes of the woman who’d once paid her wages.
“Hurry now. I shall take you immediately to my son, Miss—?”
“Fortune.” It came out as a thin whisper as fear of recognition skittered up Grace’s spine. For a moment she thought she was going to faint. She gripped her reticule tightly and forced herself to drag in an even breath.
Oh God, of all the people …
No, she couldn’t faint. Too much depended upon it, she warned herself as she forced steel into her spine. Fortunately her unlikely procuress seemed to have as much desire to further acquaint herself with her son’s special indulgence as Grace did the woman who’d cast her onto the pavement after five years of loyal service three years before.
“Follow me, Miss Fortune.” Her former employer led the way up a flight of stairs, not turning as she continued, “I’m assured my son will find you pleasing yet professional enough that he will be in no danger of forming an attachment. Not that there’s any danger of David doing that.”
David? Grace could barely keep up. Her feet felt encased in lead slippers. And yet, what was her alternative?
Shame weighed heavy on her shoulders. Oh no, David the Golden Boy had an idealised vision of women’s virtue. He’d made clear his contempt and disgust for creatures like herself. No, this interview would not be long.
Passing a housemaid, Grace turned her head away, the fear of discovery almost debilitating. Although the fearsome widow Mrs Willowbank maintained two establishments, Grace knew her former employer took her personal dresser and at least one other servant from her Cotswolds estate to her London townhouse for the season. While Grace was no longer the Barton Manor parlourmaid they’d remember, she knew if one of the servants were to look more closely at her, like Brice the butler, or her old friend Jenny, they’d see through the trappings in an instant. Grace dare not risk eye contact with anyone.
Meeting David, of course, was unavoidable. Sick anticipation of his inevitable reaction made her heart thunder in her ears and sweat prickle her skin as they turned towards the sleeping quarters.
Breathe evenly and smile. Grace remembered receiving the same advice when she’d had to fill in for the footman at table during one of Mrs Willowbank’s dinner parties and when she’d first undergone training as one of Madame Chambon’s “girls”.
Now her carefully cultivated facade of disdain all but deserted her. For a moment she contemplated picking up her constricting skirts and simply fleeing for her very life.
But to lose courage now had consequences: her likely return to the dungheap of society, inevitably to become a diseased creature vying with the fresh dollymops to the capital who supplemented their poor earnings selling their bodies.
Nor would she ever know the answer to the greatest mystery of her life: the reasons behind the betrayal that had thrust her into this despised life of vice. For wasn’t this her chance at last?