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Poughkeepsie, New York
"Susanna, my room is cold," a nasally voice called from down the hall. "Add some coal to my fire."
"Why don't I just burn you instead?" Susanna muttered under her breath as she paused from gathering the ashes in another room. She'd just asked Annabelle if she needed anything five minutes ago. But like every morning, the spoiled Yankee princess waited until Susanna was knee-deep in another task to come up with some trivial demand.
Be grateful you have a roof over your head and food in your belly. She dumped the last shovelful into the bucket and brushed the stray ashes off her long skirts. She was grateful her aunt ran one of the boardinghouses for the Vassar students and had given her and her brother a place to live in exchange for their help around the house. There were some days, though, where Susanna would have preferred starving in her burned-out shell of a house in South Carolina.
Days like today, when she was the target of Annabelle's game.
She marched next door with the shovel still in her hand, her anger waning with each step until she was able to stretch a civil smile across her lips when she entered the room. She dug out a mountain of coal from the bucket, pulled back the screen, and tossed it in. The screen slammed shut of its own accord as though it, too, was perturbed with the room's occupant.
"Anything else, Miss Annabelle?" she asked in a flat voice.
"No, thank you." Annabelle pretended to bury her beaked nose in her book, but Susanna could still feel her eyes watching from over the pages. When she reached the door, Annabelle called out, "Wait. It's going to take a while for the room to adequately warm up. Fetch me the throw from my bed."
Susanna jerked to a stop. This game was treading on her last nerve. All the girls who lived in this boardinghouse played it, but Annabelle was the queen of them all. After all, she'd been there the longest at five years, earning the largest and most luxurious of the rooms.
Of course, most of the other girls completed their college education in four years.
Susanna plucked the small quilt off the bed and dropped it on her lap, then headed toward the door.
"Come back here and spread it across my legs for me."
Susanna didn't break her stride. If she continued to cater to Annabelle's every whim, she'd be in the room until sunset. "I'm terribly sorry, but I have to finish my chores, and you have two sets of perfectly good arms and legs of your own."
"You mean unlike your poor brother?" Annabelle shot to her feet and followed her into the hallway, her perfectly coiled curls bouncing like Medusa's snakes as she moved. "If he hadn't been Rebel trash, then maybe he'd still have his leg."
Susanna tightened her grip on the shovel. Images of beating Annabelle's face black and blue teased her, and her hand rose in the air. "Take that back."
Annabelle flinched, her arms forming a flimsy shield in front of her clenched eyes. "I'm telling your aunt about this."
The threat hung in the air like the nor'easters Susanna had come to hate during the last two winters in Poughkeepsie, driving the air from her lungs. She lowered the shovel and hid her fear behind a mask of bravado. "Fine. Go ahead. You'll have Lavinia cleaning your room again."