The day Hope Mathews' life changed forever dawned crisp and clear. She awoke, clutching her kitten, lying on a cot in a corner garret of a steep gabled four story building. Her home, a substantial structure comprised of three linked houses, all of them leaning drunkenly over the street below, was at the centre of a zig zag web of side streets and alleys, some barely wide enough for two pedestrians to pass. It was late autumn. The metallic bite of winter was in the air and frost patterned the rooftops, making the city beyond her windows shimmer like some alabaster-and-diamond fairy land. She imagined she was a princess, trapped high in a tower, waiting for a handsome rescuer to charge the battlements and take her away.
The bells started ringing well before dawn, invading the gloomy quiet generally reserved for bakers starting their day and link boys ending theirs. The sleepy city was stirring, and there was already a bustle in the streets below. The Lord Protector and his army had been sighted. Fresh from victories in Ireland and Scotland, the young Charles Stuart driven from England's shores, they were returning home. Despite the Protector's edicts against gambling, roistering and drink, soldiers did as they had always done. As the good people of London, deprived of any spectacle since the beheading of their former king, set out early to secure a place along the route to watch the coming parade, every shopkeeper, winemaker, tavern worker and whore were making preparations for what promised to be a very lucrative day.
Drury Lane, on the eastern edge of Covent Garden, was one of the most colorful areas in London even in these drab times. Her own home was marked by a proud fighting cock, strutting past a golden haired siren with wide blue eyes and crimson lips. Her mother boasted to one and all that The Merry Strumpet was listed in The Wandering Whore, and as its proprietor, she was noted therein as one of London's best known bawds. It was one of the establishments counting on profits this day, and she needed to escape immediately or be trapped running errands, raking cinders and cleaning floors, missing the spectacle entirely.
She slipped down the stairs and ducked through an alley, joining a laughing band of urchins who greeted her as one of their own. The sun had risen, the throng was thickening, and they weaved in and out of jostling crowds, nimbly dodging cartwheels and angry merchants as they stuffed their pockets with filched fruit and biscuits. She lost her companions as she approached the city centre, their loose-knit brotherhood disbanding as each sought a perch from which to watch the show.
The steady drumming in the distance was getting louder by the minute and she jumped up and down, trying to see past the people in front of her. Spying a low-hung balcony, she forced her way through a river of people and pulled herself up, kicking and squirming, wrapping her arms around a beam. She ignoring the protests of its already cramped inhabitants as she positioned herself so she had a bird's eye view of the street below.
First came a vast army of grim-faced foot pikemen in their shining breastplates, pot helmets and buff leather coats, marching in rigid formation, their weapons bristling as the air rang with the tramping of booted feet. Then came Cromwell himself at the head of the Ironsides, his famous company of horse, but there was none of the pageantry and color, the smiles and waves and dashing displays of a royalist parade. They passed by, row upon row, a faceless army with nothing to distinguish one from another, and the cheers that greeted them were dutiful rather than spontaneous. It was clearly a display of might and power. Veiled threat and stark reminder more than celebration, but any kind of public gathering was scare in the city these days and any spectacle was preferable to none at all.
She was beginning to wonder if the adventure had been worth the bother when a prancing black horse caught her attention. It frothed and fretted, tossing its head and stepping sideways, breaking an otherwise perfect formation, yet its rider did not seem inclined to curb it. Unlike his fellows, who looked straight ahead, he seemed to scan the crowd with interest. Tall and broad shouldered, he managed the beast with ease. He wore no uniform and looked more like a cavalier than a Puritan. He must be an officer, and a wellborn one at that. Her heart thudded with girlish excitement. From a distance he appeared to be young and handsome, and much like the gallant rescuer she imagined in her all her daydreams. It was hard to get a good look at him though, with his wide-brimmed hat pulled low, obscuring his features.
Interest piqued, she leaned out farther, trying to get a better look, when a sudden scuffle behind her knocked her off balance and sent her tumbling to the street below. She lurched to her feet a moment before a shod hoof would have crushed her fingers, only to back into the hindquarters of a startled horse. When it shied away from her, its rider cursing, she slipped and almost fell again. Surrounded on all sides she dodged and darted, wooden shoes slipping on the muddy cobbles, trying to remain upright as she was buffeted from beast to beast. As her panic grew someone snarled and cuffed her and one man kicked her between the shoulders, growling for her to get out of the way. People were trampled to death in London every day and if she fell again
A strong hand gripped the back of her dress and swung her up and into the air as easily as if she were a small child. Her rescuer deposited her in his lap, holding her tight with one arm, apparently heedless of his fine clothes and her muddy form.
"Apologies, my lady, for the rough handling and the loss of your shoes, but you seemed in imminent danger of being trampled."
It was him! The man she'd watched but moments before. The man from her daydreams. He was real. He had come to her rescue. She had never been at a loss for words before, but now, when she desperately wanted to say something witty, charming, memorable, she was tongue-tied. "I...I...I..."
"There now, lass. Take a deep breath and don't worry. You've had a scare and need some time to gather your wits."
She almost moaned in frustration. He thought her a witless fool!
"You're shivering. Sit close now, and share my warmth." She was cold and she had nearly died. She sank against him, her arms wrapped tight around his waist, enjoying the feeling of comfort and safety, the strength she felt in his arms and chest, and the sound of another heart beating, just inches from her own. As he tucked his cloak around she heard cheering from the crowd. She'd had no idea anyone was aware of her plight or cared if they were. Now she beamed and waved to them and they roared their approval.
Her companion chuckled. "I think we have brought some entertainment to an otherwise dull morning. I'm afraid you'll have to ride it out with me the rest of the way. There's no place to put you down safely until we reach the palace gates. Will that suit?"
She nodded, shy for the first time in her life.
"Excellent! You're safe now, lass. And you've the best seat in the house. Relax and enjoy the view.
She felt like a princess in his arms, and as unlikely as it might seem, she decided he was her prince. Why else had he passed her way this day? Why had she noticed him right away? How was it she had fallen just as he was passing and what made him save her when no one else had even tried? It didn't matter if she found nothing to say this moment, for fate had brought him to her and he was destined to be hers.
Even so, she still wasn't sure what he looked like. His hat was pulled low keeping his face in shadow. She could tell he was young. She could tell he was handsome from his strong chin, firm mouth, and white smile, but she couldn't see his eyes.
When they reached the courtyard outside the palace gates he used his horse as a bulwark against the crowd, making a little island in a corner by the wall. He dismounted first, then lifted her from the saddle as if she were light as air. He grinned and wiped a speck of dirt from her nose. Her face blazed with embarrassment, but his smile was kind and amused. "You're hard to see, lass, under all of this." He rubbed a dab of mud from her cheek with one finger. "But if you're half as lovely as those eyes you must be a vision." He took her hand and bowed, as though she were a great lady then slipped half a crown in her palm. "To replace your shoes, my lady."
"Thank you, my lord. For saving my life." They were the only words she could find. Her heart was pounding so loud it was a wonder he didn't hear it. "No lord I, lass. Just a humble soldier who stumbled upon a pixie on the way home. To catch one must mean luck of some kind. Stay safe, girl, and wish me well."
She watched as he rode away. She didn't know his eyes, she didn't know his name, but she knew he was hers and she'd see him again. She caught one last glimpse of him as he passed through the castle gates. As if sensing her gaze upon him, he looked back at her and waved.
She started home with frozen toes, a smile she was sure would never go away, and the feeling she was walking on air. When she wasn't humming to herself she would break into laughter or sudden bursts of song. Halfway there she met two of her mother's ladies accompanied by one of the burly doormen. They hurried over breathless. They had been searching for her all morning. Her mother needed her at once.
She was hurried up to her room with a great deal of fussing and clucking only to find her mother waiting with a warm smile and a cup of hot chocolate. She eyed her warily and clutched her kitten defensively. Her mother was not one for kind gestures or maternal concern.
"Well here you are, lovey. And just in time. Today's a very special day for you indeed."
She blinked, confused. "What do you mean? I don't understand."
"You've grown up within these walls, girl. You understand. Today you take up your duties as a woman. You've had a roof over your head all these years and plenty to eat too. That's more than many a poor lamb in London can say. But you are a woman now. Your courses started last month. Your greatest possession besides beauty is your maidenhead. A jewel that is. A thing of great value. Something a woman can give only once, despite what certain lying sluts might do or say. But it needs proper management. Just like arranging a good marriage. Don't look so shocked, child!" She reached out a gnarled hand to pat her shoulder in an awkward and unconvincing display of motherly concern.
"You're a whore, my dear. Born into it right and proper, though I was married to your father for all that. You'd best get used to the idea because you can never be aught else. You've no breeding, no property, and there's no chance any decent man will have you. A girl like you won't ever be married and who would want it? Your own father was a useless bastard. But for all that you're a rare beauty, with his raven hair and very fine eyes indeed. And you've charm and a quick wit. Such gifts are wasted on a wife. She's no need of them to catch a man, provided she has money, and she's nay allowed to make use of them once she is married. Property she is. Broodmare and slave."
Hope was too shocked to speak. It was the longest conversation she'd ever had with this stranger who'd once been her mother, and it was not the awkward declaration of love she'd both dreaded and longed for. She blinked back tears, feeling like the world's biggest fool. She didn't keep me safe to protect me, but to add to my value. She wanted to feel contempt and hatred but she couldn't move past a soul-killing pain. I should have known. I should have known.
Her mother stroked her hair as she spoke, taking no notice of how it made her flinch. Is this how she recruits new girls? Stroking and cooing like a beady-eyed pigeon? Is this all I am to her?
"Now look here, at the pretty dress his lordship has sent you!"
The dress, with its white satin underskirt and sleeves shot through with silver braid, looked like a wedding dress but for the indecently low-cut bodice. She knew what it meant. There would be no prince for her. No choice. No happy ending.
"Which lord?" Her voice was barely a whisper.
"Let's leave that as a surprise for now. It will add authenticity to the undertaking." Taking her silence for acceptance, her mother rubbed her hands together and nodded briskly. "Good girl! The anticipation is building, child. We're to have an auction tonight and you are the prize. There's naught to fear. You've seen enough of what happens here to know that, and only my best gentlemen will take part. Remember what all the other girls have told you and use it well. You'll fetch a fine price, my dear. Half to you and half to the house. You'll be off to a grand start in life. No daughter of mine will be a common whore. You'll be a rich man's mistress. You're a lovely girl. Sharp and lively too. You'll climb higher than I ever dreamed or dared."
There must have been something; a flash in her eyes, the stubborn tilt of her chin that hinted at rebellion, because when her mother left she locked the door behind her and positioned a doorman in the corridor.
They bathed and perfumed her, and then tamed and combed her unruly hair so it fell like a dark silken river to her waist. Theyushered her into a paneled room where her mother and two of her "ladies" sat in attendance, as if she were a bride. There were at least five gentlemen present, though all she could see were their boots. She kept her eyes on the floor, willing them all to disappear, imagining if she but closed her eyes and opened them again the day would start anew.
But it didn't, and she stood red-faced and mute as they joked and murmured, waiting for the bidding to begin. There was no doubt as to the outcome. Sir Charles Edgemont would have her.
In the end, it was clear the auction had raised far more than even she had anticipated, and the poorly concealed smirk on her face and hard edged gleam of avarice in her eyes almost made Hope retch. Instead, she placed a delicate hand on Sir Charles' chest and leaned into him, shivering, tucking her head against his shoulder. His lips twisted in annoyance, but he released his grip on her wrist and removed his coat, wrapping it around her. She spoke for the first time since entering the room.
"You must only give her one half of it, my lord. For the rest was promised to me."
"You're as greedy and canny as your mother, girl," he growled. "If you're a virgin still, I'm Archbishop of Canterbury. But I'll have my money's worth from you nonetheless."
"Of course, Your Grace," she said with a curtsey. Amidst her mother's furious squawking and the laughter of the other men, a grim-faced Sir Charles bit back a reluctant chuckle, and bundled her out the door and into his waiting coach.
The day she met her own true love was the day her mother sold her. It was the day she lost all hope of him. The day her childhood ended. She never saw him again. She never spoke to her mother again, and she stopped believing in happy ever after. Her mother had named her Hope. It seemed a cruel jest, but she did the only thing she could do. She took the name and made it a talisman. She did what she needed to keep her own hopes alive. The day she left her mother's doorstep she stopped dreaming about what couldn't be, and started planning for what might. The only thing she couldn't stop was asking herself one question. What kind of parent puts a price on innocence and sells their child like a slave? It still had the power to steal her breath.
Nevertheless, what started as a cruel betrayal and felt like the end of the world was the start of a journey that transformed her into a well-spoken, smartly dressed, well-educated young woman. An accomplished dancer with a smattering of French and the attention of a monarch. How dramatic and shortsighted we are as children. Along the way she let go of her fantasies of true love and imaginary princes, and found herself a real one, with all his flaws and imperfections. If from time to time her heart ached for something more, for someone else, no one knew it but her.