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Life usually changes slowly, almost imperceptibly, as one day slides seamlessly into the next. And sometimes life changes in the blink of an eye, with only the turn of a door handle to demarcate the end of one life and the start of another.
Emily Clemens stood motionless in the street, an island of stillness amid the scurrying crowds, and stared at the wooden door in front of her. Clutching her reticule before her like a shield, as if to buffer herself from the change that turning the handle would bring, she twisted the straps around with cold fingers until they dug cruelly into her flesh.
Should she open the door and go inside? Or turn tail and walk away again through the crowds, her dignity intact, back to the school where she worked as an assistant teacher. Her position, though a modest one and very poorly paid, at least provided the basics of life, but there had to be more to life than just a roof over her head and barely enough to eat.
Just a few short months ago, stranded in the workhouse with too little to eat and no prospect of escape, she would have thought her current situation pure heaven. Now that she was managing to survive, her dreams were fast growing wings. The squalid despair of the workhouse still loomed too close for comfort. Mere survival was not enough for her anymore. She wanted to live. To experience everything the world had to offer.
She nudged at a loose cobblestone with the toe of her boot. Her best pair of boots, they were still new enough to pinch at her toes, and her heels were rubbed into blisters from the long walk through the busy streets.
Turn the doorhandle, or don't turn. The choice was simple when the problem was broken down to its most basic.
Slowly she turned the handle. It would be a pity if she were to cover her heels in weeping red blisters for nothing. She had come so far already. Just a bit more of a turn was all it would take.
"Keep it moving there." A hoarse voice broke through the general babble of the busy street and into her consciousness. "This ain't a public park, you know."
She whirled around, the handle returning to its original position. The voice belonged to a burly drover brandishing a whip as he maneuvered his cart through the narrow streets.
"Can't a body stop for a moment's rest?" she snapped back at him as she inched closer to the door to ease his passage.
"Not if she's in the middle of the street." He shook the reins, passing her with a few muttered curses. Whether they were aimed at her or at his sorry-looking nag, Emily wouldn't venture to guess.
The crowd had pushed her nearly right against the door. She could no longer make out the lettering over the shop front advertising "Mr. Twyford's Excellent Photographic Equipment and Services—all the way from the Americas." But then, she no longer needed to see it to know what it read. She had studied Mr. Twyford's card for so long she knew every swirl of the lettering by heart.
One of the passersby jostled her in the crowd. She regained her balance with a jerk, and one of her reticule straps snapped in two. She swore under her breath, a word that no lady ought to know, but which she had picked up in the workhouse. If she did not act now, she would regret it for the rest of her days. This choice wasnot being forced upon her. She wanted to change her life. A new path was opening for her, if only she had the strength to follow it.
Before she could change her mind, she once again lifted one gloved hand and without hesitation turned the handle, pushed open the door, and walked inside.
The shop front was small and dark, with little room for anything other than an oak desk and chair and the three large, battered mahogany filing cabinets lining one wall. The piles of books and photographic prints that covered the desk looked in imminent danger of collapse, while several of the filing drawers were half open with their papers spilling out onto the floor.
She paused, wondering if she was at the right place after all. The whole room was a picture of chaos, not the bustling business she had expected. Had Mr. Twyford's photographic studio moved in the last few days? Or worse, had Mr. Twyford gone back to the Americas to make his fortune there?
Just then she heard a noise from behind one of the side doors, and Mr. Twyford himself entered the cluttered office, wiping his mouth on a red-spotted pocket handkerchief.
His face broke out into a triumphant smile when he caught sight of her. "Ah, Miss Clemens." His nasal twang seemed hideously out of place in this very English room. "I am delighted to see you. I was beginning to wonder whether I would have to hunt you down to bring you here. Indeed, I was thinking it a shame that kidnapping is frowned upon in this otherwise excellent country of yours. And that your Metropolitan Police Force is so efficient."
She inclined her head tightly. Her decision was not a joking matter. "I did not plan tocome. But, as you can see, here I am . . ."
Sensing her annoyance, he cut her off without waiting for her to finish. "I was just having some luncheon. Will you come out to the back and eat with me?"
"I . . . I am not hungry. I did not bring any luncheon with me." In such moments as these, her poverty grated fiercely on her.
"No matter." He strode over to the door and flipped a couple of coins to one of the urchins lurking in the street outside. "Fetch me a meat pie and some more coffee from Mrs. Pattinger's stall on the corner. And make it quick."Mistress. Copyright ? by Leda Swann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.