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A Perfect Bride
Late March 1815
Devon St. James was in a dreadful fix.
Two days hence, the rent was due on the cellar room where she lived. Her landlord, Mr. Phillips, had raised it to an outrageous sum. Devon was both furious and amazed, for the room was scarcely able to accommodate a stool and the narrow bed she had shared with Mama before she died. To make matters worse, he'd informed her but yesterday, the wretch!
"Thieving monster," Devon muttered under her breath. She tugged almost viciously at the ribbons of her bonnet. The same treatment was accorded the ties of the voluminous cloak she flung over her shoulders. A sad, limp affair, its hem ratty and uneven, it was far too large for a frame as small as hers. In places it nearly touched the ale-spotted, pitted plank flooring beneath her feet. But it served its purpose -- as did the remainder of her clothing -- and for that she was grateful.
Carefully smoothing a hand over the rounded mound of her belly, she paused at the back entrance to the Crow's Nest, the tavern near the Strand where she worked. Shutting the door firmly behind her, she stepped out into the damp, misty night. Not a night went by that she didn't dread the long walk home through the crisscross of dark alleyways. Tonight it was even later than usual before the last patron had stumbled from the taproom. Seeking to fortify herself, she reminded herself she'd made the journey safely for nearly a year now.
A year. God above, a year.
For the space of a heartbeat, a wave of bleakness chilled her soul. God, but it felt as if a lifetime had passed since then! When Mama had died, the loss was like a knife to the heart. Indeed, she thought with a pang, at times it was difficult to refrain from discouragement. But something inside would not allow her to resign herself to working as a barmaid forever. Mama had hated that she worked there -- and so did she. No, she would not give up her hopes and dreams. Indeed, she was more determined than ever ...
Someday she would find a way out of St. Giles. Some way ...
It was a vow made long ago. Avow she was determined not to forsake.
But how was another matter, for Phillips's words of this morning echoed in her brain. Though it had cost her dearly, she had swallowed her pride and pleaded with him. If he would only allow her some time to cover the sharp increase in rent ...
"I will not!" he had snarled. "Me mind is made up. Ye'll pay, missy, else ye'll find yerself out on the street!"
His angry flare had left her in no doubt. He meant what he said.
He was, she decided blackly, a scoundrel. She had despised him for years now, for the wretch had always been rude and hateful to her mother. But however much she might wish Phillips to the devil and beyond, it would not solve her own dire straits. Only money could do that.
Continuing on toward St. Martin's Lane, Devon considered the precious stash of coins nestled in the left pocket of her gown; her wages had come due today. Only a week ago, she'd been so certain there would be more than enough to cover the rent! She'd even imagined she might be able to buy another gown, and improve her chances of obtaining employment other than as a barmaid. But now it would take every penny of her wages to cover the rent ... and more.
A chill seized hold of her, a chill that had nothing to do with the cool night air. Dear God, what if Phillips did cast her out?
Rounding the corner, she managed to quell the dread roiling in her belly. Instead she directed her attention back to her surroundings. It was quiet, as quiet as it could be in this part of London. Darkness smothered the rooftops. During the day, horses and carriages jostled for room along narrow streets. Tradesmen's shouts filled the air, struggling to be heard above the bustle of activity.
Her cloak flapped about her ankles as she hurried past the Seven Dials -- not easy given the bulk of her middle. She slipped once on the cobbles, slick from an earlier shower. The girth of her belly made her balance tricky, but she managed to right herself without mishap. Her gaze swept around again as she did so. There was no one about.
"Your plight might be easier were you to take some of the patrons in the back room now and then," Bridget had commented earlier that day. "That's what I do when I'm in need of a shilling or two."
The ease with which she advised was telling -- Bridget scarcely gave a second thought to such activity. While Devon was aware that Bridget meant well, she could hardly do as Bridget suggested. For she refused to make her living on her back.
Another promise she'd made to herself.
As she tugged her cloak more closely about the bulk of her middle, her gaze encompassed the next corner. God knew, the streets of St. Giles were mean and merciless -- no place for a lady.
Especially at night.
Of course, not that she was a real lady, as Mama had been. Though Mama had worked as a seamstress for as long as Devon could remember, she knew that her mother had been employed as a governess before she was born.
But society, she thought with a trace of bitterness, was not forgiving of an unmarried woman with a child at her breast, and it was that which had forced her mother into poverty.
Almost without knowing it, her hand stole to the pocket of her gown. Warm fingertips brushed against cool metal. She fingered the cross. Remembrance flooded through her ... As Mama had breathed her last, Devon had slipped the necklace from her mother's pocket ...A Perfect Bride. Copyright © by Samantha James. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.