Today's Reading

Tessa succumbed to her favorite flight of fancy. She would lease a storefront on Bond Street, one with a bow window that would be perfect for showcasing her creations. The fashionable set would clamor for her designs, ladies more stylish than the two aging matrons who were presently rummaging through the bonnets here. What should she call her shop? Perhaps Millinery by Miss James. Something as simple and elegant as the merchandise—

"Stop gawping at yer betters."

The hissing voice startled Tessa into pricking her finger with the needle. Wincing, she saw that her employer stood glaring from the other side of the counter. The French accent slipped into Cockney whenever Madame Blanchet was out of earshot of the customers. They didn't know she'd been born plain Polly Brewster within the shadow of St. Mary-le-Bow church.

"I don't pay ye to stand idle," Madame continued in a harsh whisper. "Ain't them rosebuds attached yet?"

Tessa hastened to tie off the threads and snip the ends with the scissors that dangled from the waistband of her apron. "Aye, Madame."

The shopkeeper snatched up the bonnet and critically examined the work. Her nostrils flared against the stark angles of her face. "Clumsy chit. There be blood on the brim."

Tessa leaned closer, dismayed to see a dot of red on the straw. It must have happened just now when she'd poked her finger with the needle. "I daresay a quick sponging with soap and water—"

"Never mind, 'tis ruined. I should've never let ye wheedle me into makin' such a drab piece, anyhow. Ye with yer fine airs." Sneering, Madame Blanchet dropped the bonnet onto the counter. "Since it ain't me what done the damage, the cost'll come out of yer wages."

"But...that will mean months without pay!"

"'Twill teach ye a lesson. Now, back to the workroom."

Tessa stood paralyzed as her employer turned away. How was she to cover the rent that was due at the end of the week, not to mention buy food and a host of other expenses? She was down to a stub of tallow candle and a sliver of soap. In her neighborhood, merchants seldom extended credit to low- wage earners like herself. She'd have to dip into her treasured savings...

"No. I won't."

Tessa didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until Madame whipped back around, a thunderous frown on her bony features. Her burning-coal eyes held incredulity, for the employees were usually too wary of her temper to disobey her orders. "Eh?"

Her heart drumming, Tessa felt the fear and exhilaration of stepping off a cliff. All the years of biting her tongue suddenly became intolerable. She was done with being silent. "You heard me," she said firmly. "I quit."

A rapping on the door reverberated through the flat.

The small room might more aptly be described a cubbyhole, but it was home to Tessa. Having grown up in a crowded dormitory, she treasured having space all to herself. It was just large enough to hold a single iron bedstead, a rickety table and chair, and a battered chest of drawers on which sat a spirit lamp where she could make a cup of tea. The single window had a view of a brick wall. She'd spruced up the dreary surroundings with a colorful rag rug on the floor and pages of hats tacked to the peeling wallpaper.

As the knock came again, she paused in the act of unpinning those inspirational drawings. It was rare for her to be at home in the middle of the afternoon. For that reason alone, she should be cautious of opening the door. Although most of the residents in the boardinghouse were hardworking folk like herself, the neighborhood had its share of vagrants and ne'er-do-wells.

But she recognized the summons. Two sharp taps, a pause, then another knock. Tessa hardly knew whether to be pleased or peeved at the interruption in her packing.

Clutching the sheaf of papers to her bosom, she hastened to open the door. "Orrin! Why aren't you at work?

A wiry young man in a brown corduroy suit stepped into the room. Orrin Nesbitt removed his flat-brimmed cap to reveal a thatch of rusty-red hair. Although slightly older than herself, in his mid-twenties, he had a round freckled face that gave him a boyish mien. They'd become friends the previous year when he'd moved into one of the downstairs flats. Since he worked as a typesetter for a tabloid, he'd made a habit of bringing her the daily newspaper.

He held one tucked under his arm but made no move to hand it to her. "Put today's rag t' bed early, so I went t' the shop. Sukie said you pelted off in a rush, leavin' ole Blanchet with her britches in a twist."

Tessa regretted having to abandon her co-workers. "Poor Sukie and Nell. I hope Madame didn't take out her wrath on them."

"Dunno. I hightailed it out o' there and came straight here." Orrin's hazel eyes studied her with stunned curiosity. "Gorblimey, Tess. Wot happened? Tell me you didn't just up an' quit!"

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