Her Perfect Rogue By Amanda Mariel

Julia glanced from where she sat on an old tree stump to the rickety cottage she shared with her mother. She squinted against the afternoon sun while pulling her cloak tighter to shield her from the winter wind as she examined a patch of loose shingles. If Papa did not find his way home soon, the house would crumble down around them.
Her Perfect Rogue
Her Perfect Rogue By Amanda Mariel

She could not reason why he’d failed to return. Surely, if Papa had fallen ill someone would have written to Mama. No doubt if he’d perished, word would have been sent. Still, Papa had been gone for nearly a year on what was supposed to be a fortnight’s journey. She could not help fretting about him.

“Julia.” Mama appeared in the ramshackle doorway in a threadbare blue dress, her graying hair pulled into a tight bun. Fine lines that had not been there a year prior now edged her lips and eyes. “Julia, come at once.”

Heeding Mama’s command, Julia made her way across the cold, hard ground to meet her in the entrance. The cold from the bare floorboards seeped through the soles of her slippers, chilling her feet. A carpet had once covered the floor, but Mama sold it last month, the funds used to purchase food—food that had run out a se’nnight ago. Julia’s belly growled at the thought and she rested her hand upon it. “Will Papa return for Christmastide? Have you received word from him?”

Mama covered a cough, motioning for Julia to follow her. “He will not.”

Julia swallowed back the rising lump in her throat. Mama sold the family’s goat yesterday and the settee a day prior. If this continued much longer, they would have nothing—as it was, little of value remained. She turned her forlorn gaze on Mama. “How can you be so sure? Did you receive news?”

“Your Papa ran off. He will not be back, and I can no longer afford to take care of you. These are desperate times, Julia. We must be strong to overcome them.” Mama entered her room with Julia trailing behind, then came to stand next to a crimson gown.

Trepidation pricked at Julia as she glanced between Mama’s shadowed eyes and the silk frock. An unsettling shiver needled her skin. “What are we to do?”

“You are well aware of my failing health, and we have little wood for the hearth or food in the pantry.” Mama stepped behind Julia and started unfastening her daughter’s dress. A round of coughing overtook her, causing her to double over. The fit passed and Mama set back to her task. “If you want a chance…if you want a better life, it’s up to you to make it happen.”

Mama’s words made no sense to her. Surely, she needed Julia here to help and look after her—even more so if she spoke the truth about Papa. Julia attempted to take a step, to turn toward her mother, but she stilled her and continued unfastening Julia’s frock. “I am sending you to London.”

A deep chill took hold of Julia, causing the hairs at her nape to stand on end. What could she possibly do in London? What would become of Mama after she was gone? “I do not understand, Mama. You need me here.”

“If you stay, we are both sure to perish. If not from starvation, than from the winter’s chill.” Mama loosed another button, working her way down the back of Julia’s dress. “You must go.”

The old moth-eaten woolen frock she’d been wearing slid down Julia’s body to pool on the floor at her feet. She glanced down at her slippers, badly stained and coming apart at the seams. She could not argue with Mama’s words, but neither could she accept being sent away. “I can take on more work, Mama. Maybe find more mending…or take a post as a maid nearby. Surely—”

Mama shook her head, then placed a corset around Julia’s midsection. “You know full well there is no work to be had here in Hythe.”

Mama pulled the stays so hard that Julia jerked backward before looking down at the garment. Fine ivory silk with a crimson motif encased whalebone and squeezed her ribs to the point of suffocation. She could not imagine why any woman would be willing to wear such a torturous thing. And it must have cost a great deal of money—as the gown certainly had, too. She turned her head to catch Mama’s gaze.

“Could we not sell this…torturous garment, and the frock as well, to get us through until I can find work? They must be worth a considerable fortune.” Julia turned her head to meet Mama’s hollowed-out eyes. “Wherever did you come by them?”

“Where they came from does not signify, nor is selling them feasible.” Mama raised her hand, covering another cough. “This is your chance at a good life. Do not squander the gift I am bestowing on you.”

Julia swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Let me get you something to drink.”

“No, it will not help.” Mama waved a dismissive hand.

“Then allow me to fetch the doctor.” Julia attempted to retrieve her weathered dress. Surely the doctor could help Mama. Once she felt better, maybe she would forget all about sending Julia off to London.

“There are no funds to pay for his services.” Mama retrieved the new silk gown, then pulled it onto Julia’s body. “If only I were younger….”

Julia wanted to press for Mama to finish her statement. What if she were younger? Would it make any difference? She turned toward the skittering of little feet in the corner of the drafty room. A large rat scurried across the warped floorboards before disappearing into a hole dug out of the straw mattress. She shivered, not from fear, but disgust.

If she stayed here there would be nothing but suffering and long hours of hard work for little coin. At the rate they were going, there would be no wood for the hearth to keep the winter chill at bay; even if they could procure food, they would freeze. But what could she do in London? A city she had never visited, where she knew no one. And what would become of Mama once she had gone?

Mama guided her to sit on the edge of the straw mattress where she pinned up Julia’s hair before painting her eyes and lips. Julia trained her focus on a large cobweb in the corner. She could not believe Mama was casting her out, nor could she deny that was exactly what was happening. She tapped her foot, dumbfounded by the dawning reality of her predicament.

“Still yourself,” Mama said.

Julia ceased her tapping, folding her hands in her lap. “Mama, I don’t understand. Tell me what you would have me do?”

“Just be nice to the gentlemen, Julia. They will repay your kindness with their generosity.” She rouged Julia’s cheeks before turning her toward the tarnished looking glass.

Mama coughed again, this time harder than before, but Julia barely noticed as she studied her reflection. The girl she’d been less than an hour past had been transformed into a grown woman—no, a harlot.

She studied her reflection. Her form clad in a scandalously low-cut frock and painted face reflected back at her, stealing her breath. This could not be right. Mama could not mean for her to…no, she’d not ponder such things.

Mama patted Julia’s back. “You will do well, my dear. Just remember my words.” She pushed a heart-shaped locket into Julia’s hand. “The gentlemen hold the key to your future.”

Julia closed her fingers against the cold metal, then opened them to look at the necklace. Be true to yourself. Her head spun, dizziness causing her to stumble. She did not want to go, could not fathom why Mama would give her such a thing while turning her away. Pushing her from her home and all she’d ever known.

Mama stilled her before taking the locket and securing it around Julia’s neck. “Your carriage will be here any moment. Let us go out and wait.”

Julia wet her dry lips as she stared at Mama with beseeching eyes. She could not will her legs to move, nor her mind to cease spinning. There had to be something she could say—or do.

“Come.” Mama took her hand and tugged her along behind her. “In time you will discover the necessity of your leaving.”

Somehow, Julia doubted she ever would. All the same, she held her tongue as Mama continued to pull her toward the door.

No sooner had Julia stepped onto the frozen lawn than the racket of carriage wheels reached her ears. She pulled her hand free, her gaze locking with Mama’s. “Please, do not do this. Tell me it is but a farce.”

“This is your chance, Julia. Do not disappoint me.” Mama grabbed her shoulders and turned her toward the path leading away from their cottage. “Your fate is now in your own hands. Make me proud.”

The carriage halted on the road in front of the cottage and Mama gave her a little shove. “Make haste.”

“Please.” Julia turned back to Mama, begging with her eyes as much as her words. “There must be another way.”

Mama shook her head, giving another shove. “Forgive me, but this is the only way.”

Julia’s heart plummeted as she fought back the tears of hurt and frustration welling in her eyes. She stiffened, reaching for the locket around her neck, then gave a tug, breaking it free and allowing it to drop to the ground. She’d not allow herself to crumble. Not now—not ever.

Making her way to the carriage, she did not so much as glance back at Mama or the tumbledown cottage. Whatever her future might hold, she would face it with her head held high.

* * *


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