|Her Perfect Rogue By Amanda Mariel|
She could not reason why heâ€™d failed to return. Surely, if Papa had fallen ill someone would have written to Mama. No doubt if heâ€™d perished, word would have been sent. Still, Papa had been gone for nearly a year on what was supposed to be a fortnightâ€™s journey. She could not help fretting about him.
â€œJulia.â€ 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. â€œJulia, come at once.â€
Heeding Mamaâ€™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 foodâ€”food that had run out a seâ€™nnight ago. Juliaâ€™s belly growled at the thought and she rested her hand upon it. â€œWill Papa return for Christmastide? Have you received word from him?â€
Mama covered a cough, motioning for Julia to follow her. â€œHe will not.â€
Julia swallowed back the rising lump in her throat. Mama sold the familyâ€™s goat yesterday and the settee a day prior. If this continued much longer, they would have nothingâ€”as it was, little of value remained. She turned her forlorn gaze on Mama. â€œHow can you be so sure? Did you receive news?â€
â€œYour 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.â€ 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 Mamaâ€™s shadowed eyes and the silk frock. An unsettling shiver needled her skin. â€œWhat are we to do?â€
â€œYou are well aware of my failing health, and we have little wood for the hearth or food in the pantry.â€ Mama stepped behind Julia and started unfastening her daughterâ€™s dress. A round of coughing overtook her, causing her to double over. The fit passed and Mama set back to her task. â€œIf you want a chanceâ€¦if you want a better life, itâ€™s up to you to make it happen.â€
Mamaâ€™s words made no sense to her. Surely, she needed Julia here to help and look after herâ€”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 Juliaâ€™s frock. â€œI am sending you to London.â€
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? â€œI do not understand, Mama. You need me here.â€
â€œIf you stay, we are both sure to perish. If not from starvation, than from the winterâ€™s chill.â€ Mama loosed another button, working her way down the back of Juliaâ€™s dress. â€œYou must go.â€
The old moth-eaten woolen frock sheâ€™d been wearing slid down Juliaâ€™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 Mamaâ€™s words, but neither could she accept being sent away. â€œI can take on more work, Mama. Maybe find more mendingâ€¦or take a post as a maid nearby. Surelyâ€”â€
Mama shook her head, then placed a corset around Juliaâ€™s midsection. â€œYou know full well there is no work to be had here in Hythe.â€
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 moneyâ€”as the gown certainly had, too. She turned her head to catch Mamaâ€™s gaze.
â€œCould we not sell thisâ€¦torturous garment, and the frock as well, to get us through until I can find work? They must be worth a considerable fortune.â€ Julia turned her head to meet Mamaâ€™s hollowed-out eyes. â€œWherever did you come by them?â€
â€œWhere they came from does not signify, nor is selling them feasible.â€ Mama raised her hand, covering another cough. â€œThis is your chance at a good life. Do not squander the gift I am bestowing on you.â€
Julia swallowed past the lump in her throat. â€œLet me get you something to drink.â€
â€œNo, it will not help.â€ Mama waved a dismissive hand.
â€œThen allow me to fetch the doctor.â€ 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.
â€œThere are no funds to pay for his services.â€ Mama retrieved the new silk gown, then pulled it onto Juliaâ€™s body. â€œIf only I were youngerâ€¦.â€
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 Juliaâ€™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.
â€œStill yourself,â€ Mama said.
Julia ceased her tapping, folding her hands in her lap. â€œMama, I donâ€™t understand. Tell me what you would have me do?â€
â€œJust be nice to the gentlemen, Julia. They will repay your kindness with their generosity.â€ She rouged Juliaâ€™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 sheâ€™d been less than an hour past had been transformed into a grown womanâ€”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 toâ€¦no, sheâ€™d not ponder such things.
Mama patted Juliaâ€™s back. â€œYou will do well, my dear. Just remember my words.â€ She pushed a heart-shaped locket into Juliaâ€™s hand. â€œThe gentlemen hold the key to your future.â€
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 sheâ€™d ever known.
Mama stilled her before taking the locket and securing it around Juliaâ€™s neck. â€œYour carriage will be here any moment. Let us go out and wait.â€
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 sayâ€”or do.
â€œCome.â€ Mama took her hand and tugged her along behind her. â€œIn time you will discover the necessity of your leaving.â€
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 Mamaâ€™s. â€œPlease, do not do this. Tell me it is but a farce.â€
â€œThis is your chance, Julia. Do not disappoint me.â€ Mama grabbed her shoulders and turned her toward the path leading away from their cottage. â€œYour fate is now in your own hands. Make me proud.â€
The carriage halted on the road in front of the cottage and Mama gave her a little shove. â€œMake haste.â€
â€œPlease.â€ Julia turned back to Mama, begging with her eyes as much as her words. â€œThere must be another way.â€
Mama shook her head, giving another shove. â€œForgive me, but this is the only way.â€
Juliaâ€™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. Sheâ€™d not allow herself to crumble. Not nowâ€”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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