Fashionable Mayfair blurred past her window, soon to be replaced by less and less fashionable neighborhoods, until the hackney reached the outer edge of the city, where town houses weren’t great brick structures stuck together, but rather individual humble cottages separated by patches of grass or dirt. A large, dense woods stretched out behind the houses. Moonlight bathed the neighborhood in a soft glow.

“Here’s where the glassmaker lives,” said the driver.

Glassmaker. She hadn’t known Mr. Gladwell’s profession, but might have been able to guess based on the look of the cottage alone.

While residential buildings in general did tend to have a window in every room to allow in sunlight and fresh air, the glassmaker’s cottage was almost a house of glass. Each of the four sides was more window than wall, with a grid of spotless white mullions holding up each sparkling square of clear glass.

“How much for the journey?” she asked the driver.

He named a sum.

Bianca nodded as though the number were what she’d expected, then stared dubiously at her reticule.

How many decorative pearls equaled one pound, nineteen shillings? One? Three? Five? Did she owe him a little extra for failing to pay in coins? How hard was it going to be for the hackney driver to convert these little pearls with bits of string still attached into usable money?

She handed him two of the pearls and scrambled out of the hackney with her belongings.

The driver did not shout after her, but instead shook the reins and set the horses back on their path.

Bianca’s relief was immediately replaced by trepidation. Should she have asked the driver to wait? The Earl of Eagleton’s card might be enough to convince the butler to announce her name, but it did not ensure entry into the Gladwell home, much less an invitation to take shelter there indefinitely.

But it was too late. The hackney was gone. No others sat idle in the vicinity.

There was nothing to do but continue on.

As she stepped onto the walkway leading to the glassmaker’s house, a squirrel ran up a tree, startling a branch-full of bluebirds into flight. A small brown rabbit ventured out from behind a row of bushes, his nose twitching at some unknown scent on the breeze, before he hopped out of sight.

Animals were a good sign, Bianca decided. The woods were close, but not to be feared. There were no predators here. Unlike the den of wolves from which she’d fled, this little clearing was one of safety and peace.

She hoped.

Before she could lose her nerve, she banged the brass knocker beside the door.

A few moments later, an elderly butler appeared. Fenwick, according to Eagleton. To the butler’s credit, he did not raise an eyebrow at Bianca’s unusual choice in valise.

“May I help you?” he asked politely.

She handed him the calling card at once. “The Earl of Eagleton sent me. Is Mrs. Gladwell at home?”

“Wait here, please.” He closed the door, not unkindly.

Bianca switched shoulders with her sack and waited.

In moments, the door swung back open, revealing not the elderly butler Fenwick, but rather a plump, pretty brown-haired woman with laugh lines around her sparkling blue eyes and wide, smiling mouth.

“Miss White, I daresay?” said the woman.

Bianca dipped a curtsey. Of course her coloring and the shock of white protruding from her temple would give her identity away.

The woman beamed as though she’d been waiting for Bianca’s visit for years. “I’m Mrs. Gladwell. Come in, come in. What in the world are you doing in that thick pelisse? Fenwick, would you mind… There we go, that’s much better, isn’t it?”

Bianca nodded. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Dotell me you’ll stay for tea. I don’t know what errand that harridan has sent you on, but I refuse to send you back without a cake or two in your belly. Just look at you! Do you eat anything at all? Heavens, how can I offer you tea when what you really want must be a good supper! Can you spare that long, sweetheart?”

To Bianca’s horror, her eyes filled with tears.

“Oh, darling, what is it?” Mrs. Gladwell folded Bianca into her arms as if they had known each other all their lives. “I would say it cannot be as bad as that, but you have had a time of it, haven’t you? Losing your parents so young was hardship enough, and to be forced to live with Queen Narcissus on top of it… Has she treated you poorly?”

Tags: Erica Ridley Historical
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