How to Return a Lady’s Slipper – Bree Wolf

DARKNESS LAY OVER the city as Miss Emma Glass trudged through the deep snow covering the ground, obscuring the step from the pavement down onto the street proper. The wind howled around her, tugging on her cloak and blowing the hood off her head again and again. Hours ago, a painful chill had begun to settle in her bones, slowly spreading throughout her body, robbing it of every bit of warmth. Her fingers felt stiff, and her body trembled, still fighting against the cold. But Emma knew it could not win. Not out here. Not in this icy wind. Gritting her teeth, Emma glanced down at her little girl, sleeping in her arms, her young body exhausted from the freezing cold as well as the burning fever that had held her in its clutches for the past two days. Her skin was frighteningly pale, and her brown eyes were closed. Still, Emma could feel Susan’s little heart beat frantically against her chest. But for how much longer? Forcing her attention from her daughter’s sleeping face, Emma swept her gaze up and down the street, her eyes lingering upon a townhouse here and there. Everything looked so different under the thick layer of snow that Emma was not quite certain if she had taken a right turn at the last corner. Then her gaze fell on a familiar iron gate that led around a large, imposing townhouse to the servants’ entrance, and everything within Emma stilled. For a long moment, she simply stood there, barely noticing the snow dancing in the air around her, settling in her hair, on her shoulders, even sliding down the bridge of her nose. Her heartbeat quickened as dark memories resurfaced, tensing her muscles and sending a sickening sensation through her stomach.

Every fiber of her being urged her to turn around and flee from this place while she still could. Emma remained where she was though. Trying her best to swallow the lump that had settled in her throat, she looked down at her sleeping child, her skin now even more frighteningly pale than before. “I don’t have a choice,” Emma whispered to the wind as her arms hugged her two-year-old daughter tighter against her chest. “We need help.” A desperate longing settled in her heart as her gaze traveled over Susan’s soft face, and she remembered the beautiful smile she hoped to see again. “Don’t worry, Darling. All will be well.” Then she lifted her chin, her gaze hardening as it settled upon the looming structure across the street, and took a determined step toward it. Snow clung to her shoes and skirts, soaking through and chilling her even more, as Emma slowly made her way across the deserted street.

More even than her body, her mind felt frozen, afraid to touch upon the painful memories that hovered nearby. Especially here. In this place. Darkness lingered wherever her gaze moved; a darkness that had nothing to do with the absence of the sun. Still, Emma continued on, pushing open the iron gate and moving around to the back of the house. The sturdy door of the servants’ entrance looked as it always had. Countless times, Emma had ventured through it, always relieved to leave the house behind and always tense to return to it. Tonight, she felt both, but also neither. A spark of hope rested in her chest as she walked closer, her gaze drawn down to her child again and again. But there was also fear; fear of something Emma could not quite name.

It did not matter, though. Susan needed help, and Emma would walk through hell and back to ensure her daughter’s survival. With her last bit of strength, Emma lifted her hand and knocked on the door. All remained quiet. It seemed the house lay sleeping under the cover of darkness as well as the thick blanket of snow, growing ever thicker with each moment that passed. Inhaling a lungful of the chilled night air, Emma knocked yet again, the movement of her hand a bit more forceful, a bit more desperate. Again and again, she knocked, her fist soon pounding on the door, as silent tears snaked their way down her frozen cheeks. Despair slowly settled in her heart when she realized that the door would not open. That despite finding the courage to face the evil she thought she had left behind for good, there would be no help here. Exhausted, Emma took a step back, her gaze moving down the child now stirring in her arms.

Susan’s lids drifted open a little, but then quickly fell closed again, her body too weak for even such a small effort. “What am I to do?” Emma whispered to herself, to the wind, to no one in particular as she slowly made her way back out onto the pavement. “What am I to do?” Her gaze drifted up and down the street, but found nothing but snow and emptiness. There was no place for her to go. Of course, if there had been, she would never have come here in the first place. Emma was alone in the world, Susan the only one who was family. Never before had Emma felt this utterly and completely alone than in this very moment when she desperately needed someone, anyone to help her. To help her precious child. Tears collected in her eyes as she hugged her daughter ever closer, wishing that it were enough to heal her, to see her safe. But the world was a harsh place, unfair and frightening, and it did not seem to care about the life of a child.

“Are you all right?” Blinking, Emma looked up and found herself staring at a cloaked rider upon a tall, black horse. Man and animal stood no more than a few paces in front of her, their presence overwhelming and utterly intimidating, and yet, Emma had not even noticed their approach. It was as though they had risen out of the ground or materialized out of thin air. Terrified, Emma clutched Susan more tightly, her feet slowly backing away as she watched the rider dismount, his face hidden in the dark. She was about to whirl around and rush back the way she had come when a hand settled upon her arm, keeping her from slipping away. Not even a shriek of panic escaped Emma’s slips for all the strength that remained in her body was needed to keep her on her feet. She had nothing left and could thus only stand and stare, incapable of anything beyond that. The dark rider pushed his hood off his head, his face almost white in the moonlight. “Are you all right?” he asked yet again, doubt in his voice as his pale eyes drifted from her down to touch upon Susan, lingering there for a moment. “She needs a doctor,” he said then, the hand that still rested upon her shoulder tensing slightly as though he felt honest concern for her child.

Emma swallowed hard. Her heart thundered wildly in her chest, urging her to turn and run. She did not know this man, and the past had taught her that men could not be trusted. Still, Susan needed help, and even before the dark rider had appeared, Emma had been willing to risk returning to the devil himself in order to protect her child. Could this man truly be worse? “C-Can you help us?” she stammered, looking up into his dark face, hoping that perhaps there was some good left in the world. The dark rider nodded, then he turned toward his dark steed and whistled softly. Immediately, the tall beast trotted over, now standing patiently by his side. “Let me take the girl,” he said, stepping closer and holding out his arms to receive Susan. Emma tensed and took an instinctive step backward, her eyes still wide as she stared at the stranger. The man remained where he was, his gaze softening.

“I promise I shall hand her back to you as soon as you are in the saddle.” For a long moment, they simply stood in the cold night, looking at one another, neither one of them speaking or moving beyond the occasional breath that left their lips. Then Emma nodded, forcing herself to loosen her hold on her precious girl. Everything within her screamed out against it, but she knew that if she did not take this risk, Susan would not make it through the night. A reassuring smile flitted across the stranger’s face as he gently settled Susan into his arms. Then he led her to his steed, instructing her on how to mount it for Emma had never been atop a horse. It took some effort, especially in her weakened state, but after seemingly endless minutes, she finally managed to pull herself up and into the saddle. Settled on top of the hulking beast, Emma watched as the cloaked stranger moved closer, then carefully lifted up her daughter. Gently, she settled Susan back into her arms, breathing out a sigh of utter relief. It was a small thing, entrusting her precious girl to a stranger for a brief moment.

But the risk she had taken had not ended in disaster. Her faith had been rewarded, and Susan was safely back in her arms. If only the rest of the night would follow suit. “Where are we going?” Emma asked into the stillness of the night as they slowly made their way down the street. She kept her legs locked around the horse, trying to remain upright and moving with its swaying gait. Leading the large mount to the other side of the street, the dark stranger looked at her over his shoulder, another reassuring smile touching upon his face. “Do not worry,” he told her gently. “I do not live far from here. We shall be there soon, and I will send for a doctor immediately.” Emma inhaled a shaking breath as relief and apprehension swirled through her heart.

Still, no matter what would follow once they reached the man’s home, Susan’s survival was worth anything he might demand of Emma in return for his help. Endless moments ticked by before they finally came upon another looming townhouse, not unlike the one she had fled more than two years ago. Emma knew what it meant, had known what it meant ever since first laying eyes on him. He was a peer. A lord. The thought sent a shiver down Emma’s back, and her arms around her precious daughter tensed once more. “Let me take her so you can dismount,” the stranger said after leading the black steed into the mews to the back of the townhouse and securing it in a hay-filled stall. Emma nodded and then relinquished Susan for the second time that night. Holding on to the horse’s mane, she swung one leg over and then slowly dropped to the ground, her arms weak and unable to hold her. Her heart beat fast.

But the moment she turned around, the stranger settled Susan back into her arms. “Come,” he said gently, one arm outstretched as though wanting to drape it across her shoulders. However, he never touched her. Walking as swiftly as possible, they crossed to the back door of the large townhouse and entered soundlessly. All was quiet as they slipped down the corridor, then stopped outside a door. The tall stranger banged his fist on it, then immediately opened it and took one step across the threshold. “Albert? Are you wake?” Muffled sounds drifted to Emma’s ears as someone moved in the dark of the room. “My lord?” the voice of an elderly man asked, thick with sleep. “Is something wrong?” “Please, send for the doctor immediately,” the stranger instructed in an urgent voice. “Have a guest chamber readied, and food and a bath prepared.

” Then he stepped back out of the room and gestured to her to follow him down the corridor. Behind them, Emma could hear the elderly man mumble, “Of course, my lord. Immediately.” Emma followed the stranger out into the large entrance hall, walking a few steps behind him before he turned toward a large staircase leading to the upper floor. He did not pause, but began climbing the stairs without delay. To Emma, however, the winding staircase, leading higher and higher, promised a climb she knew not how to master. Her knees were already trembling, threatening to buckle at any moment. Her arms felt heavy, and she kept them wrapped around Susan by sheer willpower alone. Noting her absence, the stranger paused halfway up the stairs, then turned to look at her. His pale eyes swept over her face—she could feel his gaze lingering—before he hurried back down to her side.

“I-I’m sorry,” Emma stammered, her gaze still fixed on the many stairs leading upward. “Perhaps if you took Susan—” A warm smile came to his face. “Simply hold her tightly,” the stranger said before, only a moment later, he snatched Emma up in his arms. The breath lodged in Emma’s throat but, once again, she did not have the strength to scream. Ignoring the strong arms that held her, Emma kept her gaze fixed on her daughter’s exhausted face as the stranger began climbing the stairs, holding them both. Seemingly without effort, he carried them to a cozy room not far down the corridor and set them down on the large bed. “See to her as best as you can. I shall be back momentarily.” He politely inclined his head to her and then vanished. For a long moment, Emma simply sat there, unable to move, shock and fear and confusion freezing her limbs.

Silence lingered as it had before. A silence Emma had never been able to bear for it whispered of secrets and dark corners, of pain and monsters. Then noise suddenly erupted from somewhere down the corridor. Emma could hear hurried footsteps and voices drifting to and fro. A moment later, the door to the room burst open and in bustled a rotund woman with a round, friendly face. The moment her eyes fell on them, she clasped her hands together, shaking her head. “Oh, you poor dears. You must be freezing to be out on a night like this. Come, let me help you. I’m Mrs.

Gibson, the housekeeper.” Overwhelmed, Emma did not resist as the woman took Susan from her arms and settled her gently among the pillows. More people burst into the room, these women younger, reminding Emma of herself once. They brought water and food, linens and a bowl for washing. A cool cloth was placed upon Susan’s feverish head as Mrs. Gibson helped Emma out of her soaked dress and into a soft, warm nightgown. Settled in the large bed with Susan by her side, Emma cherished the steaming cup of tea Mrs. Gibson had thrust into her chilled hands. She sat and watched and sipped, her eyes drifting over the many people coming and going until the tall stranger stepped into the room, another well-dressed, older man by his side. This man turned out to be Dr.

Hastings, and he quickly went about examining Susan, giving equally quick instructions to the women hovering nearby. “Will she be all right?” Emma asked fearfully. The gray-haired doctor smiled at her. “Don’t worry, my dear. She will be fine.” Then he turned and spoke to the tall stranger, his face more serious-looking now. The stranger nodded, tension marking his features before he escorted the doctor out the door. Finally resting her head on the soft pillow, Emma pulled Susan into her arms, relieved to see that her child was breathing more easily. She still felt feverish, but her skin was no longer deathly pale. Perhaps all she needed was warmth and sleep.

Emma prayed it would be so. Emma had almost drifted off to sleep, exhaustion weighing heavy upon her limbs, when the door opened once more and the tall stranger stepped back inside. Only now did Emma realize that Mrs. Gibson and the other young women had left. Darkness had fallen over the room, a single candle burning on the nightstand, casting eerie shadows. The stranger stood at the foot of the bed. “Is there anything else you require?” His dark eyes drifted to Susan, and Emma saw his shoulders tense and deepest regret flash over his face. “Your name, my lord,” Emma forced herself to say, knowing that she needed to remain alert in order to protect Susan. She needed to know who she was facing in order to ascertain the danger he might pose. “I’m Pierce Byrne,” he told her without hesitation, slowly inclining his head to her as though they were meeting at a ball, “Baron Markham.

” Emma felt the breath lodge in her throat for she had heard of Lord Markham. Whispers abounded about him, telling tales of scandalous activities. Behind his back, the ton called him the Black Baron. An amused chuckle drifted from his lips. “You need not be afraid,” he told her lightly, shaking his head as though the notion that he might pose any danger at all was ludicrous. “Only half of what people whisper behind my back is true.” His eyes held hers as his face sobered once more, all amusement drifting away. “You and your daughter are safe here,” he told her earnestly. “No one will harm you. You have my word.

” Emma wished she could believe him. More than anything, she wished she could simply believe him. But she had believed false promises before. She would not make that mistake again. Silence fell over the room once more as the two of them looked at one another, each contemplating the other’s position. Then the Black Baron asked, “Do you have anywhere to go?” Emma shook her head, feeling utterly vulnerable. Lord Markham nodded. “I have a young ward,” he told her without preamble, a warm smile coming to his face as he spoke. “She is perhaps a little older than your daughter and in need of a governess.” Emma frowned, trying to make sense of his words.

Had he just offered her the position? Why would he? After all, she was far from well educated. Once, she had been a maid in a lord’s household, but now? She had nothing to offer, nothing an employer might value. “You cannot mean what you say,” Emma replied sternly, wanting him to know that she was not a weak-willed ninny. “A governess must be educated in order to—” “Education can be acquired at any time,” Lord Markham interrupted her, “but a good heart is priceless.” That warm smile returned to his face as his gaze drifted down to Susan before returning to her. “You are a devoted mother. Who better to see to little Daphne?” He nodded to her, then took a step back. “Sleep on it.” Then he slipped from the room quietly and closed the door. Emma feared she would lie awake all night, contemplating what to do.

Nevertheless, sleep claimed her swiftly for, in truth, there was no question. For Susan’s sake, Emma was willing to take any risk so long as her darling daughter would be safe. No matter what it might cost Emma.

.

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