Phoebe Grenard closed her eyes as she leaned back on the front door to the dress shop she and her cousin Francine operated in the tiny village of Cleadon. She said a quick prayer of thanks that Imogen Sparks’ mother trusted her, and Francie, to create her only daughter’s May Queen dress. Especially since the death of Aunt Frances two month earlier, Mrs. Sparks had been one of the few customers, along with Mrs. Crumstokes, who remained supportive of Francie and Phoebe continuing to operate the dress shop. Mrs. Sparks, whose husband was the village’s dry goods merchant, had also been a friend of Phoebe’s aunt, as the two stores had been across the cobblestone road from each other for many years. But it was starting to become obvious to Phoebe that two young and unmarried women running a place of business had been frowned upon by many of the locals, a few of whom had—likely with the best of intentions—suggested that she and her cousin consider marrying and becoming mothers. That, along with a few other incidents, led Phoebe to believe that the villagers had no qualms regarding widows running a business, but they obviously drew the line at unmarried ladies. The proof was in their receipts at the end of each day. There had been a noticeable decrease in the monthly revenue again this month, even more than the month before. Phoebe and Francie had talked about it earlier that very day. Francie had noticed a few of the customers hadn’t returned since her mother—Phoebe and Lydia’s aunt—had passed away. Ever the more good-hearted of the three of them, Francie suggested that maybe it was due to the harsh winter they just come through, and that people were depleted of any extra coin because of the cost of food for both man and beast. In fact, the last of the snow had finally disappeared just a few weeks earlier, which put everyone’s gardens several weeks behind in edible crops.
Yes, winter was a little longer than normal, but in a few days their village’s May Day festivities would begin. And this gave everyone in the village hope for a brighter rest of the year—even Phoebe. At this time last year—Phoebe and Lydia’s first year living with Aunt Frances and Francie—they had been incredibly busy sewing new, pretty, white dresses for several of the unmarried young girls participating in the dancing around the maypole. This year, there weren’t nearly as many orders for dresses, but there would be as many—if not more—girls dancing. So what the villagers thought was becoming clear to Phoebe, if not yet to the kind-hearted Francie. At this rate they would be unable to pay their rent next quarter, or the bill from their fabric and notions suppliers—much less their food, and coal for the fire. She straightened and went behind the counter to search for a spool of thread to match the white dress with a youthful flounce and chaste bodice she’d just pinned on Imogen. Phoebe glanced at the table where the cut silk material lay—temporarily basted together with pale blue thread until she could find the perfect thread match for the fabric. The bell tied to the handle of the door jangled with the turning of the knob, and believing Mrs. Sparks had returned because she’d forgot something important, Phoebe lifted her head and smiled… at a man completely unfamiliar to her.
He might be the man who’d come into the store and asked about her the day before. According to her cousin, the man had had the look of a veteran pugilist about him—and this man definitely had that in abundance. “I’m looking for Miss Grenard,” the man said, his voice gruff, with a hoarse, gravelly quality to it. He did not return her smile. His bulbous nose was red with tiny broken veins, and crooked to the left and right, with the bridge flattened as well. He was missing a part of one ear, and the other was smashed and malformed. His look was definitely that of a man that had been on the losing end of many a fight in his day. She’d have to let Francie know her description had been accurate. And that started a strange, chilling sensation to race up her spine. This was just the type of person her dead father would have associated with, and she wondered what he wanted with her.
“I’m wanting to speak to the eldest daughter of Jack Grenard.” For a moment, she contemplated lying and saying she was not Jack Grenard’s daughter, but what would that get her? He’d only ask someone else, and if they could verify her identity to him he’d be back—likely angry that she’d deceived him. “Yes.” Her voice squeaked. Clearing her throat she added, “Can I help you?” “Aye.” The mongrel-faced man leaned a hip against the glass notions case, opposite where she stood behind the counter. “I’ve come te collect a debt owed to my employer, Mr. Edgar Donovan of London, by your late father, Jack Grenard.” This one of the greatest fears she’d had since the death of their father. She’d known about his gambling, but thought he’d left that all behind in London.
He had promised her that he was no longer gambling. Like every other promise he’d made to her and Lydia— and their mother when she was alive—it was a lie. She was afraid to ask what the total was, but wanted and needed to know. “How—” she cleared her throat and started again. “How much did my father owe your employer?” He pulled out a well-worn, folded sheet from his pocket, the column of numbers and notes next to them with dates covered years of debts. “The remaining balance on the total is nine-hundred and eighty-seven pounds, plus there’s the late fees of five hundred and forty-eight pounds, for a total of one-thousand five-hundred and fifty-five pounds yer father owes m’boss, Mr. Donovan.” Phoebe felt her world tilt off its axis and pull her toward the pistol under the counter she and her cousin kept there for safety. She tried to remember the last time either of them cleaned and primed it, or even fired it. Promising herself that she would do both this very night if it would work this one time, she prayed she didn’t need to bring it out of hiding.
Phoebe hated the idea of pulling it out to scare off anyone, but if the man grew any more threatening she would. She put her hand on the case under the counter, then flipped the latch without looking at the leather-covered wooden box, feeling the smooth ivory handle and cool steel. “I… I don’t know a… Mr. Donovan,” Phoebe said, the pistol now in her grip. “And my father has been dead for months.” “Don’ matter that he’s dead, a debt is a debt,” the pugilist said. “My boss has entrusted me and m’boys to collect this debt by whatever means is necessary.” “I assure you,” Phoebe cleared her throat, trying to calm her rising fear, “my father never mentioned owing… that… um… that much money to anyone.” “That’s not my problem, and just soes ye know, me and my two boys out there,” the man half-heartedly motioned a beefy palm toward somewhere outside of the shop, “ain’t leavin’ till we gots it all.” “I think you have the wrong person, and you should leave before I send for our constable.
” “Ah, missy… I’ve already seen ‘im.” The stout brute grinned, showing his lack of dentition. What remained appeared near to falling out by the looks of them. “He’s a nice chap, too. He’s the one what told me where to find you and yer dumb sister.” Phoebe closed her eyes to fight the sudden wash of dizziness that overcame her. He knew of Lydia, and her condition. Though, he likely didn’t know that she could speak, but hadn’t since Wally disappeared. She set the pistol back down on the velvet lining of the leather case. If this man had visited their constable, Mr.
Blankenship, then he likely knew the bulldog’s business, and soon everyone in the village would also know. Too, leaving town without paying a creditor sounded exactly like something her father would have done, because he cared for no one as much as he did himself. “We don’t have that kind of money.” “Well I suggests ye find it, because yer father sold ye both to Mr. Donovan, for the sum of one thousand pounds, if he was unable to pay before the fifteenth day of November of 1814.” The portly man leaned against the glass notions case. “Now then, yer da’s only paid two pounds, the other eleven come from the sale of the furnishins in the house; the tavern already belonged to Donovan.” “There must be some mistake,” Phoebe repeated, a genuine terror starting to take root in her gut. But that fear only lasted until she heard the footsteps on the stairs on the other side of the curtain behind her. She had to protect her sister and cousin.
To do that, Phoebe needed to get the man out of the shop before he frightened them. Phoebe didn’t think that either of them could handle this type of news very well. The brutish lout leaned against the glass surface of the counter where the ribbons were arranged by color and texture. He continued to speak, ignoring Phoebe’s desperate look, and picking his fingernails with a folding penknife. “No mistake, I’m sure ‘bout that. Your pa took a french leave, he did, when he disappeared the night before the note was due. I guess he thought we’d never catch up to him, but we did. “So, if you can’t come up with nine hundred and eighty-seven pounds,” he paused from his manicure, and pointed at the crude paper on the glass surface, and added, “plus the five-hundred and forty-eight pounds in late fees, then the two of ye little lasses are headed for one o’ Mr. Donovan’s nunneries. “Ye see, men pays lots to be the first on a girl.
And they likes the pretty young ones best.” From behind her, Phoebe’s cousin, Francie, reached for the pistol and raised it level to the man’s heart. “Get out of our store you vulgar snake,” Francie said, her voice calmer than Phoebe’s own. “How dare you speak to a lady in such a vile manner?” The moneylender’s bulldog snatched the paper off the countertop, put his hands up, and backed a few steps. A lecherous grin on his lips. “I’ll tell ye how I dare, missy… Jack Grenard fled town in the dark o’ night, owing my boss a great sum of money. And my boss has a contract that says the welsher was to turn over his two daughters to my boss if’n he couldn’t pay. So if you girls can’t pay before the end of the week, then me and my two friends out there are to bring Jack Grenard’s daughters back to Lunnon.” “Get out,” Francie repeated, waving the pistol toward the exit, “and never come back into this store again. Or you will discover just how good a shot I am.
” When the pugilist-cum-debt-collector reached the entrance, he added a warning to his threat. “Don’t think to be leaving this shop. We’re watchin’ day an’ night. I can snatch ye off the street. I sure can. It’s the law, y’know.” That said, the man yanked the door open and left the small shop. Phoebe leaned against the post behind her and slid slowly to the floor. She’d never be able to repay the debt. The amount was so insanely high that no one she knew could loan that much money to her.
Dear God, Lydie… She was never going to let these men take her sister to work in a brothel. Never. Phoebe wasn’t going to go willingly—that was for certain, but they weren’t taking her sister. She would find somewhere to hide Lydia, after all she was only twelve. “Where’s Lydie?” Phoebe asked her cousin. “Upstairs cleaning the old bird Mr. Simonton gave us. I’m going to put it in a pot with vegetables and herbs, then make a small loaf of bread and call it dinner,” Francie said. “Why?” “Please don’t mention this to her,” Phoebe replied. “I don’t want her frightened.
Somehow I’ll find a way out of this.” Perhaps if she met with Mr. Donovan, she might convince the man she could make payments on her father’s debt. After all, she didn’t gamble, worked hard, and… She was not going to work in a brothel. Phoebe knew what those women were forced to do, and… she couldn’t. She just couldn’t. She wanted to marry one day. She wanted children of her own. “Help me think of a way,” Phoebe said, “or a place even, to hide Lydia. At least until I can think of something, some way, to get this settled.
” “We will talk to the constable, Phoebe,” Francie whispered, kneeling on the ground next to her and putting her arm around Phoebe, the pistol resting on the floor next to her. “Your father was a gambler of the worst sort, especially if he sold you and your sister to repay his debt.” “But he didn’t hand us over!” Even to her own voice, through her tears, Phoebe couldn’t believe that she was defending him. He’d offered them to a stranger. “He didn’t do it. He came up to Hebburn with us to save us from Donovan. If he truly didn’t care about us, he could have fled to the colonies, or Australia, abandoning me and Lydia to his money-monger.” Jack Grenard wasn’t the best father, but she wanted to think he did care about her and Lydia, and Wally, too. Papa had fallen in love with their mother at first sight, he’d said. Phoebe smiled behind her kerchief, remembering Papa’s version of the story.
Mama had been a young widow, with a small child, and he walked into a church one Sunday morning because he’d heard the voice of an angel singing a hymn calling all sinners to come to the Lord. He often said, there’d been no bigger sinner than he, and he needed forgiveness, and a turn of luck. Mama had been living with her first husband’s family after they married. Her husband was an officer in the army, and soon after their marriage he was sent to the colonies. Being a third son and with two older brothers and several nephews, Wally’s papa was never likely to inherit the title, and neither was Phoebe’s brother. But the family had a grand estate and wealth beyond her imagining, for Wally’s paternal grandpapa had been a viscount. Lord Acomb offered to allow mama to remain at the estate outside Newcastle after his son died. Had Mama stayed, she never would have had to worry about where her next meal came from. And, more importantly, her son would have been raised like a gentleman of the upper crust. But her brother-in-law—the heir to the viscount—older brother of Wally’s father, kept pressuring Mama to become his mistress.
She got tired of refusing, and finally took her son and returned to the home of her parents. If she had not left the estate of the viscount, then Mama would never have met her father, and Phoebe rather enjoyed being alive. Perhaps not so much right at that particular moment, but overall, she loved her life. “Papa would never have sold us,” she said. “For all that he was often in his cups, he did love us.” “Aye, he did,” Francie said. “But I think he loved his drinking and gaming as much as he loved you, if not more. Else why would he have done what he did?” Papa told her once that he saw himself in Wally because he was rambunctious and lacked manners. Perhaps Wally had been indulged as a child living with his father’s family, but he’d grown out of it when he went to school. By the time he’d been abducted and impressed he had a good heart and was a very responsible young man.
He was always honorable, and protected them when Papa would get drunk and strike at them when he was angry about something. Her brother often stepped in and took the blows meant for their mother, and frequently Phoebe. Lydia was too small, and by the time she was big enough to be on the receiving end of Papa’s blows, Wally was away at school. That was when Phoebe stepped in, doing her best to protect her little sister. On Boxing Day, two weeks before he was abducted, Wally promised that once he was established in a profession and home of his own, he would take their mama, and her and Lydia, and they would leave their papa in whichever gutter was nearest his black heart at that time. Then Wally disappeared. He was just months away from taking his exams when he and his friends had been abducted in the alleyway behind the tavern as the young men left to go to a friends’ home a few blocks away. Many months after he’d been impressed into His Majesty’s Navy, and after thinking her son dead, mama received a letter from Wally saying that he’d been forced into service aboard a ship, but that he wasn’t upset by his impressment. He was with his friends and they were fighting the Americans on the seas as his father did on land during their war for independence. “I wish Wally were here,” she said through her sniffling.
“I wish he was still alive because he would know what to do. I can’t believe it’s been almost a year.” Her cousin gave a snort and a laugh. “We have had a horrible few years, haven’t we, Phoebe? First Wally gets press-ganged, your mother dies, your father dies, my mother dies…” Francie sighed deeply, her voice just as emotional as Phoebe felt. “I’m so sick of death. I want to live. I want to experience everything I can before I die of very old age.” “That was what Wally used to say,” Phoebe said. “Must have been something our mothers inspired in us,” Francie said wistfully. “I wish I remembered him, but I was much too young when your father took your mother and brother to London.
” “You were just a babe yourself, but you would have—” Phoebe stopped, as she and Francie both heard the door open. Francie grabbed the pistol and rose up on her knees and seeing two men, fired the only ball they had, in the only pistol they had, at the two thugs the first man sent to further intimidate them. The sound of pistol fire reverberated through the small room and the deafening sound made Phoebe’s ears ring so loud she couldn’t hear what that one thug was shouting. That was probably a good thing, too. Clutching his shoulder, the dark haired one appeared to be swearing, but she blessedly couldn’t hear him. The fumes from the spent gunpowder in their small storefront left Phoebe nauseous as she struggled to stand. After she’d risen from the floor and the smoke cleared she realized Francie’s mistake. The two men didn’t look like thugs at all. In fact, they were vaguely familiar looking, and she immediately came around the counter to aid the young man her cousin had just put a ball into. “Miss Grenard!” The light-haired man appeared disbelieving of what he’d just witnessed, but quickly became serious and business-like, barking commands in a takecharge voice.
“Quick! Some strips of cotton and spirits if you have it.” “Phoebe, who are these men?” Francie asked. “Do you know them?” “I… I… don’t know,” she whispered to her cousin as she looked in the scrap bin under the counter for material appropriate for bandaging. “Be quick please,” the blonde man said, as he helped his friend onto the settee in the corner. “My friend is bleeding, and I need to stop the flow of blood.” “Bloody hell, why did ye shoot me?” the dark one said to Francie. “Aren’t you with…” Francie gave her a confused look, then turned back to the two men, “that man that was just in here?” Phoebe met Francie’s worried gaze. She was still trying to place the two gentlemen. With a handful of cotton and wool scraps, she froze in place as their faces became clearer to her. These two men were Wally’s friends! She’d seen them a number of times, but they were several years older now, and she didn’t remember their names.
From the few letters she received from her brother, she remembered the two friends he’d had with him on the ship were… Harry, was it? And the other? Reggie? A panicked breath left her body as though she’d been punched. “Oh dear God! I know you both. I mean… I don’t know which one you are, but…” “You’re muttering nonsense and my friend is injured here,” said the blond man. “Do you have a place for him to lay down so I can examine him and stitch him up? Preferably somewhere with good light.” He gave Phoebe a cross look, as though she was the one who shot his friend. “Well?” “Harry,” the dark haired man said, groaning as his friend removed his left arm from his jacket, “If I die, you’d better never tell a soul it was a little girl that shot me.” “I’m not a little girl,” Francie snapped back at him, “and you were just scratched. If you die from that, then you’re not much of a man.” “Reggie, you’re not going to die. I’ve seen worse.
” So the handsome blond gentleman was Wally’s friend Harry, and the other one was Reggie. She remembered them now. Harry was the one who’d planned on going to medical school to become a real physician. Reggie was studying—she couldn’t remember exactly… but something to do with building things. Mechanical Arts maybe? Or Architecture? It hadn’t mattered really. Months from completing their university education, five friends were stolen off the street. Phoebe learned a long time ago that life had a way of throwing rocks at those who kept to the straight and honest paths. Though with regard to her brother and his friends? It had dropped massive boulders onto them, two of the young men died the very night they were abducted. In a way, it had also heaved an equally massive one at her and her sister, who now faced life in some money-lender’s brothel to pay their father’s gambling debts. If, as that man’s brute said, they sent her to work in a brothel, that would be the end of the world for her.
Who would want a woman after she’d paid off her father’s debt on her back? And Lydia was just a child yet! She’d have to make sure to hide Lydie well. No one was ever going to take her to a place so… so… wicked. “Where can we have some privacy?” the one she believed to be Harry said. “I need to tend to his wound. And do you have spirits of any sort?” “Yes,” Francie said, and turned to see that Lydia had come below and now stood behind the counter, her brown eyes filled with terror, but not tears, Thank God. How had she not heard her little sister come down the steps? She dropped the strips of cloth she held on the cutting table and went directly to her sister’s side and hugged her. “We are fine, sweetheart. I promise.” “It’s not time to get squeamish, the pain is getting worse by the second,” said the wounded one. “Get that liquor bottle, girl, I need it immediately.
” Without her slate Phoebe had no idea what Lydia was thinking, but she knew that her sister didn’t need the added traumatization. Once her sister had gone back through the curtain into their private residence, she returned her attention to the two men. “Am I right?” Phoebe’s mind still reeled from the recognition. “You’re friends of my brother.” “Is that the welcome you give friends?” growled the wounded man. “We didn’t know…” Phoebe held back the curtain to the dressing room where she and Francie fit dresses to their customers for alteration. Francie swept in and hurriedly folded the fabric spread Phoebe had spread out over her cutting table. Then the doctor assisted the injured man up onto the table. “Did you see the man who walked out just minutes before you entered?” Francie asked. “He came in here and threatened us.
All of us.” “No, he threatened me and Lydie,” Phoebe corrected. “You have nothing to worry about.” “You’re my cousins and I will not stand by and see you punished for your no-good father’s debts. I know you loved him, but he didn’t care one whit about you and your sister.” “He did, Francie! He took us away—” “After he sold you to his money-lender,” Francie reminded her. “I heard the man, Phoebe.” “Please, Francie,” Phoebe murmured to her under her breath. “Not here. Not now.
” “What is happening?” asked the young doctor. “Who is the man that threatened you?” “It’s nothing,” Phoebe said, casting a stern look at her cousin. “I’ll take care of it.” Phoebe was a private person and usually kept to herself. She didn’t share information about her family or background with anyone, for fear of just what had happened a mere twenty minutes earlier. There was nothing to be proud of in saying you were Jack Grenard’s daughter. Her father was an abusive drunk, and bad gambler. He had no friends, and no problem telling lies when it suited his purposes—whether it was to his wife, his children, or his creditors. But her mother, God rest her soul, believed her husband’s blatherskite and saw him in a better light than Phoebe or Lydia, or even Wally before he was abducted and impressed. Wally.
Why were his friends here? They had to know that the navy had informed her and Lydia of Wally’s death. So why were they standing in her cousin’s shop? “If you will excuse us a moment, Miss Grenard, I must tend to my friend’s wound.” Lydie handed the brandy bottle to Francie, who then gave it to the young doctor. He pulled the stopper out of the top and took a sniff and gave a sour look at Phoebe. “What is in this bottle?” “Gin.” Francie said, to which the doctor gave Phoebe and Francie a curious brow. “It was my mother’s,” her cousin said. “She died two months ago.” He took a swig and began to cough after he swallowed. “That’s not gin,” he cracked through a semi-hoarse voice.
He coughed and cleared his throat. “It’s more like rotgut,” he said. “But whatever it is, there’s more than enough alcohol in it to serve my purpose.” He handed the bottle to his friend who was seated on the edge of their cutting table. “Drink some of this, but save me about half.” While his friend began to drink—without any problems—straight from the bottle, the doctor turned to the ladies. “If you’ll excuse us for a few moments, while I tend to my friend. But first, is it possible to get some extra candles? I need as much light as I can get.” There were no windows in the cutting room, and they usually worked by the light from the windows with the curtain over the doorway pulled back. They only dropped the curtain when they were fitting a customer.
Francie found a match and got to work lighting their two oil lanterns—a luxury purchased by Aunt Frances when times were good. The lamps allowed Aunt Frances to work into the night, after a younger Francie had gone to bed. Her cousin hung the lanterns on the hooks over the table. Phoebe backed out of the room and bumped into Lydia, who still had eyes the size of saucers, pale cheeks, and a cold sweat on her brow. She trembled in place and looked as though she’d seen a ghost. “Lydia, sweetheart,” Phoebe whispered to her young sister, “everything here is fine. Please go back upstairs.” Lydia frantically pointed at the curtained doorway, her gaze wide eyed and the look on her face, frantic, as she shook her head. “There is nothing to fear from these men, Lydia,” Phoebe said. “They were Wally’s friends and were abducted the same night as he.
” Lydia nodded vigorously, and along with her hand motion, she was saying “Yes, yes, I know this.” “Then what is it that has you fearful?” Lydia reached under the counter and retrieved her slate and a slate pencil and began to write. Not afraid. Why here? “I don’t know,” she replied. “We hadn’t gotten to that point when…” Phoebe motioned to her own left shoulder, then pointed at the curtain, beyond which the doctor was treating his friend. “They spooked us when they came in, and Francie grabbed the pistol and fired it. She only intended to frighten them, not to actually shoot one of them.” Lydia wrote on her slate. Constable? “I hope not,” she replied. We’ve already got enough problems, she thought but couldn’t say it to her sister.
Phoebe had heard her cousin speaking softly behind the curtain, but didn’t know what was said. Hopefully she was apologizing. Francie came back through the curtain. “They won’t contact the constable,” she whispered, “Because I apologized and told them about the man who harassed us just moments before they walked in, and we thought they were with that man, because he said there were two men with him.” Without saying it, Phoebe showed her cousin with her facial expressions that she wished her cousin hadn’t revealed her problem to the two young men. Phoebe really didn’t like the idea of strangers knowing what her father had done. Especially because it might affect how they interact with her and Lydia, and maybe even Francie. Pounding on the front door of the shop rattled the glass pane in the door, and drew a gasp from Phoebe and Lydia. “You locked the door?” Phoebe asked her cousin.