About the book
She was everything he couldn’t control…
Exploited by men and torn away from her daughter forever, Carmen Black is desperate. After escaping the clutches of a hellish fiend, she embarks on a mission with a dual purpose: to open a music hall to support other women like her and find her lost child at all costs.
Witnessing his wife’s tragic death has left Arthur Hughes, the Duke of Davenport, traumatized beyond repair and with a hatred for music. So, when a new music hall opens, he has every intention of seeing it closed. Until he meets the irresistible owner.
Caught between a bewitching battle of wits and a torrent of feelings, Arthur quickly realizes that Carmen never backs away from a challenge. And that comes with a price. A price that all the King’s gold cannot pay. A debt from the past that marked her skin returns to haunt Carmen. And this time, she must pay in blood.
A soft orange glow from the lantern illuminated Carmen’s features as she walked to the edge of the wharf. Thick mist roiled around the riverside and a dreadful cold climbed up her spine. Carmen shivered and pulled her shawl closer. It was the dead of the night, and not a soul in sight.
Perfect, Carmen thought to herself. If she was found here by somebody, it would spell disaster. She heard rapid footsteps behind her and turned around, but it was almost impossible to see anything beyond a few yards.
When a woman came into view, Carmen heaved a sigh of relief to see Lily, her oldest friend, who had been with her since she came to London seven years ago.
“What are you doing here?” she asked Lily.
“You slipped out of the bed in the middle of the night. Of course I had to come find you,” she said. “Is it another woman?”
Carmen nodded. It was always another woman. No matter how many she saved, many others were out there waiting for her help, waiting to be found.
“Couldn’t it have waited till tomorrow?” Lily asked.
“She belongs to a powerful man. She barely escaped, but she’s afraid to be caught. He has threatened to have her arrested on false charges of theft already,” Carmen said. “She’s walking a thin line. She wanted to meet under the cover of darkness because she feels safer this way. Besides, John wrote in the note that she’s injured and needs immediate attention.”
Lily nodded. “Then we must see to her immediately. They’re not here yet?”
As if on cue, a small dinghy channeled slowly out of the blanket of the mist towards where Carmen and Lily stood. Carmen cranked up the heat of the lamp as John, the boatman, tied a thick rope around the wooden post, and the dinghy gently bumped into the wooden walkway.
Carmen stepped closer, helping the woman that John had ferried out of the dinghy. She wore a thin gown and her teeth chattered against the cold. Immediately, Carmen took off her shawl and wrapped it around her. The woman was in worse shape than she had initially estimated.
Lily hissed when she noticed the woman’s wounds. Her lip was cut, and her eye was bruised as if somebody had boxed it; knowing the truth, someone probably had. “Are you all right?”
Her voice shook. “I managed to escape. I’m as fine as I can be.”
“Lily, hold her,” Carmen instructed. She took out a few coins from her purse and handed them to John, who waved her away.
“Don’t be silly. I’m glad to be of help.”
Carmen shook her head. “John, you’re a good man, but I can’t make you work for free, especially for something as dangerous as this. Your wife and children need it. Take it.”
John sighed. “Fine, if you insist.” Carmen liked the boatman. He was one of the few men that she trusted.
“Thank you again,” she whispered. John held his cap to her, then untied his dinghy from the shore and headed back into the water to return home.
Carmen turned to Lily, who had the other woman in her arms. She was visibly shaking. “You’re fine now,” Carmen said. “You’re safe with us.”
“Thank you,” the woman whispered. Her name was Remi, and the first letter she had written to Carmen was over a month ago, informing her of the ill-treatment meted out by a certain Earl. She had no idea who it was as Remi refused to give his name.
“Won’t you tell us who the man is?” Carmen asked Remi again, hoping the other woman would give in and reveal the truth, but she only shook her head. “He’s too powerful. You’re better off not knowing.”
Lily looked at Carmen and said, “It’s fine. You’re with us now.”
Together, they supported Remi between them and took off towards home, which was only a few streets away. The dilapidated building used to be a theatre a long time ago, but had been shut down. After scouring the entirety of London for a decent living space for about twenty women, they had finally come upon it.
The streets were silent and empty, but she felt safe. They walked up to the broken steps of the building, which was now cast in darkness. The entire west wing had caved and fallen in a few summers before they moved in, and they were fixing it brick by brick.
Remi cast an uncertain look at the building. “What is this place?” Most people were intimidated the first time they saw it. Maybe that’s why not many people dared to venture inside, which worked in their favor.
“It’s all right,” Carmen said. “This place only looks scary. Once we’re done fixing it, it will be one of the brightest places in the city.”
Remi’s eyes widened. “What are you transforming it to?”
“A music hall,” Lily said. “But let’s get you out of the cold first or you might get sick.” The three women ushered inside. Carmen led Remi into the kitchen where a lantern was kept on the table. The dying hearth of the fireplace warmed the room. Carmen looked out into the empty hallway. It was completely silent.
“Good, everyone is asleep,” Carmen said. “We have a busy day tomorrow.”
“What is tomorrow?” Remi asked. She sat down on a chair while Lily bustled around the stove, heating water.
“We’re going out to the streets to promote the music hall,” Carmen explained. “Even though inauguration itself would take at least another few weeks, it is better to get the word out early.” The music hall was her greatest dream, one that was this close to coming true after years of setbacks.
“This is really going to be a music hall then?” Remi asked in awe, looking around her.
“We have worked hard on this place,” Carmen said, looking around the stone-steeped walls. “It doesn’t look much right now, but if you step into the west wing, which is where we’ll be holding our shows, you’ll notice the difference.”
“But where did you learn music?” Remi asked, looking Carmen up and down. The question was obvious. Music was taught only to well-bred ladies, and Carmen was obviously not one.
“I learned,” Carmen said shortly.
“And she taught the rest of us,” Lily said. “She’s an excellent teacher and she will put to shame most of the musicians that play in Covent Garden.”
Remi was silent. Lily held up the rag and boiled water to Carmen, who gratefully took it from her. Carmen knelt in front of Remi and said, “This might sting a little.” Then pressed the rag on her wounds to clean it.
Remi hissed in pain. Carmen’s heart panged. She didn’t deserve this. None of them did. “Why did he do this to you?” she asked. Usually, the men didn’t need a reason. They liked the power, and they knew that their actions would go unpunished, so they turned their wrath on the weak and the ones who were unable to protect themselves.
“He came to me drunk,” Remi said. “I threatened to tell his wife about me, about us.”
Carmen raised both of her brows. “He doesn’t want his wife to find out?” Usually, the men didn’t care if their wives knew about their mistresses. Since infidelity wasn’t exactly against any law, little could be done about it.
“No,” Remi said. “He just doesn’t want her to find out that I’m…” She drifted off, putting one protective hand over her stomach.
Carmen knew immediately and her stomach sank. “Oh, Remi.” She was pregnant with the weasel’s child.
“I didn’t anticipate this. Neither of us did. We took all the necessary precautions,” Remi said. “That’s why he thinks that I-I…that this isn’t his child.”
Carmen’s heart ached; a sudden fury climbed up her veins. She remembered herself, years ago, hungry and alone as the winter roared at her back. She had sworn off men a long time ago, but when she saw women falling prey like this, her hatred grew anew. Just when she thought that they couldn’t be any worse...
“That’s why he hit you,” Carmen said, her voice trembling with anger. She had half a mind to hunt down the pig and bring vengeance upon him. “Despite knowing that you’re pregnant with a child.”
“He thinks it isn’t his.”
“It doesn’t matter whose child this is. No men—nobody should get to put their hands on you like this,” Carmen said. “You deserve far better than this.” Like she had.
Lily stood by the side watching them and clucked. “This is terrible.”
“But it isn’t like that,” Remi explained, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. Carmen didn’t remember the last time she had cried, the last time she had allowed herself to cry, to let her pain out. “I haven’t slept with anybody but him. I have not gone to work, and he’s the only man I’ve seen since I met him.”
Carmen shook her head. “That’s not the point. Even if you did business as usual, he had no right to hit you. Especially in your condition.”
“It does matter,” Remi said, her voice sad. And that’s when Carmen knew that Remi liked—maybe even loved the man. “He thinks I’m untrustworthy. He lost his temper. I don’t really blame him.”
“You wrote the letter to me last week,” Carmen said. Women around these parts—especially night women or other exploited women— knew Carmen would always help them. “This isn’t the first time he has hurt you.”
Remi opened her mouth and then shut it. “It doesn’t matter. It’s my fault.” She got up from her seat. “Coming here was a mistake.”
“No,” Carmen said, putting a gentle hand on her. “Don’t leave yet.”
“If he won’t take me back, I have to go back to the streets and start working again.” Her voice caught on a sob. “I don’t want to do that anymore.”
“You can leave your trade and join us if you wish to, like we all have.”
Remi turned away. “I can’t.” She won’t. She was still holding a candle out for a man who would never change. The society and all its rules were made to cater to men like him.
“You will find a good home amongst us, women just like you who have been deemed outcasts by Society,” Carmen said.
“Carmen is right,” Lily said. “She has found a good home for us and, with time, we shall have a decent income to begin life anew.”
Remi didn’t answer. Instead, she looked at Carmen’s arm. “You talk to me about abuse, but who did that to you?”
Carmen noticed the sleeve of her dress that had ridden up and she immediately covered the disfigured skin. It ran down like a snaking ugly scar starting at the elbow. “It was an accident,” Carmen said shortly. “It happened a long time ago.”
Remi stared at her in disbelief, but Carmen wasn’t about to explain herself to her. It would make no difference. She had seen a lot of cases like this before. The women seldom changed their minds. Those who had chosen to stay, with time, had come to be her dearest friends.
“You’ll find friends here, women just like you,” Carmen said.
“I can’t stay,” Remi said. “He migh’ look for me.”
“Then we shall protect you,” Carmen said. She looked up at Lily for support. “And we shall not let any harm come to you.”
“It’s not that easy,” Remi said. She didn’t look convinced at all. “Besides, what about the babe? How will it grow up here?”
“Wouldn’t you rather you stay alive for your baby than be at the mercy of the man who distrusts you?” Carmen said. “What if tomorrow he grows afraid that his bastard may lay claim to his title that his natural-born son deserves?”
Remi flinched at her harsh words. Carmen’s own heart ached but she needed the other woman to understand the gravity of the situation. Usually, they were so starved of affection that they took a kind word or smile as love, not knowing what it truly meant. Once upon a time, Carmen had tasted the sweet nectar of love. Or at least, she thought she had until reality finally came crashing down.
Without saying anything further, Carmen finished cleaning up Remi’s wounds. It would do little to soothe her bruises, but it would heal with time as long as she didn’t go back to the monster.
“Stay the night with us at least,” Carmen said, finally. She couldn’t imagine the poor woman out there in the night alone. “We have other women here who will take care of you.”
Remi nodded and Carmen felt a sigh of relief. “Good, now follow me.”
The first thing that stuck Arthur was the abrupt and garish lighting of the theatre, and even so, everyone around him was cast in darkness. Above him, sconces and dipped candles hung crowning the chandelier, and the light seemed to be entirely focused on the stage, now empty. Something was odd about this place. Something in his stomach didn’t feel right; something important was missing.
A storm of murmurs arose; too many people were trying to talk at the same time. He turned to his wife, who was sitting beside him. “There’s just too many people here. Is the play that popular?”
He frowned as he looked around. “Looks like everyone has something to say.”
Lydia Hughes, the duchess of Davenport and his wife of seven years, didn’t turn around to face him, neither did she acknowledge him, which seemed rather odd to Arthur. She was always attentive to him.
“Are you all right, dear?” he asked, reaching for her. He could hardly see her face as she was turned away from him. He reached for her when the music began. It started with a low tilt before the notes rose higher and higher, reaching a crescendo. The music was beautiful, and yet in the spaces punctuated by the silence of the pianoforte and the violin, Arthur sensed certain melancholy.
“Lydia?” he called out. No answer. He reached for her hand but grasped air instead. Simultaneously she fell out of her seat, collapsing to the floor.
“Lydia!” Arthur shouted. He knelt beside his wife on the darkened balcony. The music seemed to surround him entirely, cutting off air from his throat so he could barely breathe. He knelt to the floor with his hands, his mind swimming. “Lydia,” he said, almost choking on the single word. He reached for her, but she seemed to be getting farther and farther away from him until darkness swooped down on him and made him its own.
Arthur woke up in his bed, gasping for air. He was drenched entirely in sweat, and the cool air from the window he had left open before going to bed played on his back. He couldn’t sleep with the windows shut anymore.
Arthur looked down at his hand. His hands were shaking. The faint light of moonlight darkened his chambers. He was in his home, alone.
He had dreamt of his wife again, and every time it was the terrible scene. The ill-fated play that they had gone to see together…It had been three years since she had passed, and he was in this room alone.
Arthur greedily gulped in the air, grateful to be broken of the nightmare’s chain. His hands were still shaking and his heart beat like a drum against his chest. No matter how many times he experienced it, each was equally as terrible as the first time.
Arthur got out of bed and walked to his window. “What is happening to me?” he asked himself, raking a frustrated hand through his hair. His condition had baffled his physician, whose only solution seemed to be a sleep remedy to help him dream and another to calm his nerves. Neither of them seemed to have worked till then.
He found the candelabra next to his bed and lit it with a matchstick. He knew he wasn’t going back to sleep anytime soon, so he put on his evening robe and quietly exited his desolate room. Arthur walked down the empty halls of Davenport House, absolutely hating the silence. The servants lived in a different wing on the opposite side of the manor.
He padded down a rounding staircase to reach his daughter’s room. Arthur inhaled as he pulled the doorknob open. Nora was fast asleep in her bed. He heard the sound of her little snores from where he was standing. Arthur relaxed immediately. “Well at least she’s safe,” he mused to himself. Whenever he couldn’t sleep, he found himself checking up on his daughter. Her sight gave him immense comfort, when nothing else in the world could.
He quietly closed the door, not wanting to disturb Nora. Sleep didn’t take him when he went back to his room, so he took a book out of his small bookshelf and read instead.
Just as the clock stuck six, there was a knock at his door. “Come in,” he said. His valet, Ramon, who had been with him since he was a little boy, entered the room.
“Good morning, sir,” Ramon said, giving a slight bow. Arthur kept the book away. His eyes had grown heavy and he bit back a loud yawn.
“Good morning, Ramon,” he said, his voice scratchy.
The valet looked at him with some concern. “Didn’t you sleep last night, Your Grace?”
“Not really,” Arthur said.
“Bad dreams troubling you again?” Ramon asked. He knew about his affliction and the terrible headaches that accompanied his insomnia, and everything else. But Arthur hadn’t given him many details of his nightmare, or the fact that he always saw his dead wife whenever he was unfortunate to slip into one.
“You can say that,” Arthur said. He scratched his jaw and felt his morning stubble. “Please fetch my shaving kit.”
“In a moment, sir. Would you like to have a bath first?”
“Yes, that would be nice,” he said. A hot, soaking bath sounded wonderful. Half an hour later when Ramon was finished dressing him, he made his way to the dining hall where Nora already sat at the table. She was flipping through the newspaper that one of the footmen had kept for him.
He threw her an amused look. “What do we have here?” he asked, laying a soft kiss on the top of her head.
“Good morning, Daddy,” Nora said. She beamed at him. To Arthur, she was his greatest shining light in this world. “I was just reading the report about the two new kinds of exotic flowers they discovered.”
Arthur raised both of his brows. Nora was only seven, but had perception far beyond her age. Along with that she had also been blessed with a sharp mind.
“What of it?” he asked as he buttered his scone.
“Well, I don’t particularly fancy the names,” Nora said. “They could have been prettier.”
Unlike most of his peers, Arthur encouraged his daughter’s education and had already decided to look for a great learning institute for her, and not just one where she would be taught to be a man’s wife. They spent the next half hour eating the delicious breakfast of English eggs, toast with marmalade, and thick-cream milk, and discussing the topic of the Parliament.
When the table was cleared and plates taken away, Arthur dabbed his mouth with his handkerchief. “So, what has your governess planned for your lessons today?”
“We shall be memorizing two poems and reading a bit about flowers. After that, we’ll be practicing our tunes.” Nora said, making a face.
Arthur frowned. “Aren’t the lessons to your liking then?” At the start of the week, he sat down with the governess, Mrs. Cooper, to plan Nora’s lessons accordingly. Arthur took an active interest in what Nora was learning. But he steered clear of everything when music was involved. He couldn’t stand hearing it without palpitations.
“Well, they are but Mrs. Cooper can be so terribly off-key at times! Sometimes she’s so bad, I have to put my hand to my ears to keep her out.”
Ramon stood to the side, stifled a snort and coughed into his hand. Arthur heard the inappropriate sound but chose to ignore it. He turned to his daughter instead. “That’s not a very nice thing to say about Mrs. Cooper. She’s your elder, and deserves your respect.”
Nora rolled her eyes, in a decidedly un-ladylike manner. If Lydia were here, she would have chastised her, but Arthur allowed his daughter certain liberties. She had suffered a terrible blow after the Duchess had passed away. “I do like her,” Nora insisted, “but I really wish I had a better music teacher.”
Arthur ignored this. He wanted nothing to do with music, so he always made sure that Nora’s lessons were focused away from that. It had been to his favor that Mrs. Cooper was such a bad musician and an even worse singer.
Father and daughter walked out of the dining hall. Nora played with her pendant before running to the window. “The weather is so splendid today,” she remarked, looking out.
“Certainly,” Arthur said, already distracted. He noticed the time on his pocket-watch. He had an appointment with his friend Richard in the afternoon.
“Let’s go out, Papa!” Nora said. “It’s such a wonderful day. It would really be a pity if we stayed inside.”
“I have work to do, sweetheart,” Arthur said, knowing that his daughter was too stubborn to let go of it so easily.
And sure enough, she pouted, and her big violet eyes filled with sorrow. “I so wish to go outside, Papa. I dearly want us to have a stroll in the park.”
“Let’s have a stroll in the garden instead,” he said. He held out his hand to her and she reluctantly took it. They walked through a long corridor to reach their backyard filled with wet plush grass, neatly trimmed bushes, and some trees. Two gardeners were working hard on the flower bed. They strolled through the garden in the warm sunshine, watching the two gardeners tend to the flower bed.
“It’s the same every time,” Nora said. “I can’t remember the last time we went out.”
The truth was, neither could he. He had all but isolated himself from Society, which led to countless speculations in the gossip columns and even amongst his peers. Most left him alone, citing his wife’s death even though he was well past the mourning period. The truth was, Arthur didn’t want to go out, nor did he have anything to go out for.
“I really wanted to visit the park. I’ve heard it has a beautiful water fountain and all sorts of birds flock there. I want to feed them, even the swans in the water.”
“How do you know about swans?” Arthur asked.
“It was in my lessons, of course,” she said. Arthur frowned to himself. That lesson wasn’t supposed to be over before next week. They were only reading about lions and tigers the other day. How quickly did they move to birds? Arthur made a mental note to check in with her teacher, but he suspected that Nora was moving farther ahead than he had anticipated. “Papa, please. I do all my lessons on time. I’ve even managed to sew in a straight line two days in a row! Mrs. Cooper says I’m improving.”
“All right, fine,” Arthur said. He knew that she wouldn’t stop asking him about it and he couldn’t keep on saying no to her forever. It was best to just get it over with. “We shall go down to the park, but only on one condition…”
Carmen stared at the flyer in her hand. “The handwriting looks rather crooked,” Lily said.
“Is it illegible?” Carmen asked.
“Well, no—” Lily said, sounding unsure.
“Then it shall suffice.” Carmen shrugged. About twenty other women bustled around them. For an outsider looking in, they would be seen as promiscuous women seducing men and sometimes women to bed. Here, they were sisters working and living together.
Carmen walked up to Elaine, who was sewing the bottom of a skirt. “Is that almost ready?”
“Almost,” Elaine said, looking up at her with a smile. At fifty, she was the oldest amongst all of them and acted as their matron and cook. Elaine was also one of the first women Carmen had found when she had escaped almost seven years ago.
The women raised money by doing odd household jobs. Carmen and a few others worked several days a week at the dock just a few streets away. They helped men haul shipments that came in. Others chose to stay behind to take care of the music hall or embroider to raise money.
Carmen examined the skirt. “Anything you make looks good to me.”
“You should have a try at it,” Elaine suggested.
“You know I’m very bad at this,” Carmen said, shaking her head with a quiet laugh. “I can hardly sew in a straight line.”
“Maybe not,” Elaine said. “But you have the voice of a nightingale, better than anyone I’ve ever heard.”
Carmen ducked her head at the compliment. She loved the feeling of sitting down at the pianoforte to sing. She looked outside. The sun was shining, and the day was clearer than it had been in the last few weeks. Even nature was on their side today.
Carmen stood on a stool and clapped her hands. Immediately, all the women stopped and looked up. “Attention girls, we’re going to go out to the streets today, and we need people to listen to us.”
“I have an idea,” Lily said. “Why don’t we go down to Vauxhall and try to look for future patrons?”
Carmen was unsure. It seemed way too early for that, but she nodded anyway. The first rule amongst them was that everyone had equal rights to voice their opinions, even though they seemed to have unanimously chosen her as their leader.
She didn’t want them to be dependent on rich men for help. “Anybody else have any other suggestions?”
Just then there was an insistent knock at the door. Two women, Mary and Tia, came running into the small hall where the women have gathered around.
“What’s wrong?” Carmen asked.
“T-there’s a constable at the door,” Tia said when she caught her breath.
Carmen’s eyes went wide in alarm. “A constable?” So far, they had been left alone, except for an occasional errant stone through the window. She smoothed her skirts and beckoned Lily to follow her. Together they would deal with it.
“What do you think it can be about?” Lily asked.
“We’re about to find out,” Carmen said as she noticed the constable standing at the threshold, his nose screwed in disgust. When he noticed them, a frown appeared on his face.
“I asked to meet with the man of the house,” the constable said.
“We’re renting this establishment,” Carmen said. The building which used to be a theatre was abandoned after a particularly bad fire. Even though the building was restored, nobody wanted to buy it because of bad luck. So, when Carmen had sought out the owner, he agreed to rent it out for a minimal number of coins.
Just then, the rest of the women followed them out of the room, their faces a mask of concern. The constable narrowed his eyes when he saw them all.
“You’re Carmen, aren’t you?” the constable sneered. “I’ve heard all about you. Luring women to join your …. ranks or whatever it is.”
Carmen raised a brow. She knew she had built a reputation around these parts as she helped women, especially the ones that no one else seemed to care for.
“I’m she,” Carmen confirmed, and the constable’s frown seemed to deepen.
“Do you all live together?” His tone was accusatory. His eyes twitched as he spoke, and Carmen could practically smell his hatred towards them.
“That wasn’t illegal the last time I checked,” Carmen said. “You cannot just encroach a property according to your whim! We have the appropriate papers that prove our claim,” Carmen said calmly. “We can show it to you if you so desire. We can even ask our landlord to see you if you so wish.”
“I’ll be back later,” the constable huffed, glaring at the women who had gathered behind her.
Lily eyed Carmen with concern. “Do you think he’ll come back?”
“If he does, he won’t find anything here,” Carmen said. “He just can’t stand the fact that women can live and thrive without needing any men.”
The constable left and the mood lightened. “Wear your bonnets and hats properly, ladies, it’s going to be hot outside,” bellowed Willow, a recent recruit, and the others cheered, anticipating what they were going to accomplish today. Remi stood at the back, watching them but not participating. The woman looked far better than she had yesterday.
Carmen walked up to her. “Would you like to join us?”
She shook her head, not meeting her gaze when she spoke. “No thank you. I would like to stay in.”
Carmen nodded. She had found an extra mat and blanket for her to sleep at night and had half expected Remi to leave before dawn. Many women she had tried to rescue from the streets had gone back to their trade, vanished before the crack of dawn. “We’re happy to have you here. You can stay back with Elaine, help in kitchen duties if you so incline.”
“Thank you,” Remi said, looking out the window wistfully. Carmen saw her own reflection in Remi and shuddered at the waves of memories rising inside her, then quickly turned away.
“All right, out the door everyone! The day is ours to claim today,” Carmen called out, ushering the women out of the door. They giggled and chattered, anticipating what was to come. Carmen liked seeing them like that—joyful and sunny, a drastic change to how they appeared when they had first arrived here.
Together, they walked down the sunny street. Some of the women had hand-drawn posters sewed into their dresses. They drew attention by clapping in unison, dancing and singing and even handing out flyers for those who were interested. Some of the passersby stopped to look, and a few rowdy men showered them with whistles and lewd comments.
Carmen stayed at the back of the group. Whenever any men tried to draw nearer, she held the stick in her hand up high.
“They’re afraid of you,” Lily said falling into step beside her.
“Well, they better be,” Carmen said. The sight of most men made something vile rise in her throat.
About a half-an hour of dancing down the street, they finally reached the Vauxhall Gardens. Originally built half a century before, it was a great expanse of lush green space where people came to enjoy an evening stroll or catch an open play of performers.
They were about to cross the road when a carriage careened toward them. “Watch your step.” Carmen shouted at the driver. These men would like nothing better to ignore their existence. But they were there, and they would be loud and proud.
She expected the carriage to drive away. But it came to an abrupt halt a few feet away. It was a handsome coach and probably belonged to a rich Lord. A piece of her past flashed in front of her eyes, but she shoved it away and concentrated on the footman now walking towards her, his finger raised in a threatening gesture.
Carmen raised her chin and met him halfway. “You should drive carefully, especially in a crowded place as this. You could have easily injured any of us.” She swept a hand to indicate the women around her who glared at the footmen. A few murmurs of approval followed.
The footman sneered. “I know the like of you.” He threw a disproving look at the women. “What do you want? Coins? Is that why you are raising a ruckus here? This place belongs to the gentlefolk, if you have forgotten that.”
Carmen raised a brow seemingly unperturbed. “I hardly raised a ruckus. You stopped on your own.”
“My employer—he told me to check on you,” he said darkly, preferring to be someplace else.
Carmen folded her arms over her chest. “Where is your employer?” Did the man had the audacity to send his servant and for what, to chastise them?
“I want to speak to him,” Carmen said. Usually, she wouldn’t bother, but the callousness this man was showing after almost hitting her didn’t sit right with her.
“He won’t get down from the carriage.”
“Then I shall go to him,” Carmen. She held the placard in her hand. “Lead the way.”
The man reluctantly started towards the carriage, and Carmen motioned the other women to follow. When they reached the carriage, a little girl of about seven was peeking out the carriage window. She had the most beautiful violet-colored eyes and Carmen stifled an urge to reach up to her and touch her cheeks. She mentally shook her head.
You’re missing someone who doesn’t exist in your life anymore, she reminded herself.
“Hello,” she called out from the window, her eyes curiously raking in the women and the colorful dresses they wore. “Who are you?”
“We’re musicians and dancers,” Carmen explained. “We are here to promote our musical hall which shall be opening its doors shortly.”
“How lovely!” the little girl exclaimed. Carmen had been so caught up talking to her and almost didn’t notice the man sitting next to her. Her breath caught. His head was a shock of dark brown hair and his eyes were piercing blue as if he saw right through her. His eyes were on her, and Carmen felt herself frozen to her spot, held by the weight of his gaze.
“What happened to you?” he asked in a low, deep voice. Carmen shuddered at the way his voice seem to play against her skin but quickly snapped out of it.
“Your carriage almost hit us, sir!” she said.
His frown deepened. “Do you seek compensation for it?” Was he trying to comprehend the situation or showing his dominance as most men did? Carmen thought the latter.
“No,” Carmen said. “We seek an apology.”
“My apologies,” he said. Carmen’s eyes widened in surprise. She couldn’t remember the last time a man had willingly admitted that he was wrong. “I informed my driver that he was driving rashly but it seems as if he was in a hurry to get us to our destination.” He looked pointedly at the footman and the driver, heads hung in embarrassment.
When she found her voice, Carmen said, “Thank you for that.” She offered a hand-made card to him, which he took. “We’re here advertising for our music hall. It would mean a lot to us if you came to see one of the shows.”
The man scanned through the flyer, then looked up. His face was stone-cold. “I’m sure you will find better patrons. This isn’t my forte.”
Carmen frowned. What is that even supposed to mean? “I assure you that we’re sufficiently trained for a performance as this.”
“I do not doubt your capabilities, madam. I simply do not wish to attend it,” he said coolly.
Carmen couldn’t believe that this was the same man that had moments before apologized to her. His face was stiff. She could swear that he looked afraid… Something was odd about this all.
“Papa!” the little girl spoke up. The little girl petulantly looked up at her father. “We must go. They’re working so hard for their show.”
“Thank you, little one,” Carmen said, grateful for any support.
The child beamed at her. “I would love to come see you.”
“And I’ll make sure to reserve a seat just for you, little one,” Carmen said.
The child’s eyes lit up and she clapped her hands. “That sounds delightful,” she said. Children her age are inquisitive in general, but she seemed perceptive as well. Carmen didn’t warm up to people easily, but she liked the child already.
“You’re not going anywhere, Nora,” the man practically snapped. Was Carmen witnessing a different man altogether than the one just moments before?
“I told you,” the man said. “We do not go to such places.”
“We don’t go anywhere!” the little girl pouted.
“That’s all right,” Carmen said, trying to placate the child. “You can come watch us perform later, like I said.” She handed her the flyer.
“We’re going back to the house now, Nora. We’ve had enough excitement for a day.” The man snatched the flyer out of her hand before the child could reach it.
“We didn’t even set foot out of the carriage,” Nora said. “We were supposed to be out for a walk and yet we have been inside the whole time!”
Carmen felt uncomfortable witnessing what she knew was a personal affair. She cleared her throat. “I’ll take my leave now,” she said politely. But it still struck her as odd that the man didn’t want to get out of his carriage.
“Let’s go,” the man said gruffly to the driver. He was obviously embarrassed by what had happened. After the carriage drove away, Lily turned to Carmen. “What was all of that about?”
“I don’t know,” she said as she watched the carriage disappear down the street. What a rude man he was! At first, she had thought otherwise, but then one simply couldn’t make a good assumption about a man. She did feel sorry for his child. “But I never want to see him again.”
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