A young man, I guess about twenty, stands behind us. He has extremely curly hair, large goofy-looking ears, a broad, short forehead, and soft brown eyes shaped like a doe’s. I like him right away. He seems like a person you can trust. Not far away, a carriage has pulled up behind our hansom. Another young man leans against the door, arms crossed over his chest. His expression isn’t clear from the distance, but apparently he is watching us. Perched on the box is another man who is so large and hulky that he probably could have pulled the carriage by himself.
The door swings away from my foot abruptly.
“He ain’t—isn’t here right now, Mr. Henry,” the maid says, her whole face glowing. She holds the door completely open now. “But you’re most welcome to step in and wait till he’s back.”
Whoa. Talk about double standards.
“We’d better go for another doctor,” I tell Elle. “There’s no telling when this doctor’ll return, and your mother needs help.”
She nods, but hesitates. “I don’t know any other. We always have Dr. Jensen over when Madam catches cold.”
“Perhaps I can be of assistance?” Henry says. “Although I am only Dr. Jensen’s apprentice, I have practiced medicine for three years. If you can describe the patient’s symptoms, maybe there is something I can do.”
Elle takes a deep breath. “Well, she keeps vomiting, and she has to, uh, go to the latrine a lot.”
“Diarrhea, I suppose,” Henry says. “Go on, please.”
“Her eyes are sunken, her lips are dry and cracking, and her skin is awfully cold and clammy.”
“The color of her skin...does it have a bluish tint?”
“Why yes, sir.” A glimmer of hope flashes in Elle’s eyes. “You know what disease she has?”
“I cannot be absolutely certain, but it could be cholera.” Henry straightens his coat and starts toward the carriage, where the other guy is still waiting. “Lead us to your mother. Is that your vehicle over there?”
“Come on, Elle.” I take her arm and pull her toward the hansom. “Let’s go.”
We return to Elle’s house in a flurry of creaking wheels. I look over my shoulder to make sure that Henry’ carriage is following us. Thank God he didn’t change direction once we entered the poorer district.
“We’re here now.” Elle springs off the hansom. I do the same and am thankful I chose the least fancy dress to wear. God knows what Martha might say if I soiled it.
Elle pushes the door open. “Mamsie, I’ve brought a doctor to see you.”
Inside, there is only one room. One dark, dingy, dirty room. The windows are cracked, the walls decaying, and the floor is only dirt and slime. In a corner there’s a stove and a few blackened pans. In another corner, two small patched straw mattresses. A larger mattress is set beside the two, with a middle-aged woman lying on it. Her face is angular, sickly pale, and her hair straggly and streaked with white.
Elle and I start to go over to her side, but Henry stops me. “Don’t go too close; her disease may be infectious.” He takes out a handkerchief and ties it over his face. “Can you fetch me some clean water?”
“In a moment.” Elle rolls up her sleeves.
Just then a little boy, no more than five, totters into the room. “Elle!” Then, noticing us standing around, he runs and hides behind her. “They...they’re not going to take us away?”
“Of course not,” Elle soothes him. “These people have come to help us, Billy. See that man in black with a briefcase? He’s a doctor.”
“A doctor...” Billy stares. “Someone who saves people?”
“Yes, and he’s come to save Mamsie. Just wait a bit. I need to help the doctor now.” Elle pats his head. “I’ll be right back.”
Elle vanishes out the door. It is then I realize the other guy—Henry’s friend I guess—has followed us inside. I take one glance at him and my cheeks burst into flame. Whoa…where did this walking personification of hotness come from? He has the sexiest eyes ever: heavy-lidded, espresso-brown with a cinnamon undertone, framed with lush, smoky eyelashes. The rest of his features are perfect as well: oval face, strong chin, and a chiseled nose. Dark wavy hair curls down his neck. Oh, and his figure is to die for. Well over six feet, with a body that looks like a champion boxer’s. Actually, he could be a champion boxer. With a face that could give Mr. Darcy a run for his money.
But I don’t—can’t—take advantage of the chance to talk to him. He is looking at me with an impassive, appraising eye, as though I am a mathematical equation he’s trying to solve.
Instead, I squat down beside Billy. He’s awfully thin—his eyes seem to take up his face. “What’s the stuff you’re carrying?” I try to make my voice as friendly and non-threatening as possible.
He hesitates, stares at me for a few seconds, and raises his arms.
“I found three bottles today,” he says proudly. “We can exchange ‘em for a whole loaf of bread.”
I notice numerous tiny scars and scratches on his hands—not even the abundant amount of dirt can hide the injuries. “Why don’t we put them away, Billy? The glass can cut your skin.” I use the same coaxing tone as I do when Paige insists on carrying a heavy soup bowl to the table.
“Where did you find the bottles?” Darcy Guy asks.
“By the river,” Billy grins proudly. “Usually I can’t find anything but a few scraps. Today I’m bringing in more than Jimmy does.”
I catch my breath. “You don’t go to school, do you?”
Billy shakes his head.
Elle hurries in with a pan of water. “Here,” she gasps. “Got it from a well.”
Henry takes a small bottle from his briefcase, uncorks it, and lets a few drops mix with the water.
“What’re you doing?” Elle cries, looking alarmed.
“That’s iodine, a kind of chemical,” I say. “He’s purifying the water so it’ll be safe to drink.”
Henry stares at me. I’m not facing Darcy Guy, but I can feel his gaze on me as well.
“How do you know this?” Henry asks, looking confused. “Few educated gentlemen, unless they’re in medical practice, have heard of iodine. To hear of it from a young lady like you is…remarkable.”
Crap. I forgot that in this world, normal people don’t take chemistry.
“I...I read it in a book,” I stammer. “A long time ago, I don’t remember which one.”
The sick woman starts coughing, which arrests everyone’s attention. Henry gives her a dose of medicine from another bottle and pats her back.
“Mamsie...will she be all right?” Elle asks, a tremor in her voice.
“As long as she’s taken good care of, she will be fine,” Henry says. He gives her a warm, encouraging smile. “Make sure she consumes clean water and washes her hands before she eats. Cholera is caused by bacterial infection through water, so you would not want to make things worse. She will recover, but it will take months of close supervision.”
Elle and Billy look at each other—despair is written in their eyes. I wish I could transport them into the modern world. We never have to worry about diseases like this.
“All...all right,” Elle says. “We’ll do our best. How much is that bottle? The thing you use to make water clean?”
“I can...” I begin, but Henry interrupts me. He writes something on a slip of paper and hands it to Elle.
“You may pay in multiple installments. Don’t worry, I won’t charge any interest or set a deadline.”
Elle nods. “Thank you, Mr.—er—”
“Henry,” he says, smiling. “Just Henry will be fine.”
I give myself a mental slap. Of course this is the better way. From the look on her face, Elle isn’t the kind of person who happily accepts charity. She earns a wage, however meager it might be, and prefers not to rely on others.
Still, my heart goes out to her and her family. Little Billy, still clinging to his sister’s skirt with his scarred hands. Elle’s mom, lying on a dirty mattress in a one-room hut. And did Billy mention he has another brother called Jimmy? He can’t be much older if he earns less than Billy collecting glass bottles.
“What kind of imbeciles are running this country?” I can’t help it, the words burst from my lips.
Henry chokes—he seems to be trying not to laugh. I don’t get it. I am totally serious. I’ve seen lots of horrible things happening on the news, but I’ve never witnessed one tragic event personally. Even if this is Story World, it feels real. So real that I want to puke.
Elle tugs on my sleeve and shakes her head, but I’m not done yet.
“Seriously.” I wave my hand at Billy. “A child his age should be in school, but he’s out scavenging glass? Isn’t there any charity that can help him? Isn’t there a law that states children must be educated?”
Silence falls. I am breathing heavily; I expect my face is bloated red and my freckles must stand out horribly. I must look wild and unprincipled and unladylike before these two gorgeous men, but I can’t say I regret it. I’m far from being philanthropic; I don’t volunteer or organize funding campaigns or anything, but I just can’t keep quiet when looking at all those scars on Billy.
Darcy Guy turns toward me with an unreadable expression. I stare back, willing myself not to back down.
“Certainly there is much to improve, lady.” Darcy’s voice is rich, warm, like dark chocolate. “The government has made too many excuses under the pleas for progress, ignoring the sacrifices that go behind the scenes.”
Henry turns to Elle. “With your permission, I shall find a respectable craftsman and see if he can take young Billy here as an apprentice.”
Tears glisten in Elle’s eyes. For a moment, she appears even more beautiful than Bianca, and that’s saying something. “That’ll be lovely, Mr. Henry. Oh, I don’t know how to thank you enough.”
Henry’s ears become pink and he deliberately coughs as he turns back to Elle’s mother.
It is then I remember I came here to inquire after Elle’s ancestry, but seeing her mother sleeping peacefully, I suppose it’ll have to wait. How long have I been here? Do I have time to return before dinner?
“I should be going,” I say. “Elle, stay here and look after your mother.”
Her eyes widen and her lips part slightly. “I couldn’t, miss. You’ve already done so much for me.”
“I’m sure Madam—er—Mother, can do without you for one evening.” I give her a firm nod. “Don’t you worry. Family is more important than a few hours of chores.”
She stares at me for a moment, like I just gave a speech in Russian. Uneasiness creeps into my mind—I guess the old Katriona would have never spoken as I did.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say in my most authoritative voice, and turn away before Elle can further protest. I nod toward Henry and Darcy Guy. Maybe I should have curtsied, as Pierre had taught me that is the proper way of greeting a man, but I don’t trust myself with my poor sense of balance.
I move toward the door and beckon to Van. When I prepare to climb into the hansom, someone calls me.
The dark chocolate voice. Darcy Guy approaches me, his gaze fixed firmly on my face.
“May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?”
My heart’s pounding in my ears. The man before me may be dressed in period clothing, but he’s hotter than any man I’ve ever seen, whether in real life or on the silver screen.
“Er...” I squeak. After my outburst earlier, I’m now reverted to wimpy-girl-mode. “Kat. Katriona Bradshaw.”
“The Bradshaws? Are you, by any chance, the daughter of the late Earl Bradshaw?”
“Stepdaughter,” I clarify.
“The girl with you is your servant?”
“Do you usually accompany your servants and visit their families?”
Um, not true, but I can’t tell him the reason I’m visiting Elle’s family is because I need to ask about her godmother.
“Sorry, but I must leave now. I...I have further duties at home.”
“Then pardon my indulgence in delaying you.” He recedes a step, but I’m sure his gaze is still on my back as I climb into the hansom. My right foot slips, but I manage to grab the side and hoist myself up, throwing my weight against the back of the seat. I don’t look back; I must look horribly clumsy and stupid.
Soon I am on the way home. Once the hansom reaches the main bustling streets, a tingle of excitement shoots up my spine. I’m sorry for Elle and her mother and regret I haven’t been able to get more information about Elle’s ancestry, but I suspect were it not for me, Elle’s mother would have been much worse. And I have met two hot guys. Well, Henry isn’t exactly hot—he’s more like this boy-next-door type, but Darcy Guy more than makes up for the rest.
Geez, even thinking about him makes me want to fan myself.
Okay, Kat. This is Story World, for heaven’s sake, so get a grip on yourself. You’ve no business drooling over storybook characters. Remember the mission.