"A woman's place is in the home!"
Miss Letitia Fenley stopped in her tracks at that declaration. What a choker! Everyone knew a woman's place was in charge, if you want something done right.
Another winter had come to London and stubbornly refused to be gone. These bleak weeks of March more resembled February, an in-between time when the sun sullenly peeked out from behind the clouds now and then, waiting for the world to be pretty enough to bother with.
Letty Fenley and her brother, Sam, traversed the streets of Clerkenwell. Strung out in a grim leer, buildings stained dark yellow and brown from decades of soot and humidity squeezed together like crooked teeth, the second and third stories leaning over to rub against the ones next door. The cobbles under their feet were greasy and half-submerged beneath a mix of mud, manure, and straw.
The two of them were headed for the grander environs of Bloomsbury, where, amid its walled gardens and wooden walkways, they'd be more likely to find a hack. Halting their progress was a crowd of angry men blocking the road, holding rudely painted signs and shouting ridiculous slogans in front of an unremarkable brick building. The shingle hanging over the door read messrs. jewell & hoyt, candlemakers. The store's owner had turned his sign to closed and pulled the curtains tight against the ire of folks marching on the walk outside.
Letty stood on her toes at the edge of the crowd to better view the happenings. Another pea-souper of a fog had sprung up, and invisible motes of coal smut coated the back of her throat from breathing in the noxious air. She pulled the high collar of her mantle around her mouth and nose.
"Why are you stopping?" grumbled her brother, eyes fixed on the road as he tried to keep his boots clear of the worst of the ruts, his head no doubt filled with work. "Bad enough I have to take time away from the store to escort you to your club. Worse is when time is wasted by your . . ."
Glancing up, Sam took in the scene before them for the first time. "What nonsense is this?" He squinted through the fog at the commotion. "Who're these never-sweats blocking the street at midday when there is business to be conducted?"
With no time to read anything other than accounting ledgers, Sam had missed the latest news regarding the rise of the Guardians of Domesticity. Groveling at the feet of the aristocracy and blaming women for the ills of society, the Guardians hid behind a facade of respectability, with lectures and charity work that claimed to celebrate the traditional British family and women's role as keeper of the hearth. Their true colors came into view when they found a business contributing to the "downfall of civilization" by employing young women in their shops and factories.
"Ladies should be taking care of men's needs instead of taking men's wages," shouted one man, flushed with an angry joy. He'd found a captive audience for his complaints as he shook a meaty fist in the face of a slender young woman trying to sidle past him and make her way into the shop.
A shop's assistant, no doubt, hired for pennies per week, working dawn to dusk for a pittance of what a male assistant might make. Although the girl's poke bonnet hid her face, the set of her shoulders and bowed head signaled distress.
Letty clenched her fingers. Despite the dank mist freezing her toes, heat rose in her chest. "How dare those oafs frighten that poor girl. Why, I am going to-"
"You are going to do nothing but make your way to your ladies' club," Sam growled, pulling Letty by the sleeve away from the crowd.
Unlike the shopgirl's threadbare cloak, Letty's deep blue mantle was made of the finest wool, the discreet trim done in costly velvet.
"Da says I'm to get you there without incident, and that's what I intend to do." Scratching his head, Sam read a large banner near them. "What is this nonsense supposed to accomplish? 'Take care of men,' indeed."
His golden hair appeared dirty brown in the low light, but nothing could hide the sudden glint of humor in his piercing blue eyes. "Good luck getting you, or those secret scientists you keep company with, to have anything to do with men. Unless it's to blow them up."
Letty admonished her brother while keeping an eye on the clerk. "We haven't blown anyone up. Well, one time, by accident. Besides, the purpose of the club is to study all aspects of science, not just the ones that make noise."
Letty was accustomed to defending Athena's Retreat. Ostensibly a social club for ladies to gather for lectures on the natural sciences, behind closed doors it served as a haven for women to conduct experiments, do research, and simply take the time away from the pressures of their duties to reflect on theories and ideas. The Fenley family's wealth allowed Letty the freedom to study her passion-mathematics-but that didn't mean her family understood why she and the other club members were driven to sacrifice their time and, in some cases, their opportunity to marry well or climb higher in society.
"Can't imagine what those scoundrels think shouting at ladies will accomplish," Sam continued, still clutching her sleeve. "If I shouted at you or our sisters, what would happen?"
"We'd tell you to shut up, and put toads in your bed," Letty said distractedly.
"You'd tell me to shut up, and put toads in my bed," Sam agreed with good-natured humor. He craned his neck to see over the thickening crowd.
"If I had a banner and waved it in your faces, would you listen to me?" he asked wistfully. "Big sign saying 'Stop Reading in Front of the Customers' or 'Stop Trying on the Bonnets You're Supposed to Sell' or 'Stop Putting Face Cream in the Icebox.'"
"Not likely," Letty told him. "If you want us to work for free at the emporium, you need to give us incentives."
Fenley's Fantastic Fripperies, the largest emporium in London, parted the city's ladies from their coin by offering a dazzling array of articles ranging from the utilitarian to the useless.
"It's a family business," he said. "Familial duty is your incentive. Not to mention free face cream, which does not belong in the icebox despite your incomprehensible blather about solids and temperature and matter-of-facts."
"Not matter-of-facts," Letty corrected him. "States of matter. You see, when the temperature increases, certain substances-"
"Twice now, I've put it on my toast." Sam pulled a face and shuddered. "Tastes like a scolding from Aunt Bess. Ugh."
Letty laughed, but when Sam checked his pocket watch, all traces of a smile vanished from his face. "I cannot be away from the emporium any longer. Let's slip away from this mess and-"
"Bring back the better days of Britain!"
Letty loosed herself from Sam's grip, the rest of his words muffled by the roaring of blood in her veins.
"Guardians of Stupidity is what you are." Letty raised her voice, glaring at the men around her. "Fools and bullies who think they know better than women. Back to the kitchen? As though running a household doesn't require as many skills as running a business."
Slipping through the crowd, Letty approached the building as a thin wail rose from the doorway. A beady-eyed man with a pinched mouth and spidery fingers had grabbed the shopgirl by the wrist, halting her escape.
"Don't bother trying to go to work. We're shutting this place down until they stop employing women in their factories and hire the men back," the man said.
A tinkling of broken glass punctuated his threat as someone launched a sign at the ground-floor window of the shop. The atmosphere turned in an instant from hectoring to predatory. With a foreshadowing of violence, the group of individuals molded into a single organism-a dragon ready to pounce on whatever threatened. This monster's hoard consisted of power rather than gold.
"Oh, no, you don't," Letty said through gritted teeth, clenching the straps of her heavy reticule in one hand.
"Letty!" Sam called after her. "Letty Fenley, you come back here this instant. I know you don't listen to me, but for goodness' sake, will you listen to me?"
Fear set her stomach to churning, but Letty allowed nothing to show on her face. Instead, she stuck her chin out and her shoulders back. Never again would she suffer a man intimidating her into submission, and she'd be damned if she watched this happen to any other woman. As Flavia Smythe-Harrows always said, sexual dimorphism does not excuse bad behavior.
What a pity Letty didn't have that printed on a banner.
Without benefit of a rival sign, she used what was available in the moment. Swinging her reticule around twice to achieve maximal momentum, Letty brought it down, hard, on the wrist of Beady Eyes.
"You let go of that girl, right now, you weasel-faced, onion-breathed . . ." Letty's stream of insults was drowned in the crowd's protest at the sight of their fellow man being assaulted by what someone deemed "half a pint-sized shrew."
"Half a pint indeed," Letty shouted back. "I'm less than an inch shorter than the median height for a woman of my weight, based on-Oy, stop waving that sign in my face."
Before Letty could take another swing at Beady Eyes, the sound of horses whinnying and men shouting from somewhere at the edge of the crowd broke the tension; a decrescendo from taunting voices to garbled protests heralded the arrival of authority. Jumping up for a better look, Letty spied two well-dressed men on horseback.
"On your way," a clipped, aristocratic voice shouted to the crowd. "Disperse at once."
The crowd buckled, its mood shifting from dangerous to frustrated. Letty protected the girl as best she could from the sudden shoving around them. Most of her attention, however, fixed on the familiarity of those crisp, clean syllables echoing in the air.
She would know that voice anywhere. Their rescue rode toward them in the form of Lord William Hughes, the Viscount Greycliff. A traitorous wave of relief that he would put an end to the danger was quickly followed by a cold dose of shame.
Six years ago, she'd believed him the epitome of nobility and elegance until that voice had delivered a verdict upon her head. The words he'd said and the pain they'd caused were etched into her memory forever.
"I don't care if you're Prince Albert himself. Move your arse, man!" A deeper baritone, the voice of Greycliff's companion, now carried over the crowd. "Put down the signs, or I'll put them down for you."
"Are they here to rescue us?" the girl asked.
Visions of Greycliff riding up on a snow white steed flashed before Letty's eyes. A handful of years before, such an image would have set her heart to racing and put roses on her cheeks. She would have caught her ruffled skirts in one hand, ready to be swept away by a hero, lit from behind by a shaft of golden sunlight.
Not anymore. The dirty grey-brown reality of working-class London remained solid and smelly before her eyes. These days, romantic scenes remained between the pages of a well-thumbed book.
"Never wait for someone else to rescue you," Letty advised. "Especially a man. They'll ride away on those fine horses afterward, and where will you be? Still here, cleaning the mess, having to work for an owner who couldn't even be bothered to come out here after you. Rescue yourself, my dear."
"Shall we run for it?"
"We could, but I've a better idea." Letty turned to Beady Eyes and held up her reticule. The man flinched, but she had other plans.
"Want to get rid of two troublesome women?" she asked him. Pouring out a palmful of coins, Letty made an offer. "Here's your chance."
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