“You want me to do what?” Christopher Bennett looked aghast at his mother.
She returned his gaze levelly. “It's not so much to ask, son. She's a lovely girl, and I want to introduce you to her.”
Christopher rolled his eyes in disgust. Mother is such a romantic, sometimes it drives me mad. He counted slowly in his mind, trying not to snap at her, his eyes lingering on the surroundings outside the family's factory. Billows of eye-stinging smoke poured from several chimneys atop the multi-story brick structure. Even from the street, the hiss of steam boilers and the clank of machinery reverberated loudly. Inside it was deafening. The streets around the factory, filthy with ash and soot, and the buildings surrounding them – tenements slums – sat forlornly under a blanket of garbage and dirt. The chill, humid air clung to the mother and son, moistening their skin with a slightly musty dew. A breeze picked up, sending the cold straight through his coat, which he had flung hastily over his shoulders and left unfastened, and her wrap. They both shuddered. When the wind had passed the tenement, it had picked up a vile aroma of human waste and unwashed bodies. What a terrible place to live, so close to the factories. But for thousands of the poor of London, there was no choice. Thank the Lord none of them works for us. Christopher and his father paid wages too high for that. Their workers lived quite comfortably in comparison.
A small and skinny child sat on the step across the road, dressed only in a thin nightgown despite the biting January cold, playing with some unidentifiable piece of trash. The scene did nothing to soothe Christopher's temper, and his voice, when he spoke, sounded harsher than he’d intended. “Mother, I’m much too young for you to play matchmaker with me. I’m nowhere near being ready to get married.”
“What a shame,” Julia Bennett replied, sweeping a strand of fiery hair away from her forehead and tucking it back under her bonnet. “You’re twenty-four, just the age your father was when we got married. Please, son. I’m not asking you to marry her, just to let me introduce you.”
“Why?” Christopher insisted.
This time Julia had to take a moment. I hate being here. While she approved of what her husband and son were doing in this factory, she despised the heat and noise and filth of the place, not to mention its squalid surroundings. Tenements like this one are a breeding ground for cholera. She shuddered in disgust. Why the devil am I here? But she knew the answer, though she didn't want to explain everything yet. She had just had tea with her young friend and listened to the sweet-natured musician play the harpsichord – beautifully as always – and then Julia had seen something so… she shook her head. It wasn't the first time she had encountered such heartbreaking marks on the poor girl, and Julia longed to take her away and keep her. Alas, Katerina is my friend, not my daughter, and I have no right to interfere. Today, however, an idea had struck her. There is a way to make Kat my daughter, to wrest her from the care of that monster. It was an impulsive plan, fraught with potential disaster, but here she was anyway. She had left the house for the factory the moment the visit had ended. The cab in which she had ridden waited at the curb to take her home again.
Christopher regarded her expectantly. What to tell him? Something true… but not the whole truth. Not yet. “Because she's not very popular, and there's no reason for it. I want everyone to see there's nothing wrong with her.”
“Why do you care?” he asked.
She gave him a disapproving look, condemning his sarcasm, but answered nonetheless. “She's my friend.”
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “How old is this woman?”
Julia threw up her hands in a gesture that recalled her less than genteel upbringing. “Don't look at me like that,” she exclaimed. The child across the street glanced sharply at them. Julia lowered her voice. “Katerina is not a dowager. She's nineteen, I believe, and quite pretty. Please, son, can't you do this one thing for me? Just meet her?”
I suppose I cannot refuse. Mother is a sweet woman, but stubborn. Once she digs her heels in, there’s no moving her. Since she had decided he needed to meet her friend, she would not let him hear the end of it until he did. Better to get it over with quickly. “Oh, all right then,” he agreed sourly. “I suppose you can perform the introductions tonight. I’ll meet her. I won’t promise to dance with her though. If she’s some kind of pariah…”
“Oh no,” his mother said quickly, making another of her famously unrestrained gestures, “just a bit shy, a bit of a wallflower. Nothing more.”
“Valentino,” Julia replied. Her eyes bored into him, but he had no recollection of any such name.
“Italian?” Christopher asked idly.
“Her parents came from Italy,” she explained. “Katerina, as far as I know, has lived in England her whole life. She looks rather Italian, but her manners and speech are very English.”
“I see,” Christopher replied. Inwardly he still recoiled at the thought of this obvious manipulation, but he kept his voice neutral. “Fine. Tonight, at the ball, I’ll allow you to introduce us, but that’s all. Any further actions I take will be decided by me.”
“I understand, son.”
Christopher stalked back inside, slamming the heavy oak door.
Once he withdrew, Julia sagged with relief. If he would meet Katerina, it would be a start. Something had to be done to help that poor girl about whom she had come to care so deeply, and Julia was willing to give all her resources, even her firstborn son, to accomplish it. She only prayed it would be enough.