London October 1818
Julia Hale lifted a weary hand and rapped on the yellow painted door. Please let him be in. Please! Whom she murmured to she did not know. The last person to pay her any heed had only wanted payment, and when she could not offer what he wanted, he'd sought payment of a vastly different kind. Which was why she now stood here. Hoping, begging, desperate for a miracle.
To no avail.
As the door remained closed, the now familiar ball of hopelessness swelled within, pushing against her chest, pushing against her thin veneer of self-control. She should have known it was too much to ask for help from a God she scarcely believed in, who would turn His back on her now even if her faith were as deep as Jon's. Stifling fears, she tugged at the blankets and peered at her tiny bundle. She had to do something. Perhaps God would respond to the innocent, even if He turned His back on the guilty. And this was her last hope; every other avenue had closed. All that remained were the paupers' homes, and she'd heard what those places were like. Nothing on this earth would induce her to leave a child in such a place.
Arms aching, feeling heavier than lead, she rapped again. Please answer. Please! She had seen the lights last night. Someone 'was' home, even if it were just the servants kept to mind the house while the Earl of Bevington attended his estates in Derbyshire. Why wouldn't they answer?
Another fit of coughing wracked her body, sending fire through her lungs and up her throat. She placed a hand on the iron balustrade as lightheadedness swept through her again. But she'd had no opportunity to rest, and no money for medicine even if she could. When the spots cleared from her vision she peeked at the face asleep in the blankets. Thank God the babe had not caught her illness. Not yet.
She bent down to place the bundle back in the willow basket, tucked the blankets around to protect from the damp morning air. "I'm sorry," she whispered, her voice scratchy and raw. "I cannot help you anymore."
Blissful ignorance was the only response, one she was growing more accustomed to as the days dragged on. How long had it been since she'd been deemed worthy of anything more than a scrap of attention? Three months? Six months? More?
She bent to press a kiss on the downy head before rapping a final time on the wooden doors. Still no answer.
With a final desperate glance at the basket, she stumbled down the marble steps, grasping the balustrade for balance. God forgive her, but she had no choice.
Guilt pressed heavily on her heart. She tugged the dark hood closer, hiding the dirty, stringy locks of fair hair of which she had once been so vain. Not that anyone would recognize her now. That girl had existed in another world, one that now often seemed more fairy story than real.
She stumbled over a broken cobblestone, refusing to look behind. That way lay regret. But she had tried, had hoped to somehow see this wasted life redeemed, at least in part, through her actions today. Though what lay ahead of her now she could scarcely imagine. Was she now considered a fallen woman? Or had she been regarded as such since her flight from Bath all those months ago? A blur of tears filled her vision. Foolish, foolish girl...
A street sweeper glanced at her, his lip curled in derision. She did not blame him. She looked exactly what she was: pitiful.
Somehow, she stumbled on. God help her—what would she do now? Where could she go? Who could save—
"Miss? Can I help you?"
A well-bred voice, a youthful voice. Julia peered over her shoulder, blinked. Shook her head as if she could clear the blurriness. The lady—if lady she was, dressed in a most odd ensemble—seemed to own a poise Julia had never known, yet appeared younger even than Julia.
"You came to Lord Carmichael's house?"
The lady knew Lord Carmichael? Was she a maid? Julia swallowed. "Yes."
"I am the viscountess."
Julia blinked again. No.