Chapter 1

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England, 1809

Christine Smith tugged her torn coat over her tiny frame to protect herself against the bitter wind. It didn't help, and she wondered how much longer she'd last before she collapsed just like some of the children working in the factory. It was only because she was older than most that she was able to endure these harsh conditions. She was considered an adult, after all, at this age of eighteen. Yet in this male outfit with her thick brown tresses securely bound and hidden under a cap, she could pass as a fourteen-year-old boy. Of course, that was the effect her grandparents wanted. They wanted her to be inconspicuous. They wanted her to blend into the background. They wanted her to live her life without trouble. But was her life really trouble-free? When they were always starving and cold? And especially when she was so stubborn and getting herself into different kinds of trouble?

From the distance, Christine watched the deformed shadows of men, women, and children stagger past, their bodies huddling together to keep the flurry of icy, sharp air at bay. Their chattering voices were almost incoherent in the howling wind, some cursing the foul weather, some moaning about the low state of their pay, and others groaning about the lack of food for their many starving children. They were exhausted after their long day of hard labor, as was she. The thought of sitting by the fireplace with her family, her feet up with a bowl of soup and a piece of bread for supper, was heavenly.

"You there!" a voice barked. "Come 'ere!"

Christine jumped at the familiar order. Mr. Brad, the owner of the vase factory, was standing not too far away and was shouting at someone. Curious, she glanced behind her. When she saw no one there, she turned back to look at him in confusion.

"Take that vase to the storeroom."

That was when it sank in. He was barking orders at her. She glanced at the big vase sitting on a two-wheeled cart and then looked over at the departing workers. "But, sir-"

"You ain't getting paid to argue. You be careful with it. 'Tis expensive," he warned, his callous voice echoing for half the town to hear and causing the workers, especially the children, to shudder with fear. Aye, they all knew that he wouldn't hesitate to use his whip at the slightest disobedience. In fact, he enjoyed using his beloved weapon regardless because of the surge of power it brought him.

Christine glanced at the tall Wedgwood vase in the gloom and knew Mr. Brad had been to London again and would have bought that vase for one purpose only-to copy the design. He had done that many times before, providing his ignorant customers with cheaper versions of the beautifully designed vase and tableware and, of course, making huge profits in the process.

"Get on with it," the man snapped and whacked his thick, black cane on her behind.

Christine gritted her teeth-not at the intense pain that hateful cane had caused but at the way he was treating her. The bastard, she thought. One day she'd bash his face in. No one had the right to treat other people like that.

For a moment she stood her ground, refusing to do as she was told. It was, after all, the end of her shift, and everyone had already gone home.

"What are you waiting for?" he queried, his face red. "You want another whipping?"

Oh God, how she wanted to really bash his face in. A dangerous desire that, she thought, especially in her lowly circumstance. She needed this job to keep her family from starving, after all. And the bastard knew that and had taken advantage of it.

She turned to the cart. Goodness, there was no way that cart was going to get through the narrow alleyway leading to the factory. She would somehow have to carry the damn, useless thing. Aye, it was a damn, useless thing, all right, for although it cost more than her life, it was still useless, just sitting there in someone's home, looking awfully pretty for the eyes.

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