September 5th, 1794
The first strains of dawn so often mean salvation from the cold ravages of the night, but for Maggie, they peek through the window, clear as an executioner's sentence. She tries not to squeeze her eyes tightly while she is pretending to sleep, a hand behind her hair displaying the long honeyed locks and face still untouched by time and hardship. Her body curls up almost protectively. She does not mean to look alluring and yet, she is old enough to understand that to a certain kind of man, she does.
This is her first true hardship, and she wills herself not to show pain or hatred or anything but serenity. She is beautiful, Maggie remembers the Lord Hightower saying to her Pa. Beauty is fleeting and not worth what I'm offering. I'm interested in a virgin. I need a girl who knows her place. I can't marry her but it makes her no less mine.
The words echo in her mind, the way Maggie's Pa had hesitated, but not long enough. The other man saw weakness, how her Pa could be manipulated by temptation, the same as any other man. Lord Hightower had a reputation, one that got him banned from brothels and taverns around the city. With a title and enough money, a man can get away with anything, Maggie thinks bitterly.
Maggie can tell her Pa thinks one hundred pounds is a handsome price for her innocence, something a girl of sixteen hardly needs. She, on the other hand, knows full well it is what her life is worth.
It is her Pa who is the naive dolt the men take her to be.
Maggie didn't cry the previous day when Pa told her to pack her things for the carriage ride out of Cheapside. It wasn't a long journey to a grander part of town and she wouldn't leave much behind. It was only Pa in a run-down house stinking of mold and gin. She didn't even protest.
It should not always be men who take advantage of situations, she raged. Maggie only wanted what was due her. "One hundred pounds keeps us all from the gutter and food on your table, but how do I live? What of my pain, then, if it's true what they say about him? One fifty and I damned well want my cut. A virtuous woman is a prize far above rubies."
Lord Hightower had agreed, the kind of sinner swayed by Biblical references. Her chaste and unpainted lips had curled up into a mocking smile as she poured the last glass of gin she'd ever have to serve her Pa in thanks for his kindness.
She tried to forgive her Pa. He was a drunk but better than most men. He looked after Maggie when her Ma ran off. Maggie's Ma was notorious around Cheapside, a crazy lady who wailed her girl Margaret was dead. Grief made her mad, many whispered, but Maggie was alive and well. Others said it was a whore's pox, gone to her brain. One day, she was gone.
As the new light of day begins to reveal the world for what it is, Maggie is not surprised when she feels the breath of her new Master from across the room. The heat of his eyes staring at her is palpable and almost exciting. Through cracked lids, she can see the house isn't so grand. Once, it might have been, but the linens faded and the silver hadn't been polished or the fire tended.
Maggie had simply traded one incompetent widower mired in vice for another.
The angel-faced girl takes solace in the pretense of sleep, like Aurora. Her Prince stinks of violence and remorse and longing as he looks at her, and she purposely moves so he can admire what he's done. Maggie knows the biting whip marks look the way they feel, blood-red and full of passion. They mock the purity of her white shift like the blood stains on the old sheets mock her. Maggie feels a kind of powerlessness.
She feels his eyes cutting through her as he stares silently from behind the curtain. The tie still lay at the foot of the bed, used as a blindfold. It is better if you do not see fate coming, Margaret.
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