Today's Reading

A countess. He wished me to work for a countess? I pressed my lips together and watched hundreds of more appropriately dressed people swarm onto the train ahead of us, wondering again why he'd insisted on me. With one more powerful billow of steam pouring across my vision, I followed him and glanced back for the last time at everything I was leaving behind.

"Final boarding!" A red- coated man hung out of the door of the train car before us, urging us on.

I hesitated, waiting for the steam to clear for my final view of home, but my new employer tugged my arm. "Come, Cinderella. It's time to go."

"Raina. My name is Raina."

When I glanced back at the station again, uncertainty weighting my steps, a blue cap descended into the billowing steam farther down, black boots landing firmly on the solid

wood platform. Heart exploding in my chest, I braced myself against the doorway, willing the steam to clear so I could see who it was. It couldn't be him, but I simply 'had' to know before I left. Through the haze I saw a lanky, energetic sailor with a coat tossed over one arm, bag in hand. How well I knew that stance—but it was impossible. Impossible! If only I could see his face.

"Doors closing."

I gripped the metal bar, but strong arms guided me into the train car. "Wait! Stop!" The chaos of the station drowned out my voice as I resisted.

Another billow of steam, and the blue- capped man turned at the commotion I made. I strained for another glimpse, but before the steam cleared, the arms yanked me in and the train door shut and latched before my face.

CHAPTER TWO

"I have a great many adventures simply because I have always feared regret more than failure." —Diary of a Substitute Countess

I clutched the edge of my seat and rested my forehead on the shuddering train window. It wasn't Sully. 'Wasn't'. Months ago I'd seen the notice in the paper about the storm they called the "Great Gale," and my trembling finger skimmed down the list of lost ships until I spotted it—' Maiden Faire.' I forced myself to recall the sight of that name. The ship had gone down, and with it, Sullivan McKenna. My Sully.

How foolish to risk everything for proof that the stranger at the station was not him. There were plenty of men in the world who owned a bright blue wool cap. Sully was dead, and I was merely nervous.

Yet I resented my new employer's slight coercion. Catching sight of my carpetbag—' my' bag—in the stranger's grasp,

I snatched it away and held it close, the sound of crinkling letters inside calming me.

He shifted in his wooden seat. "You are cross with me."

"You wouldn't listen. I changed my mind, but you forced me onto the train."

He flipped out a newspaper and scoffed. "What a terrible word for it—' forced.' I tell you, it was merely a misunderstanding. I thought you were dallying and might miss the train, and we wouldn't have caught another until the evening. Surely you can understand my position."

His cool words swirled anger and doubt into a vague apprehension, and I didn't know what I believed. Perhaps if I could just be certain about that stranger. As the long, low whistle sounded and we approached the next station, I sprang up but the man stood and braced me as the train shifted.

"Come, take your seat before you fall across the aisle. You haven't a shilling for return fare, anyway."

I gripped the seatback in front of me. "Can you not spare the little it would cost to return me?"

"Certainly not." He tensed as the train jerked to a final stop. "I could, but why ever would I pay for what I do not want?"

"Gentlemanly regard for a lady."

He puffed out a breath and turned that warm gaze on me. "It is my regard for you that makes me so insistent. I believe this will be a chance of a lifetime for you, even if you cannot see it. Return now, and you'll forever be the rag lady, scorned by all decent society and even by most in Spitalfields. Besides, what are you returning for, anyway?"

'A ghost.' I clutched the seatback. I had to get on with the business of living at some point, or I'd go mad, seeing blue caps and fiddles everywhere.

His voice tugged at my attention. "Try it for one day. If you cannot bear the beauty and gracious lifestyle, if Rothburne does not sweep you up in its charming spell, you may return tomorrow—with a few farthings in your pocket for the trouble."

I shifted back into my seat—for now. Conceding a battle didn't mean losing the war, and I always won when it counted.

"I can only help you if you let me."

"You don't know me from a rock in the road. Why, I could be anybody. I'll have you know I've been to prison."

This excerpt ends on page 19 of the paperback edition.

Monday we begin the book FATAL STRIKE by DiAnn Mills.

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