The 1840s: A time of increasing social awareness, particularly for progressive cotton mill owner Adrian Bennett and his son and business partner Christopher. But one social issue Christopher has never considered much is violence against women. A Robert Browning poem and a chance encounter with Katerina Valentino change everything.
Katerina is in fear for her life from her father’s constant beatings. That is, until Christopher becomes entranced by the delicate dark-haired beauty, and decides that he must rescue her from her father–by marrying her. But Katerina’s years of abuse have left her physically and emotionally scarred. And those scars threaten the newlyweds’ hope for happiness. Is Christopher’s tender affection enough to help Katerina heal her broken spirit?
“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 just want to introduce you to her.”
Christopher rolled his eyes in disgust. His mother was such a romantic, sometimes it drove him mad. He counted slowly in his mind, trying not to snap at her, his eyes taking in their surroundings. They were standing outside the family’s factory, a massive brick structure with billows of eye-stinging smoke pouring from several chimneys. Even from the street, the sounds of the steam boilers and the clanking of machinery were quite loud. Inside it was deafening. The streets around the factory were filthy with ash and soot and the buildings surrounding them, tenement slums, sat forlornly under a blanket of garbage and dirt. The chill, humid air clung closely to the mother and son standing outside the massive edifice, moistening their skin with a slightly musty dew. A little breeze picked up, sending the cold straight through his coat, which he had flung hastily over his shoulders and left unfastened, and her wrap, and both shuddered. When the wind had passed the tenement, it had picked up a vile aroma of human waste and unwashed bodies. It was a terrible place to live, so close to a factory, but for thousands of the poor of London, there was no choice. None of those desperate souls worked for the Bennetts, though. 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 of a tenement, dressed only in a thin nightgown despite the biting January cold, playing with some unidentifiable piece of trash. The scene did very little to soothe Christopher’s temper, and his voice, when he spoke, was harder than he 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. 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.”
This time she had to take a moment. She hated 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 were a breeding ground for the cholera epidemic which was currently sweeping through the slums.
Besides, 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 she 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. But alas, Kat was her friend, not her daughter, and she had no right to interfere. Today, however, an idea had struck her. There was a way to make Kat her 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 was waiting at the edge of the street to take her home again.
Christopher was looking at her expectantly. But 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?”
“She’s my friend.”
“How old is this woman?” His eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Don’t look at me like that. She’s not a dowager. She’s nineteen, I believe, and quite pretty. Please son, can’t do you this one thing for me? Just meet her?”
Christopher knew it would be futile to refuse. His mother was a sweet woman, but could be very stubborn. 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. 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, “just a bit shy, a bit of a wallflower. Nothing more.”
“What’s her name?”
“Her father is. 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. Well, 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 away.
Once he was out of sight, 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.