The nightmare began the way it always did…
A muffled thud reverberates down below. The sound comes from the rear of the shop. The new lock that she installed last week has just been forced.
She is suddenly cold from head to toe, paralyzed by fear. Her heart is pounding. Panic roils her stomach. Icy perspiration dampens her nightgown. She is clutching the quilt as though it were a shield.
Iron hinges squeak. The door is opening. The monster is inside the shop.
He has come for her. For the past month she has lived with a growing dread. Tonight her worst fears have come true.
She must move. She cannot stay here in bed like a terrified child waiting for the demon to find her.
The bottom step creaks beneath the weight of a heavy, booted foot. There is no attempt at stealth. He wants her to know he is coming for her.
She must get out of bed this instant or there is no hope. Screaming will do no good. There is no one in the room next door to hear her. She is not even certain that she could call for help. The frightening paralysis has affected her voice as well as the rest of her body.
She forces herself to concentrate on the desperate plan that she concocted a few days ago. The act of focusing her mind on something other than raw fear gives her strength.
Employing every ounce of will she possesses, she pushes aside the covers and gets to her feet. The floor is very cold. Somehow that helps to steady her nerves.
Another step creaks. He is midway up the stairs now. Not hurrying. Taking his time.
“I warned you, Joanna.” His voice is filled with a chilling lust. “Did you really think you could defy me? You are nothing but a foolish little shopkeeper. A nobody who must be taught her place in the world.”
With the next step his voice sharpens, rage surfacing. “You should have been grateful that a gentleman of my rank was willing to give you so much as a second glance. Grateful, do you hear me, you stupid bitch? You should have begged me to take you.”
The bedroom has no door. There is only a heavy curtain to block the intruder’s path. It is closed.
She realizes that the window is uncovered and that she is silhouetted against the slant of light cast by the fog-drenched moon. Hastily she draws the drapes, plunging the small room into inky darkness.
She knows this cramped space well. The monster has never seen it, though. With luck, he will fumble about when he moves into the deep shadows, allowing her an opportunity to escape through the doorway behind him.
He is in the sitting room now, coming toward the curtained bedroom. She can hear the soft thud of his boots on the thin carpet.
“Women like you need to be taught their place. I’m going to show you what happens to females who don’t display the proper degree of respect for their betters.”
She picks up the heavy poker that she had placed on the floor beside the bed. The length of iron is heavy. She holds it with both hands and prays.
There is a faint scraping sound on the other side of the curtain. At the edges of the hanging fabric a wavering glow appears. The monster has struck a light.
So much for her plan to temporarily blind him with the darkness of the bedroom. Her nerve nearly fails. The hilt of the poker suddenly feels slippery in her fingers. She flattens herself against the wall beside the curtained doorway.
“It’s time, Joanna. You have kept me waiting long enough. Now you will pay for your insolence.”
The curtain opens abruptly. The beast’s face is illuminated by the light he holds. His handsome features are twisted into a mask of demonic desire.
The flame dances evilly on the edge of the knife he grips in one hand.
He moves into the room and starts toward the bed…
Louisa came awake suddenly, breathless with fear. Her nightgown was damp from perspiration.
Had she cried out this time? She hoped not. She did not want to alarm Emma again. In recent months the nightmares had been far less frequent. She had even begun to hope that they were behind her forever.
She should have known better.
She shoved aside the covers and began to pace the room, trying to work off the unnatural energy that caused her heart to pound and made breathing difficult.
After a while she calmed somewhat. She went to the window and looked out, searching the shadows for the prostitute in black.
The streetwalker was not in the park tonight. Perhaps she had come earlier in the evening. More likely the poor creature had given up trying to attract a client and gone back to wherever it was that she slept. Arden Square was a quiet, extremely respectable neighborhood. This was not one of the places where men came in search of prostitutes.
She had noticed the woman in black for the first time a few nights ago. The stranger had worn a black velvet cloak and a black veiled hat that concealed her features, a widow who had most likely been forced onto the streets by the death of her husband. It was a common enough story. She had stood in the deep shadows of a tree for a time, evidently waiting for some gentleman seeking the services of a prostitute to come by in a carriage.
Perhaps she had abandoned this neighborhood and moved to another street. Or perhaps the widow had given up all hope and cast herself into the river like so many other desperate females had done.
The world was so cruel to women in the prostitute’s situation, Louisa thought. Ladies driven into acute poverty by the death of a husband had very few alternatives. On the one hand Society condemned them, but at the same time it made it almost impossible for them to find respectable employment.
I was so lucky, Louisa thought. There but for the grace of God…
Filled with sadness and a deep sense of outrage, she left the window, went to the desk, and turned up the lamp. She knew she would not sleep now. She might as well take another look at the notes she had made earlier.
She opened her little journal and began to read, but after a while she closed the notebook. She could not concentrate. For some reason all she could think about was the way it had felt to be held in Anthony’s arms, crushed against his chest while he kissed her.
When she finally went back to bed, she took the memory with her and hugged it close as a talisman against the nightmare.