The city of York looked dreary in the gloom of evening. Perpetual storm clouds allowed insistent rain to fall to the streets of the Shambles and wash away heaps of human waste and animal blood. Over hanging, wood framed buildings loomed above, turning the streets in to dark, narrow walkways. Roads meandered off in to alleyways and footpaths, tracing through a maze of tall, shabbily built housing and small businesses.
I followed the roads, looking out of place in my clean blue dress and crisp white apron among the many dirty looking children hanging out of windows and playing on the streets. They stared as I passed, not used to one from a wealthy family moving among the poor community. A small child skipped past, uncaring of the stinking sewerage lining the alleyways.
Holding up my skirts, flashing polished buckled shoes, I made my way past the endless butcher shops and hanging meat, swinging this way and that on rusted hooks. If my mother and father knew I was in the Shambles they would kill me. Upper class did not fraternise with working class. But I could not worry about that. I had spotted the reason for being in the lower ends of York.
His eyes were as blue as a summer sky and his skin, only slightly tainted by the mess of the Shambles, was lightly tanned. A lean, shirtless body showed tight muscle, toned from lifting meat and heavy parcels every day. Black soft curls sat atop an angular face that was transitioning from childhood to manhood. His hands, with their long fingers and large palms, hinted at the promise of becoming much taller and stronger as he aged. Those hands had touched my face gently, had brushed my arms as we
walked together along the bank of the Foss River.
Thomas Gregory was the reason I broke the rules of the house, avoided the servants and raced from my home each evening. Father was attending his important business meetings with the pretty blonde secretary he had hired a few months before and mother visited her dying sister. My little sister was much too young to understand why I longed to escape the mansion we lived in, and she was far too loyal to tell our parents where I disappeared to.
Standing back and clutching a timber post, I leant my head against it to watch my Thomas Gregory. Muscles tightened in his back as he lifted a particularly heavy parcel and placed it on the back of a waiting cart, where it would be delivered to those who could afford to pay others to bring their meat. My mother was not fond of shopping among the ‘common-folk’. She would be reduced to tears if she knew I longed to marry and have children with one. Thomas was the only man I saw, the only man I wanted to spend my life with. At fifteen years old, my life was planned and he was my future.
As if sensing my presence, Thomas glanced up and smiled, wiping sweat from his brow with an old, stained rag. Just feeling his eyes on mine coloured my pale cheeks and I ducked my head
shyly. He moved towards me and I froze with wonder. Even after weeks of meeting in secret, I could not believe he was mine, could not believe he was real. There were many girls far prettier than I. Many with long, blonde hair and striking blue eyes, girls with slimmer waists and pouting lips, but he saw only me.
Nervously, I pushed dark hair back from my face and fingered the fine material of my dress. It almost hurt to look upon such sculpted perfection. His shoulders, the narrow waist, the tight trousers framing muscled thighs and the black curls that fell over his eyes.
“Annie,” he said in a soft Irish accent. He had come with many other Irish families who lived just beyond the walls of York. “I thought we were meeting later?”
I twisted a lock of hair around my index finger. “I couldn’t wait.”
He grinned and touched a thumb to my chin, his finger stroking my throat. “That’s what I like to hear.”
I blushed hotly. “Can I wait? Sunset is not far away.”
“Bill won’t mind. I think he likes you,” he said, referring to the owner of the butcher shop. Bill was a short, heavily muscled man who liked to sharpen his knives while staring disturbingly in to your eyes.
“I hope so,” I grinned. “I would not want to be on the wrong end of that knife.”
Thomas laughed. “Neither would I, Annie. Neither would I.”