Jessie wiped the beads of sweat from her forehead. She missed the long ball gowns and fancy hairpins she had worn in her blonde curls, after cutting off her locks in order to look more like a man, with her short haircut hidden up under her hat. She could have worked as a nanny or governess, but in truth, she hated children. Not that she minded spending an hour visiting one with an old friend, but she was not having children of her own. At least, not if she could help it.
Needing to get away from her petulant mother, Jessie had searched through the papers for a job, but the skills required were that of a man if she wanted to make an income that would support herself. Pretending to be a boy was easy enough. She purchased a pair of trousers and a top hat for her interview as a coal-whipper. The job paid her far more than she would have made as a lady, aside from the fact the gentleman would never have hired her to shift coal from ships.
The young woman wasn’t dainty, but she also did not have the height of a man. She was average height, with soft features and a small nose. Her blue eyes sparkled under the sun and she half expected to be caught, but each and every day, no one seemed the wiser. Perhaps they did not care. She fulfilled her duties without a word, always pleasant and kind to the other gentlemen she was assigned to work with.
Shuffling coal was not an easy task nor was it clean. Her fingernails were coated in soot, her blonde hair, even under the hat, had found its way to becoming a dark, rich black like coffee until she had time to bathe. The smell of coal no longer tickled her nose. The first two weeks working on the docks, she had been sneezing non-stop, certain she had a wretched cold that would not disappear.
“You there!” a burly voice shouted as he stepped upon the dock, approaching Jessie swiftly. He was handsome in his military ensemble, though Jessie attempted not so much as a glance even though he had addressed her. She did not wish to blush and give away the fact she was a woman. Worse, what would he think if he could not see through her charade of wearing such boyish attire?
His heavy black boots clanked on the wooden dock on his swift approach.
“Excuse me?” He was quite clearly a guard for the queen, wearing the traditional fiery red coat and black trousers. What was he doing here? Jessie gasped. Could Queen Victoria be just beyond the ship she was shuffling coal from? No. It did not seem likely. A queen would have a port of her own and more than one guard heading for the dock, along with multiple men accompanying her.
“We need men like you, strong, willing to fight for our queen. The pay is far more than a coal-whipper’s salary.” His green eyes glinted under the sun as he held Jessie’s stare. He took a step closer, his voice low so as not to allow anyone else to overhear what he intended to say next. “A gentleman of your stature, I could most easily see you at the palace as part of the Queen’s Guard.”
Jessie had no qualms about her profession, but if she had the chance to make more money, doing a job far less dirty, why wouldn’t she try it? An opportunity to fight for her country was most certainly honorable, and the chance to guard the queen was an opportunity worth engaging in. “How do I join?” She did not allow herself a moment to consider the ramifications of being caught. As a coal-whipper, she would most certainly be fired but a woman pretending to be a man as a guardsman, Jessie did not quite know the penalty for such atrocious behavior.
“Come to the royal palace tonight at seven. Ask for Henry Clarke. There will be a brief training session before the test.”
The handsome fellow turned on his heels, his rich chocolate hair lighter under the sun’s rays as he turned and stomped unceremoniously back in the direction he had come.
Jessie watched him vanish before turning her attention back toward the coal that needed moving. She would not be finished much before six. Getting all the way to the palace while needing a proper bath and new attire would be painstakingly difficult. Could she take the chance that she might not be hired and leave early, risking her current profession? Her rent was due come Monday, and if she did not worry so much about this month, next would be twice as hard to come by.
Perhaps if she hurried with her work, lifted faster, and moved coal quicker, she would be finished by the time five o’clock rolled around, which would make leaving quite a bit easier. With no work left for the day, the ship cleared of all its coal, then there would be no reason for her to stay around.
She was not the only coal-whipper to be unloading the ship, stacking the thick black bricks in wheel barrels to be carted off by her colleagues. Jessie never winced from the heat or complained about her arms aching or her back’s soreness. She knew better than to risk anyone discovering she was in fact a lady. Certainly, she could not be the only woman hiding as a man for the pay of such a job? Though she did not dare spill her secret to anyone.
The day wore on and Jessie could not push the handsome stranger from her thoughts. Was he part of the Queen’s Guard or just a recruiter for the queen? She did not know if she might ever lay eyes on the gentleman again. From the brief encounter, he seemed quite nice, thoughtful to suggest she join without a moment’s hesitation. Of course, he was not the wiser in knowing she was in fact a woman. Would he have made the offer had he known? It was doubtful.
Her fingers were blackened, and as she finished the last bricks of coal, she wiped her dirty hands on her gray-blue coveralls and made a mad dash for home. She did not live near the bathhouse, nor could she afford the extra few pence to bathe, let alone the time to get there on such a tight schedule. Instead, she headed for the stream just a few clicks from her home, bringing a ragged towel and a clean change of clothes.
Jessie hoped no one would discover her in the water. The houses were spread far enough apart but the hour was nearing supper, and families often came to the stream for fresh water or on their travels home from work would pass by. She could not afford herself a moment to consider being caught or embarrassed. Stripped down of her filthy coveralls, she left her clean, dry clothes by the bank and jumped into the water, splashing as she felt the cold chill caress her skin. Dutifully, she worked at scrubbing the soot and grime away. She dunked her head beneath the surface, the cold water hardening her nipples as she shivered in the cool autumn air. The water was not yet frigid but the air hitting her cold, wet skin made her flesh tingle with goosebumps.
Sinking under the slight waves from her splashing, Jessie exhaled a long breath, allowing the bubbles to spill from her lips. She wanted to swim and enjoy the water, which would ease her aching muscles and allow her to relax before she rushed to the royal palace. Not having thought that far ahead, she did not even consider how she would arrive on time. Traveling by train meant knowing the schedule and she had not so much as looked at the hour, though it was growing nearer to when she was due to arrive.
Splashing as she walked along the sandy bed of the sea, the sound of horse’s hooves galloping toward her forced her eyes to widen in fear.
“Shit,” Jessie cursed under her breath as she edged toward the bank. She was running out of time but did not think she could get dressed quickly enough so as to not be seen naked. Who the blazes headed on horseback near the stream? The dirt road was in the opposite direction. She anticipated perhaps a few stragglers wandering from work, but they would be on foot with the town not too far a distance to travel.
The guard’s bright red coat forced her under the water, hiding from the man she’d seen earlier. What was he doing out this direction? His dark hair glistened under the setting sun. The air felt several degrees cooler, and Jessie wanted nothing more than to slip from the bank, grab her towel, and dry off.
His swift approach slowed as he brought his horse toward the bank, climbing down and guiding her the last few steps to drink.
Jessie’s eyes widened in horror as he locked eyes on her; clearly, he hadn’t seen her any sooner.
“My apologies, ma’am. I had not realized the river was occupied,” he said, turning away to afford her privacy.
Had he seen her naked in the clear stream? Quickly, she climbed the bank and grabbed for her towel, drying herself off, hiding behind the nearest tree. It was not proper for him to see her in even a towel, let alone naked!
“You may turn around,” Jessie said, her voice soft and timid, worried that he might have recognized her. She certainly knew his face, having seen it earlier that day. Though the guard had probably spoken with a hundred gentlemen, Jessie was unlikely to be memorable with her short stature and golden hair shuffled under her hat.
“What brings you from your duties out here?” Jessie asked. There was no reason for a royal guard to be traveling to Brentford when he was to be in Windsor at the palace with the queen. Dropping her towel, she was quick to dress, though she wore clothes suitable for a boy. There was no chance of letting the handsome gentleman catch her in such inappropriate attire. She glanced cautiously around the tree, watching him turn back around, wanting one last glance at him. He petted his horse, allowing her to finish another drink from the stream before guiding her further from the bank. “It would be best if you returned home. It is not proper for a woman to be unescorted after the sun goes down.”
Jessie did not wait around to discover if he would offer her a ride or an escort as she rushed in her slacks and coat, for her home. She needed to gather her horse and take off for Windsor if she did not wish to be late. Taking off on foot, she did not so much as glance back as she skirted through the forest, her clothes blending into her surroundings, hiding her from plain sight.