Lady of secrets

New York City, Summer 1861

Ten pairs of eyes exhibiting various levels of confusion and comprehension stared from sweat and grime-covered faces at the blackboard. German, Irish, and colored men and women sat side by side on the hard wooden schoolhouse benches, brought together by the common desire to improve their lives through education.
Some moved their lips, silently sounding out the passage scrawled in dusty chalk on the blackboard. Henrietta stood to the far-left side of it, allowing them an unobstructed view of the day’s literature challenge. Since the start of classes two weeks ago, no one had correctly answered any challenge she’d given. Nevertheless, she enjoyed giving the students an opportunity to stretch themselves. The waning remnants of the sun’s rays cast through the schoolhouse’s glassless windows, inched down the blackboard marking the limited time the students had to give their final answers.
Henrietta stood at the front of the class, as she did every Tuesday and Thursday evening, her largest smile nearly splitting her face in two. She resisted the urge to fan herself, but it was no easy feat. Beads of sweat gathered in the fine hairs on her upper lip until they overflowed, dripping into her mouth. The salty moisture glided over her tongue, and although not the most appealing taste she’d encountered, at least it gave her something other than the sweltering heat to focus on.
Teaching classes during humid midsummer evenings were not the most ideal circumstances, but she gladly sacrificed her comfort for the sake of her students. After working ten to twelve-hour shifts at backbreaking jobs, most of them ambled into her classroom, weary yet eager to learn. If they could make it through a long day and sit in the stuffy schoolroom without losing their enthusiasm, then she could teach them with equal fervor.
Angling herself to remain out of the way of anyone still attempting to figure out the challenge, she read the phrase aloud. “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.”
She paused, allowing her students the chance to digest what they’d heard. Every time she spoke those beautiful words, they sunk through her heart down into her soul. She hoped that one day her students would appreciate the full depth of the quote if they didn’t already.
“Anyone? Can anyone tell me the author and title of the book that passage is from?” She scanned the room of silent individuals.
No one met her eyes. Each found a sudden fascination with their hands, their slates, the schoolhouse’s barren wooden walls, or anything other than their teacher. She pursed her lips to suppress a laugh. Dusting the chalk from her hands, she smoothed them over the skirt of her dress, taking a moment to reign in her amusement before speaking. She waited until the need to laugh was under control, then opened her mouth to give a few encouraging words before repeating the question for the third time. Before she could speak, a hand materialized in the air.
Her gaze trailed from the hand down to its owner’s vivid sapphire-blue eyes. Flecks of honey sprinkled around the irises made them shimmer like twin oceans hiding golden treasure beneath their depths. This young man had reduced her to a mute statue when he’d set foot in her classroom for the first time last week. Having him now be the only soul brave enough to answer lifted her spirits for a different reason.
Not trusting her voice to be free of the heavy scratchiness of desire, she cleared her throat. Pushing her shoulders back and lifting her chin higher, she gestured in his direction. “Yes, Elijah. Do you know the answer?”
He lowered his hand, then nodded. “Charles Dickens, Great Expectations,” he said, a hint of his Irish brogue coloring his Yankee accent.
The sound of his voice swept through her body, sizzling every nerve ending before mushrooming into a buzzing hive of warmth deep in her belly. If it weren’t wildly inappropriate, she might have swooned, followed by combusting into a pool of liquid fire.
She relished his correct answer, and the excuse it gave her to unleash the full power of the exhilaration he invoked in her. “Correct, Elijah. Someone must have been paying close attention when I referred to my favorite author.”
He replied with an unintelligible mumble before lowering his head and hunching closer to his desk to make notes in his grammar book. Wild strawberry color bloomed under the sandy cream skin of his ears and spread down his neck. Wisps of long, thick coral red escaped the confines of the ribbon holding his hair tied at the nape of his neck, slightly blocking his face.