Today's Reading

Mum turned on her heel and discovered she'd been caught, which only enhanced the impish twinkle in her blue eyes. "Excellent timing, ducky. I was about to begin a dramatic reading of 'Maker of Heaven and Earth.' When I reach the stanza 'Each little bird that sings,' why don't you pipe in with a convicting chant such as 'They sing no more, dead in your store'? That will ruffle some feathers of conscience."

The stares of passersby branded dangerous loons on the back of Clara's neck. "Mum, I can't—"

"Of course you can. Resist the treacherous tentacles of timidity." Mum dragged Clara into the conspicuous demonstration. "Let's march a bit to build your confidence."

"Mum. We've discussed this. We agreed to abstain from protests until—" A gasp seized Clara's throat. "Tell me my sight is failing and you are not wearing Fred about your neck. Please. Tell me I need spectacles. Tell me I'm hallucinating."

"Your sight is as keen as a hawk's."

Perfect. Fred, the very alive ermine, lounged about Mum's neck like an expensive stole. "Mum, you promised."

"I promised to do what was best, and taking a stand against cruelty is the best thing to be done. Those feathers belong on birds, amongst the clouds, not plucked and pinned to a matron's coif. And don't even get me started on the ivory." Tears puddled in Mum's eyes as her pinched lips fanned out in a manner tragically comical. "When I think of what is done to those precious elephants...those majestic, God-formed pachyderms...I-I-I—"

Oh dear. Here it comes.

Clara grasped the silver vial of smelling salts hanging from the chatelaine pinned to her skirt and shoved it under Mum's nose before a fit of vapors could draw an audience. "Breathe. Come now, Mum. Inhale gently...now exhale. Good. Once more, inhale."

"Gah, I've snorted one!" Mum's face contorted as she sneezed and sputtered. Sputtered and sneezed. "Owww! Mercy, but those salts burn something fierce."

"Perhaps you'll remember that fact and not inhale so aggressively in the future." Clara reattached the vial to her chatelaine and opened a small pouch hanging from a different chain, soon producing a clean handkerchief. "Here you are." Mum accepted the handkerchief, dabbing stray tears, before giving her nose a sound blow. "Thanks, ducky. I don't know what I would do without you."

"Get arrested, I expect, which is why I must insist we go home. Making your stand amid speculation of insanity is hardly beneficial to your cause." She stepped closer to whisper, "And what of Fred?"

Clara met the spoiled ermine eye-to-eye, attempting to glower in censure, but the endeavor was undermined when his whiskers tickled her nose. She suppressed a grin. This adorable rascal, with his lame legs that trailed behind him when he scuttled about the house, was her favorite of all Mum's disabled rescues. And the one that caused the most trouble. "Oh, Fred...you don't exactly defend Mum's soundness of mind, you know."

Vocalizing his pleasure with a soft took-took-took, Fred tilted his furry brown head and begged to have his chin scratched. Clara obliged his request, scratching his tiny jaw...until pedestrians with more perfume than politeness began to stare. She withdrew her hand from the "stole" and straightened her shoulders. "Please, listen to reason. We cannot afford for Fred to indulge in excursions at present."

"Horsefeathers." Puckering her lips to Fred, Mum stroked the top of his brow. "You needed fresh air, did you not, Freddy? Poor little dear. Besides, he's a champion reformer. Nothing makes a lady reconsider the violent tendencies of fashion like admiring a beautiful stole only to have it nibble her hand."

"Mother!" Clara glanced at a giggling party of shoppers.

Please, God, let it be that no one heard that remark.

With a gentle yet determined grip, Clara guided Mum away from Petite Paris and endeavored to conceal them behind a lamppost. She took a breath to rid her voice of the fear and irritation churning in her stomach. "Mum, you know I love and support you, always. However, in our current circumstances, we must be cautious. If Fred nips one more hand—just one—the constable warned you could be brought up on charges. Even arrested. Like it or not, you can't help a single creature if our good name is reduced to refuse in the gutter, so please, promise me—no more protests or outings with Fred until our current predicament has been resolved."
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