The warning came too late.
Mae Winslow’s finely tuned senses jumped as the fire bell rang, setting the populace into a motion akin to the stirring of a nest of hornets, and sending Mae into a fit of the vapors.
Before the sounding of the alarm, the only stings fair Mae felt in the bleak light of dawn were from her heart and her conscience. She had disappointed dear Henry once again, allowing the calamity that dogged her steps to set her on yet another path leading away from the home and hearth he so freely offered. Surely the longsuffering
Henry understood that beneath her buckskin-clad exterior beat a heart that held nothing but love for him despite the vagabond life she must lead.
At the moment, however, her mind must turn from the excess of emotional thoughts that Henry Darling brought and toward the situation at hand. With the practiced eye of one far too well-trained in the ways of desperate outlaws and lowly curs, she lifted the sash of the boardinghouse window and lowered her gaze to the street below. With the fresh wind came the bitter scent of smoke. Alas, the odor did not emit from below or from beyond the bounds of the quaint structure, but rather swirled from behind, as if seeping beneath the slightly crooked bedroom door.
Mae made to turn when a shot rang out. A bullet chipped away several layers of paint on the sill and sent her scrambling to the floor. There, with her breath coming a bit freer, she crawled toward the bed, where her pistols hung on the bedpost.
“So,” the fair jewel breathed as she wrapped her small fingers around the cold metal that had saved her life more times than she could count, “they’ve found me.”
New York City, July 5, 1880
Something tickled her nose. Eugenia Flora Cooper batted at the offending object, then opened her eyes to see that she’d tossed a fringed pillow onto her bedroom floor. A thud told her the book she’d been reading last night had gone flying as well.
The book, a brand-new episode of Mae Winslow, Woman of the West. Gennie sighed and pulled the silk and velvet coverlet over her head as she snuggled down into the soft feather mattress. Despite the fact she was required to attend a post–Independence Day breakfast with the Vanowens this morning, then catch a train to Boston at noon, she’d devoured every word of the dime novel last evening, staying awake late into the night.
After completing Mae’s latest adventure, Gennie reluctantly closed her eyes. Even then, the story continued, this time with Gennie as the subject. She’d been running alongside a moving train full of stolen gold, her borrowed cowboy boots dangerously close to tripping her, when the dream abruptly ended. And, like Mae, she’d been fleeing the bonds of a man bent on prematurely tying her to home and hearth. Gennie, like Mae, could admit no real aversion to marriage and family. In fact, she welcomed the idea of a life spent in such a way. Just not yet.
Perhaps that was what drew her to Mae’s stories over other novels. It seemed Mae was the only woman whose books never quite ended with a happily ever after. Each one promised it could be—even should be—and then the adventure took a turn, and so did Mae. By the end of the book, the bad guys were caught but Mae was not.
Someday, if Gennie ever had the nerve, she’d just head west down Fifth Avenue and keep walking until she reached South Dakota or Wyoming. Colorado, maybe, where she could pan for gold or dig for silver. Maybe save some hapless child or even a whole town from whatever evil preyed upon it.
Gennie smiled. Wouldn’t that be an adventure?
Of course, Mama and Papa would miss her, but what a time she’d have riding runaway horses and fending off savage beasts with nothing but a broom and three wet matches. It would certainly be more interesting than painting flowers on china plates or embroidering her initials on handkerchiefs. Mama always had despaired of her stitching.
At the thought of her mother, Gennie bolted upright. It would never do for her choice of reading material to become common knowledge, even though she’d never understood the condemnation dime novels drew among her social set. Mae’s adventures were tame compared to stories she read in the Bible. Surely the Lord smiled equally on the authors of such wholesome entertainment and on those who wrote more scholarly works.
Still, she should probably fetch the book and hide it with the others before the new chambermaid came in to open the drapes and draw her bath. Her secret had been safe with her previous maid, Mary. The dear Irish- woman carried off the books once Gennie read them. She claimed to be tossing them into a trash bin, but Gennie knew better. At least Mary hadn’t informed Simmons, who would have told her parents at the first opportunity. Anything Simmons knew was destined for Papa’s ear before the day ended, which was why Papa paid the elderly houseman so well.
But then Mama and Papa, along with fourteen-year-old Connor, were safely aboard ship heading for their silver anniversary tour of the Continent. Gennie smiled and sank back into her cocoon of blankets. Surely a maid stumbling over a dime novel was beyond their concern. Perhaps she’d read the next dime novel in the drawing room instead of under her covers.
Opening one eye, she peered across the pile of pillows and through the bed drapes to see only the faintest glow of daylight at the edge of the curtains. “Still early,” she muttered. “Just a few more minutes and I’ll…” She snuggled deeper into her pillow and closed her eyes.
“Miss Cooper, you’ve fallen back to sleep. Do wake up.”
A blinding shaft of light intruded on her slumber, and Gennie fumbled for a pillow to cover her face. Finding none within reach, she struggled into a sitting position.
“I’m sorry, miss,” the maid said, “but it’s half past ten.” “Half past ten?” Gennie sputtered, suddenly alert. “How in the world will I explain to Mrs. Vanowen why I missed such an important event as her post–Independence Day breakfast?”
Gennie fought her way through the bed curtains and reached for her robe. As she tied the sash, she began to pace, carefully avoiding the pillows strewn across the Aubusson carpet. She’d also have to explain her absence to Chandler Dodd, although that prospect didn’t upset her nearly as much as disappointing her father.
“Papa will be most upset,” she said as she drifted toward the easternmost window and glanced at the mid- morning rush on Fifth Avenue three stories below. “He so coveted a place on Mrs. Vanowens’s list for Mama, and with this snub, she’ll certainly be overlooked next time.” Mae Winslow, on the other hand, cared little for such frippery. If only…
“So sorry, miss.” The hapless maid, Mary’s replacement, ducked her head and inched forward, the silver tray she held wobbling with each step. “You see, there’s been a most upsetting problem with my sister’s departure, and I—”
“Never mind.” Gennie gave the tray a cursory glance, then pointed to the dressing table nearest the window overlooking the park. “Perhaps you’d like to tell all of this to our neighbor.” She paused as the maid’s eyes filled with tears. Gennie sighed. “Forgive me. I’m being awful. I’m exhausted because I stayed up too late.” Her heart sank. This was no way to begin with a new employee. “What’s your name?”
The dark-haired girl fixed her attention on her shoes. “Fiona, miss. Fiona McTaggart.”
“Perhaps there’s no harm done, Fiona.” Gennie seated herself at the writing desk and pulled a sheet of paper from the drawer.
Crafting two notes of regret that included only vague mentions of any specifics of her condition, she dried the ink, folded the paper, and then set her seal on the edge. When the wax hardened, she held the notes out to Fiona.
“Have Simmons send someone to deliver these, please.” She paused to set her tone in what she hoped was a mix of understanding and firmness. “And then perhaps we will both be forgiven for our transgressions.”
The girl grinned, then quickly seemed to remember her place. “You’re every bit as nice as Mr. Simmons said you’d be. Oh!” She stifled a gasp. “Begging your pardon, miss, but I’d be ever so grateful if you’d not mention I forgot to wake you. I’m afraid I’d be out on my ear after my first day, and with my sister’s leaving us this afternoon, I don’t know how I’d take care of my mama and my ailing papa.”
“Of course, I won’t mention it. There’d be no purpose to it.”
As Fiona scurried out, Gennie rose and turned her attention back to the scene unfolding on the street below. Several drivers had arrived with carriages, and liveried attendants milled about beneath a brilliant blue sky.
She let her gaze drift across the street and up the marble steps of the imposing mansion that sat on the corner like a wedding cake. The Vanowens’ third floor ballroom stood at eye level, floor-to-ceiling windows open to the fresh July breeze. A lone figure swept the marble floor where, as a child, Gennie and her friend Hester Vanowen pretended to ice skate across the polished marble in their stocking feet.
Gennie’s family returned the favor when Hester accompanied them to their house in Newport, where the long upstairs hallway opened onto a balcony that overlooked the lawn and the ocean beyond. Little imagination was required to believe that with just a bit of extra effort, one might be able to launch over the balcony’s edge and soar into the clouds.
Hester only attempted it once, and thankfully the thick foliage broke her fall. Even better was that Mama and Papa were away at the time.
“May the Lord bless you, miss. Perhaps you’d like me to pour your coffee now?”
Gennie turned to see the door close behind the maid. “Yes, Fiona. Please do.”
A flurry of activity across the street again caught her attention.