By Susan Wiggs
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved. ISBN: 1551667576
Chapter One Chicago October 8, 1871
She looked older than her years from a lifetime of toil. The routine struggles of making her way in the world wore on her like the fading dye of her dimity dress. Up at dawn for the milking, feeding the hungry mouths that depended on her for every breath they took, keeping house, seeing to the livestock and navigating the unseen reefs and rocky shoals of everyday living had stolen her youth.
On a hot October night following a hot October day, Catherine O'Leary put the children down early. She washed up after supper, plunging her chapped and chafed hands into the tepid water. A high prairie wind roared through the shantytown that comprised her small world, across the river from the quiet, stately mansions of the grain barons and merchant princes. Her children had learned to sleep despite the boisterous, frequent celebrations of the McLaughlins next door. The neighbors were welcoming a cousin newly arrived from Ireland, and the thin, lively whine of fiddle music flooded through the open windows, causing the walls to vibrate. As she washed, Catherine tapped her sore, bare foot to match the rhythm of hobnail boots on plank floors emanating from the adjacent cottage.
Shadows deepened across the beaten-earth yard leading to the cow barn that housed the source of the family's livelihood. Her husband was out back now, feeding and watering the animals. The dry, blowing heat caused brown leaves to erupt in restless swirls through the air. The wind picked up, sounding like the chug of a locomotive coming on fast.
Catherine dried her hands on her apron as Patrick returned from the barn, his shoulders bowed with exhaustion. She saw a flicker in the sky, a star winking its eye perhaps, but her attention was all for her husband. This week he had worked hard, laying in supplies for the winter - three tons of timothy hay, another two tons of coal, wood shavings for kindling from Bateham's Planing Mill. Baking in the arid heat, the shavings curled and rustled when the aggressive wind stirred them. In this heat it was hard to imagine that winter was only weeks away.
She gave Patrick his supper of potatoes and pickled cabbage, wishing he'd had time to eat with her and the children. But families like the O'Learys did not have that luxury. Imagine, sitting down like the Quality, with enough room for everyone around the same table.
She took off her apron and kerchief. Pumping fresh water into the sink, she bathed her face and neck, and finally her sore foot; a cow had stepped on it that morning and she had been limping around all day. She drew the curtains and peeled her bodice to the waist, giving herself a more thorough washing. She braided her thick red hair, then went to check on the children. Scattered like puppies in the restless heat, the little ones lay uncovered on rough sheets she had sprinkled with water to keep them cool. There was another daughter, Kathleen, firstborn and first to leave the reluctant arms of her parents to work as a lady's maid at Chicago's finest school for young ladies. Perhaps in the turreted stone building by the lake, Kathleen suffered less from the heat than they did here in the West Division.
Ah, Kathleen, there was a fine young article, Catherine thought fondly. By hook or by crook, she'd make good. The Lord in his wisdom had given her the brains and the looks to do it. She wouldn't turn out like her mother, overworked, tired, old before her time.
The sounds of revelry next door swelled, then quieted, mingling with the howl of the wind. Through the coarse weave of the sackcloth curtains, Catherine noticed a flash of light in the window.
"Let us to bed, Mother," her husband said softly. Patrick kissed her and put out the lamp. Settling her weary head on the pillow, she listened to the rustling and breathing of her children. Then she nestled into the strong soft cradle of her husband's arms, sighed and thought that maybe this was what all the toil was for. This one sweet moment of inexpressible bliss.
A knock at the door drew Catherine O'Leary back from the comfortable edge of sleep. The McLaughlins' fiddle wailed on and the bodhran thumped out an ancient tribal rhythm. Two of the children awakened and started whispering. Frowning, she propped herself up on one elbow and prodded Patrick. "Are you awake, then?" she asked.
"Aye, just. I'll see who it is."
She lay still, hearing the low murmur of masculine voices followed by the sound of the door swishing shut. Her sore foot throbbed heatedly under the thin sheet.
"It was Daniel Sullivan with Father Campbell, come to call," Patrick said, returning. "I told them we were already abed, and not in a state for entertaining company."
"God preserve us for turning away a priest," Catherine said, "but 'tisn't he who has to do the milking at dawn." Feeling guilty for criticizing a priest, she drew aside a corner of the curtain to see the two men leaving.
Daniel often took an evening walk to escape the stifling heat of his cottage, even smaller and more cramped than the O'Leary place. He had one wooden leg, and as he walked along the pine plank sidewalk, his gait had the curious cadence of a heartbeat. He kept his head down, for his wooden leg tended to wedge itself into the cracks between the boards if he wasn't careful.
She was about to settle back down for the night when she noticed a sweeping gust of wind lifting the priest's long black cassock, revealing skinny white legs and drawers of a startling green hue. "Now there's a sight you don't see every day," she muttered.
Outside the wooden cottage, high in the hot night sky, a spark from someone's stove chimney looped and whirled, pushed along by the wind gusting in from the broad and empty Illinois prairie. The spark entered the O'Learys' barn, where the milk cows and a horse stood tethered with their heads lowered, and a calf slept on a bed of straw.
The glowing ember dropped onto the hay, and the wind fanned it until it bloomed, then burned in a hot, steady circle of orange. The flames spread like spilled kerosene, rushing down and over the bales of hay and lighting the crisp, dry wood shavings. Within moments, a river of fire flowed across the barn floor.
It was full dark the next time Catherine awakened, once again by a knock at the door. More visitors? No, this knocking had the rapid tattoo of alarm. Patrick hurried to answer. Catherine drew aside the tattered curtain divider to look in on the children. Over their sweet, slumbering faces, an eerie glow of light glimmered.
"Sweet Jesus," she whispered, racing to the window and tearing back the curtain.
A column of flame roared up the side of the barn. Firelight streamed across the yard between house and shed.
Catherine O'Leary opened the cottage door to an inferno. Her husband ran toward her, his face stark in the flame-lit night.
He said what she already knew, voicing the fear that made her heart sink like a stone in her chest: "See to the children. The barn's afire."
Excerpted from The Mistress by Susan Wiggs Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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