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There was no warning, just the sudden and prolonged screech of metal brakes against iron track as the monstrous steam locomotive barreled across the wooden bridge. Madeline flew forward, hitting the seat in front of her. "Ameliaa, hold on to me!" she cried, groping for her companion's hand. "The bridge must be out!"
And then she was pitched head-first over the seat as the giant engine hurtled off the bridge and plunged into the ravine below, dragging all twenty cars to their doom.
"Maddie!" she heard Amelia cry, but any further words were drowned by the sounds of groaning metal and screaming passengers.
Please, God, let Amelia live through this! Maddie prayed as she clung to the leg of a seat. She has so much to live for.
The cars hit bottom with a thunderous roar, followed by the tremendous explosion of the boiler, spewing flames, burning coals, clouds of dust, and debris a mile high into the air. Maddie had a moment of consciousness before something heavy hit her on the back of the head, and then her world went black.
It was the acrid smell of smoke that finally roused her. Maddie struggled to open her eyes, her head feeling as if it had swollen to twice its size, her body battered and stiff. She gazed blankly at the mangled roof of the train car overhead, trying to make sense of what had happened. The silence around her was ominous.
And then she remembered.
"Amelia; " she called weakly, pushing herself to her elbows. The movement caused a severe pounding in her head. She clenched her teeth and sat up to look around.
There was no longer an aisle down the center ofthe narrow car. Most of the cushioned seats had pulled loose and were lying haphazardly on the floor. Hatboxes, valises, and bags of all sorts had opened, their contents scattered everywhere. Shards of glass, pieces of coal, and splinters of painted wood covered every surface. The floor had pulled away from the sides of the car, and in some spots there were only gaping holes. It seemed a miracle the car had even stayed in one piece.
Maddie heard groans from somewhere close by. An arm dangled lifelessly from a twisted seat in front of her. She rose on shaking limbs and looked over the seat, shrinking back with a gasp at the unseeing eyes that stared up at her.
Thank God it wasn't Amelia. Maddie swayed unsteadily as a wave of dizziness swept over her, then she forced herself to move on, past that vacant gaze. "Help me," someone moaned. "Please, help me."
Maddie carefully picked her way over debris and dead bodies, following the sound of the moans. The smell of smoke was getting stronger and she could hear the unmistakable crackle of wood from somewhere close by. Soon, she knew, the whole car would be ablaze.
An old woman was lying on the floor, her leg twisted awkwardly beneath her. "Help me," the woman whispered, looking up at Maddie with pleading eyes. Maddie lifted her to her feet, one arm around the woman's frail waist, and supported her as the woman hopped slowly to the jagged hole at the end of the car. Maddie's head throbbed fiercely as she lowered the woman to the ground. She straightened slowly, fighting dizziness, and fumed back.
"Don't go back in there!" The woman coughed and struggled to breathe. "You'll be burned alive!"
Maddie ignored her and kept going, stepping over more bodies, more broken seats. She had to find Amelia.
She had met Amelia Baker only that morning after boarding the train in Philadelphia. For reasons of her own, Maddie had not wanted to strike up a friendship with the young woman, but Amelia had radiated such genuine kindness and compassion that it would have been impossible not to like her. In fact, Amelia reminded Maddie very much of her own mother in her younger years: wistful, hopelessly romantic, and always a lady.
Amelia was traveling from New York to Indiana to meet a fianc� she'd never seen, but knew through letters. She had been orphaned at the age of six and raised by nuns in a convent north of New York City, living a very sheltered, restricted life. She had spent the last four years working for a seamstress as a pattern cutter in New York, and had taken a job as a corresponding secretary for an art patron in the evenings to make ends meet. She'd never had a beau and thought she had few prospects of meeting one. And then she had answered a letter from an unknown artist in Indiana.
Amelia had corresponded with Jeremy Knight weekly for over a year after that, and then he'd asked her to marry him. For a young woman with little hopes of a good marriage, it had been a dream come true.
Maddie caught a glimpse of navy material on the floor several yards ahead and her heart began to thud heavily. Amelia's dress had been navy.
"Oh, dear God, Amelia!" Maddie shoved a heavy bench aside and dropped to her knees beside the crumpled form of the young woman. She cradled the lifeless body in her arms, her tears falling thickly on the navy bodice. "Why her?" she cried bitterly, gazing heavenward. "Why Amelia?"
"Miss," the conductor called from the open end of the car, "you've got to come out. The train's on fire."
Maddie rocked back and forth, weeping silently, holding Amelia in her arms. Amelia, who was to begin a brand-new life, who was finally to have a family of her own, was dead. "It should have been me," Maddie sobbed. "Why wasn't it me?"
The front of the car burst into flames. "Miss!" the man shouted from outside. "Please! You've got to get out!"Maddie gazed down at the peaceful face of the dead girl, wishing it were her own. Promised to a Stranger. Copyright � by Linda O'brien. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.