Read an Excerpt
New York City
May 24, 1895
As the train came to a grinding stop in Grand Central Depot, Violet Burton's heart beat in excitement at the same time her stomach fluttered with apprehension. She stood, shaking out the skirts of her brown-and-beige traveling outfit before joining the other passengers in the aisle and following them out of the train. Pausing on the top step of the car, she fought the urge to turn around and seek refuge back inside. Perhaps she could ask the porter to buy her a ticket right back home. And then what?
Go back and marry Harlan Black? Violet shuddered. No. Never. Instead, she should be thankful her mother's old friend had come up with a solution to her problem. Violet took a deep calming breath and let it out. Once twice and again.
"Hurry it up, miss," a man behind her said. "Are you getting off or what?"
A woman beside him reached out and pushed Violet's shoulder. "Yeah, missy. You're holding up the line and we don't have all day."
Heat stole up Violet's face and her heart hammered in her ears as she gave her hand to the waiting porter and hurried down the steps and out of the way. She didn't know in which direction to look for Mrs. Heaton. There were more people here than she'd ever seen in one place, yet she'd never felt so totally alone in her life.
Mrs. Heaton had told her each railroad line had its own waiting room, baggage facilities and ticketing operation in the building, so Violet assumed it wouldn't be hard to spot her. But she'd been mistaken. She didn't know how she'd ever see her mother's friend among all the people coming and going from every direction.
"Your trunk and bags will be over at the New York Central baggage claim area, miss." The porter pointed across the way. "Over there, where all those people are gathered."
He tipped his hat. "There's a waiting room there, too. I'm sure someone will be here to meet you soon, miss."
"Yes. I hope so." He'd been very helpful on the trip and she hated to see him turn away.
Violet tried not to panic. What was it Mrs. Heaton had said in her letter? She'd be there to meet her. But where was she? And what would she do if Mrs. Heaton didn't show up? Violet began to think she might have made the biggest mistake in her life by coming here. Her mother had always warned her about big cities, and Violet knew she would not be happy she'd come to New York City. Yet, she was certain Mama would not have wanted her to marry Harlan Black under any circumstances. Besides, she really had no choice.
She took another deep breath and looked around. The only way Violet could see how the name Grand could apply to this depot was its size. It certainly couldn't be considered a grand place to benot with all the steam, smoke and ashes spewing from the locomotives, hovering overhead and condensing with the odors of people from so many walks of life. From the sweet scent of toilet water to the strongest perfumes, they all intermingled with the smell of unwashed bodies and sweat, pervading the huge room, making Violet more nauseated by the minute.
Grand Central Depot wasn't only the largest building she'd ever been init was also the busiest. No sooner had the train she'd just arrived on chugged away than another one arrived in its place. Passengers poured out of it, heading off in every direction. Some of the travelers looked as lost as she felt.
She glanced around again but there seemed to be more people than ever, many speaking languages she couldn't understand. There was all manner of dress, from elegant to almost threadbare. Men pulled out their watches to see if the time matched the huge clock in the depot while mothers tried to keep their children close to their sides. The noise level seemed to rise with each passing minute as Violet made her way across the room.
A man spit near one of the spittoons positioned all over the depot, but he didn't seem to have good aim as his spittle ran down the outside of the cuspidor and ended up on the floor beside the vessel. The sight, mixed with the smells, made Violet's stomach roll, and she picked up her pace.
Trying to tamp down her anxiety, Violet pulled a picture of Mrs. Heaton out of her reticule and looked at it once more, although she was certain she would recognize her old neighbor. Surely she couldn't have changed much in three years. She turned in a small circle, looking closely at each woman she saw. Finally, when she'd about given up hope, she saw a woman she thought was Martha Heaton hurrying across the building. The older woman waved, and Violet breathed a sigh of relief as her mother's good friend reached her.
"Violet? It is you, isn't it?"
Her eyes held such warmth Violet couldn't help but smile. "Yes, ma'am, it is."
Mrs. Heaton grasped Violet's hands in hers. "How lovely you are, all grown up. You look just like your mother when she was your age. You have her dark hair and blue eyes and even her coloring." Mrs. Heaton pulled her into a quick hug. "Oh, you bring back so many memories of my younger days."
The older woman's blue eyes sparkled, and her fading auburn hair was done up under a large hat that matched her afternoon dress of blue-and-green stripes.
"Thank you, Mrs. Heaton. It is good to see you again." An understatement to be sure. It warmed her heart to see the older woman's familiar face.
"I am sorry I'm a bit late." Mrs. Heaton shook her head and the green feathers on top of her blue hat bob-bled to and fro. "Traffic is just awful today, and I'm so glad Michael came with me. Hopefully, it won't be so bad on the way home."
At the mention of her son, Violet looked over Mrs. Heaton's shoulder to see a man that looked very familiar, but so much more, striding toward them. Dressed in a navy blue suit, a wing-collar white shirt and a blue silk cravat, his dark brown hair covered with a gray bowler, the young man she'd known back home seemed to have become a mature businessman. His warm brown eyes had an expression in them that made her wonder if he were as surprised at the changes in her as she was at his.
"Violet, how good it is to see you," Michael said, taking her gloved hand in his. "If Mother hadn't been talking to you, I'm not sure I would have recognized you. You've grown up since I last saw you."
If anything, Michael Heaton was even more handsome than Violet remembered. "I could say the same for you, Michael. It's so good to see you both."
"Mother has been looking forward to your arrival very much. She's been fussing over your room for days."
She slipped her hand from his and turned toward his mother. "Oh, you shouldn't have gone to any trouble, Mrs. Heaton."
"I've enjoyed every minute, Violet. I hope you'll like it and feel right at home."
Michael quickly took charge, and before Violet knew what had happened, he'd procured a man to fetch her bags and help carry them through the huge building. She barely registered walking across the marble floor and outside, as she dodged first one and then another person hurrying to or from the trains.
Michael helped them get seated in the hack waiting right outside for them, and once they were settled and he took his seat, Violet said, "Thank you for meeting me at the station. I'm not sure I would have known what to do otherwise." She shook her head and chuckled. "I've never seen so many people in one place. Or such hustle and bustle."
"The city can be intimidating at first. And for a woman alone, I'm sure it's quite frightening," Michael said.
As the driver flipped the reins and steered his hack out onto the street and into the traffic, Violet could well believe the city would overwhelm her for years to come.
Once they were on their way, Mrs. Heaton turned to her. "I am so very sorry about your loss, my dear. Your mother was like a sister to me, and while I know your loss is greater than mine, I will miss her tremendously." The older woman patted her hand as tears gathered in her eyes.
Violet's heart warmed at her sincerity. "Thank you. She missed you sorely after you left. She looked forward to each of your letters, and I read them over and over to her when she couldn't read them herself anymore."
Mrs. Heaton dabbed at her eyes with the delicate handkerchief she pulled from her sleeve. "I'm so glad your mother and I stayed close through our correspondence. I know these last few months must have been grueling for you, dear, but I want you to know you have a place with me for as long as you need it."
Violet swallowed around the sudden lump in her throat. The very day she'd walked out of Harlan Black's office, she'd written a letter accepting Mrs. Heaton's offer to help in any way she could and telling her why. In the two weeks since, she'd been so consumed with getting ready for the move and getting out of town without letting Harlan suspect what she was doing, she hadn't had time to even grieve. The woman's kind words were like balm to her battered heart. "Thank you. I can't tell you how much your kindness means to me."
Mrs. Heaton gave a brisk nod, as if to dismiss the sad thoughts. "I'm just glad to have you here with us."
Violet began to relax. She was here among friendseven though she barely recognized Michael. Just seeing him stride across the depot toward her had taken her breath away. Sitting across from him now, she tried to keep from stealing glances at him as he and his mother pointed out different sights to her.
She wasn't even sure she saw half of all the sights since she closed her eyes each time another horse-drawn vehicle seemed bent on running them down, just before it stopped or turned on another street. She'd never seen so many different modes of travel in her life. Mrs. Heaton pointed out omnibuses, landaus and the trolley.
"Traveling in the city is a bit harrowing the first few times," Michael said. "But you'll get used to it."
"Thankfully, Grand Central isn't far from Gramercy Park, where our home is located. We'll have plenty of time to show you the sights and teach you the best way to get around, once you're settled," Mrs. Heaton said.
Violet wasn't sure she'd ever learn how to get around and was more than a little relieved when the hack pulled up outside a nice four-story brownstone on the corner of a quiet residential street. A small sign outside read Heaton House.
"We're home, dear," Mrs. Heaton said, patting her hand. "This is my boardinghouse."
Michael and the driver took Violet's baggage to the door, which was quickly opened wide by a young woman near her own age. She was slightly plump and wearing an apron and cap, her blond hair curling out from under it.
"I was getting worried, ma'am," she said as Michael and the driver brought Violet's trunk and bags into the foyer.
The foyer was wide and long, the floors polished until they gleamed. A long table with a vase of fresh flowers in the center of it and a holder for calling cards stood against one wall. There were several hat racks and coatracks on the opposite wall, and Violet assumed they got a lot of use when all the boarders were there.
"The traffic was quite heavy today, Gretchen." Mrs. Heaton took off her hat and put it on the rack. "This is Violet Burton, a dear friend from home and our new boarder. Violet, this is Gretchen Finster. She and her sister, Maida, help me out in the house and the kitchen Monday through Friday, and then on Saturdays and Sundays one goes home and the other stays to help with meals and the boarders' laundry. I don't know what I'd do without the two of them."
"How do you do, Miss Burton?" Gretchen's smile was welcoming.
"I'm fine, thank you." Now that they were out of the traffic and congestion, she felt much better. "It's nice to meet you, Gretchen."
"Come, let me give you a quick tour of downstairs while Michael and Gretchen take your bags to your room," Mrs. Heaton said.
"I'll see you later at dinner, Violet. I must get back to work for a while," Michael said.
"I'm sorry I interrupted your day, I"
"I was glad to take some time to come greet you, and we're glad to have you here." He kissed his mother on the cheek and smiled at Violet before heading up the stairs with Gretchen following.
"See you later, dear."
"I'll try to get home early," Michael said just as he disappeared on the landing.
Violet forced her thoughts off Michael and back to Mrs. Heaton as the woman turned and pointed to the right of the foyer. "This is the front parlor, Violet. Some, if not all, of the boarders gather here most evenings before and after dinner."
The room was quite lovely and large, with a piano in one corner and at least two very comfortable-looking parlor suites covered in a plush burgundy color, along with several rocking chairs upholstered in a gold-and-burgundy stripe, stationed around the room. The draperies were of the same material as the rocking chairs. She would have liked to look closer at the paintings and portraits on the wall, the framed pictures on the tables, but there wasn't time before Mrs. Heaton led her across the hall to the dining room.
This room was attractively furnished, as well. There were the same drapes on these windows and a beautifully carved sideboard along the opposite wall. The lace-covered table was hugeit must seat at least twelve people, and Violet wondered if there were that many boarders. Next came the kitchen, and her stomach rumbled at the wonderful aroma coming from the large range. The room was large and sunny with plenty of cupboards and a large worktable in the center.
"We're having roast chicken this evening." Mrs. Hea-ton took up a pot holder and checked the contents of a large pan in the middle of the oven. There appeared to be at least two big hens in the pan. Mrs. Heaton seemed to determine all was well as she closed the oven door and motioned to Violet to follow her.
Across the hall from the kitchen was the back parlor. A bit smaller than the front parlor, it seemed cozy and inviting. It was decorated in greens and blues and was quite restful. "This parlor is more for reading or quiet conversation. Several of our boarders bring their callers here to visit with them. Gretchen or Maida are always glad to bring tea or coffee for our guests."
The next room, between both parlors, was Mrs. Hea-ton's private study. It was paneled with shelves reaching from floor to ceiling, packed full of books. "You're welcome to come see me here anytime, Violet. And the books are available for all the boarders."
Although she'd only gotten a glimpse of each room, the homey feel of the house comforted Violet. "It is quite lovely, Mrs. Heaton."
"Thank you, dear. I'll show you to your room now, as I'm sure you're longing for a rest after your trip." She led the way down the hall and it was then Violet noticed a telephone on a table in the curve of the staircase. Mrs. Heaton motioned to it as they passed by. "The telephone is for us all to use. Many times an employer will ring up to ask someone to come in early or change their schedule. And sometimes their families or friends need to contact them."