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Chicago, spring of 1899
Elizabeth Manning had examined every option open to her. But in the end she had only one. Her heart lurched.
She had to run.
If she stayed in Chicago, tomorrow morning she'd be walking down the aisle of the church on Papa's arm. Then, walking back up it attached to Reginald Parks for the remainder of his life, which could be awfully long, considering Reginald's father was eighty-two and still going strong.
Papa said she had no choice, now that their circumstances had gone south like robins in winter. He'd reminded her that as Reginald's wife, she'd be kept in fine style. Probably what the keepers said about the tigers at the zoo.
She scooped her brush and toiletries into a satchel, then dropped it beside a valise crammed with clothes. No, she couldn't rely on mortality to get her out of the marriage.
And as for God…
Martha had promised God would help her. Well, Elizabeth had prayed long and hard and nothing had changed.
Her breath caught. Perhaps God had washed His hands of her. If so, she could hardly blame Him.
The time had come to take matters into her own hands. Once she got a job and made some money, she'd return—for the most important person of all.
She dashed to her four-poster bed, threw back the coverlet and yanked off the linens, then knotted the sheet around the post, jerked it tight and doubled it again for good measure. That ought to hold her weight.
A light tap. She whirled to the sound.
Elizabeth flung open the door. Skinny arms and legs burrowed into her skirts. "I don't want you to go," her brother said, his voice muffled by tears.
"I don't want to, either. But I've explained why I must."
Robby's arms encircled her waist, hanging on tight. Her breath caught. Could she do this? Could she leave her brother behind? "I'll be back, as soon as I find a job. I promise."
With few skills, what job could she do? Could she find a way to support them? All those uncertainties sank like a stone to her stomach. Refusing to give in to her fear, she took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. She would not fail her brother.
"What if you can't?" Robby's big blue eyes swam with tears. "What if—" he twisted a corner of her skirt into his fist "—you don't come back?"
Looking into her brother's wide eyes filled with alarm and hurt, Elizabeth's throat tightened. Was he afraid she'd die like Mama had?
"I'll be back." She knelt in front of him and brushed an unruly lock of blond hair out of his eyes. "We're a matched set, remember?"
Robby swiped at his runny nose, then nodded.
"We go together like salt and pepper. Like toast and jam. Like—"
"Mashed potatoes and gravy," Robby said, voice quavering.
"Exactly." The smile on Elizabeth's face trembled but held. "In the meantime Martha and Papa will take good care of you."
"But—but when we move, how will you find us?"
One month until the bank tossed them out on the street. One month to forge a new life. One month to save her family. Her stomach dropped the way it had at nine when she'd slipped on the stairs and scrambled to keep her footing. She hadn't fallen then and she wouldn't fail now. "I'll be back before the move."
Tears spilled down his cheeks. "I want to come with you."
If only he could. But she had no idea where she'd go. What conditions she'd face. "Eight-year-old boys belong in school." Elizabeth forced the words past the lump in her throat.
Tugging him to her, she inhaled the scent of soap, thanks to Martha's unshakable supervision. A sense of calm filled her. She could count on Martha, who'd raised her brother since Mama died, doting on him as if he belonged to her.
Robby's eyes brightened. "Can you get a job on a farm, Lizzie? So I can have a dog?"
His request pressed against her lungs. What kind of a father gave his son a fluffy black-and-white puppy for Christmas, then turned around and sold it in January? Reversals at the track, he'd said. As always with Papa, luck rising then falling, taking their family and their hearts with it.
A chill snaked down her spine. What if Robby caught Papa's fever for gambling? If she didn't get him away from here, her brother might spend his life like Papa, chasing fantasies.
"I can feed the pigs and chickens," Robby pleaded, his expression earnest.
"I don't have the skills to work on a farm, sweet boy, but once we're settled, you'll have the biggest dog I can find." She kissed his forehead. "I promise."
Yet another promise Elizabeth didn't know how she'd keep.
A smile as wide as the Chicago River stretched across Robby's face. "You mean it?"
"Have I ever failed to keep a promise?" She ruffled Robby's hair. "Now promise me you'll be brave while I'm gone."
His head bobbed three times. "I will."
She wrapped her brother in one last lingering hug. "I love you." She blinked back tears. "Now, tiptoe to your room and crawl under the covers." She tapped his nose with her fingertip. "Sweet dreams."
His lips turned up in a smile. "I'm gonna dream about a black-and-white fluffy dog."
She forced up the corners of her mouth as Robby took one last look back at her then slipped out the door.
No longer able to hold back her tears, Elizabeth leaned against the wall, fingering the cameo hanging from the delicate chain around her neck, the last tie to her mother. She would miss her room, her home, the place she'd lived all her life. Her watery gaze traveled the tiered moldings, crystal chandelier and wood-planked floor. Once this bedroom had held a mahogany writing desk, hand-carved armoire and handsome Oriental rug.
Here one day, gone another.
Like her life.
"Elizabeth, we miss your company."
Papa's booming voice was followed by the muffled mumblings of her want-to-be groom.
She swiped the tears from her cheeks, then hustled to the half-open door and caught snatches of Reginald's conversation. "Tomorrow… at my side… ceremony."
"I assure you, Reginald, she'll be there," Papa said, his voice carrying up the stairs, putting more knots in her stomach than she'd tied in her linens.
He'd promised her to Reginald Parks much as he had the armoire he'd sold to Mrs. Grant last week and the cherry break-front he'd shipped to the auctioneer the week before. He expected her to bail him out as Mama's fortune had, until he'd squandered every dime and worried poor Mama into an early grave.
How could Papa believe Reginald was the answer? She couldn't abide the man. He had no patience with Robby, even hinted at sending her brother to boarding school, as if losing his mother hadn't been enough upheaval in his young life.
Surely God had another answer.
She sighed. If only she and Robby could have a real home where a family shared their meals and the day's events at a dining table that stayed put, where a man considered his family first, where love didn't destroy.
"Elizabeth Ann!" Papa called. "Reginald is waiting."
She heard the familiar creak of the first step—Papa was on his way up. With her heart thudding in her chest, she eased the door shut and turned the key until the lock clicked. Then she jammed her hands into her kid gloves, grabbed her handbag and the small satchel stuffed with necessities and tore to the open window.
She looked down. Way down to the lawn and shrubbery along the back of the house. She gulped at the prospect of following her possessions out that window. Now was not the time to lose her nerve. She dropped the satchel. It bounced but stayed shut. When the valise hit, the latch sprung, scattering clothing across the lawn. Praying she'd hold up better when she alighted, Elizabeth flung the rope of sheets over the sill.
A rap on the door. "Be a good girl and come downstairs."
She grabbed the footstool and set it below the window.
"Reginald promised you a lovely matched team and gilt carriage as a wedding present," Papa said, his tone cajoling.
Elizabeth hiked her skirts and took a step up.
He pounded on the door. "Elizabeth Ann Manning, I'm doing this for your own good!"
Papa might believe that, but in reality, her father had one goal—prosperity. Through the door, she heard him sigh. "Sweetheart, please. Don't embarrass me this way. I love you."
Her fingers fluttered to her mouth as tears filled her eyes. "I love you, Papa," she whispered.
How could she abandon him? She stiffened her spine. He'd made the choice to gamble away their money, not her. Years of watching him take them on this downward spiral had closed off her heart. In her mind, he had only himself to blame.
Well, she and Robby wouldn't go down with him. Together they'd start a new life. She'd find a job somewhere, then return for her brother. After they got settled, she'd find a way to help Papa. She'd find a way to save them all, a way that didn't involve marriage to Reginald Parks. To anyone.
Papa slammed his body into the door. Elizabeth gasped. The hinges quivered but held, thanks to Mama's well-built family home, a home far enough west to have survived the great fire. A home they'd soon lose.
With one leg in and one leg out the window, she clung to the sheet and somehow managed to get a knee up on the ledge. Soon both legs dangled from the second-story window. Gathering her courage, she lay on her belly, ignoring the metal stays of her corset pinching her ribs.
The pounding stopped. She heard a creak on the stairs. Papa must've gone in search of Martha and her ring of keys. He'd soon be back.
Holding her breath, Elizabeth relaxed her fingers, and down she went, faster than a sleigh with waxed runners—until her palms met a knot and broke her grip. She landed on the boxwood with a thud, and then tumbled backward onto the lawn.
For a moment, she lay sprawled there, dazed, then gathered her wits and scrambled to her feet. No time to gather her clothing. She snatched up her satchel and purse and darted for the cover of the carriage house. Slipping inside, she tore through it and out the back, easy to do since Papa had been forced to sell their carriage.
Out of sight of the house, she sprinted down the alley past the neighbors', no small feat in silk slippers. By the time she reached Clinton Street, her breath came in hitches.
Once Papa found a key and got her door open, he and Reginald would be out searching for her. Two doors down, a hack rounded the corner and dropped off a passenger. She slid two fingers into her mouth and let out one of the peace-shattering whistles that had sent Mama to her bed with a cold compress draped across her brow.
The hack pulled up beside her. "Where to?"
Robby's words marched through her mind. Can you get a job on a farm? So I can have a dog?
Her brother yearned to live in the country, a good place for a boy. Not that she knew the first thing about the life, but a farm would be far from Reginald.
Perhaps a farmer's wife would want help with… whatever a farmer's wife did. Elizabeth was strong. And she could learn.
She gave the driver her destination. Then she settled into the corner of the coach and wiggled her hand into the slit she'd made in the lining of her purse. And came up empty.
A moan pushed past her lips. Papa had taken the small stash of money she'd hidden for just such an emergency. How low would her father stoop to feed his compulsion? She dug to the bottom of her bag and found enough coins to pay the driver. She wilted against the cushions.
How would she buy a ticket out of town?
Well, she'd face that later. Knowing she had no money, Papa wouldn't look for her at the depot, at least at first.
She wasn't going to walk down an aisle tomorrow morning, so how bad could her situation be?
Right before dawn, Elizabeth woke. She'd tossed and turned most of the night, as much as the bench would allow, listening in the dark to every sound. But Papa and Reginald hadn't come. In fact, no one had paid the least bit of attention to her.
She twisted her back to get out the kinks, sending three sections of the Chicago Tribune sliding to the floor. Thankfully the news that she'd bedded down at the depot wouldn't make the Society Page. Not that anything she did these days merited a mention.
Carrying her possessions, she tossed the newspapers into the trash and strolled to the lavatory. Through the window, the rising sun lit the sky with the promise of a new day. What would this day bring?
In front of the mirror in the large, tiled room, she pulled a brush through her hair, twisted it into a chignon, and then pinned her hat in place.
The distant shriek of a whistle shot a shiver along Elizabeth's spine. She grabbed her belongings and hustled to the platform. Porters hauled trunks and hatboxes to baggage carts while soon-to-depart travelers chatted or stood apart, sleepy-eyed. Her heart thumped wildly in her chest. A ticket. She needed a ticket. But tickets cost money. What could she do?
Smokestack belching and wheels squealing, the incoming train overshot the platform. Amid clangs and squeaks, the locomotive backed into position. Soon passengers flowed from the doors to retrieve luggage and hail hacks.
Elizabeth had to find a way to board that train. Her stomach piped up. Oh, and a spot of breakfast.
Near one of the station's exits a robust, plainly dressed young woman huddled in the corner weeping. Passersby gave her a brief glance then moved on. The stranger met Elizabeth's gaze.
Her flawless skin glowed with health, but from the stricken look in her eyes, she was surely sick at heart.
Some inner nudge pushed Elizabeth toward her. "Can I help?" "I… I can't go through with it. I can't marry him." Another woman running from matrimony. "Who?" "The man who sent me this." Out from the woman's hand
stuck a ticket, a train ticket. "Eligible bachelors are few and far between, but…" Tears slid down her ruddy cheeks. "I'm homesick for my family already and I've only come as far as Chicago."
Pangs of longing for Martha and Robby, even Papa, tore through Elizabeth. She'd left a note, but that wouldn't stop them from worrying. Worse, Papa and Reginald might appear at any moment.
"That's my train." The stranger pointed to the rail cars across the way. "I feel terrible for spending his money on a trunk full of clothes, then leaving him in the lurch. He's a fine Christian man and doesn't deserve such treatment."
Elizabeth's stomach tangled. A twinge of conscience, no doubt for neglecting church since Mama died. For not heeding the Scriptures that Martha read each morning while Papa hid behind the headlines and she and Robby shoveled down eggs.