All morning she managed to avoid the haunting allure of a room shrouded by heavy draperies. Streaks of light cut through the darkness, brightening silky pink wallpaper and piercing her memories, awakening images of another time—another life.
Instead of taking the stairs, Maggie stepped into the play of light and shadows of a parlor where dust lay thick on every surface. Fine-boned furnishings maintained a delicate beauty beneath the musty odor and a floating shimmer of intricate webs. A piano, alone in a corner, held her transfixed. Ghostly whispers of familiar melodies echoed in the back of her mind.
She hadn’t seen a piano since she’d sat at her own. Her father’s actually.
Play something sweet for me, Maggie.
His image drew her closer, his long frame relaxed in the pink tufted chair, his eyes closed, his silver hair a soft wave against his forehead. Her fingers reached toward ivory keys as she settled on the cool rosewood bench. Her father’s favorite song trickled through her mind as her fingertips brushed the smooth surface, her light touch barely disturbing a silty film. Her hands moved silently over the keys, following the music playing in mind.
Well done, Button. Your mother could not have played any sweeter. It will be a lucky suitor who wins your delicate hand.
Her gaze fell to the scarred and calloused fingers poised over the keys. Sadness rushed her heart at the thought of her father’s disappointment. He’d loved her and had envisioned nothing but refined comfort for her future. He hadn’t meant to leave her unprepared for the harsh realities of her life.
A prickling chill crept up the back of her neck. The internal warning she’d been too naive to recognize at the age of thirteen pulled her from her thoughts. She glanced over her shoulder and spied a tall figure looming. She gasped, lunging up. As she turned her hip banged against the piano. A clash of heavy vibrations exploded across the room.
“Maggie?” His rich voice eased her fright.
His face moved into a spray of light, casting off the dark pallor of old memories. The purple smudges beneath his hazel eyes and the puffy gash above his eyebrow reminded her that she’d been heading upstairs. Her gaze collided with his bare chest and followed the dusting of crisp blond hair to denims riding low on his hips, the top button unfastened. His bare feet were the only part of his exposed body not baring bruises.
“What are you doing out of bed?”
“Lookin’ for my magpie.”
Mercerville, Pennsylvania, 1863
Lorena Rose peered through the slit between the faded damask drapes that covered the window in the upstairs hall of The Hedward Girls Academy. The last remaining young woman was being escorted into a carriage by her father. Well, not the last.
She glanced over her shoulder at the eight-year-old who sat alone in the roomy alcove used for reading and studying. Emily Sadler had stacked a pile of books on the worn divan beside her, and now focused intently on the one she held. The shelves behind her were empty.
The space that had once been filled with students and chairs and books was glaringly bare. Everything had been sold to pay debts.
Lorena’s stomach quaked as it had every time she’d thought of the financial crisis that had closed this school where she’d grown up, scattering the only people she knew.
This was home.
On the street below, Mrs. Hugh stood watching the carriage pull away. She held herself stiffly, her posture as perfect as that of the students she’d taught for the past thirty years. The woman turned, instinctively glancing up at the window where Lorena stood. She then gathered the hem of her brown serge skirts and hurried toward the door below, disappearing from view.
Lorena turned away from the window. “I’m going to see about our supper.”
Emily acknowledged her with a polite nod.
Downstairs, Lorena met Mrs. Hugh in the hallway that led back to her office and the kitchen beyond. “I see Jeanette has taken her leave,” Lorena said.
“Yes.” The lines radiating from the corner of the woman’s eyes had deepened over the past months. “Only Emily remains, and we still haven’t heard from her mother. My son is coming for me tomorrow.”
She raised her gaze to Lorena’s finally, steeling her expression.
“If I may have her mother’s address, I will continue to try to reach her,” Lorena offered. She and Emily were the last two castoffs.
Mrs. Hugh picked the only thing on the desk, and handed the folder to Lorena.
Lorena glanced at the headmistress hesitantly before opening it. She’d never seen one of the student’s files. There, in neat script were dates and numbers, detailing a history of the child’s time at the school. Emily had come here on April fifth of the year eighteen hundred and fifty five. Her approximate length and weight were recorded, as were eye and hair color. She’d been an infant.
Her mother was listed as Meriel Sadler, but the line for a father had been left blank. Payments had been recorded every six month interval for the past eight years. Mrs. Hugh had noted each bank draft signed by Mr. Roman Terlesky, even recording postmarks from various parts of the country and overseas.
Puzzled, Lorena looked up. “Is Mr. Terlesky her father?”
“I don’t believe so. He may be her stepfather or merely her mother’s…close friend. In any case he supplied her tuition all these years.”
“Has either of them visited her?”
“Her mother visited once or twice when she was very small,” the woman answered. “I doubt the child remembers her.”
Their abandonment stirred Lorena’s anger. Emily’s situation was painfully similar to her own. Lorena’s anonymous tuition had stopped coming when she’d been twelve, and she’d been forced to work in the kitchen and help with the laundry to pay her keep. All these years and she’d never known where she’d come from or who had abandoned her. “May I see my own file?”
Without hesitation, Mrs. Hugh turned to a crate and flipped through the meager stack of remaining papers. “You may have it. And the girl’s. I have no further need for them.”
Lorena opened this folder with more trepidation than she had the last. Her heart skipped a few beats and then raced.
In black ink, the same penmanship recorded the date she’d come to the school. She’d been two years old.
Nothing appeared on the lines that called for a mother and father’s name nor was there a date of birth. She stared at the blank spaces, her eyes dry and burning. “There’s nothing here.”
“We weren’t given contacts.” Mrs. Hughes moved a page to find her handwritten record on a piece of heavy stationary. “You were brought to the front door by a lad who said he’d been paid to deliver you. He produced an envelope that contained money to pay your keep for a year.
“After that, bank drafts came from an anonymous source.” She looked up at Lorena with regret in her eyes. “Until December 1853, at which time there was no check, no notice, no anything. We never heard from your benefactor again.”
Lorena had always known she’d been abandoned. That wasn’t news. But she’d imagined—or dreamed perhaps—that one day she’d learn who her parents had been. Even if they hadn’t wanted her or been able to care for her, she would know their names.
But this…. A soul-deep hollow ache defied her to ignore the humiliation. She wasn’t even a person if she lacked parents and a date of birth. She frowned in confusion. “Where did my name come from?”
“One of the teachers at the time,” Mrs. Hugh explained. “Miss Porter. Do you remember her?”
Lorena nodded. Miss Porter had died several years ago after working at the school for many years.
“Her mother’s name had been Lorena, and she always said your mouth looked like a pretty little rose.” Mrs. Hugh actually smiled. “You were a beautiful infant. One of the prettiest we ever had. Miss Porter took an instant liking to you, and she named you.”
“And my birthday?”
“Miss Porter guessed and selected a date she liked.”
With a stoic lack of emotion, Lorena thumbed through the pathetically few pages and the even more pathetically few notations. Her grades and academic achievements had been listed. She noted her first date of employment at age twelve, and her gradual promotions from the kitchen and the laundry to teaching in the schoolroom.
Her entire life consisted of a list of financial records and class grades. No birthplace, no parents, no name.
Her parents hadn’t cared enough to name her, and if they had, they hadn’t cared enough to see she kept it.
Lorena closed the folder and picked up Emily’s. “Thank you.”
She’d known, of course. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that she’d been delivered like a bottle of milk and abandoned to spoil or seek her own fate.
“The academy did its best by you, Lorena,” Mrs. Hugh said.
“Yes,” she agreed. She’d always had a bed to sleep in and meals three times a day. This place had been her entire life.
She glanced down at the brown folders.
“There is other family listed in Emily’s file,” Mrs. Hugh told her.
Lorena quickly reopened the folder.
“An uncle, I believe.”
She flipped a page over and found the notation. “Jules Parrish. Oregon City, Montana.
“I only wrote him last week,” Mrs. Hugh said. I kept thinking I’d hear from her mother.”
“Did you telegraph?”
“The best of the furnishings and supplies barely paid for these last weeks here,” she replied. “I was hard-pressed just to afford postage to notify all the parents.”
Lorena nodded her understanding. Most likely the woman had been spending her own money.
Lorena earned her keep, and a pittance in wages. None this past month, however. Since she rarely went anywhere or shopped, she’d saved nearly all her previous earnings, though.
Mrs. Hugh’s uncomfortable expression revealed her regret at leaving the young teacher and student on their own. She’d done everything she could.
“I’ll take care of Emily,” Lorena reassured her.
“The new owners will be here Thursday,” Mrs. Hugh reminded her. “You only have until then.”
“We’ll be gone,” Lorena replied.
“You haven’t had good fortune with a teaching position?”
“Not yet,” she replied. “I’m sure I’ll hear something or find a good prospect.”
She wasn’t as confident as she let on, but she’d never given in to fear in her life, and she wasn’t going to start now. Especially not now.
She prepared a supper of oatmeal, sweetened with blackberries from the bushes that hedged the back of the property. The pantry shelves held only eight jars of pickles, a bag of oatmeal and a few canned goods.
The three of them ate in silence, each occupied with their own thoughts.
Their beds had been sold and removed, so Lorena and Emily prepared pallets of folded blankets in the room that Emily had shared with another teacher.
“Your mother still hasn’t replied to our letters,” Lorena told Emily as she spread the last blanket. She wasn’t going to give her false hopes by assuring her they would hear something soon, because it was entirely likely they wouldn’t.
“She probably didn’t get them wherever she is,” Emily replied, her voice and expression void of feeling.
“I’m going to take care of you,” Lorena told her. That was a promise she could make to this child with whom she felt a strong kinship. Emily was being abandoned just as Lorena had been. Lorena knew exactly what being unwanted felt like, and she wasn’t going to let this girl think nobody in the entire world cared about her.
Lorena herself was terrified. She’d never spent more than an hour or two away from the safety of the academy. All she knew how to do was teach young ladies, cook and clean. She had no prospects to continue here in Mercerville. She’d written all the surroundings cities, even as far as Ohio, without success.
Since her conversation with Mrs. Hugh, she’d been thinking. Emily had at least one relative beside her mother. She deserved to know her uncle. Perhaps the man’s family would be ecstatic to learn about Emily. Lorena imagined a family welcoming Emily to their home.
And once Emily had been united with her family, Lorena could find a teaching job.
“You have an uncle in Montana,” Lorena told her.
Emily’s studied Lorena with solemn brown eyes. “I do?”
Lorena sat cross-legged on her pallet across from the girl. “I think we should go there.”
Emily appeared to consider that for a few minutes. “How far is Montana?”
Lorena stood and picked up the oil lamp from the floor. “I’ll be right back.”
Previously, chairs and a rug had occupied the space at the end of the hall, but now her bare feet padded on the wood in the empty silence. She found several rolled maps standing in the corner, located the one she wanted, and returned to her room.
She placed the map on the floor and unrolled it, using the lamp to hold one side and Emily’s book the other.
Emily folded back her blanket and leaned over the map opposite Lorena. Her dark braids fell forward with the tips grazing the paper.
“Here we are.” Lorena pointed, locating a far western spot in Pennsylvania with her fingertip.
Emily had studied American geography and history, and wasn’t altogether unfamiliar with the western reaches of the country. She searched the states and cities. “Here’s Montana, Miss Rose.”
The distance was a good two feet on the enormous map. They studied the vast gap for several minutes.
Their eyes met, Emily’s dark and filled with questions, Lorena’s blue and determined.
“How far is that?” Emily asked.
“Let’s figure it out using the scale,” Lorena answered in her teacher’s voice.
“We don’t have a ruler,” Emily mentioned.
“Do you have a bookmark?”
Emily reached for a slip of paper she’d had between pages.
Lorena painstakingly marked the paper with her thumbnail according to the line on the scale in the corner, and together they laboriously followed the marks that represented railroad lines.
After several minutes of tallying, Lorena sat back on her heels. “Seventeen hundred miles. Plus about another inch or two, because I’m not certain where Oregon City is.”
A trip like that was inconceivable to a woman and child who’d rarely left the safety of this house. At that moment Lorena knew desperation at its peak, but she kept her expression and her voice calm. “I have savings we can use for train fare and food. Tomorrow we’ll go to Jamestown and learn about the train schedule.”
She gave Emily a confident nod. “We will find your family, and then I’ll acquire a job.”
Emily picked up her book, letting the map roll back into a cylinder against the oil lamp. She set the book aside and crept back to her pallet. “Maybe my mother will come tomorrow.”
Lorena didn’t have the heart to support the girl’s hope with an encouraging reply. She moved the map and lamp aside and turned down the wick.
She lay down, darkness closed around her. This wasn’t the same secure cover of night she’d known before now. Uncertainty and trepidation created shadows of doubt that remained after she’d closed her eyes.
But she had no choice. Nothing remained for her in Pennsylvania. She had no connections to anyone in the entire country. No one needed her—no one except Emily.
And Emily had people somewhere.
She was going to do whatever it took to unite Emily with her family. Every child deserved a chance. And Lorena was her only hope.