by Cara Luecht
The only thing worse than being alone is having him back.
Ione has everything she’d wanted with her busy shop filled to the brim with sumptuous fabrics, gossiping debutants, and a neatly increasing profit margin. Not to mention the unexpected attention of a man who doesn’t know her past.
And then the letter drops from the mail slot onto to lush carpet. He’s back. And the abuse, the shame, rushes in, reminding her of how unworthy she really is.
Miriam also has everything she’d wanted—and with a baby on the way, for the first time in her life, she has everything to lose. When she’d been alone, the future had held promise, but now with her life full, it also holds fear.
Unwilling to risk a vision of loss, Miriam stops painting what will be…right before Ione needs it most.
The rain caught the commuters unprepared with its warm needle-like cascade. Men in suits rushed by the empty dress shop, ducking into the doorway alcove for the few seconds it took to shake out their newspapers, tent them over their hats, and dive back into the afternoon throng. Women watched from behind glass, not willing to risk the dyed feathers and crushed velvet adorning their uptown hats.
Ione checked the dime-sized watch she’d pinned just below her shoulder and shook her head. Nearly noon. The end of Saturday’s short work day always surprised her. If she flipped the closed sign now, she might miss a late arriving customer. If she didn’t, she risked a late arriving customer who wouldn’t want to leave, and she didn’t want to skip dinner and an afternoon spent with her sisters at Pastor Whitaker’s house.
So she stood, undecided, with the white painted board hanging between her fingers. Even the scroll work on this simple, purposeful item was more than she’d ever thought she would have. Ione glanced back to the stacks of fabric and the dusty-pink walls. Heavy curtains draped across the doorway to the fitting room with the luxury and ripple of excess yardage. Cabinets with glass fronts lined one side of the room, the contents gleaming in the sparkle of the electric chandeliers, and floor to ceiling gilt-framed mirrors leaned at strategic angles so ladies could examine their new gowns.
Ione flipped the sign to read closed and turned off the light in the storefront display window. This morning, like usual, she’d started work in the dark. But with the rain, the day had never brightened. She glanced back toward the wet street and the muffled, constant noise of steel-rimmed wheels against cobbles. At least she was leaving before the streetlamps hissed to life. Ione unpinned her chatelaine from her waist and set it gently on the warm wood counter at the far end of the shop. The set of tools were more like a valued piece of jewelry, a gift from Miriam and Michael on the day her store opened under the simple name of Dressmaker. She spread the delicate chains apart, fingering the tiny scissors, the seam ripper, the cylinder that contained her best needles, and the silver thimble with a single ruby tucked into the filigreed surface. She smiled and opened the drawer under one of the glass cases that held samples of beads and crystals and lace, and pulled out her mother’s much simpler version of the piece Ione wore during the day. Her mother, also a seamstress, had died nearly a year past now.
Ione pinned the plain chatelaine at her waist.
The rain continued to fall, its staccato growing in intensity until it sounded like the rush of applause. She remembered that sound. When she’d sung. Before things got bad and singing wasn’t enough—wasn’t enough for him.
How long had it been since she’d thought of him? She chewed the inside of her bottom lip. Had it been a week yet? She forced her gaze to the small mirror near the hat stand and concentrated on keeping the bile from rising. No reason existed for him to enter her thoughts. Yet, still, he did. Raising a shaky hand to smooth her tight curls back into submission, Ione studied the play of candlelight against her skin. Her mother had always said how lucky she was to have skin so light. Not light enough to pass as white, of course. And dark enough to earn questioning looks from the women who had heard of her talents but had not been told to expect a negro woman when they crossed the threshold of her shop.
Ione startled. Something scraped against her door. The heavy rain clouds had shadowed the entrance, so Ione stood frozen, waiting, listening to the squeal of tiny metal hinges and the clank of the mail slot as it fell closed. On the other side of the window, the crowds still moved fast, still rushed to get home, out of the rain, into the warmth of a fire and the comfort of supper. All except one.
A boy, young, dressed in shabby, too-short trousers rushed out of the darkness, crossing the street, his back to her and his face tilted toward the ground.
He’d dropped something through her door.
A white envelope, face down, glowed against the dark stain of the wood floors. Ione bent and picked up the folded paper. It was wet on the corners but sealed with wax stamped in a nondescript symbol borrowed from a business of some sort. She hadn’t seen it before. A payment from one of her ladies would have usually come by messenger. She glanced out the window in a quick search for the boy. The messengers for anyone she knew would have had a much better-dressed household staff member to make runs to the part of town where women wore white and could expect their skirts to stay that way through an afternoon of shopping.
The envelope was soft. Ione slid her fingernail under the smooth edge and popped the seal as she carried the unexpected delivery to the counter. An old kerosene lamp still burned, and the flickering yellow light permeated the folded paper. Heavy green stripes shone through. Ione paused, and then with cold, unfeeling fingers, she teased a scrap of silky fabric from the envelope. The small sample fluttered to the countertop.
Ione stopped breathing.
She didn’t want to touch it. Didn’t want anything to do with it. It was a cheap piece of her past, mocking her in this boutique, clattering out of her memory into her reality, and reminding her she was a poor black woman in a rich white woman’s world, that she had come from nothing—no, worse than nothing.
She lifted the glass off the lamp and took the fabric between her fingers. She needed to burn it. Burn everything that had to do with her past.
A slip of paper slid out of the envelope and fell to the counter. Not everyone has forgotten who you really are.
Ione sucked in a shallow breath, choked back a cry that rested somewhere between gasp and sob, and crumpled the sheet in her fist before lifting the frayed corner to the open flame. It caught, the edge curling and turning from orange to fine black embers and then to white ash. Heat swelled and warmed her hand, and she wondered for a second or two what it would feel like to go that way. For everything to be hot and then gone. Dropping the final burning corner of paper into her empty teacup, she added the fabric to the consuming flame. Eventually, the orange glow sputtered and died. Nothing remained to remind her of that horrible year, but she still trembled in the wavering light.
Extinguishing the flame still flickering on the lamp, Ione paused, grabbed her shawl against the sudden chill and her umbrella with its too-delicate lace edge—it probably cost more than her mother had been able to make in her entire lifetime—and closed the door behind her.
Not before checking the street, though. And not before craning her neck to peer into the windows of the apartments overhead, or to watch the dark corners around the alley entrances. She knew what waited there. Oh, how she knew. She remembered hunger and the kind of pain that men so easily inflicted. Suddenly, the warmth of dinner with her sisters and the comfort of her little home above her shop felt miles away. It had been so tempting, so easy to forget. The memories swooped back in, settled into the pit of her stomach. Like everything she’d accomplished had been a dream, and now she’d been slapped awake in a dark room and reminded who she really was.
The rain had shifted into big, lazy drops that trailed down windows and collected on the brims of hats. Still standing in the shelter of the doorway, she shrugged her shawl higher and adjusted the grip on her umbrella, lowering it to shield her face. She thought it had been over, that her new world was safe from her past, and that her secrets had left when he’d disappeared. More than a year separated her from her old life. Ione breathed out heavily, as if she could expel him along with the air from her lungs. More than a year.
She should know better. Nothing was ever that easy. She slipped the key to her store into the lock and turned it, listening for the tumblers to drop, appreciating the secure mechanical sound of metal on metal. She bit back a mirthless chuckle. No. Things had gone too easily. She’d made her way from desperate to rich in less than the time it took most people to rip another year off the calendar. Of course, she had Miriam and Michael to thank for that, for the opportunities, but it hadn’t happened without her efforts.
Miriam and Michael. They couldn’t know. Rather, they couldn’t know the details. They’d always known what she’d been—that was hard to hide—but they hadn’t known much of anything about him. Much about the bad decisions she’d made. Much about the fact that she’d loved him, and she’d followed him, given up everything to be with him, and that how Miriam had found her—broken, in the alley—was the result of that ignorant, blind love.
Ione glanced down the street, her mind milking shapes from shadows, until her anger and fear stewed together into something that resembled resolve. But not the kind worn for all to see. More like the kind of resolve a jungle animal makes when they decide that they will not become prey. Not on this day. Ione stepped out of the shelter and onto the cobbles.
She glanced over her shoulder. How had he found her?
And where was he now?
Biting down hard on her bottom lip, Ione breathed in the rain-fresh air and forced back hot tears. She’d been a fool. Whether he watched her from the shadows now or not, she wasn’t alone.
Miriam’s fingers ached to paint. She dreamed of the colors, of red and sea-glass blue, and she longed for the familiar scent of her studio. But she hadn’t touched her brushes in months.
The last time the paints had spoken so vividly, she’d held the tools and brushed out the fear and the pain. The resulting portraits had led them all into and out of danger. Miriam rested her hand against her swollen stomach and felt a slight kick. She couldn’t risk it. Couldn’t risk the darkness coming through her hand, not with a baby on the way.
Most of all, she couldn’t live with the fear of something going wrong for this new life. When she had lived alone, when no one interrupted her days and she didn’t have to be distracted by thoughts of concern or pangs of worry, when she painted strangers and then with a few more strokes of her brush added lines and shadows that spoke of their future, no risk hid in the bristles of her brush. But now, now that she loved and now that new life stirred inside of her, now that she wasn’t alone, those predictive brush strokes held more than curiosity—they spoke of her own joys and fears.
Now that she had a future, she had something to lose.
Miriam looked out at the gray drizzle that had persisted all morning and breathed in the familiar scent of the house in which she’d spent her childhood. Her mother’s perfume still clung in unexpected corners, and every once in a while, a hint of her father’s cigar would float up from a rug that had been kicked or a curtain that had been disturbed. Nothing and everything had changed from the time her mother had died and her father closed the house and moved the two of them to his warehouse offices near the docks.
Miriam sat back in her chair, feeling the give of the cushion, the comfortable spring under the rich upholstery, and glanced up at the self-portrait her mother had completed before her death. It had never been meant for eyes other than her father’s, but when Miriam had uncovered the painting, she broke the unspoken confidence and placed the image of her mother—the one that displayed her insecurities and confidence, her fear and joy and love—on the mantle. But the picture lacked sorrow, and that told Miriam her mother probably didn’t paint like she did. Her mother probably didn’t paint the future.
And that was what stopped her. Miriam shoved her hands into the deep pockets of her skirts and fisted them into the unreasonably soft spring-green velvet. If she picked up the brush, if she turned off her thoughts and let the paint dictate again, if the future turned dark and fear curled in from the edges to invade the faces of the people she loved, what then?
She turned back to the drawings scattered across her morning desk. Sketches for children’s clothes—outfits suitable for their customers at the Foundling House—were strewn about, some on the desk, some on the floor, and two hanging from the shelf above her head. Jenny had finished estimating the costs for each item, and Ione had already made small corrections to each of the drawings for last minute cost-saving details. The final step rested with Miriam and with her approval.
Picking up her pen and dipping it into the well, Miriam signed at the bottom of the rows of Jenny’s figures and finalized the process.
Another order ready for production.
“Mrs. Farling?” Mrs. Maloney, their housekeeper, opened the door a crack. “Are you still in here?”
Miriam smiled and waved the distinguished-looking woman in. Although given the option to shed the uniform, Mrs. Maloney preferred to wear the severe gray dress and starched white collar and cuffs common to the most formal of houses, even though Miriam had never made an attempt at formality. She needed Mrs. Maloney too much to pretend she lacked dependence on the woman. She had been there from the start, from the point where Miriam had decided to reenter society, and almost from the day Michael had come back into her life. “What do you need?”
Mrs. Maloney stepped in and closed the door behind her. She carried a silver tray with a card adorned with Miriam’s name—Mrs. Michael Farling—written in thick swirling lines of black ink on expensive, textured paper. She recognized the handwriting.
“I wonder what Mrs. Penn wants.” Miriam glanced at Mrs. Maloney, hoping she would have heard of some approaching event or a likely upcoming social obligation.
“I know of nothing, Mrs. Farling.”
Miriam took no comfort in the social expectations that came with the status earned by her father’s wealth and her husband’s successes. If she’d been raised to drink tea from delicate cups whilst reclining in white wicker furniture, or trained to talk behind the screen of a fan about the newest arrivals from France, maybe then the knots in her stomach wouldn’t threaten every time someone handed her an envelope with her name on it.
She hadn’t been raised like that, though—gently, and in the arms of a mother. Instead, she’d lived with her father in the tiny apartment above his warehouse, surrounded by the smells and sounds of the docks. Rather than play with teacups and ribbons, her father had placed her mother’s brushes into her tiny hands. And under the watchful gaze of her nanny and teacher, she’d painted.
Mrs. Maloney nodded at the paper, and Miriam obeyed, picking up the envelope and slipping the blade of the letter opener under the folded flap.
Mrs. Penn requested her presence this afternoon. An impromptu luncheon.
“This afternoon?” Mrs. Maloney tucked the silver tray under one arm. “Her boy is waiting. What would you like me to tell him?”
“Ask him to let Mrs. Penn know I will arrive as requested by her letter.” Miriam shifted her chair back and stood up, allowing time for her pregnant body to adjust to the new position.
Mrs. Maloney nodded and turned to leave. “Is there anything else?”
Miriam glanced at the papers still scattered across her desk and shrugged, accepting the impending interruption to her day. “If I am going out visiting, I may as well drop these off to Jenny at the warehouse so she can get started on this next order.” Miriam bent over the table and began stacking the papers in neat piles. “Besides, I want to see how she’s doing.”
“Should I have the carriage brought around?”
Miriam paused. “Didn’t we hire a new driver?”
“I haven’t met him yet.”
Mrs. Maloney smiled. “I’m sure you will like him.”
Miriam frowned at the stacks of papers she now held. “I suppose.” She gestured to Mrs. Maloney to lead the way out of the room and then followed her until they reached the bottom of the stairs. “I’m sure he knows where the warehouse is and where Mrs. Penn lives.”
“I’m sure he does. I’ll check about the warehouse, but I think Mr. Farling has already had him running errands there. And as far as the Penns, well, everyone knows where they live.”
Miriam knew she required more handholding than the typical lady of the house. She smiled at Mrs. Maloney, silently thanking her for never reminding her of her faults.
Mrs. Maloney smiled back and reached for the stack of papers. “I’ll slip these into your case and let the driver know to ready the horses. Should I send someone up to help you get changed?”
“Yes.” Miriam climbed a few stairs before turning back. “What is the name of the driver?”
Miriam continued up the stairs. She’d seen Tamm in the gardens behind the house while looking out of one of the small square windows in the hall that connected two of the hidden rooms at the back of the townhouse. He had dark skin and black wavy hair. Their eyes had met, and for a moment, she thought she’d recognized something there, in his gaze. But he’d looked away and ducked into the garden shed to retrieve some tool. Miriam waited, but when Tamm exited he never looked back to check if she still watched.
The Penn mansion ruled the lakefront with dark brick arches and wrought iron authority. Sumptuous landscape carpeted and adorned the square patch of land in the summer, and in the winter, that green gave way to the warmth of well-lit windows that burned against the icy, roiling Lake Michigan backdrop. As if the towering mansion weren’t enough to impress the elite, the rooftop ballroom, encased in glass, twinkled in summer evenings with the light of gleaming chandeliers and even brighter society heavyweights. The first time Miriam had visited, she’d expected to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the place and the legend of the woman who commanded it. She’d been surprised to discover, though, that Mrs. Penn turned out to be a fellow lover of art and a valuable friend.
Tamm slowed the carriage and turned into the circle drive in front of the towering home. Mrs. Penn’s letter had not hinted at the reasoning behind her request for a visit, but the congregation of other richly appointed carriages foreshadowed the likelihood that Miriam would be joining a large group of others who had also received invitations that morning. Typical etiquette required more than a few hours’ notice for a visit, but Mrs. Penn had the prestige to flaunt any number of niceties and the influence to make the invited grateful for her attention.
The carriage rolled to a stop, and Tamm jumped down from his perch above. Opening the door for Miriam, he lowered the stair, offered his hand, and bowed, never making eye contact. Which agreed with Miriam’s sensibilities. The less eye contact, the better. She tried to appreciate his evasion, but when their gloved fingers touched, the dead sense of nothing swelled under the fabric and darkened the cloudless sky.
“Thank you.” Miriam ripped her hand from his as the tip of her boot hit the cobbles. “I…I’ll send for you when I need you.”
Tamm nodded once and turned back to the carriage, leaving Miriam to take the stairs under the watchful gaze of the Penn’s footmen.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Farling.” The impeccably dressed servant bowed and offered her his arm for the last step into the grand home. “I’ve been instructed to see you in.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jones.” Miriam took his arm and followed him into the grand entryway.
He lifted a brow and offered a half-smile at the proof of his remembered name. “Mrs. Penn instructed me to lead you in the back way, if you would like.” He leaned in low to whisper as he took her wrap.
Miriam nodded. Mrs. Penn, for all her fierceness, always treated Miriam with unexpected care. It might have been that Michael had previously won Mrs. Penn over so thoroughly, or her friend’s love of art and fascination with artists. Miriam could never tell the reason, but she appreciated it.
Mr. Jones handed Miriam’s wrap to a waiting maid. “There are about a dozen other women in the room. Mrs. Penn is asking for involvement from all the women who will be attending, but she wanted me to make her desire to have your support clear from the beginning.”
Miriam slowed her steps, bringing their progress across the white marble floors to a halt. “Perhaps I should already know, but what is it that she needs?”
Mr. Jones smiled again. “There are some questions about the Women’s Pavilion at the Columbian Exposition. From what I hear, there is disagreement over art selections and still some grumbling about the architect chosen to design the exhibit. Mrs. Penn has not said so to me, but I think she is gathering support to maintain control over the artwork and cultural exhibits.”
Miriam nodded and together they made their way to one of the parlor’s side doors.
He leaned in closer, wise eyes alert and sparking with intent. “There is also some debate over the fashion exhibits.”
“I see.” Miriam grinned at the servant. Mr. Jones was always a wealth of information. Not the kind that could ever put the Penn family at risk, but rather the sort that smoothed the path for Mrs. Penn’s ambitions. He’d been with the family for decades.
He held open the glass-paneled French door. Miriam took a breath, steeling herself for the onslaught of people and conversation, and stepped inside to the swirling kaleidoscope of soft flowers that spilled from crystal vases and vibrating feathers that dangled from brightly colored hats. The ladies, busily smiling and gesturing, leaned in with their heads together, gleaning the most recent bits of gossip. Most of the ladies milling about she remembered from any number of events that had taken place over the past year. Some of them were unfamiliar—likely the new young wives of husbands from prominent local families. But it wasn’t the women or the heavily perfumed room or the cacophony of colors that stopped her observations. Rather, it was the wary expression Mrs. Penn leveled at Miriam over the determined shoulder of an unfamiliar lady, and the slight tick of her fingers, calling Miriam to her side, that made Miriam want to turn and run.
She didn’t. With one delicately booted foot in front of another, Miriam crossed the room to the now customary accompaniment of low whispers and hushed tones and took her place at Mrs. Penn’s side. Her presence, although accepted, was still something of a sensation. The recluse daughter of one of the city’s richest men had always been a curiosity.
Not as curious as the expression the strange woman directed toward Mrs. Penn, though. And not nearly as disturbing. Mrs. Penn’s steely posture and slightly pink cheeks were enough to make Miriam slide up next to her, despite the low, personal tones of the conversation, and take inventory of the offending woman.
Her dress, with its fashionably large sleeves and narrow skirt, echoed the severe expression she wore.
“I know this will not be a problem,” the woman said, the false lilt in her voice at odds with the ice in her eyes. “The agreement was in place long before you stepped in.”
Mrs. Penn didn’t dignify her statement with a response. Instead, she maintained an uncomfortable stare until the other woman cleared her throat and took a step back. “Good day, Mrs. Black.”
Dismissed, Mrs. Black blinked, the heightened color blotching her neck rising to stain her cheeks. With a slight nod, she turned and made her way back through the crowd, past the huge potted ferns, and out the main doors.
“What was that about?” Miriam tore her gaze from the now empty entryway.
Mrs. Penn sniffed, let out a long breath, and then relaxed her posture. “She owns the most prestigious dress shop in town, and she wants to design the uniforms for the women who will work at the Pavilion.”
“And why wouldn’t she?”
“Because I want Ione to do it.”
Miriam couldn’t hide her smile. “I suppose that explains it then.”
“She may try to cause some trouble, but it won’t last long.” Mrs. Penn took a step away and nodded to another guest before signaling the maid to ring the bell that would begin the meeting. Glancing back at Miriam, she gestured to the chair in the front row of seats and welcomed everyone to what she introduced as the first of many meetings to decide how the women of Chicago would be represented at the World’s Columbian Exposition.