Scene from Chapter 1
Charles City, Virginia
The train chugged toward the station. Smoke bellowed from the engine’s stack. Standing outside underneath the roof of the brick-and-mortar depot, Opal gulped as she watched it approach. She rubbed her hands on her white and green, ruffled skirt.
Her father turned to her. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Papa, this is for the best. You know that. Your business is suffering and Winifred is old enough to take care of the boys.” She shifted her head away to dab at a trickling tear with her fingertip.
“But, it’s so far.”
She faced him and forced a smile. “Yes,” she replied, her voice soft. “It’s going to be rough. But not having me here will help you, and I’ll be safe.”
“His credentials are impeccable according to the telegraph messages.”
The train pulled into the station, its wheels squeaking as it made its stop.
She swallowed the lump in her throat. Her hands shook. She tightened her grip on her drawstring purse. Puffs of the engine’s smoke blew into her eyes. She reached into her purse, pulled out a lace handkerchief and wiped her eyes before replacing the cloth.
“Your train departs in about 15 minutes. Let’s get your trunk loaded.” He waved his hand and motioned to one of the baggage handlers to come over. A gray-headed man raced to them. “Would you put this on the train for us? The baggage tag is on it, and my daughter has the matching one.”
Opal clasped the drawstrings and pulled the purse open to grasp the brass metal inside.
Pa laughed. “You’re always checking and rechecking things. That’s why I’m surprised you’re willing to take on this adventure.”
Her skirt brushed against her ankles, and she rocked back and forth. “It is amazing, isn’t it? But this leaves you with one less mouth to feed, and it’s time I found my way.” She paused. “I-I can’t stay with you forever and no man has asked to court.”
Her father took her arm. “That’s not true. There’s plenty interested in a pretty girl like you. You’re just picky.”
Opal sighed. “Yes, I guess I am. I want a man’s man not some wimpy old-plantation owner who never worked a day in his life.”
“You, amaze me, Opal. You really do. I never thought you had that much mischief in your soul.”
“No, Pa, it’s not that. It’s just I want to see if there’s something else out there, and this
position will give me that.” She adjusted her feather hat.
“All aboard!” the conductor shouted from a distance.
Pa stroked her hand before he tightened his grip. “You write. If things don’t work out you come back to us, Winifred and the boys wanted to see you off.” His voice broke.
“I know but it’s better this way. We said our good-byes last night.”
He led her to the train and searched for the conductor. He spied him speeding to the car. They were the first ones in line.
The conductor smiled.
For a moment, Pa rubbed his hands on his pants. “My daughter here is taking this train to Lincoln, Nebraska.” He caressed her arm as he spoke. “Keep her safe. She has no escort to watch over her. She is taking a governess position and only Alexander Boyer is allowed to meet her when she reaches her destination.”
“I understand, and we’ll pass it on to the other conductors.”
“Don’t forget to read the Good Book,” her father advised. He squeezed her arm and said his good-bye.
She stifled her urge to let the sobs flow and instead cracked a small smile. “Somehow we’ll see each other again. I don’t know how or when but I believe it’ll happen.”
“I hope so, honey,” he whispered before he released his hand from hers.
The conductor cleared his throat.
She grasped the railroad man’s outstretched hand.
The man helped her up the steps and guided her to a front row seat. “Sit here, miss. I’ll take good care of you. Don’t you worry.”
She let out a long breath. “Thank you.” She turned her head toward the north window. Her father waved to her. She waved back. They continued until a number of people gathered, and she no longer could see him through the crowd. It pained her to leave her family, but Pa needed to get back on his feet. He couldn’t keep up with the social demands – the ballroom dances and clothing expected to make an impression of wealth even though it all had dwindled into almost nothing. Biting her lip to keep it from trembling, she scanned the people waiting to depart.
Several ladies, dressed in linen outfits with matching hats and gloves, stood beside their escorts. It brought tears to her eyes. She loved Virginia. Leaving this place, indeed, was trying. She smoothed out her flowing skirt then reached for her smelling salts from her dangling waistline belt. Her corset did prick her skin, and the more she twisted the more it pinched. She took a whiff to prevent herself from fainting. The chatter of people intensified. Several passengers bolted inside her car and grazed her skirt as they passed by her. The whistle blew. A woman plunked down beside her.
The conductor leaned forward and smiled. “If you two need anything, let me know. Miss Preston, this is Miss Wilcox. Miss Wilcox this is Miss Preston. You two won’t believe it, but you’re both headed for Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s a small world.” He chuckled and headed to the door to assist other passengers.
Opal turned toward the lady sitting beside her. “So you’re going to Lincoln? How unusual for us to be traveling to the same place.”
“Yes, it is.” She retrieved a handkerchief out of her purse, tears welling up in her eyes. She smiled. “I worried about traveling this distance by myself.”
Opal leaned toward Miss Wilcox, eyebrows furrowed. “Are you okay?”
“I,” she sniffed and wiped her eyes. “I suppose I’ll be. Are you scared?”
She sighed and replied in a low voice. “Yes, I’m leaving my beloved Virginia for an unknown place. It’s disconcerting.”
Mrs. Wilcox nodded. “It is. I don’t want to leave, but my brother worried about me and,” she grimaced and wiped more tears, “arranged a marriage to secure my future. I’m sorry. I can’t seem to stop.” She sniffed. “I’m Ada, by the way.”
“So may I ask why you are going to Lincoln? I-I don’t want to pry, but since we’ll be traveling together, I thought it might be nice to-to talk.”
Opal smiled and turned toward her. “Of course, you can and I’ll be happy to talk about it. I’m taking a governess position for two children.”
“Oh? How old are the children?”
“Abigail’s six and Theodore’s eight.”
“Those are good ages,” Ada said. She took a deep breath.
“It is.” Opal paused. “That’s very perceptive of you.”
“Well, I have a large family of five brothers and two sisters.”
“I come from a large family of five brothers, too.” Opal laughed. “I can’t believe the things we’ve got in common. It’s uncanny.”
Ada gestured to her passenger’s dress. “Even to the point of our choice in colors.”
Opal nodded. “I noticed right away that we were both wearing green. I’m glad the conductor put us together.”
“I am too. Who are you meeting once we reach Lincoln?”
“My employer, Alexander Boyer.” Her stomach churned at his name, unaware exactly what to expect once she arrived. “And you?”
Ada gulped and clasped her hands together. “Pete Kelly. That’s all my brother told me about him. Well, my brother says he’s well off. So, you’re going to work as a governess? Are you looking forward to it?”
“Yes, but I’m going to miss my Virginia.” Her voice broke. She took a deep breath and asked, “What about you?”
“Not really. I’m just afraid of what kind of man my brother arranged for me.”
“It’s going to be difficult for both us.” Opal squeezed her newfound acquaintance’s hand a moment.
Ada returned the sentiment then withdrew her hand.
Opal hoped her companion would understand, but right now she needed quiet. Shifting her head toward the window, she gazed at the rows of dogwood trees in full bloom. She knew nothing like this awaited her in that desolate land they called Nebraska. Through the cracked-open window, she inhaled the sweet smell of the lilacs. Flowers. Can they even grow there? The stifled tears bubbled to the surface. She reached inside her purse to pull out her handkerchief and dabbed at the corner of her eyes.
With the final transfer behind them, the train clanged closer to their destination. Long ago the thicket of trees disappeared and were replaced with barren land. Her friend, who sat beside her, slept comfortably after days of crying. Opal sighed, glad her companion got a little bit of peace before they arrived. They vowed to keep in touch. Ada would live on a farm outside of town while she would execute her duties in a house a half-mile walk from the city.
Opening her bag, she looked for her baggage tag. She smiled, remembering one of her father’s last words about her habit of rechecking things. Opal would miss him and hoped she would see him soon even with the great distance between them. Wheels squeaked as the train slowed. Damp air floated through the open window, but at least the sun broke through the gray skies. Her hands trembled as they approached. She squeezed Ada’s hand. “We’re approaching the station,” Opal whispered.
It took a minute before her friend stirred. Ada stared at her then smiled. “I will miss you.”
“Me too. I’m so glad we got to know each other.”
Ada pulled out her handkerchief and wiped a teardrop.
Opal tightened her purse. The whistle blew. She tapped her friend’s leg. “Don’t forget to write.”
The train’s wheels screeched to a stop. Pushing the car door open, the conductor jumped down to scoot the stairs nearby to the car’s door. He returned and stood in front of the rows of seats. “Lincoln!” he shouted, then directed his attention to the two women. “Stay here and I’ll make sure Mr. Kelly and Mr. Boyer are here to greet you.” He left.
The rush of passengers whizzed by them. Their foul body smells lingered in the air. Opal pulled out her smelling salts and sniffed. She took a deep breath. Her new life faced her.
The conductor beckoned them to leave. Ada stepped down.
Opal followed. A baggage handler stood in front of the depot. She turned her head from him and gazed into the eyes of a tall young man. His wavy-blonde hair whisked in the gentle breeze. The man’s muscular frame beamed over her.
“Miss Preston, I presume.”
“Yes,” she squeaked.
“I’m Alex Boyer.”
She studied her employer, a man much younger than she expected probably in his late twenties.
He stretched out his arm to shake her hand.
Her heart raced as his strong hand touched her soft skin. She gulped.
A second later he withdrew his hand from hers.
Mouth open, she stared at him a minute.
“Do you have your baggage tag?”
Her face warmed. “I’m-I’m sorry. I should’ve already given it to you.” She pulled the purse’s strings to jerk it open. It tipped forward. The tag dropped into the grassy soil. As she bent down to grab it, her head bumped into his chest.
“Miss Preston, are you okay?”
She rubbed her head a moment as she straightened up. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she muttered.
“Yes,” she repeated, forcing her voice louder.
“Alright.” He leaned over, grasped the tag and got up. Turning to the railroad man, Mr. Boyer presented it to him.
The handler matched the numbers, nodded then lifted the trunk. Stumbling a second, he turned to Mr. Boyer. “Looks like I’m going to need some help.”
Mr. Boyer rushed to him and grasped one of the ropes. They hoisted the trunk in the air.
Opal glanced at her employer. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize …” she said unable to complete the sentence.
“Follow us,” Mr. Boyer shouted, giving her a whimsical look.
The men carried the trunk several feet then stopped at Mr Boyer’s vehicle.
She caught up with them and stood beside them.
After they scooted the trunk onto the wagon, Mr. Boyer reached into his pocket and presented a silver coin to the baggage handler. “Thanks, Bob.”
“We’re friends. You don’t need to do that, Alex.”
“Yes, but I want to. Now, you go along and buy the kids some of those rock candies.”
He smiled. “Will do,” clenching the silver. Bob turned to Opal then headed toward the station.
She clutched her hands together for a second. “I’m-I’m.”
He shook his head then took her hand and helped her into the wagon.
She settled into her seat.
Mr. Boyer sat down, grabbed and whipped the reins. The horses sped forward.
Opal glanced in his direction. Tears welled up in her eyes, knowing she could not have made a worse first impression. Oh my, what does he think of me?