Looking forward to the next Carrie jo book? Here's the first chapter! It's coming soon, y'all!
Prologue – Mary Fairbanks
I stepped out of the chilly coach and descended into the freezing darkness. My worn boot made a crackling sound as it touched the packed snow. My destination appeared as unimpressive as my departure point, Summiton, Virginia. Although it had an exotic name, Biloxi, Mississippi lacked urban sophistication too. Wooden sidewalks, rickety facades nailed on to the front of poorly built buildings. I had an eye for this sort of thing, my father had been a master carpenter. Sadly, this place was nothing more than a clump of wilderness with poor lighting and all the unpleasant smells that accompanied unwashed humanity. Did they slosh urine in the streets here too? I cast a watchful eye above me but the building behind me was cast in shadow.
The other travelers departed without any pleasant goodbyes. We had not so much as exchanged pleasantries during our trip, so I had no idea what their names were which was simply fine with me. Easier to keep a low profile and avoid questions that may expose me later. Managing light conversation had never been my strong suit. I preferred discourses on interesting subjects, not idle chit chat.
Instead of exchanging pleasantries with absolute strangers, I spent the hours memorizing all the details I could remember about Mary Fairbanks. I could not fail in my recollection. I had stolen her future, taken it for my own. I chewed on my fingernail, a worrying habit of mine and ignored the disapproving stare of the only other woman in our party. Eventually I met her stare with one of my own and after a brief eye roll, she stared at the opposite window.
My plan was to hide my accent, as best I could, and assume the identity that I had stolen without being discovered. Mary Fairbanks was not an Irishwoman but in my letters, I never spoke about my heritage—or more precisely Mary’s heritage. It would be difficult, but I would explain it, if pressed to. I should not like to be found out as a criminal. At least until I was wed. That was the goal here. To marry John Lancaster. I had fallen in love with him, you see. I do not know how such a thing could be possible, but it was a fact.
The strangest thing was how accidental it all had been—from the first letter to his proposal. Yes. What I had done was nothing less than criminal, but I felt little remorse for seizing the opportunity.
Just as he promised, John Lamar Alexander sent a coach ticket and spending money for the journey. This would not be the longest journey I have made; it would be many days, depending on the weather. Whatever the cost, I would be Mrs. Alexander.
Yes, I had every intention on marrying the fine man. I would have a happy life. Funny to think that my former employer, Mary Fairbanks thought she would snare him, rob him blind, no doubt. No woman like Mary Fairbanks could ever become a good wife. Thankfully, she had a short attention span and did not like to write. After the third letter, she didn’t even bother reading them. Mary was content enough to let me “run a game” on the unsuspecting Mr. Alexander but it was not a game to me. He and I were meant to be together. He was my path to happiness.
My prose, my answers intrigued him. He had fallen in love with me, he declared finally. Mary thought the whole thing was very funny in a crude sort of way. If I had allowed her to follow through, she would have shamed him. He would have had a whore for a wife.
I was no whore.
By the time I slid the ticket into my dress pocket and walked down that first flight of steps I was resolved to this course of action. Mary Fairbanks was a drunkard, an unashamed fool--a blemish on society. No two people were more dissimilar than she and I.
Bad things happened to women like me in Summiton. Eventually, I would have no choice; Mary made that clear. She expected me to join her in her ill reputes, to follow in her high heeled boots and become one of the many cast off prostitutes that littered the streets of Summiton. It did not take long for the stained hands of the coal miners to stain a woman. I had seen many pretty young women come and they never left.
Only in a hearse. The bloody stains they left behind would last far longer than any remembrance of them. The most pitiful of the, the least fair, the weak eyed or toothless serviced the poorest of the coal miners. They disappeared into those pits and never re-emerged. I shuddered at the thought. Not only would they die, but their souls would be stained forever. Not merely with inky, blank coal, but they had soul stains. I believed we had a soul. Mine was not perfect but I wanted to keep it as clean as possible.
The fight to keep my virtue had been truly dreadful but I was coming to John Alexander a virgin. Thankfully I excelled at drinking games. Raised on rye whiskey, it was easy enough for me to defeat even the most thirsty drunkard.
For as long as I can remember, I have been small of statue. Smaller than most. Even at eighteen I measure slightly over four feet tall and had no mature feminine attributes. I looked more like a doll, like the paper dolls I love to cut and snip. The oldest of five children, I never grew tall and spindly like my brothers. My mother often joked that I was a changeling, born of the fairy folks, traded at birth for the real Vienna Fitzgerald who was no doubt as fair and as tall as my siblings. I was never offended by my mother’s attempts at humor. I thought my brothers were great fools, although of a better sort than these greedy, lascivious Americans. You are better than that, Vienna.
Forget that name! You are Mary Fairbanks and this is your one chance for happiness. Finally, you’ll have your lucky break!
Although I am small of frame, I do have many good qualities, I reminded myself as I rode for hours in the rickety coach. I reviewed each one of them, so I would know what to say if things turned badly and I had to make a case for clemency.
Yes, I am clever, resilient and hardworking; these were attributes that have helped me in the past. However, like most young women there were times when I would have traded all those attributes for corn silk hair, an ample bosom and luminous blue eyes.
Rather than spend my life sulking over my short stature and general lack of beauty, I chose to enjoy the obscurity my height offered me. People tended to overlook me, to speak of things that they should not, all because I was small, rather childlike. For reasons beyond me, adults tended to talk about the most atrocious things in the presence of children. Or childlike people. That was me, an eternal child.
“Some men,” Mary Fairbanks would whisper in the darkness, “would give a gold mine to spend the night with someone like you, Vienna.” Meaning, childlike, I assumed. Inexperienced. Helpless. She always appeared green with envy while telling me this information. The thought of laying with any man repulsed me.
Only out of necessity. Only if I married. This man, this John Lamar Alexander, he would expect such intimacies but for marriage, to a good man, it seemed a fair trade. I have never been a slave to my emotions or physical impulses, and I would not start now. However, the real Mary Fairbanks cared nothing about her self-respect or dignity. She was for all intents and purposes a whore and not a particularly good one. She got ripped off often, beaten on occasion or drank so much she was easily robbed after her work.
I met her almost a year before I coldly robbed her myself, taking her ticket to her new life with me. I betrayed her too. It was freeing to leave that life behind.
“Vienna, dear. Be a lamb and roll me a cigarette or two. Your little fingers roll the tightest cigarettes.” I did that every day between washing her clothes and cooking her meals. “Think about how rich we would be if you helped out.” Her helping out meant to give my life to prostitution. When she was sober, I politely refused. Later, when she was completely sotted, she would smack me with her hand or hit me with her hairbrush, but nothing would convince me to take up her profession. Not even the threat of poverty or homelessness. No matter how hard she beat me I would never do that. My poor dead mother would roll over in grave.
Besides, it all seemed so foolish. And from what I had witnessed, coupling with a man looked uncomfortable and unpleasant. I had no desire to end up disease-ridden or pregnant or worse--dead. Despite my distain for her occupation, it was because of it that I survived that first winter here in Summit, West Virginia. I had been promised work, I came to Summit by way of a newspaper advertisement. A store needed “willing hands” but by the time I arrived there was none to be had for me. The store burned to the ground a week before I arrived. I applied for other positions, but it was always the same.
“Go home. You are too small for this kind of work. How can you possibly sew with those tiny fingers? You are absolutely grimy. I can see the grime from here.” The woman had been rude beyond words. I was cleaner than most, my nails and hands impeccable but there was no persuading her. I left heartbroken, disappointed and hungry. So very hungry.
And then I met Mary.
She had been patient at first but now Mary’s expectations were becoming more aggressive. I would not be able to say no to her forever hence my need for a hasty departure. And then it all came together. The idea, then a plan and then the opportunity.
Yes, it did seem as if fate once again smiled upon me! I had to take the bull by the horns. Make fortune work for me. Yes. Fortune would continue to lead me to the happy life that I dreamed of so long ago in Ireland. It was the luck of the Irish that I trusted in, and my ability to persevere.
Snow began to fall as I stood clutching my black bag. The others were gone. I was all alone. I tucked my hat down over my ears and waited. Surely whomever expected me would arrive soon.
Where are you, John Alexander? Where are you? You cannot leave me here. Please, let this be real. Let this all be real. I have risked everything. Everything! What else is there for me?
But no one stepped out of the darkness to claim me. A flickering lamp above the sidewalk did not offer me much light but it was enough to see I was by myself.
“John Alexander? Mr. Alexander?” I whispered into the crisp air. The only answer was a heavy falling of snow.
All the world grew silent.