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A Chicago World's Fair Mystery
Chicago, Illinois, 1893. The best schools, spacious houses along Michigan Avenue are not always sought by the parents of the debutantes ~ the young men are destined to make a good match to continue the style in which their family is accustomed.
Rosalind Perry has changed her name to Rosalind Pettit as she seeks Sloane House as a favorable employer to search for clues to the disappearance of her sister, Miranda Perry. Miranda had been in their employ and has not been heard from by her family in Wisconsin. Many have ventured to Chicago for employment during the World's Fair Expo. Whom can she trust? The staff are reluctant to speculate or divulge any tales of the former maid and Rosalind is warned not to bring past events up so as to keep their positions.
Secrets of Sloane House delves into the mixing of the staff and the young men of the families ~ friend or foe? Sadness in separation of the "classes." Rooting for hearts that will need mending, or stupidity in selection, you want to protect these girls from wrong choices of servitude.
***Thank you to BookLook Bloggers for sending me a copy of Shelley Gray's Secrets of Sloane House to review. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***
Enjoy this excerpt from Secrets of Sloane House ~
Chicago, August 1893
As circumspectly as she could, Rosalind Perry smoothed her dark gray skirts before meeting the wide, assessing gaze of Douglass Sloane, the twenty-four-year-old son and heir of the Sloane estate.
"And who might you be?" he asked.
"I haven't seen you here before, have I?" His dark eyes scanned her form, her face.
"No, sir. I'm new." A prickling ran up the length of her spine. Why was he watching her so closely? Had she done something wrong that she wasn't aware of?
Below them, down the stairs, the steady ticking of a mahogany grandfather clock floated upward, echoing the quick beating of her heart. The surrounding walls, with the rose trellis wallpaper and great array of samplers and portraits, seemed to close around her.
As if he had nowhere else to go, Douglass leaned a shoulder against the wall. The movement nudged the corner of a frame displaying the likeness of one of his dead relatives, showing a patch of dark wallpaper underneath. Rosalind did her best to stand still, though her hands longed to fidget. These questions were out of the ordinary. Never had the other members of his family conversed with her. Never had she expected it.
Cook had warned her that all four Sloanes were particular about the servants remembering their station in the formidable home. Hired help who spoke too much, didn't follow directives, or proved slovenly were soon replaced. Rosalind didn't doubt that to be true.
As she stood as still as a statue, Douglass Sloane continued to examine her as if she were one of the World Fair's new inventions.
"So ... Rosalind." A dimple appeared. "Shakespeare, yes?"
She nodded. The name was from the play As You Like It. Her mother was a great fan of all things literary. Her children's names had been a reflection of that. And perhaps to show the world that she was more than merely a farmer's wife.
Clarifying her mother's reasons for naming her Rosalind, however, seemed unnecessary. Too personal.
His arms crossed. The white linen of his shirt shone against the dark woodwork behind him. "And where might you be from?"
"Wisconsin, sir." A small dairy farm near Milwaukee, to be specific.
"Ah, Wisconsin. That veritable utopia to our west." Skimming her features again, he almost smiled. "And now here you are. In Chicago. Dusting."
"Yes." Her shoulders began to relax. Obviously, this member of the household meant her no harm. He was just curious about the newest housemaid on staff.
Perhaps that made sense. During the three weeks she'd worked in the home, the master's son had been on a buying trip with his father to New York City. She heard they'd returned just two days ago—and the downstairs talk was filled with gossip about his escapades.
Rumor had it that Douglass had spent every waking hour in city pubs and gaming halls. Anywhere he liked, actually. With a name like Sloane, a man could do what he liked whenever he chose.
"Really, Douglass," Veronica Sloane called out as she entered the hall on the arm of an extremely handsome man. "Leave the girl alone. If you cause her to tarry, she won't get all her work done." Somewhat mockingly, she raised a finely curved eyebrow. "And then what will we do?"
"I'm doing nothing out of the ordinary." He dared to wink, and his gaze gripped Rosalind again. "Merely getting acquainted. As I've done many times before," he added, almost as an afterthought.
With those words, alarms sounded in Rosalind's head again. Perhaps it was only her imagination, but she was certain his statement was laced with another meaning.
"There's little to get acquainted with," his sister said as she and her companion joined Douglass, their bodies effectively circling Rosalind. Her voice was sharp. "She's a servant, Douglass. Not a debutante."
Rosalind clutched her dust rag more tightly. Yes, in their world she was only a servant. But in her heart, she knew she was more than that. She was a child of God. In his eyes, she counted as much as anyone.
As much as her sister, Miranda, had ... before she'd gone missing.
Douglass stepped forward, bringing with him the faint scent of scotch. "Tell me, Rosalind, are you liking our home?"
His voice had turned silky. Rosalind's mouth turned dry. The question felt loaded, but she wasn't sure what the expected answer was. Her heartbeat quickened.
Oh, why had she been dusting in this spot at this moment?
Staring at her intently, Veronica once again raised a brow. "Do you? Are you happy?" Her voice lowered. "Content?"
Content? "I ... I—"
"Rosalind, Miss Sloane is right, you'd best get your chores done," the handsome stranger interrupted. "Why don't you run along now?"
His voice was so commanding, so direct, that she took a step back. Then stopped just as abruptly. She wasn't supposed to leave until she'd been dismissed.
Douglass turned to the man and frowned. "Armstrong, are you now giving orders to the servants in my home?"
"Not at all. I'm merely repeating what Veronica said. She is right. This maid surely has a great many things to do other than stand here with us."
Rosalind noticed a slight softening around the corners of Veronica's lips. "Reid, you actually listened to me."
Mr. Armstrong smiled at Veronica, and his voice became warmer. "Of course I listened. I always listen." There was no such warmth in his eyes when he turned back to Rosalind, however. His gaze was cool and almost piercing. "Miss, you had best go about your business. Now."
Staring at him, Rosalind stepped back. Her body was trembling so much that she feared it would be commented upon, giving them yet another opportunity to taunt her.
But when neither Douglass nor Veronica protested, only chuckled softly, she pivoted on her heel and scurried down the hall.
Brittle feminine laughter followed her steps. "Oh, Reid, I do think I'll keep you close to me all day. You're beyond amusing. Besides, it's nice having someone nearby who heeds what I say."
"Some might have a problem with your heavy-handed ways, though," Douglass added, his voice carrying a thread of malice. "The way you shooed away our new girl was a bit of a surprise. It almost seemed as if you were worried about her welfare."
"Perhaps I am concerned about her. You do have quite the reputation, you know, Sloane," their guest retorted. "If we're not careful, you'll charm the girl, break her heart, and next thing you know? Why, she'll be leaving. Then who would dust your furniture?"
The laughter continued as Rosalind turned a corner. But just as she was hurrying down a half flight of stairs, she faintly heard Veronica's reply. "Don't be silly, Reid. Servants can be replaced. Always."
A jolt of fear shot up Rosalind's spine. Was that what had happened to her sister? Had she been dismissed for neglecting her chores and then promptly forgotten?
Or had she been snatched up from the city's busy streets and simply vanished?
Quickly, Rosalind turned right, then left. She struggled to recall where she was. The house was so vast, such a jumbled maze of curious rooms and narrow, winding halls, that she was continually getting lost. One wrong turn could lead to her flying down a corridor where she had no business being.
Which, of course, could lead to her coming into contact with members of the family.
As she stopped and rested a palm on a wall covered in rich scarlet and burnished gold paisley wallpaper, she let her mind drift, remembering how Miranda had written that she, too, had gotten lost in the mansion more than a time or two. Of course, she'd also confided that some of the people in the house frightened her.
Remembering that the letters had stopped coming before she'd revealed who had frightened her—and how—Rosalind closed her eyes and tried to fend off a new wash of pain.
Oh, Miranda! Where are you?
Her sister, older by only eleven months, was the twenty-one-year-old beauty of the family. Blessed with thick, curly auburn hair, set off by bright blue eyes, she was striking. Rosalind's mahogany hair and faded blue eyes had always paled in comparison.
As did her personality. Miranda was the more headstrong, the one who was the most self-reliant. Rosalind? Ever the follower.
Over the years, Miranda's strong personality had always gotten her what she wanted. So much so that Rosalind had often wished she had even a small portion of her sister's determination.
When things had gone from bad to worse at their farm, Miranda had up and left, leaving behind a note saying that she'd gone to Chicago to find work and she'd send money home as soon as she could.
But Rosalind knew financial concerns weren't the only reason Miranda had ventured east. No, she'd always been plagued by the need to push limits and boundaries. Even the wide open fields of their farm had seemed far too confining for a woman of her light and exuberance.
Soon after she left, Miranda wrote that she'd gotten a position as a maid in a grand house. More letters arrived over the next two months, each one with a bit of money.
But then they heard nothing.
With a heavy heart, Rosalind was beginning to fear that her earnest prayers for her sister had not only been unanswered, but had also been in vain.
Either Miranda had decided to move on and forget about them all ... or something dire had happened to her.
Sometimes, in the dark of night, Rosalind admitted that she wasn't sure which scenario would be easier to bear.
"Mrs. Sloane just changed the numbers for dinner. Now we're going to have twenty people instead of ten," Cook announced grumpily when Rosalind arrived in the perpetually steamy kitchens for a bite of lunch. "That means not a one of you is going to be taking a break anytime soon. I need you, Rosalind, to run to the market and pick up another batch of squash for the soup."
Still feeling off-kilter after her run-in with Douglass and Veronica, Rosalind blinked. "Do you mean the farmer's market?"
Mrs. Martha Russell—"Cook" to everyone in the house—folded her arms over an ample bosom and glared. "None other."
Rosalind's heart dipped. She barely knew her way around the two blocks surrounding the mansion. Chicago streets were crowded and winding, difficult to traverse in the best of circumstances.
Now, with the World's Fair in full swing and thousands of visitors swarming along the sidewalks, it was near impossible to navigate the streets with any expediency. She feared that there was a very good chance she'd become lost and ruin Cook's schedule.
But that was the least of her worries. Never a moment passed when she wasn't completely aware of the dangers that lurked in the city and that, somehow, her sister had vanished in them.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. But I'm not sure if I'm the right—"
Cook cut her off with a stern expression brewing in her toffee-colored eyes. "I can't be sparin' no one else. I need that squash." Pulling away the bowl Rosalind had just picked up, she snapped, "You've got no time to eat! Go now."
Only Cook's reputation of being all bark and no bite prevented Rosalind from shaking in her shoes. "Yes, ma'am. Um, where is the market?"
With exaggerated patience, Cook said, "Take a grip car and be quick about it. When you get there, look for Tom. He's the head grocer, and Sloane House has an account with him."
"Tom," she repeated.
"He's youngish. Has a red beard, and he knows all about Mrs. Sloane's wants and particulars. He'll help you find what you need."
It sounded as if finding Tom might not be too much of a problem, but she dreaded taking the grip car. The only time she'd been on it alone she'd worried she'd miss her stop, get off too early—or worse, too late—far from the neighborhood she was just starting to become accustomed to.
Traveling in the large city was excruciatingly nerve-racking and scary. Especially after Miranda had mentioned time and time again in her letters how dangerous the streets were. Just the descriptions alone made Rosalind wish for eyes in the back of her head. Yes, there were multiple dangers on the streets of Chicago, and a woman alone was always at risk.
But perhaps there were dangers most anywhere? Once again, she found her mind drifting back to Douglass and his piercing gaze ...
A pair of saucepans clanged together. "Rosalind, what more do you need for me to say? Go on with ya, now."
"Yes, ma'am. I mean, yes, I'm off to the market right now."
Now that she was getting her way, Cook's voice gentled. "Take some coins from housekeeping just in case you don't be seein' Tom. Go on, now. There's a good girl."
Nanci, her one good friend in the house, smiled sweetly at Rosalind as their paths crossed in the doorway. "You can do it. It'll be just like the time we took the trolley to the park. Just take it again, but head south, toward the market. If you get lost, ask for help. Most people in Chicago are honest folk. Most will help you."
Most. That one word made all the difference between comfort and wariness. Not everyone was honest. Or helpful. Some, it seemed, were much worse.
Once again, Rosalind recalled Miranda's letters. She'd written stories of women coming to the fair and getting pulled into brothels, never to be heard from again.
Like a newsboy calling out the day's headlines, Cook's voice rang down the hall. "Don't you be comin' back without my squash, Rosalind. You do, and I'll have you be the one to tell the missus herself why her dinner party will be ruined, and you know what will be happenin' then!"
She'd be let go, that was what would be happening.
Rosalind didn't doubt Cook's threat in the slightest. From her first day, she realized the whole staff lived in fear of the mercurial moods of the family. Mrs. Sloane could be at once exceptionally benevolent and malicious. Stories abounded of servants being fired for the slightest offense while others were paid while recuperating from the influenza.
Removing her apron and hanging it in the servants' closet, Rosalind grabbed four coins from the cook's top desk drawer, then, at last, darted out the back door.
"Lord, please help me find my courage," she whispered. "Please help me become strong and not such a ninny. I need to keep my wits about me to find my sister. Please help me become more confident and more hopeful too. Help me be more like the girl I was back home."
Back home, she'd hardly ever worried about her safety. Back home, she'd known everyone and had felt secure, not only in her surroundings, but in the knowledge that she mattered. To the townspeople nearest to their farm. To her family. To the Lord.
Stepping out onto the broad cavalcade of Michigan Avenue, Rosalind was immediately swept into the crowd of people hurrying among the drays, carriages, and curricles. She was sure her starched gray blouse and skirts were about to be hopelessly stained.
Then she knocked into the side of a lad no more than twelve.
"Watch it," he muttered with a fierce scowl. He was a messenger boy, distinguishable as such by his hat, sturdy satchel, and single-minded expression.
"Sorry." Suddenly, with a burst of steam, the trolley squealed to a halt in front of her. Though she'd only traveled on the crowded conveyance twice before, she knew she had to push her way on and hold on tightly. Within seconds, the trolley car moved forward, pushing its way through the cacophony of carriages and people filling the street.
Noise filtered by the congestion rang in her ears. Rosalind gripped the leather strap more tightly. Looking around, she sought a friendly face. Directly across from her stood a woman, most likely a typist, given her black skirt and crisp white shirtwaist. "Pardon me, have you ever gone to the market? I mean, to the farmer's market," she clarified. "You know, for vegetables?"
"I have," the woman said with a regal nod. Long black feathers circling the brim of her hat fluttered with the motion.
"Am I going in the right direction?"
If the lady heard, she didn't deign to give a reply. Flummoxed, Rosalind resigned herself that she'd have to wait and see.
"Exit the next stop, miss," an older man in multiple layers of brown tweed and tan muttered from her other side. "Exit and walk toward the west. Can't miss it."
A young woman dressed in a plain dress flashed a reassuring smile. "He's right, lamb. You'll see the stalls before you've walked too far. You'll smell them too. Nothing smells better than the market in the afternoon."
Rosalind took their advice with a grateful smile. "Thank you."
"Have a care, now," the working girl warned. "The streets can be a challenge for one who's not familiar with them."
Rosalind nodded but said nothing more. The girl's warning told her nothing she didn't already know. And nothing her sister hadn't already found out.
Shelley Gray, Secrets of Sloane House Zondervan, © 2014.
Book 2 in The Chicago World's Fair Mysteries Series, Deception at Sable Hill, releases in the Spring of 2015.