“It’s a disaster,” Hannah said. “Plain and simple. We’re DOOMED.”
“You’re the only thing standing between us and Miss Birch,” Hannah’s twin, Henrietta, confirmed. “Once you’re gone, we’re dead ducks.” Hetty drew a dramatic finger across her throat, dropped her head sideways, stuck out her tongue, and crossed her eyes. Miranda Wentworth choked back a sob. “Surely not doomed,” she said with a wobbly smile, as she met the gazes of the two seventeen-year-olds sitting to the left of her on the hard dining room bench. But things were going to be bad. The headmistress at the Chicago Institute for
Orphaned Children, Miss Iris Birch, had promised as much.
Miranda and her five siblings had snuck into the dining room after lights out to sit on plank benches at a plank table set on a frigid brick floor. The whale oil lantern in the center of the table created sinister shadows that turned their features into gargoyle faces. Miranda could see the two younger boys shivering on the bench across from her, huddled under the thin, gray wool blankets they’d taken from their beds.
“The subject of this meeting is Miranda’s imminent departure from the Institute,” sixteen-year-old Josephine announced from her seat beside Nicholas, the elder of the two boys.
Miranda shivered, and not just from the cold. The thought of leaving her sisters and brothers behind when she was forced to leave the orphanage on her eighteenth birthday was terrifying.
The six Wentworth children had been orphaned three years ago in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which had burned for three days, destroying most of the business district, including their father’s bank.
It had also burned down their three-story mansion and killed their father and mother. Their wealth had gone up in flames, along with their home. Destitute and homeless, their uncle, Stephen Wentworth, had decided the best place for them was an orphanage.
Miranda had begged Uncle Stephen to let them live with him, but his home had also burned down. There was no “home” where they could all be together. So the Wentworth children had ended up at the Institute. Uncle Stephen had promised they would all be together again as soon as he could rebuild.
But that day had never come.
Repeated pleas for rescue from the cruelty of Miss Birch had gone unanswered. Letters to Uncle Stephen’s last known address had come back unopened. There was no way of knowing what had happened to him.
Then, a year ago, Josie had read an article in the business section of the Daily Herald announcing that Mr. Stephen Wentworth was opening a new bank. It appeared Uncle Stephen was not only alive and well, but that he was rich enough to open a bank!
Miranda had immediately written to their uncle at the bank’s address, asking why he hadn’t come to get them as he’d promised. That letter had resulted in a visit from Uncle Stephen.
Miranda flushed every time she remembered that meeting. Uncle Stephen had told her he felt ill equipped to be a surrogate parent. They would have to stay where they were. Furthermore, she was not to con tact him again. It wasn’t his fault they were orphans. He wasn’t the one who’d wanted a large family, his brother had. And it wasn’t his fault their father hadn’t kept his funds somewhere safe, so his fortune wouldn’t have gone up in flames.
Miranda had been shocked at her uncle’s harsh words and devastated by his unwillingness to help them escape Miss Birch. When her father was alive, Uncle Stephen’s behavior had always been friendly. Obviously, appearances could be deceiving.
Ever since that day, Miranda had felt all the responsibility of being the eldest. Though the twins were only a year younger, they were flighty and silly in a way Miranda never had been. After the fire she’d been determined to rescue her siblings from the orphanage. But three years, four months, and two days later, here they still were. Not only that, but tomorrow she would be leaving Hannah, Henrietta, Josephine, Nicholas, and Harrison behind while she escaped the tyrant who’d made their lives at the Institute so miserable.
Once she was gone, her younger siblings would be at the mercy of the stern headmistress. No, stern was too kind a word. Cruel. That was the word for Miss Iris Birch.
“Do you have to leave, Miranda?” Nick asked plaintively.
“I must,” Miranda croaked, her throat swollen with emotion. “I have no choice.”
Four-year-old Harry crawled under the dining table and climbed into her lap. As his arms tightened around her neck he begged, “Please don’t leave, Miranda.”
Harry was small for his age, barely more than skin and bones and always sick with a cold that never seemed to go away. Miranda wiped his nose with a handkerchief she always kept with her for that purpose and pulled him close to comfort him.
“DOOMED,” Hannah repeated, melodramatically placing the back of her hand across her forehead.
Miranda felt the urge to console her siblings, but the situation was likely to be every bit as bad as they feared.
“There is another option.”
Every eye at the long pine dining table turned to Josie. She peered back at them through spectacles perched on the bridge of her freckled nose. Josie always had her head in a library book, and she was, without a doubt, the most educated—and practical—of them all because of it.
“What is it, Josie?” Miranda asked. “I’m willing to consider anything.”
“Here.” Josie unfolded a worn advertising page of the Chicago Daily Herald on the table in front of Miranda. She pointed a grimy finger at an advertisement circled in lead pencil.
Everyone leaned close as Miranda read:
“WIFE WANTED: Must love children, cook, sew and do laundry. Reply to Mr. Jacob Creed, General Delivery, San Antonio, Texas.”
Miranda tried not to appear as crestfallen as she felt when she looked up and met Josie’s owl-eyed gaze. “I’m sorry, sweetie, but I don’t see how this is going to help.”
“We’re DOOMED,” Hannah muttered.
“Forever and ever,” Hetty agreed with her twin. “Or at least for the next year, until we turn eighteen.” “What about me?” Nick said. “I’m only ten. I’ve got eight more years of this hellhole to survive.” “Nicholas Jackson Wentworth!” Miranda scolded in a hushed voice. “Watch your language in front of the baby.”
“I’m not a baby,” Harry protested. “I’m four. And I don’t want to stay here. Miss Birch is mean. Take me with you, Miranda, please!”
“I can’t, Harry.” Miranda’s heart ached with the pain of leaving them all behind. “You’re safer here. All of you,” she said, meeting the stark gazes of her siblings around the table.
“Can’t we at least try to make it on our own, Miranda?” Hannah asked.
“It’s the middle of February,” Miranda replied in a voice made harsh by the agony she was feeling inside. “I can only count on a single bed in a boarding house and a job in a kitchen. I don’t have any way to take care of you. Any of you.” She tenderly brushed
Harry’s white-blond hair away from his forehead.
On their own, they’d freeze to death or starve and be dead in a week. Or maybe two. But if they all tried to leave, disaster was a foregone conclusion. Miranda was facing an impossible choice. She couldn’t stay, but she couldn’t bear to go.
Josie set a tattered piece of paper on top of the newspaper ad. “Read this.”
“What is it?” Hetty demanded.
“Something I wrote. Just read it, Miranda,” Josie urged.
Everyone leaned close as Miranda read:
“Dear Mr. Creed,
I’m responding to your advertisement for a wife. I’m eighteen, of sound mind—”
Miranda looked up at Josie. “Of sound mind? Really, Josie—”
“Keep reading,” Josie insisted. Miranda continued:
"and body. I have blue eyes and blond hair which curls by itself.”
Miranda rolled her eyes but kept reading.
“I can cook, clean, iron and sew.”
Nick snorted. “I’ll say! You can cook gruel and scrub floors and iron linens and mend torn pajamas. I don’t think—”“Shhh! Let her finish,” Josie said. Miranda kept reading.
"I love children and hope to have many of my own.”
Miranda stopped as tears blurred her vision. She was headed for a life of drudgery from which there was no escape. She couldn’t imagine one day having a home and a husband and children of her own to love. Her current situation was impossibly hopeless.
Josie took the paper from Miranda and continued:
“I will need first-class tickets and instructions how to meet up with you in San Antonio. I am required to leave my present circumstances by February 13, so I would appreciate a reply at your earliest convenience.
Miss Miranda Wentworth”
“Oh, sweetie, it’s a wonderful idea, a dream, really,” Miranda choked out when Josie was done. “Mr. Creed must have had dozens of responses. Maybe even hundreds. He might not be interested in me. Besides, it’s too late. By the time a letter like this could get all the way to San Antonio, Texas, and an answer come back, it will be far too late.”
Miss Birch would have had weeks—or months—in which to lay her cane on the backs of Miranda’s brothers and sisters without Miranda there to inter cede. She’d been hoping beyond hope for a solution that would allow her to take her siblings away from the Institute when she left tomorrow. This was not it. She rose to usher her siblings to their cold beds.
“Wait! Look at this!” Josie said triumphantly. She rose and unfolded a crisp piece of vellum on the table in front of Miranda.
“What is this?” Miranda asked, picking up the paper.
“Read it,” Josie said.
Miranda sat back down on the bench as she read aloud:
“Dear Miss Wentworth,
I was pleased to receive your response to my advertisement. I understand your need for a quick response. Enclosed please find the first-class tickets you requested and instructions for your journey.
I will meet your stagecoach when it arrives in San Antonio.
Cordially yours, Mr. Jacob Creed”
Miranda was aghast. “What is this?” she asked as she eyed Josie.
Hannah and Hetty were goggle-eyed.
Josie replied with a grin, “You’re going to Texas, Miranda. You’re going to be married. You’re going to have a home where we can all come and live. He must be somewhat well-to-do. He agreed to send first-class tickets.”
“Oh. Oh.” That was all Miranda could manage to say. The thousand or so things that could go wrong with such a plan ran through her head, but her chest was near to bursting—with hope. “When did you get this?”
“It came yesterday,” Josie said. “I wasn’t sure whether I should even show it to you, but I figured I might as well.”
“Why do you suppose he said yes?” Miranda blurted.
“He was the only one who said yes,” Josie replied. Miranda frowned in consternation. “How many of these advertisements for a mail-order bride did you
“About fifty or so,” Josie admitted.
“Where did you get the paper? And the postage?” Miranda asked, amazed at her sister’s gumption.
Josie looked sheepish as she replied, “I stole them from Miss Birch’s desk.”
“Forget about the paper and the postage!” Hetty said. “What are you going to do, Miranda?”
Miranda chewed on her lower lip as she stared at the vellum. “This was the only reply to all those letters?”
“Mr. Creed didn’t ask for any other information about me? Or provide any other information about himself?” Miranda wondered aloud.
Josie looked wary as she replied, “No. Is that a problem?”
“I don’t know anything about this man. He could be a murderer or a thief or—”
“He’s our salvation, Miranda,” Hannah interrupted. “He’s going to get us out of here. Once you’re married to him, we can all come live with you.”
“I couldn’t possibly take advantage of a stranger like that!”
“He’s willing to take a wife sight unseen,” Hetty said. “Maybe he wouldn’t care if we came along.”
“I would care,” Miranda said. “If I went at all, I’d want to come with the honest intention of making Mr. Creed a good wife. I’m still not convinced this is a good idea.”
“Why not go?” Nick asked. “It’s an opportunity you won’t get again, Miranda. I know you. You’d never do anything like this on your own. If Josie hadn’t written all those letters, you’d be stuck scrubbing pots and pans for the rest of your life.”
It was a painful truth to admit, but Miranda couldn’t deny she was more mouse than lion, more likely to take a beating than to fight back. With one notable exception. She’d rescued Harry from the upstairs nursery during the Great Fire. She shuddered. She would live with that terrifying memory—and the resulting scars—for the rest of her life.
“Maybe Mr. Creed will turn out to be really rich and have an enormous house with lots of bedrooms, and you’ll be able to send for us after you’re married,” Nick finished. “Who knows?”
The advertisement for a mail-order bride hadn’t mentioned Mr. Creed’s age or his looks or his financial situation. Not that Miranda was in a position to consider whether Jacob Creed was old and fat or skinny as a bed slat. This might be her only opportunity to marry.
But she was afraid to go so far from her family without knowing more. Even if she traveled all the way to Texas and married a stranger, her siblings might have to remain at the mercy of Miss Birch for a long time to come.
“Before all of you get your hopes up too high,” Miranda said, “remember we don’t know anything about Mr. Creed’s financial situation. He could be living in a sod house. He could be as poor as a church mouse. He—”
“He had the money to send you first-class tickets on the train and on a steamship and on a packet— that’s a sort of sailboat—and on a stagecoach,” Josie pointed out.
“Where are the tickets?” Miranda asked.
Josie produced them from a secret pocket in her nightdress and reverently laid them on the table. “I had to keep an eagle eye on Miss Birch’s mail to intercept them. Here they are.”
Hannah and Hetty issued a collective sigh of awe. Miranda was afraid to reach for the tickets. She seldom took anything for herself before offering it first to one of her siblings. Her life the past three years had been full of sacrifices. But none of her siblings were old enough to marry. She would have to do this herself.
It didn’t feel like a sacrifice. She’d be going on a grand adventure to a place she knew about only from stories in the Daily Herald. A place full of wild broncs and longhorn cattle. A place full of cowboys . . . and Indians. It all sounded so exotic. And exciting. She’d have a husband and maybe, one day soon, children of her own, two things she’d seen as very far in the future after she’d become a destitute orphan. And with a new life outside the orphanage, there was at least a chance she could rescue her siblings.
Miranda didn’t let herself dwell on the possibility that her husband might turn out to be as cruel as Miss Birch. No one could be as cruel as Miss Birch.
Speak of the devil and she appeared.
“What is this?” a piercing voice demanded. Miranda quickly slid the vellum and tickets across
the table to Josephine, who slipped them back into the pocket in her night shift. As the headmistress descended on them like a whirling dervish, Miranda whispered to her siblings, “I’ll take care of Miss Birch. Go!”
Her younger brothers and sisters grabbed their blankets and scampered for the door in the dark shadows at the opposite end of the dining room, leaving Miranda behind to face their nemesis.
Miss Birch was wearing a tufted robe over her nightgown, and her long black hair, of which she was so proud, was pinned up under a nightcap. The head mistress was short and stout, with large eyes so dark brown they were almost black and cheeks that became florid when she was angry, as she was now.
“I presume that bunch who ran off was the passel of brats you brought with you to the Institute,” Miss Birch said. “I’ve warned you before about leaving the dormitory after lights out, Miss Wentworth.”
Miranda lowered her eyes in submission, knowing that was the best way to conciliate the headmistress. “Yes, Miss Birch. I was saying goodbye to my brothers and sisters, since I’m leaving tomorrow morning.” “You think the fact that you’re leaving tomorrow
means you can flaunt my rules tonight?” “No, Miss Birch. I—”
A slender wooden rod whipped through the air and hit Miranda’s right shoulder without warning. Whop. She gasped at the pain and bit her lip to keep from crying out. She didn’t want her siblings to hear her and try coming to her rescue. There was no defying Miss Birch.
Miranda kept her hands at her sides, aware that if she tried to protect herself, Miss Birch would only hit harder.
“I’ll be glad”—whop—“to see”—whop—“you go!” The pain was excruciating. Miranda felt tears of pain well in her eyes, but she didn’t make a sound, not even a whimper. She refused to give Miss Birch
She could hear the heavyset woman breathing hard from the effort of whipping her. Miranda raised her gaze, staring into the black eyes that stared hatefully back at her, and said with all the calm and dignity she could muster, “Are you done now? May I leave?”
She watched as Miss Birch resisted the urge to hit her again. Three cracks of the rod. That was Miss Birch’s limit, no matter how bad the infraction. Miranda knew her punishment was over, which was why there had been a taunt in her calm, dignified voice.
Then Miss Birch hit her again. WHOP! Hard enough to make Miranda moan with pain. Hard enough to make the tears in her eyes spill onto her cheeks.
“Now I’m done,” the headmistress said with malicious satisfaction. “Go back to the dormitory, Miss Wentworth, and stay there until it’s time for you to leave.”
Miranda had turned to go when Miss Birch said, “Too bad you won’t be here when those brats get their punishment.”
“You’ve already punished me!” Miranda protested. “There’s no need to punish anyone else.”
“They were here, weren’t they? Where they didn’t belong? Oh, they’ll be punished, all right. Each and every one of them.”
“That brat is no baby! He’s four years old.”
“Only four years old!” Miranda retorted, fear for her youngest brother, whom she would no longer be able to protect, making her bold. “How can you be so mean?”
“Mean?” Miss Birch pressed her lips flat. “I en force discipline, Miss Wentworth. Without discipline, where would we be? Those children must learn to obey the rules. They must learn there are consequences when they break them.”
“If you must punish someone, beat me instead.” Miss Birch raised her eyebrows as she tapped the
rod against her open palm. “Let me see. Three strokes times five offenses. How many is that, Miss Went worth?”
“Fifteen,” Miranda replied, her throat tight with fear.
“I’m tempted, Miss Wentworth. Oh, how I am tempted.”
“Who would know?” Miranda said in a voice that was almost a whisper. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Miss Birch laughed. “You’re a fool, Miss Went worth. I could give you fifteen strokes of the rod tonight and punish the rest of them tomorrow after you’re gone.”
Miranda knew very well that Miss Birch would find reasons to punish her siblings, even if there weren’t any. But the tickets secured in Josie’s pocket gave her courage. “Do it,” she urged. “I trust you will be too tired after the effort to bother my siblings, at least for tomorrow.”
“Very well, Miss Wentworth. Turn around and bare your back.”
Miranda’s eyes went wide. “You can’t mean—” “Bare your back,” Miss Birch demanded. “Or I’ll
have every one of those brats back in here tonight to get three strokes of the rod.”
“Yes, Miss Birch.” Miranda turned and slid her shift off already aching shoulders, securing the folds of cloth against her small breasts.
She focused her terrified mind on the faceless man at the end of her upcoming journey. The man who would be her husband. The man who would be the salvation of her siblings. The man who would plant the seeds for a family of her own. The man she would somehow learn to love. The man who might someday learn to love her.
Miranda braced herself and waited for the cane to strike.