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OFF THE RAILS PREVIEW

Keep reading for a sneak peak at the first chapter of my next book, OFF THE RAILS, coming October 23!


CHAPTER ONE

November 1865

Somewhere in those shadows, something watched me. Moonlight cast my room in an eerie blue glow. Shadows softened the corners of the furniture, turning them into ominous creatures lurking in the darkness.

The lingering dread that had consumed me all evening sharpened, and with it the figure on the other side of the room. Cold sweat dripped down the back of my neck. I pressed myself back against pillows, my breath coming in ragged gasps as I gave the figure a name.

“James.”

A small smile traced its way across his pale, shadowed face. He was thinner, but so handsome in his blue army uniform. It was not as crisp as when I’d waved farewell at the train station three years earlier, but I didn’t think I could ever grow tired of seeing my husband in the gold officer’s braid.

My chest tightened at the blood staining the front of it. It dripped down the side of his face, and welled from a wound in his chest. I fought the urge to recoil, even as I wanted to run to him. I lay frozen in bed, unable to move either way. I closed my eyes, willing the image away. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He was hundreds of miles away. This wasn’t right, it wasn’t time—

He was by my side in an instant, a cold hand on my forehead. “Be easy, my darling. You’ve nothing to fear. I’m right here.”

“But—”

“Shh. Rest. There will be time enough for worries in the morning.”

My eyes squeezed shut in a vain attempt to keep tears at bay. “You’ve come to say good-bye, haven’t you?”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t do it in person.”

“I’m sorry you have to do it at all.”

“Give Olivia my love.”

“I will.” A single tear escaped from the corner of my eye. I brushed it away.

When I opened my eyes, I was alone, save for the icy depression in the bedclothes at my side.

***

Mrs. AndrewsThe telegram came the next day. Black script on yellowish paper. Dear Madam, it is with deep regret we inform you that Captain James Andrews has been killed in the line of duty.

I’d hoped—prayed—it was a mistake. That the vision was the result of an anxious mind given to too little sleep. But I knew in my heart that was the last conversation I would ever have with my husband.

Two days after the telegram, I was on a train to Washington City to collect his belongings, and, if I could manage it, his body. I watched the Maryland countryside flash past. Bare branches stabbed skyward like the pitchforks of an angry mob, protesting the churned earth that still bore the scars of battles and mass graves.

With more than forty-eight sleepless hours to contemplate the vision, one question nagged at me through the packing and preparations: How could my husband have been shot in the line of duty, when the war was over, had been over, for six months?

I turned this question over and over in my mind during the long hours in the sitting room of my private car. Once, it had been our car. We always traveled together. It was one of the rewards of owning a rail road company.

I hadn’t used it since his departure, however, preferring to travel first class when it was only myself to worry about. Why waste the resources with a war on?

But the company insisted it was my right to use it, that under the circumstances, it was my due. Still, it felt like a betrayal to have another man in James’s seat—his business partner, Gunther Richardson. I was thankful, at least, for the wall of newsprint between us. While I may have required a male escort for such a long journey, it was hardly in the mood to play gracious hostess. Despite our long acquaintance, we’d never really gotten along.

At least he is easily distracted, I thought, consulting the watch around my neck, a gift from my husband—my late husband, I reminded myself—and addressed my maid. “Colleen, would you please check on our luggage? We should be arriving soon.”

Colleen vanished into the adjoining car. I stared down at the Celtic knot work on the back of the watch. “A true railroad man always needs a good watch,” James had said, draping it gently around my neck. “Punctuality is the key.”

“That must go double for me, then, since I’m usually the reason you’re on time, watch or no,” I laughed. He had kissed the tip of my nose, the way he always did when he was teasing me.

The memory made tears spring to my eyes. I blinked them back before Mr. Richardson could see.

He folded up his newspaper, leaving it on the side table. “We should be nearly at our destination,” he said, consulting his own timepiece. “Ten minutes.”

I set aside the knitting I’d been ignoring and the book I hadn’t been reading, tucking them both back into my valise. Ahead, the tracks curved to the right and I caught my first glimpse of Washington since before the war. Even at a distance, I could see gaps where buildings had been burned to the ground. The skeletal outlines of their replacements stabbed upwards from the ground like stalks of new corn.

My companion’s voice pulled me from my contemplation of the horizon. “We shall see you settled into a hotel straight away. While you are resting, I’ll go to headquarters and—”

“No, Mr. Richardson. Please. I understand your urge to help, but I would prefer to handle my own affairs.”

His eyes widened in shock. “My dear, I wish only to make this trying time easier for you to bear. James was my dearest friend, nearly a brother to me. There will be many more trials once we return home. At least allow me to share this burden with you while I can.”

I offered him an apologetic smile, and accepted the offer of his hand as the train began to slow. “I’m sorry. I have spoken sharply and it was not my intent. I am overwrought. But my husband has always treated me as his right hand; I will not fail him in death. I will handle his affairs personally. It’s the least I can do.”

Our truce reached, I allowed Mr. Richardson to escort me from the train, pulling my hated veil of black crepe down over my face.

It was strange, after nearly ten years, how some parts of the city seemed untouched while others had been wholly destroyed. There was a heaviness in the air, a sadness, but there was also hope. The sun was out, the air crisp but not cold; a far cry from Buffalo, where winter was already in full swing. The war was over. Our beloved president was dead. But despite the black bunting still draped in some doorways, rebuilding had begun.

Mr. Richardson summoned a cab for us. Colleen directed the porters with the luggage and in short order we were jostling though packed streets toward our hotel.

“Have you been to this city before, Mrs. Andrews?” Mr. Richardson asked.

“Once. Several years ago. I’ve not been back since the war started. Washington was a different city, then.”

“Piece of advice, ma’am,” said the driver, looking over his shoulder to fix me with one weary blue eye. “Don’t go out at night, and don’t go nowhere alone.”

“The war is over, my good man. Surely the streets cannot be as dangerous as all that,” laughed my escort, but he looked uneasily at a group of negro workmen passing by.

“War is over, but hardship’s not. Lotsa folk lost everything they had, and a lot of ’em is tryin’ to get it back. A fine lady like yourself, there, ma’am, you might see how a desperate man might take an opportunity anywhere he sees it.” The cabbie nodded to me, and my gloved hand went reflexively to the watch around my neck. He turned back to the road.

Mr. Richardson glowered at the man. “See here, sir! You have distressed the poor woman. Can you not see she is a widow? Newly made, even, here to collect what remains of her husband—”

“Mr. Richardson!” I said sharply.

The cabbie looked back at me, pity in the blue eye. He tipped his hand with his free hand. “My apologies, Missus. No harm meant. Opposite, in fact. I sees you from out of town, and wanted to offer a bit of friendly advice.”

“Your advice has been noted, thank you,” I said tersely. I turned my gaze back to my companion. He gave a sharp little nod, which I assumed was meant to be taken as an apology.

At long last, he deposited us at our hotel. The Willard Hotel was the finest in the area, only a few blocks from the White House. Though the street out front showed some wear, the building itself was in fine form, as though war had never touched it. I took Mr. Richardson’s elbow and allowed him to lead me up the front steps to the registration desk, and did not object as he arranged for our rooms and hot baths.

“You must be exhausted, Mrs. Andrews. Please, allow me to take care of the remainder of the arrangements,” he said as we moved towards the stairs.

“No. I’m all right. I’ll rest tonight. It’s already almost time for dinner, too late to be making calls. I’ll sleep tonight and we will begin first thing in the morning. I need to speak with the officer in charge. I’ll send Colleen around with my card. Is that the way things are done when one calls on military personnel? I am not certain…” Suddenly, I was certain of nothing except that I wanted out of my corset and into bed. The journey had been long, made longer by the pell-mell fashion in which it was arranged.

“I’ll see to it he is expecting you after breakfast,” Mr. Richardson said with a nod.

He left me at my door with a kiss on the hand. As soon as he was gone, I wiped my glove off on my skirt.

 

***

True to his promise, Colonel Segraves was waiting for us the next morning, bright and early. He greeted us warmly, and after perfunctory introductions, ushered us into his commandeered office in one of the finer homes in the area. There was an abused piano pushed into a corner, and the walls were lined with books of literature, music, and nature that clearly held more appeal for the previous occupant. Only the broad mahogany desk appeared to be as well loved and cared for as it deserved, though it, too, bore the battle scars of hard use.

The man himself was stout and mustached, with dark hair fading quickly to gray. “Mrs. Andrews. Such a pleasure to meet you, despite the circumstances. Captain Andrews always said such wonderful things about you.”

I opened my mouth to thank him, but for some reason the words would not come.

“Excuse me,” I said quickly, retrieving a handkerchief from my reticule. I had been calm and collected since the telegram came, but suddenly the sound of my husband’s name on a stranger’s lips undid me.

The men allowed me several self-conscious moments to regain my composure before I continued. “I—thank you, sir. My apologies. I don’t know what came over me just now.”

“Nothing to worry about, Mrs. Andrews,” the colonel said, his brown eyes softening. “I understand completely. Please, allow me to offer my condolences.” Though he must have been very busy, his eyes were patient and kind.

I nodded, not trusting to my voice.

My companion cleared his throat. “Perhaps, in light of Mrs. Andrews’ distress, we might dispense with some of the formalities…?”

“Certainly.” The Colonel rose and removed a box from his lower desk drawer. “The Captain’s aide de camp has seen to his belongings. I’ve already arranged to have his trunk and the coffin delivered to the R&A depot. We’ve followed the instructions from your telegram; he should…that is…everything should be in order for your journey home.” He’d been embalmed then, and placed a finer casket than the simple pine boxes the military ordered en masse.

I closed my eyes to will back the tears, and regretted removing my veil upon entering the office.

“These are his effects, those items in his possession at the time of his death.” He offered the box to us, and Mr. Richardson took it, swallowing audibly as he laid it in his lap. It was hard to tell through my own misty eyes, but he seemed near to tears himself.

With great difficulty, I forced myself to ask, “How…the telegram did not say what happened. How did James…?”

Mr. Richardson put a hand out, as if to stop me. “Now, Mrs. Andrews. You are over set. I’m certain details are not necessary.”

“I did not ask for details. Only the reason I am now a widow. In case you haven’t noticed, the war ended in April. It’s November.” My voice was harsher than intended. Dabbing once again at my eyes, I took as deep a breath as my corset—and my grief—would allow.

The Colonel nodded. “Washington is a city still in turmoil, Mrs. Andrews. The war is over, but many Southerners are still fighting. Jim—that is, Captain Andrews—was off duty. He’d gone out with some of the boys in his company. He did that from time to time. Helped to keep moral up.”

I smiled. “That sounds like him. He was always thinking about his men, even at the railroad. He could have just stayed in his office, but he would always go down to the yard, talk to the conductors and the engineers, even the boys who shovel coal. He started out working with them, and even after we made our fortune, he never forgot how it felt to come home covered in dust.”

Across the desk, the Colonel smiled warmly. “Yes. Jim was a great man. Always looking out for those around him. He was coming back a little early from the gathering. One of the boys said he wanted to look over some things for the next day. At any rate, he was walking back with Private Hamilton, his aide, when they were attacked.

“We’ve done a lot in the last few months to make Washington a more peaceful city, but there are still some…unsavory elements. Bad feelings lingering since those Rebs have been defeated. Sometimes they form a gang, and take out their aggressions on those they see responsible for their hardships.

“His aide de camp walked with him, but they were both overwhelmed. Private Hamilton was lucky to survive. As it was, he was badly injured, and will likely not return to duty.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Andrews. I wish I’d been with him that night. Then maybe you wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

I nodded, my throat so tight I could barely breathe. I twisted my handkerchief in my gloved hands.

The Colonel’s face crumpled with pity. “We’re perpetually short on supplies here, but I think I can rustle up some coffee if you’d care for some?”

“Thank you for your hospitality, but we won’t take up any more of your time,” I managed. I held out a hand but instead of giving me the box, Mr. Richardson linked my fingers through the crook of his arm and began walking back towards the door.

When we returned to the hotel, I asked for the box. Mr. Richardson handed it over without a word, though he hesitated before placing it in my waiting palms. “Perhaps I should look through his things first.”

“Whatever are you talking about?”

“Nothing, nothing.” He handed it over. I took it quickly, as though he might change his mind. Locking the door of my room, I set the box down on the coverlet. I knelt beside it, fingers resting on the lid.

With shaking hands, I opened it.

***

When I woke some hours later, still kneeling on the floor, I was as stiff as old wood and I felt like my face had been stuffed with cotton. My eyes ached from crying, and my feet had fallen asleep. There was a kink in my neck like a railroad spike, and I thought someone might have taken the sledgehammer to the side of my head.

Scattered on the quilt were the remains of my husband’s last night: His marks of rank and his sidearm. A tintype of the three of us, taken when Olivia was ten years old, just a few years before the war. His wallet. A pencil stub and a scrap of paper with a hastily drawn sketch illustrating the best way to win at darts, mathematically speaking.

I traced each item with a fingertip. The mother-of-pearl handle of his revolver and the tooled leather holster; the edges of his medals and the much-abused case protecting the photograph. His handwriting.

Someone knocked. I jumped, dropping the photograph.

“Mrs. Andrews? It’s nearly time for dinner. I’ve come to help you dress, if you’ve a mind to go down,” Colleen said through the door.

Gathering myself, I smoothed my hair and got awkwardly to my feet. “Yes. Yes, Colleen, come in.” The photo case was still on the floor. I bent to pick it up, smiling at James in his finest suit, pocket watch in hand, with Olivia at his side. His free hand rested on her shoulder affectionately.

I snapped it shut as the maid bustled into the room. “I saw you were asleep earlier, and thought you must need your rest. Mr. Richardson has gone out for the afternoon to attend to some business, he said, but he should be back in time for dinner.”

“Business?” What on earth could he be working on now, when he had come to claim his friend’s body?

“For the railroad, ma’am. He didn’t say what. I expect he’s arranging for the return journey.” She helped me put away the things on the bed, then went to the wardrobe and produced another black dress for me to wear to dinner.

More black. I would have to get used to it, I supposed.

“Do you want the jet earrings tonight, or the enamel?”

“Jet, Colleen. And for tomorrow, the smaller bonnet. I feel as if I can’t see anything with blinders and veil on.” I’d nearly walked into at least three soldiers during our earlier outing, simply because the long sides of my bonnet prevented me from seeing anything not directly in front—and that view was obscured by the veil. I likely would have broken my neck on the stairs, if I’d not be holding Mr. Richardson’s arm.

“Of course, ma’am. I’ll set it out now, if you like.”

An hour later I had been cleaned up and made presentable enough for the hotel dining room. I saw no point in wearing a veil to dinner, and was relieved to step out into the hall without it. Mr. Richardson exited his room at the same time, and offered me his arm. I took it, and we descended to the main level of the hotel together.

“Is everything well?” I asked.

“What? Of course. Why shouldn’t it be?”

“Colleen mentioned you had some business to take care of this afternoon. I hope everything is well with the railroad. I understand business is a little…uncertain, now that James is gone.”

“Don’t worry yourself, my dear. Things will continue on just as smoothly as they ever did. James has hardly even been involved with the company these three years, except in name.”

I raised an eyebrow. James was first approached by the government in ’62, as a civilian contractor. He could have sat out the war in comfort and luxury, as many of our class had, but he wasn’t that sort of man. Instead he volunteered, and due to his knowledge and experience was given a place of leadership with the engineers stationed in the capital. Before he left, he’d placed everything in my name, as his custodian, should the worst happen. It was an unusual arrangement, as businesses went. At least the law was finally beginning to recognize that families could not stay afloat when their women did not legally exist or have any means of providing for themselves.

“My husband hardly left the business to wither on the vine, Mr. Richardson. If you remember correctly, I myself brokered the compromise with Mr. Rochester and Mr. Blackburn when we acquired their lines in Pennsylvania last year.” Mr. Blackburn in particular insisted he would not deal with us, until I convinced him over one of my famous dinner parties that it really was in his best interest to sell.

Mr. Richardson waved a dismissive hand. “Of course, of course. But it hardly matters now that he’s gone. Speaking of…did he, by chance, write to you concerning the business?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, he just mentioned some projects he wanted to implement once he got back home, but was rather vague on the details. I thought he might have said something to you.”

“He mentioned his eagerness to work on the western expansion.”

“Is that all? Well, that’s all anyone is talking about these days.” The government wanted to put a line all the way through to California and the Pacific Ocean. R&A was already working on a bid for the project, but competition was stiff.

We were shown to a table by the window. Looking around at the crystal chandeliers, the crisp white linen, and the well-dressed people at the tables, it was hard to imagine cannon fire and rifle shot just a few miles away.

“The privileged always come out on top,” I muttered, examining the carved trim around the ceiling.

“Here, here,” Mr. Richardson said, gesturing to the waiter.

Our meal came shortly thereafter. The bill of fare had listed long strings of French words that roughly boiled down into cold soup, fish, seasoned mashed potatoes, steak, wine, and a plate of cheese for desert. It was delicious, but being surrounded by such a showy display of wealth suddenly had me homesick for the boarding house we lived in, before Gunther Richardson, before R&A. Back when James came home covered in grease and coal dust, and a side gristly beef was cause for celebration. It hadn’t been warm, but it had been cozy.

It had been hard—so hard—but in a way, I did miss it. That boarding house had been our testing ground, where we proved ourselves, and our marriage, strong enough to take on the world.

Though I certainly didn’t miss hauling buckets of water up two flights of stairs every day, especially not at seven or eight months pregnant.

I could still picture that kitchen table, covered in drawings and bits of metal and tools. James was convinced he could create a stabilizing force, something to provide a smoother ride that would make rail travel, then still in its infancy, not only more comfortable for passengers, but safer for cargo and more efficient to fuel in the long run.

He was right. A year later, I nearly despaired of our situation—Olivia was due to be born any day, the harsh Buffalo winter covered the entire city in a layer of ice an inch thick. But once the tracks were cleared he presented his idea to Garfield Richardson.  The senior Mr. Richardson hadn’t been overly impressed but his son, Gunther, had been—sufficiently so that he left his father’s company to start his own with James. The R&A Railworks began by manufacturing cars for all the major lines, before laying tracks of its own—eventually connecting Buffalo to more than two hundred cities from New York to Mississippi.

With so many holdings in the south, we could have lost everything, but James was clever and charming. By the time the first round of three-month soldiers were coming to the end of their tour, he secured contracts with the Union Army, leaving his partner to concentrate on expanding the lines westward, instead of south. James’s advice to the military on the movement of supplies and the infrastructure necessary to deliver them resulted in the commission with the Engineer Corps.

He could have declined. He could have even hired someone to take his place in the draft.

But not my James.

Lost in memory, I took several bites before I realized Mr. Richardson was addressing me. “…checked the timetables. We can be on our way home by nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”

“I would like to stay for a few days, actually.”

He froze with his spoon halfway to his open mouth. “Stay? I thought you would want to get home to Olivia as soon as possible. And there is the funeral to plan, after all.”

“Certainly. But there are some things I would like to do.”

Mr. Richardson put down his spoon. “Such as?”

“Calls to family friends. It seems appropriate, under the circumstances.”

“Under the circumstances, they should be coming to you.”

“Nonsense. If I stay in my room waiting for callers, I shall go mad. I need an occupation, even if it is only taking a carriage from one end of town to the other.”

When he looked ready to object, I favored him with the same indulgent look I gave Olivia when her temper was up. “Two days, that’s all. Besides, I imagine you will have business to take care of yourself. Now would be the perfect time to woo congressmen about that westward expansion contract. Colleen can join me for my calls; you needn’t be taken from your work.”

It was so infallibly practical he could hardly argue. James always said that was my greatest strength—and my secret weapon. No one could argue when I presented the facts so plainly.

“Very well—”

“I checked earlier. There’s a train at eight o’clock in the evening the day after tomorrow, and it’s on a more direct route than the one tomorrow. We’ll be back in Buffalo in time for lunch the next day.”

With a heavy sigh, he resigned himself to the new plan and went back to his dinner. “Well. I suppose we are staying then. I’ll make the arrangements.”