Book III in the series sees Jo confronted with a most unwelcome suitor from the Old Country who claims to have been betrothed to her from childhood. She is perfectly fine with the suitor she has, thank you very much!
Here is the first chapter:
Opal woke near daybreak to a room full of smoke.
Her heart clenched in her chest. She threw back the coverlet and grabbed her robe from the foot of the bed. Her room was at the top of the house. Was everyone else out of the building?
She touched the door. It was warm, but not unbearably so. She jerked it open.
Now she could hear the distinct crackling of flames somewhere below. She took the time to pull on her boots then dashed out of the room and down the stairs. Pounding on the bedroom doors, she shouted to the girls.
“Wake up! Wake up! The house is on fire!” The smoke caught at her throat, and she coughed, then cried again. “Wake up!” She had to save them!
Old-Fashioned Opal and the House of Ill-Repute
I stared in dismay at the bedraggled figure before me. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“I am yer betrothed, and it is high time we were wed. I’ve come t’ take ya home t’ Ireland for a proper ceremony.”
I should back up a bit, in case you haven’t had an opportunity to follow along closely with the adventures we’ve had to date. If you haven’t seen my previous journals, then this will seem rather out of the blue—well, it was out-of-the-blue to me too. If you have seen the previous volumes, you can skip down a bit, but to recap for the new people…
My name is Josephine Mann, and I am the assistant to Professor Alistair Conn, a very worthy gentleman who I quite admire…and may very well have fallen in love with. However, the person making the declaration of marriage was not Alistair Conn, but a rather shady young man who had been following me about for the last few days.
He claimed to be my cousin, Seamus O’Leary, and this foolish announcement came on the heels of a lovely wedding we—Alistair and I, as well as our closest friends and relations—had attended the day before. The party had run into the wee hours of the morning, and it had been a long carriage ride home. We had only just alighted from the carriage we had borrowed to return home, and I was in no mood to try and decipher exactly what was going on here. It was now breakfast-time, and I was famished.
So, I did the ladylike thing…and fainted dead away.
Of course, I didn’t really faint, but I am quite adept at play-acting when I need to be, and the occasion seemed to call for it. I took care to aim my swoon not at Alistair, who had a broken arm at the moment, and might not be able to catch me, nor at the rascal Seamus O’Leary, who would enjoy it far too much, but at the very capable Roderick—the coachman of Alistair’s Aunt Emily, who is also one of the aforementioned friends who had accompanied us to the wedding.
As I had anticipated, Roderick was quick to catch me and carry me up the front steps of our boarding house and into the front parlor. He lay me down on Ma Stark’s best horsehair settee, and I was careful to keep my boots off the upholstery.
“My stars! What the—? Get along with you, Roderick Donahue—and you, Perfessor. Give the poor lamb some air.” Ma took over the proceedings with her usual flair.
Ma Stark is more than a landlady—she’s truly a wonderful woman with sharp eyes and an even sharper mind. I am sure she saw the way I was peeking out from under my lashes before she chased the gentlemen out of the parlor and firmly shut the door.
When it was down to just Ma, my best friend Winifred Bond, and myself, I sat up with an exasperated sigh. “Well, this is a fine kettle of fish!”
“What in Heaven’s name is going on here, Jo?” Fred asked, pulling up a hassock and plopping down on it.
“How should I know?” I snapped—with a harshness I instantly regretted. “I’m sorry, Fred. I shouldn’t take my temper out on you. I have no idea who this gentleman is or what he wants. I saw him on the streets a few times while we were about that business with the blackmail, but this claim of familial relations he is making—this is the first I’ve heard of it either.”
Well, that might not strictly be true. I believe he might have tried to tell me on at least one other occasion, but I had been distracted, and not really paying attention to him.
“So, you know nothing of being affianced to him?” she prodded.
“Of course not!”
Ma gasped. She had returned earlier than the rest of us from the wedding, and so had not been standing on the walk when Seamus made his ridiculous declaration.
“Josephine Mann! You explain yourself right this moment. Have you bin leadin’ the poor dear Perfessor on?”
“No! Ma, I swear. I have no idea who this person is, or why he claims to be my fiancé, but I certainly don’t intend to marry him. Especially not now that Alistair—”
Honestly, I saw two pairs of ears perk up, just like my cat’s do.
“Alistair what?” Fred asked, “do tell!”
Ma settled herself on the sofa beside me, patting my hand. “Has he finally realized he loves you as much as you love him, dearie?”
I could feel my skin warming. “Well, he did say so, but it was in the hospital, and I don’t know if he was entirely in his right mind at the time.”
“O’course he was,” Ma replied with a smile, echoing the sentiments that Alistair’s mother, Leonora, had expressed. “All one has to do is look at the two o’ you to know that you are smitten with each other. But what is this about a fiancé?”
I proceeded to fill Ma in on the scene outside the brownstone. “—And I have no clue if his assertions are correct,” I concluded. “I can’t possibly see how they could be. Everything I have ever been told leads me to think that I have no relatives at all. Much less an affianced one. This is all so confusing! I don’t know if I should be amused or irritated.”
“Dearie, things are done differently in the Old Country. It might seem downright barbaric, but parents do sometimes have peculiar notions about what is best for their children.” Ma shook her head. “I suppose anything is possible, but you need to get to the bottom of this as soon as you may, my girl, for your own sake and the perfessor’s.”
I stifled a yawn. “I’m in no condition to think clearly right now. Perhaps a nap will clear my head.”
Fred nodded. “It was a lovely party, but we all could use a bit of rest, Ma. Could you distract the menfolk while I ‘help’ Jo upstairs?”
“That’s a good idea.” Ma beamed a smile in Fred’s direction. “I’ll make sure that the perfessor goes and gets some rest as well. Even if I have to have Phaeton sit on him.”
The idea of Alistair’s marvelous mechanical man—all nine feet and five hundred pounds of him—sitting on Alistair sent me off into a fit of rather hysterical giggles.
The day was spiraling out of my control, and I definitely needed my bed and a cuddle with my cat. Priss would need a break from the kittens anyway.
Ma left the parlor first, and I could hear her through the door ordering the menfolk to their various domiciles. When the noise died down a bit, Fred and I made our escape up the stairs to our rooms at the top of the house. I was still chuckling under my breath at the picture Ma had planted in my head, and Fred joined me as soon as I told her what had set me off.
The two of us were so much alike…
I hugged her in the hallway between our rooms. “Thank you so much for being here, Fred. It’s so good to have a friend again.”
“You’re welcome, Jo, but if there is one thing you aren’t lacking in, it’s friends. Now, go to bed before you fall asleep on your feet.” She shooed me toward my door.
I nodded and turned into my own room. Shutting the door behind me, I leaned against it for a moment. What an incredible few days it had been.
First, my childhood best friend, Bridget Doyle, had asked for my help on a matter of utmost urgency—blackmail which could lose her the position she held of Mother Superior at the convent where we grew up. Then, Alistair was abducted by minions of Paul Blessant—the villain who had tried to steal Phaeton and sell him to the highest bidder when I first started working for the professor.
Coupled with the fact that my cat, Miss Priss, had recently given birth to kittens, and then I had been tasked with the care of Bridget’s niece, Ella, for a time, I hadn’t gotten much sleep lately. Oh—and there was the carriage accident that broke Alistair’s arm, and his mother coming to town, and the giddy rush to save a wedding…not to mention pedaling a flying machine halfway across the county and crashing it into a tree. No wonder I was exhausted!
There now! I realize that is quite a bit of information I just flew through, but now everyone should be caught up enough to understand everything, whether they have followed our adventures or not.
As it would be awkward to go back down for breakfast, I made do with a couple of biscuits from a tin I kept for emergencies and didn’t bother to change into my nightclothes. I would just lie down for a few minutes.
I slipped off my boots and fell into bed. No sooner had my head hit the pillow than a plaintive little meow sounded, and Priss crawled onto the bed beside me.
Poor dear. She was exhausted too. Her new family of four kittens was wearing her down. I fondled my baby for a few minutes, and we fell asleep with her purring on my chest.
My dreams were vivid and detailed:
It began with me looking down on a tiny sod cabin in the middle of an emerald sea of gently waving grass—the likes of which I had only seen in watercolors and oils of the Old Country—a place I had never seen in waking hours. The landscape was breathtaking, and then I moved into the cabin, like a ghost haunting the tiny dwelling.
Figures I recognized as my parents from their likenesses in my tintype moved about the cabin, their features slightly hazy after all this time. The picture was static, after all.
The woman was heavy with child, the man flushed with drink. A knock sounded on the door, and another man entered, his fiery red locks catching the light of the peat fire like his head was itself ablaze. He carried a squirming toddler over one shoulder, and plopped the child down on the hearth to play with the crumbs of peat resting there.
“Tommy, me boyo!” the newcomer roared, “Have ya given me idea some thought?”
“Aye, Fergus,” replied my father, taking a swig from a jug and swiping his sleeve across his mouth. “’Tis a gran’ idea. Consider it done! Iff’n Bethy has a wee girl bairn, she’ll wed yer Seamus. Here’s me hand on it!”
The two men shook hands and clapped each other on the back, while my mother stared, mouth hanging open, at the bargain.
“Thomas—” she began.
“Quiet, woman! The deal is done. Break out some supper.”
“I said shet yer mouth, woman—unless ya want me t’ shut it fer ya!”
She hung her head and moved to comply.
This didn’t seem at all like the parents I remembered, but it was so long ago that I saw them last…and after today, I wondered if I knew them at all. My mother had loved me, and my father had loved her—he could never have treated her so badly, and she would never have let him make such a bargain. I had to believe that.
I twisted and turned. The dream disturbed me on a deep level. It couldn’t be true—it just couldn’t be.
How could they have done such a terrible thing? It was no way to treat a child. Especially an unborn one.
I drifted back into deeper sleep, and the dream shifted:
Now the setting was a grassy field at dawn. A mist hung low over the damp earth. I saw myself, shivering in a thin lawn dress, arms spread by ropes stretched between two trees, one attached to each wrist.
Before me were two familiar men—one dark, one red-headed—pacing off to a count of ten. They turned, expressions grim, confirming that it was Alistair and Seamus. They both had pistols in hand, and flames bloomed from the barrel of each gun as the shots cracked the still air. The stench of gunpowder wafted to me on the breeze as both men fell to the ground, apparently lifeless.
I was helpless, tied as I was, to attend to either. I could only watch as their blood puddled on the grass.
I screamed, jerking myself awake. Priss bounded off the bed and into the box with the kittens, as if to protect them.
My heart was pounding out of my chest. Thankfully, I hadn’t woken the entire house.
But Fred lived five feet away across the hallway, and I wasn’t surprised to hear a light knock on the door.
“Come in,” I called miserably.
She came to sit beside me on the bed. “What is it, Jo?”
The nearly full moon shining through the skylight limned the concern on her face—and told me how long I had been asleep. It had been morning when I lay down.
The moonlight also glittered from the brass quills of a bird—raven or owl, I couldn’t tell. I wondered where it had come from. Had Alistair built another automaton?
I smiled weakly. “Bad dream.”
“Would you like to tell me about it?”
With a heavy sigh, I did so. “Of course, blood doesn’t puddle like that in the real world…but it gave me quite a fright to see so much of it pooling there. Surely there’s nothing to worry about, right? Dueling is illegal.”
Fred nodded. “Exactly. Besides, Alistair doesn’t own a gun—”
And he certainly wouldn’t be getting one if I had anything to say about it.
The bird cocked its head and soared away.
“I can’t lose Alistair now. I am just getting him where I want him—and it hasn’t been easy to do. I don’t even know Seamus, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be bound by a promise I had no say in.”
“You won’t lose Alistair over Seamus, dear. Now, you might not marry the professor—but I won’t be surprised if you do.”
I hugged her tight. Having a girl-friend my own age here in the boarding house was a godsend.
“I honor my father’s memory—” I told her, “but for all I know, Seamus invented this entire story. Arranged marriages might be the thing to do in Ireland, but I can’t imagine my father doing something like that. Though why Seamus would invent such a tale is a mystery…”
“Whatever his agenda, he won’t be getting in here tonight. You should get some rest.”
I nodded. “Thanks for checking on me,” I said, hugging her again.
Fred slipped back out of the room.
I let myself collapse into the pillows once more. It was like riding a whirligig with no stopping in sight. My thoughts spun and spun, losing traction, catching against a momentary sliver of a solution, and then bouncing free again. I couldn’t see any reason for Seamus making up such an outlandish claim.
At last, I slipped back into sleep, and there were no more dreams.