“An emotionally charged romantic adventure of the best sort! Rachel, you just tore my heart out and stomped it flat!” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Goodreads Reviewer
Virginia, 1933: Her heart broke as she took in the scene before her. There were too many orphans and not enough beds. The rags they wore barely covered them and they hadn’t eaten in days. How could anyone let innocent children live like this? She picked up a tiny girl who’d cried as she moved past her cot. “I’ll be back soon, little one.”
Never in a million years did Lauren Greenwood think she would be destitute and without a penny to her name. But when her father mercilessly disowns her in the depths of winter, that is her fate. Now homeless, Lauren finds America in the devastating grip of the Great Depression––children run wild in the icy streets, endless queues for soup kitchens line frosty sidewalks, and desperation hangs in the air.
All alone in the world, Lauren finds an orphanage in the sprawling fields of the Virginia countryside, surrounded by snow-topped mountains and magnificent fir trees––a safe haven for those who have nowhere to go. But she is appalled to find children living in shocking conditions, huddled together for warmth, their hunger keeping them awake at night as the temperature plunges. The home for unloved orphans is on the brink of closure and the helpless innocents may lose the roof over their heads…
Lauren, heartbroken by the rejection of her own father, vows to provide these poor orphans with the love she never received. With Christmas just around the corner, she refuses to see them cast out onto the street, where they will not survive. When she sees an advertisement in the local newspaper, with an anonymous benefactor donating money to families crippled by the Depression, it could be the answer to her prayers.
Can Lauren save these children who have been rejected by the world? Or in a time of so much suffering, is there simply no hope?
A heartbreaking yet hopeful tale about a brave young woman who gives up everything to help unloved children who have nothing. Fans of Before We Were Yours, The Orphan Train and Diney Costeloe will adore this poignant historical novel, which shows that a little bit of kindness can go a long way.
Readers absolutely love Rachel Wesson:
“Tugged on my heartstrings!!… I loved it! I knew from the title that this would probably be a cardiac workout. It was worth all the tears, tissues and soft sighs! Let’s see what's next!” Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“This book had me sobbing!!!… Just broke my heart!” Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“The most touching story ever… I loved everything about this story. Once you start reading it you can’t put it down. Read it in one afternoon.” Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“The best book I have read in a long time. The characters made me feel I personally knew them. This made me cry and feel good. I believe everyone should read this book. Loved it.” Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“I can't recommend Rachel's book enough… Brought me to tears.” Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Get prepared to read this book with a box of tissues at your side… A book you will never forget.” Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Beautiful… Heartbreaking and heartwarming… Pulls heavy on your heartstrings. A must-read.” Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Come read this book, you will laugh, cry and love them like friends.” Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“You will truly enjoy this book. It will make you happy, sad, cry and most of all love the story!” Goodreads Reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Release date: October 26, 2020
Print pages: 454
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A Home for Unloved Orphans
New York, December 1930
“Away in a manger, no crib for His bed, the little Lord…”
Lauren Greenwood blinked rapidly, not because of the snow dusting her eyelashes, but because the children’s sweet voices rose over the bustle of New York’s 34th Street. How she missed Nanny and everyone back at Rosehall. She screwed up her eyes, ignoring the crowds of shoppers pushing past her, as she let the singing transport her back to Delgany, Virginia. She wasn’t standing on a busy New York sidewalk, surrounded by strangers, but on the grand staircase back home, watching with the children from the estate, and the servants, as Jackson, the butler, placed the dazzling angel at the top of the Christmas tree. No shop-bought tree for Rosehall, but one of the magnificent fir trees that grew high up on the Blue Ridge Mountains. She could almost taste the snickerdoodle cookies Cook would bake for the occasion.
“This is like a Christmas fairyland.” Mary’s eyes widened with wonder, staring at Macy’s façade.
Lauren picked up on her maid’s excitement. “Wait till you see the window display. People come from miles to see it. I’ve missed you, Mary. I wish you could have gone to Europe with me.”
“A maid go to a finishing school? That would be a first, Miss Lauren.”
Lauren’s smile dropped as she caught sight of two little girls, barefoot, dressed in rags without a coat between them. They were holding hands, their matching bright red hair and freckles suggesting they were sisters, their gaze locked on Macy’s window display. She moved closer, wanting to do something to help these poor children, but what? She was half tempted to take them by the hand into the department store, where she would buy them coats and shoes. Nobody should walk barefoot in New York, especially not in these freezing temperatures. She watched as the taller of the two girls tried to pull the other one away from the window.
“Come on, Maggie, we got to get home. Ma will have us for dinner if we don’t.”
“No, I want to stay. I want a Mickey Mouse doll just like that one from Steamboat Willie. Do you think Father Christmas will bring me one?”
“Nope. We’ll be lucky to eat on Christmas Day. Come on, now. We shouldn’t even be here. This is for rich folk.”
“Why? Lookin’ in a winda is free, ain’t it?”
The small girl’s protests made Lauren smile.
“Maggie, stop arguing and come on. I’ll go without you.”
“Na, you won’t, Biddy. Ma will kill you if you lose me.” Maggie returned to staring at the window display. Lauren saw fear on the older girl’s face, catching her looking at a police officer who was standing further along the block.
“Biddy, can you buy me a hot roll? I ain’t ever had one of them,” the little girl said.
“With what?” her sister responded sharply.
“Girls, would you like something to eat?” Lauren said, unable to stay silent any longer.
“No, miss, but thank you,” the older girl responded, but her younger sister immediately spoke up.
“I is so hungry. I haven’t had a piece of bread in this long.” She held up five fingers.
“Maggie, come on. We can’t speak to strangers. They’ll send us away from Ma.” Biddy pulled at her arm but Maggie wasn’t going anywhere.
Lauren glanced around and spotted a food cart. “Wait here, girls, for just a minute. Mary, I’ll be right back.” She ignored her maid’s raised eyebrows and pursed lips.
Not giving Mary a chance to voice her objection, Lauren crossed the street toward the cart. She bought hot frankfurter rolls from the stall, buying four at five cents each. She added two iced sodas, thinking the girls would enjoy the sugary treat despite the winter snow. Handing the vendor a dollar, she told him to keep the change.
“Merry Christmas, lady,” he said, glancing down at the dollar and back at her.
Running back across the street, Lauren handed the hot rolls and sodas to the girls.
“This is all for me, just me?” Maggie asked, her eyes wide.
The food had cost thirty cents but Lauren would have given the child a million dollars if she’d had it. She smiled. “Yes, Maggie, all for you and your sister. Do you live near here?”
“Yes, miss,” she replied.
Biddy glared at Maggie. “What did you tell her that for? Now she’ll want to take us home.”
Lauren exchanged a look with Mary. The maid shook her head but Lauren chose to ignore her.
“I’m Lauren and this is Mary. We would like to meet your mother. Do you think we could walk you home or maybe take a streetcar?”
“We ain’t got the money for no streetcar,” Biddy said immediately.
“Biddy, it will be our treat. Let us take you home, please. Your mother must be hungry too.”
At that the girl’s shoulders slumped and she lost her attempt at bravery. “Ma’s sick. She can’t get out of bed. The baby is crying all the time. We were supposed to find her somethin’ to eat but nobody wants to hear us sing our carols. The coppers, they keep movin’ us on.”
“We heard you singing ‘Away in a Manger’, didn’t we, Mary? It was beautiful.” Lauren shivered, despite her warm coat. “Come on, girls, let’s get you home before you freeze.”
They decided to get the streetcar rather than take a cab after the first driver refused to drive into Hell’s Kitchen, as he called it.
“Sorry, miss, but I won’t get back out of there alive. You shouldn’t be going near there either. You two would stand out more than a stripper in a convent.”
Lauren flushed, causing the driver to mutter an apology before he drove off.
“Let’s get the streetcar. I’ve never traveled on one, have you?” Mary addressed the girls, who both shook their heads.
As the vehicle moved through the city, it was like stepping from one world into another. Gone was the carefree, jubilant atmosphere of 34th Street and Broadway to be replaced by one with an underlying sense of desperation. Everywhere she looked, Lauren saw evidence of poverty. The blackened, dirty streets filled with litter, children running barefoot through the accumulated muck on the sidewalk. There were long queues of men outside buildings; soup kitchens and breadlines, the newspapers called them. A few of the men clutched brown paper bags. She watched as one looked around him furtively before bringing the bag to his mouth and apparently taking a drink from a hidden bottle. She guessed it was whiskey, although where he had got it from was anyone’s guess, given it was strictly forbidden under the country’s Prohibition rules.
Maggie pulled at Lauren’s coat. “We need to get off the streetcar, we’re here.”
After they’d stepped down onto the sidewalk, the little girl pointed to what looked like a passageway between two tall buildings. She took Lauren’s hand while Biddy led the way, holding onto Mary.
As the alley grew darker, despite it being morning, Lauren wondered if she’d been mad to suggest this. What if the girls led them to a den of thieves or worse? But then her beloved Nanny’s voice came to mind: Young children in need should never be ignored. She rolled her shoulders back and followed along.
“Ma doesn’t look her best. She’s been sick a while.” Biddy’s voice sang out as she led them through a cavern of buildings until they stopped in front of one. The outside door was hanging off and Biddy just pushed it aside, leading the way. The stench brought tears to Lauren’s eyes, a mixture of boiling cabbage with an underlying hint of ammonia derived from human waste. Her stomach churned as they climbed the stairs, higher and higher into this building. She wanted to put her hands over her ears to block out the screams and shouting of the residents. It would also be a good way to avoid touching the walls, which appeared to be streaming with water… or at least she hoped it was water.
Biddy finally stopped climbing just as Lauren’s legs had begun to scream in protest.
“Can you wait here till I check Ma’s awake?” the girl asked, her voice trembling.
“Of course,” Lauren squeaked, since Mary seemed incapable of talking.
The door closed behind the children, but it wasn’t heavy enough to mask the conversation.
“What d’you mean, you got ladies with ye? What type of ladies? Holy Mother, it isn’t dem nuns, is it? They’ve come to take ye away from me. I swear I’ll kill you meself, Biddy, if you let them women come near youse.”
Lauren opened the door. “Excuse me, ma’am. We haven’t come to take your children. We, that is myself and Mary, were outside Macy’s and met your girls. We enjoyed their lovely voices…” Lauren fell silent as the woman got up out of bed, wearing a rather sheer nightgown. She turned her back to give Biddy’s mother a chance to dress.
“Come in, while you’re here. You can’t be standing in the door. Take a seat at the table but brush it down before you sit, your fancy clothes might get stained. Biddy, put the kettle on and make these nice ladies a cuppa. It’ll have to be black as we don’t have no milk. We don’t have anything by the way of eatin’. I’m Mrs. Sadie Cullen, by the way.” As she finished speaking, the woman paled and almost fell, but for Biddy catching her.
Lauren, who had turned round to listen to her, jumped to help. “Please don’t worry yourself about us, Mrs. Cullen. We didn’t mean to cause you trouble.”
“Ma, can we eat the rolls now? They got mustard on them and everythin’,” Maggie burst out. “You can have some of mine, if you like.”
“Rolls?” Their mother held her hands to her breast.
“Yeah and sodas.” Biddy took a sip. “We didn’t find nuthin’ for the baby. Nobody gave us any money for our singin’. Them ladies bought us these.”
The baby. Lauren glanced around the room but couldn’t see or hear a baby. She looked back at the mother, catching her eyes as they lit upon a drawer.
“Where is the baby, Mrs. Cullen? I promise we aren’t going to take any of the children away. Why would you think that?”
“They took my eldest two boys. They never told me or nuthin’. The priest, he said it was best for them, but what sort of life is it for childer to be away from their parents?”
The girls were hungry and dressed in rags, but Mrs. Cullen appeared to be a loving mother who was simply down on her luck. Wouldn’t it be better to keep families together? Lauren mused.
“Where is your husband, Mrs. Cullen?” Mary asked.
If it were possible, the woman’s face grew paler.
“Daddy’s in jail cause he hit the copper who came to take the boys. The copper didn’t like it and he put Daddy in a place where he can sing all day,” Maggie told them between bites of sausage, the yellow mustard staining her face and fingers.
“He can sing?” Lauren didn’t understand.
Mary moved forward. “I think the child means Sing Sing, the prison. Is that right, Mrs. Cullen?”
“Aye. Daniel was arrested for thieving. He stole a loaf of bread and some milk for the baby. It’s my fault. I can’t feed Cian, the little boy. Not no more. The copper let him off but then when Daniel tried to stop them takin’ the boys and hit another copper, they said he was bad news.”
Lauren reached for the drawer as Mary took a seat on the bed and held Mrs. Cullen as she sobbed. The baby stared back at Lauren, his dark blue eyes huge in his shrunken face above his little body. She lifted him up as gently as possible, and he didn’t make a sound. But for his eyes, which were moving, she’d have thought him dead.
“I think he needs a doctor. He’s so tiny.” Lauren couldn’t believe a baby could be so light. She handed him over to his mother.
“Three months old and only looks like a newborn. Cian’s stopped cryin’ now. He doesn’t have the energy even though he is half-starved.”
The door banged then, making them all jump. “Mother Mary and all that’s holy, what are you doing, botherin’ poor Sadie Cullen?” said the woman, bursting into the room. “Can’t you see she’s had enough help from do-gooders to last her a lifetime? Takin’ her boys from her was an awful sin and now that lovely young husband of hers. What do you want?” The woman faced them with her hands on her hips, her big bosom heaving with indignation.
Mary stood up from the bed. “We didn’t mean any harm. My name is Mary and this is Miss Lauren. We were on our way into Macy’s and happened upon the girls. They gave us a song and we paid them in hot rolls. We should be going now. Miss Lauren?”
But Lauren couldn’t walk away. She knew she should, but something was stopping her.
“Frances Murphy, will you leave these poor women alone? Sure they were only tryin’ to see to my girls.” Mrs. Cullen turned back to Lauren. “If it weren’t for the kindness of Frances and her Seamus the whole lot of us would be ten foot under. They’ve been givin’ us food and keeping the rent collector at bay. They bought me enough time to get past Thanksgiving. We have to be out tomorrow.”
“It’s almost Christmas. Where will you go?” Lauren asked, ignoring Mary’s movement toward the door. “What will happen to you?”
Mrs. Cullen couldn’t answer. Lauren looked to the woman introduced as Frances Murphy, but she was staring at the ground. Even the children fell silent, no longer eating.
“Mrs. Murphy, can I please impose on you?”
“What?” the woman replied, looking confused.
“I mean, will you help me, please? I want to go to the store first. This family is going to have a Christmas they won’t forget.”
“You mean it, lady?” Maggie grabbed Lauren’s coat, tugging it to get her attention. “You is goin’ to get us an angel for the tree and presents? I want a Mickey Mouse toy.” The little girl jumped up and down.
“Margaret Cullen, where are your manners?”
Maggie took a step back when her mother used her given name.
“What will these ladies think of you? They’ll believe I don’t know how to rear childer.” Mrs. Cullen turned her tear-stained face to look at Lauren. “I thank you for your kindness, miss, but I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You’re not asking, Mrs. Cullen. I want to. Christmas is a time for children, the one moment in the year where every dream should come true.” Lauren rubbed the woman’s arm. “Please let me do it. For the girls?”
Biddy and Maggie both spoke at once. “Please, Mammy, let her get us Christmas. Pleasssssse.”
Mrs. Cullen sobbed, making no attempt to hide her distress. “’Tis a miracle my girls found you.”
Lauren was having trouble not breaking down herself. “Please don’t cry. I was trying to make things better.”
“Miss Lauren, we can’t fix everything,” Mary protested, at the same time as Mrs. Murphy seized Lauren’s arm.
“I’ll take you, lady. You’ll only get cheated and charged extra lookin’ like you do and soundin’ all fancy like. Girls, I think you done found your mother a guardian angel.” She led Lauren out the door fast, while Mary shrugged her shoulders and said she’d come along too to help carry things.
Together, the three of them walked back down the stairs, with Lauren and Mary listening to Frances Murphy explaining how it was to live in such a place.
“There should only be ten families livin’ here but there are upward of twenty. It’s the Depression. Them that have jobs have had to take pay cuts. They be the lucky ones. All share the same privy out the back, hence the smell. Good, honest, decent folk in this house, but there’s nothing can be done to make the place fit for anythin’ other than pigs. Even they’d refuse to live here.” The woman laughed at her own joke, but Lauren couldn’t laugh. It was simply too heartbreaking.
As they walked out the dark tenement into the alley, she could see that snow had been falling. Even the snow was gray here, not like the pristine white snow in the mountains where Lauren came from.
“New York really is a tale of two cities, isn’t it? Where else would the richest and poorest of society live almost door to door?” Mary whispered to Lauren once they had reached the filthy street again. People didn’t look up as they passed by. Everyone seemed to be staring at their shoes. Mary caught the look on Lauren’s face as she watched them. “Miss Lauren, everywhere you look there are people in need. You can’t help them all.”
Lauren wished that she could save them all. “I know,” she replied. “But I can help the Cullens. Maggie and Biddy are so brave. I have to do something, I can’t just walk away.” Why don’t the newspapers do more to highlight the plight of these children, she wondered. If her heroine, the American journalist Nellie Bly, were still alive, she’d be writing about these unseen victims of the Depression, making sure they weren’t forsaken by society.
Mary looked at her watch. “Miss Lauren, we need to get on our way or we will be late for your dress fitting.”
“I know but… I feel responsible.”
“You aren’t. Just give Mrs. Murphy some money and let’s get going. Your father won’t like it if you don’t have a new dress. He said a lot of his contacts would be at this ball.”
Lauren was torn, but she saw the maid’s point. Her father was something to be reckoned with. She walked back to Mrs. Murphy, who had stopped in the alley. “We have an appointment to get to, Mrs. Murphy. Would you be able to find someone to help you with the food shopping and take it back to the Cullens? Maybe in a cab?”
“No need of a cab for me, dearie, but you wait here a minute.” The woman put two fingers in her mouth, and whistled.
Lauren jumped, but it worked. Out of nowhere, several boys came running. “You want us, Ma?” one of them asked.
“Charlie, you help these ladies find a cab. Mikey, get your finger out of your nose. You’re to help me do some shoppin’. Seamus, Jnr., you’re to go get the old pushchair and come to meet us. No lollygagging. Straight back here or you’ll feel the back of my hand across your bare legs.”
“Yes, Ma,” the boys chorused, before running off to do what they were told.
“You get along. I’ll make sure the Cullens have a nice meal. Don’t you fret,” she said to Lauren.
“Mrs. Murphy, how much is the rent for the Cullens’ room?”
“Five dollars, that’s for a week. But I think Sadie is behind.”
Lauren put her hand in her purse and pulled out thirty dollars. “Will you pay her rent for her and use the rest for the food for both your families? I will try to get back to see Mrs. Cullen over the next few days, but will you please tell her not to worry. I won’t see her and the children put out on the streets.”
Mrs. Murphy wiped a tear from her face. “I don’t know who sent you, love, but you’re a Christmas angel. That’s what you are. Thank you.”
Lauren nodded, too choked up to speak. Mary caught her arm and pulled her to where the boy, Charlie, was waiting for them. He seemed about ten years old, skinny and dirty, just like the Cullen girls.
“Want the streetcar or a cab?” the little boy asked.
Mary had to answer as emotion stopped Lauren. “A cab please, Charlie. We’re late.”
Charlie came back with a cab, confiding he had to promise the driver a dollar to come and fetch them. The man took off his hat and nodded to them. “Thought the lad was telling me stories when he said two rich women were in Hell’s Kitchen. You got lost?”
“No, sir, but we are late. Can you please take us to Madame Bouvier’s dress shop on Fifth Avenue?” Mary’s smile seemed to seal the deal because the driver agreed. Lauren handed Charlie a quarter.
“Gee whiz, thanks, lady.” The boy ran off, probably to spend it before his mother got hold of it.
“Miss Lauren, the dress is stunning. It highlights your cream skin and dark hair and the style suits your height too. You’ll turn heads at the Woolworth Ball.” Mary’s face lit up with admiration.
Lauren barely glanced at her reflection. She moved away from the long mirror to look out the window. She almost stepped on the seamstress, who was putting the finishing touches to the hemline. Outside, pristine snow covered the roofs of the closest buildings, changing their dull gray appearance to that of a magical white carpet. Gazing down toward the street, she looked at the endless traffic and sheer number of shoppers turning the snow on the sidewalk into gray slush.
“What’s wrong, Miss Lauren? Don’t you like the dress? Your father has been very generous with your allowance.”
Lauren tried to focus on the dress but all she could think of were Maggie’s and Biddy’s faces when she’d given them the hot rolls… and the place they called home. How could she get excited about a fancy new dress when families like the Cullens were going hungry? The men, on the street below, looked half-frozen as they stood in line for scraps of food, desperation etched onto their faces, each waiting their turn for the soup kitchen.
“I’m grateful, of course, but don’t you think I’ve been to enough parties, Mary? It seems wrong to be buying a new dress for each one, when so many people have so little.”
Mary turned to the seamstress. “That’s perfect now. Thank you.”
The woman nodded, her mouth full of pins.
“We best get back to the hotel, Miss Lauren. Your father will be waiting. You go get changed. I’ll pick up some matching ribbon for your hair.”
After Lauren had changed, she came downstairs to the shop area, where she found Mary pacing the floor and looking at her watch.
“What took you so long, Miss Lauren?”
“I was thinking.”
Mary smiled before doing a perfect imitation of Lauren’s father’s voice: “That’s bad for your brain. Your job is to look pretty and land a rich, successful husband.”
Lauren poked her tongue out at the maid. The pair had practically grown up together, being of a similar age. Mary had been an orphan and was a distant relative of Cook at Rosehall, who had taken her in and treated her as a daughter.
* * *
As the cab driver that the doorman at Madame Bouvier’s had hailed drove Mary and Lauren to the hotel where her father was staying, Lauren peered out the window beside her. Every building looked similar and not just because of the snow. Maybe the white dusting on the upper levels served to highlight the dirt and despair of those living on the crowded streets. Mounds of garbage littered the sidewalks. How often did cleaners come to this area?
Lauren’s eyes widened as she saw a family emerge from one of the piles. The mound of discarded boxes and broken pieces of furniture appeared to be their home. It made the mean rooms where the Cullens and Murphys lived seem like castles. She shuddered. Someone had to help these people.
Lauren turned her head from the window and closed her eyes, trying to conjure the feel of the winter sun on her face as she took Prince out for a ride across the hills above Rosehall. Sam, the head groom, was looking after Prince for her while she was in New York. She secretly hoped the horse was missing her as much as she was missing him. A day’s riding in the Blue Ridge Mountains, followed by some of Cook’s legendary fried chicken, and last but not least a cup of hot chocolate, while sitting with Nanny, was her idea of Heaven.
She wished Nanny had been able to come to New York, but Father had said that the traveling would prove too much for the older woman. Lauren didn’t know how old Nanny was. She was her mother’s aunt and had looked after Lauren’s mother when she was just a girl. She couldn’t wait to get home to see her. She’d missed Nanny most of all.
* * *
Mary stood back from the dressing table in Lauren’s bedroom. “Miss Lauren, you look perfect. You’re the image of your mama in the portrait at Rosehall. You were right to pick out a rose-tinted material, it highlights your creamy skin. On me, it would just make my freckles stand out more.”
“I love your freckles and red hair, Mary. You look so different to everyone else. I just blend in.”
“Sure you do, Miss Lauren.” Mary rolled her eyes. “If I wasn’t your servant, I would hit you for being so ungrateful. God blessed you with such deep black hair, you can almost see your reflection in it. Most people with your coloring have brown or maybe blue eyes but you got violet ones. He didn’t give you a humped back or a hideous birthmark, did He? You should be grateful for your beauty, Miss Lauren.”
Lauren stood up and walked to the full-length mirror on the wardrobe. She inspected her reflection, trying to see herself through Mary’s eyes. The tight-fitting bodice, studded with pearls, diamanté and crystals, was, Madame Bouvier had assured her, the height of fashion. The rose-tinted tulle skirt, beautifully embroidered with silver threads, flowed to her ankles, beneath which her feet were clad in matching silver shoes. A set of elbow-length gloves completed her look.
Mary was being kind. She wasn’t as beautiful as her mama, who had been much sought after.
“Are you woolgathering about finding a man?” Mary asked, amusement making her Irish lilt softer. “You’ll be the belle of the ball, Miss Lauren.” The maid pushed a few loose strands of hair back into her creation, before she stood back, her head tilting to one side. “You look like you’re sucking on a lemon.”
“I don’t want to go to this ball.”
Mary’s eyes widened. “Why not? I’d love to see the Astors and the Vanderbilts up close.”
“Why, Mary? They are just people like you and me.”
“You don’t have an ounce of romance in your soul, Miss Lauren. All you think about is your books and your studies. You should dream of princes or millionaires, dancing and laughing all night, with the prospect of a ring on the horizon.”
Lauren scowled. “I wish everyone wasn’t in such a hurry to marry me off. I can look after myself. I don’t need a husband.”
“Really?” Mary’s eyebrows rose as she surveyed the room, where Lauren’s discarded clothes lay in piles around the floor.
“It just seems so wrong to go dancing in a dress that cost hundreds of dollars when children like Biddy and Maggie are starving.”
“What of all the people employed by the hotel? The seamstress who made your dress? Those people need jobs, Miss Lauren. Especially now.” Mary patted a stray hair into place. “You go on now and put a smile on your face. We all have a role to fill and tonight yours is to look beautiful and smile. And remember to notice what the birthday girl is wearing, please. You know how much I love fashion.”
“You should go in my place.”
Mary roared with laughter as she picked up her skirt and pretended to dance.
Lauren laughed despite herself. Mary could always make her giggle.
She was about to leave when the maid called out to her. “Miss Lauren?”
“Don’t go kissing any toads.”
Lauren was still smiling as she walked into the living area of their suite where her father stood smoking a cigar. His superbly tailored dress suit flattered his towering height and trim figure. He’d had a haircut and shave, the flecks of gray more visible in the shorter style. Lauren caught the subtle flash of diamonds in his cufflinks and noticed he was wearing his wedding ring. He stared at her as she entered the room.
“Father, when are we going home to Delgany? It’s almost Christmas and we don’t want to miss the fun there.”
When he remained silent, Lauren prompted, “Father?”
“You look lovely, Lauren.” He ignored her question and continued to stare at her. “You look like your mother.”
“I wish Mama was here. Why did she have to die so young? She liked dancing, didn’t she? Nanny said she always enjoyed the balls, especially at Christmas.”
Her father’s gaze had turned icy cold. Why didn’t he like her talking about Mama? Was his heart still broken?
“Your mother would want you to find a good man to settle down with, Lauren. Now, shall we go?”
The journey from their hotel to The Ritz wasn’t far, but heavy traffic delayed them. Along the way, Lauren saw several apple sellers on the route. She had heard that the desperate times were driving men to sell the fruit on street corners even in blistering, icy winds, snow and sleet. She would have given them something if she was carrying cash, even though she knew her father was disapproving.
Once they arrived at The Ritz and walked inside, all Lauren’s melancholy thoughts were temporarily banished. “Oh, Father, it looks like a garden under moonlight,” she said in awe, as they entered the rooms where the debutante ball for Barbara Woolworth Hutton was being held. She gazed up at the ceiling, which was covered with blue gauze and decorative stars. She memorized every detail of her surroundings, remembering her promise to Mary. Silver Birch trees competed with Eucalyptus, both imported from California for the occasion.
She lowered her eyes and gasped. “Are these real?” she asked him, bending over some decorative rose beds. “How did they get roses to bloom at this time of year?”
“Money can buy you everything, Lauren. Please stop acting like a country hick. Stand up straight and don’t let me down.”
Lauren straightened up, imagining Miss Caroline prodding her in the shoulders, reminding her to stand tall. She could hear her teacher’s voice now, encouraging her to accept her height as she towered over her classmates.
She looked around and her eyes caught those of a man. He was very good-looking, about six feet tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. He raised his glass to her, making her blush. She glanced away, but when she snuck a look back...
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