The Chicago Fire Trilogy
The Mistress (The Chicago Fire Trilogy #2) – RITA Winner
Harlequin MIRA (August 2010)
Originally Published in 2000 and 2003
Under a French gown of emerald silk, Kathleen O’Leary wore homespun bloomers that had seen better days. She told herself not to worry about what lay beneath her sumptuous costume. It was what the world saw on the surface that mattered, particularly tonight.
Next Friday, she would go down on her knees and admit the ruse to Father Campbell in the confessional, but Friday was far away. At the present moment, she meant to enjoy herself entirely, for it was a night of deceptions and she was at its heart.
The mechanical gilt elevator speeding them up to the third-floor salon of the Hotel Royale was only partially responsible for the swift rush of anticipation that tingled along her nerves. She clasped hands with her two companions, Phoebe Palmer and Lucy Hathaway, and gave them a squeeze. “Think we’ll get away with it?” she whispered.
Lucy sent her a dark-eyed wink. “With looks like that, you could get away with robbing the Board of Trade.”
Kathleen would have pinched herself if she hadn’t been holding on so tightly to her friends’ hands. She couldn’t believe she was actually committing such an audacious act. Going to a social affair to which she wasn’t invited. In a dress from Paris that didn’t belong to her. Wearing jewels worth a king’s ransom. To meet people who, if they knew who she really was, would not consider her fit to black their boots.
The bellman pushed up the brake lever and cranked open the door. With only a swift glance, Kathleen recognized him as an Irishman. He had the sturdy features and mild, deferential demeanor of a recent immigrant. Phoebe swept past him, not even seeing the small man.
“Mayor Mason will not be seeking another term,” Phoebe was saying in a breathless voice that seemed fashioned solely for gossip. “Mrs. Wendover is having a flaming love affair with a student at Rush Medical College.” She enumerated the tidbits on her fingers, intent on bringing Kathleen up to date with the guests she was about to meet. “And Mr. Dylan Kennedy is just back from the Continent.”
“Remind me again. Who is Dylan Kennedy?” Lucy asked in a bored voice. She had never been one to be overly impressed by the upper classesâ€”probably because she came from one of the oldest families of the city, and she understood their foibles and flaws.
“Don’t you know?” Phoebe patted a brown curl into place. “He’s only the richest, most handsome man in Chicago. It’s said he came back to look for a wife.” She led the way down the carpeted hall. “He might even begin courting someone in earnest this very night. Isn’t that deliciously romantic?”
“It’s not deliciously anything,” Lucy Hathaway said with a skeptical sniff. “If he needs to pick something, he should go to the cattle auction over at the Union Stockyards.”
Kathleen said nothing, but privately she agreed with Phoebe for once. Dylan Francis Kennedy was delicious. She had glimpsed him a week earlier at a garden party at the Sinclair mansion, where her mistress, Miss Deborah Sinclair, lived when not away at finishing school. Kathleen had stolen a few moments from tending to her duties to look out across the long, groomed garden, and there, by an ornate gazebo, had stood the most wonderful-looking man she had ever seen. In perfectly tailored trousers that hugged his narrow hips, and a charcoal-black frock coat that accentuated the breadth of his shoulders, he had resembled a prince in a romantic story. Of course, it was a glimpse from afar. Up close, he probably wasn’t nearly asâ€¦delicious.
She spied a door painted with the words Ladies’ Powder Room and gave Lucy’s hand a tug. “Could we, please?” she said. “I think I need a moment to compose myself.” She spoke very carefully, disguising the soft brogue of her everyday speech.
Phoebe tapped an ivory-ribbed fan smartly on the palm of her gloved hand. “Chickening out?”
“In a pig’s eye,” Kathleen said, a shade of the dreaded brogue slipping out. She was always provoked and challenged by Phoebe Palmer, who belonged to one of Chicago’s leading families. Phoebe, in turn, thought Kathleen far too cheeky and familiar with her betters and did her best to put the maid in her place.
That, in fact, was part of the challenge tonight. Lucy swore Kathleen could pass for a member of the upper crust. Phoebe didn’t believe anyone would be fooled by the daughter of Irish immigrants. Lucy asserted that it would be an interesting social experiment. They had even made a wager on the outcome. Tomorrow night, Crosby’s Opera House was scheduled to open, and the cream of Chicago society would be in attendance. If Kathleen managed to get herself invited, Phoebe would donate one hundred dollars to Lucy’s dearest causeâ€”suffrage for women.
“You can gild that lily all you like,” Phoebe had said to Lucy as they were getting ready for the evening. “But anyone with half a brain will know she’s just a common weed.”
“Half a brain,” Lucy had laughed and whispered in Kathleen’s ear, which burned with a blush. “That leaves out most of the people at the soiree.”
They stepped into the powder room decked with gilt-framed mirrors and softly lit by the whitish glow of gaslight sconces. The three young ladies stood together in front of the tall center mirrorâ€”Lucy, with her black hair and merry eyes, Phoebe, haughty and sure of herself, and Kathleen, regarding her reflection anxiously, wondering if the vivid red of her hair and the scattering of freckles over her cheeks and nose would be a dead giveaway. Her long bright ringlets spilled from a set of sterling combs, and the flush of nervousness in her cheeks was not unbecoming. Perhaps she could pull this off after all.
“Lord, but I wish Miss Deborah had come,” she said, leaning forward and turning her head to one side to examine her diamond-and-emerald drop earrings. The costly baubles swayed with an unfamiliar tug. Other than girlish games of dress-up, which she had played with Deborah when she’d first gone to work as a maid at the age of twelve, Kathleen had never worn jewelry in her life. The eldest of five, she had never even received the traditional cross at her First Communion. Her parents simply hadn’t had the money.
“Deborah wasn’t well,” Phoebe reminded her. “Besides, if she had come, then you wouldn’t have had her fabulous gown to wear, or her Tiffany jewels, and you’d be sitting at the school all alone tonight.”
“Cinderella sifting through the ashes,” Kathleen said tartly. “You’d have loved that.”
“Not really,” Phoebe said, and just for a moment her haughty mask fell away. “I do wish you well, Kathleen. Please know that.”
Kathleen was startled by the moment of candor. Perhaps, she thought, there were some things about the upper classes she would never understand. But that had not stopped her from wanting desperately to be one of them. And tonight was the perfect opportunity.
The well-tended young ladies of Miss Emma Wade Boylan’s School received scores of invitations to social events in Chicago. Miss Boylan had a reputation for finishing a young woman with charm and panache, and charging her patrons dearly for the privilege. In return, Miss Boylan transformed raw, wealthy girls into perfect wives and hostesses. A bride from Boylan’s was known to be the ideal ornament to a successful man.
The gathering tonight was special, and well attended by members of the elite group informally known as the Old Settlers. As it was a Sunday, there would be no dancing ball, so it was dubbed an evangelical evening, featuring a famous preacher, the Reverend Mr. Dwight L. Moody.
Proper Catholics were supposed to turn a deaf ear to evangelists, but Kathleen had always been challenged by the notion of being proper. Besides, the lecture was nothing more than an excuse for people to get together and gossip and flirt on a Sunday night. Everyoneâ€”ex-cept perhaps the Reverend himselfâ€”knew that. It was all part of the elaborate mating ritual of the upper class, and it fascinated Kathleen. Many a night she had stayed back at the school, paging through Godey’s Lady’s Book, studying the color fashion plates and wondering what it would be like to join the rare, privileged company of the elite.
Tonight, fate or simple happenstance held out the opportunity. Miss Deborah had taken ill and had gone home to her father. As a lark, Phoebe and Lucy had decided to try what Lucy termed a “social experiment.”
Lucy swore that people were easily led and swayed by appearances, and there was no real distinction between the classes. A poor girl dressed as a princess would be as warmly received as royalty. Phoebe, on the other hand, believed that class was something a person was born with, like straight teeth or brown hair, and that people of distinction could spot an imposter every time.
Kathleen was their willing subject for the experiment. She had always been intrigued by rich people, having lived outside their charmed circle, looking in, for most of her life. At last she would join their midst, if only for a few hours.
“Are you hoping for a private moment with Mr. Kennedy?” Lucy asked Phoebe teasingly.
“He will surely be the handsomest man in attendance tonight,” Phoebe said. “But you’re welcome to him. I have a different ambition.”
“What is wrong with him?” Kathleen asked, remembering the godlike creature she had watched in the gazebo. She knew that if Phoebe had wanted Dylan Kennedy for herself, she would have had him by now. “What aren’t you telling us?”
“The fault is not with Mr. Kennedy, but with our dearest Phoebe,” Lucy said, her voice both chiding and affectionate. “She has set a standard no mortal man can possibly meet.”
“What is it that you want?” Kathleen asked.
“A duke,” Phoebe whispered, nearly swooning with the admission.
Kathleen burst out laughing. “And where do you suppose you’ll be finding one of those? Beneath a toadstool?” She feigned a mincing walk and …