Grandmamma’s brooch haunted Valentia’s dreams.
Even as she relaxed at afternoon tea with her mother, the lace doily reminded her of the delicate intertwining design of the brooch. That, in turn, reminded her of the task she had fixed her mind upon.
She was tired of always settling for the smallest bits of the good things in life. Perhaps it was time to take larger chunks.
Valentia’s corset pinched as she leaned towards the tea tray, reaching for a large cake on the upper tier.
“Control yourself, Valentia, or you’ll end up looking like one of those Pittsburgh steel workers.” Majesta McDowell was always aware of appearances. From the servant’s area, one of the maids sniggered.
Grimacing at her mother, Valentia reached for a much smaller piece when she heard shouts, but not the normal sound of a foreman yelling at his workers.
It sounded like panic.
Several patrons stood to look out the plate glass window of the café. Though she was tall for a woman, all Valentia could see were the backs of strangers, and occasionally someone running in the street.
A sharp crack accompanied a muffled explosion. Clouds of dust billowed, and Valentia fought her rising dread.
People in the café jammed the door, trying to escape.
Valentia, her mother, and their maids, Sarah and Maggie, pushed out of the stifling building. Panicked voices screamed amid crashes, all from a street not far away, in the direction of the Monongahela House Hotel.
Where they had been staying.
Her mind raced in panic, her stomach tied in a knot. Trying to make sense of the chaos, she looked the maids and her mother. She was transfixed, staring at the looming threat.
A menacing column of black, oily smoke billowed from the riverside, a searing blanket of menace. The smell of burning wood filled the air.
A church bell tolled. She suppressed her terror and took charge.
“Mother, this way!” Valentia tugged on her mother’s arm to break the spell she was under, pulling her away from the hotel.
Majesta McDowell didn’t have long legs, nor did either of their maids. Still, they made decent time down the cobblestoned street. Faster runners jostled and shoved past the cluster of women in their panicked flight.
Fleeing from the smoke and commotion, the heel of Valentia’s fashionable boot struck a cobblestone at an odd angle as they ran. A sharp pain pierced her ankle.
Valentia nearly collided with a young man who was unloading kegs in front of a pub. She tripped over the dolly, and tumbled to the ground, scraping her knees and hands, but she managed to get up and run again. Belatedly, she made sure her flock still followed.
Where to go? Where were her father and brother supposed to be this morning? Down at the docks. The men would be able to get to safety by jumping in the water, if nothing else. The women were too far from the rivers to use that option.
Panting, they halted many blocks away. Shoving down her fear, Valentia glanced up. The plume of smoke was farther away, much less threatening, so she felt they could continue at a less frantic pace. People here hadn’t even noticed the fire yet. She had absolutely no idea of where they were.
“Mother, if we can find a river it might be the safest place to wait. How can we find father and Conor?”
Majesta was still panting, and Valentia realized she had set a brutal pace.
“I don’t believe we can… unless we go back… to the hotel. Blast! They will… have to assume we’ve made it… to safety.”
They passed a post office and brought the postman outside, pointing to the widening column of smoke. The alarm grew around them, the panic spreading. The postman rushed back into the shop and came out with a whistle. He blew it at set intervals, apparently a pre-arranged signal.
A carriage came barreling down the narrow street, and Valentia yanked Maggie up against the shop.
Her mother’s maid, Sarah, wasn’t quick enough. A blow knocked her to the cobblestones. She lay perfectly still.
With a scream, her mother moved to Sarah’s side, and pulled her out of the busy street by the shoulders. Valentia grabbed the woman’s feet, and they moved her to the wide sidewalk. The postman knelt by them and checked her breathing while Majesta quietly sobbed.
“She’s breathing, Mistress. I’ll go fetch a doctor. You just wait here, eh?”
Valentia nodded, trying to clean the worst of the dirty smudges from the maid’s face.
“Wake up, Sarah. Wake up!” Majesta shook her shoulders.