Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Runaway Girl’ by Jina Bacarr.
THE RUNAWAY GIRL
A Titanic Love Story
Two women hold the keys to his heart.
Only one will survive that fateful night…
Cameron Bally Manor House
9 April 1912
‘Ava O’Reilly, you’re nothing but a common thief who brings shame upon this fine house,’ spewed Lord Emsy, wagging his fat finger in her face. ‘What have you to say for yourself, girl?’
‘A thief, am I, milord?’ Ava shot back, refusing to cower before a man so pompous and full of himself, even if he was her employer. With his wing tip collar and fancy silk ascot, he reminded her of a leg of lamb gussied up for Sunday dinner. ‘Says who? Your daughter?’ She narrowed her eyes, staring her accuser down. Lady Olivia greeted her angry look with a swift turning of the head, her nose in the air, but Ava wasn’t finished. ‘I’d rather dance with the devil than believe her.’
His lordship growled. ‘Then you deny stealing the bracelet?’
‘Aye, that I do.’ Ava smoothed down her shiny, black cotton uniform with her hands, making fists and fighting to keep her composure. Him with the glow of damnation in his eyes, accusing her like he was the Almighty Himself. She refused to back down. With the afternoon sun spilling an arc as bright as a pot o’ gold at her feet, she wondered how she, the daughter of a fine Irish mum and da, could be so unlucky. But here she was, accused of thievery because she was caught reading a book in a place where a housemaid had no right to be. The library. Now she was paying the price for her thirst for knowledge.
‘Well, how do you plead?’ asked his lordship.
‘I plead guilty to nothing more than reading your fine books.’
Ignoring her, Lord Emsy bellowed, ‘Then how do you explain this?’
He dangled a slender rope of sparkling diamonds in front of her nose, taking her breath away.
Ava swallowed hard. Each stone was a knot on the noose tightening around her neck.
‘I swear on me sainted mother’s grave, I never seen the likes of that till this morning.’
‘She’s lying, Papa,’ Lady Olivia decried. ‘She stole it from my jewel case and was trying to hide it when I caught her.’
Ava gritted her teeth. They both knew it was a lie.
Aye, what was a lass to do? His lordship’s daughter had hated her since Ava had first crossed paths with her, when she’d used the grand main staircase instead of scuttling down the backstairs. The breach of protocol had not only embarrassed the family, Lady Olivia scolded her, but Ava had attracted the eye of the young gentleman at her side. Lord Holm made no secret of his interest in the servant girl with the glorious red hair spilling down her back. Mary Dolores had warned her about him when Ava joined her sister to work as a housemaid in the grand manor.
A dandy, she had said, always ready to pat the bum of any servant girl he could get into a dark corner.
Did Ava listen to her? No. She was obstinate and bull-headed. A family trait, Mary Dolores admitted, shaking her head. Going through life casting her spell on every man caught looking at her. Ava paid them no mind, going about her way and insisting she didn’t need a man to better herself.
Unfortunately, Ava couldn’t control the wily fates determined to get in her way.
Her relationship with Lady Olivia became even more strained when Lord Holm saw her wearing a discarded dress belonging to her ladyship. Silk with delicate appliqué around the collar and cap sleeves, the vibrant emerald green set off her red hair.
And what was the crime in that, Ava wanted to know, since it was customary for servant girls to lay claim to their mistress’s tossed-away garments.
Her ears burned when she overheard her ladyship say to Lord Holm, ‘You never noticed when I wore that dress,’ to which he replied, ‘You never looked like that.’
His comment sealed her fate.
Now she’d get sacked for a crime she didn’t commit.
Ava felt a growing bitterness prickle her skin, making her shiver. She couldn’t deny she presented a threat to the daughter of the house. It was no secret her ladyship wasn’t popular with the servants with her snotty airs and precise manners, ordering everyone about. More than one prayer was lifted up to heaven in the servants’ hall in the hopes her outrageous flirting with the gent from Dublin would have her running off with the handsome man with arched, dark brows and a dimple in his chin. Till then, every time the young lord’s head turned in Ava’s direction, she loomed as a danger to her ladyship’s prospects for a secure married life.
A danger that must be eliminated.
Lady Olivia made it her duty to make Ava’s life miserable. She left empty tea cups scattered about after Ava tidied a room, complained about her blatant insubordination to Mrs Briggs, the housekeeper, when Ava failed to make a proper curtsy, then smeared the damp tea leaves Ava set upon the carpets to remove dust under the heel of her pointy boot.
Ava spent two days digging the crushed leaves out of the rug fibers.
By the devil, she’d not be done in by the girl’s lies. Hadn’t she made every effort to be a good housemaid? Learned to lower her eyes and not stare when the family was about. Cleaned up her ladyship’s slops with a wooden clothes peg pinching her nose and set the hot brick at the foot of her bed so the snobby girl would be toasty at night.
But she had no intention of getting sacked for nothing more than a man looking at her, even if her mother had warned her. Ava let the moment wash over her, the poignant memory stabbing her in the heart, missing her mum so.
‘A man may be God’s creature, Ava,’ her late mother, Mary Elizabeth Sullivan O’Reilly had drummed into her head, her pale grey eyes turning a deep slate when she noticed her younger daughter’s curves, soft and round. ‘But he’s also an instrument of the devil’s handiwork. With a face like yours, child, temptation will surely follow.’
No matter, Ava decided. She’d show them gentlemen she had more to offer. Much more.
She would challenge their minds.
She set her plan to work, reading and studying from the books in his lordship’s library, though borrowing books was forbidden to the servants. Only family members could sign the journal on the desk. A ledger containing the names of the borrowers. Lady Olivia’s name rarely appeared.
Ava closed her eyes tight, remembering how Mum oft reminded her that her curiosity for knowledge would do her in someday, but she didn’t see what was so wrong about trying to rise above her class and gain the freedom that came with it.
Plato, Shaw, Shakespeare and Mark Twain.
Stories of grand adventure that thrilled her and made her yearn for a life outside of service. Something her sister didn’t understand. What Ava saw as a humiliating job, Mary Dolores embraced as a proper and decent life for the likes of them.
Two orphaned sisters without kin.
Ava bit her lip. Her sister was right about one thing. She wouldn’t be standing here now accused of stealing the diamond bracelet if she hadn’t lingered in the library after she finished her morning duties. Hidden behind a tall Oriental screen, she was reading Romeo and Juliet when Lady Olivia bounded into the room before anyone upstairs was awake. Tossing cushions about, mumbling, looking everywhere until she found her bracelet under the blue damask divan.
Most likely her ladyship lost it while carousing with the young lord and didn’t want her father to find out. Their engagement hadn’t been settled and whispers in the servants’ hall confirmed the young gentleman had yet to approach Lord Emsy with a formal request. That didn’t stop the loose-tongued cook from gossiping about how her ladyship sweetened the pie by treating him to a taste of her cherry-tipped buds.
Ava smirked. Lady Olivia wasn’t taking any chances on losing a fine catch like Lord Holm. When she caught her hiding behind the screen, she saw the perfect opportunity to accuse her of theft and ruin her.
‘I shall ask you for the last time, Ava,’ Lord Emsy demanded, his double chins wiggling, ‘did you steal the bracelet?’
Ava refused to stand down. ‘No, milord, I did not steal the bracelet.’
‘Then you leave me no choice,’ his lordship said, exhaling loudly, ‘but to turn you over to the proper authorities at Cork for grand larceny.’
‘But, milord—’ Ava pleaded, fear rising in her so quickly she felt numb.
‘Quiet, girl. You’re confined to your room until further notice.’
‘That’s not fair! I didn’t do anything wrong.’ Ava flinched when Warner, the butler, grabbed her. She yanked her arm away, the fiery glint in her eye directed toward Lady Olivia. ‘You’ve not seen the end of Ava O’Reilly, your ladyship. Someday I shall be a grand lady—’
‘You, a lady?’ Lady Olivia said, disbelieving. ‘Don’t make me laugh. You’re not fit to be a scullery maid.’
Then she turned on her heel and glided upstairs like a pretentious swan, taking her aristocratic airs with her. Ava nearly died with embarrassment. Not because she’d called her a scullery maid, but at how the guilty could walk away free while the innocent paid the price.
Because she was born poor.
‘No more chatter, girl,’ said the butler, moving her along, but Ava dragged her heels, her mind spinning. Somehow, someway, she’d get free. Her ladyship felt Ava’s gaze upon her and turned around, grinning at her with victory in her eyes. In spite of her determination to fight back, Ava felt the sting of hot tears on her cheeks. The girl’s elegant and effortless exit made an impression on her she’d never forget.
She swore then she’d never be a victim again. She’d do anything to get above herself and make her place in the world. Anything.
And the devil be damned.
* * *
‘Have you taken leave of your senses, Ava Madeline O’Reilly?’ Mary Dolores paced up and down the small room they shared in the attic. Dubbed the virgins’ wing, it wasn’t accessible to male servants. ‘You’ll never escape. Warner placed a guard at the backstairs.’
Ava smiled. ‘Then I’ll sneak down the grand main staircase while the family is still sleeping.’
‘’Tis a fool’s plan,’ Mary Dolores insisted, wringing her hands on her apron and making deep wrinkles in the cloth.
Ava grabbed her sister by the shoulders and looked her in the eye. Mary Dolores was a tall, plain girl with faint freckles on her cheeks that begged for sunshine to blossom. They never would, working as she did from dawn till night. She hurt just looking at her sister’s long, pale face, worn and tired, the life drained out of her.
‘It pains me to see you trapped inside this house fourteen hours a day,’ she said. ‘Cleaning and dusting and tiptoeing about all day so as not to disturb a family who barely knows you exist. Why do you put up with it? Da wanted so much more for you.’
‘But Mum would be so pleased to see both her daughters living in so grand a house.’ Mary Dolores paused, her heart heavy. ‘Why did you have to ruin it? Reading books no God-fearing girl would dare look at is one thing, but why did you take the bracelet, Ava? Why?’
‘I didn’t take it.’ Ava whirled around in a circle, banging her forehead in frustration. ‘What fairy curse is upon me that not even my own sister believes me?’
‘I want to, Ava, but Lady Olivia insisted…’
‘There’s your problem, always believing your betters over your own flesh and blood.’ Ava grabbed her sister’s hand and bade her to sit down. ‘Times are changing, Mary Dolores, faster than a fox with the hounds nipping at its tail. This world of grand manners and extravagant ways won’t last.’
‘What fool’s talk is this, Ava?’
‘I know. Every morning before breakfast, I read the newspapers before I place them on the trays. About how electricity and telephones will make communication faster… how a motorcar can cover the distance from here to Dublin in a day.’ Her eyes glowed. ‘Did you see Lord Holm’s touring car? As big as a ship it is. I’m telling you, Mary Dolores, we’re no longer doomed to spend our lives in service. With all them new things making life better for the likes of us, who’s to say we can’t find jobs and get our own flat?’
‘But if you can’t prove you’re innocent, Ava, you’ll never have a chance to do anything. You’ll be hauled off to prison like a common thief.’
Ava shook her head. ‘I’ve saved all my wages. I’m getting a job in a big factory and going to school.’
‘How can you?’ Mary Dolores said, worried. ‘Even if you escape, they’ll track you down wherever you go.’
Ava set her mouth in a firm line. ‘Have you no faith in me? There’s one place they’ll never find me.’
‘I don’t believe such a place exists.’
‘Aye, but it does,’ Ava insisted. ‘A place where the streets are paved with gold.’
Hands on her hips, her sister asked, ‘And where is that?’
Ava grinned widely. ‘America.’
* * *
10 April 1912
Six a.m. the next morning found Ava with her small cloth traveling bag packed with her few belongings tiptoeing down the grand main staircase, her head swinging right then left and back again. She wore her brown tweed suit, which was faded from too many washings, her white blouse, the round collar of which was smudged with dirt, and a worn black hat sitting at a cocky angle on her head. A slender feather curved over her right eye, giving her a provocative look. She reached the landing without incident, exhaled, and counted the remaining steps.
Eight, nine, ten.
She’d avoided running into the staff and no one in the family was about at the early hour. Only her own quick breathing filled her ears. She’d be on her way before anyone knew she was gone, then she’d navigate her way through the pine woods surrounding the estate and climb over the hedge of wild fuchsia to the road. There she prayed she’d find a passing vegetable wagon and a friendly farmer to give her a lift to Queenstown where she could book passage on a ship leaving for America.
Eleven, twelve, thirteen…
Nothing could change her mind, not even Mary Dolores crying that she’d never see her again. Ava tried to console her by promising to send for her when she reached America.
‘Going somewhere?’ a deep male voice startled her.
Ava spun around and came face to face with Lord Holm.
‘Yes, milord, I mean, no, milord.’
‘Good. I’m in need of female companionship.’ He leaned closer. She could smell brandy and tobacco on his breath. By his disheveled appearance, she could tell he’d been out all night.
‘Please, milord, I – I have an errand to run for Mrs Briggs—’
‘Come, girl, you’re running away before the town constable arrives to haul your pretty arse off to prison.’
‘Milord!’ She stepped back quickly.
‘Be assured, I’m not ringing the butler to put you in chains. Everyone knows Olivia concocted that ridiculous story about the bracelet to get you sacked.’ He turned serious. ‘She never dreamed her father would bring the authorities down on you.’
Frowning, Ava said, ‘Then why don’t she stop him?’
‘My dear, you are a provincial. Olivia admit she was wrong? Especially when it involves taking a servant girl’s word over hers?’ He shook his head. ‘That would upset the order of things and that would never do.’
‘But it’s unfair, Lord Holm.’
‘Come with me.’ He grinned. ‘What I have in mind will be far more amusing than sleeping off this hangover.’
Ava crossed herself. What was he about?
‘Oh, Lord, preserve my beating heart…’ she whispered when he led her outside and she saw the French, burgundy red town car with big, black fenders and white-walled tires parked on the gravel. His lordship gave an order to his chauffeur who cranked up the car and then opened the passenger door.
Smiling, Lord Holm said, ‘Get in.’
Shaking her head, Ava pulled back. ‘I can’t, milord. I’ll be in a heap more trouble if I do.’
‘I assure you, no one will know about our little game.’ He took her by the elbow and held her tight. ‘Now get into the motorcar.’
‘Don’t spoil my fun. I can’t wait to see Olivia’s face when she discovers you’ve slipped out of her noose.’
* * *
‘I’m going to America,’ Ava said when his lordship asked her about her plans. They’d been driving for a while with Lord Holm trying to entice her to let him drive her to Dublin so she could sup with him at the Royal Hibernian Hotel. She ignored his stabs at flirting, digging her fingers into the tuft velvet interior as soft as goose feathers and inhaling the smell of swank leather as intoxicating as brandy. She smiled. Riding to freedom like a real lady, she stared out the window. She marveled at how the motorcar sped along the road at a good clip, the trees going by so fast they blurred into a swash of green as long as a leprechaun’s tailcoat.
‘Which liner have you in mind for your trip across the pond?’ Lord Holm rested his hand upon her knee. She moved away, but his hand remained.
‘I intend to purchase a ticket on the first ship leaving.’ She lowered her head. ‘If the authorities don’t find me first.’
‘They won’t get a word out of me.’ He leaned toward her to kiss her, but she backed away. By and by, she had her pride. ‘Come now, not even a kiss for the gentleman who rescued you?’
‘You belong to Lady Olivia.’
‘Ah, the loyal servant to the end. You’re a remarkable girl, Ava O’Reilly. So remarkable I’m sorry we didn’t become better acquainted.’ He exhaled. ‘Perhaps I can be of service after all…’
Curious, Ava watched him pull a folded-up note out of his pocket.
A wireless message.
He skimmed it as he spoke, ‘There’s a fine new ship from the White Star Line stopping at Queenstown tomorrow morning to pick up passengers before heading to New York.’
‘Are you certain, milord?’ Ava prayed it was so. She had no choice but to leave Ireland before the authorities caught up to her.
‘Yes. My dear aunt, Lady Scranton, is aboard. According to her telegram, she boarded the ship at Southampton and will be getting off to join me at Cameron Bally Manor House when Lord Emsy makes the formal announcement.’ He leaned closer. ‘Yes, it’s true what they say below stairs. I shall marry dear Olivia and her generous settlement.’
Ava let go with a contended sigh. Thank the heavens.
‘May I be the first to congratulate you, milord.’
‘Thank you, Ava, but I’d rather be aboard ship with you.’
She remained silent, not answering him lest she say something brash and all her plans were dashed. For once she kept her mouth shut, though she did give him a disapproving look.
‘I envy the men aboard the liner they’re calling unsinkable with you to make their voyage a pleasant one,’ he said quietly, resolved to his fate. ‘My aunt insists it’s the finest ship to ever sail the seas with the best service imaginable.’ He looked at her as if he were about to tell her a secret. ‘In first class, I hear you have your own bathroom.’
Ava’s mouth dropped open. ‘A bathroom aboard ship to your own sweet self? Is that legal?’
His lordship laughed.
‘What is this grand ship called, milord?’ Ava asked as the sloping terraces of Queenstown came into view. She couldn’t believe she was here, more determined than ever to book passage on this new vessel. If it was fine enough for a titled lady, it was good enough for her.
A teasing look came into his lordship’s eyes, as if debating whether or not to tell her.
Finally, he said, ‘The Titanic.’
* * *
Ava squirmed in her seat when Lord Holm brushed her cheek with his cold lips, trying to convince her to forget sailing on the Titanic and go with him to Dublin. She was not having it. She stuck her tongue out at him, stomped her foot and announced in a steady voice if he didn’t stop the motorcar, ‘I’ll scream like a wild banshee.’
Aye, she was tempting the fates with her threat, but it worked.
Pouting like a little boy who’d spilled his pudding, his lordship deposited her in front of the shipping office for the White Star Line, then with a grunt and a sneer he was off, back to Lady Olivia as if nothing had happened.
But it had and Ava would never be the same. She was no longer the young girl who held her da’s hand tight when she came to Queenstown with its narrow streets winding up steep hills. She relished the memory of those days, seeing him off on his fishing boat until the day he never returned. The sea claimed him as it had so many others, his body washing up on shore while his soul roamed free.
It broke her dear mother’s heart, kind lady she was, her fingers always entwined around the holy black beads her sister in the convent fastened for her. She’d buried three sons before they reached the age of five. Children lost to the ills of being poor, then her husband to the ravages of the sea.
Six months ago, her mum had died, but not before she’d made Ava promise to join her sister in service. Now Ava had broken that promise and she was running off to America. With a price on her head.
Leave Ireland? Her home?
Was she daft?
Her parents were buried here, but she didn’t have even a handful of dirt from their final resting place to take with her.
Only her mother’s black rosary beads.
Ava gripped her hands together and beat upon her breast, calling upon the angels to help her.
Oh, God, please, she prayed, tell my dear mum I’m sorry, but I have to do this. And please, oh, please, make her forgive me.
She would, wouldn’t she?
There was a steep price to pay if she were caught, but the wild intoxication of being free was a heady stimulant that surpassed any grim thoughts she might have.
Heart racing madly, she entered the ticket office, her decision made. Less than an hour later, she was the proud owner of a third-class ticket to New York costing her seven pounds and fifteen shillings after having looked over the contract and terms of the voyage and marveled at the grandness of it all, including the bill of fare.
The menu promised oatmeal, milk, bread and butter for breakfast. Her stomach growled. Hunger filled her belly as she stood on the pier at the rear of the White Star Line building, her skirts blowing wildly against her legs. Nothing mattered but the ticket she clasped to her chest. She closed her eyes tight, not believing her luck had turned. A sudden chill rattled her bones and for an instant she feared the north wind would swoop down and take the ticket from her, but she couldn’t bear the thought.
She held it tighter. Her soul took flight, her heart clenched.
Freedom was hers for the taking.
The Titanic set sail tomorrow… and by all the saints who stood watch over the sea, Ava O’Reilly would be on it.
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