Prequel for American Mail-Order Brides Series

Lawrence, Massachusetts 1890

Roberta McDaniel leaned back in her chair, rubbing her hands over her face. She’d been over the books three times, and something just wasn’t adding up right. Nothing frightened her more than having to go to the owner about the discrepancies in the financial reports of the factory, but she was the manager, and it was therefore her job. She’d called him in, and he was supposed to be there any minute to talk to her about it. She said a quick prayer for courage.

Bob Brown was in the doorway when she lifted her head. She put her hand over her heart to calm her nervousness. He closed the door and glared down at her. “You asked me to come in? You know I hate this place.”

Roberta nodded. “I’m really sorry to have to ask you to come in, sir.” She got to her feet as she spoke. “Please, sit down. I have something important to discuss.”

Bob took the seat across from her, crossing one ankle over the opposite knee. He had dark hair that was always slicked back, and she’d never seen him without a business suit. “If this is about your inability to keep track of the money coming in and out of this place, there’s no point in wasting time. Just get to the point.”

Roberta frowned. “How did you know the books were off, Mr. Brown? I didn’t mention that in my note.”

Bob shrugged. “I know everything that goes on in this factory.”

“Did you take the money?” She knew she was being rude and insubordinate, but at that moment, she just didn’t care. She needed to get to the bottom of where the money was going and she had a very distinct feeling the problem was sitting right there in front of her.

“What does it matter if I did? It’s my factory. The money is mine.”

“It matters because I thought one of my employees was stealing from the company! It matters because I’ve spent four days going over the books and couldn’t figure out where the money was. It matters because you were supposed to let me know if you removed any money at all.”

Bob shrugged again. “Your opinion doesn’t matter to me a great deal. I’m closing the factory, effective immediately.” He got to his feet and strode out the door.

Roberta ran after him, catching his arm. “Mr. Brown, please! You can’t do that! There are over one hundred women working in this factory. You can’t just close it!”

“I can and I will. Good day, Miss McDaniel!”

Roberta touched the back of one of her closest friends, Sarah, who worked on one of the sewing machines there in the factory. “Come to my office,” she whispered softly.

Sarah looked back over her shoulder, biting her lip. She and Roberta were roommates along with two of the other girls in the factory. They shared a small apartment just blocks from the factory. She jumped up and followed Roberta into her office, closing the door. “What’s going on? You never call me in here during the day!” She frowned. “Did you talk to Mr. Brown?”

Roberta looked down at her hand and realized she was shaking. “Yes. He’s the one that’s been taking the money, and he said he’s closing the factory, effective immediately!” She shook her head. “But then he left. Am I supposed to tell everyone? How can I handle this?”

Sarah sighed. “I know I always give the same answer to these things, but let’s pray about it. I don’t know how else we can get through.” She walked around the desk and took Roberta’s hand, praying softly for her friend to find the right words to say and to handle things in a loving way. Just as she whispered, “Amen,” she heard the sound of breaking glass and the screams started.

The two women looked at each other and ran toward the door. Roberta reached it first, wrenching it open. The sight that reached their eyes was pure pandemonium. Flames licked up the sides of the walls. Two of the windows were broken, and they appeared to be where the fire had started from.

Roberta called out loudly, “Get out! Everyone!”

She and Sarah ran through the factory, making sure all of the others got out. By one of the broken windows, where the fire was the worst, Roberta saw a rock. It was obvious the fire had been started deliberately, and she knew just who had done it. Bob Brown was not a man anyone should respect.

*****

A week later, Roberta called a meeting of most of the former employees of the Brown Textile Mill. She hadn’t included the married women, because what she had to say to them would do no good. No, she’d gathered the unmarried women and the widows. There were too many to meet in her tiny apartment, so they met in a small park on the bank of the Merrimack River, which was an easy walk from where they all lived and used to work.

“I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here today,” she began. She glanced at Sarah who was standing beside her, giving her courage. Roberta was thankful for her friend every day.

The other women nodded, looking at her intently as if they were waiting for her to do something to fix their trouble. They were all out of work, and with as little as they’d been paid, there wasn’t much hope for them if they couldn’t find work soon.

Roberta hadn’t said anything about it being Bob Brown who’d started the fire, so the others were still in the dark about that. She felt responsible for the other women, as she always did. She’d been their manager for three years, and she couldn’t stop feeling like she should take care of the others’ problems.

“All of us have been left jobless by the fire in the factory. Mr. Brown has no intention of rebuilding. I, like you, had no idea what to do next, but my sister recently went to Kansas as a mail order bride. A matchmaker in Beckham found her groom for her, and she’s happy. I went to see the matchmaker yesterday to find out if she had any other prospective grooms out there.” Roberta held up a small newspaper. “She had just received the first hundred copies of the Grooms’ Gazette that she’s put together when I arrived. I told her about our predicament, and she gave me fifty copies. I’ve already picked out my groom and sent him a letter.”

Gabrielle, one of Roberta’s other roommates called out the question that was on all of their minds. “When will we hear back? How will we make it for that long?”

“It takes about a month to hear back, but we can figure something out for a month. If someone needs a place to stay, let’s look to each other. If you have enough for rent and food for two weeks, then join forces with a former co-worker who has the same. Share the rent. We can all sleep on floors for a month. We can do what it takes.” Roberta smiled. “There are good men in that newspaper. Men who need wives for so many reasons. I want to make sure every one of you finds a way to survive after the fire. You don’t have to do this, but if you are at all interested, please come get a Grooms’ Gazette from me.”

“How do we know the men will treat us right?” Poppy called from the back.

Roberta shrugged. “There’s no way any of us can know that. Elizabeth Miller, the matchmaker I spoke with, ensured me that each of the men is investigated to the best of her ability. She has contacts with more than fifteen other matchmakers throughout the country, and the newspaper is comprised of all of their grooms from all over. All have been investigated. They can’t guarantee you’ll be treated right, but we’ll form groups. We’ll write to one another. If anyone is hurt, hook up with one of your friends and take a train to see her.”

Josephine stood up and made her way to Roberta first. “I’m in. I have nowhere to go and no way to support myself. I’d have to be stupid not to do this.” She took one of the newspapers from Roberta. “Thank you for looking out for all of us.”

Roberta felt a tear prick her eye. Her idea was working. The other women slowly came to her, each taking a newspaper. Roberta sighed. She hoped her groom in Wisconsin would be a good man. There was no way to tell. She sniffed back a tear. She’d be the bride of a Wisconsin farmer. Maybe she’d even learn to milk a cow.

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