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Available March 2018: Order Now

Chapter One—Spring, 1922

...cannot express the depths of our disappointment, Madeline.  We had hoped that your madness had passed, and that you were willing to return now to your home and your proper position.  You have been gone much too long.   Your grief for Peter was once unfortunate though understandable, but is now quite beyond the pale.  Dr. Hoffman says if you come back to New York permanently, he can see to it you get the care you need and can thus be restored to us.
            We can do nothing if you insist on returning to such a distant and barbarous place as Santa Fe.  It is no fit home for a young lady of your name and breeding.  You have wounded us greatly by your abandonment of your duty.  Sincerely, Mother.


Madeline Vaughn-Alwin crumpled the fine cream stationery and stuffed it into her handbag.  Duty, duty, duty.  The clatter of the train wheels that carried her further and further away from New York seemed to chant the word, mocking her. 

What a fool she had been, when she thought she could go back to her family for a visit, to explain herself to them face to face, and they would then understand.  They would never understand, and her pleading had only made matters worse.  If she had stayed any longer, Dr. Hoffman would have had her locked away at Pleasant Pines, never to be seen again.

She was running back to Santa Fe now, running as fast as she could to get home.  New Mexico had saved her once; it would again.

She closed her eyes and listened to the clack and clatter of the train, the faint, shrill cry of its whistle as it pushed on through the night.  She could see again her mother's face, Cornelia Astor Alwin with her classical cheekbones and cool blue eyes, her ever-present pearls and silver chignon, her lips pursed as she shook her head at her only daughter.  Your duty...

Her duty.  The duty of a Vaughn, of an Alwin.  It had been drummed into her since the cradle, through governesses and cotillions, tea parties and Newport balls.  She was an aristocrat, she had to lead by example, to hold to certain standards and never let her true thoughts and feelings be seen. 
Yet it never fit, as if the white gowns and patent leather shoes and pearls were just an uncomfortable costume.  A masquerade disguise, but one she could never shed.

She had only ever found escape in a paint box.  A blank canvas gave her a new world, one where she could call anything into existence.  She wasn't Madeline Vaughn anymore, daughter of a lady who once curtsied to Queen Victoria and granddaughter of shipping and steel millionaires.  She was a fairy in a green meadow, a bird soaring over ocean waves, a princess in a castle tower.  Every color, every shape, every emotion they could evoke—it was all hers to command, a way for her to speak out at last.

And painting was acceptable, even to her mother.  To a degree, anyway.  Many young ladies sketched and created watercolors, and it was a most genteel pastime, a way to show off her fine education and artistic taste.  And a pretty scene of the Roman Coliseum was a good thing to show off after European voyages.  Madeline even inveigled a few lessons at the Art Institute, and a season of instruction at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

But when she dared to want to exhibit her work in a public showing, with other artists—that was most unacceptable.  Unthinkable.  She was a lady, a Vaughn, and it was time she behaved like one, marrying well, having children, becoming a Society hostess.  Her own feelings did not matter, should never be shown.  She was shut in a box again, after that tiny taste of freedom.

Only Peter had rescued her from the stultifying life of her parents' Fifth Avenue house.  Pete, sweet Pete, who had once shyly danced with her at their childhood cotillions.  Who brought her flowers and books of poetry, and walked with her on the beach at Newport.  Who let her sketch his portrait, the day before their Grace Church wedding.  Pete didn't care that she hid away in her attic studio when he went to his law office in the mornings, who didn't care that she didn't want to host grand dinners or answer calls when ladies left their cards in the brass bowl in the hall.

Then Pete went to war, to the muddy, bloody trenches of Flanders, and he never came back.  And her whole world turned black and cold.

She had felt she would drown in the darkness, until she swam upward to the light.  The pure, bright blue, blinding light of New Mexico, a place she had barely even heard of before she saw it.  And she found her art again.  Through art, maybe one day, she might find herself again, too.  Might dare to find a new spark of happiness.

But not if her family had their way.  They would lock her away again, snatch away the light, if they could.

“Mrs. Alwin?”  A soft knock sounded at the door, the train porter waking them at last.  Madeline hadn't been able to sleep at all, and had been sitting up waiting for the dawn for hours.  “Breakfast in fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you, Oscar!”  She quickly made sure her dark hair was still in its neat twist at the nape of her neck, that her mauve travel suit was as tidy as it could be on a long voyage, and opened her handbag to look for a lipstick.  Her mother's letter was still there, crumpled, creamy amid the compacts and train ticket stubs.  She shoved it under a handkerchief, and tried to forget it was even there.  She was almost home now.

Maddie made her way out of her tiny sleeper berth and into the narrow corridor, looking toward the dining car.  She was used to the constant swaying by now, and wondered if she would even be able to walk on steady ground again.  She couldn't wait to kick off her heeled shoes and feel the gritty dirt of her garden under her feet, the uneven plank floors of her little house.

Just thinking about it, about how close it all was now, made her feel a little lighter.  The dark oppressiveness of the Vaughn mansion was falling away, layer by layer, like winter woolen cloaks and sweaters when the summer sun came out.

She smiled as she swung open the door to the dining car.  Usually she was very first to breakfast, wanting to rise as early as she could to see how the landscape had changed in the night, how they passed from the green rolling hills of the East, to the flat plains, into desert.  She was surprised to see she wasn't alone that morning.

A man sat at a table at the far end of the car, reading a newspaper as he drank his coffee.  He didn't seem familiar, so he must have gotten on at the last stop, when Maddie was tucked up in her berth with a book of Rembrandt etchings.  He didn't glance up as the door opened; he seemed to be deep in his own world, his own melancholy thoughts.  Maddie could tell they were melancholy, because she often glimpsed just that expression in her own mirror.  A far-away, hazy look.

She thought with a pang that perhaps he was struggling with some old mourning pain, too, just as she carried her sadness for Pete everywhere she went.

But, she was startled to notice, he was also quite interestingly handsome, despite that sadness.  Tall, lean, with broad shoulders beneath his tweed jacket, he had light brown, close-cropped hair, just turning silvery at the temples, and a short beard that emphasized his strong jaw and lips that were almost too pretty for his rugged looks.  It would be a challenge to sketch him.

Madeline hadn't really noticed men, handsome or otherwise, since she lost Pete, even though a few of her old friends had tried some tentative courting in the early days of her widowhood.  It made her feel strange and nervous, almost school girlish, to realize she noticed now.  She ran her hands over her skirt.

“Your usual table, Mrs. Alwin?” the porter asked.

“Thank you, Oscar,” she answered with a grateful smile, happy Oscar was there to interrupt her silly thoughts.  She had gotten to know him rather well on the voyage, enjoyed his stories of his wife and four children in Atlanta, his grandmother who had once been a slave and who he now tried to give a comfortable old age.  She had sketched him, drawings he could send back to them.

“Tea and toast?” he asked.  “Maybe some eggs?  We'll be at Lamy soon, won't be time for lunch.”

“Oh, yes, thank you, Oscar.  Eggs would be lovely,” Maddie said as she sat down at a small table across the narrow aisle from the strange man.  “Just think—I'll have my dinner at my own home tonight!”  Dinner at home, made by Juanita, her lovely housekeeper, and eaten at her own table.  Heaven.

“I bet you'll be happy to sit in your own chair, Mrs. Alwin,” Oscar said, snapping out the linen napkin. 

“Indeed I will!  Not that the train journey hasn't been excellent,” Maddie said.  “You'll be home soon yourself, won't you?”

“After California, I can turn around and head back.”

“Don't forget to give me your address.  I want to paint your portrait from those sketches, so I can send a nice oil to your wife.”

Oscar's smile widened.  “Very kind of you, Mrs. Alwin.  She'll sure like that.”  His smile faded a bit as he leaned closer to her to whisper, “I really shouldn't say nothing, Mrs. Alwin, but you've been so nice to me on this trip.  I feel like I ought to warn you.”

Maddie felt most alarmed at this uncharacteristic seriousness.  “Warn me?”

“There was a bit of trouble last night, the train had to stop for a while.  Did you not feel it?”

Maddie frowned as she tried to remember.  There had been a bit of a jolt, but she had thought it was just part of a dream and rolled over to go back to sleep.  “What sort of trouble?”

“Just some bootlegging stuff along the track, I think, Mrs. Alwin.  But it's all been getting worse lately.  I just hope you'll be careful, a fine lady like yourself.  No telling who might be causing trouble where these days.”

“Of course.”  Maddie nodded, a bit worried.  There were bootleggers in Santa Fe, of course, everyone knew where to go to get their supplies.  But there had rarely been any violent trouble, like there was back East, and never this far out of town.  She hoped nothing bad was building up.  “Thanks for the warning, Oscar.  I promise I am always careful.”

His smile returned.  “Good.  Now, let me fetch you your tea.”

Oscar left the car, and Maddie was suddenly all too aware she was alone in the dining car with the looker—and that there had been some kind of mysterious trouble in the night.  The sunshine hadn't yet lit the scene beyond the windows, so she could see only looming shadows there. 

To keep from fidgeting like a schoolgirl, she took her small sketchbook from her handbag and flipped through its pages.  There were a few scenes from her visit to New York, towering buildings, narrow vistas down busy streets, a girl in the park with an ice cream.  Then she reached her earlier drawings, rough images of her own garden, Juanita in the kitchen with her shy smile, the mountains rising up like protectors in the distance.

“That's very good,” the man said, the sudden, deep-velvet sound of his voice startling her so she dropped the book.  He picked it up and handed it to her with a small smile.

“Thank you,” she said, feeling shy and uncertain as she took it back.

“Are you a professional artist?  Show in any galleries?” he asked, and she noticed he had a faint English accent that made his consonants crisp.  It made him even more attractive, damn him.

 

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