Beauty for Ashes



May 1876

Carrie Daly watched a knot of people hurrying past the dress-shop window and tried to think of something—anything—except the wedding. These days, everybody in Hickory Ridge made a point of speaking to her about it. For Henry’s sake, she smiled and thanked them for their good wishes, ignoring the creeping dismay at the bottom of her heart.

“Hold still a minute longer, Miz Daly. Almost done here.” Jeanne Pruitt, the wife of the mercantile owner and the new proprietress of Norah’s Fine Frocks, knelt on the floor to attach the lace trim to the hem of Carrie’s dress.

In her stocking feet, Carrie balanced on the small step stool and listened to Mrs. Pruitt’s detailed recounting of her recent visit to her sister’s place in Muddy Hollow. The new dressmaker wasn’t as stylish as Norah had been. She was, however, a magician with needle and thread. The ladies of Hickory Ridge kept her busy repairing seams, restyling old frocks, and occasionally making a new dress from scratch. Now, with a final snip of her scissors, she finished both the hem and her tale and got to her feet. “You’re all set, dear. Take a look.”

Carrie crossed to the cheval glass in the corner and studied her reflection. The dress, a pale robin’s-egg-blue silk, featured wide ruffled sleeves and a neat bustle in the back. A row of tiny mother-of-pearl buttons graced the bodice. It was much too fancy for farm life—once the wedding was over, where would she ever go to wear it?—but Henry had insisted that she have the best. “It’s beautiful, Jeanne. You outdid yourself.”

“I’m glad you like it. That color exactly matches your eyes.” Jeanne’s gaze met Carrie’s in the mirror. “Things must be busy at the farm these days.”

Turning sideways, Carrie eyed the bustle and smoothed it with her fingertips. “Everything’s ready except for baking the cookies. And the cake.”

Jeanne grinned, revealing a missing front tooth. “Every last soul in Hick’ry Ridge is hankering for an invite to the wedding just to eat a piece of your coconut cake. And to see the Caldwells, of course. I hear they’re due in from Texas tonight.”

The prospect of seeing her dear friends took Carrie’s mind off her apprehensions, if only temporarily. She nodded. “Wyatt sent a wire from Nashville yesterday afternoon. I can’t wait. I’m only disappointed they aren’t bringing Wade and Sophie.”

“It’s a long way to bring a little one on a train but I’m sure this won’t be their last trip to Hick’ry Ridge.” Jeanne folded a scrap of lace and placed it on a shelf. “Wyatt Caldwell may not own the lumber mill anymore, but he can’t stop caring about it.”

“I’m glad someone cares.” A tiny frown creased Carrie’s forehead, and she absently rubbed the small bony protrusion on her wrist, the result of a fall from the hayloft the summer she turned nine. Hard times at the mill had everyone worried. Only last week Henry had mentioned that orders had slowed to a trickle. And the Chicago Yankees who now owned the place, safe and secure in their distant lakeside mansions, were talking about letting some of the mill hands go. Why Henry wanted to get married now, taking on so much responsibility when times were so uncertain, was the mystery of the ages. But his mind was made up.

Jeanne patted Carrie’s shoulder. “Why don’t you change out of that dress and I’ll box it up for you.”

Carrie stepped around a muslin-draped dressmaker’s dummy and a scarred pine table laden with fabric samples and pattern books. Behind the folding screen, she shucked out of her new dress, draped it over the top of the screen, and slipped into her everyday green calico.

Jeanne folded the new frock, nestled it into layers of tissue paper, and tied the box shut with a length of yellow ribbon. “There. Hang it up as soon as you get home so the wrinkles won’t set.”

Carrie picked up her bag, her parasol, and the dress box. The bell above the door tinkled as she stepped out onto the boardwalk. A horse and wagon rumbled past, a sturdy farm girl at the reins. At the far end of the street, on the porch of the Verandah Hotel for Ladies, two residents sat in rocking chairs watching groups of noisy, barefoot boys congregating outside the bakery. Businessmen in dark suits and bowler hats hurried toward the railway station, their valises bumping against their legs. A train whistle blew, two sharp blasts that echoed