Journey's End (Gilded Promises)

By: Renee Ryan

Chapter One

Ellis Island, 1901

“Oh, Caro, look. We’re almost there. We’re almost in America.”

Caroline St. James made a noncommittal sound deep in her throat. Unlike the frail Irish girl leaning heavily on her arm, she knew that arriving at Ellis Island was only the first step in the rigorous registration process.

Frowning at Mary’s sickly pallor, Caroline carefully guided her friend into the queue of fellow immigrants disembarking the ferryboat. Cautious by nature, and with a suspicion honed by necessity, she watched for trouble, assessing potential threats in the mass of anxious humanity pressing in from every possible angle.

It would be too easy to lose her friend in this crowd. Where would Mary be then? The girl was already showing signs of exhaustion, and they hadn’t even made it off the ferryboat yet.

Lifting up onto her toes, Caroline caught her first glimpse of the imposing stone building up ahead with the endless lines of immigrants stretching from door to dock.

“Almost there,” she whispered to herself, and yet still so far to go.

She’d paid close attention to the hushed whispers of other immigrants whose relatives had already passed through Ellis Island. Several tough challenges lay head, starting with the “long staircase.” From what she’d gathered, reaching the top did not mean the journey had come to an end.

Each immigrant also had to pass a medical exam and an extensive interview. Caroline’s pulse picked up speed. The American authorities could send her back to London for something as minor as a recurring cough or as major as a criminal record.

While she may have stolen food to survive and fleeced an unsuspecting gambler or two, she’d never been caught. And she’d never, never harmed anyone worse off than herself.

Given the abject poverty of her fellow passengers, she doubted she was alone in having done whatever was necessary to survive.

Still, in contrast to the other immigrants now moving into the vast hall with her and Mary, Caroline hadn’t come to America seeking the promise of a better life. For her, this journey was a means to an end. The first step in a meticulous plan to right a terrible wrong.

The crowd condensed, moving as one solid pack at a pace more suitable for a funeral procession. The foul-smelling web of bodies shoved, pushed, and jockeyed for position, as if their minuscule efforts could hurry along this unending process.

A hard jostle from behind sent Caroline’s tattered skirts tangling around her legs. For a half second, she lost her balance, and her grip slipped from Mary’s arm. The girl stumbled forward dangerously.

With a small gasp, Caroline reached for her friend, catching her just before she dropped to the ground.

“Thank you, Caro.” The words shuddered past dry, cracked lips, a sure sign of Mary’s discomfort. Yet her pale, terror-stricken face told the real story. The illness she’d contracted aboard ship last week had grown worse, alarmingly so.

Pressing her lips into a determined line, Caroline put a hand under her friend’s arm and hauled her upright.

For a fleeting moment, Caroline allowed herself to close her eyes. Not to pray—she’d given up on that futile pursuit years ago—but to gather her inner fortitude. She would not fail her friend.

Resolve firmly in place, Caroline opened her eyes, swallowed, and forced confidence in her tone. “Don’t worry, Mary. We’ll get through this together.”

Together. How odd it felt to say the word, to have someone to care about and want to protect, when she’d vowed never to do so again.

Half dragging, half pulling, Caroline maneuvered her friend in the direction of the stairwell. Would anyone notice she supported most of the girl’s weight?

Casting a quick glance at a uniformed man standing on a small pedestal, Caroline stifled a gasp of dismay. The official’s dark, narrowed gaze swept across the slow-moving crowd. Relentless, unyielding, he looked like a hungry predator searching for the weakest in the herd.

Thankfully, he hadn’t spotted Mary. Yet.

Caroline released a hissing rush of air. The frantic percussion of her heartbeat sounded loud and insistent in her ears.

Must. Press. Onward.

Taking note of the labored breathing beside her, Caroline looked down at her friend. A burst of affection filled her bitter heart. This sweet young Irish girl, with the pretty auburn hair and delicate features, had become Caroline’s first real friend in years. Perhaps ever.

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