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She Wears the Mask by Shelly Stratton - Teaser Tuesday + Giveaway

By 4:00 AM , , , , , ,

Women’s fiction, Historical Fiction
Date Published: August 11, 2020
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Gripping and moving, She Wears the Mask is a novel about two women from two
very different worlds, both burdened with secrets from their pasts, who form
an unexpected bond…
1950s Chicago: Angelique Bixby could be one of many fresh-faced sales girls
working along the Magnificent Mile, but she’s unique. She’s a
white woman married to a black man in 1950s Chicago, making her stand out
among the tenements on the South Side where she lives. Despite the
challenges the couple faces, they find comfort and strength in their love
for one another. Angelique is content, as long as she has her Daniel by her
side and their baby in her arms, until she loses them both—one to
death and the other to dire circumstances.
1990s Washington, D.C.: Angelique Crofton is a woman of privilege. A rich,
aging beauty and mother of a rising political star, she has learned to
forget her tragic past. But now that she is facing her own mortality, she is
finally ready to find the daughter she left behind, remember the young woman
she once was, and unearth the bittersweet memories she had long ago
Jasmine Stanley is an ambitious lawyer—the only black woman at her
firm. She is too busy climbing the corporate ladder to deal with her
troublesome family or their unresolved issues. Tasked with Angelique’s
case, Jasmine doesn’t know what to make of her new client—an old
debutante with seemingly too much time and money on her hands. Jasmine
eagerly accepts the challenge though, hoping if she finds Angelique’s
long-lost daughter, it will impress the firm’s partners. But she
doesn’t count on the search challenging her mentally and emotionally.
Nor does she expect to form a friendship with Angelique, who is much more
like her than she realizes—because Jasmine is harboring secrets,


Chapter 1

November 9, 1950
Chicago, Illinois

She will never get used to the sound of the “L” Train.
Angelique realizes this for the umpteenth time as the train thunders above
her and she ducks her head and clutches the collar of her wool coat in a
white-knuckled grip with one hand. While crossing the street under the train
tracks, she doesn’t look up—too frightened to witness its
passage. She focuses her runny eyes instead on the puddles of melting snow
where the halogen lights from bars and the late-night delicatessen glow. Her
eyes then drift to the bundle in the basket she holds.

Hearing the steady click-clack of the train wheels, the seismic rattle of
metal beams, and the whoosh of air as it passes will never become background
noise to her, no matter how long she lives in the “Windy City”
to some or “Chi-Town” to others—but it did for Daniel. He
laughed at her the first time she cringed when the train passed their
bedroom window.

“Look at you,” he drawled that first night they slept in their
apartment. “It’s just a train, sugar. It can’t hurt you

But what did Daniel know? Even though he’d grown up on the alfalfa
fields of North Carolina with dirt under his nails and the sweet stench of
manure in his nostrils, he’d been a city boy at heart. The
“L” train was practically a Mama’s lullaby, lulling him to
sleep at night, while it became her torturer, yanking her awake every time
her eyelids would drift closed.

When she did sleep, the train would haunt her dreams—those hungry
steel wheels gnashing at the tracks, sending up sparks into the dark night.
Her mind’s eye would see the train barreling at high speeds over Logan
Square, Hyde Park, and Chinatown, like it was searching for her, leaving
quaking windows in its wake.

She dreamed of standing with other commuters waiting to head Uptown, only
to have someone accidentally shove her. She’d go tumbling off the
platform, onto to the train track, and get hit by the “L,”
yelling for help as she watched it approach. She dreamed of Daniel riding on
his way to work at the stockyards, and one of the train cars would derail
and go careening to the busy street twenty feet below. She would wake up
screaming, and Daniel would wrap her in his strong arms, pull her close, and
let her tremble in his embrace.

After a while, she started to sleep with a pillow over her head to finally
get some rest, hoping to drown out the sound of the train at night.
Unfortunately, it also drowned out their baby’s cries. Daniel had to
shake her awake and tug the pillow from her head a few times.

“She’s hungry, sugar,” he would say, bringing their baby
girl to her.

She would turn onto her back, prop the pillow behind her, tiredly undo the
ribbons of her night gown, and lower the infant to her tender breast,
yawning and staring out the window at the passing of the “L”
Train as she nursed.

Ultimately, Daniel would be proven right. It wasn’t the train she
should’ve feared, but the street car. That’s what took her man
away in the end. The sound of the trolley bell would be the harbinger of
death for him, not the screech of train wheels.

She gives a bleak, dark chuckle at the irony as the “L” finally
. . . mercifully passes overhead, leaving behind the distant sound of
rattling metal and fluttering newspapers. She can hear her baby girl, Emma
Jean, crying now and see her squirming in the basket at her side, making it
hard not to drop the basket and the baby from her sore fingers. She holds
fast though, and continues to walk in the cold and through the melting snow.
Her leather shoes—one of her few remaining pairs—are covered in
rubber booties, but the booties have holes in them. The shoes are now damp
and she suspects her feet are starting to freeze. Her toes are stinging like
they’re being poked by tiny needles. She wonders if she will develop
gangrene, but she doesn’t stop to check her feet. She’s already
walked this far. May as well keep going.

“Hey, lady! What you doin’ out here with that baby?” a
voice slurs, startling her and making her pause for the first time.

Angelique turns to her right to find a figure lurking in a doorway. An old
Negro man with weathered skin stumbles out of the shadows like someone has
given him a hard shove. He clutches a half pint of Old Forrester in his
dirty hand. He’s wearing several layers of clothing, all of which are
either shredded, riddled with holes, or covered with stains. The rank smell
of alcohol, body odor, and urine drifts from him like an atomic cloud. He
narrows his bloodshot eyes at her.

She stares back at him, tugging the basket close to her side, but she
doesn’t respond. She turns back around and starts walking again.

“Cain’t you hear that baby cryin’?” he shouts
drunkenly after her and she starts to walk faster. “Shouldn’t be
out here in the cold with no baby no way! Take it inside!”

When she nears the end of the block, she is almost at a run, jostling the
infant in the basket and making her cry louder.

“Crazy cracker wench!” his voice howls against the growing

Angelique is finally a block away. She stops at an empty wooden bench to
regain her breath. She sets the wicker basket on the bench, sits beside it,
and takes out Emma Jean. She holds her against her chest, cooing to her and
rocking her softly. Emma Jean is no more than a little round face engulfed
in blankets under the street light. Big brown, watery eyes gaze up at her.
After a few minutes, the wails quail to whimpers and the whimpers die down
to hiccups. Emma Jean’s eyes close. Long dark lashes like her
daddy’s sweep her cheeks. Eventually, Emma Jean quiets, asleep

This is when Angelique begins to lose her nerve, feeling the familiar
warmth of her baby girl against her body, seeing Emma Jean slumber so
blissfully in her arms.

Her vision begins to blur as the tears well. She sniffs and a nose that was
already chapped red from the chill and the wind, becomes even redder.

“I can’t do this. I can’t do this,” she whimpers,
shakily rising to her feet, leaving the basket on the bench. She lurches
back toward the corner with Emma Jean, and sees the outline of the drunken
bum leaning against a brick wall, watching her from a distance like a
specter in the dark.

Seeing him again, she suddenly remembers the empty shelves in the
kitchenette cabinets back at her apartment and the icebox filled with one
block of cheese and a bottle of milk that is about to go bad. She remembers
the “Rent Due” notice tacked to her front door. And she
remembers that she can’t return to her plush sales girl job thanks to
Mr. Mullan. She probably will never be able to show her face, let alone work
anywhere at the posh stores on State Street again. Odd jobs at night clubs
and seedy bars won’t keep her and Emma Jean from starving. She could
very well find herself on the street like that bum. She must move on and
start all over again, but her baby girl will not be able to move on with
her. Emma Jean does not fit into her life anymore. Not after the mess
she’s made of it. That is why she is here to procure her daughter a
new life—a better one.

She lowers the infant back into the basket, nestling her in the soft
blankets, careful not to wake her again. She adjusts the envelope beside the
baby, the one containing a note, a picture of Daniel, looking dapper in his
Army uniform, and a lock of her own hair.

Angelique blinks through her tears and starts walking again, continuing to
her destination.

It is almost 2 o’clock in the morning when she arrives. The block is
quiet and the houses are palatial with their blend of Romanesque and Queen
Anne architecture. They are much nicer than the dingy, rickety tenements
where she lives. Their spires along the exteriors stand out like little
stone castles against the clear night sky.

She stares at the numbers along the doors, looking for the right address.
Her feet are no longer stinging now; they are almost numb—two icy
blocks that clomp beneath her. Her arm is tired, too. She has to use both
hands to carry the basket.

She finally spots the right number in bronze along one of the doors, and
when she does, she stays rooted in place. It takes a few seconds to find the
will to climb the stone steps. When she reaches the top, she searches for a
doorbell, but finds none. Instead, she sits down the basket and bangs the
brass knocker: a lion’s head that roars silently at her. Nothing
happens. She bangs again and waits for a light to flicker on in the window
beside the front door, but she sees none. She hesitates and glances down at
the basket.

What if no one’s home?
Angelique had not considered this scenario. She had imagined this moment a
hundred times, envisioning knocking on the front door or ringing a doorbell.
Someone would answer—perhaps a young maid or an elderly
housekeeper—and she would be down the stairs before they could even
see her, before they could figure out who had left the baby behind. But she
had not imagined that no one would answer at all.

She cannot leave her baby here and hope that someone will open the door and
spot the basket in the morning. The baby could die in this cold. She glances
at the basket again, accepting the possibility that she may very well have
to carry it and Emma Jean back to her apartment.

“Then what will I do?” she whispers.
But suddenly, a light does flicker on behind the lace curtains. She blinks
and rushes to the stone steps, her heart thumping like a snare drum in her
chest. She jogs down the stairs, almost slipping on a patch of black ice
along the way, but she makes it to the sidewalk and behind the stairs of a
neighboring house by the time the door swings open.

A young maid does not answer the door or an elderly housekeeper, but a tall
Negro man in a navy blue robe. He squints at the silent street, adjusting a
pair of spectacles on his nose.

Angelique recognizes him instantly. He is the man in the newspapers, the
reverend who spoke out against the covenants barring Negroes from living
anywhere outside of the Black Belt on the South Side. He’d received
death threats for his frankness.

“Now that is a fella with some metal, I’ll tell
ya’,” Daniel said with a nod, jabbing at a page in The Chicago
Defender as he read her the news story while she cooked dinner months

And that was a man she knew she could entrust with the welfare of her baby

She watches as a bright-skinned Negro woman who looks to be in her late 30s
pushes past the reverend and points frantically to the ground. The
woman’s head is hallowed by a nest of pinned rollers. She is also
wearing a robe—pink and satin with lace around the high collar. The
woman stoops and scoops the baby into her arms, making her wail again.

She tries to soothe Emma Jean, bouncing her up and down, while saying
something to the reverend.

Viewing them from a distance, Angelique wants to shout to the woman not to
bounce the baby quite so hard.

“Rock her! Don’t bounce her up and down like that! She likes to
be rocked!” she wants to yell, cupping her hands around her mouth. But
she fights the urge.

The reverend reaches down and grabs the basket. He tugs out the envelope
and rips it open, and she hopes that he hasn’t ripped the note,
too—the last thing she will ever say to her baby girl. The note is
still intact. He is reading it as the couple takes the baby and the basket

They shut the door behind them, and a deep, dark hole opens up beneath her.
Angelique falls into it. She doesn’t bother to claw at the edges; she
knows she will never get out.

Angelique stares at the closed door for a long time until the interior
light goes out. She finally turns around to make her way back to the
“L” Train, back toward home to get the sleep she suspects will
never come.

“What have I done? What have I done? What have I done?” she
whispers to herself as she walks, choking back sobs, sending puffs of breath
into the frigid night air. The wind dries her tears.

In the morning she will head to Union Station and board another train to a
destination she has not yet determined, praying that she has done the right
thing tonight, that she has done right by her Emma Jean.

About the Author

Shelly Stratton is the penname of an award-nominated women’s fiction
author who has published more than a dozen novels in her career.

She is married and lives in Maryland with her husband and their daughter.
She loves to paint, read, and watch movies. Visit her at her web site

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