Rafe McKettrick peered at the small, tasteful advertisement in the back of the Cattleman's Journal, dog-eared the page, and then slammed the magazine against the edge of the desk in his father's study. It was a desperate measure, sending away for a bride, the way a person might send away for a book, or a custom-made belt buckle, but then, Rafe was a desperate man.
He had no doubt whatsoever that his father had meant precisely what he'd said that day at dinner; Angus was not the sort to make idle threats. Rafe neither knew nor wanted any other life than the one he had, right there on the Triple M, and he'd be damned if he'd spend the rest of his days dancing to whatever tune Kade or Jeb chose to play. Which meant he needed a wife, pronto, and if he got her in the family way on the way home from the church, so much the better.
Pushing back the big leather-upholstered chair, he jerked open a desk drawer and took out a sheet of the fancy vellum stationery his pa used for business correspondence. With great ceremony, he selected a pen, opened a bottle of India ink, and ordered his thoughts. Some moments had passed when he began to write.
To Whom It May Concern,
Please send one wife. Healthy, with good teeth. Able to read and write. And cook. Must want children. Soon.
Triple M Ranch,
near Indian Rock, Arizona Territory
Rafe read the note over a couple of times, decided it could not be improved upon in any significant way, folded the page, and jammed it into an envelope, along with a draft drawn on the bank in town. Nothing to do but slap on a stamp and get the letter onto a stagecoach headed east.
He frowned as he copied out the address. The few times he'd had occasion to send a letter, he'd simply entrusted it to whoever happened to be heading into town next, but this was different. For one thing, it said "Happy Home Matrimonial Service" right there on the front of the envelope, for everybody to see, and that alone was fodder enough for a merciless ribbing from every other man on the ranch. For another, he didn't want either of his brothers to beat him to the punch by swiping his letter, copying his idea, or both.
No, sir, Rafe reflected, leaning back in the chair, tucking the missive into his vest pocket, he'd post it himself, personally. Ride all the way down to Indian Rock and meet the outgoing stagecoach.
He sighed, closed his eyes, and kicked his feet up onto the desk.
He reckoned it wouldn't be so bad, having a wife. He'd have a woman right there handy, on a cold night, and that was no mean blessing in a place as isolated and lonesome as the Triple M. He'd get her to expecting before the ink dried in the family Bible, and that would be that. The ranch would be his, when the time came, and Kade and Jeb would either have to do his bidding or saddle up and ride.
He knew they'd never leave -- the place was in their blood, the way it was in his -- and he smiled at the thought of working them like a pair of field horses. He'd have them dig a new hole for the privy first, then shovel lime into the old one. The bunkhouse roof needed replacing come spring -- they'd be damned lucky if it held up through the coming winter -- and of course he and the missus would want an addition built on to the main house, so they could have a little privacy. While Jeb had been working to repair the boundary fences, many of them needed to be replaced, and up on the northern boundary there was timber to be cut. While his brothers were sweating over the chores he would outline for them, he would ride out looking for the fine roan stallion he'd seen haunting the red canyons like a ghost, but never gotten close to, and the capture of that horse would mark the beginning of his own herd.
Somebody slapped his feet off the desk, and he sat bolt upright, with a sputtered curse, startled half out of his skin and ready to fight.
Kade, two years younger at twenty-seven, was gazing down at him. "What were you thinking about just then, Big Brother?" he asked in a slow drawl. He perched on the edge of the desk and folded his arms, eyes narrowed. "Why, from the look on your face, I'd say you were up to no good."
Rafe was glad he'd slipped the letter into his vest pocket, where it was out of sight. He laid splayed fingers to his chest and feigned an injured expression. "What's this? You don't trust me, Little Brother?"
"Not unless he's stupid, he doesn't," put in Jeb, from the doorway, his mouth curved into one of those wry grins that always made Rafe want to slap the holy be-jiggers out of him. "Me, I'd sooner trust a polecat." He stepped into the study, closed the door behind him. The large room seemed to shrink, with all of them there; Rafe considered getting up to open a window, but he wasn't about to risk losing the chair he already thought of as his own.
He did sit up straight, though, planting his boots squarely on the floor.
Kade turned, watched their youngest brother approach, drag up a chair of his own. Sit. He moved languidly, Jeb did, as if his bones were fitted loosely at the joints. He was the best broncobuster on the ranch -- Rafe and Kade had seen their little brother thrown from many a horse, and most of the time he landed on his feet.
"What are we going to do?" Jeb asked, serious now, resting one foot on the opposite knee. "This isn't just another of his tangents, you know. Pa meant what he said out there."
Kade nodded grimly, arms still folded. He was the quiet, mannerly brother, the thoughtful one, the reader and resident quoter of poetry, the one you had to watch like a ring-tailed snake. "I believe he did," he agreed. "It's got to do with his birthday. He's feeling old."
"Hell," Rafe said, "he is old."
Jeb chuckled, shook his head. "Tell that to that ranch hand he caught beating one of the mares with a switch last week," he said. "The fella's still laid up over there at Daisy's rooming house. Doc says it might be spring before the poor bastard can hit the trail."
Kade grinned. "Daisy," he said. "Now there's a prospective bride. Why don't you go sparking her, Rafe?"
"I'd sooner take up with an old sow bear," Rafe answered, and he was serious as a Montana winter. Daisy Pert was a dainty six-foot-five, in her stocking feet. She weighed more than a loaded hay wagon and had two teeth in her head, both of them bad. She chewed snoose, and anyway, she was sweet on the circuit preacher's cross-eyed brother, Lemuel, who feared her more than the devil himself.
"I think Rafe's got something up his sleeve," Kade speculated smoothly. The cadence of his voice was light, but there was a quiet, brotherly menace in it that you had to listen hard to hear. He leaned in a little. "Don't you, Rafe?"
Rafe did his damnedest to look innocent. He hadn't polished the skill over the years, so it didn't come easy, the way fighting, shooting, and riding did. "What makes you say a thing like that?" he asked.
"Just a feeling," Kade answered evenly, taking in the splotches of fresh ink drying on the blotter. "And twenty-seven years of experience."
Just then, the double doors of the study burst open, and Concepcion blew in like a storm cloud coming over the rise, burdened with bad weather and bristling with lightning bolts. Rafe, who had been expecting their father, was only slightly relieved; this didn't look like much of a reprieve to him.
Concepcion turned with immeasurable dignity, latched the two doors, and when she faced them again, her dark eyes were blazing. "How could you?" she seethed. "How could you forget such an important day?"
Jeb stood, if belatedly, his blue eyes dancing with mischief, and gestured for Concepcion to take his chair. "I can't speak for my brothers," he said, "but it just so happens that I did remember."
Kade and Rafe glared at him.
"Like hell you did," Rafe said.
"I've got a book upstairs, wrapped up fancy and tied with a ribbon, just for Pa," Jeb told them.
"You bought that for that new hurdy-gurdy girl that just hired on at the saloon," Kade accused.
Concepcion plopped into the chair, singed the short hairs on Kade and Rafe with a single scorching glance. The look she gave Jeb was only slightly less incendiary; clearly, she was skeptical about his story, but willing to give him the benefit of a doubt. Females were always inclined to give that rascal the benefit of a doubt, it seemed to Rafe.
Jeb's smile became a smirk, and he gave a cocky shrug. "Think what you like," he told his brothers.
"Sit down," Concepcion told him smartly, "and shut your mouth."
Jeb grimaced and sat on the raised hearth, his hands loosely clasped and dangling between his knees. Kade shifted his attention from the ceiling to the floor, and Rafe fixed his eyes on a point just above Concepcion's left shoulder.
"Do you know what I think?" she rattled on, shaking that familiar finger, taking them all in. Rafe figured they were about to get some clarification on what she thought, whether they already knew or not. "Your father is right. It's time you were settled down, all of you, with homes and families of your own."
Kade was the first to break. He gave a long sigh. "I forgot that it was Pa's birthday," he admitted. "All the same, I don't see what that has to do with -- "
Concepcion turned huffy. "If you thought about something besides books, bad women, and horses," she accused, "you would realize that you are wasting your life." When Jeb and Rafe grinned, enjoying Kade's discomfort, she turned on them, fierce as a she-wolf. "You think you are any better, either of you?" She made a spitting sound, purely Latin and very expressive. "You, Rafe, with your temper and your brawling? You, Jeb, with your card-playing?"
Kade raised both hands, palms out, in a gesture of surrender.
Rafe set his jaw and tried to stare Concepcion down, knowing all the while that he'd never succeed.
"I guess," Jeb said meekly, breaking the ominous silence, "I'll just go and give Pa the birthday present I got him."
"You set one foot out of this room," Kade warned, in a furious undertone, "and I'll take a layer of hide off you, right here and right now."
Jeb flushed and shot to his feet, fists clenched, always ready for a fight. Concepcion was quick, though, due to long practice, and she got between him and Kade before either of them could throw a punch. Being the youngest, Jeb usually got himself whupped in these little set-tos, but he kept trying anyhow.
"That is enough," Concepcion said, in a tone no one could have mistaken for anything but utter sincerity.
Jeb laid his hands on her shoulders, turned her around, and made calf eyes at her. "Concepcion," he said, sweet as pie, "will you marry me, and be the mother of my children?"
For a moment, there was silence, reminiscent of those few seconds of shock that come just after a wasp's sting and right before the venom starts to spread. A cracking sound followed, and Jeb's face glowed red where Concepcion had slapped him.
"No more," she fumed, all fury and fire.
Rafe and Kade looked at each other, stifling their laughter, and just as quickly looked away.
"You have broken that fine man's heart," Concepcion went on, after pausing to gather herself up like a chicken settling its ruffled feathers. "You are a disappointment, a disgrace. All of you."
They all stared at her. None of them had ever seen her in such a fine dither, and given some of the pranks they'd pulled over the years, both independently and in cahoots with one another, that was saying something.
"Until you start treating your father with the respect he deserves," she said, straightening her spine and smoothing her flour-splotched skirts, "I will not cook another bite of food for any of you. I will not sew buttons or make beds or wash clothes. For once in your lives, you can do for yourselves." With that, she turned, chin at a regal angle, eyes bright with conviction, and swept to the study doors. She worked the latch, flung the doors wide, and stepped through without looking back.
"Do you think she meant all that?" Jeb asked, not so cocksure now.
Kade rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah," he said, resigned. "She meant it, all right."
Rafe stared at the ceiling, wondering how long it would be before his bride arrived. He didn't fancy cooking his own meals, and he'd never done a lick of laundry in his life. He'd best get himself down to Indian Rock and send off that letter.
"Pa will never allow it," Jeb said, grasping at straws. "He pays her to cook and clean."
"For him," Kade pointed out. "Not us."
Jeb pondered that, looking pained. "Oh."
"We'd better figure out how to get back on her good side," Kade speculated. "It's that or eat in the bunkhouse, and you know what Red's cooking is like -- scorched beans for breakfast, dinner, supper, and dessert."
"What do you suggest?" Rafe asked, without opening his eyes. He was doing his best to keep his spirits up by imagining himself with a wife by his side. In the meantime, he'd just make do with meals in town. That Chinese fella, Kwan Somebody-or-other, could do his wash once a month. A man just had to be resourceful, that was all.
"I'd suggest," Kade said, "that we do what Pa wants. We do that, and our problems will be over."
"That goes for one of us," Jeb said, and something in his tone indicated that he figured on being that one. "The other two are pretty well screwed."
Rafe didn't comment.
"I plan on getting myself married to the first decent woman I can find," Kade said confidently. "You two needn't worry too much, though. I won't make you salute or wear uniforms. You can put in a ten-hour day, like all the other hands, and take off one Sunday a month."
Rafe opened his eyes. "Just who do you figure on marrying?" he asked, suspicious and more than a little alarmed. Of the three of them, Kade was the craftiest. A fellow never knew what might be going on in that clockwork mind of his.
Kade smiled; butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth. "Do you really think I'd be fool enough to tell you?" he asked. Then, just like that, he strolled out without another word. You'd have thought he had a wife upstairs at that moment, in the throes of childbirth, he was so damn sure of himself.
Rafe slammed to his feet to follow, and Jeb was right behind him.
Out in the large entryway, Kade was buckling on his gunbelt. He took his round-brimmed hat down from the usual hook on the hall tree, stuck it on his head, and reached for his three-quarter-length coat, the one Concepcion said made him look like a drifter and an outlaw.
"You headed for town?" Rafe demanded, brows lowered.
Kade straightened his collar, checked the angle of his hat in the wall mirror next to the long-case clock, and offered not a single word in reply.
Jeb, meanwhile, was sprinting up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Probably going to get the present he'd bought for that saloon girl and go toadying to their father, acting like he'd remembered all along what day it was.
Rafe was downright disgusted. His brothers were deceitful men, both of them.
He reached for his own hat, his coat, and the gun belt and pistol he kept in the top drawer of the hall bureau. Yes, sir, he'd just ride on over to Indian Rock, meet the stage, and send out his letter. Before he could say "Shivaree," his bride would be arriving, ready to set up housekeeping and start a baby.
Hell, with a little luck, she might even be halfway presentable.
Kansas City, Missouri
Emmeline Harding closed the second-story window of Miss Becky's Boardinghouse with a bang, barely muffling the dusty din of bawling cattle and shouting cowboys choking the street below. Another herd, probably driven up from Texas, headed for the stockyards. Within an hour, the drovers would be streaming in, wanting hot baths, whiskey, and women, though not necessarily in that order. With the help of her "girls," Becky, Emmeline's aunt, would see that they were all accommodated. For a price, of course.
Emmeline sighed. From a social standpoint -- essentially the only standpoint that mattered to her at the time, since she was just a week shy of nineteen -- she was neither fish nor fowl. Becky had sent her to the best finishing school in the city and kept her well away from the customers -- and for what? With all her splendid manners, lovely clothes, and book learning, she was still a pariah, unwelcome in the respectable homes of her former classmates.
Life, it seemed to Emmeline, was one big party, and she wasn't invited.
Standing on the other side of the upstairs parlor, with its bead-trimmed lampshades and velvet drapes, Becky rolled a black fishnet stocking up over one slender leg. She was a beauty, Becky was, with a real head for business, and she'd been unfailingly kind to Emmeline, protecting her and providing for her ever since infancy, when she'd been orphaned. Now, Becky watched her niece thoughtfully.
"You spinning day dreams again?" she asked.
"No," Emmeline lied. Often bored and always lonely, she liked to take refuge within the broad borders of her imagination. There, she'd constructed a lovely little cottage for herself, and a morally upright husband, too, though he was unknown to her as yet, several rosy-cheeked, golden-haired children, and two rotund cats. The place boasted shutters on the windows and flowers in the yard, and at the base of the walk there was a white gate that creaked a little, when the weather was dry. There were other scenarios, too, to fit her different moods; in one, she was held captive by Indians, the mate of a passionate brave called Snow Wolf, who touched her in ways that made her blood heat.
Becky didn't look in Emmeline's direction right away, as she was busy examining her reflection in the ornate full-length mirror next to the door. Becky was tall and voluptuous, with clouds of dark hair, flawless white skin, and amazing green eyes, and even taking her reputation into consideration, half the ranchers and businessmen in Missouri would probably have married her and put her up in a fine house if she so much as crooked a finger at them. Apparently satisfied with her appearance, she turned to her niece.
"I don't reckon I need to tell you to stay clear of the downstairs parlor until things quiet down a little. You know how cowboys are when they've been on the trail awhile."
Emmeline pulled a face. "I know," she said. She had no desire to "entertain" men, the way her aunt did, but she'd surely been restless lately. She'd read every interesting book in the public library, seen every play that came to town, and stitched up enough samplers to carpet the path to perdition. She was tired of marking time, keeping up appearances, and waiting for her life to begin. If something didn't happen, and soon, well, there was no telling what she'd do.
One by one, the other women who lived at the boardinghouse began to straggle in, most of them yawning, all in various states of charming dishabille. Some greeted Emmeline with a waggle of their fingers, others smiled sleepily. It was one in the afternoon, by the clock on the mantel -- the crack of dawn from their point of view.
Becky, who never hesitated to take charge, promptly began to give instructions, a general in silk and gauze, and dispatched her troops to their rooms, there to make themselves fetching, before taking up their battle stations in the downstairs parlor. That sumptuous room had always fascinated Emmeline, though she was seldom allowed to set foot inside it. There were paintings of bare-naked women on the walls, Turkish carpets on the floor, and the heavy draperies were fringed in gold. Cigar smoking was permitted, and whiskey was discreetly served, for though Becky had no license to sell spirits, neither did she fear the law. The marshal and his deputies were regular customers, and due to the pitiful salaries they received from the city counsel, they always got a special rate.
Today, the pull of that mysterious room was all but irresistible.
Emmeline tried to curb her adventurous nature -- it was this same reckless bent, after all, that had nearly gotten her arrested for swimming naked in the mill pond, one moonlit night, with one or two "wild" girls, and caused her to break an arm climbing a tree on still another occasion -- but the hours ahead were too long and too dull and, quite simply, she succumbed.
Becky had been gone an hour when, moving like a genie summoned from a bottle after a long, long sleep, Emmeline sneaked into her aunt's sumptuous bed chamber and opened the massive wardrobe across from the fireplace. The interior swelled with clouds of colorful silk, satin, velvet, and lace -- such a delicious contrast to her practical brown crinoline dress -- and a wondrous disarray of feathers, bangles, and beads. After due deliberation, she selected a daring red gown of shiny fabric, with an edging of black lace, scrambled out of her own clothes, and put it on. She stood spellbound in front of Becky's mirror, adjusting the shoulder straps.
Emmeline barely recognized herself. She loosened her nearly blond hair, caught up in a prim coronet at her nape, and pinched her cheeks. Her gray-green eyes, usually calm, sparkled with spirit, and she struck a provocative pose, putting her hands on her hips and jutting out her bosom. She smiled a saucy smile, the way she'd seen the other girls do, countless times, and whirled around once, admiring herself.
She loved the sensation of being someone quite apart from her ordinary self, someone entirely new, someone bold and even a little brazen, and she was reluctant to return to her normal drab personage.
What harm could possibly be done, she wondered, if she crept downstairs, just for a very few minutes, and mingled? The place was already crowded; the noise from below told her that. If she kept to the far edges of the gathering, she could avoid Becky's notice and indulge in a little harmless playacting. Flirt with a cowboy or two, play at being a lady of the evening, and then slip back upstairs without ever being discovered.
The plan nearly unfolded in precisely that fashion.
Emmeline put a little extra sway in her hips as she descended the stairs, keeping an eye out for her aunt all the while. As she'd hoped, Becky was busy holding court in a far corner of the room, surrounded by spruced-up wranglers swilling liquor. The other women were equally occupied, chatting, pretending to tell fortunes, serving drinks.
Her gaze went unerringly to the biggest, most imposing man in the room. His air of authority immediately marked him as the trail boss, or even the owner of some big ranch down by the Mexican border. He had wavy brown hair and hazel eyes, and he was still wearing his long canvas duster, even though the weather was warm. She glimpsed the handle of a pistol, strapped low on his left hip.
He turned to her like a compass needle finding north, and a smile twitched at one corner of his mouth, almost imperceptible. There was a trace of mockery in it, as though he suspected she was playing a game, pretending to be someone she wasn't.
He started toward her, his stride long and slow and graceful.
Emmeline, still hovering on the stairs, took an awkward step backward and nearly fell on her bottom.
He gripped the newel post in one leather-gloved hand, watching her. He had removed his hat at the door -- that was a rule of Becky's -- and she didn't allow guns, either. Not normally, anyway. Whoever he was, this man lived by a code of his own.
"Howdy," he said. It was enough to mark him as a Texan, the way he said that one, honeyed word, caressing it as it rolled over his tongue.
Emmeline concentrated on not swallowing her own. "Hello," she managed, at last, and felt a hot flush course from her toes to her hairline. She wanted to turn and bolt, but at the same time she was powerless to move.
"You must be new here," he drawled. "I don't remember you from last time."
Emmeline pressed her lips together briefly. "Yes," she agreed awkwardly. "That's right. I'm -- I'm new."
He raised one eyebrow slightly. "What's your name?"
She hesitated, glanced in her aunt's direction, and saw that Becky was still blessedly occupied and thus had failed to notice her. "Lola," she said, having read the name in a novel. "Lola McGoneagle."
He smiled again, leaning against the stair rail and watching her. "Well, Miss Lola," he said, "I'm mighty glad to make your acquaintance. It's been a real long trip up from Texas."
Emmeline swallowed so hard that her throat ached. "Oh," she said stupidly.
He grinned. "Buy you a drink?"
Emmeline hesitated, and then decided to live dangerously. She would write about this lovely, dangerous encounter later, in her remembrance book, she thought, and felt a pleasant thrill at the prospect. "Yes," she said. "I would like a drink."
"What's your pleasure?"
This time, Emmeline didn't just swallow, she gulped. Good Lord. He wanted to know what kind of liquor she preferred, and she'd barely tasted the stuff, beyond taking a little brandy in her eggnog last Christmas Eve. "Whatever you're having," she said. When he turned away to approach the elegant table that served as a bar, Emmeline told herself to run. To turn right around and head upstairs and lock herself in the other parlor. Instead, she sat down hard on the step, feeling a little dizzy, and clasped her hands together.
She'd just get her breath, that was all, and then she'd flee.
Except that the Texan came back, and seated himself beside her on the step before she worked up enough gumption to stand, let alone make her escape.
"You been in this business long?" the stranger asked, handing her a glass with half an inch of straight whiskey in the bottom, glowing amber.
Emmeline had never even been kissed, let alone done the things she imagined Becky and the others did with men, but she was embarrassed to say so. Another lie leaped readily to her lips, with an ease that both surprised and shamed her. "Oh, yes," she said, flipping through the large repertoire of imagined Emmelines she'd developed over the years. "I came from Chicago, originally. I was on the stage there." It had always been her dream -- one of them, anyway -- to be an actress, a famous and legendary beauty, in fact, with a fortune at her disposal and countless boon companions. She decided that Lola traveled regularly to Europe, and to all the other places Emmeline had read about as well, enjoying the slavish devotion of kings, princes, and potentates.
He smiled in a way that seemed, well, tolerant to Emmeline, and she was a little stung. "I see," he said. "And now you're -- doing this."
She bit her lower lip. No, she said inwardly. "Yes," she said.
He pondered that for a while, very somberly, while sipping his whiskey. Emmeline had yet to imbibe; she held the glass tightly in both hands, willing herself not to spill the stuff on the carpeted stair. "Seems like a hard way to make a living," he observed, after some time.
Emmeline downed the whiskey in a single swig. "Is there an easy way?" she countered, shuddering as the fiery liquid coursed down her throat and burned in her stomach. She was instantly light-headed and gripped a banister post to steady herself.
"I don't guess there is," the man said, and smiled slightly, though his eyes were sad. "More whiskey?"
"Don't mind if I do," Emmeline said. She'd been possessed by some mischievous spirit -- that was the only explanation for her present behavior. If Becky caught her at this game, there would be hell to pay.
Still, they talked, Emmeline and the Texan, and drank more whiskey, and the man said his name was Holt, though she couldn't recall, afterward, whether that was his first name or his last. He'd been raised near San Antonio, by an aunt and uncle, and he owned part interest in the herd of cattle Emmeline had seen clogging the street earlier. In time, though how long it was, she couldn't have said, he took her hand, helped her to her feet, and led her up the stairs and into the quiet shadows of the corridor.
There, he kissed her, and though it was pleasant indeed, Emmeline was mildly disappointed. Her reading, and her fantasies, had led her to expect something more, though she couldn't have said precisely what that something was. She sagged against the wall, when it ended, and sighed, causing him to chuckle.
"I thought so," he said wryly.
"Hmm?" she asked, and burped delicately. Her knees seemed a little weak, and she started to slide down the wall, but he caught her, lifted her easily into his arms.
"Your room," he prompted. "Where is it?"
The vague thrill she felt then was neither alarm nor anticipation, but something different, something she didn't recognize. She rubbed one temple, trying to will her thoughts into some semblance of order. "I think you should put me down," she said. "I'm sure this is quite improper."
He chortled at that. "That may be true," he agreed, "but you're in no shape to be wandering around a brothel by yourself."
She sighed again. "I live here," she said.
"So you say," he replied.
Emmeline thought fast, and it wasn't easy, given the fog whirling in her brain. Then she gestured toward the door of a room she knew was empty -- only a few days before, Chloe Barker had left Becky's employ, and Kansas City, for good, taking a train west. Emmeline felt a sharp and sudden stab of envy over that, an uncharitable emotion that she'd been able to subvert when she was sober.
"In there," she said. If she could just lie down for a few moments, close her eyes, recover her equilibrium, well, she'd be fine.
The Texan opened the door with a motion of his foot. The ghost scents of lavender water and talcum lingered faintly in the still air, dust motes floating like fragments of stars in the pale gaslight pouring in from the hallway. The bedstead was iron, painted white, and the coverlet was cream-colored sateen, threadbare but still pretty.
Emmeline yawned widely, and the man called Holt laid her down on the mattress, causing the bedsprings to creak. She tried to sit up, remembering that she was still wearing her shoes, aware that there were other, more important matters of concern as well, but he put a hand to her shoulder and she settled deeper into the pillows. She felt a merciful loosening sensation around her ankles as he undid her laces.
That, alas, was the last thing she remembered, for she was caught in a backwash of shadows then, and sent spinning into a place too dark and deep for dreams. When she awakened, the sun was up, and her head ached as though she'd laid it on the railroad track just before the 10:03 came through. The first thing that came to her awareness was that she was alone in the borrowed bed, wearing nothing but her skimpies.
Her eyes went wide as memory returned; bile surged into the back of her throat. Disjointed recollections traipsed one by one through her mind -- the red dress, the man from Texas -- what was his name? -- the whiskey. She stumbled to the washstand next to the window, blinking against the harsh light, bent her head over the porcelain basin, and was violently ill. Then, with frantic motions of her hands, she touched her breasts, her belly, her thighs. She didn't feel different. She wasn't sore anywhere, and when she tossed back the bedclothes, holding her breath, there was no blood.
Maybe -- please God -- nothing had happened.
She sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, breathing slowly and deeply, both hands clasped to her stomach, lest it rebel again. And that was when she saw the gold pieces stacked neatly on the bedside table, next to the oil lamp. Emmeline gasped, then fell back on the pillows, yanked the covers up over her head, and wept, for she was surely ruined.
How would she ever explain her foolishness to Becky? Her aunt had spared no effort to make sure Emmeline's life turned out differently from her own. In point of fact, Emmeline would have been sent away to convent school, long ago, if she hadn't begged to stay in Kansas City, and Becky, always tenderhearted, had reluctantly given in. She would regret that decision now.
Just then, the door opened, and Becky stood on the threshold. Her hair was down, brushed to a rich ebony shine, and she wore a silk dressing gown of palest green. "I thought I heard -- " she began, and then gasped, her eyes going from Emmeline to the shimmering stack of coins and back again. "Good God, Emmeline," she rasped, "what have you done?"
Emmeline bit her lower lip. She was at once too proud and too ashamed to weep before her aunt, and she had no explanation or even an excuse on hand. She merely sat there, wishing she were dead, staring at her aunt's horrified face.
"Who was it?" Becky whispered, white faced and trembling. "I'll shoot the bastard myself -- "
Emmeline merely shook her head. Having shifted her gaze to the floor, she found it too heavy to lift again.
Becky hesitated for a few wretched moments, then stormed into the room and slapped Emmeline hard across the face. "You fool, you stupid -- ungrateful -- little trollop!" she cried, nearly choking on her rage.
Emmeline put a hand to her cheek. Defiance was all that held her together; without it, she would have collapsed, like a building torn from its foundation. "You raised me in a whorehouse," she said. "Did you really think I'd ever be a lady?"
Becky moved as if to strike Emmeline again, then stopped her hand in midair. "Get out of my sight," she whispered. "I can't bear to look at you."
Copyright © 2002 by Linda Lael Miller