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Desert Heat

I know Dannie and was excited to hear she had written a book. When I first started to read Desert Heat, I did so with a critical eye because it was...
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Circus,Circus

Wow! Such a good story.I enjoyed it so much.I think what got me the most was that I don`t think most people would give a second thought to what kind...
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Great People!

Just wanted to share with you that the owners of this site are awesome! Sign up for the newsletters and be sure to refer your friends and the...
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Dannie Marsden's book Desert Heat

I am waiting for the next book to come out! The story was a page turner and I also enjoyed the portrayal of a variety of lesbians and how we interact...
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Desert Heat

Our book club had the opportunity and privilege to meet and have a lively discussion of "Desert Heat" with Dannie Marsden...a great story with strong...
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Galveston 1900: Swept Away Chapter 1

A shiny black bicycle sped around the corner onto Broadway and down a low-grade hill. The rider held onto her straw cowboy hat, her long wavy chestnut hair streaming out behind her as she dodged pedestrians and buggies. She bumped precariously over clumps of sandy soil in the middle of the packed dirt street, causing horses at hitching posts along the way to shy, while others merely whinnied in protest at the disturbance of another busy March morning. The woman steered the vehicle sharply to the right and skidded to a stop in front of the general store. She quickly dismounted and leaned the bicycle against a post before entering the small market.

 

Once her eyes adjusted to the lower light of the tidy interior, she gazed wistfully at rich slabs of cheese, barrels of bright-colored hard candy, and an array of expensive chocolates behind a glass case. She pushed back her hat and let it dangle against her shoulder blades from two rawhide ties as she shook her thick hair into some semblance of order. Hooking her thumbs into a pair of navy blue suspenders, she rocked back on her heels, pretending to decide what she wanted.

 

“Good morning to you, Miss Travis.” The shopkeeper nodded at her before turning his attention back to a precisely lined ledger, his pencil scratching across the surface as he calculated sales for the prior month. “Your tab will be due next week.” He glanced back at her. “Just a reminder.”

 

“Morning, Mr. Williams.” She moved closer to a case of meats and breads. “I get paid this evening. I’ll settle up with you on Monday if that’s all right.”

 

“That will be fine, Rachel.” Mrs. Williams, a short plump woman with graying hair and round spectacles entered from a back storage room and smiled pleasantly at Rachel. “What would you like this fine day?”

 

Rachel peered longingly at the hearty roast beef and ham and released a quiet sigh. “Quarter pound of the pre-cooked salt pork and a half dozen plain soda crackers, please.” Browsing the store’s offerings was merely a diversion, and they all three knew it. Rachel Travis ordered the same thing, five days a week, come rain or come shine. It was all she could afford.

 

“Tchh.” Mrs. Williams shook her head in kind reproach. She placed the order in a brown bag and winked at the younger woman, then tucked in two dill pickles and several licorice whips, an extra treat at no charge. “Hard-working girl like you needs more than crackers and pork to get you through the day. It’s a wonder you don’t shrink up and blow away.”

 

“I get two squares a day with my room.” Rachel smiled and accepted her dinner. “I get by on that pretty well. This is just a snack to tide me over until supper time.” She pulled her hat back up and secured the ties under her chin. “Thank you, ma’am. If you’ll add it to my tab, please.”

 

“Have a good day, Miss Travis.” Mr. Williams jotted down the order on a note pad next to the ledger. Rachel nodded in answer and turned toward the doorway, the sunlight burnishing her hair with bright auburn highlights as she made her way back outside.

 

She hopped back on the bicycle and dropped her bag into a basket on the back, and then she was off. A cool salty breeze blew in from the gulf and she inhaled in appreciation, as the early morning sun shone on her tanned face. She would be cursing the sun before day’s end, but for now, in the first rays after dawn, the warmth was welcome as it beat through the light-weight blue-checkered cotton of her long-sleeved shirt and the navy blue material of her denim work trousers.

 

Four blocks from the Port of Galveston, her destination, she heard a loud explosion and the front tire rim on her bike began to rattle. “Tarnation!” The rubber outer tire quickly shredded, along with the inner tube. She took a firm grip on the handlebars, trying to control the metal rim, to no avail. The rim stuck in a rut and the frame twisted sideways, throwing her headfirst over the handlebars. She tucked and rolled, tumbling into tall marsh grass at the side of the road.

 

“Ouch!” She stood, rubbing her elbow, and glanced down at it. Her shirt was ripped and the elbow was scraped and bleeding. “Blast it all.” Bending over, she retrieved her now-crushed straw hat, and hobbled back to the bike. A quick self-assessment revealed that her pride was damaged most of all. The bike tire and tube could be replaced, and the dirt on the frame buffed off. Her elbow would heal. She would, however, be late for work.

 

“Hey!” Several seagulls swooped down, snatching up what she realized were her crackers, which had spilled out of the dinner bag. She ran over and grabbed the salt pork, pickles, and licorice, blowing sand off them, then stuffed them back inside the torn bag. “Perfectly good waste of money,” she muttered, glaring at the birds, which hovered overhead mocking her, the crackers clutched in their sharp beaks. “Go on! You won’t be getting anything else from me.” She shooed at the air with a wide sweep of her arm and they flew away toward the water.

 

It was a long walk, pushing the bicycle the last four blocks.

 

The Wall Street of the Southwest, Galveston was the second wealthiest city in the country, due to the vast port, which was visited by over one thousand freighters a year. Just a few blocks from port, the cotton mill and the factories added to the pot, providing jobs and income to many of the island’s thirty-eight thousand residents. Goods were shipped in from the Midwest and other parts of Texas, and then out to much of the rest of the country, and even overseas.

 

As Rachel neared the port, she could see the burly dock manager standing at the end of the pier, hands on hips, waiting for her. “Some fine morning this is turning out to be,” she muttered sarcastically.

 

“Travis!” His disapproving tone carried across the last half block. “You’re fifteen minutes late. Either you work late to make it up, or I take it from your pay this evening. Your choice.”

 

“Sorry I’m late, Mr. Avery. As you can see, I have a flat tire. I’ll make up the time tonight.” She parked the useless bike against the pier railing. “Where do you need me today? Back on the cotton freighter?”

 

“Yes. Show some hustle. They need all the hands they can get to load that boat so it can pull out of here at first light tomorrow.” He dismissed her with a wave of his hand and stroked his short black beard with the other as he checked her off on his list, the last employee to arrive for the day.

 

“Yes, sir.” She pulled a pair of thick work gloves from her back pocket, donning them as she trotted toward the last boat off the end of the pier, her heavy boots clunking loudly on the wooden planking of the dock. Without a word, she joined a group of workers and nodded a brief greeting at the two men on either side of her. Her place in line secured, she began assisting the others as they loaded heavy bolts of spun cotton from the Galveston mill onto a freighter, which would then deliver the cargo to ports all along the Gulf coast and up the Eastern seaboard. Some finer material was wrapped in burlap and would be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris.

 

Rachel fell into the familiar routine, working alongside her male companions. The job would last until sunset. Before day’s end, the men would be stripped to their bare chests, and she would be down to a sweaty cotton undershirt, which clung to her skin, along with sand and sea salt that formed a fine layer of grime over her arms, neck, and face. 

 

Accepted as one of the boys, Rachel had worked at the port since running away from home at age fifteen. Her body had changed from that of a girl to a young woman in the eight years that had passed. It was a strong body, lean and carved with muscles, but the body of a woman, nonetheless. Her femininity was not lost on many of her fellow dock workers, especially on days like the one at hand when she started the day with her hair spilling over her shoulders and down her back. By noon it would be braided or pulled up into a knot against the back of her neck.

 

The sun grew warmer, and Rachel broke from the line long enough to dampen a handkerchief in the water bucket before she folded it and tucked it into the brim of her hat. It was also an opportunity to take a long drink from the dipper while she was there. Working the cotton line wasn’t her favorite assignment, but it was honest labor and her wages were fair. She much preferred the days when one of the fishing boat captains called her aboard, and she could spend the day out on the open water, sharing cigars and whiskey while they trawled for shrimp or moved to deeper seas in search of bigger fish.

 

At noon she hastily ate her salt pork dinner, then resumed her place in line. Rachel mused that she was lucky to be working outside under the wide-open sky, with the sea breeze caressing the back of her neck, rather than inside the sweltering heat of the nearby factory where the mill workers toiled. She had known from an early age that she wasn’t meant to be cooped up inside for long. Her skin—indeed, all her senses—craved the sun, the wind, the rain, or whatever Mother Nature had to offer.

 

When the sun finally set the dock master carefully counted out their weeks’ wages and the workers who were done for the day scurried away. It was Friday and most had families to go home and tend to. Others, like Rachel, had evening plans. True to her promise, she took up a long-handled broom and began sweeping the dock area of bits of rubbish, a task often reserved for whoever arrived late for assignment.

 

“Rachel.” A sandy-haired man stopped on his way to the end of the pier. “Will you be joining us for some poker this evening?” He clapped her on the back with one hand and withdrew a fat cigar from his shirt pocket with the other.

 

“Hello, Billy. You have another one of those?” She paused in mid-sweep and pushed her damp hair off her forehead.

 

“For you, of course.” He retrieved another and reached across, tucking it into Rachel’s own front pocket with a cheeky grin.

 

“I’ll be at the saloon, but I’m tending the bar tonight, so I won’t be able to play,” she answered his question regretfully. Rachel loved nothing more than a good game of poker, especially on payday. Unknown to her gambling buddies, she could and did count cards. She didn’t do it every game, but sometimes, when she really needed extra income, she wasn’t beneath using her secret skill to her own advantage.

 

“Well, then, I reckon I’ll see you later tonight, if not at supper.” Billy tipped his hat to her and set off on his own bicycle for the four-mile ride southeast across town, to the boarding house where they both lived.

 

“Thank you kindly for the cigar.” She waved at him, then quickly finished her work, dumping the sweepings in a large barrel for burning. After she collected her wages and apologized again for her tardiness, she began the long walk home, pushing her bicycle along beside her. The store was already closed, so she wouldn’t be able to purchase a new tire and tube until the next morning. Her shoulders slumped. It was money she hadn’t planned on spending, and she entertained the idea of playing a few hands of poker after all, to make up the difference.

 

Upon reaching the boarding house, she slipped through the main entry parlor into a long hallway. It was cool and humid inside, a welcome respite from the day’s labor. She wearily climbed the stairs and turned to open the first door to the right, then entered her room. After she quickly grabbed a towel and a change of clothing from an old armoire, she ducked back out, eyeing the community water closet at the far end of the hall. Rachel smiled. The door was open, indicating it was available.

 

Much later, after a hasty bath in the large claw-foot tub, and an even hastier supper of ham and baked beans, she rode to the end of the trolley line, then hitched a ride on the back of a wagon a few miles further west of town, to a colorful establishment that was typically filled to the rafters on Friday and Saturday evenings. It was there that Galveston’s finest often co-mingled with the less-privileged members of society. Wealthy men came to spend their money on poker and imported liquor. Those less fortunate came to win the spendings of the wealthy, while drinking the cheaper home-brewed whiskey offered as the house staple.

 

Although there were many finer drinking establishments in town along the Strand, many men came to partake of one of this particular saloon’s less-advertised offerings. It was more than a place to drink and play games. It was an assignation house, frequented by some of the city’s beautiful young ladies of ill repute. Local authorities turned their heads, for the most part.

 

Rachel entered the saloon and sneezed as the already smoke-filled air tickled her nostrils. Laughter rang out, mingled with the clinking of glass and the shuffling of cards, while a piano player produced raucous music from an upright instrument in one corner. One foot tapped against the woodplanked floor, while his other one worked the piano pedals.

 

“Hi, Lil,” Rachel cheerfully greeted one of the prostitutes who lived above the saloon. “How’s business?”

 

“We’ll see.” The blonde woman moved closer to whisper conspiratorially, as Rachel took her place behind the bar and grabbed a rag to swipe down the counter. “See that gentleman over there?” Lillie gestured toward an olive-skinned man who was involved in a poker game with some of the town’s high rollers.

 

“Good prospect?” Rachel immediately disliked the man, finding his straight black hair annoying and his dark eyes shifty. She didn’t trust him.

 

“Maybe.” Large blue eyes met Rachel’s, and Lillie twisted a purple grosgrain hair ribbon around one finger while she talked. “He’s been buying me drinks all afternoon, and he comes over and talks to me during breaks in the game. He seems to have a lot of notes to spend.”

 

“I hope it works out for you,” Rachel lied. She did hope good things came her friend’s way. A part of her, however, felt protective of Lillie, and, she acknowledged, possessive. Lillie alone knew Rachel’s deepest darkest secret, and often indulged it when not otherwise occupied. Rachel reached out and tugged a long blonde ringlet affectionately. “Looks like his game is finished.”

 

Lillie looked up, just as the man approached the bar. “Shot of whiskey.” His voice was flat, his eyes flicking over Rachel before quickly dismissing her. “And a brandy sour for the lady.” The last word was drawn out, whether as a compliment or as a sarcastic slight, Rachel couldn’t tell. Her dislike deepened.

 

“So, sweet thing.” The man focused his full attention on Lillie. “Perhaps you can give me a tour of this fine establishment.” His eyes wandered toward the staircase, his intentions obvious as he casually rested one hand on Lillie’s rump. Rachel looked away and clenched her fists, twisting them in the bar rag, lest she start a brawl. Reluctantly, she prepared the drink orders.

 

“I believe I might be able to do that.” Lillie batted her pale lashes playfully, then picked up the brandy glass. “This way, sir.” She held out her arm and the man took it, then they disappeared up the stairs. As Lillie’s full lavender skirts swirled around the first bend and out of sight, Rachel decided it was her favorite of Lillie’s dresses.

 

She shook her head, clearing it of morose thoughts, then walked around the bar and began working the tables, taking drink orders and filling them quickly and efficiently. It was a full house and more than one patron tucked extra coinage and even a few paper notes into her hands while paying for the libations. In less than an hour she had unexpectedly earned the price of a new tire and tube for her bicycle.

 

Carefully folding the bills, she slipped them into a back pocket of her trousers and buttoned it closed. The coins went into a front pocket of her shirt, which she also buttoned closed against pickpockets. She smiled at her good fortune, glad she’d earned what she needed so quickly. Her happy musings were cut short by an ear-piercing scream from upstairs.

 

Rachel turned and ran, taking the steps up to the back rooms two at a time, almost certain it had been Lillie’s voice. Several men followed behind her, some out of curiosity and some bent on helping a damsel in distress. She was halfway down the hallway when she heard a second scream, definitely coming from Lillie’s room.

 

Without bothering to knock, she flung the door open. Lillie was on the bed, face down, her skirt pushed partway up her bare legs. The man was on top of her, holding her down, his features contorted in rage. Rachel took in the scene and realized Lillie’s hands were bound and tied to the ornate brass bedpost. “Get off her!” She grabbed the man, hauling him to his feet by his shirt collar. Before he could react, she cocked a fist and punched him solidly in the face, breaking his nose with a sickly crunching sound.

 

“You wench!” Blood spurted over his shirt as he swiped at his nose with the back of his hand. He kicked her in the shin and she kicked back, making contact with his groin. Grabbing his private parts, he sank to his knees as an angry groan escaped his lips.

 

“Get him out of here.” Rachel booted him from behind, sending him sprawling on his belly to the floor and eliciting another groan. “I’ll take care of Lil.”

 

Three men grabbed hold of the man and hauled him away, leaving the two women alone.

 

“Are you injured?” Rachel began to loosen the knots in a pair of leather suspenders the man had used to tie Lillie up.

 

“I don’t think so.” Lillie rolled over and sat up, rubbing her wrists where the suspenders had cut into her skin enough to leave indentions. “Loco, that one is.”

 

“What happened?” Rachel sat down next to her, hesitantly touching a bruised cheek. “You’ve got a shiner there, Lil.”

 

“Bastard wanted to kiss me, and you know I don’t kiss my guests. It’s simply not done.” She rubbed her face. “We’d already—you know—one time. He couldn’t even wait for me to get all my clothes off, and then he started in trying to force me to kiss him. When I refused, he punched me, and next thing I knew, he was wrestling me down and tying me to the bed. Said he was going to take me in my arse. I think he would have, too, if you hadn’t heard me.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust.

 

“Glad I got here in time.” Rachel folded her own hands, pressing them between her knees as she looked down at the polished wooden floor.

 

“Me, too.” Slender fingers tilted Rachel’s chin up. “It’s your lucky night, Miss Rachel. I’m not going back downstairs, and I’m not in the mood to sleep just yet.”

 

Rachel studied her shyly. “I don’t have the money tonight.”

 

“No charge.” Lillie smiled. “Consider it my way of showing my gratitude for your heroic actions. Besides –” she reached inside her half-open bodice and withdrew some folded notes. “He paid me up front, so I’m settled up for the evening.”

 

“Are you certain?” Rachel pushed disheveled blonde curls back from Lillie’s face, smoothing a mussed hair ribbon. “After what he did, maybe you should just rest.”

 

“Nah.” Lillie cuffed her on the arm. “It would take more than one lousy bastard to put me out of commission. Come on. It’s been a while anyway. You’re a breath of fresh air, Rachel, after the steady company of gentlemen for a few weeks. The best medicine for me is to get right back up on that horse and ride. No offense, but you’re one of the more gentle horses.”

 

This brought a genuine smile to Rachel’s lips. “Well then.” She slowly stood. Let me go close down my part of the bar tab. It’ll be easy enough to tell them you don’t want to be alone, and I’m going to sit up here with you for a while. They’ll leave us alone that way.”

 

“Don’t be away long.” Lillie stretched out on the bed, curling up on her side on the patchwork quilt and propping her head in one hand. She twirled a bodice lace between her fingers and smiled fetchingly.

 

“I won’t.” Rachel slipped out of the room, hurrying purposefully down the stairs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Rachel.” Lillie gently prodded a bare arm. Rachel was sprawled stomach-down across Lillie, her long hair spilling over both of them. Her head was cradled against Lillie’s shoulder, with one leg draped across her thighs. “Sugar, you need to wake up.”

 

Rachel mumbled something unintelligible, and slowly stroked her hand around the curve of Lillie’s hip and up her side, cupping a breast while she ground her pelvis against Lillie’s leg. “Mmm. I’ve missed you, Lil.” She drew in a satisfied breath, her eyes still closed as she savored the memory of their tryst the night before.

 

“I’ve missed you, too, but you must wake up now.” Lillie shoved a little harder. “Sun’s already up.”

 

“What?” With a groan Rachel shot up to a sitting position, scrubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. She peeked out again and cursed quietly at the pale gray light that filtered through the lace curtains hanging over the window. “Oh, blast!”

 

Long legs swung over the edge of the feather bed and she scrambled into her drawers, then hopped around the room as she pulled up her trousers while she tucked in a very rumpled shirt. Lillie giggled at her and Rachel paused in mid-hop to frown, then gave in and laughed lightly along with her when she realized how silly she must look. She located her stockings under the bed and sat down to put them on, followed by her boots. “Can you – ?”

 

“Sure.” Lillie grabbed a brush from the nightstand and motioned Rachel to scoot closer, then ran the brush through tangled brown waves, trying to create some semblance of order. “Stop that!” Lillie swatted a wandering hand away from her bare inner thigh, then grinned affectionately at Rachel, as Rachel batted her blue eyes innocently back at her. “You are going to go to Hell, Miss Travis.”

 

“Guess I’ll be in good company, then.” Rachel stood as Lillie laid the brush aside. “Thank you, my dear.” She took one soft hand in her own and pecked the back of it, the only kiss she knew Lillie would allow. “For everything.” With a wink, she turned to reach for the doorknob.

 

“You be careful, Rachel.” Lillie stood and untwisted one of Rachel’s suspenders, playfully snapping it into place. “Don’t let anyone see you leaving here.”

 

“I’m always careful.” Then she was gone, the door clicking softly closed behind her.

 

The hallway was blessedly empty, and she crept quietly around those boards that she knew creaked. Reaching a narrow door, she pushed it open to the fire escape. She scanned the alleyway one last time and satisfied she had no observers, quickly clamored down the rickety ladders and made the last long leap to the ground. Pausing for a moment, she leaned against the back wall of the saloon and waited for her heartbeat to return to a normal pace.

 

Being with Lillie was dangerous. She wasn’t entirely sure she would be prosecuted if they were ever caught, but at best they would be ridiculed publicly. More likely, they might both be run off the island. She kicked the sandy ground savagely once, then began walking with no particular destination in mind, her boots crunching in the hard-packed loam. Home was several miles east, and it wasn’t appealing to her at the moment.

 

After wandering aimlessly for a while, she wound up on the beach south of town, facing the Gulf of Mexico, a place that always soothed her soul. It was still early morning, and the pink-tinged sky stretched out to meet the silver-hued ocean at the horizon. A gentle steady breeze blew in off the waves, rustling the tall grasses in the sand dunes that formed natural protection for the island from erosion. Seagulls chattered among themselves, as they dipped into the water to catch tiny fish. Small sand crabs scurried away from her feet as she walked, and she smiled in amusement as they returned to the water where they belonged.

 

She reached a private fishing dock and ambled to the end, then sat down and removed her boots and stockings. After rolling up her trouser legs, she dunked her feet into the cold water and wiggled her toes in pleasure, listening to the roar of the waves as they washed over her feet. She had no idea who owned the house up the beach, to which the dock belonged, but no one had ever complained about her occasional visits there. It was a place she visited when she was feeling out of sorts.

 

Rachel closed her eyes, ordering her thoughts. She wondered, for the millionth time, why she was so different from any other women she knew. True, she was accepted in Galveston, having lived there for a very long time without causing any real trouble. She had become a fixture, like the docks, the mill, and the grand old homes in the nicer parts of town. She just was, and no one seemed to mind her being there. Most people were polite to her, if not friendly.

 

She knew some of the townspeople whispered about her when they thought she wasn’t listening, knew they found her manner of dress odd, and her choice of work even stranger. She was the only woman who labored on the docks, and the only one on the island who chose to wear trousers and men’s shirts. No one had ever directly questioned her about her clothing or her choice of work, and as far as she knew, no one suspected just how different she really was.

 

Her thoughts turned to Lillie and she sighed, then flung a piece of loose planking into the water. Rachel knew who and what Lillie was, and never judged her for it. She, of all people, had no right to judge anyone for their sexual behavior. Rachel was at times deeply ashamed of urges she seemed to have no control over. She worked very hard to never let her true nature show, taking extra care not to stare at any of the pretty ladies in town, or to become overly friendly with any of them. As a result, she had little female acquaintance, though some of the town’s matrons had tried, unsuccessfully, to take her under their wing, mothering her to the point of becoming smothering if she allowed it.

 

Lillie had taken Rachel under her wing in a different way. Lillie just somehow knew what she was, and had made the first move, luring Rachel to her room the first time under the guise of giving her a tour of the upstairs portion of the saloon. Rachel had been to that same room off and on over the six years that had passed since that first time, as Lillie’s availability and Rachel’s resources permitted.

 

She had no idea why Lillie was willing to do the things they did together, and had never questioned it. She was simply grateful Lillie was willing, and she insisted on paying just like everyone else, rarely accepting “charity” as she had the previous night. Lillie seemed to enjoy her attentions as much as she enjoyed Lillie’s, and she allowed Rachel to be the aggressor most of the time.

 

Rachel brought her feet up and hugged her arms around her legs. She didn’t understand why she needed to do the things she did with Lillie. For a brief period of time, she had tried to allow some of the young men in Galveston to court her, even going so far as to wear skirts when she wasn’t working. More than a few of the eligible bachelors had taken notice, and for a few months she was wined and dined at some of Galveston’s finer establishments. Rachel in a dress, with her hair curled and pinned up, made an impressive transformation to a shining example of femininity.

 

It didn’t last. She had been miserable the entire time, finding the clothing restrictive and the men unattractive. After that, she tried instead to be celibate. She knew her thoughts and the things she wanted to do were sins, mortal ones at that. Raised Catholic, she hadn’t been to confession in years. She occasionally attended mass, but always sat in back and slipped away without taking the communion sacrament. Her soul was too soiled to deserve communion, or to be redeemed by penance.

 

Celibacy didn’t suit her either, and she eventually found herself back at the saloon and in Lillie’s bed. She tried after that to accept things for what they were, and herself for whom she was. If she was going to go to Hell, she might as well enjoy the journey. On mornings like the present one, however, she hated herself and who she was all over again, and she hated having to sneak away from the saloon in shame.

 

Closing her eyes, she tilted her face up toward the sun, which was rising higher in the sky. She enjoyed the sensation of the wind whipping through her hair, and she sniffed its mellow saltiness, then opened her eyes again and looked down to locate the source of the scent of fresh tobacco. “Ah.” She spied the cigar Billy had given her, which she’d transferred from her torn checkered shirt to the white one the night before, but she’d never gotten around to smoking it. That could be remedied, later. She drew out the cigar and inhaled its spicy fragrance in appreciation, running its length under her nose.

 

Her nose twitched and she tucked the cigar back into her pocket, then lifted the collar of her shirt and inhaled the scent of Lillie’s Lemon Verbena toilet water. Another twitch of her nose singled out another, more personal fragrance of Lillie’s, and Rachel blushed at her own thoughts. She wrapped her arms around her legs again and rested her forehead on her upraised knees. “Why did you make me like this?” It was a fervent, whispered prayer, something she rarely did anymore, convinced no one was really listening.

 

Something large and soft brushed against her arm and wrapped around it, interrupting her thoughts. “Yah!” Her head popped up and she grabbed the offending object, stopping just short of flinging it away. It was a large piece of cream-colored paper and she caught it just in time, as she noticed some charcoal etchings. “What’s this?” She carefully spread it open, and studied an etching of the gulf shoreline, and a dock, and—she tilted her head and scrunched up her forehead—a woman with long dark hair wearing trousers and sitting on the end of the dock. “That’s me,” she said in wonder, tracing the drawing with her fingertip.

 

Slowly, she looked around and down the beach, trying to determine where the etching had come from. Squinting harder, she located a color amiss among the browns and greens of the dunes, a bit of unnatural blue. Rachel stood and saw a woman’s shoe as well, along with what appeared to be the top of a hat. “Ma’am?” She rolled up the drawing. “Is this yours?” She held it up in her fist, over her head.

 

The shoe moved and another appeared next to it, then the hat began to rise, topping a pale face framed by reddish-auburn bangs. Pale except for the woman’s cheeks, which were blushing nicely, clearly visible from where Rachel stood.

 

Rachel chuckled and began walking back up the dock to the beach and upward through the thick, loose sand of the dunes, until she reached the spot where the shy artist stood, looking down at her feet and shuffling uncertainly from side to side.

 

“It’s very good,” Rachel offered.

 

“Thank you. Both for the compliment and for catching it. The wind blew it out of my hands.” Very slowly, the dove-colored bonnet tilted up, and a pair of warm hazel eyes blinked sheepishly. “Please forgive me,” the woman said in a soft melodic voice. “I didn’t mean to intrude on your privacy.”

 

“No need to apologize.” Rachel held the drawing out to the woman, while taking in her thick red hair, which was pulled into a twist at the back of her neck. The woman wore a crisp white ruffled blouse, which was tucked into a blue skirt that was fitted at the waist, then flared out, falling to just above her black shoe-tops. Her features were very young. Rachel frowned, as she noted a fading bruise around the woman’s left eye, marring an otherwise perfect face with almost translucent milky skin, lightly dusted with freckles across a cute perky nose and high cheekbones. “You’re quite an accomplished artist.”

 

“I —I am?” Red lashes blinked uncertainly. “I mean, thank you.” The hazel eyes dropped back down.

 

“You’re welcome, Miss...?” Rachel trailed off, holding out her hand in formal greeting.

 

“Oh.” The woman took her hand, her skin soft against Rachel’s calloused palm. “I’m Madeline. Madeline Crockett, but you can call me ‘Mattie’. Most folks do.”

 

“My name is Rachel Travis” Rachel reluctantly dropped her hand after briefly shaking it. “Pleased to meet you, Mattie.”

 

“Likewise.” Mattie blushed again. “I truly am sorry for drawing your portrait without asking permission. I come out here sometimes, especially early in the morning when the light isn’t so harsh. It’s easier on my eyes for sketching.” She gestured toward the sand at her feet, where a pad of paper and a few charcoal pencils rested. “I often draw whatever I see out here. Sometimes the gulls, sometimes the water itself. Today, I drew you.”

 

“Well, Miss Crockett...”

 

“Mattie.”

 

“Mattie.” Rachel smiled charmingly. “You can draw me anytime you want to.”

 

“Maybe I will.” Mattie glanced up at the sky. The pink tint of dawn was gone, replaced by pale blue patches and fluffy white cumulus clouds. “Oh. It’s getting late. I’d better be going. My husband will be up by now and I should get his breakfast on the table. Then I’ve got to go into town to work at the tailor’s on Broadway.”

 

“I know the place.” Rachel shaded her eyes with her hand, having left her hat back at the boarding house before she went to the saloon. “Do you work there regularly?”

 

“All day long, Monday through Saturday.” Mattie smiled. “Maybe you could stop by the house for afternoon tea sometime.”

 

Rachel just stopped herself from gasping in surprise at the unexpected invitation. This woman was inviting her to tea? No one ever invited her to do anything other than play poker. Rachel quickly returned Mattie’s smile. There was, she realized, a first time for everything. “That would be nice. I’d like that.”

 

“Very well then, Rachel. How does a week from tomorrow sound, around mid-afternoon?” Mattie pointed toward a small cottage a ways down the beach. “That’s my house, so you can come by then, if you’d like. We haven’t lived here very long. It would be nice to have another woman friend. I work so much, I haven’t had much time to get out and socialize with anyone.”

 

“A week from tomorrow would be fine.” Rachel stooped down and gathered up Mattie’s pencils and sketchpad. She handed them over and found the rolled-up drawing pressed into her empty hand.

 

“Here. You can keep this, seeing as how it’s a picture of you.” Mattie blushed again. “I’ll see you next Sunday afternoon, Rachel.”

 

“Until Sunday,” Rachel replied, still overcome by the invitation. As Mattie began to make her way up the beach toward the house, Rachel remembered her manners. “Thank you for the drawing.”

 

Mattie fluttered a hand in response, then clutched her bonnet to keep it from blowing off as she disappeared among the tall dune grasses. Rachel watched until she reappeared further down, not turning around until Mattie had gone inside the house.

 

She had a new friend, or at least she thought she did, as she pondered their exchange. Most of the respectable women on the island her age paid little notice to her, and she found herself feeling invisible sometimes. Mattie had looked directly into her eyes, and smiled at her, and hadn’t seemed to notice at all that she was wearing men’s clothing. Maybe not everyone thought she was so different after all.

 

Heartened, she began the long walk home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mattie crept warily into the house and stepped quietly across the braided rug in the entryway, in case her husband wasn’t yet awake. He had come in very late the night before, and slipped into bed while she pretended to be asleep. Prior to coming to bed, he had tinkered around in the water closet for much longer than usual, cursing a few times for some unknown reason. “Adam?” she called out softly.

 

No answer. She stepped around the corner and into the kitchen, and nearly jumped out of her skin. “Oh.”

 

“Where’s my breakfast?” Adam’s gruff voice sounded from behind the latest issue of National Geographic. He sat at the head of the table, chair tilted back slightly, his leg crossed over his knee, and his cigar smoke curling up from an ashtray. He didn’t bother to look at her as he spoke, rifling idly through the magazine instead.

 

“There’s some fresh-squeezed juice in the ice box.” Mattie placed her sketchpad and pencils on the end of the table and hastened to pour up a glass and placed it next to him at arm’s length. “Coffee is on the stove, and I have flapjacks and ham keeping warm in the oven.”

 

“Flapjacks?” His voice gentled and he finally looked up. “My favorite.”

 

“I know. That’s why I made them.” She fetched a plate from the cupboard and opened the oven, releasing the tantalizing scent of the cornmeal cakes and melting butter, along with the rich ham. It wafted through the kitchen, warring with the cigar smoke for dominance. Mattie dished up the meal and placed it in front of him, carefully tucking a cream-colored napkin in his lap before she quickly stepped back.

 

“You been wasting time with those pictures again?” Adam scowled at the pad and tilted his head in scrutiny. A breeze from the window flipped open the cover, and a drawing of Rachel walking along the beach was plainly visible. “Who’s that?”

 

“Oh.” Mattie ducked her head into the cupboard to search for the maple syrup, grateful for the hidden moment to allow a rising heat on her cheeks to fade. Why she was blushing, she had no idea. “Someone who was walking on the beach. A stranger.” It was true, she reasoned, at least for the time being.

 

“You spend too much time out on that beach.” He took a sip of coffee and spluttered, spitting it across the table. “Too damned hot!” His face clouded with anger, and she cowered.

 

“I’m sorry.” She grabbed a dishrag and wiped up the coffee. ”Here, let me put it in the ice box for a few minutes.”

 

“No. Never mind.” Adam swiped his mouth with his hand.

 

Mattie got her first good look at his face since entering the kitchen, and her eyes grew wide. “What happened to your nose? Is it broken?” His entire nose was swollen and red, and the bridge appeared to be slightly crooked.

 

“None of your business.” He laid down the magazine and picked up a fork, savagely stabbing at the ham. “I don’t know if it’s broken.”

 

“Maybe we should put some ice chips on it.” Mattie opened the icebox door again.

 

“No!” he barked at her. “Just leave me alone and let me eat my breakfast in peace.”

 

Her eyes stung, and a familiar sick sensation twisted in her gut. ”As you will. Let me make up a plate for myself and I’ll –”

 

“Get out!” He picked up the magazine and hurled it at her.

 

Mattie ran from the kitchen and a hail of charcoal pencils hit her in the back as she fled. She scrambled across the front room, dodging a low table and two parlor chairs.

 

“Maybe if you’d pay more attention to being my wife, and less attention to daydreaming on the beach, maybe my mouth wouldn’t be burned, and maybe I would have come home earlier last night. Maybe then I wouldn’t have a broken nose.” He stood in the kitchen doorway, glaring at her as she stopped and stood rooted in place.

 

She didn’t know what to do. If she left, the only place she could go was back down to the beach for a while, and that seemed to be what was making him angry. She couldn’t stay because he’d just asked her to leave. Slowly, she eased toward the bedroom door. “Adam. I’m sorry. Please go eat your breakfast. I’ll go tend to the wash I need to do tomorrow.” She didn’t dare mention her job at the tailor’s shop. He usually drove her into town. With her heart pounding, she ducked into the bedroom and closed the door.

 

As her pulse slowed, she began to shake. “Oh, dear God.” Her knees gave out and she sank down onto the plump down mattress, her entire body shivering. The tears came next. She despised herself for her weakness, and grabbed a handkerchief from the night table, dabbing angrily at her face. “Why can’t I do anything right?”

 

She waited for a long while, relieved at the silence on the other side of the door. Hopefully she could leave for the tailor’s shop soon. She was late for work often. Luckily, the tailor seemed to genuinely like her, and had never complained. After a brief moment weighing her options, she got up and dragged a hamper from the corner to the bedside and pulled out assorted soiled items of clothing, stuffing them into a canvas bag which she would later tote into the kitchen and out onto the back porch where she kept the wash tub.

 

Finally, she heard Adam’s heavy boot steps as he walked through the living room. The front door slammed and she immediately relaxed, feeling limp and worn out. A few minutes later, she looked out the window and saw Adam climbing into their lightweight buggy. He flicked a small switch and their two bay mares took off, trotting from in front of the stable past the house, and out onto the road. She had no idea where he was going on a Saturday, and she didn’t much care, as long as he stayed gone until she could get to work. Of course now, she reflected, she would have to walk up to the main road and catch the trolley for the five-mile ride to the shop.

 

The mirror in the water closet revealed puffy red eyes. They would look normal again by the time she reached the tailor’s shop. She quickly twisted her hair back into a tighter knot and pinned it up securely with a few long ivory hairpins. Twitching the ruffles on her blouse into place, she made one last self-assessment, then left the room.

 

Before leaving the house, she went into the kitchen and made sure the fire in the stove was out, then quickly piled the dirty dishes into a dishpan for washing later. She hesitated, debating whether to wash them right away, but that would make her even later than she already was. Covering the pan with a large kitchen towel, she placed it in the deep sink. Maybe Adam wouldn’t even notice it there. Or maybe he would. She’d just have to get home before he did and take care of them then. She was certain Mr. Vaughan, the tailor, would allow her to leave early. He was generally lenient, no matter what she asked of him.

 

As she left the room, her eyes fell on the still-open sketchpad, and the drawing of Rachel. She picked it up and studied it closely. It was nice, she decided, with her new friend’s long hair whipping back in the wind and her hands shoved into her pockets. She had seemed to be in deep thought, and Mattie wondered what went on behind those eyes. Closing her own eyes, Mattie concentrated, remembering their color – steel blue. A pair of kind eyes, a warm sunny smile, and a raspy Texas twang. She found herself looking forward to tea the following week. Hopefully Adam was still going into Houston on business for the weekend. She frowned. He simply had to be. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next week flew by in a haze of activity. Rachel spent a few more days loading cotton freighters on the docks until finally, one of the fishing boats requested that she be assigned to work on board for the remainder of the week. She smiled broadly at the news. Life was good.

 

Friday came, the final day of the fishing assignment, and she arrived at the gulf-side fishing wharf bright and early, parking her now-repaired and shined bicycle, before traipsing lightly down the dock among a long row of fishing boats, until she reached her destination. ”Ahoy.” She grabbed a thick rope and half-stepped, half swung from the dock onto the boat’s deck.

 

“Ahoy, Rachel.” Billy had also been hired to work on the boat, and together they prepared to untie several lines and shove off. It was a beautiful day, with a hint of a breeze and not a cloud in the sky.

 

Once they were underway and the sails unfurled, Billy took control of the sheets and the rudder, leaving Rachel to set up several fishing poles along the railing. She fastened them firmly into some new-fangled stands that kept them from falling overboard. They didn’t have to hold onto them, but could merely walk along, monitoring the lines for signs of activity. She also unrolled a large net and hooked it onto the back of the boat so it could troll along behind. Hopefully they might snare some more fish in that manner.

 

Satisfied everything was in place, Rachel kicked off her boots and removed her stockings, lit up a cigar, and plopped onto a bench off to one side, where she baited a hook and dropped it into the greenish-brown water. Far away as it was, the Mississippi delta was a constant source of sand and all manner of waste materials, which washed out in all directions from southern Louisiana for hundreds of miles. As a result, the waters of her hometown were often colored a mucky brown.

 

She loved being out on the water, regardless of its hue, and secretly hoped she might have a boat of her own someday. Hiring out on fishing boats would have to do, for the time being. The current assignment was one of her favorites.

 

The boat was owned by a long-time acquaintance of hers, David Gentry, a man she had met her very first week in Galveston. Most likely he was still asleep below deck. He was a friend of the bottle and had been for years, although he was a harmless drunk. They’d wake him up once they got further out past the island into open water. He had taken her into apprenticeship, and taught her the fine art of deep sea fishing. It was a lesson well learned, and had kept food in her belly during those early months on the island, when she was still learning her way around.

 

She’d been such a child back then, she mused, alone and scared. She’d lied about her age for a while. It had been a necessary deception in order to rent a room and find suitable work. Had anyone known she was only fifteen at the time, they might very well have placed her in the orphanage or set her to work at the looms in the cotton mill.

 

Worse, one of the bachelors in town might have tried to arrange to marry her. She shuddered at the possibility. It was one of the reasons she had run away from Fort Worth in the first place. She could still hear her father’s voice, screaming at her as he towered over her while she sat hunched down in a corner of the bedroom she shared with her two younger sisters.

 

He’d caught her out in the barn, spooning with Sarah, a girl who had recently moved back to Fort Worth from Europe, France, to be exact. Sarah had been away at a fancy French finishing school. Sophisticated and beautiful, she was eighteen, a grown woman, and wise in the ways of the world. The daughter of a wealthy Fort Worth socialite, she’d caught Rachel’s eye at the ice cream parlor, and they struck up an immediate, if odd, friendship.

 

Sarah wore the latest Gibson girl fashions, and kept her long black hair finely coiffed, piled up in soft curls on top of her head. She was slender and refined, with peachy-pale skin and she always smelled nice. It was a stark contrast to Rachel’s overalls and work boots, which were often liberally covered in cow and hog manure.

 

Even back then Rachel’s days were spent in hard labor, working her father’s farm as he struggled to feed their large family. She was the oldest of seven children. In addition to the sisters she shared a room with, she had three younger brothers and a baby sister. The baby slept in a cradle in her father’s room. Her mother had died in childbirth.

 

Rachel couldn’t remember exactly how things had escalated between Sarah and her. They spent time together whenever they could, but due to the disapproval of Sarah’s family, much of it was stolen time, either at the ice cream parlor or meeting up in a park near Sarah’s home. She wasn’t certain, but she believed Sarah had made the first move.

 

It was common for girls to hold hands when they walked together, but when Sarah took her hand, Rachel remembered subtle playing of their fingers and more than a few inquisitive sideways glances. It had felt strange and wonderful. She had never had a beau, and she gradually realized that her feelings for Sarah were probably not normal friendly affection.

 

One thing led to another and after a few months, they ended up in her father’s barn. It was innocent enough, and they spent several long rainy afternoons passing the time kissing. It hadn’t progressed much further until the afternoon they were caught. That afternoon they had shyly removed their tops. She could still remember what it felt like that first time, as her bare body brushed against Sarah’s, sending jolts of intense sensation into her gut. Sarah assured her that she had done the same thing many times in France, and she would show Rachel some things that would make her feel very good.

 

It never happened. Rachel’s father came storming into the barn, and she later suspected one of her siblings had seen them first and told him. She had been way too caught up in what she was feeling to pay attention to the sounds outside, which were muted by the falling rain. All she knew was that one minute she was lying down with Sarah in a bed of clean hay, and the next she was being hauled into the house as she tried to get her shirt back on, the rain pelting her shameful body.

 

She never saw Sarah again after that day, and had no idea what had become of her. After her father yelled at her for what seemed like hours, he had banished her to her room until he could determine what to do with her. She wasn’t allowed to leave the house except to do her chores, and was allowed minimal contact with her brothers and sisters.

 

Finally, after a week, her father offered her two options. That she was given options at all was surprising, but when she heard what her choices were, her heart sank into utter despair. He had talked to a convent over in Dallas. The nuns were willing to take her in and train her for a life in the service of the church. She thought that option was bad enough until she heard the other. One of her father’s widower friends, a man over twice her age, was willing to marry her and help cleanse her of her misguided desires.

 

Rachel didn’t care for either option, so she packed up a small carpetbag and left that night, slipping out the bedroom window while her sisters slept. Never looking back, she stopped in a church only long enough to confess her sins with Sarah, and to ask for proper penance for stealing the money from the cookie jar in her family’s kitchen. It wasn’t much, but it was stealing nonetheless, and part of her felt badly about that.

 

After that, she began riding the rails, skipping from one train to another in a long journey south. It had taken some stealth, hiding behind train stations and listening to determine where the various trains were headed. The long rides in lonely boxcars gave her a lot of time to think. She was never going back to Fort Worth. It was no longer her home. She also knew that her increasing desire to have physical contact with other girls must be shoved down, deep inside. It was wrong and it would only get her in trouble, no matter where she went.

 

At first she had thought to head to Mexico, but she didn’t speak Spanish and decided instead to go see the ocean. She’d never been to the beach; never been past the stockyards in Fort Worth. She’d never seen mountains either, but had heard the closest ones were way out in far West Texas, and she wasn’t sure how to get to them. A few days later she rode across the two-mile long railroad bridge from the mainland to Galveston.

 

Her first stroll on the beach had been glorious. It was unlike any other experience of her life. The salty breeze smelled so good, and the roar of the crashing waves was like music to her young ears. The sun was so warm and the wet sand felt nice and cool under her bare feet.

 

As she walked in the surf, her trouser legs rolled up, she felt truly free for the first time in her life. No more farm work. No more long hours taking care of her siblings. She would miss them, but there were plenty of them left to take care of the house and the crops. 

 

She half suspected her father had been ready to get rid of her anyway. She was almost an adult, and was an extra mouth to feed that he most likely didn’t need. Maybe he had been planning to marry her off anyway, and finding her with Sarah had only hastened a decision he had already made.

 

That first day in Galveston, she sat on the beach in the early morning light and made some sketchy plans. She would get a job, the best one she could get with her skills. Studying her calloused palms, she ruefully realized that she would probably end up doing some kind of hard labor. It was what she was good at, and she was strong enough to easily lift a fifty-pound grain sack and hoist it over her shoulder. She also needed to find a place to stay. And she needed to keep her nose clean. No more girls and no more stealing.

 

Two years passed before she met Lillie, and finally learned all the great mysterious lessons Sarah was never able to teach her. With Lillie, she finally felt safe to indulge her curiosity. No one knew what they did together and most likely, no one cared enough to think about it. Lillie was a whore and Rachel was an oddity. Lillie tried to make her feel good about what they did, and Rachel tried very hard to believe it was alright. Deep down inside, she didn’t. Lillie’s rules applied to Rachel, just like they did to her other customers. Rachel hadn’t kissed another woman since that rainy afternoon in the barn with Sarah.

 

She took whatever Lillie was willing to give, but it sometimes made her feel vaguely dirty. Remembering those soft kisses with Sarah, she felt as if something were missing, and sometimes wished Lillie would make an exception for her. A part of her wondered if kissing would make what they did seem more like love, and less like something cheap and wrong. It was merely speculation. She would never push for it, for fear Lillie might take away the rest as well. For someone like Rachel, Lillie was the best she could ever hope for, and she wasn’t about to risk losing a trust she had worked so hard to gain. She knew that what she shared with Lillie was certainly not love, although they cared for each other deeply as friends.

 

“Rachel.” A strong hand shook her arm and she almost fell off the bench, having quite forgotten where she was. “Rachel!” Billy shook her harder and waved his other hand in front of far-off eyes. “I need some help here, please.”

 

“What?” Her mind came racing back to the present, her past musings forgotten “Oh.” The fishing pole in the stand next to her was bent almost double, as some large fish tried to tug both pole and line into the water. She quickly transferred her cigar to her lips and shoved her own fishing gear aside, then jumped to her feet and grabbed hold of the creaking pole, bracing her feet wide against the overpowering strength of the creature she was battling.

 

Billy also grasped the pole, and together they pulled hard, maintaining a fine balance between working the pole without breaking it. The fish on the other end pulled harder and they almost lost their balance. It was a thick pole of flexible wood, with heavy interwoven line, but whatever was on the hook was testing it with all its strength.

 

After a long slow battle, the fish grew tired and they hauled it on board, dragging it over the railing before cutting the line coming from its mouth. “Will you look at that?” Billy’s eyes shone. “Must be a hundred pounds, easy!”

 

“Yes.” Rachel was busy holding the flopping marlin down as it tried to slither across the deck and back toward the water. “Club. Come on. Hurry, will ya?”

 

“Oh. Sorry.” Some of the gleam cleared from Billy’s green eyes, and he dug into a large box that was bolted to the deck, retrieving a sizeable club. After a swift blow to its head, the fish grew still.

 

Rachel finally sat up and gingerly rubbed her aching biceps and forearms. She grinned and took a puff from the remaining stub of her cigar, which still hung delicately between her lips. A perfect smoke ring curled up and around her head before it blew off the bow and out to sea. “Good job, mate. We’ve already taken the day’s catch and we haven’t even woken Gentry up yet.”

 

“What ever shall we do now?” Billy’s smile matched Rachel’s, and he rolled up his trousers leg, pulling a flask from inside his boot top. He unbuttoned a shirt pocket and produced two more cigars. “Might as well let the old man sleep for a while longer, eh?”

 

“Yes. “ Steel blue eyes danced in merriment. “He probably needs his rest.” She plucked one of the cigars from Billy’s fingers and lit it from the stub of her first one, drawing deeply until the red flame took hold. “May I?” She took the remaining cigar from him and lit it as well, then handed it back across.

 

“Thank you, my dear.” He located an empty mug and poured up a healthy portion of smooth amber whiskey, trading it for the cigar. “You are a picture of gallantry and chivalry.”

 

“I do my best, sir.” Rachel laughed and clicked the mug against his nickel-plated flask. “Cheers.”

 

They enjoyed the cigars and whiskey in silence, taking in the pleasant breeze and listening to the gentle lap of the waves against the side of the boat. Billy eyed her speculatively, debating things he had overheard. Rachel was in a rare good mood. She seemed to always try to be pleasant, but her smiles and laughter were usually reserved for winning poker hands. She was a friend, and he had never thought to take it any further, instinctively knowing attempts at courting her would be rejected. He took a deep breath and another swallow of whiskey. “Rachel, you need to be careful.”

 

The pleasant expression on her face disappeared, along with her good humor. “Careful about what?” Rachel peered coldly at him, her defenses swiftly in place.

 

“That man, the one you popped in the face last Friday night –” Billy twirled the cigar between his fingers and flicked some ash over the railing. “He’s been asking about you around town.”

 

“I think you and I both know I can take care of myself.” Her words were measured, giving away nothing. “I’ve been on my own for a very long time, and been in a fair share of fist fights.” She had. Survival on the docks and in the gaming houses depended on it.

 

“That’s not what I mean.” Billy took a deep breath and looked directly into her eyes, an unspoken truth passing between them. “He’s been asking about you. Where you live. Where you come from. He asked about your clothes.”

 

Rachel briefly closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “And?”

 

“He said some things—we were at the saloon closer to town a few nights ago.” Billy studied his feet, no longer able to look at her while he spoke. “A couple of us, we tried to defend your honor—almost got into a fight. I wanted to re-break his nose, I can tell you that.”

 

“Please, Billy.” She reached across and lightly touched his arm. “I don’t have much honor and you know it. I smoke. I drink. I cuss. I gamble. I’m not a society lady and don’t pretend to be. You all, the boys at the saloon, you’re my friends, but I can hardly imagine you would get into a fight over me being accused of things I openly do on a regular basis. Tell me what he said. Please. It’s important.” Her mind raced and her blood boiled in anger, thinking of Lillie and what the man had done to her. If anyone ever found out what they did together –

 

“He said you were ‘unnatural’.” The word tasted bitter in Billy’s mouth. “We tossed him out on his seat after that.”

 

“Did he say anything else?” To Rachel, it seemed an eternity passed before he answered.

 

“No.” Billy spat onto the deck. “What he said was enough. I thought you should know, in case he’s after you for getting him thrown out last weekend.”

 

“Thank you.” She squeezed his arm and managed a smile. “I’ll be careful, but please, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

 

“You’re welcome.” He thought to question her further, then decided against it. “If you need any of us to go pound the son-of-a-gun, don’t hesitate to ask.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind.” She smiled, a gesture that reached her lips but not her heart, and sat back, trying to calm her suddenly jittery nerves. Lillie was the only female friend she could be completely open with. Now she wondered if it would be in Lillie’s best interest if she backed way off. The man could easily get Lillie in trouble for prostitution if he wanted to. Rachel mulled that over and came to the conclusion that he was most likely after her and not Lillie.

 

When the whiskey was gone and the cigars smoked down to stubs, they finally woke Mr. Gentry. He took one look at the marlin and declared they should head back to shore and take the afternoon off. As an added bonus they found other fish, including a sea bass and some small sand sharks on some of the other lines. Back at the docks they spent an hour cleaning fish, working happily despite the overwhelming fishy smell that was amplified by the baking sun. The large catch meant extra income for Mr. Gentry at the fish market, and some bonus wages for Rachel and Billy.

 

It was Friday. There was poker to play and more whiskey to consume. Now they would have extra funds to play with. And, Rachel considered, she needed to talk to Lillie anyway. She might as well buy some time with her and make it enjoyable. Her decision justified in her own mind, she set diligently to work. The sooner they finished, the sooner they could get on to more pleasant activities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Late Saturday afternoon, Mattie folded up a partially completed shirt and set it on a stack of other garments that were ready for finishing—sewing on buttons, collars, cuffs, lace, ruffles, and other notions. They would have to wait until Monday. She had some shopping to do.

 

“Good evening, Mr. Vaughan.” She stood and donned her navy blue sailor-style straw hat, placing it carefully over her hair, which was pulled back in soft red curls and twisted at the base of her neck. Straightening the white ribbon trim, she fluffed out the bow, then tied the hat under her chin with matching thinner ribbons. The hat complimented a navy and white pinstriped skirt and shirtwaist she had made for herself during spare moments at the shop. Finally, she picked up a small navy pocket book. It held the wages the tailor had counted out for her during the noon hour.

 

“Have a pleasant evening, and Sunday as well, Mrs. Crockett.” The tailor nodded politely, then resumed the tedious task of hemming an ornate wedding gown for one of Galveston’s socialites. The wedding was a week out and the dress was behind schedule. Both Mattie and Mr. Vaughan had taken turns soothing both mother and bride, assuring them that it would be ready a few days before the big event.

 

Mattie stooped down and picked up a scrap of lace that had fallen to the floor. She waved goodbye again and walked out into the busy street. A hodge-podge of people, some shopping and some getting off work, wandered up and down the board sidewalks, popping in and out of the stores and greeting their friends and neighbors. It was a happy time of the week, Saturday afternoon and payday for many workers in town. Most laborers had Sunday off, giving them even more reason to be light-hearted.

 

She studied the lace she had picked up and twisted the plain gold band on her left ring finger, remembering her own wedding, a simply elegant affair that had earned a few lines in the El Paso newspaper’s society section. Her family, while not wealthy, was definitely not poor. Adam, however, came from privileged stock and well-known heritage. He was a distant relative of Davy Crockett, who fought and died a hero at the battle of the Alamo. Adam David Crockett. She shook her head. He certainly hadn’t lived up to his namesake.

 

Marriage had not been a choice. It was expected, though most women didn’t marry quite as young as Mattie had. Adam Crockett had paid his first social call to her family when she was thirteen years old. It became obvious that the twenty-eight-year-old Adam had his sights set on the pretty redhead, while Mattie herself was barely out of pinafores, still a school girl studying upper-form subjects.

 

At the tender age of fourteen, she sat in her family’s formal parlor and listened as Adam asked her father for her hand in marriage. It was settled, just like that, and in one short June afternoon at the largest Catholic church in El Paso, Mattie was propelled from childhood into womanhood. Many of the town’s elite had turned out for the affair, as well as the formal supper party the groom’s family had hosted afterward at one of the downtown hotels.

 

She had enjoyed the party, although the man who sat next to her, her husband, was for all practical purposes a stranger. They had not spent one moment alone during their brief courtship, as her mother had insisted on a chaperone at all times. Their first private time alone together was on their wedding night.

 

It had been a nightmare for Mattie. She knew nothing of the physical aspect of marriage. Such taboo subjects were not discussed, not even between mother and daughter. She had never been kissed and had no idea what to expect, and had thought they were simply going to bed, although she donned a brand new long white lace nightgown, something her mother had insisted she should do. What Adam did to her that night was shocking and painful. He had brought her pain ever since.

 

In retrospect, she believed he had not been terribly enamored with her when he came courting, but rather that he needed a wife in order to be socially acceptable. Mattie was attractive, well mannered, and a fashionably tasteful dresser. She was a fair cook and seamstress, and had always kept her room tidy. They had married just shy of Adam’s thirtieth birthday, late for a man to be marrying. He needed her to keep house for him and appear with him at social affairs. Otherwise, he needed her to be quiet, stay busy, obey him, and not ask questions.

 

She suspected some money had changed hands prior to their engagement, though whether her father paid off Adam, or Adam paid her father, she could never be sure. Her parents had both explained to her that she was fortunate to have him. Girls of her social standing did not often marry as well as she had. He was a catch and she had landed him, mostly with her fair face, slim figure, and thick shining red hair that fell almost to her waist when it wasn’t pinned up. That had always puzzled her. At thirteen, she certainly hadn’t set her cap for anyone, nor done anything to try to “land” Adam. She was merely doing what she was told to do.

 

“You’re a lucky young lady, Madeline.” Her mother’s stern words echoed in her memory. She had gone home for an afternoon visit the week after the wedding, and hesitantly broached the subject of annulling the marriage. Using carefully chosen words, she told her mother that she wasn’t happy, and feared they had made a terrible mistake

 

Blushing, her mother asked her in cryptic terms if the marriage had been consummated. When Mattie confirmed it had, her mother said an annulment wasn’t possible, that her life’s path was set, and the family would not tolerate the scandal of divorce. That was when her mother told her she was lucky, and then told her to never bring up the subject again. If things turned out well for Mattie, perhaps Caroline, her younger sister, might also land a wealthy husband.

 

For the first three years of their marriage, they lived in a large house not too far from her parents’ home. Adam had worked in downtown El Paso at his father’s bank, although she never knew exactly what he did there. One night he came home early and without so much as a word, began packing up their things. Within a few days they had sold their house, said goodbye to her parents and sister, and made the long train-ride to Houston.

 

Adam never told her why they left El Paso, and he was unapproachable on the subject. Their first two months away from El Paso were spent in a boarding house in Houston, before they made the move across the bay to Galveston. They had lived in their current house for a little over four months. It wasn’t nearly as grand as the house they left behind, which was fine with Mattie. The new home was a lot less work to keep up and she loved living on the beach, so different from the desert hills and mountains she grew up in.

 

She still didn’t know what Adam did in town, but assumed it had something to do with trade and shipping. He frequently went into Houston on business, and came home late more often than not. That also suited Mattie. If she was lucky, she was asleep by the time he got home. The fewer waking hours she spent with him, the better.

 

Adam had reluctantly agreed to her taking the job at the tailor’s shop, and had only given in when she promised it wouldn’t interfere with her running of their household. She realized it was probably also a way for him to keep tabs on her during the day, but she was grateful for his agreement, whatever his motivation might be. Being alone in the house for long stretches was depressing. She had no real friends and only a handful of acquaintances. Adam forbade her to socialize without him, other than allowing her to attend mass on Sundays, whether he was in town or not. Working at the tailor’s gave her the opportunity to at least meet and talk with a variety of the townspeople, and kept her from climbing the walls in loneliness.

 

Now she had finally, tentatively, reached out to someone. She fervently hoped Rachel would become a real friend. Rachel was the first person who had truly seemed to see her, and not look through her. She was a little curious about Rachel’s choice in clothing, and fancied the woman must be a free spirit of sorts, something Mattie herself could only dream of being.

 

The invitation to tea had been quite impetuous and bold. Not normal for Mattie at all. She laughed quietly. If Rachel was indeed a free spirit, perhaps she was wearing off on Mattie already.

 

Now, what to buy for the tea party? She stepped off the sidewalk and into the street, looking both ways for buggies and Galveston’s two automobiles. She was surprised Adam hadn’t purchased one of the horseless carriages yet. He had been considering it before they moved, but it hadn’t come up since then.

 

She shrugged and forgot about automobiles, in the excitement of planning her own little party. Adam had left on the train for Houston that morning, and wouldn’t be home until Monday afternoon. There would be no worries that he might forbid the party altogether, or worse, come home and embarrass her in some manner in front of her guest.

 

It was going to be perfect, she just knew it. At home she had tea, sugar cubes, and flour, and she mentally ticked off the items in her head that she needed – cream, and confectioner’s sugar to make teacakes. Those would be very nice on a Sunday afternoon. A smile made its way from ear to ear. She hadn’t had a tea party with a girlfriend since she was twelve, although she had hosted social teas for the wives of some of Adam’s associates. It was going to be an adventure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lillie cried out very discretely and Rachel smiled against her skin, mission accomplished. She kissed a soft inner thigh, then slowly nibbled her way up Lillie’s stomach, stopping to pay one last round of homage to two enticing breasts. It was a guilty pleasure, as she enjoyed the salty taste of Lillie’s skin and the sensation of her muscles moving under Rachel’s touch. Finally, she collapsed down onto the bed and propped her head up on one elbow, watching and waiting for Lillie to catch her breath.

 

Large violet-blue eyes fluttered open and Lillie sighed in contentment. “My sweet lord, but you’ve gotten good at that.”

 

“I aim to please, ma’am.” Rachel trailed a finger down Lillie’s cleavage.

 

“Well you’re the only one, that’s for darn sure.” Lillie also rolled to her side, facing Rachel and mimicking her posture. “All those old men I entertain, none of them give a fig whether I enjoy myself or not, and they sure as heck don’t take care of me first, if they take care of me at all.”

 

“Numbskulls.” Rachel snorted. “Don’t know what they’re missing. I–kinda like doin’ that to you.” Her eyes lowered in embarrassment.

 

“Rachel, darlin’,” Lillie traced a tanned cheek until she made eye contact. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. Someday, you’re going to make someone a very fine lover, I guarantee it.”

 

“How can you say that?” A profound sadness clouded Rachel’s eyes. “You know I’m not ever getting married. I don’t care for men—in that way.”

 

“Didn’t say you were goin’ to marry a man, sugar. I figured someday you’ll make a life for yourself with another woman.” They had never really talked about Rachel’s future, and Lillie suddenly realized that Rachel probably didn’t have much of a social life outside of the saloon. “You’re not the only one, Rachel. There’s others like you.”

 

“Who?” Rachel’s interest suddenly piqued and she shifted closer. ”Where?”

 

“You know the widows Sanders and McKenzie, don’t you?” Lillie lightly stroked Rachel’s thigh, which was curved up between them.

 

“Yes. Two old ladies—they’re at early mass every Sunday.” Rachel frowned before the truth dawned. “You don’t mean...? Lil, they’re a couple of old ladies.”

 

“I most certainly do.” Lillie smiled smugly. “They’ve lived together going on thirty-five years now. No one really knows where they lived before Galveston, and no one ever knew their supposedly dead husbands. They sure haven’t ever made any effort to find new husbands, and no one has ever known them to entertain any gentlemen. Fact is, my dear, I know a few men whose advances those sweet ladies have rejected outright. Men that would have been good catches. And I’ve heard they share a bed, even though they have three bedrooms in their house.”

 

“So there are two other old women like me,” Rachel conceded. ”Doesn’t bode well if we’re the only ones. Not only are both of them way too old for me, but they’re both spoken for.”

 

“Ah, Rachel.” Lillie rolled her eyes in frustration. “There has to be more than three of you. I’m certain of it. My point is, you just need to keep your beautiful blue eyes open. There’s someone out there for you.”

 

“I don’t know.” Rachel flopped over onto her back and tossed one arm across her forehead. “It seems like it would be so hard, living like those ladies do. They’ve had to hide what they are from everyone all these years.”

 

“I’ll bet if you asked them, they’d tell you it was worth it.” Lillie placed a soft kiss to the upper curve of a breast. “I like spending time with you Rachel, I do.” She moved lower, drawing a groan from Rachel’s parted lips. “But someday, darlin’, I hope you no longer need my services. You’re my friend, and I want to see you happy.”

 

“I—you’re—good enough.” Lillie’s lips and fingers were rapidly making speech difficult. “Ahhh.” Rachel bit her lower lip as Lillie moved lower, flicking her tongue across Rachel’s stomach and around her navel. “I can’t think straight when you do that.”

 

“Shhh.” Lillie looked up. “Thinking isn’t necessary.” She drifted lower still, paying Rachel back in kind.

 

Much later, they lay entwined, listening to the muted sounds of the saloon below, the mixture of music and drunken voices drifting up through the open window. Rachel’s head was pillowed on Lillie’s stomach, enjoying Lillie’s touch as her fingers made gentle circular patterns against the skin of her muscular back. “That feels nice.” Rachel smiled and snuggled up closer. “Lil, what about you?”

 

“What do you mean, ‘what about me’?” Lillie ruffled the long chestnut hair, mussing it affectionately.

 

“Are you ever going to move on from here?” Rachel broached the subject cautiously, not wanting to offend her.

 

“Maybe someday I will,” Lillie’s voice trailed off thoughtfully for a moment. “Find me a wealthy gentleman to take me away from all of this. But I’m not unhappy, Rachel. I know I’m not the most respectable person in town, but I make a lot more doing what I do than I would in the mill, or working in a shop in town. Besides, I’m pretty good at it, from what I’ve been told.”

 

“Yes, ma’am, that you are.” Rachel shifted upward and into Lillie’s open arms, cradling her head against a nice-smelling shoulder . “And I find you most respectable. Don’t you go listening to any snooty society ladies. They’re probably all afraid you’re entertaining their husbands.”

 

“I probably am entertaining their husbands.” Lillie laughed heartily, the sound bouncing off the walls of the room. “Speaking of, before we came up here, you said you needed to talk to me about one of my customers. I think we got distracted.”

 

“Oh.” Anger flashed in Rachel’s eyes. “Yes. Be careful if that bastard I wailed on last weekend comes back around. I think he has it in for me, and I don’t want you to get hurt if he does.”

 

“Rachel, has he come after you?” Lillie looked down at the brown head, but Rachel didn’t look up at her.

 

“No.” Rachel had looked for him when she first entered the saloon, and had a kept a wary eye out all night, up until she snuck upstairs to Lillie’s room. “But he’s been asking about me. At first I thought he might be after you, but I figured he could just turn you into the sheriff for prostitution if that were the case. No.” She released a long sigh. “I think I busted more than his nose. Now his pride is out of joint as well.”

 

“You’re the one who should be careful.” Lillie rubbed Rachel’s bare back. “Much as I like you coming around here, maybe you better find something else to do on the weekends, or at least not be in here on the evenings you aren’t working the bar.”

 

“I can take care of myself, and I don’t know what else I’d do to occupy my time,” Rachel retorted. A thought occurred to her and she abruptly sat up. “Lil, what do you take to tea?”

 

“What?” Lillie’s eyebrows shot up at the sudden change of subject. “What are you talking about?”

 

“I was invited to tea.” Rachel smiled hesitantly. “By a society lady, I guess. Leastways, she sure was dressed like one.”

 

“When? By who?” Lillie also sat up, curiosity written all over her face.

 

“A lady named Mattie. I was walking on the beach and we struck up a conversation.” For some reason Rachel felt shy about relaying the part about Mattie’s drawing of her. “I’ve never been to tea. I don’t know what you do at a tea, or what I should bring, or what to talk about. I—”

 

A hand clamped over Rachel’s mouth. “Whoa, Nellie. Slow down.” Lillie grinned. “First of all, it’s pretty simple. You drink tea and talk about all kinds of frivolous things.”

 

“Like what?” Rachel scowled. “I’m not good at ‘frivolous’ and you know it.”

 

“You most certainly are. Fishing, cards, brands of whiskey, cigars, different types of boats—” Lillie smiled as the scowl deepened and Rachel opened her mouth to protest. “No, no, no.” Her hand covered Rachel’s full lips again. “Those are just as frivolous as talking about dresses and babies and the Godey’s Ladies Book. When is this tea, anyway?”

 

“Argh.” Rachel groaned and covered her eyes, suddenly feeling way out of her league. ”Sunday. ‘Godey’s Ladies Book’? Lil, what am I going to do?”

 

“You are going to go to tea and be your charming self.” Lillie removed Rachel’s hand from her eyes, which bore a faint hint of terror. “And wear your nicest shirt and trousers, unless you have a dress?” Her voice was teasing, and she received a swat to her behind for it. “Ouch. That hurt, missy.” Lillie rubbed her offended backside. “Go pick some of those early spring flowers blooming by the church and take those along as a hostess gift. Or you could splurge on some little trinket for her house.”

 

“Flowers?” Hope appeared in Rachel’s eyes. “I can pick flowers.”

 

“Sure you can.” Lillie pulled her back down on the mattress and into a light embrace. ”Come on, let’s get some sleep. You need to be rested up by Sunday.” Rachel cuddled up against Lillie and fell asleep, dreaming of flowers and a pair of twinkling hazel eyes.

 

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