Copyright 2004 By Texbard email@example.com
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
The bicycle tires sounded unusually loud as they crunched through the sand and crushed seashells that comprised the beachfront road. It was pleasantly cool, with a light breeze blowing in off the Gulf and large cirrus clouds feathered high across the sky. Rachel stood on the pedals, guiding the vehicle around a curve. The wind felt good in her loose hair. She had left her hat behind at the boarding house. A few more strokes and she was in front of Mattie's house, gliding to a halt and swinging one leg over the saddle, as she leaned the bicycle against the porch railing.
Before she had time to think, the front door opened and Mattie's smiling face was greeting her. "Hello, Rachel." The redhead moved out onto the porch. "Perfect timing. I just took the tea cakes out of the oven."
Teacakes? Rachel wasn't sure what they were, but she figured anything called 'cake' couldn't be a bad thing. "Howdy." She unconsciously buffed first one boot toe, and then the other, against the backs of her trousers legs. One disadvantage of the bicycle was a constant layer of sandy dust on her boots after each ride. She had forsaken her heavy work boots for a lighter pair of dark brown cowboy boots. She smiled and started to take the steps up, then turned. "Oh. Almost forgot." She reached into the back bicycle basket, untying a large bundle loosely wrapped in newspaper. "For you." She made her way up and handed over the surprise.
"What on earth ?" Mattie carefully unrolled the paper. "Oh. How pretty." Inside was an assortment of multi-colored wildflowers, their sweet scent rising pleasantly around her. "Thank you." She smiled brightly. "Come on inside and have a seat."
"You're welcome." Rachel followed her into the house, careful to wipe her feet on a round rug inside the doorway. She looked around, taking in the unfamiliar surroundings. The room was light and airy, with large bay windows facing the gulf, and lace curtains draped over brass rods. Against one wall was a comfortable-looking stuffed sofa, upholstered in pale yellow flowered brocade. A matching easy chair and rocking chair sat across from it, with a low oak parlor table between them. In one corner was a bookcase filled with books, and in another was a tall what-knot, bearing an assortment of small knick-knacks. A hall tree was immediately inside the doorway, with a dainty cream-colored parasol and a plain black umbrella hooked over one arm, along with a forest-green woman's cloak and a man's black overcoat.
Her eyes quickly swept over the room as Mattie led her to the sofa. "Have a seat." The redhead handed her a copy of the Farmer's Almanac. "I'll go make us up a tray and be right back. And put these in some water." She waved the flowers slightly and smiled, then disappeared into the kitchen.
So. It had been a long time since Rachel had been inside a proper home. This one was more than proper. The furniture was obviously store-boughten, and she could only imagine what topics might be covered in all those books. She wanted to get up and look at the trinkets on the what-knot, but her good manners told her to stay seated. She quickly thumbed through the Farmer's Almanac, then set it aside. Ah. Another magazine caught her eye and she picked it up, slowly perusing sketches of women in fancy dresses and shoes.
A quiet laugh made her look up, and blush. "Didn't figure you for the Godey's Ladies Book type," Mattie laughed again, her eyes crinkling at the edges.
"I'm um not, actually. Just thought I'd see what the latest fashion was." She grinned sheepishly. "I'm a little out of touch when it comes to things like that."
"Well " Mattie set a crystal vase on a side table and fluffed the flowers, fussing with them until they were arranged to her satisfaction. "Staying in style is more trouble than it's worth, most of the time. Here." She placed a National Geographic in Rachel's lap. "My husband truly likes this one. It is fascinating. I'll be right back with our tea."
"Thank you." Rachel watched her leave again, noticing a slight hitch in Mattie's hips as she walked, which caused her skirts to swoosh back and forth around her ankles. She opened the magazine and her eyes grew wide. There were black and white photographs of strange animals inside, many of them unfamiliar to her. One in particular, an animal with large spots and a very long elegant neck, she had never seen before. She recognized some monkeys and an elephant. She had seen some when a traveling circus came through Fort Worth once. She and a couple of her siblings had snuck under the large striped tent and hid under the bleachers to watch the show.
Mattie re-entered the room, placing a silver tray on the table. It was filled with all kinds of good-smelling things -- a pot of fragrant steaming tea, a bowl of sugar cubes, a china creamer, and a matching platter of pale yellow cakes, dusted with white powder. "I made too many cakes," she sat down, smoothing her sage green skirt and pushing up the leg of mutton sleeves of a white shirtwaist. Thin pleats and small pearl buttons adorned the front of the shirt, which ended with a high collar at her throat. "I hope you're hungry."
"I am, thank you." Rachel watched Mattie pick up a china saucer, and followed suit, accepting one of the small cakes and a tiny fork.
"One lump or two?" Mattie poured her a cup of tea. "Cream?"
Rachel thought quickly. "Two, with cream please." She had no idea. Hot tea was out of her realm of experience. The boarding house typically served up coffee on most mornings. It often had the consistency of hog swill, and required quite a bit of both cream and sugar to make it palatable. "Thank you." She accepted the tea and sniffed it curiously. It smelled sweet and very different from coffee. Cautiously, she took a sip and smiled. "That's very good."
"It's just tea, silly." Mattie absently patted her on the leg, then picked up her own cup. "Adam doesn't like hot tea, so it's a treat for me. He prefers coffee."
"Adam?" Rachel raised an eyebrow in question, and took another sip of tea.
"My husband." Something in Mattie's face told Rachel not to ask too many questions about Adam. "He's in Houston on business until tomorrow, so it's just us girls this afternoon." The sunny smile returned, erasing the brief clouds in her eyes. "So, Rachel, tell me all about yourself. Are you from Galveston?"
"No," the brunette picked at the edge of her cake with the fork and nibbled tentatively at a flaky bite. The sweetness washed over her taste buds as the powdered substance melted on her tongue. "Oh. That's very good." She swiped at her lips with a napkin, careful not to let the powdered sugar get on her tan trousers. "No, I'm from near Fort Worth -- grew up on a farm just outside of town there. I moved here several years ago. Wanted to see the ocean and all." She desperately hoped Mattie didn't push for more details. She wasn't ready to share all the complications that had actually brought her to the island.
"So you packed up and moved here, just like that?" Mattie couldn't imagine being so brave.
"Pretty much, yes. How about you? You said you hadn't been here very long. Where did you live before?" She turned the subject around.
"I grew up in El Paso. That's where I met and married Adam. We stayed there for a little over three years before he decided to move here, so here we are." She looked down quickly, hoping Rachel wouldn't ask why they moved, since she hadn't a clue.
"You don't look old enough " they spoke in unison, then stopped, bursting out in shared laughter.
"Go ahead," Mattie giggled.
"I was going to say, 'you don't look old enough to have been married for over three years'." Rachel smiled. "What were you going to say?"
"Well, first of all, Adam and I will have been married four years this June, and I turned eighteen a few weeks ago." She ignored the shocked look on Rachel's face, and continued. "And I was going to say you didn't look old enough to have been on your own for several years."
"I've been here almost eight years. I'll be twenty-three years old at the end of this month." She watched Mattie's own surprise.
"Oh. Sounds like we both became grown-ups at a young age." Mattie waxed melancholy for a moment. "I was expected to marry Adam. He was a catch. Best offer I was ever going to get." She smiled wanly. "His family is wealthy, while mine we were comfortable, but with Adam, my future is set. My parents were very happy with our marriage."
Were you happy with it? Rachel didn't dare ask, but unmistakable sadness in her new friend's hazel eyes gave her the unspoken answer. "I had to leave home." Rachel trod delicately around the real reason she left. "I'm the oldest of seven. My mother died in childbirth with my youngest sister. After that, I don't think my father was able to properly care for all of us. He was about to send me to a convent or else force me to marry someone I didn't want to marry. I had to leave."
"You ran away?" Mattie's face was incredulous. "Does your family know where you are?"
"I did, and only one of my brothers knows where I am." She took another nibble of cake and washed it down with more tea, trying to wash away a rising lump in her throat. "He's at the University in Austin. I send him money every month to help him with his room and board."
"That's very sweet." Mattie's eyes grew misty all of a sudden and she drew a deep breath. "I noticed you ride a bicycle," she changed the subject, sensing the topic of family was fast becoming unpleasant. "Is it ever so nice? I've never ridden one before."
"Really?" Rachel flashed a genuine smile, grateful for the new subject. "How would you like to try it out?"
"Oh." Mattie fretted, tugging at her long skirt. "I don't have any trousers or any of those bicycle skirts. This long thing, it would probably get caught in the pedals or something."
"Don't need 'em." Rachel leaned closer, drawing Mattie in with her mischievous eyes. "I'll set you up on the crossbar and give you a ride. Would you like to try it?"
It took but a moment to decide. "I'd love to, after we finish our tea, that is."
"It'll be fun, I promise." The brunette accepted a refill, along with a second cake.
"I'm sure it will be." Mattie smiled, erasing years from her face. It was to be the first real adventure of her young life.
They quickly finished the tea and another round of cakes. Rachel stepped outside to make sure the bicycle's crossbar wasn't covered in dust. She turned as Mattie came outside, tying a bonnet securely under her chin, covering her pinned-up red hair. "That should protect me from the wind." She smiled in eager anticipation. "Now what do I do first?"
Rachel wheeled the bicycle over until the saddle was on a level with the top porch step. "First thing, it might be easier if you climb on from the middle of the steps."
"Alright." Rachel braced the vehicle while Mattie moved lower, then carefully sat across the bar, facing to one side. "Where's the best place for me to hold on?"
"Just a minute." Rachel mounted the bicycle, keeping one foot on the ground for balance. "Let me work this out." She placed one arm on either side of Mattie, grasping the handlebars. "Hang onto either side of the bar, next to your hips. My arms form a kind of cage here to keep you from falling, see?"
"Oh. Alright." The redhead grabbed on tightly to the crossbar.
"Here we go!" With a quick shove-off, Rachel brought her other foot up and they began rolling down the driveway out to the road.
"Oh, my." Mattie gasped. "This is wonderful." It felt more daring than riding in the carriage. In the carriage she could feel the wind in her face, but on the bicycle it washed all over her, and she could feel the rough road under the tires. She also felt Rachel's arms brushing lightly against her stomach or back, if she began to tilt one way or the other. Unless the brunette let go of the handles, there was no way she could fall off.
"Like that, eh?" Rachel laughed. "I can go faster."
She sped up, and they flew down the low incline. She took a turn off to the left that led down to the beach. "Hold on, gonna get a little bumpy for a minute." They bounced over a few sand dunes, then swiveled through the looser sand before they reached the packed wet sand near the shoreline. "Smells good, doesn't it?" She inhaled deeply of the salt air.
"Yes." Mattie did the same, drawing in not only the fresh scent of the sea, but also another scent, which she realized was some sort of tonic Rachel wore. It was clean and bold, and not as heavy as Adam's usual fare, and she decided she liked it. It fit the brunette's charismatic personality. She remembered she was wearing her own favorite rosewater, and wondered if her new friend could smell that as well. She looked up curiously, and steel blue eyes locked with hers for the briefest moment, before Rachel's eyes tracked back to the beach in front of them. Mattie looked out toward the water, then back up. Rachel's eyes almost matched the gray-blue depths further out toward the horizon.
"How about going down to the shell beach?" The smooth voice was right next to her ear, and Mattie felt a pleasant internal shiver. She swallowed, unsure of where the sensation came from.
"Shell beach?" She'd never heard of it before.
"Just a couple of miles further down. There's a bend in the beach there, and some sort of dip in the ocean floor a ways out from there. Lots of shells get trapped in the trough and wash up during high tide, then they're left there for easy collection when it goes back out again." She looked down at wide-open hazel eyes. "Lots of pretty ones there, usually."
"I'd love to go down there." Mattie had done very little beach-combing since moving to the island, her forays limited to quick jaunts out in front of her house, or the occasional slightly longer walk on the Sundays that Adam was out of town. She had a few shells on her what-knot, and one nice piece of sea sponge, but most of her treasures were from back home in El Paso -- arrowheads and bright colored rocks from the desert.
They rode on in comfortable silence, enjoying the pleasant afternoon and the light spray as the waves broke nearby. Soon, they reached the beginning of the shell beach and Rachel allowed the bicycle to roll to a stop. "Need to get off and walk from here. The tires might crush some of the shells."
Mattie felt a light touch to her lower back, then she slid off the crossbar onto the sand. She watched Rachel bend over, removing her boots and rolling up her trousers legs. She placed the boots and stockings in the basket. "If you want to take your shoes off, there's plenty of room for them back here."
"Oh." Mattie stooped down, unlacing her shoes. She pulled them off, then blushed, turning her back as she raised her skirts high enough to unroll her stockings.
Rachel watched for a moment, then averted her eyes, peering studiously out to sea. She felt a tap on her arm and turned back around. "All set?" She took Mattie's shoes and stockings and dropped them in next to her boots, then hoisted the bicycle up, carrying it at shoulder level.
"Let's go." Mattie hiked her skirts up enough to keep them from dragging in the sand, and followed behind her friend, carefully picking her way, placing her feet in Rachel's footprints. The sand felt nice and cool as it squished up between her toes, and she felt quite decadent. She began to notice various shells and her eyes lit up. "Oh. Look at this one!" She picked up a curled conch shell and held it up for Rachel's inspection.
"That's a nice one." Rachel held out her hand. "Here. Listen." She placed it against Mattie's ear. "You can hear the ocean in there, even if you take it back inside your house."
"Really?" The redhead's face was filled with child-like wonder, and Rachel realized that Mattie had probably had even less of a childhood than she had. "Will you hold onto it for me?"
"Sure." Rachel took it and made her way over to a long bleached out log. "I'll just prop the bicycle over here. Any shells you want to keep, put 'em in the basket. I'm going to go wading out in the water."
"Thank you." Mattie was off, darting back and forth all over the beach. She occasionally squealed with delight at a few extra-pretty shells. Rachel watched her in amusement, glad her new friend was having such a good time. She shuffled along the sandy bottom, moving in a manner to send any hidden stingrays swimming away. The water was cold, not yet adequate for swimming, but it felt good. She felt good. She closed her eyes, sorting out a dozen new emotions.
She liked Mattie. It had been a very long time since she had a close female friend, other than Lillie. There seemed to be no judgment in Mattie's eyes, regarding either her clothing or her circumstances. Maybe Mattie was simply naοve, and hadn't been exposed to enough to know that most people thought Rachel was strange. The girl seemed at once worldly-aware when it came to the manners and behavior expected by society, and at the same time, as Rachel watched her skittering over the beach on her treasure-hunt, she seemed very innocent.
Her thoughts strayed to the mysterious Adam. It was clearly an arranged marriage, and there was no joy in Mattie's voice when she spoke of him. She remembered the fading bruise around her friend's eye at their first meeting, and her own eyes darkened for a moment, wondering where it came from. Men could be cruel creatures, she acknowledged. Her own father had been a little too heavy-handed with the lash. She had vivid memories of welts across her backside when she displeased him too much, usually if she failed to get her chores done in a timely manner, or perhaps forgot to do one of them.
After she left home, she learned to defend herself. The rare man that did try to raise a hand to her usually ended up regretting it. It didn't happen very often -- usually at the saloon when a customer became drunk and either became abusive to one of the whores, or forgot that Rachel herself wasn't for sale. She sighed. Her friend Billy was about the nicest man she had ever met. It was too bad, she mused, that there weren't more like him around. She suspected Adam was not, and felt bad for her friend.
"My goodness." Mattie's voice interrupted her thoughts. "It's very cold." The redhead stood uncertainly in barely-ankle deep water, her skirts hitched up to her knees in her fists. "I I've never been out much further than this. I don't know how to swim."
"You should learn." Rachel's eyes were very serious. "You live way too close to the water to not be able to. I could teach you. When the weather gets warmer, if you'd like."
Mattie bit her lower lip in thought, her face turned down to the water washing over her feet. Slowly, she looked up through auburn lashes. "I probably should learn, shouldn't I?"
"Yes." The brunette held out her hand. "Come on. You get used to the cold real quick. We can't swim right now, but you can get a little better feel for the water if you go a little deeper."
Mattie released an abrupt breath. I've ridden a bicycle for the first time today, walked barefoot in the sand for the first time, and made a new friend. Oh, why not? She smiled and reached out, taking the warm hand, careful to keep her skirt out of the water with the other. The frigid water was almost shocking to her bare legs and she gasped. "Oh. Very very cold."
"Give it a minute." Rachel squeezed her hand in reassurance. She watched the tense features relax. "See?"
"You're right." The sand shifted oddly under her feet and she found herself clinging to Rachel's hand for balance, the cold forgotten. "I feel very light."
"Wait 'til you swim in it." Rachel winked at her. "It's even better than riding the bicycle."
They trod gingerly through the low rolling waves, Rachel on the deeper side and Mattie closest to shore. Before they knew it they had wandered quite a bit a ways down from where they left the bicycle. The sun was sinking lower in the late afternoon sky, and the tide was starting to come in. The waves became more aggressive, and Mattie wrapped her arm around Rachel's waist for better support, the brunette's arm draped casually over her shoulders. They talked idly about the town, and Rachel spoke of her job on the docks while Mattie shared gossip from the tailor's shop.
The brunette's head was tilted to the side, taking in Mattie's animated chatter, when a roar caught her attention and her head snapped up toward the open sea. "Uh-oh. Hang on."
Before she knew what was happening, Mattie was swept up in Rachel's arms and she was hoisted up to chest level. "What are you doing?"
"Keeping you from getting an early swimming lesson." She gestured toward the water with her head, and braced herself, as a large wave came rolling toward them. It crashed down, drenching Rachel up to her waist and catching just the dangling hem of Mattie's skirt.
"Oh my." Mattie found herself laughing giddily, in spite of the situation. "You're soaked."
"I'll live." The brunette smiled. "Trousers are lightweight. They dry fast. Guess we better get back to your house." Rachel waded back to shore, not putting Mattie down. "It'll probably be almost dark by the time we get back." The reached higher ground and she released her friend. A leisurely walk back up the beach brought them back to the bicycle and a much-too-short ride later they were back, standing on Mattie's front porch.
"Thank you for the tea." Rachel kicked at a knot in the wooden steps with the toe of her boot. "I had a very nice time this afternoon."
"It was my pleasure," Mattie smiled. "Thank you for the lovely ride. I'm going to need more shelves for all these new seashells."
Rachel almost offered to build her a set, then stopped herself. "I don't have a place nice enough to return the invitation, unless "
"Rachel, I don't care where you live." Mattie took her hand and held it for a minute. "I'm happy to have you for a friend, alright?"
"Alright." Blue eyes sparkled warmly. "Still I don't have a stove or anything to cook on, but I will help you learn to swim, if you'd like."
"I'd like that very much." Mattie released her hand. "But I hope we see each other again before it's warm enough to swim. Why don't you stop by the shop next week? If Adam goes out of town next weekend, maybe you could come over again. I should know by mid-week."
"Alright." Rachel backed off the porch and got on her bicycle. "I'll do that. Have a nice evening, Mattie."
"You too." The redhead watched as Rachel rode off. She turned at the end of the road and waved, and Mattie waved back enthusiastically. When she couldn't see the dark head anymore, she turned and went back inside the house. Her thoughts turned toward Adam and she forced them aside. For now, she had a quiet evening alone to look forward to, and a bunch of beautiful shells to arrange on the what-knot.
Soft gray light filtered through the lace curtains, and Mattie's eyes slowly fluttered open. She stretched lazily, pushing back a lightweight quilt. She felt uncharacteristically happy, and she pondered that for a moment. She was alone, which was always reason enough for celebration, but beyond that, she found herself unaccountably looking forward to the day, and the week ahead as well. Maybe she and Rachel would be able to get together the next weekend.
She had a friend.
Mattie smiled. She had friends growing up -- daughters of neighbors, school friends, and daughters of her father's business associates. Most of her childhood companions were carefully hand-selected by her parents. After a first visit, undesirable friends were not encouraged to make a return visit, and certainly weren't invited back. She and her sister were to be raised properly, and that meant only associating with proper friends.
Her mother certainly knew how society worked, and was determined that her two daughters were going to move up a notch from where they were born. The only way to do that was through marriage. Her father left courting matters up to her mother. His only role in the entire process had been to give Adam his blessing to marry her, and walk her down the aisle at the wedding. Unless they did exchange a payment somewhere, she mused. In that case, her father may have been much more involved than she cared to find out. She truly didn't want to know if she was of no more value to her parents than the price of her dowry.
Mattie thought about Caroline. Her sister was fifteen now, and their mother most likely already had her eye on suitable beaus. She and Caroline, "Carrie," wrote every few months. Carrie's letters were newsy and Mattie suspected their mother censored what was written. Mattie's own letters were guarded. That she was miserable was not shared. There was no point. She had been married in the Catholic Church, the marriage was long-since consummated, and she was much too far away for her family to make any difference in her circumstances.
Rachel was the first friend Mattie had ever made all by herself, without fear that her mother would reject the brunette and not allow her to see Rachel anymore. Oh, she grinned, her mother would most definitely disapprove of Rachel. So would Adam, most likely. She frowned. She would just have to do her best to keep the friendship secret for as long as she could.
With that thought in mind, she got up, washed her face, and got dressed. After a brief breakfast of leftover teacakes and hot tea, she wrapped up the remaining cakes to take to the shop to share with Mr. Vaughan, and his wife and children if they decided to pay a visit. She picked up the bundle and wandered into the parlor, running her fingers lightly over the new shells. She held the conch up to her ear and listened.
Sure enough, she could hear the sound of the ocean, and she smiled, remembering her adventures from the day before. Riding a bicycle had been exhilarating, wading in the water was a little frightening, and if not for Rachel, she might have drowned. Lucky she's strong enough to pick me up. That had felt different and very safe. She pondered that for a moment. What she remembered was an incredible sense of peace as her new friend carried her back to shore. Peace was something she rarely felt.
What a strange thing to feel. She shook her head and dismissed it as a mystery.
She put the conch back down and bit her lower lip, debating. Would Adam notice the shells and become angry? Maybe. Surely he wouldn't become too enraged over a simple walk on the beach. He didn't have to know she wasn't alone. Alright, I won't hide them. She turned to leave and spotted the flowers. Her heart sank. She'd never be able to explain those away. She had never picked wildflowers during the entire time they were married.
She removed them from the vase and took the large etched crystal container into the kitchen, where she rinsed it out and carefully dried it, before placing it in the cabinet. The flowers would go to the shop too. Mrs. Vaughan would like them, and there was already a vase there they could put them in. She could look at them all week and no one would know where they came from except her.
She took one last look around the kitchen and parlor. No sign of her little party remained, save the shells on the what-knot. Her eyes stung and she blinked away a scattering of unexpected tears. Drat him. She grabbed a handkerchief from the armoire in the bedroom, dabbed her eyes, and left for the walk up to the main road, where she could catch the trolley to the tailor shop.
The day passed quickly. The shop was busy, with several customers coming by to place new orders for spring and summer clothing. Both Mattie and Mr. Vaughan were constantly discussing material and style with their clients, then pulling out tape measures and taking the customers into a back room to record size information. Mrs. Vaughan came by at the noon hour and stayed the rest of the day to help out. She complimented Mattie on both the cakes and the flowers, and as they got ready to close for the evening, wrapped up a few cakes to take home and share with their children -- two little boys who had been sent to stay with a neighbor.
As Mattie was putting away her sewing basket, Adam pulled up in front of the shop and came in to pick her up. "Hello Matthew, Ma'am," he nodded briefly to Mr. And Mrs. Vaughan.
"A good evening to you Adam." The tailor stood by the door, prepared to lock up after everyone had cleared the shop.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Mr. Vaughan." Mattie tied her hat under her chin. "Will you be coming in tomorrow as well, Eliza?"
"I don't know yet, Mattie. Most likely I will. You all sure are busy enough for it." She picked up her napkin-wrapped cakes. "Thank you for these lovely cakes, by the way. The boys will certainly enjoy them."
Too late, Mattie caught the dark question in Adam's eyes. "You're welcome," she stammered. "See you tomorrow. Let's go home, dear." She scurried out of the shop before either of them thought to mention the flowers and dig her in any deeper than she knew she already was.
"Cakes?" Adam gave her a hand up into the carriage and tucked a lap robe around her skirts.
"Oh, it was nothing really." Mattie tried to sound nonchalant. "I had a hankerin' for some hot tea, and wanted some cakes to eat with it. I guess I got carried away and made too many."
"Did you save any for me?" He climbed in and flicked a light switch, then guided the horses down the street toward the Gulf side of the island where they lived.
"No. I'm sorry, dear." She smiled her most charmingly innocent smile. "I didn't know you cared for tea cakes, being as you don't like hot tea. If I ever make them again I'll make sure to save you some."
"Hmphh," he grunted, his eyes on the road.
"How was your trip to Houston?" She breathed an internal sigh of relief, hoping the topic of cake was finished.
"Not as profitable as I had hoped." His jaw line was tense and Mattie mentally slapped herself for not having looked for the telltale sign before asking the question.
"I'm sorry to hear that." She reached over and quickly patted his arm before just as quickly drawing her hand back into her lap. "Maybe it will turn out better next time. When do you expect to go back?" There. Easy way to ask that question legitimately.
"Probably next weekend." He missed her tiny smile as he flicked the switch and the horses broke into a smooth jog.
They reached the road that led to their house, and traveled the rest of the way in silence. Mattie couldn't help but compare it to the comfortable stretches of silence during the bicycle ride the day before. She suddenly realized that even though she barely knew Rachel, she was much more comfortable riding with her than she was with Adam. She didn't recall worrying too much about what she said to Rachel, or how she said it, or even if they said anything at all. Her shoulders slumped and she looked away from Adam, staring at the high marsh grass on the side of the road as they sped by.
They reached the house and Mattie jumped out of the carriage as Adam pulled up in front of the house before taking the rig and horses back to the stable. "Supper will be ready in about thirty minutes, so take your time." She smiled and quickly made her way inside the house, where she pulled a leftover roast from the ice box, popping it into the oven along with some vegetables she had chopped up the night before.
A thought occurred to her and she went into the bedroom. She looked out the window, and satisfied Adam was still in the stable, she knelt down and dug into the back of a bottom drawer in the armoire, pulling a box from under a set of bed linens. She quickly went into the water closet and emerged a few minutes later, looked back out the window, and put the box back in the drawer, carefully covering it up. She felt beaded sweat on her forehead, and dabbed it away with her sleeve before returning to the kitchen.
Adam returned from the stable and they shared a mostly quiet supper. Mattie told him of the priest's lessons from Sunday's mass, and Adam made idle comments about predictions for a very hot summer. Mattie remembered the promised swimming lessons from Rachel and barely held back a smile at the news.
After supper, they retired to the parlor where Adam caught up on reading the newspaper, while Mattie dove into a most fascinating novel by her favorite writer, H.G. Wells. It was titled War of the Worlds. She had devoured The Time Machine, and was delighted when the newest book became available for order. Adam summarily dismissed her taste in reading material as "futuristic gibberish."
She was completely lost in her novel when she was suddenly yanked out of the chair by the arm, her book falling to the floor. "What are you doing?"
Adam roughly pulled her to the what-knot. "What are these?" He squeezed her wrist harder and gestured toward the shells on the top shelf.
"Shells." She tried to free her wrist. "Let go. You're hurting me."
He ignored her and twisted her arm slightly. "I KNOW what they are. How did they get there?"
"I went for a walk on the beach and picked them up." She pulled at her arm again, trying to get him to release it.
"You know I don't like you going out when I'm not home. Haven't you been the busy one this weekend, making cakes and going for walks? Did you get any housework done at all?" He quickly twisted her wrist further, then released it.
Mattie cried out, grabbing at her arm. Her wrist was throbbing and she examined it, certain it was sprained. "Does the house look dirty?" She scowled boldly, showing her displeasure. "I didn't do anything wrong. Just went for a walk on the beach is all."
"It's still going out. There could be vagrants walking these beaches. They come into town on the trains." He moved back to the chair and sat down. "Don't do it again." He picked up the paper and disappeared behind it as if nothing had happened, effectively dismissing her.
Mattie's lower lip trembled and she quietly picked up her book and set it on the table, then went in the kitchen to get some ice and a rag. Her eyes blurred as she made up the ice pack, then applied it to her painful wrist. It was starting to swell and the skin was red where Adam had squeezed it. She tiptoed back through the parlor and into the bedroom, where she dressed in her nightgown and curled up on the bed in the dark. She tried very hard not to cry. It never worked.
She sniffled a few times and rearranged the ice to cover more of her wrist. She wondered if she would ever do anything in a manner that would please her husband. Nothing she said or did ever came out right, no matter how hard she tried. Her mother had been the same way, never happy with Mattie, but chose to punish her with words rather than physical force. She couldn't recall either of her parents ever raising a hand to her, although a chastising from her mother was almost as effective as a beating.
She wasn't sure how much time had passed when Adam came into the room and switched on a lamp. She closed her eyes tightly and pretended to be asleep. A hiccup gave her away. She cursed silently, continuing to face the wall, knowing he was watching her back.
"Mattie," Adam sat down on the bed behind her. "I'm sorry if I hurt you."
She remained silent, staring at the paisley flowered wallpaper.
"I need you to do what I tell you to, that's all." He reached out, touching her back. "Do you understand?"
"Yes," she answered softly, still not facing him.
"Here, let me take a look at your arm." He rolled her over onto her back and took the injured limb into his hand, removing the ice pack and studying it. "I'm sorry. It'll be healed up in a day or so."
"I know." She sighed helplessly, as he leaned closer and kissed her. His breath stank of whiskey, and she realized he had pulled out the whiskey decanter after she'd gone to bed. She held her breath against the stench, and waited.
He kissed her again, and stretched out next to her. "Let me make it up to you, Mattie." He continued to kiss her, and she felt him pushing her nightgown up around her waist, then his hand fumbled with the buttons on her bloomers.
As she felt the bloomers slide off, she had just enough presence of mind to be grateful she'd remembered the pessary. Adam would probably kill her if he ever found out she used them. It was a sin according to the church, but she wasn't ready for children. She wasn't sure if she would ever be ready for them with Adam. It was difficult enough with just the two of them. She was certain the greater sin would be to bring children into her situation.
She closed her eyes and tried to relax, waiting for it to be over.
The shop bell jingled in greeting as Rachel pushed the front door open. She poked her head in and looked around, spotting the back of a familiar red head bent diligently over a sewing machine. Mattie's hair was twisted up off her pale neck, a few loose strands hanging down over the back of her collar. The quiet whir of the sewing machine spindle and the rhythmic tapping of Mattie's foot on the pedal filled the otherwise quiet shop. "Hello there."
Mattie stopped in startlement, right before she would have sewn her finger onto the sleeve of the shirt she was stitching. She'd been so engrossed in her work that she hadn't noticed the doorbell. She turned around and smiled warmly, having already recognized the smooth voice at her back. "Hello, Rachel." She stood and wiped her hands on the front of her apron. "Good to see you."
"You to." The brunette grinned and stepped all the way inside. "You running the shop alone today?"
"Oh." Mattie looked around, as if she had forgotten she was the only one there. "Oh, no. Mr. Vaughan went to meet Mrs. Vaughan for dinner at the hotel. I told them I'd wait until they return before taking mine. How are you?"
"I'm fine." Steel eyes studied her surroundings. One wall was covered in floor-to-ceiling shelves, which were filled with an overwhelming assortment of bolts of cloth, spools of thread, containers of buttons, and a variety of other sewing goods. The strong scent of unwashed dye assaulted her nose, almost making her sneeze. Three sewing machines lined another wall, and a long worktable filled the space under the front window, which looked out over the street. The back wall was a curtain, obscuring whatever might be behind it, and a mannequin stood in one corner, wearing a half-finished lady's gown. In the middle of the room was another table that bore various fashion magazines and catalogues. A hat tree beside the door was adorned with at least two-dozen various men's and women's hats. "Nice place. How are you doing?"
"Fine, thank you." Mattie rocked shyly back on her heels and clasped her hands behind her back. "Adam is going to Houston again this weekend, if you'd like to come over for tea." She tried not to appear as eager as she felt at the prospect.
"I'd love to." Rachel flashed another bright smile. "I actually brought you something to mend up." She held out the checkered shirt she had torn when she fell off her bicycle. "I never was good at patching up elbows."
"Oh my." Mattie took the garment and delicately fingered the shredded hole. "I hope your elbow fared better than the shirt." She unconsciously reached out and touched her friend's arm, giving it a little squeeze.
"Nah. Barely a scratch" It warmed her all over, and Rachel looked down at the smaller hand clasping her arm. And frowned. "Hey." She took Mattie's hand in her own. "What happened to you?" Mattie's wrist was swollen and a bruise circled it. She carefully turned it over, not missing more bruises that were obviously fingerprints.
Mattie felt the blood drain from her face, and tried to hide it with a flustered smile. "It was nothing, really. I'm so clumsy, you see." She gently withdrew her hand. "I tried to pick up a heavy box of books at the house and dropped it. Twisted my arm in the process."
Rachel frowned, her ire rapidly rising. Bastard. "You should wrap it up. Sprains heal better if they're bound." She looked around, spotting a scrap basket. She walked over and sorted through it, picking out a few long white strips of cotton shirting material. "I can wrap it for you, if you like. The fellows are always hurting themselves on the docks. I have a lot of experience in this area."
"Aright. Shall I sit down?" Mattie indicated her chair.
"Yes." Rachel grabbed a second one and pulled it up next to Mattie's chair, but facing in the opposite direction. "Give me your hand."
The redhead complied, and watched as her friend unbuttoned the cuff on her blouse and rolled it halfway up her forearm. She noted the careful attention to the simple act, and that Rachel made sure the rolled sleeve would stay up. Then the brunette began slowly and methodically wrapping her wrist with the cotton strips, alternating over and under her thumb until her wrist was immobilized. "Thank you." She flexed her fingers, which were still moderately serviceable. "I think I can even still work this way."
"I tried to wrap it so that you could." Rachel realized she was still cradling the injured hand in her own, and gently let go of it, placing it back in Mattie's lap. "But you should try not to work so much for a few days, if you can. I can bring the shirt back another time." She started to retrieve the garment where she'd left it on the table, only to feel a gentle touch to her leg.
"No need." Mattie patted the firm thigh. "I think I can manage one small elbow patch. I promise if my arm becomes fatigued I'll put it aside for a few days. It will be nothing compared to all the shirts I need to finish this week."
Rachel considered that, and looked down at her own plain white work shirt. She only had three good serviceable ones to wear to the docks, and found herself washing out one shirt a night in order to always have a clean dry one ready. "How much does it cost, for a shirt like this one?"
"Your shirt is top-quality muslin, correct?" Mattie ran one finger along the shirtsleeve, briefly looking up into proud blue eyes. "Smart woman." She smiled, watching a matching one grace Rachel's lips. "So many of the workers try to cut corners and save a few bits by ordering lower quality shirts, but they wear out faster. Shirts like yours are generally a dollar a piece, or six for five dollars, but they wear much better over time."
"That's all?" Rachel's eyes grew wide. "That's the same price as the catalogue, but with no shipping charge."
"Mr. Vaughan wants to stay competitive." Mattie got up and brought over a bolt of not-quite pure white sturdy muslin. "He tries to match catalogue prices, in the hope that folks will order tailor-made shirts through his shop, rather than getting something from the catalogue that might not fit so well."
"I'd like to order six shirts," Rachel declared, "on one condition."
"What would that be?" The redhead set the bolt of material aside and picked up her tape measure.
"You make them, and you don't make them until your wrist is healed up." She clasped Mattie's arm, holding it loosely in her hand. "And I mean that."
"Alright." Mattie pulled the curtain aside revealing a small room that contained a step stool, a chair, and a full-length mirror. "Come on then, off with your shirt."
"What?" The brunette's eyes grew round as saucers.
"I have to measure you if I'm going to make shirts that fit, silly." She gestured toward the room and held up the tape measure. "So come on in here, unless you want people on the street to look in the window and see you in your um " she trailed off, unsure of what Rachel had on under the shirt. She was fairly certain it wasn't a chemise like her own.
"Undershirt," Rachel supplied helpfully, watching Mattie blush. Turn about's fair play, she laughed to herself.
"Yes," Mattie's voice was flustered. "Undershirt."
The brunette ambled behind the curtain and heard the swoosh as Mattie let it drop behind them. She quickly unbuttoned her shirt and drew it over her head, folding it carefully over the back of the chair. She was glad she'd bathed the night before. She bathed almost every night after working on the docks all day, a practice she wished her fellow dockworkers would all take up. The day was warm and she was also glad she'd splashed on her bay rum tonic that morning, as the scent came wafting up from her sun-kissed skin. Her arms, neck, and face were a dark golden brown from working so often in her undershirt.
"Ready." She turned, facing Mattie, wearing her denim work trousers and ribbed cotton short-sleeved undershirt. "Should I leave these down as well?" She tugged at her limp suspenders.
"Yes." Mattie moved closer, helping her without really thinking about it, unconsciously inhaling the bay rum scent in idle pleasure, remembering it from their outing on Sunday afternoon. She decided she liked it much better than Adam's tonic.
She began measuring Rachel's arms, making idle comments as she went. Her friend was a curious mixture of well-developed muscles and soft feminine skin. She understood now why Rachel had so easily lifted and carried her out of the water -- her biceps fairly bulged against the edges of the undershirt sleeves. "You're going to love tailor-made shirts, Rachel." She paused and wrote down some figures on a pad that rested on the footstool. "I'd guess you've never had a catalogue-boughten one that fit you perfectly all over, am I correct?"
"Yes." The brunette felt the tape measure stretched across the back of her shoulders. "That's true. If they fit through the shoulders, the sleeves are usually too long, and if the sleeves are the correct length, I tend to rip them out through the shoulders."
"Well then," Mattie moved around in front of her, indicating she should raise her arms up a bit. "I'm going to make you a set that will fit all over, just right." She took her friend's bust measurement, and noticed Rachel's nipples harden under the cotton undershirt as the tape brushed over them. She blushed herself, and dared not look up. It puzzled her, and she briefly glanced at the curtain, wondering if there were a breeze blowing in, making Rachel cold, although she herself was not cold at all. "There. All done." Mattie patted her gently on the hip.
"Finished?" Rachel lowered her arms as Mattie turned to write down the final figures. She was anxious to get her shirt back on, recognizing her reaction to Mattie's measurement of her bust line for exactly what it was. Dammit, I've got to cut that out right now. She's my friend and she's married. She could still see the results of Mattie's touch in the long mirror, and hastily donned her shirt, buttoning it up as quickly as she could.
She pondered Mattie's husband and the ugly bruises on her wrist. She thought about the fading bruise she had seen on her friend's face the morning they met, and Mattie's listless voice whenever she talked about Adam yes, that was his name. She despised him without having met him, and turned as she tucked in her shirt and pulled the suspenders back up. She followed her friend out into the shop and waited while her work order was placed in a drawer on top of a pile of orders, nodding her head imperceptibly, a decision made, the consequences be damned. "Mattie, I need to say something, and I hope I'm not out of line."
Troubled hazel eyes met blue and the redhead moved closer, feeling Rachel pick up her injured arm, holding it as if it were a piece of fine china. "What is it?"
"I know we just met, but I hope you know you can trust me, and I'm your friend." She reached out and stroked Mattie's cheek once, allowing her fingers to linger there, feeling warm skin pressing back against her fingertips. "I'm going to tell you where I live. If you ever need a place to go, for any reason, to talk, or for for any reason at all, even if I'm not there, consider my home my room to be yours, if you need it." The words had come tumbling out and she waited, hoping she hadn't scared her new friend away.
Their eyes locked in silent understanding. Rachel knew her secret. Mattie had but a moment to decide trust this person she barely knew, or throw away something she felt might be very precious. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a long moment. Her heart told her that Rachel was a good and decent person. Her heart also told her that their friendship was already much deeper than perhaps she was willing to admit. "Thank you." She patted Rachel's hand, which still rested against her face. "I appreciate that."
Rachel picked up a pencil and a scrap of paper, and scribbled down her address. "Might be best to memorize it." She laid the paper down on Mattie's sewing machine. "Well." She suddenly felt shy. "Guess I better get back to the docks, the noon hour is about up, and you're probably starving by now."
"Oh. Yes. I quite forgot about dinner." Mattie glanced at the address, already committing it to memory, knowing she dared not take the piece of paper home with her. She picked it up and slipped it into the drawer where she kept a few personal items, and closed it with a click. "Rachel "
The brunette paused at the door, raising one brow as her friend moved directly into her space. Before she could blink, she felt a feather-light kiss to her cheek. Mattie drew back, her eyes shining in sincere gratitude. "Thank you. Will I see you Sunday?"
"I look forward to it." She ruffled the red head, then slipped out the door and onto the sidewalk. Standing with hands on hips, she looked up at the sky, then picked up her bicycle and wheeled it out into the street. She stopped and looked back at the closed door of the tailor shop. Shaking her head, she reached up, touching her face where Mattie had kissed her, a hundred confused emotions racing through her brain. With a heavy sigh, she pushed off, pedaling her way back to the docks.
Rachel towel-dried her long hair. It felt good to be clean, and even better that it was Friday, and she had two days of rest to look forward to. She was scheduled to work the bar at the saloon that evening, but had tentative plans to meet up with some of the boys from the dock afterward for a poker game on Saturday evening.
Her wages were carefully tucked into a small box she kept in a armoire drawer. It was one week from the end of the month, and she needed to stretch her earnings, as rent would come from the following week's wages. She ruefully realized that she would probably be counting cards the next evening. She firmly hoped one of the wealthy Galveston businessmen would join them. She felt less guilty winning their funds than those of her fellow workers.
Clad in a clean undershirt and navy blue trousers, she sorted through her meager selection of shirts, trying to decide what to wear down to supper and the saloon. It was a little warmer outside than it had been since early autumn, a hint of the rapidly approaching summer. She considered that and reached back, tediously braiding her hair against the heat. She could do it by feel alone, but its thickness and length made it a chore.
A quiet tapping at the door caught her in mid-twist, and she held her spot, slipping across the room and opening the door with her free hand. It took a moment to register who her guest was. "Oh, hello." A delighted smile lit up her face. "Um come on in."
"Thank you." Mattie entered the room. "I hope I'm not intruding. I finished this up yesterday and since you told me where you live " Her eyes shone with the warmth of their budding friendship. She swallowed and held out Rachel's mended shirt. "Anyway, I thought you might need it before Sunday. I took the liberty of washing it for you. I hope you don't mind."
"No, no. Not at all. Thank you. I was just trying to figure out what to wear tonight, and this one matches my trousers just right." Rachel took the shirt and draped it over the end of the bedpost. "Nice work." Mattie had not just mended the elbow, but had covered both elbows in soft pale blue patches of material that contrasted nicely with the checkered cloth.
"I thought the patches looked better than just stitching up the tear." She watched the brunette fumble with her braid, almost losing her place. "You want me to finish that up for you?"
Bad idea. Very bad idea. "Alright," was what she heard herself say. She sat on the edge of the bed and Mattie slid in behind her. She felt nimble fingers take the braid, and the gentle tugging of her friend's hands as she worked at the nape of her neck.
"So this is where you live." Hazel eyes slowly swept the room. It was simple and almost bare. There was nothing on the walls, save faded gray wallpaper. A double bed on a plain iron frame was tucked into the corner, an unadorned cream-colored quilt covering it, with two white pillows propped up at the head. A lone armoire rested against the far wall, one door open to reveal a small selection of clothing hanging on a single bar. A pair of work boots, pair of cowboy boots, and one pair of dressier shoes were lined up neatly in a row under the armoire. Two straight-backed chairs sat in another corner. Between the chairs and a nightstand was a window.
The window was propped open as wide as could be, and a patch of mosquito netting was tacked to an outer frame between the outside and the inner glass panes. It overlooked an alleyway, where the sounds of children playing below drifted up. Community clotheslines were strung between windows, and Mattie noted that one of Rachel's work shirts was hanging on the line just outside the window.
"Yep. This is my humble abode." Rachel looked around herself, truly seeing her meager room for the first time. "Pretty different from what you're used to, I'd wager."
"I like it," Mattie answered honestly. "It fits you."
"You saying I'm plain and simple?" the brunette laughed quietly, ribbing her friend. She wasn't offended in the least.
"No. What I mean is, I don't see you as a person who lives their life indoors very much. You seem like you enjoy being outdoors as much as possible." She knew it sounded strange. Her assessment was based upon instinct, more than anything. She didn't really know Rachel that well, and yet she felt as if they had been friends for a very long time.
"Oh." Rachel considered that. "That would be true. I feel at my best when I'm outdoors. This room is where I change clothes and sleep, for the most part."
The redhead came to the end of the damp braid and reached for a tie on the nightstand. "And read too, apparently." Her eyes fell on a book, and her brows scrunched together as she took in the title. An errant giggle escaped and she patted Rachel's arm. "McGuffey's First Reader?" She traced the intricate pen and ink drawing that decorated the book cover. "I have a great number of books you're welcome to borrow, if you're looking for something a bit more interesting." She picked the book up, spying the second and third readers, and a dictionary underneath it, suddenly understanding her faux pas. "Oh."
"I know. I saw your books." Rachel felt the heat rising up her neck and into her cheeks, and knew Mattie could probably see the blush at the back of her neck. "I can't read." The words were an almost inaudible mumble. "Leastwise, not very well."
Mattie felt horrible for making fun of her friend. "Oh, Rachel, I'm sorry. I did not mean to embarrass you." She tied off the braid. "Done." She tugged playfully on the long tail, hoping to lighten the situation.
Rachel turned. "It's alright." She looked down, twisting her hands in her lap. "I'm trying to teach myself. Kinda difficult, though. Since I can't read, looking words up in the dictionary is almost pointless. I can find them based on the spelling, but can't always understand the definitions or how to pronounce them."
"How do you get by?" Mattie had been reading for as long as she could remember, and wondered what it must be like to be unable to.
"I know my numbers, so I don't get cheated when I buy things." Rachel looked up, her eyes moist with tears she refused to shed. "I'm the oldest of a farm family, remember? My father needed all the help he could get with chores. Then all my brothers and sisters came along, and when I wasn't mucking out stalls or planting crops, I was diapering their little tushies and making sure they were all dressed. My parents never got around to sending me to school. All my brothers and sisters went, but every time I thought it was my turn, they needed my help with yet another newborn child. Finally, I was simply too old, and I'll admit, too proud, to try to start school from the beginning, when I was years behind the other children my age."
"I can help you, if you'd like." Mattie reached out, touching Rachel's leg. "Learn to read, that is."
"Really?" The blue eyes lost some of their sadness. "I'd like that very much."
"Where are you in the reader?" Mattie picked it up and flipped through the pages.
"I've gone all the way through that one, but I'm not certain I'm getting all the words correctly." She picked up the second reader. "I've gone through this one, too, and I'm working my way through the third one."
"Maybe we should start from the beginning." The redhead reached up, pulling two hairpins from the knot at the back of her head, releasing several tendrils of hair, which fell into her eyes. She made an incoherent sound of frustration and tugged the remaining pins from her hair, the long locks spilling over her shoulders before she swept them aside and down her back.
Rachel watched in fascination as the low light from the window danced off the red strands, creating gold and copper highlights. She decided her friend had the most beautiful hair she had ever seen, and she barely restrained herself from reaching out and touching the shiny red waves. She gulped silently. "The beginning might be a good place."
"Here, your turn." Mattie scooted around, turning her back to the taller woman. "Will you please braid mine while I mark some spots in the book with my hairpins?"
Very very bad idea. "Alright." Mattie's hair felt like silken strands against her calloused hands, and she took her time, enjoying the sensation, along with the fresh clean smell that rose up from the long locks.
Mattie perused the book, clipping a few pages. She studied some of the words and picked up the dictionary, marking more pages there. "In the reader, I want you to start at the first hairpin and go to the last one. Then I'd like for you to study the words in the dictionary that I've placed pins directly next to. They're some of the harder words in the reader."
"I can do that." Rachel finished the braid and secured it with a length of green hair ribbon that Mattie fished from her skirt pocket. It matched the green of her skirt. "Is that how we'll spend our time on Sunday? With reading lessons?"
"I think we can spend part of the time walking out on the beach as well, unless you want it to be all work and no play." Mattie turned and winked at her. "And I might be able to whip up some more tea and teacakes."
"No. Play is good as well. So are the cakes." Their eyes met again, much as they had in the tailor's shop. There was a depth of understanding between them that neither woman was willing to voice just yet, a connection of hearts that had yet to be defined.
"Hey, how's your arm?" Rachel changed the subject, taking her friend's hand and studying it perhaps a bit too diligently. The bandage had been removed and the bruises had started to fade, along with the swelling.
"Much better, thanks to you." Mattie felt long fingers gently probing her hand, and she looked up again, just in time to catch an unreadable glance from her friend. "It doesn't hurt at all."
"Glad to hear it." Blue eyes closed for a moment, afraid of what Mattie might see there. She allowed herself to fully acknowledge feelings she knew she could never act on. That she had a friend she enjoyed spending time with was a precious thing. It was a bit like torture to know her own emotions were rapidly growing deeper than friendship, but the friendship itself was worth any pain or discomfort she might have to endure. She made a firm decision to allow the feelings, but never to let Mattie see them, if she could help it.
She opened her eyes to see troubled hazel ones looking back at her. "Does your head hurt?" Mattie touched her forehead, not helping matters at all. "I could get you a headache powder if you need it. You seem like you're in pain."
"I'm sorry." Rachel smiled for Mattie's benefit. "It's nothing, really, but thank you."
"Well." Mattie stood up. "I should best be getting home. I've got some chores of my own to finish and of course work at the shop tomorrow, and I'm guessing you have things to do as well."
"True." Rachel also stood. "I'll walk you downstairs. I need to go grab a bite to eat before I go to my other job."
"Two jobs?" Mattie's head tilted in question.
"I'm afraid so." The brunette fervently hoped she wouldn't be questioned any further, and wished she hadn't commented on her second job. Working in a house of ill repute, even as a bartender, was surely frowned upon in the circles Mattie must run in. Keeping both myself and my brother in Austin in food and clothing is a lot of work." She smiled.
Oh, Rachel. Forgetting to ask about the second job, Mattie suddenly wondered what it must be like to support a brother who was attending university, when Rachel herself was struggling to attain a basic skill such as reading. "You must know how to write some," she frowned. "You wrote down your address for me, and you said you send your brother money every month."
"I know how to write my address and his address, and not much else, unfortunately." She dug a scrap of paper from her pocket and held it out for Mattie's perusal. It contained two carefully printed addresses. "I carry this with me all the time. I've got them memorized, but sometimes I double check before posting the money. I'd hate to send it to the wrong place by mistake."
"Then we've just added another class to your lessons." Mattie squeezed her arm. "Penmanship. I think I have an old slate and slate pencil around somewhere."
"You don't know how much it means to me," Rachel stammered over her words. "I'd like, someday, to do something besides dock work. I figure I won't always be able to lift the weight I can now, but without being able to read, my choices are pretty limited unless I want to do something truly tedious indoors."
"I'm happy to help." Mattie followed her out the door and down the stairs. They traversed the lower hallway and went through the boarding house parlor and outside to the front porch. "Good evening, Rachel." The redhead impulsively snagged her around the neck, giving her a quick hug.
"I'll see you Sunday afternoon, then?" Rachel felt the annoying shyness again.
"Come over earlier." Mattie fluttered one hand as she spoke. "Directly after mass if you'd like. I can make us up some dinner before we get to your lessons."
"That would be very nice. I'll be there for dinner, then." She watched Mattie leave, and it was her turn to wave as her friend disappeared out of sight around the corner.
The saloon was busier than usual, and Rachel suspected it was partly to do with payday, and partly to do with the electric ceiling fans that circulated the ocean breeze coming in through the windows. It was a rather pleasant escape on summer evenings, in comparison to the eating and drinking establishments on the island that did not have the modern fans. Mr. Bullock, the owner of the partially illicit business, made more than enough income to afford it, and shrewdly knew the extra patrons his comfortable joint drew in more than paid for it.
She was busy pouring up mugs of strong brew when her nemesis entered the room, the two wooden slatted doors swinging behind him. Hands on hips, his dark beady eyes surveyed the room and fell on her, his lips twisting into a mocking sneer. "Hey." She resisted the urge to leap over the bar, quickly shuffling around it instead. "You're " A strong arm gripped her wrist and she spun, barely stopping herself from punching her captor, which turned out to be Mr. Bullock.
" more than welcome, sir." Mr. Bullock finished her sentence for her. "Please take a seat at the table of your choice, and Rachel here will bring you a drink on the house."
"Bu " Rachel trailed off at the admonition in her boss's eyes.
"Thank you, kind sir." The man flicked a bit of dust from his lapel, pointedly aiming at Rachel in the process. "I believe I'll take the one next to the front window. Say, is that little blonde whore available this evening?"
The brunette's blood boiled. "She's most certainly no "
Mr. Bullock squeezed her wrist harder, effectively silencing her. " with a client at present, but I'll make sure you get some quality time with her later, if that would be your preference."
"It would be." The man's dark eyes bore through Rachel, daring her to make a move. "Your hospitality is most greatly appreciated. Bring me a whisky, straight up, would you?" He moved away from them, joining a lively card game at the front table.
"Mr. Bullock " Rachel wrenched her arm free. "That man is a skunk. Last week he "
" came very close to turning me and everyone who works here into the sheriff." His gaze was less than kind.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Mr. Bullock!" Rachel released a frustrated breath. "The sheriff damned well knows what goes on here. Hell's bells, some of his deputies have come in here when they're off duty. Empty threat at best."
"The sheriff looks the other way because he doesn't get any complaints. All it would take is a few from the right people, and he'd shut us down and possibly send me and the girls to jail. I wasn't here last week to supervise, so I took full responsibility for your actions when Mr. Crockett came to me to complain. I appreciate your desire to keep my girls safe, Rachel, but the fact is, he paid for his time with Lillie, and that means he gets to decide how that time is spent."
"Even if he wants to do perverted things with her?" Rachel's eyes snapped in fury. "Even if it means she gets beaten up?"
"He only hit her once, and his tastes are a private matter, don't you think?" Mr. Bullock looked away, unable to meet her gaze. "Mr. Crockett spends twice as much in here as the average patron. He's a high roller, both here and up in Houston. Fact is, my profits have gone up considerably since he arrived in town a while back. He's been recommending my saloon to his associates in Houston, and some of them have taken to traveling down here on occasion."
"Mr. Crockett?" Rachel's head spun. No. It can't be. "Did you say his name is 'Mr. Crockett?' Adam Crockett?"
"Yes." The saloon owner eyed her curiously, crossing his arms over his large round belly, his gray moustache twitching in annoyance. "I believe that's his name. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious." She felt almost faint, as her glance strayed over to the dark-haired man who was already dealing cards, a cigar hanging loosely from his lips. I thought he was supposed to be in Houston on business. Her eyes narrowed, as she quickly reminded herself that murder was a hanging offense. "I'll go get his drink."
"Good girl." Mr. Bullock patted her on the arm before turning to mingle with the large crowd of guests spread out at several tables.
She found her way back to the bar, still trying to grasp the situation. Mattie's husband. It had to be. She added it up in her head, realizing that it made perfect sense. He hit Lil and he doesn't even know her. Why wouldn't he knock his wife around? He tells Mattie he's on a business trip when he's actually out gambling. He plans to spend tonight here, so she'll never know any different.
She retrieved a whiskey glass, bending down ostensibly to find a fresh bottle of whiskey. As she knelt behind the bar, she spit into the glass. Twice. With a satisfied grin, she located their most expensive whiskey and poured it up with an expert hand. She delivered the drink, her eyes impassive as he pointedly dismissed her.
Biding he time back at the bar, she kept a close watch, part of the time studying Adam, and part of the time waiting for Lillie's client to come down the stairs. At last he did, a regular Rachel recognized and often tried to pretend didn't share her friend's affections. As soon as he left, she snuck up the staircase to Lillie's room, knocking lightly at the red-painted wooden door.
"Come in." Lillie was lounging on the bed, clad only in her white chemise. "Darlin,'" her eyes lit up and she smoothed her blonde curls as she rose from the mattress. "What a pleasant surprise. I'd be more than happy to spend some time with you."
"Get dressed." Rachel scurried around the room, gathering up the blonde's scattered clothing.
"Is this some new game, Rachel?" Lillie moved in behind her, nibbling at her neck. "I can certainly play along, although usually you want me to get undressed. Seems to me you're doing things a little backwards."
"No." The brunette turned, practically dressing Lillie herself. "That gentleman from last week is back, and he wants to be with you tonight." She watched the bubbly face suddenly drain to white. "I want you to sneak down the back stairs and go hide out at my place. I'll cover for you with Mr. Bullock."
"Oh my goodness." Lillie quickly took over the job of dressing herself, making a haphazard stab at buttoning up her shoes, her hands shaking as she grasped the buttonhook.
Rachel took over, finishing the job for her. "I'll pay you for your time, Lil." She pecked her friend on the forehead as she stood. "I need someone to talk to anyway. Stay with me tonight?"
"I think that would be best, yes." The blonde grabbed a small pocketbook as she was ushered out the door and down the hallway. Rachel helped her down the fire escape, catching her on the long final drop to the sandy street. "How long until you can come back to the boarding house?"
"Probably a couple of hours." Rachel looked up at the stars regretfully. "It'll look better if I finish out my shift before I leave. Just get some rest until I come home."
"Alright." Lillie clung to her friend for a moment, willing her own nerves to calm down. "Be careful, Rachel. That man is nothing but trouble."
"I know." She held out her arm, flagging down a buggy. "Believe me, I know. You be careful." She turned to the buggy driver, an elderly gentleman. She was relieved at his mild-mannered appearance. "Will you please give my friend here a ride to the trolley?"
"Certainly." The man slid to one side and held up a lap robe.
Rachel helped Lillie into the buggy, tucking in the robe and patting her on the leg before they sped away.
Back inside, she breathed a sigh of relief, as no one seemed to have missed her. She pulled Mr. Bullock aside, delicately explaining that Lillie's time of the month had arrived. A deep blush and a clearing of his throat told her that was all he needed to hear, and she watched as he made his way across the room, apparently explaining away the situation to Adam Crockett. The dark haired man nodded a few times then turned to stare at her as Mr. Bullock began to make the rounds of the tables again. Adam studied her with cold eyes before turning back to his game.
At last, the evening came to an end, and the various card games began to break up. Rachel was wiping down the bar when an iron fist grabbed her arm from behind. She spun around to face Adam, resisting the urge to elbow him in the gut as she turned. "Can I help you?"
"I could demand you take her place, you know?" He smirked at her, waiting.
"Do you truly want to be alone with me?" One eyebrow edged up, steel eyes narrowing as she moved closer, using her height to her advantage, topping him by a few inches. Danger rolled off her and she watched the fear rise in his eyes.
He involuntarily backed up, licking his lips nervously. "I'm watching you, Travis." She stepped forward again and he took another step backward.
"Seems to me like all you're doing is turning tail and running." An evil smile tugged at her lips, and she noted his nose was still swollen.
A fine sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead. "You're unnatural."
You have no idea. Her thoughts strayed to her new friend, and she wished with all her heart she had met Mattie before she married Adam. "And you're a coward who can only beat up on defenseless women." She backed him into a corner until he could feel her hot breath in his face. "Go on, why don't you take a shot at someone your own size?"
"I am not your equal, you sinful whore." He spat in her face.
She calmly wiped it away. "You've got that right. I'm a better man than you'll ever be." She felt the rage, knowing she couldn't do what she really wanted to do, which was pummel him within an inch of his life. Her own words shocked her. It was the closest she had ever come to admitting what she was, and she tucked it away to ponder later. "You, sir, are no gentleman."
"And you are no lady." He eased away.
"I never claimed to be." She clenched her fists at her sides, wishing he would make a move so she would have an excuse to defend herself.
"We'll finish this some other time." He straightened his collar, his nervous swallows not lost on Rachel. "Right now, I have a train to catch."
Ah. So he was leaving town. Good. "Go on." She got in his face again. "Get out of here."
He stood in the balance, torn between wanting to get into it with her, and knowing the last train to Houston was leaving at midnight. The train won, and he stalked away, looking at her with murderous intent one last time before he left the room.
Her knees felt weak, and she went about her clean-up tasks blankly, her mind racing with new knowledge. Should she tell Mattie her husband was a gambler and that he was frequenting a whorehouse? Would it accomplish anything if she did? No. Probably not. All it would do is make her feel even worse about her situation than she already seems to.
She needs a friend. The brunette forced her own feelings aside. I can be that for her.
Later, in Lillie's arms, her need would be much greater than it had ever been before. The blonde held on as her friend trembled in her arms. Their times together were generally playful, light, and fun. It was a refreshing difference from Lillie's usual patrons, who typically got right down to business and were done when their own needs were satisfied.
Tonight, there was no satisfying Rachel. It wasn't a bad thing -- not like the men. The brunette was much more intense, and seemed to have a need to hold onto Lillie, her attentions to the blonde much more tender and gentle than normal. It dawned on Lillie that Rachel was not simply engaging in physical pleasure with her. There was honest raw emotion behind Rachel's actions.
"Hold on, sugar." Lillie rocked the taller woman in her arms. "I don't know what's going through that pretty head of yours, Rachel, but I'm your friend. Don't forget that."
The brunette broke away, sitting up on the edge of the bed, cradling her face in her hands. She raked her fingers back through her hair, then got up, leaning against the wall next to the window, gazing sightlessly into the night. "I think I'm in trouble, Lil."
The blonde studied the lanky naked silhouette, appreciating Rachel's form, not for the first time. "Come on back to bed, sugar." She patted the soft mattress. "You come tell Lillie all about it."
Rachel hesitated before accepting the offer, but the words wouldn't come. Before she knew what was happening, they were making love again. Their exchange went on until early morning, when Rachel finally fell asleep in Lillie's exhausted but sated arms. A puzzled blonde kissed the dark head, then joined her. There would be time enough to talk about whatever was going on later, in the harsh light of day.
Continued in Chapter 3
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