Grasping at Straws

by Jae

© 2009


As always, a big thank-you to my beta reader Pam. Thanks also to Astrid and RJ for test reading and sending feedback.


Author's note

This is a prequel to 'Backwards to Oregon,' taking place almost four years before Luke and Nora meet. It's also available as a free e-book or l-book (audio) at


Independence, Missouri

June 15 th , 1847


A pitchfork of soiled straw and horse apples almost hit her in the face.

"Hey!" Tess flattened herself against one of the stalls. "Watch where you throw that!"

Willie, the stable boy, grazed her with an indifferent glance. "Sorry," he said, not even trying to sound as if he meant it. Without another look at her, he continued to muck the stalls.

Tess's gloved fingers tightened into a fist. This wasn't the first time Willie had treated her so rudely. He never fetched her horse for her, never helped her into or out of the saddle, never even greeted her when she entered the stable. He knew that as a fallen woman, she had no way to enforce a more respectful treatment.

Or so he thought.

A smile curved Tess's lips as she marched down the center aisle between two rows of stalls. Little does he know that it's me who's paying his wages. She passed one of the stalls, and her gaze fell on the water trough. Instead of fresh, clear water, she encountered bits of straw and manure drifting on a murky sludge.

Seems he doesn't have any more respect for the horses than he does for me. She sent a sharp glance back at the young man. Fool. Her next stop would be her business partner's office. Before the day ended, Willie would be an unemployed fool.

This was just the last straw. She had talked to Abrams about Willie's carelessness before, but whatever action Abrams had taken apparently hadn't been enough to change Willie's work ethic.

Tess continued down the aisle, checking the condition of the horses and stalls. Many of the stalls were empty. Business was slow, and not just for the stable but for the brothel too. The masses of emigrants heading west had left Independence weeks ago, and the soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Leavenworth were still fighting in Mexico.

A picture of earnest gray eyes flashed through her mind, and Tess sent a quick prayer to whatever God might be willing to listen to a whore. Please, keep Luke safe.

Then she shoved the thought away. Her life had no room for sentimentalities.

She reached out a hand to open her mare's stall when something caught her attention.

In the empty stall next to her, right at the end of the aisle, straw rustled.

Probably just a mouse stealing some corn for supper.

But the warning tingle at the back of her neck kept her hand suspended over the stall door. Tess had learned to trust her instincts.


The rustle sounded again. Something scraped against the wooden wall.

Tess tensed. The little revolver under her riding skirts rested comfortingly against her thigh.

Tess's mare flicked her ears in the direction of the sounds but didn't seem alarmed. Whatever was moving around in that stall, the mare was familiar with it.

Maybe just a cat.

Tess took two quick steps and peered over the stall door.

The eyes that stared back at her didn't belong to a cat. In one corner of the stall, a young woman was huddling behind the feeding trough.

Tess's hand fluttered to her chest. She opened her mouth for a surprised shout.

"No," the young woman whispered. "Please. Don't give me away. I have nowhere else to go."

"So you're living in my stable, stealing food from the horses?" Tess pointed to the brownish carrot clenched in the girl's hand.

The girl hung her head. A mass of fiery red hair escaped from under a weather-beaten sunbonnet and fell like a curtain around her face.

Heavy boots trudged toward them. "Who are you talking to?" Willie shouted down the aisle.

The girl's head flew up. She stared at Tess with wide eyes. Her full lips formed a silent "Oh, no."

Tess calmly turned around. "Just talking to myself. You know how we womenfolk are."

Willie spat out his stalk of straw and grunted in agreement. With one last glance back over his shoulder, he grabbed the handles of the wheelbarrow and pushed it out of the stable.

When he had disappeared around the corner, Tess turned back around and beckoned to the red-haired girl still clinging to the feeding trough. "Come out of there, girl."

"Please, don't throw me out," the girl said. She didn't move from her hiding place. "Just one night. I promise I'll be gone by the morning."

"And then?" Tess asked. "Where will you go?" She shook her head at herself. What do you care? Don't you have enough girls to worry about?

Slender shoulders slumped for a moment and then straightened. "I don't know, but I'll find a way." Determination gleamed in her eyes.

Find a way... In a town like Independence, there weren't many ways for a woman to survive on her own. Tess knew it better than anyone else. Over the years, she had taken in more young women down on their luck than she could count.

But not right now. At the moment, she could ill afford to feed another hungry mouth.

The girl shifted and half-rose from behind the feeding trough.

Tess's glance fell on her swollen belly. Oh, Lord. She sighed. Make that two hungry mouths.

For a moment, she wondered how the young woman, pregnant and all alone, had made it to Independence. The way she spoke told Tess that she had grown up in a well-off family back east. Even the worn clothing and the hungry look in the girl's eyes couldn't hide her manners and good education.

Same old story, Tess thought and sighed. I bet her family threw her out when they discovered she'd have a child out of wedlock.

Soft-looking hands protectively covered her belly when the girl noticed where Tess was looking. "You said 'my stable.' Does that mean you own all this?" Awe and skepticism mingled in her voice.

Tess gave a tired nod. I wonder if there'll ever come a time when people won't raise their eyebrows at the thought of women owning a business.

The girl inched closer but stayed out of touching distance.

What happened to you to make you stop trusting people at your young age? Tess silently wondered. Lately, she had thought that after working in brothels for so many years, she had lost the ability to care about other people, but first Luke and now this young woman were proving her wrong. She knew better than to ask about the girl's past, though. Maybe that was why the girl had come west. People here tended to ask fewer questions.

"If you own the stable," the girl glanced up at her, hope dancing in her eyes, "then maybe you need someone to sweep the floor and "

"Girl," Tess said. "While I need a new stable boy, this is no work for a woman, especially not a woman who's with child." The citizens of Independence would never accept a female caring for their horses, and business was dragging as it was.

"Then maybe "

"The only job I have to offer is not something that you'd want," Tess said.

Green eyes flashed fiery determination. "I'll do anything it takes." The girl's hands pressed against her belly.

Tess took in the red hair, the pretty face, and the porcelain skin. Underneath streaks of dirt and patched-up clothes, beauty was just waiting to be discovered. The young woman would bring in good money for the brothel once she was no longer with child. "No," Tess said to the girl and to herself. "Not anything."

"Yes," the girl insisted. "Anything."

The hopeful gaze resting on her sparked Tess's anger. "Don't look at me like I'm your salvation. Don't you know who I am? What I am? Don't you know why the stable boy can get away with throwing horse apples at me?"

The girl blinked.

"Oh, for Christ's sake, don't you understand? I'm a whore, girl. I own a brothel, and that's the only job I can offer you." She already had a cook and a woman to take care of the laundry, both former prostitutes who had become too old to entice men. She couldn't afford to take in more women who didn't earn their keep.

Russet lashes lowered, and a blush spread over the fair skin. "Oh."

Tess swallowed against the bitter taste in her mouth. "Yeah. Oh."

When the blush receded, the girl looked up and met Tess's eyes. There was none of the disgust or shock that Tess had expected in the steady gaze. "Anything it takes," the girl said again.

Guilt swept over Tess, and suddenly, she was the one who had to look away. Could she really condemn this young woman to a life like hers? But then again, was sleeping in stables and stealing food any better? If someone like Willie found her, there was no telling what would happen to the defenseless girl. At least if she kept an eye on them, the unborn baby would have a chance to survive.

Tess stepped closer, and this time, the girl didn't move away but stood her ground.

"All right," Tess said. "But if you work for me, there are rules involved." She forced herself to focus on being a businesswoman.

"Don't steal your silverware?" A mischievous grin danced over the girl's face, then disappeared as she waited for Tess's reaction to her quip.

Tess smiled. She's got spunk. Good. It would help her survive life in a brothel. "Be discreet," Tess said. "Keeping their secrets is what gives us power over our customers. A loose tongue can get you killed."

The girl nodded earnestly, and Tess felt another twinge of guilt. "And you best not get any romantic notions about falling in love with a customer and being carried off to start a new life. That very rarely happens."

Once again, the girl nodded. Her full lips formed a line of pain but then quickly relaxed when she realized Tess was still watching her.

She's gonna be good at the kind of work we do. Maybe too good.

"Don't worry," the girl said. "Love is not for me."

Tess had heard that before. Luke had told her the exact same thing when Tess had warned her not to fall in love with her just because they shared a bed.

"All right." Tess gave her a sad smile and opened the stall door that was still separating them. "Last chance to change your mind."

Instead of answering, the girl stepped out into the aisle. One of her hands still rested on her belly. "Whatever it takes," she said again.

Tess sighed. "Then let's go before Willie returns." She grasped the girl's elbow and led her out of the stable.

Before they stepped out onto the street, the girl paused. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me. I'm not sure I'm doing you any favors." Already, Tess began to regret her decision. The burden of responsibility rested heavily on her. Maybe she could find some light housework for the young woman until the baby was born, but after that, the other girls wouldn't let her stay if she didn't entertain customers.

Faces of regulars appeared before her mind's eye, but she discarded them as too rough. For a moment, she thought of Luke and then laughed at herself. Aren't you forgetting a little something? No, it was better to keep the girl away from Luke. She didn't trust anyone else with Luke's secret.

When they paused to let a wagon pass, the girl offered her hand. "Nora Macauley," she said.

"Tess Swenson." Tess laid her hand into the unexpectedly firm grip of the girl. "I think," she said as she steered Nora toward her new home, "you should use the name 'Fleur.'"

"Fleur? Why Fleur?"

It certainly wasn't because their customers were refined gentlemen fluent in French, but maybe Nora didn't need to know that just yet. "Maybe because 'straw' wouldn't sound as enticing as 'flower,'" she said and plucked one of the yellow stalks out of Nora's hair.

Nora smiled. "Fleur it is."

Her smile was contagious, and Tess hoped Nora would never completely lose the sparkle in her eyes. "Come on. Hurry," she said and crossed the street, "I have a stable boy to fire."

The End.


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