William jolted awake as an orgasm roared through him. He rode it out, grinding his hips into the mattress as the pillow muffled his groans.
When the storm finally passed, he cautiously turned his head to one side and tried to catch his breath, still lying on his stomach. What in the name of Joseph, Mary and all the saints had caused a wet dream like that?
The bedding was fine and the mattress soft so he was in a house, not sleeping under one of his wagons. Two women snored nearby, raising the question of how long they’d slept.
William warily opened his eyes. A hand-stitched motto greeted him, proclaiming the virtues of hard work. The flocked burgundy velvet wallpaper behind it told him he was in Rio Piedras’ only parlor house, the most luxurious place a man could find willing women to slake his lust in this remote Arizona mining town.
William stretched, remembering more now. He’d come to Carrie Smith’s establishment after ten days on the trail, eaten well and accepted Pearl once again as his companion. Bloody hell, he’d even taken Fannie upstairs too, just so he’d be sexually exhausted before he walked Rio Piedras’ streets in daylight.
What the devil had he dreamed about?
Shrugging off the question, William slipped out of bed stealthily and turned to check Pearl. She slept on undisturbed, her breath fluttering the embroidered pillowcase’s hem. He cleaned up quickly and pulled on his clothes, mildly regretful that neither woman woke. He loved the smug sway of a woman’s hips as she walked beside him, every step shouting, “I’m a beautiful woman who just had the best time of my life.”
He slipped his family dirk up his sleeve, then quickly buckled on the weapons belt with his trusty bullwhip and Colt, a necessity in this rough mining town.
Still older habits made him check the walls one last time for peepholes. Carrie Smith was too good a businesswoman to anger a steady customer by exhibiting him to all comers. Even so, wariness learned first in a poorhouse and reinforced on Cobh’s back alleys dictated caution.
He replaced the tin of condoms in his jacket pocket, always used whenever he rode a woman’s pussy. Last night they’d protected him from the French disease and accusations of fatherhood. Paternity was an unlikely reproach, given he hadn’t climaxed inside a woman’s core since he’d first seen Viola Ross.
William cursed silently as he waited for his cock’s usual reaction to any thought of her. Only a sluggish twitch in response, rather than the usual rapid lunge. He relaxed slightly; perhaps two women had been a good idea, after all.
He tipped Pearl in the usual fashion after dalliance with her and another girl: two gold coins beside her head and the same sum under the pillow. The other girl would know only of the monies in plain sight, the same way she’d be paid.
Pearl’s brown lashes flickered and rose slowly. He straightened up and waited politely.
“Is it morning already?” she yawned and smiled at him.
“An hour past dawn,” he answered as her fingers closed over the gold shining against the bed linen.
“You’re a late riser today. Care to try another round? Cheaper when you stay two nights in a row,” she invited, stretching languidly so her breasts came free of the sheet in a movement designed to distract him. She walked her fingers up his arm as her other hand delved under the pillow.
He shrugged, well aware of exactly what she was hunting for. “You must be tired after last night. Better if you rest before you leave town.”
“I got plenty of time,” she murmured, letting her palm glide down his torso. “And you were so fine, buckin’ and poundin’ like that. A girl could enjoy more rides on equipment like yours.”
He caught her wrist well before she reached his fly. “Thank you but no.”
She sighed. “Unusual to see you lose control in a bedroom. You’re usually more commandin’ than that, tellin’ a girl what to do or drivin’ her crazy with your mouth and hands ’til she’ll do things she never thought possible.”
“Pearl,” he began.
“Oh, I like both sides of you, Donovan! Just would have enjoyed a longer acquaintance with the ragin’ stud.”
He stopped her chatter with a quick light kiss and a coin into her palm, only to have her start again when he moved away.
“You interested in Fannie, Donovan? Maybe another round of the three of us?”
Pearl raised an eyebrow at his tone and shrugged. “Not surprisin’. You like your women passionate and she wants her own parlor house more than she wants any man.”
“Really? Then this should be a suitable farewell token.” He set two gold coins beside Fannie where she slept on the daybed, still sprawled as her climax had left her.
“Good luck, Pearl.” He paused to kiss her forehead as he left.
“Goodbye, Donovan,” she whispered as the door closed.
He made for the stairs, both women forgotten before he took the first tread, while he considered the night’s true surprise.
What the devil had he dreamed of? His oldest dream perhaps, a faerie queen spun of moonbeams and night, lithe and strong and quick-witted. . .and so beautiful that an Irish lad would count himself blessed to steal a single kiss from her rosy lips? But no dream of that lady had ever shaken him so deeply as last night’s fancy.
He was still pondering the question when he reached Main Street and a flash of silver-gilt caught his eye. He froze and stared. Viola Ross was coming up the hill from the hut she shared with Maggie Watson. Morgan had said she’d gone into business with Maggie after Ross’ death, but he hadn’t reminded William of her heart-stopping beauty.
Walking was too mundane a word for how she moved. She glided like a faerie maiden, as if her feet and skirts floated free of Earth’s heavy tug. She held her head high with a queen’s poise and balanced a heavy laundry basket on her shoulder as if carrying it was a royal prerogative. A few strands of silver-gilt hair escaped her faded blue sunbonnet. If she came closer, he’d once again see eyes like the true blue of spring’s first bluebells, an indigo not yet purple. And hear a voice whose faint huskiness only enhanced an aristocratic clarity of speech.
The West offered a hard life to men and a harder one to women with its unforgiving climate, continuous danger from Indians, and isolation. It took a strong woman to survive it and William readily honored those who did. Viola Ross had done more than just survive in her five years on the frontier: she’d founded and run a small business after her husband’s murder. All in all, she had a great deal of sand, as his teamsters would say.
A small girl ran out to her and she stooped quickly to answer. William sucked in his breath, immediately reminded of how he’d first seen her almost a year ago. While peacefully watering his horse Saladin, he’d heard shrieks of delight and peeked through the cottonwoods to see the cause.
He’d discovered Viola splashing in the stream with two small children. She’d been soaked to the skin, so wet the thin calico dress had clung to her womanly form, outlining her boldly upthrust breasts and nipples begging for a man’s mouth. She had a waist so small he could wrap his hands around it and hips made for cradling him, when he settled into those dark shadows between her thighs. Her beauty was as clear to his enraptured eyes as if she’d slowly shed her clothes for him in a boudoir.
But she’d cared nothing for society’s conventions as she enjoyed the children’s company. Rather than shriek in horror or try to conceal herself, she’d laughed heartily as she chased the two imps. She’d been a faerie maiden come to life, who could captivate even a stream’s guardian spirit.
Long minutes had passed before he’d been able to move away. He’d asked who she was, of course, hoping against hope she was unmarried and Irish. But no, her husband, the lucky fool, had been pointed out, as he staggered from a saloon.
Now William’s cock swelled as strongly against his trousers’ denim as it had for her the first time. He cursed vehemently and spun on his heel. He’d take another route to his compound and avoid seeing her again, the image of everything he hungered for and always been rejected by.
Hell, he didn’t have to dodge her for long. Once she married Lennox, she’d be gone in a New York minute, back to the high society that had formed her and barred him from being anything more than a well trained servant. He needed to stop thinking about unattainable women and find himself a respectable Irish girl to marry, someone who’d tend his house and bear his children. And likely never wonder where his deepest desires were.
A half-dozen strides down the boardwalk, his inner voice finally answered part of his earlier question. Last night’s fantasy had involved the faerie queen, in which he dropped out of a tree and tangled her securely in his net. An old dream. . . So what in hell made this one so bloody strong?
His inner voice smirked and refused to answer, simply retreated into silence. Still cursing silently, William stomped down the street, eager to reassert control over his world.
Viola set little Jenny Browning down and watched her scamper back to her mother. She bent and picked up the laundry basket again, unconsciously balancing the weight as she had thousands of times during the past six months. The only difference today was she’d be delivering laundry to Mrs. Smith alone, rather than with Maggie.
They’d originally agreed it was best to do so together, rather than set tongues gossiping about two respectable widows entering the most infamous house of prostitution in Rio Piedras. But Mrs. Smith paid top dollar for fine laundry, providing the few profits that could pay off their inherited debts rather than just try to stay alive.
Viola frowned slightly as she shifted the basket, careful not to snag her threadbare dress. Maggie had asked for privacy to bid farewell to her Colorado suitor so Viola was delivering laundry alone. She shouldn’t even take the time to enjoy any gossip as she did so, unlike her usual practice.
She reminded herself Maggie had enough agony to bear on this mid-April day in 1871, the anniversary of her baby son’s death. The usual rituals of death, like a visit to the cemetery or a walk to the chapel, could wait until later when Maggie was more composed. Perhaps then, she’d be less angry and more inclined to remember her lost child.
Flinching from the thought of children, Viola forced her mind to other things, such as the possibility of a large tip and how it’d help remove their debts. If she worked hard enough and Rio Piedras’ silver mines didn’t play out too soon, she’d be able to pay off Edward’s gambling losses and leave for San Francisco in another six years. And if she were truly lucky, she’d have enough money for a piano and could give lessons. Decades of listening to little girls massacre Beethoven sounded like heaven after a year in Rio Piedras.
Maggie had inherited fewer debts from her husband to worry about: she needed less than two years to become independent.
So Viola continued up the hill, easily carrying the heavy basket on her shoulder, as she whistled the Minute Waltz. Her faded blue calico dress and sunbonnet were as immaculate as she could make them, silent advertisements of her skills as a laundress. Her pale hair was tidily pinned up under her bonnet, while her dress fitted her neatly from shoulders to waist in witness to Maggie’s dressmaking talents. She lacked only her beloved brooch, left behind in Maggie’s care, since the dress’ calico was no longer strong enough to support the heavy gold.
Hopefully, she looked strong and capable, despite less than two hours’ sleep the night before.
She moved quickly past the saloons and gambling halls Edward had once frequented in his endless search for luck and gold. On the streets behind them stood the brothels and cribs, where the middle and lower ranks of prostitutes labored.
She automatically averted her eyes from the Oriental Saloon, the most exclusive of all. Edward’s one visit there had left him victim of a stab wound to the heart, a murder witnessed by no one who’d talk. The few coins in his pocket hadn’t begun to pay off his mountainous debts.
“Good morning, Mr. Johnson.” She nodded a polite response to Ted Johnson’s tipped hat and was secretly glad that he didn’t try to strike up a conversation. He hadn’t asked her to marry him in the last two months but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t do so again, given a chance; nearly every other unmarried man who passed through Rio Piedras had. Amazing how many offers a girl could get from a man desperate for a home-cooked meal, however poorly prepared.
Now humming a sentimental Stephen Foster tune, she cautiously opened Mrs. Smith’s back gate, watching for the guard dog. Jake bounded up to her silently and sat promptly at her feet, his beloved red ball in his mouth. Viola grinned and set the basket down, pleased that Jake was in the mood for play. That was much more enjoyable than facing his typical greeting to trespassers, which sent most of them screaming for the gate.
He dropped the ball into her outstretched hand and watched her eagerly. A few feinted tosses didn’t fool him. Finally she threw it neatly between the outhouse and the garden shed. Jake barked happily and raced off in pursuit.
Viola grinned as she watched, remembering how her brother had taught her to play fetch with his dog, Horace. Her smile faded as she remembered the last time she’d seen Horace, the dreadful night when Hal ran away.
She returned to the business that had brought her here.
She quietly took the steps up to the back door of Mrs. Smith’s immaculately painted house, easing the basket off her shoulder as she stepped onto the porch. Its cool quiet enfolded her as her mouth watered at the smells drifting outside. Her stomach grumbled once but thankfully stayed otherwise quiet.
Viola’s head came up as women’s voices reached her from the kitchen, hidden behind crisp gingham curtains unlike the heavy velvet drapes in the rest of the house. Eavesdropping was improper, of course, but it would be interesting to hear what Mrs. Smith’s girls said when they thought no one else was around.
“So when do you think she’ll wake up?” a girl asked.
“Put a dollar on six o’clock, Sally,” Mrs. Smith’s cook drawled, “and you should win the pool.”
Viola bit her lip at the sum, which probably meant little to the women inside.
“Sleep fourteen or sixteen hours? After sharing one man with another girl? Not a chance,” Sally objected.
“Ever spend a night with Donovan? No? Pearl often sleeps ‘til midnight the next day. And no tellin’ how long Fannie’ll sleep. She ain’t used to the likes of him,” Lily Mae chuckled, her Texas drawl deepening and thickening.
William Donovan? Were they talking about the same man who owned Donovan & Sons, named for heirs he didn’t have yet? The big freighting house that hauled supplies into Rio Piedras, coming through no matter what depredations the Apaches wreaked?
He had the heart-stopping masculine beauty of a Renaissance angel with his brilliant blue eyes, raven hair, and clean-shaven face, unusual among so many men who grew whiskers for fashion or convenience. Those attractions were combined with more than six feet of lean strength that could shred a rattler with his whip for threatening a child. After which, he’d coax the little one into peals of laughter.
But beauty and money couldn’t make a woman sleep for nearly a full day. So he must have some talents in the bedroom that brought sweet pleasure and ease to his partner.
Viola pondered what those skills could possibly be and came up blank. Edward had been drunk when they’d married and he’d consumed still more whisky after the ceremony. The wedding night hadn’t occurred for another three days and had been marked by Edward’s grunting, plus a great deal of blood on the sheets. She’d heard hints that some men did more during carnal encounters, but neither gossip nor her own imagination could account for Lily Mae’s rich purr.
Perhaps he gave good massages. She smothered a chuckle at the ridiculous notion of a subservient William Donovan, humbly asking if madame would care for a little more attention to her knotted shoulders.
“Maybe you’re right. I’ll put a dollar on six o’clock,” Sally said grudgingly.
Twelve hours or more after the man left? Viola’s fingers had played pleasant games under the covers before sleeping. But she’d never overslept afterwards. She lifted her hand to knock but froze when Sally spoke again.
“Still, I don’t know why he’s never chosen me,” Sally whined.
Lily Mae snorted rudely. “Honey, you lap up liquor like a fired cowhand. Donovan won’t have anyone who indulges.”
“Why, that’s plumb crazy! Everyone drinks—gin or whisky or laudanum or. . .”
“He don’t and he won’t dally with those what do,” Lily Mae said flatly. “If he’s in town, Pearl’s sober as a corpse ‘til she’s sure who’s warmin’ his bed.”
If William Donovan only touched women who stayed sober then he couldn’t have many liaisons, especially with so few women of easy virtue in this little town.
“Is that how she does it?” Sally mused.
“Yup. Donovan comes here four, maybe five times a week when he’s in town.” Five times a week? Mother had compared men to volcanoes, prone to explode into orgies of adultery, rape, and physical violence. Or even homosexual embraces, unless granted regular sexual congress. But five times a week was more than Vesuvian; it was as impossible to imagine as washing laundry while staying totally dry. Still, Viola’s ears stayed pricked for more gossip.
“‘Most always, she’s the only girl who’s sober. An’ he’s a damn fine tipper.”
“How much?” Sally demanded, avarice sharpening her voice.
“Ten dollars a night, maybe more, ‘sides what he pays Mrs. Smith. Depends on what he has in mind.”
“Heard tell he has some strange ways. . .” Sally’s voice trailed off, inviting confidences.
“He can be mighty odd; likes to wear them French letters when he’s ridin’ a woman. Still, it’s easy ‘nough for Pearl to forgive him.”
What on earth was a French letter? A piece of stationery wrapped around his privates? No, it couldn’t be that; paper wouldn’t last two seconds after a man started grunting and shoving, although a letter might provide something else for the woman to think about.
“For ten bucks, he could dress up as a Red Indian,” Sally snorted.
“And Pearl always says a night with him is fine as dollar cotton.” The purr was back in Lily Mae’s voice. Viola shifted uncomfortably at the sound. The images it evoked caught her breath and sent a wet heat prowling through her core. Did Pearl truly find such frequent masculine attentions enjoyable, instead of boring?
Sally whistled. “Maybe I should take up temperance then.”
Lily Mae snickered. “When pigs fly!”
Viola yanked her wits back from contemplating how much money William Donovan spent at Mrs. Smith’s, how fast the same sum would release her to a new life. . . And just what he did with those girls in private.
She knocked loudly and waited. Inside Lily Mae and Sally fell silent before Lily Mae’s ponderous steps sounded. She opened the door, her crisp white apron and scarlet turban as pristine as ever, and smiled at Viola. “Good morning, Mrs. Ross. Please come in.”
“Thank you, Lily Mae,” Viola accepted and stepped inside. The kitchen was brilliantly white with sun streaming in through the gingham curtains and across the embroidered tablecloth. It was a big kitchen with an immense iron stove, suitable for cooking the fanciest meal or feeding Mrs. Smith’s half-dozen “young ladies” every day.
Blonde Sally smiled at Viola from the table, her flowered silk robes drooping over her plump body. A bruise was barely visible on the inside of one breast. She tightened the robe’s sash and poured more coffee into her cup, masking the smell of whisky.
“Good morning, Sally,” Viola nodded politely, settled the basket more comfortably on her hip, and turned back to Lily Mae.
“How’s Mrs. Watson this morning?” Lily Mae asked.
“Saying goodbye to Mr. Jones. He leaves for Colorado today in that big wagon train Reverend Chambers is leading,” Viola answered, keeping her eyes averted from the baker’s rack and its burden of fresh-baked pies. At least one of them had to be apple and another one smelled like a chess pie, her childhood favorite. “I was able to remove the wine stain from the French corset,” she remarked, to stop herself from drooling.
“Splendid,” Lily Mae beamed, her dusky face splitting into a grin. “Mrs. Smith will be mighty happy that she won’t have to replace one of them fancy rigs. Just put that big basket down on that table over yonder.”
Viola obeyed, trying not to sniff the mouthwatering aroma of biscuits and red-eye gravy from the stove. She turned around only to have Lily Mae place a cup in her hand.
“Have some coffee while I fetch last night’s laundry.”
“Thank you.” Viola accepted it gratefully but stiffened when Lily Mae held out a scone. She’d never stooped to accepting charity and wouldn’t start now.
“And tell me what you think of these fancy biscuits. I’m playing with candied ginger to match the raisins.”
Viola hesitated. “Thank you but I’m not hungry.” Her stomach betrayed her with a growl. She flushed but kept her head high, daring anyone to say something about it.
Lily Mae smiled at her and put the plate directly into Viola’s hand. “I’d sure appreciate your thoughts. It’s a new recipe and I want to make sure they’re suitable for fine company. Now you just sit down right here.”
“Thank you.” Viola accepted the face-saving excuse and joined Sally. She bit into the scone slowly, savoring its buttery richness as she tried not to gulp.
“You sure look all combed and curried in that blue dress, Mrs. Ross,” Lily Mae offered as she returned with a basket of laundry and a small pouch of coins.
Yes, it almost gives me some curves. Viola’s mouth twitched but she answered simply, “Thank you. Mrs. Watson took it in for me and wanted me to wear it this morning, given the fine weather.”
“Any new proposals lately? I had two last night,” asked Sally, one of the most notorious gossips in town. Word had it that she could retell any fight at any saloon before the sheriff managed to arrive.
“Six early last week, all from newcomers, and none since. Perhaps word is finally getting around that I won’t remarry.” The scone was really quite good.
“Or that you’re still waitin’ for mournin’ to end so’s you can wed the right fellow,” Lily Mae drawled, adding a generous splash of cream to her coffee as she settled down at the sunny table.
“That’s ridiculous! It’s been six months since Mr. Ross died. Even my grandmother would have ended full mourning by now,” Viola protested.
The other women shared a look before Lily Mae spoke in an altogether different tone. “Mighty powerful, mighty respectable man’s been putting it about. Says you’ll marry him when the time is right.”
Viola’s eyes narrowed. “Mr. Lennox is saying that?”
Sally nodded vehemently while Lily Mae answered. “Yes, ma’am. Been very insistent about it too.”
“So much so, other men don’t question him,” Viola said slowly.
Thunder crashed in her memory. It had been a dark night, some six months ago, lit only by lightning bolts from the coming storm. She’d been walking home from Maggie’s hut and spotted Lennox washing in the water trough beside the livery stable. She shivered, remembering how he’d scrubbed at the dark stains on his white shirt, his face cold and intent in a flash of green light. She’d doubled back to avoid him, taking another route to her home.
“If Lennox crows, then it’s daylight in Rio Piedras,” Lily Mae said softly.
Viola’s eyes flashed up and met Lily Mae’s. She swallowed at the bitter knowledge and understanding there.
A deep breath brought enough composure to voice her decision. “It doesn’t matter what the men here say or do, since I won’t marry any of them. I’ve refused Paul Lennox two dozen times and I’ll refuse him two hundred times more.”
She took a swallow of coffee and concentrated on the scone. It tasted like dust now.
“Sure? Maybe you’ll meet a man who’s too good to refuse,” suggested Sally.
Viola swirled her coffee for a moment before answering, watching the fine grounds chase each other on the surface. “I’ll not marry any man in Rio Piedras, especially not one as consumed with gold fever as Paul Lennox.”
“Not all men are like that,” Sally protested.
“Name me one man in this town who doesn’t see women as something to make hunting gold or silver easier,” Viola flung back.
Sally opened her mouth but closed it when Lily Mae lifted an eyebrow. Silence grew and stretched around the sunny room.
“‘Nother biscuit, Mrs. Ross?” Sally asked, her tone shifting the gathering into a ladies’ tea rather than a bitter recital of men’s shortcomings. “Would you believe Pearl actually asked to take the recipe with her when she leaves tomorrow?”
Viola fed the last crumbs of her scone to Jake as she left. Lily Mae’s baking was excellent but this particular example hadn’t regained its original attraction.
She weighed the pouch thoughtfully in her hand before slipping it into her pocket. It was heavier than the promised one dollar tip, perhaps two dollars? She sent up a quick prayer of thanks: now she could pay for groceries. And she’d give a few pennies to Padre Francisco, the only remaining man of God here, to help with his stray animals.
She danced a little quickstep of delight as she went down the stairs into the yard.
Sally’s voice reached her just as she reached the gate. “Maybe if I only drank two glasses of wine, Donovan would choose me.”
Lily Mae’s laughter rang out and Viola closed the gate firmly, lifting the basket to her shoulder. Surely the two women were stretching the truth for their own amusement. Everything she knew from marriage said no one man’s attentions could leave one woman, let alone two, sleeping for half a day. But five times a week did sound rather intriguing.
One last question teased her mind as she walked off, idling whistling a Mozart minuet. Could a woman have lusts as strong as a man’s?