San Antonio, Texas, 1895
It wasn’t any of Maeve Daugherty’s business how Miss Porter paid her girls, but these disbursement amounts hardly seemed fair. Annie received half as much for entertaining the odious Mr. Reed as Etta received for her time spent with Mr. Jackson, who was young and spry and smelled delightfully of lavender and bergamot.
Not that Maeve sought out the particulars of what occurred upstairs; she rarely ventured beyond her room into the grand parlor, and only then on her way to the kitchen for breakfast or midmorning tea (when the girls still slept and few visitors lingered), but the set of ciphers Miss Porter used had been easy enough to discern.
Never had Maeve been so thankful to her father’s accountant for indulging her fascination with numbers. Her father hadn’t known; he refused to have his daughter involved in the unseemly pursuit of sums. And only the charity work her mother approved, not that which called to Maeve’s sense of compassion, was permitted to be done under the auspices of the Daugherty name.
Of course, should Mr. Feagan see exactly how she was putting her instruction in profits and losses to use, he would no doubt regret having defied his employer. Fannie Porter’s boardinghouse, while highly thought of, and generous with donations, and current on all licenses and fees, was still a brothel.
Demure whispers and delicate laughter and skirts swishing like the wings of large hawks filtered through the door she’d left ajar while she worked. And there was always work. When she’d applied for the job, she’d had no idea there would be so much to keep her busy, but was very glad there was.
There were the payments to the girls to tabulate, as well as the proceeds from the gentlemen callers. But there were also charitable contributions, revenue due to the community for taxes, and various amounts paid in dubious fines to police officers Maeve found equally dubious.
Then there was the recording of the transactions with the vendors supplying alcohol and the gains made selling the drinks by the glass. Miss Porter stocked some of the best liquor Maeve had ever seen. Until arriving in San Antonio, she’d never imagined such comforts had found their way to Texas. After all, Uncle Mick had made the trip sound like a Grand Adventure into the Wild, Wild West where savages and buffalo roamed the plains.
Plush carpets, fine crystal, silk sheets . . . though only on the beds upstairs, not the one Maeve herself slept on. Her room was a far cry from the luxury she’d known at home. It was no more than serviceable, in fact, she being the help. But having expected dirt floors, not rooms redolent with the smoke of choice cigars and the warm musk of bonded bourbon, she was quite comfortable in her newfound employment.
Fannie Porter’s girls certainly had it better than the families living in Manhattan’s Mulberry Bend and Bone Alley. And though Maeve’s own conditions were plain and austere, she did, too.
More of the girls’ hushed chatter reached her ears.
“Who is he?”
“I’ve never seen him before.”
“Look at his eyes.”
“Look at his hands. I would like very much to meet those hands.”
Feeling a bit warm, Maeve slipped a finger behind the tie at her blouse collar, tugging slightly as she breathed in. What silliness. Meeting a man’s hands. Hands were hands were hands, and the fact that a certain pair came to mind, a pair with broad palms and long, well-shaped fingers and clean nails and a dusting of dark hair along the edges, meant nothing. Even if said pair bore frighteningly harsh scars.
The twittering continued, leaving Maeve curious. Miss Porter’s girls rarely engaged in gossip about men, and why would they? They saw so many in the course of a day, and there was nothing new under the sun. What about this latest arrival could possibly be of interest?
Then again, Maeve did keep to herself, to the corner of the office where she worked, to the small adjoining storage area converted to a bedroom where she slept. Since the Day of the Disaster with Uncle Mick, she’d rarely done more than cross South San Saba Street to the druggist for Miss Porter’s medicinal supplies or visited the butcher and grocer for the steaks and cream and cheeses the boardinghouse chef required.
She would be the last of the women living in the house to understand the appeal of one man over another. Though, to be honest, that wasn’t true. She did understand. She’d made a fool of herself because of that understanding. She preferred not to be reminded of that foolishness, or of the one man who had witnessed her lapse in propriety.
“There’s company in the parlor, girls.”
Miss Porter’s words tumbled through the room down the hall from Maeve’s open door, and the piano notes of Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball” followed. It was fairly early in the afternoon, but she had learned that men’s needs were not confined to the hours after dark. Or perhaps such was only the case here in the Wild, Wild West, where she recognized very little of the respectability she’d grown up with.
Whomever had arrived, the girls were certainly keen to gain his favor. The hushed chatter and twittering had been replaced by much boisterous laughter. She picked out Annie’s and Etta’s—if those were the girls’ names, any more than Mr. Reed and Mr. Jackson were who they claimed to be. Maeve had no right to presume. She’d been going by the name Mae Hill since the Day of the Disaster with Uncle Mick.
“I’m looking for a young woman,” said the company in the parlor, the deep voice a resonant bass that was easily heard above the din.
Maeve’s head came up; her hands stilled; her heart nearly stilled, too, before it began beating in her chest like the drums in the Sousa Band.
“I have several young women whose companionship I’m sure you would enjoy.”
“No, ma’am, I mean, I’m looking for a particular young woman. Her name is Maeve Daugherty. She stands close to your height and has bright green eyes. Her hair’s like that of a chestnut horse. Last I saw her, it was about to her waist. I was told someone of her description was in your employ.”
“And when did you last see her?”
“Several weeks ago. A month or more,” he was saying, and Maeve pictured him pulling off his hat, using his large hand to rake back his too-long hair. “I work for her father. She left New York with her uncle and hasn’t been heard from. Her family’s worried.”
Maeve closed her eyes, shook her head. Why would her parents not leave her to her life? She was twenty-two years old. She knew her own mind. And why in the world, if they’d had to send somebody to fetch her home, did it have to be Zebulon Crow?
“I don’t believe I know a Maeve Daugherty,” Miss Porter was saying, but her words were hesitant.
Maeve imagined her frowning and casting a glance toward the hallway that led to the rear of the first floor and to the office. Zeb would follow the direction of her gaze, because nothing slipped his notice, and almost as the thought entered her mind, heavy footsteps thudded closer, leaving her no time to hide.
She pushed back her chair and stood, smoothing her blouse and her skirt, doing the same to her coiffure. She’d had no idea Zeb had ever noticed the color of her hair, though of course she wasn’t seeing to her appearance for him. She only wanted him to realize she was in good health and good spirits and not homesick at all.
Yes, that was it. That was all the time she had. The door opened, and there he stood. Tall and broad shouldered, his dark hair hanging to his collar, his dark beard emphasizing the strength of his jaw, his blue eyes like sapphires shining from the bottom of a flute of champagne. The dusting of dark hair along the edges of his hands making her knees inexplicably weak.
“Hello, Miss Daugherty.” His voice was deep, almost rough, and nearly angry, as if he resented her actions causing him the inconvenience of this very long trip.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Crow.” The formalities. How absolutely ridiculous they were. How banal. “What are you doing here?”
“The night I found you in your father’s library drunk on his brandy you asked me a question.” He pushed the door almost all the way closed, though Miss Porter would certainly be able to hear her should she cry out, then he moved toward her. “I came to give you my answer.”