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Much Ado About Madams
 

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Much Ado About Madams


  Much Ado About Madams

  by

  Jacquie Rogers

  Praise for Much Ado About Madams:

  * A story this good can only come from the imagination of Jacquie Rogers *

  ~ Detra Fitch, Huntress Reviews

  * A rollicking riot of a good read! *

  ~Ann Charles, author of Nearly Departed in Deadwood

  * A romantic trip to the Old West stamped with Jacquie Rogers' special brand of humor *

  ~ Caroline Clemmons, author of Brazos Bride

  Much Ado About Madams

  Prologue

  Dickshooter, Owyhee County, Idaho Territory

  June, 1882

  Dere Miss Sharpe,

  The skool bord of Dickshooter, Idaho, dooly invits you . . .

  Fannie clenched the pen with a death grip and pursed her lips as she drew her letters. The five scantily clad women standing around her watching every mark she made, didn’t help matters a bit.

  “Fer hell’s sake, woman, quit thinking so hard and write the damn letter,” grumbled Trinket. But then, Trinket always grumbled about something.

  The frustrated madam blew a stray lock of dye-pot red hair out of her eyes. “You girls don’t have to stand there like chickens ready to pounce on a snake. You’re making me nervous.”

  “You said you knew your letters,” accused Chrissy.

  “Leave me alone. I went all the way to third grade, and I writ the ad fer the newspaper, didn’t I?”

  “Yeah, but the newspaper man probably fixed it up some.”

  “Can I make the letters on the envelope?” whispered Holly, who’d nearly been strangled by a no-good drifter the week before. She still couldn’t talk right. The bouncer had run the worm out at gunpoint and told him never to come back. Fannie had taken a liking to Holly, a young girl who, even though she served drinks in a whorehouse, was ignorant about the ways of the world—a lot like Fannie had been when her old man threw her out of his house so many years ago.

  Fannie tapped the spare piece of precious paper lying on the desk. “You can practice on this once I’ve finished here.” That is, if she didn’t mess up this paper, she thought, and she probably would if she didn’t get some peace and quiet.

  “This ain’t gonna work, anyway,” Trinket walked across the room, swaying her hips seductively out of years of habit. “What decent schoolmarm would teach a bunch of whores their letters? And how do you know she’ll marry Reese? Hell, he owns a whorehouse!”

  Fannie couldn’t imagine a woman who wouldn’t want him. “Reese is a fine, upstanding man, and handsome as sin. She won’t be able to resist, and she’ll force him to close up shop so we can be on our way to new lives.”

  “What if she’s some pinch-nosed Bible-thumper?” argued Trinket.

  “If she’s ugly, Reese might not want her, but even if she tries to save our souls, at least we’ll all learn reading and writing to help get ourselves a respectable living. We can’t lose.”

  Felicia sniffed. “Ha! We’re already losers, or we wouldn’t be stuck in this hellhole.” She’d whored in the best brothels in New Orleans until a crazy man had cut her face up.

  Fannie tried to sympathize, but damn, why’d Felicia have to be so uppity? Fannie ignored her remark, like she always did. She’d have thrown Felicia out on her nose a long time ago, but knew no place else would take her.

  “Once the mines up in Silver City bring in more customers, no decent businessman would shut this place down,” Felicia added.

  Fannie thunked the pen down on the desk, ink splattering clear to the wall. She had to get these women out of the office or she’d never get this letter written. They had a plan, and it was up to her to make it work, but she sure as hell couldn’t do it with all these women pecking at her like a bunch of vultures. “Fer gawd’s sake, Petunia, take a bath! You stink like a bucket of last week’s slop.”

  “Aw, Fannie, I just had a bath last Sunday.”

  “Like I said, last week’s slop. Now, go!” Petunia left the office, mumbling all the way out the door.

  Fannie turned to Felicia. “Go get your room ready before the gents come a calling. It always looks like a pigsty. I want the sheets changed and your butter dish cleaned.”

  “Humph! Sadie should do that.”

  “Honey, you’re not in some fancy New Orleans whorehouse any more. You have to do fer yourself.”

  Two gone, three to go. “Chrissy, help Sadie with dinner.”

  Chrissy jammed one hand on her hip and patted her tousled auburn hair with the other. “I ain’t no cook.”

  “You are today.”

  “It ain’t my turn. Besides, it’ll roughen my hands.”

  “Your hands have been through worse.” Fannie waved toward the door. “Go on, now.”

  She pulled a bottle of black dye from her desk drawer. “Trinket, your blonde roots are showing something fierce. Take care of it.”

  “But the men will be coming in a few hours, and my hair won’t be dry.”

  “Go stand in the sun. If you ever went outside, you’d know the sun’s shining today.” She handed Trinket the bottle. “If any of your callers come early, I’ll hold ‘em off for an hour.”

  Holly whispered, “Do you want to get rid of me, too?”

  Fannie didn’t, but the other girls would throw a fit if she let Holly stay. “Do some mending or something. Come back here in half an hour and I’ll let you make some letters.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” She paused at the door. “Will I be serving drinks tonight?”

  “It’s time. You’ve had a week off.” Fannie didn’t have the heart to make Holly take gents to her bed. The other girls grew more resentful all the time, but she doubted that Holly had ever had a man—and once she did, there was no going back.

  The last of the girls finally gone, Fannie finished the letter.

  Dere Miss Sharpe,

  The skool bord of Dikshooter, Idaho Terr., dooly invits you as to be our noo skoolmarm, startin Septimbr 1, 1882.

  Respekfuly,

  Mr. Reese McAdams

  Chapter 1

  August, 1882, Owyhee County

  “Four miles to Dickshooter!”

  The stage driver’s words were among the sweetest Lucinda Sharpe had ever heard. She composed her face with her best Miss-Hattie’s-School-for-the-Refinement-of-Young-Ladies nonchalant smile, and defied the nervous energy that tempted her to hop up and down and shout her good fortune to the world.

  Even without the nuisance of her twitching insides, she wanted this trip to be over. Her fellow passenger chewed tobacco and smelled worse than a well-used lard-rendering pot. Besides, this long, arduous journey had taken its toll on her backside. She wondered if she’d ever be able to stand up straight again.

  She dug into her bag, searching for a small mirror. She dabbed at her face and tucked stray hairs into her bun. The citizens of Dickshooter would have no cause to regret their decision to hire her if she could help it.

  Lucinda didn’t know who’d be meeting her. Maybe there’d be a dozen cute little children in their Sunday best, holding the hands of their proud parents. The school board superintendent would undoubtedly be there, and maybe the mayor. They might want her to give a speech. That wouldn’t be a problem, though, because she’d been rehearsing for several weeks now. A brass band marching down the main street in her honor might greet her so she’d prepared a thank-you note for the bandleader. Just in case.

  She’d come a long way in ten years, from the small, neglected daughter of a soiled dove all the way to the respectable schoolteacher that the diploma from Miss Hattie’s School for the Refinement of Young Ladies declared her. If only her mother could see her now!

  Even though she looked forward to me
eting the children, she hoped the celebration of her arrival would be brief because what she needed most was a hot bath and a real bed.

  “You headed to Dickshooter?” The portly, smelly man sounded skeptical. His question caught her by surprise. He hadn’t said a word in two days.

  “Yes.”

  “Same here.” He diverted his attention to the passing brush. Obviously, he’d pushed the boundaries of his conversational ability.

  Lucinda opened her bag to replace the mirror. A well-worn envelope beckoned her—just one more read. A thrill raced across her heart and a smile crept to her lips as she opened it, even though she’d read the letter a hundred times. This letter represented her one chance for freedom. And freedom meant life.

  One more time, she read the letter inviting her to teach school, then tucked it back into its envelope and placed it in the bag.

  “Entering Dickshooter!” the driver hollered.

  Butterflies made swan dives in her stomach as Lucinda looked out the window. All she saw was sagebrush, mountains, wildflowers, and a few junipers. There had to be some kind of mistake!

  “You hafta look out this here winder, ma’am,” the man explained, pointing to the opposite side.

  The stage lurched to a stop and almost pitched her into the stinky man’s lap. Determined to make a proper entrance as the new schoolmarm, she stiffened her spine, straightened her hat, and once again donned her finishing-school smile.

  The driver opened the stagecoach door and her fellow passenger jumped out, showing no deference for a lady. No matter, she didn’t believe in that false propriety, anyway. A lady should earn her keep, same as a man. She’d discussed this topic at length with Miss Hattie at the suffragist meetings in St. Joseph.

  This journey was the first opportunity she’d had to put her ideals into practice. Women could equal men in every way if they only put their minds to it, and Lucinda had heard of several women in the West who’d succeeded in a man’s world. She’d be one of them.

  Ignoring the stagecoach driver’s helping hand, she gathered her skirts, careful not to show even the slightest turn of the ankle, and stepped into the dusty Idaho street.

  If you could call it a street.

  Dust billowed around her skirts, then the wind whipped the dirt away as it tugged fiercely on her skirt and hat. She didn’t know whether to hang on to her hat or keep her skirt from flying up into her face. She dropped her bag and slapped her skirts with one hand while holding her hat with the other.

  Instead of children, their proud parents, the mayor, and the town band, the only person she saw was a brassy-haired woman, worn around the edges. Maybe the townspeople didn’t know what stage she’d be on.

  “Are you Miss Sharpe?” The wind nearly blew the woman’s words away.

  “Yes, ma’am, I’m the new schoolteacher.”

  “I’m Fannie. You’ll be staying with me.” She waved to a man leaning on the porch in front of the saloon. “Gus, get your . . . get over here and carry Miss Sharpe’s bags.” She glared at the stagedriver. “Logan, you, too—if you know what’s good fer you.”

  Lucinda struggled to keep her skirt down. Still, she marveled at the flurry of activity this woman instigated. “Is your place far from here?”

  “Nope.” Fannie watched Gus tug Lucinda’s trunk from the top of the stagecoach. “Her room’s upstairs, last one on the right. And don’t break nothing.”

  “Jesus, woman! What’s in this thing,” Gus grunted.

  “Books and supplies for the children—and please don’t curse.”

  Gus and Fannie both cast her sidelong glances. Filled with self-doubt, it occurred to Lucinda that perhaps teachers didn’t bring their own supplies.

  “Logan, gimme a hand here. This son-of-a . . . trunk must be a hunderd-weight.”

  Fannie patted Lucinda’s arm. “Honey, you must be dying for a decent meal and a hot bath, and I got both.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  Fannie escorted Lucinda at an unladylike pace past the saloon to the only other building in town—a two-story plank building. The red sign on the front read “Comfort Palace,” to match the garish red and blue shutters adorning the facade. Underneath the sign was a notice, No Soljers Alowd.

  Lucinda grew increasingly uneasy. She hadn’t seen a single child, and certainly no school building. What kind of town could survive on a saloon and a hotel? Maybe the school was out of town—if Dickshooter could be called a town.

  She followed Fannie into the Comfort Palace. Several ladies in decent dresses but unladylike postures gathered around Lucinda. She glanced around the large parlor, but averted her gaze when she saw pictures of half-clad women, red velvet couches, an upright piano, and a bar.

  Her heart sank. Lucinda knew she’d entered a house of ill-repute. Smells she’d forgotten long ago came back to her. Cheap perfume, liquor, men. She fought the undignified urge to run.

  “This—this isn’t a hotel!”

  The blonde woman dressed completely in pink stepped forward. “No, ma’am, it’s a whor—”

  “Hush!” shouted a chorus of voices. The chastised woman clapped her hand over her mouth.

  Lucinda gasped and clenched her hands to her heart. I won’t stay here! Well, she wouldn’t stay, but she’d deal with Fannie in private. Respectable ladies don’t air their grievances in public.

  Fannie called the women’s attention again. “This here’s our new schoolmarm, Miss Lucinda Sharpe. Now line up, girls.”

  The ladies shuffled into a row.

  She pointed to the first one, who had coal black hair and blonde eyebrows. “This here’s Trinket.”

  Trinket made a clumsy curtsy. “How do, ma’am.”

  Lucinda, barely able to speak but determined to exhibit exemplary manners nonetheless, nodded and managed to reply, “Very well, thank you. And you?”

  Trinket looked puzzled, seeming to search Fannie’s face for an answer. “Very well, thank you.” Fannie smiled, then Trinket smiled wider. “I did good, didn’t I, Fannie?”

  The ladies giggled. Fannie hushed them with a wave of her hand. “The next one’s Felicia.”

  Lucinda cringed inwardly at Felicia’s scowling smile. “I’m very pleased to meet you.”

  “Likewise.”

  The woman who’d previously spoken stepped forward. She wore pink. Everywhere. Fannie pointed to her. “You’ve already spoken with Petunia.”

  “Yes. Hello, Petunia.”

  She waved broadly and grinned. “Howdy, ma’am. Welcome.”

  “And the next one’s Chrissy.”

  Chrissy cast her a suspicious gaze and nodded.

  “How do you do, Chrissy.”

  Fannie put her arm around the last lady’s shoulders—actually she was a girl, not more than fifteen. “This here’s Holly.”

  “Hello, Miss Sharpe,” Holly whispered.

  Fannie motioned up the stairs. “Your room’s up here.”

  Lucinda refused to stay in a brothel. She stood motionless, weighing her options.

  “What’s wrong—your feet nailed to the floor?”

  “Felicia, that’s enough,” Fannie scolded.

  Lucinda evaluated her limited options. She could stay here. She could try to get a room in the saloon, or she could walk fifty miles through rugged wilderness to Lord-only-knows where.

  “I’ll have Sadie fix up a hot bath for you.”

  The hot bath did it. She decided to stay at the Comfort Palace until she could get the stage schedule. And some money.

  She set her jaw with new-found resolve. “I’ll follow you,” she said to Fannie. After all, Miss Hattie had said a suffragist could meet any challenge, and this situation definitely qualified as a challenge. She lifted her skirts and ascended the narrow staircase.

  Three doors to the right and three to the left lined the hall. Fannie unlocked the third one to the right. Lucinda knew her things were already there and she felt a little sorry for Gus. It had taken four of her friends to get that trunk on the train
back in St. Joseph. Not too sorry for him, though, considering her plight.

  The room reeked a decidedly masculine air. The massive oak dresser and four-poster bed certainly didn’t fit in a brothel, but rather in a southern plantation mansion. Fannie whisked the dark blue velvet curtains open. The dresser held a shaving cup and brush, a straight-edge razor, and a hairbrush. A razor strop hung on the wall, next to a man’s duster.

  “Someone already lives in this room.”

  “Yup, but he’s gone fer a spell. Won’t be back for ‘nother couple of weeks.”

  “And you’re certain he won’t mind someone using his room?”

  “Naw. Just make yourself to home.” Fannie grabbed a few clothes hanging from hooks on the wall. “Put your dresses here. I’ll have a bath brung up as soon as the water’s hot.”

  Lucinda’s stomach chose that moment to emit a positively unladylike growl.

  “Come down to dinner after your bath. The door at the end of the hallway takes you outside. Just go downstairs to the kitchen door—er, that is, if you don’t wanna be seen around the whores.”

  Lucinda winced at the word, whores. “That brings up another problem.” She cleared her throat, resolving to speak with the authority she’d learned at the suffragist meetings. “It’s highly unsuitable and definitely improper for me to stay here.”

  “Prob’ly so, miss, but there ain’t nowhere else, lest you wanna sleep in the saloon. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. At least we have men to protect us here.” Fannie cocked her head and studied Lucinda’s face. “I swear I seen you somewheres before.” She left, shaking her head.

  “It’s highly unlikely,” Lucinda replied to the departing woman. But it wasn’t unlikely at all. Soiled doves from all over knew each other, and she knew that her resemblance to her mother was striking.

  She flopped onto the bed, weary to the bone and covered with dust and grime. Between the grueling travel and the unforeseen circumstances of her employment, she didn’t think she could cope. Lucinda was certain the suffragists had never dreamed of anything like this when they’d crowed about the strength of women. Miss Hattie would be mortified. I am strong, she affirmed, and hauled herself off the bed to unpack things she would need for an overnight stay.

 
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