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Authors: Parting Gifts

Lorraine Heath

PARTING
GIFTS
LORRAINE
HEATH

To my sister, Theresa, who read every word I ever wrote and asked for more.

1

T
EXAS
, 1881

Maddie Sherwood listened as the boisterous laughter rolled out into the night. She knew the kind of house behind which she stood, the type of women who lived within its walls, how they earned their keep. Their cheeks were rosy, their bosoms full, and they had the energy to laugh.

When was the last time she’d laughed?

She felt her stomach lurch as the aroma of carrots, potatoes, and beef wallowing in a thick broth wafted out into the alley. Her mouth watered, and tears welled unbidden in her eyes. She clutched the worn calico of her dress as though that alone could stop the aching hunger growing in her hollow abdomen.

A chill wind whipped through the deserted alley. She turned her back toward it, her tangled hair a frail barrier against the harsh elements surrounding her. Only two days before, a lingering spring had begun to ease its way into summer, and warm breezes had caressed the land. She had accepted Mother Nature’s promise of warmer weather and traded her coat for a hot potato. The week before, she’d exchanged her shoes for stale bread and moldy cheese.

Now she had nothing left to trade but her dreams.

The back door squeaked open, spilling pale lamplight into the alley, the light’s feathery fingers reaching out to touch her. A robust woman braced her arm against the threshold, her stance thrusting out one hip so she had a place to plant her other hand. “Don’t like people loitering out behind my place,” she said, huskily.

The woman’s raspy voice revealed her identity. Maddie’s brother, Andrew, had often spoken of Bev, the madam who owned this establishment in Fort Worth’s notorious Hell’s Half Acre. She entertained outlaws and judges alike and had a reputation for running an honest parlor house. Nothing came out of a man’s pockets that he didn’t take out himself.

Maddie wished she could walk away, but it was more than the weakness in her legs that kept her rooted to the spot. It was the tarnished truth. “I’ve no place else to go”

Bev stepped out of the doorway, her scarlet taffeta gown whispering across the ground as she sauntered toward the waif leaning against the dilapidated fence. She put a finger beneath the young woman’s chin and tilted her face up toward the moon. “You sure are a scrawny little thing. Hungry, too, I’ll bet.”

She gave a slight nod.

“Nothing in this life comes free, honey. I got some hot food, a warm bath, and a soft bed I could give you, but you’d have to give me something back.”

“I can clean your house—”

Bev’s throaty laughter echoed down the alleyway. “Honey, I don’t make money off a clean house. If you’re willing to share that soft bed with a few gentlemen each night, then I’d be willing to let you sleep in it.”

Maddie closed her eyes. She felt the shadow of warmth radiating around her as Bev positioned her body so it served as a buffer against the wind.

“Honey, you won’t die from what I’m offering you. For the most part, it ain’t all that unpleasant. Ah, hell, now and then you get a man that’s a little too rough, a man who never heard of soap, but for the most part, the men are just lonely. For a few minutes you make them forget just how damn lonely they are.”

Maddie opened her eyes, an unpleasant tremor of anxiety coursing the length of her body. “I’ve never … never been with a man.”

Dropping her arm around the girl’s shoulders, Bev drew her against her ample bosom. “Well, that’s even better, honey. The first time should be special. I’ll see to it that it is. Now, let’s get a little food in that belly and wash you up a bit.”

She balked as Bev began to lead her toward the open door.

“Come on, honey,” Bev urged, her voice laced with knowledge. “If there was any other option open to you, you woulda been doing it by now.”

Wiping away the silent tears dampening her cheeks, Maddie followed Bev inside, down a narrow hallway to a room that was cloaked in shadows as though secrets lurked in the corners.

Maddie only ate enough stew to stop her stomach from growling, accepting the promise of a proper meal once she’d finished servicing her first customer. With the knot in her stomach tightening, she didn’t think she could have eaten more had it been offered.

The bathwater was lukewarm, and she wasn’t altogether certain she was the first to use it. She scrubbed up quickly and just as quickly dried off. She combed the tangles from her hair. She slipped into a red silk gown, positioning the thin straps on her bare shoulders so the bodice covered her small breasts.

Reaching deep within herself, she dredged up what little dignity remained. She walked into the middle of the gilded parlor and clambered onto a table. Pushing away the unsettling thoughts of all that would transpire before this night ended, she fixed her gaze on a thin crack marring a distant wall.

Licking her lips, she again tasted the whiskey Bev had made her drink. The acrid odor of thick cigar smoke assaulted her nostrils as men crowded around her. Although they were forbidden to touch her until they’d paid for the right, she felt as though chilled fingers skittered along her flesh.

The bidding, which included shouts, laughter, and lewd comments, began. She kept her eyes focused on the crack in the wall, wishing she could fly across the room and crawl into it.

“Come on, honey, give ‘em a taste of what they’ll be getting,” Bev urged, tapping her painted nails impatiently on the table.

Maddie knew she’d make more tonight as a virgin than she would any other night of her life. Bev had given her explicit instructions on how to draw the highest bid, but following those instructions was a harder task than she’d imagined. She reminded herself how hungry she’d been, how cold, how alone. Slowly, she moved her trembling fingers up to one of the straps. As the hoots increased, she slipped the strap off her shoulder and brought the bodice of the gown down to reveal one breast, her eyes never leaving the crack on the wall.

“One thousand dollars.”

As a hush descended over the room, Maddie closed her eyes, not certain she wanted to look at the man who’d bid such an exorbitant amount.

“Oh, hell, you could have waited until we’d seen more,” a man bellowed, disgust and disappointment apparent in his voice.

A chair scraped across the floor as a pleasant masculine voice resounded throughout the room. “You want to see more, then pay for the privilege.”

Maddie opened her eyes and watched a tall, brown haired man walked across the room. The crowd parted, allowing him access to his prize. He focused his attention on Bev, his smile slight.

“Do you anticipate any further bids?”

Bev smiled. “I reckon not, honey. Imagine you’d top ‘em anyway, wouldn’t you?”

He nodded slightly and extended his hand up to Maddie. She slipped her hand into his, relishing the strength and warmth he provided as he helped her step down to a chair and then to the floor. Discreetly, he slipped the strap of her gown onto her shoulder and adjusted her bodice before easing his coat around her shoulders.

“I’ll show you to the room,” Bev said as she heaved herself out of the chair.

“For a thousand dollars, madam, I expect to have her for the entire night.” He quirked a brow. “In my hotel room.”

Bev laughed. “You show me that thousand dollars, and we’ll see what we can work out.” With a flourish, she turned and marched toward the back of the room.

The man placed his arm around Maddie, drawing her possessively against his side, escorting her through the throng of men as though he owned her.

As the beans soaked in butter melted in her mouth, Maddie wondered if anything had ever been as delicious.

“When was the last time you had something to eat?”

With regret, she swallowed, unable to savor the taste as long as she’d wanted. “I had something to eat earlier in the evening.” Avoiding the man’s eyes, she pierced a piece of chipped beef and brought it to her lips, inhaling the spicy aroma, just before she slipped it into her mouth. His actions weren’t at all what she’d expected.

Once they were in his hotel room, he’d had a hot, steaming bath prepared, removed his coat from her shoulders, and draped a blanket from the bed around her. He’d had food brought up and given her the choice of bathing or eating first. She’d chosen to eat, although from time to time she glanced over at the welcoming sight of the water misting within the wooden tub.

“Maddie. Do you mind if I call you Maddie?”

She moved her head slowly from side to side and toyed with the potatoes. As they’d ridden in the buggy to the hotel, he’d asked her name. It was the only thing he’d asked of her since he’d escorted her out of the parlor house. He’d told her his name was Charles Lawson.

“Maddie, look at me.”

She lifted her gaze to his. His eyes were a deep dark brown, reminding her of the fudge her mother had made at Christmas. And they were kind, filled with compassion and understanding.

“Maddie, did you want to work in the parlor house? Was it truly your desire to become one of Bev’s girls?”

Tears flooded her eyes. Reaching across the table, he caught them with his thumb as they escaped onto her cheek. He gave her a soft smile. “How did you manage before tonight? Who took care of you?”

Sniffing, she ran a finger beneath her nose. “My father. My brother.”

“What happened to them?”

“They were killed during a stagecoach holdup.”

“When did this happen?”

“Two weeks ago.”

He sat back and studied her. She shifted in the chair, wondering what he was thinking, hoping he’d ask no more questions of her.

“Surely, your father’s estate left something to you.”

She shook her head. “We never had much. My father’s trade caused him to move around a lot.” She forced a quivering smile. “He promised we’d settle here. Said he’d buy a house … a small house with a white fence going all the way around it.” She lifted a shoulder slightly. “But it didn’t work out.”

“So you have no place to go, no one to help you?”

Her eyes darted around the beautifully furnished room. She’d never in her life seen anything so grand. “I don’t have any skills, either.” She brought her gaze to rest on his brown eyes. “I guess that won’t be true after tonight, though.”

She watched a deep scarlet flush his cheeks. She’d never before seen a man blush, didn’t know men did blush. Certainly, her father, her brother, and their traveling companions never blushed.

Scraping the chair across the hardwood floor, Charles stood and walked to the window. Pulling the curtain aside, he looked down on the quiet nighttime activity. A few carriages rolled along the street. People strolled along the boardwalk, stopping occasionally to look in a store window. He had a long list of things he needed to do while he was in Fort Worth. The young woman eating in his hotel room was not one of the items on his list.

He’d gone into Bev’s looking for a little companionship, someone to take his mind off his troubles for a few hours. He’d been sitting in the corner, nursing a solitary whiskey, trying to decide which woman would earn his coins. Then this young woman had climbed onto the table, and Bev had announced in her deep, throaty voice that the girl’s virginity would go to the highest bidder. Suddenly, his troubles became insignificant.

She’d seemed so small in the room crowded with men. Her golden hair cascading about her shoulders hadn’t concealed the fact that the garish gown she wore had been made for a more buxom woman. It was evident hard times had befallen her. Yet she possessed a beauty, a dignity that hunger couldn’t disguise. An innocence that youth claimed with tenacity; an innocence that would be torn asunder as easily as her maidenhead; an innocence that once stolen could never be returned.

The men in that room had been bidding for the privilege to plunder that innocence, to be the last man to gaze into trusting eyes, the first man to gaze into eyes consumed by the knowledge that nothing in this young woman’s life would ever be beautiful again.

He wondered if any man standing in that room knew that what he was bidding on so fervently was priceless to this young woman.

So many things in life were priceless: a woman’s first experience with love, a mother’s touch, laughter. Recently, Charles had found little in his life to bring him laughter. He glanced over his shoulder at the woman sitting at the table.

He had been but nineteen when he’d taken Alice as his wife. He’d visited a brothel or two in his youth. The women’s eyes had always seemed dead, lifeless. He’d dreaded taking the sparkle from Alice’s eyes. He’d given her as much gentleness and love as he could, hoping to ease things for her. Afterward, her eyes had reflected a love for him deeper than before.

He smiled at the fond memory. He’d been her first, her only. The wonder of it had always shone in her eyes.

He thought of the children that their love had produced. They knew little of a mother’s love, the difference a woman’s presence could make.

Turning abruptly, he walked across the room and dropped into the chair. “I’d like to make you a proposition.”

“You don’t have to proposition me. You’ve already paid a thousand—”

“I paid a thousand dollars to get you out of that hellhole. And that’s all.”

She used her fingers to comb the silken tresses back from her face. “I thought you wanted … I mean the bidding … you bought the right….”

He smiled sadly. “I’m impotent.”

Maddie knew it was rude, but she couldn’t stop her eyes from forming wide circles nor her mouth from dropping open. She snapped her mouth shut, then whispered, “Impotent? That means you can’t—”

“No, I can’t. I got trapped in a stall with an angry stallion a little over a year ago.” He released a self-debasing laugh. “It’s a wonder I can still piss.”

She lowered her eyes as the heat rushed to her face.

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t a very gentlemanly thing to say, was it?”

She shook her head before lifting her gaze to his. His eyes held more sadness within their depths than any man’s she’d ever seen, more than her own eyes held, she was certain. She tilted her head. “Then why were you there?”

Once again, she watched the crimson coloring creep up beneath his tanned cheeks. He smiled lightly. “A man still likes to look, occasionally to touch.”

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