Chapter 1: The Novelty
Miranda Priestly made the rules in her saloon. Any man who set foot inside the walls of the Diamond Eye either followed those rules or got the business end of a shotgun right up close.
So far, she’d only had to shoot two patrons: one for refusing to pay up at the end of a very long week of drinking, another for attempting to violate one of her girls. The first got lucky with a graze to the shoulder, and he’d been paying his tab every night since then. The other was buried two miles down the road in an unmarked grave, dug in the middle of the night by her barman and piano player. No one had come looking for the bastard, including the sheriff, who’d been her only concern. While she hadn’t intended to kill him outright, in the end she wasn’t sorry she’d done it.
She occasionally wondered what her old friends in Boston would say if they saw her wielding a firearm, much less putting it to use. She could almost hear their astonished voices, see their stunned expressions. It gave her an enormous sense of satisfaction.
Her reputation in this gold rush town was pristine. She commanded respect everywhere she went. More than one man had tried to court her, but after the death of her husband in Boston eight years before she had no interest in male companionship. Her time was dedicated to running the business. She did not need romance, nor would she likely find it with anyone who darkened the doorway of her saloon. Most men she typically came into contact with were rough. Uneducated. Filthy, not to mention foul-smelling. She would rather tend to her own needs rather than try to make a match at her advanced age. Not that anyone in town knew she was nearly forty-seven. With her snow white hair and pristine skin, she presented a mysterious combination of maturity and youth, an ageless sophistication. Unlike many other women in this part of the country, she was fortunate to have a profession that kept her out of the sun and the wind.
She worked hard to maintain her youthful appearance. And while Miranda’s regal bearing was bred from birth, her continued success was all due to hard work.
Only her girls saw a softer side, rarely. They took the stage for her each night and in return she paid them, fed them, gave them a home. They lived in the rooms built above the stage, while Miranda’s quarters were at the opposite end of the building. Because of her proximity, she knew much of what went on between the girls and interested patrons. She’d laid down two limits: no pregnancies and no marriages. If a girl got married, she went her own way. It was easier for everyone; the last thing Miranda needed was a jealous husband busting down her door when a cowboy pawed his property.
It was a good solution. The girls were careful, or they’d come to Miranda and confess that they were bound to leave after becoming engaged. With each departure Miranda wondered how many girls would have regrets after they’d grown bored with a quiet life and no career other than motherhood and homemaking. Miranda had been lucky; her husband’s investments provided the capital to purchase land and build her saloon from the ground up. Her own parents were long dead, but their money had been a boon as well. Her financial independence allowed her to leave Boston behind once she grew tired of the monotony of decadence and snobbery. Business fueled her. Work was passion. Providing an opportunity for women who might otherwise be struck down by poverty or starvation was thrilling. This was a life she’d created for herself and she would not have it any other way.
She could use a stroke of luck, though. She’d lost two girls in the last three weeks, one to a marriage and the other to an angry father who’d traveled hundreds of miles to retrieve his runaway teenage daughter. Miranda didn’t blame him. The man had been furious, but Miranda explained that had his child fallen in with any other proprietor, there was no telling what may have happened. As it was, the girl spent two months dancing, so Miranda made sure to slip her the last week’s pay before she’d departed. Could she have kept the money? Of course. But she didn’t really need it. Since business was booming her bank account was well in hand. And one never knew when generosity might come back around.
Seven girls was not enough. Sophie had been the best singer of the bunch. It was tough to find talent in a place like this. Sure, she could probably find a hoofer or two to stomp around and shake her rump, but Miranda wanted more than that. The men would get tired of watching the same old thing. Wouldn’t they?
She considered it. Perhaps they would not. Men had simple tastes. Breasts, bottoms, legs. Sex. Even the mere suggestion of it was enough to bring them to her door. Well, that and the liquor.
She looked down at the books and nodded slightly. She would have to wait and see.
Andy stood in front of the swinging doors of the Diamond Eye. This was her best chance at staying in California, and she quivered with anxiety. She’d heard tell of the virago at the saloon’s helm from various people she’d come into contact with. Betty Jenkins, who ran the boarding house where Andy was staying, declared that she’d seen the woman cut down a man twice her size with just the sound of her voice. Andy had a hard time believing that, but at least it prepared her for what she might experience if she walked through those doors.
When, she reminded herself. When she walked through those doors.
She smoothed back a few loose strands of hair and straightened her hat. Her current ensemble of high-necked blouse and ankle-length skirt might not present the ideal image of a dance-hall girl, but it was all Andy had. No use in getting riled up about it now. Best just to walk through and get it over with.
Up the three stairs and through the doors she went. The place was empty except for a woman with white hair seated at one of the back tables. When she glanced up at Andy’s noisy entrance, Andy immediately realized that Betty had not exaggerated this woman’s presence.
“Yes?” the woman said.
“Ms. Priestly?” Andy asked, her voice barely loud enough to reach across the room.
The woman stood. Her dark red dress was elegant and simple, cut low across the bosom and reaching all the way to the floor. Andy trembled. She was utterly beautiful; Andy found it difficult to speak.
“I am Miranda Priestly. And who might you be?”
Andy swallowed against a dry throat. “My name is Andrea Sachs. I’m looking for work.”
Miranda came closer, looking over Andy’s clothing with a critical eye. “Work. I don’t run the local schoolhouse, Miss Sachs. If you’re aiming to teach, you’re in the wrong place.”
“No, ma’am,” Andy replied, remembering her plight. “I want to be a dancer in your establishment. I’ve got some training and I’d fit right in.” It wasn’t really a lie; ballet classes till she was twelve had given her some semblance of grace. She’d waltzed with Jefferson at a hundred parties back home, not that she’d enjoyed any of them.
Miranda was just a few feet away. Andy felt weak with nerves. “A dancer.” Miranda tilted her head, still focused on Andy’s hips. “Lift your skirt.”
Startled, Andy’s eyes widened. “Pardon me?”
When Miranda’s eyes met her own, Andy realized they were the brightest blue she’d ever seen. “Lift your skirt,” Miranda repeated slowly. “I want to see your legs. The men will see more than that if you’re serious about working here.”
“Oh. Of course.” Repressing her modesty, Andy leaned over and pulled her skirts up, revealing her trail-worn boots and stockings. She paused just at the knee and Miranda inspected her carefully.
Miranda nodded. “Fair enough. You’ll have to fix your hair. The girls will make you up. Can you sing?”
Andy could barely keep up with Miranda’s words. She had the job already? “Uh, a little.”
“Let’s hear it.”
Frozen with fear, Andy cleared her throat. Back home she sang all the time, while her mother played the pianoforte and her sister joined her. She’d performed at events with songs from Italian and French operas. But memories of those experiences fled as Miranda Priestly watched her like a hawk. She wouldn’t choose a church hymn; that seemed unsuitable for her surroundings. A tune she’d learned on the journey here came to mind. “I’ve traveled the mountains all over,” she began, but her voice wobbled nervously. “And now to the valleys I’ll go, and live like a pig in the clover, in sight of huge mountains of snow…”
When Miranda waved her hand, Andy stopped. “A little,” Miranda said flatly. “No matter. I need someone and you’re here. You put on a show with the other girls six nights a week, dance with the men, and bring them to the bar when you’re through. You get a share of the money from every drink they buy, both for themselves and you.”
Andy was uncertain at that. “I have to drink liquor?”
Miranda rolled her eyes. “My girls don’t drink on the job. You’re welcome to indulge at other times, but on the floor you drink tea or lemonade. You get room and board, plus two dollars a week’s salary.”
Two dollars wasn’t very much, but if Andy was getting a commission, plus rent, she could save plenty. It seemed reasonable. And it wasn’t prostitution. “I’ll take it.”
“Good,” Miranda said with a short nod. “The girls are upstairs. You’ll stay with Lily, in the last room on the left. Can you carry all your things on your own?”
Andy nodded vigorously. “Oh yes. I don’t have very much.”
With narrowed eyes, Miranda stared at her. Andy shivered. “What brought you west, Andrea?”
“I—” A cascade of ideas flew through Andy’s head. I want to be a writer. I don’t love the boy I’m supposed to marry. I don't love boys at all. There’s something wrong with me. The last thought Andy would never voice to another living soul; she wouldn’t be able to run far enough from anywhere to escape that. “I wanted an adventure. This town seemed as good as any other. The school doesn’t need a teacher. My boarding house costs too much to stay longer.”
Miranda touched her upper lip with the tip of her index finger. “You’re not in any trouble are you? Because I don’t need trouble. I have enough already.”
Andy shook her head. “None at all, Ms. Priestly.” Jefferson or her father would never be able to find her. She’d left no trail when she took off from Boston six months ago and California was a wide open space. “I’m not pretty enough to cause trouble, ma’am. Surely you can see that.”
Miranda didn’t answer. Instead she walked away and returned to her work table once more. “You may call me Miranda. Be ready for tonight by 7.”
Andy smiled, exhaling in relief. “Thank you Ms. Priestly. Miranda. You won’t regret it.”
Miranda didn’t answer. Andy turned around and flew through the saloon doors. Even under her hat the sun was so bright it blinded her, but she didn’t mind. This was her first job. A sense of unimaginable freedom and wonder settled over her. She would survive, no, succeed, in this far-off town. And she would write, secretly. Somehow, she would do it.
Miranda had already forgotten the new dancer she’d hired today until she saw eight girls gathering on the stage instead of seven. The young woman was pretty, despite her protestations. Miranda wondered how much attention she’d attract. Her voice was only average, which was unfortunate, but her legs were another matter altogether. Miranda would have to watch out for her at the beginning until she learned how to handle herself.
The red velvet curtains were still closed but the bar was already full tonight; it was Friday and Miranda was about to make a good deal of money.
Which one was the new girl? Miranda recognized the fine pair of calves from behind, but until she was out front, she would not be able to tell if the other girls had helped transform her into a beauty.
She tapped Geoffrey on the shoulder. He tipped his hat as he did each night before he opened the curtains.
Nigel hit his first few notes on the piano. The rabble quieted as Miranda left the backstage area to join her patrons for the performance.
As a rule, Miranda only drank after business hours. That did not leave her much time to enjoy the merits of fine liquor, but she needed to keep her head. She was already looking forward to a whiskey later. The day had been long as she calculated and doled out the week’s pay for her employees. Since they’d had an excellent month, Miranda had quietly ordered silks and other materials from Paris just yesterday for new costumes. The miners wouldn’t care, but Miranda did.
She nodded to her barman, Roy, who poured her a glass of tea. The color was right in line with alcohol and no one questioned her about it. From her usual table, Miranda sat and watched as the girls began their routine.
They started with a common song, popular amongst the men today. Spotting the new girl, the unusual name of Andrea popped into Miranda’s head. There was something so changed about her face, her hair, that it stopped Miranda’s breath.
Where had the shy schoolmarm gone?
Miranda barely recognized this girl, who moved like liquid. She was relaxed and cool on the stage, as though dangling herself just out of reach. She sang, or at least mouthed the words, her generous mouth painted a dark red. She even kicked along with the other girls in perfect unison as she danced. How on Earth had she learned the routine so quickly?
And that face. Smoky eyes focused on the patrons, many of whom leaned forward in their chairs with unabashed interest. Andrea’s expression made no promises, but spoke of secrets she would reveal only to the highest bidder. When she smiled for the first time, Miranda felt the frisson of energy that rippled over every man in the room.
Miranda was rarely surprised by anything. Andrea had seemed so plain earlier that day, so small and jittery. But under the limelight, the girl positively glowed. By the time the first song was done the crowd was hooting and hollering for more. The other girls patted Andrea on the back, and after a moment, they started anew.
Miranda watched closely. The glow from the stage did not fade with the passing minutes, instead growing stronger. She was startled when Roy leaned close. “That’s a pretty new girl, Miss Miranda. Where’d ya find her?”
Blinking steadily, Miranda replied, “She found me.” After another moment, she came back to herself. “Hands off, Roy. She’s only just started.”
Roy leaned back. He picked up a glass and dried it with his towel. “Yes ma’am.”
Placated, Miranda went back to observing the remarkable affect Andrea had on the place and everyone in it. Including herself.
After twenty minutes the performance came to an end, so the girls came down off the stage to dance with the men. They each had tickets to sell for dances and instantly Andrea was swarmed with interested parties. Up close she was just as beautiful, just as magnetic. It had not been a trick of the light. There was something that unnerved Miranda about her beauty, something that made her belly twist and clench.
When her dance tickets were sold in less than two minutes, Miranda recognized jealousy amongst some of the other girls. Time for damage control. Emily, one of the most successful of her dancers, was surly as she watched Andrea swept off onto the floor by a handsome, if dirty miner. “Emily,” Miranda said firmly.
“Hmm?” she said distantly, still watching the new girl.
“Concentrate on yourself. Andrea is a novelty. You remember your first day, don’t you?” Something similar had happened when Emily came to work for Miranda, but they both knew it hadn’t been like this.
“Yes, Miranda.” Emily flounced off and gave a familiar miner her biggest smile. He promptly bought a ticket.
Miranda glanced over at Andrea again. She chatted as she danced, her partner clearly besotted. So were half a dozen others who were waiting for the next song. Miranda would have to notify Geoffrey and Roy to monitor the situation; things could get out of hand.
Briefly, Andrea caught Miranda’s eye and looked nervous. Her dark head tilted, as though searching for approval. When Miranda nodded slightly, she was rewarded with a beaming smile.
Yes, Miranda would have to watch out for this one.
By midnight, Andy was exhausted. She’d had to use the privy out back a few times too, because she drank more sweet tea in three hours than she’d ever had in her life. She’d worked off a lot of it though; the lights were hot and dancing around the stage required loads of energy. Not to mention the turns around the floor with the men.
She was surprised they’d been so polite, almost reverential. Not just to her, but to all the girls. Andy wondered how much of that attitude was due to Miranda’s iron fist, or just because they saw women so rarely. They’d spoken of their sisters, their mothers, their dreams of making a big find. Some wanted to bring their families west. Others were only out for themselves. A few even tried to have long-distance relationships with sweethearts back home, although the mail took so long that it was difficult. Andy really felt for them, but her sympathies only ran so deep. With each dollar they spent at the bar, she felt a little cheer come back to her heart.
The last weeks had been painful, starting when Andy realized that she wouldn’t find work at the school in town or anywhere else. She didn’t even have enough money to get back home if she wanted to. Not that she did, but without the option, she was trapped.
Andy knew where the town’s bordello was located, not far from the saloon. Everyone in town knew where it was. She tried not to pay attention when she spotted Miss Delilah’s in the distance, turning away when men walked into the unknown mysteries beyond. It gave her a little shiver to think about what went on there. Andy was ashamed that her curiosity wasn’t entirely innocent. Though she knew little of sex, her church had taught her that prostitution was wrong. Still, it brought a little blush to her cheeks thinking about it.
The saloon was a compromise. There was no way she was sacrificing her virginity just to eat. She owed Miranda for that.
Next to her at the table, Lily nudged her foot. “Andrea, you sure did good tonight. You swear you’ve never done this before?”
Andy laughed. “Nope. I sang now and then at parties back home. It wasn’t so different.”
Lydia, Andy’s new next door neighbor, nodded. “I thought so. I could hear you behind me during the shows. You’ve got a great voice. You’ll end up on the stage by yourself once Miranda hears it.”
Andy blushed. “Oh no. Miranda’s already heard me. I don’t think she was very impressed.”
Emily sneered. “Don’t be coy. I saw the way she was watching you from her table. You’re the new favorite. But not for long. There’s always another girl coming in behind you, then you’ll be just like the rest of us.”
Lily kicked Emily’s foot off the tabletop. “Em, don’t be that way. Andrea’s real nice and I like her. Which is a good thing since she’s rooming with me. Anyway, I made more tonight than I have in three weeks, so I don’t care if you’re the new favorite. More men means more money, and if you can bring on the men, I say praise Jesus!”
The six girls sitting with Andy laughed and she joined in. The only missing girl, Lucinda, had a date with one of the mining supervisors. Andy was a bit shocked at the thought of a single girl going on a date after midnight, but no one else seemed to think it was out of the ordinary. It wasn’t as though single girls were accompanied by family or chaperones around here.
“So,” Andy said, trying to keep the interest in her voice to a minimum, “What’s Miranda like?”
Lily leaned back in her chair. “She saved my ass, let me tell you.”
“Golly, Lil, you’re so crass,” Emily crowed.
“Well, she did,” Lily continued. “A year ago we spent months coming west, you know? It was bad. There was an outbreak of dysentery and we got hit by a freeze so harsh I’m amazed anybody lived. Anyway, my dad, well, he’s not so nice, if you know what I mean. We were just passing through on our way to Shasta when my dad stopped here for the night. My ma, she’d died of typhoid fever a few years back, so it was just us.” Andy patted her on the shoulder in an attempt at comfort. “So, Dad got good and tight. He came back to the camp and got rough with me. I ran off, because that’s what I always did. Miranda found me in the street.”
Andy stared at her. “Found you?”
Lily shrugged. “I looked a little worse for wear.”
Evelyn, who everyone called Evie, groaned. “That’s putting it mildly. She couldn’t open one eye and she had broken ribs. She threw up right over there—” Evie pointed to the entrance of the saloon— “when Miranda dragged her in. And when her dad came looking the next day, Miranda got out her shotgun and ran him off.”
With a grin, Lily said, “That was the last time I saw him. Best day of my life.”
“You’re glad you’ve never seen your father since then?” Andy asked. She may have abandoned her family back home, but she loved them and hoped to see them again. One day.
“Honey, my dad’s got bad blood. Nothing I coulda done would change that. My life’s different now. I got my own money, I make my own way. And nobody gets to smash my face in just ‘cause he feels like it.” Looking off into the darkness, Lily’s expression grew distant. “Sometimes I wonder what mighta happened if Miranda hadn’t been there.” She shuddered. “No use in thinking about it though. I’ll stay till Miranda runs me off with that same shotgun, I’ll tell you. Nobody gets paid better in this town except the ladies on the line, and that’s the truth.”
On the line. That might have been me, Andy thought.
Evie chimed in. “I always wanted to dance you know, on the stage. But I’m not that good, see. Two left feet.”
Andy had already figured that out, but Evie was so sweet-natured that her charm made up for what she lacked in grace.
“Miranda though, she thinks I might find a nice boy if I’m lucky. She doesn’t want to lose me, sure,” Evie said, “but she wants me to be happy. I might be happy even if I don’t meet a boy. I love all the girls here. Nobody is ever mean to me. See, I lost my folks a while back and uh, I did some things I’m not proud of.” When Evie’s voice wobbled, Andy detected tears in her eyes. “Anyway, I left Portuguese Flat after my parents passed on. My first day in town, I saw the Diamond Eye.” Her face began to glow. “I knew right away I’d find a home here. I’m not sure why. I just felt it in my bones. You ever feel that way?”
Andy hadn’t, but she nodded nonetheless.
“I knew I’d be safe here. And I have been ever since. Miranda, she’s not really like a mother, but she takes care of me. Of all of us, really.”
There was a collective sound of agreement amongst the girls, including Emily. Andy realized she’d been more than just lucky to find a place here. It felt like the hand of fate had dropped her in this spot, right when she needed it most.
Lily yawned, downing the last of her whiskey. “I don’t know about you all, but I’m done for. I’m going up. Andrea, you coming?”
Andy nodded. “Okay. It’s been a busy day!”
Lily chuckled. “Sure has. What’d you do this morning, wake up and decide to change your life?”
With a grin, Andy said, “Yep. And I’m glad I did.”
Spring in California always surprised Miranda; the heat so often warred with torrential downpours, sometimes in the same few days. This past week had been like that, with a stifling heatwave putting nearly the whole town out of commission until it finally broke early that morning. There had been a near thing with one of the girls passing out from dehydration just last night. Evie was so sensitive. Too sensitive, really; if she hadn’t drawn regular customers, Miranda would have had to consider letting her go. But Miranda was relieved not to have to do so, because Evie had lured more than one hard-up man into the saloon. Sometimes all they wanted was a kind word and an understanding heart, and of every girl Miranda employed, Evie was the kindest one of all.
That included the new girl, who was kind but no pushover. Miranda had underestimated her strength of character. Not three days into the job, Miranda had seen Andrea deal with a pair of rough, wandering hands late in the night.
She recalled quite clearly how the event had progressed, of how firm Andrea’s voice had been when she’d said, “That’s not your property, Mister. I suggest you take your paws off it.”
The man’s eyes had nearly bugged out. “It’s all right, girlie, I bought you a drink and there’s more where that came from— “
Andrea had wriggled out of his arms. “You bought a drink and a dance. Nothing else. You want more, you go down the street and pay for it, you hear? I’ve got plenty of takers with or without you, Mister. Nobody gets to touch my bottom unless I say so.”
The man had raised a hand to pull a hat down over his eyes, only he hadn’t been wearing a hat. A moment later, he’d bowed a few inches and disappeared into the throng.
Another man had stepped in and used the rest of his dance. Andrea had not charged him for it and Miranda approved. Nothing like a little freebie to bring in a customer.
Andrea was hardly new now, though; almost a month had passed and everyone knew her name. But they liked her as much today as they had at first. There’d been an eight percent uptick in business since the moment she’d walked through the door. Part of that was due to the improving weather, with the warmer nights bringing more men out into the streets. Still, Miranda believed that one particularly bright smile was making waves among the townsfolk.
Yet Miranda still knew little of her young employee. She kept to herself much during the day, retiring around 2am each night. The rest of the girls would often drink and talk at the empty tables into the wee hours, entertaining the bar staff far more than they did during their shows. That didn’t stop Miranda’s eye from drifting upstairs to the last door on the left. The girl might be sleeping, but she emerged later than Lily most mornings, so it was a mystery.
Miranda loved a mystery.
The upstairs rooms were empty this afternoon since the heat had broken. The girls were out, doing whatever it was they did during the day, which Miranda never worried about. But a soft, melodious sound caught Miranda’s ear, drifting in through an open window at the back of the saloon. Something about it made her want to get up and follow it and she put down her pen and did so.
There, in a dry yard of dust and wheat, Andrea knelt by a half-barrel full of water and scrubbed her clothes against a washboard. She wore only a petticoat and corset. Miranda’s eyes widened at the pale flesh of her shoulders, at the muscles of her arms as they worked the fabric over the ridges of the board. But the sound of her voice was the most remarkable thing of all.
This was not the same voice she’d heard the day Andrea came to work at the Diamond Eye. Nor were the words in English, but the tune was familiar. In fact, Miranda was sure she’d heard the song years before.
She observed silently, leaning against the doorframe. Rossini, she remembered, recognizing a turn of phrase that tipped her off. So. This girl, so youthful, was not from the back woods. She was clearly educated, with an impeccable Italian accent.
They hadn’t exchanged more than a few words in the past weeks, only a “here,” and “thank you” when Andrea’s pay was delivered. But she knew the young woman hadn’t taken any of her “suitors” up on their invitations for dates. Something about that made Miranda almost cheerful. She thought that might be because losing an asset like Andrea would be more than just a loss of revenue, but of morale amongst her clientele.
At the end of the aria, Andrea sagged, giggling to herself. When she dipped her clothes into the barrel to rinse them, Miranda cleared her throat.
Andrea jerked around, raising a hand to her ample chest. “Oh!”
“It’s only me,” Miranda said, moving forward. “I heard you singing.” A charming blush colored Andrea’s cheeks. “You’ve been hiding something from me.”
The girl frowned. “I haven’t.”
“You have,” Miranda insisted. “Your voice is quite beautiful. Here I was so sure it was less than average. You’re not even singing during your performances, are you,” she questioned.
“Of course I am,” Andrea insisted. “Just not… very loudly. My voice doesn’t blend so well with everyone else’s if I sing out. We have to blend well, don’t you think?” Getting up from her crouch, she shook her clothing out. Miranda’s gaze was caught by sparkling drops of water that traveled from her collarbone down into the milky skin concealed by the corset. “I’d drown them out if I projected and I don’t want that. I like being part of the group.”
Briefly, Miranda found herself speechless. Her brain had taken in Andrea’s words, but curiously, she was unable to respond. The rise of Andrea’s breasts was just so entrancing, nearly spilling over—
“Oh,” Andrea declared, suddenly realizing the direction of Miranda’s attention. “I’m so sorry to embarrass you. When I came out here,” Andrea looked around and covered her chest, “I was sure the saloon was empty. I just didn’t even think of it.” Her eyes were wide and soulful when she asked, “Forgive me?”
Swallowing thickly, Miranda replied in a low voice, “Forgive you? There’s nothing at all to forgive. I’ve seen it all before, and more, naturally.” She licked her lips. “You go on with your laundry. But keep on singing. I’m doing the books and it’s very dull. Your voice will help pass the time.”
There it was, that smile that had captured so many men. “Oh, I’d be happy to. Do you care for Donizetti?”
“Indeed, I do,” Miranda replied. And so Andrea began with the opening words of “Prendi, per me sei libero” from “L’elslir d’amore.” Slowly Miranda backed away, enjoying the image she left behind.
As she sat at her work table, she was overcome with melancholy. Instead of continuing with her calculations, she rested her head on her hand and let herself disappear into the sound of a lovely, lonely voice.
Chapter 2: The Virago
Andy had gotten used to the life here, barely able to call what she did “work.” But it was a living for which she was paid generously. Her weekly take averaged more than twenty-five dollars, with a little of her savings stashed away in the local bank. But she kept a few dollars handy in her room, behind a slat in the wall for emergencies. The girl who had lived in her room before, or perhaps many girls ago, had created a little hiding spot. When Andy discovered it, it was a thrill. While she was comfortable enough to keep her diary out in the open with Lily nearby, having a secret place to keep her personal writings had been wonderful.
Tonight, when the men were herded out around 1:30 in the morning, Andy was tired. The place had been more crowded lately, what with two new gambling tables in the back of the saloon. The cash seemed to flow more freely than ever, especially when the men won. Instead of putting money in their pockets, they went to the bar and spent it on whiskey and dances. Andy recognized the scheme quickly; it provided the illusion that great sums of money could be won, but most of that filtered back where it belonged: the bar, and Miranda.
It was genius. This town’s inhabitants loved to gamble. It was part of their makeup, especially since they’d traveled the length of a continent or an ocean in the hopes of striking it rich. As much as Andy wanted to blame Miranda for manipulating the men and their desires, they chose to spend their money at the Diamond Eye. Nobody forced them. And since she’d received her paycheck, there were few things she enjoyed more than her weekly trip to the bank.
Except writing. Or gazing at Miranda.
The latter was getting to be a problem.
Andy had never cared for the boys in her school the way the other girls had. Sure, she’d cooed over one or two of them, but that was because she had to. It was expected. When prodded by her girl friends, she needed to produce a name. “Albert,” she’d say one day. “William,” a few weeks later.
But really, those boys didn’t matter. She only admired a girl. One girl. A woman, really, young and beautiful. Sarah was her name, and she was the elder sister of her dearest friend Samantha.
Sarah was blonde, talented, and so, so lovely. There was something about her face that Andy would dream of for days after seeing her. Even the sound of her voice was like music, though she couldn’t sing well, not like Andy could. When Sarah had once complimented Andy on her performance at a party, Andy had never forgotten the words. “Andy, I never heard anything so delightful. You could be on the stage, I think,” Sarah said before flouncing off with a boy from school named Benjamin, who was not handsome, or smart, or anything particularly interesting.
Andy could still call on the memory of Sarah’s words. Even now they made her heart beat fast.
Her schoolgirl friends always talked about what they imagined their weddings would be like. Andy didn’t want to be married. She wanted to be alone to write, to have a friend who she could care for more than anyone else in the world. A friend who was as beautiful as Sarah, but who would not flounce around with Benjamin Harrold or any boy. Because the day that Sarah’s engagement to Benjamin Harrold was announced, Andy’s heart broke into a thousand pieces.
That meant there was something very wrong with her. Andy didn’t know what it was, but she knew enough not to speak of it.
Long after she left school, Andy had read about the Seneca Falls convention, Susan B. Anthony, suffrage, and the abolition movement. Her parents were liberal but quietly so, discussing the atrocities of slavery in their home but never outside it. They told Andy she could read and write in her little books as much as she wanted, especially after she married a nice young man. And when Jefferson Taylor entered their home one night for a dinner party, Andy knew instantly that her future had been set.
Eight months of parties and dinners and long walks in the park later, Jefferson asked for Andy’s hand in marriage. Rather, he asked her father, who said in a booming voice, “Why of course, son! Andy, congratulations. We knew you’d find a wonderful young man.”
Her mother had been overjoyed, her younger sister jealous. She thought Jefferson a nice man, who had not tried to kiss her or touch her. That of course would be saved until after the wedding. Andy had been unnerved by the thought of it.
One morning, her mother had sat her down to explain the vague details of what went on between a man and a woman. She’d heard some from the girls at school, discussed in hushed whispers. And when her mother said that Andy had to lie down and let her husband put part of himself inside her, in the place where Andy bled from each month, she had been shocked. Her friends had only talked of rubbing and kissing, but nothing so… intimate. Andy had blushed violently, causing the same reaction in her mother.
“Does it hurt?” Andy had asked.
“Only at first. Then, well, you just get used to it. Don’t worry if you don’t enjoy it, dearest. You’ll soon have children and it won’t matter very much.”
Andy’s horror had grown at that. Not that she wouldn’t want children, but just the whole idea of it. Marital relations. With Jefferson. Losing her freedom, what little she had in life.
Andy had felt trapped.
Until she started hearing stories about something strange happening out west. Something about gold, with people traveling to a place called California to make their fortunes and begin a new way of living. Not just men, either.
So it happened that two months before the wedding, for which invitations had already gone out, Andy made the decision that would change her life for good. One night she stuffed two bags with as much as she could carry, sneaking every single dollar out of the Bible in her father’s study. She left before dawn the next morning. Not once during her four month adventure across the trail did she regret it, even during the most frightening of moments. She wanted to be free or die, and now she was free.
But now, she had a new problem. Miranda.
Miranda was as lovely as Sarah. Lovelier, really. But she kept her distance from everyone except Geoffrey, the dark-skinned man who worked backstage, and the barman Roy. Andy had once suspected there was something between Miranda and either of those men, but that had been proven false once she’d met the men’s lady friends over time. Miranda was also close to Nigel the piano player, but they seemed more like brother and sister than anything prurient.
Andy had come to suspect that Miranda was working later and later into the night, mainly because of the gambling tables. There was more money coming in, more liquor going out, more dances danced. When dark circles surfaced beneath Miranda’s sky-colored eyes, it pained her to see it. She’d been good at math as a student, and against her better judgment, she was about to suggest an idea that could end in disaster. That said, she couldn't quite keep herself from giving it a try.
Now she stood in front of the door to Miranda’s office. She held her breath, telling herself she only wanted to be Miranda’s friend, to offer assistance to someone who needed it. She knocked.
There was a sigh behind the door. “Yes?”
Andy nudged it open. “Hello?” she said, unable to prevent her voice from making it sound like a question.
“Yes, Andrea. What is it?”
“Um,” Andy said, “I thought I might help you. If I can.”
Miranda blinked. “How’s that?”
“Well, I know that things have really gone wild with the new tables and I wondered if maybe there was something I could do for you. Back here, I mean. Count money, or do some adding, or bookkeeping, or well, anything.” She could have kept on talking, coming up with ideas, but Miranda’s gaze narrowed.
“You want to count money,” Miranda replied flatly.
She grimaced. “Ah, or do something else. Shine your shoes, or make you dinner, or do your washing—something that might, uh, help you. You look—” she bit back the word exhausted and instead said, “like you could use a hand.”
Leaning back in her chair, Miranda shifted. She appeared uncomfortable, as though she had been sitting for a long time. “You want to be my servant?”
Andy rolled her eyes. Miranda was being deliberately thick. “Listen, you do a lot for us girls, working late every single night. Later than everybody. I want to help you. If you don’t want a hand, just say so and I’ll leave you alone, okay?”
There was a long pause. Andy remembered how Miranda had watched her that first day, considering and analyzing as she lifted her skirts. “Well,” Miranda said. “Bring me a glass of whiskey and I’ll show you how to wrap coins.”
After a week of working with Andrea in the office, Miranda was no longer awake past 4 in the morning every night. By 2:30 they were usually able to finish, as Andrea counted and wrapped and wrote in meticulous script in the book. Miranda could keep track of inventory and orders with relative ease now, since the most time consuming part of her job was being dealt with by someone else.
Someone who was apparently trustworthy, since from what she could tell, Andrea was a stellar assistant. Miranda only checked her work the first two nights, not that Andrea knew anything about that. And if the girl wanted to skim a little off the top (which she hadn’t), Miranda was willing to make the sacrifice. Her efforts were worth it.
It was almost a pleasure to wait for that knock on her door. Andrea always brought her a glass of whiskey and amusing stories about the evening. Rarely did she yammer on about anything for more than five or ten minutes, which meant the bulk of the work was done in a comfortable silence. But Andrea was quite entertaining when she wanted to be, dropping little hints on how the girls were doing. For instance, now Miranda knew that Lucinda had a steady boyfriend, and Evie was being courted by a sweet young man from town. Miranda didn’t have anything to worry about yet, but it was good to be aware of events as they happened, rather than when it was too late.
Andrea, on the other hand, did not have a boyfriend. Miranda hoped it stayed that way. It was a curious comfort to have another person work alongside her. If a man started coming around demanding Andrea’s time, it would be unfortunate indeed. But Andrea seemed perfectly content to spend her nights with Miranda without complaint. Even when she was exhausted from dancing and singing, she looked almost relieved to come to the office.
Tonight was no different. Miranda waited, and just after 1, there was a firm knock at the door.
“Come in,” she said, her heart thumping pleasantly within her chest.
“Hi,” Andrea said, looking ridiculously good for someone who had just danced for four hours in an overheated saloon. Her skin fairly glowed.
“Evening,” Miranda said. She set her pen down and held out a hand. Andrea deposited a generous glass of whiskey into it. “Mm, very good,” she replied, sniffing the liquor. “You don’t drink?”
The girl shrugged. “On special occasions. But I don’t want to mess up my counting. I have to concentrate on my work.”
“Ah,” Miranda replied. “Very diligent. How was the night?”
Andrea sighed. “It was fine. I’m looking forward to Sunday though.” She glanced up, suddenly anxious. “Not that I don’t think, er, that I don’t value—”
Miranda held up a hand. “It’s work, Andrea. That’s why I pay you for it.” Tilting her head, she eyed Andrea’s steady hand as it took up a pen. “But I don’t pay you for this. Perhaps I should start.” The words practically fell out of her mouth; she hadn’t intended to say them.
“Oh no. This is a favor. I don’t need to be paid more. I’ve already earned enough to—well, enough. To live, I mean.”
That sounded like a slip to Miranda. “Earned enough to what?”
Andrea chuckled. She looked more nervous than usual. “Oh, you know. Send money home.”
Miranda lifted an eyebrow. “From your education, I’d think your family wasn’t in need of financial assistance. Italian opera, reading, mathematics, dance. Those aren’t the kind of subjects that everyone can afford.”
Andrea pressed her lips together, as though she wanted to speak but was afraid.
“You know, there’s not much you could say to me, Andrea, that would make me ask you to leave the saloon. Perhaps if you’d killed someone, or stolen—”
“I only borrowed it,” Andrea said quickly. “I’ve sent every penny home. I always intended to. It wasn’t stolen.”
Oh. Well. Interesting. “From whom?”
Andrea blinked, as if realizing her confession. “My father. I needed money to leave home. I barely had any of my own, even though I’d come into a trust once I married.” She curled her lip. “Or my husband would.”
“I see,” Miranda said. There was something quite attractive in the contrary expression Andrea wore. “How much did you borrow, then?”
Miranda gaped at her. “You’ve sent 217 dollars home? Already?”
“Well, yes. I had to. I couldn’t have my father, my whole family, believe I was a thief who wouldn’t pay my debts.”
“You’ve barely been here long enough to make that much!”
“I only sent the last of it on Tuesday,” Andrea said, sulking. “And I did earn it. You paid me yourself. You can look in the book, right here. I know for a fact that I’ve earned 266 dollars working for you, Miranda. I can do whatever I like with the money. If that means I want to send it home, I’m allowed.” With that, Andrea looked down at the till of coins she had to wrap for the evening and began her work.
Miranda turned her chair more directly toward Andrea. “What have you been living on?”
Andrea met her eyes, dropping the coins back in the compartment. “I barely need much to live on. You feed me here and you pay my rent. I don’t buy anything and I don’t go anywhere. That’s all there is to it.”
Miranda was far more than surprised. She was impressed. “You buy nothing for yourself? Nothing at all?”
Andrea stared back woodenly. “Nothing of value.”
So there was something. And because Andrea did not want to tell her what it was, Miranda became determined to ferret it out.
“And why, pray tell, did you feel the need to steal 217 dollars from your father to come west?”
Andrea frowned, a storm in her eyes. “I don’t see why you’re so interested all of a sudden. You asked if I was in trouble when you hired me and I wasn’t. I’m still not.”
Miranda sat up, ready to tear Andrea to shreds. She got as far as opening her mouth, but after another breath, changed her mind. The girl really didn’t owe her an explanation and Miranda had been quite demanding in her tone. Perhaps if she softened, just a touch… “You’re right. It’s not my business. I suppose I’m simply curious. You’re very young and perfectly marriageable. In fact, I’m surprised you hadn’t been snapped up already—”
A spark lit dark eyes. Miranda saw something there. So. “Unless you were. Engaged. Or even married?”
Andrea swallowed, flushing a deep red that traveled down her throat and chest with shocking speed. Apparently she had a tell. “Engaged,” she finally admitted. “Not by choice.”
“Mm.” She watched the red flush as it faded to pink. She wondered how hot Andrea’s skin might be with so much blood rushing beneath it. “He wasn’t a nice man?”
Plush lips opened, but no sound came out except a squeak.
“He was very agreeable. Is. And handsome. I just… don’t care… that way for him.” She straightened in her seat and looked away, inspecting her fingernails. “I don’t want to be married. To anyone.”
“You’re awfully young to have made that decision.”
Andrea met her eyes, defiant. “I’m twenty-four. And every girl from my school is already married. I’m the old maid.”
Miranda laughed. “You may be unmarried, but you are anything but an old maid, Andrea.”
“Well,” Andrea said, twisting one of the coin wraps in her hand. “That’s kind of you to say.” She inhaled, as though calming herself. “And you? The girls say you were married once.”
Miranda had wondered if that subject would come up. Considering the private details Andrea had shared this evening, she thought she would return the favor. “Yes, I was. My husband passed away years ago.” The memory of it didn’t burn her heart as it once had; leaving the home they’d shared had helped give Miranda a necessary distance. Watching him grow sick, and sicker, in the room where they’d spent more than two thousand nights together, made it too difficult to stay.
“You loved him?”
“Indeed I did. He was quite forward thinking, a transcendentalist and abolitionist. I believe he’d approve of, and appreciate, everything I’ve done since then.”
Miranda nodded. She sipped her whiskey, enjoying the heat as it traveled down into her belly. “Oh yes,” she continued. “He was also very good at making money. A lot of it. Because of that, I was able to travel here and build the Diamond Eye.”
Andrea stared up at the molding that lined the ceiling around the office. “You built this place?”
Her pretty head bobbed. “I can see that. It feels like you.”
“Sure.” She ran a slow tongue along her lower lip. “Strong, refined. Beautiful and elegant. And open, but with room for privacy and rest.”
There was something hypnotic in Andrea’s voice that drew Miranda in. “That’s how you see me?”
Andrea smiled. “It’s how you are.” Her eyes were soft, her voice tender.
Miranda felt a deep connection to this girl, who was such a strange combination of intelligence and innocence. “Well.” Was she blushing now too?
Andrea lifted her shoulders. “It’s true,” she whispered.
When their eyes met again, Miranda felt a peculiar heat swimming up inside her. It seemed echoed in the flame that colored Andrea’s cheeks. The girl swallowed, clearing her throat. “I should, ah,” she pointed down at her till. Miranda glanced at the clock.
“Yes, of course,” she replied.
They did not finish by 2:30. For once, Miranda didn’t mind.
Chapter 3: The Venus
The day of Evie’s farewell party, Andy had to get in line to wash her hair, but the effect was worth it in the end. Clad in her best skirt and a brand new blouse, she felt almost pretty. There was no one special she would be seeing today, although she found herself wanting to impress Miranda. Not for any reason, really. She just… liked Miranda an awful lot. Not the same way she had liked Sarah. This felt sweeter, because as much as Andy had learned about her employer after so many nights working by her side, she only admired her more. Miranda was a charismatic woman with a strength of character Sarah could never possess. The ache Andy had felt over Sarah’s imaginary abandonment had vanished.
Miranda would not be Andy’s best friend in return, because she was too good for someone like her, but that was all right. If she could spend an hour at Miranda’s side each evening, it was enough to sustain her. Andy thought she’d get used to the beauty of Miranda’s face after a few weeks, but it hadn’t happened. Counting and wrapping the Diamond Eye’s earnings had become more difficult. Andy grew distracted at the slightest sound Miranda made, whether the rustle of a velvet dress or the scratch of pen to paper. And the scent Miranda wore—something of sandalwood or cedar—Andy would drink it in if she could.
In all, Andy felt completely content with her life at the saloon. She had everything she had ever wanted. Freedom to write, money of her own, and a valued friend who made her happy just by existing. She missed her parents and sister too, hoping that they had received all the letters she’d sent with the returned money. Each one would take months traveling by boat, of course, but when she’d sent everything off ages ago, she’d paid a pretty penny to ensure that no one would steal the contents. She might never find out, she supposed, and she had accepted that fact. Nothing was worth more than being here, not even the happiness of her family. They would survive without her and Jefferson would too. He deserved better than a girl who couldn’t love him the right way.
Looking in her tiny mirror, she added the final touch to her hair—cherry blossoms from her favorite tree in the backyard. Evie would like them. She hoped that they could stay in touch, especially since Evie wouldn’t be going far. She’d live less than a mile away, in a pretty little farmhouse with Lawrence and his mother. But Andy would miss her smiling face on the stage and her goofy laughter whenever one of the girls told a joke. Especially a bad one.
Lily came bustling in, dressed in her finest. “Hey sweetheart, you ready? Ooh, your hair’s pretty today. You hoping to catch a cowboy’s eye?” she teased, winking.
Andy laughed. “No. Just thought they looked nice.”
“Well come on then! Party’s already going strong.”
It sure was; Nigel was playing a raucous tune, and lots of the girls were already dancing together on the floor. As Andy descended the stairs, she spotted Miranda at the bar, alone with an indulgent smile on her face. Her hair shone under the lamps and Andy felt her mouth go dry.
“Get me a whiskey, girl, and come on back,” Lily said as she joined in the fray.
Andy crept close to the bar, suddenly shy. It was strange to see Miranda away from their private space in the office. It felt as though she could not hide her affection. Would everyone be able to tell that she cared so much?
“Hi,” Andy said to Miranda. She nodded at Roy too. “A whiskey please, Roy.”
His eyebrows went up. “You finally having one, Andrea?”
“Oh no,” she assured him. “It’s for Lily.”
“Perhaps later,” Miranda said. “For a toast. It’s bad luck to toast with water, you know.”
“Um,” Andy said, realizing Miranda was wearing a dress she hadn’t seen before. It was a lovely dark gray that went perfectly with her silvery hair. Her tresses were swept up high tonight, Andy wanted to touch the softness. “All right,” she finished.
“Here you go. Now go on and have fun,” Roy said. “You work harder than everyone here ‘cept Miss Miranda. You deserve it.”
Andy grinned and took the glass. “Thanks, Roy.” She nodded to him, doing the same with Miranda except adding a tiny curtsey. As soon as she did it, she felt a fool, so she rushed off, sloshing a little of the whiskey over the side of the glass.
After she gave Lily the drink, she spared a quick glance over her shoulder. Miranda’s eyes were fastened to her and Andy felt a now familiar tension in her belly.
She jumped into a reel in honor of Evie’s Irish heritage, dancing her share as the evening wore on. Miranda did not join them, keeping her seat at the bar. Food was served and Andy ate plenty, yet indulged in nothing stronger than lemonade. Miranda made her overly self-conscious. She didn’t want to do anything silly in front of her.
But when a cake was brought out, Miranda called everyone together. Someone tapped Andy on the shoulder. It was Geoffrey, who handed her a glass filled to the brim with a bubbly liquid. “Champagne. Compliments of the proprietress,” he said cheerfully.
“Oh. Thank you,” she said. She glanced in Miranda’s direction, marveling at the image of her standing atop an apple box, quieting the crowd.
“Hush, now,” Miranda called as everyone turned toward her. “Tonight, we say goodbye to one of our favorite dancers, Miss Evie Harewood, who’s moving on to a new life with a handsome young man. I will say that from the moment I clapped eyes on Mr. Lawrence Fisher, I knew he’d steal one of my girls away. And the moment he clapped eyes on Evie, it was all over.”
Gentle laughter broke out across the crowd and many of the girls nodded in agreement.
“In any case, we will miss our Evie, who has been an oasis in our desert of a home for almost two years. I wish her only the best, and we all hope to see her and her new husband for a dance and a drink on the house whenever the mood strikes them.”
Lily whooped at the words, and the rest of the girls joined in a moment after.
“To Evie and Lawrence. May the road rise up to meet you both,” Miranda said, and raised her glass of champagne.
A chorus of “hear hear,” broke out, and Andy repeated the words. She drank, and the bubbles tickled her nose at first. She’d had wine before, but nothing like this. Eventually she caught Miranda’s gaze. Her mouth curved in a delightful grin when she saw Andy take another sip. But when Geoffrey nudged around her, their eye contact was broken. Not a moment later, she was dragged closer to the cake by Lily, who eagerly awaited a slice. Sweets this decadent were a rare treat at the saloon.
“What’s that you’re drinking?” Lily asked.
“I’m not sure. Something with bubbles,” Andy replied, not wanting to share the details. No one else had champagne except Miranda. Andy didn’t waste her time wondering why that was.
“Looks all right. ‘S it booze?”
Lily was halfway to soaked so Andy just nodded.
“Good. Need to loosen you up, girl,” Lily said, slurring just a touch. “Now, grab me that slice of cake. I’m starved.”
Andy took enough for the two of them, and although she really wanted to be near Miranda, they sat at an empty table. Lily prattled on about all the men who were there that night, and all the dancing she’d done, and how Evie was a lucky girl for nabbing such an eligible bachelor, even though Lawrence’s mother lived at home with him. Andy made as if she agreed with everything Lily said, despite the fact that she was only half-listening. Instead she drank her champagne and kept a lookout for Miranda.
A few minutes later, Geoffrey snuck close and refilled her glass. Lily wasn’t paying any attention, so Andy just smiled at him.
Andy wasn’t sure why it was such a big deal to be drinking champagne; she didn’t feel any differently. She’d never been drunk, nor did she care to be. The behavior alcohol seemed to cause in men and women was ridiculous, so Andy wanted to avoid it at all costs. But this drink was light and sweet, and apparently it didn’t affect her. She sipped again, reveling in the decadent flavor.
By the time her second glass was half empty, it hit her. She wasn’t ill, but everything suddenly seemed softer and the world moved strangely, almost as if in slow motion. She felt intensely happy and at ease with life, and overjoyed for Evie. The dancing had slowed, but the piano still rang out, and Andy was compelled to add her voice to it.
“Nigel,” Andy called out, surprised at how light headed she was when she stood. “Nigel, I want to sing a song.”
“Well, good to hear it, Miss. What would you like?”
Something old fashioned, Andy thought. A love song, or a folk song, even. “The Water Is Wide?” she offered, as a question.
“I surely know that one.” He began to play, the notes long and mournful compared to the cheerful tunes he’d performed most of the night.
Andy found Evie in the crowd and waved. Evie seemed surprised to see Andy alone by the piano, until Andy pointed to her. For you, she mouthed, and Evie lifted a hand to her heart.
“Oh the water is wide, I can’t cross o’er,” Andy sang, “And neither I have wings to fly. Give me a boat that can carry two, and both shall row, my love and I.”
The room had quieted, and everyone was watching her now. Andy hoped she didn’t sound too poorly, but she wanted to give something special to Evie, who had always loved her voice. “Where love is planted, oh there it grows. It grows and blossoms like a rose. It has a sweet and pleasant smell, that no flower can excel.” She closed her eyes, losing herself in the timeless melody that had always been a favorite of her father’s. “There is a ship, and she sails the sea, she’s loaded deep as deep can be. But not so deep as the love I’m in, I know not if I sink or swim.”
The fourth verse was too sad for an engagement party, so Andy simply repeated the first, barely noticing that Nigel had stopped playing. “Oh the water is wide, I can’t cross o’er. And neither I have wings to fly. Give me a boat that can carry two, and both shall row, my love and I.”
Andy breathed in, her head swimming with light, her body exhilarated by its efforts. When she opened her eyes, everyone stared back at her in silence. Had she made an idiot of herself? A moment later, Evie burst into tears, rushing into Andy’s arms. “Oh Andrea,” she cried, and applause spontaneously exploded across the room. It was a roar in her ears. “I never heard you sing like that before,” Evie said. “It was beautiful.”
Andy sighed in relief. “I’m glad, Evie. I’m so happy for you.”
Evie clutched her. “Oh, my Andrea, you must promise to sing at the wedding. Promise me right now.”
“Oh,” Andy said, glancing over her shoulder as people crowded around her, thumping her on the back in praise. “I don’t think I—”
“No, you must. The day just won’t be right without it. Please?”
“Well, I suppose—” Someone clapped her on the back so hard she fell forward. “I suppose I could do something.”
“Oh, thank you, Andrea. It will be the highlight of the afternoon.”
Andy patted her cheek. “I think your vows will be the highlight,” she said. “But thank you all the same.”
Nigel left his bench to hover near Andy. “You sing like an angel, Andrea. Can we do that again? And soon?”
Slightly overwhelmed at the raptures directed at her, Andy nodded weakly. “Sure. I’ll need someone to practice with if I’m to sing at the wedding.”
“Anytime, Miss,” Nigel said, backing away to the piano once more, returning to the jaunty music he’d been playing earlier.
Andy looked out for Miranda, hoping for some sign of approval, but she couldn’t find her. Between the attention from everyone and the champagne clouding her thoughts, she felt a little off-balance. It was very hot in the room, and Andy needed air. She pulled away from the girls apologetically, using the call of nature as an excuse. But she snuck out the back into the yard, where it was quiet and calm. The sound of the party was still present, but now at least she felt as if she had room to breathe.
The moon shone down enough for Andy to see well, and she moved toward her cherry tree to smell the flowers. A voice startled her.
“Your secret’s out now,” Miranda said, and Andy whipped around in a fright. Miranda leaned against the wooden fence that lined the yard. What was she doing out here alone? “I suppose we’ll have to satisfy their demand. I hope you’re ready to sing on your own now.”
Andy’s heart would have leapt from her chest if it could have. “I didn’t think anyone was out here.”
With the moonlight illuminating the drooping cherry blossoms in her hair, Miranda thought Andrea would make the perfect subject of a Renaissance painting. Though how could a canvas capture her beauty? Miranda moved closer to the tree, its limbs bursting with spring flowers. The variety was traditionally unsuitable for the weather in California, but she had been unable to resist planting it in the hopes that it would survive. So far, so good.
“I don’t want to be onstage alone,” Andrea pleaded. “I prefer to be with the rest of the girls.”
“Has Emily frightened you very much?” Miranda asked. “You needn’t worry over her. She’s harmless.”
Andrea shrugged. “I’m no better than anyone else here.”
Miranda simply shook her head. This young woman had no idea of her charms. She was so unlike most of the beautiful girls who had come and gone in the years Miranda had run the saloon. She had no expectations of anything except food and shelter and a few coins to rub together. “You should learn to recognize your own strengths, Andrea. You already know you’re not like the others. Your multitude of talents sets you apart. As does your beauty.”
Andrea laughed then, and Miranda stopped a scant foot away from her under the weeping branches. “I’m not beautiful.”
“Then you don’t see yourself as you truly are,” Miranda assured her. The champagne made her bold, and she reached out to tilt Andrea’s chin toward her. “You are indeed one of the most exquisite creatures I’ve ever seen.”
Andrea’s skin was soft, and warm. And when Miranda touched a damp lower lip with her thumb, she felt a puff of breath that set her skin alight.
They stared at one another. In a split second, Miranda experienced surprise, confusion, anticipation. But most of all, arousal, the likes of which she had not felt in many years.
“Yes,” Miranda said distantly, realizing what had been at the back of her mind for a few weeks now whenever Andrea came to her office each night. Not simple pleasure. Not the anticipation of a friendly visit. It was something more, something the rest of the world might consider an abomination. But it was not as rare as it might seem. In Boston, she and Michael had known of two wealthy women who lived together as sisters. One evening after a pleasant dinner together, Michael told her the truth: they were not related by blood, but instead were drawn close by affection. Michael was not against such relations and believed them to be as natural as any other. Back then, Miranda had not thought much of it. The women were kind, caring, and extremely intelligent. They lacked for nothing, and it was clear that they did not miss the company of men.
Tonight, Miranda considered those women and wondered at herself. Could one develop such feelings at her age? No matter. Andrea was young, surely unwise to the ways of the world. It would not do to frighten her away, no matter how she felt.
One last touch to that plush mouth, and Miranda pulled her hand back. When Andrea swayed, Miranda wondered how much champagne she’d drunk. “Are you well?” she asked.
Andrea put a hand to her head. “Oh yes, of course. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Perhaps you should rejoin the party. Drink some water. You’ll need it.”
Andrea’s delicate fingers rose to touch her own ruby lips. Miranda would have paid half her fortune to know the thoughts racing through her sharp mind. “Thank you,” Andrea muttered. “I’ll—” She turned to leave. “See you tomorrow.”
“Good night,” Miranda called out as her companion disappeared into the saloon.
Well. Wonders would never cease, she thought.
Andy slept badly that night, waking groggy. Lily eyed her from across the room. “You all right, honey?” she asked after Andy rolled over and startled herself awake.
Andy blinked. “I suppose. Why?”
“You sure had some dreams. Woke me up twice making all kinds of racket.”
“What?” She was mortified.
“Kind of crying a little bit, moaning and groaning. I couldn’t decide if you were having a good time or getting kicked around or what.”
Andy searched her memory for remnants of the dreams, but there was nothing. She felt sweaty though, at the back of her neck and between her thighs. The whole thing was disturbing. “I’m not sure. I don’t feel well.”
“Maybe it was the swill you were drinking last night. You have a lot?”
Andy shook her head. “Not even two glasses.”
“Huh. Could have been something you ate then. You lie back and I’ll get you some eggs from downstairs. That sound good?”
It did. “And some toast?”
“Sure. Be back in a little while.”
Andy flopped back in her bed. Thoughts of the strange, unsettled feeling she got in her stomach last night flooded back. Standing so close to Miranda had been nice at first. But when Miranda had touched her mouth, Andy felt an explosion of butterflies in her belly so powerful that it made her dizzy. Recalling the pressure of her thumb, the scent of her skin, made Andy weak even now.
Something was happening to her, and no one could help. Not even Miranda. Especially not her. It was only the beginning of the week and the idea of sitting in Miranda’s office every night, the two of them alone in a small room, terrified Andy. She trembled in anticipation. How on Earth would she be able to count the money with Miranda only a few feet away?
Andy touched her lips, which tingled when she pictured Miranda’s lovely face. Her eyes slipped closed and she fell into the memory of Miranda’s nearness, of the way her eyes sparkled in the moonlight.
“Honey?” Lily said, waking Andy a second time. “You really are done for. Come on, eat. You’ll feel better.” She set a plate on Andy’s night table and handed her a fork.
Hours later, Andy did feel better. Anxiety faded from her mind. She didn’t see Miranda and holed up in her room to write. Many of her confused emotions went down into her diary, though she made sure to code them just in case. Lily was trustworthy, but as a rule Andy would not take the risk. She also tried to work on a short story based on her trip across the trail, but the words would not come. By late afternoon, the whole day was wasted, and Andy went for a walk to clear her head.
That night, she absentmindedly dressed for dancing. She barely paid attention as she sang along with the rest of the girls, and she avoided searching for Miranda in the crowd, though Andy knew exactly where she was the moment she stepped on the stage. Her hair was a halo that instantly drew Andy’s eye, but she looked away whenever she could. The men were a welcome diversion. It was easy to get lost in the music as they swept her around the dance floor.
But the night had to come to an end eventually, and this time, Andy felt shaky when she asked Roy to fill a glass of whiskey. The dark, intricately carved door unnerved her as she stood in front of it. It took her more than two minutes to knock, and the sound of Miranda’s answering “Come in” made the breath catch in her throat.
Perspiration dripped down Andy’s back; it was hot in the saloon and just as bad in Miranda’s office. The window was open but the evening breeze had not kicked in tonight. There was a sheen to Miranda’s skin this evening that made her shimmer. Andy cursed the weather.
“Hi,” she said, pleased when her voice didn’t break.
“Hello. You’re a little late. I was worried you wouldn’t come.”
Andy’s eyes widened. Miranda worried? About her? That brightened her mood, but the butterflies were back. “No, I was just… delayed.”
Miranda’s eyebrow lifted. “By anyone in particular?”
Andy handed her the glass, careful to avoid touching her. “No, just myself. I’m a little… off tonight.”
“Ah,” Miranda said, touching the cool glass to her cheek. “The heat, I’m sure,” she said. Andy noticed a little pearl of sweat as it slid lazily down Miranda’s pale chest.
She felt paralyzed. Seconds passed.
Andy blinked. “I’m fine,” she mumbled, racing to her seat. She had to finish her work as fast as possible tonight, without a doubt.
Over the next week, Miranda knew something had changed between herself and Andrea. Recognizing her own attraction was one thing. But if Andrea had made a realization as well, Miranda couldn’t be sure. Andrea was jittery now, less garrulous than usual. Gone were the typical stories of the evening, of the girls and the men she danced with. Evie and her upcoming nuptials weren’t even a topic of conversation. No, Andrea was silent and quick with her work. It put a pall on Miranda’s evenings.
She never should have touched her. The thought of that single moment was enough to flare Miranda’s desire at any time of the day and seeing Andrea each evening made her realize how much she desired her. Miranda had not thought much of sexuality between women, but lately, she had become consumed.
Fortunately, Miranda was well aware of the pleasures her own body provided. Fantasies of Andrea were far more potent than those Miranda had used to provide relief in years past. Gone were thoughts of a dark, faceless stranger bringing Miranda satisfaction. Now the lips and hands of a youthful woman danced along Miranda’s skin, and she rubbed and circled and teased herself into a frenzy at night.
She would be ashamed if she were a religious woman. Fortunately, she was not. If she didn’t believe she’d frighten Andrea off, Miranda would seduce her as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Perhaps it would be an unsuccessful effort, but anything would be better than this waiting, this agonized ambiguity of mutual attraction.
Miranda had always been a daring woman. In this case, she was willing to be patient.
One overly warm afternoon, the temperature made Miranda nearly faint. For the first time in ages, she considered canceling the night’s performance. But just after supper, rain began to fall. Rather, it didn’t fall; it assaulted the roof of the saloon. The streets were mud, but she expected a crowd nonetheless. The roulette wheel had been a smashing success, the poker tables not far behind. The main attraction remained dancing, but Miranda would adjust her business when she had to. If another table seemed a necessity, she’d make room, even if it meant less space for dancing.
She sat at the bar with Roy and waited for everyone to arrive.
Three hours later, Miranda had made a pile of money, but the dance floor was a disaster. It was tracked with rain and filth from the dozens of customers who had filed in as soon as the doors opened. The tables were full, the dancers were booked solid, and everyone was having a marvelous time. Miranda was enjoying herself now that the air had cooled. Thunder rattled the rafters, and the promise of a rising riverbed put everyone in a joyous mood.
Even Andrea, who had been more subdued than usual, was cheerful. She danced and sang with gusto, laughing when she slipped on the slick floor. She was so lovely. Miranda greatly looked forward to time alone with her later in the office.
As she drifted toward the roulette wheel, there was a bit of a commotion. Shouts broke out, and a few men were shoved in her direction. She backed up, catching Roy’s eye. Quickly he retrieved the shotgun from behind the bar. But when Miranda turned around, there was a miner a few feet away, pointing a gun to her own head.
“Dammit, Miss Miranda, that wheel’s fixed. I just lost almost twenty-five dollars to it. I want it back—I gotta have it back. ‘S not fair, no way, no how. ‘S just not fair,” the man slurred. His arm trembled and he was sweating profusely.
“Roy—” Miranda said. From the corner of her eye, she saw Roy raise the gun.
“Harris, what are you doing?” a voice crowed. A split second later, Andrea was standing in front of Miranda, her arms spread wide in a protective gesture.
“Miss Andrea, you move aside now, I’ve got no quarrel with you—”
“Harris Jackson, you put that gun down right now or you’re going to take a bullet to the gut in the next ten seconds. Nobody needs that. Let’s talk it out, okay?”
“Miss Andrea, I need that money! My wife’s going to skin my hide if I come home without it!”
Miranda tried to push her aside, but Andrea would not budge. “Well maybe you should’ve thought of that before you laid your silver down on the table. You know roulette’s a game of chance.”
“Andrea, you cannot reason with this man,” Miranda hissed in her ear. “Get away from me right now.”
“Quiet,” she replied. “He’s harmless. He’s just drunk.”
“That gun is loaded,” she said firmly.
“Shh,” Andrea retorted, stepping closer to Harris. “Your wife’s going to be a lot more troubled if you come home to her in a pine box. Come on now, put the gun down. You don’t want to do this.”
The man’s arm shook more wildly the closer Andrea got. Miranda threw a glance at Roy, whose brow was furrowed in concentration. Andrea's position blocked his shot, but before she knew it, the girl had reached forward and taken the gun from his hand in one smooth motion. Miranda’s knees nearly gave out in relief, and Geoffrey rushed in to grab Harris and wrestle him to the ground.
Andrea stood over the two of them until she looked down and seemed to realize she still held the gun. She glanced around anxiously until Roy reached her side and took it from her. He uncocked the hammer with great care and emptied the barrel of the Colt six-shooter. Quickly he jammed the revolver into his belt and helped Geoffrey haul the man out of the saloon.
Nigel had stopped playing music, but he instantly became alert when Miranda jerked her head. Notes rang out over the ruckus, and a number of the girls picked up on Miranda’s message: Continue where you left off. Keep the customers happy.
Andrea had not moved, however. Miranda grabbed her arm. “Come with me,” she said, anger rumbling in her belly. She dragged her through the crowd, fury building with every step. By the time they reached the office, Miranda wanted to tear her head off. She shoved Andrea into the room with enough force that the girl stumbled against the desk. “What in hell did you think you were doing out there?” she demanded.
“Excuse me?” Andrea replied, breathless.
Miranda felt her nostrils flare. Could she really be so slow? “That was the most ridiculous, idiotic behavior I have ever witnessed. I should get rid of you this instant.”
Andrea’s mouth dropped open. “For protecting you? For saving Harris’s life, and maybe even yours? Roy would have shot first and asked questions later. What is wrong with you?”
Miranda went right up to Andrea and pointed a finger in her face. “You could be dead, for no reason whatsoever. I employ Roy and Geoffrey to keep the saloon secure. I don’t need a dancing girl to damage my business by getting herself killed when a drunken fool pulls a revolver.”
In a remarkably short period of time, Andrea's eyes brimmed with tears. Her cheeks were red. “If this is the thanks I get for trying to take care of you, I wish Harris had shot me! At least I’d get a little sympathy. I’m getting out of here.”
Andrea brushed by her angrily, and Miranda grabbed her forearm again. “Don’t you dare! I want to talk to you. And what do you mean take care—”
But Andrea yanked away, backing up a few steps. “I’d do anything for you, don’t you know that, Miranda? I’d die if anyone hurt you. I didn’t even think about what I did—I just did it. Leave me alone." She wiped her runny nose. "Do the books yourself tonight. I’m through. Enjoy your whiskey.” With that, Andrea burst through the office door and disappeared into the darkness.
Miranda was still stunned from the turn of events; in less than five minutes she'd had a gun waved in her face, been rescued by a twenty-four year old girl, and ruined a relationship she'd been counting on. All because she was angry. And that anger was based on fear, since Andrea had put herself in danger for her sake.
If Harris Jackson had pulled the trigger tonight and injured Andrea, much less killed her, she would have torn him apart with her bare hands.
There was no time to waste.
She rushed from the room, entering the saloon. Lucinda was the closest of the girls, and her face was chalk white. "Where is Andrea?" Miranda whispered.
"Don't know, Miranda. I haven't seen her."
"She didn't come through here?"
The girl shook her head. "No, ma'am. She all right?"
"Fine," Miranda said, distracted. She must have gone out the other door. But in this weather, where would she go? A crack of thunder rumbled overhead, and Miranda glanced toward the back. "Take the rest of her dances tonight, and split them up amongst the girls. Free of charge. And make sure Roy takes care of the men. We don't want any rough talk tomorrow because of Jackson."
With that, Miranda swept back out of the main room and down the hall, heading for the back door. If Andrea wasn’t there, something would have to be done.
But Andrea was there, Miranda saw rather quickly. Soaking wet, she stood under the cherry tree, white blossoms falling all around her. It was breathtaking. Remnants of Miranda’s anger drained away, transforming into something vastly different. A hunger of great depth—for contact, for comfort, for the safety of Andrea’s embrace—was everything she wanted, if only the girl would give it.
The rain was cool on her skin, and within a moment she was drenched. “Andrea,” Miranda said, ignoring the mud beneath her boots.
“Go away,” Andrea sobbed.
"I won't do that," Miranda breathed. "I—I overreacted."
Andrea's head bobbed, and she shivered once.
Miranda laid her hand on a bare shoulder and Andrea flinched. "Please," Miranda said. "Please." She didn't even know what she was asking, but she wanted so much to keep talking, keep touching. Yearning gave her the courage to pull Andrea close, wrapping an arm around her shoulders from behind.
Andrea whimpered, but did not relax into the embrace.
"Let me," Miranda said, avoiding anything more intimate than the hug, despite the fact that she wanted so desperately to bury her nose in Andrea's hair, to kiss the rain water that dripped down her warm skin.
"I just want you to be my friend," Andrea cried. "My dearest friend."
"I will be," Miranda said. "I am." She held on more tightly, encouraged when Andrea began to slump against her.
"I couldn't bear to see you harmed," Andrea whispered, turning, damp hair brushing Miranda's cheek.
Flattening her palm, Miranda caressed Andrea's arm. "I feel the same. I was afraid, and I was angry that you put yourself in harm's way."
Andrea finally glanced up and back at Miranda. "I'm not sorry."
With a nod, Miranda accepted her words. It was over now; she had no choice. "Don’t do it again."
Andrea chuckled nervously, turning toward Miranda fully. “I make no promises.” Rain fell harder; there was a flash of light that illuminated Andrea’s face. Her eyes were filled with tenderness, and Miranda’s heart squeezed within her chest.
"Will you come inside?" Miranda asked. "Come inside with me."
The thunder exploded, and Andrea jumped, gasping. Miranda could not resist then, drawing the girl into her arms fiercely. Andrea clung, her fingers pulling at the back of Miranda's soaked dress. She was shaking. She'd been brave enough to take a bullet; it was no wonder she was frightened. Miranda began to move, not pulling away, but unwilling to stand there in the rain for much longer. Andrea followed, climbing up the two stairs back into the dry saloon.
Inside, the noise was much louder. It seemed to occur to both of them simultaneously that they didn't want to rejoin the fray. Andrea's fingernails dug into Miranda's forearm. "Where can we—"
"This way," Miranda said, pulling her down a narrow passage that led to a staircase. She climbed with Andrea behind her, trailing mud but not caring a whit. The door was locked as Miranda had left it that morning when she came downstairs. As much as she liked to know the goings-on of all her girls, she was able to keep her own activities to herself by having a private entrance to her rooms.
"But this is your, ah, bedroom," Andrea said when they stumbled through the door.
"It is," Miranda said.
"I should go—"
"No," Miranda pleaded. "I'd like company. If you don't mind."
Andrea blinked, her gaze vacant as she looked around. "Okay?"
"Yes." Miranda pushed her down to sit at the vanity, and knelt to unlace Andrea's boots.
"I can do that," Andrea said, snapping to attention.
Miranda let her do as she pleased. She removed her own filthy shoes, tossing both pairs into the corner. "Now, your dress," Miranda said, going to the closet to retrieve something to sleep in.
Miranda hunted for something a little less suggestive than she usually wore. "Yes. You can't sleep in those wet clothes. You'll catch your death."
There was a pause as Miranda found something that would fit. "I can't sleep in your bed."
Miranda looked back. "Why?"
Andrea's arms were crossed over her breasts, her lips trembling. "I—I'll make you uncomfortable—"
"You won't. We'll sleep now and do the books early tomorrow morning. Unless you'd… rather not."
Andrea nodded, although her expression resembled that of an animal on alert, waiting to be attacked.
Of course it made Miranda feel quite like a predator, so any thoughts of seduction vanished from her mind. She carried the long, white gown across the room and laid it on the bed. "For you. Get undressed." Turning away, Miranda ignored the rustle of the fabric as Andrea stripped. She did the same and quickly pulled on a cotton gown. She wondered if Andrea had watched her. Then again, someone so modest probably kept her eyes closed the entire time, even as she undressed herself.
Miranda unfastened the hair piece she wore and shook out her own shorter hair. There was a little gasp, and she smiled. "Scandalous, isn't it," Miranda said. She crossed to the vanity and looked in the mirror, unimpressed by the wet mop that brushed across her brow. But she ran her fingers through it, enjoying the light weight. "When I first came to California, the heat nearly killed me. One night I decided that it was useless to worry about propriety and took scissors to my hair. I just wear the piece for show."
Andrea appeared in the mirror behind her, eyes wide. "You look so different." She tilted her head, examining it from another angle. "Your face—it's… nice."
"Thank you," Miranda said, warming. She noted the wet curls that hung down over Andrea's shoulders. "I didn't realize how long your hair was."
"I haven't cut it since I've been here."
Standing, Miranda steered her to the bed. "I can give you a trim if you like. I'm an expert."
Andrea chuckled. "I can see that."
"Sit," Miranda said, directing Andrea to the vanity chair. Miranda took up her softest towel and rubbed Andrea's head, her eyes drifting shut when she heard a tiny sigh. Minutes passed as she worked the water out of each section, combing and straightening as she went. "Well," she finally said. "I suppose that will have to do."
"What about yours?" Andrea asked.
"It's nearly dry." She ran the comb through it a few times. "Dry enough, in any case. Now get under the covers. Do you need anything?"
Andrea shook her head and did as she was told. Miranda ladled out glasses of water for the both of them and set one next to Andrea. It suddenly occurred to her that what was happening could be considered rather strange. There was no real reason for them to share a bed; it was barely midnight, and Andrea seemed no worse for wear after the "incident." Neither did Miranda, who felt an unusual combination of apprehension and arousal at war within her. But here Andrea was, in her bed, dark eyes staring out at her as she moved around the room. She turned down the lamp and closed the curtains.
Finally, Miranda settled in next to her. "Comfortable?" she asked, her voice low in the pitch black.
Andrea answered in a whisper. "Yes."
She wanted to reach out, but the feeling between them was so fragile that Miranda was uncertain. "I am your friend, Andrea."
Andrea shifted beneath the sheets, and Miranda felt fingers searching for her own. "That's all I want," she replied.
Miranda held the cool hand between her own, stroking a delicate wrist. They stayed like that, Miranda listening as Andrea's breathing slowed and steadied into a gentle cadence. The music was still playing downstairs when Miranda finally dropped off to sleep.
Chapter 4: The Cherry
Andy had to be careful as she walked back from the general store; the mud was inches deep, even though the rain had stopped around dawn. Sweat ran down her chest under the powerful, hot sun. Summers here could drag past September, and from what the girls told her, this was nothing. She had no idea how she would survive it.
Thoughts of staying cool reminded her of the tub in the corner of Miranda's large bedroom, partially hidden by a screen. Maybe Miranda might let her use it once in awhile, when the heat got too terrible. They were friends now, weren't they? Friends did things like that for one another.
Something niggled at her though. Friendship was exactly what Andy wanted, but the knowledge that they shared it did not diffuse the tension she felt whenever she was around Miranda. The incident with Harris had been almost a week ago and they'd resumed their regular nightly work. But Andy found it even harder to carry on a conversation than before, the strange feeling in her stomach bubbling up now whenever she thought of Miranda's face, or her hair, or her voice. Andy found herself babbling as they worked together, but instead of ignoring her silliness, Miranda would listen with a serene expression, her lips turned up slightly at the corners.
Lily greeted her when she came back into the saloon, waving her into the kitchen to eat with her and some of the other girls. "Be right there," Andy said, wanting to put her writing paper and the new book she'd purchased away in her room. A moment later, she flew back downstairs, hunger having crept up on her the moment the scent of stew hit her nostrils. "Hi," she said to the group. Geoffrey handed her a bowl and some fresh sourdough. "Thanks." She dug in fast, humming in delight at the flavor. "You've outdone yourself, Geoff."
"My pleasure, kid. How was town?"
She pulled off her bonnet. "Hot. Hotter today than yesterday."
"It's just gonna get worse too," said Trudy, who had replaced Evie a couple of days after she left. She was tall and pretty, with sandy blonde hair and striking cheekbones, but somewhat surly for Andy's tastes. Always complaining, Trudy had grated on her nerves since her first time on the stage. Probably because she had made a few less than generous comments about Miranda. "Don't know why we never get a break during the shows. I thought I was going to fall over last night. Why's Miranda so tough?"
Andy bristled, but Lily spoke up first. "Can it, honey. You rather be out mining twelve hours a day? Or working down the road at Miss Delilah's?"
Trudy rolled her eyes. "I just want to sit down for a few minutes between dances."
"I sit down," Andy said sharply. "Every time a man buys me a drink."
"That's not what I mean. It's hard work, acting interested in everything those dirty, smelly workers go on about. They never shut up about the stupidest things. How I remind them of their little sister back home, or how they haven't seen a real live girl in months. They're disgusting."
Andy had never felt that way. These men worked hard and they lived a difficult life. A few hours of friendly conversation and companionship was easy, and she heard interesting stories almost every night. In fact, after she'd started the job she realized the experience would influence her writing. It widened her understanding of the world from the narrow sliver it had been before she'd left Boston. In a year, Andy had learned more about humanity than she had in her entire life.
But Trudy would not be interested in that, nor did Andy care to share. She just kept her head down and ate while Lily and Lucinda did the arguing for her. That is until Trudy said something that could not be ignored.
"You know, Miranda doesn’t have a husband anymore. How many men do you think she trots upstairs to that room of hers?"
Andy smacked her spoon down into her stew, not caring how it splashed drops of liquid all over the table. "Pardon me?"
"She's kind of pretty, even though the bloom’s long gone off that rose. I bet she's got a man up there every night of the week. Women out here are never single for very long, and she's got so much money—"
"You shut your mouth, Trudy," Andy spat. "Don't you talk that way about Miranda."
"Please, honey. She's a catch. I know Stanley down the General Store never stops talking ‘bout her every time I go in. 'How's Miss Miranda?' and 'Is there anything I can do for Miss Miranda?' He's not th’ only one either."
"Miranda doesn't 'trot' any men up to her room. She's an upstanding woman and you shouldn't insult her virtue that way."
Trudy laughed. "Virtue? She's not wearing a chastity belt, unlike some girls I know," she said with a sneer.
Lily sat up. "Stop right there, Trudy. Don't be crass."
With a shrug, Trudy threw up her hands. "What? It's not like everyone hasn't noticed that our little Andrea doesn't have a beau. Even with the boys pantin’ after her she never pays any attention. Too busy up in her room. What do you do up ‘ere all alone every night?"
Trudy's voice was syrupy sweet, and it put Andy on edge. "I do the books with Miranda in her office, Trudy. All the girls know that. I'm busy making sure you get paid at the end of every week. Nobody else in this town would give you the time of day, and she pays you more than fairly." Andy stood up, unable to finish her meal. "Everyone in this saloon is replaceable except Miranda. You should pay her the proper respect."
Trudy didn't reply, but looked at her with so much vitriol that Andy was actually disturbed. What the hell had she ever done to this young woman except be nice? Andy carried her bowl to the sink and washed it out.
Always sensitive to the cattiness of the girls, Geoffrey sidled up to her and offered her a slice of pie that had just come out of the oven. "It's your favorite, Andrea."
She shook her head. "Maybe later. I've got some business to take care of." She patted him on the shoulder.
As Andy snatched her bonnet off the table, Lucinda said, "See you tonight." Andy nodded.
Once through the swinging door, she stopped short. Miranda had been standing just outside, and from the look on her face, she'd heard every word they said. Andy's heart leapt into her throat, even though she hadn’t done anything to hurt Miranda.
"You're wrong, Andrea," Miranda said.
Andy swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. "Oh?"
Miranda's lips were very red, the color of a ripe apple. She replied, "Not every girl who works here is replaceable."
Andy was lightheaded. Her vision went a little fuzzy until she took a deep breath. "Oh," she repeated dully.
"Don’t be late tonight," Miranda said before disappearing into the kitchen.
Andy stood there a moment longer, listening to the voices that started chattering immediately upon Miranda's appearance. She didn't hear Trudy's voice though, and hoped that the girl would keep her offensive comments to herself.
Now that the subject had been broached, Andy wondered if everyone talked about the fact that she didn't have a beau. It hadn't occurred to her that it would be so obvious, but Trudy had only been around for a couple of weeks. As had happened so often in the past, Andy felt the shame of her difference acutely. She didn't want to pretend to care for any of the miners that she danced with each night. But if it got to a point where she had to, she'd have to come up with some sort of solution.
She supposed she could plead that she had a fiancé back home. It might seem like a lie considering she'd never spoken about one with any of the girls. Then again, it wasn't so far from the truth. She hoped Jefferson had moved on by now. Perhaps he had even found a willing girl to marry, one who loved him.
Upstairs, Andy settled on her bed. She worked on her story for an hour, and as a reward, spent fifteen minutes writing about Miranda and her apple-red mouth.
Since Miranda had understood her burgeoning feelings for Andrea, she'd recognized something singular about her that seemed obvious in hindsight. She'd realized what Andrea did during the day, alone in her room. At least she thought she had. Tonight, she'd find out.
When Andrea greeted her breathlessly in the office with a whiskey, Miranda's fingers tingled. Andrea noticed her sly smile. "You look like you had a pleasant evening," she said.
"I did," Miranda said. "Your song was lovely." Roy and Nigel had finally convinced Andrea to do a solo performance one evening a week. Miranda had asked them to do so a few days after Evie's going away party. Fortunately for her, they had already started in on Andrea on the night of the party. After much badgering, she gave in. This was the second week, and word had spread about the Diamond Eye's golden-voiced girl.
"Thank you," she said, and blushed. "I hoped you'd like it."
"Mm. You're quite the attraction now. I understand you've had a few invitations to dinner from some of the customers," Miranda said lightly. She looked down at her papers blindly, awaiting a reply.
Andrea laughed. "A few. None who interests me. You know that."
"Well," Miranda said, relieved. "There is always the exception, isn't there?"
Blushing yet again, Andrea shrugged. "Well. No, not yet. I prefer your company," she said, quickly appearing to regret her words.
Delight blossomed within Miranda’s chest. "And I'm glad of it," she replied, hoping to ease the girl's embarrassment. "Now then, I believe I've unlocked a secret about you, Andrea."
The smile froze. "I've no secrets," Andrea said.
"Really?" Miranda drawled. "I disagree. I believe you spend quite a lot of time upstairs, alone in your room in the afternoons while the other girls are gallivanting about town or sleeping the day away."
Andrea didn't reply.
"You're a writer," Miranda said simply. "But I haven't decided if you're a novelist or an historian, or working on a memoir. Which is it?"
The girl glanced around as if worried that someone else was listening to their conversation. She wrung her hands. "Who else knows? Who told you?"
"No one," Miranda assured her. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, you know. There are many women writers publishing books today, especially in Europe." She waited, hoping Andrea would speak of her own volition.
"It's nothing, really."
Miranda narrowed her gaze. "I doubt that very much."
"It's true," Andrea tried. "Just little stories. They’re very dull, I’m sure."
"Stories, then," Miranda said. She nodded. "Yes, I like that. That suits you. You are quite the storyteller. I expect you’re quite a good writer."
Andrea looked as though she would bolt from the room at any moment. "Please don't say anything to the other girls," she begged. "I don't discuss it. My mother never—" She paused. "Rather, she told me not to talk of it. It's not something a respectable girl does."
With an encouraging smile, Miranda replied, "I believe Miss Jane Austen was respectable, as are Mrs. Gaskell and the Bell sisters, who of course aren't the Bells, but their given name escapes me. And while George Sand is perhaps not respectable, she is certainly well-regarded."
Andrea seemed to light up at the names. "You know those authors?"
"Of course. I haven’t had occasion to read them recently, but I'm aware of their works. And I admire their talents, not to mention their wherewithal."
"That's wonderful," Andrea breathed, and Miranda felt her joy as intensely as if it were her own. "The other girls are not, at least that I can tell, great readers. I would find it so gratifying to share my thoughts with you now and then, if you wouldn't mind."
"Very well," Miranda answered.
Andrea clapped her hands together. "Oh, Miranda, you can't know how thrilling it is—I can't even explain it. I am very, very happy."
The tingling spread from Miranda's hands up to the back of her neck. Pleasure felt as though it might fly up out of her head in a shower of sparks. "So am I."
"How did you know?" Andrea asked. "About my writing, I mean."
"Your fingers and the side of your palm. They're stained with ink every afternoon."
Andrea glanced down at her left hand. "Darnit. It's worse now, with me writing in the book at night. I'll try harder to get the ink out before it sets."
"Do what you can," Miranda said. "Your work is important. I'll ask Geoffrey if he knows anything that might help."
"Thank you," Andrea replied.
By mutual silent arrangement, they worked together for an hour or so. Occasionally when Miranda glanced up, Andrea was grinning as she scrawled in the ledger. It was extremely satisfying to see her so cheerful. Had Miranda known that mentioning writing and novelists was all it would take, she would have done it long before.
When Andrea’s pen went silent, Miranda hadn’t finished her orders for the night, but her companion made no move to exit. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. When Miranda crossed her final “t,” she sighed deeply and sat back. The clock read 2:15am, but Andrea still sat in her chair, staring off into nothingness.
“Andrea?” she asked.
“Hmm?” Andrea replied.
“Why not go upstairs and get some rest?”
“Oh, I was waiting for you. Would you like another drink, or some tea?”
Miranda gazed thoughtfully at her. “Will you join me? Have a whiskey for once?”
Andrea looked at the ceiling. “Well, perhaps brandy? I prefer it.”
“I can meet that request,” Miranda said, standing.
“I’ll get it—”
“No, stay.” Miranda left and moved into the bar area, deserted now. She poured herself a short whiskey, and a sizable brandy in a wide-rimmed glass. Back in the office, she closed the door and handed the drink over. “Here you are.”
“Thank you.” Andrea held the glass in her palm, warming the liquid. She leaned down and inhaled the scent, humming in pleasure. “Lovely.”
“Mm,” Miranda said, hoping she would explain further.
Andrea sipped gingerly. She paused, watching the desk. “It reminds me of my father. After he and my mother would get home from a party, he’d light his pipe near the front window, pour himself a brandy and tell stories to me and my sister of all that went on that night. Everything from the benign to the ridiculous, and the occasional scandal he thought we might enjoy. My mother was a member of the temperance movement so she didn’t approve of our ritual, but now and then she’d sit with us too.” Andrea sipped her drink, her eyes growing distant.
“You must miss your family a great deal.”
Andrea nodded. “That I do. But I was lucky. The journey across the trail, as you surely know, was arduous. It kept me distracted. I spent most days trying not to be hungry or tired or miserable. I’m ashamed to say that I probably missed the comforts of home more than the company of friends or family the entire time it took me to get to California.” She laughed. “I never got used to the smells. The unwashed bodies, I mean. Rotten food, filth. Sometimes death.” With a shiver, she looked at Miranda. “After my upbringing, it was a revelation, making the crossing.”
Miranda could relate. She’d come over even earlier than Andrea, by more than five years. The path had been likely worse. “I understand what you mean. I had been… recovering from my husband’s death for far too long. Nothing diverted my attention more than worrying about my own survival.”
Andrea watched her, squirming slightly. “How did your husband, ah—”
“Pneumonia.” Miranda swallowed. “It was a very slow death. He lasted so long I was certain he would live. He did not.”
Andrea’s face was sympathetic, so much so that Miranda had to turn away. “So you came here, for a new life.”
“I did. And I have no regrets.” Miranda drained the last of her whiskey. “Do you?”
“Not so far,” Andrea quipped. “Certainly I don’t regret avoiding the path my life would have taken had I stayed in Boston and married Jefferson.”
Miranda started. “I didn’t realize you were from Boston too.”
“Well, yes.” Andrea tilted her head. “You mean I’ve known you all this time and that’s never come up?”
“Strange,” Miranda said, not addressing the fact that both of them had many things they wanted to keep private. “Where did you live?”
Miranda could not have been more surprised. “Louisburg Square.”
Those dark eyes flew wide. “No!”
“Goodness, we were so near one another!” After a pause, Andrea shook her head. “Oh, how the people you left behind must have talked. A lady such as yourself, abandoning her comfortable home for the untamed west—what a scandal.”
Miranda chuckled. “I’m sure it was. But no more so than the one you must have caused. Running off in the dead of night, and abandoning a fiancé at that.”
The smile faded from Andrea’s mouth. “I expect you’re right. I’ve often imagined what happened when they discovered my letters. My mother especially—” Andrea began, and sighed. “What’s done is done. I’m here, and I’m certain they’re at home, enjoying life in perfect harmony, as always. I try not to think about it.”
“Of course. I understand,” Miranda said. With the whiskey running through her blood and the comfort of Andrea’s presence, she felt more relaxed than she had been in ages. “I wonder if we’d have ever met, had we both stayed in Boston,” Miranda said.
That brought the smile back to Andrea’s face. “I’d like to think so.”
A moment later, Andrea yawned, though she valiantly tried to mask it. Miranda had always been prone to “catching” a yawn and she echoed the gesture to Andrea’s amusement. “I suppose we should get to sleep,” Miranda said, though she wished to stay longer, to hear more. Tomorrow night would come soon enough, and earlier than usual since the bar was closed. They could start the books earlier to prepare for the week and perhaps talk well into the night.
“Right,” Andrea said, standing. Her glass was empty. When she moved close, Miranda could smell the brandy on her breath. It was delicious, and oh, how Miranda wanted to kiss her and have the taste of it on her tongue. While that did not happen, something surprising did: Andrea leaned in and bussed her cheek. She looked a bit unsteady on her feet afterwards. “Uh, thank you for a lovely evening, Miranda. I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed myself more.”
Miranda’s nerve-endings were alight. “Yes,” she said simply. “I agree.”
“Good night, then.”
In a split second she was gone, and Miranda exhaled.
Andy floated around the saloon the next day, anticipating her evening off. Not that she’d fill it doing anything unusual, but there was the potential for even more time to be spent with Miranda. During the afternoon she wrote furiously, pages upon pages. For a few hours she was able to convince herself to work on her stories, but the rest of the time she wrote for herself. About Miranda. Her soft hair, her luminous eyes, her pale skin. The way a fine sheen of sweat would linger about her temples when it was very hot. The rustle of her skirts as she brushed by Andy. The scent of her whiskey-rich breath at the end of the night. Everything. The words she wrote told Andy she was drifting toward danger, but she could do nothing to stop it.
The event that threw her into utter confusion was not an evening spent by Miranda’s side, but instead came after they finished their work. Around ten they said their goodnights, and Andy’s eyes lingered on Miranda’s form as she climbed the stairs to her private room. Andy went to her own bed and slept hard, but something woke her in the night. A sound, perhaps; it was nothing she could identify. While her timepiece read 3am, Andy could not for the life of her fall back to sleep. She decided to go down to the kitchen to make some chamomile tea, which her mother always gave her if she had a restless sleep.
Holding only a candle for light, she crept down to the kitchen, which for once was dark. Six nights a week it was often crowded with folks late into the small hours, but on Sundays most who lived at the saloon went to bed early to prepare for the days ahead. That included Geoffrey, who served as an after-hours cook for the girls and their beaux, or even for Miranda on occasion.
Andy enjoyed the silence of the empty kitchen. Although the kettle was slow to boil, she didn’t mind. It was very warm, so she’d cracked the back door for a cool breeze to come in off the mountain. When the water was hot, she poured a mug of teswinga and sat at the table, enjoying the honeysuckle fragrance of the summer night.
So relaxed was she that the sound of footsteps coming from the front of the saloon didn’t even concern her until they were nearly to the kitchen. Something in her stomach told her to blow her candle out and keep quiet, so quickly she licked her fingers and extinguished the flame with very little smoke. She scurried to the back door and pushed it closed, and after a few moments, her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The moon lit the room faintly. She stood against the wall, out of sight of anyone who might walk in, but she was still startled when two bodies fell through the swinging door.
“Shh,” said one of the voices, a woman. Andy couldn’t tell who it was. “Quiet. The old battle-axe will hear you.”
Trudy, Andy thought. No wonder her hackles rose as soon as she heard the footsteps.
“I always heard Miranda didn’t care what you all did after hours,” said the other figure. Andy didn’t recognize it, but the voice was definitely female, and not American. English, maybe?
“I don’t believe it,” Trudy slurred. “She’s always nosing around in everyone’s business. ‘Specially mine. I bet she’s worried I’ll snatch up her little pet and sully her virtue.”
The other woman laughed. “I’d sully that cherry’s virtue in a heartbeat. She has a spectacular arse. What’s her name again? I only saw her that night you snuck me backstage.”
“Andrea,” Trudy said, and Andy’s cheeks flamed. A woman thought her bottom was spectacular?
“And those tits. Wish her dress was a little shorter, too. Maybe you should talk to the old battle-axe about that.”
Trudy stamped her foot. “I can’t believe you’re talking about that girl when you’ve got a woman right here ready to ravish you.”
Andy bit her lip so hard she nearly cried out.
“Well get me a piece of that pie and we’ll go on up and you can ravish all you want,” the woman said. Andy saw the silhouette of her hair as she went close to Trudy and draped arms over her shoulders. “All right?”
“Sure, honey,” Trudy said, and then they were kissing, and Andy heated up all over. Her heart pounded; she wanted to look away, but watching them move, and breathe, and touch was too compelling to ignore. There was almost a pain in her breasts, a throb she’d never known, one that echoed in the place between her legs that her mother told her only to touch out of necessity. That place is for your husband, her mother had said. It’s against God’s will to be used for anything else. Her expression had been firm, so Andy had stayed away, even when she tingled and felt… something.
But Andy was older now. She didn’t want a husband. And watching Trudy and another woman open their mouths to each other made Andy sweat.
“Mm,” Trudy hummed. She pulled away and stumbled toward the counter. “Here, it’s here, I think.” She grabbed the tin of apple pie that Geoffrey had left out. There was another kiss, and they groaned loudly. Moments later, the unknown woman pulled away and pulled on Trudy’s arm.
“Let’s go. I’ve got plans for that,” she murmured. Andy’s eyes widened.
The two of them disappeared through the swinging door, leaving a cloud of heavy perfume and cinnamon apples in their wake.
Andy exhaled, stunned. She stayed pinned to the wall, listening, waiting.
She had no idea how long it took to peel herself away from the cool wood at her back. She was vibrating with tension, and fear, and excitement. An energy swirled through her body she could not fathom. The tea she’d poured was still warm, so it couldn’t have been very long. But everything that happened prior to this moment would be “before,” and what followed would be “after.”
Her legs were rubbery when she crept to the kitchen table. She carried her mug to the backdoor and threw out the remnants, inhaling deeply when a soft wind caressed her face. Relighting her candle was out of the question, so she was careful as she climbed the stairs to her room. Lily was snoring, as usual, and Andy slipped under the covers and tried to keep from disturbing her.
A strip of moonlight spilled across her thin blanket. The color reminded her of Miranda’s hair, and just the thought of her made Andy’s breath catch. What if she kissed Miranda that way? Touched her neck, her ears, her collarbone that was so smooth and gold under the light of the office they shared?
The throb returned in that forbidden place, this time stronger. Andy wanted to moan. She pressed her legs together, wishing for relief. She closed her eyes.
Breathing deeply, only one word repeated in her mind.
Chapter 5: The Scholar
Miranda watched Andrea for three days.
Something had altered between them yet again, but she couldn’t decide what it was.
The girl appeared perfectly normal. She did her work, she talked with Miranda in the evenings, she danced and sang with gusto every night.
Still, Miranda couldn’t help but wonder what was going on.
On Thursday night, she spotted Andrea drinking whiskey while seated with a regular. It was unnerving. She would have to say something later.
At 1 am, Miranda swept into the office on edge. Her attraction was overwhelmed by concern. Perhaps Andrea had received a letter from family, or gotten into an altercation with one of the girls. She sat and stared at her ledger, hoping to get ahead before the weekend, but it was impossible to concentrate. Finally she sat back and watched the dark wooden door, willing Andrea to come through it.
It took twenty minutes for the object of her thoughts to arrive. When she did so, Andrea’s eyes were wide and guilty, her mouth red and swollen. If Miranda didn’t know any better, she’d suspect Andrea had been out behind the saloon, kissing someone until her lips were raw. The idea of it infuriated her. Who had moved in on her territory? She felt like standing up and shouting, demanding the truth.
Instead, she sat back in her chair and pursed her lips. “You’re late.”
Andrea smiled tremulously and put her head down. “Sorry.” She slid into her chair and took up her pen right away.
“What were you doing?” Miranda demanded.
Andrea’s shoulders rose and fell, but she did not look up again. “Just had a drink with Lily,” she mumbled.
That deflated Miranda’s ire somewhat. “Oh,” she said. “You’re indulging more often lately.”
The words had barely left Miranda’s mouth when Andrea’s head jerked up. She slammed her pen down on the desk, spattering ink everywhere. “Listen,” Andrea said, standing up so quickly her chair tipped over. “Listen here, Miranda.” Her eyes were wild, breath swelling her ample chest. “You don’t get to tell me what to do. I don’t know what you want from me, so you just leave me alone!”
Miranda was stunned, unable to discern exactly what had just happened. “Well,” she exhaled, confused but still hurt. “If that’s how you feel.”
“You don’t know how I feel!” Andrea exclaimed. “I don’t even know how I feel, or what I feel, for that matter. And it’s your fault!”
Eyebrow raised, Miranda rested her chin on her hand. “My fault, is it?” she asked.
“Yes, it is!” Andrea nearly pushed the desk out of her way in her haste to get around it. She crossed the room in seconds to stand before Miranda, her face glowing with heat and rage. “It’s your fault,” she breathed, just before she leaned down and kissed Miranda fiercely on the mouth. It was awkward and hard, unpleasant in its rigidity. When Andrea straightened up, her face had transformed from angry to horrified. In an instant Miranda understood where all that fury had come from. “Oh goodness,” Andrea murmured, hand flying to her mouth.
Miranda realized she wouldn’t have to try and seduce Andrea after all. It was a welcome relief. She stood and placed her hands on Andrea’s shoulders. “Here,” she said, turning her and pushing her to sit on the desk. Andrea’s face had not relaxed, but Miranda knew exactly what to do. “Now, follow me,” she said, and leaned close.
Andrea inhaled, eyes wide. Her mouth fell open when Miranda stroked a finger down her cheek. “Oh,” she sighed. Miranda smiled until their lips met again.
This time it was soft and warm. Miranda didn’t press, only brushing Andrea’s mouth gently with tiny kisses. Soon Andrea responded, learning the rhythm. Miranda melted against her more fully, lost in the magic of their embrace. When Andrea whimpered, Miranda loosed a bit of her control and flicked her tongue against Andrea, who gasped in return. Miranda pulled away, trembling. “Now, is that what you wanted?” she asked.
Andrea simply stared at her. She didn’t speak, but after a moment, nodded blankly.
“You’re certain?” Miranda asked, needing assurance. The last thing she wanted was to misunderstand what seemed perfectly clear, but one never knew.
Andrea nodded again. “Oh, yes,” she said, her voice like wine, dark and rich. She blinked, and Miranda saw hesitation form behind young eyes. “It’s not… normal.”
Miranda stroked the backs of her fingers against Andrea’s face. “Depends who you ask. I’m aware of love between women, though I admit I haven’t indulged prior to now. But it’s more common than you might think. Between men too.”
Andrea gasped again, which made Miranda chuckle. “Men, together?”
“Oh yes,” Miranda said. “Though I’m far less interested in that subject than I am in you.” She tilted her head. “Have you ever kissed anyone before?”
With a blush, Andrea looked down at the floor. “No,” she mumbled. “I wasn’t very good at it.”
Miranda raised an eyebrow. “You’re a quick study,” Miranda assured her. “And I would be more than happy to teach you.”
The telltale blush spread lower. Miranda had never appreciated pale skin so much. “Really?”
“Mm,” Miranda hummed. “I have wanted this very thing for some time. You must have realized it, didn’t you? Otherwise you would not have kissed me yourself. That took a good deal of courage, I might add. You surprised me.”
A wide smile was the reward for her compliment. “I’m relieved that you didn’t slap me. I suppose I never thought of what might come after—I wasn’t thinking at all.”
Those lips beckoned to Miranda again as desire welled up to bring this girl pleasure beyond her imagination. “And now?” Miranda asked, leaning in. “What are you thinking of now?”
Andrea exhaled sharply at their proximity. “This,” she said, and closed the distance between them with another kiss. While still clumsy, Andrea’s enthusiasm distracted Miranda from her instruction, encouraging her to simply enjoy the encounter while not escalating it. There was so much heat stirred up inside her it shocked Miranda, who started when bold hands slipped from her back to her bottom. She groaned, tingles racing through her, and Andrea pulled her even closer. She considered drawing away before allowing herself this gift for a few moments more. Her hand trailed down Andrea’s neck, damp with sweat, tracing the line of her bosom. Andrea shivered, her mouth growing slack beneath Miranda’s. With regret, Miranda nibbled a luscious lower lip a last time before ending it.
Andrea’s eyes were glazed and black as night. Mouth open and lush, she was the picture of innocent, willing seduction. If Miranda had wanted, she could have had her right there on the desk. But Andrea was a flower just opening its bloom, and something so delicate needed time to blossom. Didn’t it? Miranda nodded to herself. She wanted Andrea very, very badly, but not now. Not yet.
“You are beautiful,” Andrea said, her voice sultry and deep. “Your eyes are hypnotic.”
Miranda inhaled. Andrea didn’t have to make it so difficult, really. “Now—”
“I don’t know how I’ll sit across from you and work without wanting to kiss you. Will I ever be able to hide the way I feel when I stand on stage, singing, when every song will be for you? Miranda, I believe you may have ruined me,” Andrea said shyly, her smile betraying her affection.
Stroking her neck, Miranda pressed her cheek to Andrea’s forehead. She was only just beginning to consider those same issues herself. “You’ll be fine. I have faith.” When her fingers found a petal-soft ear, Miranda was almost lured in to taste it, but she resisted. “As for how we’ll be together, perhaps we can… work toward rewards. Finish the unpleasant tasks first, then take time for ourselves.”
Andrea leaned back and looked up. “Can we start that tonight?” she asked, hopeful.
Heart pounding, Miranda replied, “I think that can be arranged.”
“Hey,” Lily said, snapping her fingers in front of Andy’s face.
“Hmm?” Andy blinked in surprise. “Sorry, did you say something?”
“I’ve only been telling you about the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life in the last five years, and what do you do but ignore me.” Lily leaned back, taking her elbow off the roulette wheel. “Everything all right?”
“Oh, sure,” Andy said, mopping the nape of her neck with a kerchief. It was hot in the saloon this afternoon, and not just because of the weather. Andy had been in a haze of desire for the past 48 hours, ever since she’d discovered the taste of Miranda Priestly’s lips. And neck, and shoulders, and wrist…
“Damn, Andy. Whatever you got on your mind must be more exciting than the fact that I got two men after me and I don’t know which one I want more. Fill me in, honey.”
Andy blushed, something she was doing all the time lately. “There’s nothing going on, Lil, I’m just… Overheated, I think. The weather’s getting to me.”
“Hmm,” Lily said, frowning. “Right. Well, you remember Joseph and Henry, don’t you?”
“They’re both chasing me, and I don’t know who I want. Which one do you think is more handsome?”
Andy shrugged. Neither of them had drawn her eye for more than a moment or two, but she did like Joseph's hair. “Henry, maybe. He has nice eyes and he seems sweet.”
Lily sighed. “He is sweet. Sweet as spun sugar. And he does have beautiful eyes. But have you seen Joey’s shoulders? Now that’s a man who could pick me up and throw me down on a bed in five seconds flat. I don’t think Henry’s got it in him to do anything like that.”
Andy laughed. “Have you kissed them?”
With a roll of her eyes, Lily just laughed. “They’ve tried, but I haven’t let either of them yet. I think Joey’s going to get his chance though. And I’d ask if you were interested in Henry, but I don’t think your heart would be in it.”
Andy just shook her head. “No, but thanks just the same.”
“You’re not like any girl I know, Andrea. You don’t seem to have an eye for any boy. Why is that?” She looked thoughtfully at Andy. “And you can tell the truth. I don’t care one way or another. I’d just like to know, since you don’t seem lonely.”
Miranda and Andy had already discussed what she might say if someone broached the subject of Andy’s lack of interest in men. Jefferson was about to become public knowledge, even if there was a little white lie involved in the revelation. “Um,” she began hesitantly, hoping she didn’t lay it on too thick. “There was someone, a man I was en—engaged to,” she stuttered. “He died of the influenza just before I came west.” Lily gasped, eyes wide. “I couldn’t talk so much of him before—my heart fairly broke when he passed. I couldn’t bear the thought of him, so I kept him to myself. But these days it’s not so hard. Time heals, as they say.”
“Well, shit, Andrea, I’m sure sorry to hear that. I had no idea!”
Lily looked genuinely devastated, and if Andy felt a pang of regret, it was a small one. Anything that concealed her relationship to Miranda was worth the telling. Because at the moment, Andy couldn’t imagine anything more incredible than holding Miranda in her arms and having her all to herself.
Since that moment when their lips touched, Andy had been aflame. She’d wallowed in embarrassment after her first rather poor attempt at a kiss, but Miranda’s subsequent expertise had wiped her mind clean of everything but softness and fire. They had kissed again and again that night, so much so that later, when Andy looked in her tiny glass before bed, she’d touched her mouth in wonder. Her lips had swelled; her eyes were glazed and seemed larger than usual. Even her cheeks were rosy. Only then had she been relieved that no one had spotted her as she climbed the stairs to her room.
That night, Andy knew nothing but dreams of Miranda’s body. They were vague, but her dim recollections were of motion and heat and skin colliding in a flurry of lust. In the middle of the night she’d been shocked awake when a pillow landed on her head; Lily had tossed it in her direction. “Quiet down, girl. I gotta get some shut eye.”
After that Andy thought it might be a good idea to ask for a room of her own, even if it looked like special treatment. All she needed was for Lily to hear her calling out Miranda’s name in the middle of the night and who knows what might happen. She hadn’t yet broached the subject with Miranda, perhaps because they’d hardly exchanged more than ten words in the past two days.
Friday night, Andy had shivered as she’d stood before the office door so much that half the whiskey had ended up on the floor. Seconds after she’d crossed the threshold Miranda had been upon her, and the rest of the whiskey had landed on the rug. The intensity seemed to have doubled in strength, or perhaps the anticipation had made Andy all the more receptive. Opening her mouth to Miranda’s questing tongue was like nothing else. It felt so completely right to hold her, smell her, taste her. All the life she’d lived seemed to add up to bring her to this place, to Miranda. The God she believed in had led her here, to the Diamond Eye, and Andy would not ignore the gift she'd been given.
Their time had been cut short that evening when Roy had knocked firmly on the door and asked Miranda if they were going to go through the inventory like they’d planned. Andy had been disappointed, but she smiled when Miranda ran a hand over her brow, flustered. She’d clearly forgotten, most likely because she’d been as distracted as Andy had been. That was comforting. Andy had simply curtseyed in a genteel fashion and promised to make up for lost time the following night.
That night was coming fast toward her now. After endless hours of dancing with men she would not care a whit for, Andy would get to have Miranda yet again. It seemed like too much to hope for, to kiss her a third night in a row. But Miranda had glanced in her direction for a brief moment today, outside in the yard as Andy washed her stockings. That single glance set Andy’s blood to racing, and she knew then that this was only the beginning.
As Lily seemed to drift off with thoughts of her own, Andy considered. It was the beginning, but of what? What exactly would she do with Miranda? She knew there was more, but her conscious mind shied away from the details. Her hands were hungry to touch, her mouth starving for everything. She dreamed of things that seemed filthy in the light of day, yet she yearned for a sort of fulfillment that was just out of reach. Maybe, if she could possibly get the gumption, she would ask Miranda about it. Who else could she ask, Lily? Certainly not most of the other girls. And especially not Trudy.
Briefly, she emerged from her haze to check in with what Lily was saying about Joey, how he was so attractive, and strong, and how just looking at his hands made Lily sweat. Andy perked up. “What do you mean? What is all that about?”
Lily blinked at her. “Huh?”
“You know, all that, um, heat. Sweating. I mean, it’s about being ‘attracted,’ right?”
“Honey, weren’t you engaged?”
Andy rolled her eyes. “He was handsome, but I never felt—” like this before, she almost said. “Um, that sort of thing.”
“It’s about good old-fashioned lust. Wanting to get down and dirty with your man, rolling around and having fun. I guess you’ve probably never done it, huh? Being where you’re from, and all Christian and everything.” Andy tried not to look embarrassed, but Lily just patted her hand. “It’s okay, honey. Some of the girls here are like you. But I never had what you did. A home, and nice folks, and schooling. We were dirt poor, which is why we came west. My daddy, well, you know what he was like. But the boys I knew, one of them treated me real sweet. And he was the first boy I made it with.”
Andy’s eyes were wide. “Was it okay?”
“It hurt, a lot. It wasn’t so good at the beginning, but he liked me, and I liked him too. Didn’t last—his daddy caught us kissing and ran me out of the house for good. He told my pop and I got knocked around hard. You’d think it would have taught me a lesson, eh?” She just grinned. “Nah. I loved boys. Men, now. I went out with a few more fellas before we came west, but since then I haven’t had so much luck.”
“California’s a different place,” Andy said, as though she could relate.
“A little, but I also feel kinda like I don’t need so much from other folks right now. I do all right on my own. I make money, I feed myself, I have a roof over my head and clothes on my back. And hell, I got a bank account! I never thought that would happen for me, no how. So, I love dancing and meeting the men here, but I wasn’t in a big hurry. O’ course, now I have two on the hook.” She eyed Andy. “You got questions, don’t you, honey.”
Andy squirmed a little. How to ask without being specific? “What’s it, um, feel like?” she whispered.
Lily leaned forward. “You mean doing it?”
Lily glanced up at the ceiling and frowned. “Like I said, you heat up inside, and you know, down there,” she said, glancing at the apex of Andy’s thighs. “And other places. I hear it’s different for every girl, but the down there part’s pretty much the same for everybody if you’re lucky.”
Andy was blushing rather intensely. “Oh.”
“Anyway, you know about the stuff men have going on down below, right?”
Andy gave a nod that was as certain as she could make it, considering she’d only seen a few paintings that didn’t seem very interesting. She’d never even come close to the real thing.
“Well, he gets hot and bothered, and you do too, and his thing gets hard and he goes inside you, and sometimes it feels real good. I mean, not always. Sometimes it’s dull, and you just wait for him to be done. When he comes, you know it’s over.”
“Comes,” she said, having never heard the word used in such a fashion. With a frown, Andy asked, “What’s that?”
“It’s when the man shoots out his stuff. That part’s what gets you knocked up.” She hissed the last words, like a curse she didn’t want anyone to hear. “I always make the guy pull out before. I don’t want a baby. Sure as hell not now, anyway.”
It all sounded incredibly strange to Andy. Shooting out stuff, and babies, and extra parts that sometimes hurt and were sometimes dull. “Sure,” she said, nodding faintly. She couldn’t imagine being bored by anything Miranda would ever do to her, but now she supposed that she ought to expect it to hurt. Lily had confirmed the tiny bit of information her mother had delivered last year. That was all right, though. Loving Miranda was worth any pain, even down there. It made sense, since she seemed to ache all the time now, wanting something more.
But what if not having the right “equipment” meant that she would be no good for Miranda? She’d been married and happy with her husband, so he must have done his thing the way she liked it. Thus far, Andy’s kisses seemed to please her, judging by her moans of pleasure. Now, Andy wasn’t so sure what would happen. Her stomach twisted up, and she swallowed.
“So, now that I’m thinking about it, Joey gets to prove himself tomorrow. I might not be around all day, and hell, I might be home real late too, honey. But don’t you worry about me,” Lily said with a saucy wink.
Andy looked back at her steadily, hoping her own anticipation and worry weren’t written all over her face.
Miranda’s head jerked up when Andrea stepped into the room, holding two empty tumblers in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. She leaned against the door, a little breathless. The look in her eyes was that of a spooked horse who didn’t know which way to run.
With a sigh, Miranda leaned back in her chair. Perhaps she was rushing. But it was so hard not to. She tilted her head and peered closely at the jittery figure. “Is everything all right?”
Andrea nodded, her mouth open. “I um, borrowed a bottle of whiskey. I’ll pay for it tomorrow, okay?”
Miranda’s lips quirked into a smile. “Let’s consider it a special treat.” She could afford it. Business was excellent this week in particular.
Blinking rapidly, Andrea set the bottle down and the glasses in her hand clinked together. “All right,” she breathed. As she drew closer, Miranda saw that she was trembling.
“Andrea,” Miranda said, “come here.” When Andrea obeyed, Miranda took her hand. “What’s wrong, darling?”
A little tremor went through Andrea then, and her eyes shone. “Darling,” she whispered. “That sounds nice.”
Miranda was only slightly embarrassed. “Yes,” she began. “Well, I can see something’s bothering you.” Mainly, she’d expected Andrea to walk through the door and fall into her arms for a kiss, one she’d waited for all day. She hadn’t any reason to expect this reticence.
“It’s not important, really,” Andrea said, slowly. “I have so many things I want to ask you, but I don’t—I can’t—” She broke off, turning away. “We’ve been, ah, kissing, and it’s wonderful. I just… don’t know what else to do.”
Miranda frowned. “Is there something I’ve been doing that you don’t like?”
“No!” Andrea said, and her face lost its fear and took on an expression of frustration. “I never talked about this before, with anybody. Except Lily, a little, today.”
“You spoke to Lily about me?” Miranda said, a cold pit opening up in the bottom of her stomach. Surely Andrea knew better. Didn’t she?
“Of course not. I know this is private. Even if you were a man, I wouldn’t speak of it. But Lily told me some things, so I know there’s more. To do, I mean. At least with a man there is. I don’t know what you would want from somebody like me. I don’t have the right parts. To make you happy, that is,” Andrea explained, so quickly Miranda barely understood her. “Like your husband did.”
“Ah,” Miranda sighed, relieved. She wanted to laugh, but she thought that would accomplish little in the way of reassurance. Unable to hide a wry smile, she replied, “You have the right parts, even without the one to which I assume you are referring.” Andrea’s eyes were wide, and she nodded. “Other things will do perfectly well to give both of us pleasure.”
“Really?” A hopeful glint sparked in her face.
“Certainly. Most certainly.” At that, Miranda reached out a hand and stroked down Andrea’s neck to her collarbone, traveling to the line of her bodice and beneath. Tonight, she would know more of that ivory skin and show her how good it could be. Andrea arched, and her breasts swelled above the corset. “Oh yes,” Miranda breathed. “We have no need of anything but one another.”
When Andrea swayed toward her, they kissed leisurely, finding their way to the sofa. It was early for them to be together on a Saturday, Miranda realized, when the clock chimed twelve. Music and voices rang out from the saloon, but she was sure no one noticed, nor cared, that either of them were missing from the throng. The midnight hour stretched out before her; she hardly knew where to begin. Soon she trailed her mouth down Andrea’s pale white throat, careful not to leave a mark, but desperate to taste the salt and sweet of her flesh. She licked delicately, and Andrea squirmed. The shell of an ear was nibbled, and Andrea whimpered. When Miranda reached up and cupped a breast in one hand, Andrea threw her head back and gasped. “Ah,” she exhaled.
“All right?” Miranda whispered against the rising path of goosebumps under her mouth.
“Please,” Andrea said softly. “Please Miranda, I have to have—something—” she cried.
Miranda kissed her hard then, tongue darting between lips that opened and welcomed her. Andrea grabbed her face, holding her, doing her damndest to inhale Miranda’s breath. This was pure need, and Miranda reveled in being an object of such desire, such desperation. She felt the same need for Andrea, but she would be patient. She knew the bliss that awaited her. Andrea, to Miranda’s absolute delight, had no knowledge of it. If Andrea needed “something,” Miranda would give it.
Miranda pulled away. She reached down and lifted both of Andrea’s legs to rest across her lap. She nudged closer, wrapping an arm about slim shoulders. “You trust me?” she asked.
Andrea was beyond words by then, simply nodding.
“I’m going to touch you,” Miranda said, and slipped a hand beneath the hem of a long skirt. Andrea started, shivering, but did not pull away. Light stockings covered her calves, which Miranda was interested in exploring more thoroughly, but later. Much later. A shapely knee was next while Andrea’s breath came faster. As a tease, Miranda tickled her there, surprised by the almost hysterical giggle Andrea released.
“Oh don’t, I’m horribly ticklish,” begged Andrea, and Miranda took pity. No tickling, at least for now. Miranda found warm skin as she inched up, but her enjoyment was brief, having encountered Andrea’s long cotton drawers. She wanted to remove them, to remove everything, but it was too soon—it would be enough just to touch her now, to watch her unravel. And so she moved higher, while Andrea breathed through her nose, humming, until she clamped her legs together around Miranda’s hand.
Her action seemed to shock both of them in equal measure. “What is it? Don’t you want—”
“You shouldn’t,” Andrea said, looking terrified. “I, um, I think there’s something wrong with me. There.” She cringed. “It’s not what you think.”
“What on Earth do you mean?” Miranda asked, perplexed. There had been nothing unusual as far as she could tell.
At that, Andrea leaned close, which was amusing considering they were alone in the room. She hissed, “I’m wet. Between my legs.”
There was a roaring in Miranda’s ears, and she found it a challenge not to simply shove Andrea’s legs open. She took a moment to swallow before she spoke, but even then her voice sounded hoarse. “That’s what happens to a woman, darling, when she desires her lover very much.”
Clearly this was news to Andrea. “Pardon?”
“You’ll understand, I promise. Don’t be ashamed. I’m wet too, I can assure you.”
Something in Miranda’s words seemed to click in Andrea’s brain, because she blushed and looked even more aroused. “That’s—that’s—I didn’t know.”
“Let me,” Miranda said, a note of desperation clouding her tone. “Let me feel you,” she repeated, and slowly Andrea parted her legs. The seam of her drawers was open, as Miranda expected, and suddenly her fingers were engulfed in heat and damp that coated the inside of her thighs. “God,” she breathed, “Andrea.”
Andrea was frozen. With utter control, Miranda stroked her once, and again, before circling the little bud of nerves at the top of her opening. When she rubbed against it gently, Andrea fell backward, the breath leaving her body in a rush. Miranda held her up, pulling her into her own lap to rest between her thighs. The room was sweltering, more so now that they were so close; sweat dripped down her back. She delved in once more with her fingers, not inside, but discovering the feel of another woman. Andrea made a weak sound, her knees appearing to part unconsciously. Hands grabbed at Miranda’s forearm and she paused, meeting Andrea’s dark eyes. But Andrea didn’t ask her to stop; her expression was expectant, so Miranda moved again, watching closely as her breath stopped and stuttered. It was remarkable and utterly intimate. The slick flesh under her hand grew warmer, wetter, until Andrea was making tiny whimpers of need.
“Miranda, Miranda,” she repeated, “Oh, please, Miranda.”
Sensing her approaching peak, Miranda changed her touch to one of light pressure. Andrea moved with her now, muscles tight, chest heaving with exertion. Her face was exquisitely expressive; Miranda could see each note of pleasure in the curve of her cheek, the shape of her mouth.
Arousal rose within Miranda; she found herself groaning with it. Andrea heard her, and her mouth dropped open. Her hips jerked twice and she stilled Miranda’s arm, crying out faintly, her entire body quivering as she came for the first time. Ecstasy washed over her as her eyes glazed in delirium. Miranda throbbed between her legs, burning. The weight of Andrea’s body was almost enough to send her over as well, but not quite.
Andrea slumped against her shoulder, shaking furiously. Her hairline was damp, and she smelled wonderful. She left her hand in the warm haven, feeling strong pulses as they slowed and finally stopped. How long they sat together Miranda didn’t know, but finally, Andrea lifted her head.
“Miranda,” she said, her voice thick and low. She looked drunk. “That was good.”
With a laugh, Miranda kissed her cheekbone, her forehead, her jaw. She suppressed the desire to pull Andrea’s fingers into her own underwear. Clearly patience was working out for her; a little more was in order. “I’m glad.”
A hand slid into Miranda’s hair and pulled her in for a real kiss, open-mouthed and languid. Their tongues tangled; all of Andrea’s reticence had vanished. When they broke apart, Andrea drawled, “That didn’t hurt at all.” She sounded surprised.
“Oh?” She hoped that single syllable would be enough to encourage an explanation.
“My mother and Lily, they both said it hurt the first time. And other times after that, too.” Andrea closed her eyes and sank further into the cushions of the sofa. She toyed with the hem of Miranda’s sleeve. “That was wonderful. Though I don’t quite know how it happened.”
Her surprise reminded Miranda vaguely of her first orgasm, by her own hand. Her husband had been asleep, and she felt desire and shame simultaneously while lying in their bed. So quietly she’d touched herself, fantasizing, knowing there was something she was reaching for, aching for, and after a long time she reached the pinnacle. When she’d opened her eyes and found Michael watching her, his dark eyes pierced her, and they’d made love all night. It was the beginning of the best part of their time together, crossing the line of propriety and prudishness into a truly sexual relationship.
They’d been married a full year by the time this happened. She felt blessed that she could begin this way with Andrea now. Different it might be with a woman, but it would be no less exciting.
“You’ll learn what pleases you soon enough. And what pleases me in return,” Miranda finally said.
Brown eyes flashed at her. “Pleases you,” Andrea repeated. “I want to please you. Can I? Now?”
Miranda licked her lips. “Yes.”
Chapter 6: The Darling
As Miranda gazed at her with hooded eyes, Andy felt fantastic.
She felt more than that of course; there was some embarrassment, a little shock, and an unexpected languor after Miranda brought her the greatest physical pleasure she’d ever known. But overall, she felt wonderful. Happy. And very much in love.
That last thought came with a jolt. She did love Miranda. But was it only because they’d been so intimate? As she stared into bright blue eyes, watching her with such patience, she considered the notion. She didn’t feel much differently for the woman since they’d crossed over into a physical relationship. Things intensified, but her heart had known the truth of the matter long before they’d ever kissed. Her response to Miranda made sense now. Her heart loved, so her body reacted in kind.
Andy leaned forward and kissed her, tingles still rising up beneath her skin. “Is it all right if I love you?” she asked Miranda, brushing her lips along a soft, pale cheek.
Miranda made a sound in her throat, her head falling back. “Oh,” she sighed, “yes, Andrea.” They kissed again with a need that spoke to Andy very clearly. Miranda suffered desire as Andy had. She was shy to put her hands beneath Miranda’s silky dress, but she would do it, no matter how strange it might be.
Lifting off Miranda’s lap, she reclined and pulled Miranda down next to her. Their knees bumped as they kissed, Andy pressing Miranda against the back of the velvet sofa. Carefully she pulled at silk, lifting until she found not cotton underwear as she anticipated, but bare skin all the way up. She gasped at the feel of it; Miranda shuddered in response. “I’d hoped for this,” Miranda growled, the sound of her voice sending sparks between Andy’s legs. She thought she’d been well satisfied before, but now, the ache was returning. The sensation of Miranda’s skin and the thatch of hair at the apex of her legs stirred her even further. “Oh yes,” Miranda groaned, her head dropping back against a cushion.
The conflict of her own desire coupled with that of pleasing Miranda confused her, but she pushed away her need. “What do I—”
“Here,” Miranda said, guiding her hand into that secret place that had been the source of so much shame for Andy. No longer did she feel that way, not now that her fingers were engulfed in wetness and warmth. A scent wafted up that made Andy a little faint; it smelled delicious and somehow dark at the same time. Desire, Andy remembered. That’s what happens when a woman desires her lover very much. That meant that Miranda desired her. Andy’s head caught fire at the realization and she moved her hand without knowing precisely what to do.
Miranda cried out, throwing a leg over both of Andy’s. She writhed, making quiet, urgent sounds. “Will you—” Miranda started, only to bring Andy’s fingers down further, carefully pressing two inside. “Deeper,” whispered Miranda as she shivered.
Andy gaped at her, mouth slack, wanting only for Miranda to feel what she’d felt earlier; so much bliss. How could she make it happen? She’d barely registered what Miranda had done to her, overwhelmed with pleasure. But when she moved her palm with her fingers pressing in… Yes, that was good. Miranda arched and panted, thrusting against her hand in a rhythm that made Andy want to moan. Suddenly, when Andy felt the rhythm change, there was a crushing pulse around her fingers as Miranda let out a strangled cry.
Andy’s heartbeat was like thunder; she thought with just a touch she could capture that same pleasure once more. She inched her legs apart and rubbed a little against Miranda’s thigh and realized she needed nothing more than that. She moved once, twice, and as it happened again she bit back what might have been a scream. Miranda still throbbed around her fingers, breathing fast and hard, clutching at her. “Yes,” Miranda muttered, over and over. Andy licked beneath her collarbone, tasting her.
Soon Andy thought it might be a good idea to remove her hand. When she did, Miranda trembled and sighed. Her fingers came away slick, so Andy wiped it on her dress in lieu of a handkerchief. She didn’t look down at bare flesh, though it seemed silly to try and preserve Miranda’s modesty considering what they’d just done to each other.
“Oh, my,” Miranda said. “You were right.”
“It was good,” she said with a laugh. Her eyes closed and she threw her wrist over her head. “My.” She sighed again as Andy watched her, unable to tear her gaze away. “You came again, didn’t you,” Miranda said, finally opening her eyes, dark blue and soft.
Andy raised her eyebrows. “I guess. Is that really what it’s called?”
Miranda’s mouth twisted a little as she thought for a moment. “Yes. It’s slang. Some say orgasm, or climax.”
“Climax?” Andy repeated with a chuckle. “That makes sense.” She wriggled up Miranda’s body and laid her head on her chest. The heart that beat under her ear relaxed her, along with the steady pace of Miranda’s breathing. She exhaled, all the tension she’d been carrying for so many weeks having finally dissipated. “How often do people… do this?”
Miranda stroked a hand up Andy’s spine. “As often as they want. Or as often as they can, behind closed doors.”
“So…” Andy said slowly, “How often is that?”
Leaning down to capture Andy’s mouth in a kiss, Miranda didn’t answer for a long time.
Miranda woke in her bed very late on Sunday morning. She was alone, which was perfectly fine, but her very first thought was that Andrea had somehow snuck in and crept under the covers alongside her. The scent of her was strong in the air, despite the fact that Miranda had given herself a half-hearted sponge bath before collapsing onto the mattress. Perhaps it was Miranda’s imagination, but whatever the fragrance was stirred her blood.
They’d explored one another well into the wee hours of the morning, but Miranda had gone no further than she’d intended. Which is to say she went quite far enough, thank you very much, and Andrea had enjoyed herself thoroughly. They’d stayed fully clothed, curiously, and Miranda had not gone inside her, uncertain how a virginal Andrea would react. But even then she questioned the notion of virginity, and when one lost it when enjoying the rigors of sexual activity without a penis involved.
Laughing to herself, Miranda ran her fingers delicately down her throat. Never had she been less concerned about the lack of male genitalia in a romantic scenario. Andrea was already quite adept at satisfying her, though it did not take much effort. She simply had to breathe, and smile, and moan, and Miranda was halfway there. It was so easy it was almost shameful. Michael had learned to please her very well, but perhaps all these years of solitude made Miranda easier to arouse. Andrea had brought her to orgasm three times, coaxing the glorious sensations with her trembling hands.
The third time, Miranda recalled, had been most wonderful, pleasure doubled by a wicked fantasy of those hands joined by pouting lips and deft tongue.
She shuddered. Oh yes. That was a delight the likes of which she couldn’t wait to experience. Andrea, innocent in the ways of the flesh, might hesitate, but Miranda thought it might happen someday. Right now, she wanted only to have Andrea in her arms again, to kiss her, to touch the soft wisps of hair at the nape of her neck. Especially on a day like today, as rain fell on the roof and the heat finally broke. Last year the summer nights stayed cool, but the past few weeks had been brutal. Perhaps now would bring a respite.
Downstairs, there was an unusual amount of activity amongst the girls. The rain tended to put them in varying states of cheer or dismay, but today there was a lot of laughter across the tables. It quieted somewhat when Miranda appeared, but did not vanish altogether. Andrea was not in the main room, but Miranda found her in the kitchen at the stove, frying potatoes.
Miranda observed for a few moments, enjoying the play of expressions across her face. Briefly she seemed to get lost in thought, until the sizzle of the potatoes caught her attention. She giggled, and at once Miranda wished to kiss the bumps of spine that peeked out above her blouse. That sound, so light and airy, made her heart lift.
At that moment, Miranda wondered at herself and the course of events of the last months. She had come to California in search of adventure, and challenge, and of course, money. She had found all of the above and then some. Somehow, discovering Andrea and her joyous, thoughtful nature, felt as though it would eclipse everything else she’d gained since her arrival.
“Oh!” Andrea said, startling the both of them when she realized Miranda was in the room. “Good morning, Miranda,” she said, stepping toward her unconsciously before realizing her circumstances. They couldn’t exactly embrace here, but Miranda recognized the want in her eyes. It made her stomach roll in a way both pleasant and unnerving.
“Morning,” Miranda replied, surprised at the low timbre of her voice.
Andrea’s mouth fell open just a shade, enough to make the place between Miranda’s thighs throb in response. As they stared at each other, the door to the yard swung open, and Geoffrey came in with a basket of eggs. “Morning, Miranda,” he said, oblivious to the undercurrent in the room. “Going to make some eggs. Andy’s got the potatoes going and there’s coffee ready when you want it.”
“Thank you, Geoffrey,” Miranda said, looking away finally. She went to the counter and poured herself some coffee, drinking it black and strong as always. It burned her throat, but distracted her from Andrea. Speaking of which… “What did you call her?”
Geoffrey looked at Miranda, then back at Andrea. “Oh. I called her Andy. You know that’s what her family called her back home. Isn’t that right, Andy?” He laughed a little and Miranda raised her eyebrows.
Andrea blushed faintly, looking shy. “Yes,” she said. “I thought I’d try to be a new person when I came here, but Geoffrey wheedled it out of me. He’s very pushy, you know.”
Miranda smiled. She knew all about that. “Indeed.”
“Anyway, I like being Andrea, most of the time. But once in awhile, I kind of like being the old me.” She stirred the potatoes once more, not looking up.
“Hmm,” Miranda said, considering. “It’s not how I think of you. At all.” Andy seemed completely unsuitable, really. Andrea was lovely and elegant, when said the correct way. “But I won’t complain. It’s your choice.”
Andrea smiled and moved the pan off the heat. “These are done,” she told Geoffrey. “Hand me the eggs. I’m having mine sunny side up. How about you, Miranda?”
“Yes,” she said. “Sounds perfect.”
And so she waited patiently in the saloon with the girls who had not yet eaten. Andrea had already cooked up her apparently famous potatoes for half of them, and this later-rising crew would get the second round. Miranda didn’t realize that Andrea helped Geoffrey with the cooking every weekend, since Miranda usually kept to herself in the early hours. Late nights gave her license to do as she pleased in the mornings, but Sundays were special. It was the start of the girls’ one free day, and Andrea had shyly said she’d wanted to spend as much time with Miranda as possible. Perhaps they could take a ride into town, or take a little detour into the woods if they could. It was risky, but an option nonetheless.
Andrea helped Geoffrey serve the meal. While Miranda rarely had more than coffee and toast for breakfast, she accepted a full plate. One bite and her eyes widened; everything was delicious and perfectly cooked. Miranda hummed in delight, and apparently the sound of it drew Andrea’s attention. Her eyes lost their smile, glazing over as they drifted out of focus. If Miranda could have kicked her under the table, she would have, but she was too far away. Next time she would have to keep her pleasurable noises while dining to a minimum.
“I’ll be taking a ride into town today, if any of you would like to come with me,” Miranda said lightly, and the girls at the table glanced at her. She spotted a few nervous expressions, while others looked up at the ceiling or became remarkably interested in their breakfasts. As much as she knew the girls enjoyed her company, Miranda was certain that only one would want to spend a day off at her side. “I may need help loading the fabric on the carriage.”
The room was silent for a few moments, and Lily cleared her throat. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lily move her head toward Andrea and mouth something indistinct. Andrea’s eyebrows lifted, and she said in a high-pitched voice, “I’ll come with you, Miranda. I’m not busy today.”
Miranda’s lips curved involuntarily. Oh, yes you are, she thought. She sighed, wondering if it sounded to the other girls that she was bored by the notion of Andrea’s company. “Very well. After breakfast, then.”
“You stopping by the general store too, Miranda?” Trudy asked between bites.
“Why yes, I will be,” Miranda answered. Something about this young woman bothered Miranda, but she couldn’t quite put a finger on it. She’d needed the job desperately, but she’d grown more abrasive as the weeks passed instead of the opposite. If her behavior didn’t change, she’d have to let her go. Surely she could fill her spot with an equally pretty girl with a more pleasant personality. “Is there something I can do for you?”
Trudy laughed. “Oh, no. I just thought you might be paying a visit to Stanley, is all. He’s been in here every night this week moonin’ after ya. Might get the wrong idea if you show up now.” She looked Miranda in the eye and didn’t flinch. “Or maybe it’s the right idea?”
A titter rose up amongst the girls at the table. Miranda considered the thought of suggesting that she was open to seeing Stanley Jameson. But really, that could end badly if the rumor spread to Stanley himself. Then where would she be? She knew of his interest, but never addressing it directly kept her from rejecting him outright. “Mr. Jameson is a fine shopkeeper, a good man and a better customer. That’s all I have to say on the subject.”
Trudy’s smile was placid enough, but it carried a dark edge to it. Miranda decided to ask Andrea her thoughts on Trudy, to find out exactly what she thought of this woman.
“I’d like to visit Evie at the boarding house, if you don’t mind,” Andrea offered with hope in her voice.
It was an easy decision. “Of course.”
Two hours later, they rode side by side from the Diamond Eye to the general store, where the fabric for the new dresses had arrived yesterday. Miranda could hardly wait to get her hands on it, and had every intention of sewing pieces to fit each of the girls. The silks would garner a good bit of attention if they were as luxurious as promised. And though she hadn’t realized at the time she placed the order, she’d ordered enough extra silk to make something special for Andrea. Something that no one else would see but her, if she could convince Andrea to wear it. Glancing next to her at Andrea, who was watching her with a sly smile on her face, she thought it wouldn’t be too difficult.
At the store, Mr. Jameson was overly helpful in loading the packages onto the carriage, doing all the work himself. Miranda let him do it and ignored the guilty looks Andrea cast in his direction. Mr. Jameson wasn’t exactly subtle in his admiration for Miranda, but she neither encouraged nor discouraged him. It kept things simpler this way.
They stepped inside for an escape from the sun, and Miranda paid the bill. As they were leaving, Andrea shook his hand. “Thank you, Mr. Jameson,” she said effusively. “You’ve really been a gentleman.”
“Thank you, young lady,” Mr. Jameson replied, eyeing Miranda. “Anything for Ms. Priestly.”
“See you next week, Stanley.” She nodded at him, not giving the other three women in the store anything more than a passing glance as she strode past them. “Come along, Andrea. We have a great deal to do.”
Andrea followed close at her heels, and they rode down the street to the boarding house where Evie had been staying since her engagement. Miranda had thought she’d find something to keep her busy while Andrea visited with the girl, but Andrea had changed her mind on the ride to town.
“Oh, Evie would feel so honored if you paid a call with me, Miranda,” she’d said. “She really does think the world of you.”
Miranda relented, so they parked the carriage next to the two-storied boarding house. Miranda handed a coin to a boy drawing designs in the dust outside to keep an eye on her wares, which he accepted eagerly, especially after Miranda promised a second coin for a successful job.
Miranda followed Andrea up the porch steps and knocked firmly on the door. A few minutes later Evie met them in the well-appointed parlour, where she hugged Andrea with great enthusiasm.
“Oh, Andrea, I’m so happy to see you! I have some music for you to look at. I’ve been talking to Lawrence about choices and he has some wonderful ideas.” She turned to Miranda, and while she inched forward a step, she didn’t reach out. “I didn’t expect you to come too, Miranda, but I’m awful glad to see you.”
“Thank you, Evie. You two go ahead and talk about your music. I can wait.”
With that, Evie turned to Andrea and hugged her again. Andrea’s eyes were soft as she watched Miranda from over Evie’s shoulder, and Miranda smiled in return.
They spent an hour with Evie, whereupon it was decided that Andy would sing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” before the service began, as well as “The Water is Wide,” just before the vows. Andy felt comfortable with both songs, but she wondered if she might need a little liquid courage beforehand. Her informal crooning at the saloon was nothing like standing up to perform in church on the most important day of the life of one of her dearest friends. Miranda was patient during their visit, but when she started to fidget, Andy decided to take her leave. She and Evie promised to meet once more before the wedding, scheduled to take place in less than three weeks. Andy thought she might have once felt a twinge of jealousy at Evie’s happiness, but now with Miranda firmly ensconced in her heart, she didn’t mind a bit.
The sun beat down on Andy’s back as they climbed into the wooden carriage. When Miranda flipped their little watchdog his second coin, he ran off down the road, sending up a cloud of dust in his wake. The heat wasn’t as bad as it had been, but she still perspired under her cotton blouse and long skirt. Her stockings were damp, and briefly, Andy wondered if Miranda was wearing drawers or not, as she’d gone without last night. She flushed, exhaling as the memories of their time together flooded her mind. She wondered if Miranda had sat in Evie’s parlour and thought about all the things they’d done. Andy felt not shame exactly, but a continued embarrassment at how much their intimacy had deepened. She remembered how she’d asked Miranda to touch her, kiss her, to make her “come.” Being so open and wanting was not in her experience, but the reward had been worth it. Especially when Miranda asked the same of her in return. To Andy’s shock and delight, making Miranda come was as exciting as everything else. When warm flesh squeezed around her fingers, and desperate noises issued from Miranda’s throat, that was amazing. Desire, she said to herself. She liked the way the word sounded, especially when Miranda said it.
“Andrea,” Miranda said, pulling her from her daydream.
“Hmm?” Andy said, hoping she wasn’t as red as she thought she was.
“What are you thinking about?”
Andy looked at her boots and shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing.”
When she glanced over at Miranda, there was a provocative smile on her face. Her body swayed gracefully with the motion of the carriage, and Andy couldn’t help but grin in return. “Really,” Miranda said. “I doubt that very much.”
“I like to have some secrets,” Andy retorted.
“Then your complexion must have been a terrible burden to you as a young girl. I can tell by the color of your skin exactly what you’ve been thinking about.”
Andy rolled her eyes. “If you know then you must have been thinking about it yourself.”
Miranda made an indelicate snort. “Of course I am. I’ve been counting the minutes all day till I can have you again.”
With just those few words, Andy lost her breath. Her tongue felt swollen inside her dry mouth. “Oh?” she asked weakly.
“I’ve considered quite a number of options, but I doubt it would be a very good idea for me to drive into the woods just so I can have you up against a tree.” She peered at Andy from the corner of her eye. “It’s a romantic notion, but not very comfortable for either of us, and there’s no guarantee of privacy either. We’ll simply have to wait until this evening, after we do the books. We can make it an early night.” Miranda licked her lips and paused before purring, “Perhaps you’d like to join me in my room.”
Andy’s heart thundered in her chest—Miranda’s room! Where they would be totally alone, with a bed to stretch out upon— “Yes,” she said quickly, before Miranda got the wrong idea. Already she was considering the things they could do to each other on a bed instead of the narrow sofa, which, while comfortable, was far from ideal. And if Andy wanted to take off her dress, and her corset, to bare her skin to Miranda’s eager hands, then she could do so without worrying anyone would barge in on them. Marvelous.
Miranda squirmed next to her, mopping her brow with a kerchief. “I suggest we discuss something else for the time being. Otherwise it’s going to be a very long afternoon.”
Andy blinked and glanced around, remembering they were not entirely alone. She nodded to a few townswomen on the road who watched as they passed by. Thankfully they were well out of earshot. “Of course. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, not for that,” Miranda said softly. “Not for wanting. If you knew how much I—how rare it is—well, there will be other times to talk about it. But knowing that you crave our time together as much as I do is enough. For now,” she added.
Andy smiled. “Okay. What else would you like to talk about then?”
Miranda leaned back with a sigh. “Well, you haven’t told me much lately about what’s happening in the saloon? Better yet, why did Lily want you to come with me this morning? She seemed rather eager for you to join me.”
With a laugh, Andy replied, “Oh, you probably know by now that all the girls think you’re an excellent proprietress, Miranda, but you scare them a little. They make me do everything they’re afraid to ask for.”
With a frown, Miranda inquired, “What on Earth are you talking about?”
“You know, little stuff. Remember when I asked for a new pillow because mine was all flattened?”
“That was for Lucinda. She’d been sleeping on the same pillow for ages, but she thought you might say no.”
“That’s ridiculous. Of course I’d have gotten her a new one. That’s part of room and board.”
“Well I know that, and you know that, but she was too shy. And then last week, remember when we talked about getting a second tub to do the washing?” Miranda looked at her, eyebrow raised. “They all begged me. And you said yes.”
Miranda huffed an exasperated sound. “You’d think I was some sort of tyrant, the way they behave. And I don’t always say yes to you,” Miranda said petulantly.
Andy wanted to laugh, but she didn’t. That was definitely the wrong thing to do, even though she couldn’t think of a single time Miranda had ever said no to her. “I know. And you don’t have to. But I guess they think that you like me, since I’ve been helping you with the books.” Andy frowned, suddenly concerned. “Do you think that’s a mistake? Will anyone be able to tell that, you know, we’re so close?” Andy would do anything to keep what she had with Miranda, and if that meant making their public relationship less affectionate, she’d do it.
“Let’s not worry ourselves about it. Since they’re all afraid of me, let’s keep things as they are. But the next time someone wants something, I’m saying no, and that’s final.”
With a grin, Andy nodded. “Sounds good.”
They rode on for another few minutes in companionable silence before Miranda began, “What do you think of Trudy?”
Andy inhaled sharply. “Why?”
The sound drew Miranda’s attention. “Now I want to know even more. I only ask because there’s something about her that... concerns me. I needed someone to step in for Evie, but if you know anything that would make me let her go, tell me now.”
Andy felt conflicted. Should she reveal Trudy’s secret? She’d been thinking about it for a while, and decided now was as good a time as any. “She’s like us.” With a furtive glance over her shoulder to affirm their privacy, she said, “With women, I mean. I think her sweetheart works at Miss Delilah’s.”
Miranda’s mouth dropped open. “You’re joking.”
“I’m not. I saw them together.”
“Late at night. In the kitchen. They didn’t see me though, so Trudy doesn’t know. And she probably wouldn’t care if I did.”
“I think she may care a great deal if you did, darling,” Miranda said, and Andy got caught on the word “darling” for a moment before refocusing on the seriousness of Miranda’s voice. “I sense something of a wild thing in Trudy. She might be trouble,” she said. “I’ve been debating whether to keep her on, but now I’ll have to let her go.”
“Because of that?” Andy squawked, startling Miranda. “You can’t! She’ll have nowhere to go, and so what that she’s like us? That doesn’t make her any less good at her job. She’s pretty and the men seem to like her just fine,” Andy pleaded. “She’ll end up on the line if you fire her, Miranda, and that’s not fair. Would you fire me if you found out I was involved with someone else at the Diamond Eye?”
Miranda looked at her stonily. “Of course.”
From the expression on Miranda’s face, Andy thought she’d do a lot more than just fire her. She chuckled, quietly adding, “I don’t mean cheating on you, Miranda. I mean instead of you, if you and I weren’t, well, whatever we are. Together, that is. If you didn’t like me that way.”
The cold expression faded, and Miranda’s lip curled in what looked like relief. “For a writer, you can be a remarkably poor communicator,” she said, but Andy took no insult. “I don’t know what I’d do. Probably nothing, other than tell you to keep it quiet.”
“Right. So, that’s what we should do with Trudy. She deserves a chance, just like I did. And if there’s nothing wrong with us, then there’s nothing wrong with her.” Andy was a little surprised to be defending Trudy; she didn’t like her. At all. In fact, she was a little afraid of her, though she wouldn’t tell Miranda that. Other than being generally disagreeable (and insulting Miranda once), she’d never crossed Andy. Not yet, anyway.
“Well, all right,” Miranda conceded. “But the moment she does anything suspect, I insist you come to me. Is that clear?”
The tone was that of Andy’s employer, not her lover. “Of course, Miranda. You and the Diamond Eye are the most important things in the world to me. I’d do anything for you.”
Miranda’s gaze was warm once more as she smiled back. “Thank you. Darling,” she added pointedly.
Andy felt a warm glow as Miranda’s eyes caressed her face. “You’re welcome.”
Chapter 7: The Siren
Later that night, Miranda shared a drink with Geoffrey at the bar. They hadn’t spent much time together these days, since both had been preoccupied with other affairs. But of everyone in the saloon, Geoff had known her the longest, and perhaps knew the pattern of her moods better than anyone else.
“Everything all right, Miranda?” he asked, sipping his ale from an oversized stein.
“Of course, Geoffrey. Why do you ask?”
He smiled, and there was a little bit of teasing in it. “No reason. You just seem a little cheerful these days is all. There’s a smile on your face every night. Been some time since I seen you smile like that, if ever.”
Miranda kept her expression very even. “I suppose things are going smoothly here lately. We’ve had a very successful summer.”
With a nod, he looked out at the crowd. “Right, boss. If you say so.”
She wouldn’t tell him the truth, but she might as well be as honest as she could be. He’d be able to smell a lie on her in a heartbeat. “And I might be happier than usual as well. But I’ll be keeping the reasons why to myself.”
Turning back to her, his grin was subdued, but the mirth in his eyes overflowed. “Well, now. That is surely good to hear. And I could say the same for me, if you don’t already know. I’m going to ask Marian to be my wife.”
Miranda inhaled, her heart filled with joy that he’d found someone. “No! That’s wonderful. She is lovely.” Though she’d only exchanged a few words with the woman, she’d liked her immediately when they’d met.
“Sure is. We’re both free, and my money’s as good as anyone else’s. I’m gonna build a nice little place down the road when the summer’s over.” He chuckled to himself. “It’s a long way from Georgia, I’ll tell you that.”
Miranda gazed into her whiskey. Before departing for California she’d never traveled further south than New York City, and hadn’t cared to either. “You know, I’ve often thought that I wouldn’t have survived the trail had we not met, Geoffrey. I think about it all the time.”
He nodded. “I wondered that myself, too. I remember that morning like it was yesterday—me, starving to death, you, sick as a dog.” He shook his head. “We made a fine pair, didn’t we. But we came out all right in the end. Providence, I say. Providence led me to you, and kept me with you all these years.”
“I’ll drink to that.” They toasted one another quietly and shared a secret smile. She thought he knew more than he was letting on about exactly why she was happy, but she wouldn’t question it.
Not long after, she met Andrea in the back office and they rushed through their work, skipping the usual whiskey. Miranda was light-headed with want already, and she didn’t need anything to slow her pen tonight. She grew even dizzier when Andrea said hesitantly, “Lily’s out with Henry, so I can stay as late as I want. As you want me to, that is.”
“Oh,” she said, instead of hurry, which is what she wanted to say.
Well before midnight, Miranda finished the last line in her ledger and looked up to find Andrea staring at her. Her eyes were fever-bright, her cheeks rosy. She had somehow become everything Miranda wanted, and now she offered herself up for the taking. “Let’s go,” Miranda croaked hoarsely. Andrea scurried after her, so silently they crept up Miranda’s private stairwell to her empty rooms. Miranda lit the lamp at her bedside and listened with great anticipation to Andrea’s labored breathing. When she straightened up, Andrea flew into her arms, lips reaching for hers. Miranda kissed her with an open mouth, groaning in relief. Had it only been twenty-four hours since she’d tasted her? Nearly. It felt like an eternity finally come to an end.
Andrea yanked the hairpiece away from Miranda’s head and tossed it without a care toward the vanity. Miranda wanted to protest, but Andrea’s hands dug into her real hair with so much enthusiasm she couldn’t find it in her heart to complain. “Oh, Miranda,” Andrea whispered. “I felt like I was going crazy all day. Waiting for this, for you. It was endless.” When she kissed Miranda again, it was hot and soft and wet.
Right away Miranda started pulling at the fastenings of Andrea’s dress. “For me, too,” she said, urging Andrea to turn around. Andrea’s breath caught, and Miranda thought perhaps she should ask permission. “May I? I want so badly to see you.” She kissed the porcelain skin of Andrea’s neck, lured by her softness.
There was a quick nod, and Miranda returned to her task. There were far too many buttons, but Miranda was careful, and once she reached the corset she got a little more frantic. She yanked and Andrea giggled as she pulled it over her head. There were a few more layers to remove, but by then she had help, and soon Andrea was left in a thin cotton shift and drawers. Miranda trembled when Andrea turned back around, her face a combination of fear and anticipation. She leaned in for another kiss, touching Miranda’s cheek reverently.
Take care, Miranda reminded herself. Slow and easy. As much as she wanted this, it was still new for her as well. A woman’s body might not be as easy to read as Michael’s had been, but Miranda had no doubts after last night.
Before she’d realized what was happening, Andrea had half her dress undone. Apparently her fingers were deft in their maneuverings, and Miranda chuckled. “You too,” Andrea said. Miranda just nodded. Her dress had a few more layers than Andrea’s, so by the time it was off Miranda felt a thousand times lighter.
Warm air drifted in from the open window. Though the curtain was closed, Miranda thought it would be a good idea to shut it and draw the shades altogether. When she turned around, Andrea was in the process of pulling her chemise over her head and she dropped it on the floor. For the first time, Miranda admired her body, or most of it, and found herself at a loss for words. Appearing encouraged, Andrea went ahead bravely and kicked off her drawers, standing naked next to the bed.
Instantly Miranda was at her side, hands traveling up the her arms, traveling around to her back. “Lie back,” Miranda said, urging her to the bed as Andrea acquiesced. “Let me look at you.”
The telltale flush was spreading from her chest up her neck. Miranda leaned over to kiss the overheated skin. “God,” Andrea moaned. Nails scored up Miranda’s back, digging in against her silks. “How long will you keep yourself from me, Miranda?” Andrea pleaded. “I’ve been very patient, haven’t I?”
Miranda managed to pull herself away long enough to remove her slip. Judging by the look on Andrea’s face, she’d never seen the likes of the panties and chemise she wore. “They’re French,” Miranda explained. How she’d had the forethought to select them with her last order she’d never know.
“My,” Andrea said, eyes wide.
They’d have to continue that thread of discussion later; for now, Miranda wanted to press their bodies together for the first time, to stretch out onto the bed with the woman she adored so much. She thought of Michael briefly, wondered if he was observing from wherever he’d gone after his death. She prayed he was happy for her, and that he’d watch over them both from the world beyond. He would have liked Andrea, she had no doubt. Admired her courage, her beauty, and intelligence, just as Miranda did.
Finally, she removed the rest of her underthings, letting the silk flutter to the floor. Dark eyes flashed, and at once Andrea was up on her knees on the bed, mouth open at Miranda's collarbone, one hand already grasping at her hip. “Don't tease, Miranda. I know you don't want to frighten me, but I can't wait any longer. Please, show me everything, won't you? I might die if you make me wait.”
Miranda swallowed and relented. She reached out to nibble Andrea's throat, as two hands grasped at her bottom and squeezed. Those same hands released her, trailing short nails against the skin of her lower back, drawing patterns that seemed wise and knowing for one so short of experience. Miranda gasped and threw her head back, allowing Andrea to somehow take control, turning her body and pressing her spine into the mattress. “I want,” Andrea murmured, lips finding her breast and opening against her nipple, “I want this.”
Miranda’s face was aflame, and she held Andrea against herself, her mouth dropping open in awe. “That’s good, darling, that’s so good,” she moaned, and promptly forgot that she should go slowly. “Your teeth, use your teeth.” Andrea had apparently been waiting for permission, because teeth tugged at her breast within that very same breath. “Hard, you can be rougher,” she instructed as Andrea sobbed with desire, one hand still at Miranda’s hip, following the muscle down to one thigh. She pulled one leg up and suddenly Miranda was open to her questing fingers.
“Can I?” she asked, glancing up in desperation. “Inside?”
Miranda nodded frantically. Andrea slipped in as though she hadn’t just discovered the wonders of desire and sex only 24 hours prior. Her eyes were shut tightly as she bit her lower lip. She held still, waiting for Miranda to move, which she did with a quiet moan. She held Andrea’s hand to her, pushing against her as Andrea thrust in counterpoint. Somehow she nosed down to another breast, holding herself above Miranda while using her teeth and the hand between her legs in concert. “I want you to c-come,” Andrea said, stuttering over the still foreign word. “Oh, God, I can’t believe this is happening,” she said, “I can’t believe this is so good.”
Then her mouth was back in motion, sucking Miranda’s breast into her mouth as if she wanted to devour her whole. Unable to wait, Miranda helped her along, pressing her fingers to her clitoris, and this time it was she who had to bite her lip to keep from crying out. Already she was there, just at the edge, and within moments she arched, stilling as the heat of pleasure burned through her in waves, pulsing around Andrea’s fingers, under her mouth, against her soft, soft skin. She collapsed against the mattress in a heap, heart racing out of control as she panted into Andrea’s dark hair.
Andrea knew then to soften her lips, her bites turning to the sweetest of kisses against the curve of her breast, her tongue licking inquisitively. She seemed to be tasting Miranda without a goal in mind beyond her own enjoyment.
A long minute went by as Miranda came back to herself, stunned at the evening’s turn of events. Only as her mind began to focus again did she note Andrea’s racing breath, the tension in her shoulders, the way her whole body seemed to vibrate in anticipation. With purpose, Miranda pulled Andrea down and rolled atop her, stealing a kiss that ended with Andrea’s lush lower lip between her teeth. She sucked once before letting it go, Andrea leaning up as though desperate for another. Miranda didn’t hold back this time, determined to map her lover’s body and catalogue all her sweet spots for future reference. She did not tease, but she did not want to end things so quickly, so instead she simply allowed herself to explore. Thus, she allowed Andrea to discover all the things she would grow to enjoy; the pressure of a mouth at her breast, the sharp intensity of teeth against her throat, the shivery chills from of a tongue as it traced the shell of her ear. By the time Miranda had worked her way down to her belly, Andrea was a shuddering mess, grasping at the sheet with fisted hands and her heels restlessly digging into the mattress. She was almost entirely silent, with the exception of her breath, which told Miranda all she needed to know.
“Shall I go inside?” Miranda asked, and Andrea looked down, uncertain. She nodded. “If it hurts, I’ll stop,” Miranda promised. But curiously, Miranda slipped inside with ease, finding no barrier to break. Andrea’s back bowed, her breasts heaving as her eyes closed in what seemed like ecstasy. Then Miranda dipped her head low, and tasted.
Andy gasped, crying out once before covering her mouth and keening into her palm. Her brain could barely fathom what was happening. Miranda’s lips were on her, her fingers inside her, and there was no pain, only pleasure. Her body was in constant motion, her hips lifting, her thighs restless as she tried to chase the pinnacle that had been so stunning the previous night. But when Miranda’s tongue traveled to that one spot, licking and sucking, Andy was lost, her peak approaching and slamming into her. It felt… like nothing else. That secret place she’d been so restricted from touching was the source of tremendous power, and beyond that, joy. That Miranda had been the one to help her discover it was incredible.
As Andy tried to emerge from her burst of self-realization, she understood that Miranda was nosing at her, kissing her thigh, sighing in contentment. “Oh,” Andy whispered, wishing she had water to quench her thirst. Or a kiss to satisfy her sudden longing for closeness with the woman she loved. “Miranda.”
Miranda kissed her belly and Andy barely missed her fingers as they slipped away to rest on the mattress next to her hip. At once Miranda’s mouth was on hers, and for the first time, their bodies came together from head to toe. Their knees bumped as legs twined as Andy turned on her side with Miranda pressed against her. It was hot, too hot really, but Andy couldn’t bear the idea of their parting, not just yet.
“Oh, how I do adore you, Andrea,” Miranda said, her lips brushing her earlobe with great tenderness. “My goodness, I never, ever expected this the day you walked into the saloon.”
Andy smiled, tears pricking her eyes faintly. She blinked them back. “I remember seeing you for the first time. You were wearing red. I love that dress.”
Miranda smirked. “It is my color, I agree,” she replied. “And you were wearing a high collar and lace.” Her chuckle was downright unsavory. “I thought you a school marm who had lost her way.”
“I suppose I was, but I found my way soon enough.” She kissed Miranda’s temple, nuzzling the silver hair there. “I’ve never been so happy.”
“Darling,” Miranda said, pulling her close again with a kiss. “Are you in any pain?”
Andy laughed. “No. I wonder why that is?”
Miranda raised an eyebrow. “If I had to guess, I’d say you were very ready,” she answered, then cleared her throat. “I imagine it’s different for every woman, the first time.”
Hearing Miranda’s plaintive tone, she was flooded with questions. She started with the simplest. “How was it for you?”
Miranda looked surprised, and uncomfortable for a moment. “Well, I don’t… it wasn’t good, not at the beginning. I did not marry Michael for love, I should mention. We knew each other very little, and it was an appropriate match for both our families. It took time for us to get to know one another, but after that, I grew to love him very much.” Miranda adjusted her position, and Andy laid her head on her shoulder, one arm around her waist. “Our, mm, physical relationship evolved after that. He was a wonderful husband. Patient and kind. Remarkable, really. He was a new kind of man, one so far beyond this day and age that he was impatient for the future to arrive and catch up to his way of thinking.” She stared up at the ceiling, her expression wistful. “I mourned him a very long time. I still miss him.”
“I’m so sorry he died,” Andy said. She really meant it.
“I am too,” Miranda replied. “But it hurts less, now.” Her eyes found Andy’s. “Because of you.”
Andy lost her breath. “Oh, Miranda,” she said, and kissed her.
Hours later, she woke in Miranda’s embrace, facing the window and the dim light of morning. Though the shade was drawn, the room had grown brighter, enough that Andy could see the shapes of the small dresser by the window, the night table next to the bed. And of course, the bathtub. She shivered.
As she moved her legs, she sighed quietly, realizing her muscles were sore. Her bottom in particular felt achy, as well as her inner thighs, which reminded her of all the things she and Miranda had got up to all night long. She flushed with heat, remembering Miranda’s tongue, and her breasts, and how it felt to have fingers pressed inside her, stretching her and giving her unbelievable pleasure. It was nice to not wake with the feeling of loneliness for once, because Miranda’s arm was thrown across her body, breath warm on her neck.
She hoped that Lily really had been out all night, otherwise she’d have a lot of questions to answer.
Wriggling out of Miranda’s embrace, Andy found her clothes, eager to use the privy out back. She left most of her underthings off, because they needed a good wash. Her face flushed with memory of how damp they’d become under Miranda’s touch. Already she wanted to return to the bed and take more, but Miranda looked tired, and they had been up much of the night. While she’d never put too much thought into her virtue prior to her attraction to Miranda, she felt a little thrill when she realized it was gone. And no man had been part of it.
Her room was blessedly empty. She dressed in her night clothes and a dressing gown, since most of the girls roamed around the house early on the weekends in similar attire. She didn’t, usually, but today could be an exception. She raced out to the privy and took care of her business there, running into no one. Not a surprise, since it couldn’t be much past 6am. In the kitchen, however, she discovered Lily, sipping a cup of fresh coffee and sporting a wry grin. “Morning, honey.”
“H-hi,” Andy said, trying very hard not to blush. “I mean, good morning.”
“Must be a very good morning, ‘specially if you just got home,” Lily replied.
“What?” Andy said, one hand at her chest. “Don’t know what you mean.”
“Well I rolled in ‘bout half an hour ago, and what do you know but our room was empty? Sure did surprise me. But then I guessed that you knew I’d be out late and decided it would be a good time to be out late too.” Her mouth curved. “I just haven’t quite figured it out who you might have been out late with,” she added. “I’m impressed.”
“I couldn’t sleep. I was out in the yard, watching the stars,” Andy fibbed. “You know I have bad dreams sometimes.”
Lily tilted her head. “Yeah, that is true. But really, who were you with?”
“No one,” Andy insisted. “I swear.”
There was a silence between them, and Andy held her breath. “You know you can trust me, don’t you, honey?”
Andy smiled weakly. “I know.”
“Good. Then when you need to talk, you can tell me anything. Okay?”
“Sure.” Andy left it at that, heading for the coffee pot and pouring herself some. “How was your night?” she asked, hoping to steer the conversation elsewhere.
“It was pretty fine, I gotta say.” Andy turned to her, eyebrows up in question. “Turns out Henry’s a little stronger than I thought he was,” she continued. “There’s a lotta muscle under those fancy shirts, it seems.” She grinned, and Andy laughed along with her as their voices rang out in the kitchen. Lily whooped. “He was awfully good to me. Oh yes, he surely was.”
“So Joey’s out of the running?” Andy asked, taking a seat across from her.
“I think he’s got another girl on the side. But even if he didn’t, I think Henry’s the one for me. At least the one right now,” she said, still chuckling. “It’s not like I’d die if we don’t last, but I like him. And he likes me. Says he loves me.”
“Do you believe him?”
“I suppose. But I’m not in any hurry to settle down, you know.” She shifted in her seat, and Andy remembered how much Lily liked her independence. Henry might have to work hard to win her hand, and even then, she might not commit. “Anyway, we had some fun. I could use some shut eye. Don’t know why I’m drinking coffee this early, but oh well.”
Andy glanced at her own cup and thought the same thing. “Me too.” She glanced up at the sound of footsteps coming toward the kitchen, and at once wondered if Miranda had discovered her absence. But she wasn’t so lucky; Trudy pushed the door open and was startled to find the two of them sitting there. Looked like she hadn’t been to bed either, still dressed in her last night’s things.
“Oh, damn. Hey, girls. Rough night?” she asked.
“I could ask you the same,” Lily replied. “Have a good time?”
“I always have a good time,” Trudy replied, and Andy felt the flush rise up on her chest and into her face. She thought of the last time she saw Trudy in this room, and chewed the inside of her cheek. “Unlike some people,” she said, giving Andy a quick glance.
“Geez, Trudy, back off, why dontcha? What did Andrea ever do to you?” Lily asked.
But Andy didn’t mind. She owed Trudy for all the good things she’d experienced over the last two nights. Not that she’d ever say a word about it. She just shrugged and smiled into her coffee cup, thinking of Miranda, and how she couldn’t wait to kiss her again.
Over the next weeks, Miranda found a new rhythm to her life with Andrea at her side. They didn’t spend an excessive amount of time together during the day, but at night it was a different story. Andrea performed her usual shows six evenings a week, singing her heart out every Saturday. They spent a very quick hour together working on the books before settling on the sofa and indulging in as much pleasure as they could. Andrea was, as expected, a fast learner.
Most nights Andrea slept in her own bed, because she still had to share a room with Lily. But there was a chance that she could get her own space when the next girl left the saloon. Miranda had promised to give Lily and Andrea each a room of her own, and then she’d make Trudy share, since she was the last girl to join their little family. Since everyone knew Trudy was rarely at the Diamond Eye overnight, it wouldn’t make waves. Trudy cared the least of all of them what the other girls thought of her, so she probably wouldn’t mind. And if she did, Miranda was still in charge, so what she said was law.
Somehow, Lily seemed to know that Andrea had reason to want to spend the night somewhere other than in her own bed, and she was sure to warn her when she’d be out. Though she had not spoken of him to Miranda, Lily enjoyed the pleasure of her beau’s company a few evenings a week. Fridays and Saturdays, most often, and the occasional Sunday.
Each night she and Andrea spent together was a taste of heaven.
Andrea had taken to her bed like she’d been born to love women. She had an insatiable curiosity, and once she realized how much Miranda craved her touch, she was incredibly generous with it. Miranda had learned of the pleasures of sex decades before with Michael, and they had enjoyed loving one another often. But there was a difference to her interactions with Andrea; not better or worse, but almost more intimate, since the sensations they shared could be mirrored. The first time Andrea pressed her mouth between Miranda’s legs, Miranda gave only a few words of instruction, and after that, she wasn’t able to speak at all. Especially when she noticed Andrea writhing against her own fingers as she licked and sucked Miranda’s cunt. That sent Miranda into a frenzy that she had rarely experienced.
Andrea had been dazed when it was over; her eyes were open, but vacant. “What are you thinking?” Miranda had asked.
Licking her dry lips, Andrea had closed her eyes and answered, “If I had known what it could be like, I would have kissed you a long time ago,” she said. “I’d have… I’d have begged you to take me to bed.”
Miranda heard the hesitation in her voice. “Would you have asked me to fuck you?” Miranda did not curse as a rule, but in this case, it was warranted.
“Oh,” Andrea moaned, as if imagining just that very thing. “Yes, I would have. I want you to f-fuck me all the time.” She had actually arched in the bed next to Miranda, already back to wanting her, needing her. “Do you think there’s something wrong with me?” she asked, plaintively. “I have so much desire I can barely think sometimes when I imagine you inside me.” She’d swallowed and turned toward Miranda, who felt as though she would willingly be lured to her death by this young siren, without regret.
“There’s nothing wrong with you, darling,” Miranda had said, and pressed her fingers between Andrea’s legs and kissed her until she’d come with a soft cry. “You’re perfect.”
Andrea had cuddled close to her, resting her head on Miranda’s shoulder. “I never dreamed of this, Miranda. I knew I didn’t want to marry. I liked another girl, when I was much younger, and I thought I loved her. I was devastated when she became engaged to a man.” She gazed up, her eyes guileless and bright. “That was nothing compared to this. I was meant for you, Miranda. God led me here, to find you.” She’d laughed to herself, and continued before Miranda had a chance to respond. “I know you probably think that’s stupid and that we’re condemned to hell. But I’d follow you right into the seventh circle, Miranda. I swear it.”
Of course this girl has read Dante, Miranda had thought. She couldn’t be a simple country lass with no worries beyond what they would have for dinner, or what the weather would be like the next day. “I don’t believe in hell, Andrea,” Miranda had confessed. “I believe this life is the only one we have, so if you’re right, it will be a different circle you’ll have to chase me into.”
Andrea grinned. “I don’t know which my father would find worse: that I loved a woman, or that I loved a heretic. I am very glad I’ll never have to find out.” She’d kissed Miranda’s jaw then, tenderly. With a sigh, she’d asked, “Do you think it will always be this way for us?”
Miranda knew that desire faded for many couples, if they’d ever had it at all; they settled into companionship and were content. She had not had the chance to experience that change with Michael, who’d made love to her and cared for her as much the last day as he had the first night they’d been together. “I hope so,” Miranda had whispered. She did not want to assume that Andrea would always want to be with her, in her arms and in her bed, but for the moment, she seemed besotted. That was enough for Miranda.
“Me too,” Andrea whispered back. “I pray you will not grow tired of me,” she added, very softly.
Her heart had bloomed with love for this girl who had come into her life and changed it just by her simple presence. She’d recalled she had not told Andrea her true feelings, even though Andrea had done just that the first time they’d been together. “Andrea, I love you,” Miranda had said, and smiled when Andrea wept in joy and relief. They’d held each other through the night, until the dawn broke over the horizon.
They were very careful not to ever cross lines when in public; Andrea kept her distance, and Miranda paid her very little attention in return. Although Miranda suspected that there were more than a few townsfolk living quiet lives together as they were, she did not want to take chances. No one seemed to notice a change in their affection for one another and Miranda intended to keep it that way. For Evie’s wedding, Miranda had extracted a promise: Andrea was not to stare at her, or gaze at her, or fantasize about her for a single moment. She would have to learn discretion.
From that point on, Andrea stopped looking at her at all. In fact, she was so good at ignoring her that Geoffrey came up to her a couple of nights later and asked if they’d had a falling out. Miranda had raised an eyebrow and shaken her head. “No, everything is fine.” For the first time in weeks, she felt like it was true.
She and Andrea both spent the night before Evie’s wedding honoring her with a special “ladies only” dinner at one of the few restaurants in town. Miranda felt very much responsible for the event, given that Evie had no parents or family to speak of, and she quietly bankrolled the entire evening. She kept this from everyone by asking Andrea to tell Evie that each girl would pay her own way for the supper, and then to tell Emily that Lawrence’s family would be paying for everything without Evie’s knowledge. Like clockwork, Emily’s news spread throughout the group, and they all ordered exactly as they pleased without worry over payment. Only Andrea knew of Miranda’s generosity, and if that would someday come back to benefit her in some fashion, Miranda would not be opposed.
Chapter 8: The Songbird
Andy woke alone in her bed the morning of the wedding, and though she was sad to be by herself, she smiled as she gazed upon the sky blue dress she would wear to the event. She was nervous about singing, but excited too. Miranda had been so complimentary during her recent rehearsals that she thought that she would do very well to offer her voice up as a gift to her friend.
She leapt up, waking a snoring Lily in the process as she headed out back to bathe. Her hair was clean; she’d washed it for the party the night before, but she wanted to be fresh for her performance that afternoon. If they were lucky, the grey August morning would clear into beautiful sunshine just in time for the ceremony and not a moment before. Otherwise the chapel would be very hot, and Andy’s voice was not as strong in the heat.
She was so nervous that she could barely eat breakfast. She drank tea with lemon throughout the morning to soothe her vocal cords. She breathed deeply, and when she was alone, she thought about Miranda. That was the only thing that could distract her from her upcoming performance. It should have been no different from any other Saturday night on the stage, but for some reason, it was.
With the ceremony set to begin promptly at noon, Andy would sing one song as the guests were seated, then another after the final reading. She sat quietly in the back of the chapel, wringing her hands until the organist began to play. As the pews began to fill with friends and family, Andy recognized most of the faces. Lawrence’s family was limited to his mother, two aunts, and three cousins who had all come together from across the country a few years prior. Evie had no one but her Diamond Eye family, but both sides of the chapel filled up just fine, since the two of them were popular in town.
Andy’s heart practically pounded out of her chest as she stood to sing her first piece. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” was one of her favorites. Glancing down at the crowd, she searched for the dark green hat that she knew hid Miranda’s face. When she found it, she took a last sighing breath before she turned to the organist, who nodded once as he began to play.
She made it through the song without a hitch. Her vibrato was strong and pure, and once she began, she let the beautiful music take her along with it, actually enjoying herself. She had only practiced with the organist a few times, but he was surprisingly talented.
When she finished, she peered down on the congregants and found Miranda looking up at her. Her expression was subtle but approving. Andy smiled, heart full, and glanced away quickly.
By the time Evie and Lawrence had walked down the aisle to stand before the chaplain, Andy had relaxed. She was so happy for them, and Lawrence was such a good man. He knew all of Evie’s secrets and not only loved but respected her. They kept the saddest parts of Evie’s history quiet from the rest of the town, including Lawrence’s family. No one else needed to know.
Andy gazed down at all of their friends; the girls who worked alongside her on stage, the men who made up the rest of the Diamond Eye’s staff, and the townsfolk who had become as familiar as those she’d known all her life in Boston. There was something about the way the community had come together that made it close-knit. She felt safer and more protected here than she ever had back east.
When the time came, she sang “The Water is Wide” for Evie, and the notes rose into the rafters. The tears that gathered in her eyes as she delivered the final verse only fell when she closed her eyes at the finish. The congregation was silent, and Andy exhaled in pleasure, knowing she had given it her all. Her shaking legs did little to support her, so she fairly collapsed into her seat. When she turned to the organist, he was staring at her in admiration. She smiled weakly, wishing for a glass of water. It was warm so high up in the chapel, now that the sun had broken through the haze.
The rest of the service was quick; Evie and Lawrence exchanged vows before he slid the ring on her finger as Evie wept. The chaplain announced their union, and they were married. The organ music accompanied them back down the aisle as Evie beamed and Lawrence looked proud. Andy waited for most of the chapel to empty before she took to the stairs, drained and hungry at last. She was glad of the picnic lunch for the town that would be served behind the chapel.
When she found her way outside, she was clapped on the back and applauded by many. The miners and workers who visited the saloon were not the same collection of folk who attended the wedding, so most had never heard her sing. Everyone was pleased, which made Andy even happier. Even Trudy seemed approving of Andy’s performance, telling her, “Not bad, Andrea. I couldn’t have done better.”
Andy didn’t laugh. Trudy could hardly carry a tune, but her dancing made up for it. It was the only reason Miranda had hired her. Well, that and her legs.
Once Evie could break away from the crowd of well-wishers, she ran to Andy. They embraced as Evie kissed her cheek. “You were so wonderful, Andrea. I’ll never forget your gift,” she said, tears slipping down her face. Andy drew a kerchief from her sleeve and dabbed the corners of Evie’s eyes.
“You quit crying, Evie, otherwise you’ll drown this whole place. Today’s supposed to be the happiest day of your life!” she said, laughing and still a little bit teary herself.
“It is!” Evie cried. “I can’t help it. I am the happiest girl alive right now. Thank you.” Evie hugged her again before excusing herself to return to her groom. Andy could not stop staring at them as Lawrence kissed Evie’s cheek and she grinned shyly.
When Andy finally arrived at the tables where the finger sandwiches waited, she selected a few and plated them, working hard not to swallow them whole. She’d gone through two when she felt a familiar presence at her side. “You should have had breakfast,” Miranda murmured. “I could see that you nearly didn’t make it through your second song.”
“Too nervous,” Andy replied. “I did all right, though.”
“Better than all right,” Miranda said. “You were inspired. You’ve never sung more beautifully, Andrea. Truly.”
Though they weren’t looking at one another, Andy felt that telltale red flush crawling up her chest. She was glad of the dress she’d worn, with a light lace at the throat that protected her skin from the sun, and from prying eyes. “Thank you, Miranda. I--well, thank you.”
She thought she could hear the pleasure in Miranda’s voice when she said, “My writer, at a loss for words? That’s unusual.”
Andy grinned. She liked the way that sounded. My writer.
She and Miranda parted ways, but Andy still found herself hovering near her sweetheart as she chatted with her friends and other acquaintances who congratulated her on a job well done. She drank iced tea and stayed cool under the shade of an enormous oak tree, all the while watching the festivities. Children raced in a nearby field, and colorful streamers waved in the gentle breeze. Evie and Lawrence had their first dance as a married couple while a small band played, and once they were finished, the fiddler kicked into a reel and the guests joined in the celebration. Despite the warmth of the day, everything was perfect.
Lily pulled her onto the makeshift dance floor and they spun together amidst the revelers. When the music turned slower, she held Lily’s hands and they swayed in a waltz. For a moment, she caught Miranda’s eye. She could tell that Miranda felt the same longing to be together. They both held the gaze, despite their promise to pay no mind to each other. Miranda’s eyes were soft, and Andy was ready to go to her when her attention was caught by the motion of an unknown figure striding toward the celebration from the street, just east of the church. The man was in a dark suit and hat; his sophisticated city clothes did not match those worn by most of the townsfolk. There was something about the shape of the man that bothered Andy. She couldn’t quite figure out why until he came close enough for her to see his face in the sun.
The world tilted beneath her feet. Fear exploded in her belly like nothing she’d ever felt, not even the terror of when she’d stolen into her father’s Bible and lifted the money for her to afford her trip west. Not even when Harris Jackson had held a gun to Miranda’s head and threatened to kill her.
Everything inside her screamed run, because Jefferson Taylor was walking toward her.
“Andrea?” someone said, but Andy couldn’t speak. She was frozen to the spot as her universe collapsed. “Andrea!”
“Trouble,” she finally whispered.
Lily’s face came right up close to hers, and she looked as scared as Andy felt. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
“I’m in trouble,” she repeated. “Oh, Lil, I’m in so much trouble.”
Miranda watched as the blood drained from Andrea’s face. It was shocking how quickly her expression transformed from adoration to utter fright. Miranda turned around, spotting a man trotting toward them. He was smartly dressed, tall, and handsome. He was clearly in search of something, until his face changed and he smiled in joy. He began to run. “Andy!” he called. “Andy! I’ve finally found you!”
Miranda’s heart plummeted; her knees weakened, but she did not fall as she feared she might. When she breathed through her nose, the spots before her eyes cleared. She knew just who this man was, and what he wanted.
He wanted to take away the brightest light in her life. He wanted to steal the center of her world and make her go back with him to Boston. Miranda knew in an instant that the man who was running toward Andrea was Jefferson. And then he was upon her, grabbing her in a fierce embrace. Andrea’s arms were at her sides, hands drawn into tight fists. “Andy Sachs, I’ve been searching for you for weeks. I can’t believe I found you!”
Miranda abandoned her fears in that moment. It took a few seconds for her legs to respond as she wished, but soon she was moving toward her beloved. The man did not let go of Andrea, until Miranda tapped him on the shoulder. Lily was staring at the scene in disbelief. She met Miranda’s eyes, but Miranda shook her head.
The man stepped away as though coming back to himself. “I apologize ladies, Andy. I was just so overcome. I’ve traveled all this way to bring you home, Andy. This is the greatest day of my life.”
Andrea’s entire body visibly trembled. Her color had yet to return.
Reaching out to touch Andrea’s face, the man said, “Andy, say something!” It was as if he could not understand why the woman who had abandoned him would not be glad to see him.
“Jefferson, what are you doing here?” Andrea finally managed, taking a deep breath. She swayed on her feet, clutching Lily’s arm.
Miranda saw the confusion take shape on Lily’s face, but wisely, she stayed silent.
Jefferson shook his head. “Andy, we’re still engaged. I love you. I understand that you got cold feet. That could happen to anyone. But I know you care for me. I even brought your ring with me,” he said, pulling a box from his pocket and displaying it. “Couldn’t we go someplace more private to talk? There’s so much I have to tell you.”
Andrea stepped back. “Jefferson, I’m sorry. I left your ring behind because I’m not able to marry you.”
The man’s smile faded. “Andy, don’t be silly. I’ve come all this way because you’re my fiancée. I sailed for months to get here, and it took ages to find you. You accepted my proposal. A promise is a promise.”
“My father accepted your proposal,” Andrea replied, standing a little straighter. “My father said I would marry you. I never, ever told you yes.”
Jefferson’s confusion remained. “Your father… I don’t understand. We’re engaged.”
“We’re not engaged, Jefferson,” Andrea repeated. “I don’t love you.”
The man’s confusion turned to irritation. “Of course you love me. We--Andy, this is ridiculous. You’re--something must have happened to you since you left. We need to talk alone, we need to--” Jefferson reached out to take Andrea’s arm, but she wrenched away from him.
“No, Jefferson. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to tell you then that we couldn’t be married. If I had known you’d come all this way, I never would have allowed it. I’d hoped you had moved on by now. It’s been more than a year!”
“Andy, please, I must speak to you priv--”
Miranda could no longer listen without interference. “Mister--I’m sorry, what is your name, Sir?” she asked.
Jefferson looked at Miranda as if he hadn’t even realized she was there. “Mr. Jefferson Taylor, ma’am. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” he added automatically.
“Mr. Taylor, I am Andrea’s employer, and it appears that there’s been a misunderstanding. Why don’t we sit down over here and discuss this quietly?” She motioned toward an empty table, noticing that some wedding guests had realized something was off.
“A woman employer? And--wait--Andy has a profession?” Jefferson barked, his politeness giving way to something else. He didn’t seem to know which fact to be more surprised by. Anger began to settle in his face, lines forming between his brows as he frowned. “Andy has no need of a job. She’s coming home with me. We’ll travel back to San Francisco and I’ll book a passage on--”
In a flash, Andrea ran. She took off toward the street, mindless of the townsfolk whose eyes followed her progress as she hastened toward the only home she knew. Jefferson made to chase after her, but Miranda caught his arm. “Mr. Taylor, I implore you to sit down. We should discuss this in a civilized fashion. Now, shall we?”
Jefferson turned toward Miranda with a snarl. “I’m sorry, Madam, but I must attend to my fiancée. I’ve no intention of returning to Boston without her. Would you excuse me?” He jerked out of her grasp, starting off after Andrea.
Roy was at Miranda’s side in a moment, as were Geoffrey and Nigel.
“Tell us what you need, Miranda,” Roy said, eyes trained on Jefferson.
Vibrating with rage, Miranda set off in the direction of her saloon. “I’m not certain. Be ready for anything.”
The men flanked her, and they set off for the Diamond Eye.
Andy threw her door open and went to her small bureau. She cleaned it out as fast as possible, taking only the dresses she could easily carry. Then she grabbed her writing materials and the book from her hidey hole in the wall. She kept money there as well, and stuffed the essentials into a hidden pouch in her carryall. She hadn’t thought she’d ever need it, but now, she was glad to have it. Looking out her window, she saw no one in the yard of the saloon, but she was sure Jefferson was right behind her.
With no thought of where she could escape to, she slung her bag over her shoulder and raced down the steps. Fortunately, when the doors to the Diamond Eye flew open, Jefferson was not standing before her; instead it was Miranda, Roy, Geoff, and Nigel. “Andrea, go to my rooms, right away. We’ll handle Mr. Taylor.” Miranda’s gaze was flint and steel. It would have struck terror into Andy’s heart if she hadn’t understood the true feelings behind her eyes.
“You don’t need to take care of this for--”
“My rooms, Andrea. Now. Leave this to me.” Miranda’s chin dropped, and her fury was thrilling. Andy suddenly felt less fear, because she was not alone. She had love and family, the one she’d made, on her side.
“Yes, Miranda,” Andy said, bolting for the steps she’d climbed in secrecy so often in the past weeks. She took the stairs two at a time and threw herself into Miranda’s private space. Dropping her things, she slammed the door and shut her eyes in at least momentary relief. She pressed her ear to the door, and waited.
All was quiet. She couldn’t even hear the voices of Miranda and the other men, who had looked like soldiers when she’d seen them in the entryway. She inched the door open and eased out, hoping that everything was well down below.
So far, so good. She sat on the top step in front of Miranda’s rooms and leaned against the wall.
It felt like hours before she heard a word from the saloon, but in reality, it was just over thirty minutes according to her timepiece. Nigel’s voice was so quiet Andy could barely hear him. “Betty confirmed he’s staying at the boarding house. Arrived this morning on a coach that came down from ‘Frisco. He probably took the Panama route.”
“He’ll know soon enough where Andrea’s run to. We’ll open as usual tonight, but I want you all armed. Andrea will not be leaving the Diamond Eye unless she decides to do so herself. Is that understood?”
“It surely is, Miranda,” Andy heard Geoff say. “We’re ready. Right, boys?”
When the other men murmured their agreement, Andy felt tears prick the backs of her eyes. She’d cried in joy earlier that day; how had things changed so drastically in the space of a single hour?
Then the steps to Miranda’s rooms creaked as someone climbed them; it was Miranda. She held a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. She was beautiful and perfect and everything Andy wanted for the rest of her life. When Miranda spotted her on the top step, she paused, blinking blearily. “Andrea,” she said. She climbed the rest of the steps, and Andy stood to follow her into the rooms where they’d spent so many precious nights. The moment the door closed, Andy was in her arms, shivering in grateful exhaustion. No man would steal her away from the woman she loved. Not Jefferson, not her father, and not anyone else, ever.
They collapsed on the mattress without undressing. They didn’t kiss; instead, Miranda clung to her, hands gripping her back and shoulders and bottom. She felt possessed. Branded. And in turn, she dug her nails into Miranda’s flesh, determined to never let go. “I didn’t think he cared enough about me to chase me three thousand miles, Miranda, I swear to you.”
Miranda breathed into her neck, holding her more tightly. “I would have,” Miranda exhaled, and Andy shut her eyes, gritting her teeth. “You’re free to live your life as you please, and should you choose to go elsewhere, I won’t stop you. But he can’t take you from me against your will. Understand?”
“Yes,” Andy groaned, wishing she could get under Miranda’s skin, make them into a single, solid being that couldn’t be torn apart. “I want to be with you forever. I would never leave your side,” she confessed. At once she regretted the words. Miranda would surely laugh to hear such idiocy from a young girl, ignorant to the ways of the world.
But Miranda simply held on, saying her name, over and over.
Miranda did not drink that afternoon. She’d brought the whiskey to her rooms thinking it might calm them, but neither she nor Andrea had partaken. She needed to be alert, and Andrea thought she’d be sick if she had even a drop. Her lover was shaken to the core of her being with the arrival of the man she’d been instructed to marry. So had Miranda.
Miranda was so disturbed that when she dressed for the evening, she strapped a holster to her right thigh and slid a small 6-shot Pepperbox into it. To her mind, walking about with a gun was dangerous in itself, but she was taking no chances.
The girls had all returned from the wedding cheerfully enough, but Lily had gone straight to Miranda’s rooms not long after Andrea had fled the reception. Miranda had answered the door, but not let Lily in; she’d only assured the young woman that her roommate was safe and in her care.
“She told me her fiancé was dead,” Lily had whispered almost inaudibly in the hallway outside Miranda’s room.
Miranda had shaken her head. “Andrea was not interested in marrying him. She ran away.”
Lily’s face had crumpled. “Why didn’t she say so? I thought she trusted me.”
“She does, dear,” Miranda had assured her. “Some things are simply too difficult to put into words.” She’d held Lily firmly by the shoulders. “Andrea may need you very much in the coming days. She told you a white lie, but she cares for you a great deal. Don’t doubt that.”
Lily had hesitated only briefly before departing with a single nod.
The other girls knew that something unusual had happened, but nothing particularly important. The saloon would be open for the evening and the wedding had been a great success, so what was there to worry about? Meanwhile, Geoffrey would not be working the stage that night. Instead, he would stay near the door and track the bar’s visitors. Roy would do the same. Jefferson did not know either of the two men by sight; he’d only met Miranda, and probably hadn’t even registered what she looked like. That was one of the few advantages they had on their side.
Miranda instructed Andrea to remain upstairs, but she’d refused. She wanted to act as if nothing at all had happened that day beyond a wedding; she intended to perform on stage, putting on a show and dancing with the miners, drinking tea and collecting tips as usual. If Jefferson appeared, Andrea would deal with it. She would not run away a second time.
Fortunately, for the first few hours of the evening, all was well. It was a Saturday, and the place was filled with regulars, plus a few new faces who had been lured in following the wedding that afternoon. Jefferson was not among them. Not once did Miranda assume they were in the clear. She stayed seated at the bar with a clear line of sight to the swinging doors up front.
Once Andrea and the other girls put on their dance, Miranda wondered what was keeping the man. Every minute that ticked by set her further on edge, and she was relieved that even though Andrea had vowed to be on stage that night, she would not sing her usual solo. Begging off because of her performance at Evie’s wedding, she let Emily have the spotlight. Naturally, Emily was thrilled by the opportunity.
Just past eight, the sheriff came through the doors for the first time in weeks. He was not much of a drinker and uninterested in gambling, but he liked a pretty song and a pretty girl now and then. Miranda waited for him to approach, and it did not take long.
“Evening, Miranda. How’s business?” he asked, nodding at Roy when a glass of tea appeared before him.
“Very well, as you can see. What can I do for you?”
“I had an interesting visitor today, who came to me about one of your girls. I know you don’t like it when there’s trouble, so I thought I’d give you fair warning.”
“Oh?” Miranda said, and her heart began to pound.
“A Mr. Jefferson Taylor of Boston informed me that he believes his fiancée is under some sort of influence since she came west. He thinks she’s been lured in by the devil.” He sipped his tea slowly, savoring it. “He’s checking all the dance halls and fandangos in town. I expect he’ll be here very shortly.”
“And why, pray tell, did he come to you, Sheriff?” Miranda asked, pleased that her voice was steady.
“He asked if there was anything I could do to make this young lady do as he says.” Sheriff Jones coolly observed the girls dancing with the miners on the floor. “Seems to think he owns her.”
That was a surprising tactic. “And?”
“He’s got no grounds, ‘course. I mean, maybe back east he’d have some rights if they were married, but out here? Nope. They’re not married, and something tells me they won’t ever be.”
Miranda did not respond right away, letting the information sink in. “Anything else?”
He turned to her, looking her straight in the eye. “You know how to handle yourself, Priestly. I hear of what goes on within these walls now and then. I don’t recall the last time I set foot in this establishment for anything other than a night’s enjoyment. But if you need a hand, you send one of your men my way. I’ll look out for the girl. We protect our own in this town.” He smiled grimly. “I notice you haven’t asked who she is.”
Miranda’s voice was flat. “I already know.”
“I thought you might.” He tipped his hat. “I’ll be keeping my eyes open. Have a good evenin’.” He took a final swallow of his tea and left.
Well, at least she knew what to expect. Mr. Taylor would undoubtedly be paying the Diamond Eye a visit. Soon. She touched the weapon beneath her skirts, where it rested warmly against her thigh. Roy was watching her. “Ready?” she asked.
Andy was dancing with one of her regulars, Douglas, a sweet boy who worked six exhausting days a week mining. Somehow, he always found time to come in on Saturdays to hear Andy sing. He was disappointed that she did not perform that night, but as soon as Emily set foot on stage, he took a shine to her. So did lots of other folks in the saloon; Em had a line of men wanting a few minutes of her time, so she danced every dance. Her fair skin glowed, her cheeks pinked with exertion. Andy felt happy for her. She deserved more attention than she usually got. Andy thought it might be nice if Em got a chance to sing on the stage more often. She was starting to recognize the benefits of lying low.
She kept her eyes trained on the door to the saloon as subtly as she could. So far, she had seen only friendly faces that night.
Her luck changed as Emily’s last song came to an end. When she saw Jefferson, Andy stepped backwards, accidentally bumping into Trudy and her dance partner. Trudy scowled at her, but the anger dissipated when she saw the fear on Andy’s face. Andy apologized to her and took off for the bar, her breath coming so fast she thought she might be sick. In a moment she was at Miranda’s side. “He’s--”
“I see him. Don’t worry. He can’t hurt you.”
Andy crept slightly behind Miranda’s shoulder. Trudy had followed her, a question clear in her eyes, searching in the direction of Andy’s gaze. Jefferson approached, relaxed but resolute. “Ma’am.” He nodded toward her and Miranda. “Andy. I’ve been searching for you all over town. Funny thing is, nobody I spoke to had any interest in helping me find you.”
She didn’t reply.
His smile was gentle as he came closer. “Let’s just talk. I care so much for you, Andy. Don’t you want to know how your family is?”
That was the only thing he held over her. She did want to know, so she shrugged her shoulders. “We can sit here at the bar.”
Although he frowned, he relented, taking a seat next to her. He reached out for her hand, which she withdrew. She scooted her stool back a few inches. “Ah, well,” he said with a deep breath. “Your parents have been missing you, dearest. So has your sister. Charlotte has been very lonely.”
Andy didn’t laugh, but she wanted to. Charlotte might miss her, but she was probably happy to be the only child at home now, assuming she had not married in Andy’s absence. “They must have gotten my letters?”
“Of course, that’s how I found you. The postmarks were not very clear, but I was determined. Your father was so grateful when I set off on my journey.”
“I hate that I will disappoint him again, Jefferson. Please relay my sorrow for that when you return home.”
Jefferson shook his head. “Andy, they forgive you. You don’t need to be afraid that they won’t take you back into the fold.”
“Forgive me for what, forging my own path? For borrowing some money and returning it?”
“Stealing it, you mean,” Jefferson reminded her. “You stole from your own family.”
“They have all of it back, plus interest. If they received my letters, they’ve received the money, too.”
“Regardless, what you did was against the law.”
“So does my father intend to have me thrown in jail once you drag me home? Is that your plan, and his? To take your revenge on someone who wanted a new life?” Andy’s anger was starting to overtake her fear.
“Of course not. He adores you, as I do. Once we’re married--”
“Jefferson, we are not going to marry. How many times do I need to tell you that?”
“Andy,” Jefferson said, pushing his stool right up to hers. She leaned back but did not flinch. “I understand you’ve come under some sort of… influence. Evil has drawn you away from the flock. I only want to return you to your proper place. Your home. Your family. Surely you must recognize my position?”
Andy shook her head. “Jefferson, there is no power on this earth that will convince me to return to Boston with you.”
There was a long pause. “Not even if I told you your mother was ill? Or that she was dying, and asked only to see her long lost daughter once more before she passes on?”
Andy felt the blow in her gut, but she resisted the urge to believe him. “How curious that you neglected to mention such a thing before.” She tried to smile, though her lips were probably twisted in a grimace. “Will God forgive you for lying, even if you believe it’s for the right reasons?”
That startled Jefferson. His mouth opened and closed before he spoke again. “I didn’t say it was true. It was simply a question. Would you keep yourself from your family, knowing they yearn for your return?”
Andy’s reply was simple. “Yes.” She exhaled in relief, knowing he’d just tried to lure her in with a falsehood. She would no longer trust anything he said. Not now.
Jefferson turned to Miranda, who sat sentinel by her side. “Missus, I’m sorry, I never got your name.”
“Miranda Priestly,” she replied, her voice lower than Andy had ever heard it.
“Mrs. Priestly, surely you can help Andy see reason. You must have children, and a husband--”
“I have neither, Mr. Taylor. Andrea has no difficulty at all seeing reason. You, on the other hand, appear unable to comprehend the word ‘no.’”
“She’s shaming her father and mother with the simple act of working in this… saloon. How devastated will her parents be when they realize their educated, innocent child has been reduced to dancing for money to make her living? It may as well be--prostitution!” he spat.
Miranda’s lip curled. “It is not, in fact, prostitution. If you care to visit a brothel, I have a number of recommendations that are within walking distance. While there, you will easily be able to tell the difference between work here and there.”
Jefferson’s cheeks colored, his jaw hardening in fury. When he opened his mouth to reply, Miranda interrupted him. “No insult can cut me down, Mr. Taylor. You may try, but you shall not succeed. I, and others who care for Andrea here in our home, will do everything in our power to keep her safe and happy. Your presence is not needed, nor wanted. You would do well to return to your boarding house, pack your things, and go back from whence you came. In the meantime, I’m sure any of the girls here would be happy to provide you a dance, or a drink.” When she smiled, it was terrifying. “On the house.”
Jefferson turned to Andy once again, shaking his head. “Your father won’t believe what I’ve seen. This will kill him and your mother. Think about what you’re doing to them!” He grabbed her and shook her, but Andy pulled from his grasp without help from anyone else.
“Then ask them to write to me and tell me how they feel. I won’t believe another word out of your lying mouth, Jefferson Taylor. Now you leave me be. For good.” She felt the heat of Miranda’s presence at her side as she stood. Jefferson’s gaze fastened on something behind her shoulder. When Andy turned around, she saw Roy leaning on the bar, one hand on the barrel of a shotgun.
Finally, it appeared that Jefferson realized he had not made any progress. “You’ll regret this, Andy. I promise you.”
Andy sighed. “I’m sorry, Jefferson. I honestly am. I’ve only ever wanted to live an independent life, and I’ve found it. This is what I’ve chosen. Please respect that.”
Jefferson could take no more. He turned and fled, knocking past the bar’s patrons with little care. He burst out of the saloon, cracking one of the swinging doors so hard against the wall that it sounded like a gunshot.
With that, Andy was able to breathe again. She sat back down, or rather slumped, onto the stool. Miranda carefully placed one hand on her shoulder, and Andy closed her eyes. When she opened them, Lily was there too. She had questions, and for once, Andy thought she’d be honest with her. Trudy was next to her as well, with a modicum of new-found respect in her eyes. It was perhaps even a look of recognition.
“You okay, honey?” Lily asked.
“I am now,” Andy said. She turned to Miranda. “You think that did it?”
Miranda was watching the Diamond Eye’s doors, where Jefferson had just vanished. “Perhaps.” Then she seemed to wake from a trance. “Rather, I hope so.” As she shook her head, Andy watched the softness of her hair as it fell against her forehead. She wished she could reach out and run her fingers through it; that often brought her comfort in the night. “Lily, I want you to stay near Andrea this evening. Very close. Understand?”
Andy was bereft. She wanted desperately to sleep beside Miranda.
“But it’s Saturday. Lily usually goes out with Henry--”
“It’s no bother, girl. I’ll stick by you,” Lily said fiercely.
Trudy said nothing, but she gazed thoughtfully at both Miranda and Andy, one after the other.
Lily did as she said she would, never leaving Andy’s side for the rest of the evening. She climbed the steps after her into their room, later following Andy to the privy as she did her business. When they each slipped beneath the covers, Andy sighed. She missed Miranda.
“Andrea?” Lily said, her voice drifting toward her in the darkness.
There was a pause. “How come you told me your fiancé died?”
Andy took a long time to answer. “Because I didn’t want to tell you the truth.”
“What is the truth?” Lily asked. “I was just so surprised when that man said who he was.”
“I know. The truth--the truth is--” Andy swallowed nervously. “Lil, I never want to get married. I don’t like men, not the way you do.” Shame climbed up her throat. As much as she felt like everything was right in the world when she was with Miranda, her difference rang out when she was with everyone else.
“So, you mean you like girls?” Lily said softly. “Oh, honey, you shoulda told me a long time ago. I don’t mind about that. It’s nothing, nothing at all.”
Andy was so stunned she sat up in bed. “Pardon?”
“You’re not the only gal here who likes the ladies. I mean, you know Trudy, right?” Andy gasped. “She’s got a sweetheart who works on the line. I see them walking up and down the main street almost every day and no one gives them a second glance. And I think Emily had her heart broken by one of the girls who used to work here, named Serena. She got sick last winter and decided to go on up to San Francisco with a doctor who fell in love with her. I don’t know if they were ever a real match, but Emily sure did mourn her loss.”
Speechless, Andy could do nothing but gape into the quiet.
“That’s what you meant when you said you didn’t like men, right?” Lily asked.
Andy needed a moment to whisper, “Yes.”
“Well, then. That’s all you needed to tell me. No harm in loving a girl, that’s what I say. Now I know why you were so quiet about staying out all night,” she laughed. “Can you say who your sweetheart is?”
“I’d better not, if that’s okay by you. I don’t feel good about telling her secret, too.”
“That’s all right. If you like her, I’m sure I’ll like her too,” Lily said.
Andy grinned. “I’m sure you will.”
After an hour or so of trying to fall asleep, Andy resigned herself to staying awake. She was nervous, she was keyed up, she was fearful. And she had no idea what Miranda was doing, leaving Andy to try and rest here, far from the safety of her embrace.
Chapter 9: The Gunslinger
Miranda, meanwhile, sat on a stool in the Diamond Eye, watching the men gamble late into the wee hours. On the fly, she had decided to stay open and host a poker tournament. There were takers right away. The pot was a cool $100, but the cost to play was $10 per man. With more than twenty participants, Miranda could afford to let the drinks flow freely as part of the cost of admission, plus she kept Nigel on the piano for entertainment. Some of the girls stuck around too, keeping the losers occupied as they dropped out one at a time.
Miranda thought that if she was going to stay awake all night protecting her lover, she might as well make some money in the process.
By five in the morning, a winner had been declared and the pot handed over. Most of the stragglers were just beginning to sober up, but they were in a reasonably festive mood; the event had been a wild success. Sunday was their day of rest, and since most of the men were not churchgoers, they could sleep off their hangovers in relative peace. The girls had done well for themselves too, pocketing many tips, as well as some rarely rewarded overtime pay from Miranda. She was feeling generous.
At seven, Miranda left her office, having recorded a very short history of the night’s success in the books. When she looked in on Andrea, the object of her desire sat up in bed, wide-eyed. It did not appear that she had slept either. Miranda regretted that very much. Her darling girl would have been happier by her side, surely, but it would not have done either of them good.
Lily snored noisily from the bed only a few feet away from Andrea. Again she was reminded that Andrea really could use a room to herself. With Lily safely asleep, Miranda felt comfortable enough to blow Andrea a kiss. Andrea smiled to see it, touching two fingers to her mouth. Miranda closed the door with some sorrow.
She retreated to her rooms, comforted by the noise that had already sprung up as the girls awakened to the new day. She would get some rest now and investigate Jefferson Taylor’s latest movements once she was able to see straight.
When Miranda woke, her room was warm, the sun peeking out from behind the dark shades she’d drawn. At least it was still day. Her timepiece read 1:36pm, so she rolled off her mattress and washed up as quickly as she could. She could not afford to wait another minute.
Downstairs, the girls lounged, but Andrea was not among them. Trudy was there, alongside Emily, Lily, and to her surprise, Evie.
“Evie, I hope you’re all right, dear,” Miranda said. “I did not expect to see you so soon after your wedding.”
“Oh sure, everything is wonderful, Miranda!” Evie said, positively glowing with good cheer. “But I heard about what happened with our Andrea and I wanted to come see her.”
“Where is she?” Miranda asked, concerned.
“She and Roy went together to pick up some supplies for the week.”
“How unusual,” Miranda remarked.
Lily explained, “I guess she didn’t sleep so well, so she’s been jumpy all day. She was dying for something to do.” With wide eyes, Lily added, “And you know, Roy’s always looking out for her.” She made the most unsubtle gesture, forming her hand into the shape of a gun before running it through her curls.
Well, that was good news. At least Andrea was well-guarded.
Nigel came into the kitchen then, yawning. “Please tell me there’s still coffee,” he groaned.
Lily chuckled. “Y’all must have had quite a night,” she said, lurching out of her seat and fixing Nigel a cup. “Half the girls aren’t even awake yet.”
“We did, indeed,” Miranda said, knowing she’d cleared a reasonable profit. “So, word has spread about Andrea’s… visitor?” she asked. There was no reason to pretend as if she didn’t know. She’d been standing right there during the reception when Jefferson had approached.
“Yep,” Trudy said, leaning her chair back on two legs. “She used to be awfully quiet about why she came west. I heard she’s from Massachusetts, but I don’t think anybody knew she had a beau she’d thrown over. I like her a lot more now,” she laughed.
Prior to yesterday, Miranda must have been the only one Andrea had told the truth about Jefferson. She was apparently as good at keeping secrets as Miranda was.
“There is some concern,” Miranda said carefully, “that this former beau will take action to remove Andrea from her current circumstances. We do not want that to happen. I expect all the girls here to look out for her during what I’m sure is a very trying time. Understood?” she asked, eyebrow raised.
There were solemn nods across the board, with the exception of Trudy, who was very still as she took in the information. Miranda wondered just what she was thinking, but she would not worry about that now. “Make sure everyone knows, but please don’t discuss it with Andrea. Obviously she is unhappy with her situation.”
“No problem at all, Miranda. We take care of each other,” Lily said. “Always have.”
Miranda hoped that their care would be enough.
She waited less than patiently for the return of Roy and Andrea. An hour later, the wagon arrived, with Roy unloading a number of wooden crates as Andrea looked on. Miranda joined her, but did not look her in the eye. “Everything all right?”
“Mm-hmm. Just keeping busy.”
“Keep busy in the kitchen. You’ve got a visitor you’ll actually want to see.” Andrea turned toward her. “Evie’s here.”
Andrea grinned, heading straight inside.
The rest of the day passed without incident. Miranda kept herself occupied doing a more thorough job on the week’s numbers; her attention had recently fallen by the wayside since she had reason to be occupied late into the evenings. She forced herself to concentrate, knowing she could not keep up with things if she did not take extra time.
She chose to eat her supper with the girls in the kitchen, though it was an informal gathering as they came and went a few at a time. Andrea stayed too. She was clearly nervous; the dark circles and hollow look to her eyes spoke of exhaustion. She’d had very little rest for days as it was, so Miranda decided that no matter what, they would stay together tonight.
The sun dropped lower and lower beyond the horizon until Andrea could barely keep her eyes open. When it was just Andrea, Miranda, and Lily left in the kitchen, Miranda said, “Lily, there’s no need to stay with Andrea this evening. She’ll stay with me, instead. If there’s still reason to be concerned tomorrow, we’ll discuss our options then.”
“You sure, Miranda? I don’t mind--Henry knows there’s something funny going on.”
“It’s not a problem. The boys will have friends watching all the entrances to the saloon, so we’ll know right away if we have an unwelcome visitor. Go, enjoy your evening. Andrea will go to bed very shortly.”
Andrea apparently did not have the energy to even pretend to argue. “I’ll be fine, Lil. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Okay, honey. You be safe.” She leaned over and kissed Andrea’s cheek, trying not to frown in worry.
“Get your things and come up, all right?” Miranda asked.
Andrea nodded. “Okay.”
A few minutes later, Andrea joined her and sat on the bed. She looked so lost Miranda could hardly bear it. “I was happy,” she said weakly. “I had everything I needed. Why did he have to come and ruin it all?”
Miranda sat next to her. “He hasn’t ruined anything. We’ll deal with it. He’ll be gone very soon, I’m sure of it.” She kissed Andrea’s temple, drawing her into a gentle embrace. “Don’t worry, darling.” Miranda did not bother voicing her assertion that if Jefferson did not choose to leave town soon, she would make him.
Andrea was asleep before Miranda had even finished getting undressed for bed. She regretted waking her when she slipped beneath the sheets, but it was worth it when Andrea rolled into her arms and buried her face in Miranda’s neck.
The entire next day, there was no word from Jefferson. Before they opened in the late afternoon, Nigel delivered news: Jefferson Taylor had packed his bags and departed Betty’s boarding house. No one had tracked his movements since then, but it was assumed he was headed back to San Francisco, since someone in town saw him purchasing a seat on a stage going north.
Andy did not believe they had seen the last of him. Judging by the look on Miranda’s face when the news came, she didn’t either.
That said, Andy did not expect him to storm the saloon with guns blazing. He was an educated businessman, not a shoot-em-up cowboy. On the other hand, she was nervous that perhaps she did not know him nearly as well as she thought. Obviously she did not anticipate that he’d cross the continent to locate her and bring her home, so all bets were off.
That night was just like any Monday at the Diamond Eye; the saloon doors swung open and closed as each man entered to gamble and drink and dance. The ladies lifted their skirts a bit, sang well, and smiled. Only a handful of employees sensed any unusual energy in the air. Roy kept his shotgun at the ready with Geoffrey practically staring holes at the entrance. Nigel looked over his shoulder so often as he played piano that he practically made himself sick with dizziness.
Andy danced with a bunch of men she’d known for many months. Most of them did not ask about her change in circumstance, but her old pal Douglas brought it up right away. “Miss Andrea, I heard your fiancé is in town. Is that true?”
“He’s not my fiancé,” Andy clarified. “We were engaged back east, but I broke it off and left town. It’s not my fault he chased me here,” she said firmly.
“Jeepers, that’s too bad,” Douglas said. “A man who don’t know how to take no for an answer--that’s not a good man,” he added. “Plenty o’ fish in the sea, I always say. Even if none of ‘em will be as pretty as you.” He blushed a little as he said the words.
“Thanks, Douglas. You’re a peach,” Andy said, pleased but not at all uncomfortable from Douglas’s attention. “Can you let the other fellas know the real story? I’d hate for them to think less of me, just because Mr. Taylor didn’t understand how I really feel for him. He’s a caring person, but he’s just not the one for me. You see?”
“‘Course,” Douglas said, tipping his hat to her. “Happy to help you, Miss Andy,” he said. “I mean Miss Andrea.”
Andy chuckled. “Geoffrey’s been telling tales out of school,” she said, hearing the nickname. “It’s okay. Andy’s what my friends used to call me.”
Douglas looked down at the floor and grinned.
An hour later, when Douglas had spread the word, every man she danced with told her he’d look out for her. The amazing thing is that she believed them all. Knowing they cared for her enough to trust her word over Jefferson’s gave her a fair bit of confidence, so she quit checking the main entrance of the saloon every five minutes. She relaxed a little and had some fun when the music picked up the pace.
By the night’s end, she was feeling almost back to her old self. She even caught herself ogling Miranda, not so much that anyone would notice, but enough that she felt that heat flare up in her belly, like a painful sort of pleasure. She wanted to do more tonight than just sleep in Miranda’s arms.
She searched out Lily, who was dancing her last dance with Henry. “Hey, Lils, you go on out tonight if you want to. I’ll stay with Miranda again. She’s got extra locks on her doors, and there’s plenty of room for both of us so we don’t step all over each other,” she said. “She doesn’t mind sharing.” Andy hoped that was an innocent enough explanation.
Lily looked up at Henry before frowning. “You sure, Andrea? I hate to think of you being afraid on your own tonight.”
“Not to worry, Lils. Miranda’s got a gun all loaded up, just in case. I trust her with my life.”
“Okay, if you’re certain,” Lily said. She patted Andy’s arm before stepping away from Henry and pulling her into an embrace. “I love ya, honey. You’re my dearest pal, you know that, right?”
Andy held on tightly, grateful as ever to have found her way here. “I do, Lil. You’re mine, too.”
For once, Miranda chose to ignore the books altogether that night. “We’ll do the work tomorrow, at breakfast. I’m very tired and I’ll be prone to mistakes. You will be too,” Miranda added. “We both need rest.”
Andy tried not to let the disappointment show on her face. She’d hoped to get much more than rest tonight. Once the saloon quieted and everyone had packed it in for the night, Andy followed Miranda up the steps, trying not to pout. She watched Miranda light the lamp next to the bed, locking the door and adding a chair under the knob just in case. It probably wouldn’t do any good, but it was a comfort nonetheless. When she turned around, Miranda was there in front of her, eyes glowing with heat in the dim light. “Come here,” Miranda said, then Andy was in her arms, kissing her desperately.
“Oh, do we get to--tonight?” Andy asked, pulling back before she could truly get her hopes up.
But Miranda was already expertly unbuttoning Andy’s blouse. When Andy took over, Miranda reached up to unpin her silver hair. She set her hairpiece on the dresser and started in on her own clothes. It took far too long to bare themselves, but Andy flung herself on the mattress and Miranda followed her in short order. There was very little talk after that as Andy did as she’d imagined earlier, pushing Miranda down. What pleased her was to have Miranda’s breasts in her mouth, carefully nipping and biting in a way that always made her writhe and gasp. Then she moved lower, to that place between her legs, to the center of the world only she and Miranda inhabited. She kissed Miranda there, softly and sweetly, using her tongue until Miranda’s back arched. Andy could hear how her breath came faster, how her muscles were taut and eager; she felt like the most powerful woman on earth, yet she was still completely in thrall to her lover. When Miranda looked down at her, Andy slowly reached out to lick the flesh under her tongue, tasting the honey she found. Their gazes fused, and very deliberately, Andy slipped two, then three fingers inside Miranda, before returning to her prize with her mouth. Miranda liked it hard and fast, so Andy would not deny her, not tonight, or any night. She held on as Miranda bucked, putting all her focus into her lovemaking, sparing no thought for anything or anyone. And when Miranda finally thrust and pulsed beneath her lips, Andy knew she would never leave this woman, whom she loved and adored with her whole heart.
She kissed a path up Miranda’s skin, one inch at a time, until she returned to her embrace. Miranda looked up at her with wonder, searching her face for something Andy could not decipher. “Are you all right?” Andy asked, unable to stop her worry.
Miranda nodded, reaching to remove the pins in Andy’s hair. It fell around her face in a dark curtain. “How on earth did we find one another?” Miranda asked, out of nowhere. “How did you know--how--” she shook her head. “I won’t let you go,” Miranda added, very firmly. Andy felt a chill race from the top of her head down to the base of her spine at the declaration. “Never.”
Andy leaned down and kissed her, unwilling to let Miranda give voice to the name of the one who had shattered their tranquility. She loved the way Miranda’s arms wound around her, turning Andy and lifting one of her legs so she could reach between them. Andy opened her thighs wide, sighing when fingers delved so carefully within her. Andy wanted to make it last, for it to go on for hours, but she couldn’t help how much she’d been waiting and wanting, so she buried her cries of ecstasy in the crook of Miranda’s neck. After she came, she caught her breath and waited for the fingers to leave her. Instead, Miranda simply stayed, and after a few minutes, started anew. Andy could not believe how good it felt, even when she’d been so quick to come. This time was slower and more intense; the pleasure filled her whole body as Miranda stretched inside her. When she climaxed again, she burned like a shooting star falling from the sky.
Miranda’s eyes were stunned when Andy finally raised her gaze. “It was--it was almost my whole hand,” she breathed. When she brought her slick fingers up to stare at them, Andy did too. “All four, and nearly my thumb.”
Andy felt a great pulse between her legs as she considered the idea. All of a sudden, she wanted it to happen, to have so much of Miranda deep within her. She exhaled in surprise. Could she do such a thing? She looked to Miranda for guidance.
“Do you think I could?” she asked. “Or maybe even--” Andy swallowed noisily. “You could?”
Miranda’s lashes fluttered as she panted. “I believe we are capable of much more than either of us imagine,” she said, breathless. She was nearly cross-eyed with desire. Andy reached out and pulled her on top, wriggling her body down as Miranda loomed over her. Andy sought out her center again when Miranda arched back and settled, holding her own breasts, pinching them as she lost herself. Perhaps she was fantasizing about what Andy had suggested, or perhaps she was just aching with need, but she cried out part of Andy’s name before biting it back. As she convulsed, Andy wondered if they could both die from so much ecstasy.
Andy did not know how long she and Miranda went on loving each other into the night, but she slept deeply when they were done. Usually Andy woke at first light no matter what time she went to bed, and the new day was no exception. She was still very tired, but she wanted to get breakfast started today for the early risers, and she herself was famished. She had not eaten well during the previous two days, but now she imagined she could very easily eat as many pancakes as she could make.
She washed up and donned her nightclothes as quietly as she could at the vanity, but she could not imagine anything waking Miranda at this hour. She’d had little rest since the all-night poker tournament, so Andy needn’t have worried. When she was through, she leaned down and kissed her darling lightly before wrapping up in her dressing gown and heading downstairs. It was warm already, so Andy fanned herself as she pushed the kitchen door open.
When two arms grabbed her from behind, she was so startled she didn’t even cry out; the possibility that the person who held her was likely Jefferson only occurred to her barely a second after her mouth was covered. At once she lifted her legs and kicked, but without her heeled boots, she was almost completely powerless. There was no time to think back to the defenses her friends had taught her all those months ago, and it had been ages since any of the men she knew had made even half a pass at her. She screamed, but it wasn’t loud behind Jefferson’s meaty hand, so she opened her mouth and tried to bite down, to no avail. She thrashed and jerked backward with her elbows, but her arms were pinned in a bear hug and she was losing her breath. She had only one option, tossing her head back and bashing into whatever she could. When she made contact, Jefferson growled in rage, dragging her across the room.
She did not stop fighting, leaning forward to slow his progress. They were only a few yards away from the door out to the back yard when it flew open. Oblivious to what was going on, Trudy stumbled into the kitchen.
Andy gasped and Jefferson paused, but more importantly, he loosened his grip just enough for Andy to get one arm free. She grabbed blindly at two of her captor’s fingers. She wrenched them back so hard that she heard an ugly cracking noise as Jefferson screamed in agony. That gave Andy a burst of enough energy to pull free, throwing herself toward the kitchen counter. With two hands, she grabbed the heavy cast iron pan she always used to fry up the potatoes, and in a single underhand swing, she smashed the pan into Jefferson’s jaw. To her surprise, it made perfect contact. There was a terrible sound as his teeth clicked together and his body flew backward in a great arc. He crashed to the floor as Andy stood by in terror. Finally she found her voice, bellowing, “Miranda!”
Though she was in a deep, restful sleep, Miranda heard the scream of her own name as clear as day. Miranda nearly fell out of bed, tying her dressing gown around her body in an instant. She took no other care with her appearance, stopping only long enough to arm herself with her Pepperbox before she raced down the steps. The sound must have come from the kitchen, hadn’t it? It was directly below Miranda’s rooms, it simply must have--
When she entered the kitchen, the scene she came upon was shocking. Andrea held a cast iron pan in her two hands, her dressing gown hanging open to reveal the nightgown Miranda hadn’t seen since the first chaste night they spent together. Near the back door, Trudy held one hand against her chest. Both women appeared as stunned as Miranda felt. “Andrea?” Miranda said.
Andrea looked up and dropped the pan. She ran into Miranda’s arms without a word, trembling furiously. Her nails dug into Miranda’s shoulders so hard it hurt, but it didn’t matter. The most important thing was that Andrea was safe, while Jefferson Taylor was lying prone on the floor, unconscious. He wasn’t going anywhere, at least for now.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Trudy cried. “He was trying to kidnap her!”
“I gathered that,” Miranda muttered, reaching over to set her gun on the counter. There was no point in taking a chance with it.
When Andrea buried her face into Miranda’s neck in a manner that was far more than friendly, Trudy stared, alternating between them and the man who lay still at their feet. Miranda could not find it in her heart to care, instead cupping the back of Andrea’s head gently, shutting her eyes and inhaling the scent of her hair. She whispered, “Andrea.”
“Miranda,” Andrea replied simply, trying to get even closer.
Miranda looked again at Trudy, who was tilting her head in uncertainty, until the moment Miranda actually saw the truth dawn on her. “Oh hell,” the girl said, eyes wide. “Until yesterday, I thought she was just a goody two-shoes, with you encouraging her piety,” Trudy said. She laughed then, shaking her head at the same time. “I’d no idea.”
Miranda felt Andrea’s head turn toward Trudy. They both watched the woman who had seemed a potential threat for so many weeks.
“Your secret’s safe,” Trudy said, making the sign of the cross as an oath. “Swear it on my Ma’s grave.” When she spat once into the air, Miranda assumed that was a positive reinforcement. “But what ‘n hell do we do with this shite in the meantime?”
“Hmm,” Miranda said, until Andrea pulled back from her embrace.
“I have an idea,” Andrea replied with a firm nod of her head. Within a minute, Andrea had Jefferson’s hands and feet bound with the butcher’s twine they used for cooking; it was inordinately strong and there was plenty of it. When they finished, the door banged open again, with Roy and Geoffrey gaping at the group. Admittedly they probably made an odd sight, the three of them hovering over an unconscious man who still had not moved a muscle. Andrea really must have done a job on his jaw.
Not that Miranda felt any regret about it. Not in the least.
Miranda explained in brief; Roy nodded in understanding. “We have to deal with this. Today,” Roy said. He touched the firearm in the holster at his hip.
That gave Miranda pause. “I don’t know if that’s a solution we can all live with,” she said, eyeing Andrea. The man had tried to kidnap her but it was impossible to know what his ultimate plans may have been. Even then, she didn’t think that premeditated murder was in the cards.
“Any other suggestions?” he asked.
She nodded. It was a simple thought. But the result was completely dependent on the delivery.
“Let me get my shotgun.”
Chapter 10: The Guardian
Andy dressed quickly. Miranda had already vanished back downstairs, armed to the teeth, but Andy was taking much longer to make herself presentable. She kept staring at the marks on her skin, the livid fingerprints that had sprung up on her arms in the last hour. Again and again she felt Jefferson crushing her, smelled his stale breath, sensed the thrill of capture in his grip. She reached out and placed a hand on the dresser in the hopes of steadying herself. Her fingers landed on a delicate chain of gold that she had removed from Miranda’s throat just the night before, after they’d loved each other so thoroughly. The feel of it reminded her that she must be strong. She had something miraculous within her reach. She would not allow a man to whom she owed absolutely nothing steal it away.
Against her better judgment, she put the chain around her own neck, tucking it beneath her blouse. It was a little piece of Miranda, and she needed all the help she could get.
She climbed down the steps with reticence, but once in the kitchen, she felt cheered. Jefferson had awakened, surrounded by a gang of seven, all of whom were pointing guns directly at his face.
“Andrea, are you ready?” Miranda asked. Her arms were steady as they held the shotgun.
“Yes,” Andy replied, joining the circle.
Jefferson looked like a caged animal, his face almost unrecognizable in its anguish. “What the hell is going on here?” he croaked, although the words were somewhat garbled. Andy wondered if she’d broken some of his teeth.
“Mr. Taylor, my friends and I are here to deliver a message on behalf of Andrea Sachs, whom you know as Andy. It’s very important that you listen closely, Mr. Taylor. Are you ready?” Miranda asked, her tone both calm and stern. Andy almost laughed; it sounded like Miranda was speaking to a two-year-old.
When Jefferson didn’t respond, Geoffrey kicked the legs of the stool Jefferson was sitting on. His arms and legs were still tied, Andy was pleased to see. “I hear you, of course I hear you. Yes,” he replied, the fear evident in his words.
“Good.” Miranda stepped closer. This time, she held the barrel of the gun almost against Jefferson’s cheek. “I have some news. It’s time for you to leave our town. You must never, ever return. Is that understood?”
There was only a brief pause before Jefferson nodded. Sweat beaded on his forehead. Andy realized that the bruise she’d left on his jaw was starting to blacken. Served him right. She touched her arm and felt the soreness along her skin.
“If you were to stay here, we’d have to report you to the Sheriff, and you must realize that he is a great friend of Andrea’s. You’d be put in jail, and there’s no telling how long he’d keep you there. Consider that this town is not as… civilized as it is back in Boston. We have a different kind of justice and you have broken the law. Here, you would pay for your crime in accordance with our own system. You would not appreciate the end result, I can promise you that, sir.”
Jefferson grimaced. His eyes darted toward each of those who encircled him, but he found no sympathy.
“Your other option, which we highly recommend, is to go along with me and my two friends,” Miranda said, gesturing to two men Andy had not met before. “We shall accompany you up to San Francisco.”
Andy gasped in displeasure. Miranda, taking Jefferson up north on the rough roads of the California coast? “No, Miranda, you can’t! I’m sure that--”
“It’s already decided, Andrea,” Miranda interrupted, never taking her eyes off Jefferson. “I want to witness this man’s departure personally. To that end, we will stay with you, Mr. Taylor, every moment of the day and night. I’ve hired a stage to take us to the port, and we will put you on a boat that will sail south until you return to your home. When you arrive, you will tell the family that you were surprised to discover that Andrea had found great contentment here in the west and that you chose to return home without her. More importantly, you realized that it would be best if she could live her own life, independent and free, and that you are very happy for her, indeed.” She pressed the gun against the side of Jefferson’s cheek. “Is that clear, Mr. Taylor?”
Jefferson’s eyes watered. He actually whimpered with pain. The barrel pressed hard into the battered bone. “Yes,” he hissed. “Yes, clear.”
“One last thing: if I ever hear tell that you are within one hundred miles of the Diamond Eye, or anywhere near Andrea Sachs from now until the end of time, I will hunt you down, put a bullet in your head, and bury your body at the town crossroads, next to the others I’ve put in the ground.” Andrea inhaled in surprise, wondering how true those words were. At the moment, she believed them wholeheartedly; Miranda’s gaze was like the eye of a hurricane. “You will have no funeral. And no one, especially me, will shed a single tear.”
Jefferson began to shiver. He believed. His face was wet with sweat.
“Andrea, do you have anything to say to Mr. Taylor before my friends help him along on his journey?”
Andy thought about it. “Tell Charlotte I’ll write to her.”
“Is that all?” Miranda asked.
“Yes. Goodbye, Jefferson. Don’t come back.”
Jefferson blinked as though he could not believe what was happening.
Miranda lifted the gun away from him, her ice blue eyes glittering as the morning sun streaked through the kitchen window. Turning to Roy, Miranda said, “We leave in two hours. Pack what we’ll need for the road?” When Roy nodded, Miranda pointed the gun at the floor and uncocked it. She looked across the circle and met Andy’s gaze.
Uncertainly, Andy nodded and departed. Once through the door, she saw the first of the girls beginning to arrive downstairs, probably ready to have their breakfast. To Andy’s surprise, Trudy was waiting at the roulette wheel, and she tilted her head in Andy’s direction. “Everything all right?” Trudy asked.
Andy bobbed her head, feeling Miranda step to her side. Her presence, however temporary, was a tremendous comfort. “Consider the matter resolved,” Miranda said to Trudy.
“Uh, okay, then,” Trudy replied, glancing over at Andy. She fairly skittered out of Miranda’s line of sight. Andy deflated, her adrenaline rush finally giving out.
“Go on up to your room and rest,” Miranda said. “Geoff will make sure everyone is fed this morning.”
Andy nodded, but she knew sleep would not come. Instead, she waited for Miranda to climb the stairs. If Miranda was going to pack for a week on the road, Andy would be there to help.
“Is there really nothing I can do to convince you to stay behind?” Andrea asked one last time as Miranda tossed the last of the food that would not spoil into her pack. She was not a fan of jerky, but the biscuits were fresh and the fruit would last at least a few days if not longer.
“To be sure a job is done well, one must do the job one’s self.” Miranda pulled the wide-brimmed hat low over her eyes, not missing her hairpiece in the least. Her trousers, hand-me-downs from Geoffrey, fit well, and her vest was snug but comfortable across her chest. “We’ll see him all the way to the boat, but we won’t tarry in San Francisco. Once we’re finished we’ll head home right away.”
“Who are those men who are going with you?”
“Friends of Roy’s. They’ve been watching the saloon since Jefferson arrived. They’ve helped me out in the past, when I’ve had to deal with… difficult situations.” She did not often like to think about the incidents in which they’d come to her aid, but she knew she could trust them with her life.
She watched Andrea’s throat work with emotion, eyes filled with anxiety. She’d been no help at all as Miranda had put together her traveling pack. That said, other than food, water, fresh clothing, and some whiskey to ease the pain that would certainly come from the trip, Miranda would need little in the way of supplies. The stage would travel day and night, stopping to change horses and drivers at the waystations. They would have some time to rest, but overall, it would be constant movement for at least two days for the journey north, depending on the weather.
Finally, it was time. The sun was strong, but it would grow stronger throughout the day, and she wanted to depart as quickly as possible. Briefly she wished Andrea could go with her and keep her company, but it would not be worth the risk. She planned on watching Jefferson Taylor every moment until he boarded that ship and it sailed away.
Running through her list of needs one last time, Miranda dusted her hands off and nodded. She was as ready as she could be and didn’t want to waste another moment. “Come to the office. I want you to take care of the books while I’m gone.”
Andrea nodded and they left the kitchen. The other girls watched the two of them as they strode toward Miranda’s inner sanctum. Once the door was shut, Andrea walked into Miranda’s arms and held her. “Come back safe, Miranda,” she said, her voice soft and soothing. She did not cry, though Miranda thought she would once they parted. “I’ll be waiting.”
“Take care. Don’t make yourself sick.”
“I promise I’ll eat and sleep. I’ll make sure everything gets done with the books, too.” She smiled at that. “It will keep me busy.”
“Good.” With that, Miranda kissed her, wishing she could stay. Only now did Miranda feel the bittersweetness of their embrace, the pain of longing already upon her. It had been so many years since she’d felt the ache of parting from anyone she truly loved. “Remember how I love you,” she said, and the sadness eased as she saw the light in Andrea’s eyes as she spoke the words.
“Remember how I love you,” Andrea responded, and they kissed for one last time.
For two days and nights, Andy didn’t visit her own room. She didn’t visit Miranda’s rooms either. Instead, she slept in the office on the chaise where Miranda had shown her the pleasures of the flesh for the first time. It was not ideal for sleeping, but it was good enough for the few hours she closed her eyes at night. The rest of the time she worked the floor, cooked for the girls, managed the books, and wrote. She wrote pages upon pages, finding herself compelled by thoughts of Miranda, losing herself in the fantasy of seeing her once more. She abandoned her usual writing in favor of fashioning a story in which Miranda was the inspiration for a heroine exceptional for her independence, strength, and unmatched beauty. She did not write a story of romantic love, but instead wrote of a self-sufficient woman finding her way in Boston society, refusing the attentions of men despite how they all threw themselves at her feet. This story would be seen by no one other than herself, so as she reached what felt like a moment in which a new character should be introduced, Andy created a young woman, independent in her own right, but in need of guidance. She fell in love with her creation as she had with Miranda, which was a great comfort during her isolation.
Lily joined her once on the second night, talking up a storm as Andy diligently ran numbers and counted coins. She had no intention of letting Miranda down in her absence and Lily’s voice was a pleasant distraction as she worked away.
It was only when Andy heard Miranda’s name that her attention was drawn to the specifics of Lily’s monologue. “What’s that about Miranda?” she asked, putting her pen down. Her fingers were black with ink; she was glad no one would ask her about it. Everyone knew she was running the ledger at the moment.
“Said that everyone was a little surprised she took off to deliver that man to the boat.” Lily gazed down at her fingernails. “We all know you two are thick as thieves, but nobody really thought she’d get in a stage and go more n’ a hundred miles to make sure he actually left for good.”
“Well, I didn’t think that, either. I didn’t want her to go. I’m sure the men would have been capable of doing it themselves,” Andy said, tucking her hair behind her ear. It was a nervous tick and she knew it, but she did it again not five seconds later.
Lily didn’t look over just yet. “I really thought she’d shoot him. I think if he’d taken you, she would have.”
Andy swallowed. “Maybe. It wouldn’t be the first time, I guess. Or so she says.”
There was a long pause before Lily reached out and touched Andy’s arm. “I think Miranda cares for you more than any of us other girls put together. That seem about right to you?”
At once, Andy’s heart started beating triple-time. It was one thing for Lily to know about herself, but another for her to know that Miranda was her other half. It felt like a tremendous risk. “Well…”
“Ya know, no one’s gonna notice when you get to be an ol’ spinster, Andrea. I don’t think anybody will really care out here, ‘specially after this whole bad fiancé business. As for Miranda, well, she’s a widow, so that keeps people from talking. Seems like you’re both all lined up together. Get what I’m saying?” she asked, finally looking up.
The iron fist gripping her throat began to ease slightly. “I think so.”
“And nobody would ever ask Miranda when she was gonna get herself a beau, either. Nobody who wanted to keep his head, anyway,” she laughed as Andy took a breath. “So if you didn’t come back to your room for a while once Miranda gets back, I wouldn’t say a thing. Okay?”
Tears sprung to Andy’s eyes. She wanted to deny it. She tried to find the words to say it wasn’t true, that Lily was mistaken, but she couldn’t. It felt too extraordinary to have someone else know the truth. “Okay,” she said in a great exhalation, and she sobbed, just once.
“Oh honey, you come ‘ere,” Lily said. Andy went to her and hugged her, weeping on her shoulder. “No reason to cry, surely. We all know about Trudy, and what about Nigel? He’s never had a girl and I think one of his friends who drives a stage gets down here from the city every coupla months.” Andy blinked at her, shocked. She hadn’t realized that. “Didn’t you know?”
“Guess I didn’t. I never asked. Miranda and I--we didn’t want anyone to know.”
“Nobody else does. Would you believe that when one of the miners asked about it, Trudy said that Miranda sees all the girls like her daughters and that she’d do the same for any of us.” She laughed, smacking her knee in mirth. “That’s as big a fib as any I’ve ever heard, but I sure appreciate her effort. Surprised me, I can tell you that.”
“Me too.” Andy looked down at Lily’s hand holding her own. “She knows. She figured it out too.”
“Well, like recognizes like, I imagine. She rubbed me the wrong way those first few months, but she’s warmed up lately. Maybe once she realized no one here at the Diamond Eye was out to get her. Bet she’s had a hard life, you know?” She smiled a bit sadly. “Like the rest of us, I suppose.”
Andy frowned. “My life hasn’t been hard. Not at all. Hardest thing I ever did was come out west and look what happened? I discovered a new world, had the happiest times, met the best friends I’ve ever known. And, well... I found Miranda. My life hasn’t been hard. It’s been damned lucky.”
Lily looked into Andy’s eyes with a smile. “That sounds good to me,” she said. “I’ve been pretty lucky myself since you came around. We both have been.”
Andy sighed as she held Lily’s hands tightly. “Let’s hope our luck holds out.”
The next morning, Andy woke early but was unable to fall back to sleep. She could not get comfortable on the chaise, nor could she fathom returning to her own bed, or to Miranda’s empty one. Instead she went to the kitchen to make coffee and a slice of toast with jam for breakfast. She brought her repast outside, along with a chair so she could sit by the cherry tree she loved so much. The blooms had all fallen long ago, but the leaves and berries the tree bore were almost as beautiful.
Usually she enjoyed the brief silence around the saloon before most of the girls woke, but today it felt lonelier than ever. The sun had only just peeked up over the mountains when she saw Trudy returning from wherever she usually spent the night. She opened the gate to the back yard, and briefly Andy thought she’d be able to avoid an encounter, but then Trudy’s eyes fell upon her. She was clearly startled by Andy’s presence. After a moment, she seemed to nod to herself.
“Morning,” Trudy said, approaching Andy slowly. “Can’t sleep?”
Andy shook her head. “Not really.”
“You’re missing Miranda, then.”
With a shrug, Andy tried to smile. “I’m trying not to worry too much.”
Trudy chuckled. “I’d be more worried if I was that idiot who wanted to spirit you away from here. I’ve heard Miranda’s not afraid to pull the trigger on her shotgun if a man crosses a line without permission.”
Andy frowned. Other than the words Miranda herself used when threatening Jefferson (some of which she thought might be stretching the truth), Andy had not heard a word like that about Miranda. She also knew that Trudy had not exactly made many friends around the saloon, so she wondered about the source of the gossip. “Who told you that?”
Trudy watched Andy for a few seconds. “My… my sweetheart, Georgiana.”
Andy felt a little thrill at learning this piece of information, although it was not strictly new to her. She tried to keep her face very still in the hopes that Trudy would keep on talking. “Oh?”
Trudy seemed relieved at the lack of response. “She works… down at Miss Delilah’s. She knows a lot of the men in town, and she’s heard stories from some of them. She told me that the miners always make sure to treat the Diamond Eye girls right, otherwise they’d end up six feet under.” Looking over at the saloon, Trudy’s face shifted, almost as though she were yearning for something. “You think that’s true?”
Andy decided she wanted to be honest with this woman who had been so challenging to her and to so many of the other girls since her arrival. “I actually have no idea if Miranda’s ever shot anyone. It might surprise you but it’s never come up in conversation.” Andy laughed a bit at that. She and Miranda had talked about many things in the last few months, but the topic of killing a man, in self-defense or otherwise, wasn’t one of them.
With a nod, Trudy turned back to her. “I think she would do it. ‘Cause I saw the look in her eye when she spotted that good-for-nothing bastard on the floor of the kitchen. I think she’d have done it right then and there if nobody else had been around. Or if you hadn’t been able to get yourself away. She’d have done it for sure, not a doubt in my mind.”
Andy considered the prospect of defending Miranda from someone who intended to do her harm. “Yes, I can see that. I can see myself doing a lot of things now that I never thought I would.” She shook her head, wondering at the changes the past year had wrought. “Sometimes when I look in the mirror I don’t even recognize myself. I’m not the same girl I was when I left home, that’s for sure.”
Trudy met her eyes, and for a moment, that hard look was back. “The girls say you’re from a fancy family back east, in Boston. That right?”
With another shrug, Andy answered, “I wouldn’t say fancy, but compared to a lot of the other girls around here, then I suppose. What about you? Where are you from?”
Stiffening, Trudy’s mouth hardened. “I don’t like to talk about it much.”
Andy was quick to respond. “I apologize,” she said, but Trudy held out a hand.
“‘S all right. My ma and I came over from Cork about four years back. She didn’t survive the journey.”
Andy’s eyes widened. Trudy had a faint accent, but Andy was shocked that her immigration had been so recent. She must have worked extremely hard to hide any signs of her native country. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Aye,” Trudy said mournfully. That single syllable was filled with so much sorrow Andy could hardly keep the tears from her eyes. “We had nothing to begin with, but at least here there was the promise of food, and a chance to get away from the bloody church. Just wish Ma could’ve seen these mountains at sunrise. She’d ha’ liked that quite a bit, indeed.”
Andy swallowed, hesitant to break Trudy from the trance her memories seemed to bring forth. They watched the sun in silence for long moments. “I can imagine,” Andy finally said. “And I know we’re not friends or anything, but -- why, I mean, why did you--”
“Hate you so much on sight?” Trudy laughed at Andy’s expression. “Aye, I did hate you, right away. And I can’t exactly explain the why, but you were so absolutely perfect--that face, that voice, that irritating goodness just leaking from your every pore … It just reminded me of all the girls back home, the ones I wanted as friends, or the ones who never gave me a second look.” Trudy seemed to remember herself then and glanced at Andy with a bit of a sneer. “Not that I was interested in yourself, by the by. You’re not my type.”
Andy chuckled heartily at that. “You’re not mine either.”
Trudy broke out in what Andy thought might be the first real smile she’d ever seen on the woman. “At least in this town I’ve found a lot more freedom, a lot more girls like me.” She tilted her chin toward Andy. “Just didn’t think you’d be one of ‘em. Nor Miranda. Now that was a shocker. How in the world did ye’ land the likes of her?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Well I’ve got all the time in the world till tonight, when we both get back on the dance floor to earn our keep. I’ll just get a cuppa and be back if you want to do the telling.” As she headed for the kitchen, she stopped to turn back, asking, “Need anything?”
“No, thank you,” Andy called out, sipping her coffee. She was grateful for the distraction from her worry, welcoming the chance to get to know this side of Trudy. She was doubly glad she’d convinced Miranda to keep her on at the saloon, that was for sure. And while, as she’d said, she and Trudy weren’t exactly friends, that didn’t mean they couldn’t learn to be.
Miranda woke after being jostled when the stage came to a sudden halt, which meant they’d arrived at the final waystation. It wouldn’t be long till their arrival in the city, but the horses had been pushing on for nearly eight hours if her timepiece was correct. Gideon leaned against her, so she shifted him gently to the other side of the coach. Both he and Alonzo had been awake for most of their trip, keeping watch over the prisoner.
On the other side of the coach, Miranda confirmed that Jefferson’s bindings were still in place. His right hand was uncomfortably tied to Alonzo’s left wrist. Same with his ankle; if he’d made an attempt to go free, Alonzo would have known about it within seconds. Alonzo’s head dropped forward as he snuffled once in his sleep.
This must have been the first time the three of them had dropped off at the same time since they’d departed.
To Miranda’s dismay, the only passenger inside the coach who was awake was Taylor. He was staring off at the mountains as the colors changed with the rising of the sun. Taylor’s free hand dipped into his coat pocket and withdrew a flask. Miranda cursed inwardly. Apparently he hadn’t been given a proper pat down, since anyone with two broken fingers and a couple of black eyes to match the bruised jaw didn’t seem like much of a threat. It was a good thing he wasn’t armed beyond some clandestine liquor.
“It’s a little early in the day, isn’t it?” Miranda asked, softly so as not to disturb their companions.
Taylor snorted. He drank in silence.
He’d barely spoken a word since they’d set off. Not that Miranda had been interested in making conversation; she, Gideon and Alonzo mostly discussed the route and how long it would be until they arrived. Normally she would have asked after both of their families, since she’d known Gideon almost as long as Roy, and Alonzo’s wife had a baby on the way, but it was best to stay quiet for this leg of the trip.
Minutes passed as she listened to Mr. Taylor sip at whatever was in the flask; it smelled like bourbon from her seat. Honestly, Miranda was tempted by the whiskey in her own pack. Her back ached and her head had been pounding since the moment they’d started the journey. Stagecoach travel was painful for everyone involved, but it was the quickest way to get around since the western railways were years from completion.
“I hope you don’t expect me to pay my own way on the trip home,” Jefferson said, out of nowhere. His voice was rough from disuse, or perhaps it was the liquor. His words were slurred a bit; she wondered if he’d saved his stash till everyone was asleep. “I’ve run dry in more ways than one.”
Miranda pursed her lips. She should have known this would come up. “How did you intend to purchase passage for both yourself and Andrea to Boston?” she asked.
He laughed. “She sent back enough money to repay her father within six months. She’d have been able to pay for both of us. You know that as well as I do.”
“I find it hard to believe that her father would have sent you to spirit her away from us. I refuse to believe it, in fact. You clearly don’t have deep feelings for Andrea, and you must have known long ago that she cared little for you. What on Earth made you come all the way here?”
Taylor’s eyes hardened. As his jaw worked, she could see his rage, not quite tempered by his humiliation. “My father has a little problem… He owns a very nice home, and supports his very nice wife and three very nice daughters, as well as me. And he has a very nice business, at a very nice bank, except during the course of his career, he found himself with a gambling habit. And now he’s lost just about everything he’s put into the house, and he needs a great deal of money. If he’s lucky, the partners haven’t noticed how much is missing from the coffers. Of course he’s also been selling my mother’s things right out from under her nose.” He drank deeply. “Meanwhile, Andy’s father has a lot of money and is in good standing with the community. He’d keep everything quiet once the word about my father got out. My father told me to come here and bring her home as my wife or I wouldn’t be welcomed back into the fold. So I have no intention of returning to Boston, mind you. I’ll go elsewhere and start over, if I’m able.” He looked away from Miranda again, off into the distance. “Andy did it and there’s nothing special about her.”
Miranda bit back a vitriolic retort. “There’s certainly nothing special about you. Other than the fact that you should be in jail.”
“Well, desperate times call for desperate measures.” He drained his flask and replaced it in his pocket. “My father is not a pleasant man, as you may have surmised. Andy’s father told mine about the return of the money. He was stunned. Imagine your own runaway daughter creating hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of wealth in just a few months! His next thought of course was, ‘What can a girl do to make money out here other than sell her body?’” He laughed, the sound ugly and harsh. “Richard Sachs wants to see Andy married to me as much as my own father does. ‘No man will have her once she comes home,’ he said. I was so sure he was right, too. Andy had plenty of schooling but she’s not very clever. I suppose she can dance well enough to make her way, at least while she’s young and reasonably attractive. You’ve seen to that.”
“I had nothing to do with it. Andrea would have been successful with or without me. She’s one of the most intelligent individuals, male or female, I’ve ever had the fortune of meeting. If you’d cared to have seen her as more than a possession, you may have discovered that as well.” She sneered at him. “Now you’ll never know.”
His hands jerked, perhaps in Miranda’s direction or perhaps not, but within seconds, Alonzo was awake and pointing his six-shooter in their captive’s direction.
“Stand down, Alonzo. Mr. Taylor and I were just finishing a discussion.” She ran fingers through her short hair and adjusted her vest. She was grateful that no one along this route or in San Francisco would give her trouble for dressing like a man. To Alonzo, she said, “I hope we’re nearly there. I’m ready to go home.”
Some hours later, they arrived at the port. Only then was Miranda willing to untie Taylor. Gideon kept his pistol at the ready, assuring everyone that he would have no problem putting a bullet in Taylor’s back were he to try to run. Inside the main building they approached the ticket counter, where Miranda handed over the 175 dollars for passage on a steamship that would sail around Cape Horn on its way to New York.
“You can’t even afford to send me to Panama City?” Jefferson balked.
Miranda rolled her eyes as the man behind the counter chuckled. “That’s another 250 dollars,” he said. “Your lady here doesn’t look like she wants to do you any favors, boyo.”
Miranda shook her head in derision. “I don’t care how you get back. I’ll pay for Cape Horn or nothing.”
Taylor gritted his teeth. He opened his coat and tore at the lining, unearthing a slim billfold. He pulled out nearly a dozen twenty dollar bills and a few tens. There was more left, but Miranda didn’t ask where it had come from, nor did she care. At this point, anything to move the process along would be welcomed. “Panama City,” Taylor demanded as he threw the bills across the counter.
The ticket agent’s eyebrows rose, and he looked between Taylor and Miranda. “I don’t wanna know more, that’s for certain. You’ll have a berth on the last ship leaving this week. Today at half three, so you’ll need to get off your arse and over to Pier 39 right quick.”
Miranda glanced at her own timepiece. They had enough time to make it but could not dawdle.
“Sure you don’t want to try your hand at striking your fortune panning for gold, boyo?” The ticket agent asked, winking at Miranda.
Taylor’s lips peeled back and he bared his teeth for a moment, to the agent’s dismay. “Give me the ticket, man, before I go back there and take it from you.”
The man did as he was told and Taylor swiftly departed.
Under his breath, the ticket agent muttered, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Miranda nodded at the man in agreement. “Indeed.”
The fourth evening of Miranda’s absence, Andy did as she had each night, avoiding dancing and instead holing up in the office. She continued to write, and when Nigel and Lily delivered the earnings, she counted coins and scrawled in the ledger. She saw the unhappiness on both their faces, but she did not ask for company. She remained dissatisfied but pushed forward, staying focused on keeping things running smoothly.
As she settled on her makeshift bed, she heard a faint scratching. Nigel eased open the heavy door, peering into the semi-darkness since Andy had yet to turn down her lamp. “Can I come in?”
“Sure,” Andy said, sitting up and moving over. She brought the lamp to the center of the low table in front of the sofa and motioned for Nigel to take a seat. He did so, lowering himself into the mahogany rocking chair that Andy often sat in if she wanted to watch Miranda as she worked. He gazed at the blanket that rested on her lap and she shrugged.
“Sometimes it’s easier to sleep down here than in my own bed.”
Nigel nodded in understanding. “She should be back any time now,” he reminded her, blinking steadily, as if his eyes were adjusting to the darkness.
“I know.” She looked down at the empty tumbler of whiskey that had been her nightcap. “Want a drink?”
“No. Just felt like some company. Thought you could use some too.”
“Oh.” Andy bobbed her head, but when Nigel didn’t say anything else, she had a hard time keeping from squirming in her seat. She had known that Nigel was probably one of the growing number of people in the Diamond Eye who knew about her relationship with Miranda, but that didn’t make it any easier to handle. “Ho-how are you?” she finally asked.
He grinned at her. “Worried. Maybe almost as much as you. I know Miranda can handle herself. I’ve known her for nearly five years and I’ve watched her deal with drunks, wild animals, love-sick girls--don’t know which of those are more dangerous,” he said with a laugh. “But I still worry. She holds this place together through sheer force of personality. Always has. There aren’t too many women who could show up in a town full of rough men and create what she has. Since Miranda came the Diamond Eye has always felt like the lifeblood of this town. Before it was here, there wasn’t much fun to be had if you weren’t interested in daily hangovers and visits to Miss Delilah’s.”
Andy thought about what life must have been like for Miranda as she rode into this dusty, difficult place. “I don’t think I’d have stayed around without Miranda, that’s for sure,” Andy said. “I wouldn’t have been able to find work.”
“You might have,” Nigel added, tilting his head. “You’re a daring young woman. You’d have found your way.”
“I’m not daring,” she replied with a frown. “Desperate, perhaps.”
“I prefer daring,” Nigel said with finality, so Andy accepted it. “Like Miranda.”
“Oh, I’m nothing like Miranda,” Andy said, shaking her head. “That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Maybe not in personality, but it’s true, kid. You’ve both got an iron will, even if you’re much softer than she ever was. But her heart’s on her sleeve now that you’re here. She was all work and no play for years, and I wanted to tell you how glad I am of it.”
Andy stared stupidly at him, uncertain how to respond. He knew about the two of them, that much was clear, but how should she react? She tried to force a smile. “I--okay. That’s good. I suppose.”
Nigel’s smirk was almost irritating. “See? Iron will. You didn’t even deny it. You always find a way to impress me, Andrea. Or may I call you Andy, now that we know each other a little better?”
“If you like.” Andy slumped back against the couch, wondering how he’d managed to annoy her by talking with her so freely. There was a little twinkle to his eye that bothered her for the first time, but she couldn’t understand why.
“I can see you’re a bit miffed. Don’t be. I just wanted you to know that I know. And when Miranda’s back, tell her I have some ideas about making some architectural changes to the rooms on the east side of the second floor. There’s a fair bit of space we can build out once she decides you need a bit more privacy.” He tilted his head in thought. “Or there’s plenty of room for expansion outside the saloon. I don’t know if she’d want to build a house of her own, but she has quite a large plot of land to build on. There’s certainly space for that, and more.”
That surprised Andy more than anything Nigel had said all night. “Pardon?”
“She can say it’s for your security and no one will say a word, including Trudy, who you seem to have finally won over. Which, by the way, is yet another way you’ve impressed me. She’s prickly, that one, but she’s finally settled in.”
“Uh huh,” Andy breathed. “Thanks, um, I think.”
He laughed then. “You know I was going to go to bed and stare at the ceiling, waiting for Miranda to get back, but what do you say about a game of gin to pass the time? I suspect you probably aren’t sleeping much either.”
That somehow made Andy relax. “Gin sounds good. I know you already turned down a drink, but are you sure?”
“I suppose a little gin with our gin couldn’t hurt,” he reasoned.
Andy smiled and went for the bar cart.
An hour later they emerged into the main room to raid the kitchen, only to find a few of the girls playing cards at one of the tables. Lily was there, as was Trudy and her sweetheart Georgiana, plus Emily and one of the newer dancers, Alexandra. There was a bottle of whiskey on the table nearly half gone, and they were having a grand old time. “Who knew there was a party out here? Andy, we should have gone for a midnight snack a long time ago and joined this soiree.”
There was laughter as Nigel continued into the kitchen to gather bread and cheese and some fruit, while Andy pulled two new chairs up to the table. She’d had more company over the past week than she had in ages, probably because most of her nights were spent exclusively with Miranda. It was nice, though, to feel as though her world was expanding with friends who were on her side. She wondered if perhaps the experience of Jefferson invading the town and pursuing Andy so dramatically had drawn all of them closer together. It was the single benefit of Miranda’s absence, which Andy hoped would end very shortly.
At some point in the middle of the night, the group had gone through a couple of bottles of booze, and Andy had lost nearly all of her earnings for the last two weeks to the lot of them. Cards were definitely not her strong suit, but she still smiled more widely than she had for days. She’d eased off on the whiskey earlier and felt pleasantly warm. Anxiety still nibbled at her stomach, but she tried to maintain good thoughts, since she had little choice in the matter.
Once Lily fell off her chair in a mildly drunken laughing fit, Andy thought it was time for her to pack it in. Everyone else followed her, cleaning up their mess and making their way to their rooms for the night. Andy went to the office and gazed unhappily at the chaise, finally deciding that she would go to Miranda’s room. If she was to try and get some rest, she might as well be comfortable, surrounded by Miranda’s things. So she trudged up the steps and lit a candle as she prepared to sleep. She washed up and folded her dress and underclothes, pulling on one of the clean shifts Miranda had sewn just for her. She slid between the sheets and sighed at the softness. She’d been spoiled by Miranda’s extravagance over the last months, wondering if the sheets on her single bed across the building were this soft or if it was just the thought of her lover that made them seem so luxurious.
She blew out the candle and closed her eyes, saying a prayer as she did every night now for Miranda’s safety and quick return home.
It felt as though she’d only just closed her eyes when she was startled awake by the sound of the door’s hinge squeaking faintly. A vision appeared, lifting her heart and spirits, and she threw the covers off herself to leap into the open arms of Miranda Priestly, come home at last.
Miranda was in no mood to do anything but eat, bathe, kiss Andrea senseless, and sleep for 24 hours, in no particular order. Roy was the only one around to greet her as the sun rose, and he very kindly took her pack and offered her a cup of coffee, which she turned down, and a thick slice of toast with butter and strawberry preserves, which she accepted. She drank as much water as she could and inhaled the toast, grateful to have something substantial in her belly. Once finished, she went to the yard, where she washed up and scrubbed her hair as well as she could. It would have been nice to have a soak in her tub, but that could come later, when she could get some help with the water. Now it would be enough to be clean and comfortable. Her head still felt full of the sound of the horses’ hooves, while her body seemed as though it was still shifting with the motion of the coach.
There was only one more thing she needed to be comforted, so she went in search of her. The office was empty, although there was a blanket on the chaise that meant that Andrea had likely spent a fair few hours sleeping there instead of a proper bed. She frowned but was not surprised. Next she stopped up to poke her head into Andrea’s room, but the bed remained empty. Lily was there asleep, and fortunately she did not stir as Miranda closed the door. That left only one place to look, which was a relief. With a profound sense of exhaustion, Miranda trudged the final steps to her own room, almost unable to complete them. When she stepped inside, she was pleased to see Andrea sprawled across the entire mattress. But she did not have even a moment to peruse her darling, since her lovely eyes opened. Andrea’s expression of joy made Miranda’s heart crack open in happiness, and then they were together, clinging to one another. Miranda could not tell if Andrea was laughing or crying; perhaps it was a bit of both. Andrea kissed her over and over, across her cheeks, eyes, forehead, jaw, before finally discovering her mouth.
Somehow, despite her body’s utter depletion of energy, Miranda found herself responding with ardor, quickly ridding Andrea of her nightdress and her own trousers and overshirt. Her hair was damp as Andrea’s eager fingers ran through it, pushing it away from her face and crying out as their bodies greeted one another with familiar heat and pleasure.
It took only a matter of minutes for their desires to be sated. Miranda slipped her fingers inside Andrea, who clung to her and shivered in a shockingly quick orgasm, followed by a second as thrilling as the first. Then it was Miranda’s turn, and as Andrea pushed her down on the bed and put her mouth between Miranda’s legs, she was intensely grateful she had taken the time to bathe upon her arrival. But judging by her eagerness, she doubted that would have kept Andrea from her. Miranda’s eyes rolled back as gentle, soft hands slid along her skin, setting her nerves aflame. Andrea’s tongue brought her to the peak and followed her over the edge, and she came down as Andrea crawled up and into her arms.
The curtains were fortunately drawn, and although she seemed reluctant to move from Miranda’s side, Andrea reached beneath them to pull the sheet and coverlet over the two of them. Finally, she settled into Miranda’s arms once more, where she belonged.
She looked up, her eyes almost amber in the faint light of the room. “Welcome home,” she said with a grin.
Miranda laughed, and held her tightly.
A few minutes later, Andrea reluctantly climbed from the bed and pulled her clothes on, determined to help Miranda feel more like herself. She had decided that a bath was in order and would not take no for an answer. Miranda realized she’d better get dressed herself, otherwise whoever Andrea would wrangle to help with the tub's precious water would get an eyeful.
Once dressed in the clothes she'd discarded, she fixed the bed so it didn't look quite as though she'd just been ravished atop it. She lay down on the soft cotton coverlet, unable to force herself to descend the steps and offer her assistance. The muscles of her lower back ached terribly, and even after a wonderful orgasm, her head pounded. Worse than that, with her eyes closed, her stomach rolled with something akin to seasickness. Although she had not intended to, she dozed as she waited. Eventually, she was roused from a dream by the sound of footsteps outside her room. A soft knock followed. “Miranda?” Andrea whispered through the door.
“Come in,” she replied.
Andrea was smiling as she herself carried a pail of water. Roy and Geoff were right behind her, hauling their own larger pails between them. Quickly Andrea lined the tub with a sheet so Miranda's skin would not be burned by the water once it heated the metal. Then they were off again, and while Miranda felt some modicum at guilt for not moving from her position, she was too tired to do more.
Within five minutes the tub was filled to Andrea’s satisfaction, and she dumped a cup of what looked like table salt in the water and swirled it around. Next came sprigs of rosemary, undoubtedly cut from the shrubs just behind the kitchen. Roy merely nodded once at Miranda before departing; he looked distinctly uncomfortable in his employer’s private space. But Geoff held out a hand to Miranda as she hoisted herself up and into his warm embrace.
“Glad to have you home, Miranda. Everything go as planned?” he asked pointedly.
She nodded. “It did. I don’t expect we shall see Mr. Taylor again. Assuming he knows what’s good for him.”
“Good, good,” he said, rubbing his hands together. "Now I'm sure you’ll be wanting to get right back to the job, but Andy here’s kept the place running like clockwork since you’ve been gone. No need to hurry back. Get some shut-eye today and we’ll do the rest. All right?” he asked.
With a great deal of relief, Miranda acquiesced with a bob of her head. “Thank you, Geoff. As always, I don’t know what I’d do without you.” She smiled at him warmly, and he glanced over at Andrea once before taking his leave.
Andrea closed the door after him and locked it. “Come along then and I’ll help you into the tub.”
Miranda, for once, did as she was told. She allowed Andrea to once again undress her, although it was much simpler to unbutton her men’s shirt and doff her trousers than it would have been had she been wearing her typical garb. She thought perhaps she could bring men’s fashion to women of the 19th century if she set her mind to it.
Once naked, Miranda reached for Andrea’s blouse, to her surprise. “The bath is for you, Miranda.”
“And you are for me, darling. Please join me?”
Strangely shy after all their intimacies, Andrea agreed, shedding her things as rapidly as Miranda had. In a moment, Miranda sighed as she stretched out in the tub, and Andrea managed to nestle between her legs in the narrow space. As she leaned back, Miranda enjoyed the scent of her hair, and the rosemary in the water. It felt enormously decadent to recline in this most exceptional of creature comforts in the privacy of her room. She rarely bathed in this tub, primarily because she did not care to ask for help in filling it. When she’d had it put in, she did not see her compatriots at the Diamond Eye as anything more than the hired help. Geoff was an exception, but the rest were employees. It was nothing to demand two or three sets of hands to heat the water and bring it upstairs. Now, though, it was an imposition. Everyone at the saloon felt like family. Especially the remarkable woman in her arms.
“Thank you for doing this, Andrea. It feels absolutely wonderful.”
Andrea stroked her forearm, her cheek pressed to Miranda’s clavicle. “It does.”
There, in the silence of the morning, she told Andrea of the journey, leaving nothing out. Andrea was stunned to hear the story of Jefferson’s father; she clearly had no inkling of his problems with gambling or debt. “I suppose I understand,” Andrea said, “but there had to be another way for Mr. Taylor to solve his troubles. It’s certainly a lot of effort to send his son across the country to find me, when there was no telling whether or not he’d be successful.”
“Mm,” Miranda hummed, “very true. But if he had been, he’d have not only someone to cancel his debts, but another solvent financial resource to keep him afloat. Your father would have been obligated to keep his secret, since your families would be connected. I imagine you would have been saddled with a very large, very public wedding.”
Andrea shivered in her arms. “No thank you. I’m very happy to be here, living in sin with you for as long as I live,” she murmured. Only a few seconds later, Miranda felt her stiffen, registering the words she’d just spoken. “Uh, or, you know, for as long as you’ll have me.”
Miranda danced her fingertips along Andrea's chest, pleased that her devotion was matched. “Is that a proposal?” she teased.
Andrea sat forward in the tub and turned around. The sun had risen, and though the curtains were drawn, Miranda could see the unwavering stillness of Andrea’s expression with perfect clarity. “I’d ask you to marry me, if I could.”
The air between them was charged. Even in her exhaustion, Miranda knew that this moment would forever change things for them. There would be no uncertainty to their commitment, not now that it had been spoken aloud. “I’d say yes.”
Andrea only blinked, her face unchanged except for that small movement. “Oh?”
“Mm-hmm,” she replied.
She exhaled, biting her lip with a charming half-smile. “Then I guess you’re it for me,” Andrea said, settling back down. She drew Miranda’s arm up between her breasts, kissing the knuckles of her left hand with tenderness.
“That sounds just fine,” Miranda said, closing her eyes.
Chapter 11: Epilogue: The Match
SIXTEEN MONTHS LATER
The new house still smelled mildly of paint so Andy kept the windows cracked when Miranda was over at the Diamond Eye. Even after a month, it still struck her as odd to be in the house alone; she continuously had to remind herself that the house was not just Miranda’s, but theirs. Ours, she thought. Andy had insisted on putting her own money into it, even when Miranda had declared that it wasn’t necessary. Miranda had started out with far more to her name than Andy would likely ever earn, but Andy didn’t want to feel like she was taking advantage. Just knowing that some part of the wood, the paint, the labor, had been paid for by her own hard work was enough to ease Andy’s mind.
She hadn’t made a lot of money from the book of stories she’d written, but receiving that first check from the royalties was one of the best things to happen to her in a long time. She’d handed over almost all of it to Miranda, keeping back enough to be able to acquire Christmas presents for the ones she loved this December. She’d hidden all her little packages in her writing room, where there was a closet that Miranda had installed only for Andy's things. She still had very few personal possessions, even after nearly two years in California, but everything in that cupboard was all hers. The writing room also held a bed, in case they had nosy neighbors. That said, since the ruckus with Jefferson, just about everyone in town had come to understand that Miranda and Andy were some sort of pair, but nobody looked at them sideways. Either way, the extra bed would be handy if they had out of town visitors.
The girls from the Diamond Eye had all been relocated too, into a new building designed just for them. Miranda did not require them to stay there, but most of the girls who breezed into town and found work on the stage or the dance floor had nowhere else to go. It was a haven for newcomers as well as those who had been around for years. The freedom of income allowed these women more choice and independence than most of them had ever had in their lives.
The Diamond Eye had evolved too, with the small rooms the girls had once occupied converted into proper guest quarters for out of town travelers. Sometime in the previous year, word began to spread of an exciting tourist attraction, equipped with gambling tables, nightly performances, delicious food, and comfortable lodging. With the sharp uptick in visitors, Miranda had realized right away this was what she’d been waiting for. She'd jumped at the chance to develop the land she’d purchased long ago into something she’d envisioned for some time. The town’s residents had achieved gainful employment opportunities as well. After one-too-many late nights in the office, Miranda finally hired a business-minded second in command. Already part of the Diamond Eye family, Evie’s husband Lawrence turned out to be an excellent hire, managing the nightly earnings, not to mention payroll for their additional staff like cooks, cleaners, bartenders, and more.
As for Lily, she still thought she might marry Henry one day, but she also wanted to be able to provide for herself and her man if she could. When she had asked for the chance to try something new, Miranda agreed. After hovering at Miranda’s side during daily duties for a couple of months, they both decided her skills would be best utilized in the newly-needed realm of hospitality. Lily took care of all their out of towners, making sure they were comfortable in their rooms and the town. She'd only recently taken on overseeing the staff who tended to the guest quarters and the rest of the saloon as well. She’d started out with some trepidation, but her intelligence, natural confidence, and easy-going personality shone through right away. Miranda had confided in Andy that hiring Lily was one of the best things she’d done in ages, and not just because she had lifted an enormous burden from Miranda’s shoulders. She could trust Lily, who needed almost no direction once she got the hang of things.
As much as Miranda had resisted, she finally recognized they needed to add a full-time restaurant staff to the roster as well. Geoffrey was the easy choice to head up the kitchen, with wife Marian at his side. Roy still tended bar in a pinch, but his unofficial security position became official when newcomers started to flood the bar every night. It was simple enough to do both jobs when it was just miners and locals, but those days were over. Now he stood sentry at the door each night and made sure everyone went home in one piece.
And while on the surface Nigel’s position had not changed significantly, he was doing more for Miranda privately than most knew. He had been the one to help Miranda decorate all the new guest rooms as well as the girls’ quarters. He could also run a sewing machine better than anyone Andy had ever seen. He’d stitched every curtain, every tablecloth, and every bedspread in the place. Andy had been thrilled to realize he could also make clothes and that he was responsible for a few of the more elegant pieces in Miranda’s wardrobe. She hoped he’d make something for her someday when the time was right.
But for now, nearly all of Andy’s clothes (and underclothes) were designed and handmade by Miranda. Considering her head for business, Miranda had remarkable creativity. Of course, taking Andy’s measurements (that rarely changed) tended to be a favorite activity whenever it was time to make something new. With so much help around the saloon, not to mention the money pouring in every night, they each had the luxury of time. Time for choosing material, for fittings, for dressing, and especially for undressing. Andy had never thought of the subject of clothing or fashion to be particularly romantic, but it had turned out to be a hobby she thoroughly enjoyed.
Beyond that, having someone else keeping the saloon’s books meant that Andy had more opportunity to write. She’d taken the story she’d begun when Miranda had “escorted” Jefferson to San Francisco and turned it into a novella. Other stories followed soon after, and by the end of the year she had something worth showing around. Naturally, Miranda had connections in the publishing world, so they’d traveled to San Fransisco together for a few meetings. Miranda had read Andy’s work and approved, to Andy’s incredible relief. She did ask for some minor changes to her novella, since she’d recognized their love story even in the platonic friendship between the two lead characters. Andy didn’t mind a bit and thought the changes made the story even stronger.
The publishers she’d met agreed, and by the time they left Andy had made a deal with three hundred dollars in her pocket and a healthy percentage of the residuals. Having Miranda at her side had made it so much easier; she would have had no idea what her work was worth if not for her presence. They’d celebrated with a night’s stay at an extravagant hotel, where Miranda had ravished her within an inch of her life.
Now Andy felt more confidence in her writing than ever; the royalty checks had gotten larger rather than smaller since publication. Just last month, the publisher had requested new work as soon as possible, since there had been an outpouring of interest from readers. Inspired, lately she spent most days writing the afternoon away and evenings lending a hand wherever one was needed at the Diamond Eye. She sang occasionally, danced less, and learned to run both the blackjack tables and roulette wheels. Then at night she would meet Miranda in the cozy bedroom of their little house, where they would sleep, and talk, and make love.
Somehow, she had made the life she had always wanted. It was not perfect every moment of every day, of course; she and Miranda had their disagreements, like any couple. But somehow even those arguments made Andy feel even more like she had found her place in the world, as part of a pair that could get angry, fight things out, and make up. She liked the last part the best, and she knew for a fact that Miranda did too.
From the desk of her writing room on the second floor, Andy gazed out on the vista of mountains and valleys in the distance. It was cold today as the sun set, and she pulled the warm blanket around her shoulders more tightly. She had done well this afternoon but was distracted by thoughts of the new year fast approaching. Christmas was only a few days away, and soon this most wonderful year would come to an end. She hoped the new one would bring as much happiness and satisfaction as this one had.
“Andrea!” Miranda called out, holding what appeared to be a precious piece of correspondence in her hands. “I’m home.”
She heard the scrape of a chair overhead; that was good news. It meant Andrea was writing, which meant Miranda would have a very pleasant evening indeed. She’d left Lily in charge of the restaurant tonight, and their guest rooms were all full. Life was good.
Andrea greeted her with a happy smile, her hair wild and flowing down her shoulders. She had a blanket around her, which reminded Miranda that she should set a fire before they had their dinner. “Hi. Everything go well?”
“Very much so. Geoff is outdoing himself. Also I learned that Emily has been baking pies for the last three months in the kitchens. Did you have any idea she could cook?” She removed her heavy coat and draped it on the rack near the front door. “Good lord, it’s freezing in here.”
"I had heard about Emily but I wasn't sure how it was going, but I'm not surprised." Andrea headed to the windows along the wall of their comfortable living room and closed them all in quick succession. “I keep thinking I smell paint. Sorry.”
Miranda rolled her eyes. “It’s been over a month, darling. It smells perfectly lovely, especially with the tree.” In the corner stood a young sugar pine, draped with ribbons and popcorn strung by Andrea and their large group of friends a few days earlier. They’d sat by the fire sipping mulled wine, and when Miranda had returned home the noise was so raucous she was relieved their home was far enough away from town that Sheriff Jones hadn’t paid them a visit. “I’ll light a fire, in any case.”
“I have some soup on. Are you hungry?”
“Famished.” Before she began, she handed over the letter. “Nigel picked this up today. It’s for you.”
Andrea gazed at the note for a moment before putting a hand to her mouth. “Oh my gosh, it’s from Charlotte! It’s been months since her last letter.” She tore the envelope open and raced to sit by the small oil lamp lit at the kitchen table.
Miranda gathered her skirt and knelt in front of the stone fireplace. It was the centerpiece of their entire home, designed with Andrea and the lifetime they would share in mind. As she stacked the wood in the grate, she enjoyed the sounds of exclamation Andrea made as she read. Her habit was to devour the letters that arrived from her sister once, then again, then she would deliver all the most interesting points to Miranda. Tonight, Miranda expected to hear the salient points as they ate their supper of soup and bread and tea by the fire before retiring upstairs.
Soon the fire blazed beautifully. Andrea was still reading, so Miranda slipped up the steps to change her dress for night clothes and warmest robe. December in their California town was occasionally pleasant in the day, but freezing overnight. It was nothing compared to Boston winters, but snow capped the nearby mountains and dusted (sometimes buried) their streets until spring.
By the time she had returned, Andrea had set the small table near the fireplace with two bowls of steaming vegetable soup and hearty hunks of bread and butter. “Ready,” Andrea declared, and Miranda joined her with immense contentment.
As she inhaled the scents of pine and spices and fresh bread, she marveled at the life she had created with Andrea. It felt a bit silly to allow the year’s end to bring on a unique combination of sweetness and melancholy, but still, she felt suffused by the comforts of a good fire and the best company. “And how is your dear Charlotte?”
Andrea could barely wait to begin. “She’s engaged! She joined an abolitionist group in the summer and fell in love with one of the printsetters from ‘The Liberator.’ They haven’t set a date but I wonder if they’ll sneak off and elope. My parents are relieved she didn’t end up with someone unsavory.”
“‘The Liberator.’ I’m impressed,” Miranda said.
“I know. She’s become very involved in the movement, which just goes to show how much I know. When we were young, she never seemed to care much about anything except marrying well and having children. She’s matured quite a lot since I’ve been gone.” Andrea looked into the fire, lost in memories. “She’s changed so much and I haven’t been part of any of it.”
Miranda pressed a hand to Andrea’s arm. “You are part of it, whether you’re there or not. You’re in touch. She knows you’ve made yourself an independent life here. I expect that’s had some influence.”
Andrea shrugged. “Perhaps.” She turned to Miranda. “She said they may here someday. Thomas, that’s her fiance, has always wanted to see the west. Right now they have too much work to do, but who knows? Maybe they’ll visit us. I think she would like it here.” She smiled thoughtfully. “I think she’d like you too. She’d be a bit scandalized, but she’d be thrilled as well. She’s become quite the rabble rouser.”
“I approve,” Miranda said. “We need more people like her to fight for the cause.”
Andrea nodded. “Speaking of scandal, the Taylors have finally pulled up stakes and left Boston.”
Miranda straightened in her seat. “Pardon?”
“Well, you remember Jefferson returned home last year with a very well-to-do-wife that he somehow acquired on his sail back to Boston, right?”
“Mm,” Miranda replied noncommittally.
“Eventually the wife realized that she’d been hoodwinked into a marriage for money. Her father came to her rescue and they had the marriage annulled, which left the Taylors short on just about all their debts. Word got out about the gambling and people started to talk. Then one night in August, Father woke up to go on his Sunday morning constitutional and realized that the Taylor house had been abandoned. They disappeared in the middle of the night. The entire house had been cleared out and no one even noticed.” Andrea sipped her tea, deep in thought. “I feel sorry for them.”
Miranda scoffed. “I don’t.” In fact, sometimes she wondered if she should have killed Taylor after all. Then she wouldn’t have to worry that one day, he might return to cause them trouble. But she had to put that out of her mind. She had vanquished Jefferson Taylor once, she could do it again. He was nothing special, after all. Not a monster, but a weak man who had tried to take her happiness away. She would not waste any more time thinking about him, but she would always be prepared nevertheless. She made herself a mental note to speak to Roy tomorrow. Just in case.
“Anyway, no one knows where they’ve gone. Gossip is that they’ve headed to Europe on one of the ships that depart from Boston. Hopefully Jefferson doesn’t take advantage of any unsuspecting widows on their journey.”
“Absolutely not," Miranda agreed. "Any other news of interest?”
“Mother and Father are both well. Mother asked after me when Charlotte received my last letter. She seems pleased that I’ve done well here.” Andrea finished her soup and leaned back in her comfortable chair. “Father hasn’t asked, but Charlotte says he may be coming around. That’s something. I know I’m a disappointment but I hope they can still, one day, love me a little.”
Miranda pushed her bowl away and leaned over to take Andrea’s hand. “They love you. I know they haven’t stopped.” With a smile and a kiss to Andrea’s cheek, she whispered, “I couldn’t stop loving you. Even if you ran off to the other side of the country with all my money.”
When Andrea laughed, Miranda felt the relief of easing her beloved’s mind. “I didn’t take all their money, just the tiniest bit. And they got it all back!” Andrea met her eyes and bit her lip. “I wouldn’t run away from you, Miranda Priestly. Not ever.” She leaned in for a kiss, warm and soft.
“I should hope not,” Miranda quipped. “It would be my greatest disappointment.”
With a chuckle, Andrea kissed her a second time. “Not a chance. I love our home. It makes me so happy to be with you here. Happier than I’ve ever been.”
Sighing, Miranda stroked Andrea’s cheek. “I feel the same.”
“Let’s wash up and go upstairs,” Andrea said, biting her lip again. Her eyes were dark as the fire reflected in them.
Miranda felt a frisson of desire; they hadn’t had much time together for the last few days. “Let’s hurry.”
Later, after they’d loved each other well into the night, Andrea lay quiet in her arms. Miranda had banked the fire downstairs and turned down the lamps. The candles next to the bed glowed as they burned to almost nothing. Thoughts of the coming Christmas brought to mind the silver rings she’d purchased in San Francisco. Would she wait till Christmas morning or offer her gift on Christmas Eve? She had not decided the specifics but knew it would be soon. Perhaps she would wait for Christmas morning to dawn, so they could begin the day together with a tangible sign of their union.
“What are you thinking of?” Andrea asked, just as one of the candles winked out. “You seem so serious.”
Miranda ran gentle fingers through her hair, remembering. “Something you said to me once, a long time ago.” I’d ask you to marry me, if I could.
“What was it?”
Miranda shook her head with a laugh. “I can’t tell you.”
“Why not?” Andrea asked.
“Then your Christmas gift wouldn’t be a surprise.”
“Ooh,” Andrea cooed. “I love surprises.”
“I hope you'll like this one.”
Andrea's knees bumped against hers. “I’d like anything you give me.” There was a pause. “Don’t you want to tell me now?” she pleaded.
For a moment, Miranda was tempted. Very. But she knew Andrea would appreciate the anticipation and the reward at the end of it. She did not even question that her gift would be received with delight. “You’ll have to wait. Just a few more days.”
“Oh, fine.” Andrea snuggled down in their bed, huffing in exaggerated dismay. “I suppose it’s something to look forward to.”
“Yes.” Miranda turned Andrea’s face toward hers when the second candle went out. “Good night, my darling. I love you.”
“I love you, too.” As their lips met, she felt Andrea’s smile against her own.