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Cyrus never thought he’d see Emily again—and certainly not as a madam. But when their paths cross again, he’s not going to let the only woman he’s ever loved get away from him. But someone’s out to destroy Cyrus and, as Mistress, Emily has the power to keep him safe. When she tries to send Cyrus away, will he go or will he fight for her?
January 2017 | ISBN: 978-1-941097-24-3
Free Cyrus Franklin sat at the scarred table wedged into his tiny kitchen, staring in shock at the note Isaac had just handed him. He looked up at the silent giant of a man. “Is this true?”
Isaac shrugged. Cyrus had a feeling that the man actually could talk—he just chose not to. His reasons were his own.
“And the letter was just delivered?”
Just to be sure, Cyrus read it a third time.
Mistress bought a girl. Young. She’s keeping her at the Jeweled Ladies.
The note wasn’t signed.
There had to be a mistake. The woman that the rest of Brimstone knew as Mistress would never buy another person. She especially would not buy a little girl. It went against everything she had ever believed.
At least, it went against everything Emily Weatherspoon believed. But then again, Cyrus didn’t know her as well as he once had. He never would’ve figured she’d have wound up as a madam of a brothel. She’d married a preacher, for God’s sake.
Emily Weatherspoon had been the staunchest of abolitionists, a loud voice in the middle of the deep South, pushing not just for slaves rights, not just for colored rights, but also for women’s rights. Even Indian rights. Everyone was equal in her eyes. And more than anything, the girl that Cyrus had known abhorred slavery.
He read the note again.
What he needed was more information. There had to be something else in play here. Cyrus couldn’t countenance how running a whorehouse had changed Emily over the years. But he couldn’t imagine her sinking to this level. She didn’t need the money.
Desperately, he wanted to believe that this was an act of goodness and not one of depravity. The Emily he knew would take a girl in and clothe and feed her. The Emily he knew would protect a child from…
Well, from the likes of Mistress, the most famous whore in Texas.
It hurt his heart to think that this could be anything other than a misunderstanding. Mistress was not the same woman he’d known. She refused to give up that brothel of hers. She refused to stop selling girls to men, one hour at a time. She refused to follow the path of righteous honor that she had always insisted she would.
Another thought occurred to him. What if this wasn’t just a sign of her slipping further into depravity? What if this was a sign that she was in trouble in some other way? He knew that she was safe in that house of hers—but he worried. He had no right, but he worried anyway.
Emily Weatherspoon had made it clear that she was not Cyrus’s concern and he was not hers.
Which was all well and good to say, but that didn’t make it any less true. No matter how much time had passed or how many miles they’d travelled, he and Emily always seemed to come back to one another.
Just like it did every time he thought of her, Cyrus’s body tightened. As Mistress, Emily was one of the finest ladies in town, maybe the state. The clothes she wore put her body to its best advantage. It wasn’t the body Cyrus remembered, but it was an amazing body. She made those clothes and jewels look so damn good.
More than once, he’d saddled his horse and stowed some money in a saddlebag, intent on riding to town and buying an hour—or a night—of her time. Maybe he’d lay her out on her fine bed and plunge his body into hers over and over again until they were both spent and sated. Then he’d take her again—this time, with her on top, riding him wildly, those beautiful breasts of hers freed from their silk trappings for him to touch and suck and bite.
God, there were so many ways he wanted her. She’d been his every fantasy since he’d been old enough to imagine the sexual act as something to enjoy with another person and every day that slipped past with them not talking, not even acknowledging each other was another day those fantasies burned in a bonfire of frustration.
Those were the bad nights, the ones where his whole body was an instrument of torture that would never seem to end. Taking himself in hand didn’t do much but edge the pain back to manageable levels. On the better nights, he saddled up with better intent. He’d walk into the Jeweled Ladies and pay his money to get her alone and then they’d…they’d talk. They used to talk all the time, when he could slip away from his chores. About nothing and everything. First she’d taught him to read and then she’d snuck him books—books she’d already read, so they could debate the finer points of Ivanhoe or Shakespeare or the Bible. He’d give anything to just sit next to her, his arm around her shoulder, and have her talk to him like she used to. Had she read Dickens? He thought she’d like Dickens. Or Scott. Or…
Or anything, as long as they talked. As long as he knew she remembered him.
Either way, with coin in hand, she wouldn’t be able to refuse him, would she?
But that was the thought that always stopped him cold. He loved her, he lusted after her, he worried about her—but he wouldn’t take her if she couldn’t refuse him.
And thus far, she had refused him completely. The last time he’d seen her across the street, she hadn’t even smiled at him. It was almost as if he hadn’t been there.
He rubbed his palm over the center of his chest and looked up at Isaac, trying to see what he was missing. “That woman who came through a few days ago—she had a lot of money.”
“You think she sold the girl?”
Isaac twisted his face up. Clearly, the man thought it was a possibility.
Damn. Cyrus’s place was something of a way station. If the Underground Railroad had still existed, he would be a conductor. But just because that railroad didn’t run anymore didn’t mean there weren’t a lot of people moving around, some who needed a little more help than others.
Cyrus didn’t want to go to town. The last time he had done so, he had been arrested on some trumped-up charge and thrown into the lockup before he’d even caught a glimpse of Emily. As night had fallen, he had faced the fact that this could be his end. Black men disappeared all the time—who would miss him? Obviously, Isaac and all the people who relied on Free Cyrus Franklin’s home for a starting place for the better life—they’d note his absence. But none of those people have the power to do anything about him being in jail. The only person who could have helped him was Emily and, as terrified as he had been that his life would be over before dawn, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to put her in harm’s way.
He knew that people didn’t like him. He was a black man who didn’t bow and scrape to anyone and a lot of people thought he needed to be put in his place. In the seven years he had lived outside Brimstone, hundreds of people had spent a night or a week or a month at his place and there were plenty of people in town who didn’t appreciate the kind of folks who sought him out.
No one had been more surprised than Cyrus had been when the sheriff himself had unlocked the cell door around three in the morning and told him to get out. Even more surprising had been the fact that no one had been waiting for Cyrus outside, ready to make him disappear while leaving the sheriff with clean hands.
Cyrus was not a coward. But he had a healthy respect for the situation and he hadn’t been back to Brimstone since. He had no desire to get lynched.
Besides, Emily had made it plain—she did not want to see him. He was nothing but painful reminder of her past life. He was a threat to her for one reason and one reason alone—he knew who she was. No one else in town knew her name. She was Mistress. She had no past and no future, no history. She existed in the moment—that’s what she had said to him when he’d found her.
Not for the first time, he thought about leaving. Brimstone wasn’t a safe place for him. Emily wouldn’t even look at him. The urge to get out and see the world that—at one time—he had never even known existed was strong. He hated being rooted in one place, feeling trapped and hopeless.
But he hadn’t left yet. Not while she was still in Brimstone. Everything he was, every good deed he’d ever done—it was all because of that woman.
He stared the note again. Everything he was, was because of the woman she had been. Maybe it was time to admit that he didn’t know the woman she’d become.
He could not sit by in the safety of the shadows while she sold a child. Either there was something about the situation he didn’t know or…
Or she needed to be stopped. And, as Mistress, no one would stop her except for Cyrus. She was too powerful.
Really, there was only one thing to do.
“Isaac, saddle up my horse. I’m going to town.”
At the end of another long—but profitable—night, Emily looked in on Dolly around three in the morning. She’d gotten into this habit the very first night the girl had been here and even though it’d been a week, Emily seemed helpless to stop.
Dolly was curled up into a tight ball in the middle of Emily’s bed, visible only because her black hair stuck out against the white silk pillowcases. Dolly didn’t stir when Emily closed the door behind her and moved to the edge of the bed.
Emily was not a motherly person. She never had been and the Lord had not seen fit to bless her short marriage to Phineas Weatherspoon with children—a fact for which she daily gave thanks. But looking at this little girl did things to her—things she didn’t like. She felt an overwhelming urge to protect Dolly at all costs. Which was ridiculous.
She cared about all of her girls. She rescued women from desperate straits and gave them choices that they never would have had otherwise. Although everyone seemed to operate under the assumption that every woman who came to the Jeweled Ladies wound up working on her back, in fact the opposite was true. For every Jewel—every woman who gave up her name and learned to sell her body for money under Emily’s tutelage—there were another four or five who didn’t.
Some simply weren’t capable of being the refined, beautiful women men paid top dollar for. Like Gloria today, they’d been permanently scarred or otherwise used too hard by life. They couldn’t bear to let a man touch them.
Those women chose to be washerwomen or maids or cooks, teachers or governesses. Emily found them positions in good homes or she found them good jobs—jobs that would pay them an honest wage, enough they could live on. Emily also found husbands for them, men who needed a farm wife or a mother for their children. Sometimes, she fronted the money so they could open their own shops.
She brushed Dolly’s hair back from her face. Dolly sighed in her sleep and Emily was almost overcome with emotion. Her father had sired a few bastards when he’d raped his slaves. Dolly looked like Emily remembered her half-sisters had looked.
Junie and Liza—they had been her younger sisters, similar in so many ways, just darker. Emily had shared everything when Emily’s parents hadn’t been looking. The girls were supposed to be Emily’s servants but she had never treated them like that. They were her friends. And against her father’s wishes, she’d taught her sisters to read
When her father had found out what Emily had done, he’d sold the girls.
Emily wiped her eyes. It had been a while since she’d tried to find them. Maybe it was time to hire a Pinkerton agent again. Yes, that was a good solution.
But she’d no sooner decided on that than another image crowded into her mind, unwanted.
If only she and Cyrus could have found a way…Dolly could have been theirs.
For a moment, she allowed herself to dream of that other life. She and Cyrus would have had to live somewhere remote, where judging eyes wouldn’t see a white woman and a colored man living as husband and wife. A plot of land, a family, her sisters—if she could find them…they could have been happy.
But it would have been a hard life. No hot running water. No fine china, no fine meals. Money would have been tight. They would have been at the mercy of anyone who decided they didn’t deserve to live their lives.
She would have had to put herself at the mercy of men again and she was never doing that.
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