Prickly and difficult, spinster schoolmarm Minerva Krenshaw hides behind her shabby dresses and sad bonnet. She’s used to being invisible—until Miss Ebony White catches her eye.
Abigail Whithall escaped an abusive apprenticeship and is saving all her money from working at the Jeweled Ladies for her own dress shop. But more than the latest styles, she needs respectability—and to learn how to read. She offers to sew new clothes for the most respectable Minerva in exchange for reading lessons. Will Minerva give in to the passion Ebony promises—or will she go back on her word?
January 2017 | ISBN: 978-1941097243
Print ISBN: 978-1941097298
“She is lovely, isn’t she?”
The sound of the voice—soft and conversational—jolted Miss Minerva Krenshaw back to herself. Shame burned at the back of her neck, but she hid it behind a frown—a frown directed at the beautiful, young colored woman who was one of the Jewels of the local brothel, the Jeweled Ladies. “I am merely making sure that none of my pupils are anywhere near those…”
As Minerva swung around to face the person to whom she was speaking, the words ‘whores’ died on her tongue because she found herself face to face with none other than the madam of the Jewels herself, Mistress.
Mistress—if ever there was a time Minerva wished she knew the name of this woman, it was now—stood in the dry-goods store in Brimstone, Texas, looking comically out of place. She lifted an eyebrow as if to dare Minerva to finish that sentence.
“…Those girls,” Minerva finished weakly. She needed to escape this conversation immediately. Her position as the schoolteacher in this town rested on her reputation remaining completely unimpeachable and being seen in conversation with the infamous madam was the quickest way to impeach anyone’s reputation—especially a spinster schoolmarm who might have just been caught staring at a soiled dove.
“Miss…Krenshaw, is it?” Mistress said, politeness dripping off of every single syllable. “You’re the schoolteacher, aren’t you?”
Minerva swallowed. “That is correct.”
Mistress’s eyes swept over Minerva’s dyed brown wool dress, buttoned firmly up to her chin. Aside from her face, not a single inch of Minerva’s skin showed. Her gloves were worn kid-leather, but they still served. Self-consciously, she tugged her equally threadbare shawl around her shoulders. No one ever looked at her like Mistress was looking at her now. Their eyes always slid over her as if she blended in with the background.
Which, of course, she did. Her braided hair was hidden under a shapeless bonnet. Her face was plain and her eyes the same dull brown as her hair. Her only adornments were her two most prized possessions—her spectacles and the watch fob pinned to her dress. There was nothing about her that caught the eye. No one’s eyes had ever caught before.
Except for now. Mistress’s leisurely appraisal of Minerva’s person was unnerving. The woman was stunningly beautiful. Everywhere Minerva was plain and brown, Mistress sparkled and shined. Underneath the broad brim of her swooping hat—in and of itself a work of art made of peacock feathers and velvet—her hair must have taken two attendants to arrange thusly. Gems glittered at her ears, her neck and her gloved wrists. The expanse of her bosom was smooth as peaches and cream and, for one maddening moment, Minerva actually lifted her hand to see if that skin felt as pretty as it looked. Everything about Mistress was designed to catch the eye.
Minerva had never felt so plain in all her life.
Mistress favored her with a warm smile. “I couldn’t help but see that you had noticed Miss White,” she said, nodding toward the young woman that Minerva had been unable to tear her gaze from.
Miss White—an ill-fitting name for the young colored woman. Her skin was a soft brown, like coffee with the luxury of cream in it. She was wearing a black dress that could have been demure—if not for the cut of the velvet, the way it draped over and outlined all the curves of her body.
“Her dress,” Minerva said stiffly, desperately trying to sound disapproving. “It’s indecent.” But she had looked—and been caught staring like a lovesick puppy. “I am just making sure that none of my pupils are about to witness such…” Against her will, she glanced back over at Miss White, at the expanse of bosom so very visible, a set of jet stones nestled against her throat. “Indecency.”
“Yes,” Mistress murmured, looking extraordinarily pleased with herself. “As you said.”
Minerva ground her teeth. “And what are you all doing here?” Because in addition to Miss White and Mistress, there were three other soiled doves, all crowded around a young Native woman as the shopkeeper unrolled bolt after bolt of brown and red fabrics. “Such an outing is uncalled for. The children, you know.”
Mistress’s lips twitched. “I have a new Jewel, Miss Krenshaw.” She nodded toward the cluster. “I’m thinking of calling her Sienna Brown.”
Minerva scoffed before she could stop herself. “Really, Madam, I had credited you with, if not morals, then at least intelligence.”
Mistress arched an eyebrow at Minerva. “Indeed?”
“Sienna is not a gem. It is a color.” She watched Miss White drapw a length of rust-colored fabric over the Native girl’s shoulders. “And it will wash her out.”
Mistress followed Minerva’s gaze. “But do I dare take fashion advice from the local schoolmarm?”
“I beg your pardon,” Minerva said stiffly. “I am dressed appropriately for my station.”
Mistress’s lips twitched again and Minerva had the distinctive feeling she was being mocked. “What do you recommend?”
“I recommend you turn that young lady over to the care of a church,” she snapped. “I cannot condone you corrupting another innocent in your mindless pursuit of money.” But even as she said it, her eyes turned back to the cluster of doves. The young Native woman—she was looking shy as Miss White and the others fussed over her.
Upon closer inspection, Minerva saw something else—the dark bruises fading along her jaw, the girl’s inability to smile—or even open her mouth. She gasped when she realized that someone had badly beaten the girl.
“Ah, you see?” Mistress said, her voice soft and gentle and seductive. Against her every wish, Minerva’s body responded of its own accord. “I am not the one that corrupted that girl. And she would rather die than go back to a church.” Minerva swung around in horror to find Mistress looking down at her with as much severity as Minerva had ever seen. “I am merely teaching that girl she is worth something. Something more.”
“You’re putting a price on her body. On her soul.” Mistress couldn’t really be saying what Minerva thought she was saying—could she?
Mistress gave her a pitying look. “Better to be paid for it than have it taken by force. Yes, if she chooses, she will work on her back for me. But I will give her freedoms she’s never thought possible. Prestige. Safety. Security.”
Minerva’s hot cheeks got even hotter. “Sinners, all of you,” was all she could say.
“Indeed,” Mistress murmured. “But Miss Brown is not why I sought you out today, Miss Krenshaw.”
“Don’t call her that.” Minerva was beyond snappish right now, but when she was feeling trapped, she always reverted back to snappishness. It was, in large measure, what made her a successful teacher.
“I value your opinion,” Mistress all but cooed. She knew that she was winning this conversation with Minerva.
They both did. “Call her…” Her mind spun. “I do not know which tribe she hails from, but some of those tribes to the west—they like that blue stone the color of the sky.” She glanced back at the covey of doves and saw that Miss White had her hand on a bolt of robin’s-egg blue fabric. “Call her Turquoise Sky and dress her in blues. It’s not a gem but it’s a stone and it’s a far sight better than brown.”
Mistress’s eyes crinkled appreciatively and Minerva had the oddest feeling that she’d pleased the sinner. Odder still was the feeling of pride that she had earned the madam’s approval. “You are quite bright.”
“You said you did not seek me out for advice on ladies’ gowns?” Minerva said, checking the time on her watch fob. The motion dislodged her glasses and she had to resettle them on her nose. “Do be quick, Madam. I cannot afford to stand around and converse with the likes of you all day. It will cost me my position if people draw an association between us.”
“And then where would you be?” Mistress agreed. “I have…a girl,” she said and, for the first time, Minerva heard a note of concern in her voice.
“You have more than one.” She glanced around, but the shopkeepers were focused on the sales to the doves. No doubt, the Snyders were able to easily enough dismiss their moral tenets when the Jeweled Ladies came in to the dry-goods store to spread their ill-gotten monies around. “And I am not one of them. Nor,” she added stiffly, “will I ever be.”
Mistress inclined her head in acknowledgement. “To the point, then. I have a girl who cannot read. She is beautiful and graceful and everything a man could desire in an evening—but she cannot read,” she repeated.
Minerva gasped. She didn’t know which was more shocking—that, in these advanced times, children were still allowed to forgo their education or that the madam of the most notorious brothel in all of Texas would have such a care for her ‘girls.’ “That is most unfortunate,” she agreed. “Everyone should read.”
“I feel the same. Look at that,” she added with something that appeared to be a wink, “something that you and I agree on. I would like for you to teach this girl to read.”
Minerva’s hand flew to her chest. “I beg your pardon?”
“Let’s cut bait, Miss Krenshaw. My girls command top dollar and many of them save their money for the day they can retire from this life. This particular girl is skilled with a needle and would like to one day open her own shop—not here,” she hurried to add when Minerva’s looked at her in surprise. “She’ll go farther west. You and I both know that no matter how graceful and lovely her creations are, no matter how well spoken or mannered she is, Miss White will never survive as a businesswoman on her own if she cannot read.”
Minerva’s mouth opened and shut. She’d…well, she’d always assumed that Mistress kept the girls working until they were all used up and discarded them to even less-savory establishments of ill repute. A life begun at the Jeweled Ladies only went downhill from there.
But this? This…caring? Because it was caring. In a fashion, anyway. Much like rescuing a Native girl from a violent situation—perhaps even from a church!—and giving her safety and freedom was a kind of caring.
Misguided, poorly formed caring. But caring nonetheless.
“I…” Minerva’s mouth opened and shut several times, but all she could seem to say was, “I…” She cleared her throat and tried again.
Minerva glanced back at the knot of women a second time to see that Miss White had indeed picked up the bolt of turquoise fabric and was now laying it across the Native girl’s shoulders. Beautiful and alluring and talented with a needle. A young woman who had plans and dreams.
Mistress was right. Dreams she would never be able to achieve if she could not read. “I cannot possibly have a whore in my schoolhouse and I cannot possibly be seen coming and going from your brothel. I would lose my position and my reputation and, unlike your girls, I know exactly the value of those two things.”
A hundred dollars a year to teach the children of Brimstone their letters and numbers. And that included a room in the back of the schoolhouse where Minerva lived, plus a small stipend of foods donated by grateful parents. It was a hardscrabble life, but it was an honest one. She did good work and she would be rewarded for it. If not in this world—and that seemed less likely by the day—then in the afterlife, surely. As long as she could remember herself and her Bible.
“If I could arrange for you to meet in a neutral location, would you consider it?” When Minerva didn’t answer right away, Mistress added, “Or is the fact that she is black the reason you refuse?”
“What? No,” Minerva said sharply. “I teach several colored children. It has nothing to do with her race and everything to do with you. I cannot take your money and her money is yours, is it not?”
“Yet you took Emmeline McCartney’s—oh, I beg your pardon, Mrs. Raymond Dupree’s—money for new books, did you not?”
“That was different,” Minerva snapped, knowing her cheeks were blushing. “That was her husband’s money.”
Not that long ago, Mayor Dupree had made the dove known as Emerald Green his bride. The town had still not gotten over the scandal of their mayor—a man of fine, upstanding character from a good family—marrying a former whore. And not just any whore, but Emerald Green, the pride of the Jeweled Ladies. Minerva had always heard that Emerald Green would one day take over the brothel and run it.
But instead she’d remade herself into an honorable woman. She’d paid for new windows in her husband’s Methodist church. She’d donated enough money for new readers as well as slates for the children and had enough left over that Minerva had been able to repair the hole in the roof in the outhouse. She had even talked of sponsoring a library—a real, free library, right here in Brimstone.
In other words, Mrs. Dupree had gone from a woman of ill repute to a pillar of the community in less than a year. There were those who welcomed her with open arms. Minerva did not want to, but she valued her students’ educations far too much to pass up new readers on principle. So she had convinced herself that Mrs. Dupree spent her husband’s money. The Duprees were quite rich, after all.
Mistress’s eyes swept behind Minerva. “You may think about it,” she said, completely ignoring Minerva’s refusal. Then she gracefully stepped around Minerva and called out in a sing-song voice, “My darlings, I have had a revelation. Turquoise! Turquoise Sky! Mr. Snyder, be a dear and bring us anything you have in this lovely shade of blue for my newest Jewel.”
Minerva quickly paid for her packet of needles and left the dry-goods store without the plain linen she’d wanted to fashion a new pair of drawers from. She couldn’t think about her underclothes and those women in the same breath. It was unseemly. Improper. And most certainly immoral.
Even as she fled the shop to go back to her schoolhouse and her drab clothes, her eye caught on Miss White, the jet gems at her neck sparkling in the light.
She was not tempted. Not by Mistress’s offer nor the thought of spending time with Miss White. Minerva had left her home in New York behind years ago to escape this temptation and she would not give into it now. She was too strong. Unlike those Jewels, she valued her reputation far more than a fleeting moment of pleasure.
Still, as she lingered for just a second too long by the window, Mistress was whispering something in Miss White’s ear and Miss White looked out through the shop window. She met Minerva’s gaze and smiled. In fact, her whole face lit up and though Minerva would not have thought it possible, the young woman got even lovelier.
Surely not. It had all be a trick of the light. Minerva scowled and shook her head before she stomped back to her schoolhouse.
She could not be tricked. Not again.