A widowed Civil War veteran, Matthew Hawkins doesn’t know what to expect from a night at the Jeweled Ladies. All he wants is one night to feel like a man again. But when he’s paired with Miss Topaz Gold, he’s stunned by how deeply she makes him feel.
Former mail-order bride Millie Townsend came to the Jeweled Ladies and gave up her name because she thought it was the key to her salvation after her husband died. It doesn’t take long to realize she isn’t Topaz Gold. She only wants to be a wife and mother, not a whore. But when Matthew offers to take her away from the Jeweled Ladies, will Millie be allowed to leave?
January 2017 | ISBN: 978-1941097205
Print ISBN: 978-1941097274
She had made a terrible mistake.
Millie Townsend stood at the edge of the saloon in the Jeweled Ladies brothel and tried to be invisible. She had trained for almost three months to be one of the highly paid ladies of the night here and hadn’t once suffered this attack of nerves.
But then again, she hadn’t actually had a paying gentleman caller in those three months. Just evenings of lessons and practice with Sterling.
Although she knew she couldn’t possibly move any further back into the corner behind the bar, she tried. No one had paid for her time last night and she had been ridiculously relieved.
Somehow, she didn’t think she would get so lucky a second time.
Besides, she’d chosen to do this. She wasn’t a virgin anymore. She was a widow at the age of twenty-one and had no other prospects. Her husband’s family had pretended to care about her until it’d become clear that a week and a half of marriage hadn’t resulted in a child and then Millie had been unceremoniously shown the door. And she couldn’t go back to Boston, where George was no doubt at this very moment trying to locate her.
She had a place to live here and a way of earning enough money to keep her safe from her half-brother. But more than that, she had anonymity.
For Millie Townsend was not hiding in a corner behind the bar in the saloon. Instead, it was Miss Topaz Gold who did so.
She surveyed the saloon, her heart beating wildly as she struggled to keep the panic at bay. The other Jewels—her new friends—were all enticing the gentleman callers, as the Mistress of the Jeweled Ladies insisted on calling the customers. Emerald all but floated into the room on the arm of the mayor, Raymond Dupree. Opal wasn’t even fully dressed, for heaven’s sake. Her buttons had come undone and her bodice gaped at the chest and, of course, she had hiked up her skirts to show off her garters.
Millie looked down at her gown. It was a tasteful gold—although the bodice was cut quite low and the sleeves were more of a wish than a piece of fabric. Her ankles were covered, at least.
This was the sort of gown that George would never have allowed her to buy in Boston. Of course, George had spent money on his clothes, his horses—his mistresses—while Millie had reddened her hands caring for their father and scrubbing floors in the family home.
After three months in Brimstone, Texas, her hands were once again smooth and soft. She should be excited that her new position as a Jewel afforded her the finer things in life.
If only she didn’t have to spread her legs to earn them.
At least there was music tonight. Pearl often played in the parlor, but tonight she was on the small stage at the end of the saloon, banging out a jaunty tune that had many of the gentlemen callers singing along at the top of their lungs while they drank expensive spirits and gambled away their money.
Maybe she would get lucky again and no one would notice her. After all, who would look back into the shadows when Opal joined Pearl upon the stage and began to sway as the bodice of her gown crept lower and lower? Good heavens, the girl was going to disrobe on stage.
“You can’t hide back here forever, you know,” said Sterling Silver, the man who tended the bar. He was the only one who seemed to notice her.
“I’m not hiding,” she said, even though they both knew it was a lie.
“Sure you’re not, honey.” He wasn’t looking at her, but at the glass he was drying. “Everyone works here—you know that, right?”
As he spoke, a gentleman caller bellied up to the bar and Sterling drifted away from Millie. Sterling ducked his head close to the gentleman, and the gentleman whispered in his ear.
Even Sterling worked at the Jeweled Ladies. And she’d spread her legs for him on multiple evenings, learning the art of sexual seduction under Mistress’s watchful eye. Millie suspected that Sterling didn’t just train the ladies or work the bar, though—not as the gentleman touched Sterling’s chin.
The only one here who didn’t work was Millie.
She needed to take a step forward. She had chosen this life. She had been kept in near poverty by her half-brother. She had escaped to be a mail-order bride on the assumption that marriage to a complete stranger in a hostile land was better than living under George’s thumb for the rest of her life.
She had been widowed in a matter of days.
By God, she was tired of having everything taken away from her. Her parents, her husband—not that she loved him, because she hadn’t. But he had been her future. Stability—a home, the promise of the children. And then the sonofabitch had gotten himself kicked in the head by a mule and once again, Millie had nothing.
She was tired of waiting for other people to solve her problems. That was why she was here. She was going to do her time on her back and make enough money so she would never again be subject to the cruelties of fate.
That was the plan, anyway. It hadn’t worked out like that just yet.
She wasn’t a shy virgin. She had married Logan Townsend within an hour of meeting him at the train depot in Henderson, Texas, and he had exercised his husbandly rights that very night and every day of their marriage on his ranch, located ten miles west of town. She’d had all kinds of sex with Sterling, including things she’d never dreamed possible.
So selecting a gentleman caller and taking him to her bed shouldn’t be a big deal. She’d already spread her legs for a complete stranger before. She knew exactly what was going to happen.
She did not take another step into the light. Instead, she shrank back even further.
Just then, Mistress stepped through the door in the saloon. As always, the madam of this brothel was dressed as if she were going to court and making her bow before a foreign king. Shimmering peach silk draped over her body and the jewels at her ears, neck and throat glimmered in the dim light.
Millie prayed to be invisible even harder as Mistress’s eyes swept over the saloon, taking note of Pearl at the piano, of Opal’s near nudity, of the grip a card player had on Sapphire’s arm, of the way Sterling had his head still close to the man at the bar.
But she was not invisible, because when Mistress’s gaze came to rest, it was upon her. Panic snaked down Millie’s belly because Mistress was not a stupid woman and there was nowhere else to hide.
Mistress’s eyes narrowed, but the look of displeasure was gone when she turned back to look up at a tall, dark man standing next to her. The man bent his head down as Mistress whispered something to him that Millie didn’t have a hope of hearing and then he looked up, his gaze locking with Millie’s.
She swallowed. He was a large man, and she couldn’t tell if his skin was dark from the sun or if he was of mixed parentage. He wore a black duster and a black cowboy hat, which only made him seem more dangerous. His mouth was set in a thin line and his jaw seemed tight. He didn’t have the normal gleam of anticipation that so many of the other gentlemen callers did when they walked into the Jeweled Ladies. In fact, he looked rather like she felt—like he might’ve made a terrible mistake and wished he were anywhere but here.
Then he turned his attention back to Mistress. Millie saw him nod once and then the two of them were making their way toward Millie. In a moment of stark terror, she considered ducking down and hiding behind the bar—but they’d already seen her and besides, Sterling wouldn’t hide her.
So she did what she should have done last night. She took a deep breath, straightened her skirts and stepped out into the light. She’d chosen this life. It was time to start living it.
He shouldn’t have come to this place. But a man had needs and Matthew Hawkins was being crushed by the loneliness of his life. Besides, the girl the madam of this brothel was leading him toward was pretty.
No, she wasn’t. She was absolutely stunning, a vision of gold. The light of the gas lamps made her curly blonde hair glow as if she were an angel and her pale skin was a creamy ivory. She was almost too beautiful—far too fine a lady for the likes of him.
But the madam of this brothel had promised that she had the right woman for him, and Matthew needed a woman. Just for one night. Then he could go back to the ranch and to Jed and, somehow, keep going.
“Miss Gold is a charming young creature,” the madam—who had introduced herself as Mistress—was saying as they crossed the saloon. Matthew focused on keeping his stride even. He didn’t want to betray a limp now. “I believe you will find her refined and talented. But of course,” she went on, “we want you to be happy, so if there’s anything else you require, please do not hesitate to let me know.” Mistress turned her face up to Matthew and smiled.
She was a pretty lady, too—but there was something in that smile that made his skin crawl. He was a God-fearing man, although he had not been back to church since his Maria had died. This was a sin and he was probably going to hell, but then—wasn’t he already in hell?
Before he could change his mind, they were in front of the girl in gold. Miss Gold. “Topaz, darling,” Mistress said. “I would like you to meet Mr. Matthew Hawkins. He is visiting us from a ranch north of Decatur and I believe that you two would be well suited.”
Matthew cringed. The woman made it sound like she was a matchmaker, not the proprietor of a whorehouse.
What was he doing here? He wasn’t sure he could get his cock to respond if he wanted it to, so mortified he was. But just as he opened his mouth to excuse himself from the room—the building—Miss Topaz Gold looked up at him through thick lashes. There was something almost…innocent about her. She really was beautiful and she wasn’t making eyes at him like some of the other ladies had done. He got the feeling she wasn’t trying to seduce him and somehow, that made this okay. He didn’t want to feel like a mark. He only wanted to feel like a man.
He whipped his hat off his head and held it in front of him. “Miss Gold, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
She gave a little curtsy and his eyes followed her as her body dipped and raised. Compared to what he’d seen some of the other ladies in this building wearing, she was dressed almost appropriately—but there was no missing the creamy swell of her breasts as they surged above the bodice of her dress.
His cock stirred. Good. That was why he was here, wasn’t it?
“Mr. Hawkins, I would be honored to spend an evening in your company.” Her voice was low and had a husky quality to it that set his blood stirring a little faster. Maybe he could do this. Maybe he could enjoy himself. At the very least, maybe he could just stop thinking for one night.