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They are starving…
Marie Therese O'Sullivan, soon to be known as Topaz for her golden brown eyes and hair, is willing to do anything to save her family from the Great Hunger in Ireland, including travel in steerage all the way to faraway America and then by rail and wagon train to the West Coast where a job awaits. If she can earn a little money to send home, she'll do any job. If only the advertisement had a little more information about what the job required...
The Gold Rush is good for business…
And Dirk Clemens' business is acting as wagon master for groups of these intrepid travelers willing to face every danger possible crossing the plains, deserts and mountains to have a chance to get their share of the gold. He doesn't mind the occasional night with a willing woman but avoids innocents like Marie Therese O'Sullivan like the plague. Defiling virgins is not good for business. And this virgin needs rescuing every time he turns around.
A deadly storm throws them together…
And the spark between them flares into flame, making the virgin issue moot. But it's only the first disaster they face together and from which he must rescue her. The greatest awaits them on their arrival in California where the worst happens. To both of them. Madam Jewel and Gabriel Vasquezof the Red Petticoat Saloon offer shelter to so many orphans of the storm, but Topaz has been through so much. Perhaps her fire has been quenched.
DISCLAIMER: This books contains the spanking of adult women and explicit sexual scenes. If any of these offend you, please do not purchase this book.
About The Red Petticoat series:
The Red Petticoat Saloon series is a collection of books written by #1 and USA Today bestselling authors. Each book tells the unique story of a different woman, 'a gem', who comes to the saloon to find a safe haven and discovers they become part of a family. Recurring characters appear in each book to allow readers a continuity as they learn about the women who have learned to bend but have not broken under the harshness that life has to offer. It is a series where strong, loving men find not only entertainment at the saloon but the special women who reside under its roof.
Topaz huddled among the bedclothes, lost in another bout of what Nettie called feeling blue. She did the best she could, rising each day to spend time with the customers of the Red Petticoat Saloon, and the gentlemen were kind, generous, and often paid more than asked. Especially if they’d found themselves lucky in the mines. All the gems benefited when the miners arrived smiling.
Although she knew fate had smiled upon her when she’d taken up her position with Madame Jewel, and she’d already sent a little money home to her family in faraway Ireland, the series of events that had led her to Culpepper Cove cast its shadow over her soul. She did her best, earning some money to keep her little brothers and sisters from starvation, doing her best to repay the kindness of Madame Jewel. The stern discipline of Mr. Gabriel helped her have the courage to go on from day to day. Nettie constantly encouraged her to eat enough of her delicious food to keep body and soul together. When, in fact, she had no desire to do so—at least on her own behalf.
But every time she came close to giving up, the image of those little faces at home, their gaunt cheeks and bloated bellies, helped her to gather her wits and go on. The Great Hunger had driven her brothers away to work on road crews for a pittance, her father to do what carpentry he could find, as their crop failed and the landlord threatened eviction. If her mother knew her daughter worked in a profession for which she’d not even had a name before leaving home to strike out on her own in a new country… she’d throw the money down the well before spending it on the other children. Marie Therese might have agreed with her once. She’d known neither the bliss nor the despair of her new world a year before.
Turning her face into the pillow, she tried to ignore the insistent knock on her door. “Topaz, come down now. Nettie has something for you to eat.” Dear Gabriel. He watched over her like she was a hungry chick, guiding her to the kitchen for all kinds of treats that Nettie created to try to give her an appetite. She ate as much as she could, but she still lost weight, slowly losing the curves that the customers loved.
Not replying would not deter Gabriel, however, and the longer she delayed the greater the penalty she would pay. Summoning a little energy, she called out, “I’ll be down shortly, as soon as I dress.”
“Ten minutes, Topaz, or I’ll be back for you.”
“I know that you will.”
Marie Therese O’Sullivan spent a week in a boarding house near the docks before boarding the ship for America. The landlady informed her when she arrived she could anticipate a month or more, but the ship arrived on the tide late one night, looming practically outside her window in the dawning light. By the time she was herded, along with countless other passengers onto the deck then down into the belly of the ship, squeezing past huge pieces of machinery whose purpose she could not even guess at, she’d already been in close quarters with more people than lived in her village or perhaps even in the county. And worse awaited.
She spent the first week huddled in her bunk, a bunk she shared with a complete stranger who was desperately seasick, retching and sobbing and crying out for relief. Marie Therese herself was ill, but struggled to fight it down, sipping at the water and eating what was brought to them, at least a little. She tried to speak to her bunkmate but the woman was beyond conversation after the first few hours on the open sea.
The ship surged up and fell down into troughs of waves she could not see and could barely imagine. She’d lived not far from the ocean and had considered it a friend, with its whitecaps and sweet breezes, had looked forward to the journey despite her nervousness about being on her own. But she’d never anticipated being shut into the bowels of the great, creaking behemoth. They were not allowed on deck, she was informed, third class being entitled only to meals and a bit of below-the-waterline space for the duration.
Worse, the sailors who brought the buckets of slop they called meals, ladling it into their dinner pans, could not even estimate the length of time they’d be down here. It might be eight weeks, could be twelve, depending on the winds and the seas.
Her bunkmate became quieter as time wore on. Marie Therese offered her water, food, comfort, but one morning when she woke, the woman lay still, her clawing hands and sobbing lips still at last.
The sailor who brought their breakfast left, returning with another sailor, and they took her away.
She was only the first. Every day, some of their fellow passengers were carried away, never to be seen again. Burial at sea, they said. But it offered cold comfort to the family left behind. They died without benefit of priest or doctor, consigned to the icy depths of the Atlantic Ocean, far from their home and not nearly to their destination.
The journey took twelve weeks. By the time they arrived, no one had to share a bunk with another traveler. The number of beds exceeded the number of surviving third class passengers.
Gabriel returned and this time did not knock politely for entry. He did not knock at all, in fact, but opened the door and stepped inside. He dwarfed her room, the big man, and the belt wrapped around his hand did not bode well for Topaz’s morning. Still, the fatigue she could not seem to banish made it impossible to feel the level of dread she probably should have. Gabriel was the disciplinarian. He was responsible for the welfare and good behavior of the gems who worked at the Red Petticoat Saloon.
“I gave you ten minutes.” His deep voice rolled over her, as always. “Lean over the bed and lift your skirts.” He used the term lightly. Topaz wore her nightdress and under it not a thing. She had barely the energy to stand but slid to her feet and turned to face the bed again, bending to rest on her elbows. “Lift it.”
Reaching behind her, she brought her long, cotton gown up to her waist, baring her bottom to the disciplinarian’s view. The first time, she’d been embarrassed, but she’d been spanked often enough to no longer flush except of course in the places he reddened with his hand or any other implement he chose to use to get her attention. “Yes, sir.”
“I am going to administer ten with my belt. Do you know why?” He rested the cool leather against the curve of her bottom and she shivered in anticipation. “Topaz, answer before I increase the number.”
She swallowed hard, her entire focus on the strip of skin in contact with the broad leather belt. “I was instructed to report downstairs and eat, and promised to be there in ten minutes.”
“And how long has it been?” His other hand rested on her left cheek, below the leather. “How long have you kept Nettie waiting?”
Topaz turned to look into his deep brown eyes. Stern, offering no quarter for any excuse. “I don’t know. Fifteen minutes?” She had no clock in her room, so she could only guess—but if he was up here to discipline her she’d lain abed longer than ten minutes.
“Forty-five. I would have been here sooner, but one of the girls had a difficult customer who needed a clear explanation of how our gems are to be treated here at the Red Petticoat Saloon.”
Forty-five minutes? Where had the time gone? She’d drifted, again. Lost in missing her family. Missing Dirk. Searching the twists and turns her life had taken in a futile hunt for where she could have made other, better choices that would have led her to another place. Not that the Red Petticoat was a bad place, but she’d had a dream once.
“My mother asked me to give you these.” The sticky hand held out a pair of dusty biscuits but the gap-toothed smile in an equally dusty face lightened Marie Therese’s heavy heart. “She cooked them with almost the last of the flour.”
Marie Therese stumbled over a rock on the rocky trail leading toward the distant mountains and winced as a sharp point bruised the sole of her foot. “You should eat these yourself, Sarah,” she protested. “Your family has been too kind to me, and I’ll never be able to repay you.” After months of travel, her offer to come along as a mother’s helper to the Flannigan family no longer seemed of benefit to them. Leaving their jumping off point in Missouri, barrels of flour had been stacked in the rear corners and sides of bacon swayed from the sides of the wagon. Tea and coffee, sugar, even a cow for milk trailed along behind. But poor weather and injuries extended the trip and the hunting they’d hoped for along the way failed to materialize.
Her protests fell on empty space, the eight-year-old having disappeared again. It seemed no matter how hot or uncomfortable the conditions, the eldest Flannigan child’s energy never flagged. Although she no longer had the rounded cheeks from the beginning of the trip, her health stood her in good stead so far. Her little legs, darkened from the sun where her hem fell short, flew as she dashed from one wagon to another, visiting, a favorite among all the families of their wagon train.
Whereas Marie Therese’s own family had struggled to grow cabbages and potatoes—that rotted before they could be harvested in the past few years—Sarah’s father’s mercantile in Independence had served to feed his family well. His sense of adventure had led him to sell his business and head for California along with thousands of others to experience the excitement and opportunities there.
If only his stores traveled with them, but they would arrive in San Francisco by ship.
Marie Therese wrapped the biscuits into her handkerchief and tucked the package in the pocket she’d sewn into her skirt seam. She’d be hungry long before they stopped for the night, or the little imp would. According to the trail boss the group had hired, they’d be approaching a stretch of arid desert soon, followed by steep mountains, and then paradise would be in sight.
Their guide, Dirk Clemens, had been a force to be reckoned with from the first day, galloping ahead on his massive black stallion, King, to survey trail conditions or to the back to urge laggers to keep up. He’d inspected each wagon before allowing them to join the parade across the wilderness, checking supplies and pointing out problems with the wheels and axles and animals. He had even turned away one family who failed to meet his rigid standards because, as he pointed out in perfect logic, their poorly built wagon would “fall to pieces within a week.” The others had voted them out and left them to make other arrangements.
The man was a force of nature, with dark hair and blue eyes flashing from under the brim of his hat. His hands were large and capable, straight fingers able to unknot any harness or start a fire from almost nothing. Most of the hunting success had been his, although even Dirk Clemens could not kill animals where none existed or where other travelers had either taken or driven them away.
Trudging along behind and off to the side of the Flannigan wagon to avoid some of the dust, she took in the endless land around them, the occasional tree a welcome sight, and the palette of the landscape mostly browns and gray-greens. Nothing of the vivid green of home to ease her soul.
“Marie Therese, you should ride for a bit.” Brigit—Mrs. Flannigan—hopped down from the seat of the wagon and fell into step with her. “Patrick won’t mind.” The woman cradled her youngest, born along the trail and christened Bonnie Sarah for her golden-haired beauty.
“No, I’m enjoying the walking,” she said, eyeing the woman carefully. If she didn’t eat enough, her milk would dry up, and they’d eaten the cow, whose milk had petered out, weeks before. “You should climb back up and rest your legs.”
“No, no.” She brushed a stray reddish-gold curl from her cheek “My legs are fine. And that rattling bumping thing is not exactly the king’s coach. Me teeth are rattling in me head.”
Marie Therese reached out her arms. “Then let me hold that darlin’ child.” She cuddled the little one close, breathing in her baby scent. “Soon we’ll be on the other side of the world from Ireland and I’ll leave you to take up my new job.”
Brigit stumbled on a rock then righted herself. “These shoes are falling apart, and they are my last pair. I don’t know what I’ll do before long, I….” Her face flushed and she flailed her arms. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t mind my bare toes. I have my shoes in the wagon. They’re worn but they’ll do when I need them.” She’d been barefoot most of her childhood anyway. “I just want to look presentable when I arrive in Goldville. It wouldn’t do for my employer to feel he’d taken on someone who doesn’t know how to dress.” She shifted the bundle in her arms. Was the baby gaining weight? Seemed she should be a little bigger by now.
“What precisely is the job you’ll be doing? You say the man sent you the cost of your passage and your train fare.”
“Yes and I was to meet his representative in Missouri, but the delays made me miss him so he left me a little more money at the station to travel on. It’s only through our Holy Lady’s mercies I found you to travel with. And you wouldn’t accept a penny from me so I still have a few dollars if you need them.”
Brigit’s drawn cheeks, sunburnt despite the shade of her plain straw cottage bonnet, brightened for a second then she shook her head. She changed out the ribbon tie to match her dress each day, and they had begun to fray, but she would have her touch of style. Her employer’s dress, though plain brown and blue flowered gingham, fit her well, the firm stitches she’d sewn it together with strong and even. Even the bit of lace at the collar and down the row of front buttons managed to hold a bit of jauntiness.
If her own trunk had not been lost by the railroad somewhere between New York and Independence, she might not be wearing the faded blue second-hand gown that shamed her by revealing the tops of her boots. And her spare, in pink, the only other from the small bag she’d kept with her, was even worse. And tight across the bosom. When she washed this one, and waited for it to dry, she always felt self-conscious, as if she were on display. Even the neat apron she wore tied over it didn’t diminish the effect. Perhaps when she arrived at her destination, after she’d completed her seven year agreed upon indenture, she’d meet a nice man to take care of her. She would care for him, as well, of course. She’d cook and clean for him, raise the children to become fine Americans.
Her mama’s tear-streaked face haunted her dreams. She’d begged her not to go, pleaded with her to stay at home, but she was just one more mouth to feed on Da’s few pence doing carpentry from Tiarna Kelvin, the English lord who owned their land, owned them, almost. Her brothers’ roadwork barely brought in enough to feed them. So when she’d seen the notice in the village store, she’d hurried home and written a reply to post to the employer’s representative in Dublin.
And Da…she’d set out without his blessing. Rather, his angry shouts followed the hired cart down the packed dirt road away from the cottage where her nine siblings slept three to a bed. “Ye’re no daughter of mine!”
The memory made her heart ache.
Sometimes she felt like she’d traveled to a whole new world, like she’d left the Earth entirely. Would she ever see the verdant green hillsides of County Galway again?
The setting sun cast a red glow over the open land in front of them, seeming to rest on the looming, white-frosted mountains in the distance. A sparkling stream crossed the plain and the trail boss’s shout was echoed back through the half dozen wagons that made up their small train. Marie Therese handed the sleeping infant to her mother and hurried to get a fire built. With so few trees out here, the children collected dried animal dung to supplement wood, and they managed.
Her mother would have been horrified by their fuel, but what was peat but its own sort of waste. And this had less odor when burned. Very clean, in fact. For dung.
Mary Therese sliced bacon and cut up a few of their last potatoes. They’d started to grow shoots and were probably better for seed than eating, but they wouldn’t arrive early enough in the year to plant a garden, and they didn’t have any food to set aside if they were to make it to their new land.
Not and have some food left until the stores arrived. The Flannigans’ new home would be in a town near Goldville, the one Marie Therese headed for. The Flannigans’ supplies would be trucked up from San Francisco to them by wagon. There’d been some talk of taking ship themselves, but the hazards and cost…and additional time had led Mr. Flannigan to make the decision to take the direct route, and so far, it had not been too unpleasant. Still, until their shipment arrived, they’d be as dependent as anyone else on what could be purchased locally, if anything could, or what they could hunt or gather from the forest.
What foodstuffs would be available there? The towns, most of them, were but a year or less old and not said to be populated by farmers. Gold miners, mostly, and those who sold to them.
Soon she was able to rake some glowing coals to the side and set her skillets upon them. One of bacon, one of potatoes with a spoonful of lard, while she mixed the biscuits for the morning. They’d be up well before sunrise but have no time for more than a cup of scalding coffee before they had to get moving. With the biscuits in the covered skillet on legs Mr. Flannigan called a Dutch oven, she called out, “Yer supper’s ready,” and the family came with their tin plates to have her dish up their simple meal. She scraped the last into her own and settled back, leaning against a wagon wheel, to watch the camp activities as darkness closed in around them. Hunger did make the best sauce. Assisted by a pinch of salt.
The men refilled the barrels of water from the stream and the children, done with their meager dinner, splashed downstream, a lesson they’d learned early on in their travels. Dirty little feet raising mud made for unpleasant drinking water and impossible dishwater. Which made for lickings.
Scooping the last bit of potato into her mouth, she pushed to her feet and grabbed the bucket. She was about dead on her feet. The sooner she curled in her blankets under the wagon with Brigit and the children, the more rest she’d have before the boss roused them all for another day, so she’d best clean the dishes. Dirk Clemens ran a strict train. Respected, but not liked, he’d get them to their destination come “hell or rivers risin’.” Funny how often her thoughts turned to him. Of course, a man of such responsibility would engender admiration.
Even now he stalked from wagon to wagon, checking the axles and wheels, making comments to the menfolk. He was the tallest man on the train, and he rode like he was part of the horse, relaxed in the saddle but alert to anything around them. He never even looked her way beyond a curt good morning each day. Not unless he had some criticism for her.