Monday, May 16, 2011

First Chapter: San Francisco Dreams

Chapter One

 Norah Hawkins stepped from Sofie’s Hat Shop wearing her most prized possession: a gown of silk, green to set off her eyes. And to honor her dearest love and only thing in the world she could trust. Money.
Her new smart uptilted bonnet boasting a side spray of pheasant feathers made her giddy with happiness. It perfectly matched her outfit, and turned the heads of passersby.
Once she traveled to San Francisco in this getup, she’d fool the high fallutin’ society folk into believing she was one of them. Not like these Trenton females, who gave her a wide berth, as if they were New Jersey royalty and she a mere pauper. And soon, the men would flock to her new saloon like roosters at feeding time.
Nixing her usual jaunty step, she strolled ladylike – well, as ladylike as she’d ever managed – onto the walkway. Damn this rain. The one snag in her plan to escape this dreary city. She skittered under the shop overhangs until she reached Amos’ Dry Goods. A book would keep her company on the train ride west.
A copy of Mark Twain’s Following the Equator drew her to the book shelf. The dollar price outraged her, but Mr. Samuel Clemons was her favorite author, so she’d buy it. The dang book wouldn’t fit in this tiny silk purse. The price of femininity, she allowed, tucking the book under her arm.
The sight of a man outside the window jolted her to a halt. His piercing stare pricked her skin like sleet on a summer’s day. Though a stranger, he watched her as if he knew what she was thinking. Despite her fancy clothes, she could swear he saw through to her very bones with those eyes. Beautiful, blue eyes. They burned with such fire, her skin near ignited from the heat. Framed by smooth, dark locks that curled to his collar, his stare burned into her like a branding iron, leaving an indelible mark. Then, with one flick of his brow, he set his cap at a rakish angle and turned away. Dismissed her, just like that.
Anger burned her cheeks. How dare he! He knew nothing about her, yet he treated her no better than the riffraff in this awful town had all her life. Good thing he was leaving, or she’d give him a good snub.
His gait purposeful yet slow, he walked away with the bearing of a king—or a predator, all wild energy contained within rippling muscles, ready to spring. She pitied any prey he set his sights on. Lucky for her she wouldn’t have to see him again. Unless the train passed him, then maybe she’d wave her lace handkerchief out the window at him.
Passing the candy counter, she palmed a few licorice and peppermint sticks, and deftly slid them into her purse. Not too small for those.
Her eye caught a familiar figure approaching. Mrs. Hathaway, the snake-tongued biddy. In passing, Norah bumped her shoulder hard into the matronly woman’s.
Mrs. Hathaway gasped. “Oh my. I’m very sorry. I hope I didn’t muss your dress. It’s so beautif—” Meeting Norah’s cool appraisal, Mrs. Hathaway hissed, “You.”
“Dear me. I do apologize.” For not doing this years ago.
“Finery can’t disguise a…” Mrs. Hathaway whispered the last. “…hussy.”
“Mm.” Norah slowly scanned the woman’s barrel-like form. “Why Martha, for once, I do believe you’re right. Honestly, a woman of your age shouldn’t wear rouge.”
The biddy resembled a chicken that had lost its squawk. “Why, I never.”
Norah leaned close. “That’s not what I heard. But then, you of all people, know how untrustworthy gossips can be.”
When Mrs. Hathaway swooned, Norah caught her. “There there. Someone fetch a glass of water for this poor dear. Unless you prefer whiskey, as the rumors allow.”
Mrs. Hathaway snapped straight. With an indignant huff, she stomped off.
With a shrug, Norah flashed her sweetest smile at the dispersing crowd. “It appears she’s fine after all.” A little lighter in the purse, but the biddy needed to lose a little weight anyway. Norah was more than happy to oblige, after all the good turns Mrs. Hathaway had done for her.
Her conscience niggled at her when she noticed the stranger watching her again through the shop window. Had he seen the crime? A pang of regret shot through her. In leaving Trenton, she sought to abandon her wily ways. Not so easy as she’d imagined. Besides, if he reported the deed, the sheriff would arrest her, and she’d miss the train.
Lifting her chin, she silently dared him to challenge her. The letter in her purse gave her the strength to face nearly anything now. Though she’d read it a thousand times, she still had to read it a few times every day to be sure it was true.
It said:
Dear Miss Hawkins,
This letter serves as notice to inform you that the property at 377 Third Street, San Francisco, has been secured in your name. The two-story building is sound in structure. However, our attorneys await your approval before finalizing the paperwork. Please arrange the earliest possible passage to make an inspection. Should you reject it, similar properties are available.
Nicholas Abernathy, Attorney at law
At first, she’d believed it a terrible ruse. Dan Jamison, the only man she trusted, had assured her the seal looked authentic. Of course, it had to be a mistake.
No matter. Since the letter arrived, she’d planned her getaway for real instead of dreaming about it.
Nothing, and no one, would stand in her way. She glared at the stranger. Disappointment deflated her when he turned away at the approach of another man, older and more distinguished than himself. Together, they strode past the window and out of sight.
Men. Other than Dan, she’d never met one who could hold her interest. Or was worth the trouble. But she’d always thought of Dan as a father, or the closest she’d ever get to one.
She gave the store clerk her widest smile and paid for the book.
Cold rain dripped past Gerard McKenzie’s collar onto his neck. Stepping beneath the store’s overhang, he hunched into his overcoat and growled, “Damn.”
One check of his inside pocket ensured it was still there. The train ticket. He’d had enough of the East Coast and its uppity folk. After reading that San Francisco held every pleasure a man could dream of, he knew it was the place for him. No more snow and ice. No more playing piano in run down barrooms for unappreciative drunks.
To block the chill, he stepped closer to the store window and peered inside. The sight of a young lady transfixed him. In a silken dress of green, and fancy feathered hat to match, she might have been any snobbish society woman shopping with her mother.
Until he noticed the deft movement of her hand. He guessed she’d pickpocketed more than a few dollars without the elder woman suspecting. Oh, she was good, and he’d seen some of the best.
Why, he wondered, would she bother, when she obviously had no need?
She glanced up and caught his stare. Those eyes, as green as the Emerald Isle on a sunny spring day, sent a jolt through him. Her chestnut hair tumbled in loose curls to her shoulders. His fingers clenched, wanting to slide through those silky strands to grasp her neck, then press her delicate jaw up to receive his wanton kiss.
She stared as if reading his thoughts. If he had another day in Trenton, he might go inside. He wouldn’t need to try too hard to strike up a conversation, he guessed. Her eyes held enough fire to burn him all night.
Oh, dangerous thoughts. Hell’s bells, what was wrong with him? Obviously, she was a dangerous woman. He’d had his fill of devious females, and women nagging him to settle down. Like he needed a passel of rugrats tying him to a daily job he despised. If he’d wanted that, he’d have joined his father in the coal mines, and would still have a family who welcomed him home.
No, in San Francisco, he could live as he pleased. He was a man free of worry, free of ties, and he intended to stay that way.
The heat in her eyes diluted, but sent a slow burn through him. She tilted up her chin, exposing her graceful neck.
If he had even a few hours, he’d start by tasting that delicious skin. Good thing his train left soon.
Norah slipped through the alley, sidestepping the mud holes until she reached the entrance of the bordello behind the saloon.
As she paused in the doorway to scan the room, heads turned and conversations quieted. Norah tried not to show her dismay. For so early in the day, patrons kept the girls busy.
Sal stood to the side in her usual sentry spot, surveying her realm.
Norah made a beeline to her. “Is she busy?”
Sal snapped her gaping mouth shut. “Norah. Well I’ll be. Look at you.” She clucked her tongue and smiled.
Norah grasped the woman’s hands. “I’m short on time, Sal. Is she upstairs?”
Sal’s smile faded. “Yes.”
Without realizing, she squeezed hard. “Alone?”
Tugging her hands away, Sal said, “I believe she is now, yes.”
“Thanks.” She kissed Sal’s cheek and resisted the urge to take the stairs two at a time, like usual. She wasn’t a tomboy anymore.
At the room farthest down the hall, she knocked, surprised her hand was trembling.
“Come in,” called a woman’s muffled voice.
Closing her eyes, Norah took a fortifying breath and went in. Stale booze and sex filled the air.
Estelle lay, one shoulder bared, stretched across the bed. At seeing Norah, she yanked her robe high and sat up. “Oh, it’s you. What’s the occasion?”
Moving in front of the bed, Norah clutched her purse so tight, the clasp bit into her palm. “My train leaves in less than an hour.”
Estelle cackled. “You always were a dreamer.”
Did Estelle think Norah was playing dressup? As if she ever had the luxury of that. Norah produced the ticket from the lining of her purse. “Not this time.” After safely replacing the ticket, she handed the stolen peppermint to her. “Here, I got this for you.”
Her smile sad, Estelle took the candy. “You know how to get on my good side.”
Too bad it never lasted long. “You look tired.”
“Late nights take a toll when you’re past thirty.”
More like forty, but Norah wouldn’t argue. “So quit.” Like Estelle had promised, for years.
With a wave, Estelle said, “I’m not depending on some man to take care of me. I’m better off taking care of myself.”
Stubborn as ever. Norah handed over her take from Mrs. Hathaway. “Then don’t buy whiskey with this.” Another vice she’d promised to quit. This time, Norah wouldn’t be around to help her get back on her feet.
Estelle hesitated about a second before accepting the money. “What about you? How will you get along?”
Norah stared out the window at the city below. She couldn’t wait until it was nothing but a speck on the horizon. “Same as I always have.”
“You always were an independent cuss.”
By necessity, not choice. “I learned from the best.” Maybe she should thank her. Norah might have ended up like this.
Estelle’s laugh rumbled. She looked past Norah, lost in the view. “You could always stay. Sal’s always said you’d be her best girl.”
“I can’t.” Not in her nature, demeaning herself for men.
Green eyes misty, Estelle asked, “Will you at least write me when you get there?”
“Sure.” Not that Estelle would read it. She couldn’t. But Sal could read it to her. Norah leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Take care of yourself.”
Running a hand down the fabric of Norah’s skirt, Estelle sighed. “Will you come back someday?”
“You never know. Bye, Mama.” This once, she defied her mother in using the endearment. No one could hear.
“Bye, baby.” Estelle stared, as if she didn’t recognize the person standing before her.
Norah took a good long look too. Maybe her last.
Turning, she swiped a tear from her cheek. No time for tears. She had to get to the station, so she hitched up her skirts and ran downstairs.
She hugged Sal. “Look out for her, will you?”
“I will. You stay out of harm’s way, darlin’.”
“I always do.” Finally, Norah’s life felt on the right track.
She hurried downstairs and peeked around the corner into the bar, where Jim Whalen wiped down the wooden counter.
Oh no. She turned to Sal. “Where’s Dan?”
“He works later. You haven’t told him?”
The few times she mustered up enough gumption, it failed her at the last minute. “I meant to today.”
Sal said softly, “I’ll let him know.”
“Thanks Sal. For everything.” If Estelle had been more like Sal… She brushed the thought away. “Goodbye.”
On her way to the door, an arm gripped her waist and whirled her around. She met the grinning leer, and whiskey breath, of Thurmond Alcott.
“Where you going?” he asked in a thick voice.
“Let go. I’m warning you.” You disgusting toad.
“Not till you give me what I want.” He pressed her against the wall, his hands inching lower. “You’ve teased me long enough.”
Never, and she had no patience for teasing today. She relaxed against his grip. “Have I?” She gave a throaty laugh and lifted her knee to his waist.
His voice turned husky. “That’s better. Sassy little girl. You need a spanking.”
She interrupted his guttural chuckle by sliding the knife from her boot and pressing its sharp blade to his throat. “One thrust, and I’ll cut you ear to ear, Alcott. A nice big grin for your funeral. Your wife wouldn’t be much pleased to find out why you got cut though, would she?”
Arms raised, he edged back. “Now, Norah. You know I was only fooling.”
For years? She’d had her fill of men boasting they’d had her. No man had. Or would, until she decided.
Her trembling blade followed his retreat. “And you know I’m dead serious.”
Sal laid a hand on her shoulder. “Go Norah. Catch that train.”
Norah’s nerves settled at Sal’s touch, and she nodded.
Alcott’s gaze sharpened. “Aw now, don’t think you’re leaving us, Norah.”
“Try and stop me.” Soon, she’d clean the dust of this filthy town from her beautiful new leather boots, from every wave of her hair and from the deepest recesses of her soul. Thinking of all the times this scum had made rude remarks while grabbing her, she pressed the knife tip harder against his skin. “You’re lucky I’m leaving. Or I might have to make this lesson permanent.”
Alcott winced. “Goodbye, Miss Hawkins.” The way he looked heavenward, he must wish she were already gone.
It made her laugh. Almost. “Good riddance.”
The grandfather clock showed she had no more time for such dalliances.

Thanks for reading! 
San Francisco Dreams is available for just $1.99 on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords. I hope you'll check it out!

Tomorrow, I'll feature it in the Story Elements series, so I hope you'll stop by then.


J.A. Beard said...

Between the premise, the setting, and snarky six, I think I need to check this out. :)

Cate Masters said...

Thanks for checking it out JA!