Jake McKenna hitched a boot on a wooden bench in front of the mercantile as the determined fine figure of Miss Molly Rose Simms crossed the dirt street and entered Bertha’s Saloon. Although he’d never met her, Jake had been watching his partner’s sister ever since she arrived in Creede yesterday. He leaned forward and draped his forearms over his knee.
Now what’s she up to?
Jake adjusted the brim of his hat to block the evening sun and strode across the Main Street of Upper Creede, dodging a buckboard and several horses. While entering Bertha’s when the sun hadn’t even set would hardly ruffle a feather in this town regarding his own reputation, Miss Simms’ wouldn’t fare as well.
She ought not be seen in such establishments at all.
Jake rarely patronized such places as Bertha’s, but Robert—Miss Simms’ brother—did, at least early in his acquaintance with the man. He suspected Miss Simms was in search of Robert.
So was Jake.
He entered the establishment in one swift move, a bell on the glass door jingling as he closed it.
A woman appeared, wearing a silk robe and cheeks rosy with makeup. “We’re not open just yet.”
Jake removed his hat. “I know. I’m looking for the woman who just entered.”
“She your wife?”
The woman arched an eyebrow and sized him up. “Wait here.” Her ample bosom and wide hips jiggled beneath the thin fabric as she departed.
Jake scanned the parlor filled with fancy, plush couches and polished tables. Bertha’s was more upscale than he’d realized. Perhaps Robert had good taste after all.
Jake fingered the brim of his hat until his frustration reached a breaking point. What was taking so long? He pushed aside the curtain guarding the hallway. There was no sign of his hostess, so he crept from door to door, listening for a clue to where Miss Simms might be.
He stilled when voices echoed in the hallway and slipped through the nearest door into a room containing an ornate iron bed blanketed with red coverings, a freestanding oval mirror, and provocative photos of females in various stages of undress. It was clearly meant for carnal pleasures.
Before Jake could hide, a woman burst in, spun around, and closed the door. She turned and slammed straight into him.
Well, luck was on his side. His quarry found him.
“Oh,” she gasped. “My apologies.”
Jake held Miss Simms by the shoulders to steady her.
“I have the wrong room,” she added.
“Wait.” He tried to keep his hold on her, but she slipped from his hands and headed for the door.
It opened again before Miss Simms could clasp the knob. At the threshold stood Charles Henderson, president of the First National Bank.
Miss Simms backed up and bumped into Jake. When she glared up at him, he was struck by the blueness of her eyes, reminding him of a peacock he’d once seen in Shanghai.
Jake lifted his gaze to Henderson and smiled, enjoying the man’s obvious discomfort at having been caught—almost—with his britches down. The pompous buffoon had denied Jake and Robert financing last year when they were trying to develop the Lucky Dog Lode, despite samples assaying at 250 ounces in silver. They’d eventually sold the claim for $15,000; he debated whether to rub Henderson’s nose in it again.
“How’s the missus, Charles?” Jake asked.
The jiggly hostess appeared. Speaking to Henderson, she said, “I’m sorry, sir. I sent you to the wrong room.”
Henderson, portly and sporting a bushy beard and mustache, narrowed his gaze on Jake. “The girl is fine. I like ’em petite.”
Miss Simms squared her shoulders. “This is ridiculous. I’m here to see Mabel. I’m not for hire.”
“That’s a shame,” Henderson replied. “But a bit of advice—I’d definitely stay away from him.” Henderson indicated Jake.
A flash of anger filled Jake as Henderson ran his eyes down Miss Simms attributes. He had half a mind to tell Mrs. Henderson what her husband was up to. “Whoremongering suits you, Charles.”
“I beg your pardon,” the jiggly hostess interjected. “That kind of talk will not be tolerated.”
Miss Simms had gone stiff before him. Maybe he’d gone too far with the ladies present. “My apologies, ma’am.”
The hostess turned to Henderson. “I’m terribly sorry for the mix-up. I’ll find you another girl immediately.” As she guided the bank president away, she pinned Jake with an irritated gaze. “You were supposed to wait in the parlor.”
“I’m impatient.” Jake grinned. “And this girl will do just fine.”
“I’m not for hire,” Miss Simms repeated with exasperation.
As the perturbed hostess left to take care of her honored guest, Miss Simms spun around to face him. “I must request that you leave.”
“We need to talk.” He leaned around her and shut the door for privacy.
“About what? I don’t even know who you are.”
The flash of recognition on her face pleased him.
“You’re Robert’s partner?”
Not lately, but he’d play along. “Yeah.”
“I was planning to see you next.”
“Then it’s fortunate that we’ve met. Although doing it in a brothel will certainly have the local biddies all fired up.”
Up close, the resemblance between Miss Simms and her brother was more noticeable, both having the same dark hair and similar eyes, and the flash in hers reminded him of Robert’s when the man was excited about a claim. In fact, she was a female version of her brother but a damn sight prettier.
“Do you know where Robert is?” she asked.
“I’m afraid I don’t. He didn’t know you were coming to town?”
She frowned. “He did, but when I arrived yesterday, he wasn’t at the train station to meet me, and he hasn’t been at his boardinghouse.”
“Well, if you know so much, then why don’t you know where he is?” she demanded.
Her outburst caught him off guard. Before he could respond, the door opened again. It was a good thing he and Miss Simms weren’t engaged in the usual activity for the premises—he doubted he could be that fast.
The hostess appeared. “Mabel will see you now,” she said to Miss Simms, then she glared at Jake. “But not you. If you’re not gonna pay for a girl, then you have to leave.”
“Thank you,” Miss Simms said. She spun back to him. “Mister McKenna, it was a pleasure to meet you”—She shook his hand— “. . . I suppose.” And then she was gone.
What the hell just happened?
Molly Rose Simms wasn’t anything like he’d expected.
* * *
The full-figured woman who’d been helping her at Bertha’s—was she Bertha?—led Molly to a bedroom at the back of the establishment. A young woman with curly, coffee-colored tresses met her at the door. Her light-blue eyes conveyed open curiosity, but an edge of cynicism surrounded her.
“This is Mabel. Don’t visit too long. We’ll be entertaining soon.”
Molly was going to ask why men were already eagerly here if they weren’t open yet, but she kept the question to herself. No doubt that man, Charles, was someone important and received preferential treatment. A slight queasiness still lingered over the presumption she would bed down with him.
And what about Jake McKenna? He hadn’t tried anything, but, for a moment, he looked at her like he wanted to strip her bare and devour her right where she stood. Had he left or asked for another girl?
“Hello.” Molly extended her hand. “I’m Molly Rose. I’m Robert Simms’ sister.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Molly Rose,” Mabel said slowly, her gaze guarded.
She slipped her palm into Molly’s, the touch cool, a stark contrast to the warmth of Mister McKenna’s large grip engulfing hers just minutes ago. Molly ignored the flush of energy that still lingered from the tall man and their brief interaction—in a brothel, of all places. She was only here because of her brother.
Mabel stepped back and offered Molly a seat on a stool while the woman sat on the bed, frilly clothing strewn across the bedcovers. It seemed far less than what a woman should wear. Molly’s gaze landed on a photo on the wall and she froze. A woman stood, hands on hips, wearing nothing but a pair of bloomers, her modest breasts thrust provocatively outward, as naked as could be.
Molly jerked her attention back to Mabel, embarrassed that her mouth was hanging open. Snapping it shut, she hid her mortification by clasping her hands together and resting them atop her gray skirt.
The urge to inquire if Mabel enjoyed what she did swelled inside, but Molly kept silent. That would be rude. Surely the woman did it because she had no other choice.
Mabel tugged the lapels of her dressing gown closed, then dropped her hand and sighed. “What can I do for you?”
“I arrived into town yesterday for a visit with Robert, but he never met me and I’m concerned. I don’t really know where else to look.” Molly cleared her throat. “A man at the hotel where I’m staying mentioned that Robert sometimes came here. He gave me your name.” She added in a rush, “I hope that was all right. I was hoping that you might know something.”
Mabel lowered her gaze.
“Do you know my brother?” Molly pressed.
The woman nodded. “Yep, I know Robbie.”
Mabel glanced up and watched her, causing Molly to squirm under the scrutiny.
“What you say will be kept private, I can assure you,” Molly blurted.
Mabel gathered the edges of her robe and tightened the sash at her waist. “Your brother hasn’t been here recently, but other men I see…”
Molly waited, afraid to speak for fear of deterring the woman. She’d thought to go to the local law enforcement, but when she questioned the hotel clerk about the deputy marshal, his response had left her with more doubts than confidence. There was a wildness in this town that was hard to miss. It made little sense to come to a brothel for information—were women such as Mabel trustworthy?—but Molly was at her wit’s end. Her mama had cautioned her against the impulsive actions she sometimes took, but her heart had told her to visit the prostitute.
Mabel’s expression became so sober and sincere, Molly’s insides twisted into a frozen knot.
“I’m sorry, Miss Simms, but Robert is dead.”
Copyright © 2016 K. McCaffrey LLC