from Private Sellers
Her partner reeked of booze, bad breath, and body odor, but for two bits a dance she could tolerate it.
The door swung open, and the man in the doorway made Rory's bored glance change to one of curiosity. He was well kempt compared to other strays that wandered into the Grotto, and he had to be a stranger in town to come to this dump instead of the Palace down the street, where the clientele was better heeled and the liquor wasn't watered down.
Rory watched with interest as the man crossed the room to the bar. She had learned to tell a lot about a man from the way he carried himself. This one walked tall, self-confident and relaxed, but at the same time generating an "I'm-not-looking-for-trouble-so-don't-piss-with-me" aura. She figured him for one of those tall Texans who often passed through town.
To Rory's relief the dance ended and she thanked her partner, rejected his offer again to go upstairs, and strolled to the end of the bar for a closer look at the new arrival.
The stranger was taller than the other men along the bar, and from her vantage point she saw that his profile bordered on perfection. His thick, dark lashes swept high cheekbones, which flowed into a straight nose and a firm jaw that reflected generations of patrician breeding.
This guy was no saddle tramp, all right; so who was he and what was he doing here?
As if sensing her stare, he turned his head. Their gazes locked, and a hint of merriment flashed in his brown eyes as he nodded.
Rory smiled back and was pleased to see him pick up his drink. She was certain he intended to move to her side when Shelia, one of the saloon's prostitutes, sidled up to him and slipped her arm through his.
"You can call me Shelia, honey. And what do they call you?"
He grinned, his teeth a brilliant white against the several days growth of whiskers that darkened his jaw. "Usually depends on who's doing the calling, Miss Shelia, but my mama always called me Garth."
"And what does your wife call you, handsome?"
"I don't have a wife, Miss Shelia."
"You got a last name, Garth?"
"Fraser. Garth Fraser."
"Well, Garth Fraser, I don't believe any man as good-looking as you should be drinking alone. How about buying a thirsty gal a drink? I'm so dry, I'm spitting sand."
"We sure can't have you doing that, now can we? Bartender, the lady's thirsty."
Rory had been wrong; he was no Texan. His soft-spoken, pleasant Southern accent caused her to close her eyes and conjure up fantasies of cotillions and flower-scented gardens.
The stranger glanced over at Rory with a lingering look and an apologetic smile; then Shelia turned him back to face her and slipped her arms around his neck.
"Maybe you'd rather finish your drink upstairs, handsome."
"The thought's crossed my mind."
"Mo, give us a bottle," Shelia said. "Me and good-looking here are gonna head up to my room."
"Like I couldn't figure that out." Mo slid a capped bottle across the bar. "Five bucks, pal."
"Five bucks! Pretty expensive for a bottle of watered-down whiskey, Mo," Garth said with a friendly smile.
"I ain't runnin' no charity house, pal. Besides, you'll get your money's worth; Shelia's included in the price."
"How about a hot bath? Is that included in the price, too?"
"Four bits more. And for another four bits -- "
"I bet I know; Miss Shelia will bathe me." When Mo's thick lips curled in a smirk, Garth added, "I thought the war abolished slavery."
"You Johnny Rebs oughta know, considerin' how you got your asses kicked."
Fraser's friendly grin disappeared. "How would you know, pal? You probably never budged from behind that bar during the whole godforsaken war."
Garth tossed the money on the bar, grabbed the bottle, and slid his arm around Shelia's shoulders. "Come on, Miz Shelia, we'll wash each other's backs."
Rory watched the couple climb the stairs. Just her luck! If Shelia hadn't come along when she did, she would have gotten the price of a couple of dances out of him.
"Slow night," she said when Mo came over to her.
"That fella at the other end of the bar said he'd pay double if you'll go upstairs with him."
She glanced in the direction Mo indicated. The man was the same one she'd been dancing with when Fraser had come in.
"When Hell freezes over," Rory said.
"You'd think you were the queen of England, or somethin', lady. How much are you holdin' out for?"
"Love, Mo. That's my price, and I'm not settling for anything less."
Mo snorted. "There ain't a woman alive that can't be bought. You included, your royal highness."
"I'm tired of having this argument every night, Mo. We agreed no whoring. All I'd have to do is hustle drinks and dance with the customers, and I could keep half of what I earn."
"I said that because I knew your looks would bring in a lot of guys. You got any idea how much we could make if you'd start giving them more than just a dance?"
"Sorry, boss." She walked away and sat down at a corner table.
Lord, how she hated this town! She'd been working at the Grotto for a month, and would have moved on if Pop hadn't taken to bed with another attack of congestion. No one liked her. Mo was upset because she wouldn't whore, and the girls resented her for the same reason.
Well, no way was she going to become a prostitute.
She hankered to fall in love with a decent, hardworking man who loved her, and settle down and raise his children. Surely one of these days she would meet up with such a man. And if he was as sightly as that Fraser fellow, that sure would sweeten the pot.
Rory reached for the copy ofGrimm's Fairy Talesthat she was reading. Books were her only relief from her humdrum life. When her mother died, she not only had lost the woman she worshiped, but the only teacher she'd ever had. It had been her mother who had taught her ciphering, and how to write and read, and introduced her to the wondrous world of literature.
Rory read anything she could get her hands on, from the King James Version of the Bible to Benjamin Franklin'sPoor Richard's Almanack.
But novels were her favorites. Be it Cooper'sLast of the Mohicansor Emily Brontë'sWuthering Heightsor her sister Charlotte'sJane Eyre, she devoured them all, delighting in Elizabeth Bennett's and Mr. Darcy's battle of the sexes in Jane Austen'sPride and Prejudice, or the mastery of Charles Dickens's words inA Tale of Two Cities. But nothing thrilled her like Sir Walter Scott's tales of jousting knights and fair damsels.
For the next couple of hours, she sold dances and read her book.
When two new arrivals entered, a shudder rippled her spine. Rory remembered seeing them the previous week. There'd been something about them that gave her a chill; an aura of evil. Both had mean stares, and never looked a person in the eyes. The shorter of the two had a skeletal-appearing face that gave him a ghostly look. Rumor had it that they robbed and shanghaied drunks for unethical sea captains.
After exchanging a few words with Mo, the two men sat down at a table in the corner. No matter how she tried, Rory couldn't keep her eyes off the creepy pair. For the next thirty minutes they spoke to no one, including each other, nor did they attempt to play cards or show an interest in any of the girls. They just sat there silently, drinking slowly, as if waiting for someone.
She shivered again and felt goose bumps prickle her arms as if "Satan, hisself be walkin' on me grave," as her Irish mother had said whenever something scared her. Rory decided to leave.
She stopped at the bar to purchase a bottle of whiskey to take back to her father. She was worried about Pop. He was getting up in years, but insisted that what he lacked in youth, he made up in cunning. Since her mother had died, he had taken to drinking his meals, rather than put some decent hot food into his stomach. That was why she couldn't leave him. At least at times she succeeded in getting him to eat.
At that moment, Shelia and Garth Fraser came downstairs. He was unsteady on his feet and obviously had drunk the better part of the whiskey he'd taken upstairs.
So he was just like all the other tramps after all, she thought in disgust. Men came in all sizes and shapes, but underneath they were all alike.
Once again he caught her eye and smiled and tipped his hat. He was a charmer, all right. Rory nodded and then turned her back to him.
As Rory settled up with Mo for the evening, she saw the bartender make eye contact with the two men and nod slightly in the direction of the departing Fraser. They got up quickly and followed him.
Rory's suspicious nature was a gift from her mother and had guided her successfully through what might have been some disastrous situations in her twenty-four years. She didn't have to step in a pile of horse manure to know that something smelled rotten -- the two men were up to no good, and it looked like her boss was in cahoots with them.
Give it no mind, Rory O'Grady, if you've nay got a stake in the pot. Besides, drunk or sober, Garth Fraser struck her as a man who could take care of himself.
She stepped outside. The smell of the sea from a nearby inlet permeated the rising ground fog that swirled around her knees and ankles. In the distance, the clang of the bell on a moored buoy carried to her ears. She glanced skyward just as dark clouds drifted across the face of the moon. "Aye, Mum, I know: 'Tis a bad sign," she murmured.
Due to the late hour the street was deserted, but she was able to make out the figure of Fraser and the two men following him. Clutching her whiskey bottle in one hand, she tightened the shawl around her shoulders, and started to scurry the short distance to her rooming house.
Then her conscience got the better of her. She couldn't abandon Fraser to whatever fate those two blackguards had planned for him. Ignoring her common sense, she spun on her heel and followed them. Within minutes, the rising fog would engulf the town, swallowing whatever light remained in the moonless night. Rory could barely distinguish the figures, but still she hugged the dark shadows to make certain she'd not be seen.
Within seconds she lost sight of them entirely, and were it not for the gruff sound of a man's voice, she would have bumped into them.
"As soon as you finish tying him up, Skull, we'll tote him into our shack. Then I'll go and get the captain."
Holding what appeared to be a blackjack, the speaker stood over Fraser, who was trussed up like a roped steer with his arms tied behind his back and his ankles bound together.
Grunting, the two men lifted Fraser and carried him into a nearby shack. Rory inched closer and peeked into the window.
"Hurry, he's beginning to stir," the larger, gruff-voiced man declared. "Here's his gun. If he wakes up, you'll need it."
"You mean I should shoot him, Bates?" Skull asked.
"No, stupid! Keep it trained on him. That'll keep him from tryin' to escape."
Rory slunk back into the shadows when the man hurried away. As soon as she was certain he was gone, she moved over to the shack and peered into the window again. The glow from a candle inside enabled her to make out the bound figure of Fraser on the floor in the corner. Skull was standing over him with a pointed pistol.
"If you want to stay alive, mate, jest stay still."
"Can I sit up? This is uncomfortable," Fraser said.
"Okay, but don't try anything."
"Why didn't you just take my money and leave me?" Fraser asked, shifting to a sitting position.
"We've got better plans for you, mate. You're goin' on a long sea trip."
So her suspicions were right; they intended to shanghai him. She had to do something, or it would be too late to help the poor man. She heard footsteps and slipped back into the shadows just as Bates reappeared. When he went inside, she returned to the window.
"The captain and crew's ashore," Bates said. "There's only the bo'sun on duty. He said we'd have to carry him on ourselves."
"How're we gonna do that?" Skull riled. "The man weighs two hundred pounds at least. We can't carry him to the ship."
"Then we'll walk him there."
"And what makes you think I'll be obliging enough to do that?" Fraser asked.
Bates's mouth twisted into a cruel smirk as he pulled a wicked-looking knife out of his boot. " 'Cause it's better than havin' your throat cut."
"That's a good point," Fraser agreed calmly.
"And so has this knife, mate, so don't try anything foolish."
Bates cut the rope binding Fraser's legs and hauled him to his feet. Sliding the knife back into his boot, he opened the door and snarled, "Let's get movin'."
Fraser stomped his feet several times to get the circulation back in them, then Skull shoved him to follow. Fraser stumbled into Bates and knocked him off balance. Seizing the opportunity, he kicked Skull in the knee.
Doubling over with pain, Skull dropped the gun and clutched his knee. Fraser used those few seconds to try to take off, but the two men quickly recovered their footing and wrestled him to the ground.
Except for the grunts and sounds of the blows, no man spoke as they thrashed and struggled, but due to the proximity, no one was able to deliver a felling blow.
Considering he'd been inebriated, Fraser was managing to do a fair job of fighting them off, but it was two against one, and it would only be a matter of time before they'd succeed in overpowering him.
Fraser managed to stagger to his feet and shove Skull aside with such force that the little man stumbled backward, crashed into the table, and struck his head on the leg. He slumped to the floor unconscious.
Rory had been watching Bates and saw the weasel reach for the knife in his boot. She grasped the whiskey bottle firmly in her hand, darted into the shack, and just as the scoundrel was about to sink the knife into Fraser's back, she smashed the bottle over his head. He pitched forward unconscious.
Prepared to deliver another forceful kick, Fraser halted when he saw the new addition to the fight was a woman.
Rory picked up the fallen knife and freed his bound hands. Shaking his wrists, Fraser went over and recovered his pistol. He slipped it into the holster he wore on his hip, and then picked up his hat.
"I owe you a debt of gratitude, Miss -- "
"Time for introductions later. Let's get out of here before these two wake up." She grabbed Fraser's hand and they raced away.
"Where are we going?" he asked when they passed The Grotto.
"Where it's safer."
They reached the rooming house and stole quietly into her room. She locked the door and lit the lamp.
"Excuse me, I'll be right back," Rory said. She went into the adjoining room and closed the door.
Walking over to the figure in the bed, she placed a hand on his brow. "How are you feeling, Pop?"
"Fair to middling. And after a wee nip of me medicine, I'm sure I'll be feeling a lot better. Would you bring me the bottle, darlin'?" His wide Irish grin always melted her heart.
"Whiskey isnotmedicine, Paddy O'Grady," she declared as she poured a dosage of liquid onto a spoon.
"Aye, darlin', but it kills the bitterness of this vile-tasting medicine the doctor forces me to drink."
"It's for your own good, Pop. And it's working, isn't it? You hardly coughed last night at all. Open your mouth."
His countenance scrunched up in displeasure as he swallowed the potion and shook his head. " 'Tis brewed by the devil himself. Better to let a swarm of blood-sucking leeches drain the blood from me!"
"Medicine's advanced beyond the Dark Ages, Pop, so stop acting like such a baby. You can get along without whiskey for one night."
"Are you telling me you didn't bring me whiskey?"
"I bought it like you asked, but I accidentally broke the bottle. I don't have any more money to replace it."
"And that thieving bartender wouldn't be trusting us for the cost of another bottle!"
"I didn't ask him. We had words again over my refusing...to work one of the rooms."
Paddy clenched his fist and shook it in the air. "That heathen son of the devil! When I get out of this bed, I'll be telling him so."
"Now don't get yourself all worked up, Pop, or you'll start coughing again."
A twinkle returned to his eyes. "Maybe there's a few drops left in me bottle to soothe the tongue of an ailing man, darlin'?"
Rory went over to the table and turned the whiskey bottle upside down. "Sorry, Pop, not a drop." She went back to the bed, tucked in the blanket, and bent down and kissed his forehead. "Get some sleep now. I'll talk to Mo tomorrow. I'm sure he'll give me a bottle on credit. Good night, Pop."
"Good night, darlin'." He sighed. "But how's an ailing man to sleep without his medicine?"
Excerpted from His Boots under Her Bed by Ana Leigh
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