The Last Honest Seamstress
Gina Robinson's new historical romance catches fire in 1889 Seattle.
When sparks fly, love ignites.
Seattle in 1889 is a hard frontier town full of rough men and prostitutes who call themselves seamstresses.
SHE NEEDS A HUSBAND…
After too many business setbacks and unwanted marriage proposals, beautiful and ambitious men's tailor Fayth Sheridan desperately needs to find a husband of convenience. Now if she can only convince handsome sea captain Con O'Neill, the one man in Seattle who’s shown no interest in her, that he's the one…
HE NEEDS TO WIN HER LOVE…
When Seattle burns to the ground, taking Fayth's shop with it, Con vows to do anything to protect her. Even marrying her even though she's not in love with him. When he's forced to make a deal with Seattle's notorious madam, he risks losing everything, including any chance at love with the last honest seamstress in Seattle.
Release Date: August 4, 2012
THE LAST HONEST SEAMSTRESS
Early Spring 1889
The jail cell smelled of overcrowding. A cacophony of perfumes, applied with too heavy a hand and warmed to extreme effect, escaped through the bars, carrying with it a hint of feminine perspiration and agitation. Fayth Sheridan, already warm and flustered from being packed in and confined with the others, found the odor cloying, nearly nauseating. She tried to appear calm and nonchalant as she smoothed her gray walking skirt and inched closer to the bars. She hoped to separate herself from the rest of the women while she eavesdropped on the two guards in the hall.
Stay calm. Stay calm.
It wouldn't do to panic. Fayth had survived scandal before. She supposed she could weather it here, where the bounds of decorum were decidedly stretched. Seattle wasn't Baltimore, after all. But she needed to get out of this cell and back to business—the real, legitimate business of men's tailoring. And she didn't want to call upon her second cousins for help if at all possible. Elizabeth would be mortified and Fayth didn't think she could stand Sterling's reserved resignation.
The guards' conversation drifted toward her.
"Seamstresses! All of them say they're seamstresses!" The stout, obviously annoyed guard snorted and spat upon the floor. He turned to his colleague, a tall, thin man. "You believe that, Charlie? Seems we got more seamstresses in town than we got whores. Something about that doesn't seem right to me." He shook his head and grinned, showing his yellowed teeth. "Not with how busy the cribs are on a Saturday night." He winked at Charlie.
Fayth disliked him immensely. Not that it was customary to like one's jailors. In his case, he was not only homely, but his clothes didn't fit properly; his bearing spoke of an overblown sense of his own importance, opinions, and power. As if that weren't enough, he'd handled her roughly when he'd herded her into the cell with the rest of the "ladies."
"I only ever seen one sewing machine in all the time I been here. And that one was on its way to a widow in Tacoma," he said to Charlie. "Want to lay me odds there's not one of them can so much as thread a needle?" His accompanying chuckle was tinged with innuendo.
That infuriated Fayth more than his words. How dare he label her with the others?
She set her jaw, determined to maintain her equilibrium as she corrected him. "Sir, hand me a needle and thread and I'll make a liar out of you." She spoke deliberately with the broad, elegant vowels of her Eastern upbringing.
The other girls grew silent suddenly, as if she'd really stepped in something now. But Fayth didn't care. If she didn't stick up for herself, who would?
The guard looked surprised and distinctly displeased, as if no woman should dare question his male superiority. He snorted. "Lady, maybe you can, but it don't convince me you aren't a whore like the rest of them. And it sure don't change my mind about women who sell their bodies."
"Oh, leave her alone." The slender guard spoke before Fayth could reply, startling her with his defense. "She says she was rounded up by mistake."
"Yeah, don't they all."
Charlie gawked at her, blushing as he gave her a shy smile. "But look at her." He swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing. Clearly, he wasn't used to contradicting his partner. "Her skirt and jacket are gray and plain. And she's not showing any skin, excepting her face. Maybe she isn't one of them."
The other guard snorted again. "Of course she's one of them, Charlie. You know any decent lady who would stand in the middle of a group of whores?" He laced his voice with lewd undertones.
Fayth lost her composure. "I am not one of them, as anyone with a pair of eyes can see." She smiled at the shy guard. "Thank you, Charlie, for defending me. Now, please, let me out of here."
"You better shut up." The belligerent guard took a step toward the cell and jabbed a finger at her through the bars. "A woman your age should know the rules. You don't mouth off, not to me. I don't like spunky women any better than whores."
Fayth felt a tug at her sleeve and turned to find herself facing one of the youngest prostitutes, a pretty, fine-featured girl with soft strawberry-blond hair. "You won't convince him." On closer look the girl was no older than fifteen. She took Fayth's arm, scolding as she pulled her away from the bars. "Making him angry will only make things worse."
Fayth turned to see the guard chuckling to himself, probably delighted to see her upbraided by a mere girl. Blast him!
"The guards go easier on you if you just keep to yourself." The girl's voice was fresh and delicate, but knowing beyond her years, which pulled at Fayth's heart.
Fayth's new friend sighed with impatience. She raised her voice, obviously for the guards' benefit. "I don't understand it myself. There's obviously been a mistake. Lou pays our monthly fines, never misses a payment. They shouldn't be arresting us, not when we paid. Isn't any law against riding in a carriage on a Saturday afternoon."
The girl cracked a knuckle and lowered her voice so only Fayth could hear. "Lou says carriage rides are good for business. Always brings the men in. They like to see the goods before they come to the house. You know, make their choices ahead of time." She wiped her hand across her skirt.
"Lou says I have to stop cracking," the girl continued. "Gentlemen don't like girls with big knuckles." She stared at her hands, and scrunched up her nose. "Too bad the carriage broke down right by that street corner where you were standing. Sorry we all piled out on you like that."
"Yes, too bad. But thank you. Accidents will happen." Against her better judgment, Fayth was beginning to warm to her young cellmate.
"Don't worry." The girl looked sincere. "Lou will straighten things out. Some official's probably out for publicity again. You know, clean up the streets and all that. Lou'll be here soon enough to bail us out and when she arrives she'll give them the what-for. Lou mad is not a sight anybody'd like to see." She whispered into Fayth's ear with the gleeful tone of a conspirator. "Except maybe us. You'll enjoy the fireworks when she gets here. Lou has friends in high, high places. And she knows how to use them. She'll make those jackass guards pay. She doesn't like business disrupted. "
"Nor do I," Fayth said. "I really am a seamstress." She didn't know why she had added that or why it mattered if the girl believed her.
The younger girl smiled knowingly. "Sure you are, like we all are. Let me give you a tip. If you want the police to believe you're not one of us, list your occupation as anything else when they pick you up. In Seattle, seamstress is code for lady of the night." She held a tenderly manicured hand out for Fayth to shake. "Name's Coral."
Fayth took her hand. "Fayth Sheridan."
"You shouldn't be working alone, Fayth. You don't want to end up in the cribs. Believe me." She wrinkled her nose in disgust and lowered her voice. "They service dozens of men a night." Coral shuddered.
"You need a nice parlor house, like ours." Coral nodded. "Sometimes we only entertain a single client for the entire night. Gentlemen." Coral winked. "And no matter how much he wants to, one man can only keep going so long before he has to give up and sleep. Come see Lou. I'm sure she'll take you. We've had an empty room since Rose moved out." Coral's gaze flitted over Fayth approvingly. "From the look of you, you'll fit right in. Lou Gramm only hires girls with looks and intelligence. After all, we cater to the elite of the city. Our men like their ladies refined." Her voice held unmistakable pride.
Refined, indeed. Fayth glanced around at her supposed fellow seamstresses to prove how not like them she was. She froze midway as an awful realization occurred to her—the women surrounding her dressed with more flounces and bows, and showed a tad more skin, but she wasn't dramatically distinguishable from them. "I'm not a prostitute."
Coral looked crestfallen and turned away. Fayth felt immediately contrite. When would she learn compassion? The girl needed a friend as much as she did.
Fayth reached out and tugged at Coral's arm to keep her from blending back into the crowd of women. "I'm sorry. Thank you for your concern. And your help. The only crime I've committed today is offending you."
What a welcome to Seattle, Fayth thought. Mistakenly herded together with a group of prostitutes as she waited on the street. What next? But maybe Coral could help her. Maybe they could help each other.
Fayth spoke slowly. "Would you help me? Would you tell the guards I'm not one of Miss Gramm's girls; that you don't know me? They'd have to let me out. They have no evidence against me."
"They seldom do." Coral smiled, apparently forgiving her. "Wouldn't do any good— you were in the wrong area of town."
Fayth found this girl both puzzling and fascinating. Coral and her companions were all dressed in stylish, quality clothes. Their hair was fashionably coifed. They looked almost like real ladies. She'd been shocked when the police arrested her with them and she'd realized what they really were. Fayth had never before met a prostitute. In her imagination, she had always pictured them wearing gaudy-colored dresses with short skirts, ankles and far too much skin exposed.
The door at the end of the hall swung open. Someone yelled a command to the guards. Fayth was ushered with the other girls to an office where a petite, dark-haired woman paced, led by a bust resembling the prow of a ship. Coral's savior, Miss Gramm?
As if Coral had read Fayth's mind, she whispered into her ear. "That's Miss Lou Gramm."
Fayth watched the woman scrutinize the ladies as they entered the room, voicing their relief. Tiny sighs, gentle outrushes of breath. The women shuffled past their madam, whispering their gratitude.
"That's the last time I let someone else drive them. I'm a busy woman. I haven't got time for this nonsense. Keep your men in line, Captain. The last thing I need's some overzealous cop picking on my girls. And on Saturday!"
The girls, Coral included, filed past the older woman. Fayth hung back. She'd suffered enough indignity for one day. She wasn't going to parade before a madam. The woman's gaze fell on Fayth.
"That one isn't mine." Lou pointed at Fayth.
"You must be mistaken, Lou. She was picked up with your girls." The policeman's tone was courteous, but disbelieving.
"I know my girls."
"I'm sure you do." The police captain shrugged and nodded for one of his men to take Fayth back to the cell. Before Fayth could react, Lou waved him down.
"Fine, what the hell," Lou said. "Let her go. I can claim her as easily as not."
The captain called the guard off. The other girls streamed out the door and into a waiting carriage. Fayth nodded a curt thank you to the madam as she walked past. There was courtesy, and then there was courtesy. Lou Gramm made her living selling Coral's young flesh. Despicable. Fayth paused at the door and turned to wave good-bye to Coral. Lou had pulled her aside.
"Who is that woman?" The madam spoke loudly enough for Fayth to hear her from across the room. Probably intentional.
Coral looked down and mumbled something.
"Louder, Coral. So I can hear you."
"I don't know, ma'am. Her name is Fayth. She claims she really is a seamstress." Coral looked embarrassed.
Lou leveled her gaze on Fayth. "Interesting. A seamstress in my pocket. How will I ever call back this favor?"
Fayth turned away from the madam and whispered defiantly. "You won't." Then Fayth walked out the door, past the waiting carriage, and down the street.
Fayth Sheridan sat opposite Mr. Sylvester Hoage, regarding him sympathetically as he stammered and struggled to order from a menu written mostly in French. Large of girth, bald, with eyes too small for his sprawling face, he looked like a toad all dressed up in a new suit. His poorly knotted tie sat slightly askew of his collar. Fayth would have straightened it for him, but the gesture seemed too intimate and would have given the poor man false hope of winning her affection.
The Occidental Hotel had a reputation for serving fine cuisine and providing an atmosphere pleasant and respectable enough to impress a lady. Guests of social prominence were given tables with pleasant ambiance where they could see and be seen. The table Fayth occupied in the rear corner of the dining room was just far enough away from the kitchen to avoid being the worst in the house. Mr. Hoage seemed unaware of the slight. He finished ordering. The waiter turned to Fayth.
"What will you have tonight, Miss Sheridan?"
"Excellent choice." The waiter nodded and disappeared.
"The waiter knows you by name?" Mr. Hoage's voice rang with insecurity.
"I dine here often." Too often. But how could she turn down these lonely men? The handsome, arrogant ones were easy, but men like Mr. Hoage elicited her sympathy. They looked so eager and pleading when they asked, and so dejected when she turned them down. And because she was not attracted to them, they were not a threat to her. One evening was a small sacrifice to make them happy. But only one. She seldom accompanied them twice.
Mr. Hoage didn't appear entirely satisfied with her answer, but dropped the matter and inched his chair closer to hers for the second time since their arrival. "You look lovely tonight, Miss Sheridan."
"Thank you, sir." Fayth forced a smile. She wore a simple gray gown with a small bustle and jet buttons up the front. Her hair was pulled back into a severe chignon with no suggestion of softness or curls. Since the death of her parents and his defection, she dressed without regard to pleasing the masculine eye.
"How has the tailoring business been lately?" As Mr. Hoage made a stiff attempt at conversation, he leaned even closer.
"It's been fine, Mr. Hoage."
"Ah." He nodded in what Fayth thought was a vain attempt to look informed and cleared his throat.
Her customers, like Mr. Hoage, were working-class men. Lumberjacks, mill hands, sailors and fishermen, all willing to pay more for her clothes than ready-made ones because of the attention she gave her clients. Taking precise measurements, running her hands over shoulders to ensure a smooth line, snapping pant legs taut during fittings, recommending fabric and styles, and telling her clients how fine they looked in their new attire were all part of her job. Fayth realized they flocked to her shop mostly because she was a single woman in a town with a dire shortage of women, and giving her their business gave them an opportunity to court her.
"I was just thinking, you know, it isn't right for a lady as pretty as you to have to work and worry about business. Wouldn't it be easier if you had a husband?"
She stiffened. Poor, desperate man. Here came the inevitable marriage proposal. She had to cut him off before he could issue it. "I love my work, Mr. Hoage. I have no desire to marry."
He looked abashed, but recovered quickly. "I hear you have a fine hand for drawing and sketching. Maybe you'd let me take you out on a nature walk? I know of a little knoll with a fine view of the mountains and the Sound. It'd make a pretty picture."
He was persistent, she gave him that. Barely half an hour into their evening and he had already nearly attempted a marriage proposal, and once turned away, angled for another social call.
"No, thank you, Mr. Hoage." From his determined look, he wouldn't be dropping the matter easily. Fortunately, she noticed her cousins waiting near the maître d' for a table. "Look! There are the Kelleys." She caught their attention and gave them a discreet wave.
A look of disappointment quickly clouded Mr. Hoage's face as her cousins made their way toward them.
"Fayth!" Her cousin Elizabeth was tall and spare, with shiny black hair fashionably styled. Elizabeth, past thirty and unhappily childless, always looked for someone to mother. Her expression warned Fayth to expect one of Elizabeth's motherly lectures.
"Mr. Hoage, do you know the Kelleys, Sterling and Elizabeth?" Fayth always thought Sterling looked exactly like his name. Tonight, wearing a gray suit she'd recently made for him, more than ever. He, like his wife, was lean and long. But his hair was a distinguished silver.
Mr. Hoage reluctantly stood to greet them.
"Won't you join us?" Fayth asked.
"Just until our table's ready," Elizabeth said.
Sterling held a chair out for her.
"Mr. Hoage works at a dry goods store down the street from my shop."
"Really?" Fayth felt rebuke in Elizabeth's tone. "Near Fayth's shop?"
"Oh, yes. Very near." Mr. Hoage fell haplessly into Elizabeth's trap.
"Sterling and I regret her dubious location." Elizabeth's voice dripped disdain. Fayth watched her give him the up and down, saw her expression harden, and knew her cousin had formed a low opinion of the man. "We worry daily about her safety. We'd be so much happier knowing the right man was looking out for her."
"Elizabeth doesn't like my shop being so close to Billy the Mug's Saloon."
"And other establishments I won't name," Elizabeth interjected.
"Elizabeth is referring to Lou Gramm's parlor house. I have a friend there." Mr. Hoage didn't give Fayth the disapproving look she expected. Few men approved of a decent woman going near a brothel.
"You brought it up, Elizabeth. Mr. Hoage might as well hear it from me so he doesn't get the wrong impression." Fayth looked directly at her dinner companion. "I've made an acquaintance, hoping to steer her away from the immoral, degrading life she currently lives."
"She's actually been inside Lou's house," Elizabeth said in a jovial, scandalized tone. She lowered her voice. "I won't let her describe to me what she's seen."
"As if I would force such debauchery on her!" For the first time all evening Fayth was enjoying herself. "Many of Elizabeth's close friends have been scheming for months, trying to find a way to get into Miss Gramm's house." She spoke in a confiding tone, addressing her comments to Mr. Hoage. "They want to form a Christian Committee to visit all parlor houses and talk the girls out of the business. I've just beaten them to it."
"If it weren't for Fayth's well-known good intentions, her reputation would be in shreds," Elizabeth said. "Fayth, dear, you've gotten way out of hand, visiting that creature at Miss Gramm's whenever the mood strikes you. The idea was to visit each house once. To expound upon the evils and leave."
"You can't win a person over that way. True redemption only comes through love and friendship. Why should those girls trust someone they don't know? What guarantee will they have of help when they need it? It's not so easy to cast off one's former self, especially when society already pegs you for shame."
"You see what comes of women having too much time on their hands, Mr. Hoage?" Sterling's tone was jovial as he broke his silence. "Last time the good women of our town got this worked up over an issue they shut the parlor houses down. We lost so much revenue from prostitution fines everyone thought Seattle would go bankrupt. We had to repeal the women's right to vote just to keep the city afloat." He chuckled good-naturedly.
Sterling teased mercilessly; otherwise, Fayth would have lit into him about suffrage. "I'm a working girl, Sterling, and Elizabeth is busy with her charities. Neither one of us has time to get into trouble."
"Oh, look, Miss Siren has just arrived." Elizabeth waved to a matronly woman entering the dining area.
Fayth looked up in time to catch Miss Siren's disapproving look at her escort.
"Come with me, Fayth. We must greet her. Gentlemen, you will excuse us for a moment?"
Sterling stood immediately and pulled his wife's chair out. Mr. Hoage was somewhat slower on Fayth's behalf. Fayth had already wiggled out of the chair before he was fully standing. Elizabeth took her arm and guided her. They were barely out of earshot of the men when Elizabeth leaned in and whispered in her ear. "What in heaven's name are you doing out with that buffoon? And when your good reputation is already in danger? Even the maître d' recognizes a lowlife when he sees it. You're seated in a worse location than the last time you dined here escorted. It's positively embarrassing."
"He pestered me for weeks. He looked so pitiful, I finally accepted." Fayth's returning whisper was a frustrated hiss.
"And how is letting him escort you out going to rid you of him? You must be firm with these men. Turn them down cold. You've been seen out too often lately and with such men! Did you see the look Miss Siren gave you?"
Fayth opened her mouth to speak, but Elizabeth cut her off before she could form a word.
"If you turned enough men down, word would get out that you are not courting. Though I must say, you should be courting. You need to forget Drew and move on. But you must see the right sort of gentlemen. And I emphasize, gentlemen."
"I've tried Elizabeth. Goodness knows how many offers I turn down a day. But the men in this town are so transient, and the city is growing so fast, that a new crop of men arrives daily. Word does not get out."
Elizabeth frowned. "You must try harder."
Fayth gave her a light smile. "I thought Seattle society was supposed to be tolerant. I came west because you assured me that people here aren't easily scandalized." She gave Elizabeth's arm a little tug. "Thank you for worrying about me."
Elizabeth shook her head and smiled back. Her tone was soft. "What would you do if Sterling and I weren't around to watch out for you? Do you want us to stay long enough to save Mr. Hoage the trouble of seeing you home?"
"I would appreciate it."
Elizabeth gave her a quick hug as they reached Miss Siren. Elizabeth called out an enthusiastic greeting. A pleasant commotion coming from the entrance caught Fayth's attention. Two uniformed ship captains were just arriving, laughing and joking with each other.
Fayth's heart skipped a beat as she recognized the taller of the two as one of her customers, Captain O'Neill. Of good height, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, he was a tailor's dream. And if she were honest—a woman's. Anything looked good on him. Too bad she’d written off good-looking men as disloyal, unfaithful, untrustworthy . . .
Well, enough of that. She wouldn't trust a handsome man again, not ever. But she could enjoy the sight of one. Besides his broad shoulders, the Captain had snapping hazel eyes and a glorious head of luscious, thick auburn hair, the kind of hair a woman could run her fingers through. If she were, of course, the type of woman who lusted after a man like him. Which Fayth absolutely wasn’t. After Drew, she’d written the male persuasion off completely. Except for pity dates with men like Mr. Hoage. Real courting was simply out of the question.
She watched the maître d' seat the Captain and his friend in a prime location, letting her gaze linger a moment too long. He looked in her direction, caught her eye, and smiled. Though he was across the room, she knew his eyes danced with good humor. They always did. And beneath his auburn beard, dimples pleated his cheeks. Why was that enigmatic smile of his etched in her mind?
She looked away guiltily, glad to be standing next to Elizabeth and Miss Siren, instead of seated with Mr. Hoage. Suddenly embarrassed about keeping Mr. Hoage's company, she wondered if a convenient headache would get her home early.
“Elizabeth, I’m suddenly not feeling well.”
Her cousin looked at her, followed her line of sight to the Captain, arched a brow, and took her arm. “Well, really, darling, then we’ll have to get you home, won’t we? I’ll get Sterling and have him bring the carriage around.”
Weeks later, Fayth kneeled on her skirts at the feet of a tall, strapping man, her mouth full of pins. She measured his inseam with care, paying particular attention to avoid touching the bulge evident between his legs. She hated pinning for the final hem as much as she hated taking the original measurements, but there was no way to avoid either.
"Every man needs a marrying and burying suit, that's what my pa says. Wouldn't you agree, Miss Sheridan?" Her client, a scruffy, bearded lumberjack, bent his knees ever so slightly and dipped discreetly so that her fingers brushed lightly against his bulge. Vulgar man.
"Mmm." As if scorched, she moved her hand away from the man's inseam. With an action designed to hide her automatic disgust, she removed a straight pin from her mouth and secured it in place in the hem. When would these men learn new tricks? Practically every male customer she had tried one move or another to guarantee her intimate touch.
"Brother's getting married next month. Guess I'll look better than the bridegroom, if he decides to invite me to the wedding and doesn't just stop by the courthouse one afternoon as he's been threatening." He leaned down to speak to the top of her head. "I suppose he's a lucky man. There aren't enough women to go around in these parts." He paused. When he spoke he didn't sound particularly envious. "The bride isn’t much to look at, but she can cook."
Fayth inserted the final pin and snapped the pant leg down taut over the heel of the logging boot the man wore for the fitting. The hem fell perfectly to the heel's midpoint. She grimaced at the man's reflection in the full-length mirror in front of them. The boots were probably the only pair of shoes he owned, but they looked patently ridiculous with the nearly completed suit he wore. She pushed up on one knee and rose. "All finished."
"So soon?" The man seemed disappointed.
"If I've done my job right, final fittings don't take long." She forced a smile. "You can change now. Just leave the suit on the fitting room chair. It'll be ready Friday. Pick it up anytime in the afternoon." She turned her back to him to log her promise in the appointment book on the counter.
She stopped writing. Oh please, let this be one man who isn't going to ask to court me.
"Yes?" She stared at her book. Facing him would only encourage him.
"I know it's only Tuesday, and maybe you don't make plans so far ahead, but I'm hoping that you'll agree to accompany me to Frye's Opera House on Saturday. I hear they're putting on a fine show."
She let out a small, pent up breath. Poor man, had he heard her exhale? Blast! Despite her best efforts, he'd asked her to a play. What should she do now? She turned. The man tugged at his ear and shifted back and forth under her gaze. She would have accepted, more out of pity than anything else, but Elizabeth's warning, issued weeks ago, still stung. Worse still was the memory of encountering Captain O'Neill. Why, she didn't know, but she'd been embarrassed that night. Elizabeth was right, she better either stop courting altogether, or start seeing gentlemen.
His face fell.
She faltered and almost lost her resolve as she tried to soften the rejection. "But . . . I have plans."
Never make excuses, Elizabeth had instructed her. But she felt his loneliness and disappointment. She knew all too well what it was like to want something beyond her reach. Maybe it’s better not to have a taste of it in the first place. Elizabeth thought so, saying it wasn’t kindness to give any unsuitable man false hope. Kindness, it seemed, was a slippery slope that led to unintentional cruelty.
His hopeful look returned. "Some other time then?"
Her assumption had just been verified. "I—Maybe."
Looking relieved and as if he might just have a chance with her after all, he nodded, and boots thumping noisily, went to the dressing room to change. Fayth collapsed in a chair and waited for him to finish.
When he left, she locked the door behind him and watched him walk out of sight down the uneven street, glad the last customer of the day was finally gone. Olive, her tabby cat, bounded out of the office and pawed at her skirts as Fayth turned the lock. Olive's little silver collar bell jingled happily as Fayth reached down and stroked her. "Happy to be free and out of hiding are you?"
Olive hadn't liked men since she was tiny, when she'd been kicked by one so hard she was nearly killed. Fayth swept her up and walked to the small adjoining office, crooning to her.
"No need to worry, kitty. They're all gone today. We won't have to deal with any more men until tomorrow."
A gentle saltwater breeze drifted in through the open window, carrying with it the smell of tide flats and sawdust from the mills at water's edge, ruffling the stack of sketches resting on her well-organized desk. Downtown Seattle was almost always favored with a cooling western breeze off Elliott Bay in Puget Sound. The familiar sounds of horns and steam whistles from ships floated up from the wharves. Seattle, with its shipping and lumber industries, was a man's town. Everything about the city, from the legitimate businesses to the profusion of prostitution cribs, parlor houses, and bars in the ample Tenderloin district, catered to the predominately male citizenry.
Fayth sighed. It wasn't as much fun as she'd thought being a woman in a man's town. Not when nearly every one of them seemed to be chasing her. She’d come to Seattle because she’d heard the town had an independent, free spirit. If anyone had thought to mention that the men themselves weren’t independently minded, she would have run the opposite direction.
She walked across the wavy, sloping floor and sat down in her desk chair, settling Olive in her lap. Long evening shadows slanted in through the window. This was her first spring in a Northern city and she wasn't used to such lengthy days. They made her feel slightly off balance. Days and nights should be evenly matched. She scanned the dust that settled on the floor, carried in from the dry streets outside. She should sweep up.
The same sawmills that whined endlessly at wharf's edge were responsible for her nemesis, the uneven floors. Seattle was built on tide flats that had been filled with sawdust and debris from the mills. Unfortunately, the city had already sprung up on the fill when the founding fathers discovered that sawdust decomposed randomly, causing buildings to settle unevenly. Seattle's citizens were forced to put up with the results.
She should buy this building. She had saved almost enough money for the down payment. Renting was just throwing money away, not building equity. She could almost hear her father's scolding voice as she remembered his litany of business and personal advice. Her gaze moved around the room. The water stains up the walls bothered her. The building had flooded last March. Fortunately, all she lost were several bolts of fine wool. Old tide flats died hard. More worrying was whether any damage had been done to the foundation of the building.
Realizing her own inadequate knowledge of construction made her feel two things she detested—helpless and frustrated. How could she tell whether the building was sound, or whether the foundation would wash away during the next rainy season? How expensive would it be to repair the watermarked walls? Could she trust a hired contractor to give her an honest bid and do conscientious work? The city was full of scoundrels and con artists, men eager and willing to make a quick dollar off any easy target. And wasn't she the easiest of marks? Whom could she trust? Her cousin Sterling was too busy, and knew little more about buildings than she did. And she had no desire to be dependent on her cousins.
Olive squirmed to get down, already tired of cuddling. Reluctantly, Fayth let her go and turned her attention to the sketches adorning her desk. Designs for intricate gowns filled the pages. Absently, she reached for a pen to make minor alterations and additions. She should be designing for women instead of measuring men's inseams. Father's voice intruded again. Sewing for men was good, reliable business. Why had she listened to him?
She looked up and caught her reflection in the new mirror that leaned against the wall, waiting to be hung in the fitting room. Yet another task more suited to male talents. She grimaced and brushed a stray lock of hair back into place. Only in Seattle, where a plain woman could draw a line of suitors a block long, could her face be considered beautiful.
Frustrated, she set her pen down, her creative enthusiasm dulled by her mood. It all came down to men. She had more suitors than a dozen girls needed, but she didn't want a single one of them. She wanted to be left alone to work on her designs, to sew her creations. What she really needed was . . .
Olive started at hearing Fayth speak. Fayth was nearly as surprised herself. What a crazy notion. She pushed her sketches out of the way. A copy of the latest proposal before the city council sat on the corner of her desk. Mr. Wylie had dropped it by yesterday. They wanted to widen the streets. The extra taxes levied to pay for it, along with the disruption to business, would easily consume several months’ worth of her slender profits. The business was her security, her livelihood, the only thing worth fighting for. Anything threatening it was the enemy. And she had no weapons to fight this foe. Only men could vote.
As Sterling had reminded her, two years ago the women of Washington Territory could vote. They lost their enfranchisement when the men decided they didn't like the women's voting record. Why they repealed liquor licenses, and shut down the prostitution cribs—heinous!
Sure, Fayth could speak her concerns at a Council meeting, for all the good it did. Men were openly suspicious of women who involved themselves in politics and business, ascribing to them all manner of do-good notions. With her well-known views on the evils of prostitution she gave them open reason to ignore and scorn her.
Now, if she were only a man, or had the right husband, one who would speak for her . . .
Olive continued to meow her disapproval.
"Whatever you do, Fayth, don't let the business fail. It's your heritage, your life. As long as you have it, you'll be safe," Father had always said. She hadn't believed him. She almost destroyed it. What she had in Seattle was only a fragile, salvaged shadow of what had been in Baltimore.
Everything threatened it. When she'd last gone to see her banker, Mr. Finn, he'd balked at the idea of her buying the shop, claiming she was undercapitalized and had no worthy collateral. Would any reputable bank loan a single woman money for business? Blast! A man could get the money. On second consideration, maybe this wild idea had merit. There were more reasons to marry than love. A marriage of convenience held all the right incentives.
"Oh, poor kitty, I scared you." She reached to pet her, but Olive skittered away. "Olive, we need a husband. Then all those undesirable men will leave us alone. And we'll have someone to hang mirrors, and judge foundations, and cast votes. And how will we ever get a loan without one?"
Olive cocked her head to one side.
"I know what you're thinking. But I think it will work, don't you?"
"Yes, I know. Neither one of us trusts men much, or longs to have one around all the time. Still, if we're careful, we can overcome the obstacles. Don't fret, kitty. I'm talking about a business arrangement."
She stood and paced. "Yes, we will find us a husband." She scooped up the cat, cuddling her to her cheek, her mood lighter. She looked Olive in the eye. "Don't worry, darling. I will be very particular. We certainly don't want things worse than they are."
She walked over and closed the window. "Come, Olive. Let's get some dinner."
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