San Francisco, California
Hope MacGregor wrinkled her nose in disgust as she dodged and weaved, hurrying down yet another overcrowded street. She had hoped not to set eyes on this godforsaken city for at least a year, but she’d been away for barely eight weeks. Her mood was further darkened by her destination. She was headed for Madame Murphy’s brothel, a place no decent lady would be caught dead entering. Yet she was determined to rescue her older sister from the madame’s clutches. After all, her sister Faith had only gone to work as a whore to rescue her, and Hope couldn’t bear to think of the hell her sister must be enduring on her behalf.
She was intent on her destination, and she kept her head down as she darted around a corner and collided with a hard male body. The man gripped her upper arms and pulled her closer against his chest as he leered down at her. The lust in his eyes and the whiskey on his breath were a dangerous combination, and her heart began pounding with alarm.
“Where are you going in such a rush, sweetheart?”
“Yeah,” said his grinning companion. “Isn’t it a little early on a Sunday morning for a whore to be out wandering the streets?”
“I’m no whore,” Hope hissed, yanking free from the first man’s clutches, “move aside and let me pass.”
Instead, the two men crowded closer, forcing Hope to take several steps backward until she bumped up against the brick wall of a building. They were eyeing her like two wolves closing in on a lamb.
“Oh, she’s a bossy one,” the second man said with a laugh.
“Yeah, and I like the really bossy ones,” his buddy replied, letting his eyes roam over her curves. “The bossy ones always know just how to please a man. I bet she loves giving orders in bed too.” He was practically drooling as he eyed her trembling breasts.
“I told you, I’m not a whore. I’m a lady,” she gritted from between clenched teeth. She could feel her cheeks blazing with mortification. “Now, leave me alone.”
The two men exchanged a puzzled glance. “Well, if you aren’t a whore, what are you doing all on your own, walking down by the docks?” asked the first man.
“Yeah,” the other man added suspiciously. “The only businesses in this part of town are brothels, pubs, and gambling houses. A lady wouldn’t dare show her face around here, especially without a chaperone.”
Hope didn’t have a good answer, and she swallowed hard as her cheeks flamed. She might not be a whore yet, but if her plan worked, she would be one within the next hour or so. Then, she would have to entertain men like these ones for money. The thought made her shudder, but it didn’t deter her from her purpose. She would do whatever it took to rescue her sister.
Once again, she tried to push past the two men, but they stood shoulder to shoulder and didn’t budge. She thought about calling for help, but she doubted the other men rushing by would be any help against these two. It was a rough part of town, full of sailors, laborers, and miners, all seeking some fun and female companionship.
The first man leaned even closer, propping his elbow on the wall beside her head. His voice became cajoling. “Come on now, sweetheart. We can see that you’re in a hurry, but me and Ed won’t keep you long, I promise. And we’ll pay you handsomely for your time.” He pulled several shiny silver dollars from his pocket and jingled them in his beefy palm. “All we want is a good, hard fucking and maybe a little bit of slap and tickle.”
“Of all the nerve!” Hope’s shocked gasp of outrage didn’t bother them, and the second man went on as if she hadn’t spoken.
“That’s right,” he said with a lustful grin. “A sweet round ass like yours just begs to be spanked. Now, stop wasting time. Unbutton your dress and show us those plump titties.”
He reached for her breast, but Hope batted his hand away with a furious growl. “Don’t you dare touch me. I’ve told you time and again, I am not a whore! Let me go, or I’ll scream.”
For several fraught moments, it seemed like they might not do as she had demanded. But finally, the first man gave a frustrated sigh and stepped aside, clapping his friend on the back of the shoulder. “Come on, Ed. There are plenty of willing whores to choose from. We don’t need one who is going to spend the whole time hissing and screeching. She’s not worth so much trouble, even if she does have a perfect set of tits.”
Hope squeezed past him and hurried away as fast as she could. Her cheeks were burning with humiliation. It was hard to believe how far she had fallen. Not that long ago, she and her sister had been living a carefree life, with no worries about how they would support themselves. And now, barely a year later, she was on her way to get a job in Madame Murphy’s brothel. Both MacGregor sisters had been reduced to working as whores just to make ends meet.
Their parents had owned a very successful and lucrative horse breeding ranch near Wilbur Springs, California. The girls had grown up in a comfortable home on their thousand-acre ranch. They had enjoyed all of life’s comforts, with beautiful dresses, loving parents, and no concerns about the future. Hope had certainly had plenty of admirers, but not nearly as many as her sister. Men were drawn to her older sister like bees to honey.
Faith was the spitting image of their father, with her fiery red hair and sparkling green eyes. She also had an outgoing and fiery disposition, and that, in combination with her red hair, was like a beacon for the opposite sex. Men gravitated toward her in droves. They were so busy trying to win her favor that they rarely noticed her equally beautiful but much more reserved younger sister.
That had always suited Hope just fine. She disliked being the center of attention. Nevertheless, she had attracted her own following of suitors. Some men preferred a more reserved woman, and they were drawn to her more serene personality. Ironically, those were the men who interested Hope the least. Although she might be less outgoing than her sister, she had always found strong, confident men much more attractive than the quiet ones who gravitated toward her.
Hope had always been compared to their mother, in both looks and temperament. Her hair was as black as a raven’s wing, and her eyes were like deep, mysterious blue pools. Her pa had always said she had a calm disposition to go along with her delicate beauty, but just like her mother, still waters ran deep. When riled, she had quite a temper, and if cornered, she came out with claws bared. This was definitely one of those times. For the past several weeks, her disposition had been anything but calm as she worried herself sick about her sister.
A little over a year earlier, the two girls had suffered a terrible tragedy. While they were attending a dance in town, a lightning strike had ignited a deadly fire on their ranch. After a particularly dry summer, the fire had raged through the ranch, destroying everything in its path. Both of their parents, their uncle Pete, who was really their father’s best friend and the foreman of their ranch, and several other ranch hands had died in the fire. The ranch house, the barns, and all of their best horses had also been destroyed.
Losing their parents, their friends, and their home had been devastating enough. But afterward, the two sisters had discovered they were also penniless. Their father had mortgaged the ranch to buy some expensive new horses. After the fire, the bank foreclosed, and since all other assets had been lost, the ranch was repossessed as payment for the loan. The two girls were left homeless and destitute, with almost nothing other than the clothes on their backs.
Both Hope and Faith had promptly received numerous marriage proposals from the young men in their hometown who were eager to come to their rescue. But neither sister had wanted to get married, so they had politely refused the many offers.
Instead, they had moved to San Francisco to seek employment. Hope had always wanted to become a schoolteacher, and since the fire, the girls had been hoping to save enough money for her to fulfill that dream. Their mother had grown up in Philadelphia, and Hope had an aunt who managed a teacher’s school there. Their aunt, who was their only remaining relative, couldn’t afford to send money for their train fare. But she had offered free tuition as well as free room and board for her nieces if they could get themselves to Philadelphia. She was willing to take them both in, and they could live with her while they got back on their feet.
It had seemed like a good plan. Faith had no interest in becoming a teacher, but she was confident she could find work there, and they would have a decent place to live, unlike their tiny room in a rat infested building in San Francisco. But after working as laundresses for over a year, the two sisters had only managed to save a paltry fifty dollars, not nearly enough for the train fare they both needed.
Hope had fallen into a pit of despair that had gotten darker with each passing day. After losing their parents and their home so suddenly, she hadn’t been able to find any joy in life. But that wasn’t the only reason for her grief and sadness.
On the night of the fire, she had witnessed something so shocking, it had shaken her views of life, marriage and family. She hadn’t been the same since, and she wasn’t sure she ever would be. And the worst part was she couldn’t confide in anyone about what she had seen, especially not her sister. So, she had suffered in silence, dealing with feelings of betrayal, anger, and confusion in addition to her crushing grief.
Hope had withdrawn from the world, losing all interest in daily life. Her appetite had all but disappeared, and working as a laundress had taken a toll on her body. She lost weight and grew increasingly listless and reclusive. She had relied on Faith to make all the decisions about what they should do and where they should live. She hadn’t realized at the time, she was making things even harder for her sister. She had been vaguely aware that Faith was desperately worried about her, but she hadn’t been able to drag herself out of her depressive mood, even to reassure her sister.
Having lost everything and having no real expectation that the future would improve, Hope had simply given up on living. She stopped striving to improve their situation and gave in to her overwhelming grief. She had cried herself to sleep every night, and because she stopped eating well, she had become skin and bones. In hindsight, Hope realized it was her own weakness that had driven her sister to do something rash in order to save her.
Hope had been shocked when her sister came home one day, accompanied by a handsome but cocky young man. Faith had handed her a railroad ticket and a fist full of money.
“This is a first class, round trip ticket to Philadelphia and enough money to see you through the year you will be in school,” Faith had said in a no nonsense tone of voice.
“Who is he?” Hope asked, eying the stranger.
“This is Jimmy,” Faith replied, reaching for Hope’s suitcase. “He’s here to help us. We’re going to pack your things, and you are getting on that train today.”
Hope’s eyes were as large as saucers as she looked at the wad of bills her sister had handed her. “Where on earth did you get enough money for this?” she cried.
Faith blushed hotly. “Never mind about that. Now, come on. Get moving, Hope. If you don’t hurry, you’ll miss the afternoon train.”
Hope didn’t miss the lustful smirk on Jimmy’s face as he watched her sister, and she felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. Something was definitely wrong.
“Faith, what did you do?” she asked suspiciously.
Faith began stuffing Hope’s clothes into the leather suitcase, refusing to meet her sister’s eye. “It’s nothing, sweetheart. Now help me pack your things. We must hurry.”
Hope grabbed her sister’s hands and insisted she face her. “Tell me, Faith! Where did you get enough money for this?”
Faith sighed and swallowed hard. “I had no choice, Hope. I had to do something to help you,” she said softly, tucking a stray lock of Hope’s hair behind her ear.
“What did you do?” Hope asked again, already dreading the answer.
Faith glanced at Jimmy and her cheeks burned. But when she met Hope’s eye again, she raised her chin defiantly.
“I accepted a job as a whore in a brothel. The owner gave me an advance on my wages, and I used it to buy a round-trip ticket to Philadelphia for you.”
“Oh God! No.” Hope sat down abruptly as her knees gave way beneath her and she began to sob. “No, no, no! Faith, why would you do something like that?”
Faith sat down beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Oh, sweetheart, please don’t cry. You must understand. I couldn’t bear watching you waste away and cry yourself to sleep any longer. We’ve already lost so much. I simply couldn’t lose my sister too. I had to do something to save you.”
Hope let out a frustrated shriek, “Faith, it’s not like I was dying or something! I’ve just been depressed. I’ve been in mourning, for heaven’s sake. I would have snapped out of it eventually.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Faith insisted. “Look at yourself. You probably don’t weigh ninety pounds soaking wet, your face is deathly pale, and your eyes are red from crying all the time. You need to get away from this place and start a new life. Now, you will be able to do that. Our aunt will take you in. You’ll have a nice home and you won’t have to work as a laundress anymore, lifting and straining over hot kettles all day long. And most importantly, you’ll be able to pursue your dream of becoming a teacher, just like you always wanted.”
Hope was shaking her head adamantly. “I can’t do that at your expense! How am I supposed to pursue my dream, knowing that you’ve sacrificed your life for me? I won’t do it, Faith. We’ll give the money back and forget this ever happened.”
It was Faith’s turn to shake her head. “I’m afraid we can’t do that. I’ve already spent most of the money to buy this ticket.”
Hope glanced at Jimmy. He was leaning against the doorframe, and he was watching her sister with a leering grin on his face. He was so busy ogling her sister, he didn’t even notice Hope’s forbidding glare. She turned her attention back to Faith.
“I refuse to let you become a whore,” she gritted out, casting another glare at the handsome stranger. “I will not allow you to throw your life away for me.”
“It’s too late to stop me,” Faith said stubbornly. “The deed is already done.”
Tears sprang into Hope’s eyes, and she swiped at her cheeks. “What do you mean?”
Faith glanced at Jimmy, and he grinned at her far too knowingly. Faith heaved a sigh and met Hope’s eyes once more.
“I didn’t want to tell you any of the lurid details, but I can see that you won’t accept the truth of the matter unless I do.” She hesitated before continuing, and her cheeks were burning when she did so. “In order to get the job, I willingly stripped naked in front of Jimmy, the madame, and another one of the bouncers at the brothel. I let them spank me. I let them touch and examine my most private flesh. I even let them bring me sexual pleasure, and then I accepted money afterward. So, you see, Hope, I’m already a whore. You can’t stop me because the damage has already been done.”
“No, it can’t be true,” Hope said weakly. “You’re making up stories just to convince me to leave.”
She felt as if all the blood had drained from her face, and she shook her head in weak denial. She glanced at Jimmy, hoping he would dispute her sister’s tale. Instead, he only grinned and winked at her as he added horrifying details to her sister’s account.
“Faith looks mighty sexy without her clothes on, and Jake and I both enjoyed playing with her gorgeous tits and her tight little virgin pussy.” Jimmy eyed Faith’s bosom and Hope suddenly knew everything they were saying was true. He went on, adding even more vivid details, and Hope felt like she might vomit. “With her gorgeous body and that fiery hair, she’s guaranteed to be one of our most popular whores. I know I’m certainly looking forward to fucking her on a regular basis. And since I’m the one who recruited her, I get a finder’s fee.” He winked at Faith, and his grin was devilish. “I’m looking forward to having her suck my cock three times a week for free for the first month.”
Hope gasped and her cheeks felt like they were on fire. She had never heard such lewd and scandalous talk, and the fact that it concerned her sister made her stomach roil with nausea. She looked back at Faith, and her sister had her eyes squeezed tight in obvious mortification.
When Faith opened her eyes, she flashed Hope a sympathetic gaze. “I’m sorry Jimmy feels the need to be so crude. But do you understand now? I’m no longer a lady, Hope. I’m a whore. I am the property of the madame, and I have to do whatever she says until I’ve repaid the money I borrowed. There’s no way to change that.” When Hope opened her mouth to argue, Faith squeezed her hands insistently. “There is no way to undo this, Hope. In exchange for an advance of three hundred dollars, I’ve agreed to let them auction my virginity to the highest bidder. I have no choice but to continue working as a whore until I pay off my debt.”
“You borrowed three hundred dollars? This is a nightmare! That will take years to pay back,” Hope cried.
Faith was already shaking her head. “No, it won’t. Whores make a lot more money than laundresses. I’m assured that I should be able to pay it back in a matter of months. In fact, by the time you return from Philadelphia, I’m hoping to have enough money to start fresh.”
“I won’t accept the money,” Hope said, shaking her head stubbornly. “I refuse to let you sacrifice yourself like this.”
Faith never cried, but tears filled her eyes, and seeing them scared Hope into silence. “Please, Hope. Please do as I say. I’ve already made my choice, and there is no undoing it. I would hate to think I sacrificed myself for nothing. I need to know you’re safe, and the only way for that to happen is for you to get on that train. Now, please do it for me. I’m begging you.”
Like a pathetic weakling, Hope had allowed herself to be bundled onto the train to Philadelphia that very afternoon. The two sisters had said a tearful farewell at the station, and Hope had promised to write letters often and to return in a year’s time with her teaching diploma.
Hope had known all along she was making a terrible mistake. With every mile that passed, she felt increasingly guilty. If not for her weakness, Faith would never have felt the need to sacrifice herself and her future.
When she took a good, hard look at herself, Hope understood why Faith had been so worried about her. She had lost a considerable amount of weight. While she had once possessed a slim but curvaceous figure, she had come to more closely resemble a scarecrow. Her clothes hung off her bony frame, and she had lost her womanly curves. Her skin had grown so pale, it was almost sallow, and her hair had grown dull from poor nutrition and poor grooming. She had always been prone to crying whenever she was distressed about something. But for over a year after losing their parents and their home, she had done little else other than cry and mope around. She hadn’t realized how much her grief had worried her sister until it finally drove Faith to do something drastic.
At first, Hope had tried to fulfill her promise to pursue her education, but she had found it impossible. She couldn’t concentrate on her lessons or find any enjoyment in living in a nice house with her aunt when she knew her sister was paying such a heavy price. So, Hope had come up with a different plan.
She decided that she was going to do whatever it took to rescue her sister, but she knew the first step was to regain her own health. She could be no use to her sister or anyone else if she was a half-starved weakling. Hope focused on eating well and taking care of herself again, and she began to grow strong once more. She went for long walks to get fresh air and sunshine, and she helped with the many chores around her aunt’s home. Within just a few weeks, she had regained her strength and vitality. Her skin grew rosy once again, her hair was glossier and softer, and she regained her womanly curves. In fact, she had never been healthier or more beautiful. Most importantly, Hope hadn’t cried in weeks, and she was determined to never be a weak-willed female again. Whatever the future held, she would face it without any more tears.
As soon as Hope felt strong enough, she said goodbye to her aunt and boarded the train back to San Francisco. It had meant abandoning her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher, but her sister was worth far more to Hope than pursuing any dream. Once she was reunited with her sister, she would find a new path for the future, and she would never regret her decision.
During the weeks she was away, she had wracked her brain for a way to raise enough money to repay her sister’s debt to Madame Murphy. Hope still had a hundred and forty-five dollars left from the money Faith had given her. But she knew they would need more than twice that amount to pay off Faith’s debt to the madame. It would take years to save that kind of money working at any respectable job. But Faith had said she expected to have her debt paid off in just a few months, so working as a whore must be pretty lucrative.
If that were the case, then two whores would earn money much faster than one. Hope was determined to get her sister out of that brothel as quickly as possible. If that meant she would have to join her there and work as a whore herself, then so be it. After all, it was her fault Faith had become a soiled dove. It was her responsibility to rescue her sister from a life of debauchery. But she would have to be careful to speak with the madame first, because if Faith found out Hope was there seeking employment, she would force her to leave immediately.
Thanks to the graphic details her sister and Jimmy had told her, Hope already had a pretty good idea of what she would have to do to get a job at the brothel. She shuddered every time she thought about doing those things. But no matter how much she dreaded being a whore and letting men use her body for money, she was determined to save her sister. And once they were both free of that dreaded place, they would go somewhere far away and put their shameful past behind them. They could go far enough away that no one knew about their past as soiled doves, and they would start fresh. They would find new dreams to pursue.
Hope finally located Madame Murphy’s brothel, and she took a deep breath for courage before approaching. It was mid-morning on a Sunday, and the door was locked. She waited impatiently for someone to answer her knock, but she was still unprepared when the door swung open.
Jimmy recognized her immediately, and after a moment of surprise, he braced an arm high on the doorframe and let his gaze drift lazily down over her body while wearing a lecherous grin. “Hello, Hope. While it’s a pleasant surprise to see you, aren’t you supposed to be in Philadelphia studying to be a teacher?”
“Never mind about that,” Hope said, raising her chin to a haughty angle. “I would like to speak with Madame Murphy if you please.”
“Would you now?” Jimmy’s eyes darkened with lust, and he eyed her full, high breasts with obvious interest. His grin widened into a leer. “Are you wanting to follow in your sister’s footsteps by working in this fine establishment? The last time I saw you, you wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a job here. But now, look at you. You’ve got as many curves as your sister.”
Hope narrowed her eyes at him, and her voice was cold and forbidding. “My business is with the madame. I would appreciate it if you would take me to see her.”
Jimmy was unperturbed by her chilly attitude, and he motioned for her to follow him inside. Hope kept her eyes trained on his back as he led her up a wide staircase and down a long hallway. He knocked on a closed door and then poked his head inside.
“There’s someone here you’ll definitely want to see,” he said.
A lilting female voice answered from inside the room. “Really? Who?”
Jimmy glanced over his shoulder at Hope and grinned. “Faith’s sister is here to see you.”
“What?” Hope heard rustling, and then a woman appeared in the doorway. “Oh my God,” the woman murmured. Her lips tightened and she shook her head with a sigh. “Well, you’d best come inside, dear.”
Hope followed her into her office, and Jimmy trailed in their wake. He closed the door and stood with his back to the portal and his arms crossed over his muscular chest. His eyes never left her, and his lustful expression was unnerving. Hope frowned sharply.
“Does he have to be here?” she asked, shooting Jimmy a narrow-eyed glare. “I would prefer to speak with you alone.”
The madame gave her a warm smile but shook her head. “I prefer for him to stay. But I can assure you, I’ll make certain he behaves himself. Isn’t that right, Jimmy?”
Jimmy flashed his ever-present grin and winked at Hope. “Sure thing, boss.”
The two women studied each other closely. The madame was middle aged, but she was still incredibly beautiful. She had blonde hair that had been styled in an intricate upswept coiffure, and she had clear blue eyes that sparkled with keen intelligence. Her features were those of an angel, but those shrewd eyes kept her from looking entirely innocent. Hope had expected her clothes to be gaudy and indecent. Instead, the madame was dressed in the very height of elegant fashion. Nothing about her appearance made it obvious that she was the owner of a brothel rather than a respectable matron.
The madame was the first to speak. “You must be Hope. You’re just as beautiful as Faith said you were. But what on earth are you doing here? Your sister sacrificed a lot to make sure you could start a new life in Philadelphia.”
Hope’s lips tightened. “I should never have allowed Faith to sacrifice herself for me. I couldn’t find a moment’s happiness knowing what she must be going through, and I’ve come back to get her out of this place. I’m determined to pay back the money you loaned her so she no longer has to work for you.”
The madame’s features softened, and she gave Hope a smile. “My dear, your sister’s debt was paid the first week she worked here.”
Hope’s eyes widened with shock. “What? How? Are you saying Faith managed to make three hundred dollars in just a week?”
The madame’s laugh was warm and melodic. “You’d better have a seat, dear.” She waited until Hope had seated herself in one of the leather chairs facing her before resuming her own seat behind the desk. “I can see you never received Faith’s letter.”
“What letter?” Hope demanded, growing more and more confused.
“Faith wrote a letter to you, explaining everything. I posted it on her behalf. You should have received it weeks ago.”
“I never received it,” Hope said flatly. “Please, just tell me what is going on. Or better yet, let me speak with Faith.”
“Faith isn’t here, dear. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
Hope felt her stomach drop to her knees. “What? Where is she? Is she all right?”
“She’s fine,” the madame rushed to assure her. “In fact, I received a letter from her just yesterday, to let me know she had arrived safe and sound in her new home. As far as I know, she’s blissfully happy and enjoying life. Here, see for yourself.”
The madame retrieved a letter from her desk drawer and held it out to Hope.
She took it with trembling fingers. It was postmarked from Oregon, and she frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s all very simple, really,” the madame assured her with a smile. “Your sister agreed to auction off her virginity to the highest bidder, and the man who won the auction married her.”
“No!” Hope felt the blood drain from her face. “It can’t be true,” she cried. “My sister is married? She never wanted to be tied down by a man. This is even worse than I feared. She must have been truly desperate to take such a drastic step.”
Both the madame and Jimmy chuckled softly. “My dear, you have it all wrong. Faith fell in love with the man; it’s as simple as that. He was her very first customer, and they decided to get married. He paid off her debt, and she went home with him to Oregon. It’s all there in the letter if you care to read it for yourself.”
Hope opened the letter and scanned it feverishly. She immediately recognized her sister’s handwriting.
Dear Madame Murphy,
I’m sending this brief note before the mail coach leaves. I wanted to let you know we arrived safely three days ago. The trip was difficult, and for a while, I worried that I might suffer the same fate as you. But things have changed for the better between my husband and me since we arrived home. I don’t have time to tell you all the details in this letter, but I promise to send you a longer letter as soon as I can. For now, suffice to say, the future looks brighter than ever, and I doubt I’ll ever need to make use of your gift. I’m sure I’ll love my new home too. From what little I’ve seen so far, the ranch is beautiful. I’m happier than I ever dared to hope I might be.
Once again, I must thank you for everything you have done for me. If not for your friendship, generosity, and guidance, I’m certain I would have been doomed to a life of misery. Instead, I have a handsome husband, a beautiful new home, and a new beginning. I can never fully repay your many kindnesses, but please know that you will always have a special place in my heart.
I promise to write a longer letter when I’m able and tell you all about my new life here. But for now, please know that I am well, I am happy, and I wish you every happiness too.
P.S. Please give my regards to Jimmy. If not for him, I would never have met my husband.
Hope read the letter twice, frowning thoughtfully. By the things Faith had written to the madame, it seemed as if her sister had developed a friendship with the woman and that she didn’t even harbor any ill will toward Jimmy. That was especially surprising, given that he was the one responsible for corrupting her by offering her a job at the brothel. It was all very strange and confusing. Either her sister really was happily married, or she was incredibly relieved to have been rescued from the stress of working as a whore.
“It sounds too good to be true,” Hope muttered, reading the letter again, this time more carefully. “I don’t believe it. My sister has never been the least bit interested in men, and trust me, there’ve been countless men who tried to pursue her over the years. And now I’m supposed to believe that she instantly fell in love with her first customer? It makes no sense at all, and she doesn’t mention anything about being in love in this letter. I think it is far more likely she simply seized on her first opportunity to escape from this place.”
Madame Murphy shrugged. “I was a witness at her wedding. I can tell you, it’s true. Faith loves her husband.”
The return address on the letter was the D&E Ranch, Timber Grove, Oregon. Hope made a mental note of the address, because that was her new destination.
“It doesn’t add up,” Hope said stubbornly. “I won’t believe it unless I see it with my own eyes.” She pointed to the return address. “I’m going to Timber Grove, and I’m going to find my sister. I need to see for myself that she really is happy and is not just trying to make the best of a terrible situation.”
The madame nodded sagely. “I guess I can understand your skepticism. But I’m afraid it will be some time before you can get to Oregon. There’s a stagecoach that makes that run, but it only makes the round trip once every month, and it only runs between April and October. In the winter months, the roads are impassable in many places. Unfortunately, it just left on the last run of the year yesterday. There won’t be another stage going to Oregon until next spring.”
Hope growled with frustration. “Then, I’ll just have to buy a horse and make my own way to Oregon.”
The madame’s eyes widened. “You can’t travel over six hundred miles all by yourself. Do you have any idea what kind of danger you would be in? There are all kinds of rough men living in the mountains. What if you got lost or injured? Almost anything could happen to you, my dear.”
Hope stood up and handed the letter back to the madame. “I appreciate your concern, but I can take care of myself. And besides, there are plenty of rough men right here in the city. I was accosted by two of them while I was on my way here.”
She turned to go, and the madame rushed around the desk. “Please wait! I can’t let you do this, Hope. Your sister would never forgive me if I allowed anything to happen to you.”
Hope sighed and turned to face the older woman. “My sister speaks very highly of you in her letter, so I have to assume that you have good intentions. While I appreciate your concern, you aren’t allowing me to do anything. In the past, I was foolish and weak, and I wallowed in my grief for so long that my sister felt she had to rescue me. But I’m not weak anymore, and it’s my turn to rescue my sister. I will not bide my time in this hellhole of a city for the next six months while my sister could be suffering. I’m going to Oregon, and I will not allow you or anyone else to stop me.”
Madame Murphy heaved a sigh of resignation and shook her head. “Well, while you don’t look anything like your sister, I can certainly see the family resemblance. You’re just as stubborn as Faith.”
Hope gave her a reluctant smile. “Yes, I am, although I’ve only developed this stubborn streak recently. It’s amazing how quickly I grew a backbone when faced with the prospect of losing my sister.”
“I can understand that,” the madame said with an answering smile. “Especially when Faith is your sister. She is a treasure, and I’m happy to see that you love her just as much as she loves you.”
“I do. I owe my sister everything, and I’m determined to make sure she’s safe and happy.”
“Since I can see that you will not be dissuaded, what can I do to help you, dear? Do you need money?”
Hope shook her head. “No. Thanks to Faith’s sacrifice, I still have some money, and it should be enough for the trip. I’ll buy a horse and supplies, and I’ll find my own way to Oregon. I’m sure it shouldn’t be too hard to find my sister. Once I get to Timber Grove, someone will be able to direct me to the D&E Ranch, I’m sure.”
The madame nodded with resignation. “Well, at least let Jimmy accompany you to help make sure you have everything you will need for the journey.”
Hope sent Jimmy a narrow-eyed glare. “I think I would be safer without his escort,” she muttered. “Every time he looks at me, I feel like he’s undressing me with his eyes.”
Madame Murphy raised her brows and sent Jimmy a reproachful look. “Jimmy was raised in a brothel, and as a result, he is an unrepentant philanderer I’m afraid. But he knows you are off limits to him, and he’ll mind his manners, or he’ll be answering to me. Isn’t that right, Jimmy?”
He grinned at both of them in turn. “Yes, boss. I promise I’ll be a perfect gentleman and I’ll make sure no other men accost her. I’ll also make sure that Hope gets the best possible prices on the necessities she will need.”
“I suppose you have a point,” Hope muttered reluctantly. “Knowing how things are in this town, the merchants would surely try to swindle me if I were to go shopping on my own. But don’t be getting any ideas,” she warned with a piercing glare. “I will not be ogled by you, and if I catch you doing so, you won’t have to worry about the madame’s displeasure. I’ll box your ears myself.”
Jimmy released a startled chuckle. “You’re just full of surprises, sweetheart. I would have sworn you were nothing more than a meek little mouse, but I can see that you’ve grown into a wildcat since the last time I saw you.”
“That’s right,” Hope replied with a decisive nod. “And trust me, you don’t want to see my claws.”