A knock sounded at Hope’s hotel room door. Raising her head, she regarded it with bleary eyes. She’d been working on the papers before her for so long, it took a moment for the door to sharpen into focus.
Standing, she brushed her gown. There was nothing she could do about the wrinkles formed from hours seated, but she could at least attempt to present as dignified a presence as possible. So assured, she called, “Enter.”
The door opened and the hotel proprietress appeared, followed by a dark-skinned woman. “Here’s the help you were wanting,” the proprietress said.
Hope blinked. Ah. Yes. For three weeks now she’d been undertaking her business from this room and she’d finally acknowledged she required assistance. It had become clear within days the proprietress could procure whatever one required, and so Hope had approached her for the employment of a secretary, or a body who could read and write and make sense of her correspondence. “Thank you.”
“I’ll be leaving you to your work, then.” The proprietress cast her gaze over the room. “Unless there was anything else you’d be needing?”
“No. Again, thank you.”
The woman nodded sharply and left, closing the door behind her. Hope shifted her gaze to the remaining woman. She wore a faded, wrinkled calico dress opened at the neck to mid-chest, and her curly hair was gathered into a large puff of a ponytail. “You can read?”
Gaze challenging, the woman lifted her chin. “And write.”
“Excellent.” Hope took a stack of paper from her desk and approached the woman. “You may start with these. Prioritise by what you believe to be the most important, and for those inquiries you deem simple matters, draft responses.”
The defiant expression slipped. “You want me to draft responses?”
“You said you could read and write. I am employing you to assist me.”
She sighed. Surely it was clear. Why else would the proprietress have brought her here? “Will you repeat everything I say?”
“No.” The woman crossed her arms. “How much will you be paying?”
It didn’t look like she would budge without a response. “For today, I’ll pay one dollar and fifteen cents. Make no mistake, I will work you hard and, if I find your work satisfactory, I will engage your services three days a week at one dollar and five cents a day. I trust these rates are agreeable?”
The challenging look disappeared from the woman’s eyes. Closing her mouth, she gave a quick nod and took the pages from Hope.
An hour later, Hope was lost in a shipping report when another knock on the door drew her. The person on the other side didn’t await her permission, instead opening the door and stepping through.
Sitting straighter, she resisted the urge to check her hair as her heart rate accelerated. “Mr Wade.” She was proud of the steadiness of her voice. “A pleasure to see you.”
“A pleasure to see you as well, Miz McElroy,” he responded, gently mocking as he removed his hat.
Her cheeks blazed. She had the fleeting desire to press her hands against the hot flesh as her blood thundered through her veins. Dear God, this reaction was getting worse. “Do you have anything to report?” She forced herself to remember he was in her employ.
“Same as yesterday, and the day before that, meaning not much of anything.”
She frowned. “That is disappointing.”
Stepping forward, he placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s still only been three weeks. I wouldn’t be worrying much about the results. Besides, you’ve got plenty to occupy you, judging by those stacks of paper.” He gave a slight smile.
Her breath caught. His gaze was warm upon her, as was his hand, and she wanted, so badly, to rub her cheek against his arm, for him to cup her neck and draw her to him. His eyes darkened, his hand tightening on her shoulder as he leaned closer—
“Were you wanting me to continue with this work?”
They both jerked their gaze. Her employee sat watching them, a small smirk on her face. Good lord, she had completely forgotten she was there.
The woman’s dark eyes fairly laughed at them. “I can leave if it’s privacy you’re wanting.”
Hope felt again her cheeks blaze. “That will not be necessary,” she said stiffly.
The small smile Mr Wade wore expanded into a grin, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “And who might this be?”
“This is—” Hope’s mind went blank. Did she know this woman’s name? “My secretary,” she finished lamely.
“Margaret, sir,” her secretary said, smiling slowly.
“Margaret. A delight to meet you. Am I right in thinking you are also employed at the Oriental Rose?”
Margaret gave a saucy grin. “You would.”
“Ah.” He turned to Hope and raised a brow.
She lifted her chin. She wasn’t a fool. She knew her secretary most likely was also employed as a prostitute. In the time they’d been in this town, she’d discovered quickly it was populated with more those her Sacramento acquaintances would term disreputable than not. She didn’t much care either way.
“What next, Mr Wade?” she asked instead.
His eyes gleamed, acknowledging her sidestep. “I reckon I’ll do some more scouting, maybe talk to people in the next camp over. There’s people who travel between this camp and the next, and those that reside somewhere between. I’ll be gone a few days, unless you have a need?”
She shook her head.
“I’ll be on my way, then. Miz McElroy.” He tipped up his chin. “Ma’am.”
The secretary nodded back, a small smile playing about her full lips.
Mr Wade glanced at Hope again and then, with that same small smile, he left.
Biting her lip, she stared at the closed door. She would not see him for a few days. It wasn’t that she would miss him, it was…she had become accustomed to his presence. It would be odd not to have him near.
Picking up her fountain pen, she forced her regard to the work before her but she could not concentrate. What was it about Mr Wade that so completely destroyed her focus? He offered her that slight smile, the one she’d observed he gave to no one but her, and she felt breathless, her heart pounding against her ribs.
Staring hard at her work, she could feel the other woman’s gaze upon her. The woman—Margaret—considered her, her head cocked. Bending her own, she forced concentration on the report before her.
“He in your employ, too?”
Rereading a sentence discussing shipping statistics, she gave a sharp nod.
“How’s he servicing you?”
Her head jerked up.
Margaret gave her a grin, one that made her cheeks burn. She couldn’t answer. “You like him, don’t you?”
“Mr Wade?” she said, attempting nonchalance. “As much as I should, I suppose.”
“No, I mean, you like him as a woman likes a man, one she wants between her thighs.”
Hope opened and closed her mouth, her neck hot and her heart racing. “This is not appropriate,” she finally managed.
“It never is.” Margaret paused. “He likes you.”
“He does?” The question came out soft, vulnerable. How did he do this to her? How did he make her question herself, make her stammer and blush and act foolish? He wasn’t even here, and he still had such sway over her.
“Something fierce. When he came in, it were like all you two noticed was the other and the rest of the world were gone. Had me wondering if maybe it was I should excuse myself.”
Suddenly, she wanted to unburden herself. She wanted to tell this woman she’d just met how he confused her, how she would look at him and she wanted to touch him. To run her hand over his chest and feel the strength of him, the hard muscle beneath his shirt, that small vee of skin at his throat she thought of way too often. To trace the length of his arms, curl her hand over his biceps, feel his hand flex in the small of her back as he held her to him.
To know his kiss.
“He distracts me,” she finally confessed.
The other woman nodded. “That much is clear. There ain’t nothing stopping you from having him.”
Her mind went blank.
“Out here, there’s no one to judge, or make you feel less than, though I would guess there ain’t much or many you allow to make you feel inferior. I would wager you make your own path, and you don’t listen to any who would tell you otherwise. Your Mr Wade, I reckon he would be open to any suggestions you might have in that area.”
Cheeks blazing, Hope ducked her head.
“And I know for a fact he ain’t be visiting anyone in my line of work.”
“What?” She hadn’t thought of it…or she’d forced herself not to think of it.
“We ain’t seen him in the Rose, and none of the girls in any of the other whorehouses has neither. He’s either a preacher or he’s saving it for someone in particular he wants, and even a preacher comes visiting.”
Uncertainty drew Hope’s brows. Margaret seemed convinced, and maybe it was Hope had noticed Mr Wade stared at her as much as she stared at him. Maybe it was she could do something about it. Maybe it was…
“Do you want to know how to attract a man?”
Her spine snapped straight. “No, thank you.”
“It would be no trouble,” Margaret said, grinning. “And I wouldn’t even charge you for it.”
“That is not necessary,” she said stiffly. “I am employing you for secretarial work, not for…other reasons.”
“Thank you, Margaret.” Bending her head, Hope resumed her work and, after a moment, Margaret did the same.
But a seed had been planted and now, in addition to Mr Wade, she couldn’t stop thinking that maybe her secretary was right, that maybe she should pursue a change in she and Mr Wade’s relationship. She would think on it these days he was away…and when he returned, she would do something about it.