Ruth thought her father looked ridiculous, his eyes closed and his hands raised to the heavens. His thinning hair had already gone grey and it fell untidily over his ears. A growing paunch strained the fabric of his clericals. She knew she would have to make him new ones. Just another task she couldn’t escape from.
Escape. She thought of little else. She wanted to leave Bandit Creek behind, but today, she’d satisfy herself by leaving the service. While the congregation followed her father’s lead, she rose silently from the end of the pew and crept from the church.
She had an excuse or two all ready if he asked her over dinner why she’d left the church.
I needed some air. I felt ill.
Not that he’d ask. As long as she had dinner on the table when he wanted it, kept the house in order and washed his clothes, her presence went mostly unnoticed. If she had been a boy, he would have taken her under his wing and taught her to follow in his footsteps. His sycophants hoped she might choose one of them to marry, and thus receive his blessing and the church’s leadership after he was gone. She disappointed them all. The thought of any of those young men – or any man – left her cold. She never understood how the other girls fawned over the attention from boys. She couldn’t feel an ounce of attraction to any of them, even if she tried to convince herself.
Ruth turned at the corner and strolled down to the small rail station, slowing her steps in the hopes of seeing strangers on the platform, hoping for a glimpse of the world outside. The platform was barren and the ticket office shuttered. She continued on to Main Street, where most businesses were closed for the Lord’s Day. She scuffed her toes in the dust as she crossed over in front of the hotel, the only building showing any signs of life.
If only she could go inside, just for a while. If she had money, she could order lemonade and sit at one of the tables in the tiny restaurant, pretending to be a lady on an exciting trip, waiting for her maid to finish packing. She never pictured herself with a husband or a chaperone; she wanted to experience the world on her own.
The lace curtains fluttered in the open window and Ruth lingered outside, carefully peering into the restaurant without seeming to peep. A woman sat alone at a table, a glass and a dirty plate in front of her. A napkin lay crumpled by her elbow and she absently turned her tea cup in its saucer. She seemed lost in thought.
Ruth stared. The woman had her dark hair cut into a stylish bob, with marcelled finger waves, and she wore a dress that left her arms bare to the shoulder and gave little shape to her form. Ruth fingered the end of her long, ginger braid and looked down at her homely and serviceable dress. The women of town would shun her if she dared wear a flapper’s dress or cut her hair, but she couldn’t help her attraction for the delicate and gorgeous woman. Her mouth had gone dry. A tremor went through her. From here, the woman’s skin looked pale and soft and Ruth wanted to touch her hand or run a finger down her bare arm.
Ruth remembered the grocer’s wife gossiping about the easy women she had seen in Missoula last fall, wearing shorter skirts, showing their arms and legs, and acting without a care in the world.
“Thank the Lord none of that sort would ever come here,” Mrs Williams had said. But yet, here was one of those women, in this very hotel. Ruth smiled to herself. She so wanted to meet this woman.
She heard footsteps on the boardwalk, the loud thumping of a man in a rush. A tall, dark-haired man in a dark suit strode by her on the boardwalk, almost brushing her arm. He went into the hotel.
“CeeCee!” His voice carried through the open window.
She saw the woman lift her head and push back her chair. Before CeeCee could move any further, the man had come into the restaurant and taken her by the arm, lifting her to her feet. He said something else, but it was muffled.
For a moment, CeeCee’s gaze met hers, eyes wide in surprise. Ruth gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. The last thing she wanted was to be caught staring. Ruth backed away from the window and down the boardwalk, hovering uncertainly by the side of the building.
The man reappeared, CeeCee in tow. She had a long shawl draped over her shoulders and it hid her bare arms, but her dress rose to just above the knee and Ruth gaped.
“I told you to be ready earlier,” the man growled at CeeCee. “You’re going to make me late. I expected you to meet me.”
To Ruth’s relief, they headed away from her, crossing the street, walking swiftly towards the warehouses at the edge of town. Ruth burned with curiosity and she wanted to follow them, but the bells from the Catholic church pealed and she knew she had to get home.
“Sher, slow down. Please?” Cecilia scurried to keep up with Sheridan, her patent leather shoes sliding on the gravel road. He slackened his pace and she smiled at him.
“They won’t leave before we get there,” she said, hooking her arm through his. If she hadn’t complained of her boredom the evening before, she could have stayed at the hotel. After seeing the girl at the window, she wished she had stayed.
“I need this partnership, Cecilia,” Sheridan said seriously. He rarely called her by her full name, preferring to use the nickname he’d first known her with. “This town could easily be a link to the trade out of Whiskey Gap – I can’t overlook it.”
“I know.” She patted his arm. He’d told her his ideas as they rode the train across several states, each stop taking them further from home. “But this town doesn’t seem like the type to support the trade. Everyone I’ve seen so far looks like they should be part of the temperance movement.”
“According to Erickson, my contact in Missoula, there’s enough interest here. And when the rail line opens across the border to Canada, we’ll be rolling in dough.”
They certainly weren’t rolling in dough now. Sheridan had money from his boss in Chicago, but traveling across the country added up quickly. Sheridan had sold the remainder of her Chanel perfume – her favourite – when they’d arrived in Bandit Creek. She’d tucked the cash away and if she could, she would buy it back from the shopkeeper before she left. It had been a gift, but not from him.
She had tried not to think of Nell, but seeing that woman peering in the window, her red hair so much like Nell’s, had been a painful reminder. Nell had presented her with the bottle one night as they lay in bed, a mischievous smile on her face. CeeCee had been startled and then surprised. Then Nell had kissed her again and the bottle was forgotten.
Sheridan came to a stop and Cecilia nearly stumbled. The warehouse door opened and a middle-aged man with sandy hair and spectacles gave them a genial smile. He looked more like a teetotaler than a rum-runner to her.
“Mr. Henderson?” Sheridan inquired.
The man nodded and waved them inside. Cecilia let go of Sheridan’s arm. He’d expect her to spend time with the other men and charm them into agreement. It had worked in other towns. Men always wanted to be confident and decisive if it meant impressing a woman.
Henderson led them through to the small speakeasy he’d set up in a section of his warehouse. It was crude by Chicago standards, but she supposed it would do for a small town. Two other men were present: a broad shouldered younger man, whom Henderson introduced as Mr. Dyer, his assistant, and a raggedy old wino that sat crumpled at a far table.
“Don’t mind Jack,” Henderson said, waving away Sheridan’s concerns. “He’s harmless. I doubt he even remembers what he was up to yesterday.”
Mr. Dyer smiled at that, but his gaze took her in before looking coolly at Sheridan. She hoped he wouldn’t make a play for her. Sheridan protected her against all others, and she loved him for it, but she didn’t want this complication. The only complication she wanted was back in town, with a long red braid and grey eyes, her plain dress belying her beauty.
“Get Miss Mills a drink,” Henderson told Dyer. “Now, Mr. Sheridan, let’s talk.”