'Mokelumne Hill, California, 1850'
She was rich. Standing in her office over the whorehouse saloon, Seline watched as the lawyer's fountain pen scratched at the ledger, forming a beautiful little billow of zeros. She had to pinch herself. In less than a year, the Heart of Gold had made her wealthier than she'd ever dreamed of being. And this wasn't even all of it. She still had two other businesses to cash in. Once she'd sold the other whorehouses in Angels Camp and Mariposa, she'd be almost as rich as Midas himself.
She watched as the prissy eastern lawyer transposed all of those lovely zeros onto the contract, her heart a tight little ball in her chest. Each zero he added was a further nail in the coffin of her current life. Good-bye, Seline. Good-bye, mining town. Good-bye, 'men.' That money meant a nice little house in San Francisco, maybe even one with a view of the bay. It meant finishing her days when the sun was setting, rather than working through the night. No more hitting her pillow as dawn was breaking. It meant sitting on her lonesome drinking her first coffee of the day, in peace, without having to settle accounts and shoo out the last malingerers filling up her beds. It meant hammering out no more quarrels and mopping up no more tears and helping no more damn fool girls. Once she'd collected the last of her money, Seline planned to never see the inside of another whorehouse in her life.
"You're buying one hell of a business," she told Justine, who was equally transfixed by the ink flowing from the nib of the lawyer's fancy fountain pen.
"Don't I know it," Jussy said. She looked a little green at how much it was costing her. But she was no fool. She was getting the whorehouse at a cut price; if it weren't for Hec Boehm running Seline outta town, the place would have gone for more. But with a man like Hec snapping at her skirts, Seline was just happy to grab what she could get. Luckily, what she could get was eye-wateringly wonderful.
Mr. Teague put the gold dust in neatly folded brown squares of paper and lined up the rows of banknotes, using the beautiful little gold nuggets to weigh the stacks down.
"You'd best be depositing all of that in the bank, quick smart," Mr. Teague told her, peering up over his crooked spectacles. "Moke Hill is no place for.... ahem...lady...to be carrying around a fortune like that."
Seline ignored him. Even if she planned to stay in town—which she didn't—she didn't believe in banks. Especially not the one in Mokelumne Hill, which was run by Wilbur Stroud, a man who liked to be tied to a chair naked while Seline's girls dressed up like nuns and told him that he was a very naughty boy. Sometimes, when business was especially stressful at the bank, he'd even ask the nuns to take a strap to him.
No. Seline would look after her own money, thank you very much. "Would you like me to read you the documents?" Teague asked.
Seline snatched them off him. Honestly. These men were all alike. They thought being a whore meant you were stupid. How did he think she could run her businesses without reading? She went through the contract first, and then the deeds to the building and the business.
Justine peered over her shoulder. They each found a couple of errors, which Teague swiftly corrected and initialed, looking sour.
Seline's hands were sweaty as she took the corrected documents back from him and checked them one last time. There in the thicket of fancy legal words was her freedom. From Hec Boehm and Moke Hill, and best of all, from whoredom. And right at the bottom of the contract was a space for her to write her name. Her real name. The one she hadn't used for nigh on twelve years...
"You sign first," she told Justine, her voice a little unsteady. Hell. It was the thought of that name, she supposed. It was like seeing a ghost...a ghost that brought with it an ugly mudslide of memories. The weight on her. The pain. The smell of his rank corn liquor sweat. The feel of a hand clamped over her mouth and nose.
She exhaled. She hadn't been quick enough to get out of the way, that was all. Not then, and not now. Usually, she could jump aside before the memories hit. And there were more memories than she cared to count; the sludge of her past was a relentless tide, an avalanche of shame and fear, prone to sucking her down and drowning her alive.
But they were just memories, she told herself fiercely, as she watched Justine bend over the documents, pen in hand. They were the past. And this, right here, right now, was the beginning of her future.
And her future was going to be a gold-plated, beautiful thing. Justine finished her signature with a flourish and handed the pen to Seline. "All yours, boss."