I’m excited to share the first three chapters of Book Two in the Gold Rush Romances series. This book is titled No Such Thing, and focuses on Lily’s story, something that was only hinted at in Book One, where I concentrated on telling Sarah’s story.
I hope you’ll leave me a note after you read it. I love to get feedback at this stage. You can comment either here, or on my Facebook page. Enjoy!
No Such Thing
San Francisco Harbor. October 1849.
The razor gleamed in the pale, thin light that seeped in through the windows of the captain’s cabin. Lily stopped pacing and picked it up, her delicate fingers tracing the now familiar outline. How many times had she held it, forcing her hands to remain steady as she shaved the captain’s pockmarked face?
She flicked it open and ran her thumb along the sharp edge, watching dispassionately as a fine line of blood welled up in the cut. She’d known that the razor was finely honed; after all, she was the one who sharpened it every day before using it. And every time she’d performed the routine task she’d wondered if this would be the day she would break… if she’d give in to the almost uncontrollable temptation to slit the captain’s throat.
It would have been so easy, she thought now, flicking the razor closed with one hand. But her desire to go on living was stronger. The captain was well aware of the direction of her thoughts, and he seemed to enjoy watching her struggle with temptation as she wielded the razor. But while she shaved the vulnerable area below his chin, he’d taken great pleasure in pointing out that the crew would know of his demise within hours, and then what? She’d be at their mercy. Not satisfied to point out her tenuous position, he’d told her in chilling detail what would befall her when the crew began to fight over her. Momentarily defeated, she had closed her mind to the disturbing images, biding her time until the ship reached San Francisco.
Born in the Year of the Tiger, Lily was a fighter. At least that’s what her Baba had told her. Thank goodness he couldn’t see her now, her spirit broken and terrified about what the future might bring. She glanced at the locked cabin door, wondering if she should end it now, or if she could reach deep down and find one last reservoir of courage. Because it would take courage to face what was about to walk through that door. Yes, she told herself. For her father, if for no other reason, she would survive.
A key rattled in the lock. Lily replaced the razor and stood by the table, bracing herself against the edge. She may be strong in spirit, but she was wise enough to be afraid. The captain had bought her in Shanghai, telling her that he intended to sell her when they reached San Francisco. That time had come, and she stood unblinking as he entered the cabin with another man.
“What did I tell you?” The captain’s lust-filled gaze raked over her. “A little beauty.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “She’s small.” He approached, and she looked directly at him, determined not to show fear. An ugly scar ran down the side of his face, the scar tissue shiny in the subdued light.
“What’s your name, girl?” he demanded.
She remained silent and he turned to the captain. “I thought you said she speaks English.”
“She does. Answer him, Lily.”
“You’ll answer me when I speak to you.” The man backhanded her so fast she scarcely saw it coming. Her head snapped around and in that moment, she realized that her situation had gone from bad to worse. The man glaring at her was evil; she’d need all her wits about her if she had any hope of getting away from him.
“My name is Lily,” she said, fighting back the tears that stung behind her eyes.
“Take off that… that thing,” he said, pointing to her tunic and loose pants.
She glanced at the captain, who nodded. Lily assessed her chances of grabbing the razor and slashing her way out of the cabin. Tempting as it was, logic told her to bide her time until she was on land.
As she removed her clothes, she blocked out reality by willing herself back in time. Back to Shanghai, and the lush tropical gardens where she had worked with her father. Standing naked, she was vaguely aware of the man studying her, his eyes devoid of emotion. She braced herself for his touch, determined not to react, but it didn’t come. After a moment, he grunted his approval.
“She’ll bring big money,” he announced, waving for her to put her clothes back on. “I think I’ll place her in my number one bordello. Ruby will know how to get the most out of her.”
Lily had heard about bordellos, and her hands trembled as she pulled her clothes back on. For one irrational moment she wondered if she should have killed herself while she had the chance, but once more she saw her father’s face and her resolve strengthened.
“Get your things, girl.” The man turned his back on her and she gathered up her one change of clothes. Everything she held dear had been taken from her and presumably sold before she left Shanghai. Nothing remained of her former life. Not the jade bracelet handed down from her mother. Not the gold pendant her father had given her on her eighteenth birthday. No tangible evidence of happier times. All she had were the precious memories she guarded in her heart.
She forced her thoughts back to the present, aware that the man was completing his business with the captain. Money and paper changed hands, as well as several blocks of what Lily knew to be opium. She picked up the razor and slid it into her pocket. She had earned it, and it was unlikely that the captain would miss it for several days. She clutched her meagre belongings to her chest and prepared for what was to come.
“Let’s go.” The man preceded her out the door and she followed onto the deck, blinking in the light of day.
Her first impression was of a forest of masts shrouded in mist. It was impossible to take it all in, but she was aware of boats of various sizes ferrying to and from the moored ships, unloading cargo and people, and depositing them on shore. Men called to each other in strange languages, their voices loud and urgent. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere and she wondered if this was what gold fever sounded like.
The man – she refused to think of him as her owner – motioned for her to climb down the rope ladder. A small boat waited below, two men at the oars. She clambered down the ladder and took a seat in the rear of the boat.
One man cleared his throat and spat overboard. “I see you got her,” he said, leering in Lily’s direction. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, Boss.”
The other man waited until everyone was settled and then turned the boat with a flick of the oars. “So, Hiram. Where are you going to put her? I’ve a mind to try her out myself.”
So that was his name.
Hiram gave a short laugh, but there was no mirth in it. “She’s not for the likes of you, laddie.” He studied Lily openly, and nodded to himself. “She may be a Celestial, but there’s something about her that will appeal to our richest clientele. When Ruby is finished with her, she’ll bring top money.” He sat back and lit a cigar. “Ever since Ah Toy came to town, the miners have been demanding variety.”
Sitting in the back of the rowboat, Lily studied the shoreline as they approached. Cargo of all kinds was stacked in what seemed like haphazard piles. As soon as a pile was loaded into a cart, another took its place. The waterfront appeared to be complete chaos, and yet the carts continued to load and move out, while more goods arrived.
The boat bumped against a small pier. One of the men got out, and Hiram motioned for her to follow. “Get in,” he said, indicating a horse-drawn cart. The two men sat up front, and Hiram sat beside her in the back. The mist had turned to a fine rain. She was cold and wet, but she needed to stay alert, as this was the only time she’d have to take note of her surroundings. The driver called to the horses and the cart lurched forward, freeing the wheels from mud that was almost a foot deep. On the dock, a man cursed the rain, and tossed a sheet of canvas over several large sacks of what appeared to be flour. This waterfront was nothing like the one in Shanghai, where cargo moved in and out of the warehouses in an orderly fashion. She watched it all with interest, noting that what San Francisco lacked in organization, it made up for in vibrancy. Men on the streets tipped their hats to one another, or exchanged a few quick words, but none lingered. They walked with purpose in their stride; the excitement was contagious, and she longed to be part of it.
The man holding the reins turned. “Are we going to Ruby’s, Boss?” He didn’t notice the man with a cart rounding the corner in front of him. Head down, the man pulled his cart into their path, and the horse closest to the man reared, tilting the wagon and spilling everyone except the driver into the mud.
Lily watched in horror as Hiram dragged himself to his feet. He’d landed in a pile of horse dung, and swore mightily as he tried to brush the offending material from his trousers and jacket. The other man attempted to stand, but he seemed to have injured his ankle, and could only drag himself out of the way and onto the wooden sidewalk that ran beside the road.
Realizing that she was wasting a precious opportunity, Lily jumped down from the wagon and glanced around. A narrow alleyway ran beside the building to her right. She darted down it and looked around frantically, but cover was scarce.
What am I thinking? She asked herself. I can’t hide here; this is the first place they’ll look. She continued to run, scurrying between buildings, getting farther from the main square every moment. Here the buildings weren’t so close together, and cover was difficult to come by. She paused and forced herself to think. Fear of discovery coupled with lack of exercise over the long voyage left her weak and trembling. It was now raining steadily; she needed to find somewhere to shelter. Up ahead, two men were loading tools into a cart. Other than the two workmen, the street appeared deserted. A partly-constructed building huddled forlornly on a small lot, new wood gleaming through the mist.
“That’s all we can do for now.” The taller of the men spoke. “The owner says we can expect another lumber delivery tomorrow morning.”
“I hope so,” his partner grumbled. “I could have been working out in Happy Valley.” They trundled off.
Lily waited until they were out of sight, and then crept into the building. Fearful and cold, she huddled under a stairwell and took stock of her situation. Foolishly, she hadn’t eaten for the past three or four days, nervous about her imminent arrival in San Francisco. But at this point, hunger was the least of her problems. She had to find somewhere to hide; somewhere safe. In the meantime, she spotted a piece of dry canvas, pulled it over her head and curled up under the stairs. Just a moment’s rest was all she needed…
The sky was the color of old pewter when she woke. Had she really slept through the night? She tentatively moved her limbs. If her aches and pains were anything to go by, she’d slept without moving the entire night. Her stomach rumbled, and she staggered to her feet. With no money, no shelter, and nowhere to turn for help, she hadn’t the faintest idea how she would survive. But first things first. The workers had mentioned another shipment of lumber today; she had to get out of here and find somewhere else to stay.
She took a few tentative steps into the street and stopped. A delicious smell reached her on the morning breeze. It was the smell of fresh bread, and her mouth watered as she imagined biting into a warm piece of bread slathered with butter and preserves. It seemed like only yesterday that she’d shared this special treat with her friend Julia after their day’s lessons.
Stop that, she told herself, taking a few more steps to test her strength. That was a long time ago, and memories won’t fill an empty stomach. Even so, she followed the smell, and found herself outside another two-storey house. Whoever lived here got up early to bake the bread; she watched shadows form and fade as someone moved past a flickering candle. A white tent occupied most of the space between the house and the street. One broad tent flap was rolled up, leaving it open to the street, and she looked inside. A table with benches on either side ran the length of the tent, and she surmised that it was some sort of eating place. If she could find somewhere to hide, perhaps there would be left-over food. Unlikely, but at the moment it was her best option, and daylight was fast approaching.
She slipped past the tent and continued to edge her way behind the house. A neatly stacked pile of firewood rested against the side of the house, once again covered by a sheet of canvas. She huddled beside the wood pile, on the opposite side from where the residents had been taking wood, and waited.
* * *
Lily lifted her face to the sun and sighed with contentment. She and Julia were perched on the edge of the tiled fountain, dabbling their feet in the cool water. They’d just completed their first week of French language instruction.
“I still don’t know why we have to learn French.” Lily wrinkled her nose. “I’ll never use it.” She glanced sideways at her friend. “Will you?”
“Possibly,” said Julia. “I might marry an Ambassador or something. It could be helpful.”
Lily stared at her friend. “Is that how you see the rest of your life?”
Julia bristled. “There’s nothing wrong with marrying an Ambassador.”
“No, of course not” Lily shrugged. “It’s just that I’ve never considered anything other than working beside my father.” She lifted her feet out of the water and watched the droplets fall. “I was so surprised when he agreed to let me take lessons with you. I’d never have learned English otherwise.” She paused for a moment. “He’s only letting me learn to please your parents… because you wanted me to keep you company.”
“Haven’t you enjoyed it?” Julia looked confused.
“Oh, yes, I’ve learned a lot.” Lily’s thoughts turned inward. “But I’m the only family my father has left. It’s my duty to help him.”
“Then I guess it’s lucky for you that you enjoy gardening.” Julia paused. “You do, don’t you?”
Lily’s expression softened. “Yes. There’s something about making things grow that gives me great pleasure.”
Julia shook her head. “You’re funny, Lily.”
She splashed water against Lily’s legs, careful not to wet her trousers. “Because you could do anything you want with your life. You’re so beautiful… surely you must know that by now.”
Lily ducked her head. She didn’t like people commenting on her looks, even though it was usually a compliment. She would rather be known for her bravery, or her hard work.
“What I look like on the outside has nothing to do with who I am on the inside,” she said, not for the first time. “But thank you.”
* * *
“Thank you…” Lily awoke with the words on her lips, and for a moment she didn’t know where she was. Fear and hunger were making her hallucinate; she tried to stand up, but almost fell over. Darkness was falling and if she was going to move, now was the time to do it. She shivered violently and resumed her crouched position. Perhaps just a few more minutes, and she’d try again.
“Is someone there?” A woman’s voice filtered into Lily’s consciousness and she struggled to open her eyes. She supposed it had to happen eventually; at least she’d been found by a woman.
“Please come out. I can help you if you need medical attention.”
Clutching at the woodpile for support, Lily attempted to stand.
“Hello,” the woman said, bending at the waist. “Can I help you?”
They were the words Lily had been longing to hear. She couldn’t make out the woman’s face in the dark, but she reached out toward her. “Please,” she whimpered, just as her legs gave out and everything went black.
Angry voices broke into her consciousness. A man had joined in the conversation and she shrank back. He was arguing with the woman about taking a man into the house and it took her a moment to realize that they were speaking about her. Moments later, she felt herself being picked up. The warmth of the man’s body felt so good against her chilled flesh; she really should thank him, but then she remembered the last time a man had touched her and her eyes flew open. She struggled to get free and found him looking at her in the strangest way. Had the last few days been in vain? Was he planning to take her back to Hiram? The thought was unbearable, but she was too weak to fight any more. With a defeated sigh, she closed her eyes.
* * *
Time had lost its meaning. Lily opened her eyes, not knowing how many minutes had passed. She was alone in a room, lying on a bed. A candle flickered softly on a bedside table, but there was no adornment in the room. She swung her feet over the side of the bed, but she doubted that she had the strength to stand.
The door opened. “Hello.” The woman from before entered; she hadn’t seen her clearly enough to recognize her, but she could tell by her voice. The woman carried a basin of water which she set on the bedside table. A small bar of sweetly scented soap followed and she recognized it as lavender. She almost swooned at the idea of washing her face and hands, but the woman was saying something.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes.” She silently thanked Julia for the years of friendship.
The woman smiled. “My name is Sarah Howard, and this is my house. I’d like you to know that you’re welcome to stay.”
Lily considered the woman’s words. “I have no money.”
“Oh, no. I didn’t mean it like that. You’re welcome to stay here for free.”
“Why?” She voiced her thoughts. “Nothing is free.”
Sarah sucked in a breath. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Lily. I’m tired and maybe even a bit cranky, but when I say you can stay here for free, I mean it.”
The woman called Sarah was angry, and she had a right to be. Shame washed over Lily as she realized how her words must have sounded. She lowered her eyes so the other woman wouldn’t see the tears that threatened to fall. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t deserve your kindness.”
Sarah studied her silently for several moments, and then seemed to come to a decision. “Listen,” she said. “We’re a houseful of women and we’ve all had problems of one sort or another. Anna’s husband died shortly before her son was born, and Addie was beaten by a man when she refused to work for him as a prostitute.”
A chill crept down Lily’s back. “Hiram!” she said.
Sarah pulled back. “How did you know?”
“Because he bought me. He threatened to beat me if I didn’t go to work in one of his bordellos.”
Sarah shook her head. Could this possibly be true? She needed to ask Addie. “Let’s not talk about this anymore tonight. You must be hungry, right?”
“I’m starving. I haven’t eaten for something like five days.”
“Then wash up if you like, and I’ll get you some broth and bread. You’re welcome to come out and eat with the others if you’d like.”
“No thank you.” Lily eyed the basin of water. “Something to eat and sleep is what I need more than anything.”
Sarah returned a few moments later with a large bowl of rich broth and two thick slices of bread. Lily waited until she left the room and then forced herself to eat slowly. Had her luck changed? She desperately wanted to believe it, but hope was a tenuous commodity since her father had died. The woman Sarah seemed almost too good to be true… kind and understanding, with no apparent ulterior motive. She set down the empty bowl and fought against the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm her. She couldn’t possibly lie down on the clean sheets until she’d rid herself of the worst of the dirt.
She picked up the small bar of scented soap and her thoughts drifted back to the first time she’d met Julia. Her life hadn’t always been easy, but when compared with the present, those days had been innocent and carefree…
* * *
“Hello. Are you one of the gardeners?” A girl of about fourteen appeared out of nowhere, blocking the afternoon sun. Lily’s first impression was of blonde hair peeking out from under a broad-brimmed hat.
Lily scrambled to her feet. She’d been taught to stand when confronted by one of the household members. “Yes, I am,” she said, thinking that it was a rather silly question. Why else would she be on her knees, weeding around the lavender? Bees buzzed around the heavily-scented plant.
“What’s your name?”
This girl was certainly direct, but Lily had heard that lo fan were like that. “I’m Lily,” she said, looking the other girl in the eye.
“What’s your Chinese name?”
Lily’s hand tightened on her gardening tool. “Yang Li,” she said, her chin tilting up ever so slightly.
“Yang Li,” repeated the girl. “I like Lily better.”
Lily said nothing.
“I came out to get some flowers for my bedroom.” She eyed the lavender.
Lily’s dismay must have shown on her face, because the girl stepped back. “I suppose that would ruin the look of this beautiful plant, though. Do you have any other ideas?”
Using her limited English vocabulary, Lily led the girl to the cutting garden beside the new glass greenhouse. The girl gathered a small bouquet, chattering the entire time. Lily understood most of what she was saying, but she found herself wishing that she could enter into the conversation. The girl was obviously spoiled by her rich family, but she was bright and cheerful. It was a long time since Lily had had a friend, and she began to relax as the girl talked.
After a while, she seemed to run out of words. “My name’s Julia, by the way.” She offered Lily an impish grin. “Would you like to be friends?”
Lily frowned. Had this girl read her mind?
“Listen.” Julia’s tone was conspiratorial. “I know you probably don’t understand every word I say, but you understand most of it, don’t you?”
Lily nodded, and Julia beamed. “I have an idea. What if I could arrange for you to come to classes with me?” Lily could almost see the gears turning inside her head. “I have a tutor who comes every morning for a few hours. Daddy wants me to learn to speak Mandarin. I can tell him that you’re helping me learn Mandarin, and in the meantime, you can learn English. What do you say? I’ll have Daddy ask your father.”
Lily was surprised by how much she wanted to be friends with this bright creature. She reminded Lily of a butterfly, flitting from one subject to another. And yet, she was sweet, and as far as Lily could tell, she had no ulterior motive in wanting to be friends.
“Okay,” she said, hesitant to let her enthusiasm show. But Julia had been sincere, and within a week, they were attending classes together, building the foundation of their friendship.
Julia’s father had built an impressive estate in Shanghai’s American settlement a few years prior, and Lily’s father had been the head gardener since the beginning. Most of the staff lived outside the fortress-like walls of the estate, but Lily’s father occupied a position of importance in this rapidly changing society where appearances were everything. An influential trader with his own fleet of ships, Frederick Reed reveled in his position. He frequently showed off his gardens to the members of the International Settlement, and was often heard to brag that his gardener lived on site.
Lily’s mother had died in childbirth many years ago, her presence little more than a faint memory. As she’d grown older, Lily wondered if her parents had loved each other, but she didn’t dare ask her father. He never spoke of her mother, and, and hadn’t shown any interest in remarrying. Father and daughter occupied a small cottage on a corner of the estate, their future secure.
That is until six months ago, when the fabric of Lily’s life started to unravel.
* * *
“Guess what?” Julia was almost vibrating with excitement. “Mummy’s taking me to Hong Kong. We’re going on one of Daddy’s ships.” She grabbed Lily’s hands. “I’ll miss you, but think how much fun I’ll have looking for something to bring back for you.” She frowned. “What would you like?”
Lily laughed. “Nothing, Julia. Just have a good time and bring back your memories. How long will you be gone?”
“About six months. Will you miss me?”
“Of course.” It was the truth. After more than four years, the girls had become best of friends, and saw each other every day. “But you’ll be home before you know it.”
Lily slipped easily back into her work routine with her father. A quiet man, he rarely praised her efforts, but she knew that he was proud to have her at his side as they tended the gardens together. In spite of the fact that the Reed family would be gone for an extended period of time, her father maintained the gardens to his usual exacting standards.
* * *
Lily paused in the act of clearing the dishes after the evening meal. “Father, what’s that on your arm?”
Her father looked listlessly at the freckle-like rash on his arm. “I don’t know,” he said. “It appeared two days ago when I was digging out that nest of voles.” He tried to stand up, then eased himself back down.
She looked at him more closely. His forehead was beaded with perspiration and yet he shivered, as though overcome with a sudden chill.
Fear gripped her. “You don’t look well. I’m going to the big house for Liang Yan. She took care of Julia when she got sick last year.” She rushed from the room over her father’s protests, sensing that there was something seriously wrong.
She was right.
The healer took one look at her father and ordered her from the room. When she came out some time later, her expression was grim. “I’m sorry, Li, but your father has bubonic plague.”
Lily’s stomach plummeted. Very few escaped the plague alive. “How bad?” she asked, dreading the answer.
Yan shook her head. “He already has lumps in his neck and armpits.” She shook her head.
Lily walked toward the door, but Yan held her back. “No,” she said firmly. “This is a highly contagious disease, and we can’t risk spreading it.”
“But Baba…” Lily looked toward the little house she’d shared so happily with her father.
“He asked me to keep you away.” Yan’s voice broke. “He asked me to tell you that he loves you, and he doesn’t want to risk infecting you or anyone else. He said it would break his heart if anything happened to you.”
* * *
Lily’s worst fears were realized two days later when her father died. She had been sleeping on a cot in a small alcove off the kitchen and was awakened by the housekeeper. “Come,” she said, her tone brusque. “Your father has gone to be with his ancestors. We must bury him right away in a special section of the cemetery.”
Lily dressed in white – the color of death – and followed the cart to the cemetery, where a quick ceremony was performed. Shocked at the speed of her Baba’s death, the words barely registered. The only people in attendance were the housekeeper and her mother’s sister. As a cooling rain fell, she tried to remember anything about the aunt she barely recognized, but nothing came to mind. After her mother’s death, the woman had disappeared from her life. She had no idea why her aunt was here now, especially since the woman scarcely looked at her.
Eyes dulled with pain, Lily followed the housekeeper to the cart, but was surprised when the woman laid a hand on her arm.
“I’m sorry, Lily. You won’t be coming back to the estate.”
Taken off guard, Lily gave her a blank look. “Why not?”
“Because we need to clean out the cottage and prepare it for the new gardener.”
Lily had been too worried about her father to consider what would happen to her; the announcement came as a shock. “But where will I go?”
The housekeeper looked away, and for a moment Lily thought she saw pity in her expression. “Your aunt has offered to take you in,” she said, nodding toward the unsmiling woman. “We have packed up your personal items from the cottage and she has them.”
“But Julia…” Lily was grasping at straws, but she didn’t care; there was something about her aunt that frightened her. She felt helpless, as though she was being swept away by a raging river. “How will she know where to find me?”
The housekeeper’s expression softened. “I’m sure you will always be welcome to visit, but Mr. and Mrs. Reed won’t be back for another four months. You should be thankful that your aunt has offered to take you. Run along now.” She walked away, her back stiff and unyielding.
Lily’s aunt started in on her as soon as the housekeeper was out of earshot.
“Foolish girl! What makes you think the lo fanwill want to see you when they come back? You are nothing to them.”
Lily considered answering back, but the housekeeper was right… she was lucky to have somewhere to stay. She took the surprisingly small package of personal goods from her aunt and lowered her eyes. It wouldn’t do to let this unpleasant woman know how she felt… at least not yet.
* * *
Lily unpacked her meagre belongings the next morning and let out a cry of despair. Her jade bracelet, passed down to her from her mother, and her gold necklace were missing, as were all of her good clothes. All that remained were cheap cotton tunics and slacks… the attire of the lowliest servants.
“Where are my things?” she inquired, trying to keep her voice even. “My jewellery and my good clothes?”
Her aunt’s eyes narrowed. “Those trinkets?” she hissed. “I sold them. Did you think I was going to feed you and house you for nothing?”
Tears sprang to Lily’s eyes. “But those were given to me by my parents. You had no right to take them.” She stood her ground, her body trembling with anger.
Her aunt glared at her and for the first time in her life, Lily saw pure evil. “I have every right,” she hissed. “You are nothing more to me than another mouth to feed… an inconvenience.”
Lily considered running away, but her aunt lived in a part of Shanghai she didn’t know. It had never occurred to her that by living with her father on the estate, she was effectively shut off from the rest of the world. Her forays outside the compound had been to nearby markets to purchase food and other necessities; beyond that, she was a stranger in her own town.
Lily’s aunt ran a small noodle shop near her home. Lily didn’t mind the hard work, but no matter how hard she tried, her aunt found fault. Business was improving daily, with more and more laborers frequenting their stand and trying to engage Lily in conversation. Lily was polite, but she didn’t encourage them, aware of her aunt’s gaze constantly on her. There was something sinister in the way her aunt watched the men fawning over her. More than once she had noticed the woman whispering with strange men and looking in her direction.
“Come,” her aunt said one afternoon, closing the shop early. Lily followed, curious as to what tragedy had befallen her aunt that she needed to close early… an unheard of occurrence.
Her aunt wound her way through a warren of narrow streets, coming out at a section of docks along the Whampoa River. It was an area Lily recognized, having travelled there with Julia to see one of her father’s new ships.
“Where are we going?” she asked at last.
Her aunt ignored her, eventually stopping at an ocean-going ship. The gangplank tilted at a steep angle, and she pushed Lily ahead, puffing breathlessly as she followed.
Once on deck, they were greeted by a rough-looking seaman who stared at Lily as though he had never seen a woman before.
“Captain Jeremiah Briggs,” Lily’s aunt demanded, mangling the pronunciation of the last name.
The man continued to ogle at Lily. “I’ll take you to him,” he said, leading them down the companionway and aft to the captain’s cabin. He rapped sharply. “Come,” a voice answered, and he opened the door.
Lily’s heart started to pound as she looked around the cabin. Something didn’t feel right here, and she turned questioning eyes on her aunt.
“So you’ve brought her.” The man studied her openly. “I was told she’s eighteen, but she looks younger.” He stroked a rapidly growing erection through the front of his trousers. “I like them young.”
Lily turned terrified eyes to her aunt, who refused to meet her gaze.
“All right,” he said, tossing a bundle of bills to Lily’s aunt. “I’ll take her. She’ll keep me company on the way to San Francisco, and I can sell her there at a nice profit.”
Lily’s aunt grabbed the money and scurried out the door, leaving Lily stunned and alone with the captain.
A cunning grin caught at the corner of his mouth. “You didn’t know about this, did you?”
Lily shook her head. Maybe it was all a mistake and he would let her go. Somehow she didn’t think so.
“Better that way,” he said, lighting a cigar. “Less time to object.” He rose and circled her. “So you speak English.”
Lily considered not responding, but she’d already indicated she understood him. She nodded.
“Good,” he said, as though they were conducting a business negotiation. “Here’s what’s going to happen. This ship sets sail for San Francisco tonight.” He gave a chuckle that set the fine hairs on the back of her neck on end. “Don’t get too attached to me, because I’ll be selling you when we get there.” He paused and lifted her heavy hair. She could feel his breath on her neck and she was almost overcome with nausea. “You should bring a fine price.”
He continued pacing. “If you behave, I’ll let you out on deck once a week, depending on the weather. The rest of the time, you’ll be in here.” He paused dramatically. “With the door locked.”
Lily looked toward the door.
“Don’t think about trying to get away.” He stopped and pretended to think. “And don’t think about trying to harm me. If you were foolish enough to do that, my men would take turns with you for the rest of the voyage.” He made a tutting noise. “Trust me, that would not be pleasant.”
He adjusted the bulge in the front of his trousers. “Much as I’d like to see what I’ve bought, I have to get this ship underway.” He glanced toward the bunk. “There will be plenty of time for that later.”
* * *
The captain made good on his promise. He took her virginity roughly, seemingly unaware of the tears streaming silently down her cheeks. After that, she learned to turn off her mind each night while he rutted on top of her, then rolled over and snored loudly while she roamed silently around the cabin, wondering if she would ever climb out of the black hole that was now her life. Her pride would not permit her to beg him to leave her alone. Besides, she knew it would do no good.
Her one foray out onto the deck ended badly. The seamen all stopped what they were doing and stared at her, many making lewd gestures in her direction. Terrified, she ran back to the cabin, thankful for the locked door.
As the days and weeks went by, Lily’s heart hardened. The captain had taken more than her virginity… he’d shattered every illusion she’d ever had about tenderness between a man and a woman. Looking back, she recognized the romantic, whispered dreams she’d shared with Julia as nothing more than the fantasies of two silly girls.
This was real life. She may be broken, but somehow she was determined to survive.
The only break in her routine came about a third of the way through the voyage, when the captain invited several of his officers into his cabin for a game of cards. At the captain’s insistence, she sat quietly behind him, watching the game progress. She did not recognize the game, nor the cards, but to amuse herself, she started observing the reactions of the men when they won, as well as when they lost. When she mentioned to the captain that the first mate tugged at his beard when he had a good hand, he looked at her curiously, but said nothing. The games took place more frequently after that, and he encouraged her to report to him when she saw other telltale signs. Pleased with his winnings, he presented her with a change of clothes. Her new outfit was a simple tunic and pants, but the fabric was finely woven, reminding her of her former life. But she harbored no illusions about what would happen when they arrived in San Francisco.
* * *
“Bollocks!” The captain turned away from the mirror, where he had been shaving. Lily had noticed a slow improvement in his appearance in the past few weeks, including reducing his beard to a strip of hair that rimmed his chin.
He swished the razor in a basin of water. “Have you ever shaved anyone?” he asked, watching her reaction closely.
“No,” she said, her gaze fastened on the sharp blade.
He passed her the razor and indicated the nicks on his face. “You can’t do worse than this.”
Lily turned the blade this way and that, catching the light. He was right; he’d made a mess of his face. She approached cautiously, wondering if this was a test.
Within a few days, she had mastered the art of shaving him. He enjoyed the attention, but she was careful not to look in his eyes, unable to hide the hatred that simmered just below the surface. Just when she thought she couldn’t stand him another moment, he’d remind her of her fate if something were to happen to him. As they neared San Francisco, she resigned herself to the fact that she’d do nothing… at least not while she was on board.
* * *
The faint scent of lavender brought Lily back to the present. Her life these past few months had been one long nightmare… and almost as unbelievable. She splashed water on her face and gave a prayer of thanks. Was it possible that she could find peace in this house full of women? She stretched out on the bed with an exhausted sigh. She would certainly try.
* * *
Devon walked aimlessly. He knew that Addie meant well, and he appreciated her concern, but she couldn’t possibly understand what had happened to him when he looked into the woman’s eyes. His friends had called him a confirmed bachelor for many years now, and in spite of his oft-expressed desire to remain unattached, he was growing tired of the single life. In quiet times alone, he’d frequently found himself wondering if he would ever find a woman to love. And now that he had, she was beyond his reach. He didn’t need Addie to tell him that. He’d seen it for himself in the way she looked at him, breaking his heart even as he gazed into her eyes and fell deeply in love.
He found himself at the waterfront and looked into the darkness. Masts creaked as ships rocked at anchor, and disembodied voices drifted over the water. Here and there, a soft light glowed from a ship’s interior, but the harbor was mostly quiet.
The ship she had arrived on was out there somewhere. He wondered if he would ever learn what had terrified her… or if he even wanted to know. If the fear in her eyes was anything to go by, her story might be better off left untold. Would time erase whatever had made her tremble in his arms? He ached to hold her again, to help her forget the terrors of her past. But only time could do that. Time and patience. He would need plenty of both, he thought with a wry smile, then turned and walked back toward the house.
No Such Thing is available now.