In 1848 San Francisco, Lola Moreno is a housemaid for Gage Lassen, a withdrawn bachelor. When adventurer Harrison Bancroft arrives, he unlocks the pain from Gage’s past, allowing passion to emerge. A group of cruel enforcers threatens their bond of secrecy, and the trio is forced to make a stand.
“Did you buy your cow?”
“I have.” After Lola flung her rebozo onto the back of a chair, Harrison could admire the play of dappled sun across her bare shoulders as she worked the dough. Her voice, however, seemed resigned and flat when she said, “I can sell a pint of milk for a dollar to men who haven’t had any in one or two years. And these pies? I can sell fruit pies for a dollar apiece—mince pies for a dollar and a quarter.”
Harrison thought. He supposed it was wonderful that Lola was so enterprising, instead of sinking into the squalor that so many broken frontier women gave in to, but it was also pitiful that Lassen didn’t pay her enough—that a woman of such talents and background had to slave away stoking a fire and chopping apples when she should be…Well, the wife of a dignitary, or some other man of means, such as a lawyer.
However, pie and a glass of milk did sound good. Harrison knew a passel of men who would well-nigh whale into someone for a chance at pie and milk.
“And Lassen lets you keep the income, even though the cow’s on his land?”
“Surprisingly, yes. I use my own money for the ingredients and firewood, and I only make pies when I’ve done all the chores Lassen has set for me.” She suddenly stopped rolling out the dough. Her head sank down on a weak neck as though defeated in something, and Harrison stopped chewing the orange, taking a few steps toward her. When she inhaled a ragged breath, it all came out in a rush. “I get up, make coffee, then I make biscuits, fry potatoes, broil three pounds of steak and as much liver as I can. Then I sweep and set the table, ring the bell at eight, he is eating until nine, I don’t sit until he’s done. After breakfast, I bake six loaves of bread, then four pies or pudding, then it’s lunch, lamb for which I’ve paid nine dollars, beef, pork, turnips, beets, radishes, and that everlasting damned soup every day. For tea he has hash, cold meat, bread and butter, sauce, and some kind of cake. I make his bed every day and do all his washing and ironing, if I didn’t have the constitution of a horse I should have given it all up a long time ago, and he doesn’t even say good day to me.”
Harrison was shocked into silence by this sudden outbreak. He’d known she was disenchanted with Gage Lassen, but he thought she scorned Lassen and trivialized his cold treatment of her. Now it appeared that it upset her greatly. Accustomed to the fluid, warm ways of the Plains Indians, Harrison took Lola by the shoulders and turned her to face him. Yes, a tear dripped down each cheek, and she miserably looked aside at the floor.
“Lola. Meha. Dear heart. I don’t think it has much to do with you individually. Listen to me. He’d be the same cold way if it rained tadpoles and pennywinkles. That’s just Lassen’s way. I’m starting to suspect that it has something to do with that wife who threw him over.”
“I thought so!” she blubbered, finally meeting his gaze, although she shied away from his grip. “But he treats society women with deference.”
“That’s society women, wives of his friends, meha! Of course he has to bow to them on occasion. But have you noticed, as I have, that he virtually ignores every single shopgirl, laundress, every woman who passes on the street? It’s as though he can see right through them. It’s not just you. Lassen is more…interested in the interests of other men.”
The moment Harrison uttered those words, a shudder went up his spine. The interests of other men. Since meeting Gage Lassen, he’d been uncomfortable with the other’s physical closeness, the way he stood just a tad too near, eyes just a tad too heartfelt. True, Harrison was fixated upon the man’s physical presence in a jealous sort of way. He wished his own skin to be that creamy café au lait instead of the blinding white that burned so easily in the sun. And Lassen’s features, so dusky, full, and sensual, not thin and austere as Harrison saw his own face. Yes, that was it. He was merely envious. That was why he tracked the man with his eyes, and felt an ardor spreading through him when they stood close together.
Lola must have perceived his thoughts just then, for she sniffled and asked childishly, “It had occurred to me that perhaps Lassen is…more comfortable around men.”