Running a brothel was hot, sweaty work.
Awaiting the arrival of her next round of guests in the overheated parlor, Kitty Wilder figured she should know. She’d been doing it for the past seven summers, ever since her great-aunt Catherine was hospitalized with her first stroke. Before that, everyone in her hometown of Hot Water, California, including Aunt Cat, thought Kitty was too young to dress in satin and feathers every day. Of course, they expected she would eventually—after all, there had been a Doc Watson and a Judge Matthews in town for over one hundred and fifty years, so who other than a Wilder woman belonged in the local bordello?—but modern mores had postponed Kitty’s debut at The Burning Rose until it was absolutely necessary, when she was nineteen years old.
She hadn’t been what you’d call “eager” to take on the work. It certainly wasn’t a conventional summer job—and conventional was Kitty’s soul-deep desire—but in Hot Water, where the past was so tangled with the present, there wasn’t much point in bucking century-old traditions. Though at nineteen Kitty had already been coveting minivans, wanting nothing more than a super-size white one with wood side panels, a stroller spilling out the back and a bronzed male forearm propped in the driver’s window—oh, she especially longed for that bronzed forearm and the rest of the family man that went with it!—she had accepted the responsibility and donned a floozy’s dress and some feathers with fatalistic calm.
This seventh summer was little different from her first. Though Kitty was now twenty-six, the brothel’s parlor smelled as always of old wood and lemon oil. The sluggish air conditioner battled against Hot Water’s late-July heat with minimal success. The black lace edging the low-to-the-point-of-embarrassment neckline of her gold satin costume itched.
This summer the only difference was in Kitty. What was missing was her fatalistic calm. That was why, when the town’s Gold Rush-era living-history district closed its doors on the summer tourist season, Kitty was going to quit playing madam. For good.
Heat had nothing to do with it. Sweat was a mere inconvenience. But six months ago Kitty had seen how futile that soul-deep ambition of hers was. Though for three-fourths of the year she held the responsible position of “head” of the one-person advertising and PR department of the Hot Water Preservation Society, she’d realized she would never be considered conventional. She’d realized that the two thousand residents of her hometown would always see her as a Wilder—would only see her as a Wilder.
That was why it was a sadder but wiser Kitty who now pushed a damp lock of hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist, then consulted a mental calendar, ticking off time by touching thumb to forefinger, tall man, ring finger, pinkie, forefinger once more. After today’s last tour, she had five weeks left as Hot Water’s madam. In five short weeks she’d be pointing her packed car north, because the only way to escape her past was to leave home behind.
The brothel’s front-door hinges squealed. Kitty pushed herself off the parlor’s stiff Victorian settee and smoothed the skirt of her off-the-shoulder dress. She tugged up that black lace at the décolletage too, even though the dress’s sewed-in stays couldn’t manage to thrust her meager breasts into immodest prominence. Its low cut might make the garment cooler than the high-necked, long-sleeved costumes the other women in the living-history district wore, but she never felt completely at ease in it all the same.
“Kitty?” Sally Sloan, owner of Sloan Tours of San Francisco, poked her head through the front door.
“Coming,” Kitty called. As she hurried across the parlor rug, the wilting black ostrich feather that was poked into her loose topknot of hair waved at the edge of her vision. Kitty batted it back. “Is your group ready?”
Every Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, as part of Sloan Tour’s “Golden Age, Golden Country” tour, a 747-sized bus stopped in Hot Water, discharging a bundle of chilled tourists from its luxurious, partly refrigerated confines. Once Kitty led today’s group through the brothel, she could leave the madam’s clinging dress behind for the day—if not the madam’s reputation that clung to her as stubbornly—and curl up in her little house for a quiet evening with a book and a cold glass of lemonade.
As Kitty reached the wide archway between the parlor and the entry hall, Sally stepped completely inside, shutting the front door behind her. Clutching her customary clipboard and water bottle to her chest, she leaned back against the door and released a long, tired sigh. Her eyes closed.
Kitty stopped short, surprised by the exhaustion etched on the face of the usually energetic woman. “Sally, what’s wrong?”
One of Sally’s eyes opened and she grimaced. “That obvious, huh?”
Kitty nodded. “That obvious, yes. What’s the problem?”
Sally grimaced again, then pushed her shoulders off the door and met Kitty’s gaze squarely. “I hate to tell you this, but I have forty untamed rugby players out there.”
Kitty groaned. “Not today.” Not today when it was so hot and so late and she’d already been dreaming of lemonade and her book. “Not rugby players.”
But Sally was nodding her head. “Rugby players.”
“Women rugby players?” Kitty asked hopefully.
Sally shook her head.
“A rugby team of retirees, then?”
“You’re grasping at straws, girlfriend. They’re male. College age. I hesitate to label them something so grown-up as ‘men,’ however. You’ll see what I mean. You’re going to have your hands full.”