“Fire!” a miner shouted, banging open the door of Daddy Diggs’ saloon. “Down at Smoochy’s!”
“Let’s go, Hank,” Jake barked, already on his feet and moving quickly toward the door. Even in a lawless, loose-morals kind of town like Dorado Hills, California, citizens came together under duress. “Olive, you’re in charge,” he instructed his top earning whore.
“I’ll take care of it, Daddy,” she said, and he knew she would. Olive knew the business inside and out, and was his right hand man, so to speak.
Hank might be considered his left hand man, if there were such a thing. At eighteen, he was barely into his whiskers, but he was smart and well-disciplined and followed directions without fail.
“Fire at Smoochy’s could spread to all of Whiskey Row,” Hank observed as they jogged down the wide road toward the blaze. Flames had devoured the building, and Hank was right—if they didn’t extinguish the fire, it might burn every saloon right down to Daddy Diggs’.
They went around back to the front of the line of bucket wielders, taking the water passed up from the pump and tossing it on the inferno. A movement from above caught his eye and he looked up. His heart stopped in his chest. There, on the second floor, leaning out of the window, was Smoochy’s famous whore—Cora Underhill. The girl who made his breath catch every time he saw her face.
“Get me a blanket!” he barked at Hank, pointing to where men were trying to tamp down the flames with horse blankets.
Hank ran to fetch one and he pulled it taut, holding two sides and instructing Hank to hold the other two. “Jump!” he called to the girl.
He could tell that she heard him, but she looked dubious.
“Jump, lass. We’ll catch you, I promise! Jump into the blanket!”
She shook her head, peering down with wide, terrorized eyes. She was dressed in little more than a shift; she’d probably been interrupted with a customer, or had been asleep. Her long blond tresses fell over her shoulders and he found himself worrying they would catch fire. As if in response to his thought, the lintel above her head suddenly crashed down in flames. She screamed and leaped back from the window, disappearing from their view. He swore, softly.
Cora Underhill. She never should have ended up a whore at Smoochy’s. She’d been a well-bred girl from an upstanding family and fate had delivered her to the lowest hell hole in Dorado Hills. He sprinted to the back of the General Store where he took an ax and a ladder and hauled them back at a run. Leaning the ladder against the blazing building, he peeled off his dress shirt so it wouldn’t burn, and snatched up the horse blanket and ax. He took the ladder rungs two at a time, beating down the flames in the window so he could climb through.
Cora was trapped in a corner, the blazing lintel blocking her escape. Heat scalded his face. He swung his ax against the flaming wood, knocking it out of the way.
“Go away!” she screamed at him, a wild look in her eyes. “Leave me! Let me die!” she sobbed in a voice too hoarse to carry.
He crossed the distance and hauled her to her feet, half-carrying, half-dragging her to the window. She felt small and fragile under his large hands—as if he might break her little bones if he squeezed too hard. He climbed out first, pulling her after him onto a smoldering wooden ladder. With each step down, he tugged her along, catching her when her feet missed the rungs, hauling her down to the ground where he hustled her away from the inferno.
She choked and coughed as he led her, an arm around her shoulders holding her up. When they were a safe distance, he stopped and looked down. Even blackened with soot and wild-eyed, she was exquisite. And she looked so much his Eliza, it made his chest ache.
But Eliza was dead and he’d left his those memories back in Ireland long ago.
“Are you all right, lass?” he asked. “Are you burned?”
She shook her head. Then she suddenly stiffened and stopped. “Joaquin!” she screamed with panic, looking around wildly. “Joaquin?!”
“Aquí estoy, Cora!” a Mexican boy no more than seven or eight years old yelled from several hundred feet away.
Her body sagged in relief as she whirled to watch the boy running toward her. He wondered what the child meant to her. He must be the son of one of Smoochy’s whores. Maybe an orphan.
“Where’s Smoochy?” she asked the boy.
Dead. He’d suspected as much. It seemed only a handful of people had emerged from the blazing building.
“Take her and the boy back to our place,” he instructed Hank, preparing to return to pail duty.
“What do you want with us?” she demanded in a croak that turned into another coughing fit.
He peered at her filthy face. Her lips trembled and her eyes still had that crazed look she’d had since he pulled her out. He touched her cheek with the back of his fingers to calm her, but she jerked back, as if scalded by his touch.
It was odd how much her rejection bothered him.
“I don’t want anything from you, Cora. I’m just seeing to your safety, that’s all.”
Her eyes widened when he spoke her name, as if she were surprised he knew it. She stepped back, out of his reach, her blue eyes narrowed with mistrust.
“Go on, get Olive to tend to her,” he said to Hank and turned back to the fire.
Smoochy’s was beyond saving, its wooden structure already collapsing. All they could do now was minimize the spread of fire. Wielding the ax, he chopped the wood porch off the side of Smoochy’s closest neighbor on Whiskey Row to keep the fire from jumping. Then, seeing there was nothing more to do but let it smolder out, he returned to Daddy Diggs’.
* * *
The Devil Diggory. The Irish-born owner of the other brothel in Dorado Hills. Of course he would be the one to pull her out of the fire. He’d be ready to snatch whatever or whoever was left after Smoochy’s demise. For all she knew, he set the fire to get rid of his only competitor.
But sweet Jesus, what a sight he had been, smashing into the burning room with his bared torso and warrior-like presence. Not that she’d wanted to be rescued. She’d been resigned to dying—praying to God she’d meet her parents again in heaven, but no—the devil himself had snatched her back and obviously planned on keeping her for himself.
She considered whether she could escape. She wasn’t in debt to him, as she had been to Smoochy, but she also had no money to run with, not even clothes to wear that hadn’t been burned. And she wouldn’t get very far on her good looks alone. Or if she did, it would be by whoring herself out to some other man, possibly even more dangerous than Diggory.
“Estás bien?” she asked Joaquin.
“Yes,” he said, stubbornly making a point of speaking his perfect English in front of the stranger. “I’m burnt here,” he twisted his arm to show her a burn on his forearm, “and here,” he indicated the back of his hand. She clucked sympathetically, inspecting the superficial wounds. A Mexican orphan, the eight-year-old worked for his keep doing chores at their brothel, and had been subjected to general abuse by its inhabitants. The two of them had somehow become an odd pair, looking out for one another when they could.
They were led in the back door of Daddy Diggs’ gambling hall, brothel, and saloon, which was the upscale haunt for miners who’d struck gold and had money they were eager to waste. Smoochy’s had been low class. In a town where women, particularly white women, were so few and far between, Daddy Diggs’ had four high class prostitutes, including two who’d come from the French bordellos and brought their dances and tricks of the trade. Men paid a premium for lighter skin, which was why Smoochy had held her as his prized property. She’d worked amongst Mexican and Chinese women who he kept as indentured servants like her.
In the back kitchen, one of the high-class whores greeted them. She was dressed in fine clothing—her satin ruffled dress and petticoats cut out in front in the French style to reveal black stockings and garters. She was attractive, with soft brown hair piled up on her head and tendrils curling in front of her ears. A black choker set off her slender neck with a pale, elegant cameo at the throat. Her eyes were sharp and she looked confident and worldly.
“Come on upstairs, sugar,” she said, putting an arm around her shoulders and guiding her up the stairs and to a bedroom. “Where does it hurt?” Her voice was kind, but no-nonsense as she peeled off Cora’s charred clothing.
Cora doubled over, coughing, shaking her head. Tears leaked from her stinging eyes.
“I’m having a bath filled for you,” the woman said. “We’ll get you cleaned up. Name’s Olive, by the way.” She’d finished pulling the chemise off her and began unlacing her corset from the back.
“Cora,” she choked, starting in on another coughing fit.
There was a knock and an older Mexican woman carried in a wooden tub, which she set in the middle of the room. Another Mexican women followed, emptying a bucket of water in the tub with a splash.
“It’s not warm, but it’ll wash off the soot, at least,” Olive said.
Cora stepped into it gratefully. Baths were few and far between in mining towns, and she’d be grateful for what she could get. There was only eight inches of water in it, but she sat right down, cupping her hands to splash her face.
“Are you burnt?” Olive asked gently, kneeling and helping to splash water over her shivering body. As it had been between the women at Smoochy’s, there was no need for modesty.
“No,” she said, examining her arms. The hair had been singed right off them. She touched the hair on her head fearfully.
Olive examined it with a critical eye. “It’s still there—I don’t think you lost much,” she said, lifting and moving pieces around her face. “A bit in the front, along with some of your eyebrows. You’re lucky to be alive, you know.”
“Cursed is more like it,” she muttered. “What about Joaquin?”
“The boy? He’s fine. He’s downstairs getting cleaned up and fed. Is he yours?”
Cora scoffed. “No. Does he look like mine?”
Olive gave an easy shrug. “I didn’t think so. Don’t worry, Daddy Diggs will find a place for him.”
She eyed Olive. “Will he? What does he want with me?”
Olive made a condemning sort of noise. “You could try a little gratitude. I heard he risked his life to save you.”
“I didn’t ask to be saved,” she muttered, just as another knock sounded and the two women returned, carrying more water. They poured it slowly over and around her, rinsing the horrible smoke smell out of her hair and pores. In a different situation, this might have been the most luxurious moment of her life, but considering she had no idea what the Devil Diggory planned to do with her, she couldn’t relax into it. In the blink of an eye, her jailor had changed from Smoochy to Daddy Diggs. She’d never even had a shot at freedom.
The murmur of a male voice in the doorway as the women left made her head jerk up, and she realized Diggory had been leaning in the door frame.
His shirt was hanging open as if he’d hurriedly pulled it on after her rescue. His black tousled hair, normally parted on the side and pomaded back into curls, fell in his face, softening the angular lines of his jaw. He’d washed the ashes from his face and hands, but there was evidence of it still on his neck and a dusting on his chest hair. She remembered the stunning visage of him coming through the fire, fearlessly wielding his ax, his chiseled torso naked and glowing in the flame light. She was disturbed to feel a clenching of the muscles between her legs.
Damn him. Only the devil could stir her desire in a moment like this.
Olive gave her hand a squeeze and departed as Diggory entered the room. He drew a low stool up to the tub, settling into it with his forearms resting on his knees to study her, as if she were a horse at auction. She felt her face flush, but refused to show any shame at her nudity. Resisting the urge to cover her breasts, she lifted her chin and rested her elbows on the tub to give him a full view.
His mouth twitched in a smirk.
* * *
Cora’s hair was unpinned, falling in soft blond curls down her long neck and over her shoulders. She had big blue eyes, but the innocence of her youth had long since left them. And yes, even up close, she looked just like her.
Used to seeing his girls in every stage of dress and undress, he hadn’t given thought to her modesty, but a slight color had flushed her cheeks, belying discomfort. She’d lifted her chin though, and moved her arms to give him a full view. He did not allow himself to take in more than a glance, but with it, he saw that her breasts were perfection—moon-pale and perky, as youthful and fresh as her dimpled face.
The day her parents had been murdered, Smoochy had produced proof that her father owed him everything. And it seemed irrefutable—John Underhill, the wealthy financier whom they thought owned notes on almost everyone in the valley, had not only sold all the notes to Smoochy, but he’d been borrowing against them, owing him more than his house and personal property would cover. Smoochy had played it real sweet, showed her how much she still owed him, and acted as if he was doing her an enormous favor taking her in and allowing her to work off her father’s debt. Jake had been outraged—he’d gone down and tried to buy her out, but Jake’s interest in her only made Smoochy more stubborn and had frightened Cora. She’d clung to Smoochy’s arm, demanding he get out or she’d call the sheriff. Smoochy had wrapped an arm around the girl and smirked, watching as Jake reluctantly left her to his care.
“Did you set the fire?” she demanded now, her voice so hoarse from the smoke it came out in a raspy croak. Though she looked at him boldly, he saw fear in the slight tremor of her strawberry lips.
His eyebrows shot up. “Is that what you think?” No wonder she’d been so reluctant to come here. He shook his head. “No, lass, I didn’t. Not that I haven’t been tempted to put my competition out of business at times.”
She gave him a sharp look, and he guessed she’d heard the story of how he came to own Daddy Diggs’.
“No, that fire at Smoochy’s could have set all of Whiskey Row aflame, so even if I had wanted Smoochy dead, I’d have chosen a neater method.”
He noticed her lower lip was swollen and bloody, as if a tooth had gone through it. He reached out to touch it, carefully. “Who did that?”
She jerked her face away and gave him an insolent shrug. “What do you want?” she demanded, but her voice cracked, ruining the effect.
He sat back on the stool to give her a little space. “Nothing. You have no cause to fear me, Cora. You can stay here, if you want. Or you can go. You’re not my prisoner.”
She looked at him dubiously.
“If you stay, you can work the floor and I’ll pay you fifty percent of the take, minus your room and board. Or you can help with the cooking and cleaning for room and board only.”
She stared at him. “Fifty percent of the take?”
“Minus your room and board.”
“So what’s that work out to?”
“I would charge twenty dollars a night for you, so your take would be ten dollars, minus two for your expenses—eight dollars a night.”
He saw her breath quicken and she licked her cracked lips eagerly. “That’s what you pay your girls?”
“Aye, that’s what I pay them. And in exchange, my girls obey me and my rules.” He let that sink in for a moment. “Can you do that, Cora?”
He waited, unnerved by how much he wanted her to say yes—how much he wanted her as part of his odd little family.
She hesitated, then nodded slowly. “Yes, sir.”
Satisfaction eased his shoulders. “Good girl. I promise I’ll keep you safe. No customer of mine will leave a mark like that on you without paying dearly for it,” he assured her.
Cora’s eyes rounded and her fingers touched her injured lip. “I guess the son-of-a-bitch got what he deserved tonight, anyhow,” she croaked.
He quirked his head. “Aye, I’m sure he did. But I’ll ask you not to swear again. I run a high-class operation here, and I expect my girls to act like ladies. You were raised well, so I know you know how. If I hear you curse again, I’ll take you over my knee for a spanking. Understand?”
She stared at him, looking dumbfounded.
“What do you think your parents would think to hear you use language like that?”
At the mention of her parents, she recoiled as if he’d slapped her. Her face flushed in anger and she stood up in the water, hands balled into fists. “Go to hell!”
He groaned inwardly, but reached for her wrist and tugged her toward him, out of the tub. He never made a threat without following through. He pulled her across his lap and without preamble, began to spank her wet bottom soundly. The water sprayed in tiny droplets with each loud smack of his palm, increasing the sting for both of them. She kicked and listed to the side to escape, but he held her firmly around the waist, pinning her legs with one of his and paddling her round cheeks. He spanked and spanked, hoping her struggles would cease and he could let her up, but she seemed determined to fight him. He continued to spank until her pale skin held the pink and then began to turn a deeper shade of red. Striated pucker marks stood up in places and she was still fighting him when he gave up on her submission and applied several last hard swats to the backs of her thighs. He rested his tingling hand on her heated flesh.
He could hear her ragged breathing, but she hadn’t uttered any cries or whimpers, nor had she pleaded for him to stop. He rubbed her bottom lightly. It was perfectly shaped, like two round orbs—the firm muscle offering a satisfying, springy target. He didn’t know how Smoochy had disciplined Cora, but he imagined it was far more brutal than spanking.
Jake loved to spank. He loved the act of spanking and he loved that his girls submitted willingly to his discipline—even seemed to crave it as attention from him. Spanking was not overly painful, but it was humbling for the recipient. For the disciplinarian, it was an act of dominance, a declaration of power.
Since he hadn’t achieved her submission, he worked the dominance angle with Cora, spreading her cheeks and pressing his middle finger to the entrance of her anus. She stiffened like a board, squeezing her cheeks together tightly and lifting her torso horizontal to the floor. He applied several hard slaps to the back of her thighs, this time eliciting a tiny squeak.
“Cora,” he said gently, “you agreed to my rules, you agreed to my discipline.”
She shook her head rapidly. “No!” she gasped.
He ignored her protest, parting her cheeks again and pressing his finger more insistently, until he breached the entryway to her tight hole. She gave a wavering moan. He applied a few more spanks to her blushing bottom and then slowly guided her torso upright, careful not to let his finger pull too much at the delicate hole. He used his embedded finger to draw her closer, so she stood between his knees. He squeezed her tightened bottom with his other hand, kneading the firm muscle and admiring the heat still radiating from it. Her breasts were eye level, as magnificent as he’d suspected earlier—twin peaches with rosy nipples pointing cheerfully toward the ceiling. Already highly aroused from spanking her, he had to resolutely lift his chin to gaze into her face, shifting in his seat to accommodate his hardened cock.
He had a firm rule against sleeping with his girls. He couldn’t be their daddy if he let things get confused with sex.
He stroked her flank, keeping his finger firmly pressed within her, feeling her muscles tightening spasmodically around it. When her lips began to tremble and he sensed her resistance crumbling, he slipped his finger out of her bottom, continuing to hold her hips.
“I remember your parents,” he said with true sympathy. “They were good people.”
At that, her face contorted. He pulled her into his lap before the first sob erupted.