"But, Papa!" Emma cried.
"Enough!" He had gone crimson, a truly alarming shade, darker than the stained-glass in the church window above the pew where they sat every Sunday. "You're lucky I don't snap your neck like a chickenbone, girl! Ungrateful hussy. As I live and breathe, you're lucky."
Emma fell silent. She clutched her traveling valise, the one she would not be parted with. Let the train's baggage handlers do what they would with her trunk. Drop it in the mud, break it open so that her petticoats spilled out for all the world to see, set it on fire. The valise held her money, her grandmother's pearls – Papa didn't know she had spirited them out of their hiding place, but damned if she'd let her sister Mary have them, damned if she would! – and what little money he'd seen fit to give her for the trip.
And the books.
The books that had been, in a way, the cause of all this. Her downfall, her doom. Yet how could she hate them, those wonderful books? They had opened her eyes to things she had never before even imagined.
The look on Papa's face, though … when he'd come into the parlor, when he'd seen what he'd seen.
She was lucky he hadn't snapped her neck. He could have done; he might be a wealthy businessman now, but he'd been a miner once, and the endless toil of hauling ore-carts and swinging a pick had left a mark on him. In his shoulders, in his arms, in his hands that were still strong.
Mama, meanwhile, would not look at Emma. Not once. She sat in the corner of the very parlor where their lives had been thrown into uproar, dabbing at endlessly-running eyes with a hanky. But not one word of argument had she made when Papa told them of his decision. Not one word of defense on her eldest daughter's behalf.
Emma thought, meanly, spitefully, that Mama would be glad to be rid of her. Hadn't Mama always been just a touch jealous? Jealous of Emma's thick chestnut curls and milky skin, jealous of Emma's shapely figure, jealous of Emma's love of life? Mama was a thin woman, once a seamstress, with hands that no amount of lanolin cream could make smooth and supple again.
And Mama, passionless as a nun, had to hate Emma for what she'd done.
What she'd almost done, Emma amended. She hadn't, it hadn't happened, not really, not fully, and that was the bitterest pill of all.
If she had done it – which she would have, and gladly, if Papa hadn't come home early, walking in on that unforgivable scene – that would be another matter. She could have understood their rancor. A ruined daughter, unmarriageable to any respectable man in the city despite the family's wealth. The scandal. The whispers. Her parents made a laughingstock.
But he hadn't even put it in!
Emma opened her mouth to say so, and caught herself in time. To Mama and Papa, it didn't matter. They hadn't believed her before, that it was the first time she'd ever done anything even remotely so wicked, and wouldn't believe her now.
She had even pleaded with them to send for a doctor. A doctor could examine her, and prove that she was still a virgin.
The very idea had sent Mama reeling, nearly fainting. A doctor? Bring a doctor here for that sort of examination, and let the news get out? No matter if she was intact or not, the fact that they'd needed medical proof of it would be enough to set tongues wagging all over town.
What therefore angered Emma the most was that she was being punished for that which she hadn't done. Or, rather, that because she was being punished for it, she wished she'd gone ahead and done it.
How easy it would have been, how delightful! And they had, almost. If she'd been less coy, dash it all! If she'd not played at such maidenly demure resistance, and made him pant breathless vows of undying adoration in her ear … why, it might have been long over with by the time Papa came in. No one would have needed to know.
And the ache, the terrible need in her, might finally have been met. The need that had burned since she'd discovered the books. She had never dreamed that such books existed. That people did the deeds described in its pages, and depicted in its drawings.
The flame had begun then, flickering, lapping, consuming. Making her think of things she had never considered before. Making her look at men with a sly secretiveness. Knowing what they had in their trousers, and what they could do with it.
Finally, when the yearning curiosity – was it really like they wrote about in the stories? – became too strong, she knew she had to find out.
She'd noticed how her little sister's piano teacher watched her sometimes, when Mary was diligently plinking out the notes and Henry Ryans thought that Emma was unaware of his lingering glances.
Oh, but she had been aware. After reading the books, she'd been very, very aware indeed.
It became a game to her, acting oblivious as she adjusted her skirt or tugged at her bodice or curled her forefinger in a long dangling chestnut lock. She saw the way his eyes went smoky and faraway, pretty blue eyes that went well with his fair hair and neat mustache.
He was well-made, too, Henry Ryans was. With clever piano-teacher hands that played over the ivories with such skill that Emma couldn't help wondering how they might feel playing over the hills and valleys of her body.
Mary, only a child, hadn't noticed as her instructor and sister exchanged more and more direct looks and private smiles. Nor had she thought anything of it when Henry Ryans had directed her to practice on her own while he sat at the other end of the sofa, and sometimes touched Emma's hand.
Soon they had kissed, his mustache tickling, his lips eager. Emma could still recall the delicious shiver that had seized her when he'd first sent those lips in a string of sweet kisses from the hollow of her ear to the hollow of her shoulder.
And at night, every night, she read by candlelight and hungered to experience more of the adventures in the books. The Secret Loves of Molly K. A Gentleman's Confessions. Diary of A Fallen Woman. Those and others like them.
Finally, on a day when everyone else was out, Henry Ryans had arrived at the house claiming to have forgotten to leave a lesson-book that he had promised to give to Mary. Emma had welcomed him kindly and invited him into the parlor to sit. And there, emboldened by their solitude, they had finally flown into each other's arms.
How his hands had delighted her! As skilled as she had hoped, caressing her skin, teasing her nipples into stiff rosebuds. His mouth, too, hot and eager, speaking a constant litany.
"So beautiful, Emma, you are so beautiful, oh, my darling, oh!"
She had blushed and lowered her eyelids and gasped when he took some new and daring liberty, but even as she had shyly dropped her gaze she had been studying him, seeing if he did swell and bulge as they wrote of in the stories. He did, and in a pretense of nearly swooning she had let her hand fall high on his thigh, the backs of her fingers brushing against a long stiffness.
His kisses delved deeper, his tongue probing her mouth and sending sparks of excitement whirling through her. He had settled her reclining on the sofa, her clothes in disarray, her breasts bare and brazen to the parlor where Mama sometimes had her Sewing Circle ladies in for tea, and her skirt was drawn up, steadily up, baring her legs in their fancy hose.
Henry had been half-atop her, that stiffness rubbing her thigh, lavishing kisses on her breasts, and she had remembered a passage she'd read, how a woman had urged her lover to do something that Emma had initially thought sounded horrid. Yet now, the idea only inflamed her. She sank her fingers into his fine blond hair. Nudged his head lower.
He had looked up at her then, perhaps startled, but whatever he saw in her face – flushed cheeks, sparkling eyes, tongue sliding slowly over parted lips – decided him. Without further pause he had thrust his head beneath her skirt and nuzzled, his breath hot through thin silk on the most tender and sensitive parts of her.
Emma could have shredded her clothes in her haste and maddening frustration, but Henry carefully removed them, and then his own. Naked, he had been white as marble, smooth as cream, and that part of him which rose urgently from a nest of honey-colored hair was everything that Emma had imagined from her reading. And more.
She sat up and took hold of it with something akin to wonder, never minding his disbelieving groan at the readiness with which she handled this strange and wonderful instrument. She rubbed it between her palms, ran her thumbs over the rosy nub peeking from a fold of skin, touched the bead of moisture that welled at the dark hole in its tip.
"Emma, dear girl, dear God," Henry Ryans had said, his voice hoarse. "Stroke it, yes, you darling, do!"
Then, as in the books, she licked at it. Henry had nearly gone unbuckled at the knees, and had to grasp her shoulders to keep from falling. The suddenness of the movement made Emma's head bob, and she had instinctively opened her mouth.
"Ah! Oh, yes!" Henry pushed with his hips. "Suck on it, darling Emma!"
The taste of him thrilled her, and the sense of power thrilled her more. A pulse throbbed between her legs, where she was slippery and damp. She dropped one of her hands into her lap, sliding her fingers as she had done so many lonely nights in her bed.
Henry moaned and breathed fast through clenched teeth. "Oh, Emma … Emma, wait … I want to … I want to make love to you. My darling. Let me … oh! … let me make love to you."
She had released him then, and leaned back, feeling wanton and womanly here on her mother's sofa, her clothes in a heap. Henry stared, transfixed, at her hand as she moved it leisurely over her thighs.
He lowered himself onto her, that part of him pointing, angled, seeking its mark. Emma had spread her legs wide, lifted her bottom, strained toward him. She needed to feel him part her and enter her and fill her.
And that was when the front door slammed and Papa stepped into the parlor, and froze with his hat in one hand and his coat in the other.
If there was ever a time in Emma's nineteen years of life when she thought that her father truly could have killed her, it was on that day. His explosive anger made every previous instance seem like nothing. Not even the time Emma had broken Mama's best china pitcher in a fit of pique, and Papa had spanked her with his wide leather belt, had she seen him in such a rage.
The worst of it, though, had been kept for Henry Ryans. For Emma, it had been a yank by the hair, dragging her from the sofa and flinging her to her knees on the rug, and then a raining of slaps that stung like a swarm of bees, and a thundering command to get to her room, get to her room and pray to God she lived to see the morning. As she'd fled, snatching up clothes, Papa had descended on the pale and gibbering piano teacher.
That had been a month ago. A month in which Emma was barely allowed to leave her room, and Mrs. Avery, their solidly-built housekeeper, had brought Emma all her meals on a tray and left without speaking. She said all she needed to with her eyes, eyes that had once been warm and kind but were now twin stones, cold and hard.
In the evenings, she heard the voices of her parents floating up the narrow stairwell. Discussing – if such it could be called, as Papa raved and Mama wailed and bemoaned how fate had given them such a vile thing for a daughter – what was to be done.
After all, according to Papa, this wasn't the olden days when a girl could be sent to live out her remaining years in a convent. This was America, this was 1870. A land of freedom and opportunity. Too much freedom, he would then add in a glower. Too many new ideas getting into the heads of these modern girls.
Emma tried to ask Mrs. Avery what had become of Henry Ryans, but the housekeeper's only response was a tight-lipped shake of the head. Even Mary, who crept once or twice in to see her older sister, did not know. Poor Mary, poor bewildered Mary, who could not understand why Emma was so suddenly in the worst disfavor their household had ever seen.
The month had dragged, but she soon learned that for Papa it had flown, the weeks speeding by as he sent telegraphs and purchased tickets and made arrangements.
And then Papa had sent for her. In the parlor, he and Mama had told her of their decision.
She was to be married.
Not to Henry Ryans.
Not, in fact, to anyone she knew.
"Nonsense," Mama had said, briskly, though her eyes were red and watery from a month of ceaseless crying and sleeplessness. "You've met Mr. Carson. You wouldn't have been much more than seven, but you've met him."
"I don't remember him," Emma had protested.
"That doesn't matter," Papa had said. "He remembers you, and I have assured him that you've grown up into a pretty enough young woman. His wife passed on some years ago, and left him with the boys. He needs a woman to look after the place."
"But doesn't he live far away? Out west?"
Papa had nodded, and there was grim satisfaction in his smile. "Montana."
"Montana!" It might as well have been the West Indies, for all Emma knew.
"He has a ranch there," Mama said. "A fine large cattle ranch. He's a very well-to-do man, Emma Louise, and you should be happy."
"Damned right that you should," Papa said, waving away Mama's shocked rejoinder to mind his language in the parlor. "Happy that he'll take you. Men out there, in the frontier, aren't as choosey. Or so I'm told. Still, he doesn't need to know about this piano instructor. Is that understood?"
"I don't want to marry some stranger, some old man!" Emma had been on the verge of tears, but Papa's raised hand quelled her. "Please, Papa."
"He's not that much older than me, and either way, you're marrying him. I wouldn't care if he had a white beard past his knees. I've found someone who'll take you, and by God, you're going!"
So it was that this morning, Emma found herself with trunk packed and sent, valise in hand, and the grumbling Mrs. Avery assigned to accompany her, waiting for the carriage that would take her to the train station. She had only given in to her tears when she'd hugged little Mary and said good-bye, swearing to write letters to her. For Mama and Papa, she had not a single hug or kiss.
She stood with a spine that felt straight as an iron bar, in her brocade traveling dress, calfskin shoes, bonnet, and kidskin gloves. The city bustled around her, all coal smoke and noise and slaughterhouses, and she tried to see herself looking at the west instead. At wide-open plains and mountains and rivers. At dusty towns and herds of cattle, outlaws and Indians and mountain men.
Her chin trembled, and her hands, on the handle of the valise, wanted to shake.
The carriage arrived. Their farewells were brusque, Mama having more final words for Mrs. Avery than she did for her own daughter. Papa had the look of a man who's done an unpleasant job and was pleased to see it over.
Carriage to train station, whistles and shouts and conductors calling "All aboard!" Her trunk whisked away, and Mrs. Avery steering her into their car. Either Papa had decided in this last gesture to be generous, or the Mr. Carson who she still could not remember had contributed, for they had first-class service and meals along the way. Or else Papa had not trusted Emma to be allowed off the train, fearing that she might run away and lose herself in the wider world.
Surely the idea had its merits. To be shipped off like this, married to an old man she did not know … she had as much freedom as the poor enslaved Chinese brought over to build these very railroads, though her accommodations were much the better. If she ran away, she could be free …
But could she? What would she do? Where would she go? She had some money but not a lot. She knew enough from reading the papers and the periodicals that a girl of her station might find work as a shopgirl or a schoolteacher, but more than likely she'd end up … well, as what the more respectable journals referred to as a 'lady of the half-world.'
And with Mrs. Avery watching her like a hawk, it wasn't as if Emma could slip away into the crowds at the other train stations. For days and days, she was trapped in the compartment with her guardian as the train chugged and swayed along its tracks.
She thought sometimes how another opportunity of escape might present itself. She could be captured. The train, attacked by howling Indian braves, warriors all coppery-skinned with long black braids flying back from their sharp cheekbones and ebony eyes. Attacking the train, yes … scalping and slaughtering the men, but sparing the women.
Such things were in the tales one heard of the Wild West. Innocent white women borne away, bound and captive. Emma pictured herself in the hands of a Comanche or Cherokee warrior-brave, him nearly naked, nothing but a deerskin breechclout and feathers in his hair.
Closing her eyes to the sights of the train, she saw herself presented to some savage tribe. Stripped of her fine clothes, being forced to stand there naked and pale in their midst. The Indian women looking at her hatefully, the other men hungrily, complimenting the warrior who'd captured her on his fine catch.
Standing there, head high and shoulders back. Proud. Refusing to show them any shame or fear. And then, after displaying her to his tribe, her warrior … his name would be Red Eagle, perhaps … yes, Red Eagle would take her to his home, his teepee of hides painted with crimson and yellow and black. He'd lead her inside, where a bed of bearskins and buffalo pelts would be waiting.
He would call her his white spirit, his beautiful white spirit. In love with her already, wanting her not as a prize but as his wife. He'd remove that tiny strip of loincloth and draw her into his embrace, hot skin and iron-hard flesh, the wild scent of him like smoke and blood.
And he would lay her down on the bearskins, open her, pierce her deep in one swift thrust that brought a moment of pain, and he'd be in her.
With her eyes still closed she could see the sloped hide walls rising to a chimney-hole around the support poles. She could see the angular face of her Indian lover, poised above her with his braids hanging down and his features taut with passion.
She imagined running her hands over the sweat-slick muscles of his back and arms as he held himself up, as her knees and thighs gripped his sides and he plunged into her again and again. She felt heat uncoil in her belly, felt her nipples press painfully against the inflexible fabric of her brocade traveling dress.
Mrs. Avery shook her just as Emma was envisioning herself screaming the pleasure of her climax so that all the tribe could hear. Startled, jerked rudely from her fantasy, she had to turn away from the older woman for fear that her every thought would show on her face.
The land she knew was left behind, and new vistas opened on the other side of the windows. Had she not known what waited for her at her journey's end, Emma might have enjoyed the new sights. The further west the train got, the more alive the world seemed. The fresher, the newer.
She saw the dark, shaggy humps of buffalos. She saw a line of covered wagons, and frontier women walking alongside in calico dresses. She saw her first western town with its high wooden false fronts, its hitching rails, and its gallows.
They rarely talked, she and Mrs. Avery. Emma learned very quickly that the older woman, a widow who had worked for her family since Emma was a child, resented being sent as chaperone. To deliver this willful, undeserving wretch of a girl to a wealthy husband, when there were good women who were alone.
At last, the train reached its destination. Emma gazed around in wonder as she emerged, finally in this world instead of merely seeing it speeding by through the glass.