Chicago, Illinois, 1883
Dinah Hubley curled her arms around the coal bucket, hunched her shoulders to make herself as small as possible, and then made a dash for the kitchen. The odors of stale tobacco, unwashed bodies, and stout whiskey assaulted her nose. Each time she made this trek through the waiting room, she tried to hold her breath—the smell made her want to give back her meager lunch. But weaving between the haphazard arrangement of mismatched sofas and chairs all draped with lounging men took longer than her lungs could last. So she sucked air through her clenched teeth and did her best to make it all the way through the room without being stopped.
No such luck. A man reached out from one of the overstuffed chairs and snaked his arm around her waist.
Dinah released a yelp as the man tugged her backward across the chair’s armrest and into his lap. Lumps of coal spilled over the bucket’s rim and left black marks on the bodice of her faded calico dress. But she was worried about something more than her only dress being soiled.
Keeping her grip on the bucket, she pushed against the man’s chest with her elbow. He held tight and laughed against her cheek. “Hey, what’s your hurry, darlin’? Stay here an’ let ol’ Max enjoy you for a bit.” He nuzzled his nose into the nape of her neck, chortling. “I always did like gals with brown hair. Brings me to mind of a coon dog I had when I was a young start.”
His foul breath made bile rise in her throat. She rasped, “Let me go, mister, please? I have to get the coal to the cook.”
Max plucked the bucket from her arms and held it toward a lanky man who’d sauntered near. “Take the coal to the kitchen for this little gal, Jamie. Free her up for some time with me.”
Jamie took the bucket and set it aside. Then he caught Dinah’s arm and gave such a yank, she feared her arm would be wrenched from its socket. She didn’t lose her arm, but the drunken man in the chair lost his grip. Her feet met the floor. She would have stumbled had Jamie not kept hold, and a thread of gratitude wove its way through her breast.
She regained her footing and offered the man a timid smile. “Th-thank you, mister.”
Jamie’s eyes glittered. Dinah knew that look. She tried to wriggle loose, but his fingers bit hard while his thumb rubbed up and down the tender flesh on the back of her arm. Shivers attacked her frame. He leaned down, his whiskered face leering. “How about ya show me instead of tellin’ me? Gimme a kiss.” He puckered up.
Dinah crunched her eyes closed. Her stomach rolled and gorge filled her throat.
A voice intruded. “Jamie Fenway, if you want to keep coming around here and making use of my girls, you’d better let loose of that one.”
Relief sagged Dinah’s legs when she realized the proprietress of the Yellow Parrot had entered the room.
The man released Dinah with an insolent shove, sending her straight against Miss Flo’s ample front. Barrel-shaped and as strong as most men, the woman didn’t even flinch. She took hold of Dinah’s upper arms, set her upright, then turned her kohl-enhanced glare on Jamie and Max. “How many times do I have to tell you no free sampling, fellas? Everything you want is waiting upstairs, but until you’ve paid, you keep your hands, your lips, and whatever else you think you might be tempted to use to yourself.”
The men waiting their turns with Miss Flo’s girls laughed uproariously.
One of them wisecracked, “Besides, Jamie, that one you grabbed on to ain’t hardly worth stealin’ a pinch. If she was a striped bass, I’d throw her back!” More guffaws and sniggers rang.
Jamie’s slit-eyed gaze traveled up and down Dinah’s frame. “Even the smallest fish tastes plenty good when it’s fresh.”
Dinah hugged herself, wishing she could shrink away to nothing.
Miss Flo grabbed a handful of Dinah’s hair and gave a harsh yank. “What are you doing carting coal through the waiting room, anyway? I don’t want that mess in my parlor.”
A few smudges of coal dust would hardly be noticed among the years’ accumulation of tobacco stains and muddy prints on the worn carpet. But Dinah ducked her head and mumbled meekly, “I’m sorry, Miss Flo.”
“I know you’re sorry, but that doesn’t answer my question.” Miss Flo’s voice was as sharp as the teacher’s—the one who berated Dinah for wearing the same dress to school every day and checked her head for lice in front of the whole class. “We’ve got a back door to the kitchen. Why didn’t you use it?”
Dinah winced and stood as still as she could to keep her hair from being pulled from her scalp. “I couldn’t get in through the back. The door’s blocked.”
Miss Flo’s newest girl, Trudy, liked to meet one of the deputies on the back stoop. He was so tall Trudy had to stand on the stoop for their lips to meet. The image of them pressed so tight together not even a piece of paper could come between them was seared into Dinah’s memory. But she wouldn’t tattle. It was bad enough she had to listen to the taunts in school and on the streets of town. She wouldn’t set herself up for belittling under the only roof she’d ever called home.
When Dinah didn’t answer, Miss Flo growled and released her hair with another vicious yank. “Get that coal out of here.”
Dinah bent over to grab the handle of the discarded bucket.
Miss Flo kicked her in the rear end, knocking her on her face. “And don’t let me see you traipsing through this room again. Next time I might not be around to stop the men from taking their pleasure from you.” She stepped over Dinah, the full layers of her bold-yellow skirt rustling. “All right, fellas, how about some music while you wait?” Men cheered and whistled. Miss Flo, her smile wide, plopped onto the upright piano’s round stool and began thumping out a raucous tune. Drunken voices raised in song.
Dinah scrambled to her feet, grabbed the coal bucket, and raced from the room. She darted straight to the coal box in the corner and leaned against the wall, panting. So close… Jamie’d come so close to claiming her lips. She covered her mouth with trembling fingers as Miss Flo’s warning screamed through her mind. The proprietress often screeched idle threats in Dinah’s direction, but this one was real. The older she got, the more likely it became that the men who flocked to the Yellow Parrot after sundown seven days a week would see her as more than Untamable Tori’s unfortunate accident.
The cook, a hulk of a man with a bald head and forearms the size of hams, glanced in Dinah’s direction. “You gonna dump that coal in the hopper or just stand there hugging the bucket?”
Dinah gave a start. “S-sorry, Rueben.” She tipped the bucket and dumped the coal into its holding tank. Black dust sifted upward. Some of the black bits were sucked up inside her nose. She dropped the dented bucket with a clatter and turned to cough into her cupped hands.
Rueben stirred a wooden spoon through a pot on the massive cast-iron Marvel range. The rich smell of rum rose. Another cabinet pudding in the making—Tori’s favorite. For years Dinah had suspected Rueben was sweet on her mother, and when Dinah had been much younger, she harbored the whimsical idea that he might be her father. But when she asked him, hoping she’d finally get to call somebody Pa, he laughed so hard she scuttled away in embarrassment. Now, at the wise age of sixteen, she realized the question of her paternity would never be answered. Not with Tori’s occupation being what it was. Dinah inched toward the stove where the scent of the pudding’s sauce would be stronger. The smell of rum on someone’s breath turned her stomach, but somehow when rum was blended with cream and sugar, it became delightful. She leaned in, and Rueben grinned knowingly.
“Wantin’ a sniff, are you?”
Everyone who called the Yellow Parrot home and everyone who visited knew better than to disturb Rueben when he was cooking. He considered preparing tasty dishes an art, and he tolerated no intrusion on his concentration. But he’d never sent Dinah away. She nodded.
“Well, tip on in here, then.”
She put her face over the pot’s opening. Steam wisped around her chin, filling her nostrils with the sweet, rich aroma. The foul smells from the parlor drifted away, and Dinah released a sigh of satisfaction.
“All right, move back now. I need to dump this over the sponge cake an’ get it in the oven if it’s gonna be done by suppertime.”
Suppertime at the Yellow Parrot was served well after midnight. More often than not, Dinah was asleep by then and didn’t have any supper. But Rueben always put a filled plate in the stove’s hob for her breakfast. Rueben poured the thick sauce over chunks of sponge cake dotted with chopped figs and currants. She licked her lips. “What else are you fixing besides the pudding?”
“Got a leg of lamb with cherry sauce slow bakin’ in the oven out back. I tucked in some whole sweet potatoes studded with cloves, too—I’ll mash ’em with pecans and cinnamon.”
Dinah’s mouth watered.
“Plannin’ to steam a batch of brussels sprouts and fix up a cream sauce to pour over ’em to kill the smell. You know how your ma pinches her nose when I fix those things. But she always gobbles them up anyway.” He shrugged. “Nothin’ much.” Rueben moved to the washbasin and began trimming the thick stems from the brussels sprouts with a flick of a paring knife.
She should go upstairs. Her duties for the day were done, and unlike Miss Flo’s girls, she didn’t have the luxury of sleeping until noon. But instead, Dinah perched on a stool in the corner and watched Rueben work. She preferred the kitchen to any other room in the stately old house outside of town that Miss Flo had turned into a place of business. The good smells, the warm stove, the clean-scrubbed floor and work counters—Rueben wouldn’t allow even a speck of dirt to mar his domain—provided her truest sense of “home.” Until Rueben told her to get on up to her room, she’d stay.
Rueben sent a brief frown in her direction. “I heard the commotion in the parlor.”
He had? “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You were in there durin’ working hours. That’s wrong.” Dinah’s face flamed.
Rueben tucked the pudding into the oven, closed the door as gently as a mother placing a blanket on her sleeping newborn, then faced her. He put his beefy hands on his hips. Although he didn’t scowl, his huge presence was intimidating enough. “I know why you used the front door instead of the back.
I’m gonna tell Flo she needs to keep a tighter rein on Trudy. But that don’t excuse you. You’ve gotta defend yourself, Dinah. You ain’t a little girl anymore.” Dinah cringed, recalling the way Max’s hand had roved across her rib cage. Although not as buxom as her mother’s, her chest strained against the tight bodice of her one calico dress. She was womanly now. And in a place like this, being womanly was an invitation.
He went on in the same blunt tone—not kind, not harsh, but matter-offact—as if Dinah should already know these things. “If you want to carry coal through the back door, then you need to tell whoever’s in the way to step aside. If you don’t want somebody pestering you, then you need to come right out and tell ’em to leave you alone. If you don’t want to stay in a brothel, then you need to pack a bag an’ move on.”
Dinah’s jaw fell slack. She’d never had the courage to stand up to the sniggering schoolboys or snooty girls who taunted her. How could Rueben expect her to be brave enough to set out on her own? He’d lost his senses. “Where would I go? What would I do?”
He sauntered to the oak secretary where he planned his meals and made shopping lists. He pulled down the drop door that formed a desktop and reached into one of the cubbies. When he turned, he held a scrap of newsprint that he laid flat against the desk’s scarred surface. “C’mere.” On quivering legs, Dinah obeyed.
He tapped one sausage-sized finger on the paper. “Read this.”
She leaned over the desk. The dim light made it difficult for her to make out the print, but she read slowly, painstakingly, reciting it word for word inside her head. “Wanted: Young women 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive, and intelligent, to waitress in Harvey Eating Houses on the Santa Fe in the West. Wages: $17.50 per month with room and board. Liberal tips customary. Experience not necessary. Write Fred Harvey, Union Depot, Kansas City, Missouri.”
The reading complete, she hunkered into herself, deeply stung. Didn’t Miss Flo call her an ugly duckling? Didn’t the teacher at school remind her on the days she managed to attend classes she should just stay away because she’d never amount to anything? She was neither attractive nor intelligent and everyone knew it. Why would Rueben—the one person who’d been kind to her—tease her this way?
He bumped her shoulder. “What’d you think?”
She set her jaw and refused to answer.
He caught her chin between his thumb and finger and raised her face. “There’s your chance. Write to this Fred Harvey. Get yourself outta here.” Rueben had chided her to speak up and say what she thought. She jerked her chin free of his grasp and spouted, “He won’t take me! I’m— I’m—” She couldn’t bring herself to repeat the hurtful words people had thrown at her all her life. So she said, “I’m only sixteen.”
He snorted. “You won’t be sixteen forever. An’ with hotels an’ restaurants poppin’ up along the railroad line all the way to California, he’ll be needing waitresses for a good long while.” He folded the advertisement and pressed it into Dinah’s palm. “Keep that. Write to him when your eighteenth birthday’s past. Because, girlie, sure as my pudding’ll come out of that oven browned just right and tastin’ like heaven, if you stay here, you’re gonna end up bein’ one of Flo’s girls.” He curled his hand around hers, his big fingers strong yet tender. “Wouldn’t you rather be one of Harvey’s girls?”