Joanie stepped into the whores’ quarters at the Bella Union, nose wrinkling in disgust at the smell of dried sweat and old sex. After she’d come in the day before, ire blazing, to reprimand them for their slovenliness, she had expected it to be clean. Then again, her temper had been so short as of late that it didn’t take much to set her off.
A condition which she chose to ignore.
“I thought I told you to clean this up,” she snapped as she surveyed the room’s inhabitants. A trio of whores was in the corner, lazily washing with a rag dipped into a basin of shared water. Another, Tess, who was supposed to be running the whores now that Joanie had moved out, was staring at her balefully from her post at the door frame. Lila was curled up in a ball on the couch, eyes glazed and skin pasty.
“We did,” Tess asserted, straightening and crossing her arms over her chest in her best attempt at authoritative dismissal.
The hint of defiance rubbed Joanie the wrong way. She stalked across the room like a vengeful demon, eyes bright with fury as she backed Tess into the wall, using her smaller frame to pin the other woman against it. Chin tilted up, no less cowed for her shorter stature, she narrowed her eyes and smirked.
“Lazy as you are, you will not live in filth. If you wish to roll around in the dirt and smell like the horseshit those men drag in here on the soles of their shoes, then you can house yourself in the muck with Wu’s pigs. Otherwise, you’ll fucking clean this place and you’ll fucking clean yourself.”
Tess had thought that Joanie’s moving out and her sudden promotion had portended good things for her, but with the other woman in and out every day, still playing at caring for Cy on his sickbed, nothing had changed. If nothing else, things were worse. She had nominal power but no foothold from which to enforce it.
So, jaw clenched in an angry pout, Tess sneered, “Why do you even come back here, huh?”
It was a good question, Joanie allowed. She had fled the Bella Union a few months before, tired of Cy’s controlling ways. Instead of running his whores, she decided she was going to run her own.
Kind of hard to do when they were all dead, she though bitterly, the lingering ghoul that was Wolcott putting a bad taste in her mouth. For the murderous bastard to go and hang himself the night of Alma Garrett’s wedding was nothing but unfair. With him gone, Joanie couldn’t fill her time with imagining various scenarios of his murder at her hand, though at least she was out of danger of finding herself on the wrong side of his blade herself.
Robbed of purpose, here she was, back again, falling into the same pattern she’d been stuck in before.
“You miss it?” Tess taunted. “Is that it? You miss the trade? Can’t open your legs without someone there to drop in a coin?”
Joanie’s hand was hard against Tess’ jaw, her angry kiss bruising. “I’ve yet to exchange coin with you,” she spat as she pulled back, pushing roughly on Tess’ jaw before stepping away.
“And you,” she snarled, shooting Lila a hard look, “make yourself presentable for me to fuck and come see me before you start your fucking night.”
Joanie was waiting in Lila’s receiving room, her lush blue velvet dress removed and hanging primly from a nearby chair. She’d removed her hat and laid it on the table, her gloves crossed in front of it and her shoes on the floor. Her underwear had come next, the fine linen folded neatly.
She was sitting on a chair, naked, when Lila slipped in, barely opening the door as she squeezed through.
“Lila,” she sighed softly, taking in the other woman’s dazed expression, her shiny eyes. “Why do you do this to yourself?”
Eyes focused on the floor, Lila blushed but didn’t say anything, choosing instead to kneel between Joanie’s legs. She put her hands on Joanie’s knees, sliding them up her thighs and spreading her legs further before lifting them up to drape over her shoulders.
Joanie slid to the edge of the seat to accommodate her.
“Oh, Lila,” Joanie said sadly, one hand burying itself in thick, glossy black hair. “You’re gonna do to yourself what they couldn’t do to you.”
The words ended in a gasp, in the tightening of fingers and the flexing of thighs. In spite of everything else, this was the one thing that could make Joanie forget. “Oh, yes,” she cried softly, head dropping back to rest against the back of the chair. Her eyes fluttered shut for a moment, the soft glow of the oil lamp disappearing into inviting blackness as Lila’s tongue scraped a quick rhythm between her legs. There was a pause, then a soft, milking suction that made her stomach muscles quiver. “Oh, that’s good.”
Her climax arrived with a helpless, keening cry and left her panting, body slick with sweat.
“Come here,” Joanie husked, lids heavy. Lila’s eyes were still glossy, her face now wet, and it took Joanie’s hand on the front of her corset to spur her into action.
“Sorry,” Lila said, the word just a tad too slow.
Joanie sighed, easing Lila into place so that she was straddling her thighs, one hand at the small of her back to keep her from toppling over. The fingers still hooked in the front of her corset pulled her forward, and Joanie stretched up to kiss her.
Lila melted into the kiss with a whimper, body nearly collapsing. “I like it when you kiss me,” she murmured, fingers trailing a light path up the side of Joanie’s neck.
Joanie couldn’t help a smirk of amusement. “Yeah, honey, and why’s that?”
“You’re soft. And sweet.”
“Wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”
Joanie hadn’t planned on this to be a long encounter, but she liked the way it felt to have Lila’s arms wrapped around her neck, body desperately pushing into her own. The rough material of Lila’s chemise and corset chafed against her skin, the friction unaccountably pleasing. She couldn’t remember how long it had been since she had so indulged herself, bleeding away minutes in the thrall of deep, slow kisses.
“Is that what you like?” she asked, breathless, as she pulled away from Lila and slid a hand down her neck to cup a full breast.
Lila merely bit her bottom lip and nodded shallowly, hair sliding back over her shoulders as she arched into Joanie’s touch.
Joanie pushed the rough cloth of the chemise aside, finding a taut nipple with her teeth as her hand descended further, easing aside cool linen to find searing wetness.
Lila gave a choked cry as Joanie’s fingers found her clit. She searched for something to hold onto, fingernails digging a trail of fire into the back of Joanie’s neck, and mindlessly pulled the other woman to her for another kiss. This one was more frantic and less skilled, her fingers tangling haphazardly into Joanie’s hair as she played out the messy pull of her passion. A touch just a tad too hard sent her teeth digging into the other woman’s lower lip, a teasing brush prompted her tongue to soothe the hurt.
When she felt her climax approaching, she pulled back, looking at Joanie helplessly.
“It’s okay, honey. You can let go. I’ve got you."
And with that reassurance, Lila did let go, collapsing forward to bury her face in Joanie’s neck as her body shivered through the release of pleasure.
After Lila had helped her back into her heavy velvet dress, Joanie dug into her small purse and pulled free a $10 gold coin.
“Do not use this for dope.”
Lila looked away from it and blushed, though the reason for it wasn’t immediately clear. “You don’t have to pay me, Joanie.”
Joanie pressed the coin into Lila’s palm anyway, shaking her head ruefully. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll hide this along with every other coin you can manage to scrape and save. This life, Lila… I know it eats at you. I know it lives inside of you like a darkness. You begin to think, maybe I’m good at this because it’s what God meant for me. Maybe it’s something in me, made Cy pick me out of all the other girls. Maybe this is who I was always meant to be."
Joanie paused, eyes darkening. “This life ain’t meant for none of us, Lila. It don’t make it better, that dope you shoot up your veins. It don’t change that. It just keeps you here longer, till there’s no way you can leave short of a fucking pine box.”
Lila’s lip quivered, her eyes shone with the threat of tears. “It’s so hard,” she whispered, lost and forlorn.
Hand hard on Lila’s jaw, bringing her face up when the other woman would have avoided her eyes, Joanie said slowly, firmly, “You will not fucking do this. You will not be one of those whores who lets this life beat you. For us to die a whore ain’t fate, Lila.”
Suddenly tired, Joanie softened her grip. Stretching up on tip-toes, she kissed Lila again. It was soft, almost mournful, and chaste.
“Don’t think the things I say to you are lies, even as you’ve got to go out there and do your fucking job,” she murmured, smiling wryly. “I am not unaware of the lure of permanent oblivion, but I’d find you dying to be a grave disappointment.”
Lila's shy smile was cautiously optimistic.
“I wish I could come work for you.”
Joanie sighed wistfully, fingers tracing a soft path down Lila’s cheek. “I don’t run whores no more.” She watched as Lila’s face fell, as the spark of light that had been in her eyes extinguished in a blink. “But, get yourself cleaned up and out of here, and in that respect I’m afraid I have no further help to offer, and you’ll be welcome to join me wherever I go, wherever I live, and whatever I do.”
She looked at Lila hard, willing her to see the truth of the promise in her eyes.
Lila thought that sounded like a plan she could live for.