Dreams For Courage

Today is the day!
Dreams For Courage releases today. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting Rhetta and her son, Lee, and reading about how their arrival in Holiday turns Rowan Reed’s life upside down.

For fun, I thought you might enjoy a preview of the first chapter. Enjoy!

March 1886

Chicago

 Leaning heavily on a crooked stick that served as a cane, Rhetta Wallace took another shuffling step forward, adjusting the basket she carried higher on her arm. Soot streaked her cheeks, and frizzy gray hair peeked from beneath a tattered rag she’d tied on her head. With a pronounced hump in her back and eyes squinting against the bright morning light, she smiled at a stranger passing by, revealing the blackened hole where front teeth should have resided.

“Psst! Rhetta. Psst!”

Rhetta pretended not to hear anything as she neared an alley. With slow, measured steps, she backed herself up to an upturned keg and settled her girth on the makeshift seat.

“What is it, Lee?” she asked, barely moving her lips as she turned ever so slightly toward the dark shadows of the alley.

“There’s a man at your office. He wouldn’t leave and told me I had to come fetch you.”

“Name?” Rhetta asked, taking a long straw from her basket and sticking it in her mouth, pretending to chew on it.

“Said he represents Senator Tomlinson.”

Rhetta almost choked on the straw and spit it out. Without looking behind her, she stood. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Give him tea and cookies.”

“Will do.”

From experience, Rhetta knew Leland Turner, her assistant and unofficial ward, would disappear into the shadows and return quickly to her office.

Rhetta continued down the street, keeping a steady eye on the man she was following. He turned at the corner, walked a few blocks to a residential area, and knocked on the door of a small home in need of paint and repair.

The door swung open, and a lovely young woman launched herself into the man’s arms. He kissed her soundly, lifted her in his arms, and continued kissing her as he walked into the house and toed the door shut behind him.

Rhetta sighed, disappointed she’d been correct in assuming the worst. The irate wife who hired Rhetta to see if her husband was the philandering lout she’d determined him to be was going to be even more livid by news of this recent encounter.

Three times in the past two weeks, Rhetta had trailed the man to bawdy houses. Four days ago, he’d had a suspicious meeting in the park with a woman who’d appeared half his age. Notes were passed, and Rhetta could only guess it was information about a liaison.

Like this one.

She wrote down the address of the house and a few key notes on a writing tablet she took from the basket she carried, then stepped behind the nearest building, removed the rag and wig from her head and the shawl that looked like a dog had chewed it beyond redemption, stuffing them into her basket. The tip of her tongue worked to loosen the gum stuck to her front teeth. She tossed the black, sticky wad to the ground and wiped her fingers on her skirt.

Casting away the stick she’d used for a cane, she rubbed her cheeks on her dress sleeve to remove the soot, then walked to the corner and hailed a hansom cab. At her dirty, worn attire, he demanded payment before he’d take her to her office.

“Fine,” she said, slapping a coin onto his palm with a huff. Rhetta sat back on the leather seat of the conveyance and reviewed what little detail she knew about Senator Tomlinson. The man was from Cincinnati. She wondered how he’d acquired her name since she lived in Chicago and had all her life. Then again, she had a string of wealthy clients who were good at passing along her name in referrals.

Rhetta generally hated the cases they hired her to pursue, like the wife who wanted evidence of her husband’s wandering ways. But Rhetta took those jobs and charged outrageous fees, which allowed her to take on cases that mattered for the poor and underprivileged who had no way to pay. At the end of the day, she felt one thing balanced the other, which allowed her to rest peacefully. Or as peacefully as a woman who has spent the past eleven years working as a private detective could.

“Thank you,” Rhetta said with cool politeness when the driver stopped as she’d directed, around the corner from the front door of her second-floor office. She rented the space above a photographer’s studio. The photographer happened to be her cousin, so she was watched over by James although he had learned to mind his own business and not raise his eyebrows too high when she traipsed by his windows wearing one of her outlandish costumes.

Most of the time if she was in costume, Rhetta used the stairs located in the alley and entered through her back door. In a rush, she hopped out of the cab and raced around the corner into the alley, then took the stairs two at a time.

Rhetta jammed her key into the lock on her back door and swung the portal open, stepping into the hallway. She went directly into her costume room and found Lee had left a steaming pitcher of water for her to use to wash up.

“Bless that boy,” Rhetta whispered to herself as she scrubbed her hands and face, removed the pins holding her hair close to her scalp, and combed out her long brown tresses. As she looked in the mirror and quickly styled her wavy hair into a loose coil she fastened at the back of her head, she surveyed her features.

Except for her bright blue eyes, Rhetta didn’t think there was anything remarkable or even very memorable about her appearance. Her nose wasn’t too long or too short. Her face not too round or oblong. Her chin could be a little on the stubborn side, but she had lips that weren’t too puffy or too thin.

Overall, she felt average, which worked well when she wanted to blend in with a crowd. Not quite as well for attracting a suitor although Rhetta was not looking.

Men found her too bold, opinionated, and determined for their liking. After the number of unfaithful husbands she’d been hired to follow, she wasn’t convinced a faithful one existed among the male species.

With flying fingers, she unbuttoned the ragged dress, removed the padding she’d fastened around her middle, and tossed off a petticoat fashioned from an old bed sheet.

She yanked on a lace-trimmed petticoat, pulled on her skirt and shirtwaist, then added a jacket that gave her a polished, professional appearance. The pink ensemble, edged in black, was striking and elegant, and a gift from one of Rhetta’s clients. In fact, Mrs. Brown had been most generous in giving Rhetta five expensive outfits the woman had no longer been able to wear after giving birth to twins two years ago.

Mr. Brown had been one of the exceptions to Rhetta’s rule that all men were detestable brutes. She’d followed him almost daily for a month and discovered the reason he kept secrets from his wife was to plan a surprise party for her birthday. Once Rhetta relayed that happy news, the woman had been elated and paid Rhetta’s fee with a bonus, as well as offering the clothes that Rhetta had been thrilled to receive.

With a slight tug to the hem of the jacket to adjust it, Rhetta touched a bit of her favorite perfume to both wrists. Regardless of her career, a woman needed to feel feminine, at least to Rhetta’s way of thinking.

She breezed from the room and down the hallway toward the entry area, where Lee had his own desk. He kept anyone from storming any further into the office without his approval and was there to receive visitors.

Years ago, she’d been watching the sale of ill-gotten goods in a seedy neighborhood when she caught a little boy trying to pick her pocket. Rhetta had grabbed him by the seat of the pants when he’d started to run off and peppered him with enough questions he finally burst into tears and confessed he had no home and couldn’t recall his parents or if he had any siblings. He’d been living on the streets as long as he could remember.

Rhetta had taken him home and fed him, cleaned him up, and given him a place to sleep. In the morning he’d been gone, but he’d returned a few days later, starving, and sporting a black eye. As he’d wolfed down a bowl of hearty beef stew, she’d made him a bargain. If he stayed, she’d keep him fed, give him a warm bed, and never hit him if he in turn agreed not to leave without telling her where he was heading, refrained from stealing from her, bathed with some regularity, and would work as her assistant.

He’d shaken her hand in agreement, and Lee had been with her since. Neither of them knew his birth date, so they chose the day she’d first encountered him as his birthday. Rhetta had guessed him to be around six when they met, and Lee had just turned fourteen two weeks ago.

As a private investigator, Rhetta had done everything she could to unearth Leland’s identity and some record of his existence, but it was as if he’d fallen from the sky and landed in Chicago’s slums.

Regardless, she had made inquiries about adopting him. It seemed a judge would rather a boy live homeless and alone than allow a single woman perfectly capable of providing a stable home to adopt him. So, despite the lack of legalities, Rhetta considered Lee her son. Likely the only one she’d ever have since she would turn twenty-nine in April.

According to the whispers she occasionally overheard from people who liked to gossip, she was an old maid too contrary and odd to ever catch a man.

Rhetta wasn’t contrary or an old maid, at least to her way of thinking. Besides, she had no time for putting up with the demands of a husband when she had a boy who needed her and work that fulfilled her. The bit about her being odd … well, that was perhaps disputable. She had always felt different from the other girls her age. She’d never been content to sit at home sewing samplers. Not when her father had encouraged her to dream big dreams and follow an adventurous path.

Rhetta stepped into the reception area and glanced at the dour-faced man seated on a chair in the corner. She looked at Lee, and he shrugged. With a smile plastered on her face, she took a step toward the man, extending her hand in greeting. “Hello, Mister …”

“Reynolds,” Lee whispered in her ear, handing her a fresh writing tablet and pencil.

The man ignored her outstretched hand, so she withdrew it.

“Welcome, Mr. Reynolds,” she said, forcing herself to maintain a smile. “How may I be of service to you today?”

The man stood and gave her a long, narrowed-gaze study. “You kept me waiting long enough, Miss Wallace. However, Senator Tomlinson is determined to speak with you about a delicate matter.”

Rhetta had no notion as to what delicate matter the senator wanted to discuss, but she had an idea it was one she wouldn’t like. Was his wife still alive? She couldn’t recall. Whatever he sought her assistance with would likely be something scandalous and ridiculous, but she’d take the case because she had several clients unable to pay who truly needed her assistance.

“Is the senator in town?” Rhetta asked, meeting the man’s stare with a frosty glare of her own. She refused to be cowed by him, especially in her own office.

“No. He’s willing to pay your travel expenses if you could meet him next Tuesday.”

“I will meet with him, but I make no promises other than arriving on time.”

“Very well.” The man took a thick envelope from the pocket of his coat and handed it to her. “All the information you’ll need for the trip is in there.” He tipped his head to her and left without another word.

Rhetta sank onto an overstuffed chair and looked at Lee. He stretched his arms above his head, leaned back slightly, and then grabbed the lapels of the vest he wore as he lowered his voice. “I’m Mister Mighty Britches, come to toss out demands from a corrupt politician. You will listen and obey me, little woman.”

A chuckle rolled out of her before she could rein it in. Lee was forever doing impersonations, most of them quite well, and making her laugh.

“Sit down, you rascal, and let’s see what Senator Tomlinson has to say.”

Rhetta opened the envelope to find two train tickets, reservations for two rooms at one of the city’s finest hotels, and a map with details for meeting the senator at a park near the hotel. It seemed she was welcome to bring Lee if she chose. The fact that the senator knew about Lee bothered her. Had he hired someone to spy on them? Someone like Mr. Reynolds?

A shiver slid over her spine at the thought of anyone watching them. Despite her aversion to this case and the senator, she decided she’d at least hear him out.

It looked like she and Lee were about to go on a short journey.

“I get to go?” Lee asked, reading the note she passed to him.

“Yes, you do. We’ll pack tomorrow after we return from the church service and lunch with the cousins. The tickets appear to be for the afternoon train Monday, but I’ll see if we can switch to a morning departure. I want time to visit the park and get a better idea of the area where we’ll be staying.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Make sure my satchel is packed with fresh supplies. We’ll need tablets, pencils, and contracts in the event I decide to take this case.” She handed him the unused writing tablet and pencil. “You are in charge of bringing snacks.”

Lee grinned. The past few months, he seemed to have two hollow legs. The only time he didn’t complain about being hungry was when he was sleeping. Rhetta had always kept fruit and cookies at the office for him to snack on after school and on the weekends if he accompanied her there. Now, she had whole loaves of bread, dried strips of beef, and tins of crackers, as well as fruit and cookies.

Thankfully, there was a bakery across the street and a café just around the corner if he ate all of the food in the office before she could replenish it.

“I’ll make sure we have plenty of snacks. Is there a trunk I can pack them in?”

Rhetta gave him a playful nudge, knowing he was teasing. She rose and gathered the contents of the envelope Mr. Reynolds had left, tucked them inside, then walked into her office.

She wrote a letter to the wife of the cheating husband, sealed it in an envelope, and sent Lee to deliver it, then made her way to the train depot to see about switching their tickets.

Although she dreaded meeting the senator, part of her was excited about embarking on a new adventure.

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