July 8, 1866
Emma sat in Mrs. Dimshire’s opulent parlor feeling extremely out of place surrounded by plush green carpet, silk curtains, and a chandelier. The oak table was carved with intricate flower-and-leaf motifs. Mrs. Dimshire was among the first families of the area, inheriting a fortune from her father.
Mrs. Dimshire dismissed her maid, carrying in the tea tray herself. Her cornflower-blue eyes were sharp, despite the fact she was nearing sixty. Her face certainly didn’t show her age. Emma wished she knew the woman’s secret for stopping the hands of time. Mrs. Dimshire walked with grace, her back straight. The ease with which she carried herself made Emma jealous.
Emma shifted in her chair, her lavender skirts rustling. She had always felt socially awkward and her three years with Hank failed to help. If anything, his scrutiny made her even more self-conscious. Mrs. Dimshire is a nice lady. Granted she’s the leading socialite…but she doesn’t bite.
Visiting Mrs. Dimshire without Hank made the event a little daunting. Could it be mere coincidence her invitation to tea had come the day after she chose to come out of mourning? What did her hostess have planned?
Mrs. Dimshire set the tea tray on the table and gracefully took her seat. A proper woman worthy of a painting with her blue silk dress, waist belted to help emphasize to her shape. She reached for the silver tea service.
“What is your preference, Mrs. Bennett? Strong or weak?”
Being called “Mrs. Bennett” increased Emma’s already rapid heartbeat. She breathed through her nose, hoping the constant rise and fall of her chest was not visible. “Strong, please.” Really strong. Maybe add a little brandy.
The smell of tea and wisps of steam encircled Emma’s teacup. Perhaps the steam would hide her nervousness. She wished the fog could conceal her from Mrs. Dimshire’s probing gaze. She felt she was being evaluated—for what she didn’t know. Moisture dotted the china surface and Emma’s tanned skin.
Gardening had been the one indulgence Hank allowed her even though it made her look more like a farmer’s wife than the wife of an accountant. Perhaps her sun-darkened skin now garnered attention.
Since her husband had died, were they going to forbid her from attending social events? Had they found out her secret?
Emma placed a hand on her chest, the warmth of her palm soothing the dull ache.
“How much milk would you like, dear?” Mrs. Dimshire’s voice was honeyed and light. But the woman’s tone did nothing to put Emma at ease.
Mrs. Dimshire picked up a small china pitcher, her eyebrows raised in question.
“None, thank you,” Emma said. She did not need to dilute the tea.
“Two, thank you,” Emma replied. Just enough sweetness, not too much to be overpowering.
Emma took the cup, her back tense. “Thank you, Mrs. Dimshire.” Conscious of every move, every breath, she stirred her tea and then took a dainty sip. She would be the proper lady Hank expected. Hank had said she needed to overcompensate for her shortcomings.
“You are welcome to a scone,” Mrs. Dimshire said, motioning to the plate between them.
Emma swallowed another sip of tea. Nausea roiled her stomach. She took the smallest scone. “Thank you,” she said, flashing a polite smile. She took her time spreading the strawberry jam.
“How are you doing, dear? It has been a long year and a half.”
“Yes, it has. But I’m fine.”
Mrs. Dimshire held the cup to her lips, gazing at her while she took a drink. “You seem lonely. That was why I invited you for tea.”
“Thank you. I appreciate the invitation. I’m happy to be wearing color again.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“It has been an adjustment learning to be more independent. Of course you would know about that.”
Mrs. Dimshire nodded. Her husband had passed away five years before. “I think I will live the rest of my life alone. I’m too old to remarry, but you have many years ahead of you.”
Emma’s cheeks warmed, and she bowed her head to hide the blush.
“Nothing to be ashamed of, Mrs. Bennett. It is time for you to move on, live your life.” She paused and leaned a little farther across the table. “Have children perhaps?”
Oh my word. Did Mrs. Dimshire have someone in mind? Did she want to set her up immediately after she became socially available?
Her hands grew clumsy, making the teacup slippery in her fingers. She set the cup down and took another bite of biscuit. She wasn’t ready to court. Yes, it had been a lonely eighteen months, but she wanted to experience her freedom.
She didn’t want to cook and clean for a man.
“You know, Mr. Hawthorne is interested in you.”
Emma gave a slight nod. Everyone in town knew Mr. Hawthorne was interested in her. Hank had forbidden the telegraph operator to come around her again, but now Hank was gone, would he pursue her?
“Mr. Hawthorne is a respectable man,” Mrs. Dimshire said.
A throbbing pain began above Emma’s left eye. Surely, the old lady wouldn’t try to set them up. Out of all the eligible bachelors in town…with his thinning auburn hair and long, homely face, he was as attractive as a gnarled tree. She couldn’t imagine sleeping next to him. Her lungs compressed, making each breath a chore.
“He isn’t my type,” Emma squeaked out. He was worse than Hank. He would be more than demanding and controlling. He would be jealous and overbearing, maybe even violent.
She picked up her cup again, hoping the tea would be soothing. It wasn’t. Her hands shook and she set the cup down before she spilled it on the white lace tablecloth.
Mrs. Dimshire’s wrinkled hand grabbed her wrist tenderly. Emma’s heart punched her ribs. The touch was probably meant to be comforting, but she felt trapped.
“Do you know how I get through each day without Connor?”
Emma shook her head.
“Whenever I feel the need to have a man next to me, I satisfy that need.”
Emma’s eyes bulged. Had the leading socialite in Louisville just said she shared her bed with a variety of men? But there would have been gossip, surely. No one had said a word.
Mrs. Dimshire’s eyes were sincere and she spoke as matter-of-factly as if she had just ordered a cut of beef from the butcher.
“I know you are not ready to remarry.” The older woman’s fingers slipped away from her skin. “But I thought you might like some male company once in a while.”
A thrill rushed from Emma’s head to her toes. Being with a man, no-strings attached. All the power and freedom she wanted. She could control the affair.
“Ah, I see the glow in your eyes,” Mrs. Dimshire said. “Yes, it is exciting and invigorating for a woman to take charge. I can tell you where to go. No one will ever find out.” Mrs. Dimshire paused and leaned back in her brown-and-burgundy striped chair. “And I trust you will keep my secret.”
“Yes, ma’am. Of course.” Going against Mrs. Dimshire would be social suicide.
“There is one thing though that might dissuade you,” Mrs. Dimshire said and then dabbed her lips with a linen napkin. “The men are colored.”
Emma blinked. The men are colored? Her eyes bulged in pretend horror. She gasped and a hand rose to cover her gaping mouth. Most would consider that demeaning. Wouldn’t it be safer to juggle knives? It would certainly be safer on ones’ reputation!
If the rest of Louisville knew Mrs. Dimshire had…she shuddered. She couldn’t picture the respectable woman lying with a black man. She tried to, but the visualization hurt her brain. It just didn’t seem possible.
The sudden turn in conversation dried Emma’s throat. She took a large gulp of tea, forgetting her manners.
Mrs. Dimshire waved her hand in the air. “They know their business though. They are clean and gentle and bring protection. Does that bother you, Mrs. Bennett?”
Emma’s fingers tingled. She had always fantasized about being with a colored man. Hank had been so boring, bless his soul. Lie on your back. Spread your legs open. Get it over with. With a colored man, the danger factor would at least be arousing, even if the sex wasn’t.
But she just knew it would be different, better.
A colored man who did this regularly, who was not so restrained in his sexuality…
“Not at all, Mrs. Dimshire.” She smiled, hoping she didn’t look too eager.
“I didn’t think it would,” Mrs. Dimshire said. The firm undertone in her voice made Emma’s insides shiver.
Why was she so sure? Did she know…? No. She couldn’t.
“I’ll set it up then. You will have company the night after tomorrow.”
“And you are sure no one will find out?” she asked, a schoolgirl waver to her voice.
“Think about it, Mrs. Bennett. If the rest of town finds out, your paid lover will be dead.”
Emma felt all the blood rushing out of her face. She gripped the table, suddenly light-headed.
Mrs. Dimshire offered a calming smile. “Try to relax and just let it happen. I’ve been doing this for some time now. You will be fine.”
Emma swallowed around the large lump in her windpipe. This was her first step as a free woman. Granted, it was not the step she had expected. But she could do this.
Being so adventurous gave her jolt of adrenaline. She squeezed her thighs together. She needed to fill the hole in her life. This burning desire for her mystery man brought her that much closer.
Her midnight caller.