by Virginia Hale
Since the day Lacey Reed was cinched into her costume stays, working at Spring Creek living museum has made her happier than she ever thought she could be in small-town Beechworth. When her best friend and co-worker Jen Fraser proposed that they settle down together, Lacey had readily agreed—Jen adored Lacey’s seven-year-old daughter, and the life Jen offered was more than Lacey could ever have dreamed.
But there’s just one small problem. Lacey has carried a torch for Jen for eight agonizing years. She just didn’t think that, four months into their engagement, Jen would still be completely oblivious to the fact that she set Lacey’s heart twitching in her chest every time she so much as stepped into the same room.
When a ghost from the past arrives in Beechworth, suddenly, what once seemed like a simple arrangement becomes far more complicated than they ever imagined.
|Publication Date||August 12, 2021|
|Cover Designer||Heather Honeywell|
Eight Years Earlier
In the back corner of the Victorian-style tearoom, the pages of the book fluttered under the whir of the revolving fan. Splaying a hand across the book, Lacey sighed lightly.
Regardless of the summer storm pelting the windows, the humidity was stifling. Not only were her shoulders scorched from performing as the showgirl on the hotel balcony the day before, but she’d been working the confectionary store since the living museum had opened that morning. Even at nine a.m., it had been sweltering. Each time the store emptied, she’d lifted her corded petticoat over the floor fan and almost sobbed in relief. How in the hell had the women who’d actually worked on the goldfields survived the 1850s in these horsehair crinolines? She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Would she ever get used to wearing a corset? It was only her seventh day at Spring Creek, the living goldrush museum—she still had the rest of the summer to get through.
The tearoom door swung open. Lacey’s eyes shot up from the page. In the doorway, the executive director, Jen, dragged her stockyard boots against the mat, and Lacey’s heart pounded wildly against whalebone confines of her corset. As Jen reached up to yank her dark ponytail tight, Lacey’s sight dropped to her long, tanned legs, bare in khaki shorts. She isn’t in costume. She isn’t in drag.
“Andy!” Jen barked in the direction of the kitchen. “Look here!” She waved an arm between the counter and the door. “The floorboards are covered in slush the lunch crowd’s traipsed in! Mate, you really don’t have to wait for Judy to ask you to grab the mop and bucket every time it rains, you’re perfectly welcome to just go ahead and take the bloody initiative!”
Lacey’s breath quickened. Here she was: the real Jen. Jen without her hair hidden beneath the top hat, Jen without the costume, without the coat, without the cane. Lacey hadn’t expected her to be quite so…feminine. But trying to reconcile the woman who performed the Victorian doctor in drag each day with this woman by the door only made the attraction all the more consuming. When Lacey reached her mid-thirties, would she have the same unbridled confidence that Jen seemed to have at…thirty-four? Thirty-five? Her desire warred against itself—for the boss’s daughter to stay far, far away…and for the boss’s daughter to cross the room and fall into the seat at her table.
Lacey had had crushes on women before, but in all her twenty-four years, she had never felt physical attraction so acutely. Yesterday, Jen had stepped inside the confectionary store to tease two children about tooth decay, and a mere grin from Jen had left her light-headed. She wanted that rush again. Jen was a force of nature, bold as Annie Oakley, formidable as… Across the room, their eyes caught. Flushing with warmth, Lacey dropped her gaze back to the page.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Jen slipped behind the bar. Reaching for a triangle of her ham and cheese sandwich, Lacey stole a quick glance at the service window. In the kitchen, Jen was talking with her mother—and Judy was looking out the window directly to the corner of the tearoom where Lacey sat alone. They’re talking about you… The revolving fan beat its breeze and the hairs stood on the back on her sunburnt shoulders. They’re pitying you. You’re sitting all alone on your lunch break—again—and they’re pitying you.
With a bottle of water and sandwich wrap, Jen was crossing the room and halted before Lacey’s table.
“Oh. Jen,” Lacey feigned surprise. “I—”
“Mind if I bother you for company again?”
Without marking her page, Lacey closed the hardback and pushed it to the edge of the table. “Y-you aren’t bothering me.”
“You sure? It’s the third day I’ve sat with you during your break. If you aren’t planning on getting a restraining order, I’d at least talk to HR.”
Mouth dry, Lacey reached for her lemonade. “I take it you’re HR?”
“Mum was right about what she said when she hired you—you are very clever.”
Lacey was bright red. She had to be bright red. There wasn’t a possibility on earth that she wasn’t bright red. But as Jen fell into the chair opposite, she was kind enough not to mention it.
As Jen peeled the plastic wrapping from her wrap, Lacey stole the opportunity to take her in. Had she ever seen eyes so blue? Under Lacey’s lips, would that jawline feel as sharp as it looked? Does she have a girlfriend? Lover? Partner? What did lesbians call their significant other? That’s if she’s actually into women. Lacey sucked her bottom lip between her teeth. Just because she wears drag doesn’t mean she’s gay…
Jen looked up. “So, Mum said you just had a costume fitting. She said your waist was too tiny for the showgirl corset, even when she laced you up like Scarlett O’Hara.”
Lacey laughed lightly. “That isn’t true.”
“The corset has been fine for this week, but it’s not a good enough fit for next week when I’ll have to start cracking the stockwhip.”
“Well, we don’t want a nip slip in front of a crowd, do we?”
Grinning, Lacey bit her lip. “I think I’d just about up and die.”
Jen took a bite from her wrap. “You had your wig fitting too?”
“Itchy as all hell?”
“I’ll get used to it.”
“I think you’ll have to.” Jen covered her mouth as she chewed. “Hate to break it to you, but a blond showgirl isn’t very intimidating. You’re going to need that raven wig.”
A nervous laugh bubbled from Lacey’s lips. “Is that what makes you so intimidating? The fact that you’re a brunette?”
“There you have it, Lacey Reed—you’ve just unlocked my secret to ensuring staff are too petrified to dare take a sickie on a Friday before a long weekend.”
“I don’t take sickies unless I’m legitimately ill.”
“Mmm. Time will tell.” Jen winked.
Willing her blush to calm, Lacey took a bite of her sandwich.
“Well, now that your costume and wig are sorted, all you need to do is master the whip—and you’re already halfway there. Do you have time to hang back a little after work tonight? We could give it another practice?”
Another practice? At the memory of her first day at Spring Creek, she flushed. As part of her performance as the showgirl with a dislike of Spring Creek’s trooper, threatening the trooper with the stockwhip was a fundamental part of the act. Until last week, she hadn’t so much as held a stockwhip, let alone cracked one. So, on Monday, Jen had stayed back after work to, quite literally, show her the ropes. Ever since, she’d been able to think of little else than Jen with her white linen shirtsleeves rolled to her elbows, the shirt pulling across her back, the quick, practised flick of Jen’s wrist… “I can stay back. Definitely.”
“Fantastic.” Taking a swig of water, Jen grinned.
As she swallowed another bite, Lacey pressed fingers to her lips. “What?”
“I was watching you yesterday afternoon, when you were out there on the hotel balcony.”
“You’re an excellent performer. Very confident. Commanding.”
Lacey wet her lips. “And I suppose you’re surprised because I’m so shy when I’m myself?”
“Well…” As Jen’s gaze darted from their table to the window and back again, it was clear that, for once, she didn’t quite know what to say. Suddenly, she looked up. “That book’s not Wuthering Heights.”
Their eyes locked. Lacey’s blood rushed cold. “What?”
Jen’s gaze brightened with amusement—and confusion. “Your book jacket…” Slipping a long finger under the edge of the cover, she flicked the novel open.
Under layers of tiered petticoats, Lacey’s knees locked together. Slowly, Jen pinched the jacket from the cover. The instant she exposed the cover beneath, her eyes widened.
Lacey’s heart hammered. “I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not a lesbian.”
With a tentative smile, Jen tilted her head. “No, of course you’re not. You just wrap Radclyffe Hall in Emily Brontë to…protect your books?”
A tingling sensation swept across Lacey’s face.
Jen sat forward. “Are you all right?”
Lacey nodded quickly.
“Are you sure? Do you need to talk about anything?”
Yes. Desperately. An ache grew in the back of her throat. “I…I barely know you,” she said softly.
Crossing her arms on the table, Jen craned her neck forward. “I don’t know about that. You’ve known me a week.”
Lacey dropped her gaze.
Jen ducked her head. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
She shook her head.
“What about a girlfriend?”
“No.” Face flaming, she looked over her shoulder.
Jen tilted her head. “What’s the matter?”
As she reached for the last triangle of her sandwich, her tongue grew leaden. “Nothing’s the matter.”
With Jen focused on her so intently, chewing was proving an impossibility. Had she ever felt so exposed? So…on display? You wanted her attention—now you definitely have it.
“Are you enjoying it?” Jen asked.
She almost choked on ham rind. “Excuse me?” Covering her mouth, she coughed as discreetly as possible.
“Hey, hey, take it easy, Mama Cass…”
Eyes watering, Lacey lunged for her lemonade. “Mama Cass?” she squeaked.
“Are you serious?” Jen’s brow furrowed as she watched her desperately down a mouthful. “How old are you?”
Setting the glass back on its coaster, she cleared her throat. “Twenty-four.”
“You don’t know Mama Cass? The Mamas and the Papas? She choked on a…Never mind. I’m obviously too old for you.”
You’re perfect for me.
“The Well of Loneliness,” Jen clarified, reaching out to dance her short fingernails on the Brontë cover. “I asked if you’re enjoying The Well of Loneliness.”
The heat returned to Lacey’s cheeks in full force. “I only just started it. I don’t really know what it’s about. I mean, I know what it’s about, I just don’t know the plot or…”
“Well,” Jen said, running her tongue along her teeth, “I read it when I was in high school. Not prescribed at school, obviously.” She winked again. “I loved it. One of my all-time favourites. I’ve been trying to get Tori to read it for years but anything historical just…” She made a sweeping gesture over her head. “She has absolutely no interest.”
Lacey seized the opportunity to change the conversation. “Who’s Tori?”
Lacey’s stomach clenched. She’s involved with someone. “How long have you been together?”
“Seven years.” Her face lit up. “She’s four and a half months pregnant.”
Lacey forced a smile. How childlike she must have seemed to this older woman. This beautiful, confident woman who knew exactly who she was.
Jen rewrapped her half-eaten sandwich. “Anyway, I might leave you in peace. I have to get dressed and take over from Dad as the doctor.” She planted her hands on the table. At the proximity, Lacey’s eyes dropped to the table. Jen bent down, lowering her voice to ensure her words were for Lacey’s ears and Lacey’s alone. “Look,” Jen started, “I know it’s a small town, and I know people talk. But we’re in our own little world up here on the hill. Everyone’s family here at Spring Creek, and I have a good feeling you’re going to stick around—so that makes you family, too. So, if it helps any, just remember that the boss’s daughter wears drag every day and is good as married to a woman. If you want to read The Well of Loneliness on your lunch break, you go ahead and read The Well of Loneliness on your lunch break. Nobody here is going to gossip about you—or who you love—behind your back. I won’t have it.”
Summoning all her courage, she looked up. Jen’s electric blue eyes were intense with empathy.
“It’s okay to not know,” Jen whispered. “Gay or straight or anything else, we never know who we’re going to end up with.” As she tilted her head, her smile was brilliant. “That’s what makes life interesting, right?”