A/N: Hi everyone! So this week’s post is a bit different. Not only will it be the longest piece posted (without being divided up) but it’ll also be a Western, which I have never tried writing before, so any comments are much appreciated!
Elise made her way through the saloon, hating that she had to be there. The saloon was as always full of smoke, and it smelled like beer and sweat. Both scents that she had learned to associate with men.
“Dad!” she called out, trying to catch a glimpse of her father, the formerly esteemed Doctor Hamilton. The man who’d used to be the most respected man of their small town, but hadn’t been the same since Elise’s mother had died seven years ago. Elise had been eleven, and even the death of her mother hadn’t hit her quite as hard as her dad’s transformation. He’d lost his job, his reputation, and, seemingly, also his love for his only daughter.
She found him around the unofficial gambling table. His eyes were red and unfocused, but she knew her father well enough to be able to tell when he was just intoxicated and not completely sloshed.
“Dad!” she said again as she came closer, ignoring the looks she got as she disturbed their precious game.
“Go home, Elise,” her dad told her, quickly turning his attention back to the cards.
Elise, however, refused to back down that easily. She’d come all the way down here to bring her dad back home where he belonged, and she would not leave without him. She knew from past experience that letting him stay out as long as he wished would only result in him gambling for more and more, and their savings were quickly dwindling in as it was.
“Not without you,” she said, ignoring the way her father’s cheeks turned red at her words. What did he have to be embarrassed about? He wasn’t the one with a constantly drunk father, or the one who had to endure old friends’ pitying stares. He wasn’t the one, who had to live with the men’s lewd advances now that they no longer thought her protected by her father. He had a thousand things to be embarrassed about, but she sure as hell wasn’t one of them.
“Dad, it’s the middle of the night,” she said, trying to keep the annoyance from seeping through. “You were out yesterday too. Can’t you come home?”
Her dad seemed to be hesitating, and one of the other men began to laugh.
“Can’t go out for the missus, huh?” he mocked him. “Usually it’s the wife though. Not the daughter.”
Apparently her dad agreed with him, because he now sent his daughter a reproving look.
“Go home, Elise,” he said again. “We’re playing.”
“Just as you’ve been doing every night for this past week!”
Her father rose. “Damn it, Elise! This isn’t something a girl like you could understand. Now go home!”
Elise hesitated, weighing her options. She refused go home alone, but she knew how stubborn her father could be. Still, she had come this far. She couldn’t give up now. The only problem was that she had no idea what she could possibly say to make her dad see reason.
“I’m gonna head home now,” one of the other men said, and Elise looked up in surprise. The speaker was one of her father’s gambling buddies. Elise judged him to be around ten years her senior. His face was too scarred to be considered handsome, and his hair was a dull brown, but the dark eyes underneath the rim of his hat were kind enough and – more impressively – seemingly sober. He was smiling wryly, ignoring the other men as they mocked him for breaking up the game so early.
“There’s no reason to leave just because of her,” her dad said, and Elise felt her jaw clench in response. Why couldn’t her dad use this opportunity to leave without the others calling him out on it?
“I ain’t,” the man assured, but his eyes were focused on Elise even as he was talking to her dad. He truly had nice eyes, and Elise ignored the unexpected surge of attraction at the sight. Turning her attention back to her father, she finally coaxed him to come home with her, supporting him as they made their way through the saloon.
The men were all staring after them, but somehow Elise felt one particular pair of eyes more intensely that the others.
She was relieved when they finally made it out into the clear air outside.
“Elise,” her dad murmured to her as she began to guide him through the streets.
“Don’t come disturb me like that ever again,” he told her, and Elise took a deep breath. Words like that should have stopped hurting her a long time ago.
“Then don’t go drinking and gambling every other night,” she told him, unsurprised when she was ignored.
Back home she got her father in bed, not bothering to take his shoes off. She was tired. It seemed like she was always tired these days, and she knew it wouldn’t become better anytime soon.
Burying her face in the pillow, she reminded herself not to whine. They still had a roof over their head and warm food on their table. And if she could keep her dad from staying out too late, their savings would still keep them going for another couple years or so. It could be worse, and this was the thought that she focused on as she drifted into sleep.
The next day her father was sober, but hungover, and Elise tried to make as much noise as possible as she was making breakfast – without making it too obvious that was.
“Couldn‘t you be a bit more quiet?” dad groused.
Elisa shrugged. “You could come help,” she suggested, but her dad merely snorted.
“Women’s work.” He looked at her and frowned.
“How old are you?” he asked her, and Elise blinked at the unexpected question.
He frowned. “That can’t be right. It’s only been a couple of years, since your mom…”
“It’s been seven years, dad.”
He ignored her. “Eighteen years old,” he murmured instead, suddenly looking at her and not through her. “You should get married.”
Elise could only stare. Her father hadn’t mentioned any thoughts on this subject before.
“Young Gregory mentioned that he fancies you,” her dad added, and Elise grimaced. Gregory was as much of a drunken gambler as her father. Of course that was the only type of men her dad hung out with now a days.
“No, thank you,” she said shortly, reminding herself that her dad certainly couldn’t force her to marry. It was America. The country of the free.
“Who then?” her dad groused.
“Why do I suddenly have to get married?”
“Well, you obviously have some… feminine impulses that you need to get out. And I don’t see why I have to suffer for it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Last night when you came to bother us. You’ve been doing that a lot lately. I think Gregory is right. You need a husband to bother, so that you’ll leave your father alone.”
“You’re gonna marry me off to get rid of me?!” Elise stared at him. “Whose gonna clean your clothes then, dad? Cook your food? Whose gonna make sure you get home in one piece?!”
“I’m a bloody grown man!” her dad swore. “I’m sure I’d manage!”
“Could’ve fooled me!”
“Enough!” He slammed his fist down on the table. “You should get married. It won’t be long before you’re too old.”
Elise looked at her dad. She looked at his red eyes, his ever-growing stomach, his slack features. The man alcohol had turned her dad into.
“Fine,” she finally said. “I’ll marry. I’ll marry if you can find me a man who won’t touch a single drop of alcohol.”
Dad stared at her. “Don’t be ludicrous!”
“I’m not. No husband of mine shall ever touch that drink of the devil! Not a drop. And until you find such a man,” she added, knowing fully well how impossible that would be. “I’m not gonna marry, and you’re not gonna force me. Last I checked it was still a free country.”
And with these words she left. This time her dad could handle his hangover himself.
Weeks went by after that without any more talk of marriage. Still, Elise could feel her dad’s growing annoyance. He’d never been happy with her lack of understanding for his drinking, but it seemed like it was really starting to anger him. She assumed that one of the other men had mocked him about it, and Elise worried that her father really meant to get rid of her. As little as he was there for her, she was still dependent on his money in order to survive, and she realised that it couldn’t stay like that. She didn’t trust her father enough to allow him that kind of power over her.
Which was how she found herself back in the saloon.
“Um, excuse me,” she said hesitantly to the bar wench.
“Your dad ain’t here, honey.”
“No, I wasn’t… He’s at home, sleeping off last night. I’m not here for him.”
The woman looked mildly curious now, and leant forward over the counter.
Elise took a deep breath. “I was… I was wondering if you had any job openings?” she asked.
The wench lifted an eyebrow. “You lookin’ for a job, honey?”
“Can’t help you, I’m ‘fraid.”
Not quite expecting the blunt refusal, Elise could for several seconds say nothing.
“Why?” she finally asked. “I’ve seen how busy you always are. I’m sure you could use an extra set of hands.”
“We could, no doubt ’bout it. But not yours, honey. You’re too well-known here. Our costumers wants someone who doesn’t make ’em feel guilty ’bout having a bit of fun.”
“Guilty?! I’ve just…”
“I know, honey. But we’re here to make money, and we need alcohol for that. And you ain’t cut out for selling it. Sorry. Are you dad all run out?”
“I… no, we still have some savings left… I just…” she trailed off, unable to explain.
“You can come work for me,” a voice offered, and Elise looked up in surprise.
It was the man from the other night, the one who’d broken up the game. He was looking at her with an unreadable expression.
“Doing what exactly?” she asked.
The man shrugged. “The house could use a bit of cleaning,” he said. “I’ve never been real good at it, I’ll admit. And I’m in no hurry to marry either. So if you’ll come over and clean, I won’t mind paying you a bit for the trouble.”
Elise hesitated. If he meant it, it was a perfect opportunity, but she was only too aware of how vulnerable a position she had in life. But what choices did she have? She needed her own money in case her father ever got enough and kicked her out.
“What’s the pay?” she asked. She felt better when she heard the answer. It was a fair amount, but not overtly so. It wasn’t meant to be a temptation.
“Okay,” she finally said. “When do you want me to start?”
“How ’bout now?”
“No. No, but I can start tomorrow though. If that’s okay?”
“Works for me,” he said, shrugging. “Come here ’round noon, and I’ll show you the place. Reckon you need a key as well.”
“That would probably be helpful, yes.”
He frowned, apparently not understanding her attempt of a joke. Fidgeting, she tried to think of something to say. When was the last time she’d had a talk with a man who wasn’t drunk or hungover? She could hardly remember.
“I’ll… I’ll guess I’ll see you tomorrow then,” she finally said, giving him a nervous smile when he tipped his hat at her.
Back home, she went straight to her dad’s bedroom. Her dad was snoring away in the living room, and she knew that it would still be hours before he woke.
The gun was still there, hidden away in the night stand. Taking it up, she looked it over as her father had taught her to do so many years ago. She was no expert, but she knew how to fire it, and she knew how to reload. Putting it in the deep pocket of her skirts, she had no doubt her father wouldn’t even notice that it was missing, and its heavy weight made her feel a lot safer about tomorrow. She was just being cautious, she assured herself. It wasn’t like she planned on shooting anyone. She just felt a whole lot better knowing that she could.
The next day the man was waiting for her as promised, and Elise greeted him with a nervous smile and a quick curtsy.
“You’re early,” he stated.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Why? We’re both here. Just don’t fancy the thought of you waiting. Let me finish my drink, and we’ll go.”
She nodded willingly, trying to keep the judgement out of her face as she watched him down the drink. Following him out the saloon, she thought back on the time where doing so would have been out of the question. Would have been scandalous. But a drunkard’s daughter could do a whole lot of things that a doctor’s daughter couldn’t.
“What’s your name?” she asked him, struggling to keep up. His steps were long and fast, and for the first time she noticed how tall he was. Whenever he was sitting down, he was always kind of slouching, masking his height.
“You don’t know?”
“That’s why I’m asking.”
He cracked a smile. “Robert.”
“Elise. Yeah, I know.” He sent her a sideways glance. “Sorry ’bout your dad.”
“I… thank you.” No one had ever said that. She’d heard condolences about her mother, but apparently her father’s change was not something that was to be talked about.
They walked in silence for a while.
“How far away are you living, exactly?” she asked him, beginning to worry. They were almost on the outskirts of town, and she was well aware how few people would hear a scream out here.
“We’re here now,” he assured her, pointing her towards a medium-sized cabin. “Home sweet home.”
There was nothing ‘sweet home’ about it when they went inside. It wasn’t as bad as Elise assumed their house would become if her dad was alone with it, so she guessed he’d at least tried to clean, but it was clear that he hadn’t bothered to make the necessary effort.
“Messy?” he grinned. “Yeah, I know.”
She squared her shoulders. “Do you have any cleaning supplies?” She should probably have brought some herself.
“Yeah.” He nodded towards a table, and Elise realised with a flush that he’d already gotten them ready for her. She’d just completely missed them.
“Well, I’ll just… begin then,” she said, wishing that he’d leave.
Instead he sat down on a nearby chair, seemingly with any intention on watching her work. Elise wondered if he was scared she’d steal something.
Ignoring his presence to the best of her abilities, she started by opening the windows. A bit of fresh air would do wonders.
Robert watched her work with curious eyes, asking questions along the way. Apparently he’d never known that you should air out you house daily, or that you should do the dusting before you swept the floor. Elise wasn’t sure how she felt about his attention. He wasn’t acting threatening in any way, but she’d never known a man who had shown even the slightest inkling of curiosity regarding housework. It was unsettling.
“What do you do for a living?” she asked, when the silence became too much.
“I play cards.”
She stopped working in order to stare at him. “You gamble as a means for a living?”
He grinned at her. “It’s not as risky as it sounds,” he promised her. “I’m… pretty good with numbers.”
“Some people might have chosen to go into accounting.”
He laughed at that. “Doesn’t sound very fun. Maybe when I’m older though, and can’t hold my own in a bar fight. Besides, it’s not the only job I’ve had.”
“Really? What else have you been?”
An awful lot, it turned out. It seemed Robert liked changing careers, and though Elise knew that he was relatively new in town, she hadn’t thought more about him than that. Now, however, she found out that he’d apparently done just about anything and lived about anywhere. And she learned that he was an excellent story teller. She would almost have been willing to clean for free, if only to hear him tell about the winters up north.
She cleaned more thoroughly than what was strictly necessary, and she found herself happy when he asked her to come again already in a couple of days. He paid her on the spot, and Elise asked him hesitantly if he would mind not telling her father about their arrangement.
“Not at all,” he assured her, not even bothering to ask her why. Maybe he’d guessed. “See you soon.”
“You’ll leave a key under the mat?”
“Yeah. Though I do expect to be home.”
A few hours ago, that message wouldn’t have made her happy.
A few hours ago, she hadn’t known about the winters up north.
After that Elise quickly came into a new rhythm as the months went by. It seemed Robert didn’t care when she cleaned, and so she made sure to come when she suspected that Robert was at home.
She liked his company, and chatting with him made the process of cleaning seem to go so much faster. Robert was entertaining company, and he seemed willing enough to listen to her talk about books. More than willing actually. Though he read very little himself, he asked endless questions and seemed genuinely interested in whatever story she was talking about.
Soon she not only talked about books, but also about herself. Robert was a kind man with a never-ending patience, and one afternoon she suddenly found herself asking him the very question that had been in her mind for weeks.
“Why haven’t you ever married?”
Robert looked amused. “Suppose I’ve just never met the right person. Why haven’t you ever married?”
Elise shrugged, grinning slightly. “Suppose I’ve just never met the right person,” she said. “Dad wants me to though.”
Robert frowned. “You dad wants you to get married?”
“Hmm. I suppose that’s normal. Wanting your little girl to settle down.”
“Does he have anyone in mind?”
“He mentioned Gregory.”
“That was about the same thing I said.” She frowned. “Are you okay? You look… I don’t know. Kind of tense.”
He didn’t sound fine.
“Do you enjoy working for me?” he suddenly asked. “You’ve been here… what, five months now?”
“Almost to the day. And of course I do.” She smiled at him, relieved at the change of topic since the earlier had seemed to agitate him.
“And I’m not getting in your way by being home while you’re cleaning?”
“Not at all,” she assured him. “I enjoy your company.”
“Then perhaps… you’d consider me?”
“Consider you for what?”
“For a husband,” he said, staring intently at some point over her shoulder.
Silence stretched out between them.
“Are you… are you proposing?” Elise finally asked.
“Suppose I am.” His eyes flitted to hers, before immediately looking away again.
Elise could only stare. She’d gotten the feeling that he enjoyed her company, but with his complete absence of lewd comments or attempts of flirtation she’d never even considered that he might see her in that light.
She supposed there were worse fates than being married to Robert. He was kind. He was patient, and she’d yet to see him angry. He would treat her better than her father did, and she genuinely enjoyed his company. Not to mention that she’d long ago admitted that she found him quite attractive.
But he earned his money by gambling, and he was out drinking with her father at least a couple of times a week. Wouldn’t that only deteriorate? She’d promised herself that she would only marry a man who never drank a drop of alcohol, and that was a promise she refused to break.
“I can’t,” she said, and Robert flinched ever so slightly. “I’m sorry,” she added because she didn’t know what else to say.
Robert shrugged, but he still wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Of course,” he said. “I expected nothing else. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Elise nodded, relieved that her rejection didn’t mean that she would have to stop seeing Robert. When she thought about it, he was really her only friend. She wasn’t sure if she could handle losing him.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she promised, relieved that he’d given her this opportunity to get away and gather her thoughts before seeing him again.
Robert had proposed. That must have meant that he loved her, mustn’t it? The thought floored her. She’d never had anyone be in love with her before, and she felt guilty for enjoying the sensation. Robert had clearly been in pain, and yet she felt a little tinge of joy from realising that he thought of her as so much more than the help.
Not that it’d change anything, she reminded herself as she locked herself in. Robert spent at least three or four nights a week gambling and drinking, and though she’d never seen him really drunk, she knew only too well what happened to men when they were drinking. She’d regret it if she chained herself to him for life.
Letting herself into the living room, she froze as she saw Gregory and her father already there. She had a lot she needed to think about, and she really wasn’t in the mood for whatever they were planning to say.
Gregory at least looked sober, and he smiled at her as she entered.
“Ah. Elise! I was just about to go find you to tell you the good news!”
“What good news?” she asked.
“We’re getting married.”
She stared at him. And stared some more.
“No, we’re not,” she said.
“Your father has already given his blessing,” Gregory assured her. “We can get married already this Sunday.”
Elise’s head was beginning to throb painfully. “I apologize Gregory,” she said. “But I simply do not feel that way about you. I’m afraid that I must decline.”
Gregory frowned. “Your dad warned me you might be foolish,” he said.
He stepped closer, and suddenly he was grasping her arm and was leaning in over her.
“You might want to think twice,” he said coldly. “I doubt anybody else would want you.”
With these words he released her and left.
Elise turned shocked eyes to her father, but he looked neither horrified or guilty. He hadn’t heard a word of what Gregory had said to her.
“Why did you have to be so foolish?” he bemoaned. “Gregory is a fine young man, and I can’t take care of you forever.”
“You haven’t taken care of me for years.”
Her father glared at her.
“Well, then go somewhere else!”
“Go somewhere else! I’m tired of you always refusing to do as I say!”
“Because I won’t marry Gregory?!”
“Because I was trying to do what’s best for you, and you refuse to do as I God damn tell you to!”
“Fine!” the word was out before she had a chance to think it over. “I’ll leave! Taking care of yourself might be a bigger challenge than you realise!” With these words, she left.
Walking for a bit helped clear her head, though she wished that it hadn’t. Sure, she had a bit of savings that she could go back and pick up when her father was out drinking, but she didn’t have enough. She couldn’t make it on her own. Not yet at least.
She’d screwed up.
Robert looked surprised when he opened the door to find her on the other side. He’d clearly not expected to see her again this soon after his rejected proposal.
“I need an advance on my payment,” she said.
She took a deep breath, staring intently at the ground. “I need an advance on my payment,” she repeated. “I’m going to rent a room, and it’s a lot cheaper when you do it by the month. But I don’t have enough to pay for a month yet.”
“Why do you need a room?”
“Dad kicked me out.”
He stared at her, and Elise could hear from the silence that he wasn’t going to give her the money. Of course he wasn’t. How could she ask for money from the guy she’d just rejected? This had been a horrible idea.
“You could stay here,” he said.
“You could stay here. I don’t mind, and it’ll be cheaper than renting a room. I don’t expect anything in return.”
She stared at him. “People will talk.”
He shrugged. “They already talk. We’ve spent too much time together.”
She should have guessed, but honestly she had hoped that her scandalous behaviour had been overshadowed by her father’s.
She considered it. She would ruin her reputation, but she could start over in some other town where nobody knew her. She could save up some money and move to a town where she wasn’t the drunkard’s daughter.
“Wouldn’t that be awkward,” she finally said. “Considering…”
He shrugged. “Probably,” he said. “But only for a while. I’ll live.”
She looked at him. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll move in.”
Moving in quickly proved to be a mistake.
She’d liked Robert before. Had liked him a lot, but living with him quickly made her realise that she loved him. She could easily see herself as his wife, and it didn’t help that he went out less and less as time went by.
The town talked, of course, but Elise ignored them. They hadn’t been there when she’d needed them, and she had no interest in their approval. Besides, she knew that nothing untoward was happening. She knew that Robert barely even touched her in even the most friendly of manners. In fact, he almost seemed to think she’d caught the plague.
She lived with him, she shared his meals, laughed with him, and loved him, and she knew that she couldn’t keep doing this to herself.
“I was thinking,” she began one night as they were eating at the dinner table. “I have enough money to rent a room now.”
Robert frowned. “You don’t have to leave.”
“I want to.”
“Oh.” He was steadfastly avoiding her gaze. “I thought…”
“No, it’s silly,” he said, and there was something undeniable bitter about the set of his mouth.
“Tell me,” she requested, and she couldn’t remember a time where Robert hadn’t given her what she’d asked of him.
“I thought perhaps you’d reconsider my proposal. Fall in love with me. Bigger the fool am I, huh?”
“I…” she stared at him, realising that she hadn’t been the only one hiding her pain. “I do love you,” she said. “But I can’t marry you.”
“Why not? I’m not trying to press you, but I need to know.”
“Because I can’t marry a man who drinks. Not after everything it did to my father.”
“Drinks? But I don’t drink.”
“Yes, you do. When you’re gambling with my father and his friends. When you’re out in the bar. Right now. Always that damn whiskey.”
Robert stared at her. Minutes seemed to stretch into eternity. Suddenly he began laughing, almost hysterically, pushing the glass over to her.
“Taste it,” he said.
“I don’t drink alcohol.”
“Just bloody taste it. If that’s the only thing you’ll ever do for me for the rest of our lives, then please just taste it.”
Slowly she picked up the glass, blinking surprised when the liquid hit her tongue.
“It tastes like… apples,” she said.
“It’s apple cider. I never drink alcohol. I just pretend to. Otherwise they’re not gonna let me play with them. And I need the money.”
She stared at him. “You’ve been drinking apple cider? All this time?”
He shrugged. “You grew up with a bad father because of alcohol. I grew up without one. I never drink.”
She stared at him. All that frustration, those broken hearts, and he’d been drinking apple cider.
“Perhaps,” Robert said, sounding hopeful. “Perhaps this means you’ll reconsider? My earlier offer?”
“Earlier offer?” She couldn’t think.
She stared at him, and the hopeful look in Robert’s eyes disappeared.
“Yes!” she suddenly exclaimed as reality caught up to her. “Yes, yes, yes!”
She was out of the chair before she realised it, and in Robert’s arms.
“I’ll marry you,” she said, and his grin was almost blinding.
They’d start over somewhere new, and they’d do it together.
But first they had a wedding to schedule.