This is the first of my new Portal Worlds series. The book is still being written and edited, so what you read today is subject to change without notice in the published version.
On St. Antoni you got tough or you died. The only defense is a gun; your security is your ability to use it. This is the story of three sisters and the choices they make to survive on St. Antoni. Bethany marries a mercenary warrior to shield her family from a predatory neighbor. To protect her sister, Iris chooses between an arranged marriage with a beloved friend and an outlaw. Jeanne and the son of her greatest enemy defy both their families to find love.
This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any persons living or dead is unintentional and accidental. © Gail Daley 2017 All Rights reserved. Any duplication of this work electronically or printed, except for brief publicity quotes, is forbidden without the express written permission of the author. Cover Art © by Gail Daley’s Fine Art 2017
Serial Chapters are posted on Fridays. Check in next Friday for the next chapter of Warriors of St. Antoni
Click below to Download a PDF copy and start reading Chapter 17 Tactics of Blackmail
THE DRESSMAKER Giselle went to in Junction City was an old friend. In her front display window was a calf-length white dress with a low-cut lace bodice and three quarter sleeves.
“Jeanne, I think that would fit you,” Giselle told her youngest granddaughter. “What do you think?”
“It’s pretty, but all that lace isn’t practical.”
“It’s your wedding dress,” Iris exclaimed. “It doesn’t have to be practical. Let’s go see if it fits you.”
“I’m sure Belinda will be willing to make a few alterations when she learns we want it tomorrow,” Giselle said, guiding the girls into the shop.
The proprietor, a thin, dark woman looked up from explaining something to a sales clerk when the bell over the door jingled. “Giselle! How lovely to see you. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“It was a last-minute decision,” Giselle explained, giving her a hug. “Belinda, these are two of my granddaughters, Iris and Jeanne. They are both getting married soon. I knew we couldn’t do better than come to you for the dresses.”
“How soon are the weddings?”
“Well, Iris hasn’t set a date yet, but we would like to have the gown before we leave. Since Jeanne is getting married tomorrow at noon. I think she might like to try on the dress you have on display.”
Giselle’s friend cocked her head. “Are you assisting in an elopement?”
“You could say that.”
“Ah.” Directing them to back, Belinda bustled forward and turned the sign on the door to closed. Calling for her assistant to get the dressing room ready, she went to the window and began unfastening the lace dress from the dressmaker form.
The dressing room was a rarity in St. Antoni where glass was still being blown by hand, as it had six mirrors, angled to show all sides of the dress at once. While the assistant helped Jeanne out of her dress, Belinda seated Iris and Giselle on a low couch and sent a second assistant for a rolling rack of dresses.
“These were from a trousseau ordered for a bride who decided she did not wish to be married after all. Poor thing, she was set to marry the son of a wealthy family when she discovered him in bed with another. The clothes have never been worn; if your granddaughters do not object to trying them?”
“Not at all,” Giselle agreed smiling. “My granddaughters are no so foolish. Jeanne will be marrying a prosperous farmer and Iris the manager of our silver mine though, so the trousseau must be good but also serviceable.”
While Jeanne was being buttoned into the bride’s dress, Giselle and Iris began looking through the rack of clothes. “These will do very well; the cloth is of excellent quality and the designs are not too frivolous. As always you are an excellent judge of a customer’s needs Belinda.”
“Oh,” Jeanne said softly, looking at herself in the mirrors. The low-cut bodice and flared skirt made her waist look impossibly tiny below her full breasts. She turned shinning eyes to her grandmother. “This is the one.”
“Yes,” Giselle agreed. “Tomas will be stunned at your beauty.”
Belinda hustled forward and began tweaking the waist and sleeves. “It needs only a little letting out in the bust. I will have it sent over this afternoon. Susan,” she gestured to the assistant, “help Miss St. Vyr out of the wedding dress and then take it to Mary so she can begin letting out the bust. About an inch, I think.”
She pulled out a second wedding dress and held it up to Iris’s face. “Yes, I thought this off white would look good with your complexion. Come, I will help you out of what you are wearing while your sister and Giselle pick out a traveling dress and some day gowns.”
The dress Belinda threw over Iris’s head had long full sleeves and a high collar made of thin transparent material over a low-cut slip. The slip barely covered her nipples and clung lovingly to her body. The diaphanous overdress kept the outfit from looking vulgar by veiling Iris’s body just enough that her sexuality looked ethereal rather than strident.
“Carlos is a goner,” remarked Jeanne when her sister turned to face her.
“Do you think it’s too revealing?” Iris asked anxiously.
“No child,” Giselle assured her. “A bride should remind her husband he is getting a prize worth winning.” She shrugged, “For a man that includes making him want to bed you. He will look back on his wedding day as being fortunate to marry a beautiful desirable woman.”
The girls picked out six more dresses apiece and then a selection of fine linen nightclothes. Belinda promised to have the wedding gown and traveling clothes for Jeanne sent over by noon the next day. The others she would pack herself and send to the station by tomorrows evening train.
“And yours will be ready by the end of the week, Miss Iris,” she said as she showed her profitable visitors out the door.
Mike Franks had followed the women to Belinda’s establishment. He purchased a newspaper and sat down at an outdoor café across from the dressmakers. By the time the women left the shop, he had been forced to order several cups of coffee. He also annoyed both the owner and his daughter the waitress by getting fresh with her.
When they had finished their business, Belinda sent a runner to find a rickshaw to pick them up so Giselle and her granddaughters would not have to walk back to the hotel.
The rickshaws were faster than a man walking casually, so Franks had to trot to keep them in sight. In the process of tailing them, he managed to enrage several other rickshaw drivers and their passengers by cutting in front of them, forcing them to stop abruptly. Their annoyed shouts and curses drew Giselle’s attention.
“Don’t look now girls, but I think we’re being followed,” she said. Leaning forward, she tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Make a sharp turn at the next corner, and then turn down that alley to the right.”
“But it is a longer way,” the man protested.
“I will pay you the extra charge to do as I ask,” she assured him.
The new route took them into the back of a stable, where she told the driver to turn and start back. “Walk slowly,” she said. About halfway back down the alley, she ordered him to stop and wait.
In a hurry now, Franks was nearly running. As they watched, he dashed past the mouth of the alley, swinging his head back and forth in search of his quarry.
“Is that who I think it is?” Giselle asked Iris.
“Yes, it’s Max Franks.”
“The man from the docks who wanted to accompany us to the hotel,” Jeanne exclaimed.
Iris sighed. “Carlos claimed he was up to no good. I think he might be right.”
They watched Franks for a few minutes as he tried to see where they had gone. Finally, he turned and went back the way he had come.
“Excellent. You may proceed, driver. Go left when we come out of the alley, and then around the block to the hotel.”
“You didn’t warn me you were being followed,” the driver complained. “Is this man dangerous? If he is, I should get paid more.”
Iris laughed, “Not dangerous, just annoying.”
When tired Franks returned to the hotel after several hours of fruitless searching, he was disgusted to find that his targets had returned earlier.
He handed the front desk clerk to take his card up to the suite, and was met with the flat statement that the ladies were tired and not receiving visitors this evening.
Having accomplished his errands, Samuel, now called Tom, joined his fiancée and her family for the quiet dinner Giselle ordered sent up to their rooms.
Franks tried to see Iris again the next day and was denied when he couldn’t produce an invitation to the private event being held. The wedding of Jeanne to Samuel took place in the parlor of the hotel suite.
By the time he followed the four of them to the train depot, he was riding a bad temper. Arms crossed over his chest, he leaned against the depot porch, watching sourly as Jeanne hugged her grandmother and sister goodbye.
Waiting on the platform for the train to pull out, Giselle was hailed by another old acquaintance.
“So your baby sister married Sam Johnson,” Franks drawled as he came up beside Iris.
She looked a little startled, but responded gamely. “I’m afraid you are mistaken. My sister has married a farmer named Tom Clancy.”
“That’s a good line, honey,” he said with a smile, “but I’m pretty well acquainted with the Johnsons and I know the boys by sight.”
Iris was frightened, but she wasn’t Mike St. Vyr’s daughter for nothing. “I can’t help your poor eyesight. The preacher will be filing the papers this afternoon at the registry office. I assure you Jeanne is now Mrs. Tom Clancy.”
She started to turn away, but he caught her arm in a bruising grip. “Don’t run away, little bird. How much is it worth to you for me not to tell Sam’s papa where he’s gone and who his new wife is?”
Iris jerked her arm out of his grasp. “You— ”
“It might be worth something,” Giselle interceded smoothly. “Why don’t you accompany us back to the hotel so we can discuss it?”
“I have nothing to say to you old woman,” Franks sneered, trying to get hold of Iris again, but she stepped back out of his reach. “My business is with your granddaughter here.”
Giselle lifted her shoulders. “If you change your mind, we will be in our suite this evening. Good day, sir. Come Iris.” Slipping her hand through her granddaughter’s elbow, she turned away.
Franks glared at their backs as he heard Giselle give the order to return to the hotel.
“What are we going to do?” Iris whispered. “If he tells Ira Johnson where they went— ”
Giselle patted her arm. “I have a plan. Is he following us?”
Iris cast a quick look back over her shoulder. “He’s trying to get a rickshaw. It doesn’t look as if there’s an open one, though so he’s trying to make a driver take him anyway. Oops! That man in the red shirt just yanked him back out of it. Franks hit him. Here comes the station constable. I think he’s going to be tied up for a while.”
“Excellent, that will take some time if the station guards are involved.” Giselle leaned forward and tapped their driver. “We need to make a stop at the Roman Stable before we return to the hotel.”
Joe Wong, who owned the stable, was a short, tough-looking man about Giselle’s age who greeted her with affection.
“So this is one of your beautiful granddaughters,” he said. “It is a real pleasure to meet so lovely a child.”
“This is Iris, Astrid’s girl. You remember Astrid was my son’s second wife.”
A sad expression crossed his face. “Yes, I believe you wrote Amy that she was killed by raiders. This is a hard land.” He looked at Giselle shrewdly, “But you would not come to the stable unless you needed something. If you only wanted to visit, you would come to the house. What is it you need?”
“I could never fool you or Amy,” Giselle admitted. “We do have trouble, and I’m hoping you can advise me on the best course of action.”
He opened his office door and gestured for them to enter. “Jim!” he called, I do not wish to be disturbed for a time.”
“Okay, boss,” said a tall, skinny kid, cleaning out a stall.
Over cups of heavily sweetened tea, Joe listed in silence while Giselle told him the rest of the story. For several minutes afterward, he sat running a string of beads through his hands. “You know well enough what must be done,” he said. “I don’t do that kind of work anymore. The new identities—that was nothing, but this— ”
She nodded. “I would not ask for myself, but this is for my granddaughter. I know you retired, but I thought you might still have contacts in that world.”
He shook his head. “Not for you. If it is not a killing matter, I might know a couple of rivermen who could use a deckhand. They travel far upriver. They owe me enough of a favor to keep him on their boat for a few months. It’s all I can promise.”
Giselle stood up. “You and Amy are true friends. It is more than enough.”
“I will tell the men to be ready tonight. You are sure he will come to your suite?”
“He’ll come,” Iris stated. “He wants something from me. I think he’ll be there.”
On the way back to the hotel, she asked. “What are you planning?”
Giselle gave her a bland look. “Why to have tea with one of your suitors’ child. You must look especially charming tonight. And do not give in to the desire to smack his face until after he has had his tea.”
“The blue dress darling,” Giselle told Iris when they were back in their suite. “And put a touch of color on your lips and cheeks.”
Iris went to do as instructed, conscious of her grandmother rummaging through her jewel box, selecting the ring she wanted. Iris remembered watching Giselle open that ring once before. This time she added a small amount of white powder to the hollow base.
“It is a form of poppy. It can be distilled and dried into a very strong sedative. The plant and the distilling pattern were shown to me many years ago by Old Cinders. Now remember, your part is to distract him so that he doesn’t see me add this to his tea. It won’t hurt to flirt with him a little.”
When Franks knocked, Lisette opened the door to him, taking his hat and coat.
“Ah, Mr. Franks, how kind of you to join us,” Giselle said with a smile. “Iris has told me so much about you. Please, sit down. I ordered tea to be brought up when you arrived and it should be here shortly.”
There was a second knock, and Lisette admitted a waiter who rolled a tray into the room and made a small business of setting a tray with a small pot, cups and a plate with a variety of finger sandwiches on a low table in front of Giselle, before he bowed himself out.
While her grandmother busied herself pouring tea, Iris smiled at Franks and asked. “It was such a surprise to see you on the boat. What brings you to Junction City, Mr. Franks?”
He eyed her warily, but responded, “Why the pleasure of your company, Miss Iris.”
“Oh, come sir,” she said breathlessly, fluttering her eyelashes at him, “surely you didn’t come all this way just to see me. Why you could have done that back home in River Crossing.”
Lisette made a strangled sound and ducked into Giselle’s bedroom before she laughed aloud. Iris was channeling preacher Meeker’s sister who taught the River Crossing school with deadly accuracy.
“One lump or two, Mr. Franks?” inquired Giselle holding a lump of sweetening in tongs over his cup.
“Ah, just one,” he said, barely glancing at her.
Obliging him, Giselle dropped a single lump into the cup and stirred it with a small spoon. She handed the cup and saucer to Iris who leaned forward to hand the cup to Franks, ensuring he got a good look down her décolletage as she did so, before picking up her own cup and sipping it.
“You really must try these,” Iris said, holding out a small plate with red cookies. “If I had these at home, I declare I’d be as fat as one of my sister’s geese.”
“Thank you,” Franks said, wondering what was going on. Perhaps Iris had simply decided to try to charm him out of reporting the marriage to Old Ira Johnson. It wouldn’t work, but if it made her do what he wanted he was willing to let her think she could convince him not to sell the information to Johnson. Women were there to look at or to use not to make plans or change his course of action.
It wasn’t until he had finished his tea that he began to feel woozy. He threw the cup down and tried to stand, falling back into the chair when his legs gave out. “Bitch!” he hissed. “You’re going to pay for this.”
“Good night Mr. Franks,” Iris said. “I won’t wish you sweet dreams. In fact, I hope you have nightmares.”
Franks eyes closed, and he slid down the chair seat, landing on his knees on the braided rug.
Lisette opened the door to Joe Wong and two burly rivermen. Joe didn’t bother to introduce them. “Over there,” she said, pointing at Franks.
“How long will he be out?” the nearest man rumbled.
“Most of the day and part of tomorrow. I gave him a very strong dose,” Giselle responded. “Thank you Joe. How much do I owe them?”
“Nothing,” Joe said. “They are doing this because they owe me a favor. Remember, you too, this man doesn’t get away until you are as far north as your route takes
One of them stooped and slung Franks dead weight over his shoulder. “We go out the back way the way we came in,” Joe reminded them. He dropped a kiss on Giselle’s cheek. “Amy and I will expect the two of you to dinner tomorrow.”
“We’ll be there. Thanks again Joe.”