This fic, a prequel/companion piece for the Set Fire to the Rain series, was inspired in large part by Natalie Merchant's haunting tune, "My Skin," and the chapter titles are taken from the lyrics. Many thanks to singerme who encouraged me when I was afraid I couldn't do the serious subject matter justice. This story is intended for mature audiences.
Kitty Russell trembled as she numbly pulled up her pantaloons and lowered her skirts, straightening painfully to face the battered, cheap dresser that Hank Thompson had unceremoniously bent her over while he took what he wanted. She was vaguely aware of the noises from the street down below, the sounds of bustling Jefferson City—horse-drawn wagons, men shouting, dogs barking. Common trollops, hawking their "wares." A sob hitched in her chest, but she willfully choked it back. Attempting in vain to stop shaking, she still couldn't look Hank in the face. She could hardly stand to look at her own face in the mirror before her, she was so ashamed and utterly degraded. Common trollop, the girl in the mirror bitterly spat back at her.
A sharp rap at the door to her room made her jerk, and Hank, buttoning his pants, answered roughly, "Come in…"
Cole Yankton strolled in. "Did she do all right for ya', Hank?" He squinted as he puffed at his cigarette.
"Yeah, sure, Cole…" Reaching into his pants pocket, Hank pulled out some money, slapping it into Cole's outstretched hand. "I gotta go now. I'll see ya' later, alright? Maybe at the saloon?"
"Okay, Hank." Cole shook Hank's hand and looked earnestly into his eyes. "Anytime now, you hear? Just come see me."
Hank gave a knowing half-smile as he tucked in his shirt. "Thanks, Cole. I'll do that."
Hank left, glancing quickly over his shoulder at the pretty young redhead he'd just had for a price. The door clicked shut hollowly.
Kitty felt hollow inside. She turned to her lover, the man she'd thought would marry her someday. "Cole?" Her eyes were haunted.
Cole refused to look into those blue eyes. "See, Kitty? That wasn't so bad, was it? What'd I tell you? It's easy money."
She reached out trembling arms for him, and he enfolded her in his embrace, patting her back. "I've just had a streak of bad luck. It's gotta turn soon, I promise, Kitty." She laid her head on his shoulder. "The money you made today will get me a stake in a game. I feel like a winner tonight."
He grasped her shoulders and pulled away from her. "There's a game at the Lucky Lady. I'm going down there now and make sure I get in. You'll be alright here by yourself, won't you?" Cole didn't wait for an answer. He headed for the door, putting on his hat, then as an afterthought reached in his pocket and threw a couple of coins on the bureau. "Go get you somethin' to eat. See ya' later, darlin'."
Cole Yankton disappeared, and Kitty sat on the bed alone listening to the clock on the wall ticking loudly, tears streaming silently down her face. What have I done, she thought. Whatever have I done?
It was Kitty's birthday. She put on her prettiest dress, the one Cole said matched the color of her eyes, fixed her hair up on top of her head so she'd look older and more sophisticated, and even applied lip rouge, which Cole had insisted she start wearing whenever he began asking her to…to meet his friends and acquaintances up in their room. He said it made her look older and prettier, too.
Cole was going to marry Kitty. Someday soon, he promised. Just as soon as he'd made enough money. He'd found her in New Orleans, fatherless, motherless, with no prospects. Having someone fuss over you like that, Kitty thought, was a wondrous feeling. Why, she'd never had a man take care of her before. She'd never even met her father. So meeting Cole was a godsend.
She'd been a substitute dealer at a game in Panacea Sykes' place one night when Pan was short-handed. After Kitty's poor mother had died, Pan had taken Kitty in and taught her everything she knew. Like how to deal cards. Cole showed up at that game and had apparently been quite taken with the striking young girl with fiery hair and nimble fingers. He'd made it his mission to sweep her off her feet. Evidently it had worked, because Kitty had slipped out of Pan's house in the middle of the night to run away with Cole Yankton and be married. Only, the marriage part hadn't come yet. Cole kept coming up with reasons why they couldn't do it just yet. So Kitty waited patiently.
Just like now. She sat on the edge of the bed, fluffing the dainty frills on her dress, and glanced up at the clock. He should have been home by now. He'd promised to take her out to a nice supper. She wondered excitedly if he'd gotten her a present. This was the first birthday they'd celebrated together, so she didn't know if he'd splurge on such a thing or not.
Especially since they didn't have much money. In fact, about the only income they'd earned lately was when Cole brought those awful men up to see her. She didn't know what else to do when he did. She couldn't refuse him. Cole wasn't making any money at the tables. They'd likely starve if she didn't earn them a little cash. And his luck had to change soon. She just knew it would. He promised it would. And then she wouldn't have to raise her skirts for Cole's friends anymore.
She stood up to look at her hair in the mirror again, smoothing the curls around her face, straightening her hat. The doorknob rattled and Cole stepped through the door. Her face lit up as she looked at his reflection in the mirror. "Cole! You're home! I was beginning to get worried…" Her expression fell when another figure walked into the room behind him. She'd never seen this man before. He looked shy, his head downcast, hat clutched in his sweaty hands.
"Kitty, darlin', I've brought you a visitor. We needed a little extra money for tonight, and Tom here's…"
"Alright, Cole," she interrupted quickly. "I'll do it. You wait outside."
She silently removed her hat and gloves and laid them on the dresser, not looking into the strange man's face. She didn't want to know what he looked like, in case she ever met him again on the street…
It was three in the morning and Kitty lay wide awake fully dressed on top of the bedcovers. Cole wasn't home yet. She'd finished her shift dealing at the Lucky Lady hours ago. Cole had talked the owner into taking her on for a few hours a week to help pay back Cole's debts. She was a pretty good dealer, or so she'd been told, and Cole was pleased because more men got to see his pretty girl when they came into the saloon each night. It made for more business deals for him to take up to their room later.
Kitty had gotten so she lived in fear of hearing the door latch click open. She never knew if he'd come home alone and inebriated to the gills after an evening of bad luck at cards, or accompanied by a strange man he expected her to lift her skirts for, just so they could put food in their mouths the next day. She couldn't stand lying here listening to the clock tick any longer. She was worried he was passed out cold in the Lucky Lady.
Kitty jumped off the bed at last, straightening her dress and hair and hurrying downstairs and up the street toward the saloon where Cole spent most of his time. She dodged soggy drunks and filthy puddles in the street, remnants from an earlier evening downpour. Wrenching her arm away from a well-dressed dandy who tried to proposition her, she scurried in the direction of the saloon.
She heard Cole before she saw him, his distinctive, easy laugh carrying down the dark alley just ahead of her. But something was wrong. She heard a female voice laughing too. Kitty's chest clenched tight and her breath grew shallow as she marched toward the disembodied voices. Now she could hear them moaning in the darkness. Her boots were getting drenched as she now splashed heedlessly through dirty puddles toward the sound. She rounded the corner into the alley and there they were, going at it against the brick wall of a saddle shop.
The girl looked young, very young. Younger than Kitty. Kitty froze in her tracks and gasped. Cole and his lover stopped and jerked their heads her way. The girl, with long black hair and black eyes to match, hurriedly shook down her skirts and hid behind Cole. Fastening his pants, Cole gave Kitty a cautious, lazy grin. "Hey darlin'," he drawled. "What're you doin' out so late?"
She honestly didn't know what to say. Her heart sank in her chest, and her mouth opened, but no words came out.
The black-haired girl tugged at Cole's sleeve. "That her, Cole?"
Cole quickly shushed her, and a smug smile came over Cole's face as he spoke soothingly. "Aw, Kitty darlin', you know I love ya'…."
The young girl spoke sharply, her face pouting, "But, Cole, you love me! You told me so!"
Cole put his finger on the girl's lips and stepped closer to Kitty. "Come on, darlin', it won't happen again, I promise."
Kitty's face hardened. She stepped between the girl and Cole, her voice low and bitter, "Did he tell you he was gonna' marry you, too?" She raised a reproving brow and the girl shrank back. Kitty spat out, "Well, don't believe it for a second, sister. You'd better run while you can. Before you end up just…like…me."
A slap rang out as Kitty struck Cole across the face. Kitty marched back down the street toward their room, and never looked back at Cole Yankton.