San Francisco, California
"In this town, Sarah Jane, a man’s worth is calculated in dollars and cents. Measured by what he has to show for himself . . .” Sarah Whittier clasped her hat against the stiff summer wind and stared up at the four-story building on Montgomery Street, the soaring stone facade and row upon row of arched windows impressive, daunting. Worth a great deal of dollars and cents—a concrete manifestation of Josiah Cady’s oft-repeated saying. Sarah refused, however, to be intimidated by the carved limestone and the windows reflecting the fog-laced California sky. Even though, before Josiah left her a house and a chance, she had once been worth not much more than a plugged nickel.
Sarah sucked in a breath, as deep as her corset would allow, and returned her gaze to the real estate agency’s front door, housed smack-dab in the middle of the courses of gleaming stone. This morning marked the third time she’d come by. Mr. Pomroy would be unhappy to see her again, but she had to se- cure the lease on the Sansome Street storefront. It was the per- fect space for her design studio, and she had promised the girls she would get that lease no matter what. For them, she would work until she dropped and defy the most stubborn man she’d met in California. Opening the shop so each of the girls could have a real chance at a decent future had become her mission. Her sole purpose: to take care of them. They were her family now, after the one she’d been born into had tossed her onto the street.
Mistakes—her terrible mistakes—had proven awfully hard to forgive.
“You goin’ in?” A man from the adjacent business, an insur- ance agency, had come on to the sidewalk to smirk at her. “Or you just gonna stand there and stare at the front door?"
Sarah gave him a tight-lipped smile. “I am going in.” Not that it is any of your business what I do.
His smirk broadened. “I’ve found applying your hand to the doorknob helps.”
“Thanks ever so much.”
The glass in the door rattled when she closed it firmly behind her, drawing a scowl from one of the clerks occupying the front office of Pomroy Real Estate Associates.
“Miss Whittier.” He squinted, his long nose crinkling. “Come to see Mr. Pomroy again?”
The low hum of male voices swelled and chair casters squealed as the men turned to stare, abandoning any pretense of working. Cigarettes smoldered forgotten in fingers; fountain pens halted mid-sentence; ledger pages ceased being flipped. The sandy- blond fellow perched on a stool near the tall windows—if she continued to come here daily, she’d probably learn his name and everyone else’s—elbowed the man seated at his left. They guf- fawed loud enough for Sarah to hear. She ignored them.
“I have an eleven o’clock appointment,” she said.
The clerk with the long nose consulted the logbook atop his desk. “Somehow, you do.”
“Miss Whittier.” Ambrose Pomroy’s voice boomed. He strode through the crowded real estate office, weaving his way between the cluttered desks arrayed like rows of produce wagons at a country market, jostling for prime space. “Here you are once more.”
He made her arrival sound like a visitation of the plague.
“I’ve secured a loan from Mr. Theodore Samuelson. For five hundred dollars.” She showed him the note from Lottie’s father that had delivered the news. Charlotte Samuelson—excellent business partner, better friend—had come through as promised. “And more importantly, I finally have a buyer interested in the property in Placerville that Josiah left to me. It will provide plen- ty of cash to cover my business expenses for several months.”
Mr. Pomroy inspected the letter and then folded his arms. He had the air of a man who was used to assessing, and right then he was assessing her. “You have been hard at work.”
“You said you needed me to provide proof that my studio will have a sound footing, and I have.”
“What you should have done, Miss Whittier, is obtain a part- ner with experience managing a business.” Mr. Pomroy punctu- ated his statement with an arch of his graying right eyebrow. “That store space is a valuable piece of property. I want the right tenant.”
“I am the right tenant.”
“You are a potential tenant. Whether or not you are the right
tenant remains to be determined.”
“Mr. Pomroy,” she said, fixing him with the steely gaze she had taught herself after hours practicing in front of a mirror, “you seem to be under the impression I am going to leave this office to- day without a rental contract. Well, I can tell you this time I—”
He didn’t wait for the rest of Sarah’s sentence. Mr. Pomroy turned on his heel and marched back the way he’d come. Sarah set her chin and chased after him, her half boots tattooing a beat on the polished oak floor.
“Mr. Pomroy,” she called, clutching at the skirts of her striped amber twill dress to keep from tripping on the hem, “you must listen to me.”
He serpentined between stools and trash cans and an errant filing cabinet, the tail of his frock coat flapping against his legs. “I have listened.”
“I am not going to give up today. I promise you.”
A clerk sniggered openly as Sarah passed, affirming that she looked ridiculous, pursuing Mr. Pomroy like a street urchin.
“Turner, back to work,” Mr. Pomroy snapped at the man. “We are trying to make money here, not offer commentary on our clients.”
Sarah’s bustle brushed against the side of a desk, scattering pa- pers and causing another of Mr. Pomroy’s employees to grumble a complaint about women and their proper place. “Might we dis- cuss this matter in private?” she asked. Might we sit down?
“A private discussion will not reduce my concerns about your business venture.” He paused in an aisle and leaned close to emphasize his point, near enough that she could smell the lemon-clove astringency of mouthwash on his breath. “A cus- tom artwork studio run by immigrant women? What do illiter- ate seamstresses and coarse factory girls know about operating a lithograph press or coloring photographs, balancing the books?”
“As I explained yesterday, they will know everything they need to know by the time I have finished training them. They all possess the necessary talent or else I wouldn’t have taken them
on. I’m satisfied we’ll be successful.”
“Be honest with yourself, Miss Whittier,” he said bluntly. “Your enterprise is more of a charity than a business. If you are so keen to have a job, then teach young ladies—ones able to pay a fee—how to paint. A more genteel and respectable occupation than this folly.”
“Mr. Samuelson and the others”—she wished there were more than one or two “others” but she wouldn’t mention that now— “who have offered to support my shop don’t seem to think my artwork studio is a charity.”
“I would not be so certain about their opinions, if I were you.”
He started walking again, leaving the open floor area to stride down a hallway.
Sarah sprinted after him. “My girls need the good jobs this shop will provide them, Mr. Pomroy,” she persisted as sweat col- lected beneath her collar. “I can’t let them down.”
“Your girls are street savvy. They will survive. Their kind do.” Sarah halted. Survive? Would they? Would I have survived, if it weren’t for Josiah? She’d come frighteningly close to paying a ter- rible price for her misdeeds and had far more in common with her girls than Mr. Pomroy need ever know. If he ever did find out
. . . a shudder rolled across Sarah’s shoulders.
“I want those girls to do more than survive. I want them to thrive,” she said to his retreating back. “I don’t know how you can be so indifferent to Josiah’s wishes. You know he wanted this for me. You told him before he died that you would help.”
“Josiah Cady was too sentimental.”
The offhand criticism bit, sharp as a wasp sting. “Is that what you’ve been thinking all along? All these days I’ve been coming here, urging you to lease me that storefront, you’ve been think- ing Josiah was simply overly sentimental? I thought you were his friend.”
He stopped and faced her. Red blotched his neck above his collar.
“It is precisely because we were friends that I am working so hard—unsuccessfully—to convince you to see sense, Miss Whittier, despite what I may or may not have said to Josiah,” he answered. “If those men do not come through with their offers of money and your shop fails, think how that will crush those girls of yours. Young women to whom you’ve promised a great deal. Are you willing to bear their disappointment and upset?”
He was right; they would be crushed and might blame her. She wouldn’t let it happen, though.
“There’s no need to worry, because I will not permit the shop
to fail.” Sarah closed the gap between them and peered into his face. He had to understand. He had to see. “I don’t care what you said about Josiah—he wasn’t being sentimental when he encour- aged me. He was shrewd and you know it.”
“You are very determined.”
“If I intend to be a success, I have to be.”
“Which is why Josiah Cady took to you like a tick to a dog, Miss Whittier.” He softened the assessment with a hasty smile that twitched his mustache.
A spark of hope flickered. “Take a chance with me, Mr. Pom- roy. Six months. Lease me the space for six months, and I will prove to you my shop is a viable business.”
She saw the retreat in his eyes. Her hope bloomed into a flame. He was going to concede; she was going to win.
Sighing, Mr. Pomroy opened the nearest door. His personal office sat hushed in the dim morning sunlight, exhaling the scent of cigars and leather chairs, beeswax polish. “The paperwork is on the desk. Allow me to fill in the necessary details and the shop is yours. For six months.”
The strain she had lived with for weeks, and longer, released from Sarah’s shoulders like a watch spring uncoiling. “Thank you. You won’t regret your decision.”
Sarah swept past her new landlord. After he modified the rental agreement to include her name and the length of the lease, she signed both copies, folding one carefully and tucking it into her reticule.
“Here is the first month’s rent,” she said, handing him the money. Eighty-five dollars. An unimaginable sum not so many years ago.
“You will have a one-week grace period for a missed rental payment, with a fifteen-percent penalty fee. Miss that payment and you will be evicted from the premises,” Mr. Pomroy said, kneeing aside his rolling chair so he could access the center desk drawer. He glanced at her. “You do trust these girls you’ve hired, correct? They are not going to do anything to, shall we say, cast you or your business in a bad light?”
“They may have made bad choices in their pasts, Mr. Pomroy, but I assure you, that is behind them.”
“Good, because after the last disgraceful tenant we had in that space, my partners and I would prefer not to discover the name of a client in the newspapers again.”
“You will not have any trouble from us.” She extended a gloved hand, palm up. She was thankful it didn’t shake. How- ever, she had practiced forgetting her transgressions far longer than she’d practiced her steely-eyed gaze. “So if everything is in order, might I have the keys to the shop?”
“I believe so.” He slid open the drawer and slipped his copy of the paperwork inside. From the same drawer, he extracted two sets of iron keys.
“Front door. Alley door,” he said, identifying each key with a flick of his forefinger. “The next rent payment is due on the twenty-fifth.”
He dropped the keys into her hand. They were heavy and re- assuringly solid, and she closed her fingers tightly around them. “You will see my check on the twenty-fourth. Good morning, Mr. Pomroy. And thank you again.”
“Prove me wrong to worry, Miss Whittier.”
“I shall,” she answered.
Sarah rushed out of the office, past the prying stares of Mr. Pomroy’s clerks, down the narrow hallway. Grinning, she burst through the front door of the building, into the din of Montgom- ery Street. She had done it. She had persisted and won.
You always believed I would, Josiah. Even when I didn’t believe it myself.
While pedestrians rushed by, Sarah gripped her reticule tightly and breathed in the energy of the city. Inhaled the aromas she so strongly associated with San Francisco—the iodine tang of the bay and the metallic sharpness of factory smoke and steam engines, the acrid reek of horse manure and construction dust. The sweet spiciness of food intermingling with the lye from laundries in the Chinese quarter two blocks distant. The warm yeastiness of a bakery.
She stepped back as a flock of tourists scuttled up the sidewalk, bound for the sights of Chinatown with a policeman as guard, eager to peep at vivid red joss houses and opium dens. If he took them farther north, they could venture into the saloons of the Barbary Coast, jangling with piano music and drunken laughter. Sarah watched them disappear around the corner and wondered if they felt the city’s vibrancy too. If they could sense its limit- less possibilities, where people from every walk of life scraped and struggled to be better than they were before they arrived. To become someone new, just like she had done.
“Miss Sarah!” Minnie Tobin hurried along the asphaltum sidewalk, her faded gray dress kicking wide, brown curls bounc- ing beneath her straw bonnet. “Have you done it?”
“Minnie, how did you manage to get here?” She was the first young woman Sarah had plucked from the streets, the ragged daughter of a drunken grocer, a girl with a cheerful disposition, enviable spunk, and a gift for painting. Her father had plans to marry her off to his brutish best friend, consigning her to a life not much better than slavery. But not if Sarah had anything to say about it. “Your father allowed you to leave the grocery early?”
“I snuck out.” Minnie’s grin dimpled her cheeks. “I had to know if we’d got the shop. I couldn’t concentrate on stacking tins of meat, knowing you were down here today, fighting for us.”
“Here is your answer.” Sarah held out the two sets of keys and jingled them. “We have the shop.”
“Oh, thank goodness!” Minnie leaped into Sarah’s arms and hugged her tight, knocking her hat askew. “That’s wonderful!”
“It is wonderful, and an incredible relief.” Sarah extricated herself from Minnie’s grasp and dropped the keys into her reticule. “What do you say . . . chocolate macaroons from Engel- berg’s Bakery as a treat?”
“It’ll have to be quick, if I’m to make it back to the grocery before my pa returns from his lunch. Don’t want him to find me gone.” Minnie’s voice conveyed her dread.
“Then quick it shall be.”
Buoyant, Sarah planted one hand atop her hat, clutched Min- nie’s arm with the other, and strutted down Montgomery.
“Miss Charlotte will be pleased about the shop,” Minnie said as they paused at the intersection, waiting for a cable car to col- lect its passengers and make the turn, clearing the roadway.
“Lottie never doubted I would be able to convince Mr. Pomroy to lease us the space.” But then Lottie had endless faith, far more than Sarah could ever claim. Enough to convince her father to invest in the shop against his lawyer’s wary nature.
“I never doubted, either, Miss Sarah,” said Minnie, her nut- brown eyes full of trust.
Sarah’s heart constricted. I will never let these girls down. Not a one. “Thank you.”
“ ’Welcome, miss,” Minnie replied with a dimpled smile. “What’s next?”
“Tomorrow I plan to go to the storefront and make a list of any necessary repairs.” A lengthy list already existed in her head, but she had been too superstitious to commit it to paper. “Then I’ll make down payments on the equipment we need—first and foremost the lithograph press—take you and the others to see the space, and begin tidying and organizing. In a week, the first of our supplies should arrive. We can start to move in then.”
“That’s so exciting, I think I’m gonna burst!”
“Please don’t, because I need you whole,” Sarah teased.
The cable car clanged up the road, and they hurried across the cobbles.
“I predict Whittier and Company Custom Design Studio will be a roaring success,” Minnie proclaimed with a dramatic wave of her forefinger. “Because if anyone can do it, you can, Miss
“If anyone can do it, we can.” Sarah squeezed the girl’s arm. “Remember that.”
Minnie giggled and Sarah joined in, the sound of their care- free laughter snatched by the breeze swirling along the street, carried off with the fog lifting into the blue, blue skies. Their spirits lighter than a bubble floating.
And hopefully not, thought Sarah with a shiver, just as fragile.