Jo Wilson has seen her share of tragedy, but she’s determined to keep her late husband’s bathhouse afloat, even if her all-female staff raises eyebrows. She’s holding her own against the Fraser Springs society ladies’ public scorn, but a handsome new customer poses a different threat.
Bored with writing adventure novels, author Owen Sterling arrives in the tiny Canadian town hoping to launch a serious journalism career with an exposé on the titillating rumors swirling around Wilson’s Bathhouse. But the beguiling Jo is honest and upright and her respectable business is not at all what he expected.
When the town’s small-mindedness lights a literal fire under their feet, Jo and Owen must choose what’s most important: tending to their careers or surrendering to their bubbling emotions.
If Fraser Springs held a dirty looks contest, Mrs. McSheen would be the reigning champion. Josephine Wilson swept the wooden planks of the bathhouse’s porch as she considered the list of other likely entrants. Mrs. McSheen would face stiff competition from the ladies of the First Presbyterian congregation, the Ladies’ Charitable Club, and the Society for the Advancement of Moral Temperance. World-class scowlers, every one. There were probably more societies in this tiny town than there were ladies to fill them. Heavens knew how they found the time to play bridge in between all of the meetings.
It was a beautiful morning. The sharp, mineral tang of the springs felt invigorating in the breeze, not oppressive as it could on a hotter day. The rhododendrons in front of the bathhouse were fat and rosy. There was no reason for scowls. But Mrs. McSheen was intent on showing little Emma McSheen, dressed in a starched white pinafore with a pink sash, how a true lady treats a woman like Josephine.
“Can … may I have a flower?” little Emma asked.
“Any flower grown from this soil is not fit for good little girls such as yourself, dearest,” Mrs. McSheen said, proffering Josephine another of her world-famous sneers as she clomped down the wooden boardwalk towards the general store. “And at any rate, those gaudy red things smell like cheap perfume.”
In the years since her husband died and she took over the bathhouse, Josephine had received more dirty looks than she could count. Scowls, muttered curses, raised eyebrows; someone had even gone so far as to throw a rock through one of her windows. Mostly, however, the townspeople’s outrage took the form of anonymous letters slipped under her door or left in her mailbox. She was a whore, apparently. A harlot. A murderess. A temptress. A jezebel. A “shrew sent from the environs of hell to cast ruin and immorality upon the weak.” (It was clear Fraser Springs had at least one aspiring poet among its citizens.) She called them her love letters and kept them all tied with a red ribbon in the top corner of her husband’s old desk as a daily reminder of how important it was to maintain a thick skin.
But the hot springs looked lovely today. The surface roiled in shades of silver, purple, and blue. Mist swirled in tendrils towards the rocky shore of the lake, and somehow its color made her think of opals. Josephine had never actually seen an opal, but with the hot springs reflecting the sun into pools of light on the boardwalk, it wasn’t hard to imagine. After each day’s work ended, there wasn’t much to do in Fraser Springs besides imagine.
The town was little more than a cluster of wood-framed houses huddled around its namesake hot spring, the rickety structures leaning towards the water like old hens huddling together for warmth. In recent years, a few lucky mining operations and health-seeking tourists had provided the money for a fancy brick bank and the St. Alice Hotel with its marble floors and formal dining room. It was a town at a crossroads, and it was clear which way Mrs. McSheen and her cronies wanted it to go. The improvements had drawn a whole class of respectable women intent on scrubbing out the traces of the Canadian wilderness. Never mind that the town was a seven-hour steamboat ride from Vancouver or that their closest neighbours were bears or that the main patrons of the springs’ bathhouses were still loggers and miners hoping to soothe a year’s worth of aches and injuries.
“Miz Jo, customer!” Ilsa’s call drew Josephine out of her daydreaming. She’d poached Ilsa from a dance hall in Gastown, but though she was no longer earning her living by charming men into buying overpriced drinks, no amount of training could rid her of her sultry voice. She could make an advertisement for dentures sound like a provocation.
When Josephine’s husband had passed away suddenly, the staff he’d spent a lifetime cultivating had taken the next boat back to Vancouver. She had been faced with a choice: close the bathhouse or find new staff as quickly as possible. She’d chosen the latter and assembled a cadre of equally desperate women who she’d trained in the healing art of massage—and massage only. The women were quick learners and keen to start new lives, and the lure of an all-female staff had paid off. Soon, Wilson’s Bathhouse had become so successful that the husbands of the Society Ladies started becoming patrons. Now, however, business was down, and nasty letters were the order of the day.
Jo propped the broom against the wall, pulled off her apron, and tucked a stray curl back into her chignon. Whatever the McSheens of this town might think, her customers would meet a polished and respectable proprietress when they arrived.
She took a breath and straightened her posture. There, that was better. In a business like this, you never knew who was going to be on the other side of the door: maybe an old miner, maybe a local businessman who’d snuck in through the side entrance to avoid suspicion. Either way, Jo was ready.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Laine Ferndale teaches literature and writing to pay for a fairly serious chai latte habit. She lives with her husband and her adorably needy cat. Find Laine Ferndale on Facebook and on Twitter @laineferndale.