Kitty winced as she sat across from her boss. She twirled one of her blonde curls around her finger, trying not to pull out the hair as her nerves fluttered in her stomach. She didn’t know why she was nervous. After all, she was almost certain that she knew why her boss had called her into his office.
Kitty had been working for Tommy for the past three months, serving drinks and food to the patrons. It seemed like an easy enough job, but that had not been the case for Kitty. She’d gone from bad to worse. Kitty didn’t know anything about tending a bar. It was actually much more complex than just pouring drinks and bringing food. Often, she spilled drinks on the counter, or sometimes, even on patrons. The glasses were extremely heavy, and the bottles seemed to drop through her fingers. In fact, Kitty had dropped nearly every glass that Tommy owned, and she just didn’t seem to be very good at her job no matter how hard she tried.
“I’m sure that you know why I wanted the two of us to talk,” Tommy said. He looked away uncomfortably, and Kitty tried to suppress a smile as she looked at the older man.
He reminded her of her uncle, and so she would always have a soft spot in her heart for him, especially since he’d been so calm and patient with her.
Tommy was a good man, and he’d taken a chance on her, which was why Kitty was going to put him out of his misery. She did not see the need to drag any of this out any longer.
“It’s all right,” she said, giving him a smile so that he would know that she held no ill will toward him. “I know that you can’t keep me on.”
Tommy exhaled, and the tension in his shoulders lessened slightly. He ran a hand through his thick gray hair. It was clear that he had been dreading this conversation, which Kitty appreciated. “I like you. You are a nice girl, and I am sure that you would be great at another position, but I just can’t afford to lose any more glasses.” He sighed as though the words were difficult for him to get out.
Kitty laughed lightheartedly. She did not wish to make Tommy feel worse about letting her go, so she pretended that she was fine with his decision. It wasn’t as though she had a choice. She’d been terrible at the job, and they both knew it. That didn’t mean that she wanted to be fired. All day, she’d been doing her best to keep her panic at bay.
Just a little longer, she thought as she worked to formulate her response.
“I appreciate the chance that you gave me. It’s not your fault that I’m not a dabster when it comes to slinging drinks.”
Tommy looked at her with pitying eyes. He knew that she needed the job. It had been the only one she could find in the summer when Tucson had become flooded with men and women from back East looking to make some money before heading out to find their fortunes in California.
The likelihood of finding a job now that it was fall was better, but it would be challenging.
“I can give you a reference to somewhere else,” he told her. “You weren’t much of a waitress, but you are a hard worker, and I’m sure that you’d be good at something else.”
Kitty sighed. She didn’t think any other tavern would take her. She was sure that her inability to properly serve a drink was legendary. After all, Kitty was sure that she’d dropped a drink in the lap of every man in Tucson.
That left her with few options these days. She might be able to find work as a maid, but a lot of grand houses and inns didn’t pay as much. Women tended to stay in those jobs much longer than the men who came to town seeking adventure before promptly moving on.
But Tommy didn’t need to know any of that.
“There’s no need,” Kitty told him as she slipped off her chair. She did not want to spend any more time in his presence. Looking at him made her sad. She had really liked working for Tommy, and it was a shame that she’d been a disaster. “I think that I might look for other employment. Perhaps, someone in town needs a nanny or a maid.”
Kitty doubted it. She’d been let go from her job taking care of children when the family had moved to California, which seemed to be what most families in Tucson were doing. Even those with wealth were desperate to find gold.
“Well,” Johnny stood up and held his hand out to her. “You are always welcome in here. As a patron, of course.”
Kitty shook Johnny’s hand. She appreciated his kindness. He really had tried to make her a better waitress. She’d simply been untrainable, which was odd considering that Kitty was what might be called a natural caregiver.
She’d thought that working in the tavern would be a perfect fit for her, but she’d soon come to realize the physicality of the position, and her lack of grace and skill became obvious.
As Kitty walked out of the tavern and into the sun, she took a deep, steadying breath of the cool fall air. It was September in Arizona, and the weather was comfortably warm. It was too bad that wasn’t enough to make Kitty’s mood change.
Normally, Kitty thought that a little bit of sunshine was all a person needed to cure whatever ailed them, but today, she didn’t think that anything could turn her mood around.
She’d tried her best not to make Tommy feel bad for having to let her go, but she was devastated. She needed her tavern job, especially now, that her aunt and uncle were getting older.
They wouldn’t be able to work for too many more years, and Kitty knew that they would look to her to support them. After all, they’d taken care of her when she’d needed them most. It was only right that she did the same in return.
Kitty felt dejected as she walked the busy streets of Tucson. The streets were filled with women shopping for wares and men who were grabbing a bit to eat in-between work shifts. The sounds of the street were lively as people shouted their hellos to one another, and girls giggled as they gossiped with friends.
Kitty had lived in Tucson since she was a young girl of ten. She’d been born in Colorado, but after her parents passed, she’d been sent to live with her aunt and uncle. Her mother had grown up in Arizona, but she had gone north to Colorado upon her marriage. When she’d passed, Kitty had to go to her aunt, her only living relative. Being in Arizona had been difficult at first, but she’d quickly adjusted, grateful that her aunt and uncle had been willing to take her in, especially since they had their own daughter to care for.
They hadn’t had much at the time—they still didn’t—but they’d been willing to take what they did have and share it with her. It was why Kitty was determined to repay them in some sort of way. She wanted them to know of her gratitude.
Kitty flicked a tear from her face and lifted her chin. There was no use in crying. What was done was done, and now, she needed to do her best to find new employment.
She sighed at the thought. She’d had several jobs over the last year, and she was unable to find gainful, long-term employment. Things either paid a wage that was too low, or they were only looking for someone for a short time, knowing that there would be more people coming to town who would work for lower wages.
For those who lived in Tucson and were just trying to eek a life out for themselves, the lack of employment was exhausting.
People were leaving because of the gold rush, and those who were staying were there to find work themselves. Tucson was transient. It was only a stop that many people made before they went off to find their wealth in California.
Those who did live in town all seemed to own something. A tavern. An inn. A general store. Kitty felt as though people like her, and her family were being left behind. Sometimes, she wondered if she should leave and try and find employment elsewhere. Many young men and women did just that.
But Kitty loved her town, and the thought of being forced to move somewhere new, without friends or family, made her heart ache.
No, she thought. I will continue my search here. It’s the only way.
“Katherine!” a voice called out, and Kitty felt a hand on her arm. The feeling startled her.
She turned quickly, ready to tell off whoever had grabbed ahold of her without her permission. She found herself surprised to see Mr. Fisk standing behind her.
“Mr. Fisk!” Kitty exclaimed, surprised that he would be speaking to her. She wasn’t surprised that he was using her given name, which she hadn’t heard since she was a girl. No one called her Katherine except her aunt when she was scolding her. Mr. Fisk was the type of man who would not pay attention to things like nicknames. He always addressed her by her Christian name, no matter how many times she’d corrected him.
Over the years, she’d simply come to expect it from him.
“I’m so glad that I came upon you.”
Kitty looked at Mr. Fisk in surprise. His face was red, and he was pressing a cloth to his damp forehead to mop up the sweat that had started to bead on his brow. It was obvious that he had exerted himself to catch up with her.
“You are?” she asked.
Kitty was surprised. Mr. Fisk was one of the founding members of the town, and because of that, he was well-known in a way that her family wasn’t. They were connected because her family saw his around town, and her aunt helped his wife run the children’s classes.
In the past, Mr. Fisk wouldn’t be able to pick her face out of a crowd, but a year ago, Kitty had applied to be the schoolmistress. Mr. Fisk ran the local school, and Kitty had been desperate for the position.
Working at the school was Kitty’s dream, but she’d been passed over for a woman who went to finishing school in New York and had come west when her family had lost their fortune. Kitty had seen the woman in town, and she seemed nice enough, but Kitty had resented Mr. Fisk slightly for not giving her a chance, especially since she’d lived in the town for most of her life.
The young woman might have been more accomplished, Kitty could not speak upon that, but she did feel as though Mr. Fisk passed her over because the woman came from a specific type of family, and that family looked more like his than her own did. They would be wealthy, and those young women would have attended finishing schools. While Kitty’s family wasn’t poor, it was required that she earn a wage, and so she’d never had the opportunity to do more schooling, especially not the fancy kind.
It had angered Kitty, not that she would ever say anything to him. Kitty was not confrontational.
“Are you still interested in becoming the schoolmistress?” Mr. Fisk asked. He was huffing and puffing as he spoke, and for a moment, Kitty thought that perhaps she had misheard him.
Kitty’s mouth fell open in shock, and it took her mind a moment to catch up to what Mr. Fisk was saying. She tried not to get her hopes up. She didn’t know why Mr. Fisk was asking this question, and if it wasn’t to offer her the position, she was going to be crushed, especially today when she’d lost her job.
Mr. Fisk didn’t pause before he continued, which Kitty appreciated, even though he hadn’t given her a moment to answer his question.
“The latest girl has gone off and found herself a husband. He’s a cattle rancher, so she’s moving to Texas.” He threw his hands up in frustration as though her marriage had been a specific affront to him.
“And you’d like to know if I’d be willing to take the position?” she asked hesitantly. Kitty wanted Mr. Fisk to spell his request out to her before she got her hopes lifted. Kitty was too sensitive today, and she would crumble if Mr. Fisk did not mean to give her the position.
Mr. Fisk released a heavy breath of frustration. He was an older man, and he did not seem to have a thimble of patience left.
“Of course, that is what I’m asking!” he exclaimed. “Why else would I be running all over town trying to track you down? I do have other things to do.”
Kitty bit the inside of her lip to stop herself from laughing at his frustration. Serves him right, she thought, though she felt terrible the moment she did so. Kitty did not think of herself as a malicious person. She always tried to be fair. Yes, it hurt that Mr. Fisk had denied her the job, but it wasn’t the children’s fault, and if they didn’t have a schoolteacher, they weren’t able to learn.
Kitty didn’t follow the news about the schoolhouse very closely, considering that she did not have children of her own, but she knew that over the last few years, Mr. Fisk had struggled to keep the schoolhouse open, which made many of the parents very angry with him.
“So?” Mr. Fisk asked, pressing the issue and interrupting her thoughts. “Do you want the position or not?”
Kitty nodded enthusiastically. She tried not to appear too excited in case Mr. Fisk thought her mannerisms ill-suited for the position, but it was a challenge. She felt as though she just discovered a great deal of gold.
“I do,” she said.
“Fantastic,” Mr. Fisk said, clapping his hands together.
Kitty felt her heart beating quickly in her chest as she tried to keep her excitement at bay. Though he’d offered her the position, Kitty knew that he could take it away from her just as quickly, which she didn’t want. Mr. Fisk was a very finicky man, and she did not wish to upset him in any way.
“Is this just temporary until you find a new girl?” She did not wish to press her luck, but she needed to know. If this was temporary, she would need to continue looking for a new position.
Mr. Fisk was well known for liking schoolmistresses who’d served as governesses or had experience with wealthy families back East. Kitty heard that he placed ads in newspapers in New York City to find accomplished young women who were looking for a little bit of independence and adventure.
Kitty did not fit into what Mr. Fisk preferred, which was why he had passed her up the first time she’d vied for the position.
The problem was that most of those women ended up finding husbands not too long after taking up the position and moved on, or they would realize that the West wasn’t for them, and they returned home to their families.
Mr. Fisk released a heavy exhale. His face was red from the sun, and Kitty suspected that he wanted nothing more than to get into the shade. Kitty couldn’t blame him. He was wearing a thick overcoat that looked to be made of a rich fabric that probably wasn’t the best for the still warm weather. “You can have the position for as long as you’d like it.”
Kitty felt her eyes widen in surprise. Just a year ago, Mr. Fisk told her that he didn’t think that the position was for her because she lacked the refinement and formal education required. Now, he was telling her that she could have the position if she wanted it and for as long as she wished.
It was incredibly odd, and the confusion must have shown on her face. Kitty suspected that he must have been desperate.
“All of these interviews have exhausted me and taken me away from my business. At least with you, I don’t have to worry about you rushing off to marry.”
Kitty would have been offended by his words if they weren’t true. She was unlikely to marry. At twenty-three, she was heading into spinsterhood, and she was comfortable in that knowledge.
“You won’t be disappointed!” she exclaimed. “I promise that I will ensure that everything is shipshape.”
Mr. Fisk appeared relieved. “Wonderful,” he said. “You start on Monday. I will bring you the keys for the schoolhouse on Sunday during church. Be sure to come to my pew.”
Kitty nodded enthusiastically. She would happily go to his pew.
“I’m glad we were able to solve this problem. Now, I must go. My grandchildren are coming over this evening, and I must grab them a sweet treat.”
Kitty suppressed a smile as they said their goodbyes. Mr. Fisk could be an abrupt man, but it was well-known that he adored his family, especially his grandchildren. They were the reason that he had started the schoolhouse in the first place. They were nearly grown now, but he was often seen giving them sweet treats.
Before Mr. Fisk took it over, the schoolhouse had been too small for the growing town. It had been created when there was just a small number of children in the town, and over the years, the small structure had started to fall apart.
Now, it was a beautiful white structure that could house almost fifty children. Kitty’s stomach turned at the thought. She couldn’t imagine overseeing fifty children. The thought was scary but exhilarating as well.
As Kitty walked home, she felt a renewed sense of hope. Today had begun terribly, and she’d thought that she would be returning home to tell her aunt and uncle that she would not be able to bring in an income this month.
Instead, an act of pure luck meant that she had received her dream position. She smiled as she thought about Mr. Fisk’s words. Another woman might have been offended that Mr. Fisk only gave her the position because she was unlikely to marry, but Kitty wasn’t upset.
She knew that she wasn’t likely to find a match. Firstly, she had no wealth. She was an orphan who relied on the charity of family, and the little bit of extra money her aunt and uncle had been able to save over the years would likely go to their own daughter—Tori.
Tori and Kitty were the best of friends, but also, you could not find two different women. Tori was tall and lovely, with pure blonde hair and deep blue eyes. Her beauty was highlighted by her charming nature.
It wasn’t that Kitty was an ugly duckling. She was just more homely when compared to her vibrant cousin. Kitty was much shorter, lacking the curves that Tori had. Her blonde hair was tinged red in the sun, and freckles dotted her nose. Her eyes weren’t as blue, and she was too shy for anyone to be impressed by her personality.
Next to Tori, Kitty looked plain and simple, and she was fine with that. She never wished to be the standout. Kitty liked her position, which was behind her exuberant cousin.
Unlike Tori, who loved to be the center of attention, Kitty absolutely hated eyes upon her. Whenever that happened, she wanted nothing more than to crawl back into her bed and hide.
It was difficult to charm a man when you blushed at the very idea of speaking with one.
Kitty sighed as she thought about her cousin. It didn’t matter. What she wanted was to be useful, and being the schoolmistress was as useful of a position that a woman could hope to have in the town.
Kitty would certainly love to marry. She adored children, and she wanted nothing more than to have a few of her own. But that wasn’t her lot in life, and she was all right with that. She was not the type of woman who would cry over such a thing. She was much too practical.
Kitty would work, and her cousin would marry.
Kitty practically skipped on her way home. She might not marry, but she would help to guide the children of Tucson, and Kitty couldn’t think of a greater life than that.
Peter’s office was so dark that he had to squint as he looked at his ledgers. The office had plenty of windows, but Peter had the blinds drawn, along with heavy, velvet curtains to block out the light.
The thought of the Arizona sun streaming into his office made his eyes squint and his head ache. If he hoped to get any work done, then he needed darkness.
He was in no mood to see the outside. The darkness enveloped him, providing the comfort that he needed.
In his office, he didn’t have to pretend, not that he’d been very good at that lately, but that didn’t matter. He had a hotel to run and if he wasn’t careful, he was going to run it into the ground. Sometimes, he wished he could.
The only thing that kept him from walking away from everything that he owned was his daughter, Mae.
The hotel, named the Paradise, had once been a premier destination for wealthy men, women, and families who were heading out West. Some of the patrons lived in the hotel for months on end, enjoying the luxury rooms and the amenities that they couldn’t find elsewhere.
The West might have been developed, but for wealthy people, there was still a lack of accommodations that Peter had filled as quickly as he saw it.
When a man went to New York, he had ample hotels to choose from, especially if he had the money to buy the best accommodations. Out West, it was difficult enough to find a clean, safe, and comfortable inn. Peter had decided that he was going to change that, and that was why he had created the Paradise.
Outside of his daughter, the Paradise had been Peter’s crowning achievement.
A year ago, the place had been lively and fun. When Peter walked out, he would be greeted by happy, smiling faces. They’d been doing so well that he had thought about expanding and building a larger ballroom to host events.
He’d made a name for himself, which was what he’d always desired. Like many men, he had come out West to make his fortune, but unlike many, Peter had been able to do just that.
He sighed as he thought about the past. Things had been so different a year ago, and no one would have caught Peter sitting in a dark office in the middle of the day.
But that was last year, before his wife passed.
Peter sighed and pressed his fingers to his eyelids. He was trying his best to keep his mind on the problems at hand, but it was difficult to care. Being in his office reminded him of the life he used to lead. He’d been a successful man with a lovely wife who was pregnant with their second child after giving him a beautiful daughter.
That had all come crashing down upon him in just a matter of moments, and Peter lost almost everything that he cared about.
A knock on the door brought Peter’s attention back. He sighed and threw the ledger down on the desk. He wanted to ignore the knock, but he knew that he couldn’t. He rarely dragged himself away from his suite of rooms, and when he did, he knew that he needed to pretend to be working.
Peter also suspected that whoever was at the door would just track him to his rooms if he did not answer. These days, no one came looking for him unless it was important.
“Come in,” he said, his voice sounding hoarse from disuse. He hadn’t spoken in hours, and when he did speak, it was often just a word here or there.
Peter’s right-hand man, Ira Howard, walked into the room. He was dressed well in a dark suit. His cravat was expertly tied, and his hair was slicked back from his face. Peter would have felt ridiculous in the same room with him if he’d had the energy to care.
“Boss,” Ira said as he walked inside. Peter had to hand it to him, Ira was able to keep his facial expressions neutral even when he was angry. Peter knew that Ira was fed up with his behavior, but he hid it as well as he could. “I’m glad to see you in your office today.”
“Really?” Peter asked. “I don’t know why. It’s not like I’m much use these days.” Peter wasn’t trying to get his friend’s pity. It was just the truth. “You’ve been doing very well in my absence.”
Ira gave him a small smile. “I’ve been doing the best that I can, but I don’t have your talent for things.”
Ira was right. Peter knew that he wasn’t just saying that as a compliment. Ira meant it. They were each best at something, which is why they’d always worked so well together.
Ira was a very logical man who was good with ledgers and keeping things organized, but he lacked creative thought. It was why Peter had to drag himself out of his rooms and down to his office. Some things Ira could not handle. Not just because he wasn’t the boss, but because he wasn’t sure how to seek a solution.
Not that Peter felt very confident in finding solutions. These days, mired in grief, Peter sometimes struggled to find the will to even care about something like the hotel.
The only reason he continued was because of his daughter. The hotel would one day be hers, and Peter intended for it to be as lucrative as he could keep it.
Though, at the moment, that didn’t matter. Ira wouldn’t have sought him out unless he wanted to talk about something of importance.
“The ledgers are well-done,” Peter said. He didn’t comment on the fact that the last few months had been light. They weren’t doing as poorly as they had when they’d first opened, and people did not yet know of them, but they were barely half full. With Peter in mourning, the hotel wasn’t running as it had once been.
There was no music or parties. There was nothing drawing anyone to the place. It had become just like any other hotel—maybe a little bigger and cleaner but nothing special.
He’d lost the magic he’d once had. It was obvious for anyone to see.
“Did you see the information I compiled for you?” Ira asked, gesturing to the stacks of papers that had been left on Peter’s desk.
Peter pressed a finger to his temple, trying to massage out the headache that he could feel forming.
Ira’s polite mask broke slightly, and Peter watched irritation flash over his face. “Marcus Brown has been coming around. It looks like he might be talking to some of the patrons, trying to make business deals…” Ira trailed off as his anger started to get the better of him.
“I’m well familiar with our friend,” Peter told him, unbothered. “This isn’t the first time that he’s been after me.”
The irritation settled in Ira’s eyes. It was subtle, but Peter had known Ira for many years and could easily pick up on it.
If things had been more normal, Peter wouldn’t have blamed him for his irritation.
Not only was the hotel underperforming, but now, one of Peter’s oldest enemies had popped his head over the foxhole, and he was armed to try and blow Peter’s Paradise right off the map. Unlike all the other times he’d tried to destroy Peter, this time Marcus might succeed.
“He’s gaining steam,” Ira said. “I’ve heard that he’s gone to the bank to take out a loan.”
Peter chuckled. “There’s no amount of money that Marcus could offer me that would cause me to sell this place to him. Besides, who is going to give him a loan? He’d got nothing.”
Marcus Brown had been Peter’s nemesis since he’d come to Arizona nearly a decade ago. It had begun when Peter and Marcus had tried to court the same woman—who ended up becoming Peter’s wife. Marcus was a suspected fortune hunter, and Peter’s late wife, Abigail, had come from a wealthy ranching family.
Her father had left her a large dowry, which Abigail and Peter had used to start the hotel. It had been their shared dream, which is why it was so hard for him now. He saw parts of her everywhere, even in the fabric of the curtains that Abigail had picked out.
Peter had fallen in love with her at first sight. She’d been soft and delicate, and he’d wanted nothing more than to protect her from the world. She’d lived a charmed life, and Peter was sure that her father only allowed her to marry Peter because he promised to provide her with the life that she deserved, and he had, until her death, of course.
Despite Abigail being the kindest person, she hadn’t cared for Marcus. From their first meeting, it became clear that Marcus hadn’t cared about Abigail. He’d only wanted her money, and luckily, he’d been unable to hide it.
But Marcus hadn’t taken losing lightly, and he’d been nipping at Peter’s heels ever since. He wasn’t always obvious about it, and for the most part, he kept his distance.
“You’ve mentioned selling the hotel before,” Ira said, breaking Peter out of his thoughts of the past. “I’m asking that you tell me before you do that.”
Peter sighed and closed the ledger that he’d been pretending to read. He’d looked at the numbers, which felt like all he could do today. “I have no intention of selling at this time.”
He’d thought about selling it and returning home to his family. Peter had a brother in the Carolinas, and when Abigail had died, he thought that maybe he would return with Mae.
But he’d been unable to leave. Like it or not, the hotel was their home, and he knew that Abigail would want Mae brought up in it.
Ira exhaled loudly, and Peter could sense his friend’s frustration growing.
“The hotel isn’t doing as well as it once was,” Peter admitted. A year ago, saying such a thing would have felt like a knife in the gut, but now, Peter was completely saturated in pain, and the thought of his hotel going under barely made him feel a twinge. “Perhaps, it would be better for everyone involved if we sell.”
Though it was the last thing Peter wanted, he couldn’t ignore how difficult it had been for him to keep the place running as it once had been.
“It wouldn’t be good for all of the people who rely on this job to feed their families.”
Peter’s shoulders sagged. The responsibility for those who worked for him was another thing that kept him from closing the hotel or selling to anyone, including Marcus. He cared for his employees, and his own family still needed an income to ensure that his daughter was well-taken care of.
As though she were summoned by his thoughts, Mae, Peter’s six-year-old daughter, ran into his office. The sight of her brought a tired smile to his face. Mae was the apple of her father’s eyes, and seeing her was always a bright spot in his day.
She rushed into the dark room with his mother trailing behind her. Her strawberry blonde hair was plaited in two long braids that Peter assumed his mother had fixed for her.
He hadn’t even tried to style her hair. When Abigail was alive, he’d tried to learn how to plait, and it had been terrible. She’d brushed out the knots in Mae’s hair for almost a full day. He smiled as he remembered that day. These days, the only time when he smiled was when he thought about the past. Living in the present was difficult for Peter.
His mother had been the only family member who’d come to Arizona after his wife’s passing, and he was grateful for her presence. She’d originally come to town planning to only stay for a few weeks, but when she realized how ill-equipped he was to take care of a little girl, she’d decided to stay for longer. Her presence was one of the only reasons that he’d been able to stay in Arizona. Without her, Peter didn’t think that he would be able to care properly for Mae.
His mother had been helping him, and Peter would always be grateful to her.
“Look at my new dress.” Mae twirled around, showing Peter a dress that he didn’t recognize, though that didn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, Peter didn’t know which dresses were new or old. Luckily, Mae was old enough to dress herself, and when she needed help, his mother would come to assist—just another way in which she helped him.
“Lovely,” he said, giving her a smile. It felt like more of a wince. Peter was starting to wonder if he knew how to smile any longer.
Whenever he looked at Mae, he saw her mother, and as much as he adored Mae, it always stole his breath for a moment. Her light brown hair was starting to get lighter, like her mother’s had, and her heart-shaped face and round cheeks, while still plump with baby fat, were the same shape as Abigail’s. She reminded him of the life he was supposed to have, and the pain that came with that made it difficult to be around her.
Though he would never say that to her, and he would continue to do everything he could to make her happy. Mae was the only thing in his life that mattered to him.
“I’m going to wear it to school.” She beamed up at him with pride, and he knew that she was waiting for some sort of response from him. He tried to muster up another smile, but working had exhausted him, and he was unable to do much more.
He also wasn’t happy sending her to school. Peter didn’t want Mae leaving for the schoolhouse. These days he did not like having her out of sight unless she was with his mother. Peter feared that something might happen to her, and he knew that he would not be able to survive such a thing.
For years, he’d wanted nothing more than to have a child. It had taken four years for Abigail to fall pregnant, and when she did, it had been the happiest moment of his life. When Mae was born, he’d been ecstatic. He’d never forget the moment his daughter had been placed in his arms. He couldn’t remember ever being happier.
But Mae hadn’t been enough for Abigail. Or rather, Abigail longed to give him a son. She’d loved their daughter, but she’d been told her entire life that a male heir was expected. She’d grown up with four brothers herself, and she’d felt like a failure for not having a boy. Peter hadn’t realized how much this had affected her until it was too late. Peter didn’t understand what he’d done to make her feel that he cared so much about Mae being a girl. He’d been happy with Mae. Overjoyed even. He didn’t need a son, especially if it meant losing Abigail, but Abigail had wanted nothing more than to present him with what she thought he desperately wanted.
That desire eventually led to her death, and Peter would never be able to forgive himself for it.
“Peter?” his mother’s voice interrupted his thoughts, and he turned his attention back to everyone in the room. Ira was talking to Mae about her new dress, making a show about how lovely she looked, which brought a wide smile to her face. Mae was at the age where she was starting to love dresses and compliments on her fashion, and it made Peter happy to see Ira giving her those.
His mother was looking at him with concern in her eyes.
Peter blinked to get rid of the intrusive thoughts. If he thought about Abigail for too long, he would go to a dark place, and he worried that he might not be able to come back from that place one day.
“Thank you for taking Mae to the dressmaker.”
His mother sighed loudly. She, too, was growing frustrated with him. Unlike Ira, she made no effort to hide her feelings.
Peter could tell from the stern set of her mouth that she wished to dress him down for what she saw as his failure as a father, and it was something that he’d rather his daughter and business partner not witness.
“Ira?” Peter asked. “Can you take Mae to the kitchen? I think that she might need some sweets.”
Mae’s face lit up, and Peter smiled at her. Ira nodded and took Mae’s hand. “Anything for my goddaughter, especially before her first day of school!” He sounded excited by the task, and Peter was sure that he was.
Peter was grateful for Ira, and he trusted him implicitly. He was one of the few people he would allow Mae to go with, and before Peter’s mother was able to get to town, Ira had been with Mae, watching over her while Peter dealt with the fallout of his wife and son’s deaths. It surprised Peter that Ira wasn’t married. He was a natural when it came to children. Even when Mae was a baby, he was always a very hands-on godfather.
“Are you prepared to take Mae to her first day of school?” his mother asked, once more interrupting his thoughts.
Peter sighed. He’d hoped that his mother would take the chore off his hands by taking Mae to school, but she’d refused. She was determined that Peter needed to be more involved in Mae’s everyday care and that he needed to stop hiding himself away in his suite of rooms and go out in the town.
That thought alone made Peter want to lock his door.
“She’s excited,” his mother told him. “The least that you can do is make an effort to be excited as well. This is the first thing that she’s been so truly happy about since Abigail passed.”
Peter sighed once more and ran a hand through his hair. He was too exhausted to have this conversation. “I told you that I would ensure that she got to the schoolhouse on time. I do agree with you that it is time for her to be with children who are her own age. I’m doing the best that I can. Mae knows that.”
Though Peter was reticent to send her to the schoolhouse and out of his sight, he knew that it was important for her to socialize with other children. He did not wish to keep her locked up with only his misery as her company.
Mae never complained, which made Peter feel like the worst father. He adored his little girl. He was certain that the only reason he was still able to open his eyes in the morning was Mae.
But even Mae couldn’t help him through the immense pain that he felt in his soul, and though he knew that he needed to be better for her, he couldn’t seem to crawl his way out of his grief and guilt. When he looked at Mae, he relived the terror of watching Abigail die as she tried to bring their son into the world, and he felt a terrible, crushing guilt overtake him.
Not only had he killed his wife, but he’d taken away his daughter’s much-needed mother.
“Peter,” his mother said, her voice soft. “I worry about you.”
He stood up from his desk. “There’s no need to worry. I’m doing the best that I can, and Mae is well. You saw her. She’s happy to have a new dress, and I’m certain that she will flourish in the schoolhouse. After all, she’s bright.”
His mother’s lips pursed. “It’s been a year.” She ignored what he’d said. After all, it wasn’t just Mae that she was worried about.
“Can you quantify how long I should grieve for the wife and son that I lost?” Peter’s voice was sharp as he asked her the question. Everyone in his life seemed to think that he should move on. After all, women and children died in childbirth often. He was hardly the first man to be widowed at a young age.
The thought caused rage to build in Peter’s chest.
Just because it was common did not mean that it wasn’t the most pain he’d ever experienced.
His mother sighed. “Of course not. No one can tell you how to grieve, but you can’t blame me for being worried about you. You haven’t been yourself in nearly a year.”
“I’m working, aren’t I? I did a great deal of that when Abigail was alive.”
“When your father died, I knew that I had to be strong for the sake of you and your brother.”
“I’m not you,” Peter informed her. He was doing everything he could do to try and make things better for Mae, just as his mother had done for himself and his brother. Apparently, he wasn’t very good at it.
Peter couldn’t seem to get out of the grief that wrapped around him. It wasn’t just that he’d lost a wife, but he’d also lost a son, and the pain of those two things combined overwhelmed him.
“I’m going back upstairs. Have Ira bring Mae back upstairs after she’s eaten her treat.”
He heard his mother sigh as he turned his back on her, and she walked out of the room. He didn’t have the energy to fight, especially since he knew what his mother would say to him.
This wasn’t the first time that she’d given him a lecture, and it wasn’t the first time he’d ignored her.
He continued up to his suite, where he could wallow in his grief until he needed to put the remainder of his energy into taking care of Mae.
The undertow of grief was threatening to swallow Peter again, and he knew that at some point, he would allow it.
It might simply be easier than trying to fight through the darkness that consumed him.
“Love’s Most Memorable Lesson” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Kitty West has always dreamt of becoming the town’s schoolmistress, so when the job finally comes available, she jumps at the chance to shape the minds of Tucson’s young children. When she meets Mae Davis, Kitty feels an instant connection with the young girl whose mother has recently died, and whose gruff father is now responsible for raising her. Their unexpected first encounter will make Kitty’s tender heart skip a beat.
And when her heart speaks, her mind finds it indecent to object…
Peter Davis’ life, as the owner of the largest hotel in Arizona, always appeared to be perfect. However, with his wife perishing in childbirth, he must find a way to overcome his grief and be up to the task of raising his beloved daughter. When he meets the lovely, witty teacher, he can’t help but feel drawn to her restless spirit. After all, she knows loss better than anyone he’d ever met, and her love for his daughter is hard to ignore despite his overwhelming sorrow.
Could she be the one to heal his shattered heart and bring joy back to their lives?
As time goes on, Peter and Kitty will find themselves thrust together. Strong feelings between them develop but will love prevail or will his mourning keep Peter and Kitty away from what they deserve? Can their deep wounds be healed by their fateful meeting?
“Love’s Most Memorable Lesson” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.