December 18, 1882
Alfred Taylor shoved his fingers through his short, brown hair, smoothed his hand down his beard, then set his bowler hat on his head. He stepped into the frigid wind and bright rays of early morning. The wide porch of his father’s Victorian home held potted plants, each covered with a cotton sheet to protect them from the biting cold. Red bows circled the posts, declaring the season with a bold swathe of color.
Alfred grimaced. Damned holiday season. There was nothing to celebrate this time of year. Not for him. Instead of Christmas bells, he heard hacking coughs. Instead of imagining wrapped presents, he envisioned medicine bottles littering a bedside table.
And the memories were all his fault.
He scowled as he stalked down the road toward Main Street. Quit remembering. Move on. It’s done.
As others drove past him on their way to the center of town, Alfred nodded in greeting. He pulled the lapels of his jacket closer together, but nothing could buffet the sharp, icy wind.
He mentally ticked off the items he needed to complete at the hotel. There was a lot to do. The ladies of the town had insisted on a Christmas Eve dance, and since he and his father ran the fanciest hotel west of the Mississippi, he had to help. Which meant a meeting with the Ladies Auxiliary. His head throbbed already.
Thank God his mother didn’t run it anymore.
When he reached the intersection of First and Main, he turned left, climbing the three steps to the boardwalk in front of Forrester’s Tailoring. As he neared A Slice of Heaven, the aroma of fresh, baked bread reached his nose.
He breathed in deep and found a smile. A quick stop wouldn’t hurt.
He ducked inside the bakery and found Sugar Boswell sliding a tray of Danish into one of the many display cases.
The blue-eyed, curly-haired, redhead smiled when she straightened. “Morning, Alfred.”
“Mornin’, Sugar.” He stepped up to the counter, not bothering to peruse the menu. He knew it by heart.
“Please.” His mouth watered in anticipation.
“I heard your chef wants to serve oysters for supper at the Christmas Eve social.” She plucked a strawberry Danish from its ceramic stand and handed it to him.
“Claude thinks it’ll propel him into infamy. Not sure why.” Alfred didn’t have anything to do with the meal for the party. The Auxiliary was making all the decisions. He just had to sit and listen and approve. Though he didn’t feel he could safely disapprove, so why he was needed escaped him.
After he paid for his indulgence, she said, “Well, it’ll make the night more special. But who knows who’ll eat them?” She scrunched up her nose.
He shrugged then savored his first bite of strawberry goodness. The fruit was perfectly sweet, the bread just a touch salty. Sugar Boswell and Eliska Black had a rare talent. As he chewed, he replied, “It’ll be interesting.” He held up the pastry. “Thanks.”
He left, enjoying his treat as he walked. When he reached the hotel, he shoved the last bite in his mouth, licked his lips and turned the gleaming brass knob. The night clerk stood at the register counter, handing a key to a new guest.
Christopher Peabody smiled beneath this blond, handlebar mustache. “Morning.” A bellhop helped the customer to their room.
“Morning.” Alfred crossed the carpet of golds, reds and greens. The white, oak paneling showed off the various oil paintings of landscapes, while the arches leading into the front salon and dining hall sported bowers of evergreen and more red bows. Why red? Why that color?
An image of a blood-stained handkerchief passed through his mind. Damn it. Get the hell out of my head!
He rounded the register desk, smoothing a hand over the mahogany surface. “How many new guests?”
“Nine.” Peabody fiddled with his tie. “Three of them are children.”
“Opal won’t be happy, but she’ll live.” Alfred tugged the book to him, checking over the rooms that were still occupied. Seven days left until Christmas Eve. Which was their slowest day considering the season. Most people were with their families by that time.
Opal appeared, her white cap a stark contrast to her black curls and chocolate skin. She had her hands folded at her waist, and her talisman, a watch made of silver, pinned to her crisp, black uniform. She arched an eyebrow at Alfred. “When will the ladies arrive?”
He hooked his thumb in his vest pocket. “Ten.” Three hours, three, before he had to listen to the chatter. If his sister came, then work would get done. Kathryn Talbut, the judge’s wife, led the group, but she enjoyed a good gossip session and allowed meetings to derail when anything of note needed to be relayed.
But not Corinne. His sister knew how his head pounded with all the circling of conversation. She had a way with the ladies, but, of course, she’d learned in the trenches. Their mother had, at one time, been at the helm of everything. Corinne had honed her negotiation skills at the elbow of the self-proclaimed matriarch of Pike’s Run, and she was damned good at it.
“All right. This should be the last, correct?” Opal glared at him, as if he alone was responsible for the timeliness of the decisions.
“I sure hope so.” He grinned at his head maid. She ran a tight ship, and he and his father were grateful. “I’ll do my best to get them out of here.”
She huffed then asked, “Refreshments in the office or the back parlor?”
With a sharp nod, she spun on her heel and left.
Peabody gave a low whistle. “She’s a general, eh?”
The northern accent reminded Alfred of his years in Washington, D.C. Clerking for a U.S. Representative from Virginia had allowed him to spend a lot of time with delegates from the New England states. “The best of the best.” He let out a puff of air. “All right. You can go.”
The man yawned. “See you this evening.”
As Peabody left, Alfred removed his hat and coat and hung them on the tree near the register counter. Boxes for the rooms lined the wall behind him. Envelopes peeked out from the holes, waiting for their recipients to pick them up.
After another perusal of the book, he noted that Miss Cunningham still rented room 21. He gritted his teeth and struggled to tamp down the interest humming inside him.
She was probably married.
But she wore no ring.
And she’d been in Pike’s Run for ten days.
No one knew why.
Or no one had told him why.
Not that he needed to know. Or should know. Or cared to know.
He grimaced then shoved the record away with a fist. He had accounts to balance.
At some point, she would have to find a job. Or…
No. She would not go home.
She let out a breath then snapped the money pouch closed. As she shoved it into her skirt pocket, she strode toward the door, her rose-pink skirt rustling against her ankles. She had to develop a plan. Today. She would force her mind to it.
First, she would have breakfast in the opulent dining room, then she would spend an hour in prayer at First United Methodist. Perhaps the peace would give her clarity.
When she reached the foyer, people hastened about, all with things to do and places to go. She had no such joy. Pain pressed on her breast, making it difficult to breathe. At what point would the knife in her back and heart stop twisting?
She blinked, clearing away threatening, hated, vile tears. No more. Never again.
Before entering the dining room, her gaze caught on Mr. Taylor, the younger. He stood at the desk, his head bowed over a ledger. His suit coat molded to his broad shoulders. His vest hugged his torso. His brown beard couldn’t hide the angled jawline.
He was a gorgeous man.
When he looked up, she averted her eyes and quickened her steps. What did his handsomeness matter? Henry had been attractive. Beautiful, really. Which had been the problem.
A waitress led Truly to her usual table near the French doors that led to one of the verandahs. The fire blazed in the hearth near the entrance, brass sconces hung from the white, oak paneling, linen covered all the tables, while china and crystal gleamed in the light streaming through the many exits to the luxurious porch.
Truly didn’t need to see a menu, but she took one anyway. Did the employees of the Royal Hotel wonder why she, a single female with no escort, was still here? Did Mr. Taylor wonder?
She hoped not. But…if he did, would he pry? Would he tell her she needed to move on? How long could someone stay in a hotel?
Pike’s Run had a boardinghouse, but she’d been so comfortable she hadn’t wanted to move. And she felt hidden here. There was so much activity she got lost in the shuffle. Well, rather, she hoped she got lost.
After ordering oatmeal, biscuits and coffee, Truly sat with her hands folded in her lap.
A man approached her table. He doffed his hat and smiled. “Ma’am, may I keep you company?”
She opened her mouth to refuse, but before she could, Mr. Taylor appeared.
The gentleman frowned. “What is it?”
Mr. Taylor jerked his head toward the foyer. “I’ve got some information to pass along to you.”
With an irritated expression, Mr. McClain excused himself and strode toward the exit.
Before following his guest, Mr. Taylor locked gazes with Truly. A gentle light shone from his warm, brown eyes. He gave her a polite nod.
Surprise moved through her as he left. Had he interfered only to protect her from whoever Mr. McClain was? Perhaps his heart was as perfect as his face and form.
But she wouldn’t determine the answer. Because it didn’t matter.