Updated: Nov 11
Prescott, Arizona Territory
April 14, 1906
I was unlucky in love. After three attempts at marriage, all I had to show for my efforts was a toddler son and casket low-ering my beloved Forest into the ground.
My first attempt came when I was nineteen. I fell hard for Andrew Ward, and he fell hard for me. At least that was what I thought until the moment when I stood outside the church in my wedding dress as I held onto my papa’s arm, waiting for the music to start. I was supposed to walk down the aisle and promise my life to Andrew Ward. Only he never showed. Instead, he ran off with Catherine Parker the night before. They married down in Wickenburg without telling me that...
Well, he told me nothing. Not that he wouldn’t marry me or that he didn’t love me. Certainly not that he really loved Catherine. Instead, the scoundrel left me standing outside of the church in my wedding dress believing that I was about to experience the best day of my life while he up and married my friend. While I waited for the humiliation and rejection to fade, I moved back home with my parents at the ranch.
Then I met Cooper James. Ah, those flashing green eyes and charming smile that could melt the ice off the coldest heart. Our courtship was fast; just a few months. He proposed in June 1900. We set a wedding date for the first weekend in August. We bought a house in town. Eager to begin my new life with my new love, I started furnishing our house long before our wedding day.
But then the strangest thing happened. The night of the great fire, July 14, 1900, the entire business district of town burnt down. It was the last time anyone talked to Cooper. Some people thought he helped with the firefight, but no one saw him the next day. No one died in that fire. They found no bodies. Not his. Not anyone’s. Oddly, his horse was gone, too. His bank account cleaned out. There was no note. No word. No information. And no wedding. He vanished without a trace.
So, by the time I met Forest Gamble, I was twice stood up. I made him work hard to win my heart, having learned my lesson twice over. But, slowly over time, Forest won my heart through a long courtship. I finally agreed to a wedding date. The months leading up to our wedding, Forest reassured me many times that he’d show up and he spoke the truth he when he said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. Despite my fears, my wedding day came. He was there with his kind brown eyes full of love for me. Papa walked me down the aisle and I promised my heart and soul to my husband.
Forest kept his word, and we shared many wonderful years together. I loved him. He loved me. Our son, Will, was evidence of our love. We were a family. Unfortunately, the rest of Forest’s life only lasted four years.
God had some strange sense of humor, I thought, as the first pile of dirt dropped onto Forest’s casket in the ground. I sniffed as the numbness swallowed my heart. Will tugged on my arm. As Mama took his other hand, I let go. At twenty-seven, I became a widow and single mother of a toddler. My husband would shortly be six feet under. Gone. Forever apart from me.
My heart died that day and I didn’t plan on ever unearth-ing it again. It would not withstand another significant loss.
After I straightened my shoulders and climbed into the carriage, I wiped away the lone tear that trickled down my cheek. Mama handed Will to me, and I held him close. My childhood friend Keri sat next to her husband, my oldest brother, James. He clucked the horses into motion.
When we arrived at James’s house, he helped Keri down. Then he took Will from me and helped me down. Keri opened the front door to their extravagant mansion as their children greeted them loudly.
I retreated to the parlor when the nanny took Will for a nap. It was quiet. It would be for a short time before the mourners came to express their sympathies.
Don’t misunderstand me. I appreciated the love and support from family and friends. I was grateful that James and Keri opened their home to me for a few days. Soon enough, I would return to my home. The home that was mine and Forest’s. It was mine alone now.
I had a conversation with God before the mourners arriv-ed. Why did you take my husband? Why put me through heart break after heart break? I wanted my husband back, but he was gone. I would never allow myself to fall in love again. Ever.
As I looked out the window, Mama slid an arm around my waist. She said nothing. Just her presence comforted me.
When mourners filled the room, I sat near the fireplace. Forest was well-loved by his co-workers at the bank. No one could believe he was really gone. What a tragic thing. Such a strange accident. It was so senseless. Or so they told me.
Oddly, his passing made complete sense to me. God didn’t want me to be married. Clearly. So, I was done with love. I would support my son. My brothers were the male influences he would need in the years to come. James already doted on him. Boone loved him as much as his own children. Grady, well, he wasn’t a blood brother to me, but he was as close as any of my actual brothers. He thought the world of Will.
Somehow, I would find a way forward. I would be just fine without a man in my home. I could do it.
As the crowd thinned, I climbed the stairs and fell into the guest bed upstairs. I didn’t bother to take off the black wid-ow’s gown or let my hair down. I just flopped down on it and closed my eyes.
I imagined Forest by my side. He was gone for just a few days, and I missed him terribly.
Exhaustion pulled at me. Somehow, I would move forward. Alone.
My heart died that day and I didn’t plan on ever unearth-ing it again. It would not withstand another significant loss.
Prescott, Arizona Territory
June 29, 1893
Eleanor Grace fussed in my arms. As I shifted my nine-month-old daughter to lean against my chest, I hoped she didn’t need changed. One thing I learned on the long train ride from Tucson was that the world was not helpful nor kind to a single father traveling with his infant daughter. Believe me, I would have much rather been traveling with my wife. I would have preferred to stay in Tucson with Rose. But my desires and wants did not matter. Eleanor was with me. Rose was not. She made the greatest sacrifice a mother could make for her unborn child. She gave up her life to bring Eleanor into this world. As Eleanor fussed again, I sighed and dug around in my satchel, which was stuffed full of things for my daughter. Surely, I had one bottle left. When she let loose a full-blown wail, I moved her to one arm. At last, my fingers wrapped around the bottle. I grabbed it and jammed it in her mouth. Relief washed over me as she sucked on it and calmed. I was totally ill-equipped to be a single father. Even after nine months, I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, I had worked out a system, mostly because of the graciousness of the wet nurse that provided for Eleanor in the earliest days of her life. As soon as she was weaned and became my responsibility alone, I knew I was in over my head. My work suffered so much so that my older brother, Martin, moved down to Tucson to take over managing the freight office. After a few months, we struck a deal. He moved his family to Tucson to run the Tucson office, and I would move home with Mama. Then I was to replace him at the Prescott office. He told me Mama was eager to help with Eleanor. So, I finally boarded the train headed for Prescott with my daughter. “She’s so sweet,” the woman in the seat next to me said. I held back a snort. Eleanor had been anything but sweet on the train. Fussy. Cranky. Stinky. But not sweet. “Are you headed to Prescott?” she asked. “Yes.” “Oh, you must stop at the pie shop in the station. Vi makes the best pies. Any kind of pie you can imagine, even savory pie. The crust. It’s so fluffy. Best pie I’ve ever had.” I gave the woman a half smile as I laid a cloth over my shoulder and burped my daughter. The woman kept talking about pies until I craved some. At last, the train arrived at the Prescott station. I stepped aside to allow the talkative woman to exit. Then I waited for the initial rush of passengers to clear out before I laid Eleanor on a seat. I gathered my satchel and another bag, which I slung over one shoulder. Then I picked her up again and exited the train. I glanced around the platform for my brother, Loren, and my mother. I didn’t spot either of them, so I followed the aroma of fresh baked pie. “Vi’s Pies,” I muttered under my breath as I dropped my heavy bags on a chair. Eleanor fussed, then wailed, before an unpleasant odor wafted up to greet me. She needed changed. “Couldn’t you wait until Mama was here?” I pleaded with her.
Of course, the deed was already done. I sighed. Then I contemplated the idea of changing her right there on the pie shop’s table. I quickly discarded the idea. I certainly didn’t want to eat on a table where a baby’s diaper had just been. I bounced her up and down, which only made the smell worse. “Need help?” The chatty woman from the train asked. “Yes. She needs changed and, well, I’m not sure what to do.” She quirked an eyebrow. “I mean, I know what to do, just not where.” “Let me take her to the facilities. There is a place there. I’ll be back right away.” I hesitated. I didn’t know who she was. “That’s alright. My mother should be here shortly. It can wait.” She shrugged and walked away. I sighed and resigned to wait for my mother as I flopped down onto the chair. My stomach growled, and I looked longingly at the case of pies. Cherry. Apple. Pecan. Several others that I couldn’t de-termine what they were. A young woman with dark hair and brilliant blue eyes stood behind the counter. Those eyes. I’d recognize them anywhere. My heart nearly stopped beating as I studied her. She wore a black dress with a stark white apron. She smiled sweetly at the chatty woman from the train, though the smile didn’t quite reflect in her eyes. After all this time, her beauty still captured my attention. When the chatty woman finished, I stepped forward. “Violet Colter?” I asked. My heart pounded against my rib cage, as if it tried to escape my chest. When she looked up from the till, she smiled brightly until her gaze connected with mine. Then a frown shadowed her face. A few seconds later, a forced smile graced her lips. “Zayne Harrison.” Her voice sounded overly bright. “It’s Gamble now.” “What’s Gamble?” “My name. Mrs. Forest Gamble.” I let out a nervous laugh. “My apologies.” She sniffed and nodded to Eleanor. “I think she needs a fresh diaper.” Heat warmed my face. “Yeah, I know. Just no place for… Um, for me to change her.” “Where’s her mother?” I cleared my throat and glanced away as my eyes burned. The words wouldn’t move past my lips. “Oh. I see. Here,” she said as she rounded the corner of the counter. “Let me see her. Do you have an extra diaper?” I nodded and walked toward my things. After I handed her the clean diaper, I reluctantly released my baby to the arms of my childhood crush. My throat constricted as I watched her walk away with my baby girl. It had been a decade since I had seen Violet Colter. Gamble. Whatever. I didn’t know her now. I worried if I could trust her with Eleanor. No matter. It was too late. I was at her mercy. A woman stepped up to the counter. “Can I help you, sir?” I glanced the direction that Violet took before I answered. “I’ll take a slice of apple pie. Wait, make that two.” After I dropped some coins into her waiting palm, she placed the money in the cash register. Then she dished up two slices of pie on two separate plates and handed them to me with two forks. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I planned on eating them both. As I walked back to the table, Violet approached with Eleanor. “I hope you don’t mind, but I tossed the soiled diaper in the trash bin outside.” “That’s fine. I have plenty more in my luggage.” Truth-fully, I was relieved. It was the best way to handle a dirty diaper while traveling. I held my arms out for Eleanor, but Violet shook her head. “Enjoy your pie. I’ll hold her for a few minutes.” My eyes followed her every movement while I stuffed large bites of pie in my mouth. She paced near the table, bouncing Eleanor on one hip. She seemed perfectly at ease with a baby in her arms. My heart skipped a beat, and I scolded myself. I didn’t move home to reconnect with a woman from my past. I was there to raise my daughter with Mama’s help and focus on my job. As Violet took the seat across from me, she smiled. It seemed genuine that time. “What brings you to Prescott? Last I heard, you lived in Tucson.” I swallowed a bite of the pie. It really had the fluffiest crust. “This is good.” Pink colored her cheeks. “Thank you. Mama taught me well.” “A pie shop, huh? How does your husband feel about your business?” Tears pooled in her eyes. Idiot. She wore a black dress, a mourning dress. Not a uniform. She cleared her throat. “I think he would have been proud I figured out how to provide for myself and our son.” Son. She had a boy. I wondered how old he was, but de-cided I’d already stuck my foot in my mouth once. I’d much rather stick another bite of pie in it. When I cleaned the first plate, I pushed it away and slid the second one in front of me. “Oh, that’s for you?” she teased. “I thought maybe it was for me.” She winked after a few seconds. “If you’d like a piece, I’ll be happy to buy you one.” “No need. I know the owner. She gives me free pie for life.” For the first time in a year, I laughed out loud from a place I’d forgotten existed. “Sorry for your loss,” I said, before eating another bite. “As I am for you. I suppose this sweetie is the reason you’re here?” She looked down at my daughter and lightly brushed her slender fingers on Eleanor’s belly. She smiled and whispered words to her. My heart ached as I pictured Rose doing the same. Only Rose wasn’t there. “Yes. Mama is going to help raise her.” “How is your mother? I heard your father passed a few years ago.” “Nine years ago now,” I said. I failed to keep the sadness from my voice. At twenty-eight, I lost more family than most. I missed my papa more than I cared to admit. “Really? I hadn’t realized it’s been that long.” “She remarried. Jedediah Cole is her new husband. He is in finance. Works for the railroad.” Her eyes lit up. “Oh, James probably works with him.” I nodded. Then I held out my hands for Eleanor. Violet sighed as she relinquished my daughter. “I do miss holding babies.” “Thank you for your help, Violet.” “Zayne!” My mama’s voice drew my attention. “There you are!” I stood and waved to my mother. I glanced over and Violet was gone. So were the two empty pie plates. A minor part of me missed not saying farewell to her. Mama pulled me into her arms and hugged me loosely, careful not to squish her granddaughter. “Oh, she’s so beautiful. Just like Rose.” I coughed as the comparison hit the core of my heart. I thought the same many times, but to hear it out loud hurt deeper than I expected. Loren greeted me as Mama took Eleanor. “Where are your things?” “I couldn’t really manage them and her, so I figured we could collect them once you were here.” He nodded as I picked up my satchel and other things from the table. I glanced over my shoulder and caught Violet looking my way. I waved a hand before I turned and headed toward the freight docks to pick up my things.
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