Amelia opened up the front door to her bank, relieved to get out of the heat. Summer had been relentless the valley during the past month and they hadn't seen much relief. During the hottest hours of the day many of the businesses shut down as most of the people living in town chose to get some relief from the heat.
Some customers drifted into the bank to deposit their earnings from their businesses but they'd fallen off since their hours had been reduced. Axelrod had groaned about his shortfall to Margaret who worked as the bank's main teller every time he dropped by.
She just reminded him he was lucky to be alive at all. Amelia stayed out of it working mostly in the back office keeping a low profile lest any of them be reminded that a woman ran the town's only bank.
She handled all the paperwork and managed the bank since even though she didn't technically own it, she had put all her energy and time into it given that she had no one else to do it for her. Her husband Pierce had disappeared two years earlier and his fate remained unknown. Oh, a posse had gone out looking for him a week after the marshal had gotten wind that he had vanished. They hadn't really suspected foul play as husbands disappearing in Paradise wasn't a rare occurrence since the latest mine closure. Even though she knew he'd angered some men in a card game not long before she felt sure that Pierce had left town and gone missing of his own accord. But she didn't give the marshal much information because she didn't want it to damage the reputation of the bank and she thought he might come back after the attention had faded.
The marshal just asked her if she had a fight with her husband before his disappearance and she admitted that much.
More often it was the wives who left usually on the morning stagecoach but this time Amelia's husband likely had just decided it was a good time to leave after one of his land schemes had fallen through…most of the town thought Pierce to be charming but also a scam artist.
It had taken Amelia a bit longer to realize the truth about her husband. The posse hadn't found them and she figured that he'd only turn up if he wanted to be found.
Ethan Cord had been on that posse, recruited to ride with it since he happened to be in town at the time between riding off to do whatever it was he did when he wasn't in Paradise. She'd heard he was some notorious gunfighter who people with money hired out to take care of business for them whether it was hunting down fugitives or dealing with vendettas. She tried not to be too curious about him as she had her own life to lead and it'd gotten a lot more complicated after Pierce took off.
She'd argued the night before with her husband over some inconsistencies she'd found in the bank's ledgers for that month and when she'd reviewed earlier ones, her heart sank.
He'd been skimming money off the top of the investments and pocketing it to pay off his gambling debts. She had challenged him about it as she had gotten much bolder than she'd been when they first married. He'd been surprised by that and after calling her foolish; he'd walked out on her to head off to the saloon.
She'd gone to bed by herself as she did so often these nights but expected to see him sleeping in the atrium couch in the morning.
But as she woke up that morning, the house had been silent. The sunlight had streamed into the atrium and he hadn't been sleeping there.
It had taken a week for the posse to head out looking for her missing husband. The marshal had asked her what she'd done to chase him off. When he'd asked her why she'd been unable to keep him at home, she willed herself not to slap him. But better that he and the rest of them think that than knew the truth, that Pierce had tried to skim money from the bank to get himself out of a jam with investors in his latest scheme. If people knew that, they'd all pull their money out closing their accounts and the bank would go under. She couldn't do anything about her irresponsible husband taking off but she could save the bank.
At least keep it going long enough until she could sell it and leave Paradise behind forever. That's all that she wanted to now, to put as many miles between her and the dying town as soon as possible. After all, that's what most everyone had done already.
She just had to pull it off so as not to scare off her customers.
She knew she was more than capable because she was a lady on the surface. She wore the most stylish dresses imported from Europe and lived in the most elegant of houses. She drove a nice buggy and she and her husband had funded various funds to improve the town and restore it to its former glory. But underneath she hadn't changed much from the young girl who'd been put on a boat by her father to head to America, leaving Australia and her family behind.
After she arrived, it hadn't taken her long to fall in with Pierce and become totally enamored with him and his lifestyle. He'd been a distant cousin of the family she'd lived with while she'd kept their house and hadn't been like anyone she'd ever met before.
But as it turned out, she hadn't known him well at all and he'd played her for a fool. It didn't matter because it had forced her to grow up quickly, to put everything else out of her mind and focus on being a businesswoman. She knew she'd be good at it and she had turned the bank around, just recently prospective buyers had come by to check it out. She just hadn't found a suitable buyer yet but it was only a matter of time.
She left the house that morning to head to the bank. Once she'd woken up in the morning, she had stopped looking for any signs of her husband a long time ago. She'd get up, tack up her horse and ride out to the lake when the day threatened to be hot.
After removing her dress, she'd jump into the lake wearing only her underclothes and swim to the waterfall. The water cascading over the rock attracted her each time. It was her private place hidden from the rest of the world where no one could see her. She could shed more than just her clothes and be the young woman she'd been when she'd first arrived in Paradise.
She didn't like much always having to be so cool and calculated, focused on money and investing more of it but she didn't have much of a choice. If any of the customers in town detected any weakness in her, a chink in her armor, then she wouldn't be able to stay in business.
So she kept that side of her personality to herself strictly under wraps. Like right now when she was taking inventory in the safe. Margaret kept giving her the same looks of pity that she'd shown since Pierce was declared missing.
"Any word on him…?"
Amelia looked over at her caught by surprise even though she shouldn't have been as Margaret asked this question nearly every morning like a ritual.
"No Margaret, just like there was no news yesterday, the day before and last year for that matter."
It made her cross sometimes that people seemed to think it was their business to inquire about a man that had been gone for nearly two years. She knew they were curious, maybe even concerned but she didn't need their sympathy, she just needed to keep moving forward until the day she sold the bank, her house and took off for good. She had so many other things she wanted to do, places to see and she'd promised herself one adventure after another.
Margaret just shook her head.
"You know he should really send word that he's alive," she said, "or have someone send it if he's not."
Dead, that's a word she didn't apply to Pierce. He'd always been one step ahead of any real serious harm so she'd stopped worrying about him. But if he were dead, she could mourn him as a widow and then move forward…maybe someday there could be someone else. If he were alive but wasn't coming home…or if he truly abandoned her, then she supposed at some point she'd be a divorcee which was in some ways worse than a widow.
She'd be marked in town as more than a subject of pity. But then there was no reason to file for divorce unless there was someone else and Amelia didn't see that in her future. She'd never even come close to relying on anyone again.
"Are you going to the meeting tonight?"
No she felt lost…
"Meeting what meeting…?"
"Valentine's Day is tomorrow," she said, "
Amelia grimaced. For some reason, the women in Paradise, what few women still lived in town were into celebrating this holiday. All holidays to brighten up life in this busting town but Valentine's Day seemed near the top of the list for some reason. Margaret had been engaged herself some years ago but never married, meaning she was what was called a spinster.
Getting married just when she turned 15 prevented Amelia from suffering the same fate but thinking back, she wished she hadn't been married at all. She lived in the realm of in between…in between being a wife who was respectable and being either widow, still respected but an object of pity or a divorcee which was always viewed as somewhat scandalous. Today she didn't feel in a hurry to have that decided.
"No…no I've got the ledger to go through," she said, "What's happening this year with…"
Amelia nodded, glad that Margaret had said the words for her…because just thinking about it made her think of past holidays when Pierce had treated it…and her for that matter as something very special…then as years passed, it faded like everything else in their marriage until he just forgot all about it. She'd work that day into the night at their bank while he went out to the saloon to drink and gamble more of the bank's money away.
"Yes…a party, a social…a dirge?"
Margaret hid her displeasure at that last one just barely.
"Just a party that Scotty's holding at the saloon," she said, "You should attend."
Amelia shook her head.
"I'm a married woman even if I haven't seen my husband for almost two years."
"Well I'm sure Mr. Lawson will return soon. He has to, it's his sacred duty," Margaret said, "but you shouldn't be alone in the bank."
Amelia almost thought she detected what sounded like concern in her voice.
"I'll…think about it," she said, "I do have some work to do but maybe later…"
"Not too much later," Margaret said, "the marshal's keeping a close watch out for any signs of trouble from those ruffians…"
Amelia knew she meant the band of men bordering on outlaws that had been causing trouble as of late. The marshal didn't do much to stop them except warn them. Sometimes she thought that Cal Winston was as useless and weak as her husband. Then speaking of men, in walked the opposite of Cal and she looked up to see Ethan, looking less beat up than usual walking in the bank.
Ethan was the most confident of men but then if he were a gunfighter for hire, he had to be to stay alive. She imagined that even during his downtime, he had people coming after him whether for revenge or to take him out to make names for themselves. He had been polite to her when their paths crossed but she didn't like him around town because violence too often followed almost as if he attracted it. That wasn't necessarily true but even as a part of her enjoyed running into him, she wished he'd stay away.
He tipped his worn hat at her and Margaret.
"Good morning Mrs. Lawson, Ms Beadle…"
Margaret shot him a look of disapproval as she didn't like rough around the collar men like Ethan at all. Amelia smiled slightly..
"Good morning Mr. Cord," she said, "You hear to deposit your winnings?"
Meaning the poker games because when he was in town, he frequented them and her husband more than once had grumbled about losing his shirt to that gunslinger who could out bluff a statue.
"No Ma'am, I'm here to make a withdrawal."
That surprised her. Once he deposited what money he had, it usually stayed in his account almost as if he were saving it for something. She nodded and directed Margaret to take care of the transaction. It wasn't for very much money.
"Paying a bill?"
He shook his head with a smile.
"No…I'm going to Axelrod's to buy something to send back to St. Louis," he said, "Got kin there."
She heard that he'd had a sister and that she had been an actress or singer or something like that. Maybe she had children.
"That's nice…is it for Valentine's Day?"
He looked at her intently for a moment.
"You know what that is don't you Mr. Cord?"
"Yes I do Mrs. Lawson. I don't have time to celebrate holidays."
"No I imagine you don't," she said, "Neither do I."
Unlike everyone else in town, he didn't ask her or look like he was going to ask her why. But then she supposed either he didn't care much to know the answer or he already knew it. She didn't know much about him
"You always working?"
She tilted her face.
"I've got a bank to run because Paradise needs it."
"Just got back into town after a job…"
She didn't press him for details about his job. After all it was none of her business and she really didn't want to know.
"And I thought I'd get something and send it to Lucy."
"It's too late for Valentine's Day but I'm sure she'll appreciate it."
"She's got children…four of them."
She hadn't known that just like she didn't know hardly anything about Ethan.
"Really…have you seen them?"
"No…no I haven't," he said, "I haven't seen her in years. She moves around a lot like I do."
Amelia smiled a little.
"That does make it difficult."
"Yes…I heard they're having a party tomorrow…"
"Yes for the holiday," she said, "It's good for business."
He seemed to digest that.
"Are you going?"
She'd thought about it but just shook her head.
"No…work remember…? That's mostly what I do."
He paused a long moment, looking at her with those intense brown eyes. Thinking about what she didn't know and she didn't ask.
He did his business, she gave him the money and he left the bank. She wondered about him sometimes but she couldn't afford to do anything with it. His life had complications a woman like herself didn't need and her own life…in limbo because of her husband talking off.
Ethan didn't know what to buy for Lucy in Axelrod's mercantile. He hadn't seen her in years, most of the time they'd spent together had been as children who'd been orphaned and left to fend for survival. At some point she'd gotten married after she became an entertainer. She had children four of them and he got scraps of news every now and then. But he didn't know them at all.
There had never been any place in his life for a family including children. He didn't even know what that meant as his sister had been the only person he'd grown up knowing. Her and then later Emma and what had happened to her…he closed his eyes not wanting to think about what was done in the past. The man who had taken them in and then used him for his own gain, the one who'd killed her and nearly him…he'd get what was coming to him as soon as their paths crossed. He'd stopped actively looking for him because his work kept him too busy what with the traveling and the rest of it. Now he'd crashed back in Paradise in the hotel. He'd spend his afternoons and evenings in the saloon until it was time to go on another assignment.
The rest of the town just tolerated him as he'd never really been a part of its fabric. They used him and his firepower when it was needed to fight some outlaw or settle some drunken brawl. But the rest of the time he knew they'd exile him if they had the chance.
The woman he'd just left he didn't know how she felt. He knew she disapproved of his line of work and said it was bad for business but she treated him civilly perhaps because that was good business.
Axelrod just watched him from the counter as he looked for something to send Lucy. Almost as if a shootout would break out in the middle of his store but Ethan knew the town to be peaceful right now…
He wondered what life might be like for her. Sporadic letters from her detailed what sounded like an exciting life traveling to different towns and putting on revues, not much news about her husband what's his name. Ethan never returned her letters, he could barely read and write but even if it took him forever to read through one of her narratives, he did it, they were the only ties he had with his sister.
Wait, he had sent a photo to her once of him taking in front of this mercantile not too long ago.
"Do you find anything yet?"
He looked over at Axelrod who'd never been friendly with him.
"I'm still looking…I got some time before the poker game starts off at the saloon."
Axelrod scrunched his face in disapproval as Ethan knew would happen. But he'd made a pile of cash last night to supplement his earnings off his last job…to pay his room and board at the hotel and to add to his bank account.
After he left Axelrod unable to decide on a purchase, he went to the saloon. He saw some unfamiliar horses tied up near the bank and a man he didn't recognize standing nearby. At the saloon, Scotty awaited along with Charlie, Amos and Tiny. They'd spend another slow afternoon beating each other at poker. Not much fighting, that had somehow ended after Pierce had left town.
"You bring all that cash you won last night?"
He looked at Scotty.
"You bring a better game?"
Scotty didn't look offended. He never held onto the right cards and didn't boast a good bluff. They all sat down and began to play.
Amelia remained at the bank working in her office. Margaret handled the customers while she worked the books. She'd undid most of the damage her errant husband had done by now but she didn't want to trust anyone to handle them again.
Margaret walked into the office.
"That's the last of them for now," she said, "I think it'll be slow the rest of the day."
Amelia looked up.
"You mean slower."
Margaret sat down near her desk.
"Yes…well maybe it's the holiday."
Amelia arched her brows.
"It's the bust but hopefully we'll be able to turn it around soon," she said, "Like it used to be when more people lived here, more families…"
"I don't know if it'll ever be like that again but I hope it doesn't become a ghost town."
Amelia didn't want to see that either. She'd come here some years ago after she and Pierce had eloped and traveled around a bit. He'd been looking for business opportunities when they passed through the then booming mining town and somehow wound up staying overnight…and then staying much longer. Well, she'd stayed even longer than Pierce until the day came when she'd finally leave.
"Paradise will come out of this just fine," Amelia said, "if people don't panic and scatter."
"No place for me to go…no family so I might as well stay right here…but I will be at the party tomorrow…have you decided to go yet?"
No she hadn't, Amelia didn't feel any reason to celebrate it and she didn't think anything would change her mind.