With Alberta in the grip of the Depression, Louisa Morgan is desperate to bolster her family's finances. But how can she tutor bedridden Ellie Hamilton? The little tomboy is more interested in making mischief than studying sums. And the girl's bond with her handsome papa is another reminder to Louisa of the children she'll never have.
For Emmet Hamilton, strength means shouldering burdens alone. He never thought he'd let himself share his child, or his heart, ever again. But before long, Louisa's kindness and optimism start to change the cowboy's mind. Maybe he can gain the courage to trust againin Louisa, in God's grace, and in this new family.
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Golden Prairie, Alberta
Louisa Morgan paused before the battered door of the Hamilton house. She'd prayed for an opportunity to earn money to help pay the medical billsbills accumulated on her behalf. Influenza had struck many over the winter, but Louisa had been particularly ill with infection raging throughout her body. The doctor, meaning to be encouraging, said it was amazing she was alive and she should be glad. She was. Truly. But the illness had cost her something very precious the ability to have children.
She vowed daily she would not let her disappointment turn into bitterness. She would enjoy what God still had in store for her. There was much to be grateful for the ability to walk about and breathe in the spring air, the chance to continue her studies. She might have been content to keep on with her self-studies at home and not consider looking for a job, except she'd seen Mother slip cardboard into her shoes to cover the worn soles. She'd been about to confront Mother and insist she buy a new pair, but she noticed the pile of bills on the desk and knew Mother wouldn't buy anything until they were paid.
From that day, Louisa had prayed for a way to earn some money. Unfortunately a depression held the country in its grip. Able-bodied men were out of work. Many of them rode the rails or worked in government-run relief camps. Why would anyone hire a woman with no experience and a history of ill health when there were strong, family men eager to do any available job?
Then the teacher at the local school had asked her to tutor a bedridden little girl.
This job was truly an unexpected blessing and opportunity.
Still she did not knock.
A blessing it might beand she had no doubt it wasbut she had not expected to be thrust into a position that mocked her dreams. Dreams of a child of her own, a family and home of her own. Things she could never have now.
If she stood here long enough, she'd change her mind about the opportunity and answered prayer, decide it was only cruel mockery and walk away. Lord, I believe You are in control and have opened a door for me in answer to prayer. Pushing determination into her limbs, she knocked. Her heart battered against her ribs in determined anticipation.
The door opened. Louisa stilled her face to reveal none of the surprise she felt at the sight of the man in the doorway. He was stocky yet gave the impression of strength and authority. He had a thick mop of dark blond hair. His eyes looked as if they smiled, even though his expression revealed only wariness.
She'd expected an older man. A widower, she'd been told, and for some reason she'd imagined someone like old Mr. Knowles, who had married late and lost his wife to some unnamed illness a couple of years back. Mr. Knowles was bent, his hair almost gone except for a comb-over that caught in the wind, should he remove his hat. Mr. Knowles's face resembled a pale orange.
The man before her looked like someone used to being outdoors. The clothes he wore bore no resemblance to the broadcloth suit jacket and shiny trousers Mr. Knowles wore. No town clothes on this man, but a yoke-fronted shirt and soft denim jeans. Louisa knew he'd left his ranching life to bring his little girl home to recover from her broken leg.
The little girl was why Louisa was here. "Miss Ross, the teacher, said you need a tutor for your daughter." Adele Ross had said Mr. Hamilton insisted he approve the tutor she recommended. "I'm here to see if I'm" Suitable. The word stuck in her throat. She wasn't suitable. She knew that. She had no formal education, unless one counted the few months Judd Kirk had tutored her last summer, before he married Louisa's sister, Madge, and moved to a nearby farm.
No formal education. No experience. A history of poor health. And barren. The word thundered through her head.
However, she was not here as a marriage candidate. She simply needed the job. She had no intention of letting her emotions become involved in any way. That would only lead to deeper sorrow.
"My name is Louisa Morgan, and I think I can provide your child with adequate tutoring."
"Miss Morgan." His voice was deep and gravelly. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. I'm Emmet Hamilton, as I'm sure you know. Please come in and we'll discuss the position." He stepped aside and indicated she should enter the house.
She tucked courage under her heart, strength into her legs and crossed the threshold. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior. Something brushed her ankle and she pressed her fingers to her mouth, stifling a squeal of alarm. It was only a cat, and she sighed.
"Auntie May is very fond of her cats. If you have an aversion or dislike of them, best you say so right away."
"I'm quite fond of them." She bent and stroked the big gray cat that meowed at her feet. Suddenly cats sprang from every corner until six crowded around, demanding attention. Louisa chortled at their antics. "Well, look at you guys. Aren't you pretty little things?"
"They're a nuisance."
She straightened and met his eyes, wondering if he objected to his aunt's pets, but she could read nothing in his expression. Seems the man had learned to hide his opinions rather well. Or perhaps he found it inappropriate she should spare the animals attention. Despite the continued demands of the cats, she determinedly ignored them, hoping it would prove her seriousness.
"Have a chair." He pointed toward a wingback chair in maroon upholstery.
She sat and glanced about. The room was crowded with furniturethree armchairs, a sagging brown sofa, at least eight little tables, their tops cluttered with knickknacks. And not only the sort of pretty decorations one would expect. Among ornaments of birds of various colors and in various poses there were also china and wooden cats, bits and pieces of hardware, a doorknob, a lantern, books, dog-eared catalogues and magazines Would she do the same as she grew older? Fill the lonely places that called for children with pets and possessions?
"Goodness me, boy." May Hamilton burst into a doorway on one side of the room. "Bring the miss into the kitchen where it's warmer."
So the cold in Louisa's bones wasn't just nerves.
She half rose then subsided, waiting to see what Mr. Hamilton intended to do.
He nodded. "Come along then." His eyes said far more though. They said he found his aunt both amusing and endearing.
Louisa relaxed marginally and followed Auntie May into a warm room as crowded with furniture and odds and ends as the front room. The whole place had the appearance of many projects on the go or abandoned at some point.
Auntie May studied Louisa. "Hello, my dear."
"Hello, Miss Hamilton."
She snorted. "Since when does anyone call me Miss Hamilton unless they are about to present a bill? I'm Auntie May. Always have been. Always will be. Now park yourself and talk to my nephew while I pour us tea."
Louisa "parked" on one of the mismatched chairs crowding around the table, as if Auntie May normally fed a large family instead of being on her own most of the time. Louisa had heard how she'd taken in her brother's son after his parents' untimely death and finished raising him. But he had left before Louisa and her family moved into the community. He'd returned a week ago with his injured daughter. Some suggested he came back so Auntie May could care for the child, but Louisa said where else would one go but back home if they needed help?
Auntie May nudged her way through a swarm of cats to set cups of tea in front of Louisa and Emmet. "I know Emmet will have hundreds of questions to ask you before he accepts you as tutor to little Ellie, but Emmet, let me say this. I've watched Louisa these past few years. I've seen her overcome challenges and emerge stronger and sweeter and kinder for them. I'm here to say you couldn't do much better than her."
Louisa's face burned with embarrassment at the praise. But at least Auntie May hadn't gone into detail about the challenges Louisa faced. Thankfully, only her family and Doc knew of her greatest challenge. One she must face with dignity and faith every day of her life.
"Thanks, Auntie May. I'll certainly take your opinion into consideration."
"Of course you will. Now come on, all of you." She spoke to the cats running after her as she stepped into the porch. "I've got some food ready." The meowing made conversation impossible until the door closed behind them.
Emmet laughed. "My aunt and her cats."
Louisa, twenty years from nowthe local cat lady. "She'd be lonely without her pets." Auntie May was slightly eccentric but a good soul. There wasn't a person she wouldn't help, and the entire community knew it. The thought cheered Louisa marginally.
"Shall we get down to business?"
Louisa nodded, her tension returning tenfold.
"There are things I need to know about you."
"I understand." She'd tried to guess what questions he'd ask and how she'd answer them.
"First, what sort of training and education do you have that qualifies you to teach my daughter?"
She'd rightly guessed that would be uppermost in his mind. "I'm sure Miss Ross explained my education."
"I'd like to hear it from your lips."
"I do not have university education. Nor have I attended Normal school." If finances and health allowed it, she would love to go to Normal school and train to be a teacher.
"I see. And yet Miss Ross feels you are well educated. Tell me, formal training aside, what qualifies you for this job?" His voice was low, his look insistent.
Apart from the fact that it's the only one I've been offered and I need the money? "I did well in school and have continued my education since. Mostly I am self-taught, but last year my mother hired a tutor with a teaching degree and he helped me. I have a strong background in English, Greek, the arts and history."
She wondered if he did. She must prove she could do this job. "I am also uniquely experienced for a situation such as your daughter's. I spent three winters unable to attend school. I kept up my studies while at home.
I learned how to work on my own and how to amuse myself while confined to bed."
He studied her, then sighed. "Unfortunately, Ellie is used to being outdoors, riding her pony, climbing trees, running across the fields. School has always been a necessary evil in her opinion. I don't think she is going to find contentment in quiet activities."
"Does she have a choice?"
"Not at the moment. What else can you tell me about yourself? How old are you?"
"I'm twenty. Almost twenty-one."
"I would have taken you for much younger."
She squared her shoulders and tried to look wise. Realizing how silly her reaction, she had to steel herself not to chuckle.
"I assume you are only passing time until you marry."
"You, sir, assume incorrectly." He could not possibly know how his words hurt. For that she was thankful. "Marriage is not part of my plans." No man would want her, nor would she marry if one did momentarily profess love. It wouldn't be fair to deprive a man of children. Besides, wouldn't he grow to resent her? Better to remain single than take such a risk.
He gave her narrow-eyed concentration.