Ariadne Stoker turned from the oven and set the hot muffin tin on the counter. The little tea shop she ran with her sister, Regina, had proven more successful than they’d originally thought, and their first investment had been buying a larger stove and oven so she could really cook. That led to more customers, and Ariadne couldn’t be more pleased at how their new lives in Colorado were going. Well, she did have a few concerns, but they weren’t worth the fuss when she considered how blessed they were.
Regina and her new husband, Jake, lived out on the Circle C, but Regina came into town daily to help run things for a few hours, cantering along on the palomino pony Jake had gotten her. Because Regina was out at the ranch so much of the time, Ariadne was by default the manager of the shop, and she wasn’t entirely sure what she thought of that. She had intended to run things alongside her sister, and in fact thought Regina would be the leader, as she always had been, but that’s not the hand fate had dealt them. Now Ariadne was being forced to step to the front and make decisions, and she had to admit, it was difficult.
As was the solitude. Ariadne was sometimes lonely at night after the shop was closed and it was just her puttering around in the upstairs apartment, but Jake was a good man, and Regina was happy. That, in turn, made Ariadne happy, although she did wonder if she’d ever have such good fortune herself.
She sighed as she picked up a fork and lifted the muffins from their tin. Romances seemed to be popping up all over the place in Creede—even Reverend Bing had tied the knot recently—but there didn’t seem to be a man in town for her. Yes, there were several who were handsome, and plenty had come around to buy her muffins and sip a cup of tea, glancing at her all the while, but none had that special something she was looking for, and the worst part was that she didn’t even know what that special something was. She’d know it when she saw it, but she couldn’t describe it.
She shook her head, laughing. So much for refusing to dwell on her few concerns—she’d just spent the last five minutes doing nothing but that. It was time for her to stop feeling sorry for herself.
The door to the shop opened, and Wendell Thurgood entered. Ariadne tried to hide her annoyance. It wasn’t that Mr. Thurgood was a bad man, but he was their landlord, and it was difficult to like a landlord just on general principle. But there was also this way he had of looking down his nose at people. Regina had pointed out that he was very tall, and so looking down his nose was probably the only way he could see anything, but still, it was annoying.
“Good morning, Mr. Thurgood,” Ariadne said, making her voice as cheerful as possible. “What can I do for you? I thought Regina paid the rent already.”
“She did, Miss Stoker. I’m not here to collect. I’ve actually come for a cup of tea, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. I just made some chamomile, or I can make a new kind if that doesn’t suit.”
“Chamomile is fine.” Mr. Thurgood took a seat at one of the small tables in the corner. They were designed for daintier customers, and he looked rather uncomfortable sitting there, his knees jutting out at angles. Ariadne felt bad for him. They should have ordered larger tables when they were designing their shop. They’d just thought they’d be serving ladies, not very tall men.
She carried a warm muffin and a cup of tea over to the table and set them both in front of Mr. Thurgood, setting the muffin plate in such a way that the pattern on it lined up with the pattern on the saucer. No one noticed things like that, but it made her happy, so she did it regardless. “Here you are, Mr. Thurgood.”
He gave a nod and picked up the teacup, and Ariadne moved back behind the counter.
She set the muffin tin in the washbasin, wiped the top of the stove, and then found herself with nothing whatsoever to do. She wished she didn’t feel so awkward. She generally made small talk with her customers if they were the only ones in the shop, but she had nothing to say this time. She didn’t know anything about Mr. Thurgood except for what she imagined about him, and she certainly hoped that wasn’t true because she imagined him to be rude and snobbish and a great deal too good for everyone else in town.
“That was very tasty, Miss Stoker,” he said as he finished. He extracted himself from his chair with a little bit of effort and placed a few coins on the counter. “I’ll be sure to come back.”
“Thank you,” she replied. “It was a pleasure to see you here.”
It was even more of a pleasure to see him gone. She felt like she could finally breathe again.
Wendell Thurgood strode back toward his office, shaking his head and feeling like an idiot. He’d gone to the tea shop in hopes of striking up a conversation with Miss Stoker, but his tongue had felt thick and his brain wouldn’t make words, so he’d sat there like a lump and sipped tea and missed out on the reason for his visit entirely. He was even more of an idiot for having the idea of talking to her in the first place. She was too young and too pretty to want anything to do with him, but he hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind since they met. He found himself dwelling on the little things about her—her delicate ways, her innocence, the sweetness of her. Such a girl should be protected and cherished. He could do that, and he felt he had to give it a chance.
Well, he’d just done that very thing, and it had been a miserable failure.
But really, what had he been expecting? That he’d sweep in there and charm her with his dazzling wit and quick intellect? He didn’t have either of those things. Nothing about him was dazzling or quick. Instead, he was dull and methodical, a man accustomed to ledgers and charts, not at all interested in dances or parties—things he was sure Miss Stoker enjoyed. After all, she had come from a wealthy British family and was cultured and refined. He imagined she’d spent evenings at the ballet and the opera, whereas he spent evenings with a book or a newspaper.
Plus, he was easily fifteen years older. That wasn’t a point in his favor.
He hung up his hat on the nail behind his office door and situated himself at his desk. This was where he belonged—here with his paperwork and his pencils. He’d leave romance and courtship to the younger set. He’d lost his chance years ago, and it was time he accepted it. Some men were simply meant to be bachelors forever.
Sometimes destiny seemed very unfair.
He mumbled the last bit aloud, hardly realizing he was speaking.
“You realize, of course, that fairness is a completely false concept.”
Wendell startled. Standing in front of his desk was a woman in her mid-forties, her dark hair piled in a bun, but leaving one curled tendril down to rest on her shoulder. She held a lace parasol in one hand, open, even though they were indoors.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am. I didn’t hear you come in.” He came to a stand, but she motioned him to sit back down.
“I’m told I walk on cat feet.” She turned in a circle, seeming to appraise his office. When she met eyes with him again, she smiled. “You seem to have settled in rather well.”
“Yes, I’m quite pleased with my establishment.” He cleared his throat. “How may I help you? Won’t you take a seat?”
“Oh, I’m sure I will at some point,” she replied, wandering over to peer out the window. “And it’s not a matter of how you can help me. Rather, I’m here to help you.”
“Help me . . . how? And pardon my asking, ma’am, but what is your name?”
She turned and smiled. “Of course you may ask my name. It’s very hard to get to know someone when you don’t know what to call them. You, for instance, are Wendell Thurgood, which seems like a nice, upstanding name, but it’s also a bit formal, don’t you think? I wonder if there’s some sort of way we could shorten it. We can’t call you ‘Wendy’—I refuse. ‘Wen’ sounds like we’re asking when something’s going to happen.” She looked thoughtful. “Something will come to me. We might need to leave it for another day.”
“I’m actually fine with my name the way it is,” Wendell replied, wondering how changing his name could possibly have any bearing on his business. He sold property—no one cared about names when they were buying property. “But you haven’t told me yours yet.”
“I haven’t? Oh, that’s right. I haven’t.” She laughed, then came forward and extended her hand. “I’m Hyacinth Chapel. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
He rose and briefly took her hand. “And you. Won’t you please sit, Miss Chapel?”
“I will in a moment. Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m here, and really, I don’t blame you.” She finally lowered her parasol and laid it on the desk. Wendell almost sighed with relief. His mother had been somewhat superstitious, and she’d never allowed an open umbrella in the house.
“You said something a moment ago about fairness,” she went on, strolling around the room yet again. The small heels of her boots clicked on the floor as she walked. “Of all the things I’ve learned in my life, Wendell, perhaps the most important is that expecting something to be fair is nothing but a waste of time.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said. Who was this woman? He was new to Creede and didn’t know everyone, but he would have noticed her. She was rather tall and striking, and she carried herself with such authority, it would be impossible to miss her.
“You want life to be fair, you say. In order for that to happen, everyone would have the same advantages and disadvantages, wouldn’t they?”
“That would be nice,” Wendell replied. “I don’t suppose you have a way to make that happen.”
“I don’t, but I wouldn’t even if I could. Think of it this way. Those who are young have an advantage over those who are old, but if we made it fair to everyone, we’d all be the same age. There would be no more children, no more elderly—just those in the prime of their lives, not in need of care from anyone else. Not only would that be quite ridiculous, but it would be impossible. That’s not how a living thing regenerates or reproduces.”
“True, but that’s not entirely what I meant,” Wendell began.
She went on as though she hadn’t heard him. “It’s also true that men have an unfair advantage over women in nearly every instance. Yes, Colorado women will be able to vote—I watched how hard Miss Bing worked on convincing the people here of that needed fact. Except I suppose she’s Mrs. McRae now.” She chuckled. “But that’s beside the point. In order for all things to be fair, we’d only have one gender—all men or all women. And how would that work out for us as a species?”
Wendell hadn’t woken up that morning prepared for such a conversation. “Not at all,” he replied, deciding it was the safest choice to let her have her say before he tried once again to explain himself.
“So you see, what we think of as fair isn’t really fair at all. You wouldn’t ask both a dog and a fish to swim across a river and expect the same results. We’re all given different circumstances based on our needs, not on what would be fair to everyone else.”
“But that’s just it!” Wendell said, changing his mind just as quickly as he’d made it up. “What if I need to be married?”
She widened her eyes. “Do you need to be married, or do you want to be married? There’s quite a difference, you know. The word ‘need’ implies that something truly dire will happen if you don’t receive it.”
“It . . . feels like a need,” Wendell replied, deflated. “I suppose I’d survive without it.”
“Ah, but survival isn’t the same as truly living, is it?” She finally took the chair he’d been offering and arranged her skirts neatly. “I believe, dear sir, that I can help you with this awful dilemma you’ve been facing.”
He blinked. “You can?”
“Yes, I can. You might say that’s my line of work—to assist lost souls toward finding what they are seeking.”
“Are you a matchmaker, then?”
She laughed merrily. “Oh, no. Nothing of the kind. I’m a guardian angel.”
Wendell sat upright, his jaw going slack. “You mean . . . you mean you’re like a guardian angel,” he said at last. “The people you’ve helped call you their angel because they’re so grateful.”
“They do call me an angel, yes,” she replied. “But that’s because I am one.”
Wendell shook his head. “That’s not possible,” he said. This woman was clearly in need of some sort of asylum—that was the only explanation. “And I’m not a religious person, so . . .”
“You may or may not be religious—that makes no difference to me,” she replied. “A fact is a fact regardless of your perception of it. I’m an angel. That is a fact. The second fact is that I’ve been sent to help you.”
“God sent you to help me even if I’m not sure I believe He exists?” This was becoming more confusing by the second.
“He believes you exist, and that’s the important part right now.” She beamed at him. “Now, Mr. Wendell Thurgood, we have some deeper discussions to have. You don’t need to be married, but you would like it very much, correct?”
“Correct.” His mind was so scattered, he could barely remember what they’d been talking about five minutes before.
“It’s important that we make that distinction. If you feel like you need something and you don’t get it, that creates desperation, and it’s very hard to make sensible decisions when you’re desperate.”
He sensed that she wanted some sort of reply, so he nodded. It’s all he was capable of.
“On the other hand, if we say that we want something, we can keep a bit of fun in it, and that makes it more enjoyable. I do believe Miss Stoker would like getting to know you as a more relaxed sort of human being, don’t you?”
“I’m relaxed,” Wendell protested even as he knew he wasn’t telling the truth. “Well, I try to relax,” he amended.
“And you’re trying too hard. It all goes back to feeling desperate, you see. You want this thing so badly that you get uptight about it instead of seeing what fun you can have in the meantime. That’s my first suggestion—show Miss Stoker a different side of yourself, the side that isn’t always focused on business or results.”
“How do I do that?”
“Take her on a picnic or fishing. Going for a ride in the mountains would be lovely. In fact, I might have to do that myself. I’ve never seen such incredible mountains as you have here.” She waved her hand toward the window.
Wendell was trying to wrap his mind around what was happening, but he was having no success at all. “I don’t think she’d come out with me if I invited her,” he said, hoping this bit of information would get him off the hook from dealing with Miss Chapel another moment longer. He couldn’t think of a polite way to encourage her to leave, and he very much wanted her to. He might even need her to—if she kept twisting his brain into knots, it might mean the difference in his mental health.
“You’ve already muffed it up, have you?” Miss Chapel shook her head. “Oh, my dear Wendell. It would appear that I’ve arrived just in time. It sounds to me like you need to start from the beginning, as it were, and get to know her on new terms.”
Wendell shook his head. “How is that even possible? I’m her landlord. She’ll always see me in that capacity.”
Miss Chapel fixed him with a look. “A guardian angel has just shown up in your office with an offer to help, and you’re asking about what’s possible? I do hope you realize the irony of that, and that I won’t have to explain it.”
“That’s just it. I’m not sure you’re possible either. Or what I’ve done to merit a guardian angel.”
“Perhaps I’m not here on your behalf. Perhaps I’m here for her.”
Wendell blinked. “If you were here for her, why are you talking to me?”
“Because some people need to be shaken up a little bit before they’ll listen, and you, dear sir, appear to be exactly that type.” Miss Chapel heaved a great sigh, as though she was being asked to do something beyond difficult. “Tell me. How important is Miss Stoker to you?”
“Miss Stoker?” Wendell tried to find the words to describe it. “She’s like summer after it’s been winter for a really long time.”
Miss Chapel nodded. “If I told you I had another young lady in mind, one who would fall into your arms this minute with no effort, would you be interested? Or would you want to put in the work necessary to win Miss Stoker’s heart?”
“Miss Stoker,” Wendell replied immediately. There wasn’t even a question about it.
“Excellent. That’s exactly the sort of commitment I was looking for. I will help you win your lady, Wendell Thurgood, but you must keep a few things in mind.”
His heart gave a little leap at the idea that she would help him. Then he chastised himself. He was getting all worked up over nothing—in fact, he’d probably fallen asleep at his desk and was dreaming this whole conversation. “What are those things?” he asked cautiously.
“You must always remember that Miss Stoker has the right to decide for herself how she feels. I’m going to help you approach her and make yourself more interesting to her, but I’m going to do nothing to influence her feelings. That wouldn’t be fair to either of you, and we both know how badly you want things to be fair.”
He grimaced. “That’s not what I meant—”
Once again, she ignored him and kept talking. “Next, you must remember that the woman you marry will be by your side for the rest of your life, so you must show her now who you really are deep down. No unpleasant surprises, I’m sure you understand.”
“So I’m to be honest with her at all times.”
“Of course.” Miss Chapel seemed surprised that he would even ask. “Now, I have a bit of research to do, as it were. Sit tight, and I’ll be back later.” She stood, picked up her parasol, gave a little wave, and disappeared.
Just plain disappeared. Like a candle that had been snuffed out.
Wendell blinked a few more times, then shook his head and picked up his pen. “I was dreaming,” he said aloud, bending his head back to his work. It was likely that he needed to take a few days off for a rest. Too much paperwork could addle a man’s brain, and he was proof of that.