He shrugs. I know he doesn’t want to go and I also know that he will if I ask him. But he just started a job as a mechanic at a local garage and he’s often exhausted. And the kids are legally my problem, not his.

“I’ll go,” I tell him.

“You sure?”

I give him a tired smile. “We could both go together but we don’t have money for a babysitter.” And someone refuses to babysit, I finish in my head.

He nods. He doesn’t even have to look at April to know she’s who I’m talking about. If I was a better mother–scratch that, I am not their mother—but if I was better at setting down rules and discipline, then maybe I could convince April to watch her siblings.

But I’m not those things. With this family now, I have to pick my battles.

“Are you both still talking about me?” Callum asks innocently.

I give him a look that I hope would freeze him in his chair but like April, he’s immune. He shovels corn flakes–or No Name Flakes of Corn–into his mouth and smiles, the milk dripping out of the ends.

I roll my eyes.

“Your teacher is unhappy with you, Callum,” Pike says, pouring himself a cup of coffee and sitting down next to him. “Again.”

Callum shrugs, eats more cereal, smiles.

Kid is going to grow up to be a sociopath.

“Maggie,” April practically snarls as she dumps her plate in the sink. “We’re going to be late.”

I glance at the microwave clock. She’s right.

I quickly get half my oatmeal down, grab an apple and then yell, “Okay everyone, the bus is leaving now!”

When my parents died, we all inherited money. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have a lot of money in general and didn’t get the best insurance plan. I got my money six months ago and it was only enough to buy us a much-needed minivan to take place of the broken-down piece of shit we had before, plus a little extra to put into savings. Pike also put his money in savings after buying himself a used motorcycle, which he then fixed up. Everyone else has to wait until they’re eighteen to claim theirs, though I have a feeling April’s will be for a one-way ticket out of here.

I don’t blame her.

Thankfully the mortgage on the house is fully paid and even though the big sprawling place is run down and sits on a hill above both Highway 58 and busy train tracks, providing rumbling and endless noise all hours of the day and night, it’s home. Plus, the property taxes are cheap and manageable.

The twins fight over who gets shotgun, with Rosemary winning out in the end because of her supreme elbowing, while Thyme, Callum and April climb in the back. I honk goodbye to Pike, then wave at our closest neighbors, the Wallace’s, who are out gardening. They’re old as sin and now that it’s May and the scorching summer weather is already here, they can only be found outside in the early morning hours.

I drop off Callum first since his grade school is closest, then the girls, and take a deep, long inhale before I head to work.

After I got the news about my parents, there was no more university, no more journalism degree. I grabbed the first flight out back here and had Sam ship all my stuff back home. Good friend that she is, she even came a few days later with most of it, to be my support during the funeral.

The minute I arrived back in Tehachapi, chaos carved a permanent place in my heart, sometimes overshadowing my grief. Sometimes they would tag team me together and on those days I just wanted to lock myself in the bathroom, get in the bathtub and cry. I did that a few times, wanting to drift away to a place where the pain couldn’t get me, where sorrow didn’t reside in my bones, where I wasn’t always so overwhelmed.

But I couldn’t do that for long. I had to hold it together for the sake of everyone around me. There were meetings with lawyers and insurance companies, police and coroners, teachers, schools, funeral homes, neighbors. While my parents were always just getting by, they were well liked in the community, and everyone was grieving.

I don’t feel like I even had the chance to grieve. I went to a therapist here in town but even that was a bit much since she was friends with my mother. So I’ve just dealt with their death the way I’ve been dealing with it.

Including breaking down in tears between dropping my siblings off and getting to work. It’s only a ten-minute drive from one end of town to the other, but I feel it’s the only time I have time to myself, time to think.

Inevitably, my thoughts turn to my mom and dad and all that I’ve lost. In some ways, it’s good to be insanely overworked and busy at all times because you don’t have to feel the grief as much, but when I do find those moments alone, in the car or in bed at night, sometimes it can overwhelm me. Instead of a slow trickle, it’s a tidal wave.

This morning though, I’m running late for work. I have no time to reflect and feel sad or wallow in self-pity. I got my old job back as a housekeeper at the local La Quinta hotel but at least I’m a step above where I used to be when I was a teenager. Actually, I’ve taken over my mom’s old position, which is totally morbid, but hey it keeps food on our table.

I park the van in my usual spot, grab a spare uniform I keep shoved in the glove compartment (because of course I forgot mine in the wash at home), then climb into the backseat and get dressed. I’ve become a pro at this, like Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth, except I’m turning into a maid in a minivan.

Then I’m rushing into the hotel through the back entrance, hoping to head straight into housekeeping without being spotted.

Of course, I run right into Juanita, my boss.

“Five minutes late, Maggie,” she says to me in her no-nonsense voice. “This better not become a problem.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” I tell her, frantically tying my hair back. I hate that this has happened so often.

“You really oughta get that brother of yours to be dropping off the kids,” she says, the stern features of her face melting into sympathy. “I honestly don’t know how you do it.”

“I barely do it and you know that,” I tell her wryly. “Also, I wouldn’t be able to do it without this job. So thank you, it won’t happen again.”

She just nods and I get out of her way and right to work.

As one can imagine, there has been a gargantuan learning curve when it comes to my new life, but thankfully everyone has been really supportive and understanding, Juanita included. I just know that their sympathy won’t last forever. In the end, I’m either cut out for something or I’m not.

I’m still not sure what the verdict is.

I just know I can’t afford to fail.

Even though being a housekeeper at a hotel isn’t a glamorous occupation, especially a no-frills one by the highway that counts their breakfast waffles as a selling point, I don’t hate it. Okay, that’s a lie. There are many parts of it I hate, but they aren’t what you think. The whole cleaning up after people, washing the shit out of the sides of the toilets (literally), finding used condoms, dealing with the overall grossness of errant body hair and fluids and whatnot, that’s tolerable. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a big family, maybe it’s because I used to have this very job when I was a teen.

What I do hate is something that didn’t even cross my mind when I was younger. When I was younger, being on the poor side didn’t affect me as much as you would think. This isn’t a prosperous town and there are many families struggling to make ends meet. My story isn’t anything new.

But now that I left, that I’ve lived in New York, that I’ve seen the world out there, the world I could have had…I hate how society looks down on people like me. Housekeepers, cleaners, waitresses, blue-collar jobs, we’re only given a fraction of the respect that we deserve.

This is most apparent when you have brazen businessmen (and women) treating you like dirt when you’re on the job, making snide comments, giving you dirty looks when you’re just trying to get by, complaining about a non-existent mess that maybe another housekeeper did and then, of course, not tipping.

Today I work as quickly and efficiently as possible, keeping my mind free of distractions as best I can and just lose myself in the process. I have to admit, there is something rewarding about it, the fact that when you step into a room that looks like a bomb went off and you manage to make it look completely new again, you’re able to see the process. And at the end of the day, I can look upon the work I’ve done and feel like I’ve accomplished something.

I’m at the last room in my section on this floor and knock quickly on the door.

“Housekeeping,” I say loudly.

No response.

I knock again and notice there is no “Do Not Disturb” sign on the doorknob. “Housekeeping,” I say again, getting out my key.

I slide it in and the door opens with a beep.

I step inside to do my overall inspection, just to make sure that there isn’t anyone inside. Happens more than you’d think.

And as I do so, I nearly run into a man walking out of the bathroom.

A tall man. Like, a fucking giant.

A giant, naked, beast of a man.

I freeze on the spot and gasp and the guy keeps walking away from me down the room. He doesn’t seem to hear me. In fact, I swear he’s got swagger. Hot, naked-guy swagger.

I know I should quickly run out of there before he turns around and spots me. This might even be one of those encounters that I’ve heard about from other housekeepers, where there’s a naked guy who “pretends” he didn’t hear you knocking and your best bet is to leave immediately.

But this guy…

I can’t take my eyes off him.

I really, really should but he’s just so…tall.

Large.

Smooth tanned skin, impossibly broad shoulders, sinewy muscles that ripple down his back.

Then his ass.

Oh my god, his ass.

The fact that there’s a bit of a tan line against his tawny skin makes it seem extra firm, like a juicy peach I just want to get down on my knees and bite into and–

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