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Favor, South Dakota 1934
They represented all she wanted.
They were everything she could never have.
The pair caught twenty-four-year-old Emma Spencer's attention as she made her way home. The way the tall man bent to the sweet little boy at his side, the tenderness in his gesture as he adjusted the child's hat and straightened his tweed coat brought a sting of unexpected tears to her eyes.
The child said something, and the man squatted to eye level, took the boy's chin between long fingers and smiled as he answered. Even from where she stood, Emma could see strong and assuring depths in his dark eyes. Then he straightened, his expression determined, and stared across the street.
Emma ducked, afraid he'd notice her interest and think her unduly curious. But she couldn't resist a guarded look at the pair.
The boy took the man's hand. The man picked up a battered suitcase and they continued on.
Emma's throat closed so tightly that she struggled to breathe. An ache as wide as the Dakota prairies sucked at her thoughts. Just a few steps away, across the wind-swept, dusty street, stood the embodiment of all she longed fora strong, caring man and a dear little child. She mentally shook herself. Although it was not to be, she had no reason to begrudge the fact. She loved being a nurse. She loved helping people. Most of all, she had a responsibility to her parents and brother, struggling to survive the drought and Depression on the farm back home. They depended on the money she sent from her wages each month. She thought of her brother, Sid, and drew in a steadying breath to stop a shiver of guilt. She waited for her lungs to ease and let her usually buried dreamssubside into wispy clouds she knew would drift across her thoughts from time to time, like the straw-colored autumn leaves skittering past her feet.
The pair turned in at Ada Adams's boardinghouse and stopped at the front door, side-by-side, tall and straight as two soldiers. She smiled at the way the boy glanced at the man to see if he imitated the stance correctly.
The door opened. Gray-haired Ada reached out and hugged them each in turn, then drew them inside.
Emma gasped and halted her journey toward the boardinghouse. This must be the nephewa widowerAda expected. Somehow Emma anticipated an older man with a much older son. Truthfully, Emma had paid little attention when Ada made the announcement of their impending arrival. She'd simply been relieved Ada finally decided to get help running the house. The work was far too much for the older woman, suffering from arthritis. Now Emma wished she'd thought to have asked some questions. How old was the man? How old his son? How long was he staying? What had Ada said happened to his wife? Ada might have answered all her questions but Emma had been dashing out the door and hadn't stopped to listen to the whole story.
Emma hesitated, calming her too eager desire to follow this pair. She glanced at her sturdy white shoes. Her white uniform revealed the evidence of a hard day at the hospital. The weather had been cool when she left before dawn and she'd worn her woolen cape, but now the sun shone warmly and she carried her cape over her arm.
She needed a few minutes to collect her thoughts and seek a solution to this sudden yearning. Rather than cross to the boardinghouse, she continued along the sidewalk with no destination in mind, simply the need to think in solitude.
She passed yards enclosed by picket fences. Mr. Blake fussed about his flower beds, preparing them to survive a bitter South Dakota winter. She called a greeting and he waved.
Praying silently, she circled the block. Lord, God, You know the road before me. You know I don't resent my responsibility. In fact, I am grateful as can be for this job and the chance to help my parents. It's only occasionally I wish for things that might have been. This is one of those times. I thought I had dealt with my disappointment and buried my dreams, but it seems they don't have the decency to stay dead and buried. Yet I will not fret about it. I know You will give me the strength to do what I must. In Thee do I rejoice. Blessed be Your name.
A smile curved her lips as peace flooded her heart. She knew what she had to do, how she had to face the future, and she would gladly do it.
Her resolve restored, she walked back to the boardinghouse. Only for a second did her feet falter as she remembered Ada's nephew's dark eyes and the way he smiled at his small son. A tiny sound of disgust escaped her lips. She wasn't one to let fanciful notions fill her head. No. She was the kind to do what had to be done. No one and nothing would divert her from her responsibilities. She tipped her thoughts back to her prayer. God would help her. Yet, it might prove prudent to avoid as much contact with the nephew as possible. Certainly they would sit around the same table for meals but apart from that
She suddenly chuckled. The man might be unbearably rude or snobbish, even if in those few moments as he encouraged his son, he'd touched her heart.
Her smile flattened. Rogue or otherwise, she needn't worry. He'd probably not even notice her. She was no china doll. Her eyes should have been blue to go with her blond hair. Instead she had dark brown eyes, equally dark lashes and brows. Too often people gave her a strange look as if startled by the contrast. She'd been told many times it gave her a look of determinationa woman more suited for work than romance. Yet
She pushed away useless dreams, straightened her shoulders and stepped into the warm house.
She thought of slipping up the stairs to change, but she would only be avoiding the inevitable. Sooner or later she'd have to meet the man. Besides, despite the rumpled state of her uniform, wearing it made her feel strong and competent. A glance in the hall mirror, a tuck of some loose strands of hair into her thick bun and she headed into the kitchen.
He stood with his back to her. He'd shed his coat. He was thin as were many people after years of drought and Depression prices. His shoulders were wide and square, and he was even taller than she'd thoughtsix foot or better, if she didn't miss her guess. His hair was brown as a warm mink coat.
She blamed the hot cookstove for the way her cheeks stung with heat.
Ada leaned to the right so she could see past her nephew. "Emma, I told you my nephew, Boothe, was coming."
The man faced her. His eyes weren't dark as she first thought; they only appeared so because they were deep-set and gray as a winter sky, filling her heart with a raging storm to rival any blizzard she'd ever experienced.
"Boothe Wallace." Ada's voice came like a faint call on a breeze as Emma's emotions ran the gamut of longing, loneliness and finally into self-disgust that she couldn't better control her thoughts.
"Boothe, this is one of my guests, Emma Spencer."
Emma, her feelings firmly under control, stepped forward but halted as his expression grew forbidding.
His gaze raced over her uniform, pausing at the blotch where she'd tried to erase evidence of a young patient's vomit.
She wished she'd taken the time to change. "I'm sorry," she murmured, forcing the words past the blockage in her throat. "I just got off work."
"A nurse." Boothe's words carried a condemning tone, though Emma could think of no reason for it. She'd given him no cause to object to anything she'd done or not done.
"She works at the hospital," Ada explained. "And this little fellow is Boothe's son, Jessie."
Boothe showed no sign of moving over to allow Emma to meet the boy, so she stepped sideways. Jessie perched on the table. He gave her a shy, glancing smile, allowing her a glimpse of startlingly blue eyes. She wanted to sweep the adorable child into her arms. She wisely restrained herself. She loved working with children best. Her superiors praised her rapport with them.
The boy wore an almost new shirt of fine cotton and knickers of good quality wool. Compared to his father's well-worn clothes, Jessie was dressed like a prince.
"I'm happy to meet you, Jessie," she said in the soft tone she reserved for children and frightened patients. "How old are you?"
He darted another glance at her and smiled so wide she ached to ruffle his sandy-colored hair. "Six." His voice had a gritty sound as if he wanted everyone to forget he was a little boy and think he was a man.
That's when she saw the deep slash on his arm and the blood-soaked rag that had recently been removed. "You've been hurt. What happened?" Instinctively, she stepped forward, intent on examining the wound.
"Ran into a sticking out nail. Daddy got really mad at the man pushing the cart." He gave the cut a look, shuddered and turned away, but not before she got a glimpse of his tears. The wound had to hurt like fury. It was deep and gaping, but a few stitches would fix it up and he'd heal neatly as long as he didn't get an infectionand unless it was properly cleaned, he stood a good chance of just that. Dirt blackened the edges of the cut. "I'll clean it for you, and then your father can take you to the doctor."
But before she reached Jessie's side, Boothe stepped in front of her.
"No doctor. No nurse." His harsh tone sent a shudder along Emma's spine. "I'll take care of him myself." His stubborn stance was a marked contrast to the tenderness he'd exhibited a short time ago on the street.
She thought she must have misunderstood him. "It needs cleaning and stitching. I can do the former but a good doctor should do the latter." Again she moved to take over the chore.
Again he blocked her. "I'll be the one taking care of my son."
The challenge in his eyes felt like a spear to her heart, but she wouldn't let it deter her. "Your son needs medical attention."
"I don't need the bungling interference of either a doctor or a nurse." He'd lowered his voice so only Emma heard him.
She recoiled from the venomous accusation. "I do not bungle."
He held his hand toward her, palm forward, effectively forbidding her to go any farther.
She clasped her hands at her waist, squeezed her fingers hard enough to hurt and clamped her mouth shut to stop the angry protest. How dare this man judge her incompetent! But even more, how could he ignorantly, stubbornly, put his son at risk? Too many times she'd seen the sorry result of home remedies. She'd seen children suffer needlessly because their parents refused to take them to the doctor until their injuries or illnesses pushed them to the verge of death. She shuddered, recalling some who came too late.
He turned back to his aunt. "Would you have a basin?"
Ada's eyes were wary as if wondering if she should intervene then she gave a barely perceptible shrug, pulled one from the cupboard and handed it to him.
Boothe's demanding gaze forbade Emma to interfere. When he seemed confident she'd stand back, he turned to his son. "Jessie, I'm going to clean this and then I'll bandage it."
Boothe filled a basin as Emma helplessly looked on. It took a great deal of self-discipline to stand by when little Jessie sent her a frightened look as if begging her to promise everything would be okay. Unfortunately, she couldn't give such assurance. The wound continued to bleed. One good thing about the flow of bloodit served to cleanse the deeper tissues.
Boothe dipped a clean cloth in the water. Jessie whimpered. "Now, son. I won't hurt you any more than I need to. You know that?"
Jessie nodded and blinked back tears.
"You be a brave man and this will be done sooner than you know."
Jessie pressed his lips together and nodded again.
Emma admired the little boy's bravery. She watched with hawk-like concentration as Boothe cleaned the edges of the wound. He did a reasonably good job but it didn't satisfy Emma. She itched to pour on a good dose of disinfectant. Iodine was her first choice. She'd never seen a wound infect if it'd been properly doused with the potent stuff. She opened her mouth to make a suggestion but Boothe's warning glance made her swallow back the words. The boy would have a terrible scar without stitches, and the wound would keep bleeding for an unnecessarily long time.
"Aunt Ada, do you have a clean rag?" Boothe asked. Ada handed him an old sheet.
No, Emma mentally screamed. At least use something sterile. "I could get dressings from the hospital," she offered, ignoring his frown.
"This will do just fine." He tore the fabric into strips.
Anger, like hot coals to her heart, surged through her. How could this man be so stubborn? Why did he resist medical help with such blindness?
Ignoring her, though he couldn't help but be aware of her scowling concern, he pressed the edges of the wound together and wrapped it securely with the cloth, fixing the end in place with the pin Ada handed him then stepped back, pleased with his work.