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The Butler's Daughter
By Joyce Sullivan
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThey weren't going to make it to Severance tonight, Juliana Goodhew realized, resigning herself to that fact as another heart-wrenching wail erupted from her five-month-old charge who was strapped into the infant carrier in the back seat of the SUV. Cort Collingwood's cry fractured into a refrain of sharp, desolate sobs that reverberated off the windows like steel balls.
Poor Cort was making it clear he'd had enough of traveling for one day. They'd missed their morning flight from Cleveland because he'd spent a restless, irritable night, and she'd taken him to the doctor only to discover Cort had an ear infection. The pain reliever she'd given him a few hours ago must have worn off.
"Oh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry," she crooned, trying to soothe him with her voice as she searched the dark New York interstate for an exit and lodging for the night. "I was hoping you'd sleep for most of the trip and before you knew it ... you'd be in your parents' arms."
Emotion gathered tight in her throat at the thought of Lexi waiting anxiously for their arrival. Spending one more sleepless night without her baby. Lexi hadn't seen her son since she'd tearfully handed him over to Juliana's safekeeping when he was three days old. "They're so anxious to see you again, pumpkin. They love you so much. But the reunion will have to wait until morning, after we've both had a rest."
Cort snuffled as if he completely agreed with her, then let out another wail that sounded like a wounded tomcat. Juliana couldn't see him, but she could hear him squirming in the carrier, completely fed up with being confined.
Her fingers gripped the steering wheel as she debated the risks of pulling over to the side of the road to comfort him for a few minutes. It was almost midnight and the traffic along the highway was sparse. She had a gun in the diaper bag that she knew how to use. But still, she couldn't take a chance with Cort's safety. Not after what had happened to the Collingwood's first baby.
Anger and grief abraded her heart like bits of broken glass ground into an open wound. In the blink of an eye, Ross and Lexi Collingwood's one-day-old daughter, Riana, had been abducted from the hospital nursery. The heir to one of America's wealthiest families had gone missing. There had been one aborted ransom demand. Then nothing. Twenty-eight months later there were still no clues in Riana's abduction.
And poor Lexi blamed herself. Juliana had taken Lexi's request to see Cort as a sign of hope that she was finally ready to go on with her life after the tragedy. Surely after holding her delightful son in her arms - and experiencing just one of his bubbly sunshine smiles - she'd know that Cort's rightful place was with his parents and not with the butler's daughter.
"You are going to love your mommy, Cort," she babbled reassuringly, still scouring the roadway for a hotel.
"She's so beautiful - she has a smile that begins with a starry twinkle in her eyes. It infects everyone she meets with an uncontrollable urge to smile back at her. Just like yours, pumpkin. And unlike some of the well-to-dos who shall remain nameless because I don't tell tales about what I see behind closed doors, she's kind and sincere all the time, not just when she's in public. She's generous, too."
Despite her distress over Cort's cries, Juliana's heart swelled with gratitude for Cort's mother. She knew full well it was Lexi's glowing praise of her design and organizational skills that had resulted in her pick of a dozen job offers from wedding consulting firms across the country. A car hurtled past her on the left, blowing its horn, making Juliana realize she was driving well below the posted speed limit.
She sped up. Keeping her left hand on the steering wheel, Juliana stretched her other arm into the back seat and gently stroked Cort's downy head with her fingers. He was hot and sticky, poor darling. She kept talking to him in an effort to soothe him. "Do you remember me telling you how your parents met at a hospital charity ball for sick children, pumpkin? Your mommy worked as a social worker for the hospital. Your father flirted with her - shamelessly, I might add. She didn't know who he was, but she thought he was too handsome and too arrogant for his own good. He asked her out, but she told him she wouldn't even consider going out with him unless he donated one whole week's salary to the hospital because a man who didn't care about sick children wasn't a man she cared to spend five minutes of conversation with, much less an evening. Oh, I'd have loved to have seen your father's face when she said that! Would you believe your father took your mother's hand, pulled her to the stage of the ballroom and made a pledge for 1.2 million dollars?"
Cort let out a discontented roar.
The corners of Juliana's mouth tilted. "You think he should have offered more, do you? Spoken just like a Collingwood." Juliana steadied her grip on the steering wheel as a gust of wind from a passing eighteen-wheeler buffeted the SUV. "They don't call your daddy the baron of Wall Street for nothing. He certainly proved he was smart enough to convince your mother to marry him - and I got to help your mommy plan their wedding."
Juliana's gaze flickered toward the star-studded sky, remembering the music and the twinkling lights and the thousands of flowers for that spectacular December night. She'd never seen two people more in love. Lexi had looked like a princess in an exquisite silk gown with diamonds sparkling in her chestnut hair. Juliana had planned every detail of the wedding and every detail had been perfect. Even her father had said so.
"That's how I discovered I wanted to be a wedding planner. It's sort of like being a fairy godmother to brides. They get to be Cinderella with their own prince." Juliana sighed softly and stroked Cort's head, missing the glamour and the romance of her job. She even missed the thousand and one details that had required her constant attention. While she hoped she'd be returning to that life after this weekend, a part of her ached at the thought of being separated from Cort.
After five months together, she knew each of her tiny charge's smiles and cries. She knew the plump rounded curves of his cheeks and limbs and the delicious scents of his skin and his hair. Her heart folded into a tight contented box whenever she held him. Saying goodbye was not going to be easy.
"But for the moment, pumpkin," she mused as Cort continued to whimper and grumble like a radio with static,
"I'm your fairy godmother - until your mommy comes to her senses and realizes she can't hide your birth from the rest of the world."
To her relief, Juliana rounded a dark curve and the headlights flashed on an accommodations sign for the next exit. "It won't be much longer now." She gave Cort's head one last caress and put both hands on the steering wheel.
Within fifteen minutes, she'd managed to secure a motel room and juggle the baby, his diaper bag, her purse and her carry-on bag up to the second-floor room. She gave Cort another dose of pain reliever, changed his diaper and snapped him into a miniature baseball sleeper while a portable crib was brought up to the room. Then she put a bottle in the warmer. Cuddling Cort against her, she pulled the cell phone from the diaper bag to call her father.
"Juliana? It's practically midnight." Her father's voice was stiff with disapproval. "Where are you?"
"Sorry, Papa. I thought I could surprise the Collingwoods tonight, but Cort is fussing. His ears are bothering him still. The doctor said it would be a good twenty-four hours before the antibiotics took effect." Juliana rocked from side to side as Cort started to whimper, his fingers clinging to her cotton sweater. "We've just checked into a motel about two hours from Severance. We'll leave first thing in the morning and arrive for breakfast. Cort usually wakes around six."
"Well, then, I suppose it can't be helped."
Excerpted from The Butler's Daughter by Joyce Sullivan Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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