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West Texas, 1885
Jake Ross would rather eat barbed wire than have anything to do with a kid, but thanks to the supposed "dying woman" who'd left a baby at his door three days ago, he was interviewing applicants for a baby nurse and housekeeper.
On this hot August afternoon, everyone except his cousin, Georgia, had taken off faster than a six-legged jackrabbit. She and Jake were in the large front room of the ranch house. Georgia sat in one of the wide leather chairs at the end of the deer-hide sofa as Jake spoke to a tall woman with a British accent. Miz Alma Halvorson was the first person to respond to the ads that he and his uncle had posted in Whirlwind after determining no one there could or would take the infant.
Jake let Georgia keep an eye on the little girl sleeping on the bearskin rug in front of the rock fireplace while he asked questions. Which was a chore because he could barely think past the hammering in his head. He'd spent Saturday afternoon in a bottle, just as he did every other Saturday and he was still feelin'the misery a day and a half later. The pounding in his head only throbbed harder every time he looked at that kid.
After church yesterday, he had asked around the small nearby town of Whirlwind about a family for Molly. Riley and Susannah Holt couldn't take her because they'd just had another baby. Riley's cousin, Jericho Blue, and his wife, Catherine, couldn't take in the little girl because they'd just learned they were expecting. And Jake hadn't been able to bring himself to ask Davis Lee and Josie Holt. They had just lost a baby and asking them to take Molly so soon after hadn't seemed right.
After speaking to severalother families, he'd driven out to Fort Greer and spoken to Dr. Butler about possibilities. No luck there, either. He'd wired two doctors in Abilene and the marshal about families who might take the child, but no one could help right now. Nor had any of the doctors treated a dying woman who'd been of the age to have an infant.
Jake needed to find some help today. Because, if he didn't, he'd be stuck taking care of it and he just wouldn't. Couldn't. Of course, with only one good arm, Georgia couldn't, either. His uncle and brother might not mind caring for the child, but they did have a ranch to run.
"Whose baby is that?" the persimmon-faced candidate asked.
"I don't know." Jake looked down at the blond-haired infant, his heart squeezing. After fussing and crying most of the last three nights and on the trip into town yesterday, she had finally fallen asleep on the ride home. "I thought I told you I found her at the door last Friday night."
"No, I meant-" She cleared her throat as her gaze skipped away from his. "Does she belong to you? Is she your illegitimate-" "No, she isn't," Jake said sharply, "and what difference does it make if she is?"
She was an innocent child. Jake might not want her, but he didn't think she deserved to be thrown away. No kid should be left at someone's door like last week's laundry.
He still couldn't believe someone could actually abandon a child. As if the baby picked up on his dark thoughts, she began to cry.
Jake gritted his teeth and walked over to pick her up, handling her just as awkwardly as he had since she'd arrived. She'd been left in one of their wash tubs along with a blanket, some flannels for changing her, a nightdress and two day dresses. A paper had been pinned to the gown she'd worn, with a letter written on the front and feeding instructions on the back.
After reading the thing at least twenty times, Jake didn't have to pull the paper out of his trouser pocket and look at it to recall the words.
I am a poor friendless woman dying in a strange town. I have no close family or husband and I noticed your kindness to a lost little boy in town. The only way I can bear to part from this life is to leave my Molly with you, not at a baby asylum or foundling hospital. You seem the kind of man who would not let a child starve or be sold. She will be a year old on October 7. I leave her in your care and pray God will forgive me.
The mother had chosen him. Who the hell was she? Had he seen her and not noticed? Her words made him feel responsible for the baby, responsible for yet another person, and Jake didn't like it.
But he knew how it felt to be abandoned and he wouldn't do that to anyone. He'd advertised for the right family, but in the meantime, the kid was stuck here. The baby's crying didn't stop even though he held her. The throb in his head worked down his neck. He had to find a baby nurse and double fast.
Miz Halvorson's gray hair was pulled into a bun so tight it made her scarecrow-thin features look even more stern. She stared haughtily at him as he tried to find a position for the baby that wasn't awkward.
"She'll never learn to stop that if you give in to her." From the corner of his eye, Jake saw Georgia look up from her chair with a frown. His gaze leveled on the older woman.
"Are you saying we should let her cry?"
"Unless you teach her how to behave, she'll never learn to settle down," the woman said in a tone that clearly intimated he was witless. "She'll cry every time she wants something."
Letting her cry sounded mean to Jake. From the tight line of his cousin's lips, he could tell she felt the same.
"Well, she can't talk!" Jake carefully settled the kid into Georgia's good arm, understanding her look that said she didn't like Miz Halvorson any better than he did. "How else is she supposed to tell anybody what she wants?"
The woman started to say something, only to be interupted by a knock on the door. Jake hoped it was another applicant. There had to be someone better than Miz Halvorson.
Baby Molly cried louder and Georgia patted her back with her unwithered hand, just as she had been doing when the baby had finally given out last night from sheer exhaustion. But this time it wasn't working. The knock came again and Jake started across the planked pine floor toward the heavy front door. "Thanks for coming out, Miz Halvorson. We'll let you know if we have any further questions."
She huffed, following him. "Goodbye, ma"am." He opened the door and got his first pleasant surprise in more than two days.
Framed in the soft amber light of the setting sun was a young woman. Her brown hair was up and she wore spectacles. She was petite and a trifle skinny, but she had skin like cream. Lady, please open that pretty mouth and tell me you've come about the ad. Unless she was lost, she had to be here for that. He hadn't had a woman at the Circle R since Delia had passed. Neither had his uncle or brother or the ranch hands.
"I've come about the ad-" She broke off, looking stricken as her solemn gaze landed on the British woman. "Have you already filled the position?"
"Not yet," Jake said quickly.
Miz Halvorson swept past him and out the door, then stopped to say in a low voice to the new arrival, "They don't know anything about raising children and don't believe in discipline."
Holding on to the porch railing, she stepped onto the ground and stomped to her buggy, which sat between the house and barn. The younger woman turned to Jake with uncertainty on her face.
He noted slender curves beneath a blue-gingham bodice and bustled skirt. "I'm Jake Ross. Come in, Miz-"
"York. Emma York." She cast one last look over her shoulder at the departing Miz Halvorson, then stepped inside, watching carefully as he shut the door.
As she followed him to the center of the room, her gaze went to the baby. Molly still fussed and Georgia bounced her gently on her shoulder. Jake gestured to the woman with dark, silver-threaded hair. "This is my cousin, Georgia Ross."
Georgia rose and nodded, since she was unable to extend her hand. "Hello."
Jake gestured to the deer-hide sofa, special made to accommodate any of the Ross men stretched out full-length. "Please have a seat."
"I'd rather stand, if-if that's all right," she said softly, as if afraid he might take exception.
"Of course." He backed up against the sofa and eased down. She was a pretty thing, with more of a fullness to her breasts than he'd originally thought. And, behind those spectacles, he could tell she had green eyes. Pretty green eyes.
Though, it would suit him just fine if Emma York were ugly. He hadn't noticed much about a woman's looks since his wife had died five years ago.
From her spot in front of the fireplace, Georgia asked, "What's your feeling about babies crying?"
"Ma"am?" Miz York glanced from the woman to Jake, looking confused.
"Before you got here," he said, "Miz Halvorson was giving us her views on what to do when a baby cries. What would you do?"
Emma York's fingers twined in the folds of her skirt. "I'd check to see if something was wrong, if she was hungry or needed to be changed."
The baby twisted and squirmed in Georgia's arms, and she spoke in a low voice, trying to calm the child.
"And you'd pick her up?" Georgia prompted.
"I imagine so." She searched Jake's face as if trying to guess the answer he wanted.
Still wiggling, the baby cried out. "I guess since you found your way here, you know this is the Circle R," Jake said. "Someone left this baby at our door last Friday night and, until I find a place for her to go, I need a nurse. Right up front I should tell you we also need a housekeeper, someone who'll cook and clean. Ours was gone Saturday when we returned from Abilene."
As if Jake's biweekly visit to his brother-in-law weren't hellish enough, he'd gotten home to find his housekeeper had taken off and left this baby with Georgia.
"I can do both," Miz York said with quiet determination.
"Are you sure?" Jake thought she barely looked sturdy enough to fend for herself, much less another person. And cook for all of them.
Georgia gently bounced Molly on one arm. "I would do more, but as you can see, my left arm is crippled."
"I'm sure I can do the job." Understanding and compassion darkened her eyes before her anxious gaze settled on the child and softened. "If I may ask, why did your housekeeper leave?"
"She ran off and got married. I don't think the baby had anything to do with her decision." Jake tried to keep the tightness out of his voice. It wasn't Miz York's fault that Louisa had chosen to leave at the worst possible time. "I've advertised about getting a family for Molly. I don't want to send her to Buckner Orphans Home in Dallas or anyplace like that."
The baby's face screwed up and turned red; she let out a scream and Jake moved away, wishing she'd be quiet.
Miz York frowned. "You're planning to give her away again?"
Jake's eyes narrowed at the words. Said that way, they sounded hard and ugly. He grunted, seeing no reason to answer to a woman who might soon be in his employ.
She seemed to realize her place and changed the subject. "What kind of food do you all like?"
"Biscuits, gravy, ham. Sweets." So far, the lady didn't seem put off. He spoke loudly enough to be heard above the baby's cries. "Nothing too fancy, but something that sticks with you." "So you'd want me to cook and clean? Laundry, too?" That wasn't all he'd like. Surprise shot through him at the fleeting thought. He hadn't wanted to do anything like that with a real lady, in years. Women didn't distract him, even when he'd been a long time without one. There hadn't been a woman since his wife, who had insinuated herself into his thoughts.
He jerked a thumb toward the squalling baby in his cousin's arms. "Yes, and take care of her. We'll give you room and board. You'd need to live at the ranch. Will that be a problem?"
She twined her fingers nervously and, for the first time, he saw the dull gold band on her left hand. He was stunned to feel a prick of disappointment. Why did he care? He wasn't getting involved with her. Or any other woman, for that matter. "I guess you'll want to talk to your husband about that, first."
"No," she said quickly, glancing at the distressed baby. "I mean, it won't be necessary. He isn't with me."
Jake didn't like the instant relief that jabbed at him. He also didn't examine it. The baby lurched toward him and he took her reluctantly. Her sobs grew louder as she twisted to look at Miz York. Jake juggled the infant from one shoulder to the other in an attempt to shush her.
"But your husband will be here?" Jake asked.
"I'm-I'm a widow." She pulled her gaze from Molly, raising her voice to be heard over the child. "That's why I need the work."
He wanted to ask how her husband had died and how long she'd been alone, but those things had nothing to do with whether or not she could do this job. "Where you from?"
Her knuckles showed white as she gripped her purse strings tighter. "Up north."