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Wolf Creek, Arkansas
The faintest sound of a baby's crying was carried on the brisk October breeze. Dr. Rachel Stone's buggy pulled to a stop in front of a large, rambling farmhouse, which was located west of town, three miles down the road that led to Pisgah.
Forest-green shutters framed the front windows and contrasted with pristine white clapboards. A porch, complete with a green swing, spanned the front of the house. Autumn's chill was slow to arrive in southwest Arkansas. Blue morning glory climbed up posts toward the roof, and blankets of native clematis rambled onto the lawn, hundreds of tiny white flowers bobbing in the gentle breeze.
Abby Carter made a sound of disbelief, and her wide-eyed gaze found her friend's. On some level she'd known the Gentry family was one of the most affluent in Wolf Creek, but until now, she had never given it much thought.
Smiling at Abby's astonishment, Rachel climbed down and looped the reins over the hitching post. Rounding the carriage, she reached up to take baby Laura from Abby's arms.
"Mind your manners," Abby reminded six-year-old Ben as he scrambled down. Still wearing an expression of amazement, she jumped to the ground, and they all started up the broad steps of the porch.
They had barely reached the top when the front door crashed open. Abby's startled gaze flew to the face of the man who would be her new employer. Caleb Gentry. Wealthy gentleman farmer. Father of newly born Betsy. Widower, as of a few hours ago. He was a big mantall, broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, his features too chiseled and angular to be considered handsome. His clothes looked as if he'd slept in themwhich he no doubt had, if he'd managed any sleep the previous nightand he was in dire need of a shave. His thick, coffee-brown hair stood on end, and there was a wild look in his steel-gray eyes.
He looked angry and unapproachable. Difficult. Abby's heart sank. What had she gotten into?
At the first sight of the quartet coming up the steps, Caleb flung open the door, relief sweeping through him. Their arrival offered welcome respite from the sickening churning of his stomach that had plagued him since Rachel emerged from his wife's room and informed him that Emily was dead. Stunning news to a man who had only recently come to terms with the idea of being a father.
Accustomed to dealing with the many unexpected problems that cropped up with the running of a successful farming operation and his most recent enterprise, a gravel business, Caleb felt that in general he handled his life with a certain competence. In the blink of an eye, though, he discovered things were going to be very different. When Rachel left him in charge of the baby while she went to talk to Abby Carter about becoming a wet nurse and to inform Emily's parents of her death, he'd known that he was not prepared to bear sole responsibility for every aspect of his daughter's welfare.
In fact, thus far, he'd done a miserable job of things.
The baby, whom he had named Betsy according to Emily's wishes, had spent more time crying than sleeping. Scared witless to hold her, he had nonetheless picked her up and patted, bounced and even tried singing to her. "Old Dan Tucker" vocalized in a gravelly baritone hadn't done a thing to still her wailing. He had drawn the line at diaperingshe was just too little and it was too scary to handle her any more than necessary. No doubt she was wet as well as hungry, which is why he was so relieved to see the approaching foursome.
Rachel Stone led the way, carrying a baby who looked just under a year old. A boy of five or six followed her, and a slight blond-haired woman who must be Abby Carter brought up the rear.
"What the devil took you so long?" he growled, raking long fingers through hair that already stood on end.
"We got here as soon as we could," Rachel said in a conciliatory tone, ushering Ben ahead of her.
Betsy gave another ear-piercing wail. Without waiting for introductions, Caleb turned his wild-eyed gaze to the newcomer, grabbed her arm and hauled her through the doorway. "She's been screaming for hours," he snapped. "Do something."
Instead of answering, Abby Carter looked from the fingers gripping her upper arm into his eyes. Hers were calm, though he thought he detected a hint of reproach and maybe even irritation in their blue depths. He snatched his hand away, as if she were hot to the touch.
Without a word, Mrs. Carter crossed to the cradle sitting near the fireplace, where a small blaze kept the chill at bay. She took a diaper from a nearby stack and set about changing Betsy while murmuring whatever nonsensical things women say to children in need of comfort. Things that were missing from male vocabularies. Finished, she wrapped a flannel blanket around Betsy and looked at Rachel, a question in her eyes.
"The kitchen is through there," Rachel said, pointing. Without a word, Mrs. Carter disappeared through the doorway, bestowing the briefest glance on him as she passed.
Caleb planted his hands on his hips and dropped his head, silently berating himself for his impatience with the woman who had only come to help. From the kitchen, Betsy's crying stopped. Quiet, the first in hours, filled the room, bringing with it a calming peace that Caleb had sense enough to know was bound to be short-lived. He scrubbed a trembling hand down his face.
"I know it's nerve-racking," Rachel said. "You'll get used to it." Seeing the expression of panic return, she offered him a weary smile. "Abby can't fix everything, Caleb. Babies cry for lots of reasons, but everything is going to be fine. She's a good mother."
Caleb was not so sure about anything being fine ever again.
"Did the Emersons come while I was gone?" Rachel asked.
He nodded. "Your dad sent someone for Emily. They're coming back later to see Betsy."
"Well, then," Rachel said, setting Mrs. Carter's baby on the floor, "I'll just take care of the birthing room, help get Abby settled and get back to town."
She gave Ben instructions to keep an eye on his sister, and disappeared into the room Emily had moved to early in her pregnancy because his "tossing and turning" kept her awake.
With silence reigning in the kitchen and the knowledge that Abby Carter was there to help smooth out this new wrinkle in his life, a sudden weariness overtook Caleb. Huffing out a deep sigh, he sank into a corner of the camelback sofa and revisited the events that had changed his life forever.
More than four hours ago, the crying and pleading and screaming had stopped, replaced by the sudden, angry wail of a baby. The reprieve lasted only until Rachel stepped into the room carrying a small bundle in her arms and told him that he had a daughter and that Emily was dead. He was trying to assimilate that fact when Rachel informed him the baby would require a wet nurse and suggested recently widowed Abigail Carter. His head spinning with the gravity and magnitude of the events unfolding in his life, Caleb acquiesced and sent Rachel on her way.
A log fell in the fireplace, bringing him out of his drowsy trance. His glance wandered toward the kitchen. Thank goodness Rachel had been right about Mrs. Carter's willingness to help.
In the kitchen, Abby's tender gaze lingered on the face of the baby in her arms while her fingertips skimmed the incomparable softness of Betsy's dark hair. Was there anything more precious than a new life or anything sadder than a child growing up without the love and guidance of a parent? She was struck with a sudden pang of loss. Even now, eight months after William's death, she often experienced a stark reminder that he would not be there to share or to help with the joys and trials that cropped up daily with Ben and Laura. As difficult as it had been for her since he died, she knew life would be just as trying for Caleb Gentry, though in an entirely different way, something that she'd understood full well when Rachel had arrived earlier and told her the news of Emily Gentry's death.
"How awful!" Abby had said. "I can certainly sympathize with Mr. Gentry's loss." She'd never met Caleb Gentry, but she knew who he was, as did everyone in Pike County.
"Of everyone I know, I knew you'd understand," Rachel told her.
"You look worn out," Abby noted, ushering her friend inside. "Come on into the kitchen and rest a bit. I just took some cookies from the oven and I'm rewarming the breakfast coffee."
"Thanks, but I can't stay," Rachel told her. "Too many things to do. Before I drove out here, I had to go and tell the Emersons about Emily so that they could make arrangements for her body to be moved."
"They must be devastated," Abby said, unable to imagine losing either of her children. "What can I do to help? Make Mr. Gentry a meal?"
"Under different circumstances, I'm sure that would be appreciated, but that isn't why I'm here. To be blunt, little Betsy Gentry is in need of a wet nurse." Rachel hurried on before Abby could object. "I know things have been tight for you since William died, and I thought you might be glad of the extra money."
Abby stared into Rachel's dark eyes, her mind whirling with implications of the unexpected offer. For months now, she had systematically, often tearfully, sold almost everything she owned of value, consoling herself with the maxim that her father's pocket watch and her mother's silver coffee service were just things. Things she did not need. She had juggled the meager funds and prayed for some sort of miracle to provide for her children. She'd even considered trying to teach again, but Wolf Creek was no different from other towns, which wanted only men or unmarried women instructing their young ones. Even if that were not the case, she wasn't sure how she'd manage a full-time job with two children of her own.
God willprovide He never shuts a door that He doesn't open a window all things work for good.
Abby was familiar with all the platitudes, had even heard them coming from her own lips when the trials and losses were someone else's. She believed what the Bible said, and blamed the weakness of her faith that allowed worry to creep in, even though the Lord always came through.
Like now. Here was Rachel with the answer to her prayers, though the answer she offered in no way resembled anything Abby had considered during the long, worrisome nights. Wet nurse!
There was no one left to ask for help. Nathan Haver-sham at the bank had been more than understanding, but when she'd last spoken to him, he'd explained that he couldn't let his sympathy get in the way of the bank's business much longer, and just last week, she'd received a letter giving her a month to come up with the necessary funds or she would receive a notice of foreclosure.
She lifted a brimming blue gaze to Rachel's. When she spoke, her voice was as unsteady as her smile. "In truth, it's the answer to my prayers. When do I start?"
Rachel flipped open the cover of the gold watch that hung from a chain around her neck. "How about we gather up enough to tide you and the children over for a few days? I'll drive you to Caleb's, clean things up and help you get settled."
"Now?" Abby had asked, stunned.
Rachel had offered her a wan smile. "I imagine Miss Betsy Gentry is getting mighty hungry about now, and I'm sure her daddy is pacing the floor and tearing at his hair, wondering what in the world he's supposed to do about it."
Abby had gone about gathering up as much from her kitchen as she could on such short notice, and grabbing the clothes she and the children would need for the next couple of days.
Now, remembering the conversation, a smile claimed Abby's lips. Rachel's description of Caleb Gentry had been right on the mark. When she'd seen him framed in his doorway, he'd looked exactly as if he'd been tearing at his too-long hair.
She smiled down at the sleeping baby. Wealthy or not, Betsy Gentry's daddy could still get as ruffled as the next man. Somehow the thought made him a bit less intimidating.
The sound of something crashing to the floor sent Abby's gaze flying to the kitchen door, her smile of contentment changing into a frown. She couldn't imagine what had happened, but suspected it had something to do with her children. There was nothing to do but go and see.
The sound of something breaking sent Caleb bolting up from the sofa. Realizing that he must have dozed, he rubbed at his gritty eyes and looked around to see what had caused the noise. It didn't take long to spot the shepherdess figurine that had belonged to his mother. Caleb had found it tucked away in one of his father's drawers after his death. Now the keepsake lay in dozens of broken fragments on the heart-pine floor. Abby Carter's son stood looking at him, guilt and fear stamped on his freckled face.
Caleb's lips tightened. The boy shouldn't have been snooping! He should have been sitting down minding his own business the way well-brought-up children should. So much for Abby Carter's mothering skills. Still, as furious, frustrated and exhausted as he was, he realized that he could not afford to fly off the handle, as he was prone to do. Not now. Instead, he stifled the words hovering on his lips, took a deep, calming breath and struggled to assess the situation with some sort of objectivity.
If he had to hazard a guess, he would say that the babya girl it seemed, from the lace adorning her smockhad been crawling around, doing some sort of infant reconnaissance while her brother followed herthough to what purpose Caleb could not fathom. Most likely the baby had bumped into the spindly legged table Emily had brought back from St. Louis when she'd gone to visit her sister, sending the porcelain shepherdess to her demise.
Caleb's gaze moved back to the boy, who regarded him with unconcealed apprehension. The baby had pushed to a sitting position amid the broken shards, poked two fingers into her mouth and regarded him with the same intensity as her brother. Then, in the span of a heartbeat, she plopped her plump palms to the floor and headed for a colorful, gilt-edged piece that snagged her interest.
Scowling with amazement at how fast she switched her focus, Caleb strode across the room and swung her up just as she was about to grab the jagged shard. To his surprise, she gave a gurgle of laughter. Marveling again at the quicksilver shifting of her attention, he turned her to face him, holding her out at arm's length. She rewarded his frown with a wide grin. Something about that sweet and innocent smile with its four gleaming teeth took the edge from his anger. Arms straight out, he carried the baby to the sofa and plunked her smack-dab in the middle of the cushions.
Sensitive to the situation he found himself in, and as uncertain how to deal with Abby Carter's offspring as he was his infant daughter, he wondered what to do next. Other than him and his brother being children many years ago, he had never been around the peculiar little creatures, and what he knew about how to deal with them could be put in a thimble with lots of room left over. From what he'd observed around town, many of them were meddlesome and troublesome, which the recent incident proved. His tired, troubled gaze returned to the child who stood gaping at him in fearful anxiety. He had to do something.
Caleb raked a hand through his tousled hair and pointed from the boy to the couch. "You," he said in a too-quiet tone. "Sit."