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Cincinnati April, 1838
The hired carriage climbed over the break of the hill and rolled to a stop. Sarah Randolph grabbed for the hold strap as the rig leaned to one side then quickly righted itself when the driver stepped off onto the ground. A moment later the door opened and the driver peered inside. "This is it, miss. This is Stony Point."
Every nerve in her stomach fluttered to life. For one panicked moment Sarah wished she were back at the hotel with Ellen to tend her, but only for a moment. She needed something to do. Something to help her through the pain of Aaron's death. Somewhere to get away from the tormenting memories of him that haunted the streets of Philadelphia. And this position as a nanny answered those needs.
Sarah lifted her chin in renewed determination and climbed from the carriage. A worm of worry wriggled through her as she watched the driver walk around to the back and unbuckle the straps holding her trunk in place. She'd brought only the plainest, most serviceable of her day dresses, but none of her gowns were really appropriate for a nanny. If only there had been time to obtain more suitable attire.
Sarah let out a sigh and closed her mind to the concern. It was of no matter nowher gowns would simply have to do. She glanced down, shook out her long bottle-green velvet skirt, smoothed down the tab-cut leaves at the waist edge of her matching spencer, then lifted her head and appraised the house in front of her. It was well named. The rectangular stone house, with its set-back kitchen ell, sat square in the middle of the point of land that forced the road to curve.
It was an attractive house. Not large, compared to the homes of the elite of Philadelphia, but two stories of generous and pleasing proportion. And, though there was nothing ornate or fancy about the place, it had charm. Shutters, painted the dark green of the pines on the hillside, embraced the home's symmetrically placed multipaned windows and framed its solid wood-plank front door. Ivy spread clinging arms in profuse abandon on the front and climbed the gable end, stretching a few tentacles toward the wood shingles of the roof.
"Ready, miss." The driver, holding her large trunk balanced on one beefy shoulder, appeared beside her.
Sarah stepped back, giving him room to open the gate sandwiched between the two lamp-topped stone pillars that anchored the low stone walls enclosing the home's front yard. She ignored the maaaa of one of the sheep grazing on the lawn and followed him up the slate walk. Hope quickened her pulse. Her new life was starting.
Surely tending a toddler would keep her too busy to dwell on the past, to remember the loss of her dream of being Aaron's wife. Surely it would fill the emptiness and make the pain ease. Oh, if only the pain would ease.
The driver banged the brass knocker against the plate on the front door, and Sarah straightened her back and curved her lips into a smile. Everything would be better now. Soon, everything would be better.
The solid wood door opened. A stout woman stepped forward and stood centered in the frame. She looked at the driver, noted the trunk he carried and dipped her head toward the left. "Take that o'er t' the side door. Quincy'll let you in." She shifted her gaze. Surprise, then doubt swept over her face. "You are the new nanny?"
Sarah felt her smile slip away at the woman's tone. She pasted it firmly back in place and nodded. "Yes. I am"
"Late! We expected you this morning." The woman stepped aside and waved a pudgy arm toward the interior of the house. "Don't stand there, come in, come in!"
Sarah hesitated a moment, debating the wisdom in pursuing her decision to accept the position. But the challenge was exactly what she needed. And she'd never had a problem getting along with her family's servants. Perhaps the housekeeper was simply feeling the need to establish her authority. She squared her shoulders, climbed the three stone steps and crossed the small stoop. A child's unhappy wails fell on her ears as she entered the small entry.
The woman closed the door and gave a brief nod toward the stairs. "'Tis that we've been sufferin'all day! The little miss is cryin' an' in no mood to be quieted. And Mr. Bainbridge is" Her words came to an abrupt halt as a door on their left flew open.
"Eldora! Can Lucy not stop the child from cry"
Sarah stiffened as the man in the doorway snapped off his words and swiveled his head her direction. He swept an assessing gaze over her, and his dark-brown brows lowered in a frown. "I was not aware we had a visitor." He made a small, polite bow in her direction. "Forgive me my outburst, Miss er "
"RandolphMiss Sarah Randolph, of Philadelphia."
The man's brows shot skyward. "You are the new nanny?" He skimmed another gaze over her. Doubt flashed into his eyes. The frown deepened.
The man's reaction rasped against her tense nerves. Was he going to judge her on appearance only? Did he deem that stylish clothes meant she could not care for a child? Sarah's back stiffened. She gave him a cool nod. "I am. And it sounds as if I am sorely needed." She lifted a meaningful glance toward the top of the stairs. The toddler's cries were gaining in volume.
"Indeed." The man gave her a piercing look. "You seem confident of your abilities."
"And you seem highly dubious of them." Sarah lifted her chin and looked right back. "I would not have written requesting to be considered for the position of nanny were I not competent to handle the child."
The man's eyes darkened. "It will take more than words to convince me of that, Miss Randolph. Competency is a thing that is proven, not" he winced as a loud wail echoed down the stairs "declared." His face tightened. "And the first test of yours will begin now. I shall postpone your interview until later this evening. Please see to the child immediately. It's impossible for me to work in this din." Her prospective employer shifted his gaze back to the stout woman. "Mrs. Quincy, show Miss Randolph to the nursery. Immediately!" He stepped back into the room behind him and closed the door.
"This way, Miss Randolph." The hem of the housekeeper's long, gray skirt swished back and forth as she turned and headed toward the stairs.
Can Lucy not stop the child? The man's words were still ringing a warning alarm in her head. Sarah shot a quick glance at the closed door beside her. What sort of man called his daughter the child? A tiny frisson of apprehension tingled through her. Perhaps this nanny position would not be as easy as she expected. But she could always go home. She hugged the comfort of that thought close, lifted her long skirts slightly and followed Mrs. Quincy up the stairs.
"Here we are." Mrs. Quincy opened a door at the end of a short hallway.
Sarah stepped forward into a well-furnished, sunny nursery. At least, that was her initial impression. She hadn't time for more with her attention centered on the squalling, squirming toddler trying to twist free of the grip of the young maid sitting in a rocking chair. The maid rocked furiously, jiggling the toddler up and down and making soothing noises.
Sarah froze. Mrs. Quincy stepped forward and looked at her in demand. The maidLucy was it?looked at her in relief and stood to her feet. Oh, dear! They expected her to What? Sarah's stomach flopped. Her first thought was to turn about, run down the stairs and not stop until she reached the hotel where Ellen awaited her instructions. Perhaps they would both be making the journey back to Philadelphia. But the unhappiness apparent in the toddler's cries held her frozen in place. Perhaps if she could get the child's attention She moved closer and leaned down to place her hand on the toddler's back. "Hello, little one. I'm your new nanny."
The child didn't even look at her, only squalled louder and squirmed harder. What now? An idea popped into her head. An absolutely absurd ideabut she had nothing to lose. Sarah undid the satin ties of her bonnet and tossed it on the rocking chair, opened her mouth and let out a wail that made both Mrs. Quincy and Lucy jump. The toddler stopped squirming and crying and stared up at her out of big blue eyes. It worked!
"There now, that's better." Sarah spoke softly, but firmly. She lifted the startled toddler out of Lucy's arms and started toward the window in the wall on the opposite side of the room. She had no idea what next to do, but movement seemed a good idea. She glanced at the child in her arms and burst out laughing. The little girl was staring at her as if she didn't know what to think of her. That, too, seemed a good thing. "And do you have a name, little one?"
"Nora. Nora Blessing Bainbridge." Mrs. Quincy's answer was followed by the click of the door opening and closing.
Sarah glanced over her shoulder. The room was empty. She looked back at the toddler. "Well, Nora Blessing Bainbridge, it seems you and I are on our own." The child's lips quivered, pulled down at the corners. She placed her tiny hands against Sarah's chest and pushed. "Except for that squirrel. Look!"
Sarah quickly turned Nora so she faced outward, holding her so Nora's small back rested against her chest. "See?" She pointed at a large gray squirrel sitting on a branch of the tree outside the window, nibbling on some sort of bud. The distraction worked. The toddler's tensed muscles relaxed. She stared at the squirrel, caught a broken breath, then another, stuck her thumb in her mouth and began sucking. Her little legs, dangling over Sarah's supporting arm, stilled their kicking.
Thank goodness for the squirrel! Sarah swayed side to side, humming softly, ignoring the child except for an occasional downward glance. After a few minutes, Nora's eyelids drooped, opened, drooped again.A moment later her little head dropped forward until her chin rested on her chest.
Sarah looked down and smiled. Nora had lost her battle against sleep. The toddler's light-brown eyelashes rested on her round rosy cheeks and her little mouth was relaxed, no longer sucking at the tiny thumb. She looked adorable asleep. Now, if only she could keep her that way until she could collect herself.
Sarah continued to sway and hum as she turned and scanned the room. A cherrywood crib with turned spindles and a white, crocheted canopy stood against the far wall. She carried Nora over, laid her on the blanket-covered down mattress and pulled the woven coverlet over her. She held her breath and stood poised, waiting Little Nora blinked her eyes, sucked on her thumb and slept on.
Sarah let out a long sigh of relief and glanced around the room. Time to familiarize herself. She stripped off her gloves and tossed them on the rocker with her bonnet, tiptoed to a large, handsomely carved wardrobe and pulled open the double doors. Small dresses, aprons and coats with matching bonnets hung in colorful array on the right side. Little shoes and slippers marched beneath and, on the left, undergarments filled drawers. She noted the fine workmanship on Nora's clothes, shut the wardrobe doors and looked around the room. Shelves, full of books, toys and stuffed animals, filled the alcove formed by the stone fireplace. An exquisitely detailed dollhouse sat beneath a window. A child-size table, set for a tea party, its matching chairs holding the attending dolls, sat in front of the shelves.
Sarah smiled at the evidence of the father's love for his daughter. Obviously, that twinge of warning she had felt on meeting the man was wrong. She had simply misinterpreted his perturbation over Nora's unhappy cries. Thankfully, she had been able to quiet the child. She skirted the chair on the hearth and opened a door onto a dressing room. Sight of the pipe traveling along the stone wall to the wash basin and tub brought a rush of relief. Running water! She had been prepared to give up that luxury. It was wonderful to know that sacrifice wouldn't be required.
She glanced back to check on Nora, moved to another door and peeked inside. A cool draft flowed out of the dark room. Sarah shivered and stepped back, hesitant to enter the gloomy space. There was enough darkness in her life. She pulled the door closedfrozeopened it again. Yes. That was her trunk sitting on the rug of braided rags on the wide plank floor.
So this dismal place was to be her bedroom. Disappointment morphed into the barely controlled despair that was always with her. Why had she been so foolish as to think taking this position as nanny would help her over her grief? She should go home where she had every luxury, where she was cosseted and pampered, and and wretched.
Unwanted memories impelled Sarah into the room. Her gaze skittered from the stone fireplace centered on the interior paneled wall, to a writing desk and chair, to the four-poster bed situated between two shuttered windows.
She rushed forward, threw open the shutters and tugged up the bottom sashes. Light and warmth flooded into the room. The scent of lilacs floated in on a gentle breeze.
The horrid tightness in her throat and chest eased. Sarah lifted her face to the waning sunshine and took a deep breath. The tears that had been so close to flowing receded. Another battle won.
The victory gave her courage. Sarah marched to her trunk, unfastened the hasp and lifted the lid. She needed to change out of her travel outfit before Nora's father summoned her. A sigh escaped. How she longed for Ellen. The woman had been her confidante as well as her personal maid since she outgrew her own nanny. She looked down at the trunk's contents, and the victory she had won dissolved. She touched the cool silk fabric of the top dress and tears flooded her eyes. The gown had been designed for her to wear on her honeymoon. She should be aboard ship with Aaron and halfway around the world right now. A sob caught in her throat.
Sarah wrenched her thoughts from what should have been, wiped the tears from her face and lifted out the top dress. She shook out the blue and white silk gown, held it up and gave it a critical once-over, focusing all her attention on choosing an appropriate gown.