It's been six years since Luke Travis has seen his native England
and his son, Sam. But his hopes for a joyful reunion are shattered when he learns that Sam wants nothing to do with him. There's one ray of hopeLuke's former sister-in-law, Bobbie Gardner. The kindhearted woman has been a mother to Sam for all these years, and she promises to help mend the breach between father and son. But can Luke trust another Gardner? His wife betrayed and abandoned him, and his father-in-law took his son away. Bobbie must prove to him that she is not her sister, or her father, but a woman who is all that Luke could wish for in a wife.
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Sydenham, October 1888
Aunt Bobbie, I don't understand why I have to be here."
Roberta Gardner gazed at her thirteen-year-old nephew, Sam, who sat half hidden behind the tall potted palm at the bay window. He swung a leg impatiently over the edge of the window seat, the other folded under him. One shoelace was untied.
Bobbie could well understand her nephew's outward display of indifference, even hostility, toward his father. After all, since he was five, Sam had scarcely seen the man. Though neither had spoken of it, she knew both she and Sam harbored the secret fear that his father would come and take him away.
Bobbie drew a deep breath. Her heartbeat quickened as it did each time she thought about being face-to-face with Luke, the man she'd been secretly in love with since she was fourteen. "Your father is arriving at any moment. Of course you must be here to greet him."
The thought of seeing her former brother-in-law had Bobbie so on edge it was all she could manage to reassure her nephew.
What would it be like to see Luke Travis after six years?
"He isn't my father."
Her nephew's insistence only deepened Bobbie's worry. How she hoped Sam wouldn't reject his father outright. She had so longed and prayed for this day, when Luke would come back to his only child and be the father that time and circumstances had denied him.
Sam's square chin, so much like Luke's, jutted forward. "Grandfather was the only father I ever had." At the mention of his grandfather, his young voice quavered.
Bobbie's father had been gone only a week now, and still she could scarcely believe it. As soon as her thoughts alighted on her father, her throat tightened and tears filled her eyes. How could he be gone? She had bid him goodbye that morning expecting to see him that evening at the dinner table and now he was gone.
How were they to continue? Would Luke step into the gap and fill the emptiness that permeated their lives?
She didn't allow herself to hope. It was a miracle he'd even replied to her telegram informing him of her father's death.
She removed Luke's telegram from her pocket now. She'd received it the day after the funeral, but she'd read it at least a dozen times since then. She smoothed out the wrinkles and scanned the brief words.
Arriving London twenty-first Will call following day Condolences Luke Travis
Bobbie traced the letters of the cable. In the nature of telegrams the words were curt and abbreviated. She couldn't help thinking the worst.
The last time Luke had been home to Sydenham had been for his wife Irene's funeral. Her older sister. Was England forever to hold bereavement for him? Since then Bobbie hadn't heard a word from him, although she sent him quarterly reports through his solicitor's office on his son's progress.
But the telegram in Bobbie's hand was tangible evidence that Luke was indeed returning home.
She glanced at Sam, whose nose pressed against the pane of glass. Despite his antagonism, he'd been on the watch for his father since morning. How much he needed a father now, whether he realized it or not.
Bobbie sighed, staring out the rain-spattered window. Would her meeting with Luke be as painful as the last? They had exchanged bitter words over Sam's future then. Would Sam's well-being draw them together now, or push them further apart?
She surely needed a friend now someone to lean on and to help share the load. WouldcouldLuke be that friend? She scarcely dared hope.
The chilly spring rain fell steadily through the bare limbs of the elm trees lining the wide, unpaved street and dripped down Luke's black umbrella. The tips of the branches showed the buds that would soon unfurl into leaves. Bright spots of purple and yellow crocuses dotted the grass and peeped under the dark hedges along the street, their colorful petals braving the steady drip of rain.
Luke breathed in the damp air. The scent of new life and promise that spring had always held for him as a boy growing up in England. But for the last half dozen years, it only reminded him afresh of Irene's death.
As Luke drew closer to his in-laws' house, his thoughts returned to what had been uppermost in his mind throughout his journey from America, his apprehension growing with each step.
What would transpire when he saw Sammy? His son would be thirteen. Luke had little idea of who he was. He'd broken with Sammy as surely as his wife had broken with himthough in Luke's case, the rupture hadn't been his intention.
The last time he'd seen his son, at Irene's funeral, Sammy had been a shy, frightened seven-year-old clinging to his young aunt Bobbie's hand. Luke wouldn't even know him now, nor Sammy him.
Had he made the greatest mistake of his life by relinquishing his only child to his wife's family? What had started out as a practical arrangement, given the constraints of his profession, had ended by his signing away all custodial rights to the Gardners. His father-in-law had made sure of it.
And now Mr. Gardner was gone. It seemed unimaginable that this dominating, larger-than-life gentleman was no longer among them. Luke had fully expected his late father-in-law to live well into his eighties or even nineties, ruling them all with his iron fist. But death had a finality that made a person reassess all that seemed important in life.
It was long past time for Luke to discover who his only son was.
Unsure of his reception in the Gardner household, Luke stopped at the redbrick villa in the prosperous London suburb where his late wife had grown up and where his son had spent the last eleven years of his life.
It was an imposing three-story house with a wide, front-facing gable and side wing. The ground floor was partially hidden by a tall, thick yew hedge.
Suddenly, Luke wanted to turn tail and run, like a young schoolboy afraid to face the bully in the yard.
He gave a mirthless laugh. He who built bridges and tunnels for a living quaked at the ghosts from the past?
By staying away from Sydenham, Luke thought he'd put it all behind him. Except that he had a son a reminder that the past lived on.
Samuel Luke Travis was the sole reason Luke had returned to England this time. That and the fact that his father-in-law was no longer a hindrance to a relationship with his son.
With a decisive movement, Luke swung open the low, wrought-iron gate and strode down the slick, wet flagstones to the front door.
But the memories kept flashing before him.
The first time he'd visited this house, he'd been down from Oxford for the day, a shy young man, hoping to make a good impression on the parents of the loveliest young lady he'd ever met.
And it filled him with apprehension to know her father was a civil engineer, the very field he was studying.
But Irene, the beautiful nineteen-year-old girl of his dreams, had laughed aside his fears at meeting the eminent professional. "Papa will take to you and you can work in his firm. We can get a house in London. It will be splendid!"
Yes, splendid it had turned out.for the first year at least, before the dissatisfaction and recriminations had started. Regret bit deep into Luke, like an acid whose burn lingers long after it has been washed away.
No, he wouldn't go down that road again. He was here to pay his respects to the Gardner family, see his son and settle his future before leaving again.
The dark, polished wood door opened soon after Luke had let the brass knocker fall, almost as if someone had been watching for him.
A petite young maid took his card. He didn't recognize her from his last visit. Otherwise, everything looked unchanged in the wide, dimly lit hallway he was left to wait in. He removed his top hat and closed his umbrella, setting it against a stand full of furled ones.
Even the smell of the house was the same heavy wooden furniture, potpourri and the faint odor of fine tobacco, from the evening cigar Mr. Gardner used to smoke.
Used to. Luke expected Robert Gardner to come striding out of his study, cigar in one hand, his other outstretched, the expression in his piercing blue eyes half genial, half accusatory.
His late father-in-law had only been in his early sixties, Luke calculated. What would happen to the engineering firm now? Surely he'd groomed a successor. Luke found it hard to picture Mr. Gardner relinquishing any of his control to another. He shook his head. It wasn't his concern anymore.
A few moments later the maid reappeared from the room she'd entered, which Luke knew was the front parlor. "This way, Mr. Travis."
Stepping through the doorway was like stepping back in time. Nothing had changed in the long room facing the street, from the large-patterned flower wallpaper to the dark, heavy furniture, the backs and arms covered in lacy antimacassars. A coal fire radiated heat from the black-marble fireplace shielded by the embroidered fire screen at the near end of the room. Porcelain figurines, wax flowers under glass domes, and other bric-a-brac filled every tabletop and cabinet. Potted ferns and palms crowded a bay window at the opposite end of the room.
His gaze swept across the clutter, expecting to see the elegant Mrs. Gardner, his former mother-in-law, presiding in one of the armchairs. Instead, the only person present was his young sister-in-law.
She was seated in an armchair by the window, looking pale and solemn in her deep mourning, her dark hair swept back in a knot, her eyes staring at him through her wire-rimmed glasses. She looked just as she'd looked the last time he'd been here, only then it had been in mourning for her older sister Irene.
Her hands folded in her lap, her slim shoulders straight, Bobbie struck him as too composed. Her father's death must have devastated her. Luke felt a wave of compassion for his sister-in-law.
He'd always felt a little sorry for Bobbie, the youngest in a family of strong individuals who seemed to overshadow her. The first time he'd met her, she'd impressed him as a refreshingly unspoiled and down-to-earth young girl with a keen sense of the absurd evident in her twinkling blue eyes.
Since then, he'd come to realize, Roberta Gardner was just as much a Gardner as the rest of them. When his son's future was at stake, his sister-in-law had stood staunchly by her father's side, evincing the same Gardner determination.
Perhaps it was appropriate, after all, that she was the late Robert Gardner's namesake. Unlike Irene, Bobbie resembled him physically, with her dark brown hair and slate blue eyes. Six years ago, Luke had realized how much of her father's character she had inherited as well.
Bobbie swallowed, her eyes riveted on the man standing just inside the doorway. Should she stand or remain seated? But she remained paralyzed in her chair.
A second later, he spotted her and began walking toward her, his steps muffled by the thick carpet.
Lean, but with a wiry strength, his face tanned by the hours he spent outdoors as a civil engineer, he strode across the room with that purposeful step of his, giving her little chance to arrange her features. Arrange her features? Who had coined such a ridiculous phrase, as if one could move things about? Relax her eyebrows, keep her eyes from expressing too much of anything, smile or nother lips felt frozen in a stiff line, which ruled out that alternative.
She prayed that her features didn't betray her true emotionsterror, anticipation, the greatest relief a person could ever know. He'd returned. That was all that mattered at the moment.
And now Luke was standing before her, his hand held out. "Hello, Bobbie." His tone was low, his features grave as his eyes scanned her face.
What did he see? A twenty-eight-year-old spinster, a maiden aunt living at home, raising her nephew? The plain younger sister of his dazzlingly beautiful late wife?
She swallowed, unable to look away from him. At thirty-six, his face had lost all the boyishness, which had given his expression an endearingly vulnerable quality to it at times.
It was all hard planes now, until you came to those pale green eyes, the color of jade, below tawny eyebrows. His light brown hair was longer than before, a bit damp and tousled about the edges.
That fact finally brought her to her senses. She stuck out her own hand and felt it immediately engulfed by his firm grip. "Hello, Luke." His skin felt cold. "Oh, how chilled you must be. It's so beastly raw outside." She stood, her heart thumping against her ribcage. She felt as she always had in his presence, like the stammering fourteen-year-old in awe of her older sister's beau.
"If if you'd let us know when you were arriving, we'd have sent someone to meet you." She was speaking too quickly, so she paused and took a breath, releasing her hand from his and motioning toward the fireplace.
"No need. I caught the fly and decided to walk the last few blocks" He broke off, looking past her.
Of course.he had seen Sam. The boy stood by the window seat, his large blue eyes wide, staring at his father.
At the baby name the boy's lower lip thrust out. When he made no move, Bobbie said quietly, "Sam, come and say hello to your father."
For a second, Bobbie wasn't sure he'd obey. But then, without a word, her nephew stepped forward, his jaw knotted, his eyes hard. "Hello."
Luke reached out a hand. When Sam made no move to extend his, his father let his own fall back by his side. "I'm sorry about Grandfather."
Sam looked down.
Although Sam resembled his mother in his fair coloring and blue eyes, his personality reminded Bobbie much more of herself at that age. Painfully sensitive and vulnerable. The boy's blond hair, ruthlessly brushed this morning, already had several strands falling over his forehead, and his tie hung askew. He was wearing long trousers for the first timea gray suit with black trim purchased for the funeraland looked so much like a young gentleman, it made Bobbie's heart ache. Where was the little boy who'd come to look on her as his only mother?
Her nephew's discomfort made Bobbie forget her own nerves. Squaring her shoulders, she turned to Luke with a hesitant smile. "Why don't we sit by the fire? I'll ring for some tea."
His glance lingered on his son, but when Sam only stared back, Luke nodded and followed Bobbie to the armchair she indicated.
"Thank you. I came as soon as I received word."
After yanking on the bell pull, Bobbie sat down on the settee across from Luke. "I wasn't quite sure where to locate you, but your solicitor had an address. You were in America?" She didn't feel able to ask more. He seemed a stranger. His attention was clearly on Sam, with what looked like both awe and longing in his eyes. She felt a pang, realizing how much of the boy's childhood he had missed.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What I like best about Ruth Morren's stories is that they are so unique. She incorporates historical occurrences that I find very interesting and informative. In this case how one of the first underground train lines came to be. Also, how difficult it was for a woman to establish her ability as a civil engineer in a time when it was considered a "man's" job and a "women's place" was in the home. The romance between the hero and heroine comes across as very real and believable. The conversation flow in all Ruth's books feels very natural and flows nicely. I highly recommend Ruth Axtell Morren as an author. I've not read anything by her yet that I haven't enjoyed.
This book seemed a lot diffetent from all the other books I've read by this author. But I reaally enjoyed this book.