Reserved widow Eileen Pierce never considered herself the kind of woman who was cut out to be a mother. She wouldn't know what to do with one child, much less ten. But when handyman Simon Tucker is stranded in town with a group of young orphans at Christmastime, she discovers she can't just turn them away.
Simon knows there's more to Eileen than meets the eye. Though his easygoing demeanor immediately clashes with her buttoned-up propriety, Simon's kindness soon melts Eileen's stern facade. Simon and the children already upended Eileen's quiet, orderly life. Will they do the same to her guarded heart?
Texas Grooms: In search of their brides
About the Author
You can learn more about Winnie at winniegriggs.com or connect with her at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author
Read an Excerpt
Simon stood at the front of the church with hat in hand, trying very hard not to look as rattled as he felt. Ten orphan kidsTEN!all looking to him to turn this disaster around and set their world to rights again. What in blue blazes did a bachelor like him know about taking care of kids, especially so many of them?
When he'd agreed to this venture he sure hadn't counted on ending up as the sole caretaker of these kids. But they were his responsibility now, and he'd have to see it through.
Sending up a silent "Lord help me" prayer, Simon made himself smile in what he hoped was a relaxed, neighborly fashion as he watched the members of the small-town congregation file into the hastily called emergency meeting. He and the kids were strangers heredidn't know a souland he had no idea what to expect from these people. If they didn't help him, he wasn't sure what in the world he was going to do.
The children stood lined up in front of him, and they edged closer together as the church began to fill. Some of them held hands, as if trying to draw strength from each other. He could do with a bit of that himself, but unfortunately he was on his ownjust like always.
Fern, a much-too-serious thirteen-year-old, was looking out for the youngest, as usual. Three-year-old Molly and four-year-old Joey stood on either side of her, holding on to her hand. He quickly checked over the rest of them, feeling a little kick of relief at the way they held themselves. He knew they were worried and scared, but not one of them uttered a word, and all the tears had been dried before they left the confusion of the train depot. Miss Fredrick had taught them well.
He glanced over their heads, studying these strangers who held his and the children's fate in their handsat least for the next few days. He disliked the idea of begging for handouts, but for the sake of his charges he would swallow his pride.
If there was ever a time he needed help, it was now. Hopefully there was a motherly sort out there who would know what to do and would be willing to take care of his charges.
At least he wasn't facing these folks entirely alone. The town's minister, Reverend Harper, stood at his side with his wife and daughter nearby. Thank goodness someone had had the presence of mind to call the clergyman in when they'd arrived. The reverend had assured him that the folks in his congregation were generous, warmhearted people who would help in any way they could.
As the people settled into the pews, he noted their expressions were a mix of curiosity and sympathy. Most offered encouraging smiles to the children. How many had already learned of their situation?
When it appeared the last person had taken a seat, Reverend Harper stepped forward. "Thank you all for responding to the bells and joining us here on such short notice." He motioned toward Simon. "This gentleman is Mr. Simon Tucker and he'd like to introduce these fine children to you."
Ready or not, he was up. How best to personalize these children for the congregation? Considering he'd only gotten to know them himself over this past week or so, it wouldn't be easy.
He laid his hand lightly on Fern's shoulder. "This young lady is Fern. She's thirteen and the oldest of the children. She's very responsible and is always looking out for the younger ones."
He moved his hand to the shoulder of the boy on her right. "This little man here is Joey. Joey is four and loves animals." Joey had told him more than once that Miss Fredrick had promised him he could have a dog when they reached Hatcherville, and it was as if she'd promised him the moon.
Simon shifted to the child on Fern's left. "And this little sweet pea is Molly. She's three and the youngest of our group." Molly slipped her thumb in her mouth, and Simon couldn't find it in his heart to blame her.
Next he moved on to the children he had the closest ties to. "These two are Audrey and Albert. They're seven years old and twins." They were also his niece and nephew.
He quickly went down the row, introducing the rest of the childrenRose, Lily, Tessa, Harry and Russelltrying to mention something positive about each of them. His gut told him it was important that these folks feel sympathy for the children.
When he was done, Reverend Harper spoke up again. "Thank you, Mr. Tucker." He signaled his wife and daughter. "Now, while we grown-ups talk, Mrs. Harper and Constance will escort the children over to Daisy's Restaurant, where Abigail is planning to serve them up a nice hot meal."
Several of the children looked to Simon for reassurance. It once again drove home how dependent they now were on him. Scary thought. But he smiled and nodded.
Mrs. Harper took Lily's hand while her daughter Constance took the hands of the twins. Together the whole lot of them filed out.
Simon resisted the urge to rake his hand through his hair. He needed to make a proper impression on these people.
When the little troupe had made their exit, Reverend Harper spoke up again, placing a hand on Simon's shoulder. "Mr. Tucker finds himself in need of our assistance, and I've assured him that the people of Turnabout are up to the challenge. As some of you may already know, there was an emergency on the train when it pulled into town this morning that required Dr. Pratt's services. It turned out to be very serious indeed. I'll let Mr. Tucker tell you more about what's happening."
Simon nodded to the clergyman. "Thank you, Reverend Harper." Then he turned to the people seated in the pews. "The lady who is now in Dr. Pratt's care, Miss Georgina Fredrick, is the guardian of the children you just met. I was escorting her and the children to a new home that's waiting for them in Hatcherville. But just before we pulled into the station here, she had an attack of some sort. Your Dr. Pratt tells me she suffered a stroke. And her outlook isn't good."
He was encouraged by the sympathetic looks focused his way. But would it translate to action? "First, let me tell you a little about this dear lady. Miss Fredrick is a warm, generous and caring person. For the past nine years she's opened her home to children who had nowhere else to go. Over that time, all of those children you just met have been left in her care and have found not only a safe home but have formed a family bond as strong as any blood kin." His admiration for the woman knew no bounds. To his way of thinking there was no higher calling than to care for children.
He let his gaze roam across the people seated before him, briefly holding a gaze here and there before moving on. "Recently Miss Fredrick decided that her existing home in St. Louis could no longer accommodate her stretched-to-its-limits household. So I helped her find a new place. That's where we were headed. I'm here because she asked me to provide an escort for her and the children, and to help them get settled in."
He slid the brim of his hat through his fingers. "We obviously can't move on until she's recovered enough to travel." Please God, see that she does recover. "So what I'm asking you folks for is a place for me and the kids to stay while we await that outcome." Had he said too much? Not enough? He prayed he'd touched their hearts in some way. Simon drew back his shoulders. "I figure you all might have some questions for me before you respond, so feel free to fire away."
A plump woman in the second row stood. "May I ask what your actual relationship is to Miss Fredrick and these children?"
"My sister Sally was Miss Fredrick's housekeeper for a number of years and helped her care for the children." He felt his chest constrict as he remembered his feisty younger sister. "Sally passed away three months ago, and Miss Fredrick continued to give her two children a home when I could not." He would be forever grateful to the woman for taking in Audrey and Albertgoodness knows she was able to give them a better home than he ever could.
A tall bearded man near the back of the church stood. "Have these children been given a Christian upbringing?"
"Absolutely. Miss Fredrick sees that they attend church services regularly and reading from the Bible is part of their daily routine." He gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "And just so you know, they've also been taught proper manners and behavior."
Apparently satisfied, the man sat back down. After a short silence, Reverend Harper stepped forward. "If there are no other questions for Mr. Tucker, we need to discuss his request for temporary lodgings for himself and the children. Is there anyone willing to step up and answer this call?"
To Simon's relief, a number of hands went up. At least he'd be able to lay that worry aside.
"I can take three or four of them in."
"I can take two."
"I can take one."
"I can take three."
As the offers came in Simon's optimism faded. He held up his hand to halt the offers. "That's mighty generous of you folks, but I'm afraid there's been a little misunderstanding. I need to keep them all together right now." The idea of splitting them up brought back unpleasant memories of how he and his sisters had been farmed out all those years ago. But it was more than that. "It's not that I don't appreciate your very kind offers, but since these children are in my sole care right now, I need to be able to keep an eye on all of them. And separating them when they're already feeling so anxious about their foster mother is just going to upset them more."
That announcement was greeted with an uncomfortable silence. What was he going to do if they couldn't make this work? He'd promised he wouldn't separate themhe personally knew how wrenching that could be. Even if they all had to sleep on pallets on the floor, it would be preferable to scattering them, especially now when they needed each other.
He tried again. "It's not as if they each need their own room. They're used to sharing tight quarters."
Reverend Harper cleared his throat. "I think we all understand and sympathize with your reasoning, Mr. Tucker, but what you're asking is a mighty tall order to fill. There are eleven of you, after all."
The reverend said that as if Simon weren't already painfully aware of the situation.
But before he could respond, the man continued. "You may have to accept the need to separate them for a few days. We can likely find accommodations for two large groups, but there's not many households large enough to accept eleven guests for an overnight"
He paused as if he'd just had an idea, and Simon immediately felt his hope rise. Had the man come up with a solution? Simon was ready to grasp at any straw.
Reverend Harper had looked to the pews on the right-hand side of the church as if seeking someone out. "Unless Ah, there you are, Mrs. Pierce. Perhaps you would allow us to impose on your generosity?"
Simon followed the minister's gaze, trying to figure out who he was looking at. Then a slender, blonde woman, dressed in the purple and gray of half mourning, stood. There was something arresting about her. She was taller than the average woman and held herself with an elegant grace, but it was more than that. Aloof, cool, distantshe seemed not so much a part of this gathering as a disinterested observer. Her face seemed expressionless, but her thickly lashed brown eyes seemed to miss nothing.
And yet he sensed something vulnerable about her, a just-below-the-surface fragility that tugged at him.
While her expression gave nothing away, he had the distinct impression this ice queen was not going to go along with the reverend's verbal arm-twisting happily.
Which didn't bode well for just how "motherly" she would be toward the children.
As all eyes in the church turned her way expectantly, Eileen Pierce hid her surprise, maintaining the composed, disinterested pose that was second nature to her.
She had just been thinking how shocked her neighbors, who had ignored or outright snubbed her for the past two years, would be if she volunteered her home. The idea had amused her, almost to the point that she'd been tempted to do it just to see the scandalized looks on their faces.
Almost. Because she hadn't had any real intention of doing so.
God had seen fit not to give her any children of her own, and she'd come to accept that there was a reason for thatshe wasn't the kind of woman who was cut out to be a mother. She wouldn't know what to do with one child, much less ten.
But she wasn't truly surprised that Reverend Harper had turned to her, even though she was persona non grata in Turnabout. After all, she owned the largest house in town, one that could easily accommodate these stranded visitors. But as satisfying as it would be to dispense a bit of noblesse oblige, it wasn't worth the risk. Opening her doors to so many outsiders would mean exposing how far she'd actually fallen from her days as the wife of the town's wealthiest and most prominent businessman.
For just a moment, however, she was disconcerted by the way Mr. Tucker looked at her, as if she were his lifeline. She could feel the impact of his intently focused blue eyes from all the way across the room. It had been some time since she'd felt herself the object of such interest. She finally recognized the emotionhe needed her. She couldn't remember a time when anyone truly needed her. And she wasn't certain how she felt about it now.
Eileen gave her head a mental shake, refocusing on the current situation. She couldn't let herself be distracted by such frivolous emotions. Or by a winning smile from a man with intriguing blue eyes and hair the color of rich, loamy soil.
Still trying to figure out how to extricate herself, she gave a nonanswer. "I assume by that question you are asking me to open my home to the entire group."
Before Reverend Harper or the stranger could speak up, Eunice Ortolon, the town's most notorious busybody, stood. "Excuse me, Reverend, but while Mrs. Pierce's home is large enough, surely that shouldn't be the only consideration." The woman drew her shoulders back. "While I understand Mr. Tucker not wanting to separate the children, perhaps it would be best to house them in two or three homes with families that are more" she cut a quick look Eileen's way "let us say, accustomed to dealing with children."
Eileen stiffened. Eunice might as well have used the word suitableit was so obviously there in her tone.
Ivy Parker, the only other person sharing Eileen's pew, and the closest thing she had to a friend here, stood up immediately. "As a former boarder of Eileen's, I can attest to the fact that her home would be the perfect place to house these childrenher home is both roomy and welcoming." She gave Eileen an encouraging smile. "That is, if she feels so led to make the offer."
Eileen appreciated that Ivy had come to her defense, but now was not the time for everyone to suddenly approve of her. Unfortunately she could see several folks giving her tentative smiles of encouragement.
The urge to give in to her frustration was strong, and Eileen maintained her impassive expression by sheer force of will. She wanted so much to be accepted by the community again, but this was not the way.
Of course there were still those, like Mrs. Ortolon, who looked either hesitant or disapproving.
How in the world could she extricate herself without sounding selfish and uncaring?
And why was she so oddly reluctant to disappoint Mr. Tucker?