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"Surely, ma'am, you ain't serious?"
"I see no other choice."
"But, Mrs. Garrett, she ain't fit."
"For goodness sake, Alma! Stop fussing. You're making entirely too much of this," Priscilla Brock Garrett said. "How difficult can it be to care for a five-month-old baby? It's only for a few hours."
Not fit? Claire Sorenson shrank against the nursery wall. Humiliation branded her cheeks a fiery pink. Did Alma Dobbs, the Garretts' housekeeper, really think her incapable of caring for one small infant? Did she honestly believe Claire shouldn't be responsible for anything other than scrubbing floors and washing windows?
Through the partially opened door of Priscilla's bedroom, Claire saw Alma wring her hands in distress. "What will the mister say?"
"I couldn't care less." Priscilla fastened a jet earring in one lobe, then held up a mirror to inspect the effect before inserting the second. "Cole Garrett may be my husband, but he doesn't own me. I can come and go as I please, and I can do what I want without asking his permission. You're forgetting, I'm a Brock--my family founded this town. He, on the other hand, is nothing more than a lumberjack who happened to get lucky."
Claire wished she could block out the conversation between the two women. It made her uncomfortable. The disdain in Priscilla Garrett's voice whenever she referred to her husband was vicious.
"But, ma'am," Alma Dobbs tried again, her round face worried but determined.
"Enough!" Priscilla snapped "My mind is made up. I've been looking forward to the Howards' party all week. I'm not going to miss it simplybecause he prefers to spend his time in some musty old office." She patted a glossy, brown curl. "Besides, it isn't my fault that the baby nurse picked today of all days to leave in a huff."
"You know I'd stay myself if I could." A defensive note crept into the housekeeper's voice. "It's just that my Harold expects his dinner on the table soon's I get home. He gets downright testy if he has to wait."
"Not another word, Alma. Surely if that girl can scrub floors she can change a diaper. Now if I don't hurry, I'll be late."
Claire heard the clasp of an evening bag snap shut, followed by the swish of silk. She peeked from the nursery and glimpsed Priscilla Garrett attired in a sapphire blue gown that left a generous portion of bare skin exposed. She watched as Priscilla regally descended the staircase, one gloved hand lightly touching the mahogany banister. Alma Dobbs, in her plain gray worsted and starched white apron, followed close at her heels.
Whether Priscilla admitted it or not, Mrs. Dobbs had raised a valid point. Claire couldn't help but worry that Cole Garrett wouldn't be pleased when he returned home to find his precious baby girl cared for by the daughter of the town drunk. The sound of the door opening, then closing, drew her across the room. Pulling aside the frilly curtain, she watched the Garretts' carriage--with Tim O'Brien, their coachman and caretaker, at the reins--roll down the drive and turn onto Elm Street. Moments later, Alma Dobbs, bundled to her chin against the biting March wind until she resembled a pouter pigeon, scurried down the drive and turned in the opposite direction. No doubt the woman was anxious to start supper for Harold, who, from her description, sounded like a tyrant.
But then, Alma had never met Lud Sorenson, Claire's father.
At a gurgling sound, Claire let the curtain drop back into place and went to the crib. She couldn't help smiling at the infant who stared up at her with big, blue eyes. Wide awake after her nap, the baby flailed her tiny arms and legs like miniature windmills.
"Hello, Daisy girl." Claire extended her hand into the crib, pleased when the baby grasped her finger. "Looks like it's just the two of us tonight."
Daisy cooed at the sight of Claire's smiling face above the rail of her crib.
Reaching down, Claire picked the baby up. For a long moment, they regarded each other in solemn silence. A perfect baby, Claire mused. A lump of longing rose in her throat until it threatened to choke her. A perfect baby, a perfect family. A charmed life.
Or was it?
At least she used to think so. Now she wasn't so sure. For a long time she had admired the Garretts from afar. She would use any excuse she could to wander down Elm Street so she could view the progress of the fine new palace belonging to lumber baron Cole Garrett. Square and sturdy, it was a grand house, fit for royalty. Its three stories were crowned with a mansard roof studded with dormer windows. A fanciful tower rose yet another story above the front entrance with windows facing to each of the four directions. Gossips claimed that the lofty perch afforded a magnificent view of Lake Michigan.
The house had been barely completed when Cole surprised everyone in town by eloping with Priscilla Brock. Both tall and brunette, they made a striking couple, a fairy-tale king and his queen. Their child, Daisy, completed the picture. It wasn't until Claire came into the household to help with the heavy cleaning that she learned that this supposedly ideal family was seriously flawed. Underneath the surface perfection, there was light without warmth. Fire without heat.
Daisy raised a small fist to her rosebud mouth and sucked vigorously. "What's the matter, baby girl? Time for a bottle?" Claire asked.
The time passed quickly. For the remainder of the evening, Claire indulged in a game of make-believe. What harm could there be, she rationalized, in pretending she was the mistress of this magnificent house and that Daisy belonged to her? It was bitter knowledge, knowing she'd probably never have a child of her own. Her father's volatile temper discouraged suitors from calling. Her brother, Nils, also had a reputation for being quick to use his fists to settle a dispute. Men she had met thus far tended to avoid women with troublesome families. The prospect of an adoring husband, children, a decent home--respectability--always seemed just beyond her grasp.
But even so, the dream persisted.
Long after Daisy had been fed, diapered, and put to bed for the night, Claire kept her vigil from a rocking chair in a darkened corner of the nursery. The tall case clock in the foyer struck the hour of eleven, and neither of the Garretts had yet returned home. Surely, she thought, Cole Garrett couldn't still be at his office this late. She wondered if he had surprised his wife by joining her at the dinner party.
Some time later, the baby whimpered and stirred restlessly in her sleep. Immediately, Claire rose and went to the crib. Bending over the rail, she gently rubbed Daisy's back until the baby let out a small hiccup, then sighed and quieted.
"Bad dream, sweetie?" Claire murmured. "Or did you have a tummy ache?"
She started to tuck the hand-embroidered flannel shawl over the baby's shoulders when a door quietly opened downstairs, then closed. Next she heard the muted sound of footsteps on the carpeted steps. She listened, her head to one side, trying to decide if there was one set of footsteps or two. Whoever it was paused just outside the partially opened nursery door.
"Who are you?" a low male voice demanded. "And what the devil are you doing here?"
The barely suppressed fury in the man's voice drove every thought from Claire's mind. She stood frozen in place at the crib side, her hand still clutching the baby's blanket.
For long seconds, coherent speech deserted her. Then, slowly, she gathered her scattered wits and hazarded a glance over her shoulder. Cole Garrett glared back at her from the nursery doorway. A single gaslight burned in the hallway behind him. Its glow formed a golden halo around his tall, powerful figure. His shoulders seemed to stretch the breadth of the door frame. But it was his anger, more than his sheer physical presence, that caused her mind to stumble over an explanation.
His angry mood shouldn't have intimidated her, but somehow it did. She had grown accustomed to fits of temper in men, had even developed some skill at deflecting them. Garrett's arrogant tone, his peremptory manner, reminded her she didn't belong here. Made her feel guilty for pretending she did. Even though it had just been for a few hours, she felt like an intruder in his fine house. Or, as Mrs. Dobbs had so succinctly stated, she wasn't "fit."
"Speak up, girl," he growled. "Tell me what you're doing here before I summon the police."
"The p-police...?" she stammered. Dear Lord, did he think she was a burglar? And then another, a more alarming, thought occurred to her: did he think she meant to harm the baby? "I'm Claire," she managed to say, hearing and despising the tremor in her voice. "Claire Sorenson."
As he advanced into the room, the nursery seemed to shrink. He was tall, an inch or two over six feet, Claire estimated, and brawny from his days as a logger. He seemed almost overwhelmingly masculine against the backdrop of the dainty, feminine nursery.
He glanced down at the sleeping infant as though needing to see for himself that she was unharmed. Then, reassured, he turned his attention back to Claire. He opened his mouth to speak, but she held a finger to her lips.
"Shh," she whispered.
Cole's dark brows drew together as though silently challenging her authority to issue orders. For a moment he looked as though he might argue the point; then his frown eased as he reconsidered awakening his daughter.
Claire smoothed the shawl over the tiny form, then turned and left the room. At the doorway, she looked back, expecting to find Cole Garrett close behind, but the man remained at the crib side. Though it might have been a trick of the lighting, his expression seemed to soften as he gazed down at the baby. As she watched, he reached out and with infinite tenderness, stroked the infant's rounded cheek. The love and gentleness of that simple gesture brought an ache to her chest.
Cole, his expression now as hard as it had been soft only moments ago, crossed the room and carefully closed the nursery door. "Come with me." Taking Claire by the arm, he half-steered, half-dragged her down the upstairs hallway away from the baby's room. "Now for the last time, kindly explain who you are and what brings you here."
She tugged her arm free. "It isn't necessary to manhandle me, Mr. Garrett."
"Sorenson...?" He studied her long and hard, then his scowl eased. "Now I recognize you. You're Nils Sorenson's little sister."
"That's right." Claire surreptitiously wiped her damp palms on her simple cotton skirt. "You were one of the men who brought Nils home the day of his accident."
"Which your brother blames me for. He's hated my guts ever since." His eyes narrowed with sudden suspicion. "Did Nils put you up to something?"
It was no secret. Everyone in town was aware that Nils blamed Cole for the logging accident that had left him crippled. From Cole's question, she also knew neither Alma Dobbs nor his wife had informed him that she had been hired to help with the heavy cleaning chores. No wonder the housekeeper had been opposed to the idea of Claire caring for Daisy. "My brother has nothing to do with my being here."
Cole rubbed the back of his neck and closed his eyes briefly. "It's been a long day, Miss Sorenson. Just tell me why you're taking care of Daisy in place of her nurse."
"Miss Bartlesby left ... unexpectedly."
"Damn," he swore softly. "Not another one. That marks the third to leave in five months."
She sensed his weariness, his frustration. "Your wife wanted to attend the Howards' party, and Mrs. Dobbs needed to get home, so they asked me to stay instead."
"Why you, of all people?"
"Mrs. Dobbs hired me to help with the heavy cleaning, floors and such. I ... um ... work here two days a week."
He pinned her with a steely gaze. "Then why haven't I seen you here before?"
Nervous under his intense scrutiny, she tucked a strand of ash-blond hair into the loose knot at the back of her head. "Usually you've left for the office before I start in the mornings, and I'm gone before you come home at night."
"What qualifies you as a baby nurse?"
"There was no one else on such short notice." She gave a small shrug.
"The last port in the storm, eh?" he grunted. "God forbid Priscilla should have to miss a social gathering to take care of her own child."
Unsure of how to respond, Claire remained silent. She used the opportunity instead to study him as intently as he had studied her minutes ago. His hair was dark brown, almost black, cut short and parted on one side. An unruly shock fell across his brow. His eyes were a compelling gray, the same soft shade as a dove's. His features reflected his personality. A square jaw revealed determination; the slight bump in his nose attested to a willingness to fight for what he wanted; his beautifully molded mouth could be firm or stubborn. Or sensual. The thought was both unexpected and unnerving. In spite of his well-tailored jacket, his shoulders strained the seams to the point of bursting. Though too big, too muscular, to be considered handsome by conventional standards, he was nevertheless an imposing figure.
And a very attractive one.
"Does your brother know you work for me?" he asked abruptly.
"No," she said. Her gaze wavered.
"He won't be happy if he finds out."
"As long as I give Nils money for drink, he doesn't question where it comes from."
"Your brother has no right to earnings you've worked hard for. Nils has a shrewd mind and a way with figures. Let him earn his own money for booze."
Her head came up with a snap. "What I choose to do with my wages is no concern of yours, Mr. Garrett."
"If anything, Nils should compensate you," Cole continued, ignoring her rebuke. "According to Doc Wetherbury, your brother would have lost his leg to infection if it hadn't been for your vigilance."
All too well, Claire remembered the endless days when she had feared Nils's leg would have to be amputated. The long nights she had spent at his bedside, hoping, praying. The days, weeks, months when he seemed to lose his will to live. Followed by a slow, painful recovery. She cleared her throat, banishing the memories. "Since you won't be needing me anymore, I'll say good night."
"As I recall, you live miles from town. How are you planning on getting home?"
Halfway down the stairs, she paused. "Why, walk, of course. I have two feet."
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he sauntered toward her. "It's nearly midnight. Much too late for a woman unescorted."
"It's kind of you to worry, Mr. Garrett, but I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself."
"'Kind' isn't a word usually used to describe me." His mouth quirked in a rueful smile. "I'd feel responsible if you didn't reach home safely."
"I'll be fine." She gave him a fleeting smile. "Nothing ever happens here. Brockton is safe as a church."
"Humor me, Miss Sorenson." He dug in his pocket and produced a silver dollar, which he offered to her. "Tim O'Brien, my coachman, should be along soon with Mrs. Garrett. Give him this and tell him I said to take you home."
Claire debated with herself, but the thought of riding home in comfort won over the prospect of a three-mile walk on a cold night. "Very well," she agreed, pocketing the coin, "since you insist."
"I insist. You can wait for Tim in the kitchen."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I picked this book based on it's location and subject matter. Flows easily but the major conflict for me was the heronine. She's presented as an intelligent woman yet the plot has her making connections that markedly contradict that conclusion. Any intelligent character would've put the facts together within paragraphs and not chapters. The plot was not credible to this experienced reader.