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The Midwife's Secret
By Kate Bridges
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Kate Bridges
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMay 1888, Town of Banff, Rocky Mountains Park, District of Alberta
It had been eighteen long months since she'd felt aware of a man's gaze.
The man she was here to meet, Tom Murdock, stalked into the sawmill at precisely ten-fifteen and slammed the papers he was carrying onto the corner desk. With a groan of frustration, he glanced up through the cloud of sawdust to the back, noticed Amanda Ryan walking toward him, and caught and held her eye.
A sprinkle of nerves took root in her stomach. Raindrops trickled down her bonnet. Horses clomped in the mud outside.
"That's him, that's the boss," said the thin Scotsman leading her, but Amanda had already deduced it from Murdock's confident glare.
With a quick, sharp breath, he released her from his scrutiny and shouted orders to his men, straining to be heard above the buzzing band saw and clatter of boards. Dressed as if he'd just come from outdoors, he tossed away his cowboy hat, yanked off his long leather duster, then shook the rain from its massive sleeves. He wore miner's pants, indigo Levi's with orange stitching that melted into muscular thighs, and black pointed boots with shiny silver toes. Of strapping height, with powerful hands and a dark profile, he looked more like a leader of a cattle drive than mill owner and log builder. He radiated masculinity. And anger. And she'd come at a bad time.
"Right this way, ma'am." Dressed in baggy overalls, the Scotsman squeezed between two worktables and ignored the other men's inquisitive glances. "Watch your head."
Amanda veered beneath the water pails hoisted from the ceiling - a first line of defense in case of fire. The scent of pine and sawdust tickled her nostrils. Ignoring her queasy stomach, she pressed her oilskin slicker to her green twill skirt and wove from the side door from where she'd entered, to the front where Tom Murdock stood. Who could be upset here, surrounded by the beauty of ice-capped mountains, springtime air and acres of trees? And where was his partner, Mr. Finnigan? The older, stockier man she'd met in Calgary town, eighty miles east, who'd smiled readily and invited her to come? Should she leave and come back later?
"Watch your step over that log."
Passing over it, she smiled gently at the bearded, friendly faces. Many of these men had wives and children. Some of their wives had yet to become mothers, and hopefully Amanda would grow to be their friend, even deliver their babies.
Of course she shouldn't leave. She'd come a long way to hire Tom Murdock, and a long way to build her dream. Just because he was in a surly mood didn't mean she had to be.
While the sun broke through the clouds, streaming through the high windows, highlighting his black hair and clean-shaven jaw, a big, wet, white husky dog barreled around his desk.
"Wolf," he shouted, pointing to the door. "Get out of here. You're soaking wet."
His laced, black leather vest fell open, revealing a row of shiny buttons down a crisp blue shirt. His rigid face softened into handsome planes and deep dimples. He was a pleasure to look at, but that's not why she'd come. Good looks were not something you could respect, like being a hard worker, or a good husband, or a kind man.
The Scotsman leading her stepped aside. "Tom, this lady says she wants to speak to you. Mrs. Amanda Ryan."
Mr. Murdock regarded her for a moment. Heat emanated from his muscular body, as well as the scent of shaving lotion. A current of curiosity passed between them.
Amanda peeled off her worn leather gloves, tugging a bit harder over the finger with the hole, and held out her hand. Tilting her face at him, she sent him an exploratory smile. "How do you do, Mr. Murdock?"
Her knitted scarf dipped around her throat. Green. His eyes were green, but he didn't smile back.
"Mrs. Ryan. Call me Tom." As he nodded, a strand of black hair slid down his forehead. Leaning closer with extended palm, he glanced down at her ringless fingers.
Self-conscious, she gulped. She'd finally removed it six months ago and could no longer hide behind it when a man looked her up and down. But, selling her ring had funded a dozen bottles of medicinal tonics, one crate of silk sutures and a brand-spanking-new fetal stethoscope.
When his long, calloused fingers laced into hers, his grasp was firm and warm. It maddened her the way her pulse began to rush.
"I'm in a bit of a jam and don't have much time," he said. "If you've come about the woodstove, I can have it delivered in the morning. Works fine, never gave me trouble."
She glanced to where he motioned. Surrounded by a stone floor that would deaden any stray sparks, a shiny cast-iron stove crackled with fire. Beside it sat an empty smaller stove, the one to which he pointed. She took a step closer, enjoying the warmth on her frozen toes. It'd taken such a long time for her to stoke the fire in the shack this morning due to the damp wood, and longer still to get it rolling to this wonderful blaze. She hoped her grandmother was still enjoying its heat.
"I'm not here about the stove."
When she turned around again, he was seated and rummaging through his desk. "Well, whatever it is, my foreman will handle it. I'm expected somewhere in twenty minutes. Patrick, come here a moment," he shouted to the far side of the mill, at one of the men hammering a cabinet, then reached back into his top drawer. "What on earth is this?" He pulled out a gray envelope, tore open the letter and began to read.
While keeping her waiting! Perhaps she should take her business elsewhere and forget about his excellent recommendations. How could he let her sit at his heels while he read his correspondence?
He winced, then paled. A flash of vulnerability rippled across his face.
Was he in some sort of trouble? She didn't know much about him. Mr. Finnigan had mentioned he was unmarried, that the sawmill was a Murdock family business and that Finnigan himself was simply an investor. She moaned with sympathy. You never knew what someone else's pain felt like until you walked in their shoes. The neighborly thing to do would be to help instead of to criticize.
Stepping closer, she squeezed the frayed ribbon of her purse. "What is it? Is it ... bad news?"
He jerked out of his concentration. A wave of redness washed his face. "Nothing." He folded the sheet and jammed it into his denim pocket.
Before she had a moment to think about that, a flash of white fur caught the corner of her eye. She looked up as the dog raced toward her. He shook himself, spraying water in a six foot diameter.
Amanda yelped, then laughed, cupping a hand over her face.
Disarmed, Tom leaped from his chair, encircling her waist, tugging her out of the spray and standing in the line of fire himself. "Wolf!" When the dog stopped, Tom peered down at her. "Sorry, he's gotten you all wet."
She managed an awkward smile, well aware of his hard fingers pressing through her clothing. How long had it been since a man had touched her?
"Luckily, I've got my rain slicker on," she murmured, inches from his face.
At least the dog had penetrated Tom's veneer. Transformed him, really. Creases appeared at the corners of his warm eyes. A boyish smile touched his mouth and those deep dimples reappeared. The scent of his shaving lotion met her nostrils again. It was something she missed, sharing those intimacies with a man, waking up together, watching him shave.
Uncomfortable with the awkward silence and his touch, she wriggled free and removed her plaid bonnet. She wasn't ready for any man to touch her, no matter how much she wished she were. He cleared his throat with an anxious cough, but his eyes followed the movement of her hand as she patted the damp bun beneath her mended kerchief.
Excerpted from The Midwife's Secret by Kate Bridges Copyright © 2003 by Kate Bridges
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Good story. Well told. Sad in spots. Nice ending.
This was a good read. Enjoy Kate Bridges books and will be looking for other by her.