Dateline: 1907 Manitou Springs, Colorado
“Papa, do something!” Nellie paced the small dining room with squalling baby Sadie at her shoulder, tears coursing her cheeks.
Tate was doing all he knew to do. His teen-age son, Jackson, was standing wide-eyed in the doorway with Tate’s medical bag in hand, but he knew there was nothing in it that could help.
Nellie had been preoccupied with a crying baby in the parlor when Tate’s son-in-law had risen from the dinner table to retrieve their apple pie dessert from the kitchen and collapsed before he reached the door. Not detecting a pulse, Tate had begun chest compressions, but after over ten minutes of cardiac stimulation, the man wasn’t coming back to them. Dear God, don’t take Nellie’s husband. Please.
Lita, on her knees beside him, put a hand to his shoulder. He paused merely a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow, then began again. Nellie’s sobs pushed him on, even though in his heart, he knew this was over. Paul was gone.
“Tate,” Lita whispered, “it’s been too long.”
The catch in her voice told him she was crying too. He stopped and sat back on his heels with an anguished sigh.
Nellie stepped toward them, screaming, “No, Papa, don’t stop! You’re a doctor; you can’t… you can’t just let him die!”
Lita rose and went around the fallen man, taking the wailing baby from her distraught daughter’s arms. Nellie fell to her knees, placing her hands on her still husband’s chest, franticly trying to continue what Tate had ceased to do. “Is this right, Papa? How hard do I push?”
He gently stroked her head as he fought tears. “Nellie, Paul’s gone.”
She tossed her head defiantly, loosening several wavy strands of blond hair from her upswept hairdo. “No. We have to just keep working.”
Tate noticed that the small lightning-shaped mark below her ear had turned a bright red. He started to rise, trying to pull Nellie up with him. “No!” she protested. “We can’t give up!”
Stepping over the body, he turned Nellie away and wrapped her in his arms. “Nellie, dear, we knew this could happen. We knew that Paul’s heart wasn’t strong.” Even in this new twentieth century, medical advances could do little to repair the ravages of rheumatic fever.
Nellie’s sobs shook her petite frame. “But I thought we’d have more time than this! Oh, God, I need more time!”
Tate met Lita’s sorrowful gaze. Ever since she had come into his life, the subject of “time” had held special significance. And for the first time, he wished he could do for Nellie what Lita had done for him: go back in time and change the past. Turn sorrow into joy.
Lita had bounced little Sadie into a slightly better mood. Nellie’s grief wouldn’t be so easily assuaged.
Nellie startled awake and felt acutely the night she had spent sitting in the upholstered chair by the open window. It was the early morning birdsong that had brought her out of her grim dreams. Dreams of a frantic search for Paul. Dreams that usually ended in a funeral.
The last one had been different. She had been watching the Paul that she knew as a child in school. She was a transcendent observer to his rambunctious boyhood pranks and energetic games where he always seemed to be sprinting. This dream ended with the boy in bed, a red flush to his cheeks and hushed voices whispering concern.
She’d never actually seen this, as she was only five when the love of her life had fought for his own, taken to the brink by rheumatic fever. She pondered the two types of dreams and concluded that they were basically the same. The fever at ten had led to the funeral at twenty-five.
She shivered and clutched her shawl tighter around her nightgown. Wanting to divert her mind from the dreams, she looked around the room she had grown up in. It had been months since she sold the house that she and Paul had called home—months since she had returned to live with her father and Lita as a widow, although she’d be hard pressed to say how many. The days all seemed to run together now.
She heard Sadie crying across the hall, but it was as one detached. Sadie’s bassinet no longer resided in Nellie’s room. The baby’s colicky nature had been hard to deal with before her husband’s death. After, Nellie simply couldn’t cope. Sadie looked too much like her dark-haired, dark-eyed Paul.
Tate had removed the baby to his and Lita’s room where nearly every night the child screamed as though in pain. Tate practiced the medical wisdom of the day on her, while Lita suggested remedies from her past, which were actually remedies from the future.
Lita had spent many hours telling Nellie stories of her life in that future that had occurred in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first fifteen years of the twenty-first, as well as what she knew of the happenings between now and then. It had been their family secret—this ability of Lita’s to ride the lightning—a secret that she dared tell no one. Nellie’s father had told her it was a treasure they must hold very dear. He emphasized that the one who flaunts a treasure is only inviting a thief, and he’d given her a jewel in a small polished wooden box as a reminder.
That secret had carried her through every season of her life, the mystery lighting her from within and spurring her to thoughts that were, frankly, far ahead of her time. Most thought of her as odd, and some went so far as to call her touched. Paul had called her special and wanted her to be his treasure. _He said we had a love for the ages—the kind of love that only happens once in a lifetime._
Nellie rose stiffly and wandered to her dressing table to sit once more. She turned on the Tiffany lamp in the still dark room and stared at her care worn image. Never would she estimate the age of the woman she saw there as twenty. To her weary eyes, she looked a good decade older.
Reaching for that box her father had given her so many years ago, she opened it and stared at the gem within. She lifted the red, chiseled prize out of the box and held it in the soft glow of the lamp, not feeling the magic she had felt as a child. Turning it over in her hands, she was suddenly struck with the fact that it was only made of glass. Not much of a treasure, Papa.
Setting the bauble back in the box, she thought it somehow appropriate that her “treasure” had turned out to be as fragile as her wedded bliss.
She allowed herself a daydream of her honeymoon. Lita had told her what to expect and how to guide her new husband into a night of shared pleasure. Their joining had been beyond anything she could have imagined, and that’s when Paul had noticed the birth mark that only seemed to show up with intense emotions.
Leaning toward the mirror, she looked for the faint jagged mark on the side of her neck, just below her ear. She ran her finger over the spot, recalling the day that Lita had first seen it when Nellie had been crying over a scraped knee. As Lita had run through the house calling for her father, Nellie had stood on the piano bench to look in the mirror. She had seen a bright red bolt of lightning not more than half an inch in length, and she had been instantly frightened that a storm might sweep her off to another time as Lita had experienced only a few years before.
Nellie’s mother hadn’t left her much when she deserted her to return to her own time, but she had somehow passed this on to Nellie, and for thirteen years, she had obediently stayed safely inside and away from windows whenever there was even a hint of a possible storm. She had been as frightened as Lita to be swept away from those she loved.
But now, her mind started turning on a different track. Lita had always reassured her that her mother didn’t leave on purpose, even though she had another husband she loved in a different time. Nellie had never questioned that until now. The new hole that loss hollowed out in her gave her a new perspective. Is there a way to determine the course through time? If Mama learned a way to go back to him, how could she not go? Maybe she sought out the lightning.
Pushing away from the dressing table, she walked back to the ever brightening windows. What if I could get back to Paul? Could I brave a storm to see him again?
Lita slipped back into bed beside Tate as the first rays of dawn eased over the horizon. Never had she been so exhausted. Whatever ailed the nearly six-month-old Sadie was about to take them all under.
Jackson had been a very happy baby, and Tate reported that while Nellie hadn’t been quite as easy, she had been nothing like their new granddaughter. The crying only stopped when the child was asleep, and that never lasted more than two hours at a time. She also spit up what seemed like most of her milk and rice cereal and sometimes refused to eat altogether.
After Nellie had lost her milk in the midst of her grief and depression, they had tried what this era offered as substitute: thinned, boiled cows’ milk with sugar added, Carnation evaporated milk, and even goats’ milk, but none seemed better than the other for their constantly wailing baby.
Lita felt sure she had some kind of digestion issue, and while Tate agreed, he didn’t really know what to do for her. He’d studied medical journals late into the night and made calls to doctors around the country and still had no solutions.
She knew that Nellie needed attention as well—the depression that had plagued her mother seemed to be settling on her in full force—but Lita simply didn’t have the time or energy to deal with them both. It took her and Tate, and sometimes Jackson, to deal with the baby.
Tate hooked an arm around her and hauled her against him. She wished she had the energy to enjoy the feel of his body spooned with hers.
“Nellie.” Tate rapped quietly on her bedroom door with an elbow as he held a bottle for the nursing baby in his arms. “Nellie, I need your help.”
He waited several long moments, looking down into the eyes of his granddaughter. He rapped again, louder. “Nellie,” he hissed, “I’m coming in.” After another pause, he grasped the knob with the hand under the baby’s bottom and pushed the door open, not caring if Nellie was presentable or not. She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.
“Nellie, you need to get up and take care of Sadie. I’ve been called out on an emergency, Jackson is working for Mr. Hammil at the autoshop, and Lita was up half the night with Sadie. I won’t wake her when you could just as easily take care of your child.”
Nellie looked his way, her vacant stare turning sorrowful. “Oh, Papa, I can’t.”
Pulling the bottle from the baby’s lips, he set it on the night stand and flung the covers off of her, remembering with regret, doing the same for Augusta on more than one occasion. “You can, and you will.” He tried to soften his expression as he turned Sadie to his shoulder to pat her back. “I’m not trying to be mean, Nellie. I understand better than you think, but I need you. We all need you.” He reached for her hand to pull her to sitting. “And most of all, Sadie needs you.”
Nellie swiped at her eyes, and Tate fought with guilt. It broke his heart to see his sweet girl sinking into the same melancholy that had enveloped her mother, but they were all exhausted. Nellie had to pitch in.
Slowly rising, she swept up her wrapper laying on the arm of the chair and slipped it on. She reached hesitantly for the child, but Tate shook his head. “Go take care of your morning ablutions.”
Nellie nodded, heading out of the room, and Tate swept up the bottle and sank into the chair. He’d need another cup of coffee before setting out to see about Mr. Burrel’s foot that had been stomped on by his bull. He rubbed his free hand over his weary face. Maybe two.
Nellie returned, and Tate rose, finally hearing the burp he’d been waiting for. He paused a moment, but when the child didn’t spit up, he shifted her to Nellie’s arms. “Holding her more upright while she eats, and even after, seems to improve her chances for keeping her milk down.” He moved toward the door. “Don’t disturb Lita unless you absolutely have to.” He turned back to give his daughter a pointed look. “She deserves some rest.” Nellie gave a tiny nod and sat in the chair by her bed as Tate turned to leave the room.
Heading to the kitchen, he poured himself a cup of tepid coffee and drank it down as he moved through the wash porch to the screen door on the back of the house. Setting the empty cup on the table by the door, he donned his fedora and set out, praying that Nellie was up to the task of caring for her baby.
Nellie stared ahead, trying not to look at her child. Her dark eyes were too much—her thick ebony hair so like her father’s, Nellie thought her heart would break to touch it.
She felt rather than saw when Sadie rejected the nipple in her mouth, and she forced herself to look at the face of her daughter. She seemed content for a minute or two, then her sweet face crumpled into sadness as she pulled her legs up and began to fuss. Nellie looked to the open door. She really didn’t want to disturb Lita’s sleep. She knew how much Lita had done for her.
She tried putting the bottle back to those pouting lips, but Sadie no longer wanted it. Rising, she turned the baby to her shoulder, patting her back as she moved swiftly out of her room and down the stairs, feeling panic rise within her. Heading down the hall and into the parlor, she slid the pocket door shut and tried to shush the now wailing little one. If only she wouldn’t cry. I could handle it if she wouldn’t cry. She began to pace the room. Papa says she didn’t get worse after Paul died. He says she always cried a lot, but that’s not true. This is worse. I know it is.
The child paused and burped, bringing up what felt like most of the bottle of milk running down her back. Nellie closed her eyes and held her breath, hoping that with the expulsion of the meal, she would feel better. Only thirty seconds passed before her hopes were dashed.
As the child began to cry again, Nellie sank to the floor weeping. “Oh, Paul, I need you!”
The parlor door slid open, and Lita appeared in her wrapper. The dark circles under her eyes told the story of too many sleepless nights.
“I don’t know what to do!” Nellie wailed nearly as loud as Sadie.
Lita bent to receive the baby, and Nellie sat wiping her eyes and blowing her nose on the handkerchief that Lita handed her. “Go change, and then we’ll give her a warm bath. Sometimes that helps.”
Nellie got up and headed for the hall when the doorbell rang. She didn’t want to be the one to answer, but she could hardly expect Lita to do it with a crying baby. Not really caring that she looked like something the cat dragged in and smelled like something the cat threw up, she pulled open the door to see Daisy Cummings, who had been a year ahead of her in school.
The expression on her face was better than a mirror. “Oh, Nellie… I…”
Nellie swept a strand of hair behind her ear and went into her practiced spiel. “My father isn’t in right now.” She gave a big sniff. “If you’re needing medical assistance of any kind, I can tell him you came by, and he will call you as soon as he can.”
The fashionably dressed Daisy held out her calling card, trying to unobtrusively look into the parlor where all the screaming was coming from. “My mother would like more of the pills Dr. Cavanaugh gave her for her heart flutters.” She brought her eyes and her wrinkled nose back to Nellie. “If you don’t mind giving him that message.”
Nellie took the card. “Certainly. Good day, Daisy.”
She started to close the door, but Daisy put out a hand. “Nellie, is your baby all right?” She reached out to touch her elbow and dropped her voice. “Are you all right?”
If Nellie thought Daisy held any real concern for her or her baby, she might have invited her in for a heart-to-heart. But she didn’t believe that. Not for a minute. Daisy was gathering information—gossip for the working girls downtown to chew on for the rest of the week. She could just hear it now. Crazy Nellie smelled like what?
Nellie couldn’t begin to muster a smile. “Sadie is a baby, Daisy. Babies cry. And I am a very tired mom. No newspaper headlines here.”
Daisy blinked her eyes wide. “I’ve never heard one that cried like that!”
The crying grew louder as Lita brought Sadie to the door. “I’ll tell Tate you called, Daisy,” she said, closing the door in her face.
Nellie knew that half a year ago, they would have laughed about Daisy’s saucer-eyed expression for days. Today, however, they merely turned and dragged themselves to the stairs.
Jackson left Mr. Hammil’s auto shop feeling restless. It had been months since he’d been able to spend any time with his friends, and the last thing he wanted to do was go home to Nellie’s screaming kid. He’d done his share of babysitting, and he was fed up. His feet were taking him in the direction of home, nonetheless.
He looked back over his shoulder to see his good friend Pete jogging to catch up with him, his red hair set aflame by the sun heading toward the peaks. He stopped beside him, catching his breath. “Jack, where ya been? Does Hammil have you working all day and all night?”
Jackson turned and continued walking, and Pete fell into step beside him. “Nah, I’ve been busy with other things—helping my dad.”
“Really? So are you going to be a doctor mechanic or a mechanical doctor?”
“Something like that,” Jack mumbled.
“Ralph says you’ve been babysitting your sister’s brat.”
Jackson ground his teeth. “I’ve been known to help out in a pinch. Babies are hard work.”
“They’re a damned nuisance, if you ask me.”
“Well, who asked you?” Jackson shot back, not really sure why he was irritated. He’d thought the same thing nearly every day since Nellie had moved back home.
“Ah, Jack’s a baby lover. I bet you’re really working for your ma and your sister, and you’re studying to be a nursemaid.”
Jackson punched him in the arm. “I am not. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? Folks is inside your house all the time with your pa being a doctor. Word gets out.”
Jackson could feel his face heating up, but he couldn’t think of anything more to say. It was the truth—he was fast becoming a nursemaid. He knew way more about babies than he ever wanted to know.
They approached the drug store, and Pete stopped. “Let’s get a phosphate.”
Jackson knew he’d be late for supper if he did. “Nah, I gotta get home.”
Pete put his hand to the door. “I suppose you’ve got diapers to change.”
Jack was suddenly furious, but not with his sassy-mouthed friend. He was mad at his parents for forcing him to do girl stuff, he was mad at Nellie for having such a troublesome baby, and he was even mad at Paul for dying, although he knew that one was a trifle unreasonable.
Pete had already gone in, and he could see through the glass that he was joining up with a couple of his other buddies. He found himself opening the door, and the bell dinged, signaling his decision to all those gathered at the soda fountain. A cheer went up as Pete waved him over, and Jackson silenced the dissenting voice in his head as he slipped onto a stool and ordered a strawberry phosphate.
“I’ve called a leading specialist in gastrointestinal abnormalities to try and find a solution for whatever ails Sadie,” Tate announced over supper as he passed rolls to Nellie. It was a rarity for her to join them for a meal these days. He paused, hoping to see some spark of interest. Not seeing any, he pressed on. “I hope Dr. Englewood will review her case and return my call in the next week or two.”
“What do you think is wrong with her?” she asked flatly, setting the basket in the center of the table without taking a roll.
Tate spread his roll with butter, elated with her question. “I think it’s an esophageal sphincter issue. I suspect it’s not closing properly, letting stomach acid back into her esophagus.”
“Can anything be done for it?” she asked quietly, not meeting his gaze.
“That’s what I hope Dr. Englewood can tell me.”
The back door opened, and after a moment, Jackson appeared in the dining room.
Tate straightened and lifted his chin as his son sank into a dining room chair beside Nellie. “You’re late for supper, young man. Is Mr. Hammil working you so hard?”
Jackson helped himself to a piece of roasted chicken and a roll. “I stopped at the soda shop after I was done sweeping. Where’s Mom?”
“Your mother’s resting.” Tate tried not to be irritated at his son’s lackadaisical attitude. “Supper is served promptly at 6:00. I expect you to be here.”
A swoop of Jackson’s brown hair slipped toward his eye, and Tate made a mental note to get the boy to the barber soon.
“I haven’t seen Pete in ages, what with all the baby business. I needed a break.”
Tate had no doubt that he did, but his attitude could use some polish. He was about to rub a shine on it, when Jackson continued to spew forth thoughtless words. “So, sis, what brings you out of your room? I told mom weeks ago if she wanted you to come out, she needed to stop taking food up there.”
Nellie scowled, tossing her napkin to the table. “Did you? How understanding of you.”
Tate didn’t want her to retreat back upstairs. “Jackson, apologize. That was not… kind.”
Jackson took his time chewing and swallowing. “The reverend always says we should speak the truth. So that’s what I’m doing.”
Tate was sorely tempted to wallop some truth on his backside, but with their lack of sleep they were all short-tempered. “Speak the truth in love, Jackson. You are missing the love part.”
Tate held his gaze until the young man gave a little snort of concession. “I apologize,” he muttered.
It was a sorry excuse for an apology, but Tate was too weary to demand more. He turned back to his meal, surprised when Jackson went on. “I apologize for my ‘lack of love,’ but where is hers? She has let us deal with her squalling baby for months while she hides out in her room.”
Tate nailed him with a not-now look. “Jackson.”
“No, I’m tired of playing nursemaid. Men shouldn’t be tending babies. All my friends are laughing at me.”
Tate rose, leaning forward, his knuckles on the table. “In this house men and women are equal. Your mother would say that being a ‘nursemaid’ is not ‘gender specific.’ ”
The young man dared to defy him, crossing his arms over his chest. “But it’s her baby.”
Tate headed around the table. “I thought you were too old for the woodshed, but I guess—”
“Papa, I want you and Lita to adopt Sadie.”
Nellie’s words stopped Tate in his tracks. “Nellie, you don’t know what you’re saying. You’ve been through a trauma, and—”
“No, I’ve given it a lot of thought.” She pushed back from the table and rose, her chin ticking up. “I’m not a suitable mother.”
Jackson shook his head, muttering something unintelligible.
She looked down at him. “I don’t expect you to understand. I just can’t… I may be leaving soon. She’s better off with Papa and Lita.”
“Leaving?” Lita had appeared in the doorway, her long black hair in a simple braid down her back. “Where would you go?”
Nellie swallowed. “I don’t know. Somewhere with less memories. I could go back to school—get my entomology degree… or someplace completely different.”
Tate put a hand to her shoulder. “Honey, we would support you in a degree, but I don’t think you could handle the studies right now.” Nellie closed her eyes, looking as if she could come apart, and Tate wondered if he should place a call to his old friend and psychologist, Dr. Jeremiah Fischer.
“I just want to know,” Nellie began slowly without opening her eyes, “if you will always take care of Sadie if I can’t.” She blinked her eyes open, looking between him and Lita. “Please, tell me you’ll raise her as your own.”
“Oh good grief,” Jackson spouted behind them.
Tate sent him a quelling look designed to remind him of his earlier woodshed threat, and the boy clamped his mouth shut.
Lita put a hand to Nellie’s cheek. “She’s our granddaughter, Nellie. Of course we’ll take care of her.” She pulled her into a hug. “But you’re going to get better. You’ll see. This will get easier. You just need time to heal. We all do.”
The crying started upstairs, and Tate gave a sigh as he pulled both women to his chest.
Tate mopped his brow with his handkerchief as the July sun tried to undo his resolve to get Nellie out of the house and back into society. They rode in Tate’s touring car in silence—Lita in the front next to him and Nellie in the back with the baby—toward the Congregational Church for its annual Independence Day ice cream social.
This was the first day that Sadie had ridden in a car, as Lita had insisted that the child needed a car seat and couldn’t just be held when traveling. Tate had told her that babies had been held in buggies, wagons and cars since buggies, wagons, and cars had been invented, but she would not be dissuaded. Tate had taken her drawings to Seth Dickson’s saddle shop, and the man had done his best to create the oddity that Tate requested.
Leather straps had been added to his car seat, as well, to buckle it securely in place. After he had it installed, he could see the benefit of it, and it made him wonder, with the new high speeds of motor cars, why they weren’t all strapped in somehow. They were, after all, going upwards of forty miles per hour at times. When he had shared that idea with Lita, she had laughed and called him a true visionary. He was skeptical as to her sincerity.
With the child seat now taking up a passenger space, there was no room for Jackson, but he and his friends had wanted to ride their bicycles anyway.
Tate tried to make conversation as he looked for a place to park. “I think this is the hottest day so far this summer—a good day for ice cream.”
“If it isn’t all melted already,” Nellie monotoned.
He glanced at Lita out of the corner of his eye, and she let out a heavy sigh. Never could he have imagined that his sweet, happy little blonde would take on the sullen nature of her mother.
Pulling his car in behind a Ford runabout, he was determined that Nellie should enjoy herself today. “I’m sure they’ve got plenty of ice to keep it from melting. They’ve been doing these shindigs for a long time. Mr. Allen takes great, personal pride in his ice cream.”
Nellie didn’t respond. Tate looked over his shoulder to see her gaze fixed on a group of young ladies her age, who were huddled together on the church lawn, talking and laughing. Some of them he recognized as her former friends. Some were not.
Reaching over the seat, he squeezed her knee and gave her a smile that she returned weakly. Tate knew if looks alone could win her a new husband, she’d have no problem. She was beautiful. He also knew that she had already shown contempt for most of the eligible men in town and had earned herself a reputation for being outspoken on issues of women’s rights and child labor laws. Most men preferred a quiet wife that rocked the cradle and not the boat.
Turning back to the front, he pulled the keys out of the ignition and hopped out to open Nellie’s door. Lita was already out. He’d given up long ago trying to do things for her she could easily do for herself. Tate escorted Nellie around the car and opened the door to retrieve the sleeping Sadie from her seat, when Lita put a hand to his arm. “I think, today, Nellie should take care of Sadie.”
Tate straightened and looked to Nellie, who wore a panicked expression. Looking back and forth between them, she hissed in a low voice, “I told you I’m not a good mother. I can’t make her stop crying once she starts.”
Tate was tempted to give in; the last thing they needed was a public display of her inexperience, but Lita took a step toward her, fire in her eyes. “Neither can we. It’s just a matter of holding her through it. And you can do that just as well as we can.”
Extracting the baby from her seat gave a jump start to the child’s lungs, and Nellie looked like she was going to cry herself as she put the child to her shoulder while Lita retrieved a bottle from the bag she’d made to hold diapers.
Tate spread a blanket on the lawn, but Nellie moved to a bench close to the church building and sat to feed Sadie, her expression murderous.
Tate and Lita got in line for ice cream. “Not sure this is going to work, Lita.”
“Well, what we’ve been doing sure isn’t working to pull these two back together.” She took a hairpin from her hair, swept an escaped wisp up and re-pinned it. “It’s worth a try. We need her help, and they need each other, whether Nellie thinks so or not.”
The last month had seen some improvement in the baby’s health, but he had to admit, it was mostly because of things they had learned to do to keep her happy. She slept better propped up rather than lying down flat and also kept her food down more consistently if they held her upright after a feeding. Although sometimes none of these things worked, and she cried and spit up anyway.
The line moved forward, and Mercy Allen handed them each a bowl of ice cream and a spoon. “It’s good to see you, Dr. Cavanaugh, Lalita.” She lowered her voice and leaned across the picnic table. “And how is Nellie doing? I’ve heard she’s taken Paul’s death so hard she’s barely recognizable, the poor dear.”
Tate waved a hand toward where Nellie sat. “Oh, I think you can still recognize her, Mrs. Allen, although it has been a difficult period for her.”
Mercy looked her way, shaking her head. “Her baby is still so tiny. They say sorrow can be passed on to the next generation like a curse. Maybe you should have Reverend Niemeyer pray for her.”
Tate couldn’t answer fast enough to cut Lita off. “Oh, I’m sure the good reverend has been praying for our Sadie as all good Christian friends should, but this has nothing to do with curses, and everything to do with a gastrointestinal issue. Please pass that information on to whomever is sorely interested in the Cavanaugh family news.”
Mercy’s mouth sealed tight with pursed lips, and Tate could barely contain a smile as they moved away from the table and back to their blanket. “Lita,” he teased, “Mercy is only concerned for our well-being.”
“Oh, you bet,” she said, lowering herself to the ground.
Tate sat beside her. Their love life had been almost non-existent with all the changes and tensions in their household. He missed Lita’s spontaneous kisses and caresses. “If you want to get the talk off of Nellie, we could start a scandal of our own.”
Lita pulled her spoon from her lips. “Oh? What did you have in mind?”
Turning his body toward her, he put his hand to her cheek and gave her a kiss. He could sense the surprise in her hesitant lips, but after a moment, he felt her hand on his shoulder and she responded with the kind of kiss he hadn’t gotten out of her for a very long time.
When he broke it off, he looked around to see that almost no one had noticed. “So much for starting a brouhaha.”
Lita’s voice had gone sultry. “Oh, you started something all right.”
He looked back into her seductive eyes. “I don’t suppose we could go home and leave Nellie here for a while.”
“She would not appreciate that, I’m afraid.”
Tate breathed out a sigh. “Pity.”
A voice clearing behind them had him turning to find Daisy Cummings bending over with her hands on her knees. “I hate to interrupt your… conversation, but I wanted to know if you had gotten my message about my mother’s heart pills.” She glanced at Lita. “Your household was a bit… topsy-turvy when I stopped by the other day.”
“I did, Miss Cummings, and I called your mother with the news that I should have them tomorrow. She reported that she wasn’t in immediate need as she had several pills left.”
“Oh. I see.” She straightened to full height. “Thank you for calling.”
Tate smiled, thinking they were finished, but still she lingered and looked toward his daughter. “Nellie doesn’t seem very happy these days. We all thought she’d recover more quickly living in your house again, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
“These things take time, Daisy,” Lita threw in.
“Yes, but,” —she looked between them and Nellie and back again as if she could convey her message without actually speaking. When Tate continued to stare at her in confusion, she finally put voice to her obvious disapproval. “Such a chasm between you. It’s sad.”
Lita laughed. “Daisy, if you think she’s in need of a friend, why don’t you be one?”
Daisy blinked, then shifted gears. “Well, I’ll let you get back to your ice cream.”
Tate turned back to his fast melting confection. “What was that about? What chasm?”
Lita scraped the last of her ice cream from the bowl. “That girl is a bigger busybody than Mercy Allen. She lives for creating drama.”
Tate scooped up a bite. “Hmm, well, I tried to create some drama a bit ago, but no one cared. Shall we try again?”
Lita’s lips twitched into a small smile. “What has happened to my respectable doctor?”
Tate lowered his voice. “Your respectable doctor misses being alone with his saucy wife.”
“Well, we are not ‘alone’ here, Dr. Cavanaugh.”
Tate was all too aware of that fact. He got up to return the bowls to the servers, hoping for better days ahead.
As she sat on the bench with the baby, Nellie was well aware of the stares that were fixed on her. Some wore compassionate, sympathetic expressions; some merely watched to see what “crazy Nellie” was about. And some, like Daisy Cummings, managed a little bit of both. It was hard to keep their personal lives personal when their house also doubled as a doctor’s office. The fact that Lita and Tate took care of the baby more than she did was probably no secret.
Jackson strode by in a herd of boys, sweaty from riding bikes on one of the hottest of summer days. He didn’t look her way, though. She assumed she was nothing but an embarrassment to him.
She lowered her gaze to Sadie. She was just starting to want to hold her own bottle, although her hands weren’t always coordinated for the job. Nellie closed her eyes and bit her lower lip. Once again, just looking into her child’s face had taken her back to memories of Paul. A tear rolled down her cheek.
“Well, if it isn’t Nellie Cavanaugh—I mean, Hartford—forgive me.”
Nellie opened her eyes to tall Harvey Cummings, who had been a schoolmate, although he had been Paul’s friend, not hers, and a good five grades ahead of her. Harvey had always had an athletic build, but working on the railroad had turned his muscles into something his white button shirt could barely contain.
He sat beside her on the bench, looking at Sadie. “So this is Paul’s little squirt. God, she looks just like him, don’t she?” He looked back to Nellie, smiling. “Except prettier. Pretty like her mother.”
Nellie’s eyes grew round at his compliment, not sure what to say—wondering if she could say anything without crying. His expression changed, and he swiped his fingers through his thick auburn hair. “I’m so sorry, Nellie, Paul was a good man and a good friend. And I’m sorry I haven’t been over to your house to express my condolences before now.”
Nellie wondered if Daisy had given Harvey a description of their encounter of a few days ago, and another tear escaped from the corner of her eye. She swiped at it and cleared her throat. “Thank you, Harvey,” she croaked out.
He reached over to stroke Sadie’s head, and her big eyes shifted to look at him over her bottle. “What’s her name?”
“Well, Miss Sadie,” he said in a gentle voice that seemed nothing like the Harvey Cummings she used to know, “you are going to grow up to steal hearts, that much I can see already.” His hand slid over her hair, brushing Nellie’s hand at her back in what felt almost like an intentional caress. Nellie jumped to her feet so fast, Sadie lost her grip on the bottle, and it hit the ground.
Harvey swept it up. “I’ll go rinse it off inside for you.”
Nellie opened her mouth to protest, but he was already walking away.
Sadie wasn’t happy with the loss of her milk, her face scrunching up in preparation for a squall. Nellie looked to where her parents had been, but their blanket was now empty. Feeling panicky, she turned Sadie to her shoulder and patted her back, heading for the car.
Harvey caught up with her as the fussing turned into a full-blown screech. He held out the bottle, but instead of taking it, Nellie thrust the baby toward him. “Could you hold her for a minute. I just need… a break.”
He was obviously surprised but put out an arm to take her. “Oh… all right.”
Sadie reached for the bottle, and he let her have it; then shifted her to sit in the crook of his arm. Nellie was grateful. She had felt as if her heart would burst with the contact. She leaned against the car with a sigh, not even caring if road dust besmirched her dress.
Harvey looked at her with concern, remarkably relaxed for a young man with a baby in his arms. “Are you all right? You’re looking flushed. That black dress is probably unbearable on a day like today.”
It was unbearable, but more for the grief it represented than the heat it soaked in, although that was considerable. She swiped the heel of her hand across her forehead, knowing a lady should dab with a handkerchief, not swipe at her face like a construction worker. She didn’t have a handkerchief handy at the moment. “I’m… I’m a bit overwhelmed, I guess.” She tried to force a smile to her lips. “Thank you for your help.”
He gave her a smile that sparked for just a second with something more than cordiality, although Nellie couldn’t say exactly what. He turned his gaze back on Sadie. “She seems kind of small for her age. Let’s see, when did Paul hand out cigars? Last March?”
“February. She has had some issues with digestion.”
He nodded, then took a sudden step back, holding Sadie away from his body. “Oh! I think she’s sprung a leak.”
Nellie took her quickly from his arms, and this time Harvey caught the bottle before it hit the ground. She was mortified to see his sleeve sporting a large wet spot below the elbow. “Oh dear,” she said, holding Nellie out away from her dress. “I’m so sorry.”
Sadie burped, spitting up down her front, and Harvey laughed. “I see what you mean. I think she lost more than she ate.”
Nellie didn’t know what to do, and once again searched the area for Lita or her father. Harvey reached into the car and pulled out the bag Lita had left on the seat. “Do you have any extra clothes for her?”
Nellie blew out a relieved breath. “Oh! Yes, I’m sure Lita packed her something.”
His brows rose slightly at the mention of her step-mother, but he didn’t say anything—just laid a hand to her elbow and started to move her around the car. “Let’s go over to my place, so you can clean her up in private, and I can get a fresh shirt.”
“Your place? Oh, I don’t think—”
“It’ll be all right. I just live across the street, remember? And my grandmother’s there. She can act as chaperone.” His hazel eyes held a gleam before he started walking away with the bag of baby supplies, giving her no choice but to follow. Thankfully, Sadie was quiet for the moment, interested in the outdoor surroundings, as Nellie walked swiftly to catch up with the long-striding man.
Swinging the calico print bag over his shoulder, he turned and reached for Sadie. “I’m already a mess; there’s no use getting your dress soiled.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t let you—” But he had already pulled the youngster from her hands, setting her once again in the crook of his arm.
Nellie wasn’t sure how she felt about all of this sudden help from a man she had thought disliked her. Her head was spinning with the turn the afternoon had taken.
Harvey swung the white picket gate open for her, then caught up with her to put a hand to her elbow as she climbed the wrap-around porch’s steps. She couldn’t fight the feeling she was being led somewhere she probably didn’t want to go. He opened the door on the large two-story home.
The front room was cozy, though tastefully decorated, and his grandmother startled awake in the rocker when they entered. The gray-haired woman shifted in her chair. “Back already?”
“Just for a minute or two, grandma. We need to take care of Nellie’s baby.”
His grandmother adjusted her glasses up her nose. “Nellie’s what? Who’s Nellie?”
Harvey kept walking, so Nellie scurried after him, throwing “Nellie Hartford, ma’am” over her shoulder as she followed Harvey to the back of the house and the kitchen. He set Sadie in the middle of the table, and Nellie sucked in a breath. “Oh, not where you eat, Harvey!” she protested, but he just smiled and started to pull the tail of his shirt out of his trousers.
“It’ll wash,” he countered, starting on his buttons.
Nellie, flustered, turned her back to him and began unbuttoning Sadie’s gown that was covered in curdled milk. She knew her father would never approve of a wet baby sitting on any surface used for eating, but who was she to argue with this man in his own house. Harvey appeared by her side with a towel, and she took it, doing a double take at his bare torso before fixing her eyes on the child in front of her. Oh my Lord, what have I gotten myself into?
He left the room, and Nellie worked with haste to clean up the little girl and get her re-dressed. He reappeared, fully clothed, and Nellie gave him a nervous smile as she scooped up the baby, ready to head back to the ice cream social, trying to rid her head of the sight of Harvey’s muscular chest. She had loved her Paul fiercely, but with his heart condition, bulging muscles had not been a part of his body’s landscape.
She turned toward the kitchen door, but he put a hand to her arm. “Nellie, please forgive me for disrobing in front of you. I grew up with a house full of sisters. I’m afraid I forgot myself.”
Nellie might have believed him if not for his thumb’s caress on her arm. “I think we should go back,” she said stepping out of his grasp. Her strides turned into tip-toes when she reached the living room where Harvey’s grandmother dozed once again in the rocking chair.
Harvey managed to reach the door ahead of her and paused with his hand on the knob, wearing a look of apprehension. “Nellie, I know you’re still feeling raw over Paul, but I just want you to know…” He paused, and alarm beat in her chest. “I want you to know that when you feel you’re done grievin’, well, I’d like to get to know you better.”
Nellie couldn’t have been more surprised. Harvey had never shown any interest in her before. In fact, he had told Paul that she was a troublemaker he didn’t need.
She scowled. “Why would you want a—what was it you called me?— a ‘mouth with legs’?”
Harvey winced and pulled the door open. “He told you that, did he?” He followed her out onto the porch. “I’m sorry, Nellie. I think I’d been drinking that night. I said things I probably didn’t mean.”
Old memories and naked emotions were flooding to the surface. “The fact that you were drinking and not in control of your faculties doesn’t speak well of your character, Mr. Cummings.” She stomped down the steps, her volume rising. “And what do you mean by you ‘probably didn’t mean it.’ Did you or didn’t you?”
Harvey followed her down the sidewalk. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t mean it then. I just don’t mean it now.”
She spun to face him before they reached the street. “Why? What’s changed?”
He dared to reach up and slide his fingers down a strand of her hair, his hazel eyes seeming to study all the details of her face up close. “I have, Nellie,” he said softly.
She stood, dumbfounded, her nose suddenly registering the cologne he must have put on along with a clean shirt, and she found herself studying his face as well. It was a face that many of the town’s young women had swooned over at one time or another. A face with nicely shaped lips, a straight nose, and a squarish chin. It was his eyes that had captured her at the moment, though. She had remembered his eyes as cold, uncaring, and full of self-absorbed mischief. Today they looked different.
While her mind strove to reconcile the old Harvey with the new, and her soul wrestled with the guilt of appreciating his muscles, Harvey must have taken her lack of speech for consent. Sliding his thumb along her jaw, he leaned toward her lips. Nellie took a step back, turned, and strode with purpose across the street, clutching Sadie to her chest.