Romance Linda Lael Miller Courting Susannah

ISBN 13: 9780671004002

Courting Susannah

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9780671004002: Courting Susannah

Susannah McKittrick leaves Nantucket for Seattle to care for a newborn child, left motherless after her cousin's death, and encounters her late cousin's husband, wealthy businessman Aubrey Fairgrieve, a man left embittered by a bad marriage and seemingly indifferent to his own child. Original.

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About the Author:

Linda Lael Miller is the beloved bestselling author of more than thirty novels; there are more than twelve million copies of her books in print. Most recently, she has won critical acclaim for her New York Times bestseller One Wish, and her marvelous tales of life and love in the fictional towns of Springwater, Montana (Springwater, A Springwater Christmas, and the New York Times bestselling miniseries Springwater Seasons) and Primrose Creek, Nevada (Bridget, Christy, Skye, and Megan). Ms. Miller resides in the Scottsdale, Arizona, area.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

1906

When no one answered her ring, Susannah McKittrick gathered the last frayed ravels of her courage and, in an act of unprecedented boldness, let herself into Aubrey Fairgrieve's grand house high on one of Seattle's seven hills. Shoulders straight, satchel in hand, glancing neither left nor right lest she lose her nerve and flee like a thief discovered, she mounted the grand staircase, marched along the imposing hallway, and selected a modest but adequate room at the rear.

From the one narrow window, she could see the mountains in their mantillas of white and the unsettled waters of Puget Sound, charcoal beneath a glowering October sky. A muddy patch of neglected garden fell within the range of her vision, as did the churchyard on the other side of a high stone wall, a patchwork of gold, yellow, and crimson leaves tucked round about its slabs, wooden crosses, and statues like a quilt.

She wondered which stone marked Julia's grave, and sudden, weary tears pricked the backs of her eyes. She braced up, as best she could, given that she'd been traveling for more than ten days, having left Nantucket as soon as Mr. Fairgrieve's telegram arrived, and tried to turn her thoughts in a more constructive direction. It was no mean endeavor, considering the rigors of her journey and the weight of sorrow in her heart. She was exhausted, half starved, a stranger in a strange land, and probably an unwelcome one at that, for while Julia's husband -- now widower -- had sent a terse wire to inform her of his wife's death, he certainly had not invited her to join his household and serve as his daughter's guardian. That had been her own idea, and Julia's.

Lingering at the window, she lifted her gaze to the mountaintops again, sighing as she shed her dusty, mud-speckled cloak and let it fall over the back of a plain wooden chair. Although Seattle's climate seemed similar, she missed Nantucket very sorely in those brief moments of reflection; at a distance, home seemed a far gentler place, and it was easy to discount the isolation, the moody winter skies, the fierce Atlantic storms that battered the island in all seasons.

With a twinge, Susannah turned at last from the vista before her, resolved to make the best of the situation, for the sake of Julia's child. In the mirror over the bureau on the other side of the room, she caught a glimpse of herself, fair-haired, gray-eyed, neither plain nor beautiful, clad in a practical brown sateen gown with a matching bonnet, embellished only by a tufted lining of satin inside the brim. Everything she wore, including her camisole, petticoats, and drawers, had been carefully mended in a stalwart effort to hide the evidence of long use, and although she still felt as though she'd reached the end of her tether, an innate sense of dignity sustained her.

After untying the wide ribbons beneath her chin as she approached the looking glass, Susannah removed the bonnet and set it on the bureau top. She was definitely not as pretty as Julia had been, she thought without the slightest flinch, though her skin was uncommonly clear and glowed with vibrant good health, the seemingly endless sojourn from the east notwithstanding. She wanted a hot bath, a meal, and a good, long sleep, in just that sequence, but there were other matters that must be attended to before she could indulge.

First, and her heart quickened measurably at the thought, she would see Julia's baby -- the infant girl meant to be Susannah's own namesake. Then, inevitably, she must confront Aubrey Fairgrieve, for this was his house after all, and the child, the precious child, was his, too.

Susannah sank down onto the edge of the unadorned iron bed, overwhelmed at the enormity of the task that lay before her. She allowed her mind to drift again, her thoughts wafting back through time like smoke dissipating in a breeze.

Julia, a romantic at heart, had met Mr. Fairgrieve in Boston, where she held a post as governess to the children of one of his friends, and had eloped with the man only weeks after that first innocent encounter, despite frantic letters from Susannah, begging her to be cautious, take her time, think about what she was doing.

Julia's letters had been lengthy and effusive in those early months following the marriage, describing her bridegroom as nothing less than a paragon. He was "gloriously" handsome, she'd written, a vital, witty man, thirty-three years of age, with a ready smile, mischievous hazel eyes, and a head of wavy brown hair that gleamed in any degree of light. He stood just under six feet tall, and though he was lean, he had broad and powerful shoulders. He had been reared in the timber camps, where hard work made him muscular, but he was a wealthy man now, and polished; he owned a mansion, wore fine suits, kept magnificent horses, and enjoyed a good cigar every night with his brandy.

Susannah had read her friend's written rhapsodies eagerly, if a bit enviously, for at the time she herself had been employed as a companion to an imperious widow with a dwindling fortune, and though she had lived in shabby splendor in a gray-shingled Nantucket house, she was, as ever, an outsider. When Julia had written that she was with child, Susannah had been overjoyed, but the news had also intensified the loneliness that had always plagued her.

Then, over the course of half a dozen letters, Julia had gone from ebullient delight with her lot in life to bitter uncertainty, followed by rising defiance and, finally, rage. The Fairgrieves' fairy-tale marriage had not merely fallen apart, it had exploded in flaming pieces, yet for all Julia's fury, the precise cause of the destruction remained a mystery.

Of course, Seattle was a rambunctious place when compared with staid Boston. Both Julia and Susannah had practically grown up within the sheltering, if austere, confines of St. Mary's Institute for Wayward and Unfortunate Girls, where they had been educated in music, Latin, stitchery, and literature. Raised with the graces of a lady, if not the means, Julia had seemed overjoyed by her good fortune, thriving in the warm light of her husband's love. What had happened to change everything so drastically?

Susannah's stomach churned. She'd been over and over that question, like someone crawling over sharp stones, trying to find a way out of a dark cave, and all she had to show for the effort were a lot of emotional scrapes and bruises. Still, she couldn't let the matter go; Julia, with all her faults, had been the only "family" she had, and the bond between them was not easily severed, even by death.

Mr. Fairgrieve, for his part, surely had counted himself equally fortunate to land such a prize as Julia, at least in the beginning, for all his money, position, and purported good looks. Julia had been a rare beauty with creamy white skin, enormous green eyes, and a wealth of auburn hair that grew in a tumbling riot of curls. She had been exuberant, full of laughter and mischief, whereas Susannah tended toward shyness and introspection, and yet the two were fast friends from the start. Mere days after Julia's unceremonious arrival at St. Mary's -- she had been dragged there, screaming and kicking, by her mother, a stage actress fallen upon hard times -- the ten-year-olds had adopted each other as "blood sisters," pricking their index fingers to seal the pact.

Just then, the soft, tentative cry of a baby reached Susannah, prodding her out of her private reverie. Julia's child. A nurse or maid must have taken the little one from the house earlier and just now returned.

Heart racing a little, Susannah stood and ventured out of the tiny bedroom into the wide corridor beyond, listening from the deepest parts of herself, opening every pore and fiber to the sound. Closed doors lined the hallway like sentinels, set to keep out the unwanted visitor. Fancy gas fixtures adorned the wainscoted walls, unlighted but shining in the gloom, and here and there a table stood, bare and polished. The scent of beeswax gave the place a mystical aspect, like a passage in some pharaoh's private temple.

The baby's lament had risen to a furious wail by that time, and Susannah's agitation grew each time she paused to press one ear to a door. She was in just that position when the tall double doors at the end of the hallway sprang open and a man appeared, shadow-draped, a small, furious bundle squalling in his arms.

"Damn it, Maisie," he shouted, "where are you?" In the next instant, his eyes found Susannah, standing paralyzed in the hallway. He wore high black boots, well-fitted trousers of some soft leather, a tailored white shirt, and suspenders, and his hair captured what little light there was. "Who the devil are you?" he demanded without preamble.

Susannah stood still as an ice sculpture, though her very organs seemed to flail within her in a kind of sweet panic. Her first attempt to speak failed; her second was a dismal croak. She had hoped to introduce herself and explain her presence in a reasonable manner, rather than simply appear in a hallway like some passing wraith, but that opportunity had already come and gone.

"You must be Mr. Fairgrieve," she managed at long last, and flushed.

"And you are?" he prompted after a distracted nod of acquiescence, stalking toward her. The baby had ceased its pitiful cries and burbled against his shoulder now, sounding calm, almost contented. Idly, he patted the little back with one powerful woodsman's hand. His eyes did not look friendly as he glowered down at her; she saw none of the mirth and mischief Julia had described in her early letters.

She swallowed, then straightened her weary shoulders. "My name," she uttered with hard-won grace, "is Susannah McKittrick. Your late wife, Julia, was my dearest friend."

"Ah," he said. She saw in his eyes that he remembered, although Susannah had no reason whatsoever to think he approved of her presence. "What are you doing here?"

She drew upon all that remained of her composure. What she'd done was impulsive, perhaps even foolish, but it was, indeed, done. Nothing to do now but go forward. "I've come to attend to the child."

He arched one eyebrow, still comforting the baby with an inattentive proficiency that might have been comical, given his size and the sheer impact of his personality, if Susannah hadn't been in the awkward position of a trespasser. "What?" he asked, as though she'd spoken in a language he didn't comprehend.

"Julia asked for my promise -- that I would look after her baby if anything happened to her. When I received your telegram -- "

His frowned deepened. "I see," he said, though he plainly didn't. "Maisie must have let you in."

She swallowed hard, raised her chin a notch, and shook her head. The name, Maisie, was not a familiar one; Julia had never mentioned the woman. No doubt she was a servant.

"I turned the bell repeatedly, and when no one answered, I simply came in." She paused, and color pulsed in her cheeks. "I felt I had no choice, you see. I'd come so far, and in a state of extreme urgency."

She thought there might have been a grin lurking in the depths of those remarkable eyes of his, though there was no knowing for certain. "Do you make a habit of walking into people's houses when nobody comes to the door, Miss -- er -- ?"

"McKittrick," she reiterated. It was all she could do to hold his gaze, but she would not, could not allow herself to be intimidated. She had no acceptable option except to follow through with her grand gesture and find a way to keep her heart's vow to Julia's memory by tending the child. "I do not," she said coolly. She had, of course, admitted herself to the Fairgrieve house out of desperation, not audacity; she had no friends in Seattle, no prospect of employment, and virtually no money. She would find herself in dire straits indeed if this man turned her away.

Susannah felt fresh panic stir within her and attempted to stem the tide by biting the inside of her lower lip.

"You say you were a friend of my wife's," he reflected soberly.

Susannah let out her breath, nodded. Surely Julia must have told him about their shared childhood at St. Mary's, and he had, after all, written to tell her when his wife passed away. For all of that, he seemed surprised by her existence, let alone her presence in the upstairs hallway of his house.

"I've -- I've taken the smallest bedroom -- the one overlooking the churchyard," she said, resisting an urge to twist her hands. Her gaze was locked on the baby; she longed to reach out, cradle the infant in her arms.

Fairgrieve's brows arched, and once again she thought she saw the beginnings of humor far back in his eyes, but the impression was gone as quickly as it had come to her. "I don't guess I object, since nobody else is using it," he allowed. "All the same, I'd still like to know what you want."

She ached to hold the child. "I told you," she said, speaking as forthrightly as he had. "I'm here to take care of Julia's daughter. What is her name?"

He looked down at the babe with a curious frown, as though expecting to be advised in the matter, then met Susannah's gaze again. "I don't believe she has one," he replied, and Susannah would have sworn he had never so much as considered the oversight before that moment, though she had to admit he held his little girl with an ease that seemed to belie some of her preconceptions where his character was concerned.

For a few moments, Susannah was rendered speechless. When at last she found her voice, she sputtered, "No name? But the poor little thing is four months old!"

"Yes," Fairgrieve said, without apology. Then he held the infant out, like an offering. "Here. If you want her, take her. She's hungry."

Trembling, Susannah accepted the precious child. How could an innocent baby be allowed to go four months without a proper name? The warmth of the babe brought tears springing to her eyes, and she blinked rapidly, in the hope that Fairgrieve wouldn't see. She took a deep breath or two, in the effort to recover, all the while holding Julia's baby close against her bosom.

"Take her? Where?" she asked, bewildered, when she could trust herself to speak moderately.

"Well, to the kitchen, of course. I believe she needs a bottle."

Susannah stared at him. "Then I can stay?"

He answered briskly, already turning away, heading back toward the gaping doorway through which he had come. "For the time being," he said in dismissal.

Susannah stood there briefly, in the middle of the hallway, and then made for the stairs. She moved in cautious haste, lest Mr. Fairgrieve appear again, having changed his mind, and order her out of the house.

She found the kitchen after some exploration and was impressed to discover that it boasted a real icebox with a crockery pitcher of cold, buttery milk inside, along with a plenitude of cheese, eggs, and other supplies.

Ignoring her own ravenous hunger, Susannah laid the infant in a wicker bassinet set before a bay window, searched for and found a bottle and nipple in one of the cupboards, built up the fire in the...

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