Smoke River Family(4)

By: Lynna Banning

 “Of course,” the doctor said. “I would not lie when it comes to my daughter. It was Celeste’s last wish.”

 Oh, God. Oh, Cissy. Cissy. For a moment she could not speak.

 “Would you like to hold your niece?” He reached into the bassinet, lifted out the pink bundle and offered the baby to her.

 “Oh, no. I mean, yes, I would. But—but I really don’t know how to—I mean, I know very little about handling babies.”

 The doctor gave her a long look, then laid Rosemarie into her arms. “You can learn.”

 Winifred looked down into the blue-green eyes. “Can she really see me?”

 “Probably not, at least not clearly. But if you talk to her, she will hear your voice.”

 “Oh.” How did one talk to a baby? All at once she felt awkward and out of place and ignorant of the most basic things of life. All she knew about was music and teaching.

 “Go on,” he urged in a quiet voice. “Try it.”

 Winifred inhaled and exhaled twice, working up her courage. She felt as fluttery as on the opening night of a concert, excited and terrified and thrilled at the same time.

 “H-hello, Rosemarie. My, you are so beautiful. You look like Cissy, did you know that?”

 “Cissy?” the doctor murmured.

 “Celeste. I call—called her Cissy. She called me Freddie.”

 “That I would never have guessed. She always referred to you as Winifred.”

 A tiny fist waved toward Winifred’s hand. She extended her forefinger and the baby latched onto it. “Oh, just look,” she whispered.

 “She likes fingers,” the doctor said, a hint of a smile in his voice. “Thumbs, especially.”

 Winifred could not speak. The small hand, the knuckles wrinkled and rosy, the tiny fingernails so perfect, kept its grip on Winifred’s finger. Her senses swirled again; she must still be dizzy from the altitude.

 “Shall I take her?” the doctor asked.

 “No, I— Could we wait until she releases my finger?”

 He laughed softly and nodded, watching her.

 “Rosemarie,” she breathed. “I am your aunt Fred—your aunt Winifred. And you are my only, most precious, most beautiful niece.”

 The little mouth opened and a soft cry came out.

 “She’s hungry,” the doctor said. He walked to the door and opened it. “Sam?”

 In three heartbeats, the houseboy appeared, a glass bottle of milk in one hand and a towel in the other. Expertly he lifted the baby out of Winifred’s arms and cradled her in his own. Then he began walking up and down in front of the curtained window, crooning something in a strange language while Rosemarie gulped milk through the rubber nipple.

 “Does he—Sam—have children of his own?” Winifred asked quietly.

 “Sam? Sam is not married. Not many Chinese women are admitted into this country. And an American woman would not be acceptable. The Chinese are proud that way, they wish to preserve their heritage.”

 Winifred’s eyes rested on the Chinese man’s slim form. “How sad that must be.”

 The doctor did not answer. Instead, he gestured her into the hallway and quietly closed the door. “The guest bedroom is next door. Sam has already brought up your travel case.”

 He opened another door into an airy room with pretty yellow curtains and a crocheted yellow coverlet on the bed.

 “Would you like to rest awhile? Sam will call you when supper is ready.”

 “Yes, I suppose I should. I feel quite shaky after my travels.” After meeting Rosemarie, she amended. That had been the biggest shock of her life. Well, perhaps the second biggest. The biggest surprise had been when Cissy had eloped with Dr. Nathaniel Dougherty and ruined everything.

 * * *

 That evening, Winifred entered the dining room determined to discuss her plan with Dr. Dougherty. Instead, she found herself alone at the huge walnut table. Sam had tapped on her bedroom door twenty minutes earlier to announce supper, and she had roused herself from an exhausted sleep, rebraided her hair and donned her travel skirt and a fresh shirtwaist. As she descended the staircase she rehearsed what she had come to say.

 She acknowledged a distinct nervous flutter in the pit of her stomach. She also admitted she felt torn between dislike and an unexpected attraction to the tall, square-jawed physician. She resented the man. And feared him. Would he stand in her way when she confessed her purpose?

 Sam stepped into the dining room. “Missy like glass of wine?”

 “Not now, thank you. I will wait for the doctor.”

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