Where the past and present collide and a woman is on the precipice of unexpected love.
Millie Cooper, fisherman’s-daughter-turned-nurse, flees a painful entanglement with the wealthy Drexel family who summered near her childhood home in Nantucket, only to encounter them again six years later in Glenwood Springs. The serenity of her mountain hideaway in a town with healing springs is disrupted when she faces caring for the elderly mother and the expectant wife of Stephen Drexel, the man she’d once loved—at the request of his brother John, the man who’d kept them apart. Will Millie forgive the wrongs she feels were done to her, or will she come to see them as a blessing in disguise that leads her to greater joys?
More from My Heart Belongs Series...
My Heart Belongs in Fort Bliss: Priscilla's Reveille by Erica Vetsch (January 2017)
My Heart Belongs in the Superstition Mountains: Carmella's Quandary by Susan Page Davis (March 2017)
My Heart Belongs in Ruby City, Idaho: Rebecca's Plight by Susanne Dietze (May 2017)
My Heart Belongs in the Shenandoah Valley: Lily's Dilemma by Andrea Boeshaar (September 2017)
My Heart Belongs in Castle Gate, Utah: Leanna's Choice by Angie Dicken(November 2017)
My Heart Belongs in Niagara Falls, New York: Adele’s Journey by Amanda Barratt (January 2018)
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Glenwood Springs, Colorado September 1888
It was his voice.
The troublesome knot that had formed in Millie Cooper's stomach was there because of his voice. The rich timbre fluttered about the edges of her memory, just out of reach. How could a voice be so familiar, yet so forgotten? And how could her pulse leap at the sound, while at the same time her veins filled with spreading apprehension?
She peered around the corner of the stairwell at the man, who was talking to Dr. Murphy in the office across the entrance hall. He stood against a backdrop of towering golden cliffs and forested green mountains, visible through the office window. His back was to her. He wore no hat, so she could see his russet-brown hair. The straightness in his posture, the neatness in the cut of his waistcoat, marked him an easterner. That's no reason for me to be so upset. Yet the clenching in her middle only tightened.
She circled her waist with her hand and smoothed the folds of her starched white apron, as if to soothe away her worries. A strand of sandy-brown hair escaped her coiled braids, temporarily blocking her view. But there was nothing wrong with her hearing.
"No doubt we'll require the services of a midwife before long as well," the man said.
The doctor, usually so unflappable, sounded startled. "Your mother is expecting a baby?"
"No, my brother's wife is. Unless I'm mistaken."
Realizing she was eavesdropping on a private conversation, Millie descended the last two steps and crossed the entrance hall. There were no patients seated in the cramped alcove, where the wooden bench and two threadbare red armchairs formed a waiting room.
The uneven floorboards creaked under her feet as she passed the office and entered the room beside it. She began wiping down the examination table, a frail-looking piece of equipment. Dr. Murphy had taught her to work "antiseptically," a newfangled method touted by British surgeon Joseph Lister. Millie was instructed to clean the equipment whenever she had time.
Once finished with the table, she turned her attention to the medicine counter and started scrubbing the assortment of doctors' tools, scalpels, speculums, syringes, and the like. The maple counter shared a parchment-thin wall with the office, making it difficult to shut out the conversation on the other side. She managed to focus on her task — until she heard the doctor say her name.
"Couldn't do better than Millie, I assure you. She's the equal of any doctor, even if she's never been to medical school. I've taught her all I could these past five years. The only procedure she hasn't undertaken is performing surgery."
Millie knew of course that Dr. Murphy respected her. He wouldn't have asked her to come with him and his grown daughter to Glenwood Springs if he hadn't.
What a day that had been. She'd never forget her first glimpse of the breathtaking valley, dotted with canvas tents and log huts, all tucked in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The Grand River and Roaring Fork merged on the valley floor, the flowing waterways sparkling in the pale November sun. Smoke curled up from chimneys and steam rose from the hot springs, melting the early frost that blanketed the evergreen trees. Millie recalled feeling set free, like something inside her had loosened upon arrival.
Though delighted that Dr. Murphy had brought her along, she always wondered if he'd done so partly out of pity. She hadn't realized until today how highly he valued her nursing skills. A poor fisherman's daughter ... the equal of any doctor. She felt her chest expand and her lips curve upward.
Then her smile faded. Just what position is he recommending me for?
The man spoke again. "My mother's condition wouldn't involve surgery, at least it hasn't yet. She's had these attacks of the lungs, as I mentioned. The severity and frequency of the episodes requires the promptest of attention."
Millie's limbs went cold. Does the woman have asthma — or consumption? She had little experience with the former. The latter was another matter. She suppressed a shiver. Sufferers of the disease rarely survived, even surrounded by the famed Colorado mountain air and soothing hot springs that beckoned the afflicted masses.
There was a momentary silence.
"Millie hasn't dealt with asthma much, I'll admit," Dr. Murphy said. At least it's not consumption.
"But I've educated her on the subject, and she's proved herself efficient in any crisis. Still, perhaps you'd like to locate a nurse who's more familiar with the malady before approaching Millie?"
"There isn't time. My mother must not be left unattended, even for a few days."
Something in the man's decisive tone struck Millie. I know him, I know I do. A fact that couldn't explain the uneasy churning in her breast.
She reached for the nearby microscope and began cleaning its brass tube and various lenses and knobs. As she worked, she attempted to force her mind elsewhere. Any minute now, that man is going to come through the door and offer me a position. She wondered what it would be like to have the luxury of tending only one patient. Well, two. There was the expectant sister-in-law as well. But two patients seemed an easy task compared to her work with Dr. Murphy. In addition to caring for the ailing visitors that flooded his office, Millie accompanied him on house calls, often trekking to remote homesteads or faraway mines. Nearer at hand but equally trying were their trips to the red-light district, where unmentionable female illnesses abounded. By the end of the day, her heart would be as heavy as her throbbing feet. But even during those times, she knew she wouldn't trade her work for anything.
Millie whirled, her cleaning rag still in her hand. Her gaze flew to the doorway, where, framed by the peeling white trim, stood the man with the familiar voice.
Millie's breath came to a halt in her throat. The rag fell from her hand to the floor with a soft plop.
It wasn't his aristocratic demeanor or lean good looks that had such an effect on her.
It was the recognition that welled in her consciousness. Oh, she knew him, all right. He was the very man who'd caused her heart to break six years ago, when he'd kept her from marrying his younger brother.
* * *
The sight of John Drexel took Millie on a slippery journey, a downward spiral she had no control over. In a matter of seconds, she went from a confident nurse in the Rocky Mountains to a trembling girl on the Nantucket shoreline. The one who was deemed unworthy of a man's love and devotion. How can I look at him and not be angry? Worse, how could she look at him and not think of Stephen?
Try as she might, she couldn't.
Her thoughts went back to that terrible day. Her senses well remembered the rapid beats of her heart when the hour finally arrived. Her childhood friend turned sweetheart had promised to meet her in their special spot at dusk. To take her away to a world in which she was someone's cherished wife.
She recalled hurrying along the misty autumn lane, the fallen leaves crunching beneath her scuffed leather shoes. She rounded the corner, the tangy smell of the sea rising to greet her. And there, in the clearing in the woods, waiting between the black iron lampposts, next to the perfect-for-two bench was ... John.
Not Stephen, John.
Instead of her beloved, she beheld his strictly business, to-himself older brother, who'd never had time to play.
Somehow she knew at once that he was on a mission, that his unbending aim was to keep her and Stephen apart. He'd succeeded too, because she hadn't found the courage to defy him — and because, deep down, she believed his unspoken implication that she wasn't good enough for his brother.
And now, six years later, here he was again. Shattering her confidence, causing an aching swell of memory ... and, contrarily, speeding her pulse.
Does he even recognize me?
She didn't think so. The relaxed way in which he stood, hands in his trouser pockets, short ruddy curls tilted to the side, indicated he had no idea who she was.
Then there was a flicker in those distinctly blue eyes. A family trait, that light shade of blue. But Stephen's sometimes appeared green. Like the depths of the ocean.
She swallowed down a knot of pain.
John's gaze slid from hers, and he gnawed on his lower lip.
He knows exactly who I am. The realization that he was caught off guard somehow brought Millie a wave of strength. On its heels came the bracing awareness that she was no longer a timid girl from the fishing quarter of Nantucket. She was a trained nurse, able to bring wellness to the ill. She'd delivered babies, sutured wounds, coaxed fevers to subside.
She lifted her chin. "How can I help you, Mr. Drexel?" He expelled his breath as if he'd held it in for some time. "Millie Cooper. You've grown."
Hardly flattering, since she was eighteen the last time she saw him. "Thank you ... I suppose."
A flush crept up his neck. The silence ran on. "I trust you've been well?" he asked finally.
Yes, little thanks to you. "I've managed."
"And your father? Is he —"
"He passed away, shortly after I left Nantucket. An accident at sea."
"I'm terribly sorry," John murmured. After an awkward pause, he added, "The doctor tells me you're quite an able nurse."
"There are many things I might have been 'quite able' at, if I'd been permitted to try." She couldn't believe she'd said it. Her extremities turned numb as she awaited his reply.
He gave her a wary glance. "We're discussing the past, are we?"
"If you want my help, I think we must."
He leaned against the doorframe. "It was a long time ago."
It was yesterday, her heart cried.
He studied her a moment then sighed. "What do you want to know?"
Is Stephen happy?
His wife was expecting a baby, that much she knew. John had no other brothers, only their sister, Rena, so there could be no other expectant sister-in-law. Stephen probably has several children by now.
Unable to voice the somehow dismaying thought, Millie searched her mind for something else to say. "Do you still visit the cottage?"
A ridiculous question, since he'd rarely visited his family's summer-house even when he was young. She'd never understood how he stayed away. She could still picture the quaint cottage, overgrown with pink climbing roses. It was a charming place, perfectly suited to the New England seashore.
He shrugged. "When I have the time."
It was her turn to scrutinize him. "And when would that be, Mr. Drexel?"
He shifted his weight, gaze darting away from hers once more. When it returned, he appeared resolved, his jaw set. "I know your view of my family isn't a favorable one, but I have some very pressing concerns just now. My mother's condition is grave."
She fought an inward battle then nodded.
"Her illness began a little over a year ago, the onslaught brought on by an unknown cause. We consulted with the best doctors in Philadelphia. I even traveled to New York on a number of occasions to seek the counsel of respected physicians there. In the end, it was our trusted family doctor whose opinion I heeded. He suggested a different climate, one that might soothe her lungs, somewhere far from the bellowing factories and thick air of our industrial city."
"Well, Colorado certainly is far from Philadelphia."
"Yes, I thought it a bit drastic. But Stephen visited Denver with Father once, and took a liking to the West."
It was the first time he'd spoken his brother's name, and Millie found it difficult not to flinch. She thought she hid her reaction well, until she saw him watching her intently. When she offered no comment, he hesitated then continued.
"At any rate, since he's the one who'll be living here, taking care of our mother, it seemed only fitting to allow him his choice of locations."
"You're not staying?" The question escaped before she could stop it.
"Only until I see my mother settled with a proper nurse and fitted with a household staff." Grim humor entered his eyes. "I'm afraid the wilds of Colorado didn't hold much appeal for the serving class of New England. Our advertisements in the Philadelphia Inquirer and other papers received abysmal responses. Even our existing staff members were reluctant to accompany us west. A coachman, a nurse, and a lone kitchen maid were all that could be persuaded to make the journey. At least, of my mother's servants." He opened his mouth as if to say more then shut it.
He's trying not to mention Stephen again. His caution did little good. Stephen couldn't help but occupy her thoughts, not with his brother standing four feet from her. She saw her former love in the nuances of John's every expression, from the lift of his brows to the unsettling impact of his gaze.
Suddenly Millie's forehead furrowed. "If your mother's nurse came with you, why are you looking for a new nurse?"
"Because the old one ran off with the coachman shortly after our arrival." A wry grin played about his mouth. "A fine turn of events, isn't it?"
She almost smiled. "How terrible."
He spread his hands wide, eyes earnest. "Will you help us?"
Please don't ask it of me.
"My mother needs you."
Her dry tongue could barely form the words. "Your brother's wife — would I be expected to — to —" She tried again. "Are you sure she's with child?" A faint blush tinged his cheeks. "As sure as a man without a wife of his own can be."
He trained his focus on his black oxford shoe, which was creating circles in the hooked rug. Abruptly he lifted his head. "I've no choice but to beg your assistance, and believe me when I say that if I had other options, I wouldn't be troubling you with this."
The retort that formed on her lips died when she looked more closely at him. She saw the tension in his face, the strain in the lines on his brow. She hardly knew him, having rarely talked to him when they were children. But now she sensed his desperation, and it was enough to convince her that his mother's need was real. And Stephen's wife would require care during her time of confinement and delivery.
A storm of emotions filled Millie. How could she face a months-long ordeal of caring for the very woman who belonged to the man she'd once loved, the man she'd counted on spending her life with?
She grasped at a feeble hope. "There must be other nurses who'd be willing to take the position."
"Perhaps, but none in Glenwood Springs."
"There are other towns in Colorado."
"True, but who would see to my mother while I conducted such a search? Besides, how many backwoods mining towns do you know that boast nurses who trained under a renowned Baltimore physician?"
She suspected he was flattering her to secure her help. She wanted to study him but was afraid to. There was something in his eyes, so like Stephen's — and yet so different — that she couldn't quite decipher. I'm sure he still thinks of me as that bedraggled little girl from Nantucket.
"I'll think about it," she said at last.
Time ticked by.
She knew he was weighing her.
She glanced up ... and nearly lost her breath. In the blue-eyed depths of his gaze, she was transported to another time. Helpless against the memories his scrutiny uprooted, she remembered the stark, unconcealed devotion she'd seen in another pair of blue eyes, looking down at her.
In that moment, a brick-like weight settled into her spirit. This man had cost her a lifetime of happiness. I can't forgive him, I can't.
"You must pardon me," she said, a tremor in her voice. "But I fear I have other duties to attend to."
She knelt to retrieve her soiled rag, straightened, and swept past him, apron rustling as she went.
John left the doctor's office, his head pounding. A revitalizing breeze wafted over him, the gust as clean as the pristine mountain peaks from which it had blown. He relaxed his clamped jaw and inhaled deeply.
He couldn't deny that seeing Millie after so many years had shaken him. Did I even manage to utter a single sensible word in there?
Fearing the answer, he hurried down the path to the hitching post and mounted his horse. He urged the animal forward, hoping to leave thoughts of Millie behind. The effort met with failure.
The girl had become a woman, that much was clear. She possessed that subtle ... something ... that came only with the arrival of womanhood. And like other fair members of her sex, she now had the ability to turn him into a flustered schoolboy.
Excerpted from "My Heart Belongs in Glenwood Springs, Colorado"
Copyright © 2018 Rebecca Jepson.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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