Choices of the Heart
Laurie Alice Eakes
Series: The Midwives
She thought she had left her old life behind . . .
Esther Cherrett comes from a proud line of midwives and was trained by her mother to take over the family calling. But when a terrible scandal threatens all she holds dear, Esther flees, taking a position as a teacher in the wild western mountains of Virginia. But instead of the refuge she was seeking, Esther finds herself in the midst of a deadly family feud—and courted by two men on opposite sides of the conflict. All she wants is to run away again.
But could it be that her past holds the key to reconciliation—and love?
In this gripping story of trust, deception, and bittersweet loss, you’ll discover the true meaning of choices of the heart.
“The gifted Laurie Alice Eakes has done it again with a page-turner romance. The wonderful period detail sucked me into 1840s Appalachia, while the realistic characters and tender romance kept me reading late into the night.”—Linda Goodnight, Carol and Rita Award–winning author
“The Midwives series gets better with each book; the third entry has amazing characters and rich historical details. You’ll be able to see the mountains and rivers of 1842 Virginia in your head as you read. …”—Romantic Times (4 stars)
Griff took a few paces away from the house, then swiveled on his heel and stalked back. “I like her too much. I’m half tempted—no, more than half—to take my dulcimer and play it under her window to convince her I’m the better catch. But she runs away from me like I’m a bucket of turpentine next to a fire, and then clings to Zach like he’s keeping her afloat. There. That convince you I’m right to leave her to Zach to take his chances with her?”
Momma smiled. “Not at all. Now go ask her. She’s out feeding the cats.”
“She’s feeding the cats? Doesn’t she know we’ll get overrun with ’em if she does that?”
“Maybe she’s lonely and doesn’t care.” Momma patted his shoulder and turned toward the back door. “Be a good son and do what I say.”
He figured he could find a way not to obey Momma, such as wait for Zach to invite Esther so him doing so too would be nonsensical. But then, he did want to find out what she was running from and why someone would find it bad enough to pursue her to the ridge.
So he waited for three days. After two, he wondered how they had managed mealtimes without her. She cooked, she served, she ensured the young’uns came to the table neat and clean. Sometimes he caught glimpses of her seated in the classroom going through her books and writing things on sheets of paper. Another time he encountered her seated on the porch with Liza, their needles flying in and out of bits of material, making fancy stitchery work. Was there nothing she could not do well? She seemed so perfect.
Too perfect. Instinct warned him to keep his distance until he knew her better. The Independence Day celebration was a month off. He had plenty of time to get to know her before attending an activity that proclaimed a couple was courting if they arrived together.
Zach, on the other hand, had those three weeks’ head start on Griff. He knew her better. She seemed comfortable with Zach and kept her distance from Griff as much as the proximity of their living conditions allowed.
Which was part of the difficulty with Momma. She cornered him one night when he was coming in from a swim in the waterfall pool after a particularly hot day of work. “Did you ask her yet?”
“No, Momma, it’s weeks off yet and I don’t even know her that well.”
“And you won’t if you don’t stick around of an evening and get to know her.” She narrowed her eyes. “You mooning over someone else?”
Griff laughed. “No, ma’am, even though you’ve been after me to do so for two years now.” He narrowed his eyes back at her. “What’s the rush?”
“You wanta find a girl before that mine makes us rich.”
“If it makes us rich.”
“I reckon every female from Roanoke to Bristol thinks it will. And thinks she’ll catch herself a rich husband who looks like you.”
Griff squirmed like a schoolboy with frogs in his pockets at church. “So do you want me to ask Miss Esther to the celebration ’cause you want me to court her, or do you want me to ask her to keep the other girls away?”
Momma just smiled in response.
At the sound of footfalls crunching toward her, Esther rose so quickly blood rushed to her head and light danced before her eyes in the darkness. The two cats she’d been feeding scraps of her fish from supper wound themselves around her legs, butting her with their heads, and purring loudly enough to be mistaken for distant thunder.
“You’ll bring on every cat on the mountain if you feed them fish,” Griff said.
“Not likely. I rubbed them with some cedar.”
Griff propped one shoulder against the side of the cabin. “You know a lot about that sort of thing.”
“It’s part of being a good housewife. That is—” She buried her hot face in the cat’s soft fur, inhaling the tang of the cedar. “A female trained to be a good housewife.”
“Or a midwife.”
She jumped, and the cat leaped from her arms and streaked into the night. “Your mother told you.” “You should have told us.”
“Why? It has nothing to do with my ability to teach.”
“It does if you lied about having teaching experience.”
“I didn’t. I helped teach the other midwife apprentices.”
“Why did you keep it a secret from us?” He leaned toward her, all powerful male and smooth voice. “I’d think you’d be right proud of it.”
Without a touch, he drew her to him. She leaned his way, smelled lye soap and sun-dried fabric, fresh and clean and compelling.
She crossed her arms. “You didn’t need to know.” “Why? Aren’t you proud of it?” He faced her, one hand braced on the cabin wall, scant inches from her head. She swallowed. “I was.” “And now?”
She couldn’t forget the sounds. Screams. Sobs. The crack of a hand across the woman’s face. Nor could she block out the smells. Blood. Fear. Death.
She summoned up her strength, the core of icy steel inside her for the past four and a half months. “No one needs a midwife anymore. Doctors do most of the work. Some females are even talking of going to medical school if they can get in. Midwifery is no longer an honorable calling for a female.” “Hmm.”
That he didn’t believe her was obvious in that single sound.
“Not that it’s any of your concern, Mr. Tolliver. I am perfectly capable of carrying out my duties and more.”
“Not if you’ve brought us trouble.”
“I. . . haven’t.” His hand was suddenly too close, the fingertips touching her hair. Breath snagged in her throat. The rough wall of the cabin loomed behind her, preventing her from backing away.
“May I help you with something, Mr. Tolliver?” she demanded in the coldest of voices.
He chuckled rather like one of the cat’s purrs. “My mother told me to ask you to the Independence Day celebrations.”
“So are you asking me?”
And she had prayed he wouldn’t ask her. She didn’t need more evidence that God was ignoring her pleas.
“I still obey my momma.” His teeth flashed in the moonlight.
Esther’s middle fluttered, reason enough to say no. She should not feel this way with him, the wanting to be close to someone again, cared for, cherished—all those things her foolish pride had denied her. Because she deserved better than what Seabourne had to offer?
So much better she’d gotten herself into deserving nothing now.
Not that she wanted Griff Tolliver. He was a fine man, hardworking, and even finer to look at. But he attracted her. Once before, disaster came when she thought she had met someone she wanted to be close to. Until she knew more of him than his looks and superficial charm, and then her hopes failed. Worse than failed.
She licked her dry lips. “May I say no?”
“You may, but it’ll be difficult to say yes to Zach when he asks you.”
“Perhaps I can simply stay home.”
“No one stays home. There’ll be two hundred people there if there’s half a dozen. They’ll all want a look at you.” He tilted her chin up with a forefinger.
She couldn’t jerk away or she’d smash her head against the log behind her. Ah, but how that infinitesimal touch felt as though it would leave a mark behind. The flutter in her middle turned to jumping grasshoppers.
“I’ll say no to both.” Her voice emerged in a whisper. “I can watch out for the children.”
“But you can’t miss the dancing. We’ll all want a turn on the floor with you.”
Reels, quadrilles, any number of dances moved so quickly and changed partners often enough she could manage that without trouble.
“All right then. Something to look forward to.” He ducked his head.
For a heart-stopping minute, she feared he would kiss her. Her heart began to race, and she flattened herself against the logs of the cabin, her lips pinched shut.
With another one of his purring chuckles, he touched his brow as though he were a city gentleman with a top hat and strode away.
Esther slid to the ground, heedless of getting dirt on her skirt. It was an ugly gown anyway, her oldest and ugliest. Liza was right. She should add some trimming to make it pretty, to cover up the bloodstain. She simply needed the reminder of her foolishness, her bad behavior, and the consequences.
“I never saw anything wrong with flirting,” she had sobbed against Papa’s shoulder. “I thought… I never guessed . . .”
“Neither did I. But I nearly cost your mother her work.”
The sins of the father, one letter had reminded her, obviously someone who knew Papa when he was a bondservant in Seabourne. The sins . . .
And there she stood aquiver at Griffin Tolliver’s proximity, his rich voice, his light touch, and she had come too close to flirting with him despite her promise to take more care with the hearts and desires of men. Her actions might be taken as playing hard to get. Considering that she liked his response to her, she surely trod too close to falling into her old habits.
She wrapped her arms around her legs and dropped her brow to her knees. “Lord, are all those people in Seabourne right? Am I wholly without moral fortitude? Was it all my fault?”
If so, she would have to take the advice of whoever had pinned the note onto her door and keep running.