You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and her book:
Barbour Publishing, Inc. (April 1, 2008)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
CAROL COX is a native of Arizona, whose time is devoted to being a pastor's wife, mom to her grown son, and a home-school teacher to her daughter, church pianist, and youth worker. She loves anything that she can do with her family: reading, traveling, historical studies, and outdoor excursions. She is also open to new pursuits on her own, including genealogy research, crafts, and the local historical society. She plans to write more historical inspirational romance, in which her goals are to encourage Christian readers with entertaining and uplifting stories and to pique the interests of non-Christians who might read her novels.
Other Novels by Carol:
Fair Game, Ticket to Tomorrow, Land of Promise, Golden Gate Gazette-Love and Suspense Make Headlines in Historic San Francisco
Visit her at her website.
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Stop, thief!” The commanding bellow cut through the pleas-ant chatter of the crowds strolling the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Emily Ralston shielded her eyes against the noonday sun and scanned the gaily dressed fairgoers on Government Plaza, trying to spot the source of the commotion.
A lanky youth burst through a cluster of women and children on the far side of the plaza, scattering them like tenpins. Shrill exclamations followed him as he bolted past the ladies to the middle of the open area, where he slowed and glanced quickly from one end of its broad expanse to the other.
A stocky man in shirtsleeves charged through the same group, evoking more outraged squawks. He stopped short, gasping like a winded horse while he scanned the crowd.
“Hey, you!” he bellowed and started off in hot pursuit of the boy. In his haste, he collided with a young matron holding a small girl in her arms, nearly toppling them to the ground. The man halted long enough to steady the pair, although the infuriated look he cast in the boy’s direction showed his longing to continue the chase.
At the man’s angry shout, the fleeing youth looked over his shoulder and picked up speed. Emily saw him snap his hand to one side and watched a paper container arc through the air and disappear behind a potted palm.
Emily recognized the signs of someone doing something he shouldn’t. She balanced on the balls of her feet, poised for action. She could never keep up with the long-legged adolescent if she tried to follow him across the fairgrounds, but there was more than one way to foil a troublemaker.
The boy changed course and pounded across the pavement in her direction. Emily smiled. She waited until the last instant before he reached the spot where she stood then stepped into his path.
“Stop right there!” she demanded.
The boy’s eyes flared wide when he saw her blocking his escape. His feet scrambled for purchase as he veered abruptly to the right. Just as he passed, Emily darted forward and nabbed him by the ear.
“Ow!” The lad looked down at Emily with an astonished expression. “Leggo my ear!” He made as if to wrench himself out of her grasp, but a quick twist of her wrist brought him to his knees.
Emily allowed herself a brief moment of smugness. It wasn’t the first time she had been victorious against an opponent larger than herself. Growing up at the Collier Children’s Home had given her plenty of time to learn how to equalize a difference in size.
The stocky man raced up to them, puffing like a steam engine. “Thank you, miss,” he gasped. “That was quite a catch.”
Taking command of Emily’s captive, he seized the boy by his upper arm and jerked him to his feet. “Where are the goods you stole, you young guttersnipe?”
The look of alarm slid off the boy’s face, to be replaced by a cocky grin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not,” the man mocked. “Why were you running, if you hadn’t just stolen a package of Cracker Jacks right off the counter of my stand?”
Emily felt her jaw go slack. Cracker Jacks? She had risked her own safety for nothing more than a container of the new popcorn, peanuts, and molasses confection?
Looking more confident by the second, the boy shook his head. “I was just walking along, and you started shouting and chasing me.” He shrugged. “I thought you must be crazy. No one could blame me for running when someone so much bigger than me was on my tail.”
His captor looked at Emily with a glint of humor shining in his eyes. “It doesn’t look to me like it takes all that much in the way of size to get you under control.” His grin faded, and he gave the boy a shake. “Now where are the Cracker Jacks you stole?”
The boy shrugged again. “I’m telling you, you’ve got the wrong person.”
Emily broke into the exchange. “Then what was that I saw you throw away?”
The youth paled, and the vendor turned his attention back to Emily. “You saw him throw something?”
“Behind that potted palm over there.” Emily walked briskly toward the plant and reached behind it, retrieving a paper package that rattled when she shook it. She returned to the waiting pair and held out the parcel. “Is this what you’re looking for?”
The man took it with a grateful smile. “Thank you, miss. I’ll be obliged if you’ll stay around until I summon one of the Columbian Guards so you can tell him what you saw.”
Emily shook her head. “I’m sorry. I work at the Children’s Building here on the fairgrounds, and my lunch break is nearly over.” From deep within the massive Manufactures Building, she heard the clock in its alabaster tower chime the three-quarter hour. If she wanted to keep her job, she’d better get back to work and look sharp about it.
The man’s face fell. “If you don’t, it will be my word against his. I left my nephew watching my stand so I could catch this young rascal, and who knows what kind of mess he’ll have made of things by the time I get back? The least you can do is help me out.”
Emily wavered. Her supervisor took a decidedly dim view of tardiness, but the smug expression on the boy’s face decided her. “All right, but only for a moment.”
It took far longer than that for the guard to finish taking
her statement. With the thanks of the vendor ringing in her ears, she set off once more toward the Children’s Building. In the distance, she heard a clock chiming the hour.
“Oh no.” She glanced from side to side, taking note of the throngs of people dotting the broad walkways. None of them seemed to be paying a bit of attention to her. Taking heart from this, Emily hiked up the hem of her skirt, planted her hand on top of her hat to keep it from blowing off, and sprinted headlong across the plaza, paying scant attention to the gleaming white buildings as she raced over the bridges spanning the lagoon to the Wooded Island and then to the far shore. From there, a quick dash put her at the front of the Children’s Building.
She slumped against the outer door with one palm pressed against her heaving chest. When she managed to catch her breath, she pushed the arched door open and stepped inside. If she could assume her seat behind the reception desk before—
“Your lunch hour ended precisely three minutes ago.”
Emily skidded to a halt and turned to face the gaunt woman standing against the opposite wall. “I’m sorry, Miss Strickland. I—”
“If you plan to continue working here, Miss Ralston, I would suggest you make it a point to be punctual.” Her supervisor’s cold stare left no doubt about her disapproval.
“Of course, ma’am.” Emily ordered her knees to quit shaking and tried her best to appear composed as she hung her straw boater on the hat rack and walked toward her desk. Lucy Welch, her blue eyes shining with sympathy, rose from the heavy wooden chair to let Emily take her seat.
Emily cast a grateful look at her friend; then she turned to bestow a wobbly smile upon the woman and boy who stood waiting in front of her desk. “How may I help you?”
“Could we finish here, please?” The young matron tapped her foot and looked daggers at Emily. “I would much rather be outside viewing the fair instead of waiting for you all to sort yourselves out. I’m not certain I want to leave Alexander here if this is any indication of the competency of your staff.”
At the edge of her vision, Emily saw Miss Strickland’s rigid posture grow even more erect. She fumbled with the heavy black book that lay open on her desk. “I apologize for the delay. I wouldn’t have been late, except—”
“Excuses are unacceptable.” Miss Strickland’s harsh voice broke in. “I don’t tolerate tardiness for any reason.”
Emily clamped her lips shut to hold back the explanation she longed to give. She ought to have known better than to tarry long enough to give the Columbian Guard her version of what had transpired, but she couldn’t find it within herself to let that boy get away with stealing the vendor’s merchandise.
She looked up at the boy’s mother and forced a smile. “If you’ll just give me some information, I’ll check Alexander in and you can be on your way.” She entered his name and his mother’s in the ledger then pinned a numbered tag to the boy’s back and handed his mother a claim check bearing the same number. “Please keep this in a safe place. You’ll need it when you come back to pick up your son. Miss Welch will take Alexander to the gymnasium. I’m sure he’ll enjoy that.”
She beckoned to Lucy, who had been hovering in the back-ground, then turned back to the boy’s mother. “Enjoy your time on the grounds. He will be well cared for.”
Looking somewhat mollified, the woman slipped the ticket into her reticule and turned to leave. Just before she reached the door, it swung open. A man in the uniform of the Columbian Guards smiled and held it open for her; then he stepped inside. His glance wavered between Miss Strickland and Emily before he approached the reception desk.
She stared up at him, panicking at the thought that her attempt to do the right thing was going to cause her even more difficulty. “I already told the other guard everything I know.”
Miss Strickland raised her eyebrows and moved toward the desk with a firm stride. “Bad enough to be tardy. What other trouble have you gotten yourself into?”
“It’s no trouble of this young lady’s making.” The guard stepped to one side, and Emily realized a small boy encased in a heavy woolen coat stood behind him. The tall guard lifted the toddler into his arms and smoothed the boy’s tousled blond hair. A smile lifted the corners of his dark mustache when the boy sniffled and snuggled against his shoulder.
Then he turned the smile on Emily, and she felt as if a giant vacuum had sucked all the air out of the room. She stared open-mouthed until Miss Strickland prodded her between her shoulder blades. Emily sat bolt upright and felt her face flame. “How may I help you?”
Before the guard could respond, Miss Strickland leaned toward Emily and looked her straight in the eye. “I expect a high degree of professionalism from you, Miss Ralston. Your attitude reflects on the entire staff of the Children’s Building. Please keep that in mind.” Her heels clacked against the floor as she crossed the open court that occupied the center of the building and disappeared down one of the side corridors.
Emily drew her first easy breath since the larcenous boy had crossed her path. She knew perfectly well what she had to do, and she could do it much better without her supervisor looking over her shoulder. She nodded a greeting at a couple who entered with two small children in tow then turned back to the waiting guard.
“I’m sorry for the interruption. What can I do for you?”
The dark-haired guard hiked the child higher on his shoulder. “This little fellow seems to have lost his family.”
Emily took a closer look at the little boy, noting the tear streaks on his cheeks. He couldn’t be more than three years old. She felt her heart go out to him. Standing to put herself on a level with the child, she adopted a cheerful tone. “We have lots of things for you to do until we find your parents. Would you like to stay here while this nice man tries to find them?”
The youngster buried his face in the guard’s neck and shook his head. “I want Mama.”
Emily swallowed hard. She reached up to rub his back with a gentle touch. “What’s your name?”
The boy sniffled again then raised his head and looked at her. “Adam.”
“All right, Adam.” At least he was old enough to tell her that much. Emily turned toward the desk and pulled the ledger over to her. “I’ll write your name down here in this book, and then a friend of mine will come to take you to a room with lots of toys. You can play with them until your mama comes for you. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
Adam rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. Emily could see his lower lip quiver.
She dipped the pen in the inkwell and wrote “Adam” on the next blank line. She hesitated a moment with the pen poised in the air. “Do you know your last name?”
Adam shook his head.
“Do you know your mama’s real name?”
He gave the same response.
The guard drew nearer and said in a low voice, “Some people found him over by the north bandstand. When the performance was over, everybody walked away but this little guy.”
The father who had just entered with his family stepped forward. “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear. I thought I recognized the boy. My family stopped to hear the performance at the bandstand, too. We saw his mother leave. I thought at the time it was awfully peculiar for her to go away and let such a young child stay there on his own.”
The guard turned an intense gaze on the man. “You saw her leave?”
“That’s right. In a hurry, too. She was practically running.”
“Could you give me a description?” The guard set Adam down beside Emily, and the two men moved a few feet away.
Emily checked the couple’s children in, half her attention on the task at hand, the other half focused on the story the father told while the guard made notes in a little notebook he pulled from his pocket.
“She was a nice-looking woman,” the man said. “Blond hair, dark blue dress.”
“With a gored skirt and a lovely shirred bodice,” his wife put in. “Very up-to-date. Her hat was trimmed with matching silk ribbon and ostrich feathers.”
Her husband chuckled. “Trust a woman to notice all the details of fashion.”
Emily handed two claim checks to the children’s mother and rang the small brass bell on her desk to summon Lucy.
Lucy appeared a moment later and gave all three children a bright smile. “Are you ready to come with me?” She bent to take Adam’s hand, but Emily motioned her away.
“Just those two for now,” she said. “Come back in a few minutes, and I’ll explain.”
The couple took their leave of their children. “We’ll be back when your mother has worn me out seeing all the exhibits she’s interested in,” their father joked.
When the door closed behind them, the guard walked over and knelt beside Adam. “I’ll go out and look for your mother now. You can stay here with Miss. . .” He looked up at Emily.
“Ralston,” she supplied.
“Miss Ralston.” He gave her another one of those smiles that made her stomach do flip-flops. “She’ll make sure the people here take good care of you.”
The little boy’s chin wobbled, but he turned to Emily and placed his hand in hers. “Hello, Miss Rost—Ralt—”
Emily smiled down at him. “Why don’t you call me Miss Emily?”
Adam nodded, his expression solemn. “Miss Em’ly,” he re-peated. His quick acceptance sent a rush of maternal feelings through her.
“Why don’t we take off your coat?” she suggested. “It’s lovely weather today, and I think you’ll feel much better without it. I’ll make sure we keep it safe so you don’t lose it, all right?”
Adam hesitated then allowed her to pull the heavy coat off. Emily bit her lip at the sight of the sailor suit he wore, with its middy blouse and knee pants. This child was just too precious for words!
While she tried to make Adam more comfortable, the guard left to go search for the child’s parents. A moment later, Lucy hurried back into the reception area. “What was it you couldn’t tell me before?”
“You’ll have to wait a little longer,” Emily told her. “Adam, this is Miss Lucy. She’ll take you to those toys I told you about.”
The little boy studied Lucy then reached out to take the hand she extended and toddled off beside her.
Free of responsibility for the moment, Emily propped her elbow on the desk and rested her cheek on her palm. She stared at the front door, lost in thought.
“He is a handsome fellow, isn’t he?” Lucy’s voice came from right behind her.
Startled out of her reverie, Emily jerked upright and banged her elbow on the edge of the desk. She yelped and glared at Lucy.
“Sorry.” Lucy’s unrepentant grin belied the sincerity of her apology. “I didn’t mean to make you jump. . .that much, at least.” Her grin faded. “And I truly am sorry about what happened with Miss Strickland. I tried to cover for you when I saw you were late, but she came in and caught me at it.” She wrinkled her nose. “I should have known it wouldn’t work.”
Emily sighed. “It’s all right. It was my fault for not being back on time. I knew Miss Strickland wouldn’t be happy about it, but she positively glared at me!” She rubbed her sore elbow and winced. “I hope she doesn’t fire me. I don’t want to lose the first job I ever had.”
“First paying job, you mean. You’ve been a hard worker ever since I’ve known you. And don’t worry about Miss Strickland. Did you know she has already gone through six receptionists in the four months the fair has been going on? I got that from Ruthie Lawson in the Day Nursery.” She looked over her shoulder and lowered her voice. “And they weren’t all fired by Miss Strickland, either. Some of them got so fed up with her demanding ways that they up and left. People just don’t do that on a whim, as hard as jobs are to find these days.”
“But that’s my point. People are hungry for jobs right now. She knows she doesn’t have to keep me here.”
Lucy snorted. “Listen to me. While you’re sitting here checking children in and out of the building all day, I have a chance to talk to the other employees. You are the best receptionist they’ve had yet. Everyone says so.”
Emily hoped her friend was right. The thought of losing her job was always an underlying fear. With the silver crash, masses of people were unemployed, making it harder than ever to find work. But even if jobs were as plentiful as the sand on the shores of Lake Michigan, she would hate to leave the Children’s Building. Providing a safe, nurturing place for children to play and learn while their parents saw the fair was a task she could embrace with her whole being, and taking part in such a worthwhile endeavor filled her with immense satisfaction.
She had to admit that Lucy was usually right in her assessment of any gossip she managed to overhear. Maybe she could relax. . . just a little, anyway.
Something pulled on her sleeve, and she realized Lucy was shaking her arm.
Emily blinked. “Did you say something?”
“Back in dreamland again?” Her friend sighed then took on the air of a patient teacher. “I said you never answered my question about the guard. Don’t you think he’s handsome?”
Emily reached for a stack of papers. “I suppose so. I didn’t really notice.”
Lucy snorted again. “Of course you didn’t.” She moved toward the back of the building. “Call me when you need me.”
The front door swung open again, and Emily whirled around, wondering if the guard had accomplished his mission so quickly. Her heart sank when she saw the slender man who stood before her dressed in a double-breasted serge jacket and flannel trousers.
“And how is my favorite receptionist today?”
Emily pressed her lips together and didn’t answer. She watched as Raymond Willard Simmons III crossed the floor with a swagger that reminded her of a strutting peacock.
What would it take to make him quit stopping by? Emily dreaded his unannounced visits almost as much as she dreaded arousing Miss Strickland’s ire. If only she could tell him to leave her alone! But Raymond’s father was one of the fair administrators, and upsetting Mr. Simmons would upset Miss Strickland. That was something Emily did not intend to do by choice.
She tried to arrange her features in a pleasant expression while Raymond pulled a paper bag from behind his back like a magician producing a dove from his hat.
“Something to satisfy your sweet tooth.” He set the bag on Emily’s desk with a flourish. When she made no move toward the gift, he opened the bag and withdrew a caramel, holding it out for her inspection. “From one of the finest candy makers in Chicago. I hope that when you enjoy them, you’ll think of me.”
Emily kept her smile in place, though what she would really enjoy doing was telling him never to darken the door of the Children’s Building again. “Thank you, Mr. Simmons.”
His broad smile drooped. “I thought we agreed we knew each other well enough to use our Christian names. Aren’t you going to call me Ray? That’s what my family calls me. . . and my closest friends.” He said the last few words in an intimate whisper that was probably intended to make her heart melt. She ground her teeth instead.
“It really wouldn’t be proper.” Emily put all the primness she could muster into the statement.
Raymond moved closer and rested his elbows on the desk, putting his face on a level with hers. “Perhaps that’s true here at the fairgrounds, where my father and I are seen as leaders. But away from the workplace, I see no reason to maintain such formality.” He moved his hand toward hers. Emily immediately began straightening the papers on her desk.
Raymond didn’t appear to notice the slight. “What about going to dinner with me tonight? It’s time you got away from the fairgrounds and that dreary boardinghouse and saw something of Chicago. We could eat at the Palmer House—”
“Without a chaperone? That would hardly sit well with your family, would it? What would they think if word got back to them that you had been seen in public with a young lady they’ve never met?”
Raymond’s face fell, and Emily knew she had scored a hit. His position as a member of one of Chicago’s leading families meant everything to him, and he would do nothing to bring about his parents’ disapproval or to risk their social standing.
Three couples entered and formed a line behind Raymond. Emily lifted her chin and tried to look as businesslike as possible. “I really must get back to work, Mr. Simmons.”
Raymond straightened and gave her a sour look. He opened his mouth as if to say more but settled for a nod and exited, leaving Emily free to enter names and distribute claim checks.
Alone once again, Emily tapped a stack of papers against the desk to square their edges then set them neatly in the upper left-hand corner of her desk. Spotting the bag of caramels Raymond had left, she set it in her bottom desk drawer, out of sight. She didn’t want Miss Strickland to find things in less than perfect order.
While she continued to straighten her work area, her mind turned back to the little boy the guard had brought in. There was nothing unusual about one of the Columbian Guards bringing a lost child to the Children’s Building—it had happened several times already in the two weeks she’d worked there. But something about that little tyke tugged at her heartstrings.
If she could feel such a connection toward a child she had just met, his mother must be frantic. Emily paused in the act of scooping up an armload of file folders. A frown tightened her forehead. Why would anyone go off and leave a child that age alone? And to leave in such a hurry, practically running, the man who witnessed it had said.
She pulled open the file drawer and slid the folders into their places. A woman running through the crowded fairgrounds would be unusual enough to draw notice from any number of people.
Emily wrinkled her nose. She had probably drawn a fair amount of notice herself with her undignified dash across the plaza earlier.