Authors: Lorna Seilstad
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance, #General, #FIC042040, #FIC042030, #FIC027050, #Sisters—Fiction
Charlotte hated hospitals.
The faint scent of alcohol stung her nose, reminding her of the awful days only two years ago that her parents lay dying. She shook her head. Time to put those sad thoughts aside. Today was a day to celebrate.
She quickened her pace as she walked down the corridor toward the maternity ward. The mews of newborn babies indicated she’d reached her destination. After stepping inside the sunny, semiprivate room, she scanned the two beds, and her gaze fell on her older sister. She barely restrained herself from racing toward the newest Gregory girl in Hannah’s arms.
Hannah, still nearly as pale as the crisp white sheet covering her, beamed as Charlotte approached. Her younger sister Tessa rose from her chair to greet her with a warm embrace.
“I’m an aunt.” Tessa giggled. “I can’t believe it. It feels like a dream.”
“I could pinch you so you’d know it was real.” With a laugh, Charlotte released Tessa, then turned to the proud father.
Lincoln lifted the tiny bundle from Hannah. “Charlotte, are you ready to meet our Ellie?”
Charlotte eased her hands around the baby’s soft blanket. “You named her after Momma?”
“Elizabeth Ruth Cole. Elizabeth for Momma, and Ruth for my favorite Bible story.” Hannah shared a knowing glance with her husband. “But I think she looks like you.”
Tucking the blanket away from Ellie’s wrinkled face, Charlotte ran the back of her index finger along the babe’s silky cheek. She touched the swath of brown hair with the same copper highlights all the Gregory sisters possessed. Ellie’s eyes were dark blue, but
Charlotte had heard that could change. Would they turn hazel like those of the Gregory sisters, or would they end up gray-blue like her father’s?
“She’s the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen.” Charlotte pressed a kiss to Ellie’s forehead. “Tessa told me she was perfect, and for once our little sister wasn’t exaggerating. I’m sorry it took me awhile to get here. I was out seeking a position at the Saint Paul Hotel, and I didn’t know she’d arrived until I got back to Aunt Sam’s house.”
Hannah sighed. “Guess she decided she wanted to surprise us and make her entrance early.”
“I think she wanted to do things her way.” Lincoln kissed his wife’s cheek. “Like her momma.”
Hannah smiled. “A true Gregory girl.”
“But remember, this little princess is also my daughter. I’d like to think there’s some Cole in her to balance things out.” Lincoln reached for the baby, and Charlotte reluctantly gave her up. “But I’ll be thrilled if she takes after her mother in every way.”
“If that’s the case, you’ll end up very gray.” Charlotte sat in the straight-back chair beside Hannah’s bed and took her sister’s hand. “Are you feeling all right?”
“I feel wonderful.” Hannah pushed up in the bed, wincing at the movement. “Tell me about the position you were seeking. Did you get it?”
“I think it’s safe to say I won’t be working at the Saint Paul Hotel today or at any time in the near future, but that’s fine with me. The cleanliness of the kitchen was far from satisfactory.”
Lincoln chuckled. “And I suppose you made sure the chef knew you didn’t approve.”
Charlotte nodded. “I told the management too. I had to for the sake of the patrons eating there. The management was aghast and said they’d address the situation forthwith. Still, I was so hoping . . .”
Hannah squeezed Charlotte’s hand. “You’ll get your own restaurant someday, Charlotte. I know you will.”
An apron-clad nurse bearing a dinner tray moved to the foot of Hannah’s bed. “I have your dinner, Mrs. Cole.”
“Oh, good. I’m starved.”
“And you should be.” Charlotte helped Hannah sit up in the bed and adjusted the pillows behind her before the nurse set the tray across Hannah’s lap. “Delivering a baby is hard work. You’ll need to eat well to build your strength back up.”
Charlotte took the tray from the nurse, but its contents made her cringe. The bowl of grayish gruel and the cup of weak tea hardly seemed adequate. At Fannie’s cooking school, she’d taken additional courses in feeding the ill and convalescent, and this food did not meet Miss Farmer’s criteria. Equally disappointing was its presentation on chipped enamel dishes. Who could possibly want to eat this food?
“Ma’am,” Charlotte said as the woman started to leave, “as a nursing mother, my sister needs better nutrition. She requires milk, vegetables, fruit, and proteids.”
“Yes—meats, eggs, nuts.”
The nurse shot her an apologetic look. “The doctor ordered the food, miss.”
“But why this soft, bland diet? Hannah is feeling fine. She hasn’t had any digestive issues. Most new mothers can handle a regular diet on the same day as delivery. At the very least, she could tolerate a meat-based soup or stew with some vegetables. It would be more substantial than this.”
Hannah slipped her spoon into the gruel. “Charlotte, this will be fine.”
“No it won’t. How can you expect to provide for Ellie if you don’t eat well?”
“Is there a problem here?”
Charlotte turned at the sound of the male voice, only to find the same green-eyed man she’d backed into this morning. “
my sister’s doctor?”
“As a matter of fact, I am.” He scowled, disapproval turning down the edges of those bottle-green eyes. “And I see once again you’re stirring things up.”
Dr. Joel Brooks crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at the young woman. He didn’t have time to deal with extra problems today, and this little spitfire had “troublemaker” written all over her pretty face.
“Well, someone needs to stir things up!” She pointed at his patient’s food. “This is not enough nutrition for a nursing mother. My sister requires an adequate diet, and I intend to see she gets it.”
Some women’s faces looked pinched when they were fired up about something, but for some reason, anger looked good on this young woman. Maybe it was the way her hazel eyes flashed or her cheeks pinked in the light coming through the ward’s windows. Still, no matter how attractive Miss Gregory was, her outbursts were drawing unwanted attention, and one look at the new mother in the bed told him his patient was overdoing it.
“Now, now, miss.” He sighed. Dealing with family issues was his least favorite part of serving as one of the hospital’s assistant superintendents, but it was part of his job. “Why don’t you leave your sister’s postnatal care to me? I don’t presume to know how to make a fine dessert, so why should you presume to understand her nutritional needs?”
She folded her hands in front of her fabric-covered buttons. “For your information, I know a great deal about the care and feeding of the ill and convalescent. At Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery
we studied the caloric needs of men, women, and children. As a nursing mother . . .”
She prattled on, but he didn’t listen. A cooking school? Did she seriously believe classes in food preparation made her an expert in a medical setting?
“Dr. Joel Brooks.” Mrs. Cole’s husband stood up. “May I introduce my two sisters-in-law, Miss Charlotte Gregory, whom you have apparently already met, and the youngest, Miss Tessa Gregory.”
Charlotte. With her rich maple syrup–colored hair, her given name seemed to fit her. Earthy. Warm. At least until she opened her mouth.
Joel pressed a hand to Mrs. Cole’s forehead. Good. No fever. Still, her eyelids drooped. “Miss.” He looked directly at Miss Gregory “I believe it’s in Mrs. Cole’s best interest for visiting hours to conclude for today.”
She squared her shoulders, apparently not ready to give up her fight. “But what about her food? She’ll be in here for at least a week, correct?”
“Am I to assume this is what she’ll be eating every day? This bowl of unappetizing gruel contains less than one hundred and twenty calories. Surely you know a nursing mother needs at least two thousand calories a day to meet her and the baby’s needs.”
Hmm. Maybe Miss Spitfire did know more than he imagined.
The corner of his mouth hitched. “I’ll be happy to meet with you tomorrow and discuss her diet.” He motioned to the nurse to join them. “Meanwhile, Nurse Bryant will see you and your sister out, then she’ll return and get Mrs. Cole a glass of milk to go with her dinner.”
The nurse placed her hand on Miss Gregory’s arm, but she pulled it free and turned back to him, her hands perched on her hips. “When?”
“I promise I’ll get the milk when I get back to the ward, miss,” Nurse Bryant assured her.
“No, Dr. Brooks, when do you want to meet?”
“Catch me when you come to visit.” Joel lifted Mrs. Cole’s wrist and pressed his fingers against the steady pulse. “I don’t think we need to set a time.”
“I disagree.” The smile she clearly forced said she was not easily placated. “Two o’clock, then?”
Didn’t this young lady know how busy he was? His patients needed him. His schedule was booked with people who truly
He glanced down at Mrs. Cole, her eyelids growing heavier with added fatigue. She was his biggest concern right now, and he wanted her well-meaning sisters out of here so she could rest. He nodded toward Miss Charlotte Gregory. “Yes. Two o’clock is fine. Meet me in my office. Will fifteen minutes suffice?”
Tessa, the younger sister, smiled at him. “Doctor, Charlotte will just be getting warmed up in fifteen minutes.”
Miss Gregory silenced her sister with a glare, then turned and dipped her head in his direction. “That will be fine. I look forward to an enlightening conversation.”
Joel watched the nurse escort the sisters to the door.
Maybe so, but he had a feeling this little cooking school graduate intended to cook him and his hospital’s food over her open spit.
Charlotte tapped the top of the fountain pen against her lip. What else did she want to mention to Dr. Brooks when she met with him tomorrow?
She glanced out the study’s window. If she leaned to the left, she could get a glimpse of the tulips caught in a shaft of fading daylight. How blessed she was to be staying here at Aunt Sam’s. And tonight Lincoln’s aunt had opened her home up to Tessa as well. Given the birth of Hannah and Lincoln’s new baby, Aunt Sam had insisted Tessa join her and Charlotte for at least a month or so, and she’d done everything she could to make Tessa feel at home.
Leaning back in the heavy leather chair, Charlotte smiled. Even though Aunt Sam was Lincoln’s aunt and not her own, she’d come to think of this place as home. Aunt Sam had taken her in after her return from Fannie Farmer’s School of Cookery and had treated her like the daughter she’d never had. The wealthy woman amazed her daily. Between her penchant for bloomers and her outspokenness, she certainly wasn’t like any lady Charlotte had ever met.
“Are you still working on your presentation?” Aunt Sam set a cup of hot chocolate on the desk. “I thought you might like some nourishment. Don’t worry. I didn’t make it myself.”
“Thank you.” Charlotte wrapped her hands around the warm cup and watched the spry sixty-year-old perch herself on the corner of the desk.
“Tessa said it didn’t go well at the hotel’s restaurant today.”
“You could say that.” Charlotte sighed. “I’m beginning to wonder if God is trying to tell me something.”
“Lottie, I don’t want to hear you talk that way. God placed this dream in your heart for a reason.” She slid off the edge of the desk as Tessa entered the room. “But keep in mind God may have a different way to carry out his plans than you do.”
“There you are.” Tessa sauntered in with a newspaper in hand and sat down in the chair opposite the mahogany desk. “I was afraid you two had taken off on some fun excursion and left me all alone to fend for myself in this big old house.” She feigned distress by placing the back of her hand against her forehead.
Aunt Sam laughed. “Quite a dramatic display, young lady. I believe you have an untapped gift.”
Charlotte set down her cup. “Oh, she taps it all right, but I wouldn’t call it a gift.”
“You shouldn’t disagree with your elders, Charlotte.” Tessa clutched the newspaper to her chest. “And if you aren’t kind to me, I may keep the answer to all of your problems a secret.”
“The answer to all of my problems is in that paper?” Charlotte dropped her pen on the blotter.
“That’s what I said.”
“And how does a newspaper secure me a position at a fine establishment? Is a restaurant seeking to hire a chef?”
She passed the folded paper to Aunt Sam. “No, it says there’s going to be a cooking contest—and all you need to do, dear sister, is win.”
“What kind of contest?” Aunt Sam snapped open the newspaper.
Charlotte rose from her chair and came around the desk. “You don’t seriously think this is a good idea?”
“It bears investigation.” Aunt Sam spread the paper on the desk and flipped through the pages. Charlotte leaned close to look.
Tessa wedged her way between them and pointed to the article on the third page. “It says, ‘The Greater Northern Natural Gas
Company proudly announces a contest. All contestants will demonstrate their culinary skills by cooking on today’s newest gas stoves, available in our fully equipped display room.’” She paused. “It starts on Monday.”
Charlotte turned to her chair and pressed a hand to her beating heart. The idea of a contest was thrilling, and Miss Farmer had insisted all her students be well versed at cooking on gas stoves, but how could a cooking contest help her secure a position?
“It also says,” Tessa continued, “there will be five rounds—layer cakes, pies, doughnuts, bread, and main dishes. A different category will be held each day, with the highest-scoring contestants advancing to the next round.”
Aunt Sam lowered herself into one of the chairs opposite the desk. “What does it say the winner receives?”
“There are prizes for each day, with everything from a complete set of aluminum cooking utensils to a Bissell carpet sweeper. But the all-around winner will be awarded a brand-new Jewel gas range.” She clasped her hands together. “Oh, Charlotte, you have to do this.”
Charlotte laughed. “And what would I do with a new gas range?”
“Put it in your hope chest, dear.” Aunt Sam grinned.
“That’s a little large for a hope chest.”
“I’m sure we could find some place to store it.” Aunt Sam laid her hand on Charlotte’s. “I think this is an opportunity you can’t pass up. How could those chefs deny you a position once you’ve proved yourself over and over in a contest like this?”
“But it won’t be that easy—”
Aunt Sam turned toward Tessa. “When does she need to sign up?”
Tessa ran her finger under the article. “Tomorrow morning at eight. Only the first twenty women who sign up can participate.”
“I’ll tell Henry to have the automobile ready at seven.” Aunt Sam stood, her tone sealing the discussion.
Charlotte jumped to her feet. “Wait. A lot of women in this
city make wonderful cakes and pies. I’m not the only person who cooks well. What if I don’t win?”
Aunt Sam chuckled. “And what if you do? God may have a whole new plan for you, dear. A whole new amazing and exciting plan.”
Arriving late was not part of Charlotte’s plan, and given the disapproving expression on Dr. Brooks’s face upon her entrance, she didn’t think it helped her cause one iota. After taking a seat across from the young doctor, she unfolded her list. The paper crackled and she winced.
She sat up straight and took in the man seated at the desk. For all his seriousness, Dr. Brooks was less than ten years her senior. His light brown hair, cropped short, was parted on the left, and the mole on his cheek added to his attractiveness rather than detracted from it. And those green eyes—
“Miss Gregory?” he said in a raspy baritone.
She blinked. Oh my. Had she been staring? Swallowing, she plunged in. “First, let me apologize for my tardiness.” Even though the fact that Henry hadn’t been able to get the automobile’s engine to turn over would be a good excuse, she chose not to share it. Best for the doctor to know she took responsibility for her actions. “Shall we begin by discussing the hospital’s meal plans?”
Dr. Brooks coughed into his fist. “The entire hospital’s?”
“Of course.” Without a second thought, she reached for a water pitcher on the corner of his desk and poured him a glass. “I imagine the whole system needs to be overhauled. We could start in the maternity ward and then address the other wards, floor by floor, of course.”
Dr. Brooks held up his hand. “Wait a minute, Miss Gregory. I agreed to talk to you about your sister’s nutritional needs, not those of all the patients in the hospital.” He checked his pocket watch. “There are six hundred beds in this hospital. I don’t think
your remaining ten minutes will allow us to discuss quite that many patients, do you?”
“No, probably not.” How foolish she had been to think he’d want to discuss overhauling the whole hospital! Miss Farmer had cautioned them to negotiate small changes whenever they could, not try for the large ones right away.
“Do you mind?” She pointed to the water pitcher.
“Not at all.”
She poured herself a glass, took a long drink, and returned the glass to the desk. To her surprise, Dr. Brooks immediately moved it back to its original position. How odd.
Offering him her most agreeable smile, she stilled her hands in her lap and began again. “As you know, a nursing mother needs at least two thousand calories a day. What are your plans to see that my sister receives the nourishment she needs?”
“We have a set meal plan for the mothers in the maternity ward.” Dr. Brooks turned the handle on the pitcher so it faced the right, as it had when she’d arrived.
Charlotte cocked her head to the side. “Which consists of what?”
“It consists of regular, nutritious meals that are easy for new mothers to digest and for the nursing staff to prepare.”
“But I noticed today my sister was served cauliflower. Surely you of all people realize cauliflower can make a nursing baby gassy?”
“Is that why you were late?” He leaned forward. “Were you giving my nurses a difficult time about the meal?”
“No, of course not.” Anger simmered inside her. How dare he accuse her of impropriety when it was
nurses who were in error? Charlotte squared her shoulders. “For your information, I said nothing to them, although I was sorely tempted. However, they do need to be educated. That would be your job, Dr. Brooks, would it not?”
Irritation flashed across his face. “Did you come here to insult me or discuss your sister’s care, Miss Gregory?”
“I’m simply trying to make you see the need for proper nutrition for all the mothers in the hospital’s care.” She locked her gaze on his, then after a few seconds dropped it to the list in her lap. There was no way she was leaving until she knew Hannah would have everything she needed. As she read the items from her list, she ticked off each one on her fingers. “Will Hannah receive fresh fruit every day? Milk? Vegetables?”
“I can assure you her needs will be met.” His words came out clipped, and he pushed back from the desk, apparently signaling their time was nearing an end.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like some details. For example, how many grams of proteids are provided?” She looked up from her list to see Dr. Brooks scowling. “And are the mothers always served on the chipped enamelware I saw?”
Dr. Brooks rose to his feet, his lips pressed together in a thin line. “Miss Gregory, I’m afraid we don’t have the money to serve the ladies on fine china. Any surplus we have tends to go for real needs—people without resources to pay, like orphaned children.”
Charlotte’s cheeks burned. “I know it’s vital for the hospital to care for orphans, but these things are important too. If the ill and convalescent aren’t well nourished, they won’t recover.”
He pressed his fists onto the desk blotter and leaned toward her. “We have the lowest mortality rate in the city—despite our chipped enamelware.”
She stood and leaned on the desk too, displacing the inkwell. “But some people still die, and they might not if their nutritional needs were met by a caring medical staff.”
“Miss Gregory.” He put the inkwell back in place, but his jaw remained clenched tight. “Your time here is up.”
The glass. The pitcher. The inkwell. Charlotte’s breath caught as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. “I see the problem now. You like everything to be in order, and I’m messing that up.” She folded her list and slipped it back into the pocket of her skirt.
“Well, you’d better get used to things getting messy, because when I’m cooking something up, that’s bound to happen.”