Callida Prophet never would have suspected that her stubborn, sullen employer had
such a tender way with words. He certainly doesn't show much affection toward beautiful
six-year-old Becky, Callida's charge and his only child. But in the love letters
he wrote years ago -- which Becky finds and asks Callida to read to her -- he is
a completely different man. Poetic. Passionate. Utterly devoted. And suddenly,
Callida sees this moody, mysterious widower with new, more loving eyes . . .
Santa Angelica, California, August 1897
Miss Callida Prophet finished her simple supper, washed her dishes, and sat
in her late father's comfortably padded rocking chair. Monster, her aptly named
black cat, jumped onto her lap as soon as he figured she was set for the evening
and commenced purring.
With no more thought than she might have given to watering a flower, Callie
opened the letter little Becky Lockhart had addressed to her mother in heaven. Tampering
with the U.S. Mail was a felony but Callie, rural postal carrier for Santa Angelica,
California, wasn't worried. All Callie cared about was that, by reading and answering
Becky's letters to her dead mama, she might be helping the poor girl cope with her
Anyhow, Mr. Wilson, the Santa Angelica post master, had sanctioned Callie's
intention to respond to Becky's letters. The entire town of Santa Angelica knew
how huge a blow the loss of Anne Lockhart had been to Anne's daughter.
"Dear Mama," had been written in Becky's firm, though somewhat lopsided printing.
"I miss you lots. Papa dint come down to brekfist today. He dint eat his dinner
yesterday. I miss you. I miss Papa. He says he will hire a nany for me. Is a nany
like a mama? I want a kitty or a puppy. Love, Becky."
The word nany gave Callie pause until she realized Becky had been trying to
"So. He's hiring a nanny for his child, is he?"
Callie didn't know what to think about that. Becky's letters told her what
she'd already guessed: Becky missed her mother terribly.
Worse, she missed her father, who still resided in the house in which Becky
herself lived. But Becky's father, the rich Mr. Aubrey Lockhart, seemed to have
become mired in grief somewhere along the road leading from his wife's illness and
death and the present. He was wallowing in the Slough of Despond to this day, a
year later. He'd clearly withdrawn from his daughter, who needed him now more than
ever. Often when she read Becky's letters to her mother in heaven, Callie wished
she could shake Mr. Aubrey Lockhart until his teeth rattled and his brains started
Callie knew exactly what Becky was going through because she'd lost her own
mother when she was six years old, the same age as Becky. But Callie, unlike Becky,
had two wonderful sisters, a compassionate older brother, and a loving father to
Poor Becky sometimes wrote about how nice the Lockhart housekeeper, Mrs. Granger,
was, but the only messages her letters ever contained about her father were that
he was hiding out somewhere in his own personal hell and ignoring Becky. She didn't
use those words, of course, but Callie could read between the lopsided lines.
And that, in a nutshell, was the reason Callie had started answering Becky's letters
to heaven with letters of her own and signing them "Mama." Somebody had to pay attention
to a little girl's loneliness and distress. Somebody needed to reassure her that
her mother had loved her beyond anything. Somebody had to persuade the child that
life could be good, even when one did lose the person one loved best in the world.
And, since Becky's father didn't seem inclined to interrupt his own selfish suffering
to offer assistance to his daughter, Callie tried her best to do the job for him.
"Stupid man," Callie grumbled. It shouldn't take a genius to understand that he
and Becky could be of enormous help to each other in coming to terms with Mrs. Lockhart's
Anne Lockhart, the mama Becky missed so much, had been sick for a long time, suffering
from some sort of wasting illness that had eaten her up inside and sapped her strength
until she'd at last been confined to her bed. She'd been the talk of the small village
of Santa Angelica for almost two years before her ultimate demise. She was still
talked about, with sad shakes of heads and dolorous sighs.
The whole town had mourned her death. Most Santa Angelicans had attended her funeral,
Callie among them. Anne Lockhart had, by all reports, been a truly good person.
Everything Callie had ever heard about Anne spoke of a generous, gentle, good-natured,
loving woman who had adored her husband and daughter. Surely she wouldn't want them
to suffer like this from her death. She would especially hate it that Mr. Lockhart
had forsaken his daughter just when she needed him most.
Callie sat in the chair, stroking Monster, and wondering if there wasn't something
she could do for Becky. Something more than answering her letters to heaven. Becky's
father was beyond Callie's reach, so she'd never be able to tell him to his face
that she thought he was an idiot to retreat from his own daughter. Still, there
might be something . . .
Her gasp of insight startled Monster into lifting his head and scowling at
her. A stunning--a brilliant--idea had occurred to her. She wasn't sure she dared
"But why shouldn't I, Monster? After all, I'm perfectly qualified for the
position. Besides, what do I have to lose?"
Monster evidently didn't know because he didn't answer. He did resume purring
after a few seconds, though, so Callie guessed he approved.
She tried not to disturb him as she penned a response to Becky's letter to
"My darling Becky, I hope you get your kitty or your puppy. A little girl
needs a pet to play with. Sometimes, when all the grownup people around you are
busy, you could talk to your pet. Pets are good for that. I hope your papa hires
a nice nanny to take care of you, dear. He loves you very much. And so do I. Love,
It irked Callie to tell Becky that her father loved her, but she knew Becky
needed to read it. And the man probably did love his daughter. That he was unable
to tear himself away from his own unhappiness and demonstrate his affection was not
to his credit, but it didn't mean he didn't love his child.
As she folded the letter and sealed it, Callie murmured to Monster, "Well,
cat, it looks like I'm going into another line of work."
Monster only purred more loudly.
Aubrey Lockhart sat with his head in his hands, staring at his desk blotter, wishing
he was dead. It wasn't an uncommon pose for Aubrey, and it certainly wasn't an uncommon
wish. He'd got into the habit of doing both somewhere between the onset of Anne's
illness and her death. He was only adhering to tradition.
He sighed heavily. Why had this happened to him? Why? Had he irked the gods
so much that they'd decided to punish him? Why couldn't they have taken him instead
of Anne? Aubrey didn't think he'd mind dying. Hell, he'd greet death with open
arms, if that was the only way to see Anne again.
But that would be even more unfair to Becky than he was already being.
He felt very guilty about Becky. He ought to be holding her, talking to her,
reading to her, going for walks with her, as he used to do. Before Anne left them.
But now, every time he saw Becky, he saw Anne. Becky had Anne's bright blue eyes
and peaches-and-cream coloring. Becky's hair was lighter than Anne's had been, but
that's only because she was so young. When she grew up, she'd be the very image
of her mother.
No. Aubrey couldn't bear being around Becky. For one thing, she brought Anne's
loss into sharp focus, which was excruciating. Worse, he couldn't quell a new fear
that if he loved Becky too much, the gods would take her from him, too.
"Ass." Aubrey had also become accustomed to calling himself names, much as he'd
become accustomed to basking in unhappiness. Both behaviors were a habit with him
now, not unlike his habit of breathing. Or his habit of avoiding his daughter, who
didn't deserve it.
He shoved his chair away from his desk a few inches, let his head loll back, and
stared at the ceiling.
"Why can't I just get over it?" he asked himself, not for the first, or even the
Anne had been dead a year last week. He shouldn't still have this terrible ache
in his chest. He shouldn't still feel this awful emptiness, this deep hole in his
life. He shouldn't--
A sharp knock at the library door jerked him upright in his chair. "Yes?"
The door opened without a creak. Mrs. Granger, his housekeeper, wouldn't allow
hinges to creak in her house, God bless her. Figgins entered the room slowly and
said, "Mr. Lockhart, there's an applicant in the drawing room."
"An applicant?" Aubrey's mind, a cumbersome organ determined to be of as little
use as possible to him lately, finally paid attention. "Oh. An applicant. For
the position in the Santa Angelica Post, I presume?"
"Yes, sir." Figgins, Aubrey's butler, who, Aubrey sometimes thought, looked as
though he'd been stuffed by an exceptionally talented taxidermist, came forward.
He looked much more regal than any of the Lockharts ever had, and he bore a silver
salver in his white-gloved hand. A small card rested on the tray.
With a sigh, Aubrey picked up the card. "Miss Callida Prophet."
"Yes, sir. I had her remain in the drawing room."
"Right." Aubrey shoved his chair back farther, rose, plucked his coat from where
he'd flung it over the sofa, and accompanied Figgins out of the library, shrugging
into the coat as he moved.
He was glad he'd thought about hiring a nanny. Since he was of no earthly good
to Becky, he ought at least to hire someone who would be.
Guilt gnawed at his insides, nibbling along the edges of the blotch of grief residing
there. It was very uncomfortable.
But, hell's bells, he couldn't take care of a child. He was a man. Becky needed
a woman to care for her. Some gray-haired granny perhaps. Maybe an old maiden aunt
who missed taking care of her now grown-up nieces and nephews.
Aubrey could picture the two of them in his mind's eye: Becky, smiling happily
as she walked hand-in-hand with a small, graying, elderly woman wearing a silly flowered
hat and, perhaps, spectacles. They'd both be smiling. Maybe talking to each other
in low voices, exchanging the innocent secrets of the very old and the very young.
The nanny would probably walk with a cane. Or carry one of those frilly old-fashioned
parasols. She could be like a grandmother to Becky.
Yes, indeed. Once he found the right nanny for her, Becky would finally get the
love and care he knew she needed. Aubrey had begun to smile slightly by the time
he reached the drawing room.
His smile died when he saw the applicant. Before he could stop himself, he barked,
"Who the devil are you?"
# # #
Callie Prophet had been staring at the portrait of Anne Lockhart hanging over the
fireplace, thinking that the artist had captured Anne's fragile beauty and air of
gentle humanity very well. She didn't hear the door open at her back.
She heard Aubrey's question, though, loud and clear. Wheeling around, her heart
pounding like a war drum, she saw him standing at the door, Mr. Figgins a few feet
behind him. Mr. Lockhart glowered at her. Mr. Figgins looked merely aloof.
Aubrey's brusqueness fired her temper, as she'd done nothing to deserve it. "I,"
she said in a cold, dignified tone, "am Miss Callida Prophet. Didn't you receive
my calling card?" She stared pointedly at the fingers of his right hand, which had
the card in a death grip.
"Of course, I got your card. Figgins said you came to apply for the job as nanny
to my daughter."
She made herself smile. "Yes, I have, Mr. Lockhart." She thinned her eyes and
squinted. "You are Mr. Lockhart; correct?" If he didn't have enough manners to
introduce himself properly, Callie'd just ask him.
Aubrey jerked and appeared disconcerted. "Er, yes. Yes, I'm Mr. Lockhart. Please
be seated, Miss Prophet." He waved at a fatly stuffed, comfortable-looking chair
squatting beside an equally chubby and comfortable-looking sofa.
Callie chose instead to seat herself in a prim, straight-backed chair next to
a piecrust table. She was, after all, applying for the position as nanny to this
man's child. She wasn't a guest in his house.
Aubrey's frowning gaze took in this gesture. He turned to his butler. "You may
leave us here, Figgins. Tell Mrs. Granger to bring some tea."
"That's not necessary, Mr. Lockhart."
Callie could have bitten her tongue as soon as the words left her lips. It wasn't
so much that Aubrey scowled at her for countermanding one of his orders; it was because
she didn't want any blasted tea and she resented it being foisted upon her. She
also knew it wasn't her place to say so. She waved a hand in an airy gesture. "I
beg your pardon. Bring on the tea, Mr. Figgins."
She'd known Figgins ever since he'd moved with the Lockharts from San Francisco
to Santa Angelica almost ten years ago. According to people in the village, he'd
worked for the Lockhart family in San Francisco since Aubrey was a boy. Also according
to village gossip, Figgins looked a good deal more stuffy than he really was.
Figgins bowed deeply and scooted off on his silent butler feet. Callie watched
him go and wished she'd held firm on the tea issue. She didn't really want it, and
with Figgins' departure she felt as if she were marooned on a desert island with
a hungry shark lurking not far offshore.
But that was silly. She sat up straighter, laid her little green reticule in her
lap, and folded her hands on top of it. She gazed with what she hoped passed for
serenity at Aubrey Lockhart.
His gaze was anything but serene. He hadn't yet stopped frowning at her. His
elegant black trousers and morning coat didn't do much to relax her, either. He
looked ever so rich and remote, and miles and miles above her socially.
With a mental smack upside the head, Callie reminded herself that she lived in
the egalitarian United States of America, and that things like wealth and social
standing shouldn't matter. The United States didn't distinguish its citizens by
class or caste. Unfortunately, the recognition of her social equity didn't help to
calm her jitters.
She knew her appearance was at least adequate, and probably a good deal more than
that. While it was true she was rather young, having a mere twenty-four years under
her belt, it was also true that she was a mature, responsible woman, who had been
fending for herself for several years. Well, three years, anyhow. She'd also subdued
her curly ginger-colored hair into a tight bun, covered her hair with a prim straw
hat with one yellow flower adorning it, and she'd worn her newest alpaca shirtwaist
dress in sober dark green. That the dark green brought out the green in her eyes
and that she'd chosen the fabric for that very reason needn't be a consideration.
The color of a nanny's eyes was a moot point, or should be.
Her credentials ought to be adequate, as well, if she could only stop being nervous
long enough to relate them to Aubrey Lockhart. She'd graduated from the Brooklyn,
New York, Teaching Seminary for Young Ladies in 1893, thereby rendering her better
educated than the majority of her peers.
Thus, even though she was anxious in the face of Aubrey Lockhart's continued owlish
and unfriendly scrutiny, she knew she shouldn't be. She was as good as anyone, and
better fitted to be Becky's nanny than most, since she not only possessed a college
degree, but she already knew--and loved--the child. She lifted her chin to show
Aubrey she wasn't intimidated, even though she was.
He paced the room for a minute or two, not taking his gaze from her face. She
wondered if he was trying to disconcert her or if he acted like a rude bully to everyone
who came calling. He stopped pacing suddenly, right in front of her.
Staring down at her with eyes fairly radiating disapproval, he snapped, "Have you
held paid employment before?"
"I certainly have."
He turned as abruptly as he'd stopped, marched to the straight-backed chair on
the other side of the piecrust table and sat. Good heavens, the man was precipitate.
Laying her calling card on the table, he said, "What kind of employment?"
Callie cleared her throat. "I've been the carrier on the Santa Angelica postal
route for three years, Mr. Lockhart. I handle the rural route. Mr. Philpott delivers
mail within the village limits."
"You're a postman--er woman?" Aubrey's sooty eyebrows arched like rainbows above
his dark brown eyes.
"Yes, sir." She wondered if she should tell him she'd met his daughter while driving
her route, but decided to save this piece of information until later. She might
need a weapon.
"Do you have any education?"
"I do. I graduated with honors from the Brooklyn, New York, Teaching Seminary
for Young Ladies in June of 1893."
His eyes narrowed further. "Why'd you go all the way to New York to attend school?"
As if that were any of his business. However, Callie replied to his question calmly.
"My uncle is dean of students there. He recommended the college to my parents.
I applied, and was granted admission."
"I was not," Callie added, feeling defensive, "granted anything else. I mean,
I was given no special consideration, but was admitted on my own merits and my academic
record. I earned a scholarship based on my academic achievements, as well." She
was darned proud of that scholarship.
Callie wanted to jump out of her chair, dash over to Aubrey Lockhart, and batter
the huhs out of him. They were rude, and they made her edgy.
He squinted narrowly. "Why aren't you teaching, if you have a degree in it?"
That was none of his business, either. She said, "My family lives in Santa Angelica.
Santa Angelica didn't need any teachers when I returned home from college. I needed
some type of employment and since there was an opening for a mail carrier at the
post office, I applied. I would, of course, rather be teaching, but I do enjoy my
postal route." So there.
"Do you have written references?"
"No, sir. You may feel free to call upon Mr. Wilson, the post master in Santa
Angelica. He can vouch for my dependability and moral character. Miss Myrtle Oakes,
the Santa Angelica school mistress, is a good friend of mine and can also vouch for
my character. I can supply verification of my employment and education. I have
a diploma, of course."
"Huh." He stared at her some more, his brows drawn straight over his eyes. He
looked formidable; cold, aloof, annoyed, and unfriendly. Callie stared back, doing
her best not to frown.
"Have you ever cared for children in your vast work experience?"
Oho. So he was going to be sarcastic, was he? Well, Callie would just show him
who was capable and who wasn't--and she wouldn't have to resort to sarcasm, either.
"I not only possess a teaching degree, I've also had a good deal to do with my sisters'
and brother's children, Mr. Lockhart. I care for them often when my family needs
"Huh. That's far from the same as being a nanny to a six-year-old girl."
She inclined her head a quarter of an inch. "Perhaps you don't know as much about
six-year-old girls and their needs as you think you do."
His head jerked up so fast that Callie was surprised not to hear his neck snap.
"Is that so?"
She hated to do it, but she apologized. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Lockhart. I have
had abundant experience caring for children, but I shouldn't have been impertinent."
"Indeed." He squinted at her again. "How old are you?"
Well! In any other circumstances, Callie would have told Mr. Aubrey Lockhart what
he could do with himself if he were sufficiently dexterous. However, she cared enough
about Becky to hold her tongue. "I shall be twenty-five years old in May, Mr. Lockhart."
"You don't look it."
Whatever did that mean? Did he mean she looked like a crone, or that she looked
like a child?
"You're too young," he announced after several pregnant seconds, during which it
was all Callie could do to keep from kneading her hands in anxiety. His frown deepened.
"You're too young, too immature, and you have no experience with this kind of work.
What the devil do you think you're doing, applying for a job for which you're clearly
That was enough of that. Callie stood up, straightening her frame to show off
her whole five feet, five inches. "I am fully fit to be a nanny to your daughter,
Mr. Lockhart. I love children, I've cared for them many times, and if you think
an older woman could do a better job than I, you're mistaken. Your daughter, Mr.
Lockhart, needs someone in whom she can confide. Someone who will take care of her
and who will make her feel special. She needs someone to love her! You certainly
seem to have abdicated from the position!"
If Callie hadn't been so angry, Aubrey's roar might have demoralized her. As it
was, she stood her ground indomitably. "You heard me. You've abandoned your own
child, Mr. Lockhart, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself. That poor little girl
needs you. If she can't have you, she needs someone!"
The door opened, and Becky Lockhart barreled into the room, rushing right past
her father and over to Callie, who barely stooped in time to catch her up in her
arms. She straightened and glowered at Aubrey, whose mouth hung open as he stared
at Callie and his daughter, her arms around Callie's neck.
"What the devil . . . ?"
Becky's blue eyes twinkled happily. "Oh, Papa, isn't it wonderful that Miss Prophet
has come to be my nanny? She's ever so nice!"
"Wh-what are you . . ." He stared at his daughter. Callie was pleased to note
that his expression softened considerably.
"Oh, Papa," Becky went on, evidently not worried about her father's frown. "I'm
ever so fond of Miss Prophet. Please say that you'll let her be my nanny."
He fastened his attention on Callie. "And how, pray, did you get to know my daughter?"
His voice cut like a knife.
Becky's smile faded. Callie, sorry to see it go, made sure she didn't sound as
furious as she felt when she answered Aubrey's question. "Becky and I met while
I drove my mail route, Mr. Lockhart. We've become quite good friends."
"Yes," Becky confirmed. "Oh, please hire Miss Prophet, Papa. She's my best friend."
Callie felt like crying.
Aubrey, plainly irate and also clearly believing that Callie had somehow hornswaggled
him, opened his mouth and shut it twice before anything came out of it. Callie knew
good and well he wanted to snatch his daughter from her arms and then kick her down
the Lockhart mansion's grand marble front porch steps.
She was pleased when he did neither, but only sucked in a breath and held it for
a moment. When he let it out, he looked calmer. Thank God.
"Becky, would you please leave Miss Prophet and me alone for a minute? We won't
Becky looked doubtful. "But--isn't Miss Prophet going to come live with us, Papa?"
Her eyes were so eloquent, Callie wouldn't have been able to deny her anything.
She feared Becky's papa was made of sterner stuff, however.
"We're going to talk about it now, sweetheart," Aubrey said. "We won't be long."
"All right." Becky nodded somberly at her father, then gave Callie a quick hug.
Callie lowered Becky to the ornate Chinese carpet decorating the drawing room floor
and dropped a kiss on her pretty blond curls. "I'll see you later, Becky."
"Promise?" Becky looked worried.
Callie smiled at her. "Promise."
"Well . . . . All right." Becky left the room much more slowly than she'd entered
As soon as the door closed, Callie returned her attention to Aubrey. She braced
herself, expecting to be tossed out of his house and told never to return. It would
kill her to know that Becky would be living in this sterile household without a mother
or a father or anyone else to love her.
"I don't know how you managed to finagle your way into my daughter's good graces,
Miss Prophet, but I suppose I'm going to have to give you a chance."
Callie's heart nearly jumped out of her chest. She felt her eyes open wide.
Aubrey sneered. "Yes, you might well stare. However, while I'm willing to hire
you on a contingent basis, I want you to understand absolutely that if you do anything--anything
at all--to upset my daughter, my servants in general, or me in particular, you'll
be thrown out on your ear."
"Oh!" She gulped. "Yes. I understand."
Swallowing the hot words his attitude provoked in her, Callie said, "Thank you,
"Huh. When can you start?"
She lifted her arms in a gesture of befuddlement. "Er, well, it doesn't matter.
"Good. Bring your things tomorrow. I'll have Mrs. Granger prepare a room for
"Thank you." Callie bobbed a curtsy, but he didn't see it because the door had
opened again and he'd turned, scowlin. Callie imagined he expected to find Becky,
come to see if they were done talking yet. Time went very slowly for six-year-olds.
It wasn't Becky. It was Mrs. Granger, with a tray holding tea things. Aubrey
sent her away again. The last Callie saw of her, Mrs. Granger was glancing back
over her shoulder at the two of them, curiosity writ large on her elderly features.
As for Callie herself, she walked home on a cloud.