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“You must have something I can do.” Abigail Jamieson tried to keep the desperation out of her voice, but the way the woman across from her peered over her wire-rimmed glasses, she didn’t think she’d succeeded. Through sheer force of will, she kept her hands linked loosely in her business-suited lap and didn’t bolt for the door.
On the other side of the desk, Estelle Gagnon set aside the single sheet of paper that served as Abigail’s scant resume. She leaned back in her chair and steepled her fingers, touching the index tips to her lips.
“Why childcare?” she asked finally, her English tinged by a slight French accent. “Why not something in an office?”
Abigail reached deep inside, past nerves left raw by answering this same question too many times over the last two weeks, and dug up the humility she needed to answer again. Nannies to Go was the last nanny agency on the list in the entire city of Ottawa, and she would not, could not, go home to her sister Gwyn’s with no prospects yet again. Not after the conversation she’d overhead this morning.
“I know she needs our support, Gwyn,” Gareth’s voice floated through the door of his and Gwyn’s bedroom as Abigail passed by in the hallway. “But it’s been three and a half months. And yes, she’s helping out with the house, but you need your space back. We need our space back. At least let me put her up in an apartment while she figures out what she wants to do.”
“Are you going to be the one to tell her she’s overstayed her welcome?” Gwyn retorted. “She’s my sister, Gareth, and her husband and daughter died. There is no way I’m turfing her out on her ear right now. She needs more time.”
“She’s already been here almost three months. How much more time does she need? Another month? Three—”
The recruiter’s voice jolted Abigail back to the present, and she pushed away the memory of her sister’s disagreement with her husband. Over her. She crossed her ankles and tucked her feet under her chair, sitting up straighter. “I’ve been out of the workforce for a number of years,” she said, with rehearsed calm. “And I don’t have any office skills to speak of, beyond being able to use a computer.”
“You don’t have any childcare skills to speak of, either,” Ms. Gagnon replied. “Most clients these days are looking for someone with a background in early childhood education at the very least. I’m afraid one semester of a psychology undergrad degree isn’t quite the same, even if you did plan on going into child psychology. Without some kind of hands-on experience, there’s nothing I can—”
“I had a daughter.” The words spilled from Abby before she realized they’d even formed, surprising her as much as they obviously surprised Ms. Gagnon. The recruiter stared at her, eyebrows raised, waiting for more. Abby curled her hands into fists on her lap. It was the first time she’d told that to a stranger in more than a year. Or maybe it had been an eternity. “I had a daughter,” she repeated, needing to say it again. Needing to hear it again. “She died.”
Tears burned in the back of her eyes. Rapidly, she blinked them back as Ms. Gagnon stood up from her chair and crossed the office to a bookshelf under a window. She poured a glass of water from a pitcher there and returned to pass it to Abby. Then she leaned back against the desk. “When?” she asked, all trace of professionalism gone from her quiet voice.
“Just under a year ago,” Abby said. “It was a car accident. She was eleven. She and my husband were both killed.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Ms. Gagnon. “Do you need a tissue?”
Abby gritted her teeth and shook her head. “Thank you, but I’m fine. Really.”
“Bon.” Good. The recruiter went around the desk to retake her chair. She looked down at the resumé on the desk for a moment, then peered at Abby over her glasses again. “You’re certain you want a job caring for children? It will not be too difficult for you?”
“I can manage,” she said. “I’ve thought it through, and it really is all I’m qualified for. To be honest, I’ve never even waitressed or worked in retail, and I would much rather work at something I know I can do.”
Ms. Gagnon tapped a pen against the resumé. “There might be something, but…”
Abigail’s hopes leapt. Oh, to go home and tell Gwyn she’d found something! “But?”
“You would have to live in, and there would be some housekeeping involved as well.”
She clutched the glass tighter, needing an anchor in the sudden swirl of hope even as the irony made her want to laugh. Or cry. Or both. Oh, how William would love this, if he knew. All those fights over her desire for independence, for stimulation outside the home, and now look at her. Heading back into the kitchen to which he’d kept her tied for so many years. But… she’d get to move out of Gwyn and Gareth’s house and actually stand—more or less—on her own two feet for the first time in a very, very long time.
Make that for the first time ever.
“I can definitely do that,” she told Ms. Gagnon. “I was a stay-at-home…” She trailed off, the word wife stuck in her throat, and mom still too raw. She compromised with, “I stayed home for twelve years.”
Something flashed in the recruiter’s eyes—sympathy? pity?—but she moved the conversation along. “There are three girls: a five-year-old, a nine-year-old, and a thirteen-year-old. Their mother passed away just over a year ago—cancer—and their father is… struggling.”
“He runs his own construction firm, and his hours can be irregular. He’s trying his best, but honestly, he’s losing ground every time I talk to him.”
Abby frowned. “Every time you talk to him? How long has he been trying to find someone?”
Ms. Gagnon hesitated. Then she sighed. “I’m going to be honest with you, Mrs. Jamieson. This isn’t an easy job. Frankly, I’m not even sure it’s a doable job. If you take it, you’ll be the twelfth woman to attempt it in the last nine months.”
“Oh? What’s the problem?”
“My client’s hours. His unwillingness to back up the nannies on discipline issues. Discipline issues, period.” Ms. Gagnon leaned back in her chair and sighed again. “My understanding is that the older girl resents having anyone tell her what to do. Part of the problem is the father’s distraction, of course, and part of it may be the age of the nannies themselves. Most women who are coming out of early childhood education programs are young, and I’m not sure they have the air of authority that’s needed here. You, on the other hand…”
Great. Now she was being offered a job because she was old? Abby tried not to grimace. She couldn’t afford to be proud right now. Heck, she couldn’t afford much of anything. She lifted her chin and took a deep breath.
“I’ll take it,” she said.
“Excellent. You can start as soon as your police check clears. I’ll ask a friend to rush it.”
Abigail stepped around her sister as Gwyn bounced a fussy Julianne against one shoulder, patting the baby’s back with her free hand. She felt Gwyn’s gaze on her, following her from bureau to closet to open suitcase on the bed. Studiously, she avoided meeting it.
“You’re sure about this,” Gwyn said for the fortieth time in the week since Abby had delivered her news. “I mean, a live-in nanny?”
Abby tried not to bristle at what sounded like criticism. Truth be told, if Gwyn was questioning her ability with children, she had good reason, because Abby had done her level best to avoid her nieces and nephew ever since her August arrival. At first, she’d told herself that it was because she couldn’t handle being so close to what was obviously a happy family when she had lost so much. However, after three months, she’d begun to think it went deeper than that—into territory that included guilt and resentment and a whole lot of other baggage she didn’t care to examine. That made it all the more important that she leave now, before the toxicity brewing deep in her gut found its way out and poisoned her relationship with her sister even more than it already had been for years. She took a pair of pants from a hanger and folded them into the suitcase.
“I’m sure,” she replied, also for the fortieth time. “I need to move on with my life, Gwyn. I can’t camp out here forever. Katie needs her room back.” She glanced at the stuffed unicorns piled on a shelf and the Anne of Green Gables series piled on the bedside table. And I need not to be waking up every day in a room that could have been my own daughter’s.
“Katie is fine sharing with Maggie. This is about you.” Gwyn wiped a trickle of drool from Julianne’s chin, expertly following her daughter’s twists and dodges and ignoring the squawks of protest. “I get that you want to move on, but raising someone else’s children? What happened to that psychology degree you were studying for? Can’t you do something with that instead?”
Abby closed her eyes. There was another thing she’d avoided since arriving here: any kind of conversation with Gwyn that touched on her life with William. For the same reasons she’d stopped writing to her sister about that life. Stopped confiding in her at all. Her cheeks grew hot, and she looked down at the floor. “I didn’t finish,” she answered, silently begging Gwyn not to pursue the subject.
“Oh,” said her sister. Then, her voice hesitant, “Abby…”
“Don’t.” Abby shoved the last of her clothes, hangers and all, into the suitcase and slammed the lid down. She zipped it shut, then leaned on it, blinking back tears she didn’t want to share. Didn’t have the right to share, after she’d refused to be there when Gwyn had needed her—no matter what her reasons at the time. She straightened and turned, a tight smile pasted to her face. “I’m a big girl, Gwyn. I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m not saying you don’t. I’m just saying you don’t have to do it. Stay. Please. Let us help.”
Abby’s resolve wavered in the face of the offer. Even after that conversation she’d overheard between Gwyn and Gareth last week, it would still be so much easier to remain here under their roof and their protection. So much safer. Except she’d lived her whole life sheltered from risk of any kind—first by her parents and then by William—only to discover there was no such thing as safe. Life didn’t care whether she actively participated in it or not; it happened regardless. With all of its pain and its grief and its loss… and its devastation. Again, Abby blinked back tears. Then she straightened her spine and shook her head. “Thank you, but no. I need to do this. I need to look after myself.”
Gwyn gave a small, hesitant shrug. “All right,” she said. “But you know you can come back, right? Anytime.”
“And, Abby… one day, when you’re ready? Let’s talk. Just the two of us. Please?”
Her eyes blurring and her throat refusing to allow words, Abby looked away from the sister she’d once adored. She didn’t see how they would ever overcome the chasm that had grown between them, but she nodded anyway. Because, in a perfect world, she thought she’d like that.
If only a perfect world existed.
“Auntie Abby!” her nephew, Nicholas, hollered up the stairs. “Your taxi’s here!”