Street-smart and confident Ilsa Pedersen has become an indispensable right-hand woman at Wilson’s Bathhouse, and found a home and family in Fraser Springs. But she hasn’t forgotten the shame of being tossed out penniless as a teenage housemaid by the wealthy Whitacre family when she was found kissing their only son. The only thing that will truly secure her future is independence, and Ilsa has plans to open a dress shop in the big city.
Dr. Theo Whitacre must complete an internship at the grand hotel in Fraser Springs before the socially awkward young man can head off to Europe for a career in medical research. Finding Ilsa in this backwater town is a delightful surprise. But while she is more than happy to be his friend, she won’t trust him a second time with her heart.
When a rash of illnesses begins plaguing the town’s tourists, Theo’s employer doesn’t believe his theory that the hotel is at fault. Only with Ilsa’s help can Theo save the afflicted patrons, and as they work together, they find their teenage romance rekindling. But as their dreams pull them in such different directions, can they truly make a future together?
by Laine Ferndale
Sensuality Level: Sensual
Laine Ferndale teaches literature and writing to pay for a fairly serious chai latte habit. She lives with her husband and her adorably needy cat. Find Laine Ferndale at laineferndale.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter @laineferndale.
An excerpt from The Infamous Miss Ilsa:
Vancouver, British Columbia
As she stepped into her employer’s parlour, Ilsa Pedersen wished that a wildfire would destroy the entire West End, this awful house, and every last person in it. Or maybe an earthquake: that would be even better. Something to shake the petit point and paintings and gilded clocks off the walls, and rattle that expression off Mrs. Whitacre’s smug face.
All three members of the Whitacre family were waiting for her arrival. Theodore Whitacre sat to one side of the room, looking as if he wished he could disappear into the depths of the wingback chair. His thin, pale face was frozen in a vacant mask; his green eyes were fixed on a point somewhere to the far left of Ilsa’s shoulder. He’d clearly moved beyond mortification and into a sort of stunned mental absence.
The two adult Whitacres in the room were more engaged. Mr. Whitacre, grey and bent, had propped himself up against the heavy oak mantelpiece, where he fumed a steady billow of pipe smoke in the direction of the chimney. He seemed to be more bored than angry. He was probably simply annoyed to have been pried out of his study over a domestic squabble. Mrs. Whitacre, however, positively vibrated: the sea of ruffles and furbelows and lace on her elaborate day gown rustled like a tree in a high wind.
Mrs. Whitacre had been a famous beauty in her day and devoted a great deal of time and money to rejecting the inevitability of becoming “a woman of a certain age.” Ilsa, as the household’s only housemaid, had spent hours tending the ranked army of powders, potions, paints, and perfumes crowding Mrs. Whitacre’s marble-topped vanity. Her chestnut hair was kept meticulously dyed, styled, and piled high atop her head, and her stoutening figure was corseted so dramatically that her posture resembled that of a belligerent pigeon.
In the previous households where Ilsa had been employed, it had been the men of the house she’d had to watch out for. Here, though, Mr. Whitacre had treated her like a ghost who conveniently appeared with supper dishes or tea at the appointed hours, and Theo had been . . . She risked a quick glance at Theo, who continued to ignore her. There was no point thinking about what Theo had been to her. No, in this house, it had been Mrs. Whitacre who had done her best to make Ilsa’s life miserable. And now there she sat, perched on the edge of a settee, her eyes bright with malice.
Mr. Whitacre continued puffing away for another excruciating minute, until his wife cleared her throat in his direction. The entire room waited as he exhaled a final stream of white smoke before knocking his pipe out into the hearth and placing it carefully atop the mantel. Mr. Whitacre never rushed. Ilsa wished to God he would, just this once, and get this over with.
“So. This is the girl?” The question was addressed to Theo, who had found something of deep interest in his lap blanket’s pattern. He managed a quick nod.
“Speak up, boy. You’re a cripple, not a mute.”
Ilsa’s fists clenched at the barked command, but Theo didn’t even flinch.
“She’s a pretty little thing, I’ll give you that. How old are you, girl?”
“Hmph. Well. You can’t go chasing after the help, boy. Vulgar, you know. Lowering.”
“Teddy wasn’t ‘chasing after’ anything,” Mrs. Whitacre purred. “He’s a good boy, Papa, you know that.” Mrs. Whitacre’s affectedly girlish habit of calling her husband “Papa” had always made Ilsa’s skin crawl. “That little piece of street trash practically forced herself on him. Tell him, Teddy.”
Ilsa’s fingernails were digging red crescents into her palms now. She risked another glance at Theo—surely now he’d speak up for her, explain how things were between them. His parents were making everything sound so ugly.
He met her eyes this time. Their gaze held for a heartbeat, and then . . . his slid away. She could almost feel the little threads that had grown between them snapping, one by one, like a spider web in a storm. He remained silent.
Mr. Whitacre made a disgusted snort. “For God’s sake, Olivia. You can’t expect the boy to admit he hasn’t got the gumption to get up a skirt without being pushed under it.” Theo did flinch at that, just a little. “Enough melodrama. This is what comes of your soft heart, dear. When you employ a charity case, you get what you pay for. The whole situation was practically courting disaster. Pack your things, girl, and see yourself out.”