Life is full of surprises: some kissed by joy, others stabbed by sorrow. My own life had experienced more of the latter in its brief span. I was, therefore, embarking on a new job and a new situation with an ambivalence borne of hopeful anticipation and cautious dread.
The first surprise on my journey was the deer that suddenly leaped out of the woods and across the roadway. I slammed on the brakes just in time to avoid hitting it. I must confess that my fear of auto accidents borders on phobic.
My little Honda Civic lurched and stalled.
“Great,” I muttered as I fiddled with the ignition, and then I looked up. I sucked in my breath and exhaled loudly. “Oh my . . .”
Emerging from the tree-lined boulevard across a vast lawn, Carter Plantation sprawled before me—a gracious three-storied brick Federal mansion with a portico supported by white Doric columns. On either side of the central building spread identical two-storied wings in that perfect balance typical of the Georgian style.
What wasn’t typical was the sheer size of it all. I couldn’t recall ever seeing such a large house before—and I was on my way to work there. I had accepted a job as a nanny to Cadence Remington, a little toddler of thirteen months, an age I felt perfectly competent to manage. But this enormous house was more than I had bargained for. The image of Julie Andrews as Maria in The Sound of Music, cowed by her first glimpse of the von Trapp mansion, flashed into my mind. As I slipped my car into gear, I tentatively and then more boldly sang Maria’s tune, “I have confidence in confidence alone!”
Driving up to the mansion, I recalled my job interview at the Strasbourg Inn just a week earlier when I had met a small elderly woman with soft white wooly hair and bright blue eyes. She looked as huggable as a lamb and smelled faintly of lilacs.
“You must be Jillian,” she had said warmly, extending her hand.
I had grasped it firmly. “Mrs. Remington?” I asked with some confusion.
She laughed lightly—her laughter had a pleasant musical sound like wind chimes. “No, dear. I’m Mrs. Carter. I should have introduced myself. I’m Elise, Ethan Remington’s aunt.”
I hadn’t meant to frown, but I must have looked puzzled because Mrs. Carter added, “Ethan asked me to conduct the interview for him today. His work keeps him very busy. He’s the founder and CEO of his own international company—Remington Telecommunications or RemTel—you’ve heard of it?”
“Much of his business is in the UK, so he travels quite a lot. His father was British, and the Remingtons still own an estate over in England.”
This explained the enticing part of the job description I had read at the agency, calling for a nanny willing to travel to England. That was what had really appealed to me, a young woman who had never been farther away than the beaches of Delaware but who had, nevertheless, procured a passport just in case the opportunity to travel presented itself.
“You see,” she continued to explain, “both of his parents have passed on, so everything has fallen on him. But with his business to run and two estates to manage, he really can’t do it all on his own. It’s just too much. That’s why I’m tasked with the interview.”
“And Mrs. Remington?”
Mrs. Carter shook her head mournfully. “I’m sorry to say Mrs. Remington is no longer with us.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I murmured. How dreadful for Mr. Remington to have lost so many loved ones! “That’s so sad for him and for his daughter.”
“Yes, yes, it is very sad. A terrible business.” She sighed heavily. “It’s a mercy the baby is so young and doesn’t know any better. Poor Ethan has been a single father practically since she was born, which is why we must have a full-time nanny. I’m just getting too old to be chasing a toddler around the house all day.”
Mrs. Carter brightened. “Now if you decide to take the job, your contract states you will have afternoons and three evenings a week off, plus a full weekend every month. I’ll try to give you lots of privacy, and I think you’ll find your rooms quite nice. And you should know that Ethan is very generous to his staff. He’ll pay your social security, health insurance, and your travel expenses. And he’ll put money in an IRA for you too. We’ll have the month trial period, but I do hope you’ll be happy with us and everything works out.”
She paused and went on cautiously, “I thought Caroline, our former nanny, was happy, but then she quit quite suddenly. I’m not sure why, but it left us high and dry.”
“It all sounds perfect to me,” I said. “But, Mrs. Carter, I’m sure you’d like to ask me some questions first.”
“Oh yes, yes, of course. Now let me see . . .” She rummaged around in an enormous black handbag until she pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “Here it is!” She laughed as if delighted with a wonderful discovery. “All of Ethan’s questions.”
And with that, Mrs. Carter conducted the interview and promptly hired me for a one-month trial period, which brought me to this moment of singing, “I have confidence in me!” as I pulled up to the portico of the mansion. I breathed a silent prayer, mounted the stairs with all the confidence I could muster, and rang the bell. I endured a very long wait while that confidence began to evaporate.
Suddenly the door swung wide and there stood Mrs. Elise Carter.
“Jillian!” she cried. “Do come in. I’m sorry to keep you waiting so long. We rarely use this door. We all park around back near the kitchen and come in that way.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Carter. I can move my car.”
“No, no. We can take care of that later. I’ll ask Jack to move it and carry your things to your rooms. Now please come in and make yourself at home.” She stepped back for me to enter and opened her arms in greeting. “Welcome to Carter Plantation, Jillian! We’re so glad you’re here.”
“Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be here.”
“Do you need to freshen up, my dear? There’s a powder room just down the hall. And after that, could I get you something to drink? Some sweet tea, perhaps?”
I gratefully accepted both offers and was astonished that Mrs. Carter bustled about until I was comfortably sipping iced tea on the veranda under the portico roof. I wasn’t certain what to expect on my arrival at Carter Plantation, but I hadn’t expected to be treated as a guest.
Mrs. Carter settled into a wicker chair opposite mine. “There now. I love to sit out here when the weather’s nice. Isn’t this a grand view?”
I agreed that it was. The prospect looked over the gently sloping lawn to the boulevard lined with trees sporting their autumn cloaks of scarlet and orange against a brilliant azure sky. The periwinkle shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains loomed in the distance beyond the rolling hills of Fauquier County in northern Virginia. Although it was October, the bright sun of an Indian summer afternoon spread along the veranda, and I lifted my face gratefully to its warmth.
“I never tire of this view,” Mrs. Carter said cheerfully as she sipped her tea. “I was so blessed to marry into the Carter family. You know, Carter Plantation has been in this family for generations—ever since Robert ‘King’ Carter was granted about half of Virginia from King George II back in the colonial days.”
Now I really was confused. “I thought Mr. Remington . . .”
Mrs. Carter’s laughter chimed. “Oh, the estate does belong to Mr. Remington now, but it’s still in the Carter family. You see, my sister-in-law was Ethan’s mother. His full name is Ethan Carter Remington. Sadly, my dear husband and I were never blessed with children. So when George passed away, he willed the house to Ethan. But since Ethan travels so much, he’s happy to leave me in charge here. And of course, he wants me here to look after Cadence while he’s away.”
“Mrs. Carter,” I asked, “what is Cadence like? Could you please tell me a little more about her?”
“Oh yes! She’s a darling, precious little girl.” Her face lit up. “Very precocious and curious and absolutely delightful. She’s very energetic, though, and I just can’t keep up with her—even with Jack and his wife, Marta, to help. But Cadence is the joy of my life! Really, of everyone’s life, especially Ethan’s. My, how he dotes on her! By the way, Cadence is napping now. So you arrived at just the right time, because I’m quite at leisure to show you around the house.”
Mrs. Carter rose, and I followed her about the mansion, trying to process all the information she poured forth as well as to orient myself so I would not lose my way later. The Carters had fastidiously maintained the integrity and elegance of the original Federal era structure. The more modern additions had every contemporary convenience without compromising the overall architectural harmony.
I could barely contain my delight when shown my own set of rooms. My own rooms! And not just one—but a suite complete with private bath, sitting room, and fully equipped kitchenette. Although I could enter the apartment from the main house, I also had my own separate entrance, which opened on to a patio overlooking the gardens in the back.
“We hope you’ll take most of your meals with the family,” Mrs. Carter was saying as I ran my hand over the shining teakettle in the kitchenette. “But if you prefer not to, especially on your evenings off, we’ve tried to make everything as comfortable as possible for you. Whatever suits you. By the way, Ethan has everything wired so that you have your own cable television and a laptop computer.” She paused for a moment then asked almost anxiously, “So, Jillian, how do you like it?”
How could I explain to this sweet woman, who was so eager to please, that I could be satisfied with very little? Having grown up in a progression of foster homes, I had never had a room of my own—let alone an apartment. I looked around the cheerful, well-appointed au pair suite and exclaimed truthfully, “Oh, Mrs. Carter, I love it!”
“I’m so glad.” She beamed at me with genuine pleasure. “There’s one more thing. Let me show you how the security alarm works.” Leading me over to a control panel, she demonstrated how to check that the system was operating.
I paid close attention. I was accustomed to living out in the country, but in the Shenandoah Valley, even the wealthiest people seldom locked their doors, and I mentioned something to that effect.
“I know, I know,” Mrs. Carter replied. “We didn’t lock our doors either when I lived here all those years with George. But after those teenagers murdered that doctor up in Loudoun County, Ethan insisted on putting in this system. If anyone tampers with the doors or windows, the police are automatically alerted. I suppose since he’s gone so much, he worries about little Cadence.”
She glanced down at her wristwatch. “Now we just have time for you to meet the household staff.”
She led the way to the kitchen and introduced me to Jack and Marta Thornfield, an affable couple in their late fifties or early sixties, who managed the house and grounds and lived across the yard in a renovated cottage beside the garage and stables. Jack stood tall and wiry while Marta was plump and doughy. Jack Spratt and his wife—that’s the mental image I could hang his name on. But Marta would be harder to remember. Mrs. Carter interrupted my thoughts, explaining that a cleaning crew as well as a gardener came in several times a week for the heavier chores.
As we chatted in the kitchen, a handsome black Labrador retriever rose from his bed near the stone fireplace and approached me, wagging his tail with friendly curiosity. He sniffed my shoes and I held out the back of my hand for him to investigate before venturing to pet him.
“This is Ranger, Ethan’s dog,” Mrs. Carter said.
“He’s beautiful,” I murmured as I ran my hand over his thick coat. “I love labs. They’re so good-natured.”
“Seems you meet with his approval too. I’m glad you like dogs. But we should finish our tour. It’s time you met Cadence.”
I followed her back to my wing of the house and the nursery suite next door to mine. She tapped lightly on the closed door and opened it to a playroom painted in bright primary colors. A pretty teenaged girl with straight shoulder-length blond hair slouched on a sofa. She looked up from her reading as we entered.
“Hello, Corinne,” Mrs. Carter cheerfully greeted the girl. “Meet our new nanny, Jillian Dare. Jillian, this is our babysitter, Corinne Cooke. She comes over every weekday afternoon during the baby’s naptime and keeps an eye on her until supper. That will give you a few hours every day to yourself.”
“Hi, Corinne,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
Corinne eyed me. Did I note a look of disdain or was it just bored indifference? I guessed she wouldn’t be very impressed with my lack of stylishness. Although I was only a few years her senior, I had tamed my curly waist-length light brown hair by braiding it and twisting it into a neat bun. I had also carefully chosen my outfit to reflect a serious, mature professional. I wore a long gray jersey skirt and a modest royal blue sweater set, which would enhance the blue of my eyes. I’m never sure how to fill in the blank on forms requesting the color of my eyes. They are an indeterminate and constantly shifting color—gray, green, or blue. Like the color of the sea that reflects the sky, my eyes reflect what I’m wearing.
The babysitter grunted a return greeting and gathered up her schoolbooks, which had been scattered over the couch. “Should I wake up Cadence now?” she asked.
Mrs. Carter checked her watch. “Yes, dear. Why don’t you? If she naps too late, we’ll never get her to sleep tonight. Plus I’d like for Jillian to meet her.”
While Corinne went into the adjoining room to wake the child, Mrs. Carter pointed out the amenities of the nursery suite. The layout was identical to mine with a kitchenette, but entirely childproofed and looking much like a well-equipped preschool. The playroom contained a child-sized table and chairs, a flat-screen television with a DVD player, and organized bins and shelves full of toys, puzzles, books, and craft supplies. Evidently a tremendous amount of thought and care had gone into designing this nursery suite.
Mrs. Carter mentioned that Mr. Remington’s rooms connected to Cadence’s bedroom, just as mine connected to the nursery sitting room.
“He likes to be able to check on her easily when he’s home, but unfortunately he does travel a lot. You have a monitor in your apartment so that you can hear her if she should wake in the middle of the night, and we also have monitors throughout the house. Ah, here is our little darling!” she exclaimed as Corinne carried the toddler into the playroom.
And Cadence was a little darling—huge blue eyes, dark curly hair, and pudgy cheeks. At first she shyly hid her face in Corinne’s shoulder, but when she was put down it only took a few minutes for her to warm up to me and to begin to bring me toy “gifts,” plopping them in my lap.
She won my heart in no time, and I hoped that I would quickly win hers. The expense and consideration that had gone into her care made me wonder even more about her father and when I would be introduced to him. My curiosity about the owner of Carter Plantation would not be satisfied for another two weeks—and even after I met him, Mr. Remington remained a mystery to me for quite some time.
I actually first made his acquaintance in cyberspace. After dinner and Cadence’s bedtime, I began to put away my few belongings and acclimate myself to my new rooms. Beside the computer, I discovered a set of instructions for activating my “nanny” email account. When I logged in, I was surprised to find two messages in the inbox. The first was from Ethan
.Remington@RemTel.org, my boss and Cadence’s father.
Dear Miss Dare:
Welcome to Carter Plantation. I am pleased you have decided to take care of my daughter and trust we will work well together providing for her needs. I hope you have found everything to your satisfaction. Please let me know if there is anything lacking in your accommodation or provision. I plan to return to Virginia in a fortnight’s time. In the meantime, feel free to contact me via email with any questions or concerns you may have. In case of emergency, you may call my mobile phone. My aunt has the number.
Although his email was appropriately businesslike in tone, I felt pleased that my new boss had been thoughtful enough not only to provide me with a computer and email account but also to be solicitous of my needs.
The second message also had the RemTel domain address. The sender’s name appeared simply as CC. The subject line read “Nanny.” Surprised, I decided I should open it. The three words all in capital letters on the otherwise blank page made my stomach flip.
WATCH YOUR BACK!
Instinctively, I whipped my head around. Of course, nobody was there. How silly of me. But who would write such a thing? And how did they have my address?
I rapidly hit the delete button and shut down the computer. Rising quickly, I slipped through the connecting door and crossed the nursery sitting room to check on Cadence. She was sleeping soundly, and the baby monitor seemed to be working properly. I locked her hallway door from the inside, and when I returned to my suite, I locked mine as well. Next, I tried the door to the outside patio to make sure it too was securely locked. After checking that the security alarm was working, I peered under the bed and in the closets and opened the shower curtain.
While I dressed for bed, I puzzled over the mystery message. Who could CC be? So far I’ve met only Marta, Jack, and of course, Mrs. Carter. Could Elise Carter possibly be CC? She hardly seems the type to send threatening emails. But was it a threat or a warning? She mentioned that in the next county some teenagers had killed a doctor. The thought of teenagers brought the babysitter Corinne to mind. What’s her last name? Cooke. Corinne Cooke. Could she be CC? And what about the former nanny—Caroline? Then again, there must be hundreds of employees who work for RemTel and have access to their email account. But why would anyone send me such a message?
My mind whirled and I tried to reason myself out of my fears. Placing a flashlight and the phone within reach on my bed table, I left on a nightlight and lay on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin until I finally fell asleep