Private Duty for Nurse Peggy
Madeleine Sault | Pyramid Books | 1965 | 157 pages
“You can come out now, little mountain flower, and bloom in your own right.”
Peggy Merritt—the little mountain flower—leaves her position as an operating room nurse In Chicago, returning to her small hometown In Colorado to care for the aging grandmother of her recently deceased childhood friend. Even from the confines of her wheelchair, the once beautiful high-society matriarch, Mrs. Leila Reinley, retains enough of her former mental acuity following a series of strokes to orchestrate a romantic match for Peggy. Mrs. Reinley suspects that Peggy has never moved past her childhood crush on Charles Whittaker, who is now Mrs. Reinley’s doctor (and widower of her late granddaughter), and hopes to bring her into the extended family through marriage.
However, Charles is engaged to Nadia, a stunning European beauty with a regal manner, and together they slip effortlessly through the local high society scene of luncheons and cocktail parties. Charles initiates a plan with the local gentry to open a for-profit clinic for wealthy patients. Peggy is an outsider to this fairytale world, raised in modest quarters by her mother in Downriver, a depressed and squalid part of town far from the stately mansion in which she works. Charles does seem to harbor feelings for Peggy, and soon takes her into his embrace.
“As she always dreamed, his lips were full and devastating on hers, capturing her mouth completely, irretrievably—and sending warm shocks of delicious feeling from her head to her toes and back again.”
Although Charles explains that his pending marriage was arranged solely to keep Nadia in the country legally, Peggy still senses a reluctance coming from him. Strangely unsatisfied at vanquishing her intimidating rival and securing the man of her dreams, she instead finds herself thinking about another man, Leila’s grandson Hank. The brash and impertinent Dr. Henry “Hank” Reinley provides a striking counterpart to Dr. Charles Whittaker. Hank founded a local public health clinic, and tirelessly provides medical care to the impoverished citizens of the town. Peggy wonders if Hank, the once obnoxious stand-in for an older brother who irritatingly calls her “Piggy”, could be her true love.
“There was a strange, abstracted look on his face as he slowly bent his head once more, bringing his mouth close to her. “No,” she said. But she didn’t try to stop him. And he didn’t stop. Their lips met. And clung.”
Private Duty for Nurse Peggy teases out a few possible mysteries while Peggy agonizes over which doctor to love, but never commits to pursuing them as storylines. Both Charles and Hank have designs on properties owned by Mrs. Reinley for their opposing visions of medical clinics for the town. A dramatic turn in her health suggests a suspicious origin, with the possibility of an impending inheritance drama, but that potential never develops. And although the cover blurb suggests that the Reinley estate is a “dark old house…haunted by the memory of Mrs. Reinley’s lovely granddaughter,” [what was her name again, oh yes…] Sandra’s spirit does not play a role at all.
Peggy dreams of being with Charles, helps to deliver a baby in Downriver, swoons over kissing Hank, diagnoses a more severe case of botulism among a widespread outbreak of food-poisoning at a church picnic, then continues to waffle over the right man for her affection, both of whom use her for their own ends. Anticipating Peggy’s ultimate choice provides the only real tension to propel the story along. Perhaps Peggy should have considered getting together with Nadia, moving back to Chicago together, and living on the sale of her extravagant engagement ring.