At home, after a hot bath in front of the stove, Sophie looked very white and fragile. Charles had not known that a baby was so terrifyingly tiny a thing. She felt too small in his arms. He was almost relieved when there was a knock at the door; he laid Sophie down carefully on a chair, with a Shakespearean play as a booster seat, and went down the stairs two at a time.
When he returned, he was accompanied by a large gray-haired woman; Hamlet was slightly damp, and Sophie was looking embarrassed. Charles scooped her up and set her downhesitating first over an umbrella stand in a corner, and then over the top of the stoveinside the sink. He smiled, and his eyebrows and eyes smiled too. "Please don't worry," he said. "We all have accidents, Sophie." Then he bowed at the woman. "Let me introduce you. Sophie, this is Miss Eliot, from the National Childcare Agency. Miss Eliot, this is Sophie, from the ocean." The woman sighedan official sort of sigh, it would have sounded, from Sophie's place in the sinkand frowned, and pulled clean clothes from a parcel. "Give her to me."
Charles took the clothes from her. "I took this child from the sea, ma'am." Sophie watched, with large eyes. "She has nobody to keep her safe. Whether I like it or not, she is my responsibility."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The child is your ward. She is not your daughter."
This was the sort of woman who spoke in italics. You would be willing to lay bets that her hobby was organizing people. "This is a temporary arrangement."
"I beg to differ," said Charles. "But we can fight about that later. The child is cold." He handed the undershirt to Sophie, who sucked on it. He took it back and put it on her. Then he hefted her in his arms, as though about to guess her weight at a fair, and looked at her closely. "You see? She seems a very intelligent baby." Sophie's fingers, he saw, were long and thin, and clever. "And she has hair the color of lightning. How could you possibly resist her?"
"I'll have to come round, to check on her, and I really don't have the time to spare. A man can't do this kind of thing alone."
"Certainly, please do come," said Charlesand he added, as if he couldn't stop himself, "if you feel that you absolutely can't stay away. I will endeavor to be grateful. But this child is my responsibility. Do you understand?"
"But it's a child! You're a man!"
"Your powers of observation are formidable," said Charles. "You are a credit to your optician."
"But what are you going to do with her?"
Charles looked bewildered. "I am going to love her. That should be enough, if the poetry I've read is anything to go by." Charles handed Sophie a red apple, then took it back and rubbed it on his sleeve until he could see his face in it. He said, "I am sure the secrets of child care, dark and mysterious though they no doubt are, are not impenetrable."
Charles set the baby on his knee, handed her the apple, and began to read out loud to her from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
It was not, perhaps, the perfect way to begin a new life, but it showed potential.
Excerpted from Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. Copyright © 2013 by Katherine Rundell. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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