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The Leap Year Gene by Shelley Wood

A baby girl is born—but as the years go by, Kit McKinley inexplicably ages just one year for every four.

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1915

Chapter One

Ernest McKinley stepped into the welcome gloom of his foyer, dropping his briefcase and shutting the door against the sun. First things first, he peeled off his shoes and socks, then took off his hat, tossing it to its hook where it spun once, twice, before settling down like a dog on a rug. He shrugged out of his jacket then tugged at the knot of his necktie to loosen it around his throat, it being too damnably hot for ties. If he could be certain Marie had left for the day he’d have stripped down to his underclothes. But his housekeeper worried about him enough as it was—his parents passed and Thomas, his only brother, seven months dead, having found himself shot to ribbons his very first week in France. Ernest closed his eyes against the images trying to jostle their way to the front his thoughts and settled for yanking his shirttails from his belt. He wasn’t lonely or singular. He was merely a busy man, and a private one. A man whose skills, during wartime, were in high demand such that thoughts of a wife welcoming him home, smelling of biscuits, her soft hands hastening to take his jacket, or of a child rosy from her bath and waddling to the door to meet him: these were the furthest things from his mind.

The knock at the door made him jump. He caught a glimpse of himself in the hall mirror as he reached for the doorknob, his red curls unsticking themselves from his damp temples, his untucked shirt draping from his broad chest like a nightshirt. He snatched his hat from the coat-stand and tapped it back on his head. Then he drew himself up and opened the door.

On the steps stood a young woman in a brightly patterned dress, at least six feet tall but no more than seventeen or eighteen, thin as a reed and wavering from foot to foot as if stirred by the heat rising from the flagstones. She had a toothy smile and was clutching a large purse in one hand and in the other a hat, decadent but squashed. The woman and her smile were recognizable without quite being familiar, as if he’d seen her in a toothpaste advertisement in a magazine.

“Can I help you?”

She darted a look at his bare feet, then his hat, which he sensed was askew.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr. McKinley. I’m Natalie Kenilworth, Lillian’s sister.

We met at the funeral and—.”

Ernest squinted up at her, backlit by the sun, trying to lift any features from her girlish silhouette and find a match in his over-stuffed brain. That he couldn’t instantly place her was unsettling. Her nose and chin, even her small ears, were pointy, almost elfin, everything pulled forward towards a centre point on her face as if cinched. Her skin was fair and smooth and her lashes pale and short so that they seemed insufficient for warding off any stern scrutiny of her wide blue eyes which, Ernest realized, was what he was doing that very minute.

“Natalie?” she repeated. “Lillian’s sister. So, Tom’s sister-in-law? We met very briefly at the service for Tom back in May.”

Ernest’s head jerked and his eyes smarted, fleetingly, as if someone nearby was peeling a lemon. Thomas’s funeral. That would explain it. If ever there had ever been a time when his powers of observation had failed him—well. He blinked the sensation away.

“Lillian’s sister? My goodness. Is everything all right? Please.” He ushered Natalie inside and felt a sudden flush although he couldn’t be sure if it was the heat of the afternoon sun, sidling into the foyer with Natalie, or a flood of grief and guilt. Burying himself in his work to keep himself from dwelling on Thomas’s death, Ernest had all but forgotten about Lillian, his brother’s young widow. He’d written to her at least three times, four surely, after the funeral but she’d never replied, then he’d been swamped with new duties, and—

“Is she—is Lillian—all right? His voice came out strangled. “What’s happened?” Natalie raised her hands, fingers spread. He felt his breath catch in his throat. “No, please,” Natalie said. “I don’t mean to alarm you. Lillian is fine.” She sucked a deep breath of air. “Well, no, not fine. I mean—she is...... ”

She stopped, pinching her lips, then shook her head as if to start fresh.

“Mr. McKinley—I’m not sure Lillian has even told you. In fact, I don’t believe Tom knew of it either.”

Ernest prided himself on—indeed, in his line of work, was famous for—his poker face. But hearing his brother’s name spoken aloud so many times, after so many months, he could tell: it showed. He could feel sadness pulling at his eyes with tiny ropes and pulleys.

“Lillian is...... going to have a child,” she told the loose knot of his tie, then risked a look at his face.

The words sent zaps of feeling through him: surprise, then grief, then joy. Then confusion.

“Lillian is with child,” he repeated. He couldn’t help himself, counting the months back to the day Thomas died, and to the day, not so many weeks before, that Thomas had set sail for Europe in the first place.

“With Tom’s child?” he asked finally, a whistle of doubt creeping in. Natalie held his eye. “Thomas’s child?” he said again.

“Tom’s child.” Natalie repeated it back to him firmly. “But Lillian—something’s not right. She refuses to leave the flat. She’s not eating as she should. She needs….”

Ernest had already snatched his jacket and jammed his feet, sockless, back into his shoes. “A doctor! She needs a doctor. Of course. It’s wonderful news, wonderful. But is the baby coming now? It’s time?”

Natalie stepped past him, deeper into the dim foyer, and set her purse down, rooting through it. “Well, she has a doctor, or at least she used to have one.”

He watched her reflection, her sharp face furrowed, then saw himself bobbing to and fro behind her, his lopsided hat, his scrambled face. After more rummaging she gave a low growl of irritation and started raking the contents of the bag onto the table—writing utensils, lipsticks, several small pots of what looked to be womanly unguents, two dime store novels, a small mallet, a packet of pin nails, a sheaf of folded leaflets, and—at last—a small notebook.

Excerpt from The Leap Year Gene, Copyright © 2024 by Shelley Wood. All rights reserved.

The Leap Year Gene will be available in bookstores across Canada and online on August 6, 2024

Enter for your chance to win a copy of
The Leap Year Gene by Shelley Wood

Enter for your chance to win a copy of The Leap Year Gene by Shelley Wood