By Peggy Gaddis (pseud. of Erolie Pearl Gaddis Dern), ©1965
Could anyone be trusted? The pleasant young lawyer who warned her against the socialite playboy? The beautiful dissatisfied young wife? The grief-stricken parents? Or the handsome bachelor who was playing two games at once? Caring for a handsome patient on a luxurious Florida estate had seemed a superb private nursing assignment for Nurse Ramsey—but it was turning into a nightmare!
“Don’t ever try to understand a woman, Allen—any woman! Nothing could be more insulting to her! We like to think of ourselves as being very mysterious, because it makes us seem more glamorous and intriguing, I suppose.”
Thus far I have not been a fan of books by Peggy Gaddis, though it must be acknowledged that I have read only two (Dr. Merry’s Husband and A Nurse for Apple Valley). So I opened Nurse in the Shadows with my guns blazing, prepared to pump it full of holes. And the book is not perfect, but as I found myself overly outraged by the ten different times the word pretty was used in 15 pages, I suddenly realized that this is as egregious as its faults get, and on the whole this is a pretty good book.
Leona Ramsey (not to be confused with Luana Ramsdell of A Nurse for Apple Valley) has come to Miami Beach to care for a patient in a coma at the request of his extremely wealthy parents, who now look after him. Tony Kincaid was shot in the head by his wife, Cheryl, just a few months after their marriage, and though it was ruled an accident, the rest of the family isn’t too sure: “She wanted to kill him. But she was a rotten shot,” Leona is told by the nurse who is leaving the job. Tony does not require much care, just hooking up to the IV for his feedings. (Eighteen months after the incident, he must have one colossal bedsore.)
The Kincaids live in a beachfront mansion, and it needs to be big to house all the people who live in it. Apart from Tony, his parents, several housekeepers, and Leona, Cheryl is also living there. Before she married Tony, Cheryl was “a cheap little night club dancer; never got out of the chorus line. … When she met Tony, she just latched on to him like a bulldog latching onto a nice juicy steak.” Now she is a sulky brat with honey-colored hair who trots around in beach clogs and “a mere wisp of a white silk bathing suit that left her delectably sun-tanned young body revealed to daring degree.”
Tony’s parents, Preston and Eunice Kincaid, have adopted Allen Leonard, an attorney and advisor to Mr. Kincaid, who also has a room. Allen, in a major first for vintage nurse romance novels, is “homely” and “rather pleasantly ugly until his friendly smile illuminated his rugged face with a sort of boyish charm.”
Rounding out the cast of characters is heartthrob Barry Manning, the only one who doesn’t live in (he is the next-door neighbor) and a former chum of Tony’s. He introduced Tony to Cheryl, but now he seems to be helping the not-grieving not-widow fill her days, and her nights too: “He has been a great comfort to Cheryl since Tony’s accident,” Leona is told.
Things get off to a fast start when, her first night there, Allen warns Leona to stay away from Barry: “Barry’s talents seem to inspire him to make a mad pursuit of every young and pretty girl he sees. And I just wanted to warn you not to take him seriously.” Leona responds with a string of hostile remarks. Barry naturally enters into the scene, followed shortly by Allen’s exit. Leona is quickly quarreling with Barry, but just a page later he says, “I think I’ve fallen in love with you,” kisses her, and then walks away. The next time she sees Barry, as she emerges from the ocean after a quick swim, he acknowledges that he has been watching the beach with binoculars for her, and invites her out; she quickly accepts, though his come-on is way too creepy to be attractive to any sane woman.
But before they actually set up a date, she goes to the greyhound races with Allen, where he makes it evident that he, too, is smitten, though he is much less slimy about it, and contents himself with looking at her admiringly, guiding her through the throngs, and telling her, “Just being with you is all and more than any man could hope for.” When Leona finally gets around to dinner at Barry’s house, she inadvertently overhears a conversation between Barry and Cheryl in which he says, “We will just have to wait it out until—well, until you inherit from Tony.” Then he tells Cheryl he is just “playing up to the nurse to throw dust into the Kincaids’ eyes… If they think I am pursuing her, then … there will be no danger of anybody thinking it’s you I’m in love with.” On her tear-filled rush back to the house, Leona runs into Allen, who takes her out to dinner and thereby solidifies his position as top contender for her affections.
Peggy Gaddis’ device of putting us inside the heads of a second couple is actually used to good effect in this book, as we are allowed to follow Cheryl around. She tells her father in law that she wants a divorce and a large settlement, and while he is all in favor of the divorce, he sets her straight as far as the money goes: “As Tony’s widow, you would, of course, inherit a very substantial amount … but as Tony’s divorced wife, you will have no claim whatever on any of the estate.” He also mentions that Barry, who lives in an outbuilding on his estate and rents out the main estate because he isn’t as wealthy as all that, will never marry her as long as she has no money of her own. So you can guess where this is going to go. And we get to follow Barry and Cheryl as they work their cons on Leona, Allen, and the Kincaids, and watch with no small pleasure as the saps completely fall for it.
In the end, of course, all is set to rights, though the final scene between Leona and her intended is rather unsatisfying. She basically spends four pages arguing with him when he says she can’t go on a cruise with the elder Kincaids because he has plans for her—why are heroines so unbelievably dense in these final scenes?—and then because he has proposed before he has said that he is in love with her: “Any girl likes to—well, to put away a few lovely memories of the time her man proposed to her, and you’re cheating me of that! You’ve never said you loved me.”
There is also a good deal of sloppy writing, like when Cheryl “shrank from” Allen four times in three pages, when the word inimical is used four times, when Preston asks a question bluffly—is this just a typo, or does Peggy really think this is a correct use of the word? But I am a former copy editor with, I admit, unreasonably high standards in these regards, especially when it comes to this particular genre, which is not known for attention to detail. And this book is actually something of a page-turner—I finished it in one sitting—and perfectly enjoyable, once you put down your guns and your prejudice against Peggy Gaddis’ books.