Smoke River Family(2)

By: Lynna Banning



 * * *

 Zane laid his fingertips on either side of the bridge of his nose and pressed hard. The headache throbbed behind his eyes and deep within both temples, and he shut his eyes against the relentless pain. It came upon him every afternoon ever since Celeste—he could not finish the thought. He gulped the half glass of whiskey at his elbow and bent his head. God in heaven, help me.

 He refilled the glass and sat staring at his shaking hand as it replaced the stopper on the cut glass decanter. He could see the veins, the tendons of each finger, but it was as if the hand no longer belonged to him.

 Never again would he pat a bereaved husband or wife on the shoulder and reassure them their grief would pass. He knew better now; grief did not pass. It would never pass.

 He sipped from his glass and bowed his head again.

 * * *

 Winifred heaved herself out of the swing and stepped unsteadily to the glass-paneled front door. Hung to one side on a metal arm was an old ship’s bell with a clapper of tarnished copper. She winced at the sound it made, raucous as a hungry crow.

 The door swung open and a young Oriental man looked at her inquiringly. She took a breath to steady her voice. “Is this Dr. Nathaniel Dougherty’s residence?”

 The houseboy gave a quick nod. “Yes, missy. But too late for appointment.”

 “I do not wish to make an appointment. I wish to speak to the doctor.”

 “Come in, please, missy.” He gestured her inside and closed the door behind her. “You sick?”

 “No, I...” Her breath ran out before she could finish explaining. “I...” Her vision went watery and black spots swam before her eyes. In the next instant the floor rushed up to meet her.

 “Boss!” Wing Sam yelled. “Come quick! Lady has fainted.”

 Zane thrust open his office door to see Sam on his knees beside a young woman. “Get my smelling salts,” he ordered.

 He knelt and bent over the motionless form, slipped free half the buttons down the front of her dress, then searched for her corset lacings. Sam thrust the lavender salts into his grasp and he uncapped the bottle and waved it under her nose.

 The woman twisted her head away and batted feebly at his hands as he was unlacing her stays. “Stop that!” Her voice was unsteady, but the intent was clear.

 His hands stilled. “I’m sorry, miss, but you fainted in my hallway. I am trying to aid your breathing.”

 She opened her eyes and his heart jolted against his ribs. My God, they were the same clear blue-green as Celeste’s. The unexpected rush of pain was like a knife blade.

 He pressed two fingers on her wrist. Pulse fast but irregular. Heat exhaustion, probably. Wouldn’t be the first time a woman had succumbed to a too-snug corset. Why did young women persist in such foolishness?

 “Help me sit her up, Sam.” Together they raised her shoulders. Her lids drifted closed and he gave her another whiff of smelling salts.

 “Miss? Take a deep breath, now. It’s only the heat, I think,” he said to Sam. “Must be a flatlander.”

 “Pretty lady,” Sam observed.

 Zane hadn’t noticed. He watched the young woman slowly regain consciousness again. She jerked when she realized her front buttons were undone.

 “I undid them,” he reminded her. “To loosen your corset.”

 “You must be Dr. Dougherty,” she said slowly.

 “That I am.”

 “Dr. Nathaniel Dougherty?”

 She was fully awake now. He watched those not green, not blue eyes focus on his face.

 “Yes. And you are...?”

 She drew in a long breath and expelled it, all the while scrabbling to close her front buttons. “Do you always undress your visitors?”

 “As I said, I undid them to— Answer my question, please. Who are you? Are you ill?”

 “I am not ill. At least I wasn’t when I arrived at the train station. I am Winifred Von Dannen. Celeste’s sister.”

 Zane sat back on his heels and stared at her. Of course. Same pale skin and high cheekbones, the same determined chin, the same... He found he couldn’t look into those eyes.

 Something ripped inside his chest. “I see.” Dammit, his voice shook. “I would welcome you to my home, Miss Von Dannen, but you are lying flat on my floor.”

 “I must get up,” she said in a decisive tone. “This is most undignified.”

 Sam took the vial of salts from his hand and Zane helped the woman sit fully upright. Then he clasped both her elbows and lifted her to her feet.

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