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Noblesville, Indiana, 1898
Mary Graves couldn't believe her eyes. And the gall of that man. A stranger stood on the seat of his wagon holding up a bottle and making ridiculous claims for its medicinal value with all the fervor of an itinerant evangelist. His Eastern accent grated on her Midwestern ears.
She slipped through the gathering crowd to sneak a closer look. Gazing up at him, Mary pressed a hand to her bodice. The man didn't resemble any preacher she'd ever seen. Hatless, the stranger's dark hair lifted in the morning breeze. He'd rolled his white shirtsleeves to his elbows revealing muscled, tanned forearms. He looked more like a gypsy, a member of the marauding bands tramping through the countryside stealing chickens and whatever else wasn't nailed downlike the Noblesville residents' hard-earned dollars.
Well, she had no intention of standing by while this quack bilked the town of its money and, worse, kept its citizens from seeking legitimate treatment.
Not that her father needed more work. Far from it. Since Doc Roberts died in the spring, her father often worked from sunup to sundownand sometimes through the night. With the exception of those folks who'd profited from Noblesville's natural gas boom, most patients paid with produce or an occasional exchange of services.
The peddler raised the container high above his head. "Just two capfuls of this medicine will ease a nervous headache and an upset stomach. It'll cure your insomnia, but most importantly, this bottle holds the safe solution for a baby's colic."
This charlatan attempted to take money out of her father's all-but-empty pockets with a potion no doubt containing nothing more than hardliquor or flavored water. Imagine giving such a thing to an infant. But her neighbors nodded their heads, taken in by his nonsensical spiel.
"Imagine, folks, getting a good night's sleep and waking refreshed to tackle the day," the peddler went on.
Around her, John Lemming, Roscoe Sullivan and Pastor Foley, of all people, reached in their back pockets for their wallets. Even her friend, Martha Cummings, a baby on her hip and two of her youngsters clinging to her skirts, dug into her purse. And everyone knew Martha could squeeze a penny until it bled.
Mary clenched her jaw. Such foolishness. Why couldn't these people recognize a sham when they saw one?
"Step right up, folks, for the sum of"
"Whatever you're charging is disgraceful," Mary called, the words pouring out of her mouth. She turned to her neighbors. "Have you forgotten the swindler who came through here last year, promising his tonic would do all that and more? Not one word of his claims proved true."
The townspeople stilled. Her gaze locked with the fraud's. Suddenly cool on this sunny October morning, Mary tugged her shawl tighter around her shoulders. "You're preying on these good folks' worries, knowing full well what's in that bottle can be found for less money over at O'Reilly's saloon." Her deceased husband, Sam, had hidden his drinking behind the pretext of using it for medicinal purposes.
The man shot her a lazy grin, revealing a dimple in his left cheek, giving him a deceptive aura of innocence. Then he had the audacity to tip an imaginary hat. "Pardon me, Florence Nightingale, but without testing my product, you've no cause to condemn it."
Florence Nightingale indeed. No one in the crowd chuckled as the man had undoubtedly intended. They all knew her, knew she lent a hand in her father's practice. Knew what had happened to her mother.
Mary folded her arms across her chest. "No right? I've seen your kind before ." A lump the size of a walnut lodged in her throat, stopping her words. She blinked rapidly to hold back tears.
Though his smile still remained, the stranger's eyes darkened into murky pools and every trace of mirth vanished. Good. Maybe now he'd take her seriously.
He leaned toward her. "And what kind is that?"
She cleared her throat, determined not to be undone by this rogue. "The kind of man who instead of putting in a hard day's work, earns his living cheating others. That nonsense in your hand isn't worth the price of an empty bottle."
His eyes narrowed. "Your assessment of my remedy of my kindis hardly scientific."
He jumped to the street, and bystanders stepped back, giving him a clear patha clear path leading directly to her. He stopped inches away from her skirt, his features chiseled as if from stone, his dimple gone. The starkness of that face put a hitch in Mary's breathing. Her hand lifted to her throat.
"This isn't a bottle of spirits as you've alleged." He unscrewed the cap and thrust it under her nose. "It's good medicine."
She didn't smell alcohol, only peppermint and honey, but couldn't make out the origin of another scent.
"Let's hear what he has to say," Roscoe Sullivan said.
Roscoe's rheumatism had been acting up, and he probably had trouble sleeping. The poor man dreaded the onset of winter, and no doubt hoped to find a miracle in that bottle. But miracles came from God, not from a peddler with a jarring accent.
John Lemming, the owner of the livery, waved a hand toward the remedy. "Our baby cries all evening. I'd give a king's ransom for something to soothe him."
"If it worked." Mary exhaled. How could these people be so easily fooled? "Don't you see, John, he's in this to fill his pockets and then move on before you folks discover his claims are meaningless. Just like last year's peddler."
The stranger smiled, revealing even, white teeth. "Since you're so sure of yourself, Miss Nightingale, why don't you pay the price of this bottle and investigate the medicine yourself?"
Lifting her chin, she met his amused gaze. How dare the man poke fun at her? And worse, ask her to pay for the privilege of disproving his claims? "And line your pockets? Never!"
He stepped closer. If he intended to intimidate her, she wouldn't give ground, though her heart rat-a-tatted in her chest.
"Well, then, stand aside for those folks who are open-minded enough to give it a try." He pushed past her and lifted the bottle. "For the price of three dollars, who wants a bottle of my remedy?"
"Three dollars. Why, that's highway robbery!" She grabbed his arm, then watched in horror as the bottle slipped out of his hand and hit the ground, shattering the glass. Her neighbors' gasps drowned out her own.
The man pivoted on a booted heel. "I believe you owe me three dollars," he said, his voice low, almost a tease.
The liquid trickled between the bricks. She lifted her gaze to lock with his. "I'll pay your priceif you'll move on to another town."
His mouth thinned into a stubborn line. "I'm not leaving."
Perhaps she had a legal way to get rid of this menace. She planted her hands on her hips. "Do you have a permit?"
With that lazy grin and irritating dimple, he reached inside his shirt pocket and retrieved a slip of paper, waving it in front of Mary's face. Her hands fisted. This rogue had thought of everything.
Nearby, Roscoe and John exchanged a glance, and then both men ran a hand over their mouths, trying to bury a smile and failing. Apparently, her neighbors found the exchange entertaining.
Mary dug into her purse and handed over the money. "You've made a handsome profit on this bottle alone, so move on to fleece another town and leave us in peace."
"I like it here." He tossed her a smile, as arrogant as the man himself. "I'm staying."
Though he deserved it, she had no call to give this scoundrel a sharp kick to his shin, but oh, how she'd love to give in to the temptation. Mary closed her eyes and said a quick, silent prayer to conduct herself like a God-fearing woman, not a fishwife. "Well, I don't want you here."
John Lemming pulled out three dollars. "If it works, it'll be worth every cent."
The peddler gestured to the knot of people crowded around them, opening their purses and wallets. "Looks like you're in the minority, Miss Nightingale."
He returned to his wagon, and the good citizens of No-blesville started forking over the money, purchasing the worthless stuff the man had undoubtedly concocted out of peppermint and honey. How could they trust him?
Why had her mother befriended such a man? Her stomach knotted and tears stung her eyes. Even five years later, grief caught her unaware, tearing through her like a cyclone. She bit her lip, forcing her gaze on the hawker.
Surely he didn't mean to stay. If he did, everyone would discover the worthlessness of his remedy. No, he'd depart in the middle of the night, having a good laugh at the town's gullibility.
Handing out bottles of his so-called remedy, the stranger glanced her way, shooting her another grin. Obviously, he took pleasure in swindling her friends and neighbors right under her nose. Like a petulant child, she wanted to stomp her footright on his instep. That ought to wipe the grin off his haughty face.
As if he read her thoughts, he turned to her. "Best remember the exhortation in the Good Book to love thy enemy."
How dare he mention the Bible while he duped her neighbors? Still, she had let her temper get the best of her. Love thy enemy was a hard pill to swallow.
Then of all things, the man gave her a wink, as bold as brass. A shimmer of attraction whooshed through her. Aghast at her base feelings, Mary turned on her heel and stalked off.
Behind her, the man chuckled.
Cheeks burning, Mary strode down Ninth Street and then turned right on Conner. Permit or no permit, she'd find a way to run that peddler out of Noblesville. He represented the last thing she and this town neededtrouble.
Opening the side door leading to her father's office, Mary's nostrils filled with the smell of disinfectant, a scent she'd grown as accustomed to as the honeysuckle fragrance she wore. The waiting room chairs sat empty. A stack of well-worn Farmers' Home Journals and Ladies' Journals cluttered the top of a small stand. She took a minute to clear out the old issues before the whole heap tumbled to the floor.
Finished with the task, she strode through the office and found her father in the surgery, filling a basin with hydrogen peroxide. Henry Lawrence, his hair falling across his forehead, looked tired, as he frequently did of late, even a tad peaked. She believed doctoring weighed him down physically and mentally. Yet he kept working, seeing to the sick, rarely taking time off except to attend church on Sunday. He should take it easy and eat better. His grandsons needed him. Didn't he know how much they all loved him?
Earlier that day, she'd taken action she hoped would ease her father's load. And free her to pursue her dream. Thanks to an unexpected inheritance from her late father-in-law, she had the money for medical school. If God wanted her to practice medicine, she'd be accepted at the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons. But she couldn't leave her father to handle the practice alone.
Her father looked up and smiled, the corners of his gentle hazel eyes crinkling in his round face. "Hello, kitten. Got the boys off and now you're checking on your old man?"
"Exactly." She gave him a peck on the cheek. "It's such a pretty day. Want to take your grandsons fishing after school?"
"Wish I could." He screwed the cap onto the bottle of antiseptic and tucked it into the glass-front cabinet, banging the door shut. "I've got office hours all afternoon."
"Well, at least come to supper tonight."
"Sounds good. Six okay?"
Nodding, she laid a hand on his arm. "You look tired."
"I spent the biggest part of the night at the Shriver place, bringing their firstborn into the world. A howling, healthy, eight-pound boy." He gave a wry grin. "They named him Quincy. Imagine tagging a child with such a name."
Normally Mary loved to hear about a new baby, sharing her father's joy of the miracle of birth. But she shook her head, only half listening, thinking about her father's lack of sleep. "Daddy, don't you think it's time to bring someone into the practice?"
Henry's head snapped up and his gaze met hers. "Now, why would I do that?"
"Well, for one thing, you're not getting any younger. And for another, you work too hard."
"I'm fifty-one, not ancient, and I don't work harder than any other small-town doctor. Besides, I have your help."
"Doc Roberts didn't have any warning before his fatal heart attack." She sighed at the stubborn set of her father's jaw, then bustled about the room, emptying the wastepa-per can, checking and laying out supplies, doing all she could to ease his burden. "You're handling his patients and your own. You're not getting enough rest."
"Babies come when they decidenot to fit my schedule."
"True, but your days are so full that you have little time for the boys. They need a man's influence."
Her father's brow furrowed. "I know they do, honey," he said, gathering the instruments out of his bag. "I'll try to spend more time with them. If no one gets sick, maybe we can go fishing Saturday afternoon."
How likely would that be in a town this size? Then her heart squeezed. She shouldn't pressure her father to do more, even if the "more" involved relaxing with his grandsons. "Let me clean those for you."
"Thanks." Her father dropped into a chair.
"Oh, I almost forgot to tell you." Mary gave a wide smile. "I heard from the placement committee. The Wil-lowbys relinquished their guardianship and asked to assume the role of Ben's grandparents, instead of his parents."
"From the look on your face, I'd say the news was good."
"The committee gave me permanent custody of Ben." Her vision blurred with tears of gratitude. Ben, the little boy she shared a bond with, was now her son, just as much as Michael and Philip. A wave of tenderness rippled through her. She'd do everything in her power to give her boys the happiness they deserved.
"Even before his apoplexy, Judge Willowby told me they could barely keep up with a four-year-old boy. Since the stroke, he's naturally troubled they won't live to see Ben grown." He frowned. "What about the Children's Aid Society's rule against giving custody to a single woman?"
"As a widow with two sons of my own, the committee felt that qualified me to raise another child." She swiped a hand at her tears. "That I'm already taking care of Ben for the Willowbys worked in my favor. They didn't want to move him again."
"Thank you, God. With your brother-in-law sitting on the committee, I felt reasonably sure of the outcome. Still, a couple of those members adhere to rules as if Moses himself brought them down from on high."
Laughing, Mary gave her father a kiss. "I can always count on your support."