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He couldn't let her leave. Not without a fight. The spasm of panic shocked him, even as it pounded angry and insistent through his blood. For a moment—just one—Dr. Shane Bartlett had to fight the horrible urge to give in and beg, but he knew any display of emotion would be his doom.
For the sake of his patients, he had to ignore the choking sense of dread rising inside him and continue.
Jaw tight, Shane dragged a hand through his hair. If he was to win her over, persuasion had to be doled out in degrees of charm and skill.
Putting aside his frustration, Shane forced his heartbeat to slow to the same rhythmic cadence as the tick-tick-tick coming from the clock on the mantel behind him.
"Please, Miss Marley," he said, curving a pleasant smile along the edges of his mouth. "I only ask that you hold off making a final decision until you hear me out."
Her gaze remained direct and unwavering. But instead of responding right away, she clamped her lips shut and scrunched her forehead into a web of hard, vertical lines.
Shane felt his chest heave. Trying to gauge how best to present his argument, he dropped a glance over the woman in one quick swoop. Dressed in a drab gray dress and equally uninspired shoes, her bland brown hair looked as if it might have corroded onto her head. Her starched collar matched her rigid spine. In fact, she sat so straight and so far back in her chair, Shane was amazed the pattern from the upholstery hadn't tattooed itself to her dress.
When he raised his gaze to meet hers, the cold eyes and pursed lips reminded him of the women he'd encountered throughout his childhood on the streets of New York City.
His instinct was to dismiss her at once. But he owed it to everyone involved to put his own feelings aside and conduct this interview with polite professionalism.
Taking another moment to control his emotions, Shane lowered his chin and scanned the references he held in his hand. He couldn't deny Miss Marley had the nursing experience he needed in an assistant. Her background was without blemish, her training impeccable. But did she have the temperament required for the unique position he offered?
There was one way to find out.
"The Charity House orphans are—"
"Orphans?" Her eyes went narrow and frosty, while her lips curled with pitch-perfect disgust. "You use that term loosely, Dr. Bartlett."
A muscle shifted in his jaw and Shane felt his smile slip.
Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these…
At the reminder of Jesus's words, Shane had to fight back a wave of resentment at the woman's sanctimonious attitude.
"Perhaps they are not orphans in the literal sense," he acknowledged with a grim twist of his lips. "However, they are children who—"
She snorted. She actually snorted at him. The sound was harsh enough to stop him in midsentence.
"These children." He paused to emphasize his point, but then a dull drumming pounded in his ears and the pattern on the rug at his feet bled into a kaleidoscope of chaotic colors. Shane shook his head and began again. "These children…deserve decent medical care like everyone else."
She pierced him with a sharp look and spoke as though she hadn't heard his words. "This is a house for harlots' mistakes." She lifted her nose and looked pointedly around her. "Is it not, Dr. Bartlett?"
Before responding, Shane followed her gaze as it moved beyond the Persian rugs, past the expensive furniture, and straight to the crystal vases filled with fresh-cut flowers. The attention to detail was impossible to miss. Charity House was like no other orphanage in the territory, incomparable in its elegance and style.
And yet, Shane wondered if he'd made a mistake in choosing the mansion's front parlor as the place to conduct his interviews today.
He'd hoped that by showing the candidates the interior of the orphanage they would realize Charity House and its occupants had class and substance. Apparently, instead of unleashing this nursing candidate's compassion, he'd opened her judgment.
Whispered reminders of his own childhood crept forward in his mind. Shane clenched his jaw, refusing to allow this woman to see his growing anger until he had the poisonous emotion under control.
He forced his shoulders to relax.
"Whatever you might think of these children, remember they did not choose their parents," he said, surprised to hear his calm tone when so many ugly emotions churned just under the surface. "As I said before, they deserve equal and fair medical treatment."
He pierced her with a hard look, daring her to argue.
She blinked. Blinked again. Swallowed. Then slowly nodded. "I will concede your point, doctor. However, the children's situation notwithstanding, I am entitled to know about your other patients. What of the mothers still alive, the ones working in the brothels on Market Street?"
Shane held her stare. "I treat them, as well. And anyone else in need. I turn none away."
A sound of outrage slipped from her lips. "Innocent children are one thing, but their mothers are quite another. You did not say in your advertisement that you care for…for…sinners."
Her words were like a solid punch to his gut. How often had he heard similar accusations thrown at his own mother, all because she had chosen to be a wealthy man's mistress?
Memories lurking below the surface bubbled forth, taunting him. Shane's breath turned cold in his lungs under the assault.
Yes, his mother had been a sinner, but she had paid dearly for her mistakes. She'd died in shame, and there had been nothing Shane could do to stop the tragedy.
He'd been too young, too inexperienced, too—
Another unladylike sniff yanked him back to the present.
"You have nothing else to say to me, doctor?" she asked. "What is your defense for misleading me into thinking this was an ordinary nursing position?" The chill of her tone sat heavy in the room between them.
Shane fought to keep his resentment and anger from taking control of his reason. What had he been thinking, to allow this interview to continue so long?
He could never subject the Charity House children, their mothers, or any of his patients for that matter, to this woman and her…judgment.
He owed it to the memory of his own mother to find a compassionate nurse to assist him in his practice. Was guilt driving him to care for the disenfranchised? Guilt over failing the one woman who had sacrificed her life for him. Or was it true conviction that pushed him to care for the unwanted?
He wasn't sure anymore. Nor was he convinced his motives mattered. His patients, and their care, had to come first.
With his mind made up, Shane rose from his chair and waited until the woman did the same. "Thank you for your time, Miss Marley. I am no longer in need of your services."
He did not offer her his hand.
"You are dismissing me?" The woman had the nerve to look mutinous, as though she was being unfairly sent away. "But you need my assistance. You said so yourself at the beginning of this interview."
With each breath he took, his patience wore thinner. "I think it is best we part ways at this juncture."
Gasping, she threw her shoulders back and lifted her chin high in the air. "I'm your last candidate," she said. "You have no one else."
"I am confident God will provide."
"You will regret this," she warned.
Shane met her gaze with an unrelenting glare of his own. "I will not."
He'd never spoken truer words. For although he knew things would get worse before they got better, he also knew he just needed a little more faith, a little more patience. All would work for the best.
With a loud huff, Miss Eugenia Marley skimmed her ice-edged gaze across him, turned on her heel and marched out of the room. Each angry step she took sounded like a hammer hitting unforgiving iron.
Shane stood stock-still, staring straight ahead. He barely flinched when she slammed the door behind her with a loud bang.
For several moments he remained unmoving, looking out the window facing the backyard of Charity House. The wind beat at the glass with an angry fist, sending an unrelenting howl past a crack between the pane and wood casing.
A perfect expression of his own frustration.
There was no one left to interview. Shane could only hope that—
No. He would not waste precious energy on hope. Nor would he worry.
He would trust.
Rolling his shoulders, Shane shoved a hand through his hair and shut his eyes. He let the tension drain from him for a single moment. And then another. And another still. Waiting until his mind cleared enough to focus on prayer.
At last, he whispered, "Lord, I cannot do this alone. Where man fails, I know You excel. I pray You bless my patients with a compassionate woman to assist us."
Opening his eyes, Shane looked around the parlor room of Charity House. At first glance nobody would think this large and fancy mansion housed over forty children with nowhere else to go. Marc and Laney Dupree had created a home filled with compassion and caring, a refuge for the abandoned and unwanted boys and girls no other orphanage would touch.
The Duprees' generosity of spirit humbled Shane and inspired him to expand his own medical practice in the same vein, a practice that was becoming unmanageable for one man.
Trust. He had to trust that God had a plan. The Lord would bring relief in His perfect time.
A deep clearing of a throat jerked Shane out of his reverie. Pivoting at the sound, he locked his gaze with Marc Dupree's concerned expression. Dressed in a brocade vest and matching tie, with his dark hair immaculately combed and face clean shaven, Marc looked more like a banker than the fierce proprietor of an orphanage. But just like Charity House, Shane knew the other man had hidden depths, and was an example of complete integrity.
"Any success?" Marc asked.
Shane shook his head at his friend, and jammed his hands in his pockets. "It appears I've wasted another day with fruitless interviews." He lifted a shoulder in a helpless gesture. "Perhaps—"
A high-pitched scream cut off his words, followed by a round of incomprehensible shouting. Shane's ears pricked when he heard one voice rise above the others. "Somebody find Dr. Shane. Hurry."
Bella pivoted in several directions, searching desperately for the source of the panicked cries tumbling over one another.
Forcing herself to remain calm, she took a deep breath, stood immobile and listened intently. The shouts were coming from behind her.
She spun around and gasped at the sight before her.
Chaos had erupted in the massive yard that backed up to her brother's church.
Heart in her throat, Bella lurched forward. Stopped. Frowned.
Hadn't she learned from her recent experience with William that it was better to assess a situation before rushing headlong into the unknown?
Dreadful memories of her last meeting with the viscount slammed through her mind, washing away her concentration. She shook her head violently and gritted her teeth so hard her jaw hurt. Bella knew she should find the source of the disaster unraveling in front of her. Instead, exhaustion, shame and anger at William's betrayal threatened to steal her focus.
No. No, no, no. William would not invade her thoughts today.
Breathe, Bella, breathe.
One heartbeat passed.
By the third, Bella had taken in the stylish mansion at the opposite end of the yard. The fairy-tale backdrop was at odds with the trouble riding along the stiff mountain breeze. She counted over fifteen children of various sizes colliding into one another. Like waves crashing onto a beach, they plunged toward a common point—a child lying flat on his back.
Bella curled her fingers into fists. Where was the adult in charge?
Tossing her reticule to the ground, she sprinted toward the clump of frightened children. She'd barely taken two steps when a young girl of about ten years of age skidded to a stop at her side. The child had halted so abruptly that her shiny black pigtails swung forward and then landed with a soft thump on her narrow shoulders. Eyes wild and unfocused, her little cupid mouth worked quickly, but no sound came out.
Bella stooped to the girl's height and touched her shoulder. "Deep breaths, sweetie. Take one at a time."
Nodding, the girl gulped in large chunks of air.
"That's it," Bella said. "Now tell me what's happened."
"It's…it's…" She broke off and looked frantically around her.
Bella rolled her shoulders and prayed for patience. "It's…" she prompted in what she hoped was a soothing tone.
"My. Brother. Ethan." She pointed to the cluster of children knotted around a small boy lying on the ground. "He hurt his leg. You gotta get Dr. Shane for me."
The girl cocked her head toward the mansion behind her. "Inside."
Bella placed her palm on the child's cheek. "Don't worry. I'll get him." Rising, she gave the girl's shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "You see to your brother. And whatever you do, make sure he doesn't move until the doctor gets there."
As though she hadn't heard a word Bella said, the child stabbed her gaze back to her brother, over to the large house behind her, then back to her brother again.
"Did you hear me?" Bella asked.