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Callie blinked against the wind-whipped snow that swirled in curling waves onto the small porch where she huddled. She fastened her weary gaze to the simple black and white placard, staring at those two words: Help Wanted.
She'd gladly snatch up the job her brother-in-law, Doctor Ben Drake, advertised in the front window of his office. He certainly wouldn't mistake her sudden appearance here for some heartwarming family connection.
Clamping her teeth against their chattering, she scanned down the road to the heart of Boulder. Only a few horses stood tethered to hitching posts, their broad, saddled backs flocked with fluffy, white snow. Apart from the welcome lantern's glow spilling from a few windows into the dark of night on this early October evening, the town seemed as if caught in a dreamy, blissful slumber.
So where in the world was Doctor Ben Drake?
She'd never even met the man and already had a mountain of bias against him. The two long days she'd spent journeying from Denver to Boulder on foot, she'd recoiled at the thought of asking Ben Drake for charity like some beggar.
The idea of another debt hanging over her head sent repulsion snaking through her veins. If she could offer her services and get paid now that was far more appealing.
Perhaps there existed a slim thread of hope in her frayed life. A second chance. An opportunity to start over and find some peace.
Callie gave a solid knock on the door, her icy cold hand throbbing as she waited for him to answer. She gave another determined knock then, with frozen-to-numb feet, hobbled left a few paces to the long window. Cupping trembling hands around her eyes, she peered inside. But there was no sign of life, just like the hollow, dark look in her husband's eyes when he'd died in her arms six months ago.
Images she'd just as soon lay to rest swirled into her mind. Max, wracked with pain and delirium from a gunslinger's fatal shot. His inconsolable groan for help, when it was clear he was beyond help. On a ragged whisper and dying breath, he'd said, "Find my brothers. Find Ben. He'll see to you."
Even then, in the midst of Callie's frantic fight to keep Max alive, those words had stunned her as much as they did now. He'd wanted nothing to do with his brothers, so why would he drive her to their doorstep with his last breath?
Battling back the haunting memories, she peered inside the office again. No oil lamp flickered to life. Not even the weighted sound of hurried footsteps advanced this way.
Shaking and frustrated, she drew her lightweight wool cloak snug around her shoulders in a vain attempt to shield herself from the storm that barreled through the quaint mountain valley. The small, covered porch gave no protection from the sting of icy snow. The cast-off satin dress she wore from the brothel did precious little to insulate her from even the whisper of a breeze.
Even so, this didn't seem half as bad as the uncontrollable hardships of the last seven years. At least now she had some control over her future, and if she froze to death, it would be because she decided to do so.
When a harsh cough tore through her lungs, she braced her pounding head against the siding. Irritation mounted with each frosty breath in winter's threat.
"Where are you, Ben Drake?" Her words sputtered between chattering teeth.
Maybe he'd landed in some saloon, drinking and gambling away the night, just like his brother, Max.
Shivering, weak and exhausted, Callie slid down the thick clapboard. She tugged her cloak tighter and pulled in a deep, steadying breath to calm her irritation. When the bitter air hit her lungs, a spasm of wrenching coughs doubled her over, threatening to cave in her resolve.
Still, she closed her eyes and pictured herself snuggled before a warm, crackling fire. A soft groan escaped her lips as she imagined her hands cradling a steaming mug of cideror cocoa, maybe. Nestling deeper beneath the thick luxury of a cozy quilt and sleeping till she could sleep no more.
A mean gust of wind whipped across the porch, slapping reality in her face once again. She didn't have the job yet, and until she rectified the situation that loomed like some noose before her, she was a prisoner to her past, a slave to her present and a hostage to her future.
With a stuttering sigh, she closed her eyes. She should probably be angry that Max had left her standing alone down one of life's dark dead ends, but really, she just felt numb. The irony of that sunk deep as she shivered, slipping slowly into sleep. Yes, she was definitely numbshe could barely feel her arms, her legs, or her heart.
"Ma'am?" A deep, mellow voice stirred her senses. "Are you all right?"
"Ma'am?" Ben Drake tried again, keeping his voice low.
The woman raised her head, sending a wave of relief washing over him as a stark curtain of snow lashed across the porch.
She was alivethat much was good.
When he'd arrived home just moments ago and had spotted a dark form huddled here on his office porch next door, a sick sense of dread had roiled in the pit of his stomach. The thought of someone seeking him out for help, only to die waiting for his return, would likely haunt him for the rest of his days.
"Come on let's get you out of the cold." He scooped up her rail-thin frame.
With a grunt, she stiffened arrow straight, squirming out of his arms. When her feet met the floor with a dull thud, she sliced a sharp breath through her teeth.
"What's the matter?" He hunkered over to get a look at her as she sagged against the building. "Are you hurt?"
From beneath a tattered hood, the young woman peeked up at him. "My feet. They're cold as ice." The woman's unfamiliar, raspy voice hit him square in the heart.
"Well, then, let's get you inside." He made quick work of unlocking the door. "I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner."
"Are you DocDoctor Drake?" Her teeth chattered.
"Yes, I'm Ben Drake." When he braced an arm at her back, she dodged it as though he meant to hog-tie her. "Have you been waiting long for me?"
"Long enough," she muttered, shuffling inside, each shivering, wobbly step piercing his heart more than the last.
She pulled her cloak tighter, but the way it puddled on the floor, hanging like a big, old drape, he wasn't quite sure how she'd managed to maneuver ten feet in such a garment.
The lingering feel of her thin, quivering frame and her wariness to his touch sent compassion thrumming through his veins, especially when she produced a harsh cough.
"That cough of yours sure doesn't sound good."
"It's nothing," she answered, her teeth chattering. "Just an everyday kind of cough, that's all."
"Well, it sounds like more than that to me. Good thing you came when you did. Follow me," he said, leading the way through the dark waiting area into the exam room where he lit a lamp. "I'll get a fire going so we can get you warmed up."
When he wrapped two warm quilts around her quivering frame, he had to hold his confusion in check when she shrugged them off as though they were some disease-ridden rags. She possessively clutched her arms around something as though he might snatch it away, and he tried not to react. This woman was mistrustful and guarded and set against a little help. She eyed him as though she'd seen his face plastered on some Wanted poster.
"Why don't you sit down here by the woodstove so you'll be close to the heat?" Gesturing to a chair, he barely contained a wince when she avoided his outstretched hand as though he meant her harm. "It shouldn't take long for the place to warm up."
She sat on the edge of the chair. Bunching her shoulders up tight, she made a valiant effort to stop shivering, but as long as she kept that thin and wet cloak on, she'd likely never warm up.
While he banked the coals and loaded fresh kindling in the stove, he stole furtive glances at her shadowed, pale face, looking for signs of bleeding. Or broken bones.
She coughed then grabbed her side, and Ben's blood ran cold through his veins. His hair prickled at the back of his neck. That she might be another unfortunate bride of some no-good excuse for a husband, who treated his wife worse than his livestock, made him push back a ready curse.
When her whole body heaved with a sudden cough, he hunkered down next to her. "Easy, now. That sure doesn't sound like an everyday kind of cough. How long have you had it?"
At her dismissive shrug, he gently laid the back of his hand against her forehead, concern mounting at the heat that met his touch. "You're fevered, too. That's not good. I hope you'll forgive me for not coming sooner."
She flicked her gaze to him, cagey as a mouse in a barren field. Edging away, she angled her focus downward, intent on unknotting tattered ties that held her cloak together by mere threads.
His heart squeezed. He had to bite back a groan of sympathy at the sight of her shabby, wet shoes that poked out from her cloak. When she tipped her head back, nudging her hood off a mat of auburn waves, his throat grew tight.
And when she glanced up at him with the most beautiful almond-shaped blue eyes he'd ever seen, he struggled to gather his wits. She looked like an ethereal waif who'd been to the depths of darkness and back.
The glassy-eyed look veiling her gaze quickly snuffed out his fascination.
He struggled to find his voice. "I think you could use some hot tea about now."
Her focus skidded to a halt at him, her lips lifting at one corner with the faintest look of pleasure.
Ben swallowed hard, then set to work measuring out a dose of sassafras tea he kept with his medical supplies. When he set the kettle on to boil he was thankful to find heat already radiating from the woodstove.
"So, what's your name, ma'am?" Straddling a chair directly across from her, he silently tallied her respirations, unable to miss the way she breathed in shallow, raspy rhythms.
"Callie." he prompted.
"I'm Ben Drake. I'm the doctor here, but then I think we already covered that." He offered her a reassuring look. It was nearly killing him to take up precious time with niceties, but as skittish as she was, he didn't want to risk having her walk out the door. "Are you from around here, just Callie?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm not."
"Well, how can I be of help to you? You must've come about that cough, am I right?" He dipped his head in an unsuccessful attempt to catch her attention. "How long have you had it?"
"Not long." Callie slowly rose from the chair, the dingy flour sack grasped firmly in her hand. A wince, so slight he almost missed it, crossed her face as she stood ramrod straight, her chin held high, a heartrending contrast in vulnerable fatigue and determined strength.
"So, you must be in need of a doctor?" he attempted again, inward alarm mounting at the unhealthy flush of her sunken cheeks. "You came to the right place. I'll do whatever I can to help."
Her perfectly shaped brows creased in a stern look over red-rimmed eyes. "I'm not here for medical attention. II want to speak with you about something of pressing importance."
Smoothing a hand over the day's growth of stubble on his chin, Ben bit back the sympathetic look that was close to surfacing. There was just something about her show of strength, about the way she wore bravery like a suit of armor five sizes too big that tugged at his heart.
"Well, whatever it is must be important for you to seek me out in a snowstorm like this." He resisted the urge to stand when she stared at him as though he was some wily predator. "So tell me, how can I help you?"
She coughed, and a definite wheeze threaded through the harsh sound. Turning, she shrugged her cloak off and laid it on the chair along with her sack, then faced him once again. "I'm here to offer my services to you."
Ben slammed his gaze down to the floor. Fumbled to cover his shock, but the sight of her standing before him.it was nothing short of shocking.
He braved a glance up again to see a ruby-red satin dress hanging on her thin frame, the gaudy ruffles and lace worn almost beyond repair in places. And the scoop necklinehe swallowed hardplunged way too far down to be considered appropriate.
Ben averted his attention to the floor again. Frowned in confusion. What could this woman possibly offer him?
When he sneaked another glimpse and took in her tattered but risque appearance, he had to steady himself as a ghastly glimmer of understanding enlightened him.
Did she mean to sell herself?
Gritting his teeth, he prepared to set her straight right here and right now. He may be a twenty-nine-year-old bachelor, but he hadn't ever, nor would he ever, resort to using a woman like that.
"I'm sorry. But I'm not interested in that kind of thing, Miss Miss Callie." He forced himself to meet her cautious gaze as she clutched something at her neck. "If it's money you need, I'm glad to give you some. But I would never think of paying for female companionship."
Her red-rimmed eyes widened as though she'd been scandalized. "Doctor Drake, you misunderstand me." She squared her shoulders. Grasped the front of her dress, yanking it up in an awkward, unnatural angle for such a garment. "I'm here to inquire about the job. You do have a sign at your window advertising for such, am I right?"
Her bravado ended on a fit of coughing that sent him bolting to her side.
"I do." He forced his hands to remain at his sides when she instantly sidestepped. "But for the life of me, I'm trying to figure out why you'd inquire about the job this late at night. In a blizzard. And in such poor health. I am looking for help, but I think that before we discuss anything like that, we should first get you well."
On a wheezing breath, she slapped him with a reproving glower.
She was proudthat was for sure.
He inwardly kicked himself for saying what he had. But she'd dressed the partthough now that he thought about it, her skittish behavior and repulsion to his touch didn't correspond with a woman of that line of work.
But her dress.
"I'm here about the sign you have in your window, Doctor Drake." She nervously toyed with some trinket at her neck. "I can start working immediately, if that suits you."