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Becky Martin had escaped one bad situation only to find herself in the middle of another.
With her heart as heavy as a blacksmith's anvil, she trudged along the planked walkway after her newfound friends in search of a café where they could eat their midday meal. The rough makeshift handle of her faded carpetbag cut into her palm, the stinging sensation reminding her of the many tongue lashings her brother had given her when she hadn't done his bidding fast enough. Then he'd gone too far. She'd stood her ground, and the drunken lout had raised his hand to strike her.
No. She wouldn't dwell on the ugly scene that had sent her fleeing to California. She must keep her mind on the task ahead. Despite her present state, she had no choice but to convince James O'Brien she was capable of caring for his mother.
You helped me get away from Dillon, Lord, so I trust You to help me muster my courage once again.
"Don't be dragging your feet, Becky. There's not much time left before you're to meet Mr. O'Brien, and you can't do so on an empty stomach."
Leave it to matter-of-fact Jessie to state the obvious. "I'm coming."
"Of course you are." Cheerful Callie looked over her shoulder and offered an encouraging smile. "Even so, I can't help but notice that you've grown pensive."
Becky struggled to remember what the word pensive meant, but the definition eluded her, no doubt due to the bone-deep weariness following their week's travel. Perhaps if she said nothing, Callie would continue, giving a clue to the meaning.
Both Callie Hunt and Jessie Sinclair had no trouble talking. That must be nice. As far back as Becky could remember, she'd been more reserved than her new friends. Being quiet gave her time to form the most articulate response possible before speaking.
This time she had no choice. She would have to say something to Mr. O'Brien, even if her words weren't polished. If not, her silence could cost her the job.
She needed work desperately. After paying for her meals during their travels, her reticule held a grand total of fifty cents, just enough for a simple dinner. Her dreams of standing on her own two feet would have to wait until she got them back under herand figured out what an uneducated woman like her could do. Surely the Lord would guide her, as He always had.
Callie drew alongside Becky. "Judging by that faraway look on your face, you're thinking mighty hard about something. Why don't you tell us what's on your mind?"
Jessie stopped, forcing Callie and Becky to do the same. "Yes. Tell us. We're friends now, and friends help one another."
There'd been little time for socializing in Chicago, but Becky had formed a fast bond with these two confident young women. Like her, they'd come to California eager to leave their pasts behind and start anew. They'd confided in her, so they deserved to know the rest of her sad tale. Well, most of it anyhow. She couldn't tell anyone the real reason she'd had to leave.
She glanced up and down Placerville's bustling main street, assuring herself no one was close enough to overhear, and blurted her confession. "I told you I was coming here to nurse Mr. O'Brien's mother, but what I didn't tell you is that he provided the money for my train ticket. No matter what kind of man he is, I have no choice but to work for him until I've paid him back. What if he turns out to be as cruel as my brother
Jessie nodded. "I understand your concern. You know next to nothing about him."
That was true. The only things Becky had learned in the telegram from Dr. Wright to his former minister in Chicago was that James O'Brien, a railroad engineer-turnedorchardist, had given the doctor permission to send for a woman who would serve as his mother's nurse. If the doctor hadn't vouched for Mr. O'Brien's character and said he was a God-fearing gentleman willing to pay her way to the West, she wouldn't be here now.
Callie patted Becky's shoulder. "I'm sure everything will work out. You had good reasons for leaving, didn't you?"
She did, but she'd acted in haste, taking the first offer that had come along. "After our father's heart gave out last month, my brother changed. Things kept getting worse. And then came that horrid evening." She shuddered at the memory of Dillon standing before her, reeking of alcohol. She'd challenged his ludicrous accusations, and he'd let loose with a string of curse words that stung her ears. The blows had followed.
"My choices were to stay in Chicago and live in fear of Dillon finding me or embrace the opportunity that came my way and disappear. With less than ten dollars in my reticule, I couldn't go far. I stuffed my things in my carpetbag and ran all the way to the church. The request the doctor sent on behalf of Mr. O'Brien came at just the right time. Reverend and Mrs. Hastings said it was a godsend."
The offer had seemed providential. Dr. Wright's telegram had arrived minutes before she'd sought refuge. It had taken her all of thirty seconds to decide to head to California. Reverend Hastings had sent a reply soon after she'd shown up at the parsonageout of breath and out of options. He'd told the doctor that if he would wire the funds from Mr. O'Brien, she would be on the next westbound train. His wife had introduced Becky to Jessie and Callie, who were also headed to Placerville, and had agreed to be her traveling companions. Jessie was eager to embark on a career as a draftswoman out West, and Callie had set out to find her brother, who had come to California earlier.
Although Becky had been in a hurry to get away from Chicago, the knots in her shoulders had grown tighter with each mile of track the chugging locomotive devoured. That stiffness was the least of her concerns, though. After Dillon had shown her what he thought of her refusal to take the blame for his heinous act by slapping her and shoving her into the sideboard, simply drawing a deep breath had made her want to double over. Her midsection didn't hurt as much now, as long as she didn't cough. If all went well, her sore ribs would heal quickly.
At least her face didn't look as bad as it had when she'd embarked on her journey. She'd forced herself to peek in the looking glass when she'd visited the women's lounge at the Shingle Springs rail station before they'd boarded the stagecoach bound for Placerville that morning.
A shop door opened, and someone stepped into Becky's path. She came within a hairbreadth of crashing into the broad chest of a tall man wearing a brown tweed frock coat. She winced, moved back and rested a hand on her aching middle.
Looking up, her gaze passed over his puff tie and landed on a jagged scar. It began below the clean-shaven man's right ear, curved around the side of his face and stopped just shy of his mouth. His lips were pursed, and his hazel eyes glinted green. She'd seen that heated look beforein Dillon's dark eyes when he'd yelled at her, as he so often did.
Despite the warm spring day, a chill swept over her. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize you were coming out."
"That's evident." He dismissed her with a sneer that puckered his crescent-shaped scar and turned to offer his arm to a small woman with a gray braid peeking from beneath the edge of her bonnet. A rather sloppy braid. He leaned over and spoke to her in a surprisingly gentle tone. "I know you don't want to go, but we have no choice. No matter what he says, I'll be there for you."
The frail older woman wrapped one hand around his elbow and patted his arm with the other. "Ja. I know. You are a good boy." She must be German, as Becky's mother had been. A wave of sadness washed over her. How she missed her Mutter.
A wagon sped up the street, the harness jangling. A scraggly dog darted into the streetand into the horses' path.
Fear surged through Becky, and she took off running. "Look out!"
She'd made it halfway across the wide rutted road when two strong arms grasped her from behind, bringing her to an abrupt stop.
Her carpetbag flew from her fingers, landing in front of the briskly moving wagon. She watched in horror as a wheel lifted the bag and spun it around, showering the dusty street with her few possessions. The dog loped off.
She swatted at the hands clasped in front of her. "Let me go. I need to get my things."
"I'll do it." The scarred man she'd nearly run into moments before released her, grabbed her carpetbag and scooped up her belongings. He stuffed her unmentionables and nightgown inside so quickly that the gawkers gathered around couldn't possibly have gotten a good look at them. His thoughtfulness in choosing to go after the intimate items first surprised her. She'd half expected him to hold up her undergarments and let loose with a derisive laugh the way her scoundrel of a brother would have, but the stranger had behaved like a true gentleman.
The puzzling man set her carpetbag at his feet and folded her spare cotton work dress, treating the worn black bombazine with the care one would give a fine silk.
Becky realized she was staring, shook herself and immediately regretted it. Due to the man's firm hold moments before, her injured ribs were screaming in protest. Even so, she had to get her books before another wagon passed by.
With halting steps, she covered the few feet to where one of them lay. She wrapped an arm around her belly and, as carefully as possible, squatted and picked up her well-worn Bible. She rose and found herself facing her self-appointed helper. Seen from his uninjured left side, he wasn't frightening at all. Quite the contrary. He wasn't merely handsome. He was downright striking. With his wavy caramel-colored hair, perfectly formed nose and strong jaw, he could be a model for the drawings in one of those fashion magazines Callie favored.
What captivated Becky were his expressive eyes, which held a mixture of concern and something else. Pity, no doubt. She was plain on her best days. With the sickly looking bruises, she was downright pathetic.
He set her bag at her feet, dusted off her dictionary and handed it to her. "Here you go, miss."
She took her treasured bookthe first thing she'd grabbed before making her escapeand hugged the dilapidated volume to her. If anything had happened to it, Becky would have wept then and there. She could get a new Bible, but she could never replace her mother's dictionary. "Thank you, sir."
"You shouldn't go chasing after a mongrel like that. You put yourself in danger."
Although he'd chided her, the warmth now lighting his captivating eyes eased the sting.
"Good day." He tipped his hat and returned to the older woman waiting for him on the walkway.
The dog. Becky had forgotten about him.
Callie rushed up to her. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, I think." She stared at the back of the man who'd come to her aid. "Did you see what happened?"
"Oh, yes. It was quite romantic, the way he raced across the street to save you. And then he collected your things in an impressive show of chivalry."
Romantic wasn't the word she'd choose. Embarrassing, perhaps. Even a little scary, albeit deliciously so. Her roguish-looking rescuer evidently had a softer side. "Not that. What happened to the dog?"
Callie shook her head and smiled. "You're such a caring person, Becky. You would risk your life for a mutt."
Mongrel. Mutt. The words rankled. Every creature was special, even the lowliest of them. "I don't like seeing an animal get hurt."
"Well, you can relax. The dog dodged the wagon wheels and ran off unharmed."
Callie took Becky's arm and led her to the wooden walkway where Jessie waited, her forehead creased with concern. "Are you all right? I saw you wince, and you're moving slowly."
"I'll be fine." She would be, once she figured out how to overcome any objections Mr. O'Brien might haveand what to do if he proved to be impossible to work for.
Dr. Wright perched on the corner of the large desk in his private office, his left leg swinging like a pendulum. The steady swipe of his heel brushing the oak panel as he stared into space made James O'Brien want to cry out in protest. In his experience, when a doctor took his time searching for the right words, the news wasn't good. "Just tell me. How bad is it?"
The compassion in the young doctor's eyes when he focused on James gave him his answer. "My examination today confirmed the suspicions I had when you were in last week."
"So it's spread. Is there nothing that can be done to stop it?"
Dr. Wright ceased his motion. "I'm sorry, James. Cancer's an ugly disease, but we'll do everything we can to make your mother as comfortable as possible. Thankfully, we have morphine these days."
"How long" James's voice cracked. "How long does she have?"
"I can't say for sure. My best estimate is six months, more or less."
"I see." If Mutti put up a good fight, she might be around for another harvest. He couldn't imagine one without her. She enjoyed preparing the meals for the extra workers they hired every September. Not that she'd be up to cooking this year, even if she hung on that long. He'd have to find someone else to feed the hired hands.
The thought of another woman in Mutti's kitchen jerked James back to the present. "I've done some thinking since that visit, and I've changed my mind."
Dr. Wright quirked an eyebrow. "About?"
"About your idea of finding a young woman from the East to care for Mutti. I know I gave you the funds for the ticket, but I've decided to find a nurse myself and reduce my cash outlay. Since you couldn't think of anyone available around here, I'm going to expand my search. I'll go to San Francisco, if necessary."
Kate wouldn't leave her comfortable life in the famed city. Not that he could blame her, since she had a young daughter. But his sister, with her many society connections, might know about a matronly woman with nursing experience. An elderly widow would do nicely. He wanted nothing to do with having a young unmarried woman living in his house.
The doctor's forehead furrowed. "I understand your hesitation, but when you left my office last week I was certain you'd given me consent to seek someone for you."
"I did, but that's only because I was taken by surprise when you told me how rapidly the disease is progressing. When Mutti brightened at your offer to locate a young lady to help her, I couldn't say no. But I've realized how hasty I was and have come up with a more prudent plan."