In 1886, lovely Banner O'Brien overcame every obstacle and won her coveted medical diploma. Still she longed to escape from Oregon...and the nightmares that left her shaking, screaming one man's name.
Banner fled to the Washington Territory to accept position with Dr. Adam Corbin...arrogant, handsome, and rumor said, violent. Although Banner respected his skills, she was unnerved by the very nearness of this moody, powerful man. His past was a mystery, that would challenge her to the utmost...for Banner was determined to win Adam Corbin's heart!
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 10, 1949
Read an Excerpt
Banner O’Brien Chapter One
December 15, 1886
THE LIGHTS OF PORT HASTINGS WINKED AND SPARKLED through a veil of snow as the steamboat drew alongside a long, wooden wharf and was made fast to the pilings. Hurdy-gurdy music swelled out of the darkness, raucous and merry, and Banner O’Brien bent forward at the ice-crusted railing, trying to discern its source.
At her side, Mr. Temple Royce gestured toward shore and muttered, “Here it is—Little Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Banner’s chin lifted. Little Sodom and Gomorrah, was it? And why had Mr. Royce spoken of this town in only the most glowing terms until now, when it was too late to retreat?
Before she could give voice to her questions, he caught her arm in a suave, somewhat proprietory motion and ushered her toward the boarding ramp. “We need you here,” he said, as though that settled everything.
The music grew louder still as they made their way down the slippery ramp to the wharf, and Temple was quick to reach a waiting carriage and help Banner inside.
She peered through the uncovered window as the vehicle made its cautious way up a steep, stony hillside and onto a street lined with weathered saloons and brothels. Here, prostitutes called out coarse invitations and sailors reeled, already drunken, from one seedy establishment to another.
“Water Street,” allowed Temple Royce in a bored tone. “Please don’t judge the whole community by this place.”
Banner drew in her head and sat back in the tufted leather seat, her hands buried in the warm folds of her fraying, blue woolen cloak. At the moment, she almost wished that she’d stayed in Portland, where she had had a clean, warm room and the kind of starvation practice that kept a doctor humble.
She sat up very straight and took herself in hand. Sean was in Portland—she’d seen him there with her own eyes—and that decided the matter.
“You are very beautiful,” observed Mr. Royce in an offhand fashion. He was a good-looking man, of medium height and weight, and his hair and eyes were a dark caramel color of exactly the same shade. He was about thirty, by Banner’s reckoning, and his fine linen shirt and obviously tailor-made suit indicated that he was well-to-do, if not downright wealthy. “How did you happen to become a physician?”
Banner was too tired and too unnerved to go into the details. She was here to take over another doctor’s practice while he recovered from an injury, not to bare her soul to a man she barely knew. “You have reviewed my qualifications, Mr. Royce,” she said with dignity. “I have shown you my letters of recommendation and my diploma. It would seem to me that the manner in which I obtained them is irrelevant.”
A grin quirked the corner of Royce’s mouth, and his voice was like sugared brandy when he spoke. “That cinnamon-colored hair, those green, green eyes—why hasn’t someone married you, Miss O’Brien?”
“Doctor O’Brien,” corrected Banner, as a small, insistent headache began to throb between her temples. One man had married her, and sorely regretted it, but that was none of Temple Royce’s concern.
He nodded a suave concession. “Dr. O’Brien,” he repeated. “How old are you?”
Banner sighed. “I am twenty-six. How old are you?”
He chuckled, though annoyance flashed in his caramel eyes. “You are quite impudent, Dr. O’Brien,” he said. “And to answer your question, I’m thirty-two.”
“How was Dr. Henderson injured?” she asked, referring to the man Mr. Royce had persuaded her to replace.
“It happened during a consultation with your competition, Dr. O’Brien. Poor Stewart dared to venture a contrary opinion, you see, and our Dr. Corbin took immediate issue.”
“You don’t mean—”
“Oh, but I do. Adam Corbin is a violent, opinionated man. Those who disagree with him run a grave risk.”
Banner shuddered, appalled that a doctor would behave in such a manner, but offered no response.
“I dare say that Adam will be beating at your door as soon as he learns that you’ve taken over Stewart’s practice. If you’d rather not stay alone—”
Color pulsed in Banner’s face. She wasn’t afraid of any man, save Sean Malloy, and she had no plans to cower under Temple Royce’s smoothly offered wing like a frightened chick. “I’ll stay in Dr. Henderson’s house,” she said coldly. “As you assured me I could.”
“As you wish,” said Royce with a shrug.
They were well out of Water Street now, Banner saw, and again peering out through the swirling snow, she made out a bank, a general store, and an impressive brick courthouse before the cold wind buffeted away her breath and she had to give up.
Not wanting to talk, she huddled deeper into the half-warmth of her inadequate cloak and closed her eyes to reflect. She had been rash—there was no doubt of that—in taking Mr. Temple Royce at his word and traveling such a distance in his company just because he said that his town had need of another doctor, but desperation had driven her to accept. Not two hours before Royce had entered her cramped, storefront office, she’d gone to Portland’s waterfront to look in on a patient and seen Sean there, among a group of longshoremen entering a tavern.
The offer of a position in Port Hastings, though extended by a total stranger, had seemed a godsend.
Dr. Henderson’s house, now abandoned since he’d gone to recuperate in the home of his sister, was a small, sturdy structure with a picket fence and a holly tree growing at the end of the front walk.
A light burned in a front window, and smoke curled from a brick chimney. The scent of it gave Banner a cozy, welcome feeling, as did the tenuous smile of the young Indian woman who met her at the door.
“Where is husband?” she wanted to know, looking past Banner and seeing only Mr. Royce and the carriage driver, who were unloading the few belongings Banner had taken the time to pack.
Used to such questions, Banner smiled and stepped around the woman to enter the small house. It was a sparsely furnished place, very clean, and a tea tray had been set beside the brick fireplace in the parlor. “I don’t have a husband,” she answered, shedding her cloak, bonnet, and gloves. “I’m Dr. Banner O’Brien. What is your name?”
The woman gaped at Banner for a few moments before stating that she was called Jenny Lind.
It was Banner’s turn to gape. “Jenny Lind?” she echoed, just as Mr. Royce and his driver brought in her trunk and the two crates that contained her books and medical supplies.
Temple laughed. “Jenny’s Klallum name is virtually unpronounceable, so we gave her one we could manage.”
Banner recovered herself and poured tea from the pot the world-famous singer’s namesake had prepared. It was a pity, she thought, that the white man had taken not only the Indian lands, but their names in the bargain.
Royce’s brown eyes swept over Jenny. “What are you doing here, anyway? This isn’t—”
Jenny drew nearer to Banner, as though she’d sensed her sympathetic thoughts. “House was very dirty,” she broke in in a tremulous voice.
Temple considered her answer and made a visible decision not to pursue the point. He favored Banner with a few more pleasantries and then took his leave.
Jenny was clearly relieved, and Banner yawned and fell into a comfortable chair to sip at her tea and enjoy the fire. Saints in heaven but she was tired, and the shock of almost encountering Sean was heavy within her.
Jenny came to stand beside the chair and touch Banner’s snow-dampened hair with a chubby, nut-brown hand. “Doctor Firehair,” she mused, in a wondering tone.
Banner had lived in the West for nearly a year, and she liked to think that she had some understanding of Indian ways. They were quick, these people, to touch whatever drew their interest, and it was common for them to walk into a private home without knocking. While some were affronted by this direct approach, Banner was not.
“Do you work for Dr. Henderson?”
The girl drew back as though the cinnamon-red tresses had burned her. Her brown eyes widened, and her waist-length, blue-ebony hair glinted in the firelight as she shook her head. “No!” she replied, with spirit.
At a loss, Banner simply watched Jenny, her teacup poised between her lap and her mouth.
“Dr. Adam tell me come here. Clean house good.”
A tremor of alarm invaded Banner’s weariness. “Dr. Adam?”
Jenny’s rich hair shimmered as she nodded.
“Is he the man who hurt Dr. Henderson?”
Jenny lowered her eyes and her mouth worked. “Yes,” she said. “But—”
At that moment, a cold draft suddenly filled the room and made the brave little fire undulate eerily on the hearth. The sense of a third personality was palpable, and Banner looked up to see a tall, dark-haired man, probably somewhere in his mid-thirties, raking Jenny’s squat little frame with mocking navy blue eyes.
“You promised,” he drawled, folding his arms.
A golden glow appeared in Jenny’s cheeks, and she lowered her head. “I’m sorry, Adam,” she said, in perfectly accented English.
The indigo gaze swung back to Banner, assessing her swiftly and coming to rest on her face. “She’s been doing her rendition of the Ignorant Savage again, hasn’t she?”
Banner was so overwhelmed by the effrontery of this man’s unannounced entrance and the impact of his presence that she couldn’t speak.
The tall man was unperturbed by this; his teeth flashed in a pearlescent smile, and he bowed slightly. “Dr. Adam Corbin,” he said, in crisp introduction.
Banner stood, knowing that her response would unbalance this man and relishing the fact for some reason that was quite beyond her. “Dr. Banner O’Brien,” she said, with a corresponding nod.
The impact of her words was in no way disappointing. The rakishly handsome brute paled slightly, his eyes scraped her, and his jaw hardened. “What?”
“You came here to intimidate the new doctor, didn’t you?” Banner retorted, determined not to let the fate of her predecessor quell her hard-won bravado. “Well, Dr. Corbin, here I am!”
He ran one hand through his dark, unruly hair and squinted at Banner as though he didn’t trust his vision. “My God—a woman—is this a joke?”
Banner drew herself up to her full if unprepossessing height. “I assure you that it is not. I am here to replace the man you brutalized—doctor.”
“Brutalized?” The word was only whispered, and yet it seemed to rock the small house like an explosion. “Who told you that? Temple?”
Jenny stepped between Banner and the giant, a plump diplomat clad in buckskin. “Jiggers, Adam, will you relax? Of course it was Temple!”
“What did he say?” Adam demanded, his impossibly blue eyes searing Banner’s face.
Banner sank back into her chair, fresh out of courage, and her hands trembled as she set aside her endangered teacup. “He told me that you are ‘violent and opinionated,’ Dr. Corbin, and that disagreeing with you is a risky proposition.”
“Furthermore,” Banner went on, rising on a swell of irritation and fatigue, “this is my home, for the time being, and I will thank you not to walk in without knocking ever again. Is that clear, doctor?”
The response was a raw, jarring burst of amusement. “I stand corrected,” he said, with another bow—this one more impudent than the first.
Banner O’Brien was far too overwrought to deal with the likes of Dr. Adam Corbin. She wanted him to go and take his overwhelming personality, his broad shoulders, and the keen intelligence pulsing in his eyes with him. “Good night,” she said pointedly, taking up her teacup again.
But Adam stood fast, his arms folded across his chest. For the first time, Banner noticed that he wasn’t wearing a suitcoat, as cold as it was outside. His trousers, linen shirt, and half-buttoned vest fitted to his muscular frame with an easy perfection, as though they would not dare do otherwise, and the fabrics, while rumpled and snow-dampened, were of the finest quality.
The silence lengthened, and then Jenny broke it with a nervous giggle and a sympathetic glance at Banner. “Shall I get you something to eat?”
Banner was wildly hungry, for she hadn’t had a full meal since Portland, but she found the prospect of being alone with this strange man unsettling indeed. “N-No,” she sputtered quickly. “Thank you, b-but I’ll fix something for myself later.”
Adam’s indigo eyes sliced to the young Indian woman, and some almost imperceptible signal was given. Jenny scampered toward the back of the house without another word.
“How do I know you’re really a doctor?” Adam intoned, his arms still folded.
“I guess you’ll just have to trust me,” Banner retorted.
The magnificent head moved in a slow denial. “Oh, no,” came the gravelly response. “Henderson did enough damage as it was. I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn another quack loose on the people of this town.”
Banner was insulted, and her headache had taken on a marked tempo—that of her pounding heart. “You speak with such authority, doctor,” she said coldly. “Almost as though I needed your permission to practice.”
A mirthless grin curved his lips. “Perhaps you do,” he replied.
Banner shot to her feet and then swayed precariously as her hungry, exhausted body protested.
Adam Corbin caught her shoulders in his hands, to steady her, and a fearsome, inexplicable jolt went through her. “Sit,” he said, pressing her back into her chair.
She was on the verge of tears now, and she could still feel the weight of Adam’s hands, even though he had promptly withdrawn them. “I am not a ‘quack,’” she said. “I studied with Dr. Emily Blackwell, at the New York Infirmary for—”
He was crouching before her in a most distracting fashion, and his powerful hands gripped the arms of Banner’s chair, thus imprisoning her. “Dr. Blackwell,” he mused. “That is august company. August company indeed.”
“Yes,” breathed Banner, because she could manage nothing more. Why was she looking at the sprinkling of glossy black hair revealed by his open collar?
“I would like to see your diploma.”
Every nasty word Banner knew surged into her throat, each tangling with its fellows, and she swallowed them all. “You are insufferable,” she said through her teeth.
“Yes,” he confessed, and his eyes danced with an odd mischief. “The diploma, please.”
She almost directed him to her medical bag, which was sitting on top of her trunk, but she stopped herself in time. There were other papers in there, papers she didn’t want this man or anyone else to know about. “You’ll have to move, sir, if you expect me to comply.”
He subsided, rising to his feet in a fluid motion. With his left hand he gestured, and his dark brows were arched, as if to say, “Get on with it.”
With dignity that was completely feigned, Banner lifted her small frame from the chair and made her way to her bag. She extracted her credentials and extended them to Dr. Corbin briskly.
He unfolded the documents and read them with a solemn, tolerant expression. Then he surveyed Banner briefly and read the papers again. “Banner could be a man’s name,” he mused, after a long time. “What if you stole these documents, say, from a father—a brother—a husband?”
Banner colored. “I most certainly did not! I earned them, and I assure you, it wasn’t easy, considering that I had to deal with so many arrogant buffoons to do it!”
Though Adam’s lips were grim, laughter flashed in his eyes. His shoulders moved in an insolent shrug. “Are you calling me an arrogant buffoon, Miss—Dr. O’Brien?”
A chuckle erupted from the depths of him, but then he went on as though she hadn’t spoken. “I’ll take you on rounds with me tomorrow, and we’ll soon see if you’re a doctor or not.”
Crimson flags unfurled in Banner’s cheeks at his presumption, but she knew she could not refuse to accompany him, no matter how badly she wanted to do so. He would not stop harassing her until she proved herself, and the only way to do that was to demonstrate her knowledge of medicine firsthand. “I will be ready,” she said.
“Good,” he replied. “I’ll come for you at seven.”
“Seven,” Banner confirmed.
Apparently satisfied, for the moment, at least, Adam Corbin left the house. Glad as she was to see him go, the place seemed strangely unreal without him.
Banner was still pondering this paradoxical fact when Jenny returned, carrying an empty tray. She put the tea things and Banner’s cup onto it and smiled with infuriating understanding.
“There is only one Adam,” she remarked.
“That is, indeed, a mercy,” said Banner.
Jenny looked offended. “You are wrong, Dr. O’Brien,” she answered. And then she walked haughtily off, the tray in her hands, leaving Banner no choice but to follow.
The journey ended in a small kitchen with a wood-burning cookstove and open shelves for cupboards. A bowl of fragrant soup steamed on the round table, and a plate of fresh bread rested beside it.
“Your supper,” said Jenny coolly, setting the tray down beside a cast iron sink and pumping water to fill the cup and the teapot.
Ravenous, Banner sank into a chair and began to eat. The barley soup was delicious, as was the bread, and the food brought relief from the spinning dizziness in her head and the weakness in her knees.
During the meal, Jenny managed to stay busy at the sink, keeping her back to Banner, and the mood in that cozy little kitchen was a stiff and forbidding one.
“You like Dr. Corbin a lot, don’t you?” Banner ventured, once her hunger had been brought under control.
Jenny turned, and her wide brown eyes were quietly fierce. “He is a good man. Too good, maybe.”
“Good?” Banner countered, with gentleness, “Jenny, how can you say he’s good when he—”
“When he broke Stewart Henderson’s jaw?” finished Jenny, a golden blush rising in her round cheeks.
Banner felt herself go pale. “Good Lord! He broke the poor man’s jaw?”
Jenny took up a red-and-white-checked dishtowel and then flung it down again. “Yes!”
“Why?” persisted Banner, stricken.
Jenny’s chin jutted out, and she folded her arms.
“Adam caught Henderson doing surgery on Water Street,” she said in level tones. “Stewart gave the patient opium instead of ether, and the woman woke up before the operation was over.”
Banner closed her eyes against the image, and sickness scalded in her throat. “Saints in heaven—”
“The woman died,” Jenny summarized, “screaming.”
Banner shuddered and grasped the table edge until she had recovered herself a little. She could well imagine the rage such a situation would stir in a responsible physician.
Jenny squared her shoulders and started across the kitchen again. “I’ll show you to your room,” she said.
Still horror-stricken, Banner rose shakily from her chair and followed Jenny through the kitchen and into a tiny room off the parlor.
There was a brass bed spread with a bright quilt there, along with a wooden bureau and a washstand. On this stand was a china pitcher filled with steaming water, a mismatched basin, and a scratchy white towel.
Banner did her best to be grateful for these items, though she yearned for a long, luxurious bath. She was just shedding her sensible woolen dress when Jenny slipped out and closed the door behind her.
Alone, she poured water into the chipped basin and, shivering in her thin underthings, began to wash. When that task had been completed, she took the pins from her dark auburn hair, and it fell in a bright cascade to her waist.
Banner hadn’t unpacked a hairbrush, any more than she’d gotten out a nightgown, but none of that mattered on this curious and disturbing night. Her head was spinning, and she didn’t know what to think of Adam Corbin or Dr. Henderson or the incident on Water Street that had prompted one man to assault the other. She did puzzle a bit as to why Dr. Corbin would engage Jenny to clean the house of a man he so obviously disliked.
She slid between the sheets of the narrow bed and found that they were impossibly cold. She moved about, trying to heat them with the friction of her body, and then fell into a fitful sleep where a woman was bleeding to death and screaming and Adam Corbin’s handsome face was contorted with a killing rage.
Then the dream woman became Banner herself, and Adam became Sean. The screams brought Jenny running on bare red feet.
* * *
Jenny smiled as she filled Banner’s cup with fresh coffee and sat down across from her at the kitchen table. “Friends,” she confirmed.
It was twenty minutes before seven by the watch pinned carefully to the bodice of Banner’s heavy broadcloth dress, and a gentle snowfall sifted past the window over the sink to glisten on the spiky green leaves of a nearby holly tree.
“I’m sorry I awakened you last night, Jenny.”
Jenny took a contemplative sip from her coffee cup. “Do you have a lot of bad dreams?” she asked.
Only one, Banner thought to herself, but her words were calculated to close the dangerous subject. “I was very tired,” she said.
“Who is Sean?” pressed Jenny.
Banner was saved from answering by a thunderous knocking at the front door. Bless him, Dr. Adam Corbin was not only prompt, but early to boot.
“O’Brien!” he bellowed irritably, as Banner raced to admit him.
He was standing on the small porch, his blue eyes dark with some secret annoyance. Today, he looked more like a member of the English gentry than a country doctor about to make rounds: his trousers were of some soft, fawn-colored fabric that clung to his muscular thighs and tapered into the tops of a pair of glistening black riding boots. Over his crisply tailored white shirt he wore a snow-dusted coat of some fine tweed, and seeing him up close, Banner realized that his hair was not really black at all, but a very dark brown threaded through with strands of dark gold and chestnut.
“Is something wrong, O’Brien?” he demanded.
Banner blushed to think of the overt way she’d inspected his person and managed a valiant little smile. “No—no, of course not.”
His jaw knotted. “Well, then?”
Banner had laid out her warmest cloak and her medical bag, and she turned to fetch them so rapidly that she caught the toe of her right shoe in the hem of her skirts and very nearly fell.
She knew that embarrassment was blooming in her cheeks when she gathered her things and forced herself to face Adam again.
His features had softened a little, and there was a twitch of amusement at the corner of his mouth.
“I’m ready now,” she said, just to break the silence.
“Your eyes are just the color of shamrock,” he responded, somewhat distractedly.
Banner decided to ignore the remark, though propriety would have her challenge it. “Shall we leave?”
Adam chuckled and indicated the horse and buggy waiting beyond the picket fence and the holly tree. “After you,” he said.
This was Banner’s first opportunity for a good look at Port Hastings, and it was easy to let her curiosity overshadow the strange, nameless emotions this man engendered in her.
She settled happily into the buggy seat and peered through the thickening snow as Adam joined her and took up the reins. “Do they really call this town Little Sodom and Gomorrah?” she asked.
Adam laughed. “That and other things. The term does bring Water Street to mind.”
Banner was reminded of the woman Jenny said had died on that street, and some of her joy in the crisp splendor of the morning drained away.
In an attempt to divert her thoughts, she drew a mental map and placed Port Hastings on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the waterway that separated Puget Sound from the Pacific. No doubt ships from every part of the world dropped anchor here to pay duty on their cargoes and give foreign passengers an opportunity to show their papers to customs officials.
The distant, keening shrieks of mill saws indicated that there was a thriving timber industry, and as the buggy was drawn out of the quiet street and into the main part of the town itself, she sighted the framework of a half-constructed clipper in the shipyard fronting the water.
There were wooden sidewalks edging Center Street, and snow mounded on the square tops of kerosene-fed streetlamps. Housewives and millworkers and rough-looking sailors intermingled with the occasional Indian or Chinese.
A bell was ringing somewhere on a side street, and well-dressed children and urchins alike scrambled after the sound, some more willingly than others.
With Christmas just over a week away, there were evergreen boughs arranged in the windows of shops and offices, and almost every door boasted a beribboned holly wreath.
Banner was enthralled by the raucous vitality of that town. It was obvious that Port Hastings had aspirations to be more than it was.
They rounded a corner, and Adam drew back the reins and wrenched the brake lever into place. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said.
Banner eyed the steamy windows of Wung Lo’s Laundry and Savory Tea Shop suspiciously. Adam had promised to take her on rounds with him. Was he actually planning to leave her sitting in his buggy while he saw patients?
He seemed to read the question in her face, and it made him laugh as he stepped down to the ground, which appeared to be a rutted mixture of snow, mud, and sawdust.
“I’m only picking up my shirts, Shamrock,” he assured her.
Banner felt very foolish indeed, and she averted her eyes and folded her hands and sat rigid until she knew Adam had gone inside the store.
Moments after that, a tiny Chinaman came out of the establishment, balancing an enormous stack of neatly wrapped parcels on his shoulders. He wore loose garments of black silk, and a queue reached well down his back.
Banner looked at the man’s feet, which were shod only in wooden sandals, and ached to think how cold he must be.
He had gone only a dozen yards or so when half a dozen schoolchildren encircled him, linking their hands. Their voices were the crueler for their chimelike innocence as they chanted,
Ching Chong, Chinaman
Have you any fish?
Snip off yur pigtail
Make a wish!
The little man raged at them in swift, high-pitched, birdcall words, but they were undaunted. The stack of laundry teetered precariously on the Chinaman’s shoulders, and Banner was about to break up the game with a memorable invective when an Indian man came out of an alleyway, looking fierce in his buckskins and braids and clapping his hands angrily.
“Klatawah! Klatawah!” he scolded, and the imps scurried away in every direction, calling taunts over their shoulders and then running in earnest when the Indian poised himself to give chase.
The Chinaman flung one baleful look at his rescuer, realigned the incredible burden on his back, and scampered on about his business.
Shortly, Adam came out of Wung Lo’s establishment with a package only slightly less cumbersome than the Chinaman’s and dropped it behind the buggy seat. The whole vehicle shifted as he climbed in and took up the reins, and Banner was unaccountably conscious of the hard line of his thigh pressing against her own.
She shivered involuntarily, even though there was a strange, drunken warmth surging through her system.
Adam studied her, one dark eyebrow arched, and the snow-and-soap scent of his clothes and hair made her even more uncomfortable than his gaze.
“Cold?” he asked.
“No,” Banner croaked.
Adam didn’t seem to believe her, and the molten humor in his eyes made her want to double up both fists and pummel his chest. “I should have brought a lap rug,” he said.
The idea of being cosseted under a warm covering with this particular man was blatantly disturbing. “Your patients are waiting,” she said stiffly.
He laughed that alarming laugh and slapped the reins down on the horse’s back and the buggy was moving again, jolting and shifting over the rutted road. The winter wind stung Banner through her coat and her dress, but not for all the tea in Wung Lo’s shop would she have admitted it.
Their first call was routine; they visited a man who had fallen from a scaffold in the shipyard and broken his ankle. The patient was obsequious with Adam and openly curious about Banner.
The second stop was sobering. Adam drew the buggy to a halt behind the merchantile, and they climbed steep, slippery wooden steps to reach a modest apartment where a woman lay groaning on a narrow bed that had been wedged between an iron cookstove and an unfinished wall.
Two small boys in shabby knee pants and untucked shirts hovered at the foot of the cot, their eyes wide and frightened.
Adam ruffled their hair in turn and drew two peppermint sticks from the pocket of his tweed coat. “I haven’t had time to eat these,” he said, with a serious expression that flailed against Banner’s heart like the wing of a trapped bird. “How about some help?”
The children were eager to solve the dilemma, and they retreated to a pallet in the opposite corner of the room, whispering and measuring one stick of candy against the other.
Banner’s attention swung to the woman on the cot. She was so thin that her hipbones were clearly visible even through her blanket. Her eyes were sunken and shadowed, and her lackluster brown hair was matted.
Adam’s tone was gentle when he spoke. “Hildie, this is Dr. O’Brien. Will you please let her examine you?”
Hildie’s pain-haunted eyes assessed the healthy, neatly dressed woman standing nearby, then shifted back to Adam. “If you’ll go outside, I will,” she said. “My Fitz don’t want—”
Adam held up both hands in a concessionary gesture. “I know,” he broke in. “Your husband doesn’t want any man to see you without your clothes.”
“It ain’t decent,” muttered Hildie.
Adam made an exasperated sound, and for all its softness, it startled Banner. She’d been trying to identify the familiar, cloying odor that underlined the ordinary smells of cooking, tobacco smoke, and an unrinsed chamberpot.
“I’ll take the boys downstairs for a while,” he said.
Hildie half-rose from her dingy, coverless pillow. “Don’t you buy them nothin’, Doc, like you did the last time.”
Adam’s jaw tightened, but he drew the two children to the door with him with an eloquent motion of one hand. Only a moment later he was gone, the stale air of the room stirred by the brief admission of the outdoors.
Banner and Hildie were alone, and the nature of the smell Banner had been chasing through her mind came home to her with dismal clarity.
“Open your nightgown, please,” she said, cloaking her despair in brisk professionalism.
Hildie hesitated, then grudgingly complied. “How’d you ever get to be a doctor?” she demanded.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Banner, keeping her features under strict control even though bile was rising in her throat like acid. Hildie’s right breast was eaten away by disease.
“My Ma’s leg got just this way,” confided Hildie, in hushed, shaky tones that betrayed her fear. “She went blind, Ma did. And then she died.”
Banner closed her eyes for a moment and longed for a breath of the crisp, bracing winter air outside. She cleaned the infected area with an alcohol solution and gave Hildie a stiff dose of laudenum.
When this had been accomplished, Banner helped herself to water from a kettle on the stove and scoured her hands with the lye soap she carried in her bag.
That done, she went to the door and opened it and swallowed great gulps of clean air.
Adam had been waiting at the base of the stairs, though Hildie’s children were nowhere in sight, and he looked up at her with eyes that betrayed an ache to match her own.
They met in the middle of the stairway, but Banner could not manage a medical consultation at the moment. She covered her mouth with one hand, made a strangling sound, and rushed down the steps to vomit into a pristine snowbank at their base.
Adam was ready with a clean handkerchief when the spasm of illness passed. “Cancer?” he ventured, like a teacher quizzing a slow child.
Banner shook her head and took clean snow from the stair railing, putting it into her mouth and then unceremoniously spewing it out. “Diabetes,” she said, and the word was a soblike rasp. “Her breast—there’s gangrene—”
Respect mingled with the sympathy in Adam’s blue eyes. “I know.”
“How?” croaked Banner. “How did you know, if she wouldn’t let you examine her?”
Banner nodded distractedly. “She should be hospitalized.”
“Yes.” Adam paused, grinding his teeth and assessing the sky as though it had offended him. Snowflakes glistened in his thick hair and gathered on his eyelashes. “But—”
“But ‘her Fitz’ won’t allow it.”
“Right. He’s convinced that I merely want to get her alone so I can have my way with her.”
Frustration swelled in Banner’s mind, crowding worthy thoughts into shadowed corners. She had thought she’d encountered every form of ignorance during her training and her brief practice in Portland, but this was a new aspect. “She’ll die.”
“And she must be in wretched pain.”
Adam only nodded, but his exasperation was visible in the set of his jaw and his shoulders.
It was then that Hildie’s boys appeared, laughing and flinging handfuls of powdery snow at each other, exulting in the weather and the brief escape from the grim quarters at the top of the stairs.
“What will happen to them?” Banner whispered.
Adam sighed. “God knows. Right now, Hildie is my main concern. I’ll have another talk with Fitz tonight and try to persuade him to bring her to the hospital.”
Banner had not dared to dream that there actually was a real hospital in Port Hastings. For all its vigor, it was a relatively small town, and most such communities considered hospitals an extravagance.
Despite the weight of what they both knew would befall Hildie, Adam smiled. Again, it seemed, he’d read her thoughts. “Would you like to see my hospital, O’Brien?”
He nodded. “Since I run it myself, I tend to think of it as mine, yes.”
The idea engendered depths of weariness Banner had never felt before, even during the grueling days of her training. “By yourself?” she marveled.
Adam’s shoulders stiffened under the tweed coat. “I haven’t had much choice,” he said. “Henderson is the only other doctor within twenty-five miles, and I wouldn’t let that butcher near my horses, let alone my patients.”
Having imparted this information, Adam left Banner to go back to Hildie’s room and reclaim the cloak and medical bag she had left behind.
One of the little boys approached Banner, gnawing philosophically on the strip of dried beef Adam had been forbidden to buy. “You sure do got red hair till hell won’t have it, missus,” he said.
Before Banner could come up with a suitable response, Adam reappeared, carrying her things. Somewhere between herself and Hildie, he had shed his frustration and his anger, or hidden them, and he was again the unflappable country doctor.
Banner wasn’t certain whether to mourn or feel relieved.