Samantha’s Secret by Betty Bolté

Samantha's Secret by Betty Bolté

Samantha’s Secret

A More Perfect Union, Book 3

by Betty Bolté

ePublishing Works!

Ebook ISBN: 9781614176619
Print ISBN: 978-1614176626

[ Historical Romance, MF ]

Healer, Samantha McAlester returns from war to find Charles Town under British siege. Dr. Trenton Cunningham intends to build a hospital staffed solely with traditionally educated doctors. When a friend develops a mysterious infection no one can name, Samantha suspects the cure but knows treatment will expose her long-guarded secret.

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Chapter One

Charles Town, South Carolina – 1782


“I must say, I am glad this day is behind us and we can relax and enjoy the festivities.” Samantha McAlester sighed, trying but failing to release the tension building between her shoulders. As night descended upon the garden, she cringed as barks of laughter interspersed the hum of the party guests’ conversation, increasing in volume along with the flow of wine and ales. Before long, Trent would arrive, and then what would she do? How could she tolerate his presence after his disdain the last time?

“I find it hard to fathom the danger you and Amy faced.” Emily Sullivan tugged her shawl around her shoulders to ward off the late November chill and slowly shook her head. She swiveled to look at Samantha, her long skirts rustling with the movement. “If Benjamin hadn’t caught up with you, and then Walter hadn’t stepped in to sacrifice his own life to save all of us, I don’t know what we’d have done.”

“That’s all in the past, Em. Do not dwell on the matter.” The horrifying sound of gun shots around the manor house surely would echo in her mind in a similar manner as to other shots and shouts she’d experienced over the past several years. Walter had vowed to die defending his home, and he kept his word. Emily’s cousin, Evelyn, had lost her husband but gained her freedom from his overbearing nature. “No good can come from reliving this morning’s adventure. Let us close the book on those events.”

Emily shrugged and let her gaze drift over the garden before focusing on the dark-haired couple strolling away. “You’re probably right, but it’s hard to ignore the sobs from poor Evelyn up in your spare room. Besides, planning a double wedding with such sadness hanging in the air might be considered disrespectful. What do you think?”

“I think you and Amy have the right to marry your betrotheds. And moreover, this town needs the happy event after the terror and uncertainty we’ve endured under the British occupation.” Standing beneath the peaked roof of the white-washed gazebo, which was draped in dormant climbing rose vines, Samantha hesitated to follow two of her closest friends as they made their way toward the cluster of guests.

Emily’s white teeth flashed as she chuckled. “I never thought I could be as happy as I am in preparing to marry Frank.”

“The idea of holding the wedding at the end of the holidays is brilliant.” Samantha glanced at Emily, and couldn’t prevent a smile from easing onto her lips. “Everyone will already be in a festive mood and gathered in town to be with family and friends.”

Emily bobbed her head and then indicated the pair moving away from them. “They appear to be as besotted with each other as Frank and I.”

Amy Abernathy and Benjamin Hanson ambled away from her, arm in arm down the crushed seashell and pea gravel path toward tables laden with a variety of meats and sweets. So much had happened over the past year, month, even day, she couldn’t imagine what more awaited in the near future as the fight for America’s independence from British rule ended in victory. One thing remained certain: all the dueling and fighting, the anxiety and terror, her friends had endured since the beginning of October had been relegated to the past. As the Britons prepared to evacuate, she and her compatriots could all look to the future and plan for a better world. Mostly, in the event. Her heart sunk at the thought of Trent’s imminent arrival.

From where Samantha stood at the very back corner of the property, she could see over the heads of her guests as they wandered through the unusually large and diverse garden. Winding paths crisscrossed the area, providing easy access to the variety of flowers, vegetable and herbal plants, and bushes. Several tall oaks and cypress lent shade in the summer heat as well as ingredients for her simples and poultices. She drew in a deep breath of crisp fall air along with the sense of peace only this space evoked. As long as her parents owned the sizeable property, she’d be content with life.

They’d spent years designing and creating the perfect medicinal garden, containing every kind of beneficial plant that would grow in the hot and humid southern climate. Surely they’d never move. Not after all their hard work and expense. But with the tensions in town targeted at those who sympathized with the British, the future for her family remained unclear, like the harbor on a foggy morning. What if they were forced out by the British? Or someone else? The South Carolina government had initiated a list of known loyalists whose property was subject to confiscation as the British withdrew. Had her father’s loyalties become too flagrant in recent months? Unease fluttered in her stomach, and she pressed a hand to her waist, trying to quell the turmoil within. What would she do without her lovely garden and charming home? Indeed, without her loving yet stubborn parents?

The gazebo had provided a shady space for numerous tea parties with her dear friends over the last year. Of course, the tea came from plants within the garden or from other countries, as long as it was not imported from Britain or any of its territories she’d consume it. They’d shared many a strong opinion on the war and the deprecations on both sides. The men took advantage of the women, children, and property in the absence of husbands, brothers, and fathers. With peace on the horizon, the fog of the future could begin to lift the uncertainties of life in the past.

Now, while she and Emily watched in quiet happiness, Benjamin escorted Amy down the path, newly engaged to each other as of mere minutes ago, his hand possessing hers where it lay on his crooked arm. Yet another event on this busy day, their betrothal. On top of Benjamin’s skirmish with renegade loyalists earlier in the morning that had resulted in his left arm in a sling from a gunshot wound to his shoulder, his slightly bowed carriage hinting at the pain which plagued him. She’d mix up some simples for him to take home after the feast. And definitely she’d keep a close watch on his condition. Not only would she do all within her power to heal her friend, but her reputation as a healer remained at stake, especially since young and ambitious Dr. Trent Cunningham had arrived in town.

“They’re so perfect for each other.” Emily Sullivan smoothed a wrinkle from one elbow-length white glove. “Who could have guessed she and I would be betrothed to such handsome men so soon after our joint vow.”

“Who indeed.” Samantha tossed her head, her ebony locks settling between her shoulders.

So much had changed in such a short period of time. Last month, the three friends had made a vow to remain unmarried. Each woman choosing their own independence rather than rely upon the whim and largess of a man. They’d agreed the vows could be broken only if the woman desired to do so, not by force or compulsion. Now, both Amy and Emily chose to follow their hearts and were making wedding plans for the biggest event of the holiday season, a joint affair on Twelfth Night.

“At least you have managed to stay faithful to your promise.” Emily’s porcelain cheeks reflected the soft light from the many hanging lamps decorating the edges of the gazebo. “And if Frank hadn’t protected my reputation in that scary duel, I’d never have let him persuade me of his affection.”

“He could have died for your honor, too. I won’t mention such an act in my comments later. He might have died for you, you understand, right?” Samantha sniffled. Pondering Frank’s close call reminded her of many other similar dangerous situations. Ones so painful to recall she hadn’t shared them with anyone and probably never would. She slipped the perfumed kerchief from her sleeve to dab at her nose, and relished the scent of lavender floating on the night air. The crowd mingled in the open spaces between the variously colored bushes and plants and strolled the many winding paths through the garden. “Frank truly loves you and will always protect you. Speaking of whom, someone appears to be seeking you out.”

Emily’s smile widened when she spotted Frank Thomson walking toward her. “It’s about time for your speech, so I’ll go and…”

“Right. You two should find a good place to watch.” Samantha chortled and shooed her friend toward the tall blond man striding purposefully toward where the ladies conversed.

Frank appeared at Emily’s side, taking her hand in his with a smile and a nod of greeting to Samantha. Emily had once vehemently declared she would never marry. Samantha permitted her lips to curve into a smile, having anticipated the two cousins would succumb to the desires of the men accompanying them. She may not know everything, but she did know how to interpret a woman’s behavior and thus descry their next actions. In the event her friends would succumb to the attentions and intentions of Benjamin and Frank.

The guests mingling about the garden included all of her family and her friends, the new lawyer, George Manning and his wife Catherine, as well as a few artisans she’d not been introduced to yet. The invitation list had not changed much over the years, adhering to her parents’ desire to include a balanced mix of political views. Her father’s attempt to appease both camps; one she feared may have failed. Her parents had held a harvest feast each November for the past ten years, war or no war. This garden, packed with medicinal herbs and flowers, soothed her chaotic thoughts and emotions. Mingled scents of jasmine and rosemary tickled the noses of the throng of guests. Her father had bowed to her midwife mother’s demands to forego the typical decorative garden most residents had surrounding their two-story homes and open piazzas. Instead, they created an extravagant oasis of flowers, bushes, and trees. She pulled her silver shawl around her shoulders, her midnight blue skirts swishing against the wooden floor of the gazebo when she pivoted to peruse the happy group milling amongst the multitude of plants she could identify by name and purpose. Her mother had ensured Samantha would be well prepared to follow in her calling as a healer and midwife. A purpose her father also endorsed and supported in every way within his significant means.

Her friends had chosen to marry, leaving her to carry on alone in this vow of staying unmarried. Her decision rested upon her desire to never again subject her heart to the anguish of watching a loved one die. The cries and groans. The blood. The agony. Once was definitely more than enough for her to bear. A sigh wiggled from her pressed lips before she could subdue it. She squared her shoulders, her gown soft against her skin. The past had no bearing on her plans for the future.

Points of light emerged overhead to surround the crescent moon hanging in the sky. The heavenly stars beckoned, guiding her healing endeavors as much as her day to day activities. She glanced to the dark bedroom window, imagining Amy’s sister, Evelyn, sequestered and tearful over the death of her little boy’s father earlier in the morning. The horrific images flashed across her mind, but she pushed them aside. Just as she’d shoved aside the memory of the bloody battlefield the year before. One day at a time. How else could she cope with everything? Her focus must stay on helping her patients, her friends, as best she could. Tomorrow would be soon enough to discuss the widow’s plans.

Tonight, Samantha intended to enjoy a respite from the tension and horror of the occupied town and the rampant violence across the countryside. Fortunately, no recent tar-and-feathering patients had landed at her door. The vengeance of the patriots against the loyalists continued, maybe even increased, with each passing day. For one night, she hoped the townspeople would join together. Her neighbors, her friends, fellow citizens all without regard to political leaning, had gathered to celebrate as they did every year, even though the repast was meager compared to what they enjoyed before the war and the British occupation of Charles Town. She shook off the weight of sadness, determined to focus on the approaching evacuation by the Britons, as soon as the unusually active hurricane season ended and they could safely navigate out of the treacherous harbor.

The day bespoke the times. A strange blend of horror and hope pervaded both days and nights. That morning, the three friends barely escaped with their lives when renegade loyalists attacked Evelyn’s home. Tonight, a celebration of the culmination of the harvest. She would not perjure herself and say she’d miss Walter, not after his abuse and, she suspected, attempted poisoning of Evelyn. The stomach cramps and pangs Evelyn had agonized through completely vanished as soon as Emily assumed responsibility for the cooking at the country manor. Walter only reluctantly permitted the three ladies to invade his dwelling to provide care for his wife during her travails and lying in. He had declared he would die protecting his property. And so he did. Dying in such a manner did not equate to making him a hero in her eyes. Again, that chapter had ended and the book closed on the past events.

It was time to move on. She eased down the steps, bracing herself on the hand rail to prevent her injured leg from failing her. Despite her best efforts, the limb was not as strong as she’d like. She had to maintain her dignity, which did not include falling down among her guests. The puncture wound where a thorny stick had pierced through her thigh days ago would eventually heal, no thanks to the tumble she had taken followed by the forced march by the renegades. Thank goodness they’d all made it safely back to town. A shiver worked her shoulders at the thought of what might have happened to the two women had they not escaped. Mentally, she closed the book, intent on writing a new beginning for both her and her town.

“Samantha, we’re ready for the toast,” Amy called to her from across the open garden. Her grin shone in the subdued light. “Hurry, now.”

“Coming.” Samantha increased her pace, rehearsing her short speech as she limped along the seashell path reflecting the moonlight.

The responsibility of inspiring the gathering had fallen on her. Locating a fitting passage to share with her friends and neighbors had taken several hours earlier in the afternoon. Her father’s impressive library contained a wealth of material, but finding a quote worthy of the town’s momentous events, indeed the future of the country, had proved a challenge. Eventually she’d uncovered a most fitting sentiment.

On a side path, her parents strolled toward her, arm in arm. They carried flutes of wine like candlesticks against a dark night. Aaron’s burly frame dwarfed his petite wife, Cynthia. They each sported gray on their otherwise dark heads, brought on no doubt from the never ending tension and suspicion in town. With the Britons stripping everything of any value as they prepared to leave, her parents had become more and more withdrawn from her. What did they attempt to shield her from? Her biggest fear remained their intention to flee the town, forcing her to accompany them to some far off land, away from her beloved surroundings, her beloved country.

“My darling, you look beautiful this evening.” Her father stopped before her and glanced at her mother. “Don’t you agree?”

“Yes, of course.” Cynthia sipped her wine, cutting off any further comment she may have made. She wore a gown of dark gray with pink insets and small lavender bows dotting its skirts. A white lace cap rested on her gray curls. Her appearance hid the worry she expressed about her reputation among the townspeople, a reputation based upon the frequent deaths of those under her care. Was it the result of bad fortune or bad choices? Samantha had started making notes on the cases she could, but most of the past cases would remain a mystery.

“Thank you for your kind words. I’m pleased the weather cooperated so we could enjoy the garden tonight.” Samantha smiled and briefly inclined her head. The mingling crowd wore an array of somber colors mixed in with the occasional pastel gown or pants. All wore some form of outer garment for warmth. “Another week and it will be too chilly to entertain out of doors. We’d miss a glorious night such as this to share with our friends.”

“Indeed, indeed.” Aaron’s smile faded as he looked around the area, his gaze lighting on first one, then another, of the guests before finally focusing on the two-story home. “This house has served us well for many years. It will be hard to find another as fine.”

Samantha heard a note of regret in his voice as her mother squeezed his arm. The sound of sadness raised tiny bumps along her flesh. She studied the shifting emotions playing across his features. “It is a good thing, then, that won’t be necessary. The British will pull out ere long, and the town can return to normal.”

“You speak the truth.” Aaron patted his wife’s hand gripping his arm but did not meet Samantha’s eyes for a moment. Finally, he locked gazes with her. “The Britons will depart very soon.”

Yet his tone—a quaver, a hesitation—suggested something amiss. Worry lines carved a valley between his brows, surrounded his tight lips. Her mother’s usually expressive face held no hint as to her feelings other than boredom. Obviously, she must be agitated to have schooled her face into such a rigid mask. What had happened to provoke them so?

“How is Evelyn?” Cynthia asked, changing the subject as she gave her attention to Samantha. “Pray tell me she is not still crying over that man.”

“It is to be expected she’d grieve the death of the father of her child,” Samantha said, shaking her head, “even if he did treat her abysmally in the end. At one time, she must have been fond of him.”

“So I’m told.” Cynthia sighed and folded her hands. “I’ll take some soothing tea up to her after everyone has eaten. Which reminds me, I had meant to inquire earlier. Did you have a plate sent up to her?”

“Amy carried a small plate up a while ago,” Samantha said. “Whether the poor woman ate it or not, I cannot say.”

“She still must provide for her infant.” Cynthia flexed her fingers and then shook her head. “Evelyn’s life has certainly been filled with sorrows and challenges.”

“With luck, her fortunes will change for the better while she resides in town.” Samantha’s experiences would help her counsel the new widow on the hard decisions and unpleasant realities she’d face. In the distance, Amy waved at Samantha to hurry. “Tomorrow, I’ll speak with Evelyn about her plans for the future.”

“Very kind of you. Ah, I see you’re being sought out.” Aaron half bowed and then motioned for her to precede him down the path. “Time for the annual salute. Have you chosen a suitable sentiment to share with our guests?”

She nodded, aware of a sense of relief emanating from her parents, and made her way down the path, shells crunching with each step. She glanced back at her father’s guarded expression and then drew in a breath, savoring the sweet aroma emanating from the massive rosemary bush huddled in the corner. Eager faces, alight with smiles, surrounded her. The string quartet finished playing Haydn in the background and fell silent.

Benjamin handed her a flute of sparkling wine when she reached the group of people gathered by the banquet table. She frowned, worry blooming inside. His lips pinched together as though he fought pain. His face appeared ashen in the flickering shadows of the lamplight. With surprise, she noticed when she accepted the flute from him that the touch of his hand left moisture on her fingers.

“Benjamin, are you feeling well?” Samantha studied his expression. The perspiration and tautness of his face sparked grave concern in her chest. “Tell me the truth.”

“I’m fine, a touch tired after the day’s exertions.” He wiped his hand down his dove gray evening coat and then smiled over Samantha’s head. “Excellent. You made it!”

She turned to welcome the new arrival and froze, her flute trembling in tense fingers, the liquid sloshing within the fragile crystal. Dr. Trenton Cunningham. His sandy blond hair waved back from his open expression, crystal blue eyes echoing the wide smile revealing even white teeth. Broad shoulders filled the dark navy evening coat he wore, a canary yellow cravat neatly tied at his throat and tucked into an elaborately embroidered waistcoat. Creamy breeches hugged his strong thighs, and tall black boots completed his attire. Despite the formality of his clothes, Dr. Trent appeared as though he’d recently arrived on board a ship from some distant intriguing port. Fresh and windblown and ready for adventure.

“Benjamin, should you be out here?” Trent strode to stand by his friend, inspecting Benjamin with a sweeping glance. “You look terrible.”

“I’ll be fine. Besides, I wouldn’t want to forego hearing Miss Samantha’s toast, after all.” Benjamin shook Trent’s hand and then drew Amy up to his side. “Congratulate me, my friend. Miss Amy has agreed to be my betrothed.”

Trent nodded at Amy, who beamed in her newly donned role. “My heartfelt wishes to you both.” He smiled and then bowed at Samantha, his eyes sparkling as he gazed up at her. “Miss Samantha, I’m honored to be included in your gathering this evening.”

“I’m pleased your schedule permitted you to attend.” She dipped a curtsy, but her thigh underwent a spasm and jerked in protest. Fiddlesticks. She lurched and flung her hands wide in an attempt to stay on her feet.

Trent grasped her arm as she found her balance, the contact of his hand jolting along every inch of her skin. Gramercy. Brows knitted, he gazed at her with concern evident in his countenance. She stepped away, out of his reach, and drew in a long breath. “Thank you.”

He half bowed again, his arm sweeping in front of his waist, as he smiled at her. “My pleasure.”

Although she’d been in his presence a handful of times—mainly when he challenged and decried her abilities as a healer—she couldn’t deny the intense visceral impact she experienced each time. A purely physical effect, of course, one she would scrutinize and then ignore. After all, the combination of a tall gorgeous man who also proved strong and clever could not easily be dismissed. His mere presence was extraordinarily dangerous to her sense of wellbeing. She forced herself to remain still, appear calm, even while her heart raced. She’d never experienced such a combined sense of imbalance and headlong emotion. A definite curiosity, given her intended path forward.

The last time she’d seen him, Trent had been furious at what he’d called her ineptitude while treating Emily’s young nephew the month before. He’d been wrong, of course, as little Tommy fully recovered from the snake bite without the doctor actually doing more than administering a small dose of emetic and then bathing the fever after her treatment. But she’d never had the opportunity to discuss the proper treatment, so he continued to act as though her skills proved inferior to his. Bah. After the fact, her mother relayed news of the latest snake bite remedy based on plantains, rum, and tobacco juice. If only she’d learned of the amazingly effective poultice sooner, little Tommy would have never suffered a prolonged ordeal. Next time, she’d know. Another chapter ended and book closed.

Though aware of the disquieting fact Benjamin summoned the young doctor, she’d hoped he’d wait to arrive after the party ended and the guests dispersed. Or at least he might have the courtesy to dawdle until after she’d made her short speech. But he’d shown up as eager and affecting as ever, unsettling her normally unflappable composure preceding her annual duty. Indeed, time had slipped away and the moment arrived. She turned back to face the guests, and raised her glass, the golden wine jostling in the flute.

She waited for the conversations and laughter to die as one by one they noticed her. When all was quiet except for the call of night birds to one another, she lifted her glass a bit higher. “My friends, we gather this evening as in years past to rejoice in the bounty we’ve realized this year. As our country begins to define our government and create a new society, consider the wise words from the lauded Anna Bradstreet, who some have called the Tenth Muse, in her wonderfully inspiring Meditations, Divine and Moral.”

Trent locked gazes with her, disconcerting her already churning thoughts. Strange how his presence caused such an extreme reaction. Was it the animosity she sensed flowing from him like sea foam after a storm? Or could it be more of an underlying awareness triggered by similar interests? He widened his eyes and then winked at her as a slow grin eased onto his lips. Startled, she blinked and then focused instead on the cluster of her closest friends and her parents. She took a breath, trying in vain to calm her agitation, and aimed a shaky smile at the gathering.

She must push through this disconcerting situation as swiftly as she dared. “Miss Bradstreet reminded us that, ‘Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.’ Pray keep this thought in mind as the year draws to a close and we face new challenges. Our governor and other state leaders will need our support and God’s guidance.”

Glasses clinked all around her to the accompaniment of “Huzza! Huzza!” She let out a sigh masked as a laugh, raising her glass again to acknowledge the well wishes of the people before her.

She sipped the wine, the cheer of the moment echoing inside her heart. The sweet liquid slid down her throat, calming and buoying her at the same time. Looking over the crowd, she noted others mimicking her actions. All but two anyway. Her parents, grim faced and rigid, turned and stalked away. Their actions could only mean one thing. A chill born of dismay and fear froze her smile into place.

* * *

The expectant hush ended as the McAlesters’ guests turned to each other and quiet conversations resumed. Couples drifted off, heads together, to meander through the winding paths of the herbal garden. An obligatory smile graced Samantha’s lush lips. Trent tracked the direction of her gaze, following it to the elderly couple strolling away with unhurried steps but tense posture. He’d seen them earlier, learned the striking woman was the infamously suspect midwife Cynthia McAlester and her tall husband, Aaron, the sly loyalist merchant striving to keep his affairs out of the public eye. A couple meant for each other. Not that any one else characterized them as such, but the rumors moving through town must contain more than a hint of truth. Flicking a glance back to Samantha, he nodded to himself. Their daughter. He hadn’t connected them as a family before. He remembered her fumbling attempts to heal the boy with the snake bite, an attempt that ended well only because he’d stepped in to help. She’d been out of her depth with such a delicate situation. No wonder she seemed familiar verging on dangerous. But then, with those lips enticing a man’s kiss, her mere presence could become perilous to his equilibrium.

Samantha, although as beautiful as Cleopatra, embodied the outmoded medical approach he vowed to replace with current theories, techniques and practices. The rise of trained doctors would ultimately force out the uneducated and ill-advised practices of the town’s old midwives. While the conflict between the colonies and England raged, he’d been forced to attend university in Philadelphia rather than the prestigious University of Edinburgh in Scotland where he’d dreamed of studying. Still, the professors he studied under had been trained in Edinburgh, like his own father, so his education ranked with the best. On the other hand, women like Mrs. McAlester and Miss Samantha would have to come to grips with the cost of progress. He rather felt sorry for them, truth be told. In another life and circumstance, Samantha might be the type of woman who could prove a perfect companion and maybe even wife, with her understanding and knowledge of the life of one who cares for others. But with the times changing, moving to more modern ways and practices, well… He hoped she had another way to earn her keep after he convinced the town of his superior methods.

Her perplexed expression became a happy smile as she made her way to where Benjamin and Amy chatted with Frank and Emily beside a huge rosemary bush. The pungent aroma mingled with the seaside scents. The four friends greeted her with brief clasps, though Benjamin grimaced when he moved his arm to do so. Trent frowned, concern sweeping down his spine. Benjamin’s rifle shot wound. The only reason Trent had been invited to this gathering. Even though they had no idea of his ultimate desire for the town, they treated him with caution even as they called him friend. He snorted. No surprise there.

Benjamin stepped away from the group and motioned Frank aside to have a conversation, handing off what looked like a small silver box with too casual movements. The way they subtly surveyed those around them, as if apprehensive, made Trent suspicious regarding the transaction. Frank slid the item into a pants pocket with a grim nod before the men rejoined the ladies. Mayhap Trent should investigate to satisfy his curiosity if for no other reason.

He strode over to stand by the group, and by extension Samantha, his black evening cloak bumping against his calves when he stopped. Samantha’s stiff posture and composed countenance spoke volumes, revealing her level of concern with his company. She stood tense and ready, her arms crossed as if to ward off an attack, the soft fabric of her shawl quaking with her agitation. Although she wore a resolute smile, she kept a watchful eye on him as he joined the clutch of friends.

“Good evening.” Benjamin nodded once. “Thanks for being here.”

“My pleasure.” Trent spread his cloak open enough to allow cooler air inside, then tugged the points of his waistcoat down into place. “How are you faring?”

“I’ll tell you. He pretends nothing is wrong.” Amy clasped a white gloved hand on Benjamin’s good arm. “But I can tell he’s in significant pain. More with each passing minute.” She scrutinized Benjamin’s face, frowned, glanced at Samantha and then back to meet Trent’s eyes. “In fact, he’s worse now than a few moments ago. Can either of you help him?”

“The poultice will take time to have full effect.” Samantha stiffened at the inclusion of Trent so easily and moved closer to Benjamin. “Is it any better yet or would you prefer for me to redress the wound?”

“Come now, Miss McAlester.” Trent stepped forward, drawing her attention. “Your particular skills are no longer needed as Benjamin has requested I attend to his injury henceforth.”

Samantha blinked twice as she squared her shoulders, her chest thrusting forward to lend an intriguing view of creamy cleavage. Not that she seemed to notice, but the smoothness of her skin as it deepened into shadow between her breasts tempted him to explore. He inhaled sharply. An outrageous desire, one to set aside posthaste. Pay attention. She studied him when he met her gaze, her eyes narrowed and then focused on Benjamin. “Is that so?”

Benjamin shifted his weight to stand closer to Amy, one pant leg half-disappearing into the voluminous folds of her long skirts. “Not exactly, Miss Samantha. Trent has been trained by the best minds in Philadelphia, so I asked him to assist you in my treatment.”

Samantha lifted her chin and then turned to study Trent for several moments. “I really do not need your assistance, Dr. Trent. However, since Benjamin insists, I shall endeavor to consult you when any question arises. But pray stay out of my way as much as possible.”

Damnation, he had thought her beautiful before. When her eyes sparked and her cheeks pinked with suppressed anger, he couldn’t look away. “With all due respect, there is no call for you to trouble your pretty head with the matter.”

Amy gasped, her brows arching. “Why would you say such a thing?”

“My apologies if I’ve offended you, Miss Amy.” He shrugged but continued gazing upon Samantha’s glowing features with admiration, including her dark pink lips. Invitingly ripe lips which, sadly, were definitely off limits to him. “I merely believe Miss Samantha should concentrate on other areas more suited to her training. Assisting at child birth, for instance.”

Samantha lifted one brow and drew in a long breath. Letting it out slowly, she moistened her lips with a flick of her tongue, stirring a reaction in Trent’s groin. Damnation. He couldn’t permit such a reaction. He cleared his throat as she clasped her gloved hands before her, searching his face until he grew uncomfortable and glanced away to compose himself.

“I can assure you, gentlemen,” Samantha said, her words clipped and voice pulsating with suppressed emotions, “my talents and training enable me to treat any illness or complaint my patients may have.”

“Any? My sweet woman, no doctor could hope to heal or cure every patient.” Trent grinned at the naiveté of her statement. She may be beautiful but not necessarily as savvy as he’d been led to believe. “You’re mistaken on the point.”

“My mother has worked all her life to help those around her and she taught me everything she knows. I learned a great deal from her as well as a few other healers, as my friends can attest.” She shot a look at Amy and Benjamin, one brow raised while she waited.

Trent frowned at the silent message passing between the friends. Exactly who were the others she trained under? Why not be forthright and state her credentials rather than resort to subterfuge and misdirection?

“Indeed, I can vouch for Samantha’s abilities.” Amy moved forward, her long skirts rustling, and reached out to grasp Samantha’s arm to draw her closer. “For example, everyone knows how much she has helped the poor folk living up on The Neck, often for no compensation.”

“On the mainland side of the peninsula? That’s what’s referred to as The Neck, right?” Trent allowed a short guffaw before the stern expression on Benjamin’s face quelled the impulse to laugh outright. Working with the slaves and the free blacks did not recommend her efforts. They’d take whatever help they could find. “I suppose the amount of payment was commensurate to her abilities.”

“You, sir, having only recently arrived in this city have no right to demean me with such a statement.” Samantha bristled, unclasping her hands to brace them on her slim hips. Her green eyes glittered like bottle glass, cold and harsh. “How dare you?”

She glared at him but he couldn’t stop looking at her. What was the question? He shook his head, her flaring nostrils and primly compressed lips entrancing. He really must pay attention and not let his physical response to her distract his objective. And yet… “Has any one ever told you how pretty you are when your eyes flash in anger? It takes my breath.” Trent smiled, trying to divert the conversation to calmer seas. “You’re a very handsome woman, Miss Samantha.”

“Do not change the subject at hand.” Samantha’s tone held firm but her shoulders relaxed a small amount. “Pretty words will not sway me.”

Trent considered the gorgeous woman before him. The softening of her posture implied she might be amenable to knowing him better despite her claim. He mentally shook his head as he perused the details of her face, the sprinkling of freckles across her pert nose, the crystalline nature of her emerald eyes, and the pure perfection of her skin. Unfortunately, the discord between them could only deepen as a result of their opposition on the matter of patient care.

“You two need to calm yourselves. Don’t you agree, Ben?” Amy grinned and glanced up at Benjamin’s white face. Her expression shifted to reflect her extreme disquiet at what she saw. “Ben, let me help you home. You need to rest.”

Samantha edged closer to Benjamin, peering at him. “I do not understand why you have suddenly taken such a turn for the worse.” Samantha examined Benjamin’s face, a frown marring her classic features. “It’s as if a shadow passed over your grave or a candle was snuffed.”

Trent tore his gaze from Samantha to inspect Benjamin’s aspect. He didn’t like what he detected there. “The change in your countenance is indeed a pertinent fact which should inform Benjamin’s next decision regarding his care.”

Benjamin nodded and then winced at the movement. “I believe Amy is right. Some rest may help alleviate my discomfort.”

Trent cast a practiced eye over his new friend and patient, concerned at the pallor, the tension, and fatigue accompanying the trauma associated with the gunshot wound. He’d require assistance and observation. “I’ll go with you.”

Benjamin waved him off, then permitted Amy to take his arm as much needed support. “I’ll be fine tonight. Just tired. But tomorrow, come tomorrow.”

“I’ll be there at first light.” The combined effects of Benjamin’s symptoms concerned him, but by delaying until the next day he had time to consult with his father and his extensive library of medical texts. “Go home and rest. Nothing else. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“We both will.” Samantha patted Amy’s shoulder before the couple slowly strolled down the winding path toward the arbor draped with dormant rose vines. They passed under the shadowy arch and disappeared into the waiting street beyond. “I do hope he’s had a brief relapse which shall pass.”

Emily shook her head. “I have a bad feeling about all of this, Samantha.”

“As do I.” Samantha folded her arms, her gaze lingering on the spot where Benjamin and Amy had disappeared.

“Em, I should see you home as the hour grows late, and I must be up early on the morrow.” Frank crooked his arm to receive the weight of Emily’s hand tucked around his elbow. “If you’ll excuse us, Miss Samantha.”

“Certainly.” Samantha grinned after the couple strolling down the garden path. She turned back to Trent and sighed. “I suppose I should start winding up this affair. If you’ll excuse me?” She tilted her head and then pivoted in preparation to move away.

Trent’s heart raced as she turned to leave. He couldn’t let her escape. Not yet. “Walk with me, Miss Samantha?” He didn’t want to let her go even though she left him unsettled and defensive. For one thing, he wanted to understand her plan. For another, intriguingly, she enthralled him with her beauty, her voice, her smile, as fleeting as he’d seen it. “We should discuss our plans for Benjamin.”

She paused to evaluate his request for a moment before nodding once, her black hair, pulled up in an intricate style with a cascade of curls, dancing about her shoulders. “Would you be so kind as to hand me a glass of wine from the tray? I’m parched.”

“Very well, my fair queen.” He made an elaborate bow, a brow lifted as he smiled at her, tempting her to play along with his charade. He wanted to win her over, to know her not on a professional level but on a personal one.

Startled, her eyes grew wide and then she blinked before raising the back of her hand to her brow and leaning as though about to fall. “Pray hurry, kind sir, before I faint away from lack of wine.”

She had a sense of humor after all. Grinning, he clasped her hand and pulled her upright. “Indeed. Stay here while I search for a bolstering beverage for your enjoyment.” His smile spread as he turned to seek out the refreshment.

After a quick skim of the crowd, he spotted a young black woman slowly moving among the guests. Motioning to her, he waited for the girl to reach him, her long black gown relieved only by a white frilly apron and matching kerchief about her neck. As he watched her approach, sidling between a host of fellow residents as they laughed and chatted, it occurred to him every person in attendance at Samantha’s party would need to be convinced his way of practicing the healing arts surpassed those of their friend and neighbor. Samantha had won the esteem of many, which also indicated their belief in her abilities. Changing their opinions of who to trust would prove a daunting task, but he’d had a great deal of practice at being persistent and even pigheaded if it came down to it. If he had any hope of seeing his ultimate goals come to pass, he needed a plan of his own.

Finally, the girl wended her way close enough and Trent snagged two flutes from the tray. He turned to offer one to Samantha, unsure of exactly what he wanted to relay to her. “M’lady.”

“Thank you, kind sir.” She lowered her hand to receive the glass and flashed a grin before sipping the garnet-colored wine. “I feel better already. Did you have something you wished to discuss?”

“Nothing specific.” He motioned to the path leading away from the lamplight toward the shadows of the garden. As they walked, perhaps he’d fasten upon a proper starting point for their conversation. He simply had to stop staring at her so he could formulate a coherent thought not centered upon the complications resulting from his strong attraction to her. “Shall we?”

She stepped off and he matched her stride, surprised to note her limping ever so slightly as they strolled together along the path. He considered offering his arm, but she stayed far enough apart to suggest she wouldn’t welcome such an act. Although he no longer trusted the simples of a healer, the quantity and variety of plants they strolled past impressed even him. Indeed, the source of most medicines based on organic compounds could be readily produced using the plants in the extensive and inviting garden. The collection alone increased the value of the property despite its less than ideal location in town. So many of the buildings surrounding the house had burned in recent years, due to accidents and bombardments, until the area felt abandoned.

“Might I inquire as to the cause of your limp? How did you hurt yourself?” He held his breath. She might very well reveal a dark and questionable past with her explanation. Or the story might be related to a simple injury while working among her medicinal herbs. Regardless, would she entrust the details to him?

Her dark jade eyes flashed his direction then slid away. She lifted one shoulder and then let it settle back into place. Her gaze searched the black velvet heavens, a sliver of moon hanging over the party. On a long sigh, she said, “From behind the house, the stars are shining brighter, don’t you think?”

He could take a hint. Her business, not his. He’d probably react the same way, assuming he had a secret regarding his past. Smiling to himself, he nodded. “Indeed.”

She studied the sky for several strides. “This is not a good time for treating Benjamin’s wound.”

Frowning, Trent mulled over her words. What did she mean? He lifted his gaze to match the direction in which she looked. The cool evening air chilled around him as her meaning crystallized. “Please tell me you don’t believe the stars’ alignment has anything whatsoever to do with how well medicine works.”

She tucked her shawl more tightly about her shoulders as she turned down a side path. “Absolutely. I’m surprised your fancy education didn’t include an appreciation for the intricacies of nature’s relationships.”

“No, no, no.” He shook his head for emphasis on his point. “I do not mean to offend, but this is one reason why I believe the old ways are based on fallacy and superstition.”

“Yet they’ve proven successful for millennia.”

“Success, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Mayhap. How do you define it then?”

Trent examined the points of light in the sky, mulling her question and taking his time formulating a response. A nightingale pierced the quiet surrounding them, the distant hum of the other guests creating a supportive consonance to their conversation. “Success means methodologies and practices which yield the same results each time they are employed. Despite which doctor uses them, the time of year or what constellations are visible.”

Samantha laughed out loud, a light trill of sound reminiscent of a warbler. “How do you expect every doctor to have the same results? Depending on not only the time of year but also on the options at hand, each will have different experience and capabilities. You said as much yourself, no doctor can cure everything.”

“I intend to found a new hospital with trained doctors from around the globe.” His pace quickened as he spoke of his dreams. He’d been working toward his goal since childhood when he comprehended not knowing the cause of an illness led to a person’s death. He swallowed the emotion threatening to choke off his air. “After the fighting ends and Americans can begin to truly establish who we are as a country. Then my hospital will be among the leaders in medical advances, rivaling the hospital in Edinburgh itself.”

Samantha halted abruptly, her skirts eddying about her ankles. She regarded him for two breaths, a frown forming. “And as a result, you’ll force healers such as myself out of business?”

Her fierce expression gave him pause. Made him reconsider blurting out the simple, “naturally,” forming on his tongue. He’d learned at university he needed to work on diplomacy, improving his manners when working with patients. For that matter, people in general. But standing in front of this woman, he wanted her good opinion of him, and moreover he needed her to be in his life. He wouldn’t make a stupid blunder which would jeopardize that possibility. He swallowed and hedged. “Not necessarily, no.”

“But if it happens, so be it. Is that what you’re saying?” She propped fists on hips, a scowl emphasizing her position on his plans. “You have no right to wipe away my practice in order for you to have one. The people will have a say in the matter.”

“They will definitely have a say, and I’m afraid you’ll find them flocking to the proven methods good doctors use. I’m sure they will see it’s in their best interest.” Trent studied the play of emotions competing in her expression. Perhaps she didn’t realize the benefits she’d reap as his plan unfolded. Perhaps a gentle reminder would go a long way to smoothing out her ruffled feathers. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll be happier tending your home without all the worry associated with caring for the ill and frail. You can still be a midwife, even if you’re not a healer as you are now. After all, you’ll want to find a good man to marry and bear his children.”

She raised one brow. “Do not presume to fathom what would make me happy. You do not have the right, Dr. Trent. We shall work together to please Benjamin, but nothing more. Now, if you’re through deciding my life for me, I have ignored my real guests for far too long.” With a curt nod, she spun and hurried back down the path.

What had he said wrong? He trailed after her, sauntering along the winding path as he considered the equally intriguing and infuriating woman. Reviewing their conversation, he found nothing unreasonable in his opinion. She must have simply misinterpreted his intent. Women. Leave it to the female of the species to take affront at common sense observations. Over time, she would come to appreciate the sensibility of his words.

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