A shudder snaked down Claire’s spine as the screams filled the small room. Ellie Hicks sobbed and gasped for breath; tears streamed down her face and mixed with the sweat that drenched her body. No pale wallflower, Ellie was a woman in her forties, well seasoned from years of selling her body to any man who offered. Claire had never seen the stalwart, unemotional woman so broken, her silver-red hair plastered in a tangled mass along her cheeks and neck. And the blood. God, it was everywhere.
Claire closed her eyes for a moment to steady herself. What use was she to Tia if she couldn’t hold herself together? She wanted to be a doctor, of all the crazy dreams, and her reaction to Ellie’s condition dismayed her.
“More blankets,” Tia said.
“The pain,” Ellie moaned as she lay back against the pillow. Even her lips were drained of color. “Am I gonna die?” she wailed.
“Shush,” Tia quieted her. “You will not die this night.”
Claire met Betsy Williams in the hallway. “I need more blankets,” she told the young, brown-haired woman.
“Is she all right?” Betsy asked, her eyes wide with concern.
The girl had been at the White Dove for five months, serving drinks and helping with general upkeep. Eventually Claire’s mama expected all the women to service customers via the second floor, but Claire wondered if Betsy truly had the temperament for it. Perhaps Maggie Waters was getting soft in her old age. Only one other time had Claire’s mama let a girl off the hook, and that had been Claire herself.
On her sixteenth birthday Claire had dreaded the foregone conclusion that she would have to earn her living the old-fashioned way, but her mama had given her a reprieve due to Claire’s skills with healing and medicines. During the past three years Claire had done her best to help the women at the White Dove, but recently her mama had expressed displeasure that her daughter helped any whore who came to the door.
Claire reached out and squeezed Betsy’s arm. “I hope so. Can you bring the blankets?”
The girl nodded and returned quickly with the request. “If you need me…”
“I’ll let you know,” Claire replied. “It’s best if you and the other girls keep things running downstairs. We wouldn’t want to alarm any of the customers.” The truth was, with only Louisa Pérez and Alice May providing additional entertainment of late, the customers simply weren’t coming around like they had in the past. Claire could only conclude that with Ellie out of commission and Maggie gone, the men were taking their business elsewhere. Southern Charm was only a short walk down the street, and Claire knew the proprietress, Belle Mason, employed at least a dozen girls.
Claire closed the door and helped Tia clean Ellie, piling the bloody sheets and cloths in the corner. Although the mattress was a loss, they covered it again with a new blanket. Ellie gripped painfully onto Claire’s shoulders while Tia accomplished the job.
Tia ushered Claire to the other side of the room and said quietly, “I think she lose a babe. Her body try to help, but not fast enough.” She leaned down, pulled a rawhide bag from her satchel and handed it to Claire. “Take these cuipa de sabina and make a pot of tea. It will help push the babe out. She bleed too much. No time.”
Claire nodded and left the room. She took the back staircase to the kitchen, relieved to avoid the saloon, despite the sparse number of customers. Louisa, one of the White Dove’s more popular attractions with her exotic Mexican looks and expertise behind closed doors, had lamented over the decrease in clientele more than once. Concern over the financial state of the establishment, as well as her mama’s absence, weighed more and more on Claire as each day passed. The girls told her Maggie had taken Jimmy—Claire’s younger brother—to Cimarron. Since a trip north wasn’t out of the ordinary Claire had kept a low profile while awaiting their return, wanting to explain in person why she’d stayed away as long as she had. She ignored the twinge of bitterness that her mama was somehow responsible for Sandoval overtaking the stage that day. The memory of how he’d pulled Claire from its interior while Jimmy screamed for her—fighting to save her as only a reckless eight year old dare against a group of armed men—still echoed despairingly in her mind.
As Claire entered the narrow kitchen she caught a glimpse of her hand—a disturbing sight of blood-stained skin and fingernails rimmed in dark outlines. A wave of fear washed through her and she wondered if becoming a doctor wasn’t in the cards for her. She was certain the men in town who hung out a shingle and treated the population in general didn’t have hands that shook like leaves in a thunderstorm. Blinking back tears, she took a steadying breath.
The stove was already hot; Claire had stoked it earlier when Ellie’s condition had worsened. She scrubbed her hands as best she could with soap and a bristle brush, splashing water onto the wooden countertop around the small washbasin. In haste she grabbed a white cloth hanging from the wall and dried her hands. She retrieved a large teakettle from a shelf and filled it with water from a bucket near the back door. As she struggled to lift the heavy cookware a very masculine hand came from behind and immediately relieved her arms of the burden.
Startled, her gaze locked with Logan’s blue-green eyes. Her heartbeat picked up considerably.
“How’s Ellie?” he asked.
Claire watched as he effortlessly placed the kettle on the cast-iron stove. He opened the hinged door below to check the fire, to which he added several pieces of wood from a stash in the corner.
“Not doing well,” Claire replied, wondering why her voice sounded so different to her, deeper and more cautious than usual. She felt spent, in more ways than one. And Logan’s sudden attention was almost enough to push her beyond the breaking point.
He had found her on the steps of her mama’s saloon, dressed like one of the women who spent much of their time horizontal, or sitting upright if she was to believe Louisa. That thought made her face burn. She had no firsthand knowledge of such things, but Logan’s eyes on her made her realize he thought she did.
While the idea shamed her, it was, surprisingly, equally matched by a fierce desire to explore Logan the way Louisa and the other girls claimed to do with the men who patronized them. The longing was so sharp it staggered her. Claire stepped back and gripped the edge of the one and only table in the room.
What kind of woman did Logan choose for a bed partner?
Tall and broad-shouldered, he all but consumed the enclosed space of the kitchen. She truly had never expected to see him again, a notion that had nagged at the back of her mind many times since she left Texas.
Suddenly he moved toward her, his hat casting a shadow across his face that was both familiar and unreadable. She well remembered the way his dark brown hair curled slightly at the nape of his neck, how she would find him watching her from time to time during her stay at the SR, how his gaze had made her mind wander to possibilities never before imagined.
He loomed closer, and she leaned back involuntarily as his hand came to her cheek. “You have blood on your face,” he said quietly. Very gently he rubbed a spot near her nose with the pad of his thumb, his hand warm where it touched her.
Unable to find her voice, Claire stared at the dark blue collar of his shirt, the top buttons undone and revealing tan skin and a hint of chest hair that likely went further down. A prospect she would certainly never know.
Moving his hand away from her he carefully lifted some of the black hair trailing over her shoulder from the wig that was making her head itch like wildfire. “We need to talk,” he said.
The kettle began to boil, throwing a thick line of steam above the stove. Claire rushed toward it, but Logan was two steps ahead of her; he took the towel from her hand and lifted the heavy pot. She found a white porcelain teapot, the ceramic lid clanking loudly as she fumbled with the cookware. Damn my shaking hands.
She deposited a handful of the cedar shavings Tia had given her into a piece of cheesecloth, haphazardly tied it then placed the bundle into the teapot. Standing far enough back so as to avoid accidentally touching Logan, she waited as he poured the water. In an effort to occupy herself she located a battered wooden tray and placed a tin cup and the brewing tea onto it.
“This may take awhile,” she said and glanced at him. Why in the world did his presence unnerve her so much?
Claire was about to say he shouldn’t, that she was certain he had better things to do than linger around for her, but she knew she was wasting precious time. Ellie needed the tea.
She nodded, lifted the tray and left the kitchen, sensing Logan’s eyes on her. Although glad to see him, she was thoroughly confused by her reaction.
When she entered Ellie’s room all thoughts of his dark gaze and broad shoulders left her mind as she faced the arduous task of delivering the woman’s stillborn child.
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