The year 1899, America's Gilded Age
Braxton Southbourne scythed a path amid the towering green reeds, a swath wide enough to accommodate a full regiment of marching infantrymen. Only early July, yet the cut stalks soon wilted under the sun.
Christ, but the afternoon was hot, as hot as hell.
Hell and Cuba – one and the same to him. These days, most everything reminded him of the island located a stone's-throw from the tip of Florida. And if he did manage to forget that mosquito-riddled swamp-hole for even a minute, a recurrence of malaria would nudge his memory all over again.
A little over a year ago Brax had been aiding Cuban rebels in their battle for independence during the Spanish-American War, serving as a volunteer in Roosevelt's Rough Riders. The cavalry unit he led started out on horseback but ended up charging Kettle Hill on foot from the marshlands below...
Correction. Only those survivors healthy enough to still walk had charged the hill.
His unit had come under heavy sniper attack that day, and Brax had left plenty of casualties behind. Thick tropical vegetation had done little to hide non-ambulatory wounded from sharpshooters. Those bastards had picked his boys off one-by-one, no different than fish in a barrel...
"You there in the tall grass..."
Was that disembodied female voice addressing him?
"Yes, you," she answered.
Christ. Was he talking to himself again?
Since Cuba, Brax thought out loud. A lot. Basically, all the time. But no one ever replied.
Until now. Was she another one of his hallucinations, one capable of speech this time?
Perhaps. Headaches had plagued him all week. Fevers too. And hell, yes, he was disoriented. Difficult to tell what was real any more. Bed-rest did nothing for any of his symptoms so, after pushing his uneaten noontime meal around his plate a while – Cook's feelings were easily hurt – he dragged himself outside to catch a breath of fresh air off the Hudson River. A fool's errand. No air, fresh or otherwise, was to be had anywhere today in the valley.
An old military slouch hat shaded most of his face. Brax slapped the sweat-stained felt to the back of his head and surveyed the overgrown terrain surrounding him. That was when he spied her. Or, rather, when he spied her ugly hat poking above the reeds.
Unless his hallucinations had taken to wearing homely bonnets, the woman was real.
"Who else would I be speaking to, if not you?" she demanded to know. "Any more inmates in there with you? Come out and show yourself this instant. And where is your guard? I need to speak to him immediately about his lax control of prisoners."
Christ, but the woman was bossy. Opinionated too. Not to mention insulting.
She had mistaken him for the member of a chain gang, one evidently out of lock-step with the rest of his motley crew of criminals. Sing Sing penitentiary was located thirty miles outside Manhattan, fairly close to his remote estate as the crow flew, and so he supposed her misapprehension did fall within the realm of possibility.
Even so – a prison inmate? Was he that disheveled? Or, was his dangerousness written on his face?
Let her think what she would, he finally decided. An inmate, if she liked. Why correct her? He was hot, he stank, his throat was on fire, and he had a fierce temper on him, all signs his low-grade fever was spiking. As to his looking dangerous – hell, yes, when he was like this, he was a threat.
Especially to an irritating woman like this one.
Slivers of muddy grass stuck to his bare chest and brought shrapnel to mind. Absently swiping at them, he made his slow way over to where she stood, his gait hobbled as if he were indeed manacled to a ball-and-chain. He was a gentleman by birth, if not by family income, and the oaths he mumbled en route were mild and mostly flew low under his breath.
He stopped close enough to her to be heard, but not smelled. "What is it you want?"
"Directions to the entrance of this residence, please."
"You dragged me all the hell way up here to ask me that?" Thwack! He smacked the scythe's wooden handle.
Despite the violence of his gesture, she held her ground. "The private carriage I hired at the train station was driven by a most surly driver." She smiled. "Any relation? Bad humor often runs in families..."
He shot her a surlier look than any average surly carriage driver could have produced. Then, he went and ruined the effect by swaying on his feet.
To cover his weakness, he chopped down some nearby bushes, woody debris scattering around her like discharged rifle shells. In Cuba, a trusty Model 66 Winchester had been his weapon of choice.
She never blinked at the resultant mess.
Christ. What did he have to do to get her gone?
He tried staring her down.
No movement. Not an inch of lost ground. She remained steady.
Lucky her. A stiff breeze would have blown him over.
"At any rate, I struck a bargain with the carriage driver," she chirped. "Would you like to hear what that bargain entailed?"
"The driver agreed to reduce my fare under one condition," she told him, despite his unfeigned lack of interest. "I daresay you cannot wait to hear the deal I negotiated."
"Sorry. You have failed to arouse my curiosity." The rest of him, however, was mightily aroused. By her. Ugly hat and all. "Now go!"
"And leave my story without an ending? Unlikely! My habit is to finish what I start. The driver said he would drop me off at the front gate, rather than the door, thereby saving himself time on the return trip to town and me money, all for a few extra footsteps on my part. I agreed in an instant."
"Some damn bargain. From the gate to the house is over a mile."
"The holes in my boot soles validate your calculation. I might have gotten the short end of the stick there." She chuckled. "Truth to tell, my attempt at frugality backfired like one of these new motorcars one sees cruising about Manhattan. I swear, someday, this latest plaything of the wealthy will run over some poor soul on his or her way to work. There have already been rumors of a fatality..."
Christ. All her annoying small talk. Make it stop.
Brax rubbed his left temple. Both temples throbbed like a son of a bitch but, since Cuba, he could only perform one task at a time and poorly at that.
He spat through gritted teeth, "Get to the point. That is, if you have one."
"Oh, I do, and it is this – on my way to the door, I must have chosen the wrong bend in the drive."
"And wound up here bothering me."
"A misadventure, yes. And, going forward, I confess to being quite confused over how to proceed. And my appointment up at the house is at half-past eleven in the morning. You see the difficulty."
"You mean, you had an appointment at half-past eleven in the morning."
Fever burnt off weight. The coarse twill trousers Brax wore never used to require suspenders to keep them up. Now, they did. Unfortunately, in his rush to escape the house – the walls had started closing in on him – he had dispensed with that nod to decency.
Not the best idea he'd ever had.
And what worsened an already precarious situation was his old brass timepiece. An inheritance from his decreased father, the watch drooped low from his loose waistband on a heavy tarnished chain. When Brax snapped the lid to check the time, his trousers sank like an anchor and exposed his sharp hipbones. "Your appointment was two hours since."
"Not so indifferent to punctuality, after all, eh?" he offered.
She waved his mockery aside. "Nothing like that. I gasped because you own a timepiece."
"What of it?"
"Prisoners do not own timepieces. Hence, you cannot possibly be an inmate of Sing Sing. You know, you might have informed me of my error."
"The lack of stripes should have given it a way."
"A prisoner's uniform. Of course! I assure you, I would have noticed. Eventually." She gave a short burst of laugher. "You must work here at the estate. And I should be running along up to the house now or I shall never be similarly employed."
Brax's bulky timepiece chose that moment to lurch from his shaky hand. As it dropped, the watch took his baggy trousers with it.
Making a grab for both, he growled, "Why bother traipsing all the way up to the house at this late hour? You will never get the position now."
"Not that it is any of your concern – I am confident Mr. Southbourne will interview me, anyway, after I explain everything."
"Overly optimistic. Mr. Southbourne is a busy gentleman. I doubt you will even be granted a private audience with him."
"An audience? Such arrogance! Is that how he really speaks? Is the owner of this estate Queen Victoria in male disguise? The Pope minus ecclesiastical robes? No, he is not," she said answering her own question. "I shall speak to him, for I must." She wrung her hands together. "I desperately need the work."
"Perhaps he will talk to you, after all," Brax grumbled.
"I have taken up enough of your valuable time. I will be on my way before your poorly disguised impatience escalates to outright boorishness." She started walking, veering sharply in the wrong direction.
He hollered at her straight spine, "Continue as you are and you will end up at the service entrance."
"Apropos," she flung back at him. "I am here to apply for a vacant nursing position in this household and, for the most part, nurses are considered little better than maids, servants without any formal training whatsoever. Or worse still – drunkards of questionable morality."
"Be that as it may, take the portico entrance. Much closer. And faster,"
"And far too grand for the likes of me." Turning, she looked back at him and smirked. "This estate could compete with Versailles, all for show."
"Not all for show. Porticos can serve a useful purpose."
"This, I simply must hear."
"Ladies prefer disembarking under the cover of a roof during inclement weather. Raindrops can prove ruinous to taffeta gowns and ruined taffeta gowns spell a disastrous house party."
"A little damp splashing a dress – a disaster? Oh, please," she said with a snort. "Having to choose between paying the rent and buying food – now that spells a disaster. The rich know nothing about how poor folk like you and I live."
"Take care. That chip on your shoulder will make your hem hang crooked." He ogled her ankles.
"My, my, my. Your glassy eyes dipped quick enough. Like what you see?"
He did. Her ankles were trim and shapely.
To get his foul mind off them, he asked, "How can you hope to hold any sort of position in this household feeling as you do about the well-off?"
"Justice caters to the rich, but illness is impartial. It strikes equally. We nurses pride ourselves on our ability to put aside our own personal biases and treat one and all fairly, with a blind eye to a patient's money pouch or anything else about which we may disapprove – like useless porticos."
Her hands, encased in gloves that had seen better days, went to her hips. Her ratty reticule snapping around her wrist with the force of her posturing, she said, "Next time, show some decorum in the presence of a lady. Remove your damn hat! And if you dare to say I am not a lady, I will knock some manners into your head, thereby confirming your assessment of me. Heed me well here – you and I may be cut from a poorer cloth than those who live in fine country manor houses such as this one, but we can still maintain high standards. Never lower yourself by behaving otherwise."
She drew a deep breath. "The only reason I have shown you any patience whatsoever is because I can clearly see you are distressed, edging on agitated. You might very well have sunstroke. Though, a temporary condition like that would not account for your recent loss of weight. At any rate, you may require immediate medical attention. When I see your employer...and I shall...I intend to inform him that you might be seriously ill. The name is Nurse Floss, by the way. I will see to my own way without any further assistance from you. Good day."
Brax watched Nurse Floss continue along the drive toward his country home, the gentle sway of her unstylish bustle taunting him.
Usually, he could mask his illness. Not with her. The nurse's diagnosis was too close to the bone for comfort. His condition was worsening. On that one score, Nurse Floss was correct.
For the position he was offering?
She was wrong, all wrong.
Still, he had all to do not to shout "Hurry! Please hurry," after her.