Note: Audra's story seems to have been happening around the edges of my other stories, so perhaps a summary is in order. In Love Letters, Audra discovered a love and talent for Natural History. In Shadow of a Doubt, she met Darren Smith, Molly's legal counsel, with whom she had a long-distance romantic relationship while away at college (briefly mentioned in Return to Paradise). In The Amazing Colossal Mash-up, she graduated from college and spent the summer mulling over whether to marry Darren and settle down as a housewife, or whether to pursue an opportunity to study in the Amazon. In On the Other Foot, she left for six months in the Amazon, from which she returned at the beginning of Tough Mothers: Samantha. Which brings us up to date, as Audra finally gets her own story.
No Gilded Cage
Audra Barkley stepped off the train in Stockton into the waiting arms of her mother. "Oh, Mother, it's so good to be home!" She looked around the platform, seeing no other Barkley but her brother Nick. "Where is everyone?" she asked.
"Jarrod's in court," Victoria replied, "and Heath and Alice are sitting for their wedding portrait with Marguerite."
"Hey, I'm here," Nick said, "although Sam's at home with the baby."
Audra kissed her brother and put her arm around her mother's waist as they walked along the platform. "I can't wait to meet little Lizzie," she said.
"I thought you were bringing Professor Emerson with you," Victoria observed.
Audra frowned, but before she had a chance to reply, "Dr. Grigsby!" Nick shouted at a bearded man standing by the freight office. Nick strode over and began pumping the doctor's hand. "What are you doing here?"
Dr. Grigsby repossessed his hand. "Mr. Barkley, good to see you. How's that new baby of yours? And your wife?"
"Both thriving, thank you." Nick grinned. "What are you doing in Stockton?"
"I've bought a practice," Dr. Grigsby replied. "I'm here waiting for my equipment and medicines to arrive."
"Wonderful!" Victoria said. "Stockton could certainly use another doctor. Three or four more doctors, for that matter."
"Allow me to introduce my mother, Victoria Barkley," Nick said. "Dr. Grigsby is the doctor who helped us out when Lizzie was born."
Dr. Grigsby took Victoria's hand. "My pleasure, Mrs. Barkley," he said stiffly.
"And my sister Audra," Nick said.
Dr. Grigsby bowed. "Your servant, Miss Barkley."
The freightman waved to Dr. Grigsby and he turned to go.
"Hey, I know," Nick said, "Have dinner with us tonight."
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Barkley, but I'll be busy setting up my surgery. You understand."
"Perhaps another time," Victoria said graciously.
Dr. Grigsby tipped his hat. "Perhaps," he said tersely, striding off.
"He seemed rather rude," Audra said, still frowning. "Why do I feel like I've seen him somewhere before?"
"Not rude," Victoria said. "A bit distracted perhaps. It's not easy getting started in a new place. We'll have to be sure he's made welcome." She looked up into her daughter's unhappy face, and frowned herself, but realized that a public rail platform was no place to have the talk she could tell Audra was aching for.
The time and place did not present itself until after dinner, a rather boisterous affair with the presence of Nick and Samantha, Heath and Alice, and Marquerite - Silas's daughter-in-law and the artist engaged to paint Heath and Alice's wedding portrait. Audra made much over Nick and Samantha's new baby, three-week-old Lizzie. It was as she was getting ready for bed that Victoria knocked on her door. "May I come in?"
"Yes, Mother, please do," Audra said, sitting on the bed and patting it.
Victoria sat beside her. "What's bothering you, dear?"
"Emerson's asked me to marry him," Audra said, clasping her mother's hand.
"And that's a bad thing?" Victoria asked.
"I didn't think so at first," Audra said. "It made sense - we could work together more easily, and without defying all the conventions like we've been doing."
"How romantic," Victoria said dryly.
"Oh, Mother, I've had it up to here with romantic." Audra held her hand above her head. "I'm sick of hearing how my eyes are like limpid pools and my hair shines like the sun. I want someone to love me, not how I look. What does 'limpid' mean, anyway?"
"It's means 'clear', dear," Victoria said. "And you thought Emerson might fit the bill?"
"Maybe. But he promised to come to Heath's wedding with me and he backed out at the last minute - too much work to do, he said. This is family, Mother - you're important to me, but if you're not to him. . .well, it just won't do."
Victoria put her arm around her daughter's shoulders. "No one's rushing you to get married, dear. As long as you're happy, that's all any of us care about. You were so full of life and delight when we saw you last, when you'd just come back from the Amazon - I'm sorry to see that all gone."
Audra hugged her back. "It's not, Mother, not really. It was a fabulous experience, and it's not over - there's still all the cataloging to do and papers to write and maybe even a lecture tour. I was really able to throw myself into something I loved doing. I'm not sorry I did it - I'm glad. It's just become more complicated than I had bargained for."
"Do you think this will harm your career? Would Emerson hold you back if you turn him down?" Victoria glowered.
Audra shook her head. "I don't know. I don't think so, but I guess I'm going to find out." She smiled weakly.
Victoria hugged her again. "I'm sure you can handle it, Audra. But if you need us for anything, you know we'll run to help you."
Audra smiled more broadly. "Yes, I know, Mother. That's what I love about this family."
Audra rode down the trail into town the next day, deep in thought. An eagle screamed over her head, and she stopped her horse to gaze at it, shielding her eyes against the sun. Her heart soared to watch it, but she was not surprised to hear a gunshot and see the bird fall from the sky. She spurred her horse in that direction, and was surprised to find Dr. Grigsby pulling up his horse, dismounting just as she arrived. She sprang from the saddle as he knelt down next to the fallen eagle.
"It's dead," Dr. Grigsby said sadly. He looked up at her. "I presume you're not the one who shot it."
"No, of course not," Audra said. "I wouldn't do such a thing. But this is open range - some of the ranchers shoot them because they kill calves."
"More likely they're scavenging." Dr. Grigsby stroked the eagle's feathers. "This is just a juvenile - hasn't been out of the nest a year yet."
Audra's eyes lit up. "Now I know where I've seen you before," she said. "The San Diego Natural History Society. You presented a paper on pigeon guillemots' nesting habits. It was wonderful."
Dr. Grigsby smiled ruefully. "'Lacking in scientific rigor' was the official reaction."
"Why? Because you made each bird seem like an individual? I felt like I knew each one of them. I wish I could write like that."
Dr. Grigsby stood and brushed off his knees. "Well, thank you," he said. "It's probably a good thing that Natural History is just an avocation, though."
Audra looked down at the eagle. "We should bury it."
Dr. Grigsby started. "I would have said so, but I was afraid you'd think that was too sentimental."
"Not at all. It's a magnificent animal - it deserves respect. There's a stream on the other side of this hill - the ground should be soft enough to dig there."
Dr. Grigsby stooped and picked up the fallen bird, carrying it gently over the hill as Audra led the horses. They dug a hole in the damp earth, and buried the eagle. They washed their hands in the stream, and Dr. Grigsby straightened, wiping his hands on his trousers. "Were you on your way into town?" he asked.
"Yes," Audra said, mounting her horse. "I'm going to pay a call on my brother and sister-in-law."
"May as well ride together, then," Dr. Grigsby said, also mounting.
"What were you doing out here?" Audra asked as they rode along together. "There's not much out this way except our ranch."
"And the orphanage. Mrs. Gregson thought a couple of the children might have scarlet fever, but I'm pretty sure it's measles, which can be serious enough. I'll be checking back tomorrow - should know for sure in a day or two."
"She does well to be careful - they had a scarlet fever outbreak there a few years ago. Which, now that I think of it, more or less led me to Natural History."
"That's not a likely connection," Dr. Grigsby said. "How did that happen?"
"My sister-in-law was the teacher at the orphanage at the time - this was while she and my brother Jarrod were courting. When the children got sick, my mother and Nick and Jarrod went to help out nursing the children. Heath and I didn't, because neither of us have had scarlet fever, but I took two of the children down to San Diego afterward to complete their recovery. While we were there, I started observing the sea creatures and keeping a journal."
"Hm," Dr. Grigsby said thoughtfully. "So the most important family in Stockton just drops everything to help out some orphans?"
"There was need," Audra said simply. "Why wouldn't we?"
"Not many people would."
Audra shrugged. "We do."
"Scarlet fever can take weeks, even months, to resolve. And it can spread like wildfire, and be just as deadly. How many cases?"
Audra thought back. "Let's see, there were seventeen children at the orphanage at the time, eight got sick, but only two seriously - Emily and John. They're the two I took down to San Diego."
Dr. Grigsby whistled. "That's astounding. No deaths, no serious complications?"
Audra smiled. "No. In fact, John is studying to be a doctor now. He assisted Dr. Merar for a couple of years, and now my mother is sending him to medical school. He won a scholarship, actually, but turned it down since she offered to finance his education. That way there'll be two new doctors instead of only one."
"Your mother does seem concerned with the number of doctors in Stockton."
"Well, it troubles her - there's not enough care to go around, and the poorest among us often sicken and die because of it."
"To misquote Scripture, 'The wealthy have no need of a physician.'"
Audra laughed. "Ha - you haven't treated my brothers yet. Seems one or the other of them is getting shot or having something fall on them nearly every week."
Dr. Grigsby sputtered and laughed, and Audra thought what a nice sound it was - he did not seem to be a man who laughed much. He sobered. "Well," he said, "you have your doctor. My calling is among the needier members of the human race."
They were in town by now and Dr. Grigsby pulled up his horse. "Well, here's my practice. Thank you for your company, Miss Barkley."
Audra started. "You bought this practice?"
"Is there a problem?" Dr. Grigsby asked, sensing her tenseness.
Audra shook her head. "No, no problem." She paused. "Would you have dinner with us tonight?" she asked.
Dr. Grigsby dismounted. "I don't want your patronage, I thought I'd made that clear," he said.
Audra frowned. "We're not patronizing you. I'm asking because we like you."
She nodded. "I think so. I know Nick does. Isn't that enough?"
Dr. Grigsby looked thoughtful for a moment, then looked up at her. "No, Miss Barkley, I don't think so. I don't wish to appear churlish, but no, I don't wish to have dinner with you tonight."
"Why not?" she asked, exasperated.
"I have my reasons," he said.
Audra regarded him for a few moments, not knowing what to make of him. "Well, all right," she said at last. "I certainly won't try to force you. Good morning, then."
Dr. Grigsby tipped his hat. "Good morning, Miss Barkley."
Audra turned her horse and rode off to Jarrod's house, puzzled, hurt and confused.
Audra opened the door to her brother's house and stepped inside. "Molly?" she called.
Molly came to the top of the stairs, holding her youngest child Georgie, who was wailing piteously. "Don't come up, Audra," Molly called down the stairs. "Georgie and Vicky are ill. I'm afraid it might be scarlet fever."
Audra blanched. "What does Dr. Merar say?" she asked.
"I've sent Lucas for him." The door opened behind Audra as Molly spoke and Lucas came in. "Where's the doctor?" Molly asked.
"Not there," Lucas said. "Mrs. Merar said he was out on a maternity case. She had no idea when he would be back. She seemed ill herself."
Molly bounced Georgie up and down in an effort to calm him. "There's a new doctor in town," Audra said. "Shall I fetch him?"
"Oh, please, Audra," Molly said. "What a godsend."
Audra ran out the door and leapt into the saddle, galloping to Dr. Grigsby's as fast as she dared. She sprang down from the saddle and pounded on the surgery door. Dr. Grigsby opened it and started in surprise when he saw her. "My niece and nephew are ill," Audra said without preamble. "Their mother thinks it's scarlet fever. This time the wealthy do have need of a doctor. Will you come, please?"
Dr. Grigsby nodded and turned to grab his medical bag. "Of course," he said. "And I'm sorry I said that, Miss Barkley. It was a stupid thing to say."
Audra nodded. "You're forgiven. Here, take my horse. I'll follow on foot - it's not far." She gave him directions and he dashed off in good order.
Dr. Grigsby knocked on the door and it was opened quickly by Lucas. "Thank you for coming, Doctor," Lucas said. "I'll take you upstairs." He led the doctor to the nursery, where Molly was sponging off Georgie's flushed face with a damp cloth. Vicky lay languidly on her bed, face flushed as well.
"Thank you for coming, Doctor. . ?" Molly said.
"Grigsby," Dr. Grigsby said. "Now, what seems to be the trouble?"
"High fever, swelling on the neck and sore throats," Molly said, trying to appear calmer than she actually felt.
"Not yet, but that can take several days to develop, can't it?"
Dr. Grigsby smiled reassuringly. "The same is true for measles, and I just came from the orphanage, where a couple of the children have the same symptoms as yours. I'm pretty sure that's what it is, although I can't be certain until the rash develops. Have your children had any contact with the children there?"
"We were there a few days ago visiting some of Lucas's friends." Molly bit her lip.
"And have your children had contact with any other children in the meantime?"
"Lucas and Emma have been to school, of course," Molly replied.
"Then I think Dr. Merar and I are going to be quite busy for the next week or so. Well, let's have a look." He knelt down by Georgie's bed and felt his neck, looked down his throat and listened to his heart with the stethoscope. "How old is he?" he asked as he did so.
"Twenty months," Molly said. "And Vicky just turned four."
"You mentioned another child?"
"Emma is eight. She spent the night at her best friend's house."
"Have any of your children had either measles or scarlet fever before?"
"Vicky and Georgie, neither." She looked over at her eldest. "Lucas?"
"I've had measles, but not scarlet fever," Lucas replied. "I don't know about Emma."
Dr. Grigsby looked at them quizzically. "How is it that you don't know what diseases your children have had?"
"Emma and I are adopted," Lucas said.
Dr. Grigsby raised an eyebrow. "Indeed," he said. "Well, young man, you're quarantined until we know what this is, you understand?"
Lucas nodded. "Of course."
"Although it's probably locking the barn door too late, but if we can prevent even one more case, it's worth it." He finished his examination of Georgie and turned to Vicky.
Vicky cringed away from him. "I want Dr. Tom," she sobbed.
"Dr. Tom couldn't come, Buttercup," Molly said. "Dr. Grigsby is here to make you better."
"Now, young lady," Dr. Grigsby said cheerfully, "have you ever heard your own heart beating?" He took off his stethoscope and showed it to her. Vicky shook her head, now curious. Dr. Grigsby put the earpieces gently to her ears and put the stethoscope's head on her chest. Her eyes lit up as she listened. "Mommy's heart," she demanded, and Molly cheerfully submitted to Vicky's examination. "Now yours," Vicky said to Dr. Grigsby and he submitted as well.
"Now may I listen to yours?" he asked. Vicky nodded and allowed him to examine her. He patiently explained each step before he did it and she submitted, now completely won over. Molly smiled at him gratefully as he finished. "Well, Mrs. Barkley, as I said, we can't be sure until the rash develops, but my opinion is that it's measles, not scarlet fever. The throats are inflamed, but there doesn't appear to be any infection. You should have your own doctor check back tomorrow."
"No! You!" Vicky exclaimed, clinging to his knee.
Dr. Grigsby looked at Molly and then down at Vicky, stroking her dark curly hair. "All right, young lady," he said, "if you insist." He glanced over at Molly. "I understand you've nursed scarlet fever victims before."
Molly nodded. "Yes," she said, "with help. But I think we can manage."
"All right. Just keep them cool and as comfortable as possible for now, give them plenty of fluids. I honestly don't think you have anything to worry about."
"Just part of being a mother," Molly said with a sigh. "I'm glad you're here, Doctor. We certainly need you here in Stockton."
Dr. Grigsby nodded. "So I keep hearing. Now, if you could show me where I can go wash up?"
Audra was surprised to see Heath riding up to Jarrod's house from the opposite direction. They arrived at the doorstep at almost the same moment. "I thought you were spending the morning at Alice's?" she asked.
"Lena and Emma are both ill," Heath said. "I came to tell Molly, and then fetch Dr. Merar."
"Oh, dear," Audra said. "Georgie and Vicky are ill, too. And Dr. Merar is out on a maternity call. I went to fetch Dr. Grigsby - he should be about done by now." She opened the door and went in just as Dr. Grigsby and Molly were descending the stairs. "This is my brother Heath," Audra introduced them.
Heath explained his errand and Molly sighed.
"I'll be right there, Mr. Barkley," Dr. Grigsby said. He looked at Heath and Audra. "I understand neither of you have had scarlet fever?"
They both shook their heads. "Measles?" Dr. Grigsby asked.
Two 'yeses' this time. "All right," Dr. Grigsby said. "Neither of you can go home until we're certain what this is, understand? We can't risk exposing that infant to whatever this is."
"I'll stay here," Audra said.
Dr. Grigsby shook his head. "I can't let you take that chance. It might be scarlet fever - you haven't had contact with any of the children yet, have you?"
Audra shook her head. "Just Lucas, and we didn't touch, just talked."
"Do you have any friends in town that you're certain have had both measles and scarlet fever?"
Audra shook her head. "I don't usually discuss illnesses with my friends. I could go to the hotel, I suppose."
"No, a public hotel is the last place I want to send someone to reduce contagion." Dr. Grigsby regarded them thoughtfully. "You could both stay with me. I don't see any other options."
"Not me," Heath said. "Lena's my daughter, or as near as makes no difference. If she needs me, I'm going to be there."
"That's not entirely wise, Mr. Barkley," Dr. Grigsby said. "Aside from the risk to yourself, you don't want to leave your sister unescorted with a strange man, I'm sure."
Audra laughed. "Considering where I've spent the last six months, I hardly think I'd be risking damage to my reputation."
Dr. Grigsby pulled at his lip. "All right," he said at last. "We really don't have a choice."
The front door opened and Jarrod came in. He looked around at the crowd in his front room. "I've adjourned court for today," he said to Molly. "How are the children?"
Molly introduced Dr. Grigsby. "Dr. Grigsby thinks it's measles, but wants to wait to be certain. Heath says Lena and Emma are ill, too."
"We were just about to leave, Mr. Barkley," Dr. Grigsby said.
"I'll go along then," Jarrod said. "You'll be all right until I get back?" he asked Molly.
Molly nodded. "I'll be fine. And Lucas is here to help if I need it."
Dr. Grigsby reached into his pocket and handed Audra his keys. "The house is somewhat unsettled - I'm not all unpacked yet, but do make yourself comfortable."
"Thank you, Doctor," Audra said, taking the keys and heading out the door. Jarrod and Dr. Grigsby left in the buggy as Heath followed along on his horse.
"Daddy!" Emma proclaimed, holding out her arms to Jarrod as soon as Rachel led everyone into the room.
Jarrod sat on the bed, taking her into his arms and kissing the top of her head. "It's all right, Sweetie - Daddy's here." He reached across her and patted Lena on the knee. "I hear both you girls are feeling poorly." He introduced Dr. Grigsby to both girls and Alice, who was endeavoring to cool both of them down.
"I want to go home, Daddy," Emma wailed.
"I don't want to be sick here all alone," Lena pouted, far from her usual sunny self.
"Let's have the doctor look at you both before we decide what to do," Jarrod said gently. He stood and stepped aside to allow the doctor to do his work.
After examining the two girls, Dr. Grigsby straightened and removed his stethoscope. "It's the same as your other children, Mr. Barkley," he said.
"And that is?" Alice asked anxiously.
"Measles, probably, although I can't honestly rule out scarlet fever for the time being. But with good care, which I'm sure they'll receive, you should weather this just fine." He smiled reassuringly.
"We'll have to postpone the wedding," Alice said, looking at Heath.
"No!" Lena demanded. "I want Heath to be my daddy!" Tears streamed down her fevered face.
Heath sat on the bed by her side and hugged her. "Now, darlin'," he smiled at her, "ain't nothing can change how I feel about you." He stroked her hair. "I'm gonna stay right here and take care of you, just the same, all right?"
Lena buried her face in his chest and nodded. "All right, Heath," she said, sadly.
"Can they be moved, Doctor?" Jarrod asked, sitting on the bed and cradling Emma in his arms.
"What did you have in mind, Mr. Barkley?" Dr. Grigsby asked, not taking his eyes off of Heath and Lena, Jarrod and Emma.
"It might not be a bad idea to combine households until everyone is well. It would certainly make the nursing easier to have all the children in one place."
Dr. Grigsby considered. "It should be all right, if you wrap them up warmly and don't have contact with anyone on the way."
Jarrod nodded. "Thank you, Doctor. Someone should send a message to my mother to let her and Nick know what's going on."
"I'll stop by the telegraph office on my way and have them send a messenger."
"I'll go pack," Rachel said, bustling off to do so.
Audra stared up at the shingle over the surgery door. O. Grigsby, M.D. She suppressed a shiver as she unlocked the door. She had barely stepped inside when Myra Smith, a widow with two young daughters, rushed up to the door.
"Audra?" Mrs. Smith said. "What are you doing here? Where's the doctor?"
"He's out on a call, Myra," Audra said. "He should be back soon."
Myra bit her lip. "I hope so. Amy and Mary are ill. And Dr. Merar is nowhere to be found."
"I know," Audra nodded. "You didn't leave them all alone, did you?"
Myra nodded. "What choice did I have?"
Audra patted her shoulder. "It's all right. I'll send Dr. Grigsby to you as soon as he comes back. Now, run home and take care of those girls." She smiled warmly as Myra did so, then sighed as she turned and went into the doctor's house.
'Unsettled' was right, although the place was scrupulously clean. Well, she didn't intend to spend the next few days just twiddling her thumbs, so she looked around for something useful to do, and set to it.
She sent Dr. Grigsby to Myra when he appeared, and her mother stopped by a couple of hours later, bringing her some clothes and other essentials. "Are you all right, Audra?" Victoria asked.
"I'm fine, Mother," Audra said. "It's an inconvenience, nothing more."
"That's not what I meant. Are you all right in this house?" Victoria looked at her, concerned.
Audra sighed. "Yes, I am. It was a long time ago, and Dr. Belden is dead, and Dr. Grigsby has left his stamp on this house already. It's a bad memory, that's all. Time I got over it, anyway."
Victoria smiled. She reached up and stroked Audra's cheek. "Well done, dear. If you're all right then, I'll stop by Jarrod's and check on the children."
"You won't be able to go home afterward," Audra warned. "Dr. Grigsby is quite concerned about seeing that Lizzie doesn't catch this."
"I know that, Audra. I thought I'd go help out at the orphanage - it's unlikely to stop at two, isn't it?"
"Of course, I should have thought of that. I'll join you if it does turn out to be measles. How is Nick coping?"
"Oh, he was ranting about having to run things himself, until I pointed out that Heath ran things alone during the scarlet fever outbreak - that shut him up." Victoria grinned.
Audra laughed. "Before you go to Jarrod's, would you stop by the grocer's and pick up a few things? I'm afraid Dr. Grigsby's larder is sadly lacking."
"Of course, dear." Victoria gazed up at her daughter. "I know it's hard for you to be shut indoors - let's hope this doesn't last very long."
Audra shrugged. "I'm all right. I'm finding things to do, and if I can help the doctor, that's helping the sick, too, isn't it?"
Victoria smiled at her. "That's the spirit, Audra. Make out a list, and I'll be right back with your groceries."
Dr. Grigsby did not make it home until after eleven o'clock, shutting the door behind him wearily. Audra reached out to help him with his coat, but he pulled away from her. "No, don't touch me, Miss Barkley," he said. "I might be carrying contagion."
Audra dropped her hands to her sides. "I'm sorry, I forgot," she said. "You must be starving. I made dinner."
Dr. Grigsby shrugged out of his coat and hat and hung them on the coat rack. "You didn't have to do that, Miss Barkley. You're my guest. I should take a bath first."
"I thought you might," Audra said. "I got hot water ready, too."
Dr. Grigsby shook his head. "Really, Miss Barkley. That wasn't necessary."
Audra shrugged. "I wanted to."
Dr. Grigsby smiled wearily. "Well then, I thank you." He trudged up the stairs.
He came down a little while later, in dressing gown and pajamas, hair wet but combed. "Pardon the dishabille, but it seemed silly to get dressed again."
Audra smiled. "I do have three brothers. Come have your dinner."
Dr. Grigsby shook his head, but followed her into the kitchen. Audra dished up two bowls of stew and set them on the table. "Haven't you eaten?" Dr. Grigsby asked.
"I was waiting for you," she said. "I hate to eat alone."
"Well then," Dr. Grigsby said, pulling out her chair, "you must be starving as well."
Audra took note of his manners, and sat down with a smile. Dr. Grigsby sat down and spooned up a bite of stew, examining it closely. "Where did you get the ingredients? I know I had none of this on hand."
"My mother dropped off some things for me. I asked her to do a little shopping before she went to help out at the orphanage."
"You must let me repay you," Dr. Grigsby said, dropping his spoon back into the bowl.
"Don't be silly. It was a pittance."
"Nevertheless," Dr. Grigsby said stubbornly.
"No," Audra said, just as stubborn. "Now eat."
Dr. Grigsby glared at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. "I am being silly, aren't I?" he said, finally picking up his spoon and taking a bite. "This is good."
"I'm glad you like it," Audra said. "Will you tell me what's wrong? You've been on edge ever since I met you."
Dr. Grigsby sighed. "All right, I guess I owe you that. First off, I need to apologize to you."
"You already did that."
"Not for my ill-chosen words, but for misjudging your family so dreadfully."
"Did you? Why? I wouldn't have thought you knew us well enough to judge us at all."
"Not you, per se. Let me start at the beginning - when I graduated from medical school, one of my fellow students and I began a practice together in San Diego. We were both young and idealistic. . .”
"You're hardly old now," Audra interrupted.
"I'm thirty," Dr. Grigsby replied, "but to get on - we both intended to serve the poor, but as time went on, we found ourselves more and more in service to the wealthy. Rich young ladies who thought appearing 'delicate' made them more desirable, rich men and ladies who had nothing more to amuse themselves with than their supposed illnesses."
"Oh, dear," Audra said. "Any of us would be ashamed to act that way. Not that Mother would allow us."
Dr. Grigsby smiled. "No, I daresay not. But the worst of it was that I liked it - it was easy, and I liked having money, for once in my life. I grew up in an orphanage - I'd never had much of anything. Then I woke up one morning and realized that I was not the person I had intended to be, not living the life I had intended. I had heard of this practice being available, so I came to Stockton to see if I could buy it. At least my prior practice allowed me to put by enough to live on for awhile."
"And when the money runs out?"
Dr. Grigsby shrugged. "I believe I'm doing the Lord's work - I'll have to trust that He'll provide."
"Not many people would have that much faith."
"Sometimes that's the only way to get anything done. So, I came to Stockton to buy this practice, and that's when I met your brother."
"You helped him," Audra observed.
"I didn't know who the Barkleys were, then. Since then, I've heard of very little else. I was determined not to get sucked in again."
Audra nodded. "I see. Well, you do realize that we're not like that."
"I do now. And I didn't realize you were one of the Stockton Barkleys until I saw you on the rail platform with your brother. In San Diego, you were always surrounded by admirers, yet so aloof from all of them."
Audra frowned. "I wasn't 'aloof,' I was spoken for."
"You are?" Dr. Grigsby asked, surprised.
"Well, not anymore. But I was involved with a friend of Jarrod's all the time I was in college. It's over, though."
"I'm sorry to have touched on a sore point," Dr. Grigsby said, "and to have misjudged you, more than once it seems."
"Maybe not entirely," Audra admitted. "I've received two marriage proposals in less than a year. I must be doing something."
"Who was the other one, if you don't mind me asking?"
Dr. Grigsby looked thoughtful. "Sensible, I suppose."
"You're like that eaglet we found," Dr. Grigsby observed.
Audra raised her eyebrows. "How so?"
"You've barely left the nest. You need to stretch your wings before you build your own."
Audra looked up at him. "Yes, that's it exactly. How perceptive of you."
Dr. Grigsby shrugged. "I would think anyone could see it."
"Well, they don't." Audra stood and began clearing the table. "I finished putting your surgery in order - you should probably go look at it."
"You did?" Dr. Grigsby looked displeased. "There is some delicate equipment in there."
"I do know how to set up lab equipment."
"Ah, yes, I suppose you do. Forgive me."
Audra smiled. "No need. I probably do seem like some meddling female, but I have to have something to do while I wait here. I can't just sit idle."
Dr. Grigsby stood. "No, I don't suppose you can. And yet, I hate to put a guest to work."
"It would be a blessing, really it would."
Dr. Grigsby smiled. "All right - I have a lot of books I haven't had a chance to put away yet. If you would be so kind?”
"Thank you," Audra said, following him into the surgery.
Dr. Grigsby gave her arrangements a critical eye, but had to admit everything was suitable. "Thank you, Miss Barkley, this is admirable."
"I think, under the circumstances, you could call me Audra," she said.
"And I think, under the circumstances, I should call you Miss Barkley," he said. "We're probably doing more than enough damage to your reputation as it is."
"And I told you I didn't care about that. What does the 'O' stand for? Oliver?"
"No, it's. . ." Dr. Grigsby began.
Audra held up her hand. "No, let me guess. Orlando?"
Dr. Grigsby smiled. "You do have a romantic streak. No."
Dr. Grigsby laughed out loud. "Now you're just being silly. It's Owen."
Audra grinned. "I thought you needed a laugh. Owen."
"Dr. Grigsby to you, young lady, at least for now," he said, grinning. He looked at the clock. "It's well past midnight, time we both were in bed. You did find the bedroom to your satisfaction?"
"I'm not taking your bed," Audra said. "If we're in the middle of an epidemic, you are certainly going to need all the rest you can get. I'll sleep on a cot in the infirmary. I'm used to it."
"No, and this time I must insist," Dr. Grigsby said. "You are my guest, whether you act like one or not, and my guests do not sleep on a cot."
"Be sensible," Audra said.
"No," Dr. Grigsby said, stubbornly.
Audra looked up into his face, and realized he wasn't going to give in on this one. "All right," she finally agreed, "but just because I don't want to spend all night arguing about it. You do need your rest."
"Sleep well, Miss Barkley," he said, showing her the door.
"And you, Dr. Grigsby," she said. As she climbed the stairs, she paused and whispered, "Owen."
Audra awakened at sunup, to find that Owen was already gone. From the dishes in the sink, she deduced that he had made a breakfast of bread and butter. She frowned over the dishes. Really, a doctor should take better care of himself. She'd have to give him a good talking to when he came home. She made herself some scrambled eggs and checked the larder. There was enough stew left for another meal - lunch if he came home for it. She’d have to cook something else for dinner if he did. She wondered how Mrs. Merar coped with a husband who was seldom home, and if he skipped meals, then pulled back from her thoughts in shock. She wanted to pound her head on the table. What was wrong with her, that close proximity to any available man aroused thoughts of marriage? Particularly inconvenient in this situation - she would have to keep a close check on her thoughts from here on.
She finished her breakfast, washed the dishes, then went to her assigned task - organizing the library. A lot of books, indeed - there were at least forty boxes full. She smiled in satisfaction and set to work.
Dr. Merar called at midmorning. "Jarrod told me you'd be here, Audra. How are you holding up?"
"I'm fine, Tom," she said. "You've seen Jarrod? How are the children?"
Dr. Merar nodded. "Yes, they left a message for me yesterday, so I went to check on them, to find they were already receiving excellent care. The children are doing as well as possible, under the circumstances. How is my new colleague getting on?"
"Too busy, and he doesn't take proper care of himself," Audra said. "Other than that, very well. I think he's an excellent doctor. Very caring."
"I'm glad to hear that. Sounds to me like he needs a wife," Dr. Merar said jovially.
Audra bit her tongue. "Or some common sense," she retorted.
Dr. Merar laughed. "Don't we all?" he said. "Well, ask him to call on me at his convenience. We should certainly get to know one another."
"I will," Audra promised.
Dr. Merar sobered. "Is it really all right you staying here, Audra? I'd ask you to stay with us, but the Mrs. has the influenza."
"I'm sorry to hear that - what a bad time to be ill. But, yes, I'm all right. Owe - Dr. Grigsby is very kind. Quite a gentleman."
"Good," Dr. Merar said, standing. "Well, I must be going - seems as though almost every child in town is ill."
"Thank you for stopping by, Tom," Audra said, "but, certainly, don't let me detain you from your work."
"My pleasure, Audra." Dr. Merar kissed her cheek and departed.
Owen did not come home for lunch, much to Audra's disappointment. She made herself lunch, then got back to work, glad for some distraction from her loneliness.
He came home somewhat earlier that night, a little after nine, bathed and sat down to dinner. "Dr. Merar called today," Audra told him as she dished up the last of the stew. "He asked you to call on him when you're able."
"I'd be happy to, when I get the chance," Owen replied. "I'm rather surprised our paths haven't crossed yet."
"How is it, out there?" Audra asked worriedly. "Many ill? How badly?"
"Not so bad as it could be. Most of the children are ill, yes, but even the poorest citizens of Stockton seem well-nourished. I'm hopeful of a good outcome."
"The church has an account at the grocer's. Anyone in need can charge against it, and the account is settled up every month."
Owen sat back in his chair. "What a simple idea. Now who thought of that, I wonder?" he smiled at her.
"Actually, it was my brother Heath, after he caught some abandoned children stealing food. But everyone supports it." Audra smiled at the memory.
"Your family most of all, I suspect."
Audra shrugged. "Mother has guaranteed against any shortfall, but I don't think she's had to make good on that. Most people are generous, if given a chance, I think."
Owen shook his head. "I'm not so sure of that, but I'm glad the idea is working here. It certainly makes my job much easier."
"Speaking of nourishment," Audra said sternly, "you need to look to your own. I saw what you had for breakfast, and did you eat lunch?"
Owen hung his head. "No time."
"How can you take care of others if you don't take care of yourself?" she scolded. "I baked some fresh bread and hardboiled some eggs, so at least take some of that with you when you go out tomorrow. And I'd be happy to cook breakfast for you - I didn't realize you were such an early riser."
"I don't want to wake you."
"I don't need sleep as much as you do." She looked at him and her tone softened. "Please, if I'm not already up, wake me. Otherwise, I just spend the rest of the day worrying about you."
"Do you?" He looked into her eyes, and there was a moment. . . .
Audra tore her eyes away. "Yes, of course I do. You need to take care of yourself."
"All right," Owen smiled, "to save you worry, I shall so endeavor."
Audra smiled back. "When you go out tomorrow, could you post this for me?" She reached into her pocket and pulled out an envelope.
"I'd be happy to." He looked at the address. "Professor Emerson?"
"It's obvious I'm not going to be back when I said I would," Audra explained. "I hope he's not too upset with me."
"With several members of your family ill, and your brother's wedding postponed, I'm sure he'll understand."
Audra shook her head. "I have no idea how he thinks."
"Good thing you turned down his proposal then."
"I haven't turned it down yet." She looked up at him.
He was startled. "You haven't. But I thought. . . ." he trailed off.
She sighed wearily. "I am going to turn it down, but I have to do that in person."
Owen gazed at her sympathetically. "An awkward situation, to be sure."
There was a poignant silence, then, "Your mother told me to give you her love," Owen said.
Audra smiled. "How is she? How are things at the orphanage?"
"Well enough. Only two cases, still. Mrs. Gregson has done an admirable job of isolating the sick children quickly. I'm hopeful there will be no new infections."
"Ah well, then, perhaps they won't need me - if it does turn out to be measles. I had told her I would join her there."
"I daresay you'll find a way to be useful, no matter what happens," Owen smiled warmly.
"That may be the nicest compliment I've ever been paid," Audra said.
"It's not flattery," Owen protested. "It's sincerely meant."
"That's what makes it so nice. Thank you." Audra smiled back, feeling shy, suddenly.
Owen finished his stew and stood. "Shall we adjourn to the parlor?"
"Let me wash these dishes first," Audra said.
"You wash, I'll dry?" Owen offered.
"If you like." Audra pumped water into the sink, and it took only a few minutes to wash and dry the few dishes they had used. "Aren't you tired?" she asked as they walked into the parlor.
"A little relaxation would do me good, I think," Owen responded. "All work and no play, as they say." He indicated a chessboard in the corner. "Do you play, by any chance?"
"Some," she said. "Mother's the real expert - she could probably win tournaments if she wanted to."
"Just a friendly game, then?" Owen sat and began setting up the chessboard.
"All right," Audra said, taking her place across from him.
They seemed fairly evenly matched at first, but then Audra found herself gradually losing ground until, "Checkmate," Owen proclaimed.
"Good game. You really should play my mother sometime, she's always looking for someone to challenge her."
"I'm intimidated already," Owen said, smiling. He stood and looked at the clock. "We probably should retire."
Audra bit her lip. "I need to confess something first. Wait here."
Owen quirked an eyebrow as she went to the library and returned, carrying three large leather-bound journals. "I didn't mean to pry," Audra said, "but I was alphabetizing and these were unmarked." She opened one to reveal pages and pages of charmingly drawn birds - birds roosting, birds nesting, birds in flight - accompanied by carefully written commentary. "They're so beautiful, I couldn't help but sit and look at them. I hope you don't mind."
"No, I don't mind. It was a passing phase of my life."
"Why?" she asked, puzzled. "It's obviously something you love very much - why give it up?"
Owen reached over and closed the journal. "Because I know what my calling is."
Audra frowned. "Do you have to sacrifice everything to it? Dr. Merar goes fishing, takes vacations. I know being a doctor is hard work, but it shouldn't cost you everything."
Owen's eyes grew dark. "Sometimes life costs you everything."
She looked up at him. "What do you mean?"
He hesitated before replying, then stroked his beard. "Smallpox."
Audra gasped involuntarily. "I'm sorry. But you were lucky to survive."
"My parents weren't. Nor my - my little sister." He gazed past her, as though looking at something in the far distance.
Audra wanted to throw her arms around him, to comfort him, to kiss the pain away, but she dared do none of those things. "I'm sorry," she said again, choking back tears. "I didn't know."
"It's why I became a doctor," Owen said. "If I can save even one life, then all the sacrifice will be worth it."
"Of course - but what about your own happiness? Doesn't that matter at all? You've lost so much, why give up everything? I can't believe that's what God would want for you."
Owen shook his head. "I've made my peace with God, but if you're telling me that He just wants us to be happy, I have to beg to differ. There's too much pain and suffering and death in the world for that to be all there is."
"I can't say I understand it all, but there's too much love and beauty in the world for me to believe that pain and suffering is all there is, either." She held out the journals. "You've seen it, too - I have the proof right here."
Owen took the journals and laid them on the table. "Perhaps you're right. But it's far too late at night for a philosophical discussion." He turned down the lamp. "Goodnight, Miss Barkley."
"Goodnight, Owen," she said, half-defiantly.
Something softened in his face at the use of his first name, but he did not correct her, merely slid through the door into the infirmary.
As she lay in his bed that night, she pondered what it was about this man that so attracted her, why she wished so ardently for his happiness. As her eyes closed on the edge of slumber, it occurred to her that it was because he was the kind of man who, when they played chess, did not let her win.
Audra awoke the next morning to find that, once again, Owen had left without waking her. The contents of the sink indicated that he had taken the time for a good breakfast, so she supposed she would have to be content with that. She checked the larder and noted with satisfaction that he had taken some of the bread and hardboiled eggs with him, even though that meant he wouldn't be home for lunch. She sighed and went about her business.
She was surprised when Lucas knocked at the door just as she was sitting down to lunch. "Aren't you quarantined?" she asked.
"Not anymore," he replied. "And neither are you. Dr. Grigsby asked me to stop by and tell you that you're released. It's definitely measles - the rash broke out this morning."
Audra breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good to hear. How is everyone doing?"
"Pretty miserable," Lucas said. "I remember when I had the measles, and it's no fun, but Dr. Grigsby says there are no complications so far, so he's expecting everyone to be all well in a few days. He said if you were going home, to be sure to bathe and dispose of your clothing before you have contact with anyone."
"I will, although I'm not sure where I'm going - I was going to help out at the orphanage, but it doesn't look like I'm needed there."
"I'm going to go help Uncle Nick at the ranch," Lucas said. "They don't need me at home either - Aunt Rachel is looking for something to do, too. Do you want to ride out together?"
"No," Audra said. "I need to finish up some things here, first. If no one needs me, I probably will go home. Did Dr. Grigsby have any other message for me?"
"No, should he have?"
Audra shook her head. "No, I don't suppose so. Tell Nick and Samantha I should be home soon, then."
Lucas nodded and left, and Audra sat down to finish her lunch, wondering why she was so reluctant to leave. She hated being caged up, but now that she was free to go, she felt disinclined to do so. At least here she felt she was doing something for someone, instead of sitting on the sidelines. And, if she was honest with herself, she had to admit she had a strong sense of something left unfinished between herself and Owen. She ate her lunch, washed the dishes and checked the larder. If she could no longer be around to make sure he ate properly, she could at least see that he had the means to. She made out a list and went to the grocer's. As she was returning with her shopping bags, Owen rode up in haste and leapt down from his horse. "Miss Barkley, I'm glad you're still here."
"I wanted to be sure you had food. . . ," she began.
"Yes, yes, thank you," Owen said, taking the bags from her and opening the door. He dumped them on the table. "Your friend, Mrs. Smith. . . ."
"Yes - she's fallen ill, and I understand she has no one to care for her and those two little girls.”
"I'll be right there," Audra said.
Owen smiled. "I hoped you'd say that - in fact, I was certain. Wait a moment - come with me." He led her into the surgery and took down a bottle from the shelf, measuring out a white powder and wrapping it in paper. "This is willow extract - give her a little in her tea, however she'll take it, for fever. It's not for the children now - it could have some serious side-effects for them."
Audra nodded. "I'm familiar with it."
"Good. I admit I'm quite worried about her - measles can be far more serious in an adult. She'll require good care."
"I'll do my best," Audra said. "Let me grab my things." She ran out of the surgery and up the stairs, threw her things into her carpet bag, and ran back down. "It's not far - I'll walk."
Owen took her hand. "Goodbye, Miss Barkley. I hope we can be friends?"
"We are," she said, taking her leave of him, but as she walked down the street, she realized it wasn't friends she wanted to be, not in the least.
"Myra?" Audra tapped quickly on the door and opened it, peering into the darkness. All the curtains were drawn, and the house had an almost deathly silence to it. She dropped her bag by the door and made her way up the narrow stairs to the bedroom under the eaves. The two girls were lying in a double bed, unattended. "Mary?" Audra asked, "where’s your mother?"
"She went downstairs to get us some tea, Miss Barkley," the elder of the two girls said.
"Now, Mary, you know you can call me Audra. I'll go find her for you, shall I?" Audra made her way back downstairs and to the tiny kitchen. Myra was lying on the floor, face down, the teakettle boiling over. Audra moved the kettle off the stove and knelt down next to Myra. “Myra, dear, get up. You should be in bed."
"The girls," Myra mumbled. "Have to take care of them."
Audra gently turned Myra over and put her arm under the woman's head. "I'll take care of the girls, Myra." Myra's face was flushed and her whole body radiated heat. Audra gently raised her up and tried to help her to her feet.
"No, no," Myra shook her head. "My girls." She fought against Audra's hold.
Audra looked at her thoughtfully - she was obviously delirious with fever. She needed to be in bed, but how to get her there? Well, she had spent months hacking through the jungle and climbing trees. She ought to be a match for one sick woman. She took both Myra's hands and hauled her to her feet, even though she fought. She wrapped her arms around Myra's shoulders, pinning her arms. "Sh, Myra, sh. It's all right. I'm here to take care of all of you." She kept Myra pinned, talking to her soothingly until her struggles stopped, then put Myra's arm over her shoulder and helped her up the stairs. Myra fell weakly into bed, and Audra covered her up.
"Is Mommy sick, too?" Amy asked from the other bed, her voice small.
"Yes, dear, she has measles, too, just like you." Audra sat on the bed next to the two girls.
"Who'll take care of us?" Amy asked.
Audra smiled reassuringly. "I will. Don't worry, soon all of you will be all better." She stroked Amy's hair. "I'll go get your tea now. If your mommy gets out of bed, yell for me, will you?"
"My throat hurts," Mary said.
"Then knock on the wall, can you do that?"
Mary and Amy both nodded, and Audra went back downstairs to make tea. She put a portion of the medicine Owen had given her in one cup, poured milk in the other two, then carried the tray upstairs. Myra made a face on the first sip, but Audra managed to get her to drink it all. She lowered Myra back down on the bed with a sigh of relief, fetched some water and a cloth and began sponging her down. "Would you girls like a nice cool bath when you finish your tea?" she asked.
Amy and Mary looked at one another. "We don't have a bathtub," Mary said.
"Oh, that's all right," Audra said, recovering quickly. She had to remind herself that few people had all the Barkleys' luxuries. "The kitchen sink is big enough." She reached down and picked Amy up. "Knock on the wall if you need anything," she said to Mary and carried the younger girl downstairs.
After bathing both girls and changing them into clean nightshirts, she carried down the chamber pot and emptied it in the outhouse - no bathtub also meant no bathroom - and washed it out under the pump. As she washed her hands, she found herself rather grateful for her time in the jungle - the ordinary conditions under which most people lived didn't seem so primitive to her now. She eyed the laundry tub leaning against the house - she supposed she'd have to use it soon. At least it beat washing things out in a river, and there were no vipers or flesh-eating fish to watch out for.
She carried the pot back upstairs and checked on Myra - still sleeping, albeit fitfully. She went back downstairs and checked the larder, and was alarmed at how little food there was in the house, but with both girls sick, Myra had probably postponed leaving them to go to the grocer's as long as possible. Another trip to the grocer's was in order, but that meant leaving Myra and the girls alone while she did so. She was gaining a new appreciation for Myra's difficulties. She put on her jacket and went out.
When she came back, Myra was up again, trying to scrub the kitchen floor with a bucket with no water in it. She was blazing with fever, but it was too soon for more willow, so Audra ran some water in the sink and wet a cloth to sponge off Myra's flushed face. Myra fought her, screaming, "Get out of my house!" and collapsing in the middle of the floor.
Audra shook her head, but crouched down next to her. "Come on, Myra, it's Audra, you know me. Wouldn't you like to go to bed? Aren't you tired?"
"I'm always tired," Myra sobbed, covering her face with her hands.
"Then let me help you to bed," Audra said, putting an arm around her and helping her up off the floor. Myra nodded weakly and allowed herself to be led upstairs and put to bed again. Audra laid the wet cloth on Myra's forehead, but it became warm within minutes. There was still some water in the basin, so Audra pulled back the covers and began sponging Myra's arms, her body.
"No, no, don't touch me!" Myra yelled.
"You're burning up with fever," Audra explained, becoming increasingly worried. "I have to cool you off, Myra."
"Let me do it," Mary said, crawling from her own bed into her mother's.
Audra felt Mary's forehead, and it was warm, but not blazing. "Do you feel like it, Mary? Are you tired?"
"I'm all right," Mary said. Myra was noticeably calmer under her daughter's ministrations, so Audra decided to let her, at least for awhile.
"All right," she said. "I'll go make you all some nice chicken soup, would you like that?"
Mary and Amy both nodded, so Audra went downstairs to cook. She was interrupted twice in her task by Mary knocking on the wall when Myra attempted to get out of bed, and she was grateful when it was finally time for more medicine - not that it seemed to help right away, but after hours of sponging and tea and soup, Myra's fever finally began to come down.
"Audra?" she asked weakly, "What are you doing here?"
Audra smiled wearily. "I'm here to take care of you and the girls, Myra. How are you feeling?"
"I'm all right," Myra said, trying to rise, but Audra pushed her back down easily.
"You're weak as a kitten," Audra said. "Don't get up, Myra, let me handle things for you."
"You shouldn't," Myra protested. "I'm sure you have better things to do."
"Can't think of a thing," Audra said with a smile. "Allow me - it's my pleasure."
"I am rather tired," Myra said. "Maybe tomorrow I can get up?"
"Not likely, dear," Audra said. "Don't worry about anything - I'll take care of you, and Mary and Amy."
"My girls," Myra smiled. "Aren't they wonderful?" and drifted off to sleep.
Audra thought it would be smooth sailing after that, but she was mistaken. She bedded down on the sofa, only to awaken to find Myra wandering around the house in the middle of the night. She got more tea and medicine down her and put her back to bed, but decided she'd better sleep on the floor in the bedroom to preempt any further nocturnal wanderings. Myra got up twice more before morning, the second time burning up with fever, and dawn found Audra working hard to bring it back down.
Myra was sleeping again when Owen arrived at midmorning. "How are they doing?" he asked Audra as he finished his examinations, stepping out onto the landing.
"The girls are doing all right, but I'm severely worried about Myra. Her fever goes up and down, and when it's up she doesn't seem to know anyone or even where she is," Audra said wearily. "I was up half the night with her."
"It's very important to keep the fever down," Owen said. "She could get pneumonia or even damage her wits."
"I know that," Audra said. "I'm trying."
"I know you are," Owen said, gently, looking at her with concern. "Do you need anything? Are you eating?"
"Now you sound like me," Audra said, smiling. "Yes, I'm eating, and I went to the grocer's yesterday, so we're fine for awhile."
Owen looked around the tiny house. "Where did you sleep?"
"On the floor. I tried the sofa, but Myra kept getting up, so I thought it best to sleep in there with her."
Owen shook his head. "I'll bring you a cot from the infirmary, at least. You need to take care of yourself, too, Audra."
It was the first time he had said her name, and she felt a little shiver run down her spine. "Thank you, a cot would be wonderful." She smiled up at him.
He took her hand for a moment. "I miss you," he said, almost shyly.
Her heart skipped a beat. "I miss you, too, Owen."
"And not because you cooked my meals and looked after me," he continued. "I've been in a dark room for so long, then you came and opened a window."
Her heart was pounding now. "Did I?"
Owen nodded. He dropped her hand. "I'm sorry," he said, "I have so many other patients to see. I'll be back this evening, all right?"
Audra nodded, too overcome to speak. Owen picked up his medical bag and left, and Audra went to empty out the chamber pot and pump water for another day of sponge baths, soup and tea.
This day went much like the last one, with Myra undergoing bouts of delirium followed by bouts of lucidity. The lucid periods seemed to be lasting longer, or so Audra hoped, but the delirium was still worrisome. She wished there was more than one bedroom so she could separate Myra from the girls - five-year-old Amy was growing quite frantic to see her Mother so ill, although Mary, at seven, was more stoic. All Audra could do was reassure the girls that their mother would be well soon, and hope she was not lying.
With Mary as watchdog, she managed to get laundry washed and hung to dry - Myra only tried to get up once during the process. Still, Audra was nearly worn out by the time Owen returned, bringing a folding cot with him. He cupped her chin in his hand and examined her face. “You're exhausted, Audra. You can't go on like this - you'll fall ill yourself."
Audra shook her head. "I can't stop now, what will they do without me?"
"Isn't there someone you can call on for help?" Owen looked at her worriedly.
"They're all taken up with their own children - wait, something Lucas said - he said Aunt Rachel needed something to do."
"And who's Aunt Rachel?" Owen asked.
"Alice's mother - Lena's grandmother."
"I'll go ask her," Owen said, and left without further ado.
Rachel arrived within half an hour, her own carpetbag in hand, and swiftly took over from Audra. "She's delirious half the time," Audra said. "She doesn't know you - I don't know if she'll tolerate you in that state."
"She knows me," Rachel said. "We're in the same sewing circle, and Mary goes to school with Lena." She looked over at the two girls. "How are you two getting on?"
"We're OK, Miss Rachel," Mary said. "Just make Mommy better."
"We're certainly going to try," Rachel said with a reassuring smile. "I'm going to stay with you tonight while Miss Audra goes and gets some rest." She reached into her pocket and handed Audra a key. "Our house is empty now - you should be able to get a good night's sleep. Just make yourself at home."
Audra took the key, but hesitated. "I just realized - I barely know you, do I? You're practically family and I've hardly spoken to you."
"You've been gone most of the time we've been in Stockton. Don't worry - I'm sure we'll get to know each other well enough in time. Now go, dear. You look terrible."
Audra smiled ruefully - those were not the kind of comments on her looks she was accustomed to hearing. She picked up her own carpetbag and found her way to the Knightlys' cottage. It was small, but homelike, and had, joy of joys, a proper bathroom. She delighted herself with a bubble bath before falling gratefully into bed.
Audra awoke the next morning feeling rested and full of energy, ready to get back to work. She walked back to Myra's, grateful for her natural vigor and health. Rachel was sitting by Myra's bed, sponging her down, as Audra walked into the bedroom. The girls were still asleep, so Audra whispered, "How is she?" . "Better, I think," Rachel said. "She still has bouts of wandering in her wits, and she's hard to keep in bed then, but she slept most of the night."
Audra sighed in relief. "Oh, that's good. She's been really worrying me, Rachel. I don't know what we'd do if she doesn't get better."
Rachel looked over at the sleeping girls. "I know," she said quietly. "We'll just have to see to it that she gets well." She looked at Audra. "You look much better."
"Thank you," Audra said. "It's amazing what a little sleep and a bath will do."
Rachel smiled. "Indeed."
"If you'd like to go home now, I can take over," Audra offered.
"Not just yet. I'll sleep this afternoon, so I'll be refreshed for tonight. Why don't you go get breakfast ready while I watch here?"
"All right," Audra said, doing so. She and Rachel shared the chores during the morning, and Audra was amazed at how much easier things were with two people laboring instead of one. It wasn't half as hard, it was a tenth. She began to understand why Nature arranged for there to be two parents in a family - and the contrast made her pity Myra even more.
Owen came at midmorning again, examined Myra closely. He drew Audra and Rachel aside. "She's very weak," he said soberly. "We have to try to build up her strength, or else her body can't fight off the infection. Has she taken any nourishment?"
"Tea, some broth," Audra said. Rachel nodded in agreement.
"See if you can get her to eat anything solid - even bread would help. Meat or vegetables would be even better."
"What about the fever?" Audra said.
"It seems stable for now, but if we can't build up her strength, it could return, even worse. I don't think I need to tell you that the next day or two are critical."
Audra felt like crying, but held herself steady - now was the time to act like a woman, not a girl. "All right," she said.
Owen turned to examine the girls. "Now, how are you young ladies feeling today?" he asked briskly.
"My ear hurts," Amy said, tugging at it.
"Does it now?" Owen said gently. "Let's come over to the window and let me look at it." He carried her over to the window and knelt down, holding her on his knee. He took a magnifying glass from his bag and looked at her ear. "Well, that doesn't look too bad," he said cheerfully. He took a dropper bottle out of his bag. "Could one of you ladies bring me a cup of hot water?"
"I will," Audra said and went to the kitchen and poured water from the kettle into a cup. She carefully carried it upstairs, and Owen placed the bottle of medicine in it.
"We'll just get that a little warm for you," he said, laying Amy on the bed on her side. In a few minutes, he tested the temperature on his wrist. "There now." He put two drops in her ear. "Doesn't that feel much better?"
Amy nodded, and the pain in her face eased. Owen examined Mary next. "You seem to be getting along well," he observed. "How do you feel?"
"Tired," Mary said, "but I'm OK."
"Well, you just rest, all right? Soon you'll be up and around, good as new."
"What about Mommy?" Mary said, her young face serious.
Owen sat on the edge of the bed. "I won't lie to you, Mary. Your mother's very ill - you can see that yourself. But these two nice ladies and I are going to do everything we can to make her better. Do you believe that?"
Mary nodded, and Audra was touched by the look of trust in her face. Owen patted Mary's cheek and pulled the covers up under her chin. He handed the little bottle of medicine to Audra. "Give her two drops, warmed, three or four times a day, or whenever she complains of pain."
Audra nodded and followed Owen out, leaving Rachel behind to tend the patients. "Owen," Audra asked, "Amy's ear. Could she go deaf?"
Owen turned to look at her. "She could," he said, "but she won't."
"Because if I did something," Audra continued, "I mean, I was so busy minding Myra, if I neglected. . . ."
Owen took her by the arms. "Audra. It's all right. It's a common complication of measles - it's nothing you did, believe me. Yes, without treatment, she could lose her hearing, but she's getting treatment, and you haven't neglected anyone but yourself. She'll be fine."
Audra looked up into his eyes and saw he was telling the truth - no easy, comfortable lies with this man, she could see. She took a deep breath. "And Myra?" she asked.
Owen lowered his eyes. "Not good," he said. He looked up then, holding her gaze, "but we won't give up. We can't let those two girls become orphans," he said fiercely.
"No, we can't," Audra agreed, filled with both determination and fear.
Owen let go of her. "Your mother sends her love. Do you have anything you want me to say to her?"
"Oh, goodness." Audra put her hand to her mouth. "I didn't even tell her I was here, did I?"
"Don't worry," Owen smiled, "I did."
"Tell her, tell her I'm doing my best," Audra said. "And send her my love as well."
"I will," Owen said. "And Audra? If the worst happens, you mustn't blame yourself - you're doing everything humanly possible. No one could do better."
Audra bowed her head. "I can't help it - I would blame myself."
Owen tipped her chin up and looked into her eyes. "Well, then, we'll just have to see that the worst doesn't happen." He let her go. "I'll return this evening."
Audra's eyes followed him down the stairs. She opened the bedroom door and told Rachel she was going to try to tempt Myra with some toast and broth, to begin with, then went to the kitchen, her heart filled with the strangest combination of hope and fear she had ever experienced.
Owen returned that evening to a scene of near chaos. Myra's fever had returned with a vengeance - she was writhing and screaming in her bed, while Rachel and Audra each held an arm, attempting to hold her down. Mary and Amy cringed together in their bed, terrified. Owen took the arm Rachel held and said tersely, "Get those children out of here."
Rachel nodded and picked up Amy, blankets and all and held out a hand to Mary. "Come, dears, let's give the doctor room to work."
"Take the drops," Owen reminded her.
"Yes," she said, taking the bottle off the table.
As soon as she was gone, Owen opened his bag with one hand and took out two leather straps with buckles. He handed one to Audra and used the other to secure Myra's wrist to the rungs of the headboard. Audra hesitated for only a moment - she hated tying her friend up, but she saw the necessity of it.
"We have to get this fever down, and quickly," Owen said, as Myra struggled against the restraints. "Is there any ice in the house?"
Audra shook her head. "They don't have an ice box."
Owen fished out his keys and threw them to her. "Go to my house. Take the ice, and there's an ice pick in the top left hand drawer of the cupboard. Go quickly," he said, but she was already out the door.
She sprang down the stairs and into the kitchen, where she grabbed a flour sack from the stack in the pantry. She hesitated a moment, then grabbed the entire stack, tucking them into her belt. She noted as she sprinted through the parlor that Rachel had the two girls wrapped in blankets on the sofa, the older woman sitting between them. The girls' wide eyes followed Audra as she ran out the door, untied the reins and vaulted into the saddle of Owen's horse. She kicked the horse into a gallop toward the doctor's home.
She slid from the saddle and unlocked the door, holding her breath so as not to lose time fumbling the key. She raced into the kitchen, opened the ice box and slid the block of ice into one of the flour sacks. She rummaged through the cupboard drawer until she found the ice pick, then slung the sack over her shoulder - it was heavier than she had anticipated, but managed it as best she could.
She raced back out to the horse, climbed into the saddle this time, holding the dripping sack on her thigh and kicked the horse once again, galloping back to Myra's house as fast as the animal would go.
She threw open the front door and dashed up the stairs two at a time, braking herself as she opened the door to the bedroom.
"You were quick," Owen said approvingly. He had rolled up his sleeves to sponge Myra's forehead, and Audra could see pockmarks trailing down his arms.
"No time to lose," she said, dumping the block of ice into the basin and attacking it with the ice pick. Owen began shoveling ice chips into the flour sacks and laying them along Myra's sides and on her torso.
"Cold," Myra complained, plaintively, then began screaming, words Audra had heard from the ranch hands in careless moments, but wondered where Myra had learned them.
"Pay no mind," Owen said, still making ice packs, "it's the fever. She won't even remember any of this."
"I hope not," Audra said. "She'd be so ashamed."
"That's enough for now - we don't want to send her into shock," Owen said, "but we may need the rest of it later."
Audra covered the rest with the flour sack and sat down by Myra's bed, across from Owen, the bed and its owner both separating and uniting them. "What now?" she asked, over Myra's screams.
"We wait," Owen said. "We fight, and we pray."
It was the longest night of Audra's life - Myra fought and screamed herself to exhaustion, then fell into a fitful slumber. Owen took the opportunity to salve and bandage her wrists, worn raw from the restraints, before returning her to her bound state. The ice melted quickly from the heat of her fever, soaking the bedsheets, but Myra still remained flushed. Her breathing was labored in her sleep - Audra felt a fist of terror clutch at her heart, but she beat it down.
Myra woke and began struggling again, although much more weakly. Owen and Audra replenished the ice bags, but they were swiftly running out. They gave her ice chips to suck on, fearful of dehydration, which she seemed to like and would quiet briefly until they were gone. Before midnight, Owen had to send Audra out in search of more ice, and so she found herself at Jarrod's house, creeping stealthily so as not to wake anyone.
"Who's there?" a masculine voice called out.
"Heath? It's me, Audra. I came to get ice for Myra - she has a fever."
Heath emerged from the darkness, trousered but shirtless. "I thought we were going to have to start locking our doors," he said. He got a glimpse of her face in the gloom and his own face grew serious. "Is it so bad as all that?"
Audra nodded. "She may not. . .oh, Heath, she can't die!"
Heath stooped down and pushed the block of ice into Audra's sack. "Well then, hurry back, Sis, and see that she doesn't. Do you want me to come with you?"
Audra hesitated a moment, then shook her head. "No, Owen - Dr. Grigsby is there. He'll do all he can."
"Then git, Sis," Heath said, and Audra gave him a quick hug and vanished into the darkness.
And so the night proceeded. In the deep dark of the night, Myra fell into a profound slumber, and Audra's heart lurched in her chest. Owen turned up the lamp and examined her, laying his hand gently on her head. "The fever's abated," he said at last, and Audra buried her face in the blanket and wept in relief.
Owen touched her gently on the shoulder. "Not yet, Audra," he said. "I need you to stay with me - the fever could return. She's not out of the woods yet."
"I'm sorry," Audra said, looking up and wiping her eyes.
"No need," Owen said. "You've been under quite a strain - tears can be a release, but you need to save it for later."
Audra nodded. "All right. Tell me what to do."
Owen smiled wearily. "We still need to keep her cool." He reached up and released Myra's wrists from the restraints. He reapplied salve and rebandaged them, then lay them across her chest. He pulled the wet bed sheets free from the mattress, and folded his side over her, indicating for Audra to do the same. "Now we wait and watch. Why don't you rest for awhile? I'll call you if she worsens."
"What about you?" Audra said. "You must be as tired as I am."
"Doctors are used to sleeplessness - it's part of our training. I'll grab a few winks when I'm able - I'm good at that, too." He smiled reassuringly.
"All right," Audra said, "but just for a little while." She curled up on the girls' bed, intending only to rest her eyes, but soon drifted off. The last thing she saw was Owen bending over Myra, wiping his eyes, thinking himself unobserved.
She awakened at dawn, inwardly cursing herself for sleeping so long, although it was only a couple of hours. "Audra?" Owen said, hearing her stir. "Come see."
Audra stood and looked down at Myra, now sleeping with a most peaceful expression on her face. "Is she all right?" she asked, hardly daring to hope.
Owen nodded. "I believe so - we'll know more when she awakens."
Perhaps Myra heard, for her eyelids fluttered and opened. "Audra? Doctor?" She looked down at herself, wrapped like a mummy in damp sheets. "What happened?"
"Sh, Myra," Audra said. "You've been very ill. How do you feel?"
Myra stirred. "Tired. Weak." She looked over at the other bed. "Where are my girls?" she asked anxiously.
"They're all right," Audra said. "They're downstairs with Rachel."
"Rachel's here? How long have I been ill?"
"Three days," Audra said. "You've had a high fever."
Myra raised her hands and looked at her bandages. "You had to restrain me?"
Audra smiled at this sign of coherent thought, then sobered. "Yes, dear. We're sorry."
"I'm sure - I'm sure you only did what you had to. Will I be all right now, Doctor?"
Owen felt her head and examined her. "Yes, I believe you will be. You must rest and not rush your recovery, you understand. You could still relapse if you're not careful - think of those girls if you won't think of yourself."
Myra nodded. "Yes, I'll be careful. May I see them?"
"All right," Owen said, glancing at Audra. She went downstairs, where Rachel was seated on the sofa, head thrown back, sound asleep. She had one girl's head pillowed on each thigh, and a Bible fell from her limp fingers.
Audra shook her gently. "Myra's awake. She wants to see the girls."
Rachel shook her head, clearing it. She rubbed her neck. "How is she?"
"Better. Weak. The fever's abated and she's lucid. The worst seems to be over, although Owen thinks we should still be watchful."
Rachel nodded. "Have you been up all night?"
"Almost. I got a couple hours of sleep - Owen's had none."
Rachel smiled at Audra's unconscious use of the doctor's given name, but said nothing, only shook the children gently awake. After a brief warning to be gentle when visiting their mother, the two women took the girls upstairs.
"Mommy!" Amy cried, rushing into Myra's arms. Mary sat on the bed and hugged her mother, who threw both her arms around her girls.
"Oh, I'm so happy to see you!" Myra said, weeping. "How are you feeling? Have they taken good care of you?"
Mary nodded, still hugging. "Amy's ear hurt, but the doctor gave her some drops and it's better, isn't it, Amy?"
Myra looked at Owen in alarm, but he put a reassuring hand on her head. "Yes, she'll be all right - please don't worry."
Myra shook her head, but only buried her face in Amy's hair, stroking it. "Nothing must happen to you, darling."
"Are you girls hungry?" Rachel said. "Would you like some breakfast?"
"Yes, please," Mary said.
"Could I have scrambled eggs?" Amy asked. "I'm tired of soup."
Audra and Rachel looked at Owen questioningly. "If that's what they want," he said. "An appetite is a good sign."
"I'd like some soup," Myra said, "if it isn't too much trouble."
"No, no trouble at all," Audra said, finally beginning to believe that the nightmare might be past. "Rachel, why don't you go home and get some sleep? I can manage for awhile."
"After breakfast," Rachel said. "I'll stay with them until you come back up." She looked at Owen. "I'm sure Dr. Grigsby needs to go get some sleep, too."
"A couple of hours, before I go see my other patients," he said, packing up his medical bag and rolling down his sleeves. He looked over at Myra and the girls. "Now you be good patients, and do what these good ladies tell you, all right? I'll be back to check on you later." He followed Audra out of the room and down the stairs.
"Audra," he said, before she could go into the kitchen, "thank you. I couldn't have done this without you."
"I'm glad I could be here," she said. "Glad I could be of help - but I could only do what you told me to do. She'd have died without you, wouldn't she?"
Owen nodded. "Yes, probably, but she'd have died without you, too, and I want you to remember that." He looked into her eyes a moment, as though there was something else he wanted to say, but instead took his hat and left.
Audra went into the kitchen to make breakfast, longing with all her heart to know what that something else had been.
Owen had gone, Rachel had gone home to sleep lying down for awhile, Myra and the girls were all asleep - in the same bed, snuggled together, unwilling to let go of each other - and Audra was cleaning the kitchen when the front door opened and Jarrod's wife came in.
"Molly!" Audra said, running into her sister-in-law's arms. "What are you doing here?"
"Heath told us about your visit last night." Molly put her hand to Audra's cheek. "Is it all right? How is Myra?"
Audra nodded. "Better. Very weak from the fever, but it looks like she'll recover now."
"I'm so glad - Heath really scared us all with his tale."
"I was terrified, Molly. If Owen - Dr. Grigsby - hadn't been here, she'd have died, leaving those two little girls all alone. I think we were fighting for them maybe even more than her."
"Children can inspire us to strengths we didn't know we had," Molly agreed. "I'm glad." She looked in Audra's face. "You look exhausted."
Audra nodded. "It was a long, hard night. Rachel's home sleeping now - it'll be my turn when she gets back."
"Why not you first?" Molly said. "Seems you had the more difficult time of it."
"Because Rachel was up for two nights - and she's older. I can handle it better." Audra smiled wearily.
"Why don't you go sleep at our house? Jarrod and Alice are taking care of the children - I can stay here for awhile. That's why I came."
"Bless you, Molly," Audra said. She turned to leave, then turned back. "May I talk to you about something first?"
"Of course, dear, anything," Molly replied.
"I'm falling in love with Owen," Audra said.
"Are you?" Molly smiled. "Well, he seems a good man. Vicky adores him, and she's hard to win over."
"Yes, he does seem to have a special feeling for children. But Molly, I have no idea how he feels about me."
"It's early days yet, Audra. Give him some time."
Audra shoved her hair out of her face. "I know. But I'm leaving soon - I promised Emerson I'd be back right after the wedding, and I don't know when I'll be back here. Molly, I can't leave without knowing how he feels."
"Come sit down, Audra," Molly said, leading her to the sofa. "This isn't like you - you usually seem to know what every man in the room is thinking."
"Owen's different. He doesn't make me feel beautiful - and I'm sorry, I'm putting that badly."
"Maybe not," Molly said. "How does he make you feel?"
"Useful. Trusted. Like he can rely on me. Not merely decorative, like most men do."
"Like a woman, instead of a painted doll."
"Exactly," Audra said. "You do understand."
"It's no wonder you love him then. Has he given no indication of his feelings?"
Audra shook her head. "Nothing beyond friendship. I thought he was about to speak this morning, but then he just left without saying anything."
"Hm," Molly said. "May I say something, just out of my own experience?"
"Of course, Molly. You know I'll listen to anything you say."
Molly sat back on the sofa. "Well. I don't know how Dr. Grigsby feels, but I know that a host of angels couldn't have made me declare myself to Jarrod if he hadn't done so first."
"That's because you're a woman," Audra pointed out.
Molly shook her head. "No, it's because he's a Barkley. Wealthy, accomplished, handsome, charming." Molly sighed. "How could I believe that he could love someone penniless, plain and old? I remember when he asked to court me, and I tried to argue him out of it." She smiled to think of it. "I was sure I was going to get my heart broken, but I was wrong." She looked at Audra. "Loving a Barkley can be quite intimidating."
Audra considered - what Molly had said, and what she knew of Owen. "You may be right, Molly." She bit her lip. "If you are, what do I do?"
"Wait awhile - give him a chance and an opportunity. But if he doesn't let you know, I think you'll have to declare yourself first. Don't worry about it for now - go get some sleep, dear."
Audra stood. "All right. Myra still needs to be kept cool, and watch for fever. And Amy needs drops in her ear, four times a day or when it hurts her, Owen said."
"All right, Audra," Molly said, climbing the stairs. "I can manage for awhile. Sleep well."
"Thank you, Molly," Audra said, putting on her jacket. She made her way to her brother's house, exhausted, but somehow feeling much better in spite of it.
She slept longer than she had intended, and it was early evening when she arrived back at Myra's. Rachel was there already, so Molly returned home as soon as Audra arrived. Owen had come and gone, and Audra felt bitter disappointment at missing him. The Rev. and Mrs. Stacy had stopped by in her absence as well, and Mrs. Stacy had said that she would arrange for the ladies of the church to take over the nursing during Myra's recovery - which was sensible, but Audra felt shoved aside. She had had such a sense of purpose over the last few days, harrowing as they were, and she was reluctant to give that up. But she was honest enough with herself to admit that her reasons for wishing to stay were mostly selfish, so she put them aside.
She saw Owen twice the next day when he came to check on Myra and the girls, but he said nothing personal to her. She caught what she interpreted as tender glances, but was unsure whether she was merely seeing what she wanted to see.
The day after that she was home, feeling as though she were returning from a different world - a feeling even stronger than returning from the Amazon. She felt changed somehow, in ways she could not explain, even to herself. The Barkley children were recovered, so the wedding was rescheduled for Friday of the following week, and she found herself caught up in the whirl of planning, parties, dresses, flowers. She was happy for the chance to finally get to know Alice, Heath's bride, and Laura Joy, Alice's maid-of-honor and childhood friend, but she also felt exhausted by it, and discontented.
Owen did not call on her, or the Barkleys, as she hoped he might, and as the days slipped by, she realized she would have to take matters into her own hands. She found her mother writing letters in the study and asked her, "Mother, would you invite Dr. Grigsby to dinner?"
"Well, yes, dear, I had intended to," Victoria said, "but we've all been so busy with the measles and then the wedding, I thought I'd wait until afterward."
"No, Mother, tonight. Or tomorrow. After that is the rehearsal and then the wedding. And then I leave."
"I see," Victoria said. "You have a particular reason for wanting him to come while you're still here?"
"I'm in love with him," Audra confessed.
"Then I certainly shall invite him," Victoria smiled. Audra did not smile in return, so Victoria asked, "Is there something else, dear?"
Audra put her hands on the desk and slumped forward. "I have no idea how he feels, Mother. I can't go without knowing."
Victoria frowned. "Audra, a man in love has ways of letting it be known. If. . . ."
Audra interrupted. "I think it's different with Owen. Molly thinks, well, suggested, that he might be too intimidated to speak." She told her mother about Owen's experiences with the wealthy in San Diego. "That's why he turned down our invitations. I hope he knows us well enough now to accept, but if he doesn't, well, I guess that will be my answer." She didn't tell her mother about the smallpox - that conversation seemed too intimate to share with anyone.
"Very well, dear," Victoria took up her pen and wrote. She folded the paper and sealed it, handing it to Audra. "I hope you get your heart's desire."
Audra asked Lucas to deliver the message for her, then waited with bated breath and pounding heart for his return. "Is he coming?" she asked, before he had even had a chance to dismount.
"Yes, Aunt Audra," Lucas assured her, grinning. "He'll be here at seven."
Seven. She had lunch with Alice and Laura Joy, then a fitting at the dressmaker's. When she returned, she ran upstairs and began pulling dresses from the wardrobe. What to wear? Then she hesitated - perhaps she shouldn't try to make herself beautiful. Oh, it was all too complicated. She sat on the bed and thought. She'd never felt like this, frustrated and confused. Men had always had a habit of falling into her lap - she had never had to figure out how to please one before. She certainly didn't want to look dowdy when he came, but maybe breathtaking was not the way to go, either. She looked over her clothes, and settled on a simple white muslin, embroidered with flowers. It was a bit girlish and old-fashioned, but pretty and not ostentatious. She had worn her hair braided in the Amazon, for convenience, and had become rather skilled with different styles. She made a single long braid, then twisted it into a bun at the nape of her neck, letting a few tendrils stray along her cheeks. She looked at the cosmetics arrayed on her vanity, but decided not to use them - she wanted him to see her as she was. She examined herself in the mirror - she thought she looked a little pale, but decided she would probably have color enough in her cheeks soon. She smiled at herself and went downstairs.
Victoria and Samantha were in the parlor, along with little Lizzie. "How do I look?" Audra asked.
"Very pretty," Samantha said. "Is it a special occasion?"
"Dr. Grigsby is coming to dinner," Victoria supplied.
"Ooooooh," Samantha said. "I didn't realize that was a special occasion."
"Is it too much?" Audra asked. "Should I go change?"
"It’s lovely, dear," Victoria said, smiling. "I'm sure it will suit the purpose admirably."
"Let me hold Lizzie," Audra said. "Maybe that will calm me."
"She might spoil your dress," Samantha warned.
"If she did, I don't think Owen would mind," Audra said. "Please, I only have a few days - I've barely gotten to know her."
"All right," Samantha said, smiling and handing the baby over. Audra smiled and cooed at Lizzie, and did indeed find her calming. There was just something about a baby, especially one as young as Lizzie. When Owen finally appeared, right on the stroke of seven, Audra was able to face him with pounding heart, but not trembling hands.
He wore a nice suit for the occasion, and brought flowers, which he handed to Victoria. "Thank you for inviting me, Mrs. Barkley," he said.
"We're glad you could make it, Doctor," Victoria said taking the flowers and then his arm and leading him into the parlor. "You know my daughter Audra, and my daughter-in-law Samantha. Please, entertain our guest while I go find a vase for these lovely flowers." She smiled and exited.
"Miss Barkley, Mrs. Barkley," Owen greeted them.
"Please, Samantha and Audra," Samantha said, smiling.
"All right, Samantha," he said. "Audra. You must call me Owen. And Miss Elizabeth?"
"We call her Lizzie," Audra said. "Would you like to hold her?"
"Why, yes, I would," Owen said. "Samantha?"
Samantha nodded and Owen took Lizzie out of Audra's arms. "She's grown," he said. "No complications from the delivery?"
"No," Samantha said, "but you're not here as a doctor, so stop that."
Owen laughed and Audra smiled - he seemed much more at ease than she had expected, and she found herself grateful to Samantha for her breezy manners.
Nick and Heath came in, dusty from the range, and Nick headed to the bar to pour himself a drink. "Dr. Grigsby!" he shouted. "What are you doing here? Is someone sick?"
"Nick, must you shout?" Victoria said, returning. "Dr. Grigsby is here as a guest. Now, you and Heath go clean up, please. Dinner is in fifteen minutes, so don't dawdle." She shooed the men out and turned to her guest. "Please forgive my son, he tends to be rather boisterous."
Owen smiled. "Think nothing of it."
Dinner went quite pleasantly - most of the conversation was of the measles epidemic and Heath's upcoming wedding, and Audra was glad to find that Owen could be quite charming when he wanted to be - and she was pleased that he wanted to be. She found herself saying little, but smiling much.
After dinner, Victoria opened the French windows in the parlor. "It's a lovely evening," she said. "Audra, why don't you show our guest the garden?"
"Of course, Mother." Audra took Owen by the arm and led him outside. "I'm so glad you came, Owen," she said.
"I'm glad your mother invited me," he replied. "It's been a very pleasant evening." They strolled along in silence for a moment, then, "Audra?"
"Yes, Owen?" she answered, her pounding heart ratcheting up a notch.
"Were you checked over by a doctor when you returned from the Amazon? It's rare for someone to spend time in the tropics without picking up some parasite or other disease."
Audra frowned. "Yes, I was, and yes, I'm fine, and as Samantha said, you're not here as a doctor, so stop it."
"Why am I here?" he asked, stopping and facing her.
Audra bowed her head. "Don't you know?"
"No," he said.
"I'm leaving soon. I can't go without," she gulped, "without knowing whether you care for me."
"Audra," he said, his voice husky, "what does it matter? We can never be more than friends."
Audra felt a tear slip down her cheek and her heart drop to the ground. "Why not, Owen?"
Owen sighed. He touched her cheek, then dropped his hand. "I can never take a wife, Audra. How can I ask any woman to share my poverty, or," he hesitated, "or embrace this hideous body of mine? It's just not meant to be. I'm sorry if that hurts you - I never wished for this."
She looked up at him then, speaking earnestly. "How bad can it be, Owen? I grew up on a ranch, I've probably seen hundreds of men shirtless. They've all been marked in some way - some had smallpox, like you, some even stripes from being flogged. I remember one hand who had a great welt that ran from one ear, across his face and all the way down his side - he'd been a sailor and hit with a loose line in a gale at sea. None of them were hideous - they were just men who had lived hard, and had the scars to prove it. My brothers all have scars, even Lucas has scars from being beaten before he came to us. I'm not afraid of that."
He looked down at her, his eyes dark and filled with pain. "And did you want to embrace any of those men?"
"No, but I didn't. . .I didn't love them," she said. "Look me in the eye and tell me you don't care for me, and I'll leave you alone."
He looked at the ground. "Audra, please. This serves no purpose."
She took him by the arms and shook him. "You don't believe me," she said angrily.
"I loved a girl once," he said. "I declared myself and she laughed at me. That's why I grew the beard, but I can't cover the rest of me."
"And you judge us all by that one experience? You insult me." She narrowed her eyes. "Come with me," she demanded, taking his hand.
"Where?" he asked. They came to a small house in the middle of the garden. "What's this?"
"Molly's cottage," she said, opening the door and leading him inside. She lit a lamp as they looked around at the clutter. "Jarrod gave it to her as a wedding present, so she could have a place of her own. Later it was used as a workshop." She turned to face him. "Now show me."
"Audra, don't. You shame me," he said.
She softened. "I don't mean to." She took his hand and held it to her cheek. "What have we got to lose, Owen? If you're right, then I leave and we're no worse off. If I'm right, then - well, then all shall be well, won't it?" She looked up into his eyes, pleading. "If you care for me, you have to take the chance, don't you?"
"All right," he said at last, turning his back on her and undoing his buttons. He took off jacket, waistcoat and shirt all in one motion, and steeled himself for her examination.
The pockmarks were dense, covering his shoulders and flowing down to his middle back in a rounded double V pattern. Audra spread her hands over them, not touching. "It looks like - it looks like wings," she breathed. She touched his shoulders and gently turned him around. He wore a small silver locket, she noticed, and his chest had a dusting of fine hair extending down to his waist. The pockmarks were denser here, covering his chest and belly like a breastplate, with a smattering of scars down his arms as well. She found herself breathing heavily, and she put her hands on his shoulders and said, "There, that's not so bad. It's just scars, nothing more."
Owen looked down at her. "You really mean that, don't you?" he said in wonder.
"Yes," she said, closing her eyes and tipping up her face. She waited a long moment, and began to fear her hopes would be dashed, when she felt Owen's lips on hers in a hesitant kiss.
She leaned into it, barely breathing. She thought she had certainly been kissed more expertly, but never more tenderly. She moved her hands from his shoulders to his back, caressing the dimpled skin - she had often seen men shirtless, but she had never kissed one before, and she found her thoughts taking a decidedly unmaidenly direction. Owen put her gently from him and shrugged back into his shirt, buttoning it hastily. "I'd hate for one of your brothers to find us this way," he explained, taking her back into his arms.
She leaned her head on his chest, feeling safe, warm and cared for. She touched the locket under his shirt. "What is this?" she asked.
"My sister," he said. "Her picture, a lock of her hair."
"What was her name?" Audra asked softly.
"Abigail. She called herself Nabby, so we did, too." He put his hand over hers. "Your niece, Vicky, reminds me of her. Not in looks, but she was a very quick, sweet child. And the same age."
"She was only four?" Audra felt tears spring up. "And how old were you?"
"Eight. I felt responsible for a long time - I was her big brother, I should have been able to protect her."
"That would be like expecting Emma to protect Vicky from smallpox. You're too hard on yourself."
"I know. Part of making my peace with God was making peace with myself." He wrapped both arms around her. "So when are you leaving?"
She felt a chill at the thought. "I promised Emerson I'd return right after the wedding - so Saturday. I have to go and turn down his proposal, but I could come back afterwards?" she said hesitantly.
"No, Little Bird," Owen said. "You need to spread your wings first, remember?"
"Nick used to call me that," she said. "But what if I'm ready to build my nest?"
Owen shook his head. "You can't use me to escape an awkward situation, Audra. You need to finish what you started. You've had some taste of what it would be like to be a doctor's wife - the long absences, the tedium. I can't imagine that any woman of intelligence could bear it unless she had interests of her own. Don't sacrifice everything for me - go write your papers, get the credit for your hard work. You've earned it - don't bail out on it now."
Audra hugged him hard. "You'll wait for me?"
He caressed her cheek. "Let's not make any promises, Audra. Let's just trust that if we're meant to be together, it will happen."
"It'll happen," she said assuredly. She held up her face for another kiss, and he was happy to oblige her.
This one was more confident, and Audra looked forward to the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that, too.
Nick met them on the verandah. "Where have you been?" he thundered.
"In Molly's cottage," Audra said coolly. "Talking." She dimpled prettily.
Nick took in their appearance - Owen's shirt was buttoned crookedly and strands of hair straggled out of Audra's braid. "I don't think that's all you were doing," he said threateningly.
"Nick, dear," Victoria said, coming through the French doors, "I seem to recall you and Samantha spending a good deal of time in the barn, and I don't believe you were grooming the horses. Please allow your sister the same latitude." Heath followed her out, but said nothing, only looked on, smiling.
"But, but," Nick sputtered, "she's my sister. And besides, Sam and I are married."
"You weren't at the time," Victoria said. She held out a hand to her daughter and her beau. "I'm so happy for you both."
"Thank you, Mrs. Barkley," Owen said, looking stupefied, but taking her hand and bowing over it. "I hope I haven't presumed on your hospitality?"
"Not at all," Victoria smiled. "And call me Victoria, please."
"All right, Victoria," Owen said. The clock chimed from inside the house. "It's very late - I'm afraid I must be going."
"You will be coming to the wedding, won't you, Doc?" Heath asked.
Owen nodded. "Yes, of course. I wouldn't miss it." He looked down at Audra, smiling.
"Must you go?" Audra pouted.
"Yes, dear, I must," Owen patted her hand tenderly. He looked around at her family, then took his courage in his hands and kissed her, right in front of them. He stroked her hair, and then he was gone.
"Why don't you go up to bed, Audra? I'll be up in a moment," Victoria said.
"All right, Mother." Audra headed indoors and up the stairs. She could hear raised voices, but then she heard Samantha laughing, so she knew Nick would soon be well in hand. She smiled to herself as she got ready for bed.
When Victoria came in, Audra threw her arms around her. "Oh Mother! He loves me!"
"I can see that," Victoria smiled, sitting on the bed. "Although he looked as though he'd been steamrolled. I hope you weren't too hard on him."
"I did what I had to," Audra said firmly. "Oh Mother, I've never been so happy! I hardly know what to do with it all!"
"Enjoy it, dear. Did you talk through the obstacles? Is everything right between you?"
Audra sobered. "No, not all. But there are always things to work out, aren't there? I love him, and he loves me, and that's what's important, isn't it?"
"Of course it is, dear," Victoria took her hand. "And if you need anything. . . ."
"I know, Mother." Audra hugged her.
"So does this mean you'll be staying on after the wedding?"
"No. I have a job to finish - and Owen agrees."
"Was that your decision, or his?" Victoria asked.
"Both. He said it first - I did offer to stay. But he was right, and I knew it all along." Audra looked at her mother. "Is that wrong?"
"No, dear, not wrong, if you're both in agreement. Just different, is all. It's good to see you so happy." Victoria smiled.
"Oh, I am! I want to dance, I want to turn cartwheels!"
"Well, move back the furniture first," Victoria said calmly.
Audra had hoped to see Owen the next day, but he was unable to come. He sent her a tenderly worded note, but he was busy with patients. Audra was glad for him, that his practice was getting off to such a bounteous start, but with so little time left, sorry that she could not spend more of it with him.
And yet, she felt she carried part of him around with her - his love purred inside her like a wheel spinning. She hoped she would continue to be aware of it through the coming separation.
Her own happiness now allowed her to throw herself into Heath and Alice's happiness, and she took up her bridesmaid duties with renewed purpose. The morning of the wedding, she arose early to pick spring flowers from the Barkley garden, before hitching up the buggy and driving to Alice's house.
She and Laura Joy made garlands while Alice bathed, then helped her dress before donning their own gowns. Audra was glad Alice had chosen pale blue for her own gown and a darker blue for the bridesmaids - she knew she always looked good in blue.
Then the four women - Alice, Rachel, Audra and Laura Joy, along with Lena - drove to the church, where they met the groom's party at the door. Alice had her mother give her away, a breaking with tradition that Audra found she heartily approved of. Maybe she would do the same when it came time for her own wedding. As Victoria took Heath's arm, and Laura Joy took Jarrod's, Audra took Nick's and was pleased when he looked down and winked at her. She squeezed his arm, knowing all was well between them. She walked down the aisle, scanning the back of heads in the pews, looking for Owen’s, but he was nowhere to be seen. She did not frown - he had promised to come, so she knew he would be there, if at all possible. And if not possible, he would be sure to let her know why. She put it out of her mind for the time, and concentrated her thoughts on her brother's wedding.
The families gathered around the altar to hear Heath and Alice speak their vows, and Lena leaped into Heath's arms when they were done - much to the amusement of the wedding guests - and he was holding her during the pronouncement and the kiss afterward. Heath carried her out with them when he and Alice marched back down the aisle, and she rode with them in the carriage back to the ranch. Audra smiled - she not only had a new sister-in-law, but an enthusiastic new niece. She scanned the congregation again on the way out, but still no Owen.
During the wedding breakfast, she found her mind running on two different levels - one on the constant lookout for Owen; the other laughing, participating in the toasts, enjoying the day with her family and the new additions to it. Alice looked particularly lovely, because she was so happy, and Lena kept up a constant chatter - every other word of which seemed to be "Daddy" - until Rachel finally sent her to play with Emma out of exasperation.
And the entire family was together, from Victoria all the way down to Georgie, for the first time since - she had to think - Nick's wedding the year before. Yet, and the thing she loved about her family - one of the things - was that great distances were not true distances at all. Wherever they were, they were together, in purpose and spirit.
All too soon it was over - they all gathered on the lawn to watch Heath and Alice leave on their wedding trip. Lena seemed disappointed not to be going along, but Audra thought that not even she could really have expected to. The guests began to make their way to their conveyances as Audra watched the carriage out of sight.
Or almost. Just before it disappeared around the curve, it pulled to a stop as it met a lone horseman. The horseman and Heath exchanged a few words before the carriage disappeared around the curve and the horseman cantered up the road.
She knew who it was even before he came close enough to see. As he reached the lawn, Owen dismounted and made his apologies to Victoria. "I'm sorry I'm late - I seem to have missed everything. Was it a nice wedding?" His suit was rumpled and he was disheveled from more than the ride, Audra thought.
"Dr. Grigsby!" Vicky cried and threw herself at his knees. He smiled and reached down and picked her up and she wrapped her arms around his neck. Such a look crossed his face as made Audra nearly weep.
"I'm sure you had good reason," Victoria said. "We're glad you could make it."
"What kept you?" Nick asked, seeming uncertain whether he should glower or not.
"One of your fellow ranchers, Joe Harris, was gored by his bull this morning," Owen explained.
Everyone listening gasped. "Is he all right?" Audra asked.
"It was a serious injury - I had to operate, which is what took so long," Owen explained. "He should recover, if sepsis doesn't develop. But he'll be off his feet for quite awhile."
"Matilda must be beside herself. Silas," Victoria addressed the Barkley butler, "pack up some of this food, and put in a bottle of the blackberry cordial, would you, please? Nick, would you go change and then hitch up the buggy? I should be back in time for supper - you will stay for supper, won't you, Owen?"
"If I'm able," Owen said, "and if I'm not intruding."
"Of course you're not," Victoria said. "There's plenty of food left - you must be famished. Audra, see to our guest. I'll go change - I won't be a minute."
As everyone went off to their assigned tasks, Owen asked bemusedly, "Is she always like this?"
Audra smiled. "Yes, she's amazing, isn't she?"
"I see where you get it from," Owen smiled, and Audra felt warm all over.
Vicky suddenly grew heavy, and Owen realized that she had fallen asleep. Jarrod reached over and took his daughter out of Owen's arms. "Better go put this one down for a nap, and - where's Georgie?"
"I have him, Father," Lucas said from the back of the group. "He was trying to climb into the corral."
"I'll be glad when this phase of his is over," Molly sighed. "I swear all my gray hairs are because of him."
"Now, Feather, I don't see a single gray hair," Jarrod assured her, heading toward the house.
"Then you need to borrow my spectacles, love," Molly said, following him. "Come on, Emma, Lena, let's go change out of our party clothes."
In just a few moments only Owen and Audra were left among the ruins of the feast. She turned to look at him - he seemed younger, lighter, both less ponderous and less gloomy. There was a sparkle in his eyes that had not been there before. I did that, Audra thought, and she reveled in her power - not the power to entice, which she had always had, but the power to grant happiness. "Let me fix you a plate," she said.
"I can do that," he said. He took both her hands. "You are so beautiful."
Audra blushed, to her surprise. Yet because it was not for her beauty that he valued her, she found that it was a gift she could give him, with much pleasure. "I was just thinking the same thing of you," she said.
"Don't tease," he warned her.
"I'm not." She put her hand to his face, stroked his beard. "Your eyes - they sparkle. And you look younger, as though a weight has dropped away from you. Very handsome."
He smiled, piercing her heart. "Well, then, I have you to thank." He took a plate from the buffet and served himself. Audra helped herself as well. "Haven't you eaten?" he asked.
"I just picked," she said. "I was waiting for you."
"Good thing I came, then, or you'd have starved."
Audra shrugged. "I knew you would, or would tell me why."
He looked into her eyes. "You were so sure of me? I was afraid you'd be angry at me for breaking a promise."
"I knew you wouldn't without good reason," she said. "But I watched for you, every minute."
He sat at the table and she sat across from him. He took her hand before she could pick up her fork. "I love you, Audra. I don't think I've actually said that yet, and I need to, before you leave."
She had thought her heart was pounding before. "I love you, too, Owen." She squeezed his hand, unwilling to let go.
He kissed her fingers. "I never thought I would love a woman who could buy and sell me."
"Well, I don't really believe that you could be bought, but if you could, I certainly wouldn't sell you," she said lightly, then her eyes darkened. "Is the money really that great an obstacle?"
"I wish I could say no, but I've been thinking about what our future might be like, and I can't imagine us both living off my income, and I can't imagine myself living off of your money."
"You said the Lord would provide, if you were doing His work. Maybe this is His way of doing that?"
He dropped her hand and picked up his fork. "You don't believe that we're in love just so I can carry on my practice."
"Of course not. But maybe the reason I have money is so that you'll have money." She looked into his eyes hopefully. "I know Mother's been longing to found a free clinic - you might be the answer to her prayers. Why can't we be the answer to yours?"
While he chewed that over, she continued, "Maybe you should talk to Molly. She had the same problem - I know she and Jarrod used to have arguments about money while they were courting."
"Really?" Owen asked. "They seem such a devoted couple."
"They are. They worked it out. I know it's different for a man, but maybe she can give you some insight - she's good at that." Audra smiled.
Owen was silent for a moment. "All right. Because the one thing I truly can't imagine is living without you."
Audra's heart soared, and she leaned across the table to kiss him. Lena and Emma zipped by, now trousered and pigtailed. Lena made a U-turn and headed back. "Can you take us riding, Aunt Audra?"
"Not now, Sweetheart," Audra said. "Perhaps Uncle Nick would."
"Why were you kissing Dr. Grigsby?"
"Because I wanted to, dear. You'll understand when you're older."
Lena shrugged and she and Emma dashed off to cajole Uncle Nick. Owen laughed. "I have to admit, what first changed my mind about your family was watching your brothers with those two girls. You'd never have known they weren't their natural children."
"There's a special bond between them," Audra agreed. "Even more so between Jarrod and Lucas, I think. There's a great deal of love and trust there." She was silent a moment, wondering if he was thinking the same thing she was - about the children they might have, what they might be like. She felt her face growing warm.
Owen finished eating and stood, offering Audra his hand. "Shall we?" She took it and they strolled through the garden, resting under the arbor, talking and kissing. “I still find it hard to believe your family could approve of me for you," he said.
Audra laughed. "If we do get married, you'll be by far the most respectable of our spouses."
Owen's brow furrowed. "Truly?" He considered Audra's sister-in-laws each in turn. "I can't imagine any of them being the least bit unrespectable."
"I think I'll save family history for all those long letters I'm bound to write you," she said.
They sat looking into each other's eyes for long moments, pondering their approaching separation. A shadow crossed their faces, and Owen looked up. "Look," he said, pointing, "there's another eagle. No one's going to shoot it, are they?"
"Not on our land," Audra said firmly. "Nick would thrash anyone who tried."
"Good," Owen said, wrapping his arms around her.
They watched the eagle soar. "Tell me about it," Audra said. "I don't really know much about them."
"All right," he said, and proceeded to tell her everything he knew about eagles.
Molly opened the front door at Owen's knock. "I was wondering if I might have a word with you," he said. "Audra said I might speak with you?"
Molly opened the door wide. "Of course, Owen, won't you come in?" She led the way. "Would you mind talking in the kitchen? I find it cozier."
"No, I don't mind at all," Owen replied.
Molly filled the kettle and set it on the stove for tea. She sat down at the kitchen table and indicated for Owen to join her. "Now, what did you want to talk about?"
Owen felt suddenly shy. "Well," he began, then stopped. "Well," he tried again, clearing his throat. "You know Audra and I have, well, an understanding."
"She loves you, and you love her. Yes, I know," Molly smiled.
"Well, yes," Owen confirmed. "But there are certain obstacles that she thought you might know something about?"
"Wealth? Or Beauty?" The kettle sang out and Molly got up to prepare the tea.
"Let's start with Wealth," Owen said, a bit more at ease. "I think we may have cleared Beauty already."
"I can tell you how it was with me," Molly said, setting down a teacup in front of him. "Would you like one lump, or two?"
The train pulled into the San Diego station Saturday afternoon. Audra arranged to have her baggage delivered to her lodgings and headed straight for Emerson's lab. He looked up with a smile as she came in. "Barkley! Good to have you back." He gave her a peck on the cheek.
"I'm not going to marry you, Emerson," she said straight away, wondering at herself. She had meant to deal the blow rather more gently.
Emerson looked startled. "Now, Barkley, I thought we decided it was the most sensible solution."
"You decided. I was thinking it over. And I don't think I want to get married because it's sensible." She studied him for signs of perturbation, but did not see any, at least on the surface.
"I can't imagine anything one should be more sensible about," Emerson replied. "Think of the things we could accomplish together."
"We've been accomplishing them just fine without getting married," Audra pointed out. "What about love? Doesn't that enter the picture at all?"
"Love? Every bad marriage in the world started with two people in love," Emerson said. "Isn't it better to choose a partner for compatibility? Common interests?"
Audra bit her lip. "So you don't love me? You just want a lifetime lab partner?"
"Well, you're a very attractive woman, Barkley, you must know that - you have half the men in the county trailing around after you. I daresay we wouldn't spend all our time in the lab."
Audra sputtered, trapped between laughter and indignation. "Say my name," she demanded.
"What, Barkley?" Emerson said, puzzled.
"No, Audra," she said.
"Very well, then. Audra."
Audra sighed. She thought how she felt when Owen said her name, how she felt when she said his. She thought about Owen - warm, sad, scarred, difficult and oh, so worth the effort. Not this sterile, dry calculation. "No," she said again, "I can't marry you, and that's that. I'm sorry."
"You're sure?" Emerson asked.
She nodded. "I'm sure."
"Well, then," Emerson said, "you do realize your absence has put us weeks behind? I'll expect you to work extra hours until you're caught up." He opened a cabinet and took out a small crate.
"Of course," Audra said, taking off her jacket, both relieved and perturbed at his lack of emotion over her refusal.
"And I'll expect you tomorrow, bright and early." He handed her the crate.
"But tomorrow's Sunday," Audra said.
"So?" Emerson raised an eyebrow.
"I'm not working on the Sabbath," she said firmly.
"What's gotten into you, Barkley?" Emerson said. "You used to be more tractable."
"Nothing's gotten into me," she said. I helped save a woman's life. I fought for the heart of the man I love and won it. I grew up. She recognized her power now - the power to decide for herself what was right and wrong for her. She knew there would always be people whose opinions she valued - her mother, Jarrod, Owen - but the decisions would be hers. No more need for approval - she had all she could ever want or need. "I'm just not working on the Sabbath, is all. I'll put in extra hours any other day, but not that one."
Emerson looked at her and harrumphed, but did not argue further. "Get to work cataloging these beetles then." He sat and began working on the plants he was classifying, and Audra took the crate, a magnifying glass and a journal and began working in silence next to him.
She enjoyed beetles - glistening like iridescent jewels, their hard carapaces both sturdy and fragile, opening to reveal gossamer wings. Thinking of wings made her think of Owen, and she smiled at her work, contented.