May 1, 1915
There is a distinct difference between marrying a man you do not love, and falling in love with a man you cannot marry. As Ashleigh Dougall locked eyes with Sam Miller across Manhattan’s crowded dock, the sting of that truth stripped all doubt. Pinpricks of fresh awareness rifled through her like the sharp May wind off the wharf of the Atlantic, bringing to life a shocking realization.
Heaven help her. She was in love with her sister’s fiancé.
Even through the space of noisy travelers and hurried porters, Sam’s grin tripped her heartbeat and introduced a myriad of emotions she’d reserved for three-volume novels and daydreams. Ash-brown curls twisted in an unruly manner from under his brown Fedora and shadowed his best feature – his eyes.
In love with her sister’s fiancé? A man who’d become her dearest friend? Nonsense.
But her mental reprimand did nothing as her pulse skittered into rhythm with Alexander’s Ragtime from the pier. She waited for her mind to catch up with her errant heart, to blame the high emotions of departure, but each thought confirmed the growing attraction. He’d provided escort for the long journey from North Carolina and only now her emotions swelled from girlish fancy to—
No. The idea was utter madness and complete betrayal, a family trait of which she would not fall prey. Whether she blamed youthful blindness or disappointed hopes, the truth remained: Sam was ever faithful – and forever Catherine’s.
Or the woman he thought her sister was.
Ashleigh drew her day suit jacket taut. Rumors had made their way across the Atlantic in Mother’s letters and Fanny’s quick missives. The faithful maid gave more insight into Catherine’s notorious flirting and dogged pursuit of Edensbury’s elite, flaunting a wealth her family didn’t possess. After a year abroad to help her mother grieve, nothing had changed.
A child’s scream pierced through her mental fog. Ashleigh turned in time to see a little girl tumble forward and land in a crumpled mess of lace and cloth on the dock floor, arm pinned beneath her.
A woman with the same blush of auburn hair, rushed to the child’s side. “Alice, are you all right?”
Without another thought to the maddening confusion of her heart, nursing instincts quickened Ashleigh’s steps to the pair on the dock. The older woman pulled the child into her lap.
“My wrist hurts, Mama.” The girl’s cries were muffled against her mother’s chest.
Ashleigh dropped her valise and reticule and lowered herself to the dock beside the pair. Their faded, but pressed clothes, suggested poor – but hardworking. Like so many she’d served over the past two years in the rural North Carolinian Mountains.
She met the mother’s frantic gaze with the cool calm of her specialty. “My name is Ashleigh Dougall. I am a trained nurse. Might I be of assistance?”
Alice whimpered. “I can’t move it, Mama.”
“My girl, Alice, has hurt her wrist.” The mother’s voice pitched higher, a sudden awareness raising her volume and drawing attention from the passersby. “If it’s broke what are we going to do? I used my last dollar to pay for our tickets. How am I going to—?”
“Let’s see what we have here, first. What do you say? I’ve watched magical recoveries with little girls and wounded wrists before.” Alice peeked her teary gaze from her mother’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t wonder if this might not be the perfect setting for another bit of magic.” Ashleigh smoothed her words into softer tones and the spell worked.
The mother’s breathing slowed. Alice sniffled and squinted at Ashleigh, her eyes a beautiful umber hue.
“Hello, darling, I’m very sorry for your spill. I would like to help you. I’m a nurse and know a bit about things like bruised wrists and skinned knees. May I look at your arm, Alice?”
The little girl tightened her hold on her doll, proving the wound was more a sprain than a break. Painful, but not as serious and certainly a less expensive fix.
Sam emerged in Ashleigh’s periphery a short distance across the dock, his whistle at full volume. She caught his gaze in a solid hold of unspoken messages. He paused. Ten years of friendship worked its wonders. He surveyed the situation and increased his pace toward them, resuming his tune along with the band.
She turned to the little girl and lowered her voice to increase the suspense. “My friend Sam has a secret. Do you like secrets?”
Alice’s whimpers died altogether. A smile tickled at the corners of Ashleigh’s lips in response to the interest glittering in Alice’s golden eyes.
Sam removed the newspaper from beneath his arm and knelt at Ashleigh’s side, bringing with him his usual scent of soap and lemon. Heat swirled up her neck and planted firmly on her cheeks, no doubt darker than her mauve day suit.
She acknowledged him with a nod, but kept her attention fastened on Alice’s movements, in part to monitor her injury and in part to gain time to cool the sudden warmth around her chest at his nearness. “Have you ever had a LifeSaver? I wouldn’t wonder if one or two might be the medicine you need to feel better. What do you think, Sam?”
Alice’s sharpened gaze fastened on Sam.
“Well…” His rich bass voice melted into conversation. “You have to be pretty special to get a piece of my candy.” He pulled a colorful roll of paper from his pocket and slowly opened the wrapper.
Alice didn’t miss one twist of Sam’s fingers.
“So, Alice, I need you to reach those fingers out for that candy, and if you use both hands, Sam will put a LifeSaver in each.”
“Two?” Her lips wobbled into an ‘o’ shape.
“Two.” Ashleigh looked to the mother. “If she can clasp this candy, then it will confirm my suspicions of a sprain rather than a break.”
The mother gave a feeble nod.
In an easy sweep of his hand, Sam popped a piece from the wrapper with his thumb, tossed it up in the air and caught it in his mouth. He sighed and closed his eyes with a look of utter satisfaction. “Mmm, that’s some good candy.”