The Lady and the Mountain Doctor - Misty M. Beller - ebook
Opis

A Christian Historical Romance NovelMiriam Bryant has always dreamed of leaving the never-ending work of her family's remote mountain ranch to travel abroad as a genteel lady. She's thrilled when the opportunity finally arises, but a gruesome hunting accident crushes her plans, leaving her stranded for weeks in a Montana Territory mining town. The single bright spot in her disappointment comes in the form of this mountain town's newest doctor…Fresh out of medical school, Alex Donaghue is excited to join his brother's practice and prove himself in the mining town of Butte, in Montana Territory. But the tough conditions in the mines and the brutal winter are worse than he expected. Now a mysterious lung disease is killing patients he fought so hard to cure. The single bright spot in this dreary place comes in the form of their newest patient…But when Miriam's life is threatened by the effects of a medical tragedy, will Alex have what it takes to save the woman he's come to love? Will Miriam ever find the place God created her for, or is it too late?

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THE LADY AND THE MOUNTAIN DOCTOR

Misty M. Beller

MISTY M. BELLER BOOKS, INC.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Lady and the Mountain Doctor

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter One

Contents

Title Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Did you enjoy this book?

Other books by Misty M. Beller

About the Author

Dedication and Copyright

THE LADY AND THE MOUNTAIN DOCTOR

~

Mountain Dreams Series, Book 2

Misty M. Beller

Commit your way to the Lord,

Trust also in Him,

And He shall bring it to pass.

He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light,

And your justice as the noonday.

Rest in the Lord,

And wait patiently for Him.

Psalm 37:5-7a (NKJV)

~ ~ ~

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CHAPTER ONE

October 28, 1876

Bryant Ranch - Near Butte City, Montana Territory

Miriam Bryant plunged her knife through the deer’s thick winter fur, just the way her brother taught her. Crimson saturated the snow underneath, and she clenched her eyes tight against the sight. An acrid odor permeated the air. Miriam spun away, inhaling deep gulps of air.

They needed food. God sent the buck. She repeated the words in her head, as her stomach slowly unclenched. Finally, she turned back toward the animal, knife clutched tight in her hand. Once again, she wished she could have let the deer bound away in freedom. But their meat supply was low, and she had to pull her weight on the ranch.

The whisper of air was her only warning before a force slammed into her back, knocking her forward. A scream rent the air, and she writhed away from the creature pressing her against the deer carcass. Cougar. Pain pierced her body. Over and over. Everywhere the cat touched left new agony.

Miriam fought hard. She rolled onto her side and tried to crawl, but the animal was all around her, growling and screaming. A blast of pain shot through her leg, and her body jerked hard. She reached for the source of the pain, and slammed her fists into the furry head, again and again.

Her vision grew fuzzy. Her fist no longer met fur. The pressure in her knee loosened, leaving behind a searing pain. She forced her elbows into the snow, dragging herself away from the animal. Clenching her teeth, she rolled over. Every inch of her frame screamed in torture, but she had to move in spite of the agony.

With her last ounces of strength, she rolled, pushing against the snow in one rotation after another. The freezing dampness of the icy flakes seeped under her coat, adding to the misery in her body.

Finally, her muscles wouldn’t move anymore. The world spun around her, and then blackness closed in.

~~~

October 28, 1876

Butte City, Montana Territory

Alex Donaghue pressed hard on the mortar, grinding the root chunks against the wooden pestle. The Echinacea root had no scent, but tiny particles of powder drifted up to tickle his nose.

In the two months since he’d joined his brother, Bryan, at the clinic here in Butte, they’d run dangerously low on too many of their medicines. Demand from the hordes of miners in town far outweighed the random shipments of supplies they received. But that wasn’t all bad, because it gave Alex the opportunity to get to know the flora in the area. It’d been a long time since he’d ground his own herbs, but it was a skill that came back easily.

The front door in the next room slammed open, admitting the noises from the muddy street outside.

“Help! Doc Bryan, you in here?”

Alex dropped the tools to the counter and strode toward the connecting doorway. He barely stopped himself from crashing into Gideon Bryant in the opening.

“Alex.” Gideon’s face was a mask of panic as he half-dragged Alex toward the open front door. “It’s Miriam. She was attacked by a mountain lion. Blood everywhere. She’s not wakin’ up.”

Stopping beside the wagon bed, Alex gripped the side and surveyed the scene. A blonde woman lay bundled in several blankets. Her eyes were closed, and her pale face streaked with blood and dirt. Leaves and twigs tangled in her golden hair. Reaching into the wagon, he rested his palm on her forehead. Warm, but not dangerously so. He held a finger to her upper lip. A faint tickle of air. Breathing, but not very strong.

In the wagon, Gideon gathered the blankets by her head in his fists. “Get the other end. We’ll use the blanket like a stretcher.”

Alex did as directed. He’d only met Gideon a few times, as his ranch was up the mountain a couple hours. Bryan knew him well, since Gideon and his wife Leah had been instrumental in setting up the clinic in this remote mining city. He’d heard of Gideon’s sister Miriam, but not seen her until now. The grim look on Gideon’s face showed his fear.

They carried her up the stairs, through the front office, and into the front examination room. “Easy does it.” They lowered her to the wood surface.

Alex eased the blankets open, starting at her neck and working toward her feet. Her buckskin coat was torn in several places. Shredded, really. But the main damage wasn’t obvious until he uncovered her legs.

Blood everywhere. Is that why she hadn’t regained consciousness? Her skirt gathered in a wad at her thigh, revealing a red-soaked petticoat and the left leg twisted in an irregular angle at the knee. Alex sucked in a breath.

“Bad?” Gideon’s voice was flat, as if steeling himself for the worst.

Alex had been instructed in the art of the poker-face all four years at the McGill Faculty of Medicine. But this knee was painfully damaged. The lion had torn through her stocking and through the skin, revealing tendon, cartilage, ligament, and bone. This would take more than stitching the exterior layers together.

He looked up. “I’ll need help with the surgery. Go get my brother. Should be at the Alice mine.”

For a second, Gideon’s eyes widened even more, darting between his sister and the window that overlooked the street. “All right.” He strode toward the door, leaving Alex with a knot in his stomach, and a mountain of work ahead of him.

After cutting off the stocking, he inspected the rest of her. A few scratches that would need cleaning on her arm and calf, and deep puncture wounds on her back, but nothing that would require stitches. The position of the puncture wounds were high enough so they shouldn’t have hit the lungs or other organs. But they were surely painful.

Focusing his attention on the knee, Alex cleaned the wound and prepared to examine the extent of the internal damage. A moan drifted from the woman, pulling his attention to her face. Her brows pulled together, creating deep furrows between them. Her eyes weren’t open yet, but if the pain intensified from his efforts—which it surely would—that might bring her to full awareness. He moved to the cabinet and worktable to prepare the chloroform mask.

By the time boots sounded in the front room, Alex had inspected the wound in detail, and had a pretty good idea of what they’d need to do.

Male voices sounded through the wall, then Bryan entered the examination room alone. “What’s going on with Little Sister?” He submerged his arms in the washbasin by the door as he listened to Alex’s debriefing.

“It doesn’t look like there’s bone displacement or significant damage to the cartilage. The lateral collateral ligament has a second degree tear, but the worst seems to be a large tear in the patellar tendon. I think we’ll need to stitch it before closing the wound and splinting.”

“Do you have materials ready to repair the tendon?” Bryan settled a clean smock over his flannel shirt.

“Yes, but do you want to examine the damage first to confirm the diagnosis?”

Bryan raised a brow at him. “You already did that, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but…” Why did it bother him that Bryan trusted his work?

His brother clapped him lightly on the back. “You take the lead and I’ll assist.”

Alex shrugged. “Let’s get started then.” After all, he’d spent the last nine years preparing to be a competent physician. What good was all that hard work if he didn’t do what it took to save a life when the need arose?

Turning back to the patient, he positioned himself over her wounded knee. For just a second, he shot a glance at her pale face, loose blonde hair scattering across the table.

It was almost his undoing.

CHAPTER TWO

Alex snipped the silk thread over the feather quills along the incision in Miss Bryant’s knee. There was consensus among his mentors at the McGill Faculty of Medicine that a quilled suture was right for stitching a wound this deep. He shot a glance at his brother from the corner of his eye. Did Bryan agree?

“Looks good.” Bryan nodded, then gathered the forceps and other tools they’d used in the surgery.

Alex examined the wound again, trying to see it with fresh eyes. The sutures in the skin were clean. He’d stitched the delicate tendon fibers inside as well as he could, but most of the internal damage would have to heal on its own. Was that good enough? What if she sustained permanent damage that he could have corrected? He released a long breath. He’d done the best he could.

While Bryan washed the surgical instruments, Alex wrapped the wound with clean bandages, then fit the stiff leather splint over Miss Bryant’s knee. Alex glanced at his brother when Bryan came to stand beside him. “Ready to remove the chloroform inhaler.” He needed to prepare the laudanum for when she awoke. The pain was going to be rough for a while.

By the time Alex was satisfied with the placement and tightness of the splint, Bryan had already put away their equipment and removed his surgery smock.

“Gotta get back to the Alice if you don’t need me. There was a small rockslide and I still have a few to tend.” His big brother ran a hand through his amber brown hair. The color and loose curl was closer to their mother’s, while Alex’s hair was stick straight and dark brown like Pa’s.

“I’ll talk with Gideon. No problem. Thanks for the help.” Alex hung his own smock on the hook beside Bryan’s. Pausing, he glanced at his brother’s retreating back. “Bryan?”

The familiar frame halted, then turned back to look at Alex.

“I think we should keep her here a week. At the clinic, I mean. Then make sure she stays nearby for a couple more?”

Bryan shrugged. “Your call. Sounds like a good plan.”

A bit of tension left Alex’s shoulders. Why did he always need Bryan’s affirmation? It would get better the longer they worked together. Surely.

He followed Bryan through the doorway to the front room.

Gideon jumped to his feet the moment he saw them. “How is she?”

Alex stepped forward to address the man. “I think we accomplished what was needed in the surgery. She’s still asleep, but should wake up soon. You can come back and see her if you’d like.”

“Of course.”

As Alex followed the man’s long strides into the back room, he took in the broad shoulders and well-defined muscles. This mountain rancher wasn’t a stranger to hard work.

Gideon hovered over his sister, her petite frame tiny in comparison to his.

Alex cleared his throat, then spoke in a low voice. “I’d like her to stay here at the clinic for at least a week. Her leg will require complete rest at first, then she’ll need to start a few exercises. I’ll want to keep an eye on the incision as well, and take the sutures out in two weeks.” He eyed the taller man. Was he absorbing all the information?

The muscles in Gideon’s jaw worked. “Whatever she needs.”

“It’d be best if she could stay in town for at least a month or six weeks. We need to make sure the leg heals correctly and regains full motion.”

Gideon’s eyes shot to Alex’s face. He didn’t answer at first. Finally, he repeated his words. “Whatever she needs.”

Relief washed through Alex as he released a breath. “Good.” He motioned toward a chair by the wall. “Have a seat. Hard to say how long it’ll take the chloroform to wear off.”

Alex scanned the room. There wasn’t really anything else he could do for the pair. But the mortar, pestle, and tiny chunks of Echinacea root still waited on the work counter for him to finish grinding.

While he worked, he kept an ear tuned to sounds behind him. All was quiet until Gideon spoke up. “What are you doing?”

Alex glanced back to see the man eyeing the mortar and pestle, a line furrowing his brow. “Grinding Echinacea root. Since we’re heading into winter, I expect us to need a lot of this herb for colds and such.”

“The medicine companies make you mix your own?”

A grin pulled Alex’s face. “Local demand for a lot of remedies seems to be more than we can get with our irregular shipments. This country has good supply of some of the herbs, though. So I’ll use what’s available.”

Before Gideon could respond, a groan from the table grabbed their attention. Miss Bryant’s eyes flickered, then cracked enough to reveal a sliver of shadowed green. Her lips moved, but made no sound. The chloroform had likely turned her mouth to cotton.

Alex strode to the drinking pitcher and half-filled a tin cup. Slipping a hand behind the lady’s shoulders he eased her up just high enough so she could sip the water. “This should help. Only take a little, though.”

She gulped twice, like a starved kitten finally given milk. Then she sank back as another moan slid from her lips.

“Let me get something for the pain.” Setting the cup on the bedside table, he turned to get the tincture of laudanum he’d measured. Once again, he fitted his hand under her shoulders, careful to avoid the bandages on her back. “Here you go.”

After swallowing, she sank against the thin pillow and her pale green eyes found his. “Thanks.” The word seemed to take effort, and combined with the power of her gaze, formed a lump in his throat.

“You’re welcome.” His voice rasped, so he cleared it. Her gaze was so intense he couldn’t hold it.

“Do you remember what happened, Miri?” Gideon’s voice brought a welcome distraction.

Alex turned back to his worktable and plunged the mortar hard against the herb root in the pestle. His brain must still be strained from the surgery.

“I…was on my way home.” Her voice was rough and the words came slowly. Was she having trouble remembering? They’d need to watch her for damage to the brain.

“There was a deer…a buck. I didn’t want to bring him down, but I knew I should. I started to dress him…” Her words picked up speed, but stopped suddenly.

Alex stole a glance behind him. The delicate skin between her brows drew together.

Gideon patted her shoulder. “It’s all right. I pretty much know what happened after that. Was on my way out when I heard your shot, then you screamed. If it makes you feel better, the mountain lion carcass is lying beside that buck you brought down.”

Her face relaxed into the hint of a smile, although creases at the corners of her eyes signaled the pain she still felt. “At least there’s something to show for this trouble. I’m sorry, Gideon. I didn’t mean to put you through so much.”

He huffed a dramatic sigh. “You always have been trouble.”

“You’re one to talk.” She raised a brow.

Alex turned back to his work table to hide his smile. How many times had he teased his younger sister, Cathleen, that way? And their middle sister, Brit, had been able to give it back better than he could dish it out. That is…before.

He ground harder on the mortar, pushing back thoughts of Brit. He needed to get this powder put away before dust contaminated it. Working in Dad’s apothecary shop, he’d learned to protect the integrity of the herbs at all cost.

As Alex reached for an empty glass jar, he tried to tune out the conversation behind him. It wasn’t hard, because Miss Bryant’s voice had grown so soft he could barely make out the words. Probably the laudanum kicking in. And she did need to rest. Time to call an end to visiting hours.

He turned and leaned back against the work counter to watch the scene. Gideon was telling her a story about a horse, but Miss Bryant’s eyelids sagged. Every few seconds they would droop so low they concealed the green depths, then they’d pop back up to almost full mast. Only to repeat the process. The faint dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks were like Cathleen’s. But that’s where the resemblance ended. Nothing else about this woman made him think of a sister.

In fact, very much the opposite.

~~~

Everything in Miriam wanted to give into the pull of oblivion. The pulsing in her leg had lessened a little. Enough so sleep had become the most important thing.

“I’ll get a bite to eat while you sleep some.”

She forced her eyes open again at Gideon’s comment. He couldn’t go yet, she still had questions. Focusing on forming her mouth into words, she pushed through the fog. “Will we go home tomorrow?”

Silence.

Gideon didn’t answer, so she pushed her eyelids up again. Her brother and the doctor exchanged looks. What did that mean? The doctor took a step forward, bringing him into clearer focus. He was the younger brother she hadn’t met yet.

“Miss Bryant, we had to repair a tendon in your knee. It should heal without problems, but I’d like to keep you under observation here at the clinic for at least a week to make sure there’s no infection and no added strain.”

A week? There was no way they could be gone from the ranch for half that long. Leah was there by herself even now, tending the stock and keeping the place running. And the first snow could hit any day. They still had so many things to do to prepare. But the doctor didn’t stop talking long enough for her to set him straight.

“After that, I’d prefer you stay close to town for up to six weeks.”

Miriam shook her head, but immediately stopped when pain shot through her temples. “I…can’t.” It would be so much easier to talk if her head would stop spinning.

“Miri, I’ll go up and get Leah tomorrow, and we’ll stay here in town with you.” Gideon’s voice had a soothing quality, like he was trying to keep her from getting riled. “John Stands-alone will keep an eye on the ranch for a few days. Then we’ll see how you’re healing.”

Her temples started to hammer, making it so much harder to focus on her argument. “We need to go home tomorrow. I’ll be fine.” She closed her eyes against the pain pounding in her head.

“Sleep now, little sister. I’ll come back in a couple hours and check on you.” Gideon’s warm, work-roughened hand brushed the hair off her forehead.

She forced her eyes open enough to attempt a smile. “Okay.” Nothing could possibly be more important than sleep right now.

CHAPTER THREE

When Miriam woke again, her eyelids still required great effort to raise. The sun streaming through the side window didn’t help much, and a groan escaped as she turned away from the bright light.

“Hark. The sleeping lady stirs.” The voice carried a lilting accent, but she couldn’t wade through the fog in her mind to place its origin.

A figure came into view, and she blinked to clear her hazy vision. The doctor’s brother. Or…he was a doctor, too. But he was the new one. Smiling brown eyes shimmered under a thick layer of brown hair scattered across his forehead, giving him a playful look.

“And how feel ye today, m’lady? In need of a helpful remedy?”

She blinked again. His accent sounded like Leah’s stories of the Knights of the Round Table in Camelot. Where was she?

A grin pulled at one side of his mouth. “In other words, are you in pain this morning?” His voice lost the accent, slipping into a rich tenor. “I can give you something to take the edge off if you need it.”

Miriam carefully tightened her muscles, taking stock of what hurt.

Everything.

When she tried to shift her legs, the left one screamed in pain. Her upper back throbbed, and everything else just plain ached. She stopped moving and clamped her teeth against a whimper. She would not look like a weak child in front of this man, practically a stranger. And a physician from a big eastern city, at that.

Shifting her focus to the doctor, she found him watching. Sadness lined the corners of his eyes. When he caught her gaze, his dark brows rose, a pleasant expression lighting his face again. “Shall we start with tea? Mum always said a good cup of tea could cure a world of ills.”

“Yes, thanks.”

He was already striding toward something behind her. Dishes clanged, then he appeared a minute later with a tin cup, steam wafting from its brim. Miriam reached for it, but her position was awkward, lying flat on the bed.

“Let’s get you settled.” The doctor placed the cup on a table by the wall, then reached for a thick folded quilt. “I’m going to raise you up a bit.”

Miriam tried to help as he lifted her shoulders, pillow and all. Every limb in her body moaned against the effort.

“Easy there. Just let me do the work. You can lay back now.” He crooned the words, a bit of the earlier accent lacing his voice again. The rhythmic cadence and tenor of his voice was so calming, soothing the tension in her muscles as she followed his direction. Not to mention the warmth of his hand on her shoulder, even through her sleeve.

“There now. Is that a little better?” He stepped back and scanned her from head to toe.

Even though she was covered to her shoulders by a thick wool blanket, heat crawled up Miriam’s neck. What must she look like in front of this stranger? Her hair tickled her cheeks, apparently escaped from the braid she usually wore. Her hand itched to smooth the strays, but that would be too obvious.

The doctor turned to a small side table and carried it to the middle of the room beside her bed. “We’ll move you to the spare sickroom later today. You’ll have a little more privacy there.” He raised his head to meet her gaze with a wink. “And the bed is immeasurably more comfortable than this rock solid examination table.”

What was it about this man that made her want to smile? Just hearing him talk lifted her spirits, pushing away everything that weighed her down.

He brought the tin cup again, and placed it in her hands. “It’s probably cooled enough.” Their fingers brushed in the transfer, raising bumps along the surface of her arms.

“Thank you.” She mumbled the words, her gaze dropping to the amber liquid. It was almost a relief that it took all her focus to keep her hands from shaking as she raised the drink to her mouth. Was she so weak from the accident? Or was the trembling merely from being close to this man? She needed to clear that thought from her head pronto. He was a doctor, here to cure the sick and injured residents of the territory.

She was just another patient among the throngs.

A door opened in another room, and boot thumps sounded on the wood floor. The doctor strode to the doorway. “Gideon. She woke just a few minutes ago.”

Her brother followed the doctor into the room, taking her measure in one swift gaze. “How you feelin’ today?” He grabbed a wooden chair from beside the desk and settled next to her bed.

“All right, I guess.” She forced her lips to form a reassuring smile.

One of his brows arched. “Pretty lousy, huh?”

This time the smile came easier. “Like I was attacked by a mountain lion.”

He nodded, then looked up at the man working at the stove in the corner. “Doc Alex takin’ good care of you?”

Miriam’s gaze drifted to the man. Alex. It fit him—with the Irish brogue he slipped into so easily.

At Gideon’s words, the man—Doc Alex—turned and sent her another wink. That simple motion produced a flurry in Miriam’s midsection, clearing her head of all thought. What had the question been? She glanced up at Gideon. That’s right, the doctor’s care. The feeling of Alex’s hands brushing hers as he gave her the warm tea flashed through her mind. She’d better not let that emotion show. “Yes, he’s been a good doctor.”

Gideon nodded. “I’m sure you feel better after sleeping so long.” He must not suspect her of any improper feelings. That was a man for you. Couldn’t see emotion if it smacked ‘em in the nose.

“Doc, you still think she needs to stay a week?” Gideon addressed his question to the doctor, who turned from the stove to study them.

“Yes, at least. It’s critical for her leg not to be strained these first few days. If she pushes too hard, it could permanently damage the knee.”

Gideon’s deep green eyes turned to her, and he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Miri, I need to go up the mountain and get Leah. She’ll be worried sick if I stay away any longer. But we’ll be back tomorrow.”

Miriam’s chest squeezed at the anguish in her brother’s face. He’d lost so many people he loved. But she wasn’t about to be counted among them. Placing a hand on his clasped fingers, she squeezed reassurance. “I’ll be fine, big brother. Stay at the ranch a few days and get things ready for winter. You heard the doctor. I can’t do anything but sit here for a week. Come back to get me then.”

He pulled back, brows lifting. Obviously, her response wasn’t what he expected. “That’s a far cry from what you said last night.”

Last night? What had she said? Something tickled the corners of her mind. Something about arguing with Gideon and the doctor. But what had she argued about? Ugh. Thinking so hard made her head ache. No matter. She tightened her jaw, giving Gideon her no-nonsense look. “I don’t know what I said last night, but this is what I want. Go home to Leah, take care of the ranch, and come back for me in a week.”

His gaze scanned her face, then raised to the doctor standing by the window. “I don’t know, Doc. What do you think?”

Doc Alex came to stand at the foot of her bed. “She’ll be well cared for, Gideon.” His voice slipped back into the Irish brogue as a twinkle flashed in his eye. “We’ll serve her tea in china cups and play whist and dominos.”

Gideon raised a single brow at the man. “That should be interesting.” He leaned back in his chair, eyeing Miriam through narrow slits. “All right. Anything you need before I head up the mountain?”

Miriam scanned the blanket covering her lower half. She still wore the blue wool dress from when she was attacked. Could she stand the same clothes for a week? But if she sent Gideon to the store for ready-made clothes, who knew what he’d come back with? No. She could make do with this dress until Leah came. But what about underthings? No way was she going to have Gideon buy any ready-made.

Her gaze flickered to Gideon’s, then skittered around the room. He might be capable of purchasing the fabric and thread. Could she cut the material and sew new drawers while she stayed in bed? She nibbled her bottom lip. It might be worth trying.

She looked back to her brother. “Could you pick up a few things from the Dry Goods? I’ll write them down if you have paper and charcoal.”

“There’s a sheet for you right here.” The doctor strode toward the little writing desk by the door, then handed her a paper and pencil nub.

Within minutes, Gideon and her list left, and Doc Alex settled a tray across her lap. Steam wafted from some kind of yellow gruel on the plate in the center. Her gaze lifted to find him standing a few feet away, eyeing her.

His mouth quirked as he met her look. “It’s not quite tea and crumpets, but I was low on supplies.”

With that charming, slightly roguish grin on his face, he could have served her pig slop, and she wouldn’t have much to complain about. Miriam dropped her focus to the food, took up a spoonful of gruel, and raised it to her mouth. It tasted a little better than it looked. Heavy on the cornmeal, but not too dry.

The doctor placed her refilled mug on the table beside her, then settled into the chair Gideon had vacated. He held his own steaming tin cup in both hands. Was he going to watch her eat? Suddenly, the room seemed unseasonably hot. She kept her focus on the yellow mixture, and raised another spoonful to her mouth.

“So tell me, Miss Bryant. What does a lady like yourself do in your leisure time?”

A lady? Miriam’s head jerked up as she stared at him. No one had ever called her a lady. Not up on the mountain. Not wearing a dirty homemade wool dress with her hair falling halfway out of her braid.

“Do you play dominos? Write letters? Tame mountain lions?” That dimple pressed into his cheek again.

A nervous titter escaped Miriam before she could stop it. Leisure? “Umm… Leah and I like to read together. It works, because one of us can still get things done while the other reads.”

A sparkle lit his eyes. “Really? What do you read?”

She nibbled another spoonful before answering. “Anything, really. Leah brought a whole trunk full of books when she first came to the ranch. Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, even some thrilling sea novels by Herman Melville. Have you heard of him?”

“Typee, and Moby Dick?”

A smile tugged at Miriam’s mouth, despite the throbbing in her leg. “Yes. Leah calls them heavy reading, but to me they’re fascinating. Can you imagine traveling all the places he’s been? I’ve always dreamed of seeing foreign lands and exotic animals.”

His brows rose just a bit, and he leaned back. Was that respect shining in his gaze? “You’d like to be a sailor on a whaling ship?”

Heat crawled up her back. “I might rather ride in first class with a traveling companion or two.”

That twinkle sparked in his amber eyes again, and his voice slipped into the brogue. “Ah… I knew ye were a lady from the moment I set me eyes on ye, didn’t I now.”

A twinge of pain shot from her knee up into her hip, but Miriam tried not to wince. She was enjoying this conversation too much to be put off by her injuries. “So what of you, Doctor Donaghe?” She couldn’t quite bring herself to call him Doc Alex to his face, even though Gideon had done it. “Have you traveled the world? Maybe studied medicine in England?”

“Please, call me Alex. Doctor Donaghe is my big brother.”

Miriam paused. Would that be appropriate? Titles were pretty informal in the Territory, with most men going by nicknames alone. Slim, or Stubby, or Gimp. But Leah had been teaching her the etiquette of a lady, in preparation for their big trip East next summer. And Leah said a lady never addresses a man by his first name. Still…he was asking her to. Wouldn’t it be impolite to refuse?

She took a deep breath. “Okay. So…Alex, have you traveled abroad?” His name was magical rolling across her tongue. Would he think she was crazy if she said it again?

He shrugged, his chin dipping in a self-conscious expression. “I was raised in Boston, studied medicine in Montreal, and now I’ve finally made it to Butte City.” He spread his hands as if this dirty mining town were the mecca of all he’d aspired to.

Montreal? Wasn’t that in Canada? She opened her mouth to ask, but pain shot through her leg again. This time it was much more than a twinge. More like a bullet. She bit her lip against a cry.

Alex sprang forward, removing the tray from her lap. “Is it your knee? I’ll ready another dose to help with the pain.”

Miriam nodded. The ache in her knee had radiated through her leg now, and wasn’t subsiding. Lord, help me. It seemed to take forever, but Alex finally reappeared by her side with a tincture of thick brownish liquid.

“Thanks.” She could barely push the word out as more than a whisper. Her fingers shook as she raised the container to her lips and drained it.

“Sleep now if you can.” Alex’s voice was soothing, almost like a lullaby. “Would you like another cup of willow tea?”

Miriam shook her head, but then stopped as pain ricocheted through her temples. “No, thanks.”

A hand stroked the hair from her forehead. Gentle, yet strong. Or maybe she imagined it.

CHAPTER FOUR

Alex tore his gaze from the woman sleeping in the center of the room. She was so beautiful, in a half-wild, half-elegant sort of way. But she was a patient. Those thoughts shouldn’t enter his mind. Gripping the edges of the crate, he lifted it slowly so the clink of medicine bottles didn’t wake his patient. After slipping out the door, he pulled it shut behind him.

She slept in their primary examination room, so he’d made do with seeing patients in the spare room all day. Unfortunately, the medicines and instruments he typically used were all stocked in the room where she napped peacefully. When Bryan came back that afternoon, they’d have to see about moving her.

The sound of the front door opening drifted down the hall, followed by a wet, hacking cough. He settled the crate on the work counter in the empty room, then strode toward the front waiting area.

“How can I help you?” He inserted a genial tone into his voice as he spoke to the two men. One leaned heavily on the other. His slender limbs looked barely strong enough to hold him up.

“M’brother’s in a bad way.” The stronger man eyed him, his bushy black beard matching the dark hair that stuck out in several directions. The other man must be the older brother, maybe close to a decade older, as his brown hair was evenly streaked with salty gray. Or maybe the illness had aged him prematurely.

“Come on back.” Alex waved for them to follow him and made his way toward the empty examination chamber.

Coughing echoed down the hall as the men obeyed his direction. Deep hacks that signaled moisture in the lungs. Alex helped the man lower himself to sit on the bed. “I’ll need you to unfasten the top five buttons on your shirt.”

The man seemed too exhausted to do more than slowly comply, while his dark-haired brother paced near the door.

Alex picked up his Cammann’s stethoscope from the table and slipped the ivory earpieces into his ears. “Can you take some deep breaths in and out?” With the bell-shaped piece settled over the man’s lungs, Alex squinted as he listened. A gurgling noise accompanied the rush of air.

After checking several other operations of the patient’s lungs, as well as other body functions, concern weighed Alex’s own chest. The man could scarcely breathe. But Alex needed a better understanding of his lifestyle before he could properly diagnose the cause.