Sonoran Temptress

 

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Chapter 1 - Indecent Proposal

The evening stretched the shadows against the dark wallpaper of Harold’s study, every time he took a second to look up from his ledger book they had enveloped not one but two of the dusty volumes on his bookshelves. When he could hold out no longer, the strain of trying to see his writing in the dark giving him a migraine, he ignited the two paraffin lamps on the corners of his desk.

Light played upon the walls and danced in the dark liquid of both his glass and the silver topped decanter. The rhythmical flickering and the numbing effects of alcohol became a lullaby, singing him closer and closer to the sleep he craved. Fighting it he began to mumble his entries as he hastily scratched them into the paper. He blinked slowly, enjoying the darkness behind his heavy eyelids, before wiping the excess ink from his swan feather quill and stowing it in the top draw of his desk.

A frustrated grumble escaped his throat as he rubbed his temples and pinched the bridge of his nose, letting the pressure ease his aching eye muscles, "Times are a little tough, that I can understand and accept, but why the merger profits should weigh so heavily in your favour is beyond me. It is my name on the coaches, damn it!" His fist landed heavily on the table, both the ink bottle and his glass jumped, their contents trembling for a few moments until like his temper, they settled. Getting angry wouldn't solve his troubles, if anything it would only make things worse, and he knew it.

Everything shuddered when the front door slammed shut, Harold looked up in alarm, a cacophony of hurried footsteps covered the short distance to his office door. His breath hitched as he watched the knob twist.

"How could you?" His wife launched through the doorway, her skirts billowed as she marched straight up to his desk.

"Excuse me?" He forced his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose so that his wife came into true focus. Her hair was a little windswept, her cheeks flushed, she had probably marched all the way home. His heart gave a pang as he locked onto her eyes, red and already moistening with tears. "Whatever is the matter, Emma?"

"When were you going to tell me?" Emma noticed a stray hair out of the corner of her eye: she snatched hold of it and wound it behind her ear, and purposely turned her back to the chair offered by her husband. "You have accepted engagement of our daughter!"

"I have done no such thing," The shock of the statement sat him back in his chair; his finger snatched the end of his light brown moustache and began to force it around his finger to create a curl. "Where on earth did you hear such a ludicrous rumour?"

"Margaret, straight from her horse faced mouth; they wish to take our 'friendship' to the next level." Sweat beaded on her forehead, her fringe began to stick to the slick skin. "Promise me you will not even consider such a union."

"My dear you have allowed that woman to ruffle your feathers without due cause." He lowered his face so that she would ne see the faint glow of hope upon his face. "And even if I had been given such an offer, I would have consulted with you before even entertaining the thought in my head, I would never make a decision about our daughter's welfare without consulting you." He liked his lips as he contemplated his options in the temporary silence. "I do not wish to upset you further, but may I enquire as to your issue with such a union?" He watched her face darken, her eyes locked onto his face as she sucked in a chest full of air. At that moment he realised he had made a huge mistake.

"They have meddled in this family's business too much." She snatched up his glass and downed the half measure of brandy. "You think I am too air-headed to notice how much influence that damned John Allen has on this house." She waved a finger to stop his interruption, "Tell me; who pays the maid's wage?"

"I am an established businessman; John sees no reason for my family to live like the lower classes just because times are a little hard." He lost his train of thought as he watched his wife press her lips to the cold glass in her hand. How long had it been since she had caressed him so lovingly?

"Business would be better if you were truly at the helm!" She slammed the glass down on the table and poured herself a generous serving. "He forced you into that merger; do not even attempt to tell me otherwise, he did it with expensive liquor and a weighted game of cards."

"Mind your tongue!" Harold's composure snapped and a pang of guilt bubbled in his gut and churned his stomach. The look of shock on her face melted into an apologetic frown, but the satisfaction of hurting him bloomed in her eyes. "This house would not be ours if he had not offered to share the burden of my debts."

"I would rather have moved than owe that family any favours." She swept the trails of sweat from her face, "Do you not see the stranglehold they have over us?"

"There is no offer!"

"I would put my finest pearls on him asking you this week, I would put the lesser bet of my earrings on him asking you tomorrow, but I do not need to read your ledger books to know you cannot match either bet." A wicked grin played on her lips.

"Emma please, give me one just reason why I should say no without even discussing the offer with John."

"He is a menace, I would say like his father but this boy is worse." She shook her head furiously. "Two girls have been permanently scarred, I will not offer up my daughter as the third."

"Damned women and their rumour mills," He grabbed a spare glass and poured himself a warming dose of liquor, "They will not stop until they tarnish a man's reputation, armed with nothing but speculation or even outright lies," He downed it in one swallow "It is probably a jealous young woman lusting after what she cannot have, I have seen them swooning over Michael, even those on pit lane."

"Molly Simpson is no jealous little girl, " She dropped into one of the comfy arm chairs, rolling the cold glass along her cherry red lips, "Her husband had to help the Maguire girl, well I guess they both did, poor girl didn't trust the man to go anywhere near her private parts."

"Sounds to me like Michael is a little bit too rambunctious..."

"Rambunctious!" Emma leapt up from the seat and launched over the desk, her husband backed away before she could snatch at his clothes. "Would you like to have an orifice ripped open for someone else's pleasure? She said no, begged him to stop and screamed for the good lord to take her from the pain."

"Rape is a serious allegation." He dropped his gaze to the open ledger book, he ran a single finger over the writing to check that it was indeed dry. He slowly folded the book closed. Silence rang in his ears like static; he panicked and looked up at his wife.

The colour had drained from her face, sweat stained her clothes to the point it looked as though he had tipped a glass of water over her; he watched as the empty glass slipped from her hand and smashed on the parquet floor. Time slowed, stretching minutes as he pushed himself towards her crumpling body. His fingers brushed through her hair as he tried to lengthen his arms to catch her head. It took forever for her to fall, Harold stood in his stretched out pose, a frozen statue unable to move until he heard the sound of her head cracking against the fireplace.

"Emma." He wailed, cradling her limp form in his hands. "Someone fetch the doctor, Emma is sick, get Doctor Simpson." He was sobbing and screaming it took three attempts for the maid to get him to realise she had heard his call.

It felt like he was sat on the floor for hours, gently rocking his wife in time with her slow breaths, eventually she began to stir. He felt her hand escape the confines of his hugging embrace, it snaked its way up to the back of her head. "Emma, you must lay still, the doctor is on his way."

She smacked his hand away from her own and pushed herself away from his smothering hold, "I need no doctor," She sat up slowly, "I'm just over-stressed and tired." As she stood up the room began to spin, she was forced to clutch onto a chair for support. "But if he is on his way then perhaps you would hear him talk of the damage done to Edna Maguire?"

"Emma, forget the proposal, it has not even been offered to me yet." Harold eased himself off of the ground, his knees cracked from the effort; he walked tentatively towards his wife and forced her to sit in the chair.

"Yet, I see you finally admit it is a probable offer." Emma turned up her nose and looked away from him. Despair wracked her insides, forcing her body to tremble uncontrollably. Her mouth was like the desert, dry and gritty. She wanted to throw the sorry excuse of a man away from her, but she was overcome with fatigue.

"Please rest, I will not allow my daughter to be damaged, but if there is an offer that would allow her to be hoisted higher in society I must do so." Harold swept the damp fringe from his wife's face; he could feel the radiating heat of her forehead against the back of his hand. "She could be the queen of a grand stageline and hotel empire, all my wealth will go to Lucien. I hate it, that upstart has all but abandoned his family, he wanted nothing of the business."

"He knew your weakness and did not wish to invest in something he could lose before it even had the chance to be his," Emma croaked, "You sold your shares, now you are but a name painted on the coaches, you have no control in any business decisions. It is but a matter of time before the paint blisters and peels; then what name will he have painted?"

"You are addled with fever, I will not accept these harsh words, please hold your tongue before you say something I cannot forgive." Harold stroked her cheek, he sucked in a breath as her hand clamped round his wrist and forced it against the arm of the chair.

"Your father would be appalled, he would never trade on his name, he worked hard for everything. Blood, sweat and tears he poured into that stageline, the one you traded for a few wild nights," Emma took several sharp breaths, "John Allen offered your father more than a fair price for the business, but he swore he would give it to you, he trusted you."

"My father was no businessman, all the road agents of the west were at least half-blood family; he got rich because blood is thicker than water." Harold turned his back on his wife, his chest was heaving with rage. "We may have a small amount of 'honourable' blood to give us status, but the business was crooked from the start." He regained his composure and knelt on one knee at his wife's feet. "If you are adamant about me refusing the proposal then I implore you to find a better candidate before I am forced to accept this deal."

"Your word, for the little it is worth, you must swear to me that no deal will be accepted without my consent. She is my last child, I worry, and worrying is making me sick." Emma looked pitiful, her ashen face and trembling limbs, aging her at least ten years more than the fifty-two she had lived.

"I think I hear the doctor," Harold rose from the ground, "I promise that Martha will be taken care of."

The door burst open and people flooded in, Harold stepped back and let them get to work, as he looked through the open door he caught sight of a blue dress and fiery red hair disappearing up the staircase. How much had his daughter heard?

 

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Chapter 2 - Diagnosis

Martha stayed at her mother's side for the next few days, between catching her mother doing far more than the doctor suggested and worrying about her father's business deals her mood was dark and her hands bore the marks of an ill-attentive seamstress. Fortunately she had managed to keep her blood off of the delicate purple lustre.

"I think you may have surpassed me already Martha," Emma fanned herself lightly and cracked the window open a little wider, "The seams are well balanced and the pleating of the bustle is simply exquisite, I daresay Mrs Elizabeth will be in high spirits once she sees this gown."

"Mama, I am not so sure, there are a few places that I am sure she will notice my mistakes." Martha cut the trailing line of thread from the hem of the dress. She craned her head to see the beads of sweat rolling down her mother's face. "Sit!" As she rose to her feet her mother started to crumble, her hands stretched and fingertips groped for purchase. Secure in her arms she lowered her mother to the ground, turned her to her side, and opened all the windows to encourage a cross-breeze. "I'm going to call the Doctor."

Martha's skirts billowed as she ran the length of the hall and down the stairs where, most unladylike, she jumped to the base. She swatted her many layers from her face and marched into the kitchen. Their single maid sat idle in a small wooden table, her interest buried in a small book, it made the heat build in Martha's stomach. "Read on your own time, you have a family to service, if my mother was in any fit state she would send you out on your ear."

"Sorry miss." The girl slipped from her seat into a polite curtsey. Her eyes never looked up from the tiles in front of Martha's feet.

"I'm getting the doctor, Mama is not well, please get a message to my father." Martha furrowed her brow, "What is the problem, I know you feed information into the Allen household, surely it cannot be too difficult for you to ask them to send a messenger to my father?"

"I will try miss." She gave another curtsey and hurried out the back door.

"Do not return without success." Martha called to the maid's back as she disappeared from view.

*****

The Doctor arrived in a fury, his steed stood sweating and sides heaving at the front of the Stenner house, he snatched his bag from the horses back and marched into the house. The front door was open; as Martha had told him. He took the stairs two at a time, "Mrs Stenner? It is Dr Simpson, Martha says you have been taken ill." He paused at the door of the sewing room, he rapped his knuckles lightly on the door. No response. The door opened without a sound, he stepped across the threshold and set his bag down at her side.

A faint throbbing in her neck made the doctors own pulse slow, she was still alive; he placed a small bottle under her nose and waited for it to take effect. "You need to lay there for a few minutes whilst you come back Mrs Stenner."

"What happened?" Emma winced and tried to push the foul smelling vial away from her nose. Her whole body ached, every muscle wrought with fatigue.

"You have not followed my advice Emma, you have not been resting as well as you should have been." Doctor Simpson corked the bottle and placed it back into his bag. He pulled out a small glass thermometer and slid it under her tongue, "Now don't try to tell me otherwise, you have been found in your sewing room, not in the bedroom where you belong."

Once the cold glass stick was removed from her mouth she steeled herself, "I was simply watching Martha work, I have not lifted a finger on that dress since I have been taken Ill, she will not let me." Emma slapped his hand away and hauled herself into the wicker chair by the window. It sapped almost all of her strength, but the cool breeze made the effort worthwhile. "I would have gone mad sat in that bedroom, worrying about my husband, unsure if Martha could handle my work." She looked over at the purple dress, "Molly was invited to the Allen's ball was she not?"

"Emma, please do not change the subject." He wiped down the used thermometer and slid it back into the shadowy depths of his case.

"Martha could make her a new dress if she would like, not of this calibre obviously, Mrs Elizabeth sent to England for this fabric and the style is distinctly Parisian." Emma avoided the doctor's concerned glare, "So where is my Martha, Thomas?"

"On her way, I could only spare one horse." He took a firm hold of her chin, staring deeply into her green eyes, "Headaches?"

"They are not that bad." Emma tried to wriggle from his grasp.

"How long?" Seconds after finishing his question the door banged closed and a crescendo of footsteps thundered towards the sewing room door.

"Mama, you are conscious again." Martha swept her mother into a bone-crushing hug, "I hope you are telling Dr Simpson the truth, dad will be most unhappy otherwise."

"You sent for him too?" Emma's face crumpled a mixture of pain and loathing.

"Where is the pain?" Thomas pulled Martha away from her mother.

Emma shook her head and bit her lip as waves of gut wrenching pain and nausea took over her conscious thoughts.

"Help me move her to the bedroom; she needs to be laid flat for me to examine her." Thomas took hold of one of Emma's arms and draped it around his shoulder. He waited for Martha to mirror him before directing the dead weight of Emma towards the large master bedroom. He waited for Martha to undress her mother; he pulled a stethoscope from his bag and ran it in his hands to ensure it would be warm against her skin.

Emma waited for Thomas' skilled hands to find the root of her pain, her breath hitched as he applied more pressure than she expected. "There, stop, please." She cracked her eye open to see the look of pure terror on her daughter's face.

Thomas pulled his hands away and let his right rest on his chin, playing with the tuft of hair he has sprouted over the winter. "How long has this pain been building?"

"It began yesterday." She felt his left hand upon her abdomen once more, this time every press of his fingers brought dots before her eyes.

"The inflammation is too severe for one day's worth of pain." In his peripheral vision he could see Martha, her composure slipping, tears welling up in her eyes as she watched him cause Emma more pain. "Martha could you fetch me some cool water, as cold as you can get it, perhaps if we control the fever we can minimise the internal swelling too."

"Yes sir." Martha was off like a shot.

"Now I need the truth, I would guess it has been here for three days." Thomas stepped away from her and dived into his bag, fumbling through the contents for something.

"Two days, three nights, I thought it was just a bit of a stomach upset from the fever, you know imbalance of the humours." Emma tried to smile but the pain become unbearable again.

Thomas' hand found the magnifying glass, he pulled it close to Emma's face and pulled the tender flesh of her eyelids open. "You should have called me at the onset." He let go of her eyelids and sighed.

"I take it that is not a good sigh," Emma turned her head to face him, "This isn't just a regular fever is it?"

"I believe you have Yellow Fever, the wet weather has brought a number of cases recently, but few have relapsed as bad as this." He dropped his bag onto the floor and sat on the chair it had been occupying. "The fever and headaches usually come and go, but for some they return with a vengeance, the liver starts to swell and bleed causing the crippling pain you are experiencing. The body will begin to shut down, the yellowing of the eyes and skin, and finally the bloody vomit and death."

"There is no hope?" Emma croaked tears choking her words.

"Miniscule, I have only heard of one person surviving, but whilst they are alive they are unable to take care of themselves. Is that a life you would want?" Thomas pulled a purple vial from his bag and set it on the nightstand, "Opium, take as necessary to minimise the pain, but if it becomes too much then there is more than enough to see a fit end to it all."

"I could never do that to Martha, she is my last, she needs a husband. I need to ensure she is safe." Emma's thoughts ran away with her, she was lost in a torrent of worries that threated to drown her.

A soft knock on the door and Martha re-entered the room, a jug of cool water in her hands. She poured half of it into the basin next to her mother's dresser, the rest she set down on the floor, keeping it in the shadow to maintain its coolness.

"She needs to take a dose before she becomes delirious with pain." Thomas pressed an empty glass into Martha's hand, "The cool water will help."

Martha mopped her mother's forehead with a cool damp cloth, the rambling had stopped minutes after being given medication. Martha thanked the Doctor as he tidied away his medical kit, "I will take good care of her Doctor, and if she makes even the slightest downward turn I will send for you."

"Do not run yourself ragged, the medicine will make her sleep, you need only check on her periodically. Ensure that she remains cool, fresh air will help, but try to keep the windows closed when the bugs get too much." Thomas set his hat on his head and tweaked the brim in her direction. "Now when your father gets home you send him to settle the bill with me, there is no need to rush, but the sooner the better."

"I hope we will not need to meet again soon." Martha wiped a tear from her eye.

"Or perhaps when we do it will be because she has made a miraculous recovery thanks to her faithful nurse." Thomas felt a pang of guilt as the girl smiled at him. It stabbed and twisted in his gut until he was travelling home fast enough that his tears could be mistaken for windswept eyes.

 

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