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Early May 1863
Ainsley Byrne closed her eyes, leaned back on her elbows and slowly fluttered her legs in the cool water of Rock Creek. She listened to the water flowing peacefully, reveled in the sunshine, soft breeze and richness of the earthy scents, knowing these quiet moments may soon end. Rumors had been circulating of General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army moving north.
Ainsley and her mother, Maeve, were war nurses. Ainsley had been compelled to help soldiers since they’d attended the wounded and dying at the First Battle of Bull Run near Manassas when they’d lived there. Unfortunately, their present hard-nosed supervisor, Nurse Edith Edmund, followed the regulations of Dorothea Dix, the superintendent of army nurses. War nurses were to be mid-thirties or older, matronly and usually married. As war progressed rules relaxed, but Nurse Edmund wouldn’t budge. Ainsley and the other younger nurses at this field hospital were permitted to do little more than stock supplies. Ainsley had been a healer her entire life, now being unable to assist was incredibly frustrating.
“Ainsley! Ainsley!” an exhilarated voice called.
Excitable about nearly everything, it was hard to say what prompted her friend Betha’s present elation. Ainsley wished she had a little of her enthusiasm. She opened her eyes to Betha’s lovely, freckled face and wispy reddish-blonde hair as she dropped unceremoniously beside her.
“You must come meet the new doctor, Ainsley. He’s absolutely gorgeous; probably the most handsome man I’ve ever seen. He’s tall with broad shoulders and a great build. He has dark hair, not black, but nearly. And his eyes! Not quite blue, not quite green, they’re utterly captivating. You should hear his amazing accent. I think he’s English.”
Betha reached for her hand but Ainsley shook her head.
“You think every man you meet is the most handsome man you’ve ever seen, Betha. Besides, why would anyone with Irish blood think someone from England is appealing when they’re largely responsible for so many Irish people starving or having to leave their home? I’ll not go gawk at some undoubtedly stodgy old doctor. If we did go look now, he’ll know you’ve been fawning over him.”
Betha laughed at that. She laughed so easily, Ainsley sometimes wanted to be Betha—even with her overly dramatic, amusing ways.
“He’s not old; I doubt he’s over thirty. He’s got a great laugh and you should see his smile.”
“An Englishman who laughs and smiles, that would be rare.”
“Ainsley, you can’t despise all Englishmen because of Reg…”
“You’re never to mention him!” Ainsley interrupted, waggling her finger in warning.
“What he did was unforgivable, but you can’t fault every English person because of him or what happened in Ireland. You and I haven’t even seen Ireland.”
“We’re still Irish. We haven’t seen Ireland only because Mama had a premonition of the great hunger and left before it happened,” Ainsley said.
“I’m glad she convinced my mama to go with her or we’d never have met.”
“I’m glad, too, Betha. So, what’s this new doctor’s name?” Ainsley didn’t want Betha to think she wasn’t interested in her news.
“Dr. Prescott,” Betha gushed. “Don’t you dare say that sounds stuffy!”
“Fine, I won’t,” Ainsley said smiling again, but her smile disappeared when she heard a familiar voice.
“What’s she doing here?” Betha asked.
“Probably introducing herself to the new doctor,” Ainsley said.
“Likely.” Betha frowned.
If anyone could make Betha frown, it was Maribelle Virginia Hartley. Her family once owned an immense plantation in Virginia. Ainsley and her mother had been healers and midwives there; Betha and her mother, Cara, house servants.
Occasionally Ainsley attempted to be empathetic of Maribelle. Her life had been drastically changed, too, but she treated Ainsley and Betha as inferiors, still in her service. Maribelle lived in a less grand home now. The beautiful mansion on the plantation had burned to the ground. Ainsley didn’t like to dwell on that night for many reasons.
Maribelle continued to wear her fancy gowns with wide hoops and crinolines and colorful ribbons in her hair, though her family wouldn’t be considered rich southern folk any longer. Ainsley glanced at her own plain dark dress, grateful for the color. She could sit on the grass or dirt and never worry it would appear soiled.
“That water looks refreshing,” a masculine voice said.
He definitely had an English accent, but northern English. In truth, he sounded a bit Irish. Ainsley prided herself on being able to distinguish accents. She turned to see Betha had described him accurately. He was tall with dark, wavy collar-length hair and blue-green eyes. He was smiling and his voice was cheerful.
Afraid of insects and crawling animals, Maribelle hung back.
“Do you mind if I join you, ladies?” the man asked.
“Suit yourself,” Ainsley said. “We don’t own the creek.”
Betha looked mortified, but giggled nervously.
“This is my friend, Ainsley, the smartest, most efficient nurse. She and her mama are healers. Ainsley knows absolutely everything about diseases, injuries and healing with herbs.”
“That’s very impressive. Most medications are botanicals; therefore knowledge of herbs is essential. I’m Cal Prescott,” he said sitting down next to Ainsley, a bit too close in her opinion.
“That can’t be your name,” Ainsley said.
“Pardon me?” he replied, his expression perplexed.
“I’ve never heard of an Englishman with only two names. You’re not Calvert Charles Henry George James Edward Richard Stanhope Prescott the Third, Earl of Northumberland?”
He chuckled easily at that. She liked the sound of his laugh and how his eyes crinkled appealingly at the corners, revealing his mirth. She attempted not to smile, but was unsuccessful.
“You’ve aptly named nearly the whole English monarchy. It’s Caldwell, not Calvert, but I go by Cal…and no, I don’t have so many names.”
“I’m Ainsley Brigid Byrne,” she replied, briefly shaking his hand. If they were going to be working together it was best to have good rapport. She tried to ignore the unusual warm sensation as their hands touched.
“Nurse Kelly said I should come meet you. I think you’re the only nurse I haven’t met.”
“I thought you’d just arrived,” Ainsley said.
“Earlier today. The other nurses seemed more eager to welcome me.”
“You’re from the north of England,” Ainsley said.
“You have a good ear. Aye, Northumberland, but I spent most of my childhood with my Irish grandparents. I’ve been told I picked up some of their manner of speaking.”
“You lived in Ireland?” she asked, immediately intrigued.
“I lived with them in England.”
“Were your grandparents forced to leave Ireland?”
“They moved by choice. But I have compassion for the atrocity of the famine and what occurred there. I’ve journeyed to Ireland a few times.”
“I’ve never been to Ireland,” Ainsley admitted. “I want to go someday.”
“You sound Irish,” he said pulling off his boots and socks and putting his feet in the water.
“My mama’s Irish. She journeyed here before the great hunger, where a good many people in Ireland had to eat grass and watch their babies starve.”
“You have great empathy for your mother’s people,” Dr. Prescott said. “Empathy’s an admirable trait in a nurse. Although it does cause a good amount of heartache during such troubling times as this war.”
Ainsley only nodded.
“The water’s delightful,” he said gazing too observantly at Ainsley’s long legs bared to her knees with bloomers and gown pulled up. “Is it deep enough for swimming?”
“It is, but you must beware of hellbenders and timber rattlesnakes,” Ainsley warned.
“Wouldn’t hellbenders only come out at night?”
“Most people new to Pennsylvania haven’t heard of the large salamanders. Yes, they’re nocturnal and not dangerous unless you’re caught between two males fighting.”
“Wouldn’t rattlesnakes more likely be found in the grass?”
“Probably,” Ainsley said.
“Trying to scare me off, Irish?”
“Just giving you fair warning.” Ainsley fought another smile. Why did this man make her smile so damn easily?
“I’m going to chance going in the water,” Dr. Prescott said.
He stood, undid the first three buttons on his dark blue Union Army shirt, pulled it over his head and tossed it on the ground near Ainsley. She could smell the enticing masculine scent, not the unpleasant odor of unwashed male, but musky and appealing.
Ainsley feared he might actually remove his trousers, too, but he only rolled them to his knees, walked out, submerged and swam under the water.
“Oh! My! Lord!” Betha slowly enunciated. “Did you see that?”
“No, I’m suddenly blind,” Ainsley smiled and Betha giggled.
“Still think he’s old and stodgy?”
“Not old or stodgy, but clearly a show-off.”
“He can show off all he wants,” Betha said with a wide-eyed grin.
Ainsley had to admit, the man looked really good. His tanned, muscular shoulders and back looked like he’d done physical labor. His stomach wasn’t only firm, but also rippled and his arse was undeniably well formed, too. The pale scars on his back indicated he hadn’t always been a doctor. She wasn’t about to remain here to observe him coming out of the water with wet, tight-fitting trousers. At twenty-one years old, Ainsley had already sworn off men.
“You ladies aren’t joining me?” he asked after propelling himself from the creek like a bloody merman. Wiping the water from his alluring eyes, he shook his hair and Ainsley glowered as droplets sprayed on her.
“Could we, Ainsley?” Betha excitedly asked.
“You go right ahead, Betha.”
“Ainsley, please come swim,” Betha pleaded.
“Nurse Edmund wouldn’t permit us to swim in these gowns only lent to us…certainly not in the company of the exhibitionist new doctor.”
“I think you’re stodgy, Ainsley. You used to be fearless and fun-loving. How long will you let the past make you cynical?”
“I don’t intentionally do that.”
“You’re strikingly beautiful, tall with the most enviable form, Ainsley. If I were you, I’d remove that gown and swim in shift and bloomers…or naked maybe.”
Ainsley gave her a disapproving look even knowing Betha was joking.
“Betha, I’d never be allowed to do any nursing duties if anyone saw.”
“I know,” Betha sighed.
“You’re really staying at the water’s edge on this warm day?” Dr. Prescott called to them…his masculine voice undeniably appealing.
“Swimming in a gown isn’t advisable, Dr. Prescott. Sure you’d have to save me from drowning,” Betha said. “Ainsley could swim the creek a hundred times; she’s such a strong swimmer.”
“You needn’t sing my praises, Betha, or push me toward him or any other man,” Ainsley whispered.
“You might as well join a nunnery, Ainsley Byrne.”
“I just might consider it. But for now, I’m going back to roll bandages. Maybe I’ll impress Nurse Edmund enough she’ll let me set up cots.” Ainsley made a face.
“I can’t stay here alone with him,” Betha said.
Ainsley heard voices.
“You won’t be alone. Evidently Dr. Prescott’s drawn a crowd.”
Every female in the vicinity must have heard of the handsome new doctor’s arrival. Women young, old, married, widowed and single started toward the water, including Maribelle with her fancy gold gown. Apparently attracting the new doctor’s attention was worth possibly encountering creepy crawlers.
With so many men away fighting, women far outnumbered men. Even men not as young or attractive as Dr. Caldwell Prescott were highly sought after. He’d be treated to home-cooked meals, baked goods galore and surely more intimate offerings, too.
Ainsley picked up her shoes and stockings, waved to Betha and walked barefoot along the creek. Sitting upon a flat boulder some distance away, she glanced at the scar on her ankle, cringing at the memory it provoked. Regrettably many memories included Gavin, the man she’d thought she’d marry.
Thunder rumbled above, reflecting her unpleasant thoughts. Being struck by lightning wouldn’t be the best way to welcome the new doctor when he was in the water. She pulled up her stocking, put on her shoes and walked to the supply tent.
End of Excerpt