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Authors: Christina Cole

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BOOK: NoRegretsColeNC
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“Indeed.
You’re quite right, Miss Richards, on all counts, but why should you care?”

The
question hung unanswered for what seemed a very long time. Something in the way
Charlotte spoke left Hattie feeling unsettled, uncertain.

“I’m a
nurse,” she finally replied. “Or, at least, I’m becoming one. It’s my job to
care about my patients.” She glanced down at her skirts.

“Perhaps
you care too much, Hattie.”

“How
could that be? I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

Charlotte
rose. “Your job is to care for patients, to tend to their needs. It’s expected
that a nurse should be cheerful and kind. Compassionate, too,” she added. “But
a nurse must never get emotionally involved. A good caretaker has to have a
clear head, an objective point of view. There are lines that must be drawn.”

The
truth of the woman’s words stung bitterly.

“You’re
telling me that I mustn’t allow my emotions to cloud my thinking. You’re right,
of course.” Yet her questions had not been answered. Obviously, Charlotte
didn’t want her to know. “Thank you for your time,” she said in a quiet voice
as the older woman stepped from the room.

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

Day by
day, Willie grew stronger. His injuries were healing nicely, according to Dr.
Kellerman. Good news to hear, of course, but the thought of leaving the
hospital and going back to the streets weighed heavily on his mind. It was more
than just leaving behind the comfort of his bed and pillow, more than giving up
the convenience of having meals cooked and served to him each day.

He
didn’t want to leave Hattie. He’d forgiven her, of course, for posting the
letter to his mother. In truth, he should never have asked her to do otherwise.

Each
morning he looked forward to seeing her, teasing her, watching her cheeks turn
rosy as she bustled about his room, setting things in order and making polite
conversation. Sometimes when he closed his eyes to rest, he conjured up images
of Miss Hattie Mae Richards and wondered if she might be willing to be his
friend.

He’d
never had a true friend before, although he’d come close. For a time, he’d
considered Benjamin Brooks a good friend, but the situation was fraught with
complications. Willie hated to think back to those awful events that marked the
beginning of his downward spiral. He’d learned of his father’s corruption,
found out that the man had joined forces with a killer who promised to deliver
a fortune in stolen gold. Willie hadn’t wanted the truth to come out.
He’d tried to protect him and ended up shooting another
man—Benjamin’s father.
Even though his shot had not been fatal, his
actions led to the man’s death.

Of
course, his actions had also saved a life, but looking back upon that dire
night, reliving the horror, and feeling again all the dreadful emotions that
had churned inside of him made it better to push the whole horrific memory far
from mind.

Afterward,
he’d become friends with Ben, had stood as his best man at his wedding, but all
too soon, the closeness between them had withered away. Ben was busy with work
and his new bride, Emily Sue. Willie, on the other hand, had nothing to fall
back upon.

His
family had been torn asunder. His father was gone—who knew where the man might
be—and his mother wouldn’t put up with Willie’s drunken tirades. He was better
off alone, or so he’d told himself.

Now, he
wasn’t so sure. He wanted Hattie to be his friend, although he didn’t know exactly
what a genuine, long-lasting friendship entailed. Probably much more than the
pretty, gray-eyed girl with the ruffled skirts and rustling petticoats would
care to give him.

Especially
after he’d called her out over that little bargain.
Yes, he did regret it. Once
again, his father had been wrong. No one could live a life without regrets.

On that
particular morning, Hattie seemed more subdued than usual when she came into
his room with his breakfast tray. He kept his eyes upon her, studying her closely.
When she brought the tray to his bed, he nodded in thanks.

“How
long have you been in Sunset?” he asked, working his way into a sitting
position. Making small talk might be a good approach to building a friendship,
he hoped.

“Not
very long, actually.
About two months. I came here as soon as I heard that Dr. Kellerman was opening
a hospital and would be willing to train a young woman as a nurse.” She drew up
a chair and took a seat. “Before that, I attended Miss
Brundage’s
Female Academy in Denver. I roomed with Emily Sue Phillips…well, Emily Sue
Brooks, that is, now that’s she married.”

Her
gray eyes searched his face. Willie wondered if she were looking for some sign
of disappointment or regret. He’d once fancied Emily, but she hadn’t returned
his affection. Of course, that was all in the past. If Emily Sue—or her
husband—felt anything for Willie now, it was only pity. That’s all anyone felt
for him. That’s all he deserved.

Plumb pitiful
.

His
mind raced back to the day he’d first seen Hattie at the mercantile. The same
day he’d tried to put an end to his misery by stepping in front of that
oncoming freight wagon. Maybe the Lord had been watching over him. Maybe he’d
been saved so that he could know the gentleness and kindness of this
dark-haired angel at his bedside.

“Do you
have many friends, Miss Richards?” He looked up from the plate of toast, bacon,
and eggs she’d placed before him, then shook his head.
“Never
mind.
You don’t have to answer. Of course you have more friends than you
can count, I’m sure.”

“Why
would you think that?”

“Because
you’re a kind soul.
You see the good in people. You truly care about others.”

She
lowered her gaze. “Maybe that’s not always a good thing.” Before she could say
more, footsteps sounded in the hall. Willie and Hattie both turned to see
Charlotte Kellerman coming through the doorway. She nodded toward the bed and
then directed her attention to the girl in the chair.

“I’ll
take over here now, Hattie. Doctor’s got a few supplies
he’s
needing
. I told him you’d be glad to go over to the mercantile. After
that, he’d like you to stop by the
Pembertons
’ place.
Their youngest has been ailing. Doc wants you to find out if he needs to make a
call.”

“Yes,
ma’am.
Of course.”
Hattie rose from the chair. She glanced toward
Willie. “Enjoy your breakfast, Mr. Morse.”

And
then, she was gone.

 

* * *
*

 

Willie’s
throat tightened. He couldn’t swallow another bite of eggs or bacon. Setting
the fork down beside his plate, he glared at Charlotte Kellerman. “Why did you
do that? Why did you send her away?”

“You
heard every word. Doctor needs to her run errands this morning.” She nodded
toward the tray. “Is that all you’re going to eat?”

“I’m
not hungry.” He crossed his arms over his chest.

“You
seemed to be enjoying the meal when I came in.”

“I was.
I was enjoying the company, too.” His mouth twisted into a scowl.

Charlotte
pulled a chair close to the bed. “Listen to me, Willie, all right? Miss
Richards is a decent young woman.”

“I know
that.”

“She’s
also very naïve.”

“I know
that, as well.”

Charlotte
pressed her fingers to her graying temples. “I don’t want to see her get hurt.
That’s why I came to talk to you this morning…and, yes, that’s why I sent her
away,” she finished.

“You
think I’m going to hurt Hattie Mae?” The words shot out of his mouth.
Immediately, he bit his lip, but it was too late. The damage was done. He
shouldn’t have spoken of her in such familiar fashion. His fingers curled, his
hands balling up into tight fists as he cursed his own lack of restraint.

Mrs.
Kellerman’s chin came up. Her brows rose. “Has she given you liberty to call
her by her name?”

Willie
shook his head. “No ma’am.”

“I
thought perhaps she had. I’ve been keeping a close eye on her over the last few
days, Willie. She does seem to care a lot about you. More than she should.” She
lifted her hands, placed the palms together, and closed her eyes, almost as if
in prayer. “Hattie hopes to be of service to others. She and Abner have even
talked about the possibility of her attending a nursing college and earning a certificate.
But unless she learns to control her emotions, I’m afraid she’ll never make a
good nurse. She has to figure out how to treat patients without getting
emotionally involved.”

An odd
surge of jealousy rippled through Willie at the thought of Hattie Mae sharing
her gentle touch, her sweet voice, her warmth and goodness with others. She was
his
nurse. He wanted her all to
himself. Along with the jealousy came an irrational anger, so overwhelming and
powerful he lashed out at once.

“Maybe
she ought to give it up. You’re right, you know. She’s too damned sensitive,
and if she gets hurt it’s her fault. Just because she thinks the world ought to
be a bright, cheerful place, that doesn’t mean it will be. There will always be
pricks like me, good-for-nothing drunks, mean sons of bitches.” More filthy
epithets came to mind. He spat them out, as well.

Charlotte’s
gaze never wavered. She sat quietly at his bedside, waiting until his outburst
ended.

“If you
think you can shock me, you’re wrong. I’ve heard it all before. In fact,” she
added with a gentle laugh, “I could give you a lesson or two on foul language,
but I don’t think that would benefit either of us.” She rose, bent forward, and
stared down at the young man in the bed. “She does care about you, Willie. Sometimes
I wonder why she bothers, but then, in my heart, I know the reason. She sees
the good in you.” She paused,
then
nodded. “She sees
you not as you are, but as you can be. She sees all you can become. I see it,
too. The question is whether or not you can see it.”

He
shook his head. “There is no good in me.”

“Well,
then, you’d best keep a proper distance between you and Miss Richards. She
deserves better, and I won’t stand by and watch you hurt her.”

“I
don’t have much say in the matter,” he countered, gesturing toward his
surroundings. “I’m confined to this bed, only able to get up and move about for
short periods of time. She’s my nurse.”

“Not
any longer.” Charlotte smiled down at him. “I’m taking over.”

Willie
groaned. “How much longer will I have to be here?”

“That’s
up to you.”

He
closed his eyes.
Funny, really.
Hattie had done her
best to bargain with him and convince him to follow the doctor’s orders. Yet
her tenderness and concern had not changed his behavior. Now, the very thought
of waking up each morning to Charlotte Kellerman’s harsh voice and unfriendly
manner gave Willie all the incentive he needed. He’d get himself up and out of
that damned bed and away from the hospital as quick as a hungry toad snatched
up a fly.

With
another grunt, he pushed the wooden breakfast tray away. He didn’t like this
sudden change, but he had to admit Charlotte was right. As much as it hurt, he
would honor her request and make sure Hattie didn’t get hurt. He would get
himself up, out, and away from sweet, innocent Miss Richards.

 

* * *
*

 

Nearly
two more weeks passed before he got the news he’d been waiting to hear.

“Fit as
a fiddle, Willie. Your leg’s healed nicely, and you’re free to go.”

Willie
didn’t know why the doctor’s words caused him such consternation. He’d known it
was coming. Earlier, Mrs. Kellerman had dropped by his room and had helped him
hobble about packing up his few possessions. During his stay, Charlotte had
visited the mercantile and picked up a suit of clothes for him along with a few
sundry items.

All the
while he’d been flat on his back, staring at the damned
ceiling,
he’d looked forward to the time when he’d be on his feet again. Now, standing
beside the bed with a crutch tucked under one arm and a small sack in his hand,
he eyed the door with a mixture of dread and uncertainty.

And
maybe a bit of curiosity.

Where
was Hattie Mae?

Willie
thought back to his conversation with Charlotte Kellerman. Since their talk,
he’d hardly seen Hattie, and even on the few occasions when she had tended to him,
he’d said little to her. Shrugs, grunts, and an occasional nod of his head were
the means by which he’d communicated over the last two weeks. Although Hattie
had seemed a bit puzzled by his behavior she hadn’t questioned him or tried to
drag him out from behind the wall he built between them.

All the
same, he’d expected her to bid him farewell.

“If
you’re looking for Miss Richards, she’s taking care of a few errands this
morning.” Dr. Kellerman approached, holding out an arm. “I can help you to the
door.”

“No, I
don’t want any help.” He glanced across the room. The distance between
himself
and the open door couldn’t have been more than a few
feet. It might as well have been a mile. His courage faltered as he took his
first, tentative step.

He
couldn’t do it alone. He needed Hattie’s encouragement, the quiet strength that
lay beneath her softness. He wanted to see her one last time, and most of all,
he wanted to give her any apologies he might owe her for anything he’d said or
done. She was nowhere to be seen.
Probably for the best.

He let
out a sigh. Yes, better that he walk away, leave Hattie Mae to her innocent
faith in humanity, and allow her to go right on seeing the good in everybody.

With
one last glance around the white-washed room with its stark, bare walls and
tiny windows, Willie squared his shoulders, put his weight on the crutch, and
slowly made his way to the door.

BOOK: NoRegretsColeNC
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