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Authors: Kaylea Cross

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BOOK: The Vacant Chair
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She looked pointedly at Justin’s chest wound, then Mitch’s injured arm. “I wonder why?”

Mitch barked out a laugh. “You sound just like her. We’d be getting an earful right now if she were here.”

“I would be happy to perform the honors in her absence,” Brianna offered, a teasing glint in her eyes.

Justin declined with an upraised hand. “I’ll be hearing it soon enough, I fear.” He envisioned the scene when their mother laid eyes on her wounded boys. The wails, the hysterics… He grimaced.

“She sounds like a very wise woman.” With a quiet sigh, Brianna pushed to her feet. For a moment she looked weary, and Justin wished he could do something to lighten her burden. She worked hard. Too hard, from what he’d seen. And from the sounds of it, she had no one to take care of her when her long day nursing was over.

“I have to get back to my duties now, but thank you for the visit.” She shook a warning finger at Mitch. “And I’m holding you personally responsible for his welfare, so try not to keep him up for long. It’s imperative that he gets adequate sleep.”

Mitch bobbed his head up and down in an earnest nod, probably would have sat up and begged if she’d asked him to. “Yes, ma’am.” After she was out of earshot, he rounded on Justin with a wide grin. “I think your nurse likes you. And you’ve never once looked at a woman that way in your whole life.” He narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Were you shot by a Minié ball, or one of Cupid’s arrows?” 

Justin bit back a grin and set his spoon down. Mitch always insisted on sticking his nose where it wasn’t welcome. Growing up, he’d been like a sliver buried under Justin’s skin, a constant irritant, plaguing him with questions, chattering his ears off, pouting and throwing temper tantrums when things didn’t go his way.

He wouldn’t have traded the brat for anything.

His lids grew heavy as the medication pulled at him, languor stealing throughout his limbs. He would sleep soon, rescued from Mitch’s incessant prattle, even though he was damn glad to be hearing it again.

“—Wouldn’t Laurel turn green if she saw your nurse! I bet—” Mitch stopped short when he noticed Justin staring at him. “What?” he demanded.

Justin studied him a moment longer, thankful his brother had finally shut up. “As far as nurses go, you’re the ugliest I’ve ever seen. And you talk too damn much.”

“Well, that’s a fine thing to say, since I look almost exactly like you.” Mitch batted his lashes. “Get some sleep. Maybe your vision will improve the next time you open your eyes.”

Justin snorted and closed his heavy lids. As much as he loved his brother and was glad to see him, he hoped it was Brianna’s pretty face he saw when he awoke.

Chapter Six

Brianna corked a bottle of laudanum she’d just dosed her patient with and pulled the bodice of her brown muslin dress away from her sweaty skin. The canvas tent was stifling, even with the flap open and the sides pulled up to let in the breeze. She dropped into a chair and wiped the back of her arm across her damp forehead as she fanned the man’s pale face. She’d laid a wet sheet over his torso to cool him, but it wouldn’t stay damp for long in this heat. Some of the air swished against her and brought a measure of relief. Her muscles ached a little. Her skin hurt, too. She frowned at the thought. Maybe she was getting sick.

You don’t have time to get sick
.

The man sighed at the cool air moving over his face and closed his eyes. His chest rose and fell in a shallow but steady rhythm that belied the worsening rattle in his lungs. Glad she could ease him somewhat, she let her mind drift and found herself daydreaming about Captain Thompson.

Over the past week she’d gotten to know him better, learning many things about him, his brother, and the lumber mills their family owned that Justin had run until his enlistment. His eyes were the most beautiful shade of blue. She’d never seen anything like them. And he was always so calm and polite, regardless of how much discomfort he was in. So self-assured. In spite of her resolve to see him as just another patient, she enjoyed his company and the low tones of his voice—

She
had
to stop thinking about him.

With a mental kick, she collected her things and walked outside. The sulfate of iron used to treat the latrines wasn’t doing much good these days. The air hung around her like a damp towel, stifling and foul with human waste. Brianna wrinkled her nose at the stench and wiped a sleeve over her forehead to mop up the moisture. When she’d last checked on Captain Thompson early that morning, he’d been fast asleep, utterly relaxed in his slumber. His brother had been propped in a chair beside him and glanced up to spare her a wink before burying his nose back in his newspaper.

Several officers and enlisted men from their regiment had come by in the last few days to give their regards to her favorite patient before riding out with the rest of the Michigan Brigade. That they made the effort to come and see him spoke volumes about the high regard they held him in. More than a few of the men had raved to her about what an excellent officer he was and that his character was beyond reproach.

Hearing it from others who knew him made him even more attractive to her. Yes, he was handsome, but he was also kind, and she enjoyed their conversations. She’d already spent more time with him than necessary, though she’d taken pains to ensure she hid her growing attraction. It was easy to see why he’d been elected as an officer. Even laid low by his wounds, he exuded an unmistakable aura of authority that told her he was comfortable being in command. Whenever she drew near, she sensed the quiet, controlled power of him. His gaze was direct, magnetic.

She’d also have to be blind not to notice the desire in his eyes when she caught him looking at her. Brianna liked it far too much for her own comfort.

You’d best stop thinking about him if you know what’s good for you.

With a frustrated sigh, she returned to work and went to check on Tim.

For the first time in a week, the hospital seemed to be in some semblance of order. Given the recent pandemonium, it was a relief to know the men were finally all sheltered inside tents under the best care possible. A trickle of perspiration slid between her breasts and she once again pulled the muslin away from her hot skin.

She found Tim sitting up in bed in his new tent, his forearms resting on his bent knees as a doctor checked the exit wounds in his back. Poor, stoic man suffered with every breath, yet he’d asked to be moved to a less crowded tent so his constant coughing wouldn’t keep everyone awake.

The elderly surgeon tapped here and there, probing into the swollen bullet holes with his fingers. Tim coughed and gave a sad, helpless sigh, his even expression belying the agony he must be in. She stepped closer, about to offer the doctor assistance in cleaning the wounds when something dripped from Tim’s face onto the sheets.

Oh dear God, he was crying.

Pain twisted in her chest, like someone had taken red-hot pincers to her heart. Brianna rushed over to him and rested a hand on his sandy hair. “Ah, Tim, you poor, stubborn man,” she murmured. It was more than she could bear to watch him suffer like this and she knew his pride was taking a beating for crying in front of anyone. To shield him she kneeled before him on the bed and placed herself between him and any curious eyes. 

Without a word he leaned gratefully into her, his wet, bearded face resting on her shoulder. She stroked his dirty hair helplessly, wishing she could take some of his pain into herself and let this wonderful man heal again. “No one can see you now,” she whispered.

His big arms came around her back and held tight, his grip still gentle, even with his immense power. “Oh, thank you, ma’am,” he whispered.

The gratitude in his voice made her want to cry. She braced him while the doctor finished his examination, and all three breathed a sigh of relief when he was done.

The surgeon rested a hand on Tim’s shoulder. “I’m sorry I hurt you, son.”

Tim coughed once and smiled against her shoulder. “That’s all right, doc. My guardian angel came to comfort me.” His voice remained weak and raspy.

The elderly man’s eyes swept over her, his expression thankful. “She certainly did.”  

Tim waited until the doctor left then slowly straightened, avoiding her gaze. “Do you suppose you could find me more of that custard for lunch today?”

“Certainly.” If a man could endure what Tim was suffering, he deserved whatever comforts she could give him.

He let her settle him against the pillows and wipe his face and neck with a damp cloth, a smile playing about his lips. “You’re so gentle with me.”

Her fingers tightened around the cloth. “You deserve gentleness, Tim.” He deserved much more than that. His stoic suffering tugged at her heart, made her want to fuss over him like a child, even though he was a giant of a man nearly six and a half feet tall and strong as a draft horse. God knew she’d spare him this slow, terrible death if she had the power.

When he was as comfortable as she could make him, Brianna fixed him with a hard stare and pointed a warning finger at him. “Next time someone comes to examine your wounds, send an orderly to find me first.” If he wanted to be brave and refuse medication, that was one thing, but there was no reason for him to suffer as he did. It took a lot for her to lose her composure, yet this man managed to slip past her emotional shields every time. Didn’t he know how hard it was for her to watch him endure that kind of pain? 

Tim gazed up at her with tired eyes and put on an endearing smile. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll do just that.”

On her way to the kitchen to arrange for that custard she had promised, she passed the neat rows of tents. Other nurses—mostly convalescent men—walked about with armfuls of bedding and clothes that needed washing, others with stacks of newspapers and assorted reading materials. Shoving a wisp of hair back into its tight chignon, Brianna wondered what she would do with Tim. That man would endure less torment if he wasn’t so damned stubborn.

On impulse, she stopped to poke her head into Captain Thompson’s tent and found him awake. He greeted her with a friendly smile, his appreciative gaze triggering that now-familiar flutter in her belly.

“Bree?”

She glanced to the side to find Ella-May near the wall of the tent, rinsing out a cloth. “Hi. Need any help in here?”

“Actually, yes.” Ella-May took her by the arm and led her a judicious distance away from the men. She seemed to search for the right words before finally blurting, “Your patient needs to be washed. And shaved.”

Her
patient? “Who? You mean Captain Thompson?”

“Captain Thompson,” Ella-May agreed dryly.

“Oh.” If even her friend thought of him as
her
patient, she wasn’t being very discreet, was she? Brianna had washed hundreds of men in her tenure as a nurse, but in light of the growing attraction she felt toward him, the last thing she wanted was to have to touch him so intimately while he was awake and there were witnesses around. “Could you do it for me? I’ve promised to get something special for one of my other patients. I’ll come back and give you a hand once I’m done.” By then Ella-May would be long since finished with Captain Thompson.

“Me?” Her friend gave a short laugh. “Why on earth would I? You can do it yourself as soon as you’ve changed his bandages.” She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing her. “Can’t you?”

Brianna fought the urge to fidget. This was far different than tending to his wounds. Washing and shaving him now meant intimate contact while he was fully alert, with an audience. No. She couldn’t possibly. Not now, with the way her stomach fluttered around him. Not when she shouldn’t be feeling anything for him but empathy. Anything more was unprofessional, and if anyone suspected she had more than a clinical interest in him, she’d be sent packing. Brianna had worked too hard to secure her position here to let that happen.

“I would, but I promised another patient a special dessert, so could you please do it?” Her fingers played with the pocket on her apron.

Ella-May turned incredulous pale blue eyes on her. “What has gotten into you? You’re acting like a ninny,” she finished in a whisper. “I’ve got my hands full already. Now go shave that poor man before he itches his skin off.”

When she brushed past her, Brianna shot out an arm and grabbed her friend’s elbow. “Would you do it this once as a favor to me?”

Ella-May stared at her in consternation for a moment. Then a shocked smile stretched across her lips. “Why, Brianna Taylor,” she drawled, too low for anyone else to hear. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think that Wolverine makes you nervous.”

Oh, lord, Ella-May knew. She
knew.
 

“I wonder why that would be?” her friend mused with a look of mock confusion on her face. “After all, he’s handsome, and every
inch
the gentleman.” She chuckled and glanced over her shoulder at him before facing Brianna once more. Her dark brows rose, a sparkle in her eyes. “Now what were you saying about that special dessert?”

Brianna’s cheeks had to be flaming red by now. “I promised Tim some custard,” she muttered.

“I’ll take care of it. Now get back to work.” Ella-May shoved the damp cloth into her hand.

Mind scrambling, Brianna gave her a bland smile and darted a glance at
her
patient. His indigo gaze settled on her with welcoming warmth, making the butterflies in her stomach flutter even harder. She wanted to sneak out of the tent and hide when Ella-May left with a conspiratorial wink. As if she’d just done Brianna a huge favor.

Ooh, just you wait, Ella-May Davison. Just you wait until I get my hands on you!

Well. She was going to have to do it, and that was all there was to it. It was only a wash and a shave, after all. He couldn’t do it himself, as he was still too weak. He could slit his own throat if he slipped with the razor. She was being ridiculous.

You have a backbone. Use it.

Fine. He was just a man, no need to be nervous.

Drawing a deep breath, she gathered her professional demeanor around her like armor and approached his cot, careful to avoid his gaze while she collected the necessary items.

“Are you going to shave me?” His deep voice held a hopeful note.

“Yes, Captain. I would imagine your face is rather itchy.”

“A little, yes.” He rubbed one hand over his bristly cheek. His color was marginally better today, a sign he was feeling at least a bit improved.

She kept her expression blank even though her stomach did somersaults at the thought of what she was going to do. Her lack of control over her body’s reaction was vexing, to say the least. Deciding it was safer not to talk any more, Brianna mixed the lather and steeled herself before sitting in a chair beside his bed.

She could feel his eyes on her, the heated interest in them. Since becoming a nurse, men had looked at her like that plenty of times, but none of them had ever affected her like this. She’d never
let
them affect her, until now. Around him it seemed hard to inhale a full breath of air.

Brianna might not want to do this, but since retreat wasn’t in her nature, she spread the lather on his whiskers and tried to ignore the sparks that danced in her fingertips whenever she touched him, hoping he didn’t notice the fine tremor in her hands. When he bent his knee to bring the sheet up a few moments later, she flushed and avoided his gaze. She knew exactly what he was trying to hide. Her breasts tightened, her nipples going tight against the fabric of her shift, and she was thankful that he was unaware of her response.

At least he was gentleman enough to make the attempt at covering his erection. But it should absolutely not please her to know her touch aroused him to that extent. What was
wrong
with her? The carefully built walls she’d barricaded herself behind were crumbling.

Her insides shivered at the thought. From out of nowhere, a forbidden image of her hands sliding over his naked body flashed through her mind. Her palms were flat against him, following the contours of hard muscle over his chest and shoulders, lower, down to his taut belly…

BOOK: The Vacant Chair
6.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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