May 15, 1863
"I beg your pardon. Could you please repeat that statement? I'm afraid I didn't quite catch it the first time." Lyndal Carson perched on the edge of the straight-backed wooden chair and stared at the wrinkled little man behind a narrow desk. Her mind kept stumbling over his assessment of her ailment, but she couldn't believe it was true. "I suppose it's plausible. I have been experiencing chest pains of late."
Mr. Weebly—Dr. Searson's assistant—cleared his throat and adjusted his mustard yellow bowtie for the third time since he'd sat down. He folded his blue-veined hands on the cherry wood desk top. "I am very sorry, Miss Carson, but you have angina pectoris and in quite an acute stage, I might add, or at least that is what Dr. Searson has written here. I would be happy to schedule you a second appointment with him, or perhaps I could transfer your case to Dr. Whitley? His office is two blocks east of here. I would be happy to make the arrangements."
Dr. Whitley was the exact reason why she'd chosen to entrust Dr. Searson with her examination. Dr. Whitely was her mother's second cousin once removed and everyone in the Carson family saw him. She'd wanted to avoid having the whole family descend upon her if the results of this visit went eschew—which it looked as if they were. Once the family caught wind of the diagnosis, she'd be forced into bed until her demise and never granted freedom again. "The last time I saw Dr. Whitley was on my twelfth birthday when I had scarlet fever. I’d rather not repeat the experience."
Yet, in a moment of rebellion, she'd decided to buck family tradition regarding doctors. At the moment, she couldn't think past her illness to contemplate what would happen if the family found out. "I'd rather not have my medical history from this point forward shared out of this office." At least she could attempt to keep it a secret.
"I understand." Mr. Weebly again cleared his throat. "Are there any questions?"
Lyndal glanced around the small, homey office. From the blue-and-white striped papered walls to the dark hardwood floor to the framed degrees, it screamed practitioner of medicine and conveyed calm, friendly conversation. "Where is Dr. Searson?"
"With his daughter. The day you came in for your examination, she had gone into labor. He was in quite a rush to get to her bedside being his first grandchild and all."
"Yes, I can imagine. The office was very hectic, which was why I had to come back today." Three days ago when she'd come for her appointment, there had been papers scattered all over the floor, leather-bound volumes stacked on the desk as well as letters and correspondence lying about the area.
Mr. Weebly's laugh grated like dried corn husks in a breeze. "Our poor clerk sneezed so violently, he startled the doctor and chaos ensued. The clerk was fired. We haven't quite found our bearings or sorted out all the paperwork."
She gave a weak smile that wavered under the mass of dread forming in her stomach. How very bizarre to be discussing an office mishap when her very fate hung in this man's hands. Her chest constricted. The spasm of terrible pain she'd been accosted with for the last few weeks returned and she pressed a gloved hand over her apparently diseased organ. A few seconds of concentrated breathing lessened the pain, allowing her to relax somewhat. "Could you tell me what exactly angina pectoris means? Is it a complication from the scarlet fever all those years ago?" Had fate come back around to claim her this time where it had failed before?
"Absolutely not." Mr. Weebly shuffled through a few papers. "You'd indicated on your form the scarlet fever had not progressed into rheumatic fever. Though your heart may have been weakened from that event, I firmly believe this current illness is not related."
"Is the angina fatal?" She could barely force the word past her lips as she clasped her hands tightly in her lap to still their shaking.
"Oh my, yes." His faded green eyes behind the spectacles blinked. "In your case, since it is so acute, I can in good conscience say you might live another six months if you steer clear of anything that will excite you—sudden loud noises, or strenuous exercise." His fingers drifted to his bowtie again. "Of course, that includes abstaining from sexual intercourse, horseback riding, or hiking, etcetera."
Her cheeks burned from the suggestion. In all her twenty-five years, she'd never experienced the thrill of sexual relations—or anything else he'd mentioned. Maybe she would feel differently had she actually done them. "The likelihood of any of those things occurring within the next several years, let alone days or hours is slim." She twisted the ends of her shawl around her fingers. "What would be an acceptable form of passing the time?"
"Well for you I would say sitting quietly, perhaps reading or reflecting on the day. A bit of embroidery if you are not too tired. Stick with bland foods, no rich sauces and no heavy desserts. Smoking is frowned upon as is singing, hearty laughter or any sort of activity wherein high excitement or heavy emotion will be produced."
"Basically I should avoid anything that makes life enjoyable."
"I wouldn't say that. You can derive pleasure from mild living."
"I possibly could but what would be the point?" She bit her bottom lip. "And if I do not follow your orders and engage in one or more of these things?"
"Ah, well your heart could very well give out from shock and you can drop dead with no warning."
As twin spirals of panic and depression climbed her spine, Lyndal stood. "Thank you for taking the time to clarify my ailment. I rather doubt I will return to your office since it is my intention of making my last days as fulfilling as possible." As she held out a hand to Mr. Weebly, it shook so badly she knew he must notice.
"I understand." He clasped her fingers in a weak grip then broke the connection. "Best wishes, Miss Carson. I am sorry I didn't have better news for you."
"So am I, Mr. Weebly. I suppose it is a fitting ending to my somewhat second-hand life." Outwardly, she remained calm, as if she were just told the milliner couldn't finish a hat on time. Inwardly, a whirlpool of fear, trepidation and resentment churned as she stepped across the floor, let herself out of the doctor's office and stood on the sidewalk in front of the building.
Only then did she allow her shoulders to slump and her eyes well with tears. Somewhere in the back of her brain she registered the cacophony on the street. Horse's hooves struck the cobblestones, the calls of vendors and workers on scaffolding echoed off the brickwork. Children cried and laughed as they tripped after their mothers. Conversation drifted past as she stood, watching the colorful patchwork parade pass by as they went about their lives unaware that hers could very well end in a matter of hours.
All of her life she'd been the good daughter, the doting sister, the patient woman who worked at charitable causes tirelessly and without complaint even though her heart and soul yearned for adventure. She'd done everything anyone asked of her, but never had the chance to live for herself. She'd not experienced life as she'd wanted; never had the opportunity to do something so bad that folks would create a rumor about it—not that she'd ever considered it. Most importantly, she'd never had the chance to push out of her confining shell of proper decorum. Fate meant to take away her time on this Earth before she could figure out what exactly she wanted to be known for.
A tear escaped down her cheek. Lyndal wiped the moisture away. She stepped out of the way of a woman carrying an infant. After giving a polite greeting, she made her way along the wooden walkway. Front display windows from shops caught her attention and provided opportunity to focus on something other than her imminent demise.
The latest fashions in high-button boots, kid gloves, dresses and gowns tempted her in dizzying arrays of colors and textures. She glanced down at her own dress of tan cotton printed with black checks shot with red thread. If she were destined to die any moment, the likelihood of attending a lavish soiree and dancing in a gentleman's arms long after midnight in a gown of rich satin or silk was unlikely. Then her focus shifted and she caught sight of herself reflected in the glass. Average height, curves too full for the current fashion even with the corset, round flushed cheeks and plain brown hair that peeked out from beneath the brim of her conservative straw bonnet, she was hardly the woman with a full dance card at even a church social.
Maybe in another lifetime…
With a tiny sigh, Lyndal proceeded on her journey. She clutched the strings of her reticule in one hand. Feeling a tad parched from the hot May sun and dust, she ducked into a café on the corner of Washington Street. After being led to a table near one of the windows and placing her order for a pot of Earl Grey and a plate of tea cakes, she arranged her full skirts over her crinoline and gazed again at the street traffic.
Somehow, she needed to affect a change in her life. If I want to matter to someone, if I want to make a difference—leave a memory behind—I need to stop waiting around for excitement and find it myself.
Perhaps it was interference from Providence; perhaps fate had one more trick up her sleeve, or perhaps it was merely a careless gust of wind when the front door opened, but a page from the Indianapolis Journal on an empty table nearby fluttered and took flight. It came to rest against her skirts. Lyndal bent slightly and plucked the errant paper from the floor then gaped as a headline from a personal advertisement caught her eye.
Wealthy land owner in Noblesville, Indiana hosting a house party—including Independence Day festivities—for the express purpose of finding a mate. Marriage could be an eventuality but the certainty of that outcome is not a definite. Companionship is the more immediate necessity. Experience in sensual bedroom arts is preferred but not required.
Inquires collected through the 30th of the month. Please indicate physical characteristics, flaws and any special talents. Also include a brief history and a short essay of why you would like to be considered.
Responses should be addressed to Mr. Franklin Garrett care of Rutledge Estates, Route 5. If you are chosen as one of the twelve candidates, further instructions will be sent no later than June 15th. As a footnote, ladies' maids or attendants will not be needed and are definitely not desired. Rutledge Estates boasts more than enough staff.
Shock ricocheted through her insides at the audacity of a man blatantly asking self-respecting women to reply to such an inquiry. Just think of the scandal! What kind of gentleman would proposition one woman let alone ask for a dozen to reside in his house without a proper chaperone? She crumpled the paper in her fists. A man who was not a gentleman. A man who cared not for conventions or rules. A man who wished to live life on his own terms. Her skin prickled. He must be quite powerful to thwart the proprieties and make it a public spectacle—or very daring.
"Is there a problem, miss?" A young woman in a black dress and white frilled apron asked as she set out the items for tea.
"Oh, no, but thank you. This looks lovely." Only when the woman moved on to attend to other diners did Lyndal smooth the paper out on her lap once more.
Experience in the bedroom arts? Surely the person who wrote this missive didn't mean to take the women he selected into his bed. Her cheeks heated at the thought. She swallowed around the lump in her throat. Was it a lark, a practical joke played on the newspaper office to take readers' minds off the war, a political stunt, a personal statement? What arrogance was at play to even pen such a request, what bold confidence that anyone would respond. Searching through the society section, her gaze landed on a grainy black-and-white photograph of the man in question.
Too blurry to do him justice, the one feature that seemed to jump off the page was his eyes. Intense, dark and focused, as if he watched her from the paper, they demanded her attention and subsequent submission. Her heart beat a little faster. Dark hair, heavy brows and a strong jaw that spoke of determination and an unwavering will. Yet her focus returned to his eyes. In her imagination, she could easily invent a tale of wounded vulnerability or maybe basic human need. Would his lips be firm or supple against hers? Was he a man of gentle caresses or did he demand women yield fully to him in the bedroom?
A blush heated her whole body and again, her heart raced with excitement or fear. Nonsense, Lyndal. You would never succumb to such temptation for the express reason you will not respond to this advertisement. Yet she couldn't look away from his eyes. As a whole, the picture portrayed a man of power, a man of magnetism. What would he be like? Was he as terrible as she thought based solely on his advertisement? Would she want to be judged on so little?
Quickly, she scanned the words again. Rutledge Estates. She vaguely recognized the name. Her brother Thomas had talked enough about an eccentric man who lived in that area. Currently, her reporter brother was in Kentucky, but before he'd left, he'd skulked about an orchard where livestock went missing and small animals were found slaughtered, all centered around the full moons. He'd told her he meant to solve the problem.
She believed him. Thomas had always been a role model. A lone tear fell to her cheek. While her siblings followed their dreams, she languished at home, never having adventures let alone visiting the small town of Noblesville where apparently big happenings could be found.
Threads of sadness wove around her ailing heart. That was part of the problem. I have not traveled. I have not seen the world or even the bulk of Indiana. Even if I were to decide tomorrow to embark on a tour, the chances of me finishing it are slim.
In some distraction, she nibbled at a delicately frosted cake while she went over the advertisement for a third time. As a clock in the bowels of the café struck the three o'clock hour, a switch was thrown deep inside Lyndal. If she wanted to indulge in a scandal before death claimed her, this would surely be the most direct route. The man's intentions left precious little to the imagination, yet the temptation of the forbidden already began tugging at her. She yearned to feel a man's arms around her, glory in the touch of his lips on her skin, dare to indulge in sins of the flesh in order to determine for herself if the act was every bit as wonderful as the servants whispered about in the kitchen when they didn't know she was there.
Except … her heart was too frail to survive the fall into the improper, but… it would be a grand way to expire.
I want an adventure before I die. Something to call my own.
She popped the tiny cake into her mouth, chewed and swallowed as a devilish grin slid over her lips. Why not take the opportunity fate provided and see where it led? She may not have the first idea of how to properly conduct a scandalous liaison, but she'd always been a quick learner. She carefully tore the advertisement from the paper and tucked it into her reticule. After all, there was a difference between the intention to sin and actually doing it. Once she was safely ensconced in her bedroom at home, she'd pen the necessary essay and accompanying information then decide if she had the wherewithal to actually send it to post.
* * * *
An hour later, Lyndal hid a yawn behind her hand and shifted in her chair. The essay she'd been attempting to write lay forgotten on her lap. It was an impossible endeavor to pretend everything was all right when it was exactly the opposite. Though the angst made for terrific motivation while writing, her heart wasn't in the stories she wanted to create.
She stifled a burst of bitter laughter. Her heart. Stupid broken organ that failed before its time. Yet not for the world would she share her devastating news of the morning. It was the one thing that truly belonged only to her. She refused to suffer her family’s pity or be their project.
Dropping the book onto the sofa cushion beside her, Lyndal watched the activity in the drawing room. Cheerful chatter filled the air as her sister, her mother and her grandmother all rolled bandages or worked at sewing sleeves onto shirts that would be shipped to the men fighting in the conflict. Lucy, the family maid, folded the completed garments and packed them into a box while several cousins flitted about the richly-appointed mauve area, jabbering like magpies.
Conversation centered around the conflict and how Thomas fared since he'd decided to chase after a local unit and report on daily life in war time. When that topic flagged, subject matter shifted to the charity endeavors, how the war would affect the United States economy then it landed squarely into planning Meredith's reintroduction to society now that her year of mourning for her husband was over.
"Make a note, Lucy. We need to be flexible enough to add the last minute additions of any prominent Union officers should they be in town next month." The elder Mrs. Carson tapped a journal with her fingernail. "We must be sure the seamstress will have all the gowns done early. I would like to have the photographer here a week prior." Her faded blue gaze landed on Lyndal. "You have a gift of diplomacy, my girl. Stop by tomorrow and badger them into hurrying, won't you?"
Of course, so their wrath falls on me instead of you. She merely stared at her grandmother, neither committing herself to the task nor declining it. Won't you feel sorry when I'm gone? Who will do your errands then?
"Dear, why don't you come help your sister roll bandages?" Lyndal's mother fluttered a pale hand in Lyndal's direction. "Meredith's worked for hours without a break. I am sure she would welcome the assistance."
Lyndal covered an unladylike snort with a sudden bout of coughing. Two to one Meredith had directed Lucy to roll the bandages and had only begun the task to feel superior. She glanced at her sister. Dressed to the height of fashion with her rich chestnut hair hanging in fat sausage rolls, Lyndal had serious doubts that Meredith's smooth hands had toiled in work this afternoon. If I agree, I'll be stuck doing the rest of her tasks while she reaps the praises—same as always. But she kept the thought to herself and stood, shaking the wrinkles from her dress. "No thank you, Mother. I have a letter to write that simply cannot wait."
"To whom?" It was her sister who inquired though all conversation in the room stopped. "I wasn't aware you corresponded with anyone besides Thomas."
Ironic the only man—not counting her brother—she'd write to this afternoon was, in all probability, a womanizing wastrel, but being told she had a fatal disease of the heart necessitated sweeping changes in her life. The fact he might be well-known to the female population only added further excitement to the undertaking.
"Does it matter? You only want to know in case you'd like to steal them away." Lyndal frowned as chest pain returned in crushing bands. "You are all so wrapped up in your own little pursuits and stabs at attention you cannot see what is right in front of you. I am quite capable of conducting my life without your supervision. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm feeling tired and need to lie down."
Oh, please don't let this be the moment I expire.
Her mother sniffed, but nodded. "Well, there is no call to be rude, Lyndal. In the future, it would behoove you to emulate Meredith in all things polite. She'll be a senator's wife someday, you know."
Of course, how could I ever forget? Everyone in the Carson household pandered to Meredith for whatever reason. Thomas—the eldest of the three—was a hero in their eyes since he'd put his life on the line to follow the war. Meredith—already married and widowed—resembled a china doll, so perfect was she in looks and temperament. Why wouldn't a man of wealth and power wish to wed her? So where did that leave Lyndal?
Nowhere. No one sang her praises for social grace and etiquette. No one desired to be matched with her. No one wanted to hear about her hopes and dreams. In fact, no one except her father, and perhaps Thomas, had ever thought she'd turn heads or make tongues wag. Her eyes welled with sudden tears. Too bad her father's work with the newspaper kept him away from home for long hours.
It is my life and my choice. I refuse to die without having lived at least for a day.
With as much dignity as she could muster, Lyndal crossed the room. As soon as she gained the hallway beyond, conversation started anew as if she'd never interrupted its flow.
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