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Authors: Christina Cole

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BOOK: NoRegretsColeNC
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She
raised a hand to her cheek and quickly turned away but not before Willie caught
sight of the tears.

“I
never meant to make you cry.”

Hattie
shook her head. “It’s got nothing to do with you.”

“What
is it? Maybe I can help.”

Hattie
lifted her chin then glanced toward the open doorway. Willie’s gaze followed
hers, but he saw no one.

“I’m
such a terrible liar.
It’s
little wonder Dr. Kellerman
saw right through me about the letter. And now, you’re seeing through me, too.”
Hattie turned to face him. “I’m quite shaken, actually.”

“About
what?”

She
whirled about in a whoosh of skirts and petticoats. “Is it true?
All that I heard?”
She
steepled
her hands in front of her face, as if in supplication. “Please, say it isn’t
so.”

Perplexed,
he narrowed his gaze. His tongue came out to wet his lips while he puzzled over
her odd behavior.

“I have
no idea what you’re talking about.”

Color
rose to her cheeks. “I wasn’t eavesdropping. Really, I wasn’t. It’s wrong to
deliberately listen to someone else’s private conversation. But I happened to
overhear what was said between you and Dr. Kellerman.” Each word carried a
solemn weight.

“I
still don’t understand.” He made an awkward shrug. Movement of any kind caused
excruciating pain. “What I mean is
,
we weren’t
discussing anything that’s not common knowledge. You’ve known all along what a
good-for-nothing drunkard I’ve become in recent months.”

Her
eyes widened to pools of gray. “For pity’s sake, don’t be so wrapped up in
yourself. I’m not talking about you, Willie Morse.” Her face scrunched up.
Willie couldn’t tell if she was about to let go of a laugh or burst into fresh
tears. A breath shuddered from her lips. Her breasts rose and fell. “I’m
talking about Dr. Kellerman. He’s a good man.
A fine doctor.”

“Yes,
he is.”

“You
called him a drunkard! And worse still, you called Mrs. Kellerman, a—” She
shook her head, obviously unable to utter the word.

“A
whore.”
He
spat it out for her. “Just being honest, Miss Richards.” He brought his hands
up, folded them together, and rested them on his chest.

The
shock on the girl’s face amused him, brought back some of the pleasure he used
to find from taunting others.
She
didn’t deserve to be bullied or teased, but he couldn’t stop. For the first
time since he’d stepped out in front of that oncoming freight wagon, he felt
his old self stirring about inside of him. Not the drunken, down-on-his-luck
Willie Morse of late, but the one who used to always take command of
situations, the one with the quick wit, the sharp tongue, the ability to put others
in their place.
The one who truly lived his life with no
regrets.

“You’re
lying. It can’t possibly be true.”

“How
long have you been living in Sunset? Not very long,” he pointed out, giving her
no opportunity to answer. “You didn’t know Dr. Kellerman before. You didn’t
know Charlotte Kellerman, either.”

Hattie
sank down at the foot of the bed, obviously forgetting the rule that she was
not supposed to be sitting there. “How could it be? It doesn’t seem possible.
They’re so kind, so considerate. They do so much to help people, and yet you’re
telling me they were both good-for-nothing sots?” She shook her head. “No,
you’ve got to be wrong. I refuse to believe it.”

When
she rose to her feet, her demeanor changed completely. She’d obviously come to
a conclusion she found acceptable, and she now considered the matter settled.
The girl would believe only what she wished.
A dangerous
precept, in Willie’s mind.

He
snorted. “You’re such an innocent. Is it for real, Miss Richards? Or is it only
an act?”

Bewilderment
shone in her luminous eyes. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean.”

Truly,
she didn’t, and Willie almost regretted his hasty remarks.
Almost,
but not quite.
Maybe Miss Hattie Mae needed to take a good, long look at
herself
. Although innocence counted as a virtue in a
young woman, it should be tempered with a willingness to accept reality. A
female left herself vulnerable otherwise.

“What I
mean,” he replied, stretching slightly in hopes of finding a more comfortable
position, “is that you’re so insistent about seeing what’s good, you don’t
consider any other possibilities.”

“Are
you saying it’s wrong to see the good in others?” She drew back as if she’d
been physically struck. “I’m sorry, but I can’t agree. In fact, I wish more
people understood how important it is to see what’s good in this world.”

Willie
watched her agitated movements with a growing amusement. Never before had
Hattie Mae raised her voice to him. Now, standing before him, she came alive.
Her eyes flashed, and a spot of color rose to her cheeks as she quickly
defended her beliefs. He folded his hands and tried to hold back a chuckle. It
slipped out.

“Are
you making fun of me, Mr. Morse?” She leaned forward, hands fisted on her hips,
and whirled around. With her lips puckered and her neck craned out, Hattie
reminded him of a goose.
A very angry goose.

“No,
not at all.
I’m just observing you.” Another laugh threatened, but he swallowed it back,
choking and coughing to keep his glee in check.

At
once, Hattie flew across the room, poured water from the drinking pitcher, and
handed the glass to him.

“Drink
this. Slowly, please.”

He
shook his head. “I’m all right. But I seem to have upset you,” he said, looking
up at her. “Or, as some folks might say, I’ve ruffled your feathers.”

Her
spine stiffened. Standing ram-rod straight, she stared at him. Although her
mouth dropped open, no words came out.

“It’s
all right,” he assured her. “I’m glad you spoke your mind. I was beginning to
wonder if you had one.”

Now,
her lovely eyes widened. “Yes, of course, I have a mind, Mr. Morse.”

“It’s
good to see that you have opinions, too. Most of the time you seem to be
spouting off clever little bits of wisdom you’ve gleaned from other people.” He
flashed an indulgent smile. “Indeed, I’m pleased to know that you’ve got a
brain in that pretty little head of yours.”

The
color in her cheeks deepened to bright scarlet.

“Excuse
me, Mr. Morse, but I think I should go now.” She headed for the door.

He
hadn’t meant to drive her away, but then, what in hell had he intended? That
mean streak took over again.

“What
if there’s something I want?” he called after her. “Aren’t you supposed to tend
to my needs? Don’t you have to make sure I’m comfortable before you leave?”

She
stopped. With one hand on the doorknob, she turned to glance over her shoulder.
“You’re right, Mr. Morse, of course.” Hattie’s shoulders rose and fell as she
took in several breaths. Finally she found her voice again. “Is there anything
more you require?”

He
could have said so many things. Oh, but the words that might have come out of
his mouth! Somehow, the stricken look on her face managed to silence him.
Teasing and taunting her no longer seemed to be such sport.

Willie
shook his head.

“Fine.
Good day, Mr. Morse. I’ll check
on you later.”

She
closed the door, leaving behind only the faint lingering scent of lavender.

 

* * *
*

 

Hattie
went about her usual routines for the rest of the day, checking in on Willie
now and then, helping out with chores, and trying to forget the troubled
thoughts that wouldn’t go away.

Shortly
before midnight, she made her last check on Willie and found him sleeping, but
fitfully. As she stood beside his bed, she wished she could do more to comfort
him. She’d tried, but her attempts to help had only created bigger problems.

She stepped
from the room and closed the door behind her. Even as she moved quietly down
the dimly-lit hallway, her thoughts remained fixed on Willie.

He
always seemed to leave her feeling confused and unsure of herself. Obviously,
he was not happy, yet he spoke about living life without regrets. Sometimes he
spoke sharply to her—probably to be expected from a man suffering physical
distress—yet other times he seemed glad to see her.

And
what was it he’d told her earlier? He’d said he would miss her if she were gone.

Hattie’s
breath caught. No one had ever said such a thing to her before. Mostly no one
ever even noticed her.

Beneath
the harsh exterior, Willie had a kind heart. She must find a way to help him.

But
how?

If only
she knew more about him, perhaps she could find the way. Just as Dr. Abner
Kellerman believed in the oft-ridiculed theory of those little invisible
creatures he called bacteria causing disease, Hattie Mae Richards had her own
theory of suffering. When a body was hurting, it was more than a physical
affliction. To heal, a physician had not only to bind up wounds but also to
consider the patient’s thoughts and feelings.

From
the start, Hattie had suspected the truth. Willie no longer wanted to live.

But
why?

With
their little bargain now off the table, he had no incentive to do as Dr.
Kellerman asked. So long as his mind remained intent upon dying, he would never
fully recover from his injuries.

When
she reached the stairway, Hattie noticed the soft glow of lamplight coming from
the nearby kitchen. Curious, she poked her head around the corner and peered
through the doorway.

“Mrs.
Kellerman, good evening,” she said in a quiet voice, not wanting to startle the
woman.

Charlotte
looked up from the plate of cookies set before her. She winced,
then
smiled. “Good evening, Hattie. You’ve caught me with my
hand in the cookie jar.” She laughed. “Please, don’t tell my husband. He’s got
the notion in his head that too many sweets are bad for the digestion. He’d
probably give me a scolding if he knew I’d been filching macaroons.”

“I
happen to agree with him,” Hattie replied, but she kept a smile on her face. “I
suppose we can keep this as our secret.”

How odd
that once again she was being asked to withhold information, only in this
instance it seemed almost trivial. It was quite easy to agree. Willie’s
request, however, now weighed heavily upon her mind. She’d made a bad bargain
with him. Her deception had quickly come out. Hattie pursed her lips.

“Are
you all right, dear?” Charlotte frowned. “You’re welcome to join me,” she said,
pushing the plate in the girl’s direction. “I promise I won’t tell Dr.
Kellerman.”

“Thank
you, but I’m not particularly hungry.” It occurred to Hattie that she’d hardly
eaten a bite all day. She’d been too nervous, too anxious, and far too busy to
give food a thought. Even now, she had no appetite. “I would like to talk to
you, if you have a moment.”

Charlotte
nodded toward a chair. “I can tell something is bothering you, Hattie. You
know, you’re not very good at hiding your feelings.”

“I never
knew I was supposed to hide them.” She shrugged. “I guess people do that a lot,
and maybe that’s what’s wrong with the world.
People saying
one thing and doing another, pretending not to care when all the while their
emotions are tearing them apart.”
Hattie’s breath came out shaky. “Why
can’t people just tell the truth, Mrs. Kellerman? Why can’t folks say what they
mean…and do what they say?” she added.

“What’s
brought this on?” Charlotte eyed her with a suddenly wary look.

“I’m
not sure, and that’s the honest truth.” Weariness overcame her. She all but
collapsed into the closest chair. Leaning forward, she cradled her head in her
hands. “It’s…”

Willie.

She
almost spoke his name aloud. Such familiarity would be improper, of course.
Hattie lifted her chin, looked directly at Charlotte Kellerman, and said what
was on her mind.

“Tell
me about Willie Morse.”

“What
about him?” Charlotte stared back.

“Folks
talk about what a rough time he’s had of it in recent months, but from what
I’ve
seen,
it’s his own doing, isn’t it?” When the
other woman raised one eyebrow, Hattie hesitated. Had she spoken out of turn?
Had she somehow offended? She plunged ahead. “What I mean is that drinking is a
choice he’s made—”

Charlotte
reached across the table and took hold of Hattie’s hand.

“It’s
not
so
easy as that,” she said in a quiet voice.

“No,
I’m sure it’s not, and that’s my point, Mrs. Kellerman.” Hattie pulled her
hands away, got to her feet, and paced through the tiny kitchen. “You see, I’m
wondering if there isn’t something more that’s driving him to drink, some
underlying problem or concern. People don’t ordinarily choose to deliberately
destroy their lives, and that’s precisely what he’s doing.”

BOOK: NoRegretsColeNC
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