Antonia's Daring Deception
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by Jamie Richards
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Antonia Moreson is the daughter of a respected physician living in Kent. When her father is called away on another case, she becomes responsible for an ill soldier, a Captain Lord Robert Quentin, the Earl of Gramsham. Through a long night of intensive nursing, the attractive officer makes an indelible impression on Antonia's heart. She longs to become a physician like her father, but she knows females are permitted only midwifery, not the study or practice of medicine. Antonia takes all the correspondence courses available, but she must take her final courses in person. So she disguises herself as a male. Years later, one of her Waterloo patients is comatose Captain Lord Robert Quentin, very ill, in danger of losing his leg, and threatened by a nearly unseen evil in the Royal Hospital. Antonia's disguise has worked well but now she has fallen in love with her patient. She can reveal her sex and destroy her potential career or she can forsake romance. Whether medicine and love can both triumph under such circumstances is the story of "Antonia's Daring Deception."
eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books, 2007
eBookwise Release Date: June 2007
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [349 KB]
Reading time: 233-326 min.
The Village of Frensham, Kent, November 1812
The aged chestnut horse between the shafts of a rather dilapidated dogcart slowed to a stop under a shade tree near the white frame house. "Whoa, Ghengis, we're home," Miss Antonia Jane Moreson called out, her auburn hair fluttering in the cool breeze that flowed over this part of Kent. She set the brake and tied off the reins before she got down. She kept the skirts of her light brown carriage dress in her left hand, descending as gracefully from the cart as if she were to the manor born. The breeze, almost a wind, made her glad of the shawl she'd taken even though she hadn't had to drive far--just to the greengrocer's in Frensham, a tiny village on the outskirts of Rochester. Mrs. Peterson had mentioned needing a few fruits and vegetables, so Antonia had gone an hour ago, when there were no other demands on her time. She looked up at the two-story house and surrounding yard, now deserted and very still.
"How unusual," Antonia muttered to herself. The absence of any movement created a feeling others might think ridiculous--as if something momentous had occurred while she was away. Goosebumps appeared on her arms and her nerves tingled. Something big! She grabbed a box of foodstuffs and began to hurry toward the house. It was hard to imagine household happenings in which she did not play a role.
Antonia might be only nine and ten but she'd had the running of her father's house since her mother's death three years before. She was also her father's only assistant in a widespread medical practice covering three adjacent valleys. The neat swinging sign in front of their house stated that this was the home of General Physician Adam Moreson, M.D.
Ted, the stable lad, out of breath and red of face, rushed up to help Antonia carry the boxes of food from the cart to the kitchen. He seemed eager to get inside the house as well. She grew even more curious.
As soon as she walked through the doorway, she sensed a different atmosphere. It wasn't only the male voices coming from the interior of the house, which probably meant patients; there was also a sense of contained excitement in the kitchen, the homey center of the house. The woman at the wood stove stirring a pot of stew and watching a pot of water was flushed and breathing a bit fast. Simply seeing Mrs. Peterson, in the kitchen and not upstairs cleaning at this time of day, revealed seriously upset schedules. Mrs. Peterson turned to welcome Antonia home and, in almost the same breath, asked Ted to bring some more wood for the kitchen stove before he put the horse and cart away. Ted grunted his understanding and left the room appearing disappointed he'd not learned more. Mrs. Peterson was obviously very busy, and trying to be efficient about it all.
"What's going on Mrs. P?" Antonia asked, as she put a box of groceries on the counter, removed her shawl, and hung it on a peg by the pantry. "Do we have an important new patient in the sick room?"
Mrs. Peterson, a chubby dark-haired woman in her mid-thirties, who had become Antonia's friend and companion in the last three years since the death of her mother, dried her hands on her clean but wrinkled apron. She poured some hot water into the teapot before setting it on the table where the family took their meals most of the time. From one of the wooden cupboards along the wall, she took down a plate of cookies and handed them to Antonia who had gone to sit at the table.
"That's right, dear. Rest a bit. There's no need to rush to help your pa. He has everything under control now, I believe, but for a wee bit there when you were gone, things were hectic." She sighed. "So many military! I swear I thought we had been invaded by the French!"
"Invaded! What do you mean?" Antonia asked, disbelieving, her voice rising. "You mean to tell me there were French soldiers here in Frensham? Here at our house? How could that be? I would have heard something in town! Where are they? Where did they go?" She got up and walked to the window above the sink pump, which overlooked the backyard. "There would have been fighting noises, artillery booms, or at least cavalry riding about brandishing swords. Mrs. P?"
"Shhh! Lower your voice, Toni." She came closer and spoke softly. "No French, silly," Mrs. Peterson interjected, embarrassed. "'Twas our own military filling the lane outside the house, and I got so addlepated I feared for our lives. But when the good doctor went out to speak with them, it was as though the picture shifted and changed. I could see they were all local lads from the Militia."
Casting a stern look at Antonia she said, "Antonia, as you value our friendship, don't you dare tell anyone I thought the men were Frenchies invading us." She moved back to her stew on the stove. "One of the lads was Betty Jean Addercamp's son and you know Betty Jean. If she got hold of such a story, she would never let me live it down." Mrs. Peterson grimaced at the stew she stirred as though she were stifling Betty Jean with her spoon.
"My lips are sealed Mrs. P," Antonia said, grinning at her. She came back to sit down next to the plate of tempting cookies. "But what is going on?" she asked as she selected a cookie with more chocolate pieces than the others. "Why the military?"
"I'm not exactly sure," Mrs. Peterson said in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, "but it is a very serious matter of life and death. She sat down across from Antonia. "I only know what I heard by eavesdropping."
She paused dramatically.
"What?" Antonia asked around her cookie, leaning forward.
"Well, I think the sick man, a Captain Robert Quentin, is some sort of hero. He's a cavalry officer who was on his way back to the Peninsula. He began feeling sick when the troop ship set sail from London to ride the tide down the Thames to the Channel. In just that short a trip, the Captain's condition worsened. By the time the ship reached Gravesend, things were critical. He had developed pneumonia and could scarcely breathe. The ship's doctor, a friend of your father, concluded Captain Quentin was of no present use to the army and he might even die if something dramatic were not done. He knew the Captain would be much better off under your papa's care. This doctor thinks highly of your pa and thought whatever chances the Captain had would be enhanced by his being here instead of the middle of the Channel."
Antonia's eyes were intent. "And? Go on, do!" she demanded.
Mrs. Peterson drew a deep breath. "Well, perhaps because the sick Captain is also the Earl of Gramsham, the ship's commander agreed to stop long enough to put him off. They put Captain Lord Quentin off at the mouth of the Medway before they got to the Channel. They put him on a small sloop, gathered a local militia guard, and sailed to Rochester."
"I see," Antonia said meditatively, sitting back in her chair. "What a complicated story. It makes sense, though. One of the reasons father loves it here is he is so close to his London colleagues. He can ride the tide from Rochester up the Thames and visit them easily. The London doctors and papa have been friends for a long time."
"Well," Mrs. Peterson went on, munching a cookie herself, "that's what happened. The local homeguard escorted the sloop and brought the sick Captain here. Your father is with him at the moment, getting him settled. A lieutenant from the local unit was helping him and may still be there, I don't know.
"Now Antonia, I think you have time for a cup of tea and another cookie or two before you go in to help the way you always do. Here," she said in her motherly voice as she nudged the plate of cookies closer.
Antonia took another cookie and ignoring the rules of etiquette, she dunked it into her hot tea. She quickly put it in her mouth before it crumbled to the table and reached for another. "I'll just have this and then I'll wash up so I can help papa," Antonia said, taking a sip of the strong brew. "Have a cup yourself, Mrs. P, if you can spare a moment. Something to wash the cookies down?"
"I think I will have a restorative cuppa, thank you very much," Mrs. Peterson responded, sitting down at the table, "It's been a busy few hours, think on."
She poured a little milk into her cup, added two teaspoons of sugar, and only then filled it with hot tea. She sipped appreciatively. "Oh this tastes so good. And it feels fine to sit down for a minute. My legs are aching."
"I thought you instructed me not to use that word," Antonia teased. Speaking in a mimicking falsetto, she said, "Ladies have limbs, not legs." She laughed at Mrs. Peterson's frown.
"Listen here, Missy. I've been running back and forth all morning with hot water and clean towels and new bandages."
"Bandages? Was he bleeding?" Antonia asked, getting ready to rise from her chair. Pneumonia was one thing, bad enough, God knew. Bleeding however was an immediate threat.
"Sit, sit, Toni. I didn't mean he was bleeding, I only meant I noticed there were no bandages in the little cabinet by the bed. So I simply got some more. I think he is very sick with whatever he has, but he's not bleeding I could see. But I don't know this stuff like you do. I leave all the medical things to you and your pa. People around here think you're as good as your father already. Oh and then there are those courses from the medical school at Edinburgh--the ones coming in the mail every so often--they helped you also. You've become quite the assistant doctor. If your mother had had her way you'd be learning other skills so you could impress people in London's marriage mart. But that sort of life never tempted you, did it?"
"Never. It seems such a gigantic waste of time spending one's days changing gowns or buying new ones to be able to outshine some other debutante at a ball. I'd much rather learn medicine and do some good with my life as my father has. He is a very learned man."
"Most people think you're just as smart already." Mrs. Peterson nodded her head and took another noisy sip from her cup.
"Thanks, Mrs. P, it's nice of you to say even if I don't deserve such praise. I'm glad to know the Captain is not bleeding. Being sick with pneumonia is bad enough. Excuse me, Mrs. P. I'll wash up now and go to the sick room before the doctor wonders where his helper has gone. He must have heard me come home."
She brushed cookie crumbs from her blouse and skirt, carefully washed her hands and then walked through the house to the sickroom. She joined her father at the bedside of a pale, well-proportioned young man lying unconscious in the bed.
Dr. Moreson was a tall, spare individual with slightly graying dark hair worn a little long. His hazel eyes radiated kindness and competence. Antonia noted he needed a shave but knew his patients would not care. They had told her many times what they remembered most about him were his gentle, warm hands.
"What do we have, father?" Antonia asked. "How can I help?"
She spoke softly in case the man was only sleeping, but Antonia thought he looked quite ill. She looked at him with curiosity. Troop ships and frigates setting sail for the Peninsula from London up the Thames to the sea had become common sights these days, even though the news from Russia made it seem as if Napoleon might soon be defeated. What was not common was for a troop ship to stop en route to offload a sick soldier.
"The Captain's worst enemy right now is fever, Antonia," Dr. Moreson sighed. "If we could bring it down he would have a fighting chance. It looks like pneumonia, but something about his condition gives me the feeling something more is involved. Pneumonia with complications in other words. Joe Severson, the ship's doctor, thought so too. That's part of the reason why he insisted on off loading our friend here and insisted on me handling his case." Dr. Moreson rubbed his face absentmindedly. "We'd talked about pneumonia a few months back and he likely remembered I was up on it. So is he, but he didn't want to take the chance of infecting the whole crew. And he didn't want the Captain's death to occur on board ship. It would be a bad omen for the troops."
Antonia noticed her father looking at her pensively. He knew she didn't take the idea of death well. It always seemed like defeat, she thought. She looked intently at the patient, trying to see why both doctors sensed fatal complications. Her papa was not one to give up easily or one who took the easy route when the hard way might work. "He's a goner?" she asked bluntly.
"I'm afraid so, Toni. This man needs some sort of miracle and the last I looked miracles were not in my bag."
Antonia hated it when people talked that way, even when her father was the one speaking. She looked at the patient and thought to herself how much life this man might have yet to live, and wondered how many people he'd touched with his life. She suddenly realized she was becoming angry, enraged at the fate that led this young man here to her very own house in order to die. Die? Not if she could help it! She turned to remonstrate with her father when a loud noise intervened. It was a frantic knocking at their front door.
I'll go see who it is," Dr. Moreson said. It's becoming one of those days. Keep him covered, Antonia, but mind his fever; continue to bathe his head and chest with the lavender water to bring down his temperature." Over his shoulder as he left the room, he said, "And see if you can get him to swallow some of the willowbark tea."
Thrilled at being left in charge, even temporarily, Antonia Moreson began soaking a cloth in a bowl of lavender water and then applying the damp cloth to the Captain's forehead. When the fever dried the cloth she put it back in the bowl and started the process again. She once again wished fervently that this long war against Napoleon would be soon over. Since the French armies under Napoleon were being soundly defeated in Russia, there was some hope for a new alliance against him, which would spell the end of his tenure as the land-hungry emperor of the French. She wrung out her cloth, dipped it again in the lavender water, and wondered if this man lying before her on the bed would live long enough to see the peace. Her father didn't sound as if he anticipated his living through the night! If he did live, however, this Captain Quentin would rejoin his men when he recovered. He'd face other risks, even death again.
Antonia sighed over her gloomy thoughts and bestirred herself. Her job was to assist his recovery, not moon over his possible death, even if it might be probable. In the meantime, he was her patient. Merely saying the words "my patient" in her mind made her feel very professional. She sighed, mentally dedicating herself again to attaining a goal seemingly impossible for a female--a medical degree.
She wanted to help this man back to health, but it was going to take great effort on her part. He was really sick. His respiratory infection was making his breathing shallow and raspy, and his skin hot to the touch. But drat it, a fever didn't mean a hopeless condition! Despite her father's pessimism about his chances, Antonia determined to help him recover if she could.
Captain Quentin did not seem able to assist her in this. All she'd been able to do was to coax him to swallow some of the willowbark tea by dribbling it into his mouth and then massaging his throat until he swallowed. So far she had managed two teaspoons. It was a very slow process and sometimes the tea dribbled down his chin instead of down his throat. She grimaced as she wiped yet another small rivulet from his chin, then again turned her attention to the task of running a cooling cloth over his fevered brow until her father returned from dealing with whomever had come to the front door.
Standing back from the patient, Antonia considered the man. Even flushed with fever and obviously not at his best, he was, she thought, an attractive man--in fact, one of the handsomest men she had ever seen. Antonia was not familiar with a great many males, but he certainly seemed attractive to her, despite his appalling condition. Even pale and unconscious, it still wasn't difficult to imagine him healthy and robust. Something about him, even in a coma, hinted at an underlying masculine strength. Mayhap it was his wide shoulders. It was no problem imagining him upright and healthy. Every maiden's dream, she chuckled to herself. His nightshirt was open to facilitate cooling, and she marveled at the sea of dark hair covering his chest. She extended her hand to feel his heartbeat and his chest felt like a thicket. His heart beat regularly and firmly, as though to deny his vulnerability. He was still much too warm. She quickly wrung out her cloth and prepared to wipe his face again.
A sound caused her to raise her eyes. Her father was coming back into the room, and she guessed by the expression on his face that some new medical emergency would cause her to be sent away to take care of the problem, especially if a woman's confinement was not going well. Antonia had become something of an expert midwife and consultant on female health problems during her months of assisting her father. He insisted she gain a general experience involving both sexes, but he could see no harm in letting the ladies consult with her rather than him if this made them more comfortable.
However, he surprised her. He was the one preparing to leave, because it was something well beyond her present capacity to handle. Some farmer had fallen backward while holding his sharp saw and her father's skills were desperately necessary in order to save his hand. Since he could do little for Captain Quentin unless a miracle occurred, it made sense for him to take care of the farmer, leaving the Captain in Antonia's care. Encouraging her to continue her efforts with the tea and the cool cloths, Dr. Moreson left the room and a few minutes later she heard him leave the house.
She didn't worry about being alone in a room with a man because this had often happened before. It would not surprise anyone in the rural area around Frensham where everyone knew how often she helped her father. Realizing it would be some hours before her father returned, Antonia, her mind still on her patient, hurried across the hallway to collect her book. When she returned she quickly checked on the Captain's condition. Did his breathing seem less strained than before or was she merely wishing it so? She checked his temperature again with her hand on his forehead. No real change there, she thought, but mayhap it had gone down a bit. She picked up the wet cloth and began bathing his face and upper chest again, stopping every few minutes to try another spoon of willowbark tea. She was able to coax almost three teaspoonsful down and was quite encouraged.
Picking up the book she had been reading, she sat down and relaxed a bit, even while listening to the Captain breathe. Every so often, she helped him swallow a bit more willowbark tea and cooled his forehead, neck, and chest with the lavender water. His fever definitely seemed to be lessening and Antonia felt as if she'd accomplished something worthwhile.
The house had become very quiet in the past hour except for noises from the kitchen. Her father must have asked Mrs. P. to stay the night to keep her company. This was gratifying because it meant someone to talk to and the possibility of getting fed. Sure enough, Mrs. Peterson came to the door with a bowl of the stew she'd fixed along with a slice of buttered bread. Antonia ate it all with pleasure. When Mrs. Peterson asked if she'd like more, she agreed enthusiastically.
Later, the house became very quiet when Mrs. Peterson retired for the night. It seemed as if she and her patient were alone in the world. Her only other company now was their ginger cat who'd strolled into the patient's room. He promptly leapt into her lap, startling her and knocking her book aside. She laughed and stroked the beast who began purring noisily.
The Captain's breathing grew louder every once in a while and pulled her eyes from the cat. She watched the rise and fall of her patient's chest, noting his loud breathing occurred when he was struggling for breath. It only happened every five minutes or so, otherwise his breathing appeared normal.
Watching him breathe, the sense of a struggle for his survival grew more intense. It was much more than demonstrating that her father could be wrong or the fallible nature of the ship's doctor's prognosis. It was more that in the quiet hours of the night her soul felt as though it meshed with his; his fight for life became Antonia's. She cheerfully added her strength to his and willed him health. It was exhausting. It was much more personal and much more real than the story she'd been reading. She looked disgustedly at her book on the floor. The heroine was a dunce; walking into traps a blind idiot should see; naively trusting out-and-out rotters who had nice smiles; giggling inappropriately and at all the wrong times; and blithely putting herself into dangerous situations with no sense of peril. She sighed and decided she was insufficiently romantic. Too much time spent with her pragmatic father to ever trust in fanciful wishes; and too much time treating the sick to believe nothing bad could happen to a person.
She stood up again, washed her hands, looked down at her patient, and felt his forehead. He was still too warm, so she bathed his face again and wrung out the cloth. He thrashed about and kicked off her carefully positioned sheet. She stood up to pull the sheet over him, but while it was disturbed she thought she might as well bathe his chest again. After she repeatedly applied the water she let the air cool him. Then she reached for the sheet to bring it back up to his neck. For no reason she could determine, her hand did not move. She faced a strong temptation to pull the sheet down the other way. Even if he wasn't wearing a nightshirt, she had seen men naked before. What was her problem? She'd never been alone with an unconscious male in her charge before, perhaps that was it. She could pull down the sheet even further and see if he'd pushed up his nightshirt. She could look to her heart's content. No one would know she'd peeked. Was this the nature of temptation? No one would ever know? Nonsense! She would and this was sufficient. She pulled the sheet back to his neck.
She sighed; content with her decision but woman enough to sigh over the fact that this was a very handsome specimen of manhood. To get her mind off his attractions, she thought about the small tattoo she'd noted on his shoulder: semper paratus. For what or for whom was he always prepared she wondered. She traced her fingers over the tattoo. Always prepared seemed to sum up this compact, muscular but weakened soldier. Prepared to fight, perchance prepared to love? Just dreaming about it made her breathe faster. Would that his would become easier. She felt her anger at his helplessness return.
Taking refuge in medical action, Antonia refilled the cup with the medicinal tea and got the Captain to swallow a few more spoonsful of the stuff. She sat back down in her chair, feeling much more the medical professional than she'd felt a few minutes before. The danger had passed. Just knowing she had almost violated her patient's privacy for silly reasons of curiosity embarrassed her. She resolved to read novels a bit more closely than she had up to now to see if the characters' temptations were similar to her own. If so, she'd try to be more understanding.
She sat back in her chair and relaxed, closed her eyes, tried to slow her breathing and think about something else. She thought back over her last conversation with her father about medical school. She knew it was impossible for a female to attend medical school, but for some reason, she didn't think the prohibition applied to her. Odd, she thought, how we think customs or laws are meant to restrain others, never ourselves. Dr. Moreson had responded peculiarly the last time they'd talked. He'd acted as if it might be possible for her to attend his alma mater, the medical school at the University of Edinburgh. He'd said things were changing very rapidly in the sciences there. Many people were more open to change than before.
When she'd asked why this was happening now, he'd responded that the new theories of evolution were infecting scientific thought with republicanism, with ideas about the irrelevancy of the autocracy, how things developed from the bottom up rather than the top down. Antonia recalled being shocked, even though it might mean gaining her heart's desire--a medical degree.
"What does this mean?" she had asked. "If all hierarchies are said to be unnatural, what of the pecking order of animals, which occurs because of strength rather than an autocracy?"
This was precisely the point, her father had answered. The new middle class, pushing against the Tory-dominated aristocracy based on birth and privilege, claimed merit as the only basis for advancement and wealth. This meritocracy, they argued, did away with privilege and all the trappings of the old class structure.
"You mean like the French Revolution a few years ago, when the lower classes rose up to destroy the aristocracy?"
"Not at all," Dr. Moreson had responded. "What these people have in mind is reform rather than revolution, and mayhap more effective because it's not violent. Reforms permitting anyone of merit to rise to his or her highest potential were being suggested, and these, interestingly enough, might also include equal rights for women as Wollstonecraft had suggested."
"Does this mean I might be able to attend medical school?" Antonia asked hopefully.
"I don't really know how soon it might happen," Dr. Moreson had reflected, "but clearly there is a struggle going on right now between those who maintain the old order and those who want to release it from any constraint but merit. Some on the new side are so radical they sound like Jacobins calling for an English guillotine. Others of the new group are simply much more liberal than their Tory counterparts. Nonetheless, if the new liberals gain control of admissions to the medical school, my dear, the idea of a Dr. Antonia Moreson may be possible. We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, you can continue to assist me and learn as much or more than any apprentice would. Also, my old classmate at the Medical School said my assistant, A. Moreson, could continue to take medical school courses by mail. At least for a while. He thinks it's because I can't spare you, but really I'm waiting until I feel a female has a chance of being admitted. How does this sound to you?"
Antonia remembered being ecstatic and she had devoted herself even more fervently to her work. Thinking about it she fell asleep in her chair, and soft breathing soon indicated no one in the room was awake. Deep in her head Antonia dreamed she was at a ball wearing a beautiful, flowing gown of yellow silk. Her patient was recovered and asked her for a dance. She sighed in pleasure as she and her handsome Captain went down a country-dance, smiling at each other when they came together. Whoever else was at the ball was unclear--'twas a blur. Then they were waltzing, close in each other's arms, spinning and circling round and round the room. She smiled and felt herself lean back into his arm behind her as they spun through the room.
The night passed quietly, save for the occasional raspiness from the Captain and intermittent soft breathing sounds from her chair. Darkness gradually gave way to limited light.
Suddenly the Captain started groaning, loudly. Antonia quickly came awake and saw her patient in trouble! He was wildly thrashing from side to side, destroying her carefully made bed again, and threatening to overturn the bedside table. She quickly rose and went to him, speaking softly, as if to a child or a fractious horse, and her voice began to calm him as his breathing became more even. She felt his forehead and chest and decided his temperature was definitely lowering. She sat down again; realizing her own breathing was more rapid than his was. This serenity didn't last long, however. It seemed she'd no sooner sat back and shut her eyes again, and he was off once more, shouting commands and warnings to his nonexistent troops. He thought he was back on the Peninsula instead of safe in a bed in rural Kent. Antonia reached for the bottle of laudanum and moved to the bed.
"Forward, men, follow me. Watch the left flank, there's a spot for ambush, oh damme! There they come fellows, firm up the squares! Oh my God, the blood, push them back men, good job fellows, oh Davis not you too! Damn this bloody war!"
Sobbing followed, and he began to shake. "Oh, Margaret," he moaned, "I can't stand it anymore." He grabbed Antonia's arm, causing her to drop the opiate. "Please stop the shooting, Margaret, please stop it, it's making my head hurt. Margaret, make them stop!"
His voice was panicky and Antonia put her arm under his neck to cradle his head while she spoke soft soothing words into his ear, reaching with her foot for the medicine bottle under the bed
"Margaret, I'm so happy you are here. Keep me warm, Margaret, I'm so cold."
Antonia didn't know who Margaret was, but it seemed wise to pretend for a bit to see if she could help him quiet down enough so she could let him go and retrieve the laudanum she'd located with her foot. Still speaking softly, Antonia ran her hand over his forehead, gently brushing back his hair as she raised herself up a bit to ease her back. Thinking she was pulling away, he reached up and clasped her around her shoulders, pulling her over on top of him. "Oh Margaret you feel so good, smell so good," he said as he began to nuzzle her cheek and neck. Antonia tried to pull away but his arms were too heavy across her shoulders.
"Captain Quentin, Captain, please let me go. You cannot do this, it's ... it's highly improper." She could hear her own voice weakening and so soft she could hardly hear it herself, when suddenly his eyes opened. Just inches from his face, she gazed so deeply into eyes of sapphire blue it drove all thought out of her head. She forgot to breathe. Time seemed suspended in their locked gaze.
Somewhere, a door banged in the recesses of the house and it broke the spell. The Captain fell back unconscious again and Antonia got off of him and stood up, not sure of what had occurred. She straightened up, took a deep breath, and eased her cramped muscles as a voice came from the doorway.
"Is everything all right, Antonia? I thought I heard voices." It was Mrs. Peterson! It must be morning!
"Yes, Mrs. P., all is well," she said, fighting to keep her breathing normal. "The Captain had a bad dream and I was quieting him down. Overall, however, I think he is improving. Would you make him some fresh willowbark tea?"
"Sure can," Mrs. Peterson responded, straightening a pin in her hair. "Then shall I watch the patient while you get changed? You look wrinkled. Did you sleep a bit in the chair?"
"I did indeed, Mrs. P. I must look a fright," Antonia agreed. As Mrs. Peterson headed for the kitchen, Antonia sat down to regain her composure, looking up at the unconscious soldier now lying so quietly compared to how loud and how strong he'd been just a few minutes before. If Mrs. Peterson had been two minutes earlier? She blushed from head to toe. It did not bear thinking of.
When Mrs. Peterson relieved her, Antonia went to her room to change clothes, thinking she'd come right back to care for the Captain. But it didn't happen. As Robert Burns put it, planned things sometimes go gangly. Her father returned and was surprised at the Captain's rebounding condition. He took over his care, and Antonia was kept busy in the stillroom making medicines, and then tending those in her father's practice who preferred a woman's understanding. She knew from Mrs. Peterson's gossip that the Captain had recovered full consciousness and was on the mend. After a day or so of pretended non-interest, she finally cornered her father to ask how Captain Quentin was doing. He laughed and said the Captain was already gone. He had forgotten to mention it to her. She must have given inspired nursing that first night, he said, because the Captain began to improve the very next day.
The Captain had improved so much he placed the patient in the care of another physician who was on his way to Dover. He could keep an eye on the Captain as they traveled and the Captain could rejoin his regiment sooner. Dr. Moreson said the Captain had become as irritable as a recovering bear. Kept demanding his Margaret. Did she know who Margaret was? No? Neither did he. Captain Quentin would recover faster, Dr. Moreson thought, resting on the voyage to the Continent than he would resting in rural Kent.
Antonia sighed, wishing she could be his Margaret again. She also wished she had had more time to care for him. But sometimes fate poked a stick into whatever fine plans one made. Some you lost to disease and death, others you lost because they recovered and resumed their lives. Even if this was a physician's lot, she still wanted to become one like her father. More than anything else in the world. Best to forget the Captain, she told herself, and get on with her day. It wasn't easy to forget, though. She never did, not really. But she did get on with things. What else was she to do?