“Pretty as a peach,” drawled a deep voice above the burble of the creek.
Mabel glanced over her shoulder. Sunlight through the elm trees outlined a lanky man wearing a limp-brimmed hat, plaid shirt, and tattered pants. A long-eared hound panted beside him. The man couldn’t possibly be speaking to her, but no one else occupied the mountain laurel grove encircling the spring.
The current pulled the Erlenmeyer flask from her hand and floated it out of reach. “Quick! Before it breaks. Do you have anything—”
The mountain man carried a firearm.
Mabel held out her hand while watching the container bob in a circle. “I can reach it with your gun.”
He stepped backwards, which, given the length of his legs, put him out of range. “Warrenton House sells bottled water.”
Stubborn hillbilly. She worked her way downstream, estimating the trajectory of the container. If it didn’t crash against the rocks — “I must collect my own sample.” Here it comes. “It’s the only way to ensure—” Just a bit closer. “For scientific integrity, one must-”
“Those rocks slippery as deer guts.”
“Your warning is duly noted.” Mabel stepped over a cluster of yellow flowers, found a flat spot of moss beside the creek,
and knelt. The rotten-egg smell of sulphur tweaked her nose.
“So who you fetchin’ samples for?” “President Theodore Roosevelt.”
He chuckled. “Suppose the asylum’s
missing you ‘bout now?”
The flask floated into Mabel’s hand and
she emptied it. Each sample must be taken at the mouth of the spring, to prevent contamination by organisms and minerals from the creek. “You’ve not heard of the National Conservation Commission?” In these backwoods? Of course not.
“Course.” He, or possibly the dog, made a snorting noise. “You can’t tell me the president sent you to steal this here water.“
“God made the springs. The water belongs to His people.”
“Hotel burned down seven years ago.” He nodded toward the bare ridge behind them. “Case you didn’t notice.”
“In case you didn’t notice, plenty of people still drink this water.” Mabel waved her arms. This bumpkin must have noticed the white brick cottages strung like decorative edging on the bowl of the valley. “If Mr. Wade Hampton Alexander truly cared about improving his customers’ health, he wouldn’t mind having his water tested.”
“What makes you so sure it hasn’t been tested?”
“By a scientific laboratory? I think not.” She marched upstream to the waist-high opening in the hillside.
“You think not? I’m a-guessing you think too much.”
“Can anyone think too much?” One hand clutching the capstone, Mabel stretched toward the bubbling which marked the spring’s outlet. “We must all, to be worthy of this new century, think as much as—” The flagstone beneath her feet tilted. The pool rose up to meet her face.
“Whoa!” The hillbilly yelled and his dog added an urgent “Woof!”
The water was shallow, no surprise given the low flow of the springs, but the bottom was soft. Her hand sank into malodorous mire up to her elbow. Muck oozed through her riding skirt and shirtwaist, beneath her corset, vest, and drawers. Mabel’s thermometer had measured this spring at 54.7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it felt much colder.
As cold as the mud puddle in the schoolyard, where she landed after breaking the swing. The children laughed and called her a cow in a china shop. Clumsy colossal cow—
Large hands grabbed her by the waist and pulled her to the paving stones. “You all right?”
Mud covered her from shirtwaist to shoes. It would brush off when it dried – she hoped. “No! I’ve lost the flask again.”
The hillbilly stepped into the creek, retrieved the flask and her hat, then slapped them into her hand. “You about drownded!”
“Drown in two inches of water? Hardly. I am a competent swimmer.” And competent speaker of English. Drownded, indeed.
“But not real handy at filling bottles.”
Weighted clothing fought Mabel’s effort to stand. The air had been balmy earlier, but now a brisk wind blew down the mountain. She shivered.
He made a noise halfway between a sigh and a groan. “Best get you inside.”
Let this strange man escort her to some hillbilly cave? Highly improper. Besides, she had research to conduct. Mabel stepped back. A sharp pain shot up from her foot and her ankle gave way. She tipped backward toward the grotto.
“Don’t suppose hitting your head on stone would knock a lick of sense into you.” The man steadied her with a hand to her elbow. “’Sides, only one rescue a day.”
In the city, Mabel would have to give him the cut and demand he unhand her immediately. But cutting the one who had come to her aid seemed ungrateful and hopping back to civilization was impractical.
“Thank you very kindly.”
“Seems you twisted your ankle falling in.” Was he looking at her ankle? If it didn’t
hurt so badly, she’d muster a bit of outrage. “I should empty my shoes and see what’s wrong.”
“Don’t be taking your shoe off until your foot’s propped up, lest it swell.” He pulled her arm, the drier of the two, across his broad shoulders and supported her weight, an achievement considering her size.
“I don’t have time to sit around.” Every step made a squishing sound. Her leg throbbed. “If you’ll help me to my horse…”
“Old Applejack? He dragged his cart up to the stable, snacking on pansies along the way. That’s how we knew to look for you.” The man smelled clean, like almond soap.
Water burbled from a jumble of boulders beside the creek. “Oh, another spring. I should test that one, too.”
“Purt near same as the first.” This hillbilly might be content with imprecision, but Mabel believed in exact measurements.
“Wait – my satchel?” Losing her testing equipment would bring her research to an abrupt end.
“On my other shoulder.”
They stepped out of the glade. A gazebo, terraces, and plantings gave a glimpse of the resort Fauquier White Sulphur Springs used
to be. The mountain man headed up the hill toward the buildings.
“I’m not dressed for any resort.” Even when she wasn’t muddy and smelling like a rotten egg. She stole a glimpse of him. And neither was he. Although he was clean- shaven. With an elegant jaw line.
“No putting on airs around here.” Cobalt blue eyes twinkled.
A elderly fellow on a second floor porch waved his telescope and called out, “I see you caught the invader, general. Well done.”
Mabel couldn’t think of anyone less likely to make the rank of general, but the mountain man returned his salute.
A pair of elderly ladies stared from rocking chairs. Young couples paused their tennis and croquet games to gawk. Readers in hammocks and Adirondack chairs peered over their books. So much for being unobtrusive.
The hillbilly led her to Warrenton House and opened the door.
“No. I’m dripping and—”
The dog’s toenails clicked on the lobby floor. The desk clerk’s eyes widened, but he didn’t evict them.
The mountain man handed over his gun. “Clayton, what’s open on a first floor?
“Good. That’s close to the baths. Send the doctor and Selina.” He glanced down at her. “How are you holding up?”
In agony. “If you’ll direct me to the horse, I’ll be on my way.”
“Surefooted as a three-legged pig on greased glass. Can’t hitch a horse to a tree. Wet and shivering.” He had noticed. How annoying. “In no shape to traipse these hills on your lonesome.”
“I’ve been working alone all week without incident.”
“All week? Then you’re due for a day off.” One arm under her knees, the other around her waist, he scooped her up, and carried her out the door and down the flagstone path.
“Put me down,” she said because it was good form, but she rather hoped he didn’t. Mabel hadn’t been scooped up since… Well, Mother had picked her up when she injured her knee at age four, but no one dared try since. How encouraging to discover she wasn’t such a giantess after all. And what a glorious view of this man’s profile. No, none of that. She must keep her wits about her. What were they discussing? “There are eighty-two springs in Virginia and I intend to sample them all.”
“Is that what Roosevelt asked, Lewis?”
“Lewis is my father. Wait—” President Roosevelt’s letter to her father wasn’t in her satchel. It was in her— “You went through my suitcase?” Which contained her underwear. Embarrassment boiled over into outrage. “The nerve!”
They approached a low building. A row of doors opened onto a veranda.
“Does your papa know you’re wandering the mountains by yourself?”
“I’m not wandering. I have a well- organized itinerary.”
“Which your papa agreed to?”
“Well, he’s up in the Hudson Bay, researching icebergs.”
“Leaving you to run amok over the hills of Virginia.”
“I’m twenty-four years old and a college graduate. Hardly in need of supervision.”
His eyebrows raised and he gave her a long look. If he’d intended to reprimand, the effect was spoiled when he grinned. “Hardly,” he repeated.
A heavyset man carrying a black Gladstone bag hurried past them and opened door forty-seven. Evening sun through the muslin curtains showed the monastic simplicity of the room: a pine dresser, chair, headboard, and white walls.
Her rescuer set her on the chair, as gently as if she was glass, then left her satchel on the dresser. “Doc Daly, this here is the daughter of one Lewis Easterly. Thought she was on a mission for President Roosevelt even before she hit her head falling into the spring.”
“Ignore him.” Mabel put the flask on the nightstand and extended her hand to the physician. “Mabel Easterly. My head is fine. My ankle, however, is a bit painful.” Incredibly painful, to tell the truth.
An older woman bustled in with a stack of linens. A fringe of steel grey curls escaped from her blue and white checked kerchief. She swatted the hillbilly. “Get along, now. Doc can’t do his business, nor can I get this here lady into dry clothes with you hanging about.” She nodded at Mabel. “I’m Selina.”
“Yes’m.” The hillbilly touched his hat and closed the door behind him.
“Oh. I should have thanked him for helping me, but I didn’t catch his name.”
The doctor’s thick mustache twitched.
Selina cocked her head and smiled. “That there’s Wade Hampton Alexander, boss man of this here Springs.”
Wade yanked off his hunting clothes, damp from holding onto the delectable yet devious Miss Mabel Easterly, and dropped them on the floor of his cottage. “What’s she about?” he asked his dog.
Raleigh plopped down on Wade’s dirty laundry with a satisfied harumph.
“The Conservation Commission has to do with rivers, not little old springs.” He pulled on fresh slacks and a white shirt. “TR knows better than to send a city girl out to these woods.” Even if the woman was tall enough to look him in the eye. “The bears and mountain lions will think they’ve been served dessert, sweet as strawberry pie. Or —” Wade considered the sight of her bending over the spring, the way her skirt hugged her curves. “Or peach. No, the way she fusses, more like lemon meringue.” Her hair even waved like meringue, although it was redder than his, the color of cinnamon —
Raleigh licked his chops.
“If’n I keep talking pie, we’ll both be a- drooling.” Wade scratched the spot that made the dog’s back leg kick. “You hanker for pie, but you’re happy with kibble. Isn’t that the key to life, enjoy what God brings your way?” And Miss Mabel Easterly had come his. Wade grinned.
Wade loped across the grounds. The westering sun polished the cottages with a golden glow. Father had built most of them, managed all of them until he passed onto to his heavenly reward and Wade inherited the job. Wade had spent winter painting the library, patching slate roofs, and tinkering with plumbing. He’d repaired wiring in the Presidents’ cottage, hired and trained thirteen new staff, and scared an opossum out of the Monroe cottage. Guests were pleased, reservations were strong, and investors were talking about building a fashionable new hotel. He surely didn’t need some Yankee girl, even a glowing specimen of womanhood, casting aspersions on his spring water.
Especially with Mother’s foolish notion of letting Robert E have a turn at running the resort. As Selina said, Lord, give me strength.
Heavenly Father, help me hold onto Fauquier.
The bell rang. Raleigh followed him down to the cottage they were using as a dining hall. Wade took his place at the entrance. “Good evening, Tyler family. Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Clarke. Nice to see you again, Miss Carter.”
The elderly belle fluttered her lashes. “Wade Hampton, I’m having a bit of trouble with the window in my room. It just doesn’t want to open. Could you stop by this evening?”
“I’d be glad to. You go on and enjoy your
supper and I’ll take care of it.”
She looked him up and down with a
predatory smile, then squeezed his arm. “Oh I do so appreciate having a big strong man come to my aide.” Finally she sashayed off to her table.
Mrs. Fitzhugh stuck her head out of the kitchen and whispered, “I’ll go, lest she try to corner you again.”
“Much appreciated.” Wade stepped forward to greet the next gentleman. “Welcome back, mayor. We have fresh cream on your table.”
The mayor rubbed his ample belly. “Not this year, Wade. I’ve got to lay off the heavy stuff.” He strolled to his place.
Government folk didn’t know if they’re coming or going, they were so busy making it difficult for business and talking out of both sides of their mouths. He hoped Miss Easterly wasn’t one of those sorts.
Doc Daly dropped his medical bag by the umbrella stand. “Your patient seems all right in the head, for a woman. But her ankle’s sprained. She won’t be going anywhere for a few days.”
Wade grinned. A few days was all he needed.