Hellfire and Handbaskets by Kathryn Hills
Hellfire and Handbaskets
by Kathryn Hills
It’s hell in the ER, but Army veteran Dr. Rick Hauser wouldn’t work anywhere else. The hardened combat medic thinks he’s seen it all. Until she storms into his life.
Amelia Pennington is not just a pretty face. She’s a time-traveler. A medical student from 1895, forced to flee a madman. She’s been in trouble before, but this time everything she loves is at risk. Can a reluctant hero be the key she’s searching for?
What’s left of Hauser’s heart is still on the battlefield. Last thing he needs is to get tangled up with a mystery woman. But when he finds Amelia on the streets, he ignores the warning shots firing off in his head and takes her home. In less than twenty-four hours, she’s upended his self-protected world. Even his dog, Rocky, is in love.
Hellfire and Handbaskets
Boston, Spring 1891
Hope dimmed as Amelia Pennington faced the horde of disapproving young ladies.
“It serves you right,” the group’s leader, Jenn Pratt, decreed. “Dancing…and so soon after your father has gone to his heavenly reward.” She lifted her nose and dismissed the others with a swish of her stark white fan.
Amelia wanted to lash out, to vehemently state Albert Pennington was not her real father. Yet she held her tongue. Mother would surely lock her away for eternity if she revealed that dark family secret. Instead, she plastered on a chastened expression for the person who took it upon herself to be the moral compass for everyone in Boston. “I merely mentioned I wished to dance. Not that I would. I’m tired of sitting in corners and wearing black.” At Jenn’s stern glance, she added, “Another one of my wicked ways. As our pastor’s daughter, surely you know I have many.”
“I know nothing of the sort.” Jenn blustered, yet she looked guilty as sin. It was common knowledge Pastor Pratt shared the confidences of his congregation with his nosy wife and daughter. No doubt, they had aired much of the Pennington’s dirty laundry.
“One can only dream of being as pious as you, Miss Pratt.” Amelia fought to maintain a sincere expression as she delivered the bold-faced lie.
Jenn gasped but then succumbed to the compliment. She softened her stance. “Well…I suppose it is hard to watch the man you admire dancing with another. Perhaps Mr. Kingston is simply being polite. After all, the woman’s family did donate a large sum of money to your Widow and Orphan Fund. That is why we’re all here, is it not? Your family’s philanthropic efforts to help the poor?”
Amelia looked away. She wished someone would help her. Rescue her from this suffocating existence. She swallowed hard, feeling the ties of her station tightening around her throat again. As the only daughter in the powerful Pennington family, duty bound her at every turn. To her mother and siblings, her dead father, all of society—rich or poor. Everyone but herself. If she were a man, things would be different. She wouldn’t be forced to sit out life while others lived it.
And now Mother was ill.
Olivia Pennington, the ever-proper queen of Boston’s high society, had contracted consumption. Tuberculosis disease. The White Plague—due to the pallor of those afflicted. The dreaded illness affected the lungs and other organs as patients slowly withered away. Mother could linger for years, suffering until completely consumed. Unless someone discovered a cure. A determined doctor, a researcher. Me…if I can make it into medical school.
Everyone seemed to step back as Edward Kingston danced by with the lovely heiress from God only knew where. Probably someplace wonderful. Somewhere I shall never visit. Eddie smiled as he twirled the lucky girl around the ballroom in an impressive display of the waltz. Dear Lord, why does he have to be so unbearably handsome? And an accomplished dancer? Bloody hell. No man should possess good looks, intelligence, and prowess on the dance floor. It’s an affront to womankind. Even the cut of his coat is perfect.
Amelia couldn’t watch anymore.
Excusing herself from the group of wallflowers and spinsters manning the punch bowls, she went in search of her oldest brother. She found Robert, speaking with a group of gentlemen. All powerful industrialists like himself, with plans to transform Boston into a shining city of the twentieth century. A more enlightened century. She hoped. The men spoke of infrastructure and building projects, especially progress on the stateof-the-art transportation system, or “subway” as it was called, to run beneath the teeming city streets.
Robert cast a sympathetic glance her way when he caught her fussing with her gown’s tight sleeves. He, better than any, knew she was miserable. With a curt nod, he released her from her obligations. In grateful silence, she slipped away before anyone could see.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t care for the plight of widows and orphans. Quite the opposite. Social issues, politics, labor reform, education—she was anxious to discuss all these things, to make her own contributions to the world. Not sit in corners, serving refreshments to men who did all the important work.
As far back as Amelia could remember, she’d dreamed of becoming a doctor. Despite the horror Mother displayed at the mere mention of the idea. “Medicine is for men, not respectable women. Dear
God, Amelia, have you no shame?”
What irony if she could be the one to cure her.
The grand Mahogany staircase creaked with her steps as she went, seeking solace on the second floor. She rapped lightly on the first door to the right.
“Is it you?” A familiar voice asked from within. Samantha Pennington—her beloved sister-in-law, affectionately known as Sam to family and close friends—smiled warmly when she entered. “I figured you’d need saving. How’s the party going?”
Collapsing onto the bed, Amelia unlaced her pinching shoes and yanked them off. “Perfect, of course. Mother planned it all before getting sick. What good am I down there, anyway?”
“You’re the surrogate hostess. Your brother is counting on you.”
“Why me? Shouldn’t it be you?” Amelia sat up and huffed. “Just look at you, hiding out here in an overstuffed chair. It’s not fair. You’re excused because of an adorable child or two.”
Her gaze roamed the tranquil space. Sam…nursing her second child, Lillian, in the beautiful bedroom she shared with Robert. It was Amelia’s favorite place in the house. They’d spent hours, sharing hopes and dreams for the future. And laughter, which always came easy to them. “Where is it? You’re probably even immersed in some new book behind my back.”
“Don’t be silly. You know these two cherubs are a handful.”
Amelia made a disapproving face as she picked up a thick, leather-bound diary from the nightstand. “Your journals are filled with adventures whilst mine waste away. You’re the only woman I know who has traveled the world with a small child. An extended honeymoon, scouring Europe no less.”
Sam grinned at her. “You don’t keep journals. And the extended honeymoon was your brother’s idea. You know I don’t like ships. I would have been happy with two weeks in Niagara Falls or Manhattan.” She tenderly stroked Lillian’s small, fuzzy head. Soft brown hair— the color of a newborn fawn—pressed against her breast. “I was thinking we should visit the library soon. Maybe plan a trip we can all take?”
The idea of an excursion dangled before Amelia like a shiny charm, and a scheme began forming in her brain. Her gaze fixed on the settee where Robert Jr. or Robbie—Sam and Robert’s firstborn child—lay sleeping. The family dog, Mr. Scruffy, curled up next to him. “We should take the children to Highland House. Robbie will love the sea and all the forest creatures. A good romp in the woods and…”
The idea fell dead-away at Sam’s unyielding expression.
“I want to go home,” Amelia groaned.
Her sister-in-law looked away. “I know you miss your home. I miss it, too, but Robert decided it’s not safe for us there. He won’t risk anything happening again. Not to anyone, and I agree with him. You were young,” she reasoned. “You don’t remember how awful it was.”
“I remember being afraid. Robert had to check under my bed each night for my fear of ghosts and monsters. Yet what I remember most are the good things. Long rambles in the forest, frolicking on the beach, riding horses like a boy. Ghosts and magic rune stones? They don’t seem real anymore. Science and medicine. That’s what I consider real.”
“You saw with your own eyes,” Sam countered in disbelief.
Amelia shrugged it off. “I know you and Robert are convinced some sort of time doorway opened up.”
“It did. And it nearly tore this family apart. I still feel its energy sometimes, and I think I’m going mad.”
“But what if all the madness is gone now? We should go back.”
“You promised.” Samantha cut her off. “You swore to me you wouldn’t speak of returning to Highland House. Your brother and I have done everything to keep you safe. Warned everyone we love to stay away, hoping to spare them what we suffered.” She clutched the small stone caged in gold, which hung around her neck always. Robert wore one too, believing the powerful rune stones could keep them from becoming separated if they were ever hurled through time again. Insurance, against the unthinkable.
“Nothing has happened because we left Highland House.” Sam carried her sleeping babe to the cradle. “Not one strange incident. Proof enough your brother is correct. Hopefully, we are all free of the damn things.
With a weary smile, she changed the subject. “Tell me about your lessons. Robert says you’re enjoying the new human anatomy books. He thinks you’ll make a fine doctor someday. I believe he’s working hard to get you into medical school.”
“Don’t try to distract me, I’m sulking. Besides, I don’t want to be accepted because the Pennington name is carved into some building. I want to get there on my own merits.”
Amelia paced, trying to swallow a bitter pill of frustration and sadness. “At least you don’t simply want to talk about handbaskets and hat feathers. That’s all Mother wishes to discuss these days. I hate that bloody basket I’m forced to deliver her correspondences in.”
“I know,” Sam consoled. “It’s hard on you, tending to your mother’s wishes. Not that I’m condoning her tactics, but I understand her mother’s mind more than I once did. She worries you’re different. In a weird way, she believes she’s helping to guide you on the path of a proper lady. I’m afraid people rarely understand trailblazers. This is a harsh world for women.”
They were silent for a few moments before Amelia yielded to the inevitable. “Forgive me. My childish rant is over. It’s been a taxing day.” She forced a smile for her dear sister-in-law. “The anatomy books are wonderful. Quite enlightening.” Her expression turned mischievous as her playful nature returned. “I particularly like the chapters on male anatomy. But for heaven’s sake, how do men accomplish anything with all those bits and pieces dangling down there?”
Fits of laughter filled the room, stirring poor Robert Jr. and baby Lillian. Even Mr. Scruffy growled.
“Bits and pieces?” Sam snorted. “Are those medical terms, Doctor Pennington?”
Amelia struck a lofty pose. “Why…yes. I am to be the doctor in the family.
She moved to the window to gaze out at the gloomy landscape. Her glimmer of happiness vanished. Spring rains darkened everything to a lifeless gray. So different from her old life.
Her world had changed with the appearance of the rune stones. Infernal things. Their dark magic ruined everything.
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