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There is one good thing about this cold country, she thought, scratching the two little rowdies under their chins. It is too cold for snakes.

Or at least, it was at the moment.

She could only pray it would remain that way.

Chapter Two

GOPAL had come and gone, taking the tea things with him, and Maya retreated to a hammock swung between two vine-covered posts in lieu of the tree trunks that would have suspended it back home. Surrounded by scented warmth, cradled in the gently swaying hammock, she closed her eyes and listened to the play of the water in her fountain, the soft chatter of the mongooses and the parrot. This time of the afternoon, full of shared treats, they all felt sleepy and were inclined to nap. Mala had been fed late this morning, and Nisha would be fed once dusk settled, so they, too, were content to doze. Charan curled up beside her, a little soft ball with his head pillowed against her cheek and both arms wrapped around her neck, and she had actually begun to doze when Gupta reappeared, waking her.

Charan awoke, too, and scampered up to an observation post in the dead tree. “Mem sahib, you have a caller,” Gupta said, his expression one of intense satisfaction. He made a grand gesture toward the front of the house. “This will be a client, I do believe. I have taken her to the surgery office. She waits there for you.”

Oh, heavens! She quickly tilted herself out of the hammock, glad that she had at least not taken her hair down, and that the sober brown dress disguised its comfort in its severity. Primly buttoned up to the neck, waistband tightened, and cuffs twitched straight, it would pass for professional attire. With a pat to her hair, she followed Gupta inside, and hurried to the surgery itself, for it would not do to have a potential client see her enter by the same door that the client herself had used. She passed through it, wrinkling her nose a trifle at the familiar scent of carbolic, entering the office from the surgery door rather than the hall door.

This was a comfortable room, meant to be the very opposite of the kind of office that Doctor Clayton-Smythe had. The wallpaper, a warm Morris print, softened the impression given by the rows of medical texts on the wall and the plain, uncompromising desk. The woman waiting there stood up slowly. The velvet coat lying beside her, the collar of jet beads at her throat, and the abundance of maroon lace making up the ornamentation of her deep red dress was nothing at all compared to the impact of her wide, limpid blue eyes and the shining mass of her golden hair. She could have been the wife of a peer, or a successful man of business—could have been, but was not. There was something indefinable about her dress and air—or perhaps it was only Maya’s own ability to see deep past the surface of things. At any rate, there was no doubt in the young doctor’s mind that this was one of the ladies with whom Gupta had left her card this morning.

Maya extended her hand across her desk, and it was taken tentatively by the other. “I am Doctor Witherspoon,” Maya said, in a firm, but friendly tone. “Would you care to have a seat and tell me what brings you to my surgery, Miss—” she hesitated just a moment, then finished, “—Smith?” A raised eyebrow meant to convey a tacit understanding that there would be no real names used here evidently translated her meaning perfectly.

The woman released Maya’s hand, and a smile curved those knowing lips, about which there was more than a suggestion that the ruddy color was not entirely due to the hand of nature. Certainly the pure, pale complexion had nothing at all to do with nature, and very much to do with the ingestion of tiny daily doses of arsenic or lead, a dangerous practice that many professional beauties resorted to, sometimes with fatal results. “Very good,” she said, seating herself. “Miss Smith, indeed, will do as well as any other name.”

Maya seated herself and folded her hands on the top of her desk. “Does anything bring you here besides curiosity, Miss Smith?”

“Your card.” The woman slipped two fingers inside a beaded reticule and extracted the rectangle of heavy card stock. “I came to see—” She seemed for a moment at a loss for words.

“To see the horse, and perhaps try its paces?” Maya supplied, and again that winsome smile appeared. Calculated, perhaps, but this lady was a professional in every sense.

“Indeed. And I am not disappointed, although I expected to be. Too often those who advertise discretion are anything but discreet.” Miss “Smith” placed the card back in her reticule. Maya made another addition to her mental assessment; though her caller might look little more than eighteen, she was much older—in spirit and experience if not in years. “As you might assume, although I am currently in good health with no—complaints—I am in need of a personal physician. As are several of my particular—circle. We conferred over tea, my friends of the theater and I, and I was chosen to approach you.”

Aha. Candor. I, too, shall be candid. So this lady was from the theater—not in the chorus, probably not a dancer, or she might have mentioned it.

“In that case, if you will give me your medical history and any trifling troubles that might concern you, perhaps we can see if we shall suit each other.” Maya took out a sheet of foolscap and dipped a pen in the inkwell, labeled it as “Miss Smith,” and looked up attentively.

At the end of an hour, Maya had a reasonable history, along with some cautious advice for the “trifling troubles” the lady confessed to. The best advice she did not bother to give. There was no point in telling her new patient not to stay up until dawn, not to starve herself for days only to overindulge at a party or dinner engagement, and not to drink so much champagne.

I would like her to make some small changes in her diet. But not yet; I had better coat the bitter pill with sweetness. “Miss Smith, you need a rest, but I know you cannot afford to take one, at least, not until the theater season is at an end,” she advised briskly. “Failing a little excursion to a sunnier clime, you should take fresh fruit at every meal. Especially citrus or hothouse fruits.”

Miss Smith looked surprised, then calculating, and nodded. Maya had expected as much. The young woman had not gotten where she was now without being clever as well as beautiful, and it probably occurred to her that not only would the request for fruits instead of chocolates or wine cause her admirers just as much effort, and would be quite as expensive a way to show their interest, it would indicate a certain delicacy of body and mind on her part. That might, in turn, increase the attentions of those with better-lined pockets, who preferred that their mistresses be above the common touch.

“On the other hand, don’t starve yourself on thin consomme and broth,” Maya continued. “Small portions will do you more good than starving; leave off the sauces and butter, and vegetables will serve you better than breads. There is no harm at all in having very lean meat, but do avoid fat. Fat is very hard for a delicate appetite. Fish, on the other hand is excellent.”

“Lobster?” Miss Smith ventured, hopefully. “Oysters?”

To accompany all that champagne? “All very well, but avoid rich sauces. They are often used to mask shellfish that are no longer wholesome, and can you afford a month of wretchedness for the sake of a lobster bisque?” Maya asked shrewdly. “A case of food poisoning would keep you off the stage for at least that long. Miss Smith, this is advice unsolicited, but it pays one to know precisely what transpires in one’s kitchen. There are much worse things that could come from that domain than merely being cheated by the cook.”



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