Introducing: Escape to the Biltmore

Escape to the Biltmore

Escape to the Biltmore

Chapter One
Grand Central Train Station, New York
December 1895

A scream pierced the chill December air, freezing Dr. Richard Wellington’s descent from a hansom cab. Yards away, a woman stood in the path of runaway horses, her white scarf fluttering behind her like the wings of a frightened bird before a predator.

Dropping his bags, Richard dove for the woman, catching her up into his arms. With a bone-jarring thud, they landed in a snowbank at the edge of the busy street.

A roar of silence filled his ears. Then, with the immediacy of danger alleviated, the city noises returned—the rumble of a nearby train, the jog trot of a horse, and exclamations of the crowd surrounding them.

“Is she alive, sir?” A man with sharp eyes bent over her.

“She was that close to those horse’s hooves!” Another onlooker’s pudgy fingers and thumb were held a fraction apart to illustrate the averted tragedy.

Ignoring the anxious questions around him, Richard placed a practiced finger on the woman’s wrist and breathed a prayer of thanks. Her pulse was almost normal.

The crowd had thickened. A low murmur of expectancy crackling through the onlookers.

“She’ll be fine,” he announced to the mob. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket he began to wipe the snow from her cheeks. Wavy strands of red-gold hair had escaped from beneath her pert little hat and now cascaded against the snow, their color reminding him of autumn leaves spilling from a basket. The gentle action seemed to revive her. The woman’s eyelids fluttered and opened to reveal stunning turquoise eyes.

“I’m Dr. Richard Wellington,” he said. “You’ve taken a hard fall. Can you hear me?”

A slight frown formed on her smooth, pale forehead. “Yes, I can hear you.” The next second, panic filled her eyes and she breathed out, “The horses!”

He glanced over his shoulder. The runaway team that been pulling a mail coach was now halfway down the block where the driver had brought them to a standstill. Richard turned back to the young woman whom he judged to be not more than twenty-two or three. “It’s all right. You’re safe now.”

He remembered how she had stood motionless. “You appeared glued to the street. What happened?”

She rubbed a gloved finger against her temple, her frown deepening as she struggled to remember. “I—I looked both ways before stepping off the sidewalk and all was clear. But then, those horses appeared as if from nowhere and I couldn’t move my legs.” She gave a rueful shake of her head. “I’ve read about such instances in medical journals, but I never thought temporary paralysis could happen to me.”

His eyes narrowed at her remark. “You read medical journals?”

She drew a long breath, as though frustrated with his questions. “Yes. I read medical journals because I’m a doctor.”

A doctor? Had he heard her correctly?  His fingers probed the soft kid leather of her boots. “Any numbness or pain?”

“No.”

“Good. Any loss of movement in your arms?” He reached over and gently bent her elbow.

She raised both arms and wiggled her fingers. “All seems well. I don’t think anything is broken.” She attempted to sit up and he placed an arm around her shoulders to assist.

“I believe you have suffered a mild concussion.” He continued in the unhurried manner he used when examining a patient. “Sometimes a hard fall will bring about confusion. I want you to sit quietly for a moment while I arrange for an ambulance to take you to hospital for complete bed rest.”

She drew her brows together. “What makes you believe I have a concussion?”

Her question startled him. Unaccustomed to patients expressing skepticism in his ability to identify the nature of their illness, he drew in a long breath. “Because you seem a bit confused. Nothing to worry about though. In fact, it is quite normal for someone who has taken a hard fall.”

She shook her head. “I’m not at all confused. A bit stunned perhaps, but certainly nothing that would indicate a concussion. I believe I should stand up now and get adjusted to my surroundings.”

How could he convince her she needed additional medical supervision? Her upturned chin admitted no compromise. He had a train to catch but couldn’t just leave her unattended.  And where on earth was her chaperone? “Well, I suppose it would do no harm to get you out of this snowbank and allow you to walk around and test your strength.” He stood, motioning to the onlookers around them. “Stand back, everyone, please.” Then he stooped down, placing an arm once more around her shoulders, reaching for her gloved hand, and helped her to her feet. The bystanders sent up a cheer as the lady gained her footing.

A murmur passed among the spectators as a burly policeman arrived at the scene to survey the gathering. His horse snorted and pounded the cobbled street.

“Back away, all of ye’ now,” he shouted in a thick Irish accent to the remaining crowd. “Up on the walkway, or you’ll be standing before a judge this very day!” He blew a shrill whistle and many of the spectators scurried away like frightened mice. The officer reined his mount to a halt, his mouth below the dark mustache set in a hard line.

“Will ye be needin’ an ambulance sir?” His dark eyes swept them over, head to toe, as though memorizing their disheveled appearance for future reference.

Richard paused. His patient seemed steady on her feet and was far too stubborn to be coaxed into a hospital. “We had a close call, but everything now seems to be in good order.”

“Very well, sir.” The copper studied them a moment before the clanging bells of a fire engine caused his horse to rear. “Hyah, get up there!” He hauled hard on the reins while directing his mount toward the new disturbance, farther down the lane.

“My purse!” She looked around as though seized by panic. “It must have fallen in the street. “It contains my money and train ticket!” She stepped off the sidewalk in pursuit of her belongings.

Richard placed a hand on her shoulder. “Stay here and get your bearings. I’ll search.”

Before he had a chance to move, a young boy ran up and thrust the handbag at her. “Is this yours, ma’am?”

She clutched it with obvious relief. “Oh, yes. Thank you, my dear.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am.” The child’s engaging smile revealed two missing front teeth. She opened the beaded reticule and offered him a shiny coin. His eyes grew round. “Ah, you don’t have to pay me nothin’.” He pointed toward the sidewalk. “I saw it fly off your arm when the gentleman grabbed hold of you. Knew it couldn’t a gone too far.” He shook his head. “I didn’t do nothing much.”

“Oh, but you did,” she insisted with a smile. When he looked puzzled, she continued. “For how can a lady travel without her purse?” She placed the coin in his hand and gave an affectionate ruffle to his matted hair before turning her attention toward the station door.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Richard asked. “No dizziness or nausea?”

“I’m fine,” she interjected with haste. “How lucky for me that I left my medical bag there on the bench before crossing the street. Otherwise it would have been trampled by the horses.” She brushed some dust off its handles before picking it up.

“So, you really are a doctor? Forgive me, I misunderstood.”

Her eyes widened. “Is that why you thought I had a concussion?” Her little gloved hand waved away his chance to answer. “Don’t worry, you aren’t the first person to be shocked by my title. I’m Dr. Anna St. James, forever in your debt.”

Another long blast from the train whistle assaulted their ears.

She flinched. “No wonder the horses were frightened.”

He chuckled. “I’m inclined to agree. More than likely that’s my boarding call. I’m not comfortable leaving you alone after such a disturbing experience.” He glanced toward the imposing depot. “May I assist you back to the station before I rush off? Surely your traveling companion has missed you by now.”

She smiled, and he noticed a cute little dimple in her left cheek.

“Actually, I’m traveling alone. These are modern times, you know.”

A stray curl covered one eye, and he resisted the urge to brush it back. As though reading his thoughts, she gave it a quick shove beneath the brim of her hat. “Now that I have survived death, I shall make haste to the pharmacy.  My medical bag simply must be replenished.”

Mesmerized by this fascinating woman, he watched her walk away, stuffing more wayward strands of hair beneath her hat. A woman doctor? His head swam with this information. Why else would she be reading medical journals and carrying a medical bag? He had been certain she was suffering from a concussion. Now he felt like a fool.

Remembering how little time was left, he turned on his heels and threaded his way back through the throng of people to pay his cab fare and gather the luggage he had left on the sidewalk.

Thanking the hansom driver for overseeing his things, he paused to inhale the scent of spiced apples and roasted chestnuts peddled by street vendors nearby. New York was an exciting place during the Christmas season. For a moment, he was disappointed that he’d spent most of his visit indoors at the medical convention. There had been time for sight-seeing, but he had chosen to study.

He stepped aside as a smiling couple with a small child, carrying stacks of colorful bundles rushed to board a waiting carriage. For a second, the loneliness of bachelorhood assailed him. How delightful it would be to stay over in the great city for a few days—if only he had a companion to share it with.

He brushed the thought away while reentering the Grand Central. What was he thinking? He had no room in his life for any attachments. One romantic mistake was enough. Besides, his many patients depended on him. He had little time for self-indulgence.

His broken engagement two years earlier had taught him it was easier to stick with Bible study and the practice of medicine rather than have his heart tied to a woman who might break it. No indeed, he would not place himself in a position of revisiting that kind of pain again. A shattered limb he could repair, but a broken heart was inoperable.

Looping his way through the stream of holiday travelers, he stopped to purchase a newspaper before taking his place in the ticket line behind a gentleman with a bulging portmanteau who was demanding a parlor car. While the railway agent explained to the irate traveler that all first-class cars had been booked many weeks in advance, Richard’s mind wandered back to the lovely lady he had rescued, recalling the unusual shade of her eyes beneath the sweep of dark golden lashes, her radiant smile, bright as the sun coming out from behind a cloud. His breath hitched at the memory of her beauty. It seemed like a benediction in comparison to his present surroundings.

But heaven forbid, the woman was a doctor. Probably a suffragette too. What on earth was the world coming to? The American Medical Association’s various studies had proven that women could suffer immense damage to their mental and physical health by practicing medicine. Why would any female of good breeding take that kind of risk?

At last, the angry passenger stepped aside to speak with a railway supervisor, enabling Richard to purchase his fare home. After checking his luggage and medical bag, he hurried through the station, ticket in hand, hoping it wasn’t too late to board.

While quick-stepping his way across the wide room, he noticed a young mother holding her crying baby, pacing back and forth beneath the enormous Palladian windows flanking the entrance hall. Had he one extra moment to spare, he would have stopped to make sure the baby’s fussing was not related to some ailment. So many children died of influenza and other lung conditions during this time of the year. But this one seems fine, he assured himself, as the infant’s cries echoed throughout the terminal; such hearty wailing indicated a healthy set of lungs.

Relieved, he concluded the child was likely fighting against an afternoon nap. With a sympathetic glance in the weary mother’s direction, he made his way around her and through the knot of travelers, heading for the station platforms.

As Richard set his boot out the door, the locomotive was sputtering past the terminal, its large wheels grinding against the tracks. Determined not to spend another night in New York, he jumped off the platform and broke into a run alongside the engine as it picked up speed.

Just missing the dining car, he managed to grab a handrail and swing himself onto the lowest step of the first Pullman. Wisps of steam curled up from the rails, dampening his face while reaching for the carriage door. Out of breath, Richard entered a parlor car, almost stepping on the toes of a lady wearing a preposterous hat with long, red peacock feathers cascading over its brim.

The newspaper slid from beneath his arm and dropped directly at her feet. With a heave of her massive bosom, she placed a gloved hand over her heart. “Good heavens, sir, do watch where you’re going!”

Murmuring an apology, he scooped up the runaway paper and rushed through the Pullman and into a smoker, happy to feel the jolting floor beneath his feet. Finally, he was safe on board and heading home to the mountains and clean air of Asheville—back to the place he loved.

“Excuse me. Thank you. Pardon me,” he murmured, avoiding elbows, assorted handbags, and portmanteaus until he reached the back of the coach. Feeling as if he had endured an obstacle course, he settled in beside the window. Stretching out his legs and dropping the newspaper to his chest, he pulled his hat down just enough to shield his eyes from the glare that was coming through the window.

He was thankful his visit to New York was drawing to a close. The medical convention had been informative, but he’d learned of no earth-shattering developments and had left the conference somewhat dissatisfied.

Ironically, the high point of his entire trip had been the Dwight L. Moody crusade he’d managed to attend. The evangelist’s evening sermons did not fail to uplift his spirit, giving him a sense of inner peace.

As a physician, he knew that life could end in an instant, the body succumbing to the attack of any one of dozens of diseases. But Moody’s words of encouragement gave him a quiet sort of hope in the face of this harsh reality. People were more than just physical bodies; they were also spirits and souls. Through a personal relationship with Christ, each individual might have both the promise of eternity in heaven and a hope-filled life on earth—regardless of how much suffering was evident within the fallen world.

That thought, along with the movement of the train relaxed him enough to straighten up in his seat and read his newspaper. He really wanted to catch up on events in the outside world. The medical conference had left him with little time to think about anything other than treating patients with tuberculosis.

He was about to unfold the New York Daily News when his gaze met the turquoise-eyed beauty he had rescued only a scant half-hour earlier!

###

Anna entered the Pullman from the parlor car, the door sliding closed behind her with a heavy thud. As the clacking of the wheels gained speed, she struggled to retain her balance; her hands now full with not only the medical bag and purse, but also a small portmanteau she kept in front of her to avoid bumping into other travelers. When she spotted her rescuer, sitting near the back, their eyes met, and he rose to greet her, his expression kind and inviting.

Anna felt a tingle of excitement go through her as she remembered his strong arms sweeping her away from danger. “What luck to see you again,” she said. “When you mentioned buying your ticket, I wondered whether we might share the same train.”

He relieved her of the soft brown leather satchel, but she decided to hold on to her medical bag. “I had barely enough time to do my shopping, and then I ran all the way back to the station to board.” She caught her breath. “Thank goodness I’d already purchased my ticket, or I might have found myself having to jump aboard.” It was silly, this fluttering of nerves that caused her voice to catch. What would he think of her uneasy chatter?

A grin tugged at his mouth. “I know what you mean. I had to wait in line for my ticket and actually did jump on the train as it was pulling out of the station.” He placed her portmanteau into an overhead compartment and resettled himself across from her.

“Did you really jump the train?”

He gave a solemn nod. “I did indeed.”

“You are serious. Now I am laden with guilt and quite certain that my earlier mishap caused your tardiness.”

The sound of his rich, throaty laughter lifted her spirits.

“Not at all,” he said. “A grumpy passenger held up the ticket line by insisting on a parlor car and that caused me to be late. Can you believe that someone would demand such a luxury at the very last minute?”

She grimaced. “Goodness no, not at this time of year. But I’m delighted you made it on board, and I want to thank you again for saving my life. I hate to think what might have happened if not for you.” She placed a gloved hand on her chest, hoping to calm her racing heart.

“How are you feeling now? Taking a hard fall can create all sorts of problems, you know.”

“Don’t worry. I’m fine. But it’s a miracle we’re both still alive. And isn’t it a coincidence for two doctors to be traveling on the same train?” She wanted to test his reaction, hoping she had misunderstood the disapproving look he had given her earlier.

A careless lock of raven hair fell across his forehead and he pushed it back with a sweep of one hand, his movement unhurried and smooth. “It is quite the coincidence for two physicians to be traveling on the same train—in the same car. Unless, of course, you happened to be attending the medical convention in Manhattan, as I was.”

“Are you referring to the one sponsored by the American Medical Association?” She heard the note of disdain in her own voice.

“Yes, that was the one.”

“We most likely would have met there if I had been allowed to attend. The AMA doesn’t admit women doctors into their membership, you know. Perhaps someday they will realize women have a place in medicine.”

Silence crackled between them, like a direct challenge. The firm set of his jaw indicated he did not approve of her remark.

“Tickets, please, tickets!” The conductor cut into their exchange.

She handed over her ticket to the conductor who directed his gaze toward Dr. Wellington. “There’s plenty of room in the storage compartment for that medical bag, sir. I’ll be glad to tag it.”

He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “The bag belongs to the lady doctor. You should ask her.”

The conductor’s salt and pepper brows formed into an arch above his spectacles. “Lady doctor, eh?” He harrumphed. “Next thing you know, women will be voting and driving trains, while the men stay home and tend the babies.” He gave the tickets a sharp punch as though to emphasize his point, handing both of them to Dr. Wellington before moving on to the next passenger. His head wagged in disbelief as he continued his way down the aisle.

She shook her head. “Did you see his attitude? We’re almost in the twentieth century, yet he dares treat me as some brainless ninny. He wouldn’t return my own ticket to me—he gave it to you instead. I should file a complaint.”

He stared for a moment at the tickets he was still holding, as though wondering why she was upset. “I’m sorry if you were offended.” He handed the ticket back to her. “The train is packed you know. Perhaps the old chap was just trying to help.”

“Old chap indeed.” She tucked it away in her handbag. “He addressed only you, as though I didn’t exist.”

When seeing the confused look in his eyes, she recomposed herself. This man had saved her life. There was no need to harp on the issues of gender inequity with a stranger. She softened her voice. “Oh, never mind. I still have my bag with me. That’s all that matters, really. I should forget the entire encounter. It seldom does any good for a lady to complain.”

He inclined his head. “I’m at your disposal should you need anything further.”

She gave him a brief nod before turning to gaze out the window. As he unfurled his newspaper, her thoughts turned in synchronization with each mile rushing beneath the train’s wheels.

Rubbing her temple, she felt the stirrings of a headache. Perhaps if she ate something the pain would subside, but dinner was hours away. Remembering her recent purchase at the pharmacy, she opened her purse to retrieve a candy and discreetly popped it into her mouth.

The peppermint taste took her back to childhood, back to Saturday afternoon trips to Coney Island where she had loved riding the carousel’s hand-carved horses, with Papa standing at her side, making sure didn’t fall. She could almost hear the drummer and flute player that had provided the enchanting background music.

Removing a handkerchief from her handbag, she dabbed her eyes, glad the handsome doctor was still immersed in his newspaper. Returning the hankie to her purse, Anna’s eyes fell on the creamy-white envelope, embossed with the burgundy initials, D.V. on the seal. She turned it over to study the decorative script, and a faint scent of lilac drifted out from the linen paper as she opened it a second time.

Dear Anna,

I am ever so excited you have applied for a position at one of the many tuberculosis clinics in Asheville. Your interview for the post is in perfect timing for a visit to Biltmore. It will allow you an interval to relax beforehand and attend Uncle George’s party on Christmas Eve.

You mentioned a desperate need to get out of New York. I am so sorry for all the grief you have suffered! Be assured, you are welcome as my guest at Biltmore House for as long as you like. I have sworn off Europe this season and plan to stay put, right here in Asheville, for a very long time, but I’ll tell you more about that when you arrive.

Asheville is acclaimed as “The Paris of the South,” and I know you shall love it! There is an opera house, a ballet company, and they even have streetcars. Also, I recently discovered that Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor, actually studied here and worked under Dr. John Dickens while teaching at a boarding school for girls, owned by the Dickens family. Perhaps we can visit the establishment while you are at Biltmore.

Let me know the exact date of your arrival so that I may personally greet you at the train station. I am looking forward to spending the holidays with my very best friend!

Sincerely yours,

Daphne Vanderbilt

Anna refolded the correspondence with careful deliberation, holding on to it while observing the lampposts and villages racing by in the receding twilight. Thank goodness for her friend’s assurance of shelter until she could get back on her feet.

She was surprised to hear of Dr. Blackwell’s affiliation with the Asheville boarding school for girls. What an oddity Blackwell must have been as a medical student in 1845! The first female doctor had waged many battles to become a physician, paving the way for other women to follow. Yet even now, fifty years later, women physicians were still regarded with disdain.

The rattle of the newspaper drew her attention back to her rescuer who scanned the pages. Long, dark lashes shaded his rich brown eyes that were filled with a deep and settled peace. How disappointing it was to have seen those same eyes take on a look of surprise, and then disapproval when discovering she was a doctor. She was thankful that despite his bias, he had gone out of his way to be kind to her which was far more than most of her male colleagues had ever dared to do.

She drew a sharp breath and placed the letter back in her purse. Would her world ever unsnarl itself so that things could go right again?

Almost everything she held dear had been taken by her deceased father’s business partner, Douglas Van Demark, who had promised to reinstate her former lifestyle through marriage. Anna knew that most women in her position would have accepted his offer, but she could not bear the thought of being tied to such a greedy man. Her refusal of Van Demark’s proposal had hastened his quick foreclosure on all bank accounts, as well as her ancestral home. Suddenly, her world of bejeweled gowns, balls, and concerts had been transformed into flagrant poverty.

She pressed her lips together.  After an entire year of grieving and struggling, her plans were falling into place. If her interview in Asheville was successful, she could save enough money to travel to Denver where she hoped to practice medicine alongside her former classmate, Dr. Katherine Higgins.

The Western frontier was in dire need of doctors, and a woman physician had a much better chance of being hired. Moreover, in Colorado, women could vote in national elections and she could actually have a say in what went on in the world.

Anna returned her gaze to the scenery gliding past the window. The snowflakes, large and spirited, seemed to have no intention of settling down, nor did her restless mind.

She released a weary breath. If only Papa hadn’t borrowed so much money. He’d had some difficulties with his business, but it wasn’t like him to borrow more than he could repay. Something about Van Demark’s story didn’t add up. Had he cheated Papa out of more currency than what he owed? If that were the case, how could she ever prove it?

Disappointment rippled through her. There was no money for a private investigator or attorney. No way to prove her suspicion that something was terribly amiss. There was nothing to be gained from looking back. Somehow, she would find her way through this maze and begin a new life.