Captured by Moonlight
Prisoners to their own broken dreams…
After a daring rescue goes awry, Laine Harkness and her friend Eshana flee to the tropical south of India…and headlong into their respective pasts.
Laine takes a nursing position at a plantation in the jungle, only to discover that her former fiancé is the owner…but fun-loving Laine refuses to let Adam crush her heart like he had years ago.
Eshana, captured by her traditional uncle and forced once more into the harsh Hindu customs of mourning, doubts freedom will ever be hers again, much less the forbidden love that had begun to flower.
Amid cyclones, epidemics, and clashing faiths, will the love of the True Master give hope to these searching hearts?
Amritsar, Northern India, Late October, 1921
If the head woman from the temple looked in her direction, Laine Harkness wouldn’t give two squashed mangoes for her life, or Eshana’s. Laine could never be confused for an Indian, but with the tail end of this cotton sari covering half her face, and her brown eyes peeking over, she simply had to blend in. Still, any minute now that hatchet-faced female standing guard to the girls’ quarters could let out a pulse-freezing yell.
A sudden blare of a conch shell from within the Hindu temple stretched Laine’s nerves. She and Eshana must be mad to risk this exploit again. The principal matron at Laine’s hospital would give her a severe reprimand if she ever found out. More likely sack her. If either she or Eshana had any sense at all, they’d turn around, go back to the mission, and mind their own business.
But a line from Wordsworth, one of Adam’s favorites, ran through her mind…little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love…
Blast! She wouldn’t call what she and Eshana were about to do little, but please let it be unremembered. Unnoticed would be better still.
Nudging Eshana in the side and closing her mind to the writhing creatures in the burlap bags they carried, she hissed into Eshana’s ear. “Well off you go. You’ve got yours to dispose of, and I’ve got mine. Just please keep that guard distracted.” Laine jutted her chin toward the obese head woman waddling around in a sari stained down the front with betel juice. Every once in a while she would take her long wooden club and rap on the doors of the hovels.
Eshana hurried through the narrow alleyway toward the guardian of the temple girls, carrying a burlap sack similar to Laine’s.
On the opposite side of the bazaar, the globelike spires of a temple devoted to a Hindu goddess poked above nearby rooftops. Like a multi-tiered cake decorated in a variety of colored icings—pinks, blues, orange—the temple enticed like a sugary concoction.
But from there the loveliness ended. In these alleyways behind the temple, the pervasive scent of incense and stale flowers mixed with the reek of human misery. Girls who should still be playing with toys, and some a little older, chatted with one another. Many of the paint-chipped doors were closed, imprisoning within those adolescent girls forced into ritual marriages to a Hindu deity.
Laine flattened herself against a peeling plaster wall to watch Eshana shake out the contents of her sack at the base of a cluster of clay pots. Now she waved her hands about, talking in rapid Hindi to the older woman. Good girl, Eshana, that’s the ticket. Laine’s stomach writhed in rhythm to the creature in the bag she carried. She strengthened her grip at the top of the sack though the drawstring had been tightly pulled.
Sure enough the head woman stomped off with Eshana and began to clatter around the pots with her club, giving Laine the moment she waited for. Sixth door from the end on this side, Eshana had told her. Eshana had been visiting the inhabitants of this alley on a regular basis in an attempt to give them some sort of medical aid.
Laine hunched down at the correct threshold. A gap of five or so inches between the door and the mud floor of the girl’s hovel afforded her the needed space.
The low voice of the so-called midwife seeped out. Midwife, my eye. Nothing more than witch doctors with their foolish notions that no water should be given to those giving birth and that the mothers be kept in dark rooms with filthy concoctions of ash smeared over them. Laine shut her mind to the atrocities of how they forced a baby out if it took too long to be delivered.
She kneeled at the bottom of the closed door. With a deep swallow and shudder, she slotted the top of the sack into the gap below the door. With her other hand she eased the drawstring, loosened the bag’s opening, and jumped back to flatten against the wall.
Another shudder rippled through her as she waited. Nothing. Her gaze flitted from the ground to the flat rooftops of this rancid boil of a place. Where had the horrible, disgusting creatures gone? Oh please don’t come out at me.
At last, screams from inside room number six shattered the sleepy deadness of the afternoon.
“Snake!” one woman screeched in Hindi.
Another cry pierced the air. “A cobra!”
They tumbled from the room, and with a gulp Laine slipped inside. “They’re not poisonous. They’re not poisonous,” she repeated to bolster her flagging courage. But she had no time to worry where the rat snakes had wriggled off to.
She went still. There lay the girl.
So small for fourteen, lying on a heap of rags stained with water and blood. She peered at Laine with eyes soaked with pain. There was no time to waste. Laine picked up the girl and, cradling her in her arms, ran from the hovel. The young mother weighed no more than a ten-year-old. All skin and bones except for the mound that was a baby in her womb. The girl batted at Laine’s arm as ineffectually as a wounded bird against a tiger.
Eshana, having heard the screams, scurried away from the women who were beating the bushes, searching through the earthen pots for the harmless snakes. Eshana ran ahead to help Laine lift the girl into the closed purdah cart they had hired. As soon as the three of them were in the cart, Eshana yelled, “Drive, juldi, juldi! Hurry.”
Their Sikh driver flicked a whip, and his startled horse bolted down the cobblestoned bazaar. No one followed them as stalls full of wares, bolts of silk, fruits and vegetables, copper pots of steaming food, and a multitude of people flashed past in a blur of color.
Laine placed her fingers on the girl’s pulse. “She’s dehydrated. Feel her skin, her fingertips.” She pulled back the girl’s eyelids. “Eyes dull.”
The patient pushed Laine’s hands away and moaned.
“It’s all right now, little one.” Laine spoke in Hindi. Lifting the girl’s wrist, she planted a kiss against the weakening pulse. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
The girl’s gaze tracked from Eshana to Laine’s while the purdah cart wound through the streets to the other side of Amritsar. Her eyelids drooped and closed by the time the cart stopped outside the narrow, four-story mission close to the Jallianwalla Bagh.
Mala and Tikah thrust the front doors open and carried out a cot. Within minutes they transported the patient into the surgery where they were met with the clean smell of carbolic soap. As Eshana and Laine washed their hands, Mala hooked the girl up to a saline drip while Tikah bathed her with a warm soapy cloth allowing them to see her pallid skin beneath its applied layer of ash. Laine pinned her nursing veil to her hair.
Eshana tightened the blood pressure cuff on the patient’s arm. “Her pressure is dangerously low.”
The girl fluttered her eyes open to see the sterile clinic and instruments. With a pleading look she tried to speak. Laine brushed the girl’s hair from her forehead. “We only want to help you and your baby. Just tell me your name.”
“Chandrabha,” the girl choked out.
“All right then, I’m going to call you Chandra for short, and now I’m going to examine you. Don’t be afraid.”
Half an hour later, as the last of the afternoon sun faded, so too did Eshana’s hope. Drenched in sweat and the girl’s blood, she watched Laine step away from the examining table.
“No use, Eshana. The pelvis is too small. We have to get a doctor.”
Eshana sank her head into her hand. “There is only Dr. Kaur. He is very kind, but I do not wish to involve him.”
“If we don’t involve him she’ll die. If she does die, then we’ll need him to record her death properly.” Laine’s matter-of-fact tone matched the steadiness in her gaze. “And you and I could go to jail.”
Eshana gave a firm jut of her chin. “What of it? If Miriam still lived, she would do all she could for the life of this girl. I will go.”
Tikah glanced up from bathing the girl’s brow. “It will be well, my sister. Go, and bring the doctor. Mala and I will assist the nursing-sahiba.”
Chandra gave a weak moan. The saline had rehydrated her body so that she had gained only enough strength to communicate her pain. There was no time to lose. Eshana rushed from the room and quickly changed into a clean garment. Whipping the end of her cotton sari over her head, she raced out of the mission. Lord Yeshu, keep the temple woman from remembering my face. Do not let them come here to hurt the people of this house.
Dr. Jai Kaur’s office lay two streets away, and Eshana’s thin-soled chappals pounded the cobblestones. She bumped into several people and pushed her way through the crowded bazaar. Her chest burned as she tried to catch her breath and opened the door to his clinic.
Patients sat cross-legged or hunched down against the walls waiting, but Jai Kaur shot her a glance as she stumbled into the room.
He left the patient he had been examining behind a curtain, strode toward Eshana, and towered over her. “What is it?”
“A girl in labor. She is dying.” Eshana’s hand crept to her throat to settle her breathing.
Jai turned away to wash his hands and spoke to someone behind another curtain. “Father, I will leave you to see the rest of the patients. I must attend an emergency birthing.”
Hooks screeched along the metal rod as Jai’s father, Dr. Kaur Senior, pushed aside the curtain. Beneath his red turban, the man’s heavy-lidded gaze swept Eshana then rested on Jai. “Your responsibilities, my son, are with our own patients.” He modulated his voice low for the sake of the people filling the room.
Jai met the older man’s gaze. Like his father, in the custom of the Sikhs he had combed his un-cut black beard and rolled it beneath his chin. He had meticulously tied his royal blue turban around his head, adding several more inches to his imposing height. “Father, I have already ascertained that no one in this room is requiring emergency care. I will return as soon as this other life is out of danger. Is that not why you had me follow in your footsteps? To give aid to those who are suffering, no matter what their faith?”
The senior Dr. Kaur slashed a hand in the air. “Go then. But hurry back. It is most likely this woman is trying to save the life of another of those temple girls, who are no more than harlots. Disgusting, this Devadasi, aHindu practice that is a terrible blight on India.”
Eshana understood his Sikh revulsion for this particular Hindu custom, but felt that his distaste included her too. Jai did not waste another moment. He picked up his medical valise and strode from the clinic. She had to run to catch up with his long strides as he struck out for the mission.
Unlike her, Jai breathed normally in spite of his pace. “Is this patient a temple girl?”
“The suffering of this human being is no different than any other.”
He stopped suddenly so that she had to turn back to face him. People filed past them in the bee-hive of a bazaar. “So it is true. I can see it in your eyes. You were never meant for subterfuge, Eshana.” He picked up his pace again. “I have no qualms about helping anyone who needs my services. But you must take a care for yourself. I am worrying about you and the other women of your mission. It has been a year and a half since your founder, Miriam, died, with still no administrator to fill her place.”
She pushed her chin out in a way her beloved Miriam would have recognized. “I have written to the mission headquarters. I see no reason why they should not consider me as administrator to carry on Miriam’s work.”
Jai must have seen something in the unbending set of her neck. He softened his tone. “The mission headquarters would do wisely to place you in that role. But do you not still desire to become a physician?”
Memories of sitting with Miriam at the top of the four-story house pulled at the strings of her heart. Many times they had sat mending clothing in the evenings while the houseful of orphans and patients slept. Many nights they had discussed Eshana’s desire to become a doctor, and prayed for that. But Miriam had died. Eshana shook off the memories. “I cannot be leaving the mission to study medicine. Besides, the women of our house have learned much from Laine Harkness. And if we need a doctor you have been gracious to come to our aid.”
His eyes as black as agates grew somber. “I cannot always come, Eshana. Someone in your mission needs to gain proper medical training.”
“As I have said, I must keep the mission running.” She turned her back to him, straight as a ruler, as her mother so long ago had taught her, and renewed her steps.
His swift paces caught up to her. “What will you do, Eshana, if the Hindu priests and certain high-caste people learn of what you are doing, that this is not the first untouchable female you have taken away, but the second? Your charitable work could come under scrutiny.”
She let her gaze drop from his piercing one. Jai was right, of course. Miriam’s mission could come under scrutiny. Did she have the right to place the mission—the children—in such danger? Or worse than scrutiny, what if one night a Hindu fanatic who believed her actions showed no respect for their religion entered the house as the children slept?
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Laine could hardly wait for a soak in a hot tub. That and a decent cup of tea. She straightened up from washing her hands and arms under the tap in the surgery sink.
Her neck ached after assisting Jai Kaur in the Caesarean he had performed on Chandra. Shortly after she’d brought Chandra to the mission she’d known the baby would never take its first breath of life. Though that the mother—a child herself—lived was a miracle, the whole wretched situation bore down on Laine. She ran a hand around her neck to massage it. Unlike Eshana, she didn’t believe she could change the world. But in the face of such suffering, one simply had to do their bit.
She needed to unwind these tired muscles though if she was going to be any good to her patients at the hospital tomorrow. More likely her neck screamed from the strain of kidnapping that poor girl this afternoon. She pursed her lips together to hold back a laugh. It wasn’t the lead temple woman that had scared her. It was the terror of releasing those two snakes.
Another shiver slid like ice down her back. She hated snakes. Vile, despicable, malevolent things. She would never understand why God created them. If she ever got to Heaven she’d ask the good Lord about that. If the Lord let her through the pearly gates, which she sorely doubted. Not with her bad temper and irreverent manner of speaking. Her father had told her often enough her sauciness would bring her to a bad end. Good thing her parents had passed on and couldn’t see her father’s prediction coming true.
Jai Kaur had finished suturing the mother, while Tikah wrapped the poor little scrap of humanity in a white cloth and took the baby girl away. Laine held in a sigh. She’d learned early in The Great War to hide her pain when one of her patients died. And there’d been so many.
The doctor gave Chandra a shot of morphine for the pain she would have when she came out of her anesthetic. He sat waiting at the girl’s bedside for this to happen, tapping her cheek and rubbing her hands. Eshana stood next to him, putting the final touches to the patient’s bandages.
Laine listened to the two of them talking in low tones, and her ears perked.
Eshana had never shown the slightest interest in any man except Geoff Richards, and he filled the role of big brother in her life. She treated every other man who came to the mission simply as patients. The grown-up boys from the mission who returned home every once in a while to visit, she treated like brothers.
But today Eshana didn’t bustle about the surgery, mildly ordering the other girls about, or setting things right the way she normally would. She, who never wasted a minute of any day that could be used to aid another, stood gazing up into the doctor’s almost black eyes. Little Eshana was hanging on the words of this tall, slender Sikh as he gave instructions for the patient’s care.
And his gaze frequently returned to Eshana’s for much longer than necessary.
Laine didn’t bother to hide her grin and sent a pointed glance to Eshana.
Not surprisingly, Eshana refused to acknowledge her. But when the patient gave a small moan, simultaneously as if they were two halves of the same person, Jai and Eshana turned to the girl. A moment later doctor and devoted nurse breathed the same breath of satisfaction at the girl’s status.
Oh…my…goodness. Laine’s laughter threatened to erupt. About time someone fell in love. Certainly never again for her. Once burned was enough in that department, thank you very much. It was the life of spinsterhood for her. But really, she ought to take up something a little safer these days to help out the populace. Slipping snakes under doors and kidnapping distressed temple girls was getting a bit risky. Perhaps instead she should take up knitting.
Jai readied himself to leave and nodded in Laine’s direction. “It was good to work with you again, Matron. Although I desire to give you the same word of caution I gave to Eshana. As soon as this child is well you must return her to the temple. She is their property, and they are legally in their rights to have her back.”
Laine removed the pins that attached her nursing veil to her hair and let her hand holding the veil flop to her side. “Where of course her syphilis will flare up, and she’ll die in a few years. I thought you as a Sikh did not approve of girls from the untouchable class being used as Hindu temple prostitutes.”
“As a Sikh I abhor the caste system and the way Hindus treat those lowest in their sight. But I am speaking of the danger in which you and Eshana place yourselves. If caught, the Hindus have every right to have you prosecuted. We can only hope the British courts will give you a mere slap on the wrist for interfering, but Eshana, being an Indian woman, would be punished severely for any such crimes.”
He moved to the door of the surgery. “I beg of you….” His gaze dismissed Laine and sought Eshana’s. “I beg of you to be taking my words to heart.”
As if drawn by a magnet, Eshana went with him to the front of the house to see him out, and Laine trudged up the four flights of stairs to the room at the top. Miriam had been dead almost two years, and still the household referred to this floor as her room.
The glass-paneled doors stood open to let in the evening air. Scents from the city below invaded—spices, dust, the smoke from cooking fires carried on the breeze along with the fragrance of Miriam’s roses and lilies on the balcony. The last wash of sunset outlined the shapes of the city, the minaret of a mosque, the gopuram of a Hindu temple, and the spires and domes of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs.
Inside, a smoking lamp in the corner lit portions of the room that glowed like warm marble. Miriam’s single, rope-strung bed still took up the corner. And on a reed table next to the bed, her Bible written in Hindustani lay open where the girls gathered each morning and evening to read.
Eshana and the other young women used to be Miriam’s girls, like the rest of the inhabitants of this house—poor children or newborn girls discarded by their families, cast-off child Hindu widows like Eshana. Or like Tikah the Muslim woman whom Eshana had brought to this house during the recent trouble between England and Afghanistan. They’d all found peace for their troubled hearts in this house. Even Abby Richards had.
But not Laine. No, definitely not her.
If she hurried though, she might make it to the going-away party for Abby and Geoff. Have a few laughs, throw off this millstone hanging about her heart.
She had planned on going home to the nurses’ residence to change into party duds, but her no-nonsense tailored skirt and white shirt suited her mood better than a dancing frock. A cloudy mirror on Miriam’s armoire afforded her a glimpse of her hair caught in a roll at the back of her neck. She patted the bobbed waves she’d worked so hard to shape out of her long, straight tresses. Well, that was as good as it was going to get.
But the grin she flashed at her reflection died. There would be no one at the party tonight to look at good old Laine Harkness as if he’d swallowed the moon and it shone out of his eyes, like Dr. Jai Kaur when he looked at Eshana.
Laine slung the strap of her nursing bag over her shoulder and took the stairs down to the main floor. At each landing the sound of splashing water, the squealing laughter of children, and a few sorrowful wails at having to go to bed filled the narrow house. Tikah and Mala, assisted by the older orphans, strode through the rooms lined with cots and dealt with each tiny mite.
One little tot darted out of a room and almost made it to the stairs before Laine nabbed her. It was the little girl who’d been born shortly before Miriam had died. They’d called her that deplorably long biblical name, Hadassah. At three she was a nimble little thing and wiggled to be released, until she realized who held her. The child’s silk lashes fluttered as she laughed into Laine’s face. “Where is Cam?” she asked in Hindi.
“With his mother. I’ll be seeing him tonight.”
“I want him to come and play cricket with me.”
Tikah raced out, laughing herself, and whisked the giggling Hadassah from Laine to take her back to the room and finish preparing her for supper and bed.
No doubt Harmindar, in the kitchen with her crew of older children, had begun to cook the evening meal. Evidence of that came with the aroma of garlic, onions, and cardamom that wafted up the stairs.
Laine pushed through the doors to the surgery. Their patient slept in a room off to the side, while Eshana placed the instruments they’d used today into the autoclave for sterilization. She’d not heard Laine’s entrance. A sigh escaped from her, but the shine in her eyes seemed at variance with that laden breath. No doubt she savored the doctor’s visit.
Laine couldn’t hold back her grin. “Are you coming to the party tonight? We won’t see them for a year.”
Eshana turned to scrub the examining table. “Geoff and Abby came this morning to say their good-byes. I would have gone tonight, but I cannot be leaving the burden of such an ill patient for the younger girls.”
“What utter rot. In the last year and a half, Tikah with no official training has developed into a fine practical nurse. It’s more likely you don’t want to go because he’s entrusted Chandra to your care.”
Eshana’s lowered eyelashes were her answer.
“Oh, my dear Eshana, do take a page from Abby’s book. Fall in love. Get married and have twenty children. For my sake, please, let the man know you like him.”
Eshana’s eyes flickered wide. By her willowy shape she was as compliant as bamboo. Oh she’d bend all right, given enough pressure. But that glint of fire in her eyes proved that like a shaft of bamboo she’d snap right back, and the answering thwack would be decidedly painful for anyone who dared interfere with her charitable work.
Laine pretended to take a cautious step backward.
Eshana’s laughter tinkled like the silver anklets at her feet. “You are speaking such foolishness. Dr. Kaur is a Sikh and would never marry anyone but a Sikh. I as a follower of Yeshu could not be happy unless I married a man who also loved Yeshu. But it is God’s will for me to take care of Miriam’s mission. There will be no such marital bliss for me as our friend Abby enjoys. So please give to Geoff and Abby my love, and especially to my young princeling, Cam.”
Laine adjusted the strap of her shoulder bag. “In that regard we’re united. There’ll be no such bliss for me either.” She held the surgery door ajar and let out a laugh. “I for one never wish to go through the torture of love again.”
She left the mission and hailed a rickshaw. And if she ever did meet up again with the man who’d made her so gun-shy of romance, she’d give him a good, swift kick in the shins. It was the least he deserved.
Captured by Moonlight$4.99 – $15.99