Magda was late. She hurried to the kitchen, not acknowledging Mrs. Tumova’s sour expression, and hung her coat and handbag on a peg. She hesitated before removing her scarf, then unwrapped it, knowing she couldn’t hide in it all day.
The housekeeper brought her flour-covered hands to her hips. “You’d better have a good reason for being late.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Tumova.” Magda slipped on her apron and went directly to the sink full of dishes, head and shoulders slumped.
The older woman grunted and snatched a hand towel from the counter beside her, the sudden movement making Magda flinch.
“What is it, girl?” She stepped forward, and Magda recoiled on instinct, then silently chided herself for being stupid. She focused on scrubbing the cast-iron skillet. Perhaps if she appeared busy, Mrs. Tumova would return to her own work.
But Mrs. Tumova did not. She paused, then laid a gentle hand atop Magda’s hastily moving ones.
“Stop,” she said in a softer tone. “Sit.” Magda obeyed.
Resting an elbow on the table, she cradled her forehead in her palm, listening to the housekeeper rattle cups and saucers. Magda’s head ached bitterly. She wanted nothing more than to lie down. Mrs. Tumova placed a steaming teacup on the table and eased into the chair across from her. Magda stared at the elegant china reserved solely for distinguished patients and guests, the plum-and-black floral band blurring through her tears. She blinked, and a tear tumbled down her cheek.
Mrs. Tumova cleared her throat. “Look at me.”
She raised her face. Mrs. Tumova compressed her thin lips until they were nearly white. She studied the angry cut above Magda’s left eyebrow, the blood crusting the length of it, and the red welt around her eye. Magda put the cup to her trembling lips.
Magda was almost finished with her tea before Mrs. Tumova spoke again, her voice tight. “I will ask Doctor Straka to look at that.” She left the kitchen before Magda could protest.
“Come in, Mrs. Hlavacova.” Doctor Straka gestured to the examination table beside him as he sorted items on the tray stand. Mrs. Tumova guided the young woman in by her shoulders and closed the door upon leaving. Magda wiped her clammy palms on her apron. It was very kind of the doctor to see her before his first patient, but she didn’t want to be there. The attention and his ministrations weren’t necessary. This was a small thing that would heal just as the others had.
She glanced at his desk for the book, then scanned the room when it wasn’t there. Magda hadn’t seen it in weeks; she couldn’t help but look for it whenever she entered his study.
What use do I have for a book? Magda shook her head at herself, stopping abruptly as the throbbing increased.
Magda sat on the cool leather, hands clasped in her lap. Her mind wandering to escape her predicament, she studied the doctor’s lean form as his back was turned. He hadn’t donned his white coat yet. His impeccable black suit fit well across his narrow frame; his glossy black hair lay smoothly against his head, trimmed just above the collar.
I wonder if it’s as soft as it looks? She blushed at the thought as he turned to face her.
The doctor let out a controlled breath at the sight of her injury, his nostrils flaring slightly. Magda kept her eyes on the top button of his suit jacket.
With his forefinger and thumb, he lifted her chin. Her breath caught at the intimate touch.
But it’s not intimate, stupid girl. He’s a doctor examining his patient. She focused on the fine stitching of his shirtfront.
Doctor Straka turned her head side to side as he examined the eye, then used two fingers to inspect the angry cut. They were cool against her hot skin, yet Magda winced, and he pulled back.
“Tell me what happened,” he said in the same deep, caring voice he used with his patients. Magda exhaled, and her resolve escaped with the breath she’d been holding. She slumped, covering her face with her hands. Doctor Straka rested a hand on her shoulder as she sobbed.
A gentle squeeze brought her back, and she used both hands to wipe her cheeks. “Please forgive me, Doctor.”
“There is nothing to forgive, Mrs. Hlavacova.” He returned to the tray and soaked a cotton ball with alcohol. “I assume this is your husband’s doing.”
Magda’s eyes fell to her lap.
“I will take your silence as a ‘yes.’” The doctor’s voice deepened with a hint of sadness, and Magda blinked away fresh tears. He turned back to her. “Now, this will sting, but the good news is you don’t need stitches.”
Magda closed her eyes as he ministered to her, relieved to hide in the darkness behind them. His face was close to hers, yet not near enough to feel his breath. She listened to his measured breathing, surreptitiously inhaling his scent, picking out the slightly spiced aroma of the beeswax pomade in his hair from the tang of the alcohol. The doctor took care cleaning her wound with slow, gentle strokes. After he finished, Magda heard him rattling items on the tray and grimaced at the whiff of sulfur but kept her eyes closed.
“This ointment does not have a pleasant aroma. I apologize for that. But it is a formula of my own making and quite effective at relieving swelling and pain.” As Doctor Straka smoothed the pungent salve on the wound and welt, the pain ceased immediately, replaced by a pleasant cooling sensation. “It also ensures no scarring.”
When the doctor stepped back, she opened her eyes to find him gazing at her. Magda’s heart leapt. His dark indigo eyes brimmed with compassion, accentuating the tenderness of his smile. His hair, slicked back from his forehead, had a well-defined part on the left, and his graceful beard softened the sharp angles of his cheekbones. She’d never seen a more striking man. Doctor Straka’s small smile grew under her momentary ogling. Magda’s cheeks flushed, and she pulled her gaze from his.
“I notice you have a scar on your temple.” The hard edge to his voice told Magda he no longer smiled. “Does your husband do this often?”
Magda slid from the table, and he stepped back. “Thank you, Doctor. I must get back to work now.”
“Nonsense. I am your employer, and I have yet to cause a mess.”
Her eyes flitted to his face and caught the playful curve of his mouth. She couldn’t help but grin. “They usually aren’t your messes.”
“Quite.” His shoulders relaxed. “You haven’t answered my question.”
Magda frowned, thinking back to his words. “Oh.” She stared once again at the button on his jacket. “Only when I deserve it, he says.”
Doctor Straka’s jaw tightened. “What did he hit you with? This was not done with a hand or a fist.”
“A bowl.” Vaclav had become angry when the spoonful of porridge was too hot, claiming it burnt his mouth and she’d served it that way on purpose. But Magda didn’t say this.
He clicked his tongue, closing the distance between them. Her height brought her to his chest. Magda couldn’t retreat; the table stood stationary against her backside. She fought her overwhelming desire to lean against him, to know what it felt like to be held in his arms, enveloped in the compassion radiating from him. Magda remained stock-still with no idea what to do with her hands or where to look. He was quiet for several breaths, not that she could hear them over the blood pounding in her ears.
“Would you like me to speak with him… Magda?”
Her head snapped up; his expression was earnest. “No!” The doctor backed away. “Please, Doctor Straka, that won’t be necessary. It would do me more harm than good.” She covered her mouth, wishing she hadn’t revealed so much.
His brows came together. Magda turned away from his pity, muttering another ‘thank you’ as she hurriedly left the room.
The following day, not long after the last patient had departed, Magda and Mrs. Tumova were startled by a shattering sound. A mild oath followed, provoking a rare grin from the housekeeper. She sent Magda off with the bucket and bundle of rags before the doctor called for assistance.
Magda halted after opening the door. Clear glass shards littered the floor around the long worktable that stood against the far wall. The waning sunlight glittered within the glass bits, momentarily dazzling her. She wrinkled her nose as the smell of something akin to burnt sugar reached her.
The gray book lay open on the worktable, surrounded by jars and vials of all sizes—some clear, some amber, and each labeled with tiny markings Magda couldn’t make out. The doctor closed the book, its stiff spine cracking at the movement. He laid a palm atop its oddly shriveled cover, his long fingers curving protectively around the edge. She felt no desire to pick it up, to steal it, this time.
Her eyes traveled from his hand to his face. His expression made Magda take a step back, her skin prickling.
Doctor Straka glared at her, deep grooves creasing his smooth forehead as his face darkened.
Magda blinked and his scowl was gone, replaced by a welcoming smile. The smile and soft gaze coaxed her into the room, yet embarrassment brought heat to her cheeks. Of course, Doctor Straka wouldn’t want someone like her staring at his possessions. I hope he doesn’t think me a thief. She knew well the sordid reputation her gypsy heritage carried with it. I would never have taken it. Never.
“My apologies, Mrs. Hlavacova.” His voice brought a different kind of heat to her cheeks. “My clumsiness has revealed itself. I hope you brought gloves—the thin glass is quite sharp.”
Magda skirted around the opposite side of the exam table. She knelt, picking up each bit of glass gingerly with a rag. Bending over too far made the lump on her eyebrow throb, yet the cut seemed a week old rather than just a day. She wanted to thank him, ask him what was in his miracle ointment, but her courage failed.
She felt his eyes follow her as she moved. Her hands trembled under the weight of his gaze. He wants to ensure I don’t take anything. Stupid girl.
“I’d like to examine your wound before you go.” The kindness in the doctor’s voice eased the tautness of her spine.
Magda took longer than necessary to clean up the glass, marshalling her courage. The mere thought of his fingertips on her skin made her pulse increase. She sighed inwardly. He was simply being a doctor to her. It was foolish to think he bore any feelings beyond that. Yet he’d offered to speak to her husband; that must mean something, surely. Only as a concerned employer, nothing more.
When she’d finished, Magda exhaled a deep breath and rose, turning to face the doctor. A full smile overtook his mouth, making butterflies dance in her stomach.
Once she was on the examination table, he studied the healing cut and applied a tiny amount of his sulfurous ointment. “Good,” he mumbled, nodding. “Very good.”
Magda thanked him as she met his gaze. Doctor Straka’s dark eyes explored her face with such intensity she clenched her fists to keep from looking away. Men had stared at her before, but their looks had been salacious, or filled with loathing. This man’s look warmed her, emboldened her, and roused a desire she’d never felt before.
His gaze came to rest on her parted lips. She held her breath as his hand returned to her face. His fingers trailed along her jaw, sending pleasant ripples across her skin. He bent near. Magda lifted her chin, longing to feel the touch of his lips. She inhaled his warm breath, arching her back slightly to close the gap between them. His palm cupped her cheek, and she leaned into it, letting her worries fall away. He raised his hand to her other cheek, his palms cool against her hot skin.
“You are very beautiful, Magda. You would be a prize to any man.” His voice was low, rough, and he swallowed. “Your husband is a fool.”
The longing vanished from his face as he seemed to realize the impertinence of his words and the placement of his hands. The doctor straightened and stepped back. “Forgive me.”
The rush left her light-headed, disappointment deflating her. Yet Magda stood and snatched the handle of the bucket with sweaty palms.
“I forgive you,” tumbled from her lips.
Magda darted from the room. After pulling the door closed, she stopped herself and pushed her forehead against the frame. The pressure of his palms lingered on her cheeks. Magda inhaled deep breaths through her nose, calming herself before returning to the kitchen.
Magda quickened her pace, not only from the chill but because it was Wednesday. She would see the doctor again! The weekend had seemed unreasonably long, and the days felt as if they purposefully crawled simply to torment her.
It pained Magda to not steal glances at him when he traveled the stairs. She had considered offering to take him his lunch tray, but she couldn’t risk giving Mrs. Tumova any reason to suspect that her interest had changed.
The line outside Doctor Straka’s home was forming, and she slowed her pace. A little girl, clothed in a coat she’d clearly outgrown several winters ago and a threadbare scarf, lingered at the bottom of the stoop. Magda immediately wanted to give the child her own scarf.
As Magda approached, the little girl fidgeted and lowered her face but not before she had seen the girl’s watering eyes and tear-streaked cheeks.
The child’s hand shot out from her pocket. Dirt outlined the tiny nails of her fingers, which clutched a bit of torn paper. Eyes still downcast, she waved the paper at Magda, muttering words in a language Magda didn’t know.
When Magda didn’t take the paper, the girl dropped it, turned, and ran. She continued running despite Magda’s call to wait.
“She say that is for doctor,” came the broken speech of the woman at the front of the line.
“Oh.” Magda retrieved the paper and thanked the woman.
Without unfolding it, Magda presented it to Mrs. Tumova.
“What’s this?” Mrs. Tumova took the dirty slip of paper.
“A little girl gave it to me. She said it was for the doctor.”
The housekeeper frowned at its contents. “I can’t read this. Looks to be Yiddish, I think.” She handed it back to Magda. “Doctor Straka is down already.” Mrs. Tumova thrust her chin in the direction of his study.
Magda hoped she’d hidden the joy on her face as she turned to leave the kitchen. She stopped at his door to smooth her hair and straighten her coat, to wipe her sweating palms on her sleeves. She knocked lightly on the door.
As Magda did, she halted, unsure whether she should close the door behind her or not. For Mrs. Tumova’s sake, she left it open.
“This note was left for you, Doctor.”
His eyes flitted to the open door. “Thank you, Mrs. Hlavacova.” He took the paper; his gaze made Magda’s cheeks flame.
The corners of his mouth turned down as he read the note. “Mr. Straub passed on two nights ago.”
Magda’s heart ached as she watched the gravity of the loss reflect on the doctor’s face. Although he had known the old man’s fate, it was obvious that the reality of it came as a blow.
She wanted to go to him, but she hesitated. Who was she to comfort such a man?
The doctor’s shoulders slumped, and he leaned against his desk. Magda stepped to him, unable to stop herself. Much to her surprise, he reached out and grasped her hands.
Magda did not shy away but savored the sensations the doctor’s strong hands induced. He pulled her closer, until only the distance of their joined hands separated them.
Her name fell whispered from his lips, and she peered into his face. Gone was the sadness that had been there only a second ago. Desire now burned in his eyes.
Magda’s knees threatened to give way when he bent toward her. His warm breath caressed her ear, her neck.
“I will call for assistance when the last patient has gone.”
Magda was certain her heart had stopped beating. His lips lingered against her ear but did not touch. Delicious goose bumps tightened her skin. If she turned her head only a little, their lips would meet. Magda’s ache grew deeper.
She was reluctant to break away, but she knew she had already stayed too long to deliver a note. He didn’t resist when Magda pulled her hands from his. Not meeting his gaze, she nodded and left the room on wobbly legs.