Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 330 pages
Heat Level: 2
eBook Price: $.99
Print Book: $14.99
Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 330 pages
Heat Level: 2
eBook Price: $.99
Print Book: $14.99
After losing her husband and only child to the ravages of the Civil War, twenty-five-year-old Portia McAllister is drowning in grief. When she sees an ad for a live-in tutor in another town, she leaves everything behind in hopes of making a fresh start. But as a Confederate widow in a Union household, she is met with resentment from her new charge and her employer, war veteran Beau Stanford.
Despite their differences, she and Beau find common ground and the stirrings of a second chance at love—until his late wife’s cousin, Lydia, arrives with her sights set on him. Burdened with a farm on the brink of bankruptcy, Beau is tempted by Lydia’s hefty dowry, though Portia has captured his heart.In another time and another place, his choice would be easy. But love seems impossible amid the simmering chaos of Reconstruction that could boil over at any moment into an all-out battle for survival. Will Beau and Portia find their way into each other’s arms, or will they be swept away by raging forces beyond their control?
Brentwood, Tennessee — December 25, 1865
The angels are coming.
Portia lay on the frozen ground between her husband and daughter. Snow fluttered softly toward the earth in delicate flakes, each one melting on her face with a pleasant sting. She wouldn’t have to wait much longer.
The sunrise, hidden by snow-laden clouds, gradually lit the gray sky. With numb fingers, she traced her husband’s name, carved into the stoic slate. Jake McAllister, but let her hand drop to the ground before she touched that wretched date. December 16, 1864 — the day her whole world began to fall apart.
It had been a day as cold as this one when Jake returned. Portia had stood on their porch, holding Abigail, both of them wrapped in shawls and a quilt. Yet the cold had managed to seep inside, wrapping icy fingers around her heart. Her husband lay lifeless in the back of a wagon. His once-rosy face had turned ashen. Blood caked his Confederate jacket. His hands, large and strong, yet once so gentle, were posed across his belly. His fingers were stiff and claw-like, wrapped around a phantom gun. He did not look like Jake. It had to have been a mannequin with a wig the same dusty red shade of his hair.
“That’s not him,” she’d repeated to the men who’d so methodically carried him into the house. Jake would pop out from somewhere, still the jokester he had always been, and she would slap him for playing such a cruel prank. Then she would laugh with him and hold him tight because he had finally returned to her and Abby.
But the longer her eyes absorbed the wretched sight, the more evidence she had discovered. Little freckles and scars she knew so well. The pea-sized patch on his jaw where his beard never grew. The missing end of his middle finger, taken by a vicious dog when they were children.
It wasn’t a joke. Jake was dead.
She would never again feel the comfort of his arms around her, the warmth of his skin against hers, the precious nights only the two of them had shared. She would never again see him toss their giggling daughter into the air, hear his hearty laughter in return, or sit with him hand in hand on their front porch, listening to the katydids and tree frogs sing.
The December wind whistled across the ground and reminded her of the bitter truth. The only man she had ever loved now lay cold and dead under six feet of dirt.
Portia stared up at the swollen clouds rolling above the cemetery. Snow clung to her eyelashes. She blinked it away and touched Abby’s stone. Abigail E. McAllister — Born Feb 12, 1863 Died Aug 19, 1865. The ground before it had not yet settled and still formed a small dome above her daughter’s coffin. Brown winter grass and dirt peeked beneath the thickening layer of white.
Since that hot and hellish day in August, not a minute passed that she didn’t recall every moment of her baby’s death. Even now, as the cold pumped along her veins and turned her consciousness to ice, her final hours with Abby charged through her mind in vivid detail.
For weeks, Abby had deteriorated. Everything Portia had tried to feed her, typhoid had thrown back out. On that final day, her body had jerked with one spasm after another, each one more agonizing than the one before.
Portia rocked her baby and kissed her flushed, clammy cheeks. “Please, please don’t take her. You took my husband. Please don’t take my baby. I’ll do anything. Please, please, God…”
Abby’s eyes, when she could open them, begged for mercy. Within their hazel depths were supplications her two-year-old mouth couldn’t speak.
Why is this happening to me?
Why won’t you help me?
She drew in a shallow breath, and whispered her last word. “Mama.”
“I’m so sorry, Abby. Mama’s so sorry!”
Her hazel eyes, once so bright and happy and curious, turned dull as her soul fled its broken vessel, dragging memories of her short life with it.
“Did you feel that, Jake? The baby kicked!”… “Just one more push. You can do it.”… “It’s a girl!”… “Abigail Ellen McAllister — I think it has a nice ring to it, don’t you?”… “You, me, and our baby girl — we’re a family now, Po.”
And then she was gone, just like Jake.
Days and weeks had passed. Fall came and went. The sun rose and set, while the world kept spinning. Portia kept breathing somehow, kept going through the motions of life when she wanted no part of it.
Until this morning, when she woke with a plan.
The death angels had been surreptitious, plucking first Jake, then Abby from her life, ignoring her pleas to let her join them. They would not ignore her now. The burning cold had already rendered her numb through the thin barrier of her nightgown.
She no longer shivered but closed her eyes and smiled at the heavenly realms. Any time now, the angels would carry her home. On Christmas morning, no less. Every sound and sensation around her faded into peaceful silence… until she woke up, wrapped in a quilt, lying at the foot of a blazing, familiar hearth. Her best friend Ellen attacked the logs with an iron poker, sending orange sparks on a flight up the chimney.
Ellen’s husband, Frank, leaned over her. “I promised my little brother I would take care of you. I plan on keeping that promise.”
Tears stung her cold-burned cheeks. The angels would have to wait.
April 6, 1866
Worn and wrinkled from her constant handling, Portia picked up the paper and read it for the hundredth time:
Feb. 15, 1866 — Housekeeper and Tutor Needed
Apply If Interested to Mr. Beauregard Stanford
101 Stanford Lane, Lebanon, Tennessee
Frank and Ellen would be there any moment to pick up the few belongings she was taking. The surveyors were out there now, with their compasses and chains, ready to turn her land into profit. Tobacco was all the rage. Those with the means were snatching up land as quick as they could from abandoned plantations and those who needed money. Some of that money was now tucked into an envelope, ready to be given to Frank and Ellen, minus a little Portia had kept for herself. It was the least she could do for them so they could stay where they belonged. Whoever was now king of everything in Brentwood had demanded tribute from the Confederate sympathizers who wished to remain.
But she would not remain there, where memories lurked in the shadows and lingered on every surface. The emptiness — that horrible hollow ache within her chest — had not subsided since Jake and Abby died. Suicide sang a tempting song in her head every day, but she didn’t want her death hanging over Frank’s head. He had enough to worry about.
Since her conscience wouldn’t let her end her own life, and since they needed the money more than she did, she had to say goodbye.
Frank came bursting in like he always did, along with a draft of fresh spring air that helped to dispel the gloom. He was a big bear of a man who reminded Portia a lot of Jake, though Jake had been scrawny compared to his older brother. She used to joke that Frank should stop putting his mule to work when he could just strap the plow to himself to work the fields.
“I guess you’re ready,” he said in that quick, gruff way he had when he wasn’t particularly happy about something.
“Yes.” Unexpected tears welled in her eyes, even though she had promised herself they wouldn’t.
Not paying any heed to her emotional state, he spied her bag on the floor and yanked it up like it weighed nothing. Seven-year-old Jimmy stepped inside, and Frank tossed the bag to him. The boy was a spitting image of Jake at that age. He slumped under the bag’s weight but managed to drag it out to the front porch. Frank grabbed the worn-out cedar chest and tucked it under his arm. He frowned and strode out, letting the screen door slam behind him.
Ellen came in next, holding little Louise on her left hip.
“It’s not too late to change your mind, Po.” Her eyes were puffy and red and had been in that state ever since Portia made her decision. She rubbed her pregnant belly and held a crumpled handkerchief in her fist.
“We’ve already talked about this.” Portia couldn’t keep from touching her own belly, now flat and plain as though Abigail had never thrived and tumbled in it at all. She hugged a small patchwork bag to her bosom. It held nothing practical, just things that mattered only to her, like Abby’s baby spoon, some letters from Jake and one of his old shirts.
“Stay with us. We’ve got room.”
Her imminent departure proved to be much harder than she had thought. But Portia reminded herself of this past winter, when Ellen had sacrificed her own supper just to keep her fed. She had to go — she wouldn’t be a burden to them any longer.
“I can’t. I just… can’t.”
Louise started crying, too. “Pwease, Aunt Po, don’t weave us.”
“I’m sorry, baby, but I have to.” Portia swallowed past the stubborn knot in her throat and kissed Louise’s chubby wet cheek.
Portia moved toward the door before she made a trio out of their crying duet. The morning sun haloed the gravestones across the road.
She tried to sound reassuring, but her voice fell flat and dull. “Lebanon’s not that far. I’ll visit soon as I can.”
Ellen followed, taking Portia’s hand in a strong, shaky grip. The freckles on her cheeks danced along with the quivering of her chin. “But you don’t even know these people. How do you know you’ll be all right?”
“I don’t. But I need to get away. There’s been enough sadness around here, and I’ve cried about all I can cry. It doesn’t do Jake’s or Abigail’s memory justice to keep living like this.”
“What about Samuel? We can try to find him.”
“I don’t expect we’ll ever hear from my little brother again. If he’s not dead, he’s being held captive by some voodoo lady in New Orleans… according to his last letter.”
“Well, it’s true. He said he was going to marry that Creole woman and bring her back home. But he didn’t. He missed my wedding and never saw his niece. I even wrote to him when Abby died and never got an answer. What would you suppose I do? Head to New Orleans and roam the streets, calling for him? He’s either dead or… who knows? I’d rather take my chances in Lebanon.”
Ellen dabbed her eyes. “You’ve never been farther than Nashville, Po. Aren’t you scared?”
“Yes, I’m scared. But I can’t live my whole life in fear. I’m twenty-five. If I want to start living again, I need to get to it.”
She couldn’t let fear and doubt keep her here in this stagnant place between emptiness and what might have been. So she hurried to the wagon, where Frank offered a hand to help her up. Settling into the seat, she tried to ignore Ellen’s sobbing but feared her dear friend might lose her breath or drop Louise.
Portia reached down and rubbed Ellen’s cheek. “I’ll be fine. Don’t you worry about me. Take care of Frank and the children and that little one who’ll be here soon. I’ll write, I promise.”
“All right, just be careful. If they’re the least bit ornery, you get back here!” Ellen attempted a smile and cleaned Louise’s nose with a forceful swipe of her handkerchief.
Before another word could be said, Portia took the bulging envelope from her bag. She handed it to Ellen, who looked at it as though something might jump out and bite her.
“Take it,” Portia said. “It’s enough to pay your taxes and to buy some material and thread, maybe even some good coffee for a change.”
Guilt and need sparred for dominance in Ellen’s eyes, until she let out a sigh and took the envelope. She took a step back and looked toward the fields where a long-legged surveyor repositioned his tripod.
Frank climbed in the wagon and stared straight ahead. Portia didn’t have to ask to know exactly what he was thinking. Though he would never say much about it, he felt responsible for his brother’s widow and thought himself a failure because of her departure. Out of all of them, Frank’s guilt weighed on her most. After Jake left to fight, he had worked twice as hard to keep them all fed, avoiding the call to duty only because he was blind in one eye. Every day since, the worry lines on his face dug deeper, while the hair on his head turned grayer.
All because he wanted to provide for his family and to take care of his little brother’s wife, whom he loved like a sister.
He flicked the reins and the mules pulled them along. It was warm for early April, so Portia left the blanket folded up between them. The wagon rattled down the drive, but she couldn’t help herself and took one last look at the house. It wasn’t much more than an unpainted clapboard shack with sagging eaves and a crooked porch. But Jake had built it with his own two hands and it had been Portia’s whole world for the past seven years. The most joyful days of her life had happened in and around that little house. She held no hope of ever finding such joy again and forced herself to focus on the road ahead.
They passed the small family graveyard where soft green grass covered Abby’s plot. By the gate, a few crocuses poked their purple heads above the ground, blooming amidst the emerging yellow daffodils. Portia wished the lilies were in bloom so she could put some on the graves. She decided to come back this summer and do just that.
Frank broke the silence. “It ain’t right. You ought to stay with your family.”
She figured a remark like that was coming, but at least he was finally talking. “You don’t need another mouth to feed.”
“Po, you’re skinny as a rail. It ain’t like you eat much.”
Uncertain how to answer him, she watched the fence posts go by and let her mind wander to Lebanon and the life awaiting her there. She’d answered the ad, not thinking she really had a chance at the position, but a letter had returned a month later, asking her to arrive as soon as possible. The Stanfords owned a horse farm, and the lady of the house had died, leaving a ten-year-old son in need of a tutor. She’d grown up with two brothers and taught school for a while before getting married, so she knew how to handle herself around boys. Hopefully, she and her new student would take to each other all right.
Miles passed along the dusty road toward Nashville. Rectangular plots topped with damp soil and new, tender grass filled every graveyard they passed. Frank remained silent until they pulled up to an inn just inside the city at dusk. He helped her down and carried her bag as they walked inside.
“Just tell ’em we’re married, should they ask,” he whispered.
Frank paid the innkeeper, and Portia was relieved when he didn’t question their relationship. They both wore wedding rings, after all, though they were tarnished old things handed down from generations past.
He carried the bag to the room on the second floor, and Portia followed. Perching herself on the edge of the bed, she waited as he went back downstairs to retrieve the chest. She had never stayed at a hotel of any sort, but it wasn’t as exotic as she had imagined. The small room was clean and warm, practically furnished like any bedroom in a modest home.
Mr. Stanford’s business partner, Harry Franklin, was to fetch her at six in the morning to take her to Lebanon. They needed a good night’s rest, though Portia figured sleep wouldn’t come easy.
When Frank returned, he unwrapped some warm fried chicken and biscuits. The aroma set Portia’s stomach rumbling.
“You didn’t have to buy me supper,” she said, thinking none too fondly about the cold hoecakes in her bag.
“It came with the room fee. Now eat up.”
He was lying, of course, but she smiled and did as she was told.
After they ate, Frank made himself a pallet on the floor, while Portia took the bed. They both still wore the clothes they arrived in. She would have protested about sleeping in the same room, except the thought of being alone in a strange place drove her to near panic, and Frank had his pistol.
Mysti Parker is an award-winning author and shameless chocoholic. She writes romance for every reader's taste from super sweet to scandalously spicy. When she's not writing the next best-story-ever or tackling the endless mountain of laundry, she works as a freelance copywriter and editor. Mysti resides in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband, three children and too many pets.