7

A Southern Lady

The carriage tilted as it swung into the long, winding drive that led to Risen Glory. Kit tensed with anticipation. After three years, she was finally home.

The deep grooves that had rutted the drive for as long as she could remember had been leveled and the surface spread with fresh gravel. Weeds and undergrowth had been cut back, making the road wider than she recalled. Only the trees had resisted change. The familiar assortment of buckthorn, oak, black gum, and sycamore welcomed her. In a moment she’d be able to see the house.

But when the carriage rounded the final curve, Kit didn’t even glance that way. Something more important had caught her attention.

Beyond the gentle slope of lawn, beyond the orchard and the new outbuildings, beyond the house itself, stretching as far as her eyes could see, were the fields of Risen Glory. Fields that looked as they had before the war, with endless rows of young cotton plants stretching like green ribbons across the rich, dark soil.

She banged the roof of the carriage, startling her companion, so that she let go of the peppermint drop she’d been about to slip into her mouth and lost it in the frilly white folds of her dress.

Dorthea Pinckney Calhoun gave a shriek of alarm.

A Templeton Girl, even a rebellious one, understood that she couldn’t travel so far without a companion, let alone stay in the same house with an unmarried man. I he tact that he was her cursed stepbrother made no difference. Kit wouldn’t do anything that could give Cain an excuse to send her back, and since he didn’t want her here in the first place, he’d be looking for a reason.

It hadn’t been hard to find a penniless Southern woman anxious to return to her homeland after years of exile with a widowed Northern sister-in-law. Miss Dolly was a distant relative of Mary Cogdell, and Kit had gotten her name through a letter she received from the minister’s wife. With her tiny stature and her faded blond corkscrew curls, Miss Dolly resembled an aged china doll. Although she was well past fifty, she favored ancient gowns heavy with frills and wide skirts beneath which she never wore any fewer than eight petticoats.

Kit had already discovered she was a natural coquette, batting the lashes of her wrinkled eyelids at any man she judged to be a gentleman. And she always seemed to be in motion. Her hands in their lacy, fingerless mitts fluttered; her faded curls bobbed, her pastel sashes and antique fringes were never still. She talked of cotillions and cough remedies and a set of porcelain temple dogs that had disappeared along with her girlhood. She was sweet, harmless, and, as Kit had soon discovered, slightly mad. Unable to accept the defeat of her glorious Confederacy, Miss Dolly had permitted herself the small luxury of slipping back in time so that she could forever live in those first days of the war when hopes were high and thoughts of defeat unthinkable.

“The Yankees!” Miss Dolly exclaimed as the carriage jolted to a stop. “They’re attacking us! Oh, my… Oh, my, my…”

In the beginning, her habit of referring to events that had happened seven years before as if they were occurring that very day had been unnerving, but Kit had quickly realized Miss Dolly’s genteel madness was her way of coping with a life she hadn’t been able to control.

“Nothing like that,” Kit reassured her. “I stopped the carriage. I want to walk.”

“Oh, dear, Oh, my dear, that won’t do at all. Marauding troops are everywhere. And your complexion-“

“I’ll be fine, Miss Dolly. I’ll meet you at the house in a few minutes.”

Before her companion could protest further, Kit stepped out of the carnage and waved the driver on. As the vehicle pulled away, she climbed a grassy hillock so she could get an unrestricted view of the fields beyond the house. Lifting her veil, she shaded her eyes from the late-afternoon sun.

The plants were about six weeks old. Before long, the buds would open into creamy four-petaled flowers that would give birth to the cotton bolls. Even under her father’s efficient management, Risen Glory hadn’t looked this prosperous. The outbuildings that had been destroyed by the Yankees had been rebuilt, and a new whitewashed fence stretched around the paddock. Everything about the plantation looked well tended and prosperous.

Her gaze came to rest on the house from which she’d been exiled when she was so young. The front still bowed in a graceful arch, and the color was the same shade of warm cream that she remembered, tinted now by the rose-colored light of the fading sun.

But there were differences. The red tile roof had been repaired near the twin chimneys, the shutters and front door held a fresh coat of shiny black paint, and, even from a distance, the window glass sparkled. Compared to the lingering devastation she’d seen from the window of the train, Risen Glory was an oasis of beauty and prosperity.

The improvements should have gratified her. Instead, she felt a mixture of anger and resentment. All this had happened without her. She settled the beaded veil back over her face and headed for the house.

Dolly Calhoun waited by the carriage steps, her Cupid’s-bow mouth quivering from having been deserted just as she’d arrived at her destination. Kit gave her a reassuring smile, then stepped around the trunks to pay the driver from the last of her allowance money. As he pulled away, she took Miss Dolly’s arm and helped her up the front steps, then lifted the brass knocker.

The young maid who answered the door was new, and that deepened Kit’s resentment. She wanted to see Eli’s dear, familiar face, but the old man had died the previous winter. Cain hadn’t permitted her to return home to see him buried. Now she had new resentments to join the old, familiar ones.

The maid glanced curiously at them and then at the array of trunks and bandboxes piled on the piazza.

“I’d like to see Sophronia,” Kit said.

“Miz Sophronia’s not here.”

“When do you expect her?”

“The Conjure Woman took sick this mornin’ and Miz Sophronia went to check up on her. Don’t know when she’s comin’ back.”

“Is Major Cain here?”

“He’ll be comin’ in from the fields any minute now, but he ain’t here yet.”

Just as well, Kit thought. With any luck, they’d be settled in before he arrived. She clasped Miss Dolly gently by the arm and steered her through the doorway, past the astonished maid. “Please see that our trunks are taken upstairs. This is Miss Calhoun. I’m sure she’d appreciate a glass of lemonade in her room. I’ll wait in the front sitting room for Major Cain.”

Kit saw the maid’s uncertainty, but the girl didn’t have the courage to challenge a well-dressed visitor. “Yes, ma’am.”

Kit turned to her companion, more than a little worried about how she would react to sleeping under the same roof with a former officer in the Union army. “Why don’t you lie down until supper, Miss Dolly? You’ve had a long day.”

“I think I will, you sweet darlin’.” Miss Dolly patted Kit’s arm. “I want to look my best this evening. I only hope the gentlemen won’t talk about politics all through dinner. With General Beauregard in command at Charleston, I’m sure none of us need to worry about those murderous Yankees.”

Kit gave Miss Dolly a gentle prod toward the bewildered maid. “I’ll look in on you before dinner.”

After they disappeared upstairs, Kit finally had time to take in her surroundings. The wooden floor shone with polish, and an arrangement of spring flowers sat on the hall table. She remembered how Rosemary’s slovenliness had galled Sophronia.

She crossed the hall and entered the front sitting room. The freshly painted ivory walls and apple-green moldings were spare and cool, and new, yellow silk taffeta curtains rippled in the breeze from the open windows. The furniture, however, was the comfortable hodgepodge Kit remembered, although the chairs and settees had been reupholstered, and the room smelled of lemon oil and beeswax instead of mildew. Tarnish no longer marred the silver candlesticks, and the grandfather’s clock was working for the first time in Kit’s memory. The mellow, rhythmic ticking should have relaxed her, but it didn’t. Sophronia had done her job too well. Kit felt like a stranger in her own home.

Cain watched Vandal, his new chestnut, being led into the stable. He was a good horse, but Magnus was mad as hell that Cain had gotten rid of Apollo to buy him. Unlike Magnus, Cain didn’t let himself get attached to any of the horses. He’d learned as a child not to get attached to anything.

As he strode from the stable toward the house, he found himself thinking about all he’d accomplished in three years. Despite the problems of living in a conquered land with neighbors who shunned him, he hadn’t once regretted his decision to sell his house in New York and come to Risen Glory. He’d had a little experience growing cotton in Texas before the war, and Magnus had been raised on a cotton plantation. With the help of a healthy supply of agricultural pamphlets, the two of them had managed to produce a paying crop last year.

Cain didn’t pretend to feel a deep affinity for the land, just as he didn’t get sentimental over the animals, but he was enjoying the challenge of restoring Risen Glory. Building the new spinning mill on the northeast corner of the plantation was more fulfilling to him.

He’d gambled everything he had on the mill. As a result, he was as close to broke as he’d been since he was a kid, but he’d always liked taking risks. For the moment, he felt content.

He was scraping his boots by the back door when Lucy, the maid Sophronia had recently hired, came flying out. “It wasn’t my fault, Major. Miz Sophronia didn’t tell me nobody was comin’ today when she went off to see the Conjure Woman. This lady showed up askin’ for you, and then she just took herself off to the sitting room, bold as brass.”

“Is she still there?”

“Yes. And that’s not all. She brung-“

“Damn!” He’d received a letter the week before announcing that a member of the Society to Protect Widows and Orphans of the Confederacy would be calling on him for a contribution. The respectable citizens of the neighborhood ignored him unless they needed money; then some matronly woman would show up and observe him with pursed lips and nervous eyes while she tried to get him to empty his pockets. He’d begun to suspect the charities were merely a face-saving excuse to get a glimpse inside the lair of the evil Hero of Missionary Ridge. It amused him to watch those same women try to discourage the flirtatious glances that came his way from their daughters when he was in town, but he restricted his female companionship to infrequent trips to the more experienced women of Charleston.

He stalked into the house and down the hallway toward the sitting room. He didn’t care that he was dressed in the same tobacco-brown trousers and white shirt he’d worn all day in the fields. He’d be damned if he’d change his clothes to receive another one of these tiresome women. But what he saw when he entered the sitting room wasn’t what he’d expected…

The woman stood at the window looking out. Even with her back to him, he saw that she was well dressed, unusual for the women of the community. Her skirt rippled ever so slightly as she turned.

He caught his breath.

She was exquisite. Her dove-gray gown was trimmed with rose piping, and a waterfall of pale gray lace fell from her throat over a pair of supple, round breasts. A small hat the same soft rose shade as the trim of her gown perched on her inky-dark hair. The tip of the short gray plume that dipped from the brim came level with her brow.

The rest of the woman’s features were covered by a black veil as light as a spider’s web. Tiny, sparkling dewdrops of jet clung to its honeycombed surface, with only a moist red mouth visible beneath. That and a small pair of jet earbobs.

He didn’t know her. He’d have remembered such a creature. She must be one of the respectable daughters of the neighborhood who’d been so carefully tucked away from him.

She remained quietly confident under his open appraisal. What household calamity had resulted in so enticing a morsel being sent to take her mother’s place in the den of the infamous Yankee?

His gaze touched that ripe mouth peeking from beneath her veil. Beautiful and intriguing. Her parents would have done better to keep this one safely locked away.

While Cain was studying her so intently, Kit was conducting her own perusal from behind the honeycombed cells of her veil. Three years had passed. She was older now, and she studied him through more mature eyes. What she saw wasn’t reassuring. He was more outrageously handsome than she remembered. The sun had bronzed the planes of his face and streaked his crisp, tawny hair. The darker hair at his temples gave his face the rugged look of a man who belonged outdoors.

He was still dressed for the fields, and the sight of that muscular body unsettled her. The white shirt that stretched across his chest was rolled up at the sleeves, revealing tanned, hard-tendoned forearms. Brown trousers clung to his hips and hugged the powerful muscles of his thighs.

The spacious room in which they were standing seemed to have shrunk. Even standing still, he radiated an aura of power and danger. Somehow she’d managed to forget that. What curious, self-protective mechanism had made her reduce him in her mind to the level of other men? It was a mistake she wouldn’t make again.

Cain was aware of her scrutiny. She seemed to have no intention of being the first to speak, and her composure indicated a degree of self-confidence that intrigued him. Curious to test its limits, he broke the silence with deliberate brusqueness.

“You wanted to see me?”

She felt a stab of satisfaction. He didn’t know who she was. The veiled hat had given her this one small advantage. The masquerade wouldn’t last for long, but while it did, she’d have time to size up her opponent with wiser eyes than those of art immature eighteen-year-old who’d known both too much and too little.

“This room is quite beautiful,” she said coolly.

“I have an excellent housekeeper.”

“You’re fortunate.”

“Yes, I am.” He walked farther into the room, moving with the easy rolling gait of a man who spent much of his time on horseback. “She usually takes care of calls like yours, but she’s out on some kind of errand.”

Kit wondered who he thought she was and what he meant. “She’s gone to see the Conjure Woman.”

“The Conjure Woman?”

“She makes spells and tells futures.” After three years at Risen Glory, he didn’t even know this much. Nothing could have offered more proof that he didn’t belong here. “She’s sick, and Sophronia’s gone to see her.”

“You know Sophronia?”

“Yes.”

“So you live nearby?”

She nodded but didn’t elaborate. He indicated a chair. “You didn’t give Lucy your name.”

“Lucy? Do you mean your maid?”

“I see there’s something you don’t know.”

She ignored the chair he’d indicated and walked to the fireplace, deliberately turning her back to him. He noticed that she moved with a bolder step than most women. She also didn’t try to position herself in a way that showed off her fashionable gown to best advantage. It was as if her clothing were merely something to toss on in the morning and, once she’d done up the fastenings, to forget.

He decided to press her. “Your name?”

“Is it important?” Her voice was low, husky, and distinctly Southern.

“Maybe.”

“I wonder why.”

Cain was intrigued as much by the provocative way she avoided answering his question as by the faint fragrance of jasmine that drifted from her skirts and tugged at his senses. He wished she’d turn back around so he could get a closer look at the captivating features he could only glimpse behind the veil.

“A lady of mystery,” he mocked softly, “coming into the enemy’s lair without a zealous mother to serve as chaperone. Not wise at all.”

“I don’t always behave wisely.”

Cain smiled. “Neither do I.”

His gaze slipped from that silly dab of a hat to the coil of silky dark hair resting on the nape of her neck. What would it look like unfastened and tumbling over naked white shoulders? His jolt of arousal told him he’d been without a woman too long. Although even if he’d had a dozen the night before, he knew this woman would still have stirred him.

“Should I expect a jealous husband to come banging on my door looking for his wayward wife?”

“I have no husband.”

“No?” He suddenly wanted to test the limits of her self-confidence. “Is that why you’re here? Has the supply of eligible men in the county dipped so low that well-bred Southern ladies are forced to scout in the Yankee’s lair?”

She turned. Through her veil he could just make out flashing eyes and a small nose with delicately flaring nostrils.

“I assure you, Major Cain, I’m not here to scout for a husband. You have an elevated opinion of yourself.”

“Do I?” He moved closer. His legs brushed her skirt.

Kit wanted to step back, but she held her ground. He was a predator, and like all predators, he fed off the weakness of others. Even the smallest retreat would be a victory for him, and she wouldn’t show him any vulnerability. At the same time, his nearness made her feel slightly dizzy. The sensation should have been unpleasant, but it wasn’t.

“Tell me, mystery lady. What else would a respectable young woman be doing visiting a man by herself?” His voice was deep and teasing, and his gray eyes glimmered with a devilry that made her blood rush faster. “Or is it possible that the respectable young lady isn’t as respectable as she seems to be?”

Kit drew up her chin and met his gaze. “Don’t judge others by your own standards.”

It she’d only known, her unspoken challenge stirred him more than anything else could have. Were those eyes behind the honeycombed veil blue or a darker, more exotic color? Everything about this woman intrigued him. She was no simpering coquette or hothouse orchid. Rather, she reminded him of a wild rose, growing tangled and unruly in the deepest part of the woods, a wild rose with prickly thorns ready to draw blood from any man who touched her.

The untamed part of him responded to the same quality he sensed in her. What would it be like to work his way past those thorns and pluck this wild rose of the deep wood?

Even before he moved, Kit understood that something was about to happen. She wanted to break away, but her legs wouldn’t respond. As she gazed up into that chiseled face, she tried to remember this man was her deadly enemy. He controlled everything that was dear to her: her home, her future, her very freedom. But she’d always been a creature of instinct, and her blood had begun to roar so loudly in her head that it was blotting out her reason.

Slowly Cain lifted his scarred hand and cupped the side of her neck. His touch was surprisingly gentle and maddeningly exciting. She knew she had to pull back, but her legs, along with her will, refused to obey.

He lifted his thumb and slid it upward along the curve of her jaw and under the edge of the honeycombed veil. It dipped into the valley behind the lobe of her ear. He caressed the silky hollow, sending quivers coursing through her.

He brushed the delicate shells of her ears and the tendrils of curl that feathered around her small jet ear-bob. His quiet breathing rippled the bottom edge of her veil. She tried to move away, but she was paralyzed. Then he lowered his lips.

His kiss was gentle and persuading, nothing at all like the wet, grinding assault from Hamilton Woodward’s friend. Her hands lifted of their own accord and clasped his sides. The feel of warm-muscled flesh through the thin material of his shirt became part of the kiss. She lost herself in a swelling sea of sensation.

His lips opened and began to move over her closed ones. He curved his hand along the delicate line of her spine to the small of her back. The narrow space between their bodies disappeared.

Her head swam as his chest pressed her breasts, and his hips settled against the flatness of her stomach. The moist tip of his tongue began its gentle sorcery, sliding leisurely between her lips.

The shocking intimacy inflamed her. A wild rush of hot sensation poured through every part of her body.

And through his.

They lost their identities. For Kit, Cain no longer had a name. He was the quintessential man, fierce and demanding. And for Cain, the mysterious veiled creature in his arms was everything that a woman should be… but never was.

He grew impatient. His tongue began to probe more deeply, determined to slip past the barrier of her teeth and gain full access to the sweet interior of her mouth.

The unaccustomed aggression brought a flicker of sanity to Kit’s fevered mind. Something was wrong…

He brushed the side of her breast, and reality returned in a cold, condemning rush. She made a muffled sound and sprang back.

Cain was more shaken than he cared to admit. He’d found the thorns of his wild rose much too soon.

She stood before him, breasts heaving, hands balled into fists. With a pessimistic certainty that the rest of her face could never live up to the promise of her mouth, he reached out and pushed the veil up onto the brim of her hat.

Recognition didn’t come instantly. Maybe it was because he took in the separate features of her face instead of the whole. He saw the smooth, intelligent forehead, the thick, dark slashes of eyebrows, the heavily lashed violet eyes, the determined chin. All of it, together with that wild-rose mouth from which he’d drunk so deeply, spoke of a vivid, unconventional beauty.

Then he felt an uneasiness, a nagging sense of familiarity, a hint of something unpleasant lurking on the other side of his memory. He watched the nostrils of her small, straight nose quiver like the wings of a hummingbird. She set her jaw and lifted her chin.

In that instant, he knew her.

Kit saw his pale gray irises rim with black, but she was too stricken by what had passed between them to step away. What had happened to her? This man was her mortal enemy. How could she have forgotten that? She felt sick, angry, and more confused than she’d ever been.

A disturbance came from the hallway-a series of rapid clicks, as if a sack of parched corn was being spilled on the wooden floor. A streak of black-and-white fur darted into the room, then skidded to a stop. Merlin.

The dog cocked his head to study her, but it didn’t take him nearly as long to guess her identity as it had Cain. With three barks of recognition, he raced over to greet his old friend.

Kit fell to her knees. Oblivious to the damage his dusty paws were inflicting on her dove-gray traveling dress, she hugged him and let him lap her face. Her hat fell to the carpet, loosening her carefully arranged hair, but she didn’t care.

Cain’s voice intruded on their reunion like a polar wind over a glacier. “I see finishing school hasn’t improved you. You’re still the same headstrong little brat you were three years ago.”

Kit looked up at him and said the first thing that came to mind. “You’re just mad because the dog’s smarter than you are.”

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