18

Sophronia made up her mind just before Christmas. James Spence met her beside the road that led to Rutherford and showed her a deed to a house in Charleston that had her name on it.

“It’s a pretty pink stucco, Miz Sophronia, with a fig tree in the front and a trellis all covered with wisteria in the back.”

She took the deed, studied it carefully, and said she’d go with him.

As she gazed out the kitchen window at the wet, dreary December day that lay over the dormant fields of Risen Glory, she reminded herself that she was twenty-four years old. Her life had been standing still long enough. James Spence could give her everything she’d wanted for so long. He treated her politely, and he was handsome for a white man. He’d take good care of her, and in return, she’d take care of him. It wouldn’t be all that much different from what she was doing now… except that she’d have to lie with him.

She shivered, then asked herself what difference it made. It wasn’t as if she were a virgin. The house in Charleston would be hers-that was what was important-and she’d finally be safe. Besides, it was time to get away. Between Magnus, Kit, and the major, she’d go crazy if she had to stay at Risen Glory much longer.

Magnus watched her with those soft brown eyes of his. She hated the pity she saw in them, yet sometimes she found herself daydreaming about that Sunday afternoon when he’d kissed her in the orchard. She wanted to forget that kiss, but she couldn’t. He hadn’t tried to touch her again, not even the night Kit and the major had gotten married and she’d slept at his house. Why wouldn’t he go away and leave her in peace?

She wished they’d all go away, even Kit. Ever since she’d gone back to the major’s bed, there was something frantic about her. She rushed from one thing to another, never giving herself time to think. In the morning when Sophronia went to the henhouse to gather eggs, she could see Kit in the distance, riding Temptation as if there weren’t any tomorrow, taking him over jumps that were too high, pushing them both to the limit. Even if was cold or rainy, she rode. It was almost as if she was afraid the land might have disappeared during the night while she and the major were carrying on in that big bedroom upstairs.

During the daytime, the air between them shimmered with tension. Sophronia hadn’t heard Kit speak a civil word to him in weeks, and when the major talked to her, his voice sounded like it was frozen inside a block of ice. Still, at least he seemed to be trying. He’d given in on the matter of putting a road to the mill through those acres of scrub to the east, when everybody but Kit could see the land was useless and the road would save miles of traveling time.

This morning Sophronia had been afraid they’d come to blows. The major had been warning Kit for weeks to stop riding Temptation so recklessly. He’d finally put his foot down and told her she couldn’t ride Temptation at all. Kit had called him names and threatened a few things no woman should even know about, much less mention. He’d stood there like a statue, not saying a word, just watching her with that stone-cold expression that sent shivers down Sophronia’s spine.

But no matter how bad things were between them during the day, when nightfall came, the door of that big front bedroom would slam shut and not open again until morning.

Through the window, Sophronia saw Kit, dressed in those shameful britches, coming back from a walk. Sophronia’s stomach coiled in dread. She couldn’t put it off any longer. Her satchel was packed, and Mr. Spence would be waiting for her at the end of the drive in less than an hour.

She’d told no one of her plans, although she wondered if Magnus suspected something. He’d looked at her strangely when he’d come to the kitchen for breakfast that morning. Sometimes she had the feeling he could read her mind.

She told herself she was glad he’d gone into Rutherford for the day so he wouldn’t be here when she left. But some part of her wanted one last glimpse of that kind, handsome face.

She left her apron on the peg next to the sink where she’d been hanging aprons since she was a child. Then she walked through the house for the last time.

A chilly gust of air accompanied Kit as she came in through the front door. “That wind has some bite to it. I’m going to make chowder for dinner tonight.”

Sophronia forgot that such things were no longer her responsibility. “It’s nearly five o’clock,” she scolded. “If you wanted chowder, you should have told me earlier. Patsy already made a nice okra pilau.”

Kit jerked off her woolen jacket and shoved it irritably onto the newel-post. “I’m sure she won’t mind if I add chowder to the menu.” She began to stomp up the stairs.

“People in this house would appreciate it if you smiled once in a while.”

Kit paused and looked down at Sophronia. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you’ve been grouchy for months now, and it’s getting contagious. You’ve even got me snapping at Patsy.”

It wasn’t the first time Sophronia had reprimanded Kit for her behavior, but today Kit couldn’t muster the energy to come to her own defense. She’d been feeling edgy and listless, not sick exactly, but not entirely well, either. She sighed wearily. “If Patsy doesn’t want chowder on the menu tonight, I’ll make it tomorrow.”

“You’ll have to tell her yourself.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I won’t be here.”

“Oh? Where are you going?”

Sophronia faltered. Kit had asked the question so innocently. “Let’s go into the sittin’ room for a few minutes so we can talk.”

Kit looked at her curiously, then followed her down the hallway. Once inside, she sat on the settee. “Is something wrong?”

Sophronia remained standing. “I-I’m going away to Charleston.”

“You should have told me earlier. I have some shopping to do, too. I could have gone with you.”

“No, it’s not a shopping trip.” Sophronia clasped her hands in front of her butternut wool skirt. “I-I’m goin’ for good. I won’t be coming back to Risen Glory.”

Kit stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Not coming back? Of course you’re coming back. You live here.”

“James Spence bought me a house.”

Kit’s forehead knitted. “Why would he do that? Are you going to be his housekeeper? Sophronia, how could you even think of leaving here?”

Sophronia shook her head. “I’m not goin’ to be his housekeeper I’m goin’ to be his mistress.”

Kit gripped the arm of the settee. “I don’t believe you. You’d never do anything so horrible.”

Sophronia’s chin shot up. “Don’t you dare judge me!”

“But this is wrong! What you’re talking about is wicked, plain and simple. How could you even consider such a thing?”

“I’m doin’ what I have to,” Sophronia said stubbornly.

“You don’t have to do this!”

“That’s easy for you to say. But did you ever think I might want some of the same things you want-a house, pretty clothes, being able to wake up in the morning knowing nobody can hurt me?”

“But nobody can hurt you here. The war’s been over for three years. Nobody’s bothered you.”

“That’s just because everybody assumed I was sharing your husband’s bed.” At Kit’s sharp look, she added, “I wasn’t. Still, nobody except Magnus knew that.” The sculptured lines of her face set into bitter planes. “Now that you’re married, everything’s different. It’s just a matter of time before somebody decides I’m free for the picking. That’s the way it is for any black woman doesn’t have a white man lookin’ out for her. I can’t go through the rest of my life like that.”

“But what about Magnus?” Kit argued. “He’s a good man. Anybody with eyes can see that he loves you. And no matter how much you pretend otherwise, I know you have tender feelings for him. How can you do this to him?”

Sophronia’s mouth formed a straight, stubborn line. “I have to look out for myself.”

Kit jumped up from the settee. “I don’t see what’s so wonderful about having a white man watching out for you. When you were a slave, my father was supposed to be watching out for you, and look what happened. Maybe Mr. Spence won’t be able to protect you any more than my father could. Maybe he’ll look the other way the same as my father. Did you ever think about that, Sophronia? Did you?”

“Your father didn’t try to protect me!” Sophronia cried. “He didn’t try, do you understand what I’m telling you? It wasn’t just a matter of not seeing what was happenin’. He was the one who was giving me away for the night to his friends.”

Kit felt a stabbing deep in the walls of her stomach.

Now that the truth was out, Sophronia couldn’t stop herself. “Sometimes he’d let them throw dice for me. Sometimes they’d race their horses. I was the prize in the games they played.”

Kit ran to Sophronia and took her in her arms. “I’m sorry. Oh, I’m so very, very sorry.”

Sophronia’s back was rigid under her hands. Kit stroked her, blinked away tears, muttered apologies that weren’t hers to make, and tried to find the argument that would convince Sophronia not to leave the only home she’d ever known. “Don’t let what happened ruin the rest of your life. As awful as it was, it happened a long time ago. You’re young. Lots of slave women-“

“Don’t you tell me about slave women!” Sophronia jerked away, her expression ferocious. “Don’t you dare tell me about slave women! You don’t know nothin’ about it!” She took a deep gulp of air, as if she were strangling. “He was my father, too!”

Kit froze. Slowly, she shook her head. “No. It’s not true. You’re lying to me. Even he wouldn’t give away his own daughter. Damn you! Damn you for lying to me!”

Sophronia didn’t flinch. “I’m his daughter, no different from you. He took my mama when she was only your mama’s nose. Kept her there until he found out she was carryin’ a baby, then he tossed her back to the slave cabins like a piece of trash. At first, when his friends came sniffin’ after me, I thought maybe he might have forgotten I was his. But he hadn’t forgotten. He just didn’t attach any significance to it. Blood had no meaning because I wasn’t human. I was property. Just another nigger gal.”

Kit’s face was chalk-white. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t speak.

Now that her secret was no longer locked inside her, Sophronia was finally calm. “I’m glad my mama died before it all started. She was a strong woman, but seeing what was happening to me would have broke her.” Sophronia reached out and touched Kit’s immobile cheek. “We’re sisters, Kit,” she said softly. “Didn’t you ever feel it? Didn’t you ever feel that tie between us, binding us so tight nothing could ever pull us apart? Right from the start, it was the two of us. Your mama died after you were born, and my mama was supposed to take care of you, but she didn’t like to touch you because of what had happened. So I took care of you, right from the beginning. A child raising a child. I can remember holding you in my lap when I couldn’t have been more than four or five myself. I used to set you next to me in the kitchen when I was working and play doll babies with you in the evening. And then Mama died, and you were all I had. That’s why I never left Risen Glory, not even when you went away to New York City. I had to make sure you’d be all right. But when you came back, it was like you were a different person, part of a world I couldn’t belong to. I’ve been jealous, and I’ve been scared, too. You’ve got to forgive me for what I’m goin’ to do, Kit, but you have a place in the world, and now it’s time for me to find mine.” She gave Kit a swift hug and fled.

Not long after, Cain found Kit there. She was still standing in the center of the room. Her muscles were rigid, her hands knotted into fists.

“Where the hell is every-Kit? What’s wrong?”

In an instant he was beside her. She felt as if she’d been pulled from a trance. She sagged against him, choking on a sob. He took her in his arms and led her to the settee. “Tell me what happened.”

His arms felt so good around her. He’d never held her like this-protectively, with no trace of passion. She began to cry. “Sophronia’s leaving. She’s going away to Charleston to be… to be James Spence’s mistress.”

Cain swore softly. “Does Magnus know about this?”

I-I don’t think so.” She tried to catch her breath. “She just told me… Sophronia’s my sister.”

“Your sister?”

“Garrett Weston’s daughter, just like me.”

He stroked her chin with his thumb. “You’ve lived in the South all your life. Sophronia’s skin is light.”

“You don’t understand.” She clenched her jaw and spat out the words through her tears. “My father used to give her away to his friends for the night. He knew she was his daughter, his own flesh and blood, but he gave her away just the same.”

“Oh, God…” Cain’s face grew ashen. He pulled her tighter and rested his cheek against the top of her head as she cried. Gradually she filled in the details of the story for him. When she was done, Cain spoke viciously. “I hope he’s burning in hell.”

Now that she’d poured out the story, Kit realized what she had to do. She leaped up from the settee. “I have to stop her. I can’t let her go through with this.”

“Sophronia’s a free woman,” he reminded her gently “If she wants to go off with Spence, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“She’s my sister! I love her, and I won’t let her do this!”

Before Cain could stop her, she raced from the room.

Cain sighed as he uncoiled himself from the settee. Kit was hurting badly, and as he knew only too well, that could lead to trouble.

Outside, Kit hid in the trees near the front. Her teeth chattered as she huddled in the damp, wintry shadows waiting for Cain to come out. He soon appeared, as she’d known he would. She watched him descend the steps and look toward the drive. When he didn’t see her, he cursed, turned on his heel, and headed for the stable.

As soon as he was out of sight, she ran back into the house and made her way to the gun rack in the library. She didn’t expect too much trouble from James Spence, but since she had no intention of letting Sophronia go off with him, she needed the gun to add weight to her arguments.

Several miles away, James Spence’s crimson-and-black buggy swept past the buggy Magnus was driving. Spence was in an all-fired hurry to get wherever he was going, Magnus thought as he observed the vehicle disappear around the bend. Since there wasn’t much along this road except Risen Glory and the cotton mill, Spence must have business at the mill.

It was a logical conclusion, but somehow it didn’t satisfy him. He gave the horses a sharp slap with the reins. As he hurried toward Risen Glory, he considered what he knew about Spence.

Local gossip reported that he’d managed an Illinois gravel quarry, bought himself out of the draft for three hundred dollars, and headed South after the war with a carpetbag stuffed full of greenbacks. Now he had a prosperous phosphate mine and a hankering for Sophronia.

Spence’s buggy had already stopped at the bottom of the drive when Magnus got there. The businessman was dressed in a black frock coat and bowler, with a walking stick in his gloved hand. Magnus barely spared him a glance. All his attention was fixed on Sophronia.

She stood at the side of the road with her blue woolen shawl wrapped around her shoulders and a satchel at her feet.

“Sophronia!” He pulled up the buggy and jumped out.

Her head shot up, and for an instant he thought he saw a flicker of hope in her eyes, but then they clouded over, and she clutched the shawl tighter. “You leave me alone, Magnus Owen. This doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

Spence stepped around from the side of the carriage and looked at Magnus. “Something the matter, boy?”

Magnus tucked a thumb into his belt and glared at him. “The lady’s changed her mind.”

Spence’s eyes narrowed beneath the brim of his bowler. “If you’re talking to me, boy, I suggest you call me ‘sir.’ “

As Sophronia watched the confrontation, prickles of dread crept along her spine. Magnus turned to her, but instead of the gentle, soft-spoken man she knew, she saw a tight-lipped, hard-eyed stranger. “Get back to the house.”

Spence stepped forward. “Now see here. I don’t know who you think you are, but-“

“Go away, Magnus.” Sophronia could hear her voice tremble. “I’ve made up my mind, and you can’t stop me.”

“I can stop you, all right,” he said stonily. “And that’s exactly what I’m goin’ to do.”

Spence sauntered over to Magnus, his walking stick with its golden knob firmly in hand. “I think it might be better for everybody if you went back to wherever you came from. Now come along, Sophronia.”

But as he reached for her, she was abruptly snatched away. “You’re not touching her,” Magnus snarled, shoving her firmly behind him. Then he clenched his fists and stepped forward.

Black man against white. All Sophronia’s nightmares had come true. Fear shot through her. “No!” She clutched Magnus’s shirt. “Don’t hit him! You hit a white man, you’ll be hanging from a rope before morning.”

“Get out of my way, Sophronia.”

“The white man’s got all the power, Magnus. You leave this be!”

He set her aside, but the gesture of protecting her cost him. Behind his back, Spence lifted his walking stick and, as Magnus turned, slammed it into his chest.

“Stay out of things that don’t concern you, boy,” Spence growled.

In one swift movement, Magnus snatched the cane and broke it across his knee.

Sophronia gave an outcry.

Magnus tossed the cane aside and landed a hard blow to Spence’s jaw that sent the mine owner sprawling onto the road.

Kit had reached the line of trees just in lime to see what was happening. She rushed out, raised her rifle, and leveled the barrel. “Get out of here, Mr. Spence. Doesn’t seem you’re wanted.”

Sophronia had never been more grateful to see anyone, but Magnus’s face grew rigid. Spence slowly rose, glaring at Kit. Just then a deep, drawling voice intruded.

“Looks like things are getting a little out of hand here.”

Four sets of eyes turned as Cain climbed down off Vandal. He walked toward Kit with the loose, easy swagger that was so much a part of him and extended his hand. “Give me the rifle, Kit.” He spoke so calmly he might have been asking her to pass bread across the dinner table.

Giving him the rifle was exactly what Kit wanted to do. As she’d discovered once before, she had no stomach for holding a gun on anyone. Cain would see to it that Magnus came to no harm, and she gave him the rifle.

To her astonishment, he didn’t turn it on Spence. Instead, he took Kit’s arm and pulled her, none too gently, toward Vandal. “Accept my apologies, Mr. Spence. My wife has an excitable temperament.” He shoved the rifle into the scabbard that hung from his saddle.

She saw Spence’s eyes grow shrewd. The cotton mill made Cain an important man in the community, and she could see his mind working as he decided it was to his advantage to have Cain as a friend. “Don’t mention it, Mr. Cain.” He reached down to dust off his trousers. “I’m sure none of us can predict the ways of our little womenfolk.”

“Truer words have never been spoken,” Cain replied, oblivious to Kit’s glare.

Spence picked up his black bowler and jerked his head toward Magnus. “Do you value this boy of yours, Major?”

“Why do you ask?”

He gave Cain a man-to-man smile. “If you was to tell me you valued him, I’d assume you wouldn’t be too happy to see him dangling from the end of a rope. And seeing as how we’re both businessmen. I’d be more than willing to forget what just happened here.”

Relief made Kit’s knees wobble. Cain’s eyes locked with Magnus’s.

They stayed that way for several long, hard seconds before Cain looked away and shrugged. “What Magnus does is his own business. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, one way or the other.”

Kit gave a hiss of outrage as he scooped her up onto Vandal, mounted himself, and spurred the horse back up the drive.

Sophronia stared after them, bile rising in her throat. The major was supposed to be Magnus’s friend, but he wasn’t a friend at all. White stood together against black. That was the way it always had been, the way it always would be.

Despair overwhelmed her. She darted her eyes toward Magnus, but Cain’s betrayal didn’t seem to bother him. He stood with his legs slightly apart, one hand lightly balanced on his hip, and a strange light shining in his eyes.

The love she’d refused to admit burst free inside her, breaking all the invisible shackles of the past and sweeping away the rubble in a great cleansing rush. How could she have denied her feelings for so long? He was everything a man should be-strong, good, kind. He was a man of compassion and pride. But now, through her actions, she’d put him in peril.

There was only one thing she could do. She turned her back on Magnus and forced herself toward James Spence.

“Mr. Spence, it’s my fault what’s happened here today.” She couldn’t make herself touch his arm. “I been flirtin’ with Magnus. Makin’ him believe he meant somethin’ to me. You got to forget all this. I’ll go with you, but you got to promise you won’t let any harm come to him. He’s a good man, and all this is my fault.”

Magnus’s voice came from behind her, as soft and mellow as an old hymn. “It’s no good, Sophronia. I won’t let you go with him.” He moved up beside her. “Mr. Spence, Sophronia is goin’ to be my wife. You try to take her with you, I’ll stop you. Today, tomorrow, a year from now. Doesn’t make any difference. I’ll stop you.”

Sophronia’s fingers turned icy.

Spence licked his lips and shot a nervous glance in the direction Cain had disappeared. Magnus was the bigger man, taller and more muscular, and Spence would be the loser in a physical match. But Spence didn’t need that kind of fight to win.

With a sense of dread, Sophronia watched the play of emotions on his face. No black man could get away with hitting a white man in South Carolina. If Spence didn’t get the sheriff to do something about it, he’d go to the Ku Klux Klan, those monsters who’d begun terrorizing the state two years ago. Images of whippings and lynchings filled her mind as he walked confidently over to his buggy and climbed up onto the seat.

He picked up the reins and turned back to Magnus. “You’ve made a big mistake, boy.” And then he regarded Sophronia with a hostility he didn’t try to hide. “I’ll be back for you tomorrow.”

“Just a minute, Mr. Spence.” Magnus bent over to pick up the broken halves of the walking stick. As he made his way to the buggy, he walked with a confidence he had no right to feel. “I consider myself a fair man, so I think it’s only right I tell you what kind of risk you’d be taking if you got any ideas about coming after me. Or maybe you might decide to send your acquaintances in bedsheets here. But that wouldn’t be a good idea, Mr. Spence. Matter of fact, it’d be a real bad idea.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Spence sneered.

“It means I’ve got a talent, Mr. Spence, that you should know about. And I’ve got three or four friends with the same talent. Now, they’re only black men like me, you understand, so you might not think their talent is worth your notice. But you’d be wrong, Mr. Spence. You’d be dead wrong.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“I’m talking about dynamite, Mr. Spence. Nasty stuff, but real useful. I learned to use it myself when we had to blast some rock to build the mill. Most people don’t know too much about dynamite, since it’s so new, but you strike me as a man who keeps up with new inventions, so I’ll bet you know a lot about it. I’ll bet you know, for example, just how much damage dynamite could cause if somebody set it off in the wrong place in a phosphate bed.”

Spence regarded Magnus incredulously. “Are you threatening me?”

“I guess you might say I’m just trying to make a point, Mr. Spence. I’ve got good friends. Real good friends. And if anything was to happen to me, they’d be mighty unhappy about it. They’d be so unhappy they might set off a load of dynamite in the wrong place. Now, we wouldn’t want that to happen, would we, Mr. Spence?”

“Damn you!”

Magnus put his foot up on the step of the buggy and rested the broken pieces of the stick on his knee. “Every man deserves his happiness, Mr. Spence, and Sophronia’s mine. I intend to live a good, long life so we can enjoy each other, and I’m willing to do whatever’s necessary to make sure we have that. Now whenever I see you in town, I’m going to take off my hat and say, ‘Howdy, Mr. Spence,’ real polite. And as long as you hear that ‘Howdy, Mr. Spence,’ you’ll know I’m a happy man wishing you and your phosphate mine all the best.” Drilling his eyes directly into Spence’s, he extended the broken halves of the walking stick.

Taut with anger, Spence snatched them away and grabbed the reins.

Sophronia could barely take it in. What she’d just witnessed ran contrary to everything she believed, and yet it had happened. She’d just seen Magnus stand up against a white man and win. He’d fought for her. He’d kept her safe… even from herself.

She threw herself across the border of dry, wintry grass that separated them and tumbled into his arms, repeating his name over and over again until its rhythm became one with the beating of her heart.

“You’re a trial to me, woman,” he said softly, cupping her shoulders in his hands.

She lifted her gaze and saw eyes that were steadfast and true, eyes that promised both goodness and strength. He lifted one hand and moved his index finger over her lips, almost as if he were a blind man staking out the boundaries of a territory he was about to claim. Then he lowered his head and kissed her.

She accepted his lips shyly, as if she were a young girl. He made her feel pure and innocent again.

He pulled her closer, and his kiss grew more demanding, but instead of feeling afraid, she thrilled to its power. This man, this one good man, was hers forever. He was more important than a house in Charleston, more important than silk dresses, more important than anything.

When they finally drew apart, Sophronia saw his eyes glistening. This strong, hard man who had been coolly threatening to blow up a phosphate mine had turned soft and gentle as a lamb.

“You’ve been giving me a lot of trouble, woman,” he said gruffly. “Once we’re married, I won’t stand for any more nonsense.”

“Are we gettin’ married, Magnus?” she inquired saucily. And then she splayed her long, elegant fingers along the sides of his head and pulled him back for another deep, lingering kiss.

“Oh, yes, honey child,” he replied when he finally caught his breath. “We’re gettin’ married for sure.”

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