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Beauty for Ashes
By Dorothy Love
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Dorothy Love
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHickory Ridge, Tennessee May 1876
Carrie Daly watched a knot of people hurrying past the dress-shop window and tried to think of something—anything—except the wedding. These days, everybody in Hickory Ridge made a point of speaking to her about it. For Henry's sake, she smiled and thanked them for their good wishes, ignoring the creeping dismay at the bottom of her heart.
"Hold still a minute longer, Miz Daly. Almost done here." Jeanne Pruitt, the wife of the mercantile owner and the new proprietress of Norah's Fine Frocks, knelt on the floor to attach the lace trim to the hem of Carrie's dress.
In her stocking feet, Carrie balanced on the small step stool and listened to Mrs. Pruitt's detailed recounting of her recent visit to her sister's place in Muddy Hollow. The new dressmaker wasn't as stylish as Norah had been. She was, however, a magician with needle and thread. The ladies of Hickory Ridge kept her busy repairing seams, restyling old frocks, and occasionally making a new dress from scratch. Now, with a final snip of her scissors, she finished both the hem and her tale and got to her feet. "You're all set, dear. Take a look."
Carrie crossed to the cheval glass in the corner and studied her reflection. The dress, a pale robin's-egg-blue silk, featured wide ruffled sleeves and a neat bustle in the back. A row of tiny mother-of-pearl buttons graced the bodice. It was much too fancy for farm life—once the wedding was over, where would she ever go to wear it?—but Henry had insisted that she have the best. "It's beautiful, Jeanne. You outdid yourself."
"I'm glad you like it. That color exactly matches your eyes." Jeanne's gaze met Carrie's in the mirror. "Things must be busy at the farm these days."
Turning sideways, Carrie eyed the bustle and smoothed it with her fingertips. "Everything's ready except for baking the cookies. And the cake."
Jeanne grinned, revealing a missing front tooth. "Every last soul in Hick'ry Ridge is hankering for an invite to the wedding just to eat a piece of your coconut cake. And to see the Caldwells, of course. I hear they're due in from Texas tonight."
The prospect of seeing her dear friends took Carrie's mind off her apprehensions, if only temporarily. She nodded. "Wyatt sent a wire from Nashville yesterday afternoon. I can't wait. I'm only disappointed they aren't bringing Wade and Sophie."
"It's a long way to bring a little one on a train but I'm sure this won't be their last trip to Hick'ry Ridge." Jeanne folded a scrap of lace and placed it on a shelf. "Wyatt Caldwell may not own the lumber mill anymore, but he can't stop caring about it."
"I'm glad someone cares." A tiny frown creased Carrie's forehead, and she absently rubbed the small bony protrusion on her wrist, the result of a fall from the hayloft the summer she turned nine. Hard times at the mill had everyone worried. Only last week Henry had mentioned that orders had slowed to a trickle. And the Chicago Yankees who now owned the place, safe and secure in their distant lakeside mansions, were talking about letting some of the mill hands go. Why Henry wanted to get married now, taking on so much responsibility when times were so uncertain, was the mystery of the ages. But his mind was made up.
Jeanne patted Carrie's shoulder. "Why don't you change out of that dress and I'll box it up for you."
Carrie stepped around a muslin-draped dressmaker's dummy and a scarred pine table laden with fabric samples and pattern books. Behind the folding screen, she shucked out of her new dress, draped it over the top of the screen, and slipped into her everyday green calico.
Jeanne folded the new frock, nestled it into layers of tissue paper, and tied the box shut with a length of yellow ribbon. "There. Hang it up as soon as you get home so the wrinkles won't set."
Carrie picked up her bag, her parasol, and the dress box. The bell above the door tinkled as she stepped out onto the boardwalk. A horse and wagon rumbled past, a sturdy farm girl at the reins. At the far end of the street, on the porch of the Verandah Hotel for Ladies, two residents sat in rocking chairs watching groups of noisy, barefoot boys congregating outside the bakery. Businessmen in dark suits and bowler hats hurried toward the railway station, their valises bumping against their legs. A train whistle blew, two sharp blasts that echoed against the fog-shrouded mountains. Cupping one hand to the dress-shop window, Carrie waved another good-bye to Jeanne and started along the boardwalk to Mr. Pruitt's mercantile, thinking about what she needed for baking the cake. More sugar, a pound of butter, a dozen—
"Look out!" A man's booming voice shattered her reverie. She looked up just in time to see a horse charging toward her, the young woman in the buggy yanking furiously on the reins. The horse was immense, coal black and sleek as an eel. His hooves pounded the street. His legs pumped like pistons. Carrie stood transfixed, clutching her package as the huge beast thundered toward her, scattering a group of farm women outside the post office and nearly colliding with a freight wagon just turning onto the street.
"Whoa," the buggy driver cried, her voice shrill with fear. "Whoa there."
The horse bore down on Carrie. He neighed and reared, his eyes wild with fright, his immense front feet pawing the air.
"Move!" the man shouted. Carrie's feet left the ground as he shoved her aside.
Her shoulder cracked against the boardwalk. Her parasol and the dress box tumbled into the dust.
"Steady, boy." The man grabbed the horse's silver-studded bridle and spoke into the beast's ear. Holding tightly to the bridle, he pressed his head against the horse's neck, speaking so softly Carrie couldn't hear a word. But whatever he said worked. The horse nickered and immediately quieted, his powerful legs quivering. The young woman in the rig buried her face in her hands and sobbed. A crowd gathered, but the horse tamer quickly dispersed them.
Before Carrie could move, the door to the bank flew open and the bank president, Mr. Gilman, hurried outside. "Sabrina?" he called to the weeping girl. "What on earth have you done now?"
"I'm sorry, Daddy." Sabrina Gilman tumbled from the rig, her straw hat askew. "Old Peter harnessed him for me this morning, and I thought I could handle him, but when the train whistle blew he went plumb crazy."
"Old Peter should have known better. I've told you both to stay away from Majestic. He's high-strung and certainly no carriage horse. You could have been killed." Mr. Gilman held out a hand to steady her. "Go on inside and collect yourself."
Carrie felt sorry for the banker's daughter. Her intended, Jacob Hargrove, had abandoned his family farm in search of work elsewhere, and the separation had left poor Sabrina in a state of nervous exhaustion. According to Mariah Whiting, who knew everything that went on in town, Sabrina had become susceptible to frequent fainting spells and bouts of the mullygrubs.
The horse tamer hurried over and helped Carrie to her feet. He touched the brim of his hat in greeting. "A thousand apologies, miss. I shouted a warning, but you didn't hear. Are you all right?"
"I think so." She straightened her hat and reached for her crushed dress box.
"Please. Allow me." He retrieved her box and smiled down at her. Her stomach dropped. Heavenly days, but this man was handsome. He was nearly a foot taller than she, with sun-browned skin, full lips, a straight nose, and eyes so brown they appeared almost black. He stood so close she could see beads of moisture on his brow and a tiny white scar just above his upper lip. Somehow the slight imperfection only increased his appeal.
"You're sure you aren't hurt?" He lifted a brow and studied her.
She brushed the dirt from her skirt and took in his attire—a clean, crisp boiled collar, fine wool trousers that fit him perfectly, and a coat that accented the set of his broad shoulders. Everything about him spoke of gentility and old money. He even smelled expensive.
"I'm quite all right, thank you."
Mr. Gilman hurried over and pumped the horse tamer's hand. "I can't thank you enough for what you did, sir. Sabrina knows better, she's—" He nodded to Carrie. "Miz Daly. My word, are you hurt?"
"I'm fine, Mr. Gilman."
He eyed her box. "I suppose that's your dress for the wedding?"
"If there's any damage at all, you let me know. I'll make it right." He turned to the horse tamer. "I don't believe I've heard your name."
"Griffin Rutledge. Griff to my friends." He winked at Carrie and her cheeks warmed.
"Rutledge," Mr. Gilman said. "You by any chance kin to Charles Rutledge of Charleston?"
"He's my father." Mr. Rutledge's face turned stony, but the banker seemed not to notice.
"Well, well, what a small world, eh?" The banker slapped Mr. Rutledge's shoulder as if they were old friends. "I knew your daddy back before the war. Used to go down to Charleston every February for Race Week. Oh, the times we had with your folks and the Venables, the Hugers, and the Ravenels. Y'all had some of the finest horses I'd ever seen." He studied the horse tamer's face. "I remember Charles's boy Philip, but I declare, I didn't know he had two sons."
Carrie stuck out her bottom lip and blew her rust-colored curls upward. The day was heating up, her shoulder throbbed painfully, and she still needed things from the mercantile. But she stood rooted to the spot, unable to tear herself away from Griff Rutledge. Which made not one iota of sense. What was the matter with her?
Mr. Gilman went on. "What brings you to Hickory Ridge, Mr. Rutledge? I hope you're planning to stay awhile."
The banker looked past Griff's shoulder to the huge horse, now standing placidly in the shade of the building. "Maybe a good business proposition will change your mind. You got some time to discuss it?"
"Not at the moment." Mr. Rutledge made a slight formal bow toward Carrie. "I knocked this lovely woman into the dirt and crushed her dress box to boot. The least I can do is to see her safely to her carriage."
Carrie dropped her gaze. The old rig hitched to Henry's plodding bay mare, Iris, was a far cry from a carriage. But the prospect of spending a few more moments with the courtly Griff Rutledge overcame her embarrassment.
Griff offered her his arm. "Which way, Miss ..."
"Daly. Carrie." She pointed. "My horse and rig are over there."
He glanced at the dress box. "Do I understand that you're about to be married?"
"Marr—oh. No. My brother Henry is getting married the day after tomorrow. He insisted that I get a new dress for the occasion."
A grin split his handsome face. "Well, that's surely a big load off my mind. There's nothing quite so maddening as meeting the prettiest girl in town only to learn that her heart is already taken."
Carrie blushed. Mercy, but he was forward. Were all Charleston gentlemen so outspoken?
"If your brother's intended is half as pretty as you, he's a lucky man indeed."
Overwhelmed by his sheer physicality and the brush of his shoulder against hers, Carrie went mute.
"I hope your dress isn't damaged," he went on. "I'll bet it's beautiful. Wish I could be there to see you wear it."
At last she found her voice. "You should come. We'd be delighted to have you."
Holy hash! What would Nate Chastain say about her inviting a man to the festivities? More to the point, how would Mary Stanhope react to the news? Henry's bride was not the most accommodating woman on the planet. And she put on airs. No doubt she'd give Carrie a blistering lecture about inviting a total stranger to a wedding. It simply isn't done. But it would be worth braving Mary's wrath to see this man again.
"That's the nicest invitation I've received in a while," he said, "but I couldn't possibly impose upon—"
"It's no imposition at all," she said quickly. "It's the least I can do. After all, you practically saved my life."
"Well, when you put it that way—"
"It's to be held the day after tomorrow at the Henry Bell farm. Just follow the main road a mile or so past the church. The wedding's at half past ten."
He smiled. "Half past ten. The Bell farm. Thank you most kindly, Miz Carrie Daly. I'll see you then."
He tipped his hat and sauntered toward the bank. Carrie climbed into the rig and flicked the reins. Iris plodded onto the road and across the railroad trestle. What in the world had possessed her just now? Everyone in Hickory Ridge knew she and Nate planned to wed ... someday. Everyone said they were a perfect match.
Nate was a fine man, kind, hardworking and intelligent, well liked in town. Maybe he wasn't the most exciting man in the world, maybe the sight of him didn't exactly make her heart beat faster, but she enjoyed his company. So why couldn't she get the image of Griff Rutledge's handsome face out of her mind?
Halfway home she remembered she still needed flour, eggs, and sugar for the wedding cake.
* * *
Griff watched Carrie's rig make the turn at the bottom of the street and whistled softly. What a woman. Hers was not the half-formed prettiness of a young girl, but the full loveliness of a mature woman with all the self-possession maturity brings. Her hair was somewhere between red and gold, the color of a Carolina sky at sunrise. And those eyes—clear and blue as the Atlantic. She smelled good too, like the air after a low country rain. He wondered if there was a Mr. Daly in the picture. Probably so. Women like that didn't stay unattached for long. Just the same, he was glad he'd accepted her invitation. Lately he'd spent far too much time alone.
When the rig disappeared from view, he retraced his steps to the bank. Though he didn't plan on staying here any longer than necessary, if a profitable proposition was in the offing, he owed it to himself to hear the banker out.
The big black colt stood where Griff had left him, tethered to the rail outside the bank. Griff stopped to admire the horse. Everything about him, from his height to the shape of his hindquarters to the proud set of his neck, bespoke quality. Obviously, the banker had spent no small sum acquiring him.
The horse bobbed a greeting and nuzzled Griff's hand as if they were old friends. Griff felt a surge of pride. He had disappointed his father in every way imaginable, but his skill with horses was the one thing Charles Rutledge had been unable to ignore.
"Beautiful, isn't he?"
Griff turned to find the Gilman fellow standing outside the bank, puffing a cheroot. "He is indeed. One of the finest I've seen since the war."
"Come on in." The banker ushered Griff to his private office at the back of the building and motioned him to a chair. He extracted another cigar from the humidor on his desk and held it out. "Care for a smoke?"
"No, thank you." Griff unbuttoned his coat and settled into the leather chair.
Gilman puffed his cigar, sending a cloud of blue smoke curling behind his head. "How's your father these days?"
"I wouldn't know. I've been away from home for a long time. After my mother passed on, I lost touch."
"I see." Gilman eyed Griff across the desk. "What brings you to this neck of the woods?"
"I've a bit of unfinished business to clear up. Soon as it's done, I'm headed west."
"Ah, the lure of California claims another son of the South. Too bad."
"The South we knew is gone, Mr. Gilman. I'm headed much farther west, to New South Wales. A friend of mine went over in 'fifty-eight. Ever since the war ended, he's been after me to come down and take a look."
Gilman frowned. "Australia? What on earth for? All they have there is red dirt and kangaroos."
"I'm told the place is booming since the great gold rush. There's still some gold to be mined and millions of acres of ranch land available. I might try my hand at running a cattle station."
Griff paused and gave free rein to his imagination. What would it be like living amongst a bunch of foreign drovers, fighting off dingoes in the middle of the night?
"Good heavens, man," Gilman said. "If it's a ranch you want, I'll put you in touch with Wyatt Caldwell down in Texas. He sold his lumber mill here in town a few years back, and now he's got one the finest herds of longhorns in the state. There's no need for you to go clear to the edge of the known world."
"I appreciate the offer, but my mind is made up." Griff shifted in his chair. "Maybe we should get down to business."
"Very well." Gilman set his cigar aside. "I'm the head of a committee looking for ways to bring more money into Hickory Ridge. Like a lot of other towns these days, ours is declining, and we have to do what we can to save it."
Excerpted from Beauty for Ashes by Dorothy Love Copyright © 2012 by Dorothy Love. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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