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Savannah, GA, 1881
Holly gripped her mother's hand. The licorice-like scent of laudanum assaulted her nostrils. How could something to ease terrible pain smell so sweet? "Momma "
"Holly, in my Bible.. " Her mother's chest rose with a great deal of effort then fell. "There's a letter." Another labored breath. "Explains all " She paused. "Forgive me." Momma's deep green eyes darkened.
"Momma, there is nothing to forgive." Holly grasped her mother's hand tighter. Her own breathing labored as she eased closer to her mother on the bed.
"Your father.. " The words were raspier.
"He's right here, Momma."
"No, real father " Holly looked over at her father. His dark brown eyes pierced hers and his lips parted. His drawn features flickered with the glow from the oil lamp.
"Emmett Landers schoolteacher " Holly's gaze returned to her mother.
"Allison," her father interrupted, "I'll tell her. You relax."
Real father? Momma must be delusional from all the laudanum and other pain medications. All Holly's life she'd lived in this house on the Savannah coast. Her father was always there. From the earliest of her memories he'd been at her side encouraging her, loving her. Mother must be confused.
Father caressed her mother's forehead, brushing away the red strands, and kissed her gently.
"Forgive me, Holly. Forgive me." Her eyes were wide with fear.
"I forgive you, Momma." What else could she say? She'd been called to her mother's room, having spent the past hours in the kitchen taking care of Momma's chores. Tiffany, her sister, was old enough to help, and she'd done some of the work, but Holly wanted her to continue with her studies.
Father nodded and Mother's eyelids closed. Her lips moved. No discernible words passed through. Holly's stomach twisted. Tears burned the edges of her eyes. Momma was dying and there wasn't anything anyone could do. God, where are you? Why are you letting this happen to such a good woman?
Bryce paced outside the Grahams' bedroom door and wrung his hat. It wasn't right that someone as kind and loving as Mrs. Grahama woman he'd known and admired his entire lifewould have been run over by a careless wagon driver. The creak of the door captured his attention. He watched Holly step backward out of the room, her red ponytail draped between her slumped shoulders. She paused and braced herself against the doorjamb. He closed the distance between them. She turned. He wrapped her in his embrace. "I am here, Holly." Her swollen emerald eyes glanced up into his. Her delicate porcelain skin flushed with emotion. He escorted her to the parlor. "She's dying, Bryce."
She burrowed her gaze upon his and knitted her eyebrows. Holly nodded and closed her eyes. A fresh flood of tears ran down her cheeks. "I don't understand why."
"Nor do I." He brushed a strand of her fiery red hair behind her ear. His fingers tingled. This was the closest he'd been to her in years except in his dreams. He'd been waiting two years for her twenty-first birthday to court her, per her father's request.
Her brilliant green eyes sparkled from tears. "Momma's dying and, and."
"Shh, you don't need to say a thing, Holly." He pulled her into his arms as they sat on the settee. He didn't care if it was proper or not. She was hurtingand she was his best friend. Maybe more, someday.
While Holly was closer to his sister Catherine's age, it had always been he and Holly who would run off on adventures, read the same stories, engage in long conversations and dream with one another. Only after he'd left for college had he realized his love for Holly was more than that of an unofficial big brother.
She placed her hand on his chest and pushed back. "I am frightened. Momma said."
He could sense the fear, as if her life were crumbling. "Whatever it is can wait, Holly. Let me give you my strength to help you through this." She eased back into his embrace and placed her head on his shoulder. He resisted opening his heart to her, as he had resisted for the past two years.
He glanced around the room, so familiar. His gaze settled on the leg of the table that had a notch in it. A notch he and Holly were responsible for. His backside and hers had smarted for quite a while after Mrs. Graham caught them playing with their wooden swords as French musketeers in the formal sitting room. The notch in the table leg was nothing compared to the rare handblown glass vase they had knocked over during their battle.
"I brought a pot of Mother's venison stew. I see you have already started some chicken and dumplings."
"Mother said she would visit tomorrow and lend a hand around the house. I will take care of the chores in the barn. Is there anything else I can do?"
"No." She tossed her head from side to side. She pushed away from his shoulder and wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands.
He pulled out a clean white handkerchief. "Here."
She accepted the cloth and dabbed her sparkling green eyes. "I should get back to the kitchen before the dinner burns."
"As you wish. You are certain there is nothing else I can do for you?"
She smiled. "No, not yet. I may need my best friend, though."
"Anytime, any place. You know how to get in touch with me." He leaned over and kissed the top of her head, as he had done when they were mere children. "I will return before I leave."
"'Tis my pleasure, my lady." He stood and bowed with the flair of a French musketeer. "I am and always will be your servant." He took her hand and helped her to her feet.
Holly laughed. "I seem to remember quite a few games where you were in charge."
"But of course, I am the oldest." He chuckled.
Holly rolled her eyes heavenward.
It was good to see her smile, even for a moment. "Alas, I must excuse myself and be off to ye ole barn."
"And I to slave over the stove."