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An ex-Union captain, Matt has seen more than his share of destruction. And the threats he's getting about the school are almost enough...
An ex-Union captain, Matt has seen more than his share of destruction. And the threats he's getting about the school are almost enough to make him give up. But Verity's spirit and courage inspire him to fight once again for what he believes in—and to show her they can reach their dreams together
V erity Hardy loathed the man, God forgive her. She stood looking down at her late husband's cousin, she on the top step of her wide porch, he on the bottom. The unusually hot autumn sun burned just beyond the scant shade of the roof. Her black mourning dress soaked up the heat that buffeted her in waves, suffocating and singeing her skin. The man had been haranguing her for nearly a quarter of an hour and she didn't know how much more she could take.
"I can't believe you're going through with this insane plan." Urriah Hardy wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and glared at her, his jowly face reddening. He held the reins of his handsome gelding, fidgeting just behind him.
Pressing a hankie to her upper lip, she looked past him to the golden fields beyond. Memories of wounded soldiers—their agonized screams and soul-deep moans—shuddered through Verity. She'd never forget those bloody July days three years ago. She couldn't let them count for naught. Still, her deep uncertainty made her hands tremble. She clasped them together so he wouldn't see this sign of weakness. "Thee knows," she said in a final attempt at politeness, "I've packed everything, and we leave at dawn."
"You're a fool, woman. That renter you've found won't make a go of it. He lost his own farm."
Yes, because he was drafted into the Union Army and thy younger brother, the banker, wouldn't give him more time to pay the mortgage. "That's really none of thy business," she murmured, adding a warning note to her tone.
"You should have rented to me. I'm family."
His reference to family stung her like rock salt. Urriah had cheated onevery business deal she'd ever known him to make. "So thee could have cheated me instead?"
After the brazen words popped out of her mouth, conscience stung Verity instantly. Judge not, lest ye be judged. But she couldn't—wouldn't—take back the words. She stood her ground, her face hot and set.
He swore at her, vulgar and profane, something no man had ever done in her presence.
Her frayed temper ripped open. "I don't expect thee to understand," she shot back with a disdain she couldn't hide. "Not a coward who bought his way out of the draft."
For a moment he rocked on his toes and she thought he might climb the steps to strike her. Instead, an evil, gloating leer engulfed his ugly face. "Well, since you won't listen to reason, I guess you'll just have to take what comes, down in Dixie. You'll be lucky if the Rebs just run you out of town on a rail. If they lynch you, I'll inherit the land and you know it." He chuckled in a mean way and turned his back to her. "The day a woman bests me will be the day hell freezes over," he taunted as he mounted his horse.
His parting shot drew her down the steps and into the dusty lane. "I've made out a will and thee's not the beneficiary!" she called after him. "Roger's father inherits the land as guardian of Beth."
"I'm a patient man, Quaker." He pulled up the reins, stopping his horse. "I can wait till Roger's father dies and then the court will name me, your daughter's next of kin, guardian of her assets." He doffed his hat in an insolent way and cantered off.
Stiff with disapproval, she watched until she could see only the dust his horse's hooves kicked up in the distance. The hot anger drained out of her, leaving her hollow with regret and worry.
Letting anger rule the tongue was never wise. But his cutting words had prompted her own doubts. Was she up to the task she'd taken for herself?
Out of the blue, a memory—vivid and as fresh as today—caught her by surprise. Five years earlier, she'd stood in this very spot as her husband had left for war. She could see the back of his blue Union uniform as he marched away from her.
Then he halted in midstride and ran back to her. Pulling her into his arms, he'd crushed her against the rough wool of his jacket. His kiss had been passionate, searching, as if drinking in the very essence of her. "I'll come back to you," he'd promised. "I will."
But he hadn't. Thousands upon thousands had broken that same promise. She'd watched many soldiers die, both gray and blue. And many had keepsakes from wives or sweethearts in their pockets. It broke her heart to think of it.
She wrapped her arms around her. In spite of the scorching sun, the loneliness she'd lived with for the past five years whistled through her like an icy winter wind. "Now I'm leaving, too, dearest one," she whispered.
She'd asked God's blessing on her plans but how had she behaved the day before she left? Shame over her unruly tongue deepened. She covered her face with her hands as if she could hide her hot tears from God.
"I'm sorry, Father, for my temper. I shouldn't have spoken to Urriah like that. But he's it's such an injustice. He lives and prospers while Roger lies somewhere in an unmarked grave in Virginia." She pressed her hands tighter against her face as if pushing back the tears and her unChristian words, feeling as if she couldn't get anything right today.
"Again I must apologize, Father. It is not my job to decide who is worthy of life and who deserves to die." Lowering her hands, she turned back to the house. Her father-in-law and her daughter would be back from their last-minute trip to town anytime now and she had to get a cold supper ready for them.
At the top step, she paused and leaned against the post. "God, I've felt Thy spirit moving within me, Thy inner light. I'm sorry I'm such a weak vessel. Please use me. Let me reflect Thy light in the present darkness."
Fiddlers Grove, Virginia, October
In one routine motion, Matt rolled from the bed, grabbed his rifle and was on his feet. In the moonlight he crouched beside the bed, listening. What had roused him from sleep? He heard the muffled nicker of a horse and a man's voice. Then came knocking on the door. Bent over, Matt scuttled toward the door, wary of casting a shadow.
Staying low, he moved into the hall and ducked into an empty room. He eased over to the uncurtained windows overlooking the front porch. From the corner of the window sash, he glanced down. A buckboard stood at the base of the porch steps. A man wearing a sad-looking hat was standing beside it and a little girl sat on the buckboard seat.
"Verity, maybe there is a key under the mat," the man said quietly to a woman hidden under the front porch roof below Matt's window.
Verity? A key? A woman was knocking at his door and looking for a key? And they had a child with them.
"But, Joseph," came her reply from out of sight, barely above a whisper. "This might not be the Barnesworth house. I don't want to walk into some stranger's home uninvited."
She spoke with a Northern accent. And this was or had been the Barnesworth house. Wondering if this was some sort of diversion, he listened for other telltale sounds. But he heard nothing more.
He rose slowly and walked back to his room. He pulled his britches over his long johns and picked up his rifle again. Just because they looked like innocent travelers who had turned up after dark didn't mean that they actually were innocent travelers. Caution kept a man alive.
He moved silently down the stairs to the front hall. Through the glass in the door, he glimpsed a shadowy figure, dressed in a dark color, facing away. He turned the key in the lock, twisted the knob and yanked the door open. "Who are you?" he demanded.
The woman jerked as if he'd poked her with a stick, but did not call out. She turned toward him, her hand to her throat.
"What do you want?" he asked, his rifle held at the ready.
Her face was concealed by shadow and a wide-brimmed bonnet and her voice seemed strangely disembodied when she spoke. "Thee surprised me, friend."
Thee? Friend? "What's a Quaker doing at my door at this time of night?" he snapped.
"No need to take that tone with her," the older man said, moving toward the steps. "We know it's late, but we got turned around. Then we didn't find anywhere to stop for the night and the full moon made travel easy. So we pressed on."
"Is this the Barnesworth house?" the woman asked.
"It was," Matt allowed. "Who are you?"
"I am Verity Hardy. I'm a schoolteacher with the Freedman's Bureau. Who are thee?"
He rubbed his eyes, hoping she would disappear and he'd wake up in bed, wondering why he was having such an odd dream. "Why have you come here?"
"Why, to teach school, of course." Her voice told him that she was wondering if he were still half-asleep. Or worse.
Not a dream, then. His gut twisted. Something had gone wrong. But he forced himself not to show any reaction. The war had taught him to keep his cards close to his chest. He rubbed his chin. "Ma'am, I am—" he paused to stop himself from saying Captain "—Matthew Ritter." But he couldn't keep from giving her a stiff military bow. "I am employed by the Freedman's Bureau, too. Did you come with a message for me? Or are you on your way to some other—"
"This is the Barnesworth house?" the woman interrupted.
He didn't appreciate being cut off. "This was the Barnesworth house. It belongs to the Freedman's Bureau now."
Something moved in the shadows behind the strangers. Matt gripped his rifle and raised it just a bit. He searched the shadows for any other telltale movement. It could just be an opossum or a raccoon. Or someone else with a rifle and lethal intent.
The woman turned her head as if she had noticed his distraction. "Is there anything wrong?"
The older gentleman said, "I think we need to shed some light on the situation." He lifted a little girl with long dark braids from the buckboard and drew her up the steps. "I'm Joseph Hardy. Call me Joseph, as Verity does." He offered Matt his hand. "I'm Verity's father-in-law. Why don't you invite us in, light a lamp and we can talk this out?"
Matt hesitated. If someone else were watching them, it would be better to get them all inside. And he couldn't see any reason not to take them at face value.
Four years of war had whittled down a good deal of his society manners. "Sorry. Didn't mean to be rude."
Matt gripped the man's gnarled hand briefly and then gave way, leading them to the parlor off the entry hall. He lit an oil lamp on the mantel and set the glass globe around the golden point of light. Then he set a vase in front of it, making sure the light was diffused and didn't make them easy targets. He knew what Fiddlers Grove was capable of doing to those with unpopular views.
Turning, he watched the woman sit down on the sofa. She coaxed the little girl, also dressed in black, to sit beside her. Joseph chose a comfortable rocker nearby. Matt sat down on the love seat opposite them, giving him the best view of the front parlor windows. He rested the rifle on his lap at the ready. Now that he had more light, he saw that they looked weary and travel-worn. But what was he supposed to do with them?
He was still unable to make out the woman's face, hidden by the brim of her plain black bonnet. He glanced at her hands folded in front of her. Under her thin gloves he saw the outline of a wedding band on her right hand. Another widow, then. Every town was crowded with widows in mourning. He knew they deserved his sympathy, but he was tired of sidestepping the lures cast toward him.
He watched the woman untie and remove her bonnet. The black clothing, Quaker speech and the title of teacher had misled him. He'd expected mousy brown hair and a plain, older face. But she looked to be around his age, in her midtwenties. Vivid copper-colored hair curled around her face, refusing to stay pulled back in a severe bun. Her almost transparent skin was illuminated by large caramel-brown eyes. The look in those eyes said that, in spite of her fatigue, this widow was not a woman to dismiss. A vague feeling of disquiet wiggled through him.
Why are you here? And how can I get you to leave? Soon?
As if she'd heard his unspoken questions, she began explaining. "I was told in a letter from the Freedman's Bureau to come to this house this week and get settled before I start my teaching duties next week. But I was not told a gentleman would be at this house also." The cool tone of her voice told him that she would not be casting any lures in his direction. In fact, he'd been right. She sounded as disgruntled to find him here as he felt in confronting her.
Good. But what had happened? Matt frowned as he added up the facts. He should have expected something like this—everything had been running too smoothly. The Freedman's Bureau was part of the War Department. And after serving four years in the Union Army, he didn't trust the War Department to get anything right. "There's been a mistake."
Posted April 2, 2009