Read an Excerpt
Love Me Tonight
By Nan Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Nan Ryan
All rights reserved.
This is what happened.
On a warm May morning in 1865, Helen Burke Courtney was alone on her farm near Spanish Fort, Alabama, a small coastal community on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.
Helen was down in the south field, two hundred yards from the house. Her fair face was shaded with a stiff-brimmed sunbonnet. Her hands were protected by work gloves so old and well used the tips of her fingers had worn through the stiff fabric. The long sleeves of her cotton dress were blousy, the cuffs fastened at her wrists. The dress was gathered and full, the heavy skirts trailing the ground.
Helen had wisely covered herself from head to toe for the long hard day of spring plowing. But as the cool haze of early morning had burned away and the sun had shone through high and hot, Helen had unbuttoned the high-collared dress halfway down to her waist. And she had taken off her shoes and stockings, tossing them carelessly toward the northern edge of the field.
Barefooted, Helen guided the dull, rusting plow while old Duke, her faithful, aged saddle horse, wearily pulled it. Heavy leather harnesses draped over her slender shoulders, gloved fingers tightly gripping the plow handles, Helen made her slow, sure way from one end of the field to the other.
And back again.
The sun-heated soil felt good to her bare tender feet, just as it had when she was a child and skipped alongside her Grandpa Burke while he plowed this very same field.
Like her grandpa before her, Helen took great pride and pleasure in seeing the fertile soil of this lowland farm being turned into neat, furrowed rows. But she enjoyed no such feeling of satisfaction this year. There were few long straight rows to admire. Fewer tender green plants breaking through the rich soil. A large portion of the field was covered with weeds and Johnson grass.
Suppressing a sigh, Helen wished that the sea of sunflowers before her were tall stalks of tender green corn. She was late with the planting. There had been the long dreadful bout with influenza when she couldn't get out of her sickbed, much less do the work. And then when finally she was well enough, the heavy spring rains had kept her out of the soggy fields. Now she badly needed to make up for lost time.
Lord, if only she were twins.
Helen paused for a minute. She turned shaded eyes to the oak-bordered lane leading down to where her property fronted the bay. Helen had turned expectant eyes toward that narrow shady lane since the cool April morning in 1861 when her husband of six months had kissed her good-bye and rode away to war.
Will Courtney had mounted his spirited chestnut gelding that April day, smiled, leaned down to kiss her one last time, and promised he'd be home by planting time. She believed him. The war couldn't last long. Everybody said so. Will would be back before she hardly had time to miss him. The valiant Southerners would quickly vanquish the hated Northern enemy. Then the victors would return to their homes and loved ones and life would go on just as before.
Sure that it would happen just that way, Helen had started watching for Will's return soon after he'd gone. She had looked down that lane day in and day out as the days turned into weeks, weeks into months. And the months had stretched into years.
Missing him fiercely, lonely as she'd never been in her life, Helen had clung to her hopes and dreams and eagerly anticipated the glorious moment when Will would come riding down that lane and back into her arms.
Anxiously she planned for the homecoming. Each evening she set the table with her grandmother's fine bone china and fragile crystal, ready for the jubilant homecoming.
Helen had continued to look wistfully down that lonely lane long after word came that her husband, the brave William C. Courtney, C.S.A., had lost his life in battle.
Helen didn't believe it. She wouldn't believe it. Will wasn't dead. He couldn't be dead; not Will. Not her Will. It was a mistake. He promised he'd come back to her and he would. He had to. He'd come riding down the lane one day and they would have that long-awaited homecoming.
Helen had finally packed away her grandmother's fine china and crystal. She had placed all the delicate pieces in the heavy rosewood sideboard.
But even after the fine dishes had been put away, she didn't stop looking—several times each day—down that long shady lane where last she'd seen him.
Now Helen stared pensively at the silent, empty lane for a long moment before drawing a deep, slow breath and turning her attention back to the work at hand.
"Move it, Duke," she called to the half-deaf horse, "we have a lot of work to do."
Duke snorted and blew and trudged slowly forward. Helen gritted her teeth and bore down on the plow handles, staggering under the heavy weight of the harnesses, her bare toes digging into the soft sandy soil.
Giving a tired whoop of joy when another row was completed, she turned horse and plow about, rested a minute, then started a brand-new row. She was halfway across the long rectangular field when she again paused to glance down the shady lane.
And so it was that Helen Courtney was looking directly at the tree-bordered alley when a stranger suddenly appeared. A man leading a shiny sorrel stallion stepped out of the canopy of oaks and into the warm May sunshine.
Helen felt a jolt of alarm slam through her chest. Her hand reflexively went to the heavy revolver concealed in the folds of her gray work dress. The sight of a small blond-haired boy astride the big stallion stayed her hand.
Surely a man with a child meant her no harm.
Kurtis Northway meant no harm to the widowed Helen Courtney. Or to anyone else. But he knew that down here in the Deep South folks didn't trust him. Didn't want him around.
That had been made more than clear to him.
Kurt Northway was a Yankee.
A dirty, no-good Yankee to these hot-blooded people. It made no difference that the war had ended. He was still their bitter enemy and exceedingly unwelcome in this proud, defeated land.
Kurt was every bit as anxious to leave the South as the South was to have him go. If it had just been him, he'd have been riding home to Maryland this very minute. But he wasn't alone. He had a son to care for. A son five years old. A son who didn't know him; a son he barely remembered.
The day the war ended, Kurt had turned Raider—the priceless sorrel thoroughbred he'd taken with him into war—southwest toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He'd collected young Charlie Northway, the son who'd just been learning to walk when the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. Within days of that fateful event, Kurt had ridden Raider into battle while his young wife took their baby son to her family home in Mississippi.
The summer before the long bloody conflict was finally over, Gail Whitney Northway died of the fever that took the lives of her entire family. Only the frightened, bewildered four-year-old Charlie was spared. Little Charlie had lost everyone.
Everyone but his absent father.
A kindly neighbor couple had taken Charlie in until Kurt could come for him. In gratitude, Kurt had given the destitute old couple all the money he had. He had none left. He and Charlie would have to work their way back to Maryland as best they could.
Kurt Northway shifted the long leather reins from his right hand to his left. Wishing he had a cigar, wishing he had a stiff drink of whiskey, wishing he had enough money to get the hell out of Alabama, Kurt rehearsed what he'd say to the young woman in the field. He hoped she would listen. She might not. She might order him off her property like so many others had in the past few days.
When Kurt reached the perimeter of the field, he dropped the sorrel's reins, looked up at his silent son, spoke gently to his obedient stallion, took a deep, spine stiffening breath, and started forward.
Never taking her eyes off him, Helen pulled up on Duke, slipped the heavy harnesses off her aching shoulders, and again touched her hidden weapon. Chin lifted defiantly, she observed with a look of keen inquiry the Yankee approaching her with long, determined strides. Eyes concealed beneath the stiff black visor of his blue kepi cap, the stranger was broad of shoulder and narrow of waist. A white cotton shirt and faded blue uniform trousers appeared clean if somewhat frayed. His shirtsleeves were rolled up over tanned forearms and his collar was open at the throat. He was a tall, lean man with an easy, graceful stride. As he neared her, his face broke into a warm, pleasant smile.
Smiling with a confidence he didn't actually feel, Kurt Northway saw—standing in the middle of the rich, neglected farmland—a proud, unafraid young woman in a faded gray work dress, lace-trimmed sun-bonnet, and men's worn work gloves. She was moderately tall and virginally slender. Abruptly she removed her bonnet, revealing hair of the palest shade of gold pinned carelessly atop her head. She had a pretty, oval face with skin remarkably pale and clear.
Kurt's smile became genuine when the wary young woman suddenly remembered that her shirtwaist was unbuttoned down past the swell of her breasts. A quick look of dismay clouded her lovely face and she lifted slim, nimble fingers to quickly button the dress. Then, in an appealing, purely feminine gesture, she swept a nervous hand over the pale gold hair and smoothed it.
Kurt Northway had reached Helen Courtney.
He removed his billed cap and, leaving plenty of space between them, nodded his dark head and said, "Kurt Northway, ma'am, late captain, Union army." He extended a tanned hand.
Blue eyes riveted to his face, Helen slipped off her right work glove, shook his hand, and quickly released it.
She said, "Captain Northway, I'm Mrs. William Courtney. You're trespassing on private property. If you've lost your way, perhaps I can—"
"No, ma'am, Mrs. Courtney, I'm not lost. I was told in Spanish Fort that you're looking for seasonal help here on your farm."
His was a voice clear and pleasantly modulated. His hair was a midnight black and his eyes, Helen noted, were a striking shade of deep, deep green, like the dark tropical foliage on the sloping coastal cliffs below the farmhouse.
Kurt Northway was equally aware of the large vivid blue eyes looking at him so fully and frankly and of the pale golden hair framing an arrestingly lovely face. He was charmed by the sound of her soft, cultured voice, even if he didn't like what he knew she was about to say.
"You heard wrong, Captain Northway. If it's honest labor you're seeking, try the loading docks over in Mobile. I need no help here. Sorry."CHAPTER 2
"I'm sorry too, ma'am," he said in a low, soft voice.
Kurt Northway knew she was lying. Knew that the young widow desperately needed help working this remote coastal farm. But she looked on him as the enemy, was half afraid of him.
Careful not to make any quick, threatening moves, he said, "I tried the Mobile docks. The harbor's pretty quiet these days."
Blue eyes snapping, Helen nodded. "Yes, I know." Left unsaid was that his invading navy was responsible for destroying docks and warehouses and bringing shipping to a standstill.
Inclining his dark head toward the small boy astride the sorrel stallion, Kurt added, "Besides, ma'am, my son is too young to be left alone." He pinned her with his forest-green eyes. "I need farm work, so Charlie can be with me."
"Yes, well, I can understand that, but I'm afraid you'll have to find some other farm."
Helen's tone was dismissive. "Captain, I'm presently alone here. My husband has not yet returned from the war."
Helen's husband wouldn't be returning and Kurt knew it. She was a widow. The aging gentleman who had directed him to her coastal farm had told him, "Everybody knows Helen Courtney's husband is dead. She does too. She just won't face it."
"I'm very sorry, ma'am."
As if he hadn't spoken, she went on, "It simply wouldn't do for you to ... to ... Let me repeat, I'm alone here, Captain Northway."
"I understand that, Mrs. Courtney," Kurt said evenly. "And if it were just me, I wouldn't dare propose such a questionable arrangement. But, ma'am, you do sorely need help and surely the presence of my son would make the difference."
Brow furrowed, Helen looked from the tall, dark Northerner to the small, blond boy. Then back again. Her blue eyes narrowed, she said hotly, "You actually expect me to hire you?"
"I was honestly hoping you might."
"You're a Yankee, Captain Northway!"
"Guilty as charged, Mrs. Courtney," he said, uncomfortably shifting his weight from one long blue-clad leg to the other. A tanned finger running unconsciously along the yellow cavalry stripe, he added, "But my boy Charlie's a good Southerner. Spent most of his life down here. His mama—rest her soul—was born and bred in Mississippi."
Helen's gaze left Kurt Northway, went again to the silent blond child. "How old is Char—your son, Captain?"
"Charlie's just five and he's a had a pretty rough go of it, ma'am. He lost his mother and both grandparents a year ago. I'm all he has left and I haven't the money to get him back home to Maryland." Helen's eyes again met Kurt's. He said with total honesty, "I have no money, ma'am. None. I'm not much of a father, I'm afraid. I can't even provide a bed or a meal for my son. But I've a strong back and am willing to work extra hard for any kind of roof over Charlie's head and whatever meager wages you can afford to pay."
Helen listened thoughtfully as Kurt Northway pleaded his case. He told her that he and the boy would be perfectly comfortable in the barn; they could sleep in the hay. Said they wouldn't expect to take their meals inside the house; they'd eat out in the fields or down at the barn. He promised to work tirelessly at any and all tasks needing attention. He vowed he'd keep his proper place at all times. He swore on his honor as an officer that he would show her nothing but the total respect she deserved. And he assured her she'd be as safe as a babe in her cradle with Charlie and him around to watch out for her.
Kurt at last fell silent.
Helen was more than a little tempted to take the tall stranger up on his proposition. Lord knows she needed help and she needed it immediately if she hoped to have a halfway decent harvest come autumn. But the idea of hiring a Yankee—allowing him to live right here on the farm with her—was not only distasteful, it was out of the question.
She'd be run out of town on a rail.
Helen lowered her eyes from his dark face. She looked again toward the tiny blond boy. But her narrow-eyed gaze accusingly touched the shimmering sorrel stallion the child was astride and her delicate jaw hardened. Helen knew horses. The big, fine-boned stallion was a thoroughbred—worth plenty of money to a discerning horseman.
"Captain Northway," she said sharply, "there are a number of wealthy gentlemen in Mobile who would pay you handsomely for your horse."
Kurt Northway's green eyes flashed with a sudden turbulence. He shook his dark head decisively. "Ma'am, that horse is the only thing in this world that I own. He got me through the war alive. I'd sooner sell my own soul than to sell Raider."
The simple heartfelt statement struck a sympathetic chord in Helen. She understood perfectly. Knew just how he felt. She felt exactly that same way about this secluded, rundown old farm with its bluff-front house. She was determined to hang on to it if it killed her, and sometimes she thought it would.
While there was breath left in her body she would never allow the rich, arrogant Niles Loveless to greedily gobble up her beloved land just to expand his own vast acreage.
"Captain Northway," Helen said after a long indecisive pause, "all I can offer are small, long-unused quarters adjoining the barn. And I couldn't pay you anything until harvest time in the—"
"That's fine by us, ma'am," Kurt interrupted, smiling. "Just fine."
Half skeptical, wondering if she was doing the right thing, Helen nodded and set her sunbonnet back on her head. "It's almost noontime, Captain. I imagine your son is getting hungry."
"I wouldn't be surprised, ma'am."
Excerpted from Love Me Tonight by Nan Ryan. Copyright © 1994 Nan Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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