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She was not going to hire him. He had always known there was a risk involved in approaching her in this manner, but he had convinced himself the chance of success was worth it. Now there was no chance.
Lucas Dearborn Kincaid looked directly across the reflective surface of the desk separating him from his future employer. Ex-future employer, he thought. Had he been standing he could have made out the blurred edges of her image in the dark walnut. The distortion would not have softened her, only given an impression of softness and vulnerability where there was none.
Luke wondered at what point he had lost her interest, or if he had ever had it. He had watched her attention drift from the topic of their discussion and never once had her eyes left his face. They were beautiful eyes. For all the importance of this interview with her, he had not failed to notice that. Her eyes were the same dark shade of blue as sapphires. The deep color was a perfect match, but the stones themselves had more life.
He had been informed--no, warned--that she was different. Some people had told him this while tapping a finger to their temple and nodding, head cocked a little to one side, trying to convey through a gesture something they seemed afraid to put into words. Others simply shook their heads, an eyebrow raised pensively, while they looked Luke over and announced he would never do. She would never have him. They made it seem as if the difficulty lay more with her than him, but they never explained.
He never asked for more detail. Expressing too much curiosity, he reasoned, would have roused suspicion. Luke did not want to beremembered. He'd observed that Charleston, for all its size and breadth of commerce, had the guardedness of a small town. He had the sense he was welcomed, but only because the community wanted to know the enemy in their midst.
He was, after all, a Yankee.
Bria Hamilton wondered why he thought she would hire an outsider. A Yankee outsider. Someone in the city was amusing himself by pointing Lucas Kincaid in the direction of Concord. No doubt there were wagers being made. How long before he returns with his tail between his legs? She could imagine that even now there was a goodly sum at stake. It occurred to Bria that hiring Mr. Kincaid was the surest way to confound Charleston's genteel wags.
There was a slight curve to Bria's lips as she considered this tempting course, but she had not brought Concord around by acting in ways that defied her own reasoning. Her smile vanished as if it had never existed.
Lucas blinked, startled by the change in her features. For the briefest of moments he had allowed himself to be encouraged by her smile. He had already realized she had not meant it for him. It had never once touched her cool and distant eyes, yet he thought it might portend some hope. On the contrary, Bria Hamilton's gaze never wavered as she continued to look right through him.
"You'll find I am a hard worker, Miss Hamilton," Luke told her. He wondered if he'd already said that. He hadn't expected to lose his way through the interview because of a pair of sapphire eyes, but that was exactly what was happening. Luke could hear himself groping for words as he wondered if this was the end of it all. He could only hope that Bria Hamilton's remote study of him meant her attention had wandered again.
"So you've mentioned," Bria said. "Several times." She watched as he shifted uncomfortably in his chair and realized she had embarrassed him. He probably would have been more comfortable on his feet, standing on the other side of her desk with his hat in hand. It would have given him something to do with his fingers instead of nervously drumming them on the arms of the chair.
Bria did not apologize for her observation and she was not moved to alleviate his discomfort by adding to her own. Although he looked to be just under six feet and only a few inches taller than she was, Bria would not allow him to use the advantage of height, even across the expanse of the desk. "Where are you from, Mr. Kincaid?" Bria asked.
"Is there any other place in New York?" He smiled then, a quiet, slightly crooked smile that came and went like sunlight chasing shadow across his face.
A small vertical crease appeared between Bria's eyebrows as they puckered. She had not expected him to have a smile quite like that. Moments before he had seemed ill at ease, even desperate for some sign of consideration. The smile, though, made her wonder if something else wasn't going on. She watched him rake his fingers through his dark, coffee-colored hair, a gesture that appeared more natural than the drumming fingers.
This line of thinking only served to raise her guard. "New York City," she said softly. New Yawk City. The sweet cadence of her voice made it sound exotic. "And what did you do in New York City that makes you suited to work on a Carolina rice farm?"
Luke knew she was being a bit disingenuous calling Concord a farm. It was one of the largest plantations left standing after the war. It hadn't been sold piecemeal to pay for taxes as some estates had. The Hamiltons had found a way to keep their land. They just hadn't been able to keep it in their name. Bria Hamilton might manage Concord, but she didn't own it. "I don't believe anything I did in New York would be helpful to you," he said. "But it's been a while since I lived there. I've worked on farms in Maryland and plantations in Virginia and around Raleigh. I've done construction in Atlanta and Richmond."
"Construction?" she asked. "Or reconstruction?"
Luke did not miss the hint of sarcasm in her tone. He also did not miss the look of regret that touched her features, as if this brief emotional response had been too revealing. "You may call it what you like," he said. "But I'm no carpetbagger, Miss Hamilton. I don't have the money to invest in the misfortune of others, even if I had the stomach for it."
Bria's eyes narrowed slightly. Could she believe him? His manner of dress didn't suggest someone of means. Although he had made some effort to turn himself out, his clothes had a carefully tended look. One of the buttons on his jacket did not quite match the other three and the thread looked as if it might have been fishing line. The right sleeve was frayed at the wrist and the collar was shiny from being fingered in too many nervous attempts to keep it straight. His shirt was clean and white but the material was thin from more washings than it could properly bear. Small, even stitches closed a tear in one knee of his trousers. His shoes bore evidence of his long trek from town. The road dust would have been less noticeable if he had not tried to brush it away. Now it lay in bands and creases across the worn leather, left there when his fingertips had strayed from their task.
Bria remembered the hat Addie had taken from him before he was ushered into the study. The housekeeper had held it away from her, the sweat-darkened brim caught between her thumb and forefinger as if the thing had given her offense. If Addie Thomas burned it before the afternoon was out, Bria wouldn't have been surprised.
"I'm passing good with my hands," Luke went on. He glanced at them and missed the stricken look that came to Bria's features as she did the same. "I can repair most anything and I can build what I can't repair."
Bria dragged her eyes away from his hands. She was no longer only aware of the steady tattoo of his fingers. He had made her notice him in a manner she had been trying to avoid since the outset of the interview. He had made her see him as a man, with a man's square-tipped nails and flat, powerful palms, with lean fingers that held a certain tensile strength, and knuckles that stood out in hard relief when the hand itself became a hammering weapon.
Bria's own hands slid from the desktop and came to rest in her lap. Out of Luke's line of sight she folded them into a single fist. Her palms were damp and the ridges that were her knuckles were white. "Is that what you've done on the farms where you've worked?"
Luke nodded, then added, "Yes, ma'am. I've learned some things about planting and harvesting along the way. There was no such thing as doing a single job at any of the places I worked, but mostly I know about building."
"You're a handyman." Bria had an opportunity to wonder again about the quiet, slightly crooked grin that made Lucas Kincaid's ordinary good looks suddenly seem extraordinary. That smile moved across his features like quicksilver and sharpened eyes that were very nearly that same reflective color. "Have I amused you, Mr. Kincaid?"
Luke felt himself pinned back in his chair, held there in equal parts by the sapphire eyes and the frosty accents. "No, ma'am," he said carefully. Bria Hamilton was easily the least amusing woman he had ever met. Until now he had always imagined his own grandmother forever being the person to occupy that place in his mind. Uncertain if she would take offense or embrace it as a compliment, Luke kept the observation to himself.
"Why south?" asked Bria. "Surely there is work north of Mason-Dixon and west on the railroads."
"I've been west. I built bridges for the Union Pacific and I've worked in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh."
"You don't appear to stay long in one place."
"That's a fact."
"Then I couldn't really depend on you here at Concord."
"I've never left a job undone, Miss Hamilton, if that's what you're afraid of. I finish what I start."
Bria heard conviction in the last. He was more than serious about it; it was a matter of pride with him. She gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head, reminding herself that she would not be swayed by this. What did his pride matter in the face of her own? She was not going to hire a Yankee. No one could expect that she would.
Bria's chin came up suddenly as if literally struck by the thought. There was one person that might expect it of her. Bria Hamilton came to her feet and braced her palms on the edge of the desk. Stiff-armed, her entire body rigid with the certainty that she was being played for a fool, she still spoke quietly, as if she were unable to give her frustration full rein. "Mr. Kincaid, I must tell you that you have wasted your time coming out here. I'm certain my stepfather had his own reasons for putting you up to this. No doubt Orrin would like to have someone he imagines as a compatriot living at Concord. I'm afraid that in short order you would find yourself as much a fish out of water as he does."
Lucas came to his feet more slowly than Bria had. "I don't understand," he said. But he did. She was dismissing him. "I don't know your stepfather or why Mr. Orrin needs a compatriot, as you say."
"Foster," Bria corrected him absently. "Orrin Foster is my stepfather and the landowner here." Her eyes narrowed. "You did know that, didn't you?"
Lucas wondered how much he could safely say. Truth was best. Lying was dangerous. He offered something in between, a compromise that did not set well with him. "I've never met your stepfather," he said again. "But I heard a Yankee owned Concord. You're right that I thought it might help me find work. I never considered it would make me Mr. Foster's boon companion."
She almost smiled at that. It surprised her that she would be tempted. The moment Lucas Kincaid had followed her example and come to his feet, Bria had anticipated the familiar tightening in her chest and was prepared for it, only to discover it had not arrived with the intensity she was used to. As though from a distance she heard herself say to him, "Orrin's boon companion is bourbon. Scotch if there's no bourbon. Madeira if there's no scotch."
"Any port in a storm.