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He was going to be trouble. Jessie knew it from the instant she laid eyes on him.
Disheveled and more than a little sweaty from her morning ride, she had just come up through the house from the stables and collapsed in a rocking chair on the second-story gallery, which, thankfully, was shady and situated to catch the faintest breeze. Her thick, curly auburn hair, having escaped from its careless bun long since, tumbled anyhow around her face and down her back. One particularly irritating strand had found its way inside her collar and tickled her neck. Grimacing, she scratched at the irritation, neither noticing nor caring about the smear of mud on her knuckles that her action dully transferred to her right cheek. Indeed, the dirty streak was not the abomination it might have been, so well did it blend with the general unkemptness of her appearance.
The riding dress she wore had been made for her when she was thirteen, five years before. It had once been deep bottle green, but it was so faded by years of hard use that in some spots it was the color of dust-dulled spring grass. To make matters worse, she had been considerably less well developed five years ago. The buttons up the front of the bodice strained to hold it together, mashing her generous bosom nearly flat in the process, and this despite the fact that only the previous year Tudi had added wide insets of fabric to the garment's side seams. The skirt was much darned and some three inches too short, allowing far more of her worn black boots to show than propriety permitted. Not that propriety even entered Jessie's head asshe lifted her feet, crossed them at the ankles, and rested her lower heel on the railing that ran around the gallery, putting a scandalous amount of white cotton stocking and thrice-turned petticoat on view.
"Here, now, you cain't do that! You put your laigs down and sit like a lady!" Tudi protested, scandalized. She was seated in another of the half-dozen rockers that lined the wide porch, her gnarled black hands buried deep in a bowl of string beans she was snapping for supper. Jessie gave an ill-used sigh but obeyed, letting her feet drop loudly. With a satisfied grunt Tudi returned her attention to the beans.
Beside the porch, a ruby-throated hummingbird flitted in and out of the pink-veined blossoms of the mimosa from which the vast cotton plantation took its name. The tiny bird's characteristic sound and bright plumage drew Jessie's eyes. Watching it, she bit with relish into the cherry tartlet she had purloined from Rosa, the cook, on her way through the house to tide her over until luncheon.
From the road that wound past the house came a series of rattles and clops as a buggy rolled smartly into view. Its appearance distracted Jessie from the feeding hummingbird, and she observed its approach with interest. When she saw that it would turn up the long drive that led to the house, instead of continuing on toward the nearby river, she frowned. It could only be a neighbor, none of whom she particularly cared to see, probably because they all disapprovedof her and made few bones about it. "That wild Lindsay child," the planters' womenfolk called her. Their delicate daughters scorned her as a playmate, and their eligible sons seemed unaware that she was even alive. Which state of affairs, Jessie continually assured herself, suited her just fine!
Then, with even less enthusiasm than she would have awaited the arrival of one of the neighbors, Jessie recognized the petite, exquisitely turned-out woman perched beside the driver as her stepmother, Celia. Her eyes moved on to the dark-haired driver, where they fixed, narrowing. Him she did not recognize at all, and in a community where one knew all one's neighbors, from the wealthiest planters to the poorest of the dirt farmers, that was cause for surprise.
"Who's that?" Tudi looked up, too, as the carriage bowled toward them along the oak-lined drive. Her hands, busy with the beans, never faltered, but her eyes were wide and curious as they fastened on the stranger.
"I don't know," Jessie replied, which was the truth as far as it went. She shunned the neighborhood social doings as assiduously as she would a nest of vipers, so it was always possible that someone had a visitor whom she hadn't met. But it was quite clear that the man, whoever he was, was no stranger to Celia. Celia sat snuggled too closely against his side, so closely that their bodies touched. She wouldn't sit like that with any just-met beau. In addition, Celia smiled and chatted in blatant provocation, and her hand moved every few minutes to stroke the stranger's sleeve, or give his arm a pat. Such behavior was nothing short of fast. Coupled with Jessie's knowledge of her stepmother, it gave her a dreadful, disbelieving inkling of who the stranger must be: Celia's new lover.
She'd known for several weeks now that Celia had a new man. After ten years of living with her pretty blond stepmother, Jessie could tell. Jessie's father had been dead for nine years, and in that length of time Celia had had easily double that number of men. Celia was careful, but not careful enough to hide her indiscretions from the keen eyes of her less-than-adoring stepdaughter. Jessie's first realization of the true purpose behind Celia's frequent prolonged absences had come when she'd happened upon a letter Celia had been penning to her latest paramour and had accidentally left in the back parlor. Knowing that it was rude to read others' correspondence, Jessie nevertheless did. The missive's blue language and impassioned tone had made an indelible impression... Morning Song. Copyright © by Karen Robards. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.