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Charleston, South Carolina—1880
A long column of sullen–looking convicts—black and white—moved slowly and painfully down the sun–baked street. Ragged and barefooted, they were fettered together like beasts of burden, their heavy iron ankle chains rubbing pitilessly against their skin, tearing and making it bleed. The men guarding them walked alongside, thick canes in their hands, urging them along with curses and threats. Others rode in front and behind, the harnesses jingling on their horses.
The traffic was heavy, the pavements swarming with people of all colours, passing through every shade of brown to black. Their clothes were gaily coloured, and the soft blur of the southern speech fell pleasantly on a stranger's ears.
Having become stuck in a mass of horses and traps and fine carriages of the well–to–do to let the convicts shuffle past, Amanda sat beside Nan, her maid. With the sun beating down on them the heat was intense, the humidity making it feel even hotter. Amos, Aunt Lucy's faithful old retainer, was sitting with an air of dignified authority, loosely holding the reins.
He was content to wait it out, but the horses shifted restlessly, eager to be on the move.
Beneath her pretty parasol, which shielded her from the harsh glare, Amanda, too, was restless and impatient to continue, her frustration and temper simmering in the increasing heat. She spared no thought to the wretched prisoners. Her whole focus was on her low spirits. What she did care about was the fact that she was to leave Charleston five days hence for her home in England.
Feeling uncomfortable in the heat, Nan swatted an irritating fly from her cheek. Tipping her bonnet back, she wiped her damp forehead. 'This heat is getting me down. God willing we won't have to endure it much longer and we'll soon be back in England. Never again will you hear me complain about the cold and rain."
"Trust you to say that, Nan," Amanda exclaimed impatiently. Coming to America had been a whole new experience for her, and, without her father's domineering presence, she had been enjoying herself far too much to think of leaving just yet. But circumstances had turned against her. 'Oh, why did Aunt Lucy have to die—just when life held such promise. It has all turned out so different from what I had planned. I have failed dismally, Nan."
Despite her own discomfort, Nan smiled across at her young mistress, thinking how pretty she looked, how cool and elegant in her sky–blue–gingham sprigged gown and a widebrimmed straw bonnet that hid much of her wealth of burgundy–coloured hair. And yet despite Amanda's sweet and charming look, she was, in reality, stubborn, touchy, intransigent and independent, rebellious of all discipline, truculent when denied her own way, and with passions that were easily stirred, like her father, with nothing of her cousin Charlotte's mild–tempered, forbearing nature. In Nan's opinion, who was ten years her mistress's senior, she called for firm handling. She had been indulged by an adoring father and allowed to go her own way for too long.
"It isn't your fault. You weren't to know your aunt would die and your father order you back home."
A touch of anger came to add to the bitterness of Amanda's disappointment. She knew, as she had always known, that her father, having made a fortune out of his various business enterprises, had wanted to move in higher circles of society, and that she was the key to help him attain this.
"Since I have failed to find a suitable husband, he will marry me off without delay the minute I get off the ship. He's eager for me to marry and give him an heir, and he's got someone in mind, I know it—some titled old man whose name and position will be Father's entry into the world of blue–blooded aristocrats."
"Come now. Stop tormenting yourself. If that is so, then I am sure the man he has chosen for you will not give you any cause for reproach. Your father loves you and will take your wishes into account."
"Father's not like that. Oh, if only I could find someone I wanted to marry, Nan. Aunt Lucy was sympathetic to my plight. I've lost count of the eligible men she's paraded before me—but there wasn't one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I'm beginning to think there's something wrong with me."
Nan sighed. Having had this conversation with Amanda many times over the past weeks, she was beginning to tire of it. 'Then maybe you should marry a man who is senile, who won't last the year. Your father would have to respect a year of mourning and by then you would be twenty–one and independent of him."
Amanda looked at her sharply, calculating. Now why hadn't she thought of that? Mulling over what Nan had said with sudden interest, she paid no attention to the carriage edging alongside until its occupant spoke.
"Why, my dear Miss O'Connell. I am so happy to see you. I was terribly sorry to hear about dear Lucy—quite a surprise, I must say. I'm only sorry that I couldn't attend the funeral, but my husband and I have been out of town for a while, visiting our daughter in Wilmington. And what of you, dear?"
Amanda turned to look at Mrs Hewitt, an elderly, statuesque, full–bosomed lady. An acquaintance of her Aunt Lucy's, despite being something of a busybody, she was a likeable, well–meaning woman.
"I am well, thank you, Mrs Hewitt. Aunt Lucy's death was all rather sudden. She took a turn for the worst following a chill and sadly never recovered."
"Well, what a good thing she had you to take care of her. At last she'll be with her beloved Edward. I imagine there is much to do at the house?"
"Cousin Charlotte and her husband stayed on at Magnolia Grove after the funeral to take charge of everything."
"And you? Are you to remain in Charleston?" 'I'm afraid not. I'm going back to England in a few days' time—although I shall be sorry to leave." She shifted her eyes to look at the convicts, closer to them now. She was appalled at the pallid, unshaven faces. The heat and moistness of their unwashed bodies released a sickly stench.
Mrs Hewitt followed her gaze, raising her perfumed handkerchief to her nose to blot out the vile odours. 'Look at them—gallows meat, the lot of them. Probably been working at the docks—been some kind of accident as a ship was being unloaded, apparently—some of the cargo tipped into the sea and every available man was needed to retrieve it. I see one of the prisoners is that vile man Claybourne—the one in the middle—the one responsible for that ghastly crime."
Wishing the prisoners would walk faster so that they could move on, Amanda looked at the man Mrs Hewitt pointed out with scant interest, and then with a growing curiosity. She hardly noticed anyone else—her attention was entirely focused on him. With his mouth set in a thin, hard line, he walked with his head held high, with a kind of arrogance, which, in the midst of so much wretchedness that clung to his fellow prisoners, had its own kind of greatness. She could see that his clothes were of fine quality, but badly stained. The rags of his once–white shirt gave little protection to his broad shoulders and bronzed skin, which showed through in many places, but he did not seem conscious of the hot sun. His overwhelming masculinity stirred some deeply rooted feminine instinct that she acknowledged.
"What did he do?"
Mrs Hewitt turned to look at her, plying her fan with verve. 'Why, don't you remember? He's the man who killed poor Carmen Rider."
Amanda recalled the scandal that had torn through Charleston. The town had reeled with horrified fascination of the murder. Carmen was a thirty–year–old wealthy widow, a Spanish woman, who had been brutally murdered in her home two months or so ago. It was her maid who had found her. The room had been ransacked and she had died from vicious wounds, having clearly put up a fierce struggle against her attacker.
"I was in Savannah with Aunt Lucy, visiting her sister–inlaw at the time, so I do not know the details of the case." Besides, she thought, she had been enjoying the delightful company of some of the charming bucks belonging to Savannah's elite too much to dwell on a depressing murder case taking place in Charleston. 'What do you know about Mr Claybourne, Mrs Hewitt?"
"Not much, only that he lived out of town—in a wooden cabin in the cypress swamp—by the river. Bit of a loner, if you ask me. At one time he spent some time in the Smoky Mountains—with the Indians, some say, where he improved his skill with horses. Carmen hired him to break in some of her mounts. Since her husband died she had had a host of admirers but she quite shamelessly threw herself at Mr Claybourne–proclaiming her love for the man to anyone who would care to listen. From what I've heard he was not as enamoured of her as she was of him, but he stayed anyway. Whether or not they had a full–blown affair is open to speculation."
"He might have fared better had he stayed in the swamp with the alligators,"Amanda murmured. 'I seem to recall there are Claybournes in England—aristocrats, I believe."
"As to that I wouldn't know, but I shouldn't think there is any connection. I cannot see a peer of the realm coming to America to work with horses."
"No, I suppose not. Why do you think he killed her?" 'It was known that they quarrelled and he left her the day before she was killed. When she was found, it was believed that he was the murderer—her brother was certain of it, though he's a rogue if ever there was. There are those who know Mr Claybourne that say his behaviour was most out of character, that he is a man of considerable intelligence, and that a man of that stamp does not commit such acts of madness without good reason. But everything seemed to point to him. He was the prime suspect and arrested and taken to gaol."
"Was there no one else who could have killed her?" 'Opinion was unanimous that he was the only one with a motive strong enough, and in a final quarrel he murdered her. Owing to the seriousness of the case and the social prominence of Carmen—her husband was a well–known and respected attorney in Charleston, you know—the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to hang." 'And what did Mr Claybourne have to say for himself?" 'All the time he stuck to his statement that he was nowhere near her home at the time—and there were many who believed him innocent but none who could substantiate his alibi. The servants gave accounts of constant discord between their mistress and Mr Claybourne and testified that a man of his description let himself into the house and went to Carmen's room on the night she was killed."
As Mr Claybourne passed in front of the carriage, Amanda was aware of the tension and nervousness in herself. He was close enough now for her to see his face more clearly. Beneath his facial growth she could see he was attractive. His jaw was roughly carved, his forehead was high, his eyebrows heavy, his cheeks lean and his hair, though dull and lank, was thick and dark brown.
As if he felt her scrutiny, he turned and met her eyes. She knew instinctively that he was just as aware of her as she was of him. Her heart skipped a beat as she met those eyes steadily, and she saw amber flames ignite within their depths.
His eyes assessed her frankly, taking in her cool, quiet beauty. She was vividly conscious of him, and she felt the unfamiliar rush of blood humming through her veins, which she had never experienced before. Instantly she felt resentful towards him. He had made too much of an impact on her, and she was afraid that if he looked at her much longer he would read her thoughts with those clever eyes of his.
And then he was gone, oblivious to the cane which at that instant the guard thudded on to his back. Amanda watched the convicts become swallowed up by the crowd, her eyes fixed on the tall man until the last.
"When will the sentence be carried out?" she asked Mrs Hewitt.
"In about a week."
When the congestion began to clear, and after bidding Mrs Hewitt farewell, all the way to Magnolia Grove Amanda turned her thoughts once more to her predicament, trying to find a way to circumvent her father. There must be some way to escape marrying a man of his choosing, there must be something she could do. And then the words of Nan came back to her—that perhaps she should marry a senile old man who wouldn't last the year.
Nan was right—but instead of a man in his dotage, why not a man who was to end his life on the gallows one week hence, a man with the name of Claybourne who could well be a relative of the aristocratic Claybournes in England? Then she could go home and truthfully tell her father she was a widow—whilst keeping the manner of her husband's death to herself—and he would have no choice but to respect a year of mourning. By then she would be twenty–one and independent of him.
But suppose he wouldn't marry her? Suppose, despite all her promises of enough food and comforts to make his last days bearable, he still refused to marry her? Then what would she do?
Amanda clenched her hands, her eyes taking on a determined gleam. I'll make him marry me. I'll make him want to marry me, she vowed, with the goad of desperation. Headstrong and tempestuous, she was so accustomed to having her own way that she did not pause to consider that any other way might exist.
She wasn't fool enough to think it would be easy. She would have to evaluate various approaches. Somehow she would have to prevent Mr Quinn from finding out what she was about to do until it was too late for him to do anything about it. He had been in her father's employ for many years, and when she had come to America her father had insisted that Mr Quinn act as her guardian, giving him the authorisation to vet the suitability of the man she might want to marry–her father being of the opinion that, as a mere girl, how could she possibly tell a true gentleman from a rogue? Her only hope was Amos. Amos was an important man at Magnolia Grove; he knew everything there was to know about Charleston, and he could be relied on for his discretion.