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The warm breath of spring that whispered across the Southland in 1865 held no sweetness in its scent. The lingering odor of the sulphuric smell of war permeated every soul. Waves of rainbow-hued flowers no longer danced in the wind upon a carpet of green, for the terrain was gutted and blackened by the footsteps and fires of war. Few trees dared to bud into new life, as most stood stark and naked against the sky, grim sentinels to remind every living thing of the tortured years of civil strife as North and South had clashed head-on.
Dead. A proud Southland was defeated and lay lifeless among the ruins. Those who survived grieved painfully for the hundreds of thousands of brave men who gave their lives in vain to preserve the world they staunchly believed in.
Kitty Wright was one of those who mourned. The lavender eyes she wearily opened on that chilly March morning no longer sparkled. Now they were dim, gaunt, reflections of her own four years in hell. At 17, before it all began, she had been the most lovely and sought after maiden in all of eastern North Carolina. At 21, she felt very old and very tired. The beauty was still there, but shadowed by grief and despair. Her face reflected the agonizing memories that were forever branded upon her soul.
On this chilly March morning, a mist crept up from the swamplands behind what had once been her home. Rubbing her arms to warm them, she blinked sleepily, wondering where Travis and Sam had gone so early. It had been late when they reached this place, making camp in the thicket to avoid being seen by stray Confederate soldiers. Exhausted, they had fallen on their tattered blankets, and, during thenight, Travis had drawn her to him.
The thought of Travis warmed her now. Once, she had loathed him, despised him, even wished him dead. Now, she knew she loved him as she could love no other man. She had only to close her eyes to conjure a picture of the ruggedly handsome cavalryman, his body lean and hard and muscular, his eyes a smoky gray that could shine with mirth or smolder with lust.
While she had known his tenderness. Kitty had also known his harshness, especially during their early times together, when she had been his prisoner-of-war. He had not raped her. No, Travis Coltrane was not a man to force a woman. He knew other ways, ways to make a woman weep with desire, pleading for fulfillment. This was what Travis had done to Kitty, and she had despised him for it.
The sound of metal scraping against earth made her scramble to her feet and peer out of the scrub brush. There, across the field, on the little knoll she had told them about, the two men heaved their shovels. They were digging a grave for her beloved father. That little hilltop had been John Wright's favorite spot on earth. It was there, beneath the pecan trees, that he could sit and survey all his land. It was only fitting that he stay there until Judgment Day.
John Wright had loved his land, though it had not been a prosperous farm. A man of strong convictions, he did not believe in holding souls in bondage. He freed the slaves that had belonged to his father, and there had never been enough money to hire labor to work the lands. So they had been poor, John Wright, his wife, Lena, and the daughter John had adored.
It was with unrelenting horror that Kitty recalled the night when vigilantes had caught her father helping run-away slaves. The hooded men had beaten him so mercilessly that he lost the sight of one eye. For months he was a broken spirit, having lost all will to live. But when war broke out, John Wright took his old hound dog and left to join the Yankee Army.
His move had left Kitty confused and sick at heart, torn between love for him and loyalty to her homeland. And there had been Nathan Collins, the handsome son of the richest plantation owner in all Wayne County, who was courting her. She had fancied herself in love with Nathan, so she stayed near home and worked in a way hospital with old Doc Musgrave, who had taught her medicine.
Early in the war, Kitty had been taken prisoner by a cruel slave-driver who had once been overseer on the Collins plantation. Luke Tate assaulted her brutally and held her captive while he foraged the countryside, plundering and murdering with his men. He took great satisfaction in keeping Kitty prisoner. She was beautiful, and he gloried in making the high-spirited woman submit to his cravings.
It had been Travis Coltrane who rescued her from Luke Tate.
The fighting was terrible, and men were dying by the hundreds on both sides. General Johnston called for his Confederate forces to retreat. But Nathan took Kitty and said they were not going with the other Rebels. He was taking her to Richmond to try and escape the final battles. Realizing he was a coward, she had turned against him. But he forced her to start off with him. Then they encountered her father, who demanded to know where Nathan was taking his daughter. Kitty lied, not wanting to see the two fight. She told her father she was leaving of her own will. As John Wright turned to leave, Nathan shot him in the back.
Travis and Sam had come upon them as her father lay dying in her arms, and Travis avenged John Wright by killing Nathan.
And Kitty had learned in the last moments of John Wright's life that Nathan had ridden with the hooded vigilantes when her father was so cruelly beaten. Whatever love she had ever felt for Nathan Collins fled forever.
She looked up to see Travis staring down at her, warmth and compassion in those smoky gray eyes. She could only stare at him, her thoughts still whirling.
He knelt in front of her, his voice soft. "We're ready, Kitty. The grave is dug, right where you wanted it. And last night, while you slept, Sam looked around and found some scrap boards from the farmhouse that weren't completely burned. He's made a coffin. We couldn't just lay your father in the ground."
"That was kind of Sam," she murmured. "I think Poppa would like being buried in a box made from the house he loved. Oh Travis, he did love this land." Her eyes swept the now gaunt fields.
Travis' eyes followed her gaze. "I imagine it was pretty--once."
"Everything around us was pretty--once," she said, her voice thick. "Now it's ugly, like the people who walk upon it."
He placed gentle hands on her waist and drew her to her feet. "Soon it will all be over. The South is beaten. Once the Rebels admit that and surrender, we can all start making new lives."
"What about the pain that comes from remembering? Can't you see, Travis? I hate both sides. Everyone! I hate the North for destroying the South, and I hate my Southern neighbors for what they did to my father. Look at this land. Look at the rubble where the farmhouse and the barn once stood. They did that, our good neighbors, because they wanted to vent their rage against my father for joining the Yankees. Wasn't there enough burning and destruction without them attacking my father? And what about me? I did my part for the South! And now this land is mine--but they destroyed it. I hate them all! I hope they suffer as much as--"
"Kitty, Kitty, get hold of yourself." He shook her gently. Folding her against his chest, he murmured against her soft, golden-red hair. "The time for hatred is past. It has to be. This land will prosper again. I promise you that. For now, we have to bury our dead, in reverence and in love. Now is not the time for your heart to be filled with hate. Do you think your father would have wanted you to feel this way?"
"No," she whispered. "Poppa would not want me to hate at all. Let's put him to rest. His suffering is over. Ours is only beginning, or so I fear."
They walked silently to the little sloping hill. Kitty stared down at the gaping hole. She bit down on her lower lip, tasting blood, determined not to cry. Poppa wouldn't want her to cry. He would want her to be strong. He would want her to hold up her head and go on. And this she vowed silently to do, her body starting to tremble with determination.
Travis and Sam had gone into the woods and returned with the crude wooden coffin. They struggled with the weight, positioning it slowly above the grave, then slowly lowering it. Then they stepped back, hands folded in front of them, and Sam said gruffly, "He deserves to have a preacher here. John Wright was one of the finest, bravest, most God-fearing men I ever knew."
"No preacher would stop running from the Yankees long enough to conduct a funeral," Kitty snapped, "much less to pray over the body of a man everyone here considered a traitor. And he was ten times the man any of them were."
"Amen to that!" Sam cried, then, lowering his voice reverently, said, "I've seen John Wright hold a dying soldier in his arms and comfort him along the road to eternity. And maybe that boy would be a'screaming in pain, and with the pure fright of dying. John Wright could talk him into being calm, coax him into praying for his soul with the last breath he drew in this world. And that soldier would die with a smile on his lips. A fine man, John Wright was, and if ever a man was fit to walk through the gates of heaven, it's him."
"I don't think a preacher could have done a better job," Travis said, nodding.
Kitty swayed, feeling dizzy. This could not be happening. The man she adored could not be down there in that hole in the ground, inside that pieced-together wooden box. Sam was straightening, picking up his shovel. With slow, methodical movements, he began to scoop at the mound of dirt beside the grave, dropping clods down into the hole. And as the first thuds hit, the finality of the sound made Kitty gasp and knot her fist against her parted lips to stifle the scream that fought to escape. Travis saw and reached to pull her tightly against his chest.
"I loved him, too," he whispered.
Blinking back the tears, she raised her face to the sky. Taking a deep breath, she began to sing the words to an old hymn her father had taught her as a child, "Rock of ages, cleft for me..."
Sam sang along with her, shoveling the dirt in faster. Travis stood silent, a grim, set look to his face. He was not a religious man, certainly not one given to the singing of hymns. He didn't know the words, anyway. But he cared. He hoped Kitty understood that.
When the grave was completely covered, Sam told her that her father's old dog, shot as he leaped to protect his master, would be buried beside him. "I figure John would have wanted it that way."
Kitty closed her eyes tightly, teeth gritting, as the horrible scene flashed before her once again. Killer, the seemingly lifeless old hound dog, leaping with fangs bared, his body arched in midair, snarling as he hurtled himself toward the man who had just shot his master in the back. The second blast from Nathan's gun had killed the dog instantly. There was not a sound as the animal crumpled beside his master.
"Yes," Kitty whispered. "Killer was with him all through the war."
Sam nodded firmly. "That old dog would march right into battle like he wasn't scared at all. Balls a'flying all around, men screaming, but as long as John kept a'going, Killer was right alongside him."
Kitty turned away, walking slowly across the rutted field, stumbling now and then, her eyes blinded by tears. She stopped suddenly, trying to focus her vision. Bending down, she touched the tiny green vine that was fighting its way out of the starving earth. Was it possible? It was! It was! And she could see another ... and another. The scuppernong vines that Poppa had planted so many years ago. He had said scuppernong would thrive in this soil because it was sandy. And he had talked about how tobacco would be king one day, saying she should one day turn the land to tobacco. She got to her feet, smiling, lifting her face to the sun just now breaking through the early morning mist. There was life here, after all. The Southland was not really dead, and surely not the Wright farm.
"As long as a man's got land, he's never really poor," Poppa had said. "I'd rather have my land than all the gold on earth, because you know its going to be there tomorrow. Don't ever sell this land. Kitty, girl. Never sell the Wright land."
And she had promised him. The land was hers now, for as far as she could see.
She had not heard him walking behind her, nor heard him call to her? Feeling the strong arms slipping about her waist was the first she knew that Travis was there. "I know you're upset, sweetheart, but we need to be moving on. Sam and me need to join back up with our men. I need to find you a room at the hotel. The town is going to be full of Union soldiers, swarming around, and I want you in a safe place."
Kitty wiped at the perspiration on her brow. She was dirty, grimy. The ragged Confederate uniform she had taken from a dead soldier was now bloodstained and stiff with soil from her work in the field hospital. A strand of hair tumbled forward, and she pushed it back from her eyes, seeing that it, too, was stained with blood. How long since she had bathed? She could not remember.
"Kitty, Kitty." Travis was gently shaking her, turning her around to face him, his hand cupping her chin. "I've been talking to you, but you don't hear me. Are you in shock over all that's happened? I know it's been terrible, darling, but you're a strong woman. I know how strong, remember? Because we have been through hell, together."
"Yes." Her voice was barely audible. "We have been through hell. It's over now."
"Well, it's almost over. A few more months, that's all the war can last. Then it's a new beginning for us."
She stared up into his handsome face. This man could warm any woman's heart with just a smile. And he was looking at her now as though he wanted to touch those warm lips against hers. His head moved, lowering, but she stepped backward. It was not proper. Not here, now, moments after her father's burial.
She turned from him.
She turned to stare at him. They had not talked much since he had loomed up out of the swamps at Bentonville in time to avenge her father's death. Kitty had been too anguished. Now, standing only a few feet away from the man she had alternately desired and despised, she felt suddenly shy.
"Kitty. We have to talk. You may not feel it's the time, but we have to. As I said, I think you realize by now that I do care for you."
Kitty stared at him, thinking once again how beautiful his eyes were--not blue, not black, but a blending that became the color of steel. Now they looked warm, loving, but once they had mirrored anger, disgust, even hatred. His hair was the color of the raven's wing, shining black, and he had a firm set to his jaw. His lips were smooth, the bow even. Now she saw a muscle tense. He stood before her, waiting for her to speak, the Union cavalry uniform as dirty and blood-splotched as the clothes she wore.
"I remember an afternoon on a windswept hilltop outside of Richmond," she said. "Poppa and I were sitting on the hilltop talking, happy to be together after so long. And then you came along, saying you had to talk to Poppa about the new orders you had just received from General Grant. You made me leave, saying I couldn't be trusted, since my heart belonged to the Confederacy. I was angry, and I left and went back to the little shack where I was staying in the Yankee camp. And you followed me there, grabbing me and forcing me to submit to you."
"Kitty, I didn't force you," he protested, taking a step towards her, but she held up her hands. "I might have made you want me, but I did not force you."
"Your words were: 'I'm the way I am, and I'll never change, but I do give a damn about you' Well, Travis, I'm the way I am, and I'll never change, but I do give a damn about you." She smiled sadly. "I remember something else about that day, after we made love so sweetly and tenderly. Even though there were times you abused me after you rescued me from Luke Tate, times that I hated you and could have killed you with my bare hands--on that afternoon, I loved you with all my heart. And then I slept in your arms, and I awoke later to find you gone. I went to search for you, and I found you with another woman."
"Kitty"--he gestured helplessly; "that was planned. As cruel as it sounds, it was all set up on purpose. I had to anger you enough to make you leave our camp. I knew what our orders were. I knew you would want to go along, not only because you wanted to be with your father, but because you and I knew at last that we loved each other. Having you see me with that woman was the one way I could send you away from danger."
"My father slipped into Goldsboro to tell me these things. He said you set the whole thing up. But I felt like such a fool. I look back now and think of the way Nathan used me, and then you, and I don't think I can ever trust another man. Poppa was the only man who never deceived me or hurt me."
The steel-gray eyes that had gazed at her so warmly turned cold. "Can you say you never deceived me. Kitty? Remember after I rescued you from Luke Tate, and you tricked me into believing you could be trusted, made me think you loved me? I let my guard down, and it almost got me killed. In fact, the ball intended for me hit another soldier and sent him to his grave. And you ran away with a Rebel soldier and never looked back."
"I did look back," she cried, her body trembling as the memories took over. "When I thought you were dead, it hurt me terribly. But you did use me, Travis. Remember how you scorned me? You said it was beneath you to force yourself upon any woman. You made me feel like dirt, Travis, remember? I had every reason to hate you. You wouldn't set me free then, or send me back to my own people. You kept me with you, dragging me through the battlefields. You gave me no other choice. I could not stay with you, not with the humiliation you offered me."
She turned her face away, unable to meet his angry gaze. "I remember the times in your arms, when you made love to me. No, you never forced me to submit, did you? But you knew a hundred ways to make my body scream, ways to make me tremble with desire, my blood turn to fire. Never had I envisioned such joy, and I thought it had to be love. Later, I felt used."
"I never meant to make you feel that way." He stepped forward and put his arms around her, pulling her to his strong chest. She could feel the pounding of his heart. "You had your painful memories to bear, but so did I. I learned early that a woman can't be trusted, and every time I came close to giving you my heart, you showed me you were like all the others. I wanted to give you a chance. I want to give you another now. Damn it. Kitty, I'm asking you to give both of us a chance at a future together. Maybe this isn't the time or the place, with the Union troops marching over your homelands, and your father hardly cold in his grave. But the future is actually the present, when you stop and think about it, no matter what the circumstances. This is here and now, and I'm telling you that I love you, that I want you, and that I want us to have a life together."
Their eyes met and held, each searching the other for some reason for confidence.
"I love you. Kitty. I think I loved you from that first moment. And when we made love that first time, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. You were in my blood, and for a long time I hated you for it. I had vowed that never again would a woman possess my heart to trample upon it. Yet, you, who were promised to an enemy soldier, you took my heart and made it your prisoner."
"I know about your past," she confessed. "I know about your mother. I know about the other woman in your life who used you. Sam told me. He thought I had a right to know. He saw what was happening between us, and he loved us both enough that he wanted to help us get together. But now I wonder if you could ever trust me, Travis. Perhaps your wounds are too deep."
"My mother didn't actually betray me, Kitty." His voice was bitter. He held her tightly, and she could feel his warm breath on her face. "She betrayed my father. He killed her and then himself, leaving me and my sister behind. I had that grief to bear. Then I went through the horror of having my sister kidnapped by slave traders who sold her into a life of hell as a captive prostitute. She could not endure it, and she killed herself. That was why I joined the Union army when the war broke out, even though I was a Southerner. I would give my life to help stop the enslavement of human beings.
"In my agony and loneliness, I turned to a woman of the streets, who found pleasure in any man's arms. True, I have bitter memories of some women, but you're different. I've seen you work as hard to save the life of a Union soldier as you would for a Confederate. I've seen you stand up under pressures that would have made another woman faint. You're strong. You're also the most hellish woman I've ever tried to contend with. But you've a way about you that goes deeper than beauty--and God, you're beautiful! I want a future with you. Kitty Wright. I want to forget the past and build all my tomorrows with you."
She drew in her breath in wonder. Then she reached out to trail gentle fingertips down his stubbled face. "Oh, Travis, there's so much pain to forget."
"We can overshadow that with happiness."
"Yes, yes, we can." Their lips met, and they melted together. Gently he pulled her down to her knees and they sank to the ground. Then they were lying side by side, and he was slowly unbuttoning her shirt. She could feel the hardness of his manhood throbbing against her thigh, the pulsating strength that told her he wanted her.
"How I have dreamed of this, darling," he murmured.
And so they soared together, climbing to the sun, drifting among the clouds, dancing in the wind, and finally floating back to earth.
For a moment, neither moved or spoke. They savored their closeness. Then Travis raised his head to gaze down upon her with a strange coldness in his gray eyes. "I love you. Kitty, but heed me well. I give you my heart, and if you ever trample upon it and deceive me, you will rue the day we met. For I will have my revenge, be assured."
A chill moved through her. He frightened her. Travis could be kind and loving, but he could also be absolutely ruthless. And this was the side of him that she feared, for when he was truly riled, he was a dangerous man.
"Be good to me. Kitty, and I will worship you. But do me wrong, and you will suffer. This I swear."
"I ... I don't think I like being threatened." Her voice was braver than she felt. But she was not about to be intimidated. "And if you think I'm one of those dizzy women who will be content to sit in the parlor and tat and embroider and make idle chatter with other scatter-brained females, you are wrong, sir. Nor will I be content to sit at home and have a baby every year, while you have adventure and excitement. I have a spirit of my own. It is a free spirit, and no man will ever possess me completely."
He laughed then, that smug laugh that she had always hated. It was infuriating, as though he knew he possessed the upper hand and only humored her when she talked independence. "I already do possess you, little one, and don't you forget it. Now enough of this grim talk. We must leave here and go to Goldsboro and find a room for you while Sam and I rejoin our men. There will be time later to talk about what to do with you."
He got to his feet, straightening his uniform. She scrambled up to put her clothes in order. "What do you mean, 'talk about what to do with me'? I know what I'm going to do, Travis. I'm going to farm this land. The scuppernong vines are coming up. You should see them!" Her voice trembled with excitement. "I might make enough from the crop this year to pay for repairing my father's bee hives. Then, from the honey, I can save money to think about planting tobacco next year. Poppa said this land is good for tobacco. I can find a job in town to tide me over till I can get on my feet. Maybe I can even get a loan at the bank to build a small farmhouse."
He whirled around, eyes wide. "Are you crazy, woman? You talk nonsense. We don't know yet what the impact of the North's victory will be upon the South. Your land may be taken from you. Have you thought about that?"
Her chin jutted upwards in the stubborn gesture that told Travis there was no point in trying to argue with her now. But she would see, he thought wearily. War changes everything, and life as she had known it would never return.
"We'll talk later," he said, forcing a smile and holding out his hands to her. "It's enough for now to know that we have an understanding. Kitty. I love you, and you say you love me. For now, that's enough to build on."
She took his hand and returned his smile. "You'll see, Travis Coltrane." She was bubbling with enthusiasm as they made their way out of the woods. "This farm will one day be the most prosperous in all of Wayne County. It will be a fine place to raise a family."
"Kitty, I don't..." He had stopped walking and stood staring down at her, searching her eyes, seeing such a happy glow there that he could not go on. He could not tell her that her dreams would not come true. He could not tell her that it was not his intention to settle in North Carolina. His home was the Louisiana bayou, and it was there he wanted to take her. He would have to tell her these things later.
"Later," he said gruffly, tugging at her hand to pull her along to where Sam Bucher waited on the other side of the field. "Later, I will tell you. Kitty. For now, there are things to be done."
And she squeezed his hand, confident in their love, sure that only joy and happiness lay ahead. She did not see the shadows in Travis Coltrane's eyes.