Read an Excerpt
You Belong to My Heart
By Nan Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Nan Ryan
All rights reserved.
Memphis, Tennessee June 1862
The summer sun had finally gone down on the longest day of the year. But the sticky, stifling heat remained even after night had fallen. As bedtime approached not a breath of air stirred the damask curtains framing the wide, ceiling-high windows. No cooling breeze blew in off the river below. The unending hours of darkness stretching before her promised little relief from the wretched, muggy, unbearable heat.
Mary Ellen Preble felt as if she could stand it no longer.
Not for one more minute.
She stopped pacing in the shadowy gloom of the silent, sweltering drawing room. She whirled about, crossed the large airless parlor, rushed anxiously into the marble floored corridor, and hurried headlong out the double fan-lighted front doors.
The miserable mistress of Longwood lifted her hot, heavy skirts, eagerly crossed the wide gallery, and fled down the front steps of the old family mansion, which sat high on the Chickasaw Bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. The restless thirty-one-year-old divorcée was well aware that she shouldn't be venturing out alone in this now Union- occupied city. But the sultry June heat and the crushing loneliness of the big empty house made her uncharacteristically reckless.
At the waist-high hedge bordering the terraced riverfront lawn, Mary Ellen paused, drew a deep, long breath of the heavy night air, and gazed wistfully down on the river far below.
In a flash she was through the gate and outside the safety of Longwood's vast private grounds, heading determinedly down to the giant waterway.
A full white moon on its ascendancy lighted her way as she picked her careful path down the soaring bluffs to the silvered Mississippi. At the river Mary Ellen paused on the banks. She stepped out of her slippers, took off her stockings, and stuffed them neatly into the toes of her shoes. Then she raised her skirts to her knees and stepped barefoot onto a long, wide sandbar.
Mary Ellen Preble sighed.
The smooth wet sand felt incredibly good to her bare, burning toes. She smiled at the simple pleasure of it. The water, she knew, would feel even better. She would, she decided, stroll to the very tip of the long soft sandbar, step into the river, and wade out into the placid water. Splash about and cool off for a few brief minutes before returning to the prison of her hot and lonely home high above.
Mary Ellen never made it to the water.
She had gone but a few steps when she spotted a bill blowing across the sand. Squinting, supposing it was useless Confederate currency, Mary Ellen moved forward, picked it up, and saw that it was a crisp fifty-dollar greenback. Real money!
Curious, she glanced up. Another bill tumbled toward her. And another. Gripping the fifty in her hand, Mary Ellen released her skirts, allowing them to fall back around her bare feet. She followed the money trail, gathering up the bills eagerly.
Abruptly, she stopped short and stared.
A saber, moonlight glinting on its long sharp blade, stood upright, its tip embedded in the soft damp sand. Beside the saber, tall black boots, neatly polished and gleaming, sat upon the sand. Draped casually over the boots' toes, a tunic of unmistakable Union blue—with yellow naval Captain's eagles—billowed in the rising night breezes. A pair of matching navy trousers peeked from underneath the blouse.
Mary Ellen was immediately uneasy. She felt the wispy hair stand up on the back of her neck, felt her chest tighten in growing alarm.
She spun about anxiously, searching for the owner of the uniform and the money. She saw no one. She heard nothing. She was tempted to take the money and run as fast as she could back up the cliffs to the house. Lord knows they could use it.
After looking all around, she stooped and gingerly lifted the blue trousers. And saw, lying on the sand, a small black leather purse.
Now Mary Ellen Preble was no thief. She was a young woman of impeccable character whose illustrious family name was one of the most respected in all Tennessee and throughout the South. When she was but a child she had learned the importance of honor and honesty from her proud patrician father. Before the war she would never have considered taking something that didn't belong to her. Back then she wouldn't have dared take a look inside the black leather wallet.
Mary Ellen dropped the blue trousers, again looked cautiously about. Then slowly she sank onto her bare heels, lifted the small purse from the sand, peered inside, and saw many bills. A neat, thick stack of spendable United States currency.
On a quick intake of breath, Mary Ellen did the human thing. She snatched all the bills from the wallet, dropped the empty purse back to the sand, and shot to her feet. Eagerly she wadded the bills and started to stuff them inside the low bodice of her dress.
A lean, dark hand, wet from the river, suddenly reached out and covered Mary Ellen's, the strong male fingers imprisoning her slender wrist.
Too stunned even to scream, Mary Ellen instinctively jerked her head up to confront her captor. She saw a dark man with midnight black hair dripping water and gleaming wet lips fashioned into an evil grin. An ominous challenging sparkle flashed from his luminous light eyes before he shifted slightly and his wide, glistening shoulders blocked out the day- bright moonlight.
Frozen with fear, Mary Ellen was unable to make a sound. Heart beating furiously, she lowered her gaze from the menacing eyes impaling her and saw a broad, powerful chest covered with wet, curling black hair. Spellbound, she continued to slide her gaze downward, following the tiny rivulets of water dripping from the crisp chest hair onto corded ribs and a flat abdomen. The hair thinned to a heavy black line going down his belly. When its wiry darkness blossomed again below his navel, Mary Ellen gasped in mortified shock and her blond head snapped up.
The river-wet stranger was stark naked!
Horrified, she blinked blindly at the chiseled face now fully concealed in deep shadow.
A low, masculine voice, which was strangely familiar, said, "The penalty for stealing from the occupying forces is death."
Heart slamming painfully against her ribs, Mary Ellen swayed in a step closer to cover the dark stranger's nakedness with her full, swirling skirts. The shielding gesture brought a soft, derisive chuckle from the shameless naked man.
He yanked her closer still, so close she could feel the moisture from his chest saturating the bodice of her cotton summer dress. "Are you embarrassed, ma'am?" he asked.
Mary Ellen finally found her tongue. Looking up into the pale eyes flashing at her in the darkness, she snapped, "Yes! Yes, of course, I'm embarrassed. You have no clothes on You are naked!"
"So I am," he said calmly in a low, soft baritone, "but then you've seen me like this before. Many times." His long, lean fingers continuing to grip her wrist as he slowly turned his dark head so that the bright moonlight struck him full in the face. "Have you forgotten all those hours we spent naked together?" A long pause. Then, "Have you forgotten Mary?"
She trembled involuntarily. He called her Mary. Everyone she knew or had ever known called her Mary Ellen. Everyone but
"Dear God," she choked, staring in disbelief at the well-remembered features. The high, intelligent forehead beneath the shimmering night-black hair. The magnificent opaque eyes under heavily arched black brows. The high, slanting cheekbones. The straight, narrow-bridged nose. The wide, full-lipped mouth. The firm, beautifully chiseled chin. "Cl Clay. Clay Knight!"CHAPTER 2
Memphis, Tennessee A Hot August Afternoon in 1840
"Clay? Clay knight!"
Pale white-blond hair and colorful pinafore skirts flying, nine-year-old Mary Ellen Preble raced excitedly down the stairs. She burst out the front doors of Longwood, calling to her favorite playmate, the quiet, dark-haired Clayton Knight.
"Clay, where are you?"
Mary Ellen had spotted Clayton Knight from her upstairs bedroom window as he came up the pebbled driveway, carrying a large flat box under his arm. She was supposed to be asleep at this hour, taking her afternoon nap. But naps were for babies and old people. She never took naps anymore.
No one knew that except Clay. Each afternoon at three she yawned dramatically and dutifully went up to her room for the hour and a half of total rest her parents insisted she needed.
But once inside the privacy of her enormous yellow-and-white bedroom, Mary Ellen never closed her eyes.
Instead she read from her favorite storybooks or played with her huge collection of dolls or amused herself by turning somersaults atop her high featherbed.
Or she sat, arms wrapped around her bony knees, in one of the ceiling-high windows. There she spun lovely daydreams while looking out on the lush green manicured grounds of Longwood and the meandering Mississippi River below.
She was seated there in the open window today when she spotted Clay walking up the drive. She hadn't known he was coming. She waved madly to him, but he didn't see her. She couldn't shout from here lest she disturb her mother, who was resting down the hall in the master suite.
So Mary Ellen leapt down from the window, hastily threw on a fresh white blouse and bright blue pinafore over her chemise, and rushed downstairs. Ignoring the whispered warnings and reprimands of the servants, she flew out the front door.
But now that she was outside on the sunny gallery, there was no sign of Clay. She called out to him and got no response. Mary Ellen's small hands went to her narrow hips, and her dark eyes flashed with rising annoyance. Her voice lifting almost to a screech, she again shouted to the youthful companion she knew was probably hiding from her.
"Clayton Knight, so help me, if you don't answer me this very minute, I shall never speak to you again!"
Frowning now and squinting in the brilliant August sunlight, Mary Ellen skipped impatiently down the front steps. She reached the bottom step and looked about, then squealed with childish delight when a sunburned arm shot out from behind a bushy magnolia and slim, tanned fingers snagged a flyaway lock of her white-blond hair.
A laughing Clay Knight stepped into her path, his pale gray eyes twinkling.
"You looking for somebody, Mary?" He gave her hair a gentle tug, then released it.
"Oh, you! You love to torment me." She made a mean face and hit at him, feigning anger. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming today?"
Clayton Knight shrugged narrow shoulders, bent from the waist, and picked up the long, flat box he'd placed beside the sheltering magnolia. "Didn't know I was." He indicated the big box. "Mother finished this one sooner than expected. She said Mrs. Preble was anxious to have it, so she sent me over."
Her quick flash of anger now gone, Mary Ellen smiled up at him. "Good. Momma's asleep. Come on." She spun around and started back up the steps. "We'll leave the box inside by the tall petticoat mirror in the foyer." Her smile widened. "Then we can go out and play."
Clayton nodded and followed her.
The two children were good friends, had been friends since the day the shy six-year-old Clayton Knight first saw the rambunctious five-year-old Mary Ellen Preble. He had come alone to the Preble mansion to deliver an exquisite ball gown that his seamstress mother had made for the beautiful Julie Preble.
That very day—four years ago—Clay and Mary Ellen became friends and playmates, despite the difference in their backgrounds.
And there was quite a difference.
Young Mary Ellen was the adored only child of John Thomas Preble, one of Tennessee's richest, most powerful gentlemen. In an era when cotton was king and Memphis was the cotton capital of the world, the sharp-witted, deal-making John Thomas Preble became a millionaire cotton factor well before he had reached the ripe old age of thirty.
He had ordered construction of the stately home on the cliffs overlooking the muddy Mississippi a full year before meeting a dazzlingly beautiful young lady at a summertime ball in Charleston. Preble knew the moment he saw the slender blond charmer that he would make her his own.
So the big formal mansion became a wedding present to John Thomas Preble's blond eighteen-year-old bride, the beautiful South Carolina aristocrat, Miss Julie Caroline Dunwoody. After an extended honeymoon on the Continent, the wealthy groom carried his radiant, impressionable young bride across the marble threshold of her new home, Longwood.
Julie Dunwoody Preble was genuinely awed by the grandeur of Longwood.
Fronted by tall Corinthian columns, the palatial white mansion was named for John Thomas Preble's old boyhood home. No expense had been spared on this present Longwood's construction and decoration. Preble had sent to Europe for the best and costliest materials and ornaments. Silver doorknobs and hinges from England. Mantels of white Carrara marble. Mirrors from France. Sparkling chandeliers from Vienna.
The huge dwelling was grandly furnished with careful attention to detail. A twenty-five- piece rosewood parlor suite was created especially for Longwood. A gold-leaf harp and a piano graced the white-and-gold music room. Rich damask curtains and upholstery. Reed and Barton silver and fragile Sèvres porcelain. And upstairs in the spacious master suite, an imposing mahogany four-poster bed that measured seven and a half feet wide was reflected from every angle in gigantic gold-leafed mirrors.
The spacious grounds were kept perfectly manicured by a pair of talented gardeners. In season the well-tended flower gardens provided both color and fragrance. Eye-pleasing gardenias, hydrangeas, azaleas, and roses sweetened the moist summer air.
Down the terraced green lawn to the north was a marble sundial with shining brass gnomon on whose stone face was the inscription "I read only sunshine."
A few yards from the sundial a hexagonal white latticed summerhouse was shaded by an old walnut tree and covered with honeysuckle and ivy. Beyond the gazebo a roomy carriage house sheltered a one horse gig, a gleaming navy victoria, and a gold-crested black brougham. On the far side of the carriage house, an enclosed, heated stable was home to a dozen blooded horses.
John Thomas Preble had it all.
He was an influential, respected young man with a lovely, starry-eyed wife, a stately white mansion on the bluffs of the Mississippi, a dozen house servants, and a legion of slaves who worked the vast outlying Preble plantations.
It was into this kind of wealth and luxury that Mary Ellen—slightly less than a year after her parents had wed—was born on a warm beautiful June afternoon in 1831. Within hours of the birth, Mary Ellen's proud twenty-eight-year-old father threw a champagne-and-caviar feast on the manicured grounds of Longwood to celebrate the blessed event.
His exhausted wife and sleeping child safely sequestered behind closed curtains upstairs and cared for by a competent, hovering staff, the beaming father accepted congratulations from the city's blue bloods and businessmen. And he promised to introduce his perfect infant daughter to the world at an even more extravagant gala just as soon his adored wife regained both her strength and her girlish figure.
There had been no such celebration the day Clayton Knight had come into the world. In May of 1830, the year before Mary Ellen Preble opened her eyes to great fanfare, Clayton Terrell Knight was delivered to a pain-gripped, sweat-soaked young woman in a hot, airless back room of a small, shotgun house on the mud flats four miles south of Memphis.
There were no soirees out on the front lawn. No gala parties to announce Clayton's birth. No guests coming by to congratulate the proud father. Actually, the father was neither proud nor present.
No one was present for the birth of Clayton Terrell Knight, save his frail, suffering mother and a half-blind midwife. The father would not learn of his son's birth until, tired and broke, he wandered back home after three days' absence in need of a shave and a hot meal.
Clay Knight's father was a darkly handsome, charming, uneducated man with little passion for home and hearth. Family and responsibility held little appeal for the lackadaisical, happy-go-lucky Jackson Knight. Nor, for that matter, did honest labor.
He had a propensity for the more exciting pursuits life had to offer. Like drinking. And gambling. And women.
Excerpted from You Belong to My Heart by Nan Ryan. Copyright © 1996 Nan Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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