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A Note Yet Unsung
By Tamera Alexander
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2017 Tamera Alexander
All rights reserved.
Nashville, Tennessee January 12, 1871
Rebekah Carrington stood shivering across the street from her childhood home, satchel heavy in hand, cloak dusted with snow. She counted the strides it would take to reach the front door. How could such a brief distance feel so insurmountable, so much greater a course to navigate than the ocean she'd just traversed? She wished she could blink and be back in Vienna.
After ten years, Austria felt more like home than the city in which she'd been born and lived the first half of her life. But the letter delivered nearly four weeks ago, only days before Christmas, had changed every —
The front door to the house opened.
Rebekah pressed into the shadow of a nearby evergreen, its pungent pine needles sharp and prickly with cold. She lowered her head to peer through the icy branches — breath fogging, hanging ghostlike in the air — and her stomach turned with something more than hunger.
It was him.
How many times since leaving Nashville had she pictured the man?
Yet looking at him now, a decade later, through a woman's perspective, he seemed so different than when she'd peered up at him as a girl of thirteen. Though thicker through the middle with age, he was still tall, standing nearly six feet, and still possessed a commanding presence.
But he wasn't quite the towering figure her memory had conjured.
For years, recollections of the encounters — and that one night, in particular — had haunted her. With time and distance, she'd moved beyond it. She was no longer that young, naive girl, and she wasn't afraid of him anymore.
So why was her heart all but beating out of her chest? She straightened her spine, pulling her courage up along with it.
Her stepfather climbed into a carriage, one far grander than what she remembered him and her mother owning years earlier. Perhaps a purchase he'd made with money he'd gained in a recent inheritance.
That possibility only deepened her resentment toward him, and made her question, yet again, the untimeliness of her grandmother's recent passing.
Not a word from Grandmother Carrington about feeling unwell, much less being ill, and then the shocking news of her "sudden and tragic death." It didn't make sense, and the ache of loss reached deep.
Rebekah eyed the carriage, and the silhouette of the man inside.
Barton Ledbetter was not an honorable man, she knew that well enough. But surely he wasn't so devoid of morals that he would have dared to —
"Who you hidin' from?"
Rebekah jumped and spun, her thoughts veering off track.
A young boy peered up from beneath the bill of a ragged red cap, his belligerent expression repeating the question.
She frowned. "I'm not hiding from anyone."
The tilt of his head told her he thought differently.
"I was merely ... considering my plans." Hedging the truth, she found the tug at her conscience easily allayed by the fact that her actions were decidedly none of this boy's business.
A half-empty sack of newspapers hung from a slim shoulder. And as though he sensed an opportunity, he whipped one out, rolled it up in a flash, and offered it to her as though presenting the crown jewels of the Habsburg family.
"Nickel for a paper, miss. Make it two" — a smirk tipped one side of his mouth — "and I'll keep quiet 'bout what I seen."
Rebekah eyed him. "And what exactly is it you think you've seen?"
"I caught you spyin'. On that family what lives right there." He pointed to the house.
She looked back at the carriage. It was about to pass her! Her stepfather looked up, seemingly straight at her. And she froze. He and her mother weren't expecting her until tomorrow. She'd arrived a day early due to fair weather while crossing the Atlantic, but —
She pressed into the spiky secrecy of the pinon pine, realizing she wasn't ready to face him after all. She needed time to plan her next steps — steps that would take her away from him. And sadly, from her mother too. Unless ... she could persuade her mother to leave with her.
The carriage continued, and only after it turned the corner did Rebekah breathe easier.
"Well, lady? What's it gonna be?"
She turned back to find the boy still there, watching her, triumph in his expression. Recognizing an opportunist when she saw one, she leveled a stare. "You don't even know who resides there, young man."
"Yes, I do!" His tone and set of jaw were almost convincing. "That man there" He pointed in the direction the carriage had gone. "Him and his wife. That's their place. I see em comin' and goin' all the time."
Judging from his meager height and frame, Rebekah didn't think the boy more than seven or eight years old. He was on the lean side, as though regular meals were a scarcity, and his threadbare coat was tattered at the collar and absent its buttons. But he had a shrewdness about him she recognized. Similar to that of boys his age who'd grown up on the streets of Vienna. It was a savvy she both admired and pitied.
No child should be without a home, a safe place from the world. And yet having a home didn't necessarily guarantee a child's safekeeping, she knew.
An idea came to her, and she set down her satchel. She hadn't been raised on the streets, but neither was she an innocent. She reached into her reticule, deciding that — either way this went — the decision about her homecoming would be made for her, and she would accept it.
"I'll purchase one newspaper for myself." She met his scowl with a firm stare. "Along with another. And I'll give you an extra nickel if you'll agree to do something for me."
His eyes narrowed. "What's it you're wantin' me to do?"
"Deliver the second newspaper to that house across the street. Knock on the door, and when the housekeeper answers"— which Rebekah felt certain she would —"ask her to deliver the paper to Mrs. Ledbetter. If Mrs. Ledbetter is at home."
A grin split his face. "Told you, you was spyin'!"
She stared. "Do you want to earn an extra nickel or not?"
He adjusted his cap. "What if she ain't home? You gonna try 'n cheat me outta my money?"
"Not at all. You'll still get three nickels either way. Do we have ourselves a deal?"
He held her gaze, then nodded once, slowly, as though considering another, unspoken, alternative. "I'll do it, just like you said."
Rebekah took the newspaper from him and pressed three coins into his grimy palm. His brown eyes lit, and she gripped the hem of his coat sleeve, having seen how swiftly these boys could run. "I warn you, young man, I'm fast on my feet. Keep your word or risk being chased down the street by a girl."
He snickered. "You ain't no girl. You a lady. And ladies, they never run."
She narrowed her eyes. "This one does."
His expression sobered as he turned, but Rebekah was certain she glimpsed a trace of amusement — and admiration — in his eyes.
From her niche behind the tree, she watched him pause at the edge of the street, waiting for conveyances to pass. She pulled her cloak collar closer around her neck as the flutter of nerves resumed in her stomach, same as happened every time she imagined seeing her mother again after all these years.
Her grandmother had managed to visit Austria every two years, staying a handful of months when she did. But her mother? Not once did she visit, despite Grandmother Carrington's offer to pay. Which had hurt more than Rebekah had ever revealed in her correspondence. Growing up, she'd always been closer to her father, responding to his warm, patient manner. The memory of her mother's attention in those earlier years, while consistent and plentiful, was tainted with the memory of her cooler demeanor and a propensity toward the critical. As though nothing Rebekah had done was quite good enough.
Still, Rebekah couldn't remember exactly when her relationship with her mother had gone so awry. Sometime after her father died. But, no, that wasn't it, though that loss certainly had changed their lives.
It was after her mother married Barton Ledbetter. That was when she'd become more solemn, distant. And ... far more censuring.
They'd exchanged letters through the years, of course. Letters that had grown less frequent as time passed. Yet Rebekah still loved her and knew the affection was reciprocated, in her mother's unique way. But the thought of seeing her again after all these years was an unnerving prospect.
She rubbed the taut muscles at the base of her neck, weary from travel and uncertainty. After having been back in the city scarcely two hours, she knew that Nashville — and her family home — would never feel like home again.
In a flash, the boy darted across the street, skillfully dodging a lumber delivery wagon and outwardly oblivious to the heated curses the driver called down on him. The boy headed in the direction of the house — then stopped cold.
Every muscle in Rebekah's body tensed.
She gathered her skirt, debating whether she'd truly give chase over two nickels, despite her threat, but the boy glanced back in her direction and grinned — grinned, the little urchin — before continuing on to the front door.
Rebekah let out her breath and felt a speck of humor, even though she wanted to throttle his scrawny little neck.
She followed his progress and then found her gaze moving over the house, which had not aged well in her absence. Though her family had never been landed gentry, her father had inherited several parcels of land surrounding their home, which had allowed them to raise animals and keep a substantial garden. A nicety when so close to the city.
But after her mother remarried, Barton sold most of that property. Though where all the money had gone, she didn't know. Now a mixture of clapboard houses squatted one after another along the street that had once been a country-like thoroughfare where low-limbed oaks, decades old, had lent such joy and adventure to childhood summers.
Rebekah pictured the rooms of the house as they were when she'd last lived there, and still found it difficult to believe Grandmother Carrington was gone. Oh, Nana ...
Grief was a strange thing. You could try to avoid it, keep it at arm's length, even maneuver around it for a time, but grief was patient and cunning. And always returned. With a vengeance.
She sucked in a soft breath, her vision blurring.
The letter from her mother had been succinct, void of any detail other than "your grandmother passed unexpectedly, yet peacefully, in her bed," and had spelled out in no uncertain terms that it was time for Rebekah to return home. Then her mother had effectively cut off her funds.
Rebekah wiped her cheek. Dealing with the sudden loss of her grandmother — and benefactor, though of so much more than money alone — was difficult enough. But being forced to return to Nashville, and with the unequivocal expectation of her residing in that house again — with him — was unfathomable.
She couldn't do it. She wouldn't.
Yet she didn't have her paternal grandmother to side with her anymore. To insist on the importance of an education abroad. As if that had been the impetus behind her leaving for Vienna years earlier than originally planned by her father, God rest him. Her grandmother had believed her about the events of that horrible night. But her mother? "Certainly you're confused, Rebekah. There's no way he would even think of ever doing anything like that. You're his daughter now. He's simply trying to be a loving father. Something for which you should be grateful ... instead of misconstruing."
At her grandmother's urging, Rebekah hadn't confronted him about it. They'd all acted as though it had never happened. At times she wondered if that had been the wisest choice ... or merely the easiest.
The boy rapped on the front door, three sharp knocks, and when the door finally opened, Rebekah's heart squeezed tight.
The woman was still as round and robust as Rebekah remembered, almost as wide as she was tall. Even at a distance, the cook's apron appeared perfectly starched and gleaming white, same as every day of Rebekah's youth.
Like pearls gliding on a string, her thoughts slipped to Demetrius, and she wondered if Delphia's older brother was there or on an errand, or perhaps in the garden out back that he loved so much. In nearly every letter her grandmother had written, shed included kind regards from Demetrius, oftentimes along with something witty hed said.
Of all the people shed thought about since receiving her mother's letter, she'd thought most of him. Demetrius was the one bright spot about returning. And she could hardly wait to show him what she'd finally mastered, thanks to his patient kindness and all he'd taught her.
She reached into her cloak pocket and pulled out the wood carving shed carried with her for nearly fifteen years now. The carving was of the dog she'd had as a child. The likeness to the cute little pug — Button — was amazing, as was everything Demetrius carved. Hed told her he simply saw things in pieces of wood and then carved until hed set them free.
Rebekah watched as Delphia stared down at the boy, hands on her hips, and it occurred to her that she hadn't bothered asking the lad his name before sending him on this errand. Delphia took the newspaper from him — the boy talking as she did, though Rebekah couldn't make out what he was saying — and Delphia slowly shook her head.
So then ... Rebekah sighed. Her mother wasn't home.
Part of her felt disappointment, while the greater part felt relief. So the decision was made. Shed just bought herself another day to work up the courage for her official homecoming, and to try to find another place to live, though the two dollars and twenty-four cents in her reticule wouldn't stretch far.
Grandmother Carrington had told her during her last visit to Vienna almost two years ago that, in the event of her passing, shed laid aside some money for her. Rebekah didn't know how much, but she was grateful. Even a small amount would help until she found a way to support herself.
Delphia spoke to the boy again — this time glancing beyond him to the street — and Rebekah held her breath, waiting for him to turn and give her away.
But he merely shrugged his slim shoulders and tipped his red cap in a way that drew a smile from the older woman. Something not easily done.
The little urchin was a schemer and a charmer.
When the front door closed, the boy retraced his steps to the street. He looked briefly in Rebekah's direction and gave his cap a quick tug, his smile claiming victory. Then he took off at a good clip down the street.
Rebekah watched him go, feeling a peculiar sense of loss when he turned the corner and disappeared from sight. Which was silly. She didn't even know the boy.
Yet she felt beholden to him in a way.
The growling in her stomach redirected her thoughts and dictated her first course of action, so she headed toward the heart of town in search of a place to eat.
But the Nashville she'd tucked into memory years earlier was no more. Everywhere she looked, she saw remnants of the heartache her grandmother had written to her about during those awful years of conflict. What few buildings she did recall seemed to have aged several decades in the past one, their brick façades riddled with bullet holes, the dirt-filmed windows cracked and broken or missing altogether. Such a stark contrast to the opulent wealth and beauty of Vienna.
But what she found most surprising was the number of Federal soldiers walking past or standing grouped at street corners. She had no idea so many were still assigned to the city. Surely their continued presence wasn't helping to mend any fences.
Finally, nearly half an hour later, she discovered a small diner and claimed an open table by the front window, grateful to be out of the cold. Having had only a package of crackers since yesterday afternoon, she splurged on a breakfast of hot cakes, scrambled eggs, and bacon.
By the time her meal arrived, she'd scanned the list of advertised job openings in the Nashville Banner, which left her more discouraged than before. She perused the first column again as she ate.
Excerpted from A Note Yet Unsung by Tamera Alexander. Copyright © 2017 Tamera Alexander. Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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