Amid war and the fading dream of the Confederacy, a wounded soldier and a destitute widow discover the true meaning of Christmas—and sacrificial love.
Recently widowed, Aletta Prescott struggles to hold life together for herself and her six-year-old son. With the bank threatening to evict them, she discovers an advertisement for the Women’s Relief Society auction and applies for a position—only to discover it’s been filled. Then a chance meeting with a wounded soldier offers another opportunity—and friendship. But can Aletta trust this man?
Captain Jake Winston, a revered Confederate sharpshooter, suffered a head wound at the Battle of Chickamauga. When doctors deliver their diagnosis, Jake fears losing not only his greatest skill but his very identity. As he heals, Jake is ordered to assist with a local Women’s Relief Society auction. He respectfully objects. Kowtowing to a bunch of “crinolines” isn’t his idea of soldiering. But orders are orders, and he soon discovers this group of ladies—one, in particular—is far more than he bargained for.
Set against the backdrop and history of the Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, Christmas at Carnton is a story of hope renewed and faith restored at Christmas.
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
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NOVEMBER 13, 1863 FRANKLIN, TENNESSEE 21 MILES SOUTH OF NASHVILLE
"Very nice stitching, Mrs. Prescott."
Aletta looked up, not having heard her employer's approach. Focused on her task, she was determined to leave the factory on time that afternoon. It was a special day, after all, and Andrew would be excited. Her son needed this encouragement. They both did. "Thank you, Mr. Bodeen, for your kind words."
"You always do excellent work, Mrs. Prescott. Every stitch so straight and even, perfectly matching the one before."
She smiled her thanks despite perceiving a negative quality in his voice. Not that Mr. Bodeen ever sounded jovial. Unmarried, not much older than she was, he always seemed a sad sort. A discontented, melancholy man. But then, how could any able-bodied, healthy man maintain a sense of self-worth, much less pride, when he'd chosen to stay behind and work in a factory instead of joining the rest of the men who'd left home and loved ones to fight in the war?
Like her beloved Warren had done.
Her throat tightened with emotion. Would it always hurt this much? She swallowed. Nearly one month to the day since she'd received the letter from the War Department, yet she still had trouble believing he was gone. Perhaps if she could see his body one last time, she'd be better able to accept that —
"Would you join me in my office, Mrs. Prescott?"
"In your office, sir?" Aletta paused mid-stitch and looked across the rows of seamstresses to the clock on the factory wall. A quarter past four. Almost another hour before her shift was over. Then she felt the stares.
She looked around only to see the other women quickly bowing their heads and turning curious gazes back to their work. Except for one woman. On the opposite side of the factory. Aletta recognized her. Marian, she thought her name was. They'd begun working at Chilton Textile Mills about the same time. Marian was gathering her coat and reticule — and wiping tears from her eyes.
"Mrs. Prescott." Mr. Bodeen gestured. "My office, please."
Aletta laid aside the garment she'd been sewing, bothered by having to set it aside unfinished, while the greater part of her sensed that unfinished stitches should be the least of her concerns.
She followed him down the aisle, then past rows of coworkers, the click of her heeled boots marking off the seconds as the tension in the room swiftly registered.
Mr. Bodeen's office proved to be considerably more insulated from winter's chill than the factory, and she rubbed her hands together, welcoming the warmth while also trying to control her nerves. Her knuckles were stiff and swollen from long hours of stitching. But she had only to think of what Warren had endured to silence that frivolous complaint.
He'd always been careful not to reveal too many details about the war in his letters. But one night during his furlough home in April — the last time she'd seen him — after he'd banished any doubt she might have had about his continued desire for her, he'd lain beside her in the darkness and talked into the wee hours of morning. He talked all about the battles, life in the encampments, and the countless friends he'd made — and lost — during the war. "Friends as close as any brothers I might've had," he'd whispered, his strong arms tightening around her, his breath warm on her skin. "There's one fellow from right here in Franklin. Emmett Zachary. You'd like him, Lettie. Maybe you and his wife, Kate, could meet up sometime."
She'd never heard him go on like that. So unfettered, as though the weight of his soul had grown too heavy for him to bear alone. His words had painted indelible pictures in her mind. Images she'd have wished to erase, but for Warren's fingerprint on them.
Anything from him was something she wanted to hold on to.
She'd made a point to look up Kate Zachary, and they'd even had tea on two occasions. But the hours in each day seemed to fly, as did the weeks, and she hadn't seen Kate since the afternoon she'd visited her to tell her about the letter she'd received from the War Department. "... slain on the battlefield, having given the ultimate sacrifice for love of home and defense of country" is how the letter had been worded.
The notice had arrived only two days after she'd received a hastily written letter from Warren telling her he was faring well enough and that he'd penned two more letters to her that he would send shortly. The letters never arrived.
What she wouldn't give to have them now. To have him back.
"Please have a seat, Mrs. Prescott."
Aletta did as Mr. Bodeen asked, her gaze falling to a handwritten list atop his desk. Was it a list of names? She attempted a closer look as she sat. It was hard to read the writing upside down, and yet —
She was fairly certain she saw Marian's name, the coworker she'd seen crying moments earlier. Aletta swallowed, panic clawing its way up her chest.
"Mrs. Prescott, you know how much we appreciate your work. How you —"
"Please don't take away my job, Mr. Bodeen. Reduce my hours if you need to, but —"
"Mrs. Prescott, I —"
"I'm behind on the mortgage, Mr. Bodeen. And keeping food in the pantry is already a challenge. Mr. Stewart at the mercantile has extended my credit as far as he can, and I don't know what I'll —"
"I wish there were something else I could do, ma'am, but —"
"I have a son, sir. Andrew. He's six years old. Today, in fact." She tried to smile and failed. "He's waiting for me even now because we're supposed to —"
"Mrs. Prescott!" His voice was sharp. "Please do not make this more difficult on me than it already is. You are an exceptional worker, and I've written you an outstanding reference. Which is more than I'm doing for the others." He pushed a piece of paper across the desk.
Numb, Aletta could only stare at it, the words on the page blurring in her vision.
"With the war, customers aren't buying clothing like they used to. And there's simply not enough work for the seamstresses we've employed. I'm sorry. You were one of the last women we hired, so it only seemed fitting."
"But you complimented me a moment ago. You said I always do excellent work."
"I know what I said, Mrs. Prescott." He averted his gaze. "I was hoping to ... soften the blow."
She blinked and moved a hand to her midsection, feeling as though she'd been gut-punched, as Warren might've said. It had taken her weeks to find this job, and that had been almost a year ago — after she'd lost her job at the bakery. The town of Franklin was in far worse shape economically now than then. Up until a couple of months ago, the Federal Army's occupation of the town had made for a tenuous existence for Franklin residents. Especially considering the garrisons of soldiers encamped in and around Fort Granger while thousands of Confederate troops were entrenched only miles away.
But according to recent reports in the newspaper, the Federal Army had moved farther south, leaving only a small garrison behind in the fort. The absence of Federal soldiers in town seemed to substantiate those reports.
Mr. Bodeen rose, so she did likewise, her mind in a fog.
"Mrs. Prescott, today being Friday, you may collect this week's wages from the accounting office as you leave."
She struggled to think of other arguments to offer on her behalf, but none came. And even if they had, she didn't think he would listen. His mind was decided. She retrieved the letter of recommendation, folded it, and stuffed it into her skirt pocket.
Moments later, she exited the factory and walked to the corner, numb, not knowing what to do, where to go. So she started walking. And with each footfall, snatches of the conversation from Mr. Bodeen's office returned on a wave of disbelief. And anger. "Please do not make this more difficult on me than it already is."
Difficult on him?
She had half a mind to turn around, march right back into his office, and tell him what difficult truly looked like. Yet such a decision would undoubtedly mean she'd forfeit her letter of reference. Which she sorely needed to help distinguish herself from the flood of other women seeking employment.
Already, evergreen wreaths dotted the occasional storefront, some wreaths adorned with various shades of ribbon, others with sprigs of holly, the red berries festive with holiday color. One bold shopkeeper had even hung a bouquet of mistletoe in the entryway. But despite the hints of Christmas, Aletta couldn't bring herself to feel the least bit festive. Not this year.
Approaching the train station, she saw a man seated on the corner of the street. He was holding a tin cup. Beggars were commonplace these days, and she hated that she didn't have much to give him. As she grew closer, though, she realized he wasn't seated. He was an amputee. The man had lost both of his legs. He turned and met her gaze, and the haunting quality in his expression wouldn't let her look away.
He was blond with ruddy skin and didn't look like Warren at all. Yet all she could see was her husband. How had Warren died? On the battlefield, yes, but had he suffered? Oh, she prayed he hadn't. She prayed his death had been swift. That he'd been surging forward in one breath and then drinking in the breath of heaven in the next.
She reached into her reticule and withdrew a coin — one of precious few remaining even counting this week's wages — and dropped it in the cup, the clink of metal on metal severing the moment.
"God bless you, ma'am."
"And you, sir," she whispered, then continued on even as a familiar sinking feeling pressed down inside her. President Lincoln had recently issued a proclamation to set apart and observe the last Thursday of this month as a day of thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty. But, God forgive her, she didn't feel very grateful right now. And it hurt to even think about celebrating Christmas without Warren.
She hiccupped a breath, the freezing temperature gradually registering as her body cooled from the exertion of walking. She slowed her steps and wrapped her arms around herself as a shiver started deep inside. She tugged her coat tighter around her abdomen, no longer able to fasten the buttons.
Seven months and one week. By her calculations, that's how far along she was.
She knew because that was how long it had been since Warren's furlough. They'd been so careful when they'd been together, or had tried to be. Oh dear God ... How had she let this happen? What was she going to do? She tried not to let her thoughts go to the dark places again, as she thought of them. She was a woman of faith, after all. She believed in God's loving care.
Yet there were times, like this, when her faith seemed far too fragile for the burdens of life. She wished she could hide her thoughts from him. Wished the Lord couldn't see the doubts she courted even in the midst of struggling to believe. But he saw everything. Heard every unuttered thought. And right now, that truth wasn't the least comforting.
Guilt befriending her worry, she continued down the thoroughfare.
When she reached Baker Street, she turned right. Ten minutes later, she paused at the corner of Fifth and Vine and looked at the house two doors down. Their home. A modest residence Warren had purchased for them four years earlier with the aid of a loan from the Franklin Bank. A loan the bank was threatening to call in.
And now she'd lost her only means of support. And stood to lose all their equity in the home as well if she couldn't convince the bank to give her more time. She'd considered selling, but no one was buying. Yet when — or if — the economy finally improved and houses did start selling again, she couldn't sell if she'd been evicted. She continued past her home and toward her friend's house a short distance away.
She'd waited until late August to write Warren about the baby, wanting to be as certain as she could be — following two miscarriages in the last two years — that the pregnancy was going to be sustained. Yet he hadn't mentioned anything about their coming child in his last letter. Had he even known about the baby before his death? The Federal Army had recently blockaded certain southern ports, seizing all correspondence belonging to the Confederate Postal System. So perhaps he'd never received her letter. Or maybe that explained why his last two letters had gone —
Nearing MaryNell's house, Aletta looked up to see Andrew racing toward her from down the street, his thin legs pumping. She hurried to meet him.
"What are you doing outside, honey?" She hugged him tight, his little ears like ice. "And without your coat and scarf?"
"It's okay. I'm not cold. Me and Seth, we're playin' outside while his mother visits with the bank man."
Aletta frowned, aware of Seth watching them from the front yard. MaryNell Goodall knew how susceptible Andrew was to illness and that he needed to bundle up in this bitter weather. Born three weeks early, he'd always been on the smaller side. And despite having a healthy appetite — the boy would eat all day if she could afford to let him — he'd never caught up in size to boys his own age.
What was going to happen to him now that she'd lost her job? How would she provide for him? And, in scarcely two months, the baby?
It occurred to her then that her lack of employment would also affect MaryNell. When MaryNell lost her own job a few months earlier, she'd offered to watch Andrew — and teach him at home like she was already teaching Seth. MaryNell claimed that keeping two boys was easier than keeping one, and Aletta knew there was some truth to that statement. And since dear Mrs. Crawford, the woman who had kept Andrew up until then, had moved to North Carolina to live with one of her children, MaryNell's offer had been a perfectly timed blessing. Only four streets away from theirs, too, and with Seth and Andrew already such good friends.
Aletta insisted on paying MaryNell a small wage each week. Still, she didn't know how the woman made ends meet, having no job and being behind on her mortgage as well. Not to mention not having heard from her husband, Richard, in over three months. His silence didn't bode well. But there was still hope. And MaryNell, as soft-spoken as she was and uncommonly pretty, had never once complained.
Despite the worry settling in her chest, Aletta glimpsed the excitement in Andrew's eyes and attempted a lightness to her voice. "Let's collect your coat so we can go home and start celebrating your birthday!"
"You're still gonna make my favorite pie?"
"Of course I am." She'd saved for weeks to buy the ingredients for the chocolate cream pie — sugar, vanilla, and cocoa being so expensive and hard to come by. Now all she could think about was how much further she could've stretched that money. But it was Andrew's birthday, and she was determined to make it special. She climbed the steps to the porch and knocked on the door.
MaryNell answered a moment later, her expression revealing surprise. "Aletta! You're early. But ... good for you. I'm always saying you work far too hard as it is." Hesitating briefly, she finally stepped to one side. "Come in. I let the boys go outside to play for a bit."
"Yes, I saw them," Aletta said softly, then spotted a man seated on the settee.
He stood as she entered and looked between her and MaryNell, and Aletta got the feeling she'd interrupted something.
"Mr. Cornwall," MaryNell finally said, her voice tight. "Allow me to introduce Mrs. Warren Prescott. Aletta, this is Mr. Cornwall. He's ... an acquaintance. From Franklin Bank."
Tall and barrel chested, Cornwall was heavy around his middle and a good deal older. He had a commanding air about him, but not one that inspired. And although MaryNell had called him an acquaintance, Aletta found it odd that her friend couldn't seem to look the man in the eye. And since when did acquaintances from the bank make house calls?
"Mrs. Prescott." He glanced at her. "Pleasure to meet you, I'm sure."
Aletta nodded, but he'd already looked away. "Likewise, sir."
He turned then, and, whether by intention or not, he angled himself in MaryNell's direction, making it impossible for Aletta to see his face.
"Mrs. Goodall, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon, and I look forward to hearing from you soon."
MaryNell's gaze flitted to his. "Yes. I'll ... be in touch."
He strode out the door and closed it behind him.
Aletta watched him through the window as he continued past the boys, who were playing cowboys and Indians. As her gaze followed him down the street, a sickening suspicion brewed inside her that she didn't want to imagine, much less acknowledge. But when she looked back at MaryNell and glimpsed the dread and guilt in her friend's expression, she was all but certain her suspicions were true.
Excerpted from "Christmas at Carnton"
Copyright © 2017 Tamera Alexander.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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