While Conrad criticizes Charlotte for her interest in politics, lectures, and lack of domestic skills, she faults him for his insensitivity, rigid schedules, and harsh discipline. The two just can’t seem to get along. But could all their bickering be a sign of something more—an attraction between the two? Afraid of loving a man duty-bound to war, she ignores the growing affection between them.
Battle breaks out on Lake Erie. As U.S. Naval officers, Conrad and his brother attend their posts. Charlotte turns to fervent prayer and wills her faith to grow strong as she learns to wait upon the Lord. When neither returns, Charlotte fears the worst.
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For Love or Liberty
The MacGregor Legacy Series
By Jennifer Hudson Taylor
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Jennifer Hudson Taylor
All rights reserved.
Wilmington, North Carolina, 1813
Charlotte stood in the sand as waves washed over her bare feet, burying her heels and toes like an anchor holding her captive in time. The cool seawater receded from her skin leaving a mist of white foam layered with broken shells along the shore—much like the residue of the broken pieces of her life.
Her grieving heart threatened to succumb to the pain engulfing her, but the glistening colors of the scattered shells across the wet sand painted a brilliant scene of hope. If she could still see something beautiful through the dark clouds residing in her heart, it was a tiny reminder that the Lord had not forsaken her. Even though Emma was gone, her twin sister had left behind two precious children for Charlotte to love and help raise. She clung to that thought with resolve, especially since it was Emma's last request of her.
Charlotte covered her aching chest with a trembling hand and released the aching sob she had held throughout the funeral. Here ... alone ... with the wide ocean as comfort, she could finally let out the pain. She wept until her empty stomach rolled and tears choked her. Charlotte's eyes and nose swelled and breathing grew difficult as the inside of her head swirled like a monsoon attacking her brain.
Charlotte lost track of time and dropped to her knees. Oncoming waves swept her black gown into a floating parasol around her legs. The sound of the rolling ocean slowly consoled her as she lifted her face to the warm sun. From her earliest memories, the sea had always comforted her in times of distress.
An aggressive wave tumbled over Charlotte, knocking her off balance and onto her side. Her head plunged under and her eyes burned from the saltwater. Once the wave passed, Charlotte sputtered and gasped for air, rubbing at her eyes.
"Charlotte! What are you doing?" A man's voice carried through the breeze and over the splashing waves.
She groaned at the idea of Conrad Deaton finding her in such a predicament. Why did he have the habit of always catching her at her worst? Ignoring the broken shells beneath her feet, Charlotte scrambled to regain her balance before he reached her. She winced as a sharp edge sliced through the bottom of one heel. She grabbed her foot as another wave slammed her under a second time. Charlotte splashed her arms and legs, determined to land on her feet before the next wave hit.
Strong hands grabbed her around the waist and pulled her out of the water. Charlotte gasped as cold air hit her wet skin and she could breathe again. Propelled against the warmth of a solid chest with her feet in the air, she clutched at his shirt.
"What are you trying to do? Drown yourself?" Conrad's voice sounded like a commanding officer.
Well, she wasn't one of his sailors to be commanded. Charlotte pushed against him and kicked in an attempt to be free. A lock of sandy brown hair fell across his forehead as he gripped her tight and grinned. His mustache moved with his mouth, revealing a row of healthy teeth in spite of his time commanding the Victorious at sea. His hazel eyes lit in challenge and a hint of boyish freckles peeked across his nose in the bright sun. Something in her chest skipped with light-hearted joy at seeing him in a different light, but she swallowed back the temptation to let down her guard. This was Conrad, the man who tried to sabotage his brother's courtship of her sister and would have succeeded if not for her wise intervention in distracting him.
He had shed his navy coat and wore a white buttoned shirt with blooming sleeves, navy pants, and black boots that sloshed in the water and crunched seashells beneath his heels. Conrad smelled of leather and musk from a fresh shave and bath, having at least made an attempt to look his best for her sister's funeral that morning. Charlotte closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of him. It had an unexpected calming effect on her. She rested her aching head against him, knowing her struggles would be futile against his strength.
"I realize you are grieving for your sister, but I am not about to sit back and watch you drown yourself." Conrad clenched his jaw as he tightened his hold on her and concentrated on a targeted spot in the sand. "Do you not think the family has been through enough these last few days?"
"Let go of me! I am deeply grieved over the loss of my sister, but contrary to your belief, I was not about to drown myself." Charlotte sighed in exasperation and shook her head. "I only needed a moment alone, to grieve freely without anyone watching and waiting for me to fall apart. Besides, I would never think of relieving you of my presence so easily. Whether you like it or not, I made a promise to help raise our niece and nephew and I aim to do it."
Conrad blew out a deep breath as he set her down on a mound of dry sand near his discarded coat. The rank of captain displayed in bold yellow threads on the shoulders. He settled beside her, propping his knees up and linking his hands between them. Conrad gave her a sideways glance, a look of determination crossing his expression. "Likewise, my dear, I am afraid you will have to put up with me as well. I have no intention of neglecting my brother in his time of need. I, too, intend to be part of my niece and nephew's life."
"We shall see." She shrugged and looked away, wiping wet strands of hair from her eyes. "I doubt you could stay in one place long enough to be much of an influence on anyone." Charlotte lifted her hand and gestured to the ocean. "The sea will call you back before little Davie turns six and Ashlynn is a year old."
Everyone saw him as a sea-loving adventurer who lived for the thrill of exciting heroism, but she knew him for what he was. Captain Conrad Deaton, a man bent on destroying true love because he could never give up his beloved freedom and adventures at sea. To him, marriage imprisoned men with responsibilities and trials. He had begged his brother to avoid it. Charlotte feared while the rest of them grieved, he secretly viewed her sister's death as a way out for his younger brother, David.
"Actually, the navy has already tried to lure me away. I received word yesterday I am being transferred to the war on the Great Lakes. They need a captain to command one of their new ships on Lake Erie. I shall be stationed in Cleaveland." He leaned closer, brushing her hair down the side of her face and behind her ear. "I suppose you shall get your wish. You shall be rid of me within the fortnight."
"What happened to not abandoning your brother in his time of need?" Charlotte jerked away from his touch, glaring at him with contempt.
"Which is why I requested David be transferred under my command, so I can look out for him. Do not be so quick to judge me." He reached for her again, but she slapped his hand away and scooted out of reach. Charlotte dug her palms into the thick sand for leverage and pushed her wet body to her feet.
"You would have him abandon his children only a few days after losing their mother?" Her voice rose as the waves crashed behind her. She shoved her fists on her hips and stared down at him in disbelief. "You are insufferable!"
"There you go again, assuming the worst about me." He pointed at her as he stood. Conrad frowned and turned to wipe the sand from his backside. "We are taking the children with us. Your father has agreed to help us find a nursemaid for Ashlynn. I am not as insensitive and uncaring you like to think."
"Indeed you are." She stepped closer, ignoring the ache in her neck from staring up at him. "My sister knew what she was doing in asking me to help raise her children. She knew David would be too weak to deal with the likes of you and your meddling." She poked his chest. "You will not take those children across the country in this war."
"No, their father is and there is naught you can do about it." He crossed his arms.
"We shall see about that." She turned on her heel and stomped through the sand.
* * *
Conrad groaned as Charlotte rushed from him. He bent to retrieve his coat and realized a trail of red stains followed her footprints in the sand. Was it blood? Concerned, he ran after her.
"Charlotte, wait!" He caught up to her, grabbing her arm. "Your foot is bleeding."
"Let go!" She jerked away and stumbled. Wincing, she reached for her heel. "I shall be fine."
"Not if you get sand in the wound and end up with an infection." Conrad reached for her again, but she avoided him. Tired of arguing with her, he strode after Charlotte and gathered her around the waist. He ignored her surprised gasp and lifted her up, tossing her over his shoulder. "I will not have the family blaming me for allowing you to be so foolish."
"Oh, so I am another one of your heroic deeds, am I?" She beat upon his back. "Put me down. You have no right."
Conrad pivoted around and carried her back to the sea. Charlotte continued to hurl insults at him, but he paid her no heed. He waded into the water to a foot deep and bent to one knee. Maneuvering Charlotte from his shoulder and settling her on his bent knee, Conrad dipped her injured foot to wash off the gritty wound.
She stopped her complaints long enough to bite her bottom lip, in obvious discomfort. It was all the confirmation he needed to know he had done the right thing. The blood washed away, and he could see a half circle cut, but it wasn't too deep. If she would stay off it a couple of days, stitches wouldn't be necessary, nor would she risk an infection.
"At least this nasty gash is on your heel and not the tender part of your foot." Unable to resist, Conrad lightly trailed a fingertip along the inside of her foot, tickling her. She kicked in reaction and jerked back with enough force to send him on his backside. With a chuckle, Conrad managed to keep her in his grasp and took the full brunt of the fall. His breeches were thick enough to protect his flesh from the shells, but not enough to keep from bruising his hide.
"That is completely inappropriate," she said, her green eyes blazing like fire. Charlotte's pink lips twisted into a frown and her wet blond hair tangled around her face and shoulders. Even now she looked beautiful in spite of her disheveled state. The fact she glared at him as if she wished she had a pitchfork in her hand did not discourage him in the least.
Another wave rushed at them. Conrad gathered her tight in his arms and stood to his feet in time to avoid it. Breathing a sigh of relief, he glanced down at her. "We had better get you back, but I must say, I have quite enjoyed the fun." A grin tugged at his mouth. He could never resist teasing her. She made the temptation too enjoyable.
"Fun ... indeed." She turned and motioned to objects lying in the sand. "Do not forget my slippers."
"Would never think of it." Conrad carried her over to them. "Step down on your good foot and I shall retrieve them for you."
For once, she obeyed, leaning on his arm for support as he bent to grab her brown slippers. He dumped the sand out of them. She couldn't put them back on and risk getting sand in the wound. He held them out and met her gaze. She grinned. "You could rinse the sand out of them and then I could wear them again."
"And I could just carry you."
"All the way back to the house?" She lifted a golden eyebrow; her expression suggested he had gone daft.
"No, back to my horse." He bent and swept her up before she could protest. "Your mother asked me to find you. She was worried since you disappeared right after we arrived home from your sister's funeral. The longer it takes me to get you back, the longer she will continue to worry."
At the mention of the funeral, Charlotte's expression fell into a pensive frown. "I have been thinking, it would have been harder if Emma had not already married your brother and moved from home." Charlotte surprised him by laying her head against his shoulder. "Now I am used to having my own chamber and being alone. Still, the aching pain lingers and deepens."
"I know we have had our differences, but I am sorry you are going through this." Conrad wanted to comfort her, but he wasn't sure if she would allow it. Instead, he kept silent as he carried her to where he had left his horse tethered to a nearby tree. Once he settled her in the saddle, he took the reins and mounted up behind her. Now away from the water, the humid heat made his lungs feel like they were suffocating and the discomfort of his wet clothes and soggy boots scratched at his skin.
Conrad smelled the salty sea in her wet hair brushing against his chin. His arms pressed against hers as he guided the reins. Rather than increasing his discomfort, having her near brought a measure of satisfaction he had not anticipated. He wondered if she felt the same. Was it a bond between them or attraction? Charlotte had a way of confusing him like no other, but she also infuriated him quicker than anyone. He used to think his brother had that distinctive honor, and then he had met Charlotte.
They arrived at the two-story brick home half an hour later. As he rode up to the front porch, Charlotte sighed. "Now we will have to explain why we look so disheveled."
"Do not worry. I am sure they are used to it by now. Since the day my brother and I met you and your sister six years ago, you have been headstrong and in constant trouble." He didn't say it, but he had always thought Emma had been the voice of reason, keeping Charlotte from straying too far. With the passing of her twin, he feared Charlotte's behavior would stretch beyond the limits of what was considered proper. Her grief alone could launch her in any direction. The way the family watched her, and the comments they made, told him he wasn't alone in his concern.
The front door opened and her mother, Tyra, rushed out, wringing her hands, worry on her wrinkled forehead. Tall for a woman, Charlotte's mother remained thin and healthy for one nearing fifty. Her hair was swept up on her head in a mixture of red and gray locks. She wore a black gown, but had removed the black hat she had worn to the funeral.
Conrad helped Charlotte dismount as her father and brothers followed her mother out onto the porch with marked concern on their stern faces. A moment later her brothers' wives and children appeared as well, flanking around them and shielding their eyes from the sun.
"Charlotte, you have been worrying your mother—today of all days." Her father crossed his arms and shook his gray head in disappointment. He stroked his full beard in thought as if pondering how best to handle the situation. He wore a black suit and his gray eyes flickered as he assessed their rumpled attire and wayward hair. Unsure of how Captain Donahue Morgan would react, Conrad remained silent. Charlotte leaned into him, as if seeking his support to face them all. He swept her into his arms and carried her toward the house.
Tyra Morgan breathed deeply as tears filled her eyes, but she took an angry step forward and shoved her hands on her hips. "What have you gone and done now, Charlotte? Why can you not walk?"
"Where did you find her?" Charlotte's father's asked, stepping forward to take her.
"In the ocean." Conrad handed her over to her father, knowing the man was still in fine health and could handle her weight. "She has cut her foot on a shell, and we needed to clean sand out of it. I think she will be fine."
"Hugh, take her in and set her on the couch, so I can see if she needs stitching," Mrs. Morgan said.
"Thank you," Hugh said, his gray eyes meeting Conrad's. "Is there anything else we should know? Other injuries?"
"No, I am fine," Charlotte insisted. "You worry too much. I am sorry, I did not mean to concern everyone. I only needed to be alone. You all know how I find solace at the sea."
"Since we just buried Emma this morning, it would help if you would think of someone else besides yourself once in a while." Scott, her oldest brother, scolded her.
Someone cleared her throat and the whole family parted, creating an aisle for Charlotte's grandmother, Lauren MacGregor. She walked forward, leaning on a cane, as she approached Charlotte. Unlike the others, a smile lit her wrinkled face, but moisture gathered in her blue eyes as she reached over and cupped Charlotte's cheek.
"Lass, ye remind me so much of yer mother when she was yer age, strong-willed and stubborn. And Emma was more like me when I came from Scotland." She turned and stared up at her daughter and son-in-law. "This family has had enough sadness for one day. There is no place for anger in a grieving family. 'Tisn't unusual for Charlotte to go running off. She is back now. Let us take comfort in that and in each other. Right now, there is much to be decided for Emma's children."
Excerpted from For Love or Liberty by Jennifer Hudson Taylor. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hudson Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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