Beautiful, proud Audra Brennan feels like a stranger in a foreign land when she comes north from Louisiana to study music. But when she savors her first forbidden taste of desire in the arms of handsome lawyer Lee Jeffreys, his caresses spark a flame within her that burns away the differences between rebel and Yankee, all objections silenced by the fierce beating of two wild hearts falling impetuously, impossibly in love.
Suddenly cannon fire shatters the country. Principled, impassioned, and committed to a nation united, Lee answers the call to fight against the Confederacy, while Audra hurries home to a plantation shadowed by the darkening cloud of war. But in the most terrible of circumstances, can either afford to surrender their heart?
“Power, passion, tragedy and triumph are Rosanne Bittner’s hallmarks. Again and again, she brings readers to tears.” —RT Book Reviews
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Lee guided his carriage beneath the row of huge maple trees for which his family's estate was named. Maple Shadows held sweet boyhood memories for him. He remembered watching men chop down some of the stately trees when he was a child, clearing the way for the curved, bricked drive that led to the ornate octagon-shaped home his father had built here in Connecticut. The estate was to be a summer retreat from the filth and noise of New York City; but in the last few years his father and brothers had made little use of it, finding their lives just too busy to take advantage of the family "paradise" on Long Island Sound.
Lee figured he and his mother were the only ones in the family who truly appreciated this place. There was a time when they all would spend their summers here on Mulberry Point; but now that he and Carl and David were grown, and his brothers had wives and families, it just seemed as though getting everyone together at the same time for more than a few days was impossible. His mother still came every summer, staying from May until September.
Anna Harcourt Jeffreys loved it here, and Lee supposed she liked to pretend that her "boys" were still young, and at any moment they would appear at her door ready to take walks in the sand and climb the maple trees as they did a lifetime ago. He could hear the cry of the sea gulls on the beach beyond the house, remembered feeding them, chasing them as a child. He used to have a huge collection of seashells and snails, but somewhere in his growing-up years he had lost all of that.
He halted in front of a hitching post, then climbed out of the carriage and tied the handsome black gelding that had brought him here from New Haven. He studied the house he loved so much, remembering how he used to run all around it, counting all eight sides of the octagon-shaped structure. His mother had insisted on the addition of a porch that ran the full circumference of the house, its roof serving as a balcony for the second floor. The estate was so beautiful, she wanted to be able to sit on a veranda or walk out of her upstairs bedroom and see in any direction, the Atlantic to the east, Long Island Sound to the south, nothing but heavily wooded hills to the north and west.
A lacy-design black wrought-iron railing edged both the lower veranda and the upper balcony, and the white wood siding of the house was set off by the dark gray trim of the molded cornices and the decorative brackets that supported the eaves and ran around the groupings of double windows and French doors.
Everything was as pretty as ever, and he wished he could have come earlier; but at least the warmth of an early summer had already brought trees and grass and flowers back to life. He was the only family member who spent a good month here every summer, deciding he worked too damn hard the rest of the year not to take this time away. Before opening his own law firm, there had been the years of schooling, both at West Point and Yale. For four of those summers he had not been able to come here at all.
A dull ache returned to his heart when he remembered that one of those summers he had stayed away because of Mary Ellen Eastman. That was supposed to have been the best summer of his life. He was to have brought Mary Ellen here to marry her the summer after he graduated from Yale, but pneumonia had claimed her life before they could wed. He hadn't been able to bring himself to come that summer without her. He still visited her grave back in New Haven, but not as often as he once had. She'd died six years ago. The past was just that now ... the past.
He paused, listening then to piano playing so splendid that it gave him a chill at its glorious beauty. That would be his mother, doing what she loved best, her slender fingers flowing over the keys of the grand piano in the parlor. No one could play and sing like Anna Jeffreys, but in the next moment someone's magnificent soprano voice joined the piano accompaniment. He knew his mother's voice, and she was not singing now. Whoever it was, she ran a close race with his own mother's magnificent singing abilities. The music flowed from the house, filling the air and the flowers and the trees beyond it, carried by a gentle breeze that drifted over the manicured lawn and brought with it the smell of the sea.
Music. It was his mother's life. The sound of her playing and perhaps some student of hers singing only added to the comfort he always felt when he came here. They were familiar sounds, and they told him nothing had changed. He approached the front door, putting a finger to his lips to warn Katherine, the housekeeper, to be still. She had just come through the door to prune some potted plants on the wide veranda when she saw him approaching.
"I want to surprise her," he said quietly.
Katherine nodded, her face lighting up with delight at his presence. "She'll be so happy to see you here," she answered.
Lee gave her a wink. He breathed deeply of the sweet scent of lilacs blooming at each side of the veranda steps. His mother loved lilacs, and hundreds of bushes bloomed throughout the thirty-acre estate.
"Have old Tom take good care of that horse and buggy for me, will you? I rented them at the docks back at New Haven — took a merchant ship from New York. It was the only thing available at the time. Tell him to take the buggy back tomorrow for me. He can take an extra horse along to ride back home."
"I'll tell him." Katherine left and Lee entered the house, closing the screen door softly. The singing continued, floating through the many rooms of the house, filling every corner and stairway. All the windows and doors were open to the warm afternoon, and the music mingled with the soft spilling sound of waves as they rolled onto the beach at the back side of the house. A sea gull flew very near the front doorway, giving out a piercing cry before flying off again.
Lee removed his hat to hang it on the same cherrywood rack that had stood in the entranceway for years. The family's summer home was not nearly as big and ornate as his parents' home just north of New York City, but it was splendid in its own right. Nearby, on a beautifully carved pedestal, a Chinese vase full of fresh-cut flowers had been placed. Lee did not remember the vase or the pedestal. Perhaps his mother had bought them on her trip to Europe this past winter. She certainly did love flowers, but not as much as she loved her music. She had given up a career as a concert pianist and opera singer when she'd had her first son, his oldest brother, Carl. Then had come David, and then himself. There had been a fourth child, but he had died at birth.
Anna Jeffreys had missed being a part of the world of music, but wanted to be home with her sons, so she had found happiness in teaching voice and advanced piano to young people who had the potential to become the very best. At least he hoped she was happy. He remembered the day he'd caught her crying when he was younger, when she admitted that she had given up her career in part because his father had insisted on it. Maybe that was when he decided his father would never tell him what to do, that he'd rule his own life. He had, much to Edmund Jeffreys's chagrin.
He pushed the old hurts aside. He was here, and he was going to enjoy himself and forget family problems. When it came to his mother, there were no problems at all. She was generous and loving, accepting of her children's wishes. In her eyes he could do no wrong.
He headed toward the parlor, anxious to surprise her. She expected him tomorrow, not today. Her student's voice was superb. Lee's own ear for music had become trained over the years, but he had not inherited a talent at the piano, nor any particular desire to learn to sing or play. Still, being raised by Anna Jeffreys, he could not help but appreciate talent in others.
The last student that he could remember his mother having here was a young man who went on to play piano with a New York symphonic orchestra. Now his mother was apparently giving voice lessons to a young woman who dreamed of the kind of career his mother had had. Anna Jeffreys's own voice was still surprisingly strong for a woman of sixty years, but not as strong or as lovely as the voice he heard now.
He walked lightly over Oriental rugs that led past the home's wide central stairway, down an oak-lined hallway to the parlor. A teenage boy sat just inside the double French doors leading into the room. The boy peeked around a potted palm and smiled at Lee. Two students this year? Lee figured the boy was waiting for his turn at a lesson, either voice or piano.
He turned his attention to his mother's cherished grand piano, a full nine-foot, concert-sized instrument his father had purchased for her when she quit her career. Anna sat on the padded bench playing rich chords while her new student stood nearby singing her heart out, and Lee found himself staring. The student was a young woman of elegant beauty, her skin white as pearls, her auburn hair falling in a cascade of curls down her back. That hair glinted pure red when the sun hit it, and it was drawn up at the sides, revealing a slender neck, high cheekbones, and an exquisite nose and jawline.
Lee walked farther inside the room, and his mother, a graceful beauty in her own right, glanced in his direction. Her blue eyes brightened, and her aging but still lovely face broke into a smile as she rose. "Lee, what a nice surprise!" She came toward him, and Lee felt proud of how she had kept her figure over the years. Her once dark, but now graying, hair was twisted into a mass of curls on top of her head. She wore a soft yellow day dress, her skirts rustling as she came closer to embrace him.
Lee gave her a hug in return, wondering if he had grown taller in the year since he had seen her. The top of her head came well below his chin, and he thought now neither he nor either of his brothers seemed to resemble their mother, except for their dark hair. In his own case, he had also inherited his mother's very blue eyes. Carl and David both had their father's dark brown eyes. His mother would sometimes brag that his blue eyes made him the handsomest of her three sons, and he grinned at the thought of how she was always boasting about him and his brothers.
He looked past her then to glance at the younger woman, who remained standing beside the piano, watching him with exotic green eyes. She quickly looked down and blushed, apparently embarrassed he had caught her studying him a little too intently. Pictures of the family were scattered across the top of the piano, Lee's right in the center. He supposed she recognized him from that, and knowing his mother, the young woman had probably already gotten an earful about Anna Jeffreys's "boys."
"How are you, Mother?" He leaned back to get a better look at her.
"I've been fine, except for still having so many headaches these past few weeks."
He frowned. "Well, that's part of the reason I'm here. I'm concerned about you."
The woman patted his arm. "I'm sure it's nothing serious. Dr. Kelsey isn't sure what's causing them, thinks it's just from worrying about your father and the rest of you too much. Your father and brothers work too hard, you know, but at least you find time to get away from the summer heat and filth of New York City. I wish I could get all of you here at once. I'm having a devil of a time getting your father to come at all this year."
"You know Dad. He's supposed to be letting Carl and David take over the factories, but he just can't quite let go." He wondered if she knew deep inside that for the last few years he had made a point of not being here at the same time as his father and brothers. There would only be arguments, and he did not come here for that. His mother hated discord in the family, and he hated upsetting her.
"Lee, this is Audra Brennan," Anna told him, turning from him and introducing the young woman at the piano. "Her father brought her all the way from Louisiana by ship. She's to spend the summer here for voice training."
Lee nodded to Audra. "Well, I expect a summer in Connecticut must be much more comfortable than spending one in the unbearable heat of Louisiana," he told her with a smile. He watched her chin rise slightly, as though he had somehow insulted her.
"When you're born to a place, Mr. Jeffreys, you get accustomed to the weather there," she answered in a heavy but charming southern accent. "Only someone from the North would think the heat of Louisiana is unbearable."
Lee was intrigued by the way she stretched out her words in a rich drawl. North was "Naawth," and she had put a strong emphasis on the word, with a tiny hint of distaste. So, he thought, she's one of those stubborn southerners whose father has probably been preaching that anyone who lives north of Kentucky is some kind of enemy. "My apologies," he answered aloud. "I didn't mean to offend your lovely state. I haven't even been there, but I have been in Florida in the summer, and it was unbearable." He grinned. "To this northerner, at least. Maybe after spending a summer here in Connecticut, you'll understand what I mean. Either way, I'm sure my mother will make your stay here comfortable and memorable. Is your father here with you?"
"My father is very busy with the plantation this time of year, so he could not stay. He has gone back to Louisiana and will come for me in September." She paused, then added, "Father owns one of the biggest plantations in Louisiana, and he dares not be gone for too long at a time. Brennan Manor takes a great deal of supervision, you know, especially with hundreds of Negroes running about."
Lee frowned. Pompous little brat, he thought. She spoke the words as though her father were the most important man ever born. And they owned slaves! God, he hated the concept of slavery. This girl apparently thought nothing of it. He'd like to have a damn good talk with her and her father about that.
"I met Audra's father at the opera in New York City the winter before last," Lee's mother spoke up quickly. She gave Lee a chastising look, as though to warn him not to start arguing with the girl. "Mr. Brennan was there on business. He is not only a farmer, but a cotton broker. He had brought Audra with him that year as an adventure for her, to let her see a bit of the world beyond their plantation, and because he misses her so when he travels."
Audra forced a smile as Anna Jeffreys spoke. Did the woman realize how she still suffered from a terrible homesickness? She had hated New York. It was cold and dirty and ugly. It made Brennan Manor seem like a piece of heaven.
Anna moved around the bench to stand near Audra. She put an arm around her. "Mr. Brennan wanted his daughter to see a real opera, because of her own lovely voice and love for singing," Anna Jeffreys continued. "When he discovered I had trained the lead female singer, he asked if it would be possible for Audra to spend a summer with me. He thought it might be a nice experience for her. Her voice has great possibilities."
"I heard," Lee answered. "Very beautiful."
"Thank you, Mr. Jeffreys," Audra answered.
"Audra was only fifteen then," his mother was saying. "Mr. Brennan wanted to wait until she was a little older to send her so far from home. He refused to send her north again in winter, as she hates our cold weather. Sending her in summer meant he could not stay with her, as that is his busiest time on the plantation, so he allowed her brother to come with her, as well as her personal ... servant."
Lee noticed her hesitation at the word "servant." Did the girl have a Negro slave along? He saw the look in his mother's eyes and knew it must be so. The woman knew how adamant he and his brothers and father were that slavery must be ended in this country. What a disgrace America was to the rest of the world, preaching freedom but owning slaves! He had himself helped the governor of New York, who was a personal friend of the family, work on creating new legislation designed to eradicate the practice.
"I am afraid our poor Audra has been quite homesick," his mother said. Anna Jeffreys had a way of loving and accepting all people, no matter what their way of life, especially if they were interested in music. Music rises above all prejudice and hatred, she had told him once. It is a common ground shared by everyone and can bring people of all walks of life together in joy.
"Maple Shadows is almost as pretty as Brennan Manor," Audra spoke up.
Almost? Was she trying to be nice, Lee wondered, or did she intend the remark as an insult? Probably an insult. He had worked a few times with southern businessmen and aristocrats and found them a proud, pompous bunch who seemed to think their South was the most beautiful place in the world.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tender Betrayal"
Copyright © 1993 Rosanne Bittner.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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