Read In a Stranger's Arms Online
Authors: Deborah Hale
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Victorian, #Historical Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #United States, #Historical Romance
As she studied on the problem, which seemed to admit no good solution, Manning Forbes spoke up. “I don’t mean you or your children any harm, Mrs. Marsh. If it will make you feel safer, you can take my gun.”
That decided her. “Go, Lon. And take that woman with you.”
Caddie strove to sound more resolute than she felt. Turning out kinfolk went so hard against the Southern grain. No matter how great a threat they represented to her children’s future. No matter what other resources she knew they had at their disposal.
“Mr. Forbes has demonstrated he isn’t spleeny about using that gun, and I don’t reckon a Yankee would land in much trouble if he did shoot you. I’ll let you hang on to the rifle for now, sir. You’ll be a better shot than I am.”
As if taking his cue from her warning to Lon, Manning Forbes cocked his rifle and took aim. Lon looked from Caddie to the Yankee and back, like a gambler trying to predict the strength of his opponent’s hand. Would he see through her bluff?
Likely. From that long-ago honeymoon barbecue when she’d first been introduced to Del’s younger brother, Caddie had sensed Lon saw beneath her facade of assurance. She’d sometimes felt he was looking straight through her dress and corset and layers of petticoats, admiring her in a way he had no business doing.
Yes. Lon might recognize her vulnerability and try to exploit it. But what about the Yankee? Caddie had little doubt he’d put a bullet into Lon if push came to shove. Or was that just a ruse on his part? If so, Manning Forbes had nerves of iron and a poker face. Right now, Caddie was grateful for both.
“Have it your way,” Lon snarled. Clearly, he wasn’t prepared to call the Yankee’s bluff. “Lydene and I were talking about moving over to Hemlock Grove for the summer, anyhow. A few months trying to fend for yourself out in the country and you’ll come begging me to take the place off your hands by fall.”
With every word, Lon’s easy confidence returned and slapped Caddie in the face. Pulling out another cigar, he gave it an appreciative sniff and grinned at his wife. “Go pack up what you need for tonight, sugar. We’ll collect the rest in a day or so.”
Lydene. I’ll go hitch the buggy.” Lon gave Caddie and Manning Forbes a jaunty salute with his cigar and ambled toward the stables.
Lydene glared at Caddie, her ruddy complexion grown pale as skim milk. “We’ll be back. You ain’t the lady of the manor anymore,
As she stood there with her children, waiting for Lon and Lydene to go, every sign of damage and neglect around the once proud plantation rose up to mock Caddie’s dream of reviving it. Sabbath Hollow had once bred some of the finest stock in a state famed for its horseflesh. Who in Virginia was left with the money to buy pedigreed beauties like the Marshes had once produced? And if anyone did, how would Caddie raise the capital to get back into such a costly operation?
Would the sheer scope of Sabbath Hollow defeat her as the Yankees had failed to do?
Watching Lon Marsh’s buggy trundle off down the lane, Manning sensed the tightly wound tension seeping out of his shoulders. His taut grip on the rifle stock eased. Unsure if he could have brought himself to shoot the Virginian, Manning breathed a little easier since he hadn’t had to find out
His gaze came to rest on Caddie Marsh and the children. His muscles tightened again. Now that he’d served his purpose in getting rid of her unwanted in-laws, would she send him away with a flea in his ear, as she’d sent them?
Holding the gun out to Mrs. Marsh, he approached them. The little girl continued to regard him gravely, while the boy scuttled behind his mother. From the look on Caddie Marsh’s face, Manning could tell she wanted to draw back from him, too. Perhaps for the benefit of the children, she held her ground and studied him with a determined gaze.
“Thank you for making my brother-in-law go, Mr. Forbes.” Her words were a correct and proper expression of gratitude, but they lacked a single degree of warmth. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, my children are hungry and tired from our trip.”
He would like to have allowed her the luxury of settling in before he made his offer. A little time might have made her more receptive to the notion. But he could not ignore the subtle threat posed by Lon Marsh. It was against such threats Manning had sworn to defend her.
“We need to talk, Mrs. Marsh, and I’m afraid it can’t wait. I’ve known men like your brother-in-law. Smooth as cream when everything’s going their way, but deny them what they want and you’d better watch your back.”
She stiffened. “I’ll thank you not to speak slightingly of our kin, Mr. Manning. I’m certain when he sees I mean to stay and make a go of this place, Lon will come around.” The turbulence in her eyes betrayed doubt. “As for talking to me, I have more pressing concerns just now. Good day, sir.”
He wasn’t going to get anywhere by forcing the issue, Manning realized. Opposition would only strengthen her contrary resolve. He needed to take a different tack and stall for time. Give Caddie Marsh an opportunity to change her mind.
“I apologize for upsetting you with my harsh assessment of your brother-in-law’s character, ma’am.” He wouldn’t retract what he’d said, though, for it was the truth. “Let me make amends by stabling your horse and unloading your wagon.”
When she looked ready to refuse, he laid the rifle at her feet “If I wanted to steal anything, I’d just hold you at gunpoint and take it, ma’am. Why don’t you go feed your children and put them to bed?”
The boy peeped out from behind his mother’s skirts. “Can we eat, Mama? I’m awful hungry.”
When the child ventured to look him in the face, Manning shaped his features into an encouraging smile. Winning this young fellow’s trust would be as tricky a challenge as taming a yearling fawn—and perhaps just as rewarding.
Manning nodded toward his camp and addressed his offer to the boy. “I caught a pair of fine fat trout in your creek, so I guess they belong to you. Would you like fresh fish for supper?”
With a jerky movement like a wooden puppet, the boy nodded his head.
The little girl withdrew the thumb from her mouth and announced solemnly, “I like fish.”
This time Manning did not have to
himself smile. “That settles it, then.” He turned away before Caddie Marsh could refuse. “I’ll go fetch you that trout and some cornmeal. Then I’ll see to the horse and wagon while you folks eat.”
Her voice stopped him, but Manning couldn’t bring himself to look back. “Yes?”
“Thank you.” The words sounded less forced than the first time she’d uttered them. “You’ve been most kind.”
Her gratitude hit him like a minié ball in the back. Manning’s eyes stung. Without a word or gesture of acknowledgment, he began to walk again.
He didn’t deserve Caddie Marsh’s thanks. He owed her this simple meal and every other comfort he could provide for her and her children. He owed her the protection he’d extended them today. Now, and for as long as they needed it.
Expressions of gratitude did no more to assuage his guilt than carbolic acid soothed an open wound. But he dared not tell her that, or she would spurn his help. Then he would be left with no way to make amends.
Manning could not bear that thought.
Caddie struggled with her conscience as she returned to the dining room after tucking the children into bed.
For the first time in years, her little family had eaten more than their fill, yet a generous helping of fish remained on the plate. Her ears picked up the sound of Manning Forbes stowing her meager possessions in the entry hall. She’d expected him to invite himself to dine with them, but he hadn’t.
Slowly, Caddie began to clear the table. A small, bandy-legged piece of furniture, it had once held pies to cool in a corner of the pantry. Caddie missed the magnificent creation of tastefully carved cherry wood that had occupied this grand room before the war. One that could sit two dozen for a hunt breakfast, if folks didn’t mind rubbing elbows. One that a pair of house servants kept polished to a dark sheen. For Caddie, the Sabbath Hollow dining table was now a lost symbol of the whole congenial, hospitable way of life Southerners had once enjoyed.
Its absence tore at her heart.
She didn’t know what had become of that table in the dark days since Fort Sumter. And she didn’t want to know.
It would only rile her up, and to no good purpose.
At last only a single plate remained to be cleared away. Part of Caddie insisted she cover the uneaten fish and put it down in a cool part of the cellar for the children’s breakfast. If the Yankee wanted fish, he had the means to catch more.
Her early upbringing reproached her for such ill-bred selfishness. If the hard years in Richmond had made her mean and ungracious, then the Yankees had won a most distressing victory. She refused to concede it to them, even if it meant treating one of their number with greater courtesy than such people deserved. Battling her more practical inclinations, Caddie fetched a fork.
For a moment she stood in the doorway of the dining room, watching as Manning Forbes brought the last of her provisions in from the wagon. He carried a wooden box perched on one broad shoulder, steadied by large, long-fingered hands. The rough clothes hung loose on his lean-muscled frame. Blue trousers—Union army issue, no doubt, held up by leather suspenders. A white shirt, open at the neck.
Nothing about that garb should have stirred her memory of the well-tailored frock coat Delbert Marsh had worn to the Charleston cotillion on the first night they’d met. Smitten with admiration, Caddie had set her cap for Del... and lived to regret it. Now, heaven help her, a stray draft of foolishness breathed upon the cool ember of her long-ago fancy and made it glow again.
The Yankee looked up and caught her watching him. His sternly handsome face grew crimson, as though he could read every preposterous thought that flitted through her mind.
“You must be hungry after carrying in all this gear.”
Her voice came out an octave higher than normal. Caddie coughed. “There’s still some fish left, and a pone of fresh cornbread, if you’d care to eat.”
A strange look came over his face, as though she’d done him an injury. Perhaps one of the new masters of the land would take offense at eating the leavings of folks they had conquered.
Caddie’s pride savagely uprooted the tiny seed of interest she’d taken in Manning Forbes. “Of course, if you’d rather not—”
The word exploded from him. Then, as if shamed by his own eagerness, he added quietly, “I’d be glad of a bite to eat Thank you, ma’am. I’ll just go wash up first”
Before she could recover her composure enough to tell him where he might find a water pump, he had gone out the front door. Caddie wasn’t certain what made her follow him.
Perhaps it was her fear he’d take too long hunting for the pump out behind the old smokehouse. Darkness had begun to gather on the eastern horizon and she didn’t want to be entertaining a strange man—a strange Yankee—in her dining room after moonrise.
To her surprise, Manning Forbes strode the unlikely path to the smokehouse as though he knew the way by heart. He jerked the pump handle up and down several times until he got a good flow going. Then he rubbed his hands under the cold running water. A few more tugs on the lever and he thrust his head under, gasping at the water’s chill.
He gasped again when he opened his eyes to find Caddie staring at him.
“You don’t have to spy on me every minute, Mrs. Marsh.” The Yankee raked long fingers back through his dark, wet hair.
The harshness of his voice went through Caddie like a winter wind, making the hairs on her neck stand on end and the tips of her breasts push out against her basque. She couldn’t summon up a single word of reply.
“If I was going to steal from you or... anything else, I wouldn’t need to sneak around.”
Too flustered to contend that this was
house, and that she had a right to monitor the comings and goings of anyone on her property, Caddie sputtered, “H-how did you find this pump? Visitors always used to complain of it being hard to locate.”