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
“The pump?” He gave a sort of shamefaced grin, like a little boy caught in mischief. “Why, I went looking for it when I needed to water your mare. You’re right, it was tough to find. Easier the second time.”
Heat smoldered in Caddie’s cheeks. “The mare, of course. You should have come and asked. I’d have told you the way.”
He shrugged. “You were busy getting that fish cooked for the children.”
“The fish. I almost forgot. Do come and eat.”
Without another word, Manning Forbes followed her back to the house. Every step of the way, Caddie sensed his intrusive presence behind her, even though he kept a respectful distance.
The light had dimmed enough by the time they reached the dining room that she was obliged to rummage through her precious hoard of supplies for a candle. Though it took her some time to find and light one, Mr. Forbes was still eating with slow, meticulous bites when she set the flickering taper on the table.
Caddie hesitated. Now that she had nothing else to occupy her, it seemed rude not to sit with her
while he finished his meal. After months of scrambling at the beck and call of several Union officers at the boardinghouse she’d kept in Richmond, she’d vowed it would be a frosty day in Hades before she ever again broke bread with a Yankee.
It felt traitorous. Like everything else about her reaction to this man.
As if he sensed her indecision, Manning Forbes glanced up. He didn’t smile. Caddie suspected he seldom did.
“I know you aren’t anxious to hear what I’ve come to say, Mrs. Marsh.” He turned the fork in his hand over and over as he spoke. “But since we have to pass the time for a few minutes anyhow, what can it ail you to listen?”
There was something grave, and perhaps a little shy, about his expression that put her in mind of her son. She could no more resist or deny it than she could resist or deny Templeton.
“Very well.” Reluctantly, she lowered herself into the chair opposite him. “Speak your piece, since you seem determined to. Only don’t expect to receive the answer you want.”
He broke their gaze abruptly, concentrating instead on digging a delicate filament of bone from his fish. “You don’t even know what I’m going to ask.”
“No, but I can guess it won’t be anything to my advantage.”
“Don’t be too sure, ma’am.”
He glanced back up, unexpectedly. Piercing her with a steel-blue stare that seemed to ferret out all her secrets, while protecting his own. “I have a little capital. Not much, but it’s in gold and greenbacks, so it’ll go a ways here in the South. Your country’s been destroyed by the war, ma’am, and I believe there’s money to be made in fixing it back up again.”
An angry retort rose to Caddie’s lips, but hung there unuttered. In Richmond they had a term of derision for Yankees like Manning Forbes—men who flocked south to pick clean the rotting carcass of the Confederacy like carrion crows.
Because they came with all their worldly goods in a carpetbag, ready to turn around and skedaddle back up North once they’d wrung every dollar they could out of the conquered South.
An ache of disappointment throbbed at the back of Caddie’s throat, making it impossible for her to hurl that damning insult. She couldn’t understand her contrary feelings. Hadn’t she expected something like this from the Yankee when he’d mentioned having a business matter to discuss with her?
For the sake of her children’s future, she wasn’t sure she dared dismiss him as she longed to do. This man who reminded her so acutely of things she most wanted to forget.
In the face of Mrs. Marsh’s hostile silence, Manning stubbornly pushed on. “You have a fine place here, with a lot of potential, but it’s going to take hard work and some seed money to make it prosperous again.”
She should be able to see that, shouldn’t she? Would this woman let pride stand in the way of a future for her children?
“I’m offering to put myself and my capital at your disposal, Mrs. Marsh, to get Sabbath Hollow back on its feet again.”
Why didn’t she say something? Manning wondered. Was he meant to take her opposition for granted?
“On what terms would you extend me this assistance, sir?” She spoke in a hushed tone, as if blaspheming against the Confederate cause and fearful of invoking the wrath of a secessionist Divinity.
The possibility of her acceptance rocked Manning as the probability of her rejection had not.
Her features flushed to a rosy hue, heightened by the candlelight. “What made you choose me and Sabbath Hollow in the first place? There must be other plantations that offer greater opportunities for profit, with less work and lower risk.”
Manning’s mouth opened and closed in rapid convulsions, like the trout writhing and gasping for water on the creek bank after he’d fished them out.
“I—I, that is, I fought in battles not far from here and I saw firsthand what a mess they made of this beautiful country. I guess I want to do a little something to make amends.” Close enough to the truth, but not too close. “I suppose that sounds like foolish fancy to you.”
She seemed to weigh the sincerity of his words. “On the contrary, Mr. Forbes. It’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard a Yank
say in quite a spell.”
Manning could tell she grudged him the compliment. Still, it provided him with enough encouragement to plow ahead. “I make only one condition on my offer, ma’am. That our partnership be both a business and personal one.” His tongue fumbled over the words. Surely there must be a more graceful way to ask? His ears felt like a pair of red-hot fire irons. “What I mean is, I’d like you to marry me, ma’am.”
If he’d torn the front of her threadbare dress open from collar to hem and begun to take liberties with the tender flesh beneath, Manning doubted Caddie Marsh could have looked more outraged.
Her face suddenly pale as whitewash, with green flames blazing in her eyes, she sprang from her chair and pointed toward the door. “How dare you even suggest such a thing? Take your infamous proposition and get out of my house this instant, you no-account carpetbagger!”
Her outstretched finger vibrated with barely suppressed violence. She must want to slap his face some bad.
Strangely, Manning found her abuse easier to accept than the hospitality she’d shown him earlier. With all the mute dignity he could muster, he rose from the table and left the house. Part of him wanted to perform a jig of relief that Widow Marsh had refused him in such emphatic terms.
Another part, a tiny one, to be sure, grieved his lost opportunity.
OLDIERS MARSHALED ON
the field of battle. Bugle notes punctured the expectant air. In the distance, an officer bellowed the order to charge.
Now they were stampeding toward her, rifle barrels belching smoke and bullets. A chorus of eerie shrieks and the staccato crack of gunfire filled Caddie’s ears. She crouched behind queer breastworks made of scrub buckets, washboards and butter chums. Her hands ached from their straining grip on the rifle stock.
“Let ’em come,” bade a voice of harsh authority. “Don’t waste your ammunition until the first wave gets good and close.”
Caddie’s nerves quivered as minié balls whizzed by her, so close she could feel the lethal breeze of their passing. Soon the enemy would storm this vulnerable position and butcher her.
In one swift motion, Caddie rose, leveled her weapon and discharged a shot. It caught one of the oncoming soldiers square in the chest. His arms flailed out as he staggered backward, slowly falling. He would be dead before he hit the ground.
The man’s mouth rounded in a circle of surprise and dismay. His gaze stabbed her like a bayonet, and Caddie saw that she had shot her own husband.
The rooster’s shrill crow woke Caddie with a start. Her pulse thundered and beads of sweat prickled on her hairline. She stifled a scream as she found herself crouched in front of the nursery door with a Union army rifle clutched in her hands.
Out by the deserted slave quarters, the rooster crowed again. Fighting her mind free from the terrifying thrall of her nightmare, Caddie remembered that she had brought the vocal old bird with her from Richmond, along with a few scrawny hens, precious as gold.
She forced herself to recollect how she’d acquired the Yankee’s gun. In fractured pieces it all came back to her. She remembered sitting in the pillaged dining room of Sabbath Hollow, listening to the carpetbagger offer her everything she’d need to restore the plantation and her children’s future. Much as it had galled her to accept help from one of his ilk, she’d been ready to swallow her pride one more time for the sake of Tem and Varina.
Then Manning Forbes had made his fumbling, preposterous proposal of marriage, igniting the powder keg of her brooding hatred for an enemy who had stolen the heritage and birthright of her children. The heat of her rage had frightened Caddie, for she sensed it sprang from more than her loathing of the Yankees.
Wariness, perhaps, of failing again where she’d failed before. Fear of becoming intimate with a man once more— arming him with the power to maim her heart
Giddy from lack of sleep, Caddie laughed out loud at her own foolishness. That kind of danger lay only in a relationship fueled with vulnerable trust and armed with an explosive charge of passion. She wouldn’t need to worry about entertaining those kinds of feelings for a Union man. No matter how strongly he reminded her of the husband she’d once loved, before long-festering grievances and the subtle venom of suspicion had poisoned their marriage.
A few minutes after she ordered the Yankee out of her house, he’d come knocking at the door to offer her his rifle. This time he had refused to take no for an answer.
“Even if your brother-in-law has decided to bide his time, this isn’t a safe place for a lone woman and small children. I’ll leave my gun and some ammunition by the door for you to collect after I’m gone. Do you know how to load and shoot?”
“I do.” Caddie had shuddered at hearing herself speak those words to the carpetbagger.
His warning had spooked her, though. An inspection of the house revealed broken locks on more than one door. So Caddie had dozed fitfully, sitting outside the room where her children slept, clutching a Union rifle much like the one that must have killed her husband.
Now, as if reluctantly wakened by the rooster’s persistent crowing, feeble rays of early-morning sunlight ventured in through the windows. The panes of glass that hadn’t been shattered were caked with four years of grime. Finding the money, time and energy to fix and clean them would have to be low on her list of priorities. After her long trip and all but sleepless night, Caddie wasn’t sure she could summon the ambition to make breakfast for her children, let alone tackle the countless problems of Sabbath Hollow.
Surrender was not an option, though, Caddie sternly reminded herself as she struggled to her feet, trying to ignore the protests of her aching bones. What she wouldn’t give for a cup of morning coffee. Real coffee—not the bitter brew of hominy and parched corn that no amount of sorghum could sweeten. So intense was her longing far it that Caddie almost fancied she could smell its dark, rich aroma on the morning air.
Pulling her shawl tight around her thin shoulders, she did her best to disregard the beguiling falsehood her nose was telling her. She removed the ammunition from Manning Forbes’s rifle and took the empty weapon down to the kitchen, where she set it on top of a tall cupboard. “I wonder if those worthless old hens have managed to lay an egg or two for the children’s breakfast?” she mumbled to herself, shuffling out the kitchen door.
On the back step, the toe of her shoe collided with a spouted pot of battered tinware. If it had been empty, she might have kicked it over. But it wasn’t empty. The heavenly fragrance of real coffee could no longer be denied.
Suddenly wary, Caddie glanced around at the outbuildings for Manning Forbes. She saw no sign of him. The notion that he’d been camped all night down by the creek, within earshot of the house, flooded her with a ridiculous sense of security.
She tried to resist the pot of coffee. Accepting it felt traitorously symbolic of a more significant consent. And wasn’t it just like a Yankee to think she could be bribed into dishonor with small luxuries?
Caddie’s noble self-denial lasted less than a minute. By the time the children began to stir, she had two cups of black coffee inside her, warming her belly and firing her ambition. She’d managed to collect four eggs and an armload of firewood to cook breakfast. As she hummed a chorus of “Dixie,” the restoration of Sabbath Hollow no longer seemed quite so daunting.
‘‘Where’s the fish man?” demanded Varina awhile later, her chin yellow with soft-boiled egg yolk and crumbs of cornmeal. “Will he bring us more for dinner?”
“I don’t imagine so, precious.” Caddie wiped the child’s face with a damp rag while Varina grimaced and squirmed.
“The creek is full of fish, free for the taking, though. Maybe Tem can rig up a line and catch us some.” Templeton pushed a long hank of hair off his brow, but kept his gaze fixed on his plate. “I don’t know how to catch fish. Besides, there might be wild animals down by the creek.”