Authors: Hope Denney,Linda Au
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance
Century Grove, Alabama
Theodore and Joseph Forrest returned home but Eric Rutherford did not.
This thought was all that occupied Somerset’s mind as she stood alone in the Century Grove Cemetery. She had spent years wondering if she would have traded a brother for a lover. Theodore, sweet and thoughtful, and Joseph, a temperamental, fun-loving carouser, embodied everything she loved about her siblings, but Eric symbolized a whole future lost.
She walked down to his grave as often as her chores and Blanche’s social calendar would permit. It was no longer daily as she had intended, but never did the week pass where she didn’t spend an hour there. Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford erected a massive white monolith to his memory, but that was all there was to his grave. His body was somewhere on the Chickamauga.
She had been on the back porch when they came walking up from the west field together in the fall of 1865. Theodore, Joseph, and Sawyer had hobbled up to Orchard Rest, shoeless and covered in lice. Blanche had thrown herself at them, weeping, but Somerset was so shocked and bewildered to see the bearded, unkempt group on her steps without Eric that she had flown past them. She had locked herself in her bedroom and choked bitter sobs until the sun rose. She’d managed to see Joseph and Sawyer several times during the war, but Theodore had always used his leave to go home to Amelia in Charleston. Her last hope lay in the childish wish that perhaps her older brother had found her fiancé and was bringing him home safely to her after all. The sight of the Brotherhood without Eric had been more than she could bear.
Theodore had crept up to kiss her good-bye the next morning before Thomas and Blanche put him on the train to his wife. Somerset had not cried herself out yet, and Teddie was not prepared for the depth of her grief.
“I thought you’d bring him home to me,” she’d wept into her quilt. “I thought if anyone could find him, it would be you, but if you didn’t find him, he’s truly dead.”
Theodore had cleared his throat and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, unsure if he had ever been the source of female disappointment. He and Somerset were the pets of the family, and this new emotional territory made him feel raw. His hand had drifted toward his pocket where his chaplain’s Bible used to reside, but his mother had declared it too filthy and the one Bible in the world she could abide to dispose of. His hand had withdrawn from the now-flat pocket.
“I’m sorry, Somerset,” he’d said. “I loved him like a brother.”
He had drifted out into the predawn morning, less a knight and more a man.
Somerset couldn’t stand at the headstone without thinking of that day in detail, the day everyone she loved came home, save one.
Eight feet of smooth white marble with a fat cherub blowing a trumpet on top made it the ugliest marker she had ever seen. Somerset knew it would make Eric laugh to see it, but his mother had wanted the most elaborate stone available. His birth and death dates illuminated a life cut short.
She shut her eyes as if she could close out the bare facts of what had happened. Remembering made her heart feel like a sinking anchor in her chest. Events that unfolded over months seemed to last only a few days, both then and now. From Sawyer’s first frantic telegram to the commanding officer’s formal condolence letter to Mrs. Rutherford to her own frantic train ride to Georgia to nurse the wounded in hopes of finding Eric while Joseph convalesced at Stone Gardens, it was a surreal veil that separated the reality of her life now from the shining dream that her youth had been.
Somerset took a seat at the foot of Eric’s grave on the dainty wrought-iron bench Mrs. Rutherford had placed there. The indecisive wind of a May afternoon tossed her coffee-hued hair around a face that captivated onlookers, when it wasn’t wistful, with its high, soft cheekbones and pointed chin. Her eyes, a brilliant blue passed down through her mother’s family, competed with the morning glories growing wild at the base of the monument.
“It’s only Eric. What would I tell him if he were standing here with me?” Somerset said. Her ideas turned with more speed than the paddle wheels of the steamboats for which her family was known. “I could always tell him my innermost thoughts.”
The words would not spring from her lips so she sat on the bench, her ideas piecemeal in her mind as she tried to think of what to say.
My darling, I have much to ask you this week, she thought. Since Joseph’s accident, something new has taken place in my heart. His illness has made me remember past times more clearly than I would like and made my grief for you fresh. I haven’t drawn water from the well, lain in my bed, or wiped a dish clean without being accompanied by our memories. You are everywhere I look these days. If there was a door I could step through into history and relive our few splendid years together again and again, I would do it. I have been sickening myself for you.
As it should be.
But—but perhaps I can have something more in life. I have come here today to ask you a great favor. I have a chance, you see—
Somerset turned at the sound of branches crackling underfoot like an evening bonfire. Sawyer Russell walked out of the wood coming from Lone Pine. Her heart leapt when she saw him, but there was always a moment of disquiet whenever he found her at Eric’s grave. He always professed not to mind. He was quick to remind her that Eric may have been his cousin but he also was his best friend, and he missed him too.
He always looked solemn, even when he smiled as he did now. Somerset took in the familiar sight of his best gray trousers and white dress shirt. He hadn’t expected to run into anyone. He wasn’t wearing a coat or cravat and looked disheveled even for someone who’d been traveling. He’d run up by train to Nashville for a horse show and hadn’t known when he’d return. He looked startled to see her in the middle of the cemetery, but he held out his hands as she rushed to him.
“You’re home!” cried Somerset. “I didn’t expect you for days and days yet.”
Sawyer bent down and kissed her cheek, a flushed new pink apple. He was growing a mustache, and she was still getting used to the unfamiliar rasp against her skin.
“You are a sight for a tired man,” Sawyer said. “I came home early. It seems the service made me a horse snob, Somerset. There wasn’t a single animal that I’d have to pull a plow, much less own as a personal riding animal, but bother horses right now.”
He caught her under the chin and raised her face to his. For a few seconds Somerset forgot about anything at all except for his bourbon taste and the pressure of his hands at her waist and the way the sun beat down on them, immersing them in a bright light that matched her feelings exactly.
He released her, and she felt no need to play coy or look down. She took his hand instead.
“I’m relieved you’re back. It’s been so busy with Joseph being ill that I haven’t had the free time to notice your absence, but now that you’re with me, I wonder how I got by without you.”
“It’s good to be missed then.” He green eyes radiated warmth as he gazed at her, but he was tired. Weariness tugged at the corners of his eyelids. “How is Joseph’s leg?”
“It looks ghastly. I feel like a wartime nurse every time I have to clean it. It hasn’t developed any streaks though, and he hasn’t shown any signs of blood poisoning or lock jaw. Dr. Harlow says that’s as much as can be expected.”
“I still feel like part of it is my fault.”
Joseph and Sawyer were clearing timber from an unused field only two weeks before when they lost control of a cedar. Joseph nearly moved out of the path in time, but a bough had pinned him just above the knee into the soft clay. Times were perilous for the first week when Joseph’s fevers soared and he was delirious, reminding them all of an earlier time that he had nearly lost his life. They feared that he would lose his leg yet, but Joseph was adamant that he’d succumb to infection before he would allow an amputation. He was a poor patient, and sitting at the plantation all day, propped up in the library, did not suit him.
“It wasn’t either of your faults. When two men do the work of half a dozen every day of the week, something unfortunate is bound to happen. I’m surprised something like this didn’t happen a long time ago. I’m thankful you weren’t injured and I’m grateful Joseph wasn’t killed.”
“He’ll be using a crutch for the rest of his life—if he doesn’t lose the leg,” Sawyer said, his tone laden with regret. “He’ll never be able to work as hard as he did before, and with the way Joseph uses hard work as a panacea for everything, he’s going to have a hard time with it. Did Fairlee ever come?”
“No. She never wrote or telegraphed back either.”
“I don’t understand it.”
“She hasn’t come home in two years. Her letters never come more than seasonally.”
“He never talks about it. He won’t talk about it, I should say. If anyone asks publicly about Fairlee, he grins and talks about how she’s nursing her grandmother in Tuscaloosa. He never looks the least bit troubled or worried, and to be frank, that’s what worries me. He always wore his heart on his sleeve as far as she was concerned.”
“You all marched home and they took up right where they left off. He was on her front porch every single night. He escorted her to every homecoming celebration in the county. Then she got up one morning and took the train to Tuscaloosa and has stayed with her grandmother ever since. No one knew of a fall out between them.”
“Those two lived on argument,” added Sawyer. “If they had a fight, every plantation in Century Grove knew about it by morning. Still, don’t you think she would have at least telegraphed you back?”
“We’re still friends. If she hasn’t said anything and he hasn’t said anything, it must be awful. I’ll leave them to work it out. He’s making himself miserable, though, and all of us, too.”
“There’s not much damage he can do in the library or parlor, is there?” smiled Sawyer.
“He isn’t happy unless he’s out gallivanting. Papa has been bringing in all the latest newspapers to try to keep him entertained, but the papers just aggravate him and he pours himself a drink with each one. By the end of the day, the whole library smells like rye. Then after a few drinks, he insists on writing to Fairlee. You should see the expression on the Tuscaloosa postal clerk’s face when I hand over his ink-splotched envelopes. Everyone is going to be talking about us soon.”
Sawyer laughed and kissed her forehead.
“Speaking of notorious reputations, you should head home, Somerset. I don’t want you caught in the woods with me and no chaperone. Anyone is likely to ride past at any moment. What were you doing all the way out here on foot?”
“I’m supposed to be looking for the last of the strawberries for Mother. She’s throwing a party tomorrow night to try to keep Joseph entertained. She wants to serve shortcakes. I decided to walk over here and pay my respects, though. It’s going to be my only chance this week.”
Sawyer smiled at her with sympathy, and Somerset couldn’t help but notice the way the sunshine highlighted his cheek and jaw bones, throwing his facial shape into prominence and making him vaguely resemble Eric. The Rutherfords and the Russells were cousins, but there were no frank similarities between them. The Rutherfords were known for their crow hair, blue eyes and sharp features, while the Russells were all golden skinned with golden brown hair. The rare hint of commonality took Somerset by surprise.
She smiled back at him, fighting the urge to move closer to him, to wrap her arms around him.
“You’re invited to dinner at our house tomorrow. I didn’t think you’d be back in time to make it. Mother is at her wit’s end trying to keep all of us in line. I’ve been at Mother all week about maybe having some dancing, but she said that was too formal and the ladies wouldn’t have enough gentlemen to dance with. Will you come?”
“You know I can’t turn down an excuse to spend time with you.”
“Well then. It’s settled. I’ve been thinking about when we should tell our news. Maybe tomorrow is the big day.”
Sawyer’s expression became alert.
“Do you really mean that, Somerset?”
“I do. I don’t want to wait much longer. The sooner we can get things settled, the better. I admit I was worried about Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford’s feelings about Eric, but he’s been gone five years now. Plenty of people have moved on much sooner. I’ve been respectful of everyone else’s feelings, and now I’m ready to move on.”
The hope on Sawyer’s face made her stop and stare at the ground. It was one of the things she loved about him. One glance from him had the power to stop her mid-sentence. He never looked at her without a singular expression of concern and reverence. From the hospital in Atlanta to the hard times of starvation in Century Grove, they had sojourned on a difficult journey together, and there had never been an instant during which she believed he was thinking of himself. Yet she was made vulnerable by her own admission and her love for him.
“I didn’t think I’d ever hear you say those words.”
“You do still want to marry me?”
“I want nothing else.”
“Then why are you looking at me like that?”
He shook his head as if to clear it and took her face in his hands.
“I just didn’t think we’d ever get to this point. I told you it would be enough if you would just try to love me. I thought I exceeded my luck when you actually said we’d marry, but now you’re determined to go through with it and I can’t help but be stunned.”