Authors: Nicola Italia
© 2016 by Nicola Italia
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
over Illustration by Marvin Henriquez
eBook Formatting by Jeff Senter of
Indie Formatting Services
to my editor Jennifer Quinlan whose expertise in historical fiction is immense.
to give a special thanks to Eddi Keller and Gabrielle Lorino for casting an eye over my manuscript.
he engagement party
was proving to be a success. Families from the nearby plantations, dressed in their finery, had come to celebrate the future wedding of Pernetta Sutton to Ford Josiah Rutledge and the joining of two immense plantations.
At nineteen, Pernetta was considered a tad old to be a first-time bride, but that was no matter. Everyone knew that Pernetta Sutton was all about appearances, like her mother, Lucille, and Pernetta would do whatever it took to remain mistress of Evergreen Plantation, including marrying a man she didn’t exactly care for.
Lucille Sutton wore a wide smile upon her face as she greeted their guests. She looked fondly at her eldest daughter and then at Ford as they circulated the room. Many women were quite envious of the engagement and the upcoming marriage—especially the wedding night.
Ford Rutledge was everything a Southern gentleman should be. He was educated, proper, refined, loving to his family, and handsome. His brown hair and hazel eyes had many ladies of the county swooning, and it was even whispered behind fans that several of the young widows had been his lovers. Though nothing was confirmed.
Pernetta, in sharp contrast to her soon-to-be husband, was not considered a beauty. She was tall and thin with a sharp nose and thin lips, resembling her mother, though Lucille thought her eldest daughter a “lovely creature.”
The patriarch of the Sutton family was Earl. He was a kind man who was often in town on business, leaving Lucille in charge of running the plantation, which she did very well. If there was one burr under Lucille’s saddle, it was her youngest daughter, Ruby Mae. Ruby had been spoiled by Earl since the moment she was born. She was the apple of his eye, and he doted on her, as did the servants and everyone in town.
If Pernetta was considered a “lovely creature” by her mother, Ruby Mae truly was. With blond hair and gray eyes set in an oval face, Ruby Mae was beautiful. Folks wondered if that was the real reason behind the anger Lucille directed at her youngest child and the reason Pernetta hated her. It was well known that the women of the Sutton family disliked Ruby Mae intensely. Ruby Mae was spirited and outgoing and constantly embarrassed her proper Southern mother and sister.
The recent announcement of the engagement had caused an upheaval in the Sutton home, for Ruby Mae had decided long ago, when she was eight years old, that the only man for her was Ford Rutledge. At the time, eighteen-year-old Ford had been highly amused by the little girl’s attention.
Everyone in town had smiled at the puppy love and declared she would certainly grow out of it. She didn’t. And when the announcement was made that Ford and Pernetta would marry, Ruby went into a rage. The fifteen-year-old smashed her sister’s full-length mirror and declared that she would never speak to her again.
Pernetta had merely smiled and said, “Seven years’ bad luck, Ruby Mae.”
But as much as Ruby was against the upcoming marriage for her own selfish reasons, Ford was not thrilled either. As he walked through the throng of people and greeted them all with a glass of whiskey in his hand, he appeared calm and serene. But he was not.
His father, Marshall Rutledge, was a good man, but not the most astute of businessmen. He wanted their plantation Antebellum to live on into the next century, and he was certain the best way to do so was to join it with the Suttons’. That could only be achieved through marriage, and Pernetta was the obvious choice as Ruby was too young and wild.
Ford’s mother, Faylene, had agreed with her husband while his younger sister, Jessbelle, who only wanted to see her brother happy, had no say in the matter. But Ford didn’t love Pernetta. In truth, he didn’t even like her.
She came across as nasty and mean and lacked any semblance of Southern charm. If she participated in the women’s club or gave of her time at the local charity, it was only so she could be seen and acknowledged—not to help the greater good. The marriage was a predicament he found himself in with no way out. He felt entirely trapped, and he didn’t like the feeling at all.
While Pernetta preened and smiled at the guests in her bright purple dress—which was entirely too bright for his eyes—he felt as if he was suffocating. He excused himself to get some fresh air.
* * *
ord removed his clothes quickly
, leaving them in a small pile on the bank of the watering hole. The humidity and heat were thick in the air, and he knew he would not be missed for a while. Without giving it a second thought, he jumped into the cool water.
At twenty-five years old, Ford was terrified that he was making the biggest mistake of his life. He would be tied to a cold, mean woman for the rest of his days, and everyone around him was thrilled. As heir to the large cotton plantation his family had owned for over fifty years, their joining with the Sutton plantation would make it the largest in the state. But was that reason enough to sell his soul into a loveless marriage?
He moved cleanly through the water. He swam the length of it once and then kicked at the muddy bottom and moved across it again. Off in the distance, he could hear the band from the house. The moon was bright, and he could see clearly, but suddenly he glimpsed a flash of white moving through the trees.
It had to be a trick of the light. No one would be out here. Everyone was inside enjoying the music, champagne, and sweets. When he heard a splash, he knew he had not imagined it, and when he turned around, he came face-to-face with Ruby Mae Sutton.
At fifteen, Ruby looked fresh and innocent with blond hair curling about her face and inquisitive gray eyes. Her hair was slicked back now, and there was a look of longing in her eyes.
“What are you doing out here, Ruby?” he asked, keeping his distance.
“I followed you,” she said with a smile.
“You followed me. Why?”
“You aren’t really going to marry her, are you, Ford? Not Pernetta!” she said softly.
“Ruby, it’s more business than anything. Merging our two plantations. Not everything is about love and romance.”
“Well, it should be. Especially if you are to marry for life,” she returned.
“You live in a fantasy world with all those books and magazines you read,” he said kindly, shaking his head.
is perfectly respectable,” she said tartly.
“It’s a political magazine published in New York. What would your Momma say?” he teased.
“I can read what I like. Daddy allows it.”
Ford smiled. “I’m sure he does. Because you have him wrapped around your itty bitty little finger.”
“That’s not true. He loves me. He wants me to be happy.”
“Of course he does, Ruby. He’s your father.”
“I wish you were wrapped around my finger,” she said suddenly.
Ford never had a woman speak to him as Ruby did, and she was only a young girl. At fifteen, she said whatever came to mind and damn the consequences.
“Don’t start that. There was a time when the whole town thought the way you followed me about was cute. Now enough is enough. I’m going to marry Pernetta, and you need to accept that.”
“Never!” she said passionately.
“Damn it, Ruby!” He swore and then cursed himself. A gentleman should never swear in front of a lady, even if she was as crazed and flighty as Ruby. “You need to stop all this nonsense, you hear?” He moved toward her in the water.
Not thinking, he grabbed her by the shoulders to make the point. He realized with a shock that she wasn’t wearing her chemise. In fact, she was completely naked. He could see her budding breasts that would soon mature, and he swallowed hard.
“My God, Ruby! Where are your clothes?”
She seemed completely oblivious to the seriousness of her actions. “Over yonder next to yours,” she said, jerking her chin up.
“Ruby Mae Sutton! Have you lost your senses? You can’t go into a swimming hole naked with a man!”
“You can’t marry her, Ford. It’s wrong. She’s not the woman for you. She only thinks about herself. You’ll be miserable.” Her gray eyes seemed so dark in the night.
Suddenly not caring about her state of undress, his hands slid down her slender arms, and he jerked her to him.
“You need to stop this! You need to think about yourself and the future for once. Don’t you want to marry? Don’t you want a family? You need to keep your reputation pristine!”
“I want to marry you,” she said, her eyes meeting his. “I love you, Ford.”
He believed her because she believed it. She had all the brazen desire of a young girl completely in love when she didn’t even know what love was. He knew he had to stop this.
“Ruby, both our families are for this marriage. Pernetta wants the marriage, and so do I. You must see reason. This was nothing but a childhood fantasy of yours,” he said, trying to soften the blow.
Ruby looked shocked and then hurt. Her eyes teared up as she looked at him. Ford couldn’t deny that she was a lovely girl with her blond hair that normally glistened in the sunlight and her gray eyes, so expressive they hid nothing.
“You want the marriage too?” She repeated the words in a whisper.
“Yes,” he said, though it was a lie.
“A childhood fantasy?”
“Yes, Ruby. You’re a child. A fifteen-year-old girl.”
“I’m not a child, Ford. And I love you. Doesn’t that mean anything?” she whispered to him.
Then, without warning, she broke free from his hold and wound her slim arms around his neck, pressing her naked breasts to his chest.
Ford was shocked. His hands skimmed her back and then moved down to cup her small bottom in his hands. As her mouth touched his, his cock immediately filled with blood. It was a sweet, innocent kiss, and he could tell she had no practice. He realized what he was doing and jerked away from her. She was a temptress.
She met his eyes and then looked down at his cock. He was willing to bet she had never seen one in an aroused state.
“Am I still a child?” she asked, taunting him.
He ground his teeth together. How many men would throw her down upon the wet, muddy bank and take her virginity right there? She was playing with fire.
“No, you aren’t,” he said, watching her eyes darken with desire. “You’re a witch.”
Suddenly, they both heard a cry and turned to see Pernetta, clutching her fist against her mouth, with Jessbelle standing beside her on the bank of the watering hole.
“You . . . you slut!” Pernetta cried out at Ruby before turning to run back to the house.
Jessbelle didn’t seem to understand what had happened, only that her dear friend Ruby had been found in the arms of her brother, and Ford knew it did not look good.
“I . . . I’ll go after—” She didn’t finish the thought before she turned and flew after Pernetta.
Ford turned to look at Ruby, whose eyes seemed huge in the darkness.
“You need to get dressed,” he said sternly. As she moved toward the bank, he turned away to avoid the sight of her naked body.
Giving her enough time to dress, he made his way to the bank and saw that she was gone.
By the time Ford returned to the party, the engagement was over. Pernetta was in a state, calling Ford a “scoundrel” and her sister a “whore.”
Their guests were awkwardly leaving as the carriages were called forth. There was much low chatter, and all anyone seemed to know was that the engagement had been called off and Ruby was the reason.
Ford felt an immense sense of relief at the broken engagement but also great sympathy for the idyllic Ruby, who believed in fairy tales . . . and who loved him.
As his carriage drew up, he turned to see Ruby making her way toward the house. Her hair was wet and falling down her back, and she was shivering. He had the intense urge to wrap her into his coat and kiss her forehead. He could see the outline of her legs against the gaslights of the house, and he swallowed at the sight of her.
Someone called her name, and she moved out of his sight. In the carriage, he leaned back and sighed. He could still remember her hands around his neck and his own hands as he skimmed her sleek, wet curves. He closed his eyes. She was only a girl now. What would she be like when she grew older and her beauty became all that more apparent? He shivered himself.