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“Yes.”

“I suppose he’s in the
other
army?”

“Yes.”

“He’s an officer, no doubt?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re making plans to marry him?”

“No.”

“No?”

“I didn’t give him an answer.”

“Why not?”

She looked into his eyes. “You know why not,” she said.

He flushed slightly.

So, she thought. She
had
told him precisely where her heart lay. She was very much afraid that that particular memory was real.

“You don’t have to do anything else for me, Thomas,” she said. “I know you have saved me by bringing me here, and I shall try my very best to get well. But you don’t have to save my reputation, too.”

“You’ve got it the wrong way around, Abby. I was asking so you could save mine.”

“I would think stealing me out of my mother’s house and bringing me here would only enhance yours.”

“Alas, no. The story has reached General Sumner’s attention, and he doesn’t approve of such audacious conduct in his officers. At all.”

“I’m afraid I don’t much care whether Yankee generals approve or not, Thomas.”

He leaned forward so that he could look into her eyes. “The truth is a marriage to you would help my military career, Abby.”

“I don’t see how. I support the Confederacy in every way I can.”

“If I can forgive you for that, then I’m sure General Sumner will. Will you marry me, Abby? For my sake. I know you have a kind heart.”

“No,” she whispered.

“Yes,” he said, taking her hand. His fingers were
still cold from his ride here and he slid them in between hers.

“No,” she said again. “I will not.”

“I need you to let me me explain, at least. Let me try to tell you the way things are.”

“Then tell me.”

He took a deep breath. “The Union army didn’t have a chance at Fredericksburg because there were serious tactical errors made. The general who made them—Burnside—knows he is in danger of being relieved of his command. He is an incredibly arrogant man. He’s going to try to save face now, and he’s going to sacrifice his Grand Divisions to do it. I will do my duty when the time comes, but I need…” He stopped, holding her hand in both of his for a moment. “Guire was my friend. You are all that is left of his family. I need to know that you’ll be taken care of. Do you understand? I need to be sure. As my wife—or my widow—”

“Don’t,” she interrupted, trying not to cry. “Guire would never have expected you to do this.”

“I want to do it, Abby. I haven’t much time for persuasion. I can’t make pretty speeches to convince you. I can only tell you the truth.”

“Look at me, Thomas. What good am I to you like this? I’m an invalid. I may stay an invalid.” She couldn’t bring herself to speak the real truth—that she might not survive this illness, just as her mother hadn’t survived.

“You are my sweet Abiah. You are all I have left of the one truly happy time in my life. I’m asking you
to let me go into this folly of Burnside’s with my mind at ease.”

She closed her eyes to keep from crying. She couldn’t waste her strength on tears. She had to save it, so that she could do the right thing.

“Abby, answer me.”

She looked at him. Marrying Thomas Harrigan was all she had ever wanted, but her heart was breaking—and for his sake, not hers. She loved him too much to ever want to hurt him. In the naive and reckless plan she had once contemplated to trap him into becoming her husband, she would have at least been a healthy wife and not a sickly burden. It would be wrong for her to say yes to him now. She knew that, just as she knew that she hadn’t the will to refuse him.

“We have some major political differences, Thomas,” she said.

“I think they would make for very lively discussions at the dinner table,” he countered easily.

She smiled slightly at the idea, even knowing that it was improbable that they would share a dinner table ever again.

“Won’t your engagement get in the way?” she asked.

“That arrangement no longer exists.”

“Does
she
know that?”

“She does. And she has nothing to do with this.”

Abiah looked into his eyes, believing him because she wanted to. What did it matter that this was only a gallant gesture on his part?. An attempt to give her her
heart’s desire, because he was fond of her and because he thought she wouldn’t recover?

So be it,
she thought. She would take the only chance for happiness she would ever have, however fleeting it might be.

“All right,” she said. “You bring the minister—and I’ll try to remember who you are.”

Chapter Three

O
f all the emotions he had anticipated when he went to ask Abiah to marry him, surprise wasn’t one of them—at least not on his part. And he had certainly been surprised. First, when she told him she had another suitor, and then, when she had been so unwilling to even consider his own offer of matrimony. But most of all, when he realized how much he minded on both counts.

It had all seemed so clear to him beforehand. He was honor and duty bound to take care of the last member of the Calder family as best he could. It was something he simply had to do. Now, through no conscious effort of his own, he was afflicted with the added burden of
wanting
it.

Thanks to La Broie and his machinations, Thomas had gotten away to see Abiah long enough to make his proposal, but since then he could only sit in the drafty, abandoned brick building where he’d been banished until the generals decided what they were going to do with him. He had no idea what this place had
once been. Nothing comfortable, in any event. The room he had taken at the end of the hall had a window big enough to let in some light and lessen the dungeon atmosphere, but many of the glass panes were broken. It took all his physical energy just to stay warm.

He still had to pen a number of letters of condolence to the families of the men who had been killed at Fredericksburg, but he was too distracted to accomplish very much. He realized immediately that it was not just the cold that caused him to be so unsettled. No, indeed. His mental turmoil had come about because, whether Abiah had agreed or not, he absolutely did
not
want her marrying John William Miller. It irked Thomas a great deal how much he didn’t want it. He had no right and no reason whatsoever to object.

Johnny Miller was a traitor to the country, of course, but then, by her own admission, so was Abiah. Thomas had always thought Miller a decent enough sort. There was nothing about the man as far as Thomas knew that would keep him from being entirely suitable for Abiah. Besides all that, Thomas was supposed to be heartbroken over his failed engagement to Elizabeth. He had certainly felt heartbroken when her letter came. Now it seemed as if all that had happened to someone else.

It suddenly occurred to him that the only explanation was that he must have believed Abiah when she said she loved him, even if she had since taken great pains to behave as if she had no memory of having done so. Clearly, it was a decided character weakness on his part—to always believe women when they professed
a fondness for him. He had believed Elizabeth. He still believed Abiah, in spite of her reluctance in agreeing to marry him. He kept thinking about that one particular moment when he’d asked her why she wasn’t making plans for her wedding to Miller. Thomas could
almost feel
the way her dark eyes had stared into his.

You know why not.

He supposed that that was as close as Abiah would come to mentioning the embarrassing incident—embarrassing for her, not him. At least not since he’d recovered from the initial shock of learning how she had planned to “trap” him into matrimony. Assuming she had been serious, he wondered if she had any idea what coming into his bed like that might have precipitated. He would like to think that he would have behaved honorably, but if he had had one too many brandies on the porch, he might have forgotten that she was his best friend’s little sister.

He gave a quiet sigh. Perhaps Abiah did know. If Guire had been so imprudent as to tell her about their adventures in a New Orleans bordello, there was no telling what else the rascal had taken upon himself to explain. In any event, this bold plan of Abiah’s would certainly give Thomas something to contemplate during the long winter nights to come.

He picked up his pen and immediately put it down again. The ink in the bottle had frozen. His cigar had gone out and his fingers were numb with cold. An abrupt gust of wind caused the smoke from what he
optimistically called a fireplace to billow back into the cavernous room. He gave up all pretense of working, the full import of the predicament both he and Abiah were in making a jarring return. He had no patience left. He had to get this marriage done.

“La Broie!”

“Sir!” the sergeant answered almost immediately, his voice echoing in the outer hallway. Thomas suspected that La Broie’s staying so close at hand had less to do with efficiency and devotion and more to do with the fact that Major Gibbons had probably ordered him to do so—in case that wild Captain Harrigan went a-roving again.

“Have you heard anything yet?” Thomas asked when La Broie appeared in the doorway.

“Nothing, sir,” La Broie answered, giving no indication that Thomas had already asked him that same question a dozen times.

“Why is this taking so damn long?” Thomas said, more to himself than to La Broie.

“You know by now how the army works, Cap. It takes as long as it takes.”

Thomas gave La Broie a scathing look. He was
not
in the mood for any of the sergeant’s military truisms, sage though they may be. He was trying to take care of Abiah. She was ill, and gravely so. The doctors gave him absolutely no encouragement as to her chances for recovery from an illness they couldn’t even diagnose. Typhoid pneumonia, perhaps, they said. The problem was that Abiah had been examined well after the telltale “rose spot” stage indicative of
the disease. She had a “continuous fever” to be sure, but no one would—or could—give it a name. The army hospitals were full of “continuous fevers,” which were fatal more times than not.

The best Thomas could do was to make sure Abiah had good nursing care, preferably by someone who understood the dangers of these fever-ridden illnesses. He felt an occasional twinge of guilt that the only person even remotely knowledgeable about these things also happened to be a camp follower. But, like everything else in this situation, he had had no choice but to bow to La Broie’s opinion of Gertie’s willingness and competency, and to hire the girl. So far Thomas hadn’t had cause to regret it—as far as he knew. Gertie seemed happy to have a paying job that didn’t involve throwing her petticoats over her head.

But he had precious little time left before Burnside began his redemptive push toward Richmond, and whatever time Abiah had, Thomas intended it to be as respectable and comfortable as it was in his power to make it. He knew exactly what had to be done, yet not one damn superior officer would tell him anything. How hard could it be to let him leave his quarters long enough to get married?

“La Broie!”

“Sir!”

“I want you to go see how Miss Abiah is this afternoon.”

“Sir—begging your pardon. Wouldn’t it be better for me to see Miss Abiah when I got something to tell her? If I go now and she’s awake, she’s going to ask
me things I ain’t got the answers to. If I can’t say for sure you’re going to make it to the ceremony, it’ll just worry her. And she ought not to be worried, sir, I’m thinking. Besides that, she might have gone and changed her mind about marrying you. Maybe you don’t want to give her a chance to retreat before we even get on the field.”

Thomas had to agree, even if he was absolutely convinced now that La Broie had been given unofficial guard duty, and even at the risk of letting him have the last word yet another time. “You’ve got the chaplain ready?”

“Sir, I’ve got three chaplains ready. I’ve got a doctor ready if Gertie needs him—besides the one Miss Abiah’s already got. And I
didn’t
send off that telegram to your mother,” he added significantly, because, surprisingly, he didn’t approve of Thomas’s having changed his mind about notifying his family. “There ain’t nothing left to do but wait, sir, and that’s the sad truth of it.”

“You’re sure about the arrangements?” Thomas said, looking at the morning muster roll again and trying to get some idea of who was fit for duty—just in case he ever got out of this building and back to soldiering.

“Yes, sir. I’m sure. Zachariah Wilson has been well paid for the room and board—even if he wasn’t using the space nohow. He knows which lawyer will keep on paying him. So Gertie and Miss Abiah can stay right where they are while you and me and the army
is gone on this here fool’s errand. Oh, and I been turning people down.”

“What people? For what?”

“People wanting to come to the wedding, sir. We got all manner of volunteers to stand witness for it—from both armies—plus a whole slew of bushwhackers and newspaper people and deserters. You know, it’s kind of hard to tell which is which when you get them all in a bunch. And then there’s some church folk from Falmouth and Fredericksburg trying to get invited. I’m thinking we might need a guard at the door. Miss Abiah ain’t well enough to have a bunch of nosy strangers gawking at her—and you—on account of she’s supposed to be ruined and not long for this world. I did tell all these hopeful guests they could send you and her a wedding present, though.”

Thomas looked up at that impertinence, but La Broie wasn’t in the least discomfited.

“Sir, I ain’t never been one to let opportunity stand around knocking on a shut door,” he said. “And while I’m at it, I reckon I need to be begging your pardon—”

The heavy outer door of the building slammed loudly interrupting whatever La Broie had been about to reveal.

“This is it, Cap,” he said instead. “That’s one of Sumner’s aides coming. The one with all them littlegirl curls.”

“Now how the hell do you know that?” Thomas said, trying to at least appear as if he wasn’t affected
by the footsteps echoing briskly down the hall in their direction.

“It’s them prissy little silver spurs he wears. He’s the only one that jingles like that.”

It was indeed the aide-de-camp in question, an overly serious lieutenant, who knocked loudly and who snapped a salute when he was given leave to enter. Thomas was notoriously serious himself—but he chose to leave out the jingling and the posturing.

“Sir!” the aide barked, presenting Thomas with a folded piece of paper and causing La Broie to almost but not quite roll his eyes.

It was a pass, granting one Captain Thomas Harrigan a three-hour furlough in Falmouth. He read it over—twice—and then exhaled quietly in relief.

“No message from General Sumner?” he asked, without looking up.

“No, sir.”

“Then you are dismissed, Lieutenant.”

There was no jingling.

Thomas looked up. “Is there something else?”

“Yes, sir,” the aide said.

“Then what is it?”

“I’m not at liberty to say, sir.”

“Well, I’m not in the mood to guess, I can promise you that—”

The outside door banged loudly again, only this time it sounded as if an entire company were advancing up the hall—singing.

“Sir!” the aide barked. “It is my duty to announce that your groomsmen have arrived!”

* * *

Abiah noted two things when she asked to speak to Thomas alone. That he had gone to a great deal of trouble to look presentable and that he wasn’t entirely sober. She was familiar with the custom of fortifying the groom with whatever strong drink his friends could find prior to the actual ceremony. Hardly any of the weddings she’d ever attended in her whole life had seen the groom
not
tangle-footed. She just hadn’t considered that this particular wedding would precipitate the ritual and the boisterous male revelry that accompanied it.

She had no illusions about why the marriage was taking place. How could she? Thomas had been nothing if not blunt about his motives. His military career. Her reputation. His obligation to, and his respect for, Guire and the Calder family. But regardless of the circumstances, here Thomas was, and he looked exactly the way a bridegroom was suppose to look. All spit and polish—except for the ink stains on his fingers. He was newly barbered and unsteady on his feet—and infinitely pleased with himself.

“You’re looking lovely this afternoon, Abby,” he assured her.

“You, sir, have had a lot more to drink than I first thought,” she answered.

He smiled one of his rare smiles.

“Only a bit, Abby. To keep away the cold. The boys went to such a lot of trouble to get it. It would have been rude to decline.”

“Is that the real reason?” she asked. “You don’t want to be rude?”

“It is.”

“Rude to them or rude to me?”

“To you?”

“Perhaps you need whiskey to get through this wedding, Thomas. Perhaps you’ve changed your mind but you’re too honorable to say so.”

He frowned. “I have not changed my mind. Have you?”

“Not as far as I can tell,” she said.

He nearly smiled again and pulled the one straight chair close to the bedside and sat down. “So. You recognize me, then.”

“Yes, but it wasn’t easy. You look so much prettier today than when I last saw you.”

He smiled genuinely this time. “I had a great deal of help, I can assure you. I’m especially partial to this very fine maroon-and-gold, nonregulation sash—I forget which of my groomsmen contributed it.” He opened his coat so that she could see it better. “But it’s not as fine as your ribbon,” he said, leaning closer to inspect the pink ribbon Gertie had meticulously twined into Abiah’s long braid and then tied in a dainty bow.

Abiah, too, had had a great deal of help getting ready for this event. Besides the ribbon, her plain muslin nightdress had been exchanged for a finely embroidered and tucked cambric
chemise de nuit.
It was quite beautiful, albeit too big for her. The sleeves kept falling over her hands. Of course, a pink ribbon and
especially the
chemise de nuit
were hopeless gestures on Gertie’s part, regardless of Thomas’s compliment. Except for the sleeves, he wouldn’t even see the nightdress. Abiah was covered up well past her bosom by a borrowed gray velvet quilt placed under a crocheted “wedding ring” coverlet—something someone in the household—or in the town or across the river—must have thought would be appropriate. Clearly, when the bride was too ill to be dressed, then one must dress the bed instead. Enough pillows had been found so that she could be propped almost to a sitting position. Her beribboned braid hung artfully over her right shoulder. She was even lucid, so much so that she had no delusions about the way she looked, just as she had no delusions about the way she felt.

BOOK: Cheryl Reavis
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