Authors: Adera Orfanelli
War couldn’t keep them apart, but their secrets might.
When her husband returns from the Civil War, Caroline has to tell him the truth: their farm is failing and she may be unable to carry a child to term. While he was gone, she struggled to keep the farm going, lost her father and brother to the war and miscarried the child conceived while Travis was home on leave. He returned to the front before Caroline knew she was pregnant.
Travis has a secret of his own. He never learned to farm. She never knew because she had her father and brother to help, but now she has only him and he may not be the man she needs.
Neither is willing to ruin the joy of Travis’s homecoming with bad news, but the truth must come out eventually. Will Travis stay when he finds out Caroline’s shame, and will she want him to when she finds out his?
Warning: Keep tissues handy for this reunion between lovers who only want the best for each other and fear that might mean being apart.
Home to Caroline
To Holly, for being so nice when I pitched Caroline’s story to you. And to the ladies of ORA, because if I hadn’t met you, this wouldn’t have ever happened. Thank you.
The sun pounded the top of Caroline’s bonnet, sweat dripping beneath the collar of her dress. The unplowed field mocked her with clods and sparse patches of weeds, a reminder of things she couldn’t do. Plow the field. Carry a child to term. One shouldn’t follow the other but everything these days reminded her of her failing. Her husband was due home from the war any day now and he deserved a well-tended field and a family, or at the very least a wife who could give him a child. Sighing, Caroline shoved those thoughts aside. She didn’t have time for wool gathering. The clouds threatened rain yet again. She needed dry days to plant, then the rains could come and nourish the seeds in the ground.
With renewed determination, Caroline tugged on the cheek strap of Dolly’s leather bridle. The big gray draft mare towered over her, one dinner plate-sized front hoof stamping the ground. She snorted and shook her head, wrenching the bridle from Caroline’s grip.
“Oh, you no good nag.” Caroline snatched one of Dolly’s reins in her hand and pulled the end toward her. She lifted it in the air, intending to give the mare a strong whack. She couldn’t. Not when the mare was as hot and tired as Caroline was, and both their bellies rumbled with hunger. If Travis were here, she had no doubt he’d already have half the field plowed. With a sigh, Caroline sagged against the horse’s warm hide. Travis wasn’t home, hadn’t been since he’d enlisted in the Confederate army. He’d had kin in Tennessee, he’d said. He had to fight for them. Just like Samuel, her brother, had to fight for the Union, only to return home wounded. She had prayed her husband wouldn’t find a similar fate. Though as the days grew closer to summer, she prayed he would make it home.
Dolly’s shoulder blade, visible beneath her silver coat, poked Caroline. She bit her lip. “We both need some vittles, girl. I know.” She smoothed her hand down the horse’s neck. “Come on. If I don’t get this field planted then neither one of us will eat.”
The horse cocked her head. Her ears perked forward.
Hope surged anew. Maybe Dolly understood. “Okay, girl!” Caroline hurried to the back of the plow, lest the horse change her mind. Grabbing the other rein—she really shouldn’t have let it drop—she gave both a hearty shake. “Hup!”
“Go, damn you!” Caroline called. Samuel had always known how to make Dolly work. He’d lean on his cane and shout orders to the stubborn draft horse. She sniffed. No use thinking about him now, dead these three months. Not even the doc from town could save him. Gone, just like her father, just like her husband. Though her husband might return. The war had ended little over a month ago, and Travis’ last letter said he’d been stationed in Tennessee. One man surely could ride between here and Memphis in a month.
She frowned. Unless he wasn’t coming back… Her hand fell to her flat stomach. He didn’t know. He’d come back, and then she’d have to tell him. He’d probably leave then. Maybe it’d be better if he didn’t come home at all, though her heart ached to think such things.
She shook the reins, feeling like a chicken squawking behind the mare who paid her as little heed as her old dog, Blue, used to give those chickens. Which, considering how deaf and blind the hound had been in his declining years, wasn’t much.
Storm clouds darkened in the west. Already the wind strengthened, teasing her with the scent of rain. The first clear day in two weeks, getting too late to plant.
Please God, I’m a simple woman. Make this horse move and keep the ground dry for another day.
Dolly’s tail swished. She stomped her hoof, the gathering storm making her uneasy. “Hup!” Caroline called again.
The horse looked over her shoulder.
Carefully, she gathered the reins, bringing them forward with her as she slid her gloved fingers around the bridle. “Come on,” she called, putting her entire body into the movement.
The horse braced her legs and refused to move.
“Maybe I ought to smack you,” Caroline yelled. A lump formed in her throat. She swallowed it. Tears couldn’t force the horse to move.
“Wouldn’t do any good. That horse is as stubborn as you are.” Laughter filled the masculine voice.
Caroline’s heart leapt. Heat flooded her body and she forgot about the fields, the stubborn horse, even her growling stomach. Caroline looked behind her to see a rider halting a big dark brown horse. Her fingers eased from the bridle, her jaw dropping to her chest. Broad shoulders filled out a threadbare gray coat. Both boots and trousers looked as if they’d seen better days, and the feather poking jauntily from his hat brim appeared frayed. A few more lines bracketed those warm, blue eyes, but she found herself staring at her husband’s face. “Travis?” Though bone-tired, her body surged to life.
Dolly’s ears pricked forward. Arching her neck, she stepped forward, jostling Caroline as she passed.
“Whoa! Whoa!” Caroline tugged on the reins before they slipped through her fingers. “Stop, you stupid mule!”
Travis dismounted and grabbed the draft horse’s harness before she passed, easily stopping the mare.
“Sweet Jesus, you’re home.” Her hands flew to her mouth, releasing the reins and rushing around the horse. “You’re home!” Caroline flung herself at her husband, tears pricking her eyes. All those months of worrying, of reading letters written in her husband’s neat script and careful words, came down to this moment. She wrapped her arms around him, nestling her head against his hard chest. His wool coat scratched her cheek and he smelled of sweat and road dust. He could have been dressed in the finest cloth and smelling of clean soap, she wouldn’t have thought him any more desirable than he was right now.
His strength comforted her, reminded her of the nights he’d held her and made love to her so tenderly. Her nipples hardened at the memory. She took a deep breath, then murmured against his chest, “You’re home.”
Travis wrapped one strong arm around her, the other still holding onto Dolly’s reins. Even the horse enjoyed the homecoming, the mare’s sweet breath tickling the back of Caroline’s neck. “I’m home.” His deep voice caressed nerves frayed by the worry of keeping the farm afloat. As if he’d touched every inch of her body, her skin tingled.
Her senses came alive. “I’m so thankful you’re here.” Her words released a flood inside her soul. Tears leaked down her cheeks; sobs tore from her throat. She sagged against him with relief, the thought of the one egg and her empty larder making her wish for a fat hog and apple pie. A meal fit for a hero, not the meager grubbings of a starving farmer, he deserved that and so much more.
And she had nothing.
The tears fell. This should have been the moment when she’d present him with his son. She could hold up the toddler, because the child would be nearly three, conceived the one time Travis had come home on leave. She struggled to stop her grief, and maybe it was because she’d cried alone with no one to hold her, but the tears wouldn’t quit coming.
I lost your child. I’m so sorry.
“I’m here, sweetheart. I’m alive. Don’t cry.” Travis tipped her chin back to stare at her face. With his thumbs, he wiped away her tears. “I’m home. There’s nothing to cry about.”
There were things, though she couldn’t tell him. Just seeing him again soothed her soul even as it made her confront her failures anew. It might be selfish of her, but she wanted to kiss him, to make love to him, one more time before she told him. Then he could go, and she’d understand.
Thunder rumbled. The wind picked up, swirling dried leaves and dust around them.
“Shh.” Travis traced her mouth with a calloused finger before kissing her lightly. The tension in his body told her he wanted to do more. “I’m home,” he whispered against her lips. “I’m home and I’m not going anywhere ever again.”
She shivered, not from the wind which grew fiercer with every passing moment, but from the feel of his steely body against hers. The corded muscles in his legs and his broad chest reminded her of his masculine strength. An easy picture of his naked body filled her mind; she needed him to fill her body, try again even though the doctor had said there was no way to know if she’d be barren. The holster for a new-looking revolver pressed against her, a harsh reminder of these dangerous times. His well-trained horse stood nearby, cropping a few weeds from the field.
A fat raindrop landed on her cheek.
Still, the tears fell. She’d tried. Lord knew she’d tried to keep the farm running. With Samuel and the money gone…she shoved the thoughts aside. Standing on tiptoe she wrapped her arms around Travis’ neck and kissed him with every ounce of passion in her hungry, tired body. Maybe she hadn’t been the best wife while he was gone, but he was here now. She could change that. And maybe with him here, their love would be strong enough and she wouldn’t fail again.
His mouth opened beneath her onslaught, his hunger that of a man who hadn’t seen his wife in nearly three years. Cupping his cheek, she drew him down to her, letting Dolly’s sturdy body support her back. More raindrops fell, a nectar to slide past their lips and sweeten their kisses. He flattened his hand on her rounded hip, drawing her against him, and she moaned, her hunger and plight forgotten.
Lightning split the sky. A clap of thunder followed, rattling the ground beneath their feet.
Drawing a ragged breath, Travis pulled away. “Let’s get inside.”
Caroline nodded, her body humming from Travis’ nearness and his kiss. Securing the plow, she led a suddenly-enthusiastic Dolly back to the barn. Travis led his horse.
“That’s not Ranger, is it?” Caroline halted Dolly inside the barn and proceeded to unfasten the harness. As much as she desired her husband, Dolly had taken care of her; she needed to return the favor.
Travis shook his head as he led the bay horse without any white markings into a stall. “This is Dandy. He made quite the picture when he came to me from a Virginia farm. Doesn’t look quite so handsome or fine now, but we’ll get him fattened up in no time.” He rubbed a rag over the saddle.
Caroline pressed her lips together, not wanting to think about their meager grain rations nor what might have befallen the brave and noble Ranger. “I’m afraid we’re a bit short on supplies.” She hung the harness on its peg in the wall, then turned to find Travis standing directly behind her.
She stumbled back, his hands on her shoulders the only things steadying her. She drew a breath at his nearness, awareness flooding her body. She licked her lips.
His eyes followed the movement. “Everyone is these days. We’ll make do.” He inched closer, the hardness in his body giving no quarter. One hand braced against the wall behind her head, the other reaching for her trousers. “Damn, you look good wearing those pants.” He cupped her ass and drew her against him. “You don’t wear them into town, do you?”
She blushed thinking what a stir it would cause. “No. Only here on the farm.”
“Good,” Travis growled. “I want to be the only one to see you like this.”
Caroline swallowed hard.
Tell him now, before you get any deeper in love with him and he settles back into his role as your husband.
She couldn’t. It’d been so long since he’d held her like this, and she needed—no, she craved—the feeling of being wanted and desired again. Besides, he’d just returned home from the war, when so many wives would never see their husbands again. Laying her news at his feet now would be cruel, like an immediate slap in the face and more so than anything he’d seen on the battlefield.
Instead, she tried to dampen his ardor a different way. She might want his touch, but it’d be wrong to encourage him any more than she already had. “We have no food,” she whispered instead. “I’ve one egg and a handful of rye, a bit of buttermilk from our neighbors.”
“It sounds like a feast to me.” Travis inched against her body, his fingers plucking the hem of his shirt from the waistband of her pants. “This never looked as good on me as it does on you.” He slipped first one button, then a second, from its hole.
Her breath caught and held, as beneath the cotton his big hand found her small, unbound breast. He covered it, the finger working back and forth across the erect nipple. “My wife,” he whispered into her ear. “My beautiful wife. I am home, and for now, I wish to simply feast on your charms.”
Caroline flushed to the roots of her hair at his words. Her desire to put some distance between them faded. Her body took over, drowning her thoughts out with carnal need. The last button came free, his much larger man’s shirt gaping on her small frame. His nimble fingers took care of both his trousers and hers. He kissed her again, his mouth seeking hers like a drowning man sought air, and she gave herself over to him.
Home. Alive. Two things she feared her husband would never be and here he stood before her. How could she not want him like this? She curled her fingers into his shoulders, her world spinning with his presence. Deep in the back of her mind, one traitorous thought battled for dominance. She pushed the need to tell him what had happened away. This moment belonged to her and Travis.
He reached down and lifted her leg around his hip. His fingers grazed her damp curls, and she whimpered against his heated skin. With one finger, he stroked her, finding her bud and circling it. She whimpered and bucked her hips. “Yes,” she whispered.
The head of his cock replaced his fingers to press against her opening. He slid inside and she moaned as his thick shaft began to fill her. It’d been so long. He moved slowly inside her.
“So tight,” he growled. “So perfect.”
At last he filled her completely, his cock buried inside her. She marveled at the sensation, the thought that maybe they’d rectify what Mother Nature couldn’t let her keep before. And then, he pulled back. “I can’t go slow.” He thrust into her, claiming her body and her attention. She cried out with wonder at the beautiful rawness of this moment.
He possessed her. Each thrust made her small breasts bounce into his chest. She ignored the rough wall against her back, the mist of rain coming through the cracks in the logs. The wind rattled the boards and she clung even tighter to her husband, seeking his warmth, the reassurance that he was home again.