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Authors: Love Me Tonight

Nan Ryan

BOOK: Nan Ryan
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Love Me Tonight

Nan Ryan

Dedicated to:

My sister

Judy Henderson Jonas

January 14, 1942–July 16, 1993

In loving memory

Yes we’ll gather at the river,

The beautiful, the beautiful river,

Gather with the saints at the river,

That flows by the throne of God.

—R
OBERT
L
OWRY
, 1864

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

Chapter Thirty-seven

Chapter Thirty-eight

Chapter Thirty-nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-one

Chapter Forty-two

Chapter Forty-three

Chapter Forty-four

Chapter Forty-five

Chapter One

T
his is what happened.

On a warm May morning in 1865, Helen Burke Courtney was alone on her farm near Spanish Fort, Alabama, a small coastal community on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

Helen was down in the south field, two hundred yards from the house. Her fair face was shaded with a stiff-brimmed sunbonnet. Her hands were protected by work gloves so old and well used the tips of her fingers had worn through the stiff fabric. The long sleeves of her cotton dress were blousy, the cuffs fastened at her wrists. The dress was gathered and full, the heavy skirts trailing the ground.

Helen had wisely covered herself from head to toe for the long hard day of spring plowing. But as the cool haze of early morning had burned away and the sun had shone through high and hot, Helen had unbuttoned the high-collared dress halfway down to her waist. And she had taken off her shoes and stockings, tossing them carelessly toward the northern edge of the field.

Barefooted, Helen guided the dull, rusting plow while old Duke, her faithful, aged saddle horse, wearily pulled it. Heavy leather harnesses draped over her slender shoulders, gloved fingers tightly gripping the plow handles, Helen made her slow, sure way from one end of the field to the other.

And back again.

The sun-heated soil felt good to her bare tender feet, just as it had when she was a child and skipped alongside her Grandpa Burke while he plowed this very same field.

Like her grandpa before her, Helen took great pride and pleasure in seeing the fertile soil of this lowland farm being turned into neat, furrowed rows. But she enjoyed no such feeling of satisfaction this year. There were few long straight rows to admire. Fewer tender green plants breaking through the rich soil. A large portion of the field was covered with weeds and Johnson grass.

Suppressing a sigh, Helen wished that the sea of sunflowers before her were tall stalks of tender green corn. She was late with the planting. There had been the long dreadful bout with influenza when she couldn’t get out of her sickbed, much less do the work. And then when finally she was well enough, the heavy spring rains had kept her out of the soggy fields. Now she badly needed to make up for lost time.

Lord, if only she were twins.

Helen paused for a minute. She turned shaded eyes to the oak-bordered lane leading down to where her property fronted the bay. Helen had turned expectant eyes toward that narrow shady lane since the cool April morning in 1861 when her husband of six months had kissed her good-bye and rode away to war.

Will Courtney had mounted his spirited chestnut gelding that April day, smiled, leaned down to kiss her one last time, and promised he’d be home by planting time. She believed him. The war couldn’t last long. Everybody said so. Will would be back before she hardly had time to miss him. The valiant Southerners would quickly vanquish the hated Northern enemy. Then the victors would return to their homes and loved ones and life would go on just as before.

Sure that it would happen just that way, Helen had started watching for Will’s return soon after he’d gone. She had looked down that lane day in and day out as the days turned into weeks, weeks into months. And the months had stretched into years.

Missing him fiercely, lonely as she’d never been in her life, Helen had clung to her hopes and dreams and eagerly anticipated the glorious moment when Will would come riding down that lane and back into her arms.

Anxiously she planned for the homecoming. Each evening she set the table with her grandmother’s fine bone china and fragile crystal, ready for the jubilant homecoming.

Helen had continued to look wistfully down that lonely lane long after word came that her husband, the brave William C. Courtney, C.S.A., had lost his life in battle.

Helen didn’t believe it. She wouldn’t believe it. Will wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be dead; not Will. Not her Will. It was a mistake. He promised he’d come back to her and he would. He had to. He’d come riding down the lane one day and they would have that long-awaited homecoming.

Helen had finally packed away her grandmother’s fine china and crystal. She had placed all the delicate pieces in the heavy rosewood sideboard.

But even after the fine dishes had been put away, she didn’t stop looking—several times each day—down that long shady lane where last she’d seen him.

Now Helen stared pensively at the silent, empty lane for a long moment before drawing a deep, slow breath and turning her attention back to the work at hand.

“Move it, Duke,” she called to the half-deaf horse, “we have a lot of work to do.”

Duke snorted and blew and trudged slowly forward. Helen gritted her teeth and bore down on the plow handles, staggering under the heavy weight of the harnesses, her bare toes digging into the soft sandy soil.

Giving a tired whoop of joy when another row was completed, she turned horse and plow about, rested a minute, then started a brand-new row. She was halfway across the long rectangular field when she again paused to glance down the shady lane.

And so it was that Helen Courtney was looking directly at the tree-bordered alley when a stranger suddenly appeared. A man leading a shiny sorrel stallion stepped out of the canopy of oaks and into the warm May sunshine.

Helen felt a jolt of alarm slam through her chest. Her hand reflexively went to the heavy revolver concealed in the folds of her gray work dress. The sight of a small blond-haired boy astride the big stallion stayed her hand.

Surely a man with a child meant her no harm.

Kurtis Northway meant no harm to the widowed Helen Courtney. Or to anyone else. But he knew that down here in the Deep South folks didn’t trust him. Didn’t want him around. That had been made more than clear to him.

Kurt Northway was a Yankee.

A dirty, no-good Yankee to these hot-blooded people. It made no difference that the war had ended. He was still their bitter enemy and exceedingly unwelcome in this proud, defeated land.

Kurt was every bit as anxious to leave the South as the South was to have him go. If it had just been him, he’d have been riding home to Maryland this very minute. But he wasn’t alone. He had a son to care for. A son five years old. A son who didn’t know him; a son he barely remembered.

The day the war ended, Kurt had turned Raider—the priceless sorrel thoroughbred he’d taken with him into war—southwest toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He’d collected young Charlie Northway, the son who’d just been learning to walk when the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. Within days of that fateful event, Kurt had ridden Raider into battle while his young wife took their baby son to her family home in Mississippi.

The summer before the long bloody conflict was finally over, Gail Whitney Northway died of the fever that took the lives of her entire family. Only the frightened, bewildered four-year-old Charlie was spared. Little Charlie had lost everyone.

Everyone but his absent father.

A kindly neighbor couple had taken Charlie in until Kurt could come for him. In gratitude, Kurt had given the destitute old couple all the money he had. He had none left. He and Charlie would have to work their way back to Maryland as best they could.

Kurt Northway shifted the long leather reins from his right hand to his left. Wishing he had a cigar, wishing he had a stiff drink of whiskey, wishing he had enough money to get the hell out of Alabama, Kurt rehearsed what he’d say to the young woman in the field. He hoped she would listen. She might not. She might order him off her property like so many others had in the past few days.

When Kurt reached the perimeter of the field, he dropped the sorrel’s reins, looked up at his silent son, spoke gently to his obedient stallion, took a deep, spine stiffening breath, and started forward.

Never taking her eyes off him, Helen pulled up on Duke, slipped the heavy harnesses off her aching shoulders, and again touched her hidden weapon. Chin lifted defiantly, she observed with a look of keen inquiry the Yankee approaching her with long, determined strides. Eyes concealed beneath the stiff black visor of his blue kepi cap, the stranger was broad of shoulder and narrow of waist. A white cotton shirt and faded blue uniform trousers appeared clean if somewhat frayed. His shirtsleeves were rolled up over tanned forearms and his collar was open at the throat. He was a tall, lean man with an easy, graceful stride. As he neared her, his face broke into a warm, pleasant smile.

Smiling with a confidence he didn’t actually feel, Kurt Northway saw—standing in the middle of the rich, neglected farmland—a proud, unafraid young woman in a faded gray work dress, lace-trimmed sun-bonnet, and men’s worn work gloves. She was moderately tall and virginally slender. Abruptly she removed her bonnet, revealing hair of the palest shade of gold pinned carelessly atop her head. She had a pretty, oval face with skin remarkably pale and clear.

Kurt’s smile became genuine when the wary young woman suddenly remembered that her shirtwaist was unbuttoned down past the swell of her breasts. A quick look of dismay clouded her lovely face and she lifted slim, nimble fingers to quickly button the dress. Then, in an appealing, purely feminine gesture, she swept a nervous hand over the pale gold hair and smoothed it.

Kurt Northway had reached Helen Courtney.

He removed his billed cap and, leaving plenty of space between them, nodded his dark head and said, “Kurt Northway, ma’am, late captain, Union army.” He extended a tanned hand.

BOOK: Nan Ryan
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