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Blue eyes riveted to his face, Helen slipped off her right work glove, shook his hand, and quickly released it.

She said, “Captain Northway, I’m Mrs. William Courtney. You’re trespassing on private property. If you’ve lost your way, perhaps I can—”

“No, ma’am, Mrs. Courtney, I’m not lost. I was told in Spanish Fort that you’re looking for seasonal help here on your farm.”

His was a voice clear and pleasantly modulated. His hair was a midnight black and his eyes, Helen noted, were a striking shade of deep, deep green, like the dark tropical foliage on the sloping coastal cliffs below the farmhouse.

Kurt Northway was equally aware of the large vivid blue eyes looking at him so fully and frankly and of the pale golden hair framing an arrestingly lovely face. He was charmed by the sound of her soft, cultured voice, even if he didn’t like what he knew she was about to say.

“You heard wrong, Captain Northway. If it’s honest labor you’re seeking, try the loading docks over in Mobile. I need no help here. Sorry.”

Chapter Two

“I
’m sorry too, ma’am,” he said in a low, soft voice.

Kurt Northway knew she was lying. Knew that the young widow desperately needed help working this remote coastal farm. But she looked on him as the enemy, was half afraid of him.

Careful not to make any quick, threatening moves, he said, “I tried the Mobile docks. The harbor’s pretty quiet these days.”

Blue eyes snapping, Helen nodded. “Yes, I know.” Left unsaid was that
his
invading navy was responsible for destroying docks and warehouses and bringing shipping to a standstill.

Inclining his dark head toward the small boy astride the sorrel stallion, Kurt added, “Besides, ma’am, my son is too young to be left alone.” He pinned her with his forest-green eyes. “I need farm work, so Charlie can be with me.”

“Yes, well, I can understand that, but I’m afraid you’ll have to find some other farm.” Helen’s tone was dismissive. “Captain, I’m presently alone here. My husband has not yet returned from the war.”

Helen’s husband wouldn’t be returning and Kurt knew it. She was a widow. The aging gentleman who had directed him to her coastal farm had told him, “Everybody knows Helen Courtney’s husband is dead. She does too. She just won’t face it.”

“I’m very sorry, ma’am.”

As if he hadn’t spoken, she went on, “It simply wouldn’t do for you to … to … Let me repeat, I’m alone here, Captain Northway.”

“I understand that, Mrs. Courtney,” Kurt said evenly. “And if it were just me, I wouldn’t dare propose such a questionable arrangement. But, ma’am, you do sorely need help and surely the presence of my son would make the difference.”

Brow furrowed, Helen looked from the tall, dark Northerner to the small, blond boy. Then back again. Her blue eyes narrowed, she said hotly, “You actually expect me to hire
you?

“I was honestly hoping you might.”

“You’re a Yankee, Captain Northway!”

“Guilty as charged, Mrs. Courtney,” he said, uncomfortably shifting his weight from one long blue-clad leg to the other. A tanned finger running unconsciously along the yellow cavalry stripe, he added, “But my boy Charlie’s a good Southerner. Spent most of his life down here. His mama—rest her soul—was born and bred in Mississippi.”

Helen’s gaze left Kurt Northway, went again to the silent blond child. “How old is Char—your son, Captain?”

“Charlie’s just five and he’s a had a pretty rough go of it, ma’am. He lost his mother and both grandparents a year ago. I’m all he has left and I haven’t the money to get him back home to Maryland.” Helen’s eyes again met Kurt’s. He said with total honesty, “I have no money, ma’am. None. I’m not much of a father, I’m afraid. I can’t even provide a bed or a meal for my son. But I’ve a strong back and am willing to work extra hard for any kind of roof over Charlie’s head and whatever meager wages you can afford to pay.”

Helen listened thoughtfully as Kurt Northway pleaded his case. He told her that he and the boy would be perfectly comfortable in the barn; they could sleep in the hay. Said they wouldn’t expect to take their meals inside the house; they’d eat out in the fields or down at the barn. He promised to work tirelessly at any and all tasks needing attention. He vowed he’d keep his proper place at all times. He swore on his honor as an officer that he would show her nothing but the total respect she deserved. And he assured her she’d be as safe as a babe in her cradle with Charlie and him around to watch out for her.

Kurt at last fell silent.

Helen was more than a little tempted to take the tall stranger up on his proposition. Lord knows she needed help and she needed it immediately if she hoped to have a halfway decent harvest come autumn. But the idea of hiring a Yankee—allowing him to live right here on the farm with her—was not only distasteful, it was out of the question.

She’d be run out of town on a rail.

Helen lowered her eyes from his dark face. She looked again toward the tiny blond boy. But her narrow-eyed gaze accusingly touched the shimmering sorrel stallion the child was astride and her delicate jaw hardened. Helen knew horses. The big, fine-boned stallion was a thoroughbred—worth plenty of money to a discerning horseman.

“Captain Northway,” she said sharply, “there are a number of wealthy gentlemen in Mobile who would pay you handsomely for your horse.”

Kurt Northway’s green eyes flashed with a sudden turbulence. He shook his dark head decisively. “Ma’am, that horse is the only thing in this world that I own. He got me through the war alive. I’d sooner sell my own soul than to sell Raider.”

The simple heartfelt statement struck a sympathetic chord in Helen. She understood perfectly. Knew just how he felt. She felt exactly that same way about this secluded, run-down old farm with its bluff-front house. She was determined to hang on to it if it killed her, and sometimes she thought it would.

While there was breath left in her body she would never allow the rich, arrogant Niles Loveless to greedily gobble up her beloved land just to expand his own vast acreage.

“Captain Northway,” Helen said after a long indecisive pause, “all I can offer are small, long-unused quarters adjoining the barn. And I couldn’t pay you anything until harvest time in the—”

“That’s fine by us, ma’am,” Kurt interrupted, smiling. “Just fine.”

Half skeptical, wondering if she was doing the right thing, Helen nodded and set her sunbonnet back on her head. “It’s almost noontime, Captain. I imagine your son is getting hungry.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised, ma’am.”

“I’ll unharness Duke and take him on up to the barn,” Helen said. “You can follow with Charlie and the thoroughbred.” She turned away, stepped up behind Duke, and started to unhitch the heavy plow.

“Ma’am, let me get that,” said Kurt, and he took her arm and gently moved her aside.

He made quick work of freeing horse from harness. Then, looping the heavy leather reins over Duke’s back, he clucked his tongue to the old pony, coaxing him into motion. He turned, looked across the furrowed rows at his sorrel stallion, and gave a low, soft whistle through his teeth.

“Hold on tight, Charlie,” he called to his son.

Helen watched, amazed, as the big thoroughbred turned in a tight semicircle and began prancing alongside the field’s narrow green border, moving steadily in the direction of the farmhouse and outbuildings.

She looked at Kurt Northway and shook her bonneted head. “I certainly hope your beast doesn’t decide to make a shortcut across the corner of this field. I’ve already started some planting in the northern end.”

Without hesitation, Kurt Northway said, “Ma’am, Raider wouldn’t dare trample your newly planted corn. His manners are impeccable.”

Helen made no reply. She turned and walked away, giving old Duke a propelling slap on the rump. It was then that she remembered she wasn’t wearing her shoes. She shot a quick glance at the tall man who had fallen into step beside her. Did the Yankee know? Could he tell that she was barefooted like some common peasant woman?

Taking great care not to allow her toes to peep out from her long gray skirts, Helen silently walked from the field, her grandmother’s warnings echoing in her ears: “Young ladies should never be seen without their shoes and stockings. Why, having a fine gentleman encounter you barefooted is might near as bad as having him catch you in your camisole and pantalets!”

Helen clamped her jaw down tight. It was very doubtful that this tall dark Yankee was a fine gentleman; all the same, he wouldn’t be catching her either in her underwear or with her feet bare. No sooner had she made the silent oath than Helen caught sight of her discarded shoes. There they lay, in plain sight at the edge of the field. Had the Yankee spotted them?

Helen’s head snapped around. She looked up at his face and read the answer in his forest-green eyes. He
had
seen them. Well, he’d better not laugh if he knew what was good for him. No despised Yankee could make fun of her and get away with it. She wouldn’t waste a second ordering him right off her property.

Kurt Northway said nothing. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t smile knowingly. He didn’t cut or roll his eyes. He made no attempt to humiliate or embarrass her. He continued to walk alongside her as if nothing were amiss.

When they reached the shoes, the tall Yankee captain wordlessly bent down, plucked the cotton stockings from inside the shoes, and stuffed them into his breast pocket. He then knelt on the soft sandy soil, sat back on his heels, picked up Helen’s shoes, and placed them on his lap.

He looked up at her and there wasn’t a trace of teasing laughter in the depths of his green eyes. He patted his hard thigh and waited. Mortified, Helen sighed, lifted her gray skirts slightly, and placed her dirty right foot atop his blue-trousered thigh.

As if it were the most normal thing in the world for him to do, he gripped her slender ankle in his hand and carefully dusted the loose dirt from her foot with the tips of his long tanned fingers. Then gently he urged her foot into a shoe. He repeated the action with her left foot. When he was finished and both Helen’s feet were firmly back on the ground, he rose to his own full height beside her, having said not one word.

Sure her hot face was telltale red, Helen needlessly cleared her throat, snatched the stockings from his shirt pocket, and said with as much dignity as she could muster, “If you’ll kindly follow me, Captain, I’ll show you to your quarters.”

“Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Courtney.”

Only after she had flounced away did the hint of an amused smile lift the corners of Kurt Northway’s lips.

Chapter Three

“M
rs. Courtney, I’d like you to meet my son, Charlie.” Kurt plucked the boy from the saddle, set him on his feet. “Charlie, this is Mrs. William Courtney. We’ll be staying here at Mrs. Courtney’s place for a while.”

Helen smiled down at the somber-looking child and thrust out her hand. But Charlie Northway was having none of it. He crossed his short arms over his chest, sidled closer to his tall father, and looked up at Helen from brown eyes filled with doubt and distrust.

“Charlie’s a little shy,” Kurt apologized, gently pulling Charlie around in front of him. Cupping the boy’s head in his hand and brushing a wayward lock of blond hair off Charlie’s forehead, he prodded, “Can’t you say hello to Mrs. Courtney?”

“Charlie’s probably too tired and hungry for much small talk right now,” Helen said graciously. “Captain, take the horses on up to the corral.” She pointed. “You’ll find oats in the bin and a bucket on the peg by the door. The water trough is full. Meanwhile, I’ll see what shape the quarters are in.” She started forward, turned, and looked back at Charlie. “Want to come along with me?”

A violent shaking of his blond head was the response.

Helen didn’t try again. She led the way, climbing the gentle slope from the flat field toward the outbuildings in the near distance. The silent trio, walking single file, reached the barn in minutes.

Kurt opened the corral gate and urged the horses inside. Helen went directly to the quarters at the far north side of the weathered barn. Charlie followed neither grown-up. The reserved little boy waited alone outside the plank corral, standing as still as a statue in the hot May sun.

Helen tried the door to the quarters. It wouldn’t open. Rain-swollen and badly warped, the stubborn wooden door was tightly stuck. Helen shoved her sun-bonnet off her head, allowing it to rest on her shoulder blades, held there by the loosely tied streamers beneath her chin. She tried the door again.

After several failed attempts, Helen leaned into the door and pushed with the full weight of her body. Shoulder and knee pressed against the rough wood, she shoved as hard as she could. The door didn’t budge.

Frustrated, she was still struggling and groaning as if in pain when Kurt stepped up beside her, black leather regulation saddlebags draped over his left shoulder, a heavy canvas pack tucked under his arm.

“Wait, Mrs. Courtney, you’ll hurt yourself if you’re not careful.”

“No … I won’t … it’s … about to …”

“Maybe I can get it,” he said, and lowered the saddlebags and pack to the ground. Out of breath, Helen nodded and stepped aside.

Kurt gripped the doorknob, firmly turned it, and pushed inward with a strong forward thrust of his muscular arm. The door abruptly sprang open, flushing out a surprised blackbird. Exploding through the open door, the screeching bird swooped past Helen, its wings flapping wildly an inch from her face.

Badly startled, Helen shrieked, closed her eyes, and instinctively turned into the broad, sheltering chest of Kurt Northway. Helen’s piercing shriek brought a frightened scream from Charlie and he lunged forward, wrapped his arms around his father’s leg, and buried his face on Kurt’s trousered thigh.

Kurt didn’t move a muscle.

He felt the solid steel of Helen’s hidden revolver press against his leg through the folds of her skirts. It struck him that such a lovely, vulnerable young woman living all alone had likely endured many long nights of fear. A sensation of empathy surged through him.

BOOK: Nan Ryan
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