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BOOK: Nan Ryan
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He would have laid a gentle hand on her back to soothe her, but knew she wouldn’t hold still for it. She’d take it the wrong way. He was equally reluctant to clamp a comforting hand on his son. Charlie wouldn’t like it either.

Helen’s eyes opened, her head came up off his chest, and she forcefully pushed away from him. Flashing him a quick look of contempt as if she found him revolting, she said curtly, “Sorry. The bird scared me. It was silly of me.”

“Not at all,” Kurt said, shrugging.

Just as swiftly as Helen backed away, Charlie released his grip on his father’s leg and moved back, his face screwed up in a frown. Kurt wasn’t surprised by either reaction.

Collecting herself, Helen preceded them into the dim one-room quarters. She looked about, made a sour face, and quickly apologized for the total disorder.

“I had no idea the place was such a mess,” she said. “No one has been out here for years.”

She shook her head and moved about the close, shadowy room. The furniture—what little there was of it—was stacked against the far back wall. An iron bedstead and feather mattress, a tall scarred bureau, a couple of overstuffed easy chairs, a small table, and a half dozen straight-backed chairs with woven cane bottoms either badly worn or missing entirely were covered with cobwebs and dust and wasp nests.

Charlie sneezed, rubbed his nose, and sneezed again.

Helen sighed wearily. “You can’t live here,” she said.

“You’re wrong, Mrs. Courtney. We can and we will,” said Kurt, his tone level. He crossed the room, shoved rotted burlap curtains apart, and forcefully raised a dirty-paned window, allowing light and fresh air inside. “A little cleaning and it’ll be home, sweet home.” He smiled.

Charlie sneezed.

“Bless you,” said Helen automatically. Then, “All this dust is getting to you, Charlie. Better scoot on out of here.”

Charlie didn’t move.

“Once the place has had a thorough going over,” said Kurt, moving about the big room, opening more windows, “it’ll be real comfortable. I’ll get started right away.”

“I’ll help,” Helen said, and headed for the door. Pausing, she added, “But it can wait a while. It’s noontime. Draw some water from the well. I’ll set out a basin, some soap, and a couple of clean towels on the back porch. After you’ve washed up, give me a few minutes. There’s a shaded table out there on the porch. Take your places and I’ll serve the noon meal.”

“Will do,” said Kurt as Charlie sneezed again.

Without another word, Helen turned and left. Lifting her heavy skirts, she walked hurriedly toward the house. A hundred yards from the barn, the farmhouse sat on a coastal clifftop directly above the wide mouth of Mobile Bay.

A sturdy but unimposing one-story structure in need of a coat of fresh paint, the dwelling had spacious rooms with high ceilings. A wide wooden veranda wrapped itself entirely around the house and each of the bedrooms opened onto the gallery, as did the front parlor and the kitchen in back. Weed-choked grounds surrounded the house, and directly below the big front yard, thick, junglelike foliage covered the sloping bluffs down to the water.

Helen neared the backyard.

Purposely blocking the open gate was her cat. A handsome Russian Blue breed with smoky blue-gray fur and a sleek, lean body, the haughty tom sat squarely in the center of the gate, his long tail curled majestically around him, his green eyes clearly registering reproach.

When Helen reached him, Dominic didn’t make his usual soft purring sounds. Nor did he rise and brush affectionately against her skirts. He remained just as he was, eyes cold, mouth closed, a low, rattling sound escaping from deep down in his chest.

“Come on, Dom. Get out of my way,” Helen coaxed the adored, aging tom her grandfather had given her when Dominic was just a kitten nine summers ago.

Dominic’s answer was a turn of his regal head and a dramatic yawn. Helen smiled, went down on her heels, and stroked the soft downy fur under his chin. “Does this mean you’ve seen the Yankee and his son? Look, I had no choice. We need some help around here and you know it. So you can just grit your teeth and make the best of a bad situation, which is exactly what I’m having to do.” She laid her cheek to the top of his head for a second, released him, and shot to her feet.

Stepping around the cat, Helen hurried into the yard. Curious, Dominic rose and leisurely followed. Woman and cat were immediately swallowed up in the deep shade cast by the tallest, oldest live oak on the farm. The low spreading branches of the ancient oak made a thick leafy canopy covering all but the farthest reaches of the big back yard.

A long wooden settee resting against the oak’s thick trunk had once been Jackson Burke’s favorite napping spot. Now it was Dominic’s. Helen had never napped there, but she and Will had spent more than one romantic evening seated there, hidden from the day-bright moonlight, kissing in the hot darkness. Helen never passed the old settee with its peeling paint that she didn’t think of Will and those warm, sensual nights.

At the back porch Helen took off her shoes. Shoes in hand, she rounded the corner of the wide gallery and padded toward the front bedroom at the northeast corner of the house.

She swept through the open French doors and into the dim coolness of her bedroom, tossing shoes on the floor and sunbonnet on the tall mahogany chest. Dominic followed his mistress inside, pausing briefly to rub back and forth on the satiny wood of the doorframe.

It took Helen less than ten minutes to wash up, brush her hair, and put on a clean checked gingham dress. It took the Russian Blue even less to leap up onto Helen’s high feather bed, stretch luxuriously, place his chin atop his outstretched paws, and fall into a quick catnap.

Helen closed the door on the dozing Dominic and made her way down the hall to the kitchen. She carried towel, soap, and basin out onto the porch. She moved milk pails and crocks to the far end of the table. The table wasn’t much. It was rough and splintery, but it would do.

Helen was in the kitchen slicing ham and cutting pieces of cold cornbread when Kurt and Charlie came into the backyard. She glanced out the window and watched their silent approach, wondering if they ever talked to each other. So far she’d not heard Charlie say a single word.

Helen served them their lunch there on the porch, but went back inside to have her own. She sat alone in the kitchen, just as she did at every meal. Just as she would continue to do.

Allow a Yankee to sit at her table?

Never in a million years.

Helen remained at the table for several long minutes after pushing her plate away. When she felt certain that the Yankee and his young son had had ample time to finish their meal, she went outdoors. Kurt rose to his feet.

“Sit down, Captain,” she said. “This is as good a time as any for us to get squared away. I’ll take this opportunity to tell you what’s expected of you, as well as what I will and will not tolerate.”

“A good idea,” he said, pulling out a chair for her and reclaiming his own. “Charlie, you may be excused,” he said to his son. “But don’t get out of sight.” Never looking at his father or Helen, Charlie slid off his chair, crossed the porch, and went down the steps into the shaded backyard.

In a businesslike manner, Helen quickly clicked off the dozens of tasks Kurt would be called on to do in addition to the all-important spring planting. She told him that to work a farm was to fight a never-ending battle. Said she was out of bed at sunup every morning and worked until sunset. And she would expect no less from him.

When she had carefully laid out all she wanted done and was assured he knew how to do all the things required of him, she then warned him about what she would not tolerate.

Casting a glance at Charlie where he sat silently on the long settee beneath the oak, his arms wrapped around his knees, she said, “You’ll work six days with Sundays free. Your evenings are free as well and you may come and go as you please, but don’t think you’ll be leaving your son here in my care while you’re out on the town. If I ever catch you drunk on my farm, you’ll be told to pack up and go without the money owed you.”

Kurt nodded and said nothing.

Helen again glanced at Charlie, lowered her voice until it was barely above a whisper, and added, “And, Captain, just in case you’ve made the foolish mistake of supposing I’m a weak, defenseless female, I assure you I am not. Nor, for that matter, am I a lonely, love-starved woman who’d be easy pickings for a strong, virile Yankee looking for a quick hour of pleasure. Let me warn you that I’m never without a loaded pistol and I know how to use it. I even sleep with the pistol under my pillow at night.” Her blue eyes narrowed threateningly and her voice lowered a register. “Lay a hand on me and I’ll kill you, Captain Northway.”

Kurt had listened quietly throughout. His forest-green eyes had remained steadily fixed on her face. His intense scrutiny made Helen nervous, but to get her cool threat across, she felt obliged to staunchly hold his riveting gaze.

She felt a chill skip up her spine when, holding her with those forest-green eyes, his voice was seemingly unperturbed as he said, “I’m a Yankee, Mrs. Courtney, not an animal.” He placed a hand flat on the table before her. “Take a good look at my hand,” he quietly ordered, and she did so, noticing his fingers, which were long and slender as if molded by a sculptor.

Her eyes on the lean brown hand, she heard him say in a low, soft baritone, “This hand has
never
been on a woman …” he paused, and Helen’s eyes lifted to again meet his, “who didn’t want it there.”

Chapter Four

K
urt withdrew his hand, pushed back his chair, and rose lithely to his feet. But he didn’t move away. He stood there looming above, continuing to watch her with the patient stillness of a predatory cat. His deep forest-green eyes boring down on her with unnerving intensity, he extended his hand. The same suntanned, long-fingered hand which had lain on the table before her.

Swallowing with some difficulty, Helen automatically laid her slim white hand atop his smooth palm. The breath left her body when his hand closed around hers and she felt her fingers crushed in the warmth of his palm. With the firm pressure of his hand on hers, he gently, commandingly drew her to her feet.

Helen made a slight effort to withdraw her hand, but he held it—and her—fast. His strong tanned fingers sliding down to encircle her fragile wrist, Kurt, lifted her hand up before his dark face and thoughtfully studied it.

His forest-green gaze touching each slim finger in turn, he said, “Is it necessary, Mrs. Courtney, for me to warn you to keep this soft white hand off me?”

Helen bristled. “Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Is it? I don’t think so. I respect the fact that you’re a woman who loved and was loved by her husband.” His wide shoulders seemed to slump minutely and his breath became a sigh. “Afford me the same consideration. I loved my wife with passionate devotion. And while the possibility obviously has never occurred to you, perhaps I don’t want another woman’s hands touching me. Can you appreciate that?”

“I … I … yes … yes, I can.” Helen, chastised, nodded.

He immediately released her hand. “Good. Then we understand each other a bit better. Sleep with your gun if you wish, but you won’t need it to protect yourself.” He smiled then and took a step backward. “At least not from me.”

Eyes narrowed, Helen watched him turn and descend the porch steps. He crossed the yard with long, supple strides, his slow catlike movements radiating fluid grace and masculine confidence.

It was in that moment Helen decided she didn’t like him. Not one bit. And it was more than his being the hated enemy, a conquering Yankee. She wouldn’t have liked the tall, dark Kurt Northway had he been born and raised right there in Baldwin County.

It was his cool, self-assured manner, his ability to make her feel foolish and awkward that infuriated her. She was used to being the one in control. She was accustomed to feeling totally competent and capable of handling difficult situations and difficult people.

Especially men.

Since the day Will had ridden off to war, she had calmly, quietly discouraged numerous male approaches with fierce looks and flat-footed defiance. The nerve of this dark stranger asking if
he
should warn
her
to keep
her
hands off
him
. It would be a freezing day in Hades before she had any desire to touch the arrogant Yankee bastard!

“Captain Northway!” she called after him, her blue eyes flashing with indignity.

Kurt paused, turned, and looked squarely at her. “Yes, ma’am?”

“I … I …” Helen stammered, sighed, and shook her head. Irritably blowing a wayward lock of blond hair up off her forehead, she said, “We’ll clean the quarters now, this afternoon. If we finish in time, you can begin plowing. Otherwise, you’ll start all regular chores at dawn tomorrow.”

“Good enough,” said Kurt. “But there’s really no need for you to help with the cleaning. I can do it.”

But Helen did help.

Had it been only Kurt Northway who was to occupy the dingy quarters, she wouldn’t have bothered. But since a five-year-old boy who had seen far too much tragedy in his short life was to live there for the summer, she wanted to do what she could to make sure the place was more habitable.

While the tired, displaced Charlie slept the afternoon away on the settee under the old live oak, Helen and Kurt busied themselves putting the quarters in order.

Kurt carried the dusty feather mattress outdoors for airing in the sun while Helen yanked down rotting curtains from the windows. Kurt whistled while he hauled the remaining furniture outdoors to be washed down. Her hair tied up in a white bandanna, the soiled gray work dress back on, Helen swept the wooden floors with a long-handled palmetto broom.

Kurt carried pail after pail of water from the well. Helen fetched homemade lye soap and strong-bristled brushes. On their hands and knees they scoured the wooden floor. Applying plenty of elbow grease, they crawled and scrubbed and swiped, making wide arcs with the stiff-bristled soapy brushes.

BOOK: Nan Ryan
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