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Authors: Love Me Tonight

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BOOK: Nan Ryan
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He appeared to be enjoying the early-morning romp as much as the speeding horse. Forgetting herself, Helen enjoyed their fun as well. The heavy gun lowered and held at her side, her lips slightly parted, she savored a few stolen seconds of guileless joy. Hardly daring to breathe or move, she silently observed the superbly configured man atop the superbly configured stallion. Watching the daring duo, Helen caught herself smiling foolishly.

She promptly frowned when she caught sight of Bessie, the milk cow, standing out in the middle of the big pasture. Whirling away, Helen hurried back inside. All traces of the smile and the joy were gone.

Rising irritation replaced both.

The Yankee’s first morning in her employ and he was exercising his damn thoroughbred instead of milking the cow! She had made it crystal clear that his very first chore each day was to do the milking. Obviously he’d paid no attention. He was out racing his stallion around the pasture like a carefree boy while she was left to do the milking.

Growing angrier with each passing minute, Helen washed up, dressed hurriedly, and started through the big, silent house. Reciting all the scathing things she’d say to the irresponsible Yankee, she burst into the kitchen and quickly skidded to a stop.

On the drainboard sat the big milk pail, a clean damp dish towel draped over the top. Curious but skeptical, Helen moved to the cabinet. Carefully she peeled back the covering dish towel.

The pail was rim-full of fresh, frothy milk.

Try as she might, Helen could find no fault with the Yankee’s willingness to work or with his ability to handle the myriad chores which went with running a farm.

Still, she didn’t like him, although she had to admit he was unfailingly polite and deferential. He seemed to be a gentleman and he projected an air of quiet intelligence. But he was too self-assured to suit her. Worse, he radiated a subtle animal magnetism that bothered her. There was something about him, something … dangerous. It was as if beneath that cool, polished veneer lurked the primitive, the savage.

She didn’t like it when he stood too close or took her hand to help her from a chair or when he held her pinned with those forest-green eyes. In his imposing presence she felt flustered and uneasy; he made her uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, he
pitched in right from the first morning and had lifted a large part of the burden off her shoulders. He insisted that he be the one to do all the heavy plowing. And he’d had old Duke hitched up and was out in the field by the time Helen finished the breakfast dishes.

Helen was grateful and relieved to have such dependable help. Before he came, she’d been spending all her daylight hours in the fields and so many other projects had been neglected. Now she’d have the opportunity to do the washing and ironing, churn some fresh butter, gather fruit from the orchard, prune her rosebushes, weed the yard, tend the neglected flower beds, do a bit of baking, and give the house a proper cleaning.

The week seemed to rush by in a whirl of activity.

Late Friday evening Helen was in the kitchen fixing supper. While she stood at the wood cook stove frying chicken, she thought back over the past few days.

She was amazed at how much she and the Yankee had accomplished in the short time he’d been there. The corn was just about planted, a task that would have taken her at least another week had she been alone.

To give the devil his due, the man wasn’t afraid of hard work. Uncomplaining, he toiled from sunrise to sunset, stopping briefly when she took his noon meal down to the field. Then he’d sit down under a shade tree, ravenously devour the food, and return immediately to work.

A hint of a smile played at Helen’s lips as she turned a browning drumstick in the heavy black skillet.

No matter what she took the Yankee for his dinner or what she put before him at suppertime, he acted as if it were the finest meal he’d ever sat down to.

Her smile suddenly fled.

She only wished Charlie shared his father’s healthy appetite.

Helen shook her head worriedly.

Little Charlie was sullen and withdrawn. He refused to talk. He never smiled. He hardly touched the hot meals she prepared. She felt sorry for Charlie. He was so young and so lost; just a baby, really. He badly needed his mother. His father was a stranger to him.

The expression she saw all too often in Charlie’s big brown eyes brought back the vivid memory of a time when she was about Charlie’s age and her grandparents had left her with friends while they traveled to New Orleans. She had clung to them for dear life when they returned, begging them never, ever to leave her again.

Poor Charlie. He must feel deserted, alone, frightened, just like she felt then.

Like she often felt now when she lay awake in the darkness of the night, worried and alone.

Chapter Six

t didn’t take long for the word to spread.

Within days the gentry of Spanish Fort were whispering that one of their own was guilty of unacceptable behavior.

“Have you heard?” asked the banker’s pink-faced wife, Hattie Price, when the ladies of her weekly quilting bee gathered that Friday afternoon. “A dirty, low-down Yankee is living right there on the old family farm with Jackson Burke’s widowed granddaughter!”

“Outrageous,” fumed Mary Lou Riddle, middle-aged widow of the late Colonel Tyson B. Riddle.

“Unforgivable!” declared Rose Lacey, proud mother of two wounded war veterans.

“It simply can’t be true,” said dark-haired, glamorous Yasmine Parnell. Widowed in the war’s closing days, Yasmine’s quiet acceptance of her personal tragedy and the way she continued to discharge her social and charitable obligations was admirable.

Shaking her graying head and rolling her eyes heavenward, dressmaker Betsy Reed, noted designer of Mobile’s fanciest Mardi Gras costumes, said, “Why, her husband, young Will Courtney, that fine Southern gentleman who laid down his life for the Cause, is surely spinning in his grave!”

Scandalous! Disgraceful! Shameful!

All unanimously agreed, their needles and eyes flashing. A Yankee’s presence on Helen’s farm was unspeakable.

Yet the ladies spent the afternoon speaking of nothing else. Distasteful as the subject was, they couldn’t let it go. They speculated about the shocking things which might be going on right there on the old Burke place.

Why, the man was a Yankee, after all, and so being, was certainly no part of a gentleman. Young Helen Courtney should have had the good sense to know that she’d be in constant danger of physical attack from a base, animalistic Northern brute.

“Perhaps she wouldn’t mind a dollop of danger,” said saucy newlywed Kitty Pepper with a wink and a toss of her dark glossy curls. “I hear the Yankee is quite handsome. Jet-black hair, Indian-dark skin, and so tall and lean.”

“Kitty Pepper, hush your mouth this minute,” scolded her blushing, outraged mother.

“Momma, I’m only repeating what I’ve heard.” Kitty was undaunted. “My stars above, I thought you ladies would want to know.”

Nodding, the women around the quilting frame focused eagerly on the young smiling Kitty. She giggled, and pressing a hand to full, high bosom, confided in a soft little-girl voice, “Now, I haven’t seen the Yankee myself, but Grandma Baxter told Mavis King who told Beth Forrester who told Louise Downing who told me …” Kitty paused and drew a breath, “that there’s ‘a look of controlled savagery’ about the Yankee!”

“Kitty Fay Pepper!” all scolded in unison.

“Hand me my smelling salts,” murmured Mary Lou Riddle. “And Helen’s such a pretty young thing, tall and slender with all that golden hair. What could she be thinking!”

* * *

The slender, golden-haired topic of their conversation soon learned what the sewing bee—and everyone else in Spanish Fort—thought about her sheltering a Yankee.

On Saturday afternoon Helen—waving away Kurt’s offer to do it for her—hitched old Duke up to the wagon and drove the eight miles into Spanish Fort.

Helen always looked forward to her weekly trips to the village. Their purpose was to purchase needed supplies, but she generally stayed on for a couple of hours after her order had been filled. Other ladies were in town Saturdays and Helen enjoyed visiting with them. It was a deserved and welcome respite after a long, hard week of working alone at the farm.

On this particular Saturday, however, Helen had a nagging suspicion that the afternoon might not prove all that enjoyable.

Her palms grew moist when she guided old Duke up Main Street past the sheriff’s office and the Baldwin County Jail. The Red Rose Saloon. Beekham’s Furniture Store. The Spanish Fort newspaper office.

Helen gritted her teeth when she passed a many-windowed office whose glass-paned front door had
written across it in fancy gold lettering. It was all too easy to picture the powerful, wealthy Niles Loveless inside, seated grandly behind his immense mahogany desk.

She was more than a little apprehensive as she pulled up on old Duke, wound the reins around the brake handle, and stepped down into the street outside Jake’s General Store.

She’d told herself all the way into town that everything was fine. Just fine. More than likely no one yet knew about the Yankee and his son. But even if they did, they wouldn’t think anything of it. She had always hired seasonal hands to help with the spring planting. It wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t find local laborers this year. People would surely understand.

She was wrong.

As soon as Helen stepped inside Jake Autry’s cavernous general store, she knew the word had gotten around. A knot of men loitering by a glasswares table saw her, nodded feebly, and immediately began talking among themselves, their voices lowered. Helen felt sure they were talking about her.

And the Yankee.

Ignoring them, she squared her slender shoulders, smiled, and proceeded directly to a wide counter behind which the skinny, bearded Jake Autry was unpacking sacks of chewing tobacco from a wooden carton.

“Hello, Jake. How are you this afternoon? Warm for early May, isn’t it? Makes me dread August.”

“Ma’am,” mumbled Jake, and that was all.

This from a man who would talk your arm off if given half the chance. Never had Helen been in Jake’s store that he hadn’t filled her in on everything that had happened during the week. Furthermore, he had always good-naturedly passed along messages between her and her many friends and acquaintances.

Not today.

Jake had little to say, responding with a clipped “Yes” “No” or “I don’t know” when she asked a question. Not only was he unusually closemouthed, he was also unusually quick in filling her order. He had never been either before.

Jake clearly wanted her out of his store as soon as possible. Pretending a nonchalance she didn’t feel, Helen calmly bade Jake good day. She swept up her many purchases and turned to leave. Not one of the gentlemen offered to carry the supplies out to the wagon.

With a sigh and groan, Helen managed to dump the heavy load onto the wagon bed behind the seat. She drew a breath, looked around, and caught sight of the Livingston sisters coming down the shaded wooden sidewalk.

Helen immediately smiled. She was genuinely glad to see the aged, eccentric spinsters. An idea popped into her mind. She would invite the fluttery, tremulous little pair to join her for a cooling lemonade at the Bayside Hotel dining room. Her treat. They’d be thrilled to death, bless their old hearts.

Helen started forward. The tiny, white-haired Livingston sisters looked up and saw her. They pointedly crossed the street, averting their eyes and twittering to each other as they went.

Stunned, Helen stopped short, feeling as if she’d been slapped in the face. She looked anxiously around. Had anyone seen the Livingston sisters openly snub her? If she ran into other friends, would they rebuff her too?

Helen stood there in the hot May sunshine feeling the icy winds of censure and ostracism chill her to the bone. It hurt. It hurt badly, but she understood. These gentle people had every reason to hate the Yankees.
hated the Yankees! She only wished the townspeople could understand her unique predicament.

Fighting back tears that made her eyes smart, Helen hurried to the security of her wagon. She lunged up onto the high leather seat, unwrapped the long reins, and immediately put old Duke in motion. Looking neither to the left nor the right, she turned the buggy about and uncharacteristically laid the whip to the old pony’s backside.

Surprised, Duke pricked up his ears, neighed indignantly, and trotted down Main Street, moving faster than he’d moved in years.

Helen sighed with relief when the false-front buildings of Spanish Fort were left behind. On she drove. A scattering of houses bordered Main at the south edge of town. A face appeared in a front window of the Logan house—Francis Logan peering out at her from behind the curtains. Across the street, Myrtle Thetford stood on the porch, hands on hips, shaking her gray head accusingly.

The message couldn’t have been made more clear. What she had done was considered traitorous and disloyal. A deed of such perfidy, the townspeople were horrified.

Helen gritted her teeth and told herself it didn’t matter. It
matter. She couldn’t let it matter.

She had one main goal in life. To maintain—now and forever—ownership of the farm on which three generations of Burkes had lived and laughed and loved. And died. Since Grandfather Jackson D. Burke cleared the land and built the house for his bride in 1798, the Burkes had called the place home.

The farm, the adjoining timberlands, and the house—such as they were—were hers now. She was the last Burke left. It was up to her. That’s why she had hired a Union captain. So that she could hold on to her home.

Helen’s delicate jaw hardened and her chin lifted defiantly.

If it took a despised Yankee’s help to keep from losing her land, so be it. Let people talk.

One native Alabamian and Spanish Fort old-timer who neither gossiped about Helen nor tolerated anyone else talking about her in his presence was widower Hamilton Minor Grubbs.

BOOK: Nan Ryan
13.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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