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BOOK: Nan Ryan
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Still as spry and as active as a boy, Hamilton Minor Grubbs was fast approaching his seventy-first birthday. A man of medium height and sturdy frame, he was at least fifty pounds overweight from a lifetime’s indulgence in fried foods and rich desserts. Nobody enjoyed a hearty meal more than Hamilton Grubbs, and he had the rounded belly to prove it.

That belly shook up and down and rolled like waves on the bay when he laughed, which was often. So often, in fact, he was called Jolly Grubbs for his happy, easygoing nature. The rotund Jolly had a full head of snowy-white hair, a ruddy complexion, apple-red cheeks, a ready smile revealing a mouthful of strong white teeth which were all his own, and a pair of blue eyes that twinkled constantly with devilment and fun.

The white-haired old gentleman, who lived alone on a little strip of cleared bottomland bordering the Burke farm, was Helen’s closest neighbor. And closest friend.

Jolly Grubbs had known Helen all her life. He had paced the wide wooden gallery with Helen’s nervous grandfather when Helen’s father was born. He’d paced again with her father on the hot summer night in 1839 when she came squalling and red-faced into the world.

Jolly and his wife, Meg, were the first ones to the farm when word reached Spanish Fort that the Louisiana coastal steamer
Delta Princess
had gone down, taking Helen’s young parents to watery, premature graves when she was just four years old.

Jolly had been there at his bedside when his dear old friend Jackson Burke drew his last wheezing breath. And when Jackson’s frail widow—Helen’s last blood relative—had followed him two years later.

He was there to give the bride away when a glowing twenty-one-year-old Helen Burke married the adoring, well-scrubbed Will Courtney. He was there again to comfort her when the young wife became a widow.

Jolly Grubbs knew more about Helen Courtney than anyone, save maybe Em Ellicott. Em Ellicott was Helen’s best girlfriend. The two young women, who were the same age, had been as close as sisters since childhood. Jolly figured they shared all their best secrets.

But presently Jolly knew something about Helen that Em didn’t know. He knew that a dark-haired Yankee and his young son were living at the old Burke place. Em Ellicott was off in New Orleans spending a couple of weeks with some cousins, so she didn’t yet know about the Yankee.

Jolly knew because he was the one who had steered Kurt Northway to Helen’s farm.

Jolly prided himself on being an excellent judge of character. After only the briefest of conversations with Kurt Northway in Spanish Fort on Tuesday past, Jolly had known instinctively that Northway was a decent man who’d pose no threat to a fine young woman like Helen.

Northway needed work.

Helen needed work done.

So Jolly had sent the Yankee captain to the Southern widow.

He had sat there on the wooden sidewalk in a chair tipped back against the front of Jake’s General Store watching the tall Yankee lead his sorrel stallion out of town and in the direction of Helen’s farm.

Now on this warm Saturday Jolly’s blue eyes twinkled as he contemplated paying a late afternoon visit to the Burke farm. He sighed suddenly and went in search of his old straw hat.

It was indeed a sad state of affairs that had brought together two such strange bedfellows.

Chapter Seven

H
elen heaved a sigh of relief when she turned old Duke onto the tree-bordered lane leading down to her coastal property. Swallowed up in the thick cooling shade of the towering live oaks, she felt warm for the first time all afternoon. Much warmer than when she’d driven down Main Street in town with the bright May sun beating directly on her.

Helen’s slender shoulders slumped with instant relaxation. All afternoon she’d held them rigidly erect. She had assumed a false air of utter indifference which she could finally discard. Never in her life had she been as glad to get back to the farm. She could hardly wait to reach the safe, welcome haven of home.

Wishing she never again had to leave the sanctuary of the old bay-front place, Helen looked eagerly forward to a quiet, peaceful evening alone on the gallery, seated in her favorite armless rocker. There she would stay to her heart’s content.

As when she was a child, she’d watch the lights of Mobile twinkle brightly across the bay. And she’d follow the movement of the riverboats as they steamed out of port on the protected waters, bound for New Orleans, Biloxi, and Pass Christian.

Shielded. Sheltered. Safe.

Helen emerged from the canopy of shade deciding she needn’t go back into Spanish Fort for at least two weeks. By then Em would surely be home from New Orleans. Em would stand by her just as she always did.

Emma Louise Ellicott was no fair-weather friend. She was a fiercely loyal confidante who could be counted on, had been since they were little girls together. The Ellicotts were highly respected members of the South’s Old Guard. Em’s mother was a Bankhead and the Ellicotts were blue bloods who could trace their ancestors to the thrones of both England and France.

But Em wouldn’t give a fig what the townspeople were saying. She never had. She’d as soon thumb her nose at the gentry as not. The indomitable Em wouldn’t question Helen’s decision to hire a Yankee. She’d realize that it had been absolutely necessary and would accept it without passing judgment.

Helen turned Duke up the wagon path leading to the farm’s outbuildings. Reining the old pony to a stop directly before the plank corral, Helen frowned when Kurt Northway ducked out of the barn and into the fading afternoon sunlight.

The sight of him always disturbed her. Today more so than ever. Because of him she had suffered hurt and humiliation, had alienated friends and neighbors. Seeing him now, she was filled with resentment and unrestrained loathing.

This tall, dark Yankee captain was going about on her property as if he owned the place. No wonder the townspeople were incensed.

Kurt started toward Helen, pulling on his work shirt, shoving long arms into the sleeves. He didn’t bother buttoning the shirt. It remained open, exposing his bare chest. Helen couldn’t help but notice the dense growth of thick jet-black hair that covered the hard flat muscles and narrowed into a thick line going down his stomach.

She stiffened as he approached. She quickly tossed the reins aside, put one foot on the wooden passenger step, and turned about, preparing to back down to the ground. She was determined to alight before he could reach her. She didn’t quite make it.

Kurt was too swift for her.

“Allow me,” he said, stepping up directly behind her.

“No, really, I don’t need any help, I can—” Helen winced when she felt his strong hands encircle her waist.

“—manage quite well alone,” he finished for her. “Down you go,” he said, lowering her to the ground directly before him.

Helen immediately felt a fierce warmth emanating from his tall body, caught the scent of sun-heated flesh. She felt like shouting at him to get away from her. Before she could order him to move, Kurt stepped back. She spun about to face him, inexplicably flustered and annoyed.

Turning cold blue eyes on him, she said, “Captain Northway, did you complete the plowing in the lower south field?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “All finished.”

She nodded curtly. “I don’t suppose you’ve gotten around to clearing the weeds from the grape arbor so I can—”

“Done. Took care of it shortly after lunch.”

“Any corn shucked for the—”

“Bushel baskets full.”

Helen’s perfectly arched eyebrows lifted accusingly. “Stock been fed?”

“Every living animal on the farm, except old Duke here.” He grinned boyishly then, and added, “Well, that is, besides you, me, and Charlie.”

Frustrated by the man’s undeniable efficiency, Helen snapped, “Then I suggest you get started mending the fence down by—”

“Was it that bad?” Kurt interrupted.

“What?” She gave him an inquisitive look. “Was
what
that bad?”

“Your trip into Spanish Fort.”

“My trip into … I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I most certainly do not! I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon in town.”

Kurt shook his dark head, placed a flattened palm on his naked belly, and allowed the tips of his lean tanned fingers to languidly slip down inside the low-riding waistband of his faded blue trousers. “You needn’t pretend with me, Mrs. Courtney.”

Guiltily realizing that her eyes had followed the slow, seductive movement of his hand as it slid toward his trousers, Helen jerked her head up, glared at him, and said, “You’re absolutely right, Captain! There is no need.”

“Then stop it,” he softly commanded. “The townspeople were unkind to you. Because of me. I can see it in your eyes. I’m sorry.”

Helen opened her mouth to deny it, closed it without speaking. Suddenly desperate to have him out of her sight, Helen rudely attempted to push Kurt out of her way. Her hands flattened on his hair-covered chest, she immediately found her wrists encircled with his imprisoning fingers.

For a long second they stood looking warily at each other, their gazes locked, Helen’s hands trapped on his chest. The feel, the texture of crisp curly hair and smooth heated flesh beneath was so strange, so frightening to her sensitive fingertips.

For Kurt it was every bit as strange, every bit as frightening to have a pair of soft feminine hands resting warmly against the naked flesh of his bare chest. Her palms pressed warmly over each flat brown nipple, he felt his chest involuntarily expand against her covering hands, his belly tighten responsively.

Each waited for the other to make a move.

The spell was broken by the sound of Jolly Grubbs’s rumbling voice shouting a loud, cheery hello.

Kurt and Helen sprang apart as if they’d been caught in some deviant act.

Her face red with anger, frustration, and embarrassment, Helen called to the approaching white-haired gentleman. “Hello, Jolly. How are you this afternoon?”

“No great complaints,” came the shouted reply as Jolly walked toward them, fanning himself with a battered, big-brimmed straw hat.

Helen smiled in Jolly’s direction, then turned to Kurt and snapped, “See to Duke and put away the wagon!” She whirled away, but looked back and hissed beneath her breath, “And for heaven’s sake, Captain, button up your clothes!”

Jolly Grubbs had purposely waited the five days between Tuesday and Saturday before paying a visit to the old Burke farm. He figured he’d give the Yankee captain and his boy a chance to get settled in. And Helen a chance to get used to having the pair around before he came over to check on them.

Once there, he encountered three people who were noticeably ill at ease with one another. Helen was not herself. She had always been a lively, outgoing young woman, full of tomfoolery. Warm and friendly in the extreme. Now she seemed unusually anxious and strangely self-conscious, almost stiff. She went to great lengths to avoid any eye contact with the Yankee captain.

Captain Kurt Northway was polite, genuinely respectful, as perfectly behaved a gentleman as a son of the South. But he appeared to be tightly coiled, as if he were consciously holding himself in check. Despite the seemingly relaxed attitude of Northway’s body, Jolly sensed a deep, underlying edginess, a watch-spring tension.

And the boy?

Well, little Charlie Northway was totally unreachable. The child was locked up within himself, unwilling to share his feelings with anyone. Fear, distrust, and sadness shone from the child’s big brown eyes. Was present in the downturned curve of the babyish lips, the frequent sagging of his small chin on his narrow chest.

Jolly invited himself to stay for supper and promptly accepted his invitation.

Knowing that Helen most likely didn’t allow the Yankee or his son inside the house, he further suggested—in Kurt’s presence so Helen couldn’t veto the notion—that they all share the evening meal out on the back porch where they could take advantage of the breeze.

His appetite as hearty as ever, Jolly smacked his lips appreciatively and ate with great gusto. After eagerly devouring several pieces of golden fried chicken, he joked that he had enjoyed the appetizer, now what was for supper, and his blue eyes twinkled with merriment.

Kurt courteously chuckled. Helen graciously smiled. Charlie’s glum expression never changed.

Jolly polished off two thick slices of apple pie, pushed back from the table, groaned with satisfaction, and loosened his belt a notch. Sighing with pleasure, he withdrew a cigar from inside his shirt pocket, put it under his nose, and sniffed it. And caught the brief flicker of envy in Kurt Northway’s green eyes.

“Join me in a smoke, won’t you, Captain?” he said, and fished a second cigar from his pocket.

“Thank you, Mr. Grubbs,” said Kurt, and took the offered cheroot.

“No need to be so formal, son. Call me Jolly. Everyone else does.” He looked at the clench-jawed Helen. “Don’t they, Helen, my girl?” Before she could reply, Jolly asked Kurt, “Know what we used to call Helen when she was a little shaver of two or three years old?”

“Hamilton Minor Grubbs,” Helen warned, “don’t you dare!”

Blue eyes still atwinkle, Jolly nodded sheepishly and said no more, knowing that when Helen addressed him by his full name, she meant business. He cleared his throat and steered the conversation to safer topics. He insisted Kurt tell them about his Maryland home.

Kurt volunteered little, but Jolly questioned him tenaciously. Showing little interest in what he had to say, Helen nonetheless learned that Kurt Northway had lived and worked on a large horse farm since he was a boy. And that the farm’s owner had taught him all there was to know about training fine thoroughbreds. Further probing questions from Jolly revealed that Kurt was to be given property of his own by the man who had been like a father to him. Their agreement was that Kurt would give Willis Dunston five more years of service in exchange for a section of prime Maryland grassland adjoining his own.

Jolly knew instinctively when he could get nothing more out of Kurt, so he turned the conversation to the weather, the crops, and the upcoming Baldwin County Fair. As he spoke, he keenly observed and evaluated each one of the uncomfortable trio seated at the table with him.

BOOK: Nan Ryan
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