Authors: Carol A. Spradling
SHADES OF GRAY
by Carol A. Spradling
Copyright © 2012 by Carol A. Spradling
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places,
and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, businesses,
events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
part of this book may be used, reproduced, or shared in any manner whatsoever,
in part or in whole, without prior, written permission of the author except in the
case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
You have shown me that it is possible to reach a goal by
traveling a different path.
Sue LeCates: The way your pupils dilated
when I shared the basic concept with you for this book told me this story had
to be told.
Peggy Henderson: This book would not exist
if not for you. You encouraged me to continue my career when I thought it had
run its course.
Lorraine Richardson: My newest beta
reader. How did I ever manage straight A’s in spelling class without you
sitting beside me, pointing out my errors?
weeds covered the deeply scarred ground, making the route nearly impossible to
maneuver. Grayson Gregory could have taken three different routes from Oak
Willow to Hampton Township, but this was the quickest path, even with the
obstacles. Focusing on the road, he tried to concentrate on the trail and
ignore the floundering fields to his sides.
ago, tobacco leaves had covered miles of fertile ground. The abundance of
crops his plantation produced was of no surprise to anyone. Oak Willow sat on
the most fertile ground in Hampton Township. While his land was capable of
producing a hefty profit, it had gone fallow, along with Grayson’s desire for
life. He sighed and loosened his grip on the reins. In no hurry to reach his
destination, he allowed his horse to plod along at his own pace.
note had been specific.
Come get your box.
The boy who delivered the
message had wet his breeches when sharing the information. The lad looked
barely old enough to ride a horse. It was doubtful he had volunteered to
travel the five miles of deserted road from town. His face was unfamiliar to
Grayson, but the boy acted as though he was aware of the man’s past.
steered his horse to the left and sourness filled his mouth. Two rows of
high-pitched rooftops lined the upcoming street. Hampton’s General Store was
in the building nearest the docks. He would have to ride a gauntlet of stares
and comments to claim his property. With any luck, he could retrieve his
parcel and return home before more chaos erupted. He stared straight ahead and
concentrated on the ship in the harbor. It didn’t matter what he endured; he
would protect her.
swept in from the docks like a raging tempest, and rain clouds drifted across
the sun, shadowing the storefront window. The glass rattled, shaking the black
letters, as though the store name would crumble and fall into a powdered heap
on the sill. A summer storm seemed inevitable. Perhaps the rain would be
merciful and wait until Grayson returned home before releasing a downpour.
the brake on the carriage and considered his options. From what he remembered,
Saturday afternoons generally brought local residents into town. The social
outing offered the townspeople a way of celebrating the end of a hard work
week. Although the interaction served as a welcomed relief to farm chores, no
citizen was exempt from being the topic of ridicule for the news-hungry
community. Grayson stiffened with the remembrance of his time spent as the
gossip mongers favorite subject.
forgotten, his order had been placed when he was considered a reputable member
of society. A woman’s voice giggled in his memory. Daria had been so excited
with her selection and had assured Grayson that he would appreciate her choice
as much as she would. Her mischievous smile guaranteed her promise. A woman’s
wardrobe was hardly something he would give additional thought to. Even though
Mr. Shields had every right to sell the articles that had gone unclaimed,
Grayson would not allow Daria’s garments to be strutted around town on the
bodies of women who betrayed her. Heavy-hearted, he climbed down from his
carriage and stepped toward the general store.
The buzz of
inside conversation could be heard through the doorway. A beehive should wish
for such activity. Grayson didn’t need to enter the building to know the
busy-bodies were feasting on some unfortunate sinner’s remains. Pecked clean,
the women would claim the information was a matter of public record and if the
person hadn’t been so foolish, there would be nothing to discuss. The best the
poor soul could hope for was a new catastrophe to distract the corseted
vultures. Perhaps their appetites would be satiated and not ready for a fresh
carcass. Grayson pulled his hat low on his brow and entered the establishment.
and his son sat in the corner of the room, and his wife and daughter plundered
through bolts of fabric. Brown and black bundles flew through the air,
separating the mound like a collapsed, gopher hole. Clutched tightly in his
daughter’s fist, a cheerful looking, calico print sailed upward. The girl held
it above her beaming face like she had just won a pie eating contest. To the
right of the table, her gangly brother elbowed their father and nodded toward
his head and peered out from under the brim of his tricorn. The farmer’s
befuddled expressions vanished, and he stood to his feet. With his hands on
his son’s shoulder, he steered the boy toward the rest of the family. They
rounded the display table, and Mr. Pearson leaned his head toward his wife.
Her eyes widened and she clamped a hand over her open mouth. Quiet whispers
ended when blood drained from her face, and she slowly turned her attention in
Grayson’s direction. Still staring, she freed the bolt of fabric from her
daughter’s grip and pointed across the room. The girl whined, obviously more
concerned with her loss of yard goods than of the reason for the family’s
departure. She stuck her bottom lip out and followed after her mother,
mumbling under her breath as she went.
A chill filled
the room and the noise quieted. Other patrons continued to shop, but
concentrated their browsing efforts on merchandise placed near the far wall.
Bullet casts might interest a few of the men, but could hardly capture
everyone’s attention. Grayson smirked and scanned the rest of the room.
the devil with them all.
He would conduct his business, give the local
biddies something to share at the church social, and return to his plantation.
There was no judgment there, only memories.
Shields, the proprietor, tucked a cloth under his arm and emptied the last box
from a back shelf. He blew into the corner of the ledge. A spider scurried to
the front of the support and disappeared into a crack. Grayson maneuvered past
a woman clutching her child and made his way to the willowy shopkeeper.
“Good day, Mr.
Shields,” Grayson said.
built merchant teetered on his stool, and Grayson reached a hand to steady the
bookish man. Eight years ago, this one individual had become his only friend.
Although there was no truth to repudiate the fraudulent rumors aimed at
Grayson, the businessman had not believed the rants of the incensed mob.
Violent abuse and murder were hard charges to deflect, even with no proof to
support either accusation.
had incited the vigilant mob to agree with his side of the story. Without a
chance to explain, Grayson was tried and convicted by most of the community.
Reece’s word was hard to dispute. His family had owned property in Virginia
for several generations, and had led the way to establish the township. No one
seemed to care that he had done it all with the blood of the local Indians.
centered his eye glasses on his nose and looked up. His squint softened and
his eyes widened. “Gray. How good it is to see you.”
A twinge of
a smile tugged at the corner of Gray’s mouth. He hadn’t heard his nickname
since…since he had stopped coming into town. “I hope I’m not costing you
customers by being here,” he said and gestured to the crowd at the front of the
store. Shoe leather shuffled against the wood floor, indicating the shoppers
were expanding their interests.
repositioned his frames and glanced past Gray’s arm. He curled his nose and
shrugged a shoulder. “The Pearsons? Don’t concern yourself with them. Their
daughter is in here at least once a week, and she always walks out of the store
empty handed. I’m surprised she persuaded the entire family to accompany
her.” He flipped his cloth toward his vacated shelf. “The
arrived this morning and just in time as far as I’m concerned. I thought I
would be out of business due to a lack of goods.” Waving his hand through the
air, he motioned for Gray to walk with him as he headed down an aisle.
at the front of the store, drawing both men’s attention. A young boy had
pushed himself up on the counter and was elbow deep in the candy jar. Clearly,
he was in too big of a hurry to wait for service. He pulled a licorice whip
into the open, closed the lid on the canister, and slammed his payment next to
the register. Snapping off a piece of the black strap, he tossed the bite in
his mouth and left the store. Three other boys hooted and hollered and then
gave chase to the brazen lad.
scratched his head and glanced to his side. “He must have lost a dare. Now
then, what was I--”
his tricorn up from his brows. “My order?”
wasn’t it. The
. Ah, yes. Now there’s an order that will
set some tongues to wagging. I think every person in town came out to see
her. Not the ship, mind you, but the girl.” He flipped his cleaning cloth
over a shoulder and watched Gray. The merchant’s brown eyes stared, seeming to
await a reaction. Apparently disappointed with the lack of response, he
wrinkled his face and shook his head. “She’s a bride for Reece,” the old man
said. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited.
into a sack of seed corn and turned his attention to the little man. From the
crooked smile and the amused light dancing behind the aged eyes, Mr. Shields
enjoyed being the one to pass along this information.
that would get your attention,” he said.
the sack back into place. “Reece is not my concern.”
“I thought you
might have an interest when a young lady crosses an ocean at Reece Mullins’
“I don’t,” he
snapped. “Send my order to the house.”
grabbed Gray’s arm. The long fingers tightening on his forearm like a viper.
“You’ll take it with you. I’ll not bring it out. It grieves me to see the way
you’ve squandered Oak Willow. It was bad enough my stock boy soiled himself.
I had to pay him an extra day’s wage for the errand. To do this to yourself is
one thing, but to make your mother live in isolation. . . you should be ashamed
disappeared into the back room, and Gray’s hands balled into fists. He ached
to hit something, but some targets were beyond reproach. Bullying a
defenseless man or woman was something he would have no part of. He tried to
temper the anger building in his chest. No one needed to remind him of his
mother and the life she led. He had not prevented her from leaving
Willow. The woman refused to leave, insisting she would stay on the
“We don’t see
much of you in town these days,” a distant voice said from behind him.
his head away from the noise and tried to focus on anything else. He didn’t
need a confrontation to keep him from returning home.
“I knew the
Scots were clannish, but you’re in Virginia now. Over here, it’s considered
proper to speak when addressed.” The voice continued to goad, and added a
chuckle to the taunt.
asked. Slowly gaining control of himself, he turned.
A stout man
stood in front of him. His shoulders were reared back, and he rolled his
sleeves up his arm. “I said.” He switched to the other arm. “You’re kind of
uppity for a man who got run out of an entire country. What was it I heard?
‘MacGregors are too bad-tempered to keep out of trouble.’ You’ve already
proven that. I think, maybe they are stupid, too.” He drew back his fist,
ready to punch.
Shields shouted. The curtain behind him fell back into place. He pushed a
wooden crate in front of him. “I hear tell the magistrate’s after you. Should
I let him know you were just here, trying to bust up my shop?”
The burly man
lowered his arm and glared at Gray. “Him ignoring me doesn’t change things.
Neither does changing his name.” He stepped close, his breath in desperate
need of a parsley sprig. “You can call yourself Gregory all you want, but
you’ll always be a MacGregor, and you’ll always be without a country, or a
twitched and he flexed his hands. Gray didn’t know if he was happy or annoyed
with his friend’s timing. Donald could have been the release he needed.
The blond man
turned and glowered at Gray and then stormed out the door.
Donald,” Mr. Shields said. He upended the crate on its side. “Some people
don’t have the sense God gave a turnip. Donald’s own wife won’t have anything
to do with him.” He stretched his back and looked at Gray. “I want to thank
you for holding your temper. From the redness of your neck, I can tell it
wasn’t easy for you. I see your disposition has calmed tremendously since
th…what I mean…thanks for not breaking up my place. There’s no denying he
earned a good thrashing, but I’m grateful to you, nonetheless.”
He hefted the crate to his shoulder and moved toward the exit.
rumbled and wind blew against the door, pushing it open. A thickly sweet odor
weighted down the breeze. That nauseating smell still permeated the crevices
of Gray’s thoughts, and there was only one man in town who enjoyed the stench.
pushed completely open and Reece Mullins filled the doorway, his cigar wedged
in the corner of his mouth. Behind the ribbon of smoke, his eyes widened and
his head pulled back. The bite on his cigar tightened. One solid punch would
send it down his throat. With any luck, it would lodge against his windpipe
and end Gray’s suffering.
sneered. His hazel eyes darkened and then lit, exposing a glint of
wickedness. His brand of evil was never far from the surface. Gray was
certain he caught a whiff of brimstone.