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Authors: Kaylea Cross

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The Vacant Chair

BOOK: The Vacant Chair
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The Vacant Chair

By Kaylea Cross

Copyright © 2013 by Kaylea Cross

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Cover Art by
Syd Gill

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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the author.

 

ISBN:
9780991905003

Dedication

I dedicate this book to my husband, Todd. Thank you for letting me drag you to all those Virginia battlefields, and for being so tolerant of my obsession with the Civil War. And most of all, thank you for getting down on one knee in the middle of that cemetery at Fredericksburg and popping the question. Hands down the most romantic gesture of ALL TIME, and all these years later I’m still glad I said yes. Thank you for all your support and encouragement. Love you.

Author’s Note

You know that saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction”? That’s very true for The Vacant Chair. I’ve done my best to be as historically accurate as possible, from the weather on a particular day to the precise movements of the Fifth Michigan Cavalry, and their unfortunate deployment to the plains after the war. It’s my hope that you’ll learn something new and fascinating about the Civil War as you read the story.

 

Happy reading!

Kaylea Cross

Chapter One

Near White House Landing, Virginia  

May 22, 1864

 

Brianna Taylor toyed with the wedding band hidden beneath her glove and tried to keep up with what her companion was saying next to her on the wagon’s hard seat. The uncomfortable vehicle rocked and swayed over the ruts in the road, caught in the stream of supplies and soldiers heading toward the Union base at White House Landing.

Ella-May chattered on excitedly about a soldier she’d met the week before when she’d visited an elderly aunt at Harper’s Ferry. She was a cheerful little thing, with plump cheeks and glossy brown curls that bounced with her animated recounting of the event. “He’s promised to write to me and wants to see me again at the first opportunity,” she added, her face flushed and her powder-blue eyes sparkling. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“It is wonderful. I’m glad for you.” Ella-May was three years younger than Brianna and had lost her own husband at the battle of Fredericksburg a year-and-a-half ago. If there was a chance for Ella-May to find happiness again with this new beau, Brianna wanted her friend to have it.

Ella-May’s smile faded and she set a hand on her arm. “I’m sorry, I’m being insensitive. Should I not speak of it? I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

“Don’t be silly.” Brianna reached for her hand, squeezed it. “The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and I have you to keep me company. Why on earth would I be sad?”

Her friend’s gaze flicked to Brianna’s left hand and the ring concealed beneath her glove. “I know you still miss him.”

She did. “I expect I always will. He was a wonderful friend and husband, though he was only mine for a short while.”

Almost three years since Caleb had passed, yet she couldn’t bear the thought of taking her ring off. It felt like an act of betrayal to do so. At least the pain wasn’t as sharp anymore, faded instead to a dull ache that never quite went away. Sometimes she found the loneliness difficult, though since it was self-inflicted, she had no grounds for complaint. She squeezed her friend’s hand again. “Tell me more about this handsome corporal your aunt introduced you to.”

With a delighted smile, Ella-May obliged her. Brianna responded or nodded when she was required to, part of her attention remaining on the leather-bound books in her lap. She had to return them to Dr. Healy tomorrow. Now that the roads were clear, the spring campaign was already in full swing. She and Ella-May had been kept busy at the hospital recently, inundated by a flood of new patients wounded in the latest battles.

Turning her thoughts from the shattered men she tended every day, Brianna gave Ella-May her full attention and enjoyed her friend’s enthusiasm.

“When do you suppose we’ll be granted leave next?” Ella-May asked, curls swaying beneath her bonnet in rhythm with the wagon’s movements. “Corporal Riley thinks he’ll be stationed in Harper’s Ferry for a few more months yet.”

Brianna noticed the rhythm of the wagon change as she answered. “Not for quite a while, if we continue to see the numbers of casualties we have been.” If possible, the war seemed to be even bloodier this year. A terrible realization to make.

The wagon gave a sudden, hard jolt, and they both threw out an arm to steady themselves against the wooden sides. Ella-May shot her free hand up to hold onto her bonnet, while Brianna gathered her books closer. Gracious. She was going to have bruises after this ride.

“Perhaps Corporal Riley can get leave and come to see me instead, then,” Ella-May mused.

“I look forward to meeting him.”

Her friend studied her with a wistful expression. “Tell me the truth. Don’t you ever get lonely?”

Brianna hesitated before answering. “Sometimes. But not as much as I used to.” It wasn’t that she objected to the idea of having a relationship again; it was simply that she’d had no interest in one yet. Perhaps that part of her had died with Caleb.

She and Ella-May gasped when their vehicle suddenly lurched to one side, bringing them out of their seats by a few inches. They both grunted at the impact of the wheel slamming back into the ground. Brianna clutched the edge of the seat, the books sliding off her lap to land on the wooden floor with a thud. Up front, the driver cursed and pulled back on the reins to slow them. One of the horses, a dappled gray, protested the sudden yank on its bit and lashed out with its hind legs. Its hooves struck the damaged wheel and knocked it askew. The right front corner of the wagon bed listed at a sharp angle and hit the ground, bouncing the driver from his seat. He managed to leap free and roll away from the broken vehicle, the horses still dragging them forward.

Ella-May cried out in alarm, and Brianna lunged over the seat back to grab the reins before the animals could bolt. The wagon jolted and scraped across the corduroy road, rattling her teeth in her head. Bracing one foot on the front board of the wagon, she leaned back and used her body weight to bring the team to a plunging halt. When they stood still at last, she climbed down from her perch to stand beside the nervous horses, their flanks quivering in the braces. “Whoa now,” she told them, keeping a firm hold on the reins.

Ella-May sat up from her crouch and gingerly exited the wagon, lying broken in the middle of the road. The huge line of traffic behind them ground to a sudden halt. “Are you all right?” Her eyes were wide as she stared at Brianna holding the agitated horses, as though she expected them to trample Brianna into the dirt at any moment.

“Just fine.” The same couldn’t be said for the wagon’s other contents, including Dr. Healey’s books. They were dumped a few yards from the wagon, some of the pages having come loose from their bindings to lay scattered in the dirt. “You?”

“I shall tell you in a few minutes once my heart climbs down from my throat,” Ella-May replied, pressing a hand to her chest.  “What do we do now?”

“Wait until someone clears the mess and find a new ride.” The driver limped toward them while carrying on a heated argument with another man, waving his arms at the mess. Food and other supplies were strewn across the road, the number of broken crates, boxes and barrels littering the area making it impassible. With what seemed like the entire Army of the Potomac lined up behind them, it would be some time before the road was cleared enough to allow the rest of the column by.

So far, no one was doing anything but argue about what to do. A group of civilians were engaged in a discussion with several soldiers, who appeared none too happy about the delay. Rather than clear away the debris and drag the wagon to one side, they all seemed more interested in fighting about it. Really, did it matter whose fault the mess was at this point? If she hadn’t taken hold of the horses, they’d likely still be racing down the road, wreaking havoc.

Quelling her irritation, Brianna turned her attention back to the animals, since she couldn’t hold them and help clean up the road at the same time. For the moment she contented herself with soothing them while she waited for someone to step up and take charge of the situation.

 

“I thought the Reb cavalry would let up for a while after we killed J.E.B. Stuart.”

Captain Justin Thompson grunted at Lieutenant Williams’s statement and shifted in the saddle to stretch his stiff back. “Wishful thinking, I’m afraid.” Ten days had passed since Stuart was mortally wounded, yet through all the battles and skirmishes, the Union cavalry had yet to gain the upper hand in spite of the ground they’d won. 

 Riding in the warm May sunshine, the Michigan Brigade filed toward the army’s supply base at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River. The men were weary of marching but alert, the horses plodding along at an easy pace down the tree-lined road. Justin took another sip from his canteen and replaced it behind the saddle, sparing a smile when Williams told a bawdy joke and burst into a peal of raucous laughter. 

“Do you kiss your wife with that mouth, Lieutenant?” Justin asked. 

Williams’s chocolate brown eyes twinkled, his mouth twitching beneath the mustache of his neatly trimmed brown goatee. “Yessir, as often as she’ll let me. And I’m here to tell you, no one kisses like my Charlotte.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Justin replied blandly.

The column began to slow, and within a few minutes it had ground to a complete halt. Distant shouts and the whicker of horses from up ahead reached his ears, but he couldn’t tell what was happening farther up due to the screen of leafy trees obscuring his view. However, one of the advantages of being in the cavalry was the added mobility it afforded.

“Let’s go see what the commotion is all about, shall we?” he said to Williams, nudging his trusty mount Boy-o out of formation and into a trot.

Around the bend in the road, he saw the problem. A broken wagon lay in disarray in the middle of the road, its wreckage strewn all over the place. In front of it, two hitched horses shied and danced in their braces, their legs tangled in the leather straps. Both animals had their ears back, tossing their heads as if they might bolt at any moment. Groups of men stood around gesturing and arguing, but not doing anything to rectify the situation.

Williams let out a low whistle. “That’s one hell of a mess.”

It was. “Well, none of us are getting through until it’s cleared, that’s for sure.” He thinned his lips in irritation. Since it appeared he was the ranking officer on scene at the moment, he dismounted behind the wagon with the intent to grab the nearest horse himself, and realized someone was already holding the team. He ordered some men to begin the cleanup, and his steps slowed when he noticed the hem of a skirt moving in front of the horses. A woman? He frowned. Why wasn’t anyone helping her? She could be trampled, for God’s sake. 

“Looks like someone’s got everything under control up there, sir,” Williams said, coming abreast of him.

An odd stillness overcame him, his focus sharpening on her trim silhouette. “Yes, she does, doesn’t she?”

Ignoring Williams’s blank look, Justin stepped closer. The woman turned her head and when she saw him her expression tightened for a split second before she put on a polite smile. Her deep brown hair flashed hints of red in the sunshine and a pair of darkly lashed gray eyes peered out from beneath the brim of her wide-brimmed bonnet.

Justin doffed his hat as he approached, careful to move slowly so he wouldn’t startle the horses. “Good afternoon, ma’am.”

 “Hello,” she replied, dropping her free hand from the nearest horse’s coat.

 “Here, let me take these two fellows from you,” he offered, meeting her eyes as he gathered the reins in his gloved fist. The impact of her gaze hit him in the gut like a punch. She blushed under his intense stare but didn’t glance away, and something about her reaction told him he wasn’t the only one affected.

“Thank you, Captain,” she replied, a hint of the South in her clear voice. “But if you could manage to untangle the reins instead, I’ll hold these two steady for you.”

Not beautiful in the traditional sense perhaps, yet there was still something arresting about her. Her bearing was confident and calm, her gaze intelligent. It was obvious she knew her way around horses. Though she didn’t seem strong enough to hold the team steady, the animals stood still as she stroked each muzzle and spoke to them in a soothing tone that would give him pleasant dreams for many nights to come. 

Before he could protest, Williams skirted past Boy-o to take the reins from her and engaged her in conversation, leaving Justin to deal with untangling the team. Since she was safe enough at the moment, he bent to untangle the twisted leather around the horses’ legs, watching for any signs of nervousness from them. Wouldn’t do for him to be trampled in front of an attractive woman he wanted to impress.

As he worked, he listened to her talk with Williams while men scrambled to clear away the debris in the road. When he finished with the last snare, Justin eased the straps into position and turned the horses over to a passing trooper.

The lady smiled her thanks to both him and Williams then excused herself. She crossed to the side of the road where another woman waited for her, gathering scattered books and pieces of paper. Intrigued by her, Justin tucked his gauntlets into his belt and strode over to offer a hand.

“Is this all of them, Ella-May? There were four books altogether.” She completed a slow circle, searching for any stray pages, and stopped when she noticed him standing nearby with a fistful of them.

“Some light reading?” he asked with a smile, handing over the pages of medical textbooks he had gathered. Why on earth would she be reading that?

“Thank you.” Her thick lashes lowered as she accepted them. “I nurse at the depot hospital in Fredericksburg. My friend and I are taking a steamer there this morning.”

Up close he noticed the light dusting of freckles across the tops of her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. She gave an impression of elegance and strength that belied her delicate appearance. Justin found he didn’t like the thought of her amidst the horrors of the army hospitals. Checking behind him, he called for Williams. “Find another wagon to take these ladies to the landing—”

“Oh, no, thank you, Captain,” the lady cut in. “My friend and I will walk.”

Justin eyed her in surprise. White House Landing was another few miles away yet. He didn’t want her covering the remaining distance on foot. “I insist.” He staved off her protest with an upheld hand and ordered Williams to find a vehicle to carry them.

BOOK: The Vacant Chair
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