Authors: Lisa Higdon
Copyright ©2000 by Kensington Publishing Corp.
Copyright * 2000 by Lisa Higdon
First E-Reads Edition 2004
To Anita Beasley, my junking buddy, who wanted a southern book.
The best things in life are found on the side of the road.
November 12, 1864
My darling Matthew,
When you read this letter, all my prayers will have been answered. Countless times each day, I lift your name in prayer, beseeching the Lord to keep you alive and safe, and to allow my words to reach your eyes.
I am thankful that you were with my brother when he died, that Ryan was not alone or without comfort. I regret that he died with a troubled heart, worrying needlessly for my happiness, and I doubly regret that I could have spared him this distress but chose not to.
Ryan was right to fear that Father would forbid us to marry and that he would go to any length to destroy our happiness. Even so, he should not have asked you to break our engagement, but this I know he did out of love. What Ryan did not know was that our father passed away one month before you wrote to me of his death. I dared not inform Ryan of Father's death for fear he would return home out of concern for me. I would not risk him being hanged as a deserter for my sake.
So, Matthew, please be comforted to know that nothing stands in the way of our happiness, and our engagement need not be broken. I will wait for you as long as necessary and look forward to the day we are reunited.
Wilkes County, Georgia
Please, Lord, please let him be on this train.
Olivia Chandler breathed the same prayer as every other person thronging the depot. An eerie hush hovered over the crowd as the train screeched to a halt in a cloud of soot and smoke. finely sprinkling everything and everyone with coal dust. Too late, Olivia covered her mouth with a handkerchief, but her eyes were already stinging from the grit.
If Matthew wasn't on this train, she would be forced to face the very real possibility that something awful had happened to him and notice of his fate had failed to reach her. Indeed, it had taken two months for news of her brother's death to reach her and another month before Matthew's letter arrived. Mail had become as much a luxury as white sugar and coffee.
She clung to the hope that her reply had reached him by some miracle, assuring him that nothing stood in the way of their happiness. If only her brother could have died with that peace of mind, but had he known of their father's sudden death, Ryan would have returned home, even if it meant desertion.
Men in tattered gray uniforms began emerging from the heaving train, and the silence dissolved into cries of delight as loved ones caught sight of one another.
Aunt Eula kept a reassuring hand on Olivia's elbow, but the older woman's own anxiety began to mount as one by one soldiers other than Matthew Bowen debarked and were swept into the loving arms of their families.
"There he is!” Olivia cried at last out before Matthew set foot on the first step of the platform. Forgetting decorum, she shouldered her way through the crowd and rushed onto the platform just as he turned round. Breathless, she held out her hands. “Matthew! Thank God, you're home."
His eyes widened, and he didn't reach for her hands. “Olivia ... what are you doing here?"
"I've met every train for three days. I just knew you'd be on one of them. Oh, Matthew—"
"Didn't you receive my letter?"
"Didn't you receive mine?"
He shook his head, and panic began to well inside her. Perhaps something horrible had happened after all. Like most men returning home from the war, he was noticeably thinner and his face appeared haggard and pale.
"I was afraid you wouldn't,” she told him, fighting to keep her voice calm. “We haven't had mail for months. I wrote to tell you not to worry. There's no reason—"
"Matthew, don't forget the other bag."
The female voice silenced Olivia's explanation, and she turned to see a young woman stepping off the train with her hand braced against the unmistakable swell of her abdomen. She made her way to stand beside Matthew and direct a questioning smile toward Olivia.
"Are you a relative of Matthew's?"
The woman went on to say something else, but Olivia couldn't hear anything other than the hammering of her own heart. She glanced back at Matthew, hoping for a denial of the obvious, but the guilt and contrition in his eyes was all the confirmation she needed.
She tried to back away from the couple, painfully aware of the drama unfolding before half the population of the county, but Matthew's hand on her arm prevented her from stumbling down the steps.
"Livvy, after I wrote that letter. I didn't think you—"
"Take your hands off me,” she said in a voice eerily quiet. Anger flooded the gaping wound in her heart, but she wouldn't add to her own humiliation by losing her composure. “There is nothing to explain."
"Olivia, darling, what's wrong?” Aunt Eula appeared atop the platform and observed the trio. Her face grew flushed with realization and understanding. “Oh, dear. Dear Lord, let's get you home."
Without a word, Aunt Eula s delicate fingers formed a steel band around Olivia's arm and led her down the platform steps, whispering, “Don't look back, dear. Don't look back."
Olivia felt like Lot's wife being led away from Sodom, and the comparison almost made her want to laugh. The crowd parted before them, and they swept past the curious glances and hushed whispers. Only when they reached their buggy and Olivia saw the pitying expression on their driver's face did she crumble.
Catching her by the upper arm, LeVon kept her from falling and calmly assisted her into the buggy. “Miss Olivia ... are you going to be all right?"
"Just get us home,” Eula instructed as she settled herself beside Olivia. “As quickly as you can."
Olivia sank to the bench before her bedroom window and listened.
"Miss Eula, please believe me. I never meant to hurt Olivia."
Aunt Eula's answer was swept away by a sudden breeze that rustled through the limbs of the gnarled oak tree and stirred the sheer curtains.
"If I could just speak with her, just once."
This time her aunt's words were clear. “Matthew, there is nothing you can say that wouldn't make things worse than they already are. Let her alone."
"I never received a letter from her,” he insisted. “I didn't know ... I had no idea she was waiting for me. Please, believe me, if I had known, I swear I would never have—"
"I believe you, dear.” Eula's voice was always so calm and soothing, and Olivia could picture her laying her hand upon Matthew's arm and smiling up at him. “She doesn't want to see you. Try to understand, she's not ready to hear what you have to say."
"You will tell her I came to see her, won't you?"
"Of course I will."
They exchanged good-byes, and Olivia knew her aunt would be upstairs in a matter of minutes, trying to make her believe it was all a huge misunderstanding. Well, very few misunderstandings show up with suitcases and a baby on the way. In front of the whole county.
Tears threatened again, and she bit the inside of her lip until she tasted blood. She would not shed one tear over that man.
She turned at the sound of Eula tapping on the door as she stepped inside the room. “Matthew came by again; he asked me to tell you—"
"Why do you bother to knock when you have no intention of waiting for an answer?” Eula only smiled, and Olivia apologized for her ugly mood. “I heard what he had to say, but that doesn't mean I believe him. Even if I did, what difference would it make now?"
"Merry Christmas, Miss Chandler."
"How'do, Miss Olivia."
With a slight smile, Olivia nodded in reply to each eager acknowledgment and made her way to the back of Parson's General Mercantile. She knew better than to allow herself to be dragged into a conversation. They all either worked for her, owed her money, or both, and anyone who didn't most likely wanted to.
The holidays were an especially trying time. There was something about Christmas that prompted the beholden to believe money was a burden to those who had it. She supported her church's efforts to provide for the needy year-round, but want was constant.
"Well, well, Miss Olivia.” Eli Parson beamed at the sight of his wealthiest patron. “Doing a little last-minute shopping?"
"Just a few things.” She handed him her list. “And I wanted to pick up the package from Montgomery Ward."
"Right away, Miss Olivia."
Parson turned to gather the items neatly penciled on Olivia's list, leaving her to linger at the counter. Ordinarily, groceries were delivered to the house, but Olivia needed to claim the present she'd ordered for Aunt Eula and had Mr. Parson hold for her at the store. Eula was notorious for snooping and wasn't above peeking at her own gifts ahead of time.
A late afternoon dusting of snowflakes had fanned her languid holiday spirit, and Olivia decided to walk to the mercantile, admiring the cheerful decorations in almost every storefront window, claim the package herself and buy the last-minute items Maddy needed for Christmas dinner.
Olivia glanced around the store and realized this was her first visit since the holiday season and noted the effort Mr. Parson had made to create a festive atmosphere for his customers. The sharp scent of cedar boughs and pinecones filled the store, and jars of peppermint candy were prominently displayed. The toys arranged near the counter drew her attention.
A doll carriage bearing two lace-trimmed passengers was surrounded by brightly painted wooden blocks. Nearby, a stuffed rabbit patiently awaited his guests at a miniature table and chairs set for high tea.
When she was certain no one could see her, Olivia plucked one of the dolls from the carriage and fingered the lacy bonnet framing the angelic face. Olivia tilted the doll slightly, so the blue eyes stared up at her beneath a fringe of dark black lashes. She could just imagine how delighted a little girl would be to find such a doll waiting for her on Christmas morning, and it was a shame no one had purchased her.
The storekeeper's voice startled her so that she almost dropped the doll.
"Everyone has admired that doll,” Mr. Parson said by way of dismissing her chagrin. Being the consummate salesman, he added, “I thought surely someone would have taken her home by now."
Awkwardly, Olivia replaced the doll. “I'm sure someone will."
He shook his head. “Maybe next year. Most youngsters will be lucky to get hard candy and oranges. It'll be a long time before we can put this war behind us."
"We're better off than most,” she reminded him. Their town was one of the lucky few spared Sherman's destruction, and not one acre of land had gone under the tax collector's gavel. Instead, Olivia was blamed for everyone's misfortune, and she let them think what they liked. “And things are getting better every day."
"Yes, they are,” he hastened to agree. “They are indeed."
She accepted the box containing her purchases, inhaling the tangy scent of lemons and cinnamon sticks, and made sure the present for her aunt was tucked well beneath the other items.
Olivia bid Mr. Parson a pleasant holiday and turned to make her way out of the store. Once again, she was beset with well-wishers and polite acknowledgments. She turned to wish everyone a Merry Christmas just as she reached for the door, but the door swung open to admit another customer, along with a sharp blast of cold air.
Olivia hastened to thank the person holding the door open for her and found herself staring up at Matthew Bowen. The polite words died on her lips along with her smile.
She hadn't seen him in several months, but the change in him was stark. His features were no less handsome but held a weariness far beyond his years, and she couldn't help but notice the threadbare jacket he was wearing. Her throat tightened, holding back anything she might have said, and it saddened her to know he was struggling to survive.
His eyes, never leaving hers, warmed with affection, and it galled her to think he was actually happy to see her. If anything, he should be ashamed to look her in the eye.
Neither of them spoke, but Olivia was painfully aware of the gaping eyes of every person in the mercantile. Their broken engagement had been grist for the gossip mills for months, and tongues would wag over this innocent encounter and whatever her reaction to it would be. Gathering her cape around her shoulders, Olivia opted not to react at all.