She didn’t cry, he had to give her that. After the allotted hour had passed Maurice French and his household gathered in front of the plantation, their bundles open for inspection. Letting them take clothes and food was generosity; letting them take weapons, the silver, and other valuables was stupidity. They could, however, take as much of their worthless paper money as they wanted.
Belle, who had vanished upstairs right after her promise was made, stood next to him on the steps. He’d allowed her outside to say goodbye, but actually wandering amongst the slaves and other members of the household would make it too easy for her to slip away. He did let her father come to her, though.
“You stay safe, my dove, and I will find a way to come back for you.”
“Don’t do anything foolish, papa. I’ll keep Marchlands together, and when the Yankees are gone everyone can come home. We’ll have Christmas together, I’m certain.” Her eyes narrowed as she glanced at him, as if defying him to deny her.
“I’m more worried about you than the land, my girl. He promised nothing would happen to you, and I hope God casts him to hell if he’s a liar.” The man whom Gold had judged to be a mild mannered gentleman was giving him a look that he’d see in the eyes of men about to pull the trigger. He nodded his head in acknowledgement, but didn’t say a word.
“I love you, papa.” Her eyes were dry, and there was barely a quiver to her voice.
“And I you, Belle, since the moment you were placed in my arms.”
Watching the father embrace his daughter reminded Gold of the last time he’d hugged his own boy, nigh on a year ago. It was the first time they’d been separated longer than a month. He empathized enough not to cut it short, but once his second in command signaled that everyone’s satchels were clean he cleared his throat. “It’s time, French.”
“You don’t need her, Gold. She’d be safer with her family, down in Atlanta.” That French tried, one more time, to free his daughter was both an annoyance and a sign of a good parent. Even if he wanted to, though, he could not allow himself to be swayed with his men watching.
“No place in this damned part of the country is going to be safe by the time the war ends. I gave you my word that she’s under my protection; trust that or not but the deal is struck.” Subtly he rested his hand on the butt of his pistol. French, with one more kiss to his daughter’s forehead, slowly walked back down the stairs and to the front of the group. He had made no mention of where they were going, and Gold had not asked. It was better that way.
It took half an hour for the former residents of Marchlands Plantation to reach the crest of a red dirt hill and disappear from view. He left his new caretaker alone on the steps until then, but once he looked out the library window and saw that none but his own men were visible he walked to the front hall and opened the front door.
“You have just enough time to get settled in your new room and change into something more suitable before you need to start on dinner,” he informed her.
“I have a room.” She didn’t look away from the hill.
“You have a room suited to a wealthy plantation owner’s daughter, I’m sure, but that’s not who you are now. It will be more practical for you to be closer to the kitchen, and my men need places to sleep.”
“The only room near the kitchen is the sickroom. Let your men sleep there; I’m sure it will suit their temperament.” She flinched when his hand touched the small of her back to guide her back into the house, but she did not pull away, nor did she look back over her shoulder at the distant hill.
“You can sleep in the sick room or we can find you a corner of the cellar to curl up in, dearie. Those are your only choices. You’re not a little princess anymore. You’re here to cook meals for my men and I, keep the place clean and wash our clothing. You can start with the teacups you smashed. Understand?” He waited, patiently, for her answer.
“I understand,” she finally said, tersely.
“Good. After you clean the hall you can make dinner. There’s fourteen of us, not counting yourself. You’ll lay plates in the dining room for my men and I; we have things to discuss and they don’t need to be distracted by a lady. You’ll eat in the kitchen.” Considering matters taken care of he returned to the library. It was a nice room, well furnished. Obviously someone in the family loved books, because in addition to being plentiful they showed signs of being well read. He’d picked the plantation because of the location and the ease of maintaining the supply and information routes, but it could be a comfortable stay, or as comfortable as things could be, in the middle of a war.
There was a crash of china just beyond the door, sounding far too loud to be the result of sweeping. Gold glanced up at the door and smiled a little. It might be comfortable, or it might not, but without doubt his residence at Marchlands was certainly going to be interesting.