“Blast it all, will someone close the damn door?” Gold threw his pen down on the desk when the door wasn’t closed instantly, and stomped across the room. It was the third time during the afternoon that the library door had blown open, slamming against the wall and distracting him. It had been storming since the early hours of the morning, and every time the front door was opened the wind swept through the hall and pushed its way into the library. He was sick of it, and sick of picking the papers off the ground as they were blown around the room.
“James.” Today he’d been all but crawling over his men, as the weather had them trapped inside; all but Graham who prefered even inclimate weather to dealing with most people. Now that he actually wanted one the place seemed to be deserted. James seemed to be the culprit that had opened the front door, though, which meant he had the dubious honor of playing errand boy. “Go find Tilman. Tell him to bring whatever tools he needs to fix the door so that it stays shut.”
“Yes, Captain.” He hesitated before leaving, long enough that Gold began to get annoyed.
“Would you rather stand in the hall for the rest of the day and hold the door closed, private?”
“No, sir. I wanted to know, sir, if I had your permission to deliver the mail? I just returned from town as you requested, and some of the men have letters from home.” From under his sodden jacket he pulled out a bundle of letters.
“You were able to get everything on the list?” Despite the poor weather there were things they needed in town that they were running low on. Coffee had been on the top of the list.
“Yes, Captain. Everything’s in the wagon; I was going to ask a few man to help with the unloading.”
“Ask Leroy, if you can find him and drag him away from his bottle.” The man had scorched two of his shirts, on that fateful laundry day a week ago. Gold was still annoyed with him. “You can deliver the mail after the wagon is unloaded.”
“Did you want your mail now, Captain?”
“I suppose I might as well read what those layabouts in Washington have planned for us.” He held out his hand, receiving two letters. One was long and thick, a crisp white with a neat printing on the front. The other was thicker, wider, and written in the flourishes and loops that marked all of his mother-in-law’s correspondences, as if she begrudged him even the ability to read without puzzling out every other word.
“Dismissed. Don’t forget Tilman.” He’d half forgotten that James was standing before him still, too intent on the letter and trying to guess what it might say without opening it. There would, no doubt, be snide remarks about his abilities as a father, but if he was lucky there would be news of Bailey, more interesting than his deportment and Sunday School attendance record, which were her chief concerns. Bernice Greyson was firmly convinced that he was going to hell when he died, and just as certain that she was the only one keeping Bailey from going the same way.
Despite the fact that it would do little good against the draft if the front door was open, Gold slammed the library door closed. There was enough light that he’d been able to work on his reports fine, but Bernice’s brown ink on parchment paper required something a little brighter. He lit a gas lamp, resting it close to keep any shadows off the paper. He first skimmed the more official correspondence, grumbling and swearing; they really didn’t have the first idea what conditions were like for the men fighting in the South, men who didn’t get to tune out the war after six o’clock and go home to their families. The orders would have to be followed, of course, but not without some tweaking.
He added the letter to his pile of things to deal with later, and opened the letter from home. For the first time that day he found a smile; nestled among the pages of ire and scoldings was a smaller envelope in a sloppy rounded hand. Bailey. He set it carefully aside, deciding that it would be his reward for first reading his mother-in-law’s diatribes first.
There was no love lost between himself and Bernice Greyson. She’d never liked him from the time he’d started courting Janice. She’d had visions of a minister or businessman for her only daughter, something she saw as far more respectable than a career soldier, a man who, as she’d told him once, profited only from death and strife. She’d tried to convince her daughter not to marry him, but in that one rare moment his future wife, a dutiful daughter, disagreed with her mother.
Janice had married him, and for the first year it had been good. There had been parties to attend and officers to entertain. She’d excelled at house parties, never happier than when the dining and sitting rooms were full of guests. He would have been happier with just the two of them, and quiet, but he’d wanted to make her happy. He indulged her in everything he could, not realizing until later that it was the idea of a dashing officer, not the reality of him, that she’d fallen for.
Then came the letter that he was needed in Washington for a month. Janice had begged him not to go, not understanding his duty. She’d cried, and when that hadn’t had the desired effect she used the fact that she was expecting like it was a weapon, throwing it at him. There had been nothing he could do, except take her to her mother’s house for a long visit and kiss her good-bye.
Pregnancy had not been easy for Janice. She’d been sick often, and had resented the fact that he was not there, his month away becoming six weeks, and another three week trip a month after that. In his darker moments Gold felt as if she even resented the child for existing, and he didn’t understand that. She’d been pretty, young, and thin, and had hated giving up her corsets and dinner parties.
Gold had not thought much about being a father. He was not close to his own father, and never had siblings. He didn’t know what to do with a child, but then that was a woman’s job. Everything changed, though, the first time he held Bailey. The babe was tiny, helpless, and had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. He swore in that moment to do anything necessary to protect his son. As his marriage fell apart it was his one constant outside of his job. No decision was made without first thinking how it would impact Bailey.
Janice had died when Bailey was four, trying to bring his sister into the world. He’d waited only until they were buried before making plans to move to Washington. Bailey was his whole world, and being there would mean more normal hours, and home every night for dinner, rather than taking trips every few months. It also meant not being in the same town as the woman who delighted in calling him a murder.
He hadn’t counted on war coming and separating them, or making it necessary to have Bay stay with his grandmother. He was glad that his son was old enough to figure things out for himself, rather than believing everything he was told; Gold had taught his son better than that. It worried him, having the boy under Bernice’s influence, knowing how she felt about him and not trusting her to keep her opinions to herself. No matter what he heard from Bailey the worry always crept back. The first lines of the letter inside the letter allowed him to breath better. Bailey’d snuck down to add a letter of his own to his grandmother’s, breaking the wax seal and fixing on a new one, just to be able to speak freely to his papa. His boy was so clever and brave.
And so very far away.
It had been a year now, since he’d been home. Thought the men talked of being home for Christmas he knew that it was just the kind of hopeful optimism that was needed in times of war. There was no sign yet that the South was weakening. He had no doubt that it would, eventually, but they are a prideful people, and will not give up until the edge of ruin. He and his men, and others like them, will have to be the ones to push them there.
It’s such a damn pointless war.
“I’m going out. The dratted door had better be fixed before I get back,” he ordered Tilman as he pushed back his chair and reached for his coat.
“It’s still raining, sir.” The man was smart enough not to remind his Captain that he was a blacksmith, not a carpenter, but not quite aware enough to know to keep silent. Gold glared at him.
“I think I’m aware enough to know what’s happening right outside the window.” He left his letters in the desk drawer, except Bailey’s which he tucked into his inside pocket. He was too restless to stay in his library any longer, and the rest of the house was littered with his men, none of which he had a desire to talk to. The only one who would make acceptable company at the moment was Graham, who knew him well enough to read his moods. Or Belle.
Gold shook his head. Where the blazes had that thought come from? Belle French was the last person he needed to talk to; better Graham, who knew Bailey and would be glad to hear any news of his Rámi. Little brother, as he called the boy who followed him around every time he visited. Better anyone, honestly, than the woman that seemed to be everywhere this last week.
For the first few days after they’d moved in she’d been all but a ghost, only appearing at meal times to serve the food and collect the plates. Their meeting in the library, which he now thought of as a truce making of sorts, had changed things. She’d knocked on his door twice, asking for permission to retrieve a book, leaving behind the scent of apricots and honeysuckle each time. He didn’t know how was it possible for a woman to read so much between making three meals a day and cleaning a house. Someone, and he wasn’t quite sure who, had invited her to join them for supper two nights ago and now it had become an accepted thing; Belle ate breakfast and lunch in the kitchen, and dinner in the dining room with the rest of them. The only reason he didn’t protest was because the men’s manners improved drastically when she was sitting at the far end of the table. He appreciated a little civility.
He’d worried about Hopper, a bachelor too gentle for war, getting too close to Belle. He hadn’t counted on the epidemic spreading. The kitchen had become something of a gathering place when the men were not otherwise occupied. Chambers still helps with meals but it seemed that everyone else took a turn as well, some sharing their own recipes from home, others just chopping potatoes or plucking chickens. Belle, Leroy had told him, was too tender-hearted to strangle and pluck chickens.
No, he saw far more of Belle than he needed; all that was required was to keep her safe and to make sure that his men did not become overly familiar with her, both of which could be accomplished by observing from a distance. Much better to take a walk and work off his restlessness.
He made it less than a dozen steps before admitting, begrudgingly, that a walk was not a good idea. He was already half soaked, the rain feeling like pins against his skin. It was fortunate that the barn was only another dozen steps away. Perhaps he could interest Graham in a game of checkers.
“I’ve had a letter from Bailey,” he called out as he opened the barn door. He stripped off his jacket and hung it from a hook by the door to dry.
“Who is Bailey?” The head that peaked out from the hayloft was not the one he was expecting. In fact it was the last one he was expecting.
“What the dickens are you doing up there?” The barn was the one place he’d yet to see her, Graham’s domain unless there was a need for a horse to ride. In a pale blue dress she was far from dressed for riding.
“There’s a litter of kittens. Graham told me, and I wanted to see for myself.” She was sitting at the edge of the loft, legs folded beneath her and hair more tousled then he’d seen it before, with bits of hay clinging to it. She didn’t look much older than Bay, in this minute, especially when she held a small ball of fluff that must be a kitten up to her cheek. He’s never thought much of kittens or cats either way, but for some reason he finds that one irksome.
“You came out in the pouring rain to chase after balls of fluff?” he asked derisively.
“This is when the mama cat goes out hunting, and if she was around she wouldn’t let me hold them. I couldn’t find her last litter.” She held the kitten for another minute, laughing when it batted her nose. She wouldn’t be laughing, he thought, if the claws were sharper. It would be a shame for such flawless skin to be marred by scars.
“You didn’t answer my question.” She disappeared for a minute, probably returning the kitten to its nest with a handful of mangy siblings. When she came into view again she was moving backwards, feet feeling carefully for the first step of the ladder. Gold didn’t even realize she’d said anything, not when he realized that her damp dress was clinging to her backside with the tightness of a glove to a hand. He’d rarely seen the shape of a woman so clearly outside of a bedroom, and even those views were rare these past ten years, and usually involved the exchange of money.
He was trying to convince himself that if he left right then he could make himself stop thinking about her. He was even starting to turn away when his attention was drawn not to her pert bottom but to her feet. Her foot, rather, as it rested on a step no longer able to take even her slight weight. The crack of breaking wood was like a bullet being fired, reverberating in the barn.
One moment he was standing beside the door; without remembering what came between he was standing at the base of the ladder, his arms full of his trembling caretaker, biting her lip and trying not to let him see that she was shaken.
“Thank you,” she said softly, once she’d managed to stop worrying her bottom lip. Her eyes were almost unblinking as she looked up at him.
“It’s no matter.” She weighed almost nothing, it seemed, her body molded to his, his arms barely noticing the weight. He could have stood there for ages, trying to figure out what it was about her that made all his men smile, and just where he’d seen that shade of blue before that matched her eyes. The fact that he didn’t feel the urge to put her down was exactly why he did.
“I did promise your safety, after all.” He took a step back, and then just to be on the safe side one more. Not knowing what to do with his hands he gestured at the ladder. “I’ll have a new one made tomorrow. Until then don’t even think about going up there.”
“I won’t.” She brushed her dress, her hands fluttering in a way he wasn’t used to. She cooked and cleaned, sewed and read; she wasn’t the most graceful of women as her still healing burns attested, but she wasn’t the type to flutter like most women he’d had the misfortune of meeting during his time in the South. She must still be troubled by her near miss. He prowled the less obvious hiding places in the barn until finding a bottle of moonshine, and poured out a small measure.
“Here.” He offered the tin cup to her, raising an eyebrow when she wrinkled her nose. She accepted it, though, downing the drink in one swallow, her body shaking with coughing instead of adrenalin when she was done. “Better?”
“I don’t know why anyone drinks that on purpose.” She nodded, but still took a seat on a bale of hay. “It’s not very pleasant.”
“People rarely have taste in mind when they’re drinking rot-gut.” He wondered if, before the war, anything other than the death of her mother had happened to this pretty girl who lived as the adored daughter of a plantation owner, waited on by slaves. She seemed too sweet, not even able to hold a grudge against an old bastard like him, taking her from her family.
“Mr. Booth, a friend of papa’s, lost his wife. His only son ran away before the war started, and since then he’s rarely sober. He’s such a nice man, but so lost without his family.” She looked so wistful, looking down at her hands. His resolve to leave once he was sure she was safe faded, and he found himself sitting on the hale bale next to hers.
“Every man has a breaking point.” Every woman too. He’d often thought that Janice had found it easier to just give up, that she could have made it through childbirth fine except that she hadn’t cared.
“I miss my papa terribly, but I know that I will see him again. And I...” She paused, lips pressed together as if trying to decide if she was going to speak or not. He left the choice up to her, and did not have more than a few seconds to wait. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to Louis but my heart would not break. Is it a terrible thing, not to be in love with the person you’re supposed to marry? I like him, well enough, but shouldn’t love be more complicated than like? More layered?”
“I don’t know.” He loved his boy, with all his heart, but that was such a simple thing, as if he’d been born to it. He tried to remember what he’d felt in the beginning with Janice, but it was so long ago. If it had been the start of love if had been smothered before it could thrive. “Perhaps love is different for everyone. And not all marriages are built on love.”
“I think they should be. I want to marry someone because I can’t live without them, not because our lands share a border and we’ve known each other since childhood.” She sighed a little, and Gold was struck by the fact that this was the first actual conversation they’d had, without him snapping orders or her tilting her chin in defiance. It was perhaps even something that passed as friendly.
“Have you been married, Captain Gold?”
“Once, a long time ago.” She wouldn’t have been much more than an infant, when he’d walked down the aisle. “I have a son.”
“Bailey?” she guessed. Apparently, despite the distractions of kittens and broken ladders she’d remembered.
“Yes.” He patted his chest, forgetting that he wasn’t wearing the jacket with the letter in the pocket.
“Where is he now?” She turned towards him as much as the hay bale would allow, her hands resting on her knees. He could reach out and touch her with ease, if he wished to. He didn’t.
“With his grandmother, in Maine.” The fact that Maine was as far as it was possible to be from the fighting was one reason he hadn’t fought the idea of leaving his boy there. The fighting had, and would, stay in the South but he didn’t want it within a thousand miles of his Bailey.
“You must miss him.” The sympathy in her voice made him feel strange. He did not speak of Bailey to anyone, save Graham; his men didn’t know of his marriage or son, though they almost all shared their stories. Tilman had two children, a boy and a girl. Nolan had a girl waiting to marry him once the war was over. James had a wife named Kathryn, a clever thing running their business while he was gone.
“I do.” It was a great understatement, of course. He didn’t see the point for saying more, or understand what it was about her that made him speak so freely. It was almost as if he had been the one to drink the moonshine. “I think the rain has stopped, or at least slowed to a drizzle. We should get back to the house; you need dry clothes, and I’m sure you have chores that need to be done.”
“Of course. I was thinking stew would be best for dinner, on a night like this one is sure to be.” She stood easily enough, her ankles undamaged by her fall and the alcohol not enough to affect her balance. He did not wait any longer than to make sure she stood, not needing to see again if her clothes still clung too tightly in the back.
“Whatever you decide will be fine. Provided, of course, that it’s not burnt.” He’d meant it as a sting, but somehow couldn’t be upset when he heard a giggle behind him.
“No blackened Southern stew, Captain Gold. I promise.” She touched his arm lightly, just before they left the barn. Even with his jacket back on he could feel her fingers. “Thank you. For everything.”
Gold, not sure just what ‘everything’ meant, nodded. He was glad to find, when he returned to the house, that Tilman was done with the door. Whether it was fixed or not he didn’t care at the moment; he was more interested in being alone to sort out his thoughts and remind himself what was and was not important. Getting home to his son was at the top of one list. Finding a way to have another conversation with his not quite reluctant caretaker should be squarely on the other.