He’d commandeered the library as his own, and thought that it was understood he was not to be bothered. He preferred his privacy, and certainly Maurice French, until now the owner of Marchlands plantation, did not need an audience when he was being told that he had one hour to vacate the home that had been his for generations. This was war, but it did not need to mean a complete lack of courtesy.
“Damn and blast, what is all this racket?” He threw open the doors, ready to afix a cold stare on whatever idiot of a soldier couldn’t maintain order. It was a surprise to find that the noise came not from a man in uniform but a slip of a girl, barely a woman. She stood on the bottom step of the grand stairs and was throwing what looked to be teacups at his men. Lucky for them she either had bad aim or didn’t really want to hurt anyone.
He hoped it was the former.
“We found her hiding in the kitchen, Captain Gold. We tried to catch her, but she started with the pots and pans and then moved onto the tea service.”
“Don’t you dare touch her.” Mr. French, who had gone from shock to quiet acceptance was now a bright red, his hands bunched into fists. ”Belle, sweetheart, go upstairs and pack. We’re leaving in an hour. You’re coming with me.”
“No.” Gold shook his head as he looked at the girl clutching her last teacup. Her eyes showed her fear but her back was straight and her chin was up. She intrigued him, like no woman in recent memory had.
“Gold, I swear…”
“Keep your vows to yourself, French, unless you want me to change my mind about letting you and all your household go free. I am within my rights to lock you all up, but chose to grant you your freedom. My price, however, is her. Miss Belle will stay; this house could use a caretaker, and none of my men can be spared.”
“Please, Gold. She’s all I have.”
“Unless she agrees you’ll have nothing. I will send all your men to dig trenches for the union and the women will be left to starve. I will use this house and then burn it to the ground when it no longer serves a purpose. Is that what you want?” He barely spared French a look; he was waiting for the girl’s reaction.
“I’ll do it.” Her voice was soft, but not hesitant.
“I chose my own fate, papa. This is a good trade. You’ll let them all go?” For the first time the girl looked at him. Her eyes were a starting shade of blue. ”Your men will not harm them?”
“You have my word as a gentleman and a Captain.” She knew nothing about him, but for all his misdeeds he was a man of his word.
“Then I will stay.”
“I love you, papa.” Her eyes were dry, and there was barely a quiver to her voice.
Well I thought this was just a little one shot, but everyone is so lovely and wanted more that it looks like it might be turning into something more.
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.
Chapter 3: Charcoal
Burning the food once he could understand as being in a rush the first night, to get food on the table. Twice he could see being an accident. In three days, however, she’d managed to burn part or all of four meals.
Burning the food once he could understand as being in a rush the first night, to get food on the table. Twice he could see being an accident. In three days, however, she’d managed to burn part or all of four meals, and that spoke either of intentional scheming or blatant disregard of her assigned duties. Neither option was acceptable.
“Jackson, find Leroy, make sure he hasn’t broken his neck or anything. The rest of you know your duties.” He waved his hand in the direction of the dining room door, dismissing them all, and waited. He toyed with the black piece of coal that might have been chicken once, pushing it around the plate. It took almost ten minutes before he heard footsteps, and caught the color white in the corner of his eye.
“I thought everyone was done eating.” Gold leaned back in his chair and looked at the girl standing there, holding a tub to collect the dishes. She was dressed in something gauzy and covered in flowers, better suited to a garden party than a kitchen. Only the thick muslin apron covering it showed any common sense.
“That would assume, Miss French, that there was anything at the table worth eating. What exactly do you call this?” He stabbed the chicken with his fork and held it up for her inspection.
“Blackened chicken, sir. It’s a speciality in these parts.” She answered so quickly that he might have thought she was telling the truth, if not for the flash of ire in her eyes and the complete absurdity of the idea.
“As is blackened beans, blackened bread, blackened grits and blackened eggs, I assume? No wonder your men went to war if this is what they receive on the homefront; even rations over a campfire are better.”
“Our men went to war because your President won’t grant us the same rights and liberties that he does to those citizens in the North. And if you don’t like the cooking you can go make your own food over a campfire in the yard.” Dishes rattled against each other as she stacked them. He was surprised that none of them broke.
“That wasn’t part of the deal, dearie.” He wasn’t used to woman, Southern or Northern, talking back to him. His mother-in-law was the sole exception, and she’d be glad enough to see him dead, if not for the fact that it would grieve the grandson she doted on. Bailey was their one and only link, now that his wife was dead; something that was, in Bernice’s opinion, his fault.
“No, but neither were well cooked meals. If you’d wanted savory meals you should have kept Granny, or Ruby. Just how much time do you think I spent in the kitchen, sir? That I can manage as well as I do is only because my mother kept cookery books of her favorite recipes.” She’d forgotten all about the dishes, and was glaring at him openly.
“Perhaps she should have taught you some of those recipes. It would have been more practical than preparing for yet another ball or picnic, or whatever it is you do for fun.” He had no use for excuses.
“Perhaps she would have, if she’d lived past my eighth birthday.” Her voice was even, just a shade scathing, but the grief was obvious even after all this time in the way she reached to caress the necklace she wore. He’d bet a month’s wages and his next letter from Bay that the necklace had either been her mother’s or had been a gift from her.
“I’m sorry, Miss. French. I was not aware.” She hadn’t been much older than Bay, when he’d lost his mother.
“Why should you be? You don’t know anything about my family, or this home that you have claimed. You don’t know about the lives lived here, the celebrations or the sorrows. This way of living that you hold in contempt is my life, and it’s not inferior to your own.” She reached in front of him to clear the last of the plates, the sleeve of her dress riding up enough that he could see an angry red mark on her inner arm. There was at least one blister, but he couldn’t see what was beneath her sleeve.
“What is this?” His tone was harsh as he grabbed her wrist, keeping her still.
“I told you I don’t know my way around the kitchen.” She spoke as if he was an especially slow child.
“You didn’t say you’d hurt yourself.” Damn her. She was under his protection, she should have mentioned this. He let go of her wrist, trying not to think about how soft the skin was under his fingers, and ordered her harshly not to go anywhere.
“What are you doing?” She asked, but he didn’t answer as he strode to the door. Fortunately the hall was not empty.
“Nolan, go find Hopper and send him to the dining room. Then go fetch Chambers and tell him I wish to assign him a different temporary assignment.”
“Yes sir.” The man was quick to comply. Fortunately Hopper should be in the house, and it shouldn’t take him long to arrive.
“Are you going to tell me what this is about?” She was still clearing the silverware, a fact that for some reason bothered him despite the fact that he’d ordered her to clean up after meals.
“Hopper’s our medic; he’s going to look at your arm. Sit down in one of the chairs. Please,” he added as an afterthought.
“My arm is fine.”
“Sit down in one of the damn chairs, Miss. French, or I will assist you in sitting down.” He barely had time to issue the threat before there was a soft coughing in the doorway, the ever polite medic standing there with his bag in hand.
“You needed me, Captain Gold?” Archibald Hopper was a tall man that looked underfed no matter what he ate and gave a sense of always being a little confused by his surroundings. Today wasn’t any different.
“You need to tend to Miss. French’s arm. She’s managed to give herself a nasty burn.” He gestured his hand in Belle’s direction.
“You make it sound like I did it on purpose.” She was, finally, sitting at least, though she showed no sign of making things easy. Her sleeve was still covering her arm.
“Her arm, Hopper.” He didn’t feel the need to dignify her response with one of his own. He’d issued an order and like all other orders it would be obeyed.
“These things can get infected very easily, Miss. French. May I please look at it?” Hopper’s voice was soft, the same tone he’d heard the medic use on spooked horses and dying men. Gold took a step back, then another, until he was standing in the doorway. There was no reason for him to stay, but for some reason he couldn’t seem to leave. Hopper had managed to get Belle’s sleeve raised, and was feeling her arm gently with his fingers. He could see from here the flash of pain in her eyes, but the medic said something in a soft murmur and she laughed. She laughed, and after a year away from home, fighting a war against his own countrymen, it was the most pleasant sound Gold could imagine.
She didn’t even know he was still in the room. She’d laughed for Hopper, not him. It shouldn’t bother him, but it did.
“Captain?” Chambers stood quietly in the hall, waiting for him. With one last look into the dining room he turned, facing the private that wasn’t much more than a boy.
“You have some cooking experience, I believe?” He’d studied the files of all the men serving under him, and had made it his job to find out things that weren’t in the files. One never knew when a little information would come in handy.
“Yes, sir,” he nodded. “My pa runs a hotel. I used to help out in the kitchens.”
“Good. Miss. French needs lessons. You’ll join her for all meal preparations, and make sure that neither our food nor her limbs become burnt. Understand?” Chambers was an eager soldier. Cooking wasn’t at all what he’d had in mind when joining the army, Gold was sure, but if he found the assignment distasteful he was wise enough to keep his opinion to himself.
“Good. Make sure to tell Miss. French that I sent you, and make sure she learns something. I grow tired of eating charcoal.”
“Yes, Captain. Is there anything else, sir?” Chambers asked.
“No. You’re to return to your other duties until it’s time to prepare supper.” Which would, he hoped, be edible. The young private nodded, and left as quickly as he’d come. Gold lingered in the hall for another minute, until a second laugh from the dining room sent him off to the library for a dose of solitude. Arranging a caretaker for his headquarters was supposed to make his life easier, not more difficult, but his life had only gotten more complex since meeting Belle French.
He paced the room until he realized that he was still thinking about her, then threw himself into the desk chair and forced himself to focus on the maps of the area. He was sending out a scouting party in the morning, and as restless as he felt he might just lead the party himself. At the very least it would give him a break from the damn woman.
No really an indian guide, laundry, and books.
It surprised me to discover that this is not just a story of Belle and Gold, but that some of the other characters play a part as well.
“Nolan, I want Tilman and Jackson in the barn in ten minutes. I’m taking them with me.” Breakfast was, if not the best meal he’d ever eaten, at least unburnt and palatable. He’d originally meant to take Chambers with him this morning, but he seemed to be of more use overseeing the kitchen.
“You’re taking Graham as well, Captain?” his second in command asked as he cleaned his plate off with his last piece of toast; they’d all learned to make use of every bit of food they had, which was why no one had complained about the meals the last few days. That, and the fact that a few of them, like Nolan, were gentlemen.
“I’d be a bloody fool not to. Even in a name place he’s never been no one’s better at finding their way around.” Knowing that he could trust Nolan to round up the other men, Gold stopped briefly in the library to collect a map of the area and his saddlebag and headed for the barn. Though it was full light outside the inside was dusky. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light.
“We’re goin’?” There was a barely perceivable thump as Graham lept from the hayloft, where he’d probably been staying since they’d arrived, and landed on the dirt floor. Gold suspected that he only made that little bit of noise out of deference to Gold’s well known lightening speed with his pistol. No man wanted to be shot by the enemy, but at least there might be victory in that tale. There was only shame in being shot by your commanding officer. Not that Graham paid much mind to things like chains of command. It was respect, and the fact that Gold had proved himself worthy of loyalty, that kept the man listening.
He’d met Graham more than a decade before, in Texas when the man wasn’t much more than a boy, too thin and half wild. He’d been taken by Indians a few years before, recent enough that he remembered how to speak the Queen’s English but long enough ago that he called himself Tuhubitu Wasápe. Black Bear. His language was guttural, but with a soft Irish lilt that made for the oddest combination that Gold had ever heard. It had taken weeks before the boy had spoken of the Irish immigrant parents that had been killed on the journey west. The whole party had been slaughtered except for Wasápe, then called Graham. To this day Gold didn’t know if that was his first or last name. He didn’t know if Graham did either.
“Jackson and Tilman are coming. Would you saddle three horses?” Graham never rode with a saddle, and Gold knew there was no reason to tell the man to get a horse ready for himself. He simply would.
“We’d move quicker without them.” He still went for the saddles, though.
“Aye, but today is not an exercise in speed, or stealth. The men need to know this area if they’re to defend it.” They couldn’t afford to have their supply lines blocked; it was a well known truth that an army marched on its stomach. Starving men could not fight; nor could those that died of pneumonia. For that matter an army without bullets was even more pointless. It was his job to keep those lines open, for supplies and communication.
Graham didn’t say another word, but made quick work with the saddles. Like all animals the horses stood perfectly still, soothed by the low voice that spoke in a mix of languages that meant more in tone than anything else. By the time they were joined by Tilman and Jackson all four horses were ready, pawing at the ground with the same nervous energy that Gold himself felt. After three days he was more than ready to be away from the house for a morning.
They rode until mid-afternoon, later than he’d planned but there were more shortcuts and alternate routes to explore than he’d been expecting. Graham had discovered both good vantage points to spy on anyone who used the main roads, and ways to get around if the roads were blocked. Jackson had noted everything on the map. Tilman, a blacksmith when the country wasn’t at war, had watched after the horses when the other three had done their scouting on foot.
The dried meat they carried in their saddlebags hadn’t been enough to assuage their hunger, but they returned far too late for lunch and well before there was any hope for dinner. He was about to send Jackson to the kitchens for whatever could be eaten cold when he saw Leroy crossing the yard, a large basket in hand. As the man avoided work as much as he could, Gold looked at him curiously. As he got closer the curiosity only grew; the basket was filled with the blues of uniforms.
“What are you doing?” He’d left no orders for the man other than making sure there was enough wood chopped; if there was one thing Leroy could be trusted with, even drunk, it was an ax. That and the bottle were all he tended to pick up unless under specific orders or being fired at.
“The laundry was dry.” Leroy stood, his shirtsleeves rolled up, uniform coat either long abandoned or never put on that morning. Gold waited for the rest of the explanation, but that seemed to be all Leroy planned to say.
“Are you a washer woman now, Corporal?” he snapped, irritated at the hold up. He was hungry, damn it.
“Miss. Belle seemed to be struggling, sir. I was just giving her a hand. I didn’t want her to hurt her arm again.” His tone was bordering on surly. Not unusual, but not something Gold was in the mood to let him get away with. Leroy, known to most of the men as ‘Grumpy’ both to his face and behind his back, was the kind of man that barely hacked it as a soldier, and only because they were at war. He’d been a miner up in Pennsylvania but the coal dust irritated his lungs too much. Rather than death by black lung he seemed intent on destroying his liver. There was a story behind it, Gold was sure, but he’d never asked and Leroy didn’t talk about it.
“Well since you seem to enjoy such work you’ll spend all day tomorrow doing whatever else laundry needs done.” He caught, from the corner of his eye, the pale pink of a dress; they had an audience. It didn’t make a difference.
“What the hell?” Leroy’s eyes narrowed. “I’m being punished for carrying one damn basket of clothes?”
“Would you like that to be two days of laundry, Corporal?” His limited wardrobe would probably suffer, but the men that served under him had to understand that his word was law. Orders were to be instantly obeyed; what seemed harsh in times like this might save lives in a battlefield.
“No.” He thought better of his tone. “No, Captain.”
“Good. And don’t forget the starch when you iron. I like my collars stiff.” He smirked to himself as he walked away, leaving a muttering Leroy in his wake, and headed for the kitchen. It was empty, but he managed to find fresh bread and leftover ham, making himself a sandwich to take into the library with him. The library which was, apparently, not empty.
“Spying, Miss. French? Hoping to learn all our weaknesses?” He slid his plate onto the desk, covering most of the map that Jackson must have returned while he’d been busy with Leroy. He sat on the edge of the desk, making no effort to hide the fact that he was staring at her. She didn’t back down.
“What do you think I can learn from a survey of land I’ve been over hundreds of times? This is my home, sir. You can’t show me anything new. Besides, who am I to tell? I’ve seen no one but your men since I agreed to stay here.” She didn’t raise her voice. She even smiled, though there was no sincerity in it.
“Speaking of my men, they are not here to do your work for you. Please refrain from recruiting them in the future.” She made a valid point, not that he felt the need to admit as much. Besides, she couldn’t be allowed to think she could go through his papers. The map might not hold any secrets, but other things in the room were more important.
“If you mean Leroy carrying the laundry basket I didn’t ask, he offered. He was concerned about my arm, which I thought was rather sweet.” For a brief moment her smile was genuine. It was as warm as the laughter he’d heard the night before, and not meant for him.
“Leroy has to be pulled out of gutters and off of barroom floors, more often than not. Neither his breath, his disposition, nor anything else about him is sweet.” It was still a surprise, that Leroy would not only volunteer to help with a chore, but spoke with a woman as well. He wasn’t one to spend any time with the fairer sex.
“You’re hardly a gentleman, talking about someone like that.” She frowned, and shook her head. Her curls bounced. “What can it hurt, to do such a small thing for me? You didn’t have to punish him for it.”
“What I did or did not have to do is my business, and the business of the US Army. I am responsible for these men and, for the foreseeable duration, yourself. That makes my word law. One of my laws, just to be clear, is that you are not to come into this room without permission.” He expected her to protest about following his rules. He didn’t expect her face to fall.
“I can’t come in here?” For the first time since he’d come into the room she took a step back, her eyes suddenly cast downwards. She brushed at the skirt of her dress as if cleaning away lint or crumbs, but nothing was there.
“It’s my office, as long as I am here. I don’t wish any of my belongings to be disturbed.” He didn’t own her an explanation, and wasn’t at all sure why he was giving one. Perhaps it was the fact that though she was annoyed by being forced out of her bedroom she wasn’t upset by the idea, as she was now. “It’s just a room, dearie.”
“It’s my favorite room.” She glanced up at him, quickly, but looked away again.
“There’s dozens of rooms in this place. Why would this one be more important than the rest?” Both his mother-in-law and late wife had spent more of their time in the parlor; his wife even preferred that room to their bedroom and Bay’s nursery, his favorite rooms in the house.
“Does it matter? You’re not going to change your mind, are you?” She turned to pick up the dusting rag he hadn’t noticed she’d left on the edge of the desk.
“You’re never going to know unless you answer my question. Why this room?” He’d all but forgotten the food that he’d been so eager for a few minutes ago. Something about this woman fascinated him. She was a puzzle, and he was never good at leaving a puzzle alone until he’d figured it out.
“This is where the books are,” she said simply.
“You like to read?” That hadn’t been the answer he’d been expecting.
“You sound as puzzled as Louis. He didn’t understand why I picked up any book at all after my governess left.” Which, by the looks of her, wasn’t more than a year or two ago. It had never occurred to him to ask her age, but she couldn’t be more than twenty.
“Louis is your brother?” None of the rooms stood out as being one that might belong to a young man, but it could have been cleaned up. For all he knew she had a brother dressed in grey, more than willing to fire against him on a battlefield.
“Louis Gaston lives on the next plantation over. When this war ends we’re to be married.” She stated it as a fact, without emotion. He had no idea how she felt about it. he knew that he didn’t like it, but only because it meant she had an ally that close. He’d have to send out someone to find out if the next plantation was still lived in. Graham would be best for the job except that he wouldn’t know how to handle it if there were people around. Best to send Nolan; David could appear charming to anyone, even Southern plantation owners that surly hated them all.
“I’ll make you a deal, dearie.” He made a mental note to talk to the Lieutenant later, and turned his attention back to the girl.
“A deal?” Her head was cocked to the side, and she was finally looking at him again. Her eyes were slightly squinted with puzzlement.
“If you promise never to come in here when the room is empty, and you promise that your work comes first, then I promise to allow you access to the room to trade out books. You’re welcome to do as much reading as you like during your free time.” Though he didn’t have time for it lately he’d always been fond of books. When Bailey had been a boy he’d read stories to the lad every night, and often on gloomy weekend days as well. “Do I have your word?”
“You do. Thank you.” For the first time since he’d met her she smiled at him. Not a polite smile, or fake smile, but the kind that actually showed up in her eyes.
How could a smile make someone’s eyes bluer?
“Good. Now good back to your dusting or laundry or whatever it is that you hopefully do better than cooking. I have things to do.” Like eating his sandwich, for one. A stern lecture to himself about not enjoying her smile so much was on the list as well. She was almost to the door when he remembered Leroy’s excuse for helping her. “How is your arm, Miss. French?”
“Archie said it looked much better this morning. He’s going to look at it again after dinner tonight. Thank you for asking.”
“Archie?” he muttered to himself once the door was closed. They’d spoken for the first time just over a day ago; how was it that she was already using his Christian name? As for why it bothered him, well that was just a matter of professionalism. They were all away from their families; it would be easy for one of the men, such as Hopper, to grow too close to the caretaker. Wartime romance was almost as dangerous as dysentery. It was his job as commanding officer to make sure that nothing happened. He was going to have to keep an eye on both of them.
A close eye.
Stormy weather, letters from home, and kittens.
Tilman is the name of Hansel and Gretel’s father in Storybrooke. There’s brief mentions of James; since Frederick/Jim only has first names I’ve decided to name him Frederick James. Also, any Indian words used in reference to Graham are Comanche, and acquired through Goggle.
“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.
Trouble was, the library wasn’t empty.
The thing with truces is that they rarely last. The other thing about truces is that it’s never the big things that break them; it’s a pebble, bouncing down a hill until it hits just the right rock and suddenly it’s an avalanche.
Gold wasn’t thinking of avalanches or truces when he returned to the plantation after two days. He wasn’t thinking of anything but sleep, hot food, and a bath, though probably not in that order. Possibly food in the bath, and he’d have to take care that the sleep came after, not during his bathing. He only meant to stop by the library long enough to drop off his saddlebag before heading for the kitchen to scrounge up something edible. Trouble was, the library wasn’t empty.
“Captain.” Almost the moment the door opened Archie Hopper was standing at attention, more of a statue than a soldier. He wasn’t quick enough. Gold knew what he’d seen, the image of his medic and Belle French hugging burned into his brain. Damn and blast, but he knew the girl would be trouble.
“Go notify Lieutenant Nolan of my return.” He flicked his fingers in Hopper’s direction without looking at him. Hopper was more than glad of the reason to leave.
“Yes, sir,” he said in a nervous, almost squeaky, voice. He was gone from the room a moment later, but that still left one person more than Gold was wanting to deal with.
“I’m sure you have things to be doing, Miss French.” He kept his words short and clipped, his voice almost normal if one didn’t know well enough to really listen.
“I don’t know what you thought you saw, but...”
“Somewhere else, now, before you lose more than your book borrowing privileges.” He threw the saddlebag onto the chair with enough force to send it tipping backwards, crashing against the floor. This time, rather than carefully controlled his voice was thick with the Scottish brogue of his childhood, none of the edges rubbed away by years living in America.
“My privileges? But I didn’t break your rules. You said not to come in here alone, and as you were gone I asked Archie...” She stopped talking the moment a book flew across the room, pages falling out as it hit the wall and fell to the floor. A second book was dispatched almost immediately, a twin casualty.
“What are you doing?” She sounded so distressed that he couldn’t help but look at her. A mistake, as his anger spiked again and a third book hit the wall. All he saw when he looked at her was Belle in another man’s embrace.
“What I’m going to do to every book in this library if you keep arguing with me.” And if she doubted that he could she didn’t know him very well yet. Even now his hand rested on the spine of a book. “Is that what you want?”
“This isn’t your home. You’re an intruder, and you’re ruining everything my papa and grandfather built up. You’re being hateful, for no reason. There’s nothing between Archie and I but friendship.” She spun on her heels after saying her piece, leaving the room. Finally it was empty, just like he wanted it. Like he should want it.
“Hellfire,” he swore as he paced the room, too agitated to sit. Ten minutes ago he’d been ready to all but collapsed in his bed, and now he felt the need to fight someone. Or get blinding drunk.
Better yet, he thought, what he really needed was a visit to a whorehouse. It had been too long since he’d had a woman if he was jealous of one of his men getting a hug. That had to be what it was; he worried about Hopper getting too attached to a Southern girl who would never leave her home once the war ended, but when it came down to it he was a man, and had to make his own choices. If his heart got broken it was his own fault.
What if Belle - Miss French - was the one with the broken heart? What if she thought she could convince her soldier to stay in the South after the war, and he left her?
Gold would kill Hopper, and with his bare hands.
He growled and stormed from the room, then the plantation, headed for the barn. He needed to get away from the house before he did something he would regret; Hopper was a gentle man, without a bad word for anyone. If he was feeling homicidal urges towards a man like that then something was wrong. A ride might calm him down; if not a visit to the house at the edge of town might really be warranted.
“Being chased?” From just inside the barn Graham spoke. He was crouched beside one of the horses, stroking the forearm with more tenderness than Gold had ever seen him use on a person, with the exception of Bailey once when the boy was ill and Graham visiting.
“Feeling a little suffocated by that ostentatious monster of a house.” He stopped to watch Graham, who was looking up into the horse’s eyes. Gold didn’t know how Graham had managed to watch the horse so intently, and yet still observe his behavior. “I think staying in one place too long is getting to all of us, or at least Hopper.”
“I caught him with Miss French.” He winced when he said the words. ‘Caught’ made it sound like much more than an embrace, but he didn’t feel the need to clarify.
“She’s a pretty thing,” Graham mused. Gold was surprised he’d noticed; he didn’t pay much attention to people in general, and most of the time didn’t seem to care about the difference between females and males.
“She’s fair enough to look at.” She was more than fair, she was beautiful. And young. Too young, really, for Hopper, which made her far too young for him.
For him? “Son of a bitch.”
“Cap?” Graham looked at him for the first time since he’d come in, pulling himself up and resting a hand on the horse’s neck.
“Love has killed more than any war, Graham. Don’t ever doubt that.” Maybe it wasn’t love, maybe he didn’t even know what love was, but he understood now just what that embrace had bothered him so. Belle was his, and he didn’t want anyone else touching her. He wanted her smiles, her touch, her sweet voice in his ear. He wanted her. He might worry about going to hell, except that he was obviously already there.
“Seems like it should be easier than that. It is for the animals.” He offered a carrot to the animal he was currently tending to, before guiding her back to her stall. “You like her.”
“Yes.” Graham was a damn hard man to lie to; it was lucky that he was just as hard of a man to pry a secret from. Any confession made would stay with him. “But she’s either engaged to some local hick or interested in the good doctor.”
“She loves one of them?” From some hidden recess in the barn, different from the one Gold had found, Graham pulled out a bottle of liquor and took a sip before passing it.
“Better chance of that then her feeling anything for me. I’m the damn monster destroying her home and making her work like a servant.” He took a swing, then another, before passing the bottle back.
“I don’t think she loves him. She doesn’t look at him any different than the others. Mates look different.” He nodded as if he’d offered sage advice.
“Right.” One of these days he was going to have to have a talk with Graham about men and women, and the games they played. Or maybe he’d just take the man to the whorehouse with him and let him get a different education, one long overdue. He was too naive when it came to some things. Women, mostly.
“You’re not going to tell her.” Graham knew him, perhaps better than almost anyone. He’d stayed in Gold’s spare room for over a year, after his rescue from the Comanche, as he’d learned how to be among white people again and Gold had learned how to be a single father. Since then Graham spent as much time as he could in wilder places, often hiring himself out as a guide, but he always came back with a present for Bailey and a story to tell. More than talking, though, he was a listener.
“Me telling her anything is about as likely as this damned war ending next week.” Which was, as far as he was concerned, the end of the conversation, a fact he signified by downing half of Graham’s bottle before leaving the barn with a brisk nod in the other man’s direction. If he was lucky he could make it up the stairs without running into anyone.
I have held my tongue for five days, Captain Gold, but after tonight I can no longer keep my silence.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
He managed to go three whole days without talking to her. Five, if one discounted orders and brief replies of ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir.’ He couldn’t avoid her completely; the welfare of the entire household was his responsibility, and that included thirteen men and herself. There were only so many messages he could relay through his Lieutenant, though, before the man gave him strange looks or the practice became cumbersome.
He didn’t speak to the woman his brain kept calling ‘his’ Belle, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. He watched her as she served their food, still sitting with them for dinners though she ignored him as completely as he ignored her. He watched her through the windows as she hung the clothes she washed twice a week, fed the animals and swept the front steps. Watched her in the evenings, when anyone who didn’t have other assignments gathered in the parlor to talk of places they’d rather be than in the middle of a war. Gold never joined them, believing the men needed time without worrying what their commander was thinking of their wistful stories, but he passed through the hall a little more than necessary, sometimes catching a glance through the door and always hearing her voice twining through the deeper male ones.
Some nights rather than talking the men listened as Belle read aloud from the Bible or the local newspaper. Tonight, though, she’d apparently found a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that must have been someplace other than the library when he’d banned her from taking more books. She’d started reading five minutes ago, her voice floating out from the parlor door and holding him entranced where he stood at the base of the stairs. It wasn’t until something brushed against his legs, catching his attention, that he realized how long he’d been listening.
“Damn cat,” he swore at the tom that had taken to following him around since he made the mistake of giving it a bite of his fish a week ago He’d meant to distract the wretched animal that followed Belle around the house, trying to lure it outside where it belonged. Instead he’d only managed to split its attention between himself and Belle, the exile outdoors lasting for less than an hour. Lucifer, as he’d christened the beast, was in possession of two distinct personalities. With Belle it purred, gently lapped at the milk she warmed for it, and curled in her lap so she could pet it absently and call it ‘sweet baby.’ With him it curled up in his chair and swiped a clawed paw at him when he tried to sit down, left mice on his pillow and shed all over his uniform.
“Why aren’t you in there, whoring yourself out for her attention, huh? If I could slip so easily onto her lap I wouldn’t be out here bothering some old bastard, not even if it meant another chance to shred his trousers. You might want to take advantage, Lucifer, before I find a way to keep you in the barn. It’s a war, and we all have jobs. Yours is keeping rats away from the grain.” And his, apparently, was talking to dumb animals. “I’m losing my mind.”
“Captain?” The voice that interrupted him was hesitant.
“Nothing to report, Hopper?” The medic had, for the third time in five nights, been assigned patrol, walking the perimeter of the plantation. Apparently it had started raining sometime during the two hours he’d been outside, because he was dripping all over the foyer.
“No, sir. Not a soul out there except Graham.” Archie stumbled a little, either from the slickness of his wet boots against the floor or the fact that he could barely see out of raindrop covered spectacles.
“Fine. Go change before you catch cold; a sick medic’s less than useless to me.” His feelings for Hopper were conflicted, and such that he prefered to have the man out of his sight and away from the house, but he didn’t actually wish illness on him.
“Yes, Captain.” Archie headed for the stairs and Gold, narrowly escaping tripping over the devil cat, headed for his library. He didn’t make it across the foyer, let alone into the room.
“This has to stop.” Just minutes ago Belle’s voice had been full of vivacity as she had read out each character in her storybook with their own distinct speech patterns. Now her tone was sharp and cool, sure signs of the anger that was reserved for him and never shown to any of his men. Not even Leroy had earned the barbed side of her tongue, and Gold had lost his temper with the man less than twenty-four hours after meeting him.
“Goodnight, Miss French,” he said pointedly. He found it difficult dealing with her at all since his talk with Graham had lead to revelations he had no intention of acting on. Now, though, he was tired and just relaxed enough from one glass of whiskey that he could not be able to guard his speech as well as he liked. He was also keenly aware that most of his men were but a room away, and with entertainment being rare a loud discussion would be considered something not to miss.
“I have held my tongue for five days, Captain Gold, but after tonight I can no longer keep my silence. I will speak my piece, and you will listen.” She was wearing a gold dress. None of her dresses were well suited to performing the functions of a maid, but the one she wore now was even less suited to her current position thank usual. She was every bit the plantation owner’s daughter, ready for a ball with Gaston or some other beau. She was beautiful. She was killing him with the barely controlled desire to touch her.
“There is only one person here who gives orders in this house, Miss French, and in case you’ve forgotten it is not you. Goodnight,” he added firmly. She had barely opened her mouth when he added: “You will keep your voice down and do as you’re told.”
“I will keep my voice down because I am a lady, not because of your orders. And as a lady it is my duty to tend to those less fortunate than myself, which is why I can not keep quite a moment longer.” Her skirt swayed from side to side as she approached him. If he hurried he might be able to slip into the library before she got to him, but that would mean not only slamming the door in her face but looking desperate while doing so.
“This is not a charity house, and you have enough to do with seeing to the meals, laundry and housework. Helping the less fortunate will have to be the job of some other gentlewoman.” There was just a hint of mocking in his voice. She already coddled Hopper and the damn cat as well as spending her free hours listening to or reading with his men. What else could she possibly think she had time for?
“One does not have to look outside this house to find a troubled soul, Captain Gold.” If her expression was any softer he might think that it was his own soul she worried about, which was ridiculous. The only trouble he had was wanting this blast war to end so he could go home to his son. And being in love with a woman that was untouchable for a dozen reasons, but he wasn’t thinking about that. She was another problem that would end when the war did; she’d stay here, he’d go home, and they’d never have to see each other again.
“You’re being a brute and a bully.” Her accusation was enough to draw him from a line of thinking he’d rather not follow, but given the set of her mouth and the words ringing in his ears he was not grateful.
“I’m attempting to wish you a pleasant evening.” Hadn’t he said goodnight twice now? “There is nothing indecorous about my manner.”
“To Archie. You’re bullying Archie for some perceived but non-existent slight and it isn’t fair. Take away my books if you like, but you’re running Archie ragged with your demands.” She looked up the stairs where Hopper had stepped just a few minutes ago, and spoke with the passion of a man defending himself in court. That she was willing to concede the books she claimed to love so much spoke a great deal for her regard of the medic. A part of him wished he had the power to send them both north; at least then he wouldn’t have to see the affection that was so clear between them.
Poor Gaston, who didn’t have any way of knowing that the woman he was supposed to marry had feelings for another man.
“I assign duties to my men. All of them.” And if he’d shifted things around the last few days that was his prerogative; he had to use his limited resources as he saw fit.
“You have him up before the crack of dawn to see to the fires and out long past dark to look for an enemy that’s nowhere near here. He’s a medic, not a soldier.” In the midst of her scolding she touched him, just a finger to his arm. He pulled back as if she was a spark from a camp fire.
From the corner of his eye Gold could see movement in the parlor. With a hand to her back he guided Belle into the library and away from prying eyes. He was rather proud of the fact that he had been keeping his voice so calm. He also managed to remove his hand without lingering or brushing against anything other than the small of her back once they were in the room and the door was closed behind them. The satin of the dress was smooth beneath his fingers.
“Every single person in this unit is a soldier, no matter what their other skills are,” He explained patiently, as if to a child. “With no ill or wounded to tend Hopper must earn his keep in other ways.”
“I don’t understand why you’re upset with him.” For just a moment her eyes flicked to the corner of the library where he’d hurled the books a few nights ago. They were in his desk drawer now, though why he’d saved both books and loose pages instead of throwing them away he didn’t know.
As vividly as she could probably see the books flying through the air at her head he could remember her and Archie embracing just a foot away from where he now stood. He pursed his lips together. “I’m not…”
“You’re punishing him, for some reason neither of us can understand.”
It was the ‘us’ that did it. She didn’t even have to stop and think about the two of them, her and Archie, being an ‘us.’ He snapped.
“Do you really want to know what my problem is, Miss French?” If she’d just followed his orders he could have bitten his tongue, instead of barking questions at them that should not be answered.
“Please.” Afterwards he wasn’t certain whether she said the word, or if it was just her eyes talking to him.
“Fine. Just remember that this was your choice.” The very first time they’d met, after all, she’d held up her head and insisted that she chose her own fate. Maybe even then they’d been starting down the path that led to this moment.
He took a step forward and like a well known dance she took a step back. Her back was pressed to the bookcase and for a moment she just looked at him, eyes as unreadable as a book written in an ancient language. When he couldn’t restrain himself any longer he closed the distance between them and covered her mouth with his own, his teeth nipping at her lower lip in his demand for entrance to her mouth. She gasped, and he used her surprise to plunder her.
This was no gentle kiss, politely asked for and shyly given after the proper introductions and two dances at a ball. If he was only going to kiss her once he was going to possess her, tasting her like a dying man’s last meal, breathing her in as if there was no other air in the room. His hand once again found its way to the small of her back, pulling her body close to his, not giving a damn about honor or propriety or the man upstairs that might have her heart but not this moment.
It wasn’t until he felt her trembling against him that he stopped. Her hand against his shoulder was shaking, her lips were swollen and her eyes were wide. Though her mouth was open to speak no words came out. He called himself every kind of bastard; she was an innocent girl, and he’d all but forced himself on her. If he were to catch one of his men treating a lady in such a way he’d have them bucked and gagged.
“Go,” he rasped, taking two steps back and avoiding her eyes. She was right when she called him a brute and a bully; he was that and far worse.
“Captain?” She didn’t move. He wondered if she could, or if she was paralyzed with fear.
“You have my apologies, and any concessions you need in order to sleep tonight. I can have one of the men guard your door tonight, but I give you my word that I will not touch you again. You’re under my protection, and that means from any unwanted advances, even from a despot like myself.” It would not be easy, explaining to his men why a guard was necessary, but he would do what was needed to restore her peace of mind.
“I hope that’s not true, about staying away from me.” He waited, jaw clenched and eyes downcast, for the door to open and close behind her. He was not prepared for the hand on his cheek or the curve of her mouth when he looked up in surprise. “I’m not afraid of you, Captain Gold.”
“You should be.” It would be so easy to kiss her again. So easy to do more than kiss. For her sake he pushed her away.
“Go. Find whatever bed makes you feel the safest, and sleep.” He wondered if she would seek out her own bed, or Hopper’s. He didn’t have the right to ask.
“Archie’s my dearest friend, here, but that’s all he is.” Her voice, still close to his ear, was low and soothing. “Captain…”
“Goodnight.” If she wasn’t going to leave then he would. It was for the best. Gold tore himself away from her touch and strode out into the night as if Cerberus was after him. He ran, but even when he stopped her taste lingered against his tongue and he could all but feel her fingers against his cheek.
Almost 13,000 words to get to the first kiss. And here I was thinking this would be romance novel-y.
“I don’t even know your Christian name.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
He stopped sending Hopper out on night patrol. He didn’t stop having the man wake to start the fires at the crack of dawn, but someone had to do it and he was allowed to go to bed early, if he liked. He didn’t, instead joining the others for evenings in parlor. Belle was still working her way through Grimm’s, as far as he knew. He didn’t listen in.
Even when he’d been ignoring her Gold didn’t go out of his way to change his own routine. He hadn’t talked to her, but he’d watched. Now he tried to do neither, sometimes even to the point of skipping meals or spending the time out in the barn with Graham when the others were breaking bread with Belle. He started taking the night patrols himself, hoping to clear his head; it wouldn’t be a good example for the men for him to drink himself into a stupor every night, for all that he wished he could.
Nothing he did lessened the memory of the kiss or the way he felt about the woman that haunted his sleep. Not even two days away from the house to gather supplies changed anything, except to make him worry that his men were not guarding her well enough. It hurt to be around her, but pained him to know she was out of sight and shouting distance if she needed help.
For the second night in a row he missed dinner. The quiet chatter in the front parlor when he walked in the front door told him where most, if not all, the rest of the household was. He headed in the opposite direction, toward the kitchen that was surely abandoned by this time in the evening. Breakfast was, if he thought about it, the last meal he’d eaten.
“I don’t even know your Christian name.”
Startled by the unexpected noise, Gold turned, half a loaf of bread in one hand and a knife in the other. Belle stood in the doorway of the little room just off the kitchen. Her bedroom, now, and that was another tally mark on the list of his sins.
“I thought you’d be reading with the men.” Her steps were soft, and in the dim light she seemed more to float towards him, rather than simply walking. It wouldn’t surprise him to know that angels from heaven looked like Belle. He’d seen stunningly beautiful women, especially when he’d been in Washington, but never anyone as lovely and ethereal.
“I felt too tired or too restless. Do you ever find that the two are hard to distinguish, Captain?” Without asking she opened the icebox and took out leftover chicken, using the slice of bread he’d already cut to start making a sandwich. “And you still haven’t told me.”
“Told you?” He’d been alone with her dozens of times in the past weeks, but somehow it was different tonight. Perhaps because the kitchen was dimly lit and her bedroom was only steps away, or because it was the first time he’d been alone with her since their kisses and her lips were only inches away. No matter the cause the effect was the same; he was having trouble focusing on what she was saying.
“Your name. Propriety is one thing, but you kissed me, Captain Gold. I think that in each other’s company, at least, we may be permitted to use given names. You may call me Belle.” She held out a hand, as if offering him a deal. Most of the men had been calling her Miss Belle since the first week. He alone had called her Miss French, but only Graham with his peculiar brand of civility called her Belle. It spoke of intimacy, calling a woman by her first name. It would be folly to allow himself such a level of familiarity.
“Rumford.” He clasped her hand in his own, her tiny hands covered completely by his own. The backs of her hands were still as smooth as silk, but her fingers were roughened from cooking and cleaning. He couldn’t bring himself to feel guilty about it; they all had work and now was hardly the time to be pampered. There would be no balls in the near future, where society would be shocked by a lady’s less than gentle hands.
“Rumford. I like it.” She set the sandwich down on the table and moved to the stove, starting a kettle of water. Tea, he would presume. She had a fondness for tea that matched his own. Coffee he drank for the caffeine, tea for the taste.
“It’s just a name.” Not many people used it. He was Captain to his men, Gold to most outside the pomp and circumstance of the Army, and papa to his son.
“It feels warmer than Captain. Rumford could, perhaps, be a friend. I’d like that.” She was close enough to kiss him, but didn’t make a move to close the distance. “I would value your friendship, Rumford. It’s strange to say, perhaps, but I’ve missed you these last days.”
“You have plenty of people to talk to here.” Hopper, of course, but she also had an odd affinity for Leroy, and spoke with Tilman about his children. Even Nolan, slightly more reserved in his position as second in command, confided in her about his sweetheart waiting at home for him. And of course there was that damned cat that followed her around, begging for attention.
“They’re good men.”
“For Yanks.” Sometimes he almost forgot, that he had commandeered her along with the plantation. Sometimes, though, he was acutely aware that this was the last place she probably wanted to be.
“For people,” she corrected softly. “Maybe at first you were all just Yankee soldiers, but now you’re all names and stories and people. I like them, Rumford, but I like you too. I meant what I said; you don’t scare me.”
“I’m the enemy.” They were, after all, at war. She was all the best parts of the South, and he was none of the best parts of the North. The only thing he had going for him was his perfect boy. He hadn’t managed to make his wife happy or keep her alive, and he’d used his rifle on more men, white or redskins, than he could count.
“You’re a soldier, like most of the men in this whole divided country. Why don’t you want me to like you?” There was a touch of pain her her blue eyes. Or maybe it was just shadows from the flicker of the gas light.
“I’m the man who took over your home and who, in battle, might fire upon your friends and neighbors. What profit would there be in friendship between us?” And certainly there was only regret to be had from something more than friendship. He had to stop thinking about her lips and the curve of her neck.
Her sad little smile was killing him. “I won’t stop trying. You’re a man, not a monster.”
“Appearances, dearie, can be deceiving.” He didn’t wait to see if the tea she was making was for him, but took his sandwich and left the room. Damn fool woman didn’t know what was good for her.
When there was a knock on the library door half an hour later he thought he was safe, and didn’t hesitate before issuing a gruff ‘come in.’ He wished the words unsaid a moment later.
“Captain. I need to talk to you please.” Archie Hopper, the last person besides Belle he wanted to see at the moment, stood in the open doorway.
“Not now.” He tried to think of something, anything that he could claim as more important, but his desk was strangely clear and there was nothing else he could come up with quickly enough. His empty sandwich plate sat on the corner of his desk, but claiming the need to return it seemed a little desperate.
“I’m afraid I have to insist, sir.” From some unknown place the normally timid man had found courage and nerves of steel. He did not leave, but instead closed the library door, leaving them alone.
“Make it quick.” His guts churned, half expecting that Hopper was moments away from declaring his intentions towards Belle and asking leave for a wartime wedding. The girl was, after all, in his care. She also hadn’t mentioned their shared kiss when she spoken of friendship, except to use it as a reason they should call each other by name. He had no reason to believe things had changed between the medic and his maid.
“You are my commanding officer, and for that alone you would have my respect, but I’ve watched you for almost a year now, sir, and can honestly say you are a good soldier and a good man.” Though it was almost the end of the day Hopper hadn’t abandoned the formality of his uniform jacket as some of the others had. Only his hat was missing.
“Get to the damn point, Hopper.” He had little patience for flattery even on the best of days. He hadn’t had a ‘best’ day in weeks. Or months.
“You have to do something about Miss Belle.”
“Pardon?” He had to do something? Wasn’t that Hopper’s job?
“She’s been quieter than usual. Listless. I thought perhaps she was coming down with something, but it’s been a week now and nothing’s changed. I think she’s upset.”
“You’re the one that has her confidence. You talk to her.” The image of them embracing almost two weeks ago had been supplanted by other images. Them sitting on the settee together, brunette and ginger heads bent ove the same book. Them walking in the yard together, laughing. Him, holding her arm gently as he examined her skin after she’d burned herself again. They were always together when he was trying not to look.
“She’s better at listening to other people’s problems than she is confiding her own, but I know she respects you.” Hopper looked down at his feet, silence beginning to thicken in the room. It was at least a full moment before he spoke again. “Perhaps I’m out of line, but...”
“Speak your piece, whatever it is, so we can both get on with our evening.” He all but growled, guilt making him even pricklier than usual. He’d been trying so hard to avoid her that he hadn’t seen her, but now he remembered the shadows under her eyes and her claim that she was both tired and restless.
“I think she has feelings for you, Captain. She hasn’t said anything, and I wouldn’t break her confidence if she had, but I’ve watched her. I’ve listened to her when she talks about you.” There was pure sincerity in the medic’s voice. It confused Gold. Why would a man who had Belle’s affections be willing to give them up so easily?
“If there’s anyone here she cares about in that way it’s you, Hopper.” Was the man really that blind? If the two were near each other her hand was on his shoulder, or her arm looped through his. They had a comfortable familiarity with each other that Gold had never had with even his wife.
“Me?” His mouth fell open and he blinked in a way that made him suddenly resemble an owl. “You think that Miss Belle and I... No, sir. Never. My feelings for her are like those I might have for a younger sister.”
“She’s a beautiful woman.” Stunning. Also kind and brilliant and not easily cowed.
“I’m sure she is, but...” It was almost as if he’d frozen mid sentence, ot his tongue had become glued to the roof of his mouth. He suddenly just stopped talking.
“Hopper,” Gold snapped.
“Can I speak with you as a man and not my commander, sir?” He’d been standing the whole time, but now he sunk into the chair on the other side of the desk. He didn’t quite meet his commander’s eyes.
“You can, if that’s what you need.” What he needed was a drink, but he fought the temptation to pour them both a glass.
“I have someone waiting for me at home. Belle’s the only one who knows, the only person I can talk to.” His fingers played with the side of his neck, and Gold remembered occasionally seeing a leather cord there. A memento, perhaps?
“Many men have beaus back home.” Unless the woman was married there didn’t seem to be a reason for secrecy, and Hopper was the last person he could see stepping out with a married woman.
“It’s more complicated than that.” His’ voice was so soft that Gold had to strain to hear it.
“Things between men and women usually are,” Gold muttered.
“Men and men, sir.” Archie pulled together all of his confidence and looked at Gold. There was fear in his eyes, but something else too. Determination, perhaps.
“Pardon?” Perhaps he’d fallen asleep at his desk after eating his sandwich, because none of this made any sense.
“My friend, the one that Belle knows about, waiting for me at home... his name is Gep.” Hopper had lost all the color from his face.
Gold didn’t have the first idea what to say. Hopper seemed so normal, if a little quieter than most men.
“I know what I’m risking, telling you, but Miss Belle has been supportive of me and I can’t do less for her. She deserves every happiness.”
“Then she hardly deserves me.” It wasn’t a confession he meant to make, but Hopper had him rattled. He didn’t know what had thrown him more, that his medic was in love with a man or that he wasn’t in love with Belle.
“The heart wants what it wants, sir. I know that better than most.” Hopper got up, legs visibly trembling. “I should go, if I’m allowed.
“Stay.” It came out as more of an order than he meant, and he fought to soften his voice. “I think we could both us a drink before bed.”
“Thank you, sir. I would appreciate it.” Hopper slid back into his chair, watching as Gold poured the drinks. Though not another word was said on the subject the drink was something of a bargin made, both men promising to keep the other’s secrets.
He found her in the garden the next morning, watering the herbs near the kitchen door. She looked tired still, despite a night’s rest. Was he really the cause of such a thing?
“Belle.” He spoke her name for the first time, an olive branch in return of the one she’d offered the night before.
There was surprise in her expression when she turned, but a smile as well. “Rumford.”
“I was going to take a walk, to stretch my legs a bit. Would you care to join me?” It wasn’t a declaration of love, something he still doubted the wisdom of, but it was the start of something.
“I’d love to.” She left the watering can in the garden, and when they were out of sight of the house she looped her arm through his.
I have been waiting since something like chapter three to reveal just why there's no reason for Gold to be jealous of Archie.