Morgan County, Georgia, 1861
“In My Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you…”
Rochelle McShannon closed her eyes, but she couldn’t shut out the minister’s words or the scent of the freshly turned earth waiting to fill her mother’s grave. She couldn’t connect the thought of death with a beautiful March morning like this, cloudless and bright, with new green everywhere and the wind carrying the fragrance of Morgan County’s rich soil, ploughed and waiting for seed.
But not our fields. Not this year, maybe never again.
The spring sun warmed the black wool of her dress, sending trickles of perspiration down her back. She slipped her black-gloved hand into her twin brother’s, felt his fingers close tightly around hers and knew he was struggling for control, too. Through the rest of the service, Chelle clung to Trey’s hand, gathering her strength for the task of receiving condolences.
Most of the county was there. Sidonie McShannon had been popular with her neighbors, from the Sinclairs and the other large planters down to the hardscrabble farmers. It wasn’t in her nature to look down on anyone, and she’d been good at smoothing the feathers that the less than tactful little Yorkshireman she’d married tended to ruffle. She’d possessed an easy grace that Chelle had long ago given up trying to emulate. She was too much like her father.
After Reverend Mader’s final prayer the family stepped away from the grave, into the shade of a spreading pine. Their neighbors formed a line to pay their respects. Justin and Cathy Sinclair, Trey’s closest friends, came first with their parents. Justin’s hazel eyes usually held a gleam that meant he and Trey were up to no good, but now they darkened with sadness as he gave Chelle a gentle hug.
“Twig, you look tired. Why don’t you and Trey come over tomorrow afternoon for a while?”
Hearing the nickname Justin had given her at seven brought fresh tears to Chelle’s eyes. She blinked them back and whispered, “Thank you. Perhaps we will, if Dad is feeling better.”
She glanced at her father as Justin’s parents offered their sympathies. “Bless you, Colin. Our thoughts are with you and the children.” He responded with a silent handshake. He’d been moving like a machine since his wife’s death, all of his usual ebullient energy gone. Chelle couldn’t shake her fear that his heart had failed along with her mother’s, and wouldn’t recover.
Justin moved on to take her brother’s hand. Trey spoke quietly to his friend. Bruises discolored his face, reminders of his fight with Nate Munroe the week before. His dark eyes burned with as much anger as grief, anger Chelle knew and shared.
Thank God the Munroes had the sense to stay home today.
With each day’s news bringing war closer, tempers flared easily. The local boys had formed a cavalry troop in the winter and elected Justin Sinclair captain, but Trey hadn’t joined them. Most people accepted Sidonie’s illness as a reason, knowing Trey was needed more than ever on the farm to spare his father, but not the Munroes. The fight with Nate had been a long time coming.
As people filed past her Chelle cast covert glances down the line, looking for the one person she most wanted to see, the one neighbor whose comfort she craved. Rory McAfee had been in the church. He couldn’t have left without speaking to her.
No. There he was, standing with his parents, talking to Reverend Mader. Fresh courage welled up in her at the sight of Rory’s strong-featured, clever face, a face Chelle had been seeing in her dreams for months.
With his usual negligent grace, he bowed to the minister and joined the receiving line, with his parents behind him. Chelle followed the progress of his dark head as he moved along. It seemed to take forever for him to reach her, but the heat that raced up her arm when he took her hand still caught her by surprise.
Her heart skipped a beat, then raced on with a painful little bound. Rory had been able to do that to Chelle since the first time he’d kissed her, last summer. He could make her skin burn with a look. Their attraction would have been the worst-kept secret in Morgan County if the coming conflict hadn’t taken precedence.
At first glance Rory looked studious, but that was only until you noticed the gleam of deviltry in his dark gray eyes. In his perfectly-cut black suit and white ruffled shirt he looked like what he was, the son of one of the county’s large planters, but the proper clothes and manners didn’t hide the strength of his lean body or the recklessness beneath the civilized veneer, a recklessness Chelle loved so much it frightened her. It took all her self-control to lower her gaze and listen demurely while he spoke, his breath tickling her ear.
“Chelle, your mother was a great lady in every way that matters. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Unable to speak, she squeezed his hand and nodded. When she’d shaken his parents’ hands and they moved off toward the line of buggies parked at the end of the churchyard, Chelle took a deep breath to steady herself. She couldn’t betray her feelings until she’d talked to Rory and told him her family’s plans. What happened then would depend on whether or not he loved her as he said he did, loved her enough to wait for her for years. Thinking of it hurt so much she could scarcely breathe.
It seemed like an age before the ritual ended, the churchyard emptied and the sexton’s men began filling in the grave. Chelle’s father stood frozen. Trey put an arm around his shoulders. At eighteen, his lanky six-foot frame dwarfed his father’s, and at the moment he almost seemed the older of the two. They looked nothing alike. Chelle had inherited the McShannon blonde hair and sapphire blue eyes, but Trey was all Surette, dark-haired with eyes the color of blackstrap molasses.
“Dad, let’s go home.” He gently turned his father around and led him away. Before following them, Chelle lingered to toss the three miniature red roses she carried, picked from her mother’s favorite potted bush, into the grave.
“Goodbye, Maman. I love you.” The words sounded so inadequate. In spite of her long illness, it didn’t seem possible that Maman could really be gone. Chelle turned away and didn’t look back as she ran to catch up with her family.
A mile’s drive took them to the farm. The buds on the azaleas Sidonie had planted in the front yard were swelling in the mild spring air. The house hadn’t lost its air of repose or its charm of simple, clean lines, ivy over white-painted shingles and ample windows, but the heart of it was gone.
While her father and Trey took care of the horses Chelle set about making a lunch, hoping she could get her father to eat something. She moved around the kitchen with practiced ease. The house had been her responsibility for nearly a year.
“I’m glad Maman’s gone,” Chelle had said last night, when the last visitors were gone and her mother lay alone in the front room, a bouquet of ivy and cedar in her hands. The flowers she’d loved weren’t blooming this early in the season. Chelle wondered if she would ever love ivy and cedar again. “I wouldn’t wish her another day of lying in that bed, and I wouldn’t wish any of us another day of seeing her there. She’s free, and…we’re free now, too. I hate myself for feeling that way, but I do.”
She was young enough to wonder if her father would be shocked, but he just gave her a tight, sad smile. “Of course you feel like that, lass. Your mother wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Her mother’s presence still lingered in the sunlit, yellow-painted kitchen, Chelle’s favorite room in the house. Lace curtains blew in at the open window. The pine table with its gracefully turned legs sat on a dark green rug in the middle of the room, with the tall china cabinet in the corner behind it, filled with the family’s floral-patterned cream ware. Red geraniums lined the windowsill. Ordinary as they were, Sidonie had loved the splash of color.
Chelle had the pot of soup Mrs. Hughes had dropped off that morning hot by the time her father and Trey came in. Her father rested his elbows on the table, something Chelle had rarely seen him do. Even at meals, he never sat completely still. He talked with his hands, as often as not with a knife or fork forgotten in one of them. It had been her mother who brought calm to the house. Sidonie’s Cajun background gave her animation, but her own reserved nature restrained it. Trey had the same kind of contained energy.
Right now he sat rigid in his chair, his thoughts far away. As Chelle put the bowls of soup down, her fingers brushed the initials carved in the table’s edge in front of her brother.
“Dad, do you remember the licking you gave Trey when he did this?”
Trey snapped out of his trance and looked down at the crudely formed letters. “I sure do. I was old enough to know better.”
His father’s eyes lit up for a moment. “Aye, you were nine.” He glanced out the window, toying with his napkin, his gaze unseeing. “And Chelle, do you remember the licking you got that same summer for daring your brother to walk across the barn rafters with his eyes closed?”
“I certainly do. And that after he fell in a pile of straw and hardly got a bruise.”
Her father tasted his soup, his eyes still on the window. On his memories. Like beads on a string, Chelle thought, only now the string’s broken. He brought himself back to the moment with a sigh.
“Trey, we’d better start making plans. With the news we’re getting, I’d say there’s no time to waste. George Sinclair will buy the cattle, and we’ll take the horses north with us.” The cattle could be sold locally, but Chelle knew her father and brother wouldn’t allow their prized Thoroughbreds to end up in the army. Their dream of a breeding operation would have to be put aside for now, but they wouldn’t risk the lives of Trey’s stallion, Flying Cloud, and Colin’s three mares. “All that’s left is to pack up the things we’re giving away, cover everything we’re leaving and board up the house and barn.” He put down his spoon and held Trey’s gaze. “Lad, are you sure you won’t come with us?”
“Dad, we were through this again last night.” Trey shrugged out of his suit jacket and ran one hand through his unruly hair. “I don’t want Chelle here any more than you do, not with what’s coming. You have to go, but you know there’ll be no real future for me in England. There won’t be one for me here, either – not if I don’t go with the rest of the boys.”
The anger Chelle had seen in the churchyard flashed in her brother’s eyes again. “And I can’t. It’s suicide and I won’t be a part of it. Win or lose, I won’t be able to stay here. If I’m going to have to go West, I might as well start sooner as later. I’ll have Cloud, and I’ll get a couple of mares when I can.” Anger dulled to sadness as Trey looked around the room. “We can sell this place when the war’s over. The land will still be here, whatever happens.”
Chelle knew he was right. Uncle Jack in Yorkshire could make room for her and her father, but he had a son of his own, with a wife and baby. There would be no room for Trey, but still, she hadn’t been able to help hoping he’d come with them in the end. Now she’d be losing him, too.
Unless I marry Rory. Then Dad and I would stay here until the war ended and Rory came home, and...Chelle silenced the selfish thought. If she married Rory now, her father would give up his plans to return to his old home to heal, and Trey would feel that he had no choice but to join the troop and fight for a cause he didn’t believe in. She couldn’t be responsible for that. If Rory proposed, as she was sure he meant to, they would have to wait until the war was over.
Her father broke into her thoughts. “I’ll see to the legal arrangements tomorrow. I’ll sign the place over to you, lad. Whatever you get for it later will be yours to help you along. It would have been yours one day, anyway.” He looked at his children with tired eyes. “I never thought this day would come so soon…not so soon. But we’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s all we can do.”
He’d barely touched his soup. Chelle got up and put her arm around him. It felt so strange to be offering him comfort. She wasn’t ready for their roles to be reversed.
“We’ll manage. Dad, why don’t you go upstairs and try to get some sleep?” After he left the table, she cleared his dishes away, returned to her seat and faced her brother. They’d always supported each other and watched each other’s backs. She’d never needed him more than she did now.
“Trey, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Trey crossed his arms on the table and put on his big-brother expression. “Is it about you and Rory McAfee? I saw the way you looked at him this morning. So they’re true , then, the whispers I’ve been hearing all spring? Justin tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen to him.”
She should have known better than to be surprised. She knew she and Rory had caused some gossip, but Trey had been so busy with spring work on the farm and so distracted by torn loyalties, he’d had little time for her and her doings. He looked as if he didn’t know what to make of her now.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard. A lot of malicious gossip from Clara Hughes, probably, but it’s true that Rory and I love each other. We have for months, but I didn’t think it was the right time to make it public, with Mother sick. I told her two weeks ago. I – I think he’s going to propose, so I thought you should know.”
Trey’s mouth set in a stern line, giving him a fleeting resemblance to his father. “Then Rory had better show his face here and talk to Dad, before I go and pay a call on him. So you want to marry him?”
Chelle felt herself blushing. “Yes, I do. Is that so surprising?”
Trey sighed and let his mouth relax into a grudging smile. Chelle knew how he felt. She felt the same – as if they’d both grown up overnight. “No, I suppose not. Rory’s decent enough, and he isn’t a womanizer, but I don’t like the thought of your name being dragged through the mud over –”
“Over some dances and a few kisses…well, more than a few, maybe, but nothing has happened between us that didn’t happen between you and Cathy Sinclair, or you and Clara, though what you see in that little cat is beyond me.”
“You know I broke off with Clara in February. You’re right. She is a little cat.” Trey slumped in his chair. “It’s not as if I haven’t been giving folks enough to talk about myself. Chelle, you know Mother would have been pleased if I’d joined the troop. I still could. Dad would understand.”
Chelle’s heart squeezed as she looked at him. Trey had been doing a man’s work on the farm for years now, but his lean frame hadn’t finished filling out yet and his face still showed traces of young curves. It hurt Chelle more to think of him fighting than it did Rory, who was three years older and looked it.
“Yes, Mother would have been proud. She believed in the Confederacy, but you know she didn’t want to see you go to war. As for Dad, he’d understand if you joined the troop and so would I, but not if you do it for us.” She reached for his hand. “Trey, Dad really wants to go home. I think he needs to. And as much as I want to marry Rory, Dad comes first.”
Trey lowered his gaze and sighed. “What do you suppose Rory will think when he finds out I’m going West?”
Chelle squeezed his fingers lightly to make him look up. “He won’t understand, but he doesn’t have to. You have to live with yourself, Trey, not with Rory. Now let’s not talk about it any more. Today has been hard enough already. And after all, there’s still a chance it won’t come to war.”
Trey studied her face for a moment. His expression lightened a bit at what he saw there. “A damned slim one, but you’re right. We’ve got enough to worry about as it is.”