A More Perfect Union, Book 2
by Betty Bolté
Ebook ISBN: 9781614176596
Print ISBN: 978-1614176602
[ Historical Romance, MF ]
Without a goodbye, Amy Abernathy’s childhood sweetheart, Benjamin Hanson, leaves to fight in the American War for Independence. Benjamin then he learns that Amy has been captured by renegades. Now Benjamin faces his own choice: free the woman he’s never stopped loving or protect Charles Town from vengeful British occupation.
Charles Town, South Carolina, 1782
Lightning rent the charcoal clouds boiling overhead, illuminating the river dock and churning water. Rain from the sudden storm pelted the surrounding landscape, shimmering in the eerie darkness.
“Hurry!” Benjamin Hanson grunted as he renewed his grip on the thick hemp bowline, glad for the leather gloves protecting his hands. The furled sail hugged the lurching mast. They’d been forced to row in lieu of using the sail due to the strong adverse winds and current. His shoulders ached from the unaccustomed activity. With feet braced on the dock, he grimly waited for Frank Thomson’s signal to tie off the rocking batteau, its steep plank sides scarred in testament to frequent trips to and from Captain Sullivan’s plantation. Joshua Sullivan owned a small fleet of batteaux for shipping exports such as rice and indigo to the northern states and to overseas markets in France and Barbados. Frank had borrowed the boat to make this unplanned visit to Captain Davis to resolve some mysterious issue regarding his wife and a precious gem. But what a day to be out on the river.
Rain stung his face while thunder rumbled above. His sodden greatcoat clung to him, hampering his movements with the cold weight of the drenched wool. Hauling with all his strength, he struggled to keep the batteau from drifting too far out from the wooden dock while Frank wrestled nearby with the long knotty rope needed to secure the small boat to the safety of the pier. The rope groaned as it rubbed around the post, Benjamin’s grasp slipping bit by bit, the waves tugging and pushing the boat. Frank yanked ineffectually on the other soaked rope, grunting curses as he frantically tried to disentangle it so they could tie off the long cargo boat. Of all the days to sail, this was the most idiotic and yet necessary. “Is it secure?”
“Nearly have it! I can’t believe anyone would leave the lines in such a mess. If I ever determine who did, they’ll be horsewhipped.” Frank worked to unknot the heavy hemp. With a loud curse, he tugged harder and the rope uncoiled. Quickly he made a long loop and tossed it expertly over the post, pulling the batteau into the dock and securing it. “Finally.”
Benjamin grunted again and tied off the rope to the pier using a sturdy seaman’s knot. “About time, too. The storm grows stronger by the second. You certainly had a time with that rope. Feeling a bit weak today?”
“Perhaps somewhat after my encounter with a bullet this morning.” Frank grinned at him, his Monmouth hat cascading rain on all sides, adding to his soaked greatcoat. He pressed his right hand to his left shoulder then shrugged as if to relieve discomfort. “A mere graze, nothing to worry over. Come, we have work to do.”
“I’m relieved Major Bradley could not aim well, my friend.” Benjamin stretched his shoulders and nodded, water pouring from the corners of his beaver-felt tricorne hat. When Frank shared his early morning clandestine duel with the loyalist officer over his disparaging remarks about Frank’s lady, he wanted to slap his friend back to his senses. A duel? Fortunately, he only suffered a graze by the bullet. Of course, if Frank had his way the lady in question would soon be his wife. “Dueling is not your best idea but I understand wishing to defend your lady’s reputation.”
“Emily did seem much relieved by my survival, though she questioned the need for this errand. At least she didn’t press for details.” Frank strode down the slippery path beside Benjamin. “Mayhap my risking life and limb for her honor will persuade her to be more amenable to my advances.”
“I’m certain you’ll win her hand in the end. But the sudden change in the weather since this morning leaves us cold and damp. Captain Davis better have his finest brandy out after insisting on our presence this day. Bloody hell, only a few hours earlier I was warm and dry, and now this. What right does he have to summon us?”
Frank shrugged before leading the way up the slippery and unevenly spaced rock steps climbing the bank to the muddy street above. “Some nonsense about the Scottish gem causing problems. We’ll soon see.”
“It’s only a bit of smoky crystal.” How much trouble could a piece of rock cause?
The crystal represented the bond between the local Scots in the frontier lands to the west and the Scots from across the Atlantic, a bond the South Carolina state governor trusted would help calm the tensions between the frontier folks and the folks along the coast. But it was Benjamin’s job to keep it hidden and protected until the British ended the besiegement of Charles Town. So he’d stashed it among the items reserved for when they reopened the natural museum after America’s independence became fact instead of hope. Nobody would find it in the out of the way warehouse. After all, only he, Frank, and Captain Thomson knew of its existence in the state.
Brown water ran in rivers along the road they walked, oozing over the toes of his leather boots. The lanterns they carried did little to illuminate the path before them. A gash of lightning snaked through the darkened sky over the wide river they’d just navigated hindered by four-foot waves. Regardless of Benjamin’s normally strong constitution, even he felt nauseated from the crossing. He didn’t spend much time on the water, truth be told, enjoying the seat of a saddle and a powerful stallion beneath him more than the rocking motion of a boat.
In the distance he could see the “cottage,” though it loomed larger and more imposing than a typical home. This was a mansion by the river, built to withstand the severe weather common in the southern colonies as well as to dominate the shore. Whitewashed walls glowed against the steely afternoon sky, with dark green shutters hugging each window. Evergreen bushes glistened beside the front door, crushed shells forming a shimmering sidewalk in the rain. Burning in every window, candles made a welcome beacon.
Reaching the haven of the front porch, Frank lifted and dropped the brass lion door knocker while Benjamin shook off the last of the rain. Smoke from the chimney hung around the house, nearly choking him. The door creaked opened, and Captain Manheim Davis filled the frame. His graying beard was neatly trimmed, accentuating jade-green eyes peering from a web of laugh lines circling them. Constant exposure to the sun while aboard ship left his skin deeply tanned and leathery.
“Come in, come in!” Captain Davis motioned them inside without further greeting, for which Benjamin was grateful. His skin felt clammy beneath the weight of his soaked clothes. The crackle of the blazing fireplace tempted him, but manners insisted he stay with Frank and Davis. Still, the sound of the fire warmed him as he waited impatiently for the exchange of pleasantries.
“Such a terrible day for you to make the trip, but it couldn’t be helped. Not at all.” Davis summoned his servant to take the wet coats and hang them by the kitchen fire to dry.
The dark-skinned, elderly man nodded mutely before leaving the men alone in the drawing room. Benjamin tugged his embroidered waistcoat into place over his white shirt and tried to rearrange the cravat to its proper position, cringing at the cool dampness of the material. Then he warmed his hands by the fire, thankful for the heat thawing his ice-cold frame. He’d opted for dark wool trousers rather than his typical tan breeches to ward off the chill and damp air as well as to be less conspicuous around the docks.
Davis poured three brandies, handing the crystal glasses round when he finished.
“Here, this will warm you from the inside.” He chuckled as he selected the high-backed chair near the fireplace as his seat for the impromptu meeting. The chair groaned as the heavyset man relaxed against the chair’s intricately carved back.
“How’s the little woman, Davis?” Frank stretched his long legs in front of him as he sipped his drink. Like Benjamin, he had opted for dark trousers, which contrasted with the creamy shirt and cravat peeking from his gold waistcoat decorated with ornate fleur-de-lis designs. His black leather boots gleamed in the firelight. “You were concerned for her welfare last we parted.”
“She’s faring well, thank you. Nothing more than a cold, thank the Lord.”
“I’m glad it was not the fever, then.” He tapped his glass to Davis’s and smiled. “May she live a long life.”
“‘Tis what I work so hard for, to provide for her well-being.”
Benjamin frowned at the two men. He had not come all this way in such foul weather to discuss the man’s wife. He’d been dry and warm in his room, contemplating the best way to ask Amy Abernathy to marry him when he saw her this evening at Captain Sullivan’s Allhallow’s Eve dinner party. He’d be surprised if Frank didn’t have something similar in mind, after fighting over Emily. Benjamin had missed Amy every day he’d been forced to be away from the coastal area of South Carolina. He’d barely returned to town, secured lodgings from Captain Sullivan where nobody would ask which side he fought on, and settled in. Then came the unwelcome, urgent summons from Captain Davis to brave the onslaught of cold November rain to sit soaked and chatting about Mrs. Davis? Bah. He sipped the liquor, allowing warmth to spread down his throat and throughout his body before responding. “So what is the problem with the gem?”
Davis grinned and crossed his arms loosely over his chest. “Ah, I see you’re one to aim for the heart of the matter. Good, very good. I like that in a man.” Davis beamed at him, his face almost audibly creaking as it dipped into laugh lines. He opened the wood and glass container, half filled with tobacco, which rested on the small table beside his chair. “Actually, the problem concerns my wife.”
Benjamin tapped one hand on his leg rather than voice his thoughts. Women should be required to live by the old adage for children: to be seen and not heard. Well, maybe with the exception of Amy, since her lyrical voice most likely could calm wild animals. Her dulcet tones soothed him at any rate. “How so?”
Selecting a long-stemmed clay pipe from the assortment on the table, Davis addressed Benjamin. “When I married Caroline, it never occurred to me she would be as curious as a cat.” He paused to tamp tobacco into the curved bowl of his pipe.
“Wives have no say in men’s business, sir,” Benjamin said tightly. “Surely you can control her curiosity.”
Davis chuckled as he lit a taper and applied it to the dried leaves in the pipe. “Spoken like a true bachelor. Let me get the little silver box for you, nevertheless.”
Benjamin stilled as he realized what the captain had said. The box was here? “How come you to have the box here, sir? We secured it at the museum warehouse. Frank?”
Frank regarded Davis with his head tilted to one side. “Captain, what is this about?”
“Aye, the good Captain Sullivan did not tell you, I see. That is not surprising, given the nature of the event. I’ll be right back.” Davis rose, gripping his long clay pipe in one hand as he strode quickly from the room.
Benjamin glared at Frank. “What is going on here?”
“I don’t know any more than you do at this point, friend.” Frank took a large swallow of brandy. “Be patient. He’ll tell us in his own good time.”
“I have little patience for games.” Benjamin sat on the edge of the overstuffed sofa, uncomfortable in his wet clothes and far from amused with the delay. He sullenly watched the fire, the brandy working its warm magic on his cold body. “I have no patience for tales, either.”
“Don’t let Amy hear you say that.” Frank crossed his ankles.
Before Benjamin could inquire into Frank’s meaning, he heard the thump of Davis’s footsteps as he returned, carrying the small square box, engraved all around with flowers. He carefully set it on the low table in the center of the room. “Best you take that with you now. Captain Sullivan left it here for you to take charge of it, protect it.”
“So I thought,” Benjamin said. “Why do you have this? I don’t understand why Captain Sullivan would give it to you. We’ll see him this evening, so why did he not give it to us then?”
“Aye, he found some chaps hanging around the warehouse door, and grew concerned.” Davis pulled on his pipe, releasing a white plume of vapor into the air. “When it was safe, he retrieved the gem and brought it out here knowing it would be less conspicuous for the exchange to happen away from town, not where others may ask too many questions. He should’ve told you. Can’t explain why he didn’t.”
“I’ll take that up with him. At least now we have it back in our possession.” Frank glanced at Benjamin, brows drawn together in thought.
Benjamin nodded, hands clenched into fists. He could punch Captain Sullivan for this breach of faith, but, in the event, that served no purpose. “I’ll not let it out of my control again. You can bet on that.”
“I’m sure you’ll guard it with your life,” Davis said around the stem of his pipe.
“You haven’t told us what the problem is with it.” Benjamin moved to the table and picked up the specially made box. He rotated it first one way, then the other, peering at the intricate carvings. He traced the design, admiring the fine artwork covering the box, then pulled the lid off.
A small heart pendant, shaped from Scotland’s sacred smoky quartz, nestled on a bed of red satin. He could picture Amy wearing it around her graceful neck, though of course that could never happen, even if such a treasure were for sale. The value of the gem far exceeded Benjamin’s annual income. The legend, so he heard, claimed the small rock held the power to remove uncertainty. And if two lovers held it in joined hands, their love would never fail. He scoffed under his breath at that bit of whimsy. As if a piece of stone could have such mythical powers. Stories told to children and women, no doubt. Picking it up, he fingered the smooth stone, its swirls of color seeming to shift like wood-fire smoke on a crisp winter morning. Odd. He must be more tired than he’d thought. But he would manage to keep it safe, and then one day after this bloody war ended he’d see if Amy would agree to marry him. He was certain of that.
“Governor Matthews warned against opening the box.” Frank straightened in his chair. “Close that thing before trouble follows.”
“We’ve enough trouble as is.” Davis sat in his chair and stretched his legs in front of him. Puffing on his pipe, he considered Benjamin. “I fear my wife’s curiosity will be her downfall.”
Benjamin replaced the lid and put the box on the table, feeling an odd sensation begin in his hand. “Women should not handle this gem. Ladies tend to fall prey to danger, leading to serious personal harm or death, when they possess the stone.”
“Aye, I’ve heard that as well.” Frank studied Davis. “She wants to see it, does she?”
Davis nodded, his eyes serious. “That would be a disaster, most certainly. Captain Sullivan would have my neck if the gem were to fall into the wrong hands.”
Benjamin peered at Davis, gripping his hips under his waistcoat which flared open to reveal dark trousers. “You know about it?”
Davis shook his head vigorously. “No, sir, and I don’t want to know. It’s better that way.”
“According to the legend, if you believe in those things,” Benjamin said slowly, “the gem is very powerful in the right hands, and more importantly if anything were to happen to it, the understanding and friendship we share with Scotland would be at risk.”
“All the more reason to keep it locked away.” Davis puffed, and a ring of smoke drifted lazily toward the ceiling, expanding until it disappeared. “That knowledge could be used by the wrong person, and then where would we be?”
Resuming his perch on the edge of the sofa, Benjamin sipped his brandy, thinking. A place where no one would look or, if they did, could not locate the small box. That’s what they needed. A safe place only he knew, and he could watch over the heart pendant. He locked eyes with Frank. “I know where to put it.”
Frank shifted in his seat, pulling his legs under him as he sat up straight. “Good. Where?”
“I’ll tell you later. We’ll keep it between us.”
Understanding dawned in Frank’s eyes. In order to truly keep the treasure safe, they would not reveal to Davis or Captain Sullivan the new location. Only the two of them needed to know of its hiding place.
Benjamin paced to the hearth and turned when Davis rose from his chair and followed him across the room to the mantel. “Do not tell anyone we visited you or about this box, agreed?”
“Agreed, surely.” Davis tapped the bowl of his pipe against the fireplace stones. “I’ve said as much to my wife before you arrived, if she wants to live well, that is.”
Nodding, Benjamin gripped Davis’s shoulder. “You’ve done the right thing, my good man. ‘Tis wise to remove the temptation before your wife’s safety is compromised.”
Davis slowly refilled his pipe and lit it. Silence settled over the men, the only sound in the room the crackle and hiss of wood burning. Finally Davis peered through the pipe smoke at Benjamin.
“You lads should beware of your lady folk also discovering the box.” Davis tightened his lips before allowing a grin to ease their firmness. “Women are curious creatures.”
“Aye, they are. Your caution is noted. We must head back now that the winds are dying down.” Frank stood and shook hands with Davis.
Benjamin strode to the table and lifted the box. His clothes had barely begun to dry, and now they braved the storm, heading for home again. “We’ll need some way to shield this from the rain.”
Davis rose and retrieved a small oilcloth sack from a shelf and handed it to Benjamin. “It arrived in this.”
Slipping the tiny silver box into the sack, Benjamin’s hand tingled again, only more intensely. Startled, he dropped the box the rest of the way in. Examining his hand revealed nothing, yet the tingle persisted.
“Something amiss?” Frank asked.
“No, all’s well.” Benjamin rubbed his hand against his pant leg.
“Good, because we must make ourselves presentable for dinner at Emily’s this evening. After all, Miss Abernathy will be there.”
“Aye, so let’s go before the weather worsens. I’ve waited too long to see Miss Amy as it is.” Benjamin slipped the little sack with its precious gem inside his coat pocket and followed Frank from the warmth of the mansion.
* * *
Benjamin closed the back door of the living quarters above Captain Sullivan’s import shop on East Bay. He descended the exterior stairs, turned the corner and emerged onto the street. The earlier storm left its calling card in the form of clinging sand mixed with mud and puddles large enough to bathe a dog in. Tree limbs and leaves littered the ground near the ancient cypress on the corner. He skirted the worst of the water and slogged his way away from his dry temporary home toward Captain Sullivan’s house, where Miss Emily would serve as hostess for the Allhallows dinner. Stars peppered the sky above, ushering the moon from the horizon. Turned out to be a nice night for walking to the party even if the road sucked at his overshoes.
He nodded greetings to the occasional passerby as he passed elegant homes lining the street. He strolled along Bay, glancing at the long wharfs jutting into the water to his right and the clutter of ships in the harbor beyond. Down the street, Captain Sullivan’s imposing brick two-story home appeared, its front door open to permit guests to come and go. He took the steps two at a time. Once inside, an abundance of lamp and candlelight greeted him. He followed the sound of voices and laughter from the far end of the hallway. As he neared the arched doorway, a young black woman dressed in a gray servant’s gown and white cap entered from the back door carrying a silver platter with matching domed lid. She struggled to close the door behind her.
“Let me.” Benjamin quickened his pace.
“Thank you, sir.” The woman stepped away and glanced at him. “Dinner is about to be served, Major Hanson.”
“My timing is perfect then.” Benjamin pushed the door shut and then turned to follow the woman into the dining room.
“Right this way.” She led him into the room filled with candlelight and the chatter of twenty or so guests.
He paused at the doorway to absorb the scene. A long table stretched across the large room, its surface draped with a golden tablecloth and flanked by an assortment of hardback chairs on either side. The table held a variety of meats and foods, the fancy plates and utensils reflecting the candlelight from the chandelier hanging above. At the far end Captain Sullivan himself seemed in a jolly conversation with his daughter, Emily, to his right. Frank, dressed impeccably in his dark coat and snowy white cravat, occupied the seat beside Emily, with an empty chair to his right. Benjamin rather envied Frank his situation: living under this roof with his lady at her father’s invitation. All because the British had commandeered the man’s home for their activities. After the troops evacuated, Frank planned to restore the home and live there. Across from Emily, Miss Amy laughed as she listened to the captain’s tale, with a dark-haired woman beside her. Perhaps the lady was the newest midwife in town, Samantha McAlester, based on Frank’s earlier description of Emily’s friend. Next sat Amy’s parents, Richard and Lucille Abernathy. He didn’t know most of the other guests.
Amy’s beauty stopped him in his tracks. Her long dark tresses were pinned up in an elegant bunch of curls surrounding her glowing cheeks and luscious red lips. The rich green gown she wore set off her eyes, which sparkled with amusement. How had he stayed away from her all this time? If it weren’t for the pressing needs of the American army and the importance of the intelligence he’d been able to provide, nothing would have prevented him from returning home. Everyone had to make some sacrifice in order to prevail both on the battle field and in the fledgling government. But once peace descended again, then he’d never leave her.
His last mission for General Greene had entailed slipping behind the British lines to the south of Charles Town, down to Chehaw Point, in early August. He’d learned of the British plan to send out more foraging patrols and alerted Greene, who decided to tighten the noose around the British and loyalists within the besieged town. This intelligence, gathered by Benjamin’s risky spying tactics, had been readily believed because of earlier scavenging raids by the British to the north in February. The Americans, led by the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, had thwarted as much of the foraging patrols as they could, but the Britons had managed to move a herd of cattle from Tydiman’s Plantation some distance to the north back to Charles Town. Some of that beef may even have found its way to this banquet table, thanks to Frank’s efforts on Miss Emily’s behalf. Posing as a loyalist did have its perquisites.
Of course, Greene’s army provided protection to the restored civil government with John Matthews now serving as South Carolina’s governor. The legislature meeting in Jacksonborough on the North Edisto River had already enacted legislation to punish loyalists by banishing them and confiscating their property. At the end of the occupation, loyalists would no longer be tolerated and undercover patriots, like Frank and Benjamin, would be able to live honestly. That day could not arrive soon enough.
Frank spotted him hesitating in the arched doorway and rose, motioning to the empty chair. “Have a seat, my friend. You’re just in time.”
Benjamin slipped into the chair with a nod to Emily and Captain Sullivan. Frank tapped his knife against his flute of wine where it stood on the table, preparing to make an announcement. He’d hinted earlier he hoped to ask Emily to marry him soon. Was he planning to propose here and now? Frank always did like being the center of attention.
As the room fell silent, Frank set the knife back on the table, then took Emily’s hand in his. “I wanted you all as witnesses when I ask this lovely, intelligent woman if she will consent to become my wife. Emily, darling, I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?”
Emily didn’t answer right away, but looked at Amy, who dabbed her eyes, then at the brunette beside her, who smiled. Why did Emily seek approval to answer? Captain Sullivan raised his wine flute and held it aloft, waiting. The other guests followed suit. Anticipation buzzed in the air.
The smile that emerged onto Emily’s face told Benjamin her answer before she spoke. “Yes.”
“You’ve made me so very happy, my dear.” Frank took both her hands and helped her to her feet. “I love you so. I’ll always be at your side to protect you.”
He kissed her, a long, practically indecent affair that made Benjamin grin.
“Now you have to marry him.” Benjamin chuckled. “Three cheers to the newly engaged couple.”
“Huzza! Huzza! Huzza!” echoed around the room as everyone joined in the celebration.
Amy suddenly rose from her chair and pushed it backward with a scrape. Muttering “excuse me,” she fled the room.
Where was she going? Perhaps she didn’t feel well and he could be of some assistance. “Excuse me.”
Benjamin followed Amy from the crowded room, anxious for her welfare as much as to be with her. And he knew where she most likely had gone. He grinned and hurried to the stairs.
* * *
The moon hung above the Charles Town harbor as Amy stood alone at the piazza rail, hands clenched to control their trembling. The storm had washed away the dust and the city lay glimmering beneath the moonlight. St. Michael’s steeple, now strangely silent as a result of the British confiscating the beloved bells and shipping them to London as booty, stood out against the night sky. The other dinner guests were inside the three-story house, light from the windows casting shadows across the porch floor boards. Benjamin was back. Her heart raced as though she’d run from the Allhallows Eve festivities, which a lady never would do. She had merely strode from the room as quickly as possible when the opportunity arose.
Like a ghost drifting into the moonlight, Ben had suddenly appeared in the dining room. His presence set her heart to beating so frantically her senses spun. No fanfare, just strolled into her cousin’s dinner party as though he’d never walked away three years earlier, without even a word of good-bye, from the burgeoning relationship Amy thought she shared with him.
A bat swept behind her, the sound of its wings beating a whisper in her hair as it skimmed past. A gasp escaped despite her determination to be silent and invisible. She had fled to the relative privacy of the upper piazza to rein in her emotions. She gripped the lacy handkerchief tucked in the bodice of her gown, a lifeline to her composure. Benjamin served in the continental army, though she only knew that from Frank’s comments. What did Benjamin’s sudden return mean? Surely he did not expect to pick up the pieces of her broken heart and continue as though nothing had changed between them. Grasping the bit of lace tighter, her heart ached at the thought of him leaving again, hurting her again. She could not allow that to occur. When he’d left, her innocent dreams shattered along with her heart. She released a breath slowly, her sigh mingling with night air.
She froze at the deep voice calling her. Benjamin’s voice saying her name held the power to melt her will. Had he heard her sigh, guessed at her attempt to shield her heart? Her pulse raced wildly at the thought of his discovering her, alone, here where they’d last said good night so many years before. He had touched his lips to hers, a sweet kiss chock-full of promises, her hopes for a future with him filling her entire being. She closed her eyes, the rich tenor of his voice evoking haunting memories. Memories she’d tried to forget once she’d vowed a mere month ago, along with Emily and their friend Samantha, to remain single in lieu of marrying. Emily had, not surprisingly, changed her mind about keeping her vow with Frank’s declaration of love, but Amy held firm in her conviction to protect herself against the pain left behind after love deserted her. A flurry of reasons for her choice flitted through her mind as the sound of his leather boots on the porch boards drew nearer. Why must he follow her out here where she had fled to escape his notice?
She wouldn’t turn around; perhaps he’d miss her standing in the shadows of the vines clinging to the trellis. The sea’s scent, normally calming, choked her when she drew a long breath, trying to soothe her bruised yet racing heart. The lace at her throat quivered with each throb of her pulse. She thought she’d banished the agony to distant memory, yet his presence rekindled all the old hurt and desire. Her palms grew damp as she held still, calming her breathing to avoid making a sound. She willed him to pass by, leave her in peace. Gripping the rail tighter, she gazed at the view of the British ships tugging at their anchors in the harbor, the image blurring as her senses attuned to him looking for her.
“Miss Amy.” His footsteps approached, confident beats across the creaking wooden floor. “I found you.”
There was nothing for it but to acknowledge his presence. Her mother would filet her like a fresh-caught fish if she knew Amy had been discourteous. But so many times the devilish little imp living inside her would act out, and she could not be taught to behave as a young lady should. No, her inner tomboy racing around, mischievous and curious, landed her in more trouble than anything else.
Pivoting, she looked up into Benjamin’s deep blue eyes, illuminated by the bright moonlight, and saw the hint of question mixed with his barely suppressed laughter. She sucked in a breath at the impact of seeing him so close, and let it out slowly. “Hello, Major Benjamin.”
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Miss Amy.” Taking her hand, he held it for the space of three heartbeats before lightly kissing it. “Are you well? Or am I intruding?”
Tiny tremors reverberated up her arm before she slipped her hand free from his grasp. Fiddlesticks. He knew well he intruded, but he didn’t care, of that she could be sure. Anger seeped into her veins, refreshing her memory of the pain that hit her when she discovered he’d left. The spreading warmth of her anger bolstered her resolve. Her heart had best slow down and behave itself.
Clasping her hands together to quell the slight tremble before his keen regard noted it, she faced him. Although he towered above her, his shoulders obscuring the stars behind him, the cloth of his coat hinting at the muscles beneath, he would not intimidate her. She would not allow emotion to play a role in her future. Men. Always pushing in and insinuating themselves into other people’s business, whether wanted there or not. And usually with some ulterior motive in mind they hid quite well.
Her sister Evelyn’s bruised eye, a relic from a purported trip down the root-cellar steps, flashed in her mind. It was bad enough marriage meant a woman’s loss of individual identity as well as property, but then enduring beatings by an abusive husband went beyond the pale. Not by her, at any rate. Mayhap now Evelyn advanced toward her time to deliver Walter’s child, he’d restrict his abuse to verbal admonitions so no more bruises marred her sister’s beautiful face.
Amy straightened her spine, claiming every bit of her five feet three inches. Not all men showed their true nature. She searched Benjamin’s expression, looking for telltale clues of deceit or possessiveness, but his quirked eyebrow and half smile revealed only interest and confidence. “Welcome back. Have you been in town long?”
“No. A few days.” Half bowing, he grinned, causing the cleft of his chin to deepen. His queue calmed luxurious waves of ebony, silky strands of hair she remembered well.
“I thought I’d seen you at church.” She inwardly cringed at the half-truth. Oh, she’d more than seen him. His dark-chocolate voice had greeted the traitorous loyalist rector on his way into the sanctuary. Then she’d sensed him drawing nearer as she faced forward in the pinewood pew. Felt the weight of his gaze last Sunday morning as he took his seat in front of her and chatted with Frank. Emily’s decision to marry despite her earlier vow seemed inevitable from Amy’s perspective. Indeed, Amy suspected Emily had made the vow as a way to trick herself into believing she didn’t want to marry anyone, especially Frank, when in fact nothing was further from the truth. The two went together like the sun and sky.
“Yes, I saw you, but I had the impression you were busy.” Benjamin smiled, his teeth vying with the moon in lighting up the cool fall sky. “How have you fared during my absence?”
“Fine, thank you.” What more could she say? She, the renowned storyteller, couldn’t describe the depth of her suffering when he’d first left, and how it irked when she’d hoped for a simple note from him, to know he lived. Frank informed her that Benjamin worked behind enemy lines, and her imagination had spun visions of the inherent dangers of spying. Slipping in and out of town, prisons, and God only knew what else, like a wraith. Never knowing whom he could trust with his life. At one time she had thought she could love him, before her sister’s disagreeable experiences brought home to her the reality of married life. Add to that the dangers of childbirth for a man one could not love? No, she would take her chances as an unmarried woman. “And you?”
His smile widened. “I’ve been fine as well. Thank you for asking.”
Damnation. Now he obviously thought she cared about him. Honestly, he sure held himself above all others. Well, she’d see about that. “Do not mention it. It’s nothing. Why have you left the party?”
“I thought perhaps you were unwell. Since that is not the case, then perchance you’ll allow me to remain. I’ve missed seeing you. It’s been too long since we had chance to speak together.” He reached out calmly and wrapped a dark curl around his finger as he studied her expression. “I wager that you’ll be needed soon to tell your little ghost stories, but spare me a moment. Please?” He repeated the twining of the dark coppery strands around his index finger.
How dare he not only belittle her stories but also presume to touch her? Amy stepped back, pulling her hair from his grasp. Spiders of anger crawled through her at the too-familiar touch, a touch so charged with desire it reminded her of how she once longed for him. A touch that ignited a passion she’d never known prior. Then he had vanished. He apparently expected to pick up where he’d left off. She had learned to ignore the familiar warmth smoldering within when he crossed her mind, the heat of which now threatened her composure. She no longer needed a man to complete her. Or to take away her possessions and leave her subjugated to his will and dependent on his purse.
“By your leave, I should go inside. Excuse me.” She lifted her chin, darting a last glance at him as she strode past, leaving both the man and the prickly encounter behind.
* * *
Benjamin watched her walk away, her long skirts rhythmically swishing with each step, emphasizing the curves from her waist to her full hips. She had missed him and pretended not to care. He’d seen the longing in her eyes and her enticing pout when he caught her in the moonlit shadows. Kissing those pouting lips tempted him, but it was too soon. He had his work cut out for him to win her back. Seeing her standing at the rail, the moon a soft glow behind his little flower, reminded him of their last moments together, when he’d kissed her good night, not knowing they shared a sweet good-bye. He’d planned to propose to her, but duty summoned him before the chance arrived.
War existed as a blasted hell for everyone, because of the fear and agony of fighting, and the fear and heartache of those remaining behind. She bore up well under the pressures, yet he could see the strain, could understand the void of so many who had left, and could appreciate she needed reassurance from him. Hell, he’d wanted to write to her to explain everything but didn’t know what to say when holding the pen. He’d tried several times, but the sight of the empty page waiting for him to explain dried up his carefully thought out reasoning. Not a day had passed without thinking of her, her scent, her taste, her touch. Words deserted him, though, as they had all his life. He didn’t trust them to convey his thoughts adequately. Try as he might, he knew not how to reasonably explain his sudden disappearance into the morning fog that day so long ago when called to duty by the patriot forces.
The air still carried her unique scent, a balance between oleander and cinnamon, sweet and spicy. He filled his lungs with her and savored her presence, if only for the span of a long breath. In the distance he heard laughter and applause. Amy must have begun telling stories. When they married, as he hoped they eventually would, she would need to replace such childish nonsense with her adult wifely duties, her motherly obligations not only to him but to the young republic of America. Hopefully, she’d bear him many strong sons. But for now she could indulge in some harmless fun. After all, the sound of her voice when she told her tales was a pleasing way to relax, if nothing else. He smiled as he breathed a contented sigh.
Laughing seagulls swooped through the darkened sky in the distance, white flashes of the underside of their wings shining over the harbor as they banked and dived for fish. The moon lent its light to the choppy waves, illuminating the whitecaps as well as the many masts of the ships. Most of them flagged as British ships, waiting to evacuate the King’s troops from town. The order had been given, but the weather had not yet cooperated. When those ships left the harbor, taking with them loyalists and runaway slaves, then Charles Town would be free. America would be an independent country of its own. The new states had endured a long, bloody and costly fight for the ideal of freedom. He leaned on the railing, the wood warm beneath his hands, and drew in a long breath.
For tonight the worries of the war and safeguarding the gem receded. He would take time to enjoy the lilt of Amy’s voice as she told her inventions about ghosts and things that bumped in the night.
He pushed away from the rail and strode inside, pausing in the open door long enough to determine the lay of the parlor where Amy held court. Dressed in emerald satin, she occupied a plush chair near the fireplace, adorned with a simple rope of pearls and bobs at her ears. The other guests arrayed around her like moths around the watchman’s lamp. God, she was beautiful, skin aglow, rosy lips forming the words of the scary tale. Her eyes sparkled as she watched the reactions of her audience. But her voice enthralled him, drawing him closer one step at a time. She was more stunning than he’d remembered. Her inner strength and vivacity radiated from her eyes as she gestured with her hands. He reached the edge of the group of friends and family and paused.
She glanced around at her captivated listeners, a hint of mischief lurking in her eyes. “Then the black wolf trotted out of the woods, its tongue dripping blood, teeth bared and menacing, scraps of cloth hanging from its immense jaw. The unknown man, that threatening stranger in town who had brought such terror, lived no more.” Amy sat back and accepted the enthusiastic cheers and gasps. Her eyes met Benjamin’s, and her smile sobered, though it stayed intact as her audience of friends and family patted her shoulders and clapped.
Frank disengaged from the throng and approached Benjamin, who nodded to him. They’d been best friends since school days, growing inseparable during the militia training they’d endured after the signing of the Declaration of Independence that hot summer of 1776. Evenly matched as teens, Benjamin’s greater height and breadth of shoulder as he’d grown and matured eventually surpassed the capabilities of his friend. But Benjamin knew better than to try to beat Frank with his intellect. The man was a genius hidden behind his quiet demeanor and good looks. Known throughout the South as a cipher expert, his work on behalf of the patriots had earned him many military commendations over the past several years. Neither one had any trouble attracting the fairer sex to be their companions. Benjamin grinned, recalling that more than one girl had compared them to the two Greek gods, Zeus and Apollo, though he didn’t know what the connection might be.
“So, my friend,” Frank said, clapping him on the shoulder, “what do you think of our Miss Amy after all this time?”
“What makes you think I was thinking about her?” Benjamin tried to forestall the speculation. Frank would surely recall the depth of intimacy Benjamin had shared with her. Had being the key. “Mayhap I was contemplating how grateful I am not to be a stranger in this town.”
“Hah.” Frank gave him a friendly punch on the arm and laughed. “You’ve been ogling her all evening.”
“She is the center of the entertainment, so ’tis natural.” Benjamin shrugged, biting back a smile as he enjoyed the repartee.
“So is staring at such a beautiful woman.” Frank chuckled, then sobered quickly. “Here comes her father.”
Benjamin turned to greet the silver-haired gentleman. Richard Abernathy strolled across the room with a well-earned aura of importance. His vision and foresight had helped the small harbor town grow and prosper over the past twenty years, first as an English colony and then as a new self-governing state. Charles Town was renowned for its imports and exports, a vast variety of wares and foods coming and going through its wharfs. At least before the war, though reduced trading continued despite the embargoes placed by the Continental Congress. While besieged, the availability of food had dwindled to a trickle. However, the temporary reality did not dim the influence of Amy’s father. Abernathy had not only helped guide the formation of a chamber of commerce, but also a natural museum and the theater, though neither institution currently opened their doors due to the British occupation. He’d helped to elect John Mathews as governor and assisted him in establishing the temporary seat of government in Jacksonborough, southwest of Charles Town.
“Benjamin, glad to see you safe.” Abernathy shook hands with Benjamin, then with Frank. “What brings you to town?”
“Business.” Benjamin didn’t share specifics with anyone, for their safety as well as his own. “I see you’re well.”
Abernathy nodded. “There is much to discuss. Are you here long?”
“For a while.” Long enough hopefully to convince his headstrong Amy to see him, to ask for her hand. He had envisioned asking her for months, though he failed yet again to string words together into the perfect proposal. One ironically positive aspect of the war was all the able-bodied men had left the besieged town, so the women had no beaus. Thus Benjamin remained certain she waited for him. Indeed, Abernathy wanted Amy to marry and had hinted to Benjamin previously to pursue such an end. Benjamin didn’t anticipate resistance from her father, but given Amy’s reception of him this evening, rough water loomed ahead.”Let’s retire to the library, and we can catch up in private. The captain won’t mind sharing some of his fine sherry as an after-dinner treat for an old compatriot. Come.”
Benjamin tried to catch Amy’s eye, but she was deep in conversation with the brunette woman and didn’t seem to notice his departure. He shook off the faint disappointment of not receiving even a smile from her as he turned to follow Frank down the hall.