Land of Falling Stars


Chapter One

Near Fredericksburg, Virginia

May, 1864

Sophronia Whitfield cupped a hand over her brow and squinted against the harsh rays of the sun. A tiny speck on the horizon drew her gaze. A deer, or perhaps a man. Her mind wandered to her dreams last night. Down that same road he'd walked, Jesse Gaines Grantham, her gallant man in gray. Seven tortuous nights she dreamed Jesse had returned from the war. The thought it might be him caused her heart to quicken.

The porch steps creaked behind her. "Lawdy, Miss Sophia, you gonna stand there all day dreamin' on what was?"

With a guilty start she turned toward the familiar voice. "I'm thinking."

At sixty-odd years, Daddy Brister's brown skin reminded her of tanned deer hide. Tall, broad-shouldered and prone to laughter, his loyalty was indisputable. Benevolent brown eyes sat deep in his skull, topped by bushy brows the same color as his white hair.

He walked toward her, his leg bearing evidence of a negligible limp. "Thinkin' 'bout Massah Cooper's offer to marry his son?"

"Even if Jesse never returns, I'd rather die than marry Billy." She paused. "Despite the fact I'm nearly twenty and three years."

"White trash father an' son both," Brister mumbled under his breath.

She clenched her hands into fists. "No better than dirty Yanks in my opinion. Why, look what's happened to Arbor Rose since the war."

"Yes'm," Brister said. "Dem blue bellies moved on now, got their eyes on Richmond.

"I hope they ride into the gates of hell."

Memories from her childhood surfaced. Built near the banks of the Rappahannock over a hundred years ago, the old manor still maintained the timeless grace of a Virginia willow, albeit one that had endured several seasons of blight. Traces of abandonment stuck out like a hammered thumb―the faded exterior, the sun-bleached gray shutters and blistered white paint. She drew a deep breath. When the war ended, she'd marry Jesse and restore the manor to its prior magnificence.

Brister's words broke her reverie. "I knows that Cooper had his eyes on Arbor Rose for years, an' he had somethin' to do with Massah Rueben and Mistress Ellen dyin' in that fire."

"Don't forget about Rolf." The words pierced her heart. She pictured her brother dashing across the fields on one of their father's bays, his dark hair gleaming beneath the midday sun. "At least I don't have to worry about Whitfield Manor now."

"No, Missy, you don't." Brister sighed. "Weren't nothin' left."

"Rolf loved our summer home, wanted to raise his children there."

Brister turned to her. "No sense talkin' 'bout what was Missy when it pains you so." With a smile, he added, "An' right now, I needs you to help me and Nap corner that turkey."

"You go on ahead, find Ol' Nap and I'll meet you in the barnyard."

The tiny speck in the distance grew larger, and it wasn't an animal. Could it be Jesse? Onward he walked, past the once green fields, down the oak-lined drive overgrown with little barley and witch grass.

Daddy Brister shuffled off and she paused at the entrance to her mother's gardens, a formidable childhood sanctuary against the outside world. The vegetables and herbs had been dug up long ago, the perennials trampled, but the aromatic trellises remained, cloaked in thick, twisting vines of wisteria and rose blossoms. Rooted in her favorite spot, she fixed her eyes on the approaching form again.

A guttural growl from the porch warned her of danger. A mixture of wolfhound and setter, Ricochet embodied ferocity. Three feet tall from his arrow-shaped head to his giant paws, his rugged brindle coat matched his temperament.

The bedraggled specimen of a man on the road advanced toward the manor at a foot-dragging pace.

He wasn't wearing gray.

"Another Yankee," she spat. "Thanks to your friends, there's nothing left."

She fled toward the house, raced up the porch steps, and scurried into the parlor. Retrieving her father's Springfield, her heartbeat gathered speed. From the porch, she lowered the musket to the floorboards and loaded the cartridge, maybe not fast enough for the army, but the end result was the same. She drew the rammer and rammed the cartridge twice, and then lifted the gun level with her chest. With one eye on the stranger, she inserted the primer cap and cocked it.

Lord above, he moved slower than tree sap, apathetic in his quest to execute whatever malicious deed he had in mind. Hatred roiled in her bosom. The scourge of the earth had destroyed her beloved home. The war had reduced her family to beggars and took Jesse from her. She wouldn't tolerate one more smidgen of degradation.

She drew a bead on the lanky form and set her sights on a spot above his heart. Pulling back on the trigger, her heart swelled with sweet revenge. Seconds later, she heard the retort and watched the soldier topple to the ground in a heap. As if their tails were on fire, Ol' Nap and Daddy Brister raced from the barn, their eyes following her pointed finger to the fallen Yankee.

Ol' Nap clasped the sides of his head. "Lawdy, Miss Sophia, you done shot a man!"

Stout and beefy with weather-burned skin and eyes the color of volcanic glass, Nap struck a commanding presence. She trusted the black man with her life and couldn't remember a time he hadn't been a part of it.

"Coming to steal or worse." She rushed down the steps and whispered a prayer skyward. "Lord, if I make it to heaven please forgive me."

Something rang familiar in the stranger's gait. Why hadn't Ricochet charged? She dropped to her knees beside the man, glanced at the haversack slung over his shoulder and prayed it held food or Union money. Confederate notes weren't worth spit now. She pulled the bag from his still form and began to rifle through it, stopped only by the shock of Ricochet licking his face.

Her gaze flew to the Yankee's features. "Sweet Mother of Jesus! Gavin!"

Drawn to the wound in his chest, she gazed upon the blood soaking the dark blue shirt, fanning out to the waistband of his trousers. Cloudy, pain-filled eyes opened and blinked. He tried to focus, and a tiny smile bracketed his mouth. Mindless of the wound, Sophia fell against him and screamed his name.

"Sophia." Coughs spewed from his throat and his eyes rolled in the sockets. "Walked for miles."

"Don't try to speak, Gavin. Oh, dear God. I didn't know, thought you were one of them." Memories from their childhood surfaced. "You are one of them, but Gavin, the Yankees came and. . . ."

He struggled to lift his head, his voice a whisper, "So beautiful."

She tore his shirt open, scattering the pewter buttons. God, so much blood.

One hand went to his chest, the other her face. "Discharged, head wound, I came to tell you…."

Certain he'd lose consciousness soon or, God forgive her, die, she didn't want him to speak. "Shush now."

"Thought of nothing but you while I was gone." Another cough. "Nothing but you since the day I pulled you from the river."

That undid her. She touched his cheek and blanched beneath his cold skin. "Please don't try to talk."

"Jesse," he moaned. "Jesse is―" His head rolled to the side and his eyes fluttered shut.

Ol' Nap dropped to his knees, tore the shirt from Gavin's chest and stuffed it into the wound. "Lawdy, Miss Sophia, you done shot Massah Gavin."

Anguished moans fell from her lips. "Don't die, please don't die."

"Come away now, we gots to get 'em to the house."

"I thought it was another Yankee, come to take our last morsel of food."

Brister shook his head. "It be a Yankee all right."

"There now, Miss Sophia." Ol' Nap pulled her from Gavin's still form. "He's not dead yet, but I reckon he will be afore long if'n we don't help him."

Ol' Nap slipped his hands under Gavin's arms and Brister picked up his feet.

Fear gripped her heart. "Take him to my bedchamber and hurry."

Bones creaked and men wheezed up the long, winding staircase and down the hallway to her bedchamber.

Hovering over Gavin the moment they laid him on the bed, Sophia barked out orders. "Bring hot water, clean rags, find Ma's sewing basket and pull several coarse hairs from Gambler's tail."

Ol' Nap shuffled from the room with Brister. "Yes'm."

Amid a string of inaudible words from his lips, Sophia removed his boots and woolen socks, taking note of his long, muscular legs. Warmth rushed over her, and gooseflesh rose on her forearms. Her eyes settled on the bloody rag stuffed into the wound. Redder than the apples in the tree outside her window, she couldn't imagine how he could survive after losing so much blood.

Her trembling hands slipped the suspenders from his shoulder to the sound of Ol' Nap shuffling into the room. "Brister done found the basket an' now he chasin' down those tail hairs." He handed her clean rags and a bowl of hot water.

Sophia removed the bloody rag from Gavin's wound. "Do you think the bullet is still embedded?"

"No, Miss Sophia, I done found the spent shell." Brister held the cartridge between his thumb and index finger.

"Another debt I owe you, Lord," she said to the ceiling.

Gavin winced while she washed the wound and moaned as she dragged the needle through his torn flesh. She'd helped her mother tend wounds before, but for some inexplicable reason, her hands trembled like a drunkard with every stitch. Nap and Brister slipped from the room as she patted down a poultice of elderberry leaves and sulfur and bandaged his chest with gauze strips.

She rose from the bed and walked to the window on shaky limbs. Lord, she'd almost killed him. Guilt-stricken, she glanced to his prostrate form. Through the window, the setting sun dappled his broad shoulders and expansive chest, every inch hard, ridged muscle. Her gaze lingered on his full, sensuous mouth, slack now in blessed forgetfulness. Heat surged up her throat and she felt a stab of longing between her thighs.

She returned to the bed, lifted his head, and forced a spoonful of laudanum down his throat. He coughed and slipped back into unconsciousness. Shamelessly, she studied him, every feature. His hair needed washing and a cut wouldn't hurt either. It was still long, as it was when they were children, and silky midnight black beneath the grit and grime. A short beard covered his strong jaw line, but the sharp, angular planes of his face and generous mouth were achingly familiar. Compelled by an alien force, she touched his cheek and then traced his lips with her fingers. A shudder coursed through her when she brushed an unruly lock of his hair from the high forehead. The carnal stirs disturbed her. She withdrew her hand and vowed to keep them occupied elsewhere while tending him.

His fever raged in the ensuing hours, despite the cool cloths to his forehead and the concoctions she sloshed down his throat. Countless times she untangled his sweat-soaked limbs from the bed sheets and stilled his thrashing arms. Guilt and misery surged up her throat, and fear. The mantle clock chimed midnight, an ominous potent he might not be alive by sunrise.

Settling into the rocking chair beside the bed, she wandered back to their childhood. At the age of five, Gavin arrived in Virginia with his parents, Isaac and Helena Langdale. After a carriage accident claimed their lives, Gavin sold his parents' ostentatious manor, Fairlawn, and announced his intention to enlist. "I'll fight for the North," he'd said. "In memory of my parents, and be damned with those who think it shameful."

Blissful memories crushed her. A fearsome trio, she, Gavin and Jesse had embarked on many a reckless folly, had toppled neighbors' outhouses, and at one time, had turned Mrs. Pritchard's entire field of Guernsey's loose and shooed them down Hampton Road. They'd even forged the mighty Rappahannock in a homemade raft, pirate-clad and full of piss and vinegar.

She almost lost her life that day, would have if Gavin hadn't saved her. Jesse took the helm of the rickety craft and Gavin controlled the rudder in the rear. No one saw the boulder that upended the boat and pitched her into the ashen waters. Weighted down by a pair of Gavin's oversized trousers and a rusty pistol strapped across her chest, she plummeted into the swirling depths. All thirteen years of her short life flashed behind her lids. Prepared to meet her Maker, she sent a hastily-contrived prayer skyward and then felt a solid tug to her scalp. A strong arm lifted her from the watery grave.

Gavin's calm voice lulled her into obedience. "Quit fighting Sophia or you'll take us both down."

Jesse's frantic cries split the sultry air. "Hang onto her, Gavin! Swim to me, get her onto the raft!"

Jesse dragged her from Gavin's arms, tossed her onto the deck like a gutted catfish, and returned to the helm to steer them to shore. Buckets of sludge spewed from her mouth, and when at last her breathing returned to normal, Gavin's sapphire eyes gazed into hers. Although chilled to the bone, an unexpected heat surged through her.

With trembling lips, and so softly to this day she wondered if she'd imagined it, he whispered, "Forever and always."

Gavin carried her home, snuck her through the kitchen and bounded up the steps to her bedchamber. He set her on her feet and there she stood, shivering and dizzy. She rose up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. "Thank you for saving me, Gavin."

His body shook, whether from emotion or the wet clothes she didn't know. "God strike me dead if I place your life in danger again." He turned then and rushed down the hallway.

She closed the door to her room and ran her fingers over her blue lips, stunned to discover they burned hotter than fire, yet her body still quaked from the cold.

Brister's voice broke her reverie. "He don't look so good, Miss Sophia. We gots to get that fever down."

"I know, but how?" She slowed her pacing at the end of the bed. "What would Cumsy have done?"

Brister averted his face. "I knows what she done for the slaves."

"Well, good heavens, this is no time for modesty. What was it?"

"Cumsy put rum-soaked rags under the arm pits and at the. . . ." He looked skyward and Sophia assumed the man was searching for the acceptable word for a man's private parts.

"Fetch the rum, we must do something."

"I fetch it, but you ain't gonna be castin' those lamb eyes on Massah Gavin's personals." He affected an indignant face, pinched lips, narrowed eyes. "Your Ma would take a switch to my back."

"Well Ma's dead, now hurry and find Ol' Nap."

Brister quit the room with a mumble. "It ain't proper you in the room while Massah Gavin nekkid as a newborn."

"Proper be damned," she countered.

To tell Brister she'd already seen Gavin's privates would start another war. She'd looked at length last night at the wiry, dark trail of curls, heavy sacs and. . . . What's the term men use? Cock. She longed to touch him, run her fingers through the nest of curls, had wondered if the skin was as velvety as it looked. The yearning to caress him left her trembling and gasping with desire. She'd felt the whisper of his breath against her cheek, the secret of his kiss once, and now, years later, the memory haunted her dreams at times, crept into her devilish thoughts.

Brister entered the room with the molasses rum and clean rags. "Ol' Nap rustlin' up some food. Turn your back, Miss Sophia, an' don't peek till I say so."

With an exasperated sigh, she spun around and faced the wall. Her heart thrummed and lurid images surfaced—bare flesh against bare flesh, his erotic mouth devouring hers, the member between his thighs no longer flaccid, but engorged and inside her. The muscles tightened in her belly and she heard her breath hiss between her teeth. Lord, what was happening to her mind, her body?

Moments later, Brister's voice rang out. "The rag's in place and he covered now."

Struggling for composure, Sophia turned to face him and attributed the tortuous visions of Gavin on her recurring dreams of Jesse. Her body ached for release, hungered for something indefinable. She couldn't deny it; something had changed the moment she laid eyes on Gavin again. Lightheaded, and unable to name the affliction, one thing loomed clear, she'd missed the champion of her youth more than she cared to admit.

She settled onto the bed, wrung out another cloth and mopped his brow. Ribbons of sunlight crept through the window, accentuating the sallow hue of his skin and the blue cast beneath his closed eyes. Guilt drove her to thoughts of Jesse. He would come back and she'd be waiting for him. The day she discovered they were promised in marriage surfaced. Their pirate days gone forever, she, Jesse, and Gavin sat amid the peaceful solitude of the tall grass behind the manor.

"Has your father summoned you to his study in recent days, Sophia?" The confident tone of Jesse's voice unnerved her.

"What cause would he have to do so?"

Blue eyes narrowed. "My father called on yours last week to cement the arrangement."

"Arrangement?" Sophia had glanced to Gavin before turning to Jesse again. "Whatever are you talking about?"

"You really don't know, do you?" Jesse asked boastfully. "Our betrothal and impending marriage."

She stilled and her stomach flipped. "I have no intention of marrying you."

"You have no say in the matter." Jesse plucked a blade of grass from the ground.

After giving Jesse a look of disbelief, she peered at Gavin. If she thought to find an answer there, she was mistaken. A master at hiding his feelings, adept at staying clear of other folks' business, he averted her gaze.

Jesse's tone held exasperation. "We've been promised to one another since the day you were born."

A niggling fear crept up her spine. "Promised by whom?"

Gavin corrected her. "I think it's who."

Treachery and fear coiled her insides. "Who promised me in marriage?"

If expressions could speak, Jesse's said, moss couldn't have been denser. "Your father, of course."

She chewed on her lower lip to keep from crying and looked at her rock of solace. "Gavin?"

He dragged his cool, smooth fingers across her cheek. "It's for you to ask your Pa, Sophia."

She rose from the ground in a fury, her feet spread wide and braced for battle. "We'll see about that!" she ground out. "I've no intention of marrying any man."

She'd charged off across the meadow, intent on finding her father. When she did, she discovered every word was true. Irrevocably, undeniably true. She would marry Jesse Grantham and their lands would be joined.

Brister's voice pulled her from her musings. "Child, you off in another world."

Placing her fingers to her temples, she sighed. "I'm exhausted. Wake me if something changes." She rose and had almost reached the door when she turned to address the dog. "Come, Ricochet." The hound looked at her with his big sorrowful eyes and snuggled in closer to Gavin. "Traitor," she whispered.

"Don't worry none 'bout his fever." Brister mopped Gavin's brow. "Cumsy done taught me good."

Sophia walked from the room and plopped onto the bed in her parents' room. Between the threshold of dreams and lucidity, Jesse's face appeared. She closed her eyes and prayed her beloved would find her again tonight.

* * *

Sophia slept later than she intended and attributed it to exhaustion and the mental anguish of shooting Gavin. Tossing back the covers, she bolted from bed and rushed into her bedchamber. Brister loomed over the patient inspecting his wound.

"His fever still rages?"

"No, Missy, it don't. He drifting in and out, but no longer burning up."

Settling into a chair beside the bed, her tense muscles relaxed. "Go on now, Brister, I'll take over for a while."

The old black man left, promising to return in several hours to relieve her. At the moment, Gavin appeared peaceful. Candlelight fell across the bed, accentuating his handsome features. Dissimilar to Jesse in every respect, everything about Gavin was dark—his midnight hair, the cast of his skin and his mysterious persona. Aloof and introspective, his detached aura intrigued and thrilled her. The man wheezed primordial masculinity. His nearness unnerved her, was enough to drive her out of her fragile mind.

She rested her head against the chair and slipped into daydreams again, recalling the day Jesse left for the war.

Standing beneath an arbor with a profusion of blossoms, his blue eyes searched hers. "I enlisted in the Fifth Virginia today, Sophia. We'll beat those Yanks in sixty days."

Her heart fell to her feet. "Father says you can send one of the darkies in your stead."

"Are you mad? I must fight northern tyranny, no matter the cost." He drew her into his arms. "When I return, we'll get married, under your mother's rose arbor. Until that day, remember I love you forever and always."

He walked over the hill that day, the one he walks in her dreams. They didn't beat the Yankees in sixty days. They came with all their cannon and artillery, one hundred thousand strong, intent on capturing Fredericksburg, setting everything ablaze in their path, killing innocent women and children. The proud Confederacy had stilled their never-ending advance, and after the four-day battle, thirteen thousand Union soldiers lay dead on southern soil.

How she hated Yankees, every single one. Except Gavin. How could she hate the champion of her youth? The beautiful, dangerous man in her bed stirred, inciting her maddening desire. She didn't want to think about it, think about him. Her sleep-starved mind compelled her to place her head back and close her eyes. She would deal with it when Gavin awoke, after she'd rested and felt better equipped to sort out her raging emotions.

For now, she prayed Jesse would find her in dreamland again.

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