The Civil War has ended, but for Corporal Patrick "Rick" Fergusson the battle rages on. Still haunted by what he witnessed on the battlefield, the earnest Irishman is heading west, seeking only to be free of the past. His services are in high demand; wealthy East Coasters in need of escort clamor to join him on the journey. But one client, a beautiful lady named Cat, disturbs Rick's newfound equilibrium.
High society widow Catriona O'Brian is anxious to get to California, even if it means traveling with the handsome corporal who seems to dislike her so. Cat no longer seeks marriage; she has pinned all her hopes on making it to the west coast and starting her own winery. Between the elements, wild animals, and hostile natives, however, everything seems to be conspiring against her. Time and again, Rick comes to her rescue. And soon, the independent lass discovers that her biggest obstacle may be the longing of her own traitorous heart . . .
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The whispers frayed at her last raw nerve. With careful precision, Catriona set the delicate crystal wineglass down on the marble table. The dark red liquid didn't so much as ripple. Such good wine was hard to come by; she didn't want to waste it. Her fingers closed into a fist, her overly long nails biting into her palm. But it was a good pain, the kind that helped bring focus and calm so she didn't do something foolish. As the founding board member of the organization, she couldn't very well fly off the handle every time someone spoke ill of her beneath their breath.
Gathered like a brood with their coiffed hairdos leaned together, half the board members cackled all manner of derogatory things about her. Their too-loud whispers about her being "new money" and "already out of mourning clothes" were clearly meant to be overheard. Over half the eyes in the packed tearoom rested on her because of it. Her skin crawled and her cheeks heated. The old Cat would have torn into them like a wildcat, but sadly, she hadn't been that woman for a long time now.
Beyond the women, muted sunlight filtering through the grapevine-framed window beckoned her. She wanted nothing more than for this meeting to be over so she could return to her garden where she could find a bit of serenity. A delicate hand came to rest on her shoulder just as a full skirt brushed against her own. Gentle though the touch was, it was all she could do not to flinch. The white lace glove could have belonged to anyone, but the almost hesitant hand within it could belong to only one person.
"You pay them awful women no mind now, Catriona. They are jealous is all," came a carefully measured feminine voice with just the barest hint of an African accent.
Brown eyes as gentle as her voice gazed out of a lovely face nearly the color of obsidian to bathe Catriona in sympathy. She managed to force a tight-lipped smile.
"Aye, but they are jealous for the wrong reasons," she all but whispered. "But thank you for your kindness, Sadie. You are a treasure." She patted the lady's hand where it rested on her arm.
Many of the ladies in the finely furnished sitting room shot frowns their way. Some likely because such familiarity with one's servants was frowned upon. But then, even allowing Sadie to attend was frowned upon by most in the room. While the North had been the first to free their slaves, they still believed in separatism. Not Catriona, though, and on that she stood up to these hens. Sadie was a widow of a soldier of the 69th infantry, which gave her every right to attend these meetings. Besides, she was Catriona's friend and for her, Catriona would withstand all the evil glares those hens could dish out.
Lovely dark brows drawing together, Sadie waved a dismissive hand at the group of women. "The hens wouldn't believe the truth if it slapped them upside their pampered backsides," she said.
At that image, a genuine smile turned up the corners of Catriona's lips. However, the sight of a black-haired woman with skin the color of porcelain descending on the group of board members like a storm wiped the smile away. Trouble flowed around the immaculately dressed young woman like a cloak of dark foreboding.
"Oh no," Catriona murmured.
Sadie laughed quietly. "Don't you worry. Our Miss Deirdre there is going to give those ladies a taste of what they've got coming," she said.
Catriona groaned. "That is precisely what I am worried about."
All those coiffed heads raised at once, sharp eyes darting to Deirdre as if they could pin her back with their glares alone. But Catriona knew it would take far more than icy looks to stop Deirdre. Perhaps a battalion of Rebel troops.
The pointed chin of her lovely, heart-shaped face lifted and her long lashes swept down over dark blue eyes that looked as black as her hair without the light hitting them. She focused the weight of her gaze upon the brood's ringleader: a tall woman with a prominent nose. "To speak ill of your founder is to speak ill of the very manner in which you spend your free time." Deirdre thrust that delicate-looking chin of hers in the direction of the double doors leading from the room. "The wind would most certainly be at your back should you choose to walk out that door."
All five women in the brood stiffened, eyes filling with disbelief as they widened. The worst of the lot stood her ground, angling her chin up so she could look down that prominent nose at Deirdre. "Our founder merely shocks us all by coming out of mourning so soon. Had any of us landed the catch of the century for a husband, we would have extended our mourning period," she huffed.
One of Deidre's hands went to her hip. Catriona couldn't help but notice it had curled into a fist.
"Would that you had, then it could have been you who felt the snap of 'the catch of the century's' jaws instead of my dear friend."
Gasps traveled through the brood. Gloved hands flung up to cover gaping mouths.
"What exactly are you implying?" their ringleader demanded.
Deirdre took a step forward. "That Michael O'Brian was a —"
"Enough, Deirdre!" Catriona found her nerve and her voice at last.
As much as she appreciated her friend defending her, the last thing she wanted was for these horrible women to know her darkest secrets. Deirdre's mouth snapped shut and she spun away from the women on what Catriona knew to be a scandalously high heel — though it was well hidden beneath the hoop of her burgundy gown. Head held high, she pranced like a prized, gaited mare to Catriona's side, spun back toward the women, and looped an arm through Catriona's. With her friends to either side of her, they stood as a unified front against the brood. All eyes in the room turned to watch the drama unfold.
Catriona took a deep, steadying breath before speaking. "After today's testimonies we are all a bit emotional. We need to keep focused on what we are here for, to support one another." A bit of her old strength and confidence helped her voice carry throughout her five-hundred-square-foot tearoom.
The head hen opened her mouth, but a door banged open, halting her words. Her friends' arms withdrew from hers, allowing Catriona to turn. Dread made her movements slow. Little on this green Earth could cause her help to throw a door open with such carelessness. The last time it had happened, news of her husband's death had followed. A young Irishwoman, her pale face flushed red, stood in the doorway, a hand clutched against her heart, her wide eyes seeking out Catriona.
"Mrs. O'Brian, please pardon the intrusion, but your sister-in-law, Mrs. MacBranain, is here," she gasped.
Stomach churning with a mixture of joy and dread, Catriona dipped her head to the servant girl. "Thank you, Emily. Please make her comfortable in the sitting room. I shall be along shortly." With that, she swallowed her emotions, ensured her expression was one of regret, and turned to face the waiting group of women.
"Ladies, I fear I must adjourn this meeting of the Widows of the 69th as I have pressing business to attend to. Thank you all for coming. My servants will bring your wraps and cloaks along post-haste," she announced.
Murmurs spread throughout the women with the speed and relentlessness of the pox. Many, like the hen and her brood, didn't even try to whisper their comments.
"Isn't that the former Miss O'Brian, Michael's sister?" one woman said.
"Yes, it is! I am sure of it. And she was so close to Michael. Whatever will she have to say about Catriona being out of mourning already?"
Grinding her teeth against scathing replies, Catriona ushered the women out of the room and into the hallway where her servants were already bringing their belongings. Warm as it was outside this June afternoon, most of them hadn't worn cloaks or shawls, but almost all had brought either a bag or a parasol along. Though she was near to exploding with anticipation, she played the good hostess and bid farewell to each woman as she departed, even the horrible brood. When the worst of them shot her a cold look, she had to remind herself that they had all lost husbands and many bad feelings were merely born from that. Still, women like her made Catriona wish she hadn't opened the organization to all widows of soldiers of the 69th without thinking what that meant.
A very unladylike snort came from Deirdre, who stepped up beside Catriona when the head hen — the last to leave, by no accident for sure — made a snappy remark. Flinging her long, black curls over her shoulder, Deirdre looked down her nose at the woman.
"Hasten your step through the doorway now, Mrs. MacNeil, else your bustle may get closed in it," Deirdre said in a wickedly sweet tone.
Powdered brows rising into her carefully arranged brown bangs, Mrs. MacNeil gasped almost comically loud and stormed out of the parlor. Sadie giggled behind her gloved hand and Catriona groaned as she covered her face with one hand.
"She'll be impossible now," Catriona said.
Another snort sounded from Deirdre. "Because she was completely congenial before."
Catriona slapped playfully at her friend's arm. "You know what I mean."
Looping an arm through hers, Deirdre walked with her and Sadie to the front door. "I do indeed. You take too much from those hens," Deirdre said.
Unable to argue, Catriona merely hugged her friends in turn as they waited for her servant to bring along Deirdre's parasol. "I shall escort Deirdre home, stop by the market for ingredients for dinner, and return post-haste, unless you would like us to stay for moral support?" Sadie asked.
Catriona smiled as she grasped her friend's hand. "Thank you, but no. Ashlinn and I were friends, of a sort. I will be all right."
With a nod, Sadie stepped out onto the wide porch into the brilliant sunshine and opened her parasol. The clop of many hooves on cobblestones echoed into the house, accompanied by the din of voices that seemed constant in the heart of New York. What Catriona wouldn't give for the quiet of the country home she had grown up in. Days like these made her long for seclusion, if only she could take her friends with her.
Deirdre joined Sadie on the porch but turned back to give Catriona a stern look. "You send for us as soon as they are gone. I do not want you to be alone after such a visit."
She gave her a mirthless smile and nodded. "I shall. Now, off with you, so I can get this over with."
Waving, they descended the wide stairs leading up to Catriona's grand home and started north down the sidewalk. A deep breath steeled her enough that she was able to turn away from the sight of her retreating friends and nod to her servant girl to close the door. The click of the mechanism securing the door behind her stirred a burning anxiety within her chest. Her hands fumbled with her green skirt. Of all the things she could have worn today, this was perhaps her most cheerful dress. Never had she regretted being out of mourning clothes so much as she did in that moment. Hiding it as best she could, she strode to the parlor doors and pulled them open without hesitation.
Sky-blue dress arranged about her, Ashlinn sat on the edge of a plush couch, looking as though she may burst from anticipation. Blue. She wore blue, not black. Relief rushed through Catriona, passing her lips in a long breath. A man clothed in a fine gray suit stood beside Ashlinn, one hand resting on her shoulder. Short brown hair framed a handsome face with dimples that suggested a grin often graced his face. The smile soothed her fears enough to loosen her tongue.
"So this is the man who won my sister-in-law's heart," Catriona said as she stepped into the room.
The smile that spread across Ashlinn's lovely face as she laid eyes on Catriona eased a bit more of her anxiety, but only a bit. Golden hair floating about her like the cloak of an angel, Ashlinn flew to her feet and crossed the distance between them to embrace Catriona. She stiffened at first, but was quick to relax in Ashlinn's gentle arms. The woman's joy slowly began to dissolve Catriona's trepidation. Ashlinn drew back, took Catriona by the hand, and led her over to the couches.
"I am so sorry it took us so long to come visit. I wanted to come to you right away, but we got caught up in Chicago while Sean was recruitin' and then the riots made it impossible to travel to this side of the state from where we were. Still, 'tis a poor excuse for keepin' me from my sister-in-law," she said.
For a moment Catriona was struck speechless. Never had she heard Ashlinn allow her Irish brogue to slip through until now. She looked harder at her sister-in-law, surprised to see a woman filled with light and happiness, a woman very unlike the one who had followed her brothers into war.
"'Tis a fine reason, for which you have no cause to apologize," Catriona finally managed.
Ashlinn stopped beside the man, whom Catriona presumed was Sean.
"Mrs. Catriona O'Brian, 'tis my pleasure to introduce you to my husband, Sean MacBranain. My only regret is that you were unable to attend our wedding. I would so have loved to have had you there," Ashlinn said as she clutched Catriona's right hand.
The sincerity in her clear blue eyes touched Catriona, but the hint of shame in them confused her. Surely such emotion wasn't just from not being able to visit sooner.
Sean bent at the waist, bowing deeply to her. "'Tis a pleasure indeed to meet you, Mrs. O'Brian. I apologize that we were unable to bring you news of Michael's death in person, or to return his body to you."
She shook her head. "Please, there is no need to apologize for something outside of your control."
Out of habit, Catriona cast her gaze to the floor and nodded her head, effectively hiding the lack of an emotional reaction to the mention of her husband's death. She didn't want to give Ashlinn and her nice husband the wrong idea about her feelings, or worse, the right idea. Not noticing, Ashlinn took one of Catriona's hands in both of hers and pulled her down onto one of the couches beside her.
"We've much to discuss," Ashlinn said in a guarded tone that made the hair on the back of Catriona's neck stir.
It was what she had come to think of as the woman's "physician tone," the one she used when she removed herself emotionally from a situation. Catriona had witnessed her do so several times while working with patients in the family practice down the street. What could cause such detachment now, though, she had no idea. Behind her eyes, regret stirred.
"I could tell you that Michael died honorably, fighting to unify our country and end slavery. I should tell you that. But I won't lie to you," Ashlinn began.
Prickles of concern danced their way across Catriona's skin. While Ashlinn had always protected and doted on Michael, she had seemed ignorant of his true nature. No ignorance shone in the depths of her eyes now. Catriona wanted to ask her not to go on, but she couldn't find her voice.
"I am deeply sorry, Catriona, but Michael was a deserter who nearly got both myself and Sean killed with his foolishness. I do not tell you this to hurt you, or cause you shame, but because you deserve to know the truth," Ashlinn said softly.
Heart sinking, Catriona's mind began to race. This made her the disgraced widow of a deserter. If she left soon enough, before word spread, perhaps she wouldn't be stoned to death on her way out of town. A shiver went through her as she recalled the stories of such things happening. She had no family to go back to, the pox had seen to that. And there was no way she would even attempt to impose upon her friends. Awful as this news was, it didn't surprise her. Nothing horrible that came her way through her deceased husband surprised her anymore. A deep breath helped her straighten her back and swallow her emotions.
"I understand. I will gather my things and be gone by morning," she said.
She fought back the instinct to beg for time to leave before Ashlinn spread the word. The words hung heavy on the back of her tongue, but she bit them back. If Mrs. MacNeil from the Widows organization found out, she'd lead the stone throwing herself. The thought of giving that woman any reason to hate her more turned Catriona's stomach.
Ashlinn's eyes flew open, moisture gleaming in them. Her grip on Catriona's hand tightened. "No! You misunderstand. No one but you, Sean, and I will ever know about Michael's disgrace. I do not seek to disinherit you, or have your position in society threatened in any way. You are my sister as surely as if we had been born of the same mother. I will never allow harm to come to you, especially because of something my foolish brother did," Ashlinn swore.
Excerpted from "Courting the Corporal"
Copyright © 2017 Heather McCorkle.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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