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The Willows

The Willows

Mathew Sperle

Copyright Mathew Sperle 2016

Shakespir Edition

 

 

Table of content

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

 

 

Chapter 1

Catching a whiff of brine, Gwen McCloud smiled for the first time in days. A few more steps and she’d be topside. It had been no easy climb, hauling the heavy carpetbag up from her mean accommodations, but after a five-year stint in Boston, and all the weeks at sea, she meant to be on deck to see every last ripple on the Mississippi as they approached New Orleans.

Almost home.

Weak with longing, she thought of returning to her father’s plantation. This time, she swore, nothing could make her leave. Is she being stubborn and defiant, or tossing the fits Mother had so disapproved of, Gwen would make it clear that Willows was far more than her home. It was her dream, her Camelot, and she meant to live there always.

Alive with anticipation, she sucked in a breath and stepped out on the deck, only to find everything shrouded by thick, humid gray fog. Here and there, the morning mists swirled, as if the cool breeze hoped to dissipate them, but in merely managed to unsettle her bonnet and exposed her carefully arranged curls to the salty air.

Dismayed, she set down the carpetbag to cover her hair. She’d spent hours primping, wanting to look her best when they docked. There was no telling who might be coming to meet her ship, though she hoped-no, she prayed-her daddy might have sent Lance.

Her heart did a flip as she thought of her handsome neighbor. Lance and the Willows-she could not imagine one without the other. It seemed Lance had always been part of her life, first as the charming boy who’d fought battles on her behalf, then as the dashing young man, declaring his undying love.

She leaned down to lift her carpetbag, a half smile forming on her lips. Theirs had been a special world, those happy days when she and Lance and the neighboring children had played King Arthur’s court. With Gwen, of course, been Queen Guinevere. Who assumed the others roles depended largely upon whim of the day, but Lance was always Sir Lancelot. Whenever there was a battle to be fought, a dragon slain, or enemy vanquished, she need only look to her gallant knight.

Could she still depend on Lance? She wondered as she made her way to the rail. With all that had happened, all that had changed, would he be lost to her, too? So many doubts and unanswered questions. If only she had a wizard like Merlin to help her see into the future, since her life seemed about as clear as this fog.

She stood by the rail, feeling lost in the mists. Eerily, a lone mast appeared out of the haze, but its long, slender outline vanished so rapidly, she could well have imagined it. All sound seemed distorted-the cry of the distant gull, the slap of water against the ship-each scent suddenly foreign. Fancifully, she let herself imagine that she’d been cast adrift, and was now slowly entering into a strange new world.

I’m in merry Old England she thought to herself with a grin, remembering back to mornings played in a fog, pretending it was wrapped around an Arthurian caste. A land enchantment, they’d called their imaginary kingdom; a place where dreams came true. Back then, If Gwen wanted to summon that magical world, she merely close her eyes and make a wish.

“Take me to Camelot,” She whispered now.

And as if the great Merlin had waved a wand, the breeze surged, spiraling about her, Gwen grasped her bonnet, as the sun tried to peek through the clouds overhead. She watched bit after bit of the shoreline mertialize, until up ahead in the distance, a city rose up out of the mists.

Disoriented, she half-expected turrets and the towers, and it was with a stab of disappointment that she traded fantasy for reality. It was clearly not Camelot, yet as the fog revealed more and more of the city, with its ornate iron grill work and European flair, Gwen realized how much she’d missed New Orleans. She’d attended her first cotillion on St. Charles Avenue, gone parading down Canal Street during Mardi Gras, and received her first proposal of marriage beneath the live oaks in City Park.

With a stab of pain, she remembered her breathless excitement that day. Racing home to break the wonderful news, she’d never guessed her parents would deny her heart’s desire. She was their baby, their princess, and all her life, she’d invariably gotten whatever she wanted.

Yet they’d refuse her, and in a dizzying short span of time, her life had gone from fairy tale to nightmare. How on earth had her hopes and dreams ended in such heartache and sorrow?

Dismayed to find how tightly she gripped the rail, she used her hands to smooth down the lines of her carriage gown. Never mind, she told herself firmly. The past was the past, and she was better off forgetting it.

“Aha! Here you are, Gueenie.”

Gwen tensed, hearing the overloud tones of Eleanor Tibbs, the cabin mate she’d neither expected nor wanted. As tall as she was wide, all gray and her hair to her shoes the woman was like an ironclad battle ship, plowing through the waves of people towards Gwen. Looking right and left, she weighed her chances of escape.

“Wait!” Mrs. Tibbs barked, reaching for her arm. “We must get the matter straighten out. I sense you’re still miffed with us, Gueenie.”

Gwen hated that ridiculous name, which, thanks to Mrs. Tibbs, nearly everyone on the vessel had taken to using.

Now, too late, Gwen could see her mistake in asking for fresh linens the first day out of port, but at the time, she’d been too Shocked by her cramped living quarters to think straight. Having spent her childhood on Daddy’s plantation, and the past five years at Aunt Agatha’s mansion, she’d come to expect the best life had to offer. How was she to have known they’re would be no linen’s that freshness of any sort would be a rare luxury?

Perhaps she’d overacted somewhat and raised too much of a fuss, but given the circumstances, wasn’t it understandable? A lady had certain exceptions, none of which were close to being met. The certainly was no need for the captain or his crew to show such derision, and absolution, and absolutely no call for everyone to start calling her Queenie.

“My name is Gwen Elizabeth,” she told Mrs. Tibbs for what must be the hundredth time. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I would like to view New Orleans as we approach it.”

“You won’t see much in this fog. Besides, this will be but a minute of your time. We really must talk about Sampson.”

Gwen bristled. Back in Boston, her Aunt Agatha had hired the timid Lilah Sampson to serve as Gwen’s travelling companion, but Mrs. Tibbs had promptly commandeered the woman’s services for herself. Throughout the voyage, Gwen was forced to supply continuous reminders as to who was Lilah’s true mistress, yet only this morning, Mrs. Tibbs had announced that Gwen’s servant would be accompanying her to Tibbs town home when they landed.

“There is nothing to talk about,” Gwen said stiffly, hoping to keep the hurt from her tone. Perhaps by now she should expect such lack of consideration from Mrs. Tibbs, but Lilah’s defection cut to the quick. Nowadays, must everyone abandon her?

“I can’t see why another servant will not do” Mrs. Tibbs went on as if Gwen hadn’t spoke, “and I’m more than happy to help you find one. I’d never dream of leaving you to fend for yourself, with the hardship you’d face ahead.”

“Honestly Mrs. Tibbs, I don’t know why you persist in this. If I’ve told you once, I’ve said it a hundred times. I’m not about to face any hardship.”

Her thick gray brows met over her piercing gray eyes. “It is a bad habit you have, Gueenie, seeing only what you wish to see. You cannot avoid the truth by overlooking it.”

“Truth?” Gwen adopted her haughtiest tone. “And just what would you know about my life?”

“I know what my eyes tell me. You would not be sailing on this old crate, or sharing a third-class cabin with an old woman like me, if you did not have to.”

“It was hardly a matter of need.” Gwen sniffed delicately. “Planting season keeps daddy too busy with his sugar cane to quibble over travel arrangements. To him, a boat is a boat, and the rest is just unimportant detail. Booking such mean commendations…” She glanced about the crowded deck with dismay, “… Was mere oversight on his part.”

Mrs. Tibbs stared at her with obvious pity. “And why is he ordering you home to get married?”

Gwen tensed, not wanting to explore that question, wondering what madness had possessed her even mention it to this woman. “If you’re only child was 22,” she snapped’ “you two would be inpatient to see grandchildren running through the house.” That was Aunt Agatha’s kindly interpretation. Considering how they’d parted five years ago, Gwen feared that any child of hers was the last thing her daddy would want to see.

“If you say so.” Mrs. Tibbs flashed her all-knowing smile.

“Still, I can’t help but worry about you. Please, let me help find you a new servant.”

“I had a perfectly good servant, Mrs. Tibbs, before you stole her away.”

Mrs. Tibbs looked genuinely surprised. “I did not steal Samson. She asked to come with me.”

“Did she? And with what did you bribe her?”

“There was no need to bribe anyone. IF you’d stop judging folks by their outer trappings, you’d know Sampson and I were bound to become friends. There is more to a person than how they talk or what they wear, Gueenie. You must try to remember that.”

Gwen could feel the heat rise up her back of her neck. How dare this… this servant snatcher tell her what she must or must not recall. “Obviously, you two have settled things without me, so do you think we might avoid a public spectacle? I have no wish to involve myself in a fight over this”

“Ah, and there is the difference between us. Don’t you know that anything worth having is worth fighting for, child?”

There was a time Gwen might have agreed, but that was when she was young and unprincipled, before Mama…

“Ladies don’t make scenes,” She told the woman primly.

Mrs. Tibbs shook her head. “Your kind of lady doesn’t have to. When trouble hits, she runs away and lets someone else do her fighting for her. But you be careful how much of your life you give into the care of others, Gueenie. You can lose too much of yourself when running away.”

I don’t run-“Gwen clamped shut her mouth, refusing to give Mrs. Tibbs the pleasure of her denial. If you don’t mind,”

She said, turning her gaze determinably away, “I’d like to be alone for my first sight of home.”

She could hear the woman’s sigh, heavy with regret. “Fantasy is wonderful thing, child, but not if it keeps you from seeing what’s truly there. Don’t get so swept up in dreams you make the same mistake as your namesake. Remember, the first Guinevere chose the wrong man and brought Camelot tumbling down about her feet.”

As the woman waddled off, Gwen fought the urge to stick out her tongue. She was too much the lady to indulge in such childish spite, and besides, wasn’t it that loose appendage that had given Mrs. Tibbs such ammunition to use against her? It had been a weak moment, one of those long, lonely nights in the dark, when Gwen had so foolishly confided her fantasies to the woman. Trust Mrs. Tibbs to have the sublime bad taste to throw them back in her face.

Little she knew. Gwen wasn’t running away; shed faced the sins of her past and atoned for them. Why, shed more than made amends. Hadn’t she become so finely bred a lady, even Mama would have beamed with pride. She now accepted her role in the world, the standards of a lady must uphold, the expectations she must fulfill. So much so that upon leaving Boston, her Aunt Agatha had declared she could not hope to find a more prim and proper niece.

It was this assessment that gave Gwen hope, for surely her father would be similarly impressed. Once John McCloud saw she was a lady, that she’d put aside her impetuous ways, he’d forget the past, sweep her in his arms, and call her his little princess.

That was why she’d taken off Mother’s locket and set it inside the carpetbag. Normally she’d have worn the one remaining link with her mother, but meeting her father after five years separation would be difficult enough. She had no wish to remind him of what he had lost.

Frowning, she thought of his summons. His letter was also tucked in her carpetbag. Nothing is wrong, she insisted to herself, but tiny voice-sounding like Mrs. Tibbs-kept asking why her father must be so insistent upon her getting married. And why had Edith Ann written in his behalf?

Gwen tried hard to liker her cousin, but nothing had been the same after she and Uncle Jervis had come to live with them. In Gwen’s mind, her parents had been overly impressed with Edith’s ladylike poise, and far too determined to stop their own daughter’s hoydenish behavior. “Look at your cousin,” Amanda McCloud would say. “See how well-mannered she is, and how ladylike.” And though it was never uttered, Gwen had nonetheless heard the “why can’t you be more like her?” in her mind.

No one seemed to notice Edith’s sly and mincing ways, or her spiteful glee when Gwen was caught in a misdeed. Had her cousin penned the letter from father, Gwen wondered? How disconcerting, to learn that Edith had control over his personal affairs. It would be just like her to suggest that marriage would tame Gwen’s impulsive nature-then slyly recommends an absolute toad she could marry.

It wouldn’t be Lance, Gwen thought with a sigh. Lance Buford Sr. had been an incredible gambler, and when he’d asked on he left his son with little more than his charm and the shirt on his back. Gorgeous, dashing Lance might set any female’s heart flutter, but father would never let a him wed his only child.

Who then? Gwen wondered. The summer boys? Both Robert Andrew were pleasant to gaze upon, and rivers edge was almost as grand as The Willows. Or maybe she should set her sights on the notorious Beau Allenton, since Edith had adored him or years. It would serve her cousin right, if after all of her plotting? Her precious objects was stolen right out from under her nose.

But when didn’t want him or the others. She didn’t want to marry anyone if she couldn’t have Lance. He was her Lancelot, her hero, and together with The Willows, was the only remaining constant in her life. Had it he promised, that long ago day the need the oak tree, that when all others would forsake her, he would stand steadfast and strong at her side, loving her always.

Oh please, don’t let him have forgotten, she thought, crossing her fingers as she searched the crowd lining the docks for signs of his beautiful, golden head. Brushing the skirt of her carriage gown again, she wished she could be dressed in something more seducing then heavy green wool, but without starch, or one of those hoop skirted crinolines that were now the rage, she had little hope of lessening the creases and a bit to other gowns she had in her bag. With the rest of her wardrobe packed in her trunk in the hold, and Lilith off helping Mrs. Tibbs, Gwen supposed she must count herself fortunate to be dressed at all.

Assailed by a wave of longing, she could not wait to be home. She closed her eyes and imagined her arrival at The Willows, with father’s legion of servants rushing to see her every whim. She’d have pressed clothing, clean linen, and fresh fruits and vegetables whenever she wished for them.

“Just one more thing, Gueenie.”

With a start, Gwen woke from her daydream fine that the ship had docked and the obnoxious Mrs. Tibbs stood before her with a hand thrust out in her direction. “Before we part ways, I wish for you to have this.”

Gwen stared at the card. Did the woman expect to maintain their acquaintance? They moved and utterly different circles; surely even Mrs. Tibbs must recognize that.

Apparently not. “This will be my location here in New Orleans,” she went on, waving the card with irritating resistance.

“Feel free to call upon me, if you ever feel the need.”

Gwen could think of nothing less likely, but then, this was less a case of charity then blatant social climbing. Preparing her set down, Gwen was surprised into silence when Mrs. Tibbs laid a gentle hand on her arm.

“I know we have had our differences,” she said, her tone softly, “but I cannot help but worry about you. I am an independent woman, with no few connections. Should you find yourself in need of a friend, please do not hesitate to call.”

Once more, she shoved the card forward, and this time Gwen was to stun to refuse it. Gesturing to Lilith, timidly guarding their luggage by the planks, Mrs. Tibbs quickly reverted to form. “Come, Sampson and I are happy to share our cab. Our driver will take you wherever you need to go.”

Flustered, Gwen shook her head. “That is kind of you, but my father will be sending someone to meet me.” Benoit by the woman’s raised eyebrows, she began to embellish. “My fiancé is coming, as a matter of fact. Why, I declare, he’ll be so eager to see me, I’ll wager he will be the first one waiting when we disembark.”

Plump hands reached out close over Gwen’s. “Don’t you be losing my card now,” Mrs. Tibbs said softly, giving an extra squeeze before letting go. “The time may yet come when you need it.”

With that, she waddled off towards Lilith and the luggage. Dreadful female, Gwen thought, watching her fully past the other passengers. Mrs. Tibbs would be the first to leave the ship, and woe to whoever stood in her way.

When jammed the unwanted card into her bag, but one glance at her overstuffed bag had her regretting her decision. Perhaps should have gone with Mrs. Tibbs. At least as far as the landing. What would people think of a lady who carried her own things, who stood all alone?

She looked up, meaning to call the woman back, but Mrs. Tibbs and Lilith had reached dryland and were fast making their way to a waiting carriage. Grabbing her bag, Gwen headed towards the plank ends, finding that she must wait in line, since everyone else had gotten there before her. As her bag group recently heavy in the warm morning sun, found herself wishing the fog would return.

When she finally disembarked, she found no one waiting, nor did anyone approach her as she made her tentative way along the dock. It did not help to see Mrs. Tibbs and Lilith will off any fine looking carriage. Gwen tried to say good riddance, but she grew painfully conscious of the other passengers locating their convoys, while she continued to wait.

Not one family face appeared, and a nasty suspicion grew in her mind. Had father-with no little help from Edith-forgotten send someone to fetch her home?

She tried not to panic, but she had no money, and had never before had to make her own traveling arrangements. There might be friends here in the city who could help her, but she had not the least idea how to reach them. Someone else had always dwelled with such details; she had merely gone along for the ride.

Yet clearly, she could not stay where she was. As the crowds thinned, the hurling to their homes and businesses, she grew aware of this cedar elements that haunted the docks. Early dressed men strolled by with a predatory glance; overblown females, lounging in doorways, I’d her with contemptuous humor. You don’t belong here, their gazes told her, and she was more than inclined to agree.

Searching the docks again, he told herself her escort would come; hadn’t she bet Mrs. Tibbs that her fiancé would be here, eager and adoring? Please let him appear, she thought in a rising panic. Let anyone appear. Indeed, she’d marry the first man to calm to her rescue

“Oh Merlin.” She whispered, looking about her frantically, “wave your magical wand again and show me my valiant knight.”

She saw his eyes first, dark and intense, a deep melting brown that seemed somehow familiar, though she could not imagine where they might have met. Girls in her social position were carefully shielded, allowed it to converse with only the top of society, and a male who could stare so intensely, so strongly, could not possibly be a gentleman.

He leaned against the door of one of the more disreputable establishments, watching her, and though Gwen knew she should ignore him, she found herself staring back, tall and sinfully handsome, with his shiny black hair and school did features, he was every girl’s dream of a pirate.

And for the briefest moment, Gwen let herself imagine how it would be to be pursued by such a man. A secret passionate, stolen kiss-what an exciting game they could play. He would stalk her, and she let him-though only up to a point, for she never risk her reputation with such a rogue. Playing with this man be like playing with fire, and it would take great care and discretion to make certain she did not get burned.

A perilous situation, yes, but wasn’t that its appeal?

As if hearing her thoughts, his expression intensified, looking suddenly more dangerous than Gwen really wanted.

She started, glancing nervously about her, belatedly reminding her precautious position. Whatever had she been thinking of, daydreaming in the middle of the street about a common stranger? On closer scrutiny, she decided to put the emphasis on common, though he was indeed a stranger. How dare he stare as if he knew her. What cause would she have to be acquainted with one who wore patched, homespun clothing, and worn, unpolished boots?

Looking away, anxiously to avoid any further contact, she spun, her fear and indignation causing the bag swing with unsuitable arc. It took the thought of for her brain to absorb the facts that someone had been in its path.

“She tried to kill me,” a child shrieked as scrambled up off the ground “did you see that? She tried to knock me in the water.”

“I did no such thing.” Appalled, Gwen stared at the boy. Filthy was too kind a word; you must have acquired all the available dirt from here to Alabama. “Though putting you in the water might not be all that bad an idea,” she added, sniffing delicately. “When precisely was the last time you had a bath?”

“Did you hear her?” The child asked his comrades, four more children in tattered clothing. “First she knocks me down and then she insults me.”

The tallest strode up, his manner belligerent, his voice twice as loud. “You be careful how you talk to John.”

Anxious to avoid a scene, Gwen turn to go.

“Hey, wait,” the tallest boy shouted. “You apologize to John.”

Horrified, Gwen could only think of getting away, but the breaths followed as she hurried along the dock. “Patrick spoke to you,” one called John cried out, grabbing her arm. “Don’t you dare ignore my brother.”

Brother? Of course, she could have seen the family resemblance in the dirt, though granted, they shared the same dark care and eyes. “I suggest you remove your hand this instant before I enforced to contact the authorities. I doubt the sheriff would be happy to hear you have been way laying people.”

“Waylaying-“John sputtered. “It’s was not us. You do not even look where you were going.”

“How could she?” One of the others jeered. “Her nose is so high in the air, she can’t even see nothing but sky.”

Gwen was so furious, it was all she could do not respond in kind. Conscious of a curious crowd gathering to watch, she reminded herself that she was a lady. “Highly lower your voice,” she told them through clenched teeth. “You’re making a scene.”

“Darn right we are, and we’ll keep on making one until we get an apology.” John stood, arms folded at the chest and legs planted firmly. “You had no call to insult me like you did.”

Gwen bit back another insult. “Might I suggest that you and your game of ruffians step out of my-“

“Ruffians?” They shouted at once, their comments censoring primarily on her parentage and lack of a heart, but nowhere in their words was a mention of moving out of the way. Instead, they circled closer, taunting her, and drawing a larger crowd.

“Little brats,” she hissed at them. “Did your mother never teach you your manners?”

“You leave mama out of this” to Gwen’s fear, John came at her, fists flailing, the boys in quick pursuit.

Thinking of those ten filthy hands on her green wool skirt, Gwen twirled. She dropped her bag in her haste to escape, which was as well, for once again, someone blocked her way. It was not a small boy this time, but rather a man, as evidenced by the large chest shielding her face. If not for the two strong arms reaching out steady her, she too could have been knocked into the water.

My rescuer, she thought. Merlin had indeed waived his wand and sent her this brave knight.

“Those boys, was ruffians,” she said breathlessly. “They will not leave me alone.”

Stepping back, Gwen became suddenly aware that he’d been holding her closer-and longer-then the situation would call for, yet not nearly long enough for her needs. She rather like the comfort she found, being held against that’s warm, sturdy chest.

But as she gazed at it and so the home spun shirt, she realized it’s wasn’t Lance, or any other possible suitor. Looking up into dark, glittering eyes, he found her pirate from earlier.

Up close, he appeared more dangerous than ever.

When he told the children to leave, she wasn’t surprised at how readily they swallowed their protests. Faced with his fearsome scowl, she too would probably slink off with alacrity muttering, like they did, under her breath.

When the children were out of hearing, the stranger turned his glare on her. Amazing, what one man could put into a single expression. Gwen could see his anger, his suspicion, and resentment, and it was all she could do not back up out of his way.

Before he could move, a voice rang out behind her. “Gwyneth Elizabeth McCloud, is that you?”

She spun, her heart leaping with joy. She knew that voice Lance, hero and he devoted Lancelot, had appeared yet again when she was most in need of rescue.

Clearly not as impressed with lance’s appearance, the other man look with disguised contempt. Trying to deny her earlier response to him, Gwen went instantly to Lance’s side.

Lance held her gently, as if she were too fragile for any rough handling. “What is this?” He said with a laugh in his voice. “Are you truly so happy to see me?”

“Oh Lance, you cannot know what I’ve had to endure I’ve had to stand here, alone and unprotected, and be assaulted by strangers.”

Lance stiffened, Gwen looked up to catch the glare he gave the other man. Good heavens, she didn’t want him dueling over this, shedding blood is some useless battle for her honor. “Oh, no, not him,” she said quickly, breaking away to point at the children in the distance. “There, that gang of ruffians. They are the ones who assaulted me.”

“I beg to differ” the man said, his deep voice cutting into her, “but from where I stood, it looked as if you were assaulting them.”

Lance tensed again, setting her to the side. “If Miss Gwen said she was the injured party, I have no choice but to believe her.”

“No choice?”

“Of course not. A true gentleman always takes the word of a lady.”

“Perhaps.” The man’s smile did little to warm his features. “But since no one has ever accused me of being a gentleman, I can speak the truth as I see it.”

Lance reached for an imaginary sword at his hip, a gesture he’d often use in their games. Frighten as to where his sense of honor might lead him, Gwen placed a hand on his arm. “Lance, please, do not make a scene.”

Lance visibly restrained himself. “I have no wish to engage in a public brawl over this,” he said coldly. “I for one wish spare Ms. Gwen any further unpleasantness.”

“Of course. Always spare the lady.”

Gwen was stunned I the man’s bitterness. And not a little unnerved. “Please, can we go?” She begged Lance.

He offered his arm and she took it gratefully, happy to let him lead her away. Reaching the carriage, though, she could not resist glancing back.

As if expecting all along that she will look for him, the man grins with irritating insolence. He continued to stand there, arms folded across his chest, his cool, assessing gaze making her feel as if she’d forgotten a vital piece of clothing.

Tightening her hold on Lance’s arm, he stared straight ahead, determined not to let that awful man spoil her home coming. She could forget him, and the challenge she read in his deep, dark eyes. She was home now, and she had Lance beside her.

She looked up at Lance, letting his smooth, good looks sooth her spirits. From his Golden hair to his gleaming boots, this was the man she’d always loved, the hero to whom she’d built all her dreams, and now that she was a woman grown, they would rule the Willows together. Gwen and Lancelot, for ever and always.

Surely it was a good sign that he’d come here to meet her. Maybe it meant that daddy had relented. And even if not, hadn’t she sworn to marry first man to greet her?

The first gentleman, she swiftly corrected, casting a last, on the easy glance back at the stranger.

Chapter 2

Bewildered, Gwen let herself be helped into the waiting carriage, Lance taking his seat beside her. She trusted him to know what he was doing, yet she couldn’t help but wonder why they needed a carriage take them to the steamboat. Noticing how the driver turned into the city, she shouted out. “Lance, where are you taking me?” She asked, glancing anxiously about her. “Shouldn’t we be booking a passage up river if we hope to reach the Willows before dark?”

“All in good time.” He flashed his most winning smile. “I can’t tell you where we are going. Meant to be a surprise.”

Normally, Gwen adored surprises, but she was anxious to get to the Willows. “That’s sweet of you,” she said slowly, not wanting to hurt his feelings, “but I need to get home. It’s been so long. I want to see daddy. I’m a tad bit worried about him.”

“John is fine.” Taking her hand in his, Lance padded it’s reassuringly.

Gwen might have been soothed had he not avoided her gaze. “What is it?” She asked quickly, pulling back her hand. “What is wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong.” His life seemed forced. “Your daddy…” Stopped, then sighed. “I declare, Gwen Elizabeth, you take the fun out of everything. Where is the pleasure in betting up the surprise, if you refuse to sit back and enjoy it?”

Gwen’s heart made a little leap, even as her mind did. Did Lance’s evasive manner mean her daddy was here, that he might even be behind the surprise? “Perhaps I might relax,” he said eyeing Lance coyly, “if I knew where you were taking me.”

“You always could worry a thing down to the bone. Very well, we’re going to your daddy’s townhouse. There, are you satisfied?”

“The townhouse?” As far as Gwen knew, no one had used their city home since… Well, since mama. “Why there?”

He turned to her than, his expression plain. “For pity’s sake. After such a long and tired some journey, he simply thought you might enjoy a night out on the town.”

“We?” Without realizing it, Gwen crossed fingers hopefully.

“We’ll all be staying at the townhouse. Your uncle Jervis, Edith, and myself. What is wrong now that you must look so unenthused?”

“You know very well what happens whenever you and my cousin are together under one roof.”

Lance shook his head. “I, too, had my doubts about the arrangements, but to date, she’s been on her best behavior. Why, she’s positively civil to me now.”

Gwen had to grin. “I find that hard to believe. Remember when we’d play Camelot, and you to what gets to scraping over just about everything? I never saw my prim and proper cousin gets so riled by anyone as by you. I declare, there were times I feared she’d pull the hair right out of your head.”

“And you were there to instigate every altercation.”

It was so patently untrue, when turned to gape at him. “I hated your fighting,” she said, hurts that say such a thing. “Why would I do anything start it up?”

“Whoa, now don’t be getting upset with me.” Lance held up his hands and mock surrender. “I was merely teasing. I do love to see the color rise in your cheeks.”

“As I recall, you’re over fond of that past time, Lance. Indeed, I’ll wager it was your incessant teasing that upsets Edith. I had my own times when I’d happily have pulled out your hair.”

“I’ll have to keep that in mind.” He smiled in his special way, reminding her she could never stay mad at him long. “Besides,” he went on, “that’s all in the past. Edith and I have sworn to forget our differences and do our but most to make your home coming special.”

Gwen felt warm, for here was the welcome she’d expected. The hideous voyage and the fiasco at the docks were swiftly fading into the realm of nightmare. Trust Lance to make everything turn out all right.

“I must say,” he said on a sigh, “I’ve been a bit worried about daddy’s greeting, but if he’s gone into such trouble to welcome me home, then surely he’s forgotten what… What happened.” Even with Lance, she cannot bring herself to talk of her mother’s death.

“Oh, actually, John won’t be joining us,” he said.

The warmth went instantly cold. “He won’t?”

Lance patted her hands. “Now, before you get to imagine the worst, let me repeat that nothing is wrong you got to understand there’s, well, things keeping him busy back at the Willows.”

Daddy and is damn sugarcane. Ever since Gwen could remember, his precious plantation had come first. Before his only child. Even before his wife.

“No long faces,” Lance chided gently. “Look here we ought.”

The carriage stopped before grilled iron gateway guarding the McCloud townhouse. Unlike the more practical neighboring homes, lined up close to the street, their red brick residence sat back behind and entrance courtyard, hidden by a wall of bougainvillea surrounding the yard. Amid all the iron and stone of the city, it seemed an oasis. Stepping inside the gate to be instantly surrounded by flowers and vines and a cool flowing fountain, was like stepping into a different world.

Her parents had chosen a french quarter dwelling rather than building a new were mansion across now Street, like other Americans who settled in New Orleans. It had been largely mothers doing, for Amanda had adored all things French, and open admiration that one her the acceptance of even in the most exclusive Creole families. Everyone had loved her mama, when thought with a sigh.

Stepping down from the carriage, Lance offered a hand to help her. “Don’t you fret funny, you’re going to enjoy the exciting time we have planned for you.”

She shook her head. “Knowing my uncle, plans will include a visit with half the city’s population.”

“Not so.” Lance helped her down to the streets. “This afternoon, you’ll be resting, and then tonight, we’re all off to the Fosters’, for their last of the summer ball.”

Gwen tried not to crown. Four years, Emily Foster had been trying to match her with her overweight son, Charlie. It was hard to resist the lure of a party, though especially one that included dancing.

“They mean to make certain this is the event of the year. I swear, if I have to listen to Edith describe once more what she means to wear…”

Poor Edith, Gwen thought, for nothing could disguise her bony limbs and painfully plain face. Though perhaps when could lend her the pretty blue silk and Agatha had…

Reminded suddenly of her own wardrobe, Gwen grasped lances sleeve. “Lance, quickly we must go back at once.”

“Back where?”

“The dock. Those dreadful children distracting me so, I’d left my bag behind.”

“No need to panic. I will simply send one over the-“

“It’s not just my bag. It’s all of them. Virtually everything I own is in them. My gowns, my bonnets, and my jewelry.” With a bang, she thought of mother’s locket, tucked in her bag. If she lost its, she’d have nothing left of her mother.

“You females and your foofaraws.” Lance shook his head in indulgent fashion. “I am certain the steward arranged for your trunks to be stored ashore.”

What steward? She could have asked, but her mind was focused less on the trials of her voyage, and more on the immediate problem. “We have to go back and get it at once.”

“You will go nowhere” Lance said firmly. “The dock is no place for a lady. Do you think I wish to see you assaulted by riffraff again?”

Gwen had no wish to encounter anymore of noxious children, but she had to save her locket. “This is important to me, Lance. I can’t risk someone stealing my things.”

He took her hand in his, this time holding them firmly. “Very well, let me escort you into the house, and once I’ve seen you safely settled, I shall go back for your luggage.”

“I can see my own way inside. Please, go quickly.”

He looked at the iron gateway. “But Jervis wished-“

“I will deal with my uncle.” She all but pushed him towards the carriage. “If I lose my bags, daddy will be livid as my carelessness. It won’t do to have him getting mad at us now, will it?”

That seemed to decide him. Throwing back his shoulders, smiled down at her. “You are right. Never fear, I will find your luggage, darling, and everything else, too.” His radiant smile seemed to cover her like a warm blanket. “How can I fail? Am I not your Lancelot?”

In that moment, she envied him. Dashing Lance, always so sure of himself-a wonderful to own such confidence. He had not the slightest doubt that one way or another, he’d return with her belongings.

“Your wish is my command.” Dipping a courtly bow, kissed her hand. “I am ever at your service, my lady.”

“Enough of your nonsense,” she said, trying to deny the pleasure is pride gave her. “Hurry, Lance, before someone runs off with my things.”

“To battle then.” Waving and imaginary sword, he climbed up into the carriage and struck did the driver to take him to the docks. “But upon my triumphant return,” he threw over his shoulder, “I expect to be rewarded with a kiss.”

“You just find my bag,” she murmured to herself as the carriage rattled off and turned the corner. “We can discuss the reward later.”

“If there is a reward,” said a deep, slightly accented voice behind her, “can anyone claim it?”

She twisted, finding herself face to face with the stranger from the dock. “Where did you come from?” She snapped, unnerved by his presence on this all too quiet street. “What are you doing here?”

“I assumed this was a public thoroughfare.” He gestured at the neighboring homes, closed and shuttered against the afternoon heat, all oblivious to what was happening down on the street. “I had no idea it was your private domain, my lady.”

Whatever fear he might have aspired evaporated in her irritation. That was Lance’s romantic nickname for her; how dare he use it so mockingly. “You are right, it is most public. Please don’t let me stop you from continuing on your path.” Picking up her skirt, she brushed past him, her mind intent upon reaching the gate, the inner courtyard beckoning more than ever like an oasis.

“Aren’t you the least bit interested in this?”

“I truly doubt Sir, you could have anything of interest to me.”

“I don’t have time for games, my lady,” he said, his tone training a marked lack of patience. “Do you want the bag or not?”

She spun, noticing for the first time what he held in his hands. It was her bag; she recognized her blue wool gown, spilling out the half open side. “Those are my things. How dare you-“

“I did not steal anything,” he interrupted. “You left this bag on the dock.”

“I never meant to imply-“

“Didn’t you?” He stared at her so intently, she fought the urge to squirm. They both knew the accusation had been on the tip of her tone.

“I didn’t come here to fight with you,” he said with forced patients. “Here, take the damn thing, and I’ll be happy to leave you alone.”

She moved towards him slowly, eyeing the blue wool with suspicion. “What have you done to it.?”

Looking down at the bag, he said with a shrug, “The children, they were curious.”

She snatched it from his hands. “You let those… Those little rats pillage through my things?” She asked, voice rising as she inspected the contents of the bag.

“No one pillaged. They merely wish to see what was inside. It’s a rare child who can resist peeking at another’s belongings, especially children who aren’t custom to such finery.”

“My locket is missing.” To her dismay, she heard a voice rise even higher. “Those wretched rights, they’ve stolen my locket.

“You should take more care with your items,” he said calmly. “As you can see, no one took a thing.”

He dangled the locket from his hand, holding it out to talk her. As much as Gwen wanted to reach out and snatches away, she refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing how important it was to her.

Something in her face must have betrayed her, for he went from studying her features to contemplating the locket. As he clicked open the clasp, as sharp, spelling features softened. “Ah, see why you were upset. You wouldn’t want to lose a likeness of your mother.”

“You knew my mother?” When blurted out, surprised.

“Everyone knew Amanda. Now there was a lady.”

“Are you implying that I’m not?”

He looked up, pinning her with gaze. “Your mother would never fling out accusations without proof. Even if by some rare chance she did, she’d apologize the instant she realized her mistake.”

“How dare you lecture me.” The fact that he was right merely fueled her resentment. “You probably came here hoping for a reward.” She looked him up and down, returning his contempt in full measure. “As much as you clearly need the payment, sir, I shall have to disappoint you. Your rude behavior leaves me no choice but demand that you give me my things and go.”

Her out stretched arms could not have been invisible, all the attention he paid it. Looking from her mother’s likeness to Gwen, snapped the locket shut with a loud click. “You’ve got a long way to go, my lady, “he said, setting it in her hand, “before you can hope to live up to her mother’s standards.”

Dropping the back at her feet, he turned to go.

“How dare you,” Gwen sputtered at his back, “How dare you say such things to me, you-you”

She broke off, partly because she could think of nothing vile enough to call him, but primarily because she realized he wouldn’t listen, even if he wasn’t already out the earshot. It was a novel experience, having a man ignore her, and she found she did not like it one bit.

Nor did she enjoy the memories he’d invoked. Glancing down at the locket in her hands, she squirmed inside. All these years, working so hard, and she still failed to live up to her mother’s expectations.

“Mother,” thought out loud as she clicked open the locket. “Will I ever manage to please you?”

It hurt, remembering. Shutting the locket and tucking it back into her bag, she decided it was far more comfortable to put all those memories away where they cannot touch her.

“Gwen, sweetie, is that you?”

She looked up to see her uncle at the gate, looking so much like daddy, it was all she could do not to throw herself in his arms.

“But what are you doing out here?” He asked, clearly confused. “Wherever is Lance?”

She looked down the street, noticing that the stranger had vanished. “Oh, Lance, he went back for my chunks,” she stammered, trying to keep her tone light. “I was in such a hurry to the home, I couldn’t wait for them to be unloaded off the boat.”

“Well, let’s have a look at you. My, my, but you’ve done some growing up in Boston. You become quite the beauty Gwen Elizabeth.”

She wished she could say the years had been equally kind to him. The blonde mane in which he’d once taken such pride had not only grayed, but was sending to near extinction. Looking at his lined, florid face and portly frame, when it was hard to put to remember that this man was ten years her daddy’s Junior.

As he lifted up her bag and lead the way through the gates, when saw that more than uncle Jervis had aged in her absence. The cool shade of the patio provided a will come hideaway from the heat, but she could not help notice the need for Judicious pruning, how the walls of the house screamed for paint.

“What happened to the fountain,” she asked in a subdued tone. “Where is the water?”

Will John cleared his throat “you’ve got to remember, please has been sitting idle for some time.”

“I know. It’s just, well, I remember it’s all so differently. Back then, this courtyard seem so grand, so special.”

He sighed. “That’s the thing about going away. Precious little stays the way we want it. We use day gone for five years, honey, things are bound to change in your absence.”

Gwen tried to shrug it off, to tell herself that change was natural and inevitable, but his words struck and an easy cord. She did not like change, do not want surprises. Indeed, she’d give anything to go back to the time when her daddy adored her and mama was still alive.

Take me to Camelot, found herself thinking again.

But there would be no escape today. Edith appeared on the porch, smiling as graciously as any lady of the manor. “Welcome home, Gwen Elizabeth,” she said sweetly enough, but as ever, Gwen felt that instant friction between them. House it. Her cousin seemed, welcoming her into her own home.

Smiling tightly, Gwen climbed the porch steps to be at eye level when she returned the greeting. “You are looking well,” was all she could think of to say, and worse it was true. Five years ago, that soft blue morning dress would have hung on her cousins skinny frame, the time seem to build out her figure considerably. Even her complexion had cleared. With her light brown hair and amber eyes, Edith might never be the reigning beauty of Louisiana, but she was a far cry from the ugly duckling Gwen remember.

Hamilton Colby, their good friend and neighbor, peered in the doorway behind them. “Ah, Gwen Elizabeth, it’s so good to have you home,” gushed, taking her hand and pumping it’s enthusiastically. “Edith and I were just remarking on how boring Louisiana has been in your absence.”

This time Gwen smile was true. Like Lance, Hamilton had long been a fixture in the McCloud household, and she’d always felt a fondness for him. Two tall and gangly and prone to saying the wrong thing, Hamilton was a nice person any trustworthy friend.

Though the longing in his gaze as he followed her cousins every movement led Gwen to suspect that some time in her abstinence, Hamilton had decided he wanted for more than near friendship with Edith.

Not that the girl seemed aware of it. Knowing him entirely, leaving him in the parlor with her father, Edith assisted on showing Gwen to her room.

Gwen would have been just as happy making the climb upstairs alone, for her cousin made her feel like a guest in her own home. No, perhaps that was not entirely accurate. Was the house itself that made her feel like a stranger. It smelled musty, unlived-in, and in many rooms the dust covers still draped the furniture. Perhaps Uncle Jervis meant only to stay the night, but surely he could have brought a servant or two from the Willows to make life more comfortable. With no help, how on earth was she’d to dress for the ball tonight.

Alone in her room, she paced the floor, wishing she had her own trunk so she could air, and then choose from among her downs. As if in answer, she heard the carriage outside.

She raced down the stairs to greet Lance. Stop by his serious expression, she poised on the bottom step to glance about the otherwise empty hallway. “Where are my trunks?”

“I encountered a slight difficulty.”

“Difficulty?” Gripping the oak banister, he felt the advent of a severe headache.

Lance took a step forward, smile meant to be reassuring. “It seems your ship sailed onto Argentina. But don’t despair. She should be back in port by December.”

“My clothes are on their way to South America?” She could hear her voice rising, and couldn’t control it. Her ball gowns and satin slippers and been in those trunks. Her hair ribbons and fans and crinolines.

“The, the bag seems to be missing also. I’m told so man walked off with it.”

She waved her hand dismissively, her thoughts on her missing wardrobe. “He returned it to me. It’s upstairs.”

His face brightened. “Oh good, then you can still attend the Fosters ball tonight.”

All she had was the green wool she now wore, and the two dresses in her bag, neither was a hoop skirt in both designed for the cooler climates of Boston. Bad enough to be in the heat, but Lance truly couldn’t expect her to go anywhere looking like a frump.

Just then cousin came into the hallway, demure and ladylike in her soft, blue muslin. The look of appreciation Lance gave her froze Gwen on the spot.

“Oh, dear, what seems to be the problem?” Edith asked, hurrying over to stand beside Lance. “Not bad news from your mother at Bell Oaks, I hope.”

Had his autocratic mother summoned him back to their plantation, Gwen knew, Lance would already be gone. Annoyed, she was about to tell her cousin not to be so silly, when Lance took the girl’s arm, putting her hand as if to console her. “You are not to worry about me and fellow Oaks, “told Edith smoothly. “ As a matter of fact, Gwen Elizabeth and I were merely discussing the loss of her trunks. She seems to feel she cannot possibly attend the ball to night without her full wardrobe.”

“Oh, but think of all the fun she will miss.” Edith smile proved she wasn’t thinking of Gwen at all but of all the good time she meant to have in her absence. Cataloging the night activities, she spoke to Lance alone, as if Gwen were not even there.

Watching how easily her lifelong love laughed with her cousin, Gwen felt a prick of unease. Things had changed while she was away, uncle Jervis had warned. Have these two, in burying their differences, discovered a good deal more alert beneath their animosity?

All at once, the loss of her wardrobe seemed unimportant. She was Gwyneth Elizabeth McCloud, the bell of seven parishes; she could go to a bowl in a potato sack if she chose to. Lance was hers-always had been, always would be-and no female, be she cousin or otherwise, would be allowed to steal him away.

 

***

 

Patrick gave a sideways glance to Jude, sitting on the other side of the bouncing wagon, visibly angry that they were being sent back to the cabin. Knowing that there was generally trouble when Jude got in one of these moves, Patrick tried to point out the advantages of going home. “Can’t wait to be fishing,” he said, forcing a smile. “And it sure will be good to see Jeffery again.”

Jude merely scowled. “Our first trip to New Orleans in months and we had to leave early. It’s all her fault, that clumsy cow.”

“Come on, you know weren’t going to stay long anyway. It’s not safe for us in the city.”

“Yes, maybe, but she’s the one got us in trouble. No one would have noticed us, if she hadn’t started screeching. I still say I showed been able to keep that locket. She owed us.”

Patrick was shocked.” But that would be stealing. No mama would want us taking what’s isn’t ours-“

he regretted that outburst, for Jude’s face went instantly rigid, as it always did whenever their mama was mentioned. He was glad the younger boys were sleeping in the straw between them, for even now, nearly a year later, they all had trouble dealing with mother’s death.

“That lady in the locket,” Jude said quietly, “didn’t she remind you a little of mother?”

Jude said nothing else, going as silence as their three brothers, but Patrick understood. It wasn’t easy, living without a mother.

Looking up at the stars, he offered a prayer, the same one he prayed for some time now. Somewhere in all the world, he believed, there had to be one special woman, meant for them alone.

“Send us a new mother,” he begged silently, “and I promise, we will love her always.”

 

Chapter 3

Edith stood in the shadows at the rear of the Fosters ballroom, watching Gwen. She found it hard keep her resentment under control. She’d dreamed of this night for so long, and printed and preened and planned, Gwen appeared, and in a few short moments, ruined everything.

Draped with streamers, the ballroom reeked of camellias and carnations, but Edith barely caught a whiff. Small orchestra played unheeded, lavish dresses of myriad colors waltzed by on the dance floor put all her concentration remains centered on spot near the doorway, where when it flirted with Lance and his friends. Each laugh seemed to pierce Edith’s heart, every smiled turned green with envy.

Ever since the day her daddy first brought them to the Willows, Edith had been jealous of her cousin. Everyone they met, everywhere they went, treated Gwen like a princess. She had the best looks, the best clothes…Even her name was prettier.

And tonight, Gwen should be home, hiding her head under a pillow, like any other woman who lost her clothes would do. Instead, she’d dusted off that outmoded burgundy velvet and strolled into the ballroom with Royal applause, behaving as if by wearing her mother’s locket, she’d donned the crown jewels. It wasn’t fair. On the night when Edith had expected to shine, when it had not only once again stolen the show, her cousin seemed well on her way to stealing the one man she loved.

To keep others from guessing the truth, she pretended to swoon over Beau, but from the first day she seen Lance riding his dads white stallion across their joining fields, her dreams had focused on their golden-haired neighbor. He was Sir Lancelot, knight extraordinaire, and if she could but snatch him away from her cousin, perhaps she would become queen of the castle instead.

Yet it would not happen tonight, not with the way Lance danced attendance on her cousin.

It made it Edith sick inside, watching his determined pursuit you do not love Gwen, she wanted to shout at him. All you ever truly wanted is the Willows.

But in her heart, she knew the last thing Lance wished to hear was that he was mixing things up, entangling their childhood games with reality. He saw himself as the heir to Camelot, and he’d despise her for saying otherwise. If only Uncle John and Aunt Amanda had not made their home seem such a glittering palace. Even now, with all that had happened, Lance still felt driven to catch parts of their dream for himself.

Gazing at him, overwhelmed with longing, Edith resented her cousin more than ever, for she knew, deep down, that Gwen do not love Lance. She couldn’t, not like she did, or she would not be flirting so freely with his friends. Her cousin was just being her spoiled and stubborn self, clinging to Lance rather than surrounding dreams of her own.

When made a sudden shooing motion, and surprisingly, Lance left her side, his friends follow the suit. Had her cousin it tired of his attention, and was now looking to flirt elsewhere? If so, Edith meant to encourage her. Once Lance learned his precious Gwen was far from a saint, he might begin noticing the one truly loved him.

One way or another, Edith meant to break them apart.

 

***

 

Gwen gave a yawn. Between the heat and the men’s droning voices, it was a wonder she hadn’t drifted off to sleep. The men laughed, proving Lance’s stories must the entertaining, but she’d stopped truly listening some time ago. Aside from an occasional comment, and her past on smile, he didn’t seem to require her attention anymore.

It was with relief-and no little amusement- that she’d greeted the suggestion that they should pay their respects to their host. Watching them saunter off to the study, she knew it was less Mr. Foster they sought, and more the bourbon bottle in the cabinet.

Some things never change, she thought with a grin but as she glanced around and saw how much truly had changed. She used to love the fun and excitement of these grand balls, and now merely felt bored? She’d the oddest feeling she no longer belonged here.

Where were the girls with whom she’d shared her come out? Most were not only wed, but starting families with the boys she’d once danced and flirted with. Even Charlie Foster, whom she’d painstakingly avoided for years, had wasted no time being alone in her absence. He’d been married over four years now, she’d learned, through a pretty little Creole girl who’d given him two healthy sons.

Seeing Charlie gaze at his young wife with such obvious devotion left Gwen feeling empty. Not that she’d ever considered seriously as a suitor, but it had been nice to know he’d be there, if all else failed. To have that prop yanked out from under her root a trifle daunting.

I have Lance, she told herself firmly.

“Gwen Elizabeth, whatever are you doing, hiding here in the corner?”

Gwen bristled as Edith sashayed up, a breathing reminder of what she had lost. In her trunks, she had a dress much like that mauve satin, with its huge hoop skirt bailing out from an impossibly narrow waist, the dainty Belgium lace forming a tantalizing décolletage. Her own heavy velvet, without their hoop seemed to hang on her like a shroud.

“I wasn’t hiding,” Gwen answered, casting her smile back in place. “I’ve been standing near the doorway, hoping to catch a breeze.”

“I know what you mean.” Edith waived her ornate fan, no doubt taunting her, knowing full well Gwen’s fans were on their way to Argentina. “And poor you, trapped here by Lance and his friends. Or to tell which is more stifling. The heat, or their boring discussions. What were they talking about, politics?”

There was an archness in her question, one she didn’t respond to. She coveted that fan, its ivory sticks and fancy pearl handle, and its wonderful ability to stir the air. Could she swallow her pride and beg Edith for the use of it.

“Of course, not all the gentlemen discussed politics,” her cousin went on. “I’ve found the boys have gotten to be such a loud lot. Their silly flirtations-don’t you line it near impossible to escape them?”

Gwen refused to be outdone. “The same old boys, with same tired phrases. I declare, just once I’d like the challenge of flirting with an absolute stranger.” A face came to mind, but she instantly dismissed it, along with the quick little thrill of statements that the accompanied the thought.

“A stranger? You wouldn’t dare,” eyes glowing, Edith watched her over the top of the fan. “Where would you ever find one?”

“Perhaps I could pick one off the street.”

Again the fan still, covering Edith’s mouth. “Gwen, you say the most outrageous things. Not even you would dare talk to a stranger. Why, there is no predicting what he might do.”

When warmed to the topic. Something in her had always spotted, to the phrase you wouldn’t dare. “I bet I could charm just about any man I set my mind to.”

“It could be dangerous.”

Yes, it could, be but Gwen ignored that, too. “I’d just wrap him around my little finger, and he wouldn’t dream of doing me harm.”

Edith waved the fan vehemently. “I can just imagine what Lance would say, hearing you talk this way.”

“Then maybe he shouldn’t be off in the study with friends and a bottle of bourbon.”

Her cousins’ smirk made it harder than ever to ask for that fan.

“Ah, now there’s a dangerous-looking man,” Edith said suddenly, pointing behind them to the front door way.

Turning, Gwen found the stranger from the dock.

Shock rippled through her, as did another quick thrill. Whatever could he be doing here in the Fosters’ hallway? How dark he seemed, in his black shirt and trousers, a stark contrast to the sea of white cotton and linen the other men wore. Did he feel it too, that sense of not belonging?

Apparently not. He stood by the door, waiting, yet despite his rough clothing, there was nothing servile in his stance. Arrogant lout, she thought, trying her best to dismiss him.

“There is one you will never charm. Not the way he’s scowling you.”

“I can’t see why I bother,” Gwen said with what she hoped was a casual shrug. “The man is just two steps from the gutter.”

“He seems terribly handsome to me.” Edith eyed over the fan. “If I didn’t know you, Gwen, I swear you were afraid. Finding it too much of a challenge?”

That stopped her. Gwen had been accused of many things, but never of action down from a dare. “I am not afraid. I could charm him, if I wanted to. I just don’t care to.”

“Really? Well, I am ready to bet that you can’t wheedle your way around that one. Why, he looks to fierce right now, I’d wager you can’t even get him to crack a smile.”

They were fighting words, and far too tempting. “A wager, Edith? Are you willing to bet your fan?”

The girls stared at the stranger and then at the fan. Clicking its closed, she tapped the Ivory sticks against the locket at Gwen’s neck. “All right. Charm him, and you get my fan. Fail, and the locket is mine.

Gwen hesitated. If she lost her mother’s likeness, what would she have left?

“Scared?” Edith taunted.

“You just keep that fan in plain sight” Gwen said, goaded past common sense, “because in a few short minutes, I’ll be back to collected it.”

Sweeping up her skirts, she was in the hallway and facing the now familiar scowl, before she took time to realize where her impulsiveness had led her. Charm this man? She’d be lucky if he didn’t bite off her head.

“When I saw you just now,” she started hesitantly, forcing herself to smile, “I realized I never think you properly for returning my bag. Please forgive me if I seems a tad bit ungrateful this morning, but I’d been having a most trying day.”

“A tad bit ungrateful, Miss McCloud? Is that what you call branding me a thief?”

Gwen wished she had the fan now to hide behind. Hard to keep a smile fixed in place, with the man set on being impossible. “It was thoughtful of you to bring me my bag. I wish you’d let me repay you.”

He looked at her suspiciously. “Just what did you have in mind?”

Conscious of her cousin’s watchful gaze, Gwen batted her lashes and flashed her best smile. “Surely one favor deserves another.”

“Is this more of your crazy nonsense? Let me guess. As your gallant knight, I’m to be rewarded with some scrap of silk or lace that I can drag about as a token of my Lady’s favor.”

She had no desire to give him anything, but since he asked, she supposed she could spare her handkerchief. If he took it, if she could get him to smile as he did so, that should be proof enough for Edith.

Reluctantly, she pulled a lacy square from her reticule. “My aunt gave this to me. The tiny shamrocks or for good luck.”

He glanced at it briefly, then stared into her eyes. “You’d offer me a good luck token?” He seemed puzzled, and for a moment, approachable. “Won’t Lance objects to your offering gifts to another man?”

All at once, she found the prospect of Lance being moved to jealousy most attractive. “Lance has no hold over me,” she said defiantly. “I can grant tokens where ever I may.”

With a faint smile, he reached out for the handkerchief, his large callused hands closing over her own. His gaze met hers, claiming her, making her forget the world around them. As he brought her fingers to his lips, Gwen found it harder and harder draw a decent breath.

“I am your vassal,” said, kissing her trembling hand. “I live to serve you, my lady Gwyneth.”

Gwen froze. They were the words they used as children, secret password for playing Camelot. “How could you know-“scared to ask, but was silence by a rather loud, “Unhand her” from behind.

Lance strode toward them, his face tight with anger. “What do you think you were doing, sir?” He said, clearly outraged.

“If you will excuse us,” stranger said, keeping his gaze trained on Gwen. “I was talking to the lady.”

“How dare you barge into this house.”

He looked at Lance then, gaze turned cold. “Have I missed something? Have you become master here, Lance?”

Lance stiffened. “I am, as you well know, and honored guest which is more than anyone can say for you. We can’t have your kind bothering our ladies. Unhand Miss Gwen and get out of here at once, or be prepared to suffer the consequences.”

Gwen knew she could speak up, she could tell Lance she’d been the one of bothering him, but then she’d lose her wager with Edith. Besides, Lance clearly didn’t like this man. How could she admit she been engaged in flirtation?

The stranger glared to her, his face giving away nothing, yet she could sense his disappointments all the same. He nodded, as if unsurprised by her failure to explain. “I see, it’s all just another game,” he said quietly. “Though you should take better care in choosing your playmates, my lady. Not all men act with a sense of honor.”

Lance step forward, moving between them to reach out and strike the other man. “For such audacity, I demand satisfaction.”

Still as a statue, eyes glittering dangerously, the stranger shook his head. “I have no intention of fighting with you.”

“Coward” Lance spit out. “But then, what can we expect from the likes of you? One so ready to compromise Miss McCloud’s good name.”

The man stood firm, facing Lance eye to eye. “If her name becomes soiled, it won’t be my doing. Go find someone else upon whom to prove you’re a man, Lance. I have no wish to hurt you.”

“What audacity. As if the likes of you could best be in a fight.”

“And as if you even know the likes of me.” The man shook his head, clearly disgusted. “Still claim to be the champion of parish? Lucky for you, I vowed never to fight again?”

“Just what are you implying?”

Before the stranger could answer, Mrs. Foster both sold into the hallway. “Sir?” She said, purring toward Rafe. “I’m told you were asking for some sort of package?”

Smile completely transform the man’s features. Why, he quite devastatingly charming, Gwen thought in amazement, he bit chagrined that she never seemed to spare any of that charm for her.

“It wasn’t mentioned that you be having a party,” he said pleasantly. “Sorry for barging in on you, ma’am. I’ll just take my package and be on my way.”

Mrs. Foster shook her head, clearly flustered. “But there is no package, sir. Nor were we informed of its arrival. Who ever said it would be here has lied to you.”

“Why doesn’t that surprised me?” The man said under his breath, before flashing an apologetic smile. “Please forgive the intrusion, ma’am. Sorry to have troubled you.”

As the door closed behind him, Gwen touched her hand, feeling lost and confused. What package at he been talking about, and who had promised it, and why were her hands still trembling?

Lance began muttering about everything, while Edith, close enough to be his shadow, second every complaint. Not liking how her cousin touched his arm, Gwen announced that the scene had upset her and would Lance please get her a glass of punch? You frowned, she thought she might refuse, but with a tight smile, marched off to the buffet table.

“He’s not your trained pet, you know,” Edith said irritatingly when he’d gone. “Not all men want to jump through hoops for you.”

“You’re just angry that I got the stranger to smile at me” grabbing her skirts, Gwen waltzed into the ballroom, letting Edith trail behind her.

“But you had to give him your handkerchief,” Edith reminded nastily. “Whatever will you do when Lance learns you gave it away?”

Gwen felt chilled. Lance expected his wife to be a lady, and ladies did not go around giving out personal items to strange men. “I shall soon have it back,” he said blissfully, not wanting her cousin to see how it worried her. “In the meantime,” she added, hoping to distract her cousin, “please hand over your fan. I’ve won it fair and square.”

Lips pursed, Edith slapped the fan in Gwen’s hand and did her own flouncing to the other side of the room.

Gwen took as deep a breath as her corset would allow. My, but the past hour seemed a blur, things happening too fast, being too charged with emotion. But then, she’d been un able to get her thoughts straight all three times she’d been near that stranger.

As heat flooded her thoughts, she open the fan, blaming the warmth on her heavy velvet gown. Worse, the skin beneath her corset was beginning to itch. With longing, she ran for the French doors across the room, but the candlelit veranda was too crowded with strolling couples for privacy. More promising words the floor to ceiling windows to her right, for no one had bothered to provide light for that side of the house. No doubt they felt the women’s wide skirts wouldn’t fit through the narrow openings.

Hers would, she thought, but even as she stepped forward, she was caught by Missy Mae Benson. Hot and tired and irritated by life in general, Gwen was in no mood to listen to Missy’s whining about how too few legible bachelors had chosen to attend this ball.

What a tedious summer, Missy droned on, with all the desirable boys either married or otherwise engaged. Robert Summer might as well have died like his father, for he’d become a virtual ghost in his attempt to manage Rivers Edge. And that Drew Summer? Why on earth would a girl flirt with someone who’d abandon them and gone up north to school?

Gwen said a silent goodbye to more of her would be suitors. Glancing about, she realized that she hadn’t seen Beau either. She made the mistake of mentioning this to Misty.

“My heavens, Gwen, didn’t you hear?” The girl gasped. “His family is gone.”

“Gone? How can that be? They ran River Edge or years.”

Shaking her mousy brown ringlits, Missy lowered her voice to a suitable whisper. “My daddy tells me they been courting financial disaster, getting deeper in debt just trying to keep up pretenses. I find it terribly cheeky of them, don’t you, to trick us into thinking all was well?”

Gwen felt uneasy. After all, Lance’s family had been “keeping up pretenses” for years.

Missy sniffed with indignation. “Why, when I think of how I almost considered that Beau for a suitor, I can’t be sorry their house burned down. I’ve heard that Beau’s gone to Mobile, angling for an Heiress, but between you and me, I can’t see how that boy stands a chance. All that drinking has robbed him of his looks.

My court is rapidly dwindling, Gwen thought with dismay. There had been no rush to find a husband in Boston, so many admirers waiting at home. Find they hadn’t waited, that they’d scattered about the country, left her vaguely unsettled. Could nothing go the way she planned?

“Can’t help but be curious about the new owners,” Missy went on. “No one has seen them, though I’m told the fields are being worked, and Dave set the foundation for a house. Wouldn’t it be perfect if they had boys our age?”

Is there our age, there are hardly boys left, Gwen nearly blurted, but she saw no real benefit calling attention to her own advancing years. Poor Missy might be doomed to spinsterhood but Gwen still had Lance.

“Though they would probably suffer in our company anyway?” Missy droned on. “River Society has become so boring in your absence, Gwen. I declare, if I must have the Misses Beauchamps to tea one more time, I’m liable to take for the hills on my daddy’s new mare. If we hope to draw decent boys to our parties, we need more exhilarating entertainments than an afternoon social. Remember those worrying tournaments our families used to hold? Now there was fun and excitement. Whatever happens that your daddy stopped having them?

Mother’s death happened

Even as the thought and intruded, Gwen cut it off. She was here to enjoy herself, not dwell on the unpleasant past. “We need something new and unique,” she said flippantly to change the subject. “Maybe we should hold a bazaar and set up a special booth for all the unmarried ladies. Anyone wanting a husband could auction herself off to the highest bidder.

Missy pretended to be shocked, but behind her fluttering fan, pale eyes glittered with interest. “Why, Gwen, we’d be like slaves on the market. My daddy would never dream of letting me make myself so.”

But Missy wished he would. Despite her glittering jewels and dainty, white ball dress, the men weren’t precisely lining up at the doors for James Benson’s precious daughter.

The spurt of envy surprised Gwen, and she instantly denied it. What was there to be jealous of? Missy had less looks than a fence post and even if her daddy adored her, what good did it do? For all of his money, Mr. Benson had been unable to buy her a husband.

To her relief, Lance appeared with Herb Punch, and Missy abandon the topic in favor of flirting with him. It’s was the prospect of being trapped by that chatterbox, Gwen told herself, that had Lance quickly muttering his excuses and insisting that he promised the next dance to Edith.

Extricating herself from Misty, Gwen refused to watch the dancing couple. She had no wish to act like some silly, jealous schoolgirl, yet she had even less desire to dance and was in no mood to talk. She felt tired and hot, and the area under her stays were now itching terribly.

More she tried not to think about her wretched corset, the more it continued to bother her. A younger, more hoydenish Gwen would have reached in under her right breast and scratched it, but the adult was ever mindful of mother’s admonitions. A true lady, she knew, must simply grin and bear it.

But she couldn’t-it was driving her mad. She couldn’t go back to the room set aside for freshening up, where the girls had I heard dress and giggled behind their fans. Fanning herself viciously, she eyed the open windows to her right, finding it dark enough outside scratch in private. Assuming a nonchalant air, she sauntered across the room and slipped through the opening.

Outside, a cool breeze stirred the night air, and Gwen lifted the hair off her neck to enjoy it. Crossing the brick-paved veranda to the balustrade, she inhaled deeply, grateful to be out of the sent-laden air of the ballroom. A soft moon, nearly full, poked through the oaks overhead, but aside from music inside and the muffled voices around the corner, Gwen could be in her own separate world. Glancing over her shoulder to make certain no one inside could see, Gwen reached down front of her dress.

“Need help?” A voice asked from the shadows.

She froze, recognizing the distinctive voice. Wasn’t it inevitable that the handsome stranger would catch her at this most embarrassing moment? “What are you doing here?” She lashed out, yanking her hand behind her back as she spun to face him.

Vaulting the balustrade, he stood beside her. “Enjoying the night air.”

He is one handsome devil when he smiles, Gwen couldn’t help thinking. “Really? Looks to me you were hiding in the bushes.”

His gaze went hard, his voice even more so. “Not me. It’s my quarry who’s hiding, using the privileges of his position to stall me. He’d be wiser to face the problem and be done with it, since he’ll never find me a relentless hunter. I don’t give up until I have what is owed me.”

Despite the quiet tone, the words rang with chilling conviction. Gwen wondered who the poor victim could be. It would be no enviable position, being tracked down and cornered by this man.

Too vividly, she could picture herself as his quarry. Shivering for more than the breeze, she imagine that him seizing her, spinning her around to crusher against his chest. He’d be smiling, this time in victory, as he brought his head down close to her own.

She shook herself firmly, dismayed to learn the prospect was not nearly as repugnant as it should be.

“But you?” He said suddenly, moving closer to stand at her side. “What brings the proud queen Gwyneth out to hide in the bushes?”

“I am not hiding. I was scratching, as you well know. If you were a true gentlemen, sir, you’d have the good grace not to mention it.”

“Ah, but you’ve already decided I’m no gentleman. Isn’t it liberating to know you can’t offend me? Feel free to scratch to your hearts content.”

“I think you are teasing me, sir. We both know a lady would never behave so. I am bound by the laws of convention.”

“More’s the pity.” He turned to her, pinning her with his gaze. “Cut free from your constraints, you might find you like yourself better.”

For a dazzling moment as he stared deeply into her eyes, Gwen lost track of what he was saying. He has such beautiful eyes, she thought, mesmerized. So dark, and deep, and compelling.

Slowly, she realized his melting stare merely masked another insult. “I am perfectly happy with who I am,” she snapped, her pose going as rigid as her tone.

A more considerate man would apologize, but he stayed deliberately silent, letting the uncomfortable moment stretch. Fuming, she tried to fashion some cutting Barb, a way to put him in his place, but never in her life had she been so aware of another’s physical presence. His tall imposing frame, the under lying sent of horse and tobacco, the sound of his soft, seductive drawl-the man overwhelmed the senses.

“I am curious,” he said suddenly,” why the handkerchief?”

The question caught her off guard, and she struggled to form an answer. She doubted he’d be happy with the truth; he didn’t seem the sort to enjoy being the subject of a wager. Flustered, she opened her cousin’s fan and waved it before her face, trying to think of an explanation that would help her get the handkerchief back. She could only imagine Lance’s reaction should this man waved it about, boasting about where, and how, and from whom he had gotten it.

“Just what is your game this time?” The probe, his gaze not leaving her face. “That nonsense about granting your favor, was it just a ploy to make Lance jealous?”

“Don’t be absurd” the fan moved faster. “I’ve no need to resort to such tactics to draw his attention.”

“No?” He turned to her with his probing gaze. “Watching you both in there, I thought him amazingly lax. Were you mine, I’d never leave you alone to wander about unescorted.”

Were you mine, the words caused a flush of pleasure, but then he spoiled it by adding, “You’re too prone to flirting with strangers, I think.”

She went red with embarrassment. “Are you implying that I’ve just put myself in danger, sir?”

He stared at her lips. “Perhaps. After all, who can tell what my kind might do?”

She stuck out her chin, determined not to let him see how his words frightened-and yet thrilled-her. “Lance feels no need to hope her about me, because he knows perfectly well I can take care of myself.”

“Can you?” His gaze lowered, focusing on the low neckline of her dress. “You can hold your own with the boys and dandified fops, but what do you know about a real man’s needs or secret desires?”

Secret desires. The words struck deep in her gut, warming her from the inside out. Part of her new she should run for her life, yet an equal parts wanted to raise her lips to his. “A real man?” She said, hoping to discuss how he flustered her. “I hope you don’t count yourself one.”

He did not exactly flinch, yet his gaze certainly narrowed. “No danger of that, my lady. You’ve made it painfully clear that I am slightly less than human in your eyes.”

“I never-“

Placed calloused fingers on her lips. “Don’t deny it. Lie to me, but be honest with yourself. Or some might say you deserve a life with Lance.”

“I could wish for nothing more,” she told him defiantly.

“Indeed?” His gaze softened suddenly; his hand reached up to tilt her chin. “With all the wishes in the world, surely there’s another worth to strive for.”

His eyes probed into her, drawing out her own secret needs and desires, and it was all she could do not to reach out and cling to him. It was as if he knew, just by looking at her, that all she truly wanted was to be cherished, to have someone love her always.

“I love Lance,” she said woodenly, unable to tear her gaze away.

“Do you? Tell me, when you’re with him, do you feel the magic?”

“Magic?” Her voice was the merest squeak.

Holding her gently, he dipped down to brush her for head with his lips, then the spot between her eyes, the tip of her nose, until at long last, he reached her lips. Kissing them, he took possession of her mouth with a tenderness that made her throb. A tiny moan escaped, as if they sheer, aching pleasure of it could not be contained.

“Magic,” he repeated hoarsely. “Does Lance leave you moaning like that?”

Shaken to the core, she reached up and slapped his face.

He stepped back, rubbing his jaw. “It was only a kiss, my lady. No need to be drawing pistols at dawn.”

With horror, she realized he’d done it again, caught her so off-balance that she was saying things she never say, doing things…Dear heavens, and she actually stood here and let this stranger kiss her?

Breathing heavily, she stared at his teasing grin wanting nothing more than to slap him again.

Glancing at her clenched hand, he shook his head. “Sorry, but if fighting’s your intent, I’ll have to refuse you like I did Lance.”

“You have no right to even mention Lance’s name,” she lashed out. “Why, you’re not even fit to lick his boots.”

“Saint Lancelot?”

The grin faded, became a frown. “He knew about my vow not fight again, my lady. That’s the sole reason he made the challenge.”

“You are lying”

“I never lie.” He folded his arms militantly at his chest. “One of the few things I have left is my word, and you won’t find a soul in Louisiana to say I’ve ever failed to keep it. When I say Lance knew I’d never take him up on his challenge, you can believe me. Ask anyone, he’d be dead in the morning, if I had.”

“No one can best Lance. He’s the champion of Parish.”

“Is he indeed? Maybe you should ask him yourself, if there is one who has beaten him.” He nodded toward the house.

Following his gaze, Gwen watched Lance move across the dance floor, his gaze searching the crowd. “He’s looking for me,” she said in a flood of relief. Truly, this man was to…To unsettling. “You’d better leave now,” she told him curtly. “I’m going to call him.”

“Of course, you are,” the man said quietly. “But a word of advice, my lady. Lance might seem the perfect knight, but a wiser woman would hold out for the magic.”

He leaped over the balustrade to be swallowed by the dark. Damn the man, Gwen thought angrily, wiping her lips. Even now, she could still feel his imprint, as if one brief, gentle kiss could brand her.

Nonsense, she insisted to herself; I love Lance and always will.

Yet, as she stared at him, coming ever closer across the dance floor, she felt a vague building sense of unrest.

Marriage wasn’t about magic. A good relationship was based on trust and understanding, and who knew or understood Gwen better than Lance? Gliding up to him, she told herself he was a gentleman, as charming and considerate as any girl could wish for.

So why? By all that made sense, did she still feel this sweet tingling magic on her lips?

 

***

 

Jervis McCloud eased his way down the grand stairway of his brother’s townhouse, feeling sorry for himself. Life had come to quite a pass when a man of must sneak like a thief past his family to get a drink. Pray God’s his daughter was asleep, for he’d no wish to face her disappointment. He’d sworn to give up the drinking and gambling and help her run the Willows, but what Edith didn’t know-and he saw no reason to tell her-was that his promises were as empty as his bank account.

And what if? He thought resentfully. The girl was to like her mother, always watching and judging, her expectations nigh on impossible to fulfill. She was just a girl-who was she to tell her daddy what he should or should not do? As long as he provided a roof over her head and food on the table, it was none of his daughters business what he did with his time. As his own father had proclaimed, a man must be master of his house, answerable to none but God, and perhaps self.

Straightening, Jervis marched into the front parlor, carefully avoiding the site of his brother’s portrait above the mantle. If he wanted a drink, damn it, he’d have a drink, and the devil could pay for it.

As he helped himself to John’s bourbon, Jervis was dismayed to discover how little remained in the bottle. Had he gone through it already? A good thing he’d been leaving in the morning for the Willows.

Good, in more ways than one.

With a chill, he considered what a close call tonight had been. What had made Michael choose this, of all times, to calm after him, why wasn’t he’d buried out in his swamp, where he belonged? Service could well imagine the trouble the man could have caused, had Lance not had the presence of mine to boot him out the door.

He had plans, Jervis did, plans he would not risk his niece learning about prematurely. Timing would be everything; Gwen must be led slowly, as unsuspectingly as the Lamb to the slaughter, or all his careful plotting would become a failure.

Raising his glass to the portrait, he smiled at his brother’s image. “Damn you, John,” he whispered, downing the bourbon in one gulp. “This time, I intend to win.

 

Chapter 4

 

Gwen stood alone at the front of the steamboat, studying the stately plantation homes that lined the river. Some were all and familiar, yet so many had sprung up since she’d been gone. More changes. She didn’t like remembering that the Allentons had lost their home and moved away, that even the Sumners were struggling at River’s Edge.

Life was like this river, she decided. A person could move along in its steady flow, lulled into a sense of security, and not realize he’d taken a wrong turn, until he was deep in a bayou of uncharted territory.

That was how when felt now, as if she were drifting down a narrow, overgrown river into a swamp of unwelcome surprises. She wanted things the way they had been, yet there was an uncle Jervis, carrying around a hip flask and tottering at ten in the morning. And there was Edith, batting her lashes at Lance- even worse, he encouraged it.

More and more, Gwen longed to be safe and song at the Willows.

“Here you are,” Lance said suddenly behind her, strolling up to join her at the rail. Half-baked in her green wool, Gwen resented him for looking so cool and poised. From his starched white shirt and crisp linen suit, the polished boots, to the straw hat in his hands, he was every inch the well-groomed man. Even his hair had the good taste to stay in place, proving itself above gentle, stirring wind.

“Gwen darling, why the heavy sighs?”

She tried to smile, but she was feeling mightily sorry for herself. “Oh lance, don’t you ever feel frightened about the future?”

He frowned. “Truly, Gwen, if you must persist in being glum, perhaps I should go back to talking with your cousin.”

She tried not to Bristle. “I’m not being glum. I was just looking at all the new homes, and realizing how much has changed in my absence.”

“Sorry, darling, but that’s the risk you take when you run away.”

“I did no such thing.” She protested, stung. “My parents insisted I go to Boston. And then when mama-“she swallowed, hard. “Well, you know I had no choice.”

Lance mearly shrugged. “All I know is we were to be married, yet here I’ve waited, alone and distraught, going on five long years.”

Gwen should be thrilled, for these were words she wanted to hear, but for some reason, Lance merely annoyed her. “You never told me you were waiting. I thought you had given up on our marriage.”

“You wound me.” He turned to stare out over the rail. “Did you think I could ever forget our oath that we’d never be parted?”

Staring at his stiff profile, remembering that valve, she recalled a few other things as well. “You left New Orleans right after daddy said we couldn’t marry. I was the one waiting alone, with the definite impression that marriage was the last thing you want to for me.”

He turned to her then. “Darling’, you miss understood.”

“All our friends said you could ill afford to marry a pauper.”

“If money mattered to me, why did I wait for you? I could have found an heiress, but I sat tight, waiting on my Gwen, praying for the day she’d come home to us. To me.”

“I am home now, Lance.”

She found all the longing she could ask for in his gaze. Throw caution to the winds, she pleaded silently; take me in your arms and kiss away my doubts and worries.

But he merely sigh as he took her hands. “And now that you’re here, I shall find some way to gain your father’s approval. If we stay patients, he will come around, and then we can be together always.”

Though she stared at Lance, it was another face saw and her mind, his features intense and compelling as he kissed her. The man from the docks might be a rude and uncivilized lout, but he knew what he wanted, and how to take it. If he decided to marry her, he’d do so at once, and there’d be nothing her daddy could do to stop them.

But that was absurd, for the man clearly did not want her. He cannot have made it any planer that he thought her a silly fool.

“You may find your daddy has changed, too,” Lance said he sighed her, startling her out of her thoughts. “Indeed, time has forced him to change his mind about a good many things.”

It was an odd thing to say, but before Gwen could question him, Edith glided over to join them, twirling a frilly parasol over her shoulder. Her cousin looked so cool and fresh in her ice-blue linen, Gwen felt more a frump than ever. Wait until we get to the Willows, she thought; daddy will make certain I never again suffer for the loss of those trunks.

“We will be stopping soon at Belle Oaks.” Edith laid a hand on lance’s arm. “I hope your mama will appreciate how lucky she is to have you back home. We certainly shall be missing your company.”

Lance turned to her with a broad smile. “I do hope you mean that, for I won’t be getting off at Bella Oaks. Your father has invited me to dine at the Willows, and how could I refuse? It’s not every day a man has the honor of escorting such lovely ladies.”

Though he beamed at them both, Edith soon monopolized his attention. Gwen found it positively sickening, the way her cousin simpered up at him, and any other time, and she’d have taken it as a challenge. Today, she felt to warm and worn and irritable to flirt with anyone.

It was the heat, she told herself. After the cool, bracing weather of Boston. It would take time to adjust to the enervating stupor of the Louisiana sun. Once she had her new clothes-an armoire full of Muslins and cottons-she would be simpering, too.

The Willows, thought with a sigh as a wave of homesickness washed over her. Her thoughts drifted back to happier times, when mama was still alive. Oh, parties they had been. The house had been lit up so many lanterns that their guests, coming from all along the river, claimed the Willows beckoned like a glittering palace.

Even the morning after, with the guests all abed and the lamps extinguished, it’s had still seemed fairytale castle to Gwen. With its stately lines and tall, graceful columns, she’d always thought the Willows a home fit for a king. It was her father’s domain, where mother was Queen, and Gwen would forever remain their precious little Princess.

In her mind, she envisioned her homecoming. It was too early for candles, but her clever daddy found some way to mark the occasion as special. He’d be waiting on the dock, tall and proud and eager as he watched her disembark, and all the way to the house he’d regale her with his plans. There would be a homecoming ball, of course, and with it a new dress of a silk so fine and delicate, every girl from here to Baton Rouge would faint from envy.

Upon it reaching the house, daddy would clap his hands and the servants would surround and greet her, all chattering at once. Smiling benevolently, daddy would order them to take her trunks and led her upstairs for a rest before dinner.

And for her first meal, they’d have shrimp and crab gumbo, a dish Gwen had been hankering for ever since leaving for Boston. My, but her taste buds were watering already, just thinking about the amazing seafood there servants packed into the dish. For desserts, they would bake berry pie, big juicy fruit picked fresh from the garden.

Engulfed in her fantasy, Gwen failed to realize they’d stopped at the Willows’ dock until Edith impatiently pointed it out to her. “I declare Gwyneth,” he finished off, “you can be quite the flightiest creature, when you’re in one of your daydreams.”

She and Lance left, causing Gwen to redden, but went on uncle Jervis stepped up to join them, Lance instantly sober. Turning to Gwen, he offered his arm. “Perhaps I best help you off the boat,” he said, flashing his most endearing smile. “It’d be a crying shame to have our Gwen trip and hurt herself on her first day home.”

Though miffed, Gwen took the support he offered, finding herself grateful for it as they walked to the house. There was no daddy standing on the dock; indeed, the dock itself didn’t seem to be standing all that well. It must had taken a beating in the last storm, why hadn’t the servants repaired it? With yes soon arriving for her home coming ball, they couldn’t have such a shoddy structure for landing. Why, the talk would live on for weeks.

To her added dismay, the dock wasn’t alone in showing wear. As they passed by the garden from which the plantation got its name, she found mothers prized roses choked by weeds. Clearly unintended for years, every bush was either dead or in the process of dying.

Changes. On the heels of that thought, she recalled Mrs. Tibbs warning about the hardships she’d have to bear. No, she insisted silently, there were reasons for this neglect, and the instant she saw her daddy, he would explain them. No doubt he become so preoccupied with his plantation, he let parts of the plantation slide, things mama used to oversee.

Such neglect stop. His win was now home, she’d hasten to assure him, and she’d come home to help. She saw herself organizing the servants as mama had done, rushing about the place with energy and vigor, every inch the mistress-and lady-Amanda McCloud had been.

As she marched toward the house, she ignored the tangle of weeds lining the cherries shaded drive. Tripping twice in the roots, she insisted it didn’t matter, that it would be set to write as soon as she talked with her daddy.

And optimism somewhat soured when they reach the house, and she found no daddy waiting on the porch steps, either. Their steamboat had sounded its horn long ago; John would have to be deaf, blind, and witless not to know she’d arrived.

But then, perhaps he felt it unsafe to wait here, since the porch steps seemed even less reliable than the dock. To her surprise, Uncle Jervis stepped casually over the missing bottom board and, without another word, went on inside.

What had happened to her beloved Willows? The house had not seen a paint brush in years, and what little paint remained on its weathered boards flaked and peeled. A shudder, likewise stripped of color, dangled disconsolately from a second floor window. The way it move, it must bang against the walls and any good wind, yet nothing had been done to either fix or remove it.

So one should tame the oaks, she thought, before their branches scraped more shingles from the roof. And something must be done with the wisteria, twining up through the gallery railing to the second floor. It made the house look like a prisoner about to be choked.

Stepping blithely over the broken step, Edith followed her father into the house. The fact that neither her cousin nor uncle found anything amiss proved that this state of decay was no recent occurrence. Oh daddy, what’s happened? Gwen thoughts with a catch in her throat.

At her side, Lance padded her arm to console her as he led her into the house. “Be brave, my love. Whatever you face, I am here at your side. Somehow, we shall get through this together.”

His words held such a depressing tone, she half expected to find an ogre waiting inside the door, but only Homer, father’s personal servant and valet, stood in the hallway. How old and stopped the service had become; like the house, Homer had age for more than the years to warrant.

She studied the grand entrance in which mama had once taken such pride. The oak banister on the wide and curving stairway hadn’t been polished in months, and the dust was so strong, Gwen was reluctant stand still of fear it settled down and cover her.

Uncle Jervis was sorting through the mail on the hall table, with Edith trying to hide the fact that she was looking over his shoulder. The way they frowned in unison seem to indicate and unwelcome letter.

“Another bill?” Scratched out a voice from behind.

They snapped to attention, both clearly uncomfortable as he turned to face the newcomer. It was a good thing Jervis called out, “John” for without the name, Gwen might never have recognized her father.

A sudden tightness with her throat at the site of his once proud frame hunched over a sturdy cane. The years had been even crueler to daddy then to her uncle. Where his brother had whited in girth, John had narrowed to near extinction. A soiled white shirt hung on his shoulders like a wilted flag of surrender, and his tightly clenched trousers could well fit another man inside. Similar lines of dissipation appeared on his face, but with Jervis, the pockets of fat on daddy they seemed etched into the bone.

He was such a far cry from the man Gwen remembered, the man she’d imagined would be waiting for her on the dock, she half expected everyone to laugh say they’d played a cruel joke.

But no one said a word; they barely moved, everyone waited for what daddy would say or do next.

He leaned heavily on the cane, eyeing each of them in turn. No one actually squirmed, but neither did they take the look well, fidgeting like bad children caught at a prank. When daddy turn to her, Lance removed his arm, leaving Gwen alone under her father’s scrutiny.

She smiled tentatively, but nothing came to life in his expression. Stared at her as if she were but another dust covered statue in his hallway. “I see you brought her home,” the rasped, turning to his brother. “I expect you to see to it that she stays out of trouble.”

He turned then to Homer, demanding his bottle of bourbon before hobbling off awkwardly to his study.

He snubbed me? Gwen thought. After all this time, against all her hopes and expectations, her own father refuse to knowledge her?

Her mind flashed back to that night five years ago, as they’d stared at each other over her mother’s lifeless body. His gaze had become shuttered then, too, as if he meant to close the doors to his mind, to his heart.

“Daddy,” she yelled out, even as she cried out to him that night, but once again he ignored her. She winced as his study door closed, feeling as if he’d slammed it shut in her face.

Sound seemed to bring local Jervis instantly to life. “Ah, well, it would appeared John is in one of his moods.”

One of his moods? Biting her lip, fusing to cry, Gwen seized the explanation. Moods were temporary things, a mere case of feeling poorly, and no wonder, in this heat. As soon as daddy was rested, why, she did that her last hairpin he’d give her a welcome any girl could wish for. She was his only child; of course, he’d be happy to see here.

Uncle Jervis turned to Lance. “I hope my brother’s mood won’t stop you from staying for dinner tonight?”

Reclaiming Gwen’s arm, Lance smiled down at her. “I wouldn’t dream of leaving.”

“Good.” Jervis clapped his hands, licking his lips as if he were sitting down now for the meal. “We will assemble in the front parlor at seven, dinner at eight. In the meantime,” he added, smiling at Lance as he gestured down the hall, “you and I can indulge in the chat, while the girls retire upstairs. I feel certain Gwen will wish to rest after this excitement.”

Both men turn quickly to Gwen, their eagerness making it hard to voice a protest. And in truth, she was tired. Just climbing steps to her room seem to require and enormous effort, especially since it seemed she must do so with her cousin.

Leading the way up the winding staircase as if she were the mistress of the house, Edith calmly warned her to expect some changes in the sleeping arrangements. “You,” she announced, stopping before the front room, “will now sleep in here.”

This time Gwen did protest. “Oh, no, I shall stay in my own room, thank you all the same.”

“You can’t. The roof leaks terribly in the rear quarters.”

“Then find me another room. I can’t fit all my lovely furnishings in this cubicle.”

“Your things are gone,” Edith told her, having the good grace to blush. “I’m afraid uncle John sold them after you left for Boston.”

As stiff as starch, Gwen marched into the tiny room. That last was a major blow, she had no wish for her cousin to see how it hurt. After all, it would take for more than a bad mood for daddy to so ruthlessly sell the pretty, delicate furniture mama once lavished on her.

There is a perfectly reasonable explanation, she tried to tell herself. Perhaps daddy plan to replace them with newer, finer furnishings. Must have forgiven her; she simply could not bear it if he had not.

Pasting a smile on her face, she studied her new surroundings. The room was small as she remembered, but the window seat was charming. One could wish its cushions were in better condition, though.

“I sure hope Delfie and Sadie hurry up here to help me,” she said, determine to act as if nothing were wrong. “The way I feel now, it will take half a dozen servants to get me out of this dress.”

“We don’t have a single servant to spare. You’ll have to undress yourself.” Edith retort bordered on rudeness.

“Undress myself?” When turned with surprise. “You must be joking. I cannot possibly remove this gown without help.”

Edith shrugged. “You better learn how, and soon. there is no one to help you.”

“Oh?” Gwen had been prepared to be brave, to grin and bear all these unpleasant surprises, but enough was enough. “I hope you don’t expect me to believe the service are busy cleaning. There’s enough dust in the front hallway to lay a carpet.”

She had the satisfaction of seeing her cousin lush before Edith squared her shoulders. “What I hope you to believe,” she tossed out as she marched off, “is that your days of playing princess are over.”

Furious, Gwen stared at her cousins retreating back. Who did they think they were, she and uncle Jervis, deciding what should or should not be done in her father’s house? If Gwen wanted the services of one-hundred servants, they had no right to deny her.

Flouncing her skirt-no easy thing and its wilted condition-she went straight for the bell pull. As she yanked it, she decided this room wasn’t adequate at all. The heavy oak furniture was far from what she’d have chosen, and Edith knew it. From the bulky armoire, to the battered keyhole desk, these were clearly pieces rescued from a long and well deserved exile in the attic.

When several minutes went by and no servant answered her summons, she decided it was high time someone front of her daddy. He should know what was happening in his own household, how his own daughter cannot get a servants to help her undress.

She was downstairs and at his study door, and a poised to knock, before she remembered his cold reception. Bad mood or not, what would she do… How would she cope…? If he snarled at her and ordered her off?

Hearing voices in the library, she remembered how uncle Jervis and Lance had retired therefore a chat. Perhaps she might better talk to her uncle; with a guest to overhear, he might prove more amenable to her needs. If worse came to worst, she could always appeal to Lance. Surely heard charming Lancelot would not fail to come to her rescue.

As she entered the library, both men stood abruptly, their expressions startled. “Why, Gwen, we thought you were resting.” For all goals gaze slid from her to his guest. “Didn’t we, Lance?”

Lance was too busy stomping out his cigarette and setting down his bourbon to answer. Did he hope to hide that he’d been smoking and drinking? As if women didn’t know what men did when they indulged in their chats.

“I would love to rest,” she told uncle Jervis, “but I fail to see how that’s possible in this heavy dress. I need help removing it. What’s happened to all my father’s household that this mistress can’t get help from her servants?”

An awkward silence ensued, during which the men again exchanged glances.

“I will tell you another thing,” she went on in a bid to gain Lance’s sympathy. “Edith has moved me out of my bedroom. She claims my pretty furnishings are gone, sold by daddy, but I think it’s an excuse to stick me with all the hideous stuff from the attic.”

Where he should be outraged, or at the least, defensive, her article seemed merely uneasy. “What is it?” She asked, glancing from him to Lance. “Why do you to keep looking at each other?”

Uncle Jervis stared at his glass, then downed the bourbon and one drink. “I suppose you should know. The truth is, I’m afraid we have all been reduced to cast offs from the attic. We’ve been forced to practice, er, certain economies.”

Gwen focused on the word is least understood. “Economies?”

“Edith could not send any servants to help you. There are none to spare. Lavinia as all she can handle with the cooking and cleaning. As for Homer, well, he is getting on in years.”

“But what of Lilah and Delfie and-“

“Sold, like the furniture.”

With dismay, he thought of Delfie, her childhood playmates and later maid, now serving as someone else’s servant. “But they were like family. Surely you could have sold the field hands instead.”

“There are no field servants. There are no fields. The Willows hasn’t harvests a decent sugar crop in well over three years.”

Gwen not contain her gasp. Daddy might lose interest in the house, in life itself, but for him to neglect his precious sugarcane was an omen of impending disaster.

“You have to understand,” uncle Jervis said gently, “your mother’s death hit him hard. I knew he was letting things slide steadily, but I did not discover how bad it was until last March, when I talked John into giving me the legal power to help run the estate.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? Warned me?”

“I wanted to, honey, but I thought, if it breaks my heart so to think of he Willows going to the creditors, what will it do to our Gwen?”

“Creditors?” She asked, horrified.

His silence told her more than she cared to know. “Why didn’t you warn me?” She asked, turning to Lance.

“Your uncle wished to tell you himself. In person.” He raised his hands as if to deny himself of guilt. “A letter can be so impersonal, after all, and so easily misunderstood.”

There was no misunderstanding this. Financial ruin, that’s what they faced, and social demise lurked around the corner. Easy now, to understand the whispers and chatters last night. Everyone knew that he had the let the Willows go to rack and ruin; and no one could miss the fact that his daughter would soon be a social outcast.

“But I thought daddy brought me home to be married…” She nonetheless protested. He had brought her home, merely sell her off save the plantation? T there were men, she knew-old and dreadful unpleasant-who were only too happy to pay for a young bride. “Does this mean…” She swallowed hard,”… I am to be spinster?”

“Now, now, you’re not to worry your pretty little head over this.” Once more, uncle Jervis looked at Lance. “You just go on about your business and trust your menfolk. We will think of something, never fear. The land is still good. If I could dig up the funds by new cane, and perhaps a few servants to plant and harvest it, I can promise you, I will have the Willows back on its feet in no time.

“Here, here,” Lance cheered, raising his glass to be refilled. “That is the spirit. You know, of course, that you can count on me to help.”

Watching uncle Jervis fill his glass, Gwen knew it insisted more panic. All well and good to stand here to toasting each other, but in truth, what could they do? Lance had not a penny either.

It is a nightmare, she thought in a daze. A bad dream, and any moment, she would wake to find Mrs. Tibbs calling for her. How frightening, that she suddenly preferred to be back in a cramped cabin with that awful woman.

She had to escape from the stuffy room, to be out in the fresh air where she could think straight.

Both men looked mildly surprised when she announced this wish. Lance offered a token protest, but soon both he and her uncle seemed more interested in their drinks than in preventing her departure, Gwen muttered her goodbyes and left the room.

This cannot be happening, she continued to chant in her mind as she walked away from the house. Uncle Jervis had a tendency to overdramatize; surely things weren’t as bad as he had complied. Thinking back, she realized there had been no Stinting during their stay in the city. If money were short, why book first-class passage up river?

“Keeping up pretenses,” she could almost hear Missy Mae proclaim. Just like the Allentons, her uncle hoped to trick his creditors into believing nothing was wrong.

But everything was wrong. She could see proof of this as she passed the empty fields, which by now should be green with prospering crop. Nor did anyone stir in the quiet servant compound as she came upon it? Proving uncle Jervis had not lied about it. A soft breeze whispered through the oaks overhead, making it sound as if the spirits of those servants still lingered.

Gwen remembered the yearly Christmas celebrations, when daddy would bring drinks for the men and toys for the children? While him and mother dispensed their treats to the women. Each cabin had welcomed them, for each week, Mama had come down here to attend to the hurt and the sick, and often, Gwen accompanied her. How proud she’d felt, standing next to Amanda, every man, woman, and child in the compound had adored her. They would have walked on fire to keep her from harm.

But they’d been unable to help her that night, Gwen thought with an ugly pang. And because of it, always gone-mother, the servants, and for all the intense and purposes-even father.

Here, breathing the cooler air but need the oaks, she had time to truly consider his reception. She could no longer hide from the truth. More than a bad mood had caused him to reject her. He blame her for what happened to mother, and probably always would.

A tear slid down her cheek and she wiped it away. You’re a McCloud, she could almost hear him admonish, stop acting so maudlin.

She was right, rather than be moaning as lack of reception, she should be trying to work her way around him. No sense dwelling on the past she cannot change; she might better be thinking about what she could do to improve the future.

Yes, she thought, gaining spirit. Somehow, she would find they key to saving Roseland, and when she did, her daddy would be grateful, he would hardly even remember that Mama was gone.

She thought of the old sharecroppers’ cabins, up ahead on the path. Back when he’d first come to Louisiana, daddy had leased part of Roseland to the small farmers, using the rent to help defray the costs of starting up the plantation. Once the fields began producing a steady sugar crop and there was no further need for income, he’d stopped renewing the leases, until one by one, the renters had gone away. Where were they now? Gwen wondered could they, or other farmers, be induced to again rent this land?

With growing excitement, she quickened her pace, anxious to see the cabins. If the homes were habitable, they could raise the money they needed for the Willows by leasing out land again. Admittedly, she had no idea where to find such farmers, but hadn’t uncle Jervis assured that she could trust her menfolk see the details?

Beneath her feet, the path became muddier and more overgrown with every step. Funny, she hadn’t realized how near to the marshland this area was, but then, she’d never been allowed near the cabins as a child. “They’re not our kind,” daddy had told her, when she asked if she could play with the children there. “I won’t have my little Princess sorting with common dirt farmers.”

Swatting off the memory even as she swatted at a buzzing mosquito, she reminded herself that she did hardly been consorting with these people. She’d be offering them a place to live and to farm, and exchange for much needed revenue for the Willows. It would not matter if this land was close to the Bayou, that she hated the swamp and everything in it. There was no reason she never ever come here at all.

Rounding the curve in the path, he came upon the small colony of cabins. It, too, was damp and overgrown, as if the swamp had already reclaimed it. There were people desperate for land, she told herself stubbornly, people who would not mind the work to clear it.

A horse ran on the path up ahead. Startled, Gwen turned in the direction of the sound. Was someone already living here? Giving no thought to her isolated position, or to the facts that no one knew where she’d gone, she ran forward. What an accomplishment it would be, should she returned to the Willows is not only a plan to save it, but with the first tenant, signed and ready to farm.

She stopped, though, at the site of the huge, black stallion.

It was a magnificent beast, its sleek coats glistening in the waning son, as it waited outside the last of the cabins, the one backed up to the Bayou. No rope tethered the animal; it just stood there, stopping the ground, as if to summon someone from inside the ramshackle, vine-covered shack. As the horse stomped again, this time in greeting, a dark-clad man in her from the door.

With alarm, she recognized the stranger from the docks. Everywhere she went of late, seem to put in an appearance. “What are you doing here?” She was startled into saying as she marched towards them.

He paused on the battered porch, as if he found her presence no less unsettling. “We really must stop meeting like this, my lady, “he said with a half-grin., “Or people will begin to talk.”

“Meeting?” How dare he suggest that go anywhere to see him. “Coming upon you was not my design, sir. Indeed, I’m sure the local authorities want to know what the likes of you are doing on my land.

The grin vanished; scowled as he descended steps. “That, Miss McCloud, is none of your business.”

“It most certainly is my business,” she said to his back as followed him to his horse. “I demand to know why you are following me.”

“Following you?” He turned, eyeing her with disdain. “I’ve always known you were selfish and shallow, but your vanity, milady, quite astounds me.”

Her chest heaved with indignation. “What does a man like you know anything about me, unless you were playing my shadow?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but even the likes of me has a past, Princess.” He gestured back at the cabin. “You obviously forgotten, but once I lived in that building.”

It was not on her tongue to call him a liar, but a memory intruded. As children, there had always been a dark-haired boy, a sharecropper’s child, who watch them as they played. Even then, something in his intensity had touched her, stirring up questions she dared not face.

“ You’re that boy,” she half- whispered. “You’re Michael Williams.”

He dipped down into a mock bow. “In the flesh. How gracious of you to finally remember.”

She blushed, not missing the emphasis on “finally.’ He was right, of course; she should have recognized him, and probably would have, had he not always left her feeling so flustered. “Now that you’re done wallowing in nostalgia,” he told him stiffly, “you’d best be off our land, for I tell my daddy. He’s not overly partial to trespassers. Nor is he particularly kind to them.”

“As I recall, your father isn’t particularly kind to anyone.” He turned back to his horse and mounted. “But then, there is really no need to go running to him, Gwen, I’ve no intention, and even less desire, spend a moment more than necessary on sacred McCloud land.”

“Then what are you here? What do you mean to do?”

“Do I make you nervous?” He looked down from the saddle, and with an awful tingle, she thought of his kiss. “Sorry, my lady, but my being here has nothing to do with you. I learned my lesson years ago. As you and your friends pointed out, my kind must never reach too high.”

Gwen winced. “You can’t hold me responsible for some hasty words spoken as a child,” said stiffly. “I never meant it the way it sounded.”

He gazed at her for a moment, then shook his head. “Maybe, I can’t blame the child, but aren’t you still looking down your nose at me?”

“I am not-I I would not-“realizing she was beginning to sputter, Gwen set her lips into a tight line. “You have no rights thus. You owe me-that is, I expect-don’t look at me like that. I am entitled to more respect.”

He towered over her, gazing down with an anger of his own. “No one is entitled my respect unless they earn it. Search in your conscience, Miss McCloud. If there is any debt here, you should find that you are the one who owes me.”

“You’re talking about a childhood incident-“

“You made a promise,” he said harshly, “and you broke it. So stop yelling out accusations and making demands, or you might provoke me into collecting on that debt.”

Spurring the horse, he rode off, leaving Gwen stare after him.

Frowning as she turned back to the house, she tried to bury the unpleasant memory of that childhood promise in her mind, but like all the other pleasantries she’d faced since returning to the Willows, it’s would not easily go away.

Was it merely a silly broken promise that brought Michael Williams back here? She cannot help but wonder.

And worse, just how did he expect to be repaid?

 

Chapter 5

Pacing across the room, Gwen waited for dinner. With neither wardrobe nor maid, her toilette had been quick and simple she’d pulled back her hair in a bun and donned an old, childish frock she did found in the armoire. The effect was on stylish, snug, smelling faintly of camphor, but she had little thoughts spare for her appearance, not while her mind wondered with unwelcome memories of the stranger.

No, no longer a stranger-she knew now his name.

She wonder why she’d taken so long to recognize him; she should have known him instantly by his intensity, his hostility. “Search in your conscience” he had said, as if expecting her to recall every last detail. For pity’s sake, it was a childhood incident; was it time to forgive and forget?

Yet Gwen found herself remembering the striking boy he had been, the dark angel who had watched from a distance as she and the neighboring children played Camelot. Perhaps it had been more than merely noticing the quiet Creole, with his sculpted features and arrogant stance-even then, as young as they were, she’d felt drawn to him some indefinable way.

Ignore him, Lance had urged the first time he’d caught her staring at Michael; he is just the insolent offspring of a poor farmer.

Gwen had been disappointed, for however intriguing she might find him, Michael was what daddy would call common trash. A man was worth nothing, John maintained, if he did not have land of his own. As Lance pointed out, she would risk angering her father if she did not ignore the boy.

Yet Lance could be entirely too full of himself, and she saw how her looking at Michael annoyed him. Returning his stairs became a game, until she grew so bold she began smiling at him. He never smiled back, but she was aware of how his eyes followed them as they played.

Then one day she and Lance had an argument, and to spite him, she invited Michael to join their game. Outraged, insisting the newcomer must we a lesser vassal, Lance proceeded to give Michael all the least popular tasks. Michael accomplished them, and so well, when announced that her new vassal could compete for his spurs on the following day.

Spite the impossible obstacles Lance set in his way, wrapped the past each new test with athletic grace. Furious, Lance demanded that she refuse to knight this stranger, but she quickly reminded him that she was Queen. When she turned to go, he’d pushed her from behind, knocking her to the ground.

A hand was offered to help her up, but to her surprise, it was Michael, who had come to her rescue. Michael, who challenged Lance in defense of her honor.

Lance merely laughed in his face. He was not, said scornfully, about to dirty his hands on the common trash.

In his quiet, yet no less commanding tone, Michael cited their rule that Lance must answer all challenges. The winner, by Royal decree, would be named King.

Michael turn to Gwen then, his dark eyes questioning. She could hear Lance sputtering, demanding she refuse, but she stubbornly nodded her approval. She wanted to punish Lance for pushing her, to teach him cannot always have his way. Then, too. She rather like the thought of two men fighting for her favor.

“You promise that if I win, I shall be named King?” Michael pressed, his gaze never leaving hers. “On your word of honor?”

Seeing only how angry that made Lance, she nodded again. It was the collective gasp from her friends that snapped her back to her senses.

Too late. Michael and Lance were already squaring off, brandishing sticks as swords. Her friends gathered near to insist that she’d cheer for Lance. Consider the consequences, they warned, should this intruder win. Crown some nobody King, and their brave, noble Lancelot would go off in a huff. Then, who would protect their kingdom? A former, this obvious adventurer? Why, everything they had ever known would change, and so drastically, it would no longer be Camelot at all.

Gwen had not considered this, for in her heart, she had never dreamed Lance could lose. He had always been her hero; Michael, with his dark close and looks, must therefore be the villain, who had inevitably lose.

Yet it was Lance who had stick knocked away as Michael tossed his aside and agreed to use fists as weapons, her misgivings grew, became fear. If he won, what then? She and Lance were meant to rule this kingdom and their future could be destroyed.

Lance went down in a flurry of blows, soundly defeated. Stunned, her friends shouted in instant denial. Let some stranger-this peasant-be king? It was unheard of, outrageous. Gwen must send the imposter away.

Michael strode over, going to one knee before her, taking her hand as he offered his victory in her honor. Knowing of her friends watching, Gwen thanked him for restoring her good name and handed him a shiny apple in reward.

The Apple was not necessary, he told her, his dark eyes clouding with confusion. Being around King was all the reward he sought.

As the other children left, Michael stiffened, his grasp tightening so on her hands that she had to gate it free. Lance scrambled up from the dirt, bruised and bloodied from the fight, spitting out that Michael must even lost fantasy if he thought his kind could ever be more than a dirty farmer.

Rising slowly, Michael returned that Apple. “Is this your decision?” He asked quietly, his dark eyes locked on hers. And when she nodded, he looked at her with such disappointment that for it instead she seemed to shrivel. “A true queen keeps her word,” he said, his gaze going cold with distaste. “She never makes promises she does not intend to keep.”

He had marched off then, and that was the last time she had seen of him. After a time, it became easier to put the unpleasant scene out of her mind, for Michael never again came to watch them play, and soon after, daddy had dismissed all attendance from the Willows.

Only now here was Rafe again, stirring up a pass she’d as soon put behind her, tossing out insults like “spoiled” and “shallow.”

And don’t forget “vain,” he thought with a blush.

Had it truly been vanity, thinking he might be following her? For the life of her, she could think of no legitimate reason for him to be on McCloud land. She might know little about the man, but she’d bet her own share of the Willows that Michael wasn’t the sort to mess in nostalgia.

Hearing the dinner bill, she rose from the dusty window cushion, annoyed to find herself thinking about the man again. Haven’t her homecoming been sending enough, without letting some arrogance farmer spoil her dinner?

Going down the parlor, she managed to endear that out of boring conversation only by imagining the food packed in their servants’ gumbo. When needed at less ran out of boring things to say, when Lance and uncle Jervis ran out of alcohol, Homer announced dinner, Gwen rose quickly, her taste buds already watering.

But as she entered the dining room on Lance’s arm, the vision in mind did not match reality. Gone was the elegant oak set her mother had installed-the server, the dry sink, the huge china cabinet. In its place, the new pine table appeared far smaller than its actual size. Its battered surface should had been covered, but the linen, like the china and silver, must have already made its way to the pawnshop.

Uncle Jervis headed towards the chair at the foot of the table, leaving the one at the head empty, a jarring reminder of her father’s absence. As they sat, Gwen could hear the faint echo of chairs scraping the under carpet floor. In this cavern of a room, she feared, conversation would prove even more uncomfortable than it had in the parlor.

Although more determined to enjoy her gumbo, she was appalled to find an inedible substance on her plate. What seemed to be dried beef had been drowned in a week cream sauce and smothered with peas, all of which had been dumped on a slice of stiff bread. “What is this?” She asked, unable to keep the dismay out of her tone.

Edith turned beet red, then raised her chin in the air. “Pardon us if it’s not up to your fine Boston standards, but we find it a good honest meal and quite filling.”

“Filling?” Gwen kept digging through the pile of food, hoping against hope to find shrimp. “I cannot eat this.”

“Then starve.”

Uncle Jervis said lightly, drawing their attention to him. “Girls, please. Do try it, Gwen. After all, Edith is trying her best.”

With amazement, Gwen looked back to her cousin. “You’ve fixed this? But you do not know how to cook.”

“I had to learn. Lavinia comes up lame most evenings now. It we want to eat someone has to do the cooking.”

Her cousin should have spent longer at her lessons, Gwen thought angrily, eyeing her plate. She had wanted gumbo, not this.

Unable to come up with a name for the meal, she was tentatively bringing the fort to her lips, wondering if she’d be able to swallow it, when Homer entered the dining room. She put the fork down gladly, as the servant announced that someone awaited in the hall to see uncle.

“We’ve just sat down to dinner,” her uncle said, making a shooing motion with his hand.

“The man, he say the matter was urgent,” Homer insisted.

Muttering under his breath, uncle Jervis rose to his feet. Homer held the door open for him as he stormed from the room.

Across the table, Edith’s gaze followed her father’s departure, a tiny smile forming on her lips. Lance merely refilled his glass, as if the intrusion was nothing out of the ordinary, but Gwen brand with curiosity. It took a desperate man, or an incredibly rude one, to barge in demanding an audience at the dinner hour.

“On your honor?” A voice erupted in the hallway. “I should be satisfied with that?”

When tensed, recognizing the voice of Michael. Surely the man was not so lost propriety that he would come seeking her here in her own home?

“Might as well after the moon,” Rafe went on, with anger. “I have yet to know a McCloud to keep his word.”

Lance, to0, seemed unnerved by the man’s presence, for he stiffened beside her. Knowing who their visitor was, she could understand Lance’s nervousness. He must hate knowing that there had been someone you best him in a fair fight. Pre-haps they had been children, but he must he wondering, even as she was, if Michael could best him again.

“Who do you think you are?” Jervis sputtered. “How dare you come into my home and speak thus to me. Get off my land at once.”

“Your land? I was under the impression the Willows still belonged to your brother.”

“It most assuredly does” came in third, more distinctive voice. The hoarseness was gone; her father’s assertion boomed in the hallway. Gwen smiled for she could picture her uncle bridging, having been caught once again playing the Lord of his brothers manor.

“I am still master of this house, sir,” John said, this time almost conversationally. “Is there some way I can help you?”

“This is the Williams boy, John.” Jervis broke and quickly, “here to stir up trouble. You go on back to your study and let me get rid of them. I know better how to deal with his kind.”

Gwen winced. “His kind.” Hearing Jervis utter the words, they didn’t seem quite so harmless. Indeed, she’d begun to see how Michael might despise them.

“I repeat,” daddy said sharply, “is there some way I can help you, sir?”

There was a pause, during which Gwen hoped Michael would enlighten them all as to why he was here. “This is between your brother and me,” said at last. “It’s is a private manner that will soon be resolved, one way or another. You have my word on that.”

Hearing the front door slam, Gwen frowned in frustration. How like Michael to leave without elaborating on why he had come to the house. “What a disagreeable man,” she said that instant she realized Lance was staring at her.

“Michael is a proud fool.” Frowning, Lance reached his glass. “I imagine he feels your father still owes him a living. I don’t suppose you ladies recall, but his father David, was once a tenant farmer here.”

Gwen intended ignorance. She saw no reason to let Lance think she remembered anything about his humiliating defeat.

“I remember his mother,” Edith said. “Such a lovely woman, and Amanda used to say it must be hard on her, so recently widowed and forced to find a new place for her and her children to live.”

Gwen stared at her in amazement, for she had known nothing about the family, spite being a few years her cousin’s senior. But then, Edith always did have a knack for finding information.

“No choice but to order his family off,” Lance grumbled on. “Even before the husband’s death, they had been failing on their rent. How could his wife hope to manage without him? No one blamed John, except Michael, but then, the boy always had ideas above his station. No doubt he has in nursing a grudge all these years.”

“Is that all he wants, to lease our land?” When asked, remembering her plan to generate income. “Maybe uncle should not be arguing with him. Why risk pushing away someone who is willing to pay us rent?”

“What nonsense is this?”

Unnerved by Lance’s obvious scorn, she toyed with her food. “It is just… Well, I thought, if we rented out land again, the money might buy the cane and the servants and other things we need to get the Willlows back on its feet.”

Lance smiled indulgently. “Oh darling, don’t fret your pretty little head over money. Didn’t we tell you to trust your menfolk to take care of such matters?”

“You might better apply yourself to learning how to cook and sew,” Edith told her smugly. “Women don’t have a head for business.

Gwen sat up in her chair. “I happen to think it’s a good plan.”

Lance shook his head sadly. “Honey? What would your unc-er , daddy want with some no-account folk littering up his land? Those rents would hardly be worth the bother, not with the work needed to get the shacks habitable. Besides, it is not exactly a gentlemanly occupation, living off rents. People expect the McCloud’s to be planters, not landlords.” Seeing her frown, he added with a smile, “Though I must say, it was sweet of you to suggest it. If you want, I will mention your little plan to your uncle. I imagine he will appreciate knowing your heart is in the right place.”

As he patted her hand, Gwen bristled. It was true, she had not thought it all the way through, and she did not much like the idea of the men laughing at her when they retired for their smoke after dinner. “Do not bother,” she said stiffly, returning her attention to pushing her food about the plate, “if you think it is such a terrible idea.”

Jervis suddenly swung open the dining room door. “Look everyone,” said loudly as he gestured behind him to his brother. “See who is joining us for dinner?”

Gwen forgot her plans, stunned to see her father. It must be a rare occasion for John McCloud to sit down to a family meal, for everyone acted too delighted, too eager to please him, even while it was obvious they wished she had decided elsewhere.

Feeling guilty that she must include herself in their number, Gwen watched her daddy limp to the head of the table, tottering on his cane. He tried sit and would have missed the chair completely, had Homer not pushed it behind him, a process so skilled and swift, it spoke of long practice. The part servants must be over-accustomed to covering his master’s limitations.

Seeing this, Gwen stared at this stranger inhabiting her father’s body. It had been difficult to face his rejection this afternoon, but she found it far worse to watch him now. Laughing too loud, he ignored Edith’s cooking, choosing instead fill up on alcohol. His brother, Gwen noticed with resentment, did nothing to stop him, but then, Jervis was drinking quite freely himself.

They began reminiscing about the past, acting as if the room still held its lovely furnishings and that nasty scene in the hallway had never happened. A confused Gwen wondered if she had merely imagined Michael’s presence, if his threatening tone was merely a guilt-provoked prodding from the past.

The talk strayed too earlier years, when both brothers have been youths on their parents’ plantation in Virginia. “Remember the tournaments,” Jervis said slowly. “Can’t know how frustrating it was for me, trying my damnedest, yet knowing my big brother was bound to win.”

Daddy chuckled, and in that moment, Gwen saw a ghost of his former self.

“Go on, laugh, but tell the truth, John. Was there ever a man who could best you at the tournament?”

“No, I suppose not.” Daddy stared into his glass, as if he could see the past within the dark liquid. “I retired as champion when I left home.”

“Just like our young Lance here. A shame, really, that the Willows’ own tournaments had to end.”

Daddy was not listening to his brother. “I remember that last tournament,” he said, his voice as distant as his gaze. “The one where I won my Amanda.”

Another awkward silence ensued. It was ever thus when mother’s name was mentioned.

But it could be a good sign, Gwen thought hopefully. If John talked about his beloved wife, perhaps his grief could begin to heal. He could stop drinking, and perhaps even forgive his daughter.

“I recall that day.” Jervis grinned at his brother. “No one expected you to show-by then, you’d gone off to Louisiana start your own plantation. My hopes were high, since the field was now wide open, but I should have known my big brother would never miss tournament.”

“How could I, with my Amanda offering herself as the prize?”

Gwen had heard this story a thousand times, but she never tired of listening to it. It seemed so wonderfully romantic that her father would ride all that distance merely to claim his bride.

“Lovely Amanda Maitland,” Jervis side, yet sound held a bitter sound. “Was there a buck among us would not battle to win her? Though many of us would have bothered to enter the lists, I had been aware that she had written to you? She knew you. She knew you would win.”

“That was my Amanda.” With a sigh of his own, daddy chugged his glass. “Knew what she wanted, and ultimately found a way to get it.” He frowned, starts going inward.

“I say,” Jervis said suddenly, “wouldn’t another turn them it be fun?”

Daddy snorted, reaching for the bottle to refill his glass. “Who would calm? For that matter, how would we pay for it?”

“I reckon we could draw a large enough crowd, if we offered a prize.”

All eyes went to her father. He merely stared at Jervis, glass stuck midway to his lips. “What have you got brewing in that devious head of yours now, brother?” He said at last, finishing the alcohol in one loud drink.

“Brewing?” Jervis laughed, drawing everyone’s attention. “Why, John, the thought just struck me. Imagine the money we could raise to save the Willows, if we charged an entry fee for the competition. After five long years, everyone should be demanding to participate.”

Excited at the idea, Gwen told them how Missy said everyone wished they’d hold another tournament.

“See,” Jervis said, flashing a smile at her. “The interest is there. And once they see the prize, five will get you ten that the contestants will be happy to pay whatever we ask.”

Daddy raised a brow, his drink forgotten. Jervis leaned forward, as if to imbue him with his own enthusiasm. “After all, how many men get a shot at marrying the beautiful Gwen?”

Gwen’s own excitement when cold. They meant to offer her without her consent? “No” said loudly, rising from her chair. “It would be like-“she was reminded of the bazaar she’d mention to Missy. “It would be like setting me up on the auction block, and offering me to the highest bidder.”

Jervis looked up at her, his manner consoling. “Gwen, dear child, it is nothing of the sort. Your daddy would not allow anything against your best interests. Besides, how can it be wrong, when your own mother did such the same?” He looked to his brother for approval.

Fearing he was about to get it, Gwen tossed her napkin on the table. “Do you think I can tolerate the entire countryside talking about me, and sneering behind my back? I will not be the object of scandal. I won’t.”

As a Harden glint came into father’s gaze, Gwen saw her mistake. She recognized that look, for in her more honest moments, she knew her own stubborn streak came from him. “I hope you don’t mean to imply that you’re better than your mother. That you’re above doing what she did.”

“John, I am certain Gwen did not mean-“

“I am still man of this house,” that he said with a new and frightening intensity. “If I decide in favor of the competition, my daughter will adhere to my wishes, and that will be that.”

Gwen’s bottom lip began to quiver. “You cannot truly hate me so. If this has anything to do with mama’s-“

He, too, stood, napkin landed on his plate. “You are never, ever to mention her name in this house again. Have I made myself clear?”

Gwen was acutely conscious of Edith watching, unable to stifle her satisfaction.

“Is it clear?”

Jumping slightly at his bark, she nodded.

“Good.” Grabbing the bottle, he turned to his brother. “Come to my study, Jervis. You and I must discuss this further.”

He quit the room, leaving a strong silence in his wake. Gwen sat slowly, aware of glance at her side. Never had she been so humiliated.

Jervis walked around places hand on her shoulders. “Try to understand, Gwen honey. John is going through a rough patch now. He needs his baby girl’s help. Can’t see that?”

Of course, she could-she was up to her eyebrows in guilt.

“Besides, who will be scandalized?” Jervis went on. “Why, for years, have of Louisiana has been mooning over our Gwen. What better way to settle her future than with a friendly little competition? There is not a bachelor in the parish who don’t know and like, and more importantly, there is no way Lance can best any in a fair fight.”

Lance reached over and covered her hand with his own.

“Just think,” Jervis pressed. “Upon your marriage, Lance can take over management of the Willows, with you as its lady. Can anyone ask for a better solution?”

Across the table, Edith’s body went white. “What if Lance does not win?” She asked, to which Lance looked positively affronted.

Jervis merely laughed. “Come now, sweetie, who can beat our Lancelot?” He removed his hands from Gwen’s shoulder to give Lance a nudge. “Talk to her, while I try and placate my brother. Edith, you go on out to the kitchen now, and help Lavinia with the dishes.

Her cousin flushed red, and Gwen thought she might refuse, but it was not like Edith to defy her father’s wishes. Frowning fiercely, the girl followed her father out of the room.

“He is right,” Lance insisted, that instant they were alone. “It might be my only chance to win your hand.”

“But don’t you think it’s so tasteless? I would feel like a piece of meat, hanging in some butchers dirty window.”

“On the contrary.” With a flourish, Lance Rose to stand beside her chair. “I think it’s utterly romantic. Only imagine the scene. Knights gathered from far and wide, all rushing to battle for your hand. Not that they have a prayer, of course, as long as I am in the competition.”

“You are quite certain you can win?”

“You cannot doubt my skill?”

For a guilty moments, Gwen thought of Michael. But that had been a childhood addle, and besides, why would he compete? He hated this family, he thought her selfish and shallow. “No I do not doubt you,” she answered Lance, her hesitation nonetheless plain.

“Keep in mind,” said, “I have twice the will of any man alive, for this is the only way I can when you. Darlin’ Do you think I would squander the one chance we have?”

Spoke so proudly, Gwen could hardly doubt him. He was asking for her trust, but this was her reputation at stake, her future. “Oh, I do not know.”

“Fate has given me this chance to win your hand, and I mean to capture it.” He dropped to a knee, taking her hand in his, and she cannot help but be touched I his sincerity. “Poor Gwen. You are frightened, and how can I blame you? But think of this. If your daddy agrees to the terms of the tournament, he can no longer stop our marriage. Lancelot shall ride onto the field and at long last claim his Queen. It shall be you and I, winning the Willows, making all our dreams come true forever.”

As words conjured up the excitement, the pageantry, until the prospect seemed suddenly even more romantic than daddy’s pursuit of mama. In truth, had any girl ever received so dramatic a proposal of marriage? Looking down at his dear, familiar face, she felt a rush of affection. Her amazing Lance, steadfast and loyal, who vowed to love and protect her always. “Lance, if you were certain you can win…”

Bringing her hand to his lips, he spoke with the blood of emotion. “You are mine, my lady, and I shall fight the death before I will let any other man have you.”

He stared with such intensity, she grew certain he’d kiss her. She waited breathlessly, praying he’d banish the sweet, tingling magic with which Michael had given her lips.

Instead, inhaling deeply, Lance rose to his feet and pulled her up to stand beside him. “I’ll go tell your menfolk the good news. We must plan the tournament. The sooner I have one it, after all, the sooner we can wed.”

He dropped her hands, already pulling away. Overwhelms by the enormity of what she had just agreed to, when reached out to keep him near. “Do not go. I am afraid-“

“Fear not.” Smiling gently, he touched her for head with fingertips. “Am I not here in your mind, in your heart? Dream of me tonight, my darling. Dream of the future we shall soon share.”

With that, spun on eight heal and left the room, leaving a confused and frightened Gwen to stare after him, fingers stealing up to touch her lips.

 

***

 

Edith stood in the darkness, back propped against the empty stall. She’d still been seething when she finished her work in the kitchen, and she knew of no better place to fume event in the stable. With the auction block claiming all the once prized stock-save for a mare her daddy had kept for himself-the stable was the only spot she could be alone.

Tonight, she directed most of her anger at her father. She had kept quiet while he sold his brothers furnishings to settle his own collection of debts, but this… This treachery, was beyond overlooking. By now, her father must sense how she felt about Lance. How could he just hand them over to Gwen on a silver platter?

She flushed, thinking of the night last week she had been with Lance in this very stall. As he’d stroked her, telling her how beautiful she was, how desirable, she let herself believe him. When he’d kissed her, touched her, she’d known in her heart it had to be love. Her father would never approve, but oh, how exciting it had been all the same. Indeed, she might have let him touch more than her breasts, had the mare not snorted in the next stall. Jolted to her senses, she stopped Lance-stopped herself-but from the smoldering looks he’d given her ever since, she knew the scene must inevitably be repeated.

Or so she had thought before tonight.

All through dinner, intercepting the glances heard that he had shot at Lance, Edith had known with a sinking sensation that’s his marriage to Gwen was a foregone conclusion. She could almost see how Lance, lost in the joy dreams of Camelot and past glories, could overlook the damage the Willows was in no better shape than his own Bella Oaks-but what was her father’s motive? What compelled him to bring those two together? It might be her father, but she had few allusions left about the man.

As she thought this, the stable door creaked open, revealing the soft, mellow glow of a candlestick. Instinctively, she ducked down in the stall, as she saw it was her father and Lance. Sat crouched with her back to the wall, frantically dabbing at her eyes, for she’d rather die than have the two most important men in her life catch her crying.

“Are you sure you won’t stay?” Jervis was saying. “Edith can easily make up a spare bedroom.”

He bristled. Truly, the man had begun to take her for granted. Did he think she was one of the servants?

“It is kind of you to offer, but if you don’t mind, I would just borrow your horse and return in the morning.” Lance gave a low chuckle. “It might be wise to start warning mother we will soon be moving out of the house.”

Moving? With a painful wrenching, she wondered where they would go with no money. Poor Lance, she thought, picturing him of breaking the news to his mother. Hard to picture the demanding Lorna Buford settling for some snug little cottage in town.

“I must say,” Lance went on with another chuckle, “I never thought you could get your brother to go along with our plans.”

“And why wouldn’t he? He wants Gwen out of his hair, and besides, he doesn’t yet realized you will be in the running. John purposely raised the entrance fee so you cannot afford it, though, of course, I would be willing to waive it in your case. As long as you keep your half of the bargain.”

“You are welcome to Bella Oaks, Jervis. For myself, I will be happy to see the last of it and start a new at the Willows.”

“A good start it will be, too, with your share of the entry fees. I plan to start advertising tomorrow, up and down the river. The more fools we can convince to part with their money, the richer you and I shall be.”

Edith could now see why heard father was promoting the match. If he would be getting Bella Oaks, it would mean he could own lands for the first time in his life. And if he plans on taking a share of the tournament profits with him, no wonder he was laughing with Lance.

“And while I am busy setting things up,” father went on, “you make sure our goal Gwen is too preoccupied to notice what is going on. Charm the curiosity out of her, keep on filling her head with all that nonsense she loves to daydream about. I trust you are up to the task?”

Lance gave a snort, much like the horse he led out of the next stall. Edith shrank down lower, more desperate than ever not to be seen.

“And mind you,” her father added as they walked the horse out of the stable, “see that you keep practicing. All our planning won’t amount to anything, if you don’t win the tournament.”

There was another snort, but whether it was Lance for the horse, Edith could not say. In her mind, all she heard were her father’s last words, if you don’t win the tournament.

Waiting for them to leave, she wore a secret smile. So much could happen between now and the competition.

Indeed, she might even design plan of her own.

 

***

 

Sitting on her window seat with her feet curled behind her, Gwen stared out over the empty moonlit field of the Willows, feeling lost and frightened and burdened by guilt. Jervis had spoken to her at length after Lance had gone home, explaining how much this could mean to the future of the Willows. There would be money for the planting, a chance at prosperity, and stability, for the first time in years. With it would come hope, he spoke, and a spirit of surging forward that might well become contagious. Imagine what it would mean for her father, if John could start relying on his daughter and new husband, instead of the bottle.

Jervis had not come right out and said it, but he might just as well have. They both knew participating in this competition was the one way Gwen might atone for her part her mother’s dying, the only way you could get her father to forgive her.

Oh father, she thought, her throat going tight and hot.

“Amanda?”

Gwen turned to find her father in the doorway, his frail frame edged by the light of a distant lamp. It was too dark to make out his features, but the way he suddenly hunched over his cane made it unnecessary to correct him. He had realized Gwen was his daughter and not his wife, and his obvious disappointment made her want to cry. For both his loss and her own.

“You are too much like her,” he said brokenly, “damn near breaks my heart just look at you.”

“Daddy, I miss her, too,” he said, thinking to console him, but before she could completely on curl her feet, he shut the door in her face.

Numb, she stood staring at the closed doorway, wondering if there would ever come a day when her daddy stop shutting her out.

“John is going through a rough patch” Jervis said. “He needs his baby girl to help him.”

Biting her lip, willing the hurt and guilt to subside, Gwen realized he was right. She could no longer be willfully blind to what was going on around her. There was no temporary mood her daddy was going through. She wanted to atone, wanted to help him, there was but one choice open to her. Come what may, she had to have to go along with the competition.

No matter who she must marry.

 

Chapter 6

Michael rode along the Bayou, cursing himself for a fool. Several days have passed since his visit to the Willows; only a fool would hang around, waiting for the possible, but this particular fool needed the money the McCloud family owed him. Without it, the dream he had been building would soon collapse.

Michael had been ready to quit after Jervis had so rudely dismissed him, but later that night, sitting in the local saloon nursing a beer, he had been approached a servant from the Willows. If he went to Riverview Tavern today, servant promised, Michael would find compensation. Up until now, he had thought it was worth a shot, but the closer he got to Riverview, the more wary he grew. The servant had not said who had issued the summons. For all Michael knew, it could just be another of Gwen’s games.

Spat on the ground, as if to rid himself of the ugly taste in his mouth, but the memories came to him faster than he could fight them off. There had been a time, he remembered painfully, when playing her games had meant the world to him.

Poor as a youth, he had gazed with fascination and envy at that grateful, elegant house with its larger-than-life occupants. Compared to his family’s shack, it was a magical wonderful land. Beautiful people came and went with careless ease, the laughter bright and gray admitted the obscene display of luxury. Watching them, equating happiness with wealth, security with success, Michael had sworn the one day he would fashion such a life for himself.

Early on, he’d seen that its mistress with the focus of the Willows’ charm. Young as he was, Michael had been a little in love with the lovely and gracious Amanda, many merely walked into room to make everyone smile, male and female alike. Never an unkind word, always generous with your time and money, she brought joy to those around her. Michael could recall how often she come to visit his poor mother, even against their families wishes, and how only Amanda had come to say goodbye, presenting a farewell basket of food when her husband had the family evicted.

Gwen had grown up to be more like her father, but back then, watching her play with her friends, he’d thought her a younger replica of Amanda. For like her mother she seemed the day she’d asked him to join their game. She’d been his angel of mercy, the answer to all his yearnings, for by inviting him into her world, she’d let him think he could become part of it, that is the difference between them no longer mattered. When she smiled at him, with a gaze as warm and open as Amanda’s, he’d believed even a common dirt farmer could be her King.

Right up until it she’d handed him the Apple.

It still made him burn, her casual insole She’d brought him right to the break, getting him so swept up in the dream that he’d made a fool of himself, only to draw her favor at the last hour. The instant she no longer needed him, she dismissed him from the game-and her in mind-as if he had never existed.

Frowning, he thought of the handkerchief in his pocket, at soft, sentence great con and lace, and wished strongly that he had never met Gwen. Was one thing to play the heartless flirt as a child, but she was a grown woman now, old enough to know what those soft, melting looks could do to a man, if Gwen had summoned him today, he’d make it good and clear that he was too busy for her nonsense, that he wasn’t about to be toyed with her games. He had no attention-and even less desire-of rescuing her again, only to have her stroll off with Lance.

Lance, he thought with a snort of disgust. Maybe the summons he had come from him. He had been at the Willows that night, had no doubt heard each sorry word of Michael’s argument with Jervis, and had grabbed this means of curing favor with the McCloud’s. How like the bastard to hide behind anonymously, while boating about his powers to his friends. He could hear Lance telling his clones, “I’ve drawn the stupid, up start farmer out of the edge of nowhere, so we can go pound him into a pulp.”

If so, Michael thought as the road came to an end, Lance could not have chosen a better location. Set at the edge of the Bayou alone and isolated, the Riverview covered in trees and darkness, a small building hid. Michael had been in hundreds of bars in his travels, and he’d learned to tell at a glance which spelled trouble. This one, with its narrow door and single window, could well be a trap.

Dismounting, he secured the horse out of sight among the trees and approach the Tavern cautiously. He wish now that he brought a weapon. If it had come to Fists, he could hold his own against one or two, the lances kind travel in packs, referring to use ambush to beat their enemy.

Looking ever alert, he climbed the steps and pushed through the door. The room inside was gloomy, with only the dirt streaked window to reveal the darkness, but Michael sensed no immediate danger. As his eyes adjusted to the reduced light, he took in a dozen or so tables to the left, and a shadow opening in the back wall. Another exit he hoped: my yet come in handy.

A long wood frame bar lined the wall to his right, behind which stood a stout balding man in his mid-30s. Michael recognized Jim Longley from his youth, and what he remembered was mostly unpleasant, Jim was a bully, unlike most of his kind, a coward-real strong when it came to those younger and smaller, but not much to worry about any fair fight. Jim had gone after his sister once; ref he had stopped his taunting by knocking him unconscious.

Today was, neither of them were youngsters now. Jim had grown taller and broader and a lot more menacing. But then, so had Michael. Even if Jim held a grudge and was foolish enough to act on it, there was every good chance he wouldn’t recognize the boy he had once fought. Gwen certainly had not.

Refusing to knowledge how much that bothered him, Michael strode to the bar for a beer. Though Jim acted as surely as ever, he barely glanced at his customers face. With a spurt of sympathy, Michael realize that some, the isolated life on the Bayou spelled intellectual death. And unimaginative man like Jim-with little stimulation and less hope of escape-would have long since stopped seeing anything out of the ordinary.

Michael paid for his shot and retired to the back of the room, where he could watch the door. Sitting, he surveyed his fellow patrons. A sorry looking person sat at the end of the bar, a clear case of one whiskey too many, while a younger man with the flashy waistcoat and clean white shirt of a gambler sat nursing a bottle in the front corner. A drifter. Michael recognized the man’s restless, almost lonely air, for he himself had wasted a good eight years on the road, searching for that elusive pot of gold, hoping for the one lucky break that would make his fortune.

And what had changed? He asked himself. If he was not still chasing rainbows, why was he sitting here, waiting to be jumped, on the off chance that Jervis truly did mean to honor his words?

Small chance of that, he emitted. Service considered Michael beneath them, far outside of the gentleman code. There was no need to honor a debt to a common white trash; told Michael could prove he, too, was landed gentry, he didn’t have to knowledge his existence.

So what was he doing here? There were banks. Michael could get another loan, or at least an extension; there was no need to put himself through this trouble. How many ways must he be humiliated by this family, before he gave up and quit?

As if in answer, the door burst open, and a tall, graceless gentlemen stood over the threshold. His attire was of the best quality, yet it varied colors and textures seem to indicate the man had dressed himself in the dark. With a smile and a nod at Jim, he glanced about the room, his gaze skipping Michael and coming to rest on the drifter. “Mr. Williams?” He asked.

Michael recognized Hamilton as the one of the privileged few with played with when as a child. How typically, that Michael could name every last one of that group, while not one knew him. Clearly, none thought him import enough to remember.

“I’m Williams,” he said sharply, draining his beer. “And I’m leaving.”

With Jim glaring at him and Colby staring open mouth, Michael brushed past the door. There are both remembering him now, they didn’t doubt, and considering Jim’s vindictive nature, he might better put a goodly distance between himself and the Riverview Tavern.

“Michael, please wait,” Colby called out in his crisp British accent.” I imagine you don’t remember me, but”

“I know who you are, Colby” Michael turned in time to catch the sudden light on the man’s face. Hamilton Colby had been shy and retiring, he now recalled, always in Lance‘s shadow, so maybe it was unfair to lump him with the others. “What I don’t know is what you want.”

The man scratched his unruly mass of Auburn hair. “This is already artwork. I’m here, well, rather as a liaison. I have someone who wishes to talk with you. If you would follow me, she’d be ever so grateful.”

Michael stiffened. Who did Gwen think he was, some puppet she could jerk on a string? “Thank you, but no thanks.” He said, turning back to his horse. “I have more important things to do with my time.”

“All she asks is a moment. To let her explain.”

“Thank you, but let me handle this from here. Michael, please, it is quite vital I speak to you.”

Michael spun in surprise. It was not Gwen who stood facing him, but rather her cousin. Edith was another of the Camelot group who’d never had the chance to shine. She always seem it quite little mouse, taking the crumbs her cousin left behind.

“There is a dock, down by the Bayou,” she said, gesturing with her hands. The people smile and fidgeting hands betrayed a her nervousness. “We run less risk, I think, of being seen.”

Michal was tempted to go with there. They must be a vital issue indeed, to force the timid Edith to meet with the likes of him in some backwater hole in the Bayou. Still, he had no wish to deal with anyone even remotely connected to the Willows. “I’m sorry, Edith, this has anything to do with your family, I’m something not interested.”

Please hear me out. You might find it to work to your vantage. You do want my father to pay what he owes you?”

“You know about that?”

She looked at her hands, refusing to meet his gaze. “He relies on me to take care of what he calls trivial details. They may seem insignificant to him, but those details at up, Michael. I think that he would be amazed at how much I know about him.”

Michael smiled. Jervis, typically arrogant, had overlooked that it was often the quiet ones who required the most security.

“Indeed, it was about my daddy’s activities that I wish to speak. Please, Michael, if you will follow me? Hamilton will stand guard to make certain we are not disturbed.”

She turned into the trees, taking for granted that he would follow. Looking at Colby, who held out his hands and shrugged, Michael knew the man was right. There’s not much in either of them could do at this point. Edith had played her hand beautifully. Michael cannot leave now, curiosity got to him.

He followed her through the trees, coming to a discrete small dock that no longer reach the Bayou. Some time ago, the area had been underwater, but the course of the stream had changed, leaving the dock standing in the middle of nowhere.

Coming to a stop, she gestured around them. “I suppose all this must seem terribly discouraging,” she said with the strength smile. “It is just, well, I’d hate for my father or his friends to overhear what I have to say.”

“Just what is this about, Edith?”

She studied his face a moment, then apparently came to a decision, for she reached into her back to lift out a sheet of paper. “This,” she said, handing the paper to him. “My father plans to put these handbills up on every tavern from here to Baton Rouge.”

Roughly looked down at the black and white drawing of Gwen’s face. Underneath in stark block letters were the words, “come compete for the mistress of the Willows.” His eyes widen as he noticed the extraordinary amount required to join the ranks of competition.

Edith was nodding. “Can see her face that you’ve seen the entry fee. Daddy is quite convinced that men will happily pay it.”

“No respectable gentlemen, I’d wager,” he said, thinking aloud. To participate, a man would have to be either blindly in love with Gwen, or totally new to social commendations. At best, the contest would draw the outer fringes of light society, at worst, adventurers like himself. Too bad he had neither time nor money, or he could well imagine there burbling features if Michael charge into the field of play.

“On the contrary.” Her voice assumed is a presently hard edge. “We both know how it is with the world. Money talks louder than gossip. Society has always been happily to overlook the indiscretions committed by the owners of the Willows.”

How true, and how annoying to hear her say it. “Your family is hardly overburdened with cash at the moment. Rumor has it the Willows is one gasp away from the auction block.”

She shrugged. “The land is still good, and the house is sturdy enough. All it needs is someone willingly to work, and work hard, to get it going again. its nots Gwen’s beauty that will draw them into compete, but rather the prospects of all the free land.”

“I don’t get it. What would your family give-not to mention your cousin-to a complete stranger?”

My daddy stands to make a great deal of money from this venture, Michael. It’s as simple as that.”

Michael, who thought he’d heard everything, felt shocked. This wasn’t some object Jervis was using, for even a piece of prime life stock; this was his blood. Michael had never claimed to be a saint, when he came out looking fairly angelic compared to this vulture. For all his advantages, with all the worthy pursuits in his world, Jervis at shows and be a parasite, living off the dead carcasses of his brother’s estate, using his own flesh and blood to attorney profit.

“Besides,” Edith went on, “that he has no intention of losing Roseland. He means to keep it in the family, as if it were, by making certain Lance wins the contest.”

“So you cheat. Should have known.” Michael shook his head in disgust. Each time he thought his contempt for the family couldn’t get any stronger, they managed to prove him wrong again.

“Neither daddy nor Lance considers it cheating. I believe the term they use was protecting their best interests.”

“And what does your cousin think of this protection?”

“I doubt Gwen has stopped to consider it at all. She’s always wanted to marry Lance. This just makes it easier.”

Was Gwen so willfully blinded that she couldn’t see she was being offered up like some sacrifice of a lamb? Crawling the paper, Michael felt the same sense of outrage he known the day he watched Lance pusher in the dirt. As old-fashioned as it sounded, even raised to value words like respect and honor. Dementia protect the woman he says he loves. He shouldn’t subject her to scorn and ridicule, and certainly never for money. “Just how do they plan to ensure Lance victory? Drug all the competitor’s horses?”

“Nothing so drastic, I assure you. That is in charge of the lists, and can determine in advance will compete. And should a worthy opponent slip past his notice, there is a barely known rule in the competition.”

“Etched in at the bottom and extra small writing?”

“Exactly.” With a ghost of a smile, she reached into the bag again and presented a copy of the rules. “As you’ll note, there is a provision stating that in case of a tie, or any disputed call, the issue must be settled with a joust. As Lance put it, anyone can snare those silly rings, but staying atop a force when another’s trying to unseat you take special training, for both men and animal. By the time the other entries learn about the new rule, he means to be the only one with both the skills and the mount to win.”

“How clever of them.”

Smile went tight. “Yes, well, as it stands now, he will win the competition. And he’s arranged to have a clerk on hand, ready to step in and hear their vows the instant you wins.”

A wedding, there on the field of play? “He certainly taking no chance your cousin will change mine.”

“One isn’t hoarsely in polls of. Is no predicting what she will do next. And, as Lance says, she has been a bit skittish of late.”

Skittish? Michael thought, feeling an odd little thought. “I thought you said your cousin wanted this marriage.”

Edith shook her head. “What you want is neither here nor there. My father and Lance are determine that their marriage to place at the politician, and it shall, unless someone does abuse stop it. You, Michael, are the only one I know who beat Lance before.”

“That, too, is neither here nor there. As you said, your father is in charge of the lists. He never allowed my name to be on it.”

She smiled. “Sure enough, but you see, the actual copying of the lists have been regulated to me. It might not have been my daddy’s to intention, but I have the ultimate say over who is and is not included.”

“I don’t have the money”

She waved off his protest. “Since I keep the records, too, can easily disregard entrance fee. That is already set the same for Lance.”

Michael eyed her suspiciously, press in spite of himself by the intelligence and determination she hid from the world. “We seem to have given this great deal thought, either. But in all your calculations, did you stop to consider I might not want to compete?”

“Why not? I’m told you’re far from a wealthy man. Think what you have to gain.”

Nothing was gained in his life without a price, he learned. “As hard as it may be for you to believe, I don’t want the Willows. It holds too many memories I prefer to put behind me.”

“No one says you must keep the plantation, Michael. Indeed, you could sell it back to us, for say that amounts my father owes you?”

So this is what where she’d been leading? Michael stared at her, long and hard. “How efficiently you tied everything up. Can’t help wondering what you hope to gain from it.”

She looked away, biting her lip, her hands fidgeting again. “My motives are not important. Do we have a deal or not?”

“I don’t think so. I’m not good at lies.” He turned to go, suddenly tired of the whole thing.

“Wait,” she called out. “Please, at least take the time to think it over. You just might find it that it’s your only hope.”

God forbid, he thought, continuing through the trees. Breaking into the clearing he brushed past Colby to treat his horse, knowing he couldn’t leave this place soon enough.

Pointing himself in the saddle, he knew he’d been a damn full to do what she asked. In his rash youth, he might’ve tried rushing in to save Gwen like some hero, but he now knew the lady neither wanted-nor deserved-to be rescued.

Angry with entire situation, especially his own part in it, he turned his horse towards the swamp, deciding it was time to be getting back home. Let this family sort out their own dirty laundry; he had not the energy to – about like some hero. It was none of his business-and even less concern-what happened to the high in mighty Gwen. Come what may, she would end up with her Lance, and nothing could change that. A painful lesson Rafe had learned from the lady herself.

Still and all, it wasn’t her rejection he thought about. It was her face the night as he kissed her, all flesh and soft and so incredibly vulnerable.

“Damn,” he said, spurring his horse down the road.” Damn, damn, damn.”

 

***

 

A few days before the competition, Gwen stood in the field to watch Lance practice, hoping the last three hours at her toilette had not been wasted. It was no easy thing, looking her best. Even with older clothes, she was fast running short of clean clothing.

She’d been saving the rose patterned morning dress for a special occasion, and while she couldn’t like it’s snug fit, or how it’s lace trim drag in the mud, this was a dire emergency. She just had to charm Lance into charming Lavinia. Someone must convince the stubborn old servants to do her laundry, or Gwen would soon be down to her shift.

Twirling her dress, he started forward the instant he brought his horse to a halt. “Why, Lance, if you don’t look like a champion already,” she drawled. “I declare, the way you snared those rings, I can’t see how there’s men alive who can best you.”

He smiled broadly as he dismounted. “It may prove a trifle more difficult on the day of actual competition.”

“But surely you will win?”

“Of course.” Still smiling, he grabbed the reins of his horse. “But you cannot have come out in this hot sun to discuss my performance. Tell me, while we strolled over to the shade, to what do I oh this pleasure?”

Gwen fell step aside him. “Lance, can’t a girl watch her champion practice?”

“She most certainly can, especially when she looks so lovely. Have you done something new with your hair?”

She flushed with pleasure. “Not really,” she lied, ignoring that hour she had spent with the curling iron. “But how sweet of you to say I looked nice, especially in this old thing. I will soon have nothing to wear, if Lavinia does not do the laundry. I declare, I think she’s the delaying just to spite me. You know she’s never much liked me. She was always more like to listen to you.” She looked up, batting her lashes. “I bet if you were to talk to her, washing would get done tomorrow.”

Her words pleased him; she could tell by the upward shift of his shoulders. “I have an idea. Why don’t I intercept in your behalf?”

“Oh, would you Lance” Gwen was willing to pretend he had come up with the idea, if it got her clean clothes, but she couldn’t help a small spurt of resentment. There was little fun in being clever, if no one noticed. “Lance, you are my hero,” she gushed nonetheless.

Stopping his horse near a tall stand of oaks, Lance gestured back to where he’d been practicing. “Just wait until the competition. Picture it, Gwen, horns blasting, the crowd shouting and cheering, while I thunder past. And when I have one, after I have vanquished all challengers, I shall come kneel in worship. There, in front of everyone, your Lancelot shall claim you. At long last, you and I shall exchange our vows.”

Gwen, who had been swept up by the colorful image, snapped back to the here and now. “Vows?” She asked. “You cannot mean a wedding?”

He frowned. “You said you wanted to wed as soon as possible.”

“No. I mean, yes, of course, I do, but I have always imagine a church, with a lovely new gown, and hundreds of guests dancing at a grand and elaborate party. I don’t want to be wed on some dusty field.”

His frown tilted, became a tight smile “but, of course, darling, I wants all that is much as you. Still and all, the crowd will expect excitement in ceremony, and we can’t disappoint them. They’ll be expecting Lancelot and Gwen to stand up before them, swearing to cherish each other forever. The least we can do is give them their money’s worth in entertainment.”

“And we shall, provided it’s a mock ceremony, only for show,” she said, faking a smile of her own. “We will wait to have a real wedding later, won’t we?”

His smile eased. “A mock ceremony. Of course. But I shall arrange it so no one will guess it’s not real. Trust your Lancelot to take care of everything.”

She did, truly she did, so why this nagging apprehension? “You will win, won’t you?” She found herself asking. “Jervis says he’s already had thirty entrances, yet so few have names I recognize, and none of those men are men I would care to marry. I cannot bear being tied to some ill bearded ogre who eats with his hands and snores in the sleep.”

“Haven’t I already promised? I swear to you, Gwen, I shall let no other man have you.”

It was a wonderful declaration, delivered with the right touch of finesse, yet it failed to make her feel better. Odd that she should find less emotion in his gaze then she’d seen in Michael’s the night he kissed her.

“Lance,” he found herself asking, “why is it you never kiss me?”

He hesitated, clearly taken back, before smiling with his usual assurance. “What a question. You must know, I hope that’s I respect you too much to so compromise your reputation.”

“I know, and I treasure that, but here, Lance, with one to see, what would it hurt? Aren’t you at least bit curious how it feels to touch my lips? Don’t you yearn for the excitement, the… The magic?”

Again he pause, turning to fuss with his horse. “Of course, but only a complete clown would force himself to his lady before their wedding. That is why I am so eager for us to be married.”

“Yes, but-“

“It will happen, Gwen, and soon, as we must be patient.” Smiling grimly, he took up the ropes of the horse. “In between the time, my horses and find sweats and easy rubdown. Come, walk with me back to Bell Oaks, and I’ll drive you home in my mother’s carriage.”

She suddenly felt cross, not optimally visit with his overbearing mother. “I think I should stay closer to home. It’s nearly dinnertime, I do hate toward daddy.”

“I suppose it is getting late. I imagine I’d best be going.”

She had hoped he’d offer to walk her back to the house, and the fact that he did not merely grew her irritation. “I thought you were going to talk to Lavinia.”

“I will, first thing in the morning.” With his patented smile, he pulled himself on top of the horse. “After all, you must make certain you have a clean scarf. When I march into the fray, I expect to carry a Lily white token of your favor.”

Squirming with guilt, she watched Lance walk off. She did not like the reminder that she’d granted her token to another just how was she to get her handkerchief back from Michael?

As if he had appeared merely to answer her question, she saw him standing among the trees to her right, watching from beside his huge black stallion. As he led the animal closer, she was doubly annoyed to find her heart echoing the thuds of Lance’s retreating horse.

“Lance was just explaining the competition to me,” she said awkwardly when Michael reach her.

“I heard.” She cringed inside as she recalled the conversation. She hope Michael had not thought she was begging for Lance’s kiss-or worse, made any connection to his own.

“What are you doing here, Michael?” Was all she could think of to change the subject.

He looked behind him, for the distance swap. “Trespassing again, I suppose. Do you me to turn me in?”

“Must you always be so disagreeable? I had not meant to chastise you. I was merely curious.”

He flashed a rare smile, which did the strangest thing to her insides. “I’d meant to pass through, when I saw Lance prancing across the field, I felt myself stopping to watch.”

“He’s been practicing for the competition.” Gwen blushed. What a stupid thing to say; was it obvious what Lance had been doing? Why was it that being near this unpredictable man always left are so flustered? “Will you be competing, too, Michael?”

“As if I could afford to,” he muttered under his breath.

Too late, she realized how even a normal fee would be a normal obstacle to some. “If you’d like,” she offered, feeling bad that she been so carelessly thoughtless, “I can talk to my uncle, I’m sure he can arrange something. Perhaps even waive the fee.”

“You would do that for me?” His eyes narrowed.” But why?”

Good question. “Because Lance says it will be the event of the year. “She wondered why she persisted, when he was so unreceptive. “It would be a shame, if you missed it.”

“I will live.”

“Yes, I suppose you will, but it shall be such fun. Everyone who is anyone shall be there.”

“I won’t. We tried this once before, my lady. The last time I played your games, I did not have much fun at all.”

“But so much has changed since then. We were children. I do not think…”

Her voice trailed off, the words suddenly lame as she was caught up his dark, penetrating gaze.

“You don’t have to participate either, my lady.” He stood before her, so close she could see a slight softening in his washable gaze. “This could be your one chance to stand up to these people. To take charge of your life. Don’t you want to choose the man you will marry?”

“Of course, I do. But everyone knows Lance will win.”

He nodded, the softness vanishing from his gaze. “You were wrong, my lady. Nothing is changed you least of all.”

Gwen felt heat of his words run through her. “I don’t know why you must persist in your childish dislike. Lance is good and kind and wonderful-“

“While I’m not fit to lick his boots.” He took a step closer, grabbing her by the arm. “Tell me, what was that all about, asking him why he never kisses you? Were you hoping to make a comparison?”

Of all the conceited notions. But before Gwen could tell him how incredibly wrong he was, he dipped down and took possession of her lips.

This was no gentle exploration, but a man staking his claim, and all-out assault taking no prisoners. Pulled to his chest, Gwen dropped her parasol, forgetting all else but his lean, hard strength pressed against her. The heat became urgent, given her no choice but to melt in his arms.

As she surrendered, she felt far more than a tingling; the magic seeped into her bones. Deep inside, she came to life, throbbing with a dark, pulsing force that left her hungry for more.

He pulled away roughly, long before she was ready. “That is how a lady should be kissed,” he spoke out as he went for his horse. “If Lance can’t do that for you, you should not be marrying him.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snapped at him. “Lance Loves me and I love him, with all my heart.”

“Your precious Lancelot is-“ He clamped shut his jaw as he pulled himself onto the horse. “God damn, maybe your rights. What do I know?”

“You are jealous,” she shouted up at him, but his horse began to sidestep and Gwen had to move out of its way. “You’re trying to get back at me for what happened when we were children.”

He looked down at her for a moment, his expression almost sad. “Have a nice life with Lance,” he said with a sigh. Then, spurring his horse into flight, he flung back over his shoulder, “you deserve him.”

He charged off in an opposite direction from Lance, leaving Gwen to stand sputtering in the field, looking from right to left, wishing Lance would reappear and stop her from making unwanted comparisons. Lance was the good and strong and noble one, she insisted. Michael was the… The…

Face facts, the man was a complete enigma.

Well, if the lousy lout thought she would waste one moment thinking about his kiss-either one-he was sadly mistaken. She’d made her choice long ago, she didn’t need to prove she’d made the right decision. Her Lancelot had magic all his own.

Yet she stood in that field, touching her lips, long after Michael vanished from her view.

 

Chapter 7

Jervis stood in the moonlight, probably looking over the tournament field. A slight mist rose from the marshlands and drifted pass the makeshift grandstand in a silvery haze. Service had never considered himself an imaginative person, but with the pennants living on all fours corners and the family banner curling in the light breeze, he can almost picture King Arthur himself galloping out of the fog on his steed.

Camelot was Gwen’s favorite fantasy, he knew. If his niece could see it now, perhaps she would not be so skittish about this competition.

Not that Jervis was about to let her volatile moods destroy his confidence. Everything was in place, from the accommodating preacher seconds, well-trained horse, now waiting for Lance in the Willows’ stable. They have prepared for every contingency, made certain there was no way they could lose, by this time tomorrow, Jervis would be well on his way to becoming a wealthy man. Soon, he would be the man everyone looked up to, while his brother John would be the failure.

Turning back for the house, Jervis preened with self-satisfaction. At long last, he would be getting what he deserved. They have been frustrating years, watching his brother get everything-all the advantages, the money, Amanda…

Jervis refused to think of the past. All that mattered now was that in the end, he would be the one who proved the more successful brother.

Too bad John would not be alive to see it. The doctor had not yet warned him how short a time he had to live, but Jervis new. It was that very news that made him sit down start planning.

As caretaker of his brother’s estate, with access to all his personal records, Jervis knew what was written in John’s will. The Willows would go to his silly niece, there was no way to prevent it, but he if found a way to get his hands on her true fund. According to its terms, sturdy amount had been set aside for when, unless she married a man John disapproved of, in which case, all the money would retreat to his younger brother.

Jervis smiled. Since Lance had been specified as the man John lease wanted his daughter to wed, his poor brother would probably heal over at the reception, when Gwen married Lance tomorrow.

It had occurred Jervis that perhaps he need not lose the Willows, either, if he kept his wits about him. With a fool like Lance to manage what was left of the plantation, Gwen and her new husband soon be forced to sell. Kind and understanding Uncle Jervis, doing his best to “keep the place in the family,” could then steal the place for a small price. With the trust fund, the sale of Bell Oaks, and the profits from the competition, he could then restore the Willows to this showplace it had once been.

Nostalgically, he looked up at the tall, stately house, then back to the broad, empty fields waiting for cane. The Willows had been among the finest spreads on the Mississippi. Oh, how they had all basked in John’s glory in those days. What fun, what riches. If only Amanda…

Shaking himself firmly, seeing no profit in dwelling upon the memory, he strode to the house, halted by the sound of the stable door opening to his right. “Edith” he blurted, surprised to see his daughter emerge. “What are you doing out here at this hour?”

“Oh, daddy, my heavens, I thought you were a ghost.” She laughed, for more heartily than the occasion would warrant. Taking his arm, she steered him away from the stable.

“You did not answer my question, girl.”

“Didn’t I?” She looked straight ahead, as if hell-bent on reaching the house. “I needed to be by myself for a spell. What with all the preparations, it has been so hectic around here, a girl can barely think.”

“What can be troubling you so, we must think out in the stable?”

She stopped, taking a deep breath for return to him with a strange expression. “Oh daddy, is all this necessary? Must we truly go through with the tournament tomorrow?”

Now what was this? “How many times must I explain? This is my brother’s house. His and Gwen’s needs must come first. We must get her future settled, before we can start looking to find you a suitable husband.”

“I do not want a suitable husband. I want-“she broke off. “Oh, daddy, I know you want what’s best for me, what about poor Lance? What if you truly does not want to marry Gwen?”

“Those two have been sweethearts for years. Of course, he wants to marry her.”

“But he could lose the tournament. He is older now, he might not be the true champion anymore.” Bit her lip, then grabbed his sleeve. “You know, daddy, it might be best if I were on the panel of judges.”

Smiling down at his girl, Jervis felt a strong surge of pride. She might not be the son he had wanted, but she had to admit, his Edith could out think the best of them. “That is a wonderful idea, baby girl. Truth to tell, though, I have already put you on that panel. With you, me, Gwen, and John deciding, we can make sure things stay heavily in Lance’s favor.”

She loosened her hold on his sleeve. Was it a trick of the moonlights, or did her smile fade? “True enough, but can we really rely on what’s uncle John will do? Or Gwen herself, for that matter?”

“Lance has been practicing for weeks, there is no way he can lose.” Jervis grew impatient; he did not appreciate having his spirits damaged. “Don’t you be fretting over this, baby girl. Daddy has things well in hand.”

“Yes, but-“

“Seems to me you have been spending too much time thinking in that stable. Maybe it is time my baby was getting herself to bed. Go on with you now. Get back to the house and catch up on your beauty sleep.”

She looked ready to argue, but he gave her his best scowl. Casting one last look over her shoulder, smiled tightly and made her way inside.

Jervis retreated to the shadows, afraid she might try to defy him by sneaking out again. Busy watching the back porch, he missed the dark figure slipping, undetected, out through the stable door.

A good thing, too, for it would have been hard to mistake that well-groomed blonde head.

 

***

 

Edith stopped inside the back door, leaning up against it as she caught her breath. That had been a close call. If daddy had caught her with Lance…

Part of her almost wished he had. It would be taken out of her hands than; my even force everyone to face what she had known for years, that Lance should not be marrying Gwen. The way he had held Edith tonight, kissing her so fervently, surely he belonged with her instead.

But no, he was determined to go through with the competition, and all the kisses in the world would not stop him. Nor could she blame him, for what, after all, did she have to offer him that could compare with the Willows?

Once again, Gwen got it all and took it all for granted.

It was not fair, Edith decided. She had done everything but stand on her head to throw Gwen and Michael together. They get promises of the money her father owed him, she had lured him to the docks, than later to the Fosters’ ball, but on both occasions, her impetuous cousin had failed to commit the necessary indiscretion-or at least, Lance had not caught her at it. Gwen seemed uncharacteristically determined to act like a Lady, and Michael was not cooperating at all.

Most men would jump at the prospect of winning the Willows, yet here it was the night before the competition, and he had yet to take Edith up on her offer. Everything depended on his appearance. He was the only man she knew capable of actually beating Lance.

Pushing away from the door, she swallowed her panic. Michael did not come, she would just have to find some other means, however drastic, to stop that wedding.

 

***

 

The next morning, Gwen studied herself in the mirror, well pleased with her image. For the first time since she had returned home, she was wearing a dress worth the effort of donning. Royal blue silk, trimmed with a lace and pearls, and this stately princess style gown had been her mother’s favorite from tournaments in the past.

Holding up the long, flowing sleeves, Gwen imagined Lance kneeling before her as he claimed her hand. “You are my vision,” he would gush, his eyes glazed with passion.

Twirling happily, she was so caught up in fantasy, she did not hear her cousin enter the room.”

“Does your daddy know you are wearing that down?” Edith’s sharp tone cut the fantasy to shreds. “He’s not that far gone he won’t recognize it. Everyone in the parish will know it was once answered Amanda’s.”

In her mind, Gwen could see father standing in the doorway, staking her for mother, before slamming the door in her face. “He won’t mind?” She said lying. “It is time this old thing got some use anyway.”

When shook her head, denying this, though she feared her cousin could be right. Still, she wanted this dress-needed it-to help find the confidence to go out on that field. Though she could never admit it to her father-much less to Edith-Gwen was scared half to death. “Daddy will understand. Today of all days, he will want me looking my best.”

“Do you truly think he cares what you look like, today or any other day?”

Refusing to listen to her spiteful talks, Gwen daintily lifted her skirt’s, not having a hoop, she’d been forced to dawn several petticoats, which not only left her faint from the heat, but made it quite hard to navigate.

By the time Gwen gathered enough material to keep from tripping, Edith, whose yellow muslin skirt looked like the Liberty Bell, blocked the doorway. “Stop making excuses, Gwen. You cannot keep running away from the truth. I declare, isn’t it time you admit your father doesn’t care about what happens to you? Uncle John does not love you. And for that matter, neither does Lance.”

Stunned by her cousins attack, Gwen froze, her hands tightening on the silk. “That is not true,” she protested. “Lance will not be out there competing today, if he did not love me.”

“It’s not you he is competing for. It is the Willows”

“You are jealous, Edith. You always have been.”

“It is all just a show, the only way he and daddy knew to trick you into participating. They need the money, you know”

Shaking her head viciously, Gwen dropped the silk “what a hateful thing to say. Lance does love me. He has sworn to protect me always.”

Edith’s voice took on a brittle edge. “Maybe he has found someone else to love and protect, I think he means to lose today. Indeed, I am so certain of it, I am willing to bet my pearl necklace for your…” Her eyes settled on Gwen’s neck, “… Your mother’s locket.”

Gwen reach for the locket, closing her hands around it. “Why are you doing this, I know we have never gotten on, but to say such things to me, now when I’m scared what the day will bring-can you truly hate me that much?”

Gwen looked away, into the mirror, as if talking to her reflection instead. “Maybe I’m tired of everything going your way and you thinking it’s your doing. Just once, it would be nice to see the high and mighty Queen Gwen taken down a little.”

One tried to push past her cousin. “I hate to disappoint you, but-“

“Lance will not claim you,” Edith said through her teeth, crossing her arms as she continue to block the door. “You can bet money on it.”

“Money?” By now, Gwen was angry. “Neither of us has a penny. I guess we will have to wager your pearls against my locket. I do hope you are ready to part with that necklace by the end of the day.”

This time, Edith moved out of the way, now that the damage was done, and Gwen confidence sorely shaken. Hurrying down the hallway, Gwen realized that her entire future would be decided before the sun set, and she must rely upon others to settle it. Though she did not for a moment suppose Lance would deliberately lose, she had an overwhelming need to see him now, to hear his assurance. To have him hold her, soothe her, convince her that he lived to protector and not just for today, but always.

Lifting her skirts as she raced off to find him, Gwen did not see her cousin behind her, watching and biting her lip.

 

***

 

Busy attaching the silver streamers to his spear, Lance mentally patted himself on the back. He knew he cut quite a figure into his white breeches and silver trimmed tunic. It pleased him no ends that he looked every inch the dashing knight, the perfect heir apparent to the throne of the Willows. When he rode out onto the field, every head would turn and smile with recognition, knowing that by the days and, Lance would be the new Lord and master.

Ah yes, everything was proceeding according to plan. He would win Gwen’s hand, he would wed her and that her, and get her with child, just as his mother demanded.

Once all was settled, when he had the Willows back on its feet again, he will live his life as he chose. That was the reason for great wealth, his father had taught, to give a man the means of following his heart’s desire. And his desire, at this moment, centered on Edith.

She was teasing him, the little temptress, offering him just enough to drive him mad with lust, then withdrawing to hide behind her father’s displeasure. If Lance did not need Jervis’s help so badly right now, he would have put the female on her back, right here in this very stable, and on more than one occasion.

He smiled, thinking how clever he was, giving them Bella Oaks in exchange for the Willows. By keeping Edith near, he could take his pleasure of her whenever he needed.

He would need her often, for each held no illusions of any grand passion in his marriage. There are two women in this world, mama insisted, the strumpet and the lady, and woe to the man who confuse them. The good Lord put strumpet’s on this Earth to deal with man’s beastly needs, so his lady could remain above his animal passions. A man could take his pleasure with his mistress, but bedding his wife must be a chaste and sacred occasion.

“Lance?”

He turned to the sound of Gwen’s voice, pasting a smile on his face. No sense letting her know his plans, at least not until the ring was on her finger. “Gwen, my love. What brings you here to the stables?”

“I just…” Stood by the door, biding her lips. “You will win today, won’t you?” She said in a rush. “Please, Lance, promise me you will.”

“I have told you again and again that I shall.” Try as he might, Lance could not keep irritation from slipping into his tone.

“I know, but, Lance, I cannot bear it if I had to marry a stranger. I just cannot bear it.”

“What is it?” He strode over to stand before her. “You cannot doubt me? You know I should always be your champion.”

She nodded, but the fingers toying with her locket trembled. Taking her hands in his, shook his head. “Your hands are cold as ice.”

“Warm me then, Lance,” he said quietly, gazing up at him. “Kiss me.”

He nearly refused. He knew he should remind her that a gentleman did not service his lady in a stable, and certainly not mere moments before and important competition, but he also realized that it kissing Gwen would make her less skittish about the upcoming moments, it would be well worth the effort.

Meaning down, he brushed her lips with his own. There was a simple kiss and quietly pleasant. “There,” he said, dropping her hands as he pulled away. “Do you feel better?”

She nodded, dazed and breathless of speech. Typical female, he thought, but then, more indulgently, he granted that it was her first kiss.

“You run along no and go take your seat,” he said, turning her toward the door. “I will need my lady cheering for me when I make my grand entrance. You do have my token, I hope? I want every man there to see you granting your favor to me.”

Again she nodded, but a crease appeared between her brows. “Go along, “he pushed, recognizing that the expression. It generally preceded a difficult question, or worse, a scene. “Hurry, or you will be late, and we certainly don’t want to risk angering your father today.”

He notched her toward, until her feet began to move on their own. As she passed through the door, he noticed she touched her lips. No doubt remembering of the moment he would be kissing her again.

Well pleased with himself, he turned back to his horse, but as he did, he saw a flash of yellow out the corner of his right. Tensed, instantly on guard. He could ill afford to have the other entrants see his second mount, the striking white steed in the far stall. If and when it came time to joust, Lance wanted the animal to be a complete an unpleasant surprise.

 

***

 

Jervis headed toward the playing field, looking for Edith. The way folks filled up through the front gate, he had decided, one of them should be there to greet their guests. Since service needed to settle Gwen and John to their seats, only Edith was expendable. Let her man to the gate and pretend all was as if should be, though in truth, this was proving to be a somewhat less than spectacle of fair.

Gwen did not know-and Jervis say no reason to tell her-that the local gentry looked down there noses at the notion of men competing for her hand. Here hypocrites, every last one of them, professing this competition but need them. Jervis thought it a sheer case of sour grapes. They were too miserable to watch with the participation fee, but they would come in drove us to watch.

And they came expecting drama; he could hear it in their voices, could feel their excitement flowing in the air. Passing the stable where Lance groomed both his horses, Jervis felt a tinge of foreboding. God help him if Lance did not do his part.

Annoyed, Jervis told himself he was absurd to let Edith’s questions and affect him with doubt. Hadn’t they done everything but stand on their heads to guarantee Lance’s victory? What could possibly go wrong?

Noticing his daughter hovering outside the open stable door, he paused with a frown. Why was she hanging about the stables again? He had sent her to fetch Gwen, to make certain her cousin arrived at the field; what was Edith doing here instead?

He watched her make a sudden dash for the house, clearly upset and acting like she had something to hide. Had she been pestering Lance? Jervis wondered irritably, cursing the girl’s foolishness. Nothing must distract Lance from the competition, for his marriage to Gwen. Not when his entire future hinged upon that ceremony taking place today.

Making a mental note to talk with his daughter, he noticed Gwen strolling out of the stable in some sort of a daze, Lance strutting like a peacock behind her. Young Lance had obviously been busy, Jervis thought, much relieved. Unless he was badly mistaken, it was a girl who had been recently kissed.

Greening, he dismissed his worries about his daughter and Lance. After all, what man in his right mind would risk losing Gwen for Edith? Oh, she was an exemplary daughter, and a decent cook, but certainly not the prize.

As he looked at his niece and noticed her distraction, he decided to escort Gwen to the field. With all that was writing on today’s outcome, he dare not risk that she might panic at the last moment and runaway.

“My, my, you aren’t a vision,” he told Gwen as he steered her toward the playing field. “You look so lovely, Gwen, your father and I will be beating the boys off with a stick.”

She glanced over her shoulder. “Lance did not seem to notice.”

Jervis frowned. “I am certain he did, honey, but his mind is on other things. Winning the competition, after all, means of winning your hand.”

“Oh, uncle, he has to win today.”

He put an arm around her, wondering why you must have this conversation twice in two days. “Of course, Lance will win. Don’t you worry, we won’t let anything happen to our Gwen.”

“You do all love me, don’t you?”

He pulled away, generally surprise. “What kind of question is that? We are your family, honey. We have our differences, like all kinfolk, but want only the best for you. And to my way of thinking, is exactly what Lance is.”

Her smile was a lip attempt. “Maybe, but daddy is liable to be angry when he learns Lance is in the competition. What will he do if he refuses to accept our marriage?”

He tensed, wondering if she somehow knew about the trust fund. “Is your daddy’s approval all that important?” He probed. “I mean, if he won’t accept Lance, will it make any difference in how feel about him?”

“I suppose not.” She sighed. “I am a grown woman now, and I must make my own choices. Even if…” She touched her lips, then set them in a tight line. “I’ve sworn to marry the winner and I will, no matter what.”

“That is our Gwen.” Patting her on the shoulder, gestured toward the grandstand now looming before them. He tried to hide his annoyance at not finding his brother there, but a good measure of it crept into his tone. “You go on and sit on your throne, honey. Looks like I’m going to have to go fetch your father.”

“I hope he is not drinking already.”

On the contrary, Jervis hoped his brother was, for the less John knew about what was going on, the more manageable he would prove to be. Indeed, maybe he should find him a flask. “You go on,” he told Gwen, when his mind set on getting his brother drunk. “The crowd is expecting their queen, and we can’t be disappointing them.”

She nodded, raising her chin much like her mother might have done. Watching her walk proudly to her throne, Jervis saw all too much of Amanda in this young woman. Half the reason he wanted Gwen marrying that imbecile Lance, was to keep her from getting in his way.

Just a few more hours, he thought, turning back toward the house.

 

***

 

Gwen approach the grandstand, thoughts spreading through her head. She couldn’t be doing this… It was some dreadful mistake… If she fainted right now, maybe they would call the entire thing off.

The crowd gathering around her was enormous-she’d been right in telling Michael everyone would be here-but contrary to her uncle’s suggestion, they did not wait for their queen. Busy milling around, chattering among themselves, for neighbors all but ignored her. Nor did it help her confidence to find so many local bachelors watching from the stands. How humiliating, all these people had gathered to watch, and no one but Lance showed up compete for her hand.

Lance, thoughts on easily. She wish now that she’d never asked him to kiss her. Maybe Jervis was right, maybe he was preoccupied, but he could have put some life into the effort, infused it with some… Magic. Maybe then it would not have been such a disappointment.

There, she admitted it; she had felt nothing when Lance kissed her. They could be children again, pecking at each other’s lips, for all the passion they had stirred between them. Why, she’d felt more in the arms of a rival stranger.

Remembering just how much she’d felt with Michael, she cringed with guilt. What was she thinking of, today over all days, when Lance was about to ride into this very field, a noble knight doing battle for his lady?

She looked at the family banner stretched across the front of the grandstand, with its huge gold crown atop the words, “honor and glory.” The first day she could remember, she’d longed to be a queen of this realm, to rule as warmly and graciously as her mother. It was every dream she’d ever dreamed, a fancy few girls could ever hope for, and today, Lance was going to make it come true.

Lifting her chin, she climbed the three steps to the covered platform and went straight to the wooden share her uncle called a thorough. Painted a gaudy gold, its stiff back studded with glittering stones, it might look like if grown from a distance, but up close, it looked like a very uncomfortable chair. More keeping up pretenses, she thought unhappily.

Not anxious to test its comfort, she stood at the low rail to survey the field. Three viewing areas had been set up, one on either side of the grandstand, but the larger area directly opposite. In the wide Lane between these areas, two polls had been erected, a cord strung between them. A hook dangled from the cord, holding the ring each person must snare.

Looking about her, she cannot help but sigh. Uncle had done his best, but this was nowhere near spectacle her parents had once provided. There were too few benches in the viewing areas, and the tarps stretched over them for shade sported a good many holes since their last use. Worn, too, for the flags on the supporting poles. Once they had fluttered greatly, sporting a circus of color, but now they drooped, and waved lifeless in the midmorning sun.

She could understand either inertia, she found it hard enough to breathe in this heat. Clicking opened her cousin’s fan to try to stir up the breeze, but even moving, the air remained hot and humid sticking It to her, weighed her down, and did nothing to brighten her mood.

She wished she could see the competitors in the far off corner, but they’d the kept out of sight until their grand entrance. At the sound of the horn each person would be introduced, so he could come charging across the field to snare the reading and Gallup off with it on his Lance.

The dramatic spectacle that Gwen normally enjoyed, but today she felt hot and tired, and her stomach churned with worry. It’s not help to see uncle leading her tottering daddy up the steps. John’s drunken expression warned that he had indeed found the Bourbon; fierce frown promised trouble.

He sat on her throne, finding it as uncomfortable as she feared. Fidgeting nervously, she waited for her father’s reaction to the dress as he took the seat to her right. But aside from a grunt, he said nothing, leaving Gwen with her first real stirrings of hope. If Edith had been wrong about his reaction to mothers dress, she was probably wrong about the rest of it, too.

Juervis kept looking about them. “Have you seen Edith?” Asked. “If she doesn’t arrive soon, we will have to start without her.”

“Start anyway,” Father grumbled. “Let’s get the damn thing over with and done.”

Far from pleased, uncle stepped up to the rail, raising his arms in the air. A horn sounded, weak and tiny, but the crowd hushed immediately.

Stepping out onto the field, Thomas Perkins, the man acting as today’s Herald, gestured up to the grandstand. “Hear ye, hear ye,” he shouted. “Gather around and pay heed, for today we crowned the queen of our tournament, the lovely lady Gwen.”

A day that was likely to be a long one, she thought with a frown as she took her seat. At a clap from Mr. Perkins, the competitors were summoned to parade, one by one, before the viewers. Her vanity might rejoice at the number of people, nearly forty in all, but her mind did the mental arithmetic. Even if each took but a few moments to charge for the ring, first round was bound to take hours.

Mr. Perkins introduced every contestant in turn. With each taken the identity of some fiction is night, it was understandable that she might not recognize all their names, but how daunting that she should find so few familiar faces. All had chosen crests and colors, but the effort seemed slapdash and halfhearted. And made this less romantic with every passing minute.

Beside her, father lifted a flask to his mouth, but his eyes never left the field. Assignments, he watched each person, nodding as if counting heads, stiffening at the last was introduced. Lance, Gwen thought with an overwhelming relief. Didn’t matter who the other men were as long as he competed. Her Lancelot would rescue her again.

A thunderous cheer went up as he dashed to the center of the field, carrying a pennant of the same silver and white as his clothing. Everything about him seem to glisten; even his horse was a pale, silvery gray. Bringing the animal up onto its rear legs, he held the pose as he saluted to the crowd.

“Fool,” father muttered beside her. “That man could not pay off his debts. Where did he get this kind of money?”

Gwen had no time to ponder the question, for Lance was charging toward the grandstand, holding her gaze. Even before he stopped by the rail, she realize what he wanted, the token of her favor, she thought with dismay; that was twice she had forgotten about it.

What could she offer? Not her hair ribbon, for that was blue and Lance had asked for something white. Digging frantically in her ridicule, all she could only find was a plain handkerchief, a plain square with neither lace nor embroidery. It was not much of a token, but it would have to do.

Lance frowned when she presented its. For awful moment she feared he had hated her offering, but he eventually took the offending cloth tied it to his spear. Bowing, he turned his horse dramatically, before charging off to join the ranks.

Father continue to grumble, taking another poll from the flask, but Gwen let herself relax. None of these men seemed likely a night, much less a worthy rival, so she had every section that Lance would eventually dispatch them.

The initial charges held her interests, watching horse and rider under toward that single, tiny worrying, but as more and more missed, the ineptitude grew wearying. Half those eliminated from the first round never touch the ring, and now an equal number failed to remain on their horse. How boring the contest seemed, now that’s the outcome was unforeseen conclusion.

Only a dozen survived the second round, and by the third there were merely by. Gwen fanned herself religiously as one by one, Lance is remaining rivals fell by the wayside, until he alone prevailed. At last, she thought as he pranced on his silver horse toward the grandstand, grinning from ear to ear.

Yet now that it was done, Gwen felt strange let down. She knew she should count herself lucky, but surely a girl could wish for something a little bit more romantic-at the least, entertaining. After future must be decided by competition, shouldn’t there be at least some excitement?

The heat must be getting to her. Instead of complaining about silly, girlish aspirations, she should be on her knees grateful that Lance had won. It was over, her future was decided at last; she should start enjoying all the dreams Lance just made come true.

And she would, she swore, just as soon as she had a cool bath and a reviving glass of lemonade.

In the meantime, she must get through the ceremonies the crowd expected. As Lance trotted closer, she rose to greet him with a forced smile, her hands going to the crown at her head. Trading decreed that she grant it to the winner.

“Not so fast,” father said, rising to his feet beside her. “Ain’t finished yet.”

“Sit down, John” uncle hissed at her other side. “We know how you feel about Lance, but he defeated everyone else.”

“Has he now? Then who is that?”

A slow building murmur ripped through the crowd as they look to where he pointed. “No,” Gwen whispered, her hands tightening on the crown as she recognized the new challenger.

There, on his huge beast of a horse, sat Michael.

 

Chapter 8

Michael? Here, now? Lance swiftly denied that he was alarmed. This was no childish fist cuffs in which an unprincipled form boy could excel; tilting was a gentleman’s game, and Lance was its master. How brash, how foolish of that no account farmer to think he could ride in and challenge him. Ordinarily, Lance would take great pleasure in putting the man in his place, but today, unfortunately, there was too much at stake. “It is too late,” he called out, annoyed by that tension Rafe received. “I have already won the competition.”

Michael rode forward with a lack of speed, reining in his horse before them. “Funny, but I don’t remember reading anything on that handbill regarding a timeframe. According to this copy of the rules, your competition isn’t over until the Queen declares the winner.” He leaned forward, over the railing offering a slip of paper.

With a grunt, John took the list of rules. Gwen, Lance noticed, continue to clutch the crown as if her life depended on it, her face drained of all color.

“He is right.” Looking altogether too pleased, John waved the sheet of paper. “It also states that the Queen cannot announce the winner, until the panel of judges votes on who it will be.”

Lance looked to Jervis, seemed equally confused. The panel had been designed to protect them, not provide openings for unimportant challengers.

“I see no reason why this man cannot compete.” John said, leaning back in his chair.

“I see several reasons,” Jervis said coldly. “He has not paid the entrance fee. If he had, he would be wearing a number like everyone else.”

Lance smiled. He had forgotten about the fee-for, of course, she had not had to pay it-but they had written a rule saying that it must be paid before the competition began.”

Michael sat compliantly on his horse. “I have a number, actually. Don’t I, Miss McCloud?”

At first, Lance thought he meant Gwen. It took some moments to realize that Michael nodded instead at her cousin, now walking up the steps.

“He is right,” Edith said breathlessly, waving his entry slip as she approached. “I’m sorry it has taken so long, but I had to search high and low to find your number.” She leaned over the rail to hand the slip to Michael.

“You could have stalled a bit longer,” Lance fumed. “Five minutes more, and I’d have had the damn crown in my hands.”

Jervis reach for his daughter’s arms “what is this?” He snagged, anger glittering in his eyes. “I don’t recall his name on the list.”

Edith seemed surprised by her father’s reaction. “Sorry, but I must have forgotten to write it down. You know how scatterbrain I have been of lately. Why, when Michael entered the list, I told him the competition didn’t start until afternoon. Please don’t penalize him for the confusion. Not when it’s all my fault.”

“What is this, Michael?” Jervis all but hissed. “What do think you are doing?”

Michael stared into Jervis’s eyes. “I am here for the same reason everyone else is, to claim Queen Gwen.” Slowly, deliberately, his gaze shifted to Gwen.

Watching them stare at each other as if mesmerized, Lance felt a vast discomfort. Silent message seemed to pass between them, a private communication from which the rest of the world was excluded. Even Lance himself.

Gripping his reins. This was his Gwen, and had been since childhood. Never, not even during her long stint in Boston, had he imagined another man could look at her so intensely, so intimately.

“This is absurd, “he cried out, thinking no further than that he must cut the link between them. “The competition is over. Gwen, my darling, hand me the crown.”

She turned to him, blinking rapidly as if to break free of a trance, before looking blankly at the gold crown in her hands.

“I say we let him compete,” her father announced, reaching out stay her arm. “Let’s give these people what they came for.”

“And I say the tournament has already been won.” Jervis stood, staring down at his brother as if daring him to argue.

“Don’t you think this is a matter for the judges to decide?” Edith spoke quietly. Nodding at the crowd, watching avidly from the viewing areas, she added, “in private.”

“Good idea.” John turned to Lance and made the shooing motion with his hands. “You go on now and leave us to our decision.”

Stunned and outraged that he had been dismissed, Lance spoke without thinking. “Don’t I have a say in this? I’m all but family.”

“You are not one of us yet,” John said loudly.

Lance might yell, but he could say nothing. He could ill afford to further alienate this man, while John’s still held the reins to the Willows.

Trotting off after Michael, Lance told himself he had no need to worry. Hadn’t they design the panel to every decision would fall in his favor? He could rely on Jervis’s support, and after the night spent entertaining Edith in the stable, she would give him the victory, too. Irrationally stubborn John might stand against him, but then, his daughter had the deciding vote.

An easily, he remembered the look she had exchange with Michael. He ould count on Gwen… Couldn’t he?

 

***

 

One listened to her vocal protests that it was too late, while Edith insisted it wasn’t Michael’s fault, but the words barely registered. She kept thinking of that adage, careful what you wish for, and oh, how she wished now that she had never asked or more excitement.

What is Michael doing here? Her mind kept asking. This was not, she felt certain, another mirror case of nostalgia.

Shivering, she thought of his intense gaze as he rode toward the grandstand. The closer he had, the more her heart had thundered, for Michael made her feel as if he had a claim solely for her-as if he had no other mission than snatch her up and carry her off.

Dauntingly enough, it had not been right that set her heart pounding, but rather anticipation.

It was not enough looked at Lance, breaking the hold he had over her. If she should have known that that she saw how foolishly she had let her thoughts wander. She should have known that if Michael had come on a mission, it did not include her. His casual stance, his lazy defiance, all betrayed the enjoyments he derived toying with Lance. He meant to out manipulate them, to take charge of the competition and keep her.

He meant to have his revenge.

Shuddering now, he saw what she should have understood the instant he had made his appearance. Michael had not come to win her hand; he meant to reject it. By not claiming her, by spurning her in front of her neighbors, he would make certain no one else wanted her, either. If Lance not win this competition Gwen might as well start planning her life as a spinster.

This can’t be happening, he thought, shaking her head in denial.

“Gwen is against it, too,” she heard Jervis say suddenly, apparently taking the gesture as her vote. “That leaves you, Edith.”

Her ousin looked across the field, her expression grim. “I know you want me to decide with you and all,” she told her father hesitantly. “But truly, daddy, how can I do that to Michael? I’m the reason he’s late. Besides, what will everyone think if we don’t let him compete? I mean, its right there in the rules that we have to include him.”

“She’s right.” John sat back in his chair, grinning. “There will be one nasty stink, if you try to keep him out now. Come on, let them play. Lord knows this crowd is starved for entertainment. With all the yawning I have been doing, I look forward to a little excitement myself. Even if it’s only watching Lance get hot under the collar.”

“I can’t see what harm it can do, “Edith added primly. “Look at him. The man is a nobody. What chance has he at besting the finest horsemen in parish?”

Gwen seized that little scrap of optimism. Of course Michael cannot outright Lance. Few men could outshine her Lancelot on the field. Yet, glancing at Michael, finding him remarkably calm and unruffled, her small shred of hope withered away.

“We have a new challenger,” daddy shouted to the crowd, taking the decision out of everyone’s hands. “Let the competition continue.”

“It took five passes for me to get this far,” he said through grinding teeth. “Now this… This person comes in late and I am force to start over?”

“I am willing to make five passes first, “Michael said, riding up behind him. “I see no problem with starting out even.”

“You shouldn’t be allowed to compete at all. You-“

“What is your title, sir?” John asked Michael, completely ignoring Lance. “The Herald needs to announce you.”

Michael looked at Gwen. “You can call me Arthur. Of Camelot.”

“What gall,” Lance spurted, looking from him to Gwen. “All that black you’re wearing, you might better call yourself the dark Knight.”

“Either way.” Michael shrugged again, then smiled, as if determined to be pleasant. “Makes little difference to me.”

Gwen knew it made a great deal of difference. Arthur was Gwen’s King and husband, entitled to her favor, whereas in their childhood games, the dark Knight had also been called the Despoiler, the evil villain for knights must vanquish. Arthur would protect his queen to the death, but the Despoiler meant only to destroy her.

“If you gentlemen will please take your places,” daddy said beside her, “perhaps we can finish this sometime today.”

Gwen held her breath as Michael bent down to murmur to Mr. Perkins. She wished she could hear which title he chose, for then she would know what role he meant to play in her future.

She did not have long to wait. “Now entering the lists,” Mr. Perkins called out, “is Arthur, of Camelot.” Even as Gwen exhaled relief, the Herald added, “the dark Knight.”

And excited titter moved through the crowd as they sensed the drama about to unfold. Next to her, daddy sat up in his seat, and even Gwen found herself leaning forward.

Bowing to the crowd from atop his horse, Michael tilted his weapon in her direction. With dismay, Gwen recognize the white square tied to the staff. It was her handkerchief, the token of her favor that she’d never wrangled back from him.

She bit her lip, turning her attention to Lance. Stiff backed as he watched from his mouth, he was obliviously pouting. Wait until he learns who gave Michael his token, she thought with a sinking feeling. She didn’t for a moment doubt Michael would tell him, not when taunting Lance would give him the advantage. With the mood Lance was already in, a jealous rage could make all the difference in his performance. And indeed, as Michael rode out, making one a good pass after another, it’s became clear that Lance would need the performance of his life.

After five rings have been neatly captured, Michael turned his horse and, with a mock bow, once more pointed his weapon at Gwen. Staring at the fluttering white square, she realized it was not just Lance meant to taunt.

Lance was called to compete, and though he took the ring with the necessary pretense, she saw less conviction in his stride. Nor did he prance about the arena when he was done. Returning to the starting line in businesslike fashion, he seemed to be summoning all his concentration to bring the contest to a swift and satisfactory end.

Muttering that the heat in the dust left him parched, that he stood up suddenly to declare that he had seen enough. After one last, final run, they picked themselves a champion, so everyone could go home for a drink.

Gwen cannot see how her father could be thirsty; he had been pulling from the flask all afternoon. As if knowing this, Homer had appeared some time ago Standing behind his chair, ever ready to prevent his master from missing his step. It would be an utter miracle if they got through the day without being humiliated in front of the neighbors.

Win and win now, she silently pleaded with Lance, leaning forward to lend him the added encouragement.

You would need it, for his horse seem skittish as Michael sailed through the poles, the ring all but leaping onto his weapon. When it was lances turn to charge, his mount still had not calmed. Speeding forward, the horse reared at the last moment, and while Lance still managed snare the ring, the effort was enough start many in the crowd snickering.

“A weak performance.” Daddy leaned back in his chair, his own humor playing on his new rude face. “I say we give the crown to the newcomer, this Arthur.”

“No”

Gwen had not known she’d spoken out loud until she saw her uncle smile at her. “I vote for Lance. And you, baby girl?”

Edith slowly shook her head. “How would it look?” She asked again. “Everyone saw Lance stumble. Forgive me, but I fear I must decide with Uncle John.”

Gwen gaped at her cousin. She was voting against Lance? All at once the pieces sifted into place. Her jealousy, the spiteful things she had said-either had not meant to be cruel; she merely wanted Lance for herself.

Jervis, oblivious to his daughter’s feelings, pressed on. “It’s would seem we have a tie,” he said grimly. “According to the rules, up the queen to decide she will marry. What say you, Gwen? Will it be your Lancelot, or this stranger?”

Gazing at the competitors, Gwen wished the decision need not be left to her. Her conscience said Michael, for he had one convincingly, but Lance was the man of she had chosen, the one she had expected to marry. Lance had promised to love her, protect her, while Michael meant to use his victory as revenge. There was no logical reason for her hesitation.

Blurting out Lance’s name, she told herself she felt nothing but sheer relief at having it over and done with, yet she cannot stop squirming in her seat as Jervis called both men over.

As he pronounced Lance Champion, a groan went up from the crowd.

When expected Michael’s rage, for he had every right to complain, yet he faced them all calmly. “Pardon me,” he said, as if he had just found a surprise, “but I’d like to raise it points of order.”

“It’s is too late.” Uncle stood, pointing to Gwen’s crown. “The Queen has made her choice. The competition is over.”

“You folks seen any hurry to end this.” Michael looked at Gwen as he spoke. “But if you check the rules, you’ll find I’m entitled to a challenge.”

Lance open his mouth to protest, but uncle waved him off. “What are you getting at?” He snapped.

Gwen leaned forward, curious in spite of herself. Having no idea what Michael was talking about, she glanced at the list of rules beside her father’s chair. Maybe she should snatch them up and read them.

“The joust,” Michael said pleasantly, forestalling the need. “I am sure you remember. Winner takes all?”

Lance and uncle exchanged worried glances. Why include a joust’s in the competition? Gwen wondered. What man had the training, or even equipment, to engage in such a dangerous sport?

Sitting straighter in his saddle, Lance sneered at Michael. “Cannot joust without the proper armor. Do you wish me to cripple you?”

“Don’t worry about me, Lance. Worry about them.” Michael gestured at the audience gathered at the rails. “After all, we want to give the crowd their money’s worth in entertainment.”

“Can’t disappoint the crowd,” daddy offered.

“It is in the rules,” he chirped behind him.

Uncle looked to Gwen, as if expecting her to put a stop to this, but her father gave no opportunity. “Perkins,” he shouted, gesturing the Herald closer. “Announce that we will have a short intermission. The men need time to prepare.”

Not having heard their decision, a perplexed Tom Perkins looked at the field. “I thought the competition was over.”

“Indeed not. Tell everyone that at precisely 2 o’clock, Sir Lancelot will meet the Dark Knight for a joust.”

There was no need for Mr. Perkins to repeat it; there wasn’t a soul but not heard father’s booming voice. As the crowd cheered in obvious excitement, John beamed from ear to ear.

The dark Knight. Sitting slowly, the words echoing ominously in her mind, Gwen clutched her crown to her chest.

 

***

 

“I hope you know what you are doing, Lance,” he snapped. “You cannot afford a repeat of that fiasco at the rings.”

“It was the damned horse,” he bit back, strapping the leather padding over his wrist. “But I can assure you, my new mount will not misbehave.” He nodded at the powerful white animal being led in their direction. “There is not a finer steed in all Louisiana.”

“I am not worried about the horse. I’m more concerned about the man on top of it.”

“You are not serious?” Lance glared at Michael, showing his own equipment some distance away. “Look at him. His armor is a tarnished breastplates and a battered shield. You can’t possibly see danger in that.”

“What I see is that the man’s a damned sight too competent for comfort.”

“Relax. I have been training for weeks, and I have no intention of losing. You just make certain Father Jones is waiting on the grandstand, ready to start the ceremony that instant I have the crown in my hands.”

“I will do my part. Just see that you do yours.” Spying a crowd of Lance’s followers approaching, uncle lowered his voice. “I expect you to do whatever it takes to win, dammit. Sheet, if you have to.”

Lance answer him with a slow, leering grin. “But, of course. I have already thought of that.”

 

***

 

Gwen trudged up the steps of the grandstand, as though trudging to the guillotine. During the intermission, she had gone back to the house for some lemonade, and to splash cool water on her face, yet nothing seemed to revive either her, or her hopes.

Maybe what she needed was a poll from father’s flask. It certainly seemed to help him and uncle recapture their spirits.

Taking her seat, she saw Lance. Surrounded by his friends and well-wishers, he made a great show of mounting his magnificent white horse. She wanted to have faith in him, she truly did, but she cannot overlook his opponent.

Why couldn’t Michael take the defeat and go home to lick his wounds? Why pursue this thing to the bitter end, when it must be clear by now that he would never let him when? Why couldn’t he just quit, like any other man would do?

Even as she asked them, she knew they were silly questions. He was proud and stubborn, and he would not rest until he had his revenge.

Against her will, her gaze slid to him. Unlike Lance, Michael stood alone, no one helping, or even encouraging him. With nothing to shield his legs, nor a helmet for his head, his sole protection was an ancient, discolored breastplate and a dented shield. A Knight in tarnished armor, she thought, noticing how Lance and his friends snickered.

Michael stood proud as if to well accustom to their scorn to be bothered by it. Nothing had changed, she thought with a paying of guilt. He was still the boy who watched from before, and she was still the one who kept him there.

He looked up then, locking his gaze with her own, and Gwen felt as if she were falling, tumbling back into the past. Something always happen when he stared at her, she realized; even as a child, he alone had been able to dig deep enough to find the person buried inside. The little girl in her responded, smiling at him, as if she’d truly wanted him to win.

As the horn blared, snapping her back to her senses, Gwen recoiled in dismay. As she completely lost her mind? This man meant to make a fool of her, to repay her for the childhood rejection. The absolute last thing she should want was his victory.

So why, she wondered in panic, could she not break their gaze?

With a grim smile and a curt nod, Michael abruptly broke it himself, reaching for his spear and yanking her handkerchief free of it. For a moment, she thought he would toss it aside, but he tied the cloth instead to the tiny hook atop his shield.

As he pulled himself onto his saddle, Gwen stared at the handkerchief, hanging on this shield like a flag. By now, he must have told Lance it was hers, hoping to distract him. Each time he charged toward his foe, Lance would be force to see that symbol of her treachery.

With irritating arrogance, Michael crossed the field, coming to his mark on the opposite end. Poised there on his beast of a horse, shining in black from his head to his toes, seemed to loom over the competition like a dark god.

The dark Knight, she thought with a shudder. The destroyer.

As if to distract her from such morbid thoughts, Edith came running up the steps, her article and father in her wake, with an unfamiliar elderly gentleman behind them. Briefly introducing himself as the father Jones, uncle took the chair Gwen’s side, while father took his place at her left. She noticed a new flask in his hands.

“Is in this exciting?” Edith said as she sat. “Just look at Lance. Doesn’t he look wonderful?”

Lance poised on his horse at the opposite end of the field. Also his horse in white, he seemed to glisten in the afternoon summer, his shield a gleaming silver circle with a white bolt of lightning. As he made a show of attaching her token to his new, sharper spear. Gwen compared the two competitors, reminded of the classic fight between Good and evil. The amazing, glittering Lancelot versus the black forbidding stranger.

To bad Michael was the one who looked so calm and assured, while Lance looked both angry and nervous.

Her father must have heard her gulp, for he suddenly thrust the flask in her direction. “Here, take a drink. You might find you need it.”

She was so surprised to have him talk to her at all, she took the flask without thinking. It was not until the bourbon was burning her throat that she realized she should have sipped. She choked and gasped, her daddy shook his head. “Girl never could do anything halfway,” she heard him mutter, as she handed back the flask.

On in the field, the Herald shouted for silence. Everyone adds forward in their seats as Tom Perkins dropped the flag, the signal for the fighters to charge. With a clutch of dread, Gwen realize it had begun, this battle for her future.

She held her breath as the two horsemen rode towards each other, gathering speed, their long wooden staffs poised to do their worst. Please oh please oh please, she chanted in a whisper, bracing herself as the pair raced to the coming collision.

But at the last possible second, Michael veered away, avoiding lances thrust, yet managing to knock the weapon from his hand. Lances. Went in one direction, her handkerchief in another. Only Gwen seem to notice it, fluttering to the ground.

Heaven help her, she thought with growing dread as his friends rushed out to retrieve the spear. Watching how lances hand trembled as they handed it to him, Gwen reached again for her father’s flask. This time she welcomed the burn, for Michael’s cool smile had proved her suspicion. He was toying with Lance. Like a machine, he and that demon of a horse work together with silent efficiency, confident that they could unseat their opponent whenever they chose.

As if he saw this, too, Lance gave a blood curling yell before spurring his horse into a mindless charge, Spears sorting recklessly in the air. Holding his own weapon steady, Michael leaned down to whisper to his horse, clearly urging stallion to greater speed. At the sound of each pounding stop, Gwen gripped the rail tighter, her knuckles showing white as she prayed for a miracle.

Near seconds later, Lance was on the ground, while Michael galloped past in triumph.

The crowd went silent, stunned by the outcome. Gwen who had yet to return the flask, took another, deeper pull.

Horrified, she watched Michael wield his horse and ride back to Lance. With a puzzled expression as if he, too, wondered how Lance had been unseated so easily, Michael dismounted and offered his hand. Lance refused it. With a shrug, Michael turned to the grandstand.

Gwen had gone numb. Whether it was the bourbon or the mirror shock, she could not with any real clarity recall what had happened. One moment Lance was charging toward; and the next, he had joined her handkerchief in the dirt.

Some part of her mind was aware that Edith had gone running onto the field, uncle muttering in her wake, but though she knew she should follow, she cannot bring her muscles to obey. Lance, please, she thought in a daze, get off the ground and come save me.

As needed bends over him, Gwen saw him sit up, but her relief vanished as she realized it was nothing he could do to save her now. Fatalistically bowing to the inevitable, she watched Michael steadily approach.

A roar went up from the crowd as the victor came to the rail to claim his prize, as if everyone was eager to witness her humiliation. About to give in to the urge to bolt, Gwen stopped by a sudden pressure on her wrist.

She looked into her father’s eyes. “Hand him the crown,” he said softly, nodding to Michael.

She knew her own eyes must be wide with fright. “But daddy-“

“Hand him the crown, Gwen. “The words grew with sternness, “there is not a man here who can say he did not earn it.”

He was beyond drunk, she thought miserably, knowing that in such a state, her father was incapable of listening to reason, much less her please. Swallowing painfully, she stretched her arms, holding the crown out as far as possible. She wish to avoid all contact with Michael; she did not want to even look at him.

Lance, she kept thinking. How could you do this to me?

As Michael took the crown, she continued to look away. She had hoped that by now the crowd might disperse, but, of course, they meant to savor every embarrassing moments. In her mind she could picture Michael grinning, ready to deliver the words that would make her spinster forever.

“Did you come for that stupid crown?” Daddy asked. “Or are you here to claim my daughter?”

Gwen braced herself, waiting for Michael’s rejection.

“That is up to her,” Michael said quietly. “What do you say my lady? This time, do you mean to keep your promise?”

Was he offering an option, a case of one hand washing the other? If she let him have this victory, would he spare hurt the public humiliation? Willing to grasp any straw, Gwen found yourself nodding.

“Good.” Father waved at the gentleman behind them. “Jones, get over here. You two, Michael. We have work to do.”

Work? Confused, wishing she had it been the so indulgent with the flask, a flustered Gwen watched Rafe climb the steps toward her. “Daddy, what is this?”

“Ceremony.” Standing none it to steadily, John covered a small belch with his hand. “Come on, Gwen, folks are waiting.”

Lance had promised it would be a mock marriage ceremony, meant only to entertain the crowd. The real church wedding wood, later. Surely she had nothing to fear in that.

Conscious of the crowd staring, waiting, she so little choice. It was all right, she thought quietly; she could do this, especially if it made her daddy smile at her, and if it meant the disturbing Rafe would at long last leave her alone.

Stopping before her, Rafe offered his hand to help her to her feet. It was a strong, well-formed hand, she noticed, but she cannot stare at it forever. Bracing herself as she rose, she risked a glance upward.

A mistake. In the conclusion, she’d forgotten his intensity, how his eyes could probe inside and find parts of her she hadn’t known existed. As an unfamiliar heat ignited at the core of her body, she felt herself open up, like a flower blooming but need the warm, brilliant sun.

Tightening his grasp on her hand, he smiled down at her, a gesture no less enticing for its brevity. Unable to focus on anything other than his lips, so strong and firm and near, Gwen relived the moments they had been pressing against her own. Standing before him, her hand encased in his reassuring grasp, she found herself hoping he would kiss her again.

That he shared this need was clear; she could see desire in his heated stare, could all but taste it in the air between them. Lost in his dark eyes, Gwen could be looking into a magical pool devised by the great Merlin.

Indeed, she felt as if she had fallen into that pool, to be transformed into a mythical queen, here to be claimed by her brave king. Any moment now, this beautiful man it would sweep her into his arms to carry her off to their secret hideaway, where alone and undisturbed, he would slowly and painstakingly reveal the mysteries of love.

Somewhere outside her fantasy she could hear Reverend Jones muttering, and she was heavily aware of her daddy prodding her to say “I do,” but for the most part, she remained lost in Michael’s eyes. Words like honor, love, and cherish, echoed in her mind like some ancient, sacred chants, copying the promise is saw in his eyes. This man wanted her – she could feel it in his tightening grasp – and the thought set her on fire.

Just when she thought she could bear it no more, that she would surely perish if he did not seem do something, she heard the words, “… Now kiss the bride.”

Part of her mind thought “bride?” By her brain longer ruled her actions. Her body did, and every inch of her leaned closer to the man now claiming her lips. Cradling her head in his hands as if she were some precious, fragile creature, he slowly deepened the kiss, bit by delicious bit, urging her lips apart. Gwen clung to him, overwhelmed, a willing slave to the thousand new sensations pulsating through her body. Hands sliding down her back, Michael clasped her against his rock hard form, telling her with his body that he would never let her go. His kiss claimed her, left his mark on her forever.

Magic, she thought dreamily.

But then someone coughed, and Michael abruptly broke away. Stood there for a moment, staring at her and breathing heavily, before putting a short safe distance between them.

Gwen it was so dazed, she could not think straight win her daddy jammed the pen in her hands and demanded she “sign this.” Since the only papers she could recall had been the list of rules, she obeyed the voice she had been reared to obey, though in all honesty, she could think of no reason the list would require her signature. Swaying a bit as she wrote, she feared she might have had one sip too many of her father’s bourbon.

When daddy next handed the list to Michael, she fought to bring her thoughts into focus. She should not have been drinking in the hot sun, she thought any panic; her mind was fair swimming with confusion.

“There,” that he said suddenly to Michael. “I think we can now safely considered the score settled.”

Settled? Looking from one man to the other, Gwen felt an ugly taste invade her mouth. The bourbon no longer gloat insider; it threatened to come up uninvited.

“Take care of her, Michael. I’m going back to the house now.” He belched again, this time not bothering to cover his mouth. “Homer, come here and help me. All of a sudden, I am not feeling all too well.”

This time, Gwen’s no was a great deal more loud, but daddy paid no attention. Stemming down the steps beside Homer, he nearly crashed with his patiently suspicious brother, now returning to the platform.

“What is going on, John?” Uncle barked out, nodding to Gwen and Michael. “What have you done?”

“Something I should have done long ago.” Father gave him a slow, idiotic grin. “Too late, brother. It’s signed and delivered.”

Her uncle’s gaze narrowed on Mr. Jones, still holding the paper. “That license was not for Michael…. It’s dammit, John this can’t be legal.”

License? With mounting for, Gwen watched the Reverend perplexed expression give way to a slow, dawning smile. “You’re right, I forgot the most important part,” Mr. Jones said, turning to beam at them.

“I now pronounce you man and wife.”

 

Chapter 9

Jervis could have happily murdered his brother. Damn John and his alcoholic meddling. From his smug, no doubt thought he had saved the day, but in truth, once again, the drunken fool and messed up everything.

It was all Jervis could do not to scream out his bust ration. All his carefully laid plans, gone in a flash, and all because of a mere drunken fool.

You should not have gone to Lance–you could see that now–for the only damage done here had been to the man’s pride, and Lord knew, Edith fussing had more than made up for it. Service might better have employed his time keeping watch over his brother and niece. How could this silly girl have married the wrong man?

His gaze slid to Gwen. Taking in her obvious anger and bewilderment, he smiled. Ah, could it be that she was not altogether happy with this new arrangement? If so, thought with rising opinion, he must find some way to make her unhappy or yet.

Might yet be away to recoup this loss.

 

***

 

And Gwen were unhappy, her anger, for the moment, was directed at herself. It bothered her, how easily she had responded to Michael. Worse, she knew how easily she might be induced to do it again.

She was intensely aware of him standing stiff and proud at her side; Lord help her, the throbbing had yet to subside. How could one man, with a single gaze, turn her so weak and senseless? How could that one man now be her husband?

“Lance applied for that license,” uncle repeated, climbing the steps toward Mr. Jones. “Here, let me look at it. I can’t see how this marriage can be legal..”

Michael stepped between them and neatly snatch the license away.

“I don’t understand.” Mr. Jones looked from one to other, blinking rapidly. “I was told to marry Gwen to the winner as soon as possible. As far as I knew, we had all the necessary paperwork. Ask for Mr. McCloud.”

He nodded at where John had been standing, but he had already gone tottering off to the house with Homer.

“I assure you, it is legal,” Michael said to all goal as he folded the license and slipped it in his shirt pocket. “Or it will be, the moment I file it with the parish records.”

Scowling, uncle came over to stand beside Gwen. “I knew you were low, Michael, but I never thought you would due to blackmail. Do you honestly think you can use my niece as a hostage to get what you want from me? That I would actually pay you not file that license?”

“I won’t grace that with an answer.” Shaking his head in disgust, Michael held out a hand for Gwen. “Let us go, my lady. I think I’ve had enough drama for one day.”

Gwen eyed both men with mounting horror. Was that all she was to them? Some pond they could use to settle their differences?

“You stay right here with us, Gwen.” Uncle grabbed her arm about her shoulders. “There is no call for you to be going off anywhere with this–this–“

Rafe’s features hardened. “I believe the word you are looking for is husband.”

Uncle snorted.” He cannot expect anyone to take this mockery seriously. You might grease enough palms to get that license filed, Michael, but no marriage binding if either party has been tricked into it.”

“Tricked? I thought the whole purpose of this exercise was to force your niece into marriage. Don’t renege now, just because the man you backed up did not win your competition.”

“On the contrary” Lance stomped up to the grandstand steps, Edith standing behind him. “I demand this man should be disqualified, according to the rules that is the punishment for cheating.”

Michael looked at Lance as if he had crawled out from under a stone. “You, Lance, have the gall to accuse me?”

“Tell them,” Lance said, dramatically pointing to Edith. “Tell them what happened to my cinch.”

Edith looked on easy, as if she wished to be anywhere else. “Someone, seems to have cut it halfway through it.”

There was a collective gasp as all eyes meant to Michael. No one called for an investigation, for no one doubted guilt. He was still the outsider, Gwen realized, and they were still closing ranks against him.

Looking at him, she cannot help but be impressed by his poise. Another man might have bent under such public scrutiny, but Michael stood against them strong and defiant. “I did not cheat,” he told Lance quickly.. “Whatever you and your inquisition might decide, Lance, we know I did not need to.”

Lance demanded further. “You cut that cinch,” he yelled, pointing a finger at Michael’s chest, dusty and bruised and puffed up like an angry hen, he did not look like much of a rescuer. It made her feel intensely disloyal, but Gwen realized Michael seemed far more the hero.

“Furthermore,” Lance said, “cannot expect to believe anything a murder might say.”

There was a second on the easy stirring among them. Gwen, suddenly cold inside, now looked at Michael with dismay.

He shook his head. “So cheating was not crime enough? Tell me, Lance, who is it I’m accused of murdering?”

“Jacques Morteau. Ah, see, you cannot deny it. I’m told that after your duel with him, you took to hiding in the swamps. Indeed, I’ve heard there is an outstanding warrant for your arrest.”

Michael eyed him scornfully. “You are good at making rumors, Lance. Too bad you are not as skilled on a horse. Let’s go, my lady. I don’t have the stomach for much more of this.”

Lance moved beside her, blocking her way. “We think too highly of Gwen to let her go anywhere with a common criminal.”

“First you call me a common farmer, then a common criminal, why not add a common husband to the list? Move out of the way, Lance. It is time I was taking my new wife home.”

“He is right,” Edith said behind him. “Gwen did marry the man. We all heard Reverend Jones pronounce the man and wife.”

Uncle frowned at his daughter. “This is not of your affair. You go on up to the house and see your uncle John.”

“But–“

“Do as your father asks,” Lance added. “You go on and let your menfolk take care of things.” In the face of his smile, Edith’s defiance deflated. She went off happily. Watching her trudge to the house, Gwen wished she could share her cousin’s faith in her men, but as far as she could see, they did not seem to be handling things all that well.

“I must warn you,” uncle spouted at Michael. “We are quite prepared to challenge this marriage in the courts. It cannot be legally binding if our Gwen did not enter it of her own free will.”

“Good point.” Michael fix her with his gaze, bringing back a swirl of memories, the sweet aching magic, to Lance’s accusations. “You tell me,” he probed. “Is this marriage legally binding? Or does your word still mean nothing at all?”

Gwen felt myriad emotions, from longing to guilt. Her mind swam with confusion. “I thought it was just for show. Lance said the ceremony was just another way to entertain the crowd.”

“There, Michael, are you satisfied? Clearly, my niece had no idea what you were leading her into. I think we will find there is not a judge in Louisiana, who will declare this marriage legal.”

Michael continued to stare into her eyes. “It’s not up to the courts to decide, Is it? It’s your choice, my lady.”

For a breathless moments, it was as if a door had opened, and Gwen had only to step over the threshold to enter a magical new world. Her hand moved up, but before she could offer its, Lance grabbed her arm and held it against his side.

“Your audacity, sir, is matched only by your conceit,” he told Michael. “Do you honestly believe Gwen would jeopardize the lifetime of dreams and hopes we have shared, to go off with some fortune hunter? I ask you, what would she want with the stranger, when she can stay here safe and sound, protected by her own kind.”

Each word Lance spoke seemed like the bites of a lash, stinging her with the truth. He was right; what did she truly know about the mysterious Michael? Uncle accused him of blackmail, of using her as a hostage to extract money. And if, as Lance claimed, he had once murdered a man, was it so far-fetched to assume he would sheet to win, when marrying her meant gaining the Willows? She must face the facts. For all she knew about the man, Michael could be cable of most anything, and she has yet to prove she could keep her wits when she was around him.

“Will you lead the tame, predictable life here,” Michael pressed, holding her gaze, “or will you take a chance with me?

Magic? Or security? Wasn’t that her ultimate choice?

Feeling Lance’s hands, so cold and clammy as if clasped her own, she tried not to think of his kiss in the stable. It was time to be sensible, to think rationally. She cannot abandon her childhood aspirations, are about to love Lance forever. Lance was the known and familiar; didn’t logic demands that he be the one in whom she trusted her future?

After all, being loved and protected was all she had ever wanted.

As if she had voiced the decision allowed, Michael’s expression went suddenly cold. Just before he closed himself off, Gwen caught a glimpse of the boy he’d once been, saw his yearning and hurt and eventual disappointment.

Something twisted inside her as he strained his shoulders and pointedly looked away.

Releasing her hands, Lance planted both feet and folded his arms over his chest. “I think you should go now, Michael. You have upset the lady more than enough today.”

Michael gave a short bark of a laughter. “She seems to be doing just fine. You’re not her watchdog, Lance. Like it or not, until the courts declare otherwise, the lady is still my wife.”

“Oh, the courts will decide in our favor.” Uncle smiled coldly. “But, in the meantime, we will not have you pestering my niece. We are prepared to overlook your cheating, if you get yourself and that’s black beast off our land. You have approximately ten minutes, Michael, before we summon the law I’m certain you have no wish to be paying a call to our jail.”

Michael’s fists clenched at his side. “You people are incredible.” His gaze went to Gwen; she felt the chill of it down into her bones. “You would think I had learned my lesson by now, but I keep deluding myself into thinking you were different. That somewhere deep inside you there is truly a lady.”

“How dare you” Lance yelled. “I demand satisfaction in Gwen’s name.”

Rafe smiled with the same lack of emotion. “How many times must weep eat this pathetic ritual, before admitting the inevitable? I can defeat you a hundred times, and it won’t make the slightest difference. Nothing has changed, has it my lady? When or lose, right or wrong, you will always stroll off with Lancelot.”

He left then, his posture stiffed and proud as he descended the steps swung himself onto his horse.

Prodded by a vague sense of guilt, Gwen open her mouth to explain, but her uncle’s grasp tightened. “Come along to the house,” he coaxed, nudging her towards the steps. “We want you where Lance I can keep you safe and sound. I declare, there is no predicting what that man will do next.”

Sound of his name, Lance stopped glaring at Michael’s back in stepped up to take her arm, to help herd her toward the house. Unable to resist a glance backward, seeing Michael ride off, she felt a sudden, strong wave of regret. For a wild, insane moments, she wished that he had swept her up and carried her off.

But that was crazy, and she knew it. Gwen should be happy that it ended neatly, grateful to have him leave without a fight. As he’d said himself, they must all bow to the inevitable. She was meant spent her life with Lance.

Tightening her arm around his, she forced a smile strolled off with her Lancelot to the house.

 

***

 

Muttering a low oath, Michael turned his stallion toward the marshland, to the weather beaten shack on the edge of the Bayou. As he approached the cabin’s old friend Jeffery lived in, he thought of the day Gwen had surprised him coming outs of it. Michael had deliberately picked a fight with her, hoping she’d go stomping off, since he couldn’t risk the McCloud’s learning that Jeffery was living in one of their sharecroppers’ cabins. He’d wanted to protect what gap be had come to consider his home, but also, more selfishly, Michael needed to come here himself. He found it’s a good place to leave his horse we had to go into the Bayou, a trip he put off too long already.

An easily, thought of what might have happened in his absence.

He stopped before the cabin, dismounting with a shake of his head. Whatever had happened, Gabby would soon let him know. Will got past the old Cajun, including Michael’s own failings.

“Michael” Jeffery waived from the door of his shack, is grizzled face breaking into a smile. “So where is she, this Gwen?” The smiled swiftly drooped. “It’s did not go well?”

Tossing the breastplate and shield to the ground, Michael climbed to the porch steps. “I hope you can find use for this mental. I certainly don’t plan to use it again.” Frowning, he untied the handkerchief from the breastplate. Even as he jammed it in a pocket, he wondered why he did so.

“You lost, no?”

Michael spun to face him. “No, I did not lose. I won. Twice, in fact, but imagine my surprise when that family did not honor their word.”

Jeffery shook his head. “This is Michael, the man charged across the battlefield after that demon Santa Anna? Until this old man you win, no? So I ask again, where is this woman?”

“Home, protected by her family. I was railroaded out of town, Jeffery. Threatened to call in the law.”

“But, Michael, this woman, we need her. You must go back and claim your prize.”

Michael felt ready to burst with frustration. “You, of all people, no I cannot afford to be calling attention to us now. God knows I cannot be spending even a night in jail.”

Michael’s expression darkened. “There are ways, you must find them. Your time, it runs short.”

 

***

 

Uncle gestured Lance to join him in the library. Even tidied up, the man looked decidedly worse for wear, but then, perhaps he could use his tattered condition in a bid for Gwen’s sympathy. Lord new, they must play every card in their hand.

“Bourbon?” Jervis asked unnecessarily, as he gestured Lance toward a chair. He didn’t wait for a nod, but began pouring. “I must say, that was a masterful stroke, accusing Michael of cheating. However did you manage to cut your cinch without anyone seeing?”

“Do you think I would stoop to such behavior?” Lance stood, clearly affronted. “That I would even need such a ploy? I was in no danger of being unseated by that buffoon.”

Jervis could beg to differ, as would anyone who else who had watched the competition, but it was not in his best interest to argue now.

Seeing his hesitation, Lance bristled. “Let me assure you, someone did cut my cinch. And I will bet my mother’s gold, it was Michael.”

Jervis wished could be as certain of the man’s guilt, but for the life of him, he cannot see why Michael would risk getting caught. He not only had the skills to win without cheating, he had the confidence. The man had come expecting defeat Lance.

Yet clearly, someone had tampered with Lance’s equipment if not Michael, then who?

It could be anyone, Jervis realized. Lance wasn’t arrogant son of a gun, and a bit of a loudmouth. Any of a long string of previously humiliated arrivals would be happy to see him lose, and lose badly.

Still and all, Lance his horse and gear having kept in secret at the stables. Only household members have known their existence. An easily, he realized the guilty party maybe one of the family. Hell, they would all had asked access to the stables. Even Gwen herself.

Handing Lance a Bourbon, he cleared his throat. “Sit back down son. I have a favor to ask. I’ll be needing you to take care of some things, while I ride into town to see a lawyer.”

“Things?”

It was hard to curb his irritation, but Jervis had no choice but to rely on this moron. “Must I spell it out? Whether or not Michael cheated, my niece is married to him, and he’s got her signature to prove it. Worse, he’s a handsome devil, just the sort of romantic figure that Gwen would respond to. I don’t know about you, but I sure thought she hesitated over long when he asked her to go away with him.”

Jervis paused a moment, giving Lance time to digest that before going on. “Now, unless you want to lose her, and the Willows, don’t you think it is time you began courting in earnest? Sweep her off her feet, dammit. Hell, take her to bed, if you have to, but make good in certain her attention and affections are locked on you. And while you are at it, I don’t reckon it would hurt to let her know every sordid detail about Michael’s past. Whether real or fake.”

Spending the Bourbon in his glass, Lance smirked. “I don’t think she enjoyed hearing he was a murderer, did she?”

“No, she’s sure enough did not, and I have every faith you can relish to tell further. Just remember that whatever you tell you must somehow put you in a better light. Let that little girl know you are the man she should marry. Tell her you are far too impatient to wait any longer, that you’re anxious to wed her the instant her annulment is fact.”

“Gwen will be no problem.” The smile faded. “It’s your brother who worries me the most.”

With good reason, Jervis thought painfully, knowing how much John despised lance. “No call to worry about John,” he said instantly. “Just keep giving him Bourbon. There is not a blessed thing he can do. If he’s too drunk to see what is going on. Hell, haven’t you even paid attention? That’s how I kept getting around him all these years.”

Smiling, Lance reached for the bottle and waved it in the air. “Maybe I will just go have the little chats with Gwen then, before I go on and cozy up to her father.

Eyeing the Bourbon, Jervis thought of the doctor’s prognosis in the liver rooting away in his brother’s body. “You do that,” he told Lance with a smile. “And mind, there is more in the cellar.”

 

***

 

Gwen eased the horse outs of the stable, leaving her quietly out of sight of the house. If she could just reach the playing field undetected, then she could mount. She’d have preferred lances silver horse, with its speed and endurance, for she needed to ride mindlessly through the night to read her mind – and body – of all of these disturbing images. Unfortunately, uncle had taken the horse more than an hour ago for his trip into town.

No sooner had he gone then Lance came to her, starting his talk against the threat he felt Michael posed. It was not safe, he insisted, for Gwen to go anywhere on her own. That demon Michael could be waiting, any time, any place, ready to punisher for not going off with him.

Her longing to ride undisturbed across her father’s fields increased a hundredfold, with each word Lance had muttered.

She tried to protest, knowing Michael did not think are worth the effort to punish. A mistake, for Lance had gone on to catalog every sin mortal man had ever committed, laying each at Michael’s door. Did she realize how many men the man had killed, playing mercenary for the Texans in the fight against Mexico? Or the river of blood spilled, as a hired gun in the goldfields of California? And don’t forget the dual, the challenges to his honesty while gambling at cards. Why, they’re good friend Bo might have counted himself one of Michael’s corpses, had his family not pulled him off to mobile before he could meet Michael beneath the Oaks in city Park.

Gwen must face facts. Michael was a bitter man, the dirt poor son of a farmer with neither soul nor conscience. The man had come seeking revenge, and Gwen had deprived him of it, but that did not mean he would not return in a mindless fury. She was saving here with family, but where she’d to give Michael slightest chance, he would happily make her regret it.

Gwen must stay in the house under his protection, unless she wished to end up like her mother.

Seeing her shiver, Lance and then put his arms around her, but neither his smoothing words, nor the kiss that followed, offered the least comfort. Oddly unsettled, she’d been relieved when he’d mentioned that he must go to talk with her father.

The very instant he had gone, she had race to her room to jam herself into her childish habits. She knew this was the unladylike behavior her parents had deplored–she had often defied them as a child by creeping down the back stairs and out of the house–but it cannot be helped. She might be a woman now, but she felt as if she were flying through a swamp of conflicting emotions. She knew no better way to break free, then by riding her horse as if the very hounds of hell were behind her.

In her desperation to be away, she dismissed all thoughts of danger. Even if Lance were right, even if Michael had nothing better to do with his time then lie in wait in some distant field on the off chance she would appear, well, she was an accomplished writer. She knew this plantation like both sides of her hands. Let him come, she thought defiantly. This let him try to outright her.

A gust of air blew through the leaves overhead, and the horse stood on easily. Feeling a chill at the net of her neck, Gwen shivered, then felt foolish. Not even a demon like Michael would be outs on such a night, she told herself as she tugged the horse forward. The way the mists swirled in the gathering breeze, she would be lucky if she was not soon drenched in a downpour.

With relief, he came upon the playing field. The nearly full moon shone brightly, highlighting the patches of ground far too with a silvery glow. The mist crawled up around the grandstand, skewering the tawdriness, shrouding the banner that had come loose on one side. Honor and glory. Remembering Michael’s accusations, she wondered if it was fitting that the family crest should dangle there, limp and hopeless, like a symbol of all her lost dreams.

How fanciful, she told herself sternly. Nothing was lost; and all she had ever wanted. All she had to do was go back on her word.

Reaching for the reins, she was about to climb up in the saddle, when she noticed a white scrap in the dirt. She leaned down, lifting up her trampled handkerchief, the one she had given Lance. Odd to find it here. During his tirade tonight, Lance had claimed he still had it in his possession, that he would treasure it always as a token of her support.

He had then gone on to poke fun of Michael’s frilly, white handkerchief, claiming he must have stolen it. After all, what female in her right mind would give that adventurer a token, or even the time of day?

Lance had gone on to catalog more of the man’s faults, but now, staring at the mud encrusted scrap of white, when wondered why Michael had never explained. Had he not told Lance where he had gotten the handkerchief, he could have used his opponents rage to his advantage, but he kept quiet, as silent as he’d been at her last sight of them.

As if she faced him now, she could see Michael’s disappointments before he turned away. He could have been that boy again, for his surprise at her decision had been the same. He’d expected more of her, and once again, she’d let him down.

“No, no, no!” She cried out, swinging herself up onto the horse. She must not fret anymore over the wretched man. Didn’t uncle maintain that Michael was using her, hoping to extract money in exchange for leaving her alone? Lance was right, she insisted as she spurred the horse across the field. Michael was dangerous and violent, and she should be thinking every last star in the heavens for her narrow escape.

Narrow escape.

With a chill, she recognized those words. They were the same her mother had uttered in their arguments, right before she rode out to her death.

Escape, escape, escape, Gwen’s mind chanted as she tore over the dark Fields, but deep down, she wondered if she could ever run fast or far away enough. Impossible not to make comparisons to the night five years ago, she’d gone flying into the night then, to, and she’d been fleeing her demons ever since.

She slowed the horse, realizing with a sick lurch that this was same area where she found her mother’s lifeless body. Why had she come here? She wondered, feeling moisture on her cheeks. Was this one subconscious pilgrimage, a tortured attempts to deal with her past? Dismounting in a slow motion, she tied in the horse to a tree and walked in dreamlike fashion through the marshland, to the small mounds at the edge of the Bayou.

Stopping, she looked down at the ground with revulsion. Stay out of the swamp, her parents had always commanded. Predators and disease breed in that filthy by you.

Above, Gwen and here the breeze sifting through the trees. A hundred ghosts seem to whisper in her ears. Here, she thought, digging the toe over boots in the dirt. This was the spot where her mother had died.

Gwen had been in a raging temper, because her daddy refused Lance as a suitor, but that was no excuse for lashing out at her mother. She cringed at the dreadful things she had said, wanting mother to hurt as much as she hurt inside herself. Ever patient, always the lady, Amanda had quietly insisted that Gwen would come to thank her parents someday. She was too young to be married, and Lance was to… Well, a nice visit with her aunt’s I get the in Boston would help her see things in a new light.

“I hate you!” Gwen had shouted, words no child should ever uttered to a parents, especially when they prove the last words her mother would hear from her. In a roaring temper, Gwen had gone tearing off, never dreaming mother would follow and be thrown off her horse to break her neck.

Shivering, Gwen felt the same hollow chill she had that night’s, as she’d watched her daddy leaned down to lift up his wife’s broken body. Something inside him had died with his beloved Amanda, she’d sensed, and the way he’d then looked through Gwen, Meant that as far as he was concerned, his daughter also died that night.

“It’s not my fault,” she whispered as she had to her father’s back, but then, as now, it made no difference father walked off, never once looking back at her, leaving Gwen alone and abandoned, and fearing she would stay that way for the rest of her life.

She hugged herself, blinking back tears. What sort of pilgrimage was this? What good has she done by returning here? The memories hurt too much; they were better left dead and buried. No wonder she chose to run away from the truth, why she now clung to Lance like a lifeline.

Remembering how wonderful he’d been that night, how he’d wrapped her in a blanket and supplied a supporting arm around her shoulders, she felt doubly awful for wanting to escape from him tonight. She wasn’t alone, she told herself; Lance would stay by her always.

Why hadn’t she trusted the one person who remained steady and true? She’d been wrong to make light of lances warnings; it was concerned for her safety that prompted his lecture. How could she blame him for not wanting her to be hurt, or possibly dead, like her mother?

With a Frisson of fear, Gwen now noticed how dark it was here in the marshland, of the place teamed with shadows and unfamiliar noises. Sounds in the undergrowth could be the snakes she despised, or perhaps something larger, like a hunter, stocking her through the swamps.

Shivering freely, she turned to go. Whether this sound was made by something animal or human, she was a fool to remain standing here. A person could disappear forever in the Bayou. Especially, she realized with the gulp, a person stupid enough not to tell anyone where she’d gone.

She thought longingly of the warm, safe bed she had left at her Roseland. As she did, she heard a splash. Alligators, she remembered with a shudder, preyed along the shores.

She ran up for her horse, chairing headless leave through the brushes, ripping her habit and scratching her face. She could just get to the horse, she thought with something close to a prayer, she promised she would never again venture out on her own.

Emerging from the undergrowth with a whimper of relief, she stumbled over the cherry where she tied her horse. In her panic, it took some moments to realize it was not where she’d left it.

This oriented, she spotted to scan the field. She heard the whinny behind her, but before she could turn her head, large, strong, hands grabbed her from behind.

Her life seem to pass before her eyes, as she recognize the throaty laugh.

“Ah, so we meet again, my lady,” Michael whispered in her ear. “And this time, you will be coming with me.”

 

Chapter 10

Taking another swig of Bourbon, Lance climbed the stairs to the bedrooms. Folks might say he had no business being up here in the family area, that he should be out in the bachelor quarters, where he always stayed, but then, those folks did not know things had changed. Not even Jervis, gallivanting to town, understood that Lance was not some errand boy he could order about at any time.

Oh, but he soon would.

Lance had agreed to “take care of things,” but only because he knew it required little effort to keep John in a stupor. By the time he’d had his talk with Gwen and reached her father’s study, the drunken fool was already faced down at his desk, snoring blissfully, leaving Lance to sit in his favorite chair and drink the man’s Bourbon by himself.

Growing bolder with every glass, he’d told his unconscious host exactly what he thought of him, and his attempts to keep Lance from his daughter. No need to toady up to the man who held the Willows in his grasp; hell, John would not have known had Lance leaned down and bit his face.

As his fear of John lessened, his comments grew more insulting, until Lance vibrated with a surging sense of power. Forgetting his defeat in the competition. Nurtured by drink, he became convinced that he’d vanquished Michael, once and for all, and because of its, Gwen-and more importantly, the Willows-would be his forever.

Drunk in more ways than one, he’d left John’s study to roam the halls, stuttering as if he already owned them. In his mind, Lance was not here as Jervis’s lacking, and signed to take care of things in his absence. He was lord and master, King of all he surveyed.

Droit seigneur, thoughts with an inner laugh as he stopped before her bedroom door. No more empty nights with a ring with an absent lust; he would storm her citadel and possess her at last. There was not a blessed thing her father could do to stop him.

Foolish Jervis; he should never have left for town.

Smacking his lips, Lance imagined Edith’s luscious breasts squeezed beneath his fingers, her whimpers of delight as he took her, hard and fast, like the strumpet she longed to be. There would be no more teasing, no dangling him on a sensual leash. He would show her–show them all–just who was master of the Willows.

He reached for the knob, anticipating her shocked expression he flung open her door. His smile swiftly vanished as he realized the door was locked.

His anger needed an outlet. It was more than one female in the house, wasn’t there? He even had permission to bed Gwen. Her uncle had given him that before he left.

He marched down the hall and yanked open her bedroom door. Finding the bed empty, on slept in, he felt another wave of fury wash over him. After all the trouble he had taken to warm her, had Gwen actually gone out? He was heading out the door, determined to go after her, when the truth eventually dawned this was no longer Gwen’s room. He heard that willful miss herself, complaining to her uncle about how Edith had moved her to inferior quarters down the hall.

Somewhat subdued, and not liking it, he made his way to her new bedroom. Annoying, how she’d whined about her accommodations. Always the little Princess, their Gwen, demanding the best and doing she damn well pleased.

Reaching her door, he thought back to their earlier conversation. Overly occupied she’d seemed, and entirely too flippant. Jervis was right. Lance would have to start hounding her every step, watching her day and night. Wouldn’t do to have Gwen thinking acting on her own.

His grasp tightened on the knob. Queen Gwen would soon learn who truly ruled the Willows. Oh yes, he would teach her soon enough how he expected his wife to behave.

Wife. His handle recoiled as the word echoed through his drunken brain. Desire drained out of him, leaving him week with dismay. What was he thinking of, coming here to Gwen’s room? This was the woman he had chosen to bear his child. Good Lord, he might just as well bed his mother…

Feeling as if his mother were actually there to punish him, he backed away from the door. Lance you must go slow with Gwen, mother had instructed; he cannot afford to be frightening her off with his baser passions. At least wait until he had the wedding ring on her finger.

“Sorry, mother,” he muttered, hurrying down the hall. Maybe he might better wait to talk to Gwen in the morning.

 

***

 

Michael looked at Gwen, huddled on the other side of his pirogue. He wished he had a more stable vessel. Design for slipping through the narrowest parts of the bayou, but the pirogue was more a canoe then the barges her ladyship was used to, and one good tantrum could well capsize them.

Though quiet enough now, Gwen had been scratching, biting she-cat an hour earlier, he knew better than to trust her poise of surrender. Even with her hands tied and her eyes blindfolded, she could still cause trouble. In more trouble was the last thing he needed.

You refuse to question his motives for taking her. She was his wife, and, as Jeffery insisted, the family owed him. Still, he might have ignored the old man’s urges to claim her as you not seen Gwen just as he’d left Jeffery’s place. Ready to slide his boat in the water, he’d spotted her on the nearby mound, tears streaming down her cheeks. It was then, if he cared to be honest, that he’d made the decision to grab her.

Damn, but he never could bear to see a woman cry.

And so he’d swept her up, just like that, with no real thought to his motives, or even the consequences. It was too late to turn back now, but that did not mean he cannot regret his split second decision. Kidnapping Gwen should just about killed any hope that they might one day, to an understanding. If she had disliked distrusted him before, she wasn’t going to be any happier once she learned where he meant to take her.

Turning his boat into the narrow fork to the right, he went deeper into the swamp.

 

***

 

Gwen had never been so frightened in her life. They’d been gliding along the bayou for what seemed like hours. By now, he must have lost in the swamp. Blindfolded, her imagination went riot, and she could sense all sorts of hideous things; spiders dropping from trees, bats grabbing to her knotted hair, water snakes slithering up over the sides of the boat to…

Trembling, she tried to think of some way to escape, but her hands were tied, and she had been told these narrow byways could be surprisingly deep. Snakes were bad enough, but who knew what other creatures could be swimming along in the waters ahead. Worse, every now and then she heard a loud splash. She could be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire indeed, if she somehow managed to elude Michael, only to find herself acing a hungry alligator. And even if by some miracle she did reached dry ground, she could well find herself on an island, as cut off from civilized nation–and safety–as if she had sailed off the end of the earth.

So she stayed where she was, frozen by indecision, trying to figure out what Michael meant to do. Spite kissing him more than she should, she knew little about the man he’d become, other than what Lance had told her, and of course, her initial impression of him that day on the docks. Dangerous. She’d thought then, as he’d given her no clue to revise her opinion. The way he’d appeared out of nowhere, on ominous manner in which his boat had been waiting, would suggest Lance was right, that Michael had been lying in wait. They he’d watched her, stocked her, and then drag her off with pitiful ease.

I am a relentless Hunter, he’d once told her. I will not give up until I have what is owed me. And now, too late, she believed him.

It was his other strength – both physically and mental – that had shocked her in silent. Michael could have been wearing a plate of armor, for all that effect of her threats and blows. Unaccustomed to the feeling so helpless, she was left with a growing panic, and the knowledge that if you wish to hurt her, there was nothing – absolutely nothing – she could do to stop him.

Considering the way he had found her, perhaps it was not so much a case of its, but rather when she would be hurt.

If only she had listened to Lance. But no, spoiled and willful, she had to sneak out of the house, go charging off to the middle of nowhere, until now nobody knew where she had gone. The horse no doubt had already wandered back to the stable, so who would even think to look for her in the bayou? Her family knew she hated the area, that she had avoided it’s all her life. When they started their search, they would begin at the neighboring plantations and worked their way down river to New Orleans. By the time they realized that Avenue was fruitless, Gwen would be dead.

Swallowing hard, she forced herself to consider the possibility. After all, what better place to dispose of the body that in some deep mysterious hole in the swamp? No one would find her, or even come close looking. The way she behaved in the past, they’d naturally assumed she’d just up and run away.

She tried to slow her panic. Surely she was overreacting. Michael’s revenge would hardly require a murder. In what other reason could he possibly have to kill her?

His kind don’t need a reason, she could almost hear Lance say, as he repeated the list of his crimes. Men like that kill for sheer pleasure.

As if to give in to her fear, there was a distant, roll of thunder. Michael muttered “dammit” under his breath, he felt them pick up speed. In her mind, she could picture his dark features, fierce with concentration, as he silently drove his way through the eerily quiet marshland, working to reach their destination before it rained.

Don’t worry on my account, she thought, giddy with fear, even as the boat went even faster. Killing her was bad enough, but must he be in such a hurry?

Her life passed before her, the pace accelerating with the boat. She saw her father, and mother, and Lance. How wrong of her to doubt him, to kiss and flirt with other men. Please save me, she cried out in her mind, but she failed to see how anyone could halt the building momentum before the inevitable crash. She struggled for air, yet found it hard to draw a breath, knowing each could well be her last.

Just when she could there spence no longer, and she was ready to die just to get it over with, the boat slowed and came to a halt. “All right, my lady,” Michael said quietly. “We are here.”

The boat rocked as she felt him move. When his hand came out of nowhere to tug on her blindfold, she whimpered. He did not bother to untie it, but rather pulled the knot up over her head. Dawn had begun to break, she had time to notice, before her gaze came to rest on his hands.

They held a knife.

“No,” she whimpered again, finding she wasn’t ready to die after all.

Ignoring her protests, he reached down and sliced through the rope around her wrist.

Giddy with relief that he had not killed her, Gwen offered no resistance when Michael helped her out of the raft and onto dry land. Well, not exactly dry, for she found herself standing in an inch of mud as he busied himself securing the boat. Looking about her, happy to be alive, she took in her surroundings.

They were most definitely in the swamp, she thought, not liking how the Bayou wound off into dark shadows in both directions. Large trees trait with moss lines the opposite shore some ten yards away. There are an opening in their entwined branches, she could see the gray sky, lit by a single bolt of lightning. She jumped as a clap of thunder warned of the storms arrival.

“Come on, we best beginning up to the house,” Michael said, hoisting a bundle out over the boat.

“What a thoughtful kidnapper, bringing me to your home,” Gwen said, still giddy. “Am I to be lavishly entertained?”

He sniffed. “Whether or not you are entertained is up to you. That,” he said, nodding behind him, “is the only reason I have brought you.”

She turned to face a weather-beaten house on a hill ahead. “That shack is your home?”

“It is not a shack,” he snapped. “It’s a cabin. And I was not talking about it. I meant them.”

Following his nod, she saw a series of boys, each a half head taller than one after another. Lining the cabins porch. “I know those boys,” she thought aloud, though it took a few moments to recall how. “They are… Why yes, look, they are the brats from the docks.”

He looked momentarily confused, then none too pleased. “I had forgotten you had already met. A word of caution, though. I would not suggest calling them brats to their faces.”

Something snapped inside her, most likely her nerves. “I should have known. That is why you defended them–you were in league together. He probably planned to kidnap me from the beginning.”

“So it starts.” Shaking his head, he turned up the twenty yard path to the shack.

“Do not walk away from me.” Hands on hips, she forgot her fear that he meant kill her. “I demand you take me home to my family. Do you hear?”

“We are your family now, my lady,” he tossed her over his shoulder. “Or did you forget that you married me on your own free will?”

“You cheated me into that marriage. And I would rather be dead than related to you and those…” She hesitated, considering, then plunged right in, “… Those brats.”

He turned to face her with a scowl. Gwen tensed, but all he said was, “let’s continue this up in the cabin. Standing here arguing much longer, and you are liable to get drenched.”

Continuing on it to the cabin, Gwen stood sputtering until there was another clap of thunder, so near she felt the electricity sizzle in the air around here. She ran.

The clouds broke open, drenching her before she could reach the porch. Michael, she noticed resentfully, manage to reach shelter in time. He herded the children before him into the cabin.

Finding herself on the porch alone, Gwen told herself this was just how she wanted it. She would never go inside, she swore. But even as she thought this, a gust blew rain onto the porch, soaking her more. Sputtering, she decided to go in until it stopped raining.

Six faces stared at her as she pushed open the door, their expressions surprise, then swiftly scornful. Returning their attention to each other, they acted as if she wasn’t in the room.

It wasn’t much of a room, she decided, with a sniff. Michael and the children sat to the left around a table with a single candle in the center. The cup for around them led her to assume that this area must be the kitchen, though how anyone could cook in that small fireplace, she could not imagine. Directly ahead, second doorway led into a dark corridor, no doubt the bedroom area, and to the right was a sitting area of sorts. Where those shows with books? My heavens, a literate kidnapper. She must count herself lucky indeed.

“What is she doing here?” Taller boy was asking. It was more than his jet black hair, sculpted features that reminded her of the younger Michael; both had the same bluntness.

“Watch what you say,” Michael cautioned. “I have brought her here to take care of you.”

There was a collective gasp; the children as appalled as Gwen. She could find nothing in there sullen, unfriendly faces to imply welcome, nor the slightest indication of any need for her help.

“No” the protested in unison, followed by “she is mean,” “she hates us,” and the all too popular, “we don’t want her here.”

“What makes you think I want to be here?” She asked, tired of being talked about as if she were invisible. “I find the whole idea as repulsive as you do.”

This was followed up I chorus of “I told you so’s,” which wrapped the silence with the slap on the table. Coming as it did before another role of thunder, she couldn’t blame the boys for instantly shutting up. “You have all been whining that you need a mother,” he told them, his features stern. “Well, here I have got you wanted, and that will be that.”

He looked from one angry face to the other. “Besides, this is not a case of wanting. We all know you cannot be staying here on your own. Or must I remind you what happened to the pantry?”

There was a great deal less bravado and the boys’ attitude as they looked at each other, then back to Michael. Whatever had happened, the seemed to have guilty enough consciences to forestall further protest.

Gwen, however, saw no reason to cower beneath his dark glare. “I cannot see why I must be punished for their misdeeds. You might as well know, I have no intention of being anyone’s mother.”

Spared her a fierce look, then turned his attention back to the children.

“Go ahead, try to ignore me, but I’m serious, Michael. You cannot force me to stay here. The instant you turn your back, I will run away.”

His tone was cold as his expression. “That is where you are wrong. You are my wife now, and by law, I can drag you out of any hole in Louisiana, and leave you wherever I choose.”

“My uncle is having this marriage annulled. It is just a matter of time, before I am free of you.”

He shrugged. “But you are not free yet. Until that time, might as well make the best of things. Might even find you like it here.” “Here?” She shuddered, thinking of the bayou and its various creatures. “You must be joking.”

The children gazed at her with disgust. “You cannot do this to us,” the one named Jude cried. “You have got a see that she is awful.”

“Enough!” Michael hoisted his bundle up to the table. “Here is some provisions. I hope to be home sooner, but if not, this should last until Friday.”

As the children groaned, Gwen reacted with horror. “You are leaving? You expect to leave me here and leave me alone with these-“she bit her lip. “Theses children?”

“Can’t be helped. I have business that can’t wait.”

“And what about my business, the life you had so casually disrupted? Do you realize that if I’m not back by Friday, there is a very good chance I will Miss Angela Hamilton’s birthday party? What you are doing to me as unfair, uncivilized, and absolutely inhuman.”

“Marriage usually is,” he said, making his way to the door. Desperate now, Gwen tried appealing to his common sense. “You might want to reconsider,” she said, forcing her tone to remain even. “I haven’t the least idea how to be a mother, much less a wife. These children were never asked to me as a substitute. Why, the way we get on, we are liable to murder each other in your absence. What then?”

Reaching the door, he opened it. Outside, she saw the treacherous rain showed signs of letting up. There was no justice in this world, Gwen thought resentfully. The least he deserved was to be drenched.

“The boys know what I expect of them,” he said, giving each a departing glare, “which is to see to it that you are still here when I get back. How you get on with them is up to you, though I warn you, life-and the swamp–have taught these children to be hard. Might want to take care how you address them.”

Was he threatening her? Did he hope she would be frightened of mere children? Looking at them again, seeing their hostility, she realized he might have a point.

“Even so,” he added, gesturing outside the door, “If I were you, I would not try to go anywhere. The cabin is surrounded by the swamp land you are so afraid of, and men more experience than I had become lost in it, never to be seen again.”

Gwen tried hard not to shiver.

“Patrick, “he barked, nodding at the oldest boy, “go out back and check the hole in the pantry roof. See how much of the stores are wet. Between the fire in the rain, Lord knows what we have lost.”

Michael’s tone, as well as the sheepish expression on all their faces, might indicate they had been responsible for both the hole and the fire. The little arsonists. Creaturely expect her to stay with these monsters?

“Jude,” Michael went on, “go with him and use whatever might have gotten damp to rustle up some breakfast. You all need all your energy, if you hope to finish the repairs today.”

With that, Michael turned and left.

“No!” Desperate, Gwen followed him outside. “You cannot do this,” she cried, reaching for his arm. “Don’t you realize my father will skin you alive once he learns you are keeping me prisoner?”

He looked at her hand, then up into her eyes. His gaze softened. “Your father will do nothing, just as he has done for the last five years. Have you forgotten how eager he was for our marriage?”

“No, but I haven’t forgotten Lance, either.” She didn’t need his nasty reminders, or his unwarranted pity either. “I hope you don’t think he will let this go unpunished. He will track you down to the ends of this earth.”

He merely shook his head sadly. “There you go again. Counting on all the wrong people.” Reaching up, he gently pushed the hair from her face. “Even if he did find you, your Lancelot likes his lady’s print and proper. Right about now, you look like more of a ground rat.”

“Don’t dare you say such a thing. Who do you think you are?”

“Me?” He smiled. “Maybe I am your conscience, lady. I’m here see that you keep your promise.” With that, he hurried down the steps through the rain to go push his boat from the bank.

Dazed by his odyssey, and the fact that he had actually left her, Gwen watched him pull off. Slowly, it began to seek in that he had pulled the perfect revenge on her. She was alone here, with nothing to stand between her and the threat of the swamp, save five unruly children. Children who would far rather see the last of her.

She had to get away. Hearing the boys move about in the room behind her, she tried to think of some way to enlist their help. They could not want her over around, and now that Michael wasn’t there to glare them into submission, maybe they would help her escape. If she were them, she would consider it well worth risking his anger to be rid of her.

Taking a deep breath, she went inside. She found the four youngest sitting in cells at the fireplace. Her first thought was, “wasn’t one fire enough?” Until she realized they were trying to cook breakfast. “Her stomach rumbled, reminding her it had been a while since she had eaten.

They seem to be having difficulty getting the damp wood to burn. From there swearing, she surmised that Christopher, the youngest, had forgotten to close the flue.

They looked up when she entered, staring at her blankly as if they had forgotten she was there. In the growing light, she could see they were dirtier than ever. The prospect of eating any food prepared by those hands killed all thoughts of hunger.

Their blank stares quickly became a collective force of hostility, but Gwen refused to be intimidated. “I have a proposition for you.” She announced. “I promise a stick of tapping for anyone who helps me get home.”

“Taffy?” Christopher asked with curiosity.

“If he doesn’t trust her promises,” the one named Jude hissed, “then neither should we. He wants her here, and unless you want him getting angry at us, that’s where she’s going to stay.”

The other three looked at Jude with wide, frightened eyes. Realizing that “he” could only be Michael, Gwen spoke with undisguised exaggeration. “For pity’s sake, you don’t want me around, so why waste the opportunity? How will he know you helped, if you don’t tell him?”

“I really do like candy,” Christopher said, looking to Jude.

“Be quiet, Christopher. You just get back to slicing the bread and pretend she is not here.”

“You’re not being fair to Christopher,” Gwen pressed. “How often does that poor little boy get a treat?”

Jude merely snorted. “The thing is, we are family, and we stick together. If one of us says we are not going to help you, then nobody will. Matter what or how you try to trick us.”

All four, even the obviously reluctant Christopher, stood with their arms folded aggressively across their skinny chess. In the face of such unified hostility, when could only retreat. “Maybe I will just fine my own way home then,” he said in the last feeble attempts at bravado.

The effect was lost on Jude. “You do that,” the child muttered, turning back to the fireplace.

Marching out the door, Gwen was determined to prove she was not as useless as they obviously thought. She would find her way home, and she would eat the taffy herself.

“There is alligators out there,” one of them called before she could shut the door behind her.

“And snakes.”

Hateful children. She slammed the door, taking pleasure in the sound it made. She’d show them if she had to walk until she dropped. She would spend the night in her own bed at the Willows.

Standing on the porch, she paused to get her bearings, wishing she is not been blindfolded. In truth, she had at the least idea where she was, or what direction to take. She looked up at the brightening sky, seeing that the sun would soon emerge from the scattered clouds. Little good it would do, though, when she did not know in which direction Willows was.

Heading down to the bank, she decided to follow the Bayou, hoping it must eventually lead to a road she knew. From there it should be a simple matter of finding a familiar plantation and securing a ride home.

Too bad she looked like a joy around rat.

Stuck out her chin. Michael’s insulting appraisal did not bother her; she was merely concern with what others would think of her of periods. She just tell them Michael kidnapped her, see if her neighbors didn’t band together to lynch him. Sit earning what he’d done to her, it was no better than he deserved.

I am your conscience, he’d the nerve to tell her. Here see that she Promise.

Her righteous indignation slowed somewhat–as did her pace into the marshland–as she realized she had several boats from which to choose. There had been the childhood one to make him her King, then the adult version of crowning him champion of the competition, and she must not forget her route to love, honor, cherish, until death do them part.

She shuddered, thinking of a lifetime spends in that cabin. It would not be a long life; after six months in that cabin, she would wither and die. With a saw, she thought of the Willows, Lance and father and Uncle, and even Edith. She had to get out of this wretched swamp back to all that was safe and familiar. More than anything, she wanted to be home.

You might even like it here, Michael had said.

Looking around her, Gwen found it highly unlikely. Everything was so foreign, so threatening. How still in watchful the swap seemed. Anything could be hiding in the dense plants or waiting out of sight in the branches of the twisted trees.

Lifting her already damp skirt, she stepped gingerly through the deeper monk, referring to take her chances with the mud bank of the Bayou, then risk what might find her in the undergrowth. She thought of Lance. The instant she saw him, she tell him he was right about everything. She would never again doubt a word he might say.

Soon, she was a pastor ankle in mud, and with each step it became harder to pull out her boots. Cursing under her breath, she was forced deeper and deeper in land, as the Bayou became a marsh and quicksand of variable threats. Eyes ever alert for anything crawling on the ground, she would have walked right into a snake-hanging from a branch not more than ten feet away–had she not looked up suddenly when she heard a noise in the bushes. Seeing the snake, she screamed, the sound scaring the reptile as much as she. It slithered off into the brush.

She stood where she was, not moving. She had no idea if the snake had been poisonous; hating them so, she avoided all reptiles and now couldn’t tell a moccasin from a garden snake. But it was her lack of knowledge, and the fact that she’d nearly run into a hideous creature, that so unnerved her now. It forced her to admit that she was out of her element here, that she’d been a fool to come this deep into the swamp.

Deep down, she knew the wisest course was to go back, but she cannot bear to the face the grins from those of noxious kids. She had no doubt they would mock her, and worse, the instant Michael returned home, they were go running to him with the story.

No, only hope was to press forward, and hope against hope that did not get herself killed.

So she moved on, moving closer to the streambank again, deciding she would rather take her chances with quicksand that anything she might encounter in the brush. Twice the Bayou forked, branching off into the dark and mysterious distance, but she was never tempted to follow it. It was dark enough where she was.

She cannot like how the trees intertwine to form a ceiling, keeping the lights out and the humidity in, a non-two welcome condition for someone recently drenched by the rain. The air was so heavy, not a breeze stirred to cool her down. Nothing moved; the overall effect was as quiet as a tomb. She moved on, more and more convinced that she must indeed have died, it was now wandering closer and closer to hell.

When she smelled wood smoke, she did not recognize the order at first, her senses overloaded by worry and the dusky cents of the swamp. The site of the weathered boards, peeking through the dense vegetation, brought hopes back to life. She’d stumbled upon a dwelling of sorts, standing alone in a small clearing. Though it wasn’t precisely civilized nation, she ran to it eagerly, seeing it as her first step home.

Too bad she did not see where she was going.

The root tripped her; surprise help her lose her footing. Before she could fully recover her balance, she went sprawling into the Bayou. Sputtering, she pulled herself up walled to the bank, grateful to be in her riding clothes and not in tangled in one of her heavy gowns. Lauren knew her boots were heavy enough. Tired, she grabbed another route to help pull herself out of the water. As she reached for it, she heard a loud splash behind her.

An alligator?

Blood freezing in her veins, she scrambled for dry ground, praying to reach the cabin before the alligator got her. In a panic, she grabbed too hard and half the root came away in her hand. She fell back into the water with an even louder splash.

Yet even with all the noise she made, she could not miss the sound of boyish laughter.

Fear turned cold with anger as she reached for the remaining half of the root. The movement she had heard earlier when she encountered the snake, must have been the boys following her.

Perhaps basalt her fear he, for she could find no sign of them when she scrambled up to the sand on dry land. They had been wise flee.

Forgetting them, she turned her attention to the shack, they haven from which she’d seek help. She took a few moments strain her riding dress the best she could, hoping she did not look much of a fright. But then, perhaps the occupant would take pity and be all the more eager to help.

With every step she walked forward growing anger filled her body. Or when she looked up at the head to the hidden home, she realized she was back at Michael’s cabin.

 

Chapter 11

Edith quickly closed her uncle’s door behind her, served by his state of health. John had been spitting up blood again, and his skin had turned an awful yellow, but when she’d wanted to call the doctor in, her daddy insisted it wasn’t necessary.

She hated to see her uncle suffer. He and Amanda had always been good to their motherless niece, providing the only stability she ever known. Losing Uncle John now, especially after the way her aunt died, was unthinkable.

“Damn her!”

She tensed. That was Lance’s voice, in a room down the hallway. She might love him with all her heart, but if Lance woke Uncle John after terrible day he had trying to fall asleep, she’d smack him with a broom handle. Lifting up her skirt, she ran down the hall, looking in each room until she found him.

It did not help her temper to find Lance in Gwen’s bedroom, “Lance,” she hissed. “You hush your mouth, or I will have your head.”

He ignored her, as the men in her life generally did. “She is gone!” He exploded, pounding a fist on the bed post. “I told her not to leave the house, but no, she had to have her own way, had to do as she damn well pleased.”

Before he could do any serious damage, Edith stepped up to take his hand in hers. “You have got to calm down, Lance. Then tell me quietly what is wrong.”

He looked at her, focusing for the first time. When he spoke, his voice was quieter, though no less. Furious. “I’ve found her horse wandering about the stable, all lathered and trembling, and I knew, dammit. I knew she had defied me. I appeared and found Gwen’s bed hasn’t been slept in. Why, I bet she went out right after I talked to her.”

Thinking of her cousin lying in some field with a broken leg–or worse, broken neck–Edith paled. She might resent Gwen, but she and never wanted to hurt her. “We have got to go out searching.”

“It’s too late.” shaking his head, Lance pulled free from her grasp. He grabbed the bed post. “Michael must have gotten her.”

Dismay over her cousin’s plight swiftly turned to resentment. If Gwen was with handsome Michael, why waste time worrying about her? Edith remembered how the man had kissed her cousin, right there in front of everyone; however much Lance might wish to, there was note that denying Gwen had kissed him right back. Could bet a dollar to a doorknob that Gwen and her new husband right now honeymooning their hearts out. And not worrying about the confusion she had left behind.

It cannot escape her notice–though it obviously had Gwen’s, but with Lance losing the competition, Gwen had won their wager. It was a major triumph, at long last besting Gwen, all the sweeter because she had always admired that locket, for her cousin to dash off without that tiny bit of her beloved aunt, merely fueled her resentment.

Nor was it fair that poor Lance should stand here feeling angry and hurting and wondering what to do. Why should her cousin always get what she wanted, while he–and Edith, of course–were stuck with the leavings? Why sit by and watch him cry over a woman who showed such little regret of his feelings? Lance deserved his own it share of happiness, and she knew the woman to give it to him. “She is running off to be with her new husband,” she announced, reasoning that the sooner Lance faced facts, the sooner they can begin their own future together.

Lance was visibly shocked. “What are you saying? You can’t think poor Gwen did anything other than go out for a ride. Michael, that fdemon, must have crept up from behind and abducted her.”

Edith was tired of men assuming her cousin was a fragile doll; Gwen merely pretended to be helpless to get them to do what you want. Maybe it was time for Edith to try a few pretenses of her own. “I don’t know,” she said softly, slowly moving closer. “She sure didn’t put you much of the fight against marrying him. Why, the way she behaved, I am wondering if she actually wanted Michael to win.”

His eyes narrowed.

“I saw her near the stables,” Edith went on a, knowing she was being awful to her cousin, but knowing she had to convince Lance to forget her. “Why, she had every opportunity to cut that cinch herself.”

Looking as if he’d been shot, Lance took a step backward. “No,” he said, but his boys lacked conviction. “She could have killed me.”

Edith looked away, not wishing him to guess that she herself had cut that cinch. Not much of a horsewoman, she hadn’t quite realize how dangerous it could be. She had seen only that she must stop Lance from marrying her cousin.

“No,” Lance was shaking his head. “It was Michael, I tell you.”

“But Michael was in full view of everyone for the entire competition,” she pressed on, desperate now. Going up to hand, taking his lapels in her hands, swallowed her sense of decency and made one last stab at winning him away from her cousin. “Lance, thought pains me as much as it does you, but there is a very good chance Gwen did it. For him. He saw how she kissed him that night. I bet they played us along, manipulating us just so they could marry.”

That stopped him. His eyes widen, as if he were visualizing Gwen and Michael together.

“Don’t let her upset you so,” she said, tightening her grip on his jacket. “After what Gwen did to you, she just isn’t worth it.”

“I thought she was a lady.”

“I know,” he said softly, taking him and her arms and patting his head. Poor Lance so bewildered and lost. “But there are other ladies in this world, girls who would be honored to love a finding gentleman like you. If you face the truth about her, you can get on with your life. And you must know, I will always be here to help you.”

She could tell the exact moment he became aware of her, could feel the jolt of desire as if a lightning bolt sparked between them.

“Will you?” He asked Horsley. He reached for her, his hands tightening instantly around her waist. “Will you help me indeed?”

She felt a quivering between her thighs; her pulse throbbed, leaving her begging with need. “Lance, I have always been here, whenever you want me.”

“I want you now.” His words were clicked; his face darkened with passion as he backed her up and dropped her onto the bed. Towering over her, he began to unbutton his trousers.

Suddenly frightened by his and intensity, by what he meant to do, she tried a feeble protests, came down upon her and sounds to her with a desired-drugging kiss. For Edith, so long starved for his love, it was like a gift from heaven.

“I need you,” he bit out at last, his hands running roughly over her body. “I’ve waited so long. Don’t you deny me, too?”

She shook her head. If she gave him this, gave him herself, she would be offering something her cousin never had. When it came time for marrying, surely Lance would remember that stood by him and who had not.

There was a moment’s guilt, in which she wondered about Gwen and hoped she was indeed enjoying herself with Michael, before Edith surrendered completely to lance’s possession.

 

***

 

Gwen sat on the porch swing, barely moving. Never had she felt as though use as she did this moments, covered with mud, her hair tangled, and her skin scratch in a dozen places.

And never had escaped seem so hopeless. She’d followed the stupid by all the way back here, and tell she had no choice but to accept that she was trapped on some wretched island. If she hoped to leave, she’d need some sort of a vessel, for she absolutely refused to step one foot back in that water. She shrugged as she thought of the Leach she’d had to pull off the tender white flesh of her leg.

She done her best to scrub the mud from her face and hands, but she doubted the riding dress would ever dry. Its wool would cling to her uncomfortably for the rest of her life, for what else had she to where? She’d removed her boots, since the drying leather was tightening painfully, slipped off her soggy stockings as quick as possible. All she’d accomplished, however, was giving the mosquitoes licensed to feast on her toes.

And did the children care? She glared at the now closed door. No, they just went about their business, snickering at her whenever they pass in an out of the cabin. You must know how her empty stomach reacted to the smells of their cooking, but no one had offered to share their meal, not even when starvation had gotten the best of her and she’d gone in, prepared to be gracious if it turned her a slice of bread.

Though there’d carefully blank faces and not stopped her, site of whatever was on their plates did. Staring at the mess, Gwen made the mistake of asking what it was. To each child, they’d shielded their bowls with their arms, Jude telling her that their food wasn’t for sharing. If Ms. high and mighty wanted to eat, she could cook for herself.

“What are you doing back here anyway?” Jude had added nastily. “We thought you were running away.”

And then they’d laughed at her, giving Gwen no choice but to tell them that she’d decided to stay and make their lives miserable. Smiling smugly, she’d then announced that she was retiring to her quarters.

That had earned their silence. Unfortunately, when Gwen stomped into the back hallway, she realized she had not the slightest idea where she was to sleep. It donned on her, with a slow creepy flush, that as Michael’s wife, she’d probably sleeping down with him.

She’d found three doors in the dark, narrow hallway. The one on the right open up into the as yet unrepaired pantry, with the hole in the roof. Briefly, she wondered what the children might have been doing to start a fire, but turning to the door to her left, she told herself it was none of her concern. The less she knew about those brats, the better.

The next room had been relatively large, the size of the main room. Several bunks line the walls, and from the mess she decided this was beware the children slept. Shuddering again, she’d been ready to turn away when Jude came up from behind her. “You got no call to be snooping about our things, “the child said belligerently.

“I was not snooping. I was trying to find my room.”

He sneered back, “I don’t believe you for a minute,” Jude pointed to the third door. “The back room. That’s yours.”

Opening the door, Gwen had found it to be small, furnished only with a cupboard and a narrow cot with a straw mattress and threadbare blanket. At least the bed was a single. If she cannot sleep comfortably, Gwen had thought at the time, at least she could sleep alone.

But now, sitting on the porch by herself, she found it rather daunting how little the prospect appealed to her.

I am not used to being ignored, she thought, rocking the swing with more vigor. Most men cannot wait to seeing her praises, but Michael had called her a drowned rat. His teasing grin, his lack of regard for her feelings, proved he did not view her as a desirable woman. All he wanted her for was to stand guard over these brats he called children.

You should have kidnapped Edith, she thought angrily. With her cousin’s newfound abilities to cook and clean, she’d have soon with the entire house sold back into shape.

Stunned by how much that thought bothered her, Gwen blamed her sudden in the on habit, a result of competing against her cousin for so many years. What was there to be jealous of? Edith lived the life of a Drudge.

Except now, Edith stock would improve, Gwen it didn’t doubt. Her cousin would take full advantage of her absence to influence her daddy–and perhaps even Lance–against her.

He is my Lancelot, she thought, feeling doubly sorry for herself. In her mind, Lance became a symbol of all she had lost, and all she had stolen from her. Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine him coming to her rescue, putting his strong arms around her shoulders and leading her out of this dismal swamp.

But her imagination played tricks on her, too, for when he leaned down for a kiss, his fair features suddenly darkened.

“Michael” she hurt herself whisper.

She saw the boat first, breached on the bank of the Bayou, then the man bending over it to lift something out. “Michael,” she whispered again. As he stood, she felt a second stab of disappointment.

Coming toward her carry a heavy cast iron pot, the man be no more than inch or two taller than Gwen, though clearly a good many years her senior. A grizzled beard covered his face, no doubt to make up for the small gray hair on his head. His hunched body moved awkwardly, but it was hard to tell if age, or merely the wait is did. He had a ruddy complexion, indicating a good part of his time spent outdoors, and, she noticed as he came closer, there was a devilish twinkle in his gray green eyes.

“Gumbo I made,” he said, his accent a mixed blend of Cajun and southern drawl. “You are hungry, no?”

Even had she not gone through the swamp all morning and missed her lunch, Gwen would not be able to resist the delicious sense waving up from the pot. Peppers, onions, spices–heavens, was that seafood?–Sent visions of Lavinia’s shrimp and crab concoction dancing in her head. Had Gwen been the rat Michael called her, she’d have followed the pipe piper himself, happy to march to the death for a single bite.

Besides, the poor man had his hands full; was only polite that she offered to open the door.

The children were again busy at the fire place, either planning a second arson, or devising another crazy meal. They glanced up with their usual hostility, until they saw she was not alone.

“Jeffrey” the little one cried out, running forward as if to wrap his arms around the old man’s legs. Forcing potential disaster, Gwen reach out to take the pot from Jeffrey’s hands.

It was heavier than she’d anticipated, and smelled even more delicious up close. As the children came running to bus over their guest, Gwen carried the pot to the table, meaning to sneak a peek, if not a taste, while they were too preoccupied to notice.

Jeffrey clapped his hands as he reached for the lid, she yanked her hand behind her back with a guilty blush. “Quick, quick,” he said to the children, helping Gwen realize he had not been clapping at her. “The sooner you set the table, the sooner we eat.”

They obeyed so quickly, Gwen wondered if he might be some relative-a grandfather, perhaps-but more likely, they were as starved as she. Gwen would gladly have set the table herself, if she’d the least idea how to do so, and if she thought for a moment the children would let her touch their plates.

With an uncomfortable gulp, she knew she must brace herself, for there was a good chance she would not be invited to dinner.

Just as her stomach made a sound, Jeffrey gestured her to the nearest chair. Smiling, he pulled it back for her, and when she was seated, took the chair directly opposite. Watching this, the children looked ready to protests, but aside from the glares they gave Gwen, they can’t their displeasure to themselves. They, to, just took their seats.

“You are not going to eat with those filthy hands?” Gwen protest as Jude reached for the pot.

The child pulled back his hands, looked at them guiltily, and then swiftly recovered his hostility. “Ain’t nothing wrong with good, clean honest mud.”

“Jude.” Jeffrey I the child disappointedly. “Go now, washed up, all of you.”

After the boys ran out, Gwen and gave Jeffrey a smile. “They don’t like me much,” he said unnecessarily. “I, don’t know a lot about children. I haven’t been around them much.”

He nodded. “They look, they see the haughty lady. It takes time to discover the person underneath.” Leaning over, he lifted the lid off the pot.

As the aroma drifted toward Gwen, she became so entranced by it, she forgot everything else. “Amazing, what kind of gumbo is it?’ She asked, as if it mattered. He can offer her shoe leather, she would happily eat it.

Grinning, he poured some into her bowl. “A bit of this, a bit of that, mostly crab and shrimp. And for the children, I sprinkled file on top.”

As if on cue, they filed back to the table, each managing to show Gwen how much they resented her presence before taking their seats. Jude, she notice, hadn’t done much to clean his hands, but Gwen decided to ignore him. What did she care, if the child got sick?

None to patiently, she waited while Jeffrey served the others, introducing each child as he served them. “This fine boy, he is Patrick,” he said, handing able to the one who looked most like Michael. “He is the dreamer, yes? The poet.”

The boy blushed, clearly embarrassed either description. Taking momentary pity on him, Gwen would have told him that Michael had been a dreamer at his age, too, but Jeffrey went on to Jude. “This one will be the death of us,” said with an indulgent smile. “Always getting into mischief and taking the others along. Too curious, and far too proud, our Jude is.”

Unlike Patrick, Jude preened.

“And these two,” Jeffrey went on, “are the twins. Hard to tell which is Peter and which is Paul. I think they’d be like in confusing this old man, no?”

Grinning proudly, the twins also bore a resemblance to Michael, though she could never remember him having such sparkle in his eyes. It wouldn’t be hard for Jude to leave that pair into mischief.

“And Christopher, he is the baby.” With his golden brown curls and sweet round face, the boy looked like a little cherub. Remembering how eager he had been to help her, even if only for the promise of taffy, Gwen decided that of them all, she might just be able to tolerate this little boy.

Setting the ball down before him, Jeffrey gave their ages-Patrick, 11, Jude next at 10, the twins 8, and Christopher just turned 6.

Looking at the dirty faces, so close in age, there was no need to ask what became of their mother. The poor woman hadn’t run off screaming, a life spent in perpetual childbirth must have killed her. Either way she had all Gwen’s sympathy.

“Mother chose the names of saints for us,” Christopher said brightly as he offered a slice of bread. “She wanted to protect us from Papa’s evil.”

Gwen found it hard to hide her shock. She resisted the bad things Lance and told her about Michael, but here were his own children, so matter-of-factly calling him evil. The boys’ mother felt the needed protection from their own father was the most damning fact of all. No wonder they hopped to attention at Michael’s every order; they were afraid to define him.

“And me,” Jeffrey said, as if Christopher had just commented on the weather, “I am Jeffrey, a neighbor. Everyone just calls me Jeff.”

“A neighbor?” Gwen asked, finding it hard to keep up with the shifting conversation. “I thought you were the boys’ grandfather.”

“Me?” He chuckled. “I am just Michael’s friend, though we go way back, back to when he was a child himself. Taught the boy what he needs to know about the Bayou, I did. And now, for him, I teach the children.”

For him. Gwen’s mind said with confusion. Jeffrey conjured up a different image of Michael. It forced her to wonder how a man who inspires such loyalty could be completely evil.

Yet Lance insisted he was, and there was the fear Michael inspired in his children and mustn’t forget that he’d kidnapped her.

Jeffrey wash her face, no doubt seeing her confusion. “Someday, if you want, I will be teaching you how to get by in the Bayou, too.”

Inside, she recoiled. That much at least was clear. She might like this gentle Cajun, but she hated the swamp and had no intention of staying.

Not that she waited for her answer. Turning to the boys, he nodded. “Go on, go ahead and eat.”

Watching them gobble their gumbo, Gwen forgot about Michael in the face of their bad manners. The children might know about survival, but they knew nothing about how to properly sit down to a meal. Sniffing with this dismay, she reached for her soup spoon, finding a short what in utensil instead. She hated wood; touching it gave her goosebumps. “I cannot use this,” she blurted out. “I must have the proper silver.”

The children are at her with every new discussed, while Jeffrey patiently explained that they were short on tableware, but would Patrick go see what he could find? The boys rose reluctantly to search his kitchen and returned with a teaspoon. Thanking him primly, Gwen wiped it carefully on the tablecloth, before taking her first taste of the gumbo.

It was sheer heaven. Not even her servants had ever managed to cook shrimp this soft and succulent, or blend her vegetables in such’s a savory stew. It was old Gwen could do not to moan in pleasure.

No one spoke as they ate, except to ask for seconds. Gwen normally stopped after one bowl, but she hold hers up for a refill. Not only was the food delicious, she wasn’t sure when, or if she would eat again.

The children have thirds, but Gwen knew she’d burst if she took one more bite. Sitting down her spoon, she was complementing Jeffrey on is cooking when she felt a tickle on the top of her hand. Glancing down, she found a big ugly spider, crawling across her fingers. With a shriek, she brushed it away and jumped to her feet.

“What, it’s only a daddy longlegs,” Jude said with a derisive snort, lifting the insect by the legs. “It can’t hardly hurt a fly.”

“It could be she is not used to spiders, no?” Jeffrey said with a smile before turning to Jude. “So tell this old man, how’s the repairs to the house coming along?”

In that collective silence, everyone looked to Jude. Letting the spot ago, Jude grimaced. “The thing is, we ain’t had time to get started.”

“No?” Jeffrey stared each boy. “Couldn’t it, that you been spending your time in the swamp?”

“We have to, Jeffrey,” Jude hissed, frowning I Gwen as if reluctant to discuss this with an enemy present. “You know that.”

He nodded. “I do, yes, we’ve can’t be neglecting your chores. The roof must be mending, before I go to my family.”

“I forgot you are leaving,” Patrick said softly, obviously distressed. “When will you go?”

“Soon. Worry not, I will stop and first, yes?”

“Are you going to see the fortress?” Christopher asked Jeffrey as the old man rose to his feet. “Jude’s got a-“

There was a thud, and the word out from Christopher, as if he’d been hit. With a smile for both children, Jeffrey said he was sorry, but his visit would have to wait for another time. “There is not much light left in this day. I need to be getting back home.”

Rising from the table, he told the boys to do the dishes. “It was a pleasure, enjoying your company,” he said, bowing at Gwen.

As he left out the door, Gwen realize that she’d again been left alone with the children. She jumped up and follow him outside. How she’d stop Jeffrey from going, she had no idea, but she was not about to let the first friendly face she’d seen all day.

Seeing him step into his boat, something snapped in her brain, a fact she would never have overlooked earlier had she not been so hungry.

The man had a boat–only means off this wretched island.

“Jeffrey, wait,” she called out before he could shove off. He stood expectantly, his head cocked to the side. Surely she could count on this kindly man’s help. Once she explained her situation, appealed to his senses shivery and decency, surely he would only happy to take her home.

“I need…” She pause a moment as he frowned, for he seemed to be bracing himself for what she’d say next, “that is, I wondered if you could take me to Willows.

He shook his head, dismissing her request. She forgotten in her desperation, they he and her kidnapper were friends.

“I know you want to be loyal to Michael,” she told him, gathering up her dignity, “but surely you can’t condone him keeping me prisoner. It’s illegal, what he’s doing. If you don’t wish to go to jail with him, you must take me home.”

“You and he are married. Before God and family, no?”

If one more person through that ridiculous ceremony interface, she was going to spit. Frustrated and angry, she stopped her foot. “I meant to ask nicely, but now I am demanding you take me home this instant.”

He chuckled softly. “Michael warned me about you. Said you like to play lord over people, order them here and there, play the Queen, no?”

Gwen went on the defensive. “You don’t understand,” he said, appealed to herself whimpering. “I need my family and servants and all my familiar things about me.”

“Them children, they need you, Gwen,” he said critically, nodding toward the cabin.

Gwen snorted. “As far as I can see, there is never been a more self-sufficient bunch. They can take better care of themselves than I ever could.”

With a shrug, stuck the pull into the mud and pushed off from shore. “Then maybe it’s you who needing them, no?”

“No!” She insisted as he pulled away. How could he call those filthy, nasty brats children? They were demons sent from hell to torment her. With a gulp, she glanced to the cabin. There was nothing she could do to prevent spending the night here with them, and then they’d made it clear that they weren’t no happier than she was about the situation.

The question was, what did they mean to do about it?

 

***

 

Riding home from town, Jervis decided he was well pleased with the day’s proceedings. Thus far, Michael had yet to file his marriage license, but the minute he did, the attorney would file an annulment. They could always claimed lack of consummation, the lawyer had assured him. As long as Gwen didn’t sleep or cohabitate with her new husband, her marriage was as good as over.

Gwen’s marriage to Lance must take place before his brother’s death, Jervis swore, even if he would move mountains to get it.

No matter what it took, you would have that trust fund–and the Willows along with it

 

***

 

Hands cradling his head, Michael lay on the hard ground, his body exhausted stared at the star filled sky. It was an incredible night, warm and seducing, a night made for dreaming. Back in his youth, his mind would have danced with dazzling images of wealth and recognition, as brilliant as the distant stars twinkling above him.

But tonight, it was not the constellations, or even his future that he saw in his mind. It was the interior of that little cabin in the swamp.

Nor was it a scene of domestic tranquility he pictured. Given the characters, what he imagine more resembled a brawl. Too easily, he could see Gwen demanding the children do something–fetch her food, pick up her discarded clothing–while Jude lead the others into rebellion. The children would give their new mother the fight of her life.

Not much he could do about it, though, save hope that Jeffrey had, as he promised, to act as arbitrator.

Still, Michael knew the old man couldn’t stay forever, and they would impose more than enough as it was. Like himself, Jeffrey had other, more pressing demands on his time. For the time being, if Michael wanted a guardian for the children, he would have to rely on Gwen.

That was the sole reason he’d taken the woman, he told himself. He needed someone to watch over the children, while Jeffrey went home to visit a dying family member. If Gwen would just give him a month, maybe two at the most, Michael would happily hand there on the wedding license and call the marriage off. Hell, if she helped him and things worked out as he hoped, he would be willing to consider all their debts cancelled.

Too late, he wished he hadn’t gotten so angry. He’d meant to tell her that she had no intention of holding her to the vows she hadn’t realized she was making, but she’d gotten him so riled, it was all he could do to leave with this temper intact. How could such a beautiful woman have so uncanny a knack for getting under a man’s skin? Instead of striking a deal like the mature, responsible adult he should be, Michael had barely made it out there without bringing her neck.

Because of it, he would now lie awake for hours, worrying, when he desperately needed sleep. He knew those children, and he knew Gwen, and they did not make a comfortable combination.

Damn. Despite his tight schedule, he’d have to squeeze in a visit sometime tomorrow, just to make certain that cabin still stood and everyone remained alive in one piece. Or he would not to be sleeping tomorrow night, either.

 

***

 

Inside there fortress, Patrick listen to Jude, and making plans on what they would do with that woman. Everyone wanted her gone, but no one knew how they could drive her away, without the blame coming back to themselves. They had hoped Jeffrey would help, but he had not appeared anxious to help get rid of her. As Jude insisted, it was clear they were on their own.

At the least, they had to make certain he stay out of their way that she never ventured anywhere near there fortress, besides you could tell just by looking at her that woman like that could never keep a secret.

Jude talked, dismissing one plan after another. Watching his brother’s listen quietly, Patrick had to concede that what Jeffrey said was true. Patrick might be the oldest, but it was always Jude who took charge. Wherever Jude lead, the rest were about to follow.

Not that Patrick resented it. Judah generally had the best ideas, and certainly the greater enthusiasm. And Patrick had to agree that the woman was the worst possible thing that could have happened.

They had been in getting by fine enough, with Jeffrey dropping in from time to time. At the little ones still had nightmares sometimes, what would the woman be able to do about it? Anyone who could raise such a fuss about one tiny spider, sure what it be much help in a crisis. Her idea of hardship was not having the right gown for a ball.

No, whatever it took, even if it made Michael angry at them, they had to get rid of her. They had to make sure she did not get to liking life here in the swamps.

“Snakes,” he heard Jude say to his brothers. “Want to bet she’s scared to death of snakes?”

 

Chapter 12

 

Gwen was dreaming. Deep down, she knew this, even as she leaned forward in her seat. The scene was too romantic, too perfect.

Amid the roar of the delighted crowd, her brave, bold Lancelot turned toward her. She held her breath in excitement anticipating, as she waited for him to come charging forward on his beautiful silver horse. Having captured the day – and her heart – it was time for Lance to come and claim her. The crowd buzzed like bees, knowing it would soon participate in the wedding of the sensory, complete with music and dancing and beautiful, flowing dresses. Everyone was happy. Even her father was smiling.

Beside her, like the serpent tempting Eve, a voice hissed in her ear. Gwen went stiff with confusion; voice seem to belong to Lance.

“Don’t trust him,” whispered darkly, and a hand appeared out of nowhere point at the approaching horseman. “Can you see he is evil, beyond redemption? Remember, his wife had to name her boys after Saints to protect them from his wrath.”

The word of wrath echoed in the murmurs rippling through the crowd. Looking up, Gwen saw that the silver horse had become a fiercely magnificent stallion, its new master bedecked in the same unrelieved black.

Tall and arrogance in the saddle, the man loomed over the tournament like some of avenging god. All around when, the rumor circulated. This phantom in black had once killed a man in a duel, and now had to hide in the swamp.

With a shiver of trepidation, she saw him flick his reins, then everything dissolved–the crowd, her father, even Lance’s voice–as both man and beast came thundering toward her. The world had been reduced to Gwen and this black angel, and she waited breathlessly see what he would do next.

To her amazement, he smiled in open invitation.

He was there, scooping her up as he thundered past, settling her chest to chest before him in the saddle. Gwen had to cling to his neck to keep from falling.

As they rode off, she could feel his heart, pounding in rhythm with her own. It was as if they spoke to each other, those thunderous hearts, calling out any language their brains could not understand. Looking up into his dark, yet familiar eyes, Gwen had never felt so exhilarated, so deliriously happy.

“If you were mine,” he said hoarsely, “I would make certain your nights were filled with magic.”

Suddenly, she cannot get close enough, cannot bear to have even clothes come between them. As he leaned down to take her lips, she wrapped her legs around him, the throbbing between her thighs keeping time with the horse’s acceleration gait.

“Mine,” he moaned into her mouth. “At last, you are mine.”

“It is to mine,” came a younger, more strident voice. “Not everything belongs to you, Jude.”

Opening her eyes, Gwen took some moments to realize that she was not trotting into some sensual Eden, but rather it’s stuck in this cabin in the swamp. Recognizing Patrick’s voice, she might have been overwhelmed by disappointment, had embarrassments not been there to immediately take its place. “Stop fighting,” she heard Michael interrupt them. “I have brought a knife for each of you.”

She thought intensely of the dream, reliving every intense detail, she wondered how she could ever again look the man in the face.

“Where is, my lady?” She heard them ask the children. “I have brought something for her, too.”

“Still sleeping.” Hard to tell which child that was; they all use the same disdain when they spoke about her.

“At this hour? It’s almost noon?”

In the ensuing silence, she pictured them all shaking their heads in anger. Bolting out of the bed, she muttered an oath. She had never meant to sleep so late, and would not have, if the children had not kept her up, worrying half the night. They’d left when it Jeffrey had-without doing the dishes–and they had not returned until well after dark.

Not that she worried about them, of course; her concern was more about what the planned to do to her.

Standing in the middle of the room, she pushed her hands through her hair, knowing it must be a mess like her clothes. If the man thought of her as a drowned rat yesterday, what would he call her today?

Wiggling into her destroyed clothes, she caught herself up short. What did she care what he thought? Michael meant nothing to her. Less than nothing. It was just a silly dream.

Nonetheless, she continue to fuss with her appearance. Determined to where her locket, she groped through the cupboard, certain she had said it on that shelf last night, but searched though she might, she cannot find the locket nowhere in the room. Confused growing desperately, she heard Jude speak to Michael and her mind made the connection. After all it wasn’t the first time those children had made off with her locket.

As she stormed into the main room, Michael looked up from the sack as he was unpacking. If he had any idea that he’d play role in her dream, she’d never know it from his wary gaze. “I see you survived the night,” he said, handing Christopher a less lethal version of Patrick’s gleaming new knife. “Jude tells me you six managed to avoid all major calamities.”

The children looked up from their new weapons with a collective scowl, but otherwise ignored her. “Indeed?” Gwen said, bristling. “Perhaps you can ask Jude what they have done with my mother’s locket.”

Michael turned instantly to the boys. “Again? Boys, we discussed this that day at the docks. I thought we agreed that the locket doesn’t belong to you. That you can’t be taking it.”

Jude stepped forward, removing the chain from his pocket. “We did not. We found it on the floor. I just meant to look at it. I was going to give the back when she woke up.”

“She is up now,” Michael said gently. “Give it back.”

Glancing down at the picture, Jude side heavily, obviously reluctant to let go of the locket. The child must miss his mother too, Gwen thought, feeling suddenly churlish. She didn’t like to think that she’d made a hasty, undeserved accusation.

But Jude’s hostile glare as he handed over the locket eased whenever tender feelings might have bloomed. Jude might be innocent now, but there were plenty enough other crimes. He was a horrid child, Gwen reminded herself – they all are.

“Let’s hope that’s the last I have to hear about that locket,” Michael said, eyeing each child before turning to Gwen. “In the meantime, however, we have another problem. “He held up her leather boots. “You let them outside and I’m afraid that the leather has shrunk a good three sizes.”

Tensing, Gwen waited for the children to tell about her escape, but they merely continued scowling. “It wasn’t the rain that got my boots wet,” she told Michael, holding her chin up defiantly. “If you must know, I went through quite an ordeal yesterday.”

Grimacing, he looked away. “I’m sorry for that, I will do what I can’t find you some other footwear.” Lifting the sack, he carried it to the kitchen.

Self-consciously, Gwen wiggled her bare toes as she battled bewilderment. Where was the scolding, the laughter at her suspence? Michael acted as if he did not know she had tried to escape, yet she’d have thought it the first thing the children would tell him. Of course, they might have been distracted by their new knives, but what kept them silent now?

Eyeing them, she found each child busy inspecting his gift, but their stiff postures made it clear they were hanging onto every word. “Just tell him and get it over with,” she snapped, unable to bear the suspense any longer. “Go ahead, give him every sorry detail of my running away.”

Jude looked up, facing her squarely. “We don’t snitch.”

“I thought you wanted to get rid of me? Here’s your chance you won’t want such an irresponsible person watching over you.”

Jude looked tempted for a moment, but with a proud shake of his head, the child stood firm. “We have our code. Code of honor. We don’t go carrying tales, no matter what.”

Gwen could not help but be impressed. Looking down at the locket, she realized she’d started snitching the moment she’d entered the room.

“What is this about running away?”

She cringed at the sound of Michael’s voice. Noticing his frown, she remembered her dream. In it, he’d been so fierce, so passionate. Her body betrayed her with a swift, heated flush.

“After I warned you?” He went on, puzzled. “Knowing the hazards you would face in the swamp, you still tried to leave?”

“I don’t want to be here. You know that”

He set the sack on the table with a loud thud. “Have you any idea what could happen to you out there? Of all the foolish, idiotic-“

“What did you expect?” Gwen lashed out. “Did you think I would stay in this shack willingly?”

“It’s not a shack. It’s a cabin.”

“For pity’s sake, even you must see this situation is intolerable. I can’t stay here. I just can’t.”

“Let her go,” Jude said it, looking at Gwen with a scowl. “Things were a whole lot better before she came.”

“That will be enough.” The words were stern, but his tone betrayed his weariness. Setting the sack on the table, Michael reached up to rub the back of his neck. Why, the poor man’s tired, Gwen thought, surprised, then annoyed by her sudden passion.

“But-“

“Enough, Jude. Please, go outside for a moment and take your brothers with you. I need to talk to Gwen.”

Jude looked ready to argue, but Patrick grabbed him by the arm. Though the twins and Christopher followed them out, Gwen knew all five standing on the porch, ears glued to the door.

She cared little if they listened. He was her chance to plead her case, and she meant to take full advantage. Turning to Michael, was now taking supplies out of the sack, she squared her shoulders.

“If you let me go,” she said, trying to add a smile to her words, “I will drop all criminal charges against you.”

A dark eyebrow raised. He watched her, saying nothing.

“Well, perhaps not all,” she went on an easily. “I suppose we really must punish you for cheating, if Lance is to win the tournament and claim my hand.”

“Lance.”

Said the name with such disgust, Gwen went instantly defensive. “Be responsible. Everyone knows Lance must win the tournament, or my father would never let me marry him.”

A door slammed, he turned to glare at her from across the littered table. “For the last time, I had no need to cheat. I’d beat Lance fairly, twice to be exact, and still you people deny. How can you face your conscience, my lady? How do you sleep at night?”

By dreaming. All the hot, driving force of last night’s fantasy slammed into her, leaving her trembling with need. If not for the table between them, there was no telling what foolishness she might have committed. “I…I love Lance,” said feebly, striving to recall the other man’s face. “I always have and always will.”

“So you have made it abundantly clear.” Michael looked away, his boys hard with anger. “Unfortunately, you are married to the wrong man. You are my wife now, and you’re staying right here where you are.” So saying, he turned to march out of the cabin.

Gwen stared at the doorway. It was not in her to humble yourself so, and what good had it done? Michael had it made the least attempt to listen to her please. He did not want her, but he meant to keep her trapped here, until it she was old and gray and no one else wanted her either.

Worse, there wasn’t a single thing she could do about it.

Overwhelmed with stray shin and rage, she grabbed the first thing she could find to throw after him. The iron pot hit the door, managing to splinter the frame badly enough in the door what it never again shut properly.

Staring at the broken frame, she realized that her tantrum had not only been destructive, but had been futile, since Michael had long since made his exit. Knowing she’d accomplish nothing by standing there fuming, she followed him outside.

Down by the bank, she found Michael reaching into his boat. “Where are you going now?” She demanded. “It is inhumane, I tell you, leaving me with those children. Is this how a man treats a wife? Why… Why, I’m more and unpaid nursemaid, a…a jail warden.”

Lifting a bundle from the boat, he showed it into her chest. “It’s nothing fancy, but at least you can change out of…” He looked at the filthy, non-fitting dress she was in, “… What you are in.”

She knew what he was thinking, but whose fault was it that she looked like a drowned rat?

Still, clothes were clothes, and it had been a long time since she’d had new ones. With more excitement than she wanted to feel, she dug into the sack to pull out to dresses, a hideous green, and other a Dole, blue gray, along with a shift, stocking, and a blimp petticoat. “Where on earth did you get these?” She asked with disdain.

“You’re welcome.”

Belatedly, she realized that she should have thanked him, but she was still angry, and his sarcasm rankled. “I’m sure you mean well,” he said stiffly, “but I am accustomed to finer things. I’ve always had servants do my cooking and cleaning. My bed had new linens, the table held the proper utensils. It isn’t fair, what you are asking of me. Mine is a gentler, more refined life; can’t expect me to survive in this shack.”

“What I hear, things have changed up at the Willows. You don’t have much in the way of servants, or china and crystal there, either.”

“You enjoy being cruel, don’t you? I know what this is. It’s some attempt at revenge. You hold a grudge, for what we did as children, and now you mean to punish Lance and me forever.”

“Let’s get one thing straight, my lady.” Stared at her coldly. “Seeking revenge might be lance’s idea of fun, but trust me I have better ways to waste my time. You two can go to the devil together, for all I care, but I did win your services in a fair fight, and as probably noticed, I don’t care leaving the children alone while I’m gone.”

“But-“

He held up a tired hand. “Next time I come around, maybe we can discuss this like a reasonable adults, but right now, I am too busy for your tantrums.” He glanced meaningfully up at the shack. “If I were you, I would get the boys to do something about repairing bad door, or there’s no telling what will be crawling inside the cabin while you sleep.”

Gwen shivered. “Please, Michael, I can’t spend another night here. What you are doing is…is torture!”

“I suppose you could look at it that way,” he said, as he stepped into his boat. “But considering you have no choice, why not think of your stay here as redemption? Not everyone gets to right an old wrong.”

With a tight smile, he handed her a string of fish and, leaving Gwen sputtering helplessly on the bank, he pulled off in his boat.

Rite an old wrong? Denying the twinkle of guilt, she marched back to the shack, insisting that the man hadn’t the least idea what he was talking about. She was the one who been wronged; he had kidnapped her. Michael needed the redemption, she insisted as she slapped the fish on a platter. Her conscience was as clean as a new slate.

She left the fish on the table, since she hadn’t the least idea what to do with them, and went to her room to inspect her new clothes. Looking at the dress he had bought her, she felt another twinge, this one harder to overlook. Not many men would have thought to bring her clean clothing. How selfish and shallow she sounded, complaining about the quality, when it was clear the man hadn’t the means of obtaining anything better.

At least the clothes were clean and fresh smelling. Which was a good deal more than she could say about what she now wore. And what did the style matter? It wasn’t as if anyone she knew what ever see her here, way out here in this shack.

All I once, she couldn’t wait to wash up and change. With wave of longing, she wished for her brass tub at the Willows, along with Aunt Agatha’s delicate, scented soaps for her hair, but she supposed the soap in the room would just have to do.

Lifting up the blue dress, spun with it in front of her. Oh yes, she would primp and preen, next time she saw Michael… well, nobody would call her a drowned rat.

“That’s not yours!” Jude cried, bursting through the door. He looked at Gwen as if she were a witch to be burned at the stake. “What are you doing with our mothers things?”

Gwen almost dropped the dress. “Michael gave them to me.”

“He didn’t. He wouldn’t.”

Recovering from her initial surprise, Gwen grew angry. As if she would steal a dead woman’s clothes. “He most certainly did give them to me,” she said firmly, “and where are your manners? You don’t barge into a bedroom uninvited, and you certainly don’t go around branding someone a thief without proof.” Uneasily, she recalled once doing the same to the children.

“You’re not my mother,” Jude lashed out. “I don’t have to listen to you.”

“For pity’s sake…” Gwen trailed off, for the child had already left, slamming the door. Following to the porch, she called after him. “Wait a minute, Jude. Who’s going to fix this door?”

“Fix it yourself,” said over his shoulder. “You broke it.”

“But I don’t have the least knowledge of carpentry. Come back here,” she demanded when the boy refused to stop. “Where do you think you are going?”

“What do you care? You will have the cabin to yourself all day, since we won’t plan to be back until late.”

Gwen raised a hand to call him, but Jude was already vanishing into the bushes. Hateful boy. She was glad he was gone. Delighted.

Yet, going back inside, she felt overwhelmed by the empty silence. The day stretched long and tiresome, with nothing to do. Ignoring the piles of dirty dishes, as well as the split doorframe behind her, she wondered back to her room. Sheer move her old clothing and sponged herself clean, but felt too tired and depressed to dress. Donning the clean dress from the sack, she sank down on the narrow cot. As the straw poked into her back, she felt a rush of longing for her soft, warm bed at home, only to remember on the next breath that her beloved bed had long since been sold.

“Things have changed at the Willows,” Michael had said, unhappily, she knew he was right.

Worse, he thought as she felt sleep over taker, life was demanding that she change with them.

 

***

 

Gwen awoke from another lurid dream, jolted from her fantasy by heavy pounding. In her grogginess, she thought at first that it must be Michael’s horse, to take her away from this dreadful shack, those awful children.

Yet, even as the smile formed on her lips, it struck her that the noise was too sharp, too incessant, to be a horses footsteps. No, now that she thought about it, it sounded more like someone trying to break down her door.

Slowly, she remembered breaking a door, and telling Jude to fix it.

She rose, so excited that the child had obeyed her, she rushed into the other room without thinking. As such, she was thoroughly taken aback to find Michael crouched in the doorframe, nails in his mouth and hammer in hand. “Oh, it’s you,” was all she could think to say.

His eyes widen as his gaze went from her head to her toes. “You were expecting someone else?” He asked, spitting the nails in his hands. “Dressed like that?”

Too late, she remembered falling asleep in her shift. Looking down, she found a strap had slipped from her shoulder, leaving much too much of her shoulders exposed. Oh dear, and her right nipple was poking out over the lace trim. No wonder he was gaping.

Hastily gathering the cotton closer, she mumbled an apology and fled. She could hear the pounding resume as she beat a retreat to her room.

Damn that man. Must he always manage to catch her off guard? So much for her plans to greet him confidently, properly groomed, so prim and sedate and proper that he would be the one stuttering. Instead she’d gone charging into the Fourier in her underwear.

Muttering to herself, she wiggled into the slate blue cotton and pinned up her hair in record time.

When she returned to the main room, Michael had finished the repairs on the door and was moving about in the kitchen. She wished she hadn’t take that nap. Not only had it made her feel groggy and disoriented; and made her seem lazier and more useless than ever. “What are you doing here?” She asked, trying to take the attention off herself.

“I live here,” he said flippantly, pulling a soot stained kettle from the fire. Must have seen her frown, for he nodded back at the door. “Actually, I came to fix that.” Moving the last of the previous night’s dishes from the table to the ever-growing pile on the counter, he poured himself a cup of coffee and gestured her to the chair. “Won’t you join me? I think it is time you and I had a talk.”

He looked away, but not before his gaze strayed to her breast, she might be fully cover now, but they both knew what he’d seen earlier. If you lecture her on her ladylike behavior, she thought angrily, she would happily hit him in the ears.

“I don’t drink coffee,” she told him tightly, primly spreading her skirts as he slid the chair beneath her. “But it would be nice.”

“We don’t have any-“he stopped himself, as if determined not to be goaded. Forcing a smile, he held up the coffee pot. “Jeffrey claims I make the best coffee in seven states. Sure you won’t give it a try?”

“I suppose,” she offered reluctantly, for she hated this sickly sweet beverage. Though this was not the café she drinks at the Willows, she saw as Michael poured her a cup. “It’s so…so dark.”

“I drink it black,” he said, handing it to her. “I can offer you sugar, but I’m afraid of the children finished the last of the milk this morning.”

Smiling all the more tightly, Gwen risk a sip. It took all her willpower not to spit the hot, bitter taste out of her mouth. Might as well then he her out go haul, she decided; it sure had the same kick.

Michael, who had been watching her face, tried not to grin. “Cajun coffee takes more getting used to. You will come to love them time.”

Gwen nodded, “actually I have been meaning to talk to you, Michael?”

With his attention focused on her, Gwen found it hard speak. “You are an intelligent, reasonable man. Surely we can reach a compromise.” She pause strategically to give him a coy smile, and hoped she wouldn’t darken her teeth with that coffee.

“The flattering is wasted on me, my lady. Don’t bother batting your lashes. You’ll get a good deal further, if you just come out and say it.”

That was the crux of it; she no longer knew what she wanted. To go home, surely, but first, she must repay whatever debt she might owe him. She spent a few weeks teaching his children, perhaps he’d considered the score settled and never bother her again.

“Very well,” he said pausing, finding it hard to begin. “This is what I was thinking. Maybe we can help each other.”

“Can we now?” Watching her warily, took a sip of coffee, swallowing as if he actually enjoyed it.

“Well, I thought, maybe I can do a bit more than merely watch over the children. What if I provide daily lessons in reading and sums, as well as rudiments of civilized behavior?”

“Rudiments?”

“Come now, Michael. Surely you have noticed there atrocious manners. And when was the last time they took a bath?”

His gaze narrowed. “So now we know your part. Pardon my curiosity, but I can’t wait to hear mine.”

Gwen wandered if her expression could get any tighter and still be considered a smile. “It is quite easy. Once the children can conduct themselves properly in a social situation, you will take me home.”

“I see.”

Excited that she’d devised a viable compromise for them both, she went on. “Personally, I can’t see why I can’t be back at the Willows by the end of this month.”

“Two weeks?” His cup banged set it on the table. “Don’t you think they will choke to death, if you try to jam that much education down the throats in a fortnight?”

Gwen was determined not to let his fierce expression intimidate her. “Please, I don’t get home soon, I will never outlive this scandal. Folks will accept that I would go off visiting for a month, but they would never believe I would stay away longer than that.”

“You stayed in Boston for over five years, and no one lifted an eyebrow. I can’t see how another year could possibly hurt.”

“A year?” Gwen could not control her gasp. “You have got to be joking.”

“Do I?”

She stood. “I am not getting younger, you know. I must find a husband.”

“You already have one.” Pushing back from the chair, he stood. “One who happens to have five children badly in need of a woman’s tender care.”

“That marriage was false. Besides, the children don’t want my tender care. They hate me.”

“Can you blame them?” He glared at her. “From the start, you looked at those boys as if you were holding your nose against the stench. You think of them like they are demons straight from hell. Can you see there just babies, struggling to cope with the fact that they recently lost their mother?”

With another unwelcome twinge, she thought back to how she felt when her mama had died–how she still felt it. No wonder Michael was so angry, so bitter, if he’d just buried his wife. “I am sorry,” she said in a small voice. “I didn’t know you lost her such a short time ago. It must be hard on you all.”

He shrugged. “The boys want me to think they are holding up fine, but the twins still have nightmares. Jude tries sit up with them, and then there’s Christopher, who cries himself to sleep most every night. What did truly need is a woman’s comfort.”

“I’m not very good at that sort of thing.”

Holding her gaze with his own, he came to her side of the table. “You were, back when you played Camelot. I saw your compassion, how you overruled Lance when his edicts were too severe. You were the only one who watch out for the smaller children, the forgotten ones.”

He didn’t mention himself, but it hovered between them all the same.

“Watching you play,” he went on, “I would be remembered of your mother. She had different expectations, but a person could count on Amanda be kind and fair.”

He hit a nerve. Mother was dead; the last thing Gwen wanted was to be compared to her. Especially when she doubted the comparison would be judged in her favor. “Oh, very well,” she agreed, hoping to see his attention. “I suppose I could stretch out my stay to a month.”

“How gracious of you.” Shaking his head, Michael turned for the door. “But I can’t see how you can accomplish much in less than six.”

“I am giving up a portion of my life for relative strangers,” she called to his back. “How can you expect more than eight weeks of my time?’

Pausing in the door frame, he turned back to study her. “Do I have your word of honor you won’t run off, or leave the children neglected?”

She nodded eagerly, happy that he was at last listening to reason.

“Good,” he tossed over his shoulder, slamming the door behind him. “Then three months should do it.”

Her first reaction was blank, for once more he was stomping off without giving her the chance to fight back. Yet there was no sense going after him. It got her nowhere, arguing with him. She’d managed to reduce his requirements from twelve months to three by being nice. Maybe next time she should whittle her sentence down further. If she exerted a little charm.

Returning to her bedroom, she conceded that the children did need instruction from someone. And by taking the time to teach them, maybe she could erase whatever it was Michael felt she owed him. In the process, maybe she could even do something that would have made her mother proud.

Yes, she could clean the slate, and perhaps even her conscious. By the end of the month, Gwen would have those children so well behaved and well-adjusted, Michael would be grateful enough to let her go early.

She could do this, she thought, refusing to look at the dirty dishes as she left the kitchen.

After all, how bad could five children be?

 

***

 

Later that evening, Patrick watch Jude gather them in a tight circle, symbolically closing ranks, as they decided what to do about the fact that the woman had agreed to stay and take care of them for the next few months.

“We have got to step up our efforts to make the woman miserable, “Jude announced in a harsh whisper, eyeing each in turn. “We can keep putting loose straw in her bed, and making the meals so awful she won’t want to eat them, but we have got to do something worse. By the time he returns, she’s got to be complaining so badly, he will pay anything to get her away.”

“But it doesn’t seem very nice.” Patrick felt compelled to intervene, unnerved by the anger he saw on Jude’s face. “Mother always said we should be gracious to our guests.”

“She’s not a guest, she is a nuisance.” Jude glared at him as if he were the woman.” Tell me, Patrick, do you want her staying?”

“No. but-“

“Does anyone else?”

One by one, the other boys shook their heads.

“Very well then, I say it’s time to use the snake.”

 

Chapter 13

Jervis sat at his brother’s desk, once the center of all activity on the plantation, and let himself pretend for a moment that he was master of the Willows. It all could have been his, should have been his, if not for Michael. Damn that man for showing up when he did and ruining everything.

Yet, how could anyone predict that John would be so childishly impressed I Michael prowess, so fascinated by tells of what that Amanda was said to have done? Michael was a man’s man, John insisted and a damn sight better candidate for taking over the Willows than anyone else in that competition. Knowing his ensuing sneer was for Lance, Jervis felt more desperate than ever to get Glenn’s marriage an old. All the way to get both the trust fund and his brothers plantation was to make certain Gwen’s marriage was to go to Lance.

His fury revived as he thought about returning home to find the girl missing, but unlike the others, Jervis doubted Gwen had gone off with Michael. Having been brought up to let others take care of her, Gwen would not have lasted long in the swamp. Hardships would have brought that pampered young by back by morning.

No, it seems for more likely Michael had kidnapped the girl.

Frustratingly enough, his brother refused to go after his daughter, insisting that it was up to her new husband to take care for Gwen. It was useless to argue, for John refused to be swayed from this decision. Jervis thought it would take some heinous action by Michael, before the man’s image could ever be black in John’s drunk blinded eyes.

Pounding the desk with his fist, he longed to know what Michael was up to. Having played cards with the man, Jervis new he rarely took a gamble without weighing his options. No man could actually want a brat like Gwen for a wife, so what did Michael hope to gain by taking hurt? Not the Willows, surely. Kidnapping was hardly the means of endearing oneself to a woman’s father, and Michael had to know John would never hand over his property if he were being forced.

Jervis sat straighter in the chair, a smile forming on his lips. Imagine his brother’s reaction should be he learned that Michael was holding his daughter for ransom. John might turn a blind eye to anyone running off with his daughter, but you could bet his pride would be pricked should his new son-in-law be so bold as to demand money.

Why, properly handled, and with enough alcohol swimming in his body, John would get so riled, he would denounce his daughter’s new husband. Should he do this publicly, and should a witness be near, Gwen might yet lose the trust fund to Jervis. And it could easily be accomplished without having to let the annoying the lance into the family.

All Jervis had to do was sit tight and be patient, waiting for the ransom letter to arrive. Should he be wrong about Michael’s intentions, if for some strange reason the demand and should fail to appear, well, Jervis had access to pen and paper.

Was there any reason he could not write a ransom note himself?

 

***

 

Once more, Gwen woke up before she was ready, and inconvenience she’d rarely suffered at the Willows. She rubbed her eyes, irritated that she again been dreaming about a certain black night, and didn’t at first place the sound that disturbed her.

Lying in bed, staring at her door, she saw the light streaming in through her window and realized that it was still early morning. The noise–had it been the children? True to Jude’s predictions, they hadn’t come home before she went to sleep last night. Were they in the house now, or was it an intruder?

The four-legged kind?

Heart pounding, she listened carefully, but the sound was not repeated. As she slowly rose from her bed, she told herself that it was her imagination playing tricks. If she meant to get along here, she had to stop jumping at every noise. Too well, she could imagine the children’s should be fine her cowering in her bed.

Nonetheless, she stepped gingerly from it, checking the floor before sliding her feet into the slippers Michael had brought to replace her ruined boots. They were a bit dainty for life in the swamp, but she wore them happily, for they reminded her of the days she’d been pampered and safe.

Panning over the hooks on the wall, she tried to decide what to wear today. The green dress was stained from trying to fix her own at dinner, and her riding clothes still wore its coating of mud. Longing, she thought of the Lavinia, wishing the old servant could calm for the day to do her laundry. And dishes, Gwen added, thinking of this stacks piling up in the kitchen.

She chose the blue dress, for it was the coolest, and threw it down on the bed. Seeking the petticoat in the dresser, she opened the door and was reaching inside when she heard the sounds of ruffling again. It was the hiss, however, that started her screaming.

She was up on the bed, pointing and screaming, when the children burst into the room. “Snake!” She managed to wheeze.

“There, in the dresser.”

Jude stopped over to the dresser to pull the writhing creature out. “This? This has you screaming like there was a fire?” He held up a six inch snake, no bigger around than a pinky finger, but for Gwen, it seemed repulsive enough.

“I am used to snakes,” little Christopher volunteered.

Jude snared. “That’s because you’re a lady.”

This brought on a round of laughter.

“Get it out of here,” Gwen whimpered from the bed, making a shooing motion with her hands.

Jude brought the ugly thing closer. “This little guy bothers you, then you are in big trouble. He’s got brothers twenty times bigger, living right here on the island. Why, I once found a twelve footer under my bunk, it did and I?”

The other boys nodded. “Be careful,” Patrick cautioned, the most solemn of all. “You would not want it to bite you.”

“She’s got it expect it,” Jude said, not bothering to hide a smirk. “That’s what life is like here in the swamp.”

“Just get that creature out of my room.”

“Whatever you say. Sure you don’t want us checking to see if there is any more in here? They like to squeeze in through the cracks in the walls, you know.”

Gwen did her best not to shudder. “If I need you, I will call.”

Shrugging, yet raining, Jude carried the reptile out of the room, the others following.

When they had gone, Gwen slowly stepped down from the cot, feeling first sheepish, then dismayed. She had made a major mistake, letting those children see her fright. Not only would they taunt her unmercifully now, she would never get them to sit still long enough to teach them.

She rubbed her arms, upset by how much the incident had unnerved her. Even now, she was afraid to move about the room, not knowing if another snake had squeezed in through the wall. Shivering, she looked about her, slowly realizing that the walls were all covered with tarpaper, that there weren’t any holes to speak of. More importantly, as she leaned down for a closer look, she discovered there were no outside openings in the dresser, either.

Those little brats have put the snake in their!

Her first reaction was to run out to confront them, but as she was hurrying into her close–reluctance to be caught again in her underwear–her anger had time to cool. As it did, she knew there was no sense screaming at them; they were not likely to listen. Besides, who was she to be such a hypocrite? At that age, she admitted painfully, she’d been a bit of a terror herself.

Thinking back, she had to admit that she’d tried her own share of pranks, with poor Lavinia her usual target. Never with snakes, for even then she’d hated them, but she did remember a frog. She’d found it during one of her night time searches, when she climbed out of her window and crawled down the old oak to meet Lance for fishing.

It wasn’t until Edith had come to live with them, and mother had someone to compare her daughter to, that mother and father had stopped laughing at Gwen’s antics. It was time, her parents had agreed, and that their little tomboy learned to be a lady.

In truth, Gwen had been every bit as headstrong as Jude, and twice as determined never to change, yet her parents had managed to refine her behavior. How, exactly, had they done it? Father hadn’t yelled or screamed; there had been no need for lectures. He merely give her the look, and glad had instantly cringed. It was the same fierce expression with which he so often silenced her now.

Practicing her own version of his forbidding expression, Gwen went out into the hallway. She would try it on Jude, she decided. If she could get their leader to listen to her, the other boys would eventually fall in line.

Unfortunately, Jude wasn’t in the kitchen when she entered it. Little Christopher sat alone at the table, busily licking the bottom of a bowl.

“Christopher!” Gwen step up to take the bowl from his hands. “That is no way for a boy to be eating.”

He tried to snatch it back. “Give it. It’s mine. Jude made it for me.”

“Whatever it was, it’s long finished. Don’t you know a gentleman must never apply his tongue to the china?” From his puzzled expression, Gwen realize that the word china must be a foreign term. “The bowl,” she explained. “It is not polite to be licking it.”

“But I am hungry.”

Looking at his round little face, Gwen felt a pang. Poor thing, his older brothers must have left him to his own devices. Her own childhood not that long ago that she couldn’t remember how it felt to depend on others for everything, even your next meal.

Come to think of it, she still knew how it felt.

“Don’t worry,” she told the boy. “There must be something else you can eat.” She looked about helplessly. Even if she could look through the mess on the counter, she couldn’t cook. What she what it give now for a big fresh slice of bread. “Actually, now that you mention it, I am hungry myself.”

“Jude made gruel.”

Looking in the pot, Gwen tried not to gag. In her book, gruel ranked right down there with snakes. “You cannot want any more of this. Where are the others, anyway? Why aren’t you with them?”

His face clouded. “It is a secret. They say I cannot be trusted to keep quiet.”

“Hmmm.” As much as she needed to know what they were plotting against her, she took pity on Christopher’s glum expression. The little boy seemed badly in need of a friend. “As long as we are both left out, I say we forget this revolting gruel and find something better. Wait right here,” she told Christopher as she headed to the pantry. “I will see if I can find us something more suitable to fill our stomachs.”

Opening the pantry door, she found a stream of light shining down from the hole in the roof. Apparently, the boys hadn’t begun in their repairs. They had been lucky that it had not rained; there was a good deal of food here that would be ruined if the roof was not patched soon. The moment they return, she would have to get on them about it.

As a ray of sunlight beamed down on a glorious ham, as if it had been created for the sole purpose of calling it to her attention. As she gazed at the chunk of meat, all cured and ready to be eaten, her stomach began to grout. She reached for the knife beside and hastily slice off a slab.

Proud of her discovery, she brought it back to present to Christopher, but to her disappointment, the boy’s eyes the not widened with the delight. “We cannot eat that,” he said quickly, clearly alarmed. “Jude is saving it for a special occasion.”

Gwen, mainly rooting through the drawers for a clean plate, bristled with exasperation. “Jude said this, Jude said that. I am the mother here–or at least I am acting in that capability for the next few weeks–so unless someone crowned you to King when I was not looking, you can tell him I am the one who decides what’s we can eat and when.” Closing the cupboard drawer, she turned to face the boy. “Is there a single clean plate in this whole house?”

“Jude says we are not supposed to –“sheepishly, he shook his head. “No, there is not.”

Grabbing a skillet, which seems clean enough, Gwen brought it in the ham to the table. She sat beside Christopher and cut the slab into bite-size chunks. “Let me guess,” she told him, handing him a piece. “Jude decided nobody would do dishes, hoping it would help convince me to leave. Am my right?”

His eyes went wider, but he did not speak. Then again, his cheeks were filled with him.

Chewing on her own chunk, Gwen thought aloud. “And if something should crawl in here from the swamps, all the better. And nobody would need to go out looking for snakes.”

The boy refused to look at her as he jammed another piece of meat into his mouth.

“Well, I refuse to live this way,” Gwen went on, frowning at the piles of dirty dishes. “I am here to teach, not to entertain you. If you children refuse to wash up after yourselves, I won’t be the ones us suffer. I will just have to deal with them myself.”

Standing compulsively, Gwen reached for the nearest pile, trying to touch is little of the bottom plate as possible. Swallowing her revulsion in, she carried the stack to the door.

“Hey, where are you going?”

She did not answer the boy, for in truth, she had not the least idea. Her only thought had been to get the entire mess out of this shack, but the moment she spied by you, she knew that was where she would dump the pile. At least in the water, the dishes would get a much needed soaking.

The boy followed her outside, stopping to watch from the porch. “Are going to need help with that?” She asked, as she passed him on her return to this shack for more. “Or do you mean to stand there gawking.”

He came inside behind her, going straight to the table to snatch another chunk of ham. “I don’t think Jude’s going to like this,” was all he had to say.

“No, I don’t suppose he will.” One smiled at herself. She could well imagine Jude’s expression when the child came into cook the evening meal and found the kitchen empty. “But don’t you fret about it, because I plan to take full responsibility. Sooner or later, Jude–and the rest of you boys–will have to accept that I am in charge here. We going to help me or not?”

He looked at the door, as if hoping his brothers would charge into save him.

“You might as well. Jude already going to be angry about the ham.” He looked so alarmed, she instantly relented. “Do not worry. We can tell your brothers I did it. I swear, I won’t tell another soul.”

“Code of honor?”

Remembering how Jude had spoken of their code, she held a hand over her heart. “Code of honor, I won’t carry tells. It will be our little secret.”

He looked at the piles, then the skillet. “Okay, but only if I get the rest of the ham.”

“All right, let’s hurry. We don’t want Jude catching us dumping the plates in the water.”

He grinned, but quickly try to hide it, as he did several times as they carried the dishes and pots outside. Seeing that his brothers had left him behind, Christopher was probably enjoying their little conspiracy as much as she.

Daunting thought. What she actually enjoying herself?

On the last trip, she looked at the water longingly. If only she, too, could have a good, long soak. “I can’t tell you how much I wish I could take a bath.”

Christopher looked at her in surprise. “Why can’t you?”

“I’m not going into that bayou.” She did not bother to stifle the shutter.

The boy looked at her as if she were lacking intelligence. “Why not use the bathtub, like Michael does?”

“Tub?”

“Yep. It’s outback. Under the rain barrel.”

Gwen was afraid to hope. “Show me”

With the air of a man on an important mission, Christopher led her to the back of the cabin, where a huge wooden barrel had been set on a four foot high platform its top cut off to collect the rain.

The boy pointed to the tin plated tub on the ground beside it. “See that spigot on the side of the barrel? The opens and fill the tube. On hot days, the water comes out warm.”

Eyeing it, Gwen imagined standing beneath the spigots, letting the warm water shower her skin. “I don’t suppose there is soap?” She asked hopefully.

“Michael usually keeps a bar in that tin over there.”

Walking over to the barrel, Gwen dipped her hand in the clean, warm water. Though sorely tempted, she knew it would be better to come back later this evening, when she could soak in private.

Besides, at this moment, Christopher needed the bath more.

Yet when she mentioned the idea to him, the boys looked at her as if she’d suggested murder.

“Don’t you children ever bathe?” Grabbing the soap, she held it out to him. “Here, it won’t buy you. Get clean and you will feel much better after word. You might even have fun.”

Smiling, she open spigot to fill the top. As she turned it off, Christopher began to edge backward. Determined that at least one of the children would be clean when Michael returned, Gwen grabbed the boy by the arm. “No, you don’t, young man. Stay here and let’s get you nice and clean.”

As she tugged him back to the top, he screamed loud enough to wake the dead. Fighting fiercely, she tried to reason with him, but Christopher continued wiggling like a snake, until he managed to break free of her grip.

“Let go of my brother.” Jude stood beside the tub, a string of fish in his hands, stench of which was near overwhelming.

“I was trying to give Christopher a bath, but since you have helped him escape, maybe you can take his place.”

“I am not taking no bath.” This wasn’t uttered by the boy’s usual defiance; Jude seemed close to panic.

“What is wrong with you boys?” One asked mystified by their aversion to cleanliness. “Bathing is fun. Here, just try it.”

“Leave me alone.”

Jude also tried to flee, but this time, Gwen was prepared for it, and doubly determined that at least one of these children would take a bath. If it must be their leader, then all the better.

To the tune of some colorful language from Jude, Gwen was soon involved in a wrestling match. Their struggle, the file words coming out of the child’s mouth, were all symbolic of the war of wills Jude hoped to wage. It was too late now to back down; the boy would forever be testing Gwen, taunting her, if she could not prove she was boss. Whatever it took, she had to convince Jude to take this bath, and that was the end of that.

Perhaps she made the decision with the bit too much relish, for with a surprising burst of strength, she forced the boy into the tub. The string of fish went flying as Jude fell backward, landing in the water with a loud splash. Soaked herself, Gwen took advantage of the boy’s momentary surprise to push his head and shoulders under the spigot.

“Here,” she said, handing him the soap. “Might as well wash your hair while you were in there.”

Slapping her hand away, Jude glared at her with surprising dignity. Gwen, who refused to be daunted told the boy to take off his clothes, so they could wash them, too.

Jude ignored her, rising to stand proudly, shaking his head, tears running silently down reddened cheeks. It made Gwen on easy, seeing this proud boy cry, until her gaze drifted downward, to the wet cotton shirt hugging his chest.

“I hate you,” Jude yelled out, stumbling out of the tub to run off into the swamp.

“Good heavens,” Gwen gasped, staring after the fleeing figure. What a fine way to discover that Jude was a girl.

 

***

 

Pacing back and forth across his father’s library, Lance felt like a caged animal. He hated Bella Oaks, hated what it written represented. What good did it do to be born and be branded a planter, when all he’d inherited were a series of broken down levees, overgrown fields there were more marshland than soil, in a house so long neglected, that the property pervaded its mildew walls, the vegetation surrounding had become so thick, it was only a matter of time before the bayou reclaimed their home. Many nights Lance had nightmares of the vines swallowing the house whole, with him and his family still inside.

Another son might curse his father for landing him such’s drays, but Lance chose instead to follow the man’s example. Taking to a drinking–and other gentlemanly entertainments–was the one sure way to escape the reality of his situation. Hard work would not make a difference, he knew. Lance could break both back and heart, and still never compete with their neighbor. As mother continued carped, Bella Oaks was too small, too poorly situated, to ever be as grand as the Willows.

It had been with mother’s encouragement that Lance spent many a childhood hour there, but she cannot know–and he did not dare tell her–that he’d far rather be part of Gwen’s family than his own.

No man had been more forceful than John, no female lovelier than Amanda. Back then, they had it all, and they’d graciously shared it. Whenever he visited their home, Lance had been made feel he was one of them.

Until the day Gwen made it clear that she wanted him there on a permanent basis.

Like a slap to the face, her parents rejecting his suit, an insult from which Lance had yet to recover. Oh, they’d been polite about it, as was their ways, but nothing could mask the sudden coldness. Lance might be good enough for escorting their precious daughter to the important engagements, but they demanded someone of greater means and far higher social standings to be her husband.

While Lance had been planning their wedding, trusting her dotting parents to come around in time, Amanda had died, and Gwen had been whisked off to Boston. It took five long years to be invited back for a visit, and this time, he’d come close to realizing his dream of living there forever. He’d been one thrust of a jousting spear away, only to watch the Willows slip from his grasp once more.

He kicked the rotten wood of the baseboard. Only this morning, John had called him into his study. Nothing had been directly said, yet the man made it clear that he’d overstayed his welcome. Ever polite, from one gentleman to another, John suggested that perhaps it was time Lance went home to see his mother.

As if anyone had to take care of his mother.

Lance loved her like any good son should, but the woman could badger a brick wall, and she delighted in pointing out his flaws. It was his fault Gwen had run off, he maintained; Lance must have scared her off with his base passions. Didn’t he have the good sense to find a quadroon, like his father and grandfather before him?

Little did mother know that Lance had found someone. Indeed, it was his affair with Edith that had most likely precipitated his dismissal. The little busybody, Homer, had them in the stable. Lance should have known by his disapproving frown that the servant would soon be saying something to his master.

Lance kicked the baseboard again. As part of it came away on his foot, suffered a wave of self-pity. He was in a sorry fix, indeed. He had neither fiancée nor mistress, nor even his share of the competition profits. Jervis had kept it all, claiming Lance had used his share on his expenses of his horse which did not win. All protests about Michael’s cheating had fallen on deaf ears; the double dealing Jervis was happy to seize any excuse to hold onto every last penny.

Forced to retreat to Bella Oaks and mother, Lance had to bite his time, waiting for Gwen’s return. Jervis might have been a steppingstone, Edith an exciting bed partner, but Gwen alone could still give him the Willows.

If only he knew where she was. He refused to believe that Gwen had gone off with Michael by choice. The man must have kidnapped her. Smiling, Lance pictured himself dashing to the rescue, when she needed him most. How grateful her she would be, how eager to repay him, if he were the one to bring her safely home to her father and uncle. Seeing her whole, and so happy with her Lancelot, even they were not deny her plea to marry her hero.

I’m easily remembering his last interviews with both men, Lance conceded they might prove resistance to romance. But not scandal. Brightening, he reasoned that that they would be so relieved to have the rumors stalled, they’d probably announce the banns the very next morning.

With a quick glance about his decaying mausoleum, Lance knew that announcement could not come soon enough. He cannot wait for word from Gwen; must find where Michael was hiding her.

Rumor had it that the man was living in the bayou, since his ill-fated duel. Deep in the swamp, where mysteries and legends abounded, Lance would be out of his elements, but where was his choice? If he wanted the Willows, he had to find and marry Gwen – and the sooner the better.

Tomorrow, he decided, he would go into town and hire himself a guide.

h1<>{color:#000;}.

Chapter 14

Michael pulled toward the right fork, already dreading what might await him at the cabin. He’d tried to get home earlier, hoping to forestall whatever danger might be brewing, but one problem after another had required his attention, until it was midday before he could get away.

Gliding through the water, he listened for shouts, or screaming, or any other indication of a problem in the cabin I had. Utter silence greeted him. Rubbing the back of his neck with his hand, he told himself to relax, to stop into the anticipating calamity – but he couldn’t help think it’s seem to quite. He could smell trouble as if it was in the air.

But then, maybe what he smelled was the debris floating in the bayou, looking down as he beached his boat, he noticed the dishes piled on the river bottom. He didn’t need to lift want up to recognize the flowered pattern-his mother had ordered that China from France. The question was, what were his dish is doing in the water?

Puzzled, he marched to the porch. Boys, he called out, receiving no answer. Nor did he find any sign of them inside. It was lunch time; it wasn’t like them to miss a meal.

More concerned by the moments, he hurried down the porch steps and headed out back. He was rounding the side of the cabin, muttering, “Where the devil is everyone?” When he collided with Gwen.

With a faint gasp, she jumped back away from him, as if he found contact between them intolerable. Not that he could blame, after all the way he brought in laughter here, but still, the thought stuck.

She was trembling, which annoyed him further, as did her slow building flush. Did he offend her feminine instabilities, demonstrate from the fields in his work clothes? Who was she to talk, with her hair dangled about her shoulders, and the blueish-gray gown in a soaked mess? Didn’t she know how the material clung to her skin, to her–“

“What the blazes happen to you?” He blurted out, stopping that train of thought before it could go any further.

She stuck out her chin. “Don’t you dare call me a drowned rat!”

Surprise, he realized she must have been hurt by the remark. He’d thought her impervious to anything he might say.

Odd, but he found he liked her better when she wasn’t so conscious of being a lady. All ruffled and flustered, she seemed more appealing, and certainly more approachable.

Remind himself that he had more important things to deal with, he forced himself to look away from that clinging dress. “Where are the children?” He asked more sharply than he’d intended. “And why are the dishes in the water?”

“Dishes?” Her expression clouded for a moment, then suddenly cleared. “Oh, I put them in there.” No doubt seeing his frown, she went on to explain. “They were dirty, and the boys refuse to wash them, so this morning I decided enough was enough. I saw no reason for that mess to clutter the kitchen.”

“And never occurred to you that you could just wash them?”

She gave him a funny look, as if the suggestion startled her. “I would not know where to start.”

No, of course, she wouldn’t, anyone and that she’d see any reason to learn. The impervious Miss Gwen would consider such menial tasks beneath her. More and more, Michael was regretting the impulse that had brought this pampered female to his cabin.

“Honestly, Michael, there is no need to scout. I can’t imagine why you must make such a fuss about it.”

“Those dishes were loaded with food – old food – smell which is liable to draw scavengers, which in turn will bring alligators swimming, since I have spent many a tedious hour waiting for a rifle, trying to convince the beasts that this is one place they don’t want to visit, pardon me if I find myself a bit upset.”

“Alligators?” She looked over her shoulder, face going pale. “Here?”

“This is the bayou.”

“Oh my. I didn’t think.” She seemed terrified of the beasts, but then, maybe she shivered because of the damp clothing, clinging to her every curve.

“That is the problem, my lady,” Michael snapped at her, annoyed anew by his response to her body. “You never think. You see what you want, and are blind to everything else.”

“That is not fair. The children –“

“where are the boys, anyway?”

Her outrage visibly faded. “They ran into the swamp. We had a miss understanding.”

“Is this about that locket again?”

“No, it is not, it’s about how they woke me this morning.”

Her indignation irritated him further. “Now what did you do? Toss a fit over not having a breakfast served in bed?”

“They-“She stopped what she’d been about to say, though clearly not happy to be doing so. “Let’s just say they were not nice to me.”

Having had a long, trying morning, after a night of little sleep, Michael reads that and of his patients. “Those boys haven’t slept past sunup in their lives, so I imagine they find it hard to understand why anyone would need to sleep past noon. Or why anyone would throw a tantrum with my dishes.”

“Noon?” She muttered. “Tantrum?”

“This isn’t Camelot, lady, and you were no longer queen of the manor. No one gets waited on hand and foot. We all pitch in and do our fair share.”

“I-“

“Can’t you be civil? Must you drive me or children from their home?”

“Of all the air against…” She took a deep breath. “Who do you think you are, saying this to me? You know less than I what goes on here.” Step up to poke a finger in his chest. “Your children think you are evil, did you know that?”

He stopped, as stunned as if she had bitten him. “Evil?”

“They told me their mother named them after the Saints to protect them. They are so afraid of you, they don’t tell you half of what happens, and no wonder, the way you treat them.”

“I have never raised a hand to those boys.”

Her blue eyes flashed with fire. “Abuse takes many forms. How about neglect? You should be ashamed of yourself, leaving them here to cook and clean and fend for themselves, while you go off gallivanting in the bayou.”

“Gallivanting?”

“Yes, and while you are often immersed in your own concerns, Jude runs wild. Some father you are, to not even know your own son is a girl.”

He grabbed her arm. “What in blazes are you talking about?

“She did not want anybody to know. I wouldn’t either, if I hadn’t decided it was time for the children to have a bath.”

Speechless, Michael tried to take it all in. Jude, their Jude, a girl? Yet the more he thought about it, the more he knew the proof had been in front of his eyes. Always managing everything, mothering the younger ones, all her rapid mood changes – Jude was every inch the female.

Yet why hadn’t Jeanette-or even Jude herself-told him the truth?

“Don’t you dare accuse me of missed treating those children, Michael,” Gwen went on. “You must have done something pretty terrible yourself, for your wife to conceal the fact that you had a daughter.”

“I never had a wife,” he blurted, stung into defending himself. “And for that matter, Jude isn’t my child.”

Hands on hips, she looked at him with disgust. “But wonderful. For she neglect those poor children, and now you deny them!”

“I am not denying anything. They are my sister’s children. I did not even know they existed, until I came home last year. By then it, Jeanette had already died.”

“Oh. I thought-“

“It’s painfully clear what you thought.” He did not like how much her assessment bothered him. “I might be some levels of evil, but let me assure you, I draw the line at abusing children.”

“If you ever let me finish a sentence, I could apologize for jumping to conclusions. Still, in my own defense, they do look a lot like you. No one bothered to tell me you were not there father.”

“Did you ask? Do you talk to the children at all?”

“And when am I supposed to do this? They’re gone each morning when I wake, and they stay gone in till I fall asleep at night. They don’t care if I have food to eat, or am safe from the creatures slithering through your shack.”

“It is not a shack. It is a cabin.”

She tossed her head, unconcerned with the distinction. “But what can I expect with the example of their own goals sets? Why should they confined in me, or be the least bit and considerate, when they see how you ignore me, how you always stop off without explanation?”

Everything she said a grain of truth, which made him doubly angry. “Must the world revolve around you?” He asked. “I had the devil’s own time getting here, only to learn the children are missing, one of whom is a girl you sent off crying, and you expect me to worry whether or not you’re being entertained.”

She stuck out her chin. “I’ve never asked to be entertained, Michael, where I came from, we treat our guest cordially, whether or not we particularly like them. So when you find the children – and I have no doubt they will materialize for you – kindly inform them that I expect an apology.”

“Do you now?”

“It would not hurt you to apologize, either you can’t expect the children to learn their manners, if you don’t set the proper example.”

Despite her bedraggled condition, she flounced off in a self-righteous huff, every inch the haughty, spoiled, and thoroughly exasperating female. Part of him wanted to throttle her, but another part felt grudging admiration. Perhaps she had more grit then he had given her credit for. He almost grinned it as he thought of her wrestling Jude into the tub.

Jude, his niece. Feeling torn, Michael thought of the men waiting for him in New Orleans. They weren’t the patient sort, he knew. Yet no matter what it ended up costing him, his family came first. Picturing poor Jude, alone and hurting somewhere in the bayou, Michael knew he could not leave until he found her.

Alligators, he thought with a shudder. All things considered, it he could not find her soon enough

 

Gwen sat on the porch swing, watching the trail into the marshland, willing for Jude to appear before it got darker. With the sun setting, the twilight grew thicker. Surely it wasn’t a good idea for the girl to be wandering about alone in the night?

Her brothers had returned an hour ago, muttering only that they’d been sent home by Michael. It was by his orders, she assumed, that they were now in the kitchen, washing the dishes she’d carried back from the bayou. They’d sneered at her offer of help, making clear they did not want her help. It was only grudgingly, and after she how did them with questions, that they admitted they hadn’t seen her nor hear of their sister. Not even, Christopher had let slip of the secret fortresses’ location.

Pushing him to silence, Patrick added proudly that if Jude wanted to vanish, she’d stay that way until she was ready to be found.

Glenn did not want to feel guilt, but that darker it got, the more she regretted the way she’d handled things. She might have made matters worse by revealing the girls secret. Michael had seem awfully angry.

She hoped he did not take it out on Jude, for the poor girl must be facing some pretty unpleasant truths right now. Jude had been able to strike out with panache and bravado when everyone thought her a male, but life’s rules deferred vastly for a female. After roaming free and a man’s world, Jude would find it hard to adapt to the feminine one, especially with no mother to guide her.

Glenn should know. Hadn’t she been in that situation yourself?

It was none of her concern, she insisted silently. Better to leave the girls situation in her uncle’s hands. Jude’s problems had begun before she came here, and would continue long after her departure.

Still, Gwen’s gaze kept staring to the path, while her hands continued to rain in her lap.

“It is all her fault,” she heard one of the boys and mutter inside the cabin. “If she had not, near, Jude would never have ran away.”

“And with Jude missing,” one of them muttered. “How will we get rid of her now?”

Earlier, Gwen might have gone inside to argue, but after the snake, and that emotional scenes with Jude and her uncle, she felt too weary to move. Let them hate her; from the look on Michael’s face as he went into the swamp, she wanted be staying much longer anyways.

“She’s all right,” she heard little Christopher pipe up. “She fed me today, when I was hungry and you all left me.”

“You would say that. You and your greedy little stomach.”

“You don’t know anything, Peter. She smiles really nice, you know. And she took the oath of silence and kept it.”

It did strange things to Gwen, hearing the little boy defend her.

“You are such a baby, Christopher. All you want is a new mother.”

“Leave him alone.” That from Patrick, the oldest. “You cannot blame him for wanting a new mother, Peter. We all do.”

Though quietly uttered, the words hit Gwen squarely in the heart. There just children, Michael has said. Lonely children, who recently lost their mother.

But before she could get maudlin, there was a rousing chorus of “not her!” There were tossing out objectives, running the gamut from cruel to stupid and useless, when Gwen noticed a tall, dark form on the path.

Michael.

Despite the fact that he was alone, Gwen felt suddenly, giddily happy. She rose to greet him, a smile on her lips. As he neared, he seemed so big and solid and sure of himself, she wanted no more than to stand beside him.

Barely acknowledging her, he brushed past with a preoccupied frown and marched into the house.

She could hear himm talk to the boys, asking them to gather oil for the lantern, since he meant to go out again as soon as he had eaten. In the meantime, they were to think – think hard – about any place their sister could have gone. This was no time for secrets; Jude’s life was on the line.

Gwen tried to tell herself that this was natural for him to rush to the boys, that at times of crisis a family should band together, but she cannot help but feel left out. The might not like her much, but contrary to popular opinion, she was not entirely useless. Following Michael into the house to volunteer her services, she tried to think of something she could do.

The boys ran about, while Michael stood eating leftover gruel. She was about to suggest the ham in the pantry when he asked, “Would anyone explain why no one told me Jude was a girl?”

One of the twins looked at Gwen, then straight to Christopher. “Both of silence, heart? She took all of two minutes to spill the secret.”

“No one warned me that I wasn’t supposed to tell about Jude,” Gwen protested. “I’d have thought it would wasn’t something you would want to keep secret from your uncle, anyway.”

“Valid point.” Michael looked at his oldest nephew. “What is this about, Patrick? Why is Jude so dead set against my knowing she is a girl?”

“It’s not you.” Patrick looked at his feet, then went on haltingly. “You know how it was with father.”

“I know,” Michael prodded gently. “Go on.”

The boy continued to look at the floor. “When Jude was born, mother was scared to tell him she wasn’t a boy. She was sick and didn’t want father beating her for giving him a puny daughter. Then later, mother still couldn’t tell him, because she was scared what he would do to Jude.”

Gwen held her hand over her heart, horrified of the picture his quiet words painted. What sort of monster would blame and innocent baby for not being the son he wanted?

From his scowl, she could tell Michael was equally outraged, but his tone remained calm and gentle. “I understand how it was with your father, Patrick, but I still don’t see why you cannot tell me the truth.”

The boy shook his head, at the moment far more mature than his years. “Jude made us swear. She did not want things to change, for people to start treating her different. She wanted to be our brother forever. When mother died, before you came to take us away, she made has promised never to tell anyone.”

“Jude said you wouldn’t want her any more than father did,” Christopher volunteered. “Nobody wants a girl.”

Michael put down his bowl, his appetite clearly lost. “Where is she?” He asked softly. “Please no more secrets. Can you see I have to find her.”

“I swear, we don’t know.” Patrick tried to smile. “But don’t worry. If anyone can get by in the swamp, it is Jude.”

“Ordinarily, I would be the first to agree with you, but not with the mess in the bayou. If the gators calm, there’s no telling what can happen.”

The boys looked at each other; when began to squirm inside. She didn’t need any accusations; she knew who’d put the dishes out there.

The boys began to talk at once, masking the sound of the door opening behind them, but as if her sheer presence through their gaze, all four turn to the doorway. Jude stood motionless, Sullen and hostile, only her red rimmed eyes betraying the fact that she’d been crying.

“Jude,” Christopher cried, running to throw his arms around her.

Michael showed his relief in typically male fashion. “Where the hell have you been, young lady?”

Jude turn to Gwen, instantly on the attack. “You told him!”

“I had to. He is your uncle. He needed to know.”

“I hate you. If you are what it means to be a woman, I don’t ever want to grow up to be one!”

“Enough!” Michael looked to her with a scowl. “As long as Gwen is a guest in our home, you will show a little respect. You all her an apology, Jude. I think you all do.”

Gwen cringed inwardly. Couldn’t he see this wasn’t the time to demand an apology? “That is not-“

Michael silence her with a frown, forcing her to listen as Jude bit out a rough and unconvincing “sorry.” With a glare for Wednesday benefit, the girl announced tiredly that she was tired and wanted to go to bed, before stomping off in the direction of her bedroom.

Clearly bewildered, Michael R ago. As his shoulders slumped, Gwen relies for the first time how hard it must be for him, a bachelor inheriting five unpredictable children. It made her want to intercede, to offer to go talk to the girl – but in truth, what could she say? There had never been any love lost between them; Jude was likely to chase Gwen from the room.

Yet though she opened her mouth to volunteer anyway, she never got the chance. Setting his lips in a grim line, Michael March determine lead toward the back room.

Exchanging worried glances, the boys followed their uncle, leaving Gwen once again a loan and forgotten. Her first reaction was to say fine, let them ignore her, but hurt feelings soon gave way to curiosity. She had to know what Michael was saying to the children.

She moved quietly to the ward the bedroom. Aware that her presence was not particularly welcome, she stopped outside the door to listen. She sought Michael hunkered down toward Jude, as if sensing she’d feel less intimidated without his tall frame towering over her. The boys hovered close, clearly preparing in case there sister should need them.

“Your mother was a girl,” Michael was saying gently, “and she happened to be my favorite person in this world.”

Jude I him with curiosity. “Yeah, but she was your sister. You had to like her. You don’t hardly know me at all, and it ain’t like you stick around much to get to know me better.”

“I know.” His side betrayed his wariness, but his smile denied that he felt the girl was a burden. “Try to understand. It’s not by choice that I leave, Jude. I’d like nothing better than to be here with you every day, but the sad truth is there are things I must do before we can live like a regular family. It might not be easy, or even fair, but I am asking you to trust me. I am doing all in my power to keep us together.”

The girls glance held a hint of hope, though her tone was as skeptical as ever. “Yeah, and why should I trust you?”

Michael hesitated, and Gwen it could see by the Titan features how hard this was for him. By demanding genuine emotion, Jude forced him to feel things he’d no doubt avoided for years. Turning slowly, he looked at each of the children in turn, as if to make certain all five new they were included. “Because I said I would be here for you,” he stated simply, as he focused his gaze again on Jude, “and I never go back on my word.”

Glenn had a sudden picture of a younger Michael, rushing to her rescue after Lance pushed her to the ground. You can trust me, she nearly blurted out, but caught herself in time. A short time ago, she thought this man a wife beater, a murderer. What had happened to change your mind?

As Michael reached out to brush the hair from Jude’s face, a gesture both tender and loving, Gwen had her answer. She’d gotten a glimpse of the real Michael, the man he kept hitting from the rest of the world.

“Besides,” he told the girl gently, “where else could I go? You are my family. You children are all I have got left.”

“Oh Michael, I am so sorry.” Jude threw herself into her uncle’s arms. “I never meant to lie to you.”

“I know,” he said soothingly, lifting Jude up and turning to sit them both on the bed, the boys gathering close beside them. Watching Michael console his niece, Gwen felt the tightness in her throat. She’d give anything to be surrounded by such love and caring, but more than she dared admit, she wanted to know how it would feel to be held so gently by Michael.

He looked up, then, his eyes blinking with her own. She could be standing there naked, so expose did she feel, wearing only her longing and need. She wanted to flee, she tried to, but Michael’s gaze kept her immobile. The words love, honor, and cherish reverberated through her brain.

Sensing something wrong, Jude glanced over her shoulder. She stiffened, withdrawing from Michael’s arms stand beside him. “. What is she doing here?” The girl ask belligerently, glaring at the Gwen. “She has no right intruding into private family matters.”

As Michael broke the gaze to chide his niece, Gwen took the chance to collect her thoughts. “Please, don’t scold her,” she said quickly. “Jude is right. I don’t belong here. I will go wait in the other room.”

“No.” The word was abrupt, demanding, but Michael deliberately gentle his voice. “That is, if you have a moments, the children have something me want to say to you.”

All five turned to stare at her resentful he. No one said a word.

Michael stood, scowling down at them, centering his displeasure on Patrick. “I’m waiting.”

“Michael says we go you an apology,” the boys offered grudgingly, and then after a frown from his uncle, added, “We are sorry.”

There was a barely audible chorus of “sorry,” from the other boys, Jude noticeably refraining. When her uncle turned to her, she said, “I already apologized. I ain’t doing it again.”

“I am not doing it again,” Glenn corrected, earning only a sneer from the girl. “Don’t frown, Jude. I am trying to teach you to speak correctly.”

Jude turn to Michael. “Under the circumstances, I think grammar can wait,” he said, staring at Gwen with an annoyed expression.

“There is no time like the present to start,” he said defensively. “You have to amend it they have a long way to go.”

He crossed the room in five long strides, stopping in the doorway tower over her. Once more, his gaze stripped Gwen to the bare necessities, probing into the core of her as if to find out what made her tick.

With a shrug, he asked if she’d please join him in the other room. Turning down the hall, he left her staring after him, alone and trembling. Now what had she done wrong?

Gradually aware of the curious eyes watching from inside the bedroom, she turned to the children. All five huddled together in a united front. “You will learn your manners, “she told them, wagging her finger. “Even if I must drill them down your throats.”

“Gwen!”

Starting, she reacted instantly to the command in Michael’s voice. She found him waiting by the front door, wearing his usual exasperation. “Do you practice,” snapped, “or do you just have the knack for finding the one sure way to antagonistic them?”

When halted in the middle of the room, surprise, for she thought she’d dealt with the children in a firm, yet mature fashion. “No matter what I do, they are antagonistic.”

Michael went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “It wasn’t easy to get them to apologize. You could have accepted it graciously and build from there, but no, you had to be whittled their grammar.”

“It needed correcting,” She said defensively, “and besides, isn’t that why you brought me out here?”

“To teach them, not to make them feel inadequate. The way you look down your nose at them, why not just come right out and say that they can never measure up to your expectations?”

“I have never looked down my nose-“

“You live up there in your fine, fancy house, believing your name alone puts you above the rest of us.”

“I don’t have to listen to this.”

“Yes, you do, because you’re not in your world, you’re in our world now. Here, a person’s worth is measured by less by who they know, and more by what they accomplished. We evaluate hard work and honesty more than knowing which fork to use at dinner, so try to keep that in mind when you’re drilling your so-called Mainers down my nephew’s throats. As I recall, it courtesy also entails in kind and considerate of other than others feelings, so why not take time to learn who they are? Stop being such a snob, and you will find they can teach you a thing or two as well. Considering your father’s finances, it can’t hurt you to learn how we poor people get by.”

“Why are you being so nasty?”

“Am I?” Pause, staring at her, before looking away to pass his hand through his hair. “Yeah, well, it’s been a long day, and we are all tired enough he saying things we shouldn’t. I have no wish to fight with you, my lady. Life is hard enough.”

As an appeal, it was good one, for it struck a chord deep in her chest. Life was hard for him; see it in the lines etching his tired face. Yet before she could soften too much, Michael announced quietly that it was probably time to call it a night. “I will be heading out again just as soon as I’ve gone out back and washed up.”

Gwen spoke without thinking. “You cannot go now.”

He winced, looking twice as tired. “I have to go. I’ve got a mountain of work that needs doing.”

“In the dark?” She asked, her voice rising with her agitation. “Whatsoever work takes a man out so late at night? Are you a smuggler? Or highwaymen robbing carriages, hiding his ill-gotten goods in the swamp?”

“Ill-gotten goods?” Michael’s scorn may her feel suddenly foolish. “Look around you. If I were a thief, don’t you think I could manage a more luxurious lifestyle?”

It wasn’t what he did that bother her, she realized; he just didn’t want him to leave. “You can’t do this to me,” she cried out frantically. “You just can’t.”

“Dammit,” he exposed, spinning to face her. “Must everything revolve around you? I am bone tired and have a hundred things to do before I can sleep, so pardon me if I can’t quite work up the proper appreciation for your problems. I’ve supplied a roof over your head and food for your belly. I think you should be able to survive the night.”

He saw that he meant to leave, whatever she said or did. Refusing to demean herself further by begging, she threw back her shoulders. “Very well then, but be warned, we shall continue this discussion in the morning.”

He refused to look back at her as he opened the door. “Actually, I won’t be here tomorrow. I have business downriver. Jeffrey will be looking in on you, though, before he heads west to see his family.”

“You are going away?” She asked, chilled. “For how long?”

“A week. Maybe ten days. You will be fine,” he told her gruffly. “Just tell the children to do as you say, or they will answer to me when I return.’

“Remember, our agreement is for a limited time, Michael,” she called out as he stepped through the door, her voice quavering more than she cared for. “I won’t stay indefinitely, so don’t go getting yourself arrested.”

“With my ill-gotten goods?” Looking back over his shoulder, he flashed her a reluctant grand, and Gwen couldn’t halt a faint smile of her own.

Something spark between them, the same magic she’d felt when he kissed her. It was all she could do not to run to him, to fling herself into his arms. It wasn’t virtue that kept her standing where she stood, or any strength of character. It was pride, the sad, deep conviction that he’d merely push her away.

“I will be back as soon as I can,” he said quietly. “And for what it’s worth, I am sorry, too.”

And with that, he closed the door in her face.

 

Chapter 15

 

Michael stood on the other side of the door, his hand on the knob battled the urge to go back inside. Part of him might hope to stream things out with Gwen, but a darker part in new he would be wasting his time. She was like a hurricane, liable to veer off course at any given moment; he can never predict what direction she’d take next. Of all the women he’d known in his life, none have ever had such power to leave him so completely bewildered.

His mind reeled from the last scene–her words telling him one thing, her eyes saying another. Those come-hither looks; didn’t she know what they did to a man?

But, of course, she knew. She been manipulating her eager men with her melting eyes and pouting lips for years. If he had any sense, he’d leave now, before she had him agreeing to something he lived to regret.

Releasing the nod, took the porch steps within angry stride. It bothered him, how hard it was to leave, however he nearly he’d given into the urge to lift her into his arms. The only thing saving him was the fact that he had the children to think of now, a future he must build for them. Giving in to Gwen could easily destroy all of his plans.

Staring into her seducing eyes, the need to confine in her, to offer her up his hopes like a gift at her feet, had nearly overwhelmed him. Yet, even in the mists of his madness, he he’d known his dreams were too important, and far too fragile, to risk having her laugh in his face.

Oh, she might make a sore like a God of with a single smile, but he learned long ago how easily she could turn and sneer, leaving him to feel as important as the mud the need for toes.

He knew all that, yet knowing didn’t ease the ache in his groin.

Maybe washing up what help cool him down. It was a good thing he was getting away, he decided. In this setting, the two of them in the cabin in this sweltering heat, it was no wonder his lust got the best of him.

Gwen was a beautiful woman–there was no denying it–but the world was filled with many beautiful women. He could find a more generous one, the sort we saw no need to complicate his life further. Hell, he was heading down to New Orleans tomorrow, and if he couldn’t find a willing female somewhere in that city, there truly was no hope for him.

He would wash up now, then head downriver. And the next time he met up with Gwen, he’d be so tired, not the heat, nor even the soft, seductive breeze of the Bayou, could stir him to passion.

Glancing back at the cabin, he knew the sooner he left the better.

 

***

 

Gwen stood aware Michael had left her. Part of her still wish to rant and rave and call him unfair, but an equal partner she had not spared thought for any but her own concerns. She had been so busy worrying about what would become of her, she not stop to consider how her thoughtless words might affect the children.

She tried to make excuses. On their first encounter at the docks, she had been hot and frightened, and they’d hardly been saints themselves. So she’d vented her ill-humor; a few testy remarks were hardly a crime.

But it wasn’t so much a case of what she said, Michael had implied, but rather how she said it. “You make them feel they can never live up to your expectations.”

Has she been doing to them what her parents had always done to her? Too painfully, she remembered how it felt to listen to her mother’s constant yelling, how she’d squirmed under her father’s gazes, wondering if she’d ever please either parent. Thinking back, perhaps a good deal of her wild and willful thinking and behavior had been an attempt to convince herself that their praise did not matter.

What if Jude were the same? What if all this hostility and defiance masked a need to prove herself independent of outside approval? Poor girl–from experience, Gwen knew she’d find nothing but trouble. Just look where her own willfulness had taken her.

For the first time, she stopped to consider just where it had taken her. Pausing to glance about the cabin, she realized with surprise that he no longer seemed so dreadful to be here, how the room had softened, become less threatening, less shady. When had her perceptions begun to change?

As if a door opened in her mind, she could picture Michael sitting with the children, bowing to do all in his power to keep them together.

A tightness grew in her chest, and uncomfortable mixture of longing and envy. Despite all the hardships they must bear, their poverty and separations, Michael and the children were united by blood. They were a family.

I have my own family, she tried to tell herself. Stubbornly, she clung to the mental picture of her father, uncle, and cousin, all huddling close, keeping vigil, praying for her safe return.

“For once, be honest with yourself.” Michael’s words rang through her mind, causing the image of her family unity to dissolve. In truth, father was no doubt immerse any bottle, uncle any game of cards, while Edith celebrated her absence with a large smile. No one had gone charging out to find her and bring her safely home as Michael had done for Jude; Gwen’s family remained in their own private worlds. A salty tear slipped down her cheek, and she brushed at it angrily. How absurd of her, to wallow in self-pity. Why, keep on this vein and she’d soon be convincing herself that not even Lance cared what happened to her. Which was ridiculous, for her brave and wonderful Lancelot’s must this very moment become searching the countryside for her.

The thought should have made her happy, and it might have, yet she been unable to bring his face to mind. But each time she tried to picture him, Michael’s dark features got in the way.

Damn that man. Bad enough he must invade her dreams, must he now take over her waking hours as well?

It was this room, she decided, so decidedly his room, and so big and empty now with nobody else in it. Alone, except for the dying candle, her mind felt compelled to replace each conversation she’d had with him, to analyze every expression that ever crossed his face.

It bothered her, how rarely she’s seen him smile. Gwen was used to men falling all over themselves to gush about her beauty; Michael’s indifference had her questioning the things she’d once found so important. He unsettled her, this man, left her wanting to prove she was far more than a pampered Princess, that she was certainly more attractive than some wretched rat.

Running a hand through her tangled curls, she grimaced. Clearly, she proved previously little this evening. With her hair lip and frizzled and so dirty and damp, she could hardly blame Michael for overlooking her more positive attributes. Why must she looks so awful, whenever he made an appearance?

Not that his opinion met a thing to her, she thought with a sniff; she could survive quite nicely without his regard. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be occasionally clean and tidy when she encountered him. It gave a girl confidence, knowing she looked her best. Perhaps she need not come off feeling worse and that exchange, if just once, her face new the benefit of soap and clean water. Sponging herself off each night and morning seem puny efforts in this stifling heat; what she truly needed was a bath, a good, long soak in a…

The tub!

With all the days’ excitement, she had forgotten the tank of water Christopher had shown her. Hell vividly she pictured it, filled up and waiting, and away where she could renew herself. She imagine the water, still warm from the day’s heat, silky and smooth against her tired limbs. How glorious it would be to submerge her body, how soothingly the water could caress her parched skin. And when she emerged, clean and glowing like a goddess from the sea, just see if the stubborn Michael could resist her then.

Seduced by the prospect, she quickly shed her dress and pay coats and stripped down to her underwear. The candle blinked when she reached for its, warning that she might have to do her bathing in the dark, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. Enticed by the prospect of clean, reviving water, her feet were already taking her across the room.

Outside a soft gust blew out the candle. Sitting down the useless blob of wax, she stood on the porch, letting the salty breeze flow through her hair. Overhead, cypress branches intertwined, letting in patches of moonlights, leaving pockets of black through which she must pass. Lytle seem to distract her vision, except for the Erie food of an owl somewhere out in the bayou.

She shook herself, forcing herself down the steps. Unknown creatures might lurk in the night, but so did that tub of water. Pulling her like a sirens born, she could almost hear its whisper.

Rounding the corner of the cabin, she discovered a path of moonlights and follow it’s gratefully to the end of the cabin. It was a brief patch of light, for in the yard, branches once more joined overhead to cut off the moonlight. Dismayed, Gwen hesitated, her mind teamed with what might lurk in the darkness. Was it worth going forward?

In her mind, she saw Michael’s look of disgust, and was soon marching determinedly toward the tub. She wanted her hair clean, wanted all of her to look her best. Just once, let that man see her as a desirable woman.

She was almost at her destination when she heard a noise. Thinking instantly of what might be slithering at her feet, she raised for the relative sanctuary of the tub. With utter relief, she believed into it, failing to anticipate that she’d find another person already inside.

With a startled gasp, the occupant scrambled up to stand beside her. Suddenly far too aware of his tall wet form, Gwen recognize Michael’s identity and his state of undress all at once.

Her hands pushed at him as she edged backward. In her crazy state, she forgot their close quarters, and would have tumbled over the lip of the tub had he not reached out to catch her.

“Gwen?” He said, his hands closing hard and firm around her. “Gwen,” he repeated, his voice a husky whisper as he answered his own question.

He pulled her closer yet, insanely enough, she was happy to find him here, to know he had not yet gone away. She could see little in the dark, but she needed no light to know what he wanted. She could hear his desires in the quickness of his breath and could feel it pressed hard and urgent against her thigh.

She, too, was breathing rapidly, she realized in a daze. She also felt a throbbing she could not contain.

Time began to race, as a hat on the night of her capture, when she’d sped blindfolded along the river towards her fate. Equally sightless now, she raised her head to offer her lips, knowing she could no more stop this kiss then she could have slowed that the boat. She was tumbling forward some greater force took control of her body, brought her tight against Michael’s hard, eager frame.

Time stopped, his lips poised a mere heartbeat away, as if he meant her to choose. They had come to a bend in the river, she thought dizzily. Take the wrong fork and there would be no turning back.

She reached up for him, knowing there was no choice. Michael would take her and she would not stop him; they’re joining was inevitable.

As such, she found a special sweetness in the lips that met hers, a certain rightness she could no longer deny. How it fired her, the touch of this man, how his mere presence brought her alive. Molding her body against his, she could feel the dampness of his flesh seep through the thin cotton of her underwear, as if there were nothing between them. Ignited by the thought, she reached up to cradle his head, keeping his lips firmly fixed to her own.

Moaning, he sent his hands roaming, and down her hips and up, up to frame the breasts aching for his touch. Using his thumbs, he traced large circles around her swollen nipples, the erect peaks stretching out to meet first his touch, then his mouth, as he dipped down to kiss them, that cotton of her underwear proving no defense against the hot, moist magic of his tongue.

Week with desire, it was all she could do not to stand upright. She knew this was madness. It was wild and crazy and so unlike her, yet she clung to Michael, coming alive beneath his clever touch, even while her mind waged a mental tug-a-war. He was her kidnapper, her brain protested, but her heart declared him a magician. This man’s a thief, stealing into your dreams each night, common sense went on. Can you trust him not to steal your heart?

He reached for her strap of her bra, sliding it down over her shoulder, and with a start, with a start, she came to her senses. “No,” she murmured. Appalled at herself, she pushed at his chest. “No, I can’t. I mustn’t.”

He would not let her go. Tightening his grasp, he held her silently, firmly, his heart thundering so near her own.

“I came for a bath, she protested. “Just a bath.” Feeling him stiffen, ease away, she blurted out, “It was all a mistake.”

But was it? She’d heard him say he meant to wash up; had coming here been some unconscious desire to be with him?

As he moved away, stepping out of the tub, Gwen began to shiver. It was not the water and the damp shifts that left her feeling chilled, she suspected. It was the fear that her only real mistake had been in pulling away.

With regret any sense of loss, she reach out for him, but in the dark, with his back turned to her, he didn’t see. She saw him in a spot of moonlight, bending down for his close, jamming his legs into his trousers.

She went instantly warm as she realize how intimately she’d been touching his naked body. It was wrong, against all she’d ever been taught, so why did she feel this over dipping sense of loss? Why was a so hard to remember she hated this man?

“Please, don’t be angry,” she found herself pleading.

“Angry? Forgive me, but I just made it mighty ass hole of myself. And, I might add, you did your best to help.”

“No, I didn’t… You didn’t…” Embarrassed and feeling guilty she stepped back from the tub. “Oh Michael, I’m sorry.”

He moved towards her, holding his shirt in his hands. She held her breath as he passed into the darkness comment letting it out as she felt his warmth close he sighed her.

“Why didn’t you stop me sooner?” He asked quietly.

“I don’t know. I feel so confused.”

“Well, I am not confused, my lady. I know exactly what I want.”

His words would ripped into her, made her burn. It was all she could do not to fall back in his arms. “I am a lady,” she protested, to herself as much as to Michael. “Can’t be behaving like this. It’s not proper.”

“No, ma’am, it’s not. But is proper the way you want to be feeling right now? Or you rather be tasting a little bit more of the magic?”

Felt a thrill of excitement, a hot, forbidden need. “You don’t understand,” she protested, alarmed by how she longed to touch him. “A lady must think of her reputation.”

“Really?” His voice cut into her. “Are you worrying about your reputation, or is it Lance you are thinking about?”

She have forgotten all about Lance, and her vow to be his forever. Biting her lip, she took another step backward. She must be every bit as shallow as Michael believed her to be, for she cannot bring lance’s handsome, golden features to mind, while even in the dark, she knew every last detail of Michael’s face.

“I see.” From his emotionless tone, she knew he taken her silent as assent.

“You don’t see.” The words burst out of her. “You can’t possibly, when I don’t see clearly myself. Ever since coming here, I feel like I’m in a flood of confusion, being swept up by some current and taken off from all I know and hold dear. Ever since I can remember, I’ve planned my future of around the Lance, and around the Willows. I made a vow to marry that man, a promise that leaves no room for you, or the children, or some cabin in the swamp.”

Even as she said the words, she knew they weren’t quite true. Slowly, these people were inching into her heart, setting up camp there.

As if this wasn’t enough, Christopher suddenly called for her, out in front of the cabin.

Her first thought was to go to him, but when she realized she was in her underwear, a fairly damp underwear at that, she froze. “He mustn’t see me,” she whispered to Michael. “Not with you.

“I imagine your reputation is safe.” Michael didn’t bother to mask his irritation. “Christopher can’t say much, and I doubt he will be talking to Lance.”

The boys’ second screams seem nearly more urgent. “I’m going to him,” she announced, worried now. “You wait here.”

She heard his low, muttered voice behind her, but she was already hurrying to the front of the cabin. Christopher needed her, and besides, she was glad for the interruption. Five more minutes she have been back in the man’s arms.

She found the boy down by the bank, looking out over bayou, outlined by a patch of moonlight. When she called to him, he smiled with a large awe. “The muskrats have come,” he whispered. “Look, see them swimming over there?”

Following his pointing finger, she saw the slick, dark heads moving about, doing and great job of cleaning up the bayou surface. “That is why you have called me?” She asked, keeping her voice low. “I thought something had happened to you.”

“I got scared. I heard you outside, and I thought you were running away again. Don’t go, please? I don’t care what Jude said. We need you, I need you.”

His words had her square in the chest. Them babies, they need you, Jeffrey a told her, and looking at Christopher, so small and so young and so marble in his frumpy night skirt and trousers, Gwen knew Jeffrey was right. It was no fun facing life without a mother; she knew how felt to be alone. Her heart open up to the boy. “Oh Christopher-“

“Shh, you will scare off the muskrats.” All Boy, standing his his dirty bare feet, he turned back to view the activity on the bayou. “There is a little one,” he whispered, “a baby. I think he needs help getting up on that log.”

Looking at the distance, Gwen didn’t realize that the boy meant to go into the water to help animal. “Christopher, no,” she called out as she rushed down the bank. It was too late at the night to be getting wet. In law really knew what was in that water.

Even as she thought this, the log began to move.

Her flesh pricked, then danced with gooseflesh as she recognized the long, dark form. Slithering towards Christopher. An alligator.

Images race like phantoms through her brain. Michael yelling at her for leaving the dishes in the bayou, her mother’s frail and broken body, fathers accusing gaze. But most scary of all, she saw Christopher, so innocent and helpless, trap within of those teeth.

She did not stop to think of the consequences. She ran into the water, screaming Michael’s name.

 

***

 

Michael heard the scream as he rounded the cabin, his anger and resentment evaporating in an icy flood of dread. Gripping his rifle, he ran to the bank, reaching it as Gwen scooped Christopher up in her arms. As she turned quickly for the shore, he saw the dark form gliding in their direction. In her clinging shift, weighted down by the wiggling boy, she had no prayer of eluding her stalker. The alligator slid easily through the water; Gwen had dislodged through the mud.

He raised the rifle, sick with fear. He had one shot, and it had to be a good one. As Gwen looked up to meet his gaze, her plea was unmistakable. Though his insides felt like jelly, he kept his hands steady as he aimed. Here’s protective anger filled him. “When I shoot,” he told her, “run for the porch.”

At the crack of the rifle, Gwen jumped and Christopher whimpered, but the beast barely paused. If not for the gaping hole where his left eye had been, Michael might have thought he missed, for he continued to move and Gwen was frozen in her spot.

Michael grasp the barrel of his rifle, pair to use it as a battering weapon, when he heard a second shot. The gator then sank beneath the surface, thumping its tail in the final burst of rage.

Michael dragged her and the boy out of the water. She continued to clutch Christopher in her chest, he noticed. She was still trembling from all the fear that happened.

He turned his attention to Jude, standing behind him, clenching her father’s old shotgun as she stared at the creature’s remains.

Michael gaze shifted back to Gwen, standing immobile, eyes firmly shut. Unnerved by his relief at finding her unharmed, he fought for emotional distance. “I told you to run to the porch,” he snapped at her, taking the boys from her grasp. “Can’t you do anything right?”

As she set Christopher on the ground, the child faced him with the ugly glare. “Don’t yell at her!”

“I am sorry.” Gwen spoke softly. Though her eyes had opened, her gaze remained unfocused. “I guess I am not very good in emergencies.”

“You are, too. Without you the alligator would have eat me, if you do not pick me up.” As if realizing narrow escape for the first time, Christopher, too, began to shiver. “It could have eaten you to.”

Michael surprised, Gwen threw her arms around the little boy. “I cannot let them hurt you,” she said on a half sob. “Thank God you are all right.”

“Yeah, well, everything’s grand,” Jude said. “What are you all doing outside so late at night?”

Jude’s gaze went straight from her uncle to Gwen, taking in the damp, clinging underwear. The girl missed nothing, Michael thought irritability

Gwen stumbled through a confusing explanation about how neither of them had known the other meant to take a bath, but stiff and serious, Jude clearly didn’t buy any of the story.

“It’s time you children went to bed,” Michael said, cutting her short. He earned a collection of moans from the porch column or the boys had gathered to watch. “Go on now, the excitement’s over.”

“You don’t know that,” Jude said stubbornly, looking at the bayou. “No telling what the other gators will do. Maybe someone should stay up tonight, and make sure his buddies don’t try anything.”

She was right. This would draw more predators. “I will drag it off, maybe down to Jeffrey’s house. He will be happy for the meat anyways.”

“We could sure use the meet ourselves, come winter,” the girl pressed. “I will be happy to stay up and stand watch.”

Michael is tempted, for the gator would go a long way toward feeling their stomachs, but he’d come to close to losing one child this evening; he was not about to risk another. “I will be taking it to Jeffries,” he told everyone sternly. “Now the rest of you go to bed.”

“But Michael-“

“Go to bed, Jude. And give me that gun. I don’t recall giving you permission to use it.”

For a moment, he fear she might argue, so he frowned at her, holding his hands open. There was bust ration – and no little hurt – in her expression, as she handed over the weapon. Michael new he was being a bear, but Jude was a child, for heaven sakes, a little girl we should be playing with dolls, not weapons. He wanted her snug and warm and safe in bed, not sitting up all night guarding the house with a gun. Especially not with the memories this weapon must hold for her.

Dragging Christopher behind her, Jude slowly walked up the steps, gesturing for her brothers to follow her inside the cabin. With a sigh of relief, Michael turned to Gwen. “Take this,” he said, thrusting the shotgun into her hands. “I have got to go.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. “She held it away from her body with obvious disgust. “You take this away from Jude to give to me?”

Apparently she cannot shoot, either. It was no major crime–few ladies were expected to master the military arts–but for some reason, her inability–as well as her feebleness–merely fueled his anger. How could she be so helpless, so in need of protection? Her hair was tangled and her underwear covered with mud–how in hell could he still find her beautiful?

“Jude is just but a child,” he bit out, turning toward his boat. “You are supposed to be the adult.” Reaching for a rope, he wrapped it into the water and around the nose of what remained of the gator.

Gwen followed him. “That child just put a bullet into a charging alligator, Michael. I’m not much of a gambler, but faced with an emergency, I would put my money on Jude. I would certainly hand heard the gun.”

“But then, she is not your niece, is she?” With more force than was needed, he tightened the rope, then attached the rope to his boat.

“How dare you. You accuse me of talking down to those kids, but what of you? It wouldn’t hurt to praise her marksmanship, you know. To give Jude credit for saving her brother’s life.”

“So all of a sudden, you’re her champion? Or is it just that you’ll seize any excuse to fight with me.”

“No.” Her voice went soft, lost its edge. “For what it’s worth, I don’t try to make you angry. I don’t know why I always manage to do and say the wrong thing.”

Clutching the shotgun, she stood still as a statute, her trembling the lower lip the only sign of movement. She looked so hurt and bewildered, he almost apologize, before reminding himself it was just an act. She was doing it again, twisting him around her little finger, making him want her so badly, was all he could do to pull away. “Go to bed, my lady,” he said, getting into his boat.” “We can talk when I get back.”

“Talk?” She asked, her voice trembling like her lip, “or just exchange more accusations?”

“What else do you have to exchange? As you are so fond of pointing out, we come from different worlds. I’m beginning to agree that bringing you here was a lousy idea.”

Pushing off, he left her standing there on the rise. Enough, he told himself, but her image remained with him. Even when she was no longer insight, he could still see her pale, lifeless face in the moonlight.

 

***

 

Jude waited on the porch, ease dropping on their conversation, needing to know what the woman meant to say about her. She expected complaints in the long list of criminal acts, so it came as a total surprise to hear her praise. Did when it really think she was good with a gun?

Having Michael’s ear, Gwen could have complained about the snake, about the awful meals and unwashed dishes, but she did not say word. Uncomfortably, Jude found herself thinking that there was more to her than they’d expected, that none of them knew Gwen at all.

Glenn’s shoulders sag as Michael went pulling off. Against her will, Jude felt sympathy. Why did Gwen just stand there? Didn’t she realized another gator could come along?

Jude tried to tell herself it was none of concern if the stupid female got eaten, but she kept seeing Gwen, leaning down to hug her little brother, so plainly happy to see him alive. It had been so long since anyone had hug him. Hug any of them.

For pity’s sake. She thought as she stopped over to Gwen; some people just couldn’t think for themselves.

As Jude touched her arm, Gwen gave a little scream. “Oh, you startled me,” she said it breathlessly.

“Yeah, well, it’s late. Considering there is probably still gator’s guts around, it’s not exactly safe to be standing so close to the water.”

Gwen looked at her feet, then with a quick shiver, part her lips. Turning to Jude with a measured expression, she handed over the shotgun. “Here, you take this. You know what to do with it.”

“But Michael said –“

“Between you and me, I don’t think he knows what he wants. He certainly doesn’t know much about women.”

“I don’t know –“

“Look, Jude, I can’t hit the broad side of a barn with that thing. Giving it to me was a mistake. Giving it to you makes sense, which your uncle would realize if he weren’t so stubborn. So you take it and do whatever you must with it, and since Michael isn’t here, he need never to know. It can be our own little secret.”

Despite herself, Jude could not stop a slow, growing grin as she looked back to the shotgun. “Code of honor?”

“Code of honor; I won’t tell” hugging herself, Gwen stared down the river into the darkness. “He is an angry man, your uncle,” she said in a broken voice. “He doesn’t like me very much.”

“Michael is all right.” Though she felt compelled to defend him, Jude knew he had been especially mean to this woman, that he’d given her no chance to explain. And must hurt, facing his anger like that. In Gwen’s place, she, too, would feel the need to cry.

“He was right about one thing,” Gwen said suddenly. “We’re all tired of this. I guess it’s time we headed for bed.”

“I will be in one minutes. I want to make sure everything is all right.”

Gwen looked uncertain. For a moment, Jude feared she would order her into the cabin, but with a sigh, Gwen nodded. “Stay on the porch, though. Your brothers need you too much to risk you getting hurt.”

She turned and went into the house, leaving Jude washing with confusion. Gwen seemed so subdued, so much a stranger; could she trust what had just happened between them?

She hated that woman, she insisted. One brief, moonlit conversation couldn’t change the fact that they had to be rid of her. Come tomorrow, Gwen would be putting on ruse again, treating them like dirt beneath her feet, so there was no call for Jude to change her mind about her.

Looking over her shoulder, she thought of the lizard, waiting the need Gwen’s bed, and cursed softly under her breath. She went into the house, insisting again and that nothing had changed, but for tonight, maybe that lizard could sleep somewhere else.

Tomorrow, well, they could see what happened then.

 

Chapter 16

Next morning, Gwen sat on the porch swing, trying to calm snarls from her freshly washed hair. She’d taken her bath at the crack of dawn, partly for privacy, but mainly to distract her from disturbing thoughts

flinching as the comb got tangled in a not, she decided that Michael did it on purpose, tossing out some inflammatory remark, then taking off before she could argue, leaving no opportunity to protest or make excuses. He left his words behind like a swarm of angry insects, stinging and biting, leaving her no choice but to turn and face them.

It was no pleasant thing, seeing herself as others saw her.

She winced again, though this time, the comb lay still in her hand. Michael had called her pain and selfish and shallow, and she now knew why the words hurts. Deep inside, down where she was still being honest with herself, she’d known he was right

Even Mrs. Tibbs, a relative stranger, had seen it. Gwen might have been angry at her words, but she saw now that the woman had meant to warn her. All these years, Gwen had been building a wall around her heart, letting herself get wrapped up in her pain and problems. Mother’s death had jolted herself, she slipped into a habit of saying, I don’t know how, and letting others act and even talk to her, until she’d lost the will to do anything on her own. No wonder everyone eventually turned away from her. What use was she to father, to the children or even herself, if she continued to run from every fight?

She took the comb and yanked through the wet stance. The old Gwen would have wined, and called life unfair, but the new Gwen was tired of being considered useless. Perhaps she’d been full hearted, risking her life to grab Christopher last night, but the impulse of act had been the first thing she been proud of in a very long time. She’d been terrified–she’d trembled for hours afterward–but seeing the boy safe and unharmed at a filter with more happiness that she felt in years.

Too bad Michael had spoiled it with his comments.

The comb dropped to her lap as mine flashback to the top, to what had so nearly happened between them. No, she wouldn’t think about kissing him anymore. Hadn’t she’d been up happened night, tossing and turning and wondering what might have been?

Christopher proved to be a welcome distraction by popping out the door. He stood on the steps, still half asleep with his hair poking up at odd angles. He looks so normal and alive, it was all she could do not to rush over and hug him close.

From his tentative pose as he stared at the river bank, he obviously half-dreaded, half-hoped to find out gators in the water. “Jude was not lying. She did stand guard. Eight no gators left.”

Gwen smiled as she thought of finding the girl this morning, asleep on the swing, shock and still clutched in her hands. She’d walk pass quietly, knowing how the prickly Jude would hate to be caught napping on the job. Code of honor, she vowed silently. Not even Christopher would learn the truth from her lips.

“Is it true?” He asked suddenly, looking to face her with a worried frown. “Were you really kissing Uncle Michael last night?”

Startled, Gwen open her mouth to deny it, but she hated to base her new starts with the children on a lie. “Why do you ask?”

Came over to stand beside her. “Jude says you’re out to steal him away. They you want you to do get married, so you can go live on your father’s plantation and leave us alone in the Bayou.”

Clearly, she and Jude had to talk. “That is not true,” she told him, her that anyone could believe her so easily. “You know you’re on local would never leave you. He loves you too much.”

Christopher shrugged. “Yeah, maybe, but Jude says you can’t trust grown-ups. In the end, they always leave you behind.”

It shocked her to here so bitter of a conclusion from such a young child. She wanted to argue, but now how could she convince him otherwise, when she’d so often felt the same? Seeing it from both perspectives now, she saw how unfair she’d been to her mother. She’d deliberately avoided all memories of her, blaming her mother for her absence, blaming her for dying.

Fingering the locket at her neck, she suddenly wanted to put the anger, bitterness, and even guilt behind her. Maybe then she could help this boy avoid making the same mistake.

Taking Christopher’s arm, she spoke gently. “Sometimes, people have no choice but to leave. They don’t want to, but they have to. But every time someone leaves, I’ve found, there is someone else to take their place if you let them. You children might have lost your mother, but now you have your Uncle Michael. You’ve got to know he’d fight the devil himself not to leave you children alone.”

A slow smiled transferred over his features. “Yeah,” he said, practically beaming, “we sure are lucky we found Uncle Michael. And we are lucky she found you for us, too.”

Gwen, who’d been smiling with him, felt her lips drop. “Mistake,” had become a popular term used. Maybe she should warn this boy that the day would soon, when she, too, will be forced to say goodbye.

No, she thought stubbornly. She just had to convince Michael otherwise. Glancing at the weathered porch boards, the lush sprinkled vegetation, she now saw this as her battlefield. If she stayed as bold as any knight, and twice as valiant, she could yet prove her worth. One way or another, she would win these children over, and before she left, she teach them to read and write. When she at last went to her true love, when she stood at the altar speaking her bows, she could face Michael with pride and confidence.

Michael? Lance, she corrected silently. It was Lance she must prove herself to, Lance she would marry.

“Who did this?” Jude screech suddenly from inside the house. “Christopher, you little, get in here this instant.”

The boy froze, eyes going round in wide as he stared at Gwen. “The ham,” he said in a small voice. “I told you she’d be mad.”

For a moment, Gwen felt like a child again, at some mischief. It to the crash of a pot lid to snapper back to reality. Jude was a little girl, for pity’s sake. If Gwen hope to tame any of these children, it was time to take charge.

“That little thief butchered my ham,” Jude flaunt out the instant the reach the pantry, her hand poised to throw a skillet at the door.

“Put that down.” Gwen used what she hoped was an authority of tone. “I have already demonstrated, tantrums encumbers nothing more than ruining doors.”

If nothing else, she managed to surprise the girl. Clearly confused, Jude lowered the skillet.

“That’s better. Now, before you go around accusing your brother of anything further, I think you should know I took the ham.”

“You!” Making the word and accusation, Jude glared at her.

“Yes, me. I see no sense of going hungry when there is food in the house, and as you well know, I’ve been reduce to near starving.”

A slow flush crept into Jude’s cheeks, but the girl held her ground. “You had no right,” she bit out. “I was saving it for Michael’s birthday next month. I can’t make much of a party with a half-eaten ham.”

To Gwen surprise, Jude began to cry.

“She wanted to make it special,” Christopher explain in a whisper, tugging at Gwen’s skirt. “To make sure he will never want to leave us.”

“Be quiet, you little chatterbox,” Jude lashed out at him. “Whose side are you on anyways?”

Christopher seemed close to tears himself. Squatting down beside him, Gwen and gave him a hug. “Jude is a little upset right now,” she told him in a whisper. “I will try talking to her, but maybe if you can go outside and pick some flowers, it will cheer you up.”

“Okay,” he said, smiling again. “But make sure you talk nice.”

The boy sounded like his uncle, Gwen thought as she rose.

“I have nothing to say to you,” she told her with a sneer after her brother had skipped off.

Thinking of the boy’s request, Gwen resisted an urge to correct his sister’s grammar. If she hope to succeed with Jude, she’d need to use all her patients and cunning. It will be no easy thing, convincing the stubborn child to give her another chance. “It isn’t fair, asking your brother to choose between us,” she began gently. “And there is no need. If you stop being so contrary and start listening to reason, you will see you and I are actually on the same side.”

Jude snorted. “Use that on Christopher. He believes in fairytales, not me.”

Gwen sucked in a breath. “I am not here to steal your uncle away from you, Jude. Last night by the river, I thought you understood that. Code of honor, remember?”

Jude cocked her head, for a moment, Gwen thought she had her, but she should have known the girl could never be so easily won over.

“Yeah?” Jude asked, even her sniff seemed belligerent. “If you are so good at keeping secrets, why did you tell Michael I was a girl?”

“I don’t know. To be perfect honest, he was yelling at me about being such a horrible person, and it was the only thing I could think of to shut him up.’ Seeing the start of a grin on her face, Gwen decided maybe honesty was the best policy.

“Well, you made a big mistake of things.” True to form, Jude covered her amusement with hostility. “Michael told us never to keep secrets from him. Now he thinks ‘m any liar, and it’s all your fault.”

Again, she remembered herself that she was the new Gwen, who didn’t snap at children are talked down to them. “That is one way of looking at it,” said instead. “Of course, a more practical person might say that you’ve got off easy, that I did the hard part for you. Michael already knew the worst. All you had to do was explain why you lied in the first place.”

“Yeah, right. You would like that, wouldn’t you, if he kicked me out of the house?”

The child was determined to be difficult. Equally bent upon being patient, Gwen shook her head. “The way he was hugging you last night, I doubt you will be going anywhere. Besides, if he was going to kick anyone out, it would be me, not you. Who would keep this place going, while he was gone? Who would do the cooking and cleaning? I certainly cannot.”

Jude slammed the skillet down on the shelf. “I can’t see why he brought you here, anyway. Why doesn’t he just send you home?”

“He will.” Sooner than not, she feared. “The only brought me here to repay some debt he thinks my family and I owe him.”

“You don’t? Owe him, I mean?”

When nearly denied it, but the girl deserved the truth. “Yes, I suppose I do.” Then, deciding to much honesty could hurt, she hastily added, “but don’t ever tell him that I said so.

“You really expect me to keep quiet, with the way you treat us?”

“I would say we are even, considering that snake.”

This time, there was a real smile, and Gwen decided to take a chance. “I know you do not trust me, and I realize I’m partly to blame, but truly, Jude, it’s in your best interests that we work together.”

“Yeah? What do I get out of it?” Jude faced her with a cool glare that gave nothing away it was hard to recall that she was just a child. The way Jude played her hand, she could well be a riverboat gambler.

“Think of it this way,” Gwen explained, fighting exasperation. “Your uncle brought me here to teach you and your brothers. The sooner you learn, the sooner I go home.”

“You will really go away?”

She could hardly be flattered by the girls eagerness. “Yes, but not until you have mastered your lessons. Work with me, and I will go home. I will leave you and your uncle alone. Isn’t that what you want?”

“I got a think on it more.” The words were grudging, almost defiant. She was such a tiger, this little girl, and Gwen suddenly hated the thought that she must one day be tamed. How much of her spirit will be lost in forcing her to become a lady? “Michael is not angry at you, you know,” she found herself adding, hating to see the girls suffer the same doubts and worries she had at that age. “If I were you, I would be more open with him.”

“He needs to know you love him and trust him?”

“What do you know of Michael?”

What, indeed?

“Just let him know how you feel, Jude.” Gwen knew she was being a hypocrite, yet, she hated to see this child make her mistakes. “Anything should happen to him before you do, trust me, you will never forgive yourself.”

“Trust you?”

Gwen’s patients slipped, and the words came tumbling out before she could stop them. “Go on, keep riding me, but I lost my mother, too, you know. Worse, I said some horrible things and she died before I could take them back. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could do it over, that I could just once tell her I love her, but she’s gone, and it’s too damn late.”

Horrified, she felt the sting of tears. What was wrong with her, saying such things to this impressionable child?

But the tears kept spilling down her cheeks, and the memories ruled across from mine. Too vividly, she could see her mother, her face ashen with shock as Gwen heartlessly accused her of envy. Isn’t that why you oppose my marriage to lance, she’d lashed out. You don’t want me to be happy when you’re not, but it’s not my fault you and father rarely speak anymore. Maybe it was your precious ladylike ways, your program and proper behavior that drove him away.

She could still hear her mother’s grasp, could see her mother’s knuckles gleam white where she clenched her hands. Even then, Gwen had known she should apologize for her rash words, but she was angry and hurt, and far too young to foresee the consequences. Hurling out the all too final father hates you and so do I, she’d gone it charging into the night.

“I loved her,” she sniffed aloud, surprised to find the tears had a cleansing effect. She’d done wrong, and she’d always have to live with it, but it felt good to face up to her sins, to stop running away. “And I miss her so much.”

Sniffing again, she groped in her pocket for her handkerchief. She glanced up to find Jude beside her, offering a napkin. As Gwen took it and dabbed at her eyes, she noticed the girl also held a slice of ham.

“Here, eat this,” Jude offered quickly. “It will help you feel better.”

 

***

 

Michael stood outside offices of Schiller and Blooms, cursing lady luck for abandoning him yet again. He’d been a mere hour late for his appointment, but the hour had cost him dearly. There would be no loan, the banker had proclaimed. Though they hadn’t actually said it, they nonetheless made it clear that he failed to impress them.

Michael did not care for their opinion, but without their money, his dream was doomed to fail.

Schiller and Blooms were not the only bank in town, he thought angrily. He still had a month to raise the money, and if you must knock on every door in the city, he would find someone else to grant him a loan. Hell, if he had to, he would could always resort to gambling. Itching him, earning his money in such a fashion. Too easily, he could picture Gwen looking down her large nose and calling his winnings “ill-gotten goods.” How like her to think of the worst of him, how like him to be hurt by the fact.

Wasn’t she a good part of why he struggled so stubbornly? Wasn’t at least part of his dream a long-lasting need to show Gwen that he was more than some common dirt farmer? To just once make her see him as a king?

Damn. Maybe it was time to start visiting every last female acquaintance in New Orleans, before the ache in his groin destroyed him. One way or another, he had to get that golden haired she which out of his blood.

 

***

 

“The children are gone again.” Gwen sat at the kitchen table, watching Jeffrey brew coffee. “Jude got mad at me because I ate the ham she’d been saving for Michael’s birthday. I thought we had everything settled between us, but just like that, she stomped off with her brothers to the swamp.”

“Hmm.”

Hard to tell if the old man was listening, or if he grunted at the beverage he had poured into two cups. Remembering Michael’s coffee, Gwen wished good manners didn’t require her participation in this drinking ritual, but Jeffrey made it hard to refuse.

“I suppose I can see why Jude’s upset,” she went on, as much for her own benefit as Jeffery’s. “She wanted to make the occasion special, and since ham is one of Michael’s favorites, she thought it would be a great treat.”

“Mikey likes other things, yes? The gator me, there is lots of it. I cured some this morning.

Alligator meat, she thought with a shudder. “I, think Michael want to save that for the winter.” At least she hoped, for she should be gone by then

Jeffrey chuckled, as if he’d anticipated her reaction and just meant to tease. “Not gator meat then, but the children, they do love their cake, no? You just gather up some eggs and flour, butter and sugar.” He must have seen her blank expression, for he lapped again as he set the cup in front of her. “I tell you what after we drink, I will tell you and you can write it down.”

“Jeffrey, I have never baked in my life. Or done dishes, or laundry, or much of anything else.”

He shook his head dismissively. “These things, they are easy to learn. I will show you today, before I leave. And ask that Jude, she will help you.”

“I doubt it,” Gwen sighed. “She is so unpredictable. One minute I think we can become friends, but then she turns and shrieks at me. Sometimes I despair of ever getting through to the girl.”

“Patients, Gwen. You got to forge bonds before you gain trust from one that age. You can make a good start with that cake.”

“Clearly, you have never seen me in the kitchen.”

“Can’t lose with that recipe. A mother got it from her mother, who got it from her mother. They who eat it, they all say it’s magical.”

Taking the required sip of coffee, Gwen was pleasantly surprised. It was a good deal smoother and less bitter than the one Michael served. Either she was getting used to the stuff, or as he predicted, or Jeffrey had inherited the ability to cook from his mother. “I don’t suppose you have any more secret family recipes?” Gwen asked. “I could use some of that magic to deal with their uncle.”

“What has that Michael done now?”

Not wanting to mention the top, she brought up the next thing on her mind. “I can’t help but wonder about all of his absences. Where does he go, that he can’t be with the children at night?”

“Good friends don’t talk about other friends and their business.”

Code of honor, she thought with frustration. “But, Jeffrey, how can I ever understand Michael, if a good part of his life is a mystery?”

With a heavy sigh, he shook his head. “Michael and I, together we been halfway across America and back. I stand at his side when we thought in Santa Anna, I play hired gun in the old gold mines. We share a slew of hard times between us, Gwen. There is no way to go against a bond like that.”

It was hard not to respect such loyalty. Or the man who inspired it.

“You want to know Michael,” Jeffrey said, “you watch and with the children, yes? Not every man sacrifices freedom for another man’s family.”

“I wondered about that. What happened to their father that he can’t take care of them?”

“Morteau.” Jeffrey snorted the word, his anger visible in plain view.

Gwen recognized the name. It was the name of the man Michael was blamed for killing in a fight. “Is that why Michael has the children, because he killed their father?”

“Who told you he was dead?”

“He is not?” Come to think of it, Michael never mentioned his death; it was Lance tossed out the accusation of murder.

“He should be.” Jeffrey spat in the dirt. “But justice, she looked the other way. The law, it lets a man beat his wife, and if he kills her, well, he can always pay a doctor to swear the fever took her.”

Horrified, Gwen gripped her cup. “He’d beat Jeanette to death? Did the children know this?”

Jeffrey grimaced. “Michael and I, we found out because of things they tell us. They are living on the streets, hiding from their father when we came here. So we find it easy to believe them.”

“No wonder Michael challenged him to a duel.”

His hands stiffed; all of Jeffrey seemed to pause. “I’d tell you this once, and only so you can understand. Michael didn’t fight him. He wanted to, but that Jude, she didn’t give him a chance.”

“Jude?”

Michael took them in, but their drunken father found them once in the park. Jude, she won’t talk about it, so he don’t know exactly what happened, only that she came home with his shot gun, and he was sent to the doctors with a hole in his knee.”

“She is a pretty good shot,” Gwen agreed. Horrified inside, her heart went out to the poor girl, to all the children. She might not know them well, but she did know Jude wouldn’t shoot anyone unless she was sorely provoked.”

“Till last night, she never went near that shotgun. Michael kept in lock in his broom closet for nearly a year.”

“But if Jude shot him, why does everyone blame Michael?”

Jeffrey did not say anything, Gwen needed no explanation. Michael had claimed credit to protect the girl, to shield her from the public scandal–just as he brought the children here to the swap to hide them from their fathers’ cruelty.

Gwen cringed as she remembered accusing Michael of neglect. He’d given the poor, scared children a home, a chance to grow and learn, so who was she to question where he went at night, or how he earned a living? And she ever done anything to make someone else happy and safe?

Suddenly restless, she rose to her feet. “If you don’t mind, I would really like your help in figuring out how to do things around here. Before you go, I would like your recipe.”

“For the cake? Or dealing with Michael?”

Dammit, is very name could start her blushing. “For the cake, Jeffrey. I think it’s wiser to tackle one of battlefield at a time.”

He chuckled. “No special formula, getting on with him. He’s had a hard life, that boy, and a lonely one. All he needs is a family to call his own.”

At his words, Gwen felt a flood of longing. Deep down, didn’t she want the same?

“Be a wife to him, Gwen,” Jeffrey added. “Make them lots of babies.

Longing transformed into a hot, piercing jolt of desire. Too vividly, she can imagine the process of making those babies taking place in a tub. “No, Jeffrey,” she said, forcing her thoughts to a calmer channel. “For now, let’s just stick with the recipe for the cake.”

 

***

 

Jude walked into the cabin with a string of fish, wishing there was some way to avoid the next step. She could fish all day, but she sure hated cleaning them.

To her surprise, Gwen stood in the kitchen, frowning at the hearth. Flash a tentative smile when Jude entered. Tensing, Jude wondered if she’d made a mistake, thing nice to this woman. She sure didn’t want her to think they were now friends.

“Oh, Jude, I’m glad you’re here. Jeffrey tried to show me how to lay a fire, but I don’t think I’m doing it correctly. I can’t seem to get it to light.”

“Don’t expect me to help. I got fish to clean.” Judith turned for the door, acting as if gutting fish was the most upmost importance.

“Wait, please. I need to talk to you.” Hard not to respond to the panic in that boys, but still, she’d have been out the door had Gwen not added, “what do you think of moving your things into my room?”

Jude Spun, almost dropping the fish. “No” did the woman think she now owned the place? “We don’t take kindly to strangers coming in here and ordering things around, lady.”

“Lady. All evidence to the contrary, the name is lady. Trust me, its more than insulting enough.”

Jude wasn’t going to smile. This woman kept getting around her that way, and she wasn’t having any of it. Still, she couldn’t help but be curious about what Gwen would say next.

“I cannot blame you for being angry,” Gwen went on. “I’m not happy about giving you my privacy either, if you must know the truth, but you’re getting too old to be sharing a room with boys.”

“Who are you to say what I can and cannot do?”

“I didn’t decide. Nature did. Did your mother tell you anything about the difference between a male and a female?”

“Some.”

Gwen nodded. “Don’t you think it will be easier to be with another female, when your monthly courses start flowing?”

Jude flushed at such talk, then began to become angry. “That’s not why,” she stubbornly argued. “I bet you have another reason for doing this.”

“Really? Why would I want company? You probably snore.”

“I-“

With a laugh, Gwen held up a hand. “I am only teasing. You really should smile more, Jude. Your uncle’s party won’t be much fun, if you’re always frowning.”

“What party? Did you forget you wrecked our ham?”

She’d thrown that out to make Gwen felt bad, but again, the woman surprised her. “We have enough left to make sandwitches. Besides, wouldn’t it be more festive if we made a cake?” Again preventing any negative comments, Gwen held up a piece of paper, smiling as if it held the secrets of the universe. “I happen to have a recipe from Jeffrey. He says that if you were to help me, we could create magic.”

Jude snorted. “Michael likes chocolate cake, and we don’t have no cocoa.”

“Any.” Biting her lip, Gwen smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, it’s a force of habit, correcting your grammar. My mother used to do it to me all the time.”

Jude thought back to when Gwen had said and talked about her mother, how she missed her so much. It may Jude want to cry, too, for she still felt an aching pain, and an incredible anger. Poor mother, if only she’d known how to fight back. If only Jude and her brothers could have helped save her.

“Don’t worry,” Gwen said, interrupting her thoughts. “I know how to get cocoa. I would just bat my eyelashes and talk really pretty, and Michael will bring it next time he visits.”

Jude shook her head in disappointment. “Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“You don’t need to use your looks to get something. Where simple folks, who like plain speaking. We don’t have much use for fancy ways, all those pretty smiles and flirting lashes that don’t mean a thing.”

“I don’t-“

“Yes, you do. I’ve watched you with Michael. He hates it when you try charming him into something. He likes it better, heck, we all do–when you stick to the truth. If you want something, just come right out and ask for it.”

Gwen flinched, then sucked in a breath. “All right, here is plain speaking then. I’m tired of being useless. I need to succeed here. And to do it, I need your help.”

Jude fought against the warm, nice feeling spreading inside her. “What you need me for.”

“For one thing, I can’t bake a cake on my own. I am a disaster in the kitchen, and I’m even worse outdoors. If I hope to survive in the bayou, I will need to know what creatures to steer clear of, where I can go, and what to avoid. It will be easier to teach me these things if we are sharing a room.”

Jude looked at her, torrent. It could be a trick, but truth to be told she had lots of questions herself, questions only another female could answer.

“Can’t we at least give it a try?” Gwen pressed gently. “After a week, if you still find the situation intolerable, we can talk to your uncle about making other sleeping arrangements.”

A week did not seem that bad, Jude decided. Suppose she could survive that.

She wasn’t sure if she nodded or not, but as if finding agreement in her stance, Gwen said, “good. In the meantime, wouldn’t Michael be surprised to find that whole in the roof finally mended? Here it is September. If we have a hurricane, it will be nothing left in that pantry.”

Us? We? The woman was going too far, too fast.

“Not that I know much about carpentry, but I suppose now is a good as time as any to learn.”

“You mean to help?” Jude asked, stunned. “You didn’t burn the roof though.”

“No, but I did draw the alligators here. The way I see it’s, we all have mistakes to deal with, so why not pitch in and work together?”

“I don’t get it. You don’t sound the same as when you first came. You sure have changed.”

“I hope so.”

“Yeah” grabbing her string of fish, Jude pushed out the door, daunted by how much she found herself sharing that hope.

 

***

 

Lance marched into the rivers view Tavern. Having been in every saloon in the bayou, he had yet to find a guide willing to work for the small money he could offer. Shudder to think this hideous I could well be his last resort.

At the last place he wished to visit, someone suggested Jim Longley might know a man so down it out, he’d worked for the promise of a bottle. Lance had been reluctant to come here, for his regulation of this Tavern were not too pleasant, but he could put up with Longley’s rudeness, I got him a guide into the swamp.

When reaching the tavern he fine met the man he was supposed to meet. When Lance ask him what his name was. He responded with the name “Morteau.”

 

Chapter 17

Gwen peaked in the pot at the hearth and smiled in satisfaction. The children had nearly finished first to – not bad for her first attempt. Not that she could get too cocky, for as Jude pointed out, she’d laid too large a fire to cook it. The front door still open to the night air in attempt to cool the room.

Looking about her, Gwen marveled at what a difference a week could make. Here was Jude helping her wash dishes, while the twins cleared the table, and Christopher tidied up the rest of the room. Of course, the boys argued as they worked in Jude war in large frown, but at least they had hitched into do their share. Not domestic bliss, perhaps, but all in all, she thought it was a good.

It started when she volunteered to help fix the roof. She’d gotten horribly dirty and broken several fingernails each time the hammer slipped, but from that day on, the children began to view her in a new light. While they didn’t fully accept her, they seemed more and more likely to listen to what she had to say. They had even begun reading lessons-provided she rose early enough in the morning to catch them before they disappeared into the swamp.

She longed to know what lured them there, kept them there, but she knew better then to ask. They must had several secrets they weren’t prepared to share, around her, they often spoke in low whispers. She could pry, poke and prod, but they’d tell her about their fortress when they were good and ready, or they wouldn’t tell her at all.

In that regard, they were a lot like their uncle.

Sighing as she stacked the dirty dishes in the cupboard, Gwen wondered if Michael would ever return to finish their argument. Every day, she braced herself for the encounter, prepared for his every possible reaction, yet every night, she’d fall into bed, exhausted and unfulfilled. She needed to see him, confront him, and hold him tight…

No, she told herself firmly, slamming shut the cupboard door. It was silly, attaching so much importance to a single kiss. Very perhaps a series of kisses, each one more magical than the last, but it had nothing to do with the deeper emotions. With

Love.

Just one glance, she told herself. A single look in his eyes, would surely tell her that lance was still the man she wanted.

“How come Patrick gets to play?” Christopher whined at her side.

“Yeah,” Peter seconded. “We have to work, why doesn’t he?”

Gwen’s own guilty start was imitated by Patrick. Jumping up from his seat by the hearth, he dropped the piece of would he’d been carving and kicked it backward, toward the fire.

Gwen cried out in protest as she picked it of the floor. “Patrick, no. Not after the effort you put in this.” She traced the intricate detail, marveling at the child’s skill. “It’s such a beautiful sword.”

The boy looked to his sister, who moved to stand between him and Gwen like a mother protecting her child. Reaching out, Jude took the wooden sword from her hands. “Wasn’t no effort. He carves up stuff like this all the time.” She tried to be offhand, but it was obviously difficult to keep the pride out of her tone.

“But it’s so smooth and dangerous-looking. And look at the lovely dragon carved on the hilt. Please don’t toss it in the fire, Patrick. Let me have it.”

He looked at Gwen in surprised, while Jude hid the sword behind her back. “It’s mine. He made it for me.”

All four brothers looked at Jude, their closed expressions again shutting Gwen out. Another secret, she thought unhappily; once more, she’d strayed into forbidden territory. Would she ever be able to talk to these children, and not have to worry about each word she utters?

“Well, you’re a luck girl.” She didn’t bother to hide her envy. “Your brother carved you a hero’s weapon. Worthy of Ivanhoe himself.”

“As a reward for doing their chorus, Gwen had been reading her favorite Sir Walter Scott novel to them each evening, and Jude Blatantly pleased to be singled out as the hero. Her brother, however, appeared more delighted that Gwen had saw the swords value. Patrick was a deep one, shed discovered, a dreamer who felt compelled to hide the fact.

“I want the story now.” Christopher tugged her hand, urging her over to the book shelf. “It’s time, I cleaned up the best I could.”

Smiling, Gwen reached for the dog-eared copy of Ivanhoe. How surprised shed found it on Michael’s shelves; given his dark scowls, she expected more serious reading. It seemed there might be more than a secret romantic in the family,

“Very well, I’ll read,” She said, turning to face the children. “But until we review tonight’s lesson.”

It was her one stipulation. Before she read a word, they must review the table manners they’d learned at dinner. It not only reinforced the lesson, it made a more eager audience for her story.

“We supposed to talk only about pleasant topics,” Peter began as they sat before her on the floor.

“And never talk with our mouths full.” Paul made them giggle by puffing up his cheeks and pretending to chew.

“And why shouldn’t we?” Gwen prompted, knowing how easily these discussions could degenerate into a laugh.

“Consideration for others.” Patrick glanced meaningfully at the twins. “You’re not supposed to laugh too loud, either.”

“Yeah,” Paul added with a grin. “No one wants gumbo spit out all over the table.”

“Or Gator guts.”

“Or-“

“I think we get the Idea; Gwen stifled a smile. Let loose, the twins could banter back and forth all night. “They only thing that should come out of your mouth are topics of discussion. Let’s think of some few pleasant ones.”

“Good books,” Christopher suggested. Encouraged by Gwen’s smile, he added, “Like Ivanhoe.”

Jude snorted beside them. “It’s all right, but I’d much rather read about Camelot.”

There was a collective groan from her brothers, but Gwen’s interest jumped. How interesting, that she and Jude should share a liking for the Arthurian legend.

“King Arthur is ten times the hero Ivanhoe is.” Jude crossed her arms across her chest. “And besides, he had Merlin.”

Of course, she’d like the magician the best. Gwen found herself wishing she have grown up with Jude. Shed bet anything the girl would make playing Camelot twice the adventure it had been.

“Merlin,” Peter said blankly. “What a fake.”

“He is not a fake.” Jude stood, glaring down peter. “Merlin is the greatest magician that ever lived.”

Peter stood with her. “Yeah, then why didn’t the experiment work? All we got was a hole in the pantry roof and Uncle Michael mad at us.

“Experiment?” Gwen watched all five go instantly still. “For pity sake, don’t stop now,” She said. “I helped mend the roof. Don’t I deserve to know how it got burned?”

The boys looked at Jude. “She did help us,” Patrick told his sister. “I think we should tell her.”

Not waiting for her answer, he scrambled up and went to the shelves. Curious-and a bit excited that they’d meant to share a secret with her – Gwen watched him select a book and bring it back to her. Jude glared, but made no move to stop her brother.

“We saw that picture,” Patrick said. Opening to a page in the middle.

Taking the book from him, Gwen found a dramatic rendition of a robed Merlin, conjuring up spells over a cauldron on an open fire, his assistant holding a long, metal rod. Underneath, the cation read “Turning lead into gold.” Confused, she glanced up at Patrick for an explanation.

“Jude said she knew the right spell,” He began.

“It was the right spell,” Jude insisted angrily. “It would’ve worked fine, if the twins hadn’t started fighting over who would carry the pipe. It want until it slipped out of Peter’s hands that the fires scattered and embers went flying.”

Gwen remained bewildered. “You started a fire in the house?”

Again they fell silent, looking at each other.

“It was raining outside,” Christopher said with his sad little boy face. “We had to try. Uncle Michael needs our help.”

Jude turn her glare on him. “You have a big, mouth, Christopher. Didn’t we agree she was not supposed to know that?”

“That was before the gator.”

“He is right,” Patrick intervened. “If it wasn’t for her, Christopher would not we here.”

“Yeah,” Paul, seconded. “And she kept the code of honor. She never did tell Uncle Michael about the snake.”

Gwen held her breath, hoping that this once, she’d be included in the secret.

“Oh, all right,” Jude said suddenly. “If you have to know, we wanted to make gold, so Michael won’t need to work so hard.”

“We thought it only fair to help,” Patrick explained further, “Since he’s trying to get a real home for us, with land and a farm. We couldn’t think of anything else we could do, way out here in the swamp.”

Gazing at the children, Gwen wondered how she could ever have thought these children were brats. At their age, it would never have occurred to her to help her father with the financial difficulties.

“It was our mother’s dream,” Jude said. “When she and Michael were our age, they wished for a place all their own, something no one could take away or even force them move out. That is what he wants for us.”

Gwen thought of the child Michael had been, so proud and idealistic. It must have been hard for him, first losing his father, then being forced from his home. No wonder he wanted a permanent home.

“Can we please read now?” Chris asked, pointing to Ivanhoe. “Soon it will be my bedtime.”

Something drew her gaze to the door. Her heart seemed to stop for a moment as she saw Michael, standing there watching them. Breathlessly, she raised a hand to her hair, hoping it wasn’t a disaster. He was here at last; please, don’t let her look a mess.

He stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame, seeming so worn and weary, she soon forgot her own looks. Emotions clogged in her chest as Chris, “Uncle Michael needs our help,” echoed in her brain.

“I’d thought you would all be in bed by now,” he said, starting to walk into the room.

With a single “Michael” the children jumped up and crowed around him. Watching his smile as he hugged each child in turn, Gwen fought her own urges to fling herself in his arms. How could she not be drawn to someone so solid, so strong, so… so nice.

At least to the children. Handing out candy to the kids, he cast a wary glance in her direction.

“Don’t be sad,” Chris said, turning to Gwen. “I’m going to share with you.”

Hard not to love that boy. But then, the older children offered to share their candy, too, albeit less spontaneously a fact that had their uncle giving her another speculative glance. “I wish someone would offer me some food,” He said. “I feel like I haven’t eaten since Sunday.” He sniffed the air. “With the smells coming from this cabin, my mouth started to water before I got in the door.” He turned to Jude. “Anything left over from dinner tonight?”

“I don’t know. Ask her.” The girl pointed to Gwen.

Happy for something to do, Gwen had already gone to the kitchen for a bowl. She waved to the table and began ladling from the pot. “We have some leftover stew,” She rattled on, completely flustered. “Its not elegant cuisine, but it should be filling.”

She remembered how Edith had said the similar words, and how Gwen had scoffed at them. She said a silent prayer that her attempt proving more appetizing than her cousins meal.

Approaching the table, Michael eyed her with questions. “You’re looking particularly domestic tonight.”

“We take turns cooking.” Jude spoke aloud, as if she feared her uncle would think less of her for not preparing a meal.

Gwen smiled at the girl as she set the bowl before Michael. “It was my first try, tonight. Jude gave me lots of advice.”

“You cooked this?” His disbelief was bad enough, but more insulting still was the hesitating manner in which he gazed at his bowl.

“Don’t worry, I promise you won’t be poisoned. Look, the children ate it, and they are fine.”

He sat slowly, with obvious misgivings. Holding her breath as he ate, Gwen waited for his verdict. The children, she noticed, watched him just as carefully.

“Not bad,” He said firmly, and Gwen exhaled, too. Jude even smiled, though she turned away quickly, busying herself concealing the sword behind the chair.

That girl needs to smile more, Gwen thought. She was too young to be suppressing her happier emotions, her sense of humor. Turning back to Michael, Gwen decided that Jude was too much like her uncle.

He looked up when he was finished, his expression still skeptical. “I must say, my lady, you never do the expected.”

“I thought dinner was dee-Lucius.” Chris, who wandered over to stand beside his uncle, beamed up to Gwen.

Michael shrugged. “Not bad. For a queen.”

“She’s a queen?” Chris looked from Michael’s grin of amusement to her flustered blush.

“No, I am not,” She said stiffly. “Your uncle is just teasing.”

“Such modesty, Lady Gwen? When we were children, you enjoyed lording it over us peasants.”

By now the others had gathered around the table to listen. Gwen tried to explain. “As children, we played Camelot all the time. I got to play the Queen because I had the name and hair color.”

“It had nothing to do with having the richest daddy in the parish, of course.”

Why was he being so nasty to her? She wondered, her happiness at seeing him dulling somewhat. He seemed to be spoiling for a fight.

Conscious of the children watching, she refused to argue. How could she expect them to stop their scrapping, if she and their uncle continued to cross verbal wars? As she preached, the best way to stop someone provoking you was to simply ignore them. Or, failing that, try patience and humor.

As she worked to restrain herself, Michael leaned back, pushing the empty bowl away. “Dinner was great,” He said with a weary sigh. “But now that I’ve seen you alive and well, there no alligators around to bother you, I reckon I’d better go.” Sighing again, he rose from the chair.

The children groaned; Gwen protested aloud. “But you’ve just arrived. Surly you can stay a few moments?”

“A peasant’s work is never done.”

“Wait.” She tensed as he halted a t the door, turning to frown at her. “I, er, have a few things I need to ask of you.”

“What Things?”

Gwen would have been more comfortable batting her lashes but considering his impatient tone-and Jude’s warning that he preferred plain speaking-she blurted out that she needed cocoa. “For my morning drink,” she explained as his frown deepened. “I can’t drink that coffee.

“I’ll see what I can do.” The words were clipped, dismissive.

“Wait, I’m not done.” Gwen struggled to get the words out. “I need a dress. Not for me,” She nodded hastily as he eyed her up and down. “For Jude. She should have something special to wear, if we’re going to have a tournament.”

Hard to tell who looked more surprised, Michael or his niece, though both seemed equally disgusted. Gwen spoke quickly. “We’ve been reading Ivanhoe, and we thought it might be fun to stage our own tournament. We wish you would join us a week from Saturday.”

She winked at Jude, hoping she would understand. Saturday was Michael’s birthday. If he expected a tournament, the party would come as a surprise.

Jude, bless her quick mind, spoke with enthusiasm. “Please say you’ll come, Michael. It’ll be such fun.”

“We’ll be fighting for honor and glory,” Patrick added, realizing what Gwen meant to do.

The twins piped in. “For Camelot.” And Chris, getting swept up in excitement, blurted out, “To win us a home.”

Michael’s scowl grew darker with every contribution.

“Please say you’ll come.” Oblivious to her uncle’s displeasure, Jude continued. “Gwen will be the Queen of course, and you can be her King Arthur.”

“Arthur’s been exiled,” Michael snapped, glaring at Gwen. “Your queen decided long ago that she’d rather have Lancelot.” He marched off then, slamming the door behind him.

Hurt and scared, the children turned to Gwen, as if expecting she could fix this, like she’d helped repair the roof. She could have told them it would require a great deal more than a hammer and nails to mend things like their uncle, but they were so hopeful, and besides, wasn’t one of her new resolutions to stop running away from unpleasant scenes? “Wait here,” She told them, pasting on a small smile. “I’ll go talk to him.”

All easily said, but following Michael to his boat, her misgiving grew. All patience and humor in the world wouldn’t help her when he was in such a black mood.

“What are you doing out here?” he snapped.

“I came to talk to you.”

“Oh? Leave something out of your lists?”

Swallowing hers, she kept to her tone even, “Why are you being so rude? You made quite a scene in front of the poor children.”

“Ah, so now there poor children, Seems only yesterday you were calling them brats.

She felt her control slip. “What would you know about yesterday? You were not even here. You are never here.”

His voice went dangerously low. “No, I’m not. I’m out trying to amass funds, so you can drink your chocolate and stage your tournament and play your games with my children.”

“Forget the cocoa then. Forget the tournament, too.”

“Is it really that easy for you to forget? What about those poor children?” He pointed to the cabin. “You’ve dangled visions of grandeur before their eyes, my lady. Haven’t they had enough pain, without you filling their heads with useless fantasy?”

“There’s nothing with dreaming.”

“Dreams are for rich children with rich daddies. Better to grow up knowing that.” He grabbed a bottle from his boat and took a large drink.

“You’ve been drinking.”

“Damn straight I have,” he said after another gulp. “And I plan to drink a whole lot more.”

“What will that solve? Drinking just encourages a man to stop fighting and give up. Or get nasty, like you did tonight.”

“Nasty? I am being realistic for a change. Failure tends to do that to a man. Nothing like having your nose shoved in the dirt to force you to take a good long look at reality. A bank clerk in New Orleans very kindly explained it. You see, my kind can’t be trusted with a dream. To borrow money, you must have money. He called it collateral, but it’s more a matter of having the right name. Even you’re precious Lance, doing nothing with that rotting hell he calls a plantation, can get a loan before me.”

Gwen felt the anger leave her. That was why Michael had gone to the city? For a loan? If he’d been turned down, no wonder he was so bitter.

“I heard the children,” He went on angrily, “Telling you why they brined the roof. Turning lead into gold. And still you try to tell me there’s nothing wrong with fantasy?”

“They were only trying to help.”

“They could have killed themselves. How do you think I’d feel, coming home to a burning cabin, knowing they died trying to help me? No dream is worth that.” He sighed, and the sound seemed to reverberate in the air. “It’s all over,” He said wearily. “No more dreaming, no more tournaments. As soon as I tie up loose ends, I’m sending you home.”

Home? The word overwhelmed her, for she no longer knew where home was supposed to be. As she thought of saying goodbye to the children, her heart she’d to lodge in her throat. “You can’t do this,” She found herself fighting. “The children can’t be left alone.”

“Thanks for the expert advice on child care, but I don’t intend to leave them alone. I’ll…” He hesitated, then ran a hand through his hair, “I’ll sent them to my mother’s family on New Orleans.”

This was the first she’s heard of any family. “If all along you’ve ha family somewhere to send them,” She yelled, “Why risk kidnapping me?”

“Things have changed.” He grimaced, then took another gulp from the bottle. “Ah, what does it matter?”

“I will tell you what matters.” For some reason, she found herself fighting him after all. “The children are happy hear, with their fishing and exploring and building that mysterious fortress. You can’t uproot them and expect them to adjust to close quarters in a city. You’ll break their hearts.”

“What do you care? You’ll be safe and sound at the Willows.”

“The children are safe and sound now, here in that shack,”

“It’s a cabin, dammit.”

He was right. All at once she understood why he corrected her. Shack was too impersonal a word to call where people lived, where they loved, just when had she started thinking of it as a home?

Unnerved by their observation, she continued to argue. “Whatever you call it, the fact remains. You asked me to do a job, and you’re not giving me the opportunity to do it.”

He lowered the bottle to look at her. “Aren’t you listening? I said you could go home to The Willows. You are the one who wanted to leave after a month. Aren’t you happy to be getting your way?”

She should be, but gazing at Michael, adding him to the list of those she must say goodbye to, Gwen felt an ache in her chest. Standing before him, suddenly overwhelmed aware of his sheer physical presence, she remembered being held against this man with nothing but her underwear between them. How incredibly wonderful it had been to simply kiss him, with no bitterness, no thoughts of the past to soil things. Just the two of them communicating the only way they knew how.

Something sparked in his eyes, as if he too recalled the moment. “Damn it,” He said, “Don’t look at me like that.”

“She blinked. “Like what?”

“With your big, wide eyes and pouting lips. Don’t tell me you don’t know what it does to a man when you turn on the charm, my lady. You’ve been using your looks to get what you wanted for years.”

“No. I-“

“I won’t be manipulated.” He gazed at her face, her lips, before tossing the bottle into the water and grabbing her by the arms. “I’m sick and tired of you coming at me, blowing hot one minute, then going cold enough to leave a man freezing. Of your eyes making promises your body has no attention of keeping.”

She burned with humiliation. Was that what he thought, that she’d been deliberately teasing him? “You don’t understand-“

“No, no more. I’m going before I do something we both regret.” Roughly releasing her, he went to his boat. “But be warned,” He threw over his shoulder, “The next time you start something with me, I aim to finish it.”

A quick thrill pulsed through her veins. She need only smile and step forward to force the issue, and he’d the decision from her hands. Yet as much as she longed to be in his arms, she knew in her heart that is she went to him now, after he’d so distinctly warned her, she’d be to blame for whatever happened. She might just as well deliberate seduce him.

Not that he gave her the opportunity. Digging his pole into the mud, he pushed off down the bayou, never once glancing back.

Gwen hugged herself, fighting frustration and disappointment. She had such plans, such enthusiasm, and just like that, he meant to send her away? Turning back to the cabin, she tried to find solace in the fact that she’d soon be at the Willows, but all she could think of was the cake she and Jude planned to bake, the stories she hadn’t yet read to Chris.

“He sure was angry, huh?” Jude stood on the porch steps, her brothers gathered behind her.

Wondering how much they’d heard, Gwen studied their faces. From their anxious expressions, she feared it was more they should have. She prayed they hadn’t understood Michael’s words. “It will be all right,” She said. “He’ll come around.”

“We’re not babies. You don’t need to lie to use.” Jude stood stiffly, hands crossed her chest, more than ever like Michael. Both seemed to think the best defense was to come out fighting.

Jude used belligerence to hide her softer emotions from the world, while Michael protected himself with anger.

“It wasn’t so much lying,” Gwen told her, “as hoping out loud.”

Jude tilted her head, eyeing Gwen’s with a puzzled expression. “What are you hoping for?”

What indeed?

“You heard her, Jude.” Chris ran down the stairs to stand beside Gwen. “She told uncle she wants to stay here.”

“You won’t let him send us off, will you?” Paul asked, joining them.

Gwen liked to reassure them, but she knew Jude was right; they’d be better served with the truth. “Your uncle is your guardian. If he decides to send you away, theirs little I can do to stop him.”

“We don’t want to go to these people.” Peter followed his twin down the steps. “They are mean and nasty.”

Startled by the resistence, Gwen turned to the two still on the porch. “What is wrong? Why don’t you want to go to your grandmother’s family?”

With a shrug, Patrick descended the steps. “They weren’t very nice to mom and Michael,” He explained as he joined them. “They wouldn’t have gone there, if there had been anywhere else to go.”

“At first, Mama was excited,” Paul added. “She didn’t know why her mother dreaded it, since her folks had a big old house and lots of money.”

“Yeah, that changed when she met them.” Peter nearly spat out the words. “Her grandparents were so awful, mother had to marry father to escape them.”

Jude spoke from the porch, her tone flat. “She knew it was the only way Michael could get away, too. He only stayed to protect her.”

In the terrible quiet, Gwen felt pity for Jeanette. It must have been awful indeed, if life with a man like Jacques Morteau seemed an improvement. And poor Michael. Knowing him, he probably felt guilty, convinced that his freedom had cost his sister her life.

But by all that was sane, how could he justify-or even consider-condemning the child to similar fate?

The bank loan, she realized. Disappointment had him lashing out; pride kept him realizing what truly mattered.

“You’ll talk to him, won’t you, Gwen?” Patrick asked softly. “Make him see we can’t go there.”

And why would he listen to me? Was her first thought, but her gaze settled on Jude, and her hopeful expression made Gwen paused. It wasn’t precisely trust, but the girl wanted to believe in her. For that matter, Gwen wanted to believe in herself.

Couldn’t she at least try? Is she got him to talk about his hurt and pain, maybe he would see he did not want to give up on the children, or even his dream. “No promises,” She offered, “but I will talk to him and see what I can do.”

“That would mean you would have to stay longer,” Jude warned, her pose once again stiff and wary. “You ready to do that?”

Suddenly lighthearted, Gwen gestured around her. “Where else can I fight alligators? Or sleep with snakes? My dear girl, you can’t find this kind of excitement at the Willows!”

She was rewarded by the laughs of from the boys and grudging smile from Jude. “You might be better off fighting gators,” the girl told her. “Michael’s just liable to bite your head off.”

Gwen thought that was very likely. “Let him,” She said defiantly. “He just might find he’s bitten off more than he can chew.”

“Does that mean you will stay and be our mother?” Chris asked hopefully. “Forever and always?”

Conscious of the need for truth, she shook her head. “Oh, sweetie, I can’t say what life has waiting around the corner. All I can promise is that I’ll do my best to convince your uncle to keep you’re here. Past that, well, he and I don’t exactly get along all too well.” His frown reminded her that this was her problem, not the children’s; they had enough to worry them. “Why don’t we take things one step at a time? Right now, I think we have to worry more about planning his party. Why, we have less than two weeks to go.”

“There might not be one, if we have to go to the city.”

“Don’t be so gloomy, Jude.” Herding the boys up the stairs, Gwen hooked her arm in the girl’s. “We will have our party, and we’ll make it so special, no one will want to leave. I think it’s especially important now that you show your uncle how much you care about him.”

AS the boys shuffled into the cabin, Jude eyed her speculatively. “What about you?”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be thinking and planning, too.”

“That’s not what I mean. Don’t you think Michael needs to know how much you care about him, too?”

“I-“the denial froze Gwen’s lips.

Slipping her arm free, grinning smugly, Jude turned to go.

Standing alone on the porch, Gwen feared she would spend the rest of the night pondering that question.

Just how much did she care about Michael?

 

Chapter 18

Edith watched her father enter the room, wishing she had the courage to order him away. She’d tried to explain that Uncle John was getting some rare and much-needed rest, but father merely brushed past with preoccupied from.

She knew that the note he clutched in his hands must be bad news, otherwise he’d have shared it with her. Guessing further, she imagined the news was about Gwen, since her cousin’s disappearance seemed to be all the menfolk talked about these days. That, and John’s condition

Too late. With a pang, Edith eyed her uncle, looking smaller and more lost than ever on the huge, four-poster bed. He’s wasting away, she thought, and this business with his daughter wasn’t helping him. Father daily reports did little to help; his doom and gloom hastening her uncle’s death.

“It’s come” Jervis announced with preamble, crossing the room to his brother’s side, waving the paper in his hands. “The enemy has shown his face at last.”

Uncle John roused slowly, his confusion plain. Curious in spite of herself, Edith moved closer to the bed.

“What is it?” John asked testily, showing a bit of his former self. “Damn it, can’t you see I was asleep?”

Father hesitated, momentarily unsure of himself, and in that instant, Edith saw her father too clearly, Jervis might pretend to be in charge, but even deadly ill, John would remain the strong one. As long as his brother live, Jervis must live in his shadow.

Her father’s frown proved how much he resent the fact. Don’t listen to him, she had the sudden urge to warn her uncle.

“I knew you’d want to see this.” All smiles now, Jervis could hardly contain himself. “The ransom note has come at last.”

There was a gasp. It could have been Uncle John’s or even her own, for she couldn’t have been more shocked. A ransom note? She’d truly believed Gwen hadn’t been kidnapped, that she might be in actual danger from the dark stranger, and would come home to them all in her own good time. The thought that she might be in actual danger mate Edith feel suddenly ill. In all her craziness she had it expected anything truly bad to happen to her cousin; she just wanted Gwen out of the way, so she could have Lance.

“”Who?” Edith found herself asking. “Who is the kidnapper?”

“Same one who tricked her into a fake marriage of course.”

John started to smile, then apparently thought better of it.

“John, you’re not to be worrying about this.” Father went on, too preoccupied to notice. “Lance is out searching the countryside for Gwen. I have every confidence that he will find her and bring her home.”

He took a deep breath. Watching him, Edith saw he was so preoccupied. He was gearing up for the chair through reason he had comment into the room.

“In the meantime,” Jarvis continued, his sincerity striking the wrong note. “I think it maybe a good idea to make your preparations. You won’t want to leave your state in disarray should… Well should the worst happen. I really do think we should call the lawyer.”

“Why not just pay it?” Seeing their blank expression, a flustered Edith was forced to explain “the ransom note, I mean. With all the money made at the tournament, surely there is no need to risk when his life?

Father scouted her fiercely. “Can be catering to every thug that makes it the man on us,” he said. “Who is to say Lance will return her even after we given him the money? He could kill your cousin. Is that what you want?”

She shook her head, appealed, but not by the picture he painted. He had hit her, with the force of a blow, that Jervis would actually prefer her cousin dad. He would find it a convenience.

Sick at heart, knowing she’d helped her put her cousin in this position, she turned to her all goal of some vague idea of apologizing. Uncle John gave her a reassuring smile. “Your father’s right, of course,” he said, turning to his brother. “Very well brother, bring the lawyer. It is time I changed my will.”

Father cannot quite the room fast enough, in seeing his bold victory, Edith felt it physically ill. Her father had let envy and ambition overrun his conscience, but she now realize how deeply, she stumbled into the same self the occupied state.

Talking her uncle in, encouraging him to sleep, she followed her father out of the room with a worried frown. Surely it wasn’t too late to men her ways. Jervis would not stop his plotting, but his daughter could do her upmost to minimize his success.

From now on, there would be no more blindly following her father’s orders, and no more trusting Lance to find her cousin, either. Clearly, neither man cared about reuniting father and daughter before all good John lit this earth; both were two busy trying get their hands on the Willows. She alone seem to notice the only affairs the man needed to get in order were emotional ones. Nursing him every day, Edith knew her uncle needed to talk to Gwen, to get things resolved before them, so he could die in peace.

Uniting them might be the one way to make amends. If she did no other good indeed in this life, she would somehow get father daughter together. In all honesty, she might not be stronger bold enough to openly battle her father, but maybe her good friend, Hamilton, would help. At the least, he could help find Gwen and bring her back.

But they have to hurry, she thought, glancing over her shoulder to the room she just left. John’s time was running out

 

***

 

Michael banked his boat, half relieved to see no one stirring about the cabin. He had put off this visit for three days, making one excuse after another, until this morning he got tired of playing the coward. He would have to face Gwen eventually, he reason. Better to just get it over with and done.

Yet he felt vastly on easy as he approached the cabin. It still embarrassed them, how truly he lost control. True, he’d been drinking the night, making the situation more volatile, but when had he ever remained in control with that woman? She had a way of warming under his skin, burrowing in under his defenses, until all that stood between them was his anger.

In anger, he feared, that grew more force with every encounter.

She cannot stay here. They’re what had to be some changes. And that is why he came home today.

But when he opened the porch door, and found nothing inside but a big empty room, he needs to do battle slowly drained away. Setting his package-the cocoa for Gwen–on the table, he realize how lonely his place seam with nobody in it.

Into his mind came the image of Gwen, sitting with the children gathered around her, as they talked about helping him build a home. It had touched him more than he cared to admit, for in them magical, moment, he’d seen a family, his family, and for instant, the world had made a perfect scene.

But then he started talking about playing Camelot, and he snapped back to reality. He was playing his own little fantasy, if he could pretend these things would ever work out well. How could he? Without a loan extension, there never would be a home. And once she learn what a hopeless dreamer he was, Gwen would be gone in a single shot.

Looking about the quiet room, felt the loneliness sweep into him, infecting him. She wasn’t even gone yet, and already he found himself missing her.

Angry, he went outside. There was no sense in delaying the confrontation. Must find Gwen and explain the decision. If at the end of it, she still didn’t see reason, well, he’d took her once. He could just as easily take her back home.

Even as he thought this, he heard her behind the cabin. Instantly, he remembered the top, and the hot excitement of holding her in his arms, and it was with firm attention that he put such memories aside.

Rounding the cabin, he saw Gwen standing before a table, frowning at the knife in her hand and the fish lay before her. She was quite a sight, with her hair escaped from its not in dipping down to block her vision, her blue dress streaked with blood. Where was the high mighty Queen Gwen? Michael thought with a reluctant smile. This female looked more like a half mad murderess.

Grimacing, she grabbed for the fish, but her slimy victim slipped from her grasp, causing the knife to stab the table instead. As she yanked the blade free, and unladylike oath issued from her mouth.

He watched her try again and again, each attack more futile than the last, until he found it impossible to hide his amusement. “What the hell are you doing?” He said, moving closer to the table.

She looked up in surprise, using the back of her hand to push the hair from her eyes. “Isn’t it obvious? I am fighting this fish. And the fish is winning?”

“Hands down.” She perked her lips, she grinned. “I suppose I should say, fins down. I admit it, I know absolutely nothing about this dreadful creatures, other than they are wet and slimy and give off a terrible smell.”

“Mind if I ask why you are wrestling with this one?”

“Is my job, since I can’t fish.” She shrugged. “Jude got frustrated, trying to teach me how to get that wiggly worm on the hook, that she decided I might be better at cleaning. I agreed, how hard could it be to rinse off some dead fish in a bucket? I think you can imagine my dismay when she mentioned splitting them open, but by then, it was too late to back down. I’d already given my word.”

“She didn’t show you how to clean them?”

Gwen shook her head. “I think it’s a test. If I managed to clean these fish, I’ll move one step closer to being accepted.”

She looked so honest, so appealing real with her messed up hair and dirty face, he forgot that she’d soon be leaving. All he could think of was trying to help her. “Here,” he said, stepping up to take the knife from her hand. “Let me show you how it’s done.”

Nodding, she watched instantly as he explain how to grab the fish by the tail. She tried not to wince, as he gutted it to remove the blood and guts, but she went decidedly pale as he scaled and filleted it. Showing no mercy, he reached into the bucket for another. “Here, now your turn.”

She gulp and made a face, but she tackled the job with grim determination. Holding the tail, she began to slip up the back. Even as Michael reached at to stay her hand, he saw his mistake, for the mere touch of her flesh sent his senses reeling. Even dirty and smelling of fish, she tempted him more than any other female had ever done.

Her eyes searched his, questioning him, making them question himself. He had come here to send her away, he tried to remind himself, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember why.

Yanking back his hand, explain roughly that it was the fish’s belly she must cut, before moving to the nearby basin to wash his hands. Standing near her clouded his judgment, he decided. He became all too aware a what women like Gwen could offer to the right man. Better he keep his distance, here on the far side of the table. Then he could say what he came here to say.

But watching her when her battle with the fish, he found it hard to find the right words. This wasn’t the spoiled, conceded female had brought here; somehow, over the past few weeks, Gwen had changed for the better. Maybe she had done so to earn the children’s respect, but however much he might try to deny it, it she was also impressing him as well.

“I wanted to apologize for my behavior the other night.” Frowned. That wasn’t what he wanted to say.

She looked up in surprise. “But there is no need–’’

“I am sorry for how I acted,” he went on, here it’s hated that he kept letting himself get sidetracked, “but not for what I said. I meant it, when I said I would be sending you home.”

He expected relief, or perhaps even a token of protest, but once more, she surprised him. Blowing a strand of hair from her eyes, she shook her head. “No,” he said matter-of-factly. “You need me here with the children.”

“Not if I take them to the mother’s family in New Orleans.”

Again she shook her head. “If that were a viable solution, you would have already done it. Kidnapping a vein and selfish woman seems a tad desperate, not to mention unnecessary, if you can rely on this absent family. The children claim their grandparents don’t want the many ways.”

“Oh, they want them all right.” Hard to keep the bitterness out of his tone. “They can’t resist the chance to prove yet again that they are right.”

“Right?”

“They maintain that my mother married beneath her, that my father was a hopeless dreamer, and everything he touched was doomed to fail. A trait they claimed I inherited from him. By the time they are done with those children, not one of them will want to know me at all.”

Gwen stared at him, into him. “Oh Michael,” she said quietly.

“How awful it must have been for you.”

He shrugged. “I managed.”

She nodded, excepting his boldfaced lie, and he liked her better for it. “Your mother and sister did not fare as well, did they?”

He flinched, remembering the pain as if it were yesterday. “Losing my father was hard enough, but listening them slowly pick away at his image destroyed my mother and sister. They had lost their anchor, and the new man of the house, I was too young and green and financially dependent to fight for them. My grandparents talked about love and loyalty, yet made us feel like peasants begging for each meal. We had one long year of such torment before my mother gave up and died, and Jeanette ran off with Morteau. I often think she chose that monster to punish our grandparents, for he personified every vile thing they’d ever said about my father.”

“Your poor sister. In the end, she managed to punish only herself.” Gwen side the sound heavy on the soft afternoon breeze.

Michael marveled rolled out her understanding. He wondered how she done it, gotten him to talk about things he had never even shared with Jeffrey. Strange thing was, he didn’t feel foolish for confining in her, just felt relief.

“They sound like horrible people.” She said slowly, as if thinking aloud. “Must you do this? Can you truly consider sending the children there?”

He looked away, unable to bear her stare. She saw too much. Any moment, she’d be telling him what a weak, useless dreamer he was, as well. “Listen, my lady-“

The knife stabbed into the table with a Dull thud. “No, you listen to me, Michael. I might not seem like the ideal solution, but the children and I are getting along now. Why not leave them with me?”

“You wanted to be going home.”

“To what? My father doesn’t speak to me, and I get the distinction that my cousin wished I would us stayed in Boston. I am not missing much in the Willows.”

“It won’t work. You-“

“It can, too. I can pull my share. I’m learning to cook, and scrub, and I can clean fish, even if I can’t catch them. Well, sort of.” Glancing down at the table, she began to laugh. “If this isn’t the height of irony. When did we switch sides? I can’t believe I actually arguing to stay in that cabin.”

“You are now calling it a cabin.” He felt his own reluctant beginning of a smile.

“Sometimes.” She gave him a sheepish grin. “The point is why are we arguing? My staying with the children is a practical solution which can benefit us both. You will be free to do whatever you must to get them that home, and I will get to prove I am not nearly as useless as everyone thinks. Perhaps I’m being selfish, but I need to do this, Michael. I want to be needed by someone.”

That hit them, harder in deeper than he thought possible. And never occur to him that she might be as lonely as he.

“Please, can we call a truce? Just start all over and work together this time.”

Tell her no, logic demanded, but a tiny hope ignited inside him. “It would mean I’d have to be gone even more,” he said, thinking aloud.

He didn’t bat a flash. “You will do what you need to do, I imagine.”

He tilted his head, trying to figure her out. He wanted to think she could believe in him, but experience had taught him better. “And what if I’m no better than my father?” He challenged. “What if I’m just a hopeless dreamer?”

She leaned forward, her features intense. “There is nothing wrong with dreaming, your father died young, before he could make his dreams come true, which is a darn sight better than what happened with my father. He once had a dream, too, but he let it die prematurely, and everything he built went to ruins.”

“Gwen-“

“No, I’m not finished. Don’t let them take away your dream, Michael. Not your grandparents, not those bankers, not anyone.”

She turned back to her work. Looking at her, watching her fight as she hacked at the fish, he realize she’d come at him from yet another direction. “What game are you playing now? I feel as if I’m talking to an entirely different person.”

“Maybe I am different, but you know, I wonder if deep inside, this is who I have always been. Lately, I’ve been so busy being angry at my mother, first for demanding that I be a lady, then for dying and leaving me alone, maybe I have been working too hard not to be like her.”

Taking a deep breath, Gwen went on. “Being with the children helps me see how silly that was. Life is too precious to waste with tantrums and whining, and trying to fit into someone else’s mold. And it’s too darn short and lonely, if we don’t spend it with the ones we love.”

“We? Why do I get the feeling I am being lectured?”

“You have been working too hard, Michael. You should take time to enjoy your niece and nephews while you can. I happen to know that they will happily wait for a house. It is you they want, not four walls and a roof.”

He sighed. “Trouble is, right about now I haven’t a moment to spare.”

“A mere hour here and there would mean the world to them.”

She went back to butchering her fish, her sonnets giving him time to consider her suggestions. Suppose he could drop by now and then, especially this new Gwen would be there to greet him. Odd, how much it pleased him to think of her standing by the door, her face lighting up with a smile as he approached the cabin.

Lost in the pleasant image, it took some moments to realize that he heard voices, coming from the marshland behind him.

“Speak of the little devils.” Gwen looked up with a grin. “Of all the luck. Once they see you are here, they will never believe I clean these fish by myself.”

“I suppose I could sneak back to my boat and pretend that I just got here.

“Would you?”

It was amazing how lighthearted he suddenly felt. “Sitter me gone.” he dipped into a bow.

“You are not going to leave for the night?” She asked with a sudden catch in her voice. “Will you be staying for dinner?”

Looking from the marshland to the slaughter fish on the table, could it help a little laugh. “Oh, I will stay. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

 

***

 

Gwen cleared the table, listening to Michael and the children’s talk about the meal in silence. A short time ago she’d have bristled and snapback, but she now knew they meant it in fun. Teasing each other was what families did, she realize, and it pleased her to no end to be included.

He smiled, thinking how pleasant the meal had been, spite the jokes about her butchered fish. Talking with Michael this afternoon seemed to have cleared the air between them. Gone was that awful tension, and with it, the need for anger. Seems suddenly possible that they could begin to understand each other at last.

Are there, hearing him talk about his grandparents, she could see why her past be a very had triggered his resentment. She had to convince him she change that she was nothing like those snobbish, uncaring people.

And why would you want to do that? Caution asked, but one glance at Michael, deep in the conversation with children, and she had her answer. It was enough, for now, just to have the man smile at her.

And perhaps it would be a good part of the reason she dress with extra care tonight, pinning up her hair and donning her mother’s locket. She wanted Michael to see Gwen, the lady, a gracious female not covered with fish slime or mud from the swamp. Call it vanity, but she wanted him to see her as a woman well worth a smile.

“Can you read now?”

She came out of her thoughts to find little Christopher standing before her, tugging at her skirt. He held up the battered copy of Ivanhoe.

“Me? Read?” She asked, surprised. “Why, I suppose that would depend on how many more compliments about dinner I must suffer through.”

“Weren’t me” he bit his lip, looking so contrite, when found a hard to keep teasing him.

She turned to his brothers instead. “No more comments about fish chunks?”

They shook their heads.

“No more spitting out imaginary bones?” At another fierce shake of their heads, she gave a deep sigh. “Very well, but you will have to wait while I clean up the kitchen. Unless, of course, you can convince your uncle to read in my place.”

They stared at him as if this were a new concept.

“Don’t worry, I can read,” he said to them, nodding over at Gwen. “And to better than she can clean fish.”

“Go on, give him the book,” she told Christopher, showing off the others. “I think you all deserve each other.”

And there was, smile she been waiting for. He knew what she was up to, his expression told her, and he appreciated the chance to be with the children.

He stressed out on the floor, leaning on an elbow, his long, muscular frame sprawled on the rug. The children gathered around him, telling him what page to start on, chattering about what had happen in the story last time. Clearly, the tell was one of Michael’s favorites, too, for he read it with such passion, breathing life into every character, bringing magic and glory to every scene.

Gwen couldn’t drag her eyes away, fascinated by how he interacted with the children, they clung to each word he uttered, gazing up and it was such an adoring glare, he could well be the hero of the story come true.

Nor were they alone in thinking this, for as Michael read on about Ivanhoe’s adventures, he help but compare him to the romantic night in the story. His glistening black hair, his aristocrat teachers, well formed the lambs went him the same physical beauty, but Michael’s patients with the children, his size of wariness at the end of each grueling day–these were the marks of his own particular valor. Mrs. Tibbs had accused her of never seeing underneath the other trappings, but tonight, Gwen’s eyes were wide open. Michael, she could see, was a beautiful person, inside and out.

It was never the silly posturing on a tournament field that stirred the court ladies to romance, she realize. It was the noble dream, and the man that drove to achieve it, that one her admiration. It was what he believed in, and what he accomplished, that made King Arthur the hero, and twice the man that Lancelot had ever been.

Hard not to make the comparison to Michael and Lance.

Even as she thought this, he looked up, caught her staring at him. As she turned away in confusion, Michael shut the book. “That is it for tonight,” he said to the children.” It is your bedtime and time for me to go.”

Caught off guard, Gwen looked back at him, silently echoing the children’s protests. He cannot leave yet. What if their newfound harmony proved too fragile to last the separation?

But determined to go, he shooed the children off in turn for the door. Gwen try to tell her self it was for the children’s sake that she followed him outside to the porch, but it did not explain her sudden need to reach out and beg him to stay.

She made herself stop on the top step, while he paused at the bottom. “Thanks for the evening, my lady,” he told her with a smile. “Dinner was delicious.”

“Should we set a place for you again tomorrow?” She asked, deliberately keeping her voice light. “I promise to have something other than fish chunks on the menu.”

He smiled, but the expression swiftly faded. “I might have to leave again for a couple of days.”

“Again?” She blurted out before she could stop herself, but at least she hadn’t stopped or what, as she might have once have. “It will be a lot quieter around here without you.”

“No one which is more than me that I could stay, but-“

Descending a step, she reached down to place your finger on his lips. “You do not need to explain. It’s just, well, we will miss you.”

He stared at her so intensely, it took some moments to realize her hand remained on his mouth. A jolt of desire–of need–shot through her, as she remembered those lives against her own. She dropped her hand to her side.

“Did you mean what you said? Earlier, outback, about staying with the children?”

She nodded, unable to remove her gaze from his mouth.

“I would be relying on you, since I could be gone a week or more at a time. Those children need stability, security. I’d need to count on you to stick around.”

She thought of her first day here, and that useless walk through the swamp. “Where can I go?”

Her gaze drifted to his eyes, his wince. “I was wrong to keep you prisoner. From now on, my lady, if you stay, it will be of your own free will.”

A week ago, the prospect of escape what have the realtor, but now, her world has narrowed down to the little one island, to this man and his children, to the dark eyes in which she now found herself lost.

“The children have a boat of their own,” he went on. “They keep it outback somewhere, probably by their fortress. You need only ask, and they’ll take you were ever and whenever you want to go.”

“I want to stay,” she told him truthfully.

His face lit up, making him seem suddenly younger. “I shouldn’t need to impose on you for much more than a month.”

“Three months. Not a day less laughing, he shook his head. “You won’t last long, if you keep repeating my words back to me.” His grin faded as he searched her eyes. “Where you serious about the other, too? About you and I and starting over? Do you think you can forgive the past?”

She read doubt in this question, as if he hadn’t much faith in the prospect, it even less in her ability. Anxious to convince him otherwise, she took another step down. They now stood eye to eye.

“I doubt I can forget, but maybe I shouldn’t. I’ve spent a good many years running from the past, and I’ve yet to escape it. It’s part of me, even unpleasant parts, a wound that must heal or else fester. We haven’t exactly been perfect, either of us, but maybe if we were to leave the wounds open, we can accept the past, learn from our mistakes, and go from there.”

He studied her as she spoke. “I was wrong about you,” he said, lifting her locket up offer chest. “You are more like your mother then I thought.”

Yes, she was, and for once, the thought pleased her. “Maybe, but I daresay there is a great deal you don’t know about me.” She said.

“I don’t doubt that for a moment.” He let the locket drop, his hand brushing her chest. At the contact, his eyes darkened.

Gwen held her breath. He must have felt it, too, the awareness. He must have shared the deep, primitive need to kiss.

But instead of reaching for her, his hands dropped to his side. His voice was stiffly formal. “It’s late. I better go. I will try to stop by again soon.”

Gwen still wasn’t ready to let them go. Snatching at his hand, she said the first thing she could think of to make him stay, if only for a few more moments. “You will be here next Saturday? For the children’s tournament?”

“I don’t know, my lady. I’ve got a lot do.”

She was all too conscious of the war in his hand. “I know you are busy, but it’s important to them. Please make the effort. It wouldn’t be the same without you.”

He smiled, a brief dazzling tug at her heart, as he brought their join hands to his lips. Looking in his eyes, breathing in the very sent of him, she thought she would die if he didn’t soon kiss her.

“I am your vassal,” he said, gently kissing her fingertips instead. “I live to serve you, my lady.”

She recognized the words. It was the phrase that begun the bear play as children, the magical key open the doors of Camelot. Perhaps they were starting over, she realized. And this time, Michael would be her King Arthur.

He squeezed her hand before he let it drop, telling her in his one simple way that he was also reluctant to and this evening. Watching him stroll off to his boat, missing him already, she told herself this was for the best way. She now have time to prepare, to make next Saturday extra special. As Jude had said, they must do all in their power to make it Michael’s best birthday ever.

And when they were done, when they finish their cake and presents their gifts, she’d make damn good and certain he would never want to leave them again.

 

***

 

Seeing her all call leave, Jude step back from her hiding place by the doorway and hurry to join her brothers in the bedroom, all eagerly waiting the verdict.

“She talked him into it,” she told him, smiling ear to ear. “We are staying.”

“All of us?” Chris ask anxiously. “Even Gwen?”

“Even Gwen?” Jude heaved a sigh, which she realize was one of relief. “Looks like she’s one of us now.”

 

Chapter 19

“Yank it. Quick. Geez, Gwen, you let it get away.”

As Peter shook his head hopelessly, Gwen handed her fishing pole across the boat. She had learned great deal since coming to the bayou, but fishing was a skill she would probably never master. Even when Peter kindly baited the hook for her, she still let her nibble wiggler free.

Watching the boy wait in line again, she marveled at how he and Patrick brought her along on their fishing expedition. She had not asked to be included; she wondered if they’d seen her whistle glances when they talked about their adventures. How in gearing that they would notice, that they would care enough to invite her along.

She wasn’t sure what had changed their minds about her, but ever since the night she clean the fish, the children seemed less or less likely to shut her out. They still watched her long, and grew impatient with her inability to do would be considered simple things, but gradually, they begun letting her into their lives, and making themselves part of hers.

It had been with a great sense of ritual that they’d taken their boat to the hidden inlet this morning. No one else knew about this, they’d whisper as they uncovered a rowboat. Not even Michael. He wanted them to stay close to the cabin by he didn’t understand that sometimes, the best fishing was out on the river.

“Here, try again.” Taking her pull from Peter, she let it hang over the edge of the bow, pretending the fish to please them, knowing she would in catchy thing. She looked around, realizing that they drifted into territory that seemed familiar. “Why, I know that place,” she said, thinking aloud. “That is Beau Ridge, the Allentons plantation.”

Or at least, it once was. When remembered Missy Benson saying that they had sold out and moved away. The Ridge had a new owner now, and likely a new name.

She turned, hoping to catch sight of the new owners, but all she could see was the house they were building. Or, more accurately, the start of one, for it was little more than a foundation with a wood frame. No one is working on it; structure and seem to have come to a halt.

Scanning pass the knoll on which the frame sat Gwen saw why it had been abandoned. With a breached levee, no doubt a result of yesterday’s rain storm, every hand on the place would be running around to make repairs for the fields flooded. It would be devastating to losing crop this close to harvest.

Harvest was a time of great excitement, she remembered fondly, but also one of pre-cautious hope. If the crop lived up to expectations, there would be new dresses and parties to celebrate, a Rosie start to the new year. Success would affect everyone, from the family on down to the least important servant, so it worried in the entire plantation to do its best to make certain the harvest did not fail.

Yet failure could happen all too easy. On early frosts, a badly timed a rainstorm, a field burn too early, or too late – any miscalculation could spell ruin. As she watched the workers in the distance, one in particular stood out. Ordering the servants to various positions, his air of authority yet shabby dress suggested that the man must be the overseer, on whose shoulders should the responsibility for bringing in the crop. It didn’t surprise surge to see him pitching in, digging dirt, and lifting sandbags, for she knew the pressure he was under. A good harvest and his job was secure-a bad one, and he might just as well start packing his belongings.

Remembering how many overseers her father had let go in his day, she knew the demands of the job. From experience, she knew the poor overseer rarely got credit, but he always got the blame.

Hard not to be impressed the way the workers responded to the man’s orders, how we needed no rifle or whip to prod them to work. Watching the brisk efficiency in history, she found it taunting, dauntingly familiar.

“Oh my,” she said, reaching out to tap Patrick’s arm. “Over there, in the field, is that Michael?”

As the boy looked to where she pointed, his eyes mere to her surprise, then went wide with alarm. “Quick, Peter, put down the pole,” he said, grabbing the oars. “We got a get out a here, before Michael sees us.”

Gwen had to grab at her own pole to prevent from losing it, so hastily was their departure. Rowing like a madman, Patrick didn’t speak, and Peter seem likewise discipline to break the awkward silence.

Gwen too, became loss in their amusement. Michael, the overseer at Beau Ridge? No wonder he was so tired and distracted each night. The field had been idle for years; it must have meant starting from scratch, retelling the soil, buying and planting new cane. And no wonder he will had no patience with her; after each grueling day, he’d need smiles and warmth, not arguments and complaints.

She thought of how wistfully he spoken about owning his own land, of having a place no one could ever take away from him. A man should not have the work so hard, so persistently, and not be rewarded. It made her eight to do something, anything, to help this man realize his dream. She had no money over own, but she had friends, and her father did still have connections. With all their wealthy acquaintances, surely she could find someone willing to part with an acre or two for a reasonable sum. Biting her lip, she remembered how he’d been unable to get that loan.

She was still deep in thought as the road into the hidden inlet and drifted up beached pirogue. Both boys were up and out of the boat, carrying their gear away, and before preoccupied Glenn snapped out of her thoughts. “What is the big hurry?” She said, scrambling out of the boat. “Someone like to explain what is going on?”

Apparently not. Both boys pretended they hadn’t heard her, carefully stowing their things on the pirogue.

“Why were you so scared to see Michael?” She press, following after them. “This is more than a mere case of him not wanting you on the river, isn’t it? Did he forbid you to go out there?”

This time she didn’t need an answer, their guilty expression told her all that she needed to know. “Does he have a good reason for forbidding you?”

Peter look to Patrick, who turned to her with a frown. “Papa,” was all he had to say, but that, too, was sufficient answer.

With a jolt of fear, she remembered Jacques Morteau, a man so heinous his own daughter had been forced to shoot them. The last few days have been so peaceful and pleasant, she had forgotten Jeffrey mentioned that Michael was hiding the children here in the swamp. Realizing what might have happened had their father, pond them unexpectedly, she felt physically ill. “Your uncle trust me to keep you safe,” she told the boys fiercely. “How could I face in, if I let anything happen to you?”

They looked at her blankly. “Nothing can happen.”

“Your father is a dangerous man. Even at five were able of defending you–which I’m not–what would I use as a weapon? My fishing pole?”

“Don’t worry, Gwen.” Patrick smiled. “We have our swords.” He pulled a bag from the boat, pulling out his wooden carvings.

“Oh, Patrick, that’s just –“

“They have magical powers,” he insisted with a glitter in his eyes. “The mighty Merlin blessed each one.”

Climbing into the pirogue, she nodded, unwillingly to tamper with their faith in magic. They were children; they had the right to their fantasies.

But she cannot, in good conscious, let the matter drop. “But what if you forgot your swords?” She asked. “Or your father were to catch one of you by surprise, when you were alone?”

“We have a plan,” Patrick said proudly.

“Maybe we should show her.”

“Show me what?”

They exchanged glances, but didn’t answer. With a grim smile, Patrick pulled harder, bringing the pirogue into another hidden cove. They continue to resist her questions as they beach the crap, then they let her in over a narrow path. Coming upon the sudden clearing, Gwen could see why they hadn’t spoken. They wanted her to see for herself.

Tucked beneath the trees and dripping moss stood a mishmash of boards and unwanted metal, fashioned into a ten foot high fortress.

“Careful, there is quicksand under there.” Patrick pointed to a patch of marsh grass covered with vines. “And over here, underneath those ferns, is this really deep hole. On the other side are pits we shoveled ourselves, but we couldn’t dig nearly as deep. If anyone falls in ours, he can get out again but that one… Well, just be careful where you step.”

“You children play here?” She asked, appalled at how easily they could get hurt.

They shook their heads simultaneously. “This is where we have to go, if father comes,” Patrick explained patiently. “Each of us, even Christopher, knows to come to the fortress at the first sign of trouble.”

“We have got a lot more traps,” Peter added excitedly. “If father comes to close, he will trip and bring that stuff down on top of him.”

Impressed, Gwen shook her head. A lot of planning had gone into their defenses. She wonder who was the mastermind behind it.

As if in answer, Jude stood over fortress wall, her hand clutching a rock. Paul and Christopher appeared behind her, looking through the leaves. “Who is there?” Jude demanded.

“It is just us. Open up, we are coming in.” Turning to Gwen, Patrick gestured up to where Jude had been. “We built that in platforms up there, so we can see who’s coming. Come on inside and we will show you.”

They brought her through an opening in the vines, draped with Spanish moss. She can hear Jude unlatching it from the other side, letting it swing inward on a squeaky hinges. Following the boys inside, Gwen stood in the center of the enclosure, gaping at the size of the space. They had taken full advantage of the oaks that ranged around their stronghold, but even so, a lot of work had been gone into filling in the gaps. Gwen wasn’t good with measurements, but she figured it had to be a good thirty feet across, and another forty feet long. “This is amazing,” she said honestly.

“Jeffrey helped us.” Jude smiled, looking especially proud. “He put in the door, and helped us find the metal.”

“Has your uncle seem this place?”

All five shook their heads. “He has enough on his mind.” As always, it was Jude who spoke for the others. “We can take care of ourselves.”

“Patrick made us swords,” Chris added, brandishing the stick his brother had carved for him. “He finished mine yesterday, so now I can be in Jude’s army, too.”

All five stood close together, small and young and so utterly valiant in their defense of each other. Throat tightening, Gwen had sudden strong urge to gather them up and take them far away, where men like their father could never touch them.

Jude nodded in Gwen’s direction. “Maybe you should carve her one, too, and now that she’s one of us.”

“One of us.” The words dug down into her, took root there, and in that moment, Gwen realize that she was indeed part of their little army. She would fight for the children to the grave.

“She can be our Queen.” Peter said it with a broad smile. “Welcome to Camelot, my Queen.”

Paul nodded. “All we need now is a king.”

At his words, Gwen saw how they could make the birthday celebrations so special, even Jude would be pleased. “Listen, you have given me an idea,” she said, smiling broadly as she gathered the boys around her. With a little planning any lot of work, maybe she and the children could show Michael just how important he was to them.

And who knew? With any luck at all, maybe they could convince them to stick around for more than just the occasional meal in the process.

 

***

 

Later that night, Michael climbed the porch steps to the cabin, feeling a good eighty years old. What a long hard week it had been. The levee was repaired and the fields nearly drained, but the extra work had put them behind schedule. He could work day and night for the next two weeks, he feared, and still not be ready for the harvest.

Hearing voices inside, he paused at the door, his shoulders sagging. He’d been working so hard, he forgot about their tournament. How on earth would he tell them he wouldn’t be able to make it?

It cannot be helped, he insisted, straining his spine. The days were getting sure, the night cooler–he had equipment to fix, servants to train, the sugarhouse to get working. Frost was unlikely, the way the weather had been of late, but then, he ran the risk of losing sugar content, if you let the stalks grow too long, no one had to remind him how much was writing on his being able to get the best crop possible to market.

Looking at the cabin door, he grimaced. He had been back for only three brief visits since he’d issued their imitation, but each time, he could sense the excitement brewing in that cabin. How could he make them understand? The tournament could be held another day, but the harvest would wait for no one.

He hesitated by the door, the sweet scent of freshly baked food reminding him that he hadn’t eaten all day. Pushing open the door, seeing his family assembled in the kitchen, his cares fell away. You forgot the harvest, and his need to disappoint them, in the sheer pleasure of being home.

The children stood in line, holding out their hands for Gwen’s inspection. At her nod, the fourth oldest made a beeline for the table, but an abashed Christopher drudged back to the wash sink. To his amazement, the other children waited patiently by their chairs, and told her younger brother washed his hands.

They all saw him at once, simultaneously shouting. “Michaels here.” Instantly his stare was drawn to Gwen. She was dressed simply, the flower dusts apron hiding most of Jeanette’s green dress, but to Michael, she’d never looked lovelier. Glancing up to a smile at him, she neared took his breath away.

“Jude and I have fried some fish,” she said, gesturing at the table. “Won’t you join us?”

It all got tangled up–the dinner smells, the children’s laughter, the excitement in the air–translating into his need for hit this woman.

“Don’t trust it,” a tiny voice caution. Maybe she hadn’t really changed; maybe his wanting her so badly made him far too ready to believe. This was Gwen, he shouldn’t forget, the woman who made an art form of teasing him out of his shell, only to leave him time and again, feeling foolish, and empty, and all alone.

With a nod, he broke their gaze and join Christopher at the wash sink. Their arrangement was temporary anyway. Once she fulfilled her commitment, once she provided herself to everyone’s satisfaction, Gwen had set herself, she would be moving on.

Yet, as he sat at the table and watched her with the children, her smiles at their not always successful attempts to show off their manners, he found it more and more difficult to resist her magic. Like Jude’s Merlin, Gwen was weaving a spell around him, and enchantment he found hard to resist. Watching her, wanting her more now than he ever could have imagined, he decided he must find some way to win an keep her. If you play the perfect gentleman, if he wooed her softly and gently, somehow he–with the help of the children–must eventually convince her to stay.

In his heart, he knew he was dreaming, and this particular dream when not come cheap. Long accustomed to luxury and pampering, Gwen couldn’t endure hardship forever. He might win her with courtship, but keep her, he’d have to have money. And right now, for him, money was in short supply.

Which made it all that more imperative to get that harvest in on time.

Throughout the rest of the meal, and even after reading the book to the children while Gwen it did up the dishes, he struggled to find a way to explain why he couldn’t be here tomorrow. Maybe he should tell Gwen instead and let her break the news to the children gently.

Not that telling her would be any easier.

Finishing his reading, he closed up the book. The children protested, begging for more, but Michael insisted. He was going out back to wash up, and then he had to leave.

“Besides,” Gwen said, coming up from behind, “tomorrow is a special day. If you hope to win the tournament, you children will want all the sleep you can get.”

They stopped grumbling, rising obediently, if reluctantly. About to mention the change in plans, Michael was distracted by the glint of metal at Jude’s neck when the girl rose to her feet.

Not again, he thought, seeing her quickly talk the necklace back into her shirt. “Is that Gwen’s locket around your neck?” He said, wondering what fascination it could hold that the girl kept feeling the need to swipe it.

“She did not take it.” Patrick blurted out from the doorway. “I gave it to her.”

“And I gave it to Patrick,” Gwen said, sliding closer. As Jude pulled the chain up and over her head, Gwen turned to stop her. “No, it is all right. Please, I want you to keep it. I think my mother would want that.”

As Jude smiled up at her, Michael was stuck by how pretty the girl would be, how soon she would be breaking hearts of her own. It hit him then how rarely he had seen Jude smile.

More magic, he thought with a sigh. When was weaving her spell around all of them.

He stood back as he shooed the children off to bed, impressed by how quickly they all went. When the children were off, she flashed a tentative grin. “I guess I should have told you earlier. After the fuss I made about the locket, I can’t blame you for doubting that I gave it away.”

“I do find myself wondering why you did.”

“I gave it to Patrick, in return for a favor, and you know how they are with each other. He knew how much that locket meant to his sister. How she associated it with her own mother.”

“I thought it meant a lot to you.”

“It does.” She went into the kitchen to finished drying the dishes. “But I realized Jude needs it more than me right now. She is going through a difficult time, and she needs some link with her past. She calls it her talisman and wears it everywhere. She won’t sleep, or even bathe without it.”

He took the plate from her and put it away. “You have been remarkably patient with her. She can be a difficult child.”

“Not difficult. Just confused.” Giving him the last dish, she set down the towel. “It is not easy to lose your mother, when you are just learning to be a woman.”

He leaned up against the cover, arms folded across his chest. “Are you talking about Jude or yourself?”

For a moment, she seemed startled. “I guess Jude and I have a lot more in common than we bargained on. A fact that sometimes helps in understanding each other, yet often hinders. We can both be quite bullheaded.”

He grinned down at her. “Yes, I have found that, too,”

“Go ahead and laugh, but if you only knew what I have had to go through this past week, planning that tournament-“she froze, searching his face. “What is it?”

It all came rushing back, the pressure of the harvest, how much you killed him to disappoint them. “Something has come up.”

Looking away, she slowly and deliberately untied the strings to remove the apron from her waist. “I see. You’re not coming.”

“Gwen-“

“There is no need to explain.” The words were as wooden as her posture as she brushed past him. “I understand, truly.”

He reached out and spun her to face him. “No, you don’t, dammit. I have no choice but to be out there working. I owe money. It was a short-term loan that I hoped to pay off by now…” He paused, seeing no sense in telling her that the debt would have been paid had her uncle given him the amount he owed him. “Well, let’s just say that I have less than a month among to come up with the money, or the firm of Barclay and Tibbs will just about kill any hopes I might have for the future.”

“Can’t you request an extension? Daddy always did.”

“Your father’s name carries a lot more weight than mine,” he said bitterly. “Can’t evening get past the clerk to plead my case. He says the owners are too busy to bother with my kind.”

She winced, and looking down, he saw how tightly he gripped her. So much for wooing her tenderly. Angry with himself, he removed his hands gently. He cannot, however, bring himself to move away.

“But it is so unfair,” she said. “How can they decide what kind of man you are, without even meeting you?”

Though her anger touched him, and made him realize how little she truly knew about him. “Mine is what they called a checkered history,” he felt compelled to explain. “I have been moving around since I was 14, and bankers tend to like folks that stick in one place. I am not the kind of risk they are fond of taking.”

“Then they are fools. Blind ones, if they cannot see that you are well worth risking a few measly dollars.”

She spoke so vehemently, he felt like taking a gamble of his own. “Am I?” He asked. “How much would you risk, my lady?”

He stared into her eyes, making it clear that his question had nothing to do with financial loss, that it was her emotions he wanted her to put on the line. Gazing at her lovely face, hoping became wanting, one great aching need to possess her, to convince her in the age old fashion that she belonged at his side.

But in his heart, he knew she must make the decision, so he stood there holding his breath, knowing so much could depend on what she said or did next.

What she did was turn away, making great business of hanging her apron on a peg on the wall. “If I had the money,” she said, so softly he nearly did not hear, “you would never again need to go begging to bankers.”

It was less than he had wanted, yet more than he could reasonably hope for, and a cautious man would quit and cut his losses. But Michael was at heart a gambler, and he had yet to play out his hand. “I was not asking for cash,” he said quietly. She didn’t move, just kept holding on to that apron. With a shrug, he went to the door, offering a parting shot. “It was never a matter of money, my lady. All I wanted was you.”

He went outside and then, before he can make a bigger fool of himself, and headed straight for the tub. Ripping off his shirt, he cursed himself for getting carried away. He knew it would be sometime yet before he could offer heard the life she was used to, and until he could, there was no sense issuing any invitations. Not even a hopeless romantic could expect Queen Gwen to bed down with a common dirt farmer.

As he unbuttoned and kicked free of his pants, he thought longingly of cold, mountain streams, needing something to chill down his yearnings. The water from the barrel still held the warmth from the sun, and though he scrubbed himself fiercely under the shower, it did little to cool him off. Stepping out of the tub to dry off, he kept thinking of the night she’d come to him here, how tightly he held her, how close he’d been to making her his own.

So strong was the memory, that at first, he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw her. It was easy to blame his imagination, for she seemed almost ghostly as she glided toward him through the moonlight, a piece of long, white material draped on her arm.

With the tightening in his groin, he saw that she wore only her underwear. Her smooth white lambs, her luscious breasts-all so touchable, kissable, yet so completely unreal. Pale and solemn, stopped before him to search his face, waiting for him to say something, it how could he talk to a dream? One word and she’d evaporated, vanish on the breeze.

It was Gwen who spoke, breaking the spell. “I, er, thought you might need this,” she said with a half-smile, holding out a long, white towel.

She was either incredibly naïve, or boldly manipulative, both of which played havoc with his emotions. “Are you out of your mind, coming out here to me like this?” He asked, reaching for her arm. “What are you up to now?”

“We didn’t quite get it right the last time.”

He noticed her voice trembled, but he was too angry to care. “No, we didn’t, and I warned you what would happen, if you try to something like that again.”

“I know.”

“You know? I’m two seconds away from taking you right here on the bare ground! If you had any sense, you would run as fast and far as you can.”

She bit her lip, but resolutely spread the towel out beside them.

“Now it is not bare ground.” Her entire body trembled.

“Dammit, Gwen,” Michael ground out. “Do you know what you are doing?”

With a quick, nervous nod, she moved nearer still, until he could feel her soft, peaking breasts beneath her bra. “I am well aware of the risk,” she told him huskily. “And I imperfectly willing to take it. How about you?”

With every inch of him yearning for her, but he held himself in check, too afraid to trust what his eyes and ears and heart were telling him. He had dreamed his dream too long for it to be true. Gwen, coming to him it offering her trust on a silver platter?

She reached up suddenly, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Quick, Michael, kiss me, “she whispered. “Don’t let me change my mind.”

Suddenly, it no longer mattered if it were real or not. All that existed was Gwen’s hot body, pressed up against him, her breath soft and warm on his face. Sliding his hands through her hair to cradle her head, he leaned down to take the lips so miraculously offered.

He felt a surge of longing as their lips met, of power as her lips parted beneath his. Though he knew the importance of gentling her, of taking time to do this right, the taste of her, her sweet, salty taste, scent of fresh soap on her skin, the soft, silky texture of her hair. He had to have her, all over, and he had to have her now.

He forced himself away from her mouth, his lips clinging to hers until the very last moment. “Last chance,” he forced himself to grind out, his bombs tracing the moist corners of her mouth. “Still sure you want this?”

“I want you,” she told him in a seducing whisper.

Staring at each other, communicating their mutual need, their knees gave way in unison as they sank together to the soft ground. Kissing her, cradling her, he lowered her down to the towel. “I am your vassal,” he whispered back. “I live to serve you, my lady.”

And as it had when they were children, the phrase opened up a magical world, only this time, it was his world. Earthly and sweet, the aroma of soil and vegetation jointed, scenting the air with its rich and fertile perfume. All around in the Bayou played its night music, a symphony of sultry sounds. The chirping of tree frogs and insects matching the beat of his heart as he kissed her arched neck; the breeze whispering through Spanish moss echoed her sighs.

His lips move down, down, tracing the swell of her breasts. His mouth dipped lower, his tongue teasing her nipples through the cotton of her bra, and her moans mingled with the low, distant cry of a bird.

Lifting up his head to slide the bra from her shoulders, he kneeled between her legs, watching her face. Moonlight danced over features, lending a special glow as she smiled up at him. Sheer gold and silver, she was more than a shimmering vision; she was his treasure.

“You are so damn beautiful,” he said deeply, drawn back to her mouth. Kissing her, devouring her, his lips wandered to the valley between her breasts, bare now and waiting for his touch. Tracing a line up to a shivering nipple, he took it whole in his mouth, twirling his tongue around it, sucking deeply. Her hands dug into his hair, holding onto him as if her life depended on it. “Oh Michael,” she kept moaning.

His hands slid down, sliding up what remained of her underwear so is naked flesh could touch hers. Stroking her thighs, suckling her breast, he could feel himself expanding, growing hard with need. Her skin felt hot to the touch, so hot and moist against him, he went a little wild. He had to have her, now, or surely he would explode.

He tried to prepare her, sliding his fingers inside to ease the way, but she groaned so in his ear, and wiggled so intensely against him, he could wait no longer. He raised up to look into her eyes. “Help me, my lady,” he begged. “I have got to be inside of you.”

As her fingers closed around his engorged flesh, a jolt of sheer lust shot through him. He would have lost control, had her eyes not gone instantly wide, warning that she needed reassurance. “I will go easy,” he told her, praying he had the willpower. “Trust me.”

Her smile reached down into his soul, turning him inside out. And no a fire raged its war inside him, he held tight to the image of that smile as he eased slowly, gently inside her. Alternately withdrawing, then pushing against her resistance, he Hearing the word trust, reverberating in his brain. She felt so good, so tight and warm, every push became overwhelming temptation, every withdrawal, sheer torture.

As it did test them, Gwen wrapped her legs around his thighs, arching her back to move against him, urging him deeper, harder, until with eight thrust of her hips, she helped break the barrier.

“Don’t stop,” she cried out when he hesitated. “Oh, Michael, not now.”

Nor could he. Alive with the sweet, impossible miracle of her eager and hot in his arms, he kissed her hungrily. Their bodies began to move as one, Gwen meeting him thrust for thrust, her hands seeming to touch them everywhere at once. She’s mine now, his brain sang in victory, and he drove deep inside her. Spiraling upward, he could feel her gather around him, tightening, until he thought he would go insane.

“Oh, oh Michael!” She cried out, shuddering beneath him. “Oh.”

At her release, he felt himself pour into her in a swift powerful flood of relief, filling her with every ounce of his being. She’s mine, he thought again, the miracle of no less sweet as his thrust tapered into a dying rhythm, and he sank, happy and replete, to the towel beside her.

Too overwhelmed to speak, to think, he lay on his back for a few moments, looking up at the sky. How many nights has he stared at the night, yearning for this? He rolled over to gaze at her, still finding it incredible that she was here, that he hadn’t imagined her coming to him. She turned at the same time, facing him with a gentle, content smile.

His hand went up to trace her cheek. “Are you real? I find it hard to believe this happened.”

“I know.” She leaned into his touch. “I don’t know what came over me, but standing in that kitchen, I knew I couldn’t let you go away like that. It suddenly seemed to be the right thing to do, the only thing to do.”

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He wanted to talk about tomorrow, and the day after that, but perhaps it was too soon to press for a commitment. She would need more time-and a whole lot more loving-to get used to the idea of staying.

And he had a long way to go before he could take care of her properly.

Reminded of all he had to do, he rose with a weary sigh. He reached for his close, jamming his legs into the trousers, stuffing his arms in his shirt.

“I see.” She sat up, hastily grabbing for her bra. “It seems I had made a mistake.”

He froze, waiting to have his worst fears confirmed. Once again, she was merely toying with him. “Another mistake?”

“Obviously, you got better things to do than waste your time with me.”

“Oh God, Gwen, no.” He reached down for her, point her against him. That’s what this was about? She was feeling slighted?

“I did not command here to manipulate you, you know. I’m not after a favor or some trinket, or even to lure you to the tournament. I understand about your dream, Michael, and I’d never do anything to stop you from realizing it.” Her voice cracked, but she pushed on. “If anything, come yet here to you was my way of telling you that.”

Cradling her against his chest, he kissed the top of her head. “Oh, Glenn, I’m sorry. I guessed I’m so you still hurrying from one thing to another, I didn’t stop to think. Believe me, the last thing I want is to leave right now. It is no excuse, I know, but this isn’t a easy time for me. I am confused and torn, and hell, there is so damn much I have to do.”

She eased away from his chest, touching his face gently with her fingertips. “I know. And I don’t want to make things harder.” With a pleasant smile, she took his hand and tugged it. “Kaman, walk with me back to the cabin.”

“Gwen…”

“No, I understand, really,” she told him as they walked to the porch. “This is all very new and confusing for me, too. Maybe we can both benefit from a little time apart. We needs to sort things out.”

She was right, but her words made him uneasy. He didn’t want time apart, didn’t want to risk her sorting him out of her life.

At the porch, she climbed to the steps. Behind her, through the open door, Michael could see the gentle glow of the fading fire, it’s worth reminding him of all he would leave behind. Gwen’s gentle smile. Nearly unmanned and him. More than ever, he wished he could stay.

She took his hand between hers. “You are a good man, Michael, and I know you’re thinking of what’s best for the children. Part of me wants to cling to your arm, demanding you stay and reassure me, but another part understands that if you go now and do what you need to do, it will be that much sooner that you can come back and we can try this again. It may be bold of me to say so, sir, but I find I’m quite eager to spend the night in your arms.”

“Oh, Gwen.” He took her in his arms for one last drugging kiss, aching with loss when he yet to let her go. Standing back, gazing at her against the backdrop of the softly lit cabin, he relies how much of his dreams had gotten tangled up in this woman. How coming home to her, and his family, was what gave all his struggles of meaning.

“Oh hell, till the children I will be here,” promised as he turned to go. “I might be late, but if I have to break a leg trying, you and I, my lady, will most deftly try this again.”

 

Chapter 20

“It is getting late, Gwen.”

Clad inner cone shaped hat and long flowing bedsheet, Jude looked exactly like Merlin-to anyone with an imagination. Her brothers, in their potato sack tunics decorated with their personal coat of arms, made a perfect knights-or would, if they weren’t fidgeting so.

“Hush, you’re interrupting.” Glenn tried calming them by reading, but not even their favorite story could change their fears over Michael delayed arrival. Counting the hours as they ticked away, Gwen shared their concern. “Your uncle is a very busy man,” she told them nonetheless, keeping her voice firm. “He will come when he has the chance.”

“But it will be dark in a few hours,” Patrick argued. “And how can we hold the tournament?”

“We would just gather up all the candles and light them, and it will seem twice as magical.” And romantic, she found herself thinking, though sanity decreed that she avoid such thoughts. Every time she anticipates seeing Michael again, touching him, she went half mad with impatience.

“What good are candles, if he doesn’t come?”

“We will have none of that, Jude.” Noticing the girls frown, Gwen quickly corrected herself, “I mean Merlin. If there is one thing your uncle is famous for, it’s keeping his word. He said he was coming and he’ll be here, just as soon as he can.”

From there worried expressions, Gwen knew she had to do something, and quickly, for they’d soon have heard doubting Michael as well. “I am so certain he will be here.” She told them, slamming shut the book, “I say we should go outside and get ready to meet his boat, why don’t we find hiding places, so we can really surprise him?”

“Screaming with delight, they scrambled up with new enthusiasm to run for the door. Following more slowly, Gwen was glad she thought of hiding. They need something to do; that inaction was what made them edgy. And herself, too.

Watching the twin scramble for the same hiding place and giggle when they bang their heads, she laughed with them. Any other time, she might have scolded, concerned that they’d ruin their costumes, but today she just wanted to join them. It was time for fun, for magic, for thinking it acting like a child herself.

She looked down at her costume, and thought how are friends would have sneered at her in this dress. No adult sheet known would mistake her for a queen, with the necklace of shells and stone Jude had made for her, and a crown made of paper in paint, yet when the children had ooed and ahhed and declared her the most beautiful Gwen ever, she’d happily believe them. Their enthusiasm gave no need for finery and riches, just them. Being with those kids, helping them plan this party, had been more fun then any social ball.

“He’s coming!” Paul whispered suddenly from behind a big Cypress.

“Quick, Gwen,” Peter whispered from the bushes. “You have to hide.”

Panicked by the urgency, Gwen froze. By the time she glanced around her, it was already too late, for Michael had caught sight of her and he was driving into shore. “What’s wrong?” He asked, jumping from the craft as the banked. “Where are the children?”

“Surprise!” They scream, popping out of their hiding places to crowd around him.

Stopped, his gaze–happen use, half bewildered-going straight to Gwen. “I assume this means I’m not too late?”

She nodded, drinking in the sight of them. Spite her reassurance to the children, she relates now that she had been afraid he’d let them down. After all, her father had often disappointed her, and on more than one special occasion.

But Michael is here, standing before her, and it was all she could do not to rush at him and shower him with kisses. Though clearly tired and worried and more worn than she’d ever seen him, he had managed to be here. Once again, he’d kept his word.

“Happy birthday,” she said, wanting to tell him a whole lot more. Later, she promised herself. When they were alone.

“Birthday?” With a mock frown, he turned his attention to the children. “I thought I’d been summoned to a tournaments. What are Merlin and the Knights of the round table doing here?”

As the children smiled, their faces lighting up with pleasure, Gwen again father the urge to kiss him. Not only had he come, he was ready and willing to play that game, right down to recognizing their costumes. “Oh, it is a tournament, all right,” she told them, clapping her hands. “My Knights, find this newcomer a tunic.”

At her command, he stooped down to let them pull a sack, decorated with the crown they chosen for his coat of arms, over his head. When they were done, he shook her head. “Something tells me we’ve got a lot of loose potatoes lying around somewhere.”

“Quiet, sir,” she said with a grin. “You must be serious, for you are about to be transported to Camelot. Where is my page? Oh, there you are, sir Christopher. The blindfold please?”

“Blindfold? Now just waiting moment, my lady-“

“She is not a lady anymore, now she is the queen.” Christopher corrected sternly. “You cannot argue, Uncle Michael. You have to obey the queen.”

“He is right,” Gwen whispered in his ear, stepping up to tie the cloth over his eyes. “You are in my kingdom now, sir, and you half to follow my rules.” Aloud, she added, “Sir Patrick, Sir Peter, taken off now in his boat.”

Michael is still arguing as the pulled off. Losing no time, Gwen took other children and trudged through the swamp. They carried baskets of food, she gingerly carrying the cake. All none edibles have been carried there earlier, to make certain they reach the fortress before the boys and their honored guest.

With barely minutes to spare comedy finished their last preparations, assembling in front of the fortress door just as the boys arrived with Michael. As they moved the blindfold, Gwen watched his face. She enjoyed his surprise almost much as her own upon first seeing the children’s handiwork.

“Incredible,” he said with a low, appreciative whistle.

Gwen felt a surge of pride in the children’s work but in equal amount further on, for appreciating it. “Welcome to Camelot,” she said, taking his hand to lead him to the door. “Come inside. You will find it even more amazing.”

They shuffled through the doorway, Michael remarking on familiar boards and scraps of metal. “So that’s where the knob went,” he said, as Patrick shut the door behind them.

“Yeah, well, we also borrowed the chairs, too.” Patrick gestured to the pair of thrones, and draped with flowers stuck in streamers of Spanish moss. To one side stood a table laden with food and gifts, to the other, and display of carved weapons and imaginative shields. No actual money had gone into the party; the children had a knack for using their imaginations to fashion a great deal from very little.

Michael turned slowly, taking it all in. “You children never cease to amaze me,” he told them. “I never imagine you were building anything this large. How did you manage all by yourselves?”

Jude shrugged, but anyone could see she was beaming. “Jeffrey help some, but mostly we wanted to keep it a secret. No one else but you and Gwen has ever been inside.”

“Then I’m doubly honored to be invited here today.”

“Seem right, somehow. It’s your birthday, and as Gwen says, we shouldn’t have no… I mean, any secrets between us.”

He said nothing, but Gwen could see the words touching him deeply. Go on, but her, she wanted to tell him, but like Jude, Michael was still a stranger to softer emotions. For now, it was enough that he was here, participating. The rest they might better take a step at a time.

When asked if it is time to start showering their honored guest with gifts?

Nodding eagerly, Jude pulled out her wand in order her brothers to line up behind her. As she handed Michael a necklace similar to Gwen smiled with just the right amount of pleasure. The twins step up to present a well preserved birds nest, he managed to remain properly appreciated, but his delight showed strain as Christopher offered though hoarded remains of his half eaten candy. Patrick finished the presentation with a wonderful poem, telling of his knightly virtues.

Gwen felt is eager and excited as any of them, wishing she, too, could present her gift now, but they’d all agreed she would wait until after the tournament. Perhaps that was why, the very instant Patrick finished reading comments she suggested that they should start the competition.

Jude step forward with dramatic sweep of her bed sheet, and waved her wand. “Here yee, here you, today’s contest is swordplay. To win, a knight must knock the sword from his forponent’s hand.”

Realizing her mistake, she turned to Gwen, who mouth the word for her. “Er, opponents hand,” she went on. “You can also win by forcing you’re, er… The other knight out of bounds.” He gestured at the circle they had drawn earlier in the dirt.

Again she turned to Gwen with a pleading expression. “The prize,” Gwen prompted, realizing Jude had forgotten what came next.

“Oh, yeah, the winner gets crowned King of Camelot.”

Christopher grinned ear to ear. “Then we all get to eat dinner and have some cake.” Easy to see where his priorities lay; he pointed his little finger into the icing.

“You better get fighting, boys,” Michael chuckled. “I don’t think your brother’s belly can hold on any longer.”

“Us? You got a fight, too.”

“Yeah, Gwen says you are the defending champion.”

He held up his hands. “Sorry, I don’t have a sword.”

They all turn to Gwen. “It would mean a great deal to us, if you would participate, sir. If you will, we can outfit you. Quite certain our bailiff must have extra weapons. Sir Patrick, would you happen to have a sword any breastplate this knight can use?”

“Indeed I do.” Bowing with a flourish, the boy handed it up. “In fact, my Queen, I just so happened to have them right here in my hands.”

Mike was hard put to stifle the grin as he took the wooden sword and battered piece of metal from his nephew. “Very well, and who shall be my first challenger?”

“Me, me,” Christopher begged. “I never get to go first.”

“I would be delighted to fight you, sir. I suppose it would be wise to get my hardest competition out of the way first.”

Beaming, the little boy drag him over to the circle.

“Wait,” Jude called out. “You cannot fight without a token of your lady’s favor.”

Gwen grabbed the colorful cloth sheet selected, but Michael surprised her by shaking his head. “I already have her favor,” he said with a teasing glint in his eye. “My lady gave it to me long ago.”

She blushed, thinking he referred to last night, but then he pulled her white handkerchief from his pocket. That he’d kept it all this time filled Gwen with quite awe. She couldn’t help but compare it to how she’d felt finding lance’s token, trampled and forgotten in the dirt.

“I want a favor, too,” Christopher demanded.

“Stepping up, Gwen tide the colorful cloth to his suspenders. “Remember the plan,” she told him and he whispered, before hurrying back to join the others.

Little boy clearly took a reminder to heart, for his uncle had barely touch the boy sword before he went flying to the ground. Clearly surprise, Michael argued with Christopher was declared defeated, but Merlin quickly called for the next opponent. Peter fell after two minutes, blaming the loss of his weapon on the fall, while Paul took four minutes and some terrific acting to lose his sword as well. Patrick did better, lasting a good ten minutes before falling to his knees on the other side of the circle, the only trouble being that Michael was nowhere near him at the time.

Hoping his nephew to his feet, Michael shook his head. “I am the adult. I’m supposed to try to lose to you. What are you boys up to?”

Patrick looked up with absolute innocence. “We did our best. Can we help it, if we can’t be the true champion?”

Taking her cue, Gwen step forward. “As Queen of this realm, I declare the newcomer our winner.”

“Good, can we have cake now?”

“Not yet, Christopher.” Michael stared at Gwen. “Jude and Gwen have not fought yet.”

Gwen shook her head. “Merlin and I are the judges, and we declare the contest over. Page, bailiff, please bring my gifts.” Taking his hand, she led Michael to the throne. “Our champion has more than earned his reward.”

“Reward?” Michael teased. “I hope it has nothing to do with fish.”

She pushed him gently into the chair. “Sit down and let me make my speech.” As he looked up, his gaze questioning, she felt suddenly unsure of herself. What if he didn’t like her gift, or understand what she meant to say?

Yet, in the long run, did it matter? Whether his reaction, she had to do this: she owed it to Michael for a very long time.

Gathering the children around her, she took a deep swallow and then plunged in. “We, the citizens of Camelot, and have been join in the search, both far and wide, for the one man strong in valiant and worth enough to call our Lord. Today, my loyal subjects and I agree that we have found him. Page?” As Christopher step forward, she took the paper crown he held out. “We agree that there is no one else who has earned the right to where the royal crown of Camelot.”

She set it on Michael’s head, all too aware of his dark eyes on hers. “What is this?” He asked, grabbing at her wrist.

“Something I should have done years ago. Sir Patrick?” She turned to the boy, now marching forward.

“This is so nobody in the world can ever doubt that you are our King,” the boy said strongly. “For you, King Arthur, I present Excalibur.”

Michael took the sword from Patrick, but his gaze never left Gwen face. She watch skepticism give away to confusion, then a slow, dawning smile. He understands, she thought with a rush of joy. At long last, she done the right thing.

“Gwen paid Patrick to carve it for you,” Jude was explaining. “That is how I got the locket. Patrick didn’t want to take anything for it, but she said it would give the special gift meaning.”

“It does,” he said quietly, running and appreciative hand over the beautiful crafted wood. “This is your best work ever, Patrick.”

The boy blushed. “I wanted it to be special. Gwen said she wanted it to be worthy of a king, so each time you held it, you would know how we…” At the hesitation, Gwen nudged him. “We love you,” Patrick finished off in a rush. “All of us.”

Clearly moved, Michael nodded at the boy, then each of the children, until his gaze came upon Gwen. For a dizzy, terrifying moment, his eyes probed into her, asking his sonic question. Did she count herself in their number? Did she love him, too?

“Chris, you little pig.”

At Jude’s, shout, the link between them snapped, and Gwen’s gaze was drawn to the table where the little boy pilfered the food. As he spun, the perfect picture of guilt, they all began to laugh. Shaking her head, Gwen told the others they might as well eat. Everyone had waited long enough.

“I’m sorry I was late,” Michael said, rising to his feet beside her. “One thing after another came up, and-“

She took his hand and squeezed it. “No, please, you don’t need to explain, and you certainly don’t have to apologize. You’re here now, and that’s all that matters.”

And in that moment, as he smiled at her, it was all that did. Leading him to the table, she decided that the other matters could wait, like exploring her emotions and worrying about the future. It was enough to share their meal, laughing at the cake that wasn’t completely cooked inside, and gather their things together as the sun began to set. It was enough because Michael was with them, and they could be a family, if only for a day.

Riding back to the cabin with him and Jude in their boat, while the boys followed in their own, Gwen sighed with a deep contentment. And entire outing without argument, not even among the children. Surely this was the stuff of which dreams were made of.

Looking up at Michael, seeing his profile as he rowed them forward home, she felt a catch in her throat. It had been a wonderful day, yes, but now it was over. Would she still feel such dreamlike contentment when Michael said his goodbyes and left them? Or would she just feel alone?

It was dark when they reached the cabin. The children, worn-out from the day, required little conversation that it was time for bed. Just this once, they allowed, they wouldn’t mind being tucked in.

Making great ceremony of settling Excalibur down for a rest, Michael did the nighttime ritual with the boys, while Gwen said good night to Jude.

“We did, didn’t we?” The girl said as Gwen leaned down to cover her. “We made it the best birthday party ever.”

Gwen smiled, knowing what she meant. Risking a kiss on Jude’s forehead, pleased when the girl did not jerk away, she answered honestly. “Yes, I think we made it very hard for him to leave now.”

She went to the door, pausing there as Jude called out to her. “Gwen, when is your birthday?”

“Not until December, so don’t you start worrying about it. It’s time now for you to go to sleep.”

Walking back to the main room, Gwen knew she’d invaded the girl’s true question, one she should avoid forever. It was not her birthday that concern Jude; it was whether or not Gwen meant to leave them.

Gliding about the room, touching the books, the discarded potato sacks, the little evidence of the children stuff everywhere, she felt the physical pain at the thought of not being included in their day-to-day lives. Who would teach them to read when she left? How would they learned their manners?

She rested a hand on the kitchen table, the scene of so many conversations, good and bad, as they slowly came to know and understand each other. If she left here, who would remind her what truly mannered in this world? All along, her heart had known it, and her body, too, but now, standing in the cabin, feeling his presence with each breath she drew, Gwen committed with every inch of her being how deeply she loved Michael.

She looked over to find him entering the room, so tall and handsome and happy, and her heart swelled to twice its size. The future might remain vague, but whatever else happened, this man was her life. Wherever he went, her heart was destined to follow.

All at once, his grin faded. Crossing the room and six strides, he swept her into his arms, kissing her as if he never thought to see her again. He was kissing her goodbye, she thought, aching already. In a few short minutes he would have to go.

Too soon, he pulled away, and she couldn’t stop the sigh. “Oh, Michael, do you have to leave so soon?”

“Leave? You and me, my lady, have some unfinished business to attend to.” Low and husky, his voice sent a thrill up her spine, as did the warmer hands sliding down her hips. “I have been waiting all day to be alone with you. An army of alligators cannot chase me away.”

He kissed her again, this time more tenderly, leaving her aching all the more when he pulled away. “But in the interest of avoiding awkward interruptions,” he said, nodding back toward the bedrooms. “I have told the boys we will be taking a walk.”

“A walk? Where?”

“Where we can be alone.” Sweeping her up into his arms, he carried her through the door.

The moon has rising, full and bright, as it planted in the dark sky to light their way. He slight breeze stirred the air, giving a hint of the cooler weather to calm, but the night retained the slow day warmth of summer.

As Michael carried her down to the bank and set her in his boat, she asked again aware he was taking her.

“Not far.”

“I’m not good with surprises,” she confessed, as he settled himself in an opposite to her. “I would just keep at you until you tell me where.”

He grinned. “Sorry, my lady, but you crown me King. Now you will have to play by my rules.”

As they pushed off, she returned the grin, realizing how much she enjoyed this-the bantering, the easiness between them, the anticipating of what was to come. “You should know, my dear King Arthur, I positively hate it when someone repeats back my words.”

He chuckled. “then be grateful I am not making you where a blindfold. You can know how much patients and trust is required, sitting here blind and helpless, while those two boys argued about which way to go. Never get into a bow with Peter, I’ve decided. He has many talents, but I fear navigation will never be one of them.”

The image made her laugh, a clear and joyful sound that revealed his inner emotions.

Until she caught Michael staring at her, his pole motionless in his hand. “God, you are beautiful.”

Men had said those words before, but never had she felt such intense pleasure. As he looked away, clearly an easy at revealing so much of his feelings, Gwen found herself blurting out. “So are you.”

Steering the boat suddenly seem to command his attention, but he couldn’t hide his quick grin. Gwen smiled, knowing it was a step in the right direction. Hadn’t she already decided it would take time to gentle this man, to earn his trust? Answer night, gliding down this adducing by you, time seemed to stretch out like a precious gift before them.

And no longer seem so awful, or even frightening, to be here. Being with Michael, she realized, made her feel safe, protected. I trust this man, she thought and wonder as she watched him steer the craft. Whatever he meant to show her would be surely be magical.

As if to strengthen the notion, Michael turned into a forest of cypress.

Silvery wisps of Spanish mosh brushed their heads as they slip between the gnarled trunks, standing like silent, ancient guardians of the golden cove they now glided into. Bathed in moonlight, the hidden load balloon was a secret well worth guarding.

A wide bank stretch out were around the circular inlet, cypress giving way to the live oaks standing back further inland, leaving the water free and open to the nights magic. Dancing with moonbeams, lapping gently at the shoreline, it invited them in, graciously welcoming them to explore the mysteries of this secluded, moonlit cove.

“Oh, Michael, it is incredible.”

How like Jude was, thinking a shrug could hide his obvious pleasure. “My sister and I came here has children.”

“So far away? How did you ever find this place?”

Landing on the bank, he stepped out and took her hand to help her. “Thanks to Jeff I was a little swamp rat even then. Jeanette stayed squeamish about my other ventures, but she always back to tag along when I came here. It was our favorite place.”

His voice trailed off as he sat Gwen on her feet. She knew he was thinking about a sister, revealing the loss. Knowing what this place meant to him, realizing that he was opening up and sharing his past, made it more the special that he brought her here tonight.”

Turning back to the boat, he grabbed a blanket and his rifle. “But I can show you many spots, equally unique. There is a beauty in the bayou they cannot find anywhere else in the world. Hear that quiet? a man can find his soul in these gentle waters.”

“So can a woman,” she said strongly, “with the right guide.”

Smiling, he reached for her hand. “Come on then. Let me show you my world.”

He led her up to dry ground, spreading the blanket before them. “It’s not what you’re used to, my lady, but I hope it will suffice?”

Stepped up, standing before him. “It far surpasses what I’m used to. The music of the night, the golden shower of mood light, these are combinations fit for a queen. I hope I can encourage this gallant knight to join me.”

His hands slid around her waist. “I warn you, I am not a gallant hero. Just a simple knight in tarnished armor.”

She shook her head.” Oh no, sir, you are a king. My only regret is that it taken me so long to tell you so.”

Sliding his hands down to her hips, he pulled her against him. “Show me now, and make it well worth my wait.”

She melted against them, her arms reaching up to encircle his neck. She even waiting all day for this moment. Opening her lips, welcoming him in, she knew she’d been waiting all her life to give herself to this man.

Offering both body and soul she kissed him deeply, hungrily, losing herself in the magic of his touch. He undressed her slowly, deliciously, his warm hands caressing each inch of flesh he bared. Kissing her shoulder, nibbling her neck, he and did her hair, letting its bill in a cloud around them. “Beautiful,” he whispered, pulling back to stare at her of like a sculptor admiring his work. “You are so damn beautiful.”

Shyly, she reached for his shirt bottoms. She wanted him naked, too, wanting nothing between them. As the shirt slipped from his shoulders, she followed his example and let her hand slide over his ruff muscles, revealing in the difference between this smooth and hair covered flesh. Her fingers trembled as she undid the bottoms of his trousers, but no longer from trepidation. She was eager to see all of them, to feel all of him, to have him pressed tightly against her bearskin.

When the last button pop free, she slipped her hands inside, hooking her thumbs over the waistline, letting her palm slide down his hips then his thighs. She felt wicked and naughty, but oh, so excited as she slowly revealed him and explored him.

She let the trousers fall, and what they soft groan, Michael kicked free of them. Sliding his hands down through her hair, he kissed her as he lowered them both to the blanket.

She could feel his heart pounded against hers, reminding her of the hoof beats in her dream, but tonight, she found no need for fantasy. Wanting him, loving him as she did, merely being near this man was all she dreamed of and more.

He took his time with her, stroking her, coaxing her, helping her lose all inhibition. He made her hot and wild and eager, from his tongue on her swelling breasts, to his magical fingers caressing her secret, inner core. And all through it all, he kept kissing her, everywhere at once it seemed, until she cried out that she wanted him inside her, needing him there, or she’d slowly go insane.

Once more, he obliged her, sliding himself inside as if he’d always belong there, as if he were the key to bring her to shivering, shimmering life. With exquisite care, he eased up, then slid deeper yet, stroking and kissing her as he moved within her. Gwen could feel him filling her, making her hole, and found it sheer torture each time he withdrew.

Half mad with need, she began to whimper. Taking her cue, he drove deeper, harder, his rhythm gaining speed and urgency. She clung to him, wrapping her legs around his thighs to hold tight for the dizzying ride. Michael and his magic took her up every of work, on a tight, coil spiral to the stars. She could feel herself reaching, stretching, until with a burst of emotion, she tumbled through the air, a thousand lights blinking around her, a pure, incredible joy gripping her in a shuddering release.

“Oh God, Gwen,” Michael cried out, holding her tight against him as he showered his love inside her.

Nor did he let go as they slowly return to the here and now, but rather rolled them over so they lay side by side, facing each other on the blanket. He looked so serious, staring at her face, Gwen felt suddenly unsure. “Was it…was I…”

A slow grin came to his lips. “Well worth waiting for indeed.”

“I never knew I could feel like this,” she sighed, “so alive and happy.”

He touched her face. “Yes, it was pretty special, wasn’t it? Magical, almost.”

She smiled up at him. “I know. If this place. I have expected to wake up and find that I’ve been dreaming. Oh, Michael, don’t you wish it could be like this always?”

“Always?” He pulled away, rolling onto his back, wariness creeping into his tone. “That is a pretty tall order, my lady. Life has this tendency to get in the way.”

She had pushed too fast, she thought miserably. Seeing his eyes close, she realized he wasn’t ready to think of the future, not when it was hard enough to cope with the here and now. “Maybe,” she offered in attempt to regroup, “but I can at least hope tomorrow will be like this.”

He reach for her hand, bring it to his lips. “You and me both, my lady. You and me both.”

He sighed, and Gwen, lost in thought of how she could surprise them tomorrow, didn’t realize how quiet he was until she glanced over and saw he drifted off. Her first impulse was to wake him, but then she thought of what the poor man had been through today, working the fields, playing with the children, loving her…

He smiled, think and what a difference he had made in her life. Looking back, she knew that she never loved Lance. She had seen him only as a means of her filling her needs, where now it was Michael’s well-being and happiness that concern her most. Love left no room for being pain and shallow and selfish, she’d found out, now that the man was Michael.

Watching him sleep, she felt again the need to do something to ease his burden, and if she could only find him a spot of land, in an area not far from his beloved bayou. With excitement, she thought of the sharecroppers cabins. They were near enough, and according to Lance, no one else wanted them. It wasn’t ideal acreage, but Michael was no stranger to hard work, and she and the children could help him. She would go to the Willows and, if necessary, beg her father. It was the least they could do for Michael, she’d tell him. Her new husband deserves a chance.

Husband. Smiling as she nestled in next to him, she decided Michael had been right. It had been is to hold out for the magic.

 

***

 

Early the next morning, Michael watched Gwen at the other end of the boat, uneasy with this sounds between them. He been horrified discovered he slept so long; he hope she wasn’t angry at him for having to spend the night in the cove. In the predawn mists, it had lost its magic, seen little more than a mud hole-chilly and damp and reeking of fish.

So much for charming her, sweeping her off her feet. Too bad reality, like life itself, and a tendency to get in the way.

Always comment she’d asked, as if the future were up to him.

Pulling toward the cabin everything added weight to his shoulders. More than ever, it seemed imperative that he succeed. In the first blush of love and romance, Gwen might want to stay with him forever, but all too soon the reality of daily life he thought would soon become unmanageable for her. If he could offer jewels and dresses and even half the social life she’d known before, he’d have a better chance at keeping her happy, but it was a mere matter of days before foreclosure, and he wasn’t one inch near finding the cash. Chances were, he’d lose his dream-and Gwen-all in one hit.

Thinking of the marriage license in his jacket pocket, he knew he could force her to stay. File the papers and she never get an annulment, not after what happened between them last night.

Yet, because of that magical time, both last night and yesterday, Michael couldn’t trap her. Her tenderness with the children, her melting in his arms, made her for more than a symbol of his yearnings, the lady of his dreams. Gwen was the flesh and blood woman he will love to his grave.

“I will get home soon as possible,” he told her stiffly, as he jumped out and helped her from the boat. “No promises, but I would try to be home for dinner.”

“Don’t hurry on my account. I might not be there anyway.”

He stiffened. “Oh?”

“I was, well, I was thinking of going to the Willows for a visit.” Spoke quickly, and it seemed odd that she wouldn’t look at him. “I, well, I miss my family.”

Her family? He wondered bitterly or Lance? Michael try not to feel the trade, but after last night, he hoped she’d forget about that man forever. “Fine,” he said painfully. “Have a nice time.” Hurt and angry, he turned back to his boat.

I thought you said I can come and go as I wished. Don’t you want me going home for a visit?”

He heard her rising agitation, and regretting it, but dammit, he felt betrayed. Once more, she’d let him believe in the dream, and yet again, she would snatch it away. “What I want has never been an issue. You will do as you please, no matter what I say.”

“Don’t you dare leave, implying that you don’t trust me. Haven’t the last few days meant anything to you?”

Her voice trembled, but he felt pretty shaky himself. “I am just being a realist,” snapped, turning back face her. “Once your home in that big, old house with your dresses and servants and busy socialite, you’ll not want to come back here.” He gestured up at the cabin. “I have a shack and a mountain of debt. I have nothing to offer a lady.”

“Maybe you underestimate yourself. And me.”

“Really? Can you turn down what Lance offers? His name, his society, the Willows? These facts, my lady. When did you ever choose me over him?”

“I married you, did and I?” Her voice and pose betrayed her on growing anger. “For better or for worse?”

“No, you didn’t.” He reached into his pocket and handed the paper to her. “Here, I never filed the license.”

Her hands trembled as she glanced at the paper. “We are not married?”

“Not in the eyes of the law, not until the papers are filed.” He could have hoped for disappointment, even outrage, not her preoccupied frown. Heading for his boat, he cursed himself for a fool. Clearly, he was the only one disappointed.

“Wait. I don’t understand. Why give me this now?”

Stepping into the boat, he could entrust himself to look at her. “Run or stay, my lady, it’s always been your choice,” he said, as he pushed off from the bank. “But I want no part of the running back and forth to Lance, making comparisons, setting us up as arrivals. I’m not about to share you with a man. If you choose me, it is for always.”

“Michael…”

He ignored her, had no wish to hear her decision. Tonight, if she were there waiting, then all the good, and if not, well, he couldn’t hold her against her will. He had to let her go, let her try out her wings, and pray that she would find a way to fly back home.

You had done all he could, he thought as he pulled down the bayou. It was in Gwen’s hands now.

Chapter 21

Clutching the license, Gwen went into the cabin, trying to figure out where everything had gone so completely wrong. Last night had been so wonderful, yet in a few confusing minutes, the magic had vanished, and they were back to fighting again. Nothing had changed. Making the man love her was hopeless.

“Where is Uncle Michael?” Christopher asked the minute she stepped inside the room. The other children waited, they’re anxious faces suggesting they heard Gwen arguing with Michael. “Did he get angry at you again?”

She nodded, crossing the room to sit at the table, she found she was suddenly, overwhelming tired. She felt worn to the bone.

Jude came up to setting hand on her shoulder. “He did not mean it. He needs you too much to stay angry. You make him smile.”

With utter dismay, Gwen began to cry. Too late, she saw the thing she could have said, should have said. What happened to her decision to offer Michael patience and understanding? She had reacted as she always had, speaking on impulse and regretting later. A relationship so new, so fragile, could she have done permanent damage?

She refused to believe it. Hadn’t Mrs. Tibbs told her that anything worth having was worth fighting for? And considering the man was Michael, she should be ready to fight to the death.

Before the day was done, she meant to give Michael his land, and while she was at the Willows, she’d find someone to file the papers with the parish clerk. No more running away; this time she would fight for what she wanted, even if it meant battling Michael himself.

Standing quickly, she went to the cupboard to gather a snack for the journey. “You are right about Michael needing me,” she told Jude, “but he has to be shown just how much. Help me pack. I’m going to the Willows.”

“You can’t leave us!”

“Startled, Gwen Spun. All five children staring at her with alarm. “I am not leaving alone,” she said, remembering her promise to all of them. “I’m taking you all with me.”

Jude shook her head. “What about Michael? He will be expecting us here for dinner.”

Gwen searched through the cupboard. “We have food left over from the party. And we can leave a note. Has anyone seen the Brown jug?”

“He won’t understand. He’ll think we deserted him?” Jude looked to her brothers. “You go on if you want to, but I ain’t leaving Uncle Michael.”

Even in her preoccupied station with the jug, Gwen sense the tension in the room. Looking from Jude’s challenging glare to her brothers guilty expressions, she realized the boys wanted to go, anywhere. “You have to come with me,” she said to the girl gently. “I cannot leave you behind.”

“Why now? Why now wait until Michael is around?”

For an instant, Gwen was tempted to explain, but she had only vague hopes, no guarantees that her father would give her the land and she hated to raise false hopes. As Michael pointed out, and these children have had too many shattered dreams for her to be adding another. “Try to understand. This is something I must do without your uncle knowing.”

Jude turned away. “I am not going anywhere,” she said stubbornly. “I have got my gun and the fortress. I will be fine until Michael gets home.”

“I will stay with her.” Patrick spoke solely, proving this was a sacrifice. “We won’t all fit in the boat anyway.”

Looking from one to the other, Gwen knew there was no other way to do this, yet she was sad to leave them alone. Maybe she could go quickly and hurry back before dark. Abandoning her search for the job, she turned to the three younger boys. “Go outside and get your boat ready. The sooner we leave, the sooner we can return.

As the boys scrambled off, Jude gave you snort of disgust. “Don’t bother lying. We ain’t stupid. We know your ain’t coming back.”

Gwen crossed the room to stand before her, lifting the locket off the girl’s chest. “This was once my link to my mother, and it’s now my link to you. You’re an important part of my life, Jude. I can’t ever leave you.”

“Then why are you leaving?”

The girl sounded close to tears. In her mind, Gwen could hear Jude saying that grown-ups always leave her. Feeling the pain in her own throat, she did the best to smile. “For reasons I cannot explain now. I have to go home, Jude, but I am coming back. You have my word.”

 

It pained Gwen to think of her promise, hours later, as she sat in the boat listening to the twins argue. Short of a miracle, they weren’t going anywhere. Not to the cabin, not even to the Willows-they were hopelessly lost.

Too late, she recalled how Michael had worn heard never to get any boat with Peter. The twins had been fighting all morning, going one direction than in another. Growing steadily more anxious, Gwen was ready to turn around, when she heard a shout from behind.

“Gwen. My God, Gwen, is that you?”

She turned in the seat to seat Edith’s friend, Hamilton, waving to them from his own boat. Standing, waving frantically, the man was one second away from capsizing.

Afraid that her mission was far become a farce, Gwen told Peter to row them closer. Picking up his oars, Hampton gestured them to follow. “Quick, your cousin needs to talk to you at once.”

 

***

 

Hearing a commotion downstairs, Edith race down to hush the hopeless fools before they could wake up her uncle. Though with all the mount of medication he took, uncle John should sleep for a week.

Nerves strain raw from worry about constant nursing, she opened her mouth to rant at the noisemakers, only to stop at the site of the children. The two oldest arguing with each other, and the little boy holding onto the tattered blue skirt of his… But no, that was not his mother. It was Gwen.

Edith ran down the remaining steps, taking her cousin by the arms. “Thank heavens, you are all right. I thought… Did he hurt you?”

Gwen began to laugh. “If you mean Hamilton, no.”

Edith looked at her old friend. Face flush with embarrassment, wearing mismatched shirt and trousers, Hamilton didn’t look like much of a hero. It had been easy to overlook them in the past, but more and more often, Edith found him quite trustworthy since he got the job done.

As impulsively as she grabbed her cousin, she took his hands to thank him. Hamilton stiffen, his gaze going direct and intense as the awareness pass between them. Blushing Edith properly dropped his hands.

“And if you mean these rascals. They didn’t hurt me either, though they did try my patience. Peter, Paul, and Christopher,” she added comment to each boy, “this is my cousin, Edith.”

Nudged by Gwen, they did into courtesy bows. Edith smiled, for despite the dirt and ragged clothing, they were adorable. “Are they Michael’s kids?”

“They are his nephews, and my new family.” As each boy smiled at Gwen, she smiled down at them. “So you can see, there was no need to fear that Michael had been hurting me.”

“Well, he hasn’t been kind to your wardrobe.”

Gwen twirled in her beat up blue dress. “Is it in amazing? I hardly think about what I wear anymore, not with all the mud and water. It seems when I’m not cleaning up after children, I’m busy gutting fish.”

Edith’s job drop. This was her cousin, talking so lightly and loud about crazy things. Had the poor girl caught a fever?

“I can even cook now,” when added proudly. “If you want, I can help out with meals…” She pause, bit her lip. “What am I thinking of? I can’t stay. As soon as I’ve talked to daddy, I have got to get back.”

“Back?”

“Yes, Hamilton has very nice he sketched out the route for our return trip. That’s why the boys were arguing. To decide who was rowing us back.”

“You, Gwen, want to go back to the swamp?”

Gwen smiled at the children. “The cabin is my home now. Patrick and Jude are waiting for me. So is Michael.”

Whatever disease Gwen had, even decided, it seemed worth catching. Never had she seen her cousin so happy, so radiant, and so strong about what she wanted.

“Where is daddy?” She asked, looking past Edith and down the hall.

Edith knew she must tell her, but in the light of such happiness, it was hard to find the words. Nor was she given much opportunity, for her father marched into the hallway with Bentwood Tillman trailing behind him. So effusive was Jervis in his greetings, only either seem to notice how far from pleased he was to see his niece. She alone saw his tightly controlled theory as Gwen handed a paper to Mr. Tillman.

“Would you please file this marriage license with the parish clerk? This should make it official. And hopefully, sure everyone that I was not tricked into marrying Michael.”

“Have you spoken with your father about this?” Jervis held his arms tight to his sides, no doubt stopping his attempt to snatching at the paper.

“Not yet, but I mean two, at length.”

Edith admired the way Gwen faced him down. It would be nice to have evening ounce of her courage, but then, Gwen didn’t realize how nasty her uncle could get.

He gave her a hand, though. “Take care what you say,” said coldly. “I won’t have you pestering John when he’s lying at death’s door.”

Clearly alarm, Gwen turned you, who could think of nothing to say.

“Your father is ill,” Hamilton said gently, stepping up beside them. Even so quiet, Edith had forgotten he was there “that is why I went looking for you. For you can talk with him.”

“Sick?” Gwen’s glare went to her uncle. “I have got to see him.”

“Leave John be,” Jervis told her, taking Mr. Tillman’s arm to lead him away to the library. “You’re too late anyway.”

Gwen shook her head in this belief as they retreated.

That was the difference between her father and cousin, Edith realized. Jervis worried about who would get the Willows, while Gwn was more concerned with her father’s life.

“Your father is just sleeping now,” Edith reassured her. “But I won’t lie to you. It’s bad, Gwen. He won’t last much longer.”

Can I see him, talk to him?”

Edith frowned. “Of course but I had to give him quite amount of drugs for his pain. Could be some time before he wakes up.”

Biting her lip, Gwen glance at the children. “Maybe the boys and I should go upstairs, to freshen up while we wait. Considering the hourly left this morning, is probably won’t hurt to rest up.”

There was a chorus of protests, to which Hamilton helped. “Why don’t you go up on and help Gwen get the boys settled in her room.” He told Edith. “I can wait in the parlor until you are done.”

Watching his face as he shrugged off Gwen’s quite thanks for his help, Edith finally understood Hamilton’s charm. No drama, just patiently standing by, rushing to the rescue when he needed him.

As he went into the parlor, Gwen nudged her arm “you go and talk to Hamilton. The boys and I can find our own way upstairs.”

“I don’t know…”

“Go on,” Gwen said gently. “You will gain nothing from being a coward.”

After Gwen had herded the boys upstairs, Edith went to stand before the parlor door for the longest time, but in the and, she left without going in. She had chores required her attention, she told herself. But worst of all, she truly was a coward.

 

***

 

Worried about her father, as well as the children back at the cabin, Gwen bustled about, straining the close sheet let strain about her room. Weeks ago, she’d been in such a of bus or having no servants, she’d tossed her viable dresses to the floor with little regard. No wonder the boys quickly deserted heard to go exploring; the room was a disaster.

As long as she must wait for her father to way, she decided to wash your clothes, a task she never had dream of doing earlier. Gathering and sorting them, she saw her carpetbag in the corner. Eyed that it never occurred to her to fully unpack it. There might be clean underwear inside, she thought hopefully, or even a dress to change into while she washed her laundry.

As she dumped the bag on the bed, she saw the clean underwear and the calling card next to it. Lifting of the card, she recalled the day Mrs. Tibbs had presented it. She could see now that she been a terrible snob, too self-absorbed to see that the river own way, the woman had been trying to help her.

Gwen had a sudden urge to see the impossible woman, to hear some more of her down to earth advice.

Opening her door, Edith, clearly surprised to find her cousin gathering clothes. “I need to keep busy,” Gwen offered with a shrug as she lifted up the pile. “It is not fair to leave you with such a mess.”

“I came to see if you have any correspondence to be taken to the city. Hamilton is heading downriver soon, and has offered to take our mail.”

When thought again of Mrs. Tibbs. Maybe she could write to her.

“If you want, I can help you in a moment,” Edith went on with a tight smile, “but first I must drop off a letter. Daddy seems to have found himself some trouble again.”

Hard not to hear her bitterness. “What is wrong? Can I help?”

Gliding into the room, Edith waived a letter in the air. “He promised that he would quit gambling, but this is the third Bank of this month to call in a loan. I declare, I don’t know where he finds these establishments. I’ve never heard of this Barclay and Tibbs.”

Surprised by the name, Gwen remembered Eleanor mentioning her connections. “My traveling partner from Boston was named Tibbs. I wonder if she has any relation.”

“I wouldn’t think there would be too many Tibbs wandering about the city.”

“Actually, I was just thinking of writing to her. Maybe I can ask if she can make an extension on uncles loan.”

“You would do that for us?”

“Of course. Your family.”

Edith looked suddenly miserable. “Oh, Gwen, how can you be so nice, when I was so awful to you?”

Gwen set the pile of clothes on the bed. “Come on now. We have both done some silly things-“

Edith shook her head. “You don’t understand. It’s my fault, what happened to you. If not for me and my jealousy, you would’ve married Lance, I Set Michael in your path, hoping he would distract you. I wanted Lance so badly, I cut his cinch at the competition, just to make sure you couldn’t have him.”

Gwen found a hard to hide her shock. “But that was so dangerous. He could have been badly hurt.”

“I realize that now, but at the time-“she shook her head, tears pouring from her eyes. “Gwen, I am not proud of what I did, but I wanted Lance so much. You know what it’s like to love somebody so, you think you will die if you can’t have them?”

Gwen thought instantly of Michael, of what she might do to have him, and cannot bring herself to resent her cousin. “As long as no one was hurt, I must admit, you did me a favor. I’ve discovered I never really wanted to marry Lance.”

She expected joy, or even relief, but Edith instead burst did into tears. “Oh Gwen, I could be in a heap of trouble. I think… I think I am carrying Lance’s baby.”

Though shocked to the core, Gwen reached for her cousin to give her a much needed hug.

“I thought I loved him,” Edith cried on her shoulder. “But he and father have been, well, it’s gone so I don’t trust them. And then there is Hamilton… Gwen, it’s all so confusing. I no longer know what to do.”

“I know,” Gwen, patted her back. “Why not try tackling one thing at a time? Have you told Lance about the baby?”

Edith shook her head.

“How about Hamilton? Have you spoken with him?”

Her cousin looks startled. “Why would I talk to Hamilton?”

Because the man’s loved you for years, when wanted to tell her, but Hamilton might better convince her cousin of the fact. “He is a good friend,” he said instead. “And he has always been there to help you.”

Edith looked to her as if she had just made an awesome discovery. “Gwen, I am so glad you are home.”

Gwen nodded, but in her mind, when she thought of the word home, she saw the cabin. How quickly one’s perception could change, how the Willows can now seem to big and empty and lonely.

“Go down and talk to Hamilton. And while you’re at it, ask if he will take my letter to Mrs. Tibbs. We can’t have Jervis complicating matters by being carted off to prison.”

“But you have worries of your own. You don’t need to be dealing with our troubles.”

“I’m not being entirely selfless,” Gwen said honestly. I have a few things I would like to talk over with Mrs. Tibbs. The women has the knack of saying what I need to hear.”

Even as she spoke, Gwen realize that the words were as much for herself as for her cousin. The problems were piling up faster than she could deal with them, as were the hours she been away from the cabin. Hold on, Jude, she thought in a mental message to the girl. I’m coming home soon as possible.

Her thoughts shifted to her father, silently pleading with him to wake from his dream. There would be no going home, she knew, until she had spoken with her father.

At least she had done part of her mission, she realize what they slowly spreading smiled. Nothing else, she could rest easy, knowing the marriage license was filed.

 

***

 

Jervis eyed at the license atop his desk with the satisfaction and relief. It had taken a bottle of his brother’s best whiskey, but he sent Tillman off so plastered, it should take the lawyer a week to realize this license was missing from his case. By then, Lance would have wedded and bedded Gwen.

Where was that Idiot, that hadn’t get answer his summons? Did not Lance realize that they had it a second to spare? John’s life was wasting away; it would be just like his brother to die before Jervis was ready.

Hearing a horse approach, Jervis stormed outside, rounding on Lance before he fully dismounted. “Where in the hell have you been?”

“Out searching for Gwen. My man had a lead to Michael’s cabin. We’ve narrowed it down to a certain section of the Bayou.”

“She is here, you idiot, and you got some serious courting to do before she talks to her father. Michael, like the perfect gentleman, has left the choice of filing the license to her.” He held up the paper. “She gave it to Tillman, not one hour ago, with instructions to take it to the parish clerk.”

“Impossible.” Grabbing the paper, Lance ripped it into two. “I won’t let it happen.”

“That’s a spirit. Now go in there and talk some sense into that girl.”

 

***

 

Searching through the house, Lance found Gwen bending over the washboard with her sleeves rolled up. Why on earth was she washing laundry but some common servant? “What did that bastard do to you?

He went over to her, taking her hands into his own. “I am so happy you are home. Gwen, darling, let’s wait no longer for our dreams to come true. I’m taking you to the Reverend so he can wed us this instant.”

“I am sorry, Lance. I can’t. I’m already married.”

Joy, he’d expected, and possibly surprise, but never her pity. “You are not,” He snapped. “Michael never filed the papers.”

“Michael lift it up to me. I want to be married to him, Lance.”

She seemed suddenly a stranger, so proud and willful inner peasants clothing. Good of like nothing better than to turn on a heel and leave her there staring after him, but that wouldn’t get him the Willows. “You poor, naïve fool,” he lashed out. “He didn’t file the license because he’s using you, keeping the little princess happy while he tries to bleed money from her poor, dying father. I tell you, Gwen, if anything kills John, it will be that ransom note.”

“Ransom note?” She shook her head.

“We all need money, but only a true gentleman finds a gentler means of obtaining it. Only his kind resort to crime.”

To Lance’s surprise, her eyes flashed with fire. “What would you know about his kind? You have no idea what Michael has had to endure.”

“Indeed? And what do you know?”

“Only that he’s a true gentleman. In your place, he wouldn’t be pestering a married woman. You would be proposing to my cousin instead.”

“Michael, marry Edith?”

“I am talking about you married her, Lance. You’ve got her in trouble. Don’t you think you should do something about it?”

“Trouble?” As the implication sank in, Lance panicked. Dear God, his mother would positively murder him if he got the wrong woman pregnant. “What lies has the girl been spreading? Don’t you believe her, Gwen,” he pleaded, grabbing for her hand. “You know she’s always tried to come between us.”

Disgusted, she yanked her hand free. “There is no us to come between. I am married, Lance. I made a vow, until death do us part. And to seal that vow, I gave myself to Michael in every sense of the word.”

Lance recoiled in shock. “You let him seduce you?”

She faced him squarely. “On the contrary, I seduced him, get it through your head, Lance. He is my husband and I love him, and I expect you to leave us alone.”

As she walked off, a white-hot rage exploded inside him. She could destroy everything-his dreams-his life-simply by being her spoiled, and stubborn self. Dammit, he’d have to show her, once and for all,

who was the man in her life.

And when he was done, see if Queen Gwen didn’t come crawling on her knees, begging him to take her back.

Until death do them part, indeed.

 

***

 

Gwen hurried down the drive, calling for the children. She been restless and edgy all afternoon, waiting for her father to wake. After the conversation with Lance, she had a sudden overwhelming need to make certain the boys were safe.

An imaginary clock ticked off the minutes in her mind, a mountain of them since she had last seen the cabin. Her brain might know that Patrick and Jude could take care of himself, yet she couldn’t shake the sense of impending danger. If her father didn’t soon wake, it would be dark by the time they can make their way back home.

“Peter, Paul, Christopher, where are you?”

It do not help of the clouds were fast overtaking the sun, that the rapidly shifting sky charge that air with a sense of urgency. Driving through the swamp night would be hard enough; rain will make it impossible.

She was almost to the rose garden when she spied the boys at the dock, deep in conversation with Lance. When she called for them to come to the house, Lance smiled pleasantly and went on his way. There was nothing sinister in his talking to the children, she told herself, yet she had the mounting sensation that something was wrong.

“Gwen?”

She couldn’t stop the tiny whimper of alarm as her uncle touched her shoulder. “Uncle, my heavens, I had no idea you were behind me.”

“I had not meant to frighten you. I saw you out strolling, and realized it’s been far too long since I had a chat with my niece.”

He was trying to be nice, Gwen suppose, but in her present mood, it struck a false note. “I am rather busy, uncle.”

“I’m sorry if I was a bit mean earlier, but this business with your father has been hard for all of us. You must see that you are not making things easier.”

“If this is about me marrying Lance-“

“Not at all.” He shook his head. “I reckon you must have your reasons for giving up.”

“Uncle”

“The thing is, I fear I’m partly to blame for your ordeal. It might seem terribly romantic, him chasing after you and caring you off, but the sad truth is honestly, Michael was merely taking his revenge on us.”

“I doubt that. We have talked about it.”

“Did he mention why your father chased his family from the Willows?”

About sick of plain that he never let her finish a sense, Gwen became instantly attentive.

“It pains me to tell you this, but I reckon you are old enough to know now the truth. Your father liked Michael’s mother. The only reason he kept leasing the land to them, was so John could keep that woman under his thumb.”

“No,” he protested. “He loved it mother.”

“That he did, but he’d been raised to be the Lord of the Manor, and saw no reason why he couldn’t have both, his lady and his mistress. Only his mother would not comply. Even with her husband dead, she refused to give into John, until he was angry enough to evict her. I was there the day he was ordered her off. Young as he was, Michael stared your father straight in the eye and swore to get revenge.”

Poor Michael, she thought. How like him to say nothing of her father’s cruelty. Unlike Lance, he’d never been one for carrying on tales.

“Is partly John’s fault that you were kidnapped,” he went on, “but I’m too to blame as well. I still think Michael cheated, but he so smooth at playing cards, I never could prove it. All I know for certain is I woke up one morning owing him a large amount of money. I think it is the same amount he asked for in the ransom note.”

“Did you pay it?”

“There is no need. Not now that you’ve come home to us.”

In made her furious, that he’d never meant part with a penny to spare her life, yet he could stand and pretend family devotion. “I did not come home for you,” she snapped. “I’m here to get the money Michael needs.”

“Now wait-“

“No, you wait. You made a good profit with that tournament, part of which should be mine. I suggest you pay my husband the money you him, before help people discover just how much you owe to everyone.”

His eyes narrowed. “Lance is right. You have changed.”

He meant it as an insult, but Gwen took it as a compliment. “I hope so. I’m not a little girl anymore, to be bullied into be lied to, and I will not tolerate either you or Lance disrespecting my husband again. If you can keep that in mind, you are welcome to stay at the Willows, but if not, perhaps it is time you found a home elsewhere.”

He bristled, looking down his nose at her. “You need to be married. You need a man to put you in your place, a husband who knows how to curb your willfulness.”

His arrogance made her so angry she shook. “I already have a husband, a man who knows quite well how to deal with me, and had to handle men like you. I can tell you right now, uncle, you’d better practice up on dealing with us both in a more respectful manner, or in the long run, you will wish you had.”

She turned then, still trembling with anger, missing the dark lower her uncle gave her back.

 

***

 

Jervis watched Gwen walk off, frustrating and loafing building in his chest. He thought Lance had conjure stubbornness, but he could see now that there would be no convincing the girl she’d made a mistake. If Gwen would demand money for that worthless Michael, then she wasn’t about to wed Lance while the man was still alive.

As of three boys darted past, he grown in frustration. Couldn’t Lance do anything right? He had told them to ask the little one-Christopher-for the location of Michael’s house. He thought he would be most likely to reveal the information since he was so young.

Whispering an oath, Jervis himself went after the boys to get the information. Hattie his father insisted that he get anything done correctly, you must do it right yourself? Gazing up at the house, aware of how little time his brother had left, Jervis new he was left with far too few options. Gwen had to be freed to marry Lance, and soon, or his plans would explode in his face.

Look like tonight they would be taking a trip to the swamp.

 

Chapter 22

Gwen stepped quietly into her father’s room. She thought herself prepared, but it still came to a shocked to see him so with her. This couldn’t be her real father. It was as if someone had taken out all of this stuffing, and let the remains of this scarecrow of the man.

Throat tightening as she approached, Gwen felt the same dread she had as a child, knowing nothing she could do would justify her actions to him. She could help but wish that just once before he died, her father would judge her and not find her lacking.

It hurt how little time she had. Death had become far more than some abstract concept; it was a thief, lurking in the shadows, waiting to take her father away. His labored breathing, each line of pain etched into his face, made it clear that he had it much longer, then this could be the last chance they had to understand each other.

He lay immobile, and inaccessible, with his head turned away. “Hello, daddy,” he said, stopping beside his head. “It’s me, Gwen. I’ve come home to see you.”

He turned, his eyes taking her in, but his expression gave nothing away. She wanted-needed-some physical contact, but he his hands crossed at his chess, buried beneath the covers. “Don’t you take pity on me, girl,” he rasped.

“I’m not,” she said quickly, but, of course, she was. It must be awful for him, and having so little control over what life you had left.

“I neither want nor deserve sympathy,” he went on, typically ignoring her. “I lived hard and now I’m going to die hard.” He nodded at envelope on the bedside table, propped against a glass. “That says pretty much all there needs to be said, but I want you to wait until after I’m gone to read it.”

He looked away, holding his body rigid. “Never been good with words. Most likely lost me your mother. That and my own conceit.”

Thinking back, she saw that mother had been proud, too. How many of the problems could have been avoided, if they just kept talking to each other? Gwen had a sudden strong urge to be with Michael, to hold himm and straighten out their own misunderstandings, but heard father seem so small and lost on the huge white pillow, and she knew she must talk to him first.

“One thing I need to tell you now,” he said is suddenly. “I will be leaving the Willows to your cousin.”

He study her carefully after shooting the canon blast, no doubt to assess the damage. Ghen was stunned-no denying it-yet the more she got used to the idea, the more she liked it.

“That makes you smile?”

Actually, it did. Better her cousin get the plantation than Jervis. “Edith deserves the Willows. She stayed by you, nurse you, been more like a daughter you and mother wanted.”

He winced. Hard to tell if it was his pain or her words that caused it. “All the hard work, and my own child doesn’t want my plantation?”

Her first thought was to argue, to reassure him that he punished are well with his file gesture, but perhaps it was time she started talking truthfully. “I used to think I couldn’t live without the Willows, that being its princess was the answer to all my dreams. But I have fallen in love, daddy, deeply in love, and because of it, I realized that the Willows was your dream, not mine.”

“Love? You talking about Michael?”

She nodded. “Remember how you used to say I was too stubborn and independent for my own good? Well, now I have a husband just like me. Michael is too proud to walk in the shadow, and the Willows would always come between us. I’m glad Edith will inherited it, because she’ll do right by it, but I need to be free to build my own dream, with Michael.”

He closes eyes. She waited for him to say something, anything, but the quiet built, and the wall between them strengthened. Her hand reached out, aching to touching, to reach them, but he remains stiff and closed to her, so she let it drop uselessly to her side.

“You hold onto that love,” he said in a broken voice. “The hardest part about dying, I’ve found, is dying alone.”

All at once, she could see her father clearly. John was a proud man, whose pride had kept him in prison. Even now, in the last hours of his life, it prevented him from saying what he felt in his heart.

Determined not to make his mistake, Gwen swallow the lot in her throat. “You are not alone,” she told him quickly, again reaching out with her hand. “I am here, daddy. I’ve always been here. I never stopped loving you.”

His eyes stayed close, his body stiff, but a tentative hand still out to cover her own.

The tears slid down her cheek as she gazed at their joint hands, then another as he tightened his grip. Taking his hand in hers, she brought it to her lips. The famous smile passed over his features before his face went slack, in the hand in hers went limp.

Still she stood there, holding his hand, until Homer came to pry her fingers loose. “Let him go, Missy,” the old servant said softly. “Your daddy has gone to your mama.”

 

***

 

Jude stared at the cabin door, feeling a spur of hope with every sound, a rush of anger at each disappointment. “It’s getting dark, Patrick,” she said. “She is not coming.” She meant to sound aloof and uncaring, but the words came out spiteful.

Her brother shook his head. “He said to trust her,” he said firmly.

What a fake he was, pretending to carve his wood. Anyone with eyes could see he’d glanced up at much as she did. “You heard Michael. She will get in her big, fancy house, and she will want to stay here. The boys neither. They are not coming back, none of them. She felt hurt, but trade, and she wanted the ugly feeling to go away. Touching the locket that Gwen had said was a link between them, Jude willed this silly old door to open.

 

***

 

“Looks like the vat is leaking. This whole sugarhouse is ready to fall down on its ears.”

Nodding at Casper, his field hand, Michael eyed of that in question. Everywhere you turn he found another problem. Was there anything on this plantation that hadn’t fallen into ruin? The sugarhouse near a complete overhaul, but there was neither funds, nor time. Michael only hope was to work day and night, making minimal repairs, and praying he could keep the place functioning throughout the harvest.

Bringing his lantern closer, he leaned down to inspect the league. He knew he should make the repairs at night, since he had a long list of other tasks to do to finish in the morning, but as Michael kept drifting back to the cabin.

All day, he was thinking of his return, half hoping, and half dreading what he’d find when he got there. If Gwen were waiting with the children, and they could talk and iron out the differences between them, but if not, he noted he drilled her off with his doubts and accusations. He had forced her into what he’d been trying so hard to prevent. By demanding she make the choice, he sent her straight into the arms of Lance?

Did it matter? He couldn’t win anyway. Keeping Gwen took money, which meant the voting every walking out to the harvest. This posed a problem, when he also had to be with her to explain himself and make a man’s. It all took time, something he did not have at the moment.

“Come quick,” another servant shouted from the doorway. “That far levee is going to break again.”

Swearing, Michael went running, the decision taken from his hands. That was his life, one crisis after another, all boiling down to a matter of which demanded his attention first.

Like it or not, talking to Gwen would have to wait.

 

***

 

Jervis watched the other to survey the cabin. “Are you sure this is the place?” He whispered to Morteau.

“Of course, it’s Michael’s cabin,” Lance whispered back. “Boys describe it right down to the swing on the porch.”

Jervis nodded, still uneasy. Understandable, at this late hour, that the place would be dark and quiet, but somehow, he’d expected Michael the put up more of a fight. It seemed out of character for the man to keep sleeping, oblivious to the danger is the prowled closer. Too easy, too lucky.

Jervis shook off his doubt. He was looking for problems where there were none. From that chimney, still warm from the night’s fire, the aroma of fried fish, it was clear someone was in the cabin. Michael must have gone to bed, expecting Gwen to return in the morning.

Jervis felt a twinge of guilt, momentary recognizing that they’ve meant to do here crossed over the line of human decency. But his anger did not stop him.

“Do it,” he said to Lance, nodding at the torch in his hand. “Burn the damn place and be done with it.”

 

***

 

Gwen left the room where her father’s body lay, feeling more wary than she could ever imagine. Throughout the night, she and Edith had made the necessary arrangements for his burial, but with the sun now rising, Gwen kept thinking about getting back to poor Jude and Patrick, alone in the swamp. They must be wondering what had happened.

Daddy, she thought with a catch in her throat. It was still hard to believe he was actually gone.

She thought of the letter she carried. It had made her cry, reading the words he’d been unable to say to her face. All these years, father and held his emotions inside him, trapped any lonely, bitter shell. If only he could have told her that he no longer blame her for mother’s death while he was still alive. If only she known his anger was directed at himself.

He and mother had argue that night, too, it he’d written he’d been riding in from town as Gwen stormed off. Drinking and belligerent, he accused Amanda of overzealousness and blocking Gwen’s marriage. Angrily, she flung back at him saying she wanted to spare her daughter from making her mistake. No sense in them both marrying the wrong man.

He had order her out of the house, and was the last time he had seen her. Every day since had been a living hell of guilt and regret, daddy had told her in his letter, his drinking and disregard for the Willows became a self-inflicting punishment. It wasn’t until Gwen returned from Boston, looking at him with a face so like her mother’s, that he felt a purpose. Seeing at last a way to redeem himself, by keeping her mom owners wish and preventing her from marrying a Lance.

Amanda had been right, he’d written. Lance was like himself, vain and self-absorbed and drinking. His Gwen needed a strong man, one who gaze into her eyes and solve all her problems. It had taken but one glance, the day of the tournament, to know that Michael was that man.

Having little to leave her but his own mistakes and his faith in her ability to learn from them, daddy had advised her to get far away from Lance and never trust her uncle. The man had fortified all rights to family comfort long ago, he’d added cryptically, though that was a matter he meant to settle with his brother himself.

As for his little girl, he wanted Gwen to know that he loved her and always would. Don’t end up like me, he finished off, never let pride stand in the way of your happiness. Don’t clutter your life with things that truly don’t matter. Go to Michael and build a future together.

Thinking of his words, Gwen saw how close she come to repeating her father’s mistake. In his own way, Michael had been asking for reassurance, a commitment, but she’d been so preoccupied with getting him what she thought he wanted, she hadn’t heard his plea. All she’d ever wanted was her father to was just once say he loved her; maybe that was all Michael had wanted from her.

Why had she never said the words? Did she think that by not saying them, by hiding in a hoarding them, she could protect herself from her? Look at all the good times father had lost, being miserably with his emotions. If she didn’t want to end up like him, she must go to Michael. At this moment, nothing mattered more than telling him how she felt.

Making plans in her head, she hurried to the stairs together the boys from her room, only to have the front door burst open behind her. She spun to find her uncle, Lance, and a dirty, desperate looking man. The trio we into the hallway, hopelessly drunk.

They sobered somewhat when they saw her. “Gwen, honey, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” Uncle said, recovering first. “Whatever can have you up and dress so early? Why, you look like an apparition yourself.” He turned to his comrades, receiving the chuckles he expected.

“It’s father. He passed away in the night.”

“No!” Jervis grab her by the shoulder, but it wasn’t grief that had him shaking her. “He can’t be dead yet. I’ve worked too hard for it all…”

Whether it was her wide eyes that halted him, or his own his sense of decency making a bad appearance, he let the words trail off, even as his hands dropped. “When?”

“Around midnight. We looked for you, Edith and I, and we couldn’t find you, we sent for Mr. Tillman instead.”

“Tillman’s here?”

Gwen pointed down the hallway. “He is going over papers in father’s study.”

Uncle marched off, sparing no word of condolence, nor even her grant. In contrast, Lance couldn’t wait to console her. “My poor darling, how awful this must be for you,” he said, reaching out for her.

She put up her hands to keep them at a distance, making for a rather awkward hug. When he would tighten it, she pushed him away. “You smell like alcohol and smoke.”

Broke away then, exchanging the Lance with other man. “We, have been out burning cane. My friend here has a place up river.”

She looked at his friend. His ragged close it on black hair made a hard to believe he don’t anything, much less a plantation. “Burning cane? Isn’t it a bit early in the season?” She asked.

“It has been chillier up River. I feared an early frost.” Lance said at the other man, then turned to Gwen. “All that matters, Gwen darling, I’m here for you now, and here to stay always.”

His use of the word annoyed her. Michael was right, it was a tall order, a promise that should never have tossed out casually.

“Are you here for me? Or the Willows?” She asked.

He stared at her, momentarily confused. “Why are you being so difficult? I love you, darling’”

“Lance, we have been through this. I am told you, I am married.”

He looked back, exchanging another smile with the stranger. “And I told you, the man used you, honey. When he found there was no money to get out of you, he took off without looking back. You got no proof you were married. No license. Heck, you’ve got nothing to stop the whispers. Nothing except me.”

He looked so smug and sure of himself, Gwen might have given in a few short weeks ago, but Michael, the children, and even her father had helped her learn to take charge of her life, make her own decisions, right or wrong. She turned to go.

You reached out for her, “don’t you dare walk away. We belong together, you and I.”

She ignored him, climbing the stairs to the boys.

“You can’t walk away from me. Did you think your men folk would ever let you live in a crappy cabin? Mark my words, you will be sorry-“

She heard her uncle returned to warn Lance to be quiet, but Gwen didn’t spare then make the Lance. She closed the chapter in her life, and was anxious to get on with the next one

Her anxiety deep in when she reached her room and found it empty. Standing in the hallway, wondering where to look for the boys, or worries about Jude and Patrick escalated.

“Gwen.”

Hearing aid his to her right, she checked the curtains. To her elite, she found the three boys. “What are you doing?”

Peter put a finger to his lips, then whispered. “Is he gone? That Lance?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Were scared Gwen,” Paul explained. “He said he was your friend, but what is he doing with our father?”

The man with her uncle and Lance, the one who made her feel uneasy, was Jacques Morteau?

“I am scared, Gwen,” Christopher cried. “I told that Lance how to find the cabin.”

Realization slammed into her-Lance talking to the boys, the smell of smoke on his close, his threats that she’d soon be sorry

“My God!” She cried, not holding back her voice. “We’ve got to get back to the swamp.”

Down the stairs, the stranger looked at Gwen.

“Lance, we need to talk.”

“It’s in your best interest. If you want that woman.”

“Gwen?”

“Yes. She’s gone. Taken my boys. You better get Jervis and come quick, if you don’t want them to get away for good.”

 

***

 

Michael placed the last of the bags on the levee, praying it would hold back the river, at least until the next rain.

Inhaling deeply, he noticed the scent of smoke in the air. “Hey, Casper,” he called to the servant. “Do you smell something burning?”

“Been smelling it all night. Lucas, he sought it comes down from the Bayou.”

Michael tried to deny his uneasiness, but the more he told himself he was crazy, too ignore his fears and go on with his work, the more his anxiety mushroom. If he were wrong in his worries, he’d have wasted hours, but if he is he were right…

This was his family, dammit. Harvest or not, he had to get back to the cabin.

 

***

 

Smelling smoke as the polled closer, Gwen increasingly ill. Please be all right, she prayed, picturing Jude and Patrick huddled in their beds, waking to a fire the cutting control.

She took the pole from Peter, determined to make the bow go faster. She used every ounce of energy she owned, but each inch past grew longer, and with each foot, the scent grew stronger until the burnt remains showed in their view.

“Patrick!” He cried out, jumping from the boat to run up to the bank. “Jude, oh dear God, where are you?”

There was no answer, the rubble lay silent. The boys followed more slowly, the horror in their eyes showing her shock as they gasped at the remains.

Looking through the remains Gwen saw the locket, alone and abandon on the ground. Syncing to her knees, she continued to stare, unable to touch it as the memories overwhelmed her. “Damn you, Lance, where was the need for this?” She cursed him in tears. “They were innocent children.”

As if in answer, she heard his voice, approaching from down the Bayou. His voice was raised in arguments with another.

“its father” the boy said in unison.

Scrambling up, she gather them close. Not about to let Lance finish what he is started, she searched around them. “Boys, quick, where can we hide?”

“The fortress.”

 

***

 

Jervis watch Lance jump from the boat to go scurrying after Gwen, Morteau and the men he brought from the tavern trailing at his heels. Tired, Jervis wondered why he’d come along, other than the fact they can no longer bear to be in his brother’s house. Damn that John, even in death, his brother had managed to get the best of him

Five minutes with the lawyer had taught Jervis that he would get nothing out of John’s will. All he’d been left was with Amanda’s glove, with the warning that Tillman had a letter for the local authorities should Jervis fail to leave the Willows forever.

Had John known all along what happened to his wife? Or had he just let Jervis run things merely to give him the rope which to hang himself on? John had to be watching carefully to have found that glove.

Looking at the nearly full bottle of medicine he had taken from his brother’s bedside, Jervis wondered if any of it mattered now. Whatever he did, the fact remained; he was now completely ruined.

Sighing, he went to a log on the far bank, where Lance and his friends couldn’t see him. He didn’t know how much of the medicine it would take to kill a man, but he aimed to find out.

He uncorked the bottle and raise it to his lips, it had a bitter taste, so he reached in his pocket for his flask of bourbon. Taking in alternating gulps, he cursed everyone who had brought him to this. It was his nieces fault. Willful, stubborn Gwen. Blame Lance, too, for not being man enough to control her. Then there were his parents, who never saw pass their first son to care for the second son. And don’t forget his marriage, his one chance to be king in his castle. Did he have a son? No, his child was a timid mouse, and his pitiful wife never had measured up to Amanda.

Beautiful, desirable Amanda McCloud. Cursing her next, he knew a good deal of the blame for this current problems. She had broken his heart, marrying his brother, yet even so, she merely would smile at him and it would still fill him with hope. How exciting he had been that night she begged him to take her away. Feeling like a boy again, he waited for her in the Bayou, working self into a fever pitch with plans for the future. When she told him she change her mind that she couldn’t leave John after all, a black feel of rage and hurt had engulfed him. He couldn’t remember nothing afterwards, except standing over her lifeless body, and a tree branch in his hand.

Thinking fast, he’d stage her accident, then spent the next five years letting John and Gwen blame themselves for her death. In one mistake, he saw now, had been in keeping that glove.

A vain gesture, taking off her hand as if it were some token of his lady’s favor. The sheriff had thought it was odd for a woman to wear only one glove, but the man had been easily bribed, and the matter had been quickly forgotten by everyone. Except, apparently, for John.

Taking the last of the drug, Jervis cursed his brother for most of everything. Now there would be no Willows, no trust fund-the best he could anticipate was the hangman’s noose. Even from the grave, John found a way to best him.

Glancing up, Jervis saw Michael banking his boat, safe and untouched by the fire. Why, he’s just like John, Jervis thought, consumed by frustration. Always bigger than life and better at everything, winning even when the odds were against them. It in raged him that Michael should survive, that he would get Gwen and her trust fund. In his drugged mind, it was John having Amanda, all over again.

He rose to his feet, swing unsteadily. No sense trying to shoot the bastard-he’d only miss-but he could still talk, enough to make sure he was not the only one miserable.

 

***

 

Michael stood before the cabin, stare at the locket, trying to take it all in. The evidence was there, right before his eyes, yet his mind could accept that everything was gone. Any minute now, the children come popping out of the woods, smiling at the long string of fish they carried, while Gwen smiled from the porch.

He called their names, but the children did not show. Slowly, sadly, the truth became less and less avoidable. There was no porch, and there was no more Gwen.

The tightness built inside him. He could remember yelling her, right there in this very spot, petty demands and accusations that he wanted to take back. Let Gwen have the Willows, he thought, the word almost a prayer. Hell, let her have gone to Lance-just don’t let her be gone forever.

“Are you looking for my niece, Michael?”

Michael Spun on a heel, startled to find anyone there, much less Jervis. How had he got here? Michael Wonder, his thoughts disappointed. More importantly, what did the man know about Gwen?

“You are too late,” he said. “My niece is long gone.”

Gone. The word drained him, left him a shelf. No wonder John had given up on life. What could a man do when nothing was left but to drink his pain away?

Swaying on his feet, Jervis seem to have been drowning some pain of his own. “Awkward things, triangle. Put three people together and it is inevitable that one gets left out. You and me, Michael, we are the unlucky ones. The losers.”

Michael barely heard the man peered his mind had begun to accept the hideous truth, counting up the extent of his losses, each with a name in a face that would haunt him forever. They were just children, he thought uselessly. He should have been here. How could this happen?

“… Some women are just like that,” Jervis continued. “John could have slept with a hundred women, and still Amanda would have always chose him.”

John? Amanda? Michael shook his head in confusion. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“That Gwen is just like her mother. Got one man’s name fixed in her head and there it ain’t a thing anyone can do to budge it. All she ever felt for you, boy, was a pity, and I took care of that this morning.”

As Jervis explained how he related Michael’s crimes, all embellished and most outright lies, Michael pictured Gwen listening to her uncle, believing every word. Indeed, Michael was so caught up in the image, it took them some time for the fact to sink in that she’d been hearing in this morning. “Where was Gwen when you were telling her this?”

“At the Willows. Came home yesterday.”

Michael flooded with relief when he found out Gwen was alive.

Jervis looked at him, then smiled at the cabin. “You thought she was inside when we burned it down?”

Michael grabbed the man by the throat. “Are you insane?

“Children? Didn’t mean to hurt… Not children though… Maybe Lance or Morteau?”

Michael froze. He remembered the name.

Jervis weekly pointed toward the swamp. “He went that way after them.”

Michael look to the bank, finding several boats. If the children’s father had brought reinforcements, probably drinking clones, Jude and Patrick would have seen them coming instantly and fled. He then remembered their talk about the secret fortress.

Cupping the locket, Michael turned toward the swamp. He thought of a young pair, alone with their wooden swords, trying to fight off their evil excuse of a father. Breaking into a run, he said a silent prayer.

Let them have reached the fortress, and dear God, let them get there in time.

Chapter 23

 

Gwen can hear the men crashing through the force behind them. Lance had left the chase, even the foul language and dire threats, but his silent, determined pursuit loomed all the more menacing. Though when and the boys ran with all of their might, he and his men continue to gain ground with each step. Looking ahead, weighing their chances, Gwen knew they would never make it to the fortress. Her skirt made it nearly impossible to run. Without her legs holding them back, the boys, with their young, powerful legs, could fly like the wind. Looking at the path to the cove, she made her decision.

“Let them… Follow me,” he said to the boys, gasping to for air. “Get to…the fortress…and stay there.”

“But Gwen-“

“Go with the twins,” she told Chris. ‘Peter, Paul, get him to safety.”

She turned to the right, praying the boys would do as they were told, as their pursuers would follow her. She headed toward the spot where the children always beach the boats. If she were to very lucky, the vessel would be waiting, and she could hop into it and pull off before Lance could reach her. If her luck held, she would return with help.

To her relief, the boat sat at the edge of the Bayou, beckoning her, but even as she raced for it, her luck ran out.

“Dammit, Gwen, stop running from me.” Lance screamed, clamping a hand on her shoulder.

Gwen spun on him, kicking and scratching any main attempt to break free. His grip merely tighten, painfully, while his other arm encircled her ways, cutting off what little air she had left.

“Enough of this nonsense.” He told her angrily, pitting her in his grasp.

“The children, they are not here.” Morteau said, coming up from the swamps.

At least she managed to cause a diversion. Counting heads, she saw all five men had followed her. Now hopefully all five boys would be safe.

“Give me the rope,” Lance ordered the man. “Hurry, help me tie her up, before she scratches my eyes out.”

Morteau helped but asked me about his children.

“How the hell should I know? Hold her, dammit, so I can tie this knot.”

“They…They are gone.” Hoping to mislead them further, Gwen nodded over at the bank. “They went in the other boat. I bet they are halfway to New Orleans by now.”

“Sorry, darling’, but I must contradict.” Giving an extra hard think on the rope, Lance finished tying her wrists. “I saw them heading off on the other path. Knowing how my Gwen likes to play the hero, I bet she came this way to draw our attention from them.”

Horrified, Gwen watch Morteau commandment others to follow as he charged off. “How could you?” She asked Lance, feeling as if she faced a stranger. “You got what you want. Why send that horrible man after the children?”

“He annoys me. I wanted to get rid of him.”

His utter callousness chilled her. “He needs to hurt them.”

He merely shrugged. “Family matters, darling’. What he does with his brats is no concern of mine.” He told other arm, pulling her towards the boat. “You and I have more important matters to deal with. We have to get back to the Willows.”

Gwen shook her head, ready to argue, until he pulled out a pistol with his free hand and waved it before her. “Now, now, Gwen darling’, don’t make me use this to convince you.”

He was threading her with a gun? “I don’t understand. Why are you doing this?”

“I want what is rightfully mine. I deserve to be the master of the Willows.”

“Not at the risk of hurting innocent children, dammit-“

Pushing her toward the bow, he shook his head and mock dismay. “Why, Gwen, I’m disappointed in you. Such language, for a lady. Your mother would be appalled.”

“She would be more horrified by you.” A sudden anger grew up inside her. “If anything happens to those boys, you selfish bastard-“

Shaking his head, he reached into his pocket for bandana. “Since you won’t watch her mouth, dear girl, I will have to shut it for you. I won’t have my future wife using such foul language.”

“Don’t you ever listen? I can’t be your wife. I’m already married.”

She would have continued, warning him that if he wanted the Willows, he would have to marry Edith, but he stopped all further protest by wrapping the cloth over the her mouth and yanking it tight.

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you are not married.” Smiled as he pushed the boat off from the bank. “Did I tell you? Your precious Michael was in the shack will be burnt it, darling. Michael is dead.”

The stress of the past twnty-fours hours combined with the sheer horror of these words, and with the rush of cold nausea, Gwen felt the world go black.

 

***

 

Jude stood at the fortress door, urging her brothers to hurry. Paul came through the opening first, then Peter, dragging Christopher behind him. “Where’s Gwen?” She asked, her eyes scanning the path.

“Went the other way.”

“She left us again?”

Patrick laid a hand on her shoulder, stopping her tirade. “Stop think in the worse, Jude. Maybe she tried to lead the other men away.”

“Yeah,” Peter nodded, trying to get his breath. “She told us to come here. To let them go after her.”

Jude felt uneasy, thinking about going racing through the woods to include those made, putting yourself in danger so the brothers could run away to safety. Patrick was right. Always thinking the worst wasn’t fair.

“The distraction might work for a while,” Patrick said thoughtfully, “what once father realizes you are not with her, he will be back.”

As their words finished, figures began to open show themselves.

“They are coming!”

Jude grabbed her own slingshot in study the four men approaching on the path below. The first two had dirty brown hair, and they staggered as if they just a hold off a barstool, no doubt from the tavern of the third man, Jim Wilson. Having had to go to the river viewed to fetch her father, she knew that Jim didn’t much like children. Coming up the rear, favored in his bad leg, stock the scowling Morteau. Longley, Jude thought of the shotgun they hadn’t had time to retrieve from the cabin. She sure could use it now.

Father waved his hands, directing his men to spread out in surround the fortress. Jude smiled, for the more ground the cover, the more their chances increase of tripping on their traps, or falling into a trap holes she and her brother’s designed. “Wait,” she told Christopher. “Let them get closer.”

As she spoke, one of the drunks stumbled over a vine, landing on his face in the mud. It wasn’t quite quicksand, but the muck was deep thick enough to give him trouble getting free.

Other than looks of disgust, his companions paid them no heed, intent upon encircling the fortress. Seeing Jim head straight for a trap, Jude mentally urged him forward.

She couldn’t suppress a small cry of victory, as he went timely into the deep, Bush covered whole.

Muttering, father called others to help them out of the hole. Too soon, Jim was pulled to the surface, wet and muddy and meaner than ever. Impatiently, father gestured toward the fortress. Jim marched forward slowly, but the other complied with lot less aggression.

Father seem to have the Devil’s own luck in invading the traps, but his companions managed to trip another, sending a shower a water in rotting leaves down from the trees. Sputtering, cursing, they stumbled forward, only to trip another vine, this time raining stones down upon their heads. Jude and Christopher shared a laugh as the two drunks stagger forward, dazed and clearly unstable.

Their humor was short-lived as father rallied his forces, leading a siding, frenzied charge at the fortress. “Quick, shoot!” Jude shouted to her brothers.

They began pelting the intruders. It is not score many hits, but then, they had never been able to practice on moving targets. Still, they did slow them down, and Jude even managed to hit one. He went down to his knees, grabbing his crotch.

His companion stopped to gaze up at the fortress, as if it housed wild, unpredictable beasts. To foster that impression, Jude gave a high-pitched scream, graining as the sound echoed through the war swamp.

The first two men decided to run away. Unfortunately, father and Jim kept coming, more determined than ever. Glancing down, Jude saw Patrick, still struggling with the long oak of plank. Without in place blocking the door, two grown men, shoving their shoulders against the wood, could easily break down the door.

“Keep shooting,” she shouted to others as she raced down the ladder to help Patrick.

“The wood must have swollen from yesterday’s rain. I couldn’t get to fit. The latch broke when I try to force it.”

Jude stared at the metal latch, dangling from his hand. A hammer and nails would have fixed it, but they had neither. When Jude try to figure a way to fix it, it was already too late. Father stood, standing over Jude just before him.

Luck had finally reached them. Michael stood on the path, his rifle aimed at where their father’s heart should be.

 

***

 

Michael muttered his own oaths as Morteau swung Jude in front of them. Had gotten here a few moments earlier, the coward would not have his own children to hide behind, and Michael would have a clear shot. He could have put an end to the menace that was known as Morteau, once and for all.

“Put down the rifle,” the man sneered. “Unless you want to hurt the boy.”

Michael could not risk hitting Jude, nor could he chance what the monster might do to her, especially should he learned she was a girl. Knowing he must be careful both in what he did and said, Michael slowly, reluctantly lowered the rifle from his shoulder.

Morteau laughed. “I’m going now, with the boy, and you’re going to let me,” he said smugly. “That is the difference between us, Michael, and the reason you will never get the best of me. In your place, I would have taken the shot.”

It made Michael sick, watching the man uses child as a shield, knowing he could do nothing to stop him. Morteau step backward, keeping Jude in front of them, while Michael waited for the chance to charge and ring the man’s neck. “Let Jude go,” he said, more to keep the man occupied than with any real hope of compliance. “You know I will track you down and make you pay for this.”

“It is all right, Michael,” she said suddenly.

“Jude-“

“No, I mean it,” she insisted in a strange voice. Her eyes kept darting to the right, as if she meant to tell him something. “I want to go with him. A child belongs with his father.”

Michael saw the branches and remember the holes they dug to trap intruders.

“Pretty speech,” Morteau old Jude, “but don’t think you can make things easy for yourself. What happened to your mother will seem tame in comparison to what I planned for you.”

Intent on his revenge, he didn’t seem to hear the crackling of branches at his feet. Jude, on the other hand, was braced and ready. Reacting instantly, she pushed her behind backward with all their might.

Stunned, Morteau barely had time to widen his eyes before he lost both his balance and his grip on the girl, and went toppling backward into the pit alone. As Jude slammed into the ground on her hands and knees, his ungodly scream filled the air. Then, with a loud splash, there was utter silence.

Michael went straight to Jude, her brothers a pace behind him. Holding on a hand to help her up, he asked if she was all right. “I am fine. But Father-“

Shuddering, she gazed back at the whole. Michael grip the rifle tighter as he turned and went to the edge. Twenty feet down, bobbing on the water, his head at an odd angle to a shoulders, floated Morteau.

Jude stepped up beside them, her voice trembling and thin. “I can’t believe it’s over. That he’s-“

Michael reached out but it are around her slender shoulder. “Is not your fault. He did this to himself.”

She shook her head. “It’s not like we will be sad over him. He never seem like our father anyway. You are more like a father than he ever was.” She looked up to him, tears falling from her eyes.

If Michael ever had regrets about taking on the raising of these children, they were banished in that moment. His relief at finding them alive swelled into pride. “That was clever work, Jude, backing into that whole. You are amazing.” He looked at all of them. “You all are amazing.”

“Yeah, but we would have made it here, if not for-“Christopher broke off, his eyes looking around. “Jude, remember? We got a go find Gwen.”

She stiffened, glancing around them with alarm. “I forgot she was lost in the bayou. We better find her before its dark.”

“She is not lost.” Remembering what Jervis had told him, Michael was hardly able to hide his irritation. The woman had deserted those poor children, and left them to worry about her. “I am told she’s on her way to a father’s plantation get married.”

“No,” Peter interrupted. “The other man, Lance, has taken her.”

“He doesn’t even like her,” Paul added. “We heard him yelling at her. All he wants is the Willows. That’s why he helped father burned down the cabin.”

Jude stepped up beside her brother, her eyes widening. “I know your mad at her, but I really think she needs us. All of us, banded together. We are her family.”

He try to be mad, but Michael’s love for her was undeniable. A small grin came across his lips as he grabbed for his rifle. “Let’s go.”

h1<>{color:#000;}.

Chapter 24

The two woman had been running through the entire house. Mrs. Tibbs was being held by lance just as she was and became his prisoner in his fight for power. When the doorbell rung both woman knew it was the time for their escape. They waited until Lance left the main quarters and made a run for it. Gwen knew this house and led the way until they had finally reached the kitchen.

“There is a path behind the kitchens that lead us to the family cemetery. You should find my family there for my father’s ceremony. I will try my best to stall Lance, you need to bring someone to help.”

Mrs. Tibbs frowned as if she meant to argue, but there was another plan, she said nothing as she made her way to the window. But before she made her escape the woman pointed outside.

Being so messed up and confused in their attempt to escape, Gwen did not realize there is a man outside her home. “Michael?” She said softly, unable to believe her eyes.

“Oh, I see now why you want him. That’s one handsome devil.” Mrs. Tibbs nudged her arm. “Go on, go out to him, before that dreadful Lance hurts anyone else.”

Gwen needed no further of a push, still clutching the knife Michael had given to her in the swamps, telling Mrs. Tibbs to go at once to the funeral, she turned to race to the door.

Standing on the porch, and Gwen felt on the verge of tears, overwhelmed by the miracle of seeing Michael again. He is alive, was all she could think as she drank in the sight of him. Healthy and strong and more beautiful than ever.

Yet when she would run to him, throw herself in his arms to shower him with kisses, she saw Lance in the doorway say,

“go home, Michael. You’re not wanted here.”

lance stood with his back to her, yet she could see the pistol pointed at Michael’s heart.

“Go where, Lance?” A rifle lay and Michael’s fee, and his gaze kept straying toward it. “You burn down my home, remember?”

Lance said nothing. He just stood there with the grin across his face.

“On top of everything else. Now it seems you have stolen my wife.”

Gwen stayed where she was, torn by indecision. She wanted to charge Lance and take him to the ground, but she could see that he was holding one of the boys between him and Michael. Should she go and risk it all or let it play out? It was a decision she could not make.

 

***

 

Seeing Patrick, so still stuck in lance’s grasp, Michael cursed silently. He told the boy and Christopher to wait at the docks, until Jude arrived with the sheriff. Patrick, it clearly had his own ideas. He must have been grabbed quickly by lance, but where was his brother? Would be hard enough getting one of the boys out of this; Michael had less hope if Lance got hold of Christopher, too.

Then, as if to prove his situation could get no worse, Gwen stepped out onto the porch.

As he gazed in her eyes, images flashed through his brain-Gwen cleaning fish, handing him the wooden sword and dubbing them King Arthur; Gwen coming to him at the top, lying down next to him in the moonlight. Together, they’d shared some of the happiest moments in his life. He couldn’t walk away from such memories come more easily forget them. Neither of them.

Maybe was time to forget the facts, and add up the emotions instead, and every instinct he own insisted that this was his woman. He could feel it in his gut. His heart. This time, dammit, he was going to claim her as his own. There was no way he would let her walk away this time.

Gwen was about to make her move when the voice of another her attention and everyone else.

“What in the hell is going on here?” Said another, unknown voice, and Michael looked up to find a short, older woman, standing on the porch.

“Oh, Mrs. Tibbs,” Gwen cried. “I told you to go for help.”

“Tibbs?” Lanced asked, suddenly edgy.

“Yes, part owner of the firm Barclay and Tibbs, as a matter of fact. The bank that holds a sizable mortgage on Belle Oaks. Now, unless you want me foreclosing on you, I suggest you put that gun down, young man.”

Lance laughed. ‘What do I want with Belle Oaks, when I will soon be running The Willows? Do you think some old bat will stand in my way?”

As Lance waved his pistol, Michael eyed his rifle, weighing his chances of reaching it while Lance’s attention was diverted. He eased his hand slowly toward the ground.

Mere inches from the rifle, he heard the click of the pistol’s hammer. “Not so fast Michael,” Lance said. “I would be only too happy to put one of these bullets in your head.”

“Not before I put this in your black heart.” Raising her hand, Gwen rammed the blade towards him, managing to stab the fleshy part of his arm. Yelping, Lance grabbed for the blade.

Knowing he would never have a better opportunity, Michael rushed Lance and wrestled him to the ground.

“Stop right there “commanded yet another new voice. “I don’t want to shoot you.”

Recognizing Ben Cooper, the local Sheriff, Michael held up his hands in surrender. Cooper approached him, his gun aimed and Michael. “All right, Gwen, suppose you tell me what is going on here? Those children told me you had been kidnapped.”

“Children?” Gwen cried, “Are they all right? Where are they?”

“All four of them are fine. We met up with Edith and Hamilton on the way up to the drive. I asked them to stay with the children, while I came up here to investigate.”

Rising to his feet, Michael’s took a breath of relief and stood.

“About this kidnapping, rumor has it Michael here is the one who took you.”

“He did” Lance said, rising to his feet. “In fact, in my attempt to rescue her, Michael just try to kill me.”

As Lance reach for Gwen, she slapped his hand away. She went instead to Patrick. Together they came to stand beside Michael. “You should know better than the listen to rumors, Ben. My husband has no possible reason for kidnapping me. I married him on my own free will.”

Taking Michael’s hand, she wrapped it around her waist. Trying he might, Michael could not stop a smile from spreading across his face.

“Poor Gwen. Her ordeal has taken its toll.” Lance shook his head, holding his arm out for inspection. “See this? Just moments ago, she tried to stab me. And now she doesn’t even remember that day when I rescued her, she even tore up the marriage license before me.

Michael felt her stiffen. “I gave that license to the lawyer to file,” she said, “so how would you even know it was torn, unless you tore it yourself? Unfortunately, I remember everything clearly, Lance. You force me here against my will, you burn Michael’s cabin, and even try to hurt the children.”

Ben lowered his gun, gazing at Lance, who raised his hands in mocking surrender. “See what I mean, Ben? She is crazy.”

Michael heard enough. “Watch what you say about my wife, Lance, or I’ll-“

“Just a minute, Michael” Cooper no longer aimed his gun at him, but neither did he replace it in his holster. “These two have been spatting all their lies. I got to be sure this ain’t just some words. Arson and kidnapping are serious crimes.”

Gwen held proudly. “This is far more than some spat, Ben. I am willing to testify in court.

“Me, too,” Patrick said, folding his arms across his chest.

With a grin, Michael nodded at Cooper. “Looks like you have three witnesses.”

“Make that four,” The older woman offered, stepping down from the porch.

“Come now, Ben,” Lance blustered, “You can’t listen to that crazy old bat.”

“Old back, you say?” Mrs. Tibbs step closer. “Anyone who thinks I’m crazy can come inside and see the ropes he used to tie up Gwen to the sofa.” She wagged her finger at Lance. “Since you will be having upcoming legal costs, you might take better care and how you dress me, young man.”

Realizing that this woman is part owner of the bank that held his own mortgage, Michael was about to ask Gwen what Mrs. Tibbs was doing here, when Hamilton and Edith appeared on the drive with the children.

Jude ran to Gwen, folding her arms around the woman’s waist.

“Oh, Gwen, I am so sorry for doubting you. Please say you will forgive me.”

Reaching into a pocket, Michael retrieve the locket in chain and handed it to the girl. “I imagine all will be forgotten, if you just put this back where he belongs.”

Jude slip the locket over her head, clutching it in her hand. “I swear, I will wear it until it is time to give it to my own little girl.”

While Gwen hugged her, Michael noticed the rags Hamilton handed to Ben. Sensing this wasn’t something the children needed to hear, he gestured at the house, suggesting that the younger boys should show Jude and Patrick around. With one last look at Gwen to make certain she was all right, all five kids gave a war scream and went racing inside.

“Where is everyone?” Gwen asked her cousin. “I thought you were all at the cemetery.”

“I became concerned when I saw the boats at the docks. Hamilton and I left the ceremony to see what was going on.” Edith explained.

“I found these rags and a half filled jug of kerosene in Lance’s boat,” Hamilton added. “You might want to ask him where he has been last night between midnight and dawn.

“I…I have an alibi,” Lance stuttered. “Tell them Edith. Tell them I was with you. She and I are getting married.”

Michael found it unlikely, the way she nestled up next to Hamilton. “I can’t imagine what you are talking about, Lance,” She said. “I am already married.”

Hamilton beamed down at her. “I found a man of the cloth here, waiting for you, Lance, and on the spur of the moment, we decided to make use of his services.”

“Oh, Edith,” Gwen cried. “I am so happy for you.”

“You sent him away?” Lance turned an unattractive purple. “You interfering fools. After all my planning and hard work.”

Cooper grabbed his elbow. “Why don’t you come with me, Lance? I think it’s time we discuss all this hardware complaining you been doing.”

Lance screamed for the women as he got pulled away.

For a moment, as Gwen gazed at him, Michael thought she might cave-in. Instead, she merely smiled at him. “Family doesn’t do what you did, Lance.”

As Lance disappeared, Gwen sighed. “How did all come to this? I grew up with him and now I’m sending him to jail.”

“Do you prefer he goes free?”

She looked up, studying Michael’s face. “Each time I think of what he tried to do to you and the children, I could tear him limb from limb. No, I want him where he can never touch us, ever again, but I can’t help but feel bad that he must end like this. How could he grows so obsessed with a place, an idea, that he ignores human decency? Did he just snapped, or was he always this way, and I just didn’t see it?”

Michael took her into his arms, cradling her head against his chest.

“But you knew, didn’t you?” She sighed, wrapping her arms around him. “You and my parents both saw something about him that I could not. But in the end it would not done him any good to marry me. My dad left The Willows to Edith.”

He held her closer. “I am sorry. I know how much this plantation means to you.”

“I told father I didn’t want it anyway. That my home, and my future, was with you.”

Michael couldn’t believe what she was saying. “Why did you come back home then?”

“To ask a father for a piece of land. So we could farm and one day earning enough to build a house for us and the children. But because Lance we don’t have a home anymore.”

“I hardly think that.” Mrs. Tidd said. “With the profits from his sugar crop, I would think you young man should be able to pay off your loans and buy a house.”

Sugar crop? House? Gwen looked from the woman to Michael. “Do you own the old Allenton place?”

This is not the way Michael had envisioned telling her. “I didn’t want anybody to know. Not until the crop was done. If I fail-and citrine my financial situation, there’s still a great possibility I will-I I didn’t want to raise anyone’s hopes unnecessarily.”

“There is nothing wrong with your financial situation, young man, not now that Brian has finally approved a loan extension. But perhaps we should discuss finances later. Edith, I find I am parched. Do you suppose you can locate a glass of lemonade for me?”

Edith, staring into Hamilton’s eyes, now glanced at Gwen and Michael with a knowing smile. “Why, of course, Mrs. Tibbs. Please, come in. Hamilton I would love to show you about the place.”

Gwen smiled at Michael about Mrs. Tibbs, “I’m afraid she takes some getting used to. She seems a tad overbearing, but in her own way, she’s trying to be helpful. She probably knew there’s something I have to say to you. Oh, Michael, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since I last saw you. I think I know what’s wrong between us.”

Tightening his hold on her, Michael spoke before she could continue. “There is nothing wrong they we cannot fix. We’ve gone through so much together. Dammit, Gwen, you belong with me.”

She smiled. “I know that, but I do wish you let me finish. I made a vow, even before Lance kidnapped me, to tell you what I should have said long ago.” She took a deep breath. “Looking back, guess I’ve been lying to myself, hiding from the truth, and hurting is both by not being honest. I wanted you to win that tournament, Michael. Deep down, I kept hoping you would show up and take the decision out of my hands, that you’d sweep me up and carry me away from that trap I built around my life. You saved me, Michael. From Lance, and even myself.” She sighed. “Being with you and the children has taught what truly matters in life. I don’t need some silly knight. You are all the hero I will ever want.”

Soaking up her words, Michael felt a hundred feet tall.

“I swore to myself that if I survived this, I wasn’t going to let another day go by without telling you how much I love you. How much I admire your strength, your goodness, and your gentleness with me and the children. And I can’t think of anything I rather do than spend the rest of my life building a dream with you.”

“Arthur and Gwen, building Camelot?”

She shuck her head. “No, you are right. It’s time to outgrow that fantasy. From now on, it’s just me, Gwen choosing you, Michael, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, until death do us part.”

Her words found a place in his heart and made a home there. Drawing her close, he kissed her, long, hard, and with all his magic. “Oh, Gwen, don’t change too much on me. I seem to remember you insisting that there is nothing wrong with a little dreaming. A little fantasy magic now then doesn’t hurt.”

She smiled. “Well, I must say, I wouldn’t mind going back to a certain moonlit cove.”

At her words, desires surge through him.

“Oh, Michael, do you think it will always be like this. I know always is a pretty tall order. Considering how we tend to bicker, I imagine we better just take it day by day.

Looking at her face, realizing his miracle, Michael struggled to find the word to tell her how he felt. “Oh, Gwen, I wish I was good at expressing things. What I want to say, what you need to hear, I can’t always get them right.”

She smiled. “We can work on that. For the present, there other ways to express yourself. Kissing me, for example, would be quite nice.

Sweeping her into his arms, he proceeded to kiss her quite ruthlessly. “There, does that convince you?” He said, pulling away.

Smiling, she reaching up to pull his head back down to her. “It is good for a start.”

 


The Willows

Gwen has always run from the things she couldn't face; her mothers death; her fathers drinking; her "suitable" society. Then her father offers as a prize over her broken down plantation. When her life seems to end, Gwen runs again... Michael has always had to make his own way in life, and it has made him hard as steel. When Gwen refuses to honor her promise, he kidnaps her and spirits her off to the hidden depths of the bayou... where a man and a woman with everything to lose will discover that one they can never run from is the passionate yearning of their hearts.

  • ISBN: 9781310177248
  • Author: Mathew Sperle
  • Published: 2016-05-25 06:20:16
  • Words: 123210
The Willows The Willows