Northern Virginia ~ 1866
Before he could tell her she was welcome for the rifle and the coffee, Caddie Marsh looked up. The green blaze in her eyes belied her modestly composed features. “I won’t be bought.”
“Bought?” The word spewed out of him. “Of course not! How can you think such a thing?”
“After Richmond fell, I saw plenty of women sell themselves to the Yankees, Mr. Forbes. They’d have rather died first, but they did it to keep their children alive. I was lucky enough to have a house still standing. With shelter at a premium, I only had to board Yankee officers, not bed them.”
Was she trying to shock him into going away and leaving her alone? Manning felt the blood rise in his face until his cheeks tingled. God bless him, he must be the color of a pickled beet! No wonder she’d turned down his marriage offer. He knew so clearly what he wanted from her that he’d assumed she must understand, too. Apparently she’d drawn different conclusions.
“I wasn’t making that kind of bargain when I asked you to marry me, Mrs. Marsh.” A quiver in his loins warned Manning that he wished he was.
“You weren’t?” Her face betrayed surprise and bewilderment.
“Not now.” He stifled a vision that rose in his mind of candlelight flickering over Caddie Marsh wearing only a lace-trimmed nightgown, her mahogany hair unbound in a cascade of curls down her back. “Not ever.”
“I...” She scanned the ground at his feet as if searching there for the words she needed.
Manning gave her the opportunity to collect herself. “I need to marry you for legal reasons, ma’am, to protect my interest in Sabbath Hollow. Once I start fixing it up, I’d have to spend long hours out here. I expect you know how folks talk. I wouldn’t want to compromise your reputation—especially now that I know all you had to do to preserve it.”
“I see. So you wouldn’t expect me to—”
“I wouldn’t.” He cut her off rather than risk hearing her say aloud what he proposed to deny himself. “I’ll take a bed wherever you can spare one in the house. It’ll just be like taking in another boarder.”
“And my children?”
“I won’t be a husband to you, Mrs. Marsh, but I will do my best to be a good stepfather to them, if you’ll give me leave.” He sensed a subtle shift in her bearing that might bode well.
Manning decided to press his advantage. “I mean to come asking every day until you say yes, ma’am. I hope your reason will get the best of your resentment against the Union. You need a man around the place, and unless you’ve changed your mind about your brother-in-law’s invitation, men aren’t in very abundant supply around here.”
“And whose fault is that?” Her abrupt question bit into him, like a willow switch.
Manning hung his head. “I didn’t kill all of ’em, ma’am.”
Was he voicing his protest to her, or to himself?
He heard her suck in a breath. “Of course you didn’t, Mr. Forbes. I can’t picture you doing anyone violence.” Manning flinched as though he’d taken a second strike directly on top of the first.
“What’s the fish man doing here?”
Manning almost burst into giddy laughter at the child’s imperious query, for it extracted him from an unbearably awkward exchange with her mother.
“He’s come courting Mama,” replied her brother in a tentative tone that left Manning unsure whether the boy approved or not.
Caddy Marsh whirled around. “Templeton and Varina Marsh, how long have you been eavesdropping? Now that we’re back home, I’m going to have to polish your manners, I can see that”
“What’s courting?” demanded Varina.
Templeton nudged his sister to be quiet “We haven’t been here long, Mama, honest. I thought you’d hear us coming.”
Mrs. Marsh relented in the face of her son’s chagrin. “Next time, make a noise or call out from a distance before you can hear what folks are saying. That’s what a gentleman would do.”
Manning fought back a grin. Dropping to his haunches, he looked at the little mite eye-to-eye. Something about her steely gaze put him in mind of General Sherman. “Courting means I’ve asked your mama to marry me, Miss Varina.”
Before Manning could reply, Templeton spoke. “Shucks, Rina, don’t be such a baby. Marry means he’d live with us and be our new pa.” The boy’s tone sounded anxious, but whether from fear or eagerness, Manning couldn’t tell for certain.
“And we’d have fish for supper every night?”
“Varina Virginia Marsh!” cried her mother.
Surrendering to his own amusement, Manning chuckled. By the sound of it, he had a potential ally in his campaign to make Caddie Marsh his wife. An ally of considerable determination.
“I can’t promise fish every night, Miss Varina. You might get sick of it if I did. But I can hunt possum and quail. Maybe buy a sow to raise shoats for barbecue.”
“Something you’ll enjoy, unless I miss my guess.”
Abandoning her interrogation for the moment, the child looked up at her mother. “Did you tell him yes, Mama?”
“I—I have to study on it, Varina.” Caddie’s cheeks pinkened and she cast Manning a glance that might have held bashfulness or resentment. Possibly a compound of both. “A lady shouldn’t accept a gentleman’s proposal right off. That’d be too forward.”
Manning almost chuckled again. The woman made it sound like he was some sort of gallant beau and she a blushing debutante culminating their lengthy courtship.
“Your mama’s right, Miss Varina. Marriage is a big step folks oughtn’t to rush into.” He straightened from his crouch. “I’m content to bide my time until she makes up her mind.”
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From the novel In A Stranger's Arms
Publication Date: June 2013
Copyright © 2002 and 2013 by Deborah Hale