It, like all stories, begins in one place and ends in quite another. Small minds expand. Opinions are worked over like hot iron in a forge. Writers are a bit like blacksmiths in that respect: we thrust characters into the fire and beat on them until they're in the shape we want...
There are two kinds of legends. There’s the big legends: the legends everyone knows. They’re embellished, and twisted, but the main threads run constant. Legends of kings, of presidents, of horrible wars. The sorts of legends that withstand centuries of time, and get put down in books.
Then there are small legends: the local ones. The ones salted with the flavor of towns, of places, of small people with big stories to tell as they keep warm by the fire. Legends steeped in mystery, swirled in uncertainty, tasting of fear and dreams and wishes and tall tales. Legends that only exist on the lips of the tellers, that spill forth at the gentlest prodding of good whiskey, that live a generation, or two, or three, before they’re laid to rest in cold Southern ground somewhere.
Liam Bennet was a small legend.
It had started in 1860, before the war. Of the few truly well-to-do families in Marietta, the McCords had been the wealthiest. Their Greek revival mansion sat on a prime square at city center, shaded with oaks, washed a crisp white and shining in columned glory. Reesling had never been to one of their parties – she was too close to poor for that – but she’d heard tell of them. Men and women in Sunday finery sipping mint juleps beneath parasols, playing croquet in the dappled shade of those magnificent oaks, laughter slipping up through the leaves like the strike of wind chimes. Fine food and servants moving about across the lawns and through the manse. Dancing and drinking and the soft rustle of expensive skirts sweeping across the ballroom floor. According to Haddie Dunstan, whose papa owned the butcher shop and who supplied the McCords’ parties with pork haunch and beef roast, it was a sight unequaled save the most exclusive of Atlanta house parties.
It was Devin McCord, rumor had it, who’d first introduced Marietta to the man who would come to be known as the Magician. If passed-around stories were to be believed, Liam Bennet had worn his hair short and been clean shaven the night of that party. He’d been dressed as well as any English lord, and his tongue had been twice as charming. While partygoers looked on, stupefied, he’d made a soup tureen levitate. He’d stolen ten ladies’ purses without moving from his place at the center of the ballroom. With a dozen card tricks, he’d dazzled. Turning a pocketwatch into a dove, he’d astounded. And at the end of all that, he’d conjured a leaping flame in the palm of one empty hand. Not just a magician, but a conjurer. A firestarter. He was half-gypsy, half-noble, half-demon, half-rake.
Or so the story went.
But once the war started, other stories had begun to arise. For the past three years, tales of the Magician had traveled as far as the Carolinas and back. His parlor tricks had been transformed through the telling into feats of great and terrible black magic. He was a heretic who worshipped devil spawn…and who somehow managed to conjure himself into the middle of dozens of battles – from state line to state line – appearing when and where he was needed, snatching young Confederates off the battlefield, leaving dead northerners in his wake. No one knew his motive, or his methods, or if he even existed, really. He was a local hero frightened mothers told their children of. Georgia’s very own Locksley.
And here he sat in Rees’s kitchen.
Her deep-seated sense of hospitality kicked in, but she had nothing to offer guests. “Lily, put some water on,” she instructed, “for tea.” And her eyes went to the meager stack of split logs beside the stove, stomach tightening at the thought of using any of it for something so menial as tea.
Lily shared her worry, her blue eyes wide and frightened. “But the wood–”
“Tea, Lily,” Rees pressed, and moved about the room. The whole house was six inches in dust and smelled like an abandoned barn. What had you been doing, Mama? she wondered. Had it gotten this bad? Were you in so poor a shape? If she was truly dead, as Liam claimed, then she had been. I should have been here, she thought fiercely. But she’d had a husband off to war and a baby and sisters-in-law…
“Annabel,” she said in a warning tone. “What have I always said about poking bears?”
From her perch on a chair, Annabel spared her a withering glance and then returned to making faces at Theo Merrick. “He’s not a bear; he’s just a smelly old outlaw who needs a shave.”
He was sitting in the window seat, one long leg drawn up, arm propped on his knee, boots leaving fresh mud on the grimy window ledge. He looked lean and dark and dangerous in the sad quiet of the kitchen, his eyes a bright shade of green that missed nothing. He’d taken off his brown jacket – not military wool, but faded oilskin – and fished a green apple from a pocket that he was peeling with a wicked length of knife, sun glinting on the shiny wet innards of the peel strips. His nails were dirty and his fingers were callused and he had all his teeth still, the whites of them flashing as he slipped a bite of apple between his lips. Everything about the man was frightening…but he didn’t frighten her the way the Yankee had. The Yankee had been soft and slight and offered pleasantries. Theo was anything but pleasant, and if a man didn’t put on airs, you could probably believe what he said. Or so that was Rees’s logic.
By contrast, Liam sat at the head of the plank table, as casual and unconcerned as if he were an uncle they’d invited for dinner. Under his jacket, his clothes were faded and dirty, and offered a clearer picture of strong shoulders. He has a nice neck, Rees thought, stupidly. Under the scruff of his reddish beard, framed in straggly hair, he had a nice face, too. It was weathered, and lined, and showed his age. And he had beautiful eyes. If nothing else about the man was true, his reputation of a rake had been true at some point. At some point in his life, women had found something in his looks that drew them in slowly, sinuously, until they were snared before they’d managed to find a word for the strange way in which they thought him handsome.
“I’m a bear now?” Theo asked, still peeling apple.
“You’re not anything I want in the house,” Rees countered, pulling the tea kettle down from its shelf. There was one tea bag left. One. And she dropped it in the pot that she placed on the table.
“Did you hear that?” Theo asked with a glance at his friend.
“Aye. She’s right, you know,” Liam said. “I wouldn’t want you in a house of mine.”
Theo snorted and chewed apple.
The air had a tense, frozen quality about it, ready to crack. This was the strangest, scariest, stupidest situation Rees could have imagined. She filled the kettle from the bucket they’d hauled up from the well and kept an eye on both men. Lily stood wringing her hands, looking close to panic.
Liam’s gaze went to the willowy blonde. “Don’t fret, child,” he told her in a gentle voice. “We don’t mean you any harm.”
Lily swallowed – throat moving – and managed a tremulous smile.
“Why are you here?” Rees asked.
His blue eyes shifted to her and she fought the urge to curl her hands into fists. That almost-smile flirted with his face again, and made his blue gaze dance. “I take it you know who I am?”
She kicked her chin up. “I’ve heard stories.”
“And you don’t trust me.” It wasn’t a question.
“I don’t see a reason to trust anyone these days.”
His grin became true. “Smart girl.”