“I am,” she said, pulling his skin closed and holding the thread down with her thumbnail. “I was going to be a teacher.”
“Going to be?” He breathed a raspy chuckle. “The charms of matrimony stole you away from your career?”
“William proposed. Mama thought it was a good match.”
“Mama thought, eh? Your mama thought there were fairies living in the bottom of the well, and they sang songs to her when she was pulling up water.”
She frowned down at her work. “You seem to know an awful lot about my mother.”
“I make it my business to know as much as I can about the poor and infirmed.”
“Why? So you can rob them? Or ravish them?”
“Ravish, now there’s an expensive word for it. Neither, actually.” And he offered no further explanation. “Stop trying to change the subject. We’re talking about you.”
The needle pricked through a fresh piece of wound and his skin twitched. Feeling suddenly guilty – and still just as confused – she sighed. “I’m educated,” she repeated.
“And you decided to forgo teaching for this William of yours.”
The memories – of her wedding day, of the stilted, quiet days that had followed – tumbled through her mind, leaving her cold. “I would have been a fool to refuse him. Every girl needs a husband.”
“I take it it wasn’t a love match.”
“Love is for wealthy plantation daughters. William’s mother was dead, his father was ailing, and he had two younger sisters who needed teaching. And I…” She faltered. “I couldn’t have gotten very far without a husband.”
“Were you married long?”
“Two months before he was called away to the war.”
“So he wasn’t first in line to volunteer himself for our esteemed Confederate forces.” His voice was threaded with a laugh. How a man could laugh while she was running ugly black thread through his skin, she didn’t know; it was probably the whiskey.
“William was a fine man,” she said sternly.
“He’s dead, then?”
“His entire regiment. Five weeks ago.” She waited, but still, grief wouldn’t come. It never had, and she supposed it never would, not for William. “I saw it posted on the board in town.”
Liam started to turn and she caught him with a hand on his good shoulder. He settled for swiveling his head; his hair brushed across the half-stitched laceration, stopping her work. “How old are you?”
“Twenty – turn back around. There. Twenty-two.”
“Twenty-two,” he echoed. “And a widow.”
“There’s younger widows than me, I promise you. Now hold still.”
“What of the other two? Your sisters-in-law.”
She shouldn’t tell him, but she didn’t figure, after she’d let the two of them in her house, that any information could be more dangerous. “Lily is seventeen,” she said, “and Annabel is fifteen.”
“And you’ve no other family?”
“If Mama really is dead like you say” – he nodded, hair rustling against his neck – “then no, we don’t. The girls have a cousin in Virginia, but I don’t know much about him.”
“Three girls,” he mused, almost to himself, “all alone in the Georgia woods.”
“Sounds like one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”
He was quiet after that. Rees concentrated on her stitches, her fingers stiff, her shoulders tight with the strain of bending. The high, cloudy windows behind her threw fingers of twilight across the kitchen. If she didn’t finish soon, she’d have to light a lamp, and there was precious little oil left. And the lamp was cracked, the wind getting into the globe, the flame always dancing. She thought they might have some candles, somewhere. Had she seen them? Perhaps hidden in the drawer where the soap had been…
With a grateful sigh, she tied off the last stitch and stepped back. “There,” she said, and Liam slumped forward, arms and head folding over the table. He was dead asleep, or else he’d passed out. She poked him, and he snorted, but didn’t wake.
“You’re welcome,” she said to the empty kitchen, and stretched her arms high over her head, relishing the popping of her joints.
The tread of boots in the other room reminded her that she wasn’t alone. One stranger was out cold, but the other definitely wasn’t. She scraped her fingers through her hair, tugging at the ends come loose from her braid, and waited with fearful, thumping pulse, to see if Theo Merrick was still the man who’d made her a promise in the yard, or if he had transformed, like all men, into a monster who wanted only one thing from her.
In the shadowy, dim evening light, he looked taller, thinner, his hair and beard black, his eyes bright. He stepped into the kitchen with a double armful of split logs. Behind him, Annabel came tagging along with her own small stack of wood clutched to her chest.
Theo bobbed a nod toward his friend. “How’s he?”
“Drunk,” Rees said with another sigh. “And sleeping. And stitched together.” She felt the corner of her mouth twitch; she wanted to smile, but couldn’t manage. “Annabel,” she asked instead, “have you been bothering Mr. Merrick?”
“Yes,” Theo said.
“No,” Annabel countered. “I was keeping an eye on him.” When Theo muttered something and went to drop the firewood by the stove, Annabel lowered her voice to a stage whisper: “He’s awful dirty, but he chops firewood pretty good.”
“Well,” Rees said, feeling the stirrings of a smile again. “He chops it pretty well.”