Theo plucked and dressed the pheasant; Rees sprinkled it with salt and pepper and set it to roast. They ate it at the table, by the light of two lamps, with beans and potatoes and china cups of the warm, sweet red wine the Liam had produced from a dusty bottle under his jacket. Rees let the younger girls drink too, and Annabel’s cheeks were rosy because of it, her laughter loud and sharp. Lily was quiet, but smiling down at her dented tin plate of food.
“Do you even know how to use that bow of yours?” Theo asked Annabel between mouthfuls. Both men had the table manners of wild dogs: eating with their fingers, stripping the chicken from the bone completely, leaving not a scrap behind. They were hungry, and used to eating all they could when they could. It raised a dozen questions in Rees’s mind about where and how they’d gained access to so much food…and not partaken of it themselves.
“Yes,” Annabel boasted, tiny nose lifted high. She’d decided she approved of Theo; Rees could tell. It was a grudging respect on both their parts, it seemed. “I do. I’m good at it, too.”
“Can you even draw the string?”
“Yes! You wanna see? I could kill a squirrel, if I wanted to.”
“Not with that short bow, you couldn’t. Do you handle the rifle?”
“Let’s not encourage that,” Rees said, and he cast a glance across the table at her, eyes twinkling in the dancing lamplight, grinning as he licked pheasant grease off his palm.
“Rees is the best shot,” Lily volunteered, and then averted her gaze again.
“No shame in that,” Liam said. “A girl’s got to look out for herself in hard times.”
Annabel nodded her vigorous agreement.
That line of conversation was going to leave her skin crawling; talk of self-defense inevitably sent her mind spinning back to that terrible afternoon, the girls hiding beneath the trap door, Father Harwood gasping on his last breaths…She shoved the thoughts aside. “Where do the two of you live?” she asked, and earned two dark chuckles for it. “Sorry – where are you staying?”
“Here and there,” Liam said dismissively. “People tend to be friendly.”
“According to the stories, you’ve been as far north as the Carolinas.”
“Further north than that, actually. I’ve traveled quite a bit.”
Something about the tone of his voice told her she wouldn’t get any more information than that. She also wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
“Something I’ve noticed,” Liam continued, “is that the more of a story a person has to tell, the more poorly they tell it.” His eyes came up to Rees’s and she understood what he meant. He wanted to talk about them, and not himself. Either he was nosy, or he wanted to preserve a certain amount of mystery about himself. Neither thought was more repelling than the other. He looked to the two other girls. “You’d be Jim Harwood’s youngest two, wouldn’t you?”
Annabel said, “How do you know my daddy’s name?”
“I just do,” Liam said easily. “Your mother’s been dead a long while. And you have one older brother.”
“William.” Annabel’s frown turned into a morose expression, posture wilting. “Mama died when she had me.”
It was something that had caused her more than a little guilt, and several bouts of tears that Rees had been witness to. Rees had a suspicion William was the source of Annabel’s insistence that their mother’s death was her fault. It was a sore subject, all the way around.
Lily knew it too, and that must have been what gave her the courage to say, “We had a lovely little farm, on the other side of town.” Liam gave her an encouraging look, so she swallowed and went on. “Papa is…was…” Her voice trembled. “Infirm, but William tended the crops. We had root vegetables and apples and a whole acre of corn. After William left to fight, we” – she gestured to include the three of them – “we worked the gardens.”
“That’s a lot of work for three skinny girls.”
Rees made a face that earned a grin from Theo.
Lily didn’t seem to notice her. “It was, but it…it was…fun.” Poor Lily – so uncertain, afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid to be seen as something she wasn’t. Timid to a fault.
Liam shared a look with Theo. “That’s a sad state when picking corn is fun, love.”
Lily blushed and looked at her plate again. “I thought it was,” she said in a small voice.
Liam blinked and seemed to realize he’d tramped her very vulnerable self-esteem. He looked up to Rees. “Why leave then? What brings you” – her made a gesture to the room that was accompanied by a questioning expression – “here?”
“The food got stolen,” Annabel supplied. “Confederate deserters,” she said, making a face, “they dug up every carrot and took every ear of corn. Bastards.”
“Anna,” Rees scolded.
“Let her curse,” Liam said. “Men who’d do that are bastards.”
“You didn’t have any food here either,” Theo pointed out. He reached for the last of the potatoes.
Rees saw the glances Annabel and Lily snuck at her, both asking, wondering how much to tell. Rees nodded.
“We were attacked,” Annabel said, her small little voice taking on a furious edge.
That surprised their guests.
“A Northerner,” Rees supplied, her own voice growing tight. “His regiment had been killed or captured or something. Maybe he deserted. He walked up to the house in his uniform blues and asked, very kindly, if he might have a cup of water from the well.”
With an angry jerk, Annabel pushed her plate back and knotted her hands together on the tabletop, breath sawing in and out of her mouth. The glint in her eyes belonged on an older, hardened, more world-weary girl. It belonged on a man. “He killed Papa,” she hissed, and Rees felt the fine hair on her nape stand on end. “And Colin. And he blacked both Rees’s eyes. I wish he wasn’t dead so I could kill him my–”
“Annabel!” Rees clapped a hand down on the tabletop. Her little sister-in-law gave her a mutinous, murderous look, like an angry cat, eyes slitted, nostrils flared. “That’s enough!”
Annabel fled the room. A moment later, Lily stood at a more decorous rate and followed. Rees heard their tumbling voices in the bedroom before the door closed. And then she was alone with two men and their too-knowing gazes.
Rees pushed to her feet, an accomplishment considering her knees had turned to water all of a sudden. “I’m sorry. They’re just girls and they–” She made a reach for the platter of bones in the center of the table and Theo stayed her with a hand on her wrist. She jumped at the contact. He had large, long-fingered hands, rough, slippery with grease. She snatched her own wrist against her chest and took a step back. Her pulse had gone from sleeping to wide awake; her heart thundered, breath coming in short, sharp draws.
Theo watched her like she was a wild animal who might bite him.
Liam watched her with a gentle understanding that made her want to be violently ill. He knew. He knew and she wished he didn’t. “Sit back down, darling,” he urged. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
“You think I’d have let you in the house if I thought that?” she spat. But her legs folded and her backside hit the seat of her chair.
Placid, sympathetic, his gaze was unwavering. It hurt – hurt worse than the incident itself – to sit here in the presence of these men and have them know exactly what had happened to her. “What happened?” he asked, and his voice reminded her so much of her father’s that she felt a tight ball of emotion welling up in her throat, tears pushing at the backs of her eyes. “Do you think you could tell us?”
A demand she could have withstood. But a sweetly phrased question proved too much.
She smoothed her hands across the table, and told them.