Four years of war have reduced the South to near annihilation. Homes lay smoldering and men become desperate. Amid the shadows of fear, a clandestine group waits for an opportunity to change the course of history.
Harlot, liar, spy…
On the threshold of losing her plantation, Annabelle Ross finds a cryptic letter on a dying soldier and seizes the opportunity to get out a message of her own. She never dreamed her plan would brand her a suspected spy… or worse, an unwilling conspirator.
Deserter, traitor, accomplice…
When Matthew Daniels’s brother is taken captive, he finds himself caught up in a plot to gain leverage on the Union. The lines are drawn in blood, and the risk is there for the taking. But will his reckless gamble cost him the woman he had determined not to love?
She wants to save her home. He wants to save his brother. Together, they may just save a nation.
Jefferson County, Mississippi
February 4th, 1865
Let the dead bury the dead, Annabelle thought as the spade sank another few inches into the ground. She paused a moment to wipe the sweat from her brow with a dirty sleeve. Dead, indeed. Her arms were numb from digging, and her back and legs were starting to cramp. A heart hardened against the gristly task beat rapidly with exertion underneath what had once been the gown of a privileged heiress. But, that was before the war, her father’s death and…. Well, it didn’t matter now anyway.
She hadn’t had time for anything other than the soldiers from both North and South who at one time or another had filled her home to overflowing. Annabelle slammed the spade into the earth, her fingers so numb from the cold she hardly noticed the forming blisters. She gave these men the best she could – a too-shallow grave and a few parting words. She recorded every name, should their families ever come to look for them. Until then, Annabelle had no choice but to share her land with the dead.
“Miss Belle, you’s done enough diggin’ today.”
Annabelle looked up from the hard ground and into a face that looked as tired as she felt. The waning light of another long day cast shadows on Peggy’s dusky skin and made her look older than she should have. Peggy lowered the rear legs of the makeshift cart to the ground, giving a soft grunt as she finally released the weight. Annabelle mustered a smile she hoped would soothe away some of the worry lines creasing Peggy’s brow.
“I know. But I didn’t think we could stand to leave him out another day.”
Peggy pressed her lips together but said nothing. She was less fond of leaving dead men in the house than she was of Annabelle digging. Annabelle reached down and grabbed one of the worn boots, and gave the body a tug. He felt twice as heavy as when they’d loaded him in the cart. “Help me get him in.”
Peggy hesitated, and Annabelle wondered if this would be the time she refused, but, as usual, Peggy clamped her jaw tight and grabbed the other boot. They heaved and struggled until the body fell from the cart, scraped over the rough earth, and finally landed in the hole with an unceremonious thud just as the sun began to dip below the trees. Annabelle resisted the urge to place her dirty fingers under her nose in a futile effort to hold off the stench.
Peggy sighed. “It’s a right shame we ain’t got no preacher for them. You sure buryin’ them here is a good idea?”
Annabelle pinched the bridge of her nose and let out a weary sigh. “Peggy, you’ve asked me that question a dozen times, and a dozen times I’ve given you the same answer.”
“Still don’t like it.”
Annabelle nearly agreed, but she knew that would only give Peggy more footing to try to wear down her resolve. “Come on. It’s getting dark. We need to get him covered. Lord willing, he will be the last soldier we lay to rest at Rosswood.”
“Humph. You done said that ’bout the last two.”
Annabelle threw a scoop of dirt on the body and ignored her. Peggy grunted and grabbed the other shovel. By the time they patted down the mound and tossed on a few rocks in a scant attempt to keep the coyotes at bay, darkness had descended and blanketed Rosswood in a shroud of shadows.
“I’s got some water on the stove so we’s can get you a good bath tonight.”
Annabelle looped her hand through Peggy’s arm as they trudged back to the house. “No, I don’t want you carrying all that water up the stairs again. It’s too much trouble. I’ll just wash from the basin.”
They walked across dry ground that had once sprouted fields of cotton that had made Annabelle imagine what a thick covering of snow might have looked like where Momma had grown up in New York. She’d told Annabelle stories of snow that had fallen so heavy it had blanketed the ground like a quilt instead of huddling in icy patches as it did here, clinging to the shady places and crunching beneath her too-worn boots.
“Now you know’s your uncle might be here any day,” Peggy said, interrupting her recollections of Momma. “Won’t do for him to see you lookin’ like a field hand and not a lady.”
Annabelle drew in a long breath of air that smelled like soggy earth and the faint aroma of death from which she could never truly escape. “He’s not my uncle,” she mumbled. Peggy didn’t respond.
It was bad enough she’d had to live under Grandfather’s rule. She didn’t welcome Andrew’s. She clenched her hands at her side. “What does it matter? What does he expect to find here? Rosswood spent two years as a hospital and now as a makeshift haven for the wounded they left behind. Our slaves have long since run off, and war has stripped us all of what we once were. This place is a wretched waste. What will it matter if I look like a field hand? I work like one.”
Peggy’s fingers squeezed her own and she knew she’d let fatigue tinge her words with bitterness. Still, Peggy did not chide her because they both knew her words rang true.
“Forgive me, Peggy. You are right,” Annabelle said, her shoulders slumping as they neared the house. “I should look presentable, even for him. Though I know Father would have preferred his own brother looking after Rosswood until I wed. Not Andrew.”
Peggy nodded, her scarf-wrapped head bobbing in the darkness. “Ain’t no doubt of that. But since he ain’t responded to your letter, I don’t see how you’s gonna be able to count on him to come instead of Andrew.”
If only Father hadn’t died….
Annabelle huffed and turned the subject back to the original topic. “I still won’t have you lugging all that water up the stairs. We’ll move the tub into the kitchen. I can bathe by the hearth while you cook.”
They stepped onto the back porch and Peggy lifted a lamp from the hook on the post, producing a match from her apron and birthing a tiny flame. Soon the flame filled the chimney with a warm glow, and a shiver ran down Annabelle’s spine that hadn’t been caused by the chill. She’d grown too afraid of the shadows. The flickering light danced across Peggy’s face, illuminating worry lines that seemed to grow deeper with each passing day. Finally, Peggy nodded. “I guess I don’t sees no harm in it. Ain’t like no one’s gonna notice no ways.”
Grandfather had retired hours ago. He’d started staying in his chamber more and sleeping longer. Annabelle suspected he did it to hide how rapidly the sickness was getting worse. Or at least try to hide it until his son made it to Rosswood. And Grandfather would be the only one who would care if Annabelle bathed in the kitchen.
They turned from the dark house and descended the steps again, two of which had begun to sag. Only two soldiers remained within, and she’d already seen to their supper and bandages. Surely they would not need her again tonight. Guilt tugged at her anyway, and she paused at the bottom of the steps.
Peggy turned. “What’s wrong?”
“I better check on them once more. I’ve been out of the house for a good while. What if something happened again?”
Peggy’s brows drew together. “You’s done enough. You gonna run you self into the grave.”
“Do you think you can get the tub set by yourself?”
Peggy tilted her head. “Child, who you done think toted that thing up and down them stairs all those years? I think I can get it into the kitchen.”
You used to have help, Annabelle thought. But why bother saying it? “Thank you. I’ll be along in a few moments.” She turned to find another lamp, wondering if it would have any oil.
“I got a bad feeling about that one,” Peggy said to her back. “Won’t be long before we’s draggin’ him through the yard, too.”
Annabelle cringed. She knew little by way of nursing, only what she had observed when the house was used as the hospital, but she prided herself in having learned enough to care for the few who had been left behind. She refused to lose another one. She looked over her shoulder. “I only want to be sure Lieutenant Monroe’s fever has not returned again. I won’t be long.”
Peggy dipped her chin and lifted her lamp. “Here. Take this ‘un. I can gets to the kitchen without it.”
Annabelle hesitated, but realizing that arguing would only delay the comfort of warmed water to her tired muscles, she consented and took the lamp. She unlatched the rear door and stepped into the house as quietly as she could, careful to avoid any planks she knew would protest her weight with a groan. She passed Grandfather’s door and underneath the archway, turning to her left and into what had once been her father’s library.
She turned down the flame until it barely glowed in the chimney and raised it to the open doorway. Two forms lay draped in thin blankets on the floor. A soft snore drifted from one of the forms, but neither moved. Relief spread through her. They both appeared to be resting comfortably. Neither thrashed about nor mumbled in his sleep, as each had often enough done when the fever raged. The soldiers hadn’t thought these two and three others would survive their wounds and had, thus, left five Confederate soldiers with her when they finally abandoned the hospital. If she did not care for them, who would?
She stepped silently onto the rug and across to one of the pallets on the floor. The flickering light revealed the unshaven face of a man about the age her father would have been, had he not found his death in battle. The man’s chest rose and fell evenly. Perhaps the fever had finally broken and he would no longer mumble strange, disconnected words in his sleep. She slipped in between the two pallets positioned so the men’s feet pointed to the glowing embers. Annabelle prayed spring would soon arrive and give way to warmer nights, lessening the amount of logs she’d need to chop.
She lowered herself to her knees between the two forms, telling herself that having only one petticoat was a good thing, since it gave her easier movement. Annabelle peered into the face of Private Jack Hanson, who seemed nearly docile in his sleep. He’d lost his right arm at the shoulder and his right foot. She’d been there helping the nurses hold him down when the surgeon had sawed them off, listening to a string of words that would have infuriated her father, had he been alive to hear them spoken in her presence.
Annabelle lifted the light and checked the bandage around the stump on his arm, pleased to see it was no longer seeping. She should check the one on his foot, but that would require removing his covering and –
A hand suddenly closed around her wrist, and she drew a sharp breath. “Shhhhh,” Edward Monroe hissed before the scream dislodged from her throat. He dropped his hand. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
She snatched her gaze from where it had rested at Jack’s feet and whirled around to level it on Lieutenant Monroe’s face. He offered a lopsided grin as his only apology for frightening her. She glared at him. “Are you mad? You could have made me drop the lamp and set fire to us all,” she whispered between clenched teeth.
He pulled himself to a sitting position and regarded her for too long. She was much too tired to indulge him in one of his long-winded conversations, so she thought to withdraw before her silence gave him the encouragement to continue.
“I know you took it from him.”
Her heart lurched. Impossible. She narrowed her eyes, wondering if he could see the truth in them in the low light. “I do not know of what you speak.”
He regarded her with the same disappointed look her father might have given her over another poorly done page from the arithmetic primer all those years ago.
“It is of grave importance,” he said in a strained whisper.
She settled back onto her heels and regarded him. “What is?”
He shook his head. “It was entrusted to us. I must leave here and get it to….” His voice trailed off, and she caught herself leaning forward in anticipation.
She rose and straightened her skirt. “How am I to know you were supposed to have it? Were it yours, then you would be the one with it.”
His eyes darkened. “You don’t know what you are fooling with, girl.”
Annabelle turned on her heel to leave, but he grabbed a fistful of her skirt. She looked down at him, just now noticing the sweat beading on his head. Perhaps fever hadn’t fully left him, and she’d not been able to stop the festering in his leg after all. He drew a long breath and blew it out slowly, stirring the hair that hung damp across his forehead.
“Are you loyal to the cause?”
Annabelle’s heart rate accelerated. She’d done everything to conceal her true feelings, hadn’t she? “Of course I am. Why would you even ask such a thing of a lady?”
He frowned. “I’ve seen many a lady with a notion that she can conduct her own thinking, even when it goes against the men of her country.”
Annabelle bristled. Why, of all the…. She ground her teeth. She wouldn’t learn anything if she snapped at him. “My father died resisting the Northern Aggression, sir. You would do well not to accuse me of disrespecting his memory.” She looked down at his hand still holding fast to her dress. “Unhand me, Lieutenant Monroe.”
He released her, slumping back onto his pallet. “It must get to him. I fear it is our only hope now.”
“Must get to whom?”
His eyelids fell. “Not for you to know,” he mumbled.
Annabelle leaned forward, but he had slipped into a fitful sleep, his eyes darting around behind their lids. She slipped out of the room and down the hall, not daring to breathe until she reached the safety of the rear porch. Once the door latched behind her, she let herself fall into the only remaining chair.
With trembling fingers, she slid her hand into her skirt pocket and touched the folded paper she had removed from the jacket of the man she’d buried only a short time earlier. Thinking it would be a message to a loved one, she’d planned on trying to find to whom it needed to be sent when she found a spare moment to do so. Now, she feared what she held was something of far more importance.
She pulled the slip of paper free and carefully exposed the message to the dying flame that could no longer hold the shadows at bay.