May 30th, 1916
Bellman County, Georgia
The air was as dense and moist as steam from a kettle.
Margaret leaned against the coach’s burgundy, velvet-lined seat and resisted the urge to loosen the buttons at her throat, rip off her gown, and gasp for air. She could strip naked and it would make no difference. There was no breeze but that generated by the horses’ ponderous pace, and it was too hot to ask the poor beasts to do more than plod.
She checked her timepiece to discover barely five minutes had passed since they’d turned off the main road onto a long, meandering uphill drive dominated, at its entrance, by a white-painted iron arch scrolled with two words: SUGAR HILL.
What am I doing here?
But of course, she knew the answer. It was folded neatly in the envelope inside her portmanteau.
Dear Mrs. Sweeney,
As Mr. George Sweeney’s personal attorney and friend, it is my duty to inform you that his will was read today, and he has bequeathed to you the entirety of his estate, including SUGAR HILL, the Sweeney family plantation in Georgia. It’s been in the family since…
She’d stopped reading at that point, letting the letter slip from her fingers and flutter to the floor. Her dear friend Dianna had picked it up, in the same way she had retrieved her from the Belleview Hotel and taken her home to Texas with her after George had plummeted from the bridge build he’d designed and had been overseeing. An instantaneous death, his foreman, the police, and the coroner had all assured her in low sympathetic tones as they patted her hand, as if George’s lack of suffering was supposed to ease her agony. It didn’t. It only incensed her, knowing he was at peace while she was once again left to pick up the pieces.
Closing her eyes, she fought a rise of anger, something she found increasingly necessary as the melancholic fog she’d existed in for so many months dissipated in wispy degrees.
She snapped her eyes open when the darkness behind her closed lids abruptly grew darker and the temperature inside the coach grew moderately cooler.
Huge, moss-tufted tree trunks slid past the windows. Shifting closer to the right-side window, she looked out.
The moss-draped and leafy branches of massive oaks arced up and over the drive, tangling with their kin reaching from the other side and forming a natural, shaded archway. Her throat tightened.
She and William had ridden under similar natural arches in the English countryside.
But this wasn’t England. And she was most definitely not taking a trip down memory lane.
Shoving all vestiges of sentiment deep inside her where they belonged, she straightened and glanced down when her boot caught on something: her portmanteau of legal documents that had precipitated her journey down an unfamiliar yet uncomfortably familiar laneway in an unfamiliar coach manned by a complete stranger. Nudging the soft-sided bag under her seat with her heel, she firmed her jaw.
She’d made her decision. Now she would have to make the best of what George had given her.
She had no choice. It was this, or live off of the generosity of her former in-laws, whom she considered family. But she would not do that, no matter their assurance she was welcome to stay as long as she wished. Cousin Jake and Dianna had their hands full with four children and Dianna’s youngest sister Elizabeth. Nor would she accept Aunt Eleanor’s generous offer that Margaret could stay with her—forever if she wished.
She’d lived with William’s aunt for six months immediately following his death. And though Eleanor was a lovely, lovely woman who never stuck her nose anywhere it wasn’t invited, Margaret could not awaken every morning to a living and breathing reminder of William and, more importantly, of her dependency on his family. She needed something of her own. Something for herself. Something besides other people’s charity.
Given she would never marry again, and there were relatively few other ways she could afford a home of her own short of selling her soul—among other parts of herself—she had reluctantly concluded that the best way to mark the one-year anniversary of George’s death was to uproot herself one final time and embrace what he’d wanted her to have: Sugar Hill.
As though to shine a spotlight on her decision, sunlight flooded into the coach as it broke out of the archway of trees and curved around a keyhole drive.
She clenched her black-gloved hands as what little moisture existed in her mouth evaporated, taking with it her resolve and bravado.
How might they receive her? The telegraph she’d sent from Atlanta the evening before provided little warning of her impending arrival, though that had been by design.
On the advice of Mr. Lyons, whom she’d met in Florida when he’d come to take receipt of the casket containing George’s body, she’d left Sugar Hill’s management to its tenured overseer, Mr. Banner, for the past year. It had not been a huge risk on her part. He’d managed the estate on George’s behalf for close to a decade before it had so unceremoniously landed in her lap—and quite competently, too, if the records she’d received from him monthly were accurate.
Still, it never hurt to show up unannounced. Or at least on short notice. Time limits and the unexpected had a way of exposing cracks in efficacy and character.
The coach creaked to a halt, and a heartbeat later, the door opened. A Negro man of average height and above-average deference, dressed in the familiar uniform of a butler, stepped back to bow his grizzled head as he raised a white-gloved hand to aid her exit. She remained seated, staring at the grouping of coloured people lined up in neat rows on the lawn and, behind them, the massive, white-columned house.
It was larger than anything she had conjured in her imagination. Almost as large as the country house she and William had once owned in Devon.
Swallowing the dryness in her throat, she brought her gaze back to the people.
There had to be at least fifty of them, the men outfitted in the rough garb of labourers, and women in solid or checked-pattern dresses, some wearing colour-matched tignons. Chocked sporadically between the adults were a few children in ragged trousers and shirts or knee-length dresses, and to a one, they were barefoot. They cast curious glances her way, earning them discreet nudges from the closest adult that prompted them to look forward again.
Only one other wore the crisp black-and-white uniform of a house servant: a woman a few paces ahead of the main assembly standing alongside a man and young girl, both of whom stood out not only for their placement at the forefront of the congregation but also for their paleness.
The man’s hair was dark, his skin tanned, and his white shirt worn tucked into khaki-coloured breeches fitted into black calf-length boots. He stood behind the young girl, his hands on her shoulders. This would be Mr. Banner and his daughter Maisie, if she had to guess.
And she did.
If she’d attended George’s hometown funeral, she might know what faces went with what names. But, unable to witness yet another casket bearing yet another loved one into the earth, she’d made her private goodbyes to George in Florida and let Dianna take her to Texas. The written summary of the staff provided to her by Mr. Lyons, however, offered enough information for her to feel confident in her assessment that this man and child were her overseer and his daughter, Maisie.
She smiled, feeling an instant kinship for the girl despite not knowing her. Because she did know her. Intimately.
Thin and freckled, and all elbows and knees below the white, lace-trimmed cuffs and hem of her short-sleeved, knee-length, pink dress, she was a mirror image of Margaret herself at that age—right down to the two long braids that hung over her shoulders, their colour reminiscent of the brick-red hair Margaret had had in her youth.
Time and maturity had blunted her hair’s hue and her beleaguered response to it, but she would never forget the humiliation and hurt she’d experienced as a child, teased by other children for nothing more than the brilliance of her hair.
The man bent and spoke in the girl’s ear, then gestured to a lean, black-and-white short-haired dog crouched on its belly next to him—a motion to stay, she presumed, for the dog remained still when the man broke from the silent assemblage to approach the coach. A slender Negro woman in her early to mid-twenties slipped in behind the girl but made no move to touch her.
The governess, Miss Lisette Lesperance?
Perhaps. Her uniform of a long brown skirt and matching cinch-waist jacket over a ruffled white blouse supported the supposition, while her formal bearing enhanced the probability. Because whoever the girl’s mother was, Margaret suspected she was the reason behind her red hair and freckles.
No woman present fit that description, so she was either deceased—which made Margaret’s heart clutch with the remembered pain of losing her own mother at a tender age—or she had run off, which seemed more likely given the vagueness of information about Mr. Banner’s marital status included in the documents Mr. Lyons had included with his letter:
Estate overseer: Mr. Joseph Tomásou Banner, b. May 25th, 1885, resides in cottage on estate with one dep., daughter, Maisie, age 8, and her governess, Miss Colette Lesperance, b. June 12, 1893.
There was no mention of him being widowed, or divorced, or even estranged. Yet he had a child. Interesting, but not unheard of.
Whatever his marital status or lack thereof, it was not her business, provided it did not impugn the estate’s reputation or affect its operations.
She braced as he neared—his lean, hard-edged face not exactly beaming with welcome—and eased out a breath when he stopped a few yards short of the coach.
Her imagination had failed her where he was concerned, too. She’d envisioned a keg-bellied man with rough red skin and a permanent squint from long days in the sun. Instead, she was regarding a tanned man in his prime, with a shock of dark hair and a jawline that could make a mature lion weep with shame.
A host of butterflies took flight in her chest, forcing her to drag in a steadying breath.
“Get a grip, Margaret,” she whispered, fingers tightening on her fan. “You’ve no reason to feel intimidated. He works for you, remember? They all work for you.”
But all of the workers clumped together behind him didn’t unnerve her the way he did, standing alone and ten feet away.
Steeling her nerves, she peeled away from the velvet seat back and stood. Leaning out the door, she paused, eyes narrowed against the shards of sunlight splintering across the lawn and the people on it. When she could see without too much discomfort, she accepted the butler’s white-gloved assistance to step to the ground. She smiled.
“Thank you, Mr. …”
“Rufus, ma’am,” he said. “Just Rufus.” Dipping his chin, he backed away to stand beside the female house servant whose trim shoulder line was nearly perfectly level with his.
If the woman’s above-average height and crisply starched uniform weren’t enough to elevate her status above that of the women behind her, her snowy white tignon was. Peaking two or three inches above Mr. Rufus’s short-cropped and greyed curls, the head wrap was cut not of lacklustre cotton like those of the other women, but of material that shimmered as if it had been sprinkled with diamond dust. Its dazzling brilliance enhanced the steep slope of her cheekbones and lent sparkle to the welcome shining in her eyes as she returned Margaret’s gaze. She was the only one of fifty some-odd people who did.
For the first time since setting out from Texas, she felt a flare of hope, weak and flickering, like a match flame struggling to find oxygen in a cavern carved of ice. The light and warmth died the moment she locked eyes with the dark-haired man.
He was taller than George had been, and shorter than William, so roughly six feet tall, with the broad-shouldered hardness of a man used to demanding physical labour. His shirt was loose on his frame and his hair longer than strictly fashionable, but it wasn’t his roguish departure from conventional style that captured her gaze so much as the challenge in his level stare. She felt as if she’d rounded a curve on a wooded path and come nose to snout with a wolf.
A full-grown, green-eyed wolf.
Suppressing a shiver she wasn’t entirely convinced was apprehension, she notched her chin slightly higher.
Whatever she’d expected when she’d set her course for Georgia, it wasn’t a staring contest with her late husband’s estate manager. Her estate manager, now. But if that was how Mr. Banner wished to initiate their relationship—temporary though it may be, if this proved a habit of his—then she would oblige.
If she’d learned anything in her brief tenure as Douglas County, Texas’s former schoolmarm, it was how vitally important it was to win the first stare-down. It set the tone for the remainder of the year and, indeed, for decades to come.
Joe contained his surprise the only way he knew how: by silencing his tongue and shuttering his expression.
She was not at all as George had described her in his letters—she was worse. Far worse.
George had described a widow a few years younger than him who loved children and who’d taken up teaching as a way to support herself after her husband’s death. From that, Joe had envisioned one of two women—a brash, large-bosomed gold-digger, content to parade around on George’s arm in exchange for a comfortable, indeed wealthy, lifestyle; or a staunch matron nearing the end of her childbearing years, who either viewed marriage to George as her last kick at the cat or who, aware that the cat would scamper out of reach no matter how well she aimed, planned to nurture her maternal instincts by smothering George under a cloud of marital bliss.
Face to face with the woman he had actually married—five-feet-nothing, porcelain-skinned, and freckled, with not an ounce of maternal softness in her cool green gaze—all he could think was that he’d been so far off in his estimation that an ape draped in widow weeds could have climbed out of the four-up and he’d have been less surprised. That, and he should have resigned twelve months ago.
As though sensing his incredulity and questioning why he should be so shocked, she arched her strawberry-blonde eyebrows and hitched her slender shoulders back until each vertebra of her spine was aligned so perfectly with the next that the skirt of her simple black gown fell with linear precision to the gravel beneath her short-heeled black boots.
He flinched, tensing against a sudden and ridiculous urge to snap his heels together and salute as she continued to regard him with the steel-eyed placidity of a six-foot-two, five-star general.
He’d never served for Uncle Sam, nor had he cowed to any man or woman since crawling out from under his parents’ strong-willed thumbs when he was sixteen. And he had no plans to start bowing down now.
Even George’s tyrant of a father had known better than to treat him with anything less than grudging respect—respect he’d worked hard to earn and keep every day of the fifteen years he’d invested in helping build Sugar Hill into one of the premier tobacco estates in the state of Georgia, if not the whole southern United States. And he wasn’t going to give that up. Not to a woman who, even in heels, was hardly taller than his nine-year-old daughter. Not that he considered this woman remotely a child. Or even childlike.
She was definitely all grown up. That was as plain as the scattering of freckles over her trim nose. He practically tasted her womanly sensuality on the air. In fact, he was forced to fight another ridiculous and disturbing urge, this time to capture her face in his hands and trace the pad of his thumb over her lips before lowering his mouth to hers.
Would she taste of salt, or of the strawberries her lips reminded him of? If he freed that neat bundle of coppery-coloured hair caged in black netting, would it fall in silken waves or wild, Medusa-like curls?
What the hell did it matter? She was George’s widow. His new boss. Sugar Hill’s new owner. And if he wanted to retain some semblance of authority and respect in the eyes of the people he still managed—for now—he’d best start acting like their boss.
Flexing his fingers and forcing his mouth into a rigid smile, he tipped his head in an approximation of a welcoming nod.
“Welcome to Sugar Hill, Mrs. Sweeney,” he said. “I’m Joe Banner. Overseer. You’re welcome to call me Joe.”
She held his gaze for a pair of long heartbeats before inclining her head a fraction of an inch in acknowledgement.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Banner.” Pivoting to face the workers he’d organised on the lawn, she smiled. “And a pleasure to meet all of you.”
He maintained his façade of respectful indifference. Barely.
George’s disinterest in the day-to-day operation of Sugar Hill, and his total trust in Joe to manage it, had at times left Joe feeling like he was the estate owner and George an affable and rare visitor too polite to discourage his regular correspondence about plantation minutiae. George’s widow made no such mistake…at least with regard to who would run things, and how.
That stirred an unsettling and irresponsible coil of possessiveness within him.
George had been his friend before he’d been his employer. And for a decade, Sugar Hill had been Joe’s and Joe’s alone to oversee. This woman was a stranger. An interloper.
Except she wasn’t.
She was George’s widow. She’d been his wife—for all of ten months, but still. George had believed in her enough to entrust Sugar Hill to her. For that reason alone, Joe had to give her a chance and learn if his friend’s faith in this woman was sound—or a product of a middle-aged man’s desperate attempt to redeem his youth.
Shifting to stand squarely at her side facing the workers and their families, and matching her formal tone with none of the frost, Joe said, “I won’t introduce everyone now. Just the house staff. You’ve met Rufus, house butler. And this is Miss Alma, housekeeper and cook.”
Mrs. Sweeney nodded to each as she repeated their names, earning a polite nod from Rufus and a beaming smile from Miss Alma.
“Welcome, missus,” Miss Alma said. “We’re so glad you’ve come. The house is all ready for you, but if there’s anything missing or something you don’t like, you just let me or Rufus here know, and we’ll ensure it gets fixed up right away.”
“Thank you, Miss Alma,” Mrs. Sweeney replied, her cultured English voice warm with gratitude. “You too, Mr. Rufus. I expect I’ll rely on you each a great deal. At least at first. It’s good to know I have your help. And you have mine,” she added. “If you need something, anything at all, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Rufus’s blink, and the slight stiffening of his posture, betrayed his surprise.
After seventy-plus years of working for cruel—or in George’s case, absent—masters, the genuineness of her offer probably induced the same shock he might experience if he awakened to find Sugar Hill blanketed under three feet of snow.
Those same seventy-plus years had also ingrained in him a strong sense of survival without expectation, however. With a polite dip of his chin, and without meeting his new employer’s gaze, he murmured, “Thank you, ma’am.”
Miss Alma was less circumspect and less servile. Ignoring Joe’s gaze—and his previous recommendation that she act with appropriate deference until she had a firm handle on the type of woman Mr. Sweeney had married—she widened her gap-tooth smile and exchanged an appreciative look with Mrs. Sweeney.
Something passed between them then because all of a sudden, Mrs. Sweeney seemed to inflate. Not physically, but perceptually, the armour of reserve with which she’d greeted him replaced with a lightness of being that livened her step as she retreated a few feet to look over the group as a whole.
“Thank you all for taking time from your important duties to greet me.” Her voice rang out strong and self-possessed. “I assure you I will get to know each of you in time. For now, though, please don’t let me keep you from where you need to be.”
She didn’t look at Joe, but he sensed her expectation the way he felt the sun scorching the back of his neck.
He nodded to Rufus, who turned and dismissed everyone by raising his wiry salt-and-pepper eyebrows.
He was certain ol’ Rufus could bring the Devil to heel simply by giving him that look. Only Maisie did not react other than to frown and tilt her head as the others departed to various corners of the estate.
He took a step towards Mrs. Sweeney. “Before I have Rufus show you to your suite, Mrs. Sweeney, there’s someone else I would like to introduce you to—”
But she was already on the move, her black hem dragging along the grass.
“Hello.” Her voice was soft now, filled with genuine pleasure as she stopped in front of Maisie. “You must be Maisie. I’m Mrs. Sweeney.”
Maisie dipped into a shallow curtsy. Looking up, she said, “Hello, Mrs. Sweeney. It’s nice to meet you. This here is Miss Lisette. She looks after me when Joe’s working.”
“Miss Lisette, it’s a pleasure.” Mrs. Sweeney offered Lisette a smile.
Miss Lisette responded in kind, if shyly, before darting a questioning look at Joe. He nodded, giving permission for her to step back.
“Are you going to live in the big house, Mrs. Sweeney?” Maisie asked.
“Well, yes, I suppose I am.”
Mrs. Sweeney didn’t seem pleased by the prospect. Her smile faded as she looked at the house and only returned when she brought her gaze back to Maisie. Then she frowned and glanced over her shoulder in the direction of Maisie’s off-kilter stare. When she looked back at his daughter, Joe held his breath, letting it out in a surprised rush when, instead of excusing herself or asking Maisie what she was looking at, Mrs. Sweeney subtly changed position to stand directly in Maisie’s line of sight—if Maisie had been able to see. Leaning in, she whispered something in Maisie’s ear.
He went rigid with shock when Maisie tinkled out a laugh and lifted her hands to Mrs. Sweeney’s face.
Fisting his hands, he squeezed them, hard. But that did nothing to stop the sensation humming through them as though it were his fingertips skimming the smooth arcs of bone beneath Mrs. Sweeny’s arched eyebrows, his thumbs feathering along the firm, freckled apples of her cheeks and brushing the outer rim of her lips.
The visceral impression was so intense it took him a moment to recognise the sense of déjà vu assailing him.
“Christ,” he whispered.
Why hadn’t he seen it sooner? Why hadn’t he recognised it the instant she’d stepped down from the coach?
Not a wonder George had married her. She was a living, breathing replica of Simone Villeneuve, the woman he and George had fought over.
The woman who’d left him with a child to raise. Alone.
Jesus, George, what were you thinking?
Flexing his hands, he hardened his heart against the tender scene before him: George’s widow, crouched slightly to enable Maisie’s finger-skimming examination of her face.
He definitely should have resigned the minute he received word George was dead. But no, he’d let Lyons convince him to stay. The old fox had massaged his ego and sense of proprietary interest in Sugar Hill with the expert precision of the seasoned litigator he was.
“She’ll need you, Joe, if she decides to keep Sugar Hill. But more importantly, Sugar Hill needs you. She knows nothing about tobacco or growing it, though I understand she’s comfortable managing a big house and large estate. Her first husband owned a number of them in England and elsewhere.”
First husband. And, like George, the man had been a wealthy landowner. If Joe didn’t know better, he’d wonder how a woman so young ended up widowed twice in less than three years.
But he did know better. Or at least he knew what Lyons had told him about the circumstances behind both deaths, so he had some sympathy for her.
She hadn’t been at the helm of the Titanic. And George had made it clear in his letters that he’d pursued her, not the other way around, after meeting her while building a stable for her American relatives. Which, looking at her now, made perfect sense.
What didn’t make sense was why George had been out on that girder in a gale. If he’d waited for the weather to clear, he’d be here now to show his wife around Sugar Hill instead of leaving it to Joe to watch after her and the estate.
“But that’s what you do, isn’t it, George?” he murmured under his breath as Maisie lowered her hands to her sides and stepped back. “Leave me to look after things for you.”
“Your skin is as soft as rose petals, Mrs. Sweeney,” Maisie said. “And you smell nice, like jasmine.”
“Thank you, Maisie.” Mrs. Sweeney straightened and offered her a tender smile. “Normally I chastise children when they lie, but in this case, I’ll allow you the fib.”
“Yes.” Mrs. Sweeney reached out, as though she were going to caress Maisie’s cheek, and abruptly redirected her gloved fingertips to the collar of her gown, which she plucked as she made a wry face. “I smell like an old washrag, which is why I would so dearly love to freshen up. If only there were someone who could show me where to go.”
“I’ll take you,” Maisie exclaimed. “Can I, Joe? Can I show Mrs. Sweeney her new house?”
She was looking a little left of him, so he cleared his throat, and her gaze immediately locked on his chest. Mrs. Sweeney looked over as well, expectant. Wary.
The word “no” balanced on his tongue. The last thing he wanted was for Maisie to get close to George’s widow. Especially not before he had the full measure of her and what she knew—or thought she knew. But he wasn’t going to start off on the wrong foot, either. Not when he needed to keep a roof over Maisie’s head until he had a firm job offer in hand—something that wouldn’t take longer than it took him to send a telegram or two. He had standing offers from two different estate owners who’d been trying to poach him from George for years—one in Savannah, the other in Florida. But he wasn’t ready, just yet, to hare off and let this woman undo his decade of hard work.
He owed it to himself—and, more importantly, the people left behind when he did go—to make sure they were in good hands, even if that meant helping her find his replacement.
That she liked Maisie was a good thing. That she seemed to understand her was even better. But the maternal way she looked at her, and how she’d had to catch herself before touching her…
So many of his internal alarms were pinging, it was a wonder he could hear himself think.
But maybe he was reading too much into her actions. She had been a teacher, after all. People drawn to teaching tended to like and understand children. Or at least it made their job easier if they did.
Then again, who knew what George had told her about the Shakespearean tragedy that had played out on these very grounds between him, George, and Simone. Not that she could do a damn thing about it now. Except maybe fire him.
That would make his decision to stay or go a whole lot easier.
Clearing his throat, he nodded. “Yes, Maisie. You can show Mrs. Sweeney around her house if she’s agreeable. But remember your manners. And be sure to stop in the kitchen and ask Miss Alma to send up a pitcher of lemonade.”
Maisie offered him a heart-wrenching smile. “I will.” She turned to Mrs. Sweeney. “Miss Alma makes the best lemonade you ever tasted.”
“Well, then.” Mrs. Sweeney reached for Maisie’s hand. “We’d best hurry inside.”
Maisie touched her thigh with her other hand, and Reba lunged to her feet.
Joe watched them all go, the dog tagging along at Maisie’s heels, and Mrs. Sweeney being far more discreet in her guidance of Maisie around a large black urn bursting with flowers at the base of the front porch steps than she’d been in her dismissal of the staff. Or him.
He met Lisette’s searching gaze and indicated the hedge, behind which the cottage where she resided with him and Maisie was secreted. She nodded and turned away, and he faced the long rows of tobacco growing in the shade of white cloth sails.
He’d spent fifteen years at Sugar Hill. All of his adult working life. And not once had he given hard thought to living anywhere else.
“That’s a strong, fine woman,” a baritone voice murmured behind him. “An’ real good with Miss Maisie, too. I see what Mr. George saw in her.”
Joe shot a glare over his shoulder at Rufus.
Cheek twitching as though trying not to smile, Rufus leaned into the coach and pulled out two floral-print, soft-sided bags. Field hands had already unloaded and carried Mrs. Sweeney’s trunk inside, leaving Joe a leather suitcase and a hat box. He retrieved the items, and Magnus—who’d remained as silent and still as a block of black granite outfitted in blue livery on the coach’s driver seat for the entirety of Mrs. Sweeney’s introduction to Sugar Hill, and subsequent departure inside the house—clucked his tongue, and snapped the reins.
The horses moved out, shod hooves sparking off small stones as the steel-wrapped wheels crunched gravel. Above the noise, Joe made out Rufus’s cheerful voice as his long legs made short work of the brick walk:
“Yessiree, a strong woman. A fine, strong woman is jus’ what this place needs.”