His life just turned from bad to worse.
The rancid scent of burned crops hung thick in the air as Jesse Montgomery stared at the charred field. A pang of helplessness squeezed his heart. Beads of sweat slid down his heated face, and yet he didn’t have the strength to wipe it with the sleeve of his shirt. His strength had been sapped just trying to douse the fire that had consumed most of the family’s corn field.
As much as he and his family tried to stop the fire from spreading, there wasn’t anything they could do. Their field hadn’t been large to begin with, but selling the corn – along with the small herd of cattle they raised – kept his family fed and a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs. But now…
Despair nearly suffocated Jesse and he sighed. What was he going to do now?
Being the eldest of his parents’ four children – and the only male – Jesse felt the weight of their problems. Pa had died twelve months ago, leaving Jesse in charge. Two weeks ago, the debt collectors had come to gather what little money Jesse and his mother could squeeze out of the family’s coffers.
And now the fire.
Groaning, Jesse raked his fingers through his dirty, ratted long hair. The grime covering his body made him feel as though he hadn’t taken a bath in over a month, and yet he knew that wasn’t the case. But the desire to clean himself up had fizzled out just as surely as the fire had.
A soft hand touched his back just as the charred crops around him crunched under someone’s footstep. Out of the corner of his eyes, the movement of his mother captured his attention.
“Oh, Jesse.” Her voice broke. “What are we to do?”
He took in a deep breath, trying to fight the panic rising within him. He couldn’t lose composure now. He must be strong, especially in front of his mother. As he pulled his stare away from the ruined fields and focused on his mother, tears brimmed in her blue eyes. A lump of deep emotion lodged in his throat. Not often had he witnessed his mother crying, and when he did, it nearly tore him apart.
She looked as grimy as he felt. The brown hair she’d always kept in a tight bun now hung limply around her shoulders. The gingham dress that had been crisp and clean this morning was now caked with mud and ashes. Smudges of dirt marred her normally lovely face.
“I don’t know, Ma.” He swallowed hard, trying to remove the lump painfully tightening in his throat. “I was hopin’ you’d have a brilliant idea right about now.”
She shook her head. “Unfortunately, I’m out of brilliant ideas.”
He slipped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him. The pain in his heart twisted. “We’ll think of somethin’. We have to.”
“I just pray the debt collectors understand our predicament and will be patient with us for payment.”
Jesse knew the type of men who worked for the banks well enough to know they always thought of themselves first. It was all about money, no matter how many people they stepped on to get it. “Let’s pray that’s what happens.”
His mother wiped away a tear sliding down her face, leaving a clean trail on her cheek amongst the grime.
Jesse hadn’t had the strength to think of what he and his mother could do. Of course, for the past several hours, his mind had been preoccupied with the fire. His four younger sisters wouldn’t know how to earn extra money, and they were still in school.
“Ma, you wouldn’t happen to know if we have any well-to-do relatives that could help us out?” he asked jokingly.
His mother’s chuckle sounded forced. “Actually, I do.”
Surprised, he pulled back and looked at her. “Are you pullin’ my leg?”
“Not at all.” She stepped away from him and folded her arms. “My oldest sister, Gertrude, had one of her sons marry a wealthy woman. Of course, Charles had just made a good deal of money on the railroad, if I remember correctly. The woman he married had been a wealthy widow in her own right.”
Memories of Jesse’s childhood surfaced through the haze of weariness still filling his head. “I remember Charles. He was ten years older than me. He was a little hellion, if I recall.”
“Yes, that was Charles.” She chuckled lightly. “The family blamed it on his red hair. They said redheads always had stubborn tempers.”
An idea popped inside Jesse’s head, and he grasped his mother’s shoulders. “I think I have a solution to our problem. I’ll go to my cousin and ask him for a loan. Once we get the crops replanted, we’ll start makin’ money again. I could pay him back in a few years.”
“That would be a good idea, however…” as his mother paused, she frowned. “Charles is dead. He died three months before your pa died.”
Closing his eyes, he groaned and rubbed his forehead. Jesse’s headache grew faster the more bad news he received. He shook his head, not wanting to give up hope just yet.
He met his mother’s sad gaze. “What of Charles’s widow? Do you think I could beg her to help us?”
“We’ve never met her.”
He recalled a time he’d gone to see his cousin and had met the woman Charles was courting. She was a beauty, but she’d had a rotten attitude toward him. Although… her eyes had told him that she’d been slightly interested in Jesse even if she was engaged to his cousin.
“No, I believe I’ve met her once when I was visiting Charles. It was before they were married.”
Hope shone in his mother’s eyes. “Perhaps she’ll remember you, then.”
“I can only pray that her temperament has changed since I’d met her. And I hope she considers me family even though Charles is dead.”
“Well, she may have married your cousin, but she might not feel obligated to help us.”
“What do you know about her?”
“Not much.” His mother shook her head. “I know she lives on a large cotton plantation that was her first husband’s. Her cotton fields are the largest around.”
“She’s up north?”
“She actually lives in Atlanta, Georgia. If you ask anyone about Mrs. Summer Graham, I’m certain they can point you in the right direction.”
Jesse gazed toward the north. Dark, gray clouds hung in the sky. Light drops from the rain touched his face. If only the rain could have been here once the fire had started. This summer had been abnormally hot and dry, and a careless spark from a sickle as it struck a rock had quickly ignited the flame.
He didn’t dare leave his family alone to clean up the mess and replant, and yet, the sooner he could find his cousin’s widow, the quicker Jesse could convince her to loan them money.
“It’s rainin’,” his mother said with a tight voice. “That will help.”
Ma had always strived to be positive no matter what the circumstances. Of course, in his recollection, this was the worst problem their family had ever faced.
“Yes, the rain will help,” he said. “That’s a good sign of better things to come.”
Her gaze met his. She smiled through trembling lips. “Yes. Things will only get better from here on out. I’ll start on my journey tomorrow mornin’.”
She smoothed her hand down his long hair. “You need to look your best. I’ll cut your hair, and—”
“No, Ma. I’m not cuttin’ my hair.”
She frowned. “Why?”
“Because of what Grandma Liz told me when I was a young boy.”
“Oh, Jesse. You cannot still believe that you’re Samson from the Bible.”
Jesse rolled his eyes. “Of course I don’t think I’m Samson, but Grandma Liz was fond of my hair. She told me it gave me strength, and although I know it wasn’t really true, her strength gave me hope. Right now, I need to hold onto that hope.”
Tears filled her eyes again. “Indeed, we do need that. Your grandmother was a wise woman. I miss her so much.”
“As do I, but she’s always in my heart.”
She nodded. “Fine, we won’t cut your hair, but you need to wear your best clothes. You must make a great first impression. You don’t want her to think you’re desperate.”
Jesse chuckled in a sarcastic tone. “But Ma, we are desperate.”
“True, but you don’t want her to know that.”
“I promise I’ll be on my best behavior.” Jesse just prayed his dead cousin’s wife was on her best behavior and that she had a kind heart, too.”
* * * *
Summer Graham kept her head down as she moved with the throng of people heading out of the church. She’d always been a faithful church-goer, but this last year had been extremely difficult. Being out in public was impossible sometimes, especially when awful rumors still floated around about her. If only she had a way to prove them false, but as it was, hiding was her only way to make the rumors die down.
So then why were people still talking?
It had been months since she stepped inside a church, but today’s event was different. Her second husband’s younger sister had gotten married. Some of Brandon’s family members still glared at her as they blamed her for his death. But with her attendance at the wedding this morning, she hoped they would change their minds. Summer still considered them as family.
She hurried out of the double doors and toward the walkway. The fresh, but very warm, air touched her face and she breathed deeply, hoping it would somehow cleanse her soul. But just as today’s humid temperature, she feared the heat would never leave her scarred soul.
“Mrs. Graham! Over here.”
Hearing her name, she glanced up. Her first husband’s brother, Lewis Claremont, waved his arm as he stood by the coach. She sighed and gave him a nod, acknowledging him. Slowly, the enclosed feeling she’d experienced inside the musty old building began to dissipate, helping her to breathe better.
Lewis had been such a dear friend even before his brother died of pneumonia three years ago. Angus had been a sickly man before Summer had married him, but since their wedding had been arranged, she had no other choice but to take him for better or worse. Of course, it helped that the man was wealthy, and Summer’s main purpose in marrying Angus was so that her family could upgrade their livery stable.
Lewis, her brother-in-law, was more her age, which was why she could get along with him so well. Angus had been a good eighteen years her senior, and at times, she felt like his daughter instead of a wife. Lewis made her laugh and he could put her at ease. He was also the one who stood by her side, helping her through the mourning of her three husbands.
Sometimes his constant presence irritated, but thankfully, the moments were few.
Summer reached her brother-in-law and stopped. “Oh, Lewis, thank you for waiting. I’m sure the heat nearly baked you.”
“I sat in the shade of a tree until the wedding was finished. I promised I’d be here for you, and I never back out of my promises.” He smiled, and his brown eyes twinkled. “How was the wedding?”
“Brandon’s sister went through with the marriage, the poor fool. But it was the crowded church that bothered me more.” She cringed. “At times I felt suffocated.”
His gaze left hers as he scanned the crowd lingering on the church grounds who visited with the family members of the married couple. “Indeed. There’s quite a crowd today, and I’m sure you were the prettiest lady there.”
Summer arched a quizzical eyebrow and snickered under her breath. Lewis had always been such a charmer. His good looks and sweet smile would make any maiden swoon. And yet, he remained unmarried. At times, she wondered if he was interested in having a relationship with her, but he’d made no overture. In fact, he was the one who’d helped find husbands two and three for her. Thankfully, Summer’s marrying days were over – as was the silly notion of falling in love. Who would love a cursed woman, anyway?
“Are you ready for me to take you home, now?” Lewis asked and arched his eyebrow. “Or would you rather stay and mingle with your former in-laws? I’m sure you could give them fuel for those women with leaky-mouths.”
Summer rolled her eyes. “Lewis, your humor isn’t working today. Why would I want to give them anymore to talk about? I dislike almost everyone here.”
Lewis threw back his head and laughed. The light wind blew his wavy blond hair around his ears and neck.
“You are correct, my dear sister-in-law. I was being humorous, as always. I just wanted to see you smile.”
She snorted and shook her head. “Once again, that would only cause another uproar with those former family members whose only purpose in life is to spread tall tales about me.”
Lewis turned and opened the door to the coach, but just as she had clutched her gown to lift it to her ankles preparing to climb inside, her name floated on the breeze, once more. She stopped and looked toward the unfamiliar male voice. Coming toward her taking wide strides, was a man with the longest dark brown hair she’d ever seen on a man. His trimmed goatee only enhanced his handsome looks, and his brown trousers and vest, beige shirt, and black string tie and hat fit his muscular body to perfection.
The chattering in the crowd outside the church hushed as the man hurried passed the gossipmongers. Women of all ages gaped with open mouths and their eyes widened in astonishment. Apparently, Summer wasn’t the only one who thought he was attractive.
He stopped in front of her and smiled. “Are you the widow, Mrs. Graham?”
The man sighed and removed his hat, holding it against his wide chest. “Oh, good. I’ve been searchin’ for you, and at long last, I’ve found you.”
“Now look here, sir,” Lewis snapped as he stepped in front of Summer, blocking the man from talking to her. “Where are your manners?”
The stranger arched his eyebrow. “I haven’t done anything to offend you, or Mrs. Graham, and yet you are the outspoken one. Where, may I ask, are your manners, sir?”
Lewis gasped in complete shock. Summer was sure no other man had talked to Lewis in an uncouth tone before. But the man’s expression wasn’t rude. He looked determined.
Without letting Lewis stand in the stranger’s way, he met her stare from over Lewis’ shoulder. She realized then just how tall the handsome man really was.
“Please, Mrs. Graham, I need to speak with you… in private.”
The emphasis on the last word made her curious, but she didn’t know him. Could she trust him? Her first instincts told her no.
She didn’t say anything, but shook her head and stepped up into the coach.
“Please, Mrs. Graham,” the man persisted. “We are related.”
She rolled her eyes. She’d been married three times. She was certain she was related to many people she’d never met.
“Listen here, sir,” Lewis snapped as he stopped the stranger from coming any closer to the coach. “Mrs. Graham doesn’t wish to hear your lies, so be on your way.”
“I’ve traveled quite a distance—”
“It matters not.” Lewis raised a stubborn chin and folded his arms. “Mrs. Graham doesn’t lower herself to speak with men such as your ilk.”
Before another word was spoken, Lewis hopped inside the coach and closed the door. He scooted on the seat beside her and quickly rapped his knuckles on the wall to alert the driver that they were ready. Within seconds, the vehicle lurched into action.
“The nerve of that man,” Lewis grumbled.
Summer couldn’t get the man’s face out of her mind. “I’m sure he just didn’t know any better.”
“Of course he didn’t. Did you see his hair? Although he tried to dress respectfully, his wild hair gave away his true self. He’s nothing but a scoundrel, I’m sure of it.” Lewis shook his head. “And to say you two were related… What has this world come to?”
“Now Lewis,” she patted his hand, “try to calm yourself. This type of things happens to me quite often. People want handouts from me all the time.”
“You’re correct, my dear, but there was something about this man…” Lewis shrugged. “I can’t put my finger on it.”
In silence, Summer thought again about the stranger’s handsome looks and his masculine built. Indeed, there was something very familiar about him. Before Lewis had upset the stranger, his remarkable blue-green eyes tugged slightly at her hardened heart. For a split second, he’d even smiled…
Another image came to her mind, and she gasped. Lewis swung his head toward her; his face etched with worry.
“What is it, my dear?”
Lewis shook his head. “Charles, who?”
“My last husband, Charles Graham. That stranger resembled Charles, but it’s more than that. I feel as if we’ve met.”
Lewis flipped his hand and leaned back in the seat. “No, I think you’re mistaken. Charles didn’t have any brothers, remember?”
“I remember, but the stranger did say we were related.” She shook her head. “But I think we’ve met before, and I believe it could have been through Charles.”
“I’m quite sure he was lying through his teeth. And maybe he reminds you of someone else you’ve met.” He grasped her hand, cradling it in his. “Summer, you must not believe everyone that tells you that. You are worth a lot of money. Strangers will try to sneak into your life and steal from you one way or another. But I hold fast to the promise I made my brother before his death that I will look after you. I’ll keep money-hungry men away from you.”
She smiled. “And you have done a remarkable job, for which I’m eternally grateful.”
“So trust me on this. The long-haired stranger is just a charming crook who wears nice clothes.”
“If you say so, Lewis.”
She looked out of the window. Lewis had never lied to her before, nor had he led her astray. And yet, she couldn’t shake the thought that this stranger just might be related to Charles. The long-haired man’s amazing blue-green eyes would haunt her dreams tonight, she just knew it.
In a flash, her memory returned. She had met him through Charles, and he was a cousin. As her memory gradually opened, she recalled the man’s charm, and that she’d been flattered by his attention. Her heart had flipped crazily when he’d smiled at her, and she nearly melted into a puddle when he’d kissed the back of her hand. His astonishing eyes had indeed haunted her dreams. But she’d known during that time that she had to marry a man with wealth, and Charles’s cousin wasn’t that man. If memory served, she had probably not been very polite to this man during that time. After all, she wasn’t going to give her heart to someone with no money. Her family’s livelihood depended on the wealth of her husband.
She decided not to mention this to Lewis. He’d naturally try to sway her thoughts.
The green, glorious mountain land that made up the beautiful Georgia state, was branded in her mind as she mindlessly stared out the window. She knew every inch of Atlanta and could probably walk it blindfolded and still know where she was going. Gradually, over the years, more people came to this section of Georgia to live, making the town busier with people. If she didn’t love her cotton plantation so much, she would have probably moved to a much smaller county… or at least somewhere that hadn’t heard the false gossip going around about her.
After a few moments of silence, Lewis shifted in the seat toward her. She lifted her gaze to him.
“I was thinking,” Lewis began, “for dinner tonight we should have—”
Summer mentally closed off his words. Lewis was a dear man and her best friend, but sometimes she wished he would stop telling her how to run her life – or what to have for dinner. He’d done it often enough that she ceased listening. Since Angus died, she knew Lewis wouldn’t be in her life forever. Eventually, he’d find some woman to marry and find a new life. He’d been a regular fixture in her home as he helped oversee the cotton fields and especially the selling of it, however, she knew she could do it without him.
And as long as she didn’t marry Lewis, he would never die. The curse only killed men she married.
When silence filled the coach, she jerked out of her thoughts and smiled at him. “I appreciate your suggestion, but Cook has already planned the meal tonight. If you don’t wish to eat what the Cook has prepared, I won’t take it personally. You don’t always have to eat with me, you know. I’ll be just fine without your company.”
“Don’t think of it, my dear. I wouldn’t put off spending time with you. Don’t you know you’re my favorite sister-in-law?”
She chuckled. “Thank you, but I believe I’m your only sister-in-law.”
“You’re still my favorite.”
“I’m glad for that.”
“However,” Lewis continued, “I was thinking about talking to you about your cook. Lately, I’ve noticed she has been—”
Suddenly, the coach jerked violently. Summer gasped and braced her hand on the wall to keep from sliding off the seat. Lewis wasn’t so lucky, and actually fell to the floor. Immediately, the coach stopped. The driver’s voice grew loud with worry, but she couldn’t understand what he’d said.
She opened the door and peeked out. “Martin? What happened?”
The middle-aged servant jumped down from his seat. His pale face was etched with fear.
“Mrs. Graham, I… I ran over a man.”
“What?” she asked in a high-pitched voice that overrode Lewis’ question.
“Stay here, Summer,” Lewis said as she scrambled to get out of the coach.
She should listen to him, but her pounding heart told her that she needed to see, as well.
“Summer, please stay in the vehicle.”
“No, Lewis. This is my coach and my horses, and if we have injured someone, I want to know, and I want to help.”
“Help?” His eyes widened. “But Summer, what if he’s some dirty waif…”
“Then I’ll take care of him or get him to a doctor, but I’m not going to let him lie in the bushes to die.”
She exited the vehicle and pushed Lewis aside as she searched for her driver. Martin stood near the edge of the road, peering down the slope with a hand over his mouth, shaking his head. Her heart pounded faster with each step toward him. Lewis hurried past her, reaching Martin first.
“That’s him.” Martin pointed toward the thicket of bushes.
Lewis glanced toward Summer and held up a hand. “You don’t need to see this.”
Fed up with him telling her what to do, she gritted her teeth and marched forward, ignoring his request.
“Summer, really. The man is bloody. No delicate woman such as yourself should see—”
“Lewis, stop treating me like a delicate flower. I’ve seen blood before.”
He tried to stop her by holding his arms out, but she shoved them aside and looked down into the bushes. Immediately, she recognized the black hat and the brown vest. Charles’s cousin’s long brown hair had fallen in his face, but his trimmed goatee was still visible. Spots of blood were in his hair and on his shirt and leg.
“Oh, no!” She lifted her dress to her ankles as she took her first step down the slope, but once again, Lewis stopped her. The grip he had on her upper arm was almost painful.
“Summer, I must protest.”
She glared at him. “Release me at once!”
Not often did she have to raise her voice to anyone, and it was obvious through Lewis’ red face that he was shocked. Thankfully, he removed his hold.
“Martin?” she asked her driver. “Help me down the slope. We need to see if he’s still alive.”
“Yes, Mrs. Graham.”
Slowly, she made her way toward Charles’ cousin. Lewis impatiently ran past her, getting to the stranger first. Kneeling beside the unconscious man, Lewis leaned down and rested his ear on the stranger’s chest.
“He’s still breathing.”
She sighed in relief, but she also knew that if they didn’t get this man to a doctor, he might die anyway.
Martin helped her to the bottom before he moved to kneel next to the stranger. Carefully, the driver ran his palms over the man’s arms, chest, and legs. Martin looked at Summer and frowned.
“It feels like he might have some broken ribs, and even a broken leg. He has a small gash on his head, but it’s not bleeding very much.”
Her mind ran rapidly as she tried to figure out what to do. Not often did she have to make big decisions. She had Lewis for that. However, it was time she took control of her life once again instead of relying on her brother-in-law. Perhaps then she wouldn’t feel like she’d been living in a shell since Charles had died.
“Thank you, Martin. Now, I need you and Lewis to carry him up to the coach. We’re taking him home to the plantation.”
“Summer!” Lewis’ gasp came out louder than she’d expected. Indignation flashed in his eyes. “I think this is a very bad idea.”
“Lewis, you will do as I ask. I won’t have this man die just because you disagree with me. Now please, stop arguing and help Martin carry him up to the coach. I’m not going to change my mind.”
Lewis’ expression changed. Her irritation grew as she watched his face turn red and his gaze turn into a scowl. But what upset her more was knowing that it had appalled Lewis because she’d asked him to help carry the injured man. Where was the kindness Lewis had shown her? Or had he somehow become too prideful to assist those less fortunate than him? This was certainly a different side to her brother-in-law, and she definitely didn’t like it.
Nevertheless, she had more important matters pressing on her at the moment. She vowed she’d do everything possible to keep Charles’s cousin alive. Perhaps then she’d find out the man’s real story and why he’d wanted to talk to her.
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