Isaack had spent years hiding out in barns and outbuildings with these men, but now everything was different. In the beginning, they were all a group of fresh-face, eager, idealistic men with some sense of vitality, with the exception of Isaack, who had only wanted to die. But now, they were older, and they were excited for something besides the next fight. Isaack could admit he felt something new in the air, and he only had Emily to blame for it.
No longer were they weary of fighting, and gearing up for yet another battle. Now they were not only rested and fed, but the war was over, and home was on the horizon for most of them. There was a positivity most of them hadn’t felt before, and it showed in their attitudes.
They’d come to the Evans’ farm a rag-tag bunch of ill soldiers, and five had died, never to see home and family again. Of the rest, eight had gone home, leaving seven soldiers behind. As the oldest of the bunch, Potter wasn’t anxious to make the trek. Isaack sensed he was waiting for Spring, when the cross-country trip wouldn’t be as arduous, but Spring was months away, and it wasn’t likely the Evans farm would be as hospitable the longer they were there. Wiggins waited only for the rains to stop, so he could leave. Saul didn’t speak much at all, and Isaack hadn’t pressed the man, so he had no idea of his plans. Nathan, Abe, and Breck and their beady gazes only wanted to stay to mooch off the women, and that rankled Isaack. He would be here as long as they were, whether he was welcome or not.
He didn’t trust the ranking officer of this group any farther than he could toss the man.
When Emily came bustling inside the barn, shaking the rain off her skirts, Isaack’s gaze snapped to her, along with every other man in the structure, with the exception of Saul, who snored in the corner.
Clenching his fists at his side, Isaack tried to ignore Breck’s bright smile, shining with transparency. He’d known men like Breck before the war, boys with more money than they knew what to do with, living off their father’s name. Isaack had no doubt Breck’s commission was purchased from the governor of Massachusetts, where his father had made his fortune off the war. The only reason they’d fought the last damn battle after the hellacious war was over was because Breck, the new commander of their regiment, hadn’t seen any action. If he’d enlisted, like any other regular man, he’d have seen more than his share. Breck had known the war was over when they’d fought at Palmito Ranch, but he needed to go home to tell his family about the great battle he’d fought. And of course, that was the battle they’d lost.
Here, Breck was constantly shoving his “cultured” ways at the women whose farm they’d invaded. It made Isaack’s stomach curdle. Miss Emily, for her part, was oblivious, thank the Lord, and seemed immune to his charms.
“Ah, Miss Emily!” Breck’s unhampered enthusiasm was foreign in the smelly, dank, dark barn. Isaack’s teeth gritted together at the mere sound of Breck’s voice. “Come to see if we’ve floated away?”
“And to bring supper,” Emily responded brightly, her eyes sweeping over the men, landing at last on Isaack. His stomach dropped every time she looked at him and he didn’t quite understand why.
Her wide brown eyes were the color of the richest mahogany, and her hair the color of spun gold with highlights of pale silk. She was tiny and trim, but exuded a strength that belied her stature. Freckles spread across her face from exposure to the sun like any hard working woman, but her smile was soft. And when she smiled, her face lit up like a child of the sun. Isaack would treasure his first waking memory in her barn, his fever-addled brain clutching to that smile like a life-line he’d long ago discarded.
Emily carried a pot of beans to the men, and Potter piped up, one of the only men there with legitimate manners. “You don’t have to cook for us. We’ve been getting by for a while now, it won’t hurt us to get by a little longer.” Isaack kept his eyes down as Potter spoke, afraid if he watched her, he would say something to draw her attention. He had no idea what it was about this woman that awoke his senses, but it frightened him. He’d said goodbye to life a long time ago, and now was not the time to find a renewed sense of purpose.
“I know that. But it just doesn’t seem right. You are all welcome to stay, and as long as you like our cooking and keep up with the chores, feel free to eat,” she ended with a nervous laugh, and even though her words sounded false, Isaack knew she still had a warm smile gracing her features. But he wouldn’t look at her face, choosing instead to watch her skirts, just shorter than her ankles. Vaguely, he wondered if that was a practical thing, to keep her skirts from dragging, or if she couldn’t afford new material for longer dresses? Or was that even the fashion now? It had been too long since women’s fashion was even on his mind.
She puttered around the space, straightening and chatting, all while Isaack watched her from the corner of his eyes. He never looked straight at her, not since the funeral of her brother. She was too blinding, and something in her eyes spoke of a vulnerability he yearned to soothe. Isaack longed to take care of her, to buy her the food to feed her family, to yank her out of the fields with all the hard work in the sun, to put fine clothes on her back.
“Isaack? Do you need anything?” His head snapped up at her words, and she looked squarely at him, not an ounce of fear in her eyes. She flushed bright red as he shook his head, unable to look away from the fiery blush on her cheeks. She was close enough to talk without the rest hearing, and he heard her murmur, “Just let me know, okay?”
Her hair was coming out of her braid in wisps around her face, and he longed to tuck the stray pieces behind her ear, to smooth it back, to cup her face in his hands.
The fiery need inside him had to be squelched. There was something secret about her, and he knew if he could ever let go of his own demons, her secrets might burn him anyway.
Ducking her head, she continued with her straightening of their space, as if they were her family to take care of. Guilt that she was caring for them instead of her own fired in his belly, and Isaack resolved to do more to keep her out of here.
When she’d gone, her absence in the barn a tangible entity, Abe spit a stream of tobacco into the dirt at his feet. “What I wouldn’t give for an hour with her in the hay loft.”
Isaack stood, fists clenched, and Abe laughed. Nathan spoke up, changing the subject. Breck watched Isaack under lowered lids, understanding passing unspoken between them. Isaack would kill Abe, if Breck didn’t get his subordinate under control.
“Why do you suppose they haven’t kicked us out yet?” Nathan was planning on leaving soon, he’d been pretty vocal about it. Isaack had wondered the same, but also knew Rachel Evans had opened their farm up to the soldiers without Emily’s approval. The matriarch had something up her sleeve, was using them for something, but he didn’t know exactly what. It didn’t seem nefarious, so he was willing to oblige. They’d saved his life, such as it was, and for some reason he was thankful.
Abe made a rude gesture that Isaack grunted at, but Breck responded up with, “I suppose they’re waiting until their men come home and then they will turn us out. There’s something comforting about having a man around, I’ve heard, and I’m willing to oblige.”
Isaack had a feeling Breck was waiting for news of a man not coming home, and he’d whisk Emily away, wooing her with promises of northern states and money. When Abe started talking about lewd ways to make them want him to stay, Isaack stood and left.
He needed some air.
Truth was, he wanted to woo Emily to him, with whatever promises would appeal to her. And he would keep every damn one of them. That was the scary part. He would do almost anything for this woman. And she didn’t even want him here. He didn’t deserve her. He’d already had everything, and lost it. He certainly hadn’t done enough in his short life to deserve two lifetimes of happiness.
Her murmured words in the barn, meant for his ears only, made him burn with need. He had to get her out of his head.
Besides, he knew if something happened to Emily like had happened to Maria, he would be utterly finished with life. There was absolutely nothing on this earth that could hold him.
Isaack walked out of the shelter of the barn into the yard, where the rain still fell. Turning his face up to it, he let the cleansing drops fall on his skin, cooling the overheated emotions raging inside.
He hadn’t thought of romantic entanglements since his beloved Maria had died—hadn’t wanted to. He’d enlisted as soon as War broke out, selling his interests in the shipping business he had started with his friend, Albert. Albert had tried to keep him abreast of things, letting him know he could buy back in whenever he was ready to, but Isaack had been too intent on killing himself—taking the dangerous scouting missions, putting himself on the front lines, volunteering for every risky endeavor put in his path.
Nothing worked. He was still here. Standing in the rain. Willing it to cleanse him of his sins.
Thinking of the woman who wasn’t his wife.
“Isaack?” Mrs. Evans’s voice broke him out of his haze of self-deprecation and he jerked to see her sitting on the porch, sheltered from the rain, working on mending. “Whatever are you doing? Standing in the rain?” She patted the rocking chair next to her, the one sitting in front of the window that showed Emily sitting on the floor with her sisters and a small slate board, presumably working on letters.
If he sat there, he’d be able to watch Emily smile, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
Grudgingly, he walked up the steps and sat on the porch with Mrs. Evans. He couldn’t be rude to the woman who had opened his home to him, fed him, healed him. Not even if it meant he had to watch the woman who’d become the focus of an infatuation.
Taking off his hat, he clutched it to his chest. “Mrs. Evans.” He acknowledged, as he sat.
She worked on her mending in a heavy silence for a while, and Isaack let her, knowing she had something on her mind. She was a woman whose every move served a purpose, this he knew just from working on her farm. If she invited him up here, she had a reason for it.
“You’re a quiet sort, aren’t you?” She finally broke the silence.
“Yes, ma’am. I don’t see much point in speaking unless it’s necessary.”
She looked at him squarely, as if gauging his honesty, and he looked back, unabashed. He didn’t have anything to hide from this woman. She had something about her he liked, trusted. Maybe it was the fact she was from up North somewhere, and he considered her a kindred spirit. Her roots were northern, but she’d settled here in the wild Texas Pine forests, finding a home among other kindred spirits. There was something symbolic about the razing of the land to cultivate it.
He longed for something like that. To clear out his insides and start fresh.
That thought brought him up short. Did he really? Looking out around him, he saw the corn fields, the barn, and beyond that, the wooded area that masked the creek and the town beyond.
Yes. Yes, he did long for it. A home in the wilderness spoke the untamed within him.
“I’ve got a favor to ask of you, Isaack,” Rachel began, giving her chair a push with her feet to send it rocking gently.
“Anything, ma’am.” After all the food they’d eaten from her children’s mouths, he’d go inside right now and scrub her floors if that’s what she wanted.
She was quiet another moment before the woman took a deep breath. “I want you to watch out for my girls. I don’t trust all the other men. Some of them, yes. All of them, no. And I trust you the most, for some reason.” His chest swelled at the compliment, and his eyes cut to the window, where he could see her girls, still studying on the floor. Emily leaned over Irene, helping her with the chalk and slate, while Louise worked on something on her own. At Emily’s indulgent smile to her sister, Isaack felt his own face crack into a smile.
“I would be honored, Mrs. Evans. Your trust is a weighty responsibility.”
She leaned her head back, and the lines on her face softened slightly with the gesture as she continued rocking. “I haven’t told the girls this, but I’m not sure our men will be back. At this time, I’m hanging on purely for them. This farm is theirs, and all the work done on it is for them. I can’t just give it to the bank.”
The rain let up a bit, slowing to a drizzle. Combined with the last four days, it was probably almost ten inches of rain on the crops. It was out of their hands, and Isaack knew everyone was worried the corn would get wet and rot on the stalk, ruining the crops. His gaze travelled over the neatly sown rows of green stalks with golden hair, looking for all the world like ladies in waiting, dressed in green.
The fate of these women lay in the hands of those innocent rows, waving in the storm.
Mrs. Evans shoulders were weighted with the responsibility of taking care of her family with her husband gone. He longed to know more, how had she managed, whether there were sons off somewhere, if Emily was, in fact, married, or had she just said that to add an extra layer of protection to the already vulnerable females? And they’d already lost a son, were there others?
The unanswered questions were heavy on his heart, heavier than the rain coming down heavily again. Twisting his hat in his hands, he rose to leave.
“I’ll make sure the girls stay safe, Mrs. Evans.”
Taking his leave, he walked down the steps of the porch, hoping like hell he could keep his heart safe in the process.