Emily was glad for butchering day because it would keep everyone busy, and she wouldn’t have to actively avoid Isaack. It might have seemed callous for them to go on with life so soon after hearing of a tragedy, but she knew better than most that their own lives depended on it. With the corn sprouts coming up and the promise of cooler days ahead, they needed to get the calf butchered while they could before it was time to harvest the corn.
They’d let the milk cow and the chickens out of the barn shooing them out to the pasture so the gun-shot didn’t spook them. Spooked animals didn’t produce milk or eggs, and they needed those. When Rachel dispatched the calf, Isaack and Nathan went to work, dispassionately hanging the steer up by his hind legs and cutting his throat to drain the blood.
It was a full days’ work, and by the time they were finished scraping the last intestine and hanging the last piece of meat in the smokehouse, everybody was exhausted, even Breck. As squeamish as some of the Yankees had been in the beginning, they all ate bowl after bowl of the rich head soup that was ready for them when they were finished.
Emily wasn’t going to pretend that she hadn’t been hyper-aware of Isaack’s proximity to her all day. He’d been one of the men cutting the carcass, his quiet efficiency reminding her of her father. But so many other aspects of him made her think of things her father had nothing to do with.
And that scared her. And made her wonder what was wrong with her. She hadn’t spoken to him since he’d followed her to the creek after finding out about Jakob’s death, but she couldn’t forget the kiss they’d shared before she knew she wasn’t engaged to be married anymore. And she knew he was still following her.
Never mind she hadn’t seen or heard from Jakob in almost a year. That shouldn’t matter, and the guilt at her actions was eating her alive.
Isaack was a presence she couldn’t ignore. Well, she could and she did, but it was entirely too exhausting to pretend she couldn’t see those gray eyes, boring into her insides.
So when she woke up the next morning, stiff and sore from the previous day’s exertions, she was anxious to get her day going so she could go into town and replenish supplies. She’d never made it to the mill with the corn, and that needed to be done before the next harvest was ready, so she could do both, and manage to stay gone most of the day.
After her morning ablutions, Emily sat on the squat three legged stool next to the milk cow and began squeezing the udders in an automatic downward motion. She got lost in the rhythm of the repetitive motion, waiting for the bucket to fill with her mindless chore, entertaining herself by occasionally aiming an udder at the waiting cat, who caught the stream of milk in her mouth.
A filthy, calloused hand clamped down on hers, the grip tight and unrelenting. A fission of fear raced up her spine, until she realized it was Abe and he was on the other side of the cow. He couldn’t hurt her from over there.
“You got some real pretty hands, Miss Emily,” he drawled at her thickly. Out of all the men still here, he was her least favorite, because he seemed to relish the idea of making her uncomfortable.
Twisting her grip out of his, she sat back on the stool. “I’m sorry, did you want to milk her?”
“Naw, you’re doing a fine job. I just like watching you.”
“Then, please, allow me to do my chores,” she said shakily. Emily hated that she sounded so weak around him, but he made her extremely nervous. And today was not a day she wanted to deal with him. Or Isaack either for that matter. His quiet watching was getting to her for altogether different reasons.
She finished milking the cow and stood to take the milk inside the house, where Rachel stood rolling out biscuits.
“I’m taking a trip to town, Mama. We’re running short on some things.” She needed to get away from the farm for a few hours. “And I’ll take the corn to the mill, too.”
Rachel shooed her on, and Emily was relieved she wasn’t assigned to take Louise or Irene with her. They made trips to town more of a production than necessary.
After hooking the old bay mare up to the wagon, Emily drove the hour and a half to town, about eight miles. It was a blessedly quiet trip which only served to enable Emily to think about things she didn’t particularly want to think about.
Abe was turning into a problem she didn’t know how to deal with. She had a difficult time avoiding his lecherous smiles, malicious glares, and the thoughts written all over his face. It was plain he wanted something wholly inappropriate from her, and he made her more than a little nervous.
On the other hand, there was Isaack. He was everywhere she went as well, but it was different. He represented so much to Emily, not the least of which was the enemy who’d killed her future. But it was plain he didn’t want to frighten her, like Abe did. His steely gray gaze was everywhere, watching her, but he watched out for her, protection, safety.
She shook herself, feeling a chill in the air. Yes, Isaack was definitely watching her. More than Abe which was small comfort. Because she longed to let him in and see what would happen.
Except it would tarnish Jakob’s memory, and the memory of her brother, wouldn’t it?
At the mill, Mr. Sherman met her wagon as she pulled it up.
“Miss Evans.” He pulled off his hat and wrung it in his hands. “I’m real sorry to hear about your brother. It’s a damn shame, pardon my language, what this war’s done to the families around here.”
She swallowed past the lump in her throat and pasted a smile on her face. “Thank you, Mr. Sherman. I’ll pass along your condolences to Mama.” She should get used to tamping down the grief. The townspeople were liable to all have kind words of remembrance for her.
He continued his apologetic look as he shuffled his feet. “Corn prices have gone down, I won’t be able to pay as much this time.”
She remembered the leak in the corn crib, and downplayed her relief. She’d been afraid she wouldn’t be able to get anything for the corn they’d salvaged from the disaster.
Managing a smile, she replied, “That’s alright. We’ll take what we can get.” Usually, they haggled prices, and she managed to get a little more than his initial offer, but with the roof being torn off the corn and it getting so wet, she was grateful for anything. She could just play off her lack of argument on grief. Guilt consumed her at the thought she was using her brother’s death for gain, but it mingled with relief Mr. Sherman didn’t question her too much.
After the mill, Emily walked into town, since Mr. Sherman had graciously offered to take her wagon to the store for her after his man unloaded it.
“Hello Caitlyn, how is Mr. Stephens?”
The woman behind the counter wiping down shelves was Emily’s age, and they’d gone to school together, as long as Emily had been in school. Emily had stopped going after learning to read and add, so she could help at the farm, but Caitlyn had stayed through to the end, learning far more than Emily. Caitlyn didn’t hold it over her though, they were friends, as much as could be. Caitlyn had played with her brother and Jakob whenever she could.
Her friend smiled at her, sadness taking over her features. “Hi Emily. Grandfather is fine. He’s busy in the back, but I can get him if you need?” Softening her voice, she continued, “I’m so sorry about Jakob and John. This town won’t be same without them coming home.” A tear leaked out of the corner of her eye, and Emily reached over to hug her. She hadn’t realized how much her friend would miss them, too. She allowed the pangs of sadness to mingle with her friend’s, enjoying the brief moment of camaraderie as she held Caitlyn’s trembling frame.
“I think you can help me just fine,” Emily smiled at the woman, trying to both reassure her and change the topic of conversation. She ticked off her list of salt, coffee, sugar, and other sundried items while Caitlyn went to the shelves gathering what she needed.
When she had an enormous pile of food on the counter, Mr. Stephens came from behind the curtain that separated the front from the back.
“Miss Evans, so nice to see you this morning,” his use of her surname was not lost on Emily.
Straightening her shoulders, she turned to him. She used to be just plain Emily.
“Mr. Stephens, I hope all is well with you.” She continued the formal tone, warily.
“Actually,” he rubbed the balding spot on the top of his head, then wiped his palm in his apron. “Mr. Stein has been in to see us and given a list of customers who won’t make the yield this year. We’re unable to give you items on credit. I’m sure you understand.”
“But we will make yield this year, Mr. Stephens. This is a mistake.” Her stomach plummeted and shame raced to her face. It flamed red, and Emily was helpless to stop her mortification. She had money from the mill in her pocket, and had been planning to take it to Mr. Stein. She couldn’t afford to buy groceries with it as well. Futility washed over her.
“I’m terribly sorry. I can’t do any more credit if I can’t make sure to get the money at harvest. I have payments to make as well, you see.” Clarity dawned on Emily. Mr. Stein had threatened the general store owner as well with those infernal interest payments.
“I will go speak to him myself.” Grabbing her skirts, Emily turned with a huff and stomped out the door making her way down the street to the bank.
Only to be stopped by George Nolan and his brothers, blocking her path down the sidewalk. “George, it’s so good to see you home again.” She choked back the sorrow that her brother wasn’t returning to visit with him about his war experiences. They would never get together.
“I heard you got a mess of Billy Yanks up at your place, Emily.” His tone was accusatory, and if she didn’t understand his feelings from the tone of his voice, the look of disgust on his face was plenty to go by. A sinking began in her stomach, and she pressed her hand against it.
“Yes, they came in a passel, all sick. We did our Christian duty by giving them shelter on their way. The ones still there are returning the favor by helping us with the harvest until Papa comes home. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go see Mr. Stein.”
She moved to push past him, possibly a rude move, but she was still seeing red at the thought that Mr. Stein was keeping her from buying supplies to feed her family and the men on the farm.
“I really wish you wouldn’t, Emily. See, we here in town don’t like the fact that there are so many of the enemy just lollygagging up at your place. It makes the whole town look like sympathizers, you see?” His hand on her shoulder initially kept her from moving forward, but as he spoke, his grip tightened painfully.
“George, please.” She started to roll her eyes, but a voice that she didn’t hear often spoke up behind her.
“Take your hands off Miss Emily. If you have a problem with the Billy Yanks, talk to one.” Isaack’s smooth low voice sounded from behind Emily, and George’s eyes snapped to the interloper. Instead of releasing his grip though, he gave a shove, and Emily, shocked at the aggression, stumbled over her skirts and fell to the ground.
The smoothness of Isaack’s voice gave way to a low growl, and before she knew what was happening, he stepped forward and punched George square in the jaw. “I told you to release the lady, not push her.” George sprawled back in the dirt, a look of pure shock on his face. His brothers started to step forward, all burred up and ready to fight, and Isaack stepped forward, ready to take them on. “I’ve got plenty more for the bummers, if you’re wanting some.” The leer on Isaack’s face spoke the truth. He would take these boys on.
A thrill of awareness coursed through Emily as the ramifications of her predicament seeped in. “It’s okay. Let’s just go.” She stood and swept the dirt off her skirts. “I’ll figure out something else for Mr. Stein and the supplies,” she grumbled, not willing to see any blood spilled on her account.
As stirring as it was.
Back at the general store, the empty wagon jeered at her. She really didn’t have time in her days for a wasted trip into town. First, they hadn’t made enough off the corn they’d worked so hard for, and now she couldn’t get credit at the store. Isaack gripped her elbow, gently.
“Let me go in for a while. I’ll be back.” His soft gentle voice was back, as if he hadn’t just punched a man in the nose for besmirching her. Speechless, she watched him stride into the store and up to the counter. She was entirely too nosy to not follow.
“Can we please have Miss Emily’s supplies?”
Mr. Stephens was in the front of the store, surely having seen the altercation on the street. “I don’t think that’s---“
“Do you take gold, Mister?” To everyone’s astonishment, Isaack pulled a gold coin from a pouch around his waist and flashed it to Mr. Stephen’s suddenly wide eyes.
“Er, um… Yes.” He reached out his hand for the proffered coin. “Caitlyn, get Miss Evans’ goods, will you?”
“And I’ll take a bolt of that denim and the blue calico, as well, please. And apply the rest to the Evans’ credit.”
Emily watched, speechless, as Mr. Stephens and Caitlyn huffed and puffed to cater to the patient man standing in their midst. He suddenly didn’t look like a tired, sick soldier anymore. As his shoulders squared and he looked down his aristocratic nose at the man behind the counter, Emily realized he’d been somebody before his soldiering days, as all the men had. But Isaack had been a man of good standing—a gentleman.
When the wagon was loaded, Isaack held out his hand to help her into the driver’s seat and then stood next to the wagon.
“Aren’t you getting in? Surely you don’t intend to walk back to the house.” Her anger at him was fading. Sure, she had come into town initially to escape him and the others, but his generosity and her new vision of him gave her fodder to think about. She couldn’t sit in judgement of him anymore.
He just looked at her, with those piercing gray eyes that twisted her insides, waging an internal war. Then, silently, he hoisted himself up next to her, and took the reins, snapping them lightly to jolt the horse into action.
“You didn’t have to pay for our supplies. That was really too much.”
“It wasn’t enough. We’ve been eating all your provisions. It was the least I could do. We should have been pulling more weight.” He shrugged his shoulders and Emily was once again drawn to how healthy he was looking. His skin had tanned, and his muscles filled out. He was a rather large man, his frame filled with lean muscle, and he was altogether not unattractive.
Memories of the kiss they’d shared came back. Emily felt her face flush with the heat that was quickly coursing through her body, settling into a pool somewhere just below her belly. She shook herself to try to clear her head of the traitorous thoughts. “Well, thank you anyhow. We appreciate it.”
A soft sigh escaped her at his lack of response. This would probably be an incredibly long ride home.
Emily desperately tried to ignore the strapping Yankee in the seat next to her. But the sudden strength he’d exhibited today had left her with feelings she didn’t entirely understand. As she looked at him, she tried to reconcile his current health status with the sickly man she’d nursed.
And couldn’t. This was an entirely different Isaack.
Wearing her Papa’s clothes, he filled them out nicely. And Papa was a large man, but large in a different way than Isaack was. Isaack had broad shoulders, thick upper arms that were solid as the barn he’d been patching up, and a narrow waist that lead to strong legs she could see through the thin material of her Papa’s pants.
When had that happened? It had only been a matter of months since the rag-tag bunch of men had staggered into their yard and collapsed in the barn. Since then, a number of them had gone on—either in death, or moseyed on home. Only Isaack and a few others stayed to help with the harvest, she supposed as repayment for their health, or because they had nowhere else to go.
Isaack broke the silence by taking in a great gulp of air.
“I was married once. I had a beautiful daughter, as well. We lived in New York, verily untouched by the coming war, it seemed.” His voice took on a formal tone Emily wasn’t familiar with, but she let him talk, ignoring the stab of jealousy at the mention of another woman.
Silence took over, and Emily wondered if he meant for her to speak now. But she didn’t know what to say, so she watched the goat weed on the side of the road, as it faded into the pine trees, consciously ignoring the jealousy streaking up her spine. Of course he was married. Even though he’d kissed her, he probably hadn’t seen his wife in years, and just longed for female company. Emily had a vague understanding of men’s urges.
“One morning, we were all about town. I had an errand at the bank, and Marie wanted to go to the dress-maker for a new frock for little Bess. They were struck by a carriage, trampled by a wild horse. In that instant, I lost my world.” Isaack’s voice cracked on the last word, and Emily’s jealousy turned to something deeper, more visceral. She felt his pain, because she knew grief. She knew the sadness.
“I had no reason to live anymore. They were my life. So I joined the war. I volunteered to fight and die for something, anything. Because they died for nothing but the lack of concentration of a youthful driver.”
Still at a loss for words, Emily just sat there, until she realized they were almost to the curve of their drive. Just out of sight of the house, Isaack pulled on the reins and stopped the horse. His eyes on her were filled with something unfathomable. The sudden stillness of the wagon filled her with anticipation, but Emily couldn’t name exactly what she was anticipating. It was an unnerving feeling, and she twisted her hands in her lap as she listened to Isaack go on.
“I haven’t looked at or thought about another woman since, Emily.” He looked at his hands, so Emily did too. They were strong hands, scarred, showing more living on them than she cared to think about. When he looked up at her, she was helpless to see anything but the pain in his eyes. “Until you. I saw you. I saw you heal. Work. Grieve. We are so much alike, even though we are so different. It’s hard for me to fathom.” His neck undulated as he swallowed thickly, and Emily’s eyes were drawn there—an excuse to focus on something besides his eyes, so focused on her.
“For the first time in years, I have a reason to live again. I have someone to live for. I have something I want.” His face looked pained, as if his own thoughts and emotions had betrayed him. He looked down at his hands, while Emily searched for something to say. “You, Emily. If you’ll have me, I’d like to court you.” Emily’s heart lurched at the idea he’d voiced. Something deep within her stirred, bubbling up in her stomach.
Such formality for a Texas farm girl. Nobody courted here. They either married or they didn’t. But Isaack was from a place where courting happened. He was from New York.
He was a Yankee. He was a Northerner. For the last five years, all she had heard was horrible things about the North. They killed her brother, her fiancé, possibly her Papa. The townspeople hated them, because they were aiding the North by not putting them out while they were sick. By letting them help with the harvest. The townspeople didn’t see the people the Evans helped. They saw the affiliations.
“I—I can’t,” she choked out the whisper.
Isaack said nothing. He only swallowed again, and jerked the reins bringing the horse back into motion, carrying them to the house. Emily felt as if she’d drowned a litter of kittens in the creek.
“You’re the enemy, Isaack,” she said, trying to explain. “What will Papa say when he comes home? He’s been fighting you and your kind. How would it make him feel to find out I’ve been gallivanting with you? Both of my brothers are dead because of you.” She knew in all actuality, Isaack wasn’t personally at fault, but for all she knew he was. “And the town’s people would probably never let me be around them with you.” That was a thin excuse and she knew it. She was grasping now. But she couldn’t let her feelings over ride her common sense. She knew that a life with Isaack wasn’t possible. Not here anyway, and she couldn’t leave.
Even though her heart wanted him to stay here with her. Forever. Because he was absolutely right. She got out of bed every morning hoping to see Isaack, to have a reason to talk to him.
When he spoke, he took her breath away. It was a simple declaration. Five words of truth. Nothing more. But those words spoke more of her heart and true feelings than anything she’d just said.
“You didn’t mention your fiancé.”