Tear spots blurred the ink of the elegantly scripted letter in Laura’s hand as she read it once more. She had received few of these missives through the years of war and turmoil, and they always carried bad news. The first one had come at the end of that first year of war, telling of Aunt Ann dying of some mysterious ailment that had left her too weak to eat.
Then there had been Uncle Matt a few years later. He couldn’t actually be called a casualty of war. He had been too old to march with the army, but the war had killed him just the same. When the Union gave his last few male slaves a “pass” to join the army, he’d had an apoplexy from which he never fully recovered.
Laura had wondered how Stoner Creek Farm had been run since then, and reading this letter gave her some clue.
With Lee surrendered and Lincoln dead, the war was nearly done, and Ward was still alive. Handsome, gallant Ward Breckinridge, pride of the Kentucky Rifles, shot and imprisoned, and now home, only to die—if Sallie’s letter were to be believed.
Laura shook her head as she reread the words. Sallie had never tended to be hysterical, but this letter verged on it. Ward had been the ideal husband for her: competent, self- assured, wealthy even without Sallie’s rich lands, and patient. Ever patient.
Sallie had always been a terrible flirt, but Ward had outlasted all her other beaux. The night he had walked into the ballroom wearing his blue-and-gold uniform had brought Sallie to her senses. Marrying Ward was the best thing Laura’s cousin had done in her life, and they had had but a few weeks out of all these years together.
Laura wiped her eyes with a plain-edged handkerchief. It seemed as if the Kincaid luck and charm had finally dwindled to an end with the name. Stoner Creek was all that was left, and from Sallie’s letter, that might not be for much longer.
Laura set the stiff pages on the small oak dresser at her side and rose to gaze out the dormer window of her attic room. It was still early in the morning, but the heat was already climbing. She’d thought about that letter all night, and she’d made her decision, but it had been the hardest decision of her life.
The muddy unpaved streets below couldn’t compare with the rippling emerald green of the pastures at home. The crude wooden storefronts here were no replacement for the sun-burnished patina of old bricks and white-painted porticoes of Stoner Creek. Even the people lacked elegance. She was tired of sewing drab linsey-woolseys and calicoes, and she ached to see the lavish silks and satins of home.
Still, deciding to send the telegram saying she was coming home had been a battle. It was an admission of failure, a throwing away of nearly four years of her life. She would have to return to the same penniless dependent role she had fled before, only after this taste of freedom, it would be worse.
Laura glanced at her stiff widow’s weeds, then strode determinedly to her writing desk. The telegram would go out before she opened the shop this morning. She had saved enough money to pay the fare. She would return with her head held high and clothed in the respectability of black. No one would have to know her shame. No one.
If only she could remember she was a woman grown, and not the love-starved child of long ago.