Less Than a Gentleman

Book 2

Less Than a Gentleman

Avon Books, ISBN# 9780062128799

Virginia Munro’s younger sister, Caroline, takes her turn at the family occupation—spying!

Ten years after The Forbidden Lady, the Revolutionary War has made South Carolina a dangerous place to spy...and fall in love. Especially when the man in question is less than a gentleman!


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“Fans of Sparks’s paranormal romances may be surprised by the lack of vampires, but will not be disappointed."

Publishers Weekly

“Kerrelyn Sparks writes exciting, funny, sexy, paranormal romances with her Love at Stake vampire series, and I’m here to tell you that this non-paranormal historical romance is just as exciting, just as funny, and just as sexy!”

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Chapter One:

South Carolina
Friday, August 25, 1780

Captain Matthias Murray Thomas tugged at the ropes that bound his hands behind his back. The gradual lightening of the night sky, visible through the open window, warned him he was running out of time. With the coming of dawn, he and his companions would be marched to their death.

His movements caused a drop to trickle down his arm. Either blood from his shoulder wound or sweat, he could no longer tell, for the hot, humid air was thick with the scent of both. Mosquitoes hummed over them, enjoying the feast of defenseless men.

The call of a wood warbler claimed his attention and brought back memories of his youth. His family would spend the summer months in Charles Town, then return to the plantation in the fall, where the song of the wood warbler would greet him. Every year the birds rested for the autumn months in the South Carolina marshlands before continuing their migration south.

The warbler’s song pierced the air, jolting him back to the present. He and the other captured soldiers were being held in an abandoned house just north of Nelson’s Ferry on the Santee River. In August.

The first rays of dawn crept through the open window, giving shape and form to the huddled mass on the floor. His fellow prisoners lay sprawled around him, either snoring or moaning from untended wounds. As the ranking officer, he had stayed awake all night to watch over his doomed men.

The youngster beside him whimpered in his sleep. Fourteen years old, the boy had said. Too young for a soldier and far too young to hang as a traitor. 

Matthias searched the blue uniforms to locate his cousin and winced at the sight of Richard’s blood-crusted face. Two English guards, equipped with bayonet-tipped muskets, stood at the door, their red coats easy to spot in the dim light.

The boy beside him flinched.

Matthias nudged him with his boot. “Simon.”

The boy awoke with a shout.

The sound drew the attention of the guards. They frowned at Matthias, apparently holding him accountable for the sudden noise.

“You’ll hold your tongue if you know what’s good for you,” the taller guard warned him.

Matthias shrugged his uninjured shoulder. “It was a bad dream. I’m afraid of the dark.”

The guard snorted. “Yankee cowards. I’ve seen how you turn tail and run.”

A low rumble of curses grew as the prisoners sat up and responded to the insult.

“Dammit, Greville, don’t get them riled up,” the second guard warned his companion.

“Are you all right?” Matthias whispered, his voice masked by the grumbling of the prisoners. 

Simon struggled to a sitting position. “I dreamed about the battle.”

Matthias nodded. The battle at Camden had been one of the worst in his experience. “Was it your first?”

Simon’s eyes filled with tears, and he blinked to keep them from falling. “I didn’t turn tail and run.”

“No, you fought bravely.”

“You saw me?”

“Yes, I did,” Matthias lied. “You held your ground.”

A hint of a smile crossed Simon’s face, then disappeared. “What will they do to us in Charles Town?”

Either kill us slowly in prison or quickly by the gallows. “We’re not there yet.” Matthias planted his feet on the floor, and bracing himself against the wall, he pushed to a standing position. He ambled toward the guards--the tall one named Greville and a shorter, freckle-faced one with carrot-colored hair.

“Halt,” Greville ordered. 

Matthias motioned with his head to the chamber pot in the corner. “I need to relieve myself.”

The freckle-faced guard shrugged. “Then do it.”

“Regrettably, in my current condition, I find myself unable to unfasten my breeches or...handle the equipment. If you would care to assist me?” Matthias arched a brow at him. “Seeing that you’re English, you might enjoy it.”

“The hell you say.” Freckle-face pointed his bayonet at Matthias. “Greville, tie his hands in front.”

Matthias watched calmly as Greville eased a long, gleaming knife from his leather scabbard. “Hmm, an Englishman with ten inches. Do I dare turn my back?” 

“Shut your foul mouth, Yankee.” Greville jerked at his arm to spin him around.

Matthias gritted his teeth as more blood oozed from his shoulder wound. He surveyed his fellow prisoners. Dried blood and dirt etched their weary expressions with shades of rust and brown, but the early sun caught the glimmer of hope in their eyes. They were counting on him. Better to die, providing their escape, than to march with them to the gallows like obedient sheep.

Greville sawed through his ropes. “Turn.”

He pivoted and stretched his hands forward so the guard could loop more rope around his wrists. Greville’s knife rested in its leather-tooled scabbard, so damned close Matthias’s fingers itched to grab it. 

Click. Freckle-face cocked his musket.

Patience, Matthias reminded himself. Timing is everything.    
He sauntered to the corner and relieved himself. After buttoning his breeches, he leaned over. 

“What the devil are you doing?” Greville demanded.

Matthias turned slowly, clutching the edge of the chamber pot in his bound hands. Freckle-face had assumed a firing stance. 

“The thunder mug is full, and the men will need to use it. I thought I’d empty it out the window.” Matthias offered the malodorous pot to the guard. “Of course, if you prefer to do it--”

“Dump it,” Greville ordered.

“As you wish.” Matthias paced to the open window and peered outside. Only one soldier guarded the front of the house. Damned arrogant redcoats. 

“What are you waiting for?” Greville muttered. 

“For the guard to pass,” Matthias said. “Or would you prefer that I douse him with eau de toilette? It could only improve his smell.”

The prisoners hooted and pounded the floor with their booted feet. 

“Cease your noise!” Freckle-face aimed his musket at the prisoners.

They grew quiet, but their sudden misbehavior had been heard by the guard outside. He sprinted toward the window, and Matthias showered him with the contents of the chamber pot.

“Aagh!” The man jumped back. “Shit!”

“Not exactly.” Matthias hurled the pot at the redheaded guard. 

Freckle-face raised his musket to deflect it, but not quickly enough. The flying pot smacked him in the face and he tumbled backward, firing into the ceiling. Flakes of plaster rained down, and the pot shattered on the floor.

“Damn you!” Greville seized his musket and rushed toward Matthias, clearly planning to skewer him with the bayonet.

Matthias leapt to the side, grasped the musket’s barrel, and wrenched the weapon from Greville’s hands. With the butt end, he smashed his attacker in the face. Greville collapsed, crying out as blood gushed from his nose. 

Matthias trapped the musket between his feet, bayonet pointed upward, so he could slice through his ropes. “Richard, watch the window. The guard outside is a trifle pissed.”

With a snort, his cousin scrambled to his feet. 

Just as Matthias finished freeing his hands, he noted Greville attempting to sit up. He knocked the guard out with another blow to the head, then yanked Greville’s knife from the scabbard. Possibly a family heirloom, with its ornate handle inlaid with ivory, but still a weapon he couldn’t afford to leave with the enemy.

“The other guard!” one of his men shouted.

Pottery shards crunched as Freckle-face stumbled to his feet. His musket had discharged, but it still possessed the deadly bayonet. With an angry roar, he attacked.

Matthias jumped aside as he threw his newly acquired knife. It lodged with a hideous thunk in the redcoat’s chest.

Freckle-face halted, his eyes wide with shock. He crumbled to his knees, still focused on Matthias’s face. The disbelief in his eyes glazed to a pained acceptance as if, for a brief moment, he mourned his own passing.

Squashing any sort of emotional reaction, Matthias checked the musket he’d taken from Greville. He had to remain focused until his men were free. 

“Matt!” Richard lunged to the floor.

The drenched guard stood outside, his musket aimed at the window opening.     

Matthias dropped to the floor a second before the shot exploded. He rolled toward the window, jumped to his feet, and pointed his musket at the guard’s face.

With a loud gulp, the guard stepped back.  

“You think this is frightening, you should see what’s behind you,” Matthias said.

“Ha! You think I’ll fall for that old trick?” The guard glanced over his shoulder, then looked again as a group of armed Colonials charged toward him. “Bloody hell!” He dropped his firearm and lifted his hands in surrender.

Matthias removed the bayonet from his musket. “Stand up, Rich, and I’ll cut your ropes.”

Richard glanced out the window as he scrambled to his feet. “Who are those men?”

“Local militia, from the looks of their clothing.” Matthias cut through his cousin’s ropes, then handed him the bayonet. “Release the others.”

Grins and shouts of victory spread amongst the soldiers.

Matthias exchanged a smile with young Simon before aiming his musket at Greville, who was regaining consciousness. “This one is still loaded.”

Grimacing, Greville touched his broken nose. “You damned Yankee, you cannot hope to succeed.”

“We already have.” Matthias heard the tramping of feet as the militia moved through the house. “I’m afraid we must decline your offer of hospitality in Charles Town.”

Greville continued to curse as he sat up, but ceased abruptly when he spotted his comrade’s body. His face paled. “You killed him.”

Matthias winced inwardly. They were at war. It was self-defense. He’d had no choice. War was hell. There was a whole list of justifications that he repeated to himself every night so he could sleep. And be at peace. Sometimes he slept. He’d given up on peace months ago.

Greville touched his empty scabbard. “You used my knife. On my best friend.” He shifted his gaze to Matthias. “You bastard. I swear you will pay for this.”

I probably will. Matthias turned as the door burst open and militiamen marched in. “Good morning, gentlemen. This room is secure.”

A short, swarthy man in the colonial uniform of a lieutenant colonel shouldered his way into the room. “I heard a weapon discharge in this room. What happened?”

Matthias motioned to Freckle-face. “He fired it, sir. I...handled the situation.”

The lieutenant colonel glanced at the dead redcoat, then inspected Matthias. “And you’re the one who splattered the guard outside?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you think so highly of yourself, Captain, that you were prepared to take on twenty-five redcoats single-handedly?”

“I knew you were outside, sir.”

The lieutenant colonel narrowed his dark eyes. “How? The redcoats didn’t hear us. We took them by surprise.”

“Apparently they’re not acquainted with the migratory habits of the wood warbler.”

The officer’s mouth twisted with a wry smile. “I could use a man like you. I’m Francis Marion. And you, Captain?”

“Matthias Murray Thomas, sir.”

“You’re under my command now.” Marion turned to a man who had just entered the room. “Report.”     

Dressed in the tattered and bloodstained uniform of a major, the man towered over the smaller lieutenant colonel. “We released over a hundred lads from the other rooms,” the major replied with a Scots accent. 

Marion nodded. “And the British?”

“Twenty-one prisoners.” The major hooked a lock of graying auburn hair behind his ear. “Five wounded, one dead.”

“Make that two.” Marion gestured to the knifed redcoat.  

“He has a name, damn you.” Greville spat a glob of blood in their direction. He glowered at Matthias as a militiaman hauled him to his feet and tied his hands behind his back. “I heard your name, Matthias Murray Thomas. I won’t forget it.”

The militiaman dragged Greville out the door.

“Where are you taking the prisoners?” Matthias hoped it was far away.   

“North Carolina,” answered Marion. “There’s no point in staying here. After Gates’s defeat at Camden, South Carolina is lost.”

“But there’s still hope,” Matthias protested. “Colonel Sumter is doing well in the west. We should rendezvous with him.”

Marion shook his head. “You haven’t heard. Sumter was defeated two days after Gates.”

Matthias’s mouth dropped open. Gates and Sumter both defeated?     

Marion motioned to the Scotsman. “The major here was with Sumter. He escaped capture and met up with us.”

A chill stole over Matthias as his spirits plunged. His men were free, but South Carolina was indeed lost. “There’s no one left.”

The Scotsman snorted. “And what are we, lad? A pack of ghosts?”

Marion paced toward the window. “Unfortunately, we’ll have to disappear like ghosts. Once the British learn of our little escapade here, they’ll retaliate. And they’ll most likely wreak their vengeance on the known patriots in the area.”

Matthias felt a twinge in his gut at the thought of his mother alone on the plantation. Unprotected. His stomach churned even more when the Scotsman leaned over Freckle-face and yanked the knife from his chest.

“Ready your men, Captain,” Marion ordered. “We march for North Carolina immediately.”

Matthias cleared his throat. “With all due respect, sir, many of my men are wounded and would not survive the journey.”

“Do you have an alternative?”

“We could hide in the swamp. Some of the wounded live nearby. I could deliver them home at night. Then they can rejoin us once they’ve recovered.”

Marion frowned as he considered. “Very well. We cannot fight the British with dead soldiers. Take care of your men.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I expect you to be more than a nursemaid, Captain,” Marion continued. “Your objective will be to sever the British lines of supply and communication between Charles Town and General Cornwallis in the west. Burn the bridges and the ferryboats. And lose your uniforms.”

“Yes, sir.” 

“Use Snow’s Island as your base,” Marion referred to a river island in the midst of the nearby swamp. “I hope to return in a few weeks. Until I do, South Carolina is in your hands.”

“I understand.” Matthias swallowed hard at the lump in his throat. He and his men would be the only resistance left in the area. And they were a sorry lot.

“Good luck to you, Captain.” Marion bowed his head, then strode from the room.

The Scotsman handed the knife to Matthias. “I believe ye dropped yer wee blade. I wiped it clean.”

“Thank you.” Matthias wedged the knife under his belt. “Why did you come east? You had to know you were going further into enemy territory.”

“I had my reasons.” The major examined Matt carefully. “I havena met many a man as strapping and fearless as you. I have two daughters. Ye may be just the man for them.”

Matthias groaned. Hadn’t he endured enough matchmaking schemes from his mother? “I have no intention of marrying, sir.”

The Scotsman snorted. “As if ye were good enough for either of them. My lassies are the reason I came this way. I need to know they’re safe. The last I heard they fled Charles Town and were living in a cabin off the Pee Dee River.”

“You wish me to provide them with protection?”

“Och, just try it, laddie. My daughters will roast you over an open fire. All I ask is that ye tell me they’re safe. Send a message to me, Jamie Munro.”

“And your daughters?”

“Virginia Stanton and Caroline Munro.”

“I’ll take care of the matter, sir.”

“Aye, I believe ye will.” With a smile, Major Munro strode from the room.

Matthias shrugged his uninjured shoulder. He’d faced the enemy in battle for four years and survived. How difficult could a pair of females be?

# # #

Blackened timbers lay strewn across the ground. The house had been small. Only the stone fireplace remained standing as the sole testament to a family’s former hopes and dreams.

Matthias tied his horse to the nearest surviving tree, then picked his way across the ruins.

“There’s nothing left worth stealing.” A young man stepped from the woods, leveling a musket at Matthias.

“I’m not a thief.” Matthias wiped the soot from his hands, leaving black streaks on his buff-colored breeches. In his new role as partisan leader, he now dressed to blend into the surroundings. “Is this your home?”    

“Aye, what’s left of it.” The man lowered his weapon. His wife emerged from the woods with two young children clinging to her skirt.

“I’ve been traveling down the Pee Dee,” Matthias explained. “This is the fourth burnt home I’ve found, but you’re the first people I’ve seen. What happened?”

The man removed his tricorne to wipe sweat from his brow. “The British did it, those accursed devils.”

“When?” After the rescue at Nelson’s Ferry, Matthias had remained in the swamp for a week, taking care of his men. Last night, he and his cousin had traveled to the upper Pee Dee to visit Richard’s parents. Then today, he had ventured downriver in search of the major’s daughters.

“The redcoats were here yesterday,” the man answered. “They started on the coast in Georgetown and worked their way up the Pee Dee, burning everything in sight.”  

Matthias grimaced. This place had to be nearly seventy miles from Georgetown. Seventy miles of burnt homes.

The man sighed. “They said we deserved it for helping the partisans free some prisoners at Nelson’s Ferry, but I had no part in it.”

Matthias flinched as if he’d been hit with the blunt end of an axe. It was his rescue that had caused this? His heart squeezed at the sight of the children, wide-eyed and silent, their faces smudged with soot. On their cheeks, little trails of cleaner skin had been left behind by their tears. 

He reached into his shoulder bag and removed the loaf of bread his aunt had given him. “’Tis not much, but it is all I have with me.”

“Thank you, good sir.” The wife accepted the loaf.

“No thanks are necessary, I assure you.” Matthias swallowed a knot of guilt. “If you travel upstream another twenty miles, you’ll reach my uncle, the Reverend Nathaniel Thomas. He’ll be able to assist you better than I.”

The man nodded. “Thank you.”

“I’m searching for two women who live along this river. Perhaps you know them? Virginia Stanton and Caroline Munro?”

“Aye.” The man accepted a piece of bread from his wife. “But we haven’t seen them since the redcoats came through.”

The woman passed out pieces of bread to her children. “Poor Virginia is expecting in about a month. ’Twould be her third.”  

They have children? Matthias loosened his neck cloth. The major had neglected to tell him that small detail. “Their father, Major Munro, asked me to locate them.”

“They live about five miles south of here.” The woman’s eyes filled with tears. “That is, they did.” She turned away as if to escape the bleak possibility that remained unspoken.

The two women and their children could be dead.

 

Chapter Two:

Monday, September 4, 1780

The drum of horse hooves drew closer.

Caroline exchanged a worried look with her older sister. Virginia touched her swollen belly with a protective gesture and eased to her knees behind the tall thicket of sweet pepperbush.

They were a pitiful bunch, Caroline thought, glancing at Ginny, who was beginning her ninth month of pregnancy, to her young nephew and even younger niece. Their few belongings filled the sacks that straddled an old brown horse. 

The thundering noise grew closer. In their hiding place, four-year-old Charlotte huddled beside her mother. Edward sidled closer with a defiant look, as if daring anyone to say he was afraid. 

The horse pawed at the spongy, black earth, sensing the vibrations of approaching horsemen. More than one, Caroline could tell. The rumor she had heard last week flitted through her mind. Redcoats had invaded a home, found a pregnant woman, and stabbed her and the unborn child with their bayonets. Then they had written a warning above the bed. Thou shalt not give birth to a rebel.

She glanced at her expectant sister and murmured a silent prayer. Then, in case God was occupied elsewhere, Caroline lowered herself to one knee and lifted the loaded musket to her shoulder.

She eased the tip of the barrel between leafy branches of sweet pepperbush. The strong scent of the spiky white flowers itched her nose. Blast. This would be a bad time to sneeze. The horsemen dashed by in a dusty blur of black, brown, and dirty homespun. Colonials, four of them. Caroline caught her breath and stood.

“No,” Virginia whispered. “They could be British deserters. They could be desperate, even ruthless. We trust no one.”

Caroline refrained from mentioning their own desperate situation. Eventually, they might have to trust someone. “The danger is over for now. We should press on.”

For five days, they had traveled south through the Black Mingo Swamp, winding their way around bogs and hiding from anyone who ventured close. They planned to reach the Black River and follow it westward ’til they located Colonel Sumter’s army, where their father was stationed. 

Caroline walked in front of their group, carrying their one musket. She glanced back to check on the children, who rode. Nine-year-old Edward nodded in the saddle. Seated behind him, Charlotte rested, her arms wrapped around her brother. Poor innocents. Father had been right. The price of freedom would be paid by all, including the children.

Virginia led the horse by the reins. She gave Caroline a tired smile.

Caroline smiled in response, then faced front with a jerk. Dear God, what if her sister went into childbirth? In the middle of a swamp with enemy redcoats all around?

She swallowed hard at the panic rising in her throat. Face the facts, Caroline. You’re the only able-bodied adult in the group. It is up to you to make sure we survive. By her calculations, they were now close to the Black River. If they found passage upriver, they could be reunited with Father in a few days.

“What is that smell?” Virginia asked.

Caroline sniffed. Not again. The air along the Pee Dee had been thick with the smoke of burning homes. Had the British burned along the Black River, too?

“I smell fire,” Edward announced.

“Mama, I need the potty,” Charlotte whispered.

“Do you see a chamber pot around here?” Edward muttered.

“Don’t fret, sweeting,” Virginia told her daughter. “We’ll stop soon.”

Caroline strode around a bend in the path and slowed to a halt. The path widened and sloped down to the Black River. Here the land had been cleared of vegetation, but as the river snaked into the distance, tangled vines hugged its banks. The horse path continued on a parallel course to the river. In front of her, smoke curled into the air from the charred remains of a rowboat. A boat they could have used.

She groaned. How could it get worse than this?

Virginia stopped beside her. “We’ll figure out something.”

“Can I get down now?” Charlotte asked.

Caroline propped the musket against a tree, then lifted her niece off the horse. Virginia led Charlotte behind some bushes.

“Godsookers! Look at that.” Edward slid off the horse and ran down to the water’s edge. “They set it on fire while it was still in the water. I didn’t know that was possible.”

Caroline frowned, gazing at the blackened remains of the ferry that floated on the far side of the river. “Ships burn at sea all the time.” She winced inwardly. Blast! She’d done it again and blurted out something dreadful. Edward’s father, a blockade runner, had been missing at sea since last April.

Luckily, Edward didn’t seem to notice. He had picked up a stick and was prodding at the burnt remains of the rowboat.

“Edward, we are the ablest amongst our group. Your mother and sister are counting on us. We mustn’t let them down.”

He stabbed the boat with his stick. “Fear not, fair maiden. I shall defend us to the death!”

Caroline sighed. She was definitely on her own.

“What do you want here?” a man’s voice shouted.

Caroline spotted a log cabin a short distance away. A man leaned against the doorframe, watching them with the bloodshot eyes of a drunkard. The ferryman, she assumed.

“Good sir,” she greeted him with a forced smile. “How are you today?”

“I’m ruined.” The man lifted a jug for a long drink. Wiping his mouth with a grimy shirtsleeve, he stumbled a few steps toward them. “I’ve been put out of business by my own neighbors, the scurvy bastards.”

Edward snickered at the man’s choice of words.

Caroline frowned at her nephew, then tied off the horse so she could join the ferryman close to his cabin. “It was your neighbors who burned your boats?”  

“Aye. Now that they’re militia, they think they can do whatever the hell they want. Said they had to burn all the boats to hurt the British.”

“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss.” Caroline suspected it could have been the group of men who had passed them on the horse path. As much as she applauded anyone’s efforts to bedevil the British, the militia had also made matters difficult for them. “We’re attempting to rendezvous with Colonel Sumter. Do you have any other boats?”

“’Twill do you no good.” The man upended his jug, discovered it was empty, and tossed it onto the ground. “The armies are gone.”

Gone?” A chill prickled the skin on her arms. “What do you mean?”

“I mean the armies with Gates and Sumter. The British killed them all.”

Caroline gasped. Papa. She looked at Edward to see if he had heard. No, he had moved to the river’s edge to poke his stick in the mud. Good Lord, what should she say to Ginny? Perhaps nothing for now, until she knew for sure. “Surely some of the men escaped?”

The ferryman scratched his dirty shirt. “I suppose. Shall I feed your horse for you?”

“Ah, yes, thank you.” Caroline’s mind raced as she considered their dilemma. Where should they go? The Munro family home in the foothills of North Carolina was too far away. Virginia would never make it there in her current condition. Was Ginny’s husband, Quincy, still alive? Was their father still alive? What if Jamie Munro was lying in a field somewhere, alone and wounded? How could she ever find him? How could she take care of her family all alone?

The ferryman untied the horse, then scrambled onto the saddle and rode away.

Caroline stood, transfixed with disbelief.

Edward threw his stick at him. “You scurvy bastard!”

“Edward James Stanton!” Virginia marched from the bushes. “I will not tolerate such language.”

“But he stole our horse!” Edward shouted.

Caroline emerged from her state of shock and dashed after the thief. She ran, her heart pounding and filled with dismay as she watched the last of their belongings disappear down the horse path, gone forever. Breathing heavily, she slowed to a stop.

You fool! She had wondered how it could get worse. Now she knew. They had no transportation, no destination, no money, no food. Not even a change of clothes. 

She trudged back to where her sister and the children waited. “I’m sorry.”

Virginia nodded and sat beside the dirt path.

“’Tis all right, Mama.” Charlotte tugged an object from her apron pocket. “I still have my book from Papa. See?”

Virginia’s eyes glimmered with tears. “Yes, sweeting.”

“What a bufflehead,” Edward muttered.

“Hush,” Caroline warned her nephew. “I want to take a look in the ferryman’s cabin. Will you come with me?” 

She and Edward rummaged through the filthy cabin and located several useful items—-a knife, a horn of gunpowder, a tinder wheel, a block of cheese, and a sack of figs.

As they feasted on cheese and figs, Caroline attempted to come up with a plan. If they continued west, there was no guarantee they would ever locate Father. She couldn’t even be sure he was alive. But if they went east, they would end up in British-held Charles Town. She stood and brushed the dust from her skirts. “I believe we should travel westward.”         

“I agree.” Virginia packed their meager supplies in the empty sack.

Caroline retrieved the musket and led the way up the horse path. The sun began its final descent and still they trudged along. Her hopes of finding decent shelter dwindled with each step. Would they be forced to spend another night sleeping under the trees?

Finally, they reached a clearing. No cabin in sight, only a pier that stretched into the river.

“Godsookers, would you look at that?” Edward pointed.

Caroline’s mouth dropped open. On the opposite bank of the river, a green lawn spread before an enormous white house in the Georgian style.

“Perhaps they will take us in for the night,” Virginia suggested.

“But how do we get there?” asked Edward.

“There must be a way.” Caroline ventured onto the pier. A second pier on the other side of the river taunted her. So close and so far away.

“There should be a boat of some kind,” Virginia said. “They obviously cross the river to use this path.”

Caroline scanned the riverbank. “There, I see it!” She pointed downstream to a rowboat partially hidden by cattails. Thank God it was on their side of the river. She strode to the river’s edge to retrieve the boat.

It was stuck in shallow, muddy water. As she waded in, the mud sucked her feet down and filled her shoes. She grimaced at the cool, squishy sensation. With effort, she dragged the boat to the pier. It was a small boat, too small for them all to cross at once.

“May I row?” Charlotte asked when her mother helped her board the boat.

“No,” Virginia replied. “Let your aunt row. And keep your hands inside the boat.”

“Why?”

Edward climbed aboard. “Because an alligator will bite your fingers off!”

Charlotte squealed and rocked the boat.

“Enough, Edward.” Caroline rowed the children across to the opposite pier and ordered them to remain there. Then she returned for her sister.

“Don’t fret,” Caroline told her sister as she rowed. “I shall speak to the owner of this place and procure us lodging for the night.”

“Have a care what you say. They could be Loyalists.”

“I know I tend to say unfortunate things at the wrong time, but I will succeed in this. I promise.” Caroline tied the boat off and helped Virginia climb onto the pier.

She passed the musket and supplies to Edward. “Hide these over there.” She pointed to the nearest grove of loblolly pines. Before leaving the boat, she untied her apron and dipped it into the river so she could clean her face and hands.

Leaving the dirty apron in the boat, she stepped onto the pier. “There. How do I look?”

“Allow me.” Virginia retied the ribbons that gathered Caroline’s red curls behind each ear. “There. You look quite...presentable.”

Charlotte gave her a dimpled smile. “Like a princess.”

Having just returned from his task, Edward glowered at his sister. “Don’t be silly. Princesses aren’t covered with mud.”

“Thank you, Edward. I needed that.” Caroline faced the house and took a deep breath. She marched forward, squishing in her muddy shoes.

White columns supported the deep porch and second-floor balcony. Caroline ascended three brick steps and paused in front of a wide double door, flanked with narrow windows. She knocked. Nothing.

She knocked again. Was the place deserted?

Footsteps sounded on the other side of the door. A young woman peeked out the window, her face pale and frightened. Strands of lank brown hair had escaped her cap and dangled around her thin, narrow face. She turned away.

Caroline heard voices inside the house. Female voices. She glanced back. Virginia and the children had followed her and waited at the porch steps.

An older woman peered out the window. A lacy mobcap perched on her blond, gray-streaked hair. She smiled.

Caroline smiled back. So far, so good. She heard the scrape of a bolt. The young woman opened the door. Dressed in the plain clothes of a servant, she bobbed a curtsy, then stepped back so her mistress could greet them.

The older woman hesitated in the doorway. “Forgive us for taking so long, but one must be careful these days.”

The scent of rose water and freshly laundered cotton presented Caroline with a painful reminder that she was in dire need of a bath. “I apologize for my appearance. ’Twas a difficult journey.”

“I see. Still, you arrived sooner than I expected.”

Caroline blinked. “I have?”

“Of course. I only received your letter last week. But never fear. All shall go according to plan.”

Caroline opened her mouth to speak, but hardly knew what to say. “I...you’re very kind.”

“No, no. ’Twas kind of you to accept my proposal. I’ve waited so long for my son to marry. I’m quite convinced this is the only way to manage it.”    

“I beg your pardon?”

“Oh, you brought your family with you?” The woman peered around her.

“Ah, yes.” Caroline turned slightly to make the introductions. “My sister, Virginia, and her children.”

“How delightful! I adore little ones.” The woman turned to the young servant. “Betsy, prepare all the guest beds, including the ones in the nursery.”

The servant nodded and left.

The woman clasped her hands together. “This is wonderful. With a full house, we shall have a genuine wedding party.”

“Wedding?” Virginia gave Caroline a worried look.

Caroline cleared her throat. “Is the groom here?”

“Matthias?” the woman asked. “No, I’m afraid not. The last time I heard from him, he was with Gates’s army north of here. But I hope he’ll come home soon.”

Caroline’s chest tightened. This poor woman hadn’t heard about Gates’s defeat. Her son could be a prisoner or...he could have died in battle. Just like Father.

“You look sad.” The woman’s blue eyes clouded with worry. “Are you having second thoughts?”

Caroline blinked away tears. “I’m fine. I’m...greatly relieved to be here.” She didn’t know this woman, but she already felt a deep connection to her. They could both have their hearts shattered by this war.

The woman gave her a hopeful look. “Then you haven’t changed your mind about marrying Matthias?”   

Caroline had no idea who this Matthias was, but she seriously doubted he would be returning home anytime soon. If ever.

She glanced back at her sister and the children. The perfect solution had fallen into her lap. All it required was a lie. A horrible lie but a possible one, for there could never be a wedding without a groom.  

Virginia frowned at her and shook her head.

“I’m not mistaken, am I?” the woman asked. “You are Agatha Ludlow?”

Food and clean beds for the children. A safe place for her sister to give birth. How could she refuse? Their survival depended on her.

With a weak smile, Caroline curtsied. “Yes, I am.”