This is a fan fiction story based on characters from
the Lonesome Dove television show, which belongs to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark.
No infringement on copyrights is intended.


MOSBY IN LOVE
by Debbie Vega

PART I: MEETING

Richmond, Virginia
Summer, 1860

"You’s late."

Clay stepped into the foyer of the fashionable townhouse and handed his hat to the girl. He glanced up the stairs.

"How mad is she?"

"She ‘bout to blow her stack. She say, tell him go away."

"Oh, did she now?" He winked at the girl, then headed for the stairs.

The girl shook her head. "You be sorry. She mean it."

Clay smiled as he bounded up the stairs, but inwardly, he was annoyed. How much time was he going to have to spend on placating her now? He should probably forget it and find Robert so they could play cards. Yet he couldn’t back away from the challenge.

"Darlin’," he exclaimed, as he stepped into her bedroom.

She stood by the window. She turned to him, her brown eyes narrowed into slits. She was wound up into a big snit, that was for certain. He might have retreated then and there, but her dressing gown clung to the curves of her body in such a fashion she had to be naked underneath it. Her hair, an unusual icy shade of brown, was already loosened and flowing down her shoulders and back. She looked delectable. The idea of going to play cards exited his mind.

"Well," she said with a toss of her head. "You have finally decided to grace me with your presence. How very nice."

"Constance, now, don’t fuss. I’m not that late."

"You know perfectly well how I hate it when you’re late. Do you imagine I do nothing when you’re not here but wait for you?"

The truth was, he never thought about what she did when he was not with her. In spite of his youth, he knew better than to say so to her.

"Aw, honey—" He reached for her, but she eluded his touch.

"You are a selfish little bastard, and I have no desire for your company this afternoon. Please leave."

With an impatient sigh he took off his coat and began unbuttoning his waistcoat.

"Stop that, Clay. I am perfectly serious. Go away."

He next unbuttoned his shirt, removed it and took a step closer to her. "Now, you know you don’t mean it."

She took a step back. "I do."

He smiled. "No you don’t. If you truly did, you’d have put some more clothes on by now."

Her eyes glinted with fury. This time when he reached for her he was able to catch her arm. She tried to pull away, but didn’t try very hard, he couldn’t help noticing.

"Bastard," she hissed.

He caught her other arm and drew her into his embrace, but she did not immediately melt into it, as he hoped she would. She was determined to make him work for it today.

"Now, darlin’, forgive me," he murmured into her hair.

"I will not. You have no respect for the feelings of others."

"Forgive me. Forgive me as I forgive you."

"Forgive me?" She broke free and pushed him away. "Why should you forgive me?"

"For naggin’ me the minute I walked in the door."

She made a sound of protest. "I wasn’t—"

"You were. Now forgive me. As I forgive you." He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her close to him again.

This time, he did feel her body soften against his. That was more like it. He reached for the belt of her dressing gown and loosened it.

"Now forgive me." He leaned in and kissed her neck.

He could hear her breath quickening. He knew he had her.

"Forgive me."

"Oh, you are such a bastard," she said as she finally surrendered. They sank down together on the bed.

* * * * * * *

Constance watched him sleep. Her beautiful boy. That’s what he still was, really, even almost two years into their liaison. A boy, not quite eighteen, yet still a most satisfactory lover.

She pulled the sheet gingerly over her nakedness, so as not to awaken him.

She had not planned for it to last this long; had not planned to have him as a lover at all. That first afternoon, when she had gone shopping and found herself caught in a sudden rainstorm without an umbrella, a polite voice had offered her the use of his. She turned around and found herself looking into the most unusual pair of hazel eyes. He struck her then as young, but not as young as she later discovered he was.

She had not taken the carriage that afternoon, so he walked her home, gallantly holding the umbrella for her while carrying her packages in his other hand.

She invited him in to dry off and have tea. They introduced themselves. When she heard his last name, a superbly wicked idea entered her head.

She knew his mother slightly. Or, rather, she had been slighted by his mother, as well as by many other Richmond society matrons when she had first married her husband.

True enough, there were reasons for the snubbing. She was a northerner to start with, and one with no background to speak of—at least, not one she wanted known. Her husband had been nearly forty years her senior. He also had little background—had worked his way up from nothing for his money, mostly as a merchant.

All this made her unworthy of entering the upper echelons of Richmond society. Her husband told her to not to mind those biddies, and outwardly she had pretended not to care. But she did care. It galled her that they hadn’t even given her a chance. What difference did any of that nonsense make? She had money, that should have been enough to gain entry into their world.

Her husband had been childless and also had the good manners to die less than a year after their marriage, leaving her quite wealthy. Since then, her life had been exceedingly pleasant. She was still young—only twenty six now—had no father, brother or husband to curtail her freedom, a few friends who did not consider breeding more important than having money, and lovers as the fancy suited her. The only thing that still rankled was the unfair thwarting of her social ambitions.

That rainy afternoon, the opportunity to seduce the son of one of those hypocritical bats was just too delicious to pass up.

She installed him in the parlor and excused herself to change out of her wet clothes. After her maid had helped her out of her dress, she dismissed the girl, who, from the disapproving look on her face, seemed to have divined her plan. She could swear she heard the girl mutter the word "spider" under her breath. Far from being angry, Constance chuckled to herself. Was that such a bad thing to be? Spinning webs had always amused her.

She stripped down to nothing except for stockings and slippers, then covered herself with a blue velvet dressing gown. She pulled the combs out of her hair and brushed it out, pinched her cheeks a little, bit her lips. She surveyed the results in her full-length mirror. By any sort of reckoning, she was an exceptionally attractive woman. Even without breeding, she possessed a flawless fair complexion, high cheekbones, a full, sensual mouth and lush figure. The boy would be eating out of her hand in no time flat.

She did not expect the encounter to yield much pleasure for herself. He probably had little experience, might even still be a virgin. No matter. Corrupting the son of that snooty Isabelle Mosby would be delight enough.

The thought made her almost float down the stairs. She rejoined him in the parlor. He stood up as soon as she entered the room. She had expected him to become instantly discomfited by her attire, but the boy kept his cool. Not that he had no reaction at all—he gave her a slow, appreciative up-and-down glance with those disarming eyes. It was almost like being caressed. This was the first indication that it might not be the perfunctory experience she had originally anticipated.

The girl brought in the tea cart, the same disapproving look on her face.

Constance sat in a chair opposite the boy, motioning at him to do the same and said, "I’ll serve, Cilla. Close the doors behind you when you leave."

"Humph!" the girl said as she obeyed.

She served the tea and they chatted about inconsequentials for a time. Eventually, her foot found its way to his and began gently rubbing against it, then slowly started creeping up his leg.

Again, the boy did not lose his cool. He put down his teacup, leaned over, and took hold of her leg.

With a beguiling smile, he said, "Mrs. Lambert, if that’s what you want, why didn’t you just say so in the first place?"

It was she who became flustered. He reached over, took the teacup out of her hand and placed it back on the cart. He stood up, pulled her out of the chair and caught her up in his arms. As their lips met, she wondered which one of them was truly the seducer. Had this been his intention when he first spoke to her?

She found she did not care. His kisses were searing, demanding—certainly, not the sort one would expect from a boy with limited experience. She responded in kind. Before long they were both disrobed and locked in a frenzied embrace on the rug.

Some time later they broke apart, panting and sated. After a few moments, still almost breathless, she turned to him and asked, "How old are you?"

"Sixteen."

Sixteen! How good would he be when he was seventeen?

She propped herself up on one elbow. "What did you say your name was? Francis?"

"Most call me Clay. Especially my friends."

"Clay." She reached over and traced his mouth with her finger. "I would like to be your friend, Clay. Would you like to be my friend? Would you like to see me again?"

"Yes, ma’am."

She laughed. "I think we are acquainted enough now that you may address me as Constance."

He grinned. "Yes, Constance, I would like to see you again."

"That pleases me very much." She leaned over and covered his mouth with hers. Soon they were entangled in each others’ arms again.

That was how it started. All he had lacked as a lover was a bit of finesse, which she soon taught him. He was so exceptional she had sent her current lover packing, much to his ire. He did not care for being supplanted by a boy so young.

There were some disadvantages to having a lover his age, of course. He could be thoughtless, as he was this afternoon with his tardiness. He was also still in the grip of parental authority, which sometimes interfered with their planned assignations. It was almost like having a married lover at times. In spite of this, she couldn’t imagine exchanging him for another.

He stirred and opened his eyes. She smiled and leaned over to kiss his shoulder.

He rubbed his eyes. "What time is it?" he asked.

She looked at the clock on her dressing table. "Almost four."

"Damn!" He sat up quickly.

"What’s the matter, darling?"

"I’m supposed to meet my father at the station. My mother and sister are comin’ home from Atlanta today."

She felt a small pinprick of annoyance at the mention of his family, particularly his mother.

"Does it matter so very much if you are there the moment they arrive?"

He looked at her as if she had suggested something completely absurd. She watched him wash and dress. He rushed with a nervous intensity that fascinated her. The way he jumped for his family’s sake! She, having never had much family, could not understand it at all.

"Daddy’s goin’ to be fit to be tied. I can’t believe I let the time get away."

As she slipped into her dressing gown, she said, "May I suggest if you had been on time for our meeting, you wouldn’t be late now to meet your father?"

He buttoned the last button on his waistcoat and said, "Are you tryin’ to pick a fight with me?"

"No, I’m merely pointing out—"

"You are pickin’ a fight, and I haven’t time for it, Constance."

"Not at all." She let it go. He finished dressing and kissed her cheek. He was ready to bolt for the door, but she stopped him.

"When shall I see you again?" she asked.

He hesitated. "I don’t know. My sister is bringin’ a house guest . . . I don’t know what my mother has planned."

"Well, we wouldn’t want to disappoint your mother." She said it with a trifle more bile than she intended.

His eyes narrowed. "Don’t do that."

"Do what?" she asked, all innocence.

"Talk about my mother in that sarcastic tone of voice. I don’t like it."

She pretended to be contrite. "I’m sorry, darling. You know I didn’t mean anything by it."

Slightly mollified, he gave her another quick peck and said, "I’ll send a note around when I know."

Then he was gone.

* * * * * * *

Leland Mosby stood at the train platform and looked at his watch.

Where was that boy?

It was most unusual for Clay to be late for an appointment such as this. He knew better than to neglect any sort of family obligation.

Leland, in his mid-forties, still cut a fine figure. A very active man, he did not sport a pot belly or double chin like many of his contemporaries. His dark hair and moustache had only a few strands of gray. He was always meticulous about his appearance. Today, especially so, since he was to see his wife for the first time in many weeks. Even after more than twenty years of marriage, he still loved her passionately. If he were not one to keep himself constantly occupied, he just might have spent most of their time apart pining for her.

Isabelle would be most disappointed if Clay were not there to greet her. Leland sighed and again glanced at his watch. He knew Clay was not with Robert, because he happened to run into Robert on the way to the station. He could be with some other friend, but Leland thought most likely he was being held up by that woman.

He was aware of Clay’s entanglement with the Lambert woman; had been aware of it since almost the beginning. He made it his business to know everything about his children. At first, the relationship had not bothered him much. Clay was going to sow his oats some way, and at the time this seemed preferable to the boy frequenting brothels or siring mulatto bastards in the slave quarters.

But after a year, he began to become concerned. Now, as the affair approached the two-year mark with no sign of abating, he was beginning to become alarmed.

He clearly recalled his wife mentioning Constance Lambert to him as a social climber. Was it possible she was hanging on to Clay with the object of someday wheedling a marriage proposal out of him? She’d had no compunction about marrying a man decades older for money. Leland thought it unlikely she would hesitate to marry a boy younger than herself for social position.

Such an event would be a calamity of massive proportions. In his heart, he wanted to believe Clay was too mindful of his place in life to ever allow things to get to that point. But he was at a dangerous age, one when young men could make disastrous choices that ruined their lives forever. While there were many things Leland could ascertain about Clay’s life apart from his family, one he could not know for certain was how deeply he was in that woman’s thrall.

He looked up and finally saw Clay running towards him. Thank goodness. Now he would not have to explain his absence to Isabelle.

"I’m sorry I’m late, Daddy," said Clay, breathless from running.

"Yes, you are quite late," Leland said in a frosty tone. "Lucky for you the train is also late."

"I apologize, sir. I was with Robert and lost track of the time."

So now he was lying to him on top of everything else. The infraction was fairly minor, but Leland resolved it would not go by without thinking of some sort of remedy to deal with the situation. It had gone on for far too long.

The train finally arrived. All these unpleasant thoughts were pushed from Leland’s mind as he watched his wife disembark. How lovely she still was! She was a petite woman with light brown hair and the same exotic eyes as her eldest son. He could not stop himself from grabbing her around the waist and giving her a hard kiss full on the mouth.

She laughed when he finally released her. "Leland! What will Mary think?"

He looked up and saw his daughter Damaris standing behind her mother with another young lady, presumably the said Mary.

"She’ll think my parents are entirely depraved, that’s what she’ll think," said Damaris, giggling.

Damaris was sixteen, and like her brother favored Leland physically, with wavy black hair that was always threatening to go wild. She had gone through an awkward adolescence, but had lately blossomed into a very attractive young lady. She still could not be considered a beauty—handsome was a better word—but she was blessed with a bubbly vivacity that added considerably to her charms.

Her friend, on the other hand, had a delicacy both in her manner and features that Damaris entirely lacked. She was really quite pretty, but seemed very shy. She smiled, but also blushed, both from the kiss and Damaris’ comment about it.

Clay hugged and kissed his mother and said, "How can Daddy help it, Mama lookin’ so ridiculously pretty even after such a long trip?"

"Oh, stop it, you!" exclaimed Isabelle. But she looked exceedingly pleased. "How is Wade?"

"Perfectly well, as I wrote to you," said Leland as he kissed his daughter. "I knew you would prefer he not be subjected to the crush at the station."

Damaris conducted the introductions.

"My father, Leland Mosby. And this is my brother, Francis Clay Mosby. Daddy, Clay, this is Miss Mary Cantrell."

Both Leland and Clay tipped their hats and bowed.

"It’s nice to see you again," said Clay.

The girl, in mid-curtsy, looked completely taken aback. "We’ve never met."

"Haven’t we?"

"No, never."

Clay looked confused. Leland heard Damaris mutter to her brother under her breath, "Just how drunk are you?"

Leland saw Clay turn to his sister, ready to make a retort, so to stave that off he stepped in between them and said, "Julius and Keziah will attend to the luggage. Let’s take the ladies home, Clay, they must be very tired from their journey. And I’m certain your mother is anxious to see your brother."

* * * * * * *

Mary watched as Damaris sat in front of the vanity mirror in her bedroom, continuing her never-ending battle to get her hair under some sort of control. The more she brushed it, the wilder it looked.

"Lord, Mary, I wish I had hair like yours."

Mrs. Mosby’s and Mary’s maids, Keziah and Emmie, were busy unpacking the trunks, so Mary offered to help.

"Wasn’t that funny, the way Clay thought he already knew you?" asked Damaris as Mary brushed her hair.

She did think it was odd, but not as odd as the feeling that he was familiar to her, too. Or perhaps that was not so odd. Damaris and her brother seemed so alike.

Damaris continued in her usual chatty way. "He and his friend Robert must have really got their load on this afternoon. Those boys do like to carouse. You’re so lucky you don’t have brothers, Mary. They can be horrid sometimes."

Mary began inserting combs into her friend’s hair. "Your parents—they’re very—affectionate, aren’t they?"

She almost lost hold of Damaris as she lurched forward and laughed heartily. "Isn’t it disgustin’?"

"I think it’s rather nice. Wouldn’t you like to be that way when you’ve been married as long as they have?"

Damaris snorted out another laugh. "I hope by then I’ll have calmed down. If only to save my children the embarrassment."

Mary couldn’t help smiling. She had been more surprised than anyone when Damaris Mosby had chosen her as a particular friend while they were at school. They could not be more dissimilar in personality or temperament. Yet she loved Damaris, loved her for her frankness, which sometimes bordered on bluntness. It was so different from what she was used to at home.

The last comb in place and the curls somewhat tamed, Damaris abruptly turned to Keziah and Emmie and said, "Leave that for now. Finish later"

They left. Mary was puzzled by the sudden dismissal of the maids.

"Darlin’," her friend began, pulling her down to sit next to her. "I want to warn you about somethin’."

"Warn me?"

"About Clay. You must be on your guard."

"What do you mean?"

"I love my brother, I do—I have to, don’t I? But he can be very—"

"What?"

"Vain, I suppose is the word. He makes a sport out of flirtin’ with my friends. He’s not happy unless he thinks every pretty girl is mad for him."

"Oh, you can’t mean that."

"I mean exactly that. He won’t be around us very much because soon we’ll be at the plantation and he’ll want to stay in town. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have asked you to come here at all. But when he is around, watch yourself."

"Goodness! You make him sound dangerous."

Damaris turned to the mirror again and began fussing with curls that had already started popping loose. "Oh, honey, I didn’t mean to give you the wrong impression. He wouldn’t dare lay a finger on you. He’s not a barbarian. Besides, he’s already got a woman for that."

"You mean he’s courting someone?"

This sent Damaris into peals of laughter. "Mary, I declare! You’re so innocent sometimes!"

Mary felt the heat rise to her face.

"No, he’s not courtin’ her. She’s his mistress. You do know what I mean by that, don’t you?"

"Of course." Vaguely, anyway. She thought this was probably a good time to change the subject, but curiosity compelled her to ask, "What’s she like?"

"Huh! What do you think? She’s trash." Damaris was quite positive about it.

"You know her, then."

"I wouldn’t know someone like that. And from what I know of her, I wouldn’t want to." Damaris turned to Mary again and leaned in conspiratorially. "She’s older than he is—can you imagine? She’s a widow who married a man almost old enough to be her grandfather for his money. Isn’t that the most revoltin’ thing you’ve ever heard?"

Now Mary was definitely becoming uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation. She wished she had not asked the question in the first place. "Yes, quite revolting."

Damaris pouted and chucked Mary under the chin. "I think I’ve shocked you, poor thing. I’m sorry. I want you to watch yourself, that’s all. Just know when Clay starts to sweet-talk you he doesn’t mean it. My friend Louanne Brevard took it seriously and was hurt by it. I wouldn’t like to see the same happen to you. So be careful, all right, dear?"

"Yes, all right."

Damaris took another look at her hair and exclaimed, "Lord! Sometimes I wish I could just shave my head!"

Mary laughed and the awkward moment passed.

* * * * * * *

Clay was starving. He wished the women would come downstairs already. He hadn’t eaten since before meeting Constance, and after their romp earlier that afternoon, he had worked up a huge appetite.

He was about to sneak off to the kitchen to beg something off the cook when his father suddenly emerged from his office.

"Clay, come in here, I want to talk to you."

Clay knew from the tone of his father’s voice something was up. What could it be? He hadn’t done anything. At least, nothing his father was likely to know about.

"What is it, Daddy?" he asked as he sat in a chair opposite his father’s desk.

His father lit a cigar and then got straight to the point. "When your mother and brother and the girls go to Hatton Willows, you’re to accompany them."

Clay blinked. "Daddy, I wasn’t plannin’—"

"Yes, well, I’m not really interested in what you planned. You’re to go with them."

Clay could not understand it. It was as if he was being punished for something, but he couldn’t imagine what. He was about to protest some more when his father continued.

"And you’re to stay there the rest of the summer."

At this, he was too shocked even to respond. The entire summer! Away from his friends, Constance, and all the amusements in town? Unthinkable.

"All right, that’s all." He waved the cigar at Clay. "You may go. The women should be down any minute."

Clay finally found his voice. "But Daddy, why? I thought—"

His father said brusquely, "Clay, I’ve made up my mind, and that’s all there is to it. You will go with your mother and you will stay at the plantation until I tell you otherwise. Is that clear?"

The glint in his father’s eyes told him it would be foolish to argue. "Yes, sir."

They heard feminine voices outside the door. His father squashed the cigar in an ashtray on his desk and said, "Good. Now, let’s eat."

Clay’s appetite deserted him. Once they were seated at the dining room table and served, he could only pick at what was in front of him. He could not imagine why this injustice was being perpetrated against him. Sometimes his father made him feel like he was Wade’s age, no more than ten years old.

"Won’t your brother Wade be joining us?" Mary asked Damaris.

His mother answered for her. "He looked a little peaked to me. I told Keziah to serve him in his room."

"Belle, he’s perfectly fine," said his father. One of the very few things that made his father impatient with his mother was her tendency to coddle Wade. "He ate with us every night you were away and came to no discernable harm, isn’t that right, Clay?"

"Hmm? Oh. Yes, sir, that’s right."

"What are you sulkin’ about?" asked his sister.

"Nothin’."

"Clay’s a little put out because he’ll be goin’ to the plantation sooner than he planned," said his father. "Apparently, it upsets some plans he had in town."

Clay saw his sister jump a little in her chair. "What do you mean, Daddy? How much sooner?"

"He’ll be goin’ when the rest of you go."

"Oh, how nice!" exclaimed his mother.

Damaris’ jaw dropped. Clay couldn’t help being mildly amused. She looked more upset about it than he was.

Clay decided to discombobulate her even more. In an elaborately casual tone, he said, "I thought I would invite Robert to come stay with me for a while."

He had the satisfaction of seeing her face turn almost purple in color. He knew she had been deliberately avoiding Robert’s company lately. He had developed tender feelings for her but she didn’t return them. Poor Robert, thought Clay. If only he could find a better object for his affection.

His father said, "I didn’t say anythin’ about you invitin’ company along with you."

"Why not, Daddy? Damaris can have her friend out at the plantation, why can’t I?"

"Yes, Leland, why shouldn’t he invite Robert along?" asked his mother.

His father thought about it for a moment. "No reason, I suppose."

Damaris sat there with her mouth screwed up in consternation. Clay smiled at her meanly, pleased with himself. At least he wouldn’t be the only one suffering. Some of the sick feeling in his stomach disappeared and he felt his appetite return.

As he ate, he found himself glancing over at his sister’s friend. Except for the one inquiry about Wade, she hadn’t spoken at all during the meal. Again, he felt that faint stab of familiarity. He couldn’t imagine why. There was nothing he could detect about her that was extraordinary. She was pretty enough, but seemed kind of mousy. He thought it quite probable Damaris had her as a friend because she was easy to boss around.

He felt someone kick him under the table.

"Stop starin’ at her," his sister whispered.

"I wasn’t!"

"Yes, you were."

Well, perhaps he had been without meaning to—the girl was blushing like mad. He wondered if Robert might like her. She seemed the sort who would suit him better than his sister.

He felt another kick.

"Damaris, so help me, if you kick me again—"

"Children!" their mother interjected. "Please stop sniping at each other. Have some consideration for your poor mother’s nerves. And what will Mary think?"

* * * * * * *

Robert saw Clay enter the smoke-filled tavern and waved at him. He immediately detected his friend was in a foul mood.

"What’s eatin’ you?" he said as Clay sank into a chair next to him.

Clay ordered a drink and said, "I have found out tonight I am bein’ exiled, that’s what’s eatin’ me."

"What do you mean?"

"My father has ordered me out to the plantation for the entire summer."

Robert laughed. "Good Lord, Clay, you act as though he’s sendin’ you to the moon."

"I may as well be on the moon out there! I’ll go out of my mind with boredom." His drink arrived and he downed it quickly. "Bring me another one, honey," he said to the barmaid.

"You used to love the plantation."

"There’s no Constance at the plantation."

This couldn’t be about her, could it? Robert did not like her. He understood the attraction, of course. She was one good-looking woman, and, according to Clay, a demon in bed. Having such a beautiful mistress older than himself, but not too much older—hell, having a mistress at all at his age—how could that not go to his head? She was rich, so did not need to be kept, meaning she was with him purely from inclination. All this gave Clay tremendous status among their circle of friends. They thought him some sort of sexual prodigy.

He had met her several times because she was amenable to Clay having his friends over to her house now and then to play cards. While she had been a charming hostess and never anything less than polite to him, he could not rid himself of a deep feeling of antipathy towards the woman. There was something about her eyes that reminded him of a viper.

They both rolled cigarettes and lit them. "You’re rarely bereft of female company at the Willows," said Robert. "Or anywhere else, for that matter."

"It’s not the same."

Robert puffed on his cigarette for a moment. "Clay, you’re not—"

"What?"

"In love with her, or anythin’, are you?"

Clay laughed, almost choking on cigarette smoke. "Don’t be an ass, Robert."

He said it in such a way that Robert knew he was being truthful. "I only asked because you know what they say—at night all cats are gray."

Clay looked thoughtful. "It’s difficult to explain. When I’m with her, it’s like I’m not who I am for a while."

"How do you mean?

"Not—someone my father can order around."

Robert thought this a surprising revelation. Clay had always seemed so close to his father. While other boys rebelled against parental authority, he had rarely done so in any direct way. Was Constance his subtle way of rebelling? It added another layer to Robert’s understanding of their relationship. Perhaps a few months away from her would be a good thing. Some instinct told him Clay would have a difficult time extracting her fangs once he was finally finished with her. If she were to find another lover in the interim, it could save him a whole lot of grief.

"Anyway, you’ll come and stay with me for part of the time at least, won’t you, Robert?"

"Wha-what? No, no, I—"

"Oh, now, don’t be silly. It’s a big house, a big plantation—you’ll hardly ever see her. Besides, she’ll be busy entertainin’ her guest."

"I’ll only have to take three meals a day with her. I don’t think so, Clay."

"Her friend is rather pretty. Perhaps you would like her."

Robert guffawed. "More likely, she’ll like you."

Clay flicked cigarette ash onto the floor. "Don’t underrate yourself, Robert. Just because my sister is too stupid to see you for the excellent fellow that you are doesn’t mean other girls are, too."

Robert shook his head and smiled to himself. One of the drawbacks to being Clay’s closest friend was standing constantly in his shadow as far as women were concerned. They were drawn to him like bees to honey. It had occurred to Robert more than once that perhaps he had fallen in love with Damaris for the simple reason that she was Clay’s sister, and pretty much the only girl in Richmond who was not a possible romantic interest for him.

No, that wasn’t really so. He had adored her since they were children, even during her ugly duckling stage. As she had matured into her looks, he had become even more thoroughly captivated by her. But she cared nothing for him—at least not in a romantic sense.

"I’m beggin’ you, Robert. We’ll find ways to have a good time, like we did when we were younger."

He did have fond memories of their escapades at Hatton Willows when they were children. Besides, he knew by now once Clay was determined to get him to do something, protesting was useless. It was inevitable he would capitulate.

"Very well."

"Thank you, I do appreciate it. Now let’s find some of the fellows and get a card game goin’."

* * * * * * *

Mary thought Hatton Willows was one of the most beautiful places she’d ever seen.

Her own family had a plantation, but the mansion house was not nearly as handsome and elegant as this one. And it certainly wasn’t as big. After disembarking from the carriage with the others, she stood there in awe of the stately place.

She felt a hand slip into hers. She looked down and smiled at little Wade Mosby. She had an affinity for children, and Wade had immediately sensed this.

He was about as different from his brother and sister as one could imagine. While they were both bursting with health and vitality, Wade was a pale, sickly-looking boy. He had light brown hair like his mother. If it weren’t for his smile, so similar to Clay’s and Damaris’, you wouldn’t have taken him for a Mosby at all.

"Do you like it, Miss Mary?"

Mary bent over and whispered, "I think it divine."

This pleased the little boy. "I want to show you the house! May I, Mama?"

"You may not," said Mrs. Mosby "You are goin’ to bed immediately, young man. That was a very arduous journey for you."

The child looked disappointed, but also resigned to having his wishes thwarted by his health problems. Damaris had confided to Mary that Wade had always been delicate and suffered two nearly fatal illnesses since his premature birth.

Several servants were bustling around them, taking trunks off the carriage and into the house. "Lord, I’ll tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind havin’ a lie down for a while myself," said Damaris. The day was very hot and even such a dynamic girl was wilting.

"I think we all should," said Mrs. Mosby. "We can have a nice rest until suppertime. Where are the boys?"

"They’ll be along soon," said Damaris. "They weren’t far behind us."

The two young men had ridden along with the carriage on horseback. Mr. Mosby had stayed behind in town for a few more days, having business to attend to. This had precipitated another tender scene between the elder Mosbys as they said goodbye and kissed several times, Damaris making faces and poking Mary the entire time they did it.

Once installed in her room, Emmie helped Mary out of her dress. She lay down on the bed in her underthings and dozed for about an hour or so. But soon she was awake and restless. She discovered the maid had quietly unpacked her things in the adjoining dressing room, so she found a wrap and slippers and put them on.

The maid suddenly appeared, as if she knew somehow she was needed.

"You ready to be dressed now, Miz Mary?" Emmie asked.

"Yes. I’ll wear the green tonight."

"Yessum."

After the maid helped her dress and arrange her hair, Mary stood in front of a full-length mirror.

"You looks real nice, Miz Mary," said Emmie.

Nice. Yes, that about summed it up. She had never considered herself a beauty. Pretty, maybe, but nothing more. And then there was this other lack that grieved her much more. She wasn’t what one would call a lively girl. Just as Damaris envied her for hair she could control, Mary envied her friend’s effervescent nature. Damaris might not fit anybody’s idea of conventional beauty, but it was difficult to remember that when she was charming you with the force of her personality.

The room faced a lovely veranda that ran around the length of the house. The French doors were slightly ajar, to allow some air into the room. After her maid left her alone, she opened them all the way and stepped out onto the veranda.

There was a very refreshing breeze. Even the air seems special here, she thought. She closed her eyes and let herself enjoy it.

When she opened her eyes, she could see Clay and his friend Robert walking towards the house. Their hair was wet and clothes put on carelessly, as if they had just gone swimming.

She watched them. Clay walked with a great deal of confidence and was very animated as he talked to his friend. Robert had a more unassuming gate, and seemed to be more of a listener. Each was quite handsome in his own way, but here again a Mosby outshone his companion.

She was startled when she realized they had spotted her and were waving a greeting.

She waved back, but shyness compelled her to hastily retreat back into the bedroom.

* * * * * * *

"That’s a pretty picture," said Clay to Robert as he waved at the girl. "Such a wistful look!"

Robert looked up and waved, too. He caught sight of her before she suddenly disappeared back into the room. He had to agree. She was like a portrait on a cameo. One of the first things he’d noticed about Mary Cantrell was how unaware of her own loveliness she seemed to be. That was a rare quality in a girl.

"What do you think, Robert? Could she make you forget my sister?"

As if anyone could so easily. "She’s very pretty, but not really the type of girl I favor."

"Too tame for you, is that it?" He laughed. "Well, then, maybe I’ll flirt with her a little. The girl looks like she could do with a bit of romance."

Oh, Lord, thought Robert. Here we go again. "Clay, don’t. Remember what happened with Louanne—"

"That bubblehead! Don’t remind me."

"Can’t you leave her alone? She seems like a nice girl."

"I never said she wasn’t. You don’t understand women. They like to fancy themselves in love. What else will she have to talk about when she gets back to Atlanta?"

This was one aspect of Clay’s personality that Robert found difficult to reconcile with the usually kind and generous fellow he called his best friend. He could be so thoughtless about certain things. He knew from past incidents he would try to get that girl to fall for him, and then pretend he meant nothing by it. Yet he never did this out of malice, otherwise Robert would hate him for it. Clay simply didn’t know he was being hurtful. He really believed the girls understood the game. Maybe some of them did, but even based on such a brief acquaintance, Robert was certain this one would not.

He stopped trying to dissuade Clay because he knew it was useless. He hoped Damaris would keep her little friend away from him. He suspected she would, because she had been very put out by the way he had treated her friend Louanne.

To change the subject, he asked, "How did Constance take it when you told her you were leavin’ for the whole summer?"

Clay sighed impatiently. "Not very well, I’m afraid. In fact, she threw a bit of a hissy fit."

Good, thought Robert. You deserve some grief from a woman.

"I don’t know what she expects from me. I can’t very well defy my father, can I? She seems to think I have some choice in the matter."

"Did she—break off with you?" asked Robert, hopefully.

"Of course not. I smoothed things over. I had her purrin’ like a kitten before I left. I know how to handle women."

Robert was convinced the day would come when Clay discovered how little he could handle that particular woman.

They stepped into the house. Just then, Damaris and Mary started descending the stairs. Robert felt his heart skip a beat as he looked at Damaris, who somehow managed to look both wild and elegant at the same time. He glanced at Clay and saw him get an almost predatory look on his face as he looked at Mary.

He could see Damaris immediately sense something in the air. Her eyes darted from the look on Clay’s face to his own face.

"What’s goin’ on?" she asked.

"Why, nothin’ at all, we just had ourselves a pleasant walk," said Clay.

Robert put his hand on his friend’s shoulder and pushed him towards the stairs. "And now we’re goin’ to go change."

Clay was not going to be so easily distracted. He stopped in front of the girl and said, "We’ll look forward to seein’ you at supper."

Mary said nothing but looked uncomfortable underneath his stare. Damaris deliberately stepped between them and said, "As it happens, you will not see her."

He did not take his eyes off the girl. "That’s very disappointin’ May I ask why not?"

"I’ve told Mama we will keep Wade company this evenin’."

"That’s very kind of you, Miss Mary, to spend time with Wade. But he’ll likely be asleep soon. Perhaps later the four of us—or tomorrow—"

"No," said his sister firmly.

He turned to his sister. "You haven’t even heard—"

"I said no."

Clay began to get annoyed. "Why not let your friend speak for herself?"

"Fine. Mary, what do you say?"

Mary looked startled as three pairs of eyes turned on her and expected an immediate response.

"Well, I—suppose whatever you think is best, Damaris," the girl stammered.

"See? You may as well understand somethin’ right now, Clay. We did not expect the two of you to be here and we have our own ideas for how we want to spend our time. And we do not care for the company of either one of you." She grabbed Mary’s hand and pulled her away. "Come along, Mary."

Clay looked after them, glowering. In spite of the back-handed insult to himself, Robert couldn’t help laughing at the way Damaris had so deftly thwarted her brother’s intensions.

* * * * * * *

Mrs. Mosby had been quite pleased with the request they accompany Wade during his meal. The boy did look very tired after the trip, and as predicted, was soon asleep after they finished eating.

The girls sat by the veranda doors and talked together quietly after Wade had dozed off.

Damaris fanned herself. "Lord, it’s hot. I’m glad we aren’t downstairs with those two rapscallions. I haven’t the spirits for it."

"You don’t like Robert, do you?" Mary wondered why. He seemed like a nice boy to her.

Her friend smiled sadly. "You are quite wrong, Mary. The truth is, I love Robert."

Mary eyes widened and she sat up straighter in her chair. "Damaris, dear! Why did you never tell me this?"

"I don’t mean I’m in love with him. I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t around. He’s like—" She shrugged. "—part of the furniture. And I do love him, as a friend. But he—he feels much more strongly about me."

"Oh, my. That must be awkward."

"Yes, indeed, it is very awkward, and shows you how mean my brother can be at times. He knows it’s awkward for both of us, but he bullied Robert into comin’ here, and you can be sure it was just to tweak me."

Mary smiled. "It seems the two of you enjoy tweaking each other."

Mindful of the sleeping Wade, Damaris smothered a laugh behind one hand and said, "I suppose there’s some truth to that. We’ve been fightin’ like cats and dogs since we were old enough to put words together." She started fanning herself again. "It would be nice if Robert could become interested in you, Mary. But I fear he will be attached to Clay the entire time he is here. You won’t be able to spend time with him without Clay—well, bein’ Clay and tryin’ to lay claim to you himself. Look at how he behaved downstairs."

Mary wondered if she was making too much of what happened when the boys came into the house. Perhaps that was just his way of being friendly. Though she had to admit to herself the way he stared at her was rather unnerving. It was so intense. Like he could see right through her.

Damaris continued, "When Jared asks to come callin’—and he will soon, for certain—I will request he bring one of his friends with him for you."

"Oh, you don’t have to—"

Damaris touched her with her fan. "Darlin’, you are too shy for your own good. You should try to be more like me."

Mary laughed. "That could never be."

Her friend smiled ruefully. "No, I suppose not. Nor should you be like me, you are just about perfect as you are. But I am determined to find a beau for you, and you must help me by putting yourself forward a little more. All right, chicken?"

"Yes, dear, I will try."

* * * * * * *

"Clay, do you hate me?"

Clay turned around and saw Robert standing at his bedroom door. He had been sitting at his desk, trying to compose a letter to Constance. Not an easy task, as they had never corresponded much beyond short missives about when to meet. But he thought it politic to keep in contact with her while he was away.

"What do you mean, Robert?"

Robert stepped into the room and closed the door. "Why didn’t you tell me your sister has a beau?"

Clay feigned innocence. "You mean I never mentioned that to you?"

"No, you never mentioned it to me!" Robert shook his head. "You bastard. You knew I would never have come here if I’d known about it."

"How did you find out?"

"I heard your mother talkin’ to her about it. About Jared Tannehill comin’ to call on her tomorrow afternoon. And how they’ve been writin’ to each other the entire time she was away. Sounds pretty serious to me."

Clay knew all this, of course. He pushed aside his writing things and stood up with a sigh. "Robert, my friend, believe me when I tell you this. You are fortunate my sister has cast her glance elsewhere. I pity the man who ends up married to her. He will never be master in his own home."

The look on Robert’s face told Clay this was not comforting him in any way.

"All right, then. If you want my sister so very badly—and mind you, I’m not encouragin’ you in this—then do somethin’, don’t just crawl into a corner and cry about it."

Robert shrugged. "She’s made her feelings very clear. She—"

Clay rolled his eyes. "Then convince her otherwise. A woman likes a man to take charge."

Robert smirked. "Oh, yes, I see you havin’ great success convincin’ little Miss Cantrell."

That hurt. The past few days had been very exasperating. Damaris had made it her mission to keep him from her friend, and so far was succeeding.

He tried to laugh it off. "That sister of mine is more vigilant at keeping her away from me than Cerberus was at guarding the gates of Hades. If she would just let me get next to the young lady, it would be a different story."

"Of course it would," said Robert in a slightly bitter tone. "You’re the expert when it comes to women. It may interest you to know, however, that Jared is bringin’ his cousin Denny Marsden to call on Miss Mary."

"Is he? No doubt he’s doin’ that at the behest of my sister." Clay knew Denny Marsden and was not the least bit threatened. Nice-looking, he supposed, and from a good family, but a bore and weak-willed to boot. If Damaris thought that was all it would take to defeat his purpose, she was very much mistaken.

Jared Tannehill was another matter. He could understand Robert’s distress. Jared was several years older than they were. He happened to have that take-charge personality and just might be the one person who had it in him to tame his sister. They seemed a much more suitable match. Besides, he liked Jared.

He would never say this to Robert, of course.

"I think I’ll go home, Clay."

"Please don’t. I told you, do somethin’ about it."

"What can I do if she prefers him to me?"

"Robert, I have a feelin’ you’re goin’ to end up a cranky old bachelor."

* * * * * * *

Mary and Damaris sat under a tree on a blanket near Mrs. Mosby’s rose garden. Damaris had contrived of another way to avoid being with the boys by having Keziah pack a picnic lunch for them

The girls sat companionably together, both reading letters. Damaris had a letter from her beau Jared and Mary a letter from her sister Lucy. She nibbled on some fruit while she wondered what to tell her sister in her next letter of her time at the plantation. It had so far been an odd game between Damaris and her brother, with herself as some sort of prize. At this point, Damaris was winning. Several times Mary had found herself yanked from some location or activity so she could be spirited away from her brother’s vicinity.

She thought the whole enterprise silly. She was a very patient soul, but Damaris was trying that patience. She considered herself a sensible girl with a good head on her shoulders. Surely, she was sensible enough to resist the sort of insincere womanizer Damaris believed her brother to be.

She heard her friend giggling at something she was reading. Sensitive to a person’s need for privacy, Mary didn’t ask what she found amusing. She noted the heightened color and pleasure on her face from reading the note. Mary felt a brief pang of envy. It must be so nice to have a beau.

Damaris suddenly put down her letter and gasped. "Oh, Lord, here they come. Let’s remove ourselves."

Mary looked up and saw Clay and Robert approaching. The thought of the two of them struggling to get up from the ground and running away, an awkward enterprise in their voluminous hoop skirts—it had been difficult enough sitting down in the first place—struck her as absurd.

"Let’s not." Mary resumed reading her letter.

"But, Mary—" protested Damaris.

She put her letter down and said with a sigh, "Dear, enough of this nonsense. I feel ridiculous, running away every time they turn up. I am quite comfortable where I am and do not intend to move from this spot."

Damaris looked shocked by this gentle rebellion. But she said reluctantly, "Well—I suppose it’s all right, as long as I’m here."

Mary smiled. "Yes, I am certain you will be adequate protection from his evil intentions."

"You may laugh as you wish, chicken, but evil is not so very far from what he intends."

Mary couldn’t help rolling her eyes a little at what was surely a gross overstatement.

"Good mornin’," said Clay, smiling and looking like anything but the bearer of evil intentions. "Robert and I were wonderin’ if you ladies would care for some company."

Before Mary could respond, Damaris said sharply, "I would not, but it seems Mary is willin’ to tolerate your presence."

"Is she? How very kind of her." He sat himself down on the blanket. Robert also found a space for himself.

There was a short silence. Mary noted Damaris quickly hid the letter she had been reading. There was no mistaking the look of longing Robert gave her. The poor boy, he really was in love with her.

To break the awkwardness, Mary said, "Would either of you care for some fruit?"

"Thank you, Miss Mary, that is most obliging. Robert and I will share a pear, I believe."

She was about to hand him the pear and a knife, but Damaris grabbed them first.

"Here," she said, giving them to her brother.

Why did she do that, wondered Mary.

Clay looked amused by his sister’s interference in the exchange, but did not comment on it. He began cutting the pear.

"Miss Mary, I believe my sister has been remiss in her hostess duties. I understand you have not yet had a proper tour of the plantation. Or taken a drive down to the river."

Before Mary could answer, her friend again interceded. "You don’t have to worry, Clay, I am takin’ excellent care of Mary. She shall see and do everythin’ there is to see and do here before she leaves."

Now he did look aggravated. He handed Robert his share of the pear. "Damaris, do you know what I like most about your friend? She knows when to speak and when not to speak. I admire that quality in a young woman."

"No doubt because that affords you more opportunity to listen to the sound of your own voice."

Mary heard Robert try to suppress a laugh. Clay threw a glare at his friend.

"As I was sayin’—before I was so rudely interrupted—perhaps this afternoon you would care to take a drive down to the river, Miss Mary."

"I—we—already have plans for this afternoon," she said.

"That’s right," said Damaris. "We are expectin’ some callers this afternoon. Some—" She looked at Robert with a rare touch of embarrassment. "Some gentlemen callers, if you must know."

"I see. What about tomorrow, then?"

Again, before Mary could answer, Damaris said, "No."

"I don’t recall invitin’ you."

"I mean, Mary can’t go."

"You speak for her in all things, is that it?"

The two began another round of back-and-forth bickering. After a few moments of this, Mary glanced over at Robert, who tilted his head. She wasn’t sure what he wanted, and then he did it again. Finally he stood up and held out his hand to her.

Clay and Damaris did not notice—they were still arguing. Mary couldn’t help being amused by the idea of leaving the two of them to their endless sniping. She took Robert’s hand and let him help her up off the ground.

This, the other two noticed.

Clay looked thunderstruck. "Robert, what are you doin’?"

"Miss Mary and I are feelin’ slightly superfluous. So we will take ourselves elsewhere." They proceeded to walk together towards the house.

She did not dare look back, though she couldn’t help but notice the sudden complete silence from the two siblings.

When they were out of earshot, she looked at Robert and they both laughed.

"Have they always been like that?" she asked.

"Oh, yes, Miss Mary, for as long as I can remember."

"Goodness. My sisters and I can be catty with each other now and then, but nothing like that."

"No doubt Damaris just means to be protective of you."

She was surprised. "Are you saying I need to be protected from Clay?"

"Well—no, not really. Not if you understand he just means it playfully. He’s not bein’ mean." Robert looked thoughtful. "The more Damaris tries to keep you away from him, the more resolute he becomes. I’ll tell you what you should do, Miss Mary. Smile at him, let him flirt with you, go with him if he invites you somewhere, laugh at his jokes. Soon he’ll be satisfied and that will be that."

"Robert! You’re supposed to be his best friend. You make him sound so—shallow and self-important."

He laughed. "We are best friends but I hope we are honest about each other’s shortcomings. Self-important is difficult to argue. I suppose all the Mosbys are that to a point. But shallow? No, Clay is anythin’ but that."

Just then, the two Mosby siblings caught up to them.

Damaris grabbed Mary’s arm and starting pulling her into the house. "Come along, Mary, we have callers comin’ soon. We must get ready."

"All right, dear, you don’t have to tear my arm off."

When they were in the house and away from the boys, Damaris started to giggle.

"Lord! You really cut Clay’s water off when you did that, you sly thing."

"That’s not—"

"Oh, he’s fumin’ mad. He’s probably givin’ Robert a good thrashin’ over it right now."

Mary gasped and looked behind her towards the veranda doors, imagining poor Robert on the receiving end of a frightful beating. "Not really!"

"No—not really. But a good tongue-lashin’ for certain." Damaris eyed her friend. "It seems Robert thinks you’re worth riskin’ Clay’s ire. You may end up with two beaus before the day is over, Mary."

Since it was perfectly obvious to Mary that Robert had eyes only for Damaris, she thought this a ridiculous notion.

Yet still gratifying to contemplate, in certain respects.

* * * * * * *

"I’ll take two cards," said Robert.

Clay glowered. "I told you not to speak to me."

"How are we supposed to play cards if I can’t speak to you?"

Clay shoved the two requested cards at Robert. "Try."

They sat at a small table outside on the veranda. From inside, the sounds of talking and laughter wafted out. The girls and their callers were still having a high-old time. Mrs. Mosby had of course insisted Jared and Denny stay for supper. Clay did not feel an ounce of sympathy for Robert having to sit through a meal watching Damaris and her beau sparking each other. He was still furious at him because of what he pulled that morning in the garden.

"You know, you should thank me," said Robert.

"And still he insists on talkin’ to me . . ."

"You were makin’ an ass of yourself."

Clay looked up from his cards. "I was not."

"Oh, no? I suppose that’s why Miss Mary observed to me that you are shallow and self-important."

Shock waves shot through him. "She never said such a thing. You made that up!"

Robert shrugged in answer.

"What did she really say?"

His friend merely smiled and shuffled the cards in his hands.

Before he could interrogate Robert further, his mother suddenly appeared before them. Both put down their cards and stood up.

She was in one of her rare peevish moods. "I would like to ask the two of you somethin’—a mystery I would like cleared up for me," she said.

"What is it, Mama?"

She pointed with her fan towards the inside of the house. "I would like to know why it is I may find myself in a room with the two girls, and other times in a room with you two boys, but almost never with the four of you together unless it’s meal time."

"It’s not our fault. The young ladies disdain our company," said Clay.

"What nonsense. Besides, we have guests tonight and the two of you takin’ yourselves away from our company is simply rude."

"I doubt they mind it."

"Well, I mind it. People will think I don’t know how to raise my children. And I’m certain your mother would be appalled as well, Robert. Come inside now. Damaris is goin’ to sing."

Lord, thought Clay, now we’re going to have to sit through one of Damaris’ recitals. It wasn’t that she was bad—in fact, she was superior musician. Most who heard her thought if she had been born into different circumstances she could have made a profession of it. The problem was she knew this and would show off with great relish. Clay found it an ordeal to watch and listen.

They had no choice but to obey his mother and follow her into the music room. Damaris already sat at the piano with Jared at her side. The two of them were going through sheet music together. Jared was a tall, well-built fellow with fiery red hair and a moustache to match. Clay had to admit they made a striking couple.

Clay looked over at Mary sitting next to Denny Marsden. Denny was a shorter, softer version of his cousin—he also had red hair, but of a duller tone. He already seemed to be quite taken with Mary. It was easy to see why. In anticipation of their callers, both girls had taken particular care with their appearance. Mary looked prettier than he’d ever seen her yet.

Robert’s words stabbed through him again. Shallow! Self-important! Huh! How could she say such things about him?

If she even had, he thought. Perhaps Robert had made the whole thing up. He had to be out of sorts from the discomfort of having to watch Damaris with her beau, and possibly he blamed him for his predicament. Yes, that had to be it.

Damaris began. She sang some songs in French and Italian, Jared turning the music for her. Once he joined her in a duet. Usually, Damaris could go on like this for hours. Clay was astonished when after only a few songs, she stopped.

"Mary must sing now," she said.

The girl looked surprised. "No, dear, you go on singing, you are so much better than I."

"Mary, don’t be so modest! You have a lovely voice."

Denny turned to her and said, "Oh, yes, Miss Cantrell, please sing for us."

Since it would be the height of rudeness to refuse when requested to sing by her hostess, Mary had to give in and take her place at the piano. She did so, blushing all the time.

Her playing and voice were not nearly as accomplished as her friend’s, yet Clay found it far more pleasing to listen to her. There was an artlessness to it that was extremely appealing to him.

Down in yon flowery garden
Where my true love and I did meet
I took her in my arms
And to her I gave kisses sweet

She bid me take love easy
Just as the leaves fall from yon tree
But I being young and foolish
With my true love would not agree

"Oh, Mary," his mother sighed when she was done. "That was perfectly lovely."

Everyone agreed. Denny was especially effusive, which sickened Clay. He had never liked the fellow much, but now he was irritating him to the extreme. Mary merely shook her head at all the compliments and refused to sing another.

She relinquished the piano bench to Damaris and went back to her seat next to Denny. Clay studied her delicate profile. It was difficult to believe such mean judgments could come from one such as she. He decided then and there he would contrive some way to be with her without his sister about. Let her tell him he was those things to his face.

* * * * * * *

The next morning Mary sat alone on a bench in the rose garden. She looked up and smiled as she saw Wade approach her. The poor boy was so often house-bound it was a pleasure to see him outside.

"You look very well this morning, Wade, dear."

"Mama said I didn’t have to stay in bed today."

"That’s wonderful," she said, closing the book she had been reading. "What will you do today, then?"

"Clay’s goin’ to take me down to the river. He wants to know if you’ll come with us." The boy pointed off to the side. Mary turned and saw Clay standing a few feet away.

"Well, I, uh, well—" she stammered.

"Oh, come, Miss Mary," pleaded Wade.

"Yes, please do," said his brother. "We would enjoy your company."

"Your sister—"

"—won’t be draggin’ her lazy carcass out of bed for at least another two hours, as I believe you well know."

Mary tried to hide a smile. It was true, Damaris was one to stay in bed until well into late morning. How clever of him to have his little brother dispense the invitation, making it more difficult to refuse. And to ask when his sister was not around to protest. Then she remembered Robert’s advice.

As she hesitated, he said, "Of course, we would not go unchaperoned. We would bring Keziah with us—or your own maid, if you prefer."

"All right," she finally said. "I will get Emmie."

* * * * * * *

Robert sat in the dining room drinking coffee by himself when Damaris suddenly burst in. She looked as if she had dressed in a hurry. She had not yet bothered to comb out her braids from the previous night. She marched over to where he sat.

"Where are they?" she demanded.

"Who?"

"You know perfectly well who, Robert Shelby. Mary and that skunk of a brother of mine. When I woke up this mornin’ Keziah told me they took off together."

Robert put down his cup. "I think they said they were goin’ down to the river."

She clenched her fists in fury. "That—that—varmint!"

He laughed. "Damaris, dear, it’s not like he’s takin’ her down there to ravish her. They are thoroughly well chaperoned. They took Wade and Mary’s maid is also with them."

"You know that’s not what I’m worried about. You know what he’s like better than anyone, Robert. Don’t defend him."

"Yes, I know what he’s like." He lowered his eyes. "What you’re both like."

She gasped in protest. "What do you mean? I’m not like him."

"Oh, yes, you are. You’re both very skilled at breakin’ hearts."

He looked up. The bluster was gone and replaced with a pained expression.

She shook her head. "That’s not fair. That’s just not fair. I—I’ve never given you the wrong idea. I’ve never led you on, the way he does with girls."

"True enough. Funny thing is, it doesn’t hurt any less."

"Robert!" she cried. She reached out to him and took his hand. "Do you think it gives me pleasure to hurt you? Oh, why can’t it be as it was when we were children?"

He savored the warmth of her hand, then reached up with his free hand and pulled gently on one of her braids. "I used to do that when we were children, do you remember?"

"I remember you were far more vicious about it at the time," she said, taking her hand away and pulling her hair out of his.

He grinned. "I was a bit of a terror then, wasn’t I?"

"Oh, dear Robert . . . " The bluster started to return. "This is Clay’s fault, this is all his fault for bringin’ you here. And now he’s toyin’ with Mary. There are no words for him."

"I think you make too much of it."

"No, I do not. And I will find a way to deal with it."

Mrs. Mosby entered the dining room with a horrified expression on her face.

"Damaris! How can you be runnin’ around the house in such a state?" She lowered her voice, as if Robert wouldn’t be able to hear. "When there’s a young man about? Go upstairs at once and make yourself more presentable."

"For heaven’s sake, Mama, Robert’s used to seein’ me like this and worse."

"That was when you were children. Things are different now."

Damaris looked at Robert and said sadly, "Yes, they are quite different now."

* * * * * * *

"You know, I really don’t mind if you dislike me," said Clay. "It’s you permitting others to form your opinion of me that I mind."

Mary turned from looking at the view of the river. The spot Clay had taken them to was incomparable—rapids flowed in the river and the banks were lush and green. Wade, joyful at the opportunity to expend pent-up energy without his mother about to stop him, ran around and around them. Emmie stood watching them from a respectful distance.

She said, "I don’t dislike you. I barely know you."

"But you have allowed others to form your opinion of me."

"That’s simply not so."

"Oh, no? You did not tell Robert you think me self-important? Shallow?"

She felt herself turning red, amazed Robert would misrepresent her in such a fashion. "That is not what I said."

"What did you say?"

"I said Robert made you sound like that."

He laughed and shook his head. "I should have known—that Robert—why I should—"

"Don’t be angry with him, please don’t. Perhaps you misunderstood him."

"I assure you, I did not misunderstand him."

They were both silent for a moment. Then he gestured towards the river.

"Does the view please you?"

"Oh, yes, it’s beautiful here."

"I’ve always enjoyed this spot, since I was little—" He stopped speaking and suddenly reached over to her. She involuntarily leaned back.

He put up his hand in a stop motion. "Don’t move, Miss Mary. A butterfly has landed on you."

Mary could see the wings of the butterfly fluttering on her shoulder from out of the corner of her eye. In one deft motion, Clay trapped the butterfly in his hands.

"Well, Miss Mary, what shall I do with it? Mount and frame it for you as a keepsake of your visit here?"

"Oh, no, oh, no, you’d have to kill it then."

He smiled at her while he kept the butterfly trapped in his hands. Once again she found herself marveling at the intensity of his gaze. Worried the tiny creature would die while he held it, she reached over and tried to pry his hands apart. At this his smile deepened.

"Let it go, please," she pleaded.

Finally, he opened his hands. "As you wish."

The butterfly didn’t move at first, perhaps stunned from its imprisonment. Then it began to move its wings. Clay blew on it gently and it flew away.

She had not realized she was still holding his hands. She withdrew hers quickly. He looked pleased with himself.

When Mary was little, her parents had taken her and her sisters to a seaside resort. She remembered standing on the beach in her bare feet, the waves rolling in and out. The force of the water as it slid back into the sea would almost knock her off her feet. That was how she felt now. It would be so easy to be drawn in by Clay, by his charm, but his smile, by his handsome looks. And he seemed perfectly cognizant of how all this affected women. What a shame, she thought, that he could not be as sincere as his friend Robert.

The expression on his face changed. He looked puzzled, as if not understanding why there was a sudden chill in the air.

Wade broke the silence. He ran up to Mary and said, "These are for you, Miss Mary!"

The child was presenting her with a ragged, damp bouquet. It consisted mostly of weeds and a few wildflowers he must have picked by the river bank. Mary took them as graciously as she would have a carefully arranged bouquet of roses.

"How lovely! Thank you, darling," she said.

The boy grinned with pleasure, then took off again for more unfettered exploration and exertion.

"It seems you have made a conquest, Miss Mary," said Clay.

Mary looked at him.

"My brother is entirely smitten by you."

"Oh," she said, with a smile. "He’s a dear." Mary shook the bouquet slightly to get some of the dampness off.

"Here, I’ll carry them for you."

"No, thank you. Wade might feel hurt if I didn’t carry them myself." She drew her handkerchief from inside her sleeve and wrapped it around the stems.

There was a sudden cry from Emmie.

"Miz Mary! Mistah Clay! Somethin’s wrong with Mistah Wade!"

The child was lying prostrate on the ground.

Mary moved to go to him, but Clay grabbed her arm and said in a commanding tone, "Stay back! Tell your girl to do the same!"

He ran to his brother and fell to his knees next to him just as the child went into convulsions. He stripped off his coat and wadded it up, putting it under the boy’s head.

Mary went to Emmie and gestured for her to stay away from Clay and Wade. The two of them stood by, horrified, as the twitching of the boy’s body increased in violence.

The fit seemed to go on forever. Emmie began to bawl. Mary was close to tears herself.

The boy’s limbs finally stilled. He began to moan. Clay gathered him up in his arms.

Mary and Emmie cautiously approached them. "Oh, is he all right?" asked Mary.

Clay cradled Wade gently. "He will be in a moment."

Mary sank to the ground next to him.

"Miz Mary, the ground is wet, you’ll ruin your dress—" said Emmie.

"Oh, bother that!" She said to Clay, "Is there something I can do?"

"Thank you, but no. He’s comin’ out of it now." He gently shook the boy. "Aren’t you, Wade?"

The boy slowly opened his eyes. "Did I have a spell, Clay?"

"Yes."

"Oh, not in front of—" He curled his arm around Clay’s neck, then looked at Mary. She was shocked to see that he looked ashamed.

"You just rest a bit," said Clay. He turned to Mary. "Would you ask your girl to get a blanket? There’s one in the carriage."

Mary nodded and did as he said. Emmie fetched the blanket and spread it on the ground. Clay lay the boy down on it.

"Don’t tell Mama," pleaded Wade. "She’ll make me stay in bed for weeks and weeks—"

"Shhh," said Clay, smoothing the boy’s sweat-soaked hair.

"Please—"

Clay turned to Mary again. "Miss Mary, there’s really no reason to upset my mother by tellin’ her—he’s fine now, as you can see. Once the spell passes, he’s well again, but I’m afraid my mother—"

She thought about it. Deception of any kind was abhorrent to her, but what good would it do to upset Mrs. Mosby? Clearly, this was nothing they hadn’t been through before, and Mary was sure Clay would not do anything to endanger his brother.

"I agree, we shouldn’t upset your mother."

Both brothers looked profoundly grateful.

After a few moments Wade did seem to be almost back to normal. He smiled at Mary and said, "Do you still have your flowers, Miss Mary?"

Even during all that turmoil, Mary had somehow kept hold of his little bouquet. "Yes, dear, right here," she said. She saw a daffodil in the bunch and plucked it away from the others. Then she held it under his chin.

He tittered. "What are you doin’?"

"I’m seeing if you like butter. If your chin turns yellow, it means you like butter."

"Did it?"

"Yes, there’s no doubt about it, you like butter."

This bit of nonsense had the effect of dissipating the tension that had been in the air since the boy fell into his fit. He was soon up on his feet and looking himself again.

A few moments later, Clay suggested they get back to the house. As Emmie folded up the blanket, Clay said, "Miss Mary, aside from not tellin’ my mother, I hope you won’t mention this to—well, to anyone else."

"Of course I won’t. It’s nobody’s business."

"It’s only, some people, if they knew—."

"I understand, you needn’t say anything more."

"Thank you. And thank you for helpin’ to put the boy at ease." He abruptly turned away and said to his brother, "How about I give you a ride to the carriage?"

"I can walk, Clay!"

"I know you can, but can you ride?"

He sank to his knees and gestured for the child to climb on his back. The boy did so, hanging on to his elder brother. In a swift motion Clay was back on his feet and carrying him off at a gentle gallop, much to the child’s delight.

As they moved away from her, Mary thought about how difficult it seemed to be for any of these Mosbys to admit a weakness.

* * * * * * *

One day soon after this, as Clay and Robert hiked back from the pond after a swim, Clay said, "Mary Cantrell is a very sweet girl."

"That she is," agreed Robert.

"She’s not a silly creature, like most girls her age," he said. "And so different from my sister! Sometimes I wonder how they can be friends at all."

"They are different, there’s no doubt about that. I like to think of them as two very different kinds of flowers."

Clay stopped walking. "Oh?"

Robert paused, too, and looked thoughtful. "Your sister is like a wildflower. Mary is a like a hot house rose. Each beautiful in her own way, but as unalike as can be."

"That’s very—poetical—of you, Robert," said Clay, eyeing his friend carefully. "Which do you prefer?"

"The wildflower. You know that."

Clay let out a breath. "Of course."

They resumed walking. Soon they arrived near the garden and could hear voices, both masculine and feminine. Apparently, the young ladies were once again entertaining Jared and Denny.

Clay and Robert paused once more. Clay felt his jaw clench. Why was that idiot Denny here again? How could Mary even bear his company?

Off in the distance they saw the two couples appear around a hedge. They were all laughing. Damaris tied a blindfold around Mary’s eyes, and then she turned her around several times.

"Go!" Damaris cried. The three others dispersed as Mary groped to find one of them.

In the maze of hedges Mary’s quarries found many places to hide from her. Now and then a laugh or other sound would betray them, and she would head in their direction. But there were too many good hiding places for them. Soon, she was clearly disoriented and groping along without any idea as to where to go.

Clay grinned at Robert. Then he headed for the hedges.

"Clay, what—"

He ignored his friend. Taking care the others did not see him; he hid behind the hedge nearest Mary. He shook the branches so she would hear them and follow the sound. She immediately headed for the hedge, slowly groping her way to the end and then around it.

He gently shook some branches next to him again. She smiled and slowly approached him with hesitant steps, guiding herself with the hedge.

He stood as still as a statue. She reached out but missed him, then took another tentative step. This time she touched his arm.

With a small triumphant sound, she touched him lightly with both hands, trying to guess who it was. Her hands ran up to his shoulders, then gently touched his face, then his hair. She suddenly drew back. She must have realized he was not the same height as either Jared or Denny, nor would either one have damp hair as he had from his recent swim.

She pulled the blindfold off. "Clay."

"I demand a forfeit," he said.

"But I knew it was you—"

"You did not say my name until you took off the blindfold."

"You weren’t even in the game to start with—"

He smiled and said, "Still, I demand a forfeit."

"What—"

"A kiss. I demand a kiss."

She looked startled but said nothing, so he took a step closer to her. He crooked his finger under her chin and lifted it up slightly. Her eyes slowly closed as he leaned in to kiss her.

Nothing could have prepared him for the sweet sensations he felt as her lips yielded to his. She was clearly unpracticed—most likely she had never been kissed before by any man besides her father. It didn’t seem to matter. What he meant to be a short, chaste kiss quickly turned into something far more passionate. His ran his hands up her arms and took her by the shoulders, drawing her closer to him. He gently flicked his tongue along her upper lip, causing her to gasp. The way her mouth opened only served to increase his ardor.

She suddenly tore her mouth away from his and pushed her way out of his grasp.

The stood looking at each other, almost as if for the first time. There was no sound except for their ragged breathing.

His sister’s voice calling out her name broke the spell.

"Where are you, chicken? Have we lost you, dear?"

They leapt even further apart from each other.

"Mary, I—" he stammered.

"Mary!" Damaris was very close. Mary shook her head at him and then took off around the hedge. He stood on the other side of it as she and his sister spoke.

"Mary, dearest!" Damaris exclaimed. "Are you unwell? Lord! You’re all flushed!"

"I—I’m just, the heat, I think—"

"I should have known better. It’s too hot for these silly games. We’ll take you inside and get you a cool drink."

They moved away from the hedge.

When he was sure they were gone he left his hiding place and rejoined Robert at the edge of the garden.

Robert frowned as he approached him. "What happened?"

"Nothin’, nothin’ happened. They went inside."

Normally, Clay would boast to Robert about claiming a kiss from a girl such as Mary. But he was disturbed by how it got out of hand. The game always had to have a light touch, was never meant go over a certain line. That way, no matter how much his sister squealed about it, he could never truly be blamed for anything untoward.

He had been away from Constance for too long. Yes, that was it. It occurred to him he and Robert should seek out some accommodating girls and get laid.

Yet for some reason he never got around to suggesting it.

* * * * * * *

"I’m all right, dear," said Mary, as Damaris stood over her and fanned her with her fan. "You can stop that now."

The two young men stood apart from them in the drawing room, looking concerned.

"Just the same, darlin’, I think you’re done in for the day." Damaris turned to their guests. "I’m so sorry, boys, but Mary needs a lie down, I think."

"I’m perfectly fine—"

"No, no, Miss Mary," said Denny. "Much better to err on the side of caution. Heat stroke can be a nasty business."

"That’s true," agreed Jared.

"I assure you, I am not having a heat stroke—"

"I’ll see the boys out," said Damaris. "Don’t you move from that spot. I’ll help you up to bed."

"Damaris, truly, I don’t need—"

"You stay right where you are. I also have to tell Mama the boys aren’t stayin’ for supper, but I’ll be back soon."

In spite of her protests, Mary was relieved when they finally left her alone. She felt what had happened in the garden must have been completely obvious to any who looked at her. She gently touched her mouth, quivering from the memory of his lips on hers.

She didn’t know what to think about his behavior. Even worse, she felt she was at least in part to blame for what happened. That nonsense about demanding a forfeit! She could have walked away. He wouldn’t have imposed himself on her if she hadn’t let him.

She decided to defy Damaris’ directive to stay put and went upstairs to her room. Clay and Robert could enter the house at any moment and she did not know if she could face Clay.

When she got to her room she sat on the bed in contemplative silence. She could not pretend what had happened had not stirred up entirely new feelings inside of her, some extremely pleasant, some disturbing. She was not sure how to handle the situation—and she could hardly confide in Damaris or ask her advice. Should she have slapped him? How should she behave when they were in the same room again? It wasn’t as if she could avoid him forever.

She jumped off the bed when she heard a sharp knock on the French doors facing the veranda. She could see Clay standing outside them.

She was almost too shocked to speak.

"Mary! May I speak to you?"

She moved towards the doors and whispered loudly, "No, you may not. Remove yourself. You should not be here."

He leaned his head closer to the glass door. "You are angry. I swear to you I won’t stay long."

"Go, go! Your sister will be here at any moment."

"Mary, please—you’re safe as churches, I give you my word."

Afraid he would still be there when Damaris sought her out, she reluctantly opened the door a crack.

"Don’t come in," she said sharply.

"Of course. I’ll stay out here," he said.

"Just say what you want to say and leave."

"I wanted to apologize to you for my behavior. I fear I have offended you. It was not my intention to—upset you so."

She slowly raised her eyes to meet his. He seemed truly contrite. Once again she had that feeling of being drawn in, almost against her will.

It would be ungracious, at the very least, not to accept his apology, she decided.

"All right," she said. "I forgive you."

Even as the words left her mouth, she felt silly. Forgive him for what? Hadn’t she been an active participant?

"And we are—still friends?"

"Yes."

He looked relieved. "You’re a dear girl. I promise you, it will never happen again."

She could not help but feel there was something unspoken in his promise.

It would never happen again—unless she wanted it to.

"Go now," she said

He finally moved away from the door. And not a moment too soon, as Damaris burst into the room bare seconds later.

"Darlin’! You should have stayed downstairs, as I told you to."

Mary quickly closed the door to the veranda.

"No, no, chicken, leave it open. The fresh air will do you good."

"I told you—I am perfectly well."

"Well—perhaps it’s best to keep the door shut. I have somethin’ I want to tell you in confidence." Damaris flopped down on the bed and patted the space beside her. "Come, sit with me."

Mary did as she said. Damaris began to giggle uncontrollably.

Mary couldn’t help smiling in response to her giggles, glad for a distraction from what had happened. "What it is, dear? Something amusing, I gather."

"Well—not exactly," she said. "Just now, downstairs, before he left—"

"Yes?"

"Jared kissed me!" She giggled again and bounced up and down on the bed.

"With—Denny right there?"

"No, of course not!" She playfully slapped Mary’s hand. "He told Denny to wait for him in the carriage. No one was about, not even Keziah. He kissed me, and then he said he thought I was the most delightful girl in the world. What do you think of that?"

"That’s—lovely."

Damaris stopped giggling. "Really, Mary, you are the limit. Don’t you want to know?"

"Know what?"

"What it’s like to be kissed, you goose!"

Mary felt herself turning red. "Of course."

"What is it, dear?" Damaris gave her a searching look. Her eyes suddenly widened. "Mary! You’ve been kissed! And you never told me!"

Mary considered denying the charge, but knew she would not be fooled. "Must I tell you everything?"

"I tell you everythin’. Why would you keep this from me?"

"I—I suppose it’s because I’m a more private person than you are—"

Her friend eyed her shrewdly. "That’s not why. Who was it who kissed you?"

She could not answer, nor meet her friend’s gaze.

Damaris drew in her breath sharply and grabbed Mary’s arm. "Oh, no. No, no, no! It was Clay, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?"

Her continued silence and deepening blush betrayed her.

Damaris jumped from the bed and began to fly into a rage, pacing back and forth. "Ooooh, that scoundrel! That, that—ooooh, when I get my hands on him, I’m goin’ to—"

Mary was horrified. "Oh, no, you musn’t!"

"Of course I will! That low-down good-for-nothin’, I’ll make him sorry he was ever born—"

"If you are truly my friend, you will drop the whole matter. I beg you—don’t say a word to him."

Damaris stopped pacing, concern replacing the anger on her face. She went to Mary, grabbed her by the hands and spoke earnestly. "Darlin’, please tell me you’re not fallin’ for him. Please tell me that’s not why you don’t want me to say anythin’ to him."

"I—I never said any such thing."

There was a pause.

Damaris finally said in a low voice, "You don’t have to. I can see that it’s so."

Mary didn’t know how to answer. Was it so? She wasn’t sure. She only knew her friend’s tirade was making her feel angry and defensive. Wasn’t it at all possible she was wronging her brother?

Damaris held her hands more tightly. "Oh, Mary, dearest, didn’t I warn you? Don’t you understand? This is all a game to him. You mean no more to him than any other girl he’s toyed with—"

She pulled her hands away. "I suppose you think it’s impossible for any boy to be interested in me," she said in a trembling voice.

Damaris’ jaw dropped. "Of course not! Why, Denny is interested—"

"He’s just being polite. Anyway, I’m not interested in him. I don’t really dislike him, but—"

"Oh, well, darlin’, that’s all right. Lots of young men will come to Clay’s birthday party, I’ll find a nice one for you. And I think Robert only needs a little bit of encouragement from you—"

"That’s just what I mean. You seem to think the only way I can get a beau is as a gift from your hands."

"Mary!"

"You have two beaus—perhaps you don’t like the idea that I could have even one."

Damaris look stunned and mortified. "Don’t say such things, chicken!"

Mary couldn’t resist getting in one last jab. "And I think you’re jealous because I was kissed before you were!"

Her friend burst into noisy sobs. "Oh, oh! How can you think that? It’s not so, it’s just not so! I love you, I only want you to be happy—"

Mary’s anger melted and was immediately replaced by regret and shame over her catty words. Tears leapt into her own eyes.

"I know dear, I’m so sorry—" She stood up and wiped the tears from her friend’s cheeks with her thumbs. "Please forgive me, and please don’t cry anymore. But you musn’t interfere—you must let me handle this myself. Promise me you will."

The sobs subsided after a few more moments of pleadings and apologies. Damaris looked as if she wanted to argue the point some more, but finally relented. She reached into her sleeve and took out a handkerchief, wiping away a few more errant tears.

"All right, chicken. All right. I won’t say another word. Only—oh, Mary, have a care!"

"Darling, please give me a little credit."

"You just don’t know how he is—you think everyone is as sincere and honest as you are—"

"Damaris, you promised."

She could see it was a Herculean effort for Damaris to keep from saying anything more. She felt a sudden rush of affection for her. These Mosbys! They were so emotional.

* * * * * * *

Leland arrived at the plantation late the next morning. Looking forward to a warm welcome from his wife, he was instead assaulted by complaints from his daughter the moment he walked in the front door.

"Daddy," said Damaris, barely letting him get into the foyer. "You have to talk to Clay and tell him to stop it."

"Stop what?" he inquired, idly going through a pile of outgoing mail on a silver tray near the front door. "If it’s not too much bother to tell me."

"Stop pesterin’ Mary. He won’t leave her alone."

Leland barely heard this. His hand froze as he came upon a letter addressed to that Lambert woman in Clay’s handwriting. This was most distressing, to see he was keeping in contact with her. He was tempted to pocket the letter then and there. In the end he threw it back on the pile, vowing to come back for it when no one was about.

"Daddy, aren’t you listenin’ to me? He’s doin’ exactly what he did when Louanne was here. I can’t invite a friend without—"

Her turned to face her. "Let me make certain I understand you, darlin’. Has she been complainin’ to you about his behavior?"

Silence from his daughter told him she had not.

"Are you accusin’ him of somethin’ untoward?"

"Well—"

He thought so. Clay’s mild flirtations were nothing to Leland. It seemed normal for a boy his age, and he could overlook it. But he had to think of some way to solve this other problem. Was he going to have to pack the boy off to Europe to get him away from the influence of this she-wolf?

"Why don’t you leave it between the two of them," he said. "I never heard of a girl dyin’ because a boy flirted with her some."

"He hurt Louanne—"

"Forgive me, sweetheart, but your friend Louanne is not what I would call swift. I believe she just misunderstood him."

Damaris looked ready to launch into a tirade in defense of her other friend. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek to stop her.

"Where’s your mother?"

"She went to call on Olivia. She’ll be home soon. But, Daddy—"

He cut her off. "I’ve got a lot of business to catch up on here. I’ll see you later."

He ignored her pout and headed for his office. As he walked past the drawing room, Mary emerged from it. She greeted him with a shy smile and curtsy.

Lord, he thought. If only Clay would truly become interested in a girl like Mary. That would be a most satisfactory solution to that other problem.

* * * * * * *

"Why is Damaris so angry with you?" asked Robert, as he and Clay drank a cup of coffee at the dining table.

Clay had not confided in Robert about kissing Mary the previous day. For some reason, he still did not want to discuss it with his friend, so he shrugged and said, "Isn’t she always?"

"Oh, no—somethin’ in particular is getting’ her steamed."

He merely shrugged again in answer. He was glad when Keziah entered the room and told him his father was home and wanted to see him.

Clay nodded and stood up. As he passed her he asked, "How does he seem?"

She grinned. "If yo’ Mama was here, he be in a better mood."

Clay hoped that meant only that he was peevish about missing his mother, not that he was already upset with him. He was certain Mary had confided in Damaris—Robert wasn’t the only one who had noticed the poisonous looks his sister had been throwing his way since the previous day. But for some reason, she had not given him the expected scolding. Perhaps she had decided to betray him to his father instead. He wouldn’t put it past her.

He could tell as soon as he entered the office that his father was troubled about something. But he embraced him as usual, and then talked to him about family and plantation matters for a few minutes.

"How has Wade been?"

Clay hesitated.

"What is it?"

"He had one of his spells a few days ago."

His father looked astonished. "I’m surprised your mother didn’t send for me."

"I didn’t tell her about it."

His father didn’t say anything at first. Then, "He’s all right?"

"Oh, yes, perfectly. I hope you don’t feel I did wrong. It happened when we took Mar—I mean, Miss Cantrell—down to the river. It was only us and Miss Cantrell’s maid, and I didn’t see any reason to upset Mama—"

"No, no, of course not. You say your sister’s friend was there as well?"

"She won’t say anythin’ to anybody, Daddy, I’m certain of it. She was very kind to Wade, very sweet and concerned—and she understood about—the need for discretion."

"I am very glad to hear that." His father paused. "You know, your sister has been complainin’ to me about you and her friend."

His father was silent again, and he took that to mean that a very stern lecture was about to be dispensed. What could he possibly say to defend himself?

Leland cleared his throat. "That’s not really what I want to talk to you about. It’s somethin’—somethin’ that is distressing me far more."

His father suddenly picked up an envelope that was on the desk and tossed in front of Clay. It took him a moment to recognize the latest letter he had written to Constance.

Clay opened his mouth to say something—he never knew what, because his father stopped him with a gesture.

"Don’t speak. I will do the talkin’"

The only comfort was that his father did not sound angry.

Leland sighed. "Clay, it’s not that I don’t understand what it’s like to be young. You want to have your fun, and that’s perfectly normal. I would never have said a word to you about this, but frankly, the length of this—association—is of great concern to me. And findin’ out that you have been correspondin’ with this woman—"

Now Clay was truly shocked. His father was talking as if he’d known about Constance all along! How was that possible?

"Daddy—"

His father interrupted him. "How many letters have you written to her?"

"Well, just two this summer—"

"Besides this one?"

"Yes."

"And before you came here? Had you been corresponding with her frequently?"

"No, not at all. Notes, you know, nothin’—"

"I see." His father looked at him steadily. "Clay, I must ask you somethin’ very personal and I hope you will answer me honestly. Have you made her any—promises?"

Again, Clay was confused. "Promises?"

"Do you mean to marry this woman?"

Clay almost leapt up from his chair. "Daddy! Of course not! Bring her to live in the same house as my mother? Why would you would even think such a thing?"

Leland finally smiled. He leaned back in his chair. "I can’t tell you how relieved I am to hear you speak so decidedly on the matter. But I fear she may have other ideas."

That was ridiculous. Constance couldn’t possibly imagine that he ever meant to make her his wife. His father seemed to divine his thoughts.

"I know you think you know her far better than I do, but trust me, son. That sort of woman does not put a limit on her ambitions. She does not care about the things that matter to us."

Clay thought about that. It was true, Constance lived her life in a most unconventional manner. But, still—

"You’re forbiddin’ me to see her again."

"No, I do not forbid you. In a few days you will be eighteen. Old enough to begin makin’ your own decisions, I believe. I hope that upon reflection you will see the wisdom of breakin’ off with her. But even if you do, you must see her again, at least one more time."

"Why?" he asked, stunned. How extraordinary, his father admitting he was old enough to make his own decisions!

"You must retrieve those letters from her." Leland waved away protests that they were harmless. "No matter how innocuous they are, she could twist their meanin’ and cause trouble for you. Claim publicly you made her a promise. If nothin’ else, it would be a—situation—that would be uncomfortable for you."

The thought of his affair with Constance becoming known to his mother made his insides turn to ice. And, most unexpectedly, he realized he did not want Mary to know of it, either.

"Yes, Daddy, I understand."

"Good. Stay as friendly with her as you can until you get the letters. Tell her—tell her that it was I who insisted you get them from her. Act as if it doesn’t matter to you one way or the other."

"Yes, sir. I’ll go to Richmond right away—"

"No, no, it’s too close to your birthday. Wait until after the party. Then you must get them."

"I will."

He left his father’s office in a daze. What a remarkable conversation! He began to seek out Robert to tell him about it.

As he passed by the drawing room, he stopped short. He could hear the unmistakable sound of Denny Marsden’s laughter wafting through the open door.

(Continued in Part II: Courtship)

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