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 II: COURTSHIP

"It was so nice of you boys to drop by!" exclaimed Damaris as Keziah brought in the tea cart for the four young people.

"Well, Miss Damaris, we simply had to see how Miss Mary was farin’ after her faintin’ spell yesterday," said Denny.

"Yes, we were quite anxious to see you both," said Jared, a twinkle in his eye.

"I didn’t faint," protested Mary.

"You were overcome by the heat, it’s almost the same thing," said Damaris, who began to pour the tea.

Mary sighed inwardly. She suspected this impromptu visit wasn’t impromptu at all, that her friend had sent them a hasty invitation. She had told Damaris very specifically that she wasn’t interested in Denny, yet here he was, making cow eyes at her. She tried to smile at him.

They began to talk about Clay’s birthday party.

"Mary, wait till you see. Mama makes the best parties of anyone in all of Richmond," said Damaris.

"Yes, indeed," said Jared. "Your mama puts out the finest spread in the county."

Damaris giggled. "Listen to him, Mary. All men think about are their stomachs!"

"Why, that’s not so at all, Miss Damaris," said Jared, taking a cup from her. "I was thinkin’ on how you must reserve the first dance for me."

"I have to think about it," she said. She made a show of thinking about it, then smiled broadly. "I’ve thought about it. Of course I will."

Denny then turned to Mary and said, "And you will reserve your first dance for me, Miss Mary, won’t you?"

"Oh, er, ah—"

It was pure luck that Mrs. Mosby, who had apparently just returned from visiting, chose that moment to walk into the room.

After the greetings and polite inquiries were done, she said, "I hope you all don’t think my husband horribly rude, but he has some business to attend to right now. He’ll be by a bit later to say hello."

Mrs. Mosby was carefully patting her hair, perhaps trying to detect if it had become mussed during her husband’s greeting, Mary realized. She blushed at the thought, because it immediately brought to mind the way Clay had kissed her the previous day.

"Mama, have some tea," said Damaris.

"Oh, I don’t want to bust up your party, dear."

"Of course you’re not," she said, pouring another cup of tea. She then began offering cookies off a plate to everyone.

Mary’s eyes began wandering around the room. She supposed there was no getting out of dancing with Denny at the party, and that was all right. But she was getting a sense that he was starting to feel somewhat proprietary towards her, and found she didn’t like it.

She suddenly sat up straighter. Her eye caught sight of Clay standing outside the door of the room. The look on his face—she did not know how to describe it. He seemed almost angry.

"How about it, Miss Mary? May I write you down as my partner for the first dance when I get my card?" asked Denny.

"I’m afraid you can’t," said Clay, striding into the room. "You see, she is already engaged as my partner for that dance."

"Is that so, Miss Mary?" asked Denny.

"Ye—es. Yes, it is."

Damaris yelped and put the plate of cookies down on a side table with a light crash. Mary couldn’t believe how easily the lie had slipped out of her mouth.

"Well, my goodness," said Mrs. Mosby, tilting her head to accept a welcoming kiss from her son. "There are plenty of dances."

"Yes, but the first is mine,’ said Clay. He smiled, but he said it firmly.

The look on Denny’s face couldn’t have been mere disappointment from missing out on one dance. "Of course, it is your birthday. You must have first choice of the ladies."

During the silence that followed, Mary detected a heightened tension in the room and saw Damaris throw a quick look at Jared. The way the two young men were looking at each other was odd. They seemed ready to argue the point in much stronger terms. She realized they might have if not for Mrs. Mosby’s presence.

Over her?

That was not possible!

Jared intervened. He also stood up. "I think it’s time we go, Denny."

Mrs. Mosby, who seemed entirely oblivious to the atmosphere, protested. "But you both must stay for supper! You didn’t last evenin’."

"That’s so kind of you, ma’am, but we only meant to call on Miss Mary to see how she was feelin’ today."

"Yes, we were quite concerned," Denny murmured.

"We’ll see you out," said Damaris.

Everyone got up and began leaving the room. Mary was about to follow them when she felt Clay grab her hand and yank her back. The others did not notice; they continued out.

"Don’t!" he said in a low but commanding whisper.

"I have to, it would be so rude not to say goodbye—" She looked to see where the others were, but they were all gone.

"Mary, do you live to torment me?"

"I—I don’t know what you mean," she said, pulling her hand away.

"You know perfectly well what I mean. Why do you entertain that—that—in my house?"

And she thought Denny was being proprietary! "I did not invite him here."

"Ha!"

"I didn’t! And even if I had, what right have you—"

He cut her off. "Do you like him?"

She was about to deny this, but some instinct stopped her. "That’s none of your business," she said.

Now he looked wounded. So much so, she regretted not speaking the truth.

"Did you tell him you were engaged to dance with me just to make him jealous?"

With a sharp intake of breath, she denied this outlandish charge. "Of course not! I wouldn’t do such a thing."

"Young ladies do like to play young men off each other from time to time."

"Well, I don’t," she said. "I don’t think that way. Not everyone plays those kind of games."

"Do you like him? Please tell me."

She looked away. Oh, if only she could be immune to the intensity of his gaze!

He repeated the question, this time taking her arm and pulling her around to try to get her to look at him.

She finally raised her eyes and admitted, "I don’t like him at all. Not even one little bit."

His pained expression disappeared and was quickly replaced with a grin. Then he took hold of her hand again and began pulling her along with him.

"Where—?" she said.

"To Mama’s writin’ desk. That’s where she has the dance cards. We have to fill ours out."

"There’s plenty of time for that."

"No, no," he said. He still had not relinquished her hand. "I mean for this to be signed and sealed now."

The desk was in a corner of the room. He finally let go of her, sat down and took a card from the pile. Inking a pen, he wrote his name on one of the cards.

"There! On the evenin’ of July 16, 1860, Francis Clay Mosby is engaged to dance the first dance with Miss Mary Cantrell. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll put my name down for every dance."

"Clay! You can’t do that!" She grabbed at the pen to stop him, genuinely mortified. That would be scandalous.

"That’s true, I can’t," he said, regretfully. "It is my party, but I will be expected to act as host and be sociable. Three dances, then."

"That’s still too many. Two."

"Three," he insisted, pulling the pen away from her grasp.

"But people will talk—"

He laughed. "I never knew a girl who didn’t like bein’ talked about, at least a little bit."

This reminder that he knew a lot of girls caught her off-guard. He took the opportunity to finish filling out both his card and hers.

He handed her one card, but then pulled it away a little before she could take it. "I suppose you’ll have to dance with Denny Marsden as well."

"I suppose I will."

"Huh. Not more than one, though."

"No, not more than one."

"Promise?"

"Yes."

He finally gave her the card. She took it, eager to escape, certain Damaris would seek them out the minute Jared and Denny drove away. But he stopped her by taking her hand again.

"Mary? Will you meet me tomorrow in the garden? Early in the mornin’? We could take a walk, talk for a while."

She started as she heard Damaris’ voice in the hallway.

"Will you?"

"Yes—yes, I’ll meet you."

She expected him to release her, but instead he turned her hand over and brought it up briefly to his lips. She felt a thrill go through her, almost as profound as the one when he had kissed her on the mouth.

"Thank you, Mary."

"I must go."

He let her go, and she quickly turned away, almost knocking over a vase on a small table as her hoop skirt brushed it. Without looking back at him, she headed for the door and left the room. She ran smack into Damaris.

"Mary, how could you leave it to me to see the boys off?" her friend admonished her.

"I—I told you, I don’t want to see Denny anymore."

"That’s no excuse to be rude."

"I know. I’m sorry, dear."

"What are you holdin’ in your hand?"

"Nothing." She tried to hide the card behind her back.

"Oh, yes you are—" Damaris reached around her and grabbed the card.

"Damaris!"

Her friend looked at the card, her eyes narrowing. But she said nothing. She simply handed it back to her. Finally, she said, "It’s about time to change for supper."

"Yes, I’ll see you in a bit," said Mary, relieved that her friend was keeping her promise not to interfere. She went upstairs.

When she was in her room with the door closed behind her, she looked at the card, then touched the back of her hand where Clay had kissed it, her mind going over everything that had happened that afternoon. Was it possible? Did she truly have a beau?

* * * * * * *

Clay was still sitting at his mother’s desk looking at the dance card when Damaris stormed into the room. She stomped over to the tea cart and took a cookie off one of the plates, then hurled it at him. It hit him on the chest.

"Hey!"

"You leave her alone, hear? You leave her alone, Clay Mosby, or I’ll, I’ll—" Another cookie missile took off and got him on the shoulder.

"Stop that! You’re behavin’ like white trash!"

"Maybe you’d like me to tell Daddy about your behavior!"

Clay stood up, brushing cookie crumbs off his coat. "You won’t do that."

"Just try me!"

"You won’t do it because then Mary will hate you if you embarrass her so."

That stopped his sister short. Then she said, "It would be for her own good. She made me promise not to say anythin’ to you, but I don’t care, I don’t care! You’re goin’ to break her heart, I know you are."

Clay rolled his eyes at her.

"Why can’t you leave her be? She’d have a nice beau now if you—"

"I heard from her own lips that she doesn’t like Denny Marsden," he said triumphantly. "Not one little bit are the exact words she used, I believe."

"I think Robert would be interested in her if it weren’t for you."

"Oh-ho!" he exclaimed. "Wouldn’t that be convenient—for you!"

"You skunk! You hateful varmint!"

Another cookie went sailing, but he ducked it this time.

"Well, it’s certainly nice to come home to the happy sounds of my children’s voices."

Leland stood in the doorway. Both siblings immediately became silent. Their father observed the broken remains of cookies on the rug. "What on earth have you been doin’? I haven’t seen such a shambles since you were little and flung mud pies at each other."

"Nothin’, Daddy," said Damaris. "I have to change for supper now."

When she left, Leland stood looking at Clay thoughtfully.

"What is it, Daddy?"

"Clay, I hope—I wouldn’t like it to be said that a young lady can’t visit us—"

"Daddy! Damaris is just makin’ a mountain out of a molehill."

"That had better be the case," his father said.

* * * * * * *

The day of Clay’s birthday Mary stood in front of the full-length mirror, surveying herself after being dressed for the ball. For a change, she was quite pleased with her appearance. The dress was white trimmed with pink, and Mrs. Mosby had given her pink roses from her garden to tuck into her hair.

Emmie suddenly appeared behind her. With a giggle, she handed her an envelope. "Looks like it be a note from your beau, Miz Mary!"

Mary blushed. She still could not quite accustom herself to the idea of having a beau. She opened the envelope and read the note. It was from Clay, biding her to come downstairs to speak to him.

"My gloves and fan, Emmie. Oh, and my dance card as well."

The maid fetched them for her. After handing them over, she whispered, "Don’t go just yet, Miz Mary!"

"What?"

"Don’t run so fast as that to him. Make him waits on you."

"Emmie!" She was stunned. Emmie couldn’t read, so how could she know what was in the note?

"He asted you to come down, din’t he, Miz Mary?"

"How did you know?"

Emmie smiled as if she had some secret knowledge of such matters. "They’s all alike, Miz Mary. They’s all like to see them wimmins come runnin’ when they call. You make him waits on you."

Mary bit her lip to keep from laughing. But she could see the wisdom of such advice. So she said, "I believe I will take a breath of fresh air out on the veranda before I go downstairs."

"Yessum, you do that."

Mary stepped out on the veranda. The night was cool for July, which bode well for the party, since people would be less likely to get overheated from the dancing. She put on her gloves, then slipped the band of the dance card over her wrist, happily anticipating her dances with Clay.

The past few days had been lovely. She and Clay met in the garden every morning to take a walk together. Sometimes Wade joined them, but most of the time they were alone.

They spoke of all manner of things. She quickly discovered that Clay was more than just a teasing charmer. In spite of the fact that he had originally seemed resentful of his exile from Richmond, he betrayed a deep love for the plantation and that way of life, speaking of it with great pride.

This had naturally led to a discussion of the impending war. He expected it to come soon, and to fight. That made Mary’s heart skip a beat. In spite of his laughing assurances that the war would be brief and decisive, she was saddened and troubled by the prospect.

He made her promise to write to him, both after her return to Atlanta and when he was away at the war. This served as a sharp reminder that her time at Hatton Willows was more than half over and they would eventually have to part.

She tried to tell herself that he would most likely forget her as soon as she was gone. No matter what Damaris said, she believed him to be sincere, but from so far a distance, what could come of all this?

She sighed and shook her head. No, she would not let such thoughts intrude on this delightful evening. She was having a wonderful time, and would not let anything keep her from enjoying herself. The only thing that truly marred her happiness was Damaris’ tight-lipped disapproval, and the sudden distance between them hurt her horribly. But whatever happened, she knew she would cherish her memories of her visit.

Finally, she decided enough time had passed, and made her way down to the garden, where Clay had asked her to meet him. She was glad that everyone else was either still busy getting ready for the party or helping Mrs. Mosby with preparations, so no one saw her.

"Look at you!" he exclaimed when he caught sight of her. "Why, you’re a vision! You put Mama’s roses to shame."

"You look quite dashing yourself," she said with a self-conscious smile. It was still difficult for her to take compliments seriously. "Did you ask me to meet you for some particular reason?"

"Do I need a reason to desire your company? I just wanted you all to myself before everyone else descends on us."

He offered her his arm, and they walked among the hedges again, talking about some of the many gifts and good wishes Clay had received earlier in the day.

"You’ve had so many wonderful gifts, Clay. I wish—I wish I had a gift for you."

He stopped and turned to her. "Aren’t you the sweetest thing?"

"But I have nothing, and it mortifies me."

"Oh, Mary," he said. "You needn’t give me a gift. However—"

"Yes?"

Even in the diminishing twilight she could detect a twinkle in his eye. "I would be happy to accept a small token from you."

"A token? What kind of token?"

"Let’s say—a glove." He took hold of the hand resting on his arm. "Yes, I would be glad to accept one of your gloves as a very gracious token of our—of our friendship."

"But I need my glove!" Mary protested. "I can’t go to the party without gloves."

"Haven’t you another pair?"

"Well—yes, I do." How thrilling, to be asked for a personal item from a young man! She remembered her sisters whispering excitedly when a beau would steal something from them, like a handkerchief, or ask for a lock of hair. She smiled shyly. "All right, you may have one."

She began to unbutton one of her gloves.

"Or—" he said, stopping her. "Or, I would take somethin’ else in lieu of the glove."

"What else?"

"A kiss. I would accept a kiss."

Never once since he had made his promise to her had he tried to kiss her. And often she had wished he would. This made her cheeks flame. Was she a wanton woman for thinking such things?

"Well, Mary? What shall it be? A glove or a kiss? I would be honored to have either."

It didn’t take much thought for her to decide.

"I will give you the glove—"

He looked disappointed.

"—and a kiss."

The look of disappointment was quickly replaced with a pleased grin. Before she could continue taking off the glove herself, he gently grabbed her elbow and made her extend her arm out to him. Smiling and looking her in the eye the whole time, he slowly unbuttoned the glove himself. Then he just as slowly stripped it from her hand. She could barely breathe as he did this.

He raised the glove to his lips and kissed it, then tucked it into his coat, next to his heart. "And now—for the other—"

He took hold of her by the arms and pulled her to him. Their lips met. As before, it started out soft and gentle, then became more ardent. The feeling was exquisite.

He suddenly released her and stepped back. She was confused.

"Was it not—all right?"

"Mary," he breathed. He reached over and gently pulled one of the tendrils of hair that framed her face. "Your kisses are so sweet, they quite overwhelm me. It was by far my favorite gift today."

She had to laugh at that. "Better than that fine stallion your daddy gave you? I don’t believe it."

He was still caressing her hair. He did not laugh. "You should, Mary."

"I—I really must go now, Clay. I have to tell Emmie to fetch my other pair of gloves. And your sister and mama must be looking for me." But first she would need a few moments alone somewhere to compose herself.

He caught her hand up in his before she could escape. "Only one dance with Denny Marsden. Remember your promise."

"Clay. Of course."

He kissed the tips of her fingers before finally releasing her.

* * * * * * *

When Mary was gone, Clay took the glove from his coat and examined it, spreading it out over his own hand. What tiny hands she had! So delicate, so fine!

"There you are," said Robert, coming up behind him.

Clay quickly hid the glove again.

"Are you goin’ to stay here by yourself all night, Clay?"

He laughed. "No, of course not. Just takin’ the air before greetin’ guests."

"My mama’s lookin’ for you. She still hasn’t had a chance to say happy birthday to you."

A horde of Shelbys had descended on Hatton Willows earlier that day, as well as other guests from Richmond and neighboring plantations.

"Let’s find her, then. We can’t keep your mama waitin’"

Soon he was in the ballroom greeting various friends and guests. His mother had outdone herself – everything was exquisitely beautiful. But he barely took it in. He couldn’t stop glancing at the entrance. Where was Mary?

"There you are, you rascal," he heard a woman say.

He turned. "Olivia! You’re gorgeous, as usual," he said, kissing her cheek. "Thank you for the ridin’ crop, I have a feelin’ Mama told you what Daddy was goin’ to give me."

"She did." Olivia did look stunning in a gown of sapphire blue. "I am so glad you like it."

He couldn’t keep his eyes from taking another glance at the entrance. He suddenly smiled and straightened up as Mary entered the ballroom with his sister and parents.

Olivia noticed. "What a pretty girl! I do not know her – who is she?"

"Oh—that’s Damaris’ friend Mary Cantrell, from Atlanta."

"Ah, yes, her houseguest. I have been quite anxious to meet her."

"Well, come along then," he said, glad for an excuse to go over to her.

When they met up with them, Clay conducted the introductions, which peeved Damaris, who clearly wanted the privilege of introducing Mary to Olivia.

"My goodness!" exclaimed Olivia. "You are both looking excessively pretty tonight. I shall have quite a lot of competition for the young swains."

Clay’s mother laughed. "Yes, indeed, they have outdone themselves. But so have you, Olivia, dear."

Clay had to admit his sister looked very handsome in a gown of sage green, and was feeling so affable he told her so. He was rewarded with a smile from Mary, who seemed pleased that he took the trouble to compliment her friend. Damaris gave him a terse thank you. She still refused to come out of her snit. Oh, well.

Damaris’ mood lifted when Jared entered the room. She was about to go to him, but his mother stopped her.

"Damaris, what are you thinkin’? Wait, don’t go runnin’ to him."

For some reason, this elicited a gentle laugh from Mary.

His father led his mother out to the dance floor. Jared approached Damaris to claim her as his partner, and Clay did the same with Mary.

"Who is Miss Jessup, exactly?" she asked as they got into position and waited for others to do the same.

"She’s a very dear friend of Mama’s."

"She seems a bit young to be such an intimate friend of your mother’s."

"She was once engaged to my uncle, Mama’s younger brother."

"What happened?" Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, I suppose that’s none of my business."

"That’s all right, it’s common knowledge. You see, he died suddenly only two weeks before their weddin’. That was almost ten years ago. Ever since then, Mama has treated Olivia as if she were truly her sister-in-law."

"How tragic! And she’s never married?"

"No, which grieves my mother, but Olivia seems to prefer to remain single. Not that she doesn’t have suitors. See that fellow over there?"

Mary looked in the direction that he indicated, towards a tall, imposing man with sandy blonde hair, a neatly clipped mustache and air of affected boredom. "Who is he?"

"His name is Pres Bardeen. He and my daddy do business on occasion. He has been tryin’ to court Olivia. She won’t have anythin’ to do with him."

"Why’s that?"

Clay smiled and leaned close to her ear. "He’s a duelist."

Her brow furrowed. "A what?"

He found her ignorance charming. "You know—he fights men in duels."

"No!"

He laughed. "How shocked you look!"

"And yet your parents—I mean—"

"Like I said, he does business with my daddy. But If Olivia were ever to take him seriously, I doubt my mother would permit him in her house. She’s been very protective of her since my uncle passed."

The couples were finally all in place and the Grand March proceeded. Afterwards, it led immediately into a waltz. What a delightful experience it was to dance with Mary! She was light as a feather in his arms. How could he have ever thought her ordinary? It was like there was a light that glowed from inside of her. The other girls in the room were nothing compared to her.

He was exceedingly sorry when their dance ended. He had to relinquish her and find another partner. And watch Denny claim her for his dance.

He chose Olivia for his next partner, then little Martha Jane Shelby, much to her delight. This was her first grown-up dance and she was thrilled to head the line with him for the Virginia reel. Then it was time once again to partner with Mary for a polka.

When the dance ended, he escorted Mary to where Damaris was standing with Jared. They were also with several of their male friends, including Robert. Across the room he detected a gaggle of his sister’s other friends. They were all looking his way and seemed annoyed.

Damaris insisted Mary come away with her for a moment. Jared and the other boys also moved away, some to get refreshments, some to seek out partners for the next dance. He was soon alone with Robert.

"Lord, Clay. That group of girls over there—they’re every one you’ve ever flirted with. Louanne Brevard, Haven Prevatt, Susannah Culpepper, Caroline Hightower, Quinnie Marsden . . ."

He cut Robert off with a look. Leave it to his sister to make certain the guest list would be stuffed with her friends, including that simpleton Louanne. He would prefer to face a battalion of Yankees than cross the room and present himself to those girls, but he had little choice. He knew he would have to dance with at least some of them. He noticed Damaris, instead of going to get a refreshment with Jared, had taken Mary by the elbow and was introducing her to some of the young men who still had no partners for the next dance.

"Robert, do me a favor? Ask Mary to dance."

"I don’t care to dance. "

"Don’t be so anti-social! I would prefer you dance with her than some of these others. And if you asked my sister, I’m certain she would say yes."

He left him pondering this and braced himself for the confrontation with the young ladies across the room.

He was all charm and affability when he greeted them. This seemed to help relieve some of the tension among them. He flattered himself that they were all still quite captivated with him. He made a great show of trying to decide who he should ask to be his next partner. He finally asked Louanne.

Louanne, a blonde, blue-eyed beauty with cotton for brains, babbled as they began to dance, "You haven’t heard my news, Clay!"

"What’s that?" He couldn’t care less about her news. He looked around to see if he could find Mary. He was glad to see she was partnered with Jared for this dance.

"I’m engaged!" she exclaimed.

Now she had his full attention. For the first time, he noticed a garnet ring on her left hand. "Well, congratulations! Who is the lucky fellow?"

"I don’t believe you know him. He is Mr. Arthur Pemberton, of Charlottesville."

Good. Soon she would be in Charlottesville and out of his hair. He was surprised Damaris had not mentioned the engagement, then realized why she had kept it quiet. His status as bounder who ruined her friend’s life evaporated the moment she became engaged. He felt like laughing.

"I’m just tickled to hear it, Louanne. That’s very good news, indeed."

She giggled her high-pitched giggle, the one that at first seemed so charming and quickly became irritating. "I hear you’ve been givin’ Damaris’ friend from Atlanta the rush," she said.

"I think you spend a little too much time listenin’ to gossip, Louanne."

"It’s not gossip if it comes straight from your sister."

Blast her!

"Don’t get me wrong, Clay. I think she’s a lucky girl. It’s excitin’ to be courted by you."

This dance was going to last an eternity.

"After all, she has to learn about the perfidy of men sooner or later. You may as well teach her as any other."

The smile on his face felt pasted on. "Why, Louanne, honey, someone might get the idea you were bitter."

"How can I be, when I’m deliriously happy?"

When the dance ended he abandoned her as soon as etiquette permitted it. The other girls were still eyeing him. He ignored them and found Mary to escort her into supper. He stayed by her side almost the whole time. When the dancing began again, he claimed her once more as his partner.

Unwittingly, he caused a perceptible ripple to go through the room when he chose Mary for this third dance. The young ladies—and their mothers, as well—were outraged that he was showing so much preference for an outsider. The others had their curiosity piqued. Suddenly, this shy little girl from Atlanta took on great significance.

He was completely unaware of these undercurrents. This truly was the best birthday of his life.

* * * * * * *

Mary and Clay were standing off the side and talking after the third dance when Damaris approached them and took Mary firmly by the arm.

"The two of you should do a little more mixin’ before the party ends," she said. "Come along, chicken, you still haven’t met some of my other friends."

Mary looked at Clay regretfully, but Damaris was right. It wasn’t proper for the two of them to be so exclusive with each other at a party. "All right, dear. I would like to meet them."

As they neared the group of girls, all of whom were around their age or a year or two older, Mary became immediately cognizant of something in the air. The way those girls were looking her over was odd. At first she wondered if she had dropped something on her dress while eating supper. Then she began to sense that she had somehow caused a feeling of resentment among them. But that was absurd, since most of them didn’t even know her.

Damaris introduced her around. "This is Haven, and Carrie, Quinnie—she’s Denny’s sister—and you must remember Sue from school—"

"Yes, of course. It’s so nice to see you, Sue."

Sue made a face at her that was more like a grimace than a smile.

"And this is Louanne. I’m certain I mentioned Louanne to you, Mary."

"Yes—I remember. How do you do?"

They murmured a greeting back.

"Miss Cantrell—" began Louanne.

"Oh, please call me Mary."

"How neighborly of you! Well, Mary, I just have to tell you, we’ve all been fired up to meet you."

This girl Louanne was really a stunning little beauty, with her blonde curls and peaches and cream skin. All the girls, she realized, were exceptionally good-looking.

"Oh, really? Why is that?"

The other girls looked like they wanted to laugh.

"Well, it’s—" Sue said. "It’s like we all belong to the same club."

"Yes!" exclaimed the girl named Haven. "A club!"

Louanne giggled and the other girls joined in.

Mary looked at Damaris, who said nothing. "I—I don’t understand."

"It’s like this, honey," said Louanne. "We hear you’re Clay’s latest."

Realization shot through her body like an arrow. She turned and looked at Damaris sharply. Damaris turned her head away and wouldn’t look her in the eye.

"Yes, his latest—conquest, I suppose you could call it," said Quinnie. "Denny told me all about how he ran him off from you. He’s always possessive like that when he’s after a girl."

Mary could barely breathe, and a sick feeling formed around her heart. She wished she could escape, but how? And how could Damaris do such a thing to her?

"It was the same with all of us, once," said Carrie. "That makes you part of the club, see?"

"So, tell me," said Louanne. "Does he still try to corner girls in the hedges to get a kiss from them?"

The girls all giggled again.

"Oh, and Sue, Quinnie—now tell the truth—did he winkle a glove out of you?" asked Louanne.

Both girls laughed out an affirmative answer.

"He got one of mine too!" said Carrie.

"And mine as well!" said Haven.

Gales of mirth. Mary began to feel faint. It was all she could do not to burst into tears. Only by the greatest effort did she keep them from coming on. She could excuse herself by telling them she felt ill, but she wouldn’t do it. No, she wouldn’t give this group of harpies the satisfaction.

"Miss Mary?"

Mary turned and saw Robert standing next to her.

He bowed to the other girls and then to her. "I would be most honored if you would be my partner for the next dance."

"Yes—yes. Thank you, I would be delighted," she somehow managed to say in a steady voice. She took his arm and they headed for the dance floor, the sound of the girls snickering still echoing in her ears.

"Robert—" she whispered. "Please. I can’t, I simply can’t. I must—would you escort me outside?"

"Of course," he said, patting her hand. From the look on his face, she divined that he somehow understood her predicament.

They made their way across the room to the veranda doors. She caught a glimpse of Clay standing with Olivia and his mother. The sight of him made the oppressive feeling in her heart intensify.

She managed to stay in control of herself until they stepped out onto the veranda. Then she could no longer hold back the tears. She let them roll down her face, trying to contain herself enough so she wasn’t doing any loud sobbing.

Robert said nothing at first, only handed her his handkerchief. She wasn’t even able to choke out a thank you.

When the tears finally subsided a bit, he said, "Mary, what did that flock of magpies say to you?"

She wiped her face with his handkerchief. "Can’t you guess?"

"Yes, I suppose I can," he said. "I can’t believe Damaris did that to you. In the middle of the ballroom, with all those people around—she shouldn’t have done that."

"No, she shouldn’t have," Mary agreed. At that moment it was difficult to decide which sibling had hurt her most.

"I swear, I don’t know why you and I bother with either one of them," he said fiercely.

"Because—because we love them," she said. Declaring this simple truth made the tears flow even more copiously.

"Don’t—don’t. Don’t waste your tears on him," he said, taking the handkerchief out of her hand and wiping the tears for her.

What happened over the next few seconds would only be remembered as a blur by Mary. All she knew was that Robert was suddenly on the ground, blood gushing from his nose, and Clay was standing over him.

"Get up!" commanded Clay in a low growl.

Mary gasped. She touched Clay’s shoulder and said, "What are you doing?"

He shook off her hand. With slow, deliberate words, he said, "Mary, step aside. He is goin’ to get up and I’m goin’ to give him more of what’s comin’ to him."

The thought of the two of them getting into a brawl, and the ensuing fiasco it would entail, moved Mary to quick action.

"You will do no such thing!" She went to Robert and tried to help him up. "Oh, dear, I’ve used your handkerchief, here, use mine. Hold your head back."

"Step aside, Mary, I mean it!"

She stood up straight. The hurt she had felt earlier on was quickly converting into a white-hot fury. She turned to him and said, "You hush your mouth!"

This stunned Clay out of his threatening pose. "Mary!"

"You stop this nonsense this instant. Do you want to ruin the party and embarrass your mother? Think about someone besides yourself, for once in your life!"

He looked like a little boy who’d been slapped. He turned and ran off the veranda. Robert finally managed to stand on his feet. It was lucky none of the guests inside the ballroom had noticed anything unusual going on. If their luck held out, she would think of a way to explain Robert’s bloody nose and no one would be the wiser.

"Miz, is there somethin’ I can do you for?" Julius, the Mosby butler, stood by the door. "Laws! What done happened to Mistah Robert?"

She made herself smile and say in a laughing voice, "Why, just the silliest thing in the world, Julius! I think he’s been sampling the punch a little too much because he walked right into the door. Would you fetch Mrs. Shelby?"

"Yassum, yassum, I’ll do that straight away!"

Robert finally could speak. He even managed to laugh. "You don’t really think that’s goin’ to fool anyone, do you?"

"Just keep your head back and say what I say. At the very least, no one will know for sure what just happened."

"Why, Mary, I never knew you had it in you to be so devious," he said.

"I’m learning a lot of things around here."

* * * * * * *

Robert was soon laid out on a settee in the drawing room, his mother and Mrs. Mosby both hovering over him, Mary holding a basin of water and Keziah some rags that they used to administer to him. His sister Martha Jane stood by the door, staring at him with big eyes. He wished they would all go away and leave him to his misery. It was mortifying to be treated like a child.

Damaris and Olivia entered the room, both gasping when they caught sight of the patient.

"Lord!" exclaimed Damaris. "Robert, what did you manage to do to yourself?"

"He just had a little accident," said Mary.

"A little! Good gracious, he’s goin’ to have two black eyes!"

"That’s what you get for over-imbibing," said his mother. He heard his sister giggle.

"Oh, dear, oh, dear," said Mrs. Mosby. "I really should be seein’ to the guests who are departin’."

"I’ll do it, Mama, I’ll explain what’s happened," said Damaris, heading back towards the ballroom.

"Thank you, dear."

"Well, well, well," said Olivia. "What an end to the party!"

"Oh, there you are," said Mrs. Mosby.

Everyone turned around and saw Clay walking in through one of the veranda doors. Robert could see that Mary was still steamed. She took one of the rags she’d been holding for Mrs. Mosby and all but threw it into the basin.

"He all right?" asked Clay.

"He’s fine," Mary said tersely.

"Oh, Mary, what a shame, look, you splashed some of that bloody water on your lovely dress," said Mrs. Mosby.

"That’s nothing—Emmie will take care of it."

"No," said Olivia. "It’s best if we attend to it right away. Here, we’ll get some fresh water. May I take Keziah with us, Belle? She’ll know just what to do."

"Of course. Leola and I can attend to Robert ourselves."

"Thank you."

The three of them left the room. Clay stood silently, watching their mothers continue working on Robert.

"Well!" exclaimed his mother after she finished packing some cotton up his nostrils. "I do believe you will live. Come along, Martha Jane, we had better find your father and give him a report on the patient."

"Yes, and I should see to any guests that are still here," said Mrs. Mosby.

"You’ll be all right on your own, won’t you?" said his mother.

"I’m right as rain, Mama," he said.

He and Clay were soon alone. In a strange, tight voice, Clay said, "Robert, I’ve been thinkin’, and as Mary seems to prefer you to me—"

"What?"

"You heard me."

"You—jackass!"

"I saw what I saw."

Robert sat up. "You saw nothin’ like what you imagine. I was only tryin’ to comfort the poor girl, who was in tears because of you."

Clay looked genuinely confused. "But I didn’t do anythin’! We were havin’ a wonderful time, why—"

"Your sister rounded up all your past flings and they ganged up on her. I don’t know exactly what they said to her, but apparently, she got enough of an earful to drive her tears. I can only imagine they were all comparin’ notes."

Clay’s mouth fell open. "Why, that, that—venomous harpy!"

"I don’t agree with what she did and how she did it, but don’t blame her because all your chickens have come home to roost!"

"I have to speak to Mary—" Clay made a half-turn towards the door.

"Oh, no you don’t!" Robert stood up a little too fast and had a short dizzy spell. As soon as he was a bit more clearheaded, he spoke forcefully. "Haven’t you done enough? You’ve added another broken heart to your collection, be happy with that and leave her be."

"That’s a little unfair, don’t you think?" said Clay hotly.

"No, it is not unfair. I’ve stood by and watched you play your stupid little games long enough, it’s time someone tell you what’s what. Mary is just about the sweetest girl alive, and seein’ you hurt the poor thing to gratify your vanity is the last straw."

Clay laughed bitterly. "I knew it, I knew it, you like her—"

"Of course I like her, she’s a nice change from you and that selfish sister of yours. You’re two peas in a pod!"

There was a short silence. Then Clay said, "That’s just about the meanest thing anyone’s ever said to me. I’m nothin’ like her."

"You’re two peas in a pod, I say!"

"You’d better watch your mouth, Robert, or I’ll flatten you again."

"You’re a spoiled brat and I’d like to see you try it!"

"You shut up!"

"Spoiled Mosby brat!"

The only thing that stopped them from leaping on each other then and there was a sharp gasp coming from the direction of the door.

"Oh, no," Mary cried. "They’re going to fight!"

Mary and Olivia stood watching them.

Olivia said calmly, "No, they are not going to fight. Now you both stop that right now—" Neither boy softened his threatening stance. "—or would you like me to go and fetch your fathers?"

"I can’t bear this anymore, I will die of shame!" Mary ran out of the room.

Clay finally turned away from Robert. "Mary, wait—" he said, going after her.

"Oh, no you don’t," said Olivia, blocking his way.

"But I have to—"

"The only thing you have to do right now, Clay Mosby, is find a place to sober up or cool off or do both." She pushed him towards the veranda doors. "Get some fresh air. The same goes for you, Robert. I will attend to Miss Cantrell. "

After making sure Clay was out of the room, Olivia left and took off after Mary.

* * * * * * *

Mary ran up to her room, speeding past Damaris, who asked what was wrong. She ignored both her and the calls from Miss Jessup.

Much to her surprise, she was not crying. No, she was far too angry for that.

She must have looked a sight, because when Emmie stepped into the room she asked, "Miz Mary, what’s wrong?"

"Emmie, pack my things. We’re going to leave here in the morning."

"Oh—oh, yessum."

Mary threw her gloves, fan and dance card down on the bed. The gloves and dance card seemed to mock her, to throw in her face evidence of what a little fool she had been.

She started when someone knocked on the door. She asked who it was.

"It’s Damaris. May I come in?"

"I’m so sorry, but I’m indisposed. Please—"

Damaris swept into the room anyway. "What is it chicken?" she demanded. "Why are you all in a tizzy?"

Mary looked at her, thunderstruck at this pretense. "You know perfectly well why!"

Emmie stuck her head out from the dressing room. "What dress you’s gonna wear tomorrow, Miz Mary, so I donts pack it with the rest?"

"The powder blue."

"Yessum."

"Pack?" said Damaris. "Why—"

"I’m leaving first thing in the morning. Please ask your father to arrange it for me."

"Why, honey, you don’t have to leave!" Damaris grabbed at her arm, but Mary pulled away. "We can just avoid Clay from now on, you don’t have to see him at all if you don’t want to—"

She could no longer contain her anger, and didn’t care if Emmie heard every word. "Damaris, if you say another word, I swear I’ll scream!"

"But—"

"How could you do that to me? You humiliated me in front of all those people, I thought I would die—oh, how could you!"

"If you must know, I did it for your own good." Damaris did not look the least bit contrite. "You just wouldn’t listen to me, and I did what needed to be done, so you would finally see Clay for what he is—"

"Damaris, we are no longer friends."

She finally looked a bit shaken. "You don’t mean that. You couldn’t."

"I do, I am perfectly serious."

"Well, all right, I guess I should have expected you’d be cross with me for a while. I’ve saved you from Clay, so it’s worth it. There’s still no reason for you to leave."

"Oh, you’re impossible!" Mary took a deep breath. "Listen to me, listen to what I am saying. I am leaving first thing tomorrow, and I want you to go tell your father right now. And if you won’t do it, so help me, Emmie and I will walk to Richmond. I will not stay in this house a moment longer than I have to."

Reality finally dawned on Damaris. Her response was to burst into tears. "Mary, oh, Mary, please don’t go! Don’t go!"

"My heavens!" Miss Jessup stood at the door. "It seems every room in this house is in an uproar!"

"Olivia!" gulped Damaris. "Mary wants to leave, tell her she can’t leave!"

"Well, dear, I don’t know why she would listen to me. I am a perfect stranger to her. If Miss Cantrell wants to go, perhaps that’s just what she should do."

"Damaris, must I speak to your father myself?" said Mary, with far more coolness than she thought she could muster.

"Oh! Oh!" Damaris ran out of the room.

"Dear me, such a highly-strung girl," said Miss Jessup. "Miss Cantrell, I know I said I am a perfect stranger to you, and I am, but perhaps you want to consider carefully before you leave."

"I haven’t any choice. If I thought—oh, you don’t know all that’s happened!"

To Mary’s surprise, Miss Jessup smiled. "From what I can gather, you made quite a splash at the party tonight."

"A splash!"

"Indeed, you were the belle of the ball. I can’t imagine anything more triumphant than to have two gallants fighting over me."

"That was all a misunderstanding."

"If I were you, that’s not how I would remember it. I would record it in my diary as a grand duel between two love-sick swains, fighting to see which one would win my heart."

In spite of herself, Mary found herself laughing. What an odd woman she was, with such a strange way of looking at things!

Miss Jessup became more serious. "Dear, please think of how mortified Mrs. Mosby would be if you suddenly went home. And did you think of what you would say to your parents? They would be sure to wonder why you cut your trip short."

"Oh—no, I didn’t think of that." What would she say to them? She also didn’t want to hurt Mr. and Mrs. Mosby, who had been unfailingly kind to her. "But I really can’t stay."

"Hmm, well, considering how emotions are running so high, perhaps it would be wise if you removed yourself so everything could cool down. May I propose something?"

"Yes, of course."

"Come and stay with me for a few days."

"No, no, I couldn’t impose—"

"It’s no imposition. I would most enjoy your company. I live all alone except for my father, and he is often indisposed by illness. You would be doing me a great kindness, in fact. In a few days you will be in a better frame of mind to decide what you should do next."

"Well, I—"

"We could leave as soon as your maid has finished packing."

The opportunity to escape so quickly decided her. "Yes, yes, thank you so much, Miss Jessup!"

As dawn came up over the plantation, Mary found herself and Emmie being driven away with a woman she had only been acquainted with for a few hours. Never before in her young life had she realized the sudden, strange turns life could take. At this time the day before she had been perfectly happy and looking forward to a wonderful time. Now she was heartbroken and on the run from two people who had meant more to her than anybody except her family.

She did not look back at the house. I wonder if I will ever see this place again, she thought.

* * * * * * *

Leland paced back and forth. His two eldest children sat side-by-side in chairs before him, neither one looking him in the eye. Damaris’ shoulders kept heaving because she was still crying. His wife stood off to the side, looking troubled and confused.

"Well, this is very nice," he said. "The two of you can be quite proud of yourselves. You’ve managed to drive your closest friends in the world from your house."

"Leland, I don’t understand," said Isabelle. "Why did Mary and Robert leave?"

He gestured at Clay and Damaris. "Why don’t you inquire that of your children?"

Damaris finally raised her head. "This is all Clay’s fault!"

"My fault!"

"Yes, if you would have just let Mary be—"

"If you would have just minded your own business—"

"Mary is my business!"

"You interferin’ little—"

"Enough!" their father shouted. They were immediately silenced. "You will both keep quiet and you will listen to me. I cannot force you to be friends, but by God, I will not put up with you bein’ enemies. There will be a war soon enough, must my own children be at war with each other?"

"Dear, please calm yourself, "admonished his wife.

"How can I, Belle? Look at them!" He gestured at Clay. "This one is supposed to be old enough to be a soldier, yet he behaves like he’s five years old. And this one—" he pointed at Damaris. "This one is bein’ courted and is supposedly ready to marry and head a household, yet she can’t even have a houseguest without it turnin’ into a fiasco! I’ve a mind to tell Jared Tannehill that he cannot visit her until she has grown up a bit more."

Clay turned red in the face. The tempo of Damaris’ sobs increased until they were just short of hysteria.

"Don’t you both realize that there’s nothin’ in this world more important than your family? With all you have, if you suddenly found yourselves with nothin’, at least you’d have each other? Oh, why do I even bother—it all goes in one ear and out the other!"

"Oh, Daddy, you don’t mean that about Jared!" cried Damaris.

"Of course he doesn’t, dear," said her mother. She turned to her husband. "You don’t, do you?"

"If these two do not find a way to reconcile with each other and mend this situation, I am completely serious."

"Well—I suppose you know best, Leland."

Leland took a deep breath. "I can’t imagine what we are goin’ to say to the Cantrells if Mary returns to Atlanta under this sort of cloud. Thank heavens we have a friend like Olivia who found a way to stop her from goin’ home right away. Now, have I made myself clear?"

"Yes, Daddy," both his children answered.

* * * * * * *

The next few days were total misery for Clay. Twice he dispatched a letter to Mary, trying to make light of what happened at the ball, begging her to allow him to see her. Both times the servant who took the letter to Olivia’s came back with it unopened.

He and his sister avoided each other as much as they could. Little Wade was in a misery of his own. He had become so fond of Mary that he kept asking why she had left.

Never once would Clay admit to himself that he bore any of the responsibility for Mary’s departure. It was his sister’s fault, it was Robert’s fault, it was the fault of those catty girls—even Olivia had a hand in her absence, in his mind.

His only comfort was that Mary was also giving Damaris the cold shoulder, for she would not communicate with her, either.

On the third day, Jared arrived at the plantation. His father had not yet imposed a moratorium on their visits, to Clay’s dismay. It seemed to him that Damaris deserved the harsh punishment her father had proposed.

Late in the afternoon, Julius sought him out and told him his father wanted to see him in his office. He went, feeling certain that he was in for yet another lecture.

Instead, he found Jared, his sister and mother there as well as his father. His mother was hugging Damaris, who for the first time in days wasn’t wailing. In fact, she looked supremely happy.

"Clay, we have some news," said his father. "Your sister is engaged to be married."

"Oh—well—" He looked at his father and could almost read his mind. Greet this news in the proper spirit, or repent of it. "Well, I think that’s fine! Congratulations!"

He shook hands with Jared. He really did like the fellow, and felt sorry for him at the same time. Then he realized when his sister married she would be removed from his constant presence. This realization made his congratulations to her sound entirely sincere. He even kissed her cheek. She, perhaps because she had suddenly been yanked from the brink of losing her love, was also sincere in her acceptance of his good wishes.

Julius brought wine and his father made a toast. Soon the lovers were off to be alone in the garden to talk and plan their future, and his mother was off to compose a letter to her daughter’s prospective in-laws.

"Clay, wait a moment," said his father when they were alone.

"Yes, Daddy?"

"Do not think I have forgotten the—business—we spoke of the day I first arrived at the plantation. I believe the time has come for you to go to Richmond."

At last, a chance to escape! He would gladly take it.

"Please remember what I told you. And I do believe it would be a good idea if you took the opportunity to mend fences with your friend."

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, and there’s somethin’ you can do for me while you’re in town. Your mother and I would like to give your sister your grandmother’s pearls as an engagement gift. They need to be restrung. If you would take them to the jeweler, that would save me a trip to town."

"Of course, I’d be glad to."

He left the next day, on the new mount that his father had given him on his birthday. He fully intended to ride straight to Richmond, but somehow found himself going off the road towards the Jessup place instead.

* * * * * * *

Mary stood in Olivia Jessup’s solarium, arranging some flowers in a vase. She tried to make the arrangement especially beautiful. She was so grateful to Miss Jessup. This visit was exactly the refuge she needed.

It hadn’t been without mortification, however. Both Clay and Damaris kept bombarding her with notes. It was a wonder that there was a house servant left on the plantation, the way they kept going back and forth to the Jessup house with messages.

Miss Jessup watched her turn away each servant but never said one word to her about it. Mary’s perception of her as an odd creature only increased as the days passed. Everything seemed to be an off-handed joke to her. The exception was her father, who Mary suspected wasn’t truly ill at all, but feigned illness to get attention. How sad that the poor woman had to attend to his whims! It made her disdain of marriage seem even more puzzling. If she married, she could escape him.

Mary sighed. She was beginning to realize how little she truly understood of the world, and all the vagaries of human beings. How sheltered she had been!

Miss Jessup entered the solarium. "Mary, how lovely!" she exclaimed.

"I’m glad you like it, Miss Jessup."

"Now, Mary, what did I tell you about that? Please address me as Olivia."

"Yes—Olivia."

"I have something to tell you, dear. Clay Mosby is waiting for you in the drawing room."

What Mary felt upon hearing this was almost indescribable. Dismay, anger, terror, and yes, joy. She tried to sink that last emotion under the weight of the many grievances she had against him.

"I couldn’t possibly receive him. Please, Olivia, you must send him away."

"Well, if you do not wish to receive him, then he must be sent away."

Mary waited. She was beginning to get used to Olivia’s strange manners. She would agree with you, then tell you why you should do the opposite.

"However—I would advise you to reconsider."

And there it was. "Why? After the way he behaved, why should I?"

"Certainly, you could take the opportunity to tell him to go to the devil."

Mary gasped. She could never do that. Well, she sort of did do that, but that was in the heat of anger.

"My dear, you will have to confront him sooner or later. You can’t very well skulk back to Atlanta without taking leave of the Mosbys. Believe me, your anticipation of the meeting is far worse than the reality of it."

She nodded reluctantly and put down the flowers and cutting shears in her hand. Wiping her hands with a cloth, she tried to compose herself. Then she headed for the drawing room.

When she entered the room, she had to fight those same emotions that had risen in her when she was first told he was here. I must remain calm, she reminded herself.

It was difficult to remember this when he turned and smiled at her. He was so magnificent! She sourly berated herself for ever thinking he could truly be interested in her, especially after seeing all those beauties he had courted and carelessly tossed aside.

He moved towards her and she involuntarily stepped back. This troubled him, but he said, "Mary, thank you so much for seein’ me."

She replied, "I didn’t really want to. Olivia advised me that I should receive you."

Again, he was taken aback. Clearly, he had expected her to be glad to see him, in spite of the way she had sent back his letters.

"Mary, won’t you even give me a chance to explain myself?"

"All right—explain yourself."

"You can’t listen to a bunch of catty, jealous girls. My sister put them all up to it. Don’t you see that?"

In spite of her own low opinion of that group of girls, something inside her made her want to defend them. "Don’t talk about them that way. They only acted like that because you hurt them."

"See? There you go, takin’ their word over mine—"

She cut in. "So you didn’t get each one of them to give you a glove?"

She could see this surprised him. "They told you—that?"

"Yes. Apparently, you have quite an impressive collection of young ladies’ gloves. I don’t see how they could have cooked up the story themselves. There’s no possible way they could have known that I had just given you one. They all thought it was very funny. I suppose it is, in a way."

He had no answer for this.

"It seems you also make a habit of kissing girls behind hedges."

This made him turn pale.

She wished she had not said so much, but could not stop herself from continuing. "I know I have only myself to blame. Damaris warned me, so did Robert. But I don’t understand how you can be so careless with other people’s feelings. So thoughtless—so—" At last she was able to stop, for she was afraid she would lose control of herself and start to cry.

They were both silent for a few moments. Finally, he said in a low voice, "I cannot bear it that you think so ill of me."

"Can you blame me?"

He did not answer. Instead, he gave her cold, formal bow and stalked out of the room.

* * * * * * *

Clay was soon on his horse and on his way to Richmond again, stinging from Mary’s rebukes. Far from chastened, he was angry. Well, let her think that of him! He was sick and tired of the constant flow of criticism from every corner of his life.

He let himself think about his impending meeting with Constance. He was suddenly anxious to be with her and lost in the mindless pleasure he would find in her arms. He was not at all concerned about the mission his father sent him on. His father did not know Constance. Clay was certain she would hand over the letters without a squeak of protest. In her presence he would find acceptance, not rejection.

When he arrived at her townhouse, he was a bit concerned about her possible state of mind. He had not warned her of his impending arrival. She lived her life freely, without answering to anybody. She might be annoyed with him.

He had no reason to worry. She was ecstatic to see him. It was a balm for his wounded pride.

"Clay! Darling!" She barely waited for the girl to leave the parlor—she threw her arms around him. They were soon locked in an embrace and kissing passionately.

She tore her mouth away from his and laughed. "You poor dear, I do believe you’ve been as deprived as I. Couldn’t you find a pretty white trash or darkie girl who would drop her pantalets for you?"

"Don’t talk," he said fiercely. "Just—don’t—talk—"

A while later he woke up next to her on the parlor rug. It was the oddest thing—he was suddenly overwhelmed by an indescribable loneliness. He tried to rid himself of this by reaching for her again.

She had been gently twirling her fingers in his hair. As he was about to draw her back into his arms, she grabbed his hair more roughly and pulled.

"Ow!"

She laughed. "That’s for staying away so long, you naughty boy."

"I had no choice."

"You are now eighteen, I believe you should have some say in the matter."

"Tell that to my father," he said. "Come here" He reached for her again.

She pushed him away and sat up. "I’m sorry, darling, but you should have given me a bit more warning. I have an engagement tonight and must get ready for it."

"Can’t you break it? And who is it with, anyway?"

She began picking up articles of clothing from the floor. "My friend Mrs. Halloway has invited me to one of her parties, and I do not intend to miss it. You can’t imagine I stayed home every night since you’ve been away."

"Oh, well, I suppose not." He started pulling on clothes. He suddenly remembered the primary purpose of his visit. He may as well get that out of the way. "Constance, I have to ask you somethin’."

She slipped on her chemise. "Yes, dear, I am free tomorrow, all day. We don’t have to leave my bedroom at all, if you don’t want to."

He smiled. "Well, that’s fine, but not what I meant. I have to ask you a very big favor."

"What’s that?"

He spoke lightly as he buttoned his shirt. "It’s the stupidest thing, really. My father noticed I was writin’ letters to you. He just about hit the ceilin’. He has insisted that I get them back from you."

She stopped hooking up her corset. "Oh. I see."

"You don’t mind, do you? I wouldn’t ask, but—"

She spoke slowly. "Of course I don’t mind. But you must know I wouldn’t compromise you for the world—"

"I do know it, and I told him so. But what I can I do—my father doesn’t know you as I do. So may I have them?"

She finished hooking her corset and said, "I would be glad to give them to you—if I still had them."

It was his turn to stop what he was doing. "You don’t have them?"

She shook her head. "I told you—I wouldn’t compromise you for the world. That’s why I burned them after reading them."

The words she said sounded reasonable, but somehow Clay knew she was lying to him. It made him catch his breath. Perhaps his father was not so wrong about her, after all.

He pretended to believe her. "That’s all right then! I can tell him there’s nothin’ to worry about."

"Yes, you can tell him that."

They both finished dressing in silence.

* * * * * * *

Robert sat in the tavern with several of his friends, playing cards. They had teased him unmercifully about his black eyes and, since most of them had been at Clay’s birthday party, none truly believed that he ran into a door. He met all their banter with withering silence, since they seemed to know somehow that the fight was about Mary Cantrell.

Now they had finally stopped their taunting as they settled into the game. They had just finished a round when he looked up and saw Clay walking towards them.

"Have room for one more?" he asked.

There were affirmative answers, hand-shakings and laughter as they welcomed him into the game. Robert said nothing.

"I see Robert is still put out with me, fellas," said Clay, taking cards as they were dealt to him. "It seems he blames me for havin’ a door in a particular spot where he could run into it."

Uproarious laughter from everyone but Robert. As soon as he could, he threw away his cards and stood up. "I guess that’s it for me. I’ll see you all soon."

"I’m out, too," said Clay, tossing his cards down. To the others, he said, "I’ll be back in a while, I have to talk to Robert."

Robert tried to walk away as fast as he could, but Clay caught up to him and grabbed his elbow.

"Come on, now. Don’t be that way. It doesn’t look too good in front of the others. Think about Mary, if not yourself or me."

Saying that was just about the only thing that could have stopped him from leaving.

"Besides—I have somethin’ to tell you. Come on, let’s sit over here."

They ordered drinks. Clay didn’t say anything until they arrived.

"Well?" said Robert, downing his drink. "What do you want to tell me?"

"Maybe you should have another drink first."

Robert was beginning to understand that this wasn’t about their fight at the party. "What is it, Clay? Just spit it out."

"All right. My sister is engaged."

The pain from his busted up nose was nothing to the searing sensation that went through his vitals upon hearing this. "You’re right, I need another drink."

"I’m sorry."

He didn’t answer until another drink was put in front of him. Picking it up he said, "Well, Jared is a good fellow." He knocked back the shot in one gulp.

"He surely is. Robert—"

"I wish you would get that obnoxious look of pity off your face, Clay, and change the subject. Or I’ll change it for you. I’m surprised to see you in town. When did you get here?"

"Yesterday. My father sent me—an errand to do with—"

"Don’t tell me—your sister’s engagement." Robert laughed bitterly.

"Yes. But that’s not the only reason."

Robert studied Clay. Something major was up, and perhaps he was hesitating because he didn’t know where their friendship stood.

"He sent me to get back some letters I wrote to Constance."

This astounded Robert. "Clay! You didn’t write that woman letters! Not really!"

Clay grinned sheepishly. "I know, not my finest moment. I didn’t realize how stupid it was until I asked her for them back."

"Let me guess. She refused."

"No. She told me she burned them."

"You didn’t believe her!"

"As it happens, no I did not. And I don’t know what to do."

Robert rubbed his face thoughtfully. Then he said, "Steal them."

* * * * * * *

In spite of the reason for it, Robert agreed to accompany Clay to the jeweler’s shop. Clay took that as a sign their friendship was on the mend, and he was heartily glad of it. Any possible suspicion he might have had about Robert having romantic feelings for Mary evaporated as soon as he saw his reaction to the news of his sister’s impending marriage.

The thought of Mary stabbed at his heart. It was as if Robert could read his mind, because he asked, "Have you seen Mary since the party?"

He tried to make light of it. "Yes. And she did not hesitate to tell me she thoroughly despises me."

"Despise—I doubt it."

They arrived at the shop. As they walked in, Clay said, "I assure you, she could not have made her feelings more clear."

"Did you even apologize to her?"

"For what my sister and those girls did?"

Robert laughed. "I should have known better than to ask."

Clay got the business to do with the pearls out of the way very quickly. They were about to leave the shop, but something made him hesitate.

The clerk asked, "Is there somethin’ else I can do for you, Mr. Mosby?"

Clay turned to his friend. "Robert—what would you think if I got Mary a small gift?"

Robert frowned. "Clay, are you goin’ to start that nonsense again? Because if you are—"

"You’re the one who said I should make amends. Why not give her a small token to show my sincerity?" He turned back to the clerk. "Is there somethin’ you could suggest?"

"A brooch? A ring?" asked the clerk.

"Oh, no, no, nothin’ like that. Somethin’—small, yet personal."

"This is for a young lady?"

"Yes."

"I think I know just the thing." The clerk took out a key and unlocked one of the display cases. He removed a tray. "The young ladies really seem to go for these."

"What are they?" asked Clay, bending over to look.

"Hair pins. Some are jeweled and some are shaped into lovely figures, like flowers. I have some made of tortoise shell, these are enameled, different kinds of metalwork, many different styles—all very pretty, as you can see."

Something caught Clay’s eye. "I’d like to see these, please."

"Ah, these are exquisite."

They were a pair of silver hair pins with filigree work in the shape of butterflies. Oh, yes, Clay thought. These would suit Mary perfectly. "What do you think, Robert?" he asked as the clerk held them up.

Robert guffawed and shook his head. "I do not pretend to know what pleases young ladies."

"I think she will like them. I’ll take them."

"Yes, sir, I’ll get a box for them."

Suddenly, Clay felt Robert yank on his arm. "What is it?"

Robert turned his head slightly towards the back of the shop. Clay looked around, and was stunned to see Constance standing at the entrance.

"My goodness!" she exclaimed. "What a pleasant surprise!"

Clay was thankful the three of them were the only customers in the shop. He greeted her politely, as if she were no more to him than one of his mother’s friends.

"Heavens! What happened to you?" she asked Robert.

"A minor accident."

The clerk came back and Constance said, "I hope your mothers are well."

They answered in the affirmative. The clerk held up the open box to show Clay the hair pins again.

Constance leaned forward and said, "May I see, please?" The clerk showed them to her. "My, my, how nice! A gift for someone?"

"My sister," replied Clay. "She’s to be married."

"Is she! How lovely!" She looked at the hair pins again. "I hope you won’t mind if I give you an honest opinion but—I do not believe these would suit her."

"I believe that they will."

She looked at the clerk and laughed. "Young men this age, they really don’t know how to pick out gifts for young ladies." She turned to Clay again. "I don’t know your sister, it’s true, but I have seen her a few times from a distance, and I must say that these are far too delicate for her. She strikes me as a very vibrant personality. She will quite overwhelm them."

The clerk looked at Clay. "Shall I show you somethin’ else, sir?"

"No. I’ll take these." He turned to Constance. "As you said, you don’t know my sister."

After he paid for the hair pins, he and Robert bowed to her and left the shop.

* * * * * * *

Every morning Mary would take a long walk around the grounds of the Jessup place. The garden wasn’t nearly as impressive at the one at Hatton Willows, but it was still very pleasant. She spent most of the time trying to regain some equilibrium after the many shake-ups of the past few days. She would soon go home. She would be back with everything that was familiar. Sanity would return, and she would be, if not happy, at least not continuously miserable as she was now.

When she returned from one of these walks, she found Damaris waiting for her in the drawing room.

"Chicken!" she cried. "I have missed you so!"

Mary was silent for a moment, upset that Olivia had permitted Damaris to ambush her. Finally, she said stiffly, "Good morning, Damaris."

Damaris’ face fell. "Oh, don’t be so cold, dear, please!"

Mary shook her head. She could almost laugh. Clay and Damaris were so alike! They both expected her to be falling over with joy when she saw them.

"Besides, you don’t know my news."

"News?"

Damaris stuck her hand out. "I am engaged!"

Mary’s hand flew to her mouth. This was news indeed! She couldn’t help herself. She grabbed Damaris’ hand to examine the ring. "Oh, my! It’s—it’s lovely. I’m so happy for you."

This seemed to be enough for Damaris, who took it as a signal that she had been completely and utterly forgiven. She threw her arms around Mary. "Oh, darlin’, thank you, thank you! You don’t know what it means to me, to receive your good wishes! I could not be thoroughly happy if you and I were no longer friends!"

How could Mary resist such an outpouring? She found herself hugging her back. Then she stepped back and said, "Sit with me and tell me everything!"

Damaris laughed happily and complied. "Well, darlin’, you have no idea the uproar you caused when you left. Robert followed almost immediately after you, you know—"

And so Mary heard of the way Mr. Mosby had laid down the law to his children, and had threatened to terminate Jared’s courtship of his daughter.

"I sent Jared a letter and he came a-runnin’. He said when he saw me that there was only one way to solve this problem—and he got right down on his knees and begged me to marry him! Of course I said yes—I almost fainted, I was so happy! When he went to Daddy, he just couldn’t say no!"

Without thinking, Mary said, "I wonder why Clay didn’t mention—"

"You’ve seen Clay?" asked Damaris, looking at her sharply.

"Why—yes. He stopped by to see me the other day."

"Oh, Mary—"

"Dear, you don’t have to worry. I sent him packing."

This information clearly thrilled Damaris. "Did you really? Good for you! Ha! It’s just what he deserves!"

Mary said softly, "Yes, I suppose it is."

"You know he went to Richmond." Damaris said this as if it were of great significance.

"Oh?"

"Well, you know why, don’t you?"

"He said nothing to me about it."

"He went to see that woman. You know, the widow. I mentioned her to you—"

Mary was not prepared for the pain she felt upon hearing this. It doesn’t matter, she told herself. What he does and who he does it with is no concern of mine.

Damaris didn’t notice, or pretended not to notice, and continued babbling on about her engagement. Eventually Olivia joined them and they all had tea. The entire time Mary tried to keep her mind on the conversation, but she could not rid herself of the thought of Clay and his mistress.

"Mary, dear, you must come back to the Willows!" said Damaris. "I need help with the weddin’ plans, and Mama and I will go to Richmond soon to start shoppin’ for my trousseau. I cannot possibly do it without your advice. And yours, too, Olivia."

This she could not face. She could not imagine how she would feel when she saw Clay again.

Olivia said, "I’m certain Mary will be glad to go back and help you, dear. But it so happens she has promised to stay until Friday, and I intend to keep her to her promise."

Damaris protested, but Mary and Olivia both insisted that the term of Mary’s visit was set. She finally gave up and left, promising to return the next day with all kinds of magazines and catalogues for the three of them to peruse.

When Damaris was gone, Olivia studied Mary and asked, "What is it, dear? I thought your mood would lift once you made up with Damaris."

Mary knew she should probably keep silent, but the oppressive feeling was so overwhelming she felt the need to unburden herself. "Damaris told me Clay went to Richmond—to see a woman. His—mistress."

Olivia’s eyebrows flew up in surprise. "Ah, I see. Well, if you ask me, Damaris could learn a little more discretion."

Mary sighed. "Yes, I wish she would, too."

"Dear, there’s much about men that you have yet to learn. I assure you, this woman means nothing to Clay."

"How do you know that?"

"Men are different from women, Mary. Certain—kinds—of women occupy a small space in their lives and nothing more."

"No, but it’s more than that with him, isn’t it? All those other girls—those very pretty girls—"

"In my opinion, none of them can hold a candle to you."

"That’s so kind of you to say, but—"

Olivia turned and walked over the mantelpiece. "Come here, dear, I want to show you something."

Curious, Mary joined her by the mantelpiece. Olivia took a framed portrait off of it and handed it to her. "This is Hollis Clay, my late fiancée. I’m certain Damaris has not been able to keep quiet about my history."

"It was actually Clay who mentioned him to me." Mary looked at the portrait. She fancied she could see in his face what Wade Mosby would look like as a grown man.

"Clay got his good looks from his Daddy, but he got all his charm from his uncle. Hollis was just the same, flitting from girl to girl—until he met me. And then there was no other girl in the world to him."

"But—who’s to say I’m that girl to Clay?"

"Who’s to say you’re not? I’ve known Clay since he was a little boy. I’ve seen him flirt with almost every pretty girl in the county. But I have never before seen his eyes light up the way they do when he looks at you."

Mary handed her back the portrait. "I almost wish you hadn’t said that to me. I don’t know if I can let myself—oh, all this is so difficult!"

"There’s nothing about this life that’s easy, dear," said Olivia as she carefully replaced the portrait on the mantle.

* * * * * * *

Clay lay in the bed next to Constance, turned away from her. She suddenly leaned over and kissed his neck. He shrugged her off.

"Whatever is the matter, darling? You’re in a peevish mood."

"Nothin’. It’s just hot in here."

"No, I don’t think that’s it. You’re very distracted. Has something changed?"

He turned around and looked at her. "Of course not. What could have changed?"

"Well, all manner of things." She reached over to the side table by the bed and took a glass of whisky off of it. She drank a sip. Without looking at him she said, "Perhaps you have tired of me."

"That—that’s crazy."

She sipped more whisky. "You were horribly rude to me earlier in the jeweler’s shop."

He let out an annoyed sigh. "How was I supposed to act? We were in public!"

She was silent for a moment. Then, "You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? If you were tired of me?"

"For the love of all that’s holy, Constance! I come here for some peace, not to be questioned endlessly!"

This made her angry. She plunked down the whisky glass and stood up, then proceeded to pull on some underthings. Then she went to the vanity mirror and began savagely combing her hair.

He threw off the bed sheet and began to dress, too. He hated it when she got into one of her moods. He wished he could just leave, but he had to find those letters. He suspected they were hidden in the bedroom somewhere. He would never be able to find them if he couldn’t contrive a way to be in there alone.

As he puzzled this out while he dressed, opportunity suddenly knocked at the door.

It was the maid, Cilla.

"Miz Constance, you’s got a caller!"

She stopped combing her hair. "Now? You know better than that! Send whoever it is away, you stupid thing!"

"It’s Mistah Pres, and he say if you donts come downstairs, he gonna come upstairs to see you."

She threw the comb down on the dresser. "All right! Tell him to wait a few moments while I make myself presentable."

Clay looked at her. "Does Pres Bardeen make a habit of callin’ on you still?" Bardeen had been her lover before him, he knew.

As she gathered her hair up and pinned it into a neat chignon, she said, "No, he does not. I’m as surprised as you that he’s suddenly shown up. But I know one thing about Pres—he means it when he says he’ll come upstairs. Cilla will not be able to stop him." She put on her dressing gown and some slippers. "I would advise you to wait a while and then leave by the back stairs. I don’t want any trouble between the two of you."

"Believe me, neither do I," said Clay, as he finished tugging on his boots.

She swept out of the room. The moment the door closed behind her, he started his search.

He felt ridiculous pawing through all her personal things, but he had to do it. She had several jewelry boxes on the dresser, but they yielded nothing. He went through the dresser drawers and her chiffarobe. Nothing.

Frustrated, he took a quick look out the door. The girl was down the hall, dusting some furniture. He quietly called to her.

She approached him. "Yassuh?"

He yanked her into the room and closed the door softly. She immediately misunderstood his intent.

"Nawsuh, please! I’d get kilt for somethin’ like that! Ain’t you gettin’ enough of that from Miz Constance?"

He couldn’t help laughing. But he thought turning on a little charm wouldn’t hurt. "Now, now, Cilla, I don’t mean anythin’ like that. Not that I wouldn’t want to!" He pinched her cheek.

She giggled. "You’s bad, you’s bad, doin’ that when she downstairs."

"I need you to help me find somethin’—somethin’ that’s mine."

"You lose somethin’ here?"

"Well—sort of. I have to find some letters. Do you know where Miss Constance keeps her letters?"

The way the girl’s eyes widened made him think she did know. But she said, "Uh-uh. Why woulds I? I cain’t read, don’t have nothin’ to do with no letters." She suddenly turned away and started dusting the dresser with furious motions.

Clay understood her fear, and didn’t want to get her into trouble. But if anyone knew, it would be her, so he tried again. "Come on, now, you know where they are."

"Nawsuh, nawsuh, I donts!" She continued dusting.

He sighed and leaned against the dresser. What was he going to do now?

He suddenly realized that the girl was dusting the top of the dresser for a long time. Not only that, she kept coming back to one particular box on the dresser. She dusted it way past the time it needed it.

"Don’t know nothin’ about nothin’," she mumbled. She finally stopped. "Can I leaves now?"

"Yes," he said.

As soon as she was gone, he picked up the box. Again, all he could see inside was a tray with some earbobs in it. He examined it more thoroughly. He realized the tray was very shallow, that there could be a false bottom to the box. He had a box at home that had a false bottom, it had a mechanism that made the tray pop up—

After a few moments of fumbling, he found the mechanism and the tray did indeed pop up. He pulled it out. Under it he found not only the two letters he had sent her over the summer, but every note he had ever written to her since he had known her.

* * * * * * *

"Pres, what are you doing here?"

"Can’t I call on an old friend?"

Constance looked over his handsome, dissolute face, relieved to see he was not drunk. He returned the scrutiny.

"Don’t you look pretty?" he said. "And you have such a healthy glow about you. I remember that glow—I used to be the one to give it to you."

"Pres—"

"I suppose it’s the Mosby tadpole who’s accountable? Is he upstairs, skulkin’ in your bedroom?"

She hoped Clay had listened to her and taken off out the back. The last thing she wanted was for Pres to get up a head of steam and pick a fight with him. She tried to distract him. "Would you care for some tea?"

"You know I’m not a tea drinker, Constance, dear."

"A drink, then?"

He accepted. She invited him to sit down. She called for Cilla, who took an interminable amount of time getting her carcass down the stairs. But Constance was too much on edge to even bother to scold her. When he was served, she waited to hear whatever it was he had come to see her about. He said nothing for a while, merely sipped his drink. Finally, she sighed and asked him what he wanted.

"Why, only to let you in on some very enticin’ gossip."

"I do not care for gossip—"

"Oh, you’ll want to hear this." He sipped again, then put down his glass. "Did you know I was invited to the tadpole’s eighteenth last week?"

"No, I did not." She couldn’t help leaning forward a little. What Clay did when he was out of her sight was always of interest to her.

"It was quite an affair. You know how Isabelle Mosby always puts out a dilly of a spread." A mean smile slowly spread over his face. "Oh, that’s right—you don’t know. You’ve never been invited to one of her dos."

He struck a nerve with that, as Constance felt the familiar rage over her exclusion from that set of Richmond society. She said nothing, just let him continue.

"I thought the whole thing would be a huge bore—I wouldn’t have gone, except I had hoped to dance with Olivia Jessup—"

"—who cut you dead, no doubt." Constance was happy to see that she had landed a pretty good barb herself. Pres’ face turned red. But he didn’t let that deter him from continuing.

"It seems your boy lover has gone head over heels for a little girl from Atlanta named Mary Cantrell. Quite a pretty thing, and shy in a most charmin’ way. She’s his sister’s closest friend, or so I was told. He showed her such particular attention at the party that it caused quite a lot of ill feelin’ among the other young ladies in attendance."

Constance felt herself go cold all over. Her throat also tightened up, as if something was choking her.

"And then there was the fight. Oh, they tried to say Robert Shelby got slightly inebriated and ran into a door, but no one believed it. It was obvious to anyone with a brain that he and the Mosby tadpole had a dust-up over the very same Cantrell girl." Pres laughed. "You have to watch out for the shy ones, I always say!"

Constance finally found her voice. She tried to laugh it off. "Oh, well, I doubt it’s anything serious. Clay is always flirting with girls. For some reason it amuses him to chase virgins. We talk about it—laugh about it."

"Oh, so he’s mentioned the Cantrell girl to you?"

She said slowly, "Well, Pres, you’ve spread your gossip. Why don’t you leave now?"

He did not look offended, only satisfied that he had hit his target dead on. He put down his glass, stood up, and bowed. Then he left her.

When he was gone, she took one of the throw pillows off the settee, crushing and pulling on it with her hands. She went over the events of the past couple of days—Clay suddenly showing up out of the blue and asking for the letters, his distracted attitude, Robert Shelby’s two black eyes, and those blasted hair pins! She had known they weren’t for his sister. She had hoped that he meant to give them to her. But they would not suit her any better than they would his sister.

Without realizing it, she ripped open a seam in the pillow.

* * * * * * *

Clay waited for Mary once again in the Jessup drawing room. Unlike the last time, when he had been confident she would be happy to see him, he worried that she wouldn’t even receive him. One ray of hope was Olivia divulging the news that Mary had made up with his sister. Damaris’ behavior had been unconscionable; it would be unreasonable to forgive her and still despise him, in his view. He was also given to understand that she planned to return to Hatton Willows, which had to be another good sign. It did not occur to him that she might be doing that for his parents’ sake and not his.

When she finally entered the room and slowly approached him he smiled, but he felt it quickly die. He could see at once that things stood no better between them than before. In fact, she seemed even more distant.

After they exchanged polite greetings, he said, "I see you are still quite determined not to forgive me."

"You make it sound as if it’s my fault that things are the way they are."

He tried playing what he thought was his safest card. "You can forgive my sister, and not me?"

"It’s not the same thing."

"I don’t see why."

"Please—I am returning to the plantation on Friday, and we must—we must be in each other’s company until I leave for home. I don’t want to distress your parents further. I ask you, I beg you—"

She lowered her head. He realized tears were falling from her eyes.

"Mary—" He reached for her.

"Oh, don’t!" She turned as if to run from the room, but he grabbed her hands to stop her.

"Mary, look at me."

She complied, but said, "Please release me."

He did not relinquish her. "I insist you listen to me. When I left here the other day I thought, fine, if that’s how you feel, that’s that. I tried to chase the thought of you from my mind while I was in Richmond. Truly, I did. But—I could not, no matter how I tried."

Again, she averted her gaze from his. "I would think—there were many distractions for you in town, you would not have had time to think of me."

"That’s what I hoped would happen. But it did not. Mary, it’s not the same as it was with those others—you must believe me."

She shook her head, a few more tears fell.

"It’s the truth." He let go of her and reached into his pocket, drawing out the small jeweler’s box. He slipped it into her hand.

Her eyes widened and she turned the box over to look at it. "What—?"

"Won’t you open it? Go on." He could see she was conflicted, wanting to open it and not sure if she should.

Finally, she said, "I couldn’t possibly accept—"

"Why don’t you look at it first and then decide if you want to throw it back in my face?"

She hesitated again, then slowly opened it. "Oh!" she breathed when she saw its contents.

Her reaction heartened him. "Do you remember the butterfly, the day by the river?"

This managed to elicit a ghost of a smile. "Yes, of course."

"Hmm," he said. "But now that I look at them again, I think they are a poor offerin’. Here, let’s make certain." He reached into the box and took one of the hair pins out. He slipped it into her hair, then did the same with the other. He reached under her chin and lifted her face, turning it this way and then that way to see how they looked. As he had anticipated, it was as if they had been made for her. "Yes, now they are perfect. They have been greatly enhanced by their setting."

"Clay—I don’t know what to say."

He took the hand not holding the box in his. "Don’t speak, then. I want to tell you this, and it’s the God’s honest truth, Mary. I’ve never given anythin’ like this to another girl. Ever. You can ask my sister, you can ask any of those others."

"Oh, Clay, if you didn’t mean it—that would be so cruel, so—"

"Must I swear on a Bible?"

She searched his eyes. "No. I—I believe you."

He sighed, relieved he had convinced her. He brought her hand to his lips. "Thank you, Mary."

"Thank you for these, I’ve never seen anything so lovely."

"I am so glad I have finally pleased you." He decided to chance one more thing. "Mary—will you consider comin’ back to the Willows before Friday?"

She seemed to think about it. She said, "I truly cannot. I promised Olivia—"

"Oh, she won’t mind."

Mary shook her head. "She perhaps would say she wouldn’t mind, but—I think she’s lonely. And I promised."

"May I come fetch you on Friday, then?"

"Yes."

"And may I—may I give you a kiss goodbye?"

"Yes," she said softly, tilting her head up to receive it.

* * * * * * *

Leland returned from speaking to his overseer Friday to the excellent news from his wife that Mary had finally returned from her visit to Olivia’s.

"Oh, Damaris is so happy," said Isabelle, after kissing him. "The girls are quite reconciled. I am so relieved that Mary isn’t cuttin’ her trip short." She linked her arm in his as they walked through the foyer.

"I am as well, my dear."

"Of course they are now wild to go to Richmond to do some shoppin’."

"Yes, that’s quite natural, I suppose. Nothin’ like impendin’ nuptials to get women excited about spendin’ money."

Isabelle looked at him in dismay. "Now, Leland, you’re not goin’ to be a skinflint about it, are you? Damaris is our only daughter, after all."

He laughed. "Darlin’ I would not for the world deprive you of the joy of makin’ our daughter the most splendid weddin’ Richmond has ever seen." He kissed her cheek.

"Thank you dearest. We should decide when to go. I’ll talk to Damaris now."

She set off to find her. Leland was about to head for his office when Wade suddenly crossed his path. The child was chuckling to himself.

Leland squatted and tousled his son’s hair. "What’s so amusin’, young fellow?"

"I saw Clay kissin’ Mary!"

"Oh—did you? You know, you shouldn’t spy on people."

"I’m sorry, Daddy."

"Where did you see them?"

"In the garden"

"You go find Keziah, now. It’s about time for you to have lunch."

"Yes, Daddy." The boy took off.

Leland sighed. Apparently, Clay hadn’t learned his lesson and was still flirting with Mary to get his sister’s goat. Well, he was going to put a stop to that. He wouldn’t embarrass the girl, but he would make certain Clay understood that this was unacceptable behavior. He headed for the garden.

When he saw them, he stopped dead in his tracks. They weren’t kissing now, but they were gazing deeply into each other’s eyes and holding hands. They spoke to each other in hushed tones. He instantly understood that this was way past the point of a flirtation.

That the girl was in love didn’t surprise him—Clay was the sort of boy lots of girls went crazy over. It was Clay who astounded him. There was no mistaking the way he was looking at Mary. He remembered very clearly how he had felt when he first fell in love with his wife.

He quickly retreated, his mind racing. This was a most gratifying turn of events! Didn’t he even wish it once?

He canvassed Mary’s many sterling qualities. She was a sweet-natured, serious-minded girl. She came from a fine family. She was his daughter’s closest friend and his wife was also very fond of her. While other girls her age might have been repelled by Wade’s unfortunate malady, she had treated him only with loving kindness, which showed she had a good heart.

The only flaw he could come up with was her shyness, which could hold her back socially. But with his wife and daughter to guide her, that was something she could outgrow eventually. And she came from a large family of girls, which meant her dowry portion would be quite small.

That was not important. Clay did not require a rich bride. He needed a girl—a woman—who would steady and bring out the best in him. Mary seemed to Leland the perfect candidate. Even though he and Clay had together burned those letters he had written to the Lambert woman, Leland still worried she might have some hold over him. Once engaged to a girl of Mary’s standing, any threat to Clay from that schemer would vanish.

He said nothing about it until he and his wife were getting ready to retire. Isabelle continued chatting about the trip to Richmond as Keziah helped her undress. When the maid left, he decided to broach the subject.

"Dearest," said Leland as he unbuttoned his shirt. "I wonder if you would write to Mary’s parents and ask them for permission to extend her stay."

Isabelle, who was sitting at her vanity mirror and pulling combs from her hair, said, "Why, yes, I think that would be an excellent idea. Damaris will be very reluctant to part with her any time soon."

"Yes, Damaris, and—"

She shook her hair loose and said, "And what, dear? You’re acting a little strange. You have been all day."

"Clay would also be reluctant to part with her."

She turned from the mirror and said, "What do you mean?"

"I believe that Clay and Mary have formed an attachment, Belle. In fact, I believe they have fallen in love."

She laughed. "Oh, you can’t be serious. I know Clay’s been teasin’ her a bit, but he always—"

"I am quite serious, and quite certain I am right. And in my opinion, we should do all we can to encourage it."

His wife stopped laughing and frowned. "Don’t you think Clay is a little young to get serious about a girl?"

"No, I do not. I think an early marriage would be just the thing for him."

"Marriage!"

He smiled at her reaction. "What’s the matter, dearest? Wouldn’t you like Mary for a daughter-in-law?"

"Why—when you put it that way—of course, I love Mary, she’s a darlin’ girl. And with Damaris leavin’—"

"So you agree with me. That’s splendid."

"But they’re so young! Perhaps it’s just a passin’ fancy."

"Remember that Clay is old enough to fight in a war."

"Oh, don’t remind me, it distresses me so—"

"We’ll find out soon enough if this is a passin’ thing, won’t we? Now, this is what we’ll do. We will make certain Mary extends her visit. We should not do anythin’ overtly to push them together—but we should give this every opportunity to flourish." He walked over to her and bent down to kiss her neck. "It would please me very much to see our children as lucky in marriage as we have been, my love."

"Yes—that would be wonderful."

* * * * * * *

Mary sat at the vanity mirror in her room at the Mosby townhouse. The past few days had been the happiest of her life. They had also been a whirlwind, days filled with shopping trips to find the perfect items for Damaris’ trousseau and nights with many social engagements and activities. Tonight they were going to the opera, as Damaris and Mrs. Mosby were so fond of music.

At first, the women had been surprised when the men decided to accompany them to town. It was thought they would stay at the plantation, particularly Mr. Mosby. Only Wade had not come with them, Mrs. Mosby preferring he stay with Olivia rather than make the trip back and forth. Mr. Mosby had declared that Mary had not seen enough of the town and all it had to offer, and he was determined that she would before she left for Atlanta.

Mary had fretted that Clay would seek out that woman again now that he was back in Richmond. She was soon put at ease. He was being extremely attentive to her; in fact, he and his sister had argued about the amount of time she was claiming from Mary.

Emmie entered the room bearing a pretty nosegay. "These here are for you, Miz. Mary. They come wit’ a note."

"How beautiful!" She opened the note. It was from Clay, and he bid her to save one bud for him, so he could put it in his boutonniere and show the whole world that he belonged to her. Her heart raced as she read those words. She brought the flowers up to her face and dreamily inhaled their fragrance.

"You’s in love, Miz Mary," said Emmie.

Mary tilted up her head. "Oh, Emmie, am I that obvious?"

Emmie smiled. "Why, yessum. And why shouldn’t you’s be in love? Such a fine beau. None your sisters ever had a beau so fine as Mistah Clay."

"He is fine, isn’t he?" They both laughed, Mary from supreme joy.

Damaris entered the room. "Mary, aren’t you ready yet? Jared is here."

"Yes, dear, just another moment or two." Mary gave the flowers and note to Emmie.

"Humph! That’s from Clay, I imagine."

"Damaris—"

"It’s all right, Mary, I’m not goin’ to say a word. In fact, I’ve been forbidden by Daddy."

Mary gathered up her things and stood up. Emmie handed her back the nosegay. "Forbidden? What do you mean?"

"Apparently, my parents are quite enthused by the whole thing."

"What are you talking about?" she asked, as Emmie put her shawl around her shoulders.

"Never mind, just know I’ve been told in no uncertain terms to stay out of it. Oh, those are pretty!"

Mary was still confused by what she meant, but let her change the subject. "You mean my hair pins?"

"I’ve never seen them before—wait, don’t tell me. Clay gave them to you."

"Yes."

Damaris rolled her eyes. "Well, I can’t say he doesn’t have good taste. Come on."

Mrs. Mosby emerged from her room at the same time they did, so all three descended the stairs together. Mr. Mosby, Jared and Clay awaited them at the bottom.

Mr. Mosby said, "Gentlemen, I am of the opinion that we are the luckiest men in Richmond, to be escortin’ so much beauty."

Mary approached Clay and touched her hair, to show him she was wearing her hair pins. He smiled. They she reached into her bouquet, snapping off a bud and handing it to him. His smile broadening, he tucked it into his boutonniere. Mary was amused to see Damaris quickly follow suit, diving into her own bouquet and yanking out a bud, then giving it to Jared.

When they were at the opera house and had entered the box Mr. Mosby had reserved, Damaris tried to take the seat next to Mary.

Jared said, "Well, I like that. One would think you were snubbin’ your intended."

"You sit on that side, there."

Mr. Mosby cleared his throat. He needn’t have, because Jared said to his fiancée, "Dearest, leave Mary to her beau and attend to your own. Sit here—now."

Mary felt laughter bubbling up inside her as Damaris meekly obeyed. Clay then took the seat next to her.

"Lord!" he whispered. "I do believe he may tame her in the end."

Mary opened her fan and hid her face behind it. "Don’t! You’ll make me laugh!" she whispered back.

"Hold my hand."

She lowered her fan and looked over nervously at his parents. "But, Clay, in front of—"

"Use your fan so no one will see."

"But your parents—"

"Who do you think I learned it from?"

Again, she had to suppress a laugh. She gave him her hand.

* * * * * * *

In the orchestra section below, the Mosby party was being observed.

"I told you they would be here tonight, Constance," said Pres Bardeen.

"So you did. Give me your glasses."

She held up the opera glasses and trained them on the box where the Mosbys were seated. A cold fury as she never felt before in her life enveloped her. That was the girl Clay had lost his head over? She was a mouse, a nothing! Yet his adoration of her couldn’t be plainer. She could see it, no doubt the whole opera house full of people could see it. He was fawning all over her. He whispered something to the girl in her ear. As she watched through the glass, Constance could see her smile and blush in response.

It was not only Clay—all the Mosbys. She watched as the father, that bitch mother of his, the sister and her intended, every blasted one of them, treat her like she was some sort of visiting royalty.

She handed the glasses back to Pres. Soon the music started. She hated opera. She would have to endure the first act. Then she would get a closer look at that mouse.

* * * * * * *

During intermission, the men and women divided—the women to meet friends and gossip, the men to step outside and smoke. Mrs. Mosby found several friends to talk to and introduce to Mary.

The women chatted about wedding matters. Suddenly, Mary heard Damaris take a sharp breath.

"What is it, dear?" Mary asked.

Damaris looked as if she’d seen a ghost. "Mary, let’s go back up to the box." Her friend started to pull her away from the crowd. Mrs. Mosby was talking to a friend and did not notice.

"Why?"

"Oh, no, it’s too late."

A woman was approaching them. Mary had never seen anyone quite like her before. She wore a gown of burgundy red satin that sparkled from many rhinestones. She had something—charisma, an air of glamour—that made her more than just beautiful. As she walked through the crowd, she literally made heads turn. Both men and women couldn’t help looking at her.

"Who is that?"

"Oh, Mary," whispered Damaris. "That’s her."

Mary did not need her friend to explain further. This was Clay’s mistress. It was as if she had suddenly stepped into some nightmare world.

Damaris gasped again. "No! She’s not! She’s not goin’ to speak to Mama!"

Mary couldn’t stop trembling as she watched this woman greet Mrs. Mosby and her friend. Both women returned perfunctory greetings. Then the woman turned to Damaris and Mary.

"This is your daughter, I believe! I hear you are engaged to be married, Miss Mosby. I congratulate you."

Mary could tell Damaris was using every ounce of self-control she could muster to keep from saying something she shouldn’t, particularly because she had been spoken to without a proper introduction. She finally gave her a curt thank you.

"And who is this lovely creature? A friend of yours, I gather? You must introduce me."

Mrs. Mosby, forced to do so by etiquette, introduced Mary. "Mary, this is Mrs. Constance Lambert. Mrs. Lambert, my daughter’s friend, Miss Mary Cantrell."

"How do you do?" Mary heard herself say, as if from far away.

"I am very well, thank you," said Mrs. Lambert. "I must tell you, I couldn’t help noticing your hair pins. They are quite beautiful. May I ask where you got them?"

"I—I—"

"Oh, I think I see." She lowered her voice to almost a whisper. "A gift from a beau. Aren’t you the lucky one, to have such a thoughtful beau?"

Mary suddenly understood. Somehow, this woman had seen the hair pins before. The thought made her feel ill.

Damaris said in a brusque tone, "Excuse us, Mrs. Lambert, but it’s time for us to return to our seats." She linked arms with Mary and steered her away. When they were out of earshot she said, "The gall of that woman! How dare she speak to us!"

"She’s—she’s very beautiful, isn’t she?"

"Huh! In a crude sort of way, I suppose. I’ve never in my life met anyone so horribly ill-mannered. And have you ever seen a more vulgar dress? I always say you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear."

She knew her friend was trying to give her some comfort, but it wasn’t helping. "Please," she whispered. "Don’t say anything to Clay."

Damaris said, "I don’t think I have to. It looks like he’s spotted her, too."

* * * * * * *

As Clay and Jared walked back inside to the lobby of the opera house after finishing their smokes, Jared suddenly stopped dead in his tracks.

"Clay! Over there!"

"What—?" When he looked in the direction Jared was indicating Clay was overcome by a feeling of massive horror. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Constance! Speaking to his mother!

It escalated to something even worse. Now she was addressing his sister, who looked like she was about to fly into one of her famous rages. And now Mary—

"Lord!" He was at a loss for what he should do.

Jared knew Constance—had been one of the friends who had come to his card parties at her house—so he was entirely cognizant of the gravity of the situation. "Listen to me," he said. "Don’t go over there. You’ll only make matters worse."

So he stood by powerlessly as Constance spoke to Mary. Whatever she said made Mary turn white as a sheet. For once in his life he felt gratitude towards his sister, who said something to Constance and then pulled Mary away. He caught Constance’s eye. She merely smiled and nodded her head, as if they were passing acquaintances.

"Don’t do anythin’ foolish, Clay," said Jared. "Just pretend you didn’t see her."

He knew Jared spoke sense, but it was difficult to pretend. They returned to the box. He took his seat next to Mary again. The festive atmosphere of earlier in the evening was entirely gone. She would not look at him. His sister looked like she wanted to say something. Jared shook his head at her, so she yanked open her program instead, pretending to find its contents fascinating. His mother whispered something to his father when he took his seat and his eyebrows shot up with surprise.

The opera began again. The image of Constance mingling with the women closest to him would not leave his mind. What could have possessed her to do such a thing?

The final act of the opera seemed to go on for an eternity. When it ended, they departed with the crowd and headed for their carriage. After helping Mary up, he was about to step in—and, as if by some force beyond his control, found himself turning away and running through the crowd—towards Constance’s house.

* * * * * * *

"I’ll go after Clay," said Mr. Mosby. "Please see them home, Jared."

"Leland, what on earth is goin’ on?" asked Mrs. Mosby, who had already settled into the carriage.

"I’ll explain later, dear." He took off in the direction Clay was headed in.

Mary felt as if she would faint from mortification. Damaris was wound up like a top. Jared gave her another warning look as he boarded and told the driver to take them back to the Mosby house.

"Damaris, do you know where Clay and your father went?" asked her mother.

"Yes, I do—"

"Dearest, would you please contain yourself?" said Jared. "Your daddy said he would explain things later, and he will."

Damaris looked rebellious, but for the moment quieted down.

A gloomy silence settled over the group as the carriage made its way through the streets. Somehow, Mary managed not to fall to pieces. But as long as she lived, she would never forget the look on Clay’s face—just before he went after that woman.

Finally, Mrs. Mosby spoke up again. "I want to know what’s goin’ on, and I want to know right now. Why, it seems everyone knows, even Mary."

"Don’t you dare try to stop me, Jared," said Damaris sitting up straight and leaning forward. "I can see Mama’s makin’ up all kinds of horrid things in her head, and she should know the truth."

Jared covered his eyes. "Truly, Damaris, is there no—"

"What truth?"

"It’s about that trashy woman. That Mrs. Lambert."

Mary tried to find her voice to make her own plea that she stop, but she realized she could not. Besides, nothing short of gagging her was going to prevent her from telling her mother. Mary felt nauseated again. The shaking of the carriage—if she made it to the Mosbys’ without disgracing herself, it would be a miracle.

Mrs. Mosby said, "Oh, no. You can’t mean your father—"

"Of course not!" said Damaris. "It’s Clay. He’s been carryin’ on with her for a long time.’

"Clay!"

It was fortunate this was the moment the carriage arrived at the Mosby townhouse, or Mary would have had to cry out that they stop so she could get out. She didn’t wait for Jared to help her—she jumped out and headed towards the house, past the waiting Keziah, who watched her with a stunned look on her face as she ran through the door and up the stairs.

She flung herself into her room and locked the door behind her. She leaned on it, her breathing uneven, her stomach churning, her very soul shattered. It was over. Everything was over. She had seen with her own eyes the power that woman had over Clay.

Damaris and Mrs. Mosby knocked on the door and pleaded with her to open it. She managed to tell them she was all right and wished to be alone. They eventually went away. She did the same when Emmie asked if she was needed.

Still trembling all over, she pulled the butterfly pins out of her hair and looked at them. Had he shown them to her? Had he gone to the shop with her to buy them? Had they laughed about it together? That would make him an even worse cad than his sister had ever accused him of being. No, she couldn’t believe that. His failings were thoughtlessness, carelessness, not studied cruelty.

She found the box and put them into it. She kept the box in her hand and sat at the window seat. Then the tears finally came.

She did not cry for herself. She cried for him. He was completely under her spell. One brief look at her and Mary knew there was no goodness in her, no kindness, no love.

She could see the street from her window. She would wait for him to return.

* * * * * * *

"Darling. Here you are at last," said Constance as Clay rushed into her parlor, breathless and disheveled from his run through the streets. "Would you care for a drink, before we—"

He could only stare at her. Why was she acting as if nothing had happened? What could possibly make her think he was there for that?

She approached him. "I see you wouldn’t." She reached out to embrace him. For the first time, he was repelled by the thought and turned away from her.

"What’s the matter, dear?"

Through clenched teeth, he said, "You know perfectly well what."

"I swear to you I do not." She reached for him again, and this time he took several steps away from her.

"How could you? How could you go up to my mother and my sister—"

She now dropped her innocent act. "—and your little sweetheart. Let’s not forget about her."

That she dared to mention Mary made him furious. "Why did you do this?"

She smiled and shrugged. "Curiosity, of course. I had heard you’d quite lost your head over your sister’s friend from Atlanta. I wanted to get a look at her. Frankly, she disappointed me."

His voice almost cracking, he said, "Don’t you say one word about her."

She laughed harshly. "Oh, I see! I am not even good enough to speak her name!"

He almost had to bite his tongue to keep from retorting that she was not.

"Oh, come now, Clay, let’s forget all about this. We will laugh about it later. Later—upstairs—in bed—" She reached over to touch him again.

He grabbed her hand to stop her. "You will never—never, you understand—go near my mother and sister—"

"—I thought you didn’t even like your sister—"

"Nor will you ever approach Miss Cantrell again. You stay away from them or—"

Again, she laughed, and it was a repellent sound. "Or what?"

"I’ll find a way to make you sorry, don’t doubt it."

"What a gallant lover! Ready to do battle for his lady love!" She smirked. "How boring."

He let go of her hand. It was as if he was seeing her for the first time. Her jealousy, her sarcasm, her anger—all contrived to make her look almost ugly. Any feeling he had ever had for her—if, indeed, any had existed beyond the physical—died at that moment.

"Goodbye, Constance." He began to retreat from the room.

Her eyes flashed. "Don’t think you’ll get away from me as easily as that. You won’t get me out of your blood. I doubt your elegantly brought-up virgin will—"

He stopped in his tracks. "So help me, Constance, if you don’t shut up—" Just in time, he stopped himself from saying more.

Still, she was not deterred. "You’ll come back."

"Don’t count on it."

He turned and left.

* * * * * * *

Leland returned to his house. He simply could not catch up with the boy. It then occurred to him there was nothing he could do once Clay entered Mrs. Lambert’s house, so he had turned around and headed home.

He trudged up the stairs and entered his bedroom. His wife was sitting on the bed in her dressing gown, wide awake and waiting for him.

"Oh, Leland!" She jumped off the bed and flung herself into his arms. "Where is Clay?"

He hugged her close, dreading what he would have to say to her. "Darlin’, there’s somethin’—"

"Damaris told me about it. She said—oh, it’s terrible! She said Clay—and that Mrs. Lambert—"

He was a little surprised. Lord, if Damaris knew, was there anybody in all of Richmond who did not know? "Yes, dear, it’s true. It has been goin’ on for quite some time."

She stepped back from him and covered her eyes with her hands. "I can’t bear the thought of Clay involved with that creature!"

"It has been just as distressin’ to me, dearest. That is why I made Clay stay at the plantation. It’s also one of the reasons I wanted to encourage his attachment to Mary."

She put down her hands and looked at him again. "Oh, poor Mary. She knows, and was so upset."

"Yes, I would think if Damaris knew, then she must have told Mary. Perhaps I should not have brought him back to Richmond so soon. I thought, the way things stood with Mary—"

"What do we do? A woman like that could ruin Clay!"

"Belle, all we can do now is hope the feelin’ that exists between Clay and Mary is strong enough it turns him away from Mrs. Lambert for good."

* * * * * * *

Clay walked through the now deserted streets, trying to regain some sense of himself again. How had he let this go on for as long as it had? He had put up with her moods, her demands, always overlooking them because he thought she had given him—what? An air of maturity? He didn’t know, exactly, but now he reflected it had in fact been a childish notion. He could not understand where she got the idea that she owned him to the point where she could impose herself on his family. And Mary—his heart constricted when he recalled the look on Mary’s face, both when she was confronted by Constance and when he had turned away from the carriage.

When he arrived home, he went to where his father kept the liquor and poured himself a drink. Sipping it, he looked up and was stunned to see Mary’s reflection in a mirror. He almost dropped the glass in his hand. He put it down and turned around.

"Mary—I thought you would have gone to bed by now."

She had not changed from the gown she had worn to the opera. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her face was pale. She approached him slowly. "I wanted—we must speak."

He knew what she was going to say would not be something he wanted to hear. He tried to deflect it, to postpone it. "It’s so late. Can’t we speak in the mornin’?"

"No." She held out her hand. With a feeling of dread, he saw she was holding out the box for the hair pins to him. "I cannot keep these."

"Oh, Mary, why?"

"You must know why."

"I think you have misunderstood—"

She spoke softly, sadly. "I have not misunderstood anything, Clay. I know where you went. I know who she is—what she is—to you."

"You—you couldn’t."

"I do. I’ve always known. Your sister told me about her the very first night I was in this house."

He could not believe his ears. It had never occurred to him that his sister might have heard of his affair with Constance or that she would have so little tact as to tell anyone else about it.

She again tried to get him to take the box. "Your—friend—seemed to know about these. I can only think that you and she—"

This horrified him. "You mustn’t believe such a thing! She just happened to come into the jeweler’s shop. Robert was there, you can ask him if you don’t believe me."

She considered this and then nodded slowly. "I had hoped something like that was the case. I believe you. But, even so, I can’t keep them."

Still he refused to take the box. He gently pushed her hand away. "No, no. You don’t understand." He shook his head in frustration. "Oh, how do I explain it to you?"

She looked away from him. "You don’t have to explain anything. I can see how it is. She’s so beautiful, and I—"

"Don’t compare yourself to her!"

"I know I cannot compare to her—"

"Mary! That’s not what I meant!" He spoke fiercely. "It is she who cannot compare to you."

She finally lost her composure and tears began to fall.

He gently caught her chin with the crook of his finger to make her look him in the eye. "I only went to see her to tell her to stay away from you and Mama and my sister."

Her eyes flickered with hope. "Truly?"

"I swear to you, that’s all that happened."

"Oh, Clay, when you ran after her, I thought—"

"I shouldn’t have done it the way I did. I was just so shocked by her behavior, and so angry—"

She wiped tears away from her eyes. "Are you—are you done with her?" She shook her head. "No, you don’t have to answer that. I have no right to ask—"

"You’re the only one who does have the right. Yes, I have broken with her. For good."

She closed her eyes and sighed. "I am glad, so glad. For your sake, more than my own."

He gently took her face in his hands, deeply touched. "You wonderful girl. There is no one in the world who compares to you." He gently kissed her forehead.

She sighed again. "I am lost, lost—"

Now he kissed her cheek. "What do you mean, darlin’?"

"I mean—even if you are lying to me—"

He pulled away from her slightly. "But I’m not!"

"It wouldn’t matter, Clay. My heart is entirely yours, even if all you mean to do is break it."

The joy he felt at the moment was indescribable. "Mary! Not for the world! I am just as lost as you."

He covered her face with kisses. Soon they were both laughing and crying at the same time.

Finally, he released her and said, "You must go upstairs now, dearest, or I fear I may forget myself."

"Good night, darling."

"Good night—my love."

* * * * * * *

Mary woke up the next morning, later than usual. After all the emotional turmoil of the previous night, she was surprised how calm she felt. Clay loved her, and she loved Clay. What a wondrous thing!

When she was dressed, she went downstairs to breakfast. As usual, Damaris was still asleep, but Mr. and Mrs. Mosby greeted her in the dining room. They both seemed tense and wary. When Clay joined them she merely smiled and said good morning, and he did the same. But their happiness must have been obvious to his parents, because soon they were much more at ease.

No one mentioned the opera—there seemed a tacit agreement among them to forget the events of the previous night.

When they were done and leaving the dining room, Julius approached her.

"You’s got a letter, Miz Mary."

She immediately recognized her sister Lucy’s handwriting. She smiled to herself, thinking of what she would write to her in her next letter. She put it in her pocket.

When his parents had departed to their respective writing desks to begin their various duties of the day, Clay pulled her to him and boldly kissed her on the mouth.

She tore herself away from him, laughing. "Clay! Someone will see!"

"Would that be so bad?"

"Yes, it most certainly would."

"Well, if I am forbidden to kiss you, at least come away with me. Let’s go for a walk."

"Oh, dearest, I can’t. I promised to accompany Damaris to the dressmaker’s. And I want to read my sister’s letter before we go."

He heaved an exaggerated sigh. "It distresses me that so many people have prior claims on you."

"I believe you will find a way to survive. I’ll speak to you later, darling."

She had to run for the stairs because he made another attempt to grab at her. She couldn’t stop herself from laughing.

She was still laughing when she got to her room. She took out her sister’s letter and opened it.

Dearest Mary—

I know you are having a wonderful time with the Mosbys, but I wonder if you could cut your trip short. Mama has insisted we say nothing to you, but Amelia is quite ill. The doctors have ordered her to bed and we are all very distressed about her condition and that of the child.

Mama is wearing herself out caring for her. We do what we can to help, but if you could come home, it would give us all great ease.

Please forgive me for ruining what sounds like a lovely visit. I would not dream of it if it were not necessary.

Your loving sister,
Lucy

In an instant, the happy feelings drained from Mary. This was Amelia’s second child, and having the last one had almost killed her. A feeling of dread overtook her. She had to go home. She had to go immediately. Lucy was not one to send out an alarm for no reason.

She rushed downstairs and found Damaris awake and drinking her coffee in the dining room.

"Oh, chicken, I see you are still distressed about last night."

"It’s not that, dear. My sister Amelia is very ill. I must—I must—" She burst into tears.

"Mary! You poor thing! I’m so sorry!" She jumped up and went to her, then embraced her.

"It’s dreadful!"

Damaris patted her back. "Yes, darlin’ but let’s not borrow trouble. You must believe she’ll be all right. Come, we’ll find Mama and Daddy."

* * * * * * *

Clay was in his room getting ready to go out and seek Robert when his mother tapped on the door and let herself in.

"Clay, darlin’, you must come downstairs right away."

"What is it, Mama?"

"Oh, dear, it’s just too bad. Mary has to leave for Atlanta today."

He could barely believe what he heard. "Leave? Why?" Wild things began to occur to him—that she had changed her mind, that she hadn’t believed him, after all.

"Her sister is very ill. She must go home to her family at once."

He was both relieved and saddened. Things were still well between them, but a call from her family was something that could not be ignored. "I must talk to her."

"Yes, but be brief, dear. She just has time to make her train."

He found her sitting alone in the drawing room, already dressed for traveling and waiting for her maid to finish packing her luggage.

"Oh, Clay!" She stood up.

He rushed to her and took her in his arms. "Darlin’, I’m so sorry, So, so sorry to hear about your sister."

"I’m so afraid."

He tried to alleviate her fears. "Why, she’ll be all right, dearest. You mustn’t fret. And she’ll be all the better when she sees you."

"I’ll try—try not to fret too much."

He gently stroked her face. "You’ll think less of me for sayin’ it, Mary, but I—I don’t want you to go. I know it’s very selfish."

"No more selfish than I feel. I also don’t wish to go. But I must."

"Of course you must. Your sister and mother need you." He took her hand. "Come with me."

"Where?"

"You’ll see."

He took her to where his mother kept her sewing basket. Taking out her scissors, he pulled loose a strand of Mary’s hair, clipped off a lock and tucked it carefully into his pocket.

Tears brimmed her eyes. "Oh, Clay, when will we see each other again?"

He pretended he was not at all worried about their separation. He smiled and said, "Why, soon! Very soon. I will come to Atlanta when your sister is out of danger."

"Will you?"

"Of course I will! And you know Damaris will not be able to do without you for long. I have heard her tell Daddy she does not want a long engagement. She considers you almost as important to her weddin’ as her groom. You’ll be back here before you know it."

"Yes, I suppose I will."

"And we’ll write to each other—remember your promise. I know you’ll be too busy with your sister at first, but when she is well again, I’ll be countin’ on at least one letter a day."

"Will you write every day?"

"No—I will write twice a day."

This almost made her smile. "Let’s say goodbye now, darling. At the station—"

He gathered her up in his arms again and kissed her tenderly, savoring the sweetness of her lips, trying to commit to memory the touch of her, the scent of her.

All too soon they were standing on the platform of the station, a very gloomy party, waiting for it to be time for Mary to board the train. All except his mother, who eventually came up to them with a friend of hers in tow.

"Mary, dear, this is my friend Mrs. Tuggle, and her daughter Polly. It’s most fortunate they are takin’ the trip to Atlanta as well today. They say they would be happy to travel with you. Which is a great relief to me, I did not like the idea of your travelin’ with no companion other than your maid."

"Thank you, ma’am, you are so kind to me."

"Oh, sweetheart! You make it very easy." His mother kissed her cheek. Damaris followed suit and hugged her tightly. Mary asked her to remember to give Wade a kiss from her. His father also bid her goodbye and took her hand, patting it gently. Clay was the only one who didn’t give her any show of affection, because he was afraid he would not be able to contain his feelings in front of everyone else.

The train arrived. With a heavy heart, Clay helped her board it. Then they all stood by the window of the car where she was seated. She looked out the window and waved, a wan look on her face.

As the train pulled out of the station, Clay walked, then jogged, alongside it, dodging other people in the crowd, until he reached the end of the platform. For as long as he could, he stood watching as the train chugged away.

* * * * * * *

"Is that your beau?" asked Polly Tuggle, a pert girl of no more than thirteen.

"Yes," said Mary, only turning away from the window once he was completely out of sight.

"Clay Mosby is your beau? You lucky thing!"

"Polly!" her mother admonished. "Remember yourself!"

"Well, she is, Mama. Why, I don’t know a girl in Richmond who wouldn’t want Clay Mosby for their beau. I reckon you’re just about the luckiest girl in the world, Miss Cantrell."

For the first time since receiving the news about her sister, Mary smiled.

"Yes, I think I am, too."

THE END

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