Raised by her adoring father, Rachel Delys loves the woods and bayous of East Texas and intends to never leave their isolated home. But when her father dies and drunken neighbors murder her lover and attack Rachel, she takes shelter at a nearby plantation. Harry Bourne, owner of Gloryoak, treats Rachel with kindness and compassion, unaware that his missing brother, Tom, was one of her assailants. Rachel believes she will never feel passion again, but is so grateful for Harry’s protective love she marries him.
When the third Bourne brother, Matt, returns to Gloryoak after fighting Apaches in Arizona, a dangerous attraction blazes between Rachel and the former soldier. Matt tries to cut his visit short, but an unthinkable tragedy irrevocably bonds him to Rachel and sends the pair on an eight-hundred-mile journey to a grassy valley in the Big Bend region of the Rio Grande. There they meet Guadalupe and her baby, Juan, the only survivors of a brutal raid on their Mexican border village.
In a world of savage violence and austere grandeur, the four outcasts must rely on each other to succeed. Matt hires on at a nearby ranch, teaching the vaqueros how to fend off raiding Comanches, while Rachel and Lupe hunt for food and make adobe bricks to build a house. When the Civil War erupts and Matt is called to join the fight, the women bravely defend their fledging ranch from bandits.
A riveting chronicle of adventure, romance, and intrigue, A Woman Clothed in Sun brings to life a fascinating chapter in American history and reveals the courage, stamina, and faith it took to survive those perilous times.
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A Woman Clothed in Sun
By Jeanne Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Jeanne Williams
All rights reserved.
The woods around Caddo Lake were always beautiful. In summer they were lush with blackberries and blueberries, orchids in mucky backwaters, jasmine, honeysuckle, a profusion of ferns, trees from yaupon and willow to maple, hickory and oak with a towering roof of magnolia, beech and pine. In autumn, black gum turned dark wine red while sweet gum flushed yellow and scarlet, glorious when sun glistened on morning frost. Dogwood took on red berries and leaves while cypress bore violet buds, very tiny, and dark red-brown balls. As winter deepened the, woods cloaked themselves in Spanish moss to slumber until spring when fresh green burst out.
April was Rachel's favorite time and she always breathed in its mingled odors with abandoned pleasure. She had been born in April seventeen years ago, and it seemed to her the natural start of the year anyway, with dogwood still snowily in bloom and redbud glowing bright pink. Velvety white magnolia flowers shorn against polished jade leaves and wild orchids, pink, red white and yellow, enchanted shady depths. Blackburn bore white flowers where bees hummed in blis. Even the forest floor was colored with bright toadstool Mayhaws were ripening as the promise of summer blossomed everywhere, and neither heat nor scent were yet oppressive.
It was April when Etienne, while they were picking mayhaw, put one of the ripest reddest fruits in her mouth Laughing, she closed her eyes to savor the sweet tangs juice, wondering why he didn't tease her, and looked up to find a strange, almost fierce expression on his face. His dark eyes glowed like those of an animal in the woods. His arms closed strongly about her, and they merged, the tingling in her blood responding irresistibly to the same longing in him.
Delightful weakness dizzied her as it had the evening she drank too much of her father's blackberry cordial Etienne stroked her face and throat with strong slim fingers. She wanted his touch, his caressing, longed to feel it all over, and trembled when his hands lightly brushed her breasts and found the drawstring of her blouse. He gently smoothed and stroked until she pressed hungrily against him and he bowed his head to kiss and taste.
Sweeter than fresh-picked fruit, the blossoms around them, the sun-warmed grass where they lay down, where she marveled at his golden body, his lean young hardness He was beautiful! The friend she'd known from childhood, her only friend, was suddenly a lover like those she'd read about and dreamed over. His mouth is most sweet. He is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend ...
Solomon's Song echoed in her mind till thoughts drowned in wondrous delight. He made her feel like an opening flower, as if warm honey filled her, spreading into her loins, luring him. Something warm and tender, exquisitely sensitive, alive, touching her where no one ever had. She pressed for it, then gasped at the pain, but Etienne was beyond her now, past hearing.
She thought she would scream at the raw hurt as he lunged and quivered, but there was something awesome, breathtaking in his absorption, like a storm on the broad water that bent the cypresses and churned the waves to overwhelming force. She accepted him as she would a storm, enduring his wildness as a last cresting surge made him groan and convulse.
Deep within she felt a slow pulsing fountain, could almost hear it with the secret parts of her body. He collapsed on her, his lips against her throat, and was so still she grew fearful.
He didn't answer.
She gave him a shake. "Etienne! Are — are you all right?"
He raised himself on one elbow and gazed down at her, his face no longer that of a stranger but of her lifelong companion. She realized with a shock that his eyes were moist. Etienne never cried! And she, in imitation of him, seldom did, though she felt like it now.
"Are you hurt?" she demanded.
She had seen red wolves mating once, had one autumn come upon deer in a clearing, and the pairings of Etienne's hounds were frequent, so she understood the essence of what had happened. But perhaps it was different with men? Made them sick for a while, or sad? Then she wouldn't want it, even if the dull ache between her thighs would happen only this first time.
Cupping her face in his hands, he said huskily, "I hurt you, didn't I? Rachel, I'm sorry, I shouldn't —"
"It just hurts the first time, Etienne?" She had learned that from her reading, though she didn't understand why.
"Yes. I guess so — I mean — oh, sacré Dieu, my angel love! It's not just the hurt." He scowled, black brows drawing together above his straight nose, and she exulted in how handsome he was, with his cleft chin and coloring fresh as a girl's beneath his tan. "Has your father not explained anything?"
Rachel couldn't keep from trilling with laughter. Her father knew the Latin names for every flower and plant in this northeastern part of Texas that bordered on Louisiana, just as he knew the names of all the Roman Emperors and could recite most of Chaucer in rippling old English — those had been Rachel's lullabies, had soothed her childish nightmares and rare fevers, Papa's gentle hand and deep beautiful voice. But he knew almost nothing about women.
Five years ago she thought she was bleeding to death; only then had Bradford Delys roused from his plants and books long enough to tell her awkwardly that it was nature, that the flux would stop but come each month until —
"Will I have a baby now?" she asked her lover.
Etienne shook his head in dismay, but at least there was a softness to his smile and he didn't look quite so troubled.
"Not likely, little one. Not from this once. And it won't happen again till we are properly wedded. I shall speak to your father today."
Rachel lay very still. Thoughts, impressions, half-drawn conclusions came together, forming one deeprooted resolve. It was so strong it never occurred to her to question it.
"I'm not going to marry, Etienne."
After a moment's astonishment, his frown took on a look of anger, and a note of hauteur chilled his tone. "Is it because I'm poor, or because I'm Cajun, or because old Matt Bourne never married my grandmother and my mother was born illegitimate in the house where you live?"
Would that festering wound never heal? One of Rachel's first memories was of a dark boy older than she coming out of the woods near Tristesse with his hounds. Rachel thought the hounds beautiful with their golden eyes and smiling tongues, and the boy had watched her gravely as she petted and crooned over them. He spoke to her in an odd kind of French. She answered him carefully, for French was not her best lesson, and she didn't want the splendid stranger to think her stupid. Papa had taught her to answer in whatever language she was addressed, Latin, French or English.
The boy had become more friendly then. He'd offered her chewy hardened sap from a sweet gum tree, and switching into English, he'd showed her a tiny plant with a tubular blue flower, poor-man's weatherglass, which opened in sunshine but closed when bad weather was coming. She had insisted he show Papa, who, as a botanist, was delighted to discover what he called Anagallis arvensis. This led to Etienne's staying to share vegetable soup, deliciously flavored with herbs.
After supper, Papa had read Mr. Longfellow's long poem about the Acadians, Evangeline, which told how one of the separated French Catholic lovers had been sent to Louisiana, as Etienne's forebears had also been. "Cajuns have a proud history," Papa told Etienne. "They were loyal to faith and country and would not renounce either."
Next day Etienne brought several huge catfish to Tristesse, and the day after that a large plump gray squirrel felled by his slingshot, which he began to teach Rachel to use.
Fish and meat were thus added to the Delys table, and by the time she was nine Rachel was a canny fisher and an expert with the slingshot. She could even handle the pistol that was Etienne's pride, a heritage from his father, who'd drowned in a storm when Etienne was three. His mother had yielded to the ague that winter, and since then Etienne had lived with his grandmother's sister, his great aunt, miles back down the bayou through sloughs and brakes.
He thought of Tristesse as rightfully his, and early on told Rachel about his beautiful grandmother, Désirée, with whom old Matt Bourne had lived when he was young, when he first came to this country, which had been the Neutral Ground until 1821. Formed after the Louisiana Purchase when the United States and Spain could not agree on the boundary between Louisiana and what was now Texas, this land that stretched from the Sabine River to Arroyo Hondo was not open to settlers from either country. It had become the refuge of thieves, gamblers and outlaws, so dangerous to travelers that Spain and the United States had sent joint military expeditions against the brigands inhabiting the wild woods and swamps.
After the United States acquired the disputed territory, Matthew Bourne came out from Kentucky to establish a plantation, refusing the Mexican government's offer of a league of land to settlers, for he would not even nominally exchange his Presbyterian faith for the Catholic. Religious scruples did not, however, prevent his living with Désirée in the house his slaves built from virgin timber and bricks they'd molded and baked.
Matthew had met Désirée in New Orleans, abducted her from a much older protector, and allowed her to bring along her younger sister, Aurore. Though he loved her, marriage was out of the question, for mixed with her Cajun blood was an eighth portion of black.
She was pregnant when he began courting the daughter of a Nacogdoches family and started building another larger, finer home some miles from the lake which Désirée so loved. He married the Nacogdoches heiress and settled her at the house called Gloryoak, intending to support Désirée and continue to visit her at Tristesse.
She couldn't accept this. As soon as her child was born, she hanged herself from one of the hand-hewn beams in the basement. Matthew found her there. Furious with her, and torn with guilt and grief, he buried Désirée on a knoll above the house and found a wet nurse for his infant daughter, whom he could not bear to touch. As soon as the baby was weaned, its aunt, sixteen-year-old Aurore, told Bourne she was marrying and taking her small niece with her.
Bourne was probably relieved. He gave Aurore and her husband a comfortable sum, closed up Tristesse, and devoted himself to Gloryoak and his properly sanctioned family. Later he was thrown from his horse and died when his oldest son, Harry, was still a boy and his youngest, Tom, only a few weeks old.
It was Harry who had given Bradford Delys permission to live at abandoned Tristesse in return for tutoring his younger brothers. A kindly man who respected learning, Harry had let the Delyses stay long after his brothers were past lessons. Rachel had never met any of the Bournes, but she knew the middle son, Matthew, was with the army in the west and Tom, the youngest, was a roisterer who plagued and perplexed his quiet brother-guardian.
Etienne, too, had never met his half-uncles. Aurore had told Matthew to leave her and his daughter, Amie, alone, and when Harry, taking up his considered duties, had penetrated into the swamp to see if his half-sister needed anything, Aurore, widowed but ferociously independent, had not let him on the stoop of her neat little house. It was possible the Bournes didn't even know of Etienne's existence, or that his mother, Amie, was dead.
He sat up now and regarded Rachel proudly, a few leaves lingering in his wavy black hair. "Answer, Rachel. Why won't you marry me?"
God help her, she'd hurt his pride! It would be difficult to soothe him now. Maybe if she tried to make him laugh —
Planting her finger between his eyebrows, kneading his scowl, she said gaily, "I could say both of us are too young and that would be true. But," she added laughing, "I wouldn't marry you, 'Tienne, if we had wrinkles and white hair."
He caught her teasing hand. "Because I have a drop of black blood? Is that what you mean?"
"Certainly not that! If someone's worthy of love, they're worthy of marriage."
"But you just said —"
She laid her finger on his lips. "That's for people who marry. I shall never marry anyone."
If at first he'd been baffled and hurt, now he was dumbfounded. He started to speak several times. "But of course you will," he blurted. "All women do, at least the pretty ones."
With a sigh of self-reproach he gathered her in his arms and stroked her as he would soothe a nervous animal. "My love, was it so cruel for you? I should have been gentler. Name of God, I shouldn't have had you at all till a priest blessed us!"
She pulled away, impatiently trying to make him understand how she felt. He listened, restlessly humoring her, as she shared her observations about the lot of a woman who became a man's and had his children, the seeds of other things that might be stifled by being a wife and mother. Etienne's grandmother, Désirée. Her own mother dying in childbirth.
"What would you think of a man," she probed impishly, "who listed his occupations as husband and father?" "But that's different!" Etienne burst out. "A womanmust look after babies and young children."
"I know. So for years she has one baby after another, making her heavy and awkward, and by the time they're old enough to do without her, it's too late for her to do much but help raise her grandchildren."
"I can't see what's wrong with that."
"Mule! Nothing, if that's what she wants. But I don't want it!"
His eyes widened with horror. "You mean to be a nun?"
"No, 'Tienne!" Why was he so determined not to understand? She brought his hand to her breast and smiled. "We will love each other, and each time it will be better, but I won't marry you and have a baby."
He looked as if the world had turned over on him. "You — you're not supposed to talk like this, Rachel! That's the way men think. Women want to marry. And have babies."
"I don't." She leaned forward and kissed him. "Don't growl. Touch me. Make me feel nice. And I'll — do you like that?"
His answer was to hold her closer. For a long time they discovered and admired and pleasured each other, but he didn't enter her again.
"I must talk to your father," he said stubbornly. "I want to marry you, cherie, to take care of you. You're not like —"
He stopped. She felt a swift stab of jealousy. "Don't go to other girls," she commanded. "Come to me."
"You're crazy, Rachel!" Gripping her shoulders, he gave her a shake. "If you had a baby —"
"There must be some way not to."
"Yes. Keeping away from men."
"No. There must be some pattern, like monthly courses. I'll ask Papa."
Etienne choked. "Even if he knew, do you think he'd tell you? And suppose he thought I'd seduced you and killed me before I could explain you're the one who won't be honorably married?"
"Papa kill anyone?" she laughed. "You know I do the fishing and kill a squirrel sometimes or we'd have no meat except what you bring. Anyway, I shall tell Papa exactly how I feel. He'll understand."
"That's more than I do." Etienne watched her sullenly as she slipped into her clothes. "If a woman — a decent woman — doesn't intend to marry, she must remain a virgin."
"Why — why, the Church, God, everybody! And so will your father. You'll see."
"Yes, so I shall." She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin determinedly. "Will you have supper with us, Etienne?"
"Not if you're going to talk about this!" At her laughter he caught her wrists and said grimly, "Your father will tell you how it is in the world, and what you should do, which is marry me. When he's made that clear, I'll gladly speak with him."
"Don't worry," she said, keeping her face straight with great effort. "I'll tell him you were intent on righteousness, duty and a large family but I objected. He won't blame you."
"No, I don't think he will," agreed Etienne. "After all, he knows you. He must accept some responsibility for letting you grow up with such mad notions! All that Latin and Greek!"
"French, too," she added mischievously. "The French are supposed to be the greatest lovers of all, aren't they?"
His jaw set. "You'll change your mind," he said. He wouldn't kiss her again, but pulled her to her feet and walked her to where Tristesse showed white through trailing vines and Spanish moss. "Your father will tell you what you must do," he said. "I'll come tomorrow and we'll make plans."
Excerpted from A Woman Clothed in Sun by Jeanne Williams. Copyright © 1977 Jeanne Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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