The conclusion to the USA Today–bestselling author’s sweeping historical romance trilogy is “a page-turner” (Romantic Times).
The Northern soldiers ravaged Atlanta during the Civil War. Now as the city attempts to recover, all Claire Dryden has left is the little boy she has adopted and sworn to protect with her life.
When the handsome Yankee colonel Fortune O’Brien storms into town demanding to reclaim the boy he claims is his stolen son, Claire’s vow is put to the test. For she loves the boy more than life itself, but the passion O’Brien ignites in her threatens to weaken her resolve . . .
With Atlanta, the author of New Orleans and Memphis completes this trilogy of passionate love stories set against the dramatic backdrop of the Civil War.
“Fast-paced action and escalating romantic tension . . . These O’Brien men may well be addictive!” —Romantic Times
“A wonderful romance told with passion and style . . . Well-developed characters . . . This book is HOT.” —Affaire de Coeur
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"There she be. Look at her, a sleek filly," McCudgeon said, running his fingers through his oily black hair.
"You're sure that's her? We don't want to bring back the wrong one. You know what he'd do," Bruno said.
"As long as he gets the babe," McCudgeon said. Spittle collected at the corner of his mouth as he stared at the lighted shop across the wide street. Bay Street was lined with brick warehouses that held offices of cotton factors.
Standing in the shadows of the Customs House the two men waited. The glow of several lanterns spilled from the windows of a millinery shop, where a woman moved back and forth. McCudgeon shifted his weight restlessly.
"He gets the babe he wants, and we get her," he said, running his tongue across his lips, thinking of the money they had been offered. The woman moved to the window to stand on her toes and place a hat on a high rack. The blue dress clung to her narrow waist, flaring slightly over her hips, pulling tautly over full breasts. The evil man in the shadows let out a low whistle.
"I thought he said to bring them both back to him — the woman and the child."
"I asked. All he wants is the babe. We can have the filly."
"If you harm her, we won't know how to take care of a baby."
"Don't be a stone-brained jackass. If she cares about the tot, she'll take care of 'im whether we have our fun with her or not. Look at her. Another ten minutes and she ought to lock up and start for home with the tot." He opened a bottle.
"Careful there. You remember New Orleans."
"Shuddap. She was a weak one. If the fumes hadn't killed her, something else would have. Just a whiff of this, and we can cart her away peaceful."
"Just be careful. He's offering the most we've ever earned." Bruno looked at his burly companion. "What would happen if we brought back another babe and told him it was his?"
"This one has a birthmark on his side — the man knows what this babe looks like. It has to be the right one. Damn, here comes a carriage," he said, glancing up as a carriage approached from the head of the street. Moss-draped oaks stretched their limbs overhead, and down cobbled steps was River Street. The waterfront city was an important port, and below ships came in all hours of the day and night. Bay Street, however, was usually quiet late at night. Shops had closed hours ago. Yet after nights of watching, he knew the woman always worked late.
Bruno gripped McCudgeon's arm. "Look!"
The carriage stopped in front of the shop, and a woman emerged. Dressed in an elegant green moiré dress with a wide-brimmed straw hat trimmed in ostrich feathers, the woman crossed the iron walkway to the shop and unlocked the door to enter.
"Dammit! The owner's back. Why would she come back?" McCudgeon snorted impatiently. He wanted the babe, the woman, and the money, and he had planned to grab her tonight.
Inside the shop the two women talked, and the owner waved her hands. They both moved around the room until the lamps were extinguished. The women hurried out, one of them carrying a small bundle worth a tidy fortune. Why would anyone pay so much for an infant? McCudgeon didn't know or care, he just wanted to get his hands on the babe. The women climbed into the carriage, and it rolled away, turning on Bull to go right past them.
"Dammit to friggin' hell!" McCudgeon exclaimed, tossing down the rag in his hand.
"There's always tomorrow night," Bruno said, staring down the empty street. "We can wait another night. She'll be ours."
McCudgeon stood with his hand on his hips. "Right-o. The filly will be ours for a long time. As long as she pleases us."
When the following night came, the owner again appeared at the shop.
"Are you certain you don't want a ride home again tonight?" Estelle Adams asked.
Claire Dryden shook her head and smiled. "Thank you, but I want to finish some sewing here. It's not a bad night."
"I'm not sure this is the safest area for a woman to walk alone," Estelle said. "We're close to the river and all the traffic from it."
For a moment Claire paused. For the past three nights she had had an uneasy feeling. Was it from working late? She could take Michael and ride home in the carriage, but she needed another hour to finish the bonnet she was making. Adams Millinery had been a godsend, and she wanted to please her employer. And there was no logical reason to feel afraid, just a chill that made her wary of the night. Perhaps the darkness and the riverside mists were causing her feelings of unease.
"I'll be fine," Claire answered, winding a bright red grosgrain ribbon around the straw. Tying a bow, she let the streamers hang down over the brim. She picked up scissors and cut the ends of the ribbon. "I'll be all right. It's only a few blocks."
Estelle extended a sheaf of bills. "Here's your pay."
"Thank you," Claire said.
"Don't work too late, Claire. Good night."
"Good night, Mrs. Adams," she said, watching her employer leave. She sat down and counted the money, drawing a deep breath of satisfaction. She had paid the rent for this month, so some of this could go into her savings. Being independent, even under the circumstances, was heady. She thought of her father and his imperious manner. She never wanted to be dependent on a man again. Never. She glanced at the long cardboard box padded with blankets where a baby lay sleeping, his dark lashes curling above his rosy cheeks.
"This is for you, Michael. And for me," she added. Picking up a pale straw hat, she turned it in her hands. On impulse she pulled pins out of her hair and walked to the mirror. Her thick brown hair spilled over her shoulders, a cascade of deep locks with russet highlights. She placed the hat at an angle on her head and turned to look at it. The hat was becoming, she thought. But perhaps it needed a small spray of silk flowers at the crown. ... She had learned a trade she could use in any city — all women wore hats. She sat back down to work, losing consciousness of the passage of time until she heard Michael cry.
She put away her things and hurried to pick him up from the makeshift cradle. He gazed up at her as his lower lip quivered. "Ah, my little love. Hungry now? We'll go home, and I'll feed you, Michael." Would she ever look at him without thinking he was the most beautiful baby on earth? Dark brown eyes stared back at her, and tight black ringlets covered his head. He pursed a rosebud mouth and made sucking noises. His lashes were thick and curly, and as she looked at him, she felt a surge of maternal love. "You are a beautiful one." He waved a chubby fist at her, and she caught his tiny hand in hers, kissing his fingers. "Michael, my little love," she whispered. "Just a minute now and I'll take you home." She placed him in the cradle again and smiled down at him while she put on her cape and wrapped him in a blanket.
Stepping to a back window, she looked out at the ships unloading at the docks below along the wide Savannah River. Burning gaslights glowed yellow in the fog, lighting decks and planks. Shrouded by mist, a wagon moved along River Street. When she looked below, she felt safer, seeing people busy, knowing she wasn't alone.
"Now, love, we'll be home soon," she said, picking up the infant and holding him close as she extinguished lamps. She opened the door and stepped out to lock it behind her. Rolling in from the waterfront, mist swirled along the cobblestones. Billows of it drifted in the street, blurring shapes, and the reassurance she had gained from gazing at the bustling riverfront vanished. Bay Street was deserted; in the next block light spilled from a tavern. As she hurried along, she glanced over her shoulder. Two dark shadows were moving behind her across the street. Her heart lurched with fear, and the skin on the nape of her neck prickled.
Stop being foolish. It's only two men headed for the tavern. Still she quickened her steps, aware of how deserted this section of town became once the shops closed. As she squeezed Michael to her and held her skirts, half running and feeling foolish, she wanted to be where there were people and lights.
She heard running steps and looked back in alarm. The two men were coming after her.
Her heart thudded with fear. She broke into a run, turning a corner to race down Abercorn. Noticing a carriage, she dashed into the street to try to stop it. The driver flicked the reins, and it rolled past her. She rushed on, glancing behind constantly. Fog obliterated everything now except the bulky shapes of elegant houses, the soft glow of light showing from windows.
"Get her, man!" Feet pounded behind her.
Panic-stricken, Claire raced into dark Reynolds Square and darted behind an oak. Flattening herself against the thick trunk, she became stock still, her heart pounding. She prayed Michael wouldn't cry.
"Where the hell is she?" a gruff voice said. It was so close, she jumped.
"You go that way — I'll go this. She can't be far."
She pressed against the rough bark, hearing a man walk past, his breath coming in raspy grunts. She looked at his broad back and floppy hat. He carried something in his hand, but she couldn't see what. And then he disappeared into the mist. Wait, wait. Give him time to go away, she thought, fighting the urge to run.
A few minutes later, she edged out softly from the tree. She had to head back the way she had come. It might be the only way to lose her pursuers. As she clutched Michael close, she shivered violently. Leaving the graceful square, she rushed along the street. She took a roundabout route home. Soon she reached plain wooden houses built close together, set back only a few feet from the street. She turned in to enter a narrow two-story roominghouse.
The moment she climbed the creaking stairs to the tiny room she rented, she placed Michael on the sagging iron bed. The room was musty, and Claire hastily lighted a lamp. "We have to go, love. Tonight." She built a fire in the small grate, and within minutes she was spooning porridge into the child, who cooed and smacked his lips. The soft glow of the lamp and the crackling fire couldn't hide the threadbare rag rug or the large cracks in the wall. Another room in another city — would she spend her life running? She looked down at Michael, though, and felt her worries melting away. She would do whatever was needed to keep him safe.
"That's a good boy. You'll travel better on a full stomach. We both will," she said. She proceeded to eat a biscuit spread with jam, her mind racing over what she should do. If the men were after her, they might know where she lived.
She hurried to pull a box from beneath the bed. She removed the lid, looking down at her growing savings. Sixty-eight dollars now. She thrust the money into a reticule and packed a portmanteau while Michael lay propped against the pillows, his dark eyes solemnly following her.
"I'll be right back, Michael," she whispered. She stepped into the hall and hurried into an empty room that was temporarily vacant. It gave a view of the street in front; and she peered through the mist. A carriage went past, and then a tipsy man staggered by. She stood waiting, her skin prickling, feeling certain that the men were still after her.
Suddenly a movement caught her attention. A shadow shifted in the doorway of the house across the street. Then one of the men stepped into view. As another shifted, she saw a thick shoulder. She rubbed her arms, fright chilling her. Two men waited in the recessed doorway across the street.
She returned to her room. Michael was asleep, his tiny chest rising and falling, his lips pursed and fists thrown up beside his head. She lifted him, placing him gently on a small blanket and wrapped it around him.
"Love, I'm sorry we have to move again. I promise I'll protect you. I'll take care of you." Claire bent to kiss him lightly on the cheek. She smoothed the silky curls on his head, overwhelmed with love for him, determined to keep him at all costs.
She extinguished the lamps and pulled the cloak around her shoulders. Picking up the portmanteau, her reticule, and the sleeping baby, she moved toward the door, her skin feeling cold and clammy. The creak of steps came, and she paused.
The scrape outside the door was faint, but she noticed it and stared at the door in the darkness. The handle turned, and her heart missed a beat, then pounded violently.
She ran to the back door leading to the outside stairs, opened it a crack, and looked over the yard. A man stood beneath a black hickory tree. She closed the door quietly, her heart drumming. One man was below in the back, and the other was in the hall at her door. There has to be a way to escape. They mustn't harm Michael. Terrified, she tried to think what to do. Another scrape came from the other side of the door.
Placing Michael on the floor, she hurried to the bed to mound the pillows as if someone were beneath the covers. She moved behind the door and yanked up a small wooden footstool. Holding it by the legs, she raised it high overhead.
The door handle jiggled again. Suddenly someone hit the door, and it burst open. A man entered and moved toward the bed. She brought the stool down with all her might. It slammed against his head. With a grunt he pitched forward and fell.
"Oh, my word!" She dropped the footstool and picked up the sleeping infant. Praying she hadn't killed the man, she dashed down the stairs and outside. She paused only a moment to look around before she hurried onward. Her heart pounded loudly as she ran, staying in shadows, heading toward the train station.
An hour later, she was on a train bound for Louisville, Kentucky. Across the aisle was a snoring couple; the woman was ample, her voluminous black skirts falling over the seat. Six more men were scattered throughout the car. She had watched them continually, but no one seemed to pay any attention to her.
Claire's thoughts returned to the men after her. Maybe if she went west, she would be safe. Abraham Lincoln had just been elected president of the United States, and South Carolina had called a secession convention. Talk was rife about secession in Savannah. If the nation went to war, men wouldn't have the time to follow her because they would have to fight.
Claire held Michael close as they rocked along. Listening to the rhythmic clack of the wheels on the rails, the noise seemed to pound out the words "We're safe. We're safe."
There has to be a way to earn more money, she thought, to find a haven where we won't have to run. She gazed into the darkness outside, wondering about their future. Had the men been sent by her father to force her into a marriage she didn't want? Yet she couldn't imagine her tightwad father spending money to hire men to find her.
How long would it be until the men picked up her trail and found her again?CHAPTER 2
Georgia November 18, 1864
A brisk wind caught the tails of the major's dark blue frock coat and flicked them against his legs. The clomp of horse hooves, the creak of saddles, and the jingle of harness were the only sounds. United States Army Major Fortune O'Brien turned his sorrel and tugged on the reins. "There it is, Belle Tache," he said, pointing at an elegant Georgian house in the distance.
Lieutenant Alaric Hampton reined in his bay. "After Atlanta, it's a wonder anything is still standing. I guess it's far enough west of Jonesboro to escape the army's destruction. Plus General Sherman gave General Howard a letter that Belle Tache is to be spared. According to the letter, the owner of Belle Tache is French and he's away in Europe now. He's not involved in our war."
"The hell he isn't!" Fortune O'Brien stared at the mansion with its dozen columns along the portico. "He's not only got one of the few foundries in the South, but he's got his own ships. I know he's making a huge profit from both sides. My oldest brother is a blockade runner too, and he's told me all about Trevor Wenger."
Set on a slight rise, the house looked as imperious and commanding as its owner. Burning waves of hatred washed through Fortune. He wanted to torch the mansion, but not before confronting Wenger. His gaze swept across the rolling land, the pigeon house and spreading oaks, the gazebo and spring house, and then he froze. "C'mon," he said, staring an iron fence that squared off a tiny plot of land. Lieutenant Hampton rode quietly beside him to the gate of the family cemetery, where Fortune dismounted. Pulling his broad-brimmed felt hat squarely on his head, he strode to the gate.
"Fortune —" When he glanced around, Alaric waved his hand. "Don't do something you shouldn't. Promise me." His blue eyes were clouded with worry.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Atlanta"
Copyright © 1987 Sara Orwig.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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