Conor nodded slowly from his seat on the front porch rail. I heard tell one of our dear ladies walked up to him and told him he would never subjugate the South. He took a sip of the liquid white fire in the jar he, his brothers, and cousin had been passing around all evening, then handed the jar off to Sinclair. Whooee, but that is righteous!
Sinclair brought the jar up to his lips, but thought better of it. The moonshine had already turned his world as mellow as he wanted it to get so he passed the jar off to Brendan. What did General Sherman reply? he inquired.
He said, Conor replied, wiping the back of his hand across his lips, I dont want to subjugate you; I mean to kill you, the whole of you, if you dont stop this rebellion!
Leland practically snarled at the answer. Arrogant Yankee pissant! he spat. Imagine speaking to a lady in such a way. Ifn I had been within hearing distance of that remark . . .
Youd have wound up back in the stockade, Conor predicted.
Hell, Leland snorted. Couldnt have been no worse than the Columbus penitentiary!
Them damned Yankees treated our boys like they was less than human, Brendan put in.
I heard Andersonville was brutal, Sinclair said quietly.
No worse than Libby prison, Im thinking, Brendan quipped. Reckon thats tit for tat?
Sinclair leaned his head against the back of the rocking chair in which he sat and stretched out his long legs. No man should have to endure brutality, little cousin. Just because they treated us that way was no reason to return the favor. It brings us down to their level. He closed his eyes. And that was pretty damned low.
Cant get much lower than Sherman, Im thinking, Brendan grated. Burning his way from Atlanta here and then causing our neighbors in South Carolina more misery than a dog with the mange.
I wouldve shot him right between his arrogant pissant eyes, Leland grumbled. He swiped the jar of moonshine out of Brendans hand and took a long pull.
Sinclair swiveled his head and looked at his eldest cousin. The man had developed a strong liking to the hard stuff and when hed questioned the wisdom of that, Leland had shrugged.
It helps the pain in my leg.
Phantom pains, Doc Doorenbos had remarked when Sinclair had asked. Theres no leg there to hurt, but in his head, Lee feels it just the same.
Lee, Sinclair said softly. Youve had enough.
Leland Brell turned a vicious, hateful smirk to his cousin, but, drunk as he was rapidly becoming, he saw the concern in Sins dark eyes. He opened his mouth to protest anyway, then thought better of it. He snapped his lips shut and handed the jar to Conor.
Thank you, Sinclair acknowledged.
And youre a damned arrogant pissant, too, Leland muttered.
Sinclair smiled. So you keep telling me.
Youre lucky Im a generous man. Leland burped.
Leland shrugged. I wont shoot you between your eyes for it. With that, his eyes rolled back in his head, his chin fell to his chest, and he was out cold.
Conor chuckled. Never could hold his liquor.
Sinclair stood up and stretched, the ache in his lower back worse than usual that evening. Maybe you shouldnt encourage him, C. J. He glanced down at Conor. Hes taken too fond a liking for that shine.
Youre right, Conor agreed. He looked down at the last ounce left in the jar, then tipped it to pour the contents on the ground.
Aw, hell, C. J.! Brendan protested. All you went and done was make some fire ants happy. I couldve finished that off.
You dont need it, neither, Conor told him.
Brendan grumbled, but he pushed himself up off the porch step and shuffled on to the door. He cast a look behind him. You boys coming?
Conor waved his little brother away. In a minute. Go on.
Long after Brendan had gone up to bed and as they listened to the loud, ungodly snores coming from Lelands drooling mouth, Sinclair and Conor sat watching the evening stars begin to fade in the heavens. The air was humid, but ripe with the sweet smell of honeysuckle and pine. The crickets and cicadas were all tucked safely in their beds and quiet. Now and again, a dog could be heard barking off toward the old Thompson place; but other than that melancholy sound, the late evening was still.
You ready for tomorrow? Sinclair asked, breaking the companionable silence. He sat back down in his grandfathers rocker and stretched out.
Conor sighed. Ive been waiting for tomorrow for four long years, son.
Sinclair crossed his ankles. I wish I could get you and Christina a wedding present, C. J., but . . .
Having you hear is better than any silver trencher or Waterford crystal goblet, Sinclair, Conor interrupted. Just you standing up there at my side is worth more than an entire chest of silverware.
A tired, fleeting smile drifted over Sinclairs face, pulling at the wicked scar on his cheek. He reached up absently and stroked it. Hed never been a vain man, but the scar from the Yankees saber had cut its way into his soul when it disfigured his face.
It makes you look downright dangerous, Conor commented, seeing where his cousins attention had gone.
Sinclair looked over at him. You think so?
Conor nodded. The ladies will love it.
It was too dark for Conor to see the pain his innocuous comment caused. There was only one ladys opinion Sinclair cared to know and he doubted he would be allowed to hear it.
Shes gonna be there, Conor said quietly. He knew well enough what Sinclair was thinking. I couldnt take back the invitation.
I wouldnt have wanted you to, Sinclair replied. She and Tina have been friends since they were children.
All the same, Conor stated, if I could, I would ask her not to come so . . .
Ive got to talk to her sometime, Sinclair told him. Tomorrow is just as good a time as any. He laced his fingers together and put them behind his head. Just keep Delacroix away from me, C. J.
The very real possibility of the two life-long enemies causing a problem at his and Tinas wedding had Conor worried. Everyone knew how much Sinclair and Edward disliked one another. That dislike went back to when they were boys, but now it had festered into out-and-out hate. Eddie had taken Sins woman, his land, and his pride. If there was going to be trouble—and there wasnt a solitary soul in Savannah and the surrounding counties who didnt know trouble was inevitable between the two men—Conor would just as soon not have it happen on Tinas wedding day.
Sinclair, he began, but stopped when his cousin suddenly bounded out of the chair.
Wed better get Lee up to his room else he aint gonna be worth snot tomorrow, Sinclair said.
Tina will have my . . . Conor tried to say, but once more Sinclair cut him off.
I swear I wont start anything at your wedding.
Conor looked closely at Sinclair, trying to gauge in the darkness just how much that oath meant. Well, Conor said slowly, theres the reception, too, and . . .
Or at the reception, Sinclair stated firmly. He reached down and took hold of one of Lelands limp arms, then cocked an eyebrow at his cousin. You gonna stand there all night worried about when Im gonna kick Edward Delacroixs ass or are you gonna help me tote your brother upstairs?
Conors brow furrowed. You are gonna do it, arent you? he asked worried.
What? Sinclair sighed.
Kick his ass.
A tight grin carved its way onto Sinclairs full mouth as Conor reached for Lelands other arm. I fully intend to try, Sinclair answered. He grunted beneath the strain of lifting Leland up and bracing the mans boneless body against him.
Grandmother wanted to hire somebody to shoot him, Conor commented as he and Sinclair swung Lelands unconscious form toward the door.
Itll be taken care of, Sinclair promised.
May the road rise up to meet you! someone yelled from the crowd gathered in front of St. John the Baptist Catholic church and a chorus of well-wishers joined in with: May the wind be always at your back!
As the crowds voices broke over Conor James Brells consciousness as he stood nervously in the churchs rectory along with his two brothers, Sinclair McGregor, Bishop Augustin Verot, and two of the Bishops acolytes, C. J. trembled visibly.
Its not too late to stop this, little brother, Leland quipped, winking at Sinclair.
Bishop Verot smiled. The Sulpician Father from Baltimore was loved by his parishioners and trusted explicitly by the Brell family. His words carried a lot of weight with the Irish Catholic community and every eye in the room turned to him at Lelands statement.
Is that what you wish, Conor James? Bishop Verot inquired gently.
No, Your Excellency! Conor was quick to say. Ive waited a long time for this and . . .
Then stop trembling, lad, the Bishop advised. Do you want your bride to think you have not gladly met this day?
I . . . I, Conor looked at Sinclair.
You look like a boy going to visit the dentist for the first time, C. J. Sinclair chuckled. I dont think you could get any whiter if we were to soak you in buttermilk.
Conor groaned and hung his head, burying his face in his hands. Lord help me, he mumbled.
Bishop Verot grinned. Im sure he will, Conor James. He took out his pocket watch and nodded to his acolytes. I think it is time we robed. We mustnt keep the lady waiting.
Sinclair had to bite his lip to keep from howling with laughter. He had just said he didnt think Conor could get any paler. He had been wrong. His best friends complexion turned chalky even though there were bright patches of red high on his cheekbones in stark contrast. Leland and Brendan excused themselves as the Bishop and acolytes left the room, leaving Conor and Sinclair alone.
Do you think shes as nervous as me? Conor inquired hopefully.
Sinclair nodded sagely. No, he said, his lips twitching with merriment at the contradiction.
Conor held up his hands and watched them shaking. With a groan, he buried them beneath his armpits and bent over, his belly alive with butterflies.
Youll be all right, C. J., Sinclair advised. Tonight when youre toasting your new wife and its just the two of you and not the whole of Savannah, youll be just fine.
Ill have had a heart attack by then! C. J. moaned.
Sinclair stood up and walked to his friend, placed a reassuring arm around the mans shoulders. If that should happen, I promise we will wait a decent amount of time before Tina and I marry.
Conor turned his head and looked up at Sinclair, a frown creasing his brow. What?
Laughter turned Sinclairs normally sad face into the handsome, carefree countenance it had been before the War and Conor saw the pure male beauty every woman in Chatham County had found so alluring long ago. Even the wicked scar on his cheek did not distract from the devilish good looks of Sinclair McGregor when he laughed.
Will you relax? Sinclair asked, squeezing Conors shoulder. You are making me nervous!
There was a discreet knock on the door, then it opened to reveal one of the acolytes. He smiled. Its time, gentlemen, he announced.
Oh, God! Conor groaned and felt his knees threatening to give way.
Conor, damn! Sinclair said with exasperation. You are going to survive this!
Im not so sure. Conor swallowed.
Lets go, Sinclair said, not giving his friend another moment to think about what was about to happen. He put his hand in the small of Conors back and pushed him firmly toward the door.
The pews of St. John the Baptist were filled to overflowing with parishioners, some of whom only attended during the Easter and Christmas holy seasons. Ladies were garbed in their best finery and the men were elegant in white broadcloth suits. A few children were scattered about, most fidgeting in their Sunday best and aching to be outside. The altar cloths were crisply starched and gleaming white against the tall candelabrum blazing away with white tapers. Floral arrangements and tall palms flanked the altar rail and the sweet scent of musk vied for attention with the perfumes and toilet water fragrances of those assembled.
As Conor and Sinclair took their places with Bishop Verot and Conors brothers at the rail, C. J. ran his finger along the high collar of his shirt in an attempt to ease the constriction of his throat. He was barely aware of Sinclairs reassuring hand on his shoulder as the music began and the two young children who were ringbearer and flower girl began to make their way down the center aisle.
Sweet Mary and Joseph, Conor moaned.
Hush, Bishop Verot whispered beneath his breath and he gave Sinclair a stern look as though to remind him of where his duty as best man lay.
As the pretty little girl who had haphazardly strewn rose petals on the carpeting took her place on the brides side, Conor thought he would break into a screaming fit and run—hands waving to the heavens—out the side door and away from this place as fast as his new boots would carry him. He was sweating profusely, nauseated, and the room was beginning to close in around him to the point where he could only see the very back of the church and the procession of the two young women who were Tinas bridesmaids.
Sinclair tensed as the second of the two young women took her place on the brides side. He knew well enough who would be the next person to come down the aisle and his stomach began to clench. He felt his palms grow slick with sweat and he unconsciously ran them along his pant seams. He could feel his heart thudding dangerously fast in his chest and the blood pumping through his veins could be heard loudly in his ears. And then she was walking down the aisle toward him.
Ivonne Bouchard Delacroix was astonishingly beautiful in a soft green gown of moiré silk designed in such a way it all but hid the fact of her pregnancy. Peach-colored ribbons and hibiscus adorned her ebony hair and two ringlets dangled beside her left cheek. Around her neck on a delicate golden chain was a stunning emerald encircled with diamonds. In her hands, she carried a bouquet of peach-colored hibiscus and azalea blossoms.
The sight of this woman walking down a church aisle toward him was more painful that Sinclair could have imagined. Since he was twelve years old, he had dreamed of the day he and Vonnie would marry. He had lain awake in his pubescent bed pondering the treasures he would find once he had removed the virginal white gown she would wear. Not once did he imagine the gown would not be deserved, for he had pledged he would never put either himself or her in a position where that would not be the case. He had worshiped Ivonne as much as he loved her and her virginity was as much a prize to him as it was to her. Not even when they were in their late teens, and he had been tormented by the heated arousal he constantly suffered when in her presence, did he once contemplate stepping beyond the bounds of his moral and ethical duty toward the woman he loved. That had not stopped him from having erotic dreams which brought him bolt upright in the bed and groaning with agony, but those dreams had only made his pledge that much more secure. Then she had been sent off to make the grand tour in France, he to college, and they had not seen one another for almost two years. When at last they met again, he had been tingling with anticipation for that summer their engagement would be announced. Even then, he was not tempted to touch what was not yet his; to taste the forbidden wine that he, himself, had denied them both.
But then war had come and he had refused to do what his Grandmother had suggested and marry Ivonne before leaving.
Ill not leave her a widow, he had said adamantly, not once contemplating that that could happen, but striving to protect her anyway should something happen to him.
Sinclair looked over at Leland and the wooden leg that had come to replace the straight, fine leg that had once helped Leland Brell win every foot race he entered.
The faint aroma of lavender wafted under Sinclairs nose and his vision blurred. Ivonnes perfume had always thrilled him, the smell going straight to his soul. He had to shake his head to rid himself of old memories and new pain, and when he focused again, it was into Ivonnes eyes that his vision took him.
Ivonne faltered as her gaze met Sinclairs. It had been four long years since she had kissed this man goodbye and sent him away to fight for his homeland. He was still as handsome as he was that crisp fall day, but there was such sadness, such terrible loss in his dark eyes, that it was nearly her undoing. All morning, she had been dreading this moment. The thought of being so close to him, having to touch him when the ceremony was over and he escorted her up the aisle—her hand on his arm—made her heart ache so terribly she felt she would collapse. Now, looking into Sins wounded face, knowing what he must think of her, she felt the prickle of tears begin.
Sinclair had to tear his attention from her before he grabbed her, shook her, and demanded to know why in hell she could not have waited for him. Why, in Gods name, she had dared to marry the one man he hated more than any other.
Ivonne felt the deliberate cut to the very core of her. She ached to reach out, to touch this man, to attempt to explain why she had betrayed him, why she had given herself to a man she loathed and feared. From the rigidity of his shoulders and the determined turn of his head away from her, she knew no explanation would ever be good enough for Sinclair. With her head lowered, she took her place beside Helen and Martha, the bridesmaids, her hands shaking so badly that petals were falling from the bouquet she held.
The music stopped and all eyes went to the back of the church. As the organ sounded again and the wedding processional music began to swell, those assembled stood and faced the entrance.
Im gonna be sick, Sin, Conor complained.
No, you are not! the Bishop snapped. Not in MY church, Conor James Brell!
Sinclair was at the end of his patience with Conor Brell. The man was about to have everything he had ever wanted: the woman who loved him and he loved beyond all reason; a home life that would be the envy of all who knew him; and in-laws who thought he was absolutely perfect. There was no reason to be acting as though his world was about to come to an end. Certainly no reason to be sick to his stomach!
I am gonna . . . Conor started to say again, but Sinclair reached out, took his upper arm in a sharp, unrelenting grip and hissed nastily beneath his breath:
If you dont shut your gods-be-damned mouth, Brell, Im gonna shut it for you. Youll have a hard time kissing your bride with a broken jaw!
Bishop Verots lips pursed together at the cursing, but his eyes blazed with approval when Conor straightened his shoulders and politely shook off Sinclairs steely grip.
I am fine, Conor stated. He screwed up his courage and focused on the vision walking toward him down the aisle. Everyone assembled heard the gasp of shocked delight that came from Conor Brells lips when he saw his bride.
Sinclairs jaw was clenched, his teeth grating together as he, too, turned to look at Tina. What he saw made him relax and the hard gleam in his eyes soften. Even a slight, bemused smile touched his tight mouth.
Ivonne wished with all her heart that it was she who was walking down the aisle in the lovely confection of white satin and Alençon lace studded with seed pearls. Her childhood friend was very dear to her, but Ivonne bitterly envied her this day. Christina was marrying the man she had loved since they were toddlers and would have a happy life with C. J. Brell. Any children which came from this marriage would be dearly wanted and loved and have parents who wanted to be together. Christina would not have to worry about such humiliating things as quadroon mistresses who flaunted their position in front of her. She would not have to bear the knowing eyes of people who disliked her husband, for C. J. was admired by all who knew him. Nor would Tina have to endure the social shuns of Savannahs better families.
Who gives this woman to this man? the Bishop intoned, breaking into the self-pity Ivonne was feeling. She lifted her chin and forced a smile to her lips. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sinclair smiling and her heart ached that much more. Would he, could he, ever smile at her again?
The rest of the ceremony was a blur for Sinclair. He watched the wedding couple kneel on the prie-dieu and make their vows. He listened to the blessing the Bishop bestowed on C. J. and Tina, but his mind was not on what was happening around him. He was intensely aware of Ivonne standing not three feet away and his hands itched to swoop her up and carry her as far from Chatham County as they could ride. He ached inside so badly he thought he just might throw back his head and bellow in sheer frustration. It was all he could do to stand still and not fidget like the children he could hear fretting behind him. When the ceremony was finished and the Bishop turned with the couple so he might present them to the assemblage, Sinclair had to steel himself for what was about to follow.
Ladies and Gentleman, I present Mr. and Mrs. Conor James Brell.
The applause was hardy and approving; the music swelled through the church; Tina was beaming and Conors shoulders were squared with pride as he began to walk his new wife up the aisle.
Sinclair drew in a deep, steadying breath then stepped toward Ivonne, extending his arm to escort her. He kept his attention on his grandmother who was staring back at him with ill-disguised contempt. The old crone hadnt spoken to him since the night of his homecoming—taking her meals in her room to avoid all contact with him. Her hooded gaze was sharp and hateful and there was an evil smile on her withered lips. The moment Ivonnes hand came to rest on his coat sleeve, he thought he could see satisfaction enter his grandmothers wrinkled face.
Ivonne felt the tenseness of the muscles beneath her lightly-resting fingers. The scent of cinnamon, the aftershave Sinclair had worn since becoming old enough to shave those first few hairs from his lean jaw, filled her nostrils and she gloried in the touch and smell of this one man. It mattered little that he would not look at her; that he was as rigid as a sword beside her as they walked back up the aisle. It was enough for her that she was with him, even so remotely, and that Edwards glittering jealousy was like a beacon drawing her attention to him as she passed.
Edward looked back at his wife with detachment, but inside he was a mass of contradictions. One part of him reveled in the intense pain he saw emblazoned on Sinclair McGregors face because destroying McGregor had become an obsession with Edward many years before. Yet another part of him was insanely jealous of the man. He did not understand the feelings of jealousy for he surely did not love Ivonne. Had she belonged to any man other than McGregor, he would never have gone after her. But in his quest to own WindLass, the most beautiful and productive plantation in Georgia before the War, it became an obsession of a different sort to take the woman WindLass master loved more than life itself in order to crush the man completely. The jealousy was certainly not something Delacroix had anticipated and something which would have to be examined more closely at a more opportune time.
Sinclair hurt so badly he thought he might well drop to his knees at any moment. Having Ivonne so close and so untouchable was an agony worse than the bullet that had nearly killed him or the saber cut that had sliced open his cheek. Her perfume made him giddy with longing and the touch of her hand on his arm was sheer torture. He dared not turn and look at her, dared not speak to her for fear he would lose all sense of self-control. If he even dared to acknowledge that she was trembling as badly as he was, he would surely unman himself
Leland was not so thoroughly immersed in his brothers wedding ceremony that he did not take note of the heads which pressed together or the hands which went to lips to whisper tales best unheard as Sin and Vonnie passed down the aisle. He noticed the knowing eyes, the nodding heads, the twitching lips of those who had never been all that fond of the McGregor family, especially those who had ever been envious of Sinclair, himself. He frowned at a few of them and had the satisfaction of seeing some turn away with embarrassment at being caught in their maliciousness. Helen Bryan Lutz, the lady clinging to his arm, turned to look at him and he could see the disapproval in her pale eyes.
I hope no one says something to him, she whispered.
Leland nodded, a little too angry to reply. He hoped not, too.
Outside, the afternoon sun was lowering behind a few silver-shot clouds. There was a storm brewing off the coast and rain was ripe in the air. The temperature had cooled just a little as the ceremony had progressed, but it was still a sweltering July day with thunder-bumpers building out in the Atlantic.
As soon as they had cleared the entry of the church, Sinclair lowered his arm, making it necessary for Ivonne to move her hand from his coat sleeve. Without looking her way, he mumbled a quick goodbye and disappeared down the steps even as Conor and Tina were climbing into the landau that would take them to their reception at Willow Glen.
Left abandoned where she stood, Ivonne felt the censure of the people standing around her and even heard a snicker or two of contempt before Edwards hand closed tightly around her elbow.
Lift your head, she heard him command. You are a Delacroix!
Sinclair turned the corner around the church and stopped. He slumped against the building, his back to the rough stone, his eyes closed. At his side, his hands were clenched into tight fists. He didnt even feel the tears sliding heedlessly down his scarred cheek.