Excerpt from Chapter 47
In this chapter, Hunter is returning from a raid with his men, and begins to sort out his feelings for Andrea.
… But images of Andrea did not stay suppressed for long. Hunter caught sight of her almost instantly after galloping across the bridge, and his eyes remained riveted upon her until she came into sharp focus. The vague feeling he had strived to conceal was suddenly no longer vague. The notion that his sentiment was merely a manifestation of gratitude for her defense of Hawthorne could no longer be justified. Hunter was drawn to her now by something stronger than his own will.
She stood on the bottom of a paddock fence, leaning over the top rail, watching a horse. When Hunter was nearly upon her, she gave only a half-hearted glance over her shoulder at the sound of an approaching horse. When she saw it was him, she did a double take. “Oh, howdy Kuh-nel,” she drawled jokingly as he drew rein behind her.
Her eyes seemed lit with a luminous welcome before she returned her attention to the horse.
The glance created a rush of warmth in Hunter’s heart and caused his blood to race. For an instant, a divine dizziness possessed him. He sat motionless, feasting his eyes, his senses, his soul on the woman before him. Although slow to admit it to himself, and hesitant to admit it to others, he now felt certain he had fallen in love with the enemy. How it had happened, when it had happened, why it happened, he did not know.
“I fear you’ve grown too familiar with the customs of Virginia,” he said, referring to her accent as he dismounted. “You will never be accepted again as a Yankee.”
Andrea’s smile flickered again and so did his heart. “But ah cain’t help my speech, suh.”
“Miss Evans, your comrades shall accuse me of trying to convert you.” Hunter eased himself up to the fence beside her and stood in silence while the gold light of September bathed them both in its warmth.
“That for Victoria?” Andrea nodded toward his hand.
“Oh, ah-h-h, no . . . here.” He thrust a wildflower toward her awkwardly, then stood and stared at her in an uncomfortable sort of way, knowing he should say something else but having absolutely no idea what it was. “It reminded me of . . . I mean, I thought you might like it.”
Up flashed her radiant smile and dazzled him again. “For me? For me?” Andrea took the flower and stuck it in her hair, making no effort to hide her delight. The outburst reflected her girlish innocence, the glow of childlike exuberance that defied all she had passed through.
Hunter responded by shrugging, pretending that picking flowers was nothing out of the ordinary for him. Yet it did not require much knowledge of his character to know he would have had no more thought of picking a wildflower than plucking a pinecone but a few days earlier. Clumsily and nervously trying to find something to do with his hands, Hunter took off his hat and slapped it against his leg.
“It appears you are returning from a forced march,” Andrea said, watching the dust rise.
Hunter just nodded, not wishing to admit that she was the forcing power. He studied her then, taking notice that the angry, resentful expression she used to wear had completely left her countenance. He wandered when. And why could he barely remember it anymore? Today she radiated nothing but warmth and light and enthusiasm for life.
Andrea turned, and, hanging on the fence with one hand, used the other to pat his shoulder, sending another cloud of powdery dust into the air. “Turn around.” She tried to remove the worst of the grime from his shoulders and back by brushing and patting with her hand. “Looks like you’re carrying around half the sacred soil of Virginia.”
“And you no doubt enjoy beating that out of me, don’t you?” Hunter said good-naturedly.
That rippling laugh returned at his words. It was a laugh that was hers alone, a laugh that made the desolate silence that used to reign over Hawthorne echo with happiness. And it was a laugh that brought with it a woozy, wobbly feeling that made Hunter place his hand on the fence to steady himself.
“Trust I could never remove it all, Commander,” Andrea replied, making an attempt at seriousness, “for I dare say you have it running through your veins.”
Hunter looked into her smiling, glowing eyes and felt a raw ache of happiness in his heart—so acute as to be almost painful. She appeared so radiant on this beautiful, sunny day that he had to look away for fear his eyes would betray what he was thinking. Good heavens, I am losing my mind!
His elbow now touched hers in relaxed abandon. Although she seemed not to notice the contact, he could barely control his thoughts. He wondered what it would feel like to put his arm around her. What would it feel like to stand there with his arm resting possessively over her shoulders on this brilliantly sunny day while they watched horses in the paddock side by side—as if there were no, and never had been, a war?