Excerpt from Chapter 23
Through a twist of fate, Andrea is staying at Hunter’s ancestral home, Hawthorne, but the two have remained enemies. In this chapter, Hunter is wounded in a gun battle, and for first time, sees the gentler side of Andrea.
Hunter heard a voice and felt fingers probing his shoulder. Although his arm throbbed with pain, the touch felt tender and soothing upon his bare flesh. He tried to force the cobwebs from his brain, to clear his blurred vision and mind. Opening his eyes and blinking at the pain, he stared at the face leaning over him.
He thought he recognized the countenance—but no, that could not be. The image could not be of the one he had quarreled with just four days earlier. He saw no sign of the hatred and anger that blazed so fervently then, nor any sign of the customary sullen frown. All that showed there now was deep concern and a look of tenderness.
He closed his eyes and tried to think. Tired. So tired.
After being hit, he had fallen. Perhaps he had hit his head and was hallucinating now. Or perhaps he was just so exhausted he was having a strange dream. Strange, indeed. Because the woman he had left in the next room would be more inclined to strangle him than bend over him in aid.
Hunter blinked at the intensity of light flooding through the window while gazing upon the worried face. He became more certain he was dreaming, but decided to talk to the apparition.
“What do you think, Doc?” He hoped he had actually spoken the words aloud, because it was only with supreme effort that he retained consciousness.
The figure did not respond right away. She seemed intent on cleaning the wound. Or maybe, Hunter thought, she really is just a figment of my exhausted imagination.
“It appears a bullet has pierced your celestial armor, Major,” she answered at last. “Unfortunately, it does not appear to be fatal.”
She did not lift her eyes at first, but when she did bring them up to meet his, they brimmed with amusement. Hunter thought he had never seen anything so beautiful, so exquisite, as those two dazzling green eyes filled with laughter. He contrasted the image to the raving, maddened woman he left, but could find no comparison. Where did this person come from or where had the other gone? He hoped they had switched places for good.
“I’m not the first to baptize the soil of the Old Dominion with my patriotic blood,” Hunter said weakly. His words made her frown, and her eyes reflected a look so somber and wise it made his bones ache.
“Nor will you be the last, I fear.” She bent back over to examine his wound. Her breath was now so near, Hunter could feel it on his skin; her hair so close, he could smell its sweet fragrance. Her touch was divine. He felt strangely out of breath.
Hunter raised his eyes to her, but she seemed not to notice. Lost in silent observation, she bit the inside of her cheek as she concentrated on her work. When a tendril of hair fell and brushed his neck, a shock surged through his body that made him shudder.
“I’m sorry, did I hurt you?” She looked up anxiously, her eyes filled with unconcealed alarm.
“No. Go on.” Hunter transferred his gaze to the ceiling and bit the inside of his cheek as well, forcing himself to concentrate on something else. Although worn with fatigue, he could no longer think of sleep.
“I appreciate the confidence, Major. I am an honorable woman, and despite the fact you are my enemy, your treatment will be just.” She sounded innocent enough as she repeated the exact words he had said to her, but Hunter saw a smile twitch along the corners of her mouth. Then, like a mass of storm clouds parting to expose the rays of the sun, she revealed a smile.
Hunter was thankful he was lying down. A face that had heretofore only frowned, glared, and grimaced at him now glowed with a teasing grin. He gazed upon lips that were not merely turned upward but that lit her countenance with a lovely sparkle of enchantment. He thought the smile the sweetest that had ever illuminated a mortal face. The throbbing in his shoulder mysteriously disappeared.
“Then I shall attempt to put on as brave a front as my houseguest and endure the fate that has befallen me.” Feeling slightly out of control, Hunter took a shaky breath and wondered if she had dosed him with laudanum when he was unaware. She suddenly possessed some power that made him feel light-headed and dizzy. He glanced again into her eyes and felt a dull ache in his chest begin to spread throughout his body. He forced himself to look at the ceiling and concentrated on breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
He tried not to think about the soft hands gently probing his arm, tried not to think about how they would feel— His breath became ragged. His nerves throbbed and jumped involuntarily.
“I’m sorry. I know I’m hurting you. I’m almost done.”
Her voice jolted him back. He attempted to ignore the roaring in his ears and the wound that had started to ache in the back of his teeth. “Tell me, Miss Evans,” he said, trying to regain the self-control he prided himself on. “Are you trying to get on my good side?”
Andrea paused a moment and gazed at him with a puzzled look. “That is quite impossible, Major,” she said, cocking her head to one side, “as I was not even aware that you possessed one. But I thank you for letting me in on your well-kept secret.” She smiled, her eyes twinkling mischievously, and then went back to work, her jaw set firmly as she attacked her task with renewed fervor.
Hunter smiled too, a cockeyed schoolboy grin, which he quickly suppressed. “Perhaps it’s like yours, merely hidden most of the time,” he said, his voice huskier than he would have liked.
“Perhaps,” she responded. But Hunter could tell she was more engrossed in her grim work than the conversation. Maybe she was letting him know she had no intention of discussing her good side, which she evidently preferred to keep to herself.
Andrea sat back and surveyed her work, then her gaze drifted up to meet his. “You have a funny look on your face, Major.”
“I do?” He choked out the words.
“Yes. You look like you’ve met a foe worthy of your esteem.”
She smiled then, and, in a motherly way, put her hand on his forehead to see if he had a fever. Stroking the hair from his brow, she looked with a mixture of sympathy and concern at the spot where his head had made violent contact with the ground.
Something about that look reached down to Hunter’s roots and made him struggle to catch his breath. He closed his eyes, lest she read more secrets there. He agreed that he had met a foe that caused him concern, but it had nothing to do with the enemy he had recently faced.
“Probably just the pain from your injury,” she continued, not noticing his distress. “Bullets have a way of humbling one, I suppose.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve been humbled.” He meant to say it was not the first time he’d taken a bullet. But he was so tired and confused, he could not think straight. So tired. Yet his heart banged against his rib cage like it wanted out.
“What in heaven’s name happened to you?” Andrea began to wash the remaining powder residue from his face and neck.
“Orders,” Hunter whispered, feeling like he was fading away. “Had to follow orders.”
“It appears your orders took you to a hot corner of hell.”
“And back.” Burning flashes of pain passed through his body, and his head pounded as he tried to push away the persistent haziness.
Andrea did not respond to that. She lifted his arm and began wrapping it with the bandages.
Hunter forced his eyes open again. “You seem experienced in the art of healing, Miss Evans,” he said weakly. “Have you done this before?”
“Oh, yes. I used to help Mammy with the sla—”
She looked straight into his eyes, her brows drawn together, her face just inches from his. Apparently realizing it was too late to stop, she finished matter-of-factly, “…with the slaves.” Andrea turned back to the basin and busied herself wringing out the washcloth.
“But,” Hunter said, genuinely confused, “I never assumed you were Southern by birth.”
“It should not be hard to believe that I was born and lived among the misguided,” Andrea snapped. “When one is reared in the presence of some six hundred slaves, a proclivity against, and an intolerance for, the institution and those who condone it can hardly be considered unjustifiable.”
She turned back to the bowl of water, but the tone, the words, the savagery, were more like that to which he was accustomed. Even her eyes took on that all-too-familiar look that meant the mule was back.
“I didn’t mean . . .” Hunter stuttered. Please don’t go, he thought.
“My heritage is Southern. My devotion is, and shall always be, Union.”
Thus ended the conversation. And thus ended the appearance of the gentler side of his houseguest. Hunter closed his eyes again. Six hundred slaves? She must have been born into one of the wealthiest families in the South, entitled to all the luxuries and comforts that such breeding grants. She had never boasted of wealth or influence, yet apparently possessed both. What in the hell was she doing here?
“Cans I help, Miz Andrea?” Mattie came back into the room with another bowl of water.
“No, I’ve just got to clean up the rest of him.”
Andrea leaned toward him with the wet cloth, but Hunter grabbed her wrist before she had a chance to touch him. “Mattie, can do it,” he said, not wanting to risk his reaction to her hands. “You’ve done enough.”
Andrea looked surprised, but shrugged her shoulders and dried her hands.“Get some rest when Mattie’s done,” she ordered before leaving the room on her crutches. She need not have given the command. His exhausted condition had already brought merciful oblivion.