Rita paced the width of her narrow room. Six steps, about face. Six steps, about face. One of the floorboards squeaked in protest every time she stepped on it, and she never missed. Back and forth until she made up her mind.
Her plain oak hope chest sat shoved up against the foot of her bed. She kept all the letters Vince sent in a sweetly scented box. As soon as she opened the hope chest, the violet aroma from the box greeted her. The scent strengthened when she opened the letter box.
As always, she took a few minutes to stare at his handwriting. She liked the way he made a loopy capital R to start her name. The rest of his penmanship was perfunctory, no frills. The only time he made a fancy R was when he wrote her name. Made her feel warm and fuzzy inside. She took out the first letter he’d sent and smoothed out the wrinkles.
As always, Rita read his words aloud, imagining them in Vince’s smooth baritone.
“Dear Rita, Arrived at Camp blanked out two days ago. Looks stark and cheerless. Greeted by our Sergeant, Sgt. Holmes, who informed us we were to call him ‘Sarge.’ We reckon he served with General Washington at Valley Forge. He’s promised to turn us ‘little girls’ into ‘real men.’ First thing we did was build our barracks. Sarge said it was a team-building exercise. He was right about the exercise part. I won’t scare you with the details of what the Army thinks is food, just suffice it to say your worries about not being a good cook are all for naught. I guarantee you could make a better cup of coffee than what is served here. And powdered eggs. Let me take a few moments to wax poetical about powdered eggs.”
Here Rita paused to take a deep breath. The naughty verse always made her laugh.
“A few of us composed a poem about the so-called eggs. It’s naughty, so read it with one eye closed. It’s also the worst piece of poetry you’ll ever read.
“The Army serves us powered eggs
A treat for which we'd never beg.
We’d toss over the plate
Straight into the lake
To dine with a chick with great legs!
“Sure wish I was there to see your cheeks turn pink when you read that. Sarge is hollering lights out. Missed you the moment I stepped on the bus. Don’t worry if my letters are few and far between, Rita-of-my-Heart. I’m already looking forward to your first letter. Address below. I’ll write as often as I can. Love, Vince.”
Ice coated the inside of the thin glass-paned window. Still. That hadn’t changed overnight, even with the wood stove stoked. Weak sunlight streamed into the room, creating a square patch of light on the dusty wooden floor. Abigail Phoebe stared at the light patch, loathe to leave the warm cocoon of the bed. Even as a child, she hadn’t had to share a bed, and waking up to feel Jep snugged up against her back discombobulated her. His hard thighs pressed against the backs of hers. If they’d been sitting up, rather than lying on their sides, she would’ve been sitting on his lap. Heartened, she gave herself a moment to bask in the sense of security waking up in a bed gave her. Who knew that a roof overhead and a bed to sleep in could evince such a feeling? Glorious.
“So warm,” she mumbled. She hadn’t been this warm since the end of summer, and she added that sensation to the list of others that had overwhelmed her since she‘d awakened. Making memories to carry with her when this interlude came to an end.
“Yes, it is. At least until we arise.”
“With the sunrise. It occurred to me last night that you need a place to stay the winter. It’s not much, and it may be cold, but it keeps most of the weather off, and the bed’s large enough for the two of us."
Abigail Phoebe thought about the offer Jep had made, wondered about his motivations. She knew enough about life to know that men had base urges they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, control. Time to pull that rough and tough mantle she’d so carefully created around herself again. “If I do stay with you, and I’m not saying I am, you’ll keep your hands to yourself or I’ll chop ‘em off for you.”
“Will you now?” Jep sat on the edge of the bed, next to her, to pull on his boots. “Tough girl, are you? Why are you traveling by yourself, Girl?”
She bristled at being called ‘Girl,’ angry he’d insult her. Two could play that game. “I’m no girl, Major. I choose to travel alone because it suits me. I can take care of myself.”
“And I’m no Major. Colonel. You strike me as very young, Phoebe. Foolhardy for you to runaway from home. Figure you’re lucky to have made it this far without serious injury.” Jep finished with his laces and gave her a very pointed look. The notion one of his two younger sisters would run away from home made his heart clench with fear. Miss Phoebe looked to him to be younger than his sisters, Nancy and Mildred.
“Old enough to be a widow.” Why did she say that? Abigail Phoebe clamped her mouth shut so no more word would accidentally trip out over her tongue. She didn’t know Jeptha Cullen from Adam and Eve, and while she was grateful to him for the whiskey and shelter, it was best if she curb her tongue.
Jep closed his eyes momentarily, then sighed, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Hannah took a deep breath to steady her nerves.
“That was close.”
“They woke you?” Hannah turned. Captain Steffend didn’t sound quite as weak as he had before.
“I’ve put you in danger.”
Hannah shrugged, spreading her hands out, palms up.
“I’ll leave tonight.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hannah chided. “You need to rest and recuperate. Besides, I’m washing your uniform. It won’t be dry until tomorrow. Plus, your clothes need mending.”
“I heard the threat.”
“We know the war is going badly for the South, Captain. Of course emotions are running high. Men will say things they often don’t mean.”
“Miss Hannah, that boy meant what he said.”
Hannah grinned, delighted that this stranger had given Todd Marshall such an insult as to call him “boy.” Todd was a mere year older than she was, and was therefore twenty-three years old. Very familiar with the arrogant swagger Todd came home from the war with, she’d thought he looked more like a child aping his father’s walk, rather than the big man he thought he’d become.
That didn’t make him any the less dangerous to her, however. The sooner Josiah came home, the better off she’d be. She could take care of herself in most matters, but she knew her limits. And she knew her time was fast running out with putting off Todd’s marriage demands.
“That boy got himself shot through the hand at Chattanooga and came home, whining for his mother. I can out-draw him, and in a contest of accuracy, out-shoot him as well.”
The captain coughed. “I won’t be responsible for endangering you. I’m guilty of enough sins without adding this to the list.”
Hannah dragged a chair over to the bed and sat upon it. She adjusted her apron across her lap before she reached over and felt his brow for fever. His skin felt cool and dry to her touch. “How do you feel? You don’t have a fever, which is a good sign. But you still need to time to regain your strength. You are welcome to stay, Captain.”
His eyes drooped. Sleep waited to reclaim him, but he rallied long enough to ask, “Why would you risk your life to save mine?”
Hannah cleared her throat. The lump there refused to budge, so she did her best to speak around it. “I’m doing nothing for you that I haven’t hoped and prayed for, Captain, for my brother Josiah.”
“You’re a rare woman, Miss Hannah.”