Excerpt from Evelyn's Promise
Charles Town, South Carolina – 1783
"Will this day never end?" Evelyn Hamilton slapped a hand over her mouth and peeked at the lanky man standing beside her, hoping he hadn't heard her childish grumbling.
No, he apparently hadn't. Nathaniel Williams' attention lingered on the happy couples as they received congratulations from the guests snaking past the newly married. The whole town had turned out, or so it seemed with the multitude of people milling about in the candlelit and lavishly decorated home. She'd enjoyed applying her talents to making the house reflect the importance of the day's event. In truth, the triple wedding and all its festivities made Twelfth Night a livelier and more joyful occasion than in previous years, especially those under British rule, from what she'd been told.
The last two years she hadn't been able to make the half-day's carriage ride into town. Walter frowned upon everything her family enjoyed, especially holiday celebrations. He'd been a difficult man to please. When she had not produced an heir within a few months of their marriage, he'd turned mean. Fortunately, she had conceived a baby and his tirades abated. Until the renegades and scouts began raiding their lauder and pantry. He held his tongue while the invaders took all they wanted, but then he unleashed his anger upon her. She'd never been as happy as when her sensitive sister, Amy, insisted upon staying at the manor to help her with the lying in phase of her pregnancy.
All the worry and fear had been worth it, creating the perfect little one in her arms. She looked down as her baby son squirmed in her embrace. Even Walter had expressed pride in little Jim. She'd promised her son that she'd do all in her power to ensure Master James Christopher Hamilton grew up to honor his name.
She and Nathaniel, a stranger to her up until the rector performed the weddings a few minutes ago, had already paid their compliments to the three pairs of smiling husbands and wives. Each bride shone with happiness, their smiles vying with the candles for lighting the room. Evelyn grinned as one bride snuck peeks at her new husband. Evelyn huffed a laugh. What a tumultuous relationship they'd had before ultimately discovering their mutual interest. The three happy couples made a striking and impressive group.
One day, Evelyn would need to find another husband, one to provide for her two-month old son. She held no illusion on that score. If she only had herself to support, she'd manage with sewing or perhaps by being a governess. But Jim needed a father to teach the boy how to be a man, and to ensure he received the requisite care and education to grow to his full maturity. With the uncertainty lingering in the new nation, she didn't want to face that daunting task alone.
Nathaniel caught her attention with a tilt of his head and wave of his hand. "Do you know all of these people? Or did some of them attend for the free food?"
Evelyn shrugged. "On Twelfth Night everyone is invited. I hope we don't run out of the rum punch and egg nog."
"Would you care for a cup of either, before such a tragic event occurs?" He winked at her, a smile lifting the corners of his closed mouth. "I'm happy to oblige, if so."
"No, but thank you. My hands are already full." She tucked the light blanket around her son's sleeping face.
"I imagine they will remain full until your son is full grown." He stepped closer to her as guests pushed behind him on their way to the virtually groaning table of refreshments. "It appears the party is just beginning."
"Yes, it should last for several days as long as the food and drink last." Her heartbeat pulsed in her ears at his proximity, a sensation she'd only experienced when in fear of Walter's next actions. She held still with no little trepidation.
Nathaniel towered over her petite frame, a giant dressed in fine clothes. She lifted her chin, not willing to admit even to herself of any unease, and studied the stranger's scarred yet handsome features. If not for the still red lines stretching across his right cheek, he'd appear to be in his teen years. His earlier brief conversation with Benjamin, her sister's new husband, revealed he had fought in the state militia. He had come to town at Benjamin's express invitation. What kind of business could he possibly have with the major? And, more urgent, why did he need to stand so close?
He smiled, lips pressed together in a gentle expression. His steel gray eyes searched her face, his gaze flitting from mouth to nose and finally resting upon her eyes. "Unfortunately, I don't expect to stay for the duration."
"You'll miss the celebration of the end of the holidays." She drew a slow, unsteady breath as he continued to study her with the ghost of a smile.
"I'll miss more than that, I imagine." He lifted the edge of Jim's blanket, peered at the sleeping infant then speared her with his black-rimmed eyes. "He has your nose."
She giggled, then sobered, annoyed with her school girl reaction to the man. What was it about him that provoked such a reflex? She pursed her lips but a smile forced its way through. "Perhaps he should give it back to me, do you suppose?"
Nathaniel's smile widened to reveal the edges of his teeth along with a black gap where at least one tooth was missing. "Mayhap you can share it."
Laughter bubbled out of her mouth. "That would prove unsatisfactory."
He chuckled, laughter twinkling in his eyes. He glanced away and then back. "Looks like we're about to have some company."
Evelyn followed his gaze. Amy and Benjamin led the others to where Evelyn stood with Nathaniel by the cold fireplace, its firebox laid with kindling and tinder for later in the evening. With the press of so many human bodies during the middle of the day, Evelyn had decreed that no additional heat would be necessary. She'd been right, too. The doors and windows stood open to let in the cold January air, helping to mitigate the warmth created by the crush of people.
"Evelyn, I cannot thank you enough for your efforts to make the house so beautiful and welcoming." Cousin Emily drew Frank Thomson up to stand with her at Evelyn's side. "Everyone is talking about the beautiful flowers and ribbons, oh, and the array of branched candlesticks."
"You created a beautiful and romantic setting for our special day." Amy lightly hugged Evelyn, careful to not wake the baby. "A simple thank you cannot convey the depth of my gratitude. Especially after the terrible losses you've endured over the past month or so."
Amy's comment raised the memory of the gun shots, the violence, and the violations she'd experienced. She sniffed and shook off the misery threatening to dampen her spirits. She wouldn't permit anything to interfere with her happiness on her sister's wedding day.
"One must look to the future and move on when adversity strikes." Evelyn joggled Jim as he began to wake. Soon he'd be wide-eyed and hungry. He must be her focus, not the death of her abusive husband, nor the conflagration that consumed their manor house. Looking forward meant figuring out where they'd live and survive for the long haul.
"I'm pleased you chose to accept our parents' offer. Since I'm moving out soon, they would be lonely without having one of us with them." Amy bobbed her head and smiled. "It's some form of a miracle our father's finances are sound after all of the trials he's been through over the course of the war."
"Indeed. I'm fortunate they do not mind my return to their house." But Evelyn minded, more than she'd shared with anyone. Her first task was to find her own place to live and raise her son. But how could she afford a house? The money Walter had set aside would last a few months with the current rate of inflation and the devaluation of paper money. Then what?
"At least you have a roof over your head." Nathaniel shifted his weight, closing the distance between them so his hip nearly touched hers. "I've just arrived in town and must find lodgings until I can locate a property to call my own."
"I'm certain someone will open their home to you." His nearness sent shivers through her midsection. She took a half step away, covering her movement with a peek at Jim.
"We're a friendly city, now that the bloody Britons have departed." Frank slipped his arm around Emily's waist. "What do you think of having a guest?"
Emily glanced at Evelyn and then back to Frank. "If he'd like to stay with us, I'm sure we can make him comfortable."
Nathaniel inclined his head in thanks. "Very kind of you. However, what about your honeymoon?"
Frank shook his head. "We've decided to stay at home and enjoy our newly refurbished abode instead of traveling at this time of year."
"All the more reason for me to decline your generous offer."
Trent raised both brows and shook his head. "Do not worry. We'll help you find a boarding room. Perhaps Captain Sullivan will have a place, like he did for Benjamin."
"Nonsense, my friend. What of southern hospitality? My dear Mr. Williams, you are welcome to stay with us. Isn't he, my dear?" Benjamin peered at Amy, who slowly nodded. "See? We'd be pleased for you to share our house as long as you might need."
A host of conflicting emotions flashed across Nathaniel's face before he slowly shook his head. "I appreciate your offer, but I simply cannot believe the newly married would wish a stranger in their midst. I'm sure if I were in your shoes I'd be reluctant to entertain guests."
Evelyn avoided meeting Nathaniel's eyes as he contemplated her with his last words. She hugged Jim close, her cheeks warming under his regard, and looked anywhere but in his direction.
"That is a valid point." Benjamin grinned at Nathaniel. "It may be hard to sleep nights."
Amy swatted Benjamin's arm, blushing as his meaning spread through the group. "Mind your manners."
"Where will you stay then? If you won't stay with any of us, I mean." Their friend Samantha clasped her husband Trent Cunningham's arm as her gaze shifted from one to another of the group.
The rustle of taffeta and the thump of leather shoes on the wood floor drew Evelyn's attention to the elderly couple approaching. Her parents, Richard and Lucille Abernathy, had aged gracefully, though her mother's ramrod straight back had bowed a little more each year. Neither head boasted any gray and their love revealed itself through the angling of their bodies toward each other as well as the looks they shared. If Evelyn could find a man who would treat her with the same respect and concern as her father shared with her mother, she'd be content. But the pickings proved slim after so many men had lost their lives securing the independence of America from British tyranny. But even knowing of the dearth of eligible bachelors, the next time she accepted a man's attentions, she'd be very careful and certain of his personality. She'd promised herself that no one would hurt her again.
"We have room for you and no recently wed occupants to worry about." Richard Abernathy slapped Nathaniel on the back. "Interested?"
Nathaniel smiled, his attention flicking her way and then back to her father. Evelyn held her breath, squeezing Jim until his murmur of protest made her relax her grip. Would this man be staying under the same roof? Definitely time for her to find another place to reside.
Nathaniel studied her for two heart beats before turning and stretching out his hand to shake with her father. "I'd be honored to accept, as long as it does not inconvenience anyone."
"Not at all. You can ride in the carriage with us back to the house." Richard grinned and rested his large hand at the small of Lucille's back. "We intend to depart in a little while. We tire easily as the years go by, so we're off to say our farewells and then we can depart."
"Very good." Nathaniel nodded to Richard as he led his wife away, then fixed his attention on Evelyn. "Do you mind that I accepted your father's offer? I have no wish to make you uncomfortable in your own home."
"Why would I mind?" Evelyn kept her eyes on the handsome yet dangerous man regarding her with a serious expression. Dangerous first with regard to the scars and lost front teeth he'd suffered during the fighting, indicating he resorted to aggressive behavior when pressed. Dangerous in that he'd also been a party to the raid on her house, a violent invasion of her home. Finally, dangerous to her equilibrium. She straightened her back, stiffening her resolve at the same time. Handsome is as handsome does, after all. "As long as you keep to yourself, we shall get along."
He nodded slowly but his charming smile slipped back into place. "I shall endeavor to honor your request."
"See that you do." A flicker of humor flashed in his eyes and she drew in a breath. "I'm recently widowed and thus still in mourning, so your attentions would be if not welcome at best inappropriate."
The sparkle in his eyes went out. "I see."
Amy took Benjamin's hand in hers as she addressed Evelyn. "My dear sister, you, of all people, know how fearful it is to be without a home to live in. Now that your worries are behind you, please don't begrudge the young man shelter from the elements for a short stay while he makes other arrangements."
Evelyn canted her head and frowned at her sister. "What do you mean, my worries are behind me?"
"Why, you have a home and the security of our father's fortune to provide for you and your son." Amy waved a hand in the space between them. "You need not trouble your head about where and how you'll live. It's been decided."
Surprise swept through Evelyn. "No, it has not been decided." She spied doubt on the countenances of her friends. "I have no intention of living with my parents for long."
Nathaniel nodded at her. "Looks like we have something in common."
Evelyn opened her mouth to contradict his claim, but Amy cut into the conversation.
"Oh, Benjamin, Mr. and Mrs. Walters are preparing to leave. Let us go thank them for their wedding gifts." Amy tugged on Benjamin's arm, drawing him away from the cluster of friends.
"Will you excuse us?" Benjamin addressed the group at large as he allowed Amy to pull him along behind her.
"Be off with you." Evelyn waved the three couples on their way. "We'll catch up with you later."
"Thanks again for all your help, Evelyn," Samantha said as Trent proffered his arm.
"My pleasure." Evelyn shooed them with a happy chuckle. "Go. See to your guests."
After the chattering friends had blended into the surrounding crowd, Evelyn turned back to Nathaniel. "So, Mr. Williams, will you be staying in town long?"
"I'm not sure. It depends on what Major Hanson has to say tomorrow when we meet." He peered at her, and his gentle smile emerged on his lips. "And what a certain recent widow might have to say as well. She may wish for me to dawdle in procuring my own residence."
Evelyn raised one brow at the provocative suggestion and then shook her head. "Do not depend on such an unlikely occurrence, Mr. Williams."
"Please, my friends all call me Nat. And I shall call you Lyn." He chuckled and folded his arms. "Since we'll be living under the same roof for a time we may as well be friends."
Evelyn blinked at the man, astonished at the level of his audacity. Yes, he was definitely a dangerous man. Who did he think he was? No one had ever shortened her given name into such a ridiculous nickname. Time to straighten him out as to the proper form of address. "You may call me Mrs. Hamilton, and I shall call you Mr. Williams."
He shook his head, as though sad to correct her. "I think not. Lyn suits you exquisitely better."
Clearly, the daft man couldn't be reasoned with, intent on having his way, much like Walter, who had cowed her into doing everything to please him. But no matter what she did or how she behaved, she had never really pleased her husband. Except maybe in having a son. Squaring her shoulders, she blinked at Nathaniel. She would not travel the path of subjugation ever again.
"I have never answered to a nickname, so if you intend to be friendly, you'll respect my wishes." She snugged Jim closer to her, preparing to walk away from the charged atmosphere suddenly stretching between them.
He smiled at her, and half bowed. "If you insist."
"I do." The mischievous smirk on his lips did not bode well. She'd seen his type before. She would make certain he behaved properly toward her.
"Shall we join your parents?" He offered his crooked arm to her, an invitation to his escort, but also to touch him.
His mere proximity set her heart racing. To lay her hand on his muscular arm would invite an undesired response. She must tread carefully, and see he did as well. "As long as you remember you are a guest in our house, I will treat you with respect and deference." She had promises to keep, ones made to herself and to her son. Nothing would sway her from her mission. Not even tempting lips and an endearing smile. "I ask you to do the same."
"You have nothing to fear from me." He inclined his head and grinned at her as she gingerly rested her fingertips on the heavy fabric of his coat sleeve. They stepped off, making a path through the crowded rooms. As they approached her parents at the open front door, he glanced down at her. "I shall be on my very best behavior, Lyn."
She gaped at him. The challenge in his expression made her snap her mouth closed as they passed through the door and out onto the street. Her parents climbed into the conveyance as Nathaniel escorted her toward the vehicle. She would refuse to speak to him if he continued to press her in such an improper manner. The corded muscles in his arm rippled beneath her fingers before he helped her up into the waiting carriage.
She gathered her long skirts close as she sat on the cushioned bench seat, and then stifled a gasp when he sat beside her. His leg rested against hers, hidden beneath the flap of his coat and her own voluminous skirts. With her parents sitting directly in front of her, she dare not draw attention to his impropriety. She pressed her lips together to keep from chastising him. Oh, she wished she'd been wrong, but she'd been so very right. He was indeed dangerous on all counts.