Jillian froze. She could not move. She could not breathe. The ghost she had seen in her vision stood before her. Dressed in a worn and double-breasted cadet gray, thigh-length frock coat, he was nearly opaque and looked as real as a flesh-and-blood man with the exception of appearing somewhat faded. Jillian gaped. The only thing separating them was the flimsy old card table and she doubted that would stop him if it occurred to him to come any closer. Her pulse pounded relentlessly.“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” He came closer, his boots resounding on the wood floor. Spurs jingled with each step.Jillian’s back flattened against the chair. Her breath left her lungs in an audible rush. She had glimpsed ghosts many times before but never had one been this present, this alive. She stared. But it wasn’t because of his devastatingly rakish appearance—the roughly chiseled cheekbones, straight nose and curve of his sensual lips—it was because he looked so real and because she felt a very odd sense of recognition. Still, the static charge of energy emanating from him left her with no doubt he was a ghost.
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Jillian stood in the bathroom drying her hair with a fluffy white towel. She heard the water shut off and watched as the shower door opened and Benton stepped out, dripping and naked, onto the beige bathmat.His dark, wavy hair was tousled carelessly about his head. Rivulets of water beaded and ran down his corded neck and muscular chest. Jillian’s breath froze when her gaze landed on the scar marring his left shoulder. He’d taken a bullet during the battle of Murfreesboro—where his brother had died. The wound had followed him even into death.
Nashville traffic on a Friday afternoon was a bitch and when Iris finally turned onto Harding Place, she was thwarted by a long line of slow-moving drivers. Even switching on her hazard lights and honking her horn didn’t yield results.When she ultimately arrived at Benton Smith Road, she turned and raced around the circle until she found the address. The driveway wound downward and when Iris saw a silver BMW in the garage, her heart sank.The house looked sickeningly familiar. She’d seen it before—in her vision of his death.
Panic unfurled through her limbs and Rose tried to sit up but Dr. Roberts urged her back down on the pillows. “You’re not ready to get up just yet, Mrs. O’Kelley. Be still.”Another Confederate appeared in the doorway. He looked to be about the same age as the young doctor and also surprised to see her awake. “How’s your patient?”“She’s giving me more trouble than one of the boys, General Smith.”The boy general’s dimples deepened with his handsome smile. “Mind the doctor, missy. He’s a good doctor. My only complaint is that he’s a little too fond of being at front for my taste.”
A handsome, young officer on horseback drew up alongside the fencing. He tipped his weathered hat. “Good day, ma’am. Is this about where Major Barksdale lives?”
“Yes sir, it is,” Athena said, boldly stepping between Molly and the officer.
He nodded in polite deference to Athena. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Molly shielded her eyes from the sun as she looked up at him.
He slid out of the saddle and gave his gray horse a pat on the muzzle. “I’m Brigadier General T. B. Smith.”
“Oh yes, you’re Major Barksdale’s commanding officer,” Molly said, recognizing the name. She stopped short of mentioning the general’s youth. Everyone knew of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment’s boy general, the youngest in the entire Army of Tennessee. In spite of his moustache and spade beard, he looked far too boyish for his command.
“At least this’un has manners,” Athena groused. She’d always been one easily swayed by a handsome face.
“Have you any word of my brother-in-law, Major Greer Barks—” Molly began, but another horse broke through the column. Greer flew out of the saddle and flung his arms around Molly.
Joyful tears sprang to her eyes, flowing freely down her cheeks and onto Greer’s tattered coat. She wanted to let loose everything she’d been holding in. Her brain tried to remind her this was temporary but she would not heed it. Not now. Not while she felt safe and protected if only for a moment.
Years of hardship, the horrors of that night the Yankees came to her house and then the gut-wrenching pain of Witt’s death poured out of her all at once. Greer held her close, apologizing for the odor of his coat, of his body. Molly didn’t care. She’d grown accustomed to the musk of damp wool, of gunpowder and unwashed bodies. At times, she wondered if life would ever go back to the way it was before the war. Then, everyone had seemed so carefree and relaxed. So genteel.
Finally she lifted her face from Greer’s chest and gazed into his hazel eyes. “Where’s…where’s Hardin?”
Greer’s expression turned grim. He glanced at his father and then at Smith.
The boy general stepped forward. His good-natured smile faded. “I regret to inform you both that Lieutenant Barksdale deserted.”
Molly gasped. “Not Hardin.”
Athena’s bottom lip protruded. “He wouldn’t dare.”
“Goddamn coward,” Hamish muttered, his words slurred.
Greer stared at his father for a moment before he bleakly shook his head. “Hardin has disgraced us all.”
“That don’t sound like my Hardin,” Athena argued. “He ain’t the easiest of you three but he ain’t no coward, neither.” Hardin had always been her favorite, despite his surly attitude.
He was difficult and obstinate. But there was no better judge of character in Maury County than Athena, and Molly had to agree with her assessment. Darkly, Molly’s thoughts turned to the last time she’d seen him. He’d sat on her bed. He’d nearly kissed her. And then he’d left her to the mercy of the most uncouth band of men she’d ever had the misfortune to meet. Damn him. “When did he desert?”
“During the summer,” Greer said.
“Smack-dab in the middle of the Atlanta campaign,” Smith added. Under his breath, he confessed, “Of course, when Johnston was replaced with Hood, we had a good many deserters.”
No wonder Hardin hadn’t wanted her to mention to anyone that she’d seen him. Still, she couldn’t wrap her brain around it. Hardin? A deserter?
Maybe he’d realized what Molly now knew. It was foolish for men to continue to die for the cause.