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Battle of Wills

By Marolyn Caldwell All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Fantasy

Chapter 7

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The next morning, lured by the smell of fresh coffee, Lorie pulled on jeans and a tee-shirt and raked a comb through her hair. Still barefoot, she hurried down the stairway into the front hall. She made a quick turn into the kitchen and skidded to a stop, surprised. Jeff Preston was sitting alone at the kitchen table, still working with the computer, still wearing the same clothes the doctor had loaned him. It didn’t matter that they didn’t quite fit. Nothing could take away from the athletic build and the scarred and weather-tanned face, haloed by thick straw-colored hair. He was without question a fine-looking man.

He glanced up from the computer and smiled broadly. “Dark-haired angel.” The words resonated with warmth.

“How are you feeling this morning?” she asked, unaccountably flattered. “Did you sleep well?”

“I’m not sure.” His blue eyes twinkled. “I wasn’t awake long enough to notice.”

She fell silent, mouth open—then, sorting out what he had said, immensely relieved, she grabbed a kitchen towel, balled it up and lobbed it at him. He caught it, laughing. Grinning back, she selected a cup from the cabinet. “A joker! You’re as bad as my brother—he does that to me all the time!”

“Wonderful food, beautiful home, pleasant weather, amiable people. Even hot running water for my bath. I am content, Lorena Manning. And here I now sit, surrounded by what the good doctor calls ‘kitchen gadgets’ that do all my work for me. How can I not be happy?”

Carpe diem,” she answered.

“Seize the day.” His smile broadened. “Quam minimum credula postero.”

“Excuse me?”

“‘Trusting as little as possible to the future.’ The time to eat, drink and be merry is now.”

“You are a well educated man.”

“Greek and Latin. Some Hebrew. European languages. Philosophy. Geography. History. Mathematics. Natural and biological sciences ….”

His mind was clearly beginning to reassemble. “Stop. I’m impressed already.” She seated herself at the table. “But I don’t think I can carpe diem very well this morning until I have some of that.” He filled her cup and she took a careful sip. It was just the right temperature and delicious. He then offered her a perfectly browned piece of toast, buttered, with jam spread generously across the top. She thanked him with a smile.

“Ambrosia,” he whispered, licking the remnants of jam from his fingers. “And an angel beside me. I never believed in heaven before.”

Carol came into the room just then wearing white slacks and a stylish blue overshirt.

Lorie looked up at her. “What’s the occasion?”

“Phil and I are headed to Randolph City to help Sue arrange for Jon’s memorial service. Lorie, Jeff must remain in hiding until we find out what’s going on. Will you stay here with him, please? There’s lots of food in the fridge. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

Lorie glanced at Jeff Preston. His full attention had shifted to her, the expression in his eyes hopeful, a sweet crooked smile on his lips. “Sure,” she said, and realized with a start that this time she really didn’t mind being asked to stay behind.

It was a quiet morning. She answered computer questions for Jeff and put some needed time on Carol’s family tree bulletin board. When she tired of tacking the endless tombstones to the chart, she began to explore the house. The doctor’s study was large and lined with bookcases. Aside from an antique roll-top desk, it was furnished with comfortable modern furniture: lounge chairs, lamps and side tables. The book collection was extensive. She saw many medical books, even some basics she recognized, as well as books on related branches of science. Classical literature lined one wall along with mysteries, westerns and contemporary novels. Another series of shelves contained political expositions and histories with an emphasis on volumes relating to the Civil War.

With a quiet “ah ha,” she pulled an ancient-looking book from the shelf and walked back into the kitchen, scanning its pages. “Jeff, this should give you some idea of what happened here. Campaigns of the Civil War—Atlanta.” She handed it over to him.

“General Cox wrote this?” Jeff said, glancing at the cover. He took it with enthusiasm, now eagerly abandoning electronics for the printed word. Following her back into the study, he settled himself into a comfortable armchair by a sunny window. “Jacob is a dedicated abolitionist and an honest man,” he said. “His assessment will be even-handed.”

“He died a long time ago,” she answered drily.

He glanced up at her, flashed his crooked little grin and winked. He was joking with her again. He had probably been doing that all along. She smiled back, unsure, but hopeful.

For a while the house was very quiet. Lorie curled herself into the corner of a comfortable couch and opened an old Agatha Christie novel. Across the room, Jeff seemed totally absorbed, turning pages swiftly, sometimes checking the index, skipping from map to map, then sitting quiet, once more engrossed. She was not as equally tied to her book. Instead, she spent a great deal of time studying the mysterious visitor, trying to figure him out. He was certainly good to look at. Laugh lines played around his eyes, although he was not laughing now, deeply involved as he was in a book concerning terrible events. From what little she knew of him he seemed a kind person. Even when he was teasing her there was a smile in his deep voice. And she had seen him weep. She knew his injuries had made him very vulnerable.

But nothing quite made sense about him. She had to admit it. It was as if he were a foreigner who came from a place with which she was completely unfamiliar.

She had thought she was good at reading people. She had often been told her initial perceptions were right on the mark.

Not so long ago, however, she had been cruelly deceived. Stunningly so. By someone she thought she was going to marry. Dr. Stan, everyone called him at the hospital where she was training. Brilliant. Handsome. Not too patient, especially when he was in the operating room dealing with people he perceived—often wrongly—to be incompetent. But she had thought he was for the most part a kind person. And that he loved her.

She had been wrong on both counts. And so she was a little more wary and mistrustful of initial impressions.

In the quiet, Lorie wandered into the kitchen and browsed through the refrigerator. She made sandwiches, cut up some fruit, poured iced tea. Putting everything on a tray, she took it back into the doctor’s study.

Jeff looked up from the book. He seemed older to her now, grave. “So many deaths,” he said. He accepted the food graciously, seemingly grateful for the interruption.

“It was a terrible war. I hope it never happens here again.”

“The slavery question has been settled, hasn’t it?” he asked sharply.

Here we go again, Lorie thought. He hadn’t quite come back into the real world. “By Constitutional amendment,” she said patiently, “as the war ended.”

He was very quiet for a time. He looked down at the book and then away. “Moses would have liked that.” She thought she saw the glisten of tears in his eyes once again.

“Moses?”

“Moses was a good friend.” He said it softly, his eyes almost closed. He wiped at his face with a napkin, then straightened himself up and turned back to his book.

Sometime later he asked softly, “Would your computer be able to tell us if any southern towns refused to join the Confederacy?”

“Well,” she said, mystified by the abrupt change of topic, “we can try. It’s just a matter of asking the search engine the right question the right way.”

He immediately rose from his chair, retrieved the computer from the kitchen and handed it to Lorie.

“How shall we frame the question?” she asked him as he reseated himself.

“Frame it?”

“Make a sentence even a dumb computer might recognize.”

“Oh, yes, I noticed that about it. It lacks nuance, doesn’t it?” He thought for a time. “What Southern towns rejected the Confederacy?”

She tried the phrase. “Nothing relevant.” She scanned the items that appeared, opening and reviewing a few of them.

“What towns seceded from the Confederacy?”

“What about states? West Virginia split from Virginia.” She typed his words into the search engine and read through a number of sites. “Nothing helpful. Anything else?” She tried a few more of Jeff’s suggestions and some of her own, but nothing close to what Jeff was asking came back. When she saw the disappointment on his face she said. “Let’s ask the doctor when he gets back,” and added, “What exactly are you after?”

He answered in a soft voice. “It’s something Officer Ross mentioned.”

“About the historical Major Preston being a Union man?”

“That. And some other things.”

A car turned into the driveway just then and shortly thereafter the house was livened by the reappearance of Carol Kendall and Phil Barnett, bringing in bags of groceries. Lorie joined them in the kitchen, Jeff following closely behind. She noticed that he watched with careful attention as food and supplies were unpacked and shelved or placed in the refrigerator. He asked Phil questions about a few of the items and received an effusive response.

“Young man, I sense in you the heart of a cook. Let’s do the ‘he-man’ thing and prepare dinner for the ladies tonight.” Phil turned to Carol and Lorie, smiling. “Our treat,” he said expansively. He reached into the refrigerator for a pitcher, set it on the countertop and pulled some tall glasses from one of the cupboards. “Iced tea for the ladies. Now go on out to the porch, beautiful ones, and relax. Jeff and I will whip up some delicacies you won’t believe.”

Tender steaks sizzling from the grill, garlic mashed potatoes, and a tossed salad filled with fresh garden produce were served in due course. And then the real conversation began, starting with plans for the memorial service. Lorie listened quietly. Only a few of the names she heard were familiar to her. She would meet the owners of those other names soon enough.

When it seemed appropriate she broached the question Jeff had asked earlier. “Do either of you know of any southern towns that wanted to opt out of the Confederacy?”

“As a matter of fact,” the doctor said, leaning back in his rocking chair and taking a sip of cabernet from his wine glass, “there were some people in Mississippi—Jones County—who didn’t like the idea of rich slave owners requiring poor men who didn’t bide by slavery to fight a war they didn’t agree with. So the Jones County rebels hid in the swamps and fought the recruiters.” He took another sip of wine, considered the setting sun for a time, and finally continued. “When I was on a trip to Alabama a while back, I saw a statue of a soldier in front of the county courthouse—half Union, half Confederate. Let’s see, where was that?” He was quiet for a time, thinking. “Winston County. That was it. There again, Unionists refused to be recruited. According to what I read, there was a lot of trouble in Winston County, neighbors fighting neighbors. People having to leave their homes and hide in the hills.”

“What about here in Marietta?” Lorie watched Jeff’s face carefully.

Again Phil Barnett paused for thought. “I read a quote once,” he said slowly, “from the diary of someone who lived here in Marietta during those days. Matthew Williams. West Point graduate. A dedicated Union man. I don’t remember his exact words. But the gist of it was that he would never have fought for the Confederacy. On the other hand, he refused to shoot at his fellow Georgians. The war destroyed him. His only son, daughter-in-law and grandchild took refuge in southern Georgia to escape from the war. All died of cholera. When Matthew found out, his mind slipped over into insanity. The diary ended.”

“It was a bad time to be living in Georgia,” Jeff said under his breath.

“And what about that town we visited once—just east of here?” Carol said, reaching out her hand to the doctor. “Madison, wasn’t it? Quite a nice town. It was spared by Sherman because the inhabitants were largely Unionists.”

“I don’t think Southerners like to admit their ‘noble cause’ wasn’t universally accepted in the South,” Phil said.

“Noble cause?” Jeff’s voice took on a sharp edge. “Slavery is not a noble cause!”

“States’ Rights,” Phil said. “That’s what they argue now.”

“A thin excuse,” Jeff growled, “to keep people shackled and the gold those people represent locked away in iron vaults by men who would be kings. What about Jon Randolph’s town?”

“Randolph City?” The doctor turned to Carol. “Do you know anything, honey?”

She shook her head. “No one’s ever said anything to me. Randy Ross’s account was the first I’ve heard of it. Southern Unionists? Those people seem so proud of their southern heritage. We’ll have to ask Sue.”

Lorie thought Jeff seemed a little depressed as the topics of the Civil War and slavery ebbed and flowed around him. When she moved from clean-up detail to the swing, he came to sit beside her, saying, “Do you mind?” He reached for her hand. She felt an unexpected thrill at his gentle touch and cautioned herself. He had not been flirting with her. This was not personal. He was not seeking romance. He needed comfort.

This man who called himself Jefferson Preston had been seriously injured. She was all too aware that he didn’t quite know who he was. It wouldn’t be fair to him—or to herself—to let a romance develop. For all she knew he had a sweetheart or wife somewhere else. But still, while she wouldn’t admit it to him, his hand felt so good on hers. And when his arm went around her she moved just a little closer into the warmth of his shoulder. Be careful, she warned herself again. He just needs to know someone cares.

They sat rocking for a long time, quietly listening as Phil and Carol’s discussion moved to the situation in Randolph City. The sun went slowly down, shadows got dark and darker and fireflies flickered across the grass and through the woods. Lorie didn’t want the evening to end and found herself feeling a little sad when Carol said it was time for bed.

Carol left shortly thereafter, followed closely by Phil, and still Jeff kept his arm around her. Then his other arm completed the circle. He held her tightly against his chest, resting his face atop her head, buried in her hair. She understood. She had seen it at the hospital. Children whose parents had been injured. People whose loved ones had just died. They reached out for the nearest sympathetic soul. In her short career she had held and cried with too many people. It was always shattering.

Jeff had lost everything, his name, his family, his background. Instinctively she had already wrapped her arms around him in a comforting hug, trying not to put pressure on the bandages covering his yet unhealed wounds. “Everything will be okay,” she murmured. “We will find out who you are, Jeff. We will get you back to your family.”

What she hadn’t reckoned on, however, was her own reaction to his need for the human touch. A great wave of affection welled up inside her. She had seen nothing to make her feel he was duplicitous or deceitful. He was gentle, courteous, a complete gentlemen. Oh my god! she thought. I don’t need to go through this all over again. She realized now that almost against her will she had developed the deepest of feelings for him. In utter despair she knew she was completely smitten. Every atom of her body was responding to his gentle embrace. And so she didn’t break away until finally he raised his head.

“Thank you for being my friend,” he said softly and she knew she was lost.

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