About the Book
For Coral Leigh, the Civil War took everything and everyone she loved: her fiancé, her brother, and her father. But when her mother dies of grief shortly after the war’s end, Coral’s plantation home, Elmwood, must be auctioned. Soon to be homeless, she fears becoming yet another casualty of the war.
Fortunately, help arrives in the handsome form of Clint Logan, a decorated general in the Union army, and part of the occupational forces stationed near her home. When the general kindly offers her employment, Coral decides her pride isn’t worth starvation.
As love blooms between them, Coral and Clint must contend with threats worse than the scrutiny of Southern society. Disenfranchised Confederate soldiers are causing trouble around town, and Coral has to face the possibility of Clint’s death in the line of duty, along with her own social ostracizating. She will have to decide if she’s ready to trust her heart’s new loyalties, even if it means forsaking everything she’s ever known.
As her buckboard trundled down the street, Coral Leigh stared about with embittered eyes. Gaunt chimneys rose amid charred foundations. Tumbled bricks and scorched beams squatted in haphazard heaps on lots where shops, public buildings, or gracious homes had once stood.
The Yankees did this.
The sight of the ruined town brought Coral back to that terrifying night in February when, from the veranda of their plantation home east of Columbia, she and her mother had watched the lurid glow of flames stain the sky red while the city burned. They’d stood huddled together all night, fearing at any time to see Yankee troops riding up the long drive of Elmwood, intending to torch the mansion about their heads. When at last the sun had banished the darkness from the earth the next morning, no troops had rampaged as far east as Elmwood.
“Those Yankees sure did the work o’ the devil when they came through with their torches,” Silvie said, her brown face puckered.
Coral nodded in stricken agreement.
A profusion of early June roses in the empty lots where homes had once stood flamed in an explosion of crimson against the blackened ruins. Main Street, down which their mule trudged, languished beneath the vindictive hand of Sherman’s troops, laid waste by the soldiers on their march through South Carolina. Not one shop remained.
“Pull the wagon in over there. That’s as good a place to wait as any.” Coral issued her instructions to the muscular black man who drove the mule as she spied an empty spot along the footway.
When the wagon had rumbled to a stop at the side of the street, Coral clambered down by the front wheel. She reached over the side of the buckboard and lifted a muslin-wrapped parcel from the floor.
Before the war, she wouldn’t have ridden into the city in a farm wagon. Instead, she would have arrived in her family’s elegant equipage driven by a liveried coachman and drawn by a pair of matched thoroughbreds. Nor would her dress be several seasons old, meticulously mended by Silvie’s skillful fingers. Her bonnet would have been a stylish confection in the latest Paris fashion rather than a hat refurbished from bits of other bonnets too tattered to wear.
Tucking her parcel beneath her arm, Coral turned to the titan tying the mule’s reins to the wooden hitching rail. “Scipio, please stay here with the wagon. Silvie and I will try to find a shop where I can sell my vase. Then I’ll fetch the doctor.”
Walking along the footway a moment later with Silvie at her shoulder, Coral observed the few shops already rising from the ashes of Columbia. Business appeared to be picking up.
Perhaps she could find a buyer for her vase, get the medicine her mother needed, and leave the city in time to reach Elmwood before dark, after all.
Coral roused from her inspection of the construction along the street, transferring her attention to the crowds jostling the footways. Women wearing dresses of threadbare homespun and haggard Confederate veterans straggling home afoot mingled with blue-jacketed Federal soldiers. Guards stood watch on every street. Sweeping aside her skirts, Coral averted her face as she passed two troopers patrolling Main Street.
“These soldiers won’t cause you any trouble, not while I’m here to take care of you,” Silvie muttered.
Despite her distress over the desperate position to which the South had sunk, Coral managed a slight smile. “I doubt any Yankee would dare accost me with you hovering at my shoulder like an avenging angel.”
“No Billie Yank is going to lay a finger on my baby Coral,” Silvie vowed with staunch ferocity, clenching the handle of the straw basket she carried as though contemplating cracking the hamper over the head of any soldier who might dare speak to her charge.
“I haven’t been your ‘baby Coral’ for over twenty years. I’m a grown woman now, a fact you keep forgetting. Don’t take your role of protector too seriously, Silvie. You’d probably get arrested if you so much as looked cross-eyed at a Yankee soldier.”
As they hurried along the footway, Coral hoped to find the shop of a merchant whom her family used to patronize. She could make a more profitable sale from someone who knew her. Hoping the mercantile she sought might be open for business, Coral forged ahead, ignoring any Federal troopers she encountered.
Near the end of Main Street, a frame structure had been erected on the lot where once had stood an imposing brick edifice. A white sign with black letters hung above the door, proclaiming the establishment Garner’s Emporium.
“We’ll try here first.” Approaching the shop, Coral shook her head in dismay as she observed the inferior clapboard structure that replaced the original brick building. Both windows flanking the door lacked glass; rough shutters standing open against the wall could be closed at night to provide security. The sign above the door, its crude letters splashed in black paint, must have been painted by someone with more resolution than talent. Coral resented the fact that the shop’s owner, Mr. Garner, had suffered such a complete loss of property at the hands of the Yankees when he’d been guilty of nothing more than engaging in commerce. During the long conflict, Mr. Garner had never raised a weapon against any Federal trooper, yet retribution had been meted out to him without such consideration.
Forcing her lips into a smile to conceal the ache in her heart, Coral reached for the doorknob. As she made her way through the shop, its interior dim after the dazzling sunshine outside, Mr. Garner called out a welcome from behind the counter.
“Well, if it isn’t Miss Coral Leigh. I haven’t seen you in town for months. How did Elmwood fare when Sherman marched through?”
Coral halted before the rough planked counter. “We fared better at Elmwood than you did here, it seems. The troops never reached our plantation. What those Yankees did to the city is criminal! And now they’re everywhere like a scourge.”
A frown puckered Coral’s brow. Her nostrils flared with distaste as she contemplated the presence of the scorned Federal blue bellies. Seeing triumphant Northern troops on sacred Southern soil roused in her an unaccustomed waspish temper.
Mr. Garner removed his spectacles, polishing them on his sleeve as he regarded her through faded blue eyes. “Don’t keep fighting them, Miss Leigh. They’ve defeated us. They’re here as victors, so we might as well make whatever adjustments are necessary to live peaceably with them.”
“Mr. Garner! Surely you don’t mean you’ve bowed your knee to the Yankee invaders.”
The elderly gentleman returned his glasses to his face, hooked them over his ears, then adjusted them on his nose before replying. “I’m an old man, Miss Leigh. I’m tired of conflict, and I have to earn a living. The war’s over. We’d all best get about putting our lives back together.”
Coral stared at him, not crediting what her ears had just heard. She should live peaceably with the victors?
“I’d like to put my life back together, but I’d prefer to do it without the presence of the Yankees.” She clamped her lips shut to refrain from continuing her diatribe and laid her parcel on the counter, peeling back its wrapping with careful hands. As the bleached muslin fell away to reveal an antique Sevres vase, she lifted the ornament out of the protective fabric with reverent hands. The bleu-de-roi glaze of the vase, lavishly trimmed in gold, glowed in the shop’s dim light. Her fingers caressed the graceful lines of the vessel. “I… I know you can’t pay me what this vase is worth, but…” Her voice shook, and she stumbled to a halt, snatching a breath to regain her composure. Parting with the vase grieved her, for the antique had been in her family for over three generations. Coral straightened and squared her shoulders. “How much will you give me for the vase?”
“Why are you parting with this treasure, Miss Leigh?” Mr. Garner touched the vase’s curved body with an appreciative finger.
“A treasure sitting on a mantel is worthless to me. My mother is ill and needs medicine.”
Mention of her mother brought Coral’s anxiety back in a sharp rush. Mrs. Leigh had felt too poorly to accompany her today, so she’d stayed behind at Elmwood.
Mr. Garner lifted the vase from the counter and examined the fragile china piece from every angle, tilting the ornament first this way, then that. The early June sunshine filtering through the open shutters gleamed off the lustrous blue glaze and the gold trim. Setting it gingerly back on the wooden planking of the counter, he shook his head. Sweeping his hand toward the merchandise lining the shelves along three walls, he said, “This vase is worth much more than I can pay you. The rest of my stock is definitely of an inferior quality to your fine antique. Right now, I can’t afford to stock expensive items any more than the people of Columbia can afford to buy them. People need necessities, not luxuries like this vase.”
“I don’t expect to get full value. I just want enough money to buy medicine for my mother. Please! I’ll be satisfied with whatever you can give me.”
Coral touched the tip of her tongue to her dry lips. She needed the money with a desperate urgency. Her best chance of acquiring the cash she needed lay with Mr. Garner.
The shopkeeper scratched his head, his pink pate gleaming through his thinning white hair as he peered with compassion at the girl on the other side of the counter. “I’ve never cheated a customer yet, especially a Leigh. If I buy your vase, I’ll pay you as much as I can without taking a loss. But before we do business, I must ask if you’ve taken the loyalty oath. Have you?”
“Loyalty oath?” Color drained from Coral’s face. Did the Yankees think forcing Southerners to take a loyalty oath would humble them? Surely the North had already stripped the South of everything except pride and dignity. Did the Yankees intend to wrest those qualities away too?
“Before any of us can transact business, we have to take an oath of allegiance to the United States and to the president.”
“Never!” Coral backed away. “I could never swear loyalty to the North!”
Mr. Garner let out a long breath. “If you want to sell this vase,” he said with gentle sympathy, “and if you want to buy medicine for your mother, you’ll have to take the oath. It’s as simple as that. I can’t buy your vase until then, nor can any other shopkeeper in Columbia. No doctor can sell medicine to you unless you can prove you’ve sworn loyalty to the Federal government and to the president.”
Feeling treacherous tears of frustration prick the back of her eyes, Coral turned to Silvie. The older woman’s thin brown face revealed wisdom and understanding. As Coral struggled with her pride, Silvie nodded in approval. If not for the medicine her mother desperately needed, Coral vowed she’d walk out of Garner’s Emporium,
returning to Elmwood empty-handed. Instead, necessity forced her to take the despised loyalty oath.
Drawing a deep breath, standing with imperious dignity at her full diminutive height with her shoulders barely clearing the four-foot counter, Coral turned back to Mr. Garner. Despite the outrage tearing at her, she managed to keep her voice steady. “Where would I go to take this oath?”
“The military headquarters is located on the south side of Columbia College campus. An army officer will administer the oath and give you a certificate of allegiance.”
“Will you keep my vase here until I return?”
“Your treasure will be safe with me.”
Mr. Garner set the antique on a shelf behind the counter as the two women left the shop.
During the walk across town, Coral’s gloved hands clenched at the sight of every blue uniform she encountered. Though she simmered at the intrusion of the enemy, she maintained an outward calmness. She kept her attention on the scenery, not allowing her thoughts to dwell on the prospect of taking the despised oath. The oath, taken under duress, certainly couldn’t change the loyalty of her heart.
Silvie’s low voice beside her pulled Coral’s attention from the rubble alongside the footway. “When we get to the campus, you keep your tongue on a leash, Miz Coral. If you say what you want to say instead of what you ought to say, you’re going to get yourself in a peck o’ trouble.”
Coral let out a frustrated huff. “You’re right. It will be difficult, but I’ll try to be civil. You know I can’t abide their arrogance.”
“I expect you cain’t paint all Yankees with that brush.”
“Silvie! Surely you aren’t beginning to sympathize with the Northern troops! Look at what they did to Columbia! How could they be anything other than inhuman beasts?”
Silvie shrugged. “They’re just men, some good, some bad. You need to learn to get along with them, like it or not. You mind your tongue now an’ act like the lady your momma raised you to be.”
“I can show these Northern brutes what a real Southern lady is like. Never you mind, I’ll be a pattern card of propriety, just to spite them.”
At the arched brick entrance of Columbia College, however, Coral hesitated. Once she passed beneath this gateway, she’d step into a territory inhabited by men of the occupying force, soldiers who had cut down thousands of Confederate men in battle. She stiffened her spine and took a deep breath. No matter how much she resented their presence on Southern soil, she wouldn’t let them overset her.
Coral forged through the entryway and turned toward a three-story brick building with a portico supported by fluted white pillars. From the number of blue-jacketed officers entering and leaving, she guessed this must be the administrative headquarters of the Union army..
Coming to a standstill before the steps, she looked up at the wide paneled entrance. Her breathing quickened at the prospect of taking the oath, and her stomach knotted. She’d violate every principle her loved ones had fought and died for when she pledged allegiance to the United States and the president.
“May I help you, Miss? You look lost.”
A masculine voice, spoken in clipped Northern accents behind her, interrupted Coral’s musings. She turned about, bracing for her first verbal encounter with a Union soldier. “I’m looking for the administration building. I’ve been told that’s where the oath of allegiance is taken.”
“Yes, ma’am. You’re going in the right direction.” The soldier inclined his head toward the building before them. “The oath is administered in there. Take the first door on your right as you enter the hallway.”
Coral almost forgot to reply while she struggled with her reaction to the soldier. The man standing before her was no ordinary trooper. From his uniform, she saw that he was an officer of high rank. She tipped back her head to accommodate his height. He stood with broad shoulders held erect in precise military bearing, with the blue wool of his uniform molding an athletic frame. The morning sun picked out russet highlights in his dark hair. Austere features graced his lean Yankee face, clean-shaven except for a dark slash of mustache. No callow youth, the officer standing before her embodied the confident strength of a fully mature man. Vivid blue eyes scrutinized her closely.
He held the reins of a black Thoroughbred stallion close up by the bit. The black’s superior bloodlines and his impeccable lineage were evident to Coral’s knowledgeable perusal. As she studied the horse’s proud carriage and intelligent eyes, she knew only a proficient rider with a will as strong as the stallion’s could control him.
She returned her reluctant attention to the officer, who scattered all her notions of her former enemy. Admiring a Union soldier seemed disloyal to her Southern heritage, yet she attempted to show civility. “Thank you kindly, sir.”
“My pleasure, Miss.” The officer smiled at her and swept his high-crowned hat onto his dark hair. “If you’ll excuse me, I have an inspection tour to do.”
“I won’t detain you, then. Thank you again.”
Coral watched as he turned to his mount and flipped the reins over the stallion’s head. He stepped into the saddle with an easy grace, then acknowledged her with a dip of his head and a two-fingered salute. A touch of his spurs to his mount’s sides sent the horse beneath the gateway at a collected trot.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it, Miz Coral? You can be polite to Yankees when you set your mind to it.” Silvie spoke at Coral’s elbow.
“I promised I’d behave with propriety when I took the oath. I can’t promise my goodwill can extend beyond that to the next encounter.” Coral spun back toward the portico and climbed the shallow granite steps. She crossed the porch to the door. Reaching out a gloved hand, she turned the knob and entered a spacious, high-ceilinged hallway.
Orderlies in blue uniforms bustled about, papers clutched in their hands. She halted just inside the door. Should she wait to be addressed or continue to the office where the oath was administered?
One of the men approached her, so she had no need to make the decision. “Are you here to take the oath?”
“Right in there.” The orderly motioned to an open portal on her right. “Sergeant Thomas will handle it for you.”
“Thank you. I’m most appreciative.” Coral stepped into a plain office which held only a wide oak desk, a wooden filing cabinet, and a chair angled before the table.
The youngish, sandy-haired sergeant who sat behind the desk rose to his feet when Coral entered. “Good afternoon, Miss. I presume you want to take the oath of allegiance?”
No, I don’t want to take the oath, Coral felt tempted to reply, but she tamped down her rebellion and murmured, “Yes.”
“Please be seated. This won’t take but a moment.”
Sergeant Thomas pulled a paper from the filing cabinet and laid it on the desk. He picked up a pen. “What is your name, Miss?”
“Coral Leigh.” Her voice shook.
The sergeant scribbled her name on the proper line, then glanced up. “If you’ll repeat after me, that will qualify you as having taken the oath.” He paused, looked down at the page, and glanced at her again. “I, Coral Leigh, do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God…”
Now that the moment was upon her, she almost refused. Her pulse raced. Her throat closed, and her mouth grew cottony. She could scarcely form the words.
Sergeant Thomas regarded her with sympathy. “Take your time. I can wait until you’re ready.”
I’ll never be ready, she thought. With scarcely concealed reluctance, she drew a breath and spoke in a low voice. “I, Coral Leigh, do solemnly swear…”
“I will henceforth defend the Constitution of the United States…”
Coral repeated the hated words.
“… and support… all proclamations of the president made during the rebellion…”
The words stuck in her throat. For a moment she balked, remembering that her father, her brother, and her fiancé had spilled their life’s blood on the battlefield to defend the Confederacy. How could she betray their deaths by pledging allegiance to the Union? She swallowed hard and forced out the words.
“… so help me God.”
“So help me God.”
The deed was done. She’d taken the oath. Coral shook with the knowledge.
“Miss Leigh, if you’ll sign on the line below the oath, everything will be official.” Sergeant Thomas passed her the pen and pushed the paper toward her.
Coral took the pen and leaned over the desk to sign the oath. Her hand poised, motionless, over the document. Her fingers trembled. When at last she signed her name, the pen wobbled so she could barely scrawl her signature on the paper. She wrote the last letter of her name and tossed the pen onto the desk.
Sergeant Thomas recorded her name in a ledger before he passed the official document to her. “This is your copy. Keep it with you whenever you intend to purchase anything.”
Coral rolled the page into a small cylinder and tucked it into the fringed reticule dangling from her wrist.
“Good day to you, Miss Leigh. Thank you for coming here this morning.”
Coral met his concerned gaze, pierced to the heart by her betrayal. “I had no choice.”
She fled the building, Silvie trotting at her side. They hurried away from the Union headquarters, back onto the footway leading to the main street, jostling against men and women who crowded the path.
“Please, Silvie, not now. Not one word. I can’t talk about what I’ve done.”
In silence, they made their way to Garner’s Emporium. Mr. Garner gave her more money than she expected for the vase, with the promise of more when the piece sold. With some of the extra money she purchased a length of calico, enough to make dresses for her mother, Silvie, and herself. She also bought a pair of stout leather shoes of a kind she never would have considered putting on her feet before the war.
Now she reminded herself those days had vanished like the morning mist, never to return. From this day forward she’d be content with calico or homespun. Serviceable brogans for her feet would have to satisfy.
After locating the doctor, she acquired a brown bottle of Camphor’s Soothing Elixir for her mother, along with Dr. Davis’s promise to check on Mrs. Leigh the next day.
“Money, Silvie!” Coral shook her beaded reticule which held the greenbacks and gold coins acquired from the sale of her vase. She twisted about on the buckboard’s seat in order to address her companion, who sat on a blanket in the wagon bed behind her. “I haven’t seen real money for months, but now when we get home, I can pay you and Scipio the back wages I owe you.”
Silvie waved a hand in dismissal of Coral’s words. “Don’t you fret, Miz Coral. Scipio and I know you didn’t have the money to pay us. We aren’t stayin’ around just for the money.”
“I know that, and I’m ever so grateful. My mother and I would be in a sad way if either of you left us.”
“We won’t leave you. You’re all the family we’ve got.”
Coral squeezed Silvie’s shoulder. “Thank you, Silvie.”
Swinging around again to the front, Coral slumped against the back of the buckboard’s seat. Beside her, Scipio maintained his silence. Although he was invaluable to her in doing the heavy work about the plantation, he spoke sparingly.
Coral’s thoughts returned to her visit in Columbia.
“If I never see another Yankee soldier, it will be too soon.” She fanned her heated face with a folded scrap of paper. Curling tendrils of hair escaping from her chignon stuck to her cheeks and neck in the afternoon’s heat.
“These Yankee soldiers are here to stay, Miz Coral, so you’d best get used to ’em,” Silvie said.
“As long as I stay at Elmwood and don’t go to town, I won’t have to deal with them.”
“You have to go to town for supplies, so you’ll have to deal with them. You cain’t pucker up like a sour lemon every time you see a Yankee soldier.”
“Perhaps I’ll send Scipio to town for supplies.” Though it might take him a while.
Scipio let the reins lie slack on the back of the ancient mule hitched to the traces. The wagon creaked harshly with each ponderous turn of its wheels. Coral thought the mule heaved itself along more slowly than it had on the way to Columbia. In her impatience to get home, she felt she could walk faster than the wagon traveled.
“You’ll have to go yourself, Miz Coral, and you know it. You cain’t send Scipio. You have to take the certificate of allegiance when you buy anything. It has your name on it.”
“I never want to see that dratted certificate again. I feel like the veriest traitor for signing the thing.”
“You did what you had to do to get medicine for your momma.”
“This morning I pledged my allegiance to the Federal government of the United States, while my father and brother lie cold in the ground. They gave their lives for the Cause, while I just signed away everything they died for.” Her voice broke on the words as she recalled her betrayal.
“And would you let your pride keep you from gettin’ the tonic to help your momma?”
Sighing, Coral declined to answer Silvie’s indisputable logic. She wanted nothing more than to return home to Elmwood, to the peace the plantation offered, where no visible reminders of the Yankee conqueror could disturb her.