A Sample of "Catch a Shooting Star"

(C) Copyright Brianna Lee McKenzie 2011


Robin’s Glen Plantation
A wave of devastating flames blistered the earth behind him as General William Tecumseh Sherman marched on Atlanta on the fifteenth day of November and then swept eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean in his ambitious endeavor to cut the South to her knees and to make every Southerner suffer for the actions of the malevolent Rebel army.  Railroads were destroyed, nay, uprooted and then bent to his will by source of fire and sheer force of his men until they encircled tree trunks as a symbol to the Rebels that their necks would soon be bound by the ropes of justice.
Like the target of his conquest, communications were severed when telegraph lines were destroyed, cutting that region off from its core and impeding any warning to his next victim of annihilation.  Industrial activity was halted when his minions reduced mills and cotton gins to ashes and then burned thousands of acres of crops, scorching the earth in their wake.  From every farm and plantation, the inhabitants’ food stores were depleted when Sherman’s men killed any livestock that could not be confiscated or consumed by the invading soldiers.  He ordered them to seize vegetables, corn-meal and potatoes to feed the troops on his march toward Savannah, where he met with the United States Navy for more supplies and artillery, which he used to overtake that city.
Although he commanded his men not to enter the dwellings nor trespass any domicile that did not interfere with his campaign, no home, it seemed, was immune to his fury, no family went untouched by his dreadful descent upon this region which, according to many a Southerner,  he had declared distasteful and therefore must be cleansed of its loathsome depravity.
            Not even the vast plantation known as Robin’s Glen was immune.  Owned by Benjamin Star and diligently worked by many dedicated servants who had been freed many years ago by their master and who had refused to leave him even when their emancipation was proclaimed by the Union government.  Instead, these former slaves endured retribution for their loyalty as they crouched in their homes and then were violently forced to leave the only life that they had known when Sherman and his men plunged upon the plantation, where Benjamin and his wife stood against them with rifles raised as their beloved Robin’s Glen was pillaged and then set ablaze.    
            Three-year-old Savannah Star clung to the collar of her beloved Bessie, a freed slave who had been purchased years ago when the first child was born and who cared for Richard as if he were her own baby and then Savannah when she was brought into the world.  Tears of terror streamed down the little girl’s face as she pleaded with Bessie to make the horrible noise above them stop.  Her frightened violet eyes watched the scant opening of the well that shielded them from the devastation that went on beyond their sanctuary. 
            Bessie clutched the child to her breast in an effort to quiet the girl’s loud cries, hoping against hope that the men who passed by the well above them would not hear those anguished pleas.  Her own tears fell upon the dirt where she shielded the child with her ample body, praying that no harm would come to the girl that was so precious to her, the child that she loved so dearly that she would give her life for Savannah.
            “They’re breaking down the door!” Richard screamed as he clamored down the rope ladder and knelt at Bessie’s side.
“Come here, child!” Bessie enfolded the ten-year-old into her arms as she sobbed into his curly black hair.  “There ain’t nothin’ we can do right now but pray.”
“But, Mother, Father,” he blubbered into her breasts. “They won’t leave the house.  They’re fighting the troops!”
“I know, Richard, I know,” Bessie said to him as she pulled him away from her so that he could see the stern look in her dark brown eyes as she told him, “And they want you to stay down here where it’s safe.  Don’t you go back up there and git yourself caught by them Yankees.”
“Yessum,” Richard said, nodding and then he buried his head in her hefty shoulder and cried.
“Damn Yankees,” she seethed between her teeth as she held onto the children with all her strength. 
Try as she might, though, she could not shield them from the screams that tormented them from above the ground that covered them in a coffin of solitude.  The children shuddered each time a shot rang out and they shrieked when their father’s screams for mercy reached their ears. 
And when his mother’s scream was audible above the noise, Richard could stand no more.  He tore from Bessie’s arms and ran toward the rope ladder and disappeared into the blackness above. 
Long hours of silence prevailed, save for the crackling of burning wood that echoed against the dirt walls of the cave where they crouched.  Finally, Richard’s sullen feet breached the brim of the well and he climbed down to the dirt floor where he collapsed.
Bessie, with Savannah close at her heels, scurried to the boy’s body and held him in her arms, pleading with him to wake up.  When he opened his tear-swollen eyes and parted his cracked lips to reveal the message that was foremost on his mind, he coughed against the smoke that filled his lungs as he breathed dejectedly, “I couldn’t save her.”
“Who?” Savannah asked as she shook his smoldering shoulders.
“Mother,” he coughed.  “She was upstairs.  I couldn’t get to her.  Father…”
His head lolled against Bessie’s arm as he fell into unconsciousness.  His limp body lay motionless at her knees as she leaned over him and cried into his clothes.  Savannah grabbed her brother’s shirt and begged him to wake up and when he failed to heed her pleas, she left him in a terror-stricken tirade and climbed up the ladder before Bessie could stop her.
Feeling the scorched earth beneath her bare feet, little Savannah scurried toward the prone body of her father and fell onto him as she beat against his back and beseeched him to come to life.  And as Bessie knelt beside her and tried to pull her from the girl’s father, Savannah fought with all her might against the strength of her nursemaid’s hands.
“No!” Savannah cried angrily.  “He can’t be dead!  He just can’t be dead!”  And when Bessie bent to turn over her master’s body, Savannah fell upon her father’s chest and begged him, “Please come back, Papa, please!”
Then, as if summoned by the Angel of Life, Benjamin’s eyes fluttered and he groaned against the pain of the bullet in his side.  He looked at his daughter and then at Bessie, whose own face showed her gratitude for her master’s revival.
“Madeline,” he whispered his wife’s name as he tried to roll to his side to see the mansion engulfed in flames.
“She’s gone, Master Ben,” Bessie whimpered as she held him to the ground to keep him from running into the smoldering house and told him, “Ain’t nothin’ you can do for her now.”
Great sobs of sorrow racked his body as he pulled his little daughter into his arms and held her as if no other being on earth could fill the void of losing his wife.  Together, father and child melted into each other as grief took over and overwhelmed them with its merciless onslaught.
Later, when he was bandaged in the servant’s cottage, he lay next to his son on a cot only large enough for one.  But he refused to let Bessie take the boy from his side as they huddled on the mattress and healed. 
Little Savannah helped Bessie as much as she could and, it seemed to her nursemaid, the child grew up that day, right before Bessie’s eyes.  The girl did not cry anymore, not even when they laid her mother to rest.  She did not weep, but turned her sorrow into anger, into sudden outbursts of fury that she wielded at any who caused her pain.
When Father was well again and Richard’s body had recuperated, although he was prone to pneumonia for the rest of his short life, and when the mansion was rebuilt, Savannah vowed in her little girl voice and a stamp of her tiny foot that no one would ever cause her to cry again without being punished. 
The War ended and the Union was mended, but sore feelings still transcended upon the states that had seceded and then had been welcomed back as if nothing had come between them.  And as time drifted by, bitterness continued to loom in the air like a brewing storm, both in the southern states and within Savannah’s heart.
For her, every day that succumbed to the night’s dreadful dominion was thankfully transformed to its former glory, bringing with it a promise of favorable days to come.  And the pledge that the recurring rising sun assured her each morning when it winked its golden glow upon her upturned face was her guarantee that even in the darkness of distress, a bright new day would soon reappear.


Chapter One

            A howling wind battered the unrestricted shutters as if they were leaves still clinging to an autumn tree against the torrent of twisting currents that relentlessly inundated them.  Their hinges strained against the force of the gale that threatened to rip them from the adobe walls that clasped them.  But, still the grinding metal clenched against the whirling wind and held fast to the flailing window covers as if their survival was of the utmost importance.
            Somewhere in the distance, a faint cry echoed, barely audible above the whistling wind and the crashing wooden shutters.  The baby’s wailing became louder and louder, drowning out the frightening noise of the storm’s persistent onslaught.  The cries become louder still, until no other sound was perceivable; their insistent wails deafened any who could not resist their unceasing screech.
            Suddenly, there was silence.  The darkness gave in to the bright glare of sunshine outside the hotel room where Savannah Star lay.  Her sadness was a glistening reprieve against the fear that had gripped her dreams.
            She buried her face into the pillow and wept, her wracking body rocking the four-poster bed in which she had slept for the past twenty-odd months.  Her cries became louder and more pitiful until she finally uttered the name that had haunted her all these nights.
            “Benito,” she yelled into the feathered pillow.  “Benito!”
            She uttered the name over and over until her voice could no longer strain against the confines of the pillow. 
            She took in a deep, sullen breath, and then raised her head and whispered to the Heavens, “Benito. My sweet Benito.” 
            Then for what seemed like an eternity, her eyes fixed themselves on the feet that had carried her across the desert, through the muddy waters of the Rio Grande and into the hotel that was now her home.  Slowly, slowly, her mind drifted through the events and the tragedies that had brought her here, so far away from her home in Georgia, and so close to the man who had held her as his imprisoned bride.
            “Diego,” she seethed as she wrung her feet together in anger. 
            The man she had married three years ago was fifty miles across the Mexican desert, but to her, his presence surrounded her, filling her with fear and loathing so deep that she dared not cross the border to face him.
            Not yet anyway.  Not until she was certain that she had conquered the terror that he had instilled into her very soul.  Not until she had the skills to confront him, to shoot him down and his arrogant laugh with him.
            A shiver swirled through her body as she recalled that spine-tingling laugh, a laugh that, as the days crept into years, had become grating and dreadful.
            Looking intently at her tiny feet, she let her mind drift back to the days when her life was happy, before her marriage to the Mexican Baron, Don Diego Fernandez.  She thwarted a contented sigh as she wrapped a dainty foot around the other ankle and closed her eyes against the sight of the man who had troubled her mind and heart all this time.
            It had been early Spring when Don Diego had first come to her home near Atlanta, his charm and exuberance had been a welcome and delightful contribution to the staunch atmosphere that had hung over the estate of Robin’s Glen.  His charisma had welled in the halls of the manor, giving it a semblance of liveliness, which it had craved for so long; since that terrible day when Sherman had changed their lives forever.
            Father had met Don Diego through a mutual friend and had learned that the baron was rich and could offer him assistance in paying the back taxes and the overdue mortgage on his vast plantation, a mortgage that had been reluctantly entered into by Benjamin Star in order to restore the charred mansion to its previous glory.  Don Diego was all too happy to come to Robin’s Glen, a sprawling cotton farm that lay just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and to talk with Father about such a transaction. 
            Seventeen-year-old Savannah watched with pride and anticipation as Father took Don Diego on a tour of the plantation, for the Mexican baron beamed with satisfaction at the rolling green hills, the blooming peach trees and the beautifully manicured gardens that adorned the grounds.  She could see the gleam in the foreigner’s dark eyes as she watched from her prancing coal-black Tennessee Walker only a few feet away from him.  She saw, too, the spark of adoration when his eyes moved from the surroundings to fall upon her lovely face.
            A shy Savannah ducked her head.  She had not yet realized that she was as beautiful as Father had declared to her every day of her life and this strange man’s obvious scrutiny of her made her even more self-conscious.
            Deep in those dark illuminated orbs, she saw something that made her shiver with what she thought was excitement at first, for with his smooth, thick alluring speech, he enticed her into breathlessness.  But, there, beneath the sparkle of self-assured astuteness and magnetic charm was a tinge of unmistakable malice that caused apprehension to creep into her very soul. 
            She quickly averted her eyes when she saw that he had felt her uneasiness toward him and had smiled arrogantly in triumph.  Clamping her mouth into an exasperated line, she whipped her horse around and trotted away, her head held high as if to warn him of her obstinate temperament.  Awkwardly aware that his eyes bored into her back as she rode away, she heard him laugh a low, victorious laugh. 
            Angrily, she kicked her mount’s ribs and lowered her body as the horse lurched into a gallop and carried her away from his ostentatious stare.  But, when she was hidden behind a magnolia tree and safely out of his eyesight, she leaned back on the reins and whirled the horse back to face the man who had caused such agitation in her.
            Don Diego looked tall and handsome at the distance from which she felt comfortable watching him.  His lean body sat prominent and proud on that prancing imported Spanish stud.  His attractive brown face seemed truly interested in what Father was saying and his unmistakably genuine smile made him seem warm and compassionate.
Yet, even from the space that separated him from her scrutinizing glare, she still felt that unnerving apprehension which had gnawed at her very core from the moment he first looked upon her with his shrewd appraisal.  And that trepidation was enough to give her cause to avoid him until he would mercifully leave their home.
That day finally came when the handsome Mexican don bade Father Good-bye with a deep bow and a genuine smile.  For Savannah, there was a warm and passionate kiss upon her quivering hand, which he held firmly, yet gently within his palm.  And, when he winked a dark brown eye at her and smiled as if they had just shared a secret and intimate dialogue, she blushed deeper than the maroon gown that she wore.
Instinctively, she waved to him when he tipped his black suede hat while he sat pretentiously atop the stallion that pranced anxiously beneath his proud form.  She quickly pulled her hand down to join its mirror image at her waist where she rung them together in what she thought was fear.  And, once his retreating figure disappeared beyond the bend, she finally let out a breath of relief.
But, for some odd and compelling reason, she found herself missing his attentive stare, his alluring words and his soft, feather-light kisses upon her skin.  True, they were only meant for her hand, but somehow, she knew that those lips wanted to find their way to hers, and that silent promise, by God, made her miss him even more. 
She pulled in a breath of growing indignation at her body for craving his attention and then lifted her skirt for a quick and decisive departure from the veranda on which she stood with her father.  Narrowing her eyes at Father’s proud smile, she let out a harrumph and whirled away, leaving him to his glorious triumph.  She closed the glass-clad door behind her, but turned to look beyond her gloating parent toward the road onto which the man who had provoked different results in both of them.
He was gone.  Good riddance.  On with life, she thought as she left the door and crossed the drawing room floor toward the grand staircase that would carry her up to the sanctity of her room.  And once she was behind the wooden barrier, she hugged herself to ward off the shaking that seemed to overtake her body.
After long moments of anguished shuddering, she sighed deeply and straightened her back, shaking off the notion that any man, much less that smooth-talking Mexican, could cause her to experience such passion, such pleasure, such panic.  With a huff of determination, she thrust the thought of Don Diego from her mind, once and for all.
Thankfully, days turned to weeks, weeks into months, and finally months turned to years, taking with them, the anxious awareness that she yearned for him to return, to validate the unspoken vow to take her to places to which she had never dared to voyage: places from which respectable women kept their distance but toward which most of them ached to accelerate.  And that same passage toward a province of pleasure that propriety denied decent Southern young ladies, yet one that called to them from the deepest recesses of their lonely souls; and one which she, herself, had also painfully desired, slowly waned with the passing of time. 
So, too, did Father’s health decline with the cycle of seasons.  He never fully recovered from the gunshot wound to his hip bone, where the bullet had lodged itself, a constant and painful reminder of that horrific night when Sherman’s men had murdered his wife.  He took to his bed, only venturing out with the aid of a special-ordered wheeled chair and Savannah behind it.
It was in that wicker-lined chair that Father told her of his plans to have the grandest party ever given in her honor on her nineteenth birthday.  Flattered though she was, she argued with him to change his mind so that they could celebrate quietly, together—alone.  But he was adamant in his desire to make this birthday as memorable as any that she would have, so she finally conceded and brought paper and pen to him so that he could make lists of guests and embellishments for the occasion.
He seemed to heal himself with the preparations for the party and even started to walk on his own, strutting around with the aid of a silver-handled cane announcing his displeasure in the decorations that were going up in the grand ballroom.  His booming voice echoed throughout the house with his loud declaration that the crystal punch bowl that he had ordered was not large enough to suit him.
“Damn Yankee catalogue company,” he growled, dropping a dainty crystal cup onto the pink silk cloth that covered the long table at the end of the gallery.  “You’d think they would be smart enough to tell you the dimensions of their products instead of just drawing a weak rendition of it.  A person pays all that much for something, you’d think they would get their money’s worth.”
He stomped out of the room, just as Savannah was entering and he brushed by her in a rage, his voice never wavering from his angry outburst, “They won the war and now they want to take everything we own.  And they will get it.  If it’s not from their carpetbaggers or their outrageous taxes, they’ll get it through their unscrupulous sales tactics.  Devil’s minions, all of ‘em!”
Savannah watched Father stride toward the front of the house and out the large mahogany door, her face awash with unvoiced questions.  What had caused this sudden burst of anger, she did not know, but what was certain was that his mood would not improve if she told him of her plans to boycott his precious party.
She would have to wait; she thought as she walked into the gallery and looked at the silk-adorned table that took up most of the back wall.  She walked over to the table and with a delicate touch; she ran a hand across each of the things that it held.
          The table was covered in all manners of crystal glasses, silver dishes and fine china.  A large crystal bowl with a matching crystal ladle dominated the center of the table, its fine etchings were its crowning glory.  She stared at the cavernous bowl with a questioning frown as she wondered why Father had complained of its impractical size.  Then she picked up the catalogue that had fallen to the floor and looked at the page that was facing her.
            There, on the page was a picture of the punch bowl and its matching cups and ladle.  Beside the picture was a paragraph describing the product and next it was a price for which the patron would pay.
            “Oh, my!” Savannah breathed as she looked from the book to the bowl and back again in surprise.  “What a costly thing you are!”
            Immediately filled with guilt for wanting to call off the party because of a rumor that she had just overheard in the stables, she pulled in a breath of resignation and placed the catalogue on the table next to the crystal bowl.
            She would go through with it but she would not enjoy herself knowing that Father had planned her party as a bazaar for eager suitors.  She was not a heifer taken to market or to be sold out for breeding.  And she would never allow any man to use a ring, whether it is through the nose or on a finger, to force her to follow his lead.       
            Turning the catalogue around on the table and closing the paper cover, she read the ornate inscription as her fingers traced the letters.
            ‘Cox & Corbett Treasures & Trinkets, Albany, New York’ were printed in large, bold letters which would catch the eye of anyone within fifty feet of the book.  She knew this because after she left the long gallery and stepped toward the foyer, she found herself looking back at that pricey punch bowl and the words on the catalogue screamed their proclamation to her from across the room.
            “Damn Yankee catalogue company,” she found herself repeating her father’s rant at the company that had compelled him to buy such an expensive item for such an extravagant engagement.
            “Engagement indeed,” she seethed at her own ironical thought.
            That crystal punch bowl, sold by those filthy Yankees to her loving father, who’d bought it in order to find her a husband, would certainly be her undoing.  If it had not been so expensive and if the party did not mean so much to Father, she would march right back in there and smash that Yankee punch bowl to bits. 
To her, the Yankees were the cause to all of her problems.  From losing her mother in the fire and causing her brother to suffer tremendous pain before his death, to making Father spend his last dollar to buy a fancy bowl for a party in order to farm her out to the highest bidder, those Damned Yankees had ruined her life.  Cursing them inwardly, she stomped out of the house and into the garden, where she found her solace on more confounding occasions than she cared to admit.

Chapter Two

Savannah stood in front of the ornate mirror and studied the figure that stared back at her with an unsatisfied gaze.  The beautiful face was marred by a frown that caused the young visage to age before her.  The furrows between her brows seemed to deepen with sullen remorse and fearful trepidation as the thought of the party loomed over her like a dark cloud, causing heaviness in her heart that was overshadowed only by the sadness that she would have to leave her beloved father and home if this night’s affair was successful.
Fingering the delicate silk gown, she sighed heavily and rested her palm on her breast.  She felt the rapid beating of her heart beneath her fingertips and closed her eyes to calm her fears.
A soft knock at her door indicated to her that the time had come for her to make her appearance downstairs in the ball room.  She glowered at the door and grumbled at the faceless messenger, “I’m coming!”
The knocking at the door fell silent as she turned once more to the mirror.  Narrowing her eyes at the woman who did the same to her, she threw the silver brush at the scowling face.  The mirror shattered, raining slivers of glass around her feet.
With a huff of indifference at the fate of the mirror, she kicked a large piece of glass across the carpeted floor and turned toward the door to face her future.
With all the composure that she could muster, she walked proudly down the grand staircase to the foyer.  As she stepped onto the marble foyer floor and turned on the ball of her foot toward the long gallery that flanked the grand ball room, she paused to look at the portrait of her mother, which had been spared the blazing fate of most of the paintings that had been destroyed by Sherman and his troops.
The beautiful woman in the portrait stared lovingly back at her as if her mother was truly present.  The soft smile seemed to approve of Savannah’s attire and poise for the brushed green eyes twinkled with satisfaction at her daughter’s confidence as the girl left the painting and passed the gallery.
Pausing once more in the room which was filled with food and drinks and milling guests who had spilled out from the great expanse of the grand ball room, she smiled sheepishly at the attendees and then gallantly, regally, stepped into the ball room.
She heard the room hush from the din that had filled it and then whispers of approval and murmurs of adoration reanimated the room as guests swept across the floor to greet her.  She took in a breath as a sudden eruption of fear attacked her and she felt the urge to turn on her heels and dash back upstairs to the sanctity of her room.
Answering the call of her fears, she began her departure when, suddenly, her father’s voice stopped her. 
“There’s the most beautiful girl in all of Georgia, Hell, in the whole South!” he yelled as he stepped toward her and leaned upon his cane as he touched a palm to her trembling cheek.
The room of guests agreed with him in a sigh of concurrence as they surrounded her in harmonious admiration.  The mob guided her to the rear of the room where she was left to stand beside her loving father while the guests lined up to introduce themselves to her. 
She smiled and nodded to each as they passed by her with outstretched hand and repeated the same phrase that the last person voiced, “Happy Birthday.”  And when a hug was offered, she returned the warmth with a whispered, ‘Thank you’, into their ear.  One by one, they stepped toward her, uttered their pleasure at meeting her or seeing her again, and then stepped sideways to allow the next devotee to do the same; while Savannah’s mind hastened her to a place where she felt safe and alone.
It was in this state of sanctuary that she failed to see the familiar face in the crowd that crept slowly toward her, waiting patiently for his turn to greet her.  Drifting on an endless cloud of security, she never noticed his charming smile, the alluring twinkle in his dark eyes or the suave and debonair stance that brought him slowly closer to her presence.
Savannah pasted the same thankful smile upon her ample lips with each passing guest, taking the hand that grasped hers and saying the same words over and over until his hand caught hers and his head bowed to place a warm and devoted kiss upon her fingertips.
Suddenly brought to her senses, she froze at his touch, but then relaxed with his soft words of rich appreciation.
“My lovely Savannah,” he said with the same thick accent as before when they had first met.  “How you have grown into a beautiful swan.” He pursed his lips and shook his head as if he disagreed with his own opinion of her before he corrected, “Beautiful, you were before, but now—now, you are breathtaking!”
Savannah blushed and shook her head to disagree, but he pursed his lips and squeezed her hand to assure her, “But you are, my dove.  You are as beautiful as the morning sun, rising over the earth to blanket the land with her breathtaking beauty.”
Her violet eyes widened as his arm flew above his head in a gesture to reinforce his words, filling her heart with joy.  She felt his heated gaze upon her as he continued his gracious speech and, once more, she became uncomfortable. 
“Don Diego,” she stammered, removing her hand from his grasp and then placing it upon her heaving bosom.  “How delightful to see you again.”
“Delightful,” he repeated with a rumbling chuckle.  “I would describe it was wondrous, exciting, invigorating, but not merely ‘delightful’.”
She cleared her throat to calm herself as the uncomfortable feeling rose and she corrected, choosing one of his words, “Exciting, then.”
She watched his face turn from a disappointed frown to a pleased smile as he took her hand once again.  She allowed him to possess it once more, the warmth of his large hand overtaking her from the point of his invigorating touch and then coursing throughout her body. 
Without asking permission from her father or the other guests, he pulled her from her position of receiver and guided her away from the crowd.  His firm grip on her forearm caused her to follow him out onto the veranda where he whirled her away from the door as he closed it behind them.
“Mi Querida,” he whispered into her hair as he pulled her into his arms.  “I have missed you so.”
Taken aback by his familiarity, she stiffened in his arms, and then tried to pry herself from his grasp, only to be held fast by his strength.
“Don’t fight it, my darling,” he whispered.  “It was meant to be.”
“I don’t—I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she stammered into his chest as he melded her to his formidable form.
“Our love,” he breathed in a thick and boastful voice as if incredulous that she did not agree wholeheartedly while he thrust her to arms’ length.  “You cannot deny it any longer.  You felt it years ago, I know, for I felt it also.  And now, my love, you feel it even more.”
“No,” she shook her head in protest as she fought to breech his grasp.  “I don’t.  I can’t.”
“Oh, but you can, Querida,” he cooed as he slipped his arms around her once again.  “You can and you will.  For you are mine.  Your father has promised me.”
Savannah’s overwhelming anger and surprise gave her the strength to push herself from his grasp.  Putting her hands up to ward off his intended advance, she growled, “My father?  Promised you?”
Diego shrugged as if she should have known about the secret arrangement set forth two years ago and finalized only this evening in the drawing room with her father over cigars and glasses of warm brandy. 
“It is your father’s dying wish that you are well cared for, that you want for nothing, my dear,” he said in a smooth voice as if he felt that she should agree in order to please the man whom she adored.
“But I will be,” she argued.  “His estate, his wealth will assure that.”
Diego clucked his tongue and shook his head in feigned disappointment at her arrogant tenacity, then reached for her once again, divulging, “His wealth, my dear, is no more.  This estate is now mine.”
Savannah shook her head in shattered disagreement as she backed away from him, crying, “No! It’s not true!”
“It is, Mi Querida.  He gave me a promissory note just two years ago when he borrowed money from me and then, when he could not find the finances to repay me, he contacted me and agreed to my offer to marry you so that the estate could stay in the family.  So, you see, my dear, you cannot refuse me.”
Continuing to back away from him, her steps took her closer to the edge of the veranda until she found herself teetering and then falling toward the ground.  Strong arms caught her and pulled her to safety as his soothing words compelled her to give in to his advances.
“Do not fight it, my dove,” he cooed as he brushed a dark curl from her forehead and leaned closer to her face so that his lips were so close to hers that she could feel his words upon them, “I am all that you have.”
“No,” she growled, pushing him away again and stumbling her way back toward the house.  She yelled at him without looking back, “I will never marry you!”
She threw open the door and was assaulted by the noise of the guests and their reverie, the music and the boundless joy that filled the ballroom, then she turned back toward Don Diego and glared as she repeated, “Never!”
Don Diego chuckled lightly as he watched her make her escape, then he turned away from the light of the house and peered into the nightscape with a sigh of victory. 
“You will marry me, Savannah Star,” he told the night sky.  “And your life will be mine to control.”
He turned back around to look inside at the raging tirade that she had begun and he laughed a hearty laugh of triumph as he swore, “All that you have will be mine to control.”
Savannah’s anger roiled into an explosion that caused the guests to wonder whether she was sane or not as she stomped by them, through the ballroom and into the gallery.  She ignored their questioning stares and appalled gasps as she stormed toward the table that had been carefully decorated for the occasion.  With one quick movement, she bent to clutch the pink silk tablecloth into her fists and pulled with all her angered might until the entire contents of the table lay in a shattered heap at her feet.  Pink punch mingled with crystal shards and delicate frosting and moist cake smeared the marble floor, creating a colorful painting of blended tints that echoed her violent rage.
Stepping over the mess, she hitched up her gown and glided toward the grand staircase as if nothing was amiss.  Her pleasant smile and delicate poise carried her up the stairs and away from the wide eyes of the crowd.
Benjamin Star watched his daughter’s fury in action with just as much surprise as the guests and when all was quiet again, he cleared his throat and tapped the bottom of his cane on the soiled floor, asking whoever would listen, “Where’s the music?”
            Between the long silence that followed Savannah’s outburst and departure and her father’s boisterous declaration that all was well in that one demonstrative question, there seemed to have been hours of staunch stillness where all looked to one another for an answer to the reason as to why the honored person had brought a sudden end to the party.  Having Benjamin denounce their theory caused the guests to suddenly come alive with merriment as they all twirled around and re-entered the ballroom where lively music greeted them.
            Savannah slammed the door to her room knowing that her one last angered gesture would not be heard by the crowd below, for the music had begun to fill the house once again.  She pulled at the gown to remove it and then tossed it to the floor.  She twisted the combs from her hair and threw them toward the shattered mirror on her dressing table and then fell upon the bed in anger, confusion and grief.
Why had Father promised such a thing to the Mexican stranger?  Did he not care that his only daughter did not agree with such a union?  Did he not care if her heart would never enjoy the love that all girls crave from a husband? 
Tears began to drift down her cheeks to the pillow below as her body racked with sobs that came from the pit of her soul.  Her trembling shoulders shook the bed as she cried her self-pity into her forearm. 
She had been betrayed.  She had been sold to the highest bidder, just as she had feared.  She had been promised to the one man who had, upon their first meeting, caused an unconsciously fearful reaction in her that she could not explain and had hoped to never experience again.
But she did feel it again.  And she would, for the rest of her life, feel that same dread every time he looked upon her, every time he touched her, every time he kissed her.
“Oh, why, Father,” she cried aloud to the ceiling above her.  “Why would you do this to me?”
She cried for moments longer until her anger began to take control once again.  With that as her catalyst, she sprang from the bed and flew to the wardrobe to retrieve her riding habit.  Quickly donning it, she escaped from the house and all that it represented and slipped to the stables where she found the one thing that made her feel loved.
Star Dancer greeted her with a light whinny when he saw her appear in the doorway of the stable and his large black head bobbed with delight when she came to him and reached up to rub his nose.  He stamped his front hoof on the straw-strewn floor of his stall in anticipation of an evening run with the woman who adored him almost as much as he adored her.
Savannah threw the blanket over the gelding’s glistening black back and followed it with the gentleman’s saddle that she felt so comfortable on.  Then she lowered the bit so that the horse would take it into its mouth, as he had been so patiently trained to do.  Checking the cinch once more, she dropped the rope that was clipped to his halter and opened the stall gate.  Without waiting to lead him out of the stable, she mounted the prancing horse and nudged him into a quick walk.
Outside the stable, she peered around for any onlookers who might disclose her covert retreat.  Seeing no one except for the kitchen servants throwing out the mounds of leftover food to the pigs and chickens, she spurred Dancer into a gallop.  The horse’s hooves took her away from the mansion and its guests, particularly one loathsome guest and the father who had given her to the man without her consent.
The full moon glistened above her, using the last moments of its glowing reign in the black, starless sky to light the way for her as she slowed the gelding to a walk.  She smiled at his appreciative snorts while watching the clouds knit themselves together, engulfing and then completely covering the retreating orb.  She patted the sleek black neck of the gelding and then settled into the saddle for a long, calming ride into the shadows that enveloped her and her leisurely plodding mount.  Dropping the reins in a gesture that told her beloved horse that she trusted him completely, she sighed and folded her arms in front of her, letting her mind drift upon the darkening clouds that gathered above her.   Twirling and roiling, backlit by a sparkling array of lightning that illuminated their ominous dance, they rumbled a threatening growl, but she was not at all alarmed by it.  Instead, she welcomed the crisp breeze that churned through the trees around her and breathed fresh, invigorating excitement into her body.  Taking in a deep, cleansing breath, she threw her arms wide at her sides to invite Mother Nature’s electrifying inundation into her parched soul.  With all her heart, she welcomed that illusive emancipation from her world’s idiotic imperative that she should remain a woman enslaved and oppressed by the opposite sex while she searched the Heavens for that benevolent bequest of a devoted benefactor in the form of an adoring man who would quench her thirst for love once and for all.    

The blackness boasted its foreboding warning as a lone rider trotted his mount toward the city of Atlanta, his anger spurred by the menacing clouds that had suddenly appeared in a sky that had, only moments ago, been quiet and cheerful.  The Palomino stallion beneath him threw its large head as a clap of thunder rumbled around them like a battlefield barrage.  The rider pulled hard on the reins and dug his heels into the stirrups in order to settle the horse down.  His sizeable palm stroked the pale neck of the Palomino as he softly whispered to the prancing mount.
“Easy, Blazer, easy,” the man cooed, transferring his calm manner through his voice and his hand to the quivering animal beneath him. 
The horse dipped his head and then with renewed courage, it took a forward step and then another.  Encouraged by his rider, Blazer began an onward trot once again, his ears pricked forward and his nose wide with excited apprehension.
“That’s better, boy,” the rider said as he rewarded it with a sound pat on its neck before he spurred it into a gallop.
Travis Corbett pulled his Stetson lower onto his forehead while he raised the collar of his slicker in preparedness for the coming storm.  A huff of indignation at the sudden squall was his response to the tempest that threatened to trigger him to find shelter for himself and his horse.  His anger at the weather did nothing to calm him against the seething revenge that roiled in his blackened heart as he tucked himself lower into the saddle and urged Blazer toward the lights that flickered around the bend in the dirt road that he had followed for the past three hours.  While his rage rumbled with the thunder, his aching heart echoing the agonizing memory of the death of the most important person in his shattered world.
She had been his love, his life, his future, his wife.  She had been the only reason that he had found to remain an honorable man who’d lived only for her.  She had given him a reason to believe that not all people in this Godforsaken world were liars and despicable hypocrites who would stab him in the back in order to satisfy their own agendas.  And she had melted his heart with one look of her soft green eyes, with one twitch of a smile from her dainty lips and with one touch of her feather-soft fingers upon his skin.  Yes, his Melody was truly a symphony of love to his otherwise hateful heart.
But, now, she was gone, stricken down by a cowardly assassin whom she had taken in as a houseguest while Travis had been away with his occupation as a traveling salesman for his family’s company.  And it was that man for whom Travis had dedicated his life to finding and punishing before he took the man’s life.  There would be no rest for him in his quest to eradicate the world of the heartless likes of Diego Fernandez and all those associated with him.  For, the man whom he sought was, according to recent reports, only a few miles away at a plantation called Robin’s Glen.
With his thoughts filled with his livid dreams of avenging his wife’s murder, Travis failed to see the figure of the fleeing black horse that flew by him on the road in the opposite direction.  His ears failed to hear the pleading cry of the tiny woman who flailed about on the back of the rampaging animal as it sped by him.  But his instinct told him to take his mind away from is impassioned visions of a satisfying execution and to rein in his mount to see what had passed him in such a fiery fury.
The retreating black horse carried the small figure down the path and, failing to make the turn in the road, it thrashed headlong into the forest.  Its female rider ducked her body to avoid the onslaught of branches and screamed in terrified shrieks as the forest swallowed her up.
Travis spurred Blazer toward the girl and her wayward horse, closing the distance between him and the black shadow that carried its rider into oblivion.  His heart burst with worry for the girl whose squeals of panic and trepidation echoed above the thunder that shook the trees as he entered the forest to save her.  The horse below him darted in and out of the approaching trunks that reached out to unseat him at every turn until finally, the black horse was within an arms’ reach.
With one fluid movement, Travis swept his long arm out toward the girl and scooped her from the back of the black bolt of lightning and onto the saddle in front of him.  His strength encompassed her as he slowed Blazer to a halt in an orchard that swayed with peach trees.  While she tightened her arms around his neck, his palm held her tiny wet head as he soothed her whimpers and patted her jerking shoulder.
He felt her calm down and her sobs slowed, so he pushed her to arms’ length and cupped her face in his large hand, peering into her eyes as she looked up at him in affectionate appreciation.  The lightning shone brilliantly in the dark violet orbs that welled up with tears of relief at her salvation.  Her growing smile revealed bright, straight teeth that glowed in the darkened surroundings.  Her damp cheeks swelled into apples of fervent glee at her happiness to be held by the man who had saved her life.
Savannah narrowed her violet eyes at the stranger who stared down at her and the grateful smile that had lit up her face slowly faded as she realized that he held her much too closely for a lady to endure.  Instinctively, she wiggled away from him and slipped from in front of him in the saddle to the ground in an effort to chase away the longing that had suddenly engulfed her freezing body with a warmth that she had never known before.  She smoothed her soaked riding skirt around her hips and tucked her blouse more appropriately into her belt before she made an effort to curtail her unruly ringlets.
With a haughty intake of air and a huff reminiscent of the gracious upbringing that had been drilled into her as a child, she raised her chin to the man who, still mounted, loomed above her like a dominant god.  Her ostentatious manner quickly replaced by nervousness, she cleared her throat and began her speech.
“I do appreciate your having saved me from my most assured demise, Mister, and I am positive that my father will be grateful enough to extend his appreciation with a handsome reward,” she declared in all the Southern aloofness that she could muster in her effort to thank the man for his rescuing her.
“I’m sure he would, Ma’am,” Travis started, touching his fingertip to the brim of his hat before he shifted in the saddle above her.  Still taken aback by her cold manner, he refused to dismount and address her as he was certain she thought she deserved. 
With a deep breath and a deeper sigh, he continued, “I’m surprised that a lady like you would be traipsing around in the dark alone, much less in a storm like this.”
Savannah cocked her chin defensively and stated as if he were merely a servant and not the angel who had saved her life, “I have you know, I ‘traipse’ this road daily by myself and have never come to any harm.  Everyone knows me around here AND who my father is and no one gives me any difficulty for my actions.”
“I’m quite sure, Miss, that you can take care of yourself under normal circumstances, but this storm is a deathtrap for anyone, especially as gracious a young lady as yourself,” Travis drawled, mimicking the tone that any Southern gentleman would adopt in order to converse with such a spoiled child.
“Normally,” she retorted, her violet eyes flashing brightly in the lightning above her.  “I can take care of myself.  Why, I’ve even ridden in a storm before, but Dancer was frightened by a deer that ran out in front of us and he bolted.  I lost my hold on the reins and couldn’t stop him.”
She neglected to tell him that she had been lost in thought and still letting Dancer have the reins when the deer had frightened the gelding.  But, he need not know all the facts; she sniffed in superiority at the man who, unlike a gentleman, still remained mounted above her. 
Travis dipped his head, draining the puddle of rain from the brim of his hat before he nodded in earnest agreement, then pulled up on the reins when Blazer danced at the sudden cold flood of water on his withers.  With a growl to the stallion below him, he dismounted and gently pushed the horse to a tree where he secured him and then returned to the young woman’s side.
“That’s understandable, Miss, and I won’t argue with your ability to find your way around these parts, but you seem too shaken up to ride right now,” Travis began as he removed his slicker and placed it gingerly upon her slender shoulders.  He continued with his speech, his voice now softer, “And besides, it seems your Dancer has danced away and now you’re afoot.”
Savannah dipped her head in embarrassment, then shuffled her muddy feet as she replied, “I only live a few hundred yards away through these woods, I’m sure I could walk home.  And, I’m sure Dancer is already waiting at the stables for me.”
“Well,” Travis started as he towered over her, his belt buckle merely inches from her breast.  “I suppose I could ride you home.  I’m sure I could take a few minutes of my time to get you safely there.”
“There’s no need,” Savannah stammered, her heart fluttering at his close proximity.  “I’ll be fine.”
“I wouldn’t hear of it, Ma’am,” Travis drawled, tipping his hat ever so politely at her, his face coming close to hers in order to hear her above the claps of thunder.  “Why, I would never forgive myself if I left you out here and then found out that something terrible had happened to you.  No, Miss, I think I’d feel better, just the same if I escorted you back home.  That is, if you would allow me to.”
Electricity sparked between them, a phenomenon that had nothing to do with the lightning that struck around them.  Leaning closer still, his face only a breath away from hers, Travis whispered onto her upturned lips, “I wouldn’t want to offend you.”
Savannah froze for moments too long, waiting for the warmth of his lips upon hers, but then she came to her senses when her Southern upbringing sounded an alarm in her confused mind.  She took a step backward into a tree trunk and stumbled, her slick muddy boots sliding across an exposed root, causing her to topple toward the ground.  In an instant, his strong arms caught her and held her there for a heartbeat before she was righted and steadied with those same brawny arms.  Through the cold rain upon her skin, she could feel the heat of his hands while they lingered in the hollow between her ribs and her hips.  Her disappointed eyes followed him as Travis stepped away from her after he saw that she could stand without falling again.  Then she lowered her head and pulled the slicker tighter around her shivering frame.  A demure smile and a mumbled ‘thank you’ was his only reward.
But, she knew that she had no recourse but to agree with the man who had shaken her more than the passing storm had, so she nodded briefly and agreed with his request, “Very well, you can take me home.”
She let him take her elbow and lead her to the pawing Palomino.  She waited for him to mount before raising a hand to his and then she jumped so that he could lift her.  Her effort was not necessary, for his strength was enough to lift her onto the horse and then some. 
She settled onto the rump of the stallion, her wet body as far away from the stranger as possible without slipping back over the horse’s tail, but the man’s strong hand whipped back and captured her arm and tucked it beneath his own.  The other hand followed suit until she was securely fastened to him like a blanket swaddling a baby.  She felt a pat on her hand as if he was satisfied that she would not let go and then a sudden hop as the horse lurched forward with the touch of the man’s spurs.  
The two rode in silence, the rain pelting them with an unyielding barrage until, finally, the trees broke and a large meadow appeared.  In front of them, the looming manor house glowed with merry brightness, its inhabitants still enjoying the exuberance of the party.
Savannah seethed at the inviting imitation of gaiety that seemed to illuminate into the bricked driveway that they had clip-clopped onto.  Her anger at her father and Diego made her stiffen suddenly as the stranger stopped the horse in front of the great double front doors and leaned around to face her.
“Something tells me you would have liked to stay out there in that storm,” he said as he reached a hand around to help her dismount.
“I should say so,” she muttered under her breath as her feet touched the ground.
“Will you be alright?” he asked, his eyes showing the concern that he felt for this tiny creature that had suddenly turned from a fighting feline into a frightened little rabbit.
Nodding, Savannah bit her lip unconsciously before she took a step toward the house.  Her heart dropped to the bottom of her belly when she saw Diego’s dark figure appear in the opened door above her.  She stopped in her tracks.  Her feet would not move despite her urge to flee and defy the man who called gently and soothingly to her from the light of the home that he had invaded.
Within an instant, the stranger was at her side, his strong arms keeping her from dropping to the ground and melting into the puddles that surrounded her.  His warm voice encouraged her to move forward as he pulled her toward the house.
“I’ll go in with you,” Travis assured her with a slight hug of his strong arm around her withering shoulder.  “Just to make sure everything is alright.”
“N-no,” she stammered.  “I’ll be fine.  Thank you for your help.  I really do appreciate it.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, his reassuring smile letting her know that he would take care of her if she needed him to.
She nodded, staring fearfully at the silhouette in the doorway, and then she took a step away from the man who had saved her life and who would most assuredly save her from the one who could ruin her life if he had a mind to.
Travis nodded to her and tipped his hat before he bowed to take her hand in his, then he told her, “If you need anything, I’ll be in town.  My name is Travis Corbett.  I’m staying at the Grand Hotel.”
“Thank you, Mr. Corbett,” Savannah said warmly, squeezing his hand gently.  “I appreciate everything that you have done for me.”
With a genteel cock of his head, he bowed again and let her hand drop.  And, as he narrowed his eyes at the figure standing in the doorway, he told her again, “If you need anything…”
“I know, the Grand Hotel,” she said with a smile and a gracious nod.
“Well, then, Miss,” Travis began as he turned to leave her.
Savannah,” she muttered without thinking that a woman of her upbringing does not allow any man, let alone a stranger, address her with her given name.  Remembering this, she corrected, “Savannah Star.”
“Miss Star,” Travis said cordially.  “I am very pleased to have made your acquaintance.”
“As am I,” she agreed, dipping her head to the side graciously before turning toward the house.
She heard him remount his horse and urge it forward with a cluck of his tongue as she tripped up the stone stairway to the man who would now take her life into his hands.  An ominous clap of thunder was her initiative to hurry up the stairs and into the house, breezing by Diego without a word.  Up the winding grand staircase and out of his reach, she ran to her room and slammed the door.
She tiptoed to the window and pulled back the heavy drapes to watch the stranger slowly fade away from her life forever.  Gone was his gentle touch, his worried expression, his caring gestures.  The soft lines of his forehead and the tiny dimples that had shown themselves in the light of the storm would disappear with him and never return to her.
And his eyes, were they dark gray or brown?  The shadows of the trees seemed to have camouflaged them as he’d peered down at her.  She wished that she had memorized as much of him as she could in order to relive those precious moments stolen in the midst of the storm.  But, it seemed, all she had left of him was a distant memory and the muddled and wet slicker that she had dropped on her floor as she had ran into her room. 
She turned from the window and what could have been a better future if she had just had the nerve to defy her father’s will and let Travis Corbett take her far away from her confounded obligations.  Silly and fleeting dream that it was, she knew that it was all that would keep her alive for the years to come; and one that she would dwell upon for the rest of her life, if that is what it would take to keep her sanity intact.

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