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It was stifling hot. The shutters were open and the drapes pulled back, but not a breath of air stirred the fabric. Nikki moved softly about the room, picking up wadded rags and dirty tea cups as she went. She could feel trails of sweat trickling down her back, pooling under her arms and making her petticoats cling to her legs.

Finally the house was blessedly quiet; in the bed, her sister had stopped moaning and lay motionless, breathing shallowly in her fever. The baby had dozed off too, listless in his cradle. Arms aching with the effort, Nikki picked up the empty water pitcher and tip-toed down the hall. She peered briefly into the girls’ room – the mosquito netting was drawn around the bed and she could barely see the lumps of her nieces’ bodies within. Across the hall the boys, too, were sleeping heavily beneath their wrap of white netting.

She left the rags and dirty dishes at the top of the stairs; Simone could take care of them in the morning. The curve of the staircase yawed before her. Her knees trembled as she stepped carefully, her knuckles white on the handrail as she gripped tightly. The water pitcher chinked softly against the keys at her waist.

She sighed in relief as she reached the bottom step and sagged momentarily against the heavy newel post. A figure materialized next to her, kerosene lamp in hand.

“You must be tired, Miss Nikki. Let me fetch the water for Miss Michelle.” A strong arm took Nikki’s and deliberately steered her through the nearby door.

“Thank you, Adrian. Is there water in the kitchen? I don’t want you to go down to the spring house.”

“Yes’m. I won’t set foot outside except to the kitchen.”

So tired, she didn’t register which room she was entering; was barely aware of Adrian gently pressing her to sit on the feather bed. It wasn’t until the weight of the pitcher left her hands that Nikki focused on surroundings.

“No, Adrian, I can’t sleep here.” She struggled to get out of the soft mattress.

“Miss Nikki, he ain’t going to arrive tonight.” Adrian’s voice was firm. “Even if your father would return to town, it’s not possible for him to come near the house. Not with those Yankees all camped around.”

Nikki’s shoulders sagged in surrender. Adrian, ever capable, quickly took advantage, kneeling on the floor to remove Nikki’s shoes. “And with all the hours you’ve spent nursing your sister and that baby, he’d want you to sleep here. You’ll catch sick yourself if you don’t rest.”

Adrian lifted Nikki’s feet and put them on the bed. Nikki tipped back and snuggled into the feather pillow beneath her head. “I’ll rest, Adrian, but only a little bit. Wake me when you return with the water pitcher.”

Adrian’s nimble fingers pulled the pins from Nikki’s hair and gently stroked her head, combing out the day’s snarls and tangles. “No miss, I won’t. I’ll get my Simone, she’s a good girl, and she can sit with Miss Michelle and the baby for the night. You need to sleep.” Nikki prepared to protest, but Adrian had the final argument. “What will those children do, Miss Nikki, if’n they lose both their mother and you? Lord knows when Master Paul or Mister Jason will return.”

“Oh that’s low, Adrian.” But sleep was already pulling Nikki down; her eyes were heavy and her tongue was thick.

“Yes’m it is. But you get some sleep. The sick will still be here in the morning for you to tend.”

***

The room was shadowed in pearl grey when Nikki awoke. She pulled back the mosquito netting and rolled to her feet. Her dress slipped off one shoulder; someone had loosened her laces in night. More than that, she realized immediately; they had loosened her corset laces as well for the undergarment slid slightly down her hips.

She needed to go to the privy, she needed to look in on her sister and baby nephew, she needed to check her household; but first things first. Crossing her arms over her bosom to hold her dress up, she walked to the dining room. It was early and not many of the slaves were about the house yet; but a young girl was there, setting the table.

“Good morning, Carla.”

The girl spun, dark eyes wide under the printed kerchief. “Oh, good morning, miss. You startled me. I didn’t know anyone was about yet.” A brief look of worry crossed her face. “There ain’t anything fit for you for breakfast yet, miss.”

“It’s fine, Carla. Actually I need something more than food right now.” She waved a vague hand over her shoulder. “How are you at laces? Can you fix me here?”

Carla nodded, laying the silverware down on the table, but the look of worry still creased her dark brow. “Wouldn’t you rather have Mother Adrian, Miss Nikki?”

“Where is Adrian?”

“She’s upstairs, with Simone, watching Miss Michelle and the new baby. She said she would sleep there, so’s Simone could wake her if they did poorly in the night.”

Nikki’s stomach clenched. Adrian had probably been up half the night, first taking care of Nikki herself and then helping Simone with the invalids. “No, Carla, let Adrian sleep. She needs it.” She turned her back to the girl, then glanced out the open windows. “Perhaps we’d better do this in my father’s room.”

***

The corset was still damp against her skin and the bodice of the dress was stiff with yesterday’s perspiration, but at least she was dressed and presentable. She ran her fingers through her hair, pulled it off her face and twisted it into a semblance of a chignon. Carla brought her a fresh pitcher of water and she washed her face and hands.

“I’ll disturb your chores for another few minutes, Carla,” she said. “I need to go down to the privy, then I want to walk around the house and look things over. Come with me, please.”

There were no men in the house presently, save the slaves. Michelle’s husband Jason had left months ago, riding off with General Braxton Bragg’s troops last winter. Nikki’s father, Dr. Wolfe, had accompanied Colonel Nathan Bedford Forest into the wilds a few weeks before Colonel Petrosian and his Union troops had arrived and made camp on the plantation. Nikki didn’t need a man to tell her not to walk out of the house without being accompanied.

She stopped at the kitchen to check on food supplies. Food stores were dwindling, Cook told her, and the Yankees were taking the vegetables out of the garden as soon as they were near-ripe. Nikki bit her lip in frustration. At the rate her crops were being eaten and destroyed, it would be a long and difficult winter.

A walk around the house did little to ease her frustration and worry. There were tents pitched in neat orderly rows from the front of the house nearly down to the town road. So many Yankees, she thought, how will Papa or Jason ever come home with them here?

She straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath. The air was thick and humid, more like drinking air than breathing it, even at this early hour. It would be another miserable day.

It was slightly cooler in the house; she kept the shutters partially closed to impede the sunlight, but the windows remained open all day and night to capture any passing breeze. Nikki dismissed Carla with thanks and a request for Christopher to attend her in the dining room.

Breakfast consisted of Cook’s fresh baked bread and coffee. Christopher, her father’s personal manservant and most senior of the house slaves, waited patiently for her to finish eating.

“Will you come into the parlor with me, Christopher?” She unlocked the door and entered the shadowy room. The parlor had been locked and unused since her mother’s funeral, almost two years ago. The curtains were drawn to protect the furniture, and the room was neatly put straight, with the couches, chairs and tables carefully placed against the walls.

Christopher looked distinctly uncomfortable, as he did every day when she met with him. He had been with her father since they were both boys and had been most unhappy when Dr. Paul rode off without him. Nikki relied on him heavily, both because of his status within the house slaves and to assist her in dealing with the Union commander and his men. But the parlor was the lady’s room, and both Nikki and Christopher were aware that he had no real place here.

“I need you to get Mr. George for me, Christopher.” Christopher’s mouth twisted in distaste, as the overseer was his least favorite person, but he simply nodded. “Then I will need to meet with Colonel Petrosian again.”

“You shouldn’t talk with that Yankee man, Miss Nikki.”

She had known Christopher would not approve of her taking what he viewed as the masculine role in the house. “I have to, Christopher. I have to know if he is going to let us harvest and sell our cotton in the fall. If he doesn’t, we will not have enough food for everyone this winter. His soldiers are eating all our crops; they’ve taken our hams and smoked beef.”

“Yes’m.”

“I’ll meet with them both in the library, please, Christopher.”

His dark eyes flickered to meet hers. “That be your father’s library, Miss Nikki.” It was as close as a slave – even a trusted, well-loved one as Christopher – could come to disapproval.

Nikki felt young, tired and overwhelmed. She wanted her father home – he could deal with the Yankees and the lack of food for the hundred or so souls in her care. She wanted her mother back – Madeline had been an accomplished nurse and would have known exactly what to do for Michelle and the baby. She blinked back the sudden prickling of tears and straightened her back. Life was as life was and no amount of wishing would change it.

“Yes, Christopher, but until he comes home I am mistress of the house and I will use the library as my father would. Please fetch Mr. George to me at his earliest convenience.”

It hurt, to be so firm with a longtime and trusted servant. And it would only get worse, she reminded herself, when she had to face down the Union commander. She relocked the parlor and went upstairs to sit with her sister until the overseer would come.

***

She met the overseer at the side door of the house. Unlocking the library, she invited Mr. George into her father’s office. Nikki found comfort in the library. Perhaps it was the lingering scent of her father’s cigars, mixed with the odor of the leather-bound medical books that filled his bookshelves. Carla brought in a teapot and cups and Nikki served tea as she invited Mr. George to sit at the table. Pouring herself a cup, she gathered paper, quill and ink pot and prepared for a long discussion of crops, livestock and slave labor.

Dealing with Mr. George was as difficult as giving orders to Christopher. Both men had been with her father a long time and neither was accustomed to taking orders from a woman, especially a woman of her age. It took much longer than Nikki wanted to get the necessary information from the overseer and longer still to convince him she did understand the difficulties facing the entire plantation household if their current circumstances were not altered.

At last she dismissed him and rubbed her aching temples. Lord save me from pigheaded men! She rose and walked around the room to stretch her legs and back.

“Enter,” she snapped, hearing the discreet knock at the door.

It was Christopher. “Colonel Petrosian is waiting for you, Miss Nikki.”

Nikki would have given three days’ meals to have a bath and clean clothes before meeting with the Union commander. “Have him wait in the hall a moment more, Christopher. I want to wash my face, and make myself presentable before I see him.” Christopher’s mouth twisted, clearly expressing his opinion, but he properly said nothing, only nodded at her orders. “Oh, and Christopher? Stay in the room with me while I meet with the Colonel, please?” The frown left his brow; he approved of this. It would not be appropriate for her, an unmarried woman, to meet with the enemy commander without a chaperone.

As a visitor, and especially as an unwelcome occupier of the property, the Colonel had been shown to the formal front hall. Nikki crossed through the back hall to her father’s room, where the pitcher of water still sat from the morning. She poured it into the bowl and scrubbed the lukewarm water over her face and neck, steeling herself for the coming confrontation. But she had delayed enough, she thought, and wiped her face on the hand towel.

Christopher was waiting for her in the library with a glass of cool buttermilk in his hand. She took a long drink and sighed with pleasure.

“Thank you,” she said. Tipping his head solemnly Christopher pulled her chair out for her. She sat, careful not to lean against the back of the chair. This was a formal meeting, she needed to set the tone from the minute the Colonel stepped into the room.

“Shall I bring the gentleman a glass of milk too, Miss Nikki?”

She couldn’t resist a smile. He asked the question strictly out of politeness; his opinion was apparent in his tone of voice. “No, I don’t think so, Christopher. This isn’t a social call, after all. We don’t want the Colonel getting too comfortable.” She read his approval in the softening of the lines of his face. “Would you bring Colonel Petrosian in, please?”

***

The Colonel was a jovial man, pleasant company even if he was the enemy. He stood a little shorter than Nikki’s father and was a little older than Dr Paul. He had, by his own admission, seen too much of wars and battles and was always most appreciative of Nikki’s hospitality – limited and grudging though the hospitality might be.

It was this side of the Colonel, the kind and grizzled old warrior that Nikki appealed to. She described her dwindling house stores, the plunder of the vegetable garden, the slaughter of her livestock.

“If your men do not stop raiding my provisions,” she explained, “my household will starve.”

Colonel Petrosian stroked his beard. “I appreciate your situation, Miss Wolfe, indeed I do. But this is a time of war and my men need to eat.”

“Surely you are receiving supplies from your superiors. You have control of the town; you have control of the railroad. I know supply trains arrive on a daily basis.”

“There are many men stationed here, ma’am, and many of those provisions are sent further down, to other divisions in the state.” He shook his head. “With regret, my men must eat.”

“So you will leave us here to starve this winter? I have no root vegetables to put in the cellar, I have no pigs to slaughter and smoke. I fear my wheat will be taken in the next few weeks as it ripens. I have a hundred souls in this house, sir, both slave and white, and it is my responsibility to feed them, to keep them safe over the winter. I beg of you to rein your troops in.”

The Colonel rose from the table, the sunlight glinting the brass buttons on his deep blue coat and the gold braid on the hat in his hand. “I will speak to my officers, Miss Wolfe, and see what can be arranged. I sympathize with your situation; it is most unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation and that a lovely young woman such as yourself should be in this position. You haven’t heard from your father or your brother-in-law?”

Nikki couldn’t resist a smile. “And if I had, sir, you can be sure I would not be telling you, no matter how charming you may be.” She rose as well and offered him her hand. “Thank you for hearing my concerns and taking what steps you can to assist us in our need.”

The Colonel bowed low over her hand. “For you, Miss Wolfe, I will do the best I can, given my position. I only wish we met under better circumstances.”

“Thank you, Colonel. Good day.”

***

“Come on, sweetheart, just one more sip, just for me.” Nikki sat on the bed, supporting her sister and trying to persuade her to drink from the invalid cup. Michelle whimpered, but opened her mouth enough for Nikki to slip the spout between her lips and pour a tiny amount of willowbark tea into her sister’s mouth.

It was excruciatingly hot in the upper room, but Michelle was shivering with fever chills. She was burning up; the heat of her fever seared through Nikki’s bodice and sleeve. Nikki’s day dress was soaked through with her own sweat, but the fever had Michelle deep in its grip and she burned, hot and dry.

Across the room, close to the window and what little breeze could be gathered, the wet nurse sat rocking the baby and attempted to nurse him. Nikki’s heart clenched; he had been feverish for three days now. His skin hung in loose folds and his cry was becoming weaker. Belinda had been most devoted to her little charge, expressing milk and dropping it, drip by drip, into his little mouth to keep some liquid in his tiny body.

Simone, Adrian’s oldest daughter, entered the room with a pitcher of fresh cool spring water. She went first to the baby, laying a wet cloth on his little head. Her eyes met Nikki’s and Nikki could read her thoughts; Simone knew. Nikki knew. His chances were poor and decreasing with each passing hour. Unless a miracle occurred - and soon - he would die.

Simone crossed the room with fresh cloths in her hand for Michelle. Nikki laid her sister down on her pillows; she and Simone carefully washed Michelle’s face and neck, laid wet cloths on her forehead and chest.

“Did she eat some, Miss Nikki?”

Nikki became aware of the tears running down her face only when Simone handed her a dry cloth. “A little. She took a little of the tea.” She looked down at Michelle, so white and so still now. “She’s stopped crying, so perhaps that’s a good thing.”

“Perhaps, miss.”

Nikki crossed the room to the pitcher and soaked a rag to wipe her face and neck. Her hair was tumbling out of its makeshift bun and she brushed impatiently at the tendrils that stuck wetly to her face. The house was hushed, sluggish in the mid-afternoon heat; even the boys lacked the energy to do more than play quietly with their jacks.

The sound of raised voices and pounding feet on the stairs startled all the women in the room. The baby roused enough to give a loud cry and Belinda quickly put him to her breast, hoping to take advantage of his momentary energy to get him to eat.

Nikki ran to the stairs, ready to scold whomever was making such a racket, but her voice caught in her throat when she saw her niece’s pale face.

“What is it, Casey? What’s the matter?”

“Oh, Aunt Nikki, you must come, right away. There are men, there are men on the back porch and they’re insisting they come into the house.”

Nikki gathered her skirt and dashed down the steep stairs. “What men? From where? Yankees?”

“Yes’m. I don’t know, Auntie, but they’re wearing blue and they say they have the right to come in. Adrian’s called Christopher and they’re holding them off, but … oh, Aunt Nikki, Adrian told me to fetch you.”

Nikki dashed into the library, threw open a bookcase and pulled down a box from the upper shelf.

“You’re a good girl, Casey, now you need to get your brothers for me. Get Seymour and Gregory and tell them I need them now.” Her hands were shaking as she opened the box and withdrew the small pistols. Her father had taught her to load the guns before he left, but she had never really thought she would need to use them.

“We’re here, Auntie.” The boys were in the door, ten year-old Seymour tall and gangly for his age; eight year-old Gregory a smaller shadow behind him.

“Good boys.” She picked up the first gun, snapped open the barrel. Barrel, cartridge, shot. “Go out. Find the first officer you can. Look for gold braid on the shoulders.” She picked up the second pistol, ignoring her trembling hands; the voices were getting louder on the porch. “Don’t waste time looking for the Colonel; these guns won’t hold those men off for long. Stripes – I think they wear stripes on their sleeves.” Barrel, cartridge, shot. “Go, boys, go. And be quick.”

Seymour’s dark eyes were huge in his pale face. He swallowed hard, nodded and was gone. Nikki slipped the one pistol into her pocket, tucked the other into the folds of her skirt and ran to the back of the house.

There were three of them, bearded and filthy, dressed in bits and pieces of grey and blue and homespun. One man stood before Christopher, screaming obscenities into her manservant’s face.

“What do you want?” She raised her voice to get their attention. When their eyes all turned to her, she gestured with her free hand to Adrian and Christopher to get in the house. They took a few steps back, but neither of them left the porch. Behind her she knew her nieces huddled wide-eyed in the doorway.

She took another step forward, keeping their attention fixed on her and away from her people. “I said, what is it you want?”

“We’re gonna search the house,” the first man responded in his flat Yankee accent.

“I have Colonel Petrosian’s word that my house and my people are not to be disturbed.”

“Well, the Colonel ain’t here, is he?” He took a step toward her and the smell of alcohol, burnt tobacco and days-old sweat radiated off him. “We’re gonna come in.”

“Where is your commanding officer? I want to speak to him.” Her fingers curled around the pistol tucked in the folds; not yet, not yet.

He hawked and spat, the spittle barely missed her skirt edge. “He ain’t here. Move aside girl, take your darkies and let us by.”

“You can’t come in. I have sickness in the house.”

That gave them pause. No one willing exposed themselves to sickness.

“You’re lying,” he said, but his voice gave away his uncertainty.

“I’m not. Ask my nieces; it’s their mother I’m nursing. My sister and her baby are ill with fever.”

“Don’t matter. They’ll tell me whatever you’ve told them to say.” He took another step toward her. “Let me by.”

She raised her gun hand, pointed it directly at his chest. “You’re not coming in my house,” she said, slowly and deliberately. “I have your Colonel’s word on that, as an officer and a gentleman. Now back down and get the hell away from us.”

He laughed, glancing at his companions. “What is that, a child’s toy?”

She pulled the hammer back and grasped the butt with both hands. “I’m a good shot. Do you want me to show you?”

“There’s three of us, girl.” Another man stepped closer behind him. “That’s a one-shot gun.”

“And which of you is ready to die today? I assure you, even a poor shot will not miss, not this close.”

The men exchanged glances, uncertainty on their faces.

Approaching hoofbeats broke the silence. A bay horse swept around the corner of the house and headed straight for them. The sunlight glittered on a drawn sword as the rider maneuvered between the men and Nikki and she instinctively cringed at the bare blade.

Instead the rider swung the flat of the blade on the Union soldiers. “Idiots! Les bâtards!” He slapped at them, heads and arms and legs. “You are a disgrace to your uniform, your unit, your army and to your Colonel!”

More horsemen arrived, surrounding the three men. Nikki’s knees collapsed and she sat down heavily on the porch. There was a roaring in her ears; she couldn’t hear the orders being shouted among the Yankees, there was only the pounding of her heart and a sudden cold sweat. She lay her head on her knees, overwhelmingly nauseated.

“Madam?”

She raised her head and the world tilted for a brief second before her vision cleared and her balance returned. It was the cavalry officer, slouch hat in hand. “If you would be so kind,” he gestured to her lap. She blinked at him, uncomprehendingly. “If I may be so bold,” he carefully reached over to her and gently pried the pistol from her clenched fingers. He released the cocked hammer and politely handed it back to her, grip first.

“Thank you,” she said haltingly.

The wind was rising, ruffling his long auburn hair and he brushed it out of his eyes. “On behalf of Colonel Petrosian and his senior officers, I offer our most humble apologies for the unpleasantness you have experienced. I assure you the men will be properly punished for violating their orders and for threatening you and your family.”

There was a slight hint of an accent in his voice and her curiosity was piqued, despite herself. “You’re not a Yankee.” She was slightly embarrassed by the note of accusation in her voice.

He gave her a small smile. “Originally French, Madam. But my family immigrated to the United States many years ago. I am a proud American now.”

His eyes were a fascinating mix of green and grey. As soon as the thought crossed her mind, Nikki rose to her feet. What a thought, and about an enemy! She brushed down her skirt, uncomfortably aware of her bedraggled appearance and the sudden, unspoken tension between them.

“I thank you, sir, for your assistance. I was – your timing was impeccable.”

“Your son was most insistent, you must give him most of the credit.”

She heard his slight hesitation over the word “son” and smiled slightly. “My nephew, sir, and most devoted to his family.” She extended her hand. “Thank you again for your timely assistance, sir. I have very little to offer you in terms of refreshment, but would you please come tomorrow to tea? I would appreciate the opportunity to thank you properly.”

He bowed deeply over her hand. “I would be most honored, Madam. Until tomorrow, then?”

“Until tomorrow, sir. May I know the name of my rescuer?”

“Michael Sammuelle, Madam. Major Michael Sammuelle.”