Before the war, Belle Ainsworth led a life of pleasure and privilege in the deep South. Five years after losing her fiancé at the Battle of Gettysburg, she is still alone, with no prospects for marriage among the remaining men of her acquaintance. But out west, there are possibilities. And when Belle answers an ad for a mail-order bride and boards a train to San Francisco to meet wealthy restaurateur Robert Romano, it’s with the hope of at last making her dreams of family come true. When the train is robbed, Yancy McLeish, a disillusioned Union Army hero, rescues Belle from her attackers—and lays claim to her heart. But Belle has pledged her troth to Romano and intends to honor that commitment. It’s a decision she soon regrets, for her groom-to-be is nothing like his letters. As she plots a course to escape Romano, Belle prays that road can lead her back to the safety of Yancy’s arms, where she believes she was always destined to be… Praise for Shirley Kennedy and her novels “The historical details are vivid and realistic and should appeal to fans of the historical romance genre. The characters are interesting, the story is engaging, and the romance is slow-building and sweet. River Queen Rose is a great start in what looks to be a promising historical series by Kennedy.” — RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars “Shirley Kennedy spins a tale sure to pull at the heartstrings of her readers.” — RT Book Reviews on Three Wishes for Miss Winthrop, 4 stars
Release date: July 17, 2018
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 226
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Bay City Belle
Savannah, Georgia, 1870
Miss Annabelle Ainsworth, known as Belle, never missed the semi-weekly meeting of the Georgia Ladies of the Confederacy. At today’s meeting, held in the parlor of the Elihu Barnes residence, visits to veterans’ hospitals were arranged and the annual report from the Committee Dedicated to the Beautification of the Graves of the Glorious Dead was heard and approved. Soon both old and new business had been efficiently dispatched. As they always did, the members conducted themselves with profound dedication. The war had ended over five years ago, yet the consequences of that terrible conflict lived in the hearts and minds of everyone present. As far as the ladies were concerned, General Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House happened yesterday.
Refreshments and social chitchat followed. Ordinarily Belle enjoyed this part best, but at the moment, her mind kept wandering. If there was anything more boring than listening to the endless prattle of Miss full-of-herself Allegra Barnes, she didn’t know what it was. Not that she’d let it show. She sat, teacup in hand, face carefully arranged in an expression of attentiveness, as if she couldn’t hear enough of Allegra’s account of her struggles with her latest achievement in the art of embroidery.
“So I decided to go with the dollhouse cross-stitch,” Allegra rambled on. She paused and got a curious grin on her face. “But enough of all that. Ladies, I have something exciting to tell you.”
“What?” came a chorus of curious female voices, including Belle’s and that of her sister, Victoria, who sat beside her.
“I’m going to get married.”
Everyone gasped. Belle set her cup down with a clatter and exchanged stunned glances with Victoria. In the old days before the war, such an announcement wouldn’t have come as such a shock, but now? Who on earth was Allegra going to marry? More to the point, who was left to marry? The war had cut a deadly swath through the male population of Georgia. The battles at Gettysburg, Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and more had taken countless Confederate lives. If a bullet hadn’t felled their brave soldiers, then dysentery, typhoid, and God-knew-what diseases did. And even if they’d lived… Belle felt a twinge of sorrow, as she always did when she thought of Bridger, her brother. He’d survived the war but would never be the same. Come to think of it, neither would she. At the age of twenty-five, she should have been comfortably married by now, with at least a child or two, but she’d lost Jeremy, her fiancé, at Gettysburg. In fact, most of the beaux who’d courted her were gone now, so here she was, single, childless, living with Victoria and her husband. Not that she led a useless life—far from it. Her busy sister depended upon her to help care for her three children who all adored their aunt Belle. In turn, she loved them so dearly she hardly missed having children of her own, or so she told herself.
Victoria was the first to respond to Allegra’s stunning marriage announcement. “That’s wonderful news. Is it someone we know?”
“But of course he’s a Southerner.”
“Not exactly.” Allegra got that smug, superior look on her face that annoyed Belle to no end. “Don’t worry, dear, he’s not a Yankee.”
“Then who?” came the chorus. “Tell us! We’re dying to know.”
“His name is Edward Smith, and he’s a respectable merchant in the city of San Francisco.” Amidst a sudden, shocked silence, Allegra continued, “We’ve corresponded. He’s asked me to marry him, and I sent a letter this morning telling him I accept.”
Like everyone else in the room, Belle could hardly believe what she was hearing. “You mean you’re marrying a man you haven’t even met?”
“Why not?” With a defiant gleam in her eye, Allegra reached for a newspaper that lay on the table next to her. “Have you not heard of the Matrimonial News? It’s printed every week in Kansas City, a most respectable publication. Here’s the ad I answered.” She opened the paper and began to read. “‘A respectable gentleman of thirty years old, six feet tall, 170 pounds, doing a good business in the city of San Francisco, desires the acquaintance of a young, intelligent, and refined lady, of a loving disposition from eighteen to twenty-eight, one who could make his home a paradise.’” Allegra laid the paper in her lap and flopped out her hands. “How could I resist? I wrote back. He responded and wants me to come. He’s sending me a train ticket, and that’s all I’m waiting for. When it arrives, I’m off to San Francisco.”
Mrs. Beauregard Bedford Stuart cleared her throat. All eyes turned to the group’s highly respected president, a formidable figure with her silver-grey hair worn in a stern knot, and her starkly plain, black bombazine dress. She gazed at Allegra with a mixture of alarm and incredulity. “Are you actually going to become one of those mail-order brides?”
Allegra tossed her head. “Indeed I am, Mrs. Stuart. You can say what you want about staying loyal to the South, and I would if I could, but I can’t. My beloved Frederick was killed at Bull Run, so where does that leave me?” Her gaze swept the room. “I’m as loyal to our glorious dead as you are, but that won’t warm my bed at night, now will it?” She sat back in her chair, pleased her indelicate remark had caused a few nervous twitters. “Look at me. Twenty-five years old, young and pretty if I do say so. But who’s to care if I’m pretty or not? Our men are gone. What am I supposed to do? Drink tea and decorate graves until I’m fat and wrinkled and wither away?”
“But, my dear…” Seldom at a loss for words, Mrs. Stuart seemed unable to speak, as if she’d choked on something.
Victoria spoke up. “But Allegra, think of the chance you’re taking. What if you travel clear across the country only to find this Edward Smith isn’t who he says he is?”
“Then I’d come home.” Allegra turned her attention to Belle. “Your sister is married and has her children, so how could she possibly understand? But you know what I’m talking about, being as we’re the same age and both of us still unattached. You’re such a pretty girl. Like me, if it weren’t for the war, we’d both be married by now, with children of our own.” She picked up the Matrimonial News and opened it again. “Listen to this, Belle. ‘Established restaurant owner of good character, thirty-three years old, six feet tall, 170 pounds, brown eyes, seeks to correspond with respectable young lady of pleasing appearance, preferably of full form. If interested, write to Robert Romano,’ and it gives the address.” She raised her eyes. “You fit his requirements perfectly. Just think, we could be neighbors in San Francisco. Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
Belle could think of nothing more unappealing than living next door to shallow, arrogant Allegra Barnes. But she would conceal her aversion to such a prospect and be polite, like she always was. “I’m flattered you’d ask, Allegra, but I’m happy as I am, thank you. Marriage isn’t everything. I like my life as it is, and who knows? Perhaps someday the right man will come along.”
Allegra met Belle’s remarks with an annoying burst of laughter. “Highly unlikely, and you know it.”
Yes, she did know. Only too well did she know, especially when she lay awake in the middle of the night, her heart aching because she must face the unbearable truth that she would never be married, never have children of her own. Not for the world would she reveal her true feelings, though. She shrugged with feigned indifference. “Whether the so-called ‘right man’ shows up or not, I’m perfectly content with my life.”
Allegra folded the Matrimonial News and dropped it back on the table. “I suppose you think I’m crazy, but I’m not. Give it some thought. You might change your mind.”
“Thank you, Allegra. I’m always open to new ideas.” Nothing like a polite lie to avoid any further discussion.
* * * *
As Weldon, their stableman, drove them home, Victoria couldn’t stop talking about Allegra Barnes. “That poor man in San Francisco doesn’t know what he’s let himself in for.”
Belle nodded in agreement. “If he expects she’ll make his home a paradise, he’s in for a rude awakening.”
“How nervy of her to imply you’d be interested in that ridiculous ad. If she thinks you’d actually leave your beautiful home for a man you’ve never met, she’s lost her mind.”
Belle took a moment to answer. “Actually I don’t think Allegra has lost her mind. It’s that awful war that’s turned our lives upside down and twisted our thinking.”
Victoria returned a disdainful sniff. “The war has nothing to do with it. Allegra’s always been a meddler.”
Belle didn’t bother to argue. Victoria would never understand. She was one of the lucky ones. Before the war started, she married Harlan Beeman, a well-to-do young trader. When the time came, like every other able-bodied man from the South, he joined the Confederate Army. Through what the family considered a small miracle, he’d returned home unscathed. Now, although his business had greatly suffered, he provided a good home not only for his wife and three children, but for Belle and their brother, Bridger, as well.
Belle threw her sister a rueful smile. “You wouldn’t understand. Despite what you might think, Allegra’s only doing what she’s driven to do. It’s human nature for a woman to want to be married and have children.”
“So what am I not understanding? What about you? Do you mean you’re not happy living with us? I thought—”
“Of course I’m happy. What would I have done without you?” Belle meant what she said. Before the war, the Ainsworth family lived a comfortable life among the genteel citizenry of Savannah. Her father had made his fortune on the Savannah Cotton Exchange. Her mother reigned as one of Savannah’s leading social figures. Their four children grew up in a city considered one of the most serene and picturesque in the country, known for its grand oaks festooned with Spanish moss, elegant architecture, fountains, and green squares. But their paradise didn’t last. By the time the war ended, the Ainsworth family had been decimated. Belle’s father, who’d been made a colonel, died at Antietam. Her oldest brother, Gregory, died a hero’s death at Chickamauga. Bridger, next to the oldest, survived but at a terrible cost. Their beloved mother died of typhoid before the war was over.
When Weldon pulled the buggy to a stop in front of the Ainsworth mansion on the outskirts of the city, the Beemans’ three children tumbled out the door to greet them. “Aunt Belle! Aunt Belle!” Tommy, who was ten, Ellen, five, and Amy, three, rushed to their aunt and threw their arms around her.
Ellen asked, “Did you bring us presents?”
Belle bent to untangle all the little arms. “Not today, sweetheart, but maybe next time.”
As they went inside, the children crowding around her, she noticed a peculiar expression on her sister’s face but didn’t think to ask why.
* * * *
“Bridger? Are you awake?” Belle knocked on her brother’s bedroom door. He hadn’t come down to dinner tonight, and she wanted to know why. “Bridger? Answer me!”
“Come in if you must.”
Her brother’s sullen voice came as no surprise. More than ever these days, he kept to his room, isolating himself from his family and the few friends he had left. Almost total darkness met her when she opened the door. “Good heavens, Bridge, let’s get some light in here.”
He lay on his bed and watched while she took a match and lit the paraffin lamp on his dresser. “If you’ve come to scold me for not coming down to dinner, you can go away.”
“I didn’t come to scold you about anything.” Belle sank into a chair beside her brother’s bed. The sight of him filled her with sadness, even though she should be used to the way he looked now with his pale, thin face, emaciated body, his left sleeve folded and pinned because his arm wasn’t there anymore. “We missed you at dinner.”
“Of course you did. I’m such charming company these days.” With his one arm, he pushed himself into a sitting position, his face twisting with pain.
“Is it worse today?’ She wasn’t asking about the arm. He could have easily survived that and gone on with his life, but at Bentonville, during the last days of the war, he’d been wounded in the stomach. Miraculously he’d survived, but at what cost? The mini-ball that tore through his intestines had caused irreparable damage. Her heart wrenched whenever she remembered Bridger before the war: handsome, strong, confident with a touch of arrogance, a devilish gleam in his eye as he flirted with the young belles who adored him. But now? Everyone knew, Bridger most of all, he wouldn’t be around much longer.
“The pain’s the same. Let’s not talk about it. Tell me about the latest meeting of your Georgia Ladies of the Confederacy.” A shadow of the old Bridger appeared in the playful grin he gave her. “I can hardly wait to hear.”
She welcomed the opportunity to make him laugh. “Well! You would never in a million years guess what that awful Allegra Barnes is up to now....”
She related the events of the afternoon, including, with a trace of laughter in her voice, Allegra Barnes’s shocking announcement that she was going to get married, and her hilarious reading of the ad from the Matrimonial News. When she finished, she sat back and grinned. “Did you ever hear of anything so ridiculous? And what’s funniest of all, she read another ad aimed at me. She thinks I should be a mail-order bride same as she.”
Bridger didn’t laugh as she expected. For a time, he remained silent, as if mulling over what to say. “I think you should answer that ad.”
“What! You can’t be serious.”
“I am serious.” He paused as if mulling some more. “You’ve got so many days on this earth. No one’s more aware of that than I, especially now when I don’t have much time left.” She opened her mouth to protest, but he raised his hand. “Don’t bother. I face the facts and I’m fine with it. I worry about you, though.”
“But why? I’m doing fine. I lead a full life and am perfectly happy.”
“Are you?” A corner of his mouth pulled into a slight smile. “All during the war, when I was slogging through the mud in Tennessee, and God knows where else, thoughts of home were all that kept me going. In my head I carried a special memory of you. We were at a ball, the last one I ever attended if I remember right. You had ribbons and roses in your hair, and you were wearing that purple dress, the one with the puffy sleeves and big skirt.” He grinned. “You looked like you were floating in the thing, like a big, upside-down tulip.”
She smiled, remembering. “The purple velvet. I wore it only the once at the Debutante Cotillion, right before Fort Sumter happened and the war started.”
“You looked beautiful that night, and that’s the image I carried. At every ball, do you remember how the boys were after you? Charlie Sawyer, Tom Peterson, both Ackerman brothers. You had your pick.”
Her smile faded. “There’re gone now, all of them.”
“That’s my point, Belle. That damnable war wrecked your life as well as mine. Now here you sit, trying to convince yourself you’re blissfully happy when you’re not, and don’t tell me otherwise.”
She opened her mouth to protest but changed her mind. His words had struck deep in that secret part of herself where she hid her unceasing despair. In silence, she looked toward the ceiling, then finally back at her brother. “You know me too well, Bridge. I try not to think of the old days. What a silly, shallow little fool I was, nothing more on my mind than the next ball and who would fill my dance card. I simply assumed I’d marry and live happily ever after.”
“I think we all did. But why look back? All we really have is not yesterday, not tomorrow, but now.”
“I’ve adjusted. I thank God for my family. Harlan, Victoria, the children”—she placed an affectionate hand on his one arm—“even you, you grumpy old rascal. But that’s not… That doesn’t… What’s hardest for me now are those awful moments when I realize I will go through my life without someone special to love, without someone special who loves me. I’ll never have children of my own. I’ll never…” The words stuck in her throat. If she didn’t watch out, she’d start to cry, and she wouldn’t have that. Her problems were nothing compared to those of her doomed brother. She forced a laugh. “Look at me, feeling sorry for myself. Don’t worry, I’m happy. I feel needed. What would the children do without their auntie Belle?”
“They’d survive.” Bridger gazed into her eyes with a blazing intensity that surprised her. “To stay in the South is to rot away. There’s a man for you somewhere, but not here. You need the guts to go find him.”
Poor Bridger. He sincerely meant what he said but had no idea how totally impractical, how absolutely absurd he was sounding. “I’ll think about what you said. Meantime, will you promise you’ll come down for breakfast in the morning?”
“You can change the subject all you want, little sister, but if you want a life of your own, I suggest you answer that ad.”
* * * *
The next morning, Belle joined Harlan, Victoria, and the children for breakfast in the dining room. Bridger hadn’t appeared, which, she reflected, was just as well. Ordinarily Harlan, with his balding head and slight paunch, presented the perfect picture of a levelheaded businessman, but today he was on one of his rants. “Damn Yankees!” he raged between bites of his omelet.
“What have they done now?” Belle asked calmly. They’d been through this before.
“Kept us under their thumb is what they’ve done. Thanks to the carpetbaggers, our taxes get higher and the price of cotton sinks ever lower. After five years, we’re still under military rule. My God, haven’t we suffered enough?”
“Don’t remind us,” Victoria said. “Those terrible days are best forgotten.”
Belle heartily agreed. Living through the war was bad enough, but at the end, when General Sherman’s troops took Savannah, the nightmare began. At least the Union soldiers didn’t burn the city, like they’d done in Atlanta, but they wreaked their devastation just the same. They destroyed the railroads, digging up the rails, heating them over fires, wrapping them around tree trunks and telephone poles. “Sherman’s Neckties” they were laughingly called. The soldiers broke into homes and businesses and stole what they pleased. Worst of all, they blockaded the port and seized all the livestock and food from the local farms, leaving the population to starve. To this day, Belle could hardly look at a Union soldier without remembering those terrible days when they had nothing to eat. When Victoria’s children were crying, weak from hunger. When she feared they’d all starve to death, and they about did. “It’s hard to forget those days, Victoria. Whenever I see a blue uniform, the old fury rises inside me and I can hardly be polite.”
“I will hate the Yankees until the day I die,” Victoria exclaimed. “And General Sherman the most.” She picked up a bread basket. “More biscuits, Harlan? At least we’re not starving anymore.”
Her husband’s agreeable grunt told them his rant was over. Actually Belle could hardly blame him. He’d been rich before the war. Now, like nearly all Savannah’s merchants, he’d lost his fortune and was just squeezing by, constantly beset by rules, regulations, and new taxes decreed by the Northern-influenced state legislature.
Tommy spoke up. “Aunt Belle, are you taking us out today?”
“Indeed I am.” Belle looked at her sister. “I hope it’s all right. I promised I’d take the children to the riverfront. You know how Tommy likes to see the ships. Maybe there’ll be one coming in.”
Victoria smiled. “Of course. They do love to be with you, Belle. What would I do without you?”
How good to be wanted, and needed. Bridger meant well, but he failed to understand how thoroughly she’d adjusted to her new role in life. “It’s my pleasure, Victoria. You know how much I love the children, and you, too.”
The children finished their breakfast and were eager to leave. Belle shepherded them from the dining room, had them wash up, and was leading them to the stable when Amy, the little one, declared, “I forgot my doll. I left it in the dining room.”
Amy was hardly ever without her favorite doll. Belle turned back toward the house. “I’ll get it, sweetheart. You children go ahead. Tell Weldon to hitch up the buggy.”
Back in the house, Belle headed toward the dining room. She was almost there when she heard voices. Harlan and Victoria must be still there, no doubt lingering over another cup of coffee. She was about to enter when she was struck by the peculiar tone of Victoria’s voice, a stressed, near-desperate sound she’d never heard before. Belle never snooped, but something made her stop outside the door and listen.
“…it’s hopeless, Harlan. She’s stolen my children away from me. They’ll probably start calling her ‘Mother’ soon, and I’ll be left completely in the cold, just someone who happens to live in the same house.”
“That’s nonsense.” Harlan was using his most soothing voice. “You are their mother, Victoria. No one can ever take your place.”
“Ha! The other day when Amy cut her finger, who did she go running to? It wasn’t me, it was her wonderful aunt Belle, and that’s because my children love her the best now.”
“Then why don’t you talk to her? Seems to me that would be the most sensible solution. Just tell her to back off, don’t give the children so much attention.”
“I could never do that. Belle’s been wonderful to the children, and to us, too. I would never dream of hurting her feelings.”
“Then I don’t know what to tell you.”
“What can you say? There’s no solution. Belle will be with us for the rest of her life, and I’ll just have to live with the pain of knowing my children love her more than they love me. Oh, look, Amy forgot her doll. I’ll try to catch them before they leave.”
The scrape of chair legs told Belle she’d soon be discovered. She darted away, barely making it to the stable before Victoria arrived, doll in. . .
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