A Doll Story
About This Story:
"Southern Comfort" was inspired by one of my repainted costumed dolls. As is the case with most of my stories, an abbreviated version of Southern Comfort was featured in the original description for the auction of the doll. The doll and that version of the story now reside in the home of a private collector.
South Florida, 1864
Neely McKnight began her day in the garden, carefully choosing flowers to use as a centerpiece for the dinnertable. Her guests were due to arrive soon and she had spent days preparing for the visit. Stepping out of the garden path, she is stunned
to find that guests had already arrived, butmost definitely not the ones she had been expecting. Union soldiers guarded every entrance and exit of the house, their eyes searching the property anxiously.
“She’s here, Captain!” a fresh-faced young private shouted as
Neely drew near the verandah.
“Yankees at Cypress Point! I won’t have it!” she stated emphatically, staring pointedly at the boy who had spoken.
“B-b-but, ‘Mam,” the young man stuttered, positively wilting under her icy
Yes you will, Madam,” said a deep, commanding voice. “Or Cypress Point will
be burned down around your pretty little ears.”
Neely’s heart leapt at the pronouncement, knowing the voice and the man it
belonged to all too well, even before he appeared around the corner of the house. Since the last time she had seen him, nearly six months ago, he had haunted her dreams, conjuring up images that were better forgotten. After all, he was now the enemy—a Union officer, and a traitor to even his own family.
“Damn you Rafe Castiglio, AND the Union!” Neely shouted as he closed the distance between them. She dodged his grasp, but not fast enough. Never fast enough! Neely thought feverishly, fighting back the sudden trembling that shook her
"Are you frightened, my love?” he whispered gruffly, a familiar mocking glint in his eyes.
“Ha! Of you? Never!” Neely exclaimed with false bravado. In truth, she
found his very nearness frightening, but not for the reasons he imagined.
“I’m pleased to hear it, since it has been a long and arduous journey and I am sorely in need of some ‘southern comfort.’ Perhaps you would be willing to accommodate me?”
Twin spots of color bloomed in Neely’s cheeks as she heard the low chuckle of the other men. She lifted her eyes to Rafe’s, staring into the deep black pools in
which she had so often found herself drowning. Mentally shaking herself, she lifted her chin further, trying hard to resist the urge to slap his handsome face, vividly recalling how terribly dangerous such an action could be. Instead, she let her eyes roam over the familiar angular cheekbones, which, even more than his
copper skin and raven hair, evidenced his Seminole heritage.
“Captain Castiglio, I’d wager that the only comfort you’ll be getting in this house will be from what's left of Pa’s best brandy,” she replied through tightly clenched teeth. Despite her anger, her heart beat a rapid tattoo as he smiled again, his teeth gleaming white against his skin. Oh, how she had missed that smile!
“We will see, my love. More pressing matters have kept me from fulfilling my duties at home. But like it or not, my sweet little Rebel, you are still my wife,” he replied, his eyes heavy with warning.
Fixing him with a defiant glare, Neely pushed him away with all the strength she
could muster, uncertain whom she hated most at this moment—Rafe, for his treachery and conceit; or herself, for being just frightened enough of what the Union army might do to both her and Cypress Point if she didn't go along with his charade.
His wife, indeed! In a pig's eye! Neely thought furiously.
Apparently accepting Rafe’s bold lie, the majority of the assembled Union troops bade Neely a polite farewell and departed swiftly, leaving behind only a few enlisted men to ensure his safety during his visit. They stood some distance away. While they remained close enough to observe Neely and Rafe, they were still far enough away that any conversation between the two would be unlikely to be overheard.
It was of no matter, though, since Neely was completely bereft of words. She knew of nothing she could say to Rafe at this moment that would express both her gratitude for saving Cypress Point from torching and her utter contempt for the way in which he had done so.
“Well… are you going to welcome me inside our home, as a loving wife should? Need I remind you that we are being closely observed?” Rafe asked. “These men will
expect me to receive a proper welcome, or they may become suspicious,” he added as he came to her side and slipped his arm around her slender waist.
Neely stiffened under his touch, suddenly very aware of the curious eyes of the
men. “Oh, for God’s sake!” she hissed. “Haven’t we both done enough acting for one
Rafe turned her to face him. “Not yet, my love. As detestable as you may find it,
I fear those boys will not be satisfied until they see us embrace and kiss like the loving couple we are supposed to be.”
“No,” Neely declared stubbornly.
"Then I will be forced to coerce a proper response from you. Would you really rather I take you inside kicking and screaming, so those boys can report that something seems amiss with our situation? Wouldn’t it be much more pleasant, and safer, I
might add, if you just played along with me for a few minutes longer. Once we’re inside the house, you can go back to being your usual, charming self and no one will be the wiser.”
Neely stared into his eyes. She knew that what he was saying made complete
sense, but her heart was beating so fast at his very nearness that she feared it might burst if she allowed him to kiss her in the manner he surely intended. While she pondered these thoughts, Rafe suddenly pulled her body against his and his lips met hers in a hungry, crushing kiss.
She tried to pull away, but he held her fast, his tongue teasing and prying against
the stubborn barrier of her lips. He slipped his hands up her back and moved her arms upward so they encircled his neck loosely. Patient but persistent, his tongue finally parted her lips. Without realizing it, Neely tightened her arms around his neck and molded her body more firmly to his. Now hopeless to resist, she was caughtup in the swirling emotions the familiar taste and feel of him evoked. She closed her eyes and a whimper of desire escaped her throat as his lips moved down to her neck, trailing a burning path to the barely concealed fullness of one breast. His lips paused only long enough to tease that tender flesh, then traced a path back up to her ear, where his warm breath caressed her as he spoke.
“Excellent response, my love,” he murmured softly. “Your talent for acting deserves nothing less than a standing ovation.”
Neely’s eyes flew open in shock. She felt a blush rising through her body from the very tips of her toes as she looked down and saw the soldiers who had been watching nudging each another and smiling. Aflame with humiliation, and God help her—desire, she pushed Rafe away and ran inside. Tears of anger and frustration burned her already flaming cheeks as she flew past the two servants in the foyer.
“Miss Neely? What you want me to do about the Captain? You want me to make up a
room for him and dem boys?” Carolina dared ask.
“And what about dey horses?” her son Aaron inquired. “Should I give ‘em the last of
that feed I hid?”
Irritated that her servants seemed to be so concerned with the comfort of Rafe and his men, Neely glared at them and snapped, “I don’t care what you do with them! Just keep them away from me. Especially the Captain!”
“Take a rest, boys,” Rafe instructed his men. “I might be a while,” he added with a conspiratorial wink as he stepped inside.
Though the day was unbearably warm, the shade of the giant oaks and the breeze from the river had kept the inside of the house relatively pleasant. In the shadowy
coolness of the foyer, Rafe paused a moment to reflect on his homecoming. It wasn’t exactly everything he’d hoped for, but at least he knew from the way Neely had responded to his kiss that she still had feelings for him. No woman was that good an actress! He had hoped that time he’d been away had softened the bitterness she
felt toward him, and that she might reconsider the proposal he’d made on his last visit. But despite the fact that she was obviously still physically attracted to him, he could tell that she would remain firm in her conviction not to marry a Yankee soldier.
As familiar with Cypress Point as he was his own home, he made his way to the study, where he knew Charlie McKnight kept his best whiskey. If there had ever been a time in his life when he needed a good, steadying drink, it was now. He stood in the doorway for a moment gazing in at the patently masculine room. The scarring on its rich wood-paneled walls the only real testament to any permanent damage that might have been rendered from the current tumultuous conflict. It was a comforting room, furnished with oversized chairs and decorated with all things
The only thing missing were Charlie’s prize hunting rifles, which Rafe was certain had been confiscated long before Charlie’s death. His surroundings evoked many
pleasant thoughts, filling his mind with bittersweet memories of days gone by spent in quiet conversation or heated debate in this very room during numerous gatherings here with friends and family. The mahogany liquor chest was bare of the elegant crystal decanters and glasses that had once graced it, but Rafe knew exactly where to find what he was seeking. He slipped his hand behind the polished top of the
chest and felt for the key he knew would be there. He smiled as his fingers closed around it. Upon opening the door, he was somewhat disappointed to discover than the contents had been rifled, with less than two fingers of cloudy whiskey left in any of the bottles inside. He carefully pushed them aside, inserted the key, and tapped lightly on the false panel at the back. It opened slowly, revealing two slightly dusty, but clearly full, bottles of fine, dark whiskey.
His mouth watering in anticipation, he uncorked one of the bottles. Since there didn’t appear to be any glasses in the room, he tipped the bottle to his lips and took a long, satisfying swig. He crossed the room to the window by the desk, looking out at
the sloping hillside and the deep, clear river beyond, releasing a deep, contented sigh. He had forgotten how utterly rapturous the Peas River Valley was. With summer full upon them, the hammocks they had passed in route to Cypress
Point were rampant with growth. In the numerous streams, fish were abundant, and evidence of deer and other game had been plentiful along their path. In his youth, he had explored every inch of the vast wilderness surrounding his home with his Seminole cousins. He had gone swimming with the manatees and even wrestled an alligator or two. He loved this land like no other part of the country, for it was home. He was a part of it, and it was a part of him.
There was only one thing to mar his great pleasure of returning to everything he loved… and that was Neely’s cold reception. It was clear she still hadn’t forgiven him for joining the Union effort, even though that might have been the only reason that Cypress Point was spared the total destruction that so many of the other homes on the river had met recently. He had tried to explain his position, but Neely couldn’t possibly accept the fact that his decision had not been one of betrayal to the South or his people.
His family was as divided by this conflict as so many others were across the nation. Some of his Seminole relatives had instantly damned him for his decision, having been pursued and slaughtered by the same army to which he had pledged his
allegiance. Still, there were others who understood completely, having been bound by slavery and forced to give up their freedom, which was possibly their only birthright. Had his mother lived to see this great division in her family, she would have been deeply saddened. He knew somehow that even if she didn’t agree
with him, she would be proud of him for following his heart. She had done the same in defiance of everyone she knew by marrying not only outside her tribe, but outside her race as well.
A Spanish immigrant who had faced many years of hardship to forge a future for
himself and his family in this land, Rafe’s father was, to his dying day, a loyal
Southerner. Had he lived, Rafe was sure his father would have chosen to remain true to the Southern cause, even though he had never owned slaves himself. His eldest brother, Ramon, had sided with the Confederates. Since their family home was in Ramon’s name, it stood a good chance of meeting the same fate that Cypress Point
almost had. Though Rafe would mourn the loss of his parents’ hard work and the happy memories that dwelled within those solid walls, he was more fearful of what might happen to his brother.
The choice to come to Cypress Point instead of his own home had been a difficult one. But after weighing the odds, he felt sure that Ramon was better equipped to
defend their home than Neely had been to defend hers. At least he prayed that was so. How would he be able to live with himself knowing that he might have saved Neely’s life by sacrificing his brother’s?
Rafe crossed himself and uttered a brief prayer for his brother’s safety and a swift end to the war. It was something for which he had prayed daily throughout the long
and terrible years of fighting. But this time, he felt sure that at least one of his prayers would be answered soon. The great and glorious Southern cause was dying as surely as the sun on the horizon. Its supporters---like Neely, and even his own brother---desperately clung to what little dignity was left to them, stubbornly
refusing to surrender, even though they had long been defeated. He only hoped that for some of them, surrender would not come too late.
A harbinger of another of Florida’s violent and unexpected summer storms, a sudden gust of rain-laden wind swept through the French doors of Neely’s room, setting them banging sharply against the wall.
Startled from her troubled sleep by the sudden noise, Neely jumped up and leapt from the bed to secure the doors. She paused by the basin and glanced in the mirror, noting with dismay that her face was puffy from tears and that her hair was quite possibly beyond repair. She splashed cold water on her face and pinched
her cheeks in an effort to bring some color back into them. She wasn’t sure if her pallid skin tone was caused by the fright from the approaching storm winds, or if it was due to her indecent behavior with Rafe. Sudden shame washed over her, accompanied by a low moan of disgust. How could she have let him get to her so easily? Especially after she vowed that she would forget he even existed? So many times she had spitefully wished him dead, only to negate that wish with a penitent prayer for his safe return. Her heart had been tugged in so many different directions she wasn’t entirely sure just what it was she wanted anymore. Ah… but it had felt so
wonderfully right to be in his arms again!
"Stop it!” Neely scolded herself aloud. It was quite obvious that Rafe’s display of affection was only meant to mock her. He had made it very clear that he didn’t care one whit about her feelings, or anything else in the state of Florida by enlisting with the Union Army! It was bad enough that he’d gone ahead and joined anyway, ignoring her vow that no matter how much she loved him she would never marry a
man who took up arms against the South. Even that threat had not deterred him from his decision. And to go off and leave his brother to defend his home and family alone had been unforgivable! Poor Ramon had come face to face with death many times just trying to protect what was his. That just proved to Neely that Rafe didn’t care about anything in this part of the world. Even Castille Cove, which was as much
his home as it was Ramon’s.
As grateful as she was for the fact that he had perhaps saved Cypress Point, she knew he must have some ulterior motive, such as claiming it as his own. She would die before she allowed that to happen! Cypress Point was the result of her father’s
diligent care and hard work, and now that he had passed away, it belonged to her, and no one else! A hash rap on her door drew her from her thoughts. “Who’s there?” she asked.
“Neely, it’s me. We have to talk.”
“Go away, Rafe!” she replied in annoyance. “We have nothing to talk about.
Besides, I have guests that should be arriving any minute now and I have to make preparations for them with this storm brewing.”
“I cannot prevent the storm. However, your guests will not be arriving today. In consideration of our ‘reunion’ their visit has been delayed for a few days.”
Neely strode briskly across the room and flung open the door. “What do you
mean?” she demanded with her hands planted firmly on her hips. “What have you and your ‘army’ done to those poor people?”
Rafe chuckled. “My army and I have done nothing to harm those ‘poor people.’” I can assure you the good Reverend Grace and his family are safe and dry within the comfort of the home of one of your neighbors less inclined to incite the Union
Army to violence.”
“How dare you!” Neely shouted. “You think you can just ride in here on the breeze and rearrange my life to suit your agenda? You arrogant, selfish….”
“Enough of the compliments, my sweet. I’m beginning to get a swelled head,” Rafe interrupted. “But in truth, I was hoping you might consider joining me for dinner. My time here will be brief and perhaps we might be able to put aside our differences long enough to enjoy some of the wonderful cuisine Carolina has spent the day
“Your swelled head is most likely the result of too much liquor, which I can smell from here, by the way. And as for having dinner with a Yankee traitor like you…
I’d rather starve to death!”
Rafe’s eyes suddenly turned dark and stormy, a sure sign that she had overstepped the boundary of his tolerance. He lunged forward and grabbed her roughly, pulling her close.
“W-what are you doing?” Neely stammered, still trying to put on a brave face in spite of the fact that she had begun to tremble. She twisted in his grasp, but he held her tightly, giving her no quarter.
“Listen to me, Neely McKnight, and listen well,” he said in a menacing tone. “I love you. I have always loved you, and I may only have this one night to show you just how much. I beg you not to deny me the chance to prove it to you. If you do, it may well be something you regret for the rest of your days.”
Neely stared into his onyx eyes, seeking the truth in his words. But some part of
her warned that it was only a trick and whatever transpired this night would be quickly forgotten in the first blush of morning light.
“Let me go,” she said through tightly clenched teeth. “You are nothing but a liar and traitor. You didn’t come here to save me. You only came to save Cypress Point, perhaps in the hope that it will be given to you as one of the spoils of war, since your brother has so bravely defended
Castille Cove and would never relinquish it to you without a fight. Cypress Point will never be yours! Nor will I! I am eternally grateful that I had the good sense to refuse to marry you, even though at one time I fancied myself in love with you. I’d rather be the widow of a brave Confederate soldier than the wife of a Yankee traitor like you.”
Her words cut deeply. Neely could see it in his eyes. A part of her
died at the fleeting expression of hurt that passed over his proud features. For an instant, she wished she had never uttered them, could take them back, or do anything at all to erase the complete look of inconsolable loss etched upon his face---but that was only for an instant.
He released her so quickly that she nearly lost her balance. His face suddenly darkened into a fearsome scowl that made her tremble again from head to toe. “So be it, Miss McKnight. I’ll try to make my stay here as unobtrusive as possible. All you need do is play the role of the devoted wife in front of my men. In a few days, you’ll be rid of me and the South will have won one small battle. Your precious Cypress Point will remain unscathed and in your sole possession, as will your Confederate pride and loyalty. Hopefully, one day you will find someone you consider worthy of sharing with you everything you hold so dear. But be vigilant and wary, my love, for true love often wears many disguises… sometimes even a Union uniform.”
With that, he turned on his heel and stalked out the door, slamming it so hard the windows rattled.
Neely didn’t leave her room the rest of the evening. She had no idea where Rafe had gone, but at least he was out of her sight, if not out of her mind. The promise of a violent storm had been fulfilled just minutes after he left her. Sheets of rain and summer sleet pelted the roof and tapped insistently on the windows. Strong winds
screamed around the eaves like the cry of a banshee and thunder rolled across the sky chasing brilliant streaks of blinding lightning.
Promptly at seven, Carolina brought her a tray of food. Though Neely had been looking forward to the roast duckling, fresh catfish, and garden vegetables all day,
she only picked at the sumptuous feast.
Hoping to still the disquieting thoughts of Rafe that continued to nag her, she retired early, watching the storm in all its glory and wonder from the safety and comfort of
her bed. As the storm began to dissipate, the rain assumed a pleasantly lulling rhythm, finally calming Neely into a deep and exhausted sleep.
The night was dark and moonless, the star light dimmed by the cover of clouds.
Lost in a pleasant dream of happier times, Neely didn’t hear the soft “snicking” noise that might have otherwise alerted her to the opening of her bedroom door. Nor did she hear the sound of stealthy footfalls headed in the direction of her bed. A hand covered her mouth and a strong arm slipped around her waist holding her in a
deliberately strong grip. Instantly alert, a scream rose to her lips, but was muffled by the hand that covered them. Her eyes widened in panic as she looked up into the face of her attacker.
“So you ain’t the Captain’s wife after all?” the soldier whispered near her ear. “That suits me just fine,” he added, chuckling. “It’s been a long time since I had me
a woman, and since you don’t seem to care much for the Captain’s brand of lovin’, maybe you’ll like mine. I’m sure he won’t mind if I give ya’ a go. He’s a dead man, anyway,” he said. Still holding her fast, he bent his head to her breast, which had been almost fully exposed by efforts to free herself.
Neely felt the first spiral of fear uncoil in her stomach at the soldier’s words. What did he mean by Rafe being a dead man? She shuddered in revulsion as she felt the man’s lips on her flesh and tried once more to free herself. With steely determination she shoved at his arm at the same time she bit down hard on the filthy hand that
covered her mouth.
Her action had exactly the response that Neely was praying for. Not only did he remove his hand and release her, but let go a streak of swear words loud enough to wake the dead. If nothing else, Aaron and Carolina had heard and would surely come to her aid.
That is, if they are still alive, she thought dismally. Neely wasted no time in slipping from the bed and fleeing toward the door. Clinging to the hope that her faithful servants were somewhere nearby and safe, she prayed that her attacker had not already harmed Rafe. She was more concerned for the safety of those she loved than for her own. After all, this had not been the first time during this war she had been forced to fend off unwanted attention. Living in such a secluded location, she had been extremely fortunate that it had happened no more often than it had, but her few experiences had at least taught her how to defend herself. If she had only thought to keep the gun under her pillow as she usually did! But with Rafe in the house, she had somehow felt safe.
“Why you little wildcat!” he muttered angrily as he advanced in her direction. “I’m gon’ have to show you how to behave like a lady should.”
He reached out for her with both hands, but Neely sidestepped. He caught only the sleeve of her nightgown, shredding the thin, worn fabric and nearly rendering her naked. Neely clutched what was left of it to her body and continued on her path to the door. Using her knowledge of the layout of the room to her advantage, she stopped to kick the vanity stool in the path of her pursuer. She heard him stumble and fall, but could tell by the sound of his quick recovery it would only be a minor delay. She gripped the doorknob and felt it slip through her sweaty hands, her panic rising to a crescendo that burst from her lips in a strangled sob of fear and frustration. She was still grappling with the knob when the door was suddenly pulled from her grasp and flung open wide. She tumbled through the opening, straight into arms of the looming figure that filled its frame.
Curling her hands into fists, she was only vaguely aware that he was speaking. She
continued to strike at his chest until his voice and words finally registered.
“Neely! It’s Rafe!” he had been saying repeatedly as he tried to thrust her aside.
With a sigh of relief, Neely finally moved aside, leaning against the doorjamb for support as Rafe entered the room. The French doors stood ajar and Neely could see the dark silhouette of the soldier straddled over railing. Rafe saw him too, and
managed to get to him before he had the chance to leap from the balcony, which had clearly been his intention.
“What the Hell were you thinking, Garrett?” Rafe roared as he pulled the man back into the room.
Neely lit the candle by her bedside and the room was flooded with light and shadow. Garrett wore a slightly sheepish, but defiant, expression as he tried to shrug out of Rafe’s grasp. She was able to surmise, with great relief, that Garrett had no weapon.
Clad only in his breeches, Rafe held his Union Calvary sword in one hand. Neely’s eyes swept him from head to toe, looking for any visible signs of injury and saying a
short prayer of thanks when she saw none.
“You just may as well let me go, Cap’n” Garret said. “You as good as dead. Soames
and Haynes is on the way to report you for lying about being married.”
“Where did you get that idea?” Rafe demanded.
We was just down the hall when the two of you had that little heart to heart talk this evenin’. Sound carries awful clear down that hallway. But Hell, even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t a took much to hear ya. I ‘magine most ever’body in the house did, ‘specially when she started yelling about bein’ glad she wasn’t your wife, ” he added,
chuckling a little. “Cain’t say as I blame you, though. I’d a lied to save her, too, but she shore is a mean little minx. Put a good size hole in my hand with them purty teeth.” As though Rafe wouldn’t be inclined to believe it, Garret raised his hand to show him the wound Neely’s teeth had left on his hand.
Neely suddenly grew cold, her heart feeling as if a hole had opened up inside it. What Rafe had done to save her and Cypress Point would be considered nothing short of treason---and treason was a hanging offense. She couldn’t let
him die! She loved him too much. Yes, she thought joyfully, I love him and he loves me! He had told her as much only a few short hours ago. Secure in that knowledge, she knew that nothing in this world could keep them apart now. Not even the entire Union Army! She didn’t care anymore what side he was fighting for. He could
have told her he had been responsible for the complete downfall of the South and she wouldn’t care. All she knew was that she loved him so much that she would die without him, and would do anything to prevent him from being
"Oh, Rafe, I lo--” she began.
“Put a wrapper on, for God’s sake!” Rafe shouted in annoyance, cutting off the rest of her words. He couldn’t prevent his eyes from devouring her exposed flesh, and what irritated him even more was that Garrett was enjoying the same feast.
Neely had been so wrapped up in the revelation of her feelings for Rafe that she had barely been aware that she was nearly naked. “Oh God,” she muttered. Blushing profusely, she snatched up her wrapper from the end of the bed and modestly turned her back on the men while she slipped it on.
Rafe made a supreme effort to ignore her as he ushered the reluctant Corporal Garrett out the door.
A few minutes later, Neely ventured out of her room, barefoot and hastily dressed in a worn cotton day dress. Flickering candlelight danced in her father’s study, so
Neely naturally assumed that was where she would find Rafe. She peeked in the door and saw him sitting in her father’s favorite chair, his features set in firm resignation.
“I’m so sorry, Rafe…” she began, but he silenced her with a stony glare.
“Don’t make it worse, Neely,” he replied in a voice hardened with anger. “You’re not sorry at all. I’ll be getting exactly what you thought I deserved all along, except my executioners will be my own comrades.” His lips twisted in grim smile. “Quite ironic,
don’t you think? Or do you agree with Garrett, here, that it’s just a case of divine
It was only then that she noticed the unconscious Garrett trussed to a straight chair in the corner. She moved to Rafe’s side, reaching out to touch his arm. Rafe
pulled away from her, his dark brows furrowed in anger. “Dammit, Neely! I don’t need your ‘comforting’ touch now,” he said sarcastically. “You’ve done quite enough, thank you.”
Neely stepped back, her own anger flaring. “Rafe Castiglio, I’ve never known you
to be a coward, but just sitting here wallowing in self-pity while you wait for your own execution proves to me that you are!”
Rafe turned to stare at her in amazement. “Self-pity? Is that what you think I’m feeling right now? I can assure you, many emotions are warring in me right now, but pity happens to be the least of them. I took a calculated risk that I might somehow save your hide and your beloved Cypress Point, but I was wrong. Now I must suffer the consequences of making such an irrational decision and the only honorable way to do so is to await my execution with some shred of dignity.”
“God love a duck!” Neely snapped in frustration. “You and your damned honor! It’s most likely what got us in this situation in the first place. And don’t you realize that if you just sit here and do nothing that not only will you be hanged, but so will I,
immediately after--or maybe even during--the time they’re burning Cypress Point to the ground. There’s a way to save Cypress Point and even ourselves, if you’ll put aside your stubborn pride and honor and listen to me,” she insisted.
“I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about your home, but I’ve already made
provisions for your safety. Aaron is in the barn now saddling the horses. He’ll take you and Caroline to Mother’s clan until the worst is over here. Besides, I have the distinct feeling that if I accept any more help from you, I’d end up in a far worse situation than dangling from the end of a rope.”
“Possibly,” Neely readily agreed, silently wondering how he would feel about the
ring she was about to slip through his nose. “But you might as well cooperate with me, because I’m not going anywhere! This is my home, and I won’t abandon it! Just sit there on your thumbs if you’d like, but tell me where Uncle William is. He may be the only person who can save us now.”
Rafe cast her a puzzled glance. “He’s at the Graham’s. Staying in their guesthouse. But how do you think he can help?”
“Never mind. I don’t have time to explain it now,” Neely replied distractedly, quickly calculating the time it would take them to get to the Graham’s house and back.
Fortunately, it was still fairly early and the Graham’s surely wouldn’t object to her visiting with her uncle.
Watching her closely as
he imagined the wheels turning in her head, Rafe rose from the chair and came to stand in front of her. “Neely, what are you up to? I warn you that the Union Army is not opposed to hanging a woman, either.”
“Oh, Rafe, please don’t make me explain it all now,” Neely pleaded. “If you ever loved me at all, please trust me now. This will work. I know it will!”
The morning dawned clear and bright. A mockingbird perched in the ancient oak outside Neely’s bedroom, serenading the house with its cheerful, repetitive song.
Neely stretched languidly, then snuggled more tightly against Rafe, her head
resting on his chest. He moved slightly to accommodate her, encircling her in with his
“Do you have any regrets, my love?” Rafe asked. He cupped her chin in his hand and lifted her face so he could look into her eyes. “I only regret that our time together will be so brief,” she said huskily, her lips meeting his. The kiss was long and lingering, with just the right amount of passion and tenderness. Neely
placed her hand on the broad expanse of his bronze chest, tracing the well-defined muscles with her finger.“No regrets at all,” she admitted with a contented sigh and snuggled closer.
They were roused from their moment of mutual bliss by a loud banging noise
downstairs. “I think it’s the Calvary,” Rafe said, smiling and sitting up
“But not to the rescue this time,” Neely quipped, struggling to free herself from the tangled bedclothes.
“Well, we’d best go face the music, in any case,” Rafe replied.
They dressed in companionable silence, each casting surreptitious glances at
the other as they did so. When they finally considered themselves presentable, they shared a long embrace and a tender kiss and went downstairs to greet their impatient guests.
The foyer was filled with men in Union blue. Two soldiers waited on each side at
the bottom of the stairway. As soon as Rafe stepped within reach, one of them reached out and clapped heavy manacles on his wrist, while the other performed the same service for Neely.
Neely’s eyes scanned the group for Garrett, whom she finally spotted sulking in the
corner. Apparently, Rafe’s threat to have him court-martialed for misconduct had been enough to keep him silent, for though he glared at her and gingerly rubbed his wounded hand, he didn’t utter a single sound.
“May I inquire as to the meaning of this intrusion, Major Blakemoor?” Rafe asked politely.
“Captain Castiglio, I have it on good authority that you obstructed orders to burn this premises by intentionally deceiving the Union Army. This was reported to me last evening by two privates under you command. Soames and Haynes. Are you familiar with them?"
Rafe nodded. “Yes. They were to remain on guard while I visited with my wife. I only learned this morning that they had deserted their posts sometime during the night.”
“And possibly with good reason,” Blakemoor suggested. “We were under the
impression that you and Miss McKnight were wed, making this property immune from the burn order. It has since been reported to me that you and this… um… ‘lady’ are not only unmarried, but very much at odds over your political loyalties.”
Rafe seethed at the slight sarcasm attached to the word “lady,” but since
he was about to prove Neely’s right to that title and send Blakemoor packing, he wisely held his temper in check.
“Could we discuss this matter in private, Major? Perhaps in the study?” Rafe asked, indicating the room across the hall. “There’s something there you need to see.”
In his experience, Malcom Blakemoor had always known Rafe to be an honest man.
Though he was obligated to investigate any and all charges of treason, he had every reason to believe that in this case, there had been some misunderstanding. Rafe’s reputation was impeccable, even though he had ties to the South through his family and now, his wife. He had fought with valor and courage and had never
wavered in his loyalty. Therefore, Blakemoore was more than willing to hear him out. He nodded in assent and the soldier stepped forward,
pushing Rafe ahead of him.
“May my wife be allowed to join us?” Rafe ventured.
Blakemoor nodded again and the other soldier stepped forward, gently urging
Neely to follow Rafe. Once inside the study, he gave his men orders to remove the manacles but to stand at ready with their weapons. “Can’t afford to take any chances,” he told Rafe almost apologetically.
Once they were all seated, Rafe was the first to speak. “Major, I’m afraid you have been misinformed. I am well acquainted with the men who you say brought you
the message. I was informed by yet another of my men, Corporal Garrett, that they all overheard an argument between my wife and myself that led to this investigation. They obviously misinterpreted something that was said in the rather heated discussion. One of the hazards of eavesdropping, I’m afraid,” Rafe added with a
smile. “Corporal Garrett will be more than happy to relate the details, as he heard them, if you desire.”
"That won’t be necessary,” Blakemoor replied, clearing his throat in embarrassment. “But I do need proof that you and Mrs. McKnight are married.”
“We are indeed married, and have been for some time,” Rafe said. “If you will allow me, I can show you the marriage license.”
“If you have it, by all means now is the time to produce it
Captain Castiglio,” Blakemoor encouraged.
Under the watchful eyes of the guards, Rafe stepped to desk, removed a document from the top drawer, and handed it to Blakemoor. He hoped that Blakemoor didn’t
inspect it thoroughly enough to ascertain that the ink was barely dry.
Blakemoor held the document up to the light, inspecting the dates and signatures for what seemed to Neely an agonizingly long time. A million thoughts raced through her mind, though she struggled to remain calm. What if Uncle William had gotten the date wrong? What if he had forgotten to sign it? What if the Grahams had become suspicious of her and Rafe’s late night visit? And perhaps worst of all… what if Blakemoor knew that Reverend William Grace was Neely’s uncle and could
therefore have been easily coerced into forging a marriage license if it meant saving the life of his niece?
After an interminable silence that had Neely stifling a scream of anguish, Blakemoor finally sighed and said, “Everything seems to be in order.” He rose from his chair and offered his hand to Rafe. “Forgive me, Captain Castiglio. It appears you and the
Union Army have been the victims of what amounts to a bad case of gossip. My apologies to you as well, Mrs. Castiglio, for disturbing this treasured time with your
“That’s perfectly all right, Major. These things bear investigating,” Neely replied graciously, though somewhat breathlessly as she rose and moved to stand beside Rafe. “Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I must see to the household chores.”
“Before you go, Mrs. Castiglio, I have some news that may interest you concerning your brother-in-law.” Blakemoor said.
Neely’s breath caught in her throat and she could see the clear anxiety in Rafe’s eyes. “What news, Major?” she asked nervously.
Ramon Castiglio and his family surrendered to Union Forces yesterday. His home
and family are under the protection of the United States Government. I just thought you would both like to know.”
Neely took a deep breath and clasped Rafe’s hand. Their eyes met briefly in relief and love. When Rafe bent to kiss her, she turned her cheek modestly, a teasing glimmer in her emerald eyes. “I’ll see you later, Darling,” she whispered before
gliding gracefully out the door.
“Your wife is a remarkably lovely woman. You are very fortunate, Captain,” Blakemoor commented.
“Indeed I am,” Rafe agreed.
SOUTHERN COMFORT/THE PRICE OF EDEN/FAR FROM PARADISE/DELILAH' S PIRATE Copyright© 2009 Bren Yarbrough Bruhn