Reece McBride left the south after the war with nothing but ashes and memories. He's built himself a new world around the credo, "Never care deeply so about anything you can't bear to lose it." He didn't reckon on a lady journalist digging into his affairs or his past. Emma Parker is a journalist, and a journalist fights for the truth. And no sweet talking scoundrel is going to make her compromise her principles. Emma's determined quest for the salvation of Reece's soul is matched only by Reece's painful struggle to be the man Emma believes him to be.
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Deborah Cox is the author of two print published historical romance novels. When she's not writing, Deborah manages a computer training company and designs web sites. She is an avid history enthusiast - particularly Civil War, Old West and Louisiana history. Born and raised in the deep South, she now lives in Jackson, Mississippi, though her heart resides in New Orleans.
"Unforgiven is a powerful story of love and grief. It brings to life the horrors that war veterans face, and particularly those veterans of the civil war. The narrative was smooth and did much to move the story forward. The dialogue, while not prolific, was well done and believable. The characters were well drawn and sympathetic. A must-read for fans of historical western romance. While the Civil War is a part of the internal conflict both protagonists face, it is in an historical perspective. I recommend Unforgiven for a fast, well-told story of love and redemption."Romance Communications
"Unforgiven is an intense and thoroughly enjoyable read ... well-plotted and well written. Reece and Emma are well-matched. The minor characters are well-developed and add to the story. The conflict between Reece and Emma meshes with the external plot and brings the story to a conclusion that satisfies and is absolutely right. 5 Stars and Reviewers Choice!"Scribes World Reviews
Dakota Territory, 1878
The blood on the dead man's Confederate gray tunic had already dried.
Reece MacBride took a deep breath and focused again, but the body was still there. The wind had blown the sheet away, revealing a gray-haired man with a bullet hole in his temple. He had been dead for several hours. Already the fetid odor of death permeated the air, reminding him of the sickly stench of a battlefield after the fighting.
Gazing toward the sky, Reece forced another breath past the lump in his throat and tried to ignore the hard knot that settled in his gut at the all too familiar sight of a dead Confederate soldier, a sight he had not seen in more than thirteen years. His breath rasping in his chest, he fumbled in his vest pocket for the silver dollar he always kept there. The past receded as he held the coin before his eyes and read the date inscribed there.
1866 -- the war was over.
His gaze returned to the body on the ground before him. This was 1878, for God's sake. What kind of man would carry his uniform with him for all these years, let alone put it on to die?
Reece remembered the day he had first put on his own uniform and left his home and family. And he remembered the day he'd come home. How different those two days had been. The former had been a day of pride and enthusiasm, and the latter... Well, by then there was as little left of the idealistic young man who had marched into battle with a confidence born of inexperience as there was of that uniform.
By then he had seen so much death and suffering he'd become inured to it. By then he had endured the hell of imprisonment and the bitter taste of defeat.
That day, he'd made a vow. From that moment, he had ordered his entire life so that he would never have to feel that kind of hopelessness again.
He realized he'd cursed aloud when the young woman who struggled to dig the stranger's grave whirled around to face him, holding a shovel before her as if it were a weapon. At first glimpse of that damned uniform, he'd forgotten she was there, although she was the reason he had stopped in the first place. And he cursed his southern upbringing that would not allow him to pass a stranded woman on the road and not offer assistance. If he had not stopped, he wouldn't have witnessed this macabre sight, wouldn't be feeling the old pain.
"What happened here?" he asked, though the answer was apparent. A bullet through the head at point blank range was hard to misinterpret. A better question would have been why, but he didn't want to become that involved.
In fact, what he wanted more than anything right now was to put as much distance as possible between himself and this scene that threatened to rouse every nightmare he'd been trying for thirteen years to outrun.
"My father," she said, her voice barely a whisper. Dirt covered her face and matted her auburn hair, and the dark circles under her eyes attested to her fatigue. "He... he shot himself ac... accidentally," she told him, her voice thick with unshed tears.
Deciding not to comment on her obvious lie, Reece dismounted, conscious of the girl's terrified eyes following his every movement. "I'm not going to hurt you," he assured her.
Her gaze settled on the gun at his hip, and she tightened her grip on the shovel. The only sound in the tense quiet came from his spurs as he walked toward her slowly, his hands raised. They were never going to get anywhere if she didn't trust him to some degree.
"Perhaps we could find a less isolated site for the grave," he suggested. There couldn't be a more desolate place in all of the territory than this stretch of wilderness on the edge of the badlands.
The girl raised the shovel in a defensive motion, and Reece paused. "All right," he said in his most soothing voice.
"This is the place he...." Her words started out strong and vehement, but she stopped in mid-sentence. "He would have liked it here," she whispered.
Tenderness stirred inside him, and he crushed it immediately before it could take hold of him. He felt as if he were mired in quicksand. The emotions she evoked were as disturbing as the memories roused by the man who lay dead between them, a soldier who had survived the war but not the demons he'd brought home with him.
Reece watched the girl turn back toward the grave and drive the shovel into the earth with all her might. She must have been digging for hours, yet she had barely broken ground.
He sighed in resignation. He had timed his journey perfectly. With a good six hours of daylight left, he should reach Providence well before sunset. Unless, of course, he was detained by a drastic turn of fortune. Two hours, he thought. It would take him at least two hours of backbreaking work to dig a grave deep enough to bury a man. Then he would have to drive her wagon for her. That would add at least another hour to the trip.
"Well then at least allow me to assist you with that," he said, his plans slipping away like gold through a fool's fingers.
He had been on the road for three days, what difference would a couple more hours make one way or the other?
"The last man who offered his help stole a hundred dollars and my father's Henry rifle," she informed him.
Reece smiled at her cynicism. She seemed so fragile, so small-boned and delicate, yet she vibrated with inner strength. Like Sarah, he thought with a stab of grief. Silk and satin on the outside, steel on the inside. He had never loved another woman after Sarah, and he never would. Even if he were still capable of love, he would never allow it. The cost was too dear.
Sarah Hammond MacBride never would have worn pants. She was too much of a lady. But this girl's masculine clothes did nothing to hide her femininity. If anything they enhanced it, and Reece found himself fighting yet another battle, this one against the attraction awakening inside him.
"I assure you--"
"I can manage," she cut in, blowing an errant lock of red hair out of her eyes.
"I can see that."
She jerked around, opening her mouth as if to retort. But whatever she had meant to say died unspoken. Her wary blue eyes watched him as he shrugged out of his coat and straightened the brocade vest underneath.
"Please permit me to introduce myself," he said, draping his coat over his arm and holding his hand out to her, his formal demeanor effectively keeping the distance between them wide. "I am Reece MacBride, at your service."
Reluctantly she reached out to him, her small, cold hand trembling in his palm. The impact of her gaze stunned him. The impression flashed through his mind that she could see into the dark, empty place inside him, that place he had not visited in a very long time. She had somehow managed to pry open a window to his soul, and he forced it shut, regaining control with an effort.
"Emma," she said in a breathless whisper, jerking her hand away and taking a step back. "Emma Parker."
Reece was prepared this time. He steeled himself against her vulnerability and against whatever insight she might have glimpsed in that fraction of a second when he'd let down his guard, hiding his momentary discomfort behind the mask of charm that had become his trademark and his protection.
"Well, Miss Parker, it is already past noon." He untied his cravat as he gazed up at the sky, then removed his hat and dropped the necktie into the hat. "It can get unbearably warm here. How long have you been digging?"
Reece held out his hand and traded his coat and hat for the shovel. He was well aware of his authoritative air that compelled others to look to him for direction. It was what made him an effective leader. At different times in his thirty-six years, he had considered that gift a blessing and a curse.
He rolled up his shirtsleeves then bent to the task of digging her father's grave. In his peripheral vision he watched her move stealthily toward something on the ground. A gun belt. He stopped digging and leaned insolently on the shovel, waiting until she had strapped the weapon on before speaking.
"That's a mighty fine weapon," he commented with an amused smile.
She looked up with a gasp, clutching her chest as if to still the pounding of her heart. Her reaction confirmed two things. She was still as nervous as a newborn foal, and she had never used a gun to defend herself. If she had, she'd have instinctively gone for it.
"Do you know how to use it?" He needed to let her know that the weapon gave her no advantage. He was still in control. But she also needed to understand that he meant her no harm.
"Well enough," Miss Parker replied with a lift of her chin. "My father taught me...." Her voice trailed off, and her gaze drifted toward the body on the ground. She didn't say another word, just turned on her heel and picked up a bedroll.
Reece kept a covert eye on her as she broke camp. Her straight, rigid back never relaxed. Even when she bent to retrieve cooking implements and blankets from the ground, she maintained a rigid stance. If he hadn't felt the softness of her hand earlier and recognized the raw pain in her eyes, he would swear she was made of ice.
Then she walked to the edge of the camp and bent over to retrieve something, and Reece forgot everything except the way those breeches of hers stretched taut across her firm, round backside. He expelled a deep breath in an effort to relieve the tension that shuddered through him. It didn't work of course, but he told himself he felt better for the effort. She straightened and turned toward him, and he looked away quickly, driving the shovel into the ground with renewed vigor.
His gaze flickered to the corpse. The disparate faces of war and innocence converged before his mind's eye, as inseparable as they were incompatible. In the Shenandoah Valley, those two faces had clashed with a vengeance. As a partisan ranger, his duty had been to protect the populace while harassing a superior army -- an impossible feat, since it was the presence of the rangers and the fact that the civilians gave them sanctuary that put the populace in danger to begin with.
He raised his eyes from the dead soldier to the girl before him, another victim of a war no one could quite forget. She might be a fighter, a survivor. She might swagger around in breeches, a dangerous-looking revolver strapped to her hip, but the innocence in her eyes was unmistakable.
Of course, innocence was something easily lost.
"Not my problem," he muttered. He had done the right thing, offered her help. Caring for destitute women was not his mission in life. He had enough to occupy his time and energy, he decided as he turned back to the task at hand.
* * *
Nearly two hours later, Reece wiped his sleeve across his sweat-dampened brow. His white shirt and dark trousers were covered with grime, his breath labored.
He leaned heavily against the shovel for support, surveying the finished grave without satisfaction. It seemed an inglorious end for a man of war, a bullet in the head and a grave in a desolate wilderness.
"We need to mark it, I suppose," he said, his voice thick with emotion.
"I suppose," Miss Parker replied dully.
At some point during his digging, she had come to sit on the ground a safe distance away. She'd spent the last hour gazing at the horizon, though he doubted she'd seen anything past her own pain. He quelled the pity that rose in his throat and gazed around for material to make the marker, his chest rising and falling from exertion. He retrieved a small stone a few paces away and carried it to the grave where he knelt, his pocket knife poised in his right hand.
"What was his name?" He gazed up in time to see her swallow hard, controlling her jagged emotions with an effort.
"Samuel Parker," she whispered.
There was only room for his initials, but it would have to do.
Reece straightened as Miss Parker suddenly came to her feet and disappeared into the covered wagon. She reappeared almost as quickly as she'd vanished, kneeling beside her father's grave and opened a small leather box with great care. Reece's heart gave a lurch at the sight of the dull gold Confederate medal resting on dark gray velvet.
She lifted the stone and placed the medal beneath it.
"Don't you imagine he would want you to have that?" he asked gruffly.
"No," she murmured, backing away from the grave. "No."
"That is not just some worthless trinket--"
She stared at him, and the anger inside her reached out to him. "I know exactly what it is."
"Then you know it is not a toy or a mere memento to be left out where it will corrode in the sun or be stolen by outlaws." His own vehemence surprised him. It shouldn't matter. The war was over, had been for a long time.
"I told you I know what it is," she said wearily, her shoulders rigid. "Look, Mr. MacBride, I'm grateful for your help, but it's none of your concern."
"You're right," Reece conceded, though it took all his restraint not to vent the outrage swelling in his soul. "I'll leave you alone for a while if you like."
"I've already said my good-byes," she assured him almost before he'd finished speaking.
He was a master at control, but right now he was not at all sure how long he could hold back the anger inside him. He might not have always gotten along with his own father, but there was family loyalty and an undeniable, indissoluble blood bond between family members that seemed to be missing altogether in this girl.
"You are obviously a very brave and determined young woman," he said tautly. "But I cannot help wondering how you can bury your own father without shedding a tear and then leave his war decoration--"
"I told you, it's not your concern."
But Reece hardly heard her. The image of three crosses marking three fresh graves flashed through his brain. He could see himself, a weary young man kneeling before them, his shoulders slumped under the weight of loss. Behind him lay the corpse of a once grand house, as grotesque in death as it had been beautiful in life. Charred and cracked columns stood among the ruins like sun-bleached bones, reaching defiantly toward the sky.
For eight long months he'd thought of nothing but going home, walking the familiar halls of the house where he'd been born, holding Sarah again. But war and innocence had collided once more, leaving him with nothing.
Closing his eyes, he steeled himself against a pain so powerful it nearly drove him to his knees, and willed himself to let go of the past. With a deep breath, he stilled his mind, regaining the tight control he had learned so well. He had conquered the loneliness long ago, banished the memories to the place where memories belonged, stored them away like an old uniform. They had no place in his world any longer.
Walking to the wagon, he retrieved his discarded hat, struggling desperately to focus on the present as his breathing slowly returned to normal. "Where are you headed, Miss Parker?" he asked when he could trust himself to speak again.
"Providence," she said tiredly.
He brushed his hat against his pants before placing it on his head. "That happens to be where I am headed. I would be pleased to drive your wagon for you."
"That won't be necessary," she said emphatically.
His patience was wearing thin, but he managed to veil his irritation with sarcasm. "I have no doubt you can manage quite well, Miss Parker," he said, though the truth was clearly carved on her weary face. She was near collapse. She would never make it to town on her own, but she was too damned stubborn to admit it. "However, you have been through quite a great deal with your father just passing away and all."
Just committing suicide, he corrected silently. The words remained unspoken, hanging between them like a thick curtain of fog. Both of them knew it was there, but they ignored it, speaking through it instead of acknowledging it and lifting it out of the way. And in truth, Reece was as glad for the barrier as she obviously was -- it helped him maintain his distance.
Emma laughed without humor. "My father died a long time ago. He just didn't lie down until today."
In that instant, her eyes looked far too old for such a young woman, too old and too wise. Her pain and vulnerability reached out to him, penetrating again into that hollow place in his soul.
"Miss Parker," he said, his voice choked with unaccustomed emotion. It was easy to forget at times what it was like to live with the intolerable, to be forced to accept things that your spirit and your soul cried out against. "This country is not safe for a woman traveling alone," he continued. "I insist upon escorting you the rest of the way to town."
"Suit yourself," she said with a shrug, leading the draft horses to the front of the wagon.
Ungrateful woman. She ought to thank him for stopping instead of frowning at him and tossing away his offers of help like empty pecan shells.
If he had suited himself, he would be in town by now, relaxing in the saloon with a bottle of whiskey and a fine cigar instead of standing here covered in sweat and dirt.
Struggling with righteous anger, Reece reminded himself the girl's father had shot himself in front of her. A little compassion on his part would not be out of order. Perhaps she was still in shock or using indifference as a defense. Now that he could understand. He had learned to do that quite well himself. And he'd trained himself not to become involved in the misfortunes of others, but he wasn't quite able to shield himself from this strange, unfortunate girl.
The less he knew about Miss Parker, the better. He already knew more than he wanted to know. As soon as they reached town, he planned to put as much distance as possible between them.
They had nothing in common, after all, nothing but ashes and memories and abandoned graves.
A cold tremor ran up his spine, and he halted the direction of his thoughts with an effort. Nothing could undo the past and he'd stopped living there a long time ago. The only way to start over was to leave the past where it belonged -- in the past.
His gaze fell on the fresh grave before him, on the stone that covered a hard-earned medal. No soldier went into battle with the intention of earning a medal, but Reece well knew what was required of its recipient. He had received one like it after Antietum. In cold weather, his left shoulder still pained him where he'd been wounded in that battle. His regiment had suffered tremendous losses. No medal could make up for that.
If he closed his eyes, he could see the way the sunlight glinted off the medal as it was pinned to his uniform, feel again the pain of losing so many men, friends, comrades. His painful wound had paled in the face of that loss.
Cursing himself for a sentimental fool, Reece strode over to the grave, retrieved the medal and slipped it into his vest pocket. Perhaps it meant nothing to the girl, but he could not bring himself to leave it here for thieves.
Maybe later he would ask her how she could do something so heartless. Maybe he would ask her if she felt nothing for her own father, for the land of her birth.
He touched the brim of his hat as he turned away. "Rest in peace, sir, if you can."