During our country’s greatest conflict, one man’s destiny will surprisingly be shaped within the warm embrace of his enemy. The year is 1862, and the Federal Army of the Potomac is pushing southward into Virginia…amid the carnage of war, he’ll commandeer far more than just her home. Ordered to confiscate a sprawling southern plantation for his regiment’s winter encampment, Union Colonel Reece Cutteridge comes face to face with its resolute owner, the enigmatic Emaline McDaniels, who neither welcomes nor abides the blue riders. Scarred by the death of his family years before, Reece rode east to bury his heartbreak beneath the icy mantel of command. But his plans are eternally altered by the widow who stands so defiant before him now. He’s not prepared for the wisp of a woman to upend his heart, his military career and possibly even his life, yet that’s exactly what she does.
NO GREATER GLORY
Seven miles west of Falmouth, Virginia
A bitter wind slammed through the tattered countryside, sucking warmth from the morning. Emaline McDaniels rocked back in the saddle when she heard the shout. She glanced over her shoulder and her eyes widened. Across the fields of ragged tobacco, her farrier rode toward her at breakneck speed. Lines of alarm carved their way across the old man’s ebony face.
Emaline spurred her horse around to meet him. “What’s wrong?”
Tacker pointed a gnarled finger eastward. “Yankees, Miz Emaline! Coming up da road from Falmouth!”
“Yankees?” Her heart lurched against her ribs. She’d heard of their thievery, the fires and destruction left in their wake. Teeth-gritting determination to save her home flashed through her. She leaned sideways, gripping his work-worn sleeve. “Are you sure they’re not the home guard?”
“No, ma’am. I seen em, dey’s blue riders, for sure. Hundreds of em.”
Two workers moved closer to listen to the exchange, and the farrier acknowledged them with a quick nod.
“Everyone back to the cabins,” Emaline snapped, sinking into the saddle. “And use the wagon road along the river. It’ll be safer.”
“Ain’t yo’ comin’ with us?”
“No. Move along quickly, all of you. And keep out of sight.” She flicked the reins and her horse headed straight across the fields toward the red-brick mansion that hugged the far edge of the horizon.
The spongy ground beneath the animal’s hooves churned into clods of flying mud. Aside from a few skirmishes nearby, the war had politely stayed east along the Old Plank Road around Fredericksburg. Her mare crested the small hillock near the main house, and Emaline jerked back on the leather reins. Off to her far right, a column of cavalrymen numbering into the hundreds approached. The dust cloud stirred up by their horses draped in a heavy haze across the late-morning air. In numbed fascination, she stared at the pulsing line of blue-coated soldiers, a slithering serpent of destruction a quarter of a mile long.
Waves of nausea welled up from her belly.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. She dug her boot heels into the mare’s sides and the nimble sorrel sprang into another strong gallop. Praying she’d go unnoticed, Emaline leaned low, her thoughts racing faster than the horse. What do they want? Why are they here?
Her fingers curled into the coarse mane as seconds flew past. At last, she reached the back entrance of the mansion. Quickly dismounting, she smacked the beast’s sweaty flank to send it toward the stable then spun to meet the grim expression fixed upon the face of the old woman who waited for her at the bottom of the steps. “I need Benjamin’s rifle!”
“Everythin’s right there, Miz Emaline. Right where you’d want it.” She shifted sideways and pointed to the .54 caliber Hawkins, leather cartridge box and powder flask lying across the riser like sentinels ready for battle. “Tacker told me bout the Yankees afore he rode out to find yo’.”
“Bless you, Euley.” Emaline swept up the expensive, custom-made hunting rifle her late husband treasured. The flask followed and she tumbled black crystals down the rifle’s long muzzle. A moment later, the metal rod clanked down inside the barrel to force a lead ball home.
She’d heard so many stories of the bluecoats’ wicked cruelty. What if they kill us all? The ramrod fell to the ground. With a display of courage she did not feel, Emaline heaved the weapon into her arms, swept past the old servant, and took the wooden steps two at a time.
There was no time left for what ifs.
“You stay out of sight, Euley. I mean it.” The door banged shut behind Emaline as she disappeared into the house.
Each determined footfall through the mansion brought her closer and closer to the possibility of yet another change in her life. She eased open the front door and peered out across Shapinsay’s sweeping lawns. Dust clogged the air and sent another shiver skittering up her spine. She moved out onto the wide veranda, and with each step taken, her heart hammered in her chest. Five strides later, Emaline stopped at the main steps and centered herself between two massive Corinthian columns.
She squared her shoulders. She lifted her chin. She’d fought against heartbreak every day for three years since her husband’s death. She’d fought the constant fear of losing her beloved brother in battle. She fought against the effects of this foolhardy war that sent all but two of her field hands fleeing. If she could endure all that plus operate this plantation all alone to keep Benjamin’s dreams alive, then surely, this too, she could fight.
And the loaded weapon? Well, it was for her fortitude only.
She knew she couldn’t shoot them all.
“Please, don’t turn in,” she mumbled, but the supplication withered on her lips when the front of the long column halted near the fieldstone gateposts at the far end of the lane. Three cavalrymen turned toward her then approached in a steadfast, orderly fashion.
Her gaze skimmed over the first soldier holding a wooden staff, a swallow-tailed scrap of flag near its top whipping in the breeze. The diminutive silk bore an embroidered gold star surrounded by a laurel wreath, the words, US Cavalry-6th Ohio, stitched beneath. Emaline disregarded the second cavalryman and centered her attention directly upon the officer.
The man sat his horse as if he’d been born in the saddle, his weight distributed evenly across the leather. A dark slouch hat covered sable hair that fell well beyond the collar of his coat. Epaulets graced both broad shoulders, emphasizing his commanding look. A lifetime spent in the sun and saddle added a rugged cast to his sharp, even features.
An overwhelming ache throbbed behind her eyes. What if she had to shoot him?
Or worse—what if she couldn’t?
The man reined his horse to a stop beside the front steps. His eyes, long-lashed and as brown as a bay stallion’s, caught and held hers. Though he appeared relaxed, Emaline sensed a latent fury roiling just beneath the surface of his calm. Her hands weakened on the rifle and she leaned forward, a hair’s breadth, unwillingly sucked into his masculinity as night sucked into day. Inhaling deeply, she hoisted the Hawkins to her shoulder, aiming it at his chest. Obviously in command, he would receive her lone bullet should he not heed her words. “Get off my land!”