"May I help you?"
A deep, male voice from the archway startled her. She whirled to face its owner, pressing her gloves to her jumping heart.
A man stood in the archway adjoining the parlor to the spacious foyer. His shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, the long, defined muscles of his forearms worked as he dried his hands with a bright white cloth. He eyed the slender young woman at the piano, and he had difficulty placing her face. Many of the citizens of St. Louis had been in his care at one time or another, and he would have remembered such a pretty girl, particularly her eyes. They were an unusual shade of blue-grey, like a Missouri sky after a spring storm. A scant spattering of freckles dotted her nose, lending her a youthfulness belied by the fullness of her bosom and the swell of her hips. The gentle roundness of her cheeks softened her square jaw, and her strawberry lips formed an inviting "o" of surprise. Chagrined, he caught himself staring at her, and he mutely chastised himself for being so bold in his scrutiny. Of course, had the girl been decently attired, he scarcely would have noticed her bosom or hips.
Jo conducted her own inventory of the man so studiously watching her. He was ridiculously tall but not gangly, and dressed in dark wool trousers, a matching vest and a starched white shirt. He brought the scent of rubbing alcohol with him when he stepped into the parlor. An errant lock of his maple hair drew Jo's gaze to his deep-set hazel eyes. He was an attractive man, despite his blank expression. If he were to shape his sculpted, almost too-pretty mouth into a smile, he might be rather handsome.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
His tone alarmed her. "Josephine Lillian MaQuire," she said, her voice a reluctant squeak. "I have a three-thirty appointment with Mrs. Eugenia Tolliver. I wish to interview for the governess position advertised in the Daily Morning Herald."
His remarkable eyes seemed to grow darker, the outer ring of coffee blackening to swallow the inner ring of jade. A tiny muscle sprang to life in his jaw as he glared at her. "Where are you from?"
She took an involuntary step backward. Her backside hit the piano keys, providing a discordant musical accompaniment to the sudden scowl darkening her inquisitor's face.
"A s-small town," she stammered. "Peachtree Creek, around Jonesboro. Near--"
The word sounded dry, withered by the heat of his open hatred.
I can't do this, Jo thought bleakly.
Oh yes, you can and you will, her stomach decided.
Jo straightened her shoulders and thrust forward her chin. Though her mouth went dry and her palms grew damp under his disapproving sneer, she faced him with the fierce temerity of her MaQuire heritage. So he was one of them, one of the mighty Northerners dedicated to making certain that she never forgot her roots, that she was held personally responsible for the suffering the War had wrought. Jo was no stranger to that suffering; she refused to let this hard-eyed stranger judge or blame her.
"Yes, sir," she started calmly. "Near Atlanta. Rather, where Atlanta stood before you Yankees tried to reduce it to ash."
He shook his head, his expression bitter. He slipped on a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, and then crossed his arms over his chest, his hands fisted.
"If there is something you wish to say to me, sir, kindly do so," Jo challenged, dropping her hands to her sides.
"Where do you live?" he asked.
"Who sent you here?"
"No one. The notice was posted in Monday's Herald and at the mercantile. I sent Mrs. Tolliver a card requesting an interview, and she responded."
"Have you experience caring for young children?"
Lightening crackled in her eyes. "No, sir, but I am a loving, compassionate and patient person. I can learn to do anything. Given a fair chance."
He ignored her slanted remark. "How old are you?"
He glanced at her hands. The absence of a ring did not mean the absence of a husband, not when so many Southern wedding bands had been pawned or stolen. "Are you married?"
"Widowed?" he suggested.
"If you are trying to ask me if I have or had a husband, the answer is no. I was fourteen when the War started. Contrary to what you might believe about Georgians, we do not marry in the cradle. I was eighteen by War's end, and marriage did not top my list of immediate priorities." Marriage had scarcely been even a consideration, not compared to simply staying alive.
"Do you live with your parents?"
His tone more than his questions stirred her fur, but she kept her tail down. This was the last stop in a pitifully bad day, but no one else had broken her. She refused to let this man get the best of her.
"No," she answered curtly, then added, "sir."
He waited for her to explain further.
She braced herself for his next inquiry.
"What does your father do?" he asked.
"He was a planter."
He cocked an eyebrow, glaring at her over the top of his spectacles. "Before the War, I presume?"
"Yes!" she snapped, finally unleashing her ire. "Before the Yankees came and stole everything they couldn't break, burn or seize in the name of the United States. Everything my father worked--"
"Or perhaps more accurately," he cut in, "everything his slaves worked for?"
The blood drained from Jo's face. For so long, she had kept her anger securely corralled. She had been genteel and dulcet in speech and manner, no matter the circumstance, as she had been reared to be. But right then and there, under the scornful and disgusted gaze of this rude Yankee, Josephine Lillian MaQuire breached the furthest limit of the patience she had earlier advertised.
"You dare judge me because my father owned slaves?" she started. "Every day, I see you Yankees spitting on your colored neighbors. Every night, you Yanks ride in masks, terrifying them and driving them from their homes. My father treated his slaves like--"
"People?" he offered sardonically.
"Family," she finished with a defiant tilt of her chin. "We never treated them as savagely as you Yankees do."
"Denying a man his liberty is more civilized?" he angrily countered.
Before she said something that she would not have the decency to regret, Jo tugged on her gloves and snatched her worn bonnet from her vacated chair. "Thank you," she said, not meaning it one bit, "for seeing me this afternoon, sir. I'm sorry to have wasted your time as well as my own. I'll see myself out."
"Wait," he grudgingly grumbled as she whisked past him in a swirl of faded calico. "There has been a misunderstanding."
Jo turned on him in the foyer. The oval of stained glass in the front door framed her in gold, amber and yellow. "My business here is concluded." Her voice trembled. "It's always the same. You look upon me as nothing more than a vanquished enemy. There is nothing for me here. That message has been delivered to me a thousand different times, a thousand different ways. Good day." She opened the door and rushed through it.