Julie stood at the ship's rail, oblivious to the chill of the December night as she stared pensively toward the moon-swept wilderness of the Georgia river bank. She was leaving behind everything familiar and dear to her to journey across the ocean to a distant land and marry a man she knew she could never love.
A shudder went through her slender young body. Marriage. She did not want to marry anyone, and certainly not someone for whom she felt only polite regard.
But she was not the only person driven to act against her will, she reflected. The war between the North and the South had brought upheaval and chaos to thousands of lives.
From above, twinkling stars reflected in the rolling black waters danced merrily and shattered into thousands of shards. The silence was broken only by the croaking of an army of frogs and the mournful hooting of unseen owls. Wind whispered through the gray moss that hung shroudlike from the trees lining the shore.
They had left the landing some hours ago, traveling to the ship on a ten-oared barge hewn of thick cypress logs. She, her mother, and Sara, their most devoted Negro servant, had been taken to the low, marshy flat that the Yankees had not yet discovered. Steam-powered cotton presses had been built there, and the blockade runners took on their cargoes from that point.
They had been met by sentries, who were posted on the wharves at all times to prevent Confederate deserters from getting on board and stowing away. And, of course, they kept a stern vigil for Yankee spies.
Before Julie's betrothed, Virgil Oates, had left weeks earlier to go to England and make preparations for their wedding, he had explained that the conformation of the Atlantic coast and the direction and force of the winds were both factors in the successful blockade running.
"If the wind blows off the coast, it drives the squadron to sea," he had said. "It enlarges the perimeter of the circle through which the blockade runner can swiftly and safely steam. If the wind blows landward, the squadron must haul off to a greater distance to escape the consequences of the heavy seas that are so violent along the coast."
He talked of the shoals lining the North Carolina coast, saying that they extended for miles into the sea, and were unsurpassed in danger for navigating when strong easterly winds met the ebb tide.
"It's an easy matter, however, for an experienced pilot who knows the coast to run a swift-steaming light-draft vessel out to sea or into port. The heavier and deeper draft vessels of the Federal blockade squadron are buffeted by the stormy winds and waves."
Julie remembered how Virgil embraced her as he told her that he had engaged the Ariane, one of the swiftest runners afloat. "I certainly would not take a chance with my future bride's safety," he said, "and I am told that Derek Arnhardt is one of the most skilled captains on the high seas."
He kissed her then, and she prayed he would not sense the negative feelings she fought to hide. She was grateful for the kindness he had shown both her and her mother, and she was well aware that if he did not use his "connections" to get Rose Hill cotton through the Yankee blockade, all would be lost.
She could not let that happen, and not merely for her own sake. She was thinking of her mother, who had struggled so desperately to keep the plantation going since her father's death only five years past. Then there was her twin brother, Myles. Oh, God, he had suffered and was still suffering, and she wanted a home waiting for him when and if he was able to return.
Her hands gripped the railing tightly as feverish determination rippled through her body. Virgil had asked her to marry him, and when she accepted, she knew he would use all his influence and power to save her family estate. But it still made her sick to the depths of her soul to know she was marrying a man she would never love.
There had been so much misery to bear. She could trace her own heartache back to that balmy spring afternoon when she was only twelve years old and discovered the horrible secret about her father. Lord, she would never forget that fateful day.
She and Myles were going riding, and she had gone to the stable ahead of him. It was located down a long, curving path, behind the big house. Stepping inside the structure, she paused for her eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness--then froze at the sound of whispering voices.
"Adelia, darling, you shouldn't have come here..."
She recognized her father's voice, and before she could grasp what was happening, she heard her Aunt Adelia's voice replying, "Jerome, it's been weeks. When I saw Elena's carriage pass this morning on the way into town, I knew I had to risk coming. You don't know how I've yearned for your touch, your kiss..."
Cold reality washed over Julie in waves as she leaned back against the rough wooden walls, her legs no longer able to support her. Her father...and her aunt! They were lovers!
She was not able to will herself to move, though she wanted so desperately to run, to escape the nightmare. Helpless, she was forced to stand there, hands knotted into tight fists pressed against her quivering lips as burning screams struggled to surface.
And never would she be able to erase from her memory the sounds of their frantic, feverish lovemaking in the hayloft overhead.
It was only when silence descended that she was able to come out of her shock, and she slipped quietly outside, the memory forever etched in her brain.
She had not told Myles, though she would have liked to confide her heartache. She did not want him to be torn up inside too.
It had been terrible to force herself to pretend she knew nothing, especially when her father was around. A jovial, affectionate man, she reasoned he was the most wonderful father a girl could wish for. She tried not to despise him, blaming Aunt Adelia instead. It was only natural, she reasoned, that he would give in to a woman who threw herself at him, with no thought of morals.
She knew also how crushed her mother would be to learn her brother's wife was cavorting with her husband, whom she loved with all her heart. Julie had always known this. So why had her father turned to another woman, betraying his wife and the mother of his children? She did not know, especially since her mother was much prettier than Aunt Adelia. Perhaps, she reasoned, physical beauty did not ensure eternal faithfulness and devotion between a husband and wife.
The times when Aunt Adelia was around were the worst, and every Sunday she and Uncle Nigel would bring their son, Thomas, to Rose Hill for a sumptuous dinner. Uncle Nigel was not a man of wealth. He was but a poor dirt farmer who barely coaxed a meager existence from his land, and she had heard the servants whispering that Sundays were probably the only time the Carrigans ever got a decent meal.
Myles noticed her sudden dislike for their aunt and questioned her about it, but she never answered him. Cousin Thomas was another matter. Until Julie discovered the "secret" they had been quite close. Afterwards he badgered her constantly about why she had cooled toward him, never accepted an invitation to visit him at his house, and avoided him when he came to hers. He was hurt and puzzled, but she knew all too well how it would destroy him if he knew the truth about his mother.
So she told no one, harboring the agony herself.
Then came the night that would haunt her forever. Rain was pouring down fiercely, and she was awakened by the loud pounding at the front door and the sound of a man's booming voice demanding to see her mother.
By the time one of the servants answered and hurried upstairs to tell her mother Sheriff Franklin wanted to see her, Julie and Myles had come out of their rooms and stood at the top of the curving stairs. They waited with a chill of foreboding for their mother to appear. When she did, she murmured that they should return to their rooms, but they paid no attention, watching as she hurried down the steps to where Sheriff Franklin waited, twisting his big hat around and around in his hands. Water dripped from his clothes onto the polished oak floors.
In a trembling voice, their mother demanded to know what brought him all the way out there in the dead of night during a storm.
Over their mother's shrieks of protest, they heard him tell her that their father was dead--murdered in cold blood. He had been on his way home from town, and someone shot him right off his horse.
There had been much confusion, with their mother fainting, and Julie and Myles screaming and crying. It was only later that Julie was able to sort out the pieces of the story that no one else would ever know about.
The sheriff and their neighbors could not understand the reason Nigel Carrigan had quarreled with his brother-in-law earlier that evening in a waterfront tavern. They had no idea why Nigel had threatened to kill him. But when Nigel had disappeared that same night, the night her father was killed, everyone suspected that he had waited in ambush to murder Jerome Marshal.
He was never heard from again.
Julie knew what had happened...and why. It was another secret she would have to bear in agony, alone.