The Seduction of Mrs. Rutledge by Diane Whiteside in NOT JUST FOR TONIGHT
June 28, 1863, Maryland
Brett blew out a puff of smoke, his eyes never leaving his scouts’ intent faces as they drew lines in the dust, each man eager to show where the Confederate infantry and cavalry were. The hot summer sun beat down on his shoulders, only slightly screened by his plumed hat. His arm itched, where a saber had grazed him at Brandy Station. He took another swig of cold, fresh water from his cup, subconsciously listening for travelers on the nearby road.
Behind him came the usual rustlings of a cavalry regiment enjoying a rare, midday break. Horses were carefully watered, tack quickly mended, and men speculated about Lee’s movements. A few troopers had pulled their hats down over their faces and now slept peacefully in the oaks’ shade. A small fire crackled as his body servant Meshach prepared pot after pot of fresh coffee for his officers. Brett sniffed appreciatively and kept listening.
“Colonel, there’s visitors coming down the road from the west. Looks like Major Howell of Meade’s staff, a half-dozen troopers, and a civilian, sir,” Captain Hepburn reported, his voice hoarsened by days of hard riding. Every cavalryman swung around to look, hands reaching for their carbines and revolvers. In this third summer of war, everyone here was a veteran of more than one hard-fought battle. They would not easily be surprised or stampeded.
A civilian? Brett focused his binoculars on the newcomers, cursing under his breath as he recognized the black-garbed rider. Damn, he’d hoped to avoid this conversation for at least a month. It could cost him everything he’d worked for the past twelve years to earn. To leave his regiment now, on the eve of a major battle, would be intolerable. Bobby Lee had gone deeper into federal territory than ever before. The next battle would be a big one and could decide the War.
He lowered the glasses and looked around at his men. Dusty, bearded and sunburned, they showed every day of the long campaigns starting with Burnside’s mud march last December. They were the best damned dragoons in the federal army and he was proud to be their commander.
“We’ll focus on South Mountain then,” Brett said calmly to his scouts, “and push west. Keep a good watch behind us, though, in case that’s where Stuart is. And get that map down in Hepburn’s notebook before you leave.”
“Yes, sir,” they chorused. Hepburn glanced at him, silently asking for additional orders. Brett lifted his hand, indicating that the other troopers could continue to relax. The lads would need every bit of strength soon enough.
The visitors came to an easy stop in front of him, Howell giving his usual precise salute. “Good day, Colonel.”
“Major Howell.” Brett returned the salute, staying focused on the military man for the moment, not the civilian.
“No news yet of Lee, sir. I’ve been ordered to escort Mr. Rutledge back to headquarters as soon as he’s ready.”
“Thank you, Howell,” Brett answered, quickly assessing his father’s careworn face. “Make yourself comfortable – this will take a few minutes.”
Josiah Rutledge nodded agreement as he swung down from his saddle, deep grooves of pain bracketing his mouth. Before this reunion, Brett had pushed aside his grief for his brother, locking it in the same corner of his heart where he kept his agony over the troopers he’d lost. But the sight of his father brought Alex back to life, the best big brother any boy could hope for. Grief surged up and hit Brett like a cannonball to the stomach.
His father’s eyes echoed the same anguish, as did his haggard complexion. A handshake was not enough; instinctively, the two men embraced. The troopers quietly moved further away, giving them a little more privacy. Finally they released each other and accepted mugs from Meshach, grateful for the break in tension.
“Cigar?” Brett offered but was refused. His father began to stir spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee.
“How’s Mother?” Brett asked quietly, sipping his drink.
“Stronger than I am, I think. She’s visiting Constance’s family now. It’s especially agonizing because Alex and Constance died on their anniversary.” His father’s eyes searched Brett’s face as they drank. “You have a fine gathering of men here.”
“The best dragoons in the Union,” Brett agreed, accepting the change in subject. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
“But with Alex and Constance and the boys dead, in that train derailment?” The Old Man’s voice choked to a stop. The lines around his mouth deepened before he spoke again. “You’re the heir now. You have to come home, Brett, and marry. Unless you have children, the Canadian cousins get the powder mills when I die.”
And most of the Union’s gunpowder. But he wouldn’t leave his men without a fight, especially not for marriage. “I can’t. I have to stay here, with my regiment. When we find Lee, there’s going to be a battle. And I’m afraid,” his voice turned very quiet, “that if we lose this battle, we could lose the War.”
“Are you sure?”
His father’s eyes probed him. “If you were wounded, or worse, there’d be someone else to take over the regiment, correct?”
“Of course,” Brett snapped.
“So how different is this fight? You’re the only Rutledge still living who can sire the next generation. You wouldn’t want foreigners to take over the powder mills, would you?”
Brett gritted his teeth. “No. But there has to be another way.”
“You won’t have to leave the Army, just serve in an area where you can also do your duty to the family,” his father urged, leaning forward persuasively. “Serving with the quartermasters, for example –”
“Hell, no,” Brett spat. “Dammit, sir, I did not become a soldier so I could inspect beans. And you know my objections to another marriage.”
“As a quartermaster, you’d be near your wife at all times. Besides, the President has given me your transfer.” His father produced a small packet from his breast pocket.
Brett grimaced at the mention of his marriage to Pearl. He didn’t regret divorcing the adulterous bitch, but he hated the reminder of how naïve he’d been, thinking that a beautiful, vibrant woman would stay faithful to a man miles away. No point in opening the envelope his father held; its contents were certain to be whatever the head of Rutledge Powder Mills wanted. “No. If you insist, then I’ll resign my commission and reenlist as a private, under an assumed name. You won’t be able to find me then.”
“Are you willing to bet on that?”
Brett hissed a curse under his breath. He began to pace restlessly, his spurs jangling at every step. “No, dammit. But there has to be another way.”
He racked his brain for another option. O’Byrne was checking his mount’s hoof carefully, then let it down with a satisfied grunt. Brett reminded himself to give O’Byrne a furlough, when the current fighting was over, so he could visit his own wife and new son. Baby… The image triggered a thought.
“What if I married and my wife waited for me in Washington? I could see her there on even the shortest furloughs. As soon as she was pregnant, I’d send her back to you in Delaware.” And I’d make certain that this babe was mine, even if I had to order Meshach to guard my brood mare of a wife. “A proxy marriage, too, so we could get down to business quickly when I reach Washington.”
The Old Man’s gaze sharpened. “That might work. Who do you want to marry?”
Brett shrugged. “Name someone. I’m sure there are hundreds of women who’d marry me for the Rutledge money.”
“I’d prefer to see you with someone your mother approved of,” his father snapped. “Any suggestions?”
“Father, I haven’t spoken privately to a society belle since I courted Pearl. Just tell me who Mother prefers and I’ll do whatever’s necessary.”
“You’ll marry anyone I suggest?”
“In that case, what about Venetia Davidson?”
An image of Brett’s old mischief-making cohort immediately rose before his eyes, freckles scattered across her snub nose and black hair escaping her braids. “She’s a child,” he protested.
His father snorted. “Have you looked at a calendar lately? She’s twenty-seven now.”
Brett tried to imagine Venetia as an adult. The closest he could manage was to remember her dressed as a jockey, with a cap pulled down over her forehead. It was hardly an image conducive to carnal thoughts.
“Would you trust her to be loyal to you?” his father asked.
Brett gritted his teeth. “Of course. We swore oaths to support each other and she always kept her word.”
His heart skipped a beat at his bold words. Could he really trust Venetia after so many years? Pearl had probably been a very docile, sweet child once but look what she’d become.
But surely he’d stay friends with Venetia after they were married and friendship meant trust. They’d have horses in common, if nothing else. He began to consider the steps needed to accomplish the wedding. “Is she still in San Francisco? Her mother last refused a letter seven years ago. All my other letters were returned as ‘unknown recipient.’”
“Yes, Venetia’s still there, according to my correspondents. Johnston, her stepfather, committed suicide in ’56 after a series of business reverses.”
Dammit, he’d relied on Johnston’s promise to look after her.
“Venetia now shares a small cottage with her mother and clerks for her stepfather’s lawyer. She was engaged to another law clerk but the fellow died while prospecting.”
“Sounds very respectable.” And totally boring, which was not how he’d have described Venetia. But since she was old enough, she’d be the best female to breed children on. Courageous, intelligent, funny. The trick would be keeping her carnal attentions.
Then the reality of what he’d agreed began to sink in. Venetia as his wife? He’d need to get her into bed and keep her there, that reckless little brat, but how?
He began to consider tactics, drawing on his cavalry experience rather than society’s conventions. Lord knows, following the dictates of polite society had seen him defeated in his first marriage.
A courier rounded the corner from the west, riding hard. Troopers sat up and horses stopped grazing. Howell straightened, throwing aside his coffee, as the scouts headed for their horses.
Excerpt from The Seduction of Mrs. Rutledge by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2005 by Diane Whiteside
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