Once again his gaze became so penetrating her insides sprouted wings. A stirring silence grew between them, and she clutched the satchel handle tighter, afraid it might tumble out of her trembling fingers.
“Yes, it is,” he said, stepping back, clearing the cabin’s doorway for her entrance.
She pressed a hand to her stomach, to calm the flapping there. The gown was a simple blue calico with short sleeves and a square neckline. It had seemed the most appropriate for the weather yesterday when she’d packed her bag, sitting in the back of the bumpy wagon.
When she lifted her gaze, the explanation died in her throat and her feet grew roots. There was a tightness in his jaw, and she could feel his contempt. Tugging her feet off the walkway, and praying she wouldn’t stumble, for there was no excuse now that she was no longer wearing the off-kilter boots, Millie dipped her head and moved forward.
She’d barely stepped inside the cabin when a clanging noise echoed through the open courtyard.
“It’s lunchtime,” Seth said. “Are you hungry?”
Five days of beans—the thought was still horrifying—blasted into her mind like a storm. Men could release the pressure beans produced, but women couldn’t, and most certainly never in mixed company. She’d requested to sit in the back of the wagon for fear she’d burst at times, and the thought of eating beans again today was deplorable. But so was the confrontation about to take place—it was right under the surface. She could tell he was ready to claim once again that she wasn’t Rosemary.
He was probably going to say her sister would never have made the wagon trip—or half the train rides. She’d have returned to Richmond long before crossing the Mississippi. He’d be right, of course. But Millie hadn’t had the choice of not coming—nor of leaving.
“As a matter of fact, I am hungry,” she said, setting the bag down on one of her trunks.
Once again the thought of Rosemary doing what their mother had done made Millie’s insides quiver. The housekeeper, Lola, insisted she mustn’t blame herself. Millie tried not to, but when you’re responsible, you carry blame. Forever. Papa had always feared the same thing—that Rosemary would do what Mother had done—and Millie had never told him how close Rosemary had come once. She’d never told anyone. Martin knew. He’d been the one who saved Rosemary’s life, but he’d thought she’d fallen into the river.
The weight in Millie’s chest grew immense. Lola had vowed no such thing would happen while Millie was gone, and if anyone could make Rosemary behave it was their loyal, watchful housekeeper. Remembering that gave her fortitude. If Lola could handle Rosemary, surely Millie could handle Seth. After five years postponing the divorce, an additional three months couldn’t be that difficult.
“Shall we go then?”
Dropped back to earth like a peach falling from a tree, Millie paused mentally, gathering her wits. “Yes, lunch,” she mumbled, mainly to herself. Food probably wouldn’t help, but not being alone with him would. Her nerves were too jumbled for her to think straight right now.
Millie didn’t attempt to concentrate on becoming Rosemary during the short walk across the compound. She was too focused on keeping up with Seth’s long strides. Once they entered the building a man as large as a bear, with hair as yellow as corn, met them at the door.
“Mrs. Parker,” he said, dipping his head. “My name’s Briggs Ryan. Private Cutter said you like tea, no?”
“Yes, yes, I like tea,” she responded.
“Good. Ja, I have some for you. This way.”
As wonderful as the tea sounded, she couldn’t help but pause at the way Seth stiffened at her side. He didn’t take a step to follow the man, so she didn’t, either.
“I set a table for you and your wife, Major,” the man said, “as usual when we have company.”
There appeared to be some kind of showdown between the two, and Millie had to believe she was the cause of it. “I’m not really company,” she said, hoping to ease the tension.
Neither man spoke, but after another quiet moment, Seth nodded his head slightly. He then took ahold of her elbow and led her across the room, following Briggs Ryan.
The large room was crowded, but almost silent now as they made their way to the table. All men, dressed in their blue uniforms. Some were sitting at the long tables flanked with benches, others standing in line, filling their plates from huge platters set out on a high counter.
Mr. Ryan held a chair and she sat. The table was small and set for two, complete with a tablecloth and napkins.