MARK BATTAGLIA PULLED his rental car into the driveway of his grandmother’s old home and took a deep breath as he put it in park and turned off the ignition.
Just over three years. Had it really been that long?
His sister Jessica had chosen to disappear to a time outside of his realm of comprehension, and he’d been left behind to clean up the mess. His parents were killed in a plane crash ten years ago while serving as missionaries in Africa, his grandfather was murdered three years ago, and his grandmother had just died of a heart attack. He didn’t know if he could take much more.
He slid out of the driver’s seat and shut the door. Staring up at the house he’d spent much of his childhood in, he shook his head as the memories flooded back in. His grandmother was the refuge he and Jessica had needed to heal, and she’d been his biggest supporter and fan when he’d chosen a career in dancing.
The sale of the house had gone through the week before and now it was up to him to pack up what he wanted to keep and dispose of the rest.
The hum of a car approaching pulled him from his thoughts and he turned to see Jessica’s best friend and former roommate, Hailey Mulligan, now Hailey Smith, pulling into the driveway. She got out of the car and walked toward him with a smile. Her hair, previously trimmed above her shoulders, now fell a good three inches below them and fell like caramel sheets. She’d gained a little weight and finally looked happy and healthy. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt, along with a dirty pair of sneakers, and scooped her hair up into a scrunchy as she approached.
“Hi!” she said.
Mark held his arms open and Hailey slid into them for a quick hug. “Hi, Hails, how are you?”
“Better than you,” she said sympathetically.
Hailey had always had a crush on Mark, but after Jessica disappeared, Hailey moved back to Arkansas and fell in love with Jason Smith, a medical student she met at church. He finished his residency in Harrisburg and they were married two years ago. Although Mark wasn’t sure Jason wanted Hailey anywhere near him, when she’d offered to help him get the house in order, he’d readily accepted.
Hailey dropped her keys into her purse and rubbed her arms. “Let’s get inside. I’m freezing.”
He swept the air with his arm. “After you.”
They made their way onto the porch and Mark unlocked the door and stood back to let Hailey precede him. Once inside, he moved through the rooms, switching on lights and assessing the condition of the house. “If you want anything of Jessica’s, she said you could take it,” Mark offered.
Tears filled Hailey’s eyes, but she blinked them away. “Thanks, but there’s nothing I want more than her.”
Mark sighed. “I know. She’s happy where she is, though.”
Jessica and Mark had created a story about her returning to the jungles of Africa in order to continue their parents’ missionary work to cover up where she’d really gone. No one but the two of them knew the truth.
“I just don’t know why she can call you and not me.”
“I miss her, you know?”
He nodded. “Oh, I know.”
“Okay, enough of the maudlin,” Hailey said. “Let’s get this party started.”
An hour into their packing, the truck from Monica’s Antiques pulled into the driveway. Mark was lucky that most of the furniture in his grandmother’s home was old and well-made. He’d had a few folks come through to appraise what she had, and Monica Landry had offered him a tidy sum in exchange for the furniture and some of the more valuable glassware. Mark wouldn’t be able to take those items where he was going, and he wasn’t overly interested in household knickknacks anyway.
Mark and Hailey took a break to eat some sandwiches he’d brought along, while the movers took away the furniture. When they were done, Mark walked through the house, amazed they had managed to remove everything so quickly.
His plan was to take what he could carry in two large backpacks. Everything else would have to be donated.
The job took them another four hours, and then Mark took a few pictures and said good-bye to Hailey, heading to Goodwill to drop off his donated items. Once done, he hit the 83 and made his way to Baltimore to execute his final plan. With the help of Laughing Crow and Shaye Montgomery, he’d spent two years preparing for this day, and he hoped and prayed nothing would go wrong.
* * *
Shaye Montgomery slid her signature twice-baked potatoes into the oven while her husband played with their two-year-old, who sat in her booster seat at the table. Crow had pulled his long, silky hair back and secured it with a black tie. Sometimes, Shaye wondered how she’d managed to get a man so gorgeous. Especially one who’d traveled through time to be with her.
Cheyenne was weaving a tall tale with two of her favorite American Girl dolls, while munching on a fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookie.
“Daddy, Kaya has a black horse. Did you have a black horse when you were little?”
“Oh, right. I forgot.” Cheyenne combed Kaya’s hair.
Shaye gave Crow a disbelieving grin. Cheyenne didn’t forget anything, and with her advanced vocabulary, was able to tell you pretty much everything you’d ever said.
“Auntie Missy has a black Awabian,” Cheyenne continued.
“Yes, she does,” Crow said as he picked up Kaya’s black horse.
“And in the story about the pwetty lady with the black stallion, you said the horse saved her from a bad man.”
Crow stood and made his way to the sink, reaching for a paper towel. “Yes, that’s true.”
“Osakwv!” Shaye narrowed her eyes in admonishment. The story of Victoria Butler’s rescue from a madman shouldn’t be something her child should be hearing about.
“Victoria’s not the one you have to worry about,” she retorted.
He grinned and patted her bottom before making his way back to the table.
“I think I’d like a black horse, too.” Cheyenne paused in her task. “Will you buy one for me, please?”
Shaye bit the inside of her cheek to keep from giggling. Cheyenne was angling for a pony again. Surrounded by the beautiful horses of their training facility, Cheyenne had become quite vocal about her desire to have her own horse.
Shaye wiped down the counter and watched as Crow sat back down. “Well, one day you will have your very own horse, estuce. And he can be any color you like.”
“No, Shy, we’ve decided it would be better for you to wait until you’re a bit older.”
Cheyenne threw her doll on the floor. “No! Now!”
“Wow. Really?” Shaye raised an eyebrow.
They were expecting Mark Battaglia within the hour, and the last thing they needed was a meltdown from their very cute, but very dramatic little girl.
“But I said please.” Cheyenne crossed her arms with a huff.
“Okay,” Crow said. “Time out then bed.”
“No!” she snapped. “I don’t wanna go to bed.”
Crow lifted her from her chair.
“No, Papa,” she squealed, and tried to pitch out of his arms.
“Cheyenne,” he growled. “You will obey me.”
Shaye smiled at her husband in encouragement.
Cheyenne reached for the doll. “I want Kaya.”
“Not tonight, Honey Bee.” Shaye shook her head. “Kaya’s going to stay with Mama until you can learn to respect your toys.”
“But I want Kaya.”
“No,” Shaye said firmly.
Cheyenne frowned then focused back on Crow. She laid her palm on his cheek. “I wuv you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too,” he said.
“Please may I have a pony?”
Cheyenne screamed again, throwing her head back and sobbing for effect. Shaye wondered if perhaps she should put her into acting classes. An Oscar could very well be in her daughter’s future.
Shaye couldn’t stop a laugh when Crow shot her a look of helplessness. Cheyenne had the power to get around her daddy, and Shaye had been having a difficult time keeping her in line. The adorable little con artist constantly tried to play one against the other.
Shaye laid her hand on Crow’s back. “Be strong, baby. She’s two.”
He groaned and left the room with Cheyenne. Shaye cleaned up the high chair and table and headed upstairs. As she passed by Cheyenne’s room, she couldn’t help but pause, and found herself rooted to the spot, eavesdropping on her little family.
“Papa, I’s sowy.”
“Can I have a horse now?”
Shaye stifled a giggle.
“No, Cheyenne. No horses until you’re older.”
“Cheyenne Rayne, I’ve had enough of this subject. If you ask again, you will be disciplined.”
Shaye waited for more drama, but within minutes, Crow walked from the room and closed the door. “Enjoying the show?” he whispered with a grin.
“Not that it makes anything easier on my end, necessarily,” Crow grumbled.
“What do you mean?”
He took her hand and led her to their bedroom. “It doesn’t matter how much bass I put into my voice, Nakuce, every day gets increasingly harder.”
He grimaced as he wrapped his arms around her waist. “She looks like you more and more with each passing minute, and you know I can’t deny you anything. What makes you think I’ll be able to deny her?”
Shaye laughed and looped her arms around his neck. “Because if you don’t set boundaries now, she’ll grow up to be a stripper.”
“Do not put that visual in my head.” He leaned down and kissed her. “When does Mark arrive?”
He kissed her again. “How soon?”
“Less than fifteen minutes.”
Crow smiled. “Just enough time for a shower.”
“No it’s not.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“What?” she retorted. “When have you ever spent less than forty minutes in the shower?”
“My only explanation for that is the fact that I have only had the luxury of showers since I arrived. I enjoy them.”
“I know you do.” Shaye giggled. “Go ahead, baby. I’ll time you.” Her phone buzzed. She glanced at the screen and grinned. “Ooh, never mind. You have an hour. He’s running late. How about we have a little fun before you get clean again?”
“God bless Mark and his tardiness.” He lifted her into his arms and kissed her again. “Fun is just what I had in mind, particularly since it’s time for my reward.”
“Your reward?” she asked as he leaned down to kiss her.
Shaye laughed. “Oh, yes. You definitely deserve a reward.”
He locked their bedroom door, removing his shirt as he rushed her. Shaye kissed his chest with a sigh. “You’re still illegal.”
“Perhaps I should receive some form of a punishment, then,” Crow rasped.
“And would this be considered your conjugal visit?”
Crow laughed. “Most definitely.”
* * *
Gabrielle Butler gripped her sister’s hand. Her heart raced painfully in her chest, and she hoped and prayed no one on the outside would notice her discomfort.
“Ouch,” Rebecca complained. “Why are you squeezing my hand so hard?”
“Sorry.” Gabrielle loosened her grip.
“Why do we need Papa and Theo?” Becca frowned.
“We just do.”
“We’re perfectly safe, Gabby, and Papa told us to wait right here.”
Rebecca was right, of course, but Gabby hadn’t listened. She’d seen someone she recognized, and like a cat begging to give up its lives, followed him. John Wilkes Booth was meeting with men who looked nefarious, and Gabrielle realized she’d heard something she probably shouldn’t.
Now she had information she knew could be dangerous, and needed to speak to her father. Somehow, she had to get the information to her cousin, Christopher. But her parents were off finalizing their departure after visiting family for her aunt’s funeral, and her brother was who knows where. Theodore Butler, twenty-six, tall and dark like much of the Butler clan, was a perpetual flirt. And why wouldn’t he be? Women fell at his feet wherever he went. Gabrielle imagined he’d pulled the lovely chambermaid assigned to their rooms somewhere private to thank her for her attentive service.
Just as Gabrielle was about to drag her sister into the lobby, a door down the hallway opened and a group of men strolled toward them.
Gabby forced a smile as she took a deep breath, and lowered her eyes as the men passed them. Becca sighed like a love-sick schoolgirl, and Gabby squeezed her arm in an effort to keep her sister from making a fool of herself.
“Do you know who that was?” Becca asked.
“Yes. And you’d do well to ignore him.”
Before Gabrielle could argue, they were rejoined by their brother and escorted to the lobby, where they would await their parents and the carriage.
Because their cousin, Christopher Butler, was an important man in President Lincoln’s War Department, they had special access to train travel, despite their civilian status, and the next train was departing in an hour.
Her father stared down at her, a guarded look on his face. “What for, dear?”
She bit her lip. “Uh—”
Oh, bother. One theory spoken out loud in an unpopular circle does not make it “yet another” theory... or hair-brained.
Gabrielle racked her brain to find an excuse, knowing she had to get to her cousin. Christopher seemed to appreciate her insight into the war. At least his wife did. Gabrielle had gotten to know Hannah quite well over the past few months. Now the couple had a baby girl, Penny, whom Gabby couldn’t wait to meet.
“No, it’s nothing like that,” she lied. “I have a gift for Penny.”
Her father narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “We won’t be stopping for long in Camden, Gabrielle. However, your brother will be heading to D.C. later in the week, so he can take it for you.”
She sighed. “Yes, Papa.”
Gabby would have to figure something else out. She wished she wasn’t permanently stuck in Maryland with her family. After meeting her cousins’ wives, Gabby longed to be in D.C., close to these strong women and surrounded by men who appeared to appreciate what an intelligent woman offered.
“I know, Papa.”
Perhaps they were right, but she just couldn’t sit by and do needlework and pretend to care about the weather. The country was involved in a bloody war that her family was content to watch from afar.
“Perhaps you need something else to keep your mind occupied.”
“Yes, Papa. I do,” she said, hope building in her heart.
Her heart deflated again. Not what I had in mind. “Yes, Papa.”
“Excellent.” Her father seemed very proud of himself.
The truth was, until Gabrielle got married, she’d be stuck living at home and being the dutiful daughter. And if and when she finally found a man she wanted to marry—many had asked, none had been accepted—she’d be at the mercy of his rules and regulations. She wanted none of it. She’d decided she’d rather be a spinster than marry. Especially if the best she could hope for were the poor choices she’d turned down.
“Our carriage is here,” her father said, and led her back to the family.
“Father wouldn’t allow me to take something to Penny. He said you’d take it for me. I also have a list of things for you to bring back.”
“Take something to Penny,” he mused. “What does that really mean?”
“I have no idea what you’re referring to.”
“Theo, please. It’s important.”
“Is it? Well, in that case, I think I would do much better if I had my sister with me to assist with a few secretarial details.”
Gabby grinned up at her brother. “Truly?”
“Yes. Truly. I know you’ve been going mad stuck at home. You’ve always been more like me in that vein. I’ll figure out a way for you to come. Quincy and Victoria have already offered a place for me to stay. And you know Victoria loves when you visit. We’ll tell Father you’re assisting me and also helping Hannah with Penny.”
Quincy was her favorite cousin. He was one of her closest friends, and the younger brother of Christopher. Quincy had recently married Victoria, a forward-thinking woman, who, despite the fact she was from Kentucky, hated slavery with a passion.
Gabby grinned. “Oh, you are the best brother in all the world.”
He patted her hand. “I know. But the rules still apply. You are to do as I direct. It will still be my job to keep you safe.”
“I understand. Will you let me bring Evaline?”
Evaline Finley and Gabby had known each other for what seemed like forever. They had played together when Evaline’s mother had been a slave owned by a neighbor. When the neighbor sold off his “stock,” Gabrielle begged her father to buy Evaline and her mother. Evaline and Gabrielle had been six at the time.
It took a little convincing, and she had to give up the gelding she’d been promised for her birthday, but she wouldn’t change a thing. With a little negotiating, and the fact that the horse she’d given up cost twice as much as the two humans combined, she also convinced her father to free them. When they were in public, Evaline was Gabrielle’s maid, chaperone, and secret keeper. In private, they were the best of friends.
Her brother nodded. “Yes. She’ll help keep you in line.”
Gabby rolled her eyes, but her heart felt considerably lighter as she traveled home. If she could just find a man who had as much faith in her as her brother did, she’d be happy to marry. Unfortunately, she’d long ago given up that dream.