He hadn't meant to propose to Mildred Gresham today. Especially
since this was the first time Norman Sterling had the honor of
escorting her somewhere. The poor girl--if one of five-and-twenty
years could be considered a girl--was giving him a have-you-lost-your-mind?
stare. She likely thought him mentally deficient.
Blame his blathering foolishness on the Fourth of July
festivities. This was the town of Peace's first Independence Day
celebration, and it had been an unequivocal success, in no small
part due Norman's efforts. As the town's mayor, Norman had proposed
the grand fete, and his fortune had funded it, right down to the
wagon load of watermelons he provided to the citizens of Peace. He'd
even persuaded the Missouri governor (not that it took the old bag
of wind much persuasion) to deliver one of the day's patriotic
speeches. Norman's own talk praising the Bill of Rights had drawn
heavy applause, particularly from Miss Gresham, who sat beside his
empty chair on the gazebo that served as a stage. When he finished
his speech and started to return to his seat, he caught Miss
Gresham's admiring gaze and felt as if he'd imbibed large quantities
For the first time in his life, Norman exuded confidence. Truth
to tell, he'd been wildly successful at every endeavor he'd ever
undertaken. Upon his fatherís death he had taken over the familyís
struggling bank and built it into the strongest bank in the state of
Missouri. His investments in the railroad had paid staggering
returns. And the citizens of Peace had pressed him into running for
mayor, a position for which no one dared to oppose him. Norman was
in possession of the finest mansion in Peace and had more money than
he could ever count or spend.
But he lacked that which he wanted most: a family. More
specifically, he wanted a family with Mildred Gresham. Not that he
ever thought of her as Mildred Gresham. Since he had first seen her
whisking through Natchez in her curricle some six years previously,
he had dubbed her Juliet Capulet. Because of her rich dark brown
hair and equally dark eyes, she brought to mind an Italian
noblewoman. And before the war Miss Gresham's family had been the
closest thing to royalty Natchez would ever know.
As an occupying Union officer, Norman had no intercourse with
Miss Gresham, but for years he equated feminine perfection with her.
He had even written countless poems to his fair Juliet.
That Miss Gresham remained unmarried some six years later and
that she had turned up in Peace, Norman viewed not only as divine
intervention on his behalf but also as something of a miracle. Not
acting on such divine providence would be like discarding a royal
straight flush. And Norman Sterling wasn't about to do that.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Sterling. I don't believe I heard
you correctly," replied an astonished Miss Gresham.
It was far easier to stare into the folds of her peach-colored
cotton skirts draping over the counterpane and clovered grass they
now sat on than it was to meet Miss Gresham's imploring gaze. His
glance lifted past her incredibly small waist and full breasts and
settled on a face as white as alabaster, though nothing else about
that remarkable face could bring to mind cold stone. He fleetingly
wondered if a painter could ever capture its perfection. Or could a
painting accurately depict the rich auburn glints in her dark hair?
How could her regal posture retain such grace as she sat with her
feet beneath her?
Perhaps it was not too late to retract his proposal. He
considered chuckling and telling her his offer was a jest in homage
to her beauty.
But he couldn't do that. The opportunity to spend the rest of his
life with Miss Gresham far outweighed the risk of fleeting
For as long as he lived Norman would remember this moment. They
sat beneath a spreading oak on a counterpane Miss Gresham had
stitched, eating cake Miss Gresham had baked, and drinking lemonade
she had squeezed. Distant sounds of fiddles and banjos added to the
merriment, along with yelping hounds and children's voices happily
raised in play. Though he and Miss Gresham were surrounded by
merrymakers, Norman had the oddest feeling he and she were the only
two people in the universe.
He was unable to remove his gaze from the porcelain perfection of
her face. The longer he looked the more he wondered how a creature
as perfect as Miss Gresham would--or could--ever consider linking
her life with a dull old stick like Norman Sterling.
His memory flashed back to his thirteenth year when he had
presented Sally Bronson (now Sally Wakefield) a poem he'd composed
for her. The girl had not only laughed out loud when she read it,
but she also circulated it among Peace's bullies who taunted Norman
about it for years afterward.
Norman told himself he was no longer that skinny
thirteen-year-old youth. He was a successful man who had every right
to declare himself to the only woman he'd ever wanted. But of course
he couldn't tell Miss Gresham he thought himself in love with her
and expect her to deem him sane.
So being a rational man, Norman decided to present his case
logically. He remembered the tales of the Gresham's fabulous wealth
and lavish entertainments before the war. Miss Gresham had been
raised with those expectations. Before her father died fighting
Yankees. Before the Gresham plantations lost all their Negro slaves.
As Norman's wife, Miss Gresham could live in the manner she had been
He cleared his throat. "I'll be forty next year. It's time I
settle down, and you, Miss Gresham, are possessed of the qualities I
seek in a wife. If you would consent to marry me, you'll never want
for anything as long as you live. You will be able to live the life
Miss Gresham of Natchez was groomed for."
Eyes so deep a brown they were almost black stared at him with a
look of utter confusion. "How is it, Mr. Sterling, that you
know about my . . . my former life?"
"During the war," he said solemnly, "I was a Union
Startled realization fired her eyes. "You . . . you were in
He'd just as soon not revisit that unpleasant time when her
family's enemies had plundered from those proud old Southern scions.
"But I never met you . . . Did I?"
"No, Miss Gresham, but I doubt there was a Union soldier who
didn't take notice of the prettiest girl in Natchez."
The most fetching blush rose into her lily cheeks and she spoke
in that alluring Southern drawl. "You truly remember me?"
He nodded. "As soon as I saw you in church Sunday before
last, I knew you were the Miss Gresham who had resided at Winton
Hall." He could still picture the Gresham's magnificent
turreted mansion. It had been the inspiration for his own.
Miss Gresham's impossibly long dark lashes lowered and she spoke
in a low, remorseful voice. "We lost Winton Hall. We lost
everything. Is that why you're asking me to marry you, Mr. Sterling?
Out of pity . . . or guilt?"
His hand covered hers and he once again experienced that
intoxicating feeling. He had never felt so intimately connected to a
woman before. "I'm asking you to marry me because I believe
you'd make the perfect wife for a man in my position. Correct me if
I'm wrong, but were you not raised to preside over a mansion full of
servants, to be the hostess of grand balls, to do benevolent works
for the less fortunate?"
She gave a bitter laugh. "That Miss Gresham is long dead,
Mr. Sterling. I stood on floors so hot my feet burned when I
prepared today's cake over an open fire."
With a single finger he touched her chin as if it were eggshell
fragile. "It doesn't have to be that way for you," he said
in a gentle voice. "As my wife . . . " Suddenly he found
he could not continue. He sounded pompous. Like a man trying to buy
a wife. He looked into her lovely face and blurted out the closest
he could ever come to a romantic declaration. "As my wife,
you'll be cherished."
Had he stood stark naked on the gazebo for every citizen of Peace
to see, he could not have felt more vulnerable than he felt at this
moment. His heart pounded as he watched Miss Gresham's lower lip
quiver, her eyes pool with tears.
Then to his blissful astonishment she hurled herself into his
chest, closing her arms around his back and settling her cheek
against his sternum. "Oh, yes, Norman! I do accept your
So much for being coy and alluring, she thought. Millie had never
mastered the skill of hiding her affections. Her brother, Will, had
always said she would never make a poker player, and Mama--may her
blessed soul rest in peace--said Millie would never get a man if she
didn't learn how to act hard-to-get.
Mama was probably right. Mr. Sterling likely thought he was
offering for a perfectly refined woman. The three times previously
that Millie and Mr. Sterling had been together she had taken Mama's
advice to heart. The first time they had talked on the steps of the
church she had batted down her elation at snaring the attention of
the most handsome man in Peace. Remember what Mama said, she
had cautioned herself. Therefore, she had affected an almost bored
air as she gave Mr. Sterling permission to call on her at her sister
and brother-in-law's farm the following Saturday.
During his courteous visit that next Saturday Millie had been the
pattern card of propriety--as she was the following night when he
came to dinner.
Both she and Lily had only barely managed to hide their pleasure
over Mr. Sterling's interest in her. "Norman Sterling is the
most powerful man in Missouri," Lily had told her sister, and
Lily's normally reticent husband, Henry One--so named because the
first of their four sons went by the name Henry Two--had praised
Norman and urged Millie to encourage the banker's advances.
"Even if he did side with The Union during the war," Henry
One said, "he's a good man." Like many in Missouri, Henry
One had chosen to fight with the Confederates.
That Norman Sterling had fought with the Yanks no longer mattered
to Millie. At one time she would have crossed the street to avoid
facing a man wearing the hated blue uniform, but old wounds had
finally healed, and she had no wish to reopen them.
That Norman Sterling was immensely wealthy didn't matter, either.
Norman had far more than wealth to recommend him. More than the
rugged good looks that had attracted her, too. She'd never met a man
more solid. Solid of body. Solid of temperament. Men wished to
emulate him; women wished to mother him. Arrogance was as alien to
Norman as failure.
When Millie had blurted out her acceptance, she had thought her
heart would break if she didn't put the poor, sweet, precious man
out of his misery. For she'd never seen a big, six-foot tall man
look more vulnerable than he had looked at the moment. She had gazed
into his tanned face, struggled with herself not to brush away a
lock of golden hair from his furrowed brow, and seen naked fear
etched into his square jaw and flickering in his mossy green eyes.
How could so powerful a man be so lacking in confidence?
When he had mumbled that he would cherish her, something
deep and glowing ballooned inside her. Against everything she'd ever
been taught, she had ungraciously launched herself into his arms.
As Norman's arms closed around her, she felt like a purring cat
basking in the sun. A cat with scarlet cheeks. For Millie was
horribly embarrassed. Sitting there within her future husband's
embrace, she vowed to be more discreet with her affections. She
might adore Norman Sterling, but she'd do best to hide the intensity
of those feelings.
When his lips brushed over her cheek, her belly somersaulted.
"You've made me the happiest of men," he said. Just as
abruptly as she had heaped herself upon his person, he withdrew and
cleared his throat. "I hope you never have cause to regret your
decision, Miss Gresham."
"Please call me Mildred." Why Mildred? All her family
called her Millie, and Norman would soon be family.
"Very well, Mildred." His hands nervously raked through
the grass as his eyes seemed to caress her face. He came up with a
handful of sod and clover, and his gaze dropped to it. "I
declare, Mildred, here's a four-leaf clover! You do know what that
means, don't you, my dear?"
She leaned closer to view the natural phenomenon. "It means
He presented the clover to her. "Keep this, my dear. It's
got to be an omen."
She smiled up at him. "A portent of good luck for this
marriage of ours." Marriage of ours. It sounded magical.
Later, she pressed the clover leaf between two pages of her
Bible, and once it was bone dry she placed it in Mama's locket and
wore it around her neck on the day of her wedding.