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(ISBN: 0-8217-7756-4)




The Four-Leaf Clover 


Chapter 1

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 of champagne.

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 humiliation.

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 raised.

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 officer."

Startled realization fired her eyes. "You . . . you were in Natchez?"

He'd just as soon not revisit that unpleasant time when her family's enemies had plundered from those proud old Southern scions. "I was."

"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 offer."

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 good luck."

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.


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