“It is your duty as a Montgomery to protect your legacy.”
Lieutenant Cullen Smythe observed the head of the Montgomery family expound on the obligation that being his heir apparent meant to his cousin, who promptly drank down another shot of whiskey.
Clayton Montgomery would have none of his grandson’s blatant disregard of the responsibility that had been placed upon his shoulders. A tall man, the elder Montgomery used his height to his full advantage. He walked over to his grandson’s side and slapped the glass out of his hand, crashing it to the floor in a million pieces.
Wade leaped up into the old man’s face. For a brief moment, Cullen thought he would have to step between the two. Thankfully, Wade lowered his gaze and stepped back.
Cullen shook his head. When he rode up the winding road lined with massive live oaks with their waving curtains of gray moss, he had not pictured his return to the home of his youth to have gone as it had.
For well over a hundred years, Montgomerys had lived along the Ashley River. Sitting back from the river’s bank, the brick house reigned over the plantation. A brick arch centered the home with two sets of curving wrought-iron staircases that led up to the entrance.
To the side of the entrance, columns ran up to the covered porch that wrapped around three sides of the house. A veranda of considerable proportion sat in the back and faced the grand garden. The smell of heady, fragrant jasmine, roses, and magnolias encompassed the early spring air. Magnolia trees flanked both sides of the garden, giving to the magnificent plantation its name.
This was the place he considered his home. His heart belonged to Magnolia Bluff and his Southern family. He had been raised here alongside his cousins, Percival and Wade. How many days they had spent along this riverbank!
His mother had given birth to him in the room that overlooked the river. Even after his mother died from the fever, Cullen had stayed until his father remarried. Situated seventeen miles outside of Charleston, it had been a perfect place to spend his childhood. He had thought of it often on the Cayne.
Memories comforted him on those long voyages. How vivid the pictures in his mind of the sights of the river: fishing in the overgrowth under the live oaks, canoeing on the river, and racing their horses through the gray beards of the Spanish moss on the giant oaks along the little-used river road. The trouble the three of them found—it had always been the three of them, until now—Percival was gone.
“Good Heavens, Cullen, talk some sense into your cousin!”
Cullen didn’t move a muscle in his face, but looked directly at his grandfather. He stared into the cold gray eyes of a man whose orders rarely got questioned. Clayton Montgomery’s heritage gave credence to the man’s arrogance…generations of Montgomerys living off the South Carolina soil.
“I believe Wade understands exactly what is expected, Grandfather.”
Cullen glanced over at his cousin, whose eyes bored into the man in front of him with a hatred Cullen had never seen from Wade. Where had the carefree, fun-loving soul gone? Had it died with his brother?
Wade’s appearance hadn’t changed. He was an exceptionally handsome man. With thick, golden hair and clear blue eyes, his face bore a cool recklessness that females found wildly attractive. He had only to smile to have them flock around him, but he wasn’t smiling at the moment.
Lieutenant Cullen Smythe was twenty-five years old, the same age as Wade…a year younger than Percival had been. Cullen stood six feet, the same height as Wade, but that was where the similarities ended.
Cullen had dark brown hair with long sideburns and a mustache, neatly trimmed. His nose was narrow, slightly aquiline, and his jaw, firm and angular. His face was bronzed golden by his time in the sun.
He was a deliberate sort, never one to make an impulsive decision. He had an air of authority, a quality that served him well in the Navy. No one dared question one of his orders, not with his eyes boring into them. He had been told they seemed to pierce into the depths of one’s soul.
It had been Percival who had been fearless and brave. More than once had his older cousin stepped between him and Douglas Montgomery. Cullen’s uncle—Wade’s father—had been a mean drunk. Percival thought nothing of protecting the younger ones from his father’s wrath when the man would drink himself into oblivion.
Percival had become his father’s target during those times. Percival had not shirked from his father’s hand. Cullen understood the way Percival thought: as long as his father’s rage was directed at him, the others—Wade, the girls, his mother, and Cullen—would not be harmed. Percival’s scars, the black eyes, a broken arm, and bruises from those confrontations, served as a badge of honor to Cullen.
Clayton hadn’t turned a blind eye to his son’s irrational behavior. Many times Douglas had been thrown into the guesthouse set off to the left of the main house until he slept off the effects of his binge drinking. But Clayton could not always contain his son when Douglas went on one of his rampages. He had allowed the boys to hide in his room if he wasn’t home when Douglas’s temper exploded.
It had been here, in his grandfather’s study, that Cullen had always felt safe. It seemed to be a fortress in his young mind, formidable with its dark, heavy furniture and the realistic mural of horsemen in battle with swords drawn. Tonight, the room had lost its appeal, replaced with a morbid foreboding.
The darkness that had invaded Magnolia Bluff since Percival’s death over a year ago had not faded. Percival had been the chosen one: the darling of his mother, the successor to his grandfather, the invincible brother…for that was what they were…the three of them, Percival, Wade and himself—brothers.
Cullen remembered well the anger that filled him with the news that Percival had died. Thrown from his horse! The drunken fool! No one had to tell Cullen that Percival was drunk. There had been no better horseman around these parts. Cullen could still hear Percival brag that he was a better horseman drunk than sober. The reality…he hadn’t been.
“Explain to Cullen why you won’t hold to your word! I doubt—” Clayton was ruthlessly cut off.
“I told you, Grandfather, I would take care of the situation. Surely, Randolph Wragg does not hold to our conversation after Percival’s death.”
“Confound it, Wade! Don’t take me for a damned fool. You know well that there was and is an understanding. You gave him your word.”
“Word? He came to me while I was grieving and laid guilt upon me about Percival’s honor…”
“He asked you to hold to Percival’s engagement to Clarissa. Hell, all of Charleston knows that you are engaged to the lady and was waiting only for an appropriate time to announce it. It has been over a year. It is time. Where is your honor? Your sense of duty?”
“By God! What more do you want from me? Did I not give up my commission in the Navy because of my duty to Magnolia Bluff?”
Cullen took a deep breath. Wade had resigned from the Navy shortly after the news came of Percival’s death. It cut him deep to see Wade depart. They had been back together since the day they entered the Navy Academy.
Cullen had little memory of his mother. Dolly Montgomery Smythe died when Cullen was five from the fever. His father, Jonathan T Smythe, had seen fit to leave Cullen at his mother’s Southern home until he remarried.
Shortly after Cullen had turned thirteen, he left to live in Philadelphia and had not returned until after he had become a cadet in the Navy Academy, alongside Wade. The dream of joining the Navy had been Percival’s…the three of them together against the world.
When it had come time to apply to the Navy Academy, Percival held back, allowing Wade the opportunity. Guilt gnawed at Cullen at times, knowing that Percival sacrificed his dream for his brother. Both brothers could not leave home. One had to stay and look after the family.
Wade had met up with Cullen at the Navy Academy in 1852. The next four years had seen the cousins side by side in Annapolis while school commenced and the summer cruises aboard ship.
Leave saw Cullen in Charleston; only brief periods did he return to Philadelphia. His heart pulled him to the place he considered his home. After three years on duty, Cullen’s father requested he return home for family issues that had developed in Philadelphia.
Cullen had complied and resigned from the Navy. It would be official as soon as he returned to Washington. But he had not passed up the opportunity to return to Charleston when his ship docked in port. He had not seen the family since Percival’s death.
“Come, Wade, it could not be that bad. Clarissa Wragg is a lovely creature,” Cullen said in hopes of calming the tension.
The response was a glare. Wade shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Not now.”
Clayton’s color heightened. “He fancies himself in love with none other than Josephine Wright.”
A sudden frost hung in the air on Clayton’s words. The venom in his voice couldn’t be denied, uttered as if the girl was a leper. An awkward silence ensued.
Finally, Wade smiled, his normal charismatic smile twisted. “Josephine Buchanan Wright, Grandfather.”
Good Lord! Understanding suffused throughout Cullen as he recognized the name. He stared over at Wade. Had his cousin lost all his good sense!
“Wade!” escaped Cullen before he had time to contemplate his utterance.
“Don’t look at me like that, Cullen. I know better than anyone whose daughter she is, but she is also Henry Buchanan’s granddaughter. Is not the Buchanan name as old and respected as ours?”
“Watch your tongue, Wade Montgomery. Montgomerys don’t go back on their word. At least honorable Montgomerys, like Percival…”
Wade flew into a rage. “Percival was given the opportunity to choose his bride. Why do I have to honor his engagement?”
“You know well the reason,” Clayton shot back with the same passion. “How long have I covered for your father’s ill-fated judgment? Only to discover Percival inherited one of his weaknesses. I have kept nothing back from you. Percival accepted Wragg’s dowry before the marriage.”
Unbelieving what he heard, Cullen broke into the conversation. “Percival gambled?”
A look of anguish crossed Wade’s face. He ran his fingers through his disheveled hair and shook his head. “Tell me there is another way.”
Clayton said nothing and settled back into his chair behind the desk, confident he had won the argument. He lit up his pipe, took a puff and blew smoke up in the air.
* * * *
In the early morning haze, the water of the river was placid. Live oaks and pines lined the banks in the undergrowth. Birds woke with a song; frogs chirped; the wind rustled through the leaves. The familiarity of the sights and sound gave him comfort. Love of this place bore deep in his soul.
Heavens above! He believed he was drunk.
Cullen chugged down the rest of the bottle. He drew back and threw it into the water, disturbing the quiet and waking his sleeping…unconscious cousin.
“Don’t be so loud,” Wade uttered with the greatest of difficulty. Squinting, he stretched upward. He held his head in his hand.
“It’s dawn. We need to return to the house.”
“Dawn be damned!” Wade groaned.
Cullen had never seen Wade wallow in self-pity. He hadn’t been the sort. The Wade he had known was a man of action: one to plan and manipulate to get his way, usually by the skin of his teeth…living on the edge…pushing the limits. He always had managed one way or another until now.
Cullen glanced back over the water, and then back at Wade. His expression had changed. One corner of his lips drew upward and his right eyebrow arched.
“You could do it.”
For a moment, Cullen didn’t comprehend Wade’s meaning. He grimaced. “For the love of God, Wade! Are you trying to pawn off your fiancée on me?”
“Would it be the worst? You need a Southern woman to keep you warm at night, not one of those frigid beasts in the North. Why, Clarissa is one of the loveliest women in all of South Carolina…”
“I couldn’t care less if she was the belle of Charleston. I’m not intoxicated enough to consider taking a wife.”
“She is rich as well.”
“I have no need—”
“Ah, yes. I know well enough. The Smythe money! You are a free man to choose who to spend your life with. You have no obligation to uphold the honor of the Montgomerys!”
“You talk nonsense, Wade. You make it sound as if a gun was held to your head. We have kept in correspondence. You sounded as if you were satisfied with the arrangement. Out with it. Have you compromised the lady?”
“Josephine? No…” Wade stammered, shaking his head. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me,” Cullen shot back. “I would love to understand why you have fallen for the daughter of the man responsible for your father’s death.”
“Father killed himself—”
“After he was bled dry by Brantley Wright. The man is a professional gambler. Grandfather says he is a cheat.”
With an unsteady hand and confused expression, Wade waved Cullen off. “Grandfather blamed Wright for Father’s shortcomings. You knew Father as well as anyone. It was not only his drinking. Father gambled away a fortune, cut to the quick of the Montgomery’s heritage…I believe more so than Grandfather has admitted. Percival…Percival alluded to it when he informed me of his choice of bride.”
“Ah, yes.” Wade chuckled to himself. “My choice.”
Wade rubbed his forehead and looked up at Cullen. The years between them gave credence to an understanding of what it meant to be a gentleman of the South. A gentleman’s reputation was his lifeblood.
A Southern man’s character could never be questioned—loyalty, honor, duty to one’s country, God, and family. It was the tie that binds, but he saw that Wade was deeply troubled. It disturbed him.
“What is it, Wade? Tell me. Are we not brothers?”
Wade pressed his lips together tightly and nodded. “Always. You, Percival, and me. Now it is only us two. I trust no one as I do you.”
Cullen said nothing. He did not mention Andrew, Wade’s younger brother. It was not only the four-year difference in their ages, but their views on life that separated the brothers. Wade had always been one who lived life to the fullest; Andrew, the silent, studious sort. He was attending medical school in Philadelphia.
“As I do also, Wade.”
“Since Percival’s death, I have done all that Grandfather has requested. He is determined that I replace Percival. He has told me more than once that the whole of Magnolia Bluff will go to me. I will be its master.”
Cullen remained silent. His grandfather believed in the sanctity of the family. That meant the name Montgomery, which he did not carry. The rebuff annoyed him beyond measure. Was not he as much blood as Wade?
Yet, Magnolia Bluff would never be his because of the name he carried, no matter how much he loved the place. He carried a good name, but one that wasn’t Montgomery.
“I’m not Percival nor will I ever be,” Wade confessed. “I fear I will be a disappointment to Grandfather. I have been already.”
“Come, Wade, do not cloud the issue. It is not Grandfather who bothers you. It is the girl. I have never seen you in such a state about a woman.”
Wade turned from Cullen and stared blankly across the river. “Charlotte became fast friends with Josephine at Madame Tamline’s French School for Young Ladies. They have become inseparable…I saw her for the first time here at Magnolia Bluff. I mean, the first time since she was grown…a far cry from the time you rescued her down at the Battery. Do you remember?”
Cullen nodded. It seemed a lifetime ago, but he remembered pulling a young girl from the water. He had been so angry with the child that she had put lives at risk until he learned it had not been her who had done so…
“It doesn’t explain why you pursued a relationship,” Cullen pressed.
“Christ, Cullen! You never have been in love, have you?” Wade glanced back over his shoulder, and then turned away again. “I knew I was committed. She knew. I didn’t mean for it to happen. We both…both understood about my situation with Clarissa. Josephine refused to meet with me. But I would arrange a meeting whether she wanted it or not.
“I convinced her I would make it work…I lied.” Wade paused and choked back his emotions. “Somehow she knew about the debt Percival left. She told me her father had arranged a dowry for her…that maybe it would cover what was owed. I told Grandfather I was withdrawing from Clarissa.
“He flew into a rage and laughed at me. Told me that the account that Wright set up for his daughter held no more than twenty-two hundred dollars. A far cry from Clarissa’s. It would leave the estate with a debt it cannot pay and a blemish once more on our honor.”
A silent breeze swept over the river, a chilling one in the early morning air. For a time, neither said a word.
“You are holding to your engagement.” Cullen said it as a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” Wade admitted in a voice no louder than a whisper. “I have to find the courage to tell Josephine. I fear I’m not brave enough. I don’t know how to walk away from her…”
Cullen clasped his cousin’s back. “Then, I will do it for you.”