In spite of her shaking legs, Damaris Tilghman stood her ground as the High Sheriff approached. She longed to wipe her sweaty palms on her skirt, but dared not make any movement that he could interpret as fear—or guilt.
The sly smirk on his lips belied the coldness of his gaze as he tipped his hat. “Sale’s nearly over, Miss Tilghman. Sorry the auctioneer couldn’t manage to get a better price for Twin Oaks. It was a grand plantation in its time.” He didn’t sound at all sorry.
“Enough to cover my father’s debts, I hope.”
“Well, Miss, as to that I have to say it didn’t. He owed a great deal of money to a great many people.” The man shook his head in mock sympathy. “Gambling’s a terrible vice—”
“And suicide is a sin. Yet neither of my father’s faults seems to have kept people from coming here and gawking, poking through our possessions …” Her voice began to tremble and she stopped, her heart beating so loudly she was afraid he would hear it in the sudden silence.
“Possessions.” The amiable leer disappeared. “Seems some of your family’s possessions didn’t turn up as part of the sale. Would you know anything about that, Miss Tilghman?”
“I have no idea what you mean.” She jutted out her chin.
“I think you do.” He looked down at the small wooden trunk sitting at her feet. “Maybe I ought to take a look at what you packed to take with you.”
“How dare you suggest such a thing! I won’t have you pawing through my shifts and stockings!”
“I can get a woman to look. If you claim all you have are shifts and stockings, you won’t mind me making certain.” He turned as a boy ran up, calling in urgency.
“Sheriff! They’s a fight behind the barn. You need to come quick—one of ’ems got a knife!”
Cursing under his breath, the sheriff lumbered after the boy.
Damaris’s shoulders sagged in relief. She had been given time to think of something—but what? She willed back tears of frustration. If anything, the past few years had taught her the futility of weeping.
She watched the buyers as they lugged their purchases to the line of wagons parked along the winding drive, horses and mules stomping in impatience to begin the journey home. Home! She no longer had a home. Because of her father’s weakness, her dream of marriage and children had shattered like a fine crystal goblet dropped on a tile floor. Her past was irrevocably gone and her future a mystery.
She jerked her thoughts back to her present dilemma. The fight would soon be over. She needed to get away before the sheriff returned.
One of the buyers, better dressed than most in a black suit and embroidered waistcoat, saw her and nodded politely. “Miss Tilghman.”
She recognized him as the man who had successfully bid on the last of her father’s wine cellar. A friend of her father’s—when he still had friends. What was his name? Price? Polk? No, Pope. “Mr. Pope.” She smiled and held out a hand. “Well met, sir. I wonder if you could do me a favor?”
“Of course. If I can be of any assistance…”
“The sheriff promised he will take me to the inn in Wadesborough where I can purchase a seat on the coach in the morning. I fear he will not leave here until the last nail is sold, and I really cannot abide watching this auction any longer.” It wasn’t hard to add a quaver to her voice. “To see my life dismantled, piece by piece….”
“I understand. I would be happy to take you, if you are not embarrassed at traveling without a chaperone.”
Chaperone! I need to get away from here now. She brushed away an imaginary tear and offered a tremulous smile. “I don’t think there would be any gossip. After all, you are a dear friend of Papa’s.”
An eyebrow raised at this, but he lifted her trunk without commenting on her claim. “My wagon is this way.”
He stowed the trunk in the back of his light wagon, assisted her to the seat, and then climbed aboard and sat beside her. He had just picked up the reins when a meaty hand grasped the edge of the wooden plank that served as a seat. “Miss Tilghman. I believe we have some unfinished business.”
Pope stared down, his hands tense on the reins. “Miss Tilghman is my care. What do you want with her?”
“I need to look at her trunk.” The sheriff winked as if they were conspirators. “Just in case.”
“In case of what?” Pope’s tone was as cold as his dark eyes.
The sheriff dropped his hand and stepped back. His voice was curt as he said, “I believe she may be holding on to some jewelry that should go in the sale.”
Damaris stiffened at the accusation. “All Mama’s jewels went to pay Papa’s gambling debts years ago.”
“So you say. I still—”
“Are you doubting the lady’s word?” There was something dangerous in Pope’s voice. He raised the whip. “How dare you, sir!”
“Now, Mr. Pope, no need to get all riled up. I believe her, yes, I do. Good day, Miss Tilghman and good fortune to you.” He tipped his hat fawningly.
Pope jerked the reins and the horse started down the dirt path that led to the road.
“Thank you,” Damaris managed to mumble through a dry throat.
“My pleasure.” Pope glanced sideways at her. “If you did get away with something out of the forced sale, I congratulate you.”
She answered quickly. “He made certain I didn’t. He even sold my personal slave, Pearlie, who’s been with me since I was a child. Everything I held dear is lost.”
If she expected sympathy, Pope failed to offer it. “What will you do now?” he asked briskly.
“I have been offered a position as a companion to a distant relative of my mother’s. She lives in New Bern.” The letter she had received from the lady had been neither courteous nor welcoming, but hinted strongly of duty and God’s will.
“Being at some old lady’s beck and call doesn’t sound like much of a life for a young girl.”
“I am not young, and I have no other choice. I wasn’t raised to earn my living. My parents fully expected me to marry well.” She took a deep breath. “The problem is, no one has proposed marriage since I celebrated my seventeenth birthday. I should have accepted the offer then. Instead, I have spent the past six years nursing Mama until her death, and then trying to keep house for Papa while he—”
“Gambled it from under your feet and then shot himself.”
“You put it quite succinctly.”
He shrugged and chirped to the horse, which pricked its ears and began to trot.
As they jolted along the rutted path, Damaris struggled to remember what she knew of Matthew Pope. He owned Riverbend, one of the biggest cotton plantations in North Carolina. He was reputed to be wealthy. No wonder the sheriff toadied to him. He wouldn’t want to offend one of the most powerful men in Anson County. But none of that answered the question of why he had played along with her pretense of acquaintance or took her part against the sheriff.
As she studied him under her lashes, she decided he was not bad looking if you liked dark hair and eyes. She noted a ridged scar over one eyebrow and a bump on the bridge of his nose where it had been broken, spoiling an otherwise perfect profile. His teeth were good for a man of middle years, very white and straight. Not a common asset among her acquaintances.
The horse stopped at a crossroad and she looked at him in question.
“Everyone has choices, Miss Tilghman,” he said as if minutes and miles hadn’t passed since her declaration. He pointed with his whip. “This road leads to Wadesborough and this one to Cheraw.”
“I am aware of that.”
“I am offering you a choice.” He shifted in his seat until he could meet her eyes. “I have a proposition.”
She blinked under the intensity of his gaze. “What is it?”
“Two propositions, actually. One, I need a housekeeper. From what you told me, I gather you have some experience.” He waited for her response.
“Yes,” she said guardedly. “And the other?”
“What? Oh. The other is, I need a wife.”
A touch of amusement lightened her countenance. “And am I to choose which of these delightful occupations I might wish to pursue?”
“I had thought them to be one and the same.”
Damaris intended to reply with the disdain he deserved, but then she thought again of spending the rest of her days caring for elderly invalids.
“I need an answer, Miss Tilghman.”
“Is it to be a marriage in name only? I mean, you mentioned housekeeper first, but I could not accept that, a spinster residing in an unmarried man’s home. But if we were married, gossip would be put at rest.”
“I suppose I should have mentioned the third thing. I am also in need of an heir.”
Her pale cheeks blazed scarlet. She blinked once, slowly.
She shut her eyes and drew a breath. “I accept, Mr. Pope.”
He nodded and guided the horse on the road that led to South Carolina, where a marriage license could be obtained in one day. “I see you are very like your father, Miss Tilghman.”
“Why do you say that, Mr. Pope?”
“You are a gambler, too.”