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Rhapsody Creek



‘YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS. No one in our family has ever done such a thing, and ours is one of the oldest and most respected families in the whole of Charleston.’ Kristina Drayton stared at her niece in open dismay.

‘Then it will be a new experience for us,’ said Hester with determined brightness. ‘Dear Aunt Kizzy, don’t fret so. We must look upon it as an adventure.’

‘I well know your taste for adventure. Haven’t I suffered getting stuck up more sodden creeks than I care to mention because of it?’

‘That was before the war, Aunt,’ said Hester regretfully. ‘When life was all picnics and fun, and I was young.’

‘Tch! You are young still at not yet twenty. Why will you not settle for a quiet life, Hester? And think of the risk, with the dreadful British all over town. I’m sure I cannot look upon turning my beautiful old house into . . .’ Words apparently failed Aunt Kizzy for she dived into her crochet bag and pulled out a small bottle of pink pills. ‘Oh, my. My poor heart will not stand for it. The very idea makes me quake.’

Hester looked up from the large book, balanced precariously on her lap, which she had been studying for some time and sighed. ‘Nonsense. There is nothing at all the matter with your heart. And you know that you like people. All Southern women enjoy having guests to call. What is the difference, except that this time they will be paying for the privilege of eating your pecan pie? Do you know there is a wonderful receipt here for hot pepper sauce? I must write it in my home book.’

Aunt Kizzy looked shocked. ‘You are surely not planning to do the cooking yourself, even if the ingredients could be found?’

Hester’s brown eyes twinkled, yet she pushed back the thick strands of golden-brown hair which had fallen forward with a tired gesture. It had been a long day. A long week, in fact. A week in which her entire life had changed. On Monday she had still had a brother, albeit unheard of for two years.

She had written countless letters to his commander during that time, asking for word. George had joined the war in 1778, much to poor Aunt Kizzy’s dismay, after the American victory at Saratoga. If Hester were less charitable, she would conclude that her brother had thought the war to be almost over at that stage. But by the following spring all news from him had ceased. Had the British taken him captive during the long Revolution? Had he died in some lonely corner of a field where he still lay unmourned and unburied? If only they knew. While there had been silence they had still hoped, but over the months that hope had gradually seeped away. Now the news they had dreaded had been given to them. According to his commander, poor George had indeed died, but not fighting for his country as he would have wished. Like his parents before him he had succumbed to the yellow fever and, at just nineteen. Hester Mackay had found herself without a relative in the world, save for Aunt Kizzy.

‘You do not truly imagine that Susie could cope with running a lodging house all by herself? I do not, and I see no shame in earning an honest living. At least this way we can conduct our business discreetly, in our own home.’

Hester straightened her slender shoulders with characteristic determination. She was not in the habit of bemoaning her lot or looking longingly backwards on to an easier, more affluent lifestyle. Her parents had died when she and George were quite small and dear Aunt Kizzy had been like a mother to the two orphans. But the money they had once taken for granted had gradually been used up over the years and now, with prices sky high, and George gone, their security was even more shaky.

‘If George had lived he would have gone into the bank with old Mr Shelton. But things are different now and we must accept that.’ Hester reached out to grasp her aunt’s small mittened hand and give it a little squeeze. ‘But you don’t have to worry. It is my turn to take care of you.’

‘But we have no man to protect us,’ wailed Aunt Kizzy, clasping her niece’s hands as if she would never let go. ‘How shall we go on without even an uncle or cousin to care for us? Oh, if only I had married that Wilber Marshall.’

Hester burst out laughing and, setting down the book on the hearthrug, went to sit beside her tiny aunt and hug her close. ‘Oh, my sweet darling. You know you have always disliked him intensely. And we can manage perfectly well without a man to protect us. Goodness, I have two hands, haven’t I? Eyes, ears and a brain between them, or so I’ve been led to believe. You must not worry for another second.’

Aunt Kizzy slanted her shrewd grey-eyed gaze sideways at her beloved niece. ‘And what does Carter Lois say about all of this? Will he permit it?’

Hester bridled. ‘I need no one’s permission to earn an honest living, not even Carter’s,’ she flatly stated, while guiltily remembering the unpleasant scene which had taken place that very afternoon when she had asked him if she might place her advertisement for rooms to let upon his door, along with the others listing horses or buggies for sale. He had been quite frankly appalled.

‘You cannot mean to subject genteel Miss Kizzy to the comings and goings of perfect strangers in her own home?’ he had said.

‘You can be assured she will not even notice we have guests. They shall use the main drawing-room and we shall be cosy in the upstairs parlour of an evening as we like to be. Nothing will change, except that we will not be constantly concerned over how to manage our bills.’

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With American independence won and her brother George dead, Hester Mackay accepts Benjamin Blake’s proposal to avoid the shame of bankruptcy, despite him being an English gunrunner. Her happiness at the Georgia plantation house is short-lived as Hester learns that her new husband has already killed two wives. Can this be true, and is he now trying to kill her?