Near Charleston, South Carolina
July 29, 1803
Reluctantly Raelynn Birmingham roused from slumber and lifted an eyelid to peer menacingly toward the open French doors through which drifted a distant, repetitive pounding. The sun had barely weaned itself from its earthly breast, yet a clammy warmth, augmented by a brief downpour during the night, had already stolen into her second-story bedroom. In spite of the portent of unbearable heat and humidity, Raelynn considered her chances of getting a few more moments of sleep ... if she could bestir herself from the chamber's stately four-poster longe nough to close the portals. Through most of the hours of darkness just past, she had tossed in restless frustration upon her lonely bed, tormented by sensual longings her handsome husband had awakened within her, cravings that were as yet unappeased after almost two weeks of marriage. If not for the untimely intrusion of a predacious blackguard, who, with his hired rabble, forced his way into the plantation house on her wedding night, and the barrier she had personally set between her bridegroom and herself a day later after hearing a young wench accuse him of siring her unborn child, Raelynn had no doubt that she would have now been sharing not only her husband's bed but all the pleasures to be found in matrimony. Truly, in this case, ignorance might have led to bliss if not for a girl named Nell.
The idea of remaining ensconced in bed didn't seem nearly so appealing when Raelynn realized she had been perspiring enough to have dampened her batiste nightgown. It clung to her with maddening persistence until she was driven to pluck the garment away from her bosom and fan' herself with it, creating a billowing motion that forced a light current of cooling air over her moist skin. It brought instant relief, but, at best, it would last no longer than her efforts.
Her lengthy yawn bordered on a recalcitrant groan as she crawled from the bed and tottered drowsily to the washstand. There she poured water into the porcelain washbasin and cupped the liquid to her face, hoping to put her doldrums to flight. The benefits proved just as fleeting, and no less groggy, she lent her attention to brushing her teeth.
Foreseeing a lingering lethargy unless she regained some small portion of the sleep she had lost, Raelynn pondered her chances of subduing the noise to create a more restful mood. In such a quest, she wove an unsteady path to the French doors, but upon reaching the glass-paned portals, it dawned on her that if she closed them, the room would then become stifling. Her bedchamber was one of four opening out onto the veranda that stretched across the back of the house. Only Jeff's larger chambers next door and the bedroom at the opposite end of the structure had combinations of windows and French doors. The middle two only had a double set of the latter.
When presented a choice between suffocating within the confines of a hot, stuffy room and suffering through the noisy hammering, Raelynn decided forthwith that she could tolerate the racket far better than the unbearable alternative. Far removed from England's moderate weather, she was now ensconced in Oakley Plantation House, located in the Carolinas where she had been warned prior to her arrival that temperatures could soar to sweltering degrees in the summer, especially in the latter months of the season. It was not a place to lightly dismiss the discomfort and hazards of rising temperatures.
A disconcerted sigh escaped Raelynn as she, leaned a shoulder against the jamb and swept her gaze beyond the white balustrade bordering the outer limits of the gallery. Some time after the rain, a thick haze had crept over the land. Even now, it seemed to isolate the manse in a world of its own. Wreathed by the milky vapors, a row of huge, sprawling live oaks created a vague rampart of bluffed darkness across the spacious back yard, obscuring everything beyond them as they separated the main grounds from the servants' quarters, a collection of cabins, ranging in size from small to large, that resided in the shade of other lofty trees. Raelynn had no need to probe the mists to locate the area from whence the din arose. She knew as well as anyone living on the plantation that behind the third tree a new structure was presently being erected for the black housekeeper and her small family. Less than a fortnight ago, charred ashes and blackened timbers were all that remained of Corals home and possessions, yet, as late as yesterday afternoon, Raelynn had seen pitched rafters rising above the new timbers that now formed the outer shell of the structure.
Making no attempt to stifle another yawn, Raelynn lifted her long, auburn tresses off her neck. In such climes her hair had proven as heavy and warm as wool, and in view of the heat yet to come, which only promised to worsen as they entered August, she could only foresee added discomfort unless she started braiding the thick mass before retiring at night.
Excerpted from A Season Beyond A Kiss by Kathleen Woodiwiss Copyright © 2006 by Kathleen Woodiwiss. Excerpted by permission.
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