A/N: Ducks for cover. Yes, alas, this is another one shot. I'm not really sure what's happening, but I've been in the mood for short, definitive pieces that I can write one day and forget the next, so bear with me. This piece is unlike anything else I've ever tried before. I've wanted to do this for quite some time (as El can attest, because I've mentioned it to her before), but I guess I just needed the proper motivation to get me started. What was that motivation, you ask. Well, it was North and South. I've been re-watching it again for the third or fourth time (all eighteen hours of it). LOL If you are familiar with the story, then you'll very easily be able to identify who my favorite character is. (Let me know if you do.) I'm off track though. For those who haven't figured it out yet, this is a period drama piece. Don't worry, it's light on the history and heavy on the fluff. I know that many readers are not from the US, so I didn't want to make this seem like a US history course. While I enjoy history, not all people do. Also, for those of you who are curious, here are the latest results for the new story voting:

Possible Fic #1 – 10 votes

Possible Fic #2 – 12 votes

Possible Fic #3 – 16 votes

This is turning out to be a rather tight race thanks to the votes from So, if the story you want is not in the lead, start harassing people who haven't voted yet. I'll be tallying them through the end of the week. Thank everyone! Sorry about the long note, but I'm finished now. Enjoy the one shot!

Charlynn

Southern Hospitality – A One Shot

Wearing men's clothing was a colossal disappointment. Yes, they allowed for freer movement and, more importantly, provided her with the cover she needed to hide from detection, but pants were not as liberating as Marissa Cooper had always imagined them. Scratch that – it was Marissa Cooper Trask now; she was, unfortunately, married, and to a high-ranking officer nonetheless.

Before her father passed away, she had been a tomboy who roamed their estate with the independence only his indulgence had allowed. Even with her hoop skirt, layers of petticoats, and fancy dress on, Marissa had been able to climb the tallest tree in the commons faster than any of her male, childhood friends, leap the widest mud puddle, and scale the steepest roof. Her mother had disapproved of such behavior for a fine, young lady, but, spoiled by her father, she had been able to wander and play uninhibited. Though her days at play had long ended, her physical strengths had helped her on her trip. Regrettably, her disguise as a poor farmer on his way back home for selling his crops in town had not served her as well.

Unlike her usual, elaborate costume, men's clothing did not provide her with many places to hide either her own body or the goods she was attempting to transport with her back up North. With medical tape, she had bound her breasts, but, to the close observer, they were still slightly noticeable, and, because she was a woman, she was forced to use valuables to pay her way home, and they could only be stored in bulging pockets, pockets too full for a poor farmer, pockets that attracted attention she did not want or need. So, she attempted to hide the possessions upon her body underneath the clothes she had stolen from a soldier in camp to wear, but the encumbrance only made her appearance suspicious and her journey more tedious.

It didn't help matters that she had little to no idea where she was. Her only guidance was the position of the sun, but, at times, it would disappear from the sky, covered by clouds, and she would be left to determine her route by only instinct. To Marissa, it seemed as if she had been moving in circles. After two weeks of hiding from scouting troops, avoiding towns, and constantly looking over her shoulder, she was unsure if she was any closer to home than what she had been before she had run away from camp.

Discouraged, hungry, and frustrated, she searched for a place to rest. Her food had long since run out, and, unable to risk detection, she refused to stop anywhere to purchase more. However, her empty, growling stomach needed something to fill it, even if that was just fresh spring water, so, listening carefully, she trudged along waiting for the inviting sounds of a creek to call to her. Ten minutes after deciding to take a break, she heard it – the soft, gentle, almost soothing trickle of a stream flowing down from the mountains of the Appalachians and into the rolling hills of fields and thick, shadowed woods somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line; whether that was Virginia or Maryland, Marissa was unsure.

She approached the water source carefully, surreptitiously checking over her shoulder for other travelers, but, finding none, she advanced closer, crouched down by the small river, and used her hands to cup the liquid to her mouth. It was cool and refreshing, exactly what she needed to brace herself for the miles of walking she still had to complete that day, and she gulped greedily.

"Don't move," a voice from behind her commanded, but what really made Marissa freeze and tense was the very distinct click of a pistol's hammer being lowered. "Stand up," the stranger, a man obviously, because of his slight, melodic drawl, not of Union blue, ordered, "toss aside any weapon you may be carrying, put your hands on your head, and slowly turn around." His tone conveyed strength and power, but it did not sound hostile or even unkind; she could tell that, to him, their exchange was strictly business.

Doing what was asked of her, Marissa ascended to her feet and raised her hands to rest against the back of her neck, her long, blonde hair, thankfully, hidden underneath a generously large hat. Purposely lowering her voice to an octave she felt resembled that of a man's, she spoke slowly, cautiously, infusing a note of pleading into it to make herself appear cooperative. "I mean you no harm," she told him, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves before continuing. "I carry no weapon." With that said, she finally completed the set of orders she had been given, turning around to face her assailant. Keeping her gaze lowered to the toes of her masculine boots, boots too large for her petite feet, she avoided looking at the man but could see that he was wearing the patched and tattered butternut homespun of the Confederate army.

"And where are you supposedly headed?"

"Home."

Quirking his brow at her, he regarded Marissa closely. "From where?"

"Market."

She could see in his eyes that he didn't believe her. "And that was…"

"In town," she supplied before he could ask a detailed question.

"You don't say much, do ya," the stranger wanted to know, but, instead of waiting for another one word answer, he forged on. "Well, this is how I see it. Obviously, you didn't take something to market, because, not only is it too early in the growing season, but you're also traveling without a horse or a wagon to haul your goods, and I don't see you taking anything back home with you…not that there would have been anything to buy anyway, seeing as how the government appropriates all excess food for the army. What is your occupation, sir?"

Marissa fidgeted slightly, hiding her soft, feminine hands from view. "Farmer."

"So, you're a self-sufficient man, capable of feeding and clothing himself through the wares of his own labor, but you decided to go to a non-existent market without a weapon on the exact same day the Union army decided to make their way through the area." Musing slightly, the stranger rubbed his chin. "Sounds mighty suspicious to me. Want to try on another lie for size?"

"No, sir."

"Alright then," he agreed, smiling heartlessly. "I'll give you two options. Option number one, you tell me the truth, you tell me why you're nosing around these here parts and trying to pass yourself off as a harmless farmer, and I'll determine your fate myself. Option number two, you stay quiet and I drag your no good, lying, yellow-bellied self back to camp and turn you over as a prisoner." Picking his gun up from his side, her assailant warned, "it's your choice, so think carefully and make it quick. I have better things to do, more important things to attend to."

Biting her lip, Marissa confessed. "I'm running away."

"You're deserting?"

"No, sir," she gulped, willing away the tears of panic clouding her eyes. "I'm not and never have been a soldier." Whispering, she continued in her normal voice. "It wouldn't be proper."

"What the hell is going on here," the stranger demanded to know. Stalking towards her, his gun stick cocked and ready to fire, he reached up in the direction of her face before she could back away and pulled her hat loose. What he found shocked him. "You're…you're…

"A woman," the young lady supplied.

"And not from these parts," the Confederate soldier realized. "You're a Yankee."

"Boston, Massachusetts," she admitted almost shyly. When he went to say something else, her sapphire eyes flew up to meet his, pleading for an opportunity to speak uninterrupted. "I can explain."

"I think you better but not here. Your army is going to be coming through here before dark, and I do not want to be caught. My place is off east of here by about ten miles. If we ride quickly, we might get there before nightfall." Releasing the hammer from his pistol, he holstered it. Holding out his hand, he demanded, "let's go."

"I'm not going anywhere with you," Marissa protested. "I don't know you, and I surely don't trust you. You could turn me over as a prison despite the fact that I told you the truth, you could leave me for the troops to find, or you could even…"

"I'm not going to hurt you," the stranger promised. Looking at his countenance, she found no reason to disbelieve him; he seemed genuine, but she was still hesitant to trust him. "If I wanted to…," he face blanched first and then reddened in embarrassment as he was unable to finish his sentence. "I could have just done it here, but, if it will help, here," he offered, handing her his gun. "Take it. If I do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, you'll have a way to fight back."

Shocked, the runaway wondered out loud, "you trust me to carry your gun?"

"A Southern gentleman always takes a lady at her word unless we have reason not to," the soldier responded. "Yes, you lied to me initially, but I have no cause to believe that you are lying to me now." Holding the weapon out once more, he insisted, "go ahead."

"I don't know how to fire it," Marissa admitted, "and, if we come across an enemy, whatever color uniform they may are wearing, you're the only one who will be able to defend us."

"So then you'll come with me?"

"Seeing as how I'm lost, starving, and exhausted, I really don't see a better alternative. So, yes, I'm come with you to your home, I'll tell you my story, and, if you're kind enough to give me a bite to eat, I'll be on my way before morning, sir."

"We'll see about that," he commented vaguely, "after we talk." Walking together towards his horse that was hidden in a thicket of brush and overgrown trees, he introduced himself. "By the way, I'm Lieutenant Atwood, Ryan Atwood."

"Marissa," she returned with a soft smile, but, as he looked at her curious about her surname, the grin faded quickly. "Marissa Trask."

"Captain Trask of the Union Army's wife," the soldier pieced together. "Oh, man, this is going to be one fascinating story, Ma'am."

They mounted the horse, Ryan climbing on first before helping Marissa up behind him. Although he tried to hide it, she could see his smirk as she rode astraddle. Finally, as they started to move out, she responded to his earlier pronouncement. "You have no idea." From that point on, quiet descended over them, the conversation they were to have upon arrival at his home weighing heavily upon both of their minds.

Dark had fallen over the land, Northern Virginia, in fact, she knew after being informed, as Marissa stepped out of the guest bedroom of Lieutenant Atwood's comfortable yet not ostentatious farmhouse. Since they had set foot in his abode, he had been the picture of a Southern gentleman, displaying the hospitality his people were known for all across the country. Before they talked, he had insisted that she eat dinner, take a bath, and change into some clean, appropriate clothes. As she made her way down the stairs into the front parlor where she knew her host would be waiting for her, she couldn't help but take a deep breath. For the first time in two weeks, she, once again, felt like the lady she was.

Her long, honey hued hair had been washed, and it smelled faintly of lemon soap, an utterly refreshing scent considering the sweltering June heat they were experiencing. The dress she wore, though outdated and not the proper measurements, was soft against her skin and made her actually feel feminine. The dirt had been washed from her hands, her face shone brightly once again, and, unlike the past three years of her life, a spark had returned to her eyes, belying the fact that inside of her ran a band of fire that was unquenchable. Many had tried, her mother and husband in particular, but, although her enthusiasm had been hidden and dormant for quite some time, it was back with a vengeance. However, Marissa wasn't quite ready to admit why.

"Can I offer you a cup of coffee or perhaps even a sherry," Ryan proposed from the sidebar as she walked into the room.

"No, thank you."

"Then sit, please," he politely instructed, pointing towards two rocking chairs he had placed next to a large, open window that allowed the night breeze to filter into the house. Seating himself across from her, he complimented, "you look…refreshed."

"It was exactly what I needed," the young woman admitted, referring to her bath and change of clothes. "Thank you. I must tell you though that I was surprised you had anything here for me to wear. Are they your…"

"No," he quickly interrupted her, placing his glass of brandy on the windowsill. "I'm not married, never have been. Those things are my late mothers. I hope you don't mind… I just never seemed to get around to cleaning out her things. Before the war, there were just too many other chores to do that seemed more important. Between taking care of the animals, tending the fields, and maintaining the house, packing up my Mother's belongings seemed…trivial."

"You did all that work yourself," Marissa questioned, the surprise she felt evident on her face. His scowl made her continue. "I'm sorry. I just presumed that you owned slaves."

"Not all Southerners believe in the institution of slavery, Mrs. Trask."

"Marissa, please," she insisted.

"My grandfather was against it and freed all my family's slaves years ago. Many stayed on as paid workers," the soldier explained, "but, after the war broke out, I urged them to leave, afraid that they would either be killed or seized by the government. So, for more than two years now, this place has been sitting empty, and the fields have all grown back over. I have a neighbor who checks on the place for me, but she has her own family and farm to look after, and, with my duties to the army, I rarely get a chance to come home."

"Except for today?"

"Just happened to be scouting in the area," Ryan revealed. "Plus, you looked like you needed a decent place to stay…at least for one night."

"May I ask you something personal, Lieutenant," she queried, and he nodded to show his agreement. "Why do you fight for the South? If you don't own slaves or believe in the institution…"

"I'm against secession, too," he replied softly, suddenly thoughtful as he spoke. "I believe in the United States and feel that the North and the South need each other, but, when war was declared and men started to pick up arms, it came down to family. I was raised a Southern gentleman, my Mother's family is from Savannah, and my Father was educated in Columbia. Despite my values, a man's blood is physically essential to his survival; ideals and viewpoints can be bent, stretched, even sacrificed, and, if I have to do that to protect my honor and that of my family, I will."

"My husband is a very vain and jealous man," Marissa stated as she began her own confession. "When the government contacted him about a position, he immediately accepted, craving the valor and eminence war could bring him. His business holdings were secure enough that he could leave them in the hands of his supervisors for long periods of time and not worry about their safety. Even if the companies suddenly folded and went under, he would never want for anything in life. We had just been married at my Mother's insistence, and I wanted to stay in Boston, the only home I've ever known, but Oliver, my husband, wouldn't hear of it. He wanted his wife with him not only as a decoration for his arm but also because he didn't trust other men to not make advances towards me.

"So, a newlywed, I went to war, and I have been living in one army camp or another since Lincoln first called for volunteers in the Spring of '61. I had no one to talk to, no one to confide in, no one to help me through my day. For more than two years, I've lived in a constant state of idleness, filth, and loneliness, surrounded by disease and death. I've tried to persuade my husband into letting me help with the hospital duties, but no wife of his is to lower herself to such a base occupation. So, with no other women in camp besides those of ill repute, I would sit in my tent all day rolling bandages, darning socks, and reading the few books Oliver allowed me to bring in my trunk. Two weeks ago, I simply broke. I couldn't take it any longer. I know this sounds weak and self-centered when I've been relatively safe this whole time and hundreds of thousands of men have risked their lives…"

"It doesn't," he interrupted, reassuring her, "and it's not safe at all. A woman of your class, of your elegance, of your beauty," Ryan insisted, slightly blushing and looking away from her, "should never be subjected to the cruelties of war or the immorality of the military. If you were my wife," she gasped at his words, making him stop what he was saying. "I apologize, Miss Marissa; I was out of line."

"No, it's alright," she set him at ease. "Your passion just surprised me."

"What were planning on doing," he inquired, picking up his glass and toying with it out of nervousness while changing the subject. "I mean, you weren't going to attempt walking clear to Boston were you?"

"Once I'm in the North, my plan is to take a train home," she revealed, "that is if I ever find my way there. I have…pieces with me that I can pawn for traveling money."

"And once you get home," he pressed. "Wouldn't your husband figure out where you are, come after you as soon as he could, and take you back with him?"

"Honestly," Marissa confessed, "I'm not sure what I am going to do. All I know is that I had to leave and that I refuse to go back."

The scout was quiet for a moment, simply rocking his chair back and forth, as he thought. While they were silent, she had a moment to observe him. He was young, perhaps just a year or two older than she was, and handsome, but, unlike her husband and the other men who had courted her, he had a strength to him that only came from hard work and a sense warmth and generosity. Despite the fact that she could honestly say that she knew relatively nothing about Lieutenant Ryan Atwood, Marissa felt safe in his presence and comforted by his companionship. As far as she was concerned, the night could not last long enough, for she was not looking forward to leaving Dawning Meadows, her host's family homestead, or the man who made the place a home.

"You'll probably think me terribly forward," he suddenly spoke up, warning her, "but I feel I must suggest it anyway. I have a proposal for you, Miss Marissa, one that could be advantageous to the both of us." She nodded to signal that he should continue. "I would like you stay on here and manage my farm for me."

"But I have no experience," she protested immediately. "The only living things I've managed not to kill are the houseplants Oliver and I received as wedding presents, and I only cared for them for a few months."

"I'm not talking about the fields," he corrected her. "Trust me, that is not a task one person, male or female, could undertake. I simply would want you to maintain the house and the yard, watch over the few animals the government has spared me, and keep the place livable until the day that I can come home and return it to its former glory.

"Anything you'll need, the place will provide you with. My Mother's things would be yours; do with them what you will, and there are a few provisions that can get you through until a late garden can start to produce food for you. I know that my neighbors will help you in anyway that they could. Although I won't be able to guarantee your safety, your husband would never think to look for you on some out of the way, Virginia farm, and, before I leave in the morning, I'll show you how to fire a weapon…that is if you agree."

"What would we tell people?"

"They know that I have cousins in Savannah," Ryan revealed, "so they'll assume you're one of them. As for you accent, we'll say that you were educated in the North – sent to a finishing school there."

Hesitating slightly, she admitted, "I'm not sure about this, Lieutenant Atwood." Looking up at him with questioning eyes, she pondered, "why would you do this for me?"

"Several reasons," he stated. "If I had a relative…or a friend in your situation, I want someone else to step in and help. You've suffered enough at the hands of your husband, and it's obvious if you've made it this far away from him that you're capable of taking care of yourself when given half the chance. I can give you that. Plus," he shrugged easily, grinning widely, "like I said, I was raised a gentleman, and we're supposed to always help a lady in distress."

She laughed, her nose crinkling with amusement as her eyes flashed with merriment. "You really do take this whole idea of Southern hospitality to another level. Do you know that, sir?"

"Is that a yes then?"

Shaking her head, she replied, "I accept your offer. Thank you."

"No, thank you. Like I said, this will benefit the both of us. However," he frowned, "there is one small problem."

Alarmed, she inquired, "what is it?"

"If we're going to make people believe that we're cousins, there must be no more of this formality between us. You will have to refer to me as Ryan and I will call you by your first name as well."

Standing from her chair, she held her hand out to signal agreement; he shook it. "I find your terms acceptable, but, for now, I think I should retire for the night. It's going to be an early morning tomorrow for the both of us. We'll have breakfast, you can give me that shooting lesson, and then we'll have to have you packed and on your way before lunch so you can get back in time."

"Good night then, Marissa."

Climbing the stairs, she returned his acknowledgment, "Good night, Ryan."

Marissa hated waiting, and it felt as if she had been doing so for most of her life. It had started when she was still a child growing up in her parents' home, and it continued still as she made Lieutenant Ryan Atwood, a scout in the Confederate Army's, home her own.

When her father became sick when she was thirteen, she had waited for him to recover and get better, to look up at her with the blue eyes she had inherited from him and call her by the nickname he had bestowed upon her when she was still too young to talk herself – 'kiddo.' For months, she had kept vigil at his bedside, but nothing she promised nor anything the doctor attempted seem to heal her dad, and he passed away days before her fourteenth birthday.

From that point, she waited to see what changes would occur in her life, but that wait did not last long. Almost immediately, for her father's estate had not been as sound as he had led them to believe, her mother had introduced her to society, allowing grown men to call on her still adolescent daughter. Luckily, Julie Cooper had been rather picky as to who would marry her only child, so she had managed the little money they had been left to her best ability, portraying to the city of Boston an aura of wealth and pretentiousness when, in reality, they were struggling to maintain the costs of their historic townhouse. When she was eighteen though, that was when Oliver Trask, only grandson and sole inheritor of his grandfather's hotel and real estate business, started courting her, and Julie had fairy leapt at the chance to marry her daughter off to the strange heir.

Her period of engagement had been an odd time of waiting for Marissa. While in the middle of all the wedding preparations, she had secretly wished for something to interrupt the plans and to force the marriage to be called off. She had slept through her life during that year's time, but no amount of waiting seemed to help, and, in the winter of 1860, she had been married to a man she didn't love, didn't like, and, worst of all, couldn't respect.

From that point on, her waiting had consisted of biding her time between moments of peace from her spouse and looking for a chance to escape. After a few months at his Massachusetts estate, they had traveled to join the military, and, at that point, the waiting became the only thing she lived for. More than two years had passed before that patience had rewarded her, and she left her husband without a dependable plan, with no way to support herself, and without means to defend herself in the middle of a state that had become the center of an epic war. But that was when she had found Ryan.

Even with him in her life, the waiting had not ceased. However, instead of waiting for something bad to happen or for a chance to runaway and flee her life, the waiting changed, and she started looking into the future for when her life seemed to come alive. That only happened when he was with her. During that first summer she had stayed at Dawning Meadows, he had been able to stop by and see her every few weeks. He brought her news of the war, advice on how to care for a farm, and, most importantly, company and friendship. Nevertheless, somewhere between his final visit of the summer and the months that stretched between his next return trip home, she realized her feelings for the mysterious scout had changed, and her waiting because almost desperate.

Yes, she still looked forward to his visits so they could talk and spend time together, but she also waited for the brief moments where he allowed his defenses to crumble and showed her what he truly felt. For three months that fall, they had gone without seeing each other, and, just when she was about to desperately give up and presume he had either been injured, captured, or…worse, he had arrived Christmas Eve on leave for a week, and they had been able to spend seven glorious days together bundled up inside the warm, inviting farmhouse as the storms of a Virginia winter raged outside their stone walls.

During that week, she had seen many emotions flash across his striking face. There were moments when she would find him watching her. She wouldn't be doing anything special or even important, but his gaze would follow her movements as if he was memorizing them, and, during those times, he would appear content and almost at peace, the horrors of war fleeing from his mind if only for a few minutes. He would find innocent ways to touch her – offering her his hand whenever she would stand up from a chair or make her way towards the stairs at night to retire to bed. And on the night he left to return to the army, he had delicately placed a kiss on her cheek as a way to silently say goodbye. Neither of them had wanted to say the words for they seemed too permanent, but, as Marissa had watched him ride away from her that winter's night, she had patiently began waiting again, waiting for her next chance to see her blonde haired, blue eyed rescuer.

Over four months had passed until their next meeting and, if she wasn't as selfish, she would have gladly waited for more time to pass. In the middle of the night, he had frightened her out of her sleep, barely stumbling into the house with a gunshot wound to the side. While a part of her knew that he would probably be better off with the field doctors and nurses available at a military camp, the war had made their lives so volatile and capricious. At any moment, one or both of their lives could be taken, so, even wounded, she had been thrilled to see him again, promising to do her best to nurse him back to health and pledging to herself that, as soon as he was better, the waiting would stop.

With a strength and level of patience she didn't know she possessed, she had worked diligently for two weeks caring for her injured soldier, cleaning the lesion, bandaging it, and practically going without sleep while she read at his bedside, searching for a way to cure him faster, to heal his hurt in a better way, but, with no relief in sight, his fever raged on, and, at times, Ryan was even delirious. Sometimes he would call out for her in his sleep, sometimes he would mistake her presence for that of his mother's and would talk about memories from his childhood, disjointed though they were, and, at other times, his fever would be too high and he would merely sleep in an almost catatonic state.

She was unsure as to what she should do about his position with the military. While a part of her wished that they could both simply disappear from the face of the earth and live in a sheltered, secure world where hunger, disease, war, and death could not reach them any longer, she knew that the desire was impractical. If she did not at least attempt to reach his commanding officer, the army might assume that he had been killed, allowing him to stay with her in secret for the duration of the war, or they could claim he had deserted, making him a man marked for death even if he survived the bullet still lodged deep within his injury weakened body. Because the chance of death was less likely if the military was aware of his wound, she had written multiple letters and sent them through the countryside with traveling neighbors hoping one if not more would reach Ryan's commanding officer. The only part of the epistles that made her smile was the signature she affixed to it – Marissa Atwood. True, she was not signing as his wife but, instead, as his cousin, but the moniker made her feel closer to the scout who held her heart in his pale, still, folded hands that rested upon his chest while he slept on and on.

Opening her shadowed and dark circle tinged eyes at the insistence of a gentle touch, Marissa realized that she must have fallen asleep while sitting…and waiting at his bedside. As soon as that thought left her mind, she realized that she had been roused by something…someone, and, immediately, her gaze locked with an awake and lucid Ryan.

"Hey," he greeted her softly, the disuse of his voice mingled with the fever that had wreaked havoc upon his body for fourteen days making his tone raspy and almost imperceptible. To her, it was the most beautiful sound in the world.

"Hey."

"I am alive, aren't I," he joked, the laugh that accompanied his teasing statement quickly turning into a painful cough that shook his weakened chest and aching body.

"Do not even joke like that," Marissa immediately chastised him, picking his left hand off of his torso and holding it to her cheek as tears of relief and gratitude fell down her pale, tired face. "You have no idea how scared I was for you."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize," she immediately replied, feeling terrible for making him contrite. "It wasn't your fault that you were shot. It was just a dreadful set of circumstances that neither of us could control, but they're better now; you're going to make it."

Lovingly rubbing his thumb along her jaw line, Ryan whispered, "thanks to you."

"You saved me once," the young woman returned with a smile, "so I guess it was my turn to save you." Sobering quickly, she stood up and started to fidget around the room. "Listen to me going on and on. What do you need? Are you hungry, thirsty, would you like me to get you something to read or…"

"Marissa," he interrupted her. "All I want is for you to stay here with me. For now, you're all that I need, but I can tell that you're exhausted…"

"Just what every woman wants to hear from the man she's been nursing for two weeks," she playfully reprimanded with a smirk. "I don't care how bad I look, you look worse, and, no matter what you say, I'm not leaving you."

"Even when I fall asleep?"

"I've slept in this chair," she explained, retaking her seat beside him, "for the past fourteen days. One more night won't kill me." She could tell that he was quickly tiring, so she insisted, "just rest. We can talk more later when you have more energy."

"What if I don't agree, doc," he questioned. "You've had your say without argument for too long, but, now that I'm awake, I'm going to make some of the decisions as well."

Marissa rolled her eyes. "And what part of my plan do you disagree with?"

"The part where you sleep on that chair all night," the scout stated unequivocally. "You need to take care of yourself, too," he insisted. "You need to sleep in a bed. I'm not going anywhere, and nothing's going to happen to me between now and early tomorrow morning when you come in to check on me." Winking, he pressed, "you have my word as a gentleman."

Standing up, she made her way around the bed, tightening the robe around her summer nightgown. "Well then, as a gentleman, I take it I can trust you to not to do anything improper if we share your bed tonight, right?" The question was rhetorical, and she didn't wait for a response even if he wanted to offer one. Climbing in under the blankets, she turned to face Ryan and found him watching her with wide, surprised eyes. "I'm glad you're going to be okay," she confessed on a breathless whisper, letting her hand softly caress his face, the face she had so affectionately shaved for him each morning while he had been unconscious. Leaning across his body, she placed a chaste kiss against his lips. "Goodnight."

As she settled back on her side of the bed, she let her left hand find his right one and joined their fingers together tightly. If she was going to close her eyes and go to sleep, she needed the reassurance that he was alive, healing, and resting right beside her. Drifting off to sleep, she realized that one year before she would have found her own actions immoral and downright scandalous, but war had changed her. It brought her to Ryan, it made her realize what was important in life, and it made her finally stop waiting. From that night on, she was going to go after what she wanted and stop waiting for it to come to her. Marissa Cooper had finally become the woman she had always wanted to be, and all it had taken was a little Southern hospitality from a certain gentleman she found herself falling in love with.

As she sat patching his uniform, Marissa watched Ryan out of the corner of her eye. He had been reading old newspaper reports about the battle in the Wilderness, the very battle he had been injured scouting for, but he had finished and had set the paper down. She waited for him to say something, but for several moments he simply stared out into space. His wound was almost completely healed, and she was fearful that he would soon decide it was time to return to the army. It had been another two weeks since the night he had finally woke up, and, during that time, they had continued to grow closer. Though she had not slept in his bed again since that first evening nor had they discussed her actions, there had been a goodnight kiss shared between them every night before she slipped from his room and retired to her own. The kisses were just as pure as their first one had been.

"It can't last much longer," Ryan declared, leveling a gaze upon her that spoke both of hope and fear. "I don't see how the South can keep on fighting for much longer at this point."

"For everyone's sake but especially yours," Marissa stated, putting aside her sewing, "I hope you're right."

"It will, however, be difficult to get back to my troop. With the Union army on this side of us, I'm going to have to cross through their ranks somewhere."

"What," she nearly shouted, eyes wide with fear. "Then you can't go. You said yourself that the war has to end soon, so can't you just stay here indefinitely?"

"It could be months before all the commanders surrender," the scout pointed out. "I can't put you at risk. If they come after me for deserting…"

"It wouldn't be deserting if we said there were complications to your injury," she tried to persuade him. "You very well couldn't travel if your bullet wound was infected."

"Marissa," he started, but she interrupted him.

"No, don't argue with me," the young woman fairly pleaded. "I don't care about the threat to me. If keeping you here keeps you safe, then you're not going anywhere."

He stood and crossed the room to kneel in front of her, clasping her shaking hands in his. "Before, I fought for the honor of my family and my home. Now though, those things don't seem as important to me; they don't seem worth the thousands of lives that have been lost during this war. So, instead, I fight for my own honor as a man, because," his gaze dropped away from her as he continued almost timidly, "that's what you deserve. You deserve a man who is honest and respected, and if I went back on my word and deserted my rank, I wouldn't be worthy of you anymore. You were already with a man who affronted you and did not live up the promises he made to you. I won't be like that; I won't do that to you…that is…if you…"

"I do," Marissa promised fervently. "I do." Leaning her forehead against his, she asked tearfully, "so when do you have to leave?"

"Tomorrow morning."

Choking back a sob, she nodded in understanding. "We only have tonight then?"

"And hopefully every night after this appalling war is over," the soldier added.

Pulling away from him, she stood up and held out a hand for him to take. The questions in his mind begged for answers, but she couldn't find her voice or the words to respond. So, instead, she simply led them both up the stairs and into his bedroom, silently communicating her intent and desire. As they stepped into the room together, she shut the door behind them and watched as he made his way towards the bed. Suddenly hesitant, Marissa couldn't move, afraid that she was rushing them or doing something he didn't want, but, when he outstretched his arms towards her in an invitation for her to be wrapped up in his embrace, she practically floated across the space between them and joined their lips in a fiery, passionate, desperate kiss.

Pulling away breathless, Ryan asked, "are you sure about this?"

"Am I sure that you saved me a year ago, yes," the young woman responded. "Am I sure that you are my best friend, yes. Am I sure that I'm in love with you, yes." Stopping briefly to move her own hands to the front clasp of her elaborate dress, she continued. "Am I sure that I want to make love with you, yes, yes, and yes again."

"I'm in love with you, too," he confessed, brushing her hands away so he could undress her himself. "I don't know what's going to happen to us or what our lives will be like after the war ends, but I can promise you two things. One, I will come home to you," the scout stated without room for argument. Tilting his mouth over hers, he brushed their lips together in a gentle embrace while sliding the top of her dress over her shoulders and revealing the chemise and stays she wore underneath. "And, secondly, no matter what, I'm never going to let you go. From the moment I pulled that ridiculous hat off your head, you became mine, and I became yours. We might not have known it then…"

"But we do now," Marissa finished for him. "And I'm never going to let you go either, but, for now, I just want to forget everything else but you and me and this moment. Please, Ryan, make me forget."

"I can do that," he stated confidently, smiling at her. Picking her up, he laid her lightly on his bed before blanketing her body with his own. As their mouths joined together again and their hands moved along the others body, relieving them of their clothing, everything else around them disappeared – the war, her husband, the disease upon the land, the secret they were forced to keep to protect their reputations, the grave after grave of the unidentified dead, and the uncertainty of the future; it was just Ryan, Marissa, and their love for each other. To everyone else, their relationship might have seemed wrong, even illegal and sinful, but, to them, it was right, and neither could deny it any longer. They didn't want to.

It was May of 1865 – Lee had surrendered, Johnson had surrendered, and the war was essentially over – but, still, Ryan wasn't home yet. However, Marissa was not waiting. Like she had promised herself, she had taken a more proactive role in her own life. Instead of sitting by the window all day looking for a cloud of dusk to signal her returning soldier, she occupied herself by staying active, taking care of the animals, weeding the gardens, and cleaning the house. She was determined that when he did return, she would have his home…their home in the best condition possible.

Although they hadn't seen each other since the morning after they had first made love, she knew he was still alive; she could feel it deep inside her heart. After all, he had promised her that he would return to her, and, as he playfully reminded her all the time, a Southern gentleman always kept his word. So, with hope in her breast, a smile on her face, and sewing work in her hands, she sat underneath the large cucumber tree in the front yard and worked late into the afternoon.

With only herself to feed, supper was usually a quiet, simplistic affair. She would merely eat whatever leftovers that remained from dinner before retiring to Ryan's bedroom, the room she had considered theirs after their one intimate night together, to read in bed, to plan for their future, or to simply replay her memories of the soldier over and over in her mind. Sleeping in his bed and thinking of him made Marissa feel as if he was closer to her, and it kept her spirits and optimism high.

Setting her sewing aside, the young woman slowly allowed herself to fall into her recollections of the man she loved. Closing her eyes, she could almost see him walking through the yard towards her. Blocking the sounds of nature encircling her, she would swear that she could hear his deep, rusty voice whispering words or adoration and promise into her ear. Feeling the goosebumps as they shivered up her back and down across her dress covered legs and bare arms, she practically felt his soft yet firm lips upon the long, creamy expanse of her exposed neck. His presence surrounded her, invaded her senses, consumed her, and it only made her miss and yearn for him more.

"I'm real, Marissa; I'm here."

Jumping out of her seat and standing up, her sewing falling forgotten to the dew dampened grass, she twirled around to find the man she loved standing before her. Before either of them could say anything else, she launched herself into his arms, wrapping him in a tight embrace that he returned reassuringly to her. His clothes were practically black with dirt, his face obscured by the ragged beard growing uncontrollably along his jaw and cheeks, and he smelled as if he hadn't bathed since the last night they had spent together almost a year before, but, to her, he was the most exquisite thing in the world.

When he tried to pull back, wanting to look at her, she simply held on tighter. "What's this," he teased. "Where's my 'welcome home, soldier, kiss,' the warm, delicious dinner every traveling man dreams of on his way back to the woman he loves, the frantic inspection to make sure that I'm still in one piece? This is not the hospitality I would expect from a Southern lady."

Laughing as tears flowed freely from her sparkling sapphire eyes, Marissa questioned. "Since when has Boston become a part of the South?"

"You don't live in Massachusetts anymore," he corrected her. "You live here, in Virginia, with me, and you're my lady, so, in my estimation, that makes you a Southern lady."

"For now."

Quirking his brow at her, Ryan wondered out loud, "what do you mean?" Becoming worried, he pressed, "you're not leaving me, are you? You're not going back to your husband?"

"No, never," the young woman reassured him. "From what I've been able to discern from the various newspaper reports and neighborhood gossip, Captain Trask, now a Major, is still alive, but I'm not going back to Boston or him; I'm not leaving you. I just…how are we going to stay here, Ryan?"

"What do you mean?"

"Your neighbors think that I'm your first cousin, so we can't be married here."

Gulping quickly out of excitement, he queried, "do you want to marry me?"

Blushing with shyness, Marissa glanced down at her shoes barely peeking out of her wide skirts. "Yes." Before he could respond, she continued, "and I want to have your children, too, but we can't do that here. We would have to go somewhere where Oliver couldn't find me, where our lies couldn't catch up with us, where we would be free to live the life we want, but I can't ask you to leave the only home you've ever known. This," she motioned towards his family's homestead, "this is your heritage, Ryan. Generations of your family have lived her, have made their livelihood here, and for me to ask you to give that all up is just selfish."

"Without you here with me," he confessed, "none of this matters. This is a farm meant for a family, and you are my family. You're the only woman who will ever bear me children. But," he insisted when she went to interrupt him, "even if we had never met, I'm not sure I would stay here. There's nothing left in the South at this point, and it'll take years for it to rebuild itself, but what I learned from the war is that I can take the things I love about my home and live with them anywhere." Seeing Marissa's curious expression, he explained. "I love the honor, the generosity, the gallantry, the importance of family, the admiration of beauty, the passionate nature of the South, but I can be all those things anywhere…as long as I have you by my side."

As soon as he finished talking, Marissa leaned in and kissed him tenderly. The embrace was soft, tentative, almost as if they were relearning each others likes and desires. After several moments, she pulled away and returned to his arms, holding him tightly to her once again. Resting her head on his shoulder, she inquired, "do you have any idea where you want to go?"

"Honestly, yeah, I've thought a lot during the past year away from you. When I came back to you," he admitted, "I wanted to offer you a life and not just an existence. It won't be much, but we can sell this farm and take the money to make ourselves a new home…in California."

"I've seen images and paintings of it," she revealed. "It seems almost picturesque."

"The crops might be different, but there is plenty of land available, good land, and willing workers to help us for a decent wage and a place to stay."

"And we can see the Pacific Ocean," Marissa added. "I've heard it's gorgeous and so blue, it'll take your breath away."

"Like your eyes," he replied, kissing her neck. "We could live by the ocean if you wanted," the former solider suggested, "right on the beach. Just you, me, our children, the water, and the land – we'll make our own lives whatever we want them to be and always live in the moment."

"It sounds perfect," she practically purred in contentment, "but, for now, I think we should practice."

"Practice what?"

Giggling, Marissa lifted her head from his shoulder and gazed into the cobalt eyes of her present and her future. "Making babies."

He did not need to be asked twice, and Ryan graciously obliged her wishes, lifting her up into his arms and carrying her into the house, up the stairs, and into his bedroom where a claw foot tub big enough for two awaited them. After all, his Southern hospitality demanded he adhere to her every whim and desire, and that would be just one thing that would never change no matter where they lived. She would always be the feisty, independent, elegant woman he rescued on a hot day in June of 1863, and he would always be her soldier boy with the heart of a gentleman and the crooked smile of a man capable of making her fall in love with him. The fortunes in their lives would ebb and flow, children would be born and children would be lost, there would be moments of intense happiness and pleasure and nights of loneliness after a fight, but, no matter what, they would always have each other, and that's all they would ever really need.