A/N: Thank you to those who donated to Fandom Against Famine. For those who didn't receive the compilation, here is the full Millie outtake. Enjoy.
January 1, 1863
"Millie, would you mind getting Emily a fresh glass of water?" Rebecca asked me as she felt her daughter's flushed and aggravated face.
"Mama, I'm fine to go get it myself now. I've been fine all afternoon," Emily asserted while trying her best to sit up and shoo away her mother.
Rebecca tucked away her fussing hands but didn't move to let Emily out of bed. "I know it feels that way, but just give it a little longer. If you still feel this strong in a couple hours, then you can get out of bed—but just for a short while."
Emily flopped back on her pillows in exasperation.
"I don't mind getting you water; that's why I'm here, dear. It's no fun being sick, but your fever only broke last night. Just rest, and I'll be right back," I told her.
Rebecca gave me a weary smile as I turned to leave. Just as I started making my way downstairs, there was a knock at the door.
"Coming," I called.
I was a bit perturbed that Bella would come to the house, when I had told both her and Jasper to stay away, but I realized she had probably been lonely by herself. I wasn't sure when Jasper had left, but I was sure there must have been some degree of awkwardness when he had stayed at the house. I hoped she had at least been honest with him about her feelings. I didn't think my floors could stand any more pacing otherwise.
I was completely prepared to see Bella on the other side of the door but was surprisingly greeted by Frances. Her eyes were bright and cheeks pink from the ride here. I stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind me while she re-pinned some of her auburn hair that had escaped her bun.
"You aren't who I was expecting. To what do I owe this pleasant surprise?" I asked, extremely happy to see her.
"I'm not sure what to say to that. Who else were you expecting?" She winked at me. "I have quite the news to tell you. Everyone is simply buzzing about it," she said before sitting down on one of the porch benches and patting the seat next to her.
"Well, don't leave me in suspense then, please."
"We have Galveston," she said, grabbing my hand and making my heart flutter.
"I'm not sure I follow."
"Galveston has returned to the Confederacy! Isn't that wonderful? This is just what the boys needed. Papa says things are finally going to start turning around." She spoke so quickly, I could hardly keep up.
"It certainly is wonderful, but when and how did this happen?"
"It all started at daybreak. With the increased troop movement through the town, we knew something was going to happen soon, but we heard for sure earlier this afternoon when there were some wounded soldiers coming back from the island. Papa let them water their horses at our house."
The idea of our wounded men tugged at my heart, but if we had reclaimed the city, I was hoping our numbers were low.
"Do you know if there were many wounded?" I asked, worrying about Jasper.
"I know there were definitely a large number, but one of the soldiers said they had captured over four hundred Yankees, so we know they're hurting more than us."
Four hundred? I looked out toward the barn and wasn't even sure I could imagine what that many people looked like. Where would they put them all?
"Where did they all come from? Jasper said the Yankees hardly had anyone patrolling the streets at night."
"Apparently, one of our Cottonclads in the harbor overtook one of their ships, and unbelievably, the Yankees managed to blow up one of their ownships before turning tail and trying to sail away," she said, laughing.
I was overjoyed and amused. "Blew up one of their own ships . . . Well, I never!" I said, placing a hand over my heart.
"Hopefully this means your nephew will be home before you know it," Frances said sincerely.
"I certainly hope so. Rebecca and Emily will be so pleased, not to mention Bella. I wish Thaddeus was home to hear this, though I'm sure he'll hear it where he is. Let me step inside to share the good news, and then we can ride over to tell Bella." I wasn't sure who could possibly be happier about the news of this victory—Jasper's mother or his sweetheart.
Frances joined me in standing up. "Where isBella?" she asked, holding open the door.
"At my house. I didn't want her to risk getting sick from Emily. That being said, I don't want you to get sick either. That means back to the porch with you," I told her.
"You're too sweet to me," she said, not coming further into the house but still propping the door open. "And Bella isn't at the house. I stopped there first, and I assumed you were both here because Emily was still sick."
I rolled my eyes at her. "That girl can sleep like the dead and seemingly at any time of the day. Remember when you first met her how she was out like a light in the parlor?" I asked jokingly. "She probably didn't wake up when you knocked on the door."
"I certainly remember how Bella can sleep, so I made sure to peek in the barn, but there were no horses."
I cocked my head and had no idea where Bella could have gone. "Hmm . . . Well, she isn't the fastest rider," I started.
"I'm not sure where she could be, but she wasn't on the road anywhere between my house and here, and if she had gotten further into Houston, she would have been stopped by the officers there," Frances said, not providing me with any answers.
I frowned, worried. "I never should have left her alone in that house. Give me a minute. I'll be right back," I said, turning to run back upstairs.
"There you are. I was beginning to think you were waiting for it to rain," Rebecca whispered from next to Emily's sleeping form.
The water—I had completely forgotten. "I'm sorry, Rebecca. I got distracted."
"She's asleep now, so one of us can easily get her a glass before she wakes. Was that Bella at the door?"
I shook my head. "No. It would appear that Bella is nowhere to be found." Before Rebecca could frown, I continued. "It was Frances with the most wonderful news." I relayed what Frances had said, and I was right; Rebecca was thrilled at the prospect of the war turning in our favor and Jasper coming home.
"Who knows where Bella went, but she's probably back at the house now. You should go over and tell her the good news," Rebecca said.
"You don't mind?" I asked, glancing at Emily.
"Of course not. Then, come back and tell me how my future daughter-in-law reacted to the good news." She grinned.
"Now, don't count your chickens . . ." I teased.
"You and I both know it's as good as decided. We've both seen how she's been mooning over him since he left and how urgent he was to go to her when he came home the other day. If the war continues to go like it did, I'm thinking we'll hear summer wedding bells," Rebecca said with a smile.
"Here's hoping! I'm going to get another change of clothes. I may also rake Bella over the coals a bit for taking off wherever she went. I'll see you later this evening," I said before going back down to Frances, who was still holding the door open.
She waited patiently for me as I grabbed my cape. "I'm sure she's back at the house by now," I said, closing the door behind us and giving her hand a squeeze. "Off we go."
I updated her on Emily's improving condition on the way over, and she shared some more of the details her father had overheard about the federal flagship explosion in Galveston. When we got to the house and pulled the wagon up to the barn, it was clear that my horse was missing.
Before I could start to feel panicky, Frances put her hand on my shoulder. "You know, it isn't unheard of for horses to be commandeered by passing soldiers in need. Maybe the wounded coming north needed an extra horse for transport."
I didn't want to squash my own hope by asking what wounded soldiers would be passing through this far outside of Houston. Whatever optimism I did have was further diminished when we entered the silent and darkening house.
"Bella," I called. "Bella!"
"Maybe she left a note. I'll check the kitchen; you look upstairs," Frances said, taking charge.
I rushed up the stairs and peeked into my empty room before looking into Bella's. The late afternoon sun through the window was casting a square of light on her rumpled bedding, framing a folded note in the center.
I let out a gust of air before snatching it up and unfolding it. I was shocked to see Jasper's penmanship instead of Bella's usual scrawl. I saw it was addressed to Bella, but when I saw exactly how it was addressed—ToBella,mydarlingwife—I couldn't believe my eyes.
Wife? Surely not. Before I could stop myself, I sat down and began to read the rest of the letter.
I swear, should I live forever, I would never tire of saying such a thing. I love you, and you have made me the happiest man alive by making me yours.
I gasped just as Frances walked into the room, carrying a lamp. "Oh good, you found a note."
"Sit," I uttered, not able to get anything else out. How could they have done this without their families? So much for summer wedding bells.
Frances set down the lamp and perched on the bed next to me, looking concerned. Without a word, she placed her chin on my shoulder and began to read the note in my hands.
"Oh, my!" She giggled. "It appears that Bella is keeping a secret much larger than just where she went today."
I pointedly looked at her before turning back to the note.
"Don't be that way, Mill. They're young and in love. Think how exciting it would be to elope." She kissed the underside of my jaw, and I allowed myself to smile before continuing to read.
Yesterday was the best day of my life, and as the sun came up this morning, I couldn't bear to wake you. I didn't want to spoil yesterday by telling you I needed to leave today, and it would have broken my heart to say goodbye to you once more and see the sadness in your face. I beg you not to find me cowardly. Instead, know I rode off thinking of your blissful, sleeping face and the host of fabulous expressions you made last night.
"Oh my, indeed. We shouldn't read this," I said, placing the note in my lap. "It's obviously very private."
"I can't believe him," Frances said, sounding aggravated.
"I know. I can't believe they got married without us there. I'm happy for them, but Rebecca was really looking forward to their wedding. Bella's family doesn't even know us!" I exclaimed, for the first time thinking of how they would feel about this news.
"No." Frances shook her head. "I meant what Jasper did to Bella. How could he leave her without saying goodbye? He only left a note? She must have been devastated."
"Oh," I said sadly, realizing the truth of her words. "He must have had his reasons," I tried to argue.
"There's only one way to find out," she said, grabbing the note from my lap and holding it up so we could both see it.
You said you did not want to know the particulars beforehand, but you should know that I was able to come back to Houston while making one last evacuation run from Galveston. My unit plans to retake the city today, and I must return to join them. Now, the only women remaining in the city are the hardened Sisters of St. Ursula, and no one could convince them to leave. At least, should things get rough on land, the sisters have God on their side.
I hoped God was on Jasper's side as well and that he wasn't one of the many wounded making their way back north to Houston.
I promise to be safe, my sweet. I hope, once we have reclaimed Galveston, the war in Texas will swing in our favor, and I'll be able to come home to you soon. I will be counting the days, and I cannot wait to start my forever with you.
Happy New Year. I love you.
Your devoted husband,
"So that's that," Frances said, putting the letter back down on the bed.
"This still doesn't answer the question of where Bella went, though. Where could she have gone?"
"Maybe she took advantage of the mild weather today and rode through the fields. Perhaps she was looking for a distraction after reading Jasper's letter," Francis suggested.
"That's a good idea, but I don't think Bella is a proficient or confident enough rider to cut through the property on her own. Anyway, she would have returned to one of the houses by now," I countered. I went to peer out the window, hoping she would suddenly arrive or rush up the stairs to say she had taken another long nap in the parlor.
"Would she have gone after Jasper to say goodbye? Certainly, that must be it. Once she reaches the road closing, she'll come back. I'm sure of it."
I turned to Frances. "I hope you're right. You must be right. There's no other explanation." My gaze wandered back to the bed. "Do you think we should address her bedding at all? It's obvious what occurred here. I don't want to overstep, but I don't want to sadden her even more by having her do it herself now that Jasper is gone."
Frances looked at the bed thoughtfully. "Perhaps we should just remake the bed and set the sheet downstairs to wait for the next day of laundering. I would leave the pillows wrapped as they are, though."
I nodded and grabbed new bedding from the trunk at the foot of the bed. We worked in silence as we pulled off the blanket and stripped the sheets. I was trying to be practical about things, but I was sure I was blushing as I asked, "Why not the pillows?"
I looked up to see Frances's face turning a lovely shade of pink as well. "It isn't as if I sit around thinking about how your nephew would smell, but I know it's nice to wake up to the scent of someone you love."
When the bed was made, I walked around to stand beside Frances as she placed the note back on the bed. I wrapped my arm around her waist and let my nose skim the shell of her ear before she turned her face, placing a chaste kiss on my lips. "I know exactly what you mean," I said.
As we walked down the stairs to deposit the sheets in a basket in the kitchen, Frances sighed. "I'm disappointed we didn't get to see them say their vows, too. It's both sad and romantic that they were able to track down a preacher but didn't alert you."
"Well, young love . . . I realize things change in the face of sickness and war. You have to grasp happiness whenever you find it," I said. "Regardless of how it came about, I'm happy for them. I'm happy for all of us. However, I think it best to keep this a secret for now in regards to Rebecca and Thad."
"Agreed," Frances said as she grabbed a piece of paper off the kitchen hutch. "We should let Jasper and Bella share their own news." She slid the paper to me. "I'm increasingly worried about where she may be, especially as it's rapidly growing dark, but we should leave a note and then head back to your brother's house."
"Yes. I can only hope she's already there waiting for us." I scribbled a note while Frances went upstairs to my room to fetch me another change of clothes.
When we arrived back at the farm, we found Emily and Rebecca in the living room, both in better spirits and Emily looking healthier.
"I agreed to let her try coming downstairs," Rebecca said.
"Mama, I couldn't stand another minute of looking at the same four walls," Emily replied. "Bella, it's okay to come in. The worst is past," she called toward the front door.
My face instantly fell. "Bella isn't here with you?"
"No," Rebecca answered, looking just as worried. "We thought you would find her at home and bring her with you."
I shook my head, and Emily piped up, ever optimistic, "Perhaps someone from Bella's family came to find her. Maybe she went into town to spend the day with them or settle some of her aunt's accounts."
It was a wonderful idea, but I just couldn't see that being the case. I had never wanted to pry, but I'd never known Bella to post a letter to her parents or anyone other than Jasper. I wasn't even sure if they knew where she lived—or that her aunt had even passed. Perhaps I should have encouraged her to communicate with her family, but she almost never spoke of them. She seemed so sad and conflicted whenever I mentioned them or asked questions; it was like there was only half of the story she wanted me to hear. I knew personally how you could sometimes want to escape your situation in life, so I never pushed her. Instead, I wholeheartedly wanted her to make her life here with us; I wanted us to be the family to whom she could turn.
I shook my head sadly at Emily's suggestion. "I sincerely doubt that. Maybe I should go back. I don't want her to come home to a dark house if she doesn't have to."
"I'm sure she's somewhere safe, and as late as it is, I hope she's staying the night there," Rebecca said. She tried to sound confident, but her eyes gave away just how anxious she was. "There's no need to have one more of us unaccounted for. It's too late for anyone to go anywhere. With the battle and the retreat, who knows where the Yankees will flee, and I would feel safer if both of you stayed the night. Would that be all right, Frances?"
"Yes." She nodded and held up a bag. "I told my parents I would be staying with Millie tonight anyway."
Rebecca and Frances spoke quietly about sleeping arrangements in the guest bedroom, but my thoughts were focused on what Rebecca had said about the Yankees retreating. Could they possibly come this far inland? The thought of Bella alone and scared and possibly the victim of a run-in with a Yankee soldier made my stomach turn.
"Excuse me," I uttered as I trippingly ran upstairs with tears in my eyes. As soon as I made it into the guest room, tears started to run down my face, and I bit my fist to keep from crying out. I had promised to take care of Bella and had completely failed.
I was lost in my concern when I felt Frances's slender arms wrap around my waist. I leaned my head back against her, and as my tears slowed, I tried to absorb whatever comfort I could from the solid feel of her body behind me.
"Shhh. Everything is going to be fine," she murmured as I hiccupped.
"What . . . what if it isn't?" I whispered.
"Have faith, Mill."
"You're right," I said, looking at my wavy reflection in the dark glass of the window. "I don't know what I'm more horrified about at the moment—that I don't know where Bella is or that I have turned into a hand-wringing woman."
"Hey now," Frances scolded while pulling me closer. "Bella is a capable young woman. She was able to travel all the way from Little Rock to Houston alone and then find entrance into the hearts of a certain major and his whole family. Certainly she can find her way from wherever she is now to home."
Frances's words were just what I needed to hear. She placed her lips on my shoulder, and I wiped at my eyes as she continued. "She's a Whitlock now, and Whitlock women are incredibly intelligent, resourceful, and headstrong," she said, punctuating each point with a kiss. "There's nothing more we can do tonight, so let's make sure we're well rested for tomorrow."
I nodded in agreement, suddenly too tired to even answer, let alone to dress for bed, and I slipped under the covers.
Seemingly, only a few minutes later, I lifted my head groggily off the pillow and looked around the brightening bedroom. I was trying to locate a sound, and it took me a moment to realize it was the sound of the barn door closing. I quickly stood and rushed downstairs to find Thad hanging his coat by the door.
"Oh," I said, disappointed that it wasn't Bella.
"Good morning, dear sister," Thad greeted me, looking excited. I could only hope he came with news of Bella. "I had concluded all of my business, so I left at daybreak after hearing the news from the port last night."
"Did you—" I started to ask him, but he kept on talking over me.
"I rode by your house and saw both it and the barn were empty. Then I was surprised to see one of the McCall horses in our barn. I'm assuming Frances is here."
"Yes, but—" I tried again to no avail.
"This is quite the welcome home party then. Where's Rebecca? Are Emily and Bella still asleep?"
I sighed and shook my head, sad that he obviously had no news of Bella. As the rest of the household trickled downstairs, we filled him in on Emily's illness and Bella's disappearance. Thad felt incredibly guilty for being absent when he felt his family needed him. We assured him there was nothing he could have done that we hadn't done for either event.
"The least I can do is ride back out toward town to ask about her. There must be a reasonable explanation for where she's gone," he said, stroking the hair on the back of Emily's head, as if showing his affection for one girl would give him answers about the other.
Before he could step out, there was a strong knock at the door. The room was full of gusts of relief and Emily's glad mumbling of "finally!" Our happiness was short lived, however, when Thad opened the door to reveal a Confederate soldier standing stiffly on the porch. For a moment, I was confused about why he could be at the house, but then I thought he might have news of Bella traveling into town.
"Mr. and Mrs. Whitlock?" he asked, and Rebecca stepped up next to Thad, reaching out to grasp his hand.
Until I saw her panic-stricken face, it hadn't occurred to me that the young man could be here on account of Jasper. My concern was compounded when Rebecca started to shake her head and murmur under her breath, "No, we won. This isn't it. We won."
The soldier took off his hat and looked at his feet. Before Rebecca could faint from nerves, Emily spoke up with her voice trembling. "Mama, we don't know why he's here yet."
When he glanced up at us, the sadness was evident in his eyes, but his posture remained straight. I held onto the fact that if our world was about to come tumbling down, then he wouldn't possibly be standing so stiffly.
"I'm Captain John Abernathy," he said, addressing Thad. "A situation has arisen." We all hung onto his every word. It was obvious that it was difficult for him to speak.
"Jasper?" Emily asked. I shook my head. The longer we didn't know for sure, the longer we could delude ourselves into thinking this wasn't happening.
Unfortunately, the soldier nodded, and Thad wrapped his arm around Rebecca's waist to support her. Emily, Frances, and I stood still, fanned out behind them—three separate islands of disbelief.
"He's gone missing." Hope bloomed; missing was better than the alternative. "Things aren't definitive, but I won't lie, they do appear grave. Normally, word wouldn't arrive so soon, but I was headed this way, and Major Whitlock—Jasper—was a good friend to me."
He went on to explain Jasper's orders before saying, "We know he arrived successfully in Houston, and there are reports of him leaving town yesterday morning, but he never arrived in Galveston."
I knew there were questions being asked, but I couldn't focus on them. This couldn't be. Jasper had just found his happiness. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair to any of us.
Then I realized the soldier had moved onto a different topic when I heard him say, "His wife—"
Rebecca exhaled a sigh of relief. "Our son wasn't married. It can't be him. It wasn't him. I'm sorry, but you've mistaken us with another family," she happily rambled.
"No, ma'am." He looked pained. "I am speaking of Major Whitlock and a brunette woman on horseback who identified herself as his wife. We do have a brown horse secure in Galveston, should you require confirmation."
Thad said, "That won't be necessary, as this must all be some sort of a mistake. My wife is correct in saying Jasper isn't married. Our condolences to the family of the missing soldier."
Thad moved to dismiss the captain, and Frances stepped up and prodded me with her elbow, prompting me to speak up sadly.
Rebecca's head whipped around, and her face was furious, as if I was somehow making the soldier into Jasper with my words. Thad looked incredulous and spoke slowly. "Millie, Bella isn't Jasper's wife."
I opened my mouth, and the look on his face implored me not to say anything else, but Frances continued. "They eloped." She told them about the letter, and Rebecca began to hyperventilate.
The soldier spoke over her gasping breaths, shifting on his feet and looking increasingly uncomfortable and grieved himself. "Your son has officially been listed as missing in action, but the army will eventually list him as a casualty if they don't find proof of him soon."
"Maybe Bella and Jasper ran off together," Emily suggested, but the captain stopped her from saying more.
"I don't want you to have to give up hope, Miss, but your brother was no deserter."
Rebecca released a low and mournful sound as the soldier expressed his sympathy and turned to leave. As Thad closed the door and the room was extinguished of the outside light, we all broke into choked sobs. Our world had come tumbling down.
I sat on the thick grass warmed by the September sun. I don't know if I could have handled it if everything was cold. I hadn't come before now; it seemed pointless, as no one was really there. Bella had once mentioned mid-September as her birthday, so the timing seemed fitting, though my visit was far from celebratory.
I thought we should have waited longer, but everyone had said it was finally time. The army had stopped looking for answers some time ago. The battle had been won, and no one other than us seemed to care about what had been lost. Her name hadn't even appeared in the paper.
I wasn't sure where to look, but I spoke in the hopes that anyone might be listening. "I hope I did right by you, Bella." I bit my lip before laughing at the memory of how often she did the same thing.
"You were my friend, and I'll never forget you." I hoped that didn't sound contrived. "I didn't know what you'd want," I said, looking toward the gray stone. "I thought Whitlock would be best, but Rebecca said we should leave it as Swan—just Swan—in case your family came looking for you. She said every parent deserves to know what happened to their child—at least what they canknow. I couldn't disagree with that."
I tried to hold back the tears, wanting to get through what I had come to say. "We looked for your family, but your great-aunt's landlord turned up no clues, and by all accounts, there are no Swans in Little Rock, or any of the surrounding areas. It's like you appeared out of thin air."
What mysteries surrounded this girl! I looked at her name on the stone, careful to keep my eyes away from the one bearing Jasper's name; the pain that clutched my chest when I thought of him was still too great. I was young when he was born, but I remember carrying that blond baby around, pretending he was mine. The memory tore at my heart, and I had to stop thinking about him. I shook my head, as if that would banish the pain.
"Anyway," I said shakily, "Swan it was." I began to pick the grass as a distraction. "I try to tell myself it doesn't matter because you aren't really here. I can't believe they never found you. It's like you disappeared into thin air as well." Mysteries abound. "The lack of answers continues to breed hope—such a terrible, wonderful, terrible thing."
I tried to calm myself as my nose began to sting from the need to cry.
"Wherever you are—whatever happened—I hope you knew happiness. I hope you both did," I said, attempting to mention Jasper without breaking down. "You don't need to know every happiness in life—only one, if it's the right one. I hope you're together now and that you'll continue to make each other happy."
I wiped at the few tears that could no longer be contained. "I don't presume to know all the answers to life's questions, but I do believe in heaven. Maybe this mortal life was too limited to hold all the love you had for each other. Isn't that a lovely idea?"
I placed my hand on Bella's smooth stone and stood to leave. I wasn't sure if I would come back, so I needed to make my final goodbye to her.
"In my mind . . . on one level it seems cruel, but maybe this was the way it was supposed to be. Maybe you and Jasper were meant to spend some form of eternity together—young, beautiful, perfect, and in love—forever."
A/N: Thank you all for your patience while waiting for "In Midnight Sleep," which will start with Jasper's transformation. While it is taking longer than expected, it will be posted.