DECEMBER 1859 (THREE AND A HALF YEARS LATER)
Sookie watched anxiously as the postman rode toward the house. She always did.
Almost without fail, she received two or three letters a week. Though all were welcome, one was particularly so.
Sookie also had in hand the correspondence that her family was sending out, including four letters written by her.
“Miss Sookie,” Terry Bellefleur said with a tip of his hat as he stopped his pretty brown mare in front of the modest home that belonged to the Stackhouses.
Though certainly not as grand as the Compton estate, it suited the family just fine—except for her mother, who had been raised in more luxury.
“Good morning, Mr. Bellefleur,” Sookie smiled as he dismounted.
Lafayette quickly approached from where he had been patching a fence. “Mister Terry. Let me take ol’ Bessy here and get her some water and oats.”
Terry smiled at Lafayette. “That’d be real kind of you.”
“And Gran already has a brunch set out for you,” Sookie smiled as the mail carrier put his hefty satchel over his shoulder.
Terry Bellefleur would not dare deny Adele Stackhouse’s hospitality. Not only was she a formidable woman—even at her age—but also she was the best baker in the county, and Tara, the Stackhouse family cook, could always be counted upon to have delectable food on hand as well.
Before going to the kitchen, however, the mail carrier gave Sookie the family’s mail and he took hers, making a show of carefully tucking it into his bag. Then he produced a little package for her from his satchel.
“This too, Miss Stackhouse,” he winked at her before Adele’s summons drew him to the kitchen.
Sookie smiled as she looked down at the parcel in her hands. It was from him.
Eric Northman had entranced her from her earliest memories. He visited the area for only two months every other year, but those had been her favorite times of her young life. Of course, Pamela was a big part of that, too. But Eric had always been her favorite person.
Eric was a little more than three years older than she was; in fact, he and William and Jason had all been born within a few weeks of each other. Similarly, she and Pamela had been born within months of one another. Not surprisingly, the five children—Jason, Eric, William, Pamela, and Sookie—had been playmates and companions during their summers together, and Sookie always envied the fact that William got to see The Northmans every year, for the Comptons would travel to Boston during the summers when the Northmans did not travel south.
When the Northmans were not visiting, Sookie lived a much more solitary life. Jason and William tended to “do boy things” that they would not let Sookie participate in—not that her mother would have let her. Michelle had always wanted Sookie to be a proper Southern lady, and she did not much care for Sookie’s independent streak. So Sookie had stifled it, especially around her mother after Michelle had gotten sick.
The young woman sighed, knowing that her mother would not approve of Eric sending her a gift. She knew that her mother had long since had other ideas about Sookie’s destiny—ideas that Sookie did not want for herself.
Michelle Stackhouse—along with Jessie Compton—had not so subtly been pushing for a marriage between Sookie and William. And, though Sookie liked William well enough, her heart was not with him. No—that had belonged to Eric for the majority of her 18 years.
As children, when she and Pamela had wanted to join in the boys’ games, it was always Eric who made sure they were involved. Sookie would never forgot the moment when she had fallen out of a tree as an eight-year-old. She had not been hurt beyond a couple of skinned knees and a sprained wrist. Still, eleven-year-old Eric had scooped her up without a thought as Jason and William had stood by laughing at her and Pamela had been crying.
Even at eleven, Eric was larger than the other boys, and he had picked her up as if she weighed nothing. He had known to take her in through the back door—to Gran rather than to Michelle. And he had given her a kiss on the cheek and a wink before holding her hand while her little wounds had been tended to.
Though not even close to being a woman or having a woman’s feelings at that time, a part of Sookie had loved Eric from that day onward; not surprisingly, her feelings had evolved over the years. And the last time she had seen him—now more than one and a half years before—he had secretly asked her to be his bride. However, it had been the visit before that—the summer when she had turned sixteen—that her feelings had changed into full-out romantic love.
Sookie sighed, thinking of her sixteenth birthday party, which the Comptons and the Northmans had attended. Her mother had been too ill to come downstairs, but her father and Gran had made everything look perfect, nonetheless.
Eric had taken her for a walk after the party, and—hidden by a weeping willow tree—he had given her her first kiss. And then her second. And then her third. Then nineteen, Eric had needed to stop her from literally throwing herself at him in her youthful passion. Eventually, he had led them to a fallen log and removed his coat so that she could be more comfortable when she sat down.
He had told her that he loved her that night. And she had told him that she returned his feelings. There had been more walks that summer and more stolen kisses, but Eric had been a perfect gentleman beyond that.
Two years later, the Northmans had returned for the summer of 1858. Having spent two years in law school by then, Eric and William had both seemed much older. Due to pressure from her mother and Jessie Compton, Sookie had taken several walks with William that summer, though it was clear that they were not interested in one another—at least not romantically. Not surprisingly, it was her time with Eric that Sookie had treasured the most.
Three nights before the Northmans were due to leave, Eric had proposed to Sookie. And she had accepted. The next day, they had arranged to speak privately with Corbett and Godric about their intentions.
However, things were not that simple. Her father and Godric had outlined several obstacles that were in the young couple’s path and had “postponed” giving their permission—though they had not forbidden the match. They had simply asked that time be taken so that the obstacles could, perhaps, be worked out.
One obstacle was William Compton, Eric’s best friend and cousin, as well as the Stackhouses’ neighbor. According to Corbett, William had—long before—accepted his father’s wishes that he eventually court Sookie, though his acceptance was obviously only out of duty and William had yet to make any clear overtures toward the young woman. Still, Michelle and Jessie had come to “an understanding,” and Corbett could not deny that aligning with the Comptons would solve some of the Stackhouse family’s financial issues.
In fact, Jessie had already shown Corbett plans for creating a canal system from the existing stream that ran through the Stackhouse and Compton properties. Such a system would allow Corbett to plant twice as much. Jessie had talked about shouldering the expense of the project “once their children were wed.”
And Jessie had also mentioned to Corbett that no dowry would be needed for Sookie, another arrangement he had made with Michelle. Of course, no dowry would be expected by the Northmans either.
However, strained relations between the Stackhouses and the Comptons would put an end to the plans for the canals. And dissention would also cause other problems, too.
Like some others in rural Louisiana, Corbett had chosen to free his people after he took over the Stackhouse plantation when his father, Earl, had died. More than fifteen years before, Corbett had offered his workers papers proclaiming that they owned themselves. He had also offered them free housing and a small wage if they would stay on and work for him; most of them had done just that. In addition, his people had no restrictions whether or not they could marry, and some of his workers had had families of their own. Of course, it helped that the workers all knew that Corbett would support them if they ever chose to travel to the North as free men and women, a course of action that several of them had decided upon over the years.
In addition, for more than a decade, Corbett had refused to support the practice of slavery by buying more people from the New Orleans slave traders, whom Corbett felt were the worst sort of human beings—if they could be called humans. This decision had agonized Corbett, who still rehashed it with Godric every time the two met. On the one hand, if he bought additional slaves, then he could free them, and they might choose to stay on to work for him. On the other hand, he would be perpetuating slavery if he did. So far, Corbett had stood firmly by his ideals for the greater good, but that meant he had not been able to increase—or even replenish—his workforce.
This fact and the payment of wages to his current employees had been the main causes of the decline of the family’s income. The Stackhouse plantation had always been a modest one, but with Corbett’s choices, the profits of the farm had certainly lessened, much to Michelle’s chagrin.
And then, of course, there was the stigma of Corbett’s choices. If the Stackhouses were to remain in the good graces of the community at large, their friendship with the Comptons needed to be retained. And a marriage between William and Sookie would ensure the alliance.
Additionally, Godric warned that Sookie would likely face prejudice in the North if she moved there at this point. The times were becoming more and more volatile, and Sookie’s Southern accent would stick out like a sore thumb. Moreover, the fact that her family had once owned slaves might make her a target for radicals in the Abolitionist movement.
That said, neither Godric nor Corbett had forbidden Eric and Sookie’s relationship—at least not outright. They had simply asked that the couple “take into consideration a variety of factors.”
They had also cautioned them against making their affections for each other known—not even to Pamela and William.
Sookie and Eric had agreed with their fathers—at least about the secrecy part. However, Sookie was determined to soften her mother’s heart to Eric’s attributes, and Eric was determined to figure out how to help the Stackhouses financially. Of course, the Northmans had enough money to just give some to the Stackhouses, but Corbett was a proud man, and he had denied loan offers from Godric many times throughout the years.
For the sake of secrecy, Sookie always wrote weekly letters not only to Eric, but also to Pamela, William, and Jason. And she received weekly letters from Eric and Pamela, as well as a biweekly letter from William—though Jason sent her one only every other month or so. Of course, her letters to Eric were different in nature from her ones she wrote to the others, but no one but Eric—and perhaps her father and Gran—knew that.
Otherwise, Sookie kept her feelings mostly to herself.
She quickly took her letters to her room and hid them under the mattress for later. However she could not resist the package, and—after closing her door—she ripped into the brown paper.
She gasped at the beauty of the locket inside the small box, and when she opened it to reveal the pictures, her heart leapt. During the Northmans’ last visit, a photographer had been commissioned to take some family pictures, and the Stackhouses had been invited to sit in some of the photos. In addition to a large group shot, she and Pamela had been photographed together, as had Eric and William.
Of course, it was the picture of Sookie’s beloved that drew her eyes. After a few minutes of staring at him, she closed the locket with a smile and put it on, though she hid it under her clothing. She could easily say that the locket was a gift from Pamela if her mother asked, and—since the pictures included Pamela and William as well—there would be no suspicion that it was a lover’s gift. However, Sookie figured that it would be best to discuss the matter with Gran before she wore the piece overtly.
Her decision made, Sookie took the rest of the mail to her father, who was in his study. As he often did in the mornings, he was going over his books. By afternoon, he would be working alongside his free laborers, hoeing the winter crops or making repairs to the out-buildings. His work had, thankfully, become easier to hide from his more “traditional” wife—given the fact that her illness left her in bed more than not; however, Corbett was careful to keep many things from her. She had enough problems with the fact that their people had been freed, though she continued to refer to them as “slaves” or “darkies,” both labels that Sookie detested.
Still, Sookie could not bring herself to outwardly challenge her mother, with whom she’d always had a complicated relationship. Especially since Michelle had become ill, Sookie had tried to be appeasing to her, making sure that she always presented herself with the utmost decorum in her mother’s presence.
With her father, she was able to be more herself.
Corbett smiled at his daughter. “Go ahead and shut the door,” he instructed.
Sookie did as he asked and brought him his letters. There was one from Godric.
Sookie put books back on the shelves and straightened up the room as her father read.
She sat down across from him when she heard his loud sigh, signaling that he was done reading.
“What is it, Papa?” she asked.
“More turmoil between the North and the South,” Corbett relayed after another sigh. “And bad news about Thomas.”
“Thomas?” Sookie asked, fear in her tone. Thomas had been one of their freed workers who had decided to go to the North. Given the Fugitive Slave Laws, even freed men with papers were often taken into custody or shot; thus, with Godric’s help, Corbett had arranged for Thomas to make his way north via the Underground Railroad.
“What happened?” she inquired nervously.
“He was shot,” Corbett sighed, his eyes scanning the letter again before he got up to throw it into the fire. Sookie knew that Godric wrote about such things in a code, but her father was still very cautious—which was understandable, given the times.
“Dear Lord!” Sookie exclaimed. “Where?”
“In the leg. In Kentucky,” Corbett responded, answering both questions she might have been asking. “The good news is that he made his way to Godric’s associates in West Virginia, and they got him patched up. Godric thinks it best to get him to Canada.” He breathed deeply. “Thomas will be okay, Sookie, but he had to kill the man who shot him—in order not to be captured and enslaved. Or murdered.”
“Dear God!” Sookie exclaimed.
The two were silent for a moment as Sookie took in the news. She was horrified by what had happened, but happy that Thomas would be okay and would soon be someplace where he could pursue his studies. Like the other free men and women on the Stackhouse estate, Thomas had been offered the chance to get some education. In fact, Gran held classes on reading, writing, and ciphering pretty much every day, and Sookie helped her. Of course, the classes were kept relatively secret, and the Stackhouse workers were discreet about their knowledge—mostly.
The only problem they had faced had come when old Mister Fortenberry, who was likely just as cruel to his people as the slaveholder in Miss Beecher Stowe’s book, learned that Thomas had offered to secretly teach one of the Fortenberry slaves.
Thankfully, Jessie Compton had acted as a mediator; otherwise, Mister Fortenberry likely would have insisted that Thomas be whipped! Sookie was not sure how the matter had been resolved. However, she did know that her father had asked their workers not to share their education with others after that. And Sookie was pretty sure that the incident had been what had encouraged Thomas to want to go to the North.
Sookie sighed. As free as their workers were, they were really only safe if they stayed tied to the Stackhouse land, for many of the other people in the area simply did not recognize them as free—let alone as equal. Sookie had learned from Tara just how difficult it was for the slightly older woman to know that others who looked like her were enslaved. Tara had been brought to America with her family when she was just a child, and she had no idea where her parents or brother were. However, some might call her “lucky.” Her cousin, Lafayette, had been with her family when they had been captured. And the two children had both been bought in New Orleans by Earl Stackhouse, Sookie’s grandfather. Corbett had tried to trace the rest of the family after he took over the plantation, but he had run into a dead end, and further inquiries would have been dangerous. Sookie only hoped that Tara and Lafayette might one day find their family.
Sookie’s shoulders drooped. “War is really coming—isn’t it?” she asked her father, who had also been lost in his thoughts.
Corbett frowned, but then nodded. “I think so.”
“It is going to tear us all apart,” she commented quietly.
Corbett looked at her, his blue eyes misting a little. “Yes,” he agreed. “It already has.”
“What do you mean?”
“Godric told me that he can no longer help me with investments in the North due to the pressures he is facing. And their trip down here this summer has been cancelled. It is just too dangerous for them, especially with the new baby.”
Sookie’s face fell at the news, but she kept herself from crying. Born two winters before, Willa had been a surprise child for Godric and Rose; of course, Pamela had thought she had won a prize when the child had been a girl. Pamela loved having a baby sister she could “dress up like a doll.”
“Eric may yet come with William,” Corbett tried to comfort her.
Sookie nodded. She had been anxiously awaiting Eric’s visit that summer, but she hoped now that he would stay away if the danger was too great.
“What will you do about the investments?” she asked, mustering her strength to change the topic.
“Godric suggests that I move my funds to the shipping industry; specifically, he believes I should invest in trade with the Caribbean.” Corbett sighed. “Godric ought not to have told me, but he believes that the North will try to cut us off from Europe should there be war. And he has seen advanced plans indicating that—if there is war—the Northern Navy will try to take control of the Eastern seaboard, the Mississippi River, and eventually the Gulf, too. Of course, any ships that I invest in now would likely be commandeered if a war did break out,” Corbett continued, shaking his head. “I just do not know what to do in this case.”
“They are already planning for a war?” Sookie gasped.
“I am sure that there are factions in the South doing the same,” Corbett conveyed honestly. “The Dred Scott case rattled the North and the Harper’s Ferry raid inflamed the South. And Southern hatred for Lincoln seems to be growing, rather than leveling off—as I had hoped it would. If Lincoln is elected next year . . . .” He stopped midsentence, though his implications were clear.
Sookie let out another gasp.
“You must not mention this—not to anyone,” Corbett cautioned a moment later. “It is wrong that I use you as a sounding board like this.”
“I am glad you do, and you know that I will say nothing.”
“I know,” he said confidently.
Sookie had long since been her father’s confidant. Jason had made the family proud, excelling at West Point. But he had never been the sharpest of tools. And he tended to sway with the wind, rather than have his own politics. Lately, that wind had been taking him more toward the side opposite of their father’s beliefs.
Corbett smiled at her, obviously ready to change the subject. “You got your letters?” he asked knowingly.
She mustered a smile in return.
“Then go and read them. And try not to worry about all of this. Things will happen, and we will all do our best to get through them. That is all we can do.”
She nodded and scurried to her room.