Inside the Grey
Brayden Wakefield is quickly losing faith that the encroaching hostilities will end peaceably. He and his neighbors, Fletcher Stedman and Royce Carlyle, seem to be in the minority in their belief that the war would not end in a few months. They sense any clash would be long and brutal. But their loyalty to one another supplants their reluctance, and they are drawn into the politics and atrocities to save their kidnapped comrade, Caleb Jenkins.
Nothing is as it seems, however. The gentlemen, turned raiders, squirrel behind enemy lines. Brayden uncovers lies and intrigue on both sides but as he and his fellow raiders execute their audacious plan, as they torch the layers of the conspiracy, Brayden finds love hidden among the ashes.
Release Date: December 1, 2020
Genre: Historical Romance
A White Satin Romance
Brayden Wakefield sat on the hill watching the horses graze. He felt rather ridiculous glued to that stump, the remnant of the tree he’d chopped to pieces the day after her death. His mouth pulled back into a mirthless grin, and he shook his head. The very spot was right in front of him, the dark depression staring up at him like an accusatory eye. He didn't want to return yet everyday here he sat with his toe digging in the dirt, flicking small pebbles out of the hole. He blew out a deep breath. He’d had his dreams once. Now he could state the exact day, the exact hour when he had gone from being cocky to confused.
An altercation in the pasture caused one of the mares to toss her head with a high-pitched squeal that sounded almost human. The sound ruthlessly took him back to that day, that hour. The muscles in his chest hardened to stone, encasing him in a breathless prison. The mare's screeching reminded him of Lavinia's screams when she had been bitten.
A thump on his back forced the muscles to relax, and Brayden gasped.
“So here you are, Bry. I should have known.”
Brayden didn't have to turn to know the speaker behind him. The gravelly voice belonged to his good friend and neighbor, Fletcher Stedman. Fletcher had been savagely knifed years ago. The attack had taken his voice and nearly his life. “It's been two years, Bry. It's time to let go. We've all had our tragedies.”
“No censure, Fletcher. Please, not today.”
Fletcher walked around to face him and slowly pulled off his gloves finger by finger. Brayden averted his gaze as he studied the legs of the two geldings whose reins were slung across Fletcher's arm. Fletcher's tall, black boots were clearly in view but the man casting the huge shadow remained silent.
Brayden finally raised his eyes. “Two years today, Fletcher.” Brayden clucked his tongue, yanked off his hat and ran a distracted hand back and forth through his hair.
“I know.” Fletcher took two giant steps to his saddle, returned with his crystal flask and handed it to Brayden. When Brayden refused, he flipped the silver top and shoved it back toward him. “Yes, Bry. You've probably been sitting on that stump long enough to blister your backside.”
Brayden drew in a quick breath to retort, but Fletcher grabbed his hand and slammed the flask into his palm.
“No, Bry, swill first, then mount. I'll listen to anything you have to say along the way. I'm starving. Perhaps you've forgotten you did invite my family to supper. I could only entertain everyone with my fiddle for so long. I began hunting when your chair remained empty, and I was dispatched to find you.”
Brayden nearly choked on his mouthful. “Fletcher, my humblest apologies. I don't know where my mind is these days.”
Fletcher smacked his shoulder as they mounted. “These days?”
Brayden dragged another long swig of the flask before handing it to Fletcher who slid it neatly into its cylindrical leather case along the saddle. “Touché.” He chirruped to his mount and the two galloped with purpose.
* * *
A bit later Brayden sighed as his hearty laughter subsided. The laughter felt good. There had been little of it in the years since his wife’s tragic death. Every day remorse shrouded him—haunting and profound—waiting for Fate to claim reparation. Still, the day had been salvaged, culminating with a sumptuous meal. This was an intimate gathering, these friends around his table: Fletcher, Kyndee and Trey. He had known Fletcher and his wife, Kyndee, since childhood and had grown to admire the third. Brayden and Fletcher were wealthy landowners, born of privilege but they had both been shattered by tragedy. It was those tragedies which had bonded them together as tightly as brothers. Trey was the spunky, rusty-haired godson of whom Caleb was extremely proud. Caleb, the stately attorney of their friends, had been unable to attend and had sent young Trey to steady any heated discussion.
He put down his fork and noted that the conversation around him had faded, even though he could still see the lips of his guests moving. As he surreptitiously rubbed his ear, he wondered why his hearing had suddenly failed him, why his ear seemed to be listening for a different sound. The hair on the back of his neck bristled and a peculiar sense of dread covered him like a miasmic cocoon.
With a smile pasted on his face, the host of the evening ran his palm along his hair in an effort to appear calm. Though the world around them was in turmoil after the attack on Fort Sumter, though their friends and neighbors were still arguing for or against the Union, whether or not the state had had the right to secede, the four of them were trying to concentrate on the blessings in their lives. Here they could shut out the chaos and celebrate the first birthday of Fletcher’s son, Tristan. But outside their properties was bedlam.
Abraham Lincoln had called for troops. The Confederate capital had been moved to Richmond; now all-out war loomed. Dear God, none of them was ready to face another war. They had all just managed to recover from their own private wars—scarred, broken and no one’s hero. The man knew, in the marrow of his bones, that a war between the states would prove to be no different. A confrontation wouldn’t be won in a few months as his neighbors boasted. Nothing of magnitude was ever achieved in short order; why did no one see that? Brayden needed no crystal ball to see conflagration and bloodshed—nations, states, counties, and families torn asunder, hemorrhaging with wounds that might never heal. Neither he nor the others was ready to be drawn into the world outside of their properties. They didn’t hate the Yankees; they just wanted peace.
No one else at the table seemed to be aware that he had suddenly withdrawn from the merriment. He felt the tension in the air before the sound of galloping hoof beats shattered the revelry like splintering glass. As apprehension slithered down his spine, as he silently prayed he was wrong, Fate arrived at his door.
Sage Jenkins burst through, trembling, disheveled, her face drawn and covered in tears. “They’ve taken him!”
Already on edge, Brayden was the first to jump from the table. He caught Sage before she fell. “Who? Who have they taken? Who are they?”
“Caleb! Union raiders have taken Caleb!”
“Caleb?” shouted the group as they scattered from the table and huddled around Sage.
Brayden grasped Sage by the shoulders. “How do you know they were with the Union? What would Federal raiders want with Caleb?”
“They—” Sage shook her head as if searching for words. “—they accused him of hiding a rebel convict!”
“But that’s absurd. Caleb isn’t hiding anyone.” Brayden turned toward the door. “I’ll ride into town and have Judge Winston straighten this out immediately.”
Sage ran after him. “It’s too late for that! They dragged him from the house. I followed them out of town until my mare couldn’t keep up. They said they intend to hang him!”
Union raiders! Bushwhackers unencumbered by superior orders! Caleb Jenkins, their friend, the quintessential gentleman and the smartest man they knew. Brayden Wakefield couldn’t halt the sudden boiling rage erupting inside him. God help him; God help them all. They could no longer remain neutral. The war had found them.
Fletcher and Kyndee Stedman shot across the room. When Sage wobbled, Fletcher pulled her into a chair. Her blonde hair was mussed, half fallen around her shoulders, and her hands were shaking. Kyndee offered her a goblet. Sage refused it but Kyndee insisted. The alcohol seemed to furnish a surge of strength.
“Tell us as much as you know, Sage.” The jagged scar stood out along Fletcher’s right cheek and neck. It seemed to darken with his obvious concern.
“Yes, Aunt Sage. We need to know everything...and fast,” agreed Trey.
Brayden drilled Caleb’s wife with his eyes, hoping to steady and calm her. “What do you mean they intend to hang him? Why? Sage, slow down and try to remember every detail. I need you to tell us everything.”
“There’s no more to tell and no time! Caleb heard the raiders shouting and breaking down the door. He had scarcely shoved me into the tunnel when they broke through the front.”
“How many were there?”
“I don’t know. I heard five, maybe six different voices in the room.” Sage pulled her hair from her face. “They beat him, Brayden!” She uttered a pitiful wail. “I heard them pounding on him. They were shouting that he was a traitor, that they would make him pay for what he did. I heard him groaning. It went on and on until I thought I would scream. The voices finally faded and then there was silence. When I was sure they’d left, I opened the tunnel door and saw the broken furniture with blood all over it.” Sage covered her eyes and rocked back and forth. “A bloody trail was smeared across the floor where they must have dragged him out. Oh, God...Caleb...Caleb!”
“Sweet mercy,” cried Kyndee as she pulled Sage into her arms.
Sage calmed and pulled away. “That’s when I took off through the tunnel to the stable and followed them but I lost them a few miles later, and I came straight here. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Were there more of them on the road?” queried Fletcher as he stepped closer.
“Yes, maybe ten or fifteen more.”
“Was one of the riders astride a large palomino?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“It sounds like Bickmore’s Raiders.”
“You know of them?” Sage grabbed Kyndee’s arm as if about to fall from the chair.
“Yes, from what I’ve heard, the band isn’t mustered into enlisted Federal service, they’re irregulars—"
“A band of guerrillas and marauders—basic outlaws,” added Brayden. “Yes, I heard the same about them.”
“Do you have any idea where they might be taking Caleb?” begged Sage. “They only need a tall tree to carry out their threat of hanging.”
Fletcher shook his head. “I don’t think so. If it was Bickmore’s Raiders who took him, they won’t hang him any time soon. He’s worth too much.”
“What do you mean?”
Brayden touched Sage’s shoulder. “Fletcher means that Caleb is worth more alive in ransom than dead and buried. We can only hope it was Bickmore’s handiwork tonight. Bickmore is a whore for money, and he needs a lot of it to support his quest for fame.”
“And if it wasn’t Bickmore?” Sage asked with tears welling in her eyes.
“Then God help him,” Fletcher muttered as he turned. “I heard they’re shipping off civilian prisoners to those camps...or worse.”
Brayden hoped Sage didn’t hear. He tried to warn Fletcher off but the other doggedly continued. “Dear God, I’d beg to be hanged rather than languish in the conditions there. We have to find him first. What’s our next move, Bry?”
“We’re going to need help to spread out and gather information as to where Bickmore camps and hides. If we can bribe a few local bushwhackers, I’m sure they will have valuable information we can use.”
“How do you know all this?” Fletcher queried, shoving his hands into his gloves.
“Just because I don’t want to be involved in the war doesn’t mean that I’m uninformed as to what’s happening around us.”
“Right. I’ll ride for Rush, Clive and Royce. I’m sure the others will want to join us when they hear that Caleb is in peril.”
“Rush, Clive and Royce might join you,” said Kyndee. “But Morgan and Dillon have enlisted.”
“What?” shouted Fletcher as he spun in the doorway. “When?”
“They left last week.”
“Fools.” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “They’ve marched off to get themselves killed.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Trey. “We showed our strength at Manassas.”
“Yes, we won but at what cost?” Brayden sighed. “That makes six of us if Rush, Clive, Royce and Gabriel ride with us.”
“I’m riding with you, too,” Sage interjected. “It’s my fault they took Caleb.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I hadn’t been feeling poorly, Caleb and I would have been here tonight instead of at home.”
“No, Sage. If those raiders wanted Caleb, it would have been only a matter of time until they would have captured him someplace else.”
“Don’t care.” Sage’s voice rose to a shrill shriek. “I’m still riding out with you.”
Trey stomped forward. “So am I.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not! If Aunt Sage goes, so do I,” Trey bellowed with arms akimbo, leaving no doubt as to his determination.
“Absolutely not!” shouted the other two men in unison.
Brayden turned to Sage, hoping to appeal to her rational nature. “Woman, have you no idea of the danger of the thing? We’re probably heading behind enemy lines.”
Sage approached him and gazed deeply into his eyes. “Brayden, Caleb is my husband and my life. I would ride headfirst into the bowels of the earth to find him.”
Brayden drew Sage into an embrace. “That very well may be where we have to go to rescue him.” He opened his arms and his eyes locked on hers. “But don’t you realize that if we’re captured—assuming they don’t kill us—the long road to prison will be the very least of your suffering. These are men who’ve been without the comforts of a woman for a very long time. Fletcher and I would be powerless to protect you.”
“I can take care of myself!”
“Oh, dear God,” muttered Fletcher as he shoved his hand through his hair. “Most of these renegades have been in the field for nearly a year. This whole idea is preposterous!”
“Yes, it’s preposterous,” Kyndee interjected. “I’ve been silent, listening to everyone jabber on while Caleb is out there, somewhere, in God only knows what condition and you’re wasting time arguing.”
“Nothing is settled!” the men shouted with force.
“It’s settled! No more discussion! You men ride for the others while I convince Sage and Trey that their riding with you would be more hardship than help.”
“Fletcher,” Brayden queried, “how did you and Caleb manage to marry the only two women of the world who are too smart and too brazen for their own good?”
His longtime friend rolled his eyes and pulled at his ear. “Don’t you mean for our own good?”
* * *
A short time later, Fletcher, Brayden and Royce burst through the door, flushed and breathing hard.
“Clive, Rush and Gabriel are all outside with fresh horses and supplies.” Brayden noticed that Sage and Trey were not in the room. “Did you convince them to stay?”
Kyndee inclined her head toward the stairs. “Sage collapsed, and I put her to bed. Trey gathered his things and stormed out. I think you needled his honor by refusing to allow him to go with you. He and Caleb are very close.”
Fletcher threw his arms in the air. “I...I...didn’t...I didn’t know what else to say.”
Brayden shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Neither did I,” he muttered. “Trey’s barely what? Twelve? Thirteen? We’d probably end up having to rescue him as well.”
“Just tell me you’ll find Caleb and bring yourselves back to me safely,” cried Kyndee as she ran to Fletcher’s arms. “I don’t want any of you to leave me, but I know you have to go.”
“Caleb would do no differently for any of us,” Brayden muttered.
The four of them hugged and kissed. Kyndee picked up her son as the others headed toward the door and the waiting horses.
Brayden watched Fletcher turn in the doorway with an agonized mien. The man seemed to savor one last look at Kyndee, his son, and his life. He and Brayden locked eyes. “For ten long years I fought to return to this home, swearing I would never leave again. The war apparently has other plans.”
Without malice, Brayden envied Fletcher. He, himself, had no one to leave behind and no love in his heart—the Moirai had seen to that. His young wife’s death had caused him to question everything since—from the bonds of marriage, to the sovereignty of the South to secede, to his possibly granting freedom and land rights to his dark-skinned servants now that his father had died. The freedom issue had been a constant, secret discussion shared only with the group seated at his table tonight. Now his time of retribution was at hand and until it tallied with his sin, there would be no other heart to share his own. He mastered, beautified, and preserved an estate for a life he no longer had. Yet he wondered why, like the others, he was reluctant to leave Avalon and the agonizing ghosts it held. With a shudder, the evening’s host clenched his fists and cast the bitter, throbbing memories aside. For now all else would have to wait. He and Fletcher were both survivors of needless tragedy. Brayden fervently hoped that this would not be another tragedy to be survived, not with the war just outside their midst. Caleb was the best of them. They had to find him; they had to.
* * *
Dawn was breaking, and they were preparing to break camp when Brayden heard a twig snap. He slapped Fletcher’s shoulder and jerked his head. The two of them drew their guns, and Fletcher darted sideways to circle behind.
“There are six barrels ready to cut you down so you’d best show yourself before we start plugging you full of holes,” Brayden yelled.
Trey stepped out from behind a tree. “Then you’d have to do some mighty fine explaining to Uncle Caleb when you find him.”
“You have a death wish, son? What were you thinking sneaking up on us like that?” Brayden roared.
Fletcher slapped his thigh. “I thought we settled it that you were to stay home.”
“You settled it. I didn’t!” Trey’s brows were furrowed with his hazel eyes glaring. “I wasn’t there to help Uncle Caleb when they captured him but I sure as blazes intend to help bring him home.”
“I offered to ride with you, Brayden, but I’m not riding with no whippersnapper,” snarled Gabriel. “He’ll slow us down and young’uns are just plum bad luck.”
“Your choice, Gabe, but Trey has the right to find Caleb,” Brayden answered as he stomped out the fire, “and even if I don’t agree with his being here, you know Trey can damn well outshoot you any day of the week. So either get back over there or back off because at this point, he’s riding with us.”
“Then I wish you well, but I just can’t go with you,” came Gabe’s retort as he mounted and turned his horse.
“Clive, Rush, Royce, you feel the same?” Fletcher asked as he approached. He pulled his gloves from his pocket and slapped them in his palm in clear irritation.
The other two wore hangdog faces but nodded.
With hands on his hips, Brayden froze in an imperious stance. “Then what’s it to be? We have a lot of ground to cover...and fast.”
“But,” Rush stated, “something tells me Caleb wouldn’t let anything stand in his way if the roles were reversed, so I’ll ride with you until we find him.”
“Me, too,” added Clive. “But as soon as we find him—” He shot a glance directly at Trey. “—one way or the other, I’m heading out.”
Brayden tipped his hat. “Appreciate the help.” He turned and called to the other one. “Just so you know, Gabe, no hard feelings.”
Gabe cast him a terse nod and cantered into the dark.
“Anything else need settling before we ride out?” Brayden asked with an irritated undertone. Receiving no response, he mounted. Though a mite shorter than Fletcher, he looked every bit an impressive force astride his gelding. “Gentlemen, let’s ride.”
With his charcoal hair streaked in pewter, Brayden Wakefield looked the senior of the group though, with the exception of Trey, he was younger than the other four who rode beside him into the night. During the past years the greedy Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, had etched his sin into his face and hair for all to see. An animal in the woods squealed as if captured. Did the same fate await them? Brayden sucked in a deep breath and urged his gelding forward. He and Fletcher were followed by the newest rider of the group, tailed by Rush, Royce and Clive taking up the drag. The six of them were bonded in their cause and their loyalty to their kidnapped comrade, Caleb Jenkins.