Romance-General Judith O'Brien Ashton's Bride

ISBN 13: 9780671871499

Ashton's Bride

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9780671871499: Ashton's Bride

Margaret Garnett, too tall, too smart, and much too much a Northerner, felt as if she were being watched from the moment she arrived to teach at Tennessee's Magnolia University. The feeling became a shivery chill when she moved into Rebel's Retreat, the historic cottage built by Confederate General Ashton Johnson. But the shock of seeing the general's portrait and recognizing him as the man of her most passionate fantasies left her with an eerie certainty-- that somehow his ghost was actually there. Soon Margaret was reading old letters and devouring every fact on the dashing Ashton, his engagement to a fickle beauty who may have been a spy, his death at the hands of a Union sharpshooter. But nothing prepared Margaret for the fever, the dizziness, and the shock of waking up in a vanished era-- in Ash's arms. Suddenly alive in a South of scorched earth and tears, she knew this was where she had always belonged... where she had been sent to alter the course of war itself, to embrace a destiny time could not stop and a love death could not deny...

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About the Author:

Judith O'Brian is the author of five previous highly acclaimed romances: To Marry a British Lord, Maiden Voyage, Once Upon a Rose, Ashton's Bride, and Rhapsody in Time. Along with Jude Deveraux and Judith McNaught, she was a contributor to the holiday story collection, A Gift of Love, with her delightful tale, "Five Golden Rings." Judith O'Brien lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her young son, and she is currently working on her next novel for Pocket Books.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Although she had fallen into a deep sleep, an unpleasant odor assaulted Margaret Garnett's nostrils. First, her nose twitched, then her mouth tugged into a grimace, and finally, her eyes opened, startled and blue.

Her face, even in distress, was more than pleasant. It was a wholesome face, slightly round, with neat features that were very close to pretty. She was not wearing makeup, but even without artificial enhancing Margaret had an all-American, Norman Rockwell sort of face. Her hair, light brown and straight, was cut into a sensible, no-nonsense page boy. She looked much younger than thirty, yet something in her eyes, a fleeting darkness that sometimes appeared, made her seem much older.

It had taken Margaret two full hours on the ancient bus to fall asleep, two long hours of trying to forget her ultimate destination, a place so remote and godforsaken that the only way to reach it was by car or by Rebel Line bus. This was not a journey to be made impulsively. It took extensive planning, since even old Rebel Line would only venture there once a week. Weather permitting.

And the way Margaret had been feeling lately, with moods so bleak that other New Yorkers passing her on the street urged her to cheer up, she didn't trust herself behind the wheel of a rental car. It would be too easy to turn around and flee -- to do a simple U-turn back to Nashville, hand in the car keys at the airport, and catch the next plane back to New York.

The stench that awakened Margaret was more powerful now, an aroma of salt and grease and something indefinable and animal-like. She turned her head around, the little piece of paper towel clipped to the headrest sticking to her hair.

A man in the seat behind her, the one with the green mesh baseball hat and low-slung belt, was happily munching on something from a cellophane bag. It rattled every time he dipped his reddened, moist fingers into the bag to retrieve a morsel. Earlier on the trip Margaret had watched as he chewed tobacco, explaining the worn patch on the back pocket of his jeans. It was circular, the exact shape of the red tin of snuff. At the time she had been curious about the Royal Crown Cola bottle in his hand. It kept on getting fuller, a dark line rising to the bottle neck. Then she realized, with open-mouthed horror, that he was using the bottle as a cuspidor, spitting tobacco juice into it as he chewed. It was at that point she decided to find refuge in sleep.

He gave her a lopsided grin and held the bag in her direction. Margaret didn't realize she had been staring at the man, but of course she had. Now she could see the writing on the bag -- Uncle Bo's Bar-be-que Flavor Pork Rinds. She shook her head and tried to smile, but only managed to bare her teeth. He shoved a crackling mouthful into his grin and nodded toward the window.

"Pretty country," he crunched.

Margaret glanced out of the window and had to admit he was right. They were beginning to wind up a twisty mountain road, and the ragged gray rock of the mountain was softened by patches of brilliantly colored flowers, wild and magnificent and unexpected. From the opposite window was a picture postcard view of the valley, the lush green of the grass, the weathered red of the rough-sided barns, vague outlines of split-rail fences marking property lines.

The bus groaned with the effort to climb the spiraling road, gears grinding madly with little result. They were traveling at a snail's pace, with the grating commotion of Le Mans.

Before reaching this stretch of road they had passed rustic farms and small towns with names like Muggin's Pass and Smileyville. It hardly seemed possible that this was the same America she had grown up in, the same country that had given the world New York and Chicago and San Francisco.

But this was different. This was the Deep South.

"Where you headed to?" It was the man with the green hat and pork rinds.

Margaret folded her hands on her lap and tried to sound cheerful. She was getting quite good at it, having had plenty of practice declaring her destination to her fellow graduate students at Columbia University in Manhattan.

"I am going to Magnolia University, a small, fully accredited liberal arts college located in the heart of the beautiful Smoky Mountains of Tennessee," she replied.

"Hey, ain't that something? So am I!" A fleck of pork product shot out of his mouth. Margaret tried to keep her face blank, but a sudden thought pierced her tortured mind. What if this man was a student? Or a professor of English? Or even a dean?

"You a student?" he asked.

"No. I'm going to be an associate professor of English literature."

He whistled, obviously impressed. This was the first positive response she'd had to her new position, and it was coming from a man with a mouth full of fried pig skin. Still, it was better than what she'd received from her pals at Columbia.

At first everyone thought she was joking, her peers who clutched envelopes containing plush job offers from Yale and Duke and Penn State. Margaret had been the star of her group, the only one whose doctoral dissertation was going to be published as a book. And this was her second Ph.D., the first being the one she earned right out of college in American history. That dissertation had also won praise. The topic had been on Sherman's march through Georgia during the Civil War, as told from Sherman's viewpoint. It, too, had been published, under the title He Did What He Had To.

Margaret's only failing had been in her procrastinating. Sure, she could whip off a publishable paper in a matter of days, could write a master's thesis in a few weeks. But when it came to real life, to balancing a checkbook or applying for a job, she was hopelessly, chronically late. When everyone else was applying for grants and teaching positions, Margaret ignored them, rationalizing that she wouldn't need a job for a year, so why rush? There were books to be read, wonderful historical facts to learn. Why get all bogged down with the boring details of real life when you can revel in the past?

Then suddenly it was spring, and everyone else had jobs, and Margaret had nothing but a stack of student loans to pay off and a forty-dollar advance from the university press that was publishing her dissertation.

A flurry of application writing was followed by a steady rain of carefully worded rejection letters, all stating that she would have been perfect, but the application arrived too late. All of the good positions were already filled.

So Margaret Garnett grabbed the only job she was offered at small Magnolia University. She knew the name of the school simply because it had been destroyed during the Civil War by a Union regiment from Massachusetts. As a native of Boston, Margaret had been especially proud to hail from the noble state that had tried to erase Magnolia University from the face of the earth. Unfortunately, they rebuilt.

It wasn't that she hated Magnolia University for itself. She had never been there, had never even seen a photograph of the place. Until she applied for a job there, she had scarcely been aware of its existence.

But now everything had changed. Magnolia University was a physical symbol of her worst failings. She herself was to blame for her predicament, for she was the one who waited too long to send in the stupid paperwork. Clever Margaret, brilliant Margaret, was forced to call mediocre Magnolia her employer. Margaret, who had always scorned anything southern, would be sharing her hard-won northern knowledge with a bunch of kids from south of the Mason-Dixon.

It was so outrageous, so unthinkable, it was almost as if the Confederacy had decided to avenge itself after her glowing dissertation on General Sherman. If that was the case, the South truly had the last laugh.

"I'm a local," said the man with the green hat, jolting Margaret out of her musings.

"A local what?" she asked without thinking. The man laughed, a deep chuckle that was, surprisingly, not unpleasant.

"Just a local, born and raised in the town of Magnolia. My daddy and my daddy's daddy worked here, and so do I, in the cafeteria." He said this with such obvious pleasure and pride that Margaret smiled.

"It's nice to meet you. I don't know anyone yet, just some voices on the phone. My name's Margaret Garnett."

"Good to meet you, too. I'm O.B. Willy Thaw, but everyone around here just calls me Willy."

"What an interesting name. What does the O.B. stand for?"

Again he laughed. "Don't know. It's been a family name for longer than anyone can remember, and my great-great-great whoever forgot to write it down. I suppose they never thought this far ahead. Anyway, we just ignore the O.B. most of the time."

He crumpled the empty bag and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. Suddenly he stood up, touched the ceiling of the bus, and sat right back down. He saw the wary expression on Margaret's face and raised his thick eyebrows.

"You probably wonder what I just did."

Margaret nodded slightly, a little worried now. She wondered if he had a psychological disorder, a strange syndrome that might compel him to do weird things, like fondle bus ceilings or abuse small animals.

"I just put back my angel."

Margaret's back straightened, and she glanced over to the bus driver. Could she get his attention in a hurry if she needed to? The bus was almost empty, so her only hope was the driver.

"It's a legend, you see," Willy continued. "They say Magnolia is just like heaven, so you don't need any special help from angels while you're there. But when you leave those old stone gates, better grab your angel, 'cause you might need it in the real world. So I just put back my angel, since we just passed the stone gates to Magnolia." He shrugged his shoulders. "I've been doing it so long now, I don't even think about it except when I'm with someone new to the mountain. It's kind of a nice story, isn't it?"

"Charming," she replied, wondering what other little bits of fantasy awaited her. Perhaps they all believed the South won the Civil War or that Magnolia University was actually considered an adequate place of learning.

Willy pushed up his cap, revealing a deep, reddened crevice on his forehead where his cap had fit too snugly.

"Here we are, Miss Garnett," he announced as the bus gave one last explosive rattle before wheezing to a halt.

With great apprehension, she turned her head to see out of the window, to view her new home. The other riders slumped off the bus, and Willy stood behind her, waiting for some sort of movement on her part. But Margaret was unable to move, transfixed by what she saw.

There seemed to be no actual town of Magnolia. In her mind she had pictured a little village of the Mayberry ilk, the only southern town she was familiar with, other than the nightmare hamlets created by William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. She had been secretly hoping for a Mayberry, a place with a wise and gentle sheriff and a large-bosomed Aunt Bea to bake lattice-topped pies.

Instead Margaret saw a store, a single store. The sign above it was hand-lettered, the first few words in red paint, the last in brown. It said Magnolia University Book Store/Post Office/Supermarket. In her mind she added, Bus Stop/International Airport/Cultural Center, and when she saw a well-dressed young man exit the store eating a candy bar, she slapped on Restaurant.

Willy was still waiting, shifting his weight from one leg to another. So she stood up.

"Holy sh -- uh, excuse me," Willy stammered.

Margaret looked down at Willy, sympathetic and amused. The poor guy. Little did he know when he offered her the pork rinds that she was six feet tall.

One would think that when a woman reached her full height of six feet by the age of fourteen, she would be accustomed to gapes and stares. But Margaret had never really adjusted. Even at the age of thirty, there was a secret corner of her mind that was used exclusively for thoughts of what it would be like to measure in at five foot three.

And even after all the years of basketball jokes and total strangers cupping their hands to their ears and asking how the weather was up there, she was still at a loss for how to prepare people for the initial shock. Perhaps when Willy first offered her a tidbit from his bag, she should have declined with a sweet smile and an explanation. "Pork rinds? No, thank you. I'm six feet tall."

When she accepted the job at Magnolia over the phone -- there been no time for an exchange of formal letters -- she should have said, "Although I'm clearly overqualified for the position of assistant professor of anything at your little school, I will gladly accept because I am six feet tall." And when her last boyfriend dumped her for a diminutive cocktail waitress, Margaret -- if she had any sense at all -- should have been more understanding. "Of course, dear. It's only natural that you would trade a two-year relationship based on mutual interests for a three-week fling with a girl who is almost half your age. Not to mention I'm six feet tall."

Willy, still gaping at Margaret, whistled through his teeth. "You sure are tall." He shook his head. Margaret laughed at his refreshing honesty. Most people would look embarrassed, hem and haw, then change the topic when they first realized how tall she was.

Margaret handed Willy his luggage, which was hanging in an overhead mesh shelf. He thanked her, and she pulled down her own meager luggage, two duffel bags and a PBS tote filled with books. The rest of her possessions were being shipped in the mail. She was beginning to wonder if the postal service, which, according to their advertisements, could locate a tent in Nepal, would be able to find Magnolia.

Willy offered to escort her to her new home, a cottage named Rebel's Retreat. She had a ten-month lease on the place for less money than the monthly rent for her apartment share at Columbia.

The bus screeched away the moment she stepped through the door, and she assumed the driver was as eager to leave Magnolia as Margaret was. The driver, however, did not have college loans to repay. He was a free man.

Since it was the end of August, a few students were milling about on campus. They were, without a doubt, the best-dressed group of college students she had ever seen. There were no torn jeans and bandannas, no pierced noses or leather jackets. At Columbia the students took pride in their grunge. This group looked like a Republican youth convention, or a retreat for unshakable Osmond fans. A vague fragrance of Ivory soap was detectable only when one of the students swept by.

Now that Margaret had a better view, she could also see that the university buildings were made of heavy Victorian stone, sprawling and squat at the same time. They were all of a uniform buff color, but each structure managed to maintain a unique character.

"Excuse me, are you Dr. Margaret Garnett?" A slender, middle-aged man stood before her, delicate features behind round, horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a blue blazer, a button-down oxford shirt, and neatly pressed khaki slacks, the ensemble of favor, she surmised, judging from the other males on campus.

He was a fe...

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