“I was born under a curse.”
Adrien had been told how beautiful he was ever since he was a baby, which was okay for a baby, but disgusting for a grown fellow. Trouble was, he was worth nothing on the inside, considering all the awful things he’d done, like not saving his maman, getting a young slave sent down the river, and nearly ruining the reputation of his best friend’s sister. To say nothing of having indecent proclivities. His first experience in love was with one of his papa’s slaves. Being with her was wrong, no matter she was two years older and the idea was hers. He used her to prove himself a man because of what had happened with his best friend’s older brother, and that was his own fault.
Which was one reason why he joined the 8th Texas and went to war. Maybe he could be of some use to the Confederacy. Or a Yankee ball would find him and end his miserable existence.
- * * *
He was oblivious of the curse the June day his journey into degradation shot forward like a leaf above a waterfall—no retreat. He should never have returned to Hartwood Plantation. Had sworn to himself he wouldn’t. But he had never been able refuse his sister. And the Hart picnic celebrated the return of the two youngest members of the Hartwood clan–the same two Adrien and his sister had grown up with.
It had been years—four, to be exact—since the incident. Adrien though of it as “the incident,” would not consider any closer detail than that. Could not. If he went back there, if he saw . . . the man, how would he feel? Would it show? Would he do something to reveal what had happened?
“Adrien, is that you? Come here. Help me, please?”
His sister summoned him. He had thought an early morning ride would settle his nerves. Rambling over Blue Hills among oaks, meandering creeks and rolling hills often had the effect of bringing his problems into perspective. Hoping for respite, he had dallied longer than he meant.
A glance at the grandfather clock in the hall told him he was late.
* * *
Bernadette called from the second floor, rather more loudly than she should for a genteel lady of nearly eighteen. She had never been one for quiet, soft feminine behavior—certainly not with her brother. Besides, she was miffed he was late.
He came bounding up the stairs and into her room. He was hot, sweaty and smelly, this morning of all mornings, after he had promised to take her to the Hart picnic.
She stood before the mirror, both hands in her black hair, holding the fractious curls. “Would you hold this up? I need more than two hands, and Betta is busy, as usual. Are your hands clean? At least your fingers?”
He stood behind her, licked two fingers of his right hand, rubbed them on the front of his chambray shirt and carefully pressed the place where she pointed. She saw him in shadow peering over her shoulder into the mirror—wild black hair frosted with dust, an angled cheek bone, a spark from a pupil. The top of her head reached to his chin. Drat. She could never stay angry at him for long. Certainly not when he gave her his complete attention, as he always did once in her presence.
“How lovely you are this morning, all mint green and fresh.” His diction was more perfect than usual, like one of those stage actors—he was posing, trying to get by her.
“You smell like horse,” she said.
“Do not play your dissembling game with me, you lump. You know very well today is the Hart picnic, and you had better wash and change if you are going to escort me—as you promised.”
“Oh Lord, I forgot.” He planted a kiss on her head and withdrew his fingers from her curls.
She turned. He forgot. Ha. “You are an excellent hair-holder, but a rather poor brother. If I left my future to you and Papa, I would never be a bride. I must strut my wares before the wealthy and influential like one of the finest fillies in the county, or else you may be stuck with me until I am an old maid.”
“How you talk. Being unmarried is your own fault for having turned away so many suitors.”
Young men came from all over the county and spent hours in the parlor talking, talking, saying little or nothing. Adrien played chaperon, for the foolish boys preferred him to Papa, believing him easier. None had counted on her being the most difficult to impress. “You liked them no more than I.”
“Correct,” he said with a grin. “You will surely be too old in July when you turn eighteen.” He ducked as she swatted at him with a fan grabbed from the table.
She tapped the fan against her palm. “I am looking for someone as charmingly aggravating as my brother.”
Their conventional older brother? Hardly, and he knew it. She pushed him, and he so slack as to let her. “You are worse than some fancy woman seeking compliments. If I did not love you so, I would . . . would—”
“Would what? And what do you now of fancy women? They aren’t all like those books you’ve read, you know.”
“I would turn you over my knee and give you a good switching.” She put her hand up to her mouth and laughed. Laughed harder at the look on his surprised face. “Oh my, I am picturing that. And look at you. Oh, Adrien, wouldn’t such a thing be funny?”
“Not to me.”
“Oh dear. I don’t know why such thoughts come over me. Of course I would never do such a thing. It’s just that sometimes you truly are aggravating, yet I do love you so. And I worry. I suppose I worry for Maman as well as myself.” She saw how he looked at her and attempted to change the two subjects he took pains to avoid discussing—Maman and himself.
She turned away to the bed and lifted a tasseled silk shawl. “You did not forget about the picnic because Will has come home.” She faced him, the shawl dangling in a fist at her chest. “Do you mind so very much? Is that it?” It was unfair that her intelligent brother, so desirous of higher education, had to sweat in tobacco fields and chase cows while Will, who could care less, had been able to complete his education in England and France.
“I do not begrudge Will his good fortune.” His brows lifted, his eyes turned mischievous. “But I would miss your amusing presence if you married some poor soul.”
She touched his tan cheek with finger tips, and placed a quick kiss there. Likely she depended on him far too much, on his unassuming virility, his strong yet gentle hands that smelled of dog or horse as often as lemon soap. He had turned melancholy when her servant, Grace, was sold away, more so since his education at Centenary College had been suspended. She found herself doing almost anything to make him smile.
“Lily has also come home,” she said. He had unmercifully teased poor little Lily.
“Lily is a child.”
“She is sixteen.”
He ambled over to the doorway and stopped to look back over his shoulder, a hint of humor in his voice. “A sixteen-year-old child.”
“Go wash, or we will be late.”
* * *
Adrien kept a light hand on the reins as their two-wheeled shay passed swiftly over the grassy road between expanding white fields of Hartwood cotton. A good deal of East Texas was planted in cotton, but for Blue Hills, where his papa grew tobacco much prized by their neighbors as well as buyers farther east. Papa’s Kentucky-bred mare pulled them along at a fast pace, her high trot a little too fast for easy conversation, for which he was grateful. He would have enjoyed the ride but for their destination, and his thoughts churned like the Brazos at flood.
Over a rise in the distance amid green grass and oaks stood the Greek Revival house, a rectangular edifice whiter yet than the cotton and outbuildings that surrounded her. Adrien’s heart gave a thud.
The drive made a grand circle around front and around back to the side yard where the other carriages were parked beneath a copse of oaks. He couldn’t help but glance at the stables as they passed. The stables looked the same. Everything looked the same. Saliva filled his mouth and he swallowed several times.
He had hoped to slip in quietly, but Papa’s mare made an unavoidable entrance—head, tail and legs lifted high as she trotted across the lawn as though the shay she pulled were a feather. One of Hartwood’s Negroes took her head as Adrien secured the reins, hopped down and presented a hand to Berni, who was ready to burst with mirth by her grin and the twinkle in her eyes.
“My,” she said, “I had no idea.”
“You didn’t, did you? Whose idea was it to hitch up Fair Melody?”
He wouldn’t be surprised if their overseer were behind this. Marcus Holland had never cared for Randolph Hart, and was always looking for ways to indicate that Adrien’s father was the better man—had a finer plantation, finer horses, and happier and healthier Negroes—the last was easily proved.
No help for it now. He gave Berni his arm and escorted her across the lawn toward the house and gathering of local gentry. A number of onlookers were smiling their way. “You must admit,” she said, “the ride over was rather exciting. You were enjoying it.”
“I expected her to settle down by the time we got here.”
“Rather the opposite, don’t you think? One would suppose she, rather than I, hoped to catch a suitor today.” Berni flipped her fan open to cover her smiling mouth, but not her flashing eyes.
Randolph Hart had built a Grecian Revival home on the Brazos River that was likely the envy of half the people in the county. Ten two-story columns surrounded the house in support of the veranda, where the picnic was taking place on the shadier, north side. Adrien had begun to think he might get through this whole thing fine as long as he kept moving and speaking as though everything was fine. Was not that what Maman taught him? Always behave as a gentleman should.
Then he saw him coming toward them over the grass. Breath went out. Everything around him receded, even sound. He had to get hold of himself.
* * *
Jacob Hart had been on the lawn meeting and greeting since the first carriage arrived over an hour past. As eldest and heir, playing host was his job when the old rooster had not yet deigned to present himself. Probably up there having a last cigar, overseeing his kingdom or some such. Let him. Not too many more years and it would be Jacob’s turn to rule the roost.
The old fool. Like those steamboats, his time is nearly past, and he doesn’t even know it. Jacob had warned Randolph Hart and his political cronies of the importance of the railroad, but they hadn’t listened. Well, now those fossils regret it. Washington is sinking fast in Brenham’s rising wake.
Jacob remembered, always would, the last time his father beat him with his fists, the same day Randolph had slapped Jacob’s mother against one of the posts of their four-poster bed. Jacob had been fourteen and nearly as tall as his father. He had sworn he would do the same to Randolph one day, only he never had. Lucretia Hart was where his father could no longer harm her, gone in the yellow fever that killed so many others in the summer of 1853. Jacob had grown smarter as well as taller. There was more than one way to skin a cat.
He made his way across the lawn to greet Adrien and Bernadette, and what a pair they made. If he could have waited for Bernadette to grow up, he would have, despite all the trouble she might have given him. And Adrien, absent since Jacob overstepped himself and ruined everything. That business was possibly the biggest mistake he had ever made. He had let his emotions get the best of him, and he was determined such a thing would never happen again. At six one, he was gratifyingly taller than Adrien—it would never have done to look up at the boy. He gave him a sly smile before bending from the waist and taking Bernadette’s hand.
“My, but you are lovelier every time I see you. I almost wish I were yet unmarried.”
“You always had a velvet tongue, Jacob.” She smiled and retrieved her hand.
Jacob turned, somehow managed to stand even taller, cocked one knee, the picture of southern manhood.
“Hello, Adrien. You haven’t been around in years. I don’t believe we’ve seen you since before you left for that college—Center something, wasn’t it?”
“Centenary.” Adrien had straightened as well, weight equal on both feet, chest and chin slightly raised, eyes narrowed and bright.
God, look at him. Must be eighteen. It was beneath him to bait the boy, but he couldn’t help himself. “Of course, Centenary. Our local Baylor unworthy. I suppose you’re a man now, aren’t you?” he said, raising a brow.
“I don’t need two children to prove it.”
Ho. He’s developed a sharp tongue as well as a man’s frame and height.
“Must you two bicker?” Bernadette tapped Jacob with her closed fan on his upper arm, moved forward and took Adrien’s forearm in both hands. “We were such devoted friends. When we were children you were as a dear older brother to us, like Lucien.”
“You are right, my dear. I apologize. William and Lily will want to see you; come up to the veranda.” He gave her his arm. I was never like Lucien, who paid as little attention to his siblings as did their father.
* * *
Adrien let Jacob maneuver Berni from his arm. She could scarcely walk between them, as space had to be allowed for her ballooning skirts. Hands clasped behind his back, he followed like a skiff in the wake of a grand ship. His fear and anger subsided, considering the picture she made, the glances she received from the young and old men they passed. She was, by far, the most lovely young lady here. He must look at Berni, not Jacob. He had made it through the introduction, he could make it through the rest, despite feeling as weak as a mouse between the paws of their house cat.
They climbed the three freshly white-washed steps of the veranda and turned left beneath welcome shade. Who was that rising off the porch swing beyond the well-groomed shoulders of so many gentlemen—a glorious smile of rosy lips and flushed cheeks, and wide welcoming eyes? Her face was lit with expectation.
“Berni! Oh, Berni!”
Lily? Silly, little Lily? Glistening sapphire eyes were too soon lost behind his sister’s ebony curls.
“I have missed you so.” Lily’s hands grasped his sister’s.
“Not as much as I have missed you. Look how beautiful you have become,” Berni said.
“Look at you! Oh, Berni, we must find time to ourselves and catch up.”
“Yes.” Berni leaned closer, whispered, and they giggled like children. Adrien hadn’t heard his sister giggle like that since before Lily left.
Lily glanced up, past Berni’s ruffled shoulder. Their eyes caught. “Adrien.” Her face softened, the smile fled, returned, only differently. His chest tightened. “It’s you,” she said, her voice a butterfly’s flutter that nearly blew him over. This can’t be.
Berni slipped aside, and he and Lily moved toward one another. He took her hand, such a tiny hand. He raised her hand to his lips. Warm, soft, graceful fingers. He smelled . . . apricots. He looked into her blue eyes. “Lily.” He held her hand, only inches from his mouth. Her mouth opened a little. The corner of one of her front teeth was chipped. He wanted to touch the place with his tongue. Dear God. “Your tooth.”
“Oh. That.” Her lips widened.
He lifted his thumb only a little, and her hand slipped away. His hand hung singularly suspended, before slowly dropping to his side.
“I fell from a horse. Aunt Willa was furious. She was mostly frightened, I think. Proper ladies do not go fox hunting, not at jumps, anyway.”
“I imagine you were glorious.”
“Falling from my horse?”
He lowered his head. God, had he said that? A burst of breath, surely heat was not climbing his neck. “Jumping. On horseback, I mean.”
“I’ve enjoyed letting you make a fool of yourself over my sister, Adrien, but I must put any critter out of its misery whenever the situation calls for it.” Yanked back to reality like a horse with a bit in its teeth, Adrien had forgotten about Jacob, who stood between Lily and Berni.
“My goodness.” It was Berni. Stepping in front of Jacob, her hems smothering Jacob’s boots on one side and Adrien’s on the other, she took Adrien’s arm and one of Lily’s. “I am melting of thirst. Shall we fetch glasses of Callie’s famous punch?” The three of them were moving off before Adrien could open his mouth.
Adrien could picture Jacob left behind, expected the man at any moment to come forward, make some comment, some gesture, but he did not. Adrien’s admiration for his sister went up a notch. Whatever fellow won her for a wife had better look out. Had better be worth her.
Not so easy to make their way between their gentleman neighbors, all vying for the attentions of two such lovely young ladies. One more boisterous than the rest sidestepped his fellows and laughingly armed his way to them.
“Excuse me, if y’all don’t mind, I’d like to remake the reacquaintance of an old friend and his lovely sister whom I’ve not seen for years. Holy Ghost, Bernadette, if I’d known how beautiful you had become, I would not have stayed away so long.” He flashed a smile from beneath sparkling eyes that matched his sister’s. Blond sideburns draped his cheeks in the latest fashion.
“William,” Berni smiled, holding out both her hands. “It appears you have become a French gentleman. I’ll warrant you had all the ladies in a tither.”
He bent low and brought both her hands to his lips. “Not a one compared to you.”
She laughed, lifted her hands and swung to Adrien and Lily. “Hear what those French folks have done to our William!” She turned back to him. “Come here and give me a proper hug, you fop.”
A second of surprise registered on William’s face, then relief. Then they were in one another’s arms, and he lifted her off the ground, set her down, again grasped both her hands and smiled so big, a dimple showed in his cheek. “Ah, Berni, now I really feel I have come home.” He gazed at her almost uncomfortably long, then turned, “Adrien.”
“Welcome home, Will.” His childhood friend has become a young man. Only four years since they and Adrien’s coonhound had gone hunting and trapping frogs, squirrels and rabbits for cook’s stewpot?
They clasped one another’s elbows, then hugged with hard pats on the back. William gave Adrien’s solar plexus a short punch. “You’re hard as a field hand. Father said you’ve been working alongside your people. You had to leave school.”
Of course, Randolph Hart would have brought that up. “Yes. Papa had to sell some of our land and our people after ’57. These things happen as stocks are always a risk, but we kept the finest acreage that produced the best leaf.” The Panic happened mostly up North, to Northerners. He was repeating what Papa said. Defending. He should not have to. Not to Will.
“Most of us here were lucky,” Will said.
“Yes, lucky.” Smarter than Papa is what he means. We should have kept to our own and not meddled in northern stocks.
Lily took Adrien’s arm, sending a warm surge through him.“Let’s go sit under the oaks like old times. I’ll send Mae for a blanket, and we can take our drinks and eatables out there, enjoy a real picnic.”
“I don’t believe your father will approve,” Berni said. Randolph Hart was approaching from the far end of the veranda, and he was dragging along Lawrence Dobbs, heir to a cotton plantation further south.
Adrien felt Lily’s right hand slip away from his forearm as she held it out for the introduction to young Dobbs. It was clear from the way Randolph Hart ignored him that he was not meant to be here, certainly not in the way he had been accepted by Mrs. Hart years ago. Since the loss of half of what they owned and the abrupt end of his education, he now had nothing to bring to anyone such as Lily.
He has known her since they were children, and only now seen the woman she has become. Life, in all its glory, has played this little joke on him. He wanted to walk away from so much display and pretense. Instead, he remained tenuously present and folded his arms, watching her, curling his toes within his boots.
He was left with Berni and Will.
“We can still have our picnic,” Will said. “Go on over, and I’ll get a blanket and victuals, and Lily, if I can manage to rescue her.”
“Please do,” Berni said. “From the look on her face, I believe she would rather be with us.”
“Never fear, I see the mayor arriving, and that will take care of Father. The local bachelors will be easy to handle.” Will snatched Berni’s hand once more and kissed her fingers prior to making his way across the grass and past the well-wishers.
“Come, sister.” Adrien took her hand and tucked her arm under his. He guided her toward the shade of one of the oak trees at the opposite end of the yard from which a tattered rope hung. He wondered when the other rope broke and the seat disappeared, and recalled once swinging high in an attempt to reach the leaves. Berni grabbed onto the rope with both hands and, keeping her feet in one place, leaned back on stretched arms and swung in a circle.
“It seems so long ago,” she said, spinning the opposite direction.
“Nearly half our lifetimes,” Adrien said, his back against the trunk, bending a knee and resting his booted foot on the bark. He peered up through the branches. “It is still as big as I remembered. Most things are smaller.”
“The tree keeps growing like we do, Adrien.”
“You think so?”
She sighed, stood straight and let go the rope, flung it around behind. “You have taken notice of Lily.”
He pushed from the tree and flopped down onto the grass, arms around his knees. “I made a fool of myself, didn’t I.” No question, that, for something so obvious.
She sunk straight down, her skirts billowing about her like some grand blossoming daisy. “You were so sweet,” she grinned. “It is usually girls making fools of themselves over you.”
Adrien clasped one hand in the other, weaving his fingers. “I am not sweet.” He frowned. “Sweet is . . . unmanly.”
She pushed her skirts down and away to reach over and place her hand on his. “You are being touchy again. I was afraid you would grow up to be like all the other young oafs hereabouts, but you have remained considerate and sensitive.” She smiled. “Though perhaps a might too sensitive at times. You see us women not as above you one moment and below you the next, but as equal to yourself, and that is everything.”
He leaned back on his arms. “Ah, so that is why I am deficient in the eyes of my fellows.”
She enfolded her skirts and lifted her chin. “They are jealous of the attention you receive.”
“Who’s jealous, of what?” Will arrived behind her, an armful of blanket and wicker basket.
“Of you, Will. For you will have the attention of my sister the entire afternoon.”
“I pray it be so. Get up, lazybones, and help me lay this blanket before she gets grass stains on her pretty dress. I’m afraid I couldn’t get Lily away, after all. Father was insistent she entertain the gentlemen and, with Jacob backing him up, we didn’t have a chance.”
“Then I shall have to come and visit another time,” Berni said, “when she and I may retaliate by indulging ourselves in gossip of spoiled Texas boys.”
“Not me and Will, I hope,” Adrien said.
She took his chin in her gloved hand. “Of course we shall speak of you, as well you know. You may no longer be wealthy, but I am certain you have been spoiled.” Her mouth was serious, but her eyes laughed.
Where was his clever response, his usual artful repartee? He could only see that lovely girl, her eager blue eyes, her hopeful smile, that dear, chipped tooth.