Authors: Hope Denney,Linda Au
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance
“I hoped things would work out for Joseph. I’ve thought the love of a good woman might help to ease his burdens since he left New York. I was ill with grief when I married your papa, and I think his care was all that got me through Theodore’s death.”
Somerset latched onto the conversation. Blanche seldom brought up those painful early days.
“Do you ever hear from Uncle David? It’s been the longest time since you mentioned him.”
“David? He lives in Richmond with all the rest of the Marshalls.”
“I’ve never met him.”
“You haven’t? Well, David is different. He keeps to himself a bit more than most of the family. He must take a bit more after Mother’s side, reserved. David also puts me a little in mind of our Joseph. He wants to be part of the picture, just not necessarily in it, so to speak. He distanced himself after dear Theodore drowned. He’s independent, intelligent, and has too much wit. He owns banks in Richmond.”
“Do you ever see him?”
“We cross paths sometimes when I visit Virginia.” Blanche put her cup down again. “Somerset, I plan on taking a trip home soon. I meant to go earlier in the year but Joseph’s unfortunate accident delayed me. I think it’s the perfect time for you and me to make a long visit.”
“Yes. Mother is failing fast and I should check in on her more often than I do in these fragile days. You like Richmond, don’t you?”
“Not as well as I like the Manor,” said Somerset.
“Ah, well. We were just at the Manor last summer. We have plenty of time to summer there but not many seasons left to honor your grandmother.”
“I should stay and nurse Joseph. I’m the only family member with nursing experience. Dr. Harlow says it’s touch and go. He might become septic at any time. He isn’t dependable about cleaning the wounds.”
“He’s well enough that you can show Cleo or Bess how to manage.”
Somerset sat in her chair with the sensation of smothering. She looked out the window and predicted the direction the conversation was about to take. She had no recourse. She dug her fingernails into the hard shiny leather of the armrests and counted in her head to try to calm herself. When she looked back at Blanche, her mother was smiling in a relaxed manner, the picture of tranquility.
“Let’s talk more about it, dear. I think you’ll like what I have to say.”
Somerset said nothing.
“I don’t just worry about Joseph. I worry about you as well,” continued Blanche in a friendly, conspiratorial tone. “I think it’s high time we put you in the path of some gentleman who has the means to give you the life you dream of having. Richmond is full of young men who are showing promise in their careers and most have breeding like yours. You’re twenty-three, Somerset.”
“I know my age, Mother.”
“Well, people are starting to talk. Here you sit in all your beauty without a husband to speak of. We can get you married, sweetheart. You won’t have to be lonely a day longer.”
“I’m not lonely, I promise. I have Ivy, Joseph, and Victoria to keep me company, and I’m so busy minding the kitchen and the rest of Orchard Rest that I never have a moment to think of being lonely.”
“Don’t you think I know that? You’ve been terribly busy doing your part to keep this ramshackle old place up and running, and we love you for it. Still, wouldn’t it be nice to have a grand house with plenty of servants and help while you organized luncheons and committee meetings with your friends?”
“I’ve gotten used to the way things are. I’m content. I like hosting dinners for our neighbors, and I’m gaining skill at making all of our clothing. I may nurse again. Who knows? I know you don’t understand, but there’s something to working with others. There’s a whole world beyond Orchard Rest.”
Blanche looked at her with a mixed expression as if she didn’t know whether to believe Somerset or whether she should be angry that Somerset wasn’t dying to be the subject of matchmaking in one of the greatest cities in the country.
“Nursing.” Blanche waved her hand and dismissed the idea.
Blanche crossed the parlor and removed the gilt mirror beside the hat rack. She brought it over to Somerset and, standing behind her, she held it in front of her face so they could both see.
“Look at your face,” she said. “There was a time in my life where I would have done anything to have a face like yours, and I was recognized as an outstanding beauty. Helen could have gotten by nicely if she only resembled you in passing. You inherited everything worth having from the Marshalls and Forrests. Look at those wide blue eyes. Look at those high slanting cheekbones and that full red mouth. I’ve never seen such a smile when you really mean it, but you’re twenty-three years old. Your looks will fade soon. You can’t stay hidden here in the country and become an old maid, Somerset. Times have changed but our people haven’t.”
Somerset closed her eyes so that Blanche would take away the looking glass.
“You changed,” she retorted. “You lost the family member you love most and you changed. You got married and moved here to the middle of nowhere. Until all of your children came of age, you were happy, too.”
“I did. I did what was best for me at the time instead of looking at the big picture. I should have listened to Mother. She was harsh but correct about these things, and you need to listen to me about them. There isn’t anyone left in Century Grove who can give you adequate prospects or you’d be engaged by now.”
Somerset didn’t know which direction to take the argument. She couldn’t say she was engaged. She hadn’t spoken alone with Sawyer in weeks. Bringing up the subject of her engagement would only serve to embroil her in matters further. The only thing she knew to do was to go to Sawyer and tell him how Blanche planned to take her to Richmond to find a husband. She didn’t think it would change anything. Sawyer would be relieved that he wasn’t throwing her over, that she had other chances awaiting her.
Blanche looked her over, curiosity waking in her eyes.
“You have some suitors, I’ve noticed. Are you spoken for?”
“No. I do care for one of them, though.”
“Who is it?”
“It doesn’t matter, Mother. If I’m not spoken for, it doesn’t amount to anything.”
“Don’t only think of yourself, child. Think of your family. If you make the right match, we’ll all grow old in comfort and style.”
“I wish you wouldn’t look as if I’m trying to punish you. I’m trying to give you a great gift. I want all of my daughters to be well taken care of. I don’t want you to know empty stomachs again or wear makeshift dresses for the rest of your lives. I want you to luxuriate in finery.”
Somerset grasped the only rebuttal she could.
“You say you want all of your daughters to be well taken care of. What about Victoria? If I stay here where most people know or have guessed the truth, most any husband I choose would let her and Warren come live with us. That isn’t so in Richmond. You couldn’t even bring yourself to write home about Warren. They don’t know he exists! What are we going to say about him there? That he’s yours? If he was yours, you would have written family about him. They’ll just think it odd that you had a baby and didn’t tell them. Victoria is never going to leave him no matter how much you wish he is your son. I have to think of her before I think of myself in this matter.”
Blanche’s face went ivory under the heavy waves of thick blond hair, and Somerset steeled herself against a verbal attack or a slap.
“That’s true,” she acknowledged. “I’m going to have to make a new plan in order to take care of her. Somerset, women have been having babies since the dawn of time, and that makes babies easy to explain away. People accept falsehoods when they don’t want to embrace the truth. If I can’t buy her a husband here, I can send her west to get one. Westerners aren’t fastidious about the details as we are, but maybe it won’t come to that situation. If you make a successful marriage, I can afford her with a nice enough dowry that someone here will take her and Warren—maybe a widower. She’s a pretty girl, young and sweet. It won’t be as hard as you worry it will be if we both apply ourselves.”
“Mother, I wish you’d leave well enough alone. It’s too much pressure to have the hopes of the entire family riding on my marriage. If you miss Richmond life, why don’t we just go back and visit more? You could be part of it all again if you made your presence felt.”
“No, I’ve been gone too long. People like to admire me from afar, but they don’t actually want to let me into their sacred clubs and teas. Thomas still doesn’t care for Richmond, and for all I know, his mother is still alive there. You have a chance, though, to get everything you’ve ever wanted, and I’m going to help you get it. I’m going to take care of Victoria, don’t worry. It shouldn’t matter so much to you if you have no attachments here, Somerset. You’re so resistant to my ideas that I can’t help but wonder.”
Somerset felt a headache coming on. Her temples throbbed, and she felt her pulse flickering like a rattlesnake’s tail as she shifted in her chair. There was no escaping the constant demands, the relentless pursuit to be more than she was, and the promise of tedium over a wave of long, dull years. The argument was constant: she was beautiful, but she was growing old and needed to secure a position before her chances were lost. It never ended, this need to be the best at everything, to trump everyone when there was nothing left to surpass because they were all broke. She was tired of tradition and the notion that she must live up to the Manor, the Marshalls, the Grove, Theodore, and Richmond.
“Don’t you ever get tired of wanting more?” she asked. “It’s tiresome, this always striving to be the best. You’ve come full circle, Mother. You left Richmond for Baton Rouge and then you wound up in the Grove, only to miss Richmond after all, so you’re sending me to conquer it for you. I pity you. Have you ever done anything in your life without wondering how it looked to someone else? Do you know what it is to do something as simple as genuinely smile or laugh without trying to see it through another person’s eyes? I feel exhausted for you.
“I miss Eric so. His death changed my whole world. He was the most perceptive man I ever met. He saw me and valued me for what I am, but it went far beyond that, Mother. He was able to sense the tension in this house. He felt sorry for me. He wasn’t marrying me out of pity. He thought I’d be a suitable wife to him, someone he could rely on but share a joke with. But you don’t know what I’m talking about. You’ve never known that kind of ease, and you’d rather put me in an awkward situation with plenty of assets than have me be comfortable, either.
“Do you know what it is to help someone? To wash them and bind their wounds? It isn’t just a physical act. Doing something from your heart for another heals both your spirits. I’ve learned things about myself I never dreamed of, just being there for vulnerable people. Don’t you want to know something other than want, Mother?”
Blanche stepped forward and rested her hand under Somerset’s chin while peering into her face as if she could see what Somerset felt. Her sweetest smile broke across her face, a willful and determined ignorance at play behind it. Her eyes were bright.
“Somerset, don’t distress yourself, dear! This is just girlish nerves. You’ll change your mind and be excited to go when you see all the lovely new things I’ve bought for our trip.”
Somerset attempted to keep out of sight and out of mind for a few days. She wanted to see Sawyer before Blanche took her to Virginia. Blanche thought the end of the following week was the perfect time to travel, and Somerset wanted to give Sawyer several days’ notice before she went away. She hoped to change his mind even if Joseph counseled her not to humble herself before any man.
Blanche brought new articles of clothing to her each day. It might have been exciting had she not known the motives behind the fancy new wardrobe, but her heart sank lower with each new addition to her trunk. In addition to the two new ball gowns she already owned, there were a half dozen more new dresses. They were all as formal as the previous ones, but a few were of even more interest because Blanche appeared to be transitioning her from black to white to colors. There was a gray poplin with white trim, a beige silk that glowed golden in candlelight, and a lavender organza with bows and lace trim in deep purple.
Blanche’s generosity did not end with dresses. There were coordinating long gloves that buttoned all the way up to one’s elbows, darling hats with daring flower arrangements, new dancing shoes and boots. Bess and Cleo shook their heads and moaned with each new purchase, declaring that there was no more room in the two trunks Somerset owned and that Blanche needed another trunk if she wished to keep on.
In addition to feeling trepidation with each new item, she also felt guilt. They were still cautious about the purchase of food and household items. A complete socialite’s wardrobe seemed extravagant and unnecessary, especially when she considered that her heart was not in the enterprise at hand. She knew Blanche was taking in extra sewing as well as putting long hours into the poultry business on the farm. With it being the only chore that Joseph had the endurance to complete, the birds were getting specific, dedicated care and seemed to be producing more eggs and chicks at every turn, which was worth small cash, but she wondered if the silver service and Blanche’s jewelry collections were all intact or if she had managed a bank loan. Thomas didn’t approve of such financial recklessness. He was tight with money, and she was nervous to see him again before she left.
When she knew Blanche was tied up in the kitchen, she called Bess to her room and asked for her help getting ready.
“What you gonna do?” asked Bess, crossing her muscular forearms over her generous breasts.
“I have to go tell someone good-bye before Mother drags me on a trip. I need to look presentable to go, and I need Franklin or Jim to get a horse and wagon so I can get out of here without making a big scene.”
“Who you gonna see?” asked Bess, entering the room and shutting the door. “Maybe some young gentleman?”
“Oh, you know I am, Bess. Help me get ready.”
“It’s one bad idea if ever I heard one.”
“Because I’ve lived a lot longer’n you an’ I know. You’re in a tight spot between what your momma got planned out for you and what you thought you was gonna have here. I got ears and eyes. The Mistress ain’t subtle. Neither are you.”
“You’ve got that right,” said Somerset, going to her closet. “I’d look better in a little color, but I guess you can lace me for the black organza ball gown, the plainer one. He hasn’t seen me in it, and if I show up at their house in color then Sarabeth might comment on it to Mother.”
Bess laced her corset until the strings protested over being pulled so tight and helped her don the black organza. Then she arranged Somerset’s wavy dark hair on the crown of her head and fastened it with the pearl comb that once belonged to Blanche’s mother.
“How do I look? All put together? Not like I spent the morning hoeing weeds?”
“You look good but you look nervous. Try to smile. Stop fiddlin’ with the ’broidery on the waist of that dress.”
“I am nervous. I wish you could know how nervous. Send Jim or Franklin for the wagon. I’ll be waiting on the side porch near the azaleas for it. What will you say to Mother if she asks for me while I’m gone?”
“I’ll manage the Mistress. You go say ’bye to that spineless beau of yours. You’re just pretty enough to make him regret your leaving, though.”
“Well, all right. Just hurry before I lose my nerve and spend another evening sulking up here.”
In half an hour’s time Somerset was on the main road in the wagon heading out to the Russell home. She hoped to find Sawyer outside the house. It would be more discreet than having to ask whoever answered the door about his whereabouts, or worse, be captured by his sweet mother and spend the afternoon visiting. Her efforts at getting him to open up to her about why he was so upset had failed, but she hoped that, when he was presented with the fact that she was leaving, he would change his mind about the distance between them.”
Her wishes were granted, and she didn’t have to knock on the front door of Riverside. She found Sawyer alone in the stable shoeing a horse.
He was covered in barn dirt up to the knees of his trousers, and his sleeves were rolled back tight above his elbows. He was sweat-streaked, sticky, and reeked like the stable. His hair was pulled off his forehead with a bandanna, and he swatted at the overzealous horseflies as they annoyed him and his horse. Somerset took a breath for courage but was unable to think of anything to say to get his attention. She took a step forward in the doorway but then took it back, and finally she stood in the doorway beside a hay bale and shredded her handkerchief with her fingernails while Sawyer continued to work. What do you say when you love someone who doesn’t return the sentiment? What was the dignified way to announce you’re leaving?
The horse tensed at her presence and protested by shying away from its master. Sawyer, caught off guard, dropped the hoof and arose from his squatting position. He wiped his grimy hands off on his pants and backed out of the stall.
“Somerset,” he greeted her. He sounded wary. “I should have known to expect you sooner or later.”
“Hello to you, too.”
She thought she would be sad to tell him that she was going but she felt raw. So he was going to be rude to her? After a long courtship and an engagement that resulted in him jilting her, she was hardly in the mood. It was good if he wanted to act ugly. It would make it easier to say what she thought as well.
“Been working hard, have we?” she asked. Sawyer flinched. “I suppose that’s why you couldn’t meet me like you promised. Goodness knows that no member of the exclusive Brotherhood would ever shirk a duty or be a coward. What happened? Did you have to go trade a horse? Groom a horse? Shoe a horse?”
She watched him close his eyes and exhale through his nose.
He looked contrite when he opened his eyes again.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was rude to stand you up the way that I did. There are no excuses.”
Heat from her anger coiled in her stomach. She scowled.
“That is all? You’re sorry that you did it? I’m so glad I bothered to come out here to hear that.”
He met her blows with self-control that acted as a bellows on her smoldering wrath. He gestured toward the house.
“I think we should have a long talk. Would you care to go to the house where it isn’t so uncomfortable?”
“I don’t think we’ll feel comfortable no matter where we are.”
“I can’t argue with you.”
She set her jaw and followed him to the house.
Riverside was crawling with family members and workers alike. Everywhere she looked work was being carried out. The stone steps were being scrubbed. Everything was being whitewashed. The windows were being cleaned, and the rugs were being beaten with rocks until dust wafted out of them and clung to the air. The shrubs and roses were pruned, new flowers lined the walkway, and tables dotted the green lawn all the way down to the river.
“What is all this?” she asked. “What is the house being made ready for?”
She pinched his sleeve.
“Did someone die, Sawyer?”
“No.” He freed his filthy shirt from her grip. “No one died. Mother is having a birthday party.”
“Whose birthday is it?”
“My brother, Phillip’s.”
Somerset could not place him and her forehead creased with the vexation of not knowing that her own fiancé had another sibling. Sawyer read the puzzled expression on her face and went on.
“He’s much older than I am, the oldest of all the Russell children, so you wouldn’t know him. I don’t know him well myself, but it’s been splendid getting to see him again. He’s a true Russell, too, dry sense of humor and sharp intelligence. After the war, he wound up in business in South Carolina. He made a mint in the mining business. This is the first we’ve seen of him since the war. Mother is throwing him a party for his birthday, the first social event we’ve had since before the war. It will make a nice homecoming for him. We’ve been busy here preparing for him for the last two weeks.”
“You should have met me—or at least let me know how you were detained.”
“Yes.” Sawyer pointed to a picnic table under weeping willow trees. “Look. Why don’t we sit over there? It’s in plain sight of everyone, but far enough out in the yard that no one can hear anything.”
“Is this conversation going to be so awful?” murmured Somerset.
Sawyer didn’t reply.
She sat on the shadiest side of the table and was thankful she had put on her lightest dress. The sun beat down with the tireless vigor of midday. Sawyer lowered himself onto his seat on the other side of the table and at the edge of the seat farthest from her. He sat looking at her with thoughtful green eyes, waiting for her to say something. With the sunlight on his hair, she noticed that the golden brown had extra honey mixed in from all the work outdoors. No matter how he hurt her she discovered that she was unable to dash ice water on her attraction to him. She wondered if she should be there. Perhaps Joseph was right.
“Do you want to tell me something?” he asked.
“The way you’ve been acting is hurting me. Most of the reason I love you is because I thought I’d put my heart in the hands of someone who wouldn’t toy with it. I didn’t think I’d give it to anyone after Eric died.”
She felt pleased. Her opening was dignified and placed the wrong on him without making herself sound helpless. She waited.
“I should have been honest with you, Somerset. I should have. I hate myself for the way things have played out over the past couple months. I’ll never look at myself the same way again for being such a coward. I never thought I deserved you, never believed you could love me. I never dreamed that my withdrawing from you would actually hurt you.”
“I want to tell you something important, Sawyer.”
“Mother is taking me away.”
“Good. That’s good. I think a little distance between us will help to neutralize things for the time being. Less uncertainty. Less stumbling in social situations. You can forget what a bloody disappointment I turned out to be.”
Somerset shook her head.
“No, it isn’t that kind of trip.” She was amazed at how calm and collected she sounded. “Mother is unhappy that I haven’t married anyone yet. She says that if I had no attachments here, then it’s all for the best that we go to Richmond. She thinks because we have deep roots in the city that I can marry anyone. She has a plan for our future. I’m the means to carry out her wishes. Metaphorically speaking, I’m going to go out to the highest bidder.”
Sawyer had been drumming his fingers on the table, but he stopped and looked at her with an expression akin to disbelief.
“And you’re going?” he asked.
“What can I do? I can’t tell her that we’re engaged. You’ve been running from me for weeks.”
“Growing up, Teddie always said she had a handle on everything under her roof. I thought he exaggerated, a typical son tired of being mothered. You can’t go marrying anyone. That’s insane. ”
“Girls have their marriages arranged all the time. It isn’t anything new under the sun, Sawyer. I wanted you to know what was happening before I left, that’s all.”
“I don’t want you to get married.”
“Oddly enough, I wanted to marry you before you changed your mind. Look, I know you’ve changed your mind about me. That’s fine, but I’ll do anything to keep out of Virginia, to not marry someone I don’t care about. Sawyer, I still love you. Do you think we could get married anyhow? I wouldn’t make your life difficult. I promise. I could keep Victoria and Warren with me, and I’d let you do whatever you wanted. You could keep on with whoever has your fancy now. I think nothing of mistresses. Don’t the Europeans have them all the time? I’ll leave you alone and let you have things your way. I’ll cook and clean for you and make your day-to-day life comfortable. Just don’t force me into a life of servitude somewhere else. I have so many reasons that I want to stay here. After weathering war and Reconstruction, I do want to stay near home.”
Somerset couldn’t believe the words as they came out of her mouth, but her ideas sounded so genuine, so clear cut, and so well thought out that she felt no shame. She didn’t look away or stammer once as she proposed. Sawyer’s gaze never wavered either, but his face was awash in pity for her. He reached out and took her hand.
“You are the sweetest thing,” he said. “You’ve been wounded so many times. I can’t bear that I’m causing fresh wounds. There isn’t a thought in your head beyond staying with people you know and making sure Victoria is taken care of, is there?”