Authors: Hope Denney,Linda Au
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance
Somerset sensed he was saying this for her benefit, to fill in why he was there when he’d promised to avoid her.
Joseph’s hazel eyes clouded with a measure of acceptance as he held out his callused hand. Sawyer grabbed his hand and gripped it in a rough tight grasp, and Joseph pulled him in for a hug. They clapped each other on the back, making hollow thudding sounds that echoed under the low porch roof.
“I could probably make a business deal on the farm that would make sense for you if you were having second thoughts about leaving,” offered Joseph.
Sawyer shook his head.
“I didn’t make a profit this year, but I’m not in arrears. I appreciate it all the same, brother. It’s time to move on.”
“I have the feeling if you go out there you’re just going to disappear into the plains. I don’t want this to be the last time I see you. I want you to stay in touch, Sawyer. I want to be able to introduce the man I scouted this nation with to my children.”
“You’d best produce some children for starters if that’s your dream. You’ll hear from me when I get settled.”
“We’re the only two left,” said Joseph. His voice was thick with unshed tears.
“I never thought it would be the two of us. Here’s to hoping we both see old age.”
The expression on Sawyer’s face was bereft, noticed Somerset. He wouldn’t be able to look any more pained if he were on a rack being tortured. He was being tortured from the inside out. She wanted to hate him and had started out hating him, but the anger had burned itself out like a candle pulled from a flaming taper too soon. She felt only pity for him. When he turned and looked her in the eyes, it was no different than making eye contact with a stranger on the street.
“Good-bye, Somerset. I wish you well and hope you believe it.”
He extended a hand but she could not bring herself to accept it. She had no wish to be touched by him again, but beyond that was the desire not to remember the specific warmth or pressure of his hand on hers. How odd it would be after having just been in Phillip’s embrace.
“Thank you, Mr. Russell,” she said in a voice not unlike Blanche’s. “I hope you have a safe journey and wish you a fresh start.”
“I appreciate your sentiments,” he said.
“I’m not going to be here when you ride away to the depot,” announced Ivy. “I can’t bear it so I’m going home now.”
She wiped her flint-colored eyes with her soaked handkerchief and walked down the steps without looking back.
“Thoughts worth biding,” concurred Joseph. “I won’t watch you go. Good-bye, Sawyer.”
He went in the house but looked out the door and waved before his unusually serious face disappeared down the hall. Somerset imagined the melodious thwump of a bottle being uncorked only yards away. A prickle shot up her spine at the imaginary sound of bourbon on ice.
“In a different time and place they might have,” said Somerset. “Good-bye, Sawyer.”
She looked at his straight, golden brown hair with the new streaks veining it and the faint hollowing of his cheeks. She looked at the deep lines around his grassy eyes and saw he did look older than Phillip.
Remember his face, she thought. It may be the last you time you see it. Don’t let him remember you as vengeful.
She said good-bye to Phillip and went up the steps. She let herself in to Orchard Rest and leaned her back against Blanche’s robin’s egg blue wall as soon as she was inside. The moment was simple enough, but an epoch in her life was finished. As she held onto the mantel for support and breathed as deeply as her tightly laced corset would allow, she thought that she would never hear the siren whistle of a train engine again without a haunting feeling of finality.
“Have a safe trip,” came Phillip’s rumbling voice through the cracked window.
“It will be a lengthy trip. Don’t expect to hear from me before the end of the month. Don’t let Mother panic when she hasn’t heard anything in a week’s time.”
“Of course, Sawyer. I’m a traveling man. I’m well-versed on the inconveniences of modern-day travel.”
“Be good to Somerset. If you aren’t serious, don’t dawdle around her making pretty speeches—just go back to Charleston.”
“I can assure you of my seriousness, but ultimately this topic is outside your jurisdiction now. If you want her, why leave her to me? That has cowardice written all over it, but then, so does this exit you’re making. What did you do? Do you need money? Do I need to buy you out of some petty crime? Perhaps you got some girl in trouble?”
“It’s nothing of the sort. She’s the only woman I’ve ever loved and mostly from afar. Your life has been so simple and straightforward that you’ll never understand basic plights or the real tragedies in life. Everything in your life has always been as neat and shiny as a new gold coin so you’ll never understand what the people here have been through. You can’t comprehend loss, fear, hunger, or poverty. You can’t understand Somerset, not in the ways that matter.”
“I understand her better than I’ve understood anyone. It’s an odd feeling to finally be on the same page as a woman. Don’t worry about abandoning her. I’m more than willing to take care of her, but as she archly pointed out this evening, there is always someone waiting for her in the wings. It doesn’t end with you or me.”
The clasp of Sawyer’s familiar pocket watch shutting met Somerset’s ears. Her mind’s eye could see the brass fixtures shining against his tanned hands as he consulted it.
“I have to get going,” said Sawyer. “The train departs in less than two hours. Please keep Mother calm while I journey. I’m glad we had the chance to get reacquainted before I left, Phillip.”
“I feel the same. Be safe.”
The only sounds were the two of them walking off to their horses in opposite directions, and Somerset went up to her room. She stood before the ink silhouette until the bell rang for supper and wondered whether she saw Eric or Phillip in it.
Somerset bounced down the narrow stone steps that led to the kitchen in search of something light to eat after she overslept and missed breakfast. Cleo and Bess sat on rickety stools at the plank counters drinking coffee so strong that the acrid smell made Somerset cough as she entered.
“The princess awake,” teased Bess with a loving glance at her favorite child.
With Blanche imprisoned in her bedroom, Somerset was free to hug Bess, and she started most days by squeezing the woman privy to all her secrets and responsible for most of her unconditional love as a little girl. She sniffed Bess’s liniment and orange smell and knew sweet rolls were rising somewhere in the room. Somerset folded herself up in the child-sized chair that fit under the low eaves of the kitchen and found a roll to bite into.
“I have to go to Tuscaloosa to post a letter,” she said as she scraped a thin, curling twist of butter onto the top of her roll.
“You been posting lots of mail lately,” Cleo said.
“I’m home as much as I can be,” said Somerset. “Victoria is to the point where she can run the house so I feel less guilt about going out. What’s the news? Is Birdy settling in better?”
“Hmph.” Bess rolled her eyes.
“Bess been nursin’ these parts for fifty years and now Birdy’s sellin’ her own medicines. It’s bad enough she’s hornin’ in on my kitchen and on the mistress,” said Cleo. “When are they goin’ home?”
“This winter,” said Somerset in the same tone she would use with Warren. “What do you want her to do while she’s here? Stay in Myra’s room and never leave it?”
“Yes,” said both women in unison.
“What else has happened?” asked Somerset, hoping for a less inflammatory subject.
“These showed up for you ’round six,” said Cleo and pushed a golden bundle of blossoms in her face.
Poppies, with supple golden petals and long stems, bent under her breath and reminded her of loose golden coins amid the puffs of fat, white phlox they were mixed with. The bundle was tied with a white satin ribbon, and the attached card that fell from the envelope was heavy with scalloped edges.
I imagine all flowers look like weeds in your hands.
Phillip had visited Orchard Rest several more times to see her. He curried favor with Thomas by visiting him on a separate occasion and asking for permission to see Somerset and broke down Bess’s habitual distrust against suitors by not only knowing how to fix the damper on her prized range but doing so in his freshly cleaned and pressed suit one day when he and Somerset strolled past the kitchen. He was courteous to Victoria and eager to discuss Joseph’s wartime exploits. Upon finding Joseph less than enthusiastic to rehash them, he was content to have a drink and play a hand of cards with him. Everyone at Orchard Rest found him charming, witty, and a gentleman, and the only fly in Somerset’s ointment was the number of times her family started to call him Eric and then corrected themselves, so that his name came out “Er–Mr. Russell” as though they weren’t certain what to say to him.
“She’s so caught up in them flowers she don’t think to ask what else,” cackled Bess.
“What else?” asked Somerset, laying the flowers aside.
“That Harlow boy called on Miss Victoria while you were out with Mr. Russell.”
“Well, well. I was beginning to think he didn’t have it in him.”
Joseph came into the kitchen jingling his house keys in his trouser pocket. He poked Bess in the side and stole Somerset’s half-eaten roll.
“I’m ready to drive to Tuscaloosa if you are, sister.”
Somerset walked down the sidewalk with her letter clasped before her. She was contacting a hospital in New York to find out about training programs, and Joseph, much as he supported her in other aspects, looked at her strangely each time she insisted they go to Tuscaloosa to post a new inquiry.
“Being a sniper and then a prisoner constructed the most formative years of my life,” he quipped, “but now that the war is over, you don’t see me running for sheriff or becoming a jail warden. I fail to see how taking care of the suffering eases your mind any.”
Since that remark, she told him when she needed an escort to the post office but didn’t tell him why.
Her head was full of cheerful thoughts. She told Phillip on his last visit that she was in the middle of inquiring about training programs, and he had behaved as though fascinated and commended her for her selfless behavior.
“I’m all for social reform,” he’d admitted as he tossed pebbles into the river. “People don’t see it in me. As a mine owner, I’m often critiqued for what I pay, and then there’s the dim view of safety precautions in my business to contend with. The fact is that I’d go bankrupt if I paid all the hundreds of employees who work for me exactly what they were worth, and the truth remains that they can’t get by without the good money I do manage to pay them because they can’t subsist on farming alone. It’s an ugly situation, and sometimes necessity begets misery, Somerset. It makes me sorry, but I also refuse to be the villain simply because I’m the strong link in the chain. My mines have some of the safest track records in the state, though, and I’m proud of it to a fault. I applaud you if you have a talent for the betterment of man and want to pursue it.”
She was expecting a reaction of disdain, to be told she was no working-class girl. An air of puzzled tolerance was the best she expected. His support lit her up from the soul outward, and she was radiant as she breathed in the nippy morning air, believing anything in the world possible. Didn’t Phillip say that as she aged she would find most things probable?
“Tell me about this new beau of yours,” said Joseph as they jostled together on the teeming sidewalk to let a muddy crew of construction workers pass. “Papa mentioned him the other day—and you know Papa mentions no one—so he must be worthwhile. What is the difference between Sawyer and this Phillip?”
Somerset made an ugly mouth at the last question.
“Don’t you like him?” she asked. “I’ve noticed you’re not above drinking rye and cutting cards with him.”
“I like him just fine, but the standards of men for friendship are looser than the standards of women for courtship. You run quicker than if a teakettle whistles when the knocker sounds. What about him is so wonderful?”
“He heard Warren call Victoria ‘Momma,’ and instead of pitying her to death, he asked Warren if he wanted a piggyback ride. I think that one simple gesture speaks volumes for his character. Would you like to hear more?”
“I heard all about the portrait in your room. You haven’t known him long. Should he have offered it and should you have accepted it?”
“Are you really going to take the moral high ground with me?” asked Somerset. “I’ve only known him for a few weeks, but it’s been a consuming relationship. I’m not sitting around batting my eyelashes at him behind a fan, Joseph. I’m getting to know him well because I care for him. I would have accepted that picture from the devil himself, and the picture is further proof of what a fine man he is. He’s heard all about Eric and he knows about the house. That silhouette is the one thing in the world that I want and can’t have. That house is my house, Joseph, built expressly for me, and I can’t have it. I’m not giving the portrait back. It’s mine.”
“You have my sympathy about the house,” admitted Joseph. “It’s an awkward predicament and no matter what is done with it, someone gets hurt. I still have to ask you: is this about you and your new beau or you and Eric? Because they resemble each other enough that I have to ask. It’s uncanny. If you feel as if you’ve come full circle and you’re going to regain what you lost, you’ll find yourself wrong in the end. There’s no way to step into yesterday, Somerset. If there were I would have done it by now.”
It was on the tip of Somerset’s tongue to tell him she knew there was no way to regain the past or they wouldn’t have seen her in half a decade, but through the throngs of bustling, chattering people who were jostling together like cards being shuffled in a deck came a sight so familiar that Somerset lost all powers of speech.
A tall and shapely woman with springing blond curls stepped out of the post office. Fairlee. Her cheeks were naturally flushed bright pink, and there was a sparkle in her long-lashed eyes as she picked her way down the concrete sidewalk in heels so high and spindly that she shouldn’t have been able to walk in them. Her dress was fashionable and held the eye. She looked the essence of autumn in an argyle-patterned dress of fawn brown, creamy coral, and peony pink. A full lacy jabot of warm cream bounced at her throat and long pearl earbobs on delicate gold threads swung as she walked.
Somerset, about to alert Joseph to her presence, saw that Joseph had already spotted her and the companion catching up to her. His face changed in an instant from shock to veneration and then a guarded, taciturn expression settled in.
“Good morning!” cried Somerset because there was no help for it.
Fairlee didn’t see them until Somerset spoke.
“Oh!” she cried and then composed her large features. “Somerset! Mr. Forrest! What a treat to see you both out of the countryside!”
“Hello,” said her companion in a pleasant voice that bespoke his Alabama roots.
He had a slim, upright bearing and nice, regular features. His dark brown eyes were friendly and his protruding chin sat beneath a mouth that tilted up at the ends, never far from a smile. He was turned out as well as Fairlee in a pale brown suit and darker brown hat.
Fairlee wound her arm through his and leaned on him.
“I want you to meet my friends, Vincent. This is Miss Somerset Forrest and this is Mr. Joseph Forrest. They’re siblings and live at Orchard Rest in Century Grove. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. They are dear old friends of mine.”
“Indeed I have,” said her escort, taking a closer look at them. “I’m pleased to meet you, Miss and Mr. Forrest. The elder Mr. Forrest was in my office only weeks ago getting a blueprint made up for a new Baton Rouge office.”
“Yes, he’s trying to buy back an old business,” said Somerset as Joseph’s mouth upended into a frown.
“You must allow me to introduce Mr. Vincent Cooper,” continued Fairlee. “Knowing everyone in Tuscaloosa as intimately as I do, it isn’t often that I get the joy of introducing my new husband to anyone.”
That she could introduce Vincent calmly came as no shock to Somerset. The woman had been running in and out of Joseph’s bedroom in the middle of the night for years without so much as a guilty expression. Joseph’s smile was tempered by blankness in his brown and green eyes as he bent low in greeting.
“Newlyweds! How exciting, Fairlee. Let me kiss you.” She pressed her chilly, firm lips to Fairlee’s hot face. “When did these exciting nuptials take place? A small part of me feels hurt that we didn’t know in advance, but weddings require so much effort that we won’t hold a grudge.”
“We married last week.” Fairlee looked chagrined. “We didn’t have a large affair. We married in my grandmother’s parlor with only our immediate family present. It hasn’t even made it into the papers yet, When we are better settled, Somerset, you should come up for luncheon and shopping.”
“I do congratulate you both!” Joseph’s voice came out strong and hearty. “Mr. Cooper, you have an exceptional bride. Buchanan’s Loft is our closest neighbor so I can say I know Mrs. Cooper as well—dare say I—better than most of the residents in our tiny hamlet! Once more I congratulate you!”
Vincent’s smile was convivial.
“Thank you. Any friend of Fairlee’s is always welcome company. I look forward to building a relationship with you. Ordinarily we would invite you to dine with us, but we’re on our way to my aunt’s home for a special family reception.”
“By all means. We wouldn’t want to delay you.” said Joseph.
“No, we wouldn’t. We wish you good fortune in your marriage. Do run out to Orchard Rest one day, Fairlee. I am certain Mother would love to meet Mr. Cooper. She’s such a card. Who knows what she would say?” said Somerset.
“I look forward to your visit,” agreed Joseph. “May I kiss the bride in congratulations?”
Vincent nodded as he checked his watch on its fine leather fob. Pale and distracted, Fairlee turned up one cool cheek instead of her lips.
Joseph kissed it with little enthusiasm. They might have been two twirling leaves in the breeze, he kissed her so chastely, but as he pulled away, Somerset watched him blow his hot breath against the small area of exposed skin on Fairlee’s neck. It was over in the time it took Mr. Cooper to put his watch in his vest. Joseph offered Somerset his arm while Fairlee’s eyes snapped in outrage. Vincent said a courteous good-bye to them and pulled his wife down the sidewalk.
“Can you believe it?” Somerset asked when they were out of sight. “Did you know? Did she tell you?”
“No, she never told me. I would have gunned down any man she showed the slightest interest in,” muttered Joseph. The blue veins in his neck pulsed as he clenched his jaw.
“She certainly fixed things. I call that cutting off your nose to spite your face!”
“You don’t have to be furious for my sake,” said Joseph. “I can be angry and hurt enough for myself just based on my own wounded feelings.”