Authors: Hope Denney,Linda Au
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance
Somerset laughed aloud.
“I spent your whole trip thinking that if I had just gone ahead and announced our engagement when it happened, we’d be married now instead of sneaking around the cemetery in the middle of the day. Mother will want to make quite the production of this, I’m afraid. I played my cards all wrong, Sawyer. There’s no telling when she’ll finally turn me loose now.”
He squeezed her hand and kissed it.
“We could elope,” he suggested into her palm.
“I’ll consider it if she wants a year-long engagement. I’m practically an old maid.”
Sawyer laughed loudly, the sound at variance with the solemn setting.
It was true Somerset was no longer young. She had been on the cusp of her debut, the edge of becoming a belle when the war broke out. Many men, who were now long dead, had gone to fight with the happy knowledge that she would soon be of courting age when they returned home. She’d been little more than a child when Fort Sumter was shelled, missed the portion of her life that she had been bred for, and now she was stuck in the vacuous area of life where she should have been settled with a family. Somerset was still fresh-faced, though. Her eyes, the famous Marshall blue eyes that came from Blanche’s family, had lost the vacant look they acquired during her lengthy search for Eric in Georgia. Over the long months of their covert courtship, a spark returned to her that she feared had disappeared on the Chickamauga.
She was twenty-three, an impossible age. She thought she had lost everything worth caring about in the war except for her brothers. She had gone from the frocks of girlhood to mourning weeds with little ground in between. There were still days where she felt bitter about all that she’d never attained. Sawyer and the rest of his contemporaries never saw her sober black gowns or lack of jewels. She was a prize left over from old days, a reminder of when men were gods and women needed champions. Somewhere between the brightness of her eyes and the fullness of her lips, Sawyer found himself lost. When he factored in how she loved a good prank and was also smart, he couldn’t believe that she chose to love him.
“So you’ll come to dinner?” she implored as she squeezed his hand. “And you’ll think about what I asked?”
“I will,” he promised.
He leaned down and kissed her on the mouth. His graveness was deeper than usual.
“Be careful on the walk home,” he added. “I’ll see you tomorrow night. Try not to grow more spinsterish in the meanwhile.”
She squeezed his waist.
“I won’t grow any more spinsterish if you promise to grow richer before our wedding. I think I could look quite young and happy with enough money.”
They laughed hard enough over the unlikelihood of money to startle the crows from the oaks overhead.
She set off walking toward Orchard Rest. She could not resist turning at the cemetery gate to see him once more. He cut a striking figure against the green of the oaks and the drab white stones. He seemed more meditative than usual, if that were possible. She waved at him as she banged the gate shut, but he had turned to face Eric’s monolith. She leaned on the gate for a moment savoring the good feeling, appreciating whatever impulse had allowed her to make room in her heart for a new life. She may have lost the future that she had been born for, but she was about to embark on a new adventure.
It didn’t occur to her until much later that night that she had never gotten around to finding out where he was going in the middle of the day or so soon after getting home from his trip.
Somerset sat at her dressing table, pinning her hair in place. Blanche’s party for Joseph was less than an hour away, and she wasn’t ready. Her mother had made her a new dress, and although they were all still in half-mourning, Somerset couldn’t help but be dazzled by it.
She loved to get pretty new things, and Blanche had been generous in the past weeks. This dress had a neckline as low as a ball gown with jet beads hanging from gray silk tassels that danced as she moved. The waist was skintight and the skirt was the newest fashion, flat at the sides and flaring out in the back over a corselette. Gray silk roses trailed down the back of the skirt, each one folded and sewn in Blanche’s precise tiny stitches. The bottom half of the skirt showcased a dozen lace panels over white silk embroidered in gray roses.
The afternoon sun streamed through her window as she turned before her mirror, admiring her pirouetting reflection but wishing the dress was any color but black. Although the ball gown was lovely and she looked like a fashion plate out of Godey’s
, Somerset never lost the sensation that she was in mourning for every man she ever met. Blanche said the farm had turned a profit for the first time since the war, but Somerset couldn’t fathom what the dress must have cost—or that her papa, Thomas, had allowed it.
She took a seat on the worn ottoman by her bedside table and picked up the daguerreotype of Eric, cradling it in her palm. She studied his features, taking in the straight, strong nose and the wide high cheekbones prominent in the square, heavy-jawed face. His wide, blue eyes weren’t captured well in the image, she thought, as if his ghost-like state was predestined in a single image. She shivered but smiled again at the hint of a smirk that he couldn’t keep from his lips even in the most serious of images.
Somerset had been hesitant to let Sawyer court her, reluctant to feel anything for any man, but she found herself drawn to him in spite of herself. She knew from the moment he noticed her at Helen’s debut that he was interested, but she had been smitten enough with Eric that she never considered another man. Then in Atlanta, when she was bodice-deep in corpses and searching for Eric’s, he had been a helpmeet while he recovered from his injuries. The day she’d given Eric up for lost, there had been sorrow on his face and sympathy over her loss, even when he loved her as well, as he put her on the train to Alabama.
Somerset was forced from her thoughts by a light knock on the door. Ivy Garrett, daughter of their closest neighbor, appeared in the doorway with a cluster of her mother’s famous tea roses.
“I’m here early, I know, but Mother sent you these flowers for your hair. They’re only buds, but she thought you might like a little color.”
Ivy had been out of mourning for a year and was perceptive of Somerset’s desire to be out of black. Ivy wore a dress the color of ripe plums bedecked with cascading bows of gold. Even under the harsh light from the western window with her black hair, moonlit skin, and dark gray eyes, she looked luminous.
Ivy nodded at the picture in Somerset’s hand.
“I miss him, too.”
“I’ve thought of Eric more since Joseph was injured. It took me back to when Joseph had to convalesce at home for a few months after Eric was killed. No matter what happens, I never put Eric’s memory far from me, but when I come under fire from a crisis, I have to make peace with the loss all over again.”
“He would hate that you’re suffering.”
“He never could stand to see me sad, but at least I’ve suffered for a good cause this time. I went to the cemetery today to talk to Eric about some ideas I’ve been sorting through, but I couldn’t summon the words. I have so much to tell everyone, Ivy. It’s difficult to wait for the right moment to tell.”
“Go sit at your dressing table while I pin these in your hair. I’ll be waiting to hear then. I could stand some happy news.”
Somerset stood and crossed the room to her dressing table.
Ivy wrung her hands and exhaled at the vision that was her friend.
“Somerset, you’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”
Somerset felt the blood rush to her face. She ducked her head in pretended modesty, her lips curving upward in a smile.
“What a dress!”
“Yes, it’s perfect for lounging around failing plantations on these stifling summer days,” said Somerset.
Ivy worked the mass of buds into her low bun. Mrs. Garrett had some of the finest roses in the South. It was rumored that Jefferson Davis himself had taken cuttings back to his home after a barbeque at Maple Pool. Somerset felt the rough prickle of the leaves and baby thorns against her bare neck. The hair on her arms rose at the sensation and then it vanished.
“There, all finished. You look like someone out of a fairytale. How beautiful you will look on your trip, my dear.”
“To Richmond, of course.”
“Richmond?” Somerset echoed.
Her dropped jaw reflected in the mirror matched her tone as she turned and stared up at Ivy.
Ivy dropped her lashes. They were onyx against her translucent skin.
“What did you hear about Richmond?”
“Your mother came to Maple Pool last week to borrow Momma’s steamer trunk. She said she means to go home for a visit next month.”
“She considers Baton Rouge home, not Richmond,” interjected Somerset.
“She said she was going home to Richmond. It is where she’s from, after all, Somerset. She might be homesick.”
Somerset laid her ivory-backed brush on the table.
“That doesn’t make any sense. Why didn’t she mention it?”
Ivy rubbed the back of Somerset’s neck.
“She was probably too distracted by Joseph’s illness to bring it up to anyone but your daddy. How is Joseph?”
“He’s ill and bored so he’s bedeviling everyone in the house.”
A cold, unsettled feeling spread like icy hands pushing down past her chest into her stomach. She was dizzy, and all the beads on her dress rattled together like ice in Joseph’s glass as her breath came and went.
“Somerset, are you well?”
The cache of dresses wasn’t a gift. Blanche was using them as bait.
The city of Richmond rose up in Somerset’s mind like a fabled, mythical land. Blanche and Thomas had agreed they wouldn’t live there in their birth city. Blanche’s family had moved to Baton Rouge when she was a young lady, and Thomas had proposed suddenly in Baton Rouge when their mothers were visiting. Blanche’s brother, Theodore, died in an accident in Baton Rouge and was buried there. Blanche’s attachment to the city was inexorable, and when her father’s business partnership ended and the family moved back to Richmond, Blanche opposed them, leaving Theodore’s body behind. She had grown accustomed to the freedom of the bayou and found Richmond a busy, artificial chasm. Tired of the constant social posturing, weary of her beautiful but dull contemporaries, and smarting under the demands of her mother, she had fled to a place to create a family with a man who was the crème de la crème of Richmond society.
Nevertheless, Blanche was always saying that she wanted things for Somerset that she didn’t attain herself. Somerset knew that while Blanche may have married the right man, she regretted her choice of living in relative seclusion in the country. A home like Orchard Rest was a boon, but it wasn’t stimulating to own it in a rural land where there were few petty jealousies and no competition. She secretly hungered to be one of the key players in Richmond society, and she would have been if she had only swallowed her pride regarding certain matters and moved home. Now she was going home to Richmond to put her most beautiful but unmarried daughter in the thick of the social game and live through her.
Somerset laughed aloud.
She would announce her engagement tonight. There was nothing she wanted less than to go to Richmond with Blanche, and there was no need to find a husband when she already was engaged. How stunned everyone would be when she and Sawyer announced their engagement.
“Somerset, are you feeling well?” repeated Ivy. She was digging in the bureau drawers for smelling salts.
“I’m feeling better than well,” said Somerset. “I’ve never looked forward to a party so much in my life.”
A series of staccato raps sounded at the door and Bess, who was maid to Somerset and Victoria, stuck her head in the room. Her forehead was beaded in perspiration, no doubt from the effort of getting Blanche ready.
“Miss Blanche is in an uproar. She say the guests are gonna be arrivin’ soon, and you girls need to get downstairs to receive them.”
“I received them last time. Why can’t Mother do it?”
“She’s lookin’ for somethin’,” Bess said in a sour voice and disappeared down the hall.
They walked down the curving staircase of Orchard Rest. Little Warren, the youngest member of their family, was sitting on the stairs in knee pants choo-chooing a red wooden train down the steps. At the bottom of the staircase they stopped so that Ivy could greet Blanche with pink cheeks and a stammer. Somerset couldn’t help thinking that her mother was not a woman anyone got comfortable with.
Blanche was sorting with nervous energy through her cherry desk in the foyer. She looked every inch the true lady of the manor in her black organza gown and the heavy onyx necklace that she had saved during Wilson’s raid by depositing it in the chimney. Her golden hair was piled in a massive chignon on the back of her shapely head, but curls were escaping through the net, giving her a youthful look. She returned Ivy’s greeting with cordial hospitality, but her forehead was furrowed in concentration and she made noises of contrition as she searched.
“I had Tuck decant some port for the guests, Somerset,” she said as she lifted her own goblet. “It’s not corked like the other bottle we served. I checked to be sure. We’ll let the gentleman have it in the library after the meal while the ladies finish their coffee in the parlor. You can receive everyone in the parlor and send them to the dining room when the last guest arrives.”
“Is Helen coming?” asked Somerset.
“No, George sent word that she feels unwell. They think it will be any time now.”
Somerset felt happy her older sister wasn’t coming. She looked swollen and ponderous the last time Somerset had spoken to her, and Somerset feared each time she saw her that the baby would come, a joyous occasion Somerset hoped to miss, although Blanche would have to leave the function if labor started.
“Have you seen my journal?” asked Blanche as Somerset turned to go.
“I saw your account log in the library. Joseph reviewed it. He had some ideas about cutting costs with the poultry. He thinks the cost of feed is highway robbery. I can tell that he wants to mill our own eventually.”
“No, not the receipt book. I can’t find my personal diary.”
“I haven’t seen it. I thought you kept it in your room.”
“So I do,” smiled Blanche. “I probably lost it under a shawl.”
She continued rifling through the desk.
Somerset led Ivy into the parlor. Joseph waited there, weak but flushed with excitement for a change. He clutched a folded paper in his left hand and leaned on his cane with his right hand. The impending gathering was already working to distract his mind from the many things he could no longer do.
“Good evening, Ivy. Somerset.”
“Good evening, Mr. Forrest,” returned Ivy. She sounded prim.
“Look at you, clean shaven and bathed during daylight hours,” mocked Somerset.
She and Joseph had a special bond. Beside her papa, she was the only family member tolerant of his flippant ways. She had always been his pet just as Victoria had always been Theodore’s. Joseph was just abrasive enough with her to let her know that he trusted her enough to be himself, whereas he was sweet to dull Helen and sensitive Victoria.
“I feel the same as Alexander must have felt when he conquered the Persian Empire.”
“Oh? If guests at dinner and a platter of fried chicken are all that it takes to make you feel so grand, I can’t imagine how you’ll fare when—“
“This,” interrupted Joseph, holding his paper out. “This came today and I feel as though I’m a wealthy man again.”
He laughed aloud.
“What is it?” asked Somerset.
“It’s a telegram from Fairlee.”
“No. Let me see that,” said Somerset.
“Fairlee?” asked Ivy.
Somerset took the paper in her hands in disbelief.
“‘Coming home for visit. Fairlee,’” she read aloud.
“If I were physically sound, I pick both of you up and twirl you around!” he proclaimed.
“Maybe the two of you can finally manage to tie the knot,” said Somerset.
“You never know,” replied Joseph. “She may take pity on me yet.”
Ivy turned her back and pretended to examine the oil portrait of Theodore over the doorway. Somerset’s heart went out to her, but she couldn’t utter a word of comfort in front of Joseph.
Quiet, unassuming Ivy nursed hefty devotion to Joseph, although Somerset couldn’t understand why. Never had she seen two people so incredibly unsuited to one another. Joseph enjoyed rowdy nights out with other men, frequent drinks, and high-spirited banter. Ivy was beautiful enough for him and he loved her family, but for all that, Joseph couldn’t find one point of interest about her.