Authors: Jeanette Baker
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Contemporary Romance, #Adult, #Sex, #Law Enforcement, #Man Made Disaster, #Land Pollution, #Water Pollution, #Radioactivity Pollution, #Detective Mystery, #Rural, #Small Town, #Suburban, #Urban, #Wilderness, #Louisiana, #Maryland, #Christianity-Catholicism, #Science-Marine Biology, #Social Sciences-Geography, #Fishing-Fresh Water, #Fishing-Salt Water, #Boat Transportation, #2000-2010, #1960-1969
Two generations before, a Devereaux left the West Indies with five pounds in his pocket to sign on as a cabin boy on a boat fishing for cod out of Boston Harbor. Gradually, he earned enough to migrate down to the warmer waters of the Chesapeake and open up a dry goods store. Every generation since had kept the business strong.
Anton was a beneficiary of the Civil Rights movement, the first in his line to aspire to a college degree. At Yale University he found himself caught up in the fire of the day. Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Huey McBride were his heroes. He had no use for the peaceful Martin Luther King.
Anton was obsessed with quality. In Nola Ruth, with her boarding school education, her love of French philosophers, her graceful diplomacy, her aspiring artistic talent, the fluent, musical way she had of switching from English to French to German, he believed he'd found his ideal mate. That her designer gown and diamond-studded shoes cost more than six months' profit from his father's business meant nothing to him at all.
At first it rankled that she refused to introduce him to her family. But his mind was on the movement and his body filled with fire for the beautiful girl who was his lover. “Later,” he told himself. “They'll accept me later, with my Yale degree and my place in the world. After all, she has to marry somebody, and who better than a young educated black man on his way up?”
As for Nola Ruth, she watched the tall, rugged young man with the square jaw, wide shoulders, broad workman's hands, coffee-colored skin and yellow eyes walk toward her, and something dark, elemental and forbidden slumbering deep within her leaped to life. She smiled and held out her hand, accepting the leaflet he handed her.
Forty-some years later, Nola Ruth still felt cold sweat gather between her breasts when she recalled the events of the weeks that followed. Anton's courtship was swift, intense and forbidden. She told no one, but her mother suspected she was meeting someone. Of course, she had no idea who it was. Nola Ruth could still recall her mother's thin, disapproving lips warning her to be careful, that a gently bred girl must be beware of her reputation.
But Nola Ruth, born in that city of sin, ignored her warnings. She was deliciously shocked the first time Anton's hot tongue entered her mouth and his hand closed over her breast. More times than she could count in those first weeks, he took her to staggering climax, first in the roomy back seat of the Studebaker provided by his nervous New Orleans host, then in the Beauchamp summerhouse, on their veranda swing, in the sitting room always late at night after the servants had retired, and finally beneath the sweating, lavender-scented sheets of the bedroom Nola Ruth had occupied from her earliest memory, the bedroom backed up to the master suite where her parents slept in serene ignorance.
Anton lacked refinement, but he was intelligent. He understood the rules of the rising black upper middle class and he intended to abide by them. Marriage was his intent, but he wasn't completely sure of Nola Ruth. She was acquiescent and generous when it came to lovemaking. He had never experienced so willing and sensitive a bed partner. But there was something removed about her, as if only her body participated while her mind looked on from somewhere else outside of herself. It was this otherworldly quality that attracted him, and at the same time kept him on edge, slightly insecure, never quite knowing where he stood. Only during sex, at the crest of her climax, with her head thrown back, her eyes closed, her breathing labored, was he completely confident that she belonged to him. He used her incredible physical appetite to his advantage. Withdrawing himself completely, he teased her with the tip of his erection. “Marry me, Nola,” he murmured. “Marry me, tonight.”
“Please, don't stop,” she gasped, arching her back to bring him back inside of her.
He was twenty-one years old, at the peak of his sexual potency. Sweat poured down his chest. Deliberately, with great effort, he held himself away. “Come away with me, now,” he begged.
Nola Ruth bit her lip. Anything to end this torture. “Yes,” she moaned. “Yes, yes, yes.” With all her strength, she palmed his muscle-corded buttocks and pulled him deeply into her.
Pressing his face between her breasts, he groaned and drove and pumped until he was empty.
Nola Ruth never forgot the events that followed their trip across the Louisiana state line into Nicholson, Mississippi, nor would she forget the ride back home with her father the next afternoon. It was something the Beauchamp family never spoke of, but Nola recalled it more clearly than any family photograph lovingly detailed in the family album.
Anton and she spent what was left of that night driving the back roads, not connecting with the main highway until Pearl River, breakfasting with truck drivers at an all-night doughnut shop. Nola Ruth ate in the car, afraid to be seen. She refused to underestimate her father. Anton roused the justice of the peace at eight o'clock. Blood tests were unnecessary in Nicholson. Swallowing to control her panic, Nola stared at the Adam's apple in the man's throat as she mechanically responded to his questions. How had she come to this?
She had never intended to marry Anton Devereaux, only to seduce him. He was a magnificent young animal, lean, hungry-eyed, predatory, forbidden, a perfect specimen for mating. She loved him, but he was completely unsuitable. Marriage was an institution to be entered into with deliberation and calm, a unity of compatible background, education, family, religion, wealth and race, a symbiotic understanding of one's role in life. She hadn't counted on the incredible skin-to-skin closeness, the mind-stealing wanting of him, the sensations of strength, slick hard steel and hair-roughened muscle, the magic of hot nights and movement and rising tension, the quivering, peaking desire and finally, the sheer joy of shattering climax. It was enough, almost. The sick, jealous rage at the thought of his hands on another woman's body was her Rubicon. Nola Ruth knew it wasn't the sort of love that would last forever, but she reached for it, taking whatever time she had.
In the end, she might have listened to her better judgment, but he caught her at a bad moment. She would have died to reach that climax. She'd read about women like her, addicts of the flesh, the nymphomaniacs of ancient Greece. For a long time after Anton, she stayed away from men until she met Coleson, warm, dear, wonderful Coleson, who comforted her, loved her, made her feel treasured and secure, helped her to realize it wasn't sex she was addicted to, but the intoxicating heat and presence of Anton Devereaux and the exhilarating rush that came from indulging in the forbidden.
The elopement was absurd and doomed to fail, but the hours that followed were exercises in sensory hedonism, worth everything that came later. Reflecting back, Nola Ruth marveled at the marvelous stroke of fate that had brought Anton Devereaux to New Orleans that summer. Without him, she would never have known passion. Gauging her own marriage and those of her contemporaries, she realized that most women, unless they were willing to risk the shame of discovery, went to their graves never knowing the true meaning of the word.
Her father found them that very day. His influence was great, even in Mississippi. Anton was thrown in jail on charges of kidnapping, statutory rape and misogyny. He was twenty-one to Nola's seventeen. He was black and she white. There was simply no response to the terrifying power, the icy coldness of the four men in blue police uniforms who read the charges. She would never forget the shocked horror on Anton's face when they accused him of abducting and raping a
She waited for news of him for more than two months, but there was nothing. He'd simply disappeared.
If she had been braver, with the steady confidence of Coleson Delacourte or even the foolhardy, throat-closing courage of her daughter, it would have ended differently. She would not have been dispatched to her aunt Eugenie in Marshyhope Creek, where she'd lived behind closed curtains for six months. She would not have given birth in a back bedroom with clenched teeth, cold metal between her legs and tears running down her cheeks. She would not have given up her child into the hands of a colored midwife, yellow-skinned, gold-toothed Drusilla Washington. She would not have risen from that bed believing, for half a lifetime, that nothing more than Anton Devereaux's seed had been cut from her body.
But Nola Ruth was not brave and perhaps it was for the best. If the events had turned out differently, she would never have married Coleson. There would be no Libba and no Chloe. It was a strange thing to realize, this late in life, that her greatest joy lay in anticipation of the time with her daughter and granddaughter.
She never returned to New Orleans, never communicated with her parents and never saw Anton Devereaux again. Her penance was seeing the child, hers and Anton's, nearly every day, although this part she kept from Libba. It tore at her heart and ate away at the pleasure she should have taken in her husband and the daughter they had together.
Libby stared at her mother, eyes wide with horrified comprehension. “My God, Mama. I don't know what to say. Are you saying you have another child, a black child out in the world somewhere?” Her voice cracked. “How could you do that? You, of all people.”
“I told you how.”
“I don't believe it. I
Nola Ruth sighed. “My darling, that's irrelevant.”
Libby shook her head “I don't want to hear this. It isn't fair. Why are you telling me? Why now?”
“I had a very close call, Libba Jane. I won't last forever. I want you to know how it was. I want to do the right thing.” She leaned forward and gripped her daughter's hand. “When the time comes, I want both of my children to share in what I have to leave them. Promise me you'll do this, Libba. Promise me now.”
“Of course I promise. If it makes you feel better, why don't you leave a will?”
“I can't do that.”
“I couldn't bear the humiliation.”
“You'll be dead,” Libby said bluntly.
“It would all have been for nothing. Can't you see that?”
The question loomed between them. Finally, not wanting to know but not able to help herself, Libby voiced it. “Have you kept in touch with this person?”
“I'll tell you, Libba Jane, but not now, not yet. I need to hold on to something.”
“You said you didn't keep anything from Daddy. Surely he doesn't know this.”
Libby stared at her mother, imagining her as she must have been, younger, lovelier, with the same rebellious spirit as her own and Chloe's, only magnified a hundred times more. She stood and nearly fell over. Her legs and back ached with tension. “I think I'll go upstairs,” she said slowly. “Good night, Mama.”
“Aren't you going to kiss me, Libba Jane?”
Libby hesitated. She was angry, but she wasn't clear why. She felt raw and betrayed and not at all like bestowing a gesture of affection on the one responsible for those feelings. Forcing herself, she brushed a brief kiss on her mother's cheek.
Nola Ruth accepted the salute. “Sleep well,” she said, and pretended not to watch her daughter leave the room. They'd all left her, Coleson and Libba Jane and Chloe, forgetting that she couldn't move. It would be Serena who lifted her into her chair and wheeled her to the downstairs bedroom that was hers alone. Cole didn't sleep there with her. In the beginning, he'd tried to, but she wouldn't have him. She refused to have him feel sorry for her. Pity turned so quickly to contempt. She couldn't bear for Cole to hold her in contempt.
She rang the bell and in a moment Serena was by her side. “You here all by yourself, Miz Delacourte? What are they thinking of leaving you alone like this?”
Nola Ruth dismissed their neglect. “It doesn't matter.” And it didn't. She wanted to be alone. Her reverie had stirred the memories. Libba knew enough now. Any more wouldn't be prudent. But there were more tantalizing tidbits from the past and she wanted to finish them. Deliberately, she removed her mind from the present, remaining passive while Serena's cool hands settled her into her chair and wheeled her down the long hall, across the Persian carpet and into her bedroom. “I'll sit awhile, Serena,” she said.
The black woman nodded and positioned the wheelchair by the window. “Shall I check you in an hour or so?”
Nola Ruth nodded. “Sooner, I think. I just had coffee.”
Serena found Nola's cell phone, punched in a number and left it on the small table within reach. She patted her own pocket. “Press the button if you need anything.”
Nola didn't answer. She was far away again. Anton Devereaux had exacted his revenge. He'd stolen her passion and her spirit, the luminous, quivery brightness that set her apart. Desire she'd felt again, but never the heady, reckless, mind-stealing heat that came over when he ran his hand down her spine.
There had been one startling encounter at the Fourth of July picnic after she'd married Cole. It was a stifling, heat-baked afternoon in the town square. Clothing clung to sweat-soaked skin. Flies swarmed around tepid lemonade glasses. Hats wilted and drooped. Noses burned and conversation lagged. Nola Ruth threw her hat on the grass and languidly waved her accordion-folded napkin. A white halter dress flattered the deep gold skin of her back. Heat didn't bother her. Summers in New Orleans were far worse than in Maryland. Cole had gone for another beer. She could see him from her seat under the trees, deep in conversation with a neighbor. A breeze from the bay cooled her bare shoulders and lifted her hat, carrying it several feet from where she sat. Before she could move, a lean, masculine form retrieved it. “I believe this is yours,” the man said.
He wasn't Anton, but she knew the type, or rather, she felt his pull. The magic, the desperate sexual addiction she'd felt for her first love, had begun just this way, a smoldering glance, a brushing of skin, a casual question that wasn't casual at all. Nola reached for her hat with her left hand. She didn't miss his gold wedding ring.