Read Chesapeake Tide Online

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

Chesapeake Tide (23 page)

Thurgood Marshall, a brilliant young former NAACP attorney with grandiose ideas was head counsel. He was thrilled and more than a little relieved when Cole offered his services. The press went wild. Southern Lawyer Defends Negro's Right to Attend White Schools in Segregationist State. Delacourte Supports Integration. Southern Democrat Betrays His Roots.

Nola Ruth Beauchamp read the New Orlean's
Chronicle
while sipping her morning chocolate. The Supreme Court had agreed to review what she now called Coleson's Case. She read the article, word for word. They called him a hero in the North, a traitor in the South. Her father peering over her shoulder, caught a glimpse of the headline and shuddered. “You showed remarkable judgment over that one, my dear. He would not have done for you at all.”

Nola Ruth was nineteen years old, a young woman of astute intelligence, remarkable charm and no marriage prospects in sight. Coleson Delacourte had a brilliant future. Nola Ruth had a sordid past, too much pride to hide it and too much integrity to lie. At the time he proposed, she thought it best to end the relationship. She'd cringed at the thought of destroying his regard for her and decided to take the painless way out, offering no explanation. But that was before
Wade
v.
Laurel, Mississippi.
A man who would risk his reputation and defy his heritage might just possibly be the kind of man who could weather the storm that could arise from rumors of a less-than-perfect wife.

Folding the paper, she passed it to her father and picked up the phone. “Carrie Jean?” she said pleasantly to the woman at the switchboard, “this is Nola Ruth Beauchamp. I want to send a telegram to Mr. Coleson Delacourte at the law offices of Hayes and Brackett in Washington, D.C. Can you call the office for me?” She waited. “That's fine, just as long as it gets there this morning.” She laughed. “No, one line is all I need. Ask him if his proposal is still on the table. I'll be down to pay you later.”

When she hung up and faced her father, his eyes were the cold gray of Arctic ice. “Are you mad?” he asked, aghast.

“No,” she replied briefly and firmly. “I'm in love.”

“You've said that before,” he reminded her.

“The circumstances are different.”

“I forbid it.”

Her voice would have frozen the words in a better man's mouth. “We both seem to be repeating ourselves this morning.”

Unwisely, her father brought up the subject he'd forever closed. “What will he do when you tell him about your previous indiscretion?”

She smiled and lifted her sweater from the back of her chair. “I have no idea, but when I find out I'll be sure to let you know.”

She received her answer that very morning, a single word on yellow paper,
“Yes.”

The next afternoon she flew to Washington. Cole met her at the airport, taking her small white-gloved hands in his large ones. “I may not win this one, Nola. Will you be happy with a simple country lawyer?”

“That depends.”

He frowned. It wasn't the answer he expected. “If you have doubts, I won't rush you,” he said slowly. “It's a lifetime we're deciding here.”

Her tears were already forming. She didn't deserve him. “You don't have to worry about me, darling. But there is something I have to tell you. If you decide you can't marry me, if you have any reservations at all, tell me now.”

“That won't happen,” he said firmly.

She laid her finger against his lips. “Just let me talk and don't interrupt.”

“Where would you like to go?”

She thought a minute. “The Lincoln Memorial might be an appropriate place.”

He threw back his head and laughed. “We were meant for each other, Nola Ruth. What are the odds of two Southerners choosing the Lincoln Memorial to exchange confidences?”

“A million to one,” she replied promptly.

They climbed the sunlit steps leading to the massive statue of Abraham Lincoln. There, in the privacy of hushed darkness, she began. “I may not be capable of having children.”

Cole expelled a sigh of relief. “Is that all? If you want children, we can adopt.”

“It's not that simple.”

He waited.

Nola Ruth bit her lip and forced out the words. “I had a baby, Cole, when I was seventeen years old. I gave her up.”

He was stunned. “Why would you do such a thing? Wouldn't the father marry you?”

“He did marry me.”

This was worse, much worse. Cole wasn't what anyone would call a practicing Catholic, but he would no more have changed his religion than he would deny his parentage. Nola Ruth would not be allowed to marry in the church. He looked at her downcast face. Tears welled up in her eyes. Cursing himself for his insensitivity, he led her into a darkened corner and pulled her into his arms. “Don't cry, darling. Just tell me. We'll get through it, no matter what.”

And so she told him, leaving nothing out. She spoke of the intoxicating sexual pull that had drawn her down such a path. She described the illicit meetings, the mind-stealing power of their lovemaking, her family's disapproval, the makeshift wedding in the sleazy parlor of the justice of the peace in Nicholson, Mississippi, their humiliating discovery by her father, and the silent ride back to New Orleans. With her face pressed against his shoulder, her sobs muffled by the expensive wool of his coat, she told of the weeks that followed. Cold, lonely weeks spent in the isolation of her room, never once visited by either parent, boredom interrupted only by delivered meals, weeks where she waited for word from the man who'd promised to love her forever.

Finally, her father demanded her presence in the library. There, he told her that she would spend the rest of her confinement with her aunt Eugenie in Marshyhope Creek. She would spend the entire time inside the house so as not embarrass her aunt. Arrangements had been made to take the child. She would return home when the ordeal was over. It had all happened according to plan, except for returning home. Not able to even think of going back to New Orleans, she'd stayed on in Marshyhope Creek and, later, met Cole.

When she finished, Cole's hands were clenched and his mouth was tight with rage. “Do you know what happened to the father of your child?” he asked.

She looked up at him, her eyes burning with intensity. “What do you think happens to a black man in the deep South who has the effrontery to marry a white woman, Cole?”

When he spoke, his voice had a quality she had never heard before. “Nola,” he said humbly, “if you'll have me, I promise to treat you with the utmost respect for the rest of our lives.”

They were married the following week at St. Jude's, the small Catholic chapel in Frenchman's Cove. According to Father Raymond there was no impediment to a marriage in the church as long as Nola Ruth made a full confession. Her aunt Eugenie was the only attending member of the Beauchamp family. The Delacourtes were weak with relief. Despite Cole's notoriety, he had chosen well, a Southern woman of good family, from his own class and religion. They knew nothing, of course, of Nola's indiscretion.

Meanwhile, Cole's star burned brightly. He gained national approval for his role in
Wade v. Laurel, Mississippi.
Case after public case came his way. There wasn't a national newspaper or magazine that didn't carry his picture at least once a week. James Farmer, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, requested his services, as did Floyd McKissick and a young minister named Jesse Jackson, who headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His defense of civil rights leaders shook his popularity with those who would have preferred that he limit his practice to whites who could afford his services.

Public opinion did not concern Cole. He won cases, hundreds of them. That was enough, that and the interesting prospect of rising to Attorney General of the United States. Cole Delacourte was ambitious. If waiving his fees and if saving the skins of men with a cause was the price he had to pay, he would pay it.

Nola Ruth was the perfect wife. While she disagreed with his taking pro bono cases, in public she supported him unconditionally, never complaining of late nights or long, empty weekends when his work kept him in Washington, while she remained in Marshyhope Creek awaiting the birth of their eagerly anticipated first child.

Nola was a wonderful mother. The lessons she'd learned growing up in the Beauchamp household were put to good use. Years of silent disapproval and icy reprimands were thrown out the window. Libba was surrounded with all the glowing warmth and welcome stored inside Nola Ruth's sensitive heart.

Coleson Delacourte, Catholic, a generational Democrat, well-known attorney and civil rights advocate, was borne along on the tidal wave of change and opportunity that had begun in the early sixties, with a handsome, young, Catholic idealist who had occupied the Oval Office and promised a new beginning for America. For Cole, those years were a dream come true until that dream was shattered with dramatic and shuddering finality.

At first, the path of his career mirrored the dead president's policies. Cole believed that his successor would carry out Kennedy's plans. But Johnson couldn't get past Vietnam. His obsession for victory divided Congress and, eventually, the country. It put Cole and the man who would determine his future on opposite sides of the fence. Cole couldn't support Vietnam. It was a hopeless struggle and the death toll was terrifying.

Faces on the television screen haunted his sleep. They were boys' faces, mostly black, like the faces he'd grown up with. The South was unfairly represented in Vietnam. Injustice disturbed him, and this war, more than anything else, more than the accepted segregation still prevalent everywhere he looked, was unjust.

But Cole Delacourte was a powerful and popular political figure. The new president needed his endorsement for a second term. Cole thought long and hard but ultimately decided against it. He had his future to think about. His enemies would have a field day. Every liberal cause he'd supported, every controversial case he'd fought through the long and difficult sixties would have been for nothing. He wasn't naive enough to believe that the schoolteacher from Texas would lose the election, but victory would have to come from someone else's endorsement. Johnson wouldn't be president forever, and when he stepped down Cole would still be a young man. There was time enough to return to Washington. Better to go home, spend time with his wife, watch his daughter grow.

Two days after his conversation with the president, the first letter came, typewritten on a manual machine with a faulty
“y.”
Cole was more than a little shaken. Who could possibly have known about Nola Ruth's former psuedo-marriage? No demands accompanied the letter. He decided to ignore it. Three days later, another came. This time the words were handwritten, in block print, and accompanied with a photo of seventeen-year-old Nola Ruth Beauchamp standing beside a handsome, light-skinned black man, Anton Devereaux.

Cole stared curiously at the picture of his wife. He had never seen a photo of her as a young girl. When the Beauchamps refused to attend their wedding, Nola Ruth had written them off. She knew nothing of their lives and they knew nothing of hers, save what was written about her famous husband in the newspapers.

A candid photo rarely captured the essence of a person, but this one revealed something that captured Cole's interest. The young woman with the huge dark eyes and rounded cheeks was on the brink of laughter. She sparkled with a brimming, youthful vitality that Cole didn't recognize. His Nola was always pleasant and cultured and extremely accommodating, but she never sparkled.

He'd first noticed the lack in family pictures taken beside Libba. Side by side, his two women were incredibly alike in figure and feature, but Libba glowed from within with a radiance that her mother couldn't compete with. The young woman whose hand clutched Anton Devereaux's arm so possessively had that same bright, inexplicable quality. Whatever had happened to Nola back in New Orleans had forever taken the luster from her face.

The next time, the letter came with explicit instructions. Endorse Lyndon Johnson's candidacy or the political career of Cole Delacourte was finished. Nola Ruth's annulment would become front-page news. The marriage alone would have posed no problem. The Catholic Church had assured Cole of that. It was his illusive nemesis's knowledge of her adopted child that swayed him. Blackmail was repugnant to Cole. Normally, he would have accepted the challenge, but this time there were others to consider. He couldn't forget Nola's face when she confessed her sordid tale all those years ago. And now there was Libba to consider as well.

After his less-than-enthusiastic public endorsement of the president who, in the end, decided against another term, Cole retired from politics and began his own practice in Marshyhope Creek. The golden years were over. He preferred small, noncontroversial cases, although he continued to take on needy clients. Slowly, he amassed a comfortable living. Life was good, but uninspired. There were moments of regret for the man he had been, the one who couldn't be bought. With them came the knowledge that Nola had been right from the beginning. A man with his future should not have married a woman with her past. Then he would look at her face, run his hands down the ivory-skinned length of her body, feel the blood-searing heat of his need and her answering passion, and know it could have turned out no other way.

Tw
enty-Two

C
hloe turned around and looked over her shoulder into the mirror, adjusting the new denim skirt and sleeveless yellow top. Her hair was her own again, shiny straight and very blond. Last night she'd allowed her mother to trim off the black ends. Despite her protestations otherwise, she was nervous and more than a little concerned about making the right impression on her first day at school. At least she didn't have to walk in alone. Tess Hennessey was meeting her in front of the flagpole. Chloe wanted to go with Bailey, but he wasn't sure if he was going to show up at all.

The verdict was still out when it came to Bailey Jones. He fascinated and repelled her at the same time. She'd never known anyone who was allowed such freedom, and yet, in Bailey's case, it came with huge responsibilities. She definitely didn't want to trade places with him. His mother was dying and he could do nothing but make her as comfortable as possible and wait. It wasn't as if he was frightened about what would happen after she was gone. Bailey had been on his own for a long time.

“It's time, Chloe. You don't want to be late the first day,” her mother called from the hallway.

Chloe slipped her feet into red mules, grabbed her backpack and ran downstairs. “I don't think I want to buy lunch today,” she said. “I'll just grab an apple from the refrigerator.”

Libby dug into her purse, producing three one dollar bills. “Take these, anyway. You might change your mind.”

Chloe tucked them into her pocket. “Thanks, Mom.”

Libby bit her lip. Her heart overflowed with love for this gamin-faced, difficult child.

“Chloe, you've been a good sport about this, especially lately. If it doesn't work out for you, we'll figure something else out. Okay?”

Chloe nodded. “Okay. Let's go, Mom. We don't want to be late.”

The green lawn surrounding the brick buildings of Marshyhope Creek's single high school milled with adolescents sporting bright new clothing, summer tans, tentative smiles and shoes not yet broken in. Boys and girls congregated in small groups segregated by race, laughing, talking loudly and animatedly gesturing. Libby's hand tightened on the steering wheel. What had she done? Had she been insane to think that Chloe, an outsider from California, could actually infiltrate one of these tightly knit groups and be accepted? Suddenly she felt ill. She turned to Chloe, words of apology forming on her lips.

Chloe stared out the window, eyes narrowed. Then her face lit with relief. “There's Tess, by the flagpole. You can let me out here.”

“Are you sure, Chloe?” Libby whispered.

Chloe frowned at her mother. “Are you sick? You look really pale. Maybe you should go back home and lie down.”

“I—I'm fine,” stammered Libby. She leaned over to kiss Chloe's cheek. “Have a good day.” She watched as more than a few heads turned to follow Chloe's progress across the courtyard. Resting her head against the window, she waited until Tess Hennessey and another dark-haired girl separated to include Chloe into their circle. Unable to stand the drama any longer, Libby pulled out onto the road and drove the rest of the way into town.

Perk's Open for Business sign hung in the window. Libby parked, grabbed her wallet and keys and walked inside. A bleary-eyed Verna Lee sat at the counter nursing a cup of coffee.

Libby sat down beside her. “What's new?” she asked.

Verna Lee threaded her fingers into her long curls and pulled them through. “This has been the longest week of my life. You probably already know they let my grandmother out on bail. Apparently they didn't think she was a flight risk.”

“I should think not.”

The black woman shook her head. “Don't be too sure. She's talking about going away, disappearing. She thinks she won't get a fair trial.”

“Of course she will.”

Verna Lee's yellow eyes flashed. “
You
know that, Libba Jane, and I know it, but we're talking about an old black woman who's lived through some tough times. It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that my grandmother doesn't trust our judicial system.”

“Does she have a choice? Where would she go?”

Verna Lee sagged against the counter and pressed her palm against her forehead. “I don't know.”

“What about you? Do you trust the judicial system?”

Verna Lee's lower lip pursed. “To tell you the truth, Libba Jane, the only one I trust is your daddy.”

“That's not a bad place to start. Drusilla's out on bail, isn't she?”

“For the time being. I just wish—”

Libby waited but the woman didn't finish. “What?” Libby prodded her gently.

Verna Lee shrugged. “It's nothing. It's just that I feel very much alone. Some people are never here when you need them.” She laughed bitterly. “That says something, doesn't it?”

Privately, Libby agreed with her, but she kept thoughts of Cliff Jackson to herself. She slipped her arm around Verna Lee's shoulders. “How about dinner? It's Chloe's first day of school. She'll torture us with details about who wore what and who said this or that until you're so confused you won't be able to think about this for a while.”

“Dinner?” Verna Lee stared at her. “At your house?” She shook her head. “I don't think so, but thanks for the invitation.”

“We could do lunch,” Libby suggested.

“I stay open for lunch. It's my busiest time.”

Libby shouldered her purse. “Suit yourself. It seems to me that you could use a friend.”

Verna laid a placating hand on her arm. “I appreciate your offer, Libba Jane. Really I do. It's just not the right time. I'm sorry.”

Libby studied the black woman. Verna Lee was lovely and scared and very proud.

“Don't worry about it,” she said. “Another time, maybe.”

Verna Lee nodded. “Maybe.”

Outside again, Libby looked at her watch. It wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning and a wet September heat had already blanketed the bay. Praying that the air-conditioning in the EPA office had kicked in, she drove down the street toward the dock. If all had gone as planned, Russ's meeting was scheduled for tonight.

She heard their voices before she stepped out on the street. His was low and measured. Hers, high, strident, close to hysterical. Both were obviously furious. Libby stepped into the fray. Russ was seated behind his desk. Tracy stood near the door.

“Good morning,” Libby said brightly. She looked from Russ to Tracy, once more making a mental note of the woman's clear gray eyes. “Am I interrupting?”

“No,” Russ said bluntly. “She was just leaving.”

Two bright spots of color dotted Tracy's cheeks. Her eyes glittered. “Hello, Libba Jane. What do you think of a man who refuses to take financial responsibility for his own daughter?”

He cut her off. “Did you think of that one all by yourself, Tracy, or did you swim along the bottom with your mouth open?”

“I can't believe I ever thought you were a gentleman.”

“I can't believe you would use Tess as leverage to get more money from me,” he countered. “She's a child, not to be used for purposes of blackmail. Support has nothing to do with visitation. Besides, the issue has already been settled legally. Your own daddy couldn't get any more from me than you already do. If you need more money, get yourself a job.”

“How can I work when I have Tess?” she snapped. “I'm a mother.”

“So is Libba and she's worked since her daughter was born, along with the majority of the American work force, which you would know if you ever picked up a newspaper.”

“Really?” The spots of color on Tracy's cheeks deepened. “Well, bully for Libba Jane and all the other superwomen in America.” She picked up her purse. “I wasn't raised to work, Russ. You knew that when you married me.

“The circumstances are different. You're a single mother. You have one child and she's in school most of the day. I'm not asking you to leave a baby. Hell, I'm not even asking you to work if you don't want to, just live within your means like the rest of the world. You might
like
working, maybe find some purpose to your life, besides Tess. You might even meet someone and find some happiness. How are you gonna do that holed up in your daddy's big white house all day?”

“One venture into marriage was disaster enough for me,” Tracy said primly. She nodded at Libby. “Good day, Libba Jane.”

Libby waited until Tracy's steps died away on the boardwalk. Then she turned to Russ, her eyes wide and amused. “My goodness. I had no idea she was such a drama queen. Her talents are wasted here in the Creek.”

He laughed, pushed his chair away from the desk and walked around it to stand in front of her. “She always wants more money. Her daddy spoiled her. She's thirty-six years old with nothing to show for it except a useless college degree that's as untouched as the day she got it. She's smart enough, but her sense of entitlement makes it hard for her to associate money with working. She's undisciplined and mentally scattered, hardly employee material. Tess gives her an excuse to harass me.”

Libby stared at him. “This can't be good for you, Russ. How's your blood pressure?”

“There isn't much I can do about it. She's got my daughter.”

Libby folded her arms and looked at the floor.

“I know that look,” he said. “What's on your mind?”

“It seems to me you can do a lot about it.”

Russ frowned. “How?”

“Don't allow yourself to get so upset. You said you have a legal agreement. Stick to it. Stop arguing. Be logical and brief and mature. Don't allow the manipulation. When you feel yourself losing it, tell her you'll get back to her later.”

He was silent for a long minute. Libby wondered if she'd gone too far.

Suddenly he smiled. “Where did you get to be so smart?”

She groaned. “I've spent my purgatory in the D.A.'s office in Ventura County watching lawyers mediate between angry parents.”

“Good Lord. I'm sorry.”

“That's behind me for the time being.” She changed the subject. “I wanted to know how long the meeting will be tonight and if there's anything specific you want me to cover.”

“Just be up front. Explain why there's a fishing moratorium and what you're looking for. You might give them some background on some of the side effects of PCBs in drinking water and fish. Allow about a half hour for your talk and then some time for questions. Anything less than that and they'll feel it wasn't worth the trip.”

“I think I can manage that.”

His face changed. “You're beautiful,” he said unexpectedly. “I don't know if I've ever told you that, but you are. More so than when you were a kid.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“I'd like to kiss you, Libba,” he said softly. “In fact, I'd like to do a whole lot more than that. Will you let me?”

He'd tossed her the ball. It was a new strategy for him. Libby had been perfectly willing to assume the subservient role, justifying her response by claiming he'd swept her off her feet. But he'd pulled the rug out from under her, forced her to step up to the plate and stand by her actions as an equal participant. She stared at him, lost in a quandary of surprise and indecision.

“What's the matter, Libba Jane? Cat got your tongue?”

She shook her head.

“Say something. I'm not gonna jump your bones unless you want me to.”

“That's—” Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and tried again. “That's just it.”

“What, sweetheart?”

“What if I want it now and not later, or what if you do and then later don't?”

“You're confusing me.”

She tried again. “What if one of us changes our mind and the other doesn't?”

“That's life, Libba Jane,” he said gently. “No one knows how he's gonna think or feel in ten years. It's a crapshoot. You just do what you feel is right and see where the roll takes you.”

“That philosophy didn't work for me before.”

“For me, neither,” Russ agreed. “But would you change it now that you have Chloe?”

“I'd change a lot of it.”

“No, you wouldn't. If Eric Richards hadn't come into your life you wouldn't have that gorgeous blue-eyed spitfire of a daughter.”

She almost said what she was thinking, but decided against it. She would not open the subject of blue eyes with Russ.

He reached out and took her hand, pulling her closer.

His throat was brown from working on the trawlers. He smelled like salt and soap and sun. This was better, much better. She wasn't comfortable being the initiator.

He bent his head. His lips touched her ear, his breath stirring the wisps of hair at her temple. “I asked you a question. What's your answer?”

She closed her eyes. “A kiss,” she whispered. “A kiss would be nice. You always were a good—”

His mouth, warm and firm and assured, stopped her words. It wasn't a long kiss, but it was long enough for her to know the answer to the rest of his question. She wanted Russ Hennessey, more than she'd wanted him all those years ago when he'd first sweet-talked her out of her virginity. Her hands sifted through his hair. She twined her right leg around his left and pressed against him.

“Jeez, Libba Jane.” His voice was air-filled, shaky. He held her away from him, searching her face. Her eyes were brown-black, the pupils and irises all one color. Her mouth was soft and kiss-swollen. He swore softly and dropped his hands. “You better mean this.”

She stared back at him. “I need you to promise me something.”

His eyes narrowed. “What's that?”

“If we do this, you can't do it with anyone else.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“You heard me,” she said calmly. “If we have sex, I want you to stop having it with anyone else.”

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