Authors: Virginia Henley
Nicholas bent his head to Jennifer who was eating with Beau. "As soon as you are finished, we will be leaving."
She looked vexed enough to slap him, but said sweetly enough, "Oh, I wanted to stay for the dancing. You go ahead, Mr. Peacock; Beau will escort me home."
He smiled ruefully. "I'm afraid not. I always leave with the lady I escorted."
There was such a note of finality in his voice, she did not dare protest further, and she noted with disgust that Beau did not attempt to stand up to him.
Nicholas found his hostess and smoothly thanked her for the lovely evening. "I'm afraid Miss Amanda's first grown-up social event has been too much for her. I suspect it's long past her bedtime." He picked up Mandy and carried her to the waiting carriage.
She opened her eyes wide for one second, saw who held her so securely, and went back to sleep instantly.
It was left up to Mammy Lou to gather her other charge and deliver her to the carriage. As soon as it began to pull from the long driveway, Mandy screamed, "Ouch!" Now fully awake, she gave Nicholas a bewildered look. "Did you pinch me?"
"No, I did!" Jenny was no longer able to contain her temper. "I was never so humiliated in my whole life. Not satisfied to hiccup through Heather Claremont's solo, you yawned all the way through Mr. Burford Reeve's beautiful ballads!"
"I tried to stop, but the more I tried, the faster they came."
"What do you suppose a fan is for?" Jennifer demanded. "Haven't you the sense to hid your yawns behind your fan?"
"I... I lost it," Mandy lied.
Mammy Lou would have loved to add book and chapter to Mandy's shortcomings, but with Nicholas's censorious eye upon her, she could only sit with her lips clamped shut.
"When mother hears what happened, she will be ill again," Jennifer said. Her lips looked thin and cruel.
Nicholas drawled, "That would be unkind of you to deliberately make your mother ill. I question your motives Miss Jackson."
The reprimand, coupled with the frustration of sitting through such a boring evening, only to miss the dancing, proved her undoing. Jenny burst into tears. Used to men making a fuss over her when she cried, she was surprised when Nicholas calmly handed her his handkerchief and gave his attention to her sister.
Under cover of the wide crinoline, Nicholas took Mandy's hand in his and gently squeezed it. She left her hand in his all the way home, wishing everyone could be like him.
As the carriage turned into the Jackson Plantation, a far-off rumble of thunder could be heard. Amanda clutched at Nick's hand frantically and her face drained of color. "There isn't going to be a storm, is there?" she whispered.
"I hope so," Jenny taunted. "It will be punishment from the gods!"
"Whatever do you mean?" Nicholas asked.
"She's terrified of storms, didn't you know? Hides on the floor of her closet like a little wild animal."
Nicholas squeezed Amanda's hand before she bolted from the carriage. He felt as if he was abandoning her to face alone the wrath of the gods.
By Spring, twice as many acres at Paradise were either drained or cleared for cotton planting. The new gin mill stood beside the stables, and a long row of a dozen sturdy cabins housed Nicholas Peacock's men.
At the same time as the cotton seed was planted, Nicholas had hundreds of camellia cuttings he had begged, borrowed, and stolen from every garden in the county. He had laid out the ground work for a maze modeled after the one he had seen at Hampton Court, only this one would be designed with camellia bushes.
This year Nick eschewed tobacco so he could increase the size of his cotton crop.
Last year cotton brought twelve cents a pound and there's every indication the price will rise this year.
He was glad he'd cut out the middlemen when selling his bales, but often mused about how much a pound he could get if he shipped his own cotton to Liverpool.
When Nicholas went into Charleston after the planting season was over, he made the acquaintance of a captain in the American Merchant Marine. Their speedy clipper ships dominated the seas, carrying the cream of the world's commerce. Through this connection, he met both captains and owners of vessels whose trade route was Charleston--Nassau--Liverpool. He became friendly with Rafe Collins who owned three clippers and was having another one built for him in England.
When Nick visited Maggie, he spoke of Rafe. "We became fast friends almost from the moment we met. We recognized that we shared similar qualities."
"Personal magnetism?" she teased lightly, sitting up in bed. She was always pleased that Nicholas didn't mind conversing after they'd made love.
"A sense of humor. Rafe is a product of an explosive mixed marriage. His mother was Spanish and his father Irish. He's hot-tempered, but as quick to cool down as he is to flare up."
"Does he have the impossibly handsome looks of both nationalities?"
"Ah yes. He's a devil with the ladies. They can't resist his sooty black lashes and the blue shadow that covers his chin no matter how often he shaves."
"A good friend with ships will certainly be an asset for you."
Nicholas agreed. "I've contracted with Rafe for this year's cotton crop, along with the money left from last year's crop, for a half-interest in two of his vessels. The minute the sails are finished being sewn on the new ship, we'll load it with a cargo of furniture from the finest English craftsmen."
"There is a huge demand for Sheraton and Chippendale desks, dining furniture, wine tables, and hall stands. Southern ladies are partial to pieces made from mahogany, cherry, or rosewood."
"I've promised myself that when we harvest next year's cotton, I'll sail with it so I can have the satisfaction of selling my own bales to the merchants in Liverpool."
"You have big plans, Nick. I hope they come to fruition. A cargo of fine silks, crystal, and wines would bring a fortune in Charleston."
At last the house on Paradise Hill was begun, and Nicholas worked night and day to accomplish his dreams.
Summer brought the gossips a feast of delicious tidbits to pass around and digest because of three events concerning the Jacksons.
Brandon was sent home from his military college in Virginia, and it almost wrecked the plans that had been underway for weeks for Jennifer Joy's eighteenth birthday party.
Before he went home, Brandon stopped at Paradise to unload his conscience on Nick and recruit him an an ally. He smoothed his long blonde mustache nervously. "The thing is Nick, there's not a damned bit of use my giving Father the lie for he can always tell. Besides, there's not many things you get sent down for. Stealing, cheating on examinations, and having a female in your bed. Well hell, I couldn't hold my head up in the county if folks thought I stole or cheated. The place thrives on gossip."
Nicholas was amused. "Isn't it a bit ironic? You got sent up there for having a female in your bed."
"See what I mean about gossip? Every family knows every iota of business of every other family hereabouts. It's the slaves' grapevine you know. Can't keep their tongues from white folks' affairs. Brandon missed the double entendre of his own words. His body servant, Jim, who had been at school with him, stood by grinning.
"Seems to me it's a fool thing to get sent down over. Couldn't you talk your way out of it with your commanding officer?"
"Not very well. It was his daughter, I'm afraid."
Nick's eyebrows rose. "Well, I've always found the best way is to face up to trouble. Get it over with. Like grasping a thistle, if you're firm it doesn't hurt, but if you go at it gingerly, it will prick hell out of you. Tell your father privately. There's big doings tonight-- it's Jenny's birthday party."
"God Almighty, I clean forgot. That will divert attention from me. Would you consider going early, then I can arrive with you?" he asked anxiously.
Nick nodded. "If Bernard plays hellfire, I'll plead your case."
Brandon turned to Jim. "Go on home. No need to wait for me, I'll be along with Nicholas."
"That's like sending your calling card."
Brandon grinned. "True. If Jim shows up, they know I can't be far behind. Take the edge off the shock."
When the two friends arrived in the late afternoon, Brandon saw he had made a tactical error. His Father had been forewarned. He was all prepared and awaiting him. The house servants rolled their eyes at him, proving their knowledge, but Nicholas realized the ladies had no idea.
"Why Nicholas Peacock, whatever are you doin' here? My heavens, it can't be time for my guests to arrive," Jennifer said panic stricken.
"All is well. I came early to see if I could be of help."
"There must be a million things to do. Ask Charles. Where's Mother?" She fluttered about helplessly.
"I brought you this, Jennifer." Nick handed her a bolt of finest damask linen. "It's for your hope chest. I had Captain Collins bring it on his last voyage."
"Ohh," she breathed, fingering the heavily embossed material. "It's beautiful. Thank you, Nicholas. I'll give it to Mammy Lou to put away for me. Please forgive me, but I must dash."
He heard Amanda's voice behind him. "It will take four maids and two hours to prepare her for the party." She put her head to one side. "You think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. Actually you put our Jenny in a moral quandary just now."
"How so?" he puzzled.
"Young ladies are not supposed to take gifts from gentlemen unless it's candy or flowers. How often I've heard that little drill. All other gifts must be politely refused. Fast girls accept gifts. Men try to take liberties with fast girls. Jenny should have refused the damask. Either she's too acquisitive to refuse beautiful presents... or she wants you to take liberties." Mandy's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, I forgot, Mother will be on pins. I'm supposed to be finding Porter to carry her downstairs."
"I saw him up the driveway as I rode in. I think he's stringing fancy lanterns in the trees. I'll go upstairs and get her."
"Good. Mother has a particularly soft spot for you."
Miss Caroline's sitting room was upstairs over her husband's office. The door was ajar and Nicholas could see her in her chair out on the wide verandah. He went toward her and suddenly stopped as he heard angry voices floating up from below. She was so engrossed in the conversation,that she was totally unaware of him.
Nick heard Brandon's voice as he shouted incredulously, "Abstain? I should abstain? You're nothing but a hypocrite! I suppose you've abstained since mother's been in that damned chair of hers? I suppose that woman you keep in Virginia is a figment of my imagination?"
"That's different," roared his father.
My God, she shouldn't be hearing this.
Nicholas coughed loudly. "Good afternoon Miss Caroline, I've come to lift you downstairs." The easy grin was in place, his warm eyes looked frankly into hers as if he was unaware of anything untoward.
White-faced, she said tightly, "Give me a few moments, Nicholas."
When her composure returned quickly, he thought,
she knew before this; she just wasn't aware that Brandon knew.
She smiled and asked lightly, "Tell me Nicholas, whatever shall I tell our guests about Brandon's untimely return from the Academy?"
"Virginia isn't the only state with good schools. Simply tell them he's transferring to the University in Charleston so that he can be closer to home." He added softly, "It doesn't really matter what you tell them, Miss Caroline, they'll think whatever they want to think anyway."
"You are probably right, my dear boy. You think so differently than we here in the South. Here, appearances are everything. We even deceive ourselves, I'm afraid." She sighed. "Take me down now. The moment they hear me coming, the menfolk will hush up their disgusting shouting match so that I won't hear a breath of scandal, and of course I shall pretend ignorance."
As Nicholas carried her chair down the stairs, the library door opened and Brandon moved up the steps quickly to help him.
"Brandon, darlin', how lovely of you to come home for Jenny's party," she said sweetly.
He bent to kiss her cheek. "Mother, I hope you've been well."
"Why, I'm just bloomin', now that y'all are here."
Only Nicholas seemed aware of the terrible strain on her.
"Set me down in the dining room so I can inspect the buffet. Be a darlin' Nicholas, and send Mammy Lou and Cleo to me."
The house had been transformed. Baskets of flowers banked the walls of the large front sitting room. The spacious entrance hall had had the carpet and furniture removed for dancing. The musicians arrived and set up their music and instruments beside the piano.
With amusement, Nicholas began to count the number of servants that paraded from kitchen to dining room. He had just reached a count of fourteen when Bernard invited him into his office for a drink.
Jackson splashed a generous pony of bourbon for Nicholas and one for himself and drink it down. "God Almighty, I needed that. Did you know the reason that young devil's been sent down from school?" he demanded hotly.
Nicholas nodded. "Did you know when you raise your voice it can be heard upstairs in Miss Caroline's room?"
"My God, no! You don't mean she heard all the things I accused him of?"
"Worse. She heard all the things he accused you of," he said quietly.
The older man looked so ashen, Nick poured him another drink. "I went up to get her, and I know she heard what I heard. If it's any consolation, she only seemed worried what to tell the guests about Brandon. I suggested she tell them he was transferring to the University of Charleston so that he could be closer to home."