He played with her breasts until they ached with a fullness that was at once both pain and pleasure. With encouragement from him, she began to touch his body as she had longed to. She started with one finger against his lips, then traced down the heavily corded throat to the massive shoulders. She threaded her fingers through the thick pelt of hair that matted his chest, and on a daring impulse kissed his nipples and touched the tip of her tongue to first one and then the other. As they hardened and budded, every inch of him responded to the tantalizing sensation she aroused. Her hand moved to his flat belly and she traced tiny circles about his navel.
A few large drops of rain warned of a coming downpour. He bit off a curse and hurriedly helped her to replace and fasten the top of her gown. "How can I bear to let you go?" But he knew it was best this way, at least for her, he told himself sternly. He stepped from under the trees and let the rain wash over his body in hope that it would cool the raging heat of his blood as it throbbed along his veins.
When Brandon arrived to pick up Jennifer for the overnight trip to Blackville, he drove his own carriage. What she hadn't let on to anybody was the fact that they were picking up Beau Hampden before traveling up there. As Jenny waved goodbye from the well-sprung carriage, she thought smugly that though Nicholas had forbidden her to go with Beau, she had managed to do so in spite of her brother-in-law's strictures.
When they stopped for Beau, he gestured to his body servant to climb onto the footpad behind the carriage. Jenny tossed her head. "He can't come. I'm doing without a maid, so you can leave your body servant at home."
Beau whispered in her ear, "I'll leave him home if you'll shave me and do for me, Jen."
She slapped him playfully. "Now you behave, Beau Hampden, or I swear I'll never speak to you again."
It took most of the day to drive up to Blackville, and by late afternoon the novelty had worn off for Jennifer. Her bantering mood had long ago disappeared, as she longed for a cool bath. Even the effort of holding her parasol to protect her face from the hot sun had become an arduous task for her aching arms. Jennifer had turned peevish, and all attempts at chatter had ceased miles back.
At last they reached the property where the farm was located, and curiosity chased away weariness. They expected to see some sort of harvested crops in the fields surrounding the farm, but all they saw were long, low buildings, surrounded by barbed wire compounds. Altogether there were five such buildings, not counting the house.
The house was a disappointment in itself. It was made from logs like the other buildings, but it was on the small side and had a neglected air about it. For one thing it badly needed a fresh coat of paint. By contrast, the other buildings were clay-daubed against rats and weasels, and were freshly whitewashed.
The blue twilight shadowed the compounds, but as they got closer they saw dozens of young blacks. They were segregated by age and by sex. In one compound all the females were really still children, while in another, all the wenches were obviously with child.
Brandon's eyes opened wide in astonished realization. "Lord God Almighty, it's a breedin' farm!"
"No wonder Daddy didn't want us to come up here," Jennifer said avidly.
"By God, Jenny, you shouldn't be here. One thing's certain-- Mother didn't know about this. She must be turnin' in her grave."
When Brandon stopped the carriage, a man with a burly chest and thick neck approached. He had a gun slung on his hip in an open holster that was strapped to his leg. "Y'all got bidness here?"
Brandon got down from the carriage. "I'm Brandon Jackson. I suppose you could call me the owner."
The factor went a dull red. "Sorry, Mist' Jackson. I'm used to dealin' with your pa. Name's Jeb... Jeb Sloan. Come to the house an' make yourselves to home. Nothin' fancy, no fit place for a lady," he apologized.
"Yes, that is a problem, Sloan. This is my sister and I guess we are going to have to keep it between ourselves that she ever came here."
"No problem, no problem," he assured them.
Beau helped Jennifer from the carriage, and Jeb summoned a white youth and gave him instructions. "See to the horse and then fetch Topaz from the sheds." He handed him a bunch of keys and turned back to the visitors. "Traveling parches the throat. Come in an' wash the dust away, genlemen."
The house was furnished plainly with serviceable furniture. Jennifer, whose eyes missed nothing, noticed with surprise that most of the furnishings had come from the Jackson Plantation.
Whenever Mother refurnished, the old pieces somehow found their way up here.
The place was tidy, but certainly not up to the immaculate standards that Jennifer was used to. Under normal circumstances she would have put her dainty nose in the air and refused to stay, but at the moment she was busy calculating the worth of the cash crop they had just discovered.
Before the men were finished their corn liquor, a young black woman came in. She was perhaps six months pregnant, at the stage where her condition was obvious, but she was not yet large enough to be awkward and clumsy.
"Topaz, I want you t'look after Miz Jackson here. Get them young gals in the kitchen to heat up water for a bath, and I bet she could sure use some lemonade." Jeb looked at the men. "We got us a real good cook here. Yore daddy allus says good vitals makes good breedin' slaves. Topaz, you get the best bedroom ready for Miz Jackson, and when supper's ready, you brang her a tray."
"Yassir, Masta Jeb." The black girl was eager to be of help.
Jennifer resented the fact that the men wanted her out of the way, but she knew she would be able to ply Topaz with her questions, so she allowed herself to be escorted upstairs.
Once the restraint of Jennifer was removed, the three men sat down at the table to do some serious drinking and talk 'bidness'. Brandon took off his jacket and cravat and said, "Now, begin at the beginning and tell me how the whole operation works."
Jeb pushed his hat to the back of his head. "Well, sir, it's simple enough, if you know the bidness inside out like I do." He went into detail, explaining all the whys and wherefores of the breeding farm.
When he was done, Brandon asked, "It's a profitable operation, I gather?"
Jeb grinned. "Brings in double what your daddy makes on cotton every year."
Brandon and Beau both whistled their appreciation.
"Got a pair of twins, Candy an' Sugar, could pleasure you gentlemen tonight."
Brandon exchanged a glance with his friend. "That would be right hospitable, Jeb."
Upstairs, Jennifer found herself in a small room with hand-hewn furniture and a rag rug on the floor. It was a rustic novelty for her. Topaz carted in a big tin bathtub and two girls from the kitchens were kept hopping up and down the backstairs until it was filled with warm water. Jennifer slipped in thankfully and sank down up to her shoulders. She pretended a personal interest in the girl. "I see you are going to have a baby. Is it your first?"
"Oh no, ma'am. Dis here's ma third."
"Good gracious, you don't look old enough to have three children."
Topaz assured her that she was. "Ah's fifteen."
"Good Lord, how old were you when you were married?" Jennifer was shocked.
"Married?" Topaz asked, not understanding.
"Don't you have a husband? The man who fathered your children?"
"Oh, I bin bred by three different bucks."
"I see," Jennifer said faintly and changed the subject. "I'm starving. Could you see if dinner is about
She dined from a tray, and decided to retire early. She was fatigued from the journey and wanted to be up at dawn to do a head count and calculate the worth of this crop, before the tedious drive home.
Jennifer climbed into bed and lay listening to the tree frogs making their night music, when she became aware of voices. She realized Brandon must be in the bedroom next to hers, as she heard the resonant tones of his voice. Then she heard giggling, and she realized with a guilty thrill that he had a wench with him. She slipped from the bed and put her ear against the wall.
Lord, whatever are they doing in there?
There was such a rustling and scuffling, accompanied by Bran's laughter and the girl's giggles, she could have sworn they were rolling about the floor.
Then she heard the bed-springs and Bran's voice murmuring things too low for her to catch. A long silence followed by Brandon's low moans of pleasure made Jennifer long for a bed partner of her own. An overpowering vision of Nicholas Peacock came to her and she closed her eyes to savor the forbidden fantasy of her brother-in-law. Her body remembered what it felt like to be in his arms, and she had known the exciting taste of him, but that was as far as it had gone, unfortunately.
Perhaps I can find a way to change all that if I'm patient. Why is it everybody else gets what I want? What a wicked waste that Mandy has Nicholas, with Paradise thrown in free. My God, the injustice of it!
She was most resentful that now Brandon had gotten this place dropped into his hands.
If Lincoln gets in and frees the slaves, a fortune will melt away like snow in hell. Tomorrow I'll urge Brandon to sell off some of this crop for cash, and see if I can get my hands on some of it for myself.
As she lay in the darkness she became aware of a low moaning. She knew it did not come from Brandon's bedroom, it was too far off. The moans were replaced by sobbing. She wondered if the sounds could possibly be coming from Beau's room, but she dismissed the thought as ridiculous. She shuddered and knew she would be glad to leave this place. Even Jennifer sensed evil when she came into contact with it.
When Jennifer Joy joined the men for breakfast, she was careful not to let on what she had heard in the night. She tucked the information away carefully, knowing it would come in handy one day, as most information did. When she made her intentions of touring the sheds known, Brandon protested vigorously, while Beau simply looked amused.
"Of course I shall go through the quarters, Brandon. You wouldn't want me writing to Daddy and telling him that y'all brought me to this place would you?"
Brandon knew enough to withdraw his protests and the tour began right after breakfast. When they were finished, Jennifer managed to get Brandon alone. "Do you realize if they start freeing and manumitting, this place will be worthless overnight?"
On the ride home, Jennifer carefully avoided any discussion of the breeding farm, until they had dropped Beau at his own plantation. Then she learned that Brandon had asked Jeb to pick out a dozen slaves and send them up to the Jackson Plantation. "When they arrive, I'll summon the slave buyer from Charleston," he told her.
Jennifer fell silent as plans of her own began to percolate slowly but surely.
The night that Jennifer was away and did not occupy her bedroom was a sore temptation for Nicholas. At supper, he and Amanda were alone except for Aunt Billie, and Mammy Lou had cooked all Amanda's favorite dishes. Nick was always careful of the things he said in front of Billie. She was quick to pick up a double entendre or any words that had the slightest sexual implication.
When he looked at Amanda, he let his eyes do his talking for him, and by the end of the meal, she was left in no doubt about the degree of his desire for her. Her blushes turned to dismay as a sudden downpour splashed against the windows, just as the last of the twilight was swallowed by the darkness. "Oh, I was looking forward to a stroll in the garden but the rain has spoiled it." Her eyes slid guiltily toward Aunt Billie.
She was relieved to hear Nicholas say smoothly, "Another bourbon, Billie? It will help keep out the damp." She gave him a grateful smile, and noticed the smoldering look he gave her held a promise. Her heart began to flutter as she wondered if he would dare to come to her room.
"I might as well do the accounts tonight," he said casually. "I'll be in my office if anyone needs me."
Amanda went out to the kitchen. "Mammy, the food was delicious tonight. Thank you for making the sweet potato pie. I hope there's enough for you to have some."
"Miz Jenny hate dat stuff like poison. It was a heaven-sent opportunity fo' me an' yo' to enjoy a treat."
"Nicholas loved it too. He told me to tell you."
Mammy Lou beamed. She was thankful that Amanda had been married to a fine man like Nicholas. Most of the white men she had had for masters had been good men, basically, but Nicholas was something special. If he had any faults whatever, she hadn't uncovered them yet.
Amanda ran from the back entrance to the outdoor kitchen to avoid a soaking. More than cooking took place in this building. It was used in part for storage, as well as a distillery. Cleo had been making bayberry-scented candles and the air had a spicy fragrance that hung in the dampness.
Mandy was making pot pouri
She had taken advice from Mammy Lou and Jessie down at the quarters and concocted her own recipes. She was making two distinctly different fragrances and was well-pleased with the results. Other years they had always made rose pot pouri from the petals, but Amanda was experimenting with something different. The strawberry pot pouri was a delight. It was made up of tiny, dried wild strawberries, chopped strawberry leaves, tiny dried rosebuds and violets, clary sage, rose geraniums and half a dozen spices, including cloves.
The peach flavored concoction had a more subtle aroma, but nevertheless if you closed your eyes it certainly smelled of peaches. It was a combination of dried rose hips, orange peel, marigolds, vetiver root, and dried chopped peaches and peach leaves. Amanda stirred the mixtures until a delicious fragrance arose to surround her. Smelling the garden's treasures stirred thoughts of love, and Nicholas, and their trysts. A romantic line from A Midsummer Night's Dream drifted through her thoughts.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.