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Chapter 1

“I sees a sign of mighty big trouble, Miz Noelle. An omen of calam’ty, sure enough!”

Eighteen-year-old Noelle D’Arcy Etheridge dropped her bonnet on the bed beside the open traveling case. She dashed to the window where the caramel-colored Geneva, just a few weeks her senior, stood pointing out at the sun-drenched morning. “What? Where?”

“Right there,” replied the young woman, whose eyes had narrowed with the soberness of one who knows her business. “The roof of that house across the street.”

Noelle planted her palms on the sill. This window, on the third floor of Madame Mintock’s Boarding School for Young Ladies, offered a breathtaking vista of Vieux Carré, the French district of New Orleans. For the last four years, Noelle had spent many a day sitting beside this window. Sometimes, she would gaze for hours upon the ancient oak in the yard, its branches swaying lazily in the salty breeze. At other times, she would study the jagged skyline of the South’s largest city where occasional spires stretched halfway to the sky. But most of all, she would spend the lonesome evenings here, awed by the star-sequined heavens, and wish for a world where she didn’t feel like an outcast. Yet somehow, the sense of isolation diminished whenever she witnessed the fervent scramble of everyday life in the city beneath her feet.

Now, following Geneva’s pointed finger, Noelle peered out at the Crescent City, already beginning to sizzle under the cloudless sky. Across Chartres Street loomed a palatial mansion of Spanish design. Perched on the rooftop, with sunlight gleaming off their feathers, sat a squad of blackbirds, at least two dozen in all. Even at this distance, their beady, unwavering eyes seemed to be directed at this house.

Or worse—at her.

From the center of the line, a plump beast batted its wings in leadership. It raised its fierce beak skyward and issued a raucous cry. All at once, the creatures took flight—

Toward her window.

Closer, closer they came, at breakneck speed, beating up a storm with their mammoth wings. As they approached the house, Noelle uttered a shrill cry of her own. Her heartbeat quickened and she ducked behind the sill. Geneva stood beside her, statuesque, unflinching. Then—

Total silence.

“They’s gone now, Miz Noelle. Flew clear over the house, they did.”

Noelle swallowed, making a valiant effort to shake off her fright. “What—what does that signify, Geneva?”

“That there’s some mighty big trouble—”

“With the ship, do you think? Like—like what happened to Papa?”

The girl gave her a reassuring touch on the arm. “They would have crashed into the house if that were the case. No, it’s not the ship.”

“Then what exactly?”

“Don’t know for certain,” answered the octoroon, cocking her head. “But somethin’ mighty big is brewin’. Mighty big, indeed!”

As much as she tried telling her educated-self not to place credence in the girl’s words, Noelle, nevertheless, took them as gospel. How could she not? After all, when it came to reading signs and adhering to superstitions, Geneva was a pundit. Ordinary people might look upon an egg with a double yolk or a rose blooming out of season as an oddity of nature. They might consider boots left on a kitchen table or a cobweb hanging over the door of a girl’s bedroom as a sign of careless housekeeping. But Geneva, far from ordinary, did not.

Noelle’s deceased father, Zale Etheridge, had known Geneva was special from the moment he first saw her. “There was something unique in her eyes,” Zale would often recount. “Even at the age of two months, she had a divine spark I can’t even begin to explain.” Zale, a well-to-do shipping merchant and factor, was said by many to have one of the biggest hearts in all of Charleston. He had proved it when he purchased Geneva from one of his factorage clients, a planter infamous for the brutal handling of his field-hands. “How could I have allowed Jefferson to work such a pretty little thing to an early grave?” Zale would ask. “To destroy that spark?”

No one, including Geneva herself, knew how or why she developed an interest in omens and superstitions, but she did. Indeed, from an early age, the girl began collecting superstitions the way most girls collected dolls. Her belief in magical beings and portents, whether from heaven or the netherworld, bordered on the fanatic. Zale, along with relatives or family friends who had grown fond of Geneva, indulged her to no end, relating to her any bizarre tidbit they had gleaned from years of traveling throughout Europe and the States. Geneva would place each superstition in her mental memory book and eventually made it her personal duty to protect the family from evil forces.

Now, rethinking the bizarre incident with the blackbirds and Geneva’s warning, a shiver traced Noelle’s spine, sending the hair on her arms bristling. For weeks now she had felt apprehensive about her future, and one of Geneva’s patented predictions did nothing to calm her jittery nerves, because more often than not, the girl’s predictions came true. And hadn’t Geneva foreseen the death of Zale Etheridge, begging him not to step foot on that clipper ship all those years ago? And didn’t he pat the cheek of the then fourteen-year-old octoroon and tell her not to fear, that all would be splendid with the world? If only Papa had listened, Noelle thought. If only.

“Jumpin’ Jerusalem!” shrieked Geneva, sending another wave of panic through Noelle, who instinctively backed away from the window. The girl raced to the bed and seized Noelle’s discarded bonnet. She tsked. “A hat on the mattress, Miz Noelle? Lord have mercy! I sure pray the four years of book-learnin’ hasn’t erased the fourteen years of common sense I done taught you. There’re already devils hidin’ everywhere, just waitin’ for a chance to pounce, without you invitin’ mischief.” The girl held the bonnet to her breasts, closed her eyes, and wheeled herself around like a top. She counted aloud each rotation, stopping at five. “There now.” A satisfied sigh. “That should negate the curse. Just don’t ever let me see you do that again.”

Despite her recent scare, Noelle felt an intense urge to laugh at this inane ritual. After years of separation, she had indeed forgotten the rule about hats on the bed, along with—she was certain—a host of other dos and don’ts. But she was also confident Geneva would remind her quick enough.

“Come on, Miz Noelle. We’s got to get you dressed and finish packin’. Massah Lafe will have a case of the conniptions if we don’t shake our tails lickety-split.”

Obeying the firm directive, and using any excuse to avoid the window, Noelle snatched from a chair the celadon-colored gown she had laid out that morning. Though she normally wore it because of the way it brought out the color of her green eyes, she had selected it today for the lightness of the muslin fabric. “I suppose,” she said, pulling the traveling attire over her head, “Cousin Lafe’s been all at sixes and sevens since you debarked last evening?”

“You don’t know the half of it,” countered Geneva, her expression turning sour. After helping Noelle drape the skirt over the whalebone cage crinoline, she went back to the business of packing. “First, he rushes us off the steamer, then the next thing I know, we’s in a carriage and speedin’ straight to the St. Charles Hotel, as if someone had threatened to give away his suite to a Yankee if we was late.”

“That sounds like Lafe.”

“And no sooner do we arrive then he’s orderin’ me to unpack his bags and hang up his habiliments. Hang up his clothes—three bags, mind you!—for one night? And me, without so much as a chance to catch my breath. Now you tell me, Miz Noelle, does your cousin think it’s a sin to Moses if a few wrinkles creep up on his sleeves? Then he skedaddles out the door, like a fire was burnin’ his hindquarters. At sixes and sevens, you ask? Why, he’s downright loopy!”

Noelle giggled. She knew society would have been appalled to hear such denunciations for a white man pour out of a servant’s mouth, but to Noelle, Geneva was more a sister than a servant. In truth, Noelle felt closer to the girl than she did to her own mother, which ofttimes filled her with shame. Nonetheless, Geneva knew she had free reign to speak her thoughts around Noelle without fear of recrimination. And in truth, Noelle, who for a variety of reasons had never been excessively fond of her cousin Lafe, found Geneva’s remarks positively amusing.

Containing her wave of mirth, Noelle stepped into her black kid slippers. “Cousin Lafe is famous for his impatience. You remember how he was as a child, always fidgeting and whatnot. Couldn’t stand to be imprisoned in the parlor playing a leisurely game of backgammon or Twenty Questions, not when the whole city of Charleston lay at his disposal.”

“Well, I didn’t cotton to it then, and I certainly don’t cotton to it now,” said Geneva, snapping shut the lid of the traveling case. “Imagine him gallivantin’ the night away—probably at a poker table in some groggery, no doubt—then wakin’ me up at the crack of dawn to repack his bags. I s’pose I wouldn’t mind so much if I had found a chance to come over and visit with you, or tour the city. Ain’t never been to New Orleans before, and never will again, most likely. And alls I gets to see is a cramped and stuffy room and the inside of Massah Lafe’s luggage.”

“And here I am, asking you to help me.”

A smile whisked away Geneva’s pout before it could fully develop. Her dark eyes spoke volumes of affection. “You know I’ll gladly do anythin’ you ask. I belongs to you and your mama. But more than that, we’s friends. And—and I’ve missed you so.” Overcome with emotion, the girl flew into Noelle’s arms and gave her a hard squeeze. When she pulled back, tracks of tears glistened on her cheeks.

Noelle took a moment to study her. During their years apart, some things had obviously changed. Geneva, who had always possessed an exotic beauty with her high cheekbones, dark and wavy hair, and caramel skin tone, was now, as a young woman, quite stunning. But for the slightly flattened nose that suggested Negro blood, Geneva could almost pass for one of the Creoles Noelle had so often observed while strolling the streets of this town.

Still, the greatest change of all was Geneva’s eyes. The spark Noelle’s father had talked about endlessly had somehow faded. Indeed, apart from the time Zale Etheridge’s ship went down in the hurricane, Noelle had never once witnessed Geneva in tears. But here she was, weeping like a child, and Noelle felt something akin to sadness.

Well, Noelle thought, Geneva isn’t the only one with instincts. She waited for the girl to wipe her eyes, then asked a question burning her soul. “Geneva, what is life like for you in Savannah?” When Geneva turned from her, making a grand show of collecting Noelle’s remaining traveling items, Noelle knew she had hit the target dead-on. “I mean, how is my mother treating you?”

“Missus Rachelle is—well—Missus Rachelle. Your mama does her best.”

The girl’s answer could either be good or bad, depending on how Noelle looked at it. For the most part, Rachelle D’Arcy Etheridge Kilbourne—the Kilbourne added just three years ago—could be warm and loving, the perfect wife and mother. Still, there was another side to the woman, one which Noelle, on occasion, had experienced firsthand. Rachelle’s quick temper and biting tongue had often tried Zale Etheridge’s patience. And at times, she could be cold and aloof, even demanding and cruel, especially when it came to the servants.

Zale’s fondness for Geneva, treating her like a member of the family, had always been a thorn in Rachelle’s side. Raised as a true daughter of the South, she believed a mere drop of Negro blood made one undeserving of such charity. In addition, she frowned on the way Zale encouraged the girls to become playmates until Geneva could be trained as Noelle’s personal servant. Nevertheless, Rachelle loved the charming Zale Etheridge, and because of that love, she frequently gave in to his whims, albeit grudgingly. His buoyant manner and generous nature had kept Rachelle’s darker moods at bay.

But how, wondered Noelle, had her mother’s behavior changed since his passing?

“Is Mother adhering to my father’s will, Geneva? Before I left for school—” Before I was sent away, would have been the more accurate term, she thought with some resentment. “—Papa left strict instructions that you should, at all times, be treated fairly.”

Geneva spun around and handed to Noelle her fingerless lace mitts and beaded reticule. “I have no complaints with Missus Rachelle.”

“Then with whom?” asked Noelle, upon catching the betraying hook in the girl’s voice. “My stepfather? What is Ajax Kilbourne like anyway? And Destiny, his cotton plantation?—Is it comfortable?—Pleasant? And what about the servants? Are they—”

“So many questions and so little time,” said Geneva with a laugh that sounded a tad forced.

“But there’s so much I need to know. I’m moving to a new city and into a house I’ve never seen. I’ll be living with a stepfather I’ve never even met.”

“Did your mama tell you nothin’?”

Noelle opened her reticule. She fumbled through the items inside and withdrew a thin stack of ribbon-bound letters. She waggled them before her. “Seven missives in four years’ time. Seven! Even Cousin Lafe wrote to me more often!”

Geneva made quirky attempts at a smile, then focused her attention on the patterned Brussels carpet. “Well, your mama was never one to write much.”

“And travel? Not once has my mother stepped foot in New Orleans to see how I’m faring.”

“After what happened to Massah Zale, I s’pose she can’t muster up the courage for ocean travel.”

The sense of rejection and the anger Noelle thought she had long suppressed came flooding back to her now, as fresh and intense as an open wound. “I could just as easily have made the journey to Savannah. But did my mother extend an invitation? Not once! I wasn’t even at the wedding. Please, Geneva—make no excuses for her. She’s giving all of her attention to her new husband and simply has no time for me. Isn’t that so?”

“She’s asked you to come now, hasn’t she? Sent me and your cousin to fetch you.”

“But why now, Geneva? After all these years, why now?”

“You is family.”

“What does that matter? I’ve always been family. Her only child, for Heaven’s sake. Why should now be any different?”

Before Geneva could respond, the mantel clock chimed. The girl consulted the timepiece and stepped forward. “It’s nine already. Get your bonnet and I’ll take the travelin’ case. The rest of your things should be loaded in the wagon by now.”

“Geneva, please answer one question. Do you think I’ll find happiness at Destiny?”

The girl pulled a deep breath and glanced toward the window, which reminded Noelle of their encounter with the blackbirds. “Come on, Miz Noelle. Don’t dawdle. Your cousin Lafe is waitin’.”

Noelle requested five minutes alone. “Tell Cousin Lafe I want to check the room one last time for anything I may have forgotten. And tell him to keep his shirt on,” she added, staving off the admonition she saw forming on Geneva’s lips.

She closed the door behind the compliant girl, then looked about the room and its modest, yet elegant, furnishings. In actuality, she needed a moment of space, solitude, a chance to pull together her thoughts. She also needed to say a private farewell to the only home she had known since leaving Charleston after her father’s death.

The balloon-backed chair, where on countless nights she had sat gnawing her nails to nubs and pondering her future. The escritoire, where she had studied everything from French to Latin, history to mathematics, Scott to Shakespeare, and penned numerous letters home. The faded path in the carpet, forged from years of walking with a book on her head to achieve poise, or waiting for the missives from her mother that rarely arrived. The small white-marble mantel which had provided a pampering warmth during the Christmas season when the boarding school emptied of classmates, when the loneliness became insufferable and the slightest breath of wind at the window chilled her to the bone. And the Girandole clock by which she had counted away the years wondering what she had done to deserve this banishment.

If someone had asked her yesterday, she might have told them she would gladly abandon this four-story hulk of a building in exchange for a family of her own. Now, however, departing for a new home, in a new city, with a new stepfather, the pressure to climb into the lemonwood four-poster, burrow under the bed covers and hide there forever, grew almost unbearable.

But she wouldn’t allow that, for the items in this room, though safe and comforting in their familiarity, could not provide the one thing she most needed—answers to the mystery regarding her perpetual exile and her mother’s inexcusable behavior. The woman’s letters, nearly devoid of all sentiment, told little. Then two months ago, her mother’s final letter had arrived. Though it urged Noelle to make the journey to Destiny, it gave no explanation for Rachelle’s abrupt change of heart.

Why now? Noelle had continually asked herself since reading that missive. And the manner in which Geneva tactfully avoided comment only added to the puzzle. No, Noelle thought, her curiosity would not be satiated unless she made the voyage to Savannah to confront the woman who had made her feel like a pariah.

With renewed determination, she drew a deep breath and yanked open the door. There, with arm raised as if to knock, stood a gray-haired partridge of a woman in black bombazine.

“Miss Etheridge, my dear. You startled me,” said Madame Mintock, pressing her hand over her matronly bosom. From her plump figure came a wave of familiar aromas; a combination of honeysuckle perfume, furniture oil, and chalk. Something else Noelle knew she would miss. The woman blinked from over the top of her steel-rimmed spectacles, set low on her needle-thin nose. “Your cousin is requesting your presence.”

“I can only imagine, Madame.”

“Restless chap, I daresay. Practically pushed me up the stairs to hurry you along.”

Noelle groaned. “You must try to forgive his rudeness. Cousin Lafe has always believed that the world runs at too-slow a pace for his liking.”

“A candidate for an early grave. ’Tis the way of most men of the slaveholding planter class—driving themselves at a frantic pace with their business concerns and amusements. There is a prime example of why women must learn to do for themselves, what with their husbands dropping dead of heart seizures and leaving the wives alone and wanting. Never rely on the menfolk, Miss Etheridge. Remember that one simple rule and you will live a life of rich contentment!”

Noelle had heard this speech a thousand times before. At a young age, Heloise Mintock was left a childless widow, to scrimp and save and fend for herself. Only after years of hard labor and honing her shrewd business sense was she able to make a successful life without benefit of a spouse. Heloise despised a certain class of women, labeling them “frail and coddled Southern belles, who chitter away the hours on their shady verandahs and feel it an immense chore to lift in their manicured fingers a julep glass to their pouting lips. Silly hens who know how to giggle and flirt but cannot distinguish a needle and thread from a hole in the ground.” In the widow’s opinion, such women were doomed to financial ruin and starvation. “What they do not know about life will certainly kill them in the end.”

Therefore, Heloise Mintock ran her exclusive school with one thought in mind—she would train her charges to become skilled, self-reliant people. Not women—people! And while in her care, no student was allowed the luxury of a body servant. Many socially prominent Southerners thought this rule outrageous, and withdrew their daughter’s names from applications. Some branded her an abolitionist and threatened to have her run out of Dixie. But Heloise stood firm in her decision. “Heaven forbid,” she had been known to say, “such dainty flowers of womanhood should lower themselves to perform the tasks of a plantation darky. If young ladies are wont to don frilly gowns, they must also be made aware of the hard work needed to fashion them. If they are to live in style, they must also experience firsthand the drudgery it takes to keep their manses in tip-top form. My charges have challenging duties, both physically and mentally. They will leave here with a greater appreciation of what it takes to run a household and be better people for it.”

This was the main reason Zale Etheridge had selected this school for Noelle. Despite Rachelle’s objections, who staunchly believed the opposite, Zale had always felt it necessary for his only child to learn as much about life as possible, to stand independent and strong. And from the start, though she did miss Geneva’s companionship, Noelle really didn’t mind the widow’s regulation. Before long, she quite enjoyed learning how to cook and sew and clean. A good day’s work somehow gave her a sense of accomplishment. And falling muscle-sore into bed each night was altogether preferable to wallowing in loneliness, or crying herself to sleep while thinking of her father’s passing.

It was also the Madame’s way to have each of her students select for themselves a career. In addition, Heloise encouraged them to pursue it. “A woman must have a goal beyond snagging a moneyed gentleman. Pretend for a moment, ladies, that no such animal exists. What will you do to put bread on your table?” One girl fashioned herself a doctor, resulting in giggles from her classmates. But with the pounding of her fist on the desktop and a gleam in her eye, Heloise discouraged further merriment. “Do not laugh, ladies. Doctoring will one day be an acceptable profession for women. Mark my words!”

Noelle, however, was not as far-reaching in her selection as her classmate. With this feisty widow as her mentor, and with a gift for communicating lessons to girls less-able to secure praiseworthy grades, Noelle rather fancied herself a teacher. Already an accepted profession for women. Perhaps not in the higher classes, but accepted all the same.

“I daresay, my dear,” said Heloise Mintock, now taking Noelle’s arm and leading her down the deserted hallway, “I shall miss you dreadfully. Whatever shall I do with myself in this empty house before the fall semester begins? In all these summers you have been a cherished companion.”

Touched by the words, Noelle gave her a long study. All in all, she had come to revere this learned old woman. Even love her, for in many ways, the widow had been like a mother to her. Now, as they drifted toward the staircase, their skirts swooshing and their heels clicking over the hardwood floor, Noelle felt the sting of tears in her eyes. “I shall miss you as well,” she muttered through her constricting throat.

“Now, now. None of those foolish teardrops. They are strictly reserved for the fatuous ninnyhammers, the mooncalves in their fluffy taffeta who have mastered the grand art of ordering about their servants by tinkling a sterling-silver bell. You, my dear, possess a hardier constitution.”

Noelle’s laugh echoed in the hallway. She cuffed her damp face and nodded.

“You will write to me, of course, and inform me of your adventure.”

“My adventure?”

“Yes, my dear.” When they reached the head of the stairs, Heloise Mintock patted her hand. “I sense your apprehension. Starting a new life can enfeeble even the most courageous of souls. But just look upon this trip as a journey of self-discovery. If I have drilled anything into your head all these years, it must be that everything one experiences in life—whether good or bad—makes one mightier in character. Never give in to the naysayers who will tell you a woman must stay in her place. Never surrender to those voices of doubt, who will try to convince you that you cannot achieve your goals. Follow your instincts as I have taught you, for they shall, if one is true of heart, never lead you astray. Never!”

Noelle pondered. An adventure. Yes. And this wasn’t the first time she had started a new life. She had done it four years earlier, even after her father’s sudden death had left her emotionally shattered. Following a brief period of mourning, she had picked up the pieces of her life, and by coming to this school, obeyed one of her father’s last requests. Though it had been a difficult undertaking, she had done it. And of greater import, survived. Perhaps Zale Etheridge’s enterprising spirit lived on in his only child after all.

“Now, my dear, I shall say au revoir et à bientôt. These brittle old bones have tromped over that staircase once too often this morning. You have a bon voyage and a prosperous and happy life.” Heloise Mintock’s wrinkled lips brushed over Noelle’s cheek. Her wizened face crinkled in a sagacious smile.

Noelle gave her a hug, then bounded down two flights of stairs, feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. Or take on her cousin, who must, even now, be jumping out of his skin with exasperation. She found him, standing at the foot of the final staircase. Before making her appearance known, she paused at the top of the stairs and took in his full measure.

Lafayette Bancroft D’Arcy was a twenty-two-year-old towhead of moderate stature, and wickedly handsome, Noelle decided after considerable thought. A fawn coat with a velvet collar, a yellow waistcoat, and black trousers hugged his aristocratically lean frame. A mother-of-pearl pin secured the black-satin cravat dangling at his throat, maintaining his reputation as a toff. He had high cheekbones, a square jaw, and thin lips that seemed to disappear whenever he took to frowning, which, if memory served Noelle correctly, was often. Since her cousin was the child of Ignace D’Arcy—Rachelle’s eldest brother—he, like Noelle, had inherited the D’Arcy’s patrician nose. Lafe also possessed the D’Arcy eyes, apple-green with a touch of russet.

Now, those eyes were fixed on the pocket watch in his hand, while the fingers of his free hand pitapatted the newel post in mounting impatience. At hearing the telltale rustle of her petticoats, his head jerked upward.

“Cousin Noelle?” he called up to her, disbelief written across his face. Showing the manners of good breeding, he bent low at the waist and clicked his heels. “I see you are no longer that little Charleston girl I was always so fond of.”

“Were you fond of me, Cousin Lafe?” asked Noelle, making a slow descent down the magnificent wide-curved staircase. “I always had the distinct impression you thought me a pest.”

“Nonsense. I rather found you quite delightful.”

“So delightful that you avoided paying me a call yesterday?”

“I’m afraid an unfortunate business matter reared its ugly head and detained me for most of the evening.”

Noelle recalled Geneva’s recounting of the previous night’s activities. She came to stand on the final step, bringing her eyes level with his. “Dear me. Was it ill luck at the poker or faro table?”

“Whatever do you mean?” stammered Lafe, the color draining from his face.

“Never mind.”

“My, how you’ve changed,” said Lafe, masterfully redirecting the subject. As he ostensibly recovered from the jolt she had given him, he inspected her with the eye of a connoisseur. “Oh, your hair is still the color of ginger, and those full lips and dimples always did have the power to dazzle a blind man, but you are now a full-fledged woman through and through. Why, your beauty takes my breath away.”

He delivered these words in the voice of a well-rehearsed sycophant, and Noelle could practically feel his gaze clawing over her curves. Besides being an impatient dandy, Lafe was also an arrogant Lothario. A maestro at sweeping the Charleston ladies, both young and old, off their feet. But Noelle had always been immune to his charms. To her, there was nothing worse than a rakehell except a rakehell who took pride in his notoriety and milked it for all it was worth.

“What did you expect after four years, Cousin Lafe?” asked Noelle, allowing the sarcasm to flow at will. She pulled on her fingerless mitts, then settled on her head the wide-brimmed bonnet that had earlier sent Geneva into a superstitious tizzy. “Time passes, people change.”

He flashed her a pearly white, debonair smile. “And some for the better.”

After slipping his timepiece into the pocket of his waistcoat, he took her left hand and brought it to his lips. As he bussed her knuckle, she noticed a faded saber scar lining the back of his hand. It started at the ring finger and disappeared under his sleeve; a remnant from one of his numerous duels. Many a woman might have been flattered to have a gentleman fight over her, but Noelle considered the custom archaic and childish. Apparently the government felt likewise, for they had outlawed the practice some years earlier. Though that didn’t discourage countless men from participating in this adult version of King Of The Hill, scrapping like schoolboys for the sake of their all-important honor. Noelle smirked, thinking that a lady-killer must also be a proficient swordsman to survive for long in the South.

Now, Lafe sandwiched her hand between the both of his, gripping her so tight that his signet ring bit into her finger. He planted a chaste kiss on her cheek; his lips held there far longer than proper society dictated.

She pulled away, putting a discreet distance between them. “Are my portmanteaux loaded?”

“Finally,” said Lafe, adopting a teasing tone. “Found a couturière who struck your fancy, did you? Just how many gowns can one girl purchase in the space of four years’ time?”

“I fashioned my own clothing, if you must know. But the millinery shops are trés bien.”

Lafe’s jaw dropped in astonishment. “That old crone of a schoolmarm forces refined young ladies to make their own clothing?”

“The Madame forced us to do nothing,” shot Noelle, instantly miffed at his slur. “It’s a part of the school’s curriculum. Along with cleaning and cooking. Things I have come to enjoy, I might add.”

“Good God, that’s nigger work. How can she be allowed to get away with—”

“She wants her students to leave here with practical skills. Or do you think that women are nothing more than simple-headed petunias, placed on this earth to sing praises to and flutter eyelashes at insufferable, boorish men?”

His rousing chuckle reverberated through the entrance hall. “Ouch. You may have become a woman, but you are still that little pepperpot of a girl. You and my sister have that much in com—” He paused, then averted his eyes in chagrin and grumbled an apology.

Noelle knew the reason. Lafe felt he may have directed an unintentional insult at her, what with the scandals his sister, Salem D’Arcy, had caused. Though Noelle didn’t mind being compared to her favorite cousin—an enchanting, vivacious, worldy woman whom Noelle considered a maverick; a woman Madame Mintock would have admired—she did take offense at how Lafe and the rest of the family had reacted to Salem’s exploits throughout the years.

Suddenly, feeling claustrophobic in her cousin’s presence, Noelle scanned the adjoining rooms. “Where is Geneva?”

“In the carriage.”

“All this time? Then I think we had best join her.” She swept across the entrance hall to the door, feeling his eyes devouring her from behind. She turned and cocked an eyebrow. “For pity’s sake, Cousin, don’t piddle about. After all, the ship won’t wait forever.”

Noelle could barely restrain her laughter when crimson mottled his cheeks and his lips all but disappeared.

© 1999, 2000, 2001 Trace Edward Zaber

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