Authors: Lynn Shurr
As the mainstream of traffic absorbed the taxi, she felt easier than she had all during the weeks of Paul’s persistent courtship. Even rocks will wear away beneath a steady drip, drip, drip of water, and she was not made of stone. Somewhere, a man must exist who combined stability and passion. The future held interesting prospects. And, somewhere else, a perfect woman waited for Paul’s brand of love, but not Suzanne Hudson.
“So where you off to?” Great, a chatty driver who spoke English—just what she needed.
Actually, she was bound for Port Jefferson, Louisiana, a town so small she used a magnifying glass to find its name on the map. But somehow, she wanted even the cabbie to think a grand adventure in an exciting locale awaited her.
“The Big Easy. Naw Orlins’, is how they say it down there. My buddy and me, when we were in the Navy, spent a weekend pass there. Some city! They got all these topless bars on Bourbon Street. Topless and bottomless. One place even had guys who looked as good as women. We thought they
women until this one fella comes up to my buddy, gives him a kiss, and flips up his skirt to show his package. Should have seen my pal’s face! I hear Bourbon Street is up and running again, same as ever since that hurricane hit.” The cabbie har-harred and continued on with a lurid description of weekend pass exploits that drowned out the clicking of the taxi meter.
Suzanne blocked out the one-sided conversation. She had high hopes for Louisiana. After all, Dr. Dumont uttered the name of Jacques St. Julien in exactly the same tones she reserved for Versailles. “Ah, Versailles!” she would say with longing, her favorite time period being Louis Quatorze. If Suzanne believed in reincarnation she would have sworn Dr. Dumont had once been a mistress to the Sun King in seventeenth-century France. Evidently, no man measured up to the great King Louis because Dr. Dumont never married. She was hardly celibate though. She packed her conversation full of tantalizing references to “the time Jean-Claude and I had our little flat on the Left Bank” and “when Philippe and I went motoring through the wine country.”
Suzanne admitted that what remained of her romantic notions attracted her to Dr. Helen Dumont as advisor and mentor. The professor tried persuasively to lure her back to the study of Renaissance Italy, even dangling the possibility of a fellowship in Florence. She resisted and remained solidly entrenched in the uptight, stuffy Victorian era, no female poisoners or randy popes who commissioned great art for her. After all, the curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum kept a handy plaster fig leaf around to hang on their copy of the statue of David if their nineteenth-century queen happened to visit. Nope, Suzanne Hudson would never be carried away by romance again!
“Your attitude is enough to make me tear my hair,” Dr. Dumont exclaimed. The doctor’s hair now dyed blonde, slicked back smoothly, and knotted elegantly into chignons. No one would ever call her hairstyle a bun. With age, Dumont’s figure became spare and straight. She still wore clothing with a flair that rounded youth could not duplicate. Suzanne admired Dr. Dumont and knew she would never be like her, not even if she studied in Florence and went motoring with someone named Aldo.
She introduced Dr. Dumont to Paul Smith one evening when they happened to be dining in the same French restaurant. The doctor, escorted by a young associate professor from the English Department, paused at Paul’s reserved table to exchange courtesies.
“Paul Smith, Jr., computer analyst. And this, I hope, is my soon-to-be fianceé, Suzanne Hudson.” Paul barged into the conversation, pumping the hand of the young professor. “Your son, Dr. Dumont?”
“But no, Mr. Smith, my lover.”
Paul dropped the associate professor’s hand as if pandering to older women might be contagious. Dr. Dumont looked at Suzanne with pity and issued a reminder of an appointment to discuss her master’s project in the morning. The next day, she gave her a ticket to escape Paul.
“You know, my dear, it is time to choose a suitable project to complete your degree requirements. Since you seem devoted to the Victorians and determined to have a career as a curator, I have something which just might do.” Dr. Dumont removed a letter from under a glass paperweight with a medallion of Louis XIV impressed in gold on its base.
“The son of an old friend has written to me. He is the possessor of an antebellum home in Port Jefferson, Louisiana. I have never been there. Jacques, his father—ah, Jacques!—Jacques and I came to know each other in New Orleans when I taught at Newcomb College. We met during Mardi Gras of course. With all the masking and the gaiety, we began a little flirtation. We danced all night and breakfasted on warm beignets and café-au-lait at dawn. Ah, Jacques!” Dr. Dumont stroked the facets of the paperweight in her hand.
“But about the letter. The son is a businessman, and evidently, the house is crammed with antiques acquired by his mother. He is willing to pay a qualified person to catalog the contents of the house and write a brief history of Magnolia Hill in preparation for opening the home to public tours as a moneymaking venture. He requested me, naturally, but I shall be spending the summer in the south of France assisting Professor Jung with original research for his doctoral thesis on the poets of Provence and their influence on English literature. Are you interested?”
“Yes, very.” Suzanne held back the smile brought on by the mental image of Dr. Dumont “doing research” with Associate Professor Jung, but her grin burst out at the prospect of getting away from Paul.
“Mr. St. Julien will pay your transportation costs, provide room and board at Magnolia Hill, and give you a small salary for your efforts. I spoke with him on the phone yesterday and suggested you might be available in mid-January as soon as the semester ended here. Will that interfere with any personal plans?”
“No, not at all.”
“Good, then. I rather feared you were so engaged with Mr. Smith that you would be unavailable.”
“We are not engaged. The man I thought I would marry has settled down with Beth Ann in Middletown.”
“Let us hope there is a Beth Ann for Mr. Smith. As for Georges St. Julien, for your sake, I hope there is some of his father in him.” Dr. Dumont pronounced the forename lingeringly in the French manner, though the “George” of the letter’s signature had no “s” on the end.
“I have never met the son. I did see his picture once, a very solemn boy with Harry Potter glasses, rather gangling and horsey like his mother, a very cold woman, much opposed to divorce, Jacques told me.”
Probably over coffee and hot beignets the first day of Lent, Suzanne thought. The professor sighed again. “If only Jacques were still alive, I could be sure I am delivering you into good hands, but he died as he lived, flamboyantly—taking a fence on his white horse during the Courir de Mardi Gras. Killed instantly with a broken neck. So fitting he went while still full of vigor and virility. I would hate to think of Jacques growing too old to ride. He served as the Capitaine of the Courir, you know.”
Suzanne braced for another “Ah, Jacques” but forestalled it with a question of her own. “Is his wife living?”
“No. She died fairly recently of some lingering disease. There will be only you and Georges at Magnolia Hill. You must give me progress reports.”
“On your project, of course, sample pages so I can review your format and research.” Dr. Dumont smiled, thoroughly enjoying her small joke.
Dumont’s little, bowed smile remained behind like that of the Cheshire cat in her mind, and Suzanne found herself duplicating it as the taxi pulled up in front of the airport terminal. The driver took this as a show of appreciation for his inside information on New Orleans, but he probably placed more value on the lavish tip his passenger pressed on him in the first full flush of her freedom from Paul. She allowed a porter to seize her bags since one contained a layer of reference books that might be difficult to find in Port Jefferson. The man gave her a questioning look when he heaved the suitcase onto his hand truck and trundled it to the appropriate counter. “There be an extra charge for that one,” he said, but he also received an exceptionally good gratuity. Suzanne hardly grimaced when forking over the money for the number and weight of her bags.
Early for her flight, she spent the spare time having hot tea and a day-old cheese Danish freshened for fifteen seconds in a microwave at the airport lunch counter. The man next to her on the row of stools glanced at his watch, deserted the newspaper he’d been reading, and rushed down the concourse. She picked up the paper full of bad news headlines—stabbings on the ell, rapes in the park, serial killings suspected in the murders of half a dozen young women. Snow expected over the weekend. The 76ers had lost another game.
Glad to be leaving the city with its dirty slush and winter cold for an exotic, warmer clime, she experienced the return of the jitters of excitement in her stomach, previously calmed by the tea and stale Danish. Suzanne set off down the concourse toward the gauntlet of metal detectors and got into the slowly moving line. As she stripped off her watch and placed her carry-on bag on the conveyor belt, she heard her name being shouted.
Paul came charging down the concourse. As meticulously dressed as ever, he had taken time to put on a blue tie before setting off in pursuit. His face burned red, an infuriated shade she had never seen in the six months of dating the man. He caught up, leaning over dividing ropes to grab her arm just as she tried to pass through the metal detector. “You can’t go, Suzanne! We’re going to be married.”
“I never told you that. Now let me go. This trip is important to my career.”
“Is that what you want? A career and young lovers like that Dr. Dumont? Or do you expect some Superman in a cape to come down out of the sky and fly away with you, some knight on a white horse to carry you off to his castle?”
“All that would be very exciting, Paul, but let’s face it, we simply aren’t right for each other. Now let me go!”
Passengers began to change lines to avoid the delay and the strident voices. Two men in trim blue uniforms moved toward arguing pair.
“I’ll be coming for you! Do you hear me?”
The uniformed men took places on either side of Paul and requested politely that he come with them. Dropping the grip he had on her arm, he stalked off with the guards. The woman running the detector asked her please to move on so other passengers would not be inconvenienced. The last sight of Paul—not pretty. He stood spread-eagled against a wall while one guard patted him down and ran a wand over his body. The other held a tazer ready to fire.
Suzanne jogged down the concourse and got into the line for the already-boarding flight. She hurried into the tunnel connecting the terminal with the plane, and in her haste, tripped over the floor seam and ended up in the arms of the steward. He escorted her to a seat in the economy section under the eyes of the first class passengers who probably believed she had begun the trip with a few strong drinks at the airport bar. Sinking into place, she stowed her hand baggage beneath the seat in front of her, buckled up, and pretended to heed the flight attendant as she demonstrated the emergency breathing apparatus while the plane taxied out onto the runway. Her fingers trembled on the armrests.
Her seatmate, a concave-chested little man of about sixty, patted her hand in a fatherly way. As he nodded reassurance, the cabin lights reflected in little glimmers off his bald head.
“Your first flight, honey? Nothing to be scared of. I’m in sales. I travel nearly every day of my life, would you believe? And nothing bad ever happens.”
“Actually, I have flown before. It’s just that I had a quarrel with a man I’ve been dating before getting on the plane. It shook me up a little.”
“Girls, girls, girls! They always have boy trouble. I raised three of my own. ‘Margery,’ I said to my wife, ‘When I’m out of town, you make sure those girls are in by midnight, and check out their dates, find out about their families.’ Look at this, would you?” Mr. Salesman flexed his folded newspaper in her face. “
Serial Killer Stalks Young Women.
They met him in a bar, I bet, or at one of those rock concerts. Nice girls have to be careful.”
“Oh, I’ve known Paul for a while. We lived in the same building and dated for six months. The most excessive thing about him is his fondness for musk cologne.”
“But do you know his family?”
“Well, his father travels a lot on business, and his mother left when Paul was small and married some real estate agent in California. The grandmother who raised him died when he was thirteen, and he spent his teens in a military academy.”
“No brothers, no sisters?”
Suddenly, pity and guilt wedged themselves into her anger over the scene Paul had caused and splintered it apart. Paul tended to drone on about his job: his great salary, most of which he saved, his stock portfolio, his negotiations over a new car or television to get the best possible price. Only through direct questioning had she learned this much about him. Now, he must feel Suzanne was abandoning him just as his mother did.
True, she hadn’t accepted his proposal or even taken him home to meet Mom and Dad, but she could have broken with him more cleanly. Never should have slept with him hoping some raging volcano of passion lay beneath his pile-of-ashes personality. Really, this outburst of temper was the first interesting facet of Paul Alvin Smith, Jr. she’d seen, and it wasn’t a good one. Well, she had four months ahead to mull it over, but sincerely doubted if his tirade would change her mind about the relationship.
“No family is bad news, young lady. How can you tell anything about a man with no family? Let me treat you to a Bloody Mary.” He peeled off the dollars for the drinks the stewardess vended from her hospitality cart. They parted company in Atlanta at the gate where men with walkie-talkies glanced at their tickets and pointed left for her and right for him.
“Can I buy you lunch, dear? Your mother would feel better knowing you aren’t traveling alone.”