LAVENDER BLUE (historical romance)

BOOK: LAVENDER BLUE (historical romance)
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PARRIS*AFTON*BONDS

 

 

LAVENDER * BLUE

 

 

Published  by Paradise Publishing

Copyright 2013 by Parris Afton, Inc.

All Rights Reserved

 

Cover artwork by
Erin Dameron-Hill

 

This is a work of fiction and a product of the author’s imagination.  No part of this novel may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.  This ebook may not be re-sold or given away.

 

 

BONUS

First chapter of my novel DEEP PURPLE is at the end of LAVENDER BLUE.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 


H
elp! Run! Help!”


Oh, do shut up, Washington!”

In the bamboo cage suspended from the stand Washington, Aunt Hermione
’s macaw, preened its scarlet and lime-green feathers at the unwarranted rebuke from its mistress’s niece. Scarcely aware of the bird’s ruffled feathers, the younger woman paced by her aunt’s rocker. Her hoop skirt snagged on the rocker’s foot, and she yanked it free.

Help. That was what she needed.

“Jeanette,” Aunt Hermione ventured tentatively, her horse face pinched with real anxiety, “won’t you consider returning to New Bedford as your father wants? With Armand dead it’s not only sensible but quite obvious that you can’t continue to keep Columbia going.”

Oh, Arman
d, why? Why us? With you I was content. And now . . .

Now the problem of keeping the plantation stared Jeanette St. John starkly in the face. The latest tax statement proved her inadequacy.

Her father believed a woman’s place was running a house—not ruling it. He enforced this dictum of submission as strictly as he had obedience aboard his ship. A Yankee sea captain, he had settled in Brownsville, Texas, after his marriage to invest in some of the steamboats that plied the Rio Grande River. The following year he sold the packets to buy the enormous cotton plantation Columbia.

But that turbulent month before South Carolina seceded from the United States her father, burdened by what he considered his patriotic duty, returned to New Bedford, Massachusetts. And
in turn Jeanette dutifully submitted to Armand decisions about running her family’s plantation. Yet she knew she understood more than her husband could ever have hoped to about the South’s most precious resource, cotton. Further, she suspected that her beloved Armand had no real interest in such a mercantile venture. Armand should have been a lawyer, a politician, a minister. Anything but a planter.

Armand
’s father, who had come to Brownsville as an agent for one of New Orleans’s French houses of commerce, had owned the plantation bordering one side of Columbia. But through lack of agricultural expertise, Monsieur St. John was forced to sell his plantation and return to New Orleans.

Armand had stayed on to marry her. But now he was gone, too.
Oh, Armand, why?
It was a litany that repeated itself over and over to fill the void in her life.

She circled Aunt Hermione
’s rocker and went to stand before the window. Beyond, in the windows of the
jacales
, lamplights burned against the night. Those thatched-roof huts of cane sheltered the
campesinos
who worked the plantation’s cotton fields. But since the Rebel port of Clarksville at the mouth of the Rio Grande was blockaded by Federal sloops-of-war, the harvested cotton sat in Columbia’s sheds and carts. So old Trinidad, Columbia’s overseer, continued to fill the warehouse with cotton that lacked a market.

Unless . . . unless she could find a way to market the cotton herself. She crumpled the tax statement in her fist. There had to be a way.

 

 

Colonel Reuben J
ones’s Ethiopian Minstrels began their finale with a resounding rendition of “Dixie.” Many of the elite in Judge Scharbauer’s large ballroom rose to their feet. The song, revered as an anthem of the Confederate States of America, brought glistening eyes and patriotic pride to the faces of the old men, the women, and the Confederate soldiers who were stationed at nearby Fort Brown. Even Aunt Hermione, Yankee-born and bred, seemed moved by the moment.

From the chair nearest the French doors Jeanette dispassio
nately waved a painted sandalwood fan. Its tea-rose color contrasted with the deep-black silk of her ball gown and the black-beaded net that bound her heavy dark hair into a chignon at the nape of her neck. Even her eyes, which were actually an uncommon shade of blue, had a black cast to them that evening.

Jeanette St. John possessed a singular beauty that could not be compared to the more blatant seductiveness of Annabel Goddard. Jeanette
’s beauty transcended the superficial; it was an essence that as a child had taken the form of an antic sprite. She had been a candle’s dancing flame.

Her thoughts ebbed low at that moment. Raffles, buffet dinners, musical soirees, barbecues, and dances! Like the entertainers performing now, the various functions would rais
e proceeds for the glorious war effort. Accomplishing very little. At least not enough for Jeanette. Nothing would ever be enough for her. Nothing could restore Armand.

Armand.
Her fan slowed its swishing flight. Above the pale freckles that bridged her short nose the vivid eyes imperceptibly softened to their normal shade. Gentle, idealistic, handsome Armand. Friend, husband, companion. A casualty of one of the Civil War’s first engagements. How implausible! Seven years of marriage erased like chalk from a blackboard. At twenty-five she had been made a widow. And now, almost a year later, the numbness at her loss still had not abated.

Oh, to feel again! To have sensations wash over her once more like the Gulf at high tide, to be inundated with the breath of
life! Her fan picked up its tempo—half to alleviate the stifling air in the crowded room, half to alleviate the inactivity that chafed at her.


Quite boring, is it not?” drawled the rather tall, foppishly dressed man who slid into the vacant seat on her left. An immaculate hand, rimmed with Mechlin lace at the wrist, smothered an indelicate yawn. “But then one feels obligated to attend these fund raisers.”

She could almost despise Cristobal Cavazos for his frivolous and flippant attitude toward the war wer
e it not for the memory of shared childhood games and his droll humor. He laid the back of one large, swarthy hand against his lips with a gesture that was almost effeminate in its grace, and whispered in a pleasant though distinctly affected voice, “Do look at Annabel’s gown, Jen. The décolletage droops low enough to allow the entire Federal Army to bivouack on maneuvers!”

Unwillingly amused, Jeanette
’s gaze swept along the aisles of chairs, moving past the toad-like profile of their hostess, Pauline Scharbauer, to find Annabel’s cameo head of hennaed ringlets. It was tilted in flirtatious conversation toward the golden one of Major Hampton. The banker’s daughter rapped her fan coquettishly on the young major’s wrist, and Jeanette sighed. Didn’t Annabel ever tire of playing the traditional role of the helpless, dependent female?

But then had not she played the role to some degree herself? To recapture Armand
’s attention, which after his return from the Virginia Military Institute had strayed to issues of states’ rights and national sovereignty, she had relied on charm rather than use her innate wits. That was what was expected of the female. Certainly not intelligence; God forbid a bluestocking!

She must have sighe
d aloud, for Cristobal flicked a glance in her direction. His lids drooped lazily in his habitual expression of boredom, but the quirk in his lip portended another sally. “Why Annabel should be interested in Major Hampton is beyond me,” he
sotto-voced
. “
Dios
, the foolish Hampton would charge Hell with a bucket of water!”


Foolish he might be,” Jeanette snapped under her breath, completely out of patience now, “but at least Hampton is serving his country, which is more than I can say for you!”

Cristobal
’s inane laugh filtered through the last chorus of “Dixie.” “La, Jen, I have no desire to be a pincushion for either army.”


Ssssh!” Aunt Hermione reprimanded with a nervous glance from behind her osprey fan.

Jeanette sighed. Always the bantering; sometimes lig
ht, sometimes fierce. Even as children, it had been that way between her and Cristobal, with the just and fair Armand as arbitrator between his friends. When Cristobal’s father, an hidalgo of old Spain’s aristocracy and a Knight of the Order of St. James, moved away from the plantation that had shared Columbia’s other boundary, the gangling brown boy disappeared from her and Armand’s life.

The lanky boy of twelve had come back only the previous month, a massive man of thirty with an undeniably handsome face
and a weak will for the pleasures of gambling. And women? Jeanette wondered. She slid a sideways glance at Cristobal’s face.

Beneath the slightly waving curtain of rich brown hair were features that could be called firm
—a clear-cut jaw, the strong hawk-like nose. Only the sleepy brown eyes and the droll grin that disfigured the otherwise well-delineated mouth gave evidence of the spineless character within. At least Cristobal’s ready wit and skill at cards seemed to have brought him a modicum of success, for he had returned a fashionable though aimless gentleman.

She told him as much while they watched the guests whirl past in the first dance of the evening, the romantic “
Moonlight Sonata.”


What, Jen?” he responded with good-humored mockery. “You would have me engage in such an unprofitable occupation as commerce?”

She knew what he said was true these days. The once-crowded wharves that dotted the Rio Grande no longer bustled with activity. The warehouses of Brownsville and her twin city of Matamoros, Mexi
co, on the other side of the Rio Grande stood empty. The long rows of Mexican ox carts and wagons that had lined the riverfront were gone. Rather than plying the Rio Grande’s snaggy sandbars with cargo, the steamboats of Kennedy, King, and Stillman were now armored with cotton bales to serve as the core of the Confederate Navy. Shipping was drastically curtailed due to the restrictions of the web of Federal vessels patrolling the vital trade arteries of the Gulf of Mexico.


Of course, Jen, you must give me credit for some ambitious enterprise. I am contributing to the war effort in my own way.”

Her eyes narrowed in disgust. She was incensed more than usual that evening with Cristobal, with his passive, toilless existence
—so different from Armand, who had cared so deeply about everything and who had given the ultimate: his life. “I can just imagine! Your bar bills, I’m sure, help support the Confederacy—as no doubt do your tailor’s bills.”

Cristobal fingered his waistcoat of claret silk with a sheepish grin. “
These duds I picked up in Madrid—or was it Rome?”


So that’s where you’ve been all these years—Europe.”


And that, my dear, is how I am helping the Cause.”


What—gallivanting about Europe?” Jeanette asked, only half listening. She was tired and dreaded the nine-mile trip back to Columbia.

"
Dios
, no! I have been engaged by several European publications to write articles on the Confederacy’s progress in the war.”

Startled, she looked up into the handsome face that should have graced some valiant soldier rathe
r than the dandy before her. “You—sinking to begrime your hands with labor?” she quipped, but with some of his infectious good humor. “Surely you will cover nothing that will take you too close to the battle lines.”

Cristobal yawned again. “
Naturally not. I seek to rid myself of ennui—not my life. I am preparing my first article on the blockade runners.” His deep voice took on a theatrical urgency. “Those brave men who defy the might of Federal vessels imprisoning the Confederacy’s coast.”

Like a worrisome
mosquito Cristobal’s words hounded Jeanette after he took his leave of her. Unheedful of the amorous glances various partners cast at her, she flitted through two more waltzes and a quadrille, all the while pondering what Cristobal had said.

The guests ass
embled at the Scharbauers’ town house were the most prominent, the wealthiest, the handsomest. Beneath the hundreds of brilliant candles the women’s silks and satins glittered and shimmered. The soldiers paraded flashy gray uniforms decorated with the yellow stripe of the cavalry or golden epaulettes and braids on their crimson shell jackets.

So far the remoteness of Texas shielded the state from the brunt of the conflict. Because Columbia
’s citrus fruit crops could still be sold in Texas, Jeanette’s problems in maintaining Columbia were minimal compared to those of landowners in the rest of the Confederate States. No doubt this irked her father, who thought a woman should not be capable of running a plantation; that was a man’s occupation. But how long could she continue before finances forced her to accede to her father’s desire that she come North to live with him?

She had to find a market for her cotton.

And then she knew what it was Cristobal had said that stirred some far recess of her brain. Why not a blockade runner?

Why not indeed a blockade runner!

When an admiring sergeant went to get a cup of peach brandy punch for her, her gaze rapidly scanned the crowded dance floor for Cristobal’s taller frame. Why couldn’t she and Armand be one of the couples? But that part of her life was past and done with.

At last she spotted Cristobal. At the refreshment table, of course. Impatiently she tapped her foot, cursing society
’s taboo against a woman seeking out a man. Fortunately, a few minutes later he passed close enough for her to speak. “I do declare you haven’t paid me a whit of attention tonight, Cristobal.” With a quick snap of her wrist she spread her fan open in her best imitation of Annabel Goddard and flirtatiously smiled up into his umber-brown eyes.

He turned, casting her a quizzical look, and she wondered if she were carrying her coquette act a little too far; but no, Cristobal had been gone a long time. Almost eighteen years. Time could have changed the headstro
ng hoyden he had known, if he remembered her that clearly.


My dear Jen, I am quite honored that you should desire my attention when you have already turned down five of Fort Brown’s finest soldiers requesting the honor of a dance. And, frankly, quite puzzled, since you know how dancing bores me.”

It was she who had forgotten Cristobal, the boy, whose sharp mind challenged hers. Her lips formed a plaintive pout. “
My feet feel like Terry’s Rangers just rode across them, Cristobal. I’m tired of dancing.”


Oh, surely, you jest.”

She ignored the derisive grin but made the decision to temper her flirtation. Cristobal seemed impervious to women
’s wiles and affected more by the latest words of fashion and style that filtered over from the Continent.

When the next d
ance began and a mountain of a soldier who had crushed her feet earlier in the pigeon wing and hornpipe started toward her, she turned to Cristobal, saying, “I’m hot! Let’s escape into the courtyard for a breath of fresh air. I want to hear more about the exciting blockade article you’re preparing.”

Cristobal obligingly took her elbow and steered her toward the veranda
’s open doors. “And I thought women were weary of war stories.”


Oh, but I find them so dashing and romantic!”

The exotic scent of the orange
and lime trees wafted through the evening air, and a tropical moon rocked just above the high adobe walls of the courtyard. The Scharbauer town house was one of Brownsville’s most fashionable and, like those of the few other prominent families, it was surrounded by squalid Mexican mud hovels that lined the back alleys and dusty streets.

Jeanette leaned against the post of the flagstoned well and languidly sipped at the brandy punch. Cristobal stood before her, one hand above her head on the post, bracing h
is large frame. “However on earth does one go about running a blockade, Cristobal? And where do the contacts come from—I mean, how does one sell off the cargo?”


That, my dear,” he drawled lazily, “is precisely what I should like to know. Some deuced Frenchman seems to have the best success at avoiding the Federal fleet—at least so go the reports I’ve gleaned out of General Bee. But our illustrious general is so obtuse about blockade runners that I daresay he would not know the difference between a double-barreled shotgun and his nostrils.”


Frenchman?” she asked, seizing on the lone piece of information. “What’s his name?”

Cristobal picked an imaginary piece of lint off his mulberry-colored short frock coat. “
Kitt—something or the other. No one seems to know much about our self-proclaimed Rebel.”

BOOK: LAVENDER BLUE (historical romance)
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