Alice at heart, p.7
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       Alice At Heart, p.7

           Deborah Smith
 
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  “I’m here to see Mr. Randolph.”

  “Okay. Whatever.”

  Lilith stepped into the shadowy foyer, long empty of furniture. Tall transomed archways led off to other parts of the house. Drafts crept across the floor, and dust motes floated in the light of an old crystal chandelier. How sad, Undiline. I remember your parties, your music, your lovely furnishings.

  The girl watched Lilith, transfixed. “You glow in this light,” she whispered.

  “Oh, it’s a trick of the shadows. Now, you go about your business. I know my way through this house, my dear. Go wait for your ride. I’ll find my way upstairs without your escort.”

  The girl said nothing else, looking dazed and suddenly miserable.

  Lilith reached out and stroked her hair. Talk to me, Lilith urged silently, the slightest song.

  The girl immediately complied. “Would you tell Mr. Randolph something for me, ma’am?”

  “Yes, dear.”

  “Tell him . . . tell him I’m not a whore. I just needed the money from this job for tuition at art school. I really appreciate the way he treated me. That he didn’t encourage me.”

  Lilith hid her surprise and pleasure at Griffin’s honor. Randolphs, by nature, were users. “I suspect he knows you were forced into an unseemly position.”

  “But I would have done anything he asked. He looks awful and acts like nothing matters. He paid me a lot of money to leave, but I wish he wouldn’t send me away. He fired his nurse, too, and told his cousin to beat it. He doesn’t want people around. I don’t understand why, but I . . . fell in love with him, anyway.” Tears slid down her face. “He was a gentleman, even though I decided to sleep with him if he asked. But he didn’t ask, and I love him. Go figure.”

  Lilith sighed at the girl’s confusion. The water wrapped itself around the land, or the land around the water. Dominance was a matter of perspective, and pleasure did not always equal power. “He’s a charismatic man.”

  “Yeah. Yeah. He’s got some kind of . . . of talent.”

  “Go back to college in Savannah. Use your feelings for him as inspiration, paint great art, and demand his brand of nobility from every man you love.” Lilith touched her face, released her, and the girl, nodding and crying, grabbed her luggage and disappeared out onto the veranda. Lilith shut the door, then gathered her thoughts for a moment before she began to climb the staircase.

  He is his mother’s wonderful son, she thought with bittersweet pride.

  8

  As for Bonavendiers, add to our psyche the spoiled attitudes of a silver-spoon upbringing in the deep, coastal South, and you have that most dangerous of all combinations (and here I stoop to use two common stereotypes.) Southern Belles who are also mermaids. Gilding the magnolia, to say the least.

  —Lilith

  1959. Dressed in slender Chanel cocktail dresses, their webbed feet hidden in exquisitely jeweled pumps with stiletto heels, a young Lilith, Mara, and Undiline drew eye-popping attention from the enthralled partygoers each time they stepped from the shadows of the moss-draped forest. The Randolph fete was being held at an aging church camp along the sleepy SweetwaterRiver, which flowed through the deep coastal forest to the saltwater marshes of BellemeadeBay. Dozens of kerosene torches and colorful Japanese lanterns lit the ethereal recesses of the lawns beneath gnarled live oaks and enormous magnolias. A small orchestra played Mack The Knife. Long linened tables were laden with chowders and fresh seafood, barbecue, and martini pitchers. Black men in waiters’ uniforms ferried trays of liquor and finger sandwiches among rich whites whose ancestors had, in many cases, owned the waiters’ ancestors on coastal cotton and rice plantations before the Civil War.

  “Stay on the edges, out of the light. We’re here to represent our family, not cause a scene,” Lilith said. “There’ll be no showing off, Mara, and no seductions.”

  “No fun at all,” Mara sighed.

  “Oh, you’re wrong, cousin; it’s all wonderful and glamorous just to watch,” Undiline proclaimed in her lyrical Scottish voice. “Lilith, do no’ be slow about pointing out Porter Randolph to me the very second you spy him. I want to see the notorious ladies’ man for my own self.”

  Lilith said nothing. Her only mission was to pay polite homage as society celebrated Porter Randolph’s ascension to the throne of Randolph Shipping. Lilith, then twenty-seven and already wiser than her years, sipped an iced vodka with the weary air of an emissary sent to do diplomatic duty, which, in fact, she was. She and Father had decided modern times called for modern relations between Bonavendiers and Randolphs. When Porter Randolph himself had sent an invitation for his river soiree, Father had said, “He made the offer. We’ll accept.” But Father, nearly eighty and still grieving for Mother, who had died the year before, remained at Sainte’s Point to help Barret care for Pearl. Pearl, only nineteen and still so girlish she chewed bubble gum, was pregnant and ailing. The baby was the first of three children she and Barret would lose to miscarriages.

  Rebellious Mara, twenty-two and already a threat to all mankind, draped herself like an octopus against a ramshackle bench of the river landing’s church camp, near a wooden sign that proclaimed the landing, with its charming collection of cabins and pavilions, Sweetwater Haven. Randolphs owned the property but donated its use to their church. Retreats, meetings, and a children’s summer camp drew the faithful from all over the state of Georgia. Tonight the church camp had been turned into a far worldlier scene.

  Mara snorted. “Church folk, indeed. Randolphs. Murderers.” She despised all Randolphs and blamed their huge, diesel-belching cargo ships for killing Mother. “They poisoned her,” Mara always insisted. Mother had fallen ill with inflamed lungs after leading the local dolphins away from an oil slick caused by a Randolph ship. Mother had been only 70, still young and beautiful before the infection withered her. Undiline had come from Scotland to help nurse Mother and had stayed on after Mother’s death. It had been a very hard year.

  “Randolphs. I could drown them all,” Mara went on. “You know Porter thinks he’s going to be the one to eradicate Bonavendiers from the coast once and for all. You know it, Lilith. Inviting us to his little fete is just a ruse of friendship. He thinks of Father as old and widowed—and vulnerable. He expects to slide into our good graces and buy the island from us. I’ve heard all the details. I have my sources.”

  “Pillow talk,” Lilith said bluntly.

  “Men tell me anything I want to know once I get them into bed.”

  “Oh, how brazen you are!” Undiline said with a jolly roll of her green eyes. “Mara, you make Porter Randolph sound like a monster! I just don’t believe it. You hate all land-lovers, and you can’t give a Randolph a fair thought.” Undiline, tall, exuberant, and stunningly beautiful, patted an errant swath of her copper hair back into its upswept style and then prodded Mara’s shoulder. “I think this Porter Randolph must be the only man you haven’t bedded. Aren’t you a wee bit put out about that?”

  Mara growled, “I don’t touch Randolphs.”

  Undiline sighed. “A pity. They’re handsome people. Look at the men. Tall and black-haired, straight of limb and strong of shoulder, with their dark, earthy eyes. Ah! The land will always lure the water, Mara. And the water lures the land. It’s so. We’re as much like them as they are like us.”

  Mara turned to her spitefully. “Oh? You think a Randolph can respect our kind? Understand our kind? Believe in our kind? Then kick off your fine shoes, Undiline, and watch how Porter reacts to your webbed feet. Show him how long you can stay under water. Let him hear you singing to the dolphins—and the dolphins singing back. Admit all that and more about our kind—tell him we come from ancestors spoken of only in fables and fairy tales—then watch him proclaim you a freak or a crazy woman. To a Randolph we’re a pitiful curiosity. Like a two-headed calf at the fair.”

  Undiline laughed but looked at Lilith with somber eyes.

  Lilith touched her shoulder kindly. “I prefer your perspective to Mara’s. Mar
a, pull in your claws. That’s enough.”

  Mara looked chagrined and slid an arm through their cousin’s. “You know I adore you. I just feel it’s my duty to educate you about land-lovers.”

  “Ah, you pretty devil,” Undiline said quietly, gave her a subdued smile, and turned back to the festivities. Lilith watched worriedly. Undiline, twenty-six, was enthralled by the Randolphs in particular and ordinary folk in general. Though her family in Scotland was quite wealthy and sophisticated, they’d been very isolated on their windswept Scottish island. Before coming to America, Undiline had met very few people other than her own kind. She was too vulnerable to the charms of ordinary folk—land-lovers, as Mara derisively called them. And she’d never seen such a thoroughly American event as this river party of Porter Randolph’s, with its Old South atmosphere and modern savoir-faire.

  And she’d never met Porter Randolph, until now.

  “There’s the subject of our debate and your intrigue, Undiline,” Lilith said, as the crowd suddenly divided and broke into wild applause. On the opposite side of the glen, a tall man stepped out of the shadows, nodding to his assembled guests and family. Dressed in a tuxedo and imbued with the quiet command of coastal aristocracy, Porter Randolph was enough to make any woman’s heart race.

  Lilith tried to recall all she knew about him. “He’s thirty-five,” she told Undiline. “He was bred and raised to take over Randolph Shipping. His father retired last year. Porter has been managing the family’s South American operations, but now he’s returning to Savannah. I believe he has quite a reputation for racing yachts. He’s considered very brilliant and athletic.” She paused. “And as you’ve heard, he’s considered quite notorious in his ability to break women’s hearts.”

  All this was wasted on Undiline, who had gone very still, very quiet. She pressed her fingertips to her heart as she watched Porter Randolph shake hands among the crowd. Lilith and Mara traded worried looks.

  “I am very sorry, my cousins, to upset you,” Undiline whispered. “But I’ll no’ be telling you lies.” She began to tremble. “I believe in love at very first sight. And there he is.”

  Before Lilith could stop her, Undiline strode forward into the light, halting only when she stood directly in Porter Randolph’s path. Her arrival drew instant gasps from the crowd. While not a Bonavendier per se, Undiline was still One Of Them, kin to the mysterious and notorious family whose whispered peculiarities had entered the realm of lurid coastal legend. Porter Randolph turned toward the commotion—or heard her singing to him and could not resist.

  It was a moment no one who witnessed it would ever forget.

  He seemed to lose all track of the people around him, the event, his status. He looked at Undiline and simply stopped. Stopped his life, stopped his fortunes, stopped his heart, slid that heart from his body, and handed it to her. People gasped again as he held out a hand to her, a stranger. Lilith groaned when Undiline walked straight to him and took his hand. The orchestra began to play Hello, Young Lovers, an achingly romantic ballad. He drew her into his arms and they danced slowly, while everyone else stared in wonder and disbelief.

  A Randolph, publicly smitten with One of Them.

  Late that night, in her bedroom in the mansion at Sainte’s Point, Undiline could not suppress a song of pain and determination.

  Lilith reached her first, and found her seated on the room’s Turkish rug, a razor in her hand, her crimson blood soaking the rug’s elaborate patterns. Shreds of her skin lying about her like small offerings. She had spread her toes and sliced out the webbing between them. Lilith sank down beside her and clasped her tear-stained, joyful face.

  Undiline smiled. “Do no’ be angry with me, cousin. I will do whatever it takes to be his kind of woman.”

  Lilith put her arms around Undiline and rocked her like a ruined child. “Oh, my dear,” she whispered. “You’ll have to cut out your soul.”

  9

  Often we read the hoary old tale of dangerous sirens luring ships to their doom and men to damnation: The Cyrenes of Homer’s Odysseus, beckoning ordinary men and their possessions. The truth, dear readers, is far more sentimental; our kind tends to rescue hapless travelers and take only a small commission in return. It is the travelers who steal from us.

  —Lilith

  When he was eighteen, just before he left Savannah on a Russian freighter, Griffin sailed to Sainte’s Point in the Sea Princess, a small ketch his father had built for his mother.

  “I’m a man now,” he told Lilith, Mara, and Pearl stiffly. “I came to say I know you-all had something to do with my parents’ deaths. You hated my father and did all you could to ruin him. And when you couldn’t make my mother leave him, you killed them both. Someday I’ll figure out how you did it and I’ll come back.”

  He left to search the waters of the world, as if besting the ocean could reveal how it had drowned his family with the Bonavendiers’ help. Now, more than twenty years later, maturity and disappointment had given a cynical cast to him, and he was brutally lost.

  “Here to finish off what you and your sisters started when I was a kid?” he asked.

  Lilith acknowledged the insult with an arched brow as she entered his bedroom. She carried the box to a small table in one corner, set it there, then returned and seated herself near his bed, settling gracefully on an aged armchair of cracked leather. “No matter what you still believe about the past, I mean you no harm, and neither do my sisters.”

  “I’m not in any shape to uphold the Randolph tradition of fighting Bonavendiers right now.” He glanced at the box with a frown but clearly wouldn’t ask.

  Lilith gazed at him in dismay. He lay against a mountain of pillows on a big four-poster bed of wood and iron, a bed Undiline had shipped here from Scotland during her honeymoon with Porter Randolph. Griffin was well over six feet tall, a commanding presence, even deposed in the antique bed. He had a sailor’s rope-working hands, big-knuckled and coarse. His skin was weathered, and squint lines fanned from the corners of his hooded, long-lashed eyes.

  And his hair, his hair. Like anyone of their kind, he must keep it trimmed almost daily or risk having others notice its extraordinary rate of growth. Undiline had taught him as a child to clip his hair every morning. But he’d let himself go now, and the sight was astonishing. He had hair just one shade lighter than true black—Randolph hair, in color. But thanks to his mother’s heritage, that hair had grown astonishingly in only a few weeks’ time. It now lay in thick, shaggy waves that curled below his shoulders. Even more startling, his facial hair had grown at an equal rate. He had a luxurious black beard halfway down his stomach.

  He looked like a wild animal. From that mane of black hair and beard, his eyes burned like dark jewels, the burnt-brown color of fertile garden loam, the essence of earth. Remind him of his true nature. Quickly.

  Lilith leaned forward and touched a long fingertip to the foot of his bed. “You were conceived in this bed nearly forty years ago. Souls are drawn back where they began. You belong here. Take comfort.”

  Griffin clenched a fist around a mug he perched on his belly, then lifted the mug to her in salute. “Madam Bonavendier,” he countered with an acidic smile, “You’re lying like a sinner in church.” He drank deeply.

  Lilith studied him with quiet distress. He gave off the distinct scent of alcohol; his blue pajama top was stained with spilled liquor, but it was not the liquor affecting him. It was the carbonated water he mixed with it.

  A soda, a seltzer, even sparkling wine. All as potent as pure whiskey to someone such as ourselves. No, he’ll never admit that, Lilith thought. He hides so much from his heart.

  He set the mug back on the stained pajama top flattened across his belly. “You’re looking at me as if I’m a monster,” he said with a mercurial smile.

  “Another day or two without shaving and you’ll sport a grand black beard like Blackbeard the pirate. When the English cornered him, they swore he lit small candles in his beard to make himself
a terrifying sight. Will you set yourself on fire to frighten me away, as you’ve chased off all others who care for you?”

  “Now, I’ve been called a lot of things, but being called a pirate by a Bonavendier is ironic. Half the ships at the bottom of the Atlantic out there—” he jerked his head toward the island—”went down because your ancestors conveniently manipulated the lighthouse during storms.” He took another drink. “Sinking my parents’ sailboat must have been easy.”

  Lilith shut her eyes for a moment. Ah, Undiline, I know he’s half yours, and his heart is good, but he has been taught such prejudice against our kind. She stood. “Your father was a proud fool and drove your mother to torment. He and he alone decided to take the Calm Meridian out that day. He alone is responsible for what happened. Why have you come back here? To confront the truth? Or to hide from that truth while blaming others?”

  His hand trembled visibly as he lifted the thick mug from his belly, brought it to his mouth, then balanced it unevenly on his stomach again, sloshing more bubbling amber liquid on the pajama shirt. The weakness didn’t escape his notice or Lilith’s.

  He shoved the mug onto a heavy teak nightstand and lunged forward, grimacing at the effort. “When I was a kid, I believed I saw you and your sisters in the water that day. A hallucination, right? But I’m developing new standards for what’s possible and what’s not. If you-all were out there, what does it tell me? What were you doing? Covering up the evidence?”

  “You are asking questions to which you already know the answers. Or you believe you know, which is just as powerful. Indulge your rhetoric, Griffin, but keep listening for the truth. Whatever I would tell you right now would fall on deaf ears.”

 
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