Trespassers in a Borrowed Room

Here’s a sample chapter from the 1900 section of my new novel, Storms of Malhado.

Galveston May 1900 – Trespassers in a Borrowed Room

He had a scar on his breast to match the one on his cheek, Desmond did. Everyone in town knew he used to fight and it was just one more thing that gave him a bad reputation. Everyone had seen that scar on his cheek and he’d never done anything to disguise its provenance. He was proud of fighting, proud of the dislike and distrust he instilled among Island elites. But Suzanne had seen the scar on his breast too, and that, she knew, was truly scandalous. If Mother or Papa found out, they’d kill her. It was Josephine who knew it all, Josephine who kept her secrets, Josephine who helped her get away on the afternoons when she went to be with Desmond.

And here was Suzanne, blonde blue-eyed daughter of Galveston high society pulling up her silk stockings in a room not her own, the cries of seagulls outside the boarded-up windows matching her inner hysteria. Desmond had helped her lace up her corset, his pull stronger than Josephine’s, his laugh coarse when she asked him to loosen her stays. She was hot, so hot, her sweat mixing with his still. She should have gone into the bathroom to freshen up. The shuttered windows kept it shady and almost pleasant; the tiles cold under her feet, and the closed door behind her would have made her feel safe for a few stolen moments – but Suzanne didn’t want to trespass more than she already had. So she resigned herself to dressing under Desmond’s unwavering gaze. A gentleman would have looked away. But if she’d wanted a gentleman, Suzanne would have settled for chaste dances at the Garten Verein with young men Mother approved of.

Instead, here she was, sitting on crumpled sheets in a room not her own, pulling up her stockings. She wished he’d say something. She wished he’d say that she was beautiful. Or that he didn’t want her to leave just yet. Instead he was lying there, completely naked, watching her. She tried to calm her beating heart. She smiled at him, told herself this moment was unique and priceless. She might never come back. She should never come back. But wasn’t that what she’d told herself last time and the time before?

For an afternoon outing to feed a bunch of stray kittens, she was overdressed. Overdressed for the heat too. She should have worn something simpler, lighter, but her vanity had trumped common sense. Poor Josephine had protested and scolded, but Suzanne had prevailed. Her dress was one of her best, cream silk, made in Paris. Mother had picked it out for her on their last European voyage, the year before. What a difference a year could make. What a difference in both Suzanne and Mother! Her fingers trembled. She couldn’t even dress herself.

“Need some help with that?” he asked. She giggled. It was a special kind of forbidden treat to have a naked man help her into her French dress, to have his big fingers fumble with the tiny pearl buttons. He smiled. His dimples sunk into the stubble on his cheeks, his scar even seemed to smile at her.

“You like?” she asked, and emboldened by his smile, twirled around in the dark room, making her ribbons fly.

“Not bad,” he said. “Here, sit down.” And as her precious dress wrinkled anew, the rugged man of the seas got an ivory comb off the vanity – Was it Antoinette’s? Suzanne almost protested, then thought better of it – and started combing her hair. She blushed. It seemed to her more intimate than making love. More tender in any case. He combed her hair the way Josephine would, and the thought made tears come to her eyes. Her nurse never hurt her. Not when she brushed her hair, not when she fastened her stays. Her nurse was always careful and kind. There had been many moments in her life when Suzanne had felt certain that Josephine was the only person who truly loved her, the only one truly devoted to her, the keeper of her secrets, the confidante to dry her tears and share her laughter. She wished that a whole world didn’t divide them. She wished the same for Desmond. What kind of punishment was this, what sins of her foremothers was she paying for in this life, that the people she loved best were not the people she could love openly? If she walked down the street holding Josephine’s hand it would cause a scandal. Yet she wanted to hold Josephine’s hand and never Mother’s. She wanted to dance with Desmond, to be in his bed, and all she got to do was go to parties with the high society men Mother approved of.

She’d met him when she’d been walking on the beach with Josephine early one morning. It was still winter, but the sun was bright, and the ocean caressed the Island with the kind of warm generous breeze that rendered everything ethereal. In the magical light of this enchanted morning, when everything seemed more fairytale than reality, Desmond had been flying a kite, and despite Josephine’s protestations, Suzanne had stopped to watch. He’d noticed her, and he’d approached, offering to show her the kite. Josephine had first attempted to continue their walk, to lead her away from this unknown man, but the beach was nearly deserted and it had seemed a harmless enough conversation. Then Suzanne had met him by accident one day, on the street. She was walking alone, having had lunch with her father in a restaurant, and wanting to get some exercise and maybe some inspiration for her drawings. She’d known not to stop and talk to him – by then Josephine had informed her of the identity of the stranger with the kite – but she had nevertheless been drawn to him. She’d wanted to stop, and when he’d invited her back to the beach the next morning, promising to let her fly the kite, she’d smiled without accepting, but she’d showed up, with Josephine, of course, her heart beating fast out of fear that he wouldn’t be there. But he was. And the breeze had been warm again, the salt air coating everything in magic. Suzanne could only hope that she herself, in her white dress, had struck him as a surreal apparition, somewhere between a love spell and a dream. He’d let her fly the kite through the warm salty mist. Josephine warned her later that she’d appeared to have much too good of a time, and that it was never wise to let a man see such pure joy. It was even less wise to do so publicly, but the beach had been mercifully deserted, and the white mist had enveloped them like a protective cloak.

Before they parted he’d slipped her a letter. The next one came shortly after, to the house, entrusted by the cook’s little boy, who’d turned out to be a trustworthy messenger, to Josephine, a trustworthy accomplice. “I should have burned it,” Josephine would later say, but for some reason she always gave Suzanne the letters and Suzanne was only now beginning to understand why.

The letters had seemed harmless at first. She’d known she couldn’t secretly meet Desmond, could never be alone with him, and that knowledge had made her feel safe. She’d only been allowing him to flatter her through their correspondence.

Then one day in spring, walking down Broadway in the company of one of her beaux, she’d seen Desmond on the other side of the street. He’d tipped his hat to her, a somewhat impertinent look in his eye, and she’d been half-angry that he didn’t care if he compromised her, half-sad and guilty that he should see her with a man more suitable to her station in life. They were headed to the Garden Verein, that young man and her, and though the evening was fragrant with jasmine, and though she wore a new dress and found that she looked loveliest amongst the girls, for beauty was the ultimate curse she’d been blessed with, though the food was good and the music much to her liking, and though her dance card was full, all she could think of was Desmond. She hadn’t yet been to this borrowed room yet. She hadn’t thought such a thing possible. What she’d allow herself to do would have then struck her as folly. No, that night, as the sweet wistful scent of jasmine drifted into her own room, as the full moon shone over the Gulf and the waves crashed onto the beach, Suzanne hadn’t cried into her chaste white pillow for the kissing or lovemaking she’d miss. She’d cried because she’d thought she’d never dance with Desmond. How could a girl like her ever dance with a rogue like him? He wasn’t invited to parties by any of the respectable families.

Her letters changed then. She started confiding in him, telling him some of her little secrets that were no secrets at all. What she shared with him were the ways in which she sought to escape the confines of her world. She didn’t know why she wanted to share these things with him. It was, perhaps, self-consciousness. She hadn’t wanted to seem boring, like the typical society girl, enamored with the beautiful trappings of a world that didn’t truly allow her much freedom. She’d wanted to show off, to show him that she was intelligent, a rebel in her own way. She’d bragged about her small acts of insubordination: sneaking off to Josephine’s room in the servant’s quarter to draw, dreaming of leaving her doting father in order to move far away and study art, and finally spending time in the quiet yard of the Ward house, feeding a family of feral cats. By then, spring had given way to early summer, and the Wards, like all well-to-do families which weren’t cursed with bizarre afflictions, had boarded up the house and left for cooler climates. In the yard, Suzanne was blissfully alone. Dangerously alone too.

Had she included that last tidbit on purpose, knowing full well he’d try to find her there? Had she imagined he’d convince her to break into the house itself and do the unthinkable? It was too late to wonder about all of it now. What was done was done. Suzanne had no desire to undo it, for what had passed between them was more wonderful, more magical, than those winter mornings flying the kite on the beach. Though she feared many things, feared mostly for the end of summer, the time when the Ward family would return to Galveston, and she and Desmond would lose their secret hiding place, she was strangely happy in her folly. If it all came crumbling down, if it all ended, she’d have memories to last a lifetime.

There was the lovemaking, of course, but there was also dancing, just like she’d hoped for, just like she’d thought she’d never get to enjoy. They danced in this very room, a room not her own, a room that quite possibly belonged to Antoinette, or to one of the other Ward girls, though Antoinette was the only one old enough for this type of furnishings. Suzanne and Desmond had danced here, the first time she’d followed him into the Ward house. They danced to a song he hummed for her, a melody she’d never heard before. It was a way to break the tension, because Suzanne had been scared and on the verge of tears. Their bodies fit together in the act of dancing as seamlessly as they fit together later when Suzanne allowed herself to go down the path of no return, when she allowed herself to do the unthinkable.

Now here she was, her heart heavy at having to leave him, her senses aflutter with the danger of having someone see her. Of course, should someone take notice of her in the yard of a house that was boarded up for summer, as most of the high society houses were, she had the kittens to bring up as an excuse. She’d come here to feed the feral kittens, as she had many times before. But even with that half-true excuse, it was best to remain unseen. Especially in her overly elegant dress. Galveston loved gossip and Suzanne knew that with her family’s name, her wealth, her beauty, and Mother’s most peculiar illness, she was a desirable candidate for rumors of disgrace. She wore a hat with a veil. Desmond put it on her head himself, pulled the veil over her eyes.

“Now, now,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to see you.”

Her heart stopped. He wasn’t going to kiss her goodbye, not with the veil covering her face. Her lips parted but she couldn’t bring herself to ask for it. She couldn’t bring herself to leave either. She stood in the doorway and he stood there looking at her.

“Don’t come back, Miss Suzanne,” he said. “You shouldn’t come here.”

She felt her body tremble but it seemed like the body of a stranger. She felt like an outsider, observing the scene, someone watching a play maybe, heartbroken, but utterly powerless to change what passed between the actors on the stage.

“I’m not the one for you,” he said. “You do realize we could never marry.”

“We could run away,” she whispered.

He shook his head. “Darling, no. A girl like you sure is a pretty thing to behold, but a young wife on the road and on the open seas… It would be dangerous and stupid. You surely have better offers, don’t you?”

“I want no one but you.”

“You’re inexperienced and don’t know what you want. Perhaps you should try kissing some of your other beaux and see how that feels.”

She drew in a sharp breath. “That is very insulting!”

She stormed off, tears burning in her eyes. She hoped he’d follow her, but he didn’t. No footsteps echoed hers on the hardwood floors of the long dark hallway, nor down the stairs and through the parlor. She even stopped and waited for a heartbeat. Maybe two. The house smelled like a combination of mothballs and mildew, a faint memory of lemon wood polish sweetening the mix, and promising that surely, before the family returned everything would be properly aired out and cleaned, the scent of abandonment safely banished until next summer. The Ward family’s furniture was covered with white drop cloths, like ghosts. She imagined the rightful owners of this mansion in Europe. She should have gone too, like everyone did, but Mother… Well, no use thinking about it. She was here now, and summer was upon them. Her life had been altered forever. There was no going back to the innocent Suzanne of days gone by.

Tears came to her eyes as she stepped through the back door, the one he had unlatched for them to have access to the boarded-up house. It was at the back of the building, obscured on all sides by oleander bushes, but still Suzanne looked around, her heart pounding in her chest. There was nobody in the Wards’ yard. Nobody but the kittens, growing steadily into cats, meowing for the scraps Suzanne collected for them from her own meals, which she carried wrapped in dinner napkins inside her purse. It was a most unsanitary solution, and the dinner napkins ended up discarded in the yard, as they were too revolting to pick up again. Nobody had yet scolded her for such small trespass and the kittens seemed rather satisfied, but she had to come up with a better way to transport the food.

“I have no more,” she whispered to the gray tomcat brushing against her skirt. Josephine had told her not to let the kittens get too close, as they most likely carried fleas. Fleas were bad on the Island, with the humidity and all, another reminder that despite all the wealth and development, nature reigned supreme. Still, Suzanne couldn’t shoo the cats away. “I’ll be back soon,” she whispered, petting the soft grey fur. The promise almost made her cry. What if she came back and the only ones waiting for her were the cats?

It was hot out, hot and stifling. But the air smelled ever so slightly like salt, and that gave her comfort. As much as she’d felt stifled by Galveston’s society lately, she loved the Island itself, as a patch of heavenly beauty, as a place open to the sea. As if to respond to her love, an unexpected breeze caressed her cheek, drawing her veil to her face. It was most welcome. She could already feel sweat building up at the base of her spine. She needed to avoid not so much being seen, as being recognized. She took detours, tried to veer off a path where she knew she’d run into acquaintances. She didn’t walk on disreputable streets, of course. She avoided Postoffice where she’d heard women of questionable character lived, but she avoided Bath too, where the few friends who were not spending their summer in Europe might pass by in their carriages and recognize her. If someone saw her, though, she was prepared: She carried a sketchbook. She could always pretend she was seeking inspiration in the quaint houses and lush gardens south of the Strand, though truth be told, since she’d met Desmond she’d lost all interest in her drawing.

She passed blooming plumerias. She willed herself to stop. But no sooner did the tip of her pencil touch the paper, she realized today this was a chore, not a pleasure. She looked in sadness at the delicate blooms. The white petals, the slightly darker yellow center. A few weeks ago, each flower had been a world onto its own to her, a delicate wondrous world she could get lost in. She was indifferent to them now. All she could think of was Desmond. He hadn’t meant it, had he? But in her heart she knew that what he’d said was true. She couldn’t marry him and stay in Galveston. She couldn’t marry him and maintain any claim to her family’s fortune or good name. Was it truly that impractical to run away together? Was Desmond merely being selfish? Or was he embarrassed? Surely, she knew that he was not a wealthy man. But was he truly poor, and if he was poor what exactly did that mean? She tried to imagine herself living with him in a sparse little room, so unlike the borrowed luxury of the Ward house, or the luxury she was accustomed to in her own home, but all that came to mind was the joy of falling asleep in his arms at night. She knew there would be no new dresses, no ribbons, no rides in carriages, no fine gloves, and possibly not even many fine meals. But wouldn’t she gladly trade all those niceties for his company?

By the time she got home she’d managed to dry her tears, but not to soothe the pain in her heart. This couldn’t be the end, she told herself while going up the grand staircase in her family’s mansion. She’d give up all of this and more. She’d make him see that she would do so gladly. She’d find a way. She knew that it was a desperate gesture to send a letter. She couldn’t do that. But she would think of something. She always did.

Luckily Josephine was waiting for her in her room. She wanted Josephine and no one else. No one else knew. No one else would have understood.

She loved Josephine best, always had. Ever since she was a little girl, Josephine could take all the hurts of this world away, make them disappear, whisk them off to sea and usher in friendly breezes. Josephine had cured her when Suzanne had burned herself with scalding coffee while playing in the kitchen, her first memory of serious pain. Josephine knew how to make a sunburn fade, how to make female trouble less troublesome, how to make Suzanne’s blonde hair shine with life, how to turn a crying spell into a good night’s sleep. She knew how to avert fainting, or how to heal Suzanne’s angry heart when Mother was being absurd. Josephine knew it all and more. She brewed infusions scented with flowers, and though she would never admit it, what she mumbled to herself at times when Suzanne was ailing, was half prayer half spell, a secret she’d brought from another island, a place she rarely talked about but which Suzanne was aware of, a place Suzanne, in fact, dreamt about at night, a place she wished at times they were both free to travel to and never return. But not now. Now Suzanne wanted something that was actually here in Galveston, and though Josephine could always take her pain away before, her powers were being tested by this new crisis in her young mistress’ life. A spell, Suzanne thought. If only Josephine was not afraid to talk about these things. If only Suzanne could bring herself to ask.

She sunk into her featherbed with her clothes on. She buried her face in the pillows. Sorrow came naturally but she knew that she was being wicked. Perhaps if she acted bereft enough, Josephine, who loved her more than life itself, would be desperate to save her.

She felt the woman’s callused hand caressing her head.

“Don’t cry, mon ange! It is bad for your dreams.”

The things Josephine said. Bad for your dreams. Suzanne wished she could bring herself to care about dreams and such. She wished the inflection in Josephine’s voice, the love that had always been there, could help her, but right now nothing could.

“Ç’est tout perdu,” she whispered. Mother forbade them from talking to each other in French, and Suzanne loved to disobey.

“Now, now,” Josephine said. “Ç’est pas fini, mon ange.”

At this, again, Suzanne cried harder. Josephine knew things, she could see things, but what if Josephine was wrong?

“You take your bath, and I will bring you dinner. Tomorrow the birds will sing and the waves will crash to the beach, and you will feel more like yourself. You have patience, mon ange. Ç’est une histoire compliquée. Quand même il est encore ici.”

Suzanne lifted her head from her pillow. The window was open, she could hear the seagulls. She could feel the breeze. She was suddenly aware of being bone tired, of sweat building up at her temples and the nape of her neck. She hated wearing her hat, but what option did ladies have? Keep your skin white and your appearance respectable while letting your head melt. Who needed a mind to think anyway? What good could a mind do a young lady? Nothing but torment could come of it.

“What do you see, Josephine?” she asked.

Josephine stood by the open window. “The sea is calm,” she said. “Yet I have a feeling there might be a storm soon.”

“No, Josephine, I’m asking what you see see.”

Josephine went into the bathroom. She poured some drops of scented oil into the bath water, touched it with her fingers. She must have seen her coming from a long ways away, and come down to draw her a bath. She must have been watching for her from her tiny dormer window up in the servants’ quarter, and the thought broke Suzanne’s heart. She knew that since she’d first met Desmond, she’d caused her nurse nothing but worry. And yet she couldn’t make herself stop.

“I asked what you see! Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean.”

“I do not see nothing,” Josephine said. “The things you speak of are coincidence, mon ange. Coincidence and superstition, and if I ever believed I confessed and repented.”

“Josephine, please!”

“You get in the bath before it gets cold, Miss Suzanne.”

“Perhaps I fancy a cold bath on a hot summer’s day!”

“You will not catch a chill and catch your death under my watch, young lady. You get in the bath, and I get your supper.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Yes you are.”

“I’ll never be hungry again, Josephine.”

“I had the cook make biscuits and gravy just for you, and you will eat.”

“For supper? Biscuits and gravy for supper?”

“Yes, mon ange. And I will bring you lemon cake and a few slices of bacon too. You have lost weight and it sure does not suit you. No gentleman will want a skinny girl with hollow cheeks.”

Suzanne wanted to argue, but the thought of the biscuits, the cake, and bacon melted her reserve.

“No rogue will want her either,” Josephine pointed out, and at this Suzanne gave in and laughed.

She let Josephine unlace her corset, then as the trusted old soul closed the door behind her, she stripped out of her chemise and stepped into the bath. It was a strange thing, but Josephine was right, just as she was right about many other things. A hot bath on a hot day could be a surprising source of comfort. It exhausted her too, the stifling room, the scalding water. She wondered, at times, if it was Josephine’s way of making sure her young mistress would stop going on and on and go to sleep instead.

Later, in bed, after consuming every bite of the supper Josephine had brought, her body felt heavy against the starched white sheets. The lemongrass Josephine used to scent her pillow mixed with the salty breeze coming through her window. Still, even as she sank into oblivion, she could not help but wonder what the future might bring. Was Desmond perhaps thinking of her too? Would he miss her?

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