By Guest Author Gretchen Craig
Hello, Smart Girls Read Romance readers. My son says he can’t see why anyone would write a book without wizards in it – I wonder why anyone would write a book without romance in it. So my newest book EVERMORE, certainly has a romance, or two depending on how you define romance. One romance ends in happily ever after, but another one doesn’t, and with no happy-ever-after, is it a “romance”?
Rather than give you the polished blog for EVERMORE, let me give you a bigger slice of what the story is about, and then I’ll share the first few pages of the novel.
Nicolette Chamard is a free woman of mixed-blood living in New Orleans when the conquering Yanks parade into town. The citizens are riled and hostile, but Nicolette is thrilled – these soldiers will free every enslaved soul in Louisiana. Her rich, slave-owning, white half-brother surveys the same parade and sees the end of all his privilege, ease, and wealth. And among the Yanks entering their beloved city is Captain Finnian McKee, a book seller from Boston who finds himself bewildered by the intricacies of race and color in New Orleans.
Nicolette (she looks just like Halley Berry) wants to help the Union win the war even though collaboration with the enemy will be dangerous. She becomes a telegrapher in Captain McKee’s signal office, and with her light skin and fine manners, poor Finn McKee (who looks like the young Tom Selleck) does not understand that underneath, according to the culture of Louisiana, Nicolette is a Negress. They fall in love in spite of not understanding one another fully, and … Won’t tell you the rest of that story-line yet.
Then there’s Alistair, another rich slave-owning planter, who loves Nicolette dearly. But he will never marry her – it would mean ruin for himself, his mother, and his little sister’s chance of marrying well. He will make her his beloved mistress with a committed heart, but that is not enough for Nicolette. I found myself a little in love with Alistair myself in spite of his not being hero-worthy, and maybe you’ll wish him well, too. Remember Scarlett O’Hara’s crush on Ashley Wilkes? I picture Ashley when I’m writing about Alistair.
Marcel, Nicolette’s half-brother, has a much loved mistress who is of mixed blood. (I think Marcel looks a lot like the young Sean Connery, my all-time heart-throb.) They have two boys together, and Marcel is devoted to his little family. Still he must marry a white woman and have a legitimate family as well. Note the “must.” It seemed like a legitimate “must” to Marcel’s class. So he marries a flaxen-haired belle who is madly in love with him. How on earth can we resolve this? I love Marcel, for all his arrogance and conceit, but really – how can he expect this to end well?
There’s more, of course. It’s a fairly big book, but here you have all the elements for broken hearts, healed hearts, and happy-ever-afters.
Here are the first pages of EVERMORE.
Nicolette squeezed through the crowd to see the conquering Yanks march up Canal Street. The citizens of New Orleans slung insults and worse at the soldiers, but Nicolette was elated. These soldiers were going to free every enslaved soul in the South. In an unguarded moment, she forgot herself. Her lips curved and she pressed her hands to her heart.
Without warning, fingers gripped her shoulder, the thumb digging under her collar bone. A filthy man with a red face and glaring eyes loomed over her, his mouth twisted in fury.
“You wipe that smirk off your face, missy, you know what’s good for you.”
Icy fear shot up her spine. If he denounced her as a Yankee sympathizer, the crowd would stomp her into the ground. She wrenched free and plunged into the mob. At the edge of the throng, she gripped a light post and told herself to breathe, just breathe.
She’d been careless, letting her feelings show. She knew better. No matter that she was free or that her skin was light, the requisite tignon she wore on her head identified her as a woman of color. And a colored woman in New Orleans better know her place.
Her pulse slowing, Nicolette threaded her way through the fringe of onlookers. Here, where she didn’t have to steel herself against the dreaded touching and bumping, she relaxed her hands and shoulders.
Across from Presswood Mercantile, she looked to see if Marcel had come to witness the Yankees claim his city. He leaned against the balcony railing far above the rabble, his steady gaze on the liberators. Invaders, her half-brother would call them, overturning the life of ease and privilege he enjoyed as a rich white planter.
She resisted raising her hand to him. He would not welcome the familiarity in front of Miss Presswood, his flaxen-haired fiancé. No matter that they shared a deep affection, and no matter that Nicolette’s gray eyes were lighter than his brown ones, her brother lived his life on a different plane. Marcel’s mother had been Bertrand Chamard’s wife. Nicolette’s mother had been a slave on the neighboring plantation.
On a balcony above the hubbub, Marcel gripped the iron railing with white knuckles. His nose twitched at the smell of unwashed soldiers in damp, sweat-soaked wool rising above the street. He had anticipated the day Union troops would enter his beloved city, but the impact was no less painful for having foreseen it.
A Confederate through and through, Marcel Chamard took a keen interest in the Yankee formations. They were neat enough, though their uniforms were worn and sometimes more gray than blue. He excused them their lack of polish. He even excused them the side they’d chosen. At least these men had rallied to their cause. Too many Southern gentlemen yet lingered in the comforts of home. Though he did not yet wear the uniform himself, Marcel was no malingerer.
Deborah Ann took his arm and murmured, “Marcel.” He glanced at his fiancé and saw the warning on her face. They were amid their enemies. He unfisted his hands and unclenched his jaw.
Marcel spied his little sister down below. Though Nicolette wore an ordinary blue day-dress and a matching tignon, the required cloth folded and tied in intricate fashion over her black hair, she was a bright blue bird among the crows and sparrows of the crowd. Marcel had never wondered that his father fell in love with Nicolette’s beautiful mother. His sister, too, was beautiful. But, as she had been cossetted and adored all her life, she was naïve in her understanding of slavery in the South. No doubt Nicolette believed the Yanks would free the slaves before breakfast and turn the South into some sort of fairy-tale Eden by tomorrow noontime.
No doubt he’d done his part in spoiling her, but no one could deny she was an exceptional girl. Sang like an angel, with just enough of the devil in her to seduce an entire audience. And with her coloring, he thought for the hundredth time, Nicolette could pass for white, if she wanted to. But she chose not to. No, Nicolette knew nothing of politics or the real issues of the war.
When Deborah Ann stepped closer to him and wrapped her arm in his, he patted her hand absently. His attention was still on Nicolette as she made her way through the thinning crowd. So very careful she was not to brush up against anyone. She thought no one knew how she shrank from being touched, but he had watched her withdraw after the …incident. He hardly let himself think of it in more detail than that. It roiled him and threw him into a rage if he dwelled on what Adam Johnston had done to his baby sister, leaving her unconscious, bleeding and bruised.
Deborah Ann tugged at his arm. Marcel blinked the image away. He took one more look over his shoulder, annoyed with Nicolette for being out again with no protector. What good was the slave he’d given her if she left him at home?
The maître d’ led Finn and his friend Hursh into the gas-lit supper club where silver gleamed and roses scented every table. A white-jacketed waiter offered them menus. Finn waved him off. Dining here would cost them each a week’s wages. Instead he held up two fingers. “Whiskey.”
Finn looked around the room at the other patrons who’d come to take a night’s pleasure in the midst of war. The gleam of brass buttons revealed that about half the diners were men in the uniform of the U. S. Army, Federal officers like himself. The other half were wealthy planters who had decided it was in their best interest to co-exist with the occupying Yanks. Practical men, Finn had to admit.
Amid the fanfare of a drum roll from the stage, the master of ceremonies strode on stage and announced with great fervor, “Mademoiselle Nicolette Chamard!” The white-tie elements of the audience burst into enthusiastic applause.
A young woman entered from stage right, slowly, demurely, with her eyes cast down. Her gown was ice blue, and she wore the get-up on her head that so many women in New Orleans favored, some sort of turban.
The girl began singing a capello, her voice sweet and pitch-perfect, but thin, as if she’d used all her breath just getting on stage. Finn figured she’d been applauded for her looks, not her talent. And looks she had, if you liked a perfect heart-shaped face. Her skin was creamy, not that fish-belly white the young ladies of Boston bragged about. And that lower lip! He leaned forward, his elbows on the table.
The mademoiselle was the picture of innocence, her eyes on the far distance, her hands holding a huge magnolia blossom. Winsomely sweet, she sang her story.
A pretty little maid so neat and gay
To the mill she went one day.
Finn took advantage of sitting in the dark to stare at her bosom mounding nicely above her neckline. He paid little attention to the lyrics, no doubt another insipid ballad about love and loss.
Now I think I will make my best way home.
If my mother ask me why I’ve been so long,
The vision in blue suddenly gave her audience a broad wink and a saucy smile. Her voice took on power and depth and an insinuating tone as she finished with --
I’ll say I’ve been ground by a score or more
But I’ve never been ground so well before.
Finn, caught unawares, guffawed. Hursh slapped the table. The room erupted in laughter.
Then she assumed a mask of hauteur as she seated herself at the piano. She played a tinkling trill in the high register, and then she pounded out a few chords in the lower keys with dramatic, body-swaying expression. Suddenly, as if she’d had a thought, she paused with her chin high in the air, her hands poised over the keys.
“I play piano just like Frederic Chopin, you know,” she said in a confiding tone.
The men in the audience, and they were nearly all men, chuckled, waiting for it.
“With two hands.”
Without waiting for the laughter to die down, Mademoiselle Nicolette launched into a Wagnerian aria in a soaring soprano. When she came to the high note, she stood on tiptoe to reach it, immediately returning to the keyboard and the breathtaking slide down to the alto range, her audience calling out and clapping.
Finn’s eyes never left her. He gazed, not at her bosom, at least not entirely, but at her face, for she’d dropped the innocent-miss mask altogether now. Her eyes sparkled, her face glowed. The regal elegance she projected, and then the humor ranging from sly to clownish – she was a chimera, shifting easily from mock-serious to mock-bawdy, from demure to knowing. Her voice flew like a hummingbird soaring and diving.
She was incandescent.
He was smitten.
Applause rolled through the room as Mademoiselle Chamard took her bows.
From Finn’s personal experience, it had been true, what they said about show people: women of the stage were likely to be generous with their favors. He fervently hoped it were true in New Orleans, too.
“I’ll square with you later,” he said, and bolted, leaving Hursh to pay for the drinks. He wanted to get backstage before the other swains got there.
He found the side door into the performers’ area and closed it firmly in the face of a young gentleman following him. He grabbed a nearby chair and wedged it under the knob. He didn’t need competition from some rich bloke in top hat and cane.
Here the banjo and flute from the next act barely penetrated. A gas light overhead hissed and dimly caught the gleam of blue silk as Mademoiselle Nicolette strode down the hallway toward the brighter dressing area.
She turned. He couldn’t see her face with the light behind her. He came closer and stood in the doorway with her. He stood too close, he knew he did, but he wanted to inhale her intoxicating perfume. He wanted to inhale her.
Up close, she was even more beautiful. Her gray eyes seemed to see through to the back of his head. The heavy scent of the magnolia blossom in her hand made him dizzy, and he swallowed hard.
She backed away from him, bumping into the doorjamb.
No welcoming smile? Finn hesitated, puzzled. In Boston, he’d often gone backstage to congratulate Coleen after a performance, and if he were the first admirer to reach her dressing room, he left the theater a happy man.
Well, what had he expected? That she would invite a stranger into her dressing room, let him tear her clothes off and make passionate love to her all night? Well, yes. He’d been carried away with the image of himself and this astonishing, spirited woman in a sweaty tangle of sheets. Unfair, of course. She was not a fantasy. Still, was there not even a hint of flirtation about her?
He leaned forward, trying to read those astonishing gray eyes. Her pupils widened, and she raised a hand as if to protect herself.
He straightened. He’d blundered, obviously. Yet he was here now. He had to say something.
“I enjoyed your performance, mademoiselle.”
The hand at her bodice fisted on a flounce of lace. “Merci.” She glanced toward the door where he’d wedged the chair.
Could this be the same woman, fearless and bold on stage, shrinking from him here in the hallway? Did he detect a faint trembling in her shoulders?
Good God, the woman was afraid of him.
Finn stepped back. “Pardon me, mademoiselle. I have alarmed you.”
She did not deny it. She was alone, and he was too close. He’d made her feel trapped with the chair under the door knob. He felt like a cad. Heat flushed from his throat to his scalp.
“I do apologize.” He bowed, his eyes on her hemline. “Good night to you, Miss Chamard.”
Nicolette pressed her hand over her heart, watching le Américain retreat down the hallway, his boots loud on the naked boards. His accent was foreign to her, but his voice had been smooth and soothing, like soft butter on a scorched finger. He’d meant her no harm.
His essence lingered, a heady, masculine scent. She breathed, drawing him into her lungs. In spite of the touch of panic, she’d taken in the thick brows and curling dark hair, the lustrous mustache framing a generous lower lip.
He’d been so tall, looming over her. And he’d surprised her. That’s what had unsettled her. If she’d been prepared, if Pierre had been with her, or Maman, she could have smiled and played the coquette. That’s what he wanted, to see the coquette. Not a spiritless gray shadow.
She sat at her dressing table and leaned her forehead against her fist. How long was she going to be like this? A cowardly, timid mouse!
Disgusted with herself, she twisted the lid off the cold cream jar and scoured the make-up off her face. He must have thought she was a ninny. She’d managed, what, one word?
Surrounded by the pale cream, her eyes glowed darkly. She dropped her hand, staring into the mirror. She was not a shadow. She was not a mouse. She still had a spine, she just had to stiffen it and get over that awful moment when Adam Johnston had taken her confidence from her. And she would, she was sure she would. Eventually.
She scraped her chair back. To hell with back stage Lotharios.
Nicolette changed her shoes and joined Cleo and Pierre in the other dressing room. They would go home together and have a late supper in the kitchen. Then she would go to bed and forget all about the officer with the dark brown eyes.
Kind eyes, she remembered, when he saw she was afraid.
At the moment, EVERMORE, the third book in The Plantation Series, Stories of Slavery and Deliverance, is an e-book and available in paperback. Click here to buy EVERMORE in digital format.
|Gretchen Craig, Author|
Gretchen Craig's lush, sweeping tales deliver edgy, compelling characters who test the boundaries of integrity, strength, and love. Told with sensitivity, the novels realistically portray the raw suffering of people in times of great upheaval. Having lived in diverse climates and terrains, Gretchen infuses her novels with a strong sense of place. THE PLANTATION SERIES brings to the reader the smell of Louisiana's bayous and of New Orleans' gumbo. CRIMSON SKY evokes the lives of people living under a searing sun among the stark beauty of mesas and canyons. THEENA'S LANDING summons the sweltering humidity of the Florida Everglades, the flash of scarlet ibis, and the terror of being stranded in a hurricane. For lovers of the short story, COLOR OF THE ROSE is an award winning collection exploring the characters and issues that comprise ALWAYS AND FOREVER. BAYOU STORIES is a dark look at troubled slows looking for solace in the lonely bayous of Louisiana. The third collection, LOOKIN' FOR LUV, is written just to make you smile. To be published in the fall of 2014: Gretchen's first non-historical novel, THE BARGAIN is about two evil women who blight every life they touch until they finally turn on each other. In Gretchen's usual habit of thorough research, these two characters exemplify the psychopathic profile, creating mayhem and heartbreak without feeling a thing. To be published in 2015: TANSY, a novel of early Louisiana, tells the story of a free woman of color who is born into the system of plaçage in New Orleans. She is destined to become a rich white Creole planter's mistress, but she learns that she can shape her own destiny into something far richer and more fulfilling. DESTINY, a novel of the great slave rebellion of 1811. Based on factual accounts, the story begins and ends with Charles Deslondes who leads a double life as loyal slave and secret conspirator as he inspires the slaves to seize their own destiny. Visit her website at www.gretchencraig.com.