In this disguise, Althea felt unexpectedly free, and comfortable. The thin bodice and skirt of the simple peasant garb moved with the light breeze. The shawl had a curling, unfinished edge, which she never would have been caught dead in anywhere else, but it was a suitable linsey-woolsey. She sent a prayer of thanks to Elda, back at the manor house, for providing these items, and concealing her absence. Helping Althea as she always, faithfully did.
“I’ll tell them yer indisposed, m’lady,” she had said solemnly.
As she and Alfred had agreed, Althea waited under the weeping willow tree next to the brook where they had so often played as children. Althea laughed bitterly to herself — those innocent times were just months ago, until that day of the false king’s decree, the bloody chaos of guards versus priests, and the still un-avenged murder of her father.
She was drowsing with her toes in the stream when Alfred on his black steed crashed through the hedge, the limpid branches of the willow flailing around him. He leaped down to her side, leaving the mighty stallion stamping in the rocky creek bed, hooves ringing on the stones. Alfred had a long, bleeding cut across his shoulder. His hat was gone. His dagger was out of the scabbard, ready in his hand.
“Alfred!” Althea cried, suddenly fearful of this man she had always known as a kind, playful boy.
“Althea —” he said, and pulled her up to his chest in one, strong motion. He kissed her as they had never kissed before. She could taste his pulsing sweat and smell his enflamed manliness and feel the pounding blood in his blue veins.
“Alfred!” she finally managed, now unsure what she was asking for — less? more? Before she could form the words, Alfred leapt atop the snorting charger, swept her to him again, and cried “Hold on, they’re after us!”
All the way across the ballroom floor — and in the middle of that tedious waltz with that odious Pilkie, Mister Ernest Pilkington The Third — Lucy caught a glimpse of him, his dark hair and bronze jawline set against the high, white starched collar of his tuxedo. David Monroe had arrived.
Lucy sighed softly over Pilkie’s shoulder when she saw Minerva and her mother swarm David with giggles and fans when he was just two long strides into the ornate room. Lucy’s possessive heart leapt in her chest, and Pilkie mistook her slight lunge forward as her way of snuggling more into his arms. “No sir!” Lucy exclaimed when he moved his hand to a more intimate part of her back.
She continued to gaze at David from afar while he was greeted so effusively. When the Braffing sisters joined in the adoration, even the footman raised his eyebrows — though perhaps it was their matching gowns in an unfortunate shade of green.
The dance floor was a long stretch of cold marble and the tempo of the band slowly milled on, but Lucy took refuge in the memories of the previous night’s kiss — she and David in the dream-perfect moonlight, breathing in the scent of blooming lilies, seizing the serenity of the formal garden.
“Where have you been all my life?” David had asked her when she had strayed from his lips to kiss his jawline, where she had tasted the bronze of the sun, all the amazing heat of the man who had saved the town. His hands massaged her lower back, her ribs.
With this scintillating memory-sensation, Lucy clutched Pilkie once more, and had to scowl again at the wrong man in her arms. The waltz ended. She looked back to the entranceway. David was gone.
In the Hay
“I’ve always loved you,” Samuel purred.
Amanda had never seen him like this, so intent, so wet-lipped. But then again she had never stretched out on such a fragrant pile of hay in the afternoon sunlight, either....
When Clara awoke she felt nothing but shame. Now she understood why Mary had thrown herself from the bridge, why Christina had joined St. Catherine’s Convent, why Artence had consented to wed the wheezing, grunting Mr. Gaskins. But none of that compared to the penance that Clara must now perform to save her family’s name, to save her own soul. She prayed she was strong enough to endure and to regain her purity — if only spiritually.
Clara threw her arms across her face to quell the tears that spilled from her eyes, and tried to imagine her act of contrition, in the stocks, in the gaol — but all she could see was his deep brown eyes and the way he looked at her naked body; how he had kissed her so hungrily, all over. He was a priest, he had said it, but — “I am also a man,” he had breathed huskily. She hadn’t been able to stop herself, even when the crucifix had fallen off the wall, breaking into a hundred warnings. Now they would all have to pay.
The Party Girl and the Soldier
“Oh mama, I’m just having some fun!” Emily said.
“A young lady mustn’t imbibe, she mustn’t! You will regret this, let me tell you,” Mrs. Warthen told her daughter. Then she sighed. She’d been telling Emily “you mustn’t” all her life.
“This party was your idea,” Emily reminded her mother.
“Not another drop and come down to the garden immediately,” Mrs. Warthen said calmly as possible.
Emily had won, like she always did in these family contentions, always about their endless social obligations. Tonight she had succeeded in her choice of dress — short! — her hair style — bobbed! — and gin — gin! — on her breath.
“If you expect me to try out this engagement, publicly, then this is how I’m going about it, mama. Whyever did you expect otherwise?”
Mrs. Warthen groaned to herself the whole walk back to their guests, all the while assuming the worst was over.
Emily arrived in the garden, only an hour late, and Woodrow came to her side immediately. He took her hand like it was a leash.
“Woodrow, easy hon — Mary Alice Jenkins how are you!” Emily talked smoothly with everyone at once, gushing at the guests and grumbling at the woody man, as she called her probable but unconvincing fiancé. “Woodrow, be a dear and stay out of my way — and Mrs. Jenkins, so glad to see you’ve recovered from your attack, I know it’s been difficult for you.”
Even with Woodrow holding one of her hands, Emily managed to circulate and hug and intercede in the croquet game for poor clumsy Mona. When she pulled the hidden flask out of the aspidistra and replaced half her punch with more gin, she winked at Woodrow. “The holding of the hand works both ways, doesn’t it,” she said to his wide eyes and gave him a liberal splash into his cut glass cup and pinstripe vest. Soon she was leaning on him during lawn darts, and at one point, found him sturdy enough to bounce off as she pirouetted through conversations. She incorporated him into her elegant, tippy-toe choreography throughout the party, making the woody man and the guests love her more. She even danced in front of the three-man band, getting them to kick up the tune as Woodrow stood rocking and her mother leaned back in the wicker settee and tried to cool herself with a handkerchief.
The band played on, keeping up with Emily, pink cheeked and laughing. Gradually, in her tipsiness (still using Woodrow as a buoy) she realized the dancers around her had stopped, and quieted, until everyone but her was looking at a point behind her. She whirled around, and around again, curling Woodrow’s arm over her head. Then she spotted the object of surprise.
“Augustus!” she gasped. “But you’ve been dead!” Emily flung off the woody grip, and rushed into Augustus’ arms, feeling his scratchy wool uniform, not careful at all about the cane on which he leaned. Kissing him full on the lips, she drank him in like she was standing in the gush of a waterfall that had just found its course. Her arms around his neck, his arms around her waist.
Her mother soon coughed delicately.
“No more of this hand-holding,” Emily said to Augustus, her lips still close to his. “You are back.”
“Senora, if you do not cooperate, we will return and do worse!”
Lana glared at the banditos defiantly. Her mother lay crying on the floor, one hunk of her long hair in the hand of the threatening bandito. Her father lay moldering in his grave in the family plot, dead from the remorse of losing so much in a poker game he shouldn’t have been playing in the first place.
“We will pay you the money, but if you touch my mother once more — ” Lana raged, her own long, auburn hair shaking loose in curls around her face.
“What, will you braid our hairs?” the banditos laughed, and exited the hacienda, pushing over chairs, kicking the dog in the courtyard, and leaving a cloud of dust that settled hopelessly, just like the prospects of her family’s chinchilla ranch.
Lana stared at the banditos as they rode off, clenching her fists. She knew who she had to speak to next about this confrontation, and that is what made her most angry: the new sheriff in town had already dismissed her fears of violence and property theft as not yet worthy of his attention. “Hire your own guns,” he’d laughed, a painful barb in her empty purse, an outrageous insult to her law-abiding family who’d supped regularly with old Sheriff Maloney.
The banditos persisted in collecting their debt, but it was he, the new sheriff who she came to hate more than chinchilla rustlers and drunken farm hands and river-diverters and well-polluters. He was haughty and conceited and vain, instead of doing his job of protecting, shielding, and noticing her.
The next morning, Lana waited outside the locked doors of Sheriff Lucius McDaniel’s jail. A list of his faults beat like an Indian drum in her head: every other time she spied the sheriff — the tall, broad-shouldered man stood out in a crowd — he was lounging on the veranda of Madam Ruffina’s, his boots up on the railing and spurs visible to every passerby, as if such indulgences were part of his pay.
Lana huffed. She crossed her arms, then stood arms akimbo, then crossed her arms again, scowling more as she thought of his faults, which made her stand up straighter, her proud breasts straining against the thin calico of her dress. She wished she had worn her brother’s old leather vest to town, as she did around the hacienda for work and for protection.
Still no sheriff. She tapped her toe, huffed again, and tightened her arms. The way he had of leaning against the hitch racks, legs long and ego confident and laugh loud, irked her fiercely. Old Sheriff Maloney had never been jovial. That’s how he had kept the peace her family no longer had.
Lana glared down Main Street, already busy with wagons, and spotted one of Madam Ruffina’s girls. Lana instantly turned up her nose and swung in the other direction — right into the wide chest of Sheriff Lucius McDaniel. Her eyes level with the double row of white buttons holding the indigo shirt tight to his chest.
“G’mornin’ Miss Lana Seymour,” he said with a twinkle in his eye and that smirk on his lips. Before she could step back, the new sheriff gave her a searing kiss on the cheek, dragging his lips like he was trying to get her scent. Then he said it: “The future Mrs. Lucius McDaniels should know how it’s going to be every morning.”
Lana slapped him across the face and stalked off, his resonant laughter reaching her very core.
Songs with Kisses
Rania still had her voice, so that’s how she made a living. Youth gone, beauty shredded, lovers long unloved, these were her lyrics. “What the hell,” she was known for saying at the beginning of her sets, “What the hell” in her sultry sad voice. And then she would sing, breathing in the smoke of the candle-dim lounge, keeping an eye out for a full moon over Havana Harbor, keeping in mind the lips she has kissed, “And where, and why, I have forgotten …”
True Love Always
When finally her lips left hers, Ilsa knew it was true love.
Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives, works, and kisses in the South Carolina Lowcountry.