Affair of the Heart by Jeanette Cooper by Jeanette Cooper - Read Online

Book Preview

Affair of the Heart - Jeanette Cooper

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1

love.

Chapter One

New Orleans, 1953

Rosemarie Delrio leaned on the wrought iron handrail of the balcony fronting Carmelita’s second-story apartment near Jackson Square in the historic Vieux Carre. She could see the steeple of the famous St. Louis Cathedral and the busy sidewalks below where tourists and locals alike strolled in tandem, twos, or groups. She enjoyed watching people surreptitiously and guessing at the secrets carefully concealed beneath their social facades. Like her, most folk seemed to be of two minds, two personalities; the one presented to the world, and the private one within.

Rosemarie was leaning over the balustrade when a car drove up and parked at the curb, lucky to find a parking space at that time of day. A masculine Hercules in a business suit climbed from the car. His hair was the color of India ink, much the same as hers was. He was tall, darkly tanned, and exceptionally good-looking. A sigh of resignation escaped her lips as the man entered the flower shop beneath Carmelita’s apartment, and she wondered at what secrets he might shield from the world.

A gust of wind swept across the balcony, disarranging Rosemarie’s carefully coifed hair. She pulled out one of the small combs, attempting to repair the damage. Several minutes later, she still worried with it when Hercules exited the flower shop with a lovely bouquet of flowers in hand.

Bending over the balustrade to gain a better look, the delicate pearl-studded comb fell from Rosemarie’s hand. To her dismay, it landed upon the man’s shoulder and slid off onto the sidewalk.

He stopped short, glancing down at his shoulder, and then at the sidewalk where the small comb lay. He bent down and retrieved it. Tilting his head back, he looked up and spotted Rosemarie on the balcony.

Does this belong to you? he inquired, his strong masculine face breaking into a warm, friendly smile.

I’m sorry, Rosemarie replied, hoping he didn’t think she purposely dropped the comb. It was an accident.

No harm done. Beau Broussard at your service, he said and tossed the little comb up to her out-stretched hands. His inflected voice held a French accent and beneath that was a slight patois similar to that of the Creoles.

His infectious smile grew on Rosemarie and she returned it in kind, her perfect white teeth gleaming. All the while, she gazed brazenly at his coal black hair, those nearly black brown eyes, and his chiseled chin and cheeks, all masculine features to captivate any warm-blooded woman’s attention.

Thanks, she said, waving the little pearl-studded comb and turning back to the door of the apartment. She stood in shadow to watch his car drive away.

With a dreary sigh, she sauntered across the room and stood in front of the cheval glass mirror against the wall between the two bedroom doors. She pondered her image, wondering if others viewed her as she viewed herself; a misfit and an outcast.

Just one drop, she thought, remembering a phrase she heard her mother hiss beneath her breath on more than one occasion.

She pondered those three words so frequently they were embedded in her memory. Just one drop of Negro blood was enough to color her entire life. It made no difference that she was more white than black; biracial persons were always identified with their darker kin. Yet, realistically, she was neither white nor black, but rather, a mixture in between that left her in limbo between two ethnic groups, between two different cultures, and accepted by neither.

Rosemarie was a young girl when she learned the secret of her ancestry following her grandmother’s death when she and her mother attended the funeral. She thought it odd that none of her mother’s relatives had the strange skin coloring that she and her mother had. However, her young cousins who knew the story of her grandmother’s black lover had no qualms about sharing the story with Rosemarie. They explained that her great grandmother married a white man, bore him two white children, and later sinned with a black man and gave birth to Rosemarie’s mother.

Then Rosemarie was born second-generation biracial. She might have easily passed as white except for her caramel yellow skin coloring. But even one drop was enough to make her a racial outcast.

Growing up, Rosemarie could never recall her mother mentioning the subject of biracialism. The single time she asked Maria, Mama, do I have Negro blood? her mother’s violent response came like spewing venom.

You will never mention that word in this house again, Maria yelled with anger reddening her cheeks. You are Rosemarie Delrio, daughter of Julian Carlos Delrio and Maria Delrio. That is all you need to know.

Years later, Rosemarie would realize her mother lived in a state of denial about her own bloodline. She invented a lie, early in her life, conferring on her father a Mexican origin; too young to know at the time that Mexicans received little less respect than did Negroes. Fortunately, her olive skin looked enough like a dark suntan to qualify her lie, and she enjoyed a life married to a white man, in a white man’s society, not limited by ethnicity.

Rosemarie often wished she could be so lucky. It was no surprise growing up when kids and adults called her high yeller, a slang term for anyone with yellow skin tones such as she had. The trauma of such discriminating verbal abuses began shaping her life from early childhood and very little could be considered positive.

Only in Texas within the close-knit society of her parents and their friends could she mix comfortably, albeit, even if she failed miserably to fit in. Her father’s wealth and power formed a connective link to other powerful men throughout the country and often their offspring overlooked Rosemarie’s skin coloring, likely warned by their parents.

Friendships were a rarity, even short-term ones. Usually shown acceptance because of her parents, Rosemarie lived with deep longing to belong, to know the joy of camaraderie and acceptance by anyone who would respect her as a human being instead of judging the color of her skin.

Thus, her world was comprised of a selected group; her parents’ friends. Underlying the boundaries of her restrictive environment her caramel skin was a prison. It limited her lifestyle, her career options, and whatever goals she might choose to achieve. When people looked at her, they saw her skin color, which became a wall that concealed her identity behind it.

Rosemarie now leaned closer to the cheval mirror, examining her strangely exotic complexion as she had done hundreds of times over the years.

Why? she whispered to the mirror. Why did I have to have this awful skin coloring? I hate it. Pursing her lips and giving a despairing shake of her head, she became aware of the mouse-like stirrings of Carmelita dressing in her bedroom.

Carmelita, her only friend, was a Godsend throughout their years of school attendance together. When children mocked and poked fun at Rosemarie by calling her yellow skin, yellow bird, and others, Carmelita was there to lend strength and encouragement. Carmelita urged her to fight back, but it wasn’t Rosemarie’s nature to be defensive or aggressive. Silence and passivity were her only weapons, useless though they were, but at least she could retain dignity and self-respect.

Feeling lonely most of the time, Rosemarie often wondered what it would feel like to live a carefree life without the taboo of skin color. She wondered what it might feel like to have true friends without that ever-present wall of color between them. Life had dealt her a cross to bear.

Chapter Two

Moving about Carmelita’s apartment restlessly, waiting for her friend to finish dressing, Rosemarie dreaded going to Lily LaRue’s party tonight. If Lily weren’t her mother’s good friend she would refuse to attend. Better still, she would never have been invited in the first place. Not knowing anyone except Lily and Carmelita, she would be an outcast from the onset. It never failed. The color of her skin drew rejection the way honey draws flies. Parties were never favorable social events Rosemarie enjoyed. They were more a summons that left her no choice when expected attendance was a measure of good manners and decorum.

Lily’s party would be no exception. Having Carmelita along would help a little, but even Carmelita could not cushion the hurt, more often than not, inflicted upon her by insensitive people who ignored her feelings. Carmelita was a blessing, however.

* * * *

Now, here Rosemarie was, a young woman with nothing better to look forward to than an unwanted marriage between herself and Patrick Crandall. The highly public marriage would be a glowing celebration to commemorate the history of two powerful Texas families whose ancestry went all the way back to 1825, following Stephen Austin’s establishment of the first permanent Anglo-American settlement at San Felipe de Austin on the lower Brazos River. The ancestral Delrios and Crandalls were among the twenty-five to thirty thousand Americans who came to Texas and settled along the river between San Antonio and Nacogdoches southward to the coast.

Rosemarie didn’t want to marry Patrick Crandall. They had nothing in common. Patrick enjoyed his bachelorhood, having become a womanizer since his teens, and Rosemarie was certain marriage would not change him, especially marriage to her. Neither of them loved the other. They were simply two people thrown together by parents, one who would benefit financially, the other who wanted to insure his daughter’s future by buying her a husband. The match held none of the assurances for Rosemarie her father hoped. The virtual hunger inside that craved love, acceptance, and approval, would receive no sustenance from Patrick.

Stepping away from the mirror, she closed the French doors against the late afternoon heat rising from the street and sidewalk. Inspecting herself one more time in the mirror, she touched up her hair, caressing the tiny comb Beau Broussard touched when he retrieved it from the sidewalk. Something interestingly familiar about him stuck in her thoughts, especially his handsomeness that seemed composed of the stuff of fanciful girlish dreams.

I wish I didn’t have to go to that party tonight, she whispered silently, knowing Carmelita wouldn’t hear of her missing Lily LaRue’s gathering.

From the mirror, she called up an image of her father’s face looking back at her. Daddy, I know why you want me to marry Patrick, she whispered quietly. You knew no one else would want me.

Rosemarie, were you talking to me? Carmelita asked, sauntering from the bedroom in her good black cocktail dress, fastening on an earring.

No, I was just thinking aloud, thinking I should be happy about marrying Patrick. After all, he might be the only opportunity I’ll ever have for marriage.

Rosemarie, don’t start that again. Of course, you should be happy to marry Patrick, but more importantly right now is for us to have a nice evening.

I know you tire of hearing my complaints, but how can daddy be so cruel? How can he force me to marry someone I don’t love?

Marrying Patrick is not the worst thing that could happen to you. You could certainly do much worse. Do you have any idea how many girls would give their right hand to wear his engagement ring? I wish I were marrying him.

I’d rather grow old and be an old maid, she admitted.

Okay, Rosemarie! What’s going on? What set off such melancholy thoughts?

I suppose I’m just being foolish. I saw a handsome man a while ago going into the flower shop below. He came out with a big bouquet of flowers, probably for some woman. It made me wish I could be desirable, wanted, and cared for; maybe even cherished a little. I have everything money can buy; yet, I am needier than anyone I know. I want someone to love me, Carm. For just once in my life I want someone to care just for me, not in spite of who I am, but because of who I am.

Carmelita stepped over to her friend and hugged her. Rosemarie, I know how much you hurt. I’ve always known, but you have to start measuring your life by what you do have instead of what’s missing.

Rosemarie shrugged. I know daddy means well. He’s afraid that if I don’t marry Patrick, I’ll end up an old maid. He’s probably right to think that, too. I’m twenty-three and can count on one hand the number of dates I’ve had. One good thing about Patrick is that he has never shown indifference to my skin coloring. I suppose I can be thankful for that at least.

You have to give yourself a chance with Patrick. People do change you know, and you might even come to care for him if you let yourself.

I care for him, but more as a friend or brother than a fiancé. Anyway, it doesn’t matter since daddy is determined for us to be married. This visit to see you was his pre-wedding gift, ‘a pre-marital holiday,’ he called it. He hoped it might soften my opposition to the marriage.

Despite her using every trick she could think of to change her father’s mind, begging, pleading, imploring, and finally screaming that she wouldn’t do it, he wouldn’t even discuss it with her. His decision was firm.

I’ll kill myself first! Rosemarie screamed when her father’s unrelenting attitude fired her anger.

I know what is best for you, Rosemarie, was his frequent claim. Patrick wants to marry you. You’ll have a future, a husband, children, and a family.

I’ll have a contract marriage that went out of practice in the dark ages, she screamed, watching her father turn his back to her, his shoulders drooping, his head downcast. She was certain he felt sorry for her, but went out of his way to pretend otherwise.

Carm, I wish just once I could be happy. I’ve lived with misery my entire life. I just want to know what real happiness feels like for once in my life.

Carmelita sighed. Rosemarie, you have to live in the minute. Let go of all those negative thoughts and feelings. Concentrate on right now. And do try to have a good time tonight, she added with an affectionate pat on Rosemarie’s back.

Chapter Three

There sure are lots of people here, Rosemarie noted when they parked along the street in front of Lily's lovely home. She and Carmelita climbed from the car and started up the walkway to Lily’s door. Cars lined the driveway and street for at least three blocks, which meant Lily’s guest list contained a large number of people.

A playful breeze lifted Rosemarie’s hair and she breathed deeply of the fresh air to help her relax. She put her hand to the back of her neck, the muscles tensing with anxiety at the prospect of the long evening ahead of her. She would spend hours smiling and pretending to enjoy herself when, in fact, she would be counting minutes until the party was over.

Early on in life, she developed a remarkable ability to hide inferior feelings, to stand tall and proud despite negative influences. While white people could discriminate against the color of her skin, they could never quite measure up to her regal air that allowed her to pass by them as if they weren’t even there. Snubbing, slighting and affronting gave her a modicum of power, and she became darn good at it.

Rosemarie, don’t get up tight, Carmelita warned, seeing Rosemarie massage her neck.

Rosemarie wore a pale blue cocktail dress with delicate spaghetti straps across her shoulders. It contoured modestly to the shape of her curves, accenting her long legs, her slender ankles, and small feet in spiked slippers with delicate straps. She wore no jewelry other than earrings, not wanting to call attention to herself.

Carmelita pushed the doorbell. A uniformed maid opened the door. She accepted their invitations and invited them inside Lily’s fashionable home. Built in the late eighteen hundreds, it had undergone remodeling numerous times until it became a modern structure entombed in the walls of historical architecture. Everything was highly polished, the decor embraced by turn of the century furniture Lily collected over most of her adult life. The rooms used for entertaining her guests were extremely large, remodeled by tearing out walls and expanding the entertainment area to accommodate growing numbers of new guests at her frequent parties—most of them fund-raising events for various charities. Support pillars joined the living and dining rooms, allowing the easy flow of guests between rooms. French doors on both sides of the fireplace opened onto a terrace that spread across the back of the house.

Rosemarie and Carmelita stood quietly a few seconds in the entrance hall, two beautiful young women totally contrasted by their skin coloring, one milky white, the other a dusky shade of pale yellow. Glancing at the large number of people who arrived before them they caught glimpses of prominent guests, mostly locals on this particular occasion.

Lily, in a flurry of swishing skirts on the lovely hostess gown she wore, came toward them in the graceful manner that frequently turned heads. She was tall, slender, but proportionally built, her stature matching the carefully chosen descriptions people attributed to her such as: gorgeous, lovely, friendly, interesting, intelligent, resourceful, and independent. Greeting them, she wore a wide smile that showed pearly white teeth glistening behind red lips. It was obvious to all who looked at her that she was a genuinely happy and pleasant person.

Carmelita, how nice to see you, Lily exclaimed, giving her a hug. You’re as lovely as always. Then turning to Rosemarie, she studied her a moment before saying, This must be Rosemarie whom I haven’t seen for much too long. You have grown into a beautiful young woman much resembling your mother. How is she? I would so like to see her again.

Mama is fine, and she sends her love, Rosemarie said shyly.

Do come in and meet everyone. Lily ushered them into the large room where the mingled scents perfumed the air. She was a charming hostess, drawing smiles from her guests as she acknowledged them in a dozen different ways: a smile, a nod, a tilt of her head, a touch or pat, a word, or a wink. She drew Carmelita and Rosemarie about the room; introducing them to other guests whose stares were bold and their greetings cool as they reached out reluctant hands to Rosemarie.

With intense sensitivity, while Lily introduced her to guests, Rosemarie sensed their thoughts, their preconceived judgments and convictions, their biases. They were politely indifferent as they raked her silky skin coloring with critical eyes. Some made mockery by being overly patronizing in Lily’s presence. Hushed whispers followed in her wake like a rising wind contradicting what little cordiality was shown. She was an intruder, an unwanted guest. It was one thing to invite a black dignitary of foreign birth, but none of them had ever seen or heard of Rosemarie Delrio as being anyone of importance. Why Lily bothered inviting her was an insult to her other guests was the common thought among them.

Rosemarie was used to such close inspection and negative responses from people, but it was never an easy thing to deal with. It hurt. Feigning indifference was her only defense. The evening, ruined before it even began, left little to look forward to except its end. In the meantime, she was seeking avenues of escape where she could be alone. She saw the doors on either side of the fireplace leading outside to a patio or terrace. Immediately, she made plans to disappear through those doors the minute Lily left her on her own.

Come along, Lily urged with a nudge to Rosemarie’s back. I’d like the two of you to meet the Cuviers.

All the while, Rosemarie smiled brightly at Lily’s guests, shook hands, murmured how glad she was to meet Mr. and Mrs. so and so, and then moved on to the next group while eyes followed her critically.

Across the room, another pair of invasive dark eyes also followed her movements until they eventually drew her attention like a magnet.

The minute his face appeared in her vision, she did a retake, looking at him too long. His eyes made direct contact with hers just before she looked away. He was the same man, Beau Broussard, seen going in the flower shop below Carmelita’s apartment, the one who tossed her little comb to her.

She snatched quick glances in his direction, blushing when he caught her looking at him. His eyes took on a warm, teasing intimacy. His level grin, inlaid with perfect white teeth, held a predatory quality that was almost mocking.

I see Beau Broussard finds something very interesting over this way, Carmelita said, deciding he was doubtlessly the most handsome man in the room. Her pulse quickened ever so slightly.

Rosemarie saw no need to inform them about seeing him from the balcony of Carmelita’s apartment. She kept that information to herself.

Oh, I nearly forgot that you knew Beau, Carmelita. You took him home one night when he’d had too much to drink, Lily recalled, her French accent strong.

That, I did, Carmelita answered nonchalantly. Hey, since I know most everyone, I think I’ll just circulate while you introduce Rosemarie to your other guests.

Rosemarie uttered a disgruntled objection, which Carmelita and Lily seemed not to hear. Propelled across the room where the elegant Mr. Broussard stood chatting with a lovely young woman, Rosemarie didn't miss the idolatry in the woman's deep study of the gentleman's face. Rosemarie tried not to stare, but she could barely take her eyes from the man. There was something visually fascinating about him; his strong Herculean build and the ease of his manner making him seem completely self-possessed.

His dark brown eyes locked on hers and Rosemarie felt her legs go weak. There was unexpected warmth emanating from this man, and she could feel it pouring in, around, and over her. She was being overly sensitive, she supposed. Yet, strange buoyancy filled the dull emptiness inside her.

Seeming almost miffed over the interruption, the young woman forced her attention from Beau to Lily. Lily, you didn’t tell me Beau would be here tonight, she said, sending Beau her dimpled smile. Then before Lily could answer, the girl glanced toward Rosemarie, her expression going slack at sight of the strange skin coloring that left little doubt about her ancestral roots. The sweet dimpled smile tightened and froze into a disdainful grimace.

A flush surfaced and tinted Rosemarie’s cheeks. The shy little girl inside her wanted to cast her chin down, to surrender to the shame and degradation, but self-preserving strength would not allow her to give in to her weakness. She raised her chin higher in the air at a haughty tilt; labeled on occasion as her imperial stance. However, the instant pain that flickered in her eyes drew sharp observance.

Camille Readon and Beau Broussard, I’d like you to meet my lovely young guest, Rosemarie Delrio. Lily failed to notice Camille’s apparent disdain.

Without acknowledging the introduction, Camille said, Excuse me, please. Without another glance, she turned her back on her hostess and guests and walked away. Her rejection was left behind like an offensive ghost.

Taken aback by Camille’s behavior, Lily silently vowed never to include her again on her guest lists. Well, I suppose it was an emergency, she muttered and smiled, attempting to make light of the snub.

Rosemarie, who wanted simply to find a place to hide, maintained her regal pose. She pushed her hand out when Beau Broussard extended his. The room was unusually cool for so many warm bodied guests, but the warmth of his hand seeped into her flesh and wrapped around her like a warm blanket. Their eyes met and held for long moments. Suddenly shy, Rosemarie glanced away to avoid those dark perceptive orbs.

Nice to meet you again, she whispered with feathered breathlessness, glancing up at him from beneath long, black, hooded lids.

The pleasure is mine, Cherie. He glanced at her hair and saw the little comb nestled snugly there. I’m glad I was able to retrieve your comb for you. It’s very becoming in your lovely hair.

You know each other? Lily asked, casting puzzled glances between them.

We sort of encountered each other when I purchased your flowers, Beau answered, not taking his eyes from Rosemarie. You must be new to our city, he remarked, leaving a question mark hanging.

I... I don’t live in New Orleans, Rosemarie replied, her protective shield diminishing to shyness as the effects from the warmth of his hand invaded her senses.

I see. Where do you live?

Not now, Beau, Lily interrupted. Let me finish introducing her around, then you can chat with her later."

That’s always my luck, Lily. You steer the nicest ones away from me, he declared smiling, reluctantly letting go of Rosemarie’s hand. You will save a dance for me, won’t you, Rosemarie? he asked.

Rosemarie nodded. Yes, of course, she replied in a shy whisper. She had no intention of dancing with Broussard or anyone else. As soon as she got the chance, she would find a secluded spot outside to while away the time from prying eyes and malicious glances and whispers.

A waiter served them champagne from a tray, which emptied quickly as he circulated about the room. Then picking up empty containers, he went back to the bar and exchanged them for clean flutes of the bubbly liquid.

Rosemarie sipped her champagne and kept pace with Lily who made introductions to one small group of people after another, most extending gracious murmurs of greeting while their eyes reflected skepticism. Rosemarie never kidded herself. Few people chose to be in the same room with a Negro, no matter how diluted the blood or bleached the skin. The women were the worst. Time had not silenced the historical tales of how New Orleans men once took the yellow-skinned Creole girls as mistresses, and many were suspicious that their men still coveted the idea.

A waiter approached them and called Lily away to report some problem or other. Rosemarie found herself alone in a full room of people. She immediately planned her escape.

* * * *

Beau Broussard stood on the sidelines observing the crowd. He had watched Rosemarie Delrio since her arrival, sensing her discomfort among Lily’s white guests by the way she kept looking toward the doors that led out onto the terrace. He found her extremely interesting. Everything about her was exquisite, her fine, delicate features, the way she carried herself, her perfect figure, and those long shapely legs.

Not since his affair with Leticia, had he met anyone capable of sparking his interest as this girl did. While he was far from being a bigot, he was nevertheless aware of the societal repercussions imposed by the color of her skin. The abolishment of slavery did not set the Negro free. Almost ninety years later, Negroes were still deeply rooted in the bonds wrought by slavery through the denial of freedoms white Americans took for granted.

Deep in thought, he almost missed seeing Rosemarie’s purposeful approach toward the doors where she exited onto the terrace.

Chapter Four

Suddenly alone in a huge room filled with people following Lily’s departure, Rosemarie needed to find seclusion. She sauntered slowly toward the doors next to the fireplace. She was aware of the cloying perfume smells and the acrid odor of cigar and cigarette smoke hovering in the air like clouds. She needed fresh air and distance from the questioning stares and hushed whispers emanating all around her. She found it amazing at the interest she drew just because of the yellowish tint of her skin.

Opening one of the French doors, she slipped outside, quickly closing it behind her and hoping no one saw her. Glancing about the softly lighted gallery, she breathed a relieved breath of freedom. Alone and unobserved she could relax.

Rolling her tight shoulders and breathing deeply, she walked across the gallery and leaned against the wrought iron balustrade, gazing up at a dark star-lit sky broken by a slice of white moon. The air was fresh and clean. Sighing, she gazed at a large star, and then like a child she repeated the aged chant she had said a thousand times, Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight...

...I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight, came the deep male voice from behind her, a touch of amusement in its warm husky tone.

Startled, Rosemarie whirled about, embarrassed by her childish chant. She was aware of something else, too. Her heart felt like drum beats pounding in her chest. She could not ignore the rush of warmth that engulfed her at the sound of his voice.

The pale gallery lights offered Rosemarie a good view of the handsome face, the coal black hair, his chin and jaw darkened by facial hair despite the close shave, probably just before the party. A woodsy scent of cologne pleased her nostrils, but his closeness was highly unsettling. She silently admitted she was strongly attracted to him.

What is your wish, lovely lady? Coming to stand next to her, he grasped the handrail and leaned outward to gain a good view of the star-studded sky above the aromatic garden beyond the terrace.

My wish is to be alone, she stated outright.

Surely you jest. Since when does one come to a party to be alone? He observed her proud chin resuming its defensive pose. Her sculpted profile reminded him of a beautiful goddess. She was a lovely sight to look at, and he could think of only one word to describe her, exquisite. The creamy coffee color of her skin was exotic, inviting his fascination with the mystique of her guarded disposition.

I came because Lily invited me. That doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it, she stated directly, wishing he would leave her alone. His presence had the strength of assaulting her carefully erected defenses.

It would seem that life could get very boring with that attitude.

Mr. Broussard, it isn’t my intention to be rude, but I really would like to be alone. She moved away from him toward the end of the terrace where the steps led to the garden path. There she paused, certain her rejection would send him away.

She was wrong.

Hardly intimidated by her rejection, he followed her. I would be less than a gentleman if I allowed a beautiful lady to spend an evening alone trying not to enjoy herself, he teased.

It occurred to Rosemarie that Lily might have put him up to playing host. If Lily asked you to look out for me then be advised that it isn’t necessary, she snapped, moving down the steps to take the dimly lighted garden path where stone benches were scattered along each side.

Lilly did not send me, he replied, still not moved by her rejection. Be as it may, I insist on escorting you if you intend to explore the garden. Lily has remarked there are night critters all about: snakes, toads, lizards, raccoons...

Rosemarie froze, gazing down at her feet. A shiver zipped down her spine when something moved in the grass a few feet away. Then she heard the man’s deep chuckle, and knew he was teasing her. Annoyed, she gave him a sharp look before walking farther down the garden path. She came to a row of hedge on either side. A little distance farther, the hedge stopped abruptly and a large rose garden began. Dimly lighted paths winded through the garden. She took the first path to her left.

Be careful... he warned just as Rosemarie felt a rose thorn strike her bare arm.

She stopped at once. A warm body collided against her back. Hands softly touched her bare shoulders. Mesmerized, she stood much too long enjoying the feel of those hands upon her flesh. There was something magnetic about Beau Broussard’s touch. It sent a cascading warmth washing all through her. For the first time in her life she was struck with awakened desire.

Are you okay? Beau inquired over her shoulder, his lips nudging her cheek.

My arm... she murmured softly, her voice trailing off as she saw blood oozing from the torn skin.

Beau took out a handkerchief and placed it upon her arm, adding a tiny bit of pressure to stop the bleeding.

Ohhhh, she cried out, jerking her arm away, realizing it was more than a scrape. I think a rose thorn is buried in the skin.

He tied the handkerchief around her arm. Let’s get you inside and tend that arm.

Thank you, but I prefer to stay out here in the fresh night air. More importantly, she preferred not to go waltzing into that crowded room with Beau at her side. She had drawn her share of speculation and gossip already.

Humor me, Cherie, he said, reaching out to gently grasp her arm and turn her toward him. Let’s go tend your arm, and afterwards, I’ll personally give you a tour of the garden.

You’re not an easy man to convince, Mr. Broussard. I really do prefer being alone. We are strangers and for the sake of propriety it is best we keep it that way.

He raised his brows. It could become infected, you know.

Rosemarie sighed. The man’s determination was uncompromising. Mr. Broussard, I prefer staying out here—alone, if you don’t mind.

I think I understand, he said, studying her face. One is not safe from scrutiny and gossip among such a homogeneous group.

Rosemarie winced at his patronizing meaning. He was subtly referring to her biracial difference. His statement put her off-guard, her injured facial expression becoming transparent. She felt blood rush to her cheeks.

Mr. Broussard, you obviously place great stock in your opinions; however, they delude you if you think you know me. You have no idea who I am or what feelings motivate my life.

I’m no fortune teller, Cherie, but I’m not immune to other’s feelings, especially when they compare similarly to my own. You are a loner, not by choice, but by need because you find your own company preferable to that of... shall we say, most people.

Rosemarie glanced sharply up at his handsome face. A sardonic snort rose from her throat. Mr. Broussard, that perception hardly requires insight. I’ve attempted to indicate that idea to you since you first stepped out on the terrace.

Then let me rephrase my point. It’s not the fact of your preferring to be alone, but the reason why you prefer it.

That would seem to be my private business.

Don’t underestimate me, Cherie. No one has ever accused me of being insensitive. I garner and learn a great deal from observing people.

This conversation angered Rosemarie. In a tone of sarcasm, she asked, How, exactly, do you go about testing this intuitive perception for accuracy? Do you have some faultless measure with which to judge your ability?

He fenced against her sarcasm with a direct assault. Are you ashamed of the color of your skin, Cherie?

Hot anger roared in Rosemarie’s head as her arm shot out, and she slapped him with as much force as she could muster. How dare you?

The slap caught him off-guard. He winced, and then lifted his hand to his burning cheek. He sucked in a deep breath of air and let out a deep sigh.

You misjudge me entirely, Mr. Broussard. Why should I be ashamed? If you think my desire to be alone is merely a desire to hide my revealing ancestry, you are very wrong. I don’t attempt to run away from myself, but I do choose to put distance between me and ignorant people.

He was rubbing his cheek where she struck him. When he moved his hand, her handprint was bright red. You pack a heavy wallop, Cherie, and while you’ve left the sting of your anger, you have not dissuaded me from wanting to communicate with you. I asked you a very personal question, and you took it as an insult. I assure you, I would never say something purposely to insult you. I am, above all else, a man with decent manners and a regard for others. I am sorry if I have offended you.

Rosemarie lowered her chin, her adrenaline charge dissipating with the slap. Never had she slapped another person until now. Her hand still hurt from its impact upon his cheek. A stirring regret left her feeling guilty.

Raising her chin, she looked at him where the light softened his face. She felt entirely penitent. I’m sorry, she said. Violence is hardly my normal reaction to insensitive statements.

He withheld comment and stood there staring at her as if waiting for her to say more. Without thinking, Rosemarie stepped toward him and lifted her hand to the red palm imprint on his face. I’m really sorry, she said, trailing her fingers across the red imprint on his cheek. Their eyes met and some intangible spark issued between them causing Beau to embrace her. His head lowered in one quick sweep to claim her mouth.

His tongue traced her lips, prying between them, exploring, and titillating cascading sensations all through her. Without conscious thought, without weighing the merits of her actions, Rosemarie gave herself over to the kiss, tasting the mint taste of his tongue playing tag with hers. Both her arms moved over his shoulders to snake around his neck, her fingers twining in his black hair at the nape of his neck. The kiss deepened and everything else seemed blotted out except that kiss, his body pressing next to hers, those arms surrounding her, and those hands touching, caressing, and exciting her to heights she never knew existed.

Gasping to breathe, they both struggled up for air. Beau caught Rosemarie’s arms in a punishing grip, his long fingers biting into her arms, unmindful of his strength as he studied her face, his breathing deep and raspy. A strange look washed over his features and he pulled her against him again, as if he found sustenance in her closeness. Her body trembled, not from cold, but from his touch that activated her passion. She leaned into his hard frame, her traitorous body betraying her will, even though she remembered her engagement to Patrick.

The moment soon passed like settling dust. An emotional bridge formed between them, and Rosemarie knew instinctively that any further association with Beau Broussard would be a dangerous mistake. She was engaged to Patrick, and while she may not have felt great loyalty to Patrick, she nevertheless knew that good girls did not do what she had done tonight. Engaged to one man and kissing another was morally irresponsible.

She broke free of Beau’s hard, muscular arms, and started retracing her steps toward the gallery. I made a terrible mistake, she murmured.

No, Rosemarie, it wasn’t a mistake, Beau said, catching up to her, and turning her to face him. What passed between us was very special.

It never happened, she said, pushing him away. She hurried toward the gallery. She needed a moment to steady her nerves and try to believe his kiss had not provided the most satisfying seconds she ever experienced.

Rosemarie, we need to tend your arm, he said, jarring her from her thoughts.

I’ll take care of it myself, she informed him, pulling the door open and stepping into the crowded room. Many people were dancing to a waltz while others watched or formed small conversation groups. Roseanne hovered close to the perimeter of the walls, praying no one would pay her any attention. She glanced about until she spotted a sign that pointed toward the bathroom.

She was washing her scraped arm at the sink when Beau Broussard stepped in the bathroom and closed the door behind him.

Is it necessary to close the door? Rosemarie gasped in shock.

Only to keep out intruders, he smiled. He lowered the lid on the toilet, then ushered her to sit down. Let’s see, he said, inspecting the lacerated skin. There’s the culprit. He pulled out the rose thorn and a drop of blood boiled up. Does it hurt?

No, it just stings, Rosemarie replied, watching his deft hands on her arm, and feeling waves of heat at his touch. His hands, with tiny black hairs sprinkled across his knuckles, seemed gentle and strong at once.

She observed him kneeling before her, his muscular legs straining at his trousers, his strong sculpted face, his generous lips, so close—his woodsy scent filling her head. Their eyes met and locked, and she was certain he was about to kiss her again. Instead, she felt the sharp edge of disappointment when he removed his warm hand from her arm, and then standing, he turned away.

Opening the medicine cabinet, he examined the contents, lifting bottles and reading labels before he took out alcohol, a tube of ointment and some Band-Aids.

You’re not going to put alcohol on my arm, she rejoined crisply, jerking away.

A devious grin crawled across his lips. It’ll prevent infection, and it’ll only hurt for a second. He was unscrewing the cap while he talked, and before she could say more, he poured a few drops over her scratched arm. She clenched her teeth and pursed her lips together to hold back the sharp shriek that rose from her throat at the sudden heated sting.

There now, he said, his dark brown eyes sparkling with humor, that didn’t hurt at all. He brushed something from her hair, and then traced his fingers down her cheek to her throat.

She glanced sharply at him. Maybe it didn’t hurt you, but it did me, she argued.

His fingers were tracing little paths about her jaws, throat, and lips like an artist examining his subject. Warmth seeped into her flesh, heated her blood. She found herself leaning into the pressure of his hand, gazing up at his odd, unreadable expression.

You are beautiful, he whispered hoarsely, his mint breath fanning her face.

She was mesmerized, and Beau Broussard controlled her as if she were a puppet who had nothing left but crumbs of weakness. He pulled her to her feet, drew her body into the glove of his own. All the while, she watched his face, waiting for whatever he chose to do to her.

She heard a sound, like a deep groan in someone’s throat, then sputtered and nearly choked when she realized it was her own.

His response muffled her to silence when he covered her mouth with his, his hands grasping her hips, one sliding down to cup a firm buttock until Rosemarie pressed so close to him their bodies were like one breath. A wild fascination held them caught in the web of their passions, and only the propriety of