The grand front rooms were empty when Alys and Melly looked in.
“All quiet on the southern front!” said Alys. “That’s fine with me. I like reminiscing with you, but I don’t know if I have the stomach to reminisce with Esther.”
Right on cue, footsteps echoed in the front hall.
“Quick!” Alys grabbed Melly and dove behind the curtains of the alcove. It was a perfect place to hide, but Alys and Melly were consumed with the noisy work of trying not to laugh. The curtain pulled aside.
“What are you doing?” Ian asked.
“We thought you were Esther,” said Alys.
“I can see why you’d hide, in that case, but not why you’d do it so badly. You two aren’t cut out for a life of deception; you wouldn’t fool a baby. Esther’s in the kitchen making coffee, and there’s pie.”
Alys weighed her options. “Lead us not into temptation, unless that temptation is pie. Come on, Melly, let’s get some.”
“You two go on,” said Melly. “I might sit here for a bit.”
It was a relief to her to shelter in the seclusion of the alcove after an hour of Alys’s indomitable energies. During the day the little half-round room glowed with light from three tall windows, but now she preferred the protective darkness. She looked out across the lawn and across River Road to where the dark mass of the levee shielded the house from force of the Mississippi. Everything was almost all right again. Tomorrow the Winters would leave, and she would start working on John Spencer’s diary, and life would settle back down again. She would be safe again.
A sound startled her, and she looked up to see Ian Winter standing in the opening of the alcove watching her.
“Oh! I didn’t know you were still here,” she said.
“I thought you might not. You looked too serene.”
He didn’t move. Melly couldn’t see Alys in the room, and she didn’t prefer to be alone with Ian.
“Please excuse me. I want to join the others,” she said. She tried to slip past him, but he stood in her path.
“Melly, wait. Why do you keep avoiding me?”
“I’m not avoiding you. You’re welcome to come have some pie with me.”
He put a hand on her arm. “Please, let me talk to you for a minute.”
“Couldn’t we talk in the kitchen?” She moved away from his touch as casually as she could, torn between the desire to stand further away from him and the fear of getting backed further into the alcove.
He still didn’t step aside. “I didn’t mean to make you so uncomfortable the other day. I got ahead of myself. Believe me, I never wanted to upset you or make you angry. Will you forgive me?”
Of course, when he asked outright for forgiveness, she couldn’t really refuse. “Don’t mention it.”
“Shake on it?”
No, she did not want to shake on it, but there he was, hand outstretched, waiting.
“For Rene’s sake?” he asked.
Melly flushed and pumped the hand of Rene’s benefactor. “For Rene’s sake, of course. Come on, let’s go get some pie and you can tell me more about Rene and your uncle in New York.”
“In a minute.” Ian kept hold of her, studying her hand. “I’m leaving tomorrow, Melly, and I’d like to part friends. I’d like to part more than friends. I want you to miss me as much as I’ll miss you.”
He touched her face with light fingers.
“Don’t,” she said, trying to pull away from him. “Please don’t do that.”
“Let me tell you how much I’ll miss you,” he murmured.
A small chill of panic began to tighten in her throat. Ian seemed to think that he was some knight in shining armor about to sweep the blushing maiden off her feet, but she felt trapped in a dark alley with a stalker slowly advancing on her.
“I don’t like the way you’re talking,” she said, enunciating carefully so that her words might crack through his idiot skull. “Ian, listen to me. You’re making me uncomfortable.”
“You need to be uncomfortable!” Both her hands were trapped in his now, and he was too ominously close for her. The feel of his breath on her ear made her shudder. “You’re so comfortable here, you’ve practically sleepwalking. I want to wake you up.”
“I don’t want you to wake me up. I want you to let me go.” The more she tugged her hands away, the harder he held on. “Please, you’re hurting me.”
“Stop fighting with me.” His voice was disgustingly gentle. “Melly, listen to me. I love you.”
“No, you don’t!”
“Yes, I do, more than I’ve ever loved anyone. I’d do anything to have you. What can I do to make you love me?”
“Nothing!” she cried. “Let me go or I’ll scream!”
He did let go, suddenly, and when she was caught off-balance he backed her into the chair and bent over her.
“Melly, you’re so good,” he said urgently. “I know I can’t live up to your standards, but I promise I’ll try. Help me. Stay with me.” He knelt in front of her. “I want you to come to New York because I want you to live with me.”
Even from Ian, even now, Melly couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “What?”
“Live with me. I know you love it down here, but I’ll make sure you ‘re never homesick. I’ll redecorate my apartment to look like Stillwater if you want. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ll teach you everything you need to know. I will give you everything you’ve ever wanted if you’ll move in with me.”
The very idea of Ian Winter on one knee, begging her, Melusine Arceneaux, to be his mistress, was so uncouth that righteous indignation burned away her terror.
“You don’t know anything about what I want,” she said, pushing herself into a more upright position. “This is ridiculous. All spring you flirted with Sophia, and now in the fall you come to me and ask me to sleep with you in New York? Absolutely not. I don’t think you’re capable of settling down to anything.”
Ian had to blink in surprise before he could remember who Sophia was. “You’re saying you won’t sleep with me because of Sophia?”
“I don’t trust you because of Sophia. Nothing on earth could make me sleep with you. You don’t even have the decency to propose before offering me furs or riches or God-knows-what.”
“You want to get married right off?” Ian grappled with this alien concept. “Is that a Southern thing?”
“A Southern thing?” The force of her outrage was strong enough to propel her to her feet. “No, it’s a moral thing. You’ve heard of morals. Your uncle despises them.”
This conversation had slipped beyond Ian’s control. When he had written it all out beforehand, it had ended with Melly sighing softly and melting into his arms. Marriage hadn’t even been a footnote. Of course people got married, but when they were middle-aged and ready to buy a condo. The connection between marriage and morals and sex was too subtle for him, but Melly was sweet and old-fashioned and maybe she thought it was more romantic that way. It was all the same to him; he was willing to have a big church wedding for her sake. “We could get married, if that’s what you want. I just want you to be happy.”
He had gone wrong, somehow. He had heard that the meek would inherit the earth, but right now Melly was scorching it with abandon. “What on earth do you think marriage is? How can I be happy with you? How could you be happy with me? We have nothing in common. We don’t share a religion or a philosophy or a background or any interests. Even if I did like you, there would be nothing for us to build a marriage on, let alone a friendship. We would be miserable together. I would be miserable, anyway.”
She stepped over him and stalked across the room.
“Melly, I love you, I do,” he called after her in desperation. “I’m serious. No matter what you think of me, that will never change.”
“Good bye,” she said, and left him still kneeling by the chair.
And that was it. She woke up the next morning and remembered: the Winters are gone. She was safe and free again. Everything would go back to the way it used to be.
She leaned on the windowsill and looked out over the cane fields. The yield would be good this year: the stalk count was good, the weather forecasts were favorable, the hurricane season had not been destructive. Sugar futures were trading high right now. Harvest would start in late September and run through January. If the fields stayed dry, the harvested cane wouldn’t be weighed down with mud and water. That would mean lighter loads for the harvesters and fewer trips to the mill, which would mean less diesel expenses and lower repair rates for machinery. Melly made a mental note to ask Richard whether American Cane hedged diesel futures. She didn’t exactly know what “hedging” was, but it had something to do with the stock market. She’d read about it in The Sweet Spot.
Breakfast was a cheerful meal. They ate in the kitchen, tucked comfortably around the big table: Richard with his newspaper; Cheryl feeding Pugsy bites of biscuit (“He’s such a bad boy to beg for biscuits because he knows he’s supposed to be gluten-free”); Malcolm absently demolished grits and bacon while reading a book. Melly was almost too happy to eat. Here they were, just the four of them again, no Winters to charm them or Dick, Sophia, or Olivia to annoy them or Esther to harass them.
Esther, though, was not as easily dismissed as the others. She came over to make her wheatgrass shake in Cheryl’s nice blender, and stayed to discuss business with Richard.
“I wanted to talk to you about finding new tenants for the cottage.”
“It’s Saturday. Can’t that wait until Monday?”
“The rental market waits for no man, Richard. We need to get a listing up as soon as possible to lock in good rates from the snowbirds.”
“Snowbirds go to Florida.”
“Well, some of them come to Louisiana, and we want them to come here.”
“No, we don’t.” Richard shook out his newspaper. “I don’t. I don’t think I want to rent out the cottage any more.”
“You’ve just made more than a half-year’s worth of sheer profit off the cottage, and you don’t want to rent it out anymore?” Esther was baffled. “This is a guaranteed revenue stream. You’d do better to rent less field space to American Cane and build a few more cottages than to keep planting that acreage.”
“Maybe,” said Richard. “But I’d rather lease to American Cane than to tenants.”
“We don’t need tenants,” said Melly eagerly. “We have a good plant cane to seed cane ratio this year, and if we went from machine planting to hand planting we could get an even better ratio.”
“Ah, but you’re not factoring in labor costs,” said Richard. “You’ll almost always get higher top-line revenue with residential development than agriculture, but first you have to make significant capital investments. In our case, the land is already being used for agriculture, and American Cane foots the costs of machinery and labor. If I were to take back a few acres and put cottages on them, even assuming the lease allowed me to do it, I’d have to front the capital, and take the added maintenance costs out of my profit from renting.”
Melly nodded. She’d understood most of that.
“It’s not just the profit,” said Esther. “It’s the visibility. Renting cottages gets the Stillwater brand out there. Sure, we have the historical tours, but so does every two-bit plantation up and down the river. We need to differentiate. Now just upriver, they’ve been running a successful bed-and-breakfast operation for years. The income from the honeymoon suite alone…”
“Yes, but we still live in this house,” said Richard. “I’m not John Spencer. I don’t have to carry on the ancestral feud with the neighbors. This is my home, and I like living here with my family. The tours are one thing, but I don’t want strangers around all the time.”
A warm glow of happiness washed over Melly. Richard had included her in his family. She was safe.
“Why do we have to develop a brand?” Malcolm asked from the depths of his book. “We have the Fellowship Ball. God knows that’s enough fuss for any house.”
Esther hitched up a chair to the table. “I’m glad you brought that up. I think it’s time to take a serious look at the Ball. We’re in a rut. Every year it’s the same thing: costumes, hors d’oeuvres, dancing, potted palms. It’s dated, and more to the point, it’s just not effective in this economy. We need to think outside the box. There are so many new trends in philanthropy right now. We could sponsor a 5K, give out microloans, maybe get a official awareness color and make up ribbons. We’d need a color, of course. What color isn’t taken yet? Gray?”
“To what end?” asked Richard. “What are we building awareness for?”
“Education, naturally. In keeping with our mandate.”
“We already fund education. That’s why the Trust was established.”
“Yes, one person’s education. But we could be making a bigger impact. We could be funding lectures and posting them online, like the TED talks. We could be hosting conferences. Malcolm, you’re interested in education. You could be the coordinator: pick the speakers, select the topics. This is your chance to really make a difference.”
Malcolm looked up. “You think I’d make more of a difference coordinating a conference than actually teaching kids in a classroom?”
Cheryl was in a flutter. “Wait, y’all are going to cancel the Ball?”
“No, we’re not canceling the Ball,” said Richard. “At least not this moment. Esther, you seem to be under the impression that the Trust can just toss money around in a general spirit of benevolence. The trust has one purpose: to fund the Stillwater Fellowship. The Ball is a secondary consideration, though still within the scope of the Trust. Races, ribbons, and websites have nothing to do with the scholarship.”
“The scholarship is finished,” said Esther.
“What about Rene?” Melly objected. “He’s the Stillwater Fellow.”
“Yes, but what after him? We need to look to the future. The conditions of the Fellowship are too restrictive. No one meets them anymore.”
“Yes, there is,” said Richard.
Four people stared at him, open-mouthed.
“Melly meets the requirements,” said Richard. “She resides within the historic boundaries of the plantation and she is not a Spencer. The Fellowship exists to fund education for anyone who meets those criteria, and I intend to give to Melly.”
So Richard had been impressed by the way she’d studied the sugar industry and researched Stillwater history. He felt it would be an injustice not to give Melly the Fellowship. He could understand that she hadn’t felt prepared to dive right into a career with Ian. College would give her the training and the breadth to jump into any number of jobs. He tossed out several suggestions: history, agriculture, business; or fashion if she wanted to build on her sewing skills. Esther sputtered out objections, but Richard was adamant. He was not going to hold Melly back anymore.
In unusual opposition to Richard, Cheryl declared that she did not like the idea, and that she would miss Melly too much for her to go away. She didn’t like the idea of sending Melly so far away , and she felt sure that Melly would rather stay at Stillwater with them and not be banished off to some college. In vain did Malcolm point out that Melly’s family lived in Baton Rouge and it was hardly the ends of the earth, or Richard argue that it was hardly a punishment to go to college on a full scholarship.
“Pugsy will miss her,” she said with finality, and nothing Richard said could shake her from her position.
Esther, meanwhile, was building up a full head of steam. “Melly doesn’t want to go to college!”
“How do you know?” Malcolm challenged. “When have you ever asked Melly what she wants?” He turned to Melly, who was still holding her coffee cup poised in mid-air. “Do you like the idea of college, Melly?”
“I… I’ve never thought of it before,” said Melly truthfully.
“Richard, I’d like to see you in your office,” Esther announced, rising from the table with ominous intent.
As Richard shut the office door, a furious Esther turned on him.
“Are you serious?” she hissed. “Are you trying to make a mockery of the Stillwater Fellowship? You don’t just get to parcel out the scholarship to your favorites. There are formalities, restrictions!”
“The restrictions are that the recipient has to be a resident on the Stillwater property and not be a member of the Spencer family. Melly fits both those guidelines.”
“She’s no scholar, Richard! Rene was at least a prodigy. Melly was barely average as a student! She never took any honors. She never distinguished herself. She didn’t excel in anything.”
“I can think of several areas in which Melly excels,” said Richard, with a barely concealed edge in his voice. “The scholarship guidelines say nothing about academic excellence, but they do speak of the recipient being ‘deserving’. Melly is as deserving as anyone, maybe more so than most. If I recall correctly,” (and now he was on the offensive, his calm and conviction setting him in a position of strength over the rattled Esther), “it was you who urged with great conviction that Melly needed opportunity, that she wasn’t a child anymore. It was you yourself who first gave me the idea to provide for her future by making her the Stillwater Fellow.”
This was a telling blow. Esther felt her control of the situation eroding, her careful management of the whole Fellowship project being wrenched from her grasp.
“The scholarship has never been awarded to a woman,” she protested, knowing herself to be on shaky, detestable ground, but feeling that an argument from tradition was perhaps the only one which might sway Richard. “Every Stillwater Fellow has been male, from the very beginning — it was what John Spencer wanted, even if he didn’t write it out specifically.”
“And yet John Spencer wasn’t opposed to making opportunities for women,” Richard shot back, clearly prepared for this line of attack. He pulled one of John’s diaries out of his desk drawer and flipped to a marked page. “I read here that John financed the schooling of Aurelie Petit of the estate, so there’s clear evidence that he did in fact favor women’s education.”
Esther was scandalized. “Richard, she was his illegitimate daughter! Good for John for taking care of his bastards, but that hardly has any bearing on the Stillwater Fellowship!”
Richard stood up, hands on his desk, his patience and temper tried to the breaking point. “What does have a bearing on the scholarship is my choice as head of the Spencer family, and I have chosen Melly. Case closed. There is no more discussion to be had on the point, and let me just say that you’ve dug yourself in deeply enough with this perverse bias against Melly that I’m seriously questioning your fitness to administer Fellowship-related events.”
Esther stared at him for a moment in white-lipped shock, then whirled and vanished from the office like a ghost.
An hour later, Malcolm found Melly sitting on the stairs with her forehead pressed to a blue windowpane.
“You don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to, Melly,” he said.
Melly didn’t answer.
“This is your decision,” he said, sitting down next to her. “No one can push you into it or away from it. It doesn’t matter what Dad or Esther say.”
“No, it doesn’t. The question is, what do you want?”
“I don’t know what I want.”
They sat together.
“Do you remember the first time we sat here?” Melly said. “We talked about college then, too, and about how hard it was to go away from what was warm and safe. And you said that you had to keep pushing past the ache to hold on to what was lovely and familiar.”
“Yes. Of course, I was talking about seminary, and you know how that turned out.”
Melly breathed on the windowpane and wiped it clear, then stood up. “I will go to college.”
“You made up your mind in the last minute?”
Malcolm looked at her in concern. “You don’t have to…”
“I do have to,” she said, already walking down the stairs. It would be ungrateful of her not to be happy about being the new Stillwater Fellow. Almost anyone would jump at this incredible chance. Many people would give their eyeteeth for such an opportunity. And there was nothing immoral about it, nothing she could legitimately object to. Only the most foolish, stubborn, selfish person would throw away this scholarship. And if she rejected it, what right would she have to keep on at Stillwater? She was dependent on Spencer generosity either way. Accept or decline, it was clear that she was going to have to leave this place she loved so much, and learn to support herself.