- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
"But Anne--I've already promised him your hand! Anne--wait for me!"
Night was falling on the island of Jamaica. Unknown danger seemed to lurk in the long, gloomy shadows thrown by tall stalks of sugar cane. The rich green fields wore a wild jungle look, bathed in the pagan light of a glowing red sunset. A tall young woman was walking down the hard-packed dirt trail, a machete slung over her shoulder. A fat, little old man trotted beside her, panting and out of breath, hanging on her every word.
"If Beaumont wants to come visit us, fine. But I will not marry a man twice my age!"
The woman continued to walk, taking long strides that made her hips swing provocatively. But her words were decisive, her tone final. When Anne Falkirk talked, people listened. She was the owner of the land and the hardest worker. She ruled her uncle with fairness and firmness, just as she ruled her slaves. Anne knew she dominated most men, black or white, with her piercing brown eyes and commanding manner. Her build was statuesque, with long legs and wide hips, a slender waist and full, rounded breasts. Even in a calico dress and wide straw hat, with her dark hair pinned up and streaks of red dirt smudging her high cheekbones, she looked like a queen.
The old man tried to bluster. "Damn it, wench! This could be your passage home. We haven't slaves enough to survive here another year. Beaumont has money to spare, and he's respectable."
Anne Falkirk knitted slender brows, and tightened her full red lips in a grimace. "Uncle Simon, just because I'm homesick for England doesn't mean I'm desperate to become respectable. This isn't a cottage with a rose garden, but I rule myland and submit to no one. I like Jamaica very well."
"You do not. You work yourself to exhaustion, even when the slaves get a holiday. You know we're going under, Anne. We've been losing slaves left and right, and now there's the threat of invasion! We don't even have an overseer. Able-bodied white men just die off here from fever and drink. To keep this place going, we need a man and--get out of the road, you little devils!"
Simon Ball jumped to one side as a handful of small black children rushed past, evidently rushing to get to the waterfall a mile or so up the beach. It was Saturday evening, and Anne always allowed her field workers to stop work early and bathe in the fresh water pool beneath the falls.
"One of these nights those people will just run off and not come back," the old man grumbled. "You really give them too much freedom, Anne. And you're working yourself to death."
"They work hard. They need rest." Anne pointedly ignored her uncle's rough compassion. After crossing the sugarcane fields, they were approaching the great house from the rear. A rambling, two-story structure, it stood on a sandy hill facing the calm blue waters of the bay. "Slaves run off when they are treated poorly. But rest and play after hard work makes them more loyal and hard-working. You had a day off from labor in the fields, uncle, did you not?"
"I did as you bid me," Simon Ball grumbled, "but you need rest too. Why not be honest, girl? You need a proper home and a husband you can look up to."
Anne laughed bitterly. "And we need money, but the last man didn't work out so well."
Simon Ball glowered at his niece. "Damn your hide! I had no idea about Andrew."
Just then a very pretty kitchen maid emerged from the rear of the house. Her skin was the color of butter, and she wore a yellow turban and a crisply starched black dress. The fact that she was better dressed than her own mistress did not seem to disturb Anne Falkirk. "Your bath is ready, Mistress Anne. I am going out to the cookhouse now to get supper ready for you and Master Simon."
"Thank you, Sukey." Anne turned to her uncle and gave him a pat on the shoulder. "I'm very happy here, uncle. Let's dine together, and we can talk about our future."
A short time later, Anne lay soaking in the round copper tub in her room, allowing her tired body to relax. Exhaustion was good because it kept her from feeling her body's other needs.
"Mistress Anne?" Sukey tapped shyly on the door. "I've laid out your white dress."
"Thank you, dear." Anne sensed the young girl's anxiousness. "Was there something else?"
"Mistress Anne, I was just wondering--if you was to be going back to England, sometime, would you think of taking me along to be your maid? My mother was a slave, it's true, but my father was an English sailor. I'd be so grateful if you would take me back to England--"
Anne opened one eye, looking at the butter-skinned young girl hovering over her as she lay in the copper tub. "What put all this in your head, Sukey? Who said anything about going away?"
The girl dropped her long eyelashes. "Forgive me, Mistress. 'Twas only that Master Simon was saying you might marry that wealthy Beaumont man, and how his business might call him back to London. And how it was lonely for you, staying here on this island, so far from home and--"
"When my husband died, Sukey, he left so many debts that I had to leave England. He was weak. It was because of him that I--well, never let a man arrange your life. Remember that, Sukey. I am staying here, not going away. Because here I can be in control!"
"Yes, ma'am. Will you be needing my help to dress?"
The white gown was one of the few treasures Anne had kept from her days in London. With its low, square cut bodice, provocatively trimmed with just the right amount of Belgian lace and the divided white skirts revealing the demure yellow rose underskirts, it brought out her feminine side--exactly the side she had been trying to push away in recent years.
"Oh, but you do look lovely, ma'am!" Sukey stood behind her mistress as Anne admired herself in the mirror. It was hard not to imagine herself back in London, her hands or even her lips being kissed by some ardent admirer. But not a flicker of longing stirred in her for another man like Andrew. Oliver Cromwell's London was filled with sin and scandal. The unquestioned military dictatorship of the stern Puritan ruler merely forced the more lurid corruption underground.
"Thank you," she said at last. Sukey had arranged her dark hair artfully, pinning most of it demurely into a bun but letting one long curl fall over her shoulder in the old style. Anne didn't think there was anything romantic about the style. Curls like this were called heartbreakers, but she knew from her own experience it was impossible to actually break a human heart. Even one's own.
The expensive, rarely used candles were burning on the walnut table in the parlor. Uncle Simon had dressed for dinner as well, and the two of them shared freshly caught fish, Indian corn, biscuits, and fresh-picked greens. Anne drank sparingly, while her uncle finished a bottle of Canary.
"This is a celebration," Simon Ball said. "Just think of it. Edward Beaumont coming here!"
Anne didn't sputter or protest. She knew she might have little choice in the end, but before she gave in she was determined to get all the facts. "Why is Beaumont suddenly so interested in us?"
Her uncle looked very blank. "Why, just as I told you--rumors have been flying for months that the Spanish may try to retake the island. And we are the ideal landing place--a natural harbor on the unprotected north shore of Jamaica, less than a hundred miles from Cuba. We're completely isolated here, cut off from Port Royal on the south coast by high mountains and impenetrable woods. When I told Edward Beaumont how things were with us, he said it was a great hardship for you. A beautiful young girl, living all alone in isolated wilderness. He wants to help us, Anne. That's all."