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April stood at the top of the long curving mahogany stairway and shook her head in wonder at the activity below. Her father had proclaimed that tonight's ball would be an event no one in Alabama would soon forget, and the Pinehurst Plantation servants were scurrying about, busily trying to make his words come true.
She watched Buford, her father's valet, and Posie, the housekeeper, argue about the holly draped over the stair railing. "Pink bows just don't look right," Buford snorted.
"What do you know?" Posie countered. "It ain't Christmas, you old fool. Red wouldn't look right. If it was spring, we could use dogwood. And look there! You got so much of that stuff draped around nobody can see that pretty wood I worked so hard to polish this mornin'."
"This ain't my job, nohow. Why don't you just do it like you want to. I got other things I can be doin'."
He turned to leave, but Posie cried, "You just get right back here, Buford. Somebody's gotta wrap ribbon around that chandelier -- " She looked up to the crystal piece hanging from the ceiling and then saw April. Her hand flew to her mouth. "I'm sorry, Miss April. I didn't see you standin' up there."
"Don't mind me," April laughed, lifting her skirts to hurry down the stairs. "There's so much going on around here. I can see why anyone would be irritable. You're doing a lovely job. Everything looks wonderful."
Buford had turned back, contrite that his mistress had heard him complaining. April waved him away with a smile. "You do whatever it is you need to be doing. I'll help Posie with the garlands."
"You ain't supposed to be helping," she protested. "You're supposed to be gettingdressed. It ain't long till folks start arrivin'."
"There's plenty of time for that." She picked up a holly branch and looked at it skeptically, wondering if the stairway wouldn't be pretty with just ribbons wrapped around the banisters. "Besides," she continued, "I'm enjoying all the excitement. A girl doesn't have a presentation ball every day. Where's Vanessa? She might want to help, too." She trailed off at the look on Posie's face.
"I ain't seen her since early this mornin' when she flounced out of here to go ridin'." Posie bent down to begin tying pink bows among the green foliage. "Ain't seen her since and don't care if I don't, the hateful way she was actin'. She don't care nothin' about this party, nohow."
"Of course she does. You know Vanessa's moods. It probably has nothing to do with the party."
Posie shook her head. "Believe me, missy, she don't care nothin' about it. It's a shame, too, especially after you had that big fuss with your poppa, 'bout lettin' the party be for her, too. That girl just don't appreciate nothin' nobody does for her. I tol' her she didn't have no business out ridin' when there was so much to be done, and she told me to shut my mouth."
April frowned worriedly. "Posie, Vanessa doesn't know that Poppa didn't want to include her in the ball. I don't want her to find out that I had to talk him into it. She would be so hurt."
Posie snorted. "I don't see how you was able to get him to. He and that girl been fightin' since the night she was born."
April began taking off the holly garlands, deciding the ribbons and bows were decoration enough. "We had quite an argument," she admitted. "Poppa said he didn't want her included because he considers her so unladylike. He doesn't want her around his friends. But that's all his own fault. He's the one who has always allowed her to run wild, never requiring her to study or learn ladylike graces."
"She didn't want to," Posie pointed out. "She wanted to do just what she did do, what she's doin' now -- as she pleases."
"I didn't want to learn either," April said in defense of her twin. "At least not as rigidly as Poppa required. Goodness, Posie, there are other things in life besides music and reading poetry and learning to make idle chitchat over tea."
Posie straightened to point a shaking finger at April. "You hear me good. I'm sayin' that girl will do somethin' to embarrass your daddy before this night is over."
"Oh, I don't think so. Besides, I told Poppa that if he didn't include Vanessa, then I would lock myself in my room and not come downstairs. I can't stand the way he treats her, Posie."
Posie shook her head. "No matter how mean that girl is to you, you always take up for her. I knows I ought to keep my mouth shut, but I can see how come your poppa didn't want her at the party. Just wait and see. You gonna be sorry you talked him into lettin' her come."
April started to speak but Posie rushed on. "I ain't sayin' it's right the way he's treated her all these years. Heaven knows, your momma would turn over in her grave if she could've seen it. But what's done is done. Miss Vanessa is like she is and ain't nothin' gonna change it. She hates you and she hates yo' daddy, and she hates ever'body in the whole world."
"Perhaps with good reason," April murmured sadly. She threw the ribbons aside and sat down on the bottom step, not caring if her skirts were crushed. Folding her hands beneath her chin, she stared wistfully through the diamond-shaped glass on the side of the double oak front doors. Beyond her was a winter world, ice-sheathed trees creaking like great crystal hands reaching toward the gray February sky. She whispered, "If it'd been me instead of Vanessa, I probably would've grown up feeling bitter, too."
Posie sat down beside her and placed a plump brown arm around her shoulders. "I was there the night you was born, honey. You knows that. And I been with you most ever'day since. I knows what happened that night, and I knows how your poppa has acted ever since."
April had always known the story of her birth. There were times when she felt sure it was etched in pain across her heart. Her mother had endured agony. April had been the firstborn, delivered by her father because neither midwife nor doctor had arrived. She had almost died. Her father had breathed life into her tiny body and then, jubilant, named her April Lorena for her mother, Lorena April, whom he adored with an almost insane devotion. Even in her weakened condition, her mother had protested such favoritism.
Time dragged on. A midwife arrived and, after realizing what a struggle Lorena April Jennings was having, told Carter Jennings that unless he could locate the doctor, his wife was going to die before giving birth to the second baby. Carter galloped into town in the middle of the night, found the doctor drinking and gambling in a saloon, and threatened to shoot him if he did not come to Pinehurst and save his wife.
Vanessa finally was born, but not before everyone was sure that Lorena April would die very soon.
"Mastah Carter, he say he wished the baby would die," Posie had confided to her. "He blamed that child for Miz Lorena's sufferin', and he blamed her fo' Miz Lorena never bein' right after that night. And the day she died, when you young'uns was only three years old, he blamed Miss Vanessa all over again."
Posie clucked sympathetically. "It won't Miz Vanessa's fault. No, it sho' won't. It was just the Lord's will. And it won't her fault that yo' momma was poorly from that night on and finally died. That was the Lord's will, too. But yo' poppa, he ain't never gonna see it that way, and nobody can tell him different. Goodness knows, folks tried. Finally, they just gave up. Yo' daddy ain't the kind of man you can tell somethin' to when he's got his mind set."
To make matters worse, April reflected painfully, he had lavished all his love on her, neglecting Vanessa, almost pretending she did not exist at all. April had tried to make it up to her. Each time her father showered her with gifts, she shared them with Vanessa. She lost count of the number of toys and dolls her sister had maliciously destroyed.
Posie had said many times that it was beyond her why April did not hate Vanessa, for Vanessa seemed to go out of her way to be cruel. April had tried to make Posie understand. "She behaves as she does because she doesn't feel that anyone loves her. I do love her. And I'll never stop trying to make her believe that."
Posie and April looked up as they heard the sound of footsteps clicking along the polished hallway leading toward the entrance foyer. Carter Jennings stepped into view, a wide grin on his face. He was a powerfully built man, tall, with an authoritative air about him. He was successful and wanted the whole world to know it. Some thought Carter Jennings arrogant, but all were awed by his immense wealth and political influence.
"My darling." He walked over quickly to kiss April's upturned cheek as she stood to greet him. He clasped her hands and smiled with fatherly pride. "Tonight is your night. All of Alabama will know how proud I am to present you to society."
April returned his smile, but tightly. "Posie and I were just discussing our party, Poppa ... mine and Vanessa's," she added with emphasis.
Posie glanced up to see Carter Jenning's frown.
He rushed on. "It's going to be quite an affair. I've checked everything, and I find nothing out of order. The pigs are roasting, and the smells coming from the kitchen make my mouth water."
He put his arm about her and gave her a quick hug. "Some of the most important people in the South will be here tonight to see my little girl presented."
"Not just to see me," she corrected him gently. "And I happen to know that you planned this party for tonight because President Davis is being inaugurated on Monday. You knew that important people would be in Montgomery this weekend."
He winked. "Perhaps. There are many parties being held in Montgomery tonight, but you will see which one they all attend. I wouldn't be surprised if President Davis himself made an appearance."
"Speaking of surprises," he added mysteriously, "I have one for you."
"What kind of surprise?" April asked.
He snapped his fingers at Posie. "Get a wrap for April. It's quite chilly out, and we're going to take a little walk."
Posie scurried to obey, while April attempted to pry the secret from her father. But he laughed mysteriously and refused to say more.
Posie returned with a long green velvet cape, which Carter draped about April's shoulders. Pulling the hood up to cover her long golden hair, he whispered, "Beautiful. Just like your precious mother. An angel come down to earth."
April always felt uncomfortable when he looked at her so adoringly. It made her feel eerie, somehow. A strange look would come into his eyes, and she shivered to think that, for one fleeting moment, he was not really seeing her, but her long dead mother.
"Poppa, let's go wherever it is you want to go." She stepped out of his embrace and moved toward the door. "It will soon be time for me to begin dressing."
He made a grand bow, then winked mysteriously once more before opening one of the doors. "All right, my beautiful daughter. Let's be on our way."
April stepped onto the wide marble porch that ran the length of the great house. She took her father's arm, and they descended the long steps between the tall white columns. A blast of cold wind pushed back her hood, sending her hair flying about her face. "Poppa, you've given me so much already," she protested once more as he led her across the lawn. "There is no need for whatever it is you're about to do."
"Nonsense." His arm went about her as he tried to shield her from the icy wind. "A father certainly wants to give his daughter a gift on the day she is presented to society. But this isn't to be your only gift, by any means. I have something to give you later that is very precious ... something that belonged to your dear mother."
April realized it was useless to argue. She just hoped he would also have a gift for Vanessa.
They passed beneath an archway of bare crepe myrtle trees. In the spring, when the pink and purple blossoms burst forth, it would be a myriad of beauty. Now the passage only reminded her of the ugly gloom of winter.
The stables loomed ahead, two large buildings which housed all the fine horses that Carter took such pride in. Many of his horses had been brought over from England. Besides showing his stock in the ring from time to time, he also entered many of his horses in match and heat races.
"Virginia calls itself the horse capital," April had often heard him scoff. "I defy anyone to show me horses from the state of Virginia any finer than mine. One day I will make Alabama the horse capital of the whole damned world!"
April had attended a heat race one Sunday in Montgomery and had been completely enthralled. Four-year-old horses competed the full distance of four miles, and that day, her father's entries had won.
She always had loved to ride, but, due to her father's insistence that she spend most of her time in pursuit of genteel interests such as books and music, there had not been much time for riding. Vanessa, on the other hand, went riding as often as she pleased. April had often watched in wistful envy from the windows of the great house as her twin romped across the lush green lawns of Pinehurst.
They neared the stables, and April could not stand the suspense any longer. "Poppa, would you please tell me what all this is about?" she begged, shivering in the cold despite her cape and his arm about her.
He stopped just outside the door leading to the smaller of the buildings. "Do you remember my prize Darley Arabian?" he asked proudly.
"Yes, of course. He's a magnificent creature. People come from all over just to see him."
"Do you remember all I told you about him?"
She nodded. "He has a pedigree, is full-blooded, and is a descendant of a famous horse named Eclipse, bred by the Duke of Cumberland."
"And I had him brought over here from England at great expense," he added with a wry smile. "Well, I've a wonderful surprise for you, and it's been quite difficult keeping it a secret. I've had to keep you away from the stables and leave strict orders to the groomsmen that your surprise be kept out of sight."
"Poppa, whatever are you talking about?"
Bewildered, she watched as he reached to open the stable door. The glow of a lantern spilled out into the gathering twilight. He looked inside, nodded to someone, then turned to her and said in a voice trembling with pride, "I have hidden Virtus's colt from you, April, because he is my gift to you on this day."
He laughed at her stunned expression and reached to pull her inside the stable. She gasped, catching sight of a shiny black colt prancing in the center of the room. His coat shone like satin, and his eyes sparkled with gold and red fires. He was the most magnificently beautiful horse she had ever seen, even among her father's thoroughbreds.
"You ... you mean he's mine?" April looked from the black colt to her father in disbelief. "You are giving the son of Virtus to me?"
"He's all yours." He was beaming with pride. "Now he hasn't been broken yet, and I certainly don't want you riding him until he is. Like his father, he's high-spirited. But you should be able to handle him after he's trained."
"She'll never be able to handle this horse."
For the first time, April noticed a man standing in the shadows outside the ring of light, holding the colt's reins. He stepped forward, and she dimly recognized Rance Taggart, who had arrived at Pinehurst when his father became ill. Frank Taggart had been in charge of the stables for as long as she could remember, and his son Rance had often been at Pinehurst.
Vaguely, she recalled her father saying something about Mr. Taggart's son arriving a month or so previously, but since she had not been in the stables of late, she had not noticed him.
Now, she felt her father stiffen with indignation. He was not accustomed to being challenged.
"What do you mean by that, Taggart?" Carter Jennings growled.
Rance's eyes flicked over April briefly, then met the challenge of Carter's glare. April noted that he was a full head taller than her father, with wide shoulders. Beneath his open suede shirt, she could see a heavily furred chest tapering down to a flat belly and narrow hips. He was well-proportioned, lean, yet muscular.
Her gaze moved to his face. His hair was ebony, and his eyes, a smoldering chestnut brown, were intense, probing in their alertness. He was quite handsome. Something about him was disturbing ... something she did not understand just yet. Something dangerous? She was not quite sure, but the man possessed a quality that caused her to tremble at his nearness.
Rance spoke to Carter Jennings in a firm confident tone. "This colt is very high-spirited, and even after he's broken, it will take an experienced rider to handle him. April isn't that experienced. If you want to give her a horse, there are some gentle mares -- "
"You forget your place, Taggart!"
Rance Taggart did not wither before her father's angry, booming voice as other men did. He stood straight, erect, eyes unwavering. He had no intention of apologizing.
"I own this colt, just as I own everything else at Pinehurst, and if you think I will tolerate your telling me what I may or may not give my daughter -- "
Rance's smile was arrogant as he tilted his head to one side. "Mr. Jennings, I don't give a damn if you give your daughter every horse you own. Along with every cow and mule. I'm just telling you what I know. This colt is too dangerous for her to ride. She could get her neck broken."
As if to emphasize the statement, the colt suddenly reared up on his hind legs, forelegs thrashing wildly in the air above. Startled, April stepped back. She would have fallen, but Rance's free hand shot out to steady her. He gave the reins a yank with his other hand, bringing the colt down on all fours once again. "See what I mean, Mr. Jennings?" he drawled.
Carter Jennings's hands were clenching and unclenching at his sides. "You made him do that. I find you insolent, Taggart. Tell me, just how is your father? I'd like to know how much longer Pinehurst will be subjected to your presence."
Rance was unswayed. "My father is still in bed, Mr. Jennings, flat on his back. But if you would like me to leave before he's able to take over the stables again, I can oblige you."
Despite his anger, Carter knew that it would not do to turn the care of the expensive stock over to the Negroes. Until Frank Taggart was able to resume his duties, his son would have to be tolerated.
"You may stay," he said tightly, "but remember your place. I won't tolerate insolence from you or anyone else in my employ."
He turned to April, forcing a smile. "Well, what do you think, darling? He's a beauty, isn't he? And, I might add, worth a fortune."
Her first reaction had been to protest the extravagant gift, but suddenly she found herself resenting the arrogance of the man who stood there smirking, insisting that she was inexperienced. A quiver of rebellion sparking from deep within, she stepped forward and touched her fingertips to the colt's velvet nose. "I think he's wonderful, and I love him already. I can't wait to ride him."
She turned to look at Rance, expecting to see -- what? Anger? Alarm? Instead, she saw that his mildly mocking expression had not changed. His mouth twisted to one side in a knowing grin, as though he knew she was actually frightened and realized he was right -- she wouldn't be able to handle this horse.
April and Rance locked eyes, each silently challenging the other.
Suddenly the stable doors creaked open. Turning quickly they saw one of the servants scrambling to get out of the way of a thundering horse. Vanessa was riding him. She reined her lathered mount to a stop only a few feet from where they were standing.
Carter began swiping with annoyance at the dust settling on his coat. "Vanessa, in the name of heaven, do you have to charge in here like that? You could injure someone. And that is no way to stop a horse. You have the manners and the grace of a nigra field hand!"
Vanessa threw her right leg up and over the horse's neck and dropped to the ground with a thud of booted feet. She was wearing worn, dirty breeches, and her golden hair was tossed wildly about her wind-flushed face. She tossed the reins to the stable hand, who led the animal away to walk him down.
Her blue eyes swept over the three of them curiously. She ignored her father's admonishment. Then her gaze narrowed suspiciously on the colt. She addressed herself to Rance. "Why is the colt here?"
"Your father just made a present of him to April."
"Oh, he did, did he?" She placed her gloved hands on her hips and turned to April, lips curled back in a snarl. "Well, you did it again, didn't you? You begged and wheedled Poppa into giving you something just because you knew I wanted it."
"Oh, Vanessa, no!" April gasped, shaking her head quickly from side to side. "I knew nothing about this."
"What do you mean, something you wanted?" Carter snapped. "I would never give you something as valuable as this colt. I know how you handle the horses. You haven't got sense enough to appreciate something of value."
Vanessa gave her hair a toss and turned her sneering grin on him. "Really, Poppa? Well, tell me. When have I ever been given anything of value? I've never had anything except April's leftovers!"
"This is neither the time nor the place," he sputtered, face coloring. "Get out of here at once."
"Oh, I'll go" -- she took a step backward -- " but I won't forget this. You win again, sister dear!" She gave April a snapping salute before turning on her heel and walking toward the door.
"Vanessa, listen to me, please." April started to follow, but her father caught her arm and held her back. "It isn't what you're thinking," she called to her twin. "You must believe me. I had no idea -- "
"Don't argue with her." Carter gave her a gentle shake. "She's just trying to make trouble as she always has."
Vanessa paused at the door to look over her shoulder at Rance and cry, "Maybe you can see now that I was telling you the truth about my life, the way I've been treated!" With a sob, half anger, half anguish, she rushed into the night.
Carter turned to Rance and told him to put the colt away. "And see to it that Vanessa never rides him."
"Whatever you say, Mr. Jennings." Rance began walking toward the stall, pulling the colt along. But he cast one final look at April. Was it contempt? Anger? She did not know and she admonished herself for caring. She had not seen Rance Taggart in years. But, strangely, she felt touched by him now.
Her father took her arm and led her from the stable. "This is a special night. Your night," he murmured quietly as they walked toward the house. "We won't let Vanessa ruin it for either of us."
She did not speak. There was too much turmoil inside her. Oh, why couldn't Vanessa see that she loved her and despised the way their father treated her?
Suddenly, April felt an impulse to turn and look back. Rance Taggart was leaning against the stable door, tall in the moonlight, arms folded across his chest. He was not smiling. He was staring boldly at her.
Once more, she felt a strange trembling from deep within.
Copyright © 1981 by PHH, Incorporated
Posted January 19, 2013
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