Even Sophia could not deny the impropriety of absenting herself all week from the apartment she shared with Chris. He was counting on her to be at Hazelwood with him on Saturday, so she headed back to Baton Rouge Friday night, though she had little affection for the house and really could not have cared less about playing chatelaine. Olivia made the opposite journey down from Baton Rouge that same evening so that she could ride out with the Stillwater contingent. There was nothing that would have prevented her from driving directly from college to Hazelwood and meeting everyone else there, but she had no intention of losing a chance to spend time with Ian Winter without Sophia around to interfere.
Dick had behaved himself, more or less, for two months now, and was champing at the bit to get out of the house for a while in congenial company. He could take Hazelwood or leave it alone — being raised in an historic house had inured Dick to the charms of the genre, if indeed he had ever been attuned to them — but Saturday looked to be a fine day for driving, and Dick’s love of speed was one of his salient characteristics.
For Malcolm, the prospect of a pleasant day away from home, free from the cares and bureaucratic hassles of his work with the school, was a welcome one. Here was a chance for Melly to observe more driving — it would be good for her to watch and get more comfortable with the whole process; she only wanted confidence. And perhaps Alys would enjoy another chance to take the wheel. After her first false start with the Morgan, she now drove it with authority. It was impressive how easily she had taken to it. Already she could finesse the car in ways that it had taken Malcolm plenty of practice to learn.
“I just watch you and do what you do,” she explained when Malcolm marveled at her handling.
Melly was infected with Malcolm’s singleminded enthusiasm for the day trip. Of all the party, she most wanted to see Hazelwood itself. It was supposed to be a beautiful house on beautiful grounds, and her receptive nature was deeply sensitive to proportion and grace. Chris’s construction plans for Hazelwood had the sinister ring of demolition and homogeneity; she wanted to see the place before he changed it beyond recognition and respect. Melly was also relieved to have the chance to ride with Malcolm without the stress of trying to drive a car in ways that unnerved him. Stress and anxiety wreaked havoc on her frail system. For the past week, the familiar ache of weakening legs had grown stronger, and she was desperate to stave off a full attack. Usually, the best way to do this was by complete rest, but she so wanted to go. Surely a pleasant day trip could do her nothing but good.
Arranging the drive up was a delicate balancing act of allocating the correct passenger to the correct car, and not everyone could be pleased by the result. Between the two Winters, the three Spencers, and one Arceneaux, there were one too many people to fit in one vehicle. The two cars going to Hazelwood would be Malcolm’s Morgan and Dick’s M3. Melly would ride with Malcolm, that went without saying. Alys said pleasantly that she didn’t mind which car she rode in, but her eyes strayed to the Morgan. Ian said that the Morgan was a great car, but secretly he longed to get behind the wheel of the M3. Olivia’s great ambition for the ride was to sit beside Ian, but the complex structures of seating hierarchy when one man rides in another’s car made it unlikely that she would get much satisfaction out of any arrangement of which Dick approved.
In the end, both cars followed the pattern of Spencer male at the wheel, a Winter at his side, and a less-than-contented occupant in the back seat.
“So, we’re going to see where the sublime Chris lives!” said Alys as the Morgan tooled up River Road, following Dick (who had promised to keep a pace that was within spitting distance of the legal limit). “I’m very excited. Of course, I already know it’s gorgeous — I haven’t seen an ugly plantation house yet.”
“Actually, Chris has never lived there,” said Malcolm. “He has an apartment in Baton Rouge. Hazelwood is his family’s place, or, more accurately, his mother’s family’s. They own the house, but no one really lives in it right now.”
“So it’s abandoned?” asked Alys, her face lighting up. “Is is all decrepit and haunted? Will we gaze up at the ruins and murmur, ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’”?
“Not at all. The house is in beautiful shape, very well-preserved, because it’s open for tours. There’s a fairly large staff who tend to maintenance. But his mother lives in a more modern house on the grounds — she doesn’t prefer to put up with the inconveniences of living in a historic house, however charming it may be to look at. Chris would really like to move into Hazelwood when he starts a family, but although he’s sitting on plenty of money, the modernization process is expensive, especially for someone with his taste in electronics and three-prong outlets. That’s one of the reasons he’s getting ready to sell off Hazelwood sugar land, to pay for Hazelwood renovations.”
“Sophia must be excited.”
“Well,” said Malcolm guardedly, “I don’t know if I’d put it that way. Hazelwood is deep into cane country, and it’s quite a bit off the beaten track. You might say that it’s a bit… provincial for Sophia’s tastes. She would probably prefer to live in Baton Rouge and keep Hazelwood for parties or receptions. There’s a lot of prestige in the name, but I’m not sure Sophia likes her prestige so far removed from the urban comforts.”
“Well, if Chris develops the land as he suggested, he’ll be bringing lots of company to her.”
“Company, perhaps, but I don’t know what they’ll all do. The nearest town is very small. There’s hardly any amenities. There really isn’t much more there than St. Mary’s church and school.”
“Oh, a Catholic school! That’ll be so convenient for Sophia — she can have her children educated and abused in one easy stop.”
Melly flushed and and choked down her first angry instinct to lash out at Alys. It had been a despicably rude thing to say, but there was the possibility that Alys had not realized that the Stillwater family was Catholic. Tense and almost shaking with the sudden shock of unexpected offense, she looked at Malcolm to see how he had responded. His hands had tightened on the wheel, but his voice, when he spoke, was calm enough.
“It is a terrible thing that some priests committed atrocities, but I can assure you that St. Mary’s is one of the safest places for any child. I knew Fr. Blanchard when I was in seminary, and we took the Safe Environment classes together.”
Malcolm’s irenic response soothed Melly enough that she could glance at Alys. Alys seemed appropriately taken aback, and Melly could almost feet a stab of sympathy for her. It was dreadful to speak in ignorance and be called out upon it. Alys had many qualities that were antithetical to Melly, but she had never been malicious. Malcolm had set her straight; she would apologize; perhaps the car ride could be pleasant again.
“You were in the seminary?” asked Alys, digesting this new and not entirely palatable tidbit. “I didn’t know that.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve never really met any Catholics. I didn’t realize I was saying something offensive to you.”
The topic dropped, and for a moment each traveler was consumed by his or her own thoughts. Melly was not satisfied by Alys’s response. She was sorry for making her remark, not because she regretted the sentiment, but because she had been rude enough to offend. It had not seemed to occur to her that most of the offense was caused by her casual assumption that her sentiment was commonplace enough to be shared by any reasonable person.
Alys was the first to shake off the heavy atmosphere that had settled on the ride. She apologized again, and turned the conversation to safer topics. Soon she and Malcolm were laughing again, but for Melly, the morning’s delight in the trip had been replaced by the dull aching which had intensified in her brief moment of fury.
Hazelwood was a good drive from Stillwater, an hour and a half of mostly rural roads, barring the jaunt through Baton Rouge. Melly’s spirits rose as they rode under canopies of aged oaks. She strained eagerly to observe the varied plantation homes that lay on their route. Many were close enough to the main road that she could see the pillared entries and gracious porches, but others were secluded, affording only the most tantalizing glimpses of house through the protective stands of trees.
Hazelwood was one of these hidden houses. Chris and Sophia, having only just arrived themselves, were at the gates to meet the company as they turned off the main road into the sudden shade of the drive. This long avenue wound through the property (as yet untouched by the developer’s hand) approaching the house obliquely, so that the brief sightings of the house through the stands of hazel trees for which it was named whetted one’s appetite for a view of the whole. Melly was thrilled. Alys, who had little interest in scenery except as a subject of ironic commentary, was rather less impressed.
“If I were Sophia, I’d have him shorten this driveway, for a start.”
“But shortening it would ruin the drama of the indirect approach,” said Malcolm.
“I don’t know about that,” said Alys. “Seems to me that a five-minute drive from gate to house is enough to cause the wrong kind of drama, especially when people are running late.”
There was drama enough when the party reached the main house. It was a charming structure, not as grand in scale as Stillwater, but low and rambling and gracious. The weathered brick gallery, sheltered under the low gabled roof, ran the length of the main part of the house, while the little wings nestled close in pretty symmetry. In the shade of the gallery, the wide front door was graced by fanlights and sidelights, giving it an airy and inviting aspect. The long narrow green shutters made a pleasant contrast with the white siding, and a porch swing hung in a pleasant conversational nook at one end. Melly would have liked more time to admire the facade, but they were to park behind the house and enter by one of the back doors. The rear of house, though not as decorative as the front, also had plenty of fine features to be observed. Over the central back door — a little recessed portal with a brick stoop, shaded by lattices on either side — was a small gingerbread-work balcony accessed by a deep window. This must have been a pleasant place to sit and overlook the rear courtyard of the house, though at the moment Melly would have been glad for a chance to sit almost anywhere. There was a white wrought-iron bench in an arbor across the gravel drive from the back door, and Melly leaned on it while the others discussed access to the house in increasingly animated tones. Chris had just realized that although he had the keycode to unlock the security system, through some miscommunication someone had chosen this weekend to lock the obscure bolt on the back door.
“Honey, I got the security code,” Chris was protesting. “The alarms are off. You know I told them to have the doors unlocked for us today. I don’t have any of the keys to this place — I just get grounds to let me in when I need.”
“But the door is locked,” said Sophia. “You should have called them again this morning.” She seemed pleased to be able to blame Chris for something.
“Why can’t you just get them to come and open it?” asked Olivia.
“Nobody’s answering the phone.” Chris was jabbing through his list of contacts, trying to raise any of the staff, but having no luck. The group began to disperse to various corners of the courtyard.
“I can see our work is cut out for us if we’re going to drag Hazelwood kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century,” said Ian to Sophia in a low voice as they stood near the door, apart from the others. “I’m sure when you live here you’ll whip the staff into shape.”
“It’s not the staff that worries me,” said Sophia, with a significant look toward Chris.
While waiting for Chris to sort the problem out, Melly, whose legs had begun aching in earnest, sighed and sagged against the side of the bench. Malcolm noticed right away.
“Melly, you look worn out.”
“I am a bit weary,” she confessed. “If I could just sit down for a while I’d be fine.” He helped her lower herself down on the bench, and sat beside her.
“Looks like this is going to be an exciting visit, if we can’t even get in the house,” said Malcolm.
“The grounds are beautiful enough to justify the trip,” said Melly. “I’m happy to just sit here and look at the view.”
“I think I’m going to take a job as a groundskeeper at a big house,” Alys observed, sitting on Malcolm’s other side. “Who cares about the lousy pay? At least they have the keys to the kingdom.”
“Sure, they can unlock any door,” said Malcolm, “but they also have to do things such as keep the grounds.”
“With great power comes great responsibility,” intoned Alys.
Meanwhile, Chris had come up with a plan.
“Okay, I’m going to have to drive over to my mom’s house and find her set of keys. She’s out of town right now, but I think I know where she keeps them. It will only take me a few minutes, I think. Any y’all want to come?”
“You go on,” said Sophia. “I’ll stay here and entertain our guests. I remember you telling me that’s what a good hostess does.”
In the end, Dick was the only one to attend Chris, mainly because he wanted the chance to drive some more. The guys pulled out with a spray of gravel, leaving the rest of the party to mill about aimlessly. Olivia, seeing no current opportunity of deflecting Ian’s attention from Sophia, went back around the front of the house to take some photos, both to capture the beauty of the place and to have a lure with which to snag Ian’s attention later.
“I think we might be here for a while,” Alys said, rising and stretching. “I’d really like to go over and look at some of those huge trees along the drive. They must be at least 200 years old.”
“They can’t be,” said Malcolm. “Hazelwood doesn’t go back that far, and the trees were planted when the house was built.”
“How do you know they didn’t leave any of the old ones standing?” Alys challenged.
Malcolm grinned. “Because I’ve heard Chris say so more than once.”
“Chris doesn’t strike me as the most authoritative source of information.”
“He is on Hazelwood.”
The two had risen, preparatory to strolling down the drive to view the trees, but Malcolm hesitated.
“I’d better stay here with Melly. I’m worried she might have a fainting spell. Do you want to go down yourself and look at the trees?”
Alys, who had taken a step away, came quickly back.
“No, not if Melly’s feeling that poorly.”
“I’m fine,” Melly protested. “I’m not going to faint, Malcolm. I just need to sit for a bit. You all go on, really. I’m already starting to feel better.”
Malcolm made sure Melly was settled as comfortably as she could be.
“I wish you could walk down with us,” he said, “but I’m worried that even that little bit of exercise is too much for you right now. Don’t you even think about getting up before we come now, hear?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she responded.
Sophia and Ian showed no inclination to go wandering the grounds. They lingered in the privacy of the back door, and Melly wondered at their obsession with getting into the house. Sophia was not used to waiting for what she wanted, and Ian wasn’t urging patience.
“This is stupid just standing around,” Sophia complained, rattling the door. “We could have been in by now looking around if Chris’s people weren’t so incompetent.”
Ian was examining the small tarnished lock. “I really think we could bust this door in. The lock isn’t very strong — it’s almost just a formality.”
“Oh, that’s so like a guy, always wanting to use brute force.”
“My only aim is to serve, and you want to go inside.”
“I’d like that, but the door, as you might have noticed, is locked.”
“And you want to let one little antiquated obstacle stand in your way?”
Melly was beginning to grow alarmed. One could never tell how serious Ian was being.
“If you break the lock you’re going to damage the house,” she objected.
Sophia, who had forgotten that Melly was sitting under the arbor, tossed her hair. “Well, it’s practically my house anyway. If anyone is going to break in, I would think it should be me.”
“Maybe I could pick the lock,” Ian suggested, studying the shape of it . “Give me one of your hairpins.”
“What am I, eighty? I never wear hairpins,” Sophia answered.
“I’m disappointed. I’d imagined you sitting in front of your mirror every night taking your hair down, your locks tumbling around your shoulders…”
“Ooh, a hair fetish.”
They stood back and examined the house.
“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” Ian said. “We’re going to climb that balcony and get in through the big window up there. I think it’s open a crack.”
Melly’s alarm grew. His voice had the ring of conviction.
“Don’t break in,” she begged. “Sophia, it’s not safe. You’ll fall. Someone will get hurt. I think it would be the best thing to just wait for Chris. He won’t be much longer.” If she could have hung on Sophia’s arm, she would have.
“But Chris is taking forever, and I want to get in now,” Sophia said. She and Ian were already scaling the lattice, and he was swinging himself up over the balcony. Melly was in a terror. She tried to stand but her legs resolutely refused to cooperate.
“See! We’re fine.” Ian was testing the window, which was indeed unlocked and yielded to his efforts. He pried it up gently and held it open for Sophia to pass through. She smiled triumphantly down to Melly.
“No harm done, right? We’ll come down and unlock the door so you don’t have to freak out about everyone else.”
A few moments later the back door swung open and Sophia stuck her head out.
“Tell Chris we can’t wait to see him,” she said in a mocking tone, and shut the door again.
Melly sat in her enforced captivity, trying to calm herself. Chris would be back any minute, and he couldn’t possibly be pleased that Sophia both hadn’t waited for him and had effectively broken into his house. Where was Malcolm? He and Alys had been gone for almost half an hour. Melly couldn’t see him anywhere. Did they remember that she was stuck on the bench? What were they talking about?
There were footsteps at the corner of the house, and Melly looked up eagerly. But it was only Olivia, camera in hand, crunching through the gravel of the house. She was surprised to see Melly alone.
“Where is everyone?”
“They’ve… gone off,” said Melly.
“And they left you sitting here alone?” Olivia paced angrily. “What is it with people today? Why is everyone so jerky? We might as well have stayed at home. At least we’ll all be spared Sophia showing off ‘her’ house to Ian.”
“Actually,” Melly admitted, “They’re in the house now.”
“They climbed in through that window and then came down and unlocked the door.”
Olivia stalked over and tried the doorknob. The door swung in.
“I’ll see you later,” she said.
“Let’s wait for Chris,” Melly begged again. “I think it would be best to wait for him. We ought to respect his house.”
“It’s not disrespectful to enter a house through an open door.” Olivia stepped in and closed the door behind her.
Again Melly was alone. She surveyed all the back windows, searching for signs of movement that might show her where Sophia, Ian, or Olivia might be. She wondered if they’d met up in the house. Somehow she thought that they might not — in the mood Sophia and Ian had been in, the thrill of breaking in and hiding out seemed to outweigh any actual pleasures the day could provide.
She flexed her legs experimentally, and to her relief she found that they felt stronger. In a few moments she would be able to get up and walk around again, and then she would go off in search of Malcolm and Alys. What on earth could have kept them away for so long? Melly catalogued the dangers of quiet Hazelwood, reaching for anything that might explain the long absence, anything except the most likely explanation that Malcolm was enjoying Alys’s company too much to keep track of the time.
Gravel crunched and an engine growled, and Dick’s car spun to a stop in the back. He leaned back in his seat and pulled out his phone. Chris jumped out, brandishing the key, but pulled up short when he saw only Melly, fixed to her bench. He didn’t seem disappointed, only surprised that Sophia should not be standing exactly where he’d last seen her.
“I thought Sophia would be waiting her to get in as soon as possible,” Chris said. “Where did she go? I didn’t see her walking around with Malcolm and Alys.”
Once more Melly had to explain the situation, and as she feared, Chris was not enthused.
“What, they climbed up the balcony? They got in through the window?” He examined the balcony carefully for any signs of damage. “This was that Ian guy’s idea, wasn’t it?”
“I think they were both eager to get inside and look at the house,” said Melly cautiously.
Chris opened the door and looked inside, but seemed too irritated to go in yet. Instead, he walked up and down the courtyard, then thumped down on the bench next to Melly, his big frame hunched over, his elbows resting on his knees.
“What is is with this Winter, anyway?” he grumbled. “When did he show up? It’s not like he does anything. Some of us have to work hard to make a living, you know what I mean?”
Melly wasn’t sure if Chris quite fell into the category of the working poor, but it seemed best not to say anything at the moment. Presently, he hefted himself off the bench and crossed testily to the door.
“I’m going in,” he said, and suited his actions to his words.
Melly was thoroughly sick of the back door by this time, and she had rested long enough that her legs were feeling recovered. She rose carefully and started off to find Malcolm. This was a much shorter quest than she’d expected. He and Alys were just coming up the lawn as she looked around the side of the house.
“Melly, you ought to be sitting down,” said Malcolm, a bit guiltily. He checked the time. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize we’d been out that long. I thought I saw Chris come back with the key? Did people get in?”
“Yes,” said Melly, unwilling to narrate the whole sequence of events one more time. “Everyone is inside.”
“Except Dick,” Alys observed, seeing that fellow tapping away at his phone in the air-conditioned comfort of his M3. “Looks like he’s had enough Hazelwood for one day. Too bad for him. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”