DISCLAIMER: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and its characters are the property of NBC and Dick Wolf.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: There is violence, death, and relationships between women. There is bad language and very unPC name calling. Heavy accents and ebonics occur occasionally. Just put up with it; I had to. Writing phonetically is a challenge and I had to split a lot of differences to make it somewhat intelligible without a translation page. So, it's not entirely authentic. Sue me. Also, I'd rather you be old enough to vote. O/A alternate universe. New Orleans, mid 1800's, pre civil war. Nods to Anne Rice's "Feast of all Saints" world. Much thanks to my betas: Aqua Blurr and Comma Splice for your help,ideas, red pen, and good humor. I wrote this 'cause I miss home. It's about servitude, freedom, and choices.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By raginhoops


Chapter 1

Alexandra Cabot rocked gently in the carriage, the afternoon sun branding her cheek and exposed neck. It was the lazy time of day, and, despite the rough river road, she found it difficult to stay awake. Only the moisture- laden, motionless air that leaned oppressively on her every pore kept her conscious. She had almost forgotten the sheer claustrophobic nature of the weather after so many years in Paris. Running the business side of the Cabot interests in Europe had been her life up to now. The long journey home gave her ample time to move the figures around in her head many times over. It was grim. Financial ruin was on the horizon. Yellow fever and hurricanes in the last four years had conspired to quash the plantation her family ran for three generations. Politics entered the fray lately, and this spelled economic disaster for not only her plantation but also for everyone on the great waterways of the south.

Her mother's last correspondence nagged at her sense of honor and duty, guilting her home. Her younger sister, Cassandra, was felt inadequate to the challenge ahead. Lena Cabot had taken ill in the last year and could no longer bear the strain. She was now demanding that her eldest take a husband, preferably a rich and well-connected one. Alexandra's freedom, so cherished in Europe, was about to come to an end. She was to be mistress of the plantation.

She closed her eyes to soothe the burning from the dust that danced in the carriage, infiltrating her solitude through the cracks in the wood. The silty taste in her mouth made her slightly nauseous. She knew that the carriage was probably not the only thing at Riverbend in disrepair. Her mother was valiant in her attempts to hold on to the plantation after the death of her husband but, with the demise of her brother-in-law in the last epidemic, circumstances conspired against the women. Basically, without a male figurehead in the picture, running a business became next to impossible. It was, after all, a man's world.

Alexandra wiped her lips and cursed the mud that stained her finely embroidered Belgian handkerchief. This is what her mother would not leave for a convenient, comfortable apartment in the city. She could come to Paris and be free of the heat, humidity, and pestilence that took half the population into mass graves dug all over the city and outskirts. But Lena wouldn't do that. She was not one to give an inch to something as nebulous as yellow fever. It would take Satan himself to run her off her land-that much Alex was sure of.

The carriage suddenly swayed and dropped half a foot. The young woman inside shifted her weight to keep her seat. The voyage had been a little over a month and she still felt as if the ground was swelling with waves. John Munch had met her at the docks in the French Quarter. It was a comfort to see his familiar pock marked face after so many days cooped up with a passel of strangers.

The good doctor had written to her in vivid detail of the horror of the fever and its repercussions. His last correspondence, the one that compelled her to return due to the rapid decline of her mother's health, chronicled the macabre epidemic effect on the city's landscape. Whitewashed brick warehouses sprang up, made necessary by the high waters that came and washed up the bones and decaying flesh out of the ground. Most of New Orleans lay below sea level. The city was now littered with cemeteries. Another man would be loath to describe such indelicate details to a woman, but that is what Alexandra loved about her families' long-time confidant. It was precisely because he overlooked her gender that he was so dear to her.

She cherished his letters through the years, not only for his astute observations of politics and society but also for his candor and dry sardonic wit. He, unlike her family, allowed her something of a childhood and his words to her escalated in complexity according to her age; whereas, her mother's letters at sixteen read as if she were a peer. None of her family or friends seemed to adapt to her advancing intellect in quite the same way. Yet, perhaps, it could be attributed to his own curious nature. It had always been like that. She was always an adult to her family, groomed to take over the business especially after the death of her father. It was as if John understood the enormous pressure that was put on her young shoulders. He was like that, working behind the scenes covertly offering friendship and support. She supposed he was used to it, being a Jew in a sea of Catholics, used to navigating carefully in a crowded harbor. She trusted him implicitly.

He would be invaluable in the time ahead. Yet, because of his ethnicity, she was not so naïve to think that he would be privy to all the inner workings of the real political power of New Orleans. After all, everyone paid tribute to the Vatican, and the bishop was the right hand of the pope. The Governor bent to the will of the Church, and the Church, in turn, let the people know to whom their votes should be cast. She needed to set up a network of information. Knowledge was power. She learned that at an early age. She understood it and meant to keep it. The wheels turned in her head constantly. It was what kept her vital and focused. She would have to figure out a way to stay out of a marriage that would place her under some man's thumb and still keep the business solvent.

With a jerk the carriage lurched to a halt. The door swung open and a light -skinned mulatto held out his hand to assist her onto the rich soil of Riverbend. She looked into the familiar grey eyes of a man who had seen too much and lived too hard for being only a decade older than she. His gaze was veiled. He hadn't spoken much to her. She did remember him being taciturn, but there was warmth present in his youth that was absent now.

It was a long walk up to the main house. The only sounds were the rustle of the silk of her dress and the chirping of birds hidden behind the curtains of moss that draped the oaks lining the road to the house.

She ventured, "Is Melinda well?"

"She good."

"And your Momma?"

"She fit."

"And Melinda's husband, what's his name, Zack?"

"He passed from da fever last year."

She murmured, embarrassed, "I'm very sorry for her loss. I did not hear."

"No reason dat you would." The bitterness seeped into the short statement of fact.

She couldn't blame him. She had been a party to many discussions in Europe concerning the abolition of slavery. She came to believe that it was wrong but, the way things were now, it was a necessary evil in her world.

"Olivia, has she jumped the broom with someone?"

Fin gave her an incredulous look. "No, she stay at da Gormand place. But she ain't taken up wit nobody dare. She take care of her own sef. Hunts and fishes for folks up da river. "

"Robert's done well then?"

"Dey say he got 400 head of cattle and twice da hogs out over da swamp. Even got elected sheriff, but dey still don let 'im in any krewes in da city."

That must pepper his ass, she thought.

He had done well for an Acadian, the son of a tenant farmer. It made sense that Olivia would gravitate towards him. She was smart and he was some kind of genius. He never forgot a thing he'd ever seen or read. She remembered how it irked him to be left out of society because of his lowly birth. As a consequence, there was something of glee in his being when he dismantled a man intellectually for, even as teenager, not many men could match him. All of Robert's free time was spent with her father learning the finer arts of being a gentleman. After working in the fields all day, Robert would show up for fencing lessons under the canopy of oaks behind the house. Alex's father admired his drive. Everyone suspected that he was being groomed to be the son he never had. Her mother encouraged his visits as well, even after her husband's death. Alexandra hoped Lena had her sister in mind for Robert's hand. His class meant little to the Americans. But, in Creole society, sitting at the table and knowing what utensil to use didn't mean that he could taste all the dishes. Besides, Alexandra couldn't stomach his arrogance on a daily basis.

Hearing that he had taken Olivia Benson into his home was still a bit of a shock; despite Fin's words, she figured that he kept her as a mistress. She was nineteen when Alex left and, even though she had never worn a dress in all that time, anyone could see that she possessed an exotic beauty under all the men's clothes that she favored. She never thought that Olivia would ever leave Riverbend for anyone because it had been the only real home she'd ever had. Yet, maybe Olivia had grown out of her tomboy stage enough to make a man notice the womanly parts that lurked under wraps.

Olivia's mother, Serena, served the Cabots as governess. Despite the five-year difference between them, the two girls were fast friends and the only thing that Alex missed about Louisiana. Why am I kidding myself? I worshipped the ground she walked on. She retreated into her favorite daydream, namely, playing back her youth with Olivia who was wild and free, as comfortable poling a pirogue in the swamp as she was strolling through the throngs of the French Market.

They wrote each other faithfully for years; however, after her studies at the Sorbonne had ended, Alex noted that Olivia's letters were written in an increasingly distant voice, more infrequent, until they ceased coming altogether. Even the condolences sent at Serena's death from snakebite went without a response from her dearest friend. Alexandra hoped against hope that the letter was lost or that her ship passed the reply on the its way across the Atlantic. Returning without Olivia back in her life would be a hurt past all imagination.

Class and race formed a complex maze in Louisiana. Alexandra imagined that Olivia had taken her mother's death hard, hard enough to go to Robert for support. A woman alone in the world was vulnerable to unspeakable hardship, not that this was foreign to Olivia and her family. It took a while for Alexandra to piece the story together from the whispers and things left unsaid. What she gathered was that Serena's father never really acknowledged his only child. She had the best of everything, including education, but never felt her father's love. It was said that she was the spitting image of her mother who bewitched the dashing Mr. Benson from the moment that he saw her. He went against his family's wishes and married beneath his station. For years they were childless. It was rumored that hoodoo was involved when they finally conceived. When she died in childbirth, he never recovered. Every time he looked at his daughter was a reminder of what he lost. His family did not see a descendent of their son's blood but a spawn of black magic that claimed a life in a Faustian turn. She paid for surviving in place of her mother everyday. Like water seeking its level she found kindness in the hearts of the servants of the house. In doing so, she learned that strength didn't just flow in the veins of privilege. They taught her to smile and laugh and feel loved. In turn, she shared the only thing that she had to give: knowledge, gained in her many hours of communion with her studies.

One fateful day, Serena was spoiled, as one would say. It was not known who had taken her against her will. It was of no consequence. She was with child and thus unmarriageable. Her disgrace gave her father the excuse to disown her, driving her to the city. The Benson family was all too happy to be rid of the result of their son's undesirable union. Serena ended up living hand to mouth teaching English to the fringes of society in the Quarter. When Olivia was twelve, Alexandra's family gave her a position. The more liberal American family did not adhere so tightly to the strict Creole protocols. They needed a governess that was fluent in multiple languages and this governess came at a discount.

The long silence was broken by Alexandra. "Does Robert know that I am here?"

Fin answered as if Alexandra had asked if pigs flew, "Dere ain't a soul up n down dis riva dat don know. Olivia be down here in the mornin' wit meat, special fo' you."

"I didn't think that she'd remember me."

Fin tightened his lips and took the time to stop and shift the heavy trunk to his opposite shoulder. White folk, he thought, were so damned tight-assed. Why don she just ax me how Olivia be? Like Olivia would forget. Traipsing all over creation, on her like a flea on a dog. Girl probly said her rosary to Olivia, no doubt.

Alex immediately knew she'd been caught fishing for information. She let the conversation drop and walked on ahead to her anxiously waiting mother and sister.


Chapter 2

Olivia rode up to Riverbend with fresh venison. She'd heard that Alexandra had returned from Paris. She ciphered quickly; she'd be about 32 now. She thought it interesting but not surprising that she'd not taken a husband. The young skinny girl was so bookish and shy that she'd sooner become a nun. Her friend had devoted herself to a career becoming a bride of business instead of Christ. She had to do a better job than Cassandra, or Casey as she was called familiarly. Casey had the enthusiasm but not the presence necessary to hold her own in the world of men. Alexandra was cut from different cloth; she could make it work. She could save the dying farm. There was something about her besides her obvious intellect that gave her people's hearts and minds. Everyone on the plantation felt the hope that Alexandra's return was bringing. She was the proverbial prodigal son- well, in this case, daughter.

She had tried so hard to forget her. Olivia felt an old ache in her chest. Damn this damp air, she thought. The last time she saw Alex she was climbing up the gangplank to the ship at fourteen, gangly and plain, but so excited to study abroad. Olivia never expected her to return.

There was a ruckus in the house as her arrival was announced. Olivia slung the hindquarters of her kill over her shoulders and started for the table under the house where a glaring, authoritative figure awaited her, arms crossed over her ample bosom in obvious attempt to corral her infamous temper. The one morning that Olivia had to bag a buck early had to be the one where she missed the kill shot. Five miles into the swamp she caught up to the poor creature. This put her hours off her scheduled arrival and pushed dinner back up to supper. She knew Anita would be furious.

Anita van Buren, the cook for the plantation, was waiting to quarter and prepare the meat for storage. She was impatient to get the fete started and was displeased that Olivia hadn't arrived earlier. She stood under the porch with her butcher knife tapping her muscular arm. She was a force not to be taken lightly. Life to her was a succession of crosses to bear that she gave up to God every day. It kept her from using that knife on living flesh.

These days, Anita fairly ran the household for the Cabots. Her first master, the father of two of her children, gave Anita her name. Fin was still with her. The other was sold to a planter in Mississippi. She felt blessed that she had another child with her. Melinda had a different father. That one stood her on a granite block at Pierre Masparo's auction house. His wife objected to the humiliating presence of his bastard daughter because she had his eyes. That son of a bitch put her up there and stripped her to her waist so he could get top dollar. All three were sold like a bushel of fruit. But here, in this life, she had power. The master treated her decently, kept his hands to himself and his own wife. Miz Cabot was a fair mistress; she never talked down to her. In return, Anita was loyal to the household that kept her family together. She prayed every day that this plantation would stay in the Cabots' hands. She never wanted to see her people on that cursed block again.

As Olivia neared the porch steps, she saw Alexandra burst through the doorway. This was not the skinny blonde that she remembered. She resembled no spinster that she'd ever seen. The eldest Cabot daughter had grown into a striking woman. Coming from Olivia's frame of reference, this was saying a lot. It was not only her looks but also her carriage and something else-absolute confidence. Olivia opened her mouth to speak but nothing emerged. There was no need for it. Alexandra was bounding down the stairs with a smile that stretched for miles.

"Liv! I've been dying to see you. If anyone could have told me where you were, I'd have gone to find you. Apparently, you move like a ghost around these parts."

She reached Olivia and hugged her despite the bloody carcass in between them.

"Alex," she finally bleated out. "You've grown up. I would never have recognized you." Olivia hurriedly pulled away to lay her burden down.

"You look just the same. Still beautiful." She said it with a touch of innocent reverence that made Olivia laugh uneasily and offer a quick offhand snort.

"I can't wait to have one of our talks. I've brought you books from Europe. I'm sure you'll love them. You'll have to stay the night." She tugged on her arm while she breathlessly rambled on, all the while brushing absently at the blood on her dress.

Anita rolled her eyes and sighed. More work. "Child, get in the house and take that off-so's I can get to it 'fore it sets. You too, Olivia. And Andre, get the rest of that deer over to my butcher block."

The young boy, no more than ten, emerged from behind the bustle of Alex's dress, scampered to Olivia's horse, and dragged a slab of meat twice his size onto his shoulder. He carefully balanced the burden and, swiftly, got it over to Anita's table. Tasks like these were meant for men but he was always ready to impress the new white lady. He thought that she looked like a angel, just like from the prayer books. When no one was paying him any mind, he liked to look at the pictures.

Olivia awkwardly glanced down at her soiled trousers and bloodied shirt.

"You still got clothes up in yo' old room. Go on, git." Anita shooed them off.

"I can stay for supper, but I don't think I can impose on your hospitality for the night, " Olivia stammered.

It all came crashing down. They shared a bed in the old days. There was no possibility of that now. What went on in Storyville, stayed in Storyville. Olivia's particular sin could not wander out here, in the open. And the woman before her now would definitely tempt her into damnation.

Supper that evening was on the porch, mosquito nets up and lamps lit, the stench of kerosene masked by the stronger scent of freshly cut magnolias floating in crystal. The Cabot women never looked lovelier. Olivia never felt so confused. Alexandra was enchanting, witty, and beguiling. How could she have escaped marriage? No doubt she had left a trail of broken hearts from here to Paris. As expected, the subject came up during dessert.

Lena began to expound on the number of eligible bachelors in the area. Alex cut her off. "I have no wish to enter into that particular sacrament, Mother."

"You have no choice in the matter. You are still beautiful and Jack McCoy has expressed interest in asking for your hand."

"Let's not talk about this right now."

"I'm afraid we don't have that luxury of time. I'm planning a party Saturday, a welcome home. It'll be a grand affair and this will be our chance." She gave Alexandra the look that dogs give sheep.

"Mother, we have company."

"Olivia isn't company; she's family. She is well aware of the state of our finances here."

"Well then, we can't afford a big party."

"Society dictates, Alexandra. We are compelled to show our station in life. We will be shunned if we offend our neighbors."

"I have no intention of marrying Jack McCoy." She paused between the words deliberately. "He's an old man."

"Alexandra, you are not a young woman. You are way past marrying age. You would be lucky to get a proposal at this juncture."

"Then why don't you marry him? He's about your age." With that, she left the table and ducked under the netting. She kept going until the ink of the night overtook her and she suddenly had to be careful of where she stepped. Just as she tripped on a root, she felt her arm supported, her body lifted up. It was Olivia, stalwart and solid. She had forgotten how strong she was.

"Watch out, this is not familiar territory and you could hurt yourself. Let's go back to the house. You know your mother means well. She's been under a great strain lately."

"Liv," she said with a sigh. "I can't get married. I'll die. I've watched so many women shrivel up that way. The minute I marry, I'll cease to be. I refuse to be some man's property. That's what a wife is in the eyes of the law."

Olivia could say nothing. She understood and stayed silent.

Alex continued, "In Paris, I took a few lovers. It was what is was; and, I did not have to sacrifice myself." She looked at Olivia; her eyes had by now accommodated to the lack of light, and added, "I must shock you." She expected rejection for this admission of a mortal sin. Instead, she saw empathy, deep and complete.

"No, I'd be shocked if you hadn't had lovers," was the simple response. They walked back in the darkness together. Alexandra locked her arm in Olivia's and pulled her close. Wordlessly, they made their way to the porch steps. Olivia could barely breathe for the feel of the impossibly soft creature that Alex had become. Soon she became aware of her rhythm of breathing, the rise and fall of her chest. In the pale moonlight, she could see the beads of sweat trickling down the valley made by her breasts. Olivia averted her glance and uttered a silent prayer--lead me not into temptation--as streams of salty sweat poured down from her temples.

At the steps, Olivia delivered Alex to the porch and stepped back down. "I have to get going."

"You can't go out there. It's too late. Stay. We've so many years to catch up on."

"I assure you Alex. I must go. I'll be by tomorrow. We'll have plenty of time to talk then. Your family needs time with you more than I."

Casey, watching from the parlor window, frowned. She didn't like what she saw. Her older sister got all the attention, even from bayou trash.

She was perfectly capable of handling the business. Her mother just wasn't giving her the chance that she deserved. It had always been that way. Alexandra was this fantasy figure, a virtual god to Mother. She could do no wrong, and, in everything Casey did, fault was found. Tonight at dinner was the perfect example. For months now, Casey had been suggesting that they change their focus, move away from sugar cane. Her mother ignored her. After the dessert, Alex started talking about rice as a crop for the next season, to stop competing with their neighbors and driving the prices down, and their mother acted like she'd never heard anything like this before. She had the nerve to say that this was a wonderful idea and added salt to the wound by saying that Alexandra was the only one with economic sense in the family.

She'd be damned if her sister would waltz in, after all this time, from halfway around the world, and take over what was her destiny. As hoof beats died out in the distance, Casey watched her sister retire inside. Her gaze fell on the lamp and the mass of moths assaulting the glass dome over and over. They continued to blindly smash into, bounce off, and crash into it again like a mad battalion of soldiers bent on suicide. She felt like that in this family. I'll not beat myself any longer, she thought. This farm would be hers.


Chapter 3

That night Olivia rode straight to the city, to Rampart Street, and rapped on the back door of a very familiar place. A dark-skinned, high cheek boned working girl grabbed her belt and pulled her in. Abigail smiled; her favorite customer had been missed. She led her through the velvet curtain to her room at the back, took the coins, and closed her door.

"Long time no see. I was begin to tink dat you catch you autre femme."

"Dere's no body else, you know dat."

"Your usual?" She poured a double into a large shot glass. Something was different tonight. "Cher, what's wrong witchu? I tink you keepin' tings from me."

Olivia looked lost. " I…I need to watch tonight."

"Bien, Celine, she is free."

"No!" It came out too quickly. She looked away embarrassed. "No blondes."

Abigail relaxed her body like she was slipping into a hot bath. The effect was very seductive, charging the very air around her with magnetism. Olivia was compelled to look back.

"Mon cherie, you got you a woman, but she say no tonight, n'est pas?" She was pleased at her deductive powers for Olivia was slow to deny it. "She is very, how you say, …lucky." Her smoky voice caressed the words.

"I got no woman. Mon Dieu, it's bad e'nuf dat I come here." Olivia crossed herself and muttered, "Mais, you right. Dere is someone special."

"So, dis one, she don know?" The dark woman pulled Olivia into an embrace and stroked her hair.

Olivia sighed, "She's not like us."

Abigail held her that way for what seemed hours. The prostitute didn't mind the time. It wasn't the first time Olivia came to her reeking of unrequited love.

Abigail was half Creek and half Attakapas mixed with French and Spanish. She had been working in this house since the tender age of ten when she was sold by her mother for a pint of whiskey. There was nothing she hadn't seen. English was difficult for her, but Olivia had been helping her learn to read and write. They mostly took it out on trade. Olivia started coming to her door fifteen years ago. She was a young woman tortured by her desires, sure that they came from the devil.

Abigail helped her understand that what she was had a name in her Creek language. She had the touch of the twin spirit of woman/man. Among her people, these folks were revered. They joined with their own sex. This was done in secret these days. They had learned better. The missionaries and priests were horrified at this behavior which prompted the most devout to burn them at the stake. But as Abigail simply said, "We have always been."

Despite this, Olivia persisted in complicating sex with religion. She resisted to the point of implosion and, when her desires threatened to devour her, she visited her old neighborhood, where no one judged or blinked twice. She got what she needed, from Abigail and her friends. Here in Storyville is where Olivia came to confront her feelings of lust and soothe her pain.

It was a vicious cycle of meeting someone who seemed interested in her, slipping into familiarity to the point way past unconscious flirting. She'd pine and stew before making herself vulnerable. This one might be the one that would be different, she'd think. Inevitability, rejection and righteous indignation would come from each of the women who had taken every chance to be alone with her and accept her kisses and fervent touches. Because when she got too close to the powder keg of sexuality, the upstanding lady in question bolted like a quarter horse with red pepper up its ass. In order to mend her broken heart, Olivia would disappear into the bayou for days on end, living off the land, as her ancestors did.

It was a blessing that she had the religion of survival to counter the Catholic catechism and her friend, Robert, to confide in, once she felt that she could return to civilization. Robert, who was as eccentric as the day was long, had compassion for her plight. She also found solace in the potions she got from Sister Peg, the river road's own Marie Laveau, which made her forget her sorrows. The high priestess was owned by the free people of color at the Green Plantation next to Riverbend. Olivia made it her business to stay on her good side because hoodoo was a powerful thing. Olivia's people had dealings with the offshoot of African and Christian religions for generations.

Still the Catholic, so strong in Olivia, predictably drove her to her parish priest to confess her great sins. Father Elliot never judged. He had plenty of demons of his own. What he did offer was a disguised sense of acceptance for what she was. Fantastic as it seemed, they went through the motions every time. The small window would slide open revealing a silhouette peppered through the screen. Through the darkness, Father Elliot's distinctive voice gently pretended anonymity, muffled in the shadowy cubicle. Later, they would sit outside the rectory, have a smoke, and polish off a fifth between them.

"Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been one month since my last confession. These are my sins... I am having impure thoughts."

"My child, have you acted upon them?"

"Not this month, Father."

"That is good. The devil will tempt us. He wishes us to succumb to the base proclivities in our nature. We must pray for the strength to resist them, however compelling. Say four our fathers and three acts of contrition." As always, he ended by saying, "Go and sin no more," knowing full well that she'd be back by the next new moon.

Tonight at Chez Exotic, she would just drink herself numb, until her brain was incapable of any thoughts at all, much less impure ones. She watched a café au lait quadroon make love to her favorite confidante until the two figures became a blur. She would go to confession in the morning and stop by Sister Peg's on the way home.


Chapter 4

Fin walked into Sister Peg's cabin; the smell of herbs permeated the small, dank room. "Mornin' Sista. Got some bizness fo' you taday."

"Goodness gracious, Fin. The onlyest time I get ta see you is on errands. You need to come visit sumtime."

"Why I believe mah social card is open Tursday."

"You come on down den and I make you a good gumbo. You way too skinny, mon neg."

Fin loved being sent to Peg's. They both enjoyed the fantasy of acting as if they had the leisure of the gentry that they served.

The burlap sack he was carrying suddenly jerked into motion sending halos of dust into the air. The wiry, black woman smiled, "You bring me sumting good today, Fin?"

"I gigged you some frogs last night. Dis payment fo' da missus. She needs a potion for love… for the big party Sataday."

"From what I heah, deres no need for my mojo."

"Dats true. But you know white people, dey don leave nuting to chance. Miz Alex don want ta marry. Miz Lena wants her to."

"Dere gots to be sumting wrong dere." She started mixing herbs and crushing them in a bowl. "Miz Alex old nuff ta know what she want and good lookin' nuff ta have her druthers." She added them to boiling water and continued, "Folks come in heah all da time full of worry 'bout what ain't even impo'tant. I hep 'em da bes I can. But iffin dey ain't ready ta let da Lawd in, dey can' evah drink nuff ta take a midday tirst away." She strained the infusion into a bottle, raised a glass of water, and took a drink. "Now, dis is da best tastin' water dis side of heaven."

Fin shook his head. The gap in his teeth looked wider as his grin lengthened. "I tink you be crazy."

"Maybe so, but I be happy. 'Cause dis is some damn good water here." She handed him the glass while she placed a wax seal on her remedy.

Fin took a sip. "Now I knows you crazy. Dis just plain ol' water from da well."

"Fin, you gotta have faith." As she took back the glass, she held his hand for a moment more than she needed.

Fin shuffled his feet and looked out her window.

"Where's Massa Edward?"

"Where he always be at dis time o' day." She gestured toward the cemetery. "I tell you what, dat man needs some o' dis". She gave the bottle of clear liquid to Fin. "It been tree years since Miz Laura pass. He gonna make hissef sick, carryin' on like dat."

Fin became sullen. "What you care 'bout a man dat make you a slave? He buy and sell his own kind."

"He don own me." She opened a box and took out a paper. "Dis paper say I be free. Massa give it ta me years ago."

Fin was genuinely surprised. "Why you still heah? You could just, go, anywhere, anytime."

Sister Peg just smiled. "I could. But where would I go? All I know's heah. My peoples, all heah. All I cares 'bout. The Good Lawd put me here fo' a reason."

"But you be free."

"And what do dat mean, free?" She harrumphed. "Dat just a word. Free is in here." She pointed to her head then her heart. "I be free long befo' I get dis paper."

"Iffin I had dat. I'd be out da door."

"Yeah, dis say I can go anywhere I wants. And I can stay, too. Dere ain't nothing out dere dat will give me what I already got."

"But iffin you were on yo' own, peoples would know… dat you not a slave."

"You tink dey treat you any betta, white folks? You take da fancy clothes off Massa and white folks see anutta niga goin' ta market fo' his massa. Put 'em on you and dey tink you tryin' ta pass. Dey won't let you vote. Dey won't drink afta you. Don tink it any betta up North." She rose up in defiance and concern, pointing out the door for good measure towards the mythical land of salvation.

Fin followed her gesture with his gaze, bravado turned to wistfulness. "Ah'd like da chance to see how it feel."

"You a good man, Fin. But you got you a misery inside dat gonna eat you alive."

Deep down he knew she was right, but the hunger to shake off the shackles was too great. Every night, the scars across his back reminded him, burning just like the first night he wore them.


Chapter 5

A light breeze wafted and waned, the result of Andre's metronomic pull on the large fan on the ceiling. He looked utterly bored as he'd probably much rather be on stable duty today. The way he craned his neck every so often, either as result of the itchy starch in his shirt or to let his natural energy out, amused Alex. His discomfort was understandable. Alex couldn't show hers. Which was why she had retreated to the butler's pantry. She was the prize heifer to be won today, and every single gentleman for miles was here to throw his hat in the ring. The constant state of expectancy was taking its toll; Alex needed to take a succession of small breaths to combat the lightheadedness caused by the blades of whalebone digging into her waist. As if he was suddenly psychic, Andre gave her the slightest hint of his awareness of their mutual discomfort. The well-disguised conspiratorial look that he gave her was buried in the new gravitas that he put into his job. He seemed to grow two inches and gain five years in that moment. Andre seemed to turn up everywhere she was –underfoot like small dog-and just as loyal. It was a feeling that she could relate to very easily, and she rewarded him with extra attention whenever she could.

Alex was freed of her temporary sojourn into the mundane aspects of her compartment by the sounds of another arrival. Nonchalantly scanning the side window, she could see three more carriages approaching the house. A genuine inkling of joy crept through her continence. Her mother's party was going well. Everyone who was anyone was there. It was good to see that the Cabot name still had clout. She spent the better part of the last two hours avoiding Jack McCoy who caught her at every juncture attempting more than small talk. The more she slipped away, the more frustrated he got, the more bourbon he drank, the quieter he got. Senator Thompson made up for all that silence. The drink made him bellow all the more. Alex thought that if he started one more homespun story, she'd have to run screaming from the room. She suspected that it wouldn't help. She feared the Degraws across the river could hear him today.

She made a few last minute adjustments to her hair by picking up a mirrored tray and started for the front entrance. The new arrivals would have to be greeted. As she passed by Melinda carrying cold drinks through the salon, she grabbed a glass. Yet to be announced was Robert Gormand and, by default, Olivia. She was sure that she recognized his carriage outside the window. She sipped on the cool lemonade. It was just like Robert to make a grand entrance. She turned as his name was announced. It was suddenly very warm, and Alex wished that she had a gallon of the iced drink to slam down.

Robert adjusted his tie on the porch and admired his handiwork in the glass of the door. Olivia was a vision in cream satin. The dress accented the figure that she insisted on camouflaging with baggy clothes. He congratulated himself on getting her to accompany him here today. It took a great deal of prodding. The excuses ran from not wanting to wear a dress to the social card; it would create a scandal. Neither Robert nor the Cabots bought her arguments; she had to make the effort. Robert knew just how stunning she could look on his arm. He couldn't wait to see the envy in his neighbors' eyes. He ordered a dress for her so that she'd have no excuse. Olivia would never have picked this sort of dress out for herself, off the shoulder with a plunging neckline, showing off her most charming attributes.

Robert never expected anything sexual from Olivia. Their friendship was more like a partnership. There were two things he was sure of-she didn't want a man and she didn't need one either. He did wish that she would accept her life more than she did. He guessed that it was easier as a man, to accept things of a sexual nature. At any rate, she was an intelligent sounding board for his ideas, not to mention uncommonly beautiful. So it was convenient to have her near him, if only for a short time. Let the rabble think what they would. He was a sophisticate. His attitudes were much more cosmopolitan than his neighbors'. He knew that he provided an alibi for Olivia. It was far better for Olivia to be thought of as a whore than as an abomination.

"Robert, I feel like your prize bull brought to market."

"My dear, I fear you lack the dangling organs necessary."

She smiled, "No, I just wear them on the inside. For true, you are the only man I'd do this for."

"Trust me, you'll thank me for my excellent taste in fashion later," he said as they entered the salon. All eyes were drawn to Olivia. He gauged the reactions of puzzlement, recognition, surprise, and then covetous lust. "You seem to have the rapt attention of the room," he whispered, "especially of the one you desire."

Olivia followed his gaze just in time to catch Alex look away, nervously fiddle with her skirt, and take a long gulp from her glass.

"I believe I will forgive you, Robert."

"My word, don't Miz Olivia look beautiful," Melinda blurted out next to Edward Green, the handsome owner of the adjacent plantation.

"Not nearly as lovely as you," he ventured as he took a sip of the cloudy, pale yellow drink.

She backed off and stared in surprise, then cast her eyes down. " Dat's kind of you to say."

"Don't look down, you should never look down from anyone."

She raised her eyes back to his, full of meaning. They were intense, the color of a summer's thundercloud but holding the kindness of a morning's drizzle. She admired his broad shoulders and the way he filled his tailored suit. He was still as fit as any of his field hands. Even though he could talk a dog off a meat wagon, he didn't seem to take advantage of his charm with women. Whereas, many of his fellows would be courting as many women as they could, he had been true to his wife's memory and had not yet filled his bed. But the time had come to put her memory to rest. Melinda watched him carefully as she gauged his reactions to her bold returned stare. His demeanor remained regal and respectful. She was sure that he was not playing with her. He was her African prince. She smiled as she walked away with her tray. She knew lemonade was his favorite. This batch she had fixed just for him.

He thought that the back of her neck had the loveliest curve that he'd ever seen. Her wavy, brown hair had hints of bronze snaking through her chignon, small wisps escaping in the most delightful places. It's funny that he'd never grasped just how captivating she was, even though she was way past the quadroon ball days. With a slight panic, he realized that her man was gone now and she might return there. She was still as astonishing as she was the first time that he saw her. Any man would take her as a mistress.

Casey looked to where all the men had shifted their attention. Olivia, she had to admit, was flawless. Where had she gotten that dress? It looked like a foreign design. Why couldn't she ever find clothes like that, she thought. She also noted that she had lost the adoring eyes of Cesar. She had been doing so well with him to this point. He had listened intently to her ideas and had commented favorably upon them. Robert and Olivia joined their group and the conversation they were having resumed after pleasantries were exchanged. Casey was curious if Robert would also give her thoughts credence.

As Casey recapped the concepts of cooperative farming, Robert cocked his head and stuttered on. "Was that… from an article written in the Journal, was it… about a year ago…" His mind sped back through the mental pictures flashing and settling on that page as he moved closer to Casey.

"Exactly," Casey answered with a relieved sigh. They began to pick excitedly out the finer points of the article and its potential in this economy, leaving the rest of the group in the dust. Velez, noticing his loss of Cassandra's attention, struggled to contribute. Casey bloomed under the attention of the two handsome men vying for her notice.

Olivia took her leave. This sort of conversation bored her to tears. She noted where Alex was and set off in the opposite direction. Let her watch for a while, she mused.

Alex was indeed following Olivia's every move. This woman wasn't walking or talking like the Olivia she knew. This creature seemed to glide through the room, smiling graciously, and being… delicate. She sighed and glanced at her mother, glaring at her. Alex deflated. She wondered what social inadequacy she had been guilty of now.

Lena looked ten years younger. This was her forte, managing a crowd and making sure things ran smoothly. In fact, in the two weeks that Alex had been home, each day brought more color and vigor. She made sure that the servants kept the wine glasses full and the conversation lively by stopping in small groups with just the right bon mot. Alex realized then just how remarkable her mother was and what she gave up to come to this new crude land from Prague to marry their father. She wondered if she'd ever be able to make such sacrifices.

A loud crash shattered the ambient buzz of conversation. Everyone froze. Cassandra stood with her hands at her side with all the guilt of a child caught stealing candy. She had stepped back right into Melinda's path as she was talking with Velez. Lena's look drove Cassandra back behind the curtain trembling before the wrath that would be hers later. Anita, startled by the noise, came up from the kitchen and began the clean up. No one noticed Zapata slip down the stairs.

Fin muttered a curse. Was the potion for Alex in that batch? Melinda was to give her Sister Peg's elixir today. He wondered how such a strong tomboy like Casey could be so awkward. Then he noticed Velez, so attentive to Casey, dabbing her dress with his handkerchief, and apologizing profusely to his hostess. He was the clumsy one that tripped on the rug and ran into Cassandra causing the accident. He loudly proclaimed that he would personally go into the city to replace the crystal.

"There is no need for that, as it was our fault for having a rug that was not laid properly," Lena replied. In the next instant several servants materialized to straighten the invisible kink.

As they continued to politely murmur over the event, Anita gathered the shards and made her way back to her kitchen. She dumped the glass, picked up her knife and fork, and set to carving the roast. There was a rustle. She saw movement in the pantry.

"Who in dere? Come on out before I gots ta get you." As she got closer, she saw Zapata holding a mason jar.

"You've caught me. I was just coming to get a taste of your famous fig preserves."

"You coulda axed me, instead of sneakin' up in here." Anita said suspiciously. "I remember da last time you was here. You was snoopin' around my kitchen."

"I wasn't snooping. I just didn't want to bother you."

"Bother? When do walkin' around free people worry 'bout botherin' some po' folks?"

"You forget your place." There was an undercurrent of menace in his voice. "If I want something from you, I'd just take it. Maybe that daughter of yours? She could come work in my house."

Anita's temper hit it's boiling point with his blatant threat to her daughter. She tightened her grip on her utensils and took a step towards the much bigger man.

"I knows when dere's dogshit in mah kitchen. I believe dat you brought it in. Or maybe you jus' smell dat way."

Zapata's eyes narrowed into slits. " You can't talk to me like that. I'll have your hide." He started toward her and raised his fist. In an instant, he found his wrist pinned to the wall with the serving fork and a cold blade to his throat.

"Dis is my place, my rules, iffin you move, I bleed you like a pig."

"You can't keep me here all night, puta; you'll have to let me go sometime. And when you do, you'll meet your maker."

Anita continued to keep enough pressure on the knife to make a thin mark, something for him to think about later when his collar would irritate it. She grinned with the malice of Medusa and if Zapata wasn't able to stand on the balls of his feet, the cut would have certainly been deeper.

"I'll let you go now, but I will tell you dat Melinda is mighty good with dat rifle." He looked up to see a barrel aimed straight at his nose. His rage evaporated.

"I'm happy ta see dat you being mo' reasonable." She released his hand. She noticed his large oddly shaped ring.

He retreated carefully and deliberately. "I'll not forget this. You'll have to sleep sometime." With that, Melinda trained her aim to his crotch. He hastened his departure.

Melinda turned to her mother. "What's dat all about, Momma?"

Anita was already in the pantry-taking inventory. "Dat ring, it one of dose dat holds snuff. But maybe dere's sumting else in dere."

She noticed a jar askew. " Dats next to Miz Lena's orange marmalade." It had been opened. Anita popped the top and sniffed. "Get da doctor."

Melinda returned with John Munch, protesting that he was missing the debate of the season. Velez and Alexandra were discussing states' rights and its economic effects, so this had better be important.

Anita shoved the jar under his beak and said, " I caught Mista Zapata in here and I tink he put sumting in dis jar. Dis the second time he be down here where he don't belong. I'm not believing he can' live without mah figs. Miz Lena, she started feeling poorly after I found him here da first time. Dis be a new batch I made dis month. She been better, n'est pas?"

Munch examined the jar and covered it. "I'll take it home and run some experiments on it. You may be right. Raphael wouldn't know a fig from a rat's ass, pardon my French."

Munch thought of Velez's grandiose overtures to Cassandra today and what he could gain if Lena was out of the way. Anita may be just a house servant but she was no fool. He noticed enough jockeying around for the two heirs tonight to be suspicious.

Riverbend was prime real estate. It was at the most strategic spot on the river near the city. The largest ships could dock at their wharf and the land was remarkably fertile. Velez had already offered Lena twice what he'd offered other planters for comparable land up and down the river. Lena would not sell to anyone much less to Cesar. On more than one occasion, she had confided her distrust and general dislike for the arrogant Spaniard. Munch thought it bordered on disdain. Lena swore to him that she'd risk losing everything before touching a coin from that man. Marrying a daughter would be his foot in the door. Any fool could see that Alexandra would probably not stay in the new world. Cassandra was the one invested in the land and, judging from today, she certainly did not share her mother's opinion of Cesar. As long as Lena drew a breath, she'd never approve that marriage.

After the supper, the men retired to the salon and the women to the parlor. Father Elliot positioned himself at the door so he could steal glances at the women. He was a priest but he still was a man. There were few occasions that afforded the luxury of covert observation. He adjusted his collar for the tenth time. It was there to remind him of his servitude to God. Here at the Chez Cabot, he needed his collar especially tight, for this place tested his devotion to the Church more than any other situation. He made his vows prostrate before his Master twenty years ago and he'd faltered once. And here was the reminder of that.

Kathleen, Robert Cabot's widow, took her place at the piano. Maureen, her daughter, next to her began to sing. There was a hush from the smoke filled room as they stifled the discourse to appreciate the voice of an angel. Each note, clear and perfectly pitched, played and echoed throughout the house. Even the servants stopped to listen downstairs. Father Elliot's gaze met Kathleen's and they locked there for a precious few moments in pride, finally released by the applause at the end of the piece.

It was a long day, and evening was coming. The last of the guests were leaving. Alex finally caught up to Olivia.

"You've been avoiding me."

"You've been a very popular woman. You had more suitors than Penelope today."

"Like her, I'm not interested."

"Waiting for your Ulysses?"

"Touché. You looked radiant today. Robert's a lucky man."

"Robert is like my brother. He is not interested in me, not that way. I thought you knew that."

"Who are you interested in? If any of these eligible men knew you were free, they'd have been all over you today like bees on a hive."

"Exactly. Not interested."

She turned and looked straight into Olivia's eyes. "Have you ever thought of leaving here?"

Olivia stiffened. "I have a good life. I come and go as I please. I make a good living. I'm good at what I do. I have solid friends. If I need to let off steam, I have places to go where I'm not judged. Why would I leave?"

"Olivia, I'm not sure I can be what my mother wants me to be. This place is not my home. I had a life of my own in Paris. You should see it. It defies description. This world seems so small. I feel like I'll suffocate here. Casey hates me. She has great ideas but Mother discounts them. When I support them, she thinks I'm taking credit. What's worse is Mother is convinced that they are mine. It just never ends."

"Your mother does have her own mind."

"When this is all straightened out, I'm going back."

"I figured as much."

"Would you consider coming with me?"

Olivia was stunned. "Do you know what you're asking?"

"I'm not the little girl that tagged along after you anymore. I'm not naive either about how you blow off steam. Paris has much to offer in that regard."

"And you? Has it been your cup of tea?"

"Not yet, but I could be persuaded to take a taste."

"It can be bitter. What happens when you decide it isn't for you, or the neighbors look in and judge?"

"I don't know. I honestly don't. I never thought about it seriously until I saw you again. And after my mother's reactions today, I realize why I was sent away. She thought she'd send me half way around the world and I'd forget you. Grow out of it. I very nearly did."

"We are talking like something has happened between us."

"And you think nothing's happened? We used to sleep together. I remember."

"You remember nothing. We held each other, that's about it."

"You kissed me. The night before I left."

"That was very innocent. There was no intention there. I was going to miss you."

Sarcastically Alex countered, "I should have more innocent kisses like that. If I had, I'd be a married woman by now."

Olivia was beaten. Logically, Alex was right. She hadn't understood what she felt then; only later did she discover what the feelings were. Now she looked at a woman that did things to her heart that she didn't think was possible. And the woman was ready to explore it.

This sudden turn of events confused Olivia. A whirlwind of thoughts and emotions swirled inside of her. Alex's calm and calculated pitch took her off guard. Her past "courtships" had none of the bold, confident intention that came from Alex. That was the role in which she was comfortable, the hunter. The intended ladies usually played a game of hide and seek, picking and choosing which of Olivia's lures to hit. The language used was chosen to give the pursued the option of avoiding the barb of capture. The illusion was carefully cultivated to prolong the excitement of the forbidden. This game cut uncomfortablly right through to the core.

The sounds of gravel being ground and pitched forced through her thoughts, by now thoroughly scattered and scrambled. She had to leave now; Robert's carriage was being brought by the front.

"I think we'd better think about this before we leap." Olivia squeezed Alex's hand before she walked out to meet Robert.

All Alexandra could do was bite her lip in frustration.


Chapter 6

John Munch summoned Alex into the city the next day. She insisted on the buckboard so she could divine the content of the men's conversations last night from Fin. If anyone could pick up stray bits of gossip, put them together, and call it a race, he'd win by three lengths going away. She had to know where the next shot would come from.

By the time Fin dropped her off at the office on Rampart, he was thoroughly confused. All Miz Alex wanted to hear about was politics and such- no questions about who was sweet on her. Fin went to the market to pick up supplies. He'd be back in a few hours. She should be all right with the doc. Fin figured that he'd be going to Sister Peg's again. It was clear that she didn't get a drop of the stuff yesterday.

Munch looked up from his papers. She knew it wasn't going to be good news. After he finished his dissertation, she asked if he was sure about the substance found by Anita. The implications were staggering. Velez had tried to poison her mother. By sheer luck, the first attempt had failed to kill her. She seemed to be recovering. They both knew that Velez would not stop trying. Proving it was difficult. John asked to let Robert in on the information. Should they tell Lena? What about Casey? She wouldn't believe them; she was convinced that Velez was going to propose. She would think Alex was jealous. By the time Alex stepped out of his office, her head was spinning, but not fast enough for her to miss a certain woman leaving a den of ill repute. She hid and waited for Olivia to disappear beyond Canal Street. She walked right up and knocked on the door.

Abigail answered with little else on but a good imagination. Alexandra entered quickly glancing around to see if anyone would notice her entering.

"Are you lost, cher?" Abigail smirked. This one, so refined and repressed, would be enjoyable to break in.

"Olivia Benson, does she work here?"

"Mon Dieu, your momma taught chu wrong. Coming up in here and not even introducin' yousef, den all axin' 'bout, does some woman work here?" She stood back and waited. This had to be the one that had Olivia in a tizzy. She just left here and Abigail was hoping whatever happened to send Olivia into her bed that way should keep on happening.

"My apologies, where are my manners? My name is Isobel Landry. I'm a friend and I am trying to meet with Olivia… without my husband finding out. You understand the delicate nature of my request?"

"Mais oui, I understand delicate tings. But how I know you tell me da trut, if I was ta know dis woman you speak of, what's her name, Lilly?"

"I must be mistaken. I'm so sorry to have disturbed you." She started to leave. Abigail grabbed her arm gently.

"Maybe you like to ax some mo' questions? Not 'bout some woman dat you tink come here. Maybe I give you answers?" She gave her the wicked smile that drove many down a path that they never thought they'd take.

An hour later, Alex emerged from the back door of Chez Exotic, with a new education.


Chapter 7

Fin sprinted towards the big house. It couldn't be good. He was awakened by commotion coming from the house, and now there was wailing, the gut tearing kind. He hit the door to find Melinda bloodied and pointing out the back.

"Bastard killed Momma and Miz Lena too. He got some kind of gris gris dat make a zombie. Be careful."

She just got it out as Fin was already out the back door and picking out the trail. He was lucky. There was a full moon tonight. He knew this country like the back of his hand. He'd catch this rat bastard before he got to his hole. Fin guessed that he'd try for Bayou Blue. It was the quickest getaway on the north side onto the Green place. He weaved through the trees, taking a shortcut past the cane fields that the killer would be taking for cover. As he reached the end of the field, he saw a shadow running into the cemetery. Fin accelerated and at the last minute changed course to the left of the tall monuments built above ground. He stopped and listened. There it was, a crack to the right of the main pathway. He crouched and made his way silently through the maze of white brick crematories. He pulled a rusting iron cross out of the ground, said a prayer, and rushed the figure in front of him, swinging the cross like a broadsword. The masked man sidestepped and swiped back with a short blade. Fin twisted and rammed the man into a wall knocking the blade free. With a grunt, the fugitive rolled free, and began to run again. Fin sprang up and felt a pop in his calf, two steps and he was on the ground. He felt a bulge there and looked on at the fleeing figure with rage and helplessness.

By the time he made it back, everyone was crying and Sister Peg was there. He saw Lena in her bed, eyes blood red and open. On the floor, Melinda held their momma like a baby, rocking and moaning low and guttural. Sister Peg looked up and saw the chicken foot in Fin's hand.

"Got away. I snapped sumtin in my leg." He turned in disgust. "Dis what he dropped."

She took the foot from Fin and wrapped it in cloth. "Dis black arts. Not work I know. Dis gris gris come from da south. Makes people froze in dere body. Alive and can't speak, can't move, can't breathe. Your momma didn't go easy. She musta heard him up here. Melinda got knocked in the head when he went out."

Casey was rocking in a corner, softly crying. Alex stood at her mother's bed. "Do we know for sure who did this? Other than average height and dark skin, did you notice anything that would identify him?"

Melinda shook her head. "He had a mask."

Casey cried out, "Then you can't say it was Zapata. You just want it to be Cesar's fault. I can't believe that he'd have anything to do with this. He loves me." The last sentence came out in a pitiful whisper.

Sister Peg bent and took Anita's fist in her hand and pried the fingers open, revealing a ring. Melinda gasped. "It's his, Zapata's."

Casey broke down completely, sobbing uncontrollably. She recognized the ring. There was no question. Alex bent down and took her in her arms trying to consol her.

"I'm such a fool. Everything is lost now."

"No it's not. We have proof that Zapata did it. We can make a case against Velez."

"No, no, no, no, I ruined everything." She looked up. "I was married yesterday… to Cesar. We were to tell everyone tomorrow. He said it would be better to announce it at mass." She dissolved into a fresh wave of tears.

Father Elliot swung off his horse and pulled his saddlebag across his shoulder. His long strides caused his cassock to wave in rhythm, slapping his shins to the double-time dirge playing in his head. Grimly, he fastened his collar. It was always miserable work, dispensing the sacraments of the dead, worse when it was murder. He prayed for the Lord to take the hate and rage out of his heart before he faced the living.

Robert and Olivia had arrived and plans were made. As sheriff, Robert could arrest Zapata, but he could not justify a connection to Velez. Everyone agreed that Alexandra was in danger. Father Elliot confirmed the news of Cassandra's marriage. He had officiated himself.

"It could be annulled if it hasn't been consummated."

Casey's face told that story.

Alex countered, "There has to be a way to catch him in a lie, to tie him in. Casey, you can think of something."

Robert rubbed his chin. "I think I have a plan. Alexandra will have to disappear for a few days. It will keep her safe and give Velez something to worry about." He and Casey began to discuss options. Alex shook her head at the two of them. They were a match made in heaven, if only they'd figure it out.

When it was safe to return, Robert would send word.


Chapter 8

Fin sat in amazement at the document in his hands; at such a price, this was gained. He wasn't sure it was worth the cost.

Cassandra would have to arrange Lena's wake and funeral while keeping herself above her husband's suspicion. Olivia would have to steal Alexandra away, and none could properly mourn their mother while the real culprit walked free. Before Alex left with Olivia, she and Cassandra came up with a master plan for the plantation. There would be partnership and a new company formed. It would take a few days for the legalities to be filed. They asked him to be the foreman, to oversee the plantation. They would switch the crop to rice and peppers. Edward Green and the Cabot women would combine their resources and farm cooperatively. Robert Gormand's cattle would fertilize the rotating fields, and he would provide the canals for irrigation. They would cease to compete with the predominate crop of cane. Before Cesar Velez could lay any claims, it would be out of his reach forever. Jack McCoy would draw up all the documents.

Fin held in his hand the most important paper. He was free. He could choose. He could go. He could kill that bastard and run forever.

But then, Miz Cassandra said, he could never get a deal like this. If he stayed, he and Melinda would get 15% of the profit, each crop. The rest of the former slaves would get 15% as a group. They also got the choice, leave or become shareholders. He asked for 17% for both. She smiled and repeated 15. Fin answered with a hint of mirth, "I had to try." She signed her name and handed him the paper. She did it with respect. Cassandra, she was clumsy as an ox, but she had her some business sense.

Robert Gormand would arrest Zapata and he would hang for killing his momma. Fin finally understood what Sister Peg meant.

Alex and Olivia rode for hours through the woods and basin. Then they poled a pirogue through a maze of waterways until they got to a houseboat deep in the swamp, floating in a dark murky sea with spikes of cypress knees dotting the water as far as the eye could see.

"God can't even find this place. You'll be safe." They told her that, but she was as uneasy as Olivia was confident. It was wild out here. Hawks screeched and prey screamed. Every bend of a bayou looked the same as the next and it frightened her to think that, without Olivia, she would never make it back. Every rustle of grass made her jump nervously. Sometimes it was nothing but her worst fears taking form but then, just as often, the flash of a black ribbon continued to part the grass in front of her. After about the tenth such scare, she finally accepted that Olivia was right. The snakes were more scared of her than she was of them and she just had to watch where she stepped.

Sweat pooled all over her body. The heat made it hard to breathe without dowsing a bandanna and tying it around her face. It made her look like a bandit on the prowl. The cotton shirt she wore stuck to her skin. Pulling the fabric to and fro like a bellows helped her cool off only to snap back and cling to her body for dear life once she stopped. She pulled her hat down farther to shade her eyes from the relentless sun and pictured herself in her room facing the Seine with Olivia beside her. For a moment, she closed her eyes and felt the calm of the familiar, but, when she opened them, the panic returned. The only respite from this anxiety was watching the certainty in the way Olivia moved whether she was setting out fishing lines over the banks of the muddy, lazy water or arranging large barrels in a line along the dock creating a network of barricades surrounding the dock.

"There's a well over there beyond the levee, if you want to get some water."

Alex was embarrassed to admit that she'd never gotten water from a well in her life. Olivia watched her gamely pick up the bucket. She had handled the trip well. She was proud of her city girl. Tree frogs began to chirp with vigor. She smelled rain. Olivia readied for the coming downpour. The labyrinth of obstacles that she fashioned pleased her. Any approach to the boat would have to come from the south. She checked and rechecked the angles until the fortifications met her standards.

By the time Alex returned with the water, she was soaking wet. Thankfully, the stove was hot, canned figs and picked okra were ladled out, and a couple of fish were filleted, ready for frying.

"You know you look mighty good in your daddy's clothes," Olivia teased slightly. "Especially now that they are hanging on you, all wet like that."

"It's not half bad. It sure cools a body off after a hot day like today. How come you're dry?"

"Every afternoon it rains. You never notice 'cause you're inside. I have the sense to come in from the rain."

Alex was starting to relax. She realized that she looked foolish in the oversized pants cinched up like a sack, not quite the fashion she was used to. She did appreciate the heavy-soled boots. It was easier on the mind as she looked out for snakes.

After the rain stopped, they stepped back outside. Everything smelled so clean and fresh. There was a cool breeze today, rare on the delta. For a second, Alex thought that maybe it was a dream: Lena was still alive, she wasn't on the run, and Casey was not trapped in a marriage with a cold-blooded killer.

"It's beautiful," she simply said to no one but herself. Olivia pretended not to hear.

Within an hour the mud had dried up. They straightened up the shack and shook out the quilts and linens. Olivia cleaned and oiled her rifle and pistol and showed Alex how to load and use it. All these things were necessary in this land.

"We better close up before dusk. The mosquitoes will eat us alive unless we get under the nets before then." Olivia felt nervous for the first time that day. They were completely alone, in the middle of nowhere and somewhere else. She didn't know what the night would bring. But she had decided that if Alex crawled into her bed, she wouldn't stop her, even if she would be on the first steamer to Paris. As they ate the fish with their fingers, smashing the flesh so not to eat the bones, they giggled like schoolgirls as they talked about a great deal of nothing. Then things started to change. Alex got quieter and more serious.

"I could get used to this, high life." Olivia noted the key change an octave lower.

"Well it's not exactly Le Pavilion but it's home. We'll have opera later, Cicada-Opus 20 in D minor."

Alex refused to support Olivia's foray into frivolity.

"It almost never rains like this in France," Alex continued nostalgically. "It's misty, almost magical when it rains. The streets shimmer like a painting."

"It will rain again tonight. I just hope the roof doesn't leak. There's nothing magical about sleeping in a wet bed."

Alex eyes twinkled, "I guess that depends on how it gets wet."

Olivia nearly aspirated the water that she was drinking. Alex's boldness coldcocked her.

"You know it stays light until ten thirty in Paris at this time of year. Then the gas lamps are lit and the boulevards are filled with people going places-to concerts, to readings, to dances. It's like a hundred Canal Streets spreading out like the spokes of a wheel. The Seine is filled with boats dotted with lamps. It is such a sight." She sighed and added vaguely, "people wear the finest clothes everyday, not just for special occasions."

"All trussed up in dresses like the one I wore the other day. No thank you."

"You were lovely."

"I couldn't breathe."

"Neither could I…after seeing you."

"Want some whiskey?" Olivia poured herself a glass trying to change the subject. There was no question about her intent.

"No, I want to be completely sober tonight."

Olivia took a gulp and poured another. "That's your bed there. We'd better turn in." Her earlier resolve had vanished and she wasn't so sure about letting Alex in.

Olivia undressed to her undershirt and disappeared under the quilt. Through the corner of her eye and the gauze of the mosquito netting, Olivia could see her companion slowly and methodically remove each article of clothing beginning with her wide brimmed hat. The beatific vision shook her head to loosen her blonde locks held captive all day. The strands seemed to stretch in their freedom and virtually glowed with bronze highlights. She looked like a haloed seraph as she leaned forward to loosen her boots. With a tumble or two, the boots finally settled after she kicked them aside. The belt whipped off and the buckle made a clang as it hit the stove. Freed from its bondage, the pants settled past her hips where they met shimmying legs. Alex knew that she commanded Olivia's absolute attention. Slowly, her legs were revealed, glistening in the candlelight, from under long shirttails on guard of modesty. One by one Alex unfastened the buttons on her shirt, which opened ever so slightly to reveal her clavicles, standing out over the shadows playing over her throat.

Olivia's eyes followed the trail made by Alex's fingers as she continued to reveal the unblemished skin down the valley to her waist. Olivia felt her breath catch as the blonde slipped under the netting and let the shirt drop off her shoulders. Without the gauze in front of her, the vision suddenly became very real and was more sinner than saint.

"Aren't you going to ask me in?" Serious as yellow fever she was.

Olivia pulled back the covers and pulled off her undershirt. There was a flash of light, a pause, and a thunderclap. The warmth of Olivia's body enveloped the pale cream skin that settled next to her. It started to rain again, at first, softly tapping the tin roof, later sounding like frying eggs.

"You're shaking." Alex whispered as she touched Olivia's trembling lips. "Tell me you've done this before."

Olivia looked away, taking measured breaths and finally answering. "Not without paying for it."

Soft hands cradled Olivia's face and stroked her cheekbones. "We do what we need to in this life." She kissed her softly. "We did this before." Her hands slid down Olivia's neck to her breasts. "And this too." She kissed her neck on each side behind her ears and let her tongue trace a trail down to her chin then down to her chest. She moved back up to the start and blew gently over her mark. Hot breath stung her flesh and she became aware of Alex's skin sliding over hers, slick with cold sweat. Alex continued her slow tease, dragging her lips over Olivia's torso hesitating every few beats to place reverent kisses that paralyzed her object of affection. Alex leaned back to admire the woman beside her. Olivia could only stare straight up to the ceiling, desperately trying to keep her mind off the sensations shooting through her body with each feather-like touch. It was like she was being painted on and the artist was blowing on the pigments to dry them. It was delicious torture until finally Alex placed her ear lightly against her chest.

"Your heart sounded just like this. I thought mine would burst out of my chest. You remember?" Olivia could only nod. "We used to do this for hours in my room." Alex trailed the back of her hand down the curve of Olivia's flattened belly letting her nails gently drag along the smooth hairless skin. "I loved the way you got so still and every so often, your skin would jump, like this." A frisson coursed down over Olivia's middle down to her toes.

Even through this, Olivia still couldn't form words. She was trapped in the silky voice that tightened its web with each syllable that caressed her mind. Alex was right, they had spent hours touching each other, massaging mythical injuries, and shyly grooming each other in the dark. It became clear that denial had wedged itself firmly between them as her memories brought back the musky smells of the long summer nights the last few weeks before Alex left. She couldn't deny anything now. She had been old enough to know that what they were doing was sexual but she couldn't resist the spell that came over her when she touched her younger friend.

"You know I noticed when you started to avoid me, after we started doing this, about two weeks it was. The night after you touched me accidentally here." She slid her hand further down her belly to the edge of Olivia's pubis. "That was the night you made me shiver. I laughed and said I caught a chill, but I could see that you didn't believe me. I didn't believe it myself. That was the first time I saw the fear in your eyes. You didn't sleep with me again till the night before I left."

Olivia moved Alex's hand back away from the spot that was burning like fire under the warmth of her touch. Alex's voice betrayed her frustration. "No matter what I tried, I couldn't get you alone again after that night. You were always insisting on bringing Casey along. I cried myself to sleep that last night before I left. Then you woke me up leaning over me just like this. You had the most curious look on your face, just staring at me, like you were memorizing what I looked like. I remember being a little scared."

"I was angry at the world for taking you away." Olivia managed to speak. "I tried to stay away. I knew it was wrong, but I just had to say goodbye. I just…couldn't stop myself."

"That's not how I remember it." Alex paused and continued with revelation. "You were angry. At me." Alex let her body rest squarely on top of Olivia effectively pinning her beneath her weight.

"You kissed me and then you did this." She encircled her lower body, firmly grabbed her buttocks, and kissed her with raw passion, grinding against her before breaking away abruptly.

Olivia was now in full panic mode. "We didn't know what we were doing."

"We knew enough to do this." Alex placed her thigh between Olivia's legs and shifted her weight back and forth.

Olivia felt like her head would explode. "That… never happened. I only did that in my dreams." She grabbed Alex's hips to put a stop to her rocking motion.

"Then I had the same dream. It's been recurring a lot lately."

She whispered in Olivia's ear urgently. "I wanted you to do those things. And I wanted more."

Olivia pushed Alex off and away. "You'll leave, just like before." Her voice cracked.

"I want you to come with me this time. We can live like we choose. You'll see. It's a different life. They forced me to go. I didn't want to but once I was there, I didn't want to come back. I felt like I belonged there. For the first time in my life I felt like I could make my own decisions, be my own master. Here, I had to do what they wanted, live their lives."

"I don't know if I can feel that way about Paris."

"You'll never know if you don't try."

"What if you want a man? What will I do then? Across an ocean. With no one."

"Give me something to come back to. Make me want to stay." Alex moved closer and moved a stray lock from Olivia's eyes. "Look at me. I'll never know if you don't make love to me."

They made love that night and each successive one, mindful of all the years they were apart. Time and memories of other lovers fell away and it was like before only without the uncertain, tentative touches of their youth- without the guilt that plagued Olivia's thoughts. They had only gone so far as their courage would let them in that small attic bedroom at Riverbend. In the remote wilderness houseboat, it was with purpose using experience and a bit of innovation. Somewhere between the whispered orders and frenzied demands they reached the edge of reason. And they lied to each other with abandon like seasoned politicians. Each night melded into the next with the frustration of the day in between and the knowledge that it would come to an end. They would have to leave this oasis and reenter the world filled with other people that would not understand.

Yet, when Olivia talked to God she felt no need to confess. This was the way it was supposed to feel. He was there with them, in their most intimate moments. Olivia prayed that she would find the strength to leave all she knew to go with her woman into the great unknown, to risk it all. But deep in her heart, she knew she could never leave this land. It held her like a vise to the traditions that were engrained in her genes. To be uprooted to the old world, the one her forebears fled, made her fear that she would die a thousand agonizing deaths. Irrational as it was the overbearing dread overruled her heart.

Four days passed without word from Robert. Olivia wondered if things had gone as planned. With each day came more unease. She listened to every noise in the trees. Her rifle was always in reach.

At supper that night, Alex brought up the obvious. They would return in the morning. The legal system had either prevailed or they would need a different tack. Each day that passed made them more vulnerable to discovery. As they discussed the huge changes that were going to happen at Riverbend, a familiar youthful voice hailed them off the bayou. "Miz Benson, it's me, Andre. I'm coming with news from Mista Gormand."

Olivia picked up her rifle shoved it in Alex's hands and motioned for her to stay put. She went out the back door and circled around the porch hidden by barrels lining the wharf, weaving through the homemade battlements to the perfect vantage point. She saw Andre getting out of a pirogue, slowly approaching the door. He looked nervous. She canvassed the area. It seemed unusually quiet. The birds were usually vocal at the far end of the clearing. Andre entered and the door shut quickly. Olivia quietly made her way behind the thick underbrush to a stand of trees near the bank and waited for the players to declare themselves. She saw them. Three, no, four spread out opposite to the back exit up river. That was good. Only one seemed headed toward the back of the boathouse. She readied herself and said a quick prayer for Alex's safety and a steady hand.

The men advanced in the open. Olivia took careful aim with her handgun and dropped one like a calf at a boucherie. She wasn't so lucky with her next target, although she thought she might have winged him. She moved to her next position behind the barrels, using the cover she so carefully placed days before, reloading on the run. She was pleased that the returned fire was concentrated at her vacated spot. Olivia peered around the barrel that shielded her and caught a flash behind the tree directly in front of her. She waited for it to reappear and carefully squeezed the trigger when she took a bead on the center of the plaid shirt that emerged. She heard a grunt and a thud and instantly was showered with splintered wood on both sides. In the next instant, something bright flew past her into a window and a flame burst inside, exponentially consuming the dry timber inside of the shack.

She desperately counted the shots and bolted at the first pause in the round. It was only a guess but she was pretty sure that she had only two to contend with. Glancing back at the burning cabin, she anxiously wondered where Alex could be. She fired wildly to get to the bank. With the river at her back, she figured that she had the best chance to defend her position now that the houseboat offered no sanctuary. It was now a waiting game. They would have to rush her through a narrow clearing head on. It was then that she realized her blunder. She would have the afternoon sun in her eyes. She cursed her stupidity. A new volley of bullets rained at her, kicking up clumps of earth off the top of the levee and leaving it pock marked. She reminded herself to stay calm and think, remain patient, and listen for footfalls in the mud above. A quick decision was made and Olivia slid down the bank on her back. She waited for the shadow to sneak over the top, counted to three and blasted away as the man stepped over the crest. His falling body nearly crushed her as she twisted around. In her spin, she saw the next assassin come over the top. She fired and missed but by the grace of God the huge man lost his footing and slipped down the incline with his arms flailing about like an albatross trying to take flight from a standstill.

Olivia, out of ammunition, had no choice but to rush him with an empty gun. She scrambled up and dug into the mud like a sprinter, trying to get to him before he could gain his balance. She heard a sickening click of a hammer as she swung the pistol at his forearm just before she collided into his midsection. It was like hitting a brick wall. She bounced off and she felt herself airborne, flung aside like a rag doll. The mountain of a man picked up his gun and deliberately took aim at Olivia's head. A thousand thoughts coexisted in that split second. She heard the click of the hammer and a burst of sound. Only it was the mountain that moved. The gun fell followed by the rest of him. She looked to the source of her salvation and saw Andre standing with the rifle still smoking at the end of the barrel. Alex flew by him staring at the blood that soaked Olivia's shirt. It was then that she noticed a dull ache in her side. She'd been hit at some time during the fight. It was the least of her worries just then. She grabbed her attacker's gun and frantically scanned for the next assault.

"It alright, Miz Livia. We got 'em all." Andre sounded like a battlefield veteran as he reloaded the rifle and moved down the bank.

Alex tore a length of cloth from her shirttail and stuffed it into Olivia's side.

That. really. hurts. Olivia cringed and pulled the wad away.

On closer inspection, it was clear that the bullet had gone cleanly through and taken a chunk of muscle with it. The bleeding had already stopped and Olivia knew she was blessed and lucky at the same time. She'd survived. Andre advanced keeping the barrel trained on the downed man half-submerged in the water that was stained red from his blood. He shot him again point blank then kicked the corpse. "You nothin' now. Jus' gatorbait," before he spit on the body for good measure.

He turned back into a small boy before their eyes. "Ah had to bring 'em here, didn't want to." Olivia noticed that his arms were riddled with what looked like day old burns. He fell to his knees in front of both women. "Dey said dey'd kill my peoples. Cut off Marcus' finga right in front o' me."

Alex knelt down next to him, shushed him, and brushed his welling tears away. "It's over, Andre. You were very brave. What's important is that we are all alive because you warned us early enough. Yelling out Olivia's family name was very smart."

He looked to Olivia who nodded in concurrence and added solemnly, "You saved my life."

Alex pulled him up and glanced around. "What we need to do now is to get you two bandaged up over to Sister Peg's for treatment. I can't have y'all getting sick." She pulled him into hug. He looked like he had just been given the earth and the stars above.

By now, the houseboat was fully ablaze. Olivia allowed Alex and Andre to help her up the slippery bank. She watched as they rescued the docked pirogue pulling it away from the hungry flames. Stained water lapped up against what was left of the pontoon.

The three of them moved off and watched the dock succumb to the bonfire. It was dark by the time they left. Slapping at a hungry mosquito, Alex grimly noted that it would still be broad daylight in Paris.


Chapter 9

Robert stared at the dead body in his cell. Zapata was ready to testify against Velez. Now, he was dead. It didn't matter how. He had three visitors that day. Any one of them could have convinced him that it was better to take his own life than risk the fate dealt by his employer. Someone left a belt. Velez would get away with murder.

Cassandra had been busy with the wake and funeral; it was the perfect excuse to stay away from her new husband's bed. She'd been to the bishop. An annulment was not in the cards. He guessed that Cesar's tithes meant too much. He prayed that His Eminence would keep her confidence. Robert really admired the courage of the younger Cabot. She was strangely unafraid of Velez. She said that he was nothing compared to living with Lena.

Alex and Olivia would be starting to wonder now. He was thinking that maybe he needed to get some word to them, to stay out a little longer. McCoy had filed all the paperwork. All wills were set. Cesar would get nothing if anything happened to Alexandra or Cassandra. He was aware of that fact, but that did not take away the very real chance that he would hurt them out of spite. He hoped that Cassandra would not do anything rash. He saw the look in her eye as they laid her mother in the family crypt. The Cabots were a stubborn lot.

Velez masked his surprise as he watched his bride walk into his home with a trunk and servants in tow. This was incredibly stupid. How could she discount the accusations that her family had voiced to all who would listen? Perhaps he had underestimated his God-given charm and she was blinded by her love for him. He remembered the fervor of their wedding night and her very enthusiastic participation. Either Casey was equally insincere as he was or she was the fool that he took her for. At any rate, this would make his plans for the future easier, his wife under his roof. She was here at his mercy.

Her man, a mulatto with a pronounced limp, moved her things. But it was her maid that made Cesar's little emperor stir. She was the pretty one that was serving at the party. Maybe this would be worth the intrusion tonight. She would be amusing to visit later. She passed near him, gave him a coy smile, and brushed her forearm against his. As she ascended the stairs, he licked his lips in anticipation.

Cassandra was the perfect mistress at supper. After the evening sherry, she begged fatigue and retired to her room. Cesar tried her door and was not surprised to find it locked. He smiled knowing that it wouldn't keep him out if he wanted it. Tonight, he wanted some dark meat. He took a lamp and set off for the servant's quarters.

He opened the door to Melinda's room. She gasped with surprise and covered her nightclothes with a quilt from the bed.

"Don't tell me you weren't expecting me?" He stepped in and felt a cold hard cylinder against the back of his ear.

"Move and I blow it clear off."

"I did not realize this was your man. Otherwise, I would not have acted on your advances, my dear."

"I ain't your dear."

"And I'm not either." Casey entered the room and closed the door. "We are going to have a little party of our own. You see, you not only had my mother killed, your man took their mother's life. Her name was Anita." She stepped closer with menace.

He started to move and thought best as Fin growled, "Give me a reason."

"You kill me and you'll be hanged."

Fin responded by pushing him into a chair and stuffing a rag into his mouth. Melinda set to tying him up, checking the security with each knot. Cassandra took out a bundle. "You see this? It is amazing these substances that santerias use. You nick yourself shaving; and, viola, all of a sudden, you can't breathe. It's so sad. A man in the prime of his life dying of a heart seizure, his young wife helpless on top of him. In ecstasy, he suddenly grew pale then gray. He clutched his chest. He just stopped breathing." The breathless dissertation stopped with Cassandra holding her hands out and taking a bow to her audience of three.

The color drained from Cesar's face. He was afraid for the first time; he started to struggle against the bindings. It was a fatal error, thinking the clumsy girl before him was an idiot. He stared at the chicken's foot she had unwrapped before him.

It was morning when John Munch was called to the Velez plantation. He took the stairs lined with the entire household. He entered the bedroom and examined the body, cold and gray. Cassandra tearfully told her story. Melinda held her in support. Only Fin was stone-faced in the corner. He noted the bruising of the wrists. I guess he likes it that way. For a fleeting moment, he questioned foul play. But Casey would never harm a fly. He dismissed the thought; her grief was too gut wrenching. John knew Cassandra was so invested in Cesar that she'd never think that he had anything to do with her mother's murder. Zapata's death took the blame squarely off Velez. Poor girl would have ended up just like Lena. It was just as well that God did the avenging.

He hoped he'd go that way, during early morning exercise with wife number four. He'd be bathed and clean-shaven, looking good for the viewing except without that nasty nick on his face. That would be fooling with perfection.

The doctor announced the cause of death and filled out the certificate. No one would question his diagnosis and Velez would harm no one else.


Chapter 10

Perched high on the carriage house porch, Sister Peg admired her handiwork. It was truly a happy day that the Good Lord made. Thank you, Lord, for answering my prayers, she thought. The wedding was the grandest affair that she'd ever seen and Melinda made the most beautiful bride. Massa Green looked so fine in his morning jacket fussin' over everybody. Fo' sure, he gonna crack his face ear to ear with that smile. It ain't left him since Melinda said yes.

Fiddles and drums mixed African rhythms with French melodies. Sister Peg's legs jumped and swayed along with the dancers below. They swirled and dipped in time with the music, all except Miz Cassandra and Mista Robert. Peg giggled at the wide berth that was given the new couple. They sho was having fun though, Gawd bless 'em. Miz Cassandra got an annulment and a proposal the very same day. They say that Father Elliott had something to do with it. The bishop himself delivered it to them, for free.

She found the priest in the crowd shakin' and twirlin' with the best of 'em. It's a damn shame. That man was too fine to be hidden under that big black dress. His vestments hung on the clothesline, dancing in the breeze. Sister Peg shook her head and sighed as he grabbed Kathleen and pulled her into the dance crowd. Don't dey look like dey belong together. She hummed and clucked. Maureen don't favor her daddy at all but she do got eyes da same as dat priest.

Sister Peg looked to the south, to the mighty Mississippi. All that water, deep and powerful, stretchin' out to the world, bringing dreams back and forth from Europe and Mother Africa. Peg felt a chill through the morning heat. The stories of home handed down in song and rhythm by her people, travelin' over the water faster and surer than any ship, lived inside of her. Ships can sink and drown hope. Drumbeats sailed in the wind forever. She called upon the Lord to keep the ship leaving the dock safe on its journey. It was carrying the new plantation's pact and crop bound for France. The grand experiment of the Cabot and Green farms was about to begin. It depended on the precious cargo aboard.

Sister Peg turned to the main balcony of the house. Olivia stood at the railing staring at the ship's wake, as it was about to take the bend and disappear. It looked like nothing else in this world mattered but that ship getting smaller and smaller until there was no sign that it was ever there. The eddies and currents covered its tracks and continued their lazy journey down the river.

As if hearing the conversation Peg was having with herself, Olivia looked across the yard to Peg on the opposing balcony. Her look, so intimate, so melancholy, locked with Peg's in sudden realization that something fit in a giant puzzle. She felt the colors fade between them like looking at an acid-washed lithograph. She looked right into Peg's soul and visualized the astonishing magnificence inside. It was like seeing the purest love of God personified and envisioning it inside her own soul. It was sameness and the acceptance of it, a crystalline, bittersweet moment of omniscience.

She knows, Peg thought. She understands the weaving of the basket now. It takes great love and loss to feel the weight of the water below and ride the swells in the wind above. White people don't often have the sight; they don't understand the bands that tie and pull a bowl together, the circle of life. Day too busy tearing ahead over everybody in a straight line. Maybe people like Olivia and the Cabots were able to make a bridge between our folks. Maybe it was too much to hope for. Maybe the Good Lawd meant us to stay apart. No, Gawd wouldn't make this world so. He gives us all He can, but it is up to us to make our way through darkness and sufferin'. We be all Gawd's children.

Olivia was shaken sharply out of her communion with Peg by a sound behind her. Alexandra emerged through the French doors carrying two glasses of lemonade. They stood close, hoops touching and Sister Peg swore that the very air collapsed between them as they sipped the drinks in unison. Alexandra brushed a perceived blemish away and left her palm to cradle Olivia's face. Olivia responded by pulling Alex's hand to her lips in a tender kiss. It was almost imperceptible to earthly eyes but Peg saw it. They deserved that kind of love, smoldering like coals, ready to burst into flame at a moment's notice.

Sister Peg smiled and left them to their moment. Love was a funny thing, Sweet Jesus. It comes in many forms, just like God: in trees and birds and even under rocks. She picked up her glass and went inside.

If only Miz Lena and Anita were here to see how things turned out. They were good people. The Good Lord had them at His bosom. It was a better place. Bad times were coming. She could smell the conflict brewing. Maybe the new direction these two plantations were taking would take, maybe it wouldn't. She shook her head. There would be war; there was always war. Only they would all face it together, even her Fin. He would stay and deal with his demons and make his destiny here. She could see the bitterness leave his soul with each day. She took another sip of the ice-cold lemonade. She made mighty good medicine.

The End

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