A shaft of gauzy morning sunlight broke through the leaves, making her mass of upswept auburn curls glow like a nimbus. Freddie lowered his china cup and smiled as he contemplated his sister’s profile; she was seated oblivious to her beauty, munching on a piece of toast and orange-marmalade. “I love your hair,” he said.
She flicked her eyes sideways, in his direction. She shifted in her wicker chair; it creaked as she flounced. Her blue eyes shaded by thick red-gold lashes seemed green. She faced him and set one elbow dramatically on the tabletop, her chin cupped in her hand. “Do you really, Freddie? Mamma let me pin it up early.”
“My sweet Louise, almost seventeen years old. No more hair bows for you.” His features were, briefly, pleasant.
Louise straightened, using the fingers of one hand to primp at the lace and tucks of her white summer blouse. She ran her palms down her sides, feeling the firm corset as it cinched her waist to Gibson Girl dimensions. “Do you think Abel will notice?”
Freddie’s brown eyes flattened, his face hardened like stone, but in an instant his thin lips were stretched into a grin, his high cheekbones prominent, his dark wavy hair glistening. His eyes sought hers, trying to tell her, trying to explain, but he heard himself say, “I think he’ll be helpless, like a kitten.”
Louise giggled, then stiffened as they could hear their mother making her progress–followed by two servants–from the breakfast room, out to the terrace where the siblings had decided to take their morning meal. “Why does she have to follow us?” she whispered to her brother, and plastered a smile on her face. “Good morning, Mother,” she said.
The older woman, in an elaborate, silk-taffeta cream-colored dress, the bodice and high collar trimmed by macrame lace and embroidery, her corset barely holding the line, directed her maids to set up her meal on the round, white-marble table. She slipped into her chair so she could face her children. “Why, what a fine and sensible idea, moving outside on such a lovely spring day. What gorgeous scenery–those mountains–and look at all the laurels and azaleas in bloom….”
Freddie stood; his buff-colored panama-cloth suit was spotless. His garnet tie was perfectly knotted. He plucked up his cap and stepped to his mother’s side, bending and kissing her on the top of her head. “Must run, Mother. I have a rendezvous planned.” He moved back and straightened, slipped his cap on in one motion. “I’m meeting Abel Blankenship; we’re motoring into Charleston for the day….” He almost winced as he watched his sister’s expression, the way the color changed on her cheeks, the way her eyes widened and her mouth half opened.
“I … don’t understand….” Louise managed to say.
Their mother bounced her attention from one to the other. “Whatever it is you are doing, Frederick….” A look of sadness and confusion was frozen on her like a mask. “I wish you wouldn’t … I mean, the Blankenship boy is … he is….”
“He is what, Mother?” He gave his cap brim an exaggerated tug.
“His family are a bunch of ignorant hillbillies! He’s just a logger and a miner. He’s a dirty, lower class….” She twisted away from her son’s glare.
“But, he’s my friend!” Louise blurted. She was on her feet, shoving the chair back. She smoothed her skirt over and over, her eyes watery circles that silently pleaded with her brother.
The older woman stared at her daughter. “Frederick, I want to know what is going on between you two?”
He laughed, leaning back a little with the exertion. “Your grandparents were ‘ignorant hillbillies’ Mother. Now we’re the West Virginia elite because we somehow grabbed half the mineral rights of Fayette County; after that mysterious fire destroyed the county courthouse in 1905.”
“How dare you!” She shot up, her skirt rustling.
He skipped to her side, gave her a hug, kissed her on the cheek. “Well, I’m off. I love you Mamma.”
Elizabeth Caulder seemed to melt, to soften. “You are a rogue,” she whispered as she watched him sashay toward the mansion.
Louise hugged herself, the sobs breaking from her chest. “I love Abel,” she cried. “Freddie was our chaperone. What is he doing?”
Her mother pulled herself into a ball of flammable indignation, fanning herself with one hand. “Louise Caulder, you are seventeen years old. What do you mean, you’ve been meeting this man Abel Blankenship behind our backs?”
“But Freddie, he helped. He arranged everything, he….” The realization set in; it felt like the time her brother punched her in the stomach, when she was so small; he’d charmed her into saying, “I’ll never tell.” Louise sank back into her seat, her arms still wrapped around herself. “No, Mother,” she said.