From that morning on it became part of her own religious ritual, and Lenobia was, in her own way, as devout as was Sister Marie Madeleine. Each dawn she would steal above deck, find a spot of shadow and solitude, and watch the sky welcome the sun.
And as she did, Lenobia gave thanks for the beauty she had been allowed to witness. Holding her mother’s rosary beads, she prayed fervently that she be allowed to see another dawn in safety, with her secret undiscovered. She would stay above deck as long as she dared, until the noises of the waking crew drove her back below, where she slipped into her shared room and went back to the charade of being an ill, delicate loner.
It was just after she’d watched her third dawn and she was retracing what had become the familiar path to her room that Lenobia found the horses, and then him. She’d heard the men coming up from below just as she was about to enter the stairwell hallway, and had been almost certain that one of the voices—the one that was gruffest of them all—had belonged to the Bishop. Her reaction was immediate. Lenobia lifted her skirts and ran as quickly and silently as possible in the opposite direction. She flitted from shadow to shadow, always moving away from the voices. She didn’t pause when she found the little arched doorway that led to steep, narrow stairs dropping down and down like a ladder. She simply climbed down until she came to the bottom.
Lenobia smelled them before she saw them. The scents of horse and hay and manure were as familiar as they were comforting. She probably should have paused there only a moment—she was quite certain none of the other girls would have paid so much as an instant’s attention to the horses. But Lenobia was not like other girls. She had always loved animals—all types of animals, but especially horses.
Their sounds and scents drew her as the moon drew the tide. There was a surprising amount of light filtering from large rectangular openings in the deck above, and it was easy for Lenobia to make her way around crates and sacks, bushels and barrels, until she was standing before a makeshift stall. Two huge gray heads hung over the half wall, ears pricked attentively in her direction.
“Ooooh! Look at the two of you! You’re exquisite!” Lenobia went to them, moving carefully and not making any silly, abrupt motions that might spook them. But she needn’t have worried. The pair of Percherons seemed as curious about her as she was about them. She held her hands out to them and both began blowing against her palms. She rubbed their broad foreheads and kissed their soft muzzles, giggling girlishly as they lipped her hair.
The giggle was what made Lenobia realize the truth—that she was actually feeling a bubble of happiness. And that was something she hadn’t believed she would ever truly feel again. Oh, she would certainly feel the satisfaction and safety that living the life of a legitimate daughter of a baron would bring her. She hoped that she might feel contentment, if not love for Thinton de Silegne, the man she had been fated to marry in Cecile’s place. But happiness? Lenobia hadn’t expected to feel happiness.
She smiled as one of the horses lipped the lace on the sleeve of her dress. “Horses and happiness—they go together,” she told the gelding.
It was while she was standing between the two Percherons, feeling that unexpected bubble of happiness, that a huge black and white cat jumped from the top of the nearest crate and landed with a monstrous thud near her feet.
Lenobia and the Percherons startled. The horses arched their necks and sent the feline wary looks.
“I know,” Lenobia said to them. “I agree with you. That is the biggest cat I have ever seen.”
As if on cue, the cat flopped over onto its back, curled its head around, and blinked innocent green eyes up at Lenobia while rumbling a strange, low rrrrrow.
Lenobia looked at the geldings. They looked at her. She shrugged and said, “Oui, it seems he wants his stomach scratched.” She smiled and reached down.
“I would not do that, you.”
Lenobia pulled her hand back and froze. Heart pounding, she felt trapped and guilty as the man stepped from the shadows. Recognizing Martin, the mulatto who had shown them to their quarters just days before, she breathed a small sigh of relief and tried to look less guilty and more lady-like.
“She seems to want her stomach scratched,” Lenobia said.
“He,” Martin corrected with a wry smile. “Odysseus is using his favorite ruse on you, mademoiselle.” He plucked a long piece of hay from one of the nearby bales of alfalfa and tickled it against the cat’s plump stomach. Odysseus promptly closed on the hay, capturing it and biting it thoroughly before speeding off to disappear among the cargo. “It is his game. He looks harmless to lure you in, and then he attacks.”
“Is he really mean?”
Martin shrugged broad shoulders. “I think not mean that one, just mischievous. But what do I know—I am not a learned gentleman or a great lady.”
Lenobia almost responded automatically, “Neither am I!” Thankfully, Martin continued. “Mademoiselle, this is no place for a lady. You will soil your clothing and muss your hair.” She thought that even though Martin was speaking in a respectful, appropriate manner, there was something about his look—his tone—that was dismissive and patronizing. And that annoyed her. Not because she was supposed to be above his class. Lenobia cared because she was not one of those rich, pampered, snobbish mademoiselles who belittled others and knew nothing about hard work. She was not Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne.
Lenobia narrowed her eyes at him. “I like horses.” To punctuate her point, she stepped back between the two grays and patted their thick necks. “I also like cats—even mischievous ones. And I do not mind having my clothing soiled or my hair mussed.”
Lenobia saw the surprise in his expressive green eyes, but before he could reply the sound of men’s voices drifted down from above.
“I must get back. I cannot get caught”—Lenobia stopped herself before she could blurt “by the Bishop,” and instead finished hastily—“roaming the ship. I should be in my quarters. I—I have not been well.”
“I remember,” Martin said. “You looked ill as soon as you came aboard. You do not look so bad now, even though the sea is rough today.”
“Walking around makes me feel better, but Sister Marie Madeleine does not think it appropriate.” Actually, the good Sister hadn’t made that exact pronunciation. She hadn’t had to. All of the girls seemed content to sit and embroider or gossip or play one of the two precious harpsichords being shipped with them. None of them had shown any interest in exploring the grand ship.
“The Sister—she a strong woman. I think even the Commodore a little afraid of her,” he said.
“I know, I know, but, well, I just … I like seeing the rest of the ship.” Lenobia struggled to find the right words that would not betray too much.
Martin nodded. “The other mademoiselles rarely leave their quarters. Some of us, we think they might be fille à la casquette, the casket girls.” He said the phrase in French and then English, eerily echoing her mother’s comment to her the day she’d left the château. He cocked his head and studied her, rubbing his chin in exaggerated concentration. “You don’ look much like a casket girl, you.”
“Exactement! That is what I am trying to tell you. I am not like the other girls.” As male voices drifted closer and closer, Lenobia stroked each of the grays in farewell, then swallowed her fear and turned to face the young man. “Please, Martin, will you show me how to get back without going through there,” she pointed to the ladder-like stairwell she’d climbed down, “and having to cross the entire deck?”
“Oui,” he said with only a slight hesitation.
“And will you promise to tell no one that I have been here? Please?”
“Oui,” he repeated. “Allons-y.”
Martin led her quickly in a twisting path through the mountains of cargo all the way across the underbelly of the ship until they came to a larger, more accessible entrance. “Up there,” Martin explained. “Keep going up. It will lead you to the hallway of your quarters.”
“It goes past the crew’s quarters, too, does it not?”
“It does. If you see men you raise your chin, thus.” Martin lifted his chin. “Then you give to them the look you gave to me when you tell me you like horse, and cats of mischief. They will not bother you.”
“Thank you, Martin! Thank you so much,” Lenobia said.
“Do you know why I help you?”
Martin’s question had her turning back to look at him questioningly. “I suppose it is because you must be a man with a good heart.”
Martin shook his head. “No, it is because you were brave enough to ask it of me.”
The giggle that escaped Lenobia’s mouth was semi-hysterical. “Brave? No, I am frightened of everything!”
He smiled. “Except horses and cats.”
She returned his smile, feeling her cheeks get warm and her stomach make a little fluttery shiver because his smile made him even more handsome. “Yes.” Lenobia tried to pretend she wasn’t breathless. “Except horses and cats. Thank you, again, Martin.”
She was almost through the doorway when he added, “I feed the horses. Every morning just after dawn.”
Cheeks still warm, Lenobia glanced back at him. “Perhaps I will see you again.”
His green eyes sparkled and he tipped an imaginary hat to her. “Perhaps, cherie, perhaps.”
For the next four weeks Lenobia existed in an odd state that was somewhere between peace and anxiety, happiness and despair. Time played with her. The hours that she sat in her quarters waiting for dusk and then night and then the gloaming of predawn seemed to take an eternity to pass. But as soon as the ship slept and she was able to slip the confines of her self-imposed prison, the next few hours rushed past, leaving her breathless and yearning for more.
She would prowl the ship, soaking in freedom with the salt air, watching the sun burst gloriously from the watery horizon, and then she would slip down to the joy that awaited her below deck.
For a little while she convinced herself it was only the grays that made her so happy—so eager to rush to the cargo hold and so sad when the time passed too quickly; the ship began to wake, and she had to return to her quarters.
It couldn’t have anything to do with Martin’s broad shoulders or his smile or the sparkle in his olive-colored eyes and the way he teased her and made her laugh.
“Those grays don’ be eating that bread you bring them. No one be eating that stuff,” he’d said, chuckling that first morning she’d returned.
She’d frowned. “They will eat it because it is so salty. Horses like salty things.” She’d held the hard bread out, one piece in each palm, and offered it to the Percherons. They’d sniffed and then, with surprising delicacy for such big animals, taken the bread and chewed with a lot of head bobbing and expressions of surprise that had made Lenobia and Martin laugh together.
“You were right, cher!” Martin said. “How you know about what horses like to eat, a lady like you?”
“My father has many horses. I told you I like them. So I spent time in the stables,” she said evasively.
“And your père, he not mind that his daughter is in the stables?”
“My father did not pay attention to where I was,” she said, thinking that, at least, was the truth. “What about you? Where did you learn about horses?” Lenobia changed the focus of their conversation.
“The Rillieux plantation just outside New Orleans.”
“Yes, that was the name of the man you said was shipping the grays. So, Monsieur Rillieux must trust you quite a lot if he sent you to travel all the way to and from New Orleans and France with his horses.”
“He should, he. Monsieur Rillieux is my father.”
“Your father? But, I thought—” Her words trailed off and Lenobia felt her cheeks getting hot.
“You thought because my skin is brown my père could not be white?”
Lenobia thought he seemed more amused than offended, so she took a chance and said what was on her mind. “No, I know one of your parents had to be white. The Commodore called you a mulatto, and your skin is not really brown. It is lighter than that. It is more like cream with just a small bit of chocolate mixed with it.” To herself Lenobia thought, His skin is more beautiful than plain white could ever possibly be, and felt her cheeks flame again.
“Quadroon, cherie,” Martin said, smiling into her eyes.
“Oui, that is me. My maman, she was Rillieux’s first placage. She was a mulatto.”
“Placage? I do not understand.”
“Rich white men take women of color in the marriages de la main gauche.”
“Means not real by law, but real for New Orleans. That was my maman, only she die not long after my birth. Rillieux keep me on and have his slaves raise me.”
“Are you a slave?”
“No. I am Creole. Free man of color. I work for Rillieux.” When Lenobia just stared at him, trying to take in everything she was learning, he smiled and said, “Since you here you want to help me groom the grays, or you scurry back to your room like a proper lady.”
Lenobia lifted her chin. “Since I am here—I stay. And I will help you.”
The next hour sped by quickly. The Percherons were a lot of horse to groom, and Lenobia had been busy, working with Martin and talking about nothing more personal than horses and arguing the pros and cons of tail docking, even though the whole time she could not stop thinking about placage and marriages de la main gauche.