It was only as Lenobia began to leave that she was able to have the courage to ask Martin the question that had been circling around in her mind. “The placage—do the women get to choose, or do they have to be with whomever wants them?”
“There are many kinds of people, cherie, and many kinds of arrangements, but from what I see it is more about choice and love than not.”
“Good,” Lenobia said. “I am glad for them.”
“You had no choice, did you, cher?” Martin asked, meeting her gaze.
“I did what my mother told me to do,” she said truthfully, and then she left the cargo hold and carried the scent of horses and the memory of olive eyes with her throughout the tedium of that long day.
* * *
What began as accident became habit, and something she rationalized as being just for the horses became her joy—what she needed to get through the never-ending voyage. Lenobia couldn’t wait to see Martin—to hear what he would say next—to talk with him about her dreams and even her fears. She didn’t mean to confide in him—to like him—to care for him at all, but she did. How could she not? Martin was funny and smart and beautiful—so very beautiful.
“You getting skinny, you,” he said to her on the fifth day.
“What are talking about? I have always been petite.” Lenobia paused as she combed through the tangled mane of one of the geldings and peeked around his arched neck at Martin. “I am not skinny,” she said firmly.
“Skinny, cher. That what you are.” He ducked under the gelding’s neck and was suddenly there, beside her, close and warm and solid. He took her wrist gently in his hand and circled it easily with his forefinger and thumb. “See there? You all bone.”
His touch shocked her. He was tall and muscular but gentle. His movements were slow, steady, almost hypnotic. It was as if his every motion was made deliberately, so as not to frighten her. Unexpectedly he reminded her of a Percheron. His thumb stroked the inside of her wrist, over her pulse point.
“I have to pretend not to want to eat,” she heard herself admitting.
“It is better for me if I stay away from everyone, and being sick gives me a reason to keep to myself.”
“Everyone? Why don’ you stay away from me?” he asked boldly.
Even though her heart felt as if it would pound from her chest, she pulled her wrist from his gentle grip and gave him a stern look. “I come for the horses and not for you.”
“Ah, les chevaux. Of course.” He stroked the neck of the gelding, but he didn’t smile as she expected, nor did he joke back with her. Instead he just looked at her, as if he could see through her tough façade to the softness of her heart. He said no more and instead handed her one of the thick curry brushes from a nearby bucket. “He likes this one best.”
“Thank you,” she said, and began working her way across the broad body of the gelding with the brush.
There was only a small, uncomfortable silence and then Martin’s voice carried from the other side of the gelding he was tending. “So, cherie, what story I tell you today? The one about how anything you plant in the black dirt of New France grows taller than these petite chevaux, or about the pearls in the tignons of the beautiful placage and how the women they stroll through the square?”
“Tell me about the women—about the placage,” Lenobia said, and then she listened eagerly as Martin painted pictures in her imagination of gorgeous women who were free enough to choose whom they would love, though not free enough to make their unions legal.
Then next morning when she rushed into the cargo hold she found him already grooming the horses. A hunk of cheese and fragrant hot pork between two thick slices of fresh bread sat on a clean cloth near the barrels of oats. Without glancing at her, Martin said, “Eat, cherie. You don’ pretend around me.”
Perhaps that was the morning it changed for Lenobia and she began to think of it as seeing Martin at dawn rather than visiting the horses at dawn. Or, more precisely, perhaps that was when she began to admit the change to herself.
And once it changed for her, Lenobia began searching for signs from Martin that she was more than just his friend—more than ma cherie, the girl he brought food to and who pestered him for stories of New France. But all she found in his gaze was familiar kindness. All she heard in his voice was patience and humor. Once or twice she thought she caught a glimmer of more, especially when they laughed together and the olive green in his eyes seemed to sparkle with flecks of golden brown, but he always turned away if she met his gaze too long, and he always had a humorous story ready if the silences between them became too great.
Just before the small measure of peace and happiness she’d found shattered and her world exploded, Lenobia finally found the courage to ask the question that would not allow her to sleep. It was as she was brushing off her skirts and whispering to the nearest gelding an affectionate a bientôt that she took a deep breath and said, “Martin, I need to ask you a question.”
“What is it, cherie?” he responded absently while he gathered up the curry brushes and linen rags they’d used to wipe down the geldings.
“You tell me stories of the women like your maman—women of color who become placage and live as wives to white men. But what of men of color being with white women? What of male placage?”
From outside the stall his gaze went to hers and she saw his surprise and then amusement, and she knew he was going to humiliate her by laughing. Then he truly looked into her eyes, and his teasing response turned somber. He shook his head slowly from side to side. His voice sounded weary and his broad shoulders seemed to slump. “No, cherie. There are no male placage. Only way a man of color can be with a white woman is if he leave New France and pass as white.”
“Pass as white?” Lenobia felt breathless at her boldness. “You mean to pretend you are white?”
“Oui, but not me, cherie.” Martin held out his arm. It was long and muscular and, in the postdawn light filtering from the deck above, it looked more bronze than brown. “This skin too brown to pass, and I think I am not one for being any more, or less, than I am. Nah, cherie. I be happy in my own skin.” Their gazes held and Lenobia tried to tell him with a look all that she was beginning to wish—all that she was beginning to want. “I see a storm in those gray eyes of yours, cherie. You leave that storm be. You strong, you. But not strong enough to change the way the world think—the way the world believe.”
Lenobia didn’t reply until she’d opened the little half door and exited the Percherons’ stall. She went to Martin, smoothed her skirt, and then looked up into his eyes. “Even the New World?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
“Cherie, we do not speak of it, but I know you one of the fille à la casquette. You promised to a great man. That true, cherie?”
“It is true. His name is Thinton de Silegne,” she said. “He is a name with no face—no body—no heart.”
“He a name with land, though, cherie. I know his name and his land. His plantation, the Houmas, is like paradise.”
“It is not paradise I want, Martin. It is only y—”
“No!” He stopped her, pressing a finger against her lips. “You cannot speak it, you. My heart, he is strong, but not strong enough to fight your words.”
Lenobia took his hand from her lips and held it in hers. It felt warm and rough, like there was nothing he couldn’t defeat or defend with that hand. “I only ask that your heart listen.”
“Oh, cherie. My heart, he already heard your words. Your heart, she speak them to me. But that as far as they can go—only this silent talk between us.”
“But … I want more,” she said.
“Oui, mon petite chou, I want more, too. But it cannot be. Cecile, we cannot be.”
That was the first time he’d called her by that name since she’d been coming to him at dawn, and the sound of it took her aback, so much so that she dropped his hand and stepped away from him.
He thinks I am Cecile, the legitimate daughter of a baron. Do I tell him? Would it matter? “I—I should go.” She stumbled over the words, completely overwhelmed by the conflicting layers of her life. Lenobia started toward the large cargo deck exit. Behind her, Martin spoke.
“You not come back here again, cherie.”
Lenobia looked over her shoulder at him. “Are you saying you do not want me to come back?”
“I could not speak that lie to you,” he said.
Lenobia breathed a long, trembling sigh of relief before saying, “Then if you are asking me, my answer is yes. I will come back here again. Tomorrow. At dawn. Nothing has changed.”
She continued walking out, and heard the echo of his voice following her, saying, “Everything has changed, ma cherie…”
Lenobia’s thoughts were in tumult. Had everything changed between them?
Yes. Martin said his heart heard my words. But what did that mean? She climbed the narrow stairwell and entered the hallway that ran from the cargo entrance past the crew’s quarters, the deck access way, and then ended at the female passengers’ quarters. She hurried past the crew doorway. It was later than she usually returned, and she heard hardly any sounds of crew members rustling about within, getting ready to begin the day. She should have known then that she needed to be more careful. She should have stopped and listened, but all Lenobia could hear was the sound of her thoughts answering her own question: What did it mean that Martin said his heart heard my words? It meant that he knows I love him.
I love him. I love Martin.
It was as she admitted that to herself that the Bishop, purple robes swirling around him, moved into the hallway not two steps behind her.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle,” he said.
Had Lenobia been less distracted, she would have immediately ducked her head, curtseyed, and scampered back to the safety of her quarters. Instead she made a terrible mistake. Lenobia looked up at him.
Their gazes met. “Ah, it is the little mademoiselle who has been so ill all voyage.” He paused and she saw confusion in his dark eyes. He even tilted his head and furrowed his brow as he studied her. “But I thought you were the Baron d’Auvergne’s…” His voice trailed off as his eyes widened in recognition and then understanding.
“Bonjour, Father.” She spoke quickly, ducked her head, curtseyed, and tried to retreat. But it was too late. The Bishop’s hand snaked out and grabbed her arm.
“I know your pretty face, and it is not that of Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne, daughter of the Baron d’Auvergne.”
“No, please. Let me go, Father.” Lenobia tried to pull away from him, but his hot grip felt stronger than iron.
“I know your pretty, pretty face,” he repeated. His surprise turned to a cruel smile. “You are a daughter of the Baron, but you are his fille de bas. Everyone near the Château de Navarre knows of the succulent little fruit that dropped from the wrong side of the Baron’s tree.”
His bastard daughter … succulent little fruit … wrong side … The words battered her, filling her with dread. Lenobia shook her head back and forth, back and forth. “No, I must return to my quarters. Sister Marie Madeleine will be missing me.”
“As indeed I have been.”
The Bishop and Lenobia were startled by the sound of Sister Marie Madeleine’s commanding voice—he enough that Lenobia was able to pull loose from him and stumble down the hall to the nun.
“What is this about, Father?” Sister Marie Madeleine asked. But before the Bishop could answer her, the nun touched Lenobia’s cheek and said, “Cecile, why are you trembling so? Have you been ill again?”
“You call her Cecile? Are you in on this unholy masquerade?” The Bishop seemed to fill the hallway as he loomed over the two women.
Clearly not intimidated, Sister Marie Madeleine stepped forward, putting herself between Lenobia and the priest. “I have no idea of what you speak, Father, but you are frightening this child.”
“This child is a bastard impostor!” the Bishop roared.
“Father! Have you gone quite mad?” the nun said, drawing back as if he’d struck her.
“Do you know? Is that why you have kept her hidden for the entire voyage?” The Bishop continued to rage. Lenobia could hear the sounds of doors opening behind her and she knew the other girls were coming into the hallway. She could not look at them—she would not look at them. “This is a travesty! I will excommunicate both of you. The Holy Father himself will hear of this!”
Lenobia could see the curious looks the crewmen were giving them as the Bishop’s tirade drew more and more attention. And then, far down the hallway behind the Bishop, Lenobia caught sight of Martin’s startled face and saw that he was coming toward her.
It was terrible enough that Sister Marie Madeleine was standing there, protecting and believing in her. She couldn’t bear it if Martin were somehow pulled into the mess she had made of her life as well.
“No!” Lenobia cried, moving around Sister Marie Madeleine. “I did this on my own. No one knew, no one! Especially not the good Sister.”
“What is it the child has done?” the Commodore asked as he stepped into the hallway, frowning from the Bishop to Lenobia.
The Bishop opened his mouth to shout her sin, but before he could speak, Lenobia confessed. “I am not Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne. Cecile died the morning the carriage came to take her to Le Havre. I am another daughter of the Baron d’Auvergne—his bastard daughter. I took Cecile’s place without anyone at the château knowing because I wanted a better life for myself.” Lenobia met the nun’s gaze steadily. “I am sorry I lied to you, Sister. Please forgive me.”