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June, 1947. Charleston is poised to celebrate the biggest wedding in high-society history, the joining of two of the oldest families in the city. Except the bride is nowhere to be found…Unlike the rest of the debs she grew up with, Vada Hadley doesn’t see marrying Justin McLeod as a blessing—she sees it as a life sentence. So when she finds herself one day away from a wedding she doesn’t want, she’s left with no choice but to run away from the future her parents have so carefully planned for her. In Round O, South Carolina, Vada finds independence in the unexpected friendships she forms at the boarding house where she stays, and a quiet yet fulfilling courtship with the local diner owner, Frank Darling. For the first time in her life, she finally feels like she’s where she’s meant to be. But when her dear friend Darby hunts her down, needing help, Vada will have to confront the life she gave up—and decide where her heart truly belongs.
“Murrah?” Rosa Lee’s eyes go wide and she shakes her head at me like I’ve forgotten the rules, but I haven’t. Since before I was born, my parents forbade the servants to speak their native tongue in our house. Offenders were given one warning; a second offense brought immediate dismissal. I say the Gullah word again, drawing it out softly. “Why are you crying?” The hands that helped bring me into the world motion for me to lower my voice.
Rosa Lee’s husband, Desmond, told me my first word was murrah. It was what I called Rosa Lee, until Mother made me call her by name. “My own murrah.” The forbidden words bring more tears. I press my face into the soft curve of her neck and breathe in the Ivory soap Mother insists all the servants use, mingled with Rosa Lee’s own scent—vanilla and lemongrass.
She holds me at arm’s length, trembling, and I know I’ve done it again.
“You got to tell them,” she pleads. “Make them see you can’t go through with this.”
I point to the door that leads to the elegant dining room where my parents are eating their breakfast. “I have told them. Mother refuses to listen, and I’ve begged Father. He says I have to do this.” She looks away. Her body rocks, sobbing violently on the inside. “Rosa Lee, please don’t cry. I can’t bear it.” She shakes her head and swipes at the tears that stain the sleeve of her freshly pressed uniform. “I won’t do it again. I promise.”
“When you’re asleep, your heart takes over. You got no control, and it’s gonna kill you.”
She’s right. Since I graduated and moved home from college two weeks ago, I’ve been sleepwalking like I did when I was a child, but these outings don’t land me snuggled up in the servant’s quarters, between Desmond and Rosa Lee. Most of the time, I wake up and return to bed without incident, but last week Desmond found me trying to leave the house. He said I was babbling about sleeping in the bay, which might not have been so disturbing if I hadn’t been wearing five layers of heavy clothing. I knew what he thought I was trying to do to myself and told him not to worry.
Since then, Rosa Lee has insisted on sleeping on the stiff brocade chaise in my bedroom. Of course, my parents don’t know she’s there or that she’s so afraid I’ll walk to the bay or step off the balcony in my sleep, she’s tethered my ankle to the bedpost with three yards of satin rope she begged from Mrs. O’Doul.
“Maybe it will be different after the wedding.” I love her enough to lie to her. “Father says I’m a Hadley and once it’s over with, I’ll fall in line the way I was born to.”
“But what if Desmond hadn’t caught you?” She threads her fingers in mine and kisses the back of my hand. A part of me wishes her intuition hadn’t sent Desmond to check on me, that he hadn’t found me. “And what are you gonna do when we’re not there?”
“Don’t say that.” My knees buckle, and I melt into a puddle at her feet. Justin has made it clear he’s happy with his staff and has no plans to add “two ancient servants.” But living under his roof and not having Rosa Lee and Desmond with me is unthinkable, another high price of being the last Hadley descendant.
“You think it’s not going to get worse after you’re married? Who do you think’s gonna be there to save you? Mr. Justin?” She hisses the last word. “You think long and hard before the sun comes up tomorrow, because I’m afraid down to my bones that you won’t be alive to see it.”
She collects herself and heads into the dining room to check on my parents. They won’t look into her beautiful brown face and see she’s been crying any more than they see this wedding is killing me, or at least the idea of being yoked to Justin McLeod is. Not because he’s eight years older than me and, other than our station in life, we have nothing in common, and not because of his good qualities, although no one can find more than two: He is a heart-stoppingly beautiful man and the sole heir of the largest fortune in Charleston.
For over a hundred years, Justin’s family and mine have built ships. And while two world wars made us rich, a prolonged peace threatens to weaken our family fortunes considerably. Somewhere in all that, my father convinced Justin a Hadley-McLeod union would position them to take over the world, at least the shipping world. And Father is certain nothing short of a blood union will keep Justin in the partnership.
Rosa Lee pushes through the swinging door and pours the coffee down the drain, her signal that breakfast is over and my parents are no longer close by. I smile, trying to reassure her I’m okay, that I’m going to be okay. She shakes her head and starts to wash one of the breakfast plates in slow motion, barely breathing. I hate those things, and after tomorrow, I’ll own twenty-four place settings of them, part of my dowry. I don’t give a damn about thousand-dollar plates, but I do care for Rosa Lee.
“I can do this.” I say from behind her. My voice sounds sure, steady. “I will do this.”
“You and I both know you can’t walk down that aisle. Dear God in heaven, Vada, tell them.” Her head is down, and she says the last two words like a prayer. “Make them see so they’ll put a stop to this foolishness.”
There’s no point. I’ve begged my parents, told them I can’t marry Justin, because I don’t love him. I’ve told them I feel nothing for him, not love, not even hate. Even after I told my father about the other women, he shrugged and said I was being ridiculous. “There are no fairy-tale marriages, Vada. Know your place, your purpose. Marry. Procreate. Continue the lineage. That’s your job.”
This archaic arrangement is not the job I want or the one I applied for. My heart races at the thought of how furious my parents would be if they knew my favorite professor recommended me for a teaching position, not in a posh boarding school but a two-room schoolhouse near a tiny crossroads community. Mother would fume silently while Father would remind me that no Hadley woman has ever worked.
But it’s 1947 for goodness’ sake. What did they expect when they sent me away to college, that I would learn everything except how to think for myself? The swell of defiance is snuffed out by Justin’s testy voice in the foyer. “Well, I am here now, madam. What do you want?”
I can’t make out what my mother is saying and slip behind the dining-room door. From the way I peer at them through the crack between the jamb, she looks tiny compared to him, but she emanates such presence. Justin has the posture of a rebellious teenager.
“It’s about Vada, and I am not talking about this here.” She points toward the study. He eyes her for a moment, knowing full well the drawing room is a woman’s place, the study a man’s domain for brandy and smelly cigars.
I can hardly breathe as she leads Justin into the study. Maybe she did listen. Maybe she’s finally going to tell Justin the wedding is off.The door to the study is slightly ajar. I slip off my shoes and tiptoe across the foyer to hear her say the words I’ve longed for since I was fourteen and learned about this horrible arrangement.
“You have me up before noon for this?” Justin is glaring at her, but she’s so strong, so beautiful. She’s not intimidated in the least.
“You must understand that Vada is a young girl, barely twenty. I heard the things she told her father. Your carousing.”
“My carousing?” he laughs and runs his hands through his short dark hair.
“Yes. The parties. The women. After the engagement, I thought you would change, settle down. Surely you don’t expect to carry on as usual after the wedding.”
Justin is no longer amused. His face is red, the veins in his forehead pronounced. “Let me remind you, madam, after tomorrow, I may be your daughter’s husband, but I’ll carry on at my own discretion, not yours, not your husband’s, and certainly not your Vada’s.”
Their standoff is palpable. Mother throws her hands up in disgust. “I shouldn’t even have to have this conversation with you, Justin, but Vada is extremely unhappy, and the very least you could do is try to be more accommodating.”
“Just tell me, what is it going to take?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your price. To be a proper husband. Doting. Monogamous.” She draws the last word out.
“Trust me, madam, you don’t have enough money.” He stands and straightens the sleeves of his suit. “We’re done here.”
“Justin.” My mother grabs his arm. He towers over her. “Don’t hurt her.”
Her steely look is returned with amusement. “My dear Mrs. Hadley, for Vada or me to get hurt, one of us would actually have to care about this union. Tomorrow we marry together two fortunes for the greater good. Nothing more.”
“But you expect her to be a proper wife?”
“Of course. Why shouldn’t she?”
“Your level of arrogance is remarkable, Justin, even for you. Get out of my house.”
He makes an exaggerated bow. “Good day, Mrs. Hadley.”
The door opens, and Justin stands there for a moment, looking at my tearstained face. He sighs and pushes past me. “Really, Vada, after tomorrow, I’ll expect you to be more presentable in the mornings.”
I’ve honored Mrs. O’Doul’s refusal to talk about Darby for three years now, but with the wedding looming, the loss feels fresh, and I can’t help myself. “I miss her.”
Mrs. O’Doul gives me a hard look to remind me of our silent agreement not to talk about her daughter, my best friend. She nods curtly as she scrutinizes my dress, which she’s had to take in, again, for the rehearsal party. “You’ll be a good wife. You’ll make your ma and da proud.”
I shake my head at my reflection and the exquisite design that looks funny with my bare feet. “Maybe it’s best Darby’s not here. She’d be so ashamed of me.”
“Who knows where that girl is now? And, to be sure, she’d be ashamed if she showed her face around here, but not because you’re marrying Justin McLeod, I can tell you that.”
“She’s your daughter. You can’t still be mad at her.”
Another stern look reminds me Mrs. O’Doul lost more than a daughter when Darby was run out of town for her tryst with Mr. McCrady. But Mrs. McCrady didn’t stop there. She made sure Mrs. O’Doul’s wealthy clients boycotted her dressmaking business. Darby’s mother lost everything: her daughter, her shop, her apartment. My parents fussed when I insisted on Mrs. O’Doul altering my trousseau, but Mrs. O’Doul said it brought some of her customers back, the only good thing that has come from this wedding plan.
She smooths her hands down the seams of the ivory bodice and inspects a tiny pucker. “Damn beads.” She works the seam with her fingers until it lies flat, then steps back and inspects the dress. Her smile is thin, almost sad. “I remember every dress I ever made for you. And now look at you, wearing couture since you were sixteen. Getting married tomorrow in the finest dress I’ve ever seen.”
She’s right. I’ve always had a shameless love for beautiful clothes, even more so for shoes. But when Mrs. O’Doul made something for me, it meant going to Habberman’s on King Street. She always said Darby and me went together like grits and gravy, she couldn’t very well take one of us shopping without taking the other. While she selected the perfect material for my dress, we played hide-and-seek among the tall bolts leaned against the walls. Sometimes we sorted through bins of loose buttons or rhinestones and talked about what our lives would be like when we grew up.
As I got older, I worried that Darby would be jealous of the dresses her mother made for me. I know I would have been. But Darby said she didn’t care—they were just dresses, and we were best friends, the grits-and-gravy kind.
The other girls Darby grew up with wanted nothing to do with her after I went away to college. She gave up a lot to be my friend, and how did I repay her? I didn’t make time to phone her or return her letters. I was so wrapped up in things that didn’t matter, I forgot about the one person who mattered most to me. And by the time I heard Darby had been banished from Charleston, I was too ashamed of what I’d done, of the way I treated her, to try to find her, to tell her how very sorry I was.
“You’re a stunning young woman, Vada Hadley, and that dress—”
“The clothes you made, they were just as beautiful, and they meant something to me.”
She scoffs and puts her tools away, satisfied that my dress looks the way Jacques Fath intended when he designed it. “You’ll not find the likes of this fabric on King Street, I can promise you that. And if you did, I wouldn’t know where to begin to make something this . . . perfect. And your wedding dress? Even grander, Vada. Really.” She pushes a strand of hair behind my ear. “You’re going to be a beautiful bride.”
All through the rehearsal and this ridiculous party, everyone has said those words to me, like somehow the way I look will determine the outcome of this union. But nothing changes the fact that this is a mistake.
The canvas of the massive white tent billows a little, and the night air is damp and thick. Well-wishing men dab at their foreheads with handkerchiefs, and little beads of sweat line the lips of pretty women who are sweltering in the late-June heat. But even their intrusions can’t hold my attention from the Ashley as it flows past Middleton Place. I can’t stop looking at the river, thinking about it. Where does it go? To Edisto? To Savannah? Does it matter? It’s free, unencumbered by family and duty.
“Tears of joy?” Justin’s famous second cousin, Josephine, dabs at my face. I shake my head and turn my attention back to the river. “Middleton Place is stunning. And while I do have El Dorado, in my bones I know this plantation shouldn’t have ended up with the McLeods, least of all Justin. But the gods split the lot the way they saw fit. Perhaps they intended for it to be your consolation prize.”
“Does it console you, Miss Pinckney?” I ask.
“Words console me.”
“Of course they do, your books. The movie.”
She laughs and shakes her head. “Yes, the movie. Well, I don’t think Three O’Clock Dinner will ever make its way to the theater, my dear. I hear Lana Turner’s off again, to Mexico this time, vacationing with Tyrone Power, and who knows who it will be next? Those Hollywood folks don’t know what they want, not really. Besides, I don’t need a consolation prize. But you? I’m not so sure.”
Most of the women here would kill for Josephine Pinckney’s lineage alone, much less her present status as the darling of the literary world. They comfort themselves with catty remarks and whisper that she’s plain and was never beautiful. But even in the moonlight, there’s something about her knowing look and those piercing eyes that make her stunning and powerful.
“Walk with me?” she says.
I nod and step toward the grassy steps that lead to the river and away from the party. Breaking a heel is the least of my worries, but instinctively I tiptoe across the boards that stretch out across the water, and Miss Pinckney does the same. The river makes a swishing sound and cuts hard around the posts that anchor the dock into the muddy bottom, and the waxing crescent of the Palmetto moon dips low across the marsh grass. A fish skips like a stone over the top of the silvery black water, and for the first time tonight, I feel like I can breathe.
“Run out—run out from the insane gold world, softly clanging the gate lest any follow.” I’m not sure if she’s quoting her books or one of her poems, but even in my hopelessness, I feel her silent prodding.
“I don’t want this.”
She’s quiet for a beat. “What do you want, Vada?”
“What I can’t have.”
“Something you can’t have. Really? The only child of Matthew and Katherine Hadley? I speak from experience as an only child born into the pinnacle of this caste system we live in, there’s nothing you can’t have.”
“You’re—wrong.” The sob building inside threatens to turn me inside out, so everyone can see the truth that doesn’t seem to matter to anybody. Not my parents, not Justin, and least of all the party lemmings.
“Then what is it?”
I’m shivering in this heat, teeth chattering, unable to answer. All I can do is point to the river as it flows away from this horrible mess and escapes toward the ocean.
“You are wrong, Vada Hadley.” She wraps her silk stole around me and kisses my tearstained cheek. “You can have anything you want.”