Savannah strode into the large, professionally decorated office. Without a word she stood in front of the large oak desk.
"Did you finish that report?" Bill Clayton did not look up from the file he was reading.
"Yes sir. Now I'm through with everything." Savannah slapped down the report and in rapid succession another single sheet of paper with only one short typewritten paragraph.
"Resign? I don't think you really want to do this." Clayton held up the single sheet of paper to someone who was behind her.
"That is exactly what I want." Startled to find Devin suddenly at her shoulder, Savannah tried to maintain her firm, calm exterior. She had thought Clayton was alone in his office.
"This is an overreaction. You should give yourself a chance to cool off before doing something so rash." Devin spoke in his celebrated measured tone. Handing the resignation back to Clayton, he stood beside the senior partner's large leather chair.
"He’s right, St. Julien. I know things have been tough since that foul up on the McNealy case, but–"
"The McNealy file was altered after I had completed and analyzed that research." Savannah could feel her self-control slipping.
"Stop and think, Savannah. Until now you've been doing some of the best work of all six associates. Why would you give up this kind of position in a firm where international reputations are made? It simply makes no sense." Clayton shook his head.
"Mr. Clayton, maybe a vacation would be an alternative. A break from the stress of keeping up here at the office."Devin was the picture of solicitude.
His dark handsome face wore the appropriate worried look of a concerned friend. Savannah could not help noticing, as she had the first day they met, his impeccable taste in clothes. The pinstripe blue suit, light blue shirt, red and blue silk tie with matching handkerchief tucked just so in his coat pocket, all said here was a young man who was on his way to the top. What she had first found so appealing she now found appalling. He had pretended to be her friend and even wooed her. Savannah let down her guard, telling him about her deepest feelings. Tentatively, she shared her childhood hurt at losing her mother and feeling shut out by her father. She had begun to trust him and believe they could be more than friends. That he would not hurt her. But seeing him playfully pat Karen on her behind when they thought they were alone had proven his betrayal. Karen was blonde with the shape and walk of a model rather than an ambitious young attorney. She had been cold and condescending to Savannah as frequently as possible, openly fuming when she was praised for good work. Karen, who lately had known as much about Savannah's assignments as Savannah did. Karen, who tried to convince the partners whenever they reviewed cases that Savannah wasn't quite up to the big ones.
"When I finished that report it was perfect. You remember, Devin. I left the office at about seven that night. You and Karen were still here." She stared at him hard.
"That was weeks ago. Besides, all the nights we've worked late how would I recall–" His voice trailed off lamely before he shrugged.
"Yes, all those nights working late. With Karen."
"Never mind that now." Clayton glanced between them speculatively for a few seconds. "Listen, we have several important clients in the southern part of the state. In fact, one in your hometown, or near there, is having some trouble. You could go down. As Devin said, less pressure, a slower pace. A nice visit with the family."
"I don't know." Savannah felt a sudden pang at the mention of going home.
"You people are too emotional, impulsive. Take my advice, give yourself time to cool off." Clayton wore a look of indulgence as he spoke in a placating tone.
"You people, just what the hell does that mean?" His words cut through the pang of remembering causing her to place both hands on her hips.
"Hold on, I meant you young people. Devin." Clayton nodded toward the door, a signal that he should go.
"Of course." He was obviously reluctant to leave them alone but had no choice."Listen to me, Savannah," Clayton started as the door clicked shut. "Don't junk a promising career. Take some time for yourself. Say three weeks."
"Don't think I'm not grateful for what you've done; I am. But this isn't just a whim. I've been thinking about going into practice on my own for while now. This is just the kick in the butt I needed to really do something about it."
"Take as long as you need a month, two."
"Come on, there are dozens lined up to take my place."
"In this game, nothing is done out of pure altruism. You brought big money into this firm from some of the most successful minority and women owned businesses in this region. Frankly, why should I gamble on an unknown when we already have a winner? Those two are amateur sharks, you can learn to deal with that and more. We both know it."
"That's just what I'm afraid of, learning to deal with them then becoming one of them. No, it's better this way." Savannah shook hands with him.
"Some of our best clients may jump ship when they hear you're gone." Clayton's eyebrows came together.
"I haven't discussed this with anyone, but naturally I won't turn down business." Savannah lifted a shoulder.
"I understand. Good luck, St. Julien." Clayton rose to shake her hand."Don't burn this old soldier too badly when you set the world on fire."
"No promises, Mr. Clayton." Savannah called over her shoulder as she left his office. Devin appeared from nowhere, blocking her exit.
"So that's it. You're leaving behind an ugly accusation that may affect my future with this firm. After what I've done for you?" Devin spoke in an undertone, aware they were the center of attention.
A loud crack rang out as her palm connected solidly with his face. With one motion, she scooped up her leather portfolio and pushed her way through the glass door toward the elevator. The sound of applause from the secretaries and legal assistants followed her. Before the doors whisked shut, the last thing she saw was the stunned, then enraged expression on his face.
Savannah pressed the button causing the car window to slide down smoothly. Glancing up, she frowned at her reflection in the rear view mirror. With one quick tug, the tortoise shell barrette that held her thick mane of black hair in check opened with a snap. The feel of it tumbling about her shoulders brought a smile.
"Humm, better. Much better." She winked at her reflection.
Savannah felt released. Not just from the conservative hairstyle she'd adopted that blended so well with the decor of the prestigious law firm she'd left behind, but released from an invisible bond that held her to a world far removed from her childhood in the Creole culture of south Louisiana.
The first two weeks after leaving the firm had been a vacation. Savannah had taken time to regroup and say goodbye to all of her friends. The last week had been a blur of tying up loose ends. Packing several years of her life proved harder emotionally than physically. Even though over a month had passed since her abrupt departure from Clayton, Briggs, and Schuster, she was still angry. Angry at the way she had been treated. Angry at Devin's betrayal. Sure, cutthroat competition was to be expected between associates, but what he and Karen had done went far beyond that. They used dirty tricks. She could still Devin's voice making excuses.
"Lying, two-faced dog." Savannah muttered.
Yes, leaving was the right thing to do. It's over. Now relax. She flexed her fingers to relieve the stiffness in her hands. Loosening her tense grip on the steering wheel, she sank back into the bucket seat
The warm, humid breeze across her face felt so good. The September sun beat down on the countryside. Slowing down just a little, her eyes swept the scene surrounding her. The two lane highway snaked through lush growth of palmetto and swamp willow. Mixed in with the shadows cast by trees, sunlight dappled bayous could be seen on either side at intervals. The sky was cloudless, a brilliant blue framing the bright green foliage stretching up to it. A profusion of brown-eyed susans swayed in the wind. They crowded right up to the paved road, their yellow heads bobbing. She breathed deeply, taking in the rich scent filling the car. How she had missed this vibrant growth, the kind that seemed to explode over night. This was the enchanted forest of her childhood. During the summer months there had been long, blissful hours spent roaming the countryside. With her playmates, occasionally with her father, but mostly with Tante Marie. How wonderful it had been learning the names of all the wild flowers and herbs from Tante Marie. She could even see the affectionate, slightly sad smile papa gave her when she would hand him a bouquet she'd picked just for him.
A flash of white in the corner of her eye drew her attention back to the present. A snowy egret began a graceful descent, large wings flapping slowly as it settled beside several others amongst the tall reeds. Stinging tears blurred her vision. Convinced now more than ever that this was where she needed to be, Savannah pressed the accelerator. She felt an almost desperate to get home.
Suddenly a large four wheel drive vehicle pulled from a small dirt road leading out of the woods. Though she saw it coming, she had gathered so much speed she was sure they would slam together. Jamming her brakes, she jerked the wheel sharply missing the front of the other vehicle by inches. She jumped out of her car, anxious to see if the other driver was all right. A dark haired man wearing sunglasses leaned out of his window.
"What's your problem lady, you haven't gotten your quota of road kill today?" With an angry blast of his horn he began to drive off.
"No, you idiot. I've got a few notches left for stupid country boys who can't read stop signs!" Savannah gave him a three fingered salute. "Stupid jerk. Well, welcome home."
She continued the ride home now as tense as before. The town looked pretty much the same. Except more prosperous now that tourism had taken off due to the interest in the French speaking bayou country. Savannah turned the car down Rougon Street, cutting away from the center of town toward her old neighborhood. Approaching the large house, a lump rose in her throat. Sitting well back from the black top street, the spacious wood frame house looked as inviting as ever. The white paint gleamed in the sunshine, set off dramatically by the dark green trim of the windows. Climbing the porch steps, Savannah took time to get reacquainted with the beloved window boxes of bright flowers, the cypress swing that she had shared with Tante Marie on summer evenings after supper. Lost in memories, it took a while for her to realize that the Creole tune she heard came from inside the house, not her head.
"Tante Marie!" She called, her voice unsteady. She cleared her throat. The rich contralto voice stopped.
"That my baby?" Tante Marie came to the porch still wearing her apron. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, the way she wore it when she cooked. She laughed and squeezed Savannah, her full round face glowing with pleasure.
"You look fine as ever." Savannah pinched her aunt's cheek playfully.
"Go 'head now. You the one. Lord, Lord. You down to nothin', cher. But we gone fix that, yeah." Tante Marie held her at arms' length, looking at her niece's trim waist line. "Done lost all them fine hips."
"Not all, no indeed." Savannah chuckled, patting the full hips that curved to fill out the straight legged jeans she wore.
For the next hour she carried in her luggage, all the while keeping up a steady stream of chatter with her aunt. Tante Marie brought her up to date on current events in Beau Chene.
"You seen your papa yet?" Tante Marie hung up several dresses in the armoire that stood in Savannah's old bedroom.
"Not yet. Is he all right, I mean has he been doing pretty well?" Savannah didn't look up from the suitcase she was unpacking.
"Cher, he miss you. Go see him." Tante Marie took the clothes from Savannah's hands.
At this time of day, she knew exactly where to find her father. The once slightly shabby store fronts housing mom and pop businesses were now replaced by newly restored shops selling antiques, arts and crafts made by locals, Creole restaurants, and even a few art galleries. As she pulled into a parking space directly across from her father's store, Savannah sat in the car for a few moments to gather her courage. Seeing her father again was what she wanted most yet dreaded. He was the big, strong handsome man she had passionately adored. For as long as she could remember, she had wanted to please him. But would he welcome her now? Her mother's death had left an empty space between them that neither found a way to fill. Talking was never easy. Somehow what started out as a discussion always ended in conflict. Taking a deep breath, Savannah vowed to make this reunion peaceful. A large, finely carved cypress sign with "Antoine's " hung over the door. The tingle of a bell over the door caused her father to look up from rearranging a shelf of small carved animals.
"Hello, Poppy." Savannah stood uncertainly just inside the door.
"Hello, sweetheart. Come give the old man a hug."Her father stood straight and reached out his arms. Savannah dropped her large handbag on the counter and allowed herself to be swept up in his embrace. She buried her face in his shirt the way she had when she was a little girl seeking solace after some mishap. She breathed in the familiar smell of wood and his favorite old fashion after shave, lilac vegetal. The fear that he would still be angry or hurt that she had left home dissolved. She pulled back hastily wiping the tears pushing at her eyelids despite her efforts at control.
"How have you been doing, Poppy?" Cupping his face in her hands, she tried to make the question sound casual. Yet she couldn't help but notice that he looked older. And tired.
"Can't complain, baby. Can't complain. Come on over here and tell me how you been doin'." He led her into his small office where he had two old comfortable chairs.
Savannah noticed he moved a little slower than before. Yet he still cut a dashing figure. His six foot two inch frame was as erect as she remembered. The broad chest and brawny arms were evident even beneath the old long sleeved flannel shirt he wore. His skin, usually the color of walnut, was still the darker mahogany brown that came from spending days outside in the hot Louisiana summer sun. To her, the gray hair at his temples made him look distinguished. But there was more of it than when she had visited at Christmas last year. He eased into the swivel chair behind the desk after setting two steaming cups between them.
"More important, how are you?"
"I'm okay. No, really," She reiterated at her father's stern look. "It was hard at first but I'm just fine now. Besides, I wasn't that crazy about living in Shreveport."
"The way you used to talk, it was like you had died and gone to heaven. Remember, how we had to beg you to come home that first Thanksgiving after you had moved? And then all you did was talk about that law firm." He sounded skeptical that she could give up her new life so painlessly.
"I would have thought you'd be glad. When I decided to take that job, we got into a big fight. You said I was too young to be so far away." She stared into her coffee cup. That was not all they said. The argument became heated until both said things they later regretted. But it was too painful to repeat the bitter words they had exchanged.
"I'm so sorry for that. I was being selfish, too wrapped up in my own pain to give you the support you needed. I never told you how proud you made me. But every time I looked into your eyes, I saw your mother. I just felt like I was losin' Therese all over again." He turned away, his voice breaking.
"I'm sorry too, Poppy. I should have understood how you felt." She reached out and took his hands in hers.
"Well, now you're home." Antoine squeezed her hand once before letting go. "Guess you wanna just take it easy for awhile, huh? Get yourself settled."
"I could use a rest. But it's got to be a short one, finding a job is next on the list."
"You don't have to rush into nothin', cher. You know that. Like I told you before you left, my business is good and what's mine is yours." Antoine got up to refill his cup.
"I like earning my own way. And I like being a lawyer." Savannah was beginning to feel the familiar tightness in her stomach.
"All right, all right. Let's not fuss. Do what you think best." Just then the battered old rotary phone on his desk rang. Picking it up on the second ring, Antoine began taking a mail order. He handed Savannah a small color catalogue. "Look at that, we ship outta state now." He whispered. "Yes sir, that right. It's five dollars off. A special sale 'til the end of the month."
"This is great."Savannah admired the photography. Her father's wood carvings of animals were set in reproductions of the natural bayou or forest habitats. She uttered a tiny delighted cry to see a selection of food items. Apparently, the years of nagging had paid off. Tante Marie, her father's older sister, had finally decided to share her wonderful dishes with the world.
"Say, what's the matter? Y'all don't want to make money today? This is no way to treat customers." A male voice boomed aggressively. The bell over the door jingled in the background.
Startled, Savannah dropped the catalogue. Hurrying through the door, she almost upset a row of ceramic figures. Holding her breath, she gently rearranged them. After checking that none were broken, she turned abruptly and collided into a broad chest. Two large hands cupped her shoulders. Suddenly, she found herself looking up into a pair of eyes the color of almonds. For a moment she felt lost in them. Savannah gazed at the strong, smooth hands that held her. She took in the dark eyebrows that stood out so wonderfully against his smooth brown complexion.
"You okay? I was coming to save them, too."He smiled down at her, revealing a small space between his two front teeth.
"Uh-huh."That was all she could manage. For some inexplicable reason, that one small flaw in an otherwise perfect row of even ivory teeth set her heart to fluttering. She fumbled with the figures a little longer than she needed to trying to regain her balance. But turning to see the tall, dashing man still smiling destroyed whatever composure she had managed to gain. Great, the first good-looking man you meet and you stumble around like a dimwit.
Paul stared at the dark hair that brushed his chest as Savannah turned her back to him suddenly to arrange the figures on the shelf. The smell of her perfume, a light floral scent, was so pleasing he leaned toward her as almost a reflex action. When just as suddenly she turned back to face him, he stepped back quickly.
"Just making sure you didn't need any more rescuing." He smiled his best shy smile.
"Is that your Jeep?" The beginning smile on her face froze instantly. She pointed to the dark green vehicle parked outside. She suddenly found his smile too smug.
"Sure is, a real beauty I'm sure you agree."
"You almost killed me today, fool." Savannah glared at him.
"Out on the old highway? That was you? Well, well. You were driving kind of recklessly you know. But I'll forgive you for not yielding, this time anyway."
"Say what?" Savannah's already anger began to boil. She could not believe this. Did he think his charm would make almost smashing into her all right?
"Now I know I should have stopped to examine you closely for injuries." Paul gave her a sassy grin.
"You were too busy being an–" Savannah stopped
"Hey, Paul. How you doin', man? You done met my little girl I see." Antoine gave Paul a hearty clap on the shoulder.
"Oh, yes. I sure have. But we didn't formally introduce ourselves. Paul Honorè." He nodded to her.Savannah gave him a tight smile. "Mr. Honorè–"
"Paul," She said. The smile became even tighter.
"Paul is an engineer with his own business." Antoine beamed at him.
"Well, actually my partner Sam and I share ownership with the bank." Paul gave a short laugh.
"Came to get them decoys for your daddy, huh? Work goin' okay I hear."Antoine took over. Finding them in the cabinet nearby, he carefully wrapped each meticulously carved decoy in old newspaper before putting them in a large box. Savannah wore a careful mask of disinterest as she took his payment and handed him a receipt. Seeing the smooth brown hands reach out, she imagined what the skin on his chest or shoulders looked like. In an instant, she pictured dark curly hair spread across his chest reaching down to his navel. She became aware that their hands had brushed lightly. The place where contact had been made tingled. She snatched her hand back, placing it on her hip.
Paul grinned at her, only succeeding in making her even more determined to resist him. He, on the other hand, gazed at her in dismay. Things were not going well. And to make things worse, his reaction to her was not the usual animal attraction he felt when faced with a beautiful woman. He actually cared what she thought about him. Not just in the short-term until he knew the thrill of overcoming her resistance. And why was he so fascinated by the movement of her hair? Or thinking of her skin, comparing it to the color of dark honey? When she withdrew her hand as if she didn't want it to be soiled, his jaw tightened in irritation. Obviously this woman didn't think much of him. He turned abruptly to her father, so she would not see the effect she was having on him.
"By the way, I ran into Kyle Singleton's foreman the other day. He says the plant is going to be fully operational in two months or less. Trosclair got the go ahead from DEQ last week," Paul said.
"Don't matter, no. They gone hafta cross me to keep that thing right in our backyard, that's the truth. Jackson, he says we gotta good case for to appeal that decision." Antoine nodded in the direction of the lawyers' office.
"Well, I'll be seeing you later, Ms. Savannah." He emphasized the Ms. and made as if to tip an imaginary hat.
"Whatever." Savannah without looking at him, her tone suggesting that she had forgotten he was present and certainly didn't care if he left.
"Coo!" Her father laughed. "What was that about? Y'all just met an' already fussin'."
"He thinks a whole lot more of his charm than I do. But what is this about some plant you're opposed to?" Savannah was genuinely interested in their last exchange, and anxious to get away from the subject of Paul Honorè lest her father notice too much.
"Claude Trosclair put one of his Batton Chemical Corporation plants right near Easy Town. They gone burn toxic waste. We ain't gone let 'em though. We got too many them things all along this river already. And mighty strange they is most time built next to our neighborhoods. All that land he own, he didn't sell near his fancy big house or over near no other white people."
"I read several articles recently about charges of environmental racism in different parts of the country. The big companies deny it. They claim to choose sites that make good business sense, like being near companies that need their services or have good access to water or rail transportation routes." Savannah frowned in concentration, trying to remember her limited knowledge of environmental law.
"Bull! They just figure we too poor to fight, or too dumb. But Mr. Trosclair wrong if he think we just gonna roll over this time." Antoine spit out the name as if it were something nasty he was trying to get off his tongue.
"Claude Trosclair is a powerful man in this state. He doesn't like having his plans blocked. The last time you tied in with him. Just be careful, Poppy."Savannah was worried now. Her father had been nearly killed in an "accident" while he was fishing one day eight years ago, this during a dispute over property Antoine owned. The Trosclairs claimed it was originally part of the plantation, and thus rightfully theirs. Antoine had escaped serious injury when he fell from his boat into the chilly waters of Bayou Teche. He'd managed to hang onto a floating log for a half hour when another fisherman saw him and got help. The accident was suspicious because it was well known the way Antoine traveled in the bayou and he knew it like the back of his hand. He knew the submerged log had not been in the spot between the large swamp cypresses the day before. The speed of his motor boat made the impact hurl him several feet into the air. Though nothing could be proved, the unwanted scrutiny brought on by this coincidental event caused Trosclair to back off.
"Be careful. Promise, Poppy."
"Don't worry now, cher. Your papa, he can take care of himself." He hugged her to him.
Savannah nodded uncertainly. She knew her father was a strong man and not easily taken down, but he couldn't keep dodging danger forever. Despite his confident words, she felt a sense of foreboding. The mere thought of losing Antoine was more than she could bear. She tightened her embrace and pushed away the frightening image of him lying hurt in the swamp.
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