Today's Throwback Thursday features His Haunted Heart. You can grab your copy HERE. If you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited you can find all of my books there.
His Haunted Heart
By Lila Felix
The last button on my sweater was cracked in half, but maintained its threads enough to complete the task it was knitted for. Neither blush-colored silk nor the pearls of a queen would help my plight unless they were fashioned into a mask that covered my face.
The last of the suitors would be at our door soon, and I would be expected to impress him with wit and intelligence since those were the only assets I had. It was embarrassing to say the least.
I had been pretty once, but that was all gone now.
My mother preached to me that marriages were about two complimentary personalities working together. Technically, she preached it to the fireplace, but I picked up the knowledge nonetheless. Yet, she constantly barraged me with speeches about how to sound smarter. I really shouldn’t have taken advice from a woman whose response to being asked for a second helping of potatoes was to chuck the nearest water vessel at my father’s head.
A suitor who chose me for my brain was problematic, according to my mother, in that it meant I would be marrying an imbecile.
My sister Adele married the clichéd rich, yet stupid man, who was brutish and carried around a lard vat of a belly. He picked his nose while no one was looking and grabbed my sister’s backside when she went upstairs.
Elaine, my younger sister, married a smart man, but rail thin and, in her words, had a rail thin—well, other parts as well. It didn’t seem to deter their public showings of affection or her getting pregnant on her wedding night.
At least she knew what to do on a wedding night.
I wouldn’t even know what to expect after sputtering out vows that I was sure I wouldn’t mean. We weren’t allowed books on the subject or anything near the subject. And though I was sure my mother would oblige my concern, the last person I wanted to ask was her.
A knock at my bedroom door startled me and caused my heart to double-time in my chest. I knew she would be coming for this inevitable talk. This was my last chance. I had no long line of suitors breaking down the door, vying for my affections. I had a cold-tempered father and a mother who hated the very air I breathed, and together they wanted their eldest daughter out—which meant I would have to endure one last speech about answering questions properly and maintaining a humble attitude.
I had nothing but humility left. Humility was all I could afford.
The corn cake and stray piece of bacon fat from breakfast somersaulted in my stomach as I heard a second knock, this one at the front door of our home. The door was so tumbledown that for every rap of knuckles, it slammed back in place with a knock of its own. When I was a girl, the noise scared me, made me think that someone was coming into my room. My mother told tales of my sleepwalking, claiming to be following a playmate.
Pulling a bit of bone-straight raven hair over my face to cover some of the blasphemous scar, I looked down below and appraised the gentleman from my bedroom window, ignoring the knock at my own door. Though it was raining, I could see most of him through the curtain of drops. He was tall, even without the status-quo hat. His pants were ragged at the edges and in great need of a hem. Even the ends were a darker shade thanks to the sopped up water. Waiting for the door to be answered, he looked up. I gasped and ducked out of sight. He needed not see me before he absolutely had to. Even if we were married, he would probably whole-heartedly agree to look at me as little as possible.
The overheard gossip of my sisters assured me that any marital duties would be handled in the dark, either way which contradicted their entire premise for ruining my pretty face. Then again, their claim to grabbing their perfect husbands was by the brow of their looks.
My gaze was redirected across the way to a tiny girl standing at the cusp of the town, just in my line of sight. She was three or four years old at the most. She stared directly at me, her white dress, old-fashioned for the early nineteenth century, billowing in the bayou breeze. The Louisiana swamps on the edge of the street seemed to weep with the rain, tired of being overcrowded. But not the girl. The rain didn’t faze her in the least. In fact, her dress was untouched by any wetness at all. It didn’t droop or cling to her form.
Movement caught my eye. Looking back to the street below, the man was now gone, having come into the house. Panic gripped my insides and shook them for effect. Having to face another condescending suitor was last on my personal list of things to do today.
I chanced one more look at the girl, but she was gone. Her mother had probably caught up with her, dragging her out of the rain.
My mother came in, unwelcomed, and started in right away. “Delilah, he’s here. Heavens above, is that what you’re wearing? You look like a thundercloud come down to visit.”
Her face was made of the thunderclouds, so if anyone would know the look, it was her.
Shuffling my worn boots, I looked down and appraised my garb. “It’s the best I have besides my plum dress. He certainly won’t choose me for my looks. It doesn’t matter, anyway.”
“It matters. Trust me, it matters.” She approached me and I stepped back out of habit, though my mother had never physically struck me. “If this man offers you his hand in marriage, you must accept. Let’s be honest. There weren’t many to begin with and there won’t be another one after this. We can’t be throwing food down another gullet.”
Though her case for me getting married was laughable, I didn’t dare speak against her. My sisters both came over for breakfast and sometimes tea, nearly every day—even though their houses were bountifully stored with any food they wanted.
Of course, they were beautiful and refined.
Beauty granted women anything in this world.
Which is why I had nothing.
“I’m sorry, Mother. If he makes an offer, I will go—no matter what. You needn’t worry.”
I’d apologized for my parents having to feed me. Then again, I apologized for everything—just in case.
My words and tone addressed her as though she were a mother who actually cared whether or not I was wedded to a troll or an insolent murderer. As long as she no longer had to see me and my wretched face at the table, everything would be well.
I did what I could to help them. Working for three different households, doing all their laundry, brought in a decent amount of money, but my father demanded the lot of it, claiming that it didn’t even equal how much I ate. I handed it all over without complaint.
I was used to it.
It wasn’t a revelation, the disdain of my father. From the time I was born, he’d been adamant about my air of vanity and haughtiness. He claimed that he would break me of it one way or the other.
The notion was silly, that I attained any measure of vanity.
I wasn’t vain. I knew that I was pretty—just like the other girls. I knew I was thin—mostly because I was only given scraps to eat, like the family pet. And I knew I was smart because I had good marks in school.
Vanity wasn’t my friend and I took no comfort in her. Even if I had, she granted me no favor.
My face was ripped open—a fatality of my own sisters’ war on vanity, as if the society we lived in didn’t hold enough protestable sins.
Still, an ember of hope lay lit in my chest, telling me that there was someone who could still love me.
It probably wasn’t the man downstairs.
“Good. Now get yourself down there. Let’s not keep him waiting. We’ve got enough of an apology coming down the stairs without adding to it,” she added, flicking my cracked button with a grimace. I allowed myself one last look to the rain before succumbing to her pull. The rain had always calmed me and the rumble of the thunder reminded me that I was alive.
With her hand pinching my elbow, she shuffled me down the stairs; the bass of two male voices going back and forth could be heard over the crackle of the fire. A discussion was being had about whether or not the man in question could properly provide for a girl of my stature. My father might as well have asked him if he could afford to feed the heifer. The banter was so curt and strained, it sounded almost rehearsed.
“She wouldn’t need for a thing—that I can guarantee you.”
A grunt was my father’s only response. That and the squeak of his rocking chair were the only noises in the room. Maybe I could sneak in and just serve as a silent audience to this auction for their gnarly beast of a daughter.
The last stair creaked and announced our arrival. It was the same creak that usually made the mice shuffle about, scampering back to their homes and announced to everyone the one time I’d snuck downstairs to grab a piece of bread to subdue my gurgling stomach.
The vision of my face was so grotesque that even my own father thought I didn’t warrant a name.
“Your name?” The tall gentleman took a step forward, his face coming into the light of the fire. A strong-looking jaw worked back and forth as I stuttered out my name and something akin to ‘pleased to meet you’. He was easily five inches taller than me and as he got closer, his shadow made an umbrella over mine. I shrunk back, frightened and intrigued at the sight of him. His eyes matched the color of the smoke that billowed in every chimney in the village. They bore into me as the hint of a sideways smile began, but never took shape. Surely, this whole scenario was in jest. A man of his degree of handsome would never stoop to a betrothal with me. It must’ve been one of my sisters’ idea of a sick bit of comedy.
“Delilah. A lovely name. Can you cook?”
A dastardly question if there ever was one. My mouth opened, but my father interjected before my tongue could conjure a proper response. The man’s stare was still locked with mine and I could hardly work up a thought, much less a word. “She can cook, clean, wash the clothes and we are confident all your other needs will be met.”
My belly soured hearing my father speak of me as though I was a sow in heat. It wasn’t the first time my father had been unabashedly lewd and revolting when boasting of my wifely skills. Bile rose in my throat and by instinct I turned away from the whole scenario. The gentleman, who stood stoic, would soon be disappointed if he believed one word my father said.
“Excellent. If Delilah would have me, we would be married in the morning.”
My knees buckled. I barely caught myself on the wobbly bannister of the stairs behind me before I slumped onto the filthy floor. Father had barely taken three puffs of his cigar and a proposal was made. What nonsensical man does that?
My father smiled, revealing teeth dotted with tobacco pith. “She’ll have you. Would you like to eat with us tonight?”
I didn’t see the point in prepping me for instant acceptance of any proposal if they were just going to answer for me.
“I’d be honored. Thank you.”
At once, my mother scuttled into the kitchen, with a firm grip on my skirt, dragging me along. My head was swimming with prospects and at that point, none of them were good. Her dusky apron was tied around her waist as she planned with a finger pointed at me.
“We’ll make chicken and roasted vegetables. That’s sure to warm his belly and keep him satisfied.”
With jerky movements, I wrenched the carrots, turnips, and potatoes from their bins. God forbid my parents actually offer me a congratulations or at least something close to it. A relief warmed my chest as I chopped up the meal’s accompanying vegetables. This was it. Answering a couple of questions and cooking a meal was the price of my freedom. I sent up a silent prayer that I wasn’t trading the devilish duo for Beelzebub himself.
My intelligence wasn’t needed after all, which frightened me more than it should’ve.
Maybe all that was expected of me would be obedience.
Obedience I could handle.
Just as it came, the relief faded and was replaced by skepticism—a gnawing that curled my insides and made me pop my head into the living room more than once to verify the truth of his presence. He’d seen my face, I knew that. Yet, not a word was said about it and no mention of anything else was muttered.
Something beneath the surface must be wrong with this man.
While I allowed doubting thoughts to meander through my mind, I watched my mother prep the chicken to be roasted. She’d never allowed me into the kitchen and so, the boasting of my cooking skills was dishonest at best.
I hoped there was a slim possibility of me learning the craft of chicken roasting in one afternoon. That way, Mr. ‘Can you cook?’ wouldn’t go hungry and throw me to the street. We’d have chicken every night, but neither of us would starve.
“Start the coffee and the biscuits. Don’t just stand there like a twit.”
“I don’t know how to make biscuits.” She turned around, looking shocked and then recognized the accusation in my squint. It was her fault she’d never taught me to cook. She was always afraid that I’d excel at something—anything—and maybe outshine the other three women in the house. “Yes, well, I’ll make them. Just start the coffee and get Gran’s good tablecloth from the cabinet.”
There was no use getting the good stuff out now. He’d probably already seen the decrepit floors and the layer of aged soot around the fireplace. It wasn’t as if he thought he was dining with royalty. I shrugged and retrieved the tablecloth after putting the kettle on to boil. A stray rag was used to swipe the crumbs from the table and into my hand. There was no use in putting a cloth on top of crumbs, it would be like throwing a curtain over the pebbles on the beach.
I’d never seen the beach, but I’d read about it.
An hour later, everything was ready and the table was set. Halfway through the meal, a question rose in my mind and in my critical situation, I didn’t know whether or not to broach the subject or keep my mouth shut until the vows were exchanged. My father seemed to acknowledge the oncoming question and pointed his knife in my direction, effectively slicing the question from my tongue before it had a chance to coalesce.
I glanced at the stranger, now my betrothed, to see if he could detect the family strife beneath the clanking of forks and knives. What I didn’t expect, when my eyes met his, was the concern written on his pristine, un-marred face.
“You don’t eat much,” he regarded with a nod to my plate.
“Usually she gorges like a cow,” my mother snapped, her cheeks puffed full of her own ball of cud. When she spoke, her eyes never left her plate, concerned that some of her chicken would vanish if she didn’t offer it constant worship.
“Yet, you remain a slip of a thing. Strange.” He spoke directly to me, ignoring the false jab.
Pooching my lips together, I defied the rising smile. Already he could see right through my mother’s antics. Maybe he wasn’t as stupid as I’d assumed.
There must’ve been some secret deformity if he’d chosen me.
The rest of the meal went off without a hitch and before I knew it I was already feeling as if I’d left this place yet was no closer to knowing where I was going or who I was going with.
I only owned three skirts, three shirts with ragged corsets and various other garments including two sweaters, more like glorified rags—and one dress left behind by Adele. I didn’t even own a coat and my only pair of shoes was a worn-thin pair of lace up boots that had been thrown to the garbage bin by a woman I washed clothes for.
“You’ve got everything?” My mother barged into my room at the break of day, and seemed to have a genuine concern though I could see right through it. I’d been up since dawn, staring out the window, letting the promise and curse of my future flit through my mind.
I nodded to my suitcase. “It’s all in here.”
During the night, I’d wondered if I would be provided a wedding dress like the other girls, or maybe even just a clean, patch-free dress. It was less of a question and more of an unrequited hope. None of those things ever came. When the sun broke through my window, giving up on the prospect, I dressed in my plum-colored dress with a black fitted coat on top, my best, and ruined the little beauty the ensemble contained coupling it with my failing boots. I’d tangled my hair into a loose braid so that it hung over my left shoulder, masking the part of me he’d regret being wed to.
The man had already seen my face, this outfit would probably serve as a welcomed distraction as it showed a great deal of the upper swell of my breasts. Even my threadbare jacket couldn’t contain them.
“You can’t take your blankets and things. Those will be needed for the boarders.”
Less than twelve hours and my parents had already arranged to have my absence serve as a steady income. It was no surprise. People were always in and out of town and most families had at least one room that served as extra income. It was a small town, more like a village and newcomers didn’t stay long, either pushed out or turned off.
“That’s fine, Mother. I’m sure they’ve got blankets.”
“Well, you best get to the church. Do everything he asks, Delilah. You don’t want to be sent to the Plots.”
My mother’s best threat, other than her stringing backhand, was that I’d be destined to go to the Plots.
The Plots were the whore houses on the outskirts of our village and if you were thrown out of your home, other than the poverty stricken lifestyle of the laundry washers and maids, prostitution was the profession that chose you. Either that or a slow death due to starvation.
Though sometimes I wondered how much worse selling yourself could be in comparison to being hated by your own family.
From her clipped tone and the finality in her words, I assumed they wouldn’t be present at my wedding. Though unrelished tears stung the corners of my eyes at the thought, I knew it was better this way. There were no feelings between us other than obligation and I was no longer their responsibility. Even so, remorse for a better set of parents washed through me, wishing they were at least interested in seeing me married.
With a cold nod, I grabbed my suitcase—which was, if possible, more worn than my boots and made my way downstairs. My father was at work, so no goodbye was necessary. Still, I turned one last time and took in everything I wouldn’t miss—the rat infested cupboards, the dingy rugs, and the scratch on the wall where the knife had sliced after it was done with my face and my back.
A slammed door behind me was my official goodbye.
The walk through town was almost embarrassing. By now, word of my marriage to-be had gotten around. Waiting until my age of twenty-three was unheard of in this place. Women in their fine attire whispered to each other in couples. Owners of stores walked outside and crossed their arms over their chests.
I hung my head low and kept my eyes on the ground as the bells of the chapel beckoned me to the call. There was no point in looking around anymore. The buildings and windows of the town were wrapped in a film of amber dust that seemed to reproduce from thin air. It was as though the Lord had drawn in a great breath and instead of releasing the blowing wind, blew a blast of rusty dust everywhere. It clung to my lungs and provided a canvas for the children in the street to draw in.
Finally, I reached the church. A blast of warm air washed over my face when I opened the chapel doors. Our town chapel was as dirty as the rest of the town and in terms of the condition of souls, maybe even filthier. The air felt good on my chapped cheeks and on the frigid tips of my ears. The pews were empty and the smell of beeswax burning candles filled my nose.
“You made it Delilah.” Surprise blanketed his face as though I was the one in this equation who was the unknown. The man liked to say my name, and I couldn’t deny the buzzing warmth in my belly when he did. No one had ever said my name with such emotion behind it. But in less than a day, how could any emotion back up my name on his tongue? “Where are your parents?”
“They’re not coming. I’m sorry…” I gestured toward my dress while he strode toward me down the middle aisle. There was a purpose in his steps and a stir in his eyes that I did not recognize.
“You look beautiful. All this black hair…” He pulled at the ends of my braid and cleared his throat. “Let’s get this over with.”
At least the consensus on this marriage was unanimous—everyone wanted the deed done in a rush.
A flash of emotion crossed his features as he spoke of my hair, but when I’d gasped, it all whooshed out of the room taking his smoky gaze with it. I thanked the Lord for that moment of clarity. I understood what I was up against. Hot and cold was certainly better than raging hate. I nodded and answered, “Yes, please.”
The local Constable and his wife stood as witnesses while the priest read his stiff vows for us to repeat, preferably with some emotion. Neither I, nor my fiancé, were able to summon such things. No blame for it would be put on my betrothed’s hands, since anyone in their right mind couldn’t be all that much in adoration at the thought of pledging their life to be spent with a roughed up creature like me.
I tugged at my dress, uncomfortable standing opposite this finely dressed man, holding my hands, making promises neither he nor I knew whether or not we could keep. Even the Constable’s wife seemed enamored with him. Her eyes flicked to his form more than once during the ceremony.
“Porter Quentin Jeansonne do you take Delilah Catherine Sharp to be your lawful wedded wife?”
Porter. His name was Porter. The first thing I’d learned about my new husband was his name.
No matter what his name was, he was my savior.
He was also a good bit older than me. His date of birth was scribbled on the certificate—he was twenty-seven to my twenty.
He must’ve been as desperate to marry as my parents were to get rid of me.
The rest of the ceremony was more of the same icy procedure, signing forms and curt nods of the head.
It was when the priest said, ‘Go, enjoy your marriage and be fruitful’ that the weight of what had occurred that morning settled like a brick in the pit of my stomach.
There would be expectations and the fear of them gurgled into my throat and down to my toes, anchoring in place. Porter must’ve seen the damned things grow into concrete blocks because he took my hand and with a swift pull, bid me follow him.
On our way to the exit, I bent to retrieve my suitcase but I was beat to it by my new husband. “Let me.”
He offered me his arm. I’d never been offered the arm of a gentleman in my life. Even in my younger days, the rumors my sisters spread about me were so foul that no one dared come into my presence, much less offer me a kindness.
My first kiss had been a taken one behind the school building—he must’ve been dared.
No one in their right mind would kiss someone like me.
“Thank you, Sir.” No correction was made, in my address, so I assumed that was how he preferred me answer him. He nodded once then gestured toward a black horse with cinnamon tipped ears that seemed just as happy to have me on him as I was at the prospect of riding the beast. “We are to ride that?”
A black gloved hand covered his mouth and a laugh, but the slight crinkle in the corner of his eyes could not be covered. He was laughing at me.
“He is a gentle one. Don’t be afraid. You didn’t strike me as a female who is easily frightened and you still don’t.”
“Is that why you chose me?”
My question caused him to grow rigid in gait and look around the town as if to check if anyone was listening. They all were. Nothing could be done in our town without it being a community affair. Hunching my shoulders in regret, I punished myself for my unwarranted words by biting into my bottom lip as hard as I could. The metallic taste told me I’d done well.
“We will talk later.”
My suitcase was hoisted onto the side of the saddle and fastened in place with a rope. Porter—I would call him that in my mind if nothing else—with one foot in a stirrup, mounted the monster and with an outstretched hand, asked me to follow his lead. I did so without an ounce of grace, and before I could settle myself in, we were in a full gallop, to where, I had no idea.