New Orleans, August 1925
Dot dropped her cigarette on the stoop. She took a moment to gauge the man who’d knocked on her door. Light blond hair, blue eyes, lean, and tall. Clearly not athletic, but he took care of himself or else ate like a bird. He had a thin mustache, a tad lighter than the hair on his head, that turned up just slightly at the edges. He’d waxed it carefully, if Dot was any judge.
“I’m Dorothy Rose, baby. You must be Walter Winthrop.” She reached through the entryway and grabbed his wrist. She felt the bones under his skin, the tendons taut with stress. He pulled back a little before he stopped himself. Dot shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Relax, baby. I ain’t poisonous.” She pulled him through the door and took one of his suitcases in her empty hand. “Follow me.” She led him upstairs.
She could hear his heavy, tense steps on the risers. “Uh...really. I don’t think this is appropriate.”
“Stop fussing. Ain’t nothing wrong. You’re the good professor down from Boston, right?” Her sister had agreed to swap houses and positions with him for one academic year. Dot glanced quickly behind her.
He’d stopped, staring up the stairs at her. Probably looking at my thighs, she thought. She knew she had good thighs. She saw his throat work.
“I...thought you’d be older.”
“Well now, ain’t that a cliche?”
His face twisted.
“What now?” Dot asked.
“Can’t you speak properly?”
Dot looked at him and shook her head, sighing. “Whatever happened to ?Thank you for inviting me in. You have a lovely home. Is that dinner I smell? By Jove, I’ve worked up quite an appetite, and aren’t I the luckiest bloke for having such a bully housekeeper?’” She knew his accent wasn’t English, but she couldn’t help affecting one in order to mock him.
Walter’s eyes went wide.
“Now come on.” She climbed the last few steps and heard him behind her. If she’d thought even the first few minutes of his visit would be this trying, she’d never have agreed to let her sister, Lil, trade with him. Dot hadn’t hoped for someone with a spirit as free as her own, but she’d at least expected someone a little accepting and liberal.
She pushed open the door to his bedroom and walked in, then set his case down on the bed. She turned back toward the door and found him standing there, staring.
“This room is lovely,” he said quietly.
Dot cracked a small smile. “That’s more like it. It was our grandfather’s study. Thought it’d suit another man. Balcony overlooks the street.” She glanced around, appreciating again--trying to look with new eyes--the rich wood paneling and leather chairs her grandfather had so loved. She remembered sitting by the small fireplace as he read Shakespeare to her from his seat in one of the wingbacks. Though he hadn’t come into their lives until Dot was twelve and Lil seven, he’d still tried hard to create a home for them. Sometimes it had covered his resentment at having had to sacrifice his life for them.
“Bed is there.” She pointed to the corner where the old sleigh bed with a newly stuffed mattress sat. “And you can unpack your things into the armoire. Washroom’s the last door on the right.”
He still hadn’t entered the room.
“Air a bit too stuffy for you?” She turned and walked to the balcony doors and threw them open. The smells of the outside washed in, and Dot took a deep breath. She loved the smell of her city at night after a late-afternoon rain. It wrapped her up in its heat. “That’s better,” she said, then turned back around. She slipped past Walter as he still stood in the doorway. Dot’s front brushed against his side as she left. She wondered for a moment if that did anything for him. “Dinner in the kitchen in ten minutes,” she told him from the hall.
She headed back downstairs.
Winthrop walked over to the bed and laid his other case down by the first. He took out his small alarm clock and set it to the local time, checked it against his wristwatch, and then placed it on the bedside table.
He surveyed his surroundings. Certainly adequate, but the heat felt intolerable. How these Southerners dealt with it, he had no idea. It never got like this in Boston. He imagined Dr. Lillian Alice Devillier in his place, probably freezing in the mild Massachusetts summer.
Winthrop took off his tweed jacket and draped it across the back of one of the wingbacks. He’d have to have it laundered quite often if the heat was like this all the time.
She is something, isn’t she
? The black sheath dress that ended well above the knees, the stockings rolled down, no shoes, the crimson nail polish on her toes visible through the silk... And that trumpet. He’d heard it as he’d approached the house, the sound bursting forth from one of the second-story windows. Winthrop scowled against the sound. He’d never cultivated a taste for this upstart musical form called jazz, and while the cacophony issuing from the window no doubt held passion, he could identify no theme or melody. It seemed to him a string of noises lacking pattern or grace.
But the woman, as forward as she was, held promise. What could he do with a woman like that? Oh, the things he could teach her! His palms itched with the thought of it.
But no. He’d keep things appropriate. He couldn’t risk any kind of scandal while here. He would be working at a Catholic boys’ school, so propriety came first. Overcome all his desires and wants and needs...
What he really needed was a nice, cool bath to wash off the grit of the road and put the idea of Dorothy across his lap out of his mind. He felt certain she’d understand and hold dinner for him. He unpacked his suitcases, then headed for the washroom.
* * *
Dot walked into the kitchen and went to the stove. She stirred the shrimp bisque and hoped the visitor upstairs would loosen up a bit now that he’d seen his digs. She’d done an excellent job cleaning and arranging things to make it a comfortable room for Walter. She hoped he appreciated it. She knew he didn’t think a lot of the outside of the house, but it was an old Creole tradition to let the exterior raggedness belie the interior warmth and hospitality. Hadn’t George Washington Cable written that nearly half a century ago?
Dot took a few biscuits left over from morning and cut them in half. She didn’t want to bake fresh, but these, spread with butter and fried on the griddle, would go fine with the shrimp bisque. As Dot placed the biscuits on the hot surface, she remembered breakfast that morning, the last meal she’d have with Lil for nearly a year. Dot would miss her. She’d never been away from her little sister that long, not since right after their parents’ deaths. Lillian had gone to stay with their mother’s brother on a dairy in St. Bernard Parish; Dot had had to stay with her father’s unmarried sister in a cold-water flat in the French Quarter. The apartment hadn’t been far from the place where their parents were killed, and sometimes she walked by that section of wall and imagined her parents, lying there, waiting for help.
She heard the clock in the hallway strike eight. She hoped the new lodger wouldn’t take too long. Someone would pick her up at nine; there was a party she had to go to.
She served up bowls of soup and the biscuits on the table, got the jar of cane syrup out in case he had a sweet tooth, and then sat down.
She thought about lighting another cigarette while she waited, but then figured he’d probably not approve. She’d wager smoking at the table didn’t fit into his definition of “proper” behavior.
She waited, tapping her stockinged foot against the floor in impatience. The clock chimed eight fifteen. He should definitely be down now.
But he wasn’t.
She got up, her nerves getting the better of her, and opened the cabinet under the sink. There, she found the bottle of Bacardi she’d bought from the rumrunners the weekend before. It was half-gone. She rinsed a glass she found in the sink, poured in a shot of rum, and then topped it with water. She leaned against the sink, drinking the rum, waiting on the professor. She wished she had a twist of lime or something for the drink. That would have made it more palatable.
A few minutes after the clock chimed eight thirty, she finally heard footsteps on the stairs. Walter appeared in the entry to the kitchen, clearly washed and wearing pressed trousers, a smoking jacket, and a ridiculously large cravat. Evidently he was a little flamboyant. Dot thought for a moment about teasing him but then saw the look on his face and decided otherwise.
Instead she finished her drink in one gulp and sat down, motioning for him to do the same. He sat, and as he said grace, Dot stared across the table at him, taking advantage of his downturned eyes for another perusal of his person.
She didn’t find his looks particularly distasteful. In fact, he had a certain symmetry of form her eye found pleasing, and she did like the way he got all churned up when she spoke incorrectly. It seemed sort of endearing to her. She planned to keep up the lazy speech just to irk him. She could talk as well as anybody, and maybe he needed to learn that her accent and word choice didn’t necessarily reflect her level of intelligence.
The professor picked up his spoon finally and dipped it into the bowl of soup. He raised the contents--no longer steaming--to his lips. He sucked it silently into his mouth, his lips pursing as he did. Dot tried to watch him through her lowered lids as she too turned to her dinner.
Across the table, Walter sputtered and gasped. “That is spicy,” he said.
Dot smiled. “Old family recipe. We like things hot down here, if you hadn’t noticed.”
She ate her soup, taking the occasional glance across the table. He ate bites of the biscuit between spoonfuls, probably to quell the heat of the pepper Dot had cooked with.
When he finished, the sheen of sweat on his forehead was more pronounced than when he’d sat down. Dot cleared his bowl then set it in the sink.
The clock struck eight forty-five. “I supposed you must be worn-out from your trip, so you can go on ahead upstairs. My room’s the one to the left down the hall, across from the bath. If you need anything, don’t be shy now.” She flashed him a smile, hoping he got the message. She couldn’t be tied up entertaining him for the rest of the evening.
Walter stood and nodded slightly. “Thank you for your hospitality, Miss Devillier. I’m sure I’ll have a lovely stay.”
He headed upstairs. Dot shook her head, then turned to wash the dishes. She didn’t know how she would live with this man for the better part of a year. He certainly needed to loosen up.
* * *
The honking of a horn on the street below drew Winthrop from the book he was reading. He slipped on his glasses and walked to the still-open balcony doors. The front door slammed beneath him. He looked down. Dorothy ran down the walk and to the car. A convertible. Winthrop creased his brow in concern. Where would she be headed?
He heard exuberant shouts as Dorothy climbed over the door and into the car. The other occupants--young men in shirtsleeves and girls with feathers in their hair--moved around to make room for her.
Then, as quickly and noisily as they had arrived, they were off into the night.
Winthrop shook his head and returned to his book--removing his glasses again and setting them neatly on the side table--but he couldn’t seem to concentrate. He thought about the shot of pale thigh he’d seen as Dot had climbed into the car. His body reacted to it too. Would he allow her to become an unwelcomed distraction? He wasn’t sure. But right now, he couldn’t deny that he had a physical attraction to her at the very least. Only time would tell whether that would hold up against her personality.
Winthrop tried to get back into his book, to find where he’d left off, and become absorbed in it again, but the vision of Dorothy in his head refused to cooperate.