Copyright © 1999 Liz Curtis Higgs.
All rights reserved.
ALL ABOUT EVIE
Man has his willbut woman has her way.
Oliver Wendell Holmes
When she was youngand she seemed always to be youngEvelyn Whitebloom was convinced her father's garden covered the whole earth. If there were boundaries, she couldn't see them. Only endless garden plots carved into a thick carpet of fescue so green that on a windwhipped day in Savannah, when the humidity lifted like a thick curtain, the intense hue of the lawn stung her pale blue eyes to the point of tears.
It was the only time she cried, and even then it wasn't truly weeping. Whatever for? Her life was too heavenly for anything but the brightest of smiles.
Her first memories were of walking with her father through row after row of mulberry trees covered with purplish black fruit. In no time she would be nose-to-chin purple, which delighted her father immensely. Although their home was one of the most venerable in the Historic District, where the wide expanse of Forsyth Park served as their front lawn, it was here in the garden, surrounded by her father's floral handiwork, that Evelyn spent most of her waking hours.
The Gardenhe said it as if it were on the Register and needed capitalizingwas her father's pride and joy, eclipsed only by his love for his daughter. He demonstrated his love in infinite ways, not the least of which was his concern for her welfare.
"You may do this and this but not that," he often commanded. Evelyn teased her father that he treated her with such care one might deduce he'd made her by hand himself. If that were true, he'd assured her, then she was fashioned from pure ivory taken from the single finest animal in God's kingdom.
There were few things in life that mattered more to Evelyn than her father's love. In truth, she couldn't think of any others.
He'd designed his garden to please her, of that she was certain. Fragrant jasmine tickled her nose. Brilliant blue hydrangeas and saucy pink mandevillas tantalized her eyes. Trees heavy with pears and peaches, apricots and plums filled her mouth with their juicy, sweet fruit most months of the year. Stately ferns, taller than she, waved at her when the occasional soft breeze blew in from the Atlantic, eighteen miles to the east. Hosta skirted the borders of smaller garden squares, and wisteria spread its graceful tendrils along low brick walls, dividing the immense green space into manageable quarters, which converged at the centerpiece of the garden: the gazebo.
Not that she'd ever truly seen the gazebo. No one had. Ever. It was surrounded by a towering stand of live oaks, older than time and dripping with a heavy curtain of Spanish moss, smothering the whole gazebo in a gray-green shroud. Whatever the appeal had once been, the gazebo was to be avoided at all costs. Hadn't her father said so? Yes, indeed he had, numerous times. The only reason a young person would go there, he cautioned her, would be to look for trouble. The "trouble" was not described. He said only that she would be ruined. In fact, "dead to him" was how he'd phrased it, which made her shudder at the very thought.
"Because I've asked you not to" was the only explanation he ever offered. She loved him, adored him. Obeying him was effortless then. Only last week she'd overheard him making it clear to her beau, Adam Mann, that under no circumstances was he to step inside the gazebonot alone, and especially not with his daughter, Evie.
Evie. Her father's favorite term of endearment for her.
Of late, Adam had tentatively begun to call her that too, which thrilled her. They were betrothed, were they not? Friends giggled at her old-fashioned name for it. "Where's the diamond?" they wanted to know, Not yet, not until they were officially engaged. That would come tonight at her debutante ball.
The ball! She jumped to her feet, startled. Here she'd sat, lollygagging on a stone bench in the garden, with her formal entrance into Savannah society mere hours away. Move, child! Hurrying across the spongy grass toward the enclosed porch that stretched the length of the house, she caught another glimpse of the moss-draped garden centerpiece, then quickly turned away.
Why would anyone want to venture inside the gazebo anyway? It had none of the lilting fragrances or eye-popping colors or luscious flavors that the rest of the garden offered in abundance. Silly old gazebo. If her father wanted her to keep her distance, she would do so. Adam, too.
Hours later, in her ivy-and-lilac-papered bedroom, her grass-stained chinos and sun-faded blouse had given way to the dress of her dreams. Not her wedding gown, not yet, but it might as well have been. Hooking the last tiny button at her neck, she held her breath and turned toward the full-length mirror.
Ohhh . The dress was breathtaking.
It was white moiré silk, the purest white her seamstress could find, to match Evelyn's pale, creamy skin and shoulder-length blond hair. Carefully tailored to her slender form, the simple gown would shimmer in the radiance of her father's chandeliers hanging like twin suns in the ballroom downstairs.
Other girls celebrated their debuts at museums and private clubs around the Historic District. Theirs were larger events with longer guest lists. Evelyn's would be a small but exclusive gathering. Savannah's finest in white tie and tails, gathered under the gabled roof of the wealthiest man for counties roundsome said in all of Georgia. They'd dance properly and nibble divinely on low-country fare of exceeding good taste.
Absolutely none of that mattered one whit to Evelyn.
The man who was responsible for her very life would present her on his arm to the world at large and to one very special person in particular: Adam Mann. He was the brightest son Savannah had ever producedan exceptional student, inundated with scholarships. Adam Mann, with his tall, athletic body and blond good looks, never failed to capture the eye of every woman in the room.
But he had eyes only for Evelyn Whitebloom. And she for him.
There was no one else and never had been since her very first glimpse of his manly face, bronzed from years spent in the sun producing prizewinning gardenias for the family nursery business. It was one of their shared interests that made them perfectly suited for each other.
Their mutual love for all things outdoors extended to the animal world as well. He was always naming her pets, which were legion. He knew all the best places to watch for creatures in their natural habitats, from woodland deer to box turtles. When they strolled hand in hand through the verdant squares of SavannahMonterey and Liberty and Telfair and Oglethorpethey both sensed a permanence about their relationship, mirrored in her father's approving eyes.
Adam was her best friend, the older brother she had never had, and her future husbandall rolled into one. In mere minutes she would see him in his white tails and fall in love with him all over again. He was everything good, everything pure, everything right.
And he was hers alone.
Smoothing her skirt for the umpteenth time, she stepped into a brand-new pair of silk dancing flatswhite, againgrabbed a tiny purse that held nothing but her hopes for the future and one pink comb, and walked as serenely as she could down the long hall toward the staircase.
Her father waited at the top.
Adam waited at the bottom.
In the foyer the harpist waited for her father's signal that his daughter had arrived and the music could begin.
The chandeliers glowed. And she, Evelyn, glowed as well, inside and out. She could feel it, a sense of joy-bathed tranquillity, as she slipped her arm inside her father's. "Daddy," she whispered, not daring to say more. The look of love and pride shining in his eyes was too much to bear, it blessed her so.
They eased down the wide, curving steps in tandem, his large, black dress shoes next to her tiny white flats, while the harp music swirled around them and a roomful of friends and supporters lifted their sparkling glasses in her direction. The only thing she could take in, though, was Adam standing at the foot of the staircase, blue eyes locked with hers, straight white teeth in an ear-to-ear smile.
There was only one word for it all: Paradise.
Within moments her presentation to society was complete, their engagement was announced with a flourish from the harpist, and the evening's festivities had officially commenced.
Evelyn and Adam were ushered to the center of the ballroom floor, barely connecting at shoulder and waist as they whirled around the polished hardwood in graceful circles. Other couples were dancing as well, though they held each other more firmly and seemed to touch more, Evelyn noticed. Whatever that entailed, it was not for her, not for Adam.
She'd heard some of the words her friends called her when they thought she wasn't paying attention"innocent" and "naive" and "virgin." Those words meant nothing to her.
In a very short timebecause her father didn't believe in lengthy engagementsshe was to be Adam's bride. She had in fact practiced writing her name that morning. Mrs. Mann. Mrs. Mann. How lovely it had looked in wispy letters drawn on heavy Crane stationery. Mrs. Adam Mann.
Her new name. It couldn't happen too quickly to suit her.
After several dances and many congratulations, what Evelyn neededvery quicklywas fresh air. The room had already grown stuffy with an abundance of guests and sterling silver warming trays filled with delicacies, not one of which she'd tasted.
Adam promised to join her momentarily, by way of the punch bowl. "May I bring you something to eat, Evie? Are you hungry?"
"Famished!" She flashed him a grateful smile, then wove her way through the crowded ballroom, carefully avoiding toes and elbows, her eyes trained on the tall French doors, her blessed means of escape.
Dear Adam. He'd bring her the perfect thing, knowing her appetite was as small as her waist. Fresh strawberries in light cream, no doubt. She opened both doors, then pulled them shut behind her, inhaling a deep breath of fragrant evening air as she surveyed the gardens yet again.
Twilight bathed the flowers with an ethereal glow, painting the sky with the same pale lavender as the impatiens clustered in the marble pots at her feet. Cautious to keep her pristine shoes safely on the flagstones and off the grass, now damp with evening dew, she tiptoed past a stretch of delicate white dogwood trees until she found her favorite stone bench, clean and dry, as if it had been readied just for her and her pure white gown.
She dropped onto it with a sigh of contentment.
Evelyn whirled around at the low-pitched hiss. "Adam?" It was pointless to say his name. Her fiancé was too straightforward to play such games. And this was a game; she didn't spy a soul in the garden, even when her unseen visitor hissed again.
"Psst! Here, Evelyn."
At least he knew her name. She turned left, then right, then left again, only to find herself nose-to-boutonniere with a man dressed in the most elegant evening clothes imaginable. Not white tails thoughblack. A sleek black tuxedo with a silvery gray vest, cravat, and dress gloves, crowned with a black silk hat, silhouetted against the first twinkling stars of the evening.
She leaned back, either to get a better look at him or to put a bit of distance between them; she wasn't sure which. He sat down, rather too closely she thought, and let her have her look. It was hard to tell his age, though it appeared he'd been around for a season or two. Not young, but definitely not old. Thirty perhaps. His hair and eyes were as black as his attire, striking against the stark whiteness of his dress shirt and the pale hue of his complexion. Beneath the surface of his skin the shadowy hint of a beard accented his firm jaw line.
The only man she'd ever found handsome was Adam.
This man looked nothing like Adam.
Yet she could not deny he was arrestingly attractive.
"Who are you?" She blurted it out, without any evidence of her debutante manners, then dropped her chin, feeling her cheeks grow warm. "Sorry. This is . well . I live here, so"
"So you thought you had a right to ask." He tipped her chin up with one long finger. "And you do." His smile reminded her of one she'd seen in a photograph of a quite large, quite ferocious Bengal tiger that had polished off its unsuspecting Indian trainer for dinner mere seconds earlier. Or so the caption had explained.
"So, your name is"
"Devin." His voice was low and smooth, with no remnant of a hiss. "It's a Gaelic name, from the old country. It means serpah, that is, servant." He shrugged. "Or poet. Take your pick."
What she wanted to pick was a safe spot, like her father's arms, and run there. And where was Adam? She gulped, uncertain of her emotions for the first time in memory. "Are you . from Savannah then, Devin?"
"Yes and no." The smile had returned. "You could say I'm from all over this part of the world. Tell me, Evieyou don't mind if I call you that, do you?Evie, did your father really say you must never sit under any tree in the garden?"
She laughed, something like relief in her nervous trill. "No, silly! I may sit under any tree in the garden I care to. But Daddy did say I am not to sit under the live oak trees that circle the gazebo in the middle of the garden. He did say that." She diverted her eyes, an unaccustomed wave of shyness washing over her. "I'm not even to touch that gazebo," she added softly, "or I'll be . ruined!"
Devin let out a less-than-gentlemanly snort. "Ruined?"
"Ruined." She nodded emphatically. "Cut off without a cent. At least, I . well, I think that's what Daddy meant."
His laughter rolled across the lawn like tenpins on a bowling green. "Surely not! Your father loves you, child. He wouldn't dream of treating his only daughter in such a cruel manner."
He inched closer and slipped his arm behind her. When his gloved fingertips barely touched the small of her back, she flinched. They were inexplicably hot! If not for her gown, they might have singed her skin.