It was a full day before Naime would speak to Adina again.
This was not an unusual occurrence; Naime's grudges seemed only to get longer as her illness grew worse, and Adina was not easily affected by her mother's outbursts.
As she sat outside soaking in the late afternoon sun, Adian stroked a stray orange Tom, whose tail twitched while he sat on the porch step, looking around him lazily. He seemed not to be able to decide whether he wanted a nap or an adventure. Adina softly scratched behind his ears, listening for the deep purr to start as he pressed his head into her palm appreciatively. It vibrated like the sound of far away thunder, and she smiled. She loved the old tom. He was a stray, but came by at the same time every day for scraps from the kitchen, and sometimes he left a rat or a small mole on the porch as thanks.
Giving the tom one last pat as he decided to mosey off down the alley, Adina leaned back on the porch railing and wondered whether her mother was going to attempt to invite Lebeau over again. It wouldn't be the first time she had not-so-gently urged a man to pursue Adina, and it probably wouldn't be the last. Though, her fussing over Lebeau seemed to be a little more insistent than her matchmaking schemes had been in the past.
Curiously, Adina wondered why. Perhaps there was a part of Naime that wanted her daughter safe and sound. Perhaps she was eager to see her daughter married before she died. Or perhaps it was because Lebeau was rich and the social connections were good.
The clanging of pots and pans from the kitchen came through the open back door, breaking through Adina's thoughts. Andrew was beginning supper.
Adina turned her head a little and spoke to him. "Andrew?"
"Yes, Miss Adina?" The jolly chef came to the door, towel in hand.
"What do you think of James Lebeau?" She knew it was an odd question, but Andrew always had good advice. He was an uncle to her.
"Well, Miss Adina, he is a rich man." Andrew went to the island counter and began to chop up vegetables for the stew. The steady rhythm of the knife reminded Adina of days when she, like JuJu, would dote upon Andrew for cookies and trinkets. The days when she sat on the counter and watched Andrew cook, the days when he told her the stories she now passed on to JuJu.
She shook her head. "No, what do you think of him? His... personality."
She could hear Andrew sigh, and there was a long silence as he finished chopping the vegetables. Adina studied the flowers that were blooming beside the step while she waited for Andrew's reply. The purple petals were tinged with yellow on the inside.
"He is very spoiled in the ways of the rich, Miss Adina," Andrew finally said. "He has not yet matured to be a gentleman. But--" he quickly went on, "--in a few years, perhaps he will change. And then he would be a good match."
Adina wrinkled her nose and stood. "I don't think he will change, Andrew," she said, going into the house. "He's already twenty-five, and still like a child?"
Andrew nodded with a rueful smile. "You are prob'ly right, Miss Adina."
Suddenly, Naime's voice screeched through the house. "Adina!" Her bidding did not sound happy, which was to be expected. Adina put a hand on Andrew's arm and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"Thanks," she whispered before leaving the kitchen and heading up the stairs. She was almost certain she was going to get another lashing from her mother, so she mentally set up barriers around her emotions. Her mother's words would not get to her.
"There you are!" Naime was sitting against pillows, glaring at Adina as she came through the door. She pointed to the chair beside the bed. "Sit. I want to talk to you about James Lebeau."
Adina cautiously took a seat and folded her hands in her lap. Naime studied her for a long time, eyes critical. She looked like she was about to rant again, but when she spoke, her voice was quiet and almost composed.
"What do you want, child? What kind of man are you waiting for?" She narrowed her gaze. "Because Prince Charming is never going to come along."
Adina took her time in answering, choosing her words carefully. She knew her mother would probably begin to snipe anyway, but she didn't want to invite it to happen. "I just want a man that cares for me, mama, like papa cares for you." She sighed. "I want someone who will love me for me. Not for my money or my looks."
Naime scoffed. "Foolish dreams, child. Men take wives for children. They take wives for the pleasure afforded in bed. And if a wife cannot provide it, they go to brothels and prostitutes." She leaned back in her pillows; her fingers began tapping the bedspread. "If you want a happy life, learn how to please a man. You..." She looked over Adina, "You need to put away your tomboy and be a lady. Flirt." She absentmindedly rubbed her neck. "Wear dresses that accent your bosoms and hips, not some dowdy high necked thing that's three sizes too big."
Adina looked away. This was the closest to motherly advice Naime had ever given her, but the atrocity of what she was suggesting shocked Adina. To suggest that a woman flaunt herself was beyond awful. Adina already tried to avoid the amorous attentions of men, as most of the men she knew were... less than favorable for marriage. To invite it was unthinkable.
Impatiently, Naime sighed. "Adina, love... love is not always what it should be. Love is... well, it's messy." Her voice was tinged with an unusual sadness, and Adina looked up. Her mother was staring at her palms, clenching her jaw.
"Life is messy, Mama," Adina said softly. "Everything has risks. I would think that a marriage without love would be... much worse than a marriage founded on mutual affection."
"Well, you don't know much then, do you?" Naime snapped. "Love will get you nothing but a broken heart and lots of pain. It's much better to do without love altogether, as you see your father and I. We may not have a perfect marriage, but we didn't need love to keep it together."
Adina frowned and looked down at her fingers. Dirt was trapped beneath her nails. "Papa loves you," she said quietly.
Naime visibly bristled. "Because I learned how to keep him in my bed and not someone else's." She looked past Adina at the portrait of her and David's wedding. "I could have married for love, you know." Her voice hardened. "But your father was a better match. And love brings nothing but trouble."
Adina looked up. She could not picture her mother in love with anyone, but she wondered if the lost lover was part of why Naime was the way she was. "What was his name?"
Naime shook her head and smiled bitterly. "It's best you married Lebeau. He's an infinitely better match than any other man in town."
Adina frowned, studying her mother's aging face. Though Naime was well over fifty, her face was relatively free of wrinkles. A few crows' feet spread from the corners of her eyes, and the lines of smiles and anger were softly creasing her cheeks, but Naime Thoene was still a beautiful woman. Her blue eyes were clear, despite the toils of her illness, and her skin was porcelain, her blonde hair still rich and shining.
"Why would you do that?" Adina asked the question before she thought. "Why would you give up love?"
Naime turned her face away for a moment. Adina could not tell for sure, but she thought she had seen tears glisten in her mother's eyes before she turned. Was Naime still mourning, even through all these years? But Adina didn't have time to ponder it, for Naime gained her composure quickly.
"That is none of your business." She lifted her chin proudly. "And when I invite Lebeau back for a second interview, you will treat him with respect, and you will play the willing devotee." Her voice was low. "I don't care what you feel. He's a good match. Rich, known in society, and more handsome than your father ever was."
Adina clenched her teeth. Her mother did not care what happiness life afforded Adina. Her mother only cared for the connections in society, the money. "Well, maybe you should marry him, mama." Adina stood and turned to leave.
"Do not walk out on me!" Naime snapped. She waited until Adina turned back to face her. "I know what's best for you."
Adina shook her head. "No, you don't, mama." She let out her breath sharply. "You think it's best that I marry a man I don't love- no, that I despise? That I end up like you: bitter, angry, hapless?" She returned her mother's glare with equal intensity, not willing to back down. "Or is it that you feel I should suffer because you have suffered?"
"How dare you!" Naime screeched.
Adina smiled humorlessly. "I dare because I want to have a better life than you have. I want to love the man I marry, and I will not inflict pain on him like you cause papa. Even if I hate him. I will not stoop so low." With a scoff, Adina turned and walked away. Her mother screamed at her to come back, but Adina ignored her and kept walking, down the stairs, through the foyer, and out the front door.
Her hands were shaking, and her breath was coming in short gasps. With no direction on her mind, she paced through the alleyway and towards the main street. Towards her and JuJu's house. It was really the only place she knew where she could be alone.
So deeply was she ensconced in her thoughts that she did not notice the man on her side of the street until he coughed. When she glanced up, his eyes ran over the length of her and he winked. Clenching one fist, Adina glared at him, then swiftly passed by him, thankful he was headed in the opposite direction. But she heard him mutter something, and she was suddenly aware that he was following her.
Threading around a laughing couple, Adina looked back. There he was, head down, eyes boring into her, something clutched in his hand. She picked up her pace, and he kept in step with her.
Changing direction, she headed for the General Store. It was always busy there; he would not be able to do anything to her with people around. And she could always call on the manager for help. John Collins was a good, sturdy, respectful man. Even though he thought that she and her family were stuck up, he would defend her. He was one of the few men left in town with the honor enough to overlook flaws and help those who needed help.
She heard a gruff voice call something, and her backward glance was met with a cocky leer. The man was still behind her, steadily keeping up with her quick steps. His stare had not left her, and Adina caught her breath. She was nearing an alley, and alley she knew was full of crates that would block view if someone were to be abducted there. The man could easily grab her and drag her into the alleyway, and nobody would ever see them.
There was no one on the street ahead, and only one or two people walking away from her behind. Mentally, she prepared herself to scream, kick, or claw should he snatch her. The empty afternoon, which had earlier seemed very peaceful, was now menacing. Where were the people? Where was the noise? It was eerily quiet, the eaves whistling strangely in the breeze.
Pulling in a breath, Adina tried to calm herself. It would be okay. The man wouldn't dare do anything in broad daylight, would he? Not when there was a chance of someone seeing them. Not while the sun was still up and shining brightly through the afternoon.
But she looked back again, halfway to the store, and the man was no longer there. Adina stopped and searched the street for him. Where had he gone? Was she being paranoid? Her mother would have said she'd been reading too many books, and that she was a fool for thinking that a man would come after her in her current dress. The pale yellow garment was not what Naime called fitting for public, though it was a perfectly good cotton.
The thought of her mother brought back a flood of irritation and dull pain, and Adina shook her head. Why was she worrying about the rantings of an invalid woman?
Because it was her mother. And despite knowing that Naime was unwell in the mind as well as the body, Adina still wanted to please her. She still needed Namie's approval, and so far she hadn't gotten it. For anything.
When JuJu ran up and grabbed her hand, Adina nearly jumped. Her entire body was tense from the odd man, and the emotions that were still flitting through her from her mother's confrontation.
"Maimie Adina, I left my doll at our house." JuJu skipped along, merrily unaware of Adina's disposition. Adina breathed in deeply, trying to calm herself.
"Should we go get it?" she asked JuJu, hearing her voice shake as uncontrollably as her hands. JuJu did not seem to notice. She grinned and let Adina's hand go.
"I'll beat you!" With that, the little girl took off as fast as her legs could pump. Adina laughed, some of her tension releasing itself with the sound, and then she jogged after the little girl, not caring how inappropriate it was for a grown woman to be running like a child. She lifted her skirts and pounded out her anger and fear with every step of her foot on the dusty street.
JuJu, of course, won. Adina never had the heart to beat the little girl at anything. Every game they played, every race they ran, every activity, JuJu always had the upper hand. She had Adina's heart tied to a string on her finger. They reached the old house breathlessly, and JuJu ran around the back way and burst in the kitchen door. Adina followed, clomping into the kitchen noisily, giggling all the way.
And then JuJu screamed.
Doll forgotten, Adina's first reaction was to whirl towards the child and grab her. JuJu was stiff in her hold, staring wide-eyed at the door to the living room. On a dirty-looking man who lunged toward the kitchen door, slamming it shut, trapping them in the corner. There was a knife in his hand. Shocked, Adina shoved JuJu behind her protectively, and her heart began to race.
It was the same man that had been following her earlier.