Chapter Five - A Decision

George was home alone when I returned to the house, reading Popular Mechanics as he sipped coffee at the kitchen table. "Mary Kate's doing the shopping," he said when I asked. "How was your lunch?" "Surprising," I said. "I might have a new job."

"Wow," George said. "I thought it was just to catch up with an old friend."

"It was also that." I fidgeted with my cane a moment. "Did Mary Kate say anything to you about being angry with me?"

"No," he answered, closing the magazine. "Is she angry with you?"

"Probably. I said something stupid to her last night."

"She doesn't hold grudges," he said to reassure me, and I had to laugh.

"You didn't grow up with her," I said. "Once she waited three years to get her revenge for the time I ate her Halloween candy."

George burst out laughing. "What did she do?"

"I had this pair of boots that I loved and wore all the time," I said. "She saved for months to buy a pair exactly the same, but a size smaller. It took me a week to figure out why my favorite boots suddenly no longer fit."

George was still laughing when I saw Mary Kate pull their sedan into the little garage behind the house. I picked up the umbrella from the stand by the door and told George, "I'm going to help her with the groceries," and went out to meet her.

She was getting Rosemary out of her booster seat as I came into the garage. "Want me to take the baby or the groceries?" I said.

"Baby," she said and handed Rosemary over to me. "And if you'll send Georgie out he can help with the rest."

"I was hoping to have a minute with you first." I hitched Rosemary against my chest, and she grabbed my shirt and babbled to me. I grinned at her. "Tell me all about it, Rosie-girl."

Mary Kate leaned against the car and folded her arms. "We have a minute."

I inhaled. "I was an ass last night and I'm sorry. Of course you know what it's like. I'm sorry."

Mary Kate sighed and shoved a hand through her loose blonde hair. Today she wore peddle-pushers and one of George's old sweaters for running errands, and with her casual clothes and her hair down, she looked like the girl I remembered from before the war.

She wasn't that girl anymore, and hadn't been for a long time. I had to remember that.

"Thank you, Malcolm," she said quietly and kissed my cheek, and when Rosemary squeaked Mary Kate laughed and kissed hers, too. "Take my baby inside now, please."

"Yes, ma'am," I said and left the umbrella with Mary Kate, and pulled my jacket over Rosemary's head to keep her dry as we crossed the garden.

Once the groceries were inside, as we put them away I told Mary Kate and George about meeting Noel Thibodeaux, the tutor position, and Caleb's situation. I left out the attraction I felt toward Noel, as well as the plans we had made to meet again before he left for New Orleans.

Mary Kate was not pleased I had gone to see Oliver, but her expression grew pensive when I explained about Caleb. "The poor boy," she said and stooped to kiss Rosemary's head as the baby played in her high chair. "I've no doubt you'll be good for him -- but oh, Mal, Louisiana is so far away."

"So was Kentucky," I said.

George said, "No plans to go back to California?"

"None," I said. "It's too painful. I just can't handle the memories." Mary Kate cupped my face in her palm for a moment. "I know what you mean, honey."

"New Orleans is supposed to be a beautiful city," George remarked. "I've always wanted to see it."

"I've heard stories about it," I replied. "One of the men in my unit was a Cajun. I ought to write him and ask him about it."

Mary Kate said as she climbed on a step-stool to put away canned fruit on a high shelf, "It's always seemed like it's too eccentric for the rest of the country." She turned and studied me. "And yet I can imagine you there, walking those old streets -- just like I imagined you in Paris after the war."

"I doubt I'll have much time for sight-seeing," I said. "I'm sure most of my time will be spent looking after Caleb Thibodeaux. That'll be the hard part -- a five-year-old who doesn't speak. How will I know if he understands what we're studying?"

"You'll find a way," Mary Kate said. "The main thing to remember is that he's a grieving little boy who needs a lot of love and patience. You can give that."

"I hope you're right," I said, when the doorbell rang. "I'll get that."

On the front porch stood Noel, his back to the door. I had to take a deep breath before I turned the knob, and I said, "Noel, it's so good to see you," as he turned to me.

He was not a man given to smiling, I had noticed that at lunch, nor did he laugh much. But his eyes relaxed when he saw me, and some of the tension went out of his shoulders. A few raindrops clung to his hair and cheekbones, and his overcoat was dotted with more.

"Hello," he said quietly, and a little breathlessly, too.

"Hello," I said. "Won't you come in? I'd like you to meet my sister and her family." I held out my hand, which he looked at before he took it and stepped inside.

I took him to the kitchen. Mary Kate hopped off the step-stool when she saw Noel, and ran a hand through her hair. George looked from me to her and back again, and held out his hand. "George Talbot, and this is my wife, Mary Kate."

Noel said, "Noel Thibodeaux," in his Louisiana accent and shook George's hand, and both he and Mary Kate smiled in return.

"And this is Rosemary." Mary Kate took the baby out of her high chair, and Rosemary goggled at the strange man in their kitchen.

"It's lovely to meet you, Mr. Talbot, Mrs. Talbot," said Noel, "and you too, Rosemary." He offered a finger to her, which she solemnly and deliberately grasped, and then stuffed into her mouth.

"Oops!" said Mary Kate and worked his finger loose from Rosemary's grip. "Sorry about that."

"It's quite all right," said Noel, and wiped baby spit from his finger with his handkerchief. The small smile I had noticed earlier was back in his eyes.

George said, "Do you two have plans for the afternoon?"

"I thought we might ramble around the neighborhood a little," I said.

"In this weather, Mal?" Mary Kate said in her most motherly tone.

"Mary Kate, come on," I began.

Noel said quickly, "Would it be all right if we stayed in? It's a bit wet and chilly for a ramble."

"Oh," I said, "of course it is," and Mary Kate gave him a grateful look.

I took him to the back of the house. We could have talked in the living room or even the kitchen -- Mary Kate made delicious coffee and would make more if I asked -- but I wanted a little more privacy than the main rooms could offer. The house had come with what the real estate agent called a mother-in-law apartment, which was really just a bedroom, water closet, and sitting room -- all about the size of a postage stamp, but it gave me a little privacy when I needed it. The views were only of the back yard and the alley between this house and the neighbors, but I had put cheap paper prints of landscapes and famous paintings on the walls, and they helped when the tiny rooms felt claustrophobic.

I took Noel to the sitting room. The furniture there was sparse but comfortable, with a small love-seat that faced the window, and I had a record player and some 45s for entertainment. Noel picked up one of the 45s as I eased myself onto the love-seat. "Fats Domino," he said in an approving tone.

"I've been a jazz fan since before the war," I said.

"Is there a jazz scene in California?"

"Not a big one," I said, "but I could always get records." I leaned back, my legs outstretched, and folded my hands over my stomach as Noel put the record onto the turntable. He didn't dance, but he swayed a little as he undid the buttons on his raincoat. I said softly, watching him take off the coat and then his suit jacket, "Not like what you grew up with, I'm sure."

"Hm," in an agreeable sort of tone. "It was always there, even as isolated as Fidele is." He moved to the built-in bookcase and started reading the titles. My hands twitched, wanting him closer. "My brother and I used to sneak out to go to Bourbon Street and listen to music in any place that would let us in." He was a quiet a moment, his gaze directed somewhere other than the books in front of him. "He loved music. He's played with some of the best jazz musicians in New Orleans."

"What did he play?"

"Piano."

"Do you play it, too?"

"A little," Noel said. He finally turned away from the shelves and came to the sofa. "I'm not as talented as Simon was. Do you play anything?"

"Guitar," I said.

He picked up my hand and ran his thumb over my fingertips. "But you have no callouses. You haven't played for a long time."

"If I start playing again," I said, "they'll bleed."

"You don't strike me as the kind to be afraid of blood."

"I'm not afraid of blood."

"Then why don't you play?"

I gazed at him -- dark hair framing his face, his intense ocean-colored eyes, a mouth that looked like it could be so, so soft -- and said, "There's not much music left in me since the war."

He touched my cheek with the back of his knuckles. I closed my eyes and kissed the inside of his wrist.

"Malcolm," he said. He moved onto the sofa to kneel over me and held my face in both hands. "I want this to happen, I do, but--"

"Then let it happen." My arms went around his waist.

"Oh, God," he sighed and kissed me. His mouth was cool and tasted like water, clean and sweet, and even though we had been inside for some minutes now he still smelled like rain.

I wondered how often he had done this, kissed someone desperately with one ear cocked to listen for footsteps, and then I stopped thinking anything because his throat was under my lips and his head was thrown back, his eyes closed, his face beautiful as he lost himself in bliss.

Before I could leave a mark on his neck Noel shoved his hands into my hair, tilted back my head, kissed me harder. One hand slid down the front of my shirt and he flicked open the top button, then the next, and then pressed his palm against my chest, where my heart was racing.

Abruptly Noel pulled away. We both were trembling, and his face was flushed. Mine felt hot, and it was all I could do to keep my hands from sliding down the back of his exquisite trousers.

"Malcolm," he said, his voice hoarse, and he swallowed hard. "I want to hire you."

"Thank you, I accept," I said, grinning at him. "Listen to me," he said and held onto my shirt collar. "This is important."

"I'm listening." I wasn't, not entirely, because his throat was right there and so delectable that I wanted to taste it again.

"My father wants to take Caleb away from me," Noel said, and it was as if he had thrown a bucket of cold water on me. I frowned at him and he gazed back unhappily. "He threatened to take me to court for custody of Caleb if I didn't bring him to Fidele to live. He knows I'm queer. He could ruin me -- have me thrown in prison, if he wanted, and he wouldn't hesitate to do it if he had the proof. I can't give him a single reason to threaten my guardianship."

"I see," I said, though the thought of walking into that situation make my stomach roil. I already hated having to hide who I wanted and loved except from the people who knew me best, and even then I couldn't tell them everything. I let Noel go and leaned back into the sofa.

"Do you think we can live in the same house and not..." He paused, as if searching for the right word.

"Not paw at each other constantly?" I said and he cracked a smile. "I can if you can."

"I'm sure I can." He scrubbed his hand through his hair, and it was hard not to get lost in the way the thick locks slipped through his fingers. "I prefer to keep my liaisons short-term. It's just better that way."

"I understand." Even so, I said, "I don't suppose doing it once just to get it out of our systems is a possibility?"

"I don't think that would be wise."

"It's sex," I said. "It's never wise."

He huffed and finally climbed off my lap and went to the record player to turn the record over. I felt bereft without the warmth of his body pressing against mine, and sighed heavily.

He said, "I think you'd be good for Caleb. That's the thing. I've interviewed half a dozen possible tutors since last April and you're the first one who just wants to teach him, not lock him away in an institution or break through to him with some bizarre new therapy." He turned to me. "You just want to teach him. That's all I want. He'll speak again when he's ready, and not a minute before. I'm willing to sacrifice a few things for Caleb's happiness."

"Including your own?"

"That's awfully presumptuous."

"I think we could make each other very happy, even if it's just for a short time."

Noel ran his hand through his hair again. A smile lurked at the corners of his mouth, but still he said, "I think I'd better go."

"So you're not offering me the job."

"I am offering you the job," he said as he buttoned his jacket again. "Are you accepting it?"

I started to answer yes, then said, "I need to think about it a little more."

Noel nodded. "Don't keep me waiting long, please."

"Leave the number for your hotel and I'll call you tonight."

"Do you have your sketchbook?" I did, so I gave it to him and he wrote in it quickly, and gave it back. He touched my earlobe. "I really am sorry, Malcolm. I wish we could make it work."

"There are more important things," I said, and then took his hand and kissed his palm desperately. He touched my hair and then pulled himself away.

"Goodbye, Malcolm," he said and left the sitting room. I heard Mary Kate say, "Won't you stay for supper, Mr. Thibodeaux?" and he answered her, "No, thank you, Mrs. Talbot," and she saw him out.

She came into the sitting room a few minutes after Noel left, Rosemary on her hip. "What was that all about?" "We talked about the job."

Her eyes flicked over my open shirt and disheveled hair. "Clearly."

I shrugged and smiled, unabashed. "He's really beautiful."

"He is that." She sat beside me on the sofa and placed Rosemary on her crossed legs. "Did he offer you the job?"

"He did. I don't know if I should take it, though. He has some good reasons for us not to be together, and I'm honestly not sure I can keep my hands off him. On the other hand," I said and took a deep breath, "Noel thinks I'd be good for his nephew." I gave my fingers to Rosemary for her to grab and gum. "What do you think?"

She said slowly, "I think he's right, too. I also think you're capable of self-control."

"Yeah," I murmured. I was -- I'd had to be, during the war, and I supposed I could be for a while longer if I needed to. For the sake of Caleb Thibodeaux, I needed to.

"I told him I'll call him tonight to give him my decision," I told Mary Kate.

"Are you going to tell him yes?"

"I think so." I leaned over to kiss Rosemary's soft curls. I was going to miss them, but New Orleans was only a train ride away. "I'd love it if you came down to visit while I'm there, so you can experience the city."

"I think we should."

I nodded, letting Rosemary gnaw on my forefinger as Mary Kate rested her head on my shoulder. The question Oliver had asked before I left the hotel was still on my mind -- but New Orleans was an old city, and old cities are full of ghosts. I'd caught a few glimpses even here, in bustling Chicago. Fortunately, they had never followed me home. Something about this cozy little house seemed to keep them away.

From the sound of things, the Thibodeaux house would not have that same coziness -- but that was all the more reason I should take the job, I thought. There would be one more person to make a lost little boy feel safe, if I did my job properly.

"I should start getting supper ready," Mary Kate said, lifting her head from my shoulder. "Would you try to get Rosie to sleep a bit?"

"I'm sure I can be that dull," I said and took the baby, and Mary Kate laughed at us both and went back to the kitchen.

***

After supper, I called Noel's hotel. I thought he might be out, enjoying the pleasures Chicago had to offer, but he picked up the phone almost as soon as the front desk connected us. "Noel Thibodeaux."

I closed my eyes when I heard his voice, imagining how it would sound hoarse with passion, rough against my skin in the dark. I cleared my throat. "It's Malcolm Carmichael. I've decided to accept the position, if you're still offering it to me."

"I am," he said. "Thank you. I'll have my secretary to send you the contract first thing Monday morning."

"Thank you."

We both paused. He said, "I may not be at the house much. My work requires me to travel quite a bit."

"That's probably for the best. What's the name of the house again?"

"Fidele," he said. "It means 'steadfast.'"

"That's a good name." We both paused again. "I suppose we can talk more when I'm in New Orleans."

"Definitely. I -- I'm looking forward to seeing you again." "Me too," I said, but rather than pursue that line of thought further I said, "Good night, Noel. Safe journey home."

"Good night, Malcolm Carmichael," he replied softly, his accent making my name sound like music, and we hung up.

***

A week after our meeting, the contract arrived, and I read it over with Mary Kate. It was straightforward in laying out the family's terms and expectations. I was to teach Caleb at least six hours a day except for days when he saw his therapist, which days would be for no less than three hours; I would have Saturday nights and Sundays off; I would have a room of my own at the plantation house Fidele; neither Noel Thibodeaux nor Caleb's grandfather Emmanuel Thibodeaux, nor any of the household staff, would interfere with Caleb's lessons unless they decided I was negligent; my salary for the term of one year, after which we would review Caleb's development as well as the contract and determine if it would be renewed or terminated.

There was also a clause that said if I left the position early due to an act of God or other circumstances that were not related to health or family issues, they would pay me the entire year's salary and provide references for my next position. If I left due to health or family issues, they would pay my salary through the end of the month and again, provide references.

Mary Kate tapped her finger on the page. "That's odd."

"I assume they mean if there's a hurricane or if the house burns down."

"It seems overly generous, though, don't you think? What 'other circumstances' could they mean?"

"I would say that if Caleb refuses to learn from me," I said. "Or if we just can't break through with him. Not negligence, anyway." Those terms were laid out in another section; if I was found to be negligent, I would be paid through the end of the month and dismissed without references. There was a long list of items they would use to determine negligence: if Caleb was not taught a certain number of hours a day, if he showed no progress, if Noel determined that I was not teaching him appropriate subjects, and so on.

"What if they mean," Mary Kate said slowly, "that you get too close to Noel?"

I didn't look up from the contract. "That's not going to happen."

"You won't get too close to him?"

"We discussed it and decided we like each other but we won't do anything about it." I smiled at her without humor. "Even homosexual men have some self-control."

She rolled her eyes. "I'm not even thinking about that. There's a time-honored tradition of governesses falling for the guardian of their pupil."

"I'm not Jane Eyre," I replied and gathered up the pages of the contract.

"I know you liked him. I liked him too. He's very charming."

"I did like him," I said, picking up my fountain pen. "I suspect when we meet again, I'll like him still. But given everything else that's happened, giving in to that would be a disaster. I'm going to concentrate on the boy and help him as much as I can."

Mary Kate asked gently, "You're not still hung up on Oliver Davenport, are you?"

"No," I said. "He's... he's not a very nice man."

She laughed. "I could have told you that, and I've never even met him."

I smiled at her. Still, my mind was on the Thibodeaux family. "Do you think I should reject the offer?"

Mary Kate grew serious. "I... don't know. I don't feel you should refuse, but at the same time--" Her eyes met mine. "Be careful, Malcolm. Be careful."

"I will," I said. At the time I thought her warning was simply that of a concerned sister for her brother, particularly after losing one to war and nearly losing the other. Myself, I had no bad feelings about this position; I felt no dread or foreboding. I was excited to see a new part of the country, and to experience life with a new set of faces, particularly one as beautiful as Noel's. Even if I forbade myself to touch, I could still look.

I signed my name on both copies of the contract, dated them, and put one copy back into the envelope Noel's office had sent for return mail. The other copy was for me to keep, and I read it over again before I went to bed. The terms seemed simple to fill, so long as I did my part, and I intended to do so above and beyond the expectations set forth in the contract. I expected nothing but a year or two of teaching Caleb Thibodeaux, perhaps to prepare him for a prep school given his family background, and then I would seek another position and resume my life elsewhere.

In the morning, I put the thick envelope into a mail box. The agreement was made. I was committed. My fate was set.

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