“Bonjour, Madame Baker,” Lafayette said, bowing to the ladies while keeping a tight hold on Cain, lest he chose to cause further trouble. “Merci for your gracieux compliments, it was not anything to speak of though.”
“You are far too modest.” Miss Baker replied, straining her long neck forward in curiosity. Hannah Baker was a thin, upright woman with milky, blue eyes set a touch too close together, giving her the appearance of a bird. “Say, is that your younger sister, Josephine riding on?”
Trying not to display his irritation at the mention of her name, Lafayette rolled out his dependable, well-tested flirtatious smile. “Oui, Madame, I pray, I was not too forward by instructing our garçon to ride on with Jo as I hoped vous would sanction me the honneur of escortin’ y’all?” He said, lowering his black, lashes turning his smile more subdued, almost seductive. “Of course, that is if vous feel up to bearing my boorish camaraderie?”
“Oh, dear me. No. I mean, yes. Wait, no.” Her tongue darted out licking her lips, “Mister Crowe, we would very much take pleasure in your escort,” Hannah Baker said, her chest and face flushing a rich berry red as she attempted to untie her tongue. Here she was, a satisfactorily married lady with a gaggle of girls, and somehow Lafayette’s handsomeness brought to the surface the young girl lying dormant inside her. She felt silly for reacting so. Still, when she peeked over at him, her heart fluttered and she was unable to recall a single gentleman more becoming.
Lafayette secretly commended himself that with a touch of flattery, he had been able to avert her mind and by doing so, freed Sienna from shame; as it was exceedingly rude for Josephine to not pass a single word of greeting to a neighbor. ’But, au contraire, if’n I had kept her here...′ His nostrils flared just at the consideration. ‘Anyway, it now appears my current task at hand, is to ensure Mrs. Baker does not think of Jo again. Seems I shall need to keep her suitably distracted.’
“Madame Baker, vous simply must tell me how vous and your les belle’s petites fleurs have been.” he said, in a smooth, velvet burr while his gaze moved from one female to the next. All the while his brown eyes lingering just long enough, for each to feel the dimpled smile was meant for her alone. Not a one of the Baker girls was yet sixteen and he knew they would be permitted to do exceedingly little at the picnic. Still, it was apparent by their glowing faces, they were elated to be attending. “I must say, each one of vous is more delightfully pleasing than any Orleans belle, I ever met.” Returning his attention to their Mother, “and Madame, that nightshade blue bonnet creates the most marvelous background for your eyes. I declare, they appear brighter than a summer sky.”
“Why thank you, Mister Crowe.” Mrs. Baker answered, and though she found his praise quite wonderful, she also found the stirrings he was setting off in her unsettling. Flustered, she chirked at her team, urging them into a high-stepping trot while searching for a mundane subject to settle his silky words into the dust. “I tell you, our poor Suzie was just in a frenzy all morning. I believe she had every sad iron on the place in the fire, trying to get these old dresses suitably pressed. Nonetheless, it appears the overall outcome turned out functional, if I judge your praise to be worthwhile,” she stated, giving her dress a dismissive flip with her boney hand.
“Functional? Ma chère, the attire of the shopkeeper is functional. Y’all filles magnifiques are exquisite as summer roses. Non, chère, do not under esteem your filles, nor your beautiful self.” Lafayette said, laying a bold, almost sensual gaze upon her.
A blotchy red blush spread from Mrs. Baker’s cheeks on down her bodice and peering from the corner of her eye, she thought, ‘Why he is quite the boldfaced rogue. I am old enough to be his mother.’ Afraid her voice would tremor when she spoke, they rode along in silence, until at last she cleared her throat and said, “Mister Crowe, you ought ’en be speaking to me with such honey filled words.”
In a tone offering an unspoken challenge, he replied, “As vous say, Madam.”
“I do say! You are being a terrible scoundrel. I also trust you know you are!” She stated, giving him a steely glare and flicking the reins hard.
Nodding at her admonishment, Lafayette set Cain into an easygoing diagonal gait to match her new speed.
A mile down the lane Mrs. Baker snuck a peek at him. Riding along upon his mincing gray stallion, he resembled a romantic caviler who had just pranced off the pages of a storybook, except for his cheerless expression. Seeing him so downtrodden, guilt tugged at her, ‘Maybe, I should not have been so sharp with him,’ she thought, and once more clearing her throat, said, “Then again Mister Crowe, you are utterly charming. I do trust the young ladies will be flocking about you in droves today.”
Striving to appear rebuked, he allowed a sheepish grin to play about the corners of his mouth.
Seeing the crinkled lines of amusement about his eyes, Hannah Baker’s own eyes widened, and wondering if he was counterfeiting his shame; she shifted on her seat to better study his face. What she saw, was absolute delight taking over his expression. Realizing what a full-flushed rascal he was, she laughed. “I must inform your father, next time I see him, how very horrible you are.”
“Moi, vous jest. Why all the other Mademoiselles claim I am as sweet as strawberry wine.”
Winking at him, she answered, “I am fairly certain they do.”
Having become bored with pacing the carriage, Cain began whipping his tail and avidly champing his bit, much to Lafayette’s annoyance.
“Mister Crowe, I do fear my chicks and I are running a wee bit late. You should ride on.” she said, her small eyes flitting to the agitated stallion.
Kicking Cain hard with his off leg to straighten the animal out, he said. “Why Madame Baker, a mademoiselle is by no means ever considered tardy. And, I certainly would not be the monsieur mon Father believes me to be, if I even contemplated leavin’ y’all unattended.”
“Thank you. I must admit, I feel better having you here. Traveling alone, I just cannot seem to stop throwing vigilant looks over my shoulder. I should have had Charlie drive us. For you see, Mr. Baker is away in St. Louis on business. But Charlie, well, he acts like I do not have a brain in my head. I simply was not in the mood for his foolishness. Besides, with you here, well, I feel--.” She stopped herself, unsure where she was going, yet aware her next words might not sound particularly matronly.
Seeing her nervousness, Lafayette turned to wink at her girls and perceived the two eldest, staring at him in ways that betrayed their thoughts as being none too pure. Unable to restrain himself, he arched an eyebrow with just a trace of a smile at each one. They erupted in a peal of flustered giggles and dove behind their fans.
“Mister Crowe, please do not imagine me ungrateful. I do appreciate your selfless task of escorting us,” Mrs. Baker said, following his gaze back to her girls. “You see, I do feel a bit like a hen trapped outside the coop. Once I was out here on the road, my pride would not let me return for Charlie, for he would hold it over me forevermore.”
“Then Madame, I am honored to guide y’all right to Colonel Barnett’s front steps.” Lafayette said, once more kicking Cain on the offside.
Gliding around a wooded curve, Mrs. Baker pulled her team up, allowing them to choose their footing as they descended to the valley floor. At the bottom of the corkscrew road, she exhaled, and released the brake, “I declare, coming here brings me back to my girlhood. Oh, how I would tremble whenever we went down a grade. I tell you, I was positive we were going to crash, every single time, Father set the brake. I had no idea how we would ever make it through these Missouri hills. They seemed simply impassable.”
Lafayette nodded; however, he could not fathom any part of his State being impassable. The broken-down mountains, thick forests, and green valleys were the only home he had ever known. There had been times they had to work treacherous loads down on steep grades. Still not once, had he ever been unable to go where he wanted.
“Ah ha, Mr. Crowe, I am acquainted with that particular smile. You, my dear Sir, are patronizing me.” Mrs. Baker said, chuckling to cover her annoyance.
“Madame, I would do non such thing,” he replied, taken aback by her accusation.
“Oh, you are,” she said. “For there you sit, nodding your agreement and all the while pondering else wise.”
“When vous put it that way.” The corners of his lips turned up guiltily.
“You were born here in this wilderness and it is a part of you. So in truth, how could you ever understand, what I am describing?”
She waved off his response. “Do not fret. I am not chiding you, not seriously, anyway. As I was saying, I can distinctly recall how untamed and scary this land was when my father brought us here. There were so few roads and even then, they were not much more than Indian trails. We forced our way through trees, brambles, and vines every thorny inch of the way. And, the towns, oh, the towns, if they had two buildings, the men called them a town. I can still see my Mother crying each night wanting desperately to return to Baltimore.”
Lafayette openly stared at Mrs. Baker. He knew her people came from pioneer stock. However, he had always seen her as a parlor flower and this new image she was forming of herself in his mind was intriguing.
“Still, despite the hardships, which were many, I fell deeply in love with this land. If only you could have seen it then. Why, from the top of a hill, you would look out over a deep, green, never-ending blanket of trees. It is heartbreaking, so many have fallen to the ax,” she said, her blue eyes shining as the memory filled her, “such indescribable beauty.”
Surrounded as they were by the rich, earthy, smell of the woods, Lafayette tried to imagine what Mrs. Baker described. Turning his eyes to the far ridgeline, he studied the broken patches in the trees. “Soon the ridges will become a dappled banner of red and gold; but for now they are still green. Everyone always goes on and on, about how merveilleux autumn is. Personally, I like the green. Whenever I think my home here, it is how green our world is. I would have liked to have seen those long, unbroken canopies. I have read books on foreign lands, many of ’em say Ireland is so green that it is called the Emerald Isle. Wonder how Missouri compares?”
Listening to his rhetorical question, Hannah Baker found herself awed by his introspection. Never would she have imagined him dreaming of far off lands. Holding her tongue. She waited to see if he would say more.
“To me, our State with its trees, rolling fields, and lush basins is more precious than any jewel. And, since folks do not run from here to migrate elsewhere, it must be more exquisite than Ireland’s fabled beauty.” A touch of red rose in his face as he realized, he was voicing aloud his private thoughts. Clearing his throat, he said, “Why look there, I can see Colonel Barnett’s gates. We have nearly arrived.”