I woke that fateful day to the quiet beeping of my phone’s alarm clock. Early morning light streamed through the hotel’s sheers casting a warm glow in the yellow room. I clutched the foreign pillow, fighting nausea. Cold, damp beads of perspiration clung to my forehead, the remnants of my body’s efforts to sweat out the excessive quantity of gin I’d downed at the hotel bar the night before. It had been disguised in three delicious martinis, the not overly sweet kind that go down faster that one anticipates. Slowly I sat up, testing my tolerance, then stood. If a 9:00 AM horseback ride hadn’t awaited me I would have slumped back down into the downy softness of the bed and slept off my hangover. Instead, I shuffled to the shower and let the steaming hot water do its work, beating down on my body, washing away the dizziness. I’d never had gin before. Sneaky bastard gin, it creeps up on you.
The town car arrived promptly at 8:15 and I slid in the backseat, grateful for soft black leather. When the driver gently shut the door, I rested my forehead against the cool tented glass, willing the ibuprofen to kick in. As he pulled out of the port city, the driver regaled me with the tales of the area as we sped past the populated areas and into the rural woods. Personal anecdotes wove in and out of the history lesson. His great-grandmother’s mother had been the head cook at a plantation lost to Sherman’s march not three hours away from our exact location. Two hundred year old live oak trees sheltered the two-lane blacktop, their shade alternating with the sunlight to beat a light and dark rhythm against my half-closed eyelids.
Upon reaching my destination, the driver parked, walked briskly around to the back passenger door, and offered me a weathered black hand. I accepted it and stepped out into brisk morning. As I thanked him and concluded our sojourn with several folded bills he said, “Fresh southern air, that’s the best remedy miss.” I gave him a sheepish smile, nodded, stuck my hands in the front pockets of my jeans and watched him drive away.
My knee-high riding boots made a pleasant crunch on the crushed granite as I strode alongside the split rail paddock where nine and ten year old children cantered their ponies, warming up before attempting the low jumps in the center of the ring. When I arrived at the stables, the guide was waiting with my mount, a tall sorrel mare with an intelligent face. He gave me a leg up into the saddle and then proceeded to swing aboard his own paint gelding. Together we rode into the swampy marshlands, weaving into places inaccessible by any means other than foot or horseback. My head, though still fighting a lingering headache, absorbed his knowledge of the native plant life. That’s why I was there. To learn. And learn I did. By 11:30 I had cataloged more than enough research to justify the expense of the trip. But more was on my agenda.
The tour of the neighboring formal gardens began at 1:00. In the interim time I attempted to eat lunch at a nearby inn, but the effects of the gin had surfaced once again, so I abandoned the effort and made my way toward the tour’s starting point, knowing I’d be early and have some time to waste on my own. Even with the sun shining, the air was crisp and I was grateful for the warmth of my black cashmere sweater and heather gray scarf. My hair, which I had let air dry after my shower, hung in natural waves, the majority of which were secured in a ponytail at the nape of my neck. But a few blonde tendrils had escaped and blew across my face, caught by the early spring wind.
I wandered rather aimlessly around the historic property, reading informational placards and taking in the general sense of the place. That’s how I came to be walking across an open grassy area when I saw him for the first time. Even from a distance I could appreciate his tall, broad-shouldered build, thick dark hair and Romanesque profile. He was dressed in a dark tracksuit and walked with a long, easy stride, his hands in his pockets and arms held tightly against his sides, as if for warmth. In my experience, a man who looked like that wouldn’t be touring antebellum gardens alone. I looked away and focused on the moss covered brick wall ahead, but couldn’t help but wonder when his wife or girlfriend would join him. She would be tall also, I presumed, with high, sculpted cheekbones, perfectly arched eyebrows and long, straight brunette hair. Yes, she would be beautiful, I thought, as I walked under the brick archway and out of sight of the man.
When the time for the tour drew near I meandered out of the enclosed garden and over to the giant oak designated as the starting point. A couple who appeared to be in their late sixties stood together, sharing a map between them, plotting their next tourist destination. Five ornate, curved stone benches were arranged under the tree’s canopy. I selected one and sat on the cold, hard surface, rested my elbows on my knees, shivered slightly and fought a sudden wave of nausea. Never again would I drink gin, I vowed.
Footsteps on crushed shell and pebble paths told me more people had arrived to join the tour, but I didn’t look up. I remained bent with my hands clasped in front of me, as if in prayer. And perhaps I was. The town car that would return me to the bed I longed for wasn’t due for another two hours. You will not be sick, you will snap out of this, you will not cave to this self-induced misery, I told myself. Will power is a funny thing. After a few minutes of repeating this mantra, I slowly came out of the stupor and lifted my head.
I looked to the left and saw a wizened, stooped lady waddling toward the tree, an official-looking badge hanging from her neck. She wore a calico print dress with large, apron-like pockets. The long, full skirt swung back and forth, keeping time with her rolling gate. Her white hair, styled in short, soft curls framed her wrinkled face like a halo. I turned my head to the right and there, one bench down sat the man I had seen earlier. He was even more impressive up close. Thick, dark brows were furrowed in thought as he studied the brochure that accompanied admission to the historic landmark. His companion must be running late, I thought.
The calico-clad lady, who was obviously our guide, introduced herself as Nora and announced that we would wait another ten minutes for any stragglers to join the group. She, the sixtyish tourist couple and I visited, sharing where we were from, what we’d had enjoyed about the area and still planned to do. I realized the man to my right had been accidentally excluded from the conversation so out of politeness I turned and spoke.
“And where are you from?” I inquired.
“Australia,” he said, the accent confirming his answer.
“Oh!” exclaimed Nora, “I’m so sorry for not asking sooner. I just assumed you two were together.”
“It’s quite all right. We look like we should be together,” he said laughing, and in a long fluid motion was suddenly sitting beside me.
I was stunned, but my tongue wasn’t.
“Perhaps, but you see we’re fighting at the moment, hence the separate benches,” I said cheekily.
The Australian ducked his head, seeming to realize just how forward he had been and returned to his previous perch. But we both were grinning.
Nora, quick to remedy her previous lack of attention to him, inquired as to why he was in the states (he was traveling for business), how long he’d been in town (five days), how long he was staying (ten more), where he was staying (the city), how he was getting around (he had a rented car) and if he had enjoyed himself thus far (he had).
“And what are you doing after this?” she asked me.
“Taking a taxi back to the city and touring a few of the historic homes before they close,” I answered.
“A taxi!” She gasped, “That’s terribly expensive!”
Her sharp eyes flicked back and forth between us
“You two should ride back together. You’re going the same way and he has a car. No need to spend all that money. Why… it must be fifty dollars one way!”
I glanced over at the Australian to see if he was as shocked by her blatant attempt at matchmaking as I was. He just smiled at me, his full lips parting in a wide arc to reveal straight white teeth. Neither of us spoke, but the seed of an idea had been planted and we both were mulling over the possibilities.