Chapter 11: Pearl
Palm Beach, Florida - July, 1936
“Do you, Pearl Rose Jenkins, take Ulysses Richardson Hanna to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
Over the past two months, Pearl Hanna’s life had changed drastically. Two months ago, she had never even heard of a man named Ulysses Hanna. How had she not felt his presence in the world? How was it she didn’t know her soulmate was on his way to find her?
Her friend Amy scoffed at Pearl’s romantic notions and sentimentality. But that didn’t trouble Pearl. There was nothing anyone could do or say that would convince her that the angels hadn’t sent Ulysses to be by her side. Besides, Amy was just jealous. In September, Amy’s parents would shuffle her out of her Palm Springs home and put her on a plane to Switzerland, back to Château Mont-Choisi. But not Pearl. Oh, no. Pearl had made her mind up. She was going to marry Ulysses Hanna. She could think of no future more glorious than to be his wife. Pearl had known this the instant they met.
Her parents had tried to keep her at home that night. They didn’t like her to attend the Everglades Club evening events where alcohol was always served.
“How then, am I supposed to meet a husband if I can’t go to evening parties?” Pearl had moaned to her mother that evening. They had been sitting on the balcony of her room looking out over the estate. The mosquitos were already biting in the humid twilight, but Pearl didn’t mind. Her mother was standing behind her, brushing Pearl’s long silky hair with gentle, easy strokes. It was an evening ritual between the two whenever Pearl was home from finishing school. Pearl knew it was important to her mother to have these quiet moments of connection and conversation, and she loved them, too. Truthfully, she would rather stay in Palm Beach year-round to help her mother fulfill her father’s demanding requirements for running his household. Her father wouldn’t allow it in view of what other people might think of him, keeping an idle daughter lounging around the house.
“You’re not supposed to meet a husband at all, dearest.” Her mother’s voice was like the plump, down pillow on Pearl’s bed. Falling into it meant home. “You’re supposed to marry the man your father presents you to when he has arranged it. He’s been busy lately, but I know he has a few contenders.”
“Please tell me that one of those contenders is not Teddy Parker, mother. I just couldn’t stand to be married to Teddy Parker. Did you know he announced to Amy that his wife must provide him with no daughters and at least seven sons?”
“There’s nothing wrong with a big family, my dear. Your father and I wish God had blessed us with more children.”
Pearl turned toward her mother and stilled her brush with a hand over her powdered, jeweled wrist.
“I’m sorry, Mother. That wasn’t very caring of me. Of course, I want to give you as many grandchildren as I can. But I think seven boys may take motherhood just a little too far.”
Her mother chuckled. “Your father would have loved seven boys. And he would have hired seven nannies to help me, just as he would do for you.” She turned Pearl’s head back to the view of a row of ancient trees dripping with Spanish Moss. This garden had been Pearl’s view since she was a child. She’d always thought the trees looked sad, burdened with the heaping greenery, as though they were weeping.
“Can I come tonight, Mother? Please? I have the entire summer stretched ahead of me. The thought that I’ll be sitting on this balcony reading, drinking lemonade, and getting eaten by mosquitos for the next two months fills me with dread. Can’t you can convince Father I’m old enough now? Amy is allowed to go, and she is so flirtatious. Father knows how shy I am. I just want to sit quietly in the corner and watch. I’ll capture all the gossip for you and fill you in while you’re brushing my hair. You must want to know what happened to old Harry Grayson’s mistress.”
“Pearl!” Her mother smacked her head lightly with the back of the brush and Pearl giggled. “I don’t know how you know these things. Gossip is the devil’s work.” She started her gentle brushing again. “But I will ask your father. I’ll ask him when he gets home after he’s had his first cocktail. It’s the moment I save for all the contentious requests.”
“Thank you, Mother.” Pearl closed her eyes and gave herself over to the sensation of soft bristles scratching long passes down her scalp. If she weren’t so excited, she could fall asleep right here under her mother’s ministrations.
And her father said yes. And here she was, seated quietly at the family table, sipping a lemonade, and watching her father sweep her mother around the dance floor. The string quartet played a waltz and if she hadn’t known better, she could convince herself that her mother had been a professional ballroom dancer. Her mother’s sparkling smile and swirling silk skirts drew all eyes in the ballroom. All eyes except for his.
Pearl had noticed the man when he’d entered the ballroom an hour earlier. Palm Beach was a small town, and the club was exceptionally selective. Everyone here had been a member for years, so she knew them all. She had never seen this man before. Remembering her promise to her mother, she immediately averted her eyes, but when she met his dark eyes with her grey ones, she felt something strange. A spark? No, it was more than that. A knowing? It was as though she knew him. But she didn’t. She’d never seen him before. And he was old. Far too old to be considered a match. The man was probably close to her father’s age. He’d been watching her since he’d arrived, and he was watching her now. She didn’t need to look to know his dark eyes were on her. The trembling that had begun in her shoulders and now extended through to the tips of her fingers told her his eyes were on her. She couldn’t stand it. She needed air.
Pearl searched the crowd for Amy. She shouldn’t leave the ballroom unaccompanied. She found her on the dance floor, dancing with… oh my, was that Teddy Parker? Amy caught her eye and smiled, waving her gloved fingers by lifting them from the top of Teddy’s shoulder. This was all too much. Now she was feeling dizzy. Pearl jumped from her seat and passed through the open patio doors into the garden. She took great gulps of liquid air, but the oxygen didn’t soothe her trembling.
“Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.”
The man had followed her. Pearl looked past him into the ballroom, the ball of anxiety rising into her throat. She searched for her mother in the kaleidoscope of dresses. This was a terrible mistake. She shouldn’t be out here alone with him, but the man was blocking her path. Her legs went weak beneath her skirts and instead of storming past him back into the ballroom as she had planned, she collapsed into a filigreed iron chair. Surely only in the garden for decorative purposes, but it would have to do.
“Shakespeare.” She said. “You are a man of culture.”
“I’m afraid not.” He said. “That’s the only line I know. I save it for times like this when beautiful ladies take my breath away.”
He had a strange accent. He stressed syllables in all the wrong places and ended sentences like a question. And if he shared that line with every beautiful lady he met, then he was a… what did her mother call it? A Lothario. She should remove herself from his company immediately, but her legs refused to obey her brain’s orders.
“And you meet many beautiful ladies?”
“Many. But none as beautiful as you. May I ask your name?”
“You should not. We should be formally introduced.” She said.
The man looked around the garden, which was deathly quiet except for the sounds of the ballroom and the call of the cicadas.
“I don’t see anyone available just now. Must we stand on formalities?”
“My name is Pearl.” She said. “I’m the daughter of Thomas and Dorothy Jenkins. You’re not from Palm Beach.”
“I’m not.” He agreed and moved to sit on the lawn at her feet. She glanced inside again and willed herself to leave. She didn’t.
“Where are you from?”
“Paradise.” He said. He smiled at her.
Her trembling increased, and she folded her arms, pressing her hands against her ribs in an effort to still them.
“Have you heard of The Bahamas?” the man said as he withdrew something from his inside jacket pocket and handed it to her. It was a single-page lithograph, much like the cigar advertisements that her father had framed and hung in his office. The text read, ‘There’s a life for you in Paradise’ but it was the picture that made her smile. It was a drawing of a beach with pink sand and the clear, crystal-blue waters of the sea. Tall palm trees surrounded the edges of the beach and a single white chair with a cheery red umbrella were the only signs of human life. The beach was pristine. If the chair was not in the picture, Pearl would have found it difficult to believe that a human had ever trod upon it.
“This is The Bahamas? It’s an island close to here, correct?”
“An island?” The man laughed now, and the deep wrinkles that formed in his tanned face drew her in. Here was a man unlike the Teddy Parkers of Palm Beach. Here was a man who had lived. “The Bahamas has hundreds of islands. Each one is more beautiful than the last. I admit, the only thing I have ever seen more beautiful than my home is you.”
Pearl felt the color rush to her cheeks. She had been flattered many times before by boys. But this was no boy. This was a man. Would it be madness to say she already knew this man was for her?
“Pearl?” Her mother stood in the doorway to the ballroom. The light from behind left her face in shadows, but Pearl didn’t need to see her face. Her voice told her she was disappointed.
The man got to his feet, brushing fresh cut grass from his suit trousers before reaching out a hand for her mother’s.
“Mrs. Dorothy Jenkins, I assume. It’s obvious where your daughter gets her beauty.”
Her mother didn’t extend her hand. “And you are?”
“I am Mr. Ulysses Hanna, ma’am, from Nassau, Bahamas. And I am delighted to meet you. I apologize for my rudeness in stepping outside while your daughter was taking some air, but I didn’t think it proper she sit out here alone. I thought she should have some fatherly supervision.”
“Ah, Mr. Hanna.” Her mother smiled and extended her satin-gloved hand, which he leaned in to kiss. “You are the friend of George’s, correct? He is purchasing a home from you? On an island?”
“That’s correct, Ma’am,” Ulysses said. “On the island of New Providence, that holds the city of Nassau. George is purchasing, and many others.”
“Well, thank you for looking out for our Pearl, Mr. Hanna. I’m sure she appreciates your kindness.” Her mother said. “Pearl, darling, it’s time to come back inside. Your father would like us to take the car home while he stays for a brandy. Thank you again, Mr. Hanna.”
“Please, call me Ulysses.” He said before he turned to Pearl. “Thank you for your most pleasant company, Miss. Pearl.” He said, smiling.
Pearl’s mother gave him an odd look and then tugged at Pearl’s hand, leading her into the ballroom. Pearl hoped her legs didn’t fail her.
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