I FOUND A LITTLE NOTE on my bed this morning, written in Anthony’s scrawling hand. It was there, atop my pillow, when I rolled over and the Quarter sunshine peaked through my window, the holes in our walls. I picked up the scrap of paper, waiting for my eyes to focus, and rather than fixating on the fact he had somehow snuck into my room again last night to leave it behind, I concentrated on deciphering his handwriting. Even working with him every day on reading and writing and everything else he never learned because of his upbringing, Anthony’s words were still broken and jumbled…but none of that took away from the sweetness of his message.
Meet me at the old Two Sisters courtyard at dusk. Dress in something pretty…not that you aren’t always beautiful to me. Love you. –Anthony
So, as I am standing now outside of the Court of Two Sisters—a restaurant on our list of places to explore but that we’ve never ventured into—on a gallery that once served as a balcony for a window on the second story, I wipe down the front of the dress I have on. Yes, a dress. It is the only article of clothing resembling anything feminine that I own, and it’s not me at all. A hand-me-down from my mama, Cleo, it’s a green, lacy thing, topped up with tiny sleeves that barely cover my arms and a hem line that touches well above my knees. I tug at the sleeves and the ruffles at the bottom, trying to cover my freckled shoulders and thighs, but it’s of no use. I’m showing more skin tonight that I have ever before in my life. I push a piece of hair behind my ear and take a deep breath.
You’re doing this for Anthony, I think. You’ll do anything for him.
Before I step through the window, I guarantee that my boat is tied to the wrought iron railing. Green water, made brighter by the sun setting, laps at the gallery posts, and my dinghy sways with the gentle waves. The motion calms me, and I push open the floor-to-ceiling window panes and step inside.
“Anthony?” I call, but there’s no answer.
I take a last look over my shoulder and wander through what must have been the attic of the old restaurant. Yellowed table cloths litter the space, and a turned-over table or two rest in each corner. My feet are bare, leaving naked footprints on the dusty floor, as I press onward to find Anthony.
“Hello?” I whisper as I duck to move from the larger attic space into a smaller room just beyond. I cross the tiny room in just a few steps, and my head scrapes the ceiling above. I stoop when a final doorway comes into view, and past it, I see the distinct flickering of candlelight. When I pass over the last threshold, my breath is stolen from my chest by the sight before me.
The room, with its worn planks on the walls and floor, is washed pink by the setting sun. The three windows are thrown open, their sheer curtains billowing inward on a soft breeze. Candles line the floor, the shelves built into the walls, and a table set with two chairs. In the middle of it all stands Anthony, dressed in clean black pants—as clean as he can get them—and a black shirt, gathered up at the elbows. He holds a bouquet of yellow and pink wildflowers out to me, a smile plastered on his face.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he says with a little chuckle at the end as if the idea of saying such a thing is ridiculous to him.
“I wish I knew what that is,” I say back with a light laugh of my own.
“It’s a holiday,” Anthony says taking a step towards me, “that I read about once.”
I take a step forward, too. “How often do you do that—read without me, I mean?”
“Not often,” Anthony admits, “but when I do, I always learning something I want to share with you.”
“So….” I say, waving a hand around the room, “what is this Valentine’s Day?”
Anthony’s face grows serious in the candlelight. “Give me a kiss, and I’ll tell you all my secrets.”
Without hesitation, I leap into his arms, and our lips meet. He’s gentle at first, his hands wrapped around my waist, drawing me close, but after a few seconds, I can’t breathe, so I pull away and press my forehead to his. He presses a light kiss to my nose and exhales into my mouth, and I know once kiss isn’t enough to sate his hunger.
“Thank you for this,” I laugh, “whatever it is.”
“You’re very welcome, my lovely,” he says, letting me go. “Come. Sit, and I’ll tell you all about it. But food first.”
Anthony and I take our seats at the table, and he lays the bouquet in front of me. Without a word, he brings out a can-opener—a handy staple for any Quarter kid who eats his meals from a can like most of us—and a can of…pineapple. Its metallic surface is dented on one side, but the label is bright yellow and orange, obnoxious really, and I say the word aloud to feel it roll off my tongue.
“Yes, pineapple,” he says mocking my tone.
With little fanfare, he opens the can of fruit and pulls two forks from his back pocket. He hands one to me and moves his chair around the table so he’s as close to me as he can come while occupying the same space. The hand not holding his fork slips into mine, and we lock eyes.
“Have you had it before?” Anthony asks and purses his lips, teasing me.
“What?” I stutter when I realize my eyes have dropped to his mouth.
“That?” Anthony says swinging his fork to the open can, a smiling dancing in his words. “Pine. Apple. Had. It. Before?”
“No,” I say, clearing my throat. “What do you think it tastes like?”
“It’s sweet,” Anthony murmurs against my ear. “Like you.”
“If you don’t stop that,” I whisper, “we’ll never eat.”
“I’m okay with that,” Anthony concedes, and I feel his lips tickle my neck.
“Okay, okay, stop it!” I laugh and shove him away, but he doesn’t drop my hand. “Seriously. I want to try this pineapple of yours.”
Anthony straightens his back and eyes me. “Fine. Reject me. I’m wounded, but you’re gonna love that stuff.”
I lean forward and stab a piece of the fruit floating in its yellow juice. I raise it to my tongue and let it drip there before I take it into my mouth. Anthony is right; it is sweet. More tart than my mama’s rarely crafted desserts, and exotic, too. Somehow the pineapple’s flavor doesn’t match anything that you’d ever find in the Quarter today. Chewing, I relish the texture—crunchy yet soft—then, I swallow, and I feel the weight of Anthony’s eyes on me.
“You like it?” he asks, eyes glittering.
“Oh my god, yes,” I say. I snatch the can from the table. “You aren’t getting any. Sorry. Find your own.”
Anthony tsk-tsks at me. “Now, Hill, that’s not fair. I set up the fancy dinner for you, and you hog all the food. What kind of girlfriend does that make you?”
I stop, my hand frozen in the air, at the word girlfriend. Yes, Anthony and I have exchanged I love you more times than I can count because I think, on some level, we’ve always loved each other—saying it was only natural, a final stone set in place, solidifying the foundation of our relationship. But he’s never called me his…girlfriend before.
“What did you just say?” I ask, dropping my fork to the table, the pineapple forgotten.
“What?” Anthony teases, green eyes on fire. “Did you like that, Hill? Did you like being called my girlfriend?”
I flex the fingers of my free hand over my thigh, fiddling with the hem of the dress. All of a sudden, it feels far too short, and I feel far too exposed. Anthony must see the panic on my face because he backpedals with care.
“No, no, no, Hill,” Anthony says, cupping my face in his hands. “I don’t want to scare you away. Forget I said anything. You’re my friend—my very best friend who I happen to love like a mad man. I take it back. I swear. You’re not my girlfriend. You’re so much more than that. You’re my Hill.”
I press my face into his hands and smile, just a little, to let him know I’m okay.
“Boyfriend isn’t strong enough a word for what you are to me,” I explain to him, feeling tears burn at the edges of my vision. “I want to be your girlfriend so badly, Anthony, but moreover, I want to be your everything…because you are mine.”
A wide grin spreads over Anthony’s face, and he runs his nose down the length of mine.
“Say that again, Hill, please. I need to hear it.”
“You’re my everything,” I whisper.
“And you’re mine,” he whispers back. “Always and forever.”
“How long do you think this’ll last between us?” I ask for the thousandth time. “Surrender Day is less than two months from now… and I can’t help but feeling like something is slipping away—”
“Don’t think about tomorrow or the next day or the next,” Anthony orders with gentle persuasion. “Let’s think about here and now. You and me. Hill and Ant. The way life is supposed to be.”
Anthony winds his hands into the hair at the nape of my neck and brings my mouth back to his. We kiss, and we kiss. We only come up for air when the wind comes through the windows and blows out most of the candles set against the sills and drapes an early evening dew over everything within…a damp blanket, wrapping us up and hiding us away yet, all the while, reminding us time must go on—with or without us.
Before I can contemplate, once more, what Surrender Day means for us, a low grumbling escapes Anthony’s abdomen, and our eyes drop to his stomach.
“Hungry much?” I laugh and pat his belly which is firm beneath my hand.
“Of course,” Anthony says, eyes still lingering on my lips. “I’m always hungry when you’re around.”
“Could you be more inappropriate?” I ask and let my gaze wander out the window, where the sun has set at last, and the moon is making its slow traipse up the purple expanse of sky beyond.
“Is that a test, Hill?” Anthony asks, wagging his eyebrows up and down as I turn my eyes back to his.
“Hardly,” I say and give his cheek a light slap. “By the way, you never told me what Valentine’s Day is.”
Anthony rolls his eyes and picks up his fork. “It’s a stupid holiday from before NAP and the Wall…one when people sent chocolates to each other in heart-shaped boxes and bought lots of vases filled with flowers. There were balloons involved, too. It sounds hideous.” He stops, thinking for a moment. “And there were poems involved. Not my style of poetry, but stupid rhymes that offer nothing more than cheese.”
“Tell me one,” I say.
He clears his throat and levels his eyes on me. “‘Roses are red. Violets are blue. If you didn’t know, you’re stupid, but your hair is red, too.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I sigh.
“Not in the slightest,” Anthony says, grinning. “Like I said, it sounds lame.”
“So…why did you plan this?” I ask, waving my hand around the room again.
“It got me alone with you. Didn’t it?”
“I—” I begin to say; then, I change my mind. “You’re a genius. You know that? Manipulating me to visit you in a dark room, luring me in with candles, and flowers, and food… and kisses. Speaking of those….”
“You want more?” Anthony asks, his voice low and alluring, his green eyes dark in the shadowy room.
“Always,” I say. I lean towards him and slip my hands up his arms and wrap them around my waist. But he’s still holding his fork.
Anthony joins me, bending to greet my awaiting lips, but then, he stops. He smiles against my cheek.
“Woman, if we’re gonna keep this up, I need energy for all the kissing. Pass me the damn pineapple.”
I laugh out loud, holding myself together, as he releases me. He snatches the food from the table. Over the rim of the can, he smirks, pulls out a piece of fruit, and almost swallows it whole.
“You are completely ridiculous, Anthony.”
“You know it,” he says before popping another piece of pineapple into his mouth. “And you wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I meet his grin with one of my own, and I know he’s right. I wouldn’t trade this moment for the world…even the one NAP has to offer.
"Wouldn't Have it Any Other Way"
"Traitor Among Us"
Hope Newsome, liaison to Ramsey Farreaux
I TWIDDLE MY THUMBS AS I sit waiting patiently as any good Ward should. Back straight. Facing forward. Pleasant expression upon my face. That, in the end, is what makes us different from the Quarters. We can suffer anything with a smile.
My name is Hope Newsome, by the way. I’m the twenty-seven-year-old liaison to the head of the Name Acquisition Program himself, the esteemed Ramsey Farreaux. I have been privileged to work alongside him for eleven years now as his loyal and trustworthy assistant. He names it, I do it, and my obedience has brought me in close proximity to some of the amazing things to come to Orleans in my lifetime: the building of the NAP Tower, the new construction at the Wall, and the highest participant numbers enrolling in our NAP chapter’s history! It’s an exciting time to be a Ward, and I am proud to be tasked to help the masses better understand the heart of our handsome leader.
The door behind me opens, and I turn to see Ward Farreaux enter with his son, Job. If I were ten years younger, Job would own my heart, but I know I am not the only Ward woman to notice his beauty. Unlike his father, Job is fair and blonde, but Ramsey is also striking in a white robe that drapes over the muscular build remaining from his days as a Quarter and bronze skin that shines as if it once enjoyed the sun.
“Hope,” Ramsey drones with a nod in my direction.
“Sir,” I say. My thumbs stop their nervous movement, and I pick up my notebook and pen. “Job.”
“Hello, Ward Newsome,” Job says and lowers a lithe frame into a chair beside his father. “As always, it is a pleasure to see you.”
He smiles, and I blush. Ramsey clears his throat and gestures to my paper.
“This is nonsense, Hope,” he declares, dark eyes serious. “The Wards know who I am. They respect me. More importantly, most fear me. Why all this fuss about a press release then?”
“Sir,” I say and add a placating smile, “our latest polls are such that your approval in the Quarter is less than twenty-five percent. With unrest growing in the flooded part of the city, we—your publicity team, I mean—believe that making you more personable to the Quarters could do well to continue the increase in enrollees we’ve seen the last few years. And, too, maybe it will help the rumblings behind the Wall settle down a bit.”
“Oh, let us be entirely honest, Hope. You want to make my father more likable to the unwashed masses,” Job says, a smirk brightening his startling blue eyes.
I look away to the table. “Yes, exactly, Job,” I agree. “But, sir, with all due respect, you are a powerful man. The position you hold is an intimidating one, and the Quarters don’t relate to you.”
My eyes flick up to find Ramsey running a long finger over his chin. Our eyes lock, and he shows me a rare grin.
“Fine,” he says. “If you think it will help my so-called ‘bad’ reputation, proceed. But Hope, you are limited to five questions. Do you understand? So choose wisely.”
Job snickers beside his father, and Ramsey throws him a look that could make flowers wilt. I flip through the pages and pages of questions I’ve prepared for this interview, and none seem appropriate enough to complete the job I’ve been given. I feel panic dry my mouth, and I cough. The braid over my shoulder feels like a noose, so I grab it and toss it behind me.
“Well?” Ramsey prompts. “I don’t have all day.”
I feel both his and Job’s gazes on me. It’s now or never. What image do I want the Quarters to have painted for them of the man I serve day in and day out, the Ramsey Farreaux? I have no idea. They’ll never understand what I see when I look at him.
So, I ask the first thing that pops into my mind. “What is your favorite color?”
Ramsey groans and crosses arms over his wide chest, his immense presence filling the room. “That’s what you drug me in here for? My favorite color, Hope?”
Job sighs and turns to his father. “You said five questions, Father. Shouldn’t number one be the easiest of them all, a warm-up, perhaps?”
I telepath my thanks to Job for the explanation of my reasoning and ready my pen over the paper. “Sir?”
Ramsey rolls eyes to the ceiling then his chin drops to his chest. “Blue,” he mutters, and I almost miss it.
“Blue?” I repeat.
“Blue,” he barks. “Next question.”
I stifle a giggle. I’ve never seen the stoic Ramsey so put out over a single syllable. Job and I share a glance, and he has a hand pressed to his mouth, probably holding back laughter, too.
“When you were a little boy, what did you want to be as an adult?”
“That is an easy one,” Ramsey says, waving a hand to dismiss me. “I wanted to be a king over a glorious domain full of minions to do my bidding.”
I stop writing at his candor. “You do not mean that literally, sir. Do you?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Ramsey says. He spreads his arms wide. “Do you see what I’ve accomplished in my time as General Operating Director, Hope? I’m so very close to making that dream come true.”
“At the expense of us all,” Job murmurs. Ramsey glares at him, but I quickly record his response and decide it’s best to move on from the current line of questioning. I’ve seen these two become physical with one another over Ramsey’s desire to strengthen NAP’s grasp on the city, and now isn’t the time or place for that to happen again.
“What is your biggest fear?” I ask, my eyes dancing between father and son to measure the tension. Ramsey exhales loudly and runs a hand over his bald head. Job leans away and keeps his eyes to the floor.
“If I have to answer this one, I would say my biggest fear is mediocrity. I hope I never have to hear someone say that I could have done something better. I want to be the most gifted person in the room, the best G.O.D. in NAP’s history—I want to be the brightest star burning in the sky.” When he finishes, Ramsey slams a fist against the table and leans back into the chair, as if he wasn’t aware he pushed forward during his speech.
I smile because that is the man I know. “And you will have it, sir. I feel it in my bones.”
“Thank you, Hope,” Ramsey says, nodding, seeming to have settled from Job’s remark. He flicks his pointer and middle fingers into the air. “Two more questions.”
I return his nod. “What is your biggest accomplishment?”
“Aside from the obvious?” Ramsey asks, and I’m not sure if he’s speaking rhetorically. “My biggest accomplishment is what I’ve brought to Orleans—a sense of peace and purpose to those who trust me to lead them.”
Job’s lashes flutter, and his cheeks flush pink. His shoulders slump, blond waves swarm his shoulders, and he looks, for want of a better word, hurt.
“Sir, would you like to include something personal in your list of achievements, such as successfully raising, as a single father no less, a son to be the next G.O.D.?”
Without hesitation, Ramsey proclaims, “No.”
Something in my stomach pinches, and I’m suddenly very sad for Job. Then following, without my permission, is an incredibly unsettling sense of disloyalty to Ramsey. It originates from the fact I am now thinking he may be something less than the stellar man I believe him to be. I know the lie isn’t true, but I can’t help but feel it—the doubt, the uncertainty. And as a Ward, emotions are both unwelcome and unsettling. As a result, I feel myself begin to shut down.
“I think that will be all for today, sir,” I whisper.
A chair screeches across the tile, and Ramsey’s boots thud as he makes his way to the door. “I want to see a mock-up of this promotional material on my desk first thing tomorrow morning. And, Hope?”
“Yes?” I ask without looking back at him.
“Make sure the photo you use has me from in profile. You know how much the light loves my left side.”
With that, the door slams, and I am left with Job across the table from me.
“I am sorry, Hope,” he says. “You know how he can be at his worst, but today has been a good day.”
“You do not need to apologize. I am used to it. Nothing will make me do less than my best at my job, though.”
A cool hand covers mine, and I look up to see Job smiling at me. My heart skips a little, and I swallow.
“You have one question left, yes? Ask me,” he says.
“Are you sure?” I say and pull my hand back to retrieve my pen.
“Absolutely,” Job says. “I have a few minutes.”
“All right,” I say and pick the first from the many questions I’d prepared for Ramsey. “If you could add anything else to Orleans to make it the ideal city, what would it be?”
Job clasps hands in his lap and takes time considering the answer. His eyes float to the door then back to me. “Must it be something in addition to what exists? Could it possibly be something of which we suffer too much?”
I twist the pen in my fingers. “I had not thought of it that way, but I suppose.”
“Will my answer remain in your confidence?” Job asks, a hint of desperation to his voice.
I am a Ward. Most do not have the ability to lie, but I do. I cannot tell you how Ramsey has exempted me from the rule, but he has. The use of my dishonesty is one of the many ways I prove my allegiance to him time and time again. And it’s because of his intervention in my life that I will remain loyal to him, no matter the doubts I might have.
“Of course, Ward Farreaux,” I say. “Please, know that you can trust me.”
“Then,” Job says quietly, “I would remove my father. That last thing our city needs is more Ramsey Farreaux. He is a curse upon us all.”
My jaw hangs open as Job rises from the seat. All six feet, two inches of him tower over me, and his blue eyes burn into mine.
“Your loyalty to my father comes with very dangerous consequences, Hope,” Job warns. “Be careful trusting him with your life as you so clearly do.”
Job moves around the table, and I hear the door close behind me. If Job himself fears his father’s reign, I have no reason to doubt Ramsey any longer. At once, feeling restored to my former self, I scramble to write down all that Job’s said; then, I rip the paper from the pad. I slip it into my pocket and decide to pay Ramsey a visit earlier than tomorrow morning.
We have a traitor among us, and he is none other than Ramsey’s son.