A sweeping multigenerational Southern saga "with echoes of Gone with the Wind." (Publishers Weekly)
Spanning the 20th century, the story of Roses takes place in a small East Texas town against the backdrop of the powerful timber and cotton industries, industries controlled by the scions of the town's founding families. Cotton tycoon Mary Toliver and timber magnate Percy Warwick should have married but unwisely did not, and now must deal with the deceit, secrets, and tragedies of their choice and the loss of what might have been—not just for themselves but for their children, and their children's children.
With expert, unabashed, big-canvas storytelling, Roses covers a hundred years, three generations of Texans and the explosive combination of passion for work and longing for love.
Release date: January 3, 2011
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 624
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At his desk, Amos Hines turned over the last sheet of the two-page legal document he’d been instructed to read. His mouth had gone dry as wheat chaff, and for a moment he could only blink in dazed disbelief at his client and longtime friend seated before his desk, a woman he had admired—revered—for forty years and had thought he knew. He searched her expression for indications that age had finally affected her faculties, but she stared back with all the clear-eyed acuity for which she was renowned. Working saliva into his mouth, he asked, “Is this codicil for real, Mary? You’ve sold the farms and changed your will?”
Mary Toliver DuMont nodded, the waves of her coiffed white head catching the light from the French windows. “Yes to both, Amos. I know you’re shocked, and this isn’t a nice way to repay all your years of service and devotion, but you’d have been deeply hurt if I’d put this business in the hands of another attorney.”
“Indeed I would have,” he said. “Another attorney would not have tried to talk you into rethinking this codicil—at least the part that can be revised.” There was no rescuing Toliver Farms, Mary’s enormous cotton holdings that she’d sold in secret negotiations the past month, a fact concealed from her great-niece sitting in ignorance out in Lubbock, Texas, as manager of Toliver Farms West.
“There’s nothing to revise, Amos,” Mary said with a trace of asperity. “What’s done is done, and there’s no changing my mind. You’d waste your time and mine by trying.”
“Has Rachel done something to offend you?” he asked evenly, swiveling his chair around to a credenza. He reached for a carafe and noticed his hand shook as he poured two glasses of water. He would have preferred something stronger, but Mary never touched alcohol. “Is that why you sold the farms and amended your will?”
“Oh, good Lord, no,” Mary said, sounding horrified. “You must never believe that. My great-niece has done nothing but be who she is—a Toliver through and through.”
He found beverage napkins and rotated to hand Mary her glass. She’d lost weight, he decided. Her couture suit hung on her somewhat, and her coddled face—still striking at eighty-five—looked thinner. “This business” had taken a toll on her, as it damn well should, he thought, a shaft of anger shooting through him. How could she do this to her great-niece—dispossess her of everything she’d expected to inherit—the land and house of her forebears, her right to live in the town they’d helped to found? He took a long swallow of the water and tried to keep the outrage from his voice when he observed, “You make that sound like a flaw.”
“It is, and I’m correcting it.” She turned up her glass and drank thirstily, patting the napkin to her lips afterward. “That’s the purpose of the codicil. I don’t expect you to have a clue as to what that purpose is, Amos, but Percy will when the time comes. So will Rachel once I’ve explained it.”
“And when do you plan to do that?”
“I’m flying to Lubbock tomorrow in the company plane to meet with her. She doesn’t know I’m coming. I’ll tell her about the sale and the codicil then and hope that my arguments convince her I’ve done what’s best for her.”
Best for her? Amos peered over his glasses at her in incredulous wonder. Mary would have better luck selling celibacy to a sailor. Rachel would never forgive her for what she’d done, of that he was certain. He leaned forward and held her with a determined eye. “How about trying your arguments on me first, Mary? Why would you sell Toliver Farms, which you’ve worked most of your life to build? Why leave Somerset to Percy Warwick, of all people? What use is a cotton plantation to him? Percy is a lumberman, for God’s sake. He’s ninety years old! And bequeathing the Toliver mansion to the Conservation Society is… well, it’s the final slap. You know that Rachel has always regarded that house as her home. She’s planning on spending the rest of her life in it.”
“I know. That’s why I’ve deprived her of it.” She appeared unmoved, sitting ramrod straight with her hand curved over the crook of her anchored cane, looking for all the world like a queen on her throne and the cane her scepter. “I want her to make her own home somewhere else, start over on new ground,” she said. “I don’t want her staying here and living out her life according to the gospel of the Tolivers.”
“But… but I don’t understand.” Amos spread his hands in frustration. “I thought that’s what you’d prepared her for all these years.”
“It was a mistake—a very selfish mistake. Thank God I realized the tragedy of my error before it was too late and had the gumption and… wisdom to correct it.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Save your energy and mine in trying to convince me to explain, Amos. It’s a puzzle, I know, but keep your faith in me. My motives could not be purer.”
Bewildered, he tried another tack. “You haven’t done this out of some misguided notion of what you feel you owe her father, William, have you?”
“Absolutely not!” A spark of temper flashed in her eyes. They were known as the “Toliver eyes”—green as rare emeralds, a feature inherited from her father’s side of the family along with her once black hair and the dimple in the center of her chin. “I’m sure my nephew might see it that way—or rather, that wife of his will,” she said. “To her mind, I’ve done what’s right and proper by giving William what has justly been his all along.” She gave a little snort. “Let Alice Toliver have her illusion that I sold the farms out of guilt over what I owe her husband. I didn’t do any of this for him, but for his daughter. I believe he’ll realize that.” She paused, her finely lined face pensive, doubtful, and added in a less confident tone, “I wish I could be as sure of Rachel.…”
“Mary…” Amos strove for his most persuasive timbre. “Rachel’s a swatch from the same cloth as you. Do you think that you would have understood if your father had deprived you of your legacy—the plantation, the house, the town that owes its birth to your family—no matter how justified his reasons?”
Her jaw tightened beneath the slight droop of her jowls. “No, but I wish he had. I wish to God he’d never left me Somerset.”
He gaped at her, truly shocked. “But why? You’ve had a marvelous life—a life that I thought you wished to bequeath to Rachel to perpetuate your family’s heritage. This codicil is so”—he swept the back of his hand over the document—“averse to everything I thought you’d hoped for her—that you led her to believe you wanted for her.”
She slackened in her chair, a proud schooner with the wind suddenly sucked from her sails. She laid the cane across her lap. “Oh, Amos, it’s such a long story, far too long to go into here. Percy will have to explain it all to you someday.”
“Explain what, Mary? What’s there to explain?” And why someday, and why Percy? He would not be put off by a stab of concern for her. The lines about her eyes and mouth had deepened, and her flawless complexion had paled beneath its olive skin tone. Insistently, he leaned farther over the desk. “What story don’t I know, Mary? I’ve read everything ever printed about the Tolivers and Warwicks and DuMonts, not to mention having lived among you for forty years. I’ve been privy to everything affecting each of you since I came to Howbutker. Whatever secrets you may have harbored would have come out. I know you.”
She lowered her lids briefly, fatigue clearly evident in their sepia-tinged folds. When she raised them again, her gaze was soft with affection. “Amos, dear, you came into our lives when our stories were done. You have known us at our best, when all our sad and tragic deeds were behind us and we were living with their consequences. Well, I want to spare Rachel from making the same mistakes I made and suffering the same, inevitable consequences. I don’t intend to leave her under the Toliver curse.”
“The Toliver curse?” Amos blinked in alarm. Such eccentric language was unlike her. He wondered if age had affected her brain. “I never heard of or read anything about a Toliver curse.”
“My point exactly,” she said, giving him her typical smile, a mere lifting of the lips over teeth that remarkably—unlike those of her contemporaries, unlike his—had not yellowed to the hue of old piano keys.
He refused to be dismissed. “Well, what about these consequences?” he demanded. “You owned—or did—a cotton empire stretching across the country. Your husband, Ollie DuMont, possessed one of the finest department stores in Texas, and Percy Warwick’s company has been in the Fortune 500 for decades. What ‘sad and tragic deeds’ led to consequences like those, I’d like to know.”
“You must believe me,” she said, straightening her shoulders. “There is a Toliver curse, and it has affected us all. Percy is well aware of it. Rachel will be, too, when I show her evidence of its indisputable existence.”
“You’ve left her a ton of money,” he pursued, unwilling to give up. “Suppose she buys land somewhere else, builds another Somerset, roots a new dynasty of Tolivers all over again. Wouldn’t this… curse you speak of still hold?”
Her eyes flashed with something indecipherable. Her lip curled with a secret bitterness. “Dynasty implies sons and daughters to pass on the ancestral torch. In that respect, the Tolivers have never been a dynasty, a point you may have missed in your history books.” Her drawl was heavy with irony. “No, the curse won’t hold. Once the umbilical cord is cut to the plantation, the curse will die. No land anywhere else will have the power to extract from us what Somerset has. Rachel will never sell her soul as I have for the sake of family soil.”
“You sold your soul for Somerset?”
“Yes, many times. Rachel has, too. I’m breaking her of that tendency.”
He slumped in defeat. He was beginning to think that indeed he’d missed a few chapters in the history books. He attempted one final argument. “Mary, this codicil represents your last regards to those you love. Think of how its provisions might affect not only Rachel’s memory of you, but also the relationship between her and Percy when he’s in possession of her birthright. Are those the regards by which you wish to be remembered?”
“I’ll risk their misinterpretation,” she said, but her look mellowed. “I know how very fond you are of Rachel and that you think I’ve betrayed her. I haven’t, Amos. I’ve saved her. I wish there were time today to explain what I mean by that, but there simply isn’t. You must trust that I know what I’m doing.”
He laced his hands over the codicil. “I have the rest of the day. Susan has rescheduled my afternoon appointments. I have all the time in the world for you to explain to me what this is all about.”
She reached over the desk and covered the gnarl of his rawboned hands with her slim, blue-veined one. “You may have, my dear, but I do not. I believe now would be a good time for you to read the letter in the other envelope.”
He glanced at the white envelope he’d withdrawn facedown from the one containing the codicil. “Save that one for last to read,” she’d instructed, and suddenly—with a sharp flash of intuition—he understood why. His heartbeat arrested, he turned over the envelope and read the sender’s address. “A medical clinic in Dallas,” he muttered, aware that Mary had turned her head away and was fingering the famed string of pearls around her neck that her husband, Ollie, had presented her, one pearl on each of their wedding anniversaries until the year of his death. There were fifty-two of them now, large as hummingbird eggs, the strand falling perfectly in the collarless opening of her green linen suit. It was on these pearls that he fastened his eyes when he’d finished reading the letter, unable to bring them to her face.
“Metastatic renal cancer,” he croaked, his prominent Adam’s apple jouncing. “And there’s nothing to be done?”
“Oh, the usual,” she said, reaching for her water glass. “Surgery and chemo and radiation. But all that would simply prolong my days, not my life. I decided against treatment.”
Burning grief, like acid, spilled through him. He removed his glasses and squeezed his eyes shut, pinching the bridge of his nose to hold back tears. Mary did not like sloppy displays of emotion. Now he knew what she’d been about in Dallas last month besides arranging for the sale of Toliver Farms. They’d had no idea—not her great-niece or her longest friend, Percy, or Sassie, her housekeeper for over forty years, or her devoted old lawyer… all those who loved her. How like Mary to play her last cards so close to the vest.
He reset his glasses and forced himself to meet her eyes—eyes that still, despite their lined settings, reminded him of the color of spring leaves shimmering through raindrops. “How long?” he asked.
“They give me three more weeks… maybe.”
Losing the battle to his grief, Amos opened a drawer where he kept a supply of clean handkerchiefs. “I’m sorry, Mary,” he said, pressing the voluminous square of white lawn to his eyes, “but too much is coming at me all at once.…”
“I know, Amos,” she said, and with surprising nimbleness, she hooked the cane on her chair and came around the desk to him. Gently, she drew his head against her linen front. “This day had to come, you know… when we had to say good-bye. After all, I’m fifteen years your senior.…”
He pressed her hand, so thin and fragile-boned. When had it become an old woman’s hand? He remembered when it had been smooth and unblemished. “Do you know that I still remember the first time I saw you?” he said, keeping his eyes tightly closed. “It was in the DuMont Department Store. You came down the stairs in a royal blue dress, and your hair shone like black satin under the chandeliers.”
He could feel her smile above his bald pate. “I remember. You were still in your army serge. By then you’d learned who William was and had come to check on the sort of people who would cause a boy like him to run away from home. I must say you did seem rather dazzled.”
“I was bowled over.”
She kissed the top of his head and released him. “I’ve always been grateful for our friendship, Amos. I want you to know that,” she said, returning to her chair. “I’m not one to emote, as you know, but the day you wandered into our little East Texas community was one of the more fortunate ones of my life.”
Amos honked into his handkerchief. “Thank you, Mary. Now I must ask you, does Percy know about… your condition?”
“Not yet. I’ll tell him and Sassie when I get back from Lubbock. I’ll make my funeral arrangements at that time as well. If I’d planned them earlier, news of my coming demise would be all over town by the time I left the parking lot. Hospice has been engaged to come a week after I return. Until then, I’d like my illness to remain our secret.” She slipped the strap of her handbag over her shoulder. “And now I must be going.”
“No, no!” he protested, vaulting up from his chair. “It’s early yet.”
“No, Amos, it’s late.” She reached behind her neck and unclasped the pearls. “These are for Rachel,” she said, laying the strand on his desk. “I’d like you to give them to her for me. You’ll know the proper time.”
“Why not give them to her yourself when you see her?” he asked, his throat on fire. She seemed diminished without the pearls, her flesh old and exposed. Since Ollie’s death twelve years ago, she was rarely seen without them. She wore them everywhere, with everything.
“She may not accept them after our talk, Amos, and then what would I do with them? They mustn’t be left to the discretion of the docents. You keep them until she’s ready. They are all she will have from me of the life she was expecting.”
He bumped around the desk, his heart thudding. “Let me go with you to Lubbock,” he pleaded. “Let me be with you when you tell her.”
“No, dear friend. Your presence there might make things awkward for the two of you afterward if things go wrong. Rachel must believe you’re impartial. She’ll need you. Whatever happens, either way, she’ll need you.”
“I understand,” he said, his voice cracking. She held out her hand, and he understood that she wished them to express their farewells now. In the days to come, they might not be afforded this opportunity to say good-bye in private. He sandwiched her cool palm between his bony slabs, his eyes filling in spite of his determination to keep this moment on the dignified plane she’d lived all her life. “Good-bye, Mary,” he said.
She took up her cane. “Good-bye, Amos. See after Rachel and Percy for me.”
“You know I will.”
She nodded, and he watched her tap her way to the door, back straining for the regal posture so typically Mary. Opening it, she did not look back but gave him a small wave over her shoulder as she stepped out and closed the door behind her.
Amos stood in the silence, staring numbly into space, letting the tears trickle unchecked down his face. After a moment, he drew in a ragged breath, locked his office door, and returned to his desk, where he carefully wrapped the pearls in a clean handkerchief. They felt cool and fresh. Mary must have had them cleaned recently. There was no oil, no feel of her, to his touch. He would take them home at the end of the day and keep them for Rachel in a hand-carved letter box, the only memento of his mother’s he’d chosen to keep. He removed his tie, unbuttoned his collar, and went into an adjoining bathroom to wash his face. After toweling it dry, he administered eyedrops prescribed for ocular fatigue.
Back at his desk, he punched an intercom button. “Susan, take the afternoon off. Hang out the closed sign and hook us up to the answering machine.”
“Are you all right, Amos?”
“Miss Mary—is she okay?”
“She’s fine, too.” She didn’t believe him, of course, but he trusted his secretary of twenty years to say nothing of her suspicions that all was not fine with her employer and Miss Mary. “Go and enjoy your afternoon.”
“Well… until tomorrow, then.”
“Yes, until tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. He felt sick at what that day would bring to Rachel, who right now was no doubt surveying cotton fields she thought would one day be hers. Tomorrow it would all be over—everything she’d given her adult life to. She was only twenty-nine and soon to be rich. She could start over—if she wasn’t too shattered to begin again—but it would be beyond Howbutker, beyond the future he’d envisioned for himself when Percy was gone, the last of the three friends who’d constituted the only family he’d ever known. He regarded Matt, Percy’s grandson, like a nephew, but when he married, his wife might have something to say about her family filling the void left by Ollie and Mary and Percy. Rachel, now, would have been another story. She adored him as he did her, and her house would have always been open to him. His old bachelor heart had so looked forward to her coming to live in Howbutker, residing in the Toliver mansion, keeping Mary’s spirit alive, marrying and raising kids for him to love and spoil in his declining years. Tomorrow all that would be over for him, too.
He heaved a sigh and opened a door in the credenza. Never did he take a drink before six o’clock in the evening, and then his limit was two shots of Scotch mellowed with twice as much soda. Today he took a bottle from the cabinet, dumped the water from his glass, and unhesitatingly poured it half-full of Johnnie Walker Red.
Glass in hand, he crossed to the French windows overlooking a small courtyard rife with the summer flowers of East Texas—pink primroses and blue plumbago, violet lantana and yellow nasturtium, all climbing the rock fence. The garden had been designed by Charles Waithe, son of the founder of the firm, to serve as a mental retreat from the heartsick duties of his office. Today the therapy didn’t work, but it evoked memories that Mary’s visit had already jogged to the surface. He remembered the day Charles, then a man of fifty, had turned from this window and asked if he’d be interested in a junior partner position. He’d been stunned, elated. The offer had come within the forty-eight hours he’d given William Toliver his train ticket, seen Mary on the stairs, and met her locally prominent husband and the equally powerful Percy Warwick. It had all happened so fast, his head still spun when he thought of how fate had been kind and parlayed his decision to part with his ticket into the fulfillment of his dreams—a job in his field, a place to call home, and friends to take him to their bosoms.
It had all come about one early October morning in 1945. Just discharged from the army, with no job on the horizon and nowhere to hang his hat, he was on his way to Houston to see a sister he barely knew when the train stopped briefly outside a little burg with a sign over the station house that read: Welcome to Howbutker, Heart of the Piney Woods of Texas. He’d gotten off to stretch his legs when a teenage boy with green eyes and hair as black as a cornfield crow ran up to the conductor hollering, “Hold the train! Hold the train!”
“Got a ticket, son?”
“No, sir, I—”
“Well, then, you’ll have to wait for the next train. This one’s full to capacity from here to Houston.”
Amos had looked at the flushed face of the boy, his breath coming out in fast, chilled puffs, and recognized the desperation of a boy running away from home. He’s taking too much with him, he’d thought, recalling his own experience as a boy of fifteen on the lam from his parents. He hadn’t made it. That’s when he’d handed the boy his ticket. “Here. Take mine,” he’d said. “I’ll wait for the next train.”
The boy—whom he later discovered to be the seventeen-year-old nephew of Mary Toliver DuMont—had rushed out on the platform to wave at him as the train bore him away, never to return to How butker to live. And Amos had never left. He’d hoisted his duffel and started into town with the idea of staying only one night, but the morning train had taken off without him. He’d often reflected on the irony of it… how William’s exit out of Howbutker had been his entrance in, and he’d never regretted a single day of it. Until now.
He took a fiery swallow of the Scotch, feeling it go down like broken razor blades. Dammit, Mary, what in the world possessed you to do such a deplorable thing? He ran a hand over his bald scalp. What in God’s name had he missed that would explain—excuse—what she had done? He’d thought he knew her history and those of Ollie DuMont and Percy Warwick inside out. What he hadn’t read, he had heard from their own mouths. Naturally, he had arrived too late to witness the beginning of their stories, but he’d made a point to fill in the gaps. Nowhere had he come across anything—not a scrap of gossip, newspaper clipping, journal, not a word from people who had known them all their lives—that would explain why Mary had severed Rachel’s ties to her birthright and destroyed her lifelong dream.
A sudden thought drove him to a bookshelf. He sought and found a volume that he took to his desk. Could the answer be here? He’d not read the history of the founding families of Howbutker since that October morning he’d helped William escape. Later in town, he’d learned that a search was on for the runaway, son of the late Miles Toliver, brother of Mary Toliver DuMont, who’d subsequently adopted the boy and given him everything. Bitterly recalling his own mistreatment when he’d been dragged back to his parents, he’d gone to the library seeking information about the rich DuMonts that would help him decide whether he should alert the authorities to the boy’s destination or keep his silence. There a librarian had handed him a copy of this book written by Jessica Toliver, Mary’s great-grandmother. Now that he was looking, a clue to Mary’s motives might pop out that he’d missed forty years ago. The title of the book was Roses.
The narrative began with the immigration of Silas William Toliver and Jeremy Matthew Warwick to Texas in the fall of 1836. As the youngest sons of two of South Carolina’s most prominent plantation families, they stood little chance of becoming masters of their fathers’ estates and thus set out together to establish plantations of their own in a loam-rich area they’d been told existed in the eastern part of the new republic of Texas. Both were blue-blooded descendants of English royalty, though they sprang from warring houses—the Lancasters and the Yorks. In the middle of the 1600s, descendants of their families, who had been enemies during the War of the Roses, found themselves settling cheek by jowl on plantations in the New World near the future site of Charleston, which they helped to establish in 1670. Out of mutual dependence, the two families had buried their ancestral differences, retaining only the emblems by which their allegiance to their respective houses in England were known—their roses. The Warwicks, descended from the House of York, grew only white roses in their gardens, while the Tolivers cultivated exclusively red roses, the symbol of the House of Lancaster.
By 1830, cotton was king in the South, and the two youngest sons yearned for plantations of their own in a place where they might establish a town that reflected the noblest ideals of their English and southern culture. Joining their wagon train were families of lesser breeding and education who nonetheless shared the same dreams, and regard for hard work, God, and their southern heritage. Included also were the slaves—men, women, and children—upon whose backs these dreams were to be made possible. They started west, taking the southern route along the trails that had lured men like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. Near New Orleans, a Frenchman, tall and slim in the saddle, rode out to meet them. He introduced himself as Henri DuMont and asked if he could join the train. He was dressed in a suit of the finest cut and cloth and exuded charm and sophistication. He, too, was an aristocrat, a descendant of King Louis VI, whose family had immigrated to Louisiana to escape the horrors of the French Revolution. Owing to a falling-out with his father over how to run their exclusive mercantile store in New Orleans, it was now his intention to establish his own emporium in Texas, without paternal interference. Silas and Jeremy welcomed him.
Had they continued a bit farther west toward a town now called Corsicana, so Jessica Toliver informed the reader, they would have reached the land they were seeking, an area rich in a soil known as “black waxy” that was to yield huge crops of corn and cotton to future landowners. As it was, horses and travelers were tired by the time the wagon train crossed the Sabine River from Louisiana into Texas, and a weary Silas William Toliver surveyed the pine-covered hillsides and drawled, “How about here?”
The question was passed and repeated among the settlers, though with less refined tongues, and by the end of the line it had become: “How ’bout cher?” Thus it was that the town came to be called after the question to which the colonizers unanimously answered yes. The founding fathers gave in to the consensus that the town be so named only on the condition that the ch be hardened to a k and spelled and pronounced as “How-but-ker.”
Despite its rather yokelish name, the first inhabitants were determined to set a cultured tone for the community not unlike the gracious way of life they’d known, or wanted to know. They were in accord that here among the pine trees, life would be lived in the traditional southern fashion. As it turned out, few became plantation owners. There were too many trees to clear from the land, and the hillsides were difficult to work. There were other vocations to which a man could turn his hands if he was able and willing. Some settled for smaller farms, others chose cattle raising, a few went into dairy farming. A number opened businesses built to the exact specifications laid out by the city planning commission and agreed upon by the voting citizens of the young community. Jeremy Warwick saw his financial future assured in the cutting and selling of timber. His eye was on the markets to be found in Dallas and Galveston and other cities springing up in the new republic.
Henri DuMont opened a dry-goods store in the center of town that in time surpassed the elegance of his father’s in New Orleans. In addition, he bought and developed property for commercial purposes, renting his buildings to shopkeepers lured to Howbutker by its reputation for civic-mindedness, law and order, and the sobriety of its citizens. But Silas William Toliver had not been willing to turn his hands to another occupation. Convinced that man’s only vocation was land, he set about with his slaves to cultivate and plant his acres in cotton, using his profits to expand his holdings. Within a few years, he owned the largest tract of land along the Sabine River, which afforded easy transport of his cotton by raft to the Gulf of Mexico.
He permitted only one alteration to the life he had envision
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