COMING FEB. 17th!
In 19th century Louisiana, a small-town girl chases her dream of becoming a designer and boutique owner. Leaving her family and everything else behind, she becomes the first Black dress shop owner in New Orleans. A racially motivated incident makes a devastating blow to all she’s built in such short amount of time. While seeking help, she runs into James, a handsome, well-bred lawyer that is instantly smitten with her. Devin believes she’s much too busy building a successful business to be entangled with a love interest, especially a White Frenchman. As former Civil War soldier, he’s an attorney with access to some of the most powerful families in the city.
As Devin increases her business expertise, James stays on the sidelines hoping she’ll change her mind. Once Devin finds some interest in the public service lawyer, she finds out that her family has already found a fiancé from her hometown for her and she must marry him immediately. To wed him, she would have to leave everything, including James behind. However, once James’ mother gets word that her son may have fallen in love with a woman of color, she takes matters into her own hands as well. Caught between running a boutique in segregated New Orleans, being the heartbeat of a French gentleman, and the target of the affections for a man she’s never met, her life falls into disarray. Will true love or her parental expectations triumph? Only time will tell if there will be Love on the Bayou.
New Orleans, Louisiana 1870
It was the city of dreams. Devin never thought she would have ever had the opportunity to step foot in one of the largest cities in the American South. Most of the South was still suffering because both slaves and former white slave owners were still trying to get on their feet. The end of slavery had been heavily celebrated but few people of color knew how to manage themselves without being under the watchful eye of a master. He had controlled everything from what they ate to how long they worked. Few whites in many states wanted to employ them for fear of economic competition. In Texas, there was chaos everywhere. Former masters were trying to cheat their former slaves into working for them again almost for free. Freed slaves were scrambling to find their missing relatives, put food on the table, and purchase land on the very same fields they were forced to farm each year.
Devin was tired of Texas and needed a fresh start. Her parents were insistent on her waiting for a husband to take all financial responsibility. Her own mother, Kate, quit school in the eighth grade to marry her much older father. Her grandmother didn’t see any sense in continuing her education if all she would ever be was a housewife.
Unlike her mother, whose only entertainment was needle making, Devin took great pleasure in selling goods. She had always been artistic and enjoyed painting, writing poems, and sewing. Her mother felt that the only sewing she needed to do was to make dresses for herself and clothes for her future children.
Devin had begun to design the same dresses she saw in catalogs she would pick up at the post office. Her designs were so well made, women all over the neighborhood asked her if she could make them anything from a housedress to a Sunday frock.
She was slowly saving all the money she earned with dreams of moving to New Orleans. Since it was the next largest city, she knew she’d have more access to some of the most popular dressmakers in the country.
While sewing one of her latest designs in the living room of her family’s modest log house, her mother picked up one of the emerald gowns Devin had sewn for the pastor’s wife.
“All these new age designs, who’s going to wear them?”
Devin looked up from her sewing and shook her head. “Mama, they’re all the rage in Europe. Women are wearing fuller skirts and buttons now. Collars are fuller. We can’t just stay stuck in the old styles.”
“You should think about getting stuck in the kitchen and helping me with cooking,” her mother sneered.
Devin wasn’t sure if she hated living in her small town in Texas or the kitchen more. She enjoyed her mother’s cooking and there were some days she wanted to know her mother’s boiled chicken recipe but she did not want to live out her life as a domestic servant to the man of the house.
Unfortunately, her father was just as traditional and constantly mocked her decision to have a clothing boutique.
“Women don’t sell clothes, they make them,” her mother scolded looking over a red gown Devin had started on for someone participating in a Christmas program. “This will never work.”
“That’s your business to believe what you would like, Mama. My passion lies in dressmaking and I cannot imagine doing anything else.”
Her parents had warned her that they had chosen Robert Fuller as a husband for her. He was still in California buying and selling properties. He planned to make enough money to buy a large estate in Texas.
“I’m sure you would imagine yourself as someone’s wife. How do you expect to have children or live a life pleasing to God. The Lord never meant for us to be single.”
Devin put her sewing needle down and sighed. “Mama, I don’t need a husband to complete me. If I am interested in someone someday, I don’t want to be forced into a marriage of convenience. The only marriage interests I have are those of love and if that never happens, why marry?”
“You speak like those crazy women out there on the streets. You will die a spinster and regret that your poor mother and father did nothing but look out for your best interest.”
“My mother and father rather I be poor both in spirit and in finances. How will I ever make my own money?”
“Your husband will provide. A woman’s first job is to care for her household. Your future children will suffer with a mother who chooses money over them.”
Her mother put her hand to her forehead and leaned back in her chair as if she feeling faint. Devin hated her mother’s dramatics but she had been used to it since she was a small child.
“Mama, may I finish these orders in peace without being reminded of the doom I must face someday.”
“There are so many young ladies who wish they were in your position. They wished someone as financially sound as Robert Fuller would give them the time of day.”
“Well then I would love to step aside and give them the chance to meet their destiny.”
Her mother haughtily walked out of the room. Devin was sure she would go outside to repeat word for word everything she said during their conversation.
After sewing on the last button on the emerald gown she had been laboring over for days, she went to her room and pulled out a wooden box that held every cent she owned.
Devin counted carefully as if this time she would have more money than her count from last week.
She closed her eyes and silently prayed to God to get her out of Galveston. Her dream was to make dresses for women all over New Orleans. She had been told she had God-given talent since she was a child so she would hate to waste it in the rural fields of her birth.
She folded her elegant creations in boxes and wrote the names of who would be receiving what on a tag on each box.
Devin wanted to escape much sooner than her intended three-month plan. In three months, she had planned to save up enough money to buy a ticket on a passenger train. She also needed enough money to afford at least three months’ rent. However, after some research and speaking to people that she knew had traveled, there were all-female hostels for women who did not have enough money to have a private lodging. Devin didn’t want to live with several strange women, but she wanted to finally escape her parents’ disdain for her life choices. She was going to be a dressmaker and the owner of a clothing boutique in less than three years or bust.
In the middle of September, Devin left a letter for her parents telling them that she was interested in finally pursuing her dream. She knew it would leave her mother in tears and her father furious, but she couldn’t spare their feelings. If she stayed in Galveston one more month, she knew that her ambition to leave would begin to slowly fade. Although she had become rather popular in town from her designs, her mother had convinced the townspeople that she was rebellious and had no interest in becoming a nice, Christian wife. It had been slowly sending her business into a decline because no one wanted to wear a dress made by the potential town hussy who would never settle down with one man.
Devin knew that in New Orleans, women could care less about her marital status. She had read that the city had the highest number of single women in the state. The reason was because women who had inherited money had thriving businesses to add to their fortunes. There were women there that didn’t need a husband to add to their social status. She had also heard of women who had married but for love and not necessity. Their husbands allowed them to have businesses, travel, and choose not to have children if they didn’t want to. If she could find a spouse who could allow her to grow her business, she would have him. However, there was no need to lean on the opposite sex if he was to be more of a burden than a blessing.
The night was crisp and her heavy luggage pulled her at her shoulder. She could already feel beads of sweat forming on her chest. Her hair was in a neat bun and the old dress she wore already had a hole on the hem.
The post office was where the horse drawn carriage usually met travelers at least once an hour. Devin hoped they would pick her up in the next few minutes. The night was eerie. This was one of the most dangerous times for a woman to be alone. She had heard of women being raped or even killed when they journeyed on their own. A man smoking a cigarette tipped his hat at her when she arrived at the post office porch.
Within ten minutes, she heard the horses in the distance. Their horseshoes loudly scraped the gravel road. The driver pulled at the reins and the whinny of the black horse in the front startled her. She pulled her luggage onto the carriage and paid the driver two dollars. She asked him to take her to the train station. He reminded her that he wouldn’t arrive there until the early morning. Devin was prepared to sleep on the ride over.
Three hours later, the buggy stopped and pulled forward. She and one other rider, an old man who looked to be about seventy, got off in front of the train station. Devin was still trying to wipe sleepiness out of her eyes.
She boarded the train one hour later and kept all her luggage in her lap. The white passengers sat in the front and the colored passengers sat anywhere from the middle of the car to the back. Devin was so exhausted, she felt faint. She asked a woman next to her, if she could unbutton part of her dress in the back because she was too weak to do it herself. She hadn’t eaten since the day before.
The woman offered her a piece of bread and an apple claiming that Devin’s face looked sallow and her body too thin. Devin told her that she had always been a thin girl but she hadn’t eaten in a while. Devin bit into the apple and bread voraciously as if it was her last meal.
After sleeping for six hours on the train ride, a loud announcement rang from the front of the train. They were officially in New Orleans. Devin forced her eyes open and looked around her as if she had landed in an undiscovered, exotic place.
She stepped off the train’s platform and blended in with the other travelers who all went the same direction and then dispersed.
There were women of color in long, silk gowns and their hair tied in beautiful fabrics called Tignons. The men were dressed in more flamboyant colors and a few even carried gilded walking sticks. Children of color played freely in small green patches as if they had never heard of the term slavery. Devin still had her heavy luggage on her shoulder but she felt freer than she ever had before. New Orleans was a city of color, music, culture, and dreams. She had heard stories about the prosperous town since she was a child. Her parents always thought it was a city full of demons that practiced witchcraft. Since her parents rarely followed the Christian principles taught to their family every Sunday such as loving your neighbor, Devin could spot their hypocrisy from a young age.
The House of Madeline was the name of the all-women’s hostel. She had learned about it from a female traveler in Texas that swore it was a safe place for young, unaccompanied women to find a room.
She found the small hotel within thirty minutes of walking. An older woman by the name of Mabel opened the door. There was little conversation. Devin paid the amount for her first month’s stay upfront. She was then led to a room with five other girls.
“No gentleman callers, no profane language, clean up after yourself, and everyone attends mass on Sunday. No exceptions.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Devin said with a slight curtsy. She knew she would be able to abide by the “no gentleman callers” rule because she had no intention of seeking a partner at the moment. If it came before building her business, she didn’t want it.
The other young ladies seemed agreeable. Their names were Lily, Ava, Maxine, Charlotte, and Maria. They were Creole girls that covered their hair in silk fabric. Ava, who was very light skinned, could almost pass for white. Maxine’s green eyes against her caramel skin was stunning.
The girls welcomed her to the fold and asked what she did to make money.
“I’m a dressmaker. I’m looking to start my own boutique in New Orleans. I’ve been sewing for years. I used to make dresses on commission in my hometown.”
“That’s wonderful,” Lily said bending down to look at all the fabrics Devin removed from her bags. “Most of the boutiques are owned by white French women. The women of our race sell for them but they do not own.”
“Are there many businesses in town ran by women like us?”
“Sure!” Maxine began. “We have food shops, a musical instrument store, a tailor, and a shoemaker.”
“There’s also several horse stables that sell to us.”
Devin knew that following the war, segregation was commonplace. People of color were required to sit separately from whites on streetcars and were forced to use the back entrance of white owned businesses.
Her life’s dream was to have a shop in New Orleans where women just like herself could enter in the front of the boutique instead of having to be waited on by the back door. New Orleans was far more progressive that most other formerly slave owning cities that she had heard of but they still had a long way to go. Slavery had been illegal for five years but it was easy to tell that colored business owners were far outnumbered by white ones. Many former slaves were still poor and some were relying on tending to the land that they had once been bound to. Some former slave owners had created threatening gangs that were meant to scare their former property into submission. It was something that haunted people of color all over the country every day despite living in areas where they made up the majority.
Devin had finished unpacking her clothing, pair of shoes, and a few blouses. She laid her skirt out on the bed and paired it with a white blouse.
She planned on wearing it to the Freedman’s Bureau tomorrow. The government organization that was developed post-slavery helped establish schools, business loans, disputes, and even searches for missing family members scattered by the selling of slaves for hundreds of years.
There, she would ask for a business loan to put a down payment on a building in New Orleans. She would go and look for buildings for sale in the city and then headed over to the bureau to fund her enterprise.
“Oh you know the line there will be long,” Lily warned. “There are so may people who are in need. I think their last objective is to give out business loans. That means you have at least some way to care for yourself. Also, you’re a woman.”
Devin ignored Lily’s unsolicited advice and continued to write down various business plans in her journal. “I’ll be leaving in the morning so please excuse me in advance if I gently wake any of you up. I’ll try to be as quiet as possible.”
“I still can’t believe you’re still going through with this.”
James smiled at his ailing mother and grabbed his binder with all his important documents enclosed. “Mama, I’m not going to stop because you have an issue with people of color. I’m still a lawyer. That hasn’t changed.”
His mother twisted her face into a sneer and folded her age spotted arms across her chest. She was still wearing a black frock after her husband, James’ father Frances, died six months ago. “Your father would be ashamed. We paid for law school so you could work privately somewhere up east and you waste your talents with these people who don’t care about their lives.”
James didn’t have the heart to put his mother in the care of the nuns who looked after the elderly but on days like this, he wanted to ship her away at least for a week. “Mama, they care just as much as earning a living as we do. New Orleans needs help and if I don’t do it, who will?”
“Black lawyers will,” his mother retorted.
“There aren’t nearly enough lawmen to make a difference of any color.”
James kissed his mother on her forehead while she sat reading a book by the window sill. “My only son, you don’t have to take on the stress of others to prove something. Let them handle their own mess.”
“I’ll see you this evening, Mama.”
James kept his legal documents under his arm and mounted his horse, Finney, in the direction of the Freedman’s Bureau. He was elated to have been chosen to work there. He had always wanted to get into the legal field somehow. Public service law seemed to be more of his calling.
When he arrived, the building was bustling with office workers and freedmen in need of help. The people that arrived at the office needed everything from a farmer’s loan to a grant for a school. Some just needed government issued bread to feed their families for the next few days.
He was one of the few white men there but he didn’t mind. His blue eyes and broad smile were always a top talking point with some of the ladies who had the pleasure of meeting him. However, there were times when he saw whole families at the bureau and wondered what it would be like to have one of his own one day. His mother was on the hunt to find him a suitable wife but James hadn’t been attempting to make that a priority since he became a lawyer. He had been too busy to seek female company.
During his lunch hour, he tended to walk the halls and talk to people from all walks of life. He played around with some of the small children and listened to the stories of old men. Some of whom still knew their lore from their villages in West Africa.
While walking back to his office, he spotted a young lady in line. Something about her stood out to him. He didn’t know if it was her flawless brown skin or the way she held her hands in front of her to wait her turn.
He just knew that looking at her made his heart slightly jump.
James walked up to her from behind. The young women was instantly startled when he began talking.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you, ma’am.”
“It’s fine. I just wasn’t expecting someone to speak to me from that direction. I beg your pardon, is there something you need from me?”
“No. I sometimes lollygag down the halls during my break and I don’t see many unaccompanied young women in line.”
“Will that make it difficult for them to service me?”
“What are you here for?”
James witnessed her gently sigh and then move her shoulders backward. “I’m looking for a business loan. There’s a vacant building I would like to lease and I want to know how much they would give me.”
“A business loan for what kind of business?”
He watched her eye contact shift everywhere but on him.
“I would like to develop a dress boutique. I’m a dressmaker and would enjoy displaying my ready-made clothing for women. It’s becoming more popular for women to buy their dresses now instead of making them. I wanted to be part of that venture.”
“That sounds like an excellent business opportunity. If I wore women’s clothing, I would come to you in a heartbeat.”
James had hoped his joke would force her serious face to crack a smile but he failed.
“How long do you think it will take?”
“Ma’am, I’m going to personally check in with our loan officer and see when his next available appointment is. The line your standing in is for every service we offer. It may take one more hour or more and then we have to begin to process your request.”
It seemed like the heaven’s opened when Devin gave him eye contact and a closed mouth smile. “Yes, mister?”
“Lafayette. James Lafayette. Who do I have the pleasure of speaking with on this lovely Friday morning?”
“You’re not from here are you?”
“Will that be a problem?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Well, I’m from Texas. I moved here to begin a new life as a business owner.”
“I don’t meet many ambitious women or people for that matter such as yourself. You must come from quite an industrious family.”
“No, I don’t. My parents were against it but I needed to prove to myself that I could do it.”
James didn’t know if you could fall in love with someone the first time you met them but Devin was certainly the first woman he had a strong attraction to in a long time. He loved the way her small stature dwarfed against his and how her eyelashes fluttered when she smiled. Her clear brown skin made him wonder why God had not been more generous in offering him color.
“I’ll go and see if someone is available right now, Miss Washington. Is it Miss or Misses? I’m sorry if I disrespected your marital status.”
“Miss,” she said quickly.
James turned on his heels and unlocked the door behind the assistants that took over potential clients. The loan officer, a Jewish man with curly, black hair and dark brown eyes stood immediately behind his desk.
“Do you have any clients for an appointment this afternoon, David?”
“I’ll be busy all day, James.”
“Would you have time to squeeze in another client for a half hour?”
“Now James, I haven’t eaten. Is this person going to invent a contraption where we can all fly like birds? What is this?”
“No, she’s a dressmaker. She wants to start her own boutique. I think it’s a brilliant idea. We don’t have very many women of color taking on such feats.”
“I don’t think I have time for dresses and hats, James. David, she’s a freed slave trying to make New Orleans a better place. We need more black businesses in the area. It’s the only way this bureau will have a legacy if in the future we would ever be shut down. You know the politicians in D.C. want to defund out efforts as soon as they can.”
“Alright, James. Send her in. Where is she?”
“She’s right behind me. I’ll send her in.”
James spryly walked toward Devin who was still in line rocking back and forth to take pressure off her legs.
“Miss Washington! Our loan officer will see you now.”
“Oh, praise God! Thank you so much Mr. Lafayette.”
James followed her into the office. He swore the way her hips moved from left to right when she walked would put him in a hypnosis.
He opened the door for her and pulled out a chair in David’s office.
“Now, before we go any further,” David said squinting his eyes through his bifocals. “Do you have a current place of employment?”
The gulp and pause she took sent James’ heart racing. “Yes, she does!”
He took joy in watching her eyes meet his in shock.
“She works at Luvalle’s General Store in the French Quarters. She’s an assistant. He raves about her.”
“Is this true, Miss Washington?”
“Yes,” she hesitated.
“Then, have a seat and let’s discuss how much we can give you.”
“At the best interest rate, perhaps,” James chimed in.
“Yes, but of course. James, we’ll be no longer than a half hour. I’ll speak to you soon.”
“Thank you, Mr. Goldstein. Miss, Washington,” he nodded his head and slightly bowed at the waist.
James went back to his office and dived into his paperwork. He had an ongoing case between a former white slave owner and his former slave. The case was all about a land dispute and how much the former slave owner owed him if continued to work for him after the emancipation proclamation. James hated those cases because he knew that the white men were taking advantage of former slaves that couldn’t read or were too impoverished to think carefully about deals that seemed too good to be true. Feeding their families came first.
His work was tiring but since he was always on the side of the freedman, he knew he was on the right side of the law.
Suddenly, there was a tap on his door.
His secretary, a woman in her fifties that had been born into slavery opened the door. “A woman named Miss Washington is here to see you.”
“Send her in.”
He felt sweat reach his palms and jitters overcome his legs once she walked in. Her face said it all. She was smiling from ear to ear and almost reached out to hug him but stopped herself midway.
“Mr. Lafayette. I wanted to personally thank you for your help. I was approved for a loan that would cover the lease of the building for three months. He said I wouldn’t have to pay it back for another nine months with zero interest.”
“You’re so welcome, Madame.” His slight French accent had resurfaced. “I’m so happy to helped you. I can’t wait to know where this place is. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time you come to tell me of your good fortune.”
“But I have one problem, Sir.”
“You told Mr. Goldstein that I worked for Luvalle’s General Store. I’m afraid he may revoke the loan when he becomes privy to the fact that I am unemployed.”
“Mr. Goldstein can be stickler for that kind of stuff. I’m sorry. I can still get you a job there. I’ve known Mr. Luvalle for ages. He always needs help. He keeps hiring mindless fifteen and sixteen year olds.”
“Well, I do need one. I still need to purchase items for my store and what I have saved up, might not cover it.”
“Well how about I walk with you to the store and talk to Mr. Luvalle myself.”
Devin turned her face away from him and James felt he had said something improper.
“We should probably go separately. We still don’t know each other that well.”
With confusion on his face, James accepted her advice and chose to go to Luvalle’s ahead of her.
“I’ll go to Luvalle’s and ask him if he needs help. He will. He pays a modest sum but it’s much better than not having employment at all.”
“I see,” she said dispassionately.
“Would you meet me at his store before he closes this evening at six? I’d like to him to see you today. He’s a stern man but he is simply looking for a hard worker. He will need help with cleaning shelves, checking out customers, and organizing his wares.”
“I can meet you, Sir.”
“Very well. I’ll see you this evening, Madame.”
James bowed at the waist and watched her drift out of his office like a lovely ghost. Her voice was like a musical instrument he had never heard before. It was high pitched but terse. He could tell that she was a businesswoman at heart.
At 6 PM, the crowds in the French Quarter were changing from families with children to young men and women looking for debauchery. James kept looking outside above the stoned pathway hoping to see her walking.
The sudden whinny of a horse gathered his attention to his right. A small carriage led by a single horse and driver stopped directly in front of the store. Devin arrived smoothing out her skirt after exiting the passenger’s seat.
James greeted her and Devin was just as direct as when he met her. She exchanged few words with him.
Behind the counter was an old man with bushy eyebrows and black vest with specks of dust all over it.
“Are you, Miss Washington?” Mr. Luvalle asked.
“Can you sweep a good floor? Are you organized?”
“Yes, sir. I’m very organized and I don’t mind cleaning.”
“Can you start tomorrow morning at nine?”
“Yes, Sir. I can.”
“Well good. This interview is over. Welcome to Luvalle’s.” The old man took a dirty rag to clean off the counter and then climbed upstairs where he lived.
“Bon Nuit!” Mr. Luvalle exclaimed.
“Bon Nuit, Monsieur Luvalle!”
“How much French do you speak?” Devin asked.
“I’m fluent. How about yourself?”
“Just English. I’ve always wanted to learn another language.”
“Well, maybe I can teach you,” James said playfully.
“I was thinking more Spanish. It’s slightly closer to English.”
“I see,” James chuckled. “Well, in New Orleans you’ll have to know much more ‘Bon Nuit’ than “Buenas Nochas.’”
“I’ll learn what I have to,” Devin said yawning.
She turned to head out the door.
“How are you getting back home?”
“The streetcar will take me most of the way there.”
“In the dark like this?”
“I’m fine, Sir. I promise. I’ve been down more treacherous paths than this.”
“New Orleans is a different city, Madame.”
“I’ll be in God’s graces, Sir. Thank you for everything you’ve offered me today. Your kindness is truly unmeasured for someone of your…status.”
James knew she wanted to speak of her surprise of him being a kind white man. It delighted his heart that she saw past the stereotypes that all men of his color were inherently evil.
“Would it be too much to ask if I walked a few steps behind you to the streetcar just to make sure you get there safely?”
“That’s fine, Sir,” Devin sighed.
Twenty minutes later, James watched her depart. She waved and he tried to keep his eyes locked on her for as long as possible until she crept into the distance.
Maybe it wasn’t love but he felt a longing in his heart for her. A feeling like that hadn’t touched him since his first crush on a girl in school.
He had to see her again.