The wagon paused on a bustling street corner, the large draft horse at its lead tossing its mane. People in all manner of dress—from the wealthy with their golden watch chains to the humble with their threadbare linen—crossed Decatur Street, their steps focused and harried, as though they were on a mission. It felt unusual for a time of day marked by endings rather than beginnings.
Since Pippa was situated closest to the driver, she leaned forward to address him. "Is there something of note occurring tonight? Something to explain the gathering crowd?"
"The parade," the gruff man replied, without turning around.
He cleared his throat. "There's a parade gettin' started near Canal Street. On account of the carnival season."
"A carnival parade!" Pippa exclaimed, turning toward Celine.
Antonia—the young woman seated at Celine's left—looked about excitedly, her dark eyes round and bright, like those of an owl. "Um carnaval?" she asked in Portuguese as she pointed toward the sounds of distant revelry.
Celine nodded with a smile.
"It's a shame we'll miss seeing it," Pippa said.
"I wouldn't worry, lass," the driver replied, his tongue rolling over the words with a hint of Irish burr. "There'll be plenty o' parades and celebrations all month long during the carnival season. You'll see one, to be sure. And just you wait for the masquerade ball on Mardi Gras. 'Twill be the finest of them all."
"I heard talk about the carnival season from a friend in Edinburgh," Anabel—a lissome redhead with an attractive smattering of freckles across her nose—exclaimed. "The entire city of New Orleans rings in the time before Lent with soirées and balls and costume parties for weeks on end."
"Parties!" the twins from Germany repeated as soon as they recognized the word, one of them clapping her hands with delight.
Their glowing faces struck Celine. Moved something behind her heart. An emotion she'd banned herself from feeling ever since the events of that dreadful night:
She'd arrived in a city amid celebration. One with weeks of fêtes to come. The crowd was filled with that same spirit of anticipation she saw in the girls who now shared her fate. Maybe their expressions did not have to be about trepidation. Maybe the bougainvillea was simply jostled awake instead of trembling with worry.
Maybe Celine did not have to live her life in fear of what might happen tomorrow.
As they waited for the streets to clear of passing pedestrians, Celine leaned forward, her spirits on the cusp of taking flight. She tried to catch a bit of ivy dangling from an intricate wrought-iron railing. The clattering of footsteps to her left stole her attention as the crowd parted to allow their wagon through.
It was not to allow them passage.
It was for something else entirely.
There—beneath the amber haze of a gas lamp—stood a lone figure poised to cross Decatur Street, a Panama hat pulled low on his brow, shrouding his features.
Without hesitation, their driver granted the man immediate deference, dipping his head in the figure's direction as though he were bowing . . . or perhaps keeping his eyes averted.