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“I declare,” Miss An’gel Ducote said, “this dog is smarter than a lot of people I know. And he’s not even a year old yet.” She gave Peanut the Labradoodle a fond pat on his head. Peanut responded with a happy bark. His tail thumped against the plush carpet by An’gel’s chair.
“Yes, he sees you do something one time, and he doesn’t forget it.” Miss Dickce Ducote, at eighty the younger sister by four years, beamed at the wriggling dog. “Benjy, you’ve done wonders with this dog’s training the past two months.”
Benjy Stephens smiled. “He’s not hard to train. Like Miss An’gel says, he’s really smart.”
Endora, an Abyssinian cat with a ruddy coat, surveyed the dog’s antics from her vantage point atop the back of Dickce’s chair. Her tail flicked in a languorous motion every few seconds close to Dickce’s right ear.
Benjy laughed and pointed at the cat. “Endora doesn’t look all that impressed.”
Peanut barked and picked up An’gel’s empty suitcase by its handle with his teeth and carried it to the closet. He placed it inside, then with his right front paw swung shut the closet door. He turned to face his audience, and An’gel told him what a clever boy he was.
“Come sit, Peanut.” An’gel motioned for the Labradoodle to approach her chair, and the dog obeyed instantly. An’gel turned to Benjy. “How is your room? Is it comfortable?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Benjy nodded. “These guest cottages are pretty awesome.”
“Cousin Mireille had them redone a couple of years ago, she said.” Dickce glanced around the living room of the two-bedroom cottage she was sharing with An’gel. While the furniture here was reproduction, it was in the style of the antiques in the main house. “I gather her bed-and-breakfast business does well.”
“St. Ignatiusville is a pretty town, I grant you.” An’gel shook her head. “But I fail to understand why it’s such a popular tourist destination.”
“There’s a lot of history here in Louisiana,” Benjy said. “I was reading the brochure in my room. Just like with Riverhill, I guess.”
Riverhill, the Ducote family home, was built in the early 1830s in Athena, Mississippi. Willowbank, ancestral home to the sisters’ cousin Mireille Champlain, dated to the late eighteenth century.
“I suppose so,” Dickce said. “Willowbank is larger, of course, with its third story and the galleries around the upper floors. There’s a smaller version in the Vieux Carré in New Orleans, but Mireille sold it years ago.”
An’gel checked her watch. “Now that we’ve unpacked, I suppose we should go over to the main house and check in with Mireille. No doubt there are things we can help her with.”
“Three days before her granddaughter’s wedding?” Dickce laughed. “I’m sure she can find something for us to do.” She cut a sideways glance at Benjy. “Sure you won’t change your mind and come with us? I bet Sondra will put on a show.”
Benjy grinned. “If she’s as spoiled as you say, I bet she will. Right now, though, I think it would be better if I stayed here with Peanut and Endora. There’s no telling what they might get up to. Peanut gets so excited when there’s new people to meet.”
“True,” An’gel said, “and Mireille’s front parlor is full of Meissen and Limoges—or at least it used to be.” She rose. “Good plan, Benjy. Come along, Sister.”
Peanut whined when the door opened, but at a command from Benjy, he quieted and stayed where he was. Endora examined her front right paw and yawned.
The door closed behind them, An’gel and Dickce followed the path around an ornamental pond that separated the bed-and-breakfast cottages from Willowbank itself, about two hundred yards away. A mix of willows and live oaks bordered half the pond to the east, and over to the south, a grand procession of live oaks marked the circular drive that led up to the front door of the plantation house.
The sisters trod carefully around the pond, not eager to encounter anything reptilian, particularly snakes. The October afternoon was warm, but pleasant breezes kept the atmosphere temperate. The many trees cast a lot of shade, and An’gel paused in front of one bordering the drive for a moment and gazed at the house.
Willowbank was a magnificent structure in the Greek Revival style, larger than most of its period. Generations of the Champlain clan had lavished considerable money on its upkeep, and it survived as a reminder of the graciousness of certain aspects of the Southern planter class’s lifestyle. Mireille, a Champlain by birth, had married a third cousin who was also a Champlain. She was the last of the name to own the house.
“It’s spectacular,” An’gel murmured, “but I still prefer Riverhill.”
“Of course you do,” Dickce answered tartly. “So do I, because Riverhill is in our DNA. Just the way Willowbank and all it stands for is in Mireille’s. Lordy, you do get maudlin sometimes.”
An’gel graced her sister with a withering glance.
Unwithered, Dickce marched forward. “Come on, Mireille’s expecting us.” She stepped from the grass onto the gravel that formed the surface of the drive and headed toward the steps up to the veranda.
An’gel followed her, eager to see Mireille and find out about the wedding. She also looked forward to seeing Jacqueline, her goddaughter and mother of the bride. They kept in touch somewhat infrequently through e-mail, but they hadn’t seen each other face-to-face in over five years.
A thin black man, wizened by age, opened the door to An’gel’s knock. “Good afternoon, Jackson. It’s wonderful to see you again.” She held out her hand.
Jackson, dressed in black tie and tails, smiled broadly as he clasped the proffered hand in both of his own. “Miss An’gel, it sure has been way too long. And Miss Dickce, too. Y’all are a happy sight for these old eyes. Welcome back to Willowbank.” He waved them inside.
An’gel knew Jackson was well over eighty, but he seemed fit enough despite his age. She also knew he was devoted to Mireille, and Mireille relied heavily on him. They had grown up together at Willowbank, where Jackson started as a stable boy when he was only seven. An’gel figured the house would have to fall in before Jackson would even think about retiring.
“Miss Mireille sure has been looking forward to seeing you,” the butler said over his shoulder as he ambled toward the front parlor. “She’s near run ragged with all these wedding goings-on, and you know how Miss Sondra does like to fuss.”
An’gel and Dickce exchanged glances. They were not surprised the bride-to-be was up to her usual antics.
Jackson paused about three feet from the parlor door, and An’gel could hear a raised voice coming from inside the room. The butler cocked his head to one side. He shook it and frowned. “Miss Sondra cuts up something terrible, and Miss Mireille, well, she don’t have the heart to say nothing. Nor Miss Jacqueline either.”
“I know how to handle Miss Sondra,” An’gel said.
Jackson’s lips split in a grin. “I reckon you do, Miss An’gel.” He stepped forward and opened the double parlor doors.
An’gel and Dickce followed him inside, and both winced immediately as the bride-to-be’s voice assaulted their ears.
“I won’t, I won’t, I won’t, Grand-mère, no matter what you say. I’m not wearing that hideous old-fashioned dress down the aisle. Lance would take one look at me and run away screaming. I won’t, no matter what, I won’t, I won’t.”
The young woman’s voice seemed to rise on almost every syllable, until the final words came out at such a high pitch An’gel had to wonder how long it would take all the dogs in the vicinity to come running.
Sondra Delevan, in calmer circumstances, made men stop in their tracks and women want to push her off the nearest tall building. An’gel had rarely seen such perfect blond beauty. Sondra’s lustrous hair, thick and almost to the waist, was the color of spun golden silk. Her lips were full and red, and her eyes a deep blue. Her face appeared perfectly sculpted.
At the moment, however, she resembled a middle-aged harpy in full flight instead of a young woman who would soon turn twenty-one. Her face was a blotchy red, and her eyes were wild. Her chest heaved from the force of her tantrum.
Her grandmother Mireille sat quietly on a sofa near the fireplace. “My grandmother and my mother wore that dress on their wedding days. I wore it, and so did your mother. I simply thought tradition might mean something to you.” She sighed heavily. “You might have mentioned this earlier since we’ve had the dress altered to fit you. Three days before your wedding is hardly the time to go looking for a suitable dress. Surely you understand how difficult that’s going to be.”
An’gel needed only one swift glance at her cousin to detect the strained expression, the weary set of her shoulders, and a general air of exhaustion. Though Mireille was eight years younger than An’gel, at the moment she appeared a decade older.
“I’m not going to wear dead women’s clothes on my wedding day, no matter what you say. I don’t care what I said before. I’ve changed my mind.” Sondra stamped her foot hard on the ancient Aubusson carpet. “Makes my skin crawl just to think about it. I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.” She kept repeating those two words over and over.
An’gel had had enough. Mireille might put up with this ridiculous behavior, but she wasn’t going to.
She spotted a vase filled with cut flowers on a table near her. She moved over, pulled out the flowers, and placed them on the table. A check inside the vase assured her there was enough water for her purpose. She took a couple of steps closer to the still-ranting Sondra and dumped the water over the girl’s head.
“Don’t even open your mouth.” An’gel stood in front of Sondra and stared hard into her eyes. “You march right upstairs and clean yourself up, and you come back downstairs with a good attitude. Your grandmother has had enough of this, and I’m not going to let you treat her this way.”
Sondra glared right back at her. She opened her mouth, but An’gel didn’t give her a chance to speak.
“What did I tell you? Get yourself upstairs this minute, Sondra, or I might turn you over my knee and wallop your behind.” An’gel held up her right hand in a menacing gesture.
Sondra darted an outraged glance at her grandmother, but Mireille looked away. Evidently deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Sondra ducked around An’gel and ran out of the room. Moments later An’gel heard footsteps pounding up the wooden stairs.
“Surely that was a bit excessive, An’gel.” Mireille’s tone was mild, but An’gel could tell her cousin was not pleased.
“Your granddaughter’s behavior wasn’t, I suppose?” An’gel tried to keep the edge of sarcasm from her tone but didn’t completely succeed. She walked over to the sofa and sat by Mireille. She picked up her cousin’s left hand and patted it. “Even a stranger could see that you’re exhausted, and there’s no excuse for putting up with that kind of behavior.”
Mireille leaned back and closed her eyes. Her voice came out barely above a whisper. “I know, and you’re right, my nerves are at the breaking point. We’ve indulged that child all her life, and you see what she’s become.” She rubbed her forehead with her free hand. “And now we have to find her another dress.”
Dickce made herself comfortable in a chair across from the other women. “Mireille, honey, An’gel and I are here to help, and we’ll take as much of the strain off you as we can. We’ll even take Sondra shopping for another dress, though it will probably be a complete waste of time.”
Mireille’s eyelids fluttered open, and a dab of color reappeared in her cheeks. She pulled her hand from An’gel’s grasp and sat up. “Bless you both for that.” She smiled. “Perhaps Sondra will behave better, now that she’s found someone who will stand up to her. Jacqueline and I can’t. Never could.”
“Jacqueline couldn’t what?” A new voice entered the conversation.
An’gel glanced toward the doorway to see her goddaughter approaching. Jacqueline Mims was a blurred, shopworn copy of her only child. An’gel winced inwardly at the change in the woman since they had last met. Jacqueline had let her hair go gray, though there were still a few streaks of faded blond. She looked a couple of decades older than her forty-five years. An’gel wondered if Sondra was the reason for her mother’s haggard appearance, or was there trouble in her second marriage? Jacqueline had not confided any problems in their most recent exchange of e-mails.
An’gel rose as Jacqueline stopped in front of her, and clasped her goddaughter’s outstretched hands. “Hello, my dear, I’m so happy to see you.” An’gel saw no point in ducking the issue. “I was saying you could never stand up to your daughter.”
Jacqueline gave a faint smile. “Tante An’gel, diplomatic as ever.” She kissed the older woman’s cheek, then released her hands.
Dickce smothered a laugh as Jacqueline turned to her. “There’s a reason no president ever asked An’gel to serve as ambassador.”
“Tante Dickce, I’m so glad you could come.” She gave Dickce a kiss on the cheek as well, then took the chair next to her. “I’m glad you’re both here. Maman and I have our hands full with Sondra.” She sighed and closed her eyes.
“You just tell us what needs doing, and we’ll pitch right in,” An’gel said.
“For one thing, you can promise not to dump any more vases of water on Sondra’s head.” Mireille frowned. “I know you meant well, An’gel, but that was going too far.”
“Did you really?” Jacqueline gazed at An’gel. At the older woman’s nod, she burst into laughter. An’gel thought it had a slightly hysterical tinge to it.
“Jacqueline, tais-toi,” Mireille said crossly. “It wasn’t funny. Sondra will be even more difficult now.”
Jacqueline quieted at her mother’s command. “Sorry, Maman, but it is funny. I wish I had the nerve to do that the next time the little wench has a tantrum.”
“I regret that you were offended by what I did,” An’gel told her cousin, “but I’d do it again. You’ve let that child run your lives for far too long. It’s time someone got the upper hand with her.”
“Exactly what I’ve been saying for years, but of course no one pays attention to the hired help.” A short, stocky woman with improbably red hair pushed a tea cart into the room and wheeled it in front of Mireille. “That girl needed her behind paddled at least once a day, but no one would make the effort. She’d’ve turned out a lot nicer if someone had had the backbone to do it.”
“Hello, Estelle,” An’gel said into the uneasy silence that followed the woman’s pronouncements. She had often thought Mireille’s housekeeper was more than a little rude, but Mireille had done nothing to curb the woman’s tongue.
“Miss An’gel, Miss Dickce, nice to see you. Maybe the two of you can stiffen up a few spines while you’re here. The good Lord knows we need it, but of course the hired help gets ignored when they suggest anything.” The housekeeper acknowledged them with curt nods. She pointed to the tea tray. “It won’t be my fault if the tea gets cold. I don’t have time to stand around pouring tea when you can pour it just as well yourselves. I have way too much on my plate as it is.” With that she turned and hurried from the room without a backward glance.
Estelle had been claiming to be overburdened as long as An’gel had known her. She had often thought that if Estelle had put more effort into her work and less effort into complaining about it, she might actually get things done.
Mireille shook her head as she leaned forward to pour out the tea. “Estelle means well, but nothing I can do will ever get her to rein in that tongue of hers.”
An’gel exchanged a wry glance with her sister. She and Dickce knew that Mireille abhorred confrontation of any kind and would never make an effort to get the upper hand. She always let things go, no matter how much trouble she was making for herself in the long run.
“She’s always been difficult.” Jacqueline leant forward to accept a cup from her mother. “But ever since Maman made her a partner in the bed-and-breakfast, she’s become nearly impossible to deal with. She has opinions on everything, and they’re all negative.” She sipped her tea.
An’gel decided a change of subject was overdue. “Dickce and I don’t know anything about the groom, though his name sounded somewhat familiar. Has Sondra known him long?”
Mireille stared into her tea as she answered. “Lance? She’s known him practically all her life, since they were in kindergarten.”
“They’ve been sweethearts since their junior year in high school.” Jacqueline helped herself to a lemon square from the tea tray.
“Have we ever met the boy?” An’gel glanced at her sister.
Dickce nodded. “I believe I remember him. A pretty little boy with blond curls that Sondra used to drag around all over the place.”
“Yes, now I remember him,” An’gel said. The boy had been even prettier than Sondra, as she recalled, and excessively biddable.
Jacqueline chuckled. “Yes, that was Lance. They have always adored each other. I’ve never heard them have a cross word between them. At least not since they were little children.”
An’gel’s eyebrows arched over this statement. Perhaps not in your hearing, she thought. Once again she shared a glance with her sister. Dickce evidently didn’t believe this claim of angelic behavior on Sondra’s part any more than An’gel did.
“So obviously you’ve known the family a long time,” Dickce said. “I can’t remember who his people are.”
“The Perigords used to own a large plantation up the river from here. They have been in St. Ignatiusville almost as long as the Champlains.” Mireille had a sip of her tea. “They have not prospered in the past couple of generations, but they’re still important members of the community.”
The Perigords must be thrilled at the coming wedding, An’gel thought, especially if they needed money. Sondra’s father had left the bulk of his considerable fortune in trust for his daughter until she married or turned twenty-five, whichever came first. Young Mr. Perigord could very well be a fortune hunter, even though he and Sondra had known each other since childhood.
“Do you like the young man?” An’gel directed her question to the mother of the bride.
Jacqueline shrugged. “He has nice manners, and he’s astonishingly gorgeous to look at.”
“But?” Dickce said in a leading tone.
Estelle Winfield appeared suddenly beside her, startling Dickce into almost dropping her cup.
“But he has the brainpower the good Lord gave a fence post. Beautiful like no man on this earth has a right to be. He and Sondra’d better have lots of mirrors in their house; otherwise, they’ll knock each other out trying to stand in front of one.” Estelle glared at Mireille. “Is that enough tea, or do you want more?”
Mireille waved a hand. “We have plenty, thank you, Estelle. I will ring when I’m ready for you to clear the tea things away.”
The housekeeper snorted—in irritation, An’gel presumed—and scurried out of the room.
“Is that a fair assessment of the young man?” An’gel couldn’t quite bring herself to say the groom’s name. Why on earth would parents name a child Lance? It sounded like a name out of a particularly torrid romance novel.
“Estelle may not be tactful, but she is generally honest.” Jacqueline grimaced. “Lance is a dear, sweet boy, but I’ve often wondered how he gets dressed by himself every day. I suspect his mother has to inspect him before he leaves the house to make sure he’s not wearing his underpants on the outside.”
Dickce giggled at that, and An’gel shot her a sharp glance, even though she was amused by her goddaughter’s tart comments.
“Sondra is not the smartest child, I have to admit,” Mireille said, “but she is at least more intelligent than Lance.”
An’gel did her best to keep her tone neutral as she inquired, “You’re happy with Sondra’s choice of husband?” She thought the marriage could be a terrible mistake if the groom were as lacking in intelligence as Jacqueline and Estelle claimed.
“Sondra is set on marrying him.” Jacqueline shrugged. “And Tippy adores him. He is really good with her.”
An’gel and Dickce looked at each other, puzzled. Who was Tippy?
An’gel voiced the question and was rather taken aback to see Mireille’s face flush a deep red.
“Tippy is Sondra’s daughter.” Mireille turned her head away. “Her illegitimate daughter.”
Even seated beside her cousin, An’gel barely heard Mireille’s last three words. Evidently Mireille was deeply embarrassed to admit that her great-grandchild was born out of wedlock. An’gel was rather taken aback by the news herself, but Mireille’s shame over her great-grandchild’s illegitimacy probably explained why there had been no birth announcement.
“How old is Tippy?” Dickce asked brightly.
“Three,” Jacqueline said. “I’m sorry, Tante An’gel, Tante Dickce. I know we should have told you before now, but, well . . .” Her voice trailed off as she gestured toward her mother.
An’gel nodded. She understood Mireille’s outraged sensibilities—if indeed she felt that strongly about it—but what was done was done. An’gel firmly believed that the sins of the father—or in this case, the mother—should not be visited upon the child. She was about to express these thoughts, but Dickce spoke first.
“I know this is indelicate of me to ask,” she said with a brief smile. “But after all, we are family. I suppose Lance is the father, since he and Sondra have been sweethearts for several years?”
Jacqueline shook her head. “No, Lance is not Tippy’s father.” She paused for a deep breath. “In fact, we don’t know who her father is. Sondra refuses to say.”
“The groom isn’t bothered by this?” An’gel asked, trying to mask her astonishment with a bland tone. “Especially since it must have happened during the time he and Sondra were dating.”
“Evidently not,” Mireille said a trifle snappishly. “At the time Sondra told us all she was going to have a child, he uttered not one word of complaint or recrimination. At least not in my hearing.” She glanced at her daughter.
Jacqueline nodded. “It’s just as Maman says. Lance doesn’t seem at all bothered by the situation. Of course, he may not actually understand just how children are conceived.” She giggled.
“It is not in the least amusing.” Mireille dropped her teacup on the silver tray with a loud clatter.
An’gel thought for a moment the delicate porcelain might have broken, but the cup seemed intact. Not so her cousin, however. One glance told her Mireille’s face was flushed again—whether with anger or embarrassment, or a combination of both, she wasn’t sure.
Mireille stood. “I’m sorry, but you must excuse me. I have to talk with Estelle. I will see you again at dinnertime.” She walked out of the room, her shoulders slumped.
Jacqueline waited until her mother was clear of the doorway before she spoke. “I’m so sorry about all this. I would have told you before now, but Maman is so distressed over the whole situation. She adores Tippy, of course. She’s a sweet child, and no one could help but love her, but Maman has never forgiven Sondra for causing such a scandal.”
Dickce spoke in a mild tone. “Surely, my dear, these days having a child out of wedlock isn’t so scandalous. It happens in many families.”
Jacqueline’s response was tart. “Not in the Champlain family, it doesn’t.” She threw up her hands. “You both know what Maman is like. You’ve known her longer than I have, for goodness’ sake. All my life she’s been the epitome of rectitude—and a pillar of the community. But since Tippy was born, she hardly sets foot out of the house or off the grounds, except to go to mass on Sundays. She’s convinced that she’s the laughingstock of St. Ignatiusville.”
“There are probably those in town who do find the situation amusing because of the family’s long history in the area,” An’gel said. “There are always people who love to see others embarrassed, and I’m sorry that Mireille has been hurt by it.”
“She’s noblessing her oblige a little too much, if you ask me.” Jacqueline shook her head. “Just because the Champlains settled here first. I’ve tried talking to her about it, but you know how stubborn she can be. Just like Sondra.”
“Just like Sondra what?” A petulant voice from the doorway drew An’gel’s attention.
Jacqueline turned in her chair to face her daughter. “Don’t stand there, darling, come in.”
“I don’t want any more water dumped on my head.” Sondra scowled at them as she took a couple of steps into the room.
“If you behave properly, no one will do that.” An’gel decided, after that gruff statement, she perhaps ought to offer an olive branch. “That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing. The color is perfect for your complexion.” She meant what she said. Sondra’s dress, a sheath of iridescent blue, set off her creamy skin and golden hair beautifully.
“Thank you.” Sondra preened for them. “Lance picked it out for me. He has wonderful taste, doesn’t he?”
“My goodness, yes,” Dickce said. “He obviously has an eye for color.”
“I’m going to wear it for the wedding,” Sondra said. “White is so old-fashioned, and I won’t have to wear that old dress that Grandmother is so crazy about.” She shuddered. “Dead people’s clothes. Yuck.”
An’gel caught Jacqueline’s horrified expression and wondered how her goddaughter would deal with Sondra’s odd notion.
Jacqueline took a deep breath. “Well, darling, what you’re wearing is beautiful. We’ll talk about it later with your grandmother, okay?”
Sondra shot her mother a mutinous glance as she advanced farther into the room until she stood by her mother’s chair. When she spoke, she ignored Jacqueline’s question.
“Mama, what are you going to wear to dinner tonight? I hope it’s not going to be that awful black thing. It makes you look like an old crow.”
An’gel noticed her goddaughter wince under Sondra’s critical gaze.
“No, darling, I’m not. I thought I might wear the green.” Jacqueline appeared anxious, An’gel thought.
“Well, it’s better anyway.” Sondra grimaced, then glared at An’gel and Dickce. “Are you two going to be there?”
The sisters nodded.
“I hope you brought some decent clothes.” Sondra eyed their casual Vera Wang dresses uncertainly. “Lance will be here, and I know he won’t be able to enjoy his food if he sees ugly clothes.”
“We’ll do our best to avoid that.” Dickce’s prim tone didn’t fool her sister. An’gel marveled that Dickce kept a straight face. Sondra evidently knew little about designer clothing, or she would have recognized what the sisters wore. Just as well we brought along those Worth dresses of Mother’s, she thought. If Lance can’t eat in the presence of true haute couture, he deserved to go hungry.
An’gel glanced at her watch. She nodded at Dickce, and they rose in unison. “Time for us to get back to our rooms,” she said. “We both need a little time to rest before dinner.”
“Of course.” Jacqueline stood to give each of the sisters a quick peck on the cheek. “If there’s anything you need, just let Estelle know.”
“We will, dear,” An’gel said. “Now, you do remember that we are bringing our ward, Benjy Stephens, with us for dinner?”
“Yes, I remember.” Jacqueline smiled. “And as soon as we have some time, I want to hear all about how the two of you came to have a ward. Your e-mails have been skimpy on details.”
An’gel suppressed the urge to comment that the same could be said about the news of Tippy’s birth. “Of course, dear. We’ll see ourselves out.”
An’gel and Dickce nodded to Sondra, who moved warily aside as the sisters walked past her. An’gel, as she walked through the doorway into the front hall, heard Sondra ask her mother what a ward was. “Is it some man they picked up?”
An’gel didn’t linger to hear Jacqueline’s response. Really, the child was not only vulgar, she was also rather stupid.
On the veranda, the door shut carefully behind them, An’gel paused with Dickce and enjoyed the beautiful view for a moment.
“I shudder to think what will happen to all of this when Mireille and Jacqueline are gone and Sondra is responsible for it.” Dickce sighed. “We’ll be long gone by then, so I guess I shouldn’t even think about it, but it’s hard not to.”
An’gel patted her sister’s shoulder, and Dickce caught the hand and gave it a quick squeeze.
Dickce’s words held a deeper meaning for both of them, because their own beloved Riverhill would have to pass to someone who might not care for it as devotedly as they and the generations of Ducotes before them had. The fate of Riverhill was never far from An’gel’s thoughts, though she hoped to have more than a few years left to oversee its care, along with her sister.
The sisters made their way down the steps, across the lawn, and around the edge of the ornamental pond. To An’gel’s relief, they reached the block of bed-and-breakfast cottages without spotting anything slithering past their feet.
“Wonder who that can be?” Dickce pointed to a strange car, a worn-looking sedan, parked beside their Lexus. “I didn’t think any other out-of-town guests would arrive until tomorrow or the next day.”
An’gel moved closer to inspect the license plate. “Louisiana, so perhaps it’s someone local. Where could they be?” She glanced around but didn’t see anyone on the grounds near them.
“I didn’t think about locking the door,” Dickce said. “Did you?”
“Not that I can remember.” An’gel frowned as she moved quickly toward their door.
Before she even touched the knob, the door of Benjy’s room opened. Instead of Benjy, however, a strange young man stepped out and closed the door behind him.
An’gel’s eyes widened in surprise. She had never seen such a beautiful young man in her life. Tall, well-proportioned, with a head of golden ringlets and eyes of a brilliant green, he was a vision of perfection straight from the glossy pages of a magazine.
He smiled sweetly at An’gel. “Have you ever been to New York?”
At first An’gel thought she had misheard him. “New York? Yes, I have been there several times.”
“I’m going there right after the wedding. It’s my first time, and I can’t wait.” He beamed at her and wandered past her and Dickce, apparently headed toward Willowbank.
“That has to be Lance,” Dickce said in an undertone once the young man was about fifty feet away.
“There can’t be two of them in St. Ignatiusville,” An’gel said tartly. “Of course it’s Lance. Jacqueline certainly wasn’t exaggerating about his looks.”
“Almost too perfectly beautiful.” Dickce snickered. “I suppose the Lord didn’t think a man that pretty needed to be weighed down with much of a brain.”
“I wonder what he was doing here,” An’gel muttered as she moved to knock on Benjy’s door.
“Come in,” Benjy called. “It’s not locked.”
When An’gel stepped in the room, she was immediately greeted by Peanut, who acted like she had been gone for two days, instead of an hour. An’gel patted his head and spoke to him before he transferred his attentions to Dickce. The cat, Endora, regarded them languidly from the center of Benjy’s bed.
“We ran into your visitor,” Dickce said. “We were pretty surprised to see him. Did he want something in particular?”
Benjy laughed. “Yeah, he was looking for the main house. I thought he’d never been here before, but when I pointed out that it was right next door, he just shook his head and said something about taking the wrong driveway.” He laughed again. “He definitely seemed a little confused. Do you know who he is?”
“Yes, we do. He’s Lance Perigord, the groom,” An’gel said in a dour tone.
Benjy hooted with laughter. “You gotta be kidding me. He’s really the groom? Does the bride know he’s gay?”
Dickce thought she hadn’t heard Benjy correctly. “Did you say that Lance is gay?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Benjy said. He looked back and forth between the sisters. “At least I’m pretty sure he is. But if he’s the groom, well, maybe I’m wrong.”
“Why do you think he’s gay?” An’gel asked.
Benjy appeared uncomfortable and didn’t answer.
“Sister, you sound like you’re cross-examining. This isn’t a trial.” Dickce shook her head at An’gel. “It’s okay, Benjy, you can tell us.”
“He made a pass at me. Or at least I think he did.” Benjy blushed, and Peanut barked. Benjy bent to rub the Labradoodle’s head.
“Oh, my,” An’gel said.
Dickce could tell her sister was rather nonplussed by their ward’s bald response. Honestly, sometimes An’gel is such an old maid, she thought. Dickce considered herself more aware of such things, while An’gel could be a bit stuffy.
“He obviously has excellent taste.” Dickce grinned at Benjy, and he flashed her a grateful smile in return. Dickce thought their nineteen-year-old ward handsome, even with the eyebrow ring he continued to wear. With good food and plenty of exercise, he had filled out, no longer the scrawny youth they had first met a couple of months ago. He had also gained in self-confidence, and Dickce was particularly proud of him for that. He was such a bright boy.
“You said you think he made a pass,” Dickce said. “Tell us exactly what happened.”
“Okay,” Benjy said. “But please sit down. I didn’t mean to keep you standing there.” He gestured toward the armchairs and the sofa in his suite.
Dickce was pleased by his good manners. He had picked up a lot the past two months. She chose one of the armchairs, and Endora left the bed and hopped into her lap. The cat laid a paw on Dickce’s arm, and Dickce recognized the signal that Endora needed attention.
An’gel sat on the sofa with Benjy at the other end. Peanut, to Dickce’s amusement, jumped in between them and thrust his head toward An’gel’s face.
“No, Peanut,” Benjy said in a stern tone. “It’s rude to stick your nose in a lady’s face.”
The Labradoodle turned to Benjy for a moment before settling down between Benjy and An’gel, his head in An’gel’s lap and his tail across Benjy’s.
“Good boy,” Benjy said. “Now, about this Lance guy.”
“Yes, go on,” Dickce said when he paused.
Benjy looked pensive for a moment. “I kinda hate to say this, because I only talked to him a few minutes.” He hesitated. “He’s kinda dumb.”
“We have heard that from people who know him much better than we do,” An’gel said.
Benjy grinned. “Okay, then, I don’t feel so bad. Anyway, I was sitting here reading, and Peanut and Endora were sacked out, when somebody knocked on the door. I figured it was one of you back from the big house. But when I opened the door, there stood this guy looking like a model out of a magazine. He stared at me, pretty strange-like. Then he said, You’re not Jackson.
“Now, I have no idea who Jackson is, so I told him my name and asked him if I could help him.” Benjy shook his head. “Then he asked me if I’d ever been to New York, and I told him no. Next he says I look like a model, which was a really weird thing to say, because I don’t look anything like a model. I mean, they all look like him, in the magazines. Anyway, then he asked me if I’d like to go to New York with him.”
Dickce exchanged a glance with An’gel. Lance sounded like a complete idiot, as far as she was concerned. “What did you say to that?”
Benjy laughed. “I told him I’d like to go to New York sometime, but I didn’t think I could go with him. He looked puzzled, at least I think that’s what it was, and said he was disappointed because it would be nice to have a cute boyfriend in New York. I really didn’t know what to say to that, but it didn’t matter, because then he asked me if I knew the way to Willowbank. I told him I did and showed him how to get there. About then was when y’all came back.” He rubbed Peanut’s head, and the dog’s tail thumped in his lap and brushed up against his face until he stopped rubbing.
Dickce glanced at An’gel again, wondering what her sister made of Benjy’s story. She returned her gaze to Benjy. “That remark about having a cute boyfriend in New York is definitely odd, especially when I suppose he’ll be there with his wife.”
“I wonder why he has this fixation on New York.” An’gel looked puzzled. “Perhaps that’s where he and Sondra are planning to honeymoon.”
“It didn’t sound to me like he was planning to take her with him,” Benjy said. “Do you think maybe he forgot he’s getting married?”
Dickce laughed. “Frankly, from what we’ve been told, it might very well have slipped his mind. He evidently couldn’t find his way to Willowbank today, and I’m sure he’s been there thousands of times.”
“There is definitely something odd going on here,” An’gel said. “You might as well know this, Benjy, because I’m sure it will be mentioned soon by others. Sondra will be a wealthy young woman once she’s married. Her father left her a huge fortune in trust until she marries or turns twenty-five.”
“She’s just about to turn twenty-one,” Dickce said in response to Benjy’s look of inquiry. “It sounds to me like she’s impatient to get her hands on her inheritance, and marrying Lance is an easy way to do it.”
Benjy regarded her for a moment. “So you’re saying this is kinda like a marriage of convenience? Isn’t that what they used to call it?”
“Still do, as far as I know,” An’gel said. “So here we have a situation where the bride wants her inheritance but perhaps doesn’t want to have a husband who would try to control her or her money.”
“So she marries her dumb gay friend and promises him he can go to New York,” Dickce said. “Maybe he wants to be a model.”
“He sure looks like one,” Benjy said. “I’m surprised someone hasn’t discovered him before now.”
“He probably hasn’t been anywhere that an agency could discover him,” An’gel said. “His family apparently doesn’t have much money.”
“You’d think, with a son who looks like he does, they might have made an effort to get him noticed by somebody,” Dickce said. Endora nudged her again, because Dickce had stopped the attention. She rubbed the cat’s head in response. “He could be a supermodel, for all we know. They make huge amounts of money.”
“Do you think her mom knows he may be gay?” Benjy asked.
Dickce shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Jacqueline has figured it out. She’s probably so grateful to have Sondra off her hands, she doesn’t care.”