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New Orleans, Louisiana May 1846
The rain fell with the dreary persistence of a widow's tears. Sonia Bonneval stared through the silver streams that poured from the barrel-tile roof, splattering over the tough leaves of a palmetto and into the courtyard below, joining the small river that swirled along the open stone drain leading to the porte cochere. The droplets slanting down made a copper haze around the pitch-pine torch at that dark, tunnellike entrance to the courtyard. From her concealment behind a tangle of wisteria growing up the gallery post of the garçonnière, Sonia searched the opening. At any moment, her father's secret visitor would appear from the blackness like some demon from Hades. Just moments ago, the dangling bell beside the wicket gate had rung its summons. Eugene, her father's majordomo, spare, precise in his movements and with features older than his thirty years, descended the outside staircase in answer. She could hear him speaking now in deferential greeting, hear a deep voice in response that resonated with strength and purpose. The footsteps of the pair grated on the stone paving, one set a shuffle in slippers designed for quiet, the other a steady, booted stride.
Shadows shifted in the dim mouth of the entrance. They elongated as the two men passed the flaring torchlight and emerged under the arcade that edged the courtyard.
Sonia drew a sharp, silent breath of alarm.
The newcomer was enormous, an impression increased by the long, caped greatcoat that billowed around his ankles. Raindrops glistened upon wool-clad shoulders so wide they seemed to fill the archway. His bell-crowned beaver hat came close to scraping the brick ceiling, and he wore it set straight across his forehead, without the least tilt to give it style. It was impossible to see his features from where she stood above him, but he gripped the cane he carried as if it were a weapon.
Formidable, the man was formidable.
Abruptly, he turned his head, his gaze fastening on the shadows where she stood. He could not see hersurely it was impossibleyet some animal instinct seemed to guide him. She felt nailed in place, as if she might never move again. Her breath stopped in her throat while her heart throbbed against her breastbone with frantic haste. Her skin prickled as at some primitive warning of hazard. The night seemed to grow still, waiting.
Eugene reached the stairs that led to the interior gallery of the town house. He paused, the dim light from the rooms above sliding over his walnut-colored skin as he looked back at the visitor. "This way, monsieur."
The man glanced toward the majordomo. He hesitated a moment longer, then followed after him.
Sonia put a hand to her chest. Her breath rasped in her throat as if she was running, fleeing instead of standing there watching the stranger's unhurried ascent to the second-floor living section of her home.
She should not be here, was not meant to know about the arrival of this midnight guest. How very like Papa to keep it from her, as if she had no say in the matter that brought him. He expected to present the gentleman as a fait accompli, no doubt, relying on good manners to overcome any objection she might make when he was finally introduced.
That was her father's mistake, not that it was surprising. He had never understood her, never had the time to make the effort.
It was always possible the latest applicant for the position her father had in mind would fail to gain favor, that he would be questioned and sent away like all the others. She prayed it transpired that way, but could not depend upon it.
This one was clearly different. He had no look of the vagabond adventurer, Captain Sharp or gambler in need of passage to a more salubrious port. He moved like a man of purpose, one more than capable of fulfilling the duty that might be entrusted to him. He was the very essence of masculine danger.
Sonia drew her India-woven shawl more closely around her shoulders as a sudden chill moved down her spine. That someone suited to the task would appear had always been inevitable, but she had thought to have more time. Her plans must be set in motion at once. She could delay no longer.
The steam packet that traveled between Mobile and New Orleans would make port in a day or two. Pray God an answer from her grandmother was on it, for she knew not what she would do otherwise.
Or was that strictly true? She paused as an idea flickered to life in her mind.
Suppose the gentleman could be dissuaded from accepting the position? That might happen if he took an aversion to his charge, she thought with a frown of concentration. Few gentlemen appreciated a harridan, still less would they care to be cooped up with one for days on end. She could be such a one if necessary. Yes, indeed.
Fortitude and daring might gain her another week, possibly two, though her father's wrath would be difficult to face. She shivered a little at the thought of his cold withdrawal, so much more deadly than simple anger.
She had always dreaded it as a child, the feeling that she had disappointed him and embarrassed herself. She would have done anything to gain his smiles again. It had ceased to hurt so much once she realized his whole purpose was to insure her abject obedience, making her malleable and dependent, but it troubled her all the same.
Dwelling on it served no purpose. By the time he discovered the full extent of her deception, she would be far away. Besides, some things were worth the risk.
On the gallery across the courtyard, Eugene and the visitor paused outside the door of her father's study and smoking room. Eugene relieved him of his outerwear along with his cane, and then opened the study door so he might enter. The gentleman raked a hand through his hair, set his shoulders and walked into the lamp-lighted chamber.
The glimpse Sonia had of his face made her throat close. It was arresting, almost harsh under a thick cap of hair the rich brown color of oak leaves in autumn. His eyes were deep-set, appearing cavernous in the uncertain light, though with a flashing sheen of silver. She recognized in the angular planes of his face and determined jut of his chin a harsh and powerful, almost primitive, form of male beauty that was beyond her experience. And she was appalled at the immediate clench deep in her abdomen in response.
He was American, she thought, most likely a Kaintuck, as the French Creoles called those from the wild mountain country of Kentucky and Tennessee. They were a breed apart, so it was said, less mannerly, less gallant in their approach to females than their counterparts in the Vieux Carré. Some were outright ruffians who piloted their keelboats laden with hogs, corn and corn liquor downriver. They used the money they made to carouse through the more squalid sections of the city, drinking, fighting with fists, feet and teeth, indulging in the most disgusting debauchery.
Others of their ilk, Americans from the North and East, might have more polish but still lacked social grace, wit or civilized conversation, seemed to care for nothing except adding to their wealth. Priggish and puritanical, they looked down their long noses at what they considered to be the ungodly habits of French-Creole society. And why, pray? Merely because the gentlemen of the Vieux Carré amused themselves rather than chasing after every piastre, because their ladies were fond of fashions à la Parisienne and aiding nature by the delicate application of cosmetics.
They also objected to the practice of theaters and gaming houses remaining open on Sundays, these Americans, and to the genteel habit of hostesses providing music for dancing when they arranged a Sabbath soiree. What arrogance, to assume that sitting and staring at each other with plain, solemn faces while buttoned up in unfashionable clothing was more virtuous than dressing well and seeking amusement after one had made one's peace with le bon Dieu.
It would be just like her father to select this man for his background alone. Papa would be certain nothing in the man's mien or manner could attract her. He was exactly correct in this instance.
Mère de Dieu, but she must do her utmost to prevent the Kaintuck from being chosen.
Stepping back into her bedchamber, which lay behind her, Sonia moved to the fireplace and lit a paper spill at the glowing coals in the grate. She took the flame to the candles in girandoles on either side of her dressing-table mirror, setting them alight. In their bright glow, she appeared pale in contrast to the auburn gleam of her hair. Her eyes were like burning blue holes in her face, circled by lavender shadows. The cause of the strain of the past weeks, she knew, for they had not been easy ones.
Disposing of the spill, she returned to the dressing table. She considered her father's guest a moment longer, her lips set in a thin line. What would he think, she wondered, of a painted harridan?
With sudden resolution, she dropped her shawl and caught the edges of her bodice with both hands, tugging it lower to expose more of the white curves of her breasts. The effect was almost wicked, she thought, which was all to the good. Next, she reached for the small packet of red Spanish papers that lay on the tabletop. She pulled one free, brushing it across her cheekbones with heavy, deliberate strokes and moistening her lips with a quick flick of her tongue before pressing it to their damp surfaces. Still it was not enough. Greatly daring, she brushed the paper across her eyelids, down the curve of her neck and into the cleft shadow between her breasts. There, that was better.
She was using an artist's brush and a little oil to paint the line of her lashes with lampblack when the door opened behind her. She flinched, almost dropping the brush.
"Chère! What are you about? You look the very image of a wanton!"
Sonia directed a defiant look at the reflection of the soigné older lady in the doorway. "My exact intention, Tante Lily."
"What can you mean? Your papa will be scandalized."
"It will be worth it if the gentleman with him is the same. Besides, you will know just how to charm Papa and smooth over the situation."
Her aunt and duenna of many years stepped inside and closed the door. "But, no, chère," she said, her features puckered with concern. "Subtlety is everything with such aids to beauty, as I've told you time and time " She paused in midlecture. "Gentleman? What gentleman is this? I know of no gentleman."
"An American, a Kaintuck by his looks. They prefer their women wan and frail, I believe, and covered to their throats like nuns. Painting one's face is frowned upon as the devil's handiwork."
"You wish to give this American a disgust of you? In the name of all the saints, why?"
"So he will refuse the position Papa is offering as we speak. Why else?"
Her aunt put a hand to her temple. "Tiens, another candidate as your guard? Perhaps this one will be sent away like all the others."
"I fear not. He is different."
"But a man all the same, or so one supposes. Should he find favor with your papa, I suspect he will accept the post tout suite in hope you may be the loose female you appear. No, truly, chère, this will not do."
Sonia gave her handiwork a doubtful look before meeting her aunt's gaze again. "You think I've gone too far?"
Tante Lily was better acquainted with such matters than she. Her aunt had been married twice, widowed twice and was still a fine-looking woman with a number of older gentlemen in regular attendance. These suitors vied for the honor of holding her fan or dance card, offered their arms for assistance with stairs and curbstones, appeared on her visiting days and entertained her with charming discourse.
They received little encouragement in return. Independent of nature and means, Tante Lily merely enjoyed being courted, Sonia thought. She might have married a third time except she had given up her household to act as chaperone to Sonia, only child of her sister who had been dead these many years. Her figure was superb due to the efforts of her corsetière and dressmaker. Her lustrous hair gave no sign of the strong black coffee used to maintain its golden-brown color and the darkness added to her lashes rivaled nature. It was Sonia's dearest ambition to be just like her at the same age. Though she would, if possible, avoid a first marriage, much less a second.
"The effort must suffice," she said now, "for I have no idea how else to discourage the man." Leaving the mirror, she scooped up her shawl from the floor. "With any luck, he will be as moralizing and disapproving as the rest of his kind. Wish me bonne chance?"
Her aunt might scold but made little effort to actually curb her charge. "With all my heart," she said, a worried look in her fine brown eyes, "though I still think you're making a mistake."
"If he won't be put off by this display, then I shall have to arrange something else, yes?" Sonia's smile was satirical as she looked back over her shoulder at her aunt. Drawing a deep, sustaining breath, she sailed out the door.