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By Jane Feather
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1987 Jane Feather
All rights reserved.
The April sun was hot, pouring in through the open window of the second floor room, and Dominic Delacroix pushed back his chair with a scrape on the smooth polished oak boards. The sound was swallowed up in the greater noise from the slave exchange on the floor below where, despite the heat, the auction was proceeding as efficiently as ever beneath the swift patter and decisive hammer of Jean Maspero. Dominic went to the window, hoping for a breath of air. If it was like this in April, there would be little quarter offered for August, he reflected, wiping his brow with a crisp linen handkerchief. But then only fools and dreamers expected mercy from a Louisiana summer. All others, once the saison des visites reached a close, would flee New Orleans and the threat of yellow fever for the relative cool of their plantations.
For Dominic Delacroix, the sea beckoned, the fresh winds offering surcease from the swamp heat and mosquitoes, and a British Indiaman promising the rich prizes of war. Although, in this year of war, 1814, the British were becoming most protective of their merchant ships. Dominic's lips curved in a sardonic smile that, nevertheless, contained a degree of self-mockery. Somehow, evading the British blockade was proving a more challenging business than merely preying on the ungainly ships of commerce. And the goods his swift fleet of privateers brought to the beleaguered southern states did much to raise a smile on the faces of the aristocratic planters, their overindulged ladies, the affluent business men and their womenfolk for whom the prospect of a diminution in the supply of luxuries could only be viewed with horror.
Chartres Street, below his window, was crowded with the buyers and sellers of human flesh. Maspero's Exchange stood on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis, and the ground floor of the building was open onto both streets, offering maximum views to the prospective purchasers packing the auction room and spilling onto the banquette outside. The bells of the Church of St. Louis struck the hour, and the two figures that he had been expecting turned onto Chartres Street from St. Peter, walking toward Maspero's Exchange. There was a third figure, however, in addition to the ripely luscious Mademoiselle Elise Latour and her cousin, Nicolas St. Denis. Dominic frowned and the turquoise eyes darkened with irritation. St. Denis was well aware of his instructions. In the early stages of this game, he should contrive to be the only chaperone during the "accidental" meetings between Dominic Delacroix and the gorgeous but fortunately somewhat empty-headed and susceptible Elise.
The three figures drew closer, and it became clear from her dress and bearing that the third person was no maidservant. Her gown, with its modest lace inset at the neck, was the demurely correct afternoon gown of a debutante. The brim of her ruched silk bonnet decorously shielded her face from both the depredations of the sun's rays and any vulgar oglings. Dominic debated, in the face of this annoying addition to the party, whether to go downstairs or not, whether to follow the original plan whereby he would find himself so conveniently on the same stretch of banquette as Mademoiselle Latour. An invitation to take goûter at La Gallier in the square would have been most natural and quite unimpeachable in the company of the lady's cousin, Monsieur Delacroix's good friend. But he did not wish for the acquaintanceship of Mademoiselle Elise Latour and Dominic Delacroix to become common knowledge within the Latour family, and presumably the accompanying lady was a friend of the family. But then, if he did not meet with Nicolas St. Denis now, how could he receive the invitation to Madame Latour's soiree this evening? The invitation was central to the plan and could certainly not be issued by anyone but Nicolas, and could only be issued serendipitously since Dominic Delacroix was not an automatic addition to the receiving lists of the majority of hostesses in New Orleans. That sardonic smile curved his lips again. It was not a pleasant smile and did nothing to soften the set of a finely drawn mouth or to relax the taut line of a determined jaw. Hopefully, the invitation would then be pressed most flatteringly by Mademoiselle Elise.
He had just decided that the presence of an onlooker to the proceedings was a nuisance that must be absorbed, when something quite extraordinary occurred. For the last few minutes of his cogitations, he had been aware on the periphery of the general cacophony below of a high-pitched, childish wailing accompanied by a keening sound rising to a pitch of hysteria. Such audible evidences of distress were only to be expected in the business being transacted at street level and sufficiently familiar not to have intruded too dramatically on his thoughts. That did not seem to be the case with the unknown young lady accompanying his quarry. A most unladylike exclamation escaped from her lips, and the next minute she was pushing her way into the Exchange through the astounded crowd, which parted before her impetuous progress like a gâteau beneath the knife. She was now out of his sight, and the uproar below increased. Curious, Dominic crossed the room and went out into the inner gallery overlooking the auction room.
"I would like to know, Mr. King, who gave you permission to sell Amelie and the baby?" The young woman stood in the middle of the room confronting a tall, thin individual whose ascetic-looking countenance bore an expression of enraged, disbelieving shock. As well it might, the watcher in the gallery reflected, amused interest replacing the irritation in the blue eyes.
"That, if I may say so, Mademoiselle Genevieve, is not your concern," Mr. King spat. "It is the concern of your father's overseer."
"Under Mr. Carter's management, sir, families were never parted," the young crusader declared, meeting him eye for eye.
"Mr. Carter is no longer overseer. I am," she was informed. "And I will do as I see fit."
"Not in this instance." Mademoiselle Genevieve swung round, walking to the block where a child of about three stood in a ragged shirt that barely reached his knees, sobbing and stretching his arms out to a distraught woman being held to one side of the room. Genevieve lifted the child and carried him over to the woman. She directed a hard stare at the driver holding the mother's arms. He glanced nervously about the now almost silent room, looking for help, instructions, anything from Maspero, who stood immobile, from Mr. King, who seemed momentarily struck dumb. Then, slowly, the driver released his grip. Genevieve put the child into its mother's arms. "Go straight back to the house, Amelie," she said gently. The woman, clutching her child, looked involuntarily at the overseer, the man who held the true power, and saw, to her unutterable amazement, that for this moment he seemed powerless. She left the Exchange, expecting at any minute to be seized and dragged back, back into the nightmare that was life, after all, but no one stopped her.
"Monsieur Latour will hear of this, mademoiselle, make no mistake." The overseer spoke into the charged silence, his voice low, quivering with the malice of the publicly defeated.
"You do surprise me, Mr. King," she responded, with a smile that dripped contempt. Turning on her heel, Mademoiselle Genevieve walked through the crowd, back to her companions still standing on the banquette.
Dominic Delacroix whistled softly, brown fly-away eyebrows raised in surprise. That had been a most fascinating spectacle — not particularly edifying, certainly, but quite fascinating. He hurried down the steps of the gallery and made his own way across the seething auction room and outside, coming within earshot of Nicolas, Elise, and the formidable Mademoiselle Genevieve.
"Are you run quite mad, Genevieve?" Nicolas demanded. "Just think what your father will say. To go into a public auction room and ..." He shuddered, rendered speechless at the horrifying ramifications of the event.
"Only think what will be said if anyone gets to hear of it," Elise whimpered. "And I will be implicated because I was here with you ... Papa ..." Her voice faded, tears beginning to well in the magnificent deep-blue eyes. They were tears of fright, and no one acquainted with Monsieur Victor Latour would doubt that they were genuine and the fear well founded.
Genevieve shrugged. "I will do what I can to spare you, Elise. It is likely that he will be so enraged with me that he will have little energy left to dwell on your part which was, after all, both involuntary and negligible."
Dominic Delacroix coughed. "Nicolas, well met. I was taking a breath of air at my office window and thought I recognized you turning into the street." He removed his curly brimmed hat and bowed to the ladies. "Enchanté, Mademoiselle Latour. I can scarce believe my good fortune in meeting you again so soon."
Elise curtsied, blushing prettily. "Monsieur Delacroix, how delightful," she murmured. The tears had miraculously dried, their residue simply making the blue eyes even more lustrous as she peeped up at him through her eyelashes. It was an entirely satisfactory reaction, Dominic reflected complacently, offering her a most special smile as he brushed her fingertips with his lips. Genevieve blinked and shot her cousin Nicolas a look brimming with questions. Elise had a tendency to flirt, to be sure, but this particular gentleman was not at all like her usual courtly suitors. He was older for a start, and there was a coiled tension about him, a hint of — of what? For the moment Genevieve could not put her finger on the particular quality that was communicating itself to her, sending little chilly ripples up and down her spine.
"I beg your pardon," Nicolas said hastily. "May I present Monsieur Delacroix, Genevieve. Dominic, my cousin, Mademoiselle Latour's stepsister, Mademoiselle Genevieve."
So that's who the firebrand was. The daughter, presumably, of Latour's second wife who, like his first, had died in childbirth. The third wife had so far managed to avoid the perils of the accouchement bed, much to the irascible Latour's disgust, if rumor were true. The old gentleman was still hankering for a son — an event that Nicolas, for one, would regard with some considerable dismay. Dominic, having so far restrained his curiosity in the interests of furthering the original purpose of this meeting, now turned to look at Elise's companion properly for the first time. She was younger than Elise by perhaps three years and, on first glance, quite unable to hold a candle to the elder's rich, luxuriant beauty. On second glance, too, he decided. Where Elise was magnificently endowed with curves and indentations, the little sister rather resembled a flat plain relieved here and there by small hillocks. She was something less than middle height and gave the distinct impression of tiny-boned fragility. However, the performance he had just witnessed was somewhat at odds with this impression of delicacy.
"Mademoiselle Genevieve. Your servant." He bowed punctiliously and met a direct and frankly inquiring look from a pair of the most unusual eyes he had ever seen. Pure gold — no, he amended; tawny gold — tiger's eyes. Large, too, framed in thick, straight golden eyelashes. A small, straight nose, beautifully formed over an equally straight mouth — a far cry from Elise's full-lipped, rosebud pout, but as he looked, Mademoiselle Genevieve smiled. Helen of Troy would be advised to look to her laurels, Dominic decided, more than a little surprised at himself for such a flight of fancy. After Rosemarie, he had had no time for the art of dalliance, despised susceptibility to the charms of the fair sex unless it were deliberately implied to achieve a purpose, but in this instance he could begin to imagine launching a small fleet if that smile requested it of him.
Well, well, Genevieve thought. So that's who the gentleman is. No gentleman at all. "Monsieur Delacroix," she said, curtsying demurely. "I do not appear to have had my sister's good fortune."
"Your pardon, mademoiselle?" He frowned, somewhat nonplussed at a statement that seemed not to make sense, except that he had formed the unmistakable impression that this very young lady rarely spoke less than sense.
She smiled again, but kept her eyes lowered. "Why, in not having made your acquaintance earlier," said Genevieve.
Was she mocking him? wondered Dominic, discovering to his surprise that the idea piqued his interest rather than his annoyance. His lips twitched, and the smile this time was not sardonic. "You do me too much honor, Mademoiselle Genevieve."
"Oh, surely not, sir," she demurred.
"Genevieve, your manners! I must crave indulgence for my baby sister, Monsieur Delacroix." Elise spoke with a nervous little titter. "She is not really out yet, and I am afraid still considers she has the license to behave with the child's lack of decorum." The words were uttered with a degree of venom. Elise's baby sister had always had the devil's own way of monopolizing attention, and it did not suit the beauty in the least, and particularly not in this instance.
Her interruption served also to remind Dominic that paying undue attention to Mademoiselle Genevieve was not the object of this afternoon's exercise, and he had no desire to antagonize Mademoiselle Latour. He offered the latter a smile of complete understanding that relegated baby sister to her correct place in the scheme of things. Genevieve intercepted the smile, and a flash sparked for a second in the tawny eyes — a flash instantly extinguished.
"I was on my way to La Gallier to take goûter," he said, with another low bow. "Would it be most presumptious of me to invite your cousin, Nicolas?"
Nicolas looked at Elise, and there was just the correct moment of hesitation before she said, "Why, Monsieur Delacroix, we were on our way there, ourselves." Her eyelashes fluttered.
"Then, may I have the honor of inviting you to share my table?" he begged. "I am sure Mademoiselle Genevieve would enjoy a pâtisserie." He offered a kindly smile, brimming with condescension — a smile that infuriated its recipient but did much to placate Mademoiselle Latour.
"You are too kind, sir. We should be delighted." Elise laid her hand on Dominic's proffered arm clad in blue superfine, Dresden lace frothing at the wide cuff. Her cousin was thus left to offer escort to her stepsister.
"I do not wish to be a killjoy," Genevieve said, "but I fear that I do not have the time to take tea this afternoon. I must return home immediately to ensure that all is well with Amelie and the baby. There is no knowing what Mr. King will do in revenge if I do not forestall him."
An uncomfortable silence fell at this unpalatable reminder of the earlier disgracefully indecorous scene. Elise flushed with annoyance. "Monsieur Delacroix does not wish to concern himself with such matters. Have you not made a sufficient spectacle of yourself for one day?"
"I do not recall asking Monsieur Delacroix to concern himself," her sister said icily. "And I am not about to make a spectacle of myself. I intend simply to return home. Nicolas must decide which of us he chooses to chaperone."
What a troublesome girl she was! The tolerant amusement died from the turquoise eyes as Dominic waited for Nicolas to assert the mastery of the male and the elder. He needed only to tell Mademoiselle Genevieve that her wishes took second place and the girl would surely have no choice but to accede. Except that Nicolas did not say that. "Well ... well, perhaps we should return home, Elise," he muttered. "There is bound to be trouble, you know."
Dominic felt the strands of his carefully laid plan begin to slide through his fingers. He could not stand here on the banquette like a dumb idiot, yet the politeness that he had to maintain if he were to play the game successfully forbade him to press his invitation. If only Nicolas would gather his wits. "Perhaps I shall be more fortunate on another occasion," he said blandly. "Some occasion when Mademoiselle Genevieve's engagements need not take precedence." He allowed a slight note of polite incredulity to creep into the statement, amazement that the wishes of a schoolroom miss should overrule those of her elders.
"I am desolated to discommode you, sir," snapped Genevieve, "but I am afraid I am concerned with matters of more moment than tea and pâtisseries."
Excerpted from Reckless Seduction by Jane Feather. Copyright © 1987 Jane Feather. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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