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New Orleans, Louisiana January 1842
"Send a husband for me, I pray, most Holy Mother. Intercede in this matter, if it be thy will, for I have desperate need."
Juliette Armant gripped her fingers tightly together as she stared up at the benign carved face of the statue of Our Lady before her. The prayer bench's hand rail, polished by countless hands over endless years, felt cold under her wrists, and the chill of the knee rest penetrated her thick skirts of gray cord du roi. The emptiness of the cathedral echoed around her while the scents of ancient dust, incense and smoke from the prayer candles burning on their wrought-iron stand nearby wafted about her face. The fluttering of the flames on their wicks was loud in the stillness. She had knelt here a thousand times before, yet everything seemed strange this morning. "I don't ask this boon for myself," she went on with a brief but decided shake of her head. "You know well that I never expected to marry. To be dedicated to the church at birth was my fate and I accepted it in all humility, truly I did. But now all is changed. I lack the beauty or skill at flirtation to attract a husband and there is no one to arrange a match for me. My mother has not the will—but you know her trials. I must wed without delay or all will be lost."
Was she doing the right thing? Juliette wondered. She had tried diligently to find another way out of her peculiar dilemma, but nothing that sprang to mind seemed likely to be of use. How had it come down to this when everything should have been so different?
"Oh, Holy Mother, make this husband you will send kind, if it pleases you, yet not too gentle of spirit. He must have strength and a will of steel for he will surely need them. Intelligence would be useful, and diplomacy as well. I don't ask that he be attractive, still it would not upset me if he were pleasant to look upon for the sake of our future children." She closed her eyes with a small moan and went on hurriedly, "No, no, forget I said that. You who know all things must surely understand what is required. Only send a man to me soon, I beg, as quickly as may be possible."
Juliette crossed herself, touched her fist to her lips and heart in quick succession, then pushed to her feet. She could not linger here in the sacred quiet. They would miss her at home, and she had no desire to explain where she had been or why she had left the house without even a maid as chaperone. She might perhaps fob off her mother and twin sister with some tale, but prevarication was not something that came easily after all her years with the nuns.
To leave the cathedral, she had to pass the bank of prayer candles glimmering on their stand near the heavy front doors. The draft of her passage seemed to make them flare up, for she caught a sudden light from the corner of her eye. As she turned her head in that direction, her gaze caught the bright flame from the taper she had set burning just before she knelt to pray. It sprang tall and strong on its wick, many times more brilliant than the rest. Dazzling in its intensity, it bloomed and danced before her like a stalwart golden star.
Juliette came to a halt with her breath trapped in her throat. She was not so superstitious as her mother, who had a thousand beliefs, prohibitions and proverbs that ruled her life—still she could not prevent the frisson that moved over her from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.
Was this an omen? Could it mean her prayer would be answered?
She closed her eyes tightly, crossing herself again. Then she moved on. As she quitted the church her steps were lighter and hope burned as bright in her heart as the candle set aflame for her prayer.
Pausing on the stone paving outside, Juliette took out the gloves from where she had tucked them away inside her sleeve before searching out a coin for her candle. She had almost forgotten them. How aghast her mother and Paulette would be if she were to be seen on the street with bare hands. Such things had not mattered only two weeks ago. At the convent it had been more important to have willing hands rather than perfectly kept ones. A wry smile touched Juliette's lips before she sighed and began to tug on the gloves of lavender kid borrowed from her sister.
The day promised to be fine. Already, the rays of the rising sun poked shining fingers through the river fog beyond the levee, and the air was soft, almost warm. The steam whistle from a departing river packet moaned, setting off the screaming of monkeys and squawking of parrots from the shop of the birdman down the street. A light breeze brought the odors of mud flats, fish, fermenting molasses and overripe bananas from the dock area, along with the stench of refuse in the gutter that centered the alley beside the cathedral. It also wafted the scent of roasting coffee from the market where vendors were opening their stalls, making ready for the morning shoppers who would soon amble forth with baskets on their arms in search of fresh bread, brioche and croissants. Juliette's stomach rumbled slightly at the thought, and she wished she dared purchase a few of the goods she could smell from the nearby bakery. That would not do, of course, since it would give away her early-morning outing.
Just then, a high-pitched shriek ripped through the morning air. Shrill, desperate, it came from no parrot or monkey, but from a living child somewhere behind her.
Juliette swung in a swirl of heavy skirts. She was just in time to see a young boy fling around the corner of the cathedral, running flat out. Hardly more than three years of age, he was slight of body, with a mop of black curls and black eyes blared wide with terror. His short legs churned, his arms pumped and his mouth was wide open as he wailed.
Booted feet thudded on the ballast stone pavement behind the child. A man burst into view then, racing after him. Of superior height and width of shoulder, his long legs covered the ground with great strides. His face was grim with determination as he gained on his quarry, stretching out a hand to snatch at the back of the boy's ragged, flapping shirt.
The child swerved, evading capture by a hairs-breadth. His new path took him straight toward Juliette. Dodging to one side, he caught a handful of her full skirts as he sped past, spinning her halfway around before taking refuge behind their crinoline-supported width.
The gentleman skidded to a halt then lunged to the left around Juliette as she struggled to face him. The boy jumped back the other way, jerking her nearly off her feet. His pursuer feinted to the opposite side. The boy dodged back again.
"Stop it! Cease this at once," Juliette cried, grasping her skirts to keep from being hauled around yet again. "Stop it, do you hear?"
It was the voice she used to quell young female pupils at the convent school. The effect was gratifying. The child stood still, his narrow chest heaving. The gentleman paused, then straightened to his full height. For an instant, the three of them were silent, sizing up each other with wary regard.
The boy's pursuer recovered first. Sweeping off his beaver hat, he executed a bow of consummate grace. "Your pardon, mademoiselle. I only require to lay hands on that imp of Satan behind you."
His voice—deep, rich and almost musical in its cadences—affected Juliette in the oddest way. She could almost feel it wrapping around her, invading her senses, vibrating deep inside her chest. A slow and disturbing heat bloomed in her midsection and spread throughout her body. It was a most peculiar sensation, one she had never before encountered. She stood quite still for a bemused instant, her gaze on the gentleman before her.
That he was masculine beauty personified was without question. Lustrous black hair, rakishly disheveled from his pursuit of the runaway, covered his head in dense waves that dipped forward onto his brow in an errant curl. His eyes were richly black and edged with thick lashes, which curled at the tips. Dark eyebrows with satanic arches, straight Roman nose and mouth almost sinful in its full and perfect contours formed such a perfect collection of features that Juliette was strongly reminded of engravings she had seen of fallen angels done by Italian masters.
She should know him, she thought in distraction, though she was sure they had never been introduced in a formal way. She went about so little on her rare visits home from the convent, mainly to the entertainments given by the family or their friends, that her circle of acquaintance was small. Still some dim memory teased her.
The gentleman returned her gaze, his own darkly appraising as he allowed it to drift over her face, then flick downward over the curves of her shoulders and breasts under their dull covering. It was done so quickly that she might not have been aware of it if she had not been so intent upon him. Still, she felt it like a tingling caress, felt the peaks of her breasts tighten as if with chill, though she was sure the effect was merely the unusual nature of that regard. Most men of her acquaintance would have been well aware of how inappropriate such a thing was where she was concerned. Or that it had been until recent events, she reminded herself.
Noting, perhaps, the fresh wave of hot color across her cheekbones, the gentleman turned his attention back to the boy who still clung to her, taking a step toward him.
"Non, mais, non," the little one cried out, dragging her from her reverie with his lisping protest. "I not go wit' you!"
"You will if you know what's good for you," the gentleman said grimly as he resettled his hat on his head.
"Non, non, non!"
"I'll give you a bonbon—"
"You gi' a baf'. I no want baf'!" The boy's voice rose to a hysterical edge.
The gentleman feinted to one side of Juliette, then plunged to the other with a lithe twist of his body. He grabbed for the boy's thin arm, and would surely have had him if he had not shrieked and plunged backward, falling on his small bottom.
"Monsieur," Juliette said with force as she stepped in front of the child, "it will be very much better if you try the effects of reason instead of frightening your son."
"What will be better is if you step aside." The gentleman barely glanced at her as he bent down, snatching at the boy's legs as he scooted backward.
"Don't let 'im get me, don't, don't, don't..."