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The Secret Daughter
By Roz Fox
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBaton Rouge, Louisiana
"Betty! Betty Rabaud. I thought it was you. Wait, let me catch my breath. I've been hoping I'd run into you one of these days. I declare, can anything else go wrong for Casey and Jackson Fontaine?" Ignoring a stiff October wind, Mary Louise Chastain ran up to her friend outside a local café. She used to be a cook at the Woodlands, owned by Roland Dewalt, the Fontaine family's nearest neighbor. And Betty was her counterpart on the larger plantation.
Betty Rabaud loved few things in life as much as she loved gossip and her role as housekeeper-cook at Bellefontaine certainly gave her access to lots of the good stuff. She couldn't help it if her affluent employers had been involved in so many disasters - each one worthy of gossip - during the past few months.
Today it happened to be news that had somehow leaked into the community. The recently deceased Duke Fontaine had fathered an illegitimate child. Glancing both right and left before pulling the ever-present unlit cigarette from between her lips, Betty tucked it over one ear and said in hushed tones, "Ain't it something, Mary Louise? But how did you hear?"
"Murray Dewalt dropped by to see how I was getting on. I'd already heard rumors about the arson at Bellefontaine, how they had an expensive harvester go missing, and about Casey Fontaine taking up with that riverboat casino owner. Murray's not one to talk out of turn, mind you, but I squeezed some information out of him 'cause he feels so bad for the way his dad fired me in one of his fits of temper. Not that I'd ever go back to the Woodlands, and Murray knows it."
"Humph," Betty grumbled. "I figured maybe it was Roland spreading dirt about Duke's family, seeing how Duke stole the woman Roland had his heart set on marrying."
"Isn't that water down the toilet? Oh, sure, Roland bellyached to his old cronies, although he's a loner, that one. If you ask me - and no one does - Roland Dewalt's becoming a hermit."
"Let's go inside where we can eat and chat some more, Mary Louise. Today's my day off, so I'm not in any rush."
"Mine, too. Having a day off is new for me. Roland Dewalt expected me to work seven days a week, and for a lot less than I'm making working a shorter week for Baumgartner's."
The friends went inside and sought an out-of-the-way back booth.
Mary Louise lowered her voice further, mostly to avoid being overheard by a chatty group seated at a nearby table. "Do you think Angelique knew her husband was playing around? Or would she ever tell you such a thing, since you're only a shirttail cousin?"
"Angelique didn't tell a soul. Truth is, I overheard Casey pitching a royal fit. I guess in some letter she and Jackson found, it more or less said their mother forgave Duke his little transgression. Know what else I heard, though? This tickles me pink." Betty gave a smug smile. "Esme Fontaine had no earthly clue."
"My, my. Considering how hard it was for her to swallow the idea of Jackson's love child, that little girl, showing up to live at Bellefontaine, I'm surprised Esme didn't have a stroke over learning her brother had one of his own hidden away."
"Well, she won't be hidden for long. She's coming for the reading of Duke's will tonight. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in that meeting. Which is why I'll bet you Esme arranged for Shelburne Prescott to read it on my day off. Mademoiselle Froufrou would like nothing better than to keep this secret inside the family. Mark my words, Esme'll have that girl in and gone again before she can do any more damage to Duke's reputation."
"Doesn't matter whether you get along with Esme or not, Betty, you can't fault her for feeling like that. She's lived half her life with everyone in town snickering over the way Roland broke their engagement when he fell for Angelique.
"If this was just about Esme's feelings, I'd say tough. But Casey doesn't deserve to have this kind of shadow over her marriage. And poor Jackson. Now that Duke's dead, that boy's been left in charge of an operation his father barely let him touch.
"It's the same with Murray Dewalt, God love him. Duke and Roland, for all their petty squabbles, seemed to think a son proved their virility. Yet both of 'em were too stubborn and arrogant to equip their boys to take over if anything ever happened to them."
"Ain't it the truth. But I'm sure Duke didn't plan on going."
"Yep. I imagine he'd have done a whole lot of things differently if he'd had any idea he and Angelique were going to get killed in that plane crash. To make matters worse, the poor kids had to learn their papa was flying the plane that day." She shook her head. "Still, any way you cut it, Duke left Jackson and Casey in a thorny situation."
The women's friendly gossip session ceased abruptly as a waitress showed up to take their lunch orders.
* * *
"Hi, Midori." Noelani Hana breezed full-tilt into the executive offices of Shiller Cane Company, the same way she'd moved through life for most of her twenty-seven years. Her long, straight hair settled like dark rain over her olive-toned shoulders as she skidded to a stop in front of Bruce Shiller's secretary. "What's so urgent to make the boss send a runner to the mill to get me? I'll have our vat computers running fine before the first load of cane's delivered, if that's what he's worried about."
"He didn't give a reason, just opened his door and told me to find you ASAP."
Noelani peeled off her leather work gloves and tucked them into the back pocket of her khaki walking shorts. "Guess I'd better go see. Oh - has he met with those truck farmers again? You know, the ones who proposed turning the cane fields into a tomato patch or some ridiculous thing?"
"Bruce hasn't mentioned them in weeks. He's still muttering about selling, though. You know this is the fourth year in a row our profits have dropped."
Noelani knocked on Shiller's door. Pasting a smile on her face, she burst gaily into his office. "You rang, oh great master?"
Seated behind a huge mahogany desk, a gaunt, sixtyish man, with a weathered face and white hair glanced up. Probably for the first time ever, he didn't return Noelani's smile. "Take a seat." Rocking back in his chair, he idly twirled a pencil.
Unable to read his expression Noelani grew uneasy. "If this is going to be another lecture about flagging profits, Bruce - don't worry. I'll coax more from our worn-out equipment. We haven't given the new computer program I wrote a chance to show what it can do."
"Sit, Noelani. I didn't call you here to talk about the mill." Tossing the pencil aside, he peeled open a creamy envelope and removed an official-looking letter.
She did as he asked this time, throwing herself into a chair. Bruce's office was like home. Until her mother died of lymphatic cancer, Anela Hana had kept Shiller's books. Noelani had barely turned thirteen the day Bruce informed her Anela had died. It was the only other time she recalled seeing such deep sorrow in Bruce's eyes, and her stomach reacted accordingly.
"Noelani, it grieves me greatly, but I have the task of telling you that Duke Fontaine and his wife, Angelique, died in a plane crash." Bruce Shiller pushed the letter toward her. "This lawyer, Shelburne Prescott, says you're named in your father's will, along with Cassandra and Jackson Fontaine. They, of course, live at Bellefontaine. Duke's plantation ... on the mainland," he clarified as Noelani stared at the letter without touching it.
"He had other kids? Well, if they're named Fontaine, I guess they're legitimate."
Excerpted from The Secret Daughter by Roz Fox Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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