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"Ms. Blake does a masterful job of weaving in conditions, mores, and perils of the late nineteenth century Louisiana" - The Long and Short of It
"A fabulous one-of-a-kind historical romance... Touching and compelling." - The Romance Reviews
"An engrossing read." - Historical Hilarity
"Full of delicious, tantalizing romance..." - BookLoons.com
The maid who tended the ladies' staterooms of the Queen Kathleen, the Natchez to New Orleans steamboat, was neat enough in appearance, with a clean apron and her hair tucked under a mobcap. Still, she carried about her the odor of corn whiskey like some raw perfume. Angelica Carew was no stranger to the smell; her fiancé had been known to take a drink too many, as had most of the men of Natchez society. She disliked it, however, and held her breath while the maid did up the row of tiny buttons that fastened the back of her evening gown.
The spirits had apparently loosened the young woman's tongue, for she crooned over the softness and delicate apricot color of the silk of the gown as she worked. She also asked a thousand questions about where Angelica was going and what she would be doing when she got there. Angelica's answers were not particularly informative. She preferred not to think about the journey, its purpose, or its end.
"You will be here to help me undress later?" Angelica said as the maid, finished with the buttons, began to lift and spread the gown's wide skirt evenly over the hooped petticoat underneath.
"Oh, yes, indeed. You only have to ring the bell just over there. I'll hear it at my station."
"I don't expect to be late. My father will be retiring early, I'm sure, and I have no reason to linger."
"Not even for a stroll along the deck with your young man? The moon is nearing full tonight." There was a hint of roguish humor in the other woman's voice.
"I'm sure he will find other entertainment."
"Will he? Then he's a poor sort in my book." The maid's laugh released an alcoholic breath strong enough tomake a sailor reel.
Angelica managed a brief smile as she moved away toward the petticoat mirror in the side table. The lamplight shifted with a rich gold sheen in her high-piled hair as she turned slowly to check her hemline. Swinging gently to face the other woman again, she said, "Are you the only ladies' attendant?"
"Indeed I am. One ladies' attendant and one for the gentlemen on this boat."
"I expect you're kept busy?"
"Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Many ladies bring their own maids, of course, and some dress themselves. Will there be something special I could do for you?"
"No, no." Angelica glanced at the other woman, then away again. "It's just that -- oh, some women are terrified of spiders or mice or snakes, but my horror is being trapped in my underclothes. I was punished as a child by being forced to sleep laced up tight in a corset with applewood slats up the back and -- I can't quite forget that when it's time for bed."
"Now who would do such a thing to a child as sweet as you must have been?"
Wry humor rose in Angelica's dark blue eyes. "I'm afraid I was a handful growing up, especially for a maiden aunt with a great many fine things to protect. She felt her methods kinder than striking me. Truth to tell, I would have preferred the slap."
"Yes, well, never you fear, dearie," the woman said with ready sympathy. "Just you give your bell a good yank when you need me, and I'll be here before you can take your hair down."
Satisfied, Angelica thanked her. A short time later, the attendant held open the door while Angelica maneuvered her wide skirts through the narrow opening. She stepped out into the salon known as the ladies' cabin, then moved through into the main cabin.
This lounging and eating area was a cavernous space running more than half the length of the boat. Brass and glass chandeliers, glowing with the mellow light of whale oil, were spaced at regular intervals. They illuminated ornate woodwork, the stained glass in the great overhead dome, and the miniature landscapes that were set above the stateroom doors. The mahogany tables down the center had been laid for dinner with white napery, heavy silver, and centerpieces of roses and ivy.
It was possible, Angelica thought as she paused in the doorway, that she should have remained in her stateroom until her father or her fiancé came for her. The few ladies who had emerged to wait for the dinner bell appeared to be escorted by their menfolk. The remaining passengers standing around the room were all male.
An uncomfortable flush rose to Angelica's cheekbones as she hesitated, uncertain whether to advance or retreat. That was even before a man, who stood with a group which included the captain and a trio of older gentlemen, turned to direct a piercing stare in her direction.
Tall and broad-shouldered, he commanded attention with the sheer force of his presence. He was smooth-shaven, his features singularly handsome in their chiseled planes and angles. Crisp, black hair clung in sculptured waves to his head and curled just at his coat collar. The coat was of impeccable cut, the lapels bound with dark gray silk lying neatly against the black broadcloth. His gray trousers fit without a wrinkle over muscular thighs and were fastened under half boots that were polished to a dazzling sheen. The pattern of his waistcoat was a subtle gray shadow-stripe, and the heavy watch chain that emphasized his taut midriff was weighted only by a single gold signet fob.
He appeared a gentleman of refined taste and ample means, yet there was taut and watchful power in his casual stance. More, something in his stillness, some hint of violent impulses ruthlessly restrained, gave Angelica an odd feeling of vulnerability. He was not, she knew instinctively, a safe man to know.
The man's gaze narrowed. For a single instant, he was as alert as a wolf scenting prey on a warm wind. Then the severely molded lines of his mouth relaxed. His gaze, as cool and opaquely green as a lime pool, drifted downward from her face to her shoulders exposed by her gown, and from there to her slender waist. The lamplight shone with blue fire in his dark hair as he inclined his head in a bow that was both an acknowledgment of her presence and a devastating compliment.
Angelica stood statue-still while her heart beat high in her throat. Heat flooded through her and a strange confusion of impulses -- to go, stay, run, hide, walk toward the man who watched -- held her immobile.
It was the purest reflex of manners that came to her aid. Her lips curved in a politely distant smile while she performed the minimal curtsy that would recognize the obeisance without encouraging the man.
The effect was not precisely as expected. One corner of the stranger's mouth curled in a sardonic smile. He made a slight movement, as though he meant to leave his friends, perhaps approach her. For the space of a breath, Angelica felt a warm flood of anticipation, as though every inch of her skin awaited a caress.
Then the face of the man across the room tightened, darkened. He swung abruptly away. After an instant, he made some comment to the captain that caused a rumble of laughter.
"Ravishing, my dear," Angelica's father said as he came to her side. "I knew the gown would enhance your charms when I chose it, but had no idea how much you would improve the gown."
It was a moment before she could attend to his words. Then she summoned a smile and put her hand on his arm. "You are a flatterer, but I love you for it."
"I would never offer you base coin."
"And why should you indeed? Hasn't Aunt Harriet always told me I look exactly like you?"
"A gratifying observation, if inaccurate. You look like your mother."
There was a tired note in his voice which caused Angelica to give him a quick, assessing glance. His face was pale under his look of fatherly pride, and the flickering lamplight overhead made the shadows under his eyes look like old bruises. The business of arranging this wedding and getting ready for the move downriver had stretched his strength to the limit and, in his illness, he had little to spare. Her fingers on his sleeve tightened in involuntary distress.
The ghost of a smile flitted across his face. "Are you about to make a fuss? Indulge me, please, and refrain. It will only spoil the evening."
"Oh, Papa ..."
"It's your Aunt Harriet's fault, your inconveniently tender conscience," he said in rallying tones. "I should never have left you with her so long. But the time sped past so quickly -- one day you were a crawling babe, the next a lady with her hair up in curls and scent behind her ears."
"Rose water," Angelica corrected in dry tones. "It's all Aunt Harriet permitted."
"Was it so terrible, then, living with her? She is my sister and I respect her, but she is not, I fear, a warmhearted woman."
What could she say? To complain would only worry him while mending nothing. "She did her duty. And she is fond of me, I think, in her way."
"As bad as that?" her father said with a shake of his head. "Perhaps it's just as well that things happened as they did. You will be much happier as a wife."
Angelica made no answer. She wished that he might be right, since it seemed to give him comfort, but she was far from sure of it.
Dinner was a time-consuming production served with all the pomp of a fine restaurant. The aromas of the food hovered in the air, mingling with the smell of lamp oil and perfume and the river. The breeze over the water, laden with dampness, wafted in at the open transoms over the windows and doors on one side of the long cabin and out those on the other. The vibration caused by the laboring of the great steam engines made the water and wine shiver in their crystal glasses, and could be felt as a faint shudder through the deck and the dining chairs. The rumble and thump of the gears to the stern wheel were constant, like the steady throb of a giant heart, while the splashing of water over its paddles had the sound of distant rain. With the noise and the buzz of conversation, the music provided by an ensemble playing pianoforte, French horn, and violin was a distant, half-drowned undercurrent of melody.
Halfway through the meal, Angelica felt a strong sense of being under observation. She glanced at the captain's table in the center of the room. The man she had seen earlier was there. Paying scant attention to the animated conversation going on around him, he leaned back in his chair with his elbow on its arm and his chin supported by thumb and forefinger. He was watching her, his eyes hooded and brooding.
Renold Harden saw Angelica Carew turn her head in his direction and was grimly pleased. It could be helpful that the lady was as aware of him as he was of her.
Fair Angelica, angelically fair. Pure and dulcet, golden as an angel done on fresco, with eyes of rich sea blue that were mirrors to hide her thoughts or reflect her joy. She really was beautiful, a possibility he had not considered. Amazing. But then he had given little heed to the daughter except as a weapon. It was an unexpected bonus. He had not thought to find pleasure in his use of her.
Renold recalled the transcendent pleasure in the face of Edmund Carew when he had seen his daughter. He loved the young woman he had sired, handled her as gently as he might a newborn, as deftly as ever he had riffled the cards. As he led her in to dinner, he had placed her hand on his arm, covering it with his fingers. Besotted, as full of news as a rooster at daybreak, he had talked for the purpose of coaxing his daughter's quick, silvery laugh and the rise of love and approval in her eyes.
It had been like watching an unreliable cur playing with a kitten. Remembering, sick rage gathered, settling its heat in the center of Renold's chest.
His stepfather, Gerald Delaup, had been a saint among men. He was seldom seen without a smile. Urbane, kind of heart, he had years ago scandalized his relatives and social acquaintances by marrying out of the aristocratic circle of New Orleans, taking an Irishwoman to wife. If that were not enough, he had also taken in the woman's bastard son. Under his protection the boy, surly, difficult, black-tempered as his black-Irish heritage, had over the years turned into a fairly civilized human being, though not, perhaps, a gentleman.
Gerald Delaup had full reason to be jovial and even kindly; life had treated him well. A man of position, he had been descended from one of the oldest French Creole families in New Orleans -- those of French nationality born outside France, in this case in Louisiana. He had a sugar plantation called Bonheur on the Mississippi that supplied the wealth that allowed him to keep a townhouse for the season, a stable of horses and three carriages, a box at the opera, and to give his wife and daughter all the fripperies and fashionable nothings their hearts desired. There was also enough left over to permit himself the pleasant diversion of purchasing a racehorse now and then or sitting down to an occasional game of cards for high stakes.
One day less than a month past, M'sieur Delaup, Renold's stepfather, had traveled to St. Louis by steamboat to look at a promising Thoroughbred. The horse had proven a disappointment, but on his return he had fallen in with a gentleman of charm and address. The two of them had begun a card game which lasted from the middle of one afternoon until dawn of the next day. At the end of it, the gambler and cardsharp Edmund Carew had been the jubilant owner of Bonheur, along with its furniture, slaves, livestock, and grandeur.
Without the plantation, Delaup's livelihood and prestige were gone. The townhouse would have to be sold, the box at the opera, everything. M'sieur Delaup was grateful for Renold's offer of a loan, but he could not repay it and his pride would not support charity. Perhaps Renold would care to purchase his new carriage and matched grays? Va bien. That immediate sale would provide space to breathe, time to think about what was to be done. He was too old to start over, but what else was there?
Oh, and would Renold consider telling his mother that her worthless husband had beggared her? That was a humiliation too terrible for a caring, devoted husband to bear. Or perhaps he should do it himself, perhaps he owed her that much? But not immediately, not, please God, this evening. He had not the courage.
Gerald Delaup had found a different solution some time in the murky hours before dawn of the next day. Bolstered by brandy and desolation, he put the barrel of his silver-chased dueling pistol into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Pain was something Renold denied as a weakness, but he had stood at the raw grave of his stepfather and let its aching poison seep through his every fiber. Gerald Delaup had been the first man to allow Renold his self-respect, the first to find him worthy of teaching, the only one to give him unquestioning affection. Renold had felt the fierce gratitude toward his stepfather that only a mongrel can feel toward a generous and loving benefactor.
Staring down into the grave, he had sworn to take back Bonheur, by force if need be. And no matter the cost, he vowed to punish the man who had cheated Gerald Delaup of his pride and his joy in living.
Yes, cheated, for the Delaup plantation had been lost in no simple game of chance. Edmund Carew, though known as fair and honorable as gamblers went, had played with marked cards. Gerald Delaup had mentioned the possibility before he died. Renold had confirmed it through his acquaintances and informants in the netherworld of New Orleans gambling.
Renold had thought to force a meeting on the field of honor during which Edmund Carew would learn exactly why his life was being taken from him. That was before he had run the gambler to earth in Natchez, before he discovered that Carew had a faulty heart that could stop at any given moment It seemed pointless to kill a man already under a sentence of death.
There had to be a way to hurt Carew. Renold had found it when he heard of Carew's daughter. At the same time, he had discovered the perfect means of regaining Bonheur.
Angelica Carew was the one thing the gambler valued, the only thing he cherished, the single avenue through which he could be reached. The man would hate it if his neat arrangement for his daughter's future security was twisted into a new form. He would cringe if he knew she was to be bedded and forced into a different and hellish marriage for the sake of the dowry he had bestowed on her. He would know the tortures of the damned if he was made to understand that she must pay the price for her father's greed and trickery every day -- and night -- for the rest of her life.
As he met the lady's gaze, Renold reached for his wine glass, lifting it to her in a small salute. There was no gallantry, no flirtation in the gesture, however. It was, rather, one of stark anticipation.
Angelica lowered her gaze quickly to her plate. At the same time, she caught her breath as a shiver rippled over her, leaving gooseflesh in its wake.
Beside her, her fiancé gave a loud laugh. "What is it? A goose walk on your grave?"
"Something like that," she murmured.
"Never mind," Laurence said, his light brown eyes bright with the many glasses of wine he had drunk during the meal. "Before long, I'll have the right to kill the thing for you."
Disquiet was strong within Angelica as she looked away. She preferred not to think of Laurence Eddington's rights as a husband, no matter what form they might take. The wet, devouring kisses he had pressed upon her after she had accepted his proposal made her shudder to think of them.
She was a little confused by such shrinking; she had her dreams of love and marriage and a family. More, long years of listening to her aunt's friends gossip about the misdemeanors of Natchez society and her elderly cook's salty discussions of the goings-on in the quarters behind the big houses had given her a fair idea of what was involved.
It was not as if she did not know the man she was to marry. Laurence was the son of her Aunt Harriet's best friend, someone Angelica had played with as a child, stood up with at balls, teased for his pride in being an Eddington of Dogwood Hill, one of the town's most prestigious estates. Still, she had thought of him more in the guise of a cousin or a brother than a husband. That he had transformed himself into a suitor the instant he learned she was to have Bonheur, the vast plantation above New Orleans, as her dowry was a source of distress. She felt she had lost a friend without gaining a lover.
Angelica glanced at him, at the way he reclined with exaggerated ease in his chair. His sandy blond hair was sliding into his face, his smile was loose. Her husband-to-be. Her husband in less than six weeks, since her father was looking toward a late spring wedding.
She waited for the rise of some pleasure, even some expectation. There was nothing except the uncomfortable heaviness of duty.
The problem, it seemed, was in herself. Perhaps her nature was not passionate, or she had been too long under the influence of her aunt who felt that men were creatures with nasty habits and appetites, particularly in the bedchamber. It was a dilemma she must face. Soon.
The last thing she needed was a distracting awareness of a strange man. She would not look at him again. No. She would not.
By the time the meal ended, the starched white tablecloths were limp with river dampness and scattered with stains. Both the tables and the Persian rugs on the floor were littered with the singed bodies of moths and flies drawn to dance in the hot light of the chandeliers. Insects and spilled crumbs were crushed underfoot as the diners left the room so that it might be cleared by the waiters.
Angelica, with her father and Laurence, took a digestive ramble about the boiler deck. The two men talked in a desultory fashion, Laurence complaining about the smallness of his stateroom and the insolence of the steward, her father explaining the wedding purchases he had made in Natchez before the boat sailed and how they would be shipped on after them. Neither seemed to need or want any comment from Angelica. She let the voices of the men wash over her while she wondered if this was the way it would always be.
At one point, Laurence put his arm around her waist to steady her as the boat wallowed in a windblown wave, but also drawing her close against him. It was instinct rather than design that made Angelica pull away. She thought from the petulant scowl that crossed her fiancé's face that he was not pleased.
The moon promised by the ladies' attendant had not yet put in an appearance; the river lay dark and wide around them except for the moving glow of the steamboat's lights reflecting on the water. As they paused at the rail, Angelica grasped the polished wood with her gloved hands, gripping tight, wishing she could hold back the boat's progress. She felt suddenly as if she were being rushed toward a precipice, that soon the boat would steam over the edge and it would be too late.
Ridiculous, of course. Yet, at this time just a week ago, she would have said it was ridiculous that she would be betrothed overnight, ridiculous that she would be traveling to take possession of a plantation, ridiculous that her dear Papa could be revealed as a professional gambler.
It embarrassed her now to think of how ignorant she had been of the life her father led, the peculiar talents by which he earned his daily bread. He and her aunt had kept it from her, of course, allowing her to think that he was a man so grieved by the long-ago death of his wife, her mother, that he could only find peace in travel and the scholarly pursuit of knowledge in other climes.
Angelica had known that he drifted from one city and watering place to another, both in Europe and the United States; sometimes he mentioned Strasbourg or White Sulphur Springs, Boston or Baden-Baden. Who would have guessed that he depended for his livelihood on luck and flimsy pieces of colored paper? How could she have imagined that he would gamble for stakes high enough to gain and lose fortunes? By what means could she have suspected that he would present his greatest prize, the plantation he had won from its owner, to her? A prize hedged around with such pleas and promises and hints about his failing health that she could not refuse it or the husband he thought she needed to take care of both the estate and herself.
The wind, so fresh and pleasant at first, after the accumulated heat and smells of the main cabin, seemed to have a cooler edge. It chilled her, penetrating the India shawl she had thrown around her shoulders. When it could be seen that the main cabin was free of the debris of dinner, they moved back inside.
The whale oil lamps had begun to smoke their globes, lending the atmosphere an air of gray gloom. Elderly women in widow's weeds in various shades of lavender and purple had established one of several islands of lugubrious conversation. In the corners of the main cabin, young matrons discussed the ills of childhood and the problems of instructing servants, while middle-aged ladies kept an eye on teenage daughters who danced sedately to the music that still played or else giggled and eyed the unattached males gathered at the cabin's stern end. From the open door of the gentlemen's salon located nearby, there drifted a blue haze of cigar smoke and the slap of cards on baize-covered tables. Angelica, glancing into that salon as they passed it, caught a glimpse of the gentleman who had saluted her. He was sitting at the faro table, absorbed in play. She looked away quickly before he could take notice of her.
The hail, loud and not at all discreet, rang across the cabin. It was directed at Angelica's father by a woman of enormous girth whose embonpoint was covered with brown lace set off by a parure of yellow diamonds as large as lemon drops.
Angelica thought for an instant that Edmund Carew would refuse to acknowledge the greeting. Then, as the woman waved to them in imperious summons and a blinding flash of diamonds, the older man sighed, took Angelica's arm, and walked forward to respond.
The lady was a Madame Parnell, a widow of middle age with a jovial manner and a trace of Irish accent. She spoke in a voice husky from either constant use or the medicinal brandy she kept in a small flask in a knitting bag. The widow allowed the necessary introductions to Angelica and Laurence, then immediately dominated the conversation with a running commentary on everything from her accident with a deviled egg at dinner to the plays and entertainments she expected to attend in New Orleans.
It became obvious fairly soon that the late Mr. Parnell had also been a gambler and a crony of Edmund Carew's. The woman reminisced with relish about various journeys the three of them had made to the northeast and to Europe, of amusing incidents and hairsbreadth escapes they had made from irate losers at cards and ladies expecting matrimony from Angelica's father. Laurence, standing beside Angelica's chair, shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. Angelica sat forward, enthralled.
"Good Lord, Edmund," the outspoken lady said, breaking off in the middle of a tale involving a hay wagon, an hourglass, and some dismal female's lost nightcap, "you look fagged to death. Why don't you go to bed and leave your charming Angelica to me? I'll see no harm comes to her."
"Yes, Papa, do," Angelica said in concern. "I won't be long behind you."
"No doubt Madame Parnell wishes to blacken my character while I am not here to defend myself," Edmund Carew said.
The older woman gave an asthmatic laugh. "Only enough to make you interesting."
Edmund Carew smiled. Taking Angelica's hand, he carried it to his lips for a brief salute. "I'll say good night, then, my love. Be pleased to remember, however, that I have a certain dignity, and I am still your father." With a whimsical bow which included all three, he left them.
"Now there, my dear young friends, is a man," Madame Parnell said on a gusting sigh as she watched Edmund Carew walk away. "Oh, he has his weaknesses; he is quick to anger, and quicker to take advantage of a man who doesn't know his own limits or has no skill at cards. He has no head for money -- why, I once saw him wager his last groat on which of two draggle-tailed roosters at a Spanish inn would crow first! But he is always the gentleman and has never forgotten the one woman he ever loved -- your mother, Angelica, my dear."
"I'm afraid I never knew a great deal about how he spent his days," Angelica said with care.
"No doubt he meant it to be that way. Or else that sour-faced woman, your aunt, decreed it. I met her once, and a more joyless creature I never saw, tighter in her tail than alum can possibly --"
Beside them, Laurence made a strangled sound in his throat and shifted uncomfortably.
Madame Parnell broke off. Rearing her considerable bulk back in the seat so she could look up at him, she said, "Do you have a fish bone stuck in your throat, my boy, or would you be trying to tell me to mind my tongue? If you don't care for my language, you can jolly well take yourself off where you can't hear it. Maybe you'd like the card room, where you can watch the men play?"
Laurence, his face flaming at the slur on his manhood, looked to Angelica in chagrin and appeal. Angelica, however, was reluctant to abandon this opportunity to learn more of her father. She was also less than anxious to be alone with her fiancé. "I'll be perfectly fine," she said. "You need not stay."
Annoyance thinned his lips; still he inclined his head in a stiff-necked bow to Madame Parnell. "Your servant, ma'am. Angelica, I will return later to collect you."
Copyright © 1996 by Patricia Maxwell
Posted June 12, 2011
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