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River's Edge Plantation August 1847
Somebody coming, madame, stranger coming down the road!"
Reine Marie Cassard Pingre put down her pen as the warning was called out from downstairs. She closed the ledger in which she was copying figures from the bills of lading for goods that had been delivered at the plantation steamboat landing that morning. Rising to her feet, she grimaced at the ink staining her fingers. She should hurry and wash her hands before descending to greet the visitor.
But really, what was the point? The gentleman was doubtless only a crony of her father's. He would join him where he rested on the lower gallery, which was comfortably shaded by massive live oaks at this hour. With glasses of Madeira in hand, the two of them would discuss the price of cotton and the latest political scandals. She would be free to return to her desk work once the obligatory compliments were out of the way.
Stretching a little, she moved to her sitting room's French doors, which stood open to the morning air. Sunlight lay in a broad swath over the canvas that carpeted the gallery floor, reflecting from its white surface with blinding brilliance. Reine shaded her eyes with one hand as she gazed out at the front drive that curved its way down to the river road.
A horseman cantered toward the house, kicking up puffs of dust that formed a small comet tail behind him. Tall and broad of shoulder, he sat his saddle with the ease of one born to it. A wide-brimmed planter's hat of summer straw shaded his face, while the folds of a long gray dust coat protected his clothing. He was too far away for his features to be visible, yet something about him seemed familiar.
Reine felt a small frisson run down her spine. She was not a fanciful female by any means, yet it seemed the sun dimmed as if a cloud passed over it. The heat of the day waned, leaving her chilled and unaccountably disturbed.
A goose walking on her grave, she told herself with an abrupt shake of her head. That was all. Turning with decision, she crossed to the hallway and made her way down the stairs.
Alonzo, the white-haired butler who had been a fixture at River's Edge since before she was born, awaited her at their foot. She asked him to see that refreshments were provided on the lower gallery. As he moved away to do her bidding, she drew a deep breath and walked out the open front door, pausing on the steps of the white-columned portico.
The visitor had just reached the gate that closed off the pathway through the front garden. He was definitely not a friend of her father's, Reine saw; the muscular grace with which he swung from the saddle was that of a man in his prime, one no stranger to physical exertion. He did not lack for assurance, for he tossed his reins to the stable boy who came running and pushed open the gate in the picket fence as if returning home instead of paying a social call. The way he gazed around him, taking in the grass-covered rise of the Mississippi River levee, the front garden behind its fencing, the big white house and waving fields of young cane behind it, was keenly appraising. No master on watch for signs of negligence could have been more thorough.
Alonzo, his assignment completed, stepped through the front door and came to a halt behind Reine. She was heartily glad of his silent support. The arrival of Chalmette, her brother's big, rawboned bloodhound that emerged from his cool wallow under the hydrangea shrubs, also improved her feelings. She did not reprove the dog as he raised his ruff with a low growl and planted himself in front of her.
"Good day, monsieur" she greeted the visitor in polite tones. "May we be of service?"
He turned toward her, reaching at the same time to remove his hat. Lowering it to rest against the swinging fullness of his long dust coat, he stood square-shouldered and grim of face before her.
Shock wrenched that single word from her. The tone of her voice disturbed the hound, for he growled again in deep-throated warning. She put a quieting hand on his head.
"As you say, Madame Pingre," the visitor answered with a brief tip of his head. "Christien Lenoir, at your service."
Dark hair with the black satin gleam of a swamp panther's pelt, deep-set dark eyes, strong features that carried a copper-bronze tint: this was the man who lived nightly in Reine's dreams, yes, and her nightmares. It was he who had saved her and Marguerite from being mangled by carriage wheels or worse on that terrible night four months ago. For an instant, she was back in his arms again, lying against his hard length, caught to him in a hold so secure it seemed nothing could harm her, not then, not ever.
The urge to sink into that infinite protection had been so seductive she was forced to steel herself against it. Anger at her weakness and the impossibility of ever having someone to share her blighted existence washed over her in that instant. Though it pained her to remember it now, she had screamed at this man like a harridan as she scrambled up and dragged her daughter away from him.
The heat of a flush rose to her hairline. It was all she could do to sustain his piercing gaze. What mischance had brought him to River's edge she could not imagine, but the sooner he was on his way, the better. "I ask again if I may direct you, monsieur."
"I've come on a matter of business with your father. That is, if he is at home."
"What could you possibly have to discuss with him?" The question was less than gracious, though the best Reine could manage at the moment.
"You doubt my invitation to call?"
A dangerous undertone shaded Christien Lenoir's voice, she thought. It was a reminder of a similar dark peril seen in his eyes as they had faced each other in a muddy street. Fear had meshed with the anger inside her as she recognized it, but beneath both had been a strange exhilaration. They had been muddy, disheveled, bruised and shaken, but for a brief instant there flashed between them an awareness so searing she had felt branded by it. They had stood staring at each other, a heartbeat away from quarreling, until Marguerite began to cry.
Just thinking of it now made Reine feel as if her blood had turned hot and scouring in her veins, mounting to her brain. It was difficult to recall what he had just asked.
"I…I must confess to being surprised," she said finally. "My father is expecting you, then?"
"He should be," he said in cryptic reply.
She hesitated, then stepped back, gesturing toward the side gallery. "That way, if you please. Alonzo will take your hat and dust coat, then show you to him."
"You're very kind, madame."
His voice was dry, the look in his eyes ironic as he came up the steps toward her. He seemed a veritable paladin, impossibly tall and wide of shoulder and with his coat flowing around his heels like a cloak. If the presence of the bloodhound troubled him, he gave no sign but only held out a hand for him to sniff. Chalmette availed himself of that privilege, gave a wag of his tail, then trailed away in the direction of the hydrangea again.
Reine gave the dog a jaundiced look. As she glanced back at the visitor, she caught a glimpse of amusement in his eyes, as if he understood her annoyance at Chal-mette's defection. She only inclined her head in leave-taking before turning away to reenter the house.
It was possible he paused to watch her departure. She could not be sure for she did not look back.
The visitor's arrival was such a distraction that it was difficult to return to her paperwork. When she had placed half a dozen sums in the wrong column, entered one set twice and added a column three times with as many different answers, she flung down her pen and left the writing table once more.
A small mirror hung in a gilded frame above the console table between the French doors. She stepped to it, frowning at her reflection. Her hair, never particularly neat, had sprung into a mass of wild wisps around her face in the souplike summer air. Her face was flushed in a less-than-attractive fashion, and, yes, that was a smudge of India ink on her chin.
With an exclamation of annoyance, she slipped her handkerchief from the embroidered, drawstring pocket that dangled at her waist along with her keys. She moistened it with her tongue and scrubbed hard at the stain. Not that she cared what she looked like, of course. She had never been more than passably attractive, but she preferred at least to be clean.
What business could Monsieur Lenoir possibly have at River's Edge? She could not think her father required instruction in the use of fencing foil or sword; he had been proficient once, though that was years ago. He owned no property on the Passage de la Bourse that might be rented out as a sword master's atelier as far as she was aware. He was of too mild of a temper to contemplate engaging a maître d'armes to rid himself of an enemy. That was, of course, if Monsieur Lenoir could be brought to hire out his sword for such a purpose; only the least respectable of the fencing masters were so lost to honor as to stoop to such arrangements.
The only other thing she could imagine was a debt of honor. Her father was a fine man but had one vice, an addiction to games of chance. It had been years since he allowed it to overcome his better judgment, though Reine's mother sometimes spoke of the days before their marriage when he had won and lost several fortunes. Regardless, he came up short of funds now and again after a particularly long night of play. Yes, and there had been that evening not so long ago when he had come home only as the roosters crowed.
Dismay seeped over Reine as she became certain she had hit upon the reason for the sword master's visit. Her father owed a gambling debt.
Cash to pay it off was in short supply; she knew that well enough, having spent the morning toting up the accounts. Not that such a state of affairs was unusual; most planters lived on their expectation of future profit. Harvest time usually saw their hopes rewarded, but not always. A single crop destroyed by drought, insects, disease or storms, and ruin could overtake them. That was unless friends or a benevolent banker came to their rescue.
Her father had been fortunate in his friends and business acquaintances thus far. A convivial man, he was generous to a fault when in funds, always cheerful in company and as affable when losing as when winning at the card table. He made few enemies, which he often proclaimed to be the secret of a good life.
Reality and her dear papa were not on close terms, however; he made a habit of ignoring unpleasant facts for as long as possible. More than that, he did not believe in burdening females with financial worries. This in spite of it being Reine who kept track of plantation profits and expenditures. Though her affection was deep and abiding, her knowledge of his faults gave her a bad feeling about this unusual visit.
The need to know precisely how matters stood between her father and Monsieur Lenoir became more acute with every passing moment. It was a relief when Alonzo appeared to tell her that she was required on the gallery.
The visitor and her father rose at her approach, then sank back into their seats as she took a wicker chair and folded her hands in her lap. Her father made a hearty show of recalling the identity of their guest to her memory and expressing yet again his gratitude for his good services in preventing injury to Reine and Marguerite outside the theater. With that out of the way, he fell uncharacteristically silent, glancing from her to his visitor with a worried frown between faded blue eyes. He shifted his gaze out over the gallery railing to the moving patches of sunlight under the oaks. He looked at the caller again, cleared his throat and pursed his lips.
Her father was growing older, Reine noticed with a small clutch at her heart. Liver spots marked the backs of his hands, his features were grooved with lines and his dark hair streaked with silver. A bon vivant as a young man, he had married rather late in life so had been almost forty when she was born. Events these past few years had taken their toll, stealing the spring from his step and the sprightliness and laughter from his smile. For much of that she was to blame, as she knew far too well.
"Yes, Papa?" she asked after a moment. "You have something you wish to tell me?"
"Indeed. There is a matter… That is, I must relate… Oh, it's a damnable thing, and I'm more sorry than I can say. It concerns you more than any other, and it seemed best that I let you know first so you can… Ah, chère!"
Reine's apprehension, already strong, turned to alarm. She sat forward. "What is it? Has something happened? Tell me at once!"
Her father opened his mouth and closed it again with a shake of his head. Reine, feeling the gaze of the sword master upon her face, swung toward him in hope of clarification.
Thankfully, he did not disappoint her.
"What your father is trying to tell you, Madame Pingre," he said, his voice as steady as his black gaze, "is that he has lost title to this property. The house, its furnishings, workers and acreage has passed from him over the gaming table. His loss is my gain. I am the new owner of River's Edge."
The words he spoke were clear enough, but her mind refused to accept their meaning. This was worse, so much worse, than she had feared. "What? What did you say?"
"It's true," her father said in mournful concurrence as she turned back to him. "Everything is gone. The town house in the Vieux Carré, as well."
"I am sorry," Lenoir said.
Reine closed her eyes, unable to bear what was surely the spurious regret in his voice or the implacability in his features. "Gaming," she said, the damning word no more than a whisper in her own ears.
"Euchre." Her father's voice regained strength now that the news was out. "My luck was abominable. Truly, I never saw it so bad. I was sure it would turn as the night went on, but alas, it never happened." He gave a fatalistic shrug.