When vengeful Tony Duvalier discovers a “Miss L. Delaney” is responsible for his uncle’s death, the hot-tempered aristocrat vows to make her pay. But he can’t reconcile the emerald-eyed innocence of Laurel Delaney with his image of a cheap, scheming hussy. Despite the way she sets his heart aflame, Tony is determined to humiliate the guilty femme fatale—even if it costs him once-in-a-lifetime love.
Laurel’s troublemaking cousin, Lavinia, begs for her help in hiding from the Duvalier family, and the two travel to New Orleans in disguise. But when Laurel meets the very man she’s deceiving, she’s stunned by his arrogance, confidence . . . and charm. She knows she should avoid Tony, but the moment this refined heiress feels his commanding embrace, she can’t help but submit to their sensual, all-consuming affair.
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By Lynette Vinet
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Lynette Vinet
All rights reserved.
New Orleans, January 1858
"Miss Laurel, now you stop peepin' out of that window all evenin' long. If your cousin said she'd be here by six, you can count on her to be here at seven. That girl just ain't got the sense the Lord gave to her when she was born. Take old Gincie's word on that."
Laurel Delaney took one last look down Chestnut Street, her view partially blocked by the large, white Corinthian columns that were connected by an iron-lacework railing on the lower gallery. Turning from the window of the Garden District mansion, she allowed the edge of the white lace curtain to fall gently from her fingertips. She gave a small smile to Gincie, the old black woman who now dusted the mahogany tabletop in the parlor, and sighed.
"I wish just once I could rely on Lavinia to be punctual. Why I bother to finish dressing so early for the opera is a mystery to me. She is always late."
Gincie shook her head, her gray hair hidden by a green turban. "That's because you is a lady, Miss Laurel, and not like your cousin who ain't got no regard for folks' feelin's. Ever since she arrived from San Antonio, she ain't said more than two words to you. Always off gallivantin' somewhere and comin' home loaded down with boxes. Where do you think she gets all that money from anyway?"
"Now don't start picking on Lavinia again," Laurel gently chided Gincie, though not sure why she felt protective of Lavinia. Gincie was right about Lavinia. She didn't seem to have much regard for people's feelings, especially not for her younger cousin's. Laurel smoothed down her high-necked peach satin gown. "I suppose Uncle Arthur is doing very well on his cattle ranch. Lavinia has been keeping the New Orleans shopkeepers busy since her arrival, hasn't she?"
Gincie stopped polishing the Queen Anne table and gave her full attention to the young dark-haired woman who was framed by the gold-edged mirror behind her. "That Miss Lavinia don't fool old Gincie. I saw her shoes that first day she pranced in here. The soles were all worn out. You can always tell a lady by her shoes; I always say that."
Laurel sat down on the Louis Quinze sofa and lightly fingered the gold-and-green brocade material. "You're being much too harsh on her, Gincie. Lavinia is high-strung, I think."
"Hmph!" Gincie turned away in a huff. "That fancy Yankee school Mr. Anderson sent you to after your parents died didn't teach you nothin' about people. Miss Lavinia is usin' you, and you're just too good-hearted to know it. That Miss Lavinia is up to no good. Just you wait and see."
Laurel didn't suppress the smile that rose to her strawberry-tinted lips when Gincie departed the parlor. She wished she could be more like Gincie, either hating or loving passionately ... even like Lavinia who had a flair for the dramatic, a joie de vivre. Laurel doubted that she had any passion within her; the fire that coursed through Lavinia's veins was lacking in her own.
At twenty-one years old, she was still unwed, still a virgin, and likely to remain both until her dying day. She had been told by various gentlemen that she was comely, almost regal in appearance when she entered a room. "Coolly regal" was how her best friend's brother had described her once. She still didn't know if he had meant that as a compliment or a criticism. Laurel was in no hurry to wed, having found that the few kisses she had received from her friend's brother, and other over-amorous suitors, had left her cold.
She felt herself to be a proper young woman, perhaps staid. Sometimes Laurel did wish to be more like Lavinia, who was uninhibited and could charm a man with the arch of a finely made brow or the tilt of her auburn head. Laurel hated to admit to herself that she envied Lavinia's wild, untamed beauty and felt overshadowed by her cousin's physical brilliance.
Laurel's thoughts drifted back to the time, some eight years earlier, when she had been thirteen and Lavinia fifteen. Uncle Arthur had paid a surprise but brief visit to her father. Lavinia had sat in the carriage with the curtains drawn the whole time. Laurel's mother had forbidden her to speak to her cousin, and Laurel had had only a quick glimpse of her cousin's pale face when Uncle Arthur entered the carriage. Then they had driven away, and for the next six months Laurel's family hadn't visited their upriver plantation.
The only explanation offered to Laurel had been that Lavinia was ill, and even then Lavinia's name had been mentioned in hushed tones as if she had died or when Laurel's parents thought Laurel wasn't within hearing distance. She remembered her father saying that Lavinia was wanton and spoiled. Her mother had whispered that Arthur had taken a shotgun to a boy who disappeared from the ranch, never to be found, that it was a tragic situation. Laurel had had no idea whom or what situation they meant.
A year later the yellow fever epidemic had hit, and Laurel's parents had died. Laurel, herself, had become very ill and would have succumbed to the fever if not for Gincie's ministrations and prayers. She had survived, and shortly afterward, John Anderson, her parents' lawyer and Laurel's acting guardian, had made arrangements for her to be sent to school in Boston. Laurel had remained at the prestigious girls' school until her graduation.
Now she was home again and making the round of boring parties, escorted by a fawning Philbert Anderson, John's son, whom Laurel assumed was more interested in her fortune than in her herself. Other young men were kind to her, considerate, but Laurel guessed her money caused them to gravitate toward her. This assumption was always driven home with a vengeance whenever Lavinia arrived, unescorted. Their attentions turned upon her, and Laurel found herself sitting alone in a corner or in conversation with a boring matron.
No matter how much she wished to dislike Lavinia, she couldn't. A waif-like quality surrounded her. Laurel thought this strange since Lavinia had been raised by an indulgent father and stepmother whereas Laurel had grown up virtually alone. However, Laurel decided that Gincie was correct about Lavinia. Ever since her arrival some two months ago, she had expected Gincie and the servants to wait upon her and treat her like a princess.
If Emily and Sylvester Delaney were alive, Laurel had no doubt that Lavinia wouldn't have been invited to the house, much less have been able to order around the servants. Laurel knew she should set down stern rules for her cousin to follow, but she couldn't begrudge Lavinia her hospitality and didn't have the heart to turn her out.
Though Lavinia didn't rise until noon and then left the house after a large lunch, only to appear near dark loaded down with packages, Laurel never inquired into her personal affairs. She had recently heard that her uncle had suffered a financial setback, but evidently the situation had reversed itself. Lavinia wore expensive gowns and each day arrived home with more. The daughter of a man in financial trouble couldn't spend money like water.
As dusk descended and the carriage rolled onto the circular drive for the trip to the opera, Lavinia still hadn't returned. A cool breeze whistled through the treetops as Laurel stood up and peered into the encroaching darkness.
The street was empty and quiet except for the unending cacophony of locusts.
"Where are you, Lavinia?" she grumbled aloud.
"Auguste, do you hear me?"
Lavinia Delaney's long hair cascaded onto the pillow in auburn strands. Her deep-set blue eyes widened as she gazed at the man beside her on the bed. Auguste was so still, so pale, whiter than the sheet atop his imposing frame.
"Answer me," she pleaded, rising terror in her voice.
Touching the arm of Auguste St. Julian, one of the wealthiest planters along Bayou Teche, Lavinia drew instantly away. His skin felt so cold, and she knew he was dead. A harsh ragged sob rose in her throat as she attempted to gather her wits. She scrambled from the bed and reached for her dress.
"God, help me," she said, almost choking on the words, praying for the first time since her childhood. Only half an hour earlier Auguste had been strong and healthy, an insatiable lover for a man well past fifty. What had happened to him after she fell asleep? Had his heart failed?
Lavinia trembled so much that she could barely button her gown. Her breathing sounded ragged to her own ears, and her heart felt about to burst.
Should she summon help? She dismissed the thought immediately since Auguste was past saving now, but mostly since she dreaded becoming the object of wagging tongues in such a sordid scandal. For years to come she would be unable to live down the stigma of having been with St. Julian when he died. Lavinia possessed few scruples, but she knew that if she informed the authorities, other wealthy New Orleans men might shy away from her if the truth were known. Auguste was a married man and had taken an apartment in New Orleans two weeks after meeting Lavinia. Not even the landlord was aware of Lavinia's existence or the secret afternoon trysts.
Now Auguste was dead.
As he lay there before her, Lavinia felt her dreams die, too. Not that she had been in love with Auguste. He had been very much in love with her, but she had been only fond of him. Perhaps fonder of his money still, of the many presents he bought for her. However, she wasn't so cold-hearted as not to feel anything for the man. She wondered why nothing ever worked out for her, why she seemed to have been born under a black cloud. Her first love had been destroyed by her father, and now poor Auguste had been taken from her by death.
A bitter sob escaped her as she finished dressing. She foresaw a bleak future for herself and her father's ranch, the Little L. The ranch was in dire need of money to survive the coming year, her father having lost quite a few head of cattle during a drought last year. She would do anything to save the ranch, anything. Ever practical, a plan formed in her mind, offering her a ray of hope. Though her father would dislike the plan, Lavinia decided that whatever must be done would be done.
Quietly she picked up her reticule and pulled the black webbed veil of her hat over her face. Then she crossed the room, not glancing in Auguste's direction, and opened the door. Making certain that no one was in the courtyard, she stealthily made her way to the sidewalk.
The dusk-shrouded street was empty at this time of evening. The carriage Lavinia had borrowed from Laurel still waited on the other side of Jackson Square. Before she got into the vehicle, Jonas, Laurel's driver, looked suspiciously at her. Lavinia shrugged as she settled herself onto the leather-upholstered seat. She knew Jonas would remain silent even if Laurel questioned him as to where she went every day. He didn't know much of anything, so his opinion would be conjecture. Always a person who loved attracting attention and basking in admiring male glances, Lavinia was for the first time grateful that she had used discretion where Auguste was concerned. No one could fault her or question her about his death.
She smiled to herself and hoped she would arrive home in time to join her dear cousin at the opera. Softly chiding herself for neglecting Laurel, Lavinia decided she must make it all up to her by convincing Laurel to accompany her home to San Antonio. After all, that had been the main reason she had come to visit her cousin. But then she had met Auguste and realized he would marry her and give her the money to save her father's ranch without question or reservation. Now that plan was ended, and she must bring Laurel home with her. Of course, Lavinia's father would be less than overjoyed to see the daughter of his deceased brother since Arthur Delaney and Sylvester had never gotten along. But Laurel's visit would change his mind about the past. Lavinia was certain of that.
Because of Laurel Delaney, the Little L would be saved.
The dark fire in the man's eyes momentarily disconcerted Monsieur Henri Maurice, but he assured himself that his client's anger wasn't about his handling of the delicate matter they now discussed. He had been most circumspect in his questioning of the residents of the Esplanade Avenue apartment where Auguste St. Julian had died. In fact Henri was always amused by how eager people were to speak about crimes in general, to discourse on what they believe happened. However, St. Julian's death wasn't a murder or a crime ... except to the dark-clad man who sat across the desk from him.
The man crumpled a piece of white paper in his hand, his eyes never leaving Henri's face. "So you are telling me, Monsieur Maurice, that no one saw this woman on the day of my uncle's death."
Henri inclined his head. "But that is not to say she wasn't at your uncle's apartment. A resident across the courtyard did see a woman with your uncle one afternoon, coming out of the apartment. However, she was veiled."
"So that is all you discovered? That a woman was with him? That's not enough!"
The investigator involuntarily jumped. This nephew of St. Julian's was a formidable man, a man who inspired fear at times. Taking a kerchief out of his pocket, he wiped his sweating palms on it, and noticed that even in the unseasonable February heat, his client didn't perspire. He appeared cool, but Henri had dealt with enough people to realize this man boiled inside.
"Please, monsieur," Henri cajoled. "Many of St. Julian's neighbors are men like himself. Wealthy men from out of town who rent apartments, town houses, and entertain lady friends, keep mistresses. The personal matters of other men aren't of interest to them. Anyway, no crime has been committed. Your uncle's heart failed. The lady did not kill him."
"Lady!" The man stood up and paced the small office. "Mademoiselle Lavinia Delaney doesn't deserve such a title. She is a whore, a woman who was sequestered for over six months on her uncle's plantation while she bore an illegitimate child."
"Or so it is believed, monsieur. None of the servants would discuss Mademoiselle Delaney with me."
"So then you are telling me that no one will speak about this woman."
"Perhaps her cousin."
"No," Henri's client said and shook his head. "She is family and no doubt protective of her. Your investigation disclosed that the cousin is a woman of refinement. I don't wish to involve her in such an unseemly affair." He grew silent, then held out his hand to Henri. "I thank you for your investigation."
"I wish I could have done more for you, gotten you the information you wished."
After St. Julian's nephew departed Henri's office and walked briskly down the street of Vermillionville to visit his Aunt Clotilde, he knew he did have all the information he needed on Lavinia Delaney.
A scowl deepened the grooved lines of his face. So, his Uncle Auguste had fancied himself in love with a whore. And what was worse, she was an American from Texas, not a Frenchwoman. In his hand he still held Auguste's last letter to him, written two days before his death. The words were ingrained on his mind.
"My nephew," it had begun.
"I am in love with a beautiful young woman named Lavinia Delaney. You have known that Clotilde and I haven't been married in the true sense for some time. When I confided my marital state to you last year, you insisted I should take a mistress. I cannot love in that way, my boy. My heart must belong to one woman. So, I am going to ask your aunt for a divorce. Mon Dieu! The repercussions I dread to think about. However, I will marry Lavinia. Don't worry. So far we have been discreet. Soon you shall receive a bill for items which I have purchased for her in your name, so no one can trace them to me. I shall reimburse you. I wish your blessing and please don't think your uncle is a foolish old man. If you knew my Lavinia, you would love her, too."
The letter had been signed in Auguste's flowing penmanship. The bills for Lavinia Delaney's extravagances began arriving three days after Auguste's funeral. Bills his nephew intended to pay, a debt he also intended to be repaid by the woman in question.
When he arrived at the St. Julian plantation and saw the tears still streaming freely from his aunt's eyes for her dead husband, he swore vengeance on the cold-hearted Delaney woman.
Excerpted from Midnight Flame by Lynette Vinet. Copyright © 2013 Lynette Vinet. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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