April 1853, St. James Parish, Louisiana
Celine Kirkland stared down at the simple wooden casket. Rain drummed against the lid, turning the open grave into a muddy pit. The pungent smell of wet earth and the film of grit in her mouth nauseated her. The wind kicked up. Icy rain swirled around her and stung her cheeks. She shivered and pulled her full-length, hooded cape tight against her body. It seemed as if nature was bidding her mother-in-law a raucous farewell.
Stephen touched her arm. “The weather is worsening. We need to make our way home.”
Numb from grief and cold, she climbed into the wagon with her husband and father-in-law. Lightning fractured the sky, and ear-splitting thunder shook the ground. She clutched her swollen belly as if to soothe the babe kicking inside.
The rain turned into a deluge.
“God, this is foul weather,” Stephen groaned as he snapped the whip in the air and urged the two draft horses into a trot.
Celine shifted about in her seat. How could he possibly see beyond the horses? “Shouldn't we be coming upon the bridge soon?”
The horses jerked and danced to the left, wild-eyed and whinnying.
“Whoa!” Stephen yelled through a roar of thunder.
The wagon tipped sideways. Celine gasped and gripped the edge of the rough sideboard, her blood running as cold as the pelting rain.
The beasts pawed the ground. One of them whinnied again, nostrils flaring, and braced itself against forward motion. The other twisted hard against the reins, trying to turn back. Stephen lashed out with the whip just as a flash of lightning lit the path in front of them.
Too late, Celine spied the gaping hole where the bridge had been. She screamed.
The horses and wagon jackknifed against each other. The wild shriek of animals and metal grinding against wood vibrated through the air as the wagon careened toward the river.
Celine jerked awake, and caught herself before tumbling out of the window seat. Rubbing her eyes against the light streaming through the window, she glanced at Marie. Her maid stood near the bed, folding clothes and appraising Celine with a worried frown.
“Sorry, did I moan?” She rubbed her stiff neck.
“Did you have another one of those bad dreamsâin broad daylight?”
“And sittin' up, no less. Begging your pardon, mam'selle, but if you kept to your bed nights, you might work into a habit of sleepin' during proper hours instead of catnapping in the window seat.”
“You know what keeps me awake.” Celine slid off the blue velvet cushions and made her way to the dressing table.
“Only been a year since Mister Andrews found you trapped under that broken-up wagon.” Marie's voice softened. “That ain't so long for a bad memory to haunt a person. Especially considering your terrible loss and all.”
Young Lindsey Andrews poked his head through the doorway to Celine's bedroom, his face aglow. “Trevor's coming home, Trevor's coming home!”
His loud voice jarred her senses, and she winced. He paused, the grin on his freckled face even wider. “Hello, Miss Celine. My brother's coming home.”
With a nod, she managed a meager smile. “I'm well aware of the fact, Lindsey.”
He disappeared, laughter trailing behind him.
She went back to tossing her toilette articles in one basket, ribbons, combs, and brushes in another, and wondered at her glum mood.
The maid gathered a stack of Celine's unmentionables and laid them in the basket she'd set on the bed. “That scoundrel Mischie Trevor. Did you know he's been in New Orleans a week now and didn't even bother letting his father know he's coming until last night? Tch, tch, tch.”
“How would I know that?” Celine caught Marie's reference to Justin Andrews's eldest son as
, a localized version of
reserved for someone favored
Marie's mahogany skin glowed from the effort of transporting Celine's things next door. “Do you need to rest a bit, Marie?”
“I'm fine, mam'selle.” She grinned, and stuck with her subject. “Like as not, Mischie Trevor's been busy waking up N'awlins. I'll bet most of England sleeps like a babe since he done left. Likewise, papas in these parts won't be getting much sleep now.”
Celine threw a brush in the basket and missed. It landed on the floor with a clatter. She swept it up, tossed it back in, and went to sorting ribbons.
Marie lightened her tone.
“Pardonnez-moi. Ne vous en faites pas”.
Celine stared at the colorful ribbons tangled in her hand and then tossed them in the basket with a sigh. “Yes, I may as well leave everything to you since I'm only making a mess.”
Marie used the lilting dialect straight out of the French Quarter whenever she attempted to soothe Celine. The maid was a mimic. She could imitate any accent after hearing a few words. Celine couldn't decide if the crisp French inflections Marie called her own might not be contrived as well. A day in Marie's company seemed more like a day among a small crowd.
The maid frowned. “You feeling all right?”
“I'm fine,” Celine lied. She traipsed to the window seat along the outer wall and sank into it. With another sigh, she set her elbows to the ledge, propped her chin in her hands, and stared at a circle of children playing below, offspring of the field workers and household staff. They danced to the snappy rhythm of an older boy's clicking tongue and the tap of his foot. Their clever song spun a tale about Trevor that Celine couldn't quite decipher. Everyone seemed caught up in the enthusiasm of his returnâeveryone, that was, except her.
Zola stepped outside the cookhouse and wiped her wide forehead with the corner of her apron. Most likely working herself to a frazzle on account of Trevor's arrival. There would be pots hanging over the fire in that kitchen, rumbling and sputtering, as if they, too, shared in the excitement. Even from where Celine sat, the rich aroma of roux, filÃ©, and the holy trinity of Louisiana cookingâcelery, bell pepper, and onionâtantalized her senses. Her stomach rumbled.
“Do I smell gumbo?”
“And jambalaya,” Marie added. “Mischie Trevor's favorites.”
Celine shot her a scowl.
Marie raised a brow in return. “You know how Zola always fixes someone their special dishes when they comes to call.”
Come to call?
Trevor wasn't a visitor, for heaven's sake. He'd merely been gone two years. When she'd visited the kitchens, she'd noticed the cook referred to him as
as well. Why did everyone speak of him with such favor? From what she'd heard, he was quite the rakehell.
Well, what did she know? Marie and the cook had been around all of Trevor's life while she had never met him. After all, if anyone was a guest here, it was she. She'd only met Justin last year, the day of her mother-in-law's funeral. Since Celine had no living relatives to go to, and she'd been too injured to return to an empty house, Justin had taken her in.
Melancholy tugged at her heart. What the devil was wrong with her of late? She rubbed at her arm. A thin red scar ran from shoulder to wrist, a grim reminder of the accident that had left her widowed and childless.
Marie moved to stand beside Celine. “Mam'selle
you haven't said a word about the beautiful clothes Mister Andrews had sent upriver for you. Don't you care for them?”
“Of course, I do.”
“Then, what be the matter?”
She shrugged. How could she tell Marie what was amiss when Celine didn't know herself?
“Mischie Trevor used to sit in that window seat after his mother died, his chin propped in his hands and staring out at nothing, just like you be doing, Miss Celine.”
Celine's elbows came off the windowsill like a finger off a hot stove.
Marie frowned. “Seems to me the new wardrobe might not be what's bothering you. The letter from Mischie Trevor came on the same boat as what brought your clothes.” Her features softened. She reached out and fussed with a tendril on the nape of Celine's neck. “You be worried about Mischie Trevor and his wicked ways you been hearing of?”
Heat pricked Celine's cheeks. With a shrug of her shoulder, she cast the maid's fingers off her hair. “Don't be a dolt.”
Marie dropped her hand and stepped back. She slipped into Louisiana Creole, a whimsical dialect that never failed to lighten Celine's spirits. “Doan you be worrying 'bout Mischie Trevor. He won't be botherin' wif you none. Maybe he be a scoundrel, and mayhap he a fool at times, but I ain't never heard of him botherin' no female what doan want no botherin' wif.”
Celine laughed. “I hadn't given any thought to your Mischie Trevor
” She caught sight of Marie's toothy grin before she turned to the window again. “For heaven's sake, I didn't just crawl out from under some rock.” Maybe Marie's teasing had lightened her mood, or perhaps her bright smile brought a ray of sunshine, Celine didn't know, but her disposition shifted.
“Would you care for a hot bath, Miss Celine?”
“I'd prefer you continue to remove my things from Trevor's room and put them in the guest room before he arrives.”
Marie flashed a wide grin. “Oh, he ain't due till near sunset, and we've yet to see high noon.” With a small grunt, she lifted the largest basket and headed out the door.
Justin's bellow echoed through the hallway, startling Celine. “What in the name of Glory are you up to, Marie?”
“I'm removing mam'selle's things from Trevor's room and transferring them to the guest room, sir,” Marie said matter-of-factly.
“Put them back directly.”
Celine shot off the window seat and flew to the doorway, her gaze fixed on Justin while she spoke. “Marie, do as I say.”
Justin's set jaw gave a silent command.
Marie nodded at Justin and trudged past Celine and back into the room.
He raked his fingers through his thick silver hair and pinched the bridge of his large nose. “May I ask why you are going to all the trouble of having your things transferred to the guest room?”
Celine crossed her arms and tapped her foot. “Haven't you heard? Your son is returning.”
Justin's bushy brows knitted together in a hooded frown. “He'll only be here a few days.”
Confusion scattered Celine's thoughts. “Oh?”
He cocked his head. “Did you actually think my thirty-year-old son would be moving back in with his father? He's come from London on businessâin New Orleans, not here.”
An odd sense of isolation gripped her. How had she missed all of this? Even the servants must know Trevor would remain for only a few days, but she hadn't a clue. She was out of the circleâa gloomy reminder that she didn't really belong here. Not permanently, anyway.
She squared her shoulders. “I prefer the guest room anyway. This one is too masculine for my taste.”
Justin stepped closer, using his great height to tower over her. “You don't fool me.”
His dominant gesture, usually reserved for his unruly children, startled Celine. “Don't think to bully me.”
He stood there for a moment and then chuckled, backed up a step, and gave her a fatherly pat on the shoulder. “Beg pardon, Celine. Perhaps I didn't make clear the situation.”
He headed for the stairwell, talking all the while. “Since Trevor's dealings will take place at our offices in New Orleans, he'll reside in our townhouse there. As will his cousin and uncle, also due to arrive this week from England. Our shipping company is expecting a new clipper to be delivered soon, so we're all chomping at the bit.”
Celine called out after him. “Situating your son in the guest quarters still doesn't seem quite right.”
He paused a few steps down, his hand on the cherrywood rail, and glanced up. “Hush. Trevor's a grown man. In spite of what you've doubtless heard, he was raised with decent manners.”
He continued at a fast clip along the stairs, his voice growing louder as he descended. “Try to tolerate an old man's wishes, Celine. I purposely placed you in his old room because you needed the privacy during your recuperation. Admit it, you have the best views of the back gardensânot to mention the gallery at this end is virtually yours alone.”
Even though he couldn't see her, she bit her bottom lip and nodded. “All right then.” She turned and stood in the doorway, surveying the room that had been hers these past twelve months.
Trevor was obviously partial to blue. Except for the burgundy in the Persian carpet, the deep cobalt color dominated. Even the ceramic pitcher and basin on the marble-topped commode were of the same rich hue. She adored the dark, carved cherrywood of the sumptuous four-poster bed and side tables. And the wingback chairâcobalt blue velvetâangled next to the fireplace. She'd spent many a night curled up there with a book.
Too masculine for her tastes? Not really. She loved everything about her quarters.
She suddenly wished Marie wasn't still around. For some odd reason, she was absurdly close to tears.
Steam swirled around Celine, the tension in her muscles slipping away while Marie scrubbed her skin until it glistened. Sometimes being pampered felt simply grand.
“What a beautiful day, Marie. Open the doors to the gallery so we can get more of the scent of roses from the garden instead of Zola's cooking, will you please?”