Silver-Tongued Devil (Louisiana Plantation Collection) (2 page)

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 sometime 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.

“Yoo hoo!”

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.”

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