Authors: Jennifer Blake
“Why should she need sympathy, unless she stands in danger from you?” Michel demanded.
“I thought we had settled that,” Renold replied, “or would you care to inspect her for bruises?”
Michel’s pleasantly handsome face took on a look of serious affront. “You know—”
“I know that you have the presumption to disapprove of my conduct while knowing full well the reasons and goals. You might remember, however, that my concessions in the name of friendship are not infinite.”
Michel made a movement as if he meant to rise. Deborah reached out to touch his wrist below his sleeve with the tips of her fingers. A stillness came over Michel’s face, though he did not turn in the direction of Renold’s half-sister. He was quiet for long seconds while he held Renold’s hard gaze. Finally, he said, “We will discuss this later.”
“Unproductive and unnecessary,” Renold said. “Also unlikely.”
Michel’s lips tightened, but he made no response. Tit Jean arrived then with two bottles of the wine they had brought with them, a welcome distraction. Her voice brisk, Deborah put a question to Angelica which changed the subject and created some degree of normality. The incident was allowed to pass.
However, the repercussions from it lingered. One direct result was that Michel remained near Angelica’s side for the remainder of the afternoon, therefore was nearby when the steamboat stopped at the wood yard. It may also have been responsible for the fact that he offered his escort when she expressed a desire to leave the boat long enough to stretch her legs. Certainly it was in a spirit of leftover defiance that she accepted.
The wood yard was a thriving enterprise, still something less than impressive. Run by a man and his two older sons, it consisted of a four-square log house surrounded by open ground dotted with the stomps of trees felled to stoke the steamboats that passed. The wood, dragged now from farther afield by a pair of skinny oxen, was stacked in long ricks near the bluff above the water. At the cabin’s door was a slattern of a woman who sat piecing quilt scraps while keeping an eye on the half-dozen ragged children playing in the mud and misting rain.
An air of impermanence hung over the place, showing in the rough door through which daylight must shine when it was closed, the sagging shutters that took the place of window glass, and the absence of such niceties as steps, porches, or curtains. When all the trees within a reasonable distance of the river were gone, the owner of the wood yard would leave also.
The woman in the doorway sat staring at Angelica and Michel as if they were beings from another world. It was not often, perhaps, that someone got off the boat, much less strolled the track leading up from the water. Angelica, nodding in her direction with a brief smile, wondered about the life the woman led, if she was happy in her rough existence or sometimes longed for something better, if she loved her husband or was merely resigned to her lot.
Love. How very strange it was, how hard to recognize, to capture and hold. It was possible to feel it and accept it in any given moment. Yet, short seconds later, anger and hurt could banish the warm generosity and singing heart of loving and leave emptiness in its place.
She had thought she loved Renold last night. She had been so certain that only love could make her feel such wondrous pleasure, that only love could engender the incredible tenderness and ardor she had discovered in her marriage bed. Today, she was plagued with doubt. Was it possible the pain caused by his distance and anger was also a measure of love? It might, but there was no way to be sure of that, either.
Angelica paused to stand huddled into the rain cape she had borrowed from Deborah, looking back down the muddy slope she and Michel had climbed from the river’s edge. The deckhands were loading wood at a leisurely pace; there was no great hurry about returning.
Above them, the leaden sky hovered close. The rain spattered with soft, tapping sounds against the cape’s hood. It also made her skirts hang limp and heavy so the hem brushed in the mud, though she couldn’t bring herself to care.
Beside her, Michel pulled his hat lower over his eyes and adjusted the collar of his coat, which was waterproofed with gutta-percha. The fidgeting was a sign, perhaps, of his discomfort when making remarks of a personal nature, for his tones were gruff when he spoke. “You must not take too much notice of Renold. He has a fiendish tongue on him at times, but he doesn’t mean half what he says.”
“You think not?” she said with more than a little skepticism.
“I don’t mean to suggest that he makes idle threats — far from it.” He looked away from her out over the river. “Nevertheless, I think Renold sometimes savages people when the person he’s most enraged with is himself.”
She gave him a small smile. “You’re a very forgiving man.”
“Not at all,” he said with a shake of his head that sent collected raindrops flying from his hat brim. “In fact, I wanted to smash his face back there at the table.” A wry laugh shook him. “Not that it’s likely I could unless I caught him off guard. But I’m doing my best to make allowances, first because I know he has the grandfather of all hangovers today, and secondly because I can see his jealousy is eating him alive.”
She was unimpressed. “I thought we settled once before that he has no cause where you are concerned.”
“He doesn’t particularly need a reason, not any more,” Michel said flatly. “And it certainly isn’t restricted to me, but includes any man who looks your way. Renold isn’t sure of you, you see, because he knows—”
“Yes?” she said as he paused. She could not begin to see where what he was saying was leading.
“Well, the way the two of you met wasn’t exactly the usual thing, was it? Oh, it was dramatic and all that, but he took advantage in his regular high-handed fashion, and now — well, now he can’t be sure you want to be with him.”
“No more can I be sure he wants me.”
“Yes, but that’s different, you’re a woman. Naturally you expected to marry where you were directed, and for reasons having more to do with financial and social standing than affection.”
She gave him a blank stare. “I don’t know that I expected that at all.”
“It’s the way things are done,” he said pityingly, as if that answered everything. “Anyway, you can assume as a female that Renold wanted you, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”
“It isn’t the same,” she said in low tones.
He gave her a quick, considering glance. “Perhaps not. But the thing is, Renold knows that he has done wrong, and he can’t be easy in his mind until he is more certain that he has a firm hold on you.”
The words he had used were unfortunate, the result of nervousness, she thought. Regardless, they sent a chill along her spine. Was the reason Renold had come after her in the barrelhouse merely because he meant to hold what he had gained? Had he established his husbandly rights now, after being so patient before, merely because he thought it would be easier to retain his grasp on her? Had he used the power he could gain over her with his skill in bed to control her? Was he, with his gardens and gifts and kisses, trying to make her love him?
Michel, his gaze on her face, said, “I’ve upset you and that is not what I thought to do at all. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said tightly, “it isn’t your fault. I just don’t understand him.”
“Nor do I, exactly, and I’ve known him far longer.” Michel paused. “I think a lot of it has to do with Clotilde and what she did to him.”
“Jilting him for a man with more money?”
“The money wasn’t as important to her as the family name, the social position — all the things Renold could never change. But that wasn’t the worst of it. There was also his son.”
“Yes, I saw him. She made sure of it.”
Michel’s lips tightened. “She does love to twist the knife. She knows, you see, how much ties of blood mean to Renold. She keeps that boy away from him deliberately, yet flaunts him in front of him, taunts him with being the father. She does it to punish Renold because he wouldn’t play her aristocratic game of love outside marriage. She took his son from him and he hasn’t forgiven her for it. He won’t, ever.
“He is not a forgiving man—”
Angelica said, “So he doesn’t trust women.”
“He can’t. He has been betrayed too many times, beginning with his mother.”
His gaze was doubtful. “You know about his birth?”
“That he is illegitimate? Yes, he told me.”
“Did he also tell you that his mother loved him extravagantly, until she met his stepfather, who was rich and respectable? Afterward, she loved Renold no less, but he was an embarrassment to her, a constant reminder that she would never be as respectable as her neighbors.”
Angelica shook her head. “I wondered why he never spoke of her, or visited.”
“Oh, there is no estrangement, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Michel said without quite meeting her eyes. “The lady never tried to hide him away or deny him. Regardless, I think she was relieved when he left to establish his own household in New Orleans. He knew it. It hurt.”
“I think I see,” she said slowly, then gave the man beside her a straight look. “You are a good friend to be so concerned.”
“Not just for Renold,” he said simply as a flush darkened his olive skin. He glanced down at his boots, then out at the river once more. “Yes, well, all I wanted was to let you know that it wasn’t anything you did that set Renold off at luncheon. It was just — everything.”
She looked away across the sodden land and the ugly, decapitated tree stumps, considering the things he had said while the chill of the day seeped into her. Finally, she said, “He was right as usual, wasn’t he? You do pity me.” She turned her clear gaze once more to Michel. “Why is that?”
He hesitated, his lashes flickering. Whatever he might have replied, he apparently decided against it, perhaps out of loyalty to his friend. He gave her a wan smile. “Renold suggested I was sympathetic, I think, a different thing. You are lovely and a victim of tragic circumstances, also a little mysterious.” He shrugged. “Renold knows me well enough to understand that I find that combination irresistible.”
What, exactly, did he mean? She was too disturbed to consider it beyond the face value of the words. She said, “You have been kind, and I do appreciate it.”
“You are very easy to be kind to,” he said with his singularly sweet smile. Taking her hand, he lifted it to his lips.
It was a brief gesture signifying a friendly meeting of the minds, hardly more familiar than a pat on the shoulder. Yet as Michel lifted his head, he drew a harsh breath. Angelica, following his gaze, stiffened.
Bareheaded in the rain, Renold stood with his hands braced on the railing of the steamer’s forward deck. He was watching them.
To appear casual, unconcerned, and innocent as she strolled with Michel back toward the boat was difficult beyond words. Her knees were stiff, her face set, and her hand on his arm felt as if carved from ice. She stumbled once, and felt foolishly clumsy. Her skirts dragged in every possible mud puddle and flapped in dirty wetness around the tops of her shoes. Rain collected on her face and ran to drip, disconsolately, down her nose. Their progress had all the grace and style of a cheap funeral procession.
Ahead of them on the boat, another figure joined Renold. It was his half-sister. As much to ease the strain as anything else, Angelica said to the man walking beside her, “Deborah did her best to come to your aid at luncheon. I hadn’t realized she has such a fondness for you.”
Michel gave her a startled glance. “She meant to protect you, rather. Me, she considers frivolous and hardly worthy of her attention.”
“I doubt that.”
“Do you? Then you can’t have noticed that she measures all men against her brother. I stand too much in Renold’s shadow to attract notice.”
“But you would like to?” Angelica tilted her head in order to see under his hat brim.
“What man wouldn’t?” He shifted his shoulders in a hopeless movement.
So much for her fears that he might have too much feeling for her. In practical tones, she said, “You must do something to gain her favor then.”
“If she is ever abducted, I’ll be sure and rescue her,” he said with a wry grimace.
She laughed and they tripped up the gangplank in fine spirits with each other. Which was not, she realized belatedly, the best way of soothing her husband’s annoyance.
“If you had told me you were feeling the confinement of the boat, my dear,” Renold greeted her in slicing accents, “I would have seen to the problem.”
Angelica, abruptly, had little regard for her husband’s feelings, justified or not. Michel and Deborah might be unaware of his meaning, but she had no doubt of it Several answers suggested themselves, but had to be discarded as too revealing. Chest swelling, she said, finally, “Quite impossible. You were not available.”
“Oh?” he said softly, as he walked forward to take her arm. “I am here now.”
Angelica allowed Renold to detach her from the others and lead her in the direction of their stateroom. What else could she do? He was her husband, and she had no wish to cause a scene.
That did not prevent her from resenting his high-handed methods. He thought he could blow hot and cold, kiss her one moment and leave her the next, and she would accept it and be satisfied. He felt she should sit twiddling her thumbs, all meek and mild, until he decided to notice her or see to her entertainment.
It was possible he had married the wrong woman.
She had not until now felt able to oppose him in any material way. The situation had been so peculiar, she had been so disoriented by injury and grief, that she had drifted like an uprooted sapling in the fast-moving current of his will. That was at an end.
They had reached the boiler deck and circled to the starboard entrance, which was closer to their stateroom. They were alone; the other passengers were either inside, out of the damp, or on the landward side watching the top-heavy craft pull away from the wood yard.
“Stop,” Angelica said, dragging her gloved hand through the bend of Renold’s elbow as she came to a halt. “This is far enough.”
He wheeled to face her, a movement that effectively shielded her from the windblown rain. His voice soft, he said, “Feeling combative? I’d like to indulge you, but this isn’t the time or the place.”
“Indulge me? I am not a child to be indulged — or to be led away to my room because I’ve behaved in a manner that doesn’t meet with your approval. What on earth is the matter with you? Why would you subject me, much less Michel, to such ill temper? If it’s jealousy, let me tell you that you owe Michel an apology.” She felt light-headed with the swift beat of her heart, but it was wonderful to say exactly what she thought.
“What a lovely sight, you rising to Michel’s defense; I’m sure he would be grateful. Or perhaps he would expect no less since the two of you seem to have joined forces.”
“That’s absurd! I barely know Michel, and then only as an acquaintance met in your home. If you had not invited him to come with us, there would have been no occasion for us to walk ashore. And if you would refrain from attacking the two of us, we would have no need to band together against you.”
“So logical,” he answered, his gaze penetrating, “but there are several flaws. One: Time is an inconsequential factor in the relationship between a man and a woman; either can love in an instant Two: I did not invite Michel, he invited himself. Three: I am not attacking either of you, only trying to protect my wife. You will agree, I hope, that I have some right to do that?”
“Your protection bears a strong resemblance to imprisonment.” She stopped, then released her hard-drawn breath in a sigh. “Oh, all right, I realize you feel some responsibility. But if I am in danger because of your business affairs, I fail to see why I am left to depend on Michel for my escort.”
A faint smile touched his lips. “Complaining of neglect? Now that is unexpected, especially when you object to being taken to our stateroom where I can keep closer vigilance.”
An odd frisson ran along the back of her neck, caused directly by the look in his emerald green eyes. “I am merely saying that as Michel is your friend I can’t imagine why you object to him as your deputy. Surely the real danger has been left far behind us, and whatever might happen at a wood yard is within Michel’s capacity to handle.”
“Undoubtedly, but you see I object to his usurping my role as your savior.”
She gave him a furious frown. “If you mean—”
“What a quick imagination you have, my love. I do mean. And so would he, given the opportunity. He is fascinated, rather than in love, but would, I suspect, be charmed to accept your gratitude, however you might express it.”
There was an undercurrent in his voice that gave her pause. She said in a different tone of voice, “Is that the reason you think I—”
“Failed to repulse my husbandly advances?” he finished for her when she paused to search for words. “Yes, though I don’t make the mistake of thinking it the only one.”
This was uncertain and also uncomfortable territory. She shifted her ground by reverting to the previous subject. “I can’t imagine why you think you understand what Michel feels. He has given no sign of anything other than the greatest respect.”
“He wouldn’t, being a gentleman. But you are beautiful and alone in the world and persecuted. How can he resist you?”
Michel had said much the same thing. With a twist of her lips, she said, “So I am an object of gallantry.”
“Among other things.”
“And you? Is that why you married me?”
“Not being a gentleman,” he said deliberately, “I have no use for mere gallantry.”
It was ridiculous to feel gladness, but that was the principle reaction that seeped into her. She almost allowed a smile to curve her lips, she almost let him see the elation inside her.
Then he drew a concentrated breath, spoke again. “I married you for your dowry.”
She felt her heart knock against the wall of her chest. Her head came up sharply and she stared at him with wide eyes. “That can’t be. You didn’t know of it until I told you.”
“You are mistaken. The nature of it was common gossip in Natchez.”
The beat of the engines was increasing as the boat gathered speed. Above them, the wind whistled around the jigsaw work of the superstructure. It burrowed under her rain cape and she clasped her arms across her waist against its chill. “It makes no sense,” she said. “You are a man of wealth and, I would have sworn, no great regard for such mundane arrangements.”
“True,” he said evenly, “but I have a tremendous interest in the return of family property. You see, my stepfather was Gerald Delaup.”
It was enough. The name was not one she was likely to forget: Gerald Delaup was the man who had owned Bonheur, the man who had lost the plantation during a game of cards with her father.
Rain swept in a blowing mist across the ship’s bow and along the deck. The unpainted cypress boards gleamed with it, while the long stretch of railing next to them dripped. The smell of the wet wood was heavy in the air, blending with the muddy scent of the river. Angelica drew moist air deep into her lungs before she said, “You married me to regain your inheritance.”
“Not mine, but my mother’s. Also Deborah’s.”
She said, “But as my husband, you will have use of it, control of it, be owner in all except name. How very — clever.”
“I would have preferred to wait a little longer before telling you. That became impossible the instant the decision was made to go to Bonheur.”
“Everyone there would recognize you, greet you by name.” The droplets of rain that dampened her cheeks were hot. She felt as if a weight had been draped around her shoulders, as if it were pressing her down into the deck.
“Including my mother who is in residence,” he said in brief agreement.
“Deborah and Michel? They know?”
He inclined his head. “You will be happy to learn that they join you in considering my methods arrogant and manipulative.”
Deborah. Somehow, Angelica had assumed her last name was Harden, like Renold’s. Looking back, she could remember Michel stumbling over the introduction, never quite pronouncing the surname. She had thought it an oversight in the midst of the excitement of her arrival.
It took strong resolve to turn her head in her husband’s direction again. Her voice strange in her ears, she said, “Do they also consider you unprincipled and a — depraved devil?”
“Oh, that goes without saying.” He was perfectly still, his face without expression.
The rain was wetting him; she could see it trickling through his hair and dripping from the lobe of his ear. She had an almost overpowering urge to draw him away from the wet, to dry and comfort him. A typical female weakness that was in no way personal.
She said with tight irony, “No wonder you have been so out of sorts, having to confess to such a thing before you were ready.”
“I had actually hoped that in time it would make no difference.”
The sound she made was less than polite. “What might have changed things, do you think? The conceiving of a child? Take heart, you may have accomplished your objective already. You did manage to ensure that there was at least a possibility.”
“Depraved indeed,” he said, softly. “I could tell you the consummation of our marriage was something I had avoided, against my best intentions, until last night. I could point out that there was neither planning nor cold blood in it. But I wouldn’t expect you to believe a word.”
There was a tearing ache inside her that nothing could mend. “That’s fortunate, since the odds are extremely low.”
“Spoken like a gambler’s daughter. Which reminds me that you have no monopoly on grievance or indignation.”
Anger gave her voice strength. “If you are suggesting that my father was in any way at fault in the death of your stepfather, I would remind you that there is no law against playing cards, or winning.”
The color receded from under the skin of his face, leaving the bones prominent. His eyes blazed and his lips parted. Then abruptly he closed them again.
There had been, she thought, something he intended to say before he had been prevented by — what? Manners? Some vestige of concern for her feelings? Considering all the things he had found it easy to put into words, she could not imagine what could possibly be so terrible that compunction would hold him silent now.
Or perhaps she could, after all.
Suddenly afraid that he might be able to overcome his reluctance, she said, “Why didn’t you simply ask? You once mentioned arranged marriages based on practical considerations; you could easily have presented such a proposal.”
“After the fiasco aboard the
?” he said in mirthless irony. “I had no faith that you would see reason once you were completely yourself. I also had the distinct feeling that you would expect more from marriage. No. There was too much at stake, and it was not I who would lose if I failed.”
“If you are speaking of your mother and Deborah, I would think that you are perfectly able to provide for them.”
His fingers curled into a fist and he thrust them into his coat pocket to conceal them. “Oh, perfectly, if all that mattered were a roof and a few gowns to spruce up their wardrobes for the season. But there is Bonheur, the plantation that has been under cultivation by the Delaup family for a hundred years. It’s the place where my mother arrived as bride, and which she has made her personal responsibility, giving it all her energy and resolution. Without it, she would have no reason to live. Then there is Deborah. Rant and rail as she may about the dullness of life in the country, Bonheur is in her blood; it’s a part of who and what she is, and nobody is going to take that from her.”
She watched him while her heart swelled inside her. Having no heritage of his own, he was guarding that of his mother and half-sister as if it were something golden and irreplaceable. She honored him for the impulse, but could not condone his methods.
She said quietly, “In spite of all that, I would have said a gambling debt to you would have been a debt of honor, something that must be paid. Or is that, perhaps, the real reason you married me? You discovered, with your peculiar ingenuity, a way to pay your stepfather’s debt while leaving his family in possession.”