Authors: Jennifer Blake
“I’m afraid I never knew a great deal about how he spent his days,” Angelica said with care.
“No doubt he meant it to be that way. Or else that sour-faced woman, your aunt, decreed it. I met her once, and a more joyless creature I never saw, tighter in her tail than alum can possibly—”
Beside them, Laurence made a strangled sound in his throat and shifted uncomfortably.
Madame Parnell broke off. Rearing her considerable bulk back in the seat so she could look up at him, she said, “Do you have a fish bone stuck in your throat, my boy, or would you be trying to tell me to mind my tongue? If you don’t care for my language, you can jolly well take yourself off where you can’t hear it. Maybe you’d like the card room, where you can watch the men play?”
Laurence, his face flaming at the slur on his manhood, looked to Angelica in chagrin and appeal. Angelica, however, was reluctant to abandon this opportunity to learn more of her father. She was also less than anxious to be alone with her fiancé. “I’ll be perfectly fine,” she said. “You need not stay.”
Annoyance thinned his lips; still he inclined his head in a stiff-necked bow to Madame Parnell. “Your servant, ma’am. Angelica, I will return later to collect you.”
“Like a parcel,” the irrepressible older woman said under her breath as she watched him stalk away. Then she turned to Angelica with a beatific smile. “Well, now that we have rid ourselves of the likes of him, we can talk comfortably. What would you care to know about your scandalous father?”
“Everything!” Angelica said with a laugh. Then she sobered as her gaze traveled beyond Laurence to the gentlemen’s salon toward which he was heading. “But first, is it possible that you may know that man over there?”
“Where?” Madame Parnell peered in the general direction Angelica indicated.
“I would rather not point him out, but he’s there, at the table just inside. The dark-haired gentleman.”
The older woman’s eyebrows climbed her forehead. “Lord, child, but you don’t mean Renold Harden? You do have an eye for a rogue, I must say.”
“He isn’t respectable?”
“There are those who wouldn’t allow him in their houses if it weren’t for his family connections, but I can’t imagine being so high-toned, myself. Lives in New Orleans, has a fine townhouse on Royal Street in the Vieux Carré.”
“You know him well?” There was a peculiar note in the woman’s voice that aroused Angelica’s curiosity.
“We’ve met. Now what else can I tell you? No pedigree, something people set great store by in New Orleans, but he’s as rich as he can stare. Got his start gambling, though he sold his gaming house just recently. They say he’s the devil to cross in business — or with a sword, if it comes to that. And one lady who attracted his interest tried to do away with herself when their affair came to an end.”
“Suicide?” Angelica said in a shocked whisper.
“That’s how the story went. Frankly, I wonder if it wasn’t a ploy to rekindle his interest. If so, it failed miserably. On the night she dared show herself in public again, at a performance of The Barber of Seville, Harden showed up escorting the actress who was the toast of the town.”
“Oh, dear,” Angelica murmured, since some response seemed required, but her gaze flickered again in the direction of the man of whom they were speaking.
Renold Harden caught that glance, saw its dubious shading. His luck at faro suffered for the moment of inattention. It had not been consistent in any case; he had been playing with something less than total concentration. Winning or losing was by no means as important as the fact that the faro table commanded an excellent view of the main cabin. He had been aware of Angelica Carew from the instant she had come back inside, was well aware that her father and her fiancé had left her unguarded.
He approved the subtle way the soft apricot of her gown enhanced her skin tones, had particular appreciation for the low décolletage. He found the tight row of covered buttons he had noticed at the back of her bodice of consuming interest; he could almost feel them under his fingers.
To watch Laurence Eddington enter the gentlemen’s salon gave him virulent satisfaction. He had discovered in himself, in the last few minutes, a surprising dislike for having that young buck hanging over the lady, standing where he could look down the front of her bodice.
Angelica Carew was a lady, in spite of the man who had fathered her. The instincts were there, and the breeding. The soft oval of her face, the high cheekbones and perfectly shaped mouth gave her a look of classical purity, an impression of essential goodness. Still, there was something in her direct gaze and the humor edging her smile that intrigued him. She was not, he thought, all sweetness and light.
Idiocy, of course. As though his impressions and feelings mattered, as if her looks and personality had any bearing on his purpose. There was no question of becoming enamored. None at all.
He had, for most of his adult life, avoided permanent entanglements; he was not a good candidate for them. He realized it was only a small step from approving a female’s manifold charms to falling victim to them. The risk, duly noted, could and would be taken into account.
Renold glanced toward Laurence Eddington as the fiancé made his way deeper into the room. Elaborately casual, the younger man wandered from table to table, taking note of the various card games. After a time he asked permission to sit in on a few hands of poker. Renold abandoned the faro table and moved to stand against a wall where he had a good view of the play.
For a brief moment, he contemplated joining the game. There were men at the table who knew him, however, and who might easily bring up subjects best left alone. He and Eddington had never crossed paths, but Angelica Carew’s fiancé could be expected to perk up his ears at any mention of a connection to Bonheur.
Edmund Carew was a different case, of course. Renold had been at pains to avoid the gambler. Angelica’s father was a familiar figure in New Orleans; the two of them had frequented the same restaurants, the same row of boxes at the opera, the same gambling dens. Carew might well know of the family connection between Renold Harden and the man from whom he had stolen a plantation.
Watching Laurence Eddington, however, proved sufficiently instructive even without engaging the younger man in play. He was a reckless gambler, one who trusted luck rather than the odds. Flamboyant in the way he placed his bets and flipped his cards onto the table, he was cocky when he won, sulky when the cards ran against him.
These conclusions, added to what he had observed earlier, gave him a fair estimation of Laurence Eddington’s place in the scheme of things. The fiancé was hardly a cipher, but he stood in need of a few lessons in self-control. He lacked the courtesy that would allow him to at least pretend to prefer a woman’s company over a card table, and was without the graces that might endear him to a woman’s heart. His defenses would not be insurmountable or his loss to his bride irreparable.
The younger man was, in short, no obstacle. With a decisive gesture, Renold pushed away from the wall and left the card room.
He thought of walking up to where Madame Parnell sat with Angelica Carew and forcing an introduction. It was a great temptation to exchange a few words with Carew’s daughter, to initiate a conversation without tears or high emotion, perhaps to let her see him as a man instead of a monster.
No, let it go. That was mere indulgence. It could change nothing and might well make it more difficult to maintain the will to accomplish his purpose.
His face set and his footsteps deliberate, Renold walked from the main cabin, going in search of the station where the ladies’ attendant waited to be summoned.
was an aging steamer as such things went; the boat was nearly four years old in a trade where snags, sandbars, storms, incompetent pilots, and faulty machinery left few afloat beyond their third year. She was a favorite of Renold’s, however, mainly because she had been built especially for plying the lower Mississippi. He liked the captain, respected the pilot, and paid regular homage to the on-board chef, but his greatest appreciation was for the staterooms. Not only were they large enough to please passengers accustomed to expansive bedchambers, but were designed for cross ventilation in hot weather with both the normal inner door and also one opening to the outside deck.
He stood on the boiler deck near the outer door of Angelica Carew’s stateroom. Lamplight fell through the door’s closed jalousie, but little sound emerged beyond the soft, seductive rustle of silk skirts and an occasional sigh. Listening as he propped one shoulder against an ornate railing post, Renold was impatient but not at all impenitent.
The moon had come up, benign, resplendent, and shy, hiding its soft gold face behind trailing purple-gray cloud veils. The light that poured down in a shifting, shimmering track across the water had weight and substance. Renold felt it on his eyelids, his mouth. He resisted the impulse to reach out toward it, having long ago given up the struggle for the unobtainable.
Abruptly, a whistle shrilled from the Texas deck high above him. He came to instant attention, with every sense alert. Seeing the cause of the excitement, he braced his hands on the railing to watch.
There was another steamboat plowing the water behind them. It spouted twin horns of black smoke shot with orange sparks from its torch-shaped stacks, while silver-white gusts of escaped steam were blown back from the overflow pipes. Charging forward with water rolling away from the prow on either side, the City of Cincinnati blasted the night with its steam whistle as it made ready to pass.
The pilot of the
, however, had already called for more steam. It was soon forthcoming. The engines picked up their hard drive and thump, the boat surged forward. Under Renold’s hand, the rail began to shudder with the faster, harder cadence. He frowned a little as he felt its unevenness.
His momentary concern vanished as there came the click of a latch behind him. Angelica Carew’s stateroom door swung open. She stepped out onto the deck.
Renold turned to face her, and his breath caught, swelling, in his chest. She had taken down her hair. Soft, lustrous, the color of raw silk, it swirled around her. It shimmered in the deep waves, was tipped with moonlight on the gently curling ends, clung to the folds of her shawl and mingled with the wrap’s silk fringe at a level almost reaching her knees. The palms of his hands itched to touch, to hold, and he closed them slowly into fists against his sides.
Stillness came into her face as she saw him, but she did not retreat. Her voice holding nothing more than anxious curiosity, she said, “What is it? What’s happening?”
“A race,” he answered.
“For heaven’s sake, why?”
“Because there’s a moon and visibility is good. Because the boat that reaches port first gets a full load of cargo while the next may not. Because river pilots have their pride, and then some.” Renold stopped, afraid of his own volubility in the face of her considering quiet.
Her smile was a brief acknowledgment of his reasoning, though she made no reply. She put her hand to the center of her waist, pressing as she breathed slowly in and out.
“Is something wrong?” he asked, the words carefully pitched to show politeness and consideration but no infringement.
The shake of her head made her hair dance over the silk bell of her skirt. She was still a moment before she said, “Have you, perhaps, seen the woman who acts as ladies’ attendant? I’ve rung for her several times, but she doesn’t come. I thought she might have stepped out on deck.”
“I saw her about an hour ago,” he answered with care. It was not a lie. He had seen the woman and given her a hefty bribe to find occupation elsewhere and ignore Angelica’s bell. As if in afterthought, he added, “I believe she was on her way to look after the babe-in-arms and another tot belonging to a lady who had taken ill.”
Renold suppressed the compunction caused by the despair in Angelica’s voice. He knew the reason for it, of course, knew her dread of being confined in her clothing beyond the time she wished to be free. He had learned of it by sending his manservant to idle about the back door of the aunt’s residence, encouraging chatter about the household. Advance planning was an article of faith for Renold, one of the handful he found useful. Another was to take advantage of any exposed weakness.
“If it matters so much,” he said in soft reason, “I can only suppose you have need of a maid’s services, or at least those of a female. Might I go in search of someone else for you?”
“No, there’s no one. At least, I — can go myself in a few minutes.”
He realized whom she intended to solicit for help in her dilemma. It was not unexpected, however, and he moved at once to block this interference in his plans. “You are thinking, perhaps, of Madame Parnell, the lady I saw you talking with after dinner? She has retired for the evening. I’m sure you will not want to stand around outside her stateroom while she gets back into her wig and face paint, not in your present state of dishabille.”
His voice was offhand, but a warning of possible offended propriety sparked in its depths. Angelica said stiffly, “I will make myself presentable first, of course.”
“There is no need. The lady travels with her own maid, I think. I can send my manservant to ask that her woman attend you.”
Doubt crossed Angelica’s clear features. “You don’t think Madame Parnell will mind my borrowing her services?”
“I’m certain she would prefer it to the effort required to come herself.”
She hesitated, then said, “I don’t know. I prefer not to disturb my father since he has been ill, but perhaps my fiancé—”
“Young Eddington? I’ve met him. Unwise.” The words were firm.
She caught her bottom lip between her teeth, then gave a reluctant nod. “I’m afraid I must accept your kind offer, then.”
“It’s no kindness, but a pleasure,” Renold said before he could stop himself. Turning immediately, he moved along the railing to his own stateroom and stepped inside.
Tit Jean, his manservant of many years, looked up with a grave expression as he entered. Renold met his dark, liquid gaze, his own impassive. Neither spoke, for there was no need. Madame Parnell already had her instructions, which did not include sending her maid to Angelica.
In keeping with most body servants, Tit Jean knew exactly what Renold was doing and why. He disapproved, but confined his expression to a single solemn glance. This Renold could ignore.
Standing with his back against the wall, Renold closed his eyes. Pensive as a defrocked priest contemplating sin, he thought of what he intended to do. It was wrong without doubt, possibly even criminal. It was also justified. If he had ever doubted it, he had only to remember his stepfather with tears standing like warm mercury in the lines etched in his face, hear again the defeated, despairing agony in his voice.
Standing there, it came to Renold abruptly that forcing Angelica Carew to marry him for a stake in Bonheur was not the worst he could do. If he could convince her of her father’s guilt and influence her to repudiate the man, it would be a punishing defeat for Edmund Carew. If she could be brought to love her husband more than her father, it would, finally, be a just revenge.
The gambler would know the desolation of lost self-respect, lost purpose for living that Gerald Delaup had known. And the knowledge would destroy him just as completely.
Was it plausible that the gambler’s daughter might grow to love him, Renold wondered, or was it only a wayward inclination dictated by conscience and attraction? He could not tell. Whichever it might be, it must wait for later, after they were married.
Angelica Carew still stood at the railing where he had left her. Facing away from him as if she had been following the race, she breathed in audible gasps, plucking at the whalebone constriction at her waist. She really was in distress. He had not quite realized.
She turned, lowering her hand, forcing a valiant smile as she heard his approach. Still there was anxiety in her low voice as she said, “Is it all right?”
“I’m sorry, but there seems to be a rash of illness and accidents. Madame Parnell’s maid tripped while moving a trunk a short time ago. She cut her knee, and she and her mistress are in the midst of the bandaging.”
Angelica’s gaze darkened, though she expressed suitable sympathy. Hesitating a moment, she said, “I suppose it will have to be my father then, after all.”
“I thought you said he was unwell.”
“I wish it weren’t necessary, but I see no other choice.”
Renold’s face was calm but his voice less than even as he said, “I’ve given the matter some thought while I was gone. If you would accept my services, I have a certain dexterity with buttons. I can even find them without having to look — when the occasion demands it.”
Her chest rose and fell as if she had been running hard. “You mean — you are offering to—”
“To act in the place of the ladies’ attendant, yes. There is no one around to see, and it would only take a moment. You may depend to the fullest on my discretion. And on my honor.”
Her gaze did not falter, though her pale skin darkened with the rush of color. He thought it was caused by outrage, until he saw, in the moonlight across her eyes, the reflective gaze of consideration.
The wind of their passage stirred her skirts and carried a whiff of her scent compounded of roses and warm female into his face. It caught her hair, lifting a skein of it, turning it into silver-gold netting in the moonlight. She reached distractedly to catch the fine strands. Finally, she said in quiet demand, “Why would you suggest such a thing?”
“Concern and a willingness to please. Is it so surprising?”
“You don’t know me, nor do I know you.”
“An introduction is all that is lacking then?” he said, and knew, even as he gave his name and added a mocking half-bow, that the tone was wrong and probably the words. She had surprised him, however, and he was not used to surprises.
“Are you known to my father?”
“I don’t claim a close acquaintance.” He had, mercifully, recaptured the need for care.
“I believe I saw you playing cards just now. Is that your profession?”
He tipped his head, intrigued by a shading he heard in her voice. “Would that make me more acceptable, or less?”
“All I require,” she said with some astringency, “is a direct answer.”
She was wary but not frightened, he saw, so could not have any great knowledge of men. It fit what he had gathered about her life with the dragon of an aunt. At the same time, he was disturbed that he was the one who must teach her distrust. He said, “I play at many things, from cotton bales and sugar to ships and land in foreign climes.”
“You aren’t a gambler then?”
“Not by profession, not anymore.”
“But possibly by nature?”
A faint smile curled his mouth as he said, “Most men are, but not most women.”
“Are you testing my inclinations?” she queried thoughtfully. “How should I tell, since I’ve never been invited to play . . . “ Her voice, even until the last, suddenly stopped.