Authors: Jennifer Blake
“Except that now you have,” he agreed. “To put your trust in another person is always a gamble.”
“Tell me why you should be concerned about my problems, and perhaps I will give you an answer.”
It was the one thing he could not do. Or could he? He felt his heart throb against his breastbone as he said, “There are several reasons, beginning with the code of a gentleman and ending with personal interest that began the moment I saw you.”
“And in between?”
She was perceptive. He would have to remember that. But she was not, he thought, experienced enough to recognize perfidy when it was masked by truth. His voice as fretted as a wind-torn leaf, he said, “In between is desire.”
“And you warn me? That is very candid of you.”
“Isn’t it?” he said. “You were going to give me an answer.”
“I am my father’s daughter, therefore gambling is in my blood. More than that, my need to be released from the prison of my garments is too great to pretend otherwise. I would trust your promises if I could, only how am I to do that now?”
“That is, of course, the question.”
She did not reply, but watched him in careful consideration. It seemed an impasse, but one it would be best not to force.
Renold swung from her abruptly to gaze across the water at the other boat racing along with its lights and noise and trailing smoke. This was more difficult than he had imagined it would be, and more disturbing. He had not expected to care greatly what this woman thought of him, or what she felt or wanted.
Behind him, she hesitated, then moved to the rail some few feet from where he stood. Her gaze was turned toward their boiling wake behind the paddle wheel. She seemed to be watching the orange sparks that swirled backward from the
’s smokestacks, drifting to wink out in blackness in the water.
After a moment, she said, “We are gaining.”
“We had a fair lead,” he agreed, accepting what seemed an obvious bid for time, but might not be. “At this rate, we’ll soon be in New Orleans.”
“Rather, we’ll soon need a wood yard,” he said dryly.
She laughed a little at that. Aboard the other boat, pipes whistled and more smoke boiled upward from the stacks. Deckhands began to appear at the main deck rail, yelling across the water at the hands on the lower deck of their own boat. After a moment, she said, “I suppose it’s just as well that I wasn’t able to go to bed. I would have missed the excitement.”
She had a point. The race in progress also increased the likelihood that their privacy would be interrupted as other passengers emerged from their rooms to watch. He must force the issue before that happened.
He said deliberately, “If it’s excitement you enjoy, perhaps I have been more the gentleman than was necessary. I could, if you prefer, trade my favor for your favors.”
She flinched a little as she swung in his direction, but did not swoon or strike out at him, either of which he half expected. In tones of asperity, she said, “That seems a high price for the manipulation of a few buttons and laces.”
“One you might find it pleasurable to pay.”
Her face took on the cool remoteness of white marble. “Possibly, if I were the kind of woman who could agree.”
“All women are that kind, for the right reason, at the right time, with the right man.”
She tilted her head, raising a hand to her throat. On an indrawn breath, she said, “Why? Why are you saying these things?”
“For purposes of seduction,” he said with a shading of desperation. “What else?”
He watched her, his gaze measuring the troubled cast of her expression, and also the beginning of suspicion behind it. He said, “You don’t believe me, do you? Why not, I wonder?”
“I have difficulty regarding you as that kind of man,” she said. “Besides, I have it on the best authority that men intent on seduction are prone to seize a woman first and discuss it later.”
He stood slowly erect. “I suppose I should thank you for the compliment, misplaced as it might be. If you are so sure of my character and motive, perhaps you may be able to accept my services, after all?”
“I don’t think I’m quite that certain of my own judgment,” she said with a trace of wry apology in her tone.
“Let me be clear, then: The answer is no.”
She tried to smile and failed, perhaps because of something she read in his eyes. “I’m afraid it must be, I’ll just go to my father.”
Desire and violence, fueled by the urge for revenge, drummed across the surface of his mind. The most vivid emotion inside him, however, was regret. He said, “I can’t let you do that, you know.”
She saw her danger in that moment, and stepped away from him toward her stateroom. He surged after her, reaching to close his hand on her wrist. He heard her gasp, felt her resistance, but did not pause. With implacable will and relentless strength, he flung wide the jalousie door of her room and swept her inside.
She spun away from him in a silken whirl of skirts, coming up against the wall. Slamming the door shut, he swung to face her.
The stateroom was too confining, too crowded with trunks and bags and heavy, carved furniture to permit her to escape him. He could cover either the outer or inner door with a single long step. The bed was at his back, a lamp burning on the table beside it. He saw her note and accept these things before she raised her eyes to meet his hard stare.
Her heart was beating so hard it pulsed visibly in the long, smooth line of her neck and under the white curve of her breast at the neckline of her gown. She was braced, waiting for his next move while her chest rose and fell in a jerky and panicked motion against the merciless clinch of her corset. Yet, there was courage in her face and the race of swift calculation in her eyes.
He moved toward her. She swallowed, a convulsive movement. “What are you doing?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” His voice was deeper than he had expected, softer than he had planned.
“You don’t have the look of a man succumbing to temptation, much less unchecked passion.”
“You, on the other hand, appear as untried as any bride can be. So how would you know?”
“Call it instinct.” Her gaze slid away, then returned as if drawn.
Under her wide and steady regard, he felt heat rise along with pressure to his head. Where was Madame Parnell? She should be pounding on the door with outraged demands that he do the honorable thing by Angelica Carew. He was perfectly ready to comply. And he might, if forced to play out this little drama he had constructed, have real reason for it.
“I prefer,” he said in rough tones as he moved closer to encircle his lovely captive’s waist with his arm, “to call it wishful thinking.”
She allowed herself to be pulled toward him, to sway against him with her lips parted and her eyelids drifting shut. She let her mouth come within a bare inch of his as his clasp slackened in anticipation.
Abruptly, she twisted from his hold and dived toward the dressing table further along the wall. Something flashed silver in her hand, an item from the box fitted with toiletries which sat there with its lid open.
Whatever weapon she had found could not be particularly lethal. With a whispered imprecation, he plunged after her. Snaking an arm around her ribs, he dragged her against him. She came easily, whirling with her hair flailing around her like a silken goad and her arm raised to strike.
Renold felt the sting at his neck where cravat and shirt collar met. Ignoring it, he sought and captured her wrist. With deliberate strength he brought her hand down, forcing her to drop the penknife she held, bringing her heaving breast hard against his chest as he clasped her wrist behind her back. Pushing the fingers of his free hand into the warm silk of hair, he tightened his grasp enough to bring immobility without causing pain.
It was necessary then to show her that he was serious in his intent. There was, in any case, such clamor and heated longing in his head that he was not certain he could restrain the impulse.
Her lips were cool and sweet, an incredibly tender incitement. He caught them half parted with the beginning of some appeal, or perhaps a cry, and hardly paused before slipping his tongue inside. She stiffened with the invasion, trying to prevent it. He would not allow it, but began to twine around her slim, smooth tongue with delicate persuasion to accept him.
It was the sound of distress she made deep in her throat that reached him. He felt as much as heard it, sensed the soft invasion of it through broadcloth and linen, muscle and bone, knew the minute it burrowed inward to encircle his heart and close around it with squeezing anguish. Lifting his head, he stared down at the woman in his arms. And he knew he had made a mistake.
The offense was grave, perhaps even fatal. There could be no pardon for it. Not now, perhaps not ever.
Renold was not egoistic; still it seemed the jolting blow that shook him, traveling upward from the soles of his boots, was no more excessive than the situation demanded. Then he heard the thunderous rumble, the vicious hiss of live steam, the throat-wrenching rasp of a man’s scream.
The steamboat’s boilers. They were going, bursting one by one under the strain of the race.
“Dear God,” he breathed.
Hard on the words, he snatched Angelica in a bruising grasp and flung her toward the outside door. Bursting through it, he leaped for the rail, pulling Angelica with him, half lifting, half thrusting her over it.
She cried out, teetering on the deck’s edge, clinging to his shoulders as she felt open space, open water below her. Vaulting the railing, he caught her close in his arms, balanced for an instant. Then he jumped with all the power that was in him.
Above and behind them, the steamboat exploded skyward in a towering mass of boiling steam, hot metal, and splintering wood. Renold felt livid pain wash over his back and shoulders, enwrapping him, searching for the woman he held.
He bent his body over her in protection, falling, falling. A crashing splash, then the river took them. It sucked them down into its cold and blessed embrace.
Angelica lay contemplating the radiating, spoke-like folds of silk above her head. It seemed she had seen them many times. They formed a small part of some distant nightmare full of shouts and pain, water and fire, jolting movement and drugged fever. Still, she did not think she had recognized what she was looking at until this moment
It was a
ciel de lit
, the gathered and pleated silk that lined the underside of a bed canopy. Fastened at the center by a gold foil starburst, the color was the pure blue of a Madonna’s robe, a shade reserved for brides.
Her Aunt Harriet had an aversion for canopies and also for the bed curtains that went with them. They were, the older woman considered, Frenchified dust catchers which had no place in a Christian woman’s house.
ciel de lit
shone in the wavering light cast upward by the wide-mouthed globe of a bedside lamp. Beyond the lamplight’s narrow circle, the room was dark, the double French doors on either side of the bed closed behind their draping of silk and gauze lace. A small coal fire burned under an ornate black marble mantel. The dainty French dressing table, washstand, and bonneted armoire that sat around the walls shone with firelight and the rich patina of constant polishing. Not a single thing in the bedchamber was familiar.
From the doorway opposite the bed, there came a soft exclamation followed by the quick rustle of clothing. Angelica turned her head with the languid deliberation that appeared all she was capable of achieving. She was barely in time to see a skirt disappearing into the darkened room, perhaps a dressing room, that lay beyond the opening.
She watched the doorway in case the woman returned. There were a number of questions drifting to the surface of her mind like air bubbles in a warm lake.
It was a man’s tall, solid form that replaced the image of the flitting woman. Angelica drew a swift breath of shock. She wrenched herself upward, trying to scramble from the bed.
Renold Harden’s voice rang in deep and incisive command as he halted in his tracks. His face was still, stern, glazed on one side with the yellow-bronze sheen of lamplight while the other remained in shadow. Behind him hovered the dark-skinned woman who had summoned him.
Angelica’s muscles locked, stopping all movement, though the command given her had nothing to do with it. She lay huddled, half-raised on one elbow. Her breathing was harsh against the surging agony in her head while she clamped her hand across her eyes to hold the pain inside.
“If proof was needed that you are yourself again, it has just been provided,” Renold said in quieter, more reflective tones. “If you dislike the situation you have found on waking, I apologize. It seemed best, given the circumstances.”
“Where is this place? Why are you here?” She kept her eyes closed as she waited for his answer. To open them might well bring on sickness.
“You are at my home in New Orleans. I could have removed myself to a hotel for the duration of your convalescence, but it might have seemed strange behavior for a newly made bridegroom.”
She stopped breathing. A long moment passed during which she gathered her strength and her thoughts. Her voice was threadlike as she said finally, “And whom did you marry?”
“Who else, my dulcet love, but you?”
She could open her eyes after all. Shock was a fine antidote for some ills.
There was alertness in his features as he watched her, and a sense of tightly strung poise in his stance. He was ready, she saw, to counter whatever response she might make to his announcement. She was capable of only one.
“No,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he replied evenly, “I do assure you.”
She met his gaze then, staring into the dark warlock green of his eyes as she had not dared to before. There was nothing to be seen there, no hint whatever of his thoughts, not the slightest wisp of emotion.
She drew a slow breath. “Impossible.”
“You want to be told how, and when, and possibly where? By all means. The where is easy: it was here in this house. When? At the time it became certain you would live, just over twelve days ago. How? By the good offices of a family friend and my mother’s confessor of more than twenty years, Father Goulet — who has been known to bend a rule or two for the sake of a soul.”
For an instant, she glimpsed an image in her mind to match the name he had spoken. A priest with a kind smile and a bald dome of scalp fringed with fine white hair like spider-made silk. Soft words with the sound of ritual. The smell of incense.
“You do remember,” Renold said gently.
“What I recall could as easily have been absolution and last rites.” The words were scathing for all their softness.
He smiled. “Those came earlier. For the other, you were not quite yourself, it’s true, but you offered no objection.”
She absorbed the certainty of his voice as well as his words. “You failed to say why you went to the trouble to arrange it.”
“Oh, a passionate desire to bed you, of course,” he answered at once.
“I don’t believe you,” she said in flat denial.
He watched her an instant. “No,” he agreed with apparent regret, “it was, rather, the appearance of it, which is all some require.”
She felt dizzy with trying to follow his swift and abstract phrases through the throbbing in her brain. She said bitingly, “Meaning?”
“I was observed doing my poor best to unfasten your buttons and release you from your corset. It was at your request. You seemed to think my touch preferable to remaining imprisoned a single moment longer — besides which, you could barely breathe. But the good people of the town where we had pulled ourselves from the river, finding us in flagrante, but not quite delicto, considered I must have some claim to future boudoir privileges, at least.”
“And you let them.”
“I was in no mood to be lynched,” he said stringently.
“Pity,” she muttered.
“Afterward,” he went on, ignoring her provocation, “there arose the question of your hair. The quack brought to tend the injured from the steamboat wanted to cut it off, the better to drill a nice neat hole in your skull. I objected. He was forced to acknowledge my proprietary concern.”
“Because you saw to it,” she said in accusation.
His nod was prompt and definite. “After which, everyone took it for granted I would remove you promptly along with my other gear when the survivors departed.”
“Your other—” she began, then stopped. Her confused gaze turned desolate. She met his watchful expression for no more than a moment before she looked into the darkness behind him. Finally, she said in husky tones, “Were there many others — survivors, I mean?”
“A hundred and three out of a passenger list of two hundred seventy-one, or so I was told.” He added with quiet deliberation, “Your father and Eddington were not among them.”
She had known how it must be from the moment she discovered where she was; she had only needed time to bring herself to ask. He had made finding the exact words unnecessary. For that much, and for the lack of false sympathy, she was grateful.
Tears pressed, burning behind her nose, seeping into her eyes and running in hot tracks down her face. She ignored them. The words tight, she asked, “They were decently buried? You saw it done?”
He was silent so long that she looked up again. His face had a grim cast as he answered her. “Their bodies were not found, may never be — the Mississippi likes to keep its dead, or so the rivermen say. I would have done what was required for them if it had been possible.”
She accepted that. Her father and Laurence must be gone. They would have been with her, certainly would have seen to her in her illness, if they had been alive.
“How long—?” she began.
“Two weeks and five days, to be exact. You were struck by a chunk of falling timber. For the first twenty-four hours, you seemed fairly well, but have been laid low by concussion and fever since then. It isn’t surprising you have no memory of what occurred.”
“I remember some things very well,” she corrected him.
It was true; she did if she tried hard enough. The doctor young, sweating into his sandy hair, rank with the smell of fear as he stared across her at Renold. Herself being strapped to a door in order to be carried on board a waiting steamboat. The vile medicine Renold had tipped down her throat when she cried and begged not to go. This room the first night, quiet, cool, and immobile at last. She had clung to someone’s hand, she thought, before she slept. She had felt safe, protected.
There were tears sliding over her cheekbones and into the hollows below them. She wiped distractedly at the wetness.
The dark-skinned woman, a housekeeper from her starched white apron and neat kerchief, gave a soft exclamation of concern and began to move forward. Renold stopped her with an upraised hand, then made a single, sharp motion. The woman turned with reluctance and obvious disapproval in her round face and pouter-pigeon shape. The door closed behind her.
Renold shifted his position, drawing closer to the bed with a single, careful step. Angelica stiffened, drew back.
“Calm yourself. I am no threat to you, I swear it.” He moved a little closer.
“Stay where you are.” She meant the words to be sharp, but they came out as a whispered plea.
“It’s a little late for that, don’t you think? When I’ve been sworn and dutifully blessed this age? Not to mention I’ve been lying on a cot at your feet like a faithful hound through nights longer than a saint’s rosary. That’s when not applying cool water to your lily white skin in places once known only to you and your nursemaid.”
“You didn’t.” She would not look at him, she couldn’t. He had a reason for saying those words, she thought, if she could only clear her mind enough to discover it.
“Someone had to relieve Estelle. Besides, it seemed I was due the privilege.”
“Why? Because you had earned it?”
His smile, when it came, was wry. “Now that was almost worthy; I can see you are better. But you still need to sleep. You can annihilate me another day.”
He had moved to the head of the bed where he reached to pour a dark liquid from a small green bottle into a crystal glass. His hand was steady and his gaze on what he was doing as he put down the bottle and picked up the carafe beside it to add water. Swirling the mixture, he held it out to her.
“No, I thank you.”
“You prefer to keep your eyes open and your wits about you? Useless, I promise. I don’t care to risk you being thoroughly sick down my shirt front.”
Had she done that before? She would not ask, could not imagine being so close to him, did not want to know. Surely she had not, since he showed no sign of disgust.
“Or maybe,” he went on, “you intend to tell me you have no pain. Don’t, please. I’ve grown used to the signs. And I have no use for futile arguments.”
“Or any other kind?”
“Oh, I’m as high-handed as a Turkish dey, and prone to violence, besides. Something you might find helpful to keep in mind.”
“I’m not likely to forget it.”
He laughed, a forced sound. “So you never overlook an injury, never forgive an error of understanding? What a lovely marriage it’s going to be. I can see us in thirty years, both gimlet-eyed and scarred beyond recognition, but still tender enough to bleed.” His voice roughened. “Will you take this, or is it your pleasure to make me force you?”