Authors: Jennifer Blake
He had, Renold admitted ruefully, been close to doing the same thing. He said, “The next thing you knew, you were receiving congratulations.”
“After which, it was impossible to withdraw without looking like a silly female who didn’t know her own mind.”
“Which might have been preferable to a lifetime of regret.”
“Yes,” she said seriously, and was still, watching him.
He sustained that steady regard for all of ten seconds before a laugh of appreciation for her chosen method of resistance shook him. “Very well. I will undertake to exert no undue pressure. However, you might like to keep in mind that the cases are different. We are already wed, and I am not Eddington. More than that, patience is not one of my better qualities.”
“No pressure,” she murmured, glancing at him from under her lashes.
“Well, relatively little,” he said in dry agreement. “Now if your appetite is at all improved, you should try your soup before it gets cold.”
She picked up her spoon again and dipped it into the creamy broth with its tomato tint and chunks of fish and succulent shrimp and oysters. He watched with a rare suspended feeling inside until he saw the look of delight that crossed her features, then he took up his own spoon.
It was some few minutes later that he noticed her attention wandering to the sound of voices over the courtyard wall. He listened a moment before he said in explanation, “Madame Fouchet’s guests for her bal masque; the lady lives a few blocks on along the street. The theme this year is a Venetian carnival. I’m told there’s not an ounce of gold paint, a lion or flower mask, white cape, or doge’s robes left anywhere in the city.”
“You were invited?”
“I had a card, yes. The lady’s husband is a business acquaintance.”
“Then why aren’t you there?”
“I had other plans,” he said, smiling into her eyes. When she made no reply, he picked up his wineglass, sipped, and set it back down. “Perhaps next year you will be able to attend.”
The small catch in her breath was telling. “That would be possible?”
“You may care for it, or may not,” he said as he inclined his head. “New Orleans has much else to offer in the way of diversion. The social season brings everything from the grandest of balls to luncheons al fresco and expeditions to the lake. Every major European and American opera and theater troupe is booked here from time to time, as well as concert artists such as dancers, violinists, and singers like Adelina Patti. The marvels of the circus and rare animal displays are often available if such things amuse you. You have only to indicate your preference, and I will see to the arrangements. Naturally, I will also serve as your escort.”
“That’s very kind of you.” There was a wondering undertone to the words.
“Not at all. I’m only trying to tell you what you can expect as my wife.”
“As to that, I really don’t think—”
“You aren’t curious?” he said, smiling as he interrupted what he was unwilling to hear. “You have no interest in hearing how we will spend the days and evenings, winters and summers of our lives?” He paused, then took her silence for permission to continue. “You will inevitably make friends. Estelle and Tit Jean will help you welcome them when they call. If you wish a more formal evening gathering, you have only to tell me, and I will be on hand as host to your hostess.”
“A life of gay dissipation, I perceive.”
Her faintly rallying tone was, he thought, a defense against being affected by the program he was outlining. It was, therefore, a positive sign.
“Winters in New Orleans are pleasant, but the summers can be overwhelming with their heat and damp, the smells that collect in the streets and the pestilence in the air. In years past, it’s been my habit to endure these things, but I would not submit you to them. We can, if you like, travel in Europe during those months. Or we might seek the more healthful air of the country.” He added, as if it were an afterthought, “It could be beneficial to spend time at this plantation you have acquired; absentee ownership is seldom productive without supervision. You have an overseer, I assume?”
Her gaze was arrested. “I have no idea. I hadn’t thought how it must be going on during this time.”
“I could look into it for you, if you like.”
She did not repudiate the suggestion, but then neither did she instantly cast the responsibility for Bonheur into his lap as would most women of his acquaintance. She was, he was beginning to see, a worthy opponent. She might have little to say, but there was a great deal going on in her mind. He would give much to know the tenor of it.
He went on after a moment. “If you care to occupy yourself with an interest in the property, there can be no objection. I would prefer to ride out with you on your inspections, or I will choose a groom for you. This is not, you understand, to burden you with supervision, but merely to have someone on hand in case your mount acts up or there is an accident. You do ride?”
She nodded. “That was one of the accomplishments my aunt considered important for a female.”
“I will see to choosing a saddle horse for you, if you like. There is also the matter of a riding habit. Oh, and I should tell you, while on that subject, that I have arranged a dress allowance for you with my banker. This is not for the household account, but to be spent solely at your discretion, for whatever personal items you may need. Also, the modiste who provided your nightwear has been engaged to work up a few day gowns to your measurements — using the one you were wearing the night of the explosion as a guide. She should be visiting you in a day or two with sample costumes. If you don’t care for what she has done, you have only to say so and choose something else.”
“I’m overwhelmed,” she said quietly. “You are remarkably generous, not to mention accommodating.”
“I thought you would be pleased,” he said in grave mockery for the primness of her tone.
She lifted a hand to the neckline of her dressing sacque, gathering it higher. At the same time, she lowered her gaze, focusing on the courtyard below them. There was a lock of hair trailing over her shoulder and down across her breast. It stirred with her every breath, shining back and forth along the fine filaments in glittering highlights like tiny stars riding strands of raw silk. At the same time, the long skein molded the curves underneath with lustrous fidelity.
“Do you not care for flowers?” she said.
The change of subject was so complete and his thoughts so distracted that it was an instant before he could assemble the sounds she made into meaningful words. More than that, he was caught by the desperation in her tone, which seemed to suggest a need to remove herself from his liberality. It was an indication that he had, perhaps, overplayed his hand.
His answer was made almost at random. “Flowers? I like them as well as any.”
“There are none down there, where it would be so easy to make them grow,” she said, indicating the stone-floored space with its protective walls covered with wild vines.
“You have an affinity for them, I expect,” he said, trying to follow her lead.
She smiled for the first time without a shadow. “That’s a very nice compliment, thank you, but I don’t think I can make that claim. My aunt grew many kinds, all in rows, regimented as soldiers. I was never allowed to pick them. I preferred wildflowers, since they grew as they pleased.”
It was the rueful, almost melancholy sound of her voice, he thought, that caused the squeezing sensation inside his chest. There was no time to voice it, however, for Tit Jean was there, bowing apologetically in the door.
“Your pardon, maître, but there is a man to see you.”
A man, not a gentleman. It was not difficult to read the communication in the manservant’s expression as well as his tone and choice of words. “Put him in the library and offer him whiskey,” he said. “I’ll be with him momentarily.”
The manservant inclined his head and took himself off with offended dignity. Angelica watched that stiff-backed departure before she turned back to him.
“Is anything wrong?”
“Not at all,” he said, drinking down his wine and using his napkin.
“You know who your visitor is, then, I suppose.”
He might have guessed she would be adept at reading moods and attitudes. “Tit Jean has a snobbish streak. He doesn’t always approve of my business associates.”
“Perhaps you should pay attention to him.”
He rose to his feet, smiling down at her. “Such concern, ma chére. I’m flattered.”
“For no cause,” she answered, her voice several degrees cooler.
“A shame,” he said. And knew the truth of the words as he indicated with a gesture that she continue with her soup while he left her.
Angelica did not turn her head to look after Renold as he departed. It was irritating to her how much of an effort that proved.
He was a man of surprises. He was also much more considerate than she would have deemed possible. A proper gratitude was difficult, however, for she had the distinct feeling that there was a reason behind it. It seemed that he wanted to make her happy, or at least resigned, in her marriage. Why, was the question. She could not imagine that he was pleased to have a wife foisted on him, no matter what he might say.
All that was required in this situation was a decent degree of provision. The lifestyle he had outlined was staggering, and seductive, in its lavishness. The cause was difficult to see, unless it was guilt.
The services of a
, entertainments, his escort here and there, his presence for meals: she was slowly being drawn into his life. It was extremely beguiling in its way: the comfort, the consideration, but especially the aura of care.
Was she married to him? Was she really? Would it make a difference if she knew beyond doubting?
What was she going to do?
She didn’t know. None of Aunt Harriet’s strictures and maxims on correct behavior seemed to apply. What did one do about a man who threatened you in your stateroom one moment and saved you from harm the next? What rules were there for conduct toward someone who spirited you away, installed you in his bed while you were insensible, and when you awoke informed you a marriage had taken place? She was trying to be reasonable about it, but the situation was so far beyond anything she had ever imagined that she had no guidelines.
Insofar as she could discern, she had three choices: She could return to the safe and narrow obscurity of her aunt’s house. She could travel back upriver to the plantation and take up life there. Or she could accept Renold Harden’s care and protection and hope that his motives were trustworthy.
There was a problem with each solution.
Her aunt, as Renold had pointed out, might not be pleased to see her. She knew nothing whatever of large-scale farming methods of the sort that must be undertaken to make her living on the plantation, nor did she have the capital to pay an overseer, buy seed for planting time, or even care for the slaves who were now in her charge. As for consigning herself to Renold’s keeping, every instinct warned against it.
But if she left him, how was she to go? She could not simply walk out of the house in her nightgown. She had no money to pay her way either to the plantation or back to Natchez since her father had been in charge of their funds, and whatever gold he had been carrying was lost with him. She could ask Renold for the passage money, but it went against the grain to be indebted to him, especially when she had no way of paying him back. More than that, it was entirely possible that he would refuse.
Her appetite had vanished. She pushed back her plate, then propped her elbow on the table and rested her chin on the palm of her hand.
Perhaps it was her illness, or possibly it was years of having every decision made for her, but settling on a plan of action seemed a task so wearisome it was beyond her strength. Added to that was a haunting fear of making a mistake.
It wasn’t, no, not at all, that she wanted to stay with Renold. She hoped she had more strength of character than to be influenced by creature comforts and promises of a grand life. As for the man himself, how could she be attracted to someone she couldn’t trust?
Married. It seemed she could almost glimpse an image in her mind to go with the word, but it shifted from her grasp like a dream on waking. If she could remember, if she knew that a ceremony had taken place, would it make a difference? Could she be bound by a legal and religious contract she could not recall making? Did she want to be?
A door closed somewhere below, and there came the scuffle of footsteps in the courtyard. Two men appeared. One was Tit Jean, the other a small man with a pinched and narrow face and thin shoulders dressed in what appeared to be nondescript gray. The shorter man was scurrying like the mouse he resembled, trying to keep up with the manservant’s long strides. He was protesting every breath, though Tit Jean affected deafness. As the two men reached the iron-barred gate set within the frame of the back carriage entrance, the manservant pushed it wide for the visitor to depart, then closed it with a resounding clang after him.
The little man whipped around as if he might reenter. Then his gaze lifted toward the gallery. He stood still. Mouth falling open, he stared through the bars at Angelica’s pale shape for long seconds. Ducking his head abruptly, he swung and slipped away into the shadows.