Silver-Tongued Devil (Louisiana Plantation Collection) (8 page)

It was only minutes later that Estelle appeared. The maître, she said, sent his apologies. He had to go out and would be late returning. He instructed that Angelica enjoy the remainder of her meal, then allow Estelle to help her return to bed.

Angelica struggled through the remainder of the soup, also the slices of chicken breast in an herb sauce, the new peas, the carrot and cabbage vinaigrette, the custard and dried peach tarts. Most of the different courses were left on her plate.

Since Angelica was already up, she asked Estelle to bring a tub of water and help her bathe. It was, perhaps, a little too much; Angelica was trembling with exhaustion by the time the maid pulled a clean nightgown over her head. Within minutes after she was settled once more between the sheets, she was asleep.

Her rest was sound for only an hour or so. She roused then to some terrifying, partially remembered dream of fire and water. For long moments, she lay wide-eyed in the dark while her thudding heart slowed to a normal tempo and her breathing returned to an even cadence. Afterward, she slept only in fitful snatches.

It was toward dawn that she came awake with jarring suddenness. There was someone in the room with her, standing beside the bed. Silent in the darkness, he was staring down at her.

It was long moments before she could force herself to open her eyes, longer still before she could make out the shadowy form of a man.

It was Renold. She was almost sure of it. Almost.

He did not move, seemed not to be breathing for all the sound he made. She wondered if he knew she was awake; she could barely separate his body from the gray blackness around him, and she was even more concealed within the confines of the bed curtains. The urge to force some acknowledgment, to break the silence in some way, was strong. Something in his stillness prevented her.

An eternity later, he breathed a soft sigh. Turning away, he moved noiselessly toward the foot of the bed. The ropes of the cot creaked as he lowered his long form to the mattress. Quiet returned.

What had he been doing? Was he only checking on her well-being, or had there been some idea in his mind of claiming his so-called rights as a husband? She didn’t know. She wished she did. Almost. She lay for a long time as the darkness crept toward dawn. Thinking about it. Wondering.

She couldn’t see him from where she lay. The room was so quiet it seemed he might have slipped out. Moving carefully, she sat up in bed. She still couldn’t see very well. She pushed herself higher, almost rising to her knees.

He was there, stretched out at her feet. The cover pulled over him was pale against the dark shading of his skin, so that it emphasized the broad width of shoulders above it. His hair was a dark shadow against the white pillowcase, while his face had the strong, still beauty of a death mask.

He had slept there before, but she had not been aware of it then. Even the last few nights, he had gone to bed long after she was asleep and rose before she woke. It was incredible to see him there now, so intimately near in the close darkness. It gave her a peculiar feeling of mingled safety and peril.

“I don’t bite,” he said without opening his eyes. “And I don’t think I snore. If you should discover differently, you might shake me awake, but not otherwise. Unless you want conjugal company on that veritable ocean of counterpane you occupy?”

“No,” she said after a moment. “Thank you.”

“I thought not. You aren’t unwell?”

“I’m perfectly fine. But are you — comfortable?”

He opened one eye, for she caught the faint glint of it. “Do I look it?”

The cot was too narrow and could have been longer. “Not particularly.”

“Observant as well as wakeful,” he said with dry humor. “I would advise you to sleep while you can. Martyrdom is not my style, I assure you; I don’t propose to be here many more nights.”

“What a happy thought to take back to my pillow,” she said in acid condemnation.

“Yes,” he answered agreeably. “Isn’t it?”

 

Chapter Five
 

It was the misfortune of the would-be assassins that they chose a night when Renold had just come from the
salle d’armes
of Prospero, the mulatto master of fencing, in Exchange Alley.

The
maître d’armes
did not deign to cross swords with just any of his students, but was always glad to give Renold a try at besting him. Renold accepted the honor at least once per week, often enough to keep his reflexes honed and his skill with a sword at a peak, which discouraged all but the most determined challengers. On such evenings, he strolled homeward with his sword swinging at his side, his blood comfortably heated, and his muscles well-oiled by exercise.

The first indication of trouble was a flutter of pigeons. Grumbling, they spiraled up out of an alleyway ahead. Renold reached out to touch the arm of the man who walked beside him.

Michel Farness had been a friend for a long time, and was no fool besides. Being unarmed, he did not hesitate, but whipped away from Renold and put his back to the nearest wall.

Discovered, and enraged by it, the hidden men chanced everything on a frontal assault. They lunged from the alley three abreast screaming rivermen’s curses. The big hog-skinning knives in their hands caught the moonlight on their wickedly honed tips.

Renold’s sword made a soft, silken rasp as he slid it from its scabbard. He dropped into a swordsman’s crouch with the easy coordination of warm muscles and habit.

The bricks of the narrow banquette darkened with heaving shadows. Grunts made puffs of clouds in air that overnight had turned frosty. Steel flashed and scraped and clanged with gritty determination. The flurry of movement was swift and deadly.

It was over almost before it had begun. As one of the rivermen fell, the other two disengaged with shouts and wrenching effort. Whirling, they broke into a run and were engulfed by the night. The body of the first remained, sprawled over the banquette with a thin red trickle of wetness seeping into the cracks between the bricks.

Michel moved with a graceful sweep of his silk-lined cloak to kneel beside the fallen man. Looking up at Renold, who breathed deep and hard above him, he said, “A mortal wound, my friend; you might have learned more if you had been in less of a temper.”

“They were too close to home.” The words were clipped, unrepentant, an explanation rather than an excuse.

“And besides,” Michel said, his gaze owlishly wise, “there was an audience worth impressing?”

Renold, by an effort of will of which he was entirely too conscious, refrained from looking at the balcony of his house just down the street. Angelica had stood there seconds before, he knew, her slender form stiff and silent from — what? Shock? Disgust? Disappointment? At the first sign that he had survived the attack, she had swung in a whirl of skirts and stepped back inside.

In answer to his friend, he said, “Rather, one for which there is the need to sustain an illusion.”

“Of your prowess?” There was disbelief in Michel’s words.

Renold gave a short laugh. “Of my invincibility. The easiest way to prevent mutiny is to make it impractical.”

“Mutiny? In a guest?” Michel asked with a puzzled frown.

“The lady is my wife.”

Michel stared up at him. “You are married — you have been married this whole evening long — and I am just now hearing of it?”

Renold allowed no shred of expression to appear on his face. “She has been ill. It seemed best to defer callers and congratulations until she was able to receive them.”

“Ill. And mutinous,” the other man said in fascinated tones. He paused while he rose to his feet and dusted off his hands. “Mutiny in a wife is usually known as adultery.”

“Or desertion,” Renold answered with grim humor, “which is slightly more controllable. However, if I kill enough footpads, maybe I won’t have to skewer my friends. I asked you to walk home with me for the purpose of meeting my bride. I expect she will appreciate a new face.”

“I hope she won’t like it too much,” Michel said in pretended anxiety, “I’m in no mood for unpleasantness.” His irrepressible humor rose then to brighten his gypsy dark eyes. “Then again, if your wife is as lovely as the glimpse of her leads me to believe, I may take up sword practice and call you out for the prospect of comforting the widow.”

Renold, turning and walking toward his own house, said, “I don’t recommend it.”

“Do I detect a testy note?”

“You do. On top of which, any reward is uncertain. The lady fights her own battles, though her most formidable weapon is her sharp tongue. As I can testify. My skin is fairly whole, but my ego is as finely sliced as omelet onions.”

“Taking a leaf from your book, is she?”

Renold had not considered that possibility. Words could reveal or conceal, cause joy or pain. They could also be used to construct an inner fortress from which all attackers could be repelled. He had learned that lesson long ago. Had he taught it to Angelica by example?

Answering both Michel and himself, he said, “Undoubtedly.”

Michel stood where he was a moment longer, then jolted into movement, stretching his stride to catch up with him. His voice rich with amazement, he said, “Your bride doesn’t worship you?”

“Not noticeably.”

“She doesn’t fall into a swoon at your touch?”

Renold gave him a level look that was both an answer and a warning to go no further.

“Then why,” the other man said with cheerful if mystified reason, as they reached the entrance door to the courtyard, “did you marry her?”

“She owns Bonheur.”

Michel stared at Renold as he followed after him into the courtyard, then waited while the door was closed and locked. “The other question,” he said finally, “is why she married you.”

“Simple. Force majeure.”

“And you are enjoying this arrangement?”

“Immensely.” The words were without inflection, though Renold could feel the set lines of his face.

Michel gave a short laugh. “I can see that. Enjoy it any more, and half of New Orleans will soon lie gutted and draining on your banquette.”

“A timely reminder that I should have the body removed. Don’t let me forget to tell Tit Jean to see to it.”

“He probably set about that task before the misguided son out there hit the ground, as well you know.”

“Very true,” Renold said, and led the way up the stairs and into the salon.

Angelica was waiting for them there. She was a little pale, but magnificent in her black silk.

She had wanted bombazine, but Renold had vetoed it as too heavy for the climate. There had been some discussion over the neckline also. The keyhole affair that resulted was neither high enough to satisfy her nor low enough to please him, but was an acceptable compromise. The color had been discussed at length, but on that she had been immovable; she would have her mourning. Black on some women gave them the appearance of crows. Her it made look like a grieving angel. It was enough to put an edge on a man’s teeth.

Tit Jean, apparently at her order, was just departing after bringing in a wine tray. He held the door of the salon for their entry, catching his master’s eye for an expressive instant before leaving them. The message was received. Everything had gone well in his absence, and the body currently obstructing foot traffic outside would not be there in the morning.

Renold turned to Angelica, scanning her face, assessing her mood and strength as he stepped forward with Michel. “My dear,” he said, “allow me to present an old friend.”

She gave her hand to Michel with a perfectly polite, if distracted, acknowledgment. She turned back at once. “Who were those men?”

Renold walked to the table where the wine had been placed, picked up the decanter, and began to pour. Watching the liquid bubble into the glasses, he said, “River scum after an easy mark. Irish Channel toughs ventured into the wrong section. Gallatin Street canaille with a grudge against top hats. The choice is yours, and should be as accurate a guess as any.”

“Were they waiting for you?”

He did not look at Michel. “Only for my purse.”

“I thought—” She stopped, said instead, “You took no injury?”

It might be possible, seeing the frown between her brows, to suppose that she was concerned. Renold did not make that mistake. “It was a sword against knives, not precisely an even contest. So, no, I was not hurt.”

“Hardly uneven,” Michel protested. “They were three against one, after all.” He smiled at Angelica. “I would have joined the fray, armed or not, if it had been necessary. It wasn’t.”

“So I saw,” she said, and gave his friend a faint smile.

And Renold, watching through his lashes, saw Michel succumb without resistance to the many and special charms of his wife. He was less than surprised; Michel was susceptible.

It wasn’t always possible for a man to recognize what might attract a woman in another man, but he could appreciate Michel’s good points. His light brown hair curled in poetic and unpomaded abandon. Liquid eyes, with a near constant sheen of incipient laughter, must be counted a definite asset. Of medium height, the other man was well made, with a stocky, muscular build concealed under rather flamboyant tailoring. His deportment was respectful, his manner interested, his smiles warm and faintly caressing. Yet the final secret of his success with the female sex was something apart from these things, or so Renold suspected: Michel was beloved by the ladies for the simple reason that he adored them all indiscriminately.

Renold had wanted to see what his friend made of Angelica. Listening to the compliments that tripped from Michel’s tongue along with questions about her mourning, watching the dazed look in his eyes, he thought he had found out.

Had he also wanted to show off his wife, he wondered? Pride of possession was not a usual fault with him; still, it was possible. It was also true that no law of church or state gave him ownership of her mind, her loyalty, or her attention. It was, he thought grimly, a legal oversight.

Michel, who had taken a seat beside Angelica on the settee, glanced in his direction. He blinked as he met Renold’s steady gaze, then dark color rose under his olive skin. “Mon Dieu, old friend, what ails you now? I thought the warning outside only a jest. You aren’t actually going to be the sort of husband who glowers from corners.”

“You will have to forgive me. I’m still new at the business.” His voice, Renold recognized, was cooler than he had intended.

Angelica gave a brittle laugh. “In any case, there’s no cause for alarm. Renold means to be the perfect husband, therefore jealousy is entirely in order as a matter of form.”

“A perfect husband,” he said, “might permit an innocent flirtation. I fear I am made of coarser clay.”

Her gaze was direct, then, and a little surprised as she met his eyes. Still, she did not refuse the challenge. “You admit the fault? That is gallant.”

“Admit the flirtation, and we are even, though the score remains at—”|

“Nothing to nothing? Am I supposed to find that gratifying?” There was determined pleasantness in her voice, but no more than that.

Michel, looking from one of them to the other, said, “If you two prefer to quarrel in peace, only let me know, and I can leave.”

An unfortunate intervention. On whose behalf? “Oh, this is mere practice with blunted weapons. Danger to onlookers is unlikely — unless they take sides.”

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