Read Silver-Tongued Devil (Louisiana Plantation Collection) Online
Authors: Jennifer Blake
“Something I would consider only if the odds were too uneven.” Michel’s words carried an unaccustomed edge.
Renold turned to Angelica. “You have a champion, it seems. What will you do with him?”
“I rather thought he was offering his support to the opposite side,” she said with a flash of blue fire in her eyes. “He is your friend, after all.”
It was a timely admonition. “So he is. Though I am always suspicious of divided loyalties.”
“That’s it,” Michel said in disgust. “I will leave you.”
“Then what,” Renold said to his friend in tones intended to sting, “would be the point of the exercise?”
Michel sprang to his feet. “You can believe I need warning? If I were less a friend I really would call you out!”
“Useless.” Renold walked toward the shorter man and took his arm, turning him in the direction of the door. “I’ve killed my man for this week, and have no use for another mouse to place before my mistress.”
“Death,” Angelica said magnificently, “is a matter of indifference to me.”
“Unless of course it’s mine,” Renold answered. He paused for a bow and smile to go with that riposte.
Michel, pale under his olive skin, pulled away to make his formal adieu. On his dignity then, he strode on ahead down the stairs and into the courtyard. As Renold followed, the other man stopped and turned with his feet set and his fists on his hips.
“Well, and do you want to meet me?” he demanded.
“To salve your wounded dignity, or to impress Angelica?”
“To teach you a lesson in manners. How could you speak to such a lovely woman in that contemptible way?”
“I thought,” Renold said, “that it would be better than beating her.”
Michel made an extravagant gesture of repudiation. “You thought it better than ravishing her in public. If you are so entranced, what in the name of all the saints is wrong with your temper?” His face changed. “Unless—”
“Unless I am both more patient and more cunning than you suspected? These things have their price.” Renold’s features were grim. “Or are we speaking of the same thing? Would you care to explain, in words suitably respectful of the lady’s person, precisely what you mean?”
“You haven’t taken her to bed.”
It was possible to see the hot blood in the other man’s face even in the dark. “Now there you are right and wrong,” Renold said gently, “though I would not, myself, consider the subject one for idle discussion.”
“Or else,” Michel went on undeterred, “you know what you’re doing is not fit, but you have charted your course and are too pigheaded to change it.”
“Moral outrage? I’m amazed.” He should not have been, of course. His friend, born of an Italian mother and a French father, was a legitimate member of one of the oldest Creole families in the city. Along with his birthright came a firm belief in all the higher-toned principles.
“Or maybe it’s both of those reasons. In which case, there’s something more than a little peculiar about this whole affair. I’m not too sure I believe in this marriage for which no announcements were made, no banns read, no invitations delivered.”
“Untruthful as well as a lecherous abductor of women? What an opinion you have of me.”
The shake of the other man’s head sent a curl tumbling over his forehead. “I know how you felt about your stepfather, Renold, but if you are in the process of compromising the lady as a means of restitution for his death and his losses, then I have to tell you that it’s infamous.”
“And you actually think,” he said softly, “that I am capable of this infamy?”
“Oh, I don’t doubt you have other reasons. She is enough to tempt any man.”
“Thank you for that much,” Renold said in acid reproof.
“Yes, and before this evening, I would have said that your conduct toward a lady was always correct. But I’ve never seen you behave as you did toward your Angelica, not even when you were top over tails about Clotilde. You seem to me to be a very devil.”
“While you would treat her with every tenderness,” Renold said with malignant softness.
Michel’s mouth set in a straight line. “I would certainly use common courtesy!”
“And uncommon charm.”
“If you are getting ready to issue a warning again, you may save yourself the trouble; I understood it earlier. But I will tell you something to your face, Renold. If your Angelica ever stands in need of the champion you called me, I will be there.”
“Who else? I would expect you to protect her from every other man.”
Renold stood perfectly still while his thoughts moved like quicksilver through his mind. He said abruptly, “You are perfectly right. I seem to have lost my objectivity on this subject. No matter. Interfere too much on the part of the lady, and we may wind up facing each other with swords after all.”
“Pistols,” Michel said. “The choice will be mine if you force me onto the field. And that’s the only way I’ll meet you.”
“There is, I suppose, some ridiculous French Creole reason of honor which makes it impossible to challenge the man you have made a cuckold.”
“Not at all. The only prohibition is something called friendship.”
Renold permitted himself a brief smile. “But that,” he said softly, “is supposed to be what prevents a man from trespassing in the first place.”
Michel made no answer beyond a stiff bow. Renold walked with him to the back gate to see him out. Afterward, he stood for long moments with his hand resting on the iron bars. Then, still thoughtful, he went back into the house.
Angelica was standing in the middle of her bedchamber robed for bed in white lawn and lace shimmering with candlelight. As he entered, she looked up with the furious resignation he was fast coming to detest.
He paused to rid himself of annoyance, rather than for appreciation of the spectacle. It was a fine one, however, and certainly worth savoring. Not being blind or a hypocrite, he stored the more delicate points in memory for later detection. That much he could take without injury to anyone, except, possibly, himself.
The lawn of her nightgown and light dressing sacque had a fine weave; he could see the dark apricot shading of her nipples through the material. No corset constricted the narrow span of her waist or controlled the soft roundness of her hips under the soft drape of the material. Her hair, carefully brushed and plaited, hung in a thick rope over one shoulder, an incitement to the destruction of neatness.
She was moist and fresh, the sweet femaleness of her so covered as to make peeling away the thin white layers as pleasurable as licking the frosting from a bun before consuming it in small bites. The urge to do just that was so abruptly felt and so violent that he plunged too soon into speech.
“Sacré,” he said softly. “If I had known you were going to make a production of getting ready to retire, my love, I’d have hurried back for the performance.”
Her gaze held the cool censure that he deserved. “No doubt,” she said, “which is why I didn’t wait. Would you care to tell me what has become of your bed?”
He glanced toward the canopied four-poster, where the cot that had been at the foot so long was conspicuously absent. His stomach muscles tightened. “Why, nothing that I can see.”
“You know very well what I mean. By whose order was it removed?”
A large part of the rage in her voice was from the mortification of being forced to confront him. And that, too, like so much else these days, annoyed him.
He said, “You know it must have been mine. I take it you are concerned that I will have no place to sleep?”
“Yes, certainly,” he took her up without compunction. “So why not simply say what is on your mind.”
She stared at him for a long moment before she lifted her chin. She said clearly, “I am not sleeping in the same bed with you. I would not have considered it even before I chanced to overhear something of what you and your friend were saying down below. Now, it’s doubly impossible.”
Courtyards were notorious for amplifying sound and funneling it upward. He should have considered it. Was there no misfortune that could not descend on this enterprise?
He stripped off his coat and tossed it on the nearest chair. Reaching up to loosen the ends of his cravat, unwinding the folds, he said, “Eavesdropping?”
“I heard my name. It seemed best to know in what regard it was being bandied about.”
Even he could not fault the reason of that. “And now you are infected by Michel’s doubts. You might have shown more trust.” Moving to the dressing table, he dropped the cravat onto the surface, then began to remove the studs from his shirt.
“By all means,” she said with derision. “You have given me so much encouragement to bring my doubts to you, after all. Even if I did, what guarantee is there that anything you might tell me would be the truth?”
He watched the rise and fall of her breasts under the white lawn of her nightgown. Her agitated breathing was in excess of her anger. His own, on the other hand, stopped if he failed to pay attention. With the last stud removed, he tugged his shirt from the waist of his trousers and began to pull it off.
“What form,” he said in stringent reason, “should this guarantee take? Ten thousand angels swearing on the Bible? An appearance of the Holy Mother with my name on her lips? A vow recorded in script at the cathedral? What?”
“A written record would be — what are you doing?”
Her gaze lingered on his bare chest. There was a compressed sound in her voice that might have been alarm, but he suspected was outrage. But he had had enough of tending the sensibilities of others for one day.
He said, “I am preparing for the bath that Tit Jean will be bringing shortly. If you care to watch the production I intend to make, you are welcome. If not, you can get in the bed and pull the sheet over your head.”
“I can also leave the room,” she said, and swung away in a whirlwind of white draperies.
The word was neither loud nor harsh, but had a slicing finality that brought her up just short of the door. He followed hard on it, bunching the shirt he had removed and tossing it aside, then walking forward to brace one hand on the closed door panel. He steeled himself as though for a blow as she turned slowly to inspect him with her arctic blue gaze.
“You require an audience after all?” she said.
There was something in her quiet voice that sent a shiver up his backbone. He could drown in the clear pools of her eyes. Her lips were smooth, soft, conjuring up impulses so unreliable that it was a moment before he could think, much less speak.
He said in husky tones, “You are interested in my requirements? I want a warm presence, a willing ear, a quick and prescient smile. I would like a lovely face, an enticing form, a graceful manner. I desire tender touches, welcoming embraces, eagerness. Blame my peasant ancestors, but I refuse to go in search of all these things down cold halls and in separate beds.”
“You can’t force me to sleep with you.” Her gaze was unblinking though her color had shifted from rose to white.
He did not raise his voice. “Your mistake. I could, easily. And in the sense that you mean when you use that polite substitute for an impolite condition. Being contrary by nature, however — and on my mettle this evening to act the gentleman husband I never claimed to be — I won’t.”
“Don’t, please, show your obvious relief just yet. Because I will force you to join me by at least playing at the part of lady wife you so disdain. And who knows? If we act our roles convincingly enough, they may become natural to us.”
The silence that developed between them was thunderous. In it, Angelica stared at the man so near to her, and saw no yielding, no mercy, in his face.
She said, “You would turn this room into a stage? I see it becoming more a battlefield.”
“The bed being the high ground to be taken or defended at all costs? Why not? There’s at least honest hate between enemies, instead of this congealed dislike and grudging gratitude. More than that, prisoners taken in honorable combat can be honorably employed, and submit to their imprisonment honorably.”
“A man’s point of view without doubt,” she said. “What is so honorable about the threat of superior force?”
“One side almost always has greater strength than the other. The natural counter for that advantage is surprise, guile, and superior tactics.”
“Trickery and deceit, in other words. I do see.”
“All is fair, and so on,” he said. Not a muscle moved in the hard planes of his face.
“A convenient view. I will choose my weapons accordingly, though you won’t be amazed if I fail to warn you what they may be.”
“Smiles, kisses, and womanly wiles? I am more ready for them than you know.”
“So I would imagine,” she said, ignoring the underlayer of meaning, “since they may be so easily turned against the person who uses them.”
“Not,” he said, a strange sound in his voice, “so very easily.”
The lamplight, flaring at some stray draft, caught in Renold’s eyes. Angelica searched behind that bright flame and found an even greater conflagration there. Swallowing with a convulsive movement of her throat, she, said in bald supplication, “Why would you care to have an unwilling woman anywhere near you, much less in your bed?”