Magnolia Nights, p.1
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
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Table of Contents
To five great authors . . .
Barbara Catlin, Kathryn Davenport, Karla Hocker,
Emma Merritt and Evelyn Rogers
. . . and with love to Leslie and Sharon
New Orleans, February 1842
“Pardon me, sir.”
First Lieutenant Paul Rousseau of the Texas Navy halted in his tracks and turned to the St. Charles Hotel’s concierge. “Yes?”
Rounding a gilt desk, Castillo templed his meaty fingers in front of his chest. “A lady is waiting in your room.”
Paul’s curiosity was roused. “Oh?”
The clerk smirked while digging into his pocket to produce a twenty-dollar gold piece. “I’m sure you won’t mind that I allowed her entry.”
“Why would I mind?” A lady caller was an intriguing proposition, but this pasty-faced hare was a man who could be bought. Disgusted, Paul began to walk away as the festive tune of strolling musicians filtered from the street into the lobby, and a nearby clock chimed midnight. But Castillo’s nasal whisper transcended the sounds, stopping Paul from leaving. “She claims to be your sister.”
Sister? Paul had no siblings. A lazy smile played across his sun-weathered features. Since sailing into the crescent city to deposit a manifest of American survivors from a Campeche Bay shipwreck, Paul had favored no woman except Marian Oliver, and his purpose for seeking her out had been two-fold. Her brother was his naval commander, and Paul had unfinished business with him. But more important, Marian was his archenemy’s widowed daughter-in-law. A whip of resentment lashed through Rousseau as he thought of Rankin Oliver.
“Will there be anything else for you this evening, sir?” Castillo asked, palm up.
Paul dug into his pocket, as his thoughts turned to Rankin Oliver. The man had murdered his father, but he hadn’t been able to prove the duel had been unfair. Oliver had too craftily hidden the evidence of his guilt. For thirteen years Paul had futilely harbored his hatred; then, recently, in the Yucatán village of Sisal, he had learned Oliver was selling munitions to the Centralists in Mexico City. Once more, however, Paul had been thwarted. He had been unable to bring the miscreant to justice—and an innocent woman had died at Oliver’s hands during the attempt.
For the ten thousandth time Paul vowed to blacken the Oliver name for eternity.
Then Castillo cut into his thoughts by asking, “Shall I have champagne sent to your quarters, sir?”
Paul dropped a picayune into the center of that soft palm, cleared his mind of Castillo’s interruption, and glanced up to the second floor.
Marian, he was certain, waited in his room. Though she didn’t excite him inordinately, Paul planned to get close to her, as close as possible, and gain her confidence. In order to extract the vengeance he sought against her father-in-law, he needed to track Rankin’s activities. What better way than through a member of his household?
Paul strode away from the lobby. Though Marian didn’t send his blood racing with lust, she was fairer than most women. So why look a gift horse in the mouth? Yet his unhurried steps belied that line of reasoning as Paul ascended the curving staircase leading to his quarters.
Emma Frances Oliver had been waiting in the hotel room for over thirty minutes. She felt she must speak with Paul Rousseau in private, and she prayed the man she knew only by hearsay would be more reasonable than her cousin by marriage. Marian had fallen in love at first sight with Étienne Rousseau’s son. But Olivers did not love Rousseaus. It just wasn’t done. Good people did not cavort with bad.
Why, Emma asked herself, couldn’t sweet William’s widow understand that? But Emma knew why. Marian had been behind a door when brains were passed around.
Emma didn’t care much for William’s widow, but she had promised him she’d look out for his wife. And Marian was family, so this was a matter of family honor. Above all else, Emma would look out for an Oliver.
Right now she wanted nothing more than to appeal to Rousseau’s sense of decency, providing he had any, and be on her way. She nodded, as if to verify the validity of her reasoning. And if Rousseau wasn’t honorable, she had an alternate plan that was certain to appeal to his type of man.
Despite her warm wrap, gooseflesh rose on her arms. The room was damp and chill, the flames from the fireplace long spent. Only the dim light of an ornate mantel lamp lit the room. With her usual impatience Emma eyed Rousseau’s possessions, perusing each in turn, while walking the floor and rehearsing her speech. Next to the huge tester bed, where Rousseau no doubt planned to debauch poor dumb Marian, rested a sea chest. Emma wondered about its contents but chose not to risk being caught snooping, for that act would surely loose a swarm of trouble on herself. Rousseau might return at any moment. But, oh, Pandora’s curiosity was aroused!
“Admit it,” she muttered. “You’re curious about Rousseau, too.”
Since arriving in New Orleans two days previously, she had heard nothing but Paul this and Paul that from Marian, who had rattled on and on as if the man were a god. Emma had been ready to tear her hair from its roots. She couldn’t help but bemoan the fact that Uncle Rankin was in St. Martinsville, and it would take days to get word to him. If he were in town, he’d put a halt to the goings-on.
By all that was right, it was Emma’s duty to save her kinsman’s widow from weakness of the heart.
Bored with her wait, Emma centered her attention on the silver dish on the bedside table. Her curiosity aroused, she plucked a gold-and-diamond brooch from it and walked over to the lamp.
Like unexpected claps of thunder, the echo of footfalls reverberated from the hallway and a key rattled in the lock. The door swung open with a creak.
Drat! There was no time to return the pin to its rightful place, for a man’s shadow cut across the rug and up the back of Emma’s emerald-green skirts. Pulse racing, she dropped the brooch into her cloak pocket, painfully pricking her skin as she did so. Then she whirled to face Paul Rousseau.
“What the devil?” Startled as he was, his voice held a faint trace of a French accent. “Who are you, chérie? What are you doing here? Not that I’m complaining . . .”
Emma lifted her determined chin. This elegantly attired man had a confidence about him that threatened to overpower her if she let it. Short of stature but long on mettle, she refused to allow him to stop her.
“Are you going to answer?” He appraised her with speculative interest, and crossed the room. “Sister dear.”
She stepped back and spoke quietly.
“Emma . . . Oliver? I recall Marian’s speaking of you. You’re her deceased husband’s cousin, right?”
As she responded in the affirmative, Paul relinquished his plans for Marian. Emma fascinated him, particularly due to the impropriety of this visit. Furthermore, he had seen her slip something into her pocket. What in this room was small and easy to steal? Following a hunch, his eyes traveled to the silver dish. Ah, ha! She had stolen his mother’s brooch. He was certain it would be returned to him. Paul Rousseau held on to his possessions, and this little thief, not Marian, was his quarry now.
He shortened the distance between them, his gaze raking her. “She neglected to tell me you’re blond and beautiful.”
Looking at him, Emma forced back a grin. Marian had also neglected mentioning Rousseau’s pleasing appearance; it had probably been an oversight. But a handsome face did not a gentleman make.
“Hasn’t your maman warned you of the perils of visiting a man in his hotel room?”
“I’m twenty years old. My mother doesn’t run my life.”
Emma realized her reputation, what little was left of it, was compromised, but the gravity of the situation warranted drastic measures.
Not only was this man an odious Rousseau, he had plundered and pillaged the high seas before associating himself with the Republic of Texas. Texas—ha! Uncle Rankin had told her about that place. It was peopled by nothing but cutthroats, liars, and misfits.
Though the local newspapers were generous with praise for him, and though Marian was fascinated by his supposedly heroic endeavors in the Texas Navy, Emma doubted Rousseau was a hero.
“I wanted to speak with you in private,” she said.
“Ah! Then you have my attention. We’re quite alone. And I always have time for my . . . sister.”
She opened her mouth to speak but closed it as he captured her hand, lifting it to his lips. Instead of kissing her fingers in the gallant manner, he turned her wrist and pressed his lips gently to her palm. Fighting the strange warmth his touch evoked, Emma looked downward and jerked her blood-dotted hand away. Oh no, the brooch! Be calm, she warned herself. But what was she going to do about that pin?
His eyes riveted to hers, and she hid the incriminating crimson evidence behind her back. “Now, about Mrs. Oliver—”
“Did she ask you to call on me? I’ll wager she didn’t.”
“Well, no, but I—”
His eyes boldly cruising up and down her body, he interrupted again. “I think it’s interesting you’re here at midnight to discuss your relative.”
Rather than incur Marian’s fury Emma had decided to visit the man in secret, and after the Oliver household had turned in for the night she had ventured from Magnolia Hall to accomplish her mission. “I, um, I thought it more prudent if we had privacy for this discussion.”
“Did you now? Privacy. You mentioned that a minute ago.” He rubbed his chin. “I’d say Marian doesn’t know you’re here.”
Emma refused to grant him the pleasure of an honest reply.
“I think you wanted to find out for yourself about the man who has Marian, shall we say, intrigued.”
“Marian’s intrigued with needlework.” Emma sniffed. “But that doesn’t mean I have an interest in her pastimes.”
In truth Emma had a hankering for needlework, but she planned to use her sewing skills on mending wounds. Her goal was to be a physician, but . . . She reminded herself not to be sidetracked by her own desires.
“No,” he said dryly, “I don’t imagine you find needle and thread interesting.”
She squared her shoulders. “My interest lies with Mrs. Oliver. For her sake, please take leave of her.”
“Be reasonable, Mr. Rousseau. You and I both know there’s bad blood between our families. Your courtship of her is destined for trouble.”
“Bad blood? I’ve come back to New Orleans prepared to put the past away. After all this time, surely your uncle bears no grudge against my family. But if he does, I pray to mend yesteryears’ fences.” His look was genuine, though he skirted the truth. “It’s time this matter was put to rest.”
Emma’s reservations eased—a bit. “Are you squiring Mrs. Oliver solely to redeem yourself with our family?”
“Not in the least.” Paul could say that with sincerity. He heard Emma sigh in relief. He wouldn’t tell her, or any other Oliver, that redemption was not his purpose. Not yet. Making Rankin Oliver pay, according to the letter of the law, and bringing down the house of Oliver was his goal.
“My uncle may take much convincing,” she said.
Paul cocked his head and furrowed his brows. “A busy man such as he must have matters other than a duel of days gone by to fill his mind.”
“Your father slandered his name and undermined his business ventures. Those misdeeds are difficult to forget.”
Paul forced himself not to grimace at those falsehoods. “Surely Rankin Oliver doesn’t blame me for the trouble between himself and my father. I am certain his time is occupied with more noble pursuits. A family is most time-consuming, and don’t his sugar-planting and cotton-factoring interests carry him far and wide?”
“I thought so. I heard he was in the Yucatán just last month, and now I’m told he’s on extended business in St. Martinsville.” He paused. “But then, I don’t suppose he bothers you with such details.”
Proud of the trust Uncle Rankin placed in her, Emma replied, “As a matter of fact he does.”
Paul drew a cheroot from a tabletop humidor, struck a lucifer, and took a contemplative draw of smoke. He now saw Emma in a whole new light. “I recall Marian speaking of the great love between you and your uncle.” He dropped his hand to his side. “Please go on. I’m interested in what you have to say.”
“I think not. We’ve gotten away from the subject, Mr. Rousseau. We were discussing Mrs. Oliver.”
He parted his lips. “I’d rather discuss you.”
Those lips might have been sculpted to perfection by Michelangelo, Emma decided before checking her errant thought. He wasn’t going to snare her in the same net as Marian! “I demand that you leave Mrs. Oliver alone.”
Waiting for his reply, Emma watched him with all the inquisitiveness he had accused her of. From his appearance she could understand why Marian was attracted to him. His hair, black as pitch, was trimmed in short curls that barely brushed the top of his collar. His amber eyes were turning ebony as he stared at her. His face was rather long, rather angular. A jagged scar along his right jaw marred his features. Or did it? His nose was a bit crooked, but, oh my, that only enhanced his appeal.
He strode toward the fireplace. Muscles strained the material of his silk shirt as he drew off his frock coat and tossed it across the back of a chair. His shoulders were broad, his waist slim, his hips narrow. One finger loosened his neck cloth, then unfastened the top button of his shirt. Black chest hair sprang from the V. Emma tried valiantly, unsuccessfully, not to smile as she wondered about the range of that fine down.
A smile grooved his cheeks. “Have you finished undressing me?”
“You flatter yourself.”
As if he delighted in her overt regard, he grinned and bent to light the fire in the hearth.
Emma touched a finger to her lips and closed her eyes. Except for the plates of male cadavers in her father’s medical books, she had never seen an unclothed man, and she mused over what Paul Rousseau looked like in the flesh. No doubt finer than those likenesses of shriveled dead men.
With that thought she tried to gather her wits. Rousseau was walking toward her now, the dancing flames behind him casting his physique in golden relief. Her heart missed a beat. But refusing to allow herself to be charmed, she took a step backward.
It was on the tip of Paul’s tongue to tell Emma there was nothing to worry about, insofar as Marian was concerned. But he didn’t. Why not let Emma dangle on
“Mr. Rousseau, I don’t want to see her hurt. As you probably know, my cousin William passed away three years ago. Marian is lost without him—she stayed in mourning too long. She’s quite . . .” Emma had started to say featherbrained, but had thought better of it. Poor Marian craved attention with a pitiable vengeance, and she hadn’t turned her yearnings in the proper direction. “She’s vulnerable and thinks she’s in lo—” Emma swallowed the last of the word. “I’m sure the feeling will pass if you’ll take your leave. Then she’ll accept attention from New Orleans gentlemen, and all will be well.”
“What a snob you are. You’re saying I’m not good enough for her. That’s for Marian to decide.” A muscle twitched in his jaw as if he held himself in control by the thinnest of threads. “Yes, she’s fond of me. Perhaps she loves me. She’s possessed of a warm rather than insulting nature.”
“I didn’t mean to malign you.” Emma certainly didn’t need to alienate him.
“If that’s an apology,” he said after a half-minute of silence, “I accept it.” The angry set of his features turned into a smile of superiority. “I’m sure Marian could have her pick of admirers, but don’t forget whose name is on her lips.” His tone became smooth and suggestive. “Once a woman’s tasted the wine of a real man, it’s difficult to be content with the sip of water a gentleman offers.”
“I’ll wager no one’s ever accused you of being arrogant!” she charged facetiously.
“Never? On occasion.” He was standing near . . . oh so near. Crooking a finger under her chin, he forced her to look up at him. His nail grazed her jaw, eliciting a shiver from her. “And what of you, chérie? Have you . . . savored wine?”
“I despise wine!” Unsettled by her lie and by him, Emma swatted his hand away. “You dare make an advance to me while you refuse to quit my cousin’s company!”