The Seven Sapphires of Mardi Gras
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by Vickie Britton
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Louise Moreland journeys to her mother's beloved south, planning to restore Evangeline, the mansion she has inherited. But instead of a lavish plantation, she discovers a charred ruin. And living within the burnt-out shell is Nicholas Dereux, a man they call "mad Nicholas." Tormented by a terrible secret, it is rumored he waits for a dead wife--one he may have murdered--to return on Mardi Gras night. Historical Romantic Suspense by Vickie Britton; originally published by Zebra
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1991
eBookwise Release Date: March 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [466 KB]
Reading time: 303-424 min.
November 1, 1880
The steamer I had boarded in St. Louis was ending its two-day course in New Orleans. Tense with excitement, I leaned against the railing, watching the glistening crescent of land slowly take form. The churning spray from the huge paddlewheel stirred yellow water to the color of warm molasses as the S.S. Josephine prepared to dock.
The wharf was teeming with life. Everywhere were flat-bedded carts pulling loads of cotton. Sugar hogsheads, sacks of coffee, cotton bales, and white-powdered bags of flour were piled high on the levee, awaiting transport. Far in the distance, I could see heavy-muscled Negro men unloading crates of bananas from a cargo-laden ship.
The din of brassy music came to me from above the low-throated ship's whistle. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the sight of acrobats and jugglers, a monkey dancing merrily at the end of his chain. "Why, look! A street carnival!" My voice betrayed my enthusiasm as I turned to the spry, elderly lady in a huge flowered hat who had befriended me during the last leg of my voyage.
"It's All Saint's Day," Mrs. Harrington replied, undaunted by the lively music and bright displays of winter flowers at the far end of the wharf. "A time when proper religious folk remember their dead." She clucked her lips in slight disapproval. "But there are always those among us who find any occasion an excuse to make merry."
A time to remember the dead. I felt a slight tug at my heart as I glanced down at the square-cut amethyst brooch glimmering at my breast. My mother's pin. I had thought it fitting that I should wear it on my arrival to the land of her birth. But every time my eyes caught the soft purple shimmer of light against my dark serge travel dress, my heart was filled with a heavy, oppressive sadness that threatened to bring tears to my eyes.
The ship was unloading, I followed Mrs. Harrington's hat, tall above the steady stream of passengers anxious to reach the shore. Upon the crowded wharf, men embraced young women, children hugged aunts, sisters, and cousins. Everyone, it seemed, was meeting someone. Everyone except me.
Almost the moment I stepped onto the wharf, I noticed the brown-haired man. He was standing a little aside from the others who impatiently crowded about the mouth of the steamer. Though people still trickled from the boat, I saw upon his face a growing anxiousness, as if he were afraid he had missed the person he had come to meet. The idea crossed my mind that it was a woman he was expecting, either a wife or sweetheart, for he kept adjusting the lapel of his finely cut suit coat. Beneath the jacket, I noticed, was a cravat of violet-colored silk.
A rogue! That was what Mrs. Harrington, my self-appointed guardian, would instantly label him. One of the "silver-tongued gamblers" who she swore haunted the ports of the big cities, preying upon young women. Still, I could not deny that he was an attractive man with his deep-brown hair and chiseled features. His nose was perhaps a shade too long, and he sported the slightest hint of a mustache.
I lagged a few paces behind Mrs. Harrington and her well-intentioned warnings. As I passed by the man, I saw something flicker in his tawny-gold eyes. A sudden awareness, almost a spark of recognition, seemed to pass between us.
Our gaze met and I felt a slow flush spread across my cheekbones as a smile flickered softly across his lips. He nodded slightly to me, his look becoming all at once too familiar, almost intimate. Averting my eyes, I hurried quickly past.
Mrs. Harrington, now reunited with her husband, was waiting for me on the wharf, her small eyes darting about like an old hen searching for a lost chick. Like it or not, once again, I was being swept under her protective wing.
"Aren't you being met?" she demanded, her keen blue eyes expressing concern.
"I'm not staying in New Orleans," I explained. "I'm to take the Swamp Prince on to Iberville in two hours. My mother's brother, Edward, will meet me there."
"Great Heavens Above, not the Swamp Prince!" Again, she made the clucking sound I had grown familiar with over the long stretch of river miles. "Have you seen that rotting hulk? Why, it's little more than an engine floating on a raft."
She took my arm firmly, her balding little husband trailing amiably behind, to the place where the Swamp Prince was docked. I must admit my heart fell at the sight of the ugly duckling of a boat, which looked as if it might at any moment spring a leak and sink straight into the muddy water.
But my first fear was not for my life but my earthly possessions. "I've arranged for the transport of my luggage. Do you think it will be safe?"
Mrs. Harrington nodded reassuringly. The captain of the Swamp Prince has many vices, including drink, which is why his vessel looks so poorly, but theft is fortunately not one of them. Your things will be as safe in his cargo hold as if they were in a bank." She eyed me with heartfelt concern. "It's you, my dear, who I'm worried about. The waterfront is no place for a young lady alone. Ernest and I will wait with you until it is time for you to board."
"Oh, no! I couldn't impose!" I cast a hopeful glance at Mr. Harrington, but he offered no protest. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, I had spent the better part of the voyage dreaming about how I would spend these two precious hours alone in New Orleans.
"Michael and Eva are expecting us at two, dear," Mrs. Harrington's husband gently reminded, and I wondered if I only imagined the twinkle in his eye as he smiled at me.
"Well, you do seem a sensible girl" Mrs. Harrington allowed reluctantly. "Just promise me that you'll board the boat early, and not be tempted to wander about." She inclined one huge blue flower toward the carnival at the wharfs end. "A dreadful hodgepodge like this is bound to be thick with thieves and pickpockets."
"I'll be careful. And thank you. You've been so kind." Impulsively, I gave her a hug of farewell. With a sense of combined reluctance and relief, I watched her take Ernest's arm and disappear into the crowd.
Totally alone, I felt a sudden sense of exhilaration, as if adventure were tugging at my very sleeve. Perhaps it was because, in all my eighteen years, I had never been so unguarded, so blissfully unchaperoned. My eyes caught sight of the carnival--the sunburst of bright winter flowers, the acrobats, the darling monkey chattering at the end of his leash. And suddenly I was drawn toward the gaiety, the lively music, the Gypsy sense of abandon which had for so long been missing from my life.
Once again, my mother's brooch caught the light, and once more I felt that terrible, uncompromising sadness begin to take hold of me. I struggled firmly against a haunting sense of guilt for feeling so alive, almost carefree. If only Mother were here with me--Quickly, I blinked back tears. It had been a mistake to wear the pin. Mother would not want me to see the city she had loved so much through eyes blurred with tears.
I slowed to unfasten the delicate pin from my shirtwaist, then slipped it into the tiny beaded clasp bag upon my arm. Someday the brooch would be a source of joy to me, I was sure, a sentimental keepsake. But now the pain of my loss was still too keen to bear. I felt much better once the pin was out of sight.
I joined the steady stream of people upon the walk, pausing to sniff freshly cut bouquets of lilies and roses. Though the air was crisp rather than cool, women displayed winter ensembles of heavy silks and fine velvets. The men also wore fashionable frock coats and boots of soft leather.
I slowed to admire a huge bouquet of pink and white winter roses. "Lovely, aren't they?" I turned, surprised at the sound of a voice at my very elbow. I first noticed the finely cut jacket, the purple cravat. Tawny-gold eyes met mine and the beginnings of a smile flickered beneath the thin mustache. It was the man who had been waiting by the steamer.
"Yes. It's hard to imagine a place where flowers grow all year long," I replied, slightly flustered by his attention.
"You're from St. Louis?" asked the stranger, with just a hint of a French accent. "I saw you come off the steamer." He chose a pale-pink flower from the fragrant bouquet. "Every newcomer to our city should be welcomed with a rose," he insisted, handing it to me with a flourish. "Especially a newcomer as pretty as you. Please, do tell me your name."
I hesitated a moment. Surely, the stranger was being too bold. "Louise. Louise Moreland."
"Then welcome to New Orleans, Miss Moreland."
I lowered my eyes so that he would not see that I was blushing. "Why, thank you " I replied.
He began to move away. "Keep the rose with you," he said in parting. "It will bring you good fortune!"
I watched beneath my lashes until the stranger disappeared into the crowd. Rose in hand, I began to wander about the edge of the carnival, watching the acrobats juggle apples, oranges, even bananas in the bright fall air. I paused for a moment to watch the monkey who capered enchantingly to the tinkle of the organgrinder's music.
My mind still part way upon the stranger, I wandered deeper into the milling throng. At the heart of the carnival, a Negro band was playing "Dixie." The spirited tune made me think momentarily about the war. I had heard so much about Reconstruction that I half expected to find the city still in shambles. Gazing at the festivity about me, I saw that this was not so. For all the scars it had left upon New Orleans, I thought to myself, the war between the North and South might never have been.
The odd sensation that I was being observed made the hair upon the back of my neck prickle. I turned slightly, expecting, almost hoping, to see once more the man who had given me the flower. But no familiar face was in sight. Only a crowd full of strangers.
The closer I came to the band, the denser the mass of bodies became. With a startled glance, I saw that I had left the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen who strolled the walkway far behind. A much rougher crowd--sailors and burly deckhands--pressed and strained tightly to get closer to the wooden platform where the musicians played. These were the working people of New Orleans, and the poor--the very poor.
Ragged black children pushed though the crowd, begging or selling small trinkets. A war veteran with a missing leg kept time to the music with his crutch. Colored women, their tired faces lined and worn beneath bright tignons, maneuvered baskets through the crowd, crying "calas, hot calas", and "pralines, fresh and good. Everywhere I could sense loss and severe poverty. I realized sadly that I had been mistaken. The war had taken its toll. Even now, fifteen years later, it was apparent in the haunted eyes of the poor.
I found it difficult to move or even breathe without bumping into another tightly wedged body. I felt a slight jolt at my right elbow as I struggled to move away from the platform. "Pardon!" an anonymous voice cried out. A tall, gray-eyed man with a badly scarred face quickly put a hand on my arm to steady me.
"Thank you" The sight of those wicked scars inspired pity. A vision of the gray-eyed man's ruined face continued to haunt me as I worked my way through the crowd.
The strange feeling that I was being watched came to me again with such intensity that I glanced over my shoulder from time to time. The compelling, well-dressed man who had given me the rose came immediately to mind. I thought I caught a vague glimpse of him, a flash of mustache and violet cravat, just behind me in the crowd.
The stranger whom I had inadvertently labeled "the gambler" was following me! I couldn't help but be slightly flattered by his interest. Though my first impression of him had been questionable, in this sea of nameless faces, I now welcomed the sight of him as if he were an old friend.
Hopefully, I turned back to where the stranger had last been, lifting my eyes, expecting to see his pleasant, interested smile. Instead, a hostile face, the likes of which I had never seen before, glared at me through a gap in the crowd.
In place of the stranger stood a tall Negro man with gaunt features and hypnotic black eyes. The flowing African robes of purple and white wrapped about his bony frame made him look strange and sinister, like some malevolent voodoo priest. When I moved away, those deep, burning eyes moved with me.
My legs felt weak and shaky as I continued to make my way through the maze of hands, faces, and voices. I felt uneasy rather than adventurous now, half sorry that I hadn't heeded Mrs. Harrington's advice and stayed near the boats. Even the dancing monkey now seemed ominous, like a wizened old man in his faded yellow suit. He seemed to be baring his little teeth and chattering some dire warning at me. I stepped back, bumping into still another body. Startled, I felt a tug at my sleeve. A bold-eyed beggar held his hand out for a coin.
I pushed my way to the edge of the crowd, and began to hurry in the direction of the boats. Once I had room to breathe again, the panic started to subside. I glanced back fearfully, but the voodoo man, or whoever he had been, was gone. Perhaps I had only imagined his frightening stare. Feeling much safer now that the Swamp Prince was in sight, I started for it, intending to board.
Suddenly, a hand touched my arm. I spun around, startled. But it was only one of the street hawkers. "Please, lady?" A pretty, light-skinned colored girl with a baby strapped to her back held out a basket of candy.
"Pralines, fresh and good, m'amoiselle."
I started to turn away. "The baby, she hungry." I glanced back toward her. The pleading eyes filled me with compassion; she looked so young, and so burdened. Though the bulk of my money was hidden away in my trunk, I carried a few spare coins in my purse. And Uncle Edward's young daughter would surely welcome a gift of fresh pralines from the city.
Even before I reached for my purse, I sensed that something was wrong and I felt the lightness of my shoulder. My groping fingers searching for the straps closed around thin air. My beaded bag was gone!
"Ohh--" A cry of alarm escaped my lips. My purse--gone! I turned and looked back into the crowd with growing alarm.
Stolen--or had I simply laid it down somewhere? In either event, it was lost, and there was no time to search. It was almost time for the boat to depart.
My heart already mourning the lost brooch, I moved away from the disappointed praline vendor. There would be no candy now. I was as penniless as one of the beggars. I took a few more steps toward the Swamp Prince when an even more terrible thought made me stop in my tracks. I had not only lost the precious brooch and my spare change--I had also lost my ticket on to Iberville! I was stranded here in New Orleans!
What a fool I had been! Oh, why hadn't I listened to Mrs. Harrington? I stood alone, panic-stricken, penniless, and bewildered. People were beginning to board the leaky little Swamp Prince. All sense of adventure drained away, leaving me numb and frightened as I clutched the wilting rose. What was I going to do?
"Mademoiselle." The vaguely familiar voice with its hint of a French accent made me turn and look up.
"Excuse me, ma chere, but you seem upset." Surprise then relief filled me at the sight of the brown-haired man! His tawny eyes were lazily curious, questioning. "Is something wrong?"
I felt as if I had been drowning at sea. But now I had been suddenly tossed a life preserver. Surely he would help me! "My purse! It's either been lost or stolen."
He voiced his sympathy. "Then I shall help you look for it, though I doubt that it will do much good. Carnival crowds often attract the worst sort, I'm afraid. Was there anything of value?"
I started to explain about the brooch, then changed my mind. After all, what good would it do? "A small amount of change. But my ticket was in there." I tried to keep my voice from quivering. "And my boat leaves in ten minutes' time." Near tears, I added, "My--my luggage is already aboard."
"Where are you bound?"
He gestured toward the small, dilapidated packet. "The Swamp Prince?
The thin mustache flickered above a white-toothed smile as he took my arm. "Then do not fear. It is no luxury boat, the Swamp Prince. The fare is but a few coins. I'll get you safely aboard."
"Oh, I couldn't let you pay for my ticket--I don't want to be indebted."
"You must!" he insisted.
He was right--what choice did I have? I lowered my eyes. "You are so kind. How can I ever thank you?" I imagined myself still wandering the docks as evening approached. I remembered the rough sailors, the scarred face, the menacing eyes of the voodoo man watching me through the crowd, and suppressed a little shiver.
"Someday I'll make my way to Iberville. And then I'll come calling," the stranger announced boldly, studying my hazel eyes and slightly disheveled chestnut hair with obvious approval.
Again, I felt color rise to my cheeks. "I don't even know your name."
The tawny-gold eyes held mine fast. "I am Ian. Ian Winters."
"Then thank you, Ian Winters" I said.
"Will you be staying in Iberville long?" he asked as we moved toward the boat.
''Yes. I've relatives there, waiting for me. Edward Dereux and his family. I'm so anxious to meet them."
I thought I saw a flash of recognition in his eyes, one that he kept carefully concealed. "Wait here--I'll see to your ticket."
He came back a few moments later. "Though I hate to let you go, I think you had better board now," he advised as the steamship blew its throaty warning.
Once again I tried to thank him. Suddenly he took my hand, tossing the wilted rose into the water. "Remember, I'll come calling," he promised. "And I'll bring you a fresh rose. So let's not say good-bye, but au revoir."
I agreed, knowing full well that I would probably never see the charming Ian Winters again. With a last word of thanks,I hurried to board.
The little Swamp Prince was a parody of the luxurious Josephine on which I had made my journey to New Orleans. No bronze chandeliers, no Brussels carpet here. The boiler rattled and the single deck which held cargo and passengers alike smelled of oil. There seemed to be very few passengers. I hurried up to the railing so that I could wave to Mr. Winters.
For some reason I had expected him to wait and see me off, but he was nowhere in sight. I felt slightly puzzled, even a little disappointed.
As I stood watching the few last-minute passengers hurry to board, a strange feeling grew in the pit of my stomach. I missed my mother's brooch. Whether it was a genuine stone or not, I had no way of knowing. But it had been my mother's favorite jewel, and that made it precious to me. And now it was lost forever!
The nagging thought came to me that it was my own fault for taking the brooch off and placing it in my purse. But how could I have known that it would be misplaced--or stolen?
I thought back to the confusion of the crowd--the children, the beggars, the scarred man who had jostled my arm. Any one of them could have taken my purse. The idea of some pickpocket coming close enough to me to cut the strap of my bag and slip it off my arm gave me a disarming sense of insecurity. I was so grateful to Ian Winters!
The way he had appeared almost the moment I discovered my loss was certainly a coincidence. I frowned, remembering how I had first noticed him near the steamboat. Again, I found myself wondering what he had been doing there. The person he had been waiting for had never come!
Later, on the way to the carnival, had he been purposely following me? He might have seen me take off the brooch and put it in my purse. I remembered how he had brushed close by me at the flower stand when he gave me the rose. Could he have cut the strap and slipped the beaded bag from my arm then?
I recalled my very first impression of Ian Winters. A gambler, my instincts had warned. Despite his helpfulness, his fashionable clothing, and charming manners, there was something about Ian Winters that I just didn't trust.
I checked my thoughts, feeling suddenly ashamed of myself. Here I was, entertaining the possibility that Ian Winters had stolen my purse. The same Ian Winters who had bought me a second boat ticket, not to mention the lovely rose. It seemed ungracious, to say the least. If not for him, I might still be stranded in New Orleans.
Once more, I thought of the unsavory crowd, the frightening voodoo man. The way he had looked at me through the crowd still sent shivers of fear racing up and down my spine. It was as if somehow, in some uncanny way, he had recognized me. But that was impossible!
Something compelled me to glance down below. Suddenly I saw him again! As if my thoughts had made him materialize, the voodoo man now stood upon the dock, close to where Ian Winters had been.
His skin was dark and rich, the color of black coffee. The high cheekbones, the shining baldness of his well-formed head gave him the look of a carved mahogany statue. The wind whipped at the voluminous robes, making them flutter against his bony frame. A chill crept deep into my bones as he raised his eyes and looked up at me. It seemed a ghastly smile of recognition lit his face. I tried to move, but my frozen limbs resisted; it was as if he had me under the power of some evil spell. I could only stand motionless, my aching fingers stiff upon the railing as the voodoo man stepped forward to join the other passengers. He was boarding the Swamp Prince.