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Authors: Jennifer Blake

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Chapter Twenty

A
zinc tub shaped like a lidless coffin, one brought by steamboat downriver from Pennsylvania, was a prized possession of Reine’s mother. It had already been filled with tepid water when Reine entered the bedchamber used by her parents. That coolness was an excellent thing in the furnace heat of the waning afternoon. The bedchamber was stuffy and over warm, though not so hot as the rooms on the opposite side of the central hall, including that used by Christien, which lay on the southwest corner of the house.

That room would become their bridal chamber, where the two of them would spend the next three days in seclusion. It would surely be too hot for nightclothes. Well, or for much in the way of clothing during the day. A few more hours, and she and Christien would be expected to go inside and shut the door, closing out everyone and everything. They would lie together in the wide bed and what happened behind the filmy gauze of the mosquito
baire
would be no one’s business except their own.

A flush suffused her, one that had nothing to do with
the heat of the afternoon, nor of undressing before her mother and her maid and stepping into the cooling water in the tub. At least she was left alone while she bathed.

She had washed her hair in soft rainwater the day before and brushed it dry while sitting on the gallery in the morning sun. Now she soaped herself with fine-milled soap scented with lavender and roses, squeezing water over her arms and shoulders and down her back as she rinsed it away. Lying back in the tub, enjoying the coolness, she closed her eyes. It was the most peaceful moment she had known in days, possibly since that first morning when she saw Christien riding toward the house.

By degrees, she grew aware of the rumble of male voices. Christien and his friends must have gathered on the side gallery just outside the bedchamber, she realized. It wasn’t too surprising since that portion of the upper gallery was shaded. She was happy that he had such company, for the past few days had not been easy for him. Her mother had steadfastly refused to remain in the same room with him, her father had been less than his cordial self, and Paul had gone so far as to avoid his company. Her bridegroom appeared to disregard these slights, but she was sure he felt them. It was good that he could relax with those who accepted him without reserve.

Idly squeezing water over her drawn-up knee, she wondered if the gentlemen, particularly Christien, had any idea that she was just on the other side of the French doors, also what she was doing, what she was wearing. Or rather, not wearing.

Their voices turned serious after a few minutes. She caught a few words here and there that made her think they were discussing the war in Mexico. She hardly listened, being unable to grasp why it was necessary to invade that country. Her only concern was that the fighting might continue until Paul was old enough to go. Already, a number of his friends had slipped away to sign up at the big rallies in New Orleans. Some few had come back from the Rio Grande campaign bearing their war wounds like badges of manhood. Some would never return.

A lull came in the rumble of conversation. Into it, then, the Irish gentleman, Caid O’Neill, spoke in lazy, almost random comment. “I thought Vinot would be here. He is still to stand with you as best man?”

“I expect him at any time,” Christien answered without elaboration.

“I look forward to seeing him. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had the pleasure as he gets out so seldom.”

“This is a special occasion.”

Vinot was to be best man? A rash of goose bumps ran down Reine’s arms as she absorbed the news, heard the portent in Christien’s voice. She had nothing against the older sword master, but she could not be easy in her mind. Why him, when there were others who would excite far less speculation?

It was the custom for the bride’s nearest female relative to have the best man’s escort. Usually that was a sister or cousin, but Reine had promised that place to Marguerite. If Vinot was to act as Christien’s
attendant, then he would walk into the chapel with her daughter. What a mismatch it would be.

Slow anger gathered inside Reine as she considered further implications. Christien had deliberately kept this from her. He had known she would not care for his choice of best man, must have guessed her parents would object to having as a member of the wedding party the father of the young woman Theodore had wronged. It was like a slap in the face, an additional mark against any chance for happiness together.

Her thoughts scattered as she realized the men were speaking again.

“If he doesn’t appear, you know you may count on any one of us,” the conde said in his intriguing Spanish accent.

“For which you have my gratitude, though I don’t doubt he will be here.” Christien’s voice turned grim. “Too much has gone into arranging this experiment and it means too much for him to fail.”

Experiment? What experiment was this? Could Christien be speaking of their wedding? The very idea chilled Reine to the bone in spite of the evening heat.

“You’re sure you want to go through with it?”

That was Nicholas Pasquale speaking, she thought; she caught the hint of Italian in his voice. It appeared the other sword masters knew exactly what Christien intended. Was that proof his presence at River’s Edge was an affair of the Brotherhood as she had once imagined? Was she truly about to be married in an act of vengeance?

“I’ve never wanted anything more,” Christien said, his voice flat.

Reine surged to her feet in a sluicing cascade of water. Reaching for the towel laid ready, she whipped it around her. As the lap of water subsided in the tub, she realized the voices on the gallery had stopped abruptly. Absolute quiet reigned now from that quarter.

They knew someone had heard, or at least suspected it. What they could not know was who was in the bedchamber, who had been in the tub. She stood unmoving, waiting to see what they would do.

“Reine,
ma chère,”
her mother called out as she swept into the bedchamber without bothering to knock, “have you fallen asleep in the bath? I thought you would ring ages ago. If you are not to go naked to your groom, we must get you dressed at once.”

Outside on the gallery, there came a scraping of chairs. Booted footsteps retreated with varying degrees of haste. “Christien, Christien,” Gavin Blackford said, his voice lilting with risible humor as it faded toward the back of the house, “where is old Diogenes with his lamp when it’s required? Sacrifice is one thing, but no man claiming such a notion should be enthralled to the point of anguish by a bridal bath. What, oh, what, have you neglected to tell to us?”

What indeed, Reine thought with her lips set in a tight line. What indeed?

An hour later, Reine stood in front of the cheval mirror in her mother and father’s bedchamber. The skirt of her gown, with its graduated flounces, had been lifted and arranged around her until it stood out like a soft blue-and-pink cloud. Her veil of fine Valenciennes draped her shoulders in perfect folds while framing
her face with its dainty scallops. Her bouquet of small pink rosebuds tucked into a silver holder and backed with a fine lace handkerchief, both items presented by her groom in his
corbeille de noce
along with the gold hairpins in her hair and the lovely cameo necklace she wore, had been placed in her hands. She was ready, or as ready as she was likely to be this evening.

“You are so pale,
chère,”
her mother said in a fretful tone.

“All brides are pale,” dark-haired Ariadne Blackford, pale of complexion herself, said bracingly. “It’s the anticipation—though we will not say of what!”

“There, that has brought the roses,” Juliette Pasquale declared warmly as she peered over Reine’s shoulder. “Lina, have you any Spanish papers? She could use a little more color in her lips.”

“Are you suggesting I use such aids to nature?” Lina, the Condessa de Lérida, inquired with a sparkling look.

“I know you do,” Lisette O’Neill chimed in with great frankness. “We all do,
naturellement.
I believe I have a packet in my bag.” Tugging at the strings that held the top of the reticule on her arm, she drew out a small red sheet and presented it with a flourish.

Reine murmured her thanks and took the paper, moistening her lips before putting it between them. The results were an improvement, she thought, but then anything would have been. Her lips had been so bloodless they were almost blue. It was not the wedding night that concerned her, however. It was the reasons behind this empty excuse for a marriage.

She should call a halt here and now. No reason existed for her to go through with it. She need only speak the words and keep on saying them until everyone heeded her. She should shut herself up in her room until all the guests and relatives went away and left her alone. If Christien tried to persuade her, she need only refuse to speak to him. If he put them all out into the road, so what? It had happened to others before them. They would survive.

Oh, but could her mother survive the clattering tongues and pitying glances? Could she ever respect a daughter so lost to propriety that she fell into bed with a stranger before the wedding, and then refused to speak her marriage vows afterward?

What of the public pillory of whispers and sneers, the avid relishing of yet another scandal? Reine might have faced it for herself, but how could she inflict it on her parents or Marguerite?

Her father was past starting over, she knew, no matter how valiantly he might face the change. As for her mother, Reine could not support seeing her decline into greater frailty, was unable to bear it on her conscience. She must marry Christien.

With that final decision made, Reine lifted her chin, summoned a smile and pronounced herself ready. Moving from the bedchamber with her mother, Marguerite and the escort of swordsmen’s wives who had crowded around for the finishing touches of her toilette, she walked to the head of the stairs.

The others left her there while they trooped down to form the obligatory procession to the chapel. The
last to go was Marguerite, who caught her hand and pulled her down a little to whisper in her ear.

“You look beautiful,
Maman,”
she said. “Monsieur Christien will think so, too.”

“Thank you,
ma petite.”
Reine spoke against the lump in her throat as she hugged her daughter. Then she watched her go carefully down the stairs in her ankle-length gown and long, bright hair, watched until Marguerite blurred into what appeared to be the form of a small angel.

It was her turn to descend. She lifted her bouquet to her face, breathing the scent of roses, praying silently for composure, for courage, for faith. Holding them at her waist then, she squared her shoulders. She put out her right foot and began the long descent.

Christien moved from the salon, coming to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. Dressed in a gray frock coat of impeccable cut, worn with a black waistcoat embroidered in silver, darker gray trousers and black boots with a glassy polish, he took her breath away. His linen shirt, fresh from her needle, was snowy white and fit to perfection, and his cravat was of white silk shot with silver thread.

He had promised not to embarrass her with his choice of wedding raiment. He had kept that pledge.

One or more of his trips into New Orleans in these past days must have been for fittings with his tailor as well as to choose his
corbeille de noce
gifts for her. If she had not known he had other motives, other loyalties than to her, she would have been touched by the effort. She did know, so refused to be impressed by his
sartorial perfection or be made stupidly maudlin, refused to acknowledge the sting of tears behind her eyes.

Yet she could not but notice the exotic and sensual attraction he acquired from the contrast between the darkness of his skin and the pristine paleness of his linen. It made him look so foreign it was impossible to believe she had lain in his arms, had taken him inside her, had shuddered to the purest pleasure of his touch. Yes, and surely would again. Soon, so soon.

He held out his hand as she reached him. She put her fingers in his. For a single instant, she met his dark and somber eyes with their half-hidden glimmers of gold. She was transfixed, unable to look away, to move, to think what they must do next. His gaze searched hers, looking for…what? Some sign of whether she realized his perfidy and meant to renege? Let him wonder. It was little enough by way of retaliation.

He smiled and kissed her fingers, all loving urbanity, before placing them on his arm. Turning, he moved with her out the front door and down the steps. There he ceremoniously passed her hand to her father.

All occurred exactly as if should, yet it seemed a foretaste of his desertion.

The way to the chapel was lit by lanterns hanging from the great limbs of the live oaks, by pine-pitch torches that flared with orange-and-blue light, and by distant flashes of heat lightning. Reine and her father led the way, the hem of her skirt and petticoats whispering over the dusty grass. Following them was Christien
with her mother on his arm, and behind them came the tall, thin figure of Vinot, arrived at last, who smiled down at Marguerite as if charmed beyond measure. A handful of cousins followed—those who lived nearby and could not be slighted. After them walked the whole panoply of sword masters and their wives and children, and also the nursemaids and tutors assigned to watch over them. Bringing up the rear was Alonzo and those house servants who could be spared from last-minute preparation for the wedding supper. So trooping through the late-evening shadows they went, under the murmuring oaks, through pools of lantern light illuminating the pathway, past the torches whose acrid black smoke hung on the still evening air.

“You are all right,
ma chère?”
her father asked as the white walls of the plantation chapel came into view.

“Perfectly, Papa,” she answered, keeping her voice as even as possible. If she said no, said she didn’t want this marriage, she was sure he would support her. She could not force him to make that choice.

BOOK: Triumph in Arms
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