Authors: Jill Marie Landis
|Jill Marie Landis|
On the streets of New Orleans, a veiled woman approached Celine Winters and asked her to switch places. For Celine, it meant a chance to escape, a daydream come true. By simply exchanging cloaks, Celine and the mystery woman would exchange their lives--and fates. Celine would marry a man she had never met, live in a land she’d never seen, and find a destiny far greater than any daydream.
Jill Marie Landis
© 1996 by Jill Marie Landis
NEW ORLEANS 1816
t was late afternoon in the brick, market building as Celine Winters moved amid the other shoppers—Creole aristocrats, slaves and common folk like herself—crowded together in the compact stalls. She paused to gently palm and squeeze one of the last tomatoes of the season, found it too soft for her taste and carefully set it back atop the small pile that remained.
“Nothing today, Celine?”
Old Marcel, a familiar, gap-toothed vegetable vendor who reminded her very much of a gnome, winked up at her. His hands roamed over the tomatoes, restacking them by touch as he kept his roving eyes and his smile fixed on her.
“Not today, Marcel. I have all I need.” She touched the basket that dangled from her arm then glanced down to be certain. A bag of rice, French beans, sweet potatoes. A bottle of beer for Persa and salt fish for both of them. All together more than enough for two.
“Cabbage?” Marcel tried again.
Celine started to decline and then changed her mind. Cabbage would keep a while.
“Yes.” She nodded. “I think so.”
As Marcel picked out a fine head of cabbage with his knotted, dirt-stained hands, Celine paused to glance around the market. From one of the vendor’s carts near the pillars, the heady scent of coffee almost tempted her to linger a while longer, but it was time to get back and start the evening meal. If she kept Persa waiting too long, her guardian would worry.
“How is the old fortune-teller today? I don’t see much of her anymore.” Marcel asked as he wrapped the head of cabbage in thick paper and carefully set it in Celine’s basket.
“Her hip bothers her more every day. She doesn’t leave home very often now.” After Celine paid him in coin, Marcel surprised her with a bunch of violets.
“Lagniappe,” he said as he pressed them into her hand. Like the other merchants, Marcel often included a little “something extra” free of charge to favored customers. “You tell Persa that Marcel sends his regards, eh?”
,” she said with a smile. “See you tomorrow.”
With her basket swinging at her side she took a deep breath and headed through the Vieux Carre to the
briquete entre poteaux
, brick and post cottage near rue de Rampart, the only home she had known since she and Persa arrived in New Orleans fourteen years ago.
She strolled out of the long brick market structure and walked along rue de la Levée toward the open square known as the Place d’Armes. There was rain in the air and the slightest touch of fall that no one but a native would have noticed. Celine took a deep breath and smiled.
No matter what the season, she loved every facet of New Orleans. She took great pleasure in walking along the same streets where slaves and freemen mingled with haughty Creoles, newly arrived immigrants and the bold, brash Americans who had been flooding in since statehood. As she strolled along, she paused to admire the grace and charm of an elegantly dressed octoroon, the not-so-secret mistress of one of New Orleans’ wealthiest gentlemen.
Born in London, Celine spoke English, of course, and now French like a Creole. She liked to think of New Orleans as a fortunate orphan, like herself, for the city had been much loved by its Spanish, French and American guardians, just as she had been coddled and loved by Persa, the gypsy fortune-teller.
At the corner of Chartres and St. Ann, she glanced over St. Louis Cathedral while she waited for a passing cart to rattle by. Incense still tainted the air after afternoon services. Long shadows filled the muddy street. Careful to stay on the walkway to avoid the oozing quagmire, she passed beneath an iron-railed balcony suspended over a narrow wooden banquette. Water splashed in a courtyard fountain behind a rusting garden grille in the wall that fronted the street.
A carriage rumbled past, the driver pushing the horse at a gallop, far faster than the city laws allowed. Daydreaming as usual, lost in the sights and sounds around her, Celine almost failed to recognize Jean Perot, one of Persa’s younger, more frequent clients, hurrying along the opposite side of the street. He was nineteen, a year younger than she.
“Good afternoon, Jean,” she called out, drawing his attention.
She saw him pause and look startled to see her there on the sidewalk.
“I’m so glad I have run into you, Celine.” Tension unraveled his tone as he hurried toward her.
The Creole dandy’s dark gaze darted everywhere but failed to meet her eyes. Although the weather did not warrant it, his upper lip was slick with sweat. He was usually haughty, far too conceited for someone with the looks of a ferret. She had never really cared for Jean Perot, the spoiled only son of a well-known family, but he always had plenty of coin to spend when he sought Persa’s advice, so Celine made a habit of treating him with courtesy.
He paused before her, glanced over his shoulder and then said, “I just went to see Persa, but … she was not in the shop and I—”
“Are you certain? Did you go in? Did you call Out?” Unsettled and a bit alarmed, Celine started walking again. Jean quickly fell into step beside her.
“I went inside, but she wasn’t there. The man next door said he thought she went across the street for coffee, but I could not wait to find her.” He was watching her closely and then, as if he had just made up his mind about something he quickly added, “I went to Persa for advice, Celine, but perhaps you can help me. I’m willing to pay you handsomely.”
Jean dogged her steps as Celine paid him no heed and continued to hurry home. Persa rarely left the cottage now. Almost sixty, the fortune-teller had begun to limp so badly over the past two years that she could barely walk. Her eyesight was no longer what it once was either. Celine worried about her constantly.
The Durels, a young couple to whom Celine had once sold one of Persa’s love potions, strolled by arm in arm. A slave followed them carrying a lantern. When they stopped to cordially greet her and Jean both, Celine was forced to halt again. As briefly as she could without seeming rude, she asked after their health and that of their two children. Moments later, when the Durels finally bid them good evening, Celine hurried on, with Jean close beside her.
“I am willing to pay you double, even
the usual amount for your advice. Are you listening to me, Celine?” Perot stopped abruptly, blocking her path.
“Not really. I am concerned about where Persa might be.”
“She is probably gossiping over
There was a thread of undisguised desperation in his tone that gave her pause. She held her basket’s handle in both hands, dangling it in front of her, balancing the heavy load as she studied him carefully.
There was nothing alarming about his appearance. He was meticulously attired in a double breasted jacket, a tall beaver hat with a smartly curled brim and fitted trousers strapped beneath the arch of his short leather boots. His dark hair was carefully oiled and combed, his clothing perfectly pressed and impeccably clean. Aside from the beads of sweat on his upper lip, he was the picture of ease and composure. Still, something about him made her nervous.
“I’m sure that Persa is there by now. Come with me and we’ll find her.” To appease him further she quickly added, “You are one of her most valued clients, Jean.”
“Which is exactly why you should be willing to help me right now, Celine. We’re only a block from my apartment. You’ll be on your way in less than an hour.”
“But, you know I don’t have Persa’s talents. I rarely read fortunes …”
“Anything you can tell me will help.”
Persa had taught Celine early on that the gift of sight could be either a treasure or a curse. Whenever Celine opened herself up to another’s thoughts, she saw the past, not the future, and it was the rare client who wanted to be reminded of the past. But once in a great while, when Persa had been too ill to keep an appointment, she had asked Celine to do the reading and use what she gleaned from old memories to make a prediction for the future.
Celine stepped back. “Jean, really …”
He suddenly looked so distraught that she found herself having second thoughts. Jean had spent a small fortune consulting Persa over the past few months. Her guardian would be furious if she offended him.
As Jean hastily ran his fingers over his hair, smoothing it down even further, she noticed that his hand trembled. She had never had a reason to be afraid of him before, but this afternoon he seemed so agitated, so very unsettled, that his demeanor gave her cause for alarm. He reached into the pocket of his striped waistcoat and pulled out two gold pieces.
“Here. Please.” He thrust them at her.
She stared at the gold. So easily won. It was hard to believe anyone would pay so much for something accomplished with so little effort. Celine thought of her mother and what she had endured to keep them barely fed in London. By the time she was five years old, Celine had already known the meaning of the word
The image of Jane Winters’s face might have grown dim, but she would always vividly recall the moaning and panting, the squealing and thrashing, the sight of so many different men touching her mother in so many intimate ways.
The gold glittered in Jean’s palm. It was more money than Celine would see in a year of selling Persa’s potions. Before she could change her mind, she grabbed the coins and slipped them into her bodice. Returning home with a pocket full of coins would effectively cool Persa’s temper if she was a few minutes late.
“All right, Jean, since you insist. I will help you this once, but I can’t tarry.”
Although he had rushed her along the street in a hurry to get her to his apartment, once they finally arrived there, Jean insisted she sit and have chocolate while he quickly attended to some business downstairs. She guardedly agreed, but only after he assured her that he would return in a few moments.
Celine waited in the cozy sitting room, with its polished tabletops, thick carpets and plush upholstered furnishings. Within minutes of Jean’s departure, a house slave brought her a pot of chocolate and then disappeared.
Sipping hot cocoa, Celine passed the time trying to imagine what her life would be like were she mistress of a fine home like this one. Chances were remote that she would ever know. Without a dowry or an old family name to her credit it was unlikely anyone of significance would ever ask for her hand. She had no male relations to arrange a marriage for her, but she had long ago decided that was just as well, for she could not imagine what it would be like to marry a man she hardly knew and certainly did not love.
Lost in her thoughts, Celine suddenly realized that twilight had dulled to dusk. A steady rain had begun by the time she began to pace the upper sitting room of Jean Perot’s apartment. She could not wait any longer.
She put down her empty cup and walked to the long, narrow French doors. Staring into the walled garden below, she wondered what was keeping him. Lamplight reflected on paving stones slick with rain. More than impatient with Jean, she decided to leave at once, before the gentle mist became a downpour.
As she bent to collect the basket of produce she had left near the door, Jean rushed in, even more frantic than before. Yet for one so flustered, his lips were set in a firm, determined line. His hat was gone. His hair no longer in place, it stuck out around his head at odd angles. The wide padded shoulders of his coat were damp, his shirtfront wrinkled.
“I have to leave, Jean.” Celine announced firmly.
The reaction was so fierce, so immediate, that she nearly dropped the basket. Recovering quickly, she was instantly thankful she was armed with the small knife she carried in a sheath tied to her thigh. She was unable to mask her annoyance and a rapid tattoo echoed off the toe of her right shoe as she tapped it against the floorboards.
“Get out of my way, Jean.” She spoke softly, her hand creeping along her outer thigh. “I swear I’ll call for help.”
“Please, Celine. I’m sorry to have taken so long. I’m ready now. You must stay. Please.”
She put her basket down beside the door once again.
Jean led her back to the settee beside the small table that held the empty Limoges cup and matching chocolate pot. He waited until she sat down and then joined her.
“You have no crystal,” he said, looking startled.
Celine licked her lips and shifted her skirt.
“I don’t need one.” She didn’t relish touching him, but in order to delve into his mind, she had to make some physical contact.
“Give me your hand,” she said.
When he touched her, it was all she could do to keep from springing from the settee and racing for the door. She thought of the coins and forced herself to remain still, to close her eyes and let herself fall into a trance. She felt the familiar dizziness and nausea that always preceded a vision. She let herself go, slipped in further and became weak and light-headed. Her mouth went dry.
“What do you see? Tell me …”
At first there was only darkness. When she finally became lost in his memory, she saw images as if through his eyes. She eased in further and could not speak.
The shop. Her cottage. Shelves lined with vials. Potions. Persa’s crystal ball. Faded velvet. Persa. Backing up. Backing away. A table crashes. Glass breaks. Horror in Persa’s eyes. Her mouth wide and screaming. Screaming until it is too late. Too late. Persa’s lips all blue. Choking. Gasping
Overwhelming rage. Hatred. Panic. Desperation
Celine’s mind shut down as she fought for air and blocked the visions as Persa had taught her. The malevolent aura surrounding Jean Perot was too much for her. Her eyes flew open and she focused on him, but the depth of emotion she had experienced—
emotions—still frightened her deeply. She buried her face in her hands.
Too late she realized her reaction would give away what she had seen.
“What is it?” Jean’s voice became low and calm as death itself.
She dropped her hands to her lap and shook her head, but the simple motion did not clear her mind of what she had just seen and felt.