Authors: Lisa Kleypas
To my father, Lloyd Kleypas,
For always believing in me,
and encouraging me to do my best…
for being someone I can
always trust and count on…
and for making me feel strong
even when I am leaning on you.
I am so proud to be your daughter,
With love always,
he room was filled with the sound of fists pounding flesh. Lysette huddled in a ball with her arms covering her head, while smothered cries were torn from her raw throat. Her rebellion had been crushed until all that remained was the will to survive her stepfather’s assault.
Gaspard Medart was a short but powerfully built man, with a bullish strength that was often used to compensate for his lack of intelligence. When he was satisfied that Lysette would offer no further resistance, he straightened with an angry grunt and wiped his bloody fists on his waistcoat.
It took a full minute for Lysette to realize Gaspard was finished. Cautiously she unwrapped her arms from around her head and turned her face to the side. He was standing above her, his hands still
clenched. She swallowed, tasting blood, and pushed herself up to a sitting position.
“Now you have learned the price of challenging me,” Gaspard muttered. “And from now on, each time you give me so much as an impertinent glance, I’ll repay it with
.” He held his clenched hand in front of her face. “Do you understand?”
.” Lysette’s eyes closed.
Let it be over
, she thought feverishly.
Let it be over
…. She would say or do anything just to make him go away.
She was vaguely aware of Gaspard’s snort of contempt as he left the room. Her head swam as she crawled to her bed and pulled herself to a standing position. She raised a hand to her bruised jaw, testing it gingerly. A salty taste filled her mouth, and she spat thickly. The door creaked, and she glanced toward it warily, fearing that her stepfather had returned. However, it was her aunt Delphine, who had cowered in another room during the worst of Gaspard’s rage.
Delphine was referred to by everyone as
, one of that category of luckless spinsters who had not caught a husband in her earlier years and therefore was relegated to living on the uncertain charity of reluctant relatives. Her plump face was creased with concern and exasperation as she stared at Lysette’s battered face.
“You think I deserve to be punished,” Lysette said hoarsely. “I know you do. After all, Gaspard is the head of the house…the only man. His decisions are to be accepted without question. Isn’t that right?”
“It is fortunate that he did not do worse,” Delphine said, managing to sound both pitying and self-righteous. “I did not believe you would take it so far.” She approached Lysette and took hold of her arm. “Let me help you—”
“Go away,” Lysette muttered, shaking off the plump hand. “I don’t need your help now. I needed it ten minutes ago, when Gaspard was beating me.”
“You must accept your fate and not be spiteful,” Delphine said. “Perhaps it will not be as terrible as you anticipate, being the wife of Etienne Sagesse.”
Lysette’s breath hissed though her teeth as she climbed painfully onto the bed. “Delphine, you don’t believe that. Sagesse is a mean, self-indulgent pig, and no one with any wits would dispute that.”
Le Bon Dieu
has decided for you, and if it is His will that you be the wife of such a man…” Delphine shrugged.
“But it wasn’t God who decided.” Lysette glared at the empty doorway. “It was Gaspard.” In the past two years, he had gone through every cent of the money her late father had left them. To replenish his accounts and restore his credit, Gaspard had arranged a marriage between Lysette’s older sister Jacqueline and a wealthy old man three times her age. Now it was Lysette’s turn to be sold to the highest bidder. She had thought that Gaspard could not possibly find a worse husband for her than he had for Jacqueline, but somehow he had outdone himself.
Lysette’s husband-to-be was a planter from New Orleans named Etienne Sagesse. He had justified
her worst fears during their one encounter, behaving in a condescending and crude manner, even going so far as to grope the front of her gown in a drunken attempt to feel her breasts. Gaspard had seemed amused, proclaiming that the disgusting creature was merely full of masculine spirit.
“Lysette?” Delphine hovered over her, annoying her beyond reason. “Perhaps some cool water to bathe your—”
“Don’t touch me.” Lysette turned her face away. “If you want to be of use, then send for my sister.” The thought of Jacqueline filled her with a tremendous longing for comfort.
“But her husband may not give her permission—”
“Tell her,” Lysette insisted, lowering her head to the brocaded counterpane. “Tell Jacqueline that I need her.”
There was an unnatural silence after Delphine left the room. Licking at her swollen, cracked lips, Lysette closed her eyes and tried to make plans. Gaspard’s abuse had only intensified her determination to find her way out of the nightmare she was in.
Despite the pain of her bruises, Lysette dozed until the afternoon sun had faded and the room was dark with evening shadows. When she awakened, she found her sister at her bedside.
“Jacqueline,” she whispered, her lips pulling into a crooked, aching smile.
Once, Jacqueline might have wept over Lysette’s pain and held her close to comfort her. But the Jacqueline of the past had been replaced by a brittle,
unnaturally self-contained woman. Jacqueline had always been the prettier of the two sisters, her auburn hair smooth whereas Lysette’s was frizzy, her skin pale and perfect as opposed to Lysette’s flurry of amber freckles. However, Lysette had never been jealous of her older sister, as Jacqueline had always been maternal and loving to her. More so, in fact, than their own mother, Jeanne.
Jacqueline rested a slim, perfumed hand on the counterpane. Her hair was fashionably arranged and her face carefully powdered, but no artifice would hide the fact that she had aged greatly since her marriage.
“Jacqueline…” Lysette’s voice cracked.
Her sister’s face was taut but composed. “Has it finally come to this? I’ve always feared you would push Gaspard too far. I’ve warned you not to defy him.”
Lysette unburdened herself eagerly. “He wants me to marry a planter from New Orleans…a man I
“Yes, Etienne Sagesse,” came the flat reply. “I knew about it even before Sagesse arrived in Natchez.”
“You knew?” Lysette frowned in bewilderment. “Why didn’t you warn me about what Gaspard was planning?”
“From what I’ve heard, it’s not a bad match. If that is what Gaspard wants, then do it. At least you’ll be free of him.”
“No, you don’t understand what this man is like, Jacqueline—”
“I’m certain that Sagesse is no different from any other man,” Jacqueline said tonelessly. “Marriage is not so very difficult, Lysette—not compared to this. You’ll have your own house to manage, and you won’t have to wait on Maman hand and foot. And after you bear a child or two, your husband won’t visit your bed as often.”
“And I am supposed to be content with
for the rest of my life?” Lysette’s throat tightened unbearably.
Jacqueline sighed. “I’m sorry if you find me poor comfort. But I think you need the truth more than platitudes.” She leaned over to touch Lysette’s sore shoulder. Lysette winced in discomfort.
Jacqueline’s lips thinned. “From now on I hope you’ll be wise enough to hold your tongue around Gaspard. Can you try to give at least a pretense of obedience?”
“Yes,” Lysette said grudgingly.
“I am going to see Maman now. How has she been this week?”
“Worse than usual. The doctor said…” Lysette hesitated, her gaze fixed on the swath of patterned damask hanging over the headboard. Like the other furnishings in the house, it was frayed and grimy with age. “By now Maman couldn’t get out of bed if she wanted to,” she said dully. “The past years of playing invalid and never leaving her room have weakened her. If it weren’t for Gaspard, she would be perfectly healthy. But every time he begins to shout, she takes another dose of tonic, closes the
curtains, and sleeps for two days. Why did she marry him?”
Jacqueline shook her head thoughtfully. “A woman has to make the best of what she is offered. By the time Papa died, Maman’s youth was gone, and there were few suitors offering for her. I suppose Gaspard seemed the most promising match.”
“She could have chosen to live alone.”
“Even a bad husband is better than living alone.” Jacqueline stood and straightened her skirts. “I’ll go to Maman now. Is she aware of what happened between you and Gaspard?”
Lysette smiled bitterly, thinking of the commotion they had raised. “I don’t see how she could have avoided it.”
“Then she is upset, I’m certain. Well, perhaps, with both of us gone, there will be more peace around here. I hope so, for Maman’s sake.”
As Jacqueline left, Lysette stared after her older sister and turned to her side. It even hurt to breathe. “Somehow,” she muttered wryly, “I was expecting a bit more sympathy.”
Closing her eyes, she began to plan feverishly. She would
become Etienne Sagesse’s bride…no matter what she had to do to avoid it.
hilippe and Justin Vallerand wandered through the woods and down to the bayou, finding their way around mud holes, pines, and sycamore trees. The boys were tall for their age, lanky and thin, not yet having attained their father’s heavily muscled build.
Their features were stamped with the inborn arrogance of all the Vallerands. Heavy black hair fell over their foreheads in untidy waves, and their blue eyes were framed with long dark lashes. Strangers were never able to tell them apart, but inwardly they were as different as it was possible for two boys to be. Philippe was gentle, compassionate, someone who followed rules even when he didn’t fully understand the reasoning behind them. Justin, on the other hand, was ruthless, resentful of authority, and proud of it.
“What are we going to do?” Philippe asked. “Should we take the pirogue and look for pirates downriver?”
Justin gave a scornful laugh. “You can do as you like.
plan to visit Madeleine today.”
Madeleine Scipion was the pretty black-haired daughter of a town merchant. Lately she had displayed more than a casual interest in Justin, although she was aware that Philippe was smitten with her. The girl seemed to delight in pitting one brother against the other.
Philippe’s sensitive face revealed his envy. “Are you in love with her?”
Justin grinned and spat. “Love? Who cares about that? Did I tell you what Madeleine let me do to her the last time I saw her?”
“What?” Philippe demanded with rising jealousy.
Their eyes locked. Suddenly Justin cuffed him on the side of the head and laughed, fleeing through the trees as Philippe gave chase. “I’ll make you tell me!” Philippe scooped up a glob of mud and threw it at Justin’s back. “I’ll make you—”
They both stopped short as they saw a movement near the pirogue. A small boy dressed in ragged clothes and a floppy hat was fumbling with the craft. The tethering rope dropped from his hands as he realized he had been found out. Quickly he picked up a knotted bundle of cloth and fled.
“He’s trying to steal it!” Justin said, and the twins ran after the vanishing thief with warlike yells, their quarrel with each other discarded.
“Head him off!” Justin ordered. Philippe swerved to the left, disappearing behind a cluster of cypress trees that trailed their moss down to the soft, muddy brown water. Within minutes he succeeded in cutting the boy off, coming face-to-face with him just beyond the cypress grove.
Seeing the boy’s violent trembling, Philippe grinned triumphantly, drawing a forearm across his sweaty brow. “You’ll be sorry you ever thought of touching our pirogue,” he panted, advancing on his prey.
Breathing heavily, the thief turned in the opposite direction and ran into Justin, who caught him with one arm and held him dangling sideways. The boy dropped his bundle and gave a high-pitched scream, which caused the twins to laugh.
“Philippe!” Justin cried, fending off the boy’s feeble blows. “Look what I’ve caught! A little
with no respect for others’ property! What should we do with him?”
Philippe regarded the hapless thief with the censuring stare of a judge. “You!” he barked, swaggering before the wriggling imp. “What’s your name?”
“Let go of me! I’ve done nothing!”
“Only because we interrupted you,” Justin said.
Philippe whistled as he saw the red welts and bleeding scratches that covered the boy’s thin arms and neck. “You’ve been a feast for the mosquitoes, haven’t you? How long have you been in the swamp?”
The flailing child managed to kick Justin in the knee.
“Ah, that hurt!” Justin shook the black hair out of his eyes and glared at the boy. “Now I’ve lost my patience!”
“Let me go, you mongrel!”
Annoyed, Justin raised his hand to box his captive’s ears. “I’ll teach you manners, boy.”
“Justin, wait,” Philippe interrupted. It was impossible not to feel sympathy for the child caught so helplessly in his brother’s grasp. “He’s too small. Don’t be a bully.”
“How soft you are,” Justin mocked, but his arm lowered. “How do you suggest we make him talk? Dunk him in the bayou?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t…” Philippe began, but his brother was already heading to the edge of the water, dragging the screaming child behind him.
“Are you aware there are snakes in here?” Justin said, swinging the boy up, preparing to throw him in. “Poisonous ones.”
“And alligators, too, all waiting to snap up a little bite like…” His voice trailed off into silence as the boy’s floppy hat dropped into the bayou and drifted gently away. A long, frizzled red braid swung over the child’s shoulder, her delicate features no longer concealed by the hat.
Their thief was a girl, a girl their age or perhaps a bit older. She threw her slim arms around Justin’s neck, clinging as if he held her over a pit of fire.
“Don’t throw me in.
Je vous en prie
. I can’t swim.”
Justin shifted her in his arms, staring down at the small, dirty face so close to his. She looked like an
ordinary girl, pretty but not remarkably so, although it was difficult to tell beneath the mud and mosquito bites. “Well,” Justin said slowly, “it seems we were mistaken, Philippe.” He shook the protesting girl to quiet her. “Hush. I’m not going to throw you in. I think I can find a better use for you.”
“Justin, give her to me,” Philippe said.
Justin smiled darkly and turned away from his brother. “Go amuse yourself somewhere else. She’s mine.”
“She is just as much mine as yours!”
“I’m the one who caught her,” Justin said matter-of-factly.
“With my help!” Philippe cried in outrage. “Besides, you have Madeleine!”
“You take Madeleine. I want this one.”
Philippe scowled. “Let
They stared at each other in challenge, and suddenly Justin chuckled. “So be it,” he said, his fierceness mellowing to lazy good humor. He jostled the girl in his arms. “Well, which one of us do you want?”
Lysette shook her head, too weak and exhausted to understand what he was asking. She had traveled through the swamp for two terror-filled days, wet, filthy, and certain that at any moment she would be killed by an alligator or poisonous snake. The steamy heat had been bad enough, but the proliferation of insects had nearly driven her mad. They had bitten and stung through her clothes until every inch of her skin itched and burned. Lysette
had even begun to entertain the thought that she would not survive the hellish journey she had undertaken, and it hadn’t mattered. Anything, even a nasty death in a Louisiana bayou, would be preferable to a lifetime of Etienne Sagesse.
“Come, don’t take all day,” the boy named Justin said impatiently. Lysette struggled against him, but his lanky arms were surprisingly strong. He tightened his grip until she subsided with a gasp of pain.
, it’s not necessary to hurt her,” Philippe said.
“I didn’t hurt her,” Justin replied indignantly. “I just squeezed her a little.” He gave Lysette a warning glance. “And I will do it again if she doesn’t make up her mind now.”
Numbly Lysette looked from the imperious dark face of the boy who held her to the lighter one of the boy nearby. They were identical twins, she realized. The one called Philippe seemed a little gentler, and there was a trace of compassion in his blue eyes that she sensed was absent in the other. It was possible that she could convince him to release her.
“You,” she said desperately, looking at Philippe.
” Justin scoffed, letting her feet drop to the ground. He shoved her toward his brother with a contemptuous snort. “There, Philippe, do as you please. I didn’t want her anyway.” He scooped up the bundle on the ground and searched through it, discovering a handful of coins tied in a handkerchief, a rolled-up dress, and an amber comb.
Unable to stop her momentum, Lysette staggered against the other boy. His steadying hands came to
her narrow shoulders. “What is your name?” he asked.
His voice was unexpectedly kind. Lysette chewed the insides of her cheeks and shook her head, while her eyes stung with sudden tears. She despised herself for the moment of weakness, but she was exhausted and starving, and she was nearly at her wits’ end.
“Why were you taking the pirogue?” Philippe asked.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. Let me go—I won’t bother you again.”
Philippe’s gaze took a detailed tour from her head to her feet. Lysette withstood the inspection with resignation. Even at her best, she had never been called a great beauty. Now, after her sojourn through the swamp, she was muddy and strongsmelling.
As the boy gazed at her, he seemed to come to a decision. “Come with me,” he said, grasping her wrists. “If you are in trouble, we may be able to help you.”
Lysette was filled with instant alarm. She suspected the boy intended to bring her to his parents. Then it would only be a matter of hours before she was delivered to the Sagesse household. “No,
,” she begged, pulling at her imprisoned arms.
“You have no choice.”
She shoved at him as hard as she could, jabbing with her elbows and knees. He defeated her with humiliating ease. “I’m not going to hurt you,” Philippe said, swinging her over his shoulder and
locking his arm behind her knees. She gave a scream of mingled rage and despair as she flailed helplessly against his back.
Justin watched his brother with a sardonic frown. “Where are you taking her?”
What are you doing that for? He’ll only make you let her go.”
“It’s the right thing to do,” Philippe said matter-of-factly.
“Idiot,” Justin muttered underneath his breath, but he followed reluctantly as his brother carried their new acquisition from the bank of the bayou.
Lysette went limp halfway up the incline, deciding it would be wiser to save the strength she had left to face whatever fate was in store for her. There was no way she was going to escape the clutches of these two arrogant boys. She closed her eyes, feeling sick.
“Don’t carry me upside down,” she said thickly. “I will be ill if you do.”
Justin spoke up from behind them. “She does look rather green, Philippe.”
“Really?” Philippe stopped and let Lysette’s feet slide to the ground. “Would you like to walk?”
“Yes,” Lysette said, stumbling a little. The brothers each took an arm, guiding her forward. Dazed, she looked from right to left, realizing the boys must belong to a family of great wealth. Like other plantation homes in the exclusive bayou district, the house faced the Bayou St. John, a finger of water that extended from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi
River. The lazy afternoon sun glared on the main house’s white and pale gray exterior. All three stories of the home were surrounded with wide shaded verandas framed by sturdy white columns. Abundant groves of cypress, oak, and magnolia trees had been planted around the chapel, smokehouse, and what appeared to be slave quarters.
Lysette’s stomach churned unpleasantly as the boys propelled her up a flight of steps leading to the main door of the house. They passed through a dark, cool entrance hall lined with narrow mahogany benches.
“Father?” Philippe called, and a startled darkskinned woman gestured to a room just beyond one of the twin parlors bordering the hallway. Smugly the boys paraded their charge into the library, where their father sat at a massive mahogany desk. The room was splendidly furnished, the chairs upholstered with rich yellow silk that matched the yellow and lapis lazuli print on the walls. Heavy swags of scarlet wool moreen framed the windows.
Lysette’s attention moved from the room to the figure at the desk. He faced away from them as he worked. He wore no waistcoat, and his white shirt clung damply to the outlines of his powerful muscular back.
“What is it?” came a deep voice that sent an unsettling thrill of awareness down her spine.
“Father,” Philippe said, “we caught someone by the water trying to steal our pirogue.”
The man at the desk shuffled papers into a neat
pile. “Oh? I hope you taught him the consequences of tampering with Vallerand property.”
“Actually…” Philippe began, and coughed nervously. “Actually, Father…”
,” Justin blurted out.
Evidently that was enough to attract Vallerand’s attention. He turned in his chair and stared at Lysette with cool curiosity.
If the devil ever decided to assume a human guise, Lysette was certain that he would look exactly like this…dark, handsome, with a bold nose, a hard sullen mouth, and wicked dark eyes. He was a rampantly masculine creature, possessing the swarthy tan and the obvious physicality of someone who spent much of his time outdoors. Although Lysette was taller than average, Vallerand’s dominating presence made her feel almost tiny. Rising to his feet, he leaned back against the desk and surveyed her lazily, seeming less than enthralled by the sight of a mud-encrusted girl in his library.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Lysette met his assessing gaze without blinking, while she considered various ways to deal with him. He did not seem to be the kind of man who would be moved by tearful pleading. Nor would he be impressed with threats or defiance. There was a possibility that he was acquainted with the Sagesse family, perhaps even was close friends with them. Her only hope was to convince him that she was not worth the trouble of bothering with.
Justin spoke eagerly before Lysette could reply to his question. “She won’t tell us, Father!”
Vallerand pushed away from the desk and approached Lysette. She was not aware of backing away until she bumped into Philippe’s solid form behind her. When Vallerand reached her, he slid his long fingers beneath her chin, tilting her face upward. Carefully he turned her face from right to left, dispassionately surveying the damage wrought from her journey along the bayou. She swallowed hard against the callused pads of his fingers. His deep chest was level with her face, the shadow of black hair visible beneath the thin lawn of his shirt.