The candles in the intricately designed silver candelabra burned low and occasionally guttered in puddles of wax, creating the ghostly shadows on the wall. The silence in the room was almost as suffocating as the Louisiana heat. No one cried or screamed or even cursed as the three women worked frantically over the still figure on the bed.
The reason for their unusual silence hovered ominously in the far corner, out of their way. Anger and anguish emanated equally from his restless pacing, the clenching and unclenching of his fists signaling a need for violence or a release from helpless frustration. No one was inclined to inquire.
As the limp woman in the bed finally woke with a scream, the man in the corner dropped his glass and rushed to her side, lifting her shoulders and murmuring reassurances. The candlelight caught on golden strands of his hair but shadowed his face in bleak lines. When he turned to speak to the women, his eyes held a strange amber glow.
“Do whatever you must to save her. The child is no concern of mine.”
Born and raised a God-fearing Catholic, Eavin O’Flannery Dupré hastily crossed herself before wringing out a cold cloth and rinsing the sweat from the laboring woman’s brow. She shivered in apprehension or premonition as she touched the moist, pale face of the woman on the bed and felt the fevered emotions of the man at her side. But she did not have the gift of Sight, and so could not predict the outcome of that night, other than to know that the woman was dying.
Praying silently, she performed the ritual absolution, even if a priest had not been called. The man beside the bed was responsible for that lack, too, as he was responsible for the child now stripping his wife of her soul and for the heresy that would condemn that child to death if he could.
In the black of mourning, Eavin was no more noticeable than the silhouettes of heavy furniture against the walls. The man beside the bed didn’t know she existed. That was the way it should be, but Eavin had difficulty maintaining her tongue as the frail woman on the bed twisted in the agony of childbirth. Men were the root of all evil, she sometimes believed.
“He’s almost here! One more push, Francine, one more push, ma chère,” the small woman working with the black midwife pleaded.
The man at the bedside threw her a look of loathing and continued to hold his wife upright as if she would escape should he let go. Ignoring him, the old midwife gently pushed Francine’s extended abdomen, forcing what she was too weak to do herself. The laboring woman gave a brief scream and a shudder, jerked upward, then fell back, lifeless, into her husband’s arms.
The sudden, engulfing silence broke a moment later with the shrill cry of a babe.
Later, wrapping the child in dry clothes and handing her to the wet nurse, who had been acquired well before the birth, Eavin worriedly listened to the pacing of heavy boots in the study below. Nicholas Saint-Just’s reaction to the death of his beloved wife was not that of a sane man.
His grief was understandable. His refusal to even look at the child she had borne was not.
Eavin watched wistfully as the babe was held to the breast of the black wet nurse. Only a few short months ago, she had been dreaming of holding a child of her own to her breast. She would never have given the task to another woman as Francine had insisted.
Tearing her gaze away from the object of her envy, Eavin tried to concentrate on the actions of the master of the household. When he was certain his wife could not be brought back from the dead, Saint-Just had howled a curse and stormed from the room. These last hours of darkness had been spent sending messengers far and wide.
Apparently, the messengers were already returning with his replies, for he was yelling orders at his lackeys, donning boots instead of his house shoes, and calling for his horse. The ominous clatter of the rapier that usually hung over the mantel did not bode well for the coming dawn.
Eavin shivered and strode to the window overlooking the spacious front lawn. She would never grow used to the eerie webs of moss bearding the oak trees. In what was left of the moon’s light, they seemed a product of the devil, and the appellation she had heard applied to Nicholas Saint-Just came back with prophetic timing. Old Nick. Friends and enemies alike called him Old Nick.
It wasn’t because he was old, although the stories they told of him were so numerous he would have to be ancient to have accomplished them all. Eavin came from a race that reveled in stories, and she knew there was only a kernel of truth to the best of them. Saint-Just’s past was not what concerned her, but his future was, for now hers was inextricably entwined with his.
The stable boys brought the horse, and she watched as he effortlessly gained the saddle with a leap that did not seem quite human. In the brief blur of motion before he reared the horse and sent it galloping down the drive, she noted the gleaming sword at his side, and felt pincers of fear closing around her heart.
His reputation for dueling was infamous. Should he die, she would be homeless. Again.
Eavin remembered only too well her arrival in New Orleans as a destitute stranger. The March wind had been warm, but it had whipped relentlessly at her thin petticoats and bulky bonnet as she stood on the wharf, unnerved by the foreign patois of the natives swarming around her. Even then the bales of cotton and boxes of other goods had begun to crowd the banks, waiting for ships that never made it through the British blockade. Eavin had felt dwarfed and helpless in this frightening jungle where she knew no one and no one knew her.
Her back had ached for the past week, and she placed a hand to it as she stretched and tried to see around the bales for some sign that someone had come for her. Her letter had gone out only a short while before she had sailed. It was quite possible that it had not yet arrived, and she would be left stranded to make her own way. The thought terrified her beyond the bounds of reason, for she was all too aware of the furtive looks she drew from the burly rivermen around her.
Another ripple of pain passed through her middle, and Eavin closed her eyes and prayed for the life within her. Dominic had left her with nothing but this babe; she would not lose it, too. She had been mad to come this far to a place and strangers she didn’t know, but she was desperate enough to be mad. Dominic had never provided a home for her. She had still been living in the boardinghouse with her mother when word came of his death. And the only home she had ever known had become a nightmare after that.
Trying not to think of that parting, Eavin scanned the wharf again, watching the crowd dissipate as the ship’s passengers and contents went their separate ways. She was alone and homeless and down to her last penny. What would she do now?
A man walked purposefully toward the wharf where she stood, and Eavin glanced over her shoulder to see whom he must be meeting. When she saw no one, she watched him with a lump of fear in her throat.
He was tall and strode with an athletic strength that warned his elegant clothes were little more than a disguise. But it wasn’t his physical attributes that frightened her as much as his expression. There was none. His eyes looked at her with a curious blankness, and his words, when they came, were curt and without welcome.
“Mrs. Dupré?” At her nod, he signaled a black servant scurrying behind him to pick up her few meager bags. “I am Nicholas Saint-Just, Dominic’s brother-in-law. Francine sent me. You will be staying with us.”
That was almost the full extent of their conversation for the entire journey back to the plantation. Perhaps being forced to welcome into the family a woman little more than an Irish servant had been beneath his dignity. Perhaps his mind had been elsewhere. Perhaps she had been a mere annoyance to his plans for the day. Eavin had not learned any more in the months since her arrival. With Nicholas Saint-Just, any and all could have applied. He was an enigma, one she would not want to cross.
And now Francine was gone, and there was no one else but him in this house that had been her home for half a year. The thought of being thrown into a strange world alone again terrified Eavin out of her mind.
Her gaze drifted back to the yard outside the window, now empty of any human presence, and she whispered a prayer for the safety of a man who didn’t know she existed.