Josiah Carter leaned against the rough brick of the warehouse and breathed deeply of the thick New Orleans air before continuing his journey. Nearly three decades in age, today he felt twice that. Perhaps the weight of his current situation could be blamed for it, but Josiah preferred to think not.
He touched the gold watch in his pocket and resisted the urge to check the time again. If all went according to plan, the great Hezekiah Carter of the grand Virginia Carters would be none the wiser. The old man might have the ear of the president himself, but he’d never muster the power to best his elder son.
Not again. Josiah would not allow it.
Inhaling the fetid air was unbearable. Josiah covered his nose and mouth with the thick fabric of his cloak and forced his mind to focus on tomorrow’s sail. He ticked off the itinerary as he walked through the narrow alley bordering the docks. Barring the need to stop along the way to wait out bad weather, the Jude would make arrival in London by month’s end.
Not soon enough to suit him.
Perhaps he might find the time to make a holiday of the trip. He smiled. Yes, a few days of leisure might be a welcome diversion.
Fool. Your father will never let you rest, not until he extracts his retribution. Josiah shook off the truth of the thought and focused on another: Only a meeting with I. M. Gayarre remained before he could ready his ship to sail.
To his left, the newly renamed Jude bobbed at anchor, a former slaving ship and an abomination among vessels, yet for nearly a week since its departure from Cuba, his alone. At least it would be upon completion of the night’s transaction. After taking receipt of Monsieur Gayarre’s gold, Josiah would pay his debt to the Jude’s former owner and then flee New Orleans, never to return.
Josiah smiled at the thought. Gayarre was expected some time before daylight, their meeting arranged for dockside at the Jude. The Café des Artistes stood nearby, and a stop there seemed the proper choice to begin the evening’s entertainment. Perhaps a pint and a hot meal would relieve the ache in his gut and accelerate the waiting. From his post at the café, he could watch the only avenue leading to the vessel.
Stalking past clusters of dockside roughs and piles of empty barrels and rotting cargo, Josiah patted the dagger hidden within easy reach in the folds of his cloak. On a good night, the knife remained there; many nights ashore, however, it did not.
Bone tired and purposefully wearing his vile disposition, Josiah watched a dark-cloaked figure approach. Surely he would not be facing trouble so early in the evening. Why, the sun had barely fallen below the horizon, and the constellations were only just becoming visible.
The figure continued toward him, small enough to be a child yet moving swiftly and seemingly unafraid. Framed in a circle of moonlight, the interloper stopped and raised a hand in greeting.
A pale, slender hand.
Slowly, the hand moved to the cloak’s hood and pushed it away to reveal a heart-shaped face framed with an unruly mass of honeycolored curls. The woman, and she looked to be barely of an age to be defined as such, cast a glance at the empty alley behind her, then faced him once more. Full lips hidden partly in shadow curved into a frown.
A warm wind, blowing from the river, picked up a long curl and deposited it once more into place like a flash of liquid gold. Beauty within the shadows, he decided, meant a stunning woman in the light. His interest piqued. A connoisseur of all things beautiful yet owner of none, he deliberated the possibility of attaining this prize.
“Monsieur Carter?” Soft as a whisper and clear as church bells, the voice was barely touched by the accent of the French Creoles.
Unbidden, tightness rose in his throat. Had his father’s men found him out and sent this siren to trick him?
“Who calls this name?”
He watched her shoulders heave beneath the heavy cloak and her fingers begin to tease at the fabric. “I am Isabelle Marie Gayarre, sole passenger on the vessel Jude.”
Had she stood before the devil himself, Isabelle couldn’t have been any more afraid. This man, this reputed infidel, held her very life in his hands. Should Captain Carter refuse to honor her payment of passage. . .
No, I shall not consider it.
She lifted her eyes to the blackness of heaven to offer up yet another prayer for courage, then braved a second look in Captain Carter’s direction. He stood cloaked in shadows, a figure whose description she had memorized long before this meeting and whose associates spoke terror into her very soul.
Yet the Lord had led her to him.
The dark-haired captain edged slightly toward her, moving close enough to show the faintest outline of his aristocratic features. Too handsome to be the embodiment of evil, this one, yet she knew of his questionable character from those who spoke freely in her presence. Watch yourself, Izzy. The mademoiselle’s father says he is a desperate man. The mademoiselle’s father.
He was her own father, as well, though she rarely thought of Jean Gayarre as such, even though she saw his gold hair, pale green eyes, and fine, straight nose every time she gazed at her own reflection. Only her unruly curls and the fullness of her lips gave the slightest hint of the mother she had never known, but of whom her half sister Emilie had shown her paintings.
Isabelle blinked back emotion. No, she rarely thought of these things.
Gayarre and his hidden circle of friends, however, were never far from her mind. The secret society of powerful men, all from wellplaced families in New Orleans or farther east, was another reason for fear.
The one who had purchased Isabelle and to whom she was due to be delivered held the ear of the president himself, Emilie had informed her. To be chosen by a man so wealthy and powerful would give Isabelle much power and afford her the privilege to live as a pampered pet in a gilded cage.
Though never spoken of in decent circles, the term for this arrangement was plaçage. Isabelle knew it to be slavery, plain and simple. Mama Dell declared her a striking success and praised Jean Gayarre for waiting to place Isabelle with a guardian until her beauty held the maturity of a grown woman. Isabelle knew she would have been given up years before had the monsieur received enough gold to placate his conscience. She also knew she’d been spared that fate by
One more powerful than Jean Gayarre.
All of this she knew thanks to the mademoiselle. Never would Isabelle give her most precious gift to any man save the one the Lord had created for her. Until such a time, she would risk death rather than submit.
Despite her prayers, concern nagged at Isabelle. She fumbled with the fine fabric of her cloak and worked to slow her breathing and collect her thoughts. She must convince Josiah Carter to accept payment and take her far from New Orleans. There was simply no alternative.
To that end, Isabelle moistened her lips and slid her eyes half shut, easily slipping back into the ways she’d been instructed.
Father, forgive me for this.
She allowed the velvet cloak to slide off her shoulder, catching the soft fabric with the crook of her arm. Beneath it she wore her finest cream silk-and-lace gown from Paris, the one she’d been instructed to wear upon the morrow. A breeze heavy with dampness blew over her skin, dancing across flesh she preferred to cover. Although she still remained modest by the standards of others in her social circle, she nonetheless felt uncomfortable with the display.
“Perhaps you are surprised to find I am a woman,” she said softly.
The captain produced a most fearful-looking knife from beneath the folds of his cloak and began to study it. Isabelle froze, too frightened to move and too confused to pray.
“Perhaps I am surprised,” he said lazily as the blade glinted sliver in the moonlight. “How old are you, woman?” The last word he said mockingly, jabbing the knife into the air for emphasis.
“Four and twenty,” she said as she watched the blade move with blinding speed. Another lie; another reason to pray for forgiveness to the
Father for things done in desperation. If the Lord allowed her to live long enough, she’d see her twentieth birthday at the hearth of her new home in Clapham, southwest of London, come Christmas Eve.
His chuckle held much disdain. “Four and ten is the more likely age, although I’ll not dispute the word of a lady.” He spoke the last word with disdain.
Determination welled up, and Isabelle squared her shoulders to face the captain with renewed purpose. Given the circumstances of her birth, she might be considered something less than a lady here in New Orleans, but upon her arrival in England, she vowed to honor the Lord with her sterling behavior and humble countenance. Isabelle Marie Gayarre would make her heavenly Father proud even as she tried with all her heart to forgive and forget her earthly one.
The letter of introduction tucked safely into her bodice held nearly as much promise as the deed hiding beneath the Bible in her trunk. Both would set her free; both were gifts from the mademoiselle. The fact that she could read them could also be attributed to that woman.
Indeed, Emilie Gayarre, who had sought Isabelle out a year ago, would be the one person she would miss desperately upon her departure from New Orleans. Perhaps, when sufficient time had passed, Isabelle would post a letter to her. Or perhaps Isabelle would merely disappear as planned.
Braving the shaking in her limbs to glide a step closer, Isabelle mustered up some semblance of a smile. “You expected to transport a man. On this, I have deceived you, and this grieves me.”
“So you’re grieved, are you?” The captain heaved a sigh and scratched his clean-shaven chin. “Indeed you are not what the booking agent led me to believe.”
“The fault lies with me, sir.” Isabelle tried in vain to read the expression on his shadowy features. “I intend, however, to fulfill the terms of my agreement. I assure you there will be little seen of me during the voyage.”
His inelegant snort nearly ended the ruse. The laughter that followed only added fuel to the fire.
Stepping into the circle of light, Captain Carter regarded her with more than the appropriate amount of interest. Isabelle took note of his sneer, saw the flash in his steel gray eyes, and wondered if he would answer her with words or action. She prayed for the former while expecting the latter, all the while watching the weapon in his hand.
How much of the father’s temperament had been passed on to the son? She’d heard Mama Dell whisper tales of this man’s father, tales that if believed would bring the elder man to her doorstep on the morrow.
“There is already much to be seen of you,” he said in a drawl surely acquired in his native Virginia. “I daresay you’ve placed your health in danger with that ridiculous costume.”
Anger pure and strong pulsed in her veins, and she longed to answer his rudeness with a bit of her own sharp tongue. Only her faith in God and the knowledge that this man would indeed bring about her release from the bonds of servitude kept her from picking up her expensive skirts and running away.
“I vow I shall not be any trouble to you, monsieur.” She gathered the velvet of her cloak tight around her neck and lifted her chin in defiance. “Barely any notice will be taken of me.”
He continued to weigh the knife in his hand as he lifted his gaze to meet hers. “Mais non,” he said evenly, “I rather doubt you would go unnoticed anywhere.”
He spoke the challenge all in French, and his easy use of the language startled her. She’d been led to believe Mr. Carter’s education left something to be desired. Heart racing, she watched the blade rather than the man.
There seemed to be serious gaps in the information she’d overheard. Her gaze traveled from the weapon to the face of the man who held it. Dark hair, silver eyes, and a handsome face. All these things she had anticipated, but his quick wit and ability to converse in a language other than his own were things she hadn’t expected.
What else had she missed?
The captain quirked a dark brow in what seemed to be amusement.
“Something wrong, Mademoiselle Gayarre?”
She shrugged and, in the motion, accidentally let loose of the fabric she’d been clutching. Her cloak fell off her shoulder and pooled once more in the crook of her arm.
To her surprise, Josiah Carter sheathed his knife and reached to slide the velvet fabric back into place, brushing the skin of her arm with his fingers in the process.
A chill slithered up Isabelle’s spine and lodged in her furiously beating heart. She looked past Captain Carter to focus her eyes to the murky darkness beyond.
“Look at me, mademoiselle.”
He stood too close, this reputed infidel, and on his face he wore a mask of scorn. Isabelle bit her lip to stop it from quivering, then quickly recovered. “You doubt me, sir?”
“Perhaps.” His expression turned neutral, and then the captain inclined his head toward her. “Perhaps we have friends in common.”
What to say? “Perhaps we do. I’m sure a man of your quality has found many friends here. Likely we would find at least one we share.”
“Perhaps what we share,” he said slowly, “is enemies, not friends.”
Oh dear. “I was merely making polite conversation, Captain Carter,” she said, the words emerging from a place of unknown strength. “I have found that a man generally delights in speaking of himself.” She paused to lower her gaze for effect. “Obviously, I’ve misjudged you. Forgive my impertinence.”
Captain Carter inched closer and took hold of her wrist. Isabelle sucked in a deep breath and steeled herself for what she feared would come next, namely, the man’s fist—or worse, his knife. The man’s lips moved close to her ear, and his grip tightened. Isabelle watched his hand graze the ivory handle of the knife sheathed at his waist. Without removing his gaze from her face, the captain grasped the weapon.
For an eternity, they stood in silence. Only the rhythmic pounding of blood in her ears gave her pause to realize time continued to move forward. While she prayed, Isabelle shifted her attention from the Virginian to the knife now in his hand.
“I prefer to hear you converse about yourself,” Captain Carter finally said, again speaking the harsh words in fluent French, “for I’m sure you’ve quite the story to tell.”
Much truth lay in those words.
Unfortunately, the son of the man who’d placed the highest bid on her virtue was the last one in whom Isabelle could confide.