PAINTER OF DREAMS
Copyright © 2012 All Rights Reserved!
New Orleans, August 1838
The woman kneeled at the edge of a jagged precipice in a place where nothing existed except a perilous ocean of blue-black water, sheer cliffs, and a twilight horizon, which erupted with mauve, blue, and tiny shards of golden light.
The harsh wind captured her ebony hair, tossing it outrageously about her while white-capped waves beat against the rock, splashing her pale skin with a frothy spray. Her white gown was so drenched that her figure showed through the diaphanous fabric, revealing a trim, yet well-endowed, physique with a full bosom, shapely hips, and long legs.
Her face was turned out toward the nothingness of the sea so her features were only partially revealed. Yet she had to be beautiful; her beauty existed like a tangible thing.
So did her fear.
For something dark and sinister hovered behind her—an obtuse entity whose identity was obscured from a play of light and darkness, shadow and sunset. The sense of doom was so alive, so intense, that it seemed real.
Yet there appeared to be no way for her to flee the presence and escape the danger.
* * * *
Desiree swept her brush across the lower-left corner of the canvas, adding her initials to the painting. Usually she felt an intense sense of satisfaction upon finishing a piece…
But not this time.
As she stepped back to cast a critical eye on her work, a sense of attachment gripped her. She’d hate to sell this one…perhaps because she’d breathed her heart and soul into each stroke…or maybe because in her eighteen years, she’d experienced life with as much desperation as the lone figure on the cliff.
Sighing, she cleaned her brush. She must sell the painting if she wanted to keep paint on her palette and add to the small trove she’d painstakingly saved for her tuition at the College of Art in New York City. The meager income she earned in the scullery barely covered her room and board.
Ah, but knowing the circumstances wouldn’t make the parting easier, especially when she’d earn so little for it. An unknown artist, she peddled her work for mere pennies to a gallery on Royal Street and occasionally sold a painting in the bar downstairs.
But she’d set a higher price on this one, an impossible price. She’d tell Eric, the tavern owner, who sold them for a small commission, to accept no less than five dollars for the painting, which was more than she’d make in the scullery in a year.
The door creaked open, then slammed shut, disrupting her thoughts.
Desiree spun as her twin sister entered the stifling, attic apartment.
An invisible line divided the cavernous chamber into two distinct territories. Desiree’s side was tidy, well-scrubbed, her bed neatly made, her dresses hung on hooks, her work area organized, everything in place, everything in order.
Deirdre’s side reflected chaos. Clutter overflowed in terrifying heaps of books, shoes, clothes, and curiosities she’d carted home or accepted as gifts from the many admirers she’d amassed while working tables in the bar. Metal bird-cages with no birds, hat boxes, small statues, tin angels, masquerade masks, and creepy, ceramic-headed dolls, which made Desiree feel like she was being stared at, dominated the bulk.
Though the mess held a sinister beauty that she’d be hard-pressed to emulate on canvas, Desiree feared that if she ever dug deep enough, she’d find bones.
Without a word, Deirdre squeezed along a narrow path, which dog-legged through the hodgepodge, and made her way to the bustling wardrobe on the far side of the room. Throwing the doors back, she jabbed her dark head inside and hunted through the bulging innards. Flaying arms of colorful silk, satin, and brocade flitted around her as she plied deeper and deeper. Finally, she withdrew a voluminous, red evening gown. She held it before her in front of the cheval mirror while she canted her head at various angles. Apparently satisfied with the choice, she smiled and flung the gown over a worn armchair, the seat of which was loaded with Deirdre’s books. Loose papers jutting out of the cracks between the pages flapped beneath the fingers of a merciful breeze sailing through the open windows.
But Desiree’s thoughts prowled far from the clutter. Her eyes wandering from the décolletage dress to Deirdre, she repressed a shudder.
A month ago, Deirdre had quit working in the bar for what she’d called, “a more promising career.” Each night, she donned a wickedly low-cut gown and ventured into the streets with Pierre, her cohort. Where she went and what she did, Desiree could only guess, but she knew Deirdre’s profession was unlikely to be an honorable one.
Deirdre perched on a stool before a vanity. The top was banked with tinned cosmetics, cheap jewelry, and fluted bottles of sweet perfume whose sickening essence wafted over to Desiree’s side of the room. Her long fingers shot out to extract a compact from the glittery heap.
Desiree marched toward her, the skirt of her white homespun sticking on something metal protruding from a produce crate. The object turned out to be a tin Christmas star with a long, curved handle. Stifling a sigh, Desiree pried it loose, then flung it on the heap, sending a creaking shudder through the bilious mass.
She cranked her head to meet Deirdre’s gaze. “We need to talk.”
Shrugging, Deirdre flipped open the compact, doused a powder puff, and buffed her high-boned cheeks. The radiance of the sunset poked through the windows and licked the highlights in her ebony hair into a blue-tinged luster, lending her pale complexion a surreal look like her bubble-headed dolls.
“I’m in a hurry.”
“Then you’re going out again tonight?”
“I am. And I’d appreciate it if you’d stay out of my affairs.”
Desiree would like nothing more. She should be concentrating on her own future instead of dwelling on the dim mysteries that dominated Deirdre’s life and often spilled into her own like the burgeoning heaps of clutter. But, like usual, her conscience waged a war with logic; for how could she leave Deirdre to her own devices?
“But surely you realize how dangerous the city is at night.”
“For pity’s sake. I can take care of myself. Besides, I’ll be with Pierre.”
Desiree’s frown deepened. “I dislike that man, and I don’t trust him.”
“I neither asked for your opinion nor desire it. And I certainly don’t need to be rescued. Now, please, I must get ready.” She ended the statement with a curt wave of her hand.
“I’ll not leave you alone until you tell me what you’re up to. Dear God, I lay awake for the better part of the night worrying about you. How can I leave for New York, knowing you’re involved in something dangerous?”
Deirdre hurled the compact across the room. It struck the white-washed wall on Desiree’s side and threw back a splay of glistening shards. Deirdre leapt to her feet, a stray lock tumbling over her brow. She brushed the inky strand away in one sure swipe, her scowl set on Desiree.
“I’m not obligated to explain myself to you. And if you’re spending your nights worrying about me, then you’ve only yourself to blame.”
Though she was accustomed to Deirdre’s mind-dazzling theatrics and sobering displays of temper, ire stretched full within Desiree’s lithe frame and threatened to burst from her lips. She willed it down with the belief that tenderness cut through ice more efficaciously than anger.
Even so, her shoulders squared and her hands balled into fists as she met Deirdre’s glare. She was not afraid. She’d fight if she had to.
Retreat was not a possibility when Deirdre’s well-being was at stake.
When the girls were ten-years old, their father died. Their mother had followed him to the grave two years later. Their grandfather, Fenton Carlisle, once an Admiral in the British Navy, lived somewhere among the upper crust in New Orleans and owned a shipyard, but neither she nor Deirdre knew him for he’d disowned their mother. Now they only had each other.
“Why shouldn’t I worry about my sister?”
The question had a deflating effect. Deirdre’s truculent glare faltered as if the brunt of her fury had dissipated, yet her reticence remained in effect. “I don’t wish to discuss this.”
“Of course not. You never do. And what shall you do once I’m gone and you find yourself in trouble?”
“You always expect the worst of me. Don’t you?”
Desiree drew back in stunned alarm. A fissure had formed where she’d groped for a foothold. She pursed her lips to reply but came up empty. Deirdre’s assumption was accurate. But why shouldn’t she feel that way? Deirdre had become as distant and unreachable as their dead mother. Occasionally light shined through the sheaths of ice beneath her skin, but it was fleeting at best and growing ever dim.
Desiree remembered when they’d been close, sharing everything and having a special bond that only twins can understand. In both a passion for art had burned. Deirdre’s interest running to poetry, she’d scribbled words by the yard. Even now, heaps of paper littered her bedside table like fallen leaves.
Desiree had been certain that Deirdre possessed the makings of a writer.
But Deirdre had changed overnight as if a dark seed had settled into her flesh and bound her heart with briars. Her prodigious passion for writing, for life, blighted by swatches of weeds that tugged her ever deeper into folly.
“Deirdre, you’ve not been yourself since Mother died.”
Reclaiming her seat at the vanity in a huff, Deirdre’s dark eyes revealed nothing and reflected nothing. “Why must you drag Mother into every conversation? I’ve written her off as an unhappy memory, and I’m getting on with my life. You’re the one who has failed to do so.” Deirdre pointed to the painting.
A tiny screw tightened with hurt. Though Deirdre often tossed a barb at the paintings, her blunt declaration about their mother smote Desiree like a fist in the face. It was the most revealing statement Deirdre had ever issued about her tumultuous feelings.
Desiree had to recover before she spoke. “I don’t understand your animosity for Mother. She loved us very much.”
“Mother loved no one. The only thing she cared about was her opium.”
Blinking against the burn of tears gathering behind the delicate curve of thick lashes, Desiree put her hand on her hips and stared hard at the face that resembled her own.
“That’s not true.”
The denial heightened Deirdre’s tone. “It is—only you’ve buried that information in your mind and replaced the memory of Mother with someone who was decent and caring. You say I’ve changed since she died, well you’re right. Now, I’m free from her abuse, free from seeing her in an opium daze, free from hearing the moans of the men who used her, and I’m glad she’s dead.”
As Desiree fastened on Deirdre’s last, the color left her. Yet Deirdre remained merciless.
“And if I seem cold, it’s only because I resent your constant interference and accusations.”
“I only interfere because I care.”
“I don’t want you to care. I don’t want you to worry. I just want you to let me live my life as I choose.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Believe what you want.”
Deirdre turned back to the mirror, her inner turmoil only faintly perceptible as her tapering fingers painted her cheekbones with scalding-red rouge. The hue was much too bright against her pale complexion, but Desire knew that Deirdre would rebel if offered such advice. Deirdre would greet any words of wisdom with equal parts of ice and disdain.
No matter how hard Desiree tried to reach her, Deirdre remained bent on destruction.
Perhaps Desiree should have walked away then and concerned herself with the dream that fluttered in her breast and kept her heart glowing, but despite Deirdre’s perplexing indifference, Desiree loved her. And she silently vowed that before she left for New York, she’d find out what Deirdre was involved in.
Determination smoothing the worry on her brow, she pounded to the door. Pierre was usually in the bar this time of the evening. She’d confront him and learn some answers to the mystery surrounding Deirdre’s nighttime excursions.
* * * *
No one had noticed when the door squeaked opened, but when it closed with a slam, the boisterous chatter in the raucous bar ceased as every head turned to scrutinize the commanding stranger whose presence filled the entryway.
Squinting against the darkness, Brandon Hawthorn, the Earl of Drayton, shoved a booted foot in front of him. As he did, the worn, pine floor creaked in his wake, serving to hold the many inquisitive faces in rapt attention.
Aware of the eyes on him, he regarded the ill-looking bunch with a stern countenance. From his tailored suit to his polished, black boots, he was out of place here. At once he wondered why Billy would have wanted to meet him in this lowly, riverside tavern, which stunk of whiskey and cigars. The place clearly fit his definition of squalor and virtually thrummed with an infectious inequity from rafter to floorboard. He decided that it would be wise to avoid attracting attention to the heavy pouch of sterling in his frock coat. He wasn’t looking for trouble after the day he’d endured.
As he pinched his way through the table-jammed establishment, the men lost interest in him and turned their attention back to wenching, gambling, and boozing. The female patrons did not. Much to his chagrin, they continued to cast him sultry smiles beneath batting lashes, and he berated himself all the more for coming here. He was not in the market for “companionship” either.
Keeping his eyes averted, he hoped his many admirers got the message. When his gaze alighted on Billy, who was slouched over a snifter at the front of the bar, Brandon sighed with relief. In sure strides, he squeezed his way through a haze of blue smoke to the dimly lit table.
“Sorry I’m late.”
Billy smiled beneath a wild tufting of faded-red hair that dipped low on his brow. He had a warm smile and lively sea-green eyes, which made his height seem less intimidating. “Not to worry. I had company.” He pointed to a half-empty bottle of rum.
“I noticed,” said Brandon with a wry grin.
He doffed his beige frock coat and swung it over the back of a chair. His lace-cuffed shirt was open partway down the front to reveal a sun-bronzed chest. From the thatch of wavy, chestnut hair rakishly outlining a handsome face, to the tight breeches hugging a powerful build, he was an arresting man…the type of man a woman dreamed about but rarely encountered.
“Can I get somethin’ for you, monsieur?” a fresh-faced barmaid winked, her blue eyes thoroughly raking him as he settled into the seat opposite Billy. Clearly, the invitation for a dalliance danced in her smile.
“Ale, and keep them coming,” he said, dashing her hope with a disinterest that bordered on disdain.
The barmaid’s face fell into a frown as she spun to fetch his drink. When she bustled back to the table with a frosty mug, he drained it in one sure swipe, hoping the alcohol would numb his ire.
“You didn’t order champagne. I take it we’ve no cause for celebration?” Billy said.
“No deal, no sell.”
“I’m not surprised. It seems like the trip has been jinxed from the time we boarded the Catherine in Liverpool.”
Memories of the fierce tempests that had beset the clipper flashed through Brandon’s mind. The most vehement gale had fallen upon them near New Orleans, wrenching the main mast asunder and slashing the sails ragged. Temporary repairs had been made at sea; more extensive repairs had waited until they’d limped to port. As a result, he’d been two weeks late for a business meeting with Admiral Fenton Carlisle, the owner of the Carlisle Shipyard and the Constellation Line, a packet which ported goods and passengers between New Orleans and New York. Despite the untoward circumstances, Carlisle had been deeply perturbed at Brandon’s tardiness.
“And it has only worsened since we dropped anchor,” Brandon said.
“Indeed. If the ship wasn’t docked for repairs, we’d be wise to set sail and be on our merry way.”
“That may be sooner than you think. I dropped by the shipyard on the way over here. They said the repairs should be finished tomorrow morning.”
“Well, maybe our luck is starting to turn. I got a good deal on a lot of Caribbean rum. If we can start loading the Catherine tomorrow, she can test ‘er pretty, new sails by the end of the week.”
“With such a cargo, the way should be merry indeed.”
“Aye, even if she flounders, we’ll greet Davy Jones with a smile.”
Both men grinned.
“So, what happened with the Admiral?”
Brandon sunk into a sigh. “Very little. He only met with me twice, and both times, he struck me as distracted and unwilling to commit to such a venture. I can’t imagine why my mother thought he’d be interested in a partnership, let alone my steamship design.”
“He used to have an enviable reputation as a bold businessman, eager to initiate new enterprises. I suspect the years have softened him.”
“Softened his brain, no doubt.”
“I heard he spends most of his time at his mansion in Lafayette, preoccupied with some personal crisis.”
Billy shrugged. “Something to do with a long-lost daughter.”
Brandon looked thoughtful. “I had no idea. My mother never mentioned it.”
“Well, to her credit, I would have also wagered that he’d be quick to bite.”
“Even if he’d been more susceptible, my proposal would never have made it far past his general manager, John Rochambeau. He seems to have full authority when it comes to decision-making in the company and was as welcoming as a burr in a boot.”
“I know of him. He’s called the Little Dictator, because he controls the company down to the spit shine, keeps the yard and three-rig operation ship-shape by force of will. The men dislike him, but he has managed to earn Carlisle’s confidence.”
“Such confidence is beyond my understanding as the man has no head for business. Furthermore, I believe that both he and Carlisle viewed my steamship design as the tinkering of a madman.”
“Of course Rochambeau would. You’re brilliant and that makes you a threat to his cushy position.” Billy leaned closer and spoke in a near whisper. “And rumor has it that he has been dipping into company profits. He wouldn’t want a shrewd businessman like you poking in the books and finding evidence to report to Carlisle.”
Billy was a veritable warehouse of information. Though he captained the Catherine and served in the capacity of manager at North Star headquarters in Liverpool, he seemed to have the nose of a reporter, gifted at sniffing out the most minuscule crumb. It was one of the many attributes that made him an asset to the company.
“Notwithstanding his insecurities about any prowess I may possess, Rochambeau clearly believes that transatlantic steamers are impractical and dangerous. He advised me to abandon such a far-fetched scheme. As for his ethics, I wish you’d told me that earlier. I spent two days in the business office. I would have done some serious snooping.”
Light-hearted laughter spewed from Billy and vibrated through the table. “Unfortunately, I only heard that tidbit today when I had a drink with some mates from the Monarch. Then Rochambeau’s views on steam was ultimately the breaking point in the deal?”
“No, actually. As exasperating as he was to deal with, I walked when Carlisle had the audacity to suggest that I marry his niece, Lilly, before he’d consider a partnership?”
To Brandon’s surprise, a stunned guffaw broke from Billy’s lips. “Everyone seems to have a relative for you to marry. Word of your engagement must not have reached this side of the Atlantic.”
Brandon nodded, hoping Billy would change the subject. Of all things, he didn’t want to discuss that.
“Yes, well, needless to say, I ran out of patience.”
Billy chuckled softly. “I’m surprised I didn’t hear the explosion from here. Your anger has been building since day one.”
“I confess—from the outset, I’ve been aching to punch Rochambeau’s teeth down his throat.”
A glare crept across Brandon’s face. The mere memory of the dealings ignited a fire in his veins as if they’d been shot full of whiskey.
Or was it the girl?
She’d strolled past him, her eyes sweeping the tables, searching. She hadn’t noticed him.
Oh, but he’d noticed her.
In the brief time she’d been near, eyes dull from fatigue and stress had come alive.
She was like no woman he’d ever seen. Her hair was jet-black…no…darker still…darker than the depths of the ocean…darker than the soul of the sea. He’d never seen hair as vibrantly and lushly black. Struck by the blue of the twilight stars sizzling through the windows, the satiny tresses cascaded to her waist, bouncing and swaying with a metal-like glint.
In contrast, her skin was as pale and smooth as a white rose in a bridal bouquet, her high cheekbones and full lips touched with a subtle pink like the blush on the tip of a petal. Simple, white homespun adorned her lithe form, but she still stuck out of the throng, and he wondered how such a wretched place could bear such a splendid jewel.
His eyes followed her as she strolled toward the front of the clamorous bar, holding her head high and enticing him with every delectable curve and gentle sway.
In his twenty-eight years, he’d never stared at a woman so, but then, no woman had ever had such an effect on him…and he didn’t even know her name.
What in the hell was the matter with him? He told himself that he must have gone too long without a woman’s touch.
And just when he’d convinced himself that he wasn’t looking for “companionship.”
Billy’s voice roused him from his reverie but not from his sudden madness.
“Rest assured that the regret will ultimately belong to Carlisle. His pitiful three-ship operation could have become part of the largest steamship company in the world. He should have stuck to what he’s best at—shipbuilding. Whoever suggested that the company expand into transatlantic crossings did him no favor.”
“Likely Rochambeau. But small or not, in the long term, the Constellation Line poses a threat to North Star, especially since Carlisle has the means to crank out ships by the dozen.”
“While he’s at it, he’d better pry his noggin out of his arse. If he doesn’t, the Constellation Line will soon be one less competitor to worry about, and his shipyard might flounder along with it.”
Shaking his wavy head, Brandon smiled, revealing a perfect stretch of white teeth. “Indeed, one would be pressed to challenge such eloquently spoken wisdom.”
But Brandon’s expression quickly turned serious. The dazzling enchantress had drawn near again, ensnaring his every susceptible sensibility so forcefully that she might have lassoed him with her ebony tresses. She appeared to be searching the crowd in earnest for someone, and Brandon’s eyes clung to her every move.
Dear God, he thought, I’m acting like a lovesick youth.
Lowering his lids over the frothy mug of ale nestled in his grip, he leaned back in the chair and wrenched his focus to the conversation.
“I regret that the trip turned out so badly. I know how hopeful you were about an alliance with Carlisle, but I believe fate is a wise old bird even when she squawks. These events will yet prove to be a blessing.”
Brandon’s hold tightened on his mug. “I agree, and all is not lost. I’ll find other investors even if I have to scour every harbor on both sides of the Atlantic.”
“And you’ll succeed. I can see it now. Within a few years, North Star will have traded its seventy sailing ships for a fleet of swift, steam-powered liners.”
“I pray you’re correct.” Brandon smiled. He knew it was a possible dream, and he possessed a relentless drive to succeed. But he was no fool. Such a venture was costly, and many men with a head full of grand dreams like him had lost their prosperity to such a risky undertaking. If he only had himself to consider, he’d throw every asset he had toward the venture. But the company his father had built, his financial responsibility to his family, estate, and North Star’s many employees, necessitated caution.
Brandon slipped so deep beneath the weight of such thoughts that he barely noticed when the barmaid sat another mug of ale, brimming with froth, before him. His big hand curved around its pleasing, bubbly coolness, a gold ring with a rearing lion, the Hawthorn family crest, gleaming like a newly minted coin even in the dimming twilight.
“Speaking of investors, I have some good news.”
“Yesterday, I met a gentleman from Newport News who expressed an interest—Derrick Devlin.”
Brandon’s brows drew up sharp. “One of the Silver King brothers?”
“So you’ve heard of him?”
“Who hasn’t? If I recall, he and his brother procured an immense fortune from a silver strike in North Carolina.”
“Yep. The biggest find ever. They could supply that hefty financial backing you need. What’s more, they have an interest in maritime enterprises and want to invest in the latest technological innovations. Derrick was a budding magnate before the silver strike. He has speculated heavily in steel and coal. The younger brother, Jarrett, has a love for the sea and captains his own clipper. They say he’s something of a prodigy at marine design like you. Best of all, they’re both decent fellows. Everyone likes and respects them.”
“Indeed. It sounds like a promising connection.”
“It is, however, Derrick deferred the matter entirely to Jarrett, who set off on a China tea run, which will put him out of the loop for the next year.”
Brandon frowned. “That’s unfortunate.”
“Yes, but Derrick gave me their contact information and said he hoped to hear from you.”
“Splendid. I’ll draft a letter to him before we set sail.” Brandon appeared focused on the topic, but his eyes roved the bar again…searching for the girl.
Then he noticed the paintings.
A talented hand had created several breathtaking paintings that were out of place on the grimy walls. They seemed to recede into the wavering shadows. He favored the one nearest him for it sparked some excitement inside him.
In hues of ebony, white, and silvery gray, the artist had rendered the image of a svelte woman who gazed past a window, an outpouring of shimmering moonlight illuminating her silhouette and igniting the sheen in the wind-blown tresses sweeping past her shoulders. She stared out longingly across a black body of gently flowing water, which reflected a star-studded sky.
The painting evoked soul-searing awe, which rose to his eyes with a luster. Somehow the woman seemed real, so real that he yearned to reach out and touch her—like the woman he’d seen in the bar.
Tearing his gaze from the painting, his eyes scoured the crowd. She drew near, pausing no more than an arm’s reach away. As his hungry gaze fell on her, a warm glow came into the smoky depths. He hauled in a deep breath when she turned toward him.
And when her eyes met his, the sun rose in his soul.
Her eyes were nearly as dark as her hair, as dark as the deepest hues of the painting—the darkest eyes he’d ever seen. The inner flame in the onyx depths enchanted him as thoroughly as her beauty.
But they revealed no interest in him. It seemed that she looked through rather than at him. She turned on her heel and moved to the other side of the tavern, out of his view, and the sun disappeared behind the clouds.
Damn it, man, you’re being foolish, he chided himself. Get the wench off your mind.
Yet even as an inner voice bid him to forget her, his resolve yielded to fascination, and he continued to watch as she approached a dark-haired man who strode into the establishment. The man plopped his burly frame on a stool at the bar, and she sauntered to his side.
Keen eyes homing in on the object of Brandon’s interest, Billy laughed softly. “She’s beautiful, but she’s with someone else.”
Brandon nodded absently, wondering if she was a doxy.
Perhaps, for after she whispered something in the man’s ear, the two shuffled up the dark stairway that hid in the shadows at the rear of the bar.
Brandon’s heart gave a queer jerk. Anxiety tied his thoughts in a bristly cluster of knots. Pushing against the oak chair, he fought back a sigh and reminded himself that he had no right to judge her. She was a mere stranger. He knew nothing about her circumstances.
And maybe she wasn’t a whore; maybe she had other business with the man. For the great sense of dignity and confidence she projected seemed to preclude an involvement in such a risqué profession.
But when the conversation from the motley bunch at a nearby table drifted his way, his doubt vanished.
“She’s a real looker. Every time I see her, she takes my breath away.”
“Yeah, I’d love to get my hands on her.”
“Worry not, lads, none of you have enough coin for that one. She’d not even spit on the likes of you. Word is she only goes for the high class gents, and hell, Pierre guards her like a bitch in heat.”
“Why shouldn’t he? That bitch has one fine tail.”
“I’ll drink ta that,” one of them said, and laughter spewed as they clanged their mugs together.
Desiree. Apparently, she was a whore.
Brandon nearly spilled his ale. Though he’d sworn not to judge her, disappointment clung to his spirit. He’d thought, for no particular reason other than her touching beauty and regal bearing, that she was special.
The men’s conversation, nevertheless, held his attention.
“I believe her name is Deirdre,” another with a toothless grin said. “Why, I’ve heard she’s the best whore in New Orleans with gents comin’ from as far away as New York to get a taste of her.”
“Yeah, she has herself a real followin’—one that won’t include the likes of you, ya mangy cur.”
Raucous laughter erupted from the table, then the conversation drifted from the girl to the trials of the river, and Brandon found himself unable to cut her image lose—or his fascination.
Billy, eyes missing nothing, leaned forward with a wink. “A few coins may buy her love.”
“It’s hardly love I’m after,” Brandon quipped, and both men chuckled.
But when the laughter died, Brandon’s expression became serious, intense.
She was a whore, and he wanted her.
The potency of his desire startled him. Again, he told himself that he was being foolish. The woman was beautiful beyond measure and seemed so demure, but the ugly truth was that she was a whore. The thought filled him with abhorrence and forestalled an urge to act upon his interest. He preferred women of quality and had never lacked for a willing companion.
But as he recalled Desiree’s startling beauty and lush lips that were ripe for kissing, he was struck with a longing that barred any argument against its fulfillment.
No matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, the flame she’d stoked burned deep into his resolve.
He’d purchase an evening with her, all right, would pay any price she asked; for he felt a stirring unlike anything he’d ever known, and he could easily remedy the discomfort by tossing her some coins and taking her to his room.
That was what he intended to do.
* * * *
Midnight approaching, the full moon held an eccentric glow and appeared heavy enough to plunge to the cobblestone street. It threw off a wealth of light in opposition to the heady darkness and rising mist rolling up in cotton-like spools from the river, but Desiree drew no comfort from the rain of silver rays as she hung in the shadowy entryway of the tavern.
“The Swamp,” the name of the part of town known for its barroom brawls and cheap bordellos that catered to the boatmen, was still and silent. It typically swelled with activity at all hours. The only sign that there had been life in the area earlier were the dim door lanterns, which flitted and flickered against a damp atmosphere that threatened to extinguish them.
A shiver jettisoned along her spine as she pondered the stifling quiet. For a moment, she almost forgot her reason for being out on this utterly bleak night. Pierre had refused to enlighten her about Deirdre’s nighttime activities, so Desiree endeavored to follow them and solve the mystery herself.
But where were they?
A pall fell upon her spirit as her gaze roved the misty street. The darkness seemed to take on a corporeal, living presence as it stretched its weight along the thoroughfare. When she caught the fleeting image of the pair jaunting arm-in-arm in the distance, she sighed. Bending her will around her growing trepidation, she leapt into action, her starched, white dress swaying against the charge.
When a church bell tolled in the distance, she slowed to an amble and nearly retreated. The bells never rang at this hour. Something tragic must have happened in the city.
The thought nurtured her fear, but it was stilled beneath a determination to emerge from the miserable night with her sister in tow. Thus, she braced herself as she continued the onerous trek.
A couple of blocks from the bar, where stark buildings strained against the embankment, she paused in the misty shadows. Someone had called her name—probably Eric, she surmised, the owner of the bar, who looked after her with something akin to fatherly interest. He must have seen her venture into the darkness alone and sought to stop her. But the urgency of the situation allowed no time for further investigation.
If she was to keep up with Deirdre and Pierre, she must make haste.
Heart pounding, she trained her eyes on the road ahead and kept an even pace behind the two. All the while, she stayed close to the buildings so that she could slip into the shadows if necessary.
But they never turned back or paused; they were apparently as intent on reaching their destination as she was in following them, and so the procession moved steadily along.
Until she sensed someone behind her.
Fear lashed through her like a cold wind and settled deep into her blood and bones.
She clamped down tight on the scream that rose to her lips, ascribing her fear to a creative imagination, made all the more acute by the darkness, which seemingly grew deeper and denser with each step she took. Scanning the way ahead, she reminded herself that she wasn’t defenseless. She’d procured a knife from the scullery, had padded the blade with a scrap of wool, and crammed it into her dress pocket. She ran a finger over the rough, wooden handle, reassuring herself that the weapon was there if needed. The conclusion, however, bore little equitable relief, and anxiety sawed along her spine as she hustled to catch-up with the pair who were barely visible through a spatulate hole in a diffuse wall of thickening fog.
By the time she arrived at the corner, there was no trace of the two.
She paused. Groaned. What was she supposed to do now?
On a whim, she turned right and continued along the water-lapped embankment, which was buttressed with shadowy wharves and warehouses. Blackness yawned before her as welcoming as an abyss. The hounding fog danced in viscous, tentacled swirls around her, suffusing the air with a heavy, earthly scent. Eerily, the river, the embankment, and the way ahead converged into a dreary, opaque cloud.
A shiver bristled through her. How she wished a knight in shining armor, the man of her dreams, would ride up on a white horse and whisk her to safety.
But it was hardly the time to slip into a daydream.
As she trudged on, the heels of her boots sinking into soft earth, she forgot about her sister, when, for the third time, she sensed someone prowling behind her.
She halted, drawing a breath, listening.
Footsteps sounded nearby.
Fear thoroughly effused her and clambered to the surface to prickle the fine hairs on the back of her neck. As she struggled to calm her thundering pulse, realization tolled. The threat wasn’t illusory. Someone had followed her from the bar and lingered near. The intruder was a man, judging from the heavy tread of his determined steps.
Every sense alerted to danger, she resumed her flight, her face contorted with fear. Hiking up her dress to facilitate her movements, her long strides swept her deeper into a sea of fog, which was broken only by a taunting mantle of darkness. It took all of her willpower not to bolt, but she took a deep breath and reined in her fear. The last thing she wanted to do was alert the man to her exact location.
When the sound of his steps finally died around her, she let her breath out slowly, confident that she’d lost him in the clouds of thickening fog.
But all too soon, the thud of his footsteps beat against the embankment and echoed in the pearly air. Her distraught mind careening on the very brink of hysteria, she pushed herself beyond her limits, her steps flying over damp earth and bumping over rough rocks.
But he was just behind her, his steps a frantic mass of sound, growing, expanding, booming thunderously around her. Almost musical.
She made a rapid turn at one of the warehouses. Her sure strides tamped the soft dirt, dauntless determination binding one step to the next, eyes primed ahead. But the world around her was sheathed in gauzy mist, the ground a mere blur beneath her feet.
And he plunged ever closer, his dogged strides cutting the distance between them until he could probably reach out and touch her.
As the realization took hold, the fear she’d stowed down deep burst free from its moorings. Hysteria rose so swiftly within her that she sprinted blindly, senseless of direction, into the asphyxiating fog. For all she knew, she could be scuttling toward the river. At any moment, the churning, black depths could swallow her in its hungry, unforgiving jaws.
Then she ran into something hot…hard…and solid.
Raising her head, she gasped, for she found herself staring into the fiercest eyes she’d ever seen. A silvery gray, they danced with fire and tension and penetrated the mist as fiercely as the moonlight.
And she gasped again.