**This reading sample gets steamy, so be warned.**

 

Book One

 

“New Orléans is very handsome and well constructed…

The magnificence of display is equal to all…

The women paint and rouge their face to hide the ravages of time.

The Devil has a vast empire here.”

 -Sister Madeleine Hachard de Saint-Stanislas - May 1728

 

Chapter One

The Devil

[Two little birds were sitting, two little birds were sitting on a fence, two little birds were chattering, what they were saying I do not know. A chicken hawk came along the road, pounced on them and ate them up, no one hears them chattering anymore, the two little birds on the fence. –Louisiana Creole song]

HIs horse was in full gallop, its hoof striking part of a speckled king snake that Bernard Boisdoré did not see. Everything was a distraction: the feel of the cracked saddle as his horse took on uneven ground, the constant rush of the wind against his face, the warning fear he was traveling too fast.

The six men chasing him gained speed, riding their horses as fiercely as he was and without fear. Only a small distance behind him now, Bernard looked over his shoulder and saw one branch off to his left. Over his other shoulder, he saw another branch off to his right. As he suspected their plan was to force him northeast away from the plantation mansion and toward a swamp infested with alligators, snapping turtles and snakes.

The eternal chill of Death rode in the saddle with him.

“Help me!” Bernard screamed, knowing his screams were hopeless. He was on private property more than a three hour ride from the city. Still he screamed. “Somebody! Anybody!”

Trees were all he saw: small, large and aged. One, in particular, got his attention. Up ahead a live oak blocked the early morning sun, causing the hour to appear like twilight rather than dawn. Its clustered branches looked like gnarled witches’ fingers casting conjurations toward the sky. On one of the lower branches, a man lay on his belly with a long rifle aimed in Bernard’s direction.

Fire burst out of its barrel as the flint struck the frizzen. Smoke caused by the gunpowder carried in the wind. Bernard’s horse whinnied as the iron ball burned through its coat, macerating muscle and nerves. Bernard only had time to kick his feet free of the stirrups as the horse’s knees unlocked and its nose dipped toward the earth. Dust flew in the air as Bernard crashed against the ground in the speed of a comet. Flipping arms over legs, gravel scraped one side of his face. Only when he stopped rolling had he been able to gasp, urging his lungs to quickly fill.

Bones had been broken. Surely he knew this even if he couldn’t feel it. One more thing was certain. He wasn’t ready to die.

In the position he lay in he saw that the riders had stopped their pursuit. To the right of him, through the trees, he saw what looked like a Creole cottage. Getting up had almost been impossible. His right arm hung lower than it should have. There wasn’t a part of him that didn’t slowly fill with pain. A persistent tinny rang in his ear like the sounds of a plantation bell being rung in warning.

Ambling slowly, but mostly limping tears fell from his eyes.

A quick look was given over his shoulder. The man from the tree was now on his feet waving the barrel of his rifle like Américains did the Américain flag. The other riders and horses pranced in semicircles but stayed where they were. It was then Bernard saw more riders riding furiously toward him, tearing up the Louisiana earth into dry red chunks. Riding in front of the men was the Devil.

Bernard saw the Devil and limped, albeit slowly, to the closest tree. This, at least, placed his enemy behind him. His only pistol had been lost during the first part of the chase. The Yakut his brother had stolen off of a Chinaman was all he had left. Reaching for it, its four-inch blade felt inadequate in his grip.

Leaning to the side of the tree to see where the Devil was now, he felt the barrel of a pistol press against the back of his skull.

“You’re dead.” The words were spoken calmly and close to a whisper.

Gripping the Yakut tighter, his only thought was living as he licked his lips. “I have money.”

“I am money,” the voice whispered.

“I’ll go away. You’ll never see me in New Orléans again.”

“You’re a threat to me now. Mon ennemi.”

“Wait,” Bernard pleaded, then turned slowly and stared the Devil in his eyes. Unusually tall for a Frenchman, the Devil had waited patiently for the two of them to make eye contact.

Bernard opened his mouth, but no words came out. At that moment it all became clear. Live by the sword, die by the sword. A half step was taken when the Devil’s pistol fired. Bernard didn’t hear the sound it made as a cloud of gun smoke coated him like a transparent cloak. Falling from this cloud, the cool morning breeze licked the wounds on his face as he wondered why he was still alive.

The pistol was dropped from the Devil’s hand and a Spanish handheld Flintlock with a folding bayonet pulled from his side. Its seven-inch blade was extended as the Devil whispered in Bernard’s ear.

“In every rumor, there’s a morsel of truth. You heard plenty about me. Yet you came. I am that crazy son of a bitch they say I am.”

Bernard had no time to react.

The bayonet was thrust deep into his throat.

Chapter Two

The List

 [The higher the monkey climbs, the more it is exposed to danger. – Creole proverb]

The man known as the Devil to les Américains and as le diable dans Nouvelle-Orléans to the Orléonois was born Will Henriot Jennings, the only heir of Andreu Arsène Arceneaux Jennings. He stood seven-feet-four inches tall. His muscular frame defied his age. A hereditary pigment disorder caused the hair on his head to turn white while still in the womb and made his skin look similar to the hue of Egyptian bronze. Also, like his father, the irises of his eyes were like clear water, the kind found around tropical islands, and at times like translucent silver when seen in harsh light.

The man lying on the ground at his feet was a stranger to him. The only thing he knew was the man had come to his plantation to kill him.

The blood on the bayonet was wiped away with a handkerchief, and then the weapon shoved into his coat pocket. Will searched Bernard’s clothes for clues of his identity. Nothing was in his pockets or underclothes. It was when Will stood again and started to walk away that he turned and lowered again. This time, Bernard’s boots were removed. When the right was turned upside down a torn piece of paper fluttered to the ground like a wounded butterfly.

On it, someone had written not only Will’s names, but also the names of his children, and one of his three grandchildren, a granddaughter born of a slave who had lived on his plantation years ago.

 

Will Henriot Jennings – November 1st, 1754

Françoise Marie-Grace Achen – January 10th, 1793

Pierre Constance Jennings – November 3rd, 1795

Julien Rafael Jennings – June 1st, 1804

Désireé Priscilla Jennings – May 10th, 1816

All of them have fair to white hair and have extreme height.

 

One of the men on the horses dismounted and walked to him. Francis Jessup Achen was half French and half German and was Will’s right-hand man. Frances squatted beside him, saw the look on Will’s face and reached for the paper. Although realizing what he was looking at, he gave Will a piercing gaze. “What is this?”

Up until that morning, the two of them believed only two others knew that Will was the biological father of France’s only child, Françoise.

“Will?” Frances asked. He began to shake his head in denial. “This can’t be what I think it is.”

“It is,” Will confirmed. “Someone wants to kill me and all of my children.”

“Why the children? You don’t even have enemies. I helped you kill them all years ago.”

Will turned from him, walked to his horse and mounted. Frances followed closely behind him.

Will stared down at him. “That’s why this makes sense.”

“How can you say this?”

“Because the men we killed had young sons at the time and now those sons are grown men and call themselves Le Secret Sept.”

“Le secr…” Two heavy lines formed on France’s forehead and on the bridge of his nose. His bushy eyebrows arched as his mouth pulled into a menacing snarl. “Those sons of bitches.”

Will waited while Frances mounted, and then he and his men dug the heels of their boots into their horses’ flesh, spurring the beasts into motion.

Chapter Three

The Enemy

 [The coward lives a long time.  – Creole proverb]

Eleven miles away and later that evening Dr. Louis Guillmard parked his skeleton phaeton beneath one of the numerous trees planted in an abandoned field. A few hours earlier he had sent six of his most trusted slaves to neighboring plantations. The message each of them carried was urgent. The men given those messages in private were to meet him at this precise location at exactly four o’clock. They were meeting for one reason and one reason alone. Neither Daniel Malloy nor Bernard Boisdoré was anywhere to be found.

Nothing had gone as planned. Nothing. Daniel and Bernard should have met Dr. Guillmard at noon behind Xavier Beauvais’ barn. Everything had been carefully planned. Everything. Their absence meant something went wrong and Dr. Guillmard knew exactly what that something was. Daniel and Bernard were dead. And if they were dead it meant the Devil had killed them; and if the Devil had killed them it meant he knew why Daniel and Bernard were on his plantation. Of course, Will did. The answer was quite simple.

In New Orléans, along the river, who can trust the English speaking nouveaux-arrivés Américains? They had arrived by the thousands on what used to be French soil and raised their flag of red, white and blue over the Place d’Armes. Most of them were taunted by impoverished Creole children who sang an insulte whenever they passed on the streets.

 

‘Mericain coquin

‘Billé en nanquin

Violeur de pain

Chez Miché d’Aquin.

 

 As soon as the Américains arrived a large group of families in New Orléans secretly elected seven of the city’s most influential men to see to all of their judicial needs not trusting the English-speaking Américains to see things the way that only the Orléonois could or dole to them equal justice. Dr. Guillmard was one of the men they elected. With his careful planning and persuasive manner, he convinced his fellow Orléonois to also choose Vincent Laporte, Juan McGhee, Juan’s nephew, Eustace Avila, Edouard Salle, Antoine De La Croix and Jean-Magnon Dupuy. What the Orléonois had no way of knowing was each of these men was the sons of the five men who had murdered Will Jennings’ father back in ’68.

The Orléonois referred to the seven in the privacy of their homes as Le Secret Sept. The Américains in the city, who feared them greatly, called them by their English name, the Clandestine Seven. There was no one that didn’t fear them in some way, except Will Jennings, the same devil of a man who owned large amounts of real estate in and outside of the city. But if the Devil was killed, and his children were killed, then his vast estate would fall into the hands of his next of kin. In this case, the heir would be the wife of Will’s eldest son, Pierre. Her name was Jenna Louise Jennings. Le Secret Sept needed Jenna to be the sole heir of the Jennings’ family wealth to ensure their business endeavors at the Port of New Orléans, of which Will and Pierre were prohibiting. But this couldn’t happen if Will and any of his children or grandchild were alive.

Dr. Guillmard pulled his watch out of his pocket. In the distance, a horse quickly approached. Jean-Magnon Dupuy stopped to the side of Dr. Guillmard, and, like the doctor, fixated his gaze in the direction he had come from.

“You’re late,” Dr. Guillmard said. “Did you see any of the others?”

“All of them. I left them behind. I couldn’t wait. Were you able to find Daniel and Bernard? I have a family, goddamit!”

Dr. Guillmard drew in his lips and breathed heavily through flared nostrils. “Retain your lunacy, Jean. We all have families. What did you think? That joining our little group meant you would be victorious and only that? I’ll tell you now. Even in our defeat, you will hold your head up or I’ll cut it off, poke it with a stick and hold it up for you.”

Standing slightly over five-feet tall, Jean-Magnon dismounted with a jump, removed his hat and crushed it against his heart. His eyes were again fastened on the road he’d left behind. “Maybe all is well. Both men may still be alive.”

“They’re dead!” Dr. Guillmard spat. “And so are you!” His voice then lowered. “In a few days, all of us will be dead. Maybe sooner.”

Jean-Magnon blinked back tears as a team of horses and a single phaeton came into view, approaching at a rapid speed. When the group finally assembled the impromptu meeting began right away.

Vincent Laporte was more eager than the others. “Where are Daniel and Bernard? Have you found them?”

“Dead,” Dr. Guillmard answered. “Nowhere to be found. One of you can take your chances looking for them over at the Jennings plantation. That isn’t something I’m willing to do.”

Edouard Salle looked at his compeers individually. “If Daniel and Bernard is dead, then we are dead.”

“What about the other hired hands?” Vincent countered. “Any chance they can get the job done alone?”

Antoine De La Croix tightened his hand on his rein, causing his horse to step forward. “The plan was to kill Will first. He’s the most dangerous.”

“I think the other hired hands can do it,” Jean-Magnon asserted. “All they need is the opportunity.”

“No,” Dr. Guillmard disagreed. “We only have two killers left and Will Jennings is still alive.” His mouth tightened with disgust from the very thought. “Monsieur Jennings is perhaps at this moment roasting our wives over an open flame and boiling our children for supper.”

“How dare you!” Antoine challenged.

“I dare!” Dr. Guillmard retorted. “The men in the Jennings famille can in no way be considered normal. We are discussing the most notorious family that ever lived in this city. Will Jennings is insane! His sons are equally insane!

“What choice do we have, messieurs?” Vincent questioned. “The Devil is ill. Soon he’ll be in the grave anyway. Let’s kill his sons, daughter and granddaughter and be done with this mess. This is now our only path.”

Juan McGhee and his nephew Eustace Avila sat quietly a moment while staring at one another.

“What is it?” Dr. Guillmard asked them.

“Two men were sent to kill Monsieur Jennings when he was least aware,” Eustace answered. “By now his sons are also aware. All of us call Will Jennings the Devil but his son Pierre is far more of a devil than his father will ever be. Now if you excuse me, messieurs, I shall take my leave and ready my household. I’m truly sorry it had to end this way.”

“We cannot give up!” Jean-Magnon insisted. “We give up and we die.”

“We cannot die,” Vincent agreed. “We’re fathers. We are businessmen who are vital to this city. We can’t give up! As soon as our other two killers arrive in the city, we send them after Julien first.” 

Chapter Four

The First Night of Marriage

[Dear, I love you so, Yes, I love you so, With all my heart, I love you dear, Like a little pig loves mud. – Creole love song]

Much later that same evening, Julien Rafael Jennings sat at the edge of the bed, his purpose even more evident and eager when he smoothed his hand over the form hidden underneath the coverlet.

The mansion he was in was located in the heart of the Vieux Carré on Rue Dumaine. It belonged to an old friend of his father. The man’s name was Charlet Bienvenu. Charlet had traveled through the streets personally to find Julien as soon as he received word that Julien had secretly wed that same day. Wanting to please an old friend, as well as act as a surrogate father over the new bride and groom, Charlet refused to accept no for an answer and carried the couple back to his home. There he gave them his dead wife’s boudoir to use for their five day honeymoon. While he and the couple sipped wine and chatted, two of his slave girls were sent up to the room to prepare it with extra linen, fragrant toiletries, water, food and plenty of beverages to drink.

It was the bottle of Château Margaux that Julien reached for from a nearby table. Pouring a single glass, he extended it to his new bride. With his other hand, because he was eager to fulfill his first duty as a husband, he lowered the coverlet part way. Marie-Marie saw the glass and shook her head. In fear that her new husband will snatch away the coverlet entirely, she pulled it slowly up to her neck.

They had been married all of four hours. He had committed a Creole sin and married on impulse. No announcements had been sent. Invitations were completely foregone. None of his friends or family had attended. The only people who had been inside the cathedral with them were spectators curious to know why the son of one of their wealthiest elite stood at the altar beside a woman while facing a priest.

“Take a sip,” he encouraged. He had bedded virgins in the past and was quite familiar with their routine. Marie-Marie’s reticence was hard for him to decipher. On occasion, he had sensed she had no intentions of sharing the bed with him.

He stood and pulled at his cravat, dropping the cloth to the floor. “I’ll blow out the candles.”

He removed his tailcoat. As he went about the room removing the rest of his attire, he blew out the lamps only to see the room was now too dark. The bedroom faced the street. Four widely spaced French doors opened onto a private balcony. Julien opened one, partially, then pushed its shutters out toward the street.

The light of night sliced the darkness around him. The smell of the city was instant. Sewage had always been a problem and littered the street. It's sickly sweet stench mingled with the scent of the gardenias and jasmine the servants had attempted to decorate with.

Julien smiled when Marie-Marie saw the darkness and drew in a slow breath of relief. Standing beside the bed again, he offered his hand to her.

She shook her head.

“No, Julien,” she pleaded. “A proper woman should stay in bed and lay on her back until it’s over.”

He studied her a moment, his eyes narrow with disbelief. “If you do not get out of that bed.” The threat had been spoken firmly, yet teasingly as well. “I will not be in a marriage where my wife hides behind damask, silk, cotton or any other fabric. I shall see you as God made you.”

Her first step out of the bed nearly caused her to tumble. While she recovered, she made certain not to look down at his nudity.

At more than six feet tall, Julien had to lower to encircle his arms around her waist. The full palms of his hands squeezed and caressed her derriere before gripping each cheek and urging her closer against his erection. Lowering more, his mouth pressed against hers.

Earlier in the church, their first kiss had been no more than the pressing of their mouths briefly together. The way he kissed her now when she felt the tip of his tongue slip between her lips, that one touch and she knew this night would not be like anything she’d ever been told. Heat flushed her body. Her eyes became large circles of wonder. The way his tongue filled her mouth alone made her conscientious of the hair that rose on the nape of her neck. Her moan filled his mouth when he sucked the tip of her tongue, drawing it further between his lips until it was nearly consumed.

What was this? She asked herself, aware that she could hardly keep still. A need the kind she hadn’t anticipated took possession of her and made her body ache to be kissed and touched more. Leaning on the tip of her toes to reach his mouth, to her surprise, all of her fears slowly began to dissipate.

“Mmm.” The deep moan he gave she had felt it in her soul. “Just like that, chérie. Kiss me just like that.”

When she realized that she moved her tongue the same way he moved his not to please him, but because she had enjoyed it so, the voice of her childhood priest entered her ears. Lust is wicked!

Julien peered at her with wet, parted lips when she suddenly pulled from his embrace. For those few seconds, she had been willing not only to give in to him but to her own desires. This made him more aroused and even more eager. He loved how quickly she had learned to kiss, and how her exploration of his mouth had churned his stomach with anticipation.

Hoping to debunk the myths and old women tales told to young Creole girls about their interpretation of what should occur in a boudoir, his tongue gently touched her lower lip as he gazed into her eyes, and then he began to kiss her more hungrily than before. Nothing escaped his notice, like the way either of her hands reached for him as they should have. As if frightened to touch his bare skin, her trembling fingertips instead traced the contour of his face as her tongue plunged deeper into his mouth. Guiding her hands, he placed them in his hair. Earlier he had loosened the single long braid he usually wore to allow his hair to hang loose because many of his past lovers loved fisting it while in bed.

Marie-Marie felt his hair in her hands and drew back from him again with large eyes this time. The breaths she took were deep and audible. Julien searched deeply into her eyes and saw that Marie-Marie, at least, tonight, would not yield to a wild romp. It was what he had envisaged all evening, but for now, that image would have to wait. Having her as his wife was all he thought about now.

The chemise she wore, with its Sokai embroidery, was quickly pulled over her head. Marie-Marie closed her eyes and chewed her lower lip as his bare hands began rubbing all over her. She experienced a new pleasure that made the skin of her nipples tighten. As if her new husband sensed this, she watched as he lowered and covered one of her small, puffy nipples with his warm, wet mouth. The tugs and sucks made her feel warm, and then as if fire chased the nerves along her spine, and centered between her legs, especially when the nipple he suckled sharpened into a hard point and reached the back of his throat.

What she felt then was nothing less than extraordinary. Rapturous desire quickened inside even the tiniest nerve in her body. If he had been much shorter, she would have thrown her leg on his shoulder to press her sex against him somehow in the hopes of relieving its increasing throbs. It was the thought of this action that made her leg lift slightly. His hand captured the leg and held it up in this position as she was lifted off the floor. It was the feel of the hotness of his manhood as it slipped between her legs the reason she swung her legs behind him until the soles of her feet were flat against the wall.

  Take me! The words blared in her brain just as a knock sounded against the door. Both of them looked in the knock’s direction panting for breath, and then she was laid gently on the bed. Before he walked away, the tip of his tongue tasted the tip of one of her nipples as his hands parted her thighs very wide. A part of the coverlet was used to cover her.

“Don’t even think about moving.”

None of his clothing was reached for. As Marie-Marie watched him walk naked toward the door, the desire to run after him, jump high upon his back and fasten her legs around him made her close her eyes.

 

Charlet frightened Julien, so close was the man’s face to the door as if he had pressed one eye against it in order to see through the wood. Once he saw Julien on the other side, he stepped back and held a letter high above his head.

Charlet had known the family for many years. He knew how Will and his two sons responded to bad news. Even Julien, who had been the only male who had been born in his family with a happy disposition – un garçon heureux – can turn into the devil himself if he felt his family or his life had been threatened.

Charlet thought about this as he whispered in the dimly lit hall. “Hired gunmen have attacked your papa.”

Charlet didn’t understand why his body fell forward as the door was snatched further open. Fingers bit into the skin of his neck as Julien gripped it, then tightened his grip for a better hold. Before Charlet could unleash the first of many closed fists blows, his feet cleared the floor as his body was rushed further out into the hall.

“He’s all right, Julien!” The words came out strangled but were coherent enough for Will’s youngest son to release him. Rubbing the skin over his throat, Charlet knew it was better to keep talking rather than stay silent. “He’s safe. Don’t you realize he must if he’s sent his men?”

Julien didn’t have the height of his father or brother, still he was tall. Six-feet-and-eight-inches of naked muscled flesh were hard to not stare at as one of the slave girls realized when she stepped out of a nearby room and found herself unable to move.

“Allez!” Charlet hissed at the girl. Looking at a well-crafted man wasn’t what caused his anger. It was that the girl was too stupid to notice she was standing too close to the son of the Devil while he was in the midst of being told bad news that infuriated him. The girl had cost him two-hundred dollars. Two-hundred dollars was, for him, too much to lose.

Satisfied when the girl ran down the hall and disappeared down the mansion’s stairs, Charlet turned and started to reach his hands out to Julien like any man would when trying to console another. Most Creole men in the city were barely above five feet tall like Charlet was. The shoulders were what he had aimed for, but the height difference had caused Charlet to reach for Julien’s waist. Mon Dieu! Quickly dropping his hands, he realized how stupid he must appear and wondered if Julien misunderstood his half-made gesture.

Talking was his only way out of this embarrassing moment.

“Your papa killed the man, Jules, and that’s when he found the list. I’m afraid it’s a duck list. I’ve heard of these things before, often spoken by the Américains. New Orléans will never be the same now that they have arrived with their uncivilized traditions. Read your papa’s letter. If you need me, I’ll be down below with a bottle of good wine to drown away my sorrows.”

Julien leaned against the wall, lowered his chin and closed his eyes as he rehearsed what he had just heard. His father was not well. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that someone would attack now when they believed his father was too weak to defend himself.

He opened the folded piece of paper and read the few sentences written hastily in his father’s hand. Seeing the names on the list didn’t move him until he reached the last. Désireé? His father must have made a mistake. It was then he reread the list and noticed Françoise’s name at the top of it. Could the letter be right? Had someone wanted to kill a woman and child?

“Monsieur Julien?”

The voice came from the top of the staircase. It was one Julien recognized. Charlet had mentioned his father had sent his men. Montague was one of them.

Montague didn’t come closer and Julien knew why.

“My father, Montague. Is he well?”

“He’s good.” Montague continued to stay where he was. “Have you read your father’s letter?”

“Yes.”

Montague gazed knowingly at the two men behind him.

“I can’t begin to tell you what happened this morning. You wouldn’t believe me if I tried. But what I can tell you is that…is that… shortly after your father killed the first, we soon found another. It’s your brother who took the second man’s life. I’ve seen men die before. I doubt there’s anyone in the city who can’t say the same. But I have never seen anyone killed the way this man was. I think it was the deliberateness of it that sickened me.”

Julien took a step closer to the staircase. “Are you trying to tell me that two men tried to kill my father on his land?”

Montague still wore his coat and held his hat in his hands. This told Julien how urgent Montague felt this visit was. Instead of allowing the servants to assist him out of his traveling clothes, he had come upstairs first.

“Yes, monsieur.” He chose his next words carefully. “And your father fears there are more, as whoever is behind this wants to kill you all, including the petite mulâtresse your family is fond of.”

“Désireé,” Julien whispered. She was only eight years old. Killing a child was unheard of, even if they were of mixed race. New Orléans was filled with mixed race children of every kind, but mostly half Creole. Most bâtards were treated kindly and with respect and rarely mistreated. They owned businesses, and most of them had been freed. Not all, but a majority in the city made provisions for them as well, and these provisions were made public when necessary.

Killing Désireé was the same as killing an eight-year-old child in any family.

“Now that you have his letter, I’ll go,” Montague warned.

Julien gave a firm nod.

Montague slipped back down the stairs. As Julien watched him go, the letter began to make sense. Leaving Désireé alive and killing him, his father and brother would make her wealthier than anyone else in all of the States of América, as all three of them had made her their sole legal heir.

 

Going back inside the room, he made certain this time to lock the door.

Crossing the room, he peered through the open French door and down at the street. It was impossible for anyone to climb up the balcony. Because of this, he left the shutters and the door as they were.

“Is everything all right, Jules?” Marie-Marie asked from the bed.

He turned and faced her. Leaving tonight was too dangerous. It was better to leave at the first sight of light. Since they would have to stay where they were, he decided to get the night over with and get a good night’s rest.

Marie-Marie slid over on the bed to make room for him.

Julien climbed into the bed from the foot of it, and reaching her, drew her back toward its middle. “Everything is fine,” he answered.

The smile she gave temporarily made him forget everything else. The kissing began again as they had while standing. Eager fingers gripped locks of his hair. The feel of her naked skin against his, and the heat spreading between her thighs reawakened his desire. The mattress sagged in all the wrong places as he leaned further against her. Teasing the very tip of her nipple had been the same as unlocking a door. A deep arch of her spine was made and followed by a sharp intake of breath. One of his fingers gently slid between her thighs after her knees relaxed even further. Although her sex was searing hot, sleek and wet, the resistance he felt against his fingertip was unlike anything he ever had before. Taking a moment to explore the feel of her sex, his finger slid between the lips and upward to the hood of knotted, sensitive flesh. Unless his mind was playing tricks on him, other than a very small tangle of gossamer-like threads, it seemed there was no part of her that could be penetrated. Kissing her deeper to take her mind off what he was doing, he pushed gently against the little slender of threads.

Veuillez! Cela les blesse!” She whimpered and clenched her thighs closed from the pain.

Calmer, chérie,” he cooed. Climbing from the bed, because his curiosity was piqued, he again made his way to the door. What he needed was light to see her body up close.

The room beside his was being used by a French couple traveling through the city. The husband and wife lie on opposite sides of the bed. The man lay on the side closest to the door. He merely watched as a tall naked man stepped into the room and made his way to a low-burning lamp on a table. Beside the lamp candles had been neatly arranged for later use.

Julien grabbed a candle and lit it. By this time, the woman lying with the man sat up, saw his state of undress, then quickly lay back down and rolled onto her side so that her back was to him.

Back in his room, Julien lit three of the lamps, then carried two of them closer to the bed. Marie-Marie sat up.

“ No, chérie. Lie down again, mon amour.”

He sat one lamp on the bedside table. The other he kept in his hand. Sitting on the bed, he made sure not to burn himself or her or the bed, as he lowered to get a close inspection.

Marie-Marie had a voice as soft as her name.

Que faites-vous?” She asked.

Julien already saw the problem and wanted to put her at ease. “Je tiens à examiner. Open your legs wider, chérie.”

Marie-Marie stared up at the ceiling, the soles of her feet pressing together as her knees fell further apart. “Cela peut-il être nuisible?”

He smiled at her.

She looked down, saw his smile and returned it with one of her own.

“How can it hurt if I’m only looking?” And looking he was. There was no visible opening. Two soft folds of flesh looked as if they had been fused together since birth.

“I heard my mother tell my father how painful it was,” she said. “I could hear her from down the hall. My father accused her of exaggerating, and told her that having children had solved the matter. My mother begged him to have affairs. My father told her that no other woman was made like she was, and he was only doing what was his right. It seemed as if I heard her crying inside her boudoir every night.”

Julien meditated on this as he set the lamp beside the other on the table. Creole girls were married starting at the age of sixteen until they were twenty-five. Anything older than that, although it did happen on occasion, the young woman was considered a spinster. Marie-Marie wasn’t sixteen. She was twenty. The night was possible. If her mother was capable of making love, then she was too.

He was surprised when Marie-Marie twined her arms around his neck and pulled him closer. Julien did what he must; he took his time, slowly increasing her arousal to draw her attention away from her middle.

Marie-Marie was a talker. A woman who talked openly during lovemaking aroused him immensely. Lentement. Bon. Oui. Lentement.

When the lips of her sex were parted and the juices laved away with his tongue, she rewarded him with whimpers of pleasure. Il se sent très bien. Oui. Très bon. Oui. Très bon.

Waiting until she shivered and rubbed her naked skin against his for want of more, he slid again between her thighs. Bracing his hands on her slim hips, he gave a small thrust. Just as he felt her body begin to yield, Marie-Marie released a piercing scream, tried to clap her knees shut and slapped at him as she tried to crawl away.

Julien held her fast to the bed and leaned more of his weight against her.

“It’s all right, chérie,” he coaxed. “S'il vous plaît, permettez-moi de vous aimer. Give me a little bit more of this honey.”

Tears flowed from her eyes as she shook her head fiercely, all of her previous fears returning. In the hopes he wouldn’t press the issue, she crawled away from him and hid underneath the coverlet.

Rolling onto his back, he knew he had been so close. He then did what his father or brother wouldn’t have in the same situation. He climbed out of the bed, dressed and left the room.

Chapter Five

I Do

[What you don’t know is bigger than you. – Creole Proverb]

 The night was still young. A fais do do was in full swing. Julien gazed at the clock on the mantle in Charlet’s grande salle.  Half past midnight. Marie-Marie was either sleeping or waiting for him to return. As soon as she saw he had planned on leaving, she had run to the door and called out to him before he reached the stairs. It pleased him to see that his new bride, although fearful of consummating their marriage, wanted him near. Twice while he had stood at the top of the stairs, he thought of going back into the room and sleeping in bed beside her like he would have a sister. Knowing it would be too hard to keep his hands off of her, and wanting her to calm, because only then would she realize he had no intentions of hurting her, he bade her back inside and walked away.

Up until the past few minutes, he had been able to sit in the corner without anyone pestering him. The salle was now filled with partygoers who sought attention from anyone near. Leaving the party behind, he was pleased to see one of the servants standing in the door of the dining room to grant the requests of the mansion’s guests. His overcoat was brought down. The servant had even tried to help him into it, but he sent her away with a flick of his wrist. Guests nodded and bid him adieu as he made his way out the front door.

A salty, cool breeze rolled its way up the street from the Mississippi. Madam Cosette’s brothel was not too far away. As he walked, he remembered the night he first met Marie-Marie. Ill-dressed and standing in the rain, it was obvious she had run away from home. Rarely were women seen without a male escort. The reason she was alone was similar to other women who had found the courage to be on the streets of the Vieux Carré alone.

Yellow fever visited New Orléans every year. Her mother was first in the family to die. Days later her father, and then her older sister. The loss of her two brothers within a day apart ended her financial security. It had been the men in her family who had secured work on a plantation in St. Martin. The owner of the small not yet prosperous estate could not afford to pay a white woman for work that one of his six slaves could do for free. The options she had were few. With no other family here in América, it was either marry in haste or give herself over to the Urseline nuns.

Julien had asked two questions. Are you hungry? Can I take you some place warm? Thanking him for his kindness, she permitted him to lead her to his family’s mansion on Rue Royal. The servants were stunned to see he had brought a woman into the house, and more stunned when a bath and food had been ordered up to his mother’s old boudoir. From the moment he had laid eyes on her, he knew he would marry her.

Madam Cosette’s loomed up ahead. Light spilled out of its tightly closed shutters. Only a prostituée at Madame Cosette’s could satisfy him on a night like this.

“Who dat?” A young slave girl asked from behind the closed door. That she tried speaking English when this part of the city only spoke French told him Madam Cosette had started taking Américain callers.

Jolie didn’t wait for an answer and swung open the door. The sight of Julien smiling in front of her propelled her forward with a smile of her own. “Monsieur!” French was swapped for English. “The mesdemoiselles will be happy when they see you’re here. Just so’s you know, madame lets me take a man now and then.”

He lowered his face to hers and whispered, “You tell madame I said to get you off your back or I’ll take you out of here.”

She giggled at the threat and stepped aside as Julien entered. Taking his overcoat, she continued to smile at him as she led him past the grande salle and through the dining room toward the rear of the house. It was there she led him up the dark staircase that led up to Madam Cosette’s private salle. It was here that only her most distinguished guests were permitted.

Several lamps were lit inside this room. Colored candles also burned. Beside them lay gris-gris. If one had an eye to notice, there were other items in the room that warned that Cosette practiced Louisiana voodoo.

Jolie offered him tobacco, something to drink and even marijuana.

“No, thank you, beautiful.” Julien reclined on one of the side chairs.

“I’ll get madam for you.”

Minutes later Julien stood when he heard the sound of small feet approaching.

“Monsieur Jennings.” Like him, Madam Cosette spoke fluent French and not the patois of the Vieux Carré. She stood partially in the door. No attempts were made to step further into the room as her eyes devoured every part of him. The rumors that passed between the gentlemen that thrilled in the lasciviousness of her private quarters hinted she was an illegitimate kin to the comte de la Châtre. Everyone who knew her personally knew about her fetish with a book written by a well-known bel-esprit.

Madam Cosette bade him to sit. Salutation kisses weren’t welcome in her home. She stepped forward then, the silk of her untied sarong sweeping across the rug. Her luminous skin and curves were negligently visible underneath her clothes. Either she was unmindful of her near nakedness or just didn’t care.

Sitting in the padded chair that faced him, she pulled forward the deck of well-worn cards resting on the small table in front of her. Next to them a candle of deeper color burned, its flame small and without a flicker. Julien knew she liked reading the lives of the wealthy in the city but never before had she attempted to read his. When suggested to do so, he chose one of the cards from the deck to please her hoping afterwards he would be permitted to entertain one of her girls.

The card was taken carefully from his hand and laid face down.

“Two more, monsieur, if you don’t mind.”

Julien chose two more.

Each card was partially lifted and peeked at. Turning the cards he chose over one by one, the remaining deck was shuffled and held in front of him. The card he chose was now considered the top card of the deck. All the others were swiftly placed underneath. The fourth card was then laid face up. Eleven more cards were pulled from the top of the deck and arranged in a precise order on the table.

Taking a moment to study the cards, her eyes lifted to his.

Julien sat forward, fearless of the cards or what she might say. Never trust the cards. His father had always told him this. Choose your own path without the spiritual dabblers in the Vieux Carré persuading you to travel the path they may or may not see.

The arrangement of the fifteen cards resembled a tree. Two of the cards were positioned sideways.

“Shall I tell you?” She spoke rapidly, her voice beseeching him to say yes. The only movement she made was with her eyes; they darted back and forth as if each of his eyes told her something differently.

The pictures on the cards interested him. In one, a man sat in a chair wearing a crown. In another, a naked woman stood with the moon shining brightly on her. There were other images: a serpent, symbols he couldn’t make out, and images from a standard deck of cards.

Cosette pointed at the naked woman as if wanting to confirm his suspicion.

“Why not?”  Julien finally answered.

“The woman in this card will save what’s left of your life. The more you love her, the more her heart will become yours, literally, until it is your own heartbeat beating inside of her. The children she bears will become your future. You cannot avoid this love, as her spirit was designed in another world specifically, for her to be your guide.”

Julien eased back in his chair.

The expression on Cosette’s face was passive as she spoke now in a whisper. “This woman is not the woman you will marry.” Another card was pointed to. “This is the woman you marry.” Her eyes tightened and narrowed as she studied the cards further as if wanting to see deeper into their meaning. “The stars will align in your favor the night you marry. Get an annulment. Leave this woman and find the other. Sickness is what I see. The woman you marry, her family is cursed with sickness.” Another card was pointed to. “Grave pain. This one represents her dead relatives. This other tells me she had recent death in her family. If you marry and stay married, death will visit you through your wife.”

Her eyes lifted to his, quickly. Slowly her gaze became acute. “Don’t you see? The spirit of death is attached to her soul. And if you attach your soul to hers…”

“Enough!” The derision he felt came out sounding like a sharp hiss.

She saw the look in his eyes and sensed no need to tell him anything further. The Jennings men never believed the cards. All of them were far too stubborn. 

She sat back the least perturbed by his lack of faith. “What is your desire tonight, monsieur? I can smell your lust. It is very strong this evening.”

Julien quizzed her eyes – her every action in the hopes of seeing the truth. “You heard I got married today, didn’t you? Someone told you,” he accused.

The way she fell back in her chair was as if someone had pushed her against gravity. The flame on the candle leaned dramatically in their direction, then straightened and burned as before.

“Today?” Her eyes were wide.

Julien saw her need to disbelieve what he said and averted his gaze.

She leaned forward and closer to him, her voice urging him to look deep into her eyes. “The cards are always right, monsieur. Maybe that’s why you’re here instead of why you thought. Who is this woman you married?”

Julien thought of Marie-Marie’s family, and how every last one of them were now dead after only being in the city less than six months. Things like these had happened in the past, but he couldn’t remember it ever being an entire family and usually only one of the family members. Sickness. Grave Pain. Recent death. He rose to his feet, hating himself for agreeing to hear what the cards said.

“I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here.”

Cosette stood slowly to her feet. “The cards are right.”

Julien saw fear in her eyes – fear of him not believing and walking out of the room and something bad happening to him. A growl flew out of his mouth as his hand clasped her throat tighter than he had choked anyone ever in his life. Lowering with her, he forced her to the floor and pushed her face closer to the cards. “You grab ’em, shuffle ’em and read them again. Now!”

Both of her feet pushed desperately against the floor as she struggled to breathe. The chair she had sat on was pushed away with the kicks she made. Her sarong fell off one of her shoulders. As she tried to face him, her right breast became exposed. New fear shone in her enlarged eyes.

Jolie and a servant girl Julien had never seen ran to the door, saw what was happening and became unable to move.

“Read them!” He gritted and released her throat.

Cosette coughed as she collapsed, then lifted quickly onto her knees. While on her knees she grabbed the deck, shuffling them with trembling fingers and hands.

More servants had come to the door, all of them in some disarray of partial dress. Their eyes darted to their madame, then on the candle burning on the table.

“The flame still burns the same,” one of them whispered. “Even as she breathes on it.”

Julien heard this and stared at the flame. It burned the same way it had when he had come into the room. Pulling her chair closer, Julien lifted Cosette onto it, and then he sat beside her and waited, ignoring those who had gathered to watch.

He watched as she mixed the deck once more, then held it out to him.

Julien lifted the first card and turned it over himself. It was the very same card he had pulled the first time. Laying the card on the table, he chose two more cards like before and saw that he drew them again in the same exact order he had previously.

Snatching the deck from her hand, he turned the deck face up to see what kind of witchery he was dealing with. Half of the deck had a variation of symbols on its face. The other half was standard playing cards.

Turning the deck back upside down, he shuffled the cards himself until he felt satisfied that the cards were thoroughly mixed. With a slow hand, he chose one card and turned it over. The first card he chose was again the same. The need to prove to the others there was no way he could choose the same cards again, he examined the deck a long time and chose two more, carefully. These he didn’t turn face up as he laid them on the table. He then chose another card, and like she had, placed all of the others beneath it. Laying the first card down, he then slid one by one the top eleven cards, all of them face down. Only then did he sit back and wait.

He saw the eager way Cosette reached for the cards. Julien could feel the others at the door pressing against each other, desperate to see, to know, but too frightened to come closer. With his eyes intently on the table, he watched as she turned each card over and arranged them the same way she had before.

 He began to breathe easier. Most of the cards he had first chosen no longer stared up at him. The man in a chair, the naked woman with the moon behind her, and the serpent were still there. There were two new cards that neither he nor Cosette could stop looking at. One was La Morte (death). Knowing someone wanted him dead made him more uncomfortable than he already was. The other was a woman in a long flowing blue dress. An emblem of some kind was positioned over her breasts.

Julien pointed to it. It was the only card he was interested in. “What is this one?”

“The woman who will guide you out of the darkness, monsieur.”

“Is it my wife?”

“Let me read again,” she beseeched. “It’s the only way you can truly understand.”

He contemplated as he stared down at the cards. “Inside this fuckery, you don’t only desire the body but also the mind. But you won’t have mine. I refuse to believe any of this.”

Two half eagles were pulled out of his pocket. One of the gold coins was placed on the table beside the cards, the other flicked to Jolie.

“You have nothing for me here,” he said and walked away.

The sight of Charlet’s home did little to relieve the stress he felt. During his entire walk, the faces of the cards continually came back to him. Not up for pleasantries or conversations of any kind, he slipped through the home’s courtyard undetected and tested the lock of the butler pantry. As soon as it opened, he stepped inside, crossed the dining room and entered the hall. The open doors of the grand salle showed couples dancing and female servants bearing silver platters that held beverages for the mansion’s guests.

No one tried to stop him.

The up-tempo of a piano and frottoir spilled chords of lust and seduction. It was this reason Charlet’s fais do dos were widely known.

 All of the lamps inside his bedroom had been blown out. The French doors and shutters were tightly closed. The hair rose on the nape of his neck when he heard what sounded close to a whimper come from the farthest corner.

Sickness. Grave pain. Death had attached itself to your wife’s soul.

It pained him that he was too frightened to call out her name. Hurrying to one of the French doors, he opened it and threw back its shutters, then slowly turned and looked over his shoulder.

Marie-Marie sat on the floor in the area where the whimper had come from. A wooden knife was in her hand. It was unornamented and the kind that servants used for meals. Small traces of blood shone on her bare legs in the moonlight. A small stain of blood was on her gown.

Running to her, he lifted her in his arms and held her tight while kissing her hair.

“What did you do, chérie? Tell me.”

The knife fell from her hand as she hugged him tight about the neck. “I don’t want my marriage to be like my mother’s. I want to be happy. With you.”

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