A sneak preview of my upcoming historical romance. Enjoy!
Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
“A commoner? Father, you do realize our family can be traced back to the echelons of European royalty? You still correspond with relatives in England and France.” Francine Beaumont was hardly ready to lay down her virginity for a man who bought his way into high society.
“What a despicable thing to say about a man you do not know. Besides, he can offer you a large plantation, slaves, and wealth. We are faltering, my dear. Certainly you have seen how household expenses have been cut in the past year,” Lord Arnaud Beaumont admonished his eldest daughter.
Francine had spurned nearly every suitor placed in her path, but now it was time to marry off the bane of his existence. How had something so vicious spawned from such a gentle-born woman as Francine’s mother? If only she were living now. Perhaps genial Marie would have been able to calm their daughter’s ire.
“It is tantamount to selling me off to the highest bidder, Papa!” Francine attempted to use the childhood endearment so often uttered by her much more pliable sister.
“The matter is settled!” Lord Beaumont pounded his fist on the top of the polished desk, causing Francine to flee the room in tears, past her younger sister, Adrienne. She watched the retreating form of Francine for a few moments before creeping into her father’s study.
Arnaud was relieved to see his sweet, patient daughter appear in the doorway. Her pleasant face was encircled with golden ringlets, her clear, blue eyes full of love and concern. Adrienne, his pride and joy, so much like her mother in every way, would never have protested an arranged marriage. She would have considered it her honor, and duty, to oblige. She was the opposite in every way to her tantruming sister.
“Papa, you mustn’t let Francine trouble you. Remember your constitution…” Adrienne had always been aware of the troubles plaguing her father. They had caused him to suffer horribly with stomach pains, only recently diagnosed as ulcerous. She knew Francine had no idea, nor would she care.
“Ma petite, you are too kind. If only it were you who Henri Du Cormier sought.”
Seventeen-year old Adrienne was already well-versed in the matters of arranged marriage, knowing though she had more chance of marrying for love than her titled, elder sister. Francine looked upon Adrienne with contempt, envying her freedom, however minute.
“Papa, if I could, I would gladly take her place. Why does Monsieur Du Cormier seek a bride with a title? Surely such things do not matter here anymore.” Louisiana was a part of the United States. The French Revolution had dispatched with the monarchy, and the British held no control over them. Titles were obsolete relics of the past.
Arnaud rubbed the bridge of his nose, removing his silver-rimmed spectacles, and closing his doleful chocolate brown eyes. His greying, dark brown hair only betrayed his age. “I wish I knew, ma petite. He came into this money suddenly, only able to buy St. Esprit through sheer luck! I wish it were different. My title, therefore Francine’s, is useless.”
Adrienne crossed the room, kneeling at her father’s side, no care that she wrinkled her carefully pressed silk gown. “Mayhap we could speak to him? Surely he would not want such a wife as Francine, once he sees her ways.”
“Francine would never disgrace herself by behaving poorly at a public function, especially with the height of society attending.” Arnaud shuffled some papers aside. “It would alleviate my anguish greatly if you were to find a husband, someone to make you completely happy beyond your wildest dreams.”
Smiling warmly, Adrienne gazed up at her mother’s portrait above the fireplace. Her mother, Marie, was captured in the prime of youth and beauty. She saw her mother’s features in herself, knowing this was why her father favored her so. “You mean like how you were with Mama?”
Arnaud lifted his gaze, peering up at his beloved. They had grown up in a tumultuous world in pre-revolutionary France, hiding their aristocratic upbringing. When Arnaud had prospered in the shipping business, the young couple made their way to the French owned Louisiana territory. How they celebrated when the United States bought it, knowing their daughters would grow up in a free country.
Adrienne was three when their mother passed away from consumption. She vaguely remembered the tender-hearted woman who soothed her nightmares with soft, French lullabies. Often, her dreams were full of the music, as she twirled her small fingers into the woman’s blonde ringlets. She felt cheated not to have spent more time with her mother, but guilty for those feelings at the same time.
Finally, Arnaud spoke, “Yes, like how I was with Mama. I wish she were here. She had a way with Francine. Francine would throw the most violent tantrums, sending nannies and maids running from the nursery. Marie walked in, composed, and quieted the storm.”
Before melancholy could descend over the pair, Adrienne changed the subject. “Helene says everything is prepared for this evening. All the silver is polished, and the ballroom floor has been swept and cleaned. She wanted me to ask your approval on the canapés for the hors d’oeuvres.”
Patting his daughter’s hand, Arnaud left the final touches to Adrienne. “I am sure what you decide will be scrumptious. Is she preparing a full course meal, or a buffet?”
“I believe she thought it best to provide guests with titbits of food right in the ballroom. It’s very new-fangled. I believe I will ask for the salmon and dill. It is my favorite, after all.” Adrienne rose, brushing the fabric of her pale pink dress.
“I leave it all in your more than capable care, ma petite. Now, hurry along and reassure Helene. I am sure she will be beside herself, wondering what my decision shall be.” Arnaud winked and stood, placing a doting kiss on his daughter’s brow.
“I will, Papa.” Adrienne exited the room in a rustle of skirts, her heels clicking delicately on the wooden floor.
Arnaud sat down again, pressing his hand to his stomach to find some relief from the gurgling sensation building there. He slid open a drawer in his desk, and took a dose of the prescribed laudanum. Reclining back in the chair, he waited for the pain to recede, praying to his long silent God that Francine would do something for the family, for once in her life.
“Helene?” Adrienne poked her head into the kitchen, breathing in the smell of freshly baked honey bread. “Mmmm!” She crept over to the place where the bread was cooling and reached to break off a chunk.
“Mademoiselle Adrienne! That is for the midday meal! I have a fresh pot of stew bubblin’ away.” Helene bustled from the pantry, wiping her hands on her worn apron.
Snatching her hand back, Adrienne smiled warmly at the old cook. Helene had been there as long as she could remember, with her kind, brown eyes and work-worn features; always stern but kind. “I am sorry, Helene. Papa asked me to come down and say the salmon and dill will be fine for the canapés.”
“Well, it’s about time! I’ve been frettin’ for hours! Now, shoo. You’ll want to have a rest before the guests descend on us like a holy plague!” Helene ushered Adrienne out of the kitchen, but not before slipping a fresh, honey bread roll into her hand. “Don’t you say I’m never good to you, missy!” Her eyes crinkled as she smiled.
Adrienne felt the warm confection in her hand and ascended the stairs, only to be met at the top by Francine, green eyes red-rimmed from her heart-wrenching sobs. “What were you doing down there?”
“I was delivering a message from Father about the hors d’oeuvres for tonight,” Adrienne spoke carefully, knowing her sister was quick to anger. She still felt the sting of many hair pulls from their childhood. She secreted her prize in the folds of her skirt with subtle movements, knowing Francine would steal it, if given the chance.
“Tonight? You mean the evening where my life comes to an end? Where I am forced to marry a man I know nothing about?” Francine, ever the expert in dramatics, slumped delicately against the wall.
Drawing in a shaky breath, Adrienne strove to soothe her sister. “Have you met him yet? Perhaps he is devastatingly handsome.”
“How could he be? He is not from our class of people!” Francine flounced off down the hall, punctuating her flight with more sobs.
Adrienne shook her head. Francine would surely bring the entire mood of the house to a head. Everyone would be on edge, worried about upsetting their volatile charge. Bringing her treat once more back into sight, she pressed her nose to the top, breathing in the sweet smell and biting into it, letting the flavors fill her senses. Maybe this marriage to Henri Du Cormier would be good for all of them, if it got Francine out of their lives.
The evening arrived swiftly. Adrienne stood proudly by her father’s side as hostess, as Francine was too sulky to perform the duty. Her new dress was the color of the midnight sky, lit by a full moon. It fell in soft waves down the full skirt, accented by white lace. Her gloves were of the best quality, and her hair was styled meticulously. Despite the financial troubles, Arnaud always managed to dress his daughters to their standing.
Francine was a contrast to her sister, choosing a low-cut bodice, almost daring. Her emerald dress mimicked her disagreeable personality, and she chose black accents, instead of the more delicate white. Her ebony hair upswept in corkscrew curls around her pinched face. There was no persuading her otherwise. She maintained her position in the ballroom, away from the arriving guests, seething in silent rage. When was this Du Cormier meant to arrive? She pondered this question over and over, wanting to do something to dissuade him, but not wanting to ruin her name in the process.
“Francine, darling! You look…divine!” Rosalind Denis floated towards her in a divine creation of burgundy.
One of Francine’s only friends, the woman was quick to confide in her. “Rosalind, darling, something horrible has happened!”
“Oh my, do tell.” Rosalind flicked open her fan, surveying the entering guests, and attempting to discern who the eligible bachelors were. Her hazel eyes scanned the room eagerly, using a free hand to gently puff her blonde coiffed hair.
Francine drew her attention back, exasperated at the lack of sympathy from her friend. “I am to be married.”
“Married? But isn’t that wonderful? You will have your own household and expenditures. It will be divine.”
Francine opened her mouth to protest, but then pressed the full lips together. She had not considered this. Du Cormier had come into money; a great sum, if rumors were to be believed. “Oh, I did not consider this.”
“Of course not, my dear. You were thinking with your heart. Foolish really.” Rosalind returned to her perusal of the men.
Francine balked at the accusation. “Foolish? My heart? I fear you’ve confused me with Adrienne.”
“Who is your betrothed then?”
“Nothing is formal yet. It is Henri Du Cormier though.”
Rosalind’s eyes went like saucers, and she snapped her fan closed. “Oh my, aren’t we the lucky one? Did you know he recently bought St. Esprit, with all the slaves, and money to spare? The previous owner, sadly, was a gambler. I don’t blame him. His wife ran off with some merchant.” She prattled on about the scandal, but Francine was no longer listening. She had to make Du Cormier love her, no matter what.
Adrienne glanced over her shoulder, watching Francine conspire with Rosalind. Each was as bad as the other. The sound of her father’s rumbling voice uttering a familiar name had her turning her head. The new arrival did not go unnoticed, as a hush fell over the room.
“Monsieur Du Cormier, such a pleasure to see you again. May I present my daughter, Adrienne?”
Henri Du Cormier wasn’t like any knight in shining armor. His features were plain, intensified by high cheekbones, and a square jaw. He had long, black hair pulled back in a queue, and dark grey eyes that seemed to pierce her very soul, bringing a blush to her cheeks.
“Monsieur, welcome to our home.”
Henri took the delicate beauty’s hand, pressing his lips to the back. “A pleasure, mademoiselle.”
Francine huffed in indignation from across the room. She was not going to let Adrienne steal this man’s attentions. She pranced over, pushing her sister aside. “Monsieur! So sorry I was detained. I am Francine Beaumont.” She held out her hand expectantly, carefully perusing his appearance. She did not care much for the facial hair, but that was something she could easily change, once they were married.
Adrienne wisely chose the moment to retreat, leaving the perplexing man to her sister. She did not want a husband she had to decipher on a daily basis. Simple, loving, and kind was more than enough for her.