Outside New Orleans, convent-raised orphan Libby Sutton arrives to care for a little girl, only to discover that the child cannot or will not speak. Things are terribly wrong at Les Chenes. The first nanny disappeared without a trace and servants are now being murdered. Is her life at risk like the child for whom she cares? Alex, the father, may be responsible and if he is, is he a threat to Libby? And why does he stir such feelings in her?
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While I stood there, a man walked into the room, paused, glanced around, then gazed at me. He was tall, much taller than my five foot six inches. Thick black hair fell in waves over his head while his brown eyes snapped with displeasure as he glanced at me and the valise at my feet.
He stepped forward, bowed slightly then introduced himself.
"I am Monsieur Alexander Chambeau. Who are you?"
The smooth tones of his deep voice sped through me heating my blood. I stood statue still. His voice reached into my soul.
He was beautiful in a dangerous sort of way. His features would put a Greek god to shame. Could this be the father of the children for whom I was to care?
However, he seemed to be waiting for a response from me.
As was my custom, I lowered my head, and gazed at the scrubbed wooden floor.
"How do you do," I murmured. "I am Elizabeth Sutton, the new nanny."
Courtesy demanded I acknowledge him. Hesitantly, I raised my head then extended my hand.
He took it, raised it to his lips and brushed my fingers with his warm breath. For an instant, I felt a searing heat race through my body. Shaken beyond anything I'd ever experienced, I grabbed my hand away and moved back a step.
His dark brown eyes seemed to read my thoughts. Yet, he seemed not at all affected.
"The children are not here at the moment," he said. "You might as well get settled. Your room is through there."
He pointed to a door off to the right, then backed through the open portal, nodded his head once and turned. I listened as the heels of his boots clicked down the wooden stairs.
I started toward the door he'd indicated for suddenly I felt the need to sit down.
Everything about the house seemed strange. Certainly, not a happy home if I judged the expressions of Pearl and the older woman who had met me. I might have a great deal of trouble fitting into such a somber residence. I wondered if the place reeked of despair because of the death of the mistress of the house. Time would tell.
I opened the door. This room, too, was a pleasant surprise. The walls bore a soft green with matching drapes over more tall windows. High ceilings meant cool nights. I sighed with relief. Summer in Louisiana could be hot and humid, even here by the river.
I sat on the bed, surprised that the mattress was made of moss. Oh, I could enjoy this room. I sighed with contentment then turned to my valise.
After a few more minutes the crisp voice of a woman and the singsong French of a young boy reached my ears. The boy said something about a new nanny but the woman responded in English. "This woman is here for your sister. You have your tutor, but Nichole needs someone, too."
As the pair entered the nursery, I left the room assigned to me. As I listened to the boy and the woman, I suspected this must be one of my charges and the servant, Jenny.
I glanced around wondering about the little girl, Nichole. I watched as the child tiptoed into the room. She had to be no more than four or five. She stood there, unmoving, quiet as a church mouse.
Before I offered my name to the trio, Pearl bustled back into the room.
"This here is Jenny. She helps with the children. Her job's been to watch them until you came. The master says today she'll help you with them."
The two children were a study in contrasts. The boy was fair and slender, with wide blue eyes. Blond curls cupped his narrow face. I wondered if he looked like his mother. Pearl put her large arm about the thin shoulders of the boy.
"This here is Stephen. Only, his papa calls him Etienne, that's French for Stephen."
I held out my hand to Stephen. "How do you do, Etienne? My name is Elizabeth."
Stephen took my hand, bowed over it, then shook his head. "Call me Stephen. Grandpa says I'm only one half French." He frowned then added, "Maybe you better call me Etienne."
His comment surprised me. Could the father be that much of an authoritarian?
I suspected Stephen--no, Etienne, had attained seven years of age, yet he spoke and acted like an adult. I shuddered, wondering if this child had ever been allowed to enjoy a childhood. I remembered this Jenny mentioning a tutor in her conversation with him. So Etienne would not be my responsibility. Somehow, I was glad.
Pearl interrupted my thoughts. "Nichole here is your charge, but she don't talk."
The tiny girl was also slender, but she was as dark as the boy was fair. Her hair was nearly black and waved in soft curls over her head. Enormous brown eyes stared at me from a pixie face. I smiled to myself. This young lady would certainly become a beautiful woman.
Pearl gave me a disgusted look then departed the room. I looked at Jenny, wondering how much she'd be willing to tell me about this household. I had many questions. She answered my first one quickly enough.
"Pearl is the housekeeper here at Les Chenes. She don't like nannies."
"Does she have enough experience on which to make such a judgment?" I queried, suddenly put out with Pearl's attitude.
"Yes 'am, she does. You be the fourth woman to come here since--"
"Yes 'am." Jenny nodded her black head vigorously. "Right after the Missus passed on, we had a wet nurse for Nichole and a nanny for Stephen. That nanny, Agnes, stayed almost two years. Then she ran off with the overseer's son. There was two more. Then Lucy came. You're the first one since Lucy."
Jenny paused and glanced at the little girl standing beside her, tugging at her skirts.
"I'll say more later." She herded the children toward the other side of the room.