Historical mystery/suspense set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at the end of the 19th century
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Cover to Cover Books, Natchez, MS
Loblolly Writer's House
Lionel Augustus left his estate to his bastard son, Clay Boudreaux, and stepdaughter, Olivia Lee, with one bizarre stipulation, they wed. But days after her marriage by proxy, Olivia's groom is dead and her family is contesting the will. Now a stranger invades her home claiming to be her groom, and Olivia finds herself allied with a stranger who could prove her greatest ally or most dangerous foe.
“Why didn’t you let me fall?”
“You know, sweetheart, aiming for my leg was stupid. When you find a strange man in your house, you need to kill him.”
“I can’t do my own killing, remember? I have to hire ‘henchmen’ to do it.”
“Well, the mercy you intended me had nothing to do with why I pulled you up.”
“Then why?” she asked.
Damn those questioning eyes, so blue they were purple. He’d heard about her eyes; violet people called them. Story went Olivia’s mother had those eyes, shuddered windows to a selfish soul. “Because I need you,” he said. “I’m moving in, honey.”
“You’re planning to assume Clay’s identity?” she said.
“I’m taking my inheritance.” His gaze moved over her. “At least that part of it I want.”
“Meaning me to take or leave at your pleasure? I was not part of the inheritance, you fool. I am a beneficiary, as was Clay.”
“I’ve got news for you. You are as much a part of Clay’s estate as this house and the sundry businesses Lionel Augustus managed to accumulate over the past thirty years.” His gaze swept her head to foot. “Like he accumulated your mother and you. Rebecca Lee passed on, you he saved for Clay.”
She thrust her chin. “On the contrary, he gathered up Clay for me.”
He snorted. The truth of that lay in how one interpreted Lionel Augustus’ objectives. Boudreaux rose and offered her a hand. She looked at it.
“Take it,” he said.
Her eyes moved from the extended hand to his face. “I don’t want it.”
He reached down, seized her arm—she yelped—and he yanked her to her feet, where she squirmed and twisted, trying to pull free. The scent of gardenia filled his nostrils, fever his blood, and he spun her so that her back was to him. He circled his arm around her waist and pulled her against him. “You’re getting it anyway.” In six long strides, he had her back in Lionel Augustus’s bedroom and the door locked behind them. Key in hand, he turned and made a show of pocketing it. “To make sure you make no more mad dashes through the railing.”
“No one here is going to willingly believe you’re Clay.”
“The Sheriff of Galveston County says Clay Boudreaux died in that fire, and that sets fine with the rest of the family.”
“To include you, I’m sure.”
“You’re sure of nothing, Mister Boudreaux.”
“I’m sure of this, Missus Boudreaux; the Sheriff of Galveston County doesn’t know who he found in that house, and I am also sure that the Galveston County coroner hasn’t pronounced Clay Boudreaux dead. And I am equally sure you will vouch for me.”
“You’re overplaying your hand, if you think you can coerce me into partaking in such a sham.”
“‘Overplaying my hand’? A favored expression of your late granduncle.” Boudreaux arched an eyebrow. “Do you like to gamble, madam?”
“On a sure bet.”
“I am a sure bet.”
“And I think you’re bluffing.”
“Ain’t necessary, sweetheart. You exposed your hand when you tried to have me killed.”
“In Galveston or New Orleans?”
She drew in what appeared to be a calming breath. “And why, pray tell, do you think I would agree to such chicanery?”
“Because of the letter.”
“The letter you wrote propositioning”—he smiled—“Troy to kill Clay for you. Foolish, writing a letter that would implicate you in murder.”
“My sentiments exactly. I never wrote any such letter.”
“Well, somebody did, sweetie, and whoever she was she wrote it in your hand and signed your name to it.”
Olivia opened her mouth, shut it, then said, “I want to see it.”
“It’s safe, where you can’t get your hands on it.” He stepped to where she stood in the middle of the room. She backed away from him.
“I do not believe you have anything to implicate me, sir.”
“Oh, I kept the letter, Olivia. Anyone who would plot to kill her new husband, sight unseen, was a sure bet to try to eliminate his assassin next.” He straightened and noted how her body tensed with his move. Slowly, he started around her. “That letter is insurance should you try another trick like that. I left detailed information as to its location in the event of my, shall we say, untimely death. The Sheriff of Galveston County will retrieve it.”
Her back was to him. She didn’t move, and he smiled to himself, then leaned forward, his lips next to her ear. “You could end up on the gallows.”
She whirled, and he laughed at her. For the first time in days, he thought of her as a sexual being.
“I will not have relations with you.”
And a mind reader to boot. He raked his eyes over her petite body, grinned, and stepped around her to the bed. She stepped aside. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her watching him. The threat of sexual coercion could prove a viable form of duress.
From the nightstand he picked up a copy of The Three Muske—
Olivia’s small hand covered the title. She took the book out of his hand and returned it to the table.
“I beg your pardon?”
She turned from him. “It was Uncle Lionel’s. I was reading it to him...I don’t want you to lose his place.”
“You expect him to finish it?”
“I might finish it.”
He sat on the bed and fell back on the chintz spread. “I might read it myself. Better yet, maybe I’ll let you read it to me, too, Olivia.” He patted the mattress. “Right here, beside me.”
She folded her arms beneath her breasts. “I’ll forgo the pleasure, thank you.”
He sat up and pulled off a boot, then started struggling with the other. “You know, it might be hard to keep up appearances, us not sleeping together. What will the servants think?”
“That you and I do not know each other very well.”
He stretched out the length of the bed. Damn, his feet didn’t even reach the end of the mattress, a luxury he hadn’t experienced since he was seventeen. With a hum, he sank further into a feather pillow and weaved his fingers together behind his head. “That might work for a day or two,” he said. “Simon’s not going to be fooled much past that.”
“And what concern is it of Simon’s?”
“None, but I have my reputation to think of.”
“None of the servants live here, Mister Boudreaux.”
“But I do. I’m lord of the manor here, Olivia, and I intend to enjoy the role.”
“If you think—”
Outside, gravel crunched in rough harmony with the spin of carriage wheels and the chink of harness. Olivia turned to the drape-covered windows overlooking the front of the house. He rose, stepped in front of her, and pulled the green velvet drapes aside. Olivia moved up beside him, and he watched her crane to see who was driving up. Pleased or displeased, he couldn’t tell, and he dropped the drape.
“Dear Aunt Aggie, I do believe, with her niece, the beautiful and vivacious Lydia Augustus Pique, Uncle Duncan’s youngest.”
“You appear to know more than you should, Mister Boudreaux. I was expecting them.”
Faster than a slap, he cupped his hand around the back of her neck and yanked her to him, and for a moment he basked in the fear in those not now so shuddered windows to a selfish soul. He brought his lips close to hers.
“Listen to me, sweetheart. I’m your secret partner now. I’m going to find out who your accomplices are, so you better think real careful what you tell Aunt Aggie and Lydia about me. I’m very much aware you could be in cahoots with them and Uncle Duncan, but tell me, whose side do you think they’ll be on when they realize I have evidence implicating you in Clay Boudreaux’s murder? Even if they could, do you think they’d help you? They’ll leave you to swing alone, while they divvy up the estate, and I think you’re smart enough to know it.”
He eased his hold and started to pull back, then stopped when her arms snaked around his neck. She jerked him back. His gaze dropped to her lips, full and pink and moist and gently parted and, no-doubt, deliciously soft. Her sweet breath filled his senses, already drunk on the scent of gardenia, and he hardened.
“And you listen to me, you bastard,” she said, her warm body pressing against his. “I’m going to help you find my accomplices. And then I’m going to send him or her or them, but most especially you, to the gallows for the murder of Clay Boudreaux.” His erection melted.
“But I am Clay Boudreaux.”
“No, you aren’t.” She’d already unwound those arms from around his neck and placed her hands on his shoulders. Now she pushed him away.
“How can you be sure?” he asked.
“Clay would never believe I betrayed him.” Her glistening eyes damned him, and he watched the subtle movement of her throat when she swallowed. “And if he did,” she said softly, “I would never, ever forgive him. Now take your treacherous hands off me.”
He released her so fast, she almost toppled backwards; otherwise, she appeared unperturbed.
“Well, Missus Boudreaux, it seems we have reached an agreement.”