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Rogue's Mistress(4)

By:Eugenia Riley

Soon, Henrí returned with wood and built up the fire, then discreetly slipped from the room. Then there was silence, interrupted only by the piercing whistle of the wind and the occasional thud of a log sliding in the grate. Julian had no idea how long he’d sat there—an hour, perhaps even two—when Corrine O’Shea opened her eyes. All at once, he found himself gazing into the loveliest cerulean-blue eyes he’d ever seen.

The woman stared back at him, her expression strangely lucid. “Brendan?” she murmured.

Julian felt a surge of guilt and helpless frustration. He forced himself to smile gently at the woman and to lie as convincingly as possible. “Your husband has been detained, madame. He bid me come check on your welfare.”

Corrine O’Shea’s expression brightened with a false hope that lanced Julian’s heart. “You’re a friend of my husband’s, m’sieur?” she rasped, trying to sit up.

Julian gently pushed her bony shoulders back down on the mattress. “Yes, madame. Now, you must conserve your strength. May I get you something?” He glanced at the pitcher and glass on the nightstand. “Some water, perhaps?”

She shook her head, as if speaking required too much energy. She drew several labored breaths, then murmured, “Mercy.”

“Mercy?” Julian repeated. “Oh, yes, your child.”

“I must speak with her.”

Julian was glancing about in confusion when he heard a frightened, childlike voice whisper, “Mama?”

He turned and stood, spotting a little girl standing in the archway leading to the home’s farthest room. The sight of the child stunned him, momentarily robbing him of breath. He felt almost as if he’d seen a ghost. For Mercy O’Shea was a younger version of her mother—delicately, aristocratically beautiful—but with Brendan O’Shea’s flaming red hair and green Irish eyes.

Those enormous, lovely eyes were now fixed with fear on Corrine O’Shea. “Mama?” she repeated anxiously. She glanced suspiciously at Julian, then took a tentative step forward. She was dressed in a handkerchief linen gown and was clutching a rag doll.

Corrine O’Shea again opened her eyes. “Come here, child,” she said weakly.

As Julian tactfully stood aside, Mercy hurried across the room on her bare feet and knelt by the low bed. She flung down her doll and clutched her mother’s hand. “Mama, you look so ill,” she fretted.

“Mercy, I must leave you,” the woman said raspily.

“No, Mama! No!” Mercy said, her eyes wide and terrified, her young voice tinged with hysteria. “I don’t want you to leave me.”

“My darling, I have no choice,” the mother whispered back through tears. “Don’t worry—your father will care for you. He’s been . . . detained, but he’ll be here soon.”

“No, Mama, no!” Mercy cried. “I don’t want Papa to care for me! All he does is shout at me, and come home smelling of something so vile—”

Corrine continued to speak in a halting, convulsive whisper. “It’s all right, Mercy. I know your father has been through . . . hard times . . . but after I’m . . . gone . . . I’m sure he’ll live up to his responsibilities. You’ll see.”

“No, Mama, please, no!” the child exclaimed, her voice piteous. “I don’t want you to go! I don’t want Papa to care for me.”

Julian observed the poignant exchange between mother and child with an aching heart. Now, recognizing that Corrine O’Shea was near exhaustion, he stepped forward and placed his hand on the child’s shoulder. “Mercy, your mother is quite ill. She must rest now.”

Mercy flashed angry green eyes—eyes too old for one so young—up at Julian. “Who are you, m’sieur?” she snapped.

Julian was amazed at the small child’s spirit and forthrightness. “I am M’sieur Devereux, Mercy. A—a friend of your father’s. I came to tell your mother that your father has been detained.”

“Then leave us, M’sieur Devereux,” Mercy said angrily. “This is none of your affair. I shall care for my mama.”

Julian was again flabbergasted by the child’s pride and mettle. Meanwhile, Corrine O’Shea said weakly, “Mercy, you must not be rude to our guest.” Then she blissfully slipped from consciousness.

The child turned to her mother with alarm. “Mama! Mama! No! You must wake up! You must!”

Julian firmly drew her back. “Mercy, you must let your mother rest.”

To his stupefaction, she turned on him with fists flailing. “No!” she screamed, her small hands ineffectually pummeling his thighs, his stomach. “I must not let her rest. I must not! If I do, she’ll—”

Abruptly, the blows stopped, and Mercy O’Shea became a child again, convulsing into tears. She didn’t resist when Julian hauled her up into his arms and held her tightly against his chest. Her small body shuddered with sobs, and her pain wracked his very soul. He smoothed her silky hair and patted her back, wondering at how small and soft and helpless she felt in his arms.

At last she drew back. She spoke with her heart in her voice. “She’s going to die, isn’t she, m’sieur?”

Julian swallowed hard, finding he couldn’t answer her. The desperate sorrow etched on her lovely face was more than he could bear. Why did one so young and beautiful have to know such unspeakable heartache? he wondered. He brushed a tear from her smooth cheek and looked into her brimming eyes. “You’ll be cared for, Mercy. I vow it, my dear.”

She shivered and laid her head against his shoulder. The trusting gesture filled Julian with an emotion so powerful that sudden tears stung his eyes. He’d never had a brother or a sister, but suddenly he felt a brother’s fierce protectiveness toward this needy, precious child.

He carried Mercy back to her room and laid her on her modest bed, pulling the heavy quilt over her. He fetched her doll from the other room and laid it beside her. Mercy was already asleep, her sweet face still streaked with tears.

Julian sat with Corrine O’Shea all night. She became delirious. He held her hand and listened as she spoke disjointedly, her mind going back to the happier days of her youth, when she’d first met Brendan O’Shea, when he’d courted her. Though her account was garbled, Julian surmised that Brendan and Corrine had met when she was a novice nun working at a local Catholic hospital; he’d been a laborer, ill with yellow fever, whom she’d nursed back to health. Corrine had forsaken her final vows for Brendan and had married him. Corrine’s family had promptly disowned her. Nonetheless, she’d been blissfully happy with her husband during those early days—they’d even named their child Mercy, after the hospital where they’d met.

As the end grew near, Corrine began to call Julian by her husband’s name, Brendan. He didn’t resist. She asked him to promise to care for Mercy, to be a kind, attentive father—and he gave his promise eagerly, his voice thick and hoarse.

Sometime during the night, she died. He held her hand until it grew cold.


Sunrise found Julian, rumpled and unshaven, sitting in the drab little parlor, drinking cafe au lait from a cracked demitasse. His gaze was grim and bloodshot, and he was staring at some unseen point in space. In the bedroom beyond, the black woman was dressing the corpse.

Julian felt as if he had aged a lifetime over the past night. Before yesterday, he had never witnessed death—yet last night, he had watched two people die. In a way, he felt responsible for the demise of both.

Julian set down his cup, got up wearily, and walked over to the archway. The servant had finished her ministrations; Corrine O’Shea had been washed and dressed, her hands folded over her chest. She looked angelic and peaceful in death. He sighed. He would have to arrange for burial, and see to it that the servants were provided for.

Most critical, of course, there was the child. What on earth was he to do about her?

At the sound of a knock at the front door, the black woman slipped past Julian to the parlor. He watched her admit the magistrate, Paul Rillieux.

“Julian!” Paul called, spotting his friend.

“Come in, Paul,” Julian whispered. He chided himself, wondering why he was being so quiet. The woman was already dead.

Paul—a small, wiry Creole with a large mustache—handed the servant his hat and cloak, then crossed the ratty rug and came to stand beside Julian in the doorway. “I figured you might still be here, mon ami. A good thing I secured the Irishman’s address before you left Madame Sophie’s.”

Julian nodded tiredly. “Is everything taken care of?”

“Oui. The incident will go down officially as an accident. I thought that for the sake of your family—and the Irishman’s—it would be best to say that the incident occurred at a grogshop. Otherwise, the details will remain the same. The Irishman pulled his pistol on you, and you had no choice but to defend yourself.” He withdrew a sheet of folded parchment from his pocket. “All I need is your signature on this statement, and I’ll consider the matter closed.”

“Of course,” Julian whispered. But his gaze was still riveted on the dead woman on the bed beyond them.