“You red-haired bitch—” Bernard began, starting for her. Justin stepped forward immediately, pulling out his
with a bloodthirsty flourish. Confronted with the gleaming weapon, Bernard retreated and glared at Lysette. “What do you want from me?”
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“Just the truth,” Lysette replied. “Max will never come to terms with any of this unless you confirm what the letter says. Answer my questions, and I will help you to escape with your life.”
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“What do you want me to say?” he asked, quivering with fury, white with guilt.
“Why did you have the affair with Corinne?”
Bernard’s gaze fastened to hers. It seemed he took great care to avoid the sight of Justin’s pale
face. “It just happened. I had no control over it. No harm was done, as Corinne had already cuckolded Max with Sagesse. And then I realized Corinne was half mad. She wanted to run away with me, leave everything…. I told her I couldn’t, but she persisted. And one day she drove me into a rage. Before I knew it, my hands were around her neck. Max was better off without her—she made his life hell—”
“Please,” Lysette interrupted acidly, “don’t try to claim you were doing Max a service. He was unfairly branded a murderer, and he suffered for years. You let him take the blame for what you did.”
Beads of sweat trickled down Bernard’s face. “You must help me. No matter what I’ve done, you know that Max wouldn’t want me to be killed.”
“There’s a ship that leaves for Liverpool at dawn,” Lysette replied. “The
. I spoke to Captain Tierney not an hour ago. He will allow you aboard, no questions asked.” Untying a small pouch from her waist, she tossed it to him. Bernard caught it automatically in one fist. “There is enough money to help you establish a new life somewhere else. Don’t ever return, Bernard.” She turned to Justin, who still held the
, his hand shaking visibly. His blue eyes glittered with tears. He blinked in an effort not to let them fall. “Come, Justin,” she murmured. “Take me home.”
They left the warehouse, neither of them looking back.
In spite of the clamoring of Aaron Burr’s associates, Max was not arrested. Etienne’s letter, combined
with a discreet nudging from Governor Claiborne and a most unexpected silence from the editor of the
, convinced the Municipal Council and the
that the absent Bernard Vallerand had indeed been guilty of the crime.
Perhaps those influential men in conspiracy with Aaron Burr could have pressed the issue further, but they were occupied with more demanding matters. By that summer of 1806, Burr had gathered men and supplies at a small island on the Ohio River in preparation for his conquest of Mexico and the West. However, the rumors that had dogged Burr ever since his trip to New Orleans proved his undoing.
Abandoning what he saw as a sinking ship, General Wilkinson changed sides and added his warnings to those President Jefferson had already received. The president eventually issued a proclamation calling for Burr’s arrest, at the same time that one of Burr’s coded letters to Wilkinson was published in a prominent newspaper.
When Irénée was told about what Bernard had done, she was as grief-stricken as if he had died. It was difficult for a mother to accept that her child could be capable of such evil, and the shock of the news seemed to age her immeasurably. However, she possessed a core of inner strength that sustained her, and she informed the household with dignity that Bernard’s name was never to be mentioned in her presence again.
Max recovered from his injuries with remarkable speed, soon regaining his former vigor. Although
the truth about Bernard had dealt him a severe blow, it had also relieved him to finally know what had happened to Corinne. With his name cleared and his reputation restored, Max was finally at ease with himself and the world. And Lysette kept him far too busy to dwell on his dark past, engaging him with her warmth and love until he could find no room in his heart for anything but happiness.
In the spring, Alexandre married Henriette Clement, and the wedding proved to be an occasion of great happiness for all concerned. For a while it had seemed that the scandal of Etienne Sagesse’s death would prevent Diron Clement from allowing his daughter to marry a Vallerand. However, the old man was persuaded to see the rightness of the match, and he gave his consent with a show of calculating authority, terrified that someone might see the softhearted motives beneath all his scheming.
Lysette was thrilled when she received a letter from her sister Jacqueline, a gentle-spirited letter asking her forgiveness for the long silence between them. It led Lysette to hope that Jeanne and Gaspard would relent soon and recognize her marriage to Max. At Lysette’s insistence, Jacqueline and her elderly husband came to stay at the plantation for nearly a month. Although Max disliked the intrusion on his privacy, he endured the visit because it brought Lysette such happiness.
Soon after Alexandre’s wedding, Philippe left for France to continue his studies and visit all the places he had read and dreamed of for so long. Although
the family begged and prodded Justin to go as well, the boy chose to stay behind, declaring that he had no interest in moldy museums and ancient ruins. With his brother gone, Justin often prowled around New Orleans alone, sometimes standing at the riverfront for hours and gazing after every departing ship as though it were his only chance of escape.
Justin had changed after the events of the past autumn, becoming a far more mature and considerate young man, the defiance of his boyhood finally slipping away. He spent much of his time in his father’s company, the two of them deepening their relationship and becoming closer than anyone ever could have expected.
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It was not long before Lysette discovered she was with child. She was amused by Max’s attitude that she had accomplished something quite remarkable. “
, it is not all that unexpected,” she teased him. “As your mother says, the only remarkable thing is that it took this long!”
“If you give me a daughter,” he had told her, enfolding her in his arms, “I’ll lay the world at your feet.”
“I might decide to give you a son,” she said. “Wouldn’t you like another son?”
He shook his head with a grin. “No,
, we need more women in the family.”
Max had been excluded from Corinne’s pregnancy, as was the usual way, and in truth, none of it had been significant to him until the twins had been born. With Lysette, however, he took an indelicate interest.
If there had been a question in anyone’s mind about whether or not Maximilien doted on his wife, it was, forever banished. Each time Lysette experienced a twinge of discomfort or a trace of nausea, the family physician was summoned, and soundly berated if he did not arrive immediately. Irénée told one of her friends in strictest confidence that despite the doctor’s protests, Maximilien insisted on staying in the room while Lysette was being examined. The elderly ladies exclaimed over it with horrified delight during an entire Thursday afternoon.
To Lysette’s disgruntlement, she was compelled by convention to enter confinement when the baby began to show. As was the Creole custom, she had to withdraw from public view and attend only small gatherings at home or private parties with close friends. To relieve Lysette’s boredom for the last two or three months of the pregnancy, Max curtailed his activities in town and spent most of his time at the plantation. He brought her books, games, engravings, and on one Saturday evening he even hired actors from the St. Pierre to perform a play in their drawing room.
On the night of that memorable occasion, Lysette was feeling particularly content, marveling at the fact that her husband would go to such lengths to please her. She smiled and snuggled in Max’s arms as he carried her upstairs, resting her hand on the taut curve of her stomach. “How lucky I am to be your wife,” she said.
Max smiled sardonically. “Not long ago, you wouldn’t have found anyone to agree with you.”
“Well, now they all see how they misjudged you, and they realize what a wonderful man you are,
“I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of me,” he said, his eyes dark and warm. “Just so long as you are happy.”
“I could be happier.”
“Oh?” His brow raised. “Tell me what you want, my love, and it’s yours.”
Lysette played idly with the knot of his cravat. “I will let you know when we’re in bed.”
Max laughed softly. “For a woman who is
, you are remarkably passionate,
“Is that a problem?”
A wicked gleam entered his eyes. “A problem I will gladly take care of,” he promised. Lysette laughed and kicked her slippers off, letting them thump down the stairs as he carried her to the bedroom.
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Forget Me Not Stranger
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