Read The Creole Princess Online
Authors: Beth White
Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050, #Alabama—History—Revolution (1775–1783)—Fiction, #Christian Fiction, #Love Stories
Redmond nodded and turned back to Lyse. “Can you find Rippardá and convey another message?”
Lyse dipped a quick curtsey. “Of course, sir.”
“Good girl. Tell him . . .” He turned the cigar in his fingers. “Thank him for his invitation, but say it would be more convenient if he would join my family in my home.” He nodded at Daisy. “Daughter, you’ll need to lay six more places at the table this evening. Rippardá, plus the Durnfords.”
Daisy swallowed. The Durnford clan included two little girls
and a boy, all under the age of six. But she curtseyed obediently. “Yes, sir.” She gave her father a cozening look. “Could Lyse come too? I’ll need help with preparing all that extra food.”
“Yes, yes, whatever you think, my dear.” He backed away, already disengaging from the conversation. “Run along, we’re very busy here.” He had already shut the door before Lyse and Daisy had time to curtsey again.
They looked at each other, laughing, and Daisy put a hand over her mouth. “
six more for dinner!”
Lyse sobered. “I hope Justine can do without me tonight. She wasn’t feeling well this morning. What if the baby comes early?”
Daisy shrugged. “You’ll have another little brother or sister, and I’ll manage.”
“True.” Lyse smiled at Corporal Tully as she and Daisy left headquarters arm in arm. “How about this—you drop a message at the inn for Don Rafael, and I’ll go home and check on Justine, then come back to your house. What are you making for supper? Want me to bring some oysters?”
“Good idea. They’ll fill out the gumbo. And you can make the cornbread—yours is so much better than mine.”
“All right.” Lyse grinned. “I can’t wait for you to meet Don Rafael. His accent is so droll!”
“And yours isn’t?” Daisy laughed and mimicked Lyse’s Creole patois. “Come, my little cabbage, let us dance the night away under the moonlight.”
“Oh, you English, always so serious. Come on,
, I’ll race you to the gate.” Lyse dropped her friend’s arm and took off running.
The French girl was the one to keep in his sights, and not only because she was good to look upon. Behind those golden eyes lurked a dangerous intellect.
As she ladled Miss Redmond’s excellent gumbo, thick with
oysters and shrimp, aromatic and steaming, into his bowl, Rafa gave her his most inane Don Rafael grin. “Mademoiselle, you are kind to notice my great famishment. Will you not be seated, so that I could serve you as well?”
Her gaze flicked to their host, who was entertaining Colonel Durnford at the far end of the eight-foot table. “Thank you, monsieur, but I am not . . . hungry.” The quirk at the corner of her generous pink mouth deepened.
Puzzled, he watched her glide to serve one of the Durnford children, her movements unhurried, graceful, but efficient. What had she implied by that hesitation? That she was not welcome at the Redmonds’ table? But why? Clearly she and Miss Redmond were great friends. The dynamics here were very strange. But perhaps it was simple British snobbery at play.
Do not be distracted, he reminded himself. His mission was not to flirt with a girl who walked like a dancer through places no lady should go. If he hadn’t happened along this morning when he did, she might have found herself dragged into an alley by that sailor.
But what a surprise—and delight—to find her here, a quasi-guest in the Redmonds’ home.
Lyse. Her name was Lyse. He deliberately removed his gaze from the curve of her waist, made even more alluring by the glossy black curls that clung to her apron sash. He turned to Daisy Redmond, seated at his left, and found her watching him with a twinkle in her large blue eyes.
He thumped himself in the forehead. “I have turned my back upon my hostess, when she is so kind to take in a stranger and feed him the most excellent of creole dishes!”
The twinkle became a dimpling smile. “Lyse taught me to make it,
Do not look at the French girl, he told himself again, as he blew across the steaming fish stew and spooned it carefully into his
mouth. She was like the spices melding upon his tongue, with her Gallic-accented English and dark gold eyes in that caramel-skinned face. Such Creole girls walked all about New Orleans, as common as flowers, so that one eventually became dulled to their exquisite beauty. But this one was different, and he wanted to know why.
He swallowed, closing his eyes in ecstasy, then smiled at Miss Redmond. “You are a student to be commended. My nose thanks you. My belly thanks you. Indeed, I am your slave forever. Only tell me your lightest wish, and I shall cross a hundred seas to grant it.”
She laughed. “Lyse was right. You are droll.”
He contrived to look hurt. “Droll? My English is not of the best, but I think I would rather be intrepid or gallant—or even irresistible. Droll, Miss Redmond? Really, you wound me.”
Her mouth pursed even as her blue eyes danced. “I beg your forgiveness, Don Rafael. How may I make it up to you?”
Rafa placed a finger between his brows and crossed his eyes, as if the act of thinking were painful. “Hmm. Perhaps you might . . . Yes!” He beamed at her. “I will allow you to take me on a tour of the fort and the city on the morrow. Then we shall once more regard one another with mutual respect and admiration,
This time she laughed outright. “I’m very sorry to turn down such a wonderful offer, but Thursday is my day to teach the children of the town their letters.”
“Ah, that is very much too bad.” He gave the French girl a sidelong look, unable to resist teasing. “Then perhaps, if I solemnly promise to refrain from singing or playing my guitar, Señorita Lanier would agree to take your place.”
Lyse was bending over the littlest Durnford child’s dish, picking the shell off an oyster. Hearing her name, she looked up and gave him her crinkle-nose grin. “Your restraint is admirable, sir. But it seems I have given you the impression that I dislike music—when nothing could be further from the truth.”
Miss Redmond was looking from her friend to him and back
again, clearly perplexed by the conversation’s subtext. “But do you have a guitar with you? You must entertain us this evening!”
Rafa shrugged. “I was a cantor as a child, so, yes, I have been trained. But I didn’t mean—” He saw Lyse’s satisfaction. “I mean, of course I will sing. Allow me but to fetch my guitar from the antechamber.”
Miss Redmond caught her father’s attention by clinking her spoon against her goblet. “Papa! When everyone has finished eating, let us adjourn to the salon, where Don Rafael will give us a bit of a concert, shall we? Timbo—” She turned to the elderly slave who had been quietly removing empty dishes and refilling wine glasses. “Will you set up the tea cart in the large salon?”
“Yes, miss.” The man inclined his grizzled head and backed out of the dining room.
As he dealt with his dinner and fielded Miss Daisy’s prattling, Rafa covertly watched Lyse Lanier as she took her place at the table, opposite Daisy. He couldn’t quite place her in the social strata. The French of New Orleans, he had noticed, tended to hold a rather inflated view of their importance, despite the fact that they were a conquered people in a Spanish colony. Here in British West Florida, less than two hundred miles away, he had expected the same. But Lyse gazed upon him, not with superiority, but rather as if she found him entertaining—a sort of egalitarian amusement which oddly heated his blood.
He swallowed a sigh along with the last of his dinner ale. How he wished he could shed Don Rafael’s shallow persona, just long enough to prove to her that he was a man, and not a musical manikin.
Ah well, he had neither time nor mental energy for serious courting, even had she been so inclined.
Still. She was
good to look upon, in a wildflower sort of way. He mentally entertained himself by imagining her family. She lacked the polished femininity of Daisy Redmond, whose smooth
golden hair, milky skin, and blue eyes proclaimed the aristocratic English lady; indeed, Lyse’s coppery complexion, wild black curls, and exotic mouth bespoke native or African descent, belied by the beautiful gold-shot eyes, which would be an anomaly amongst the dark browns and blacks of the African, mulatto, and mestizo slave culture.
Parsing that culture was part of his assignment here. As they all adjourned to the salon, the two British officers, Major Redmond and Colonel Durnford, lagged behind the ladies. Daisy took her place behind the tea tray, settling in with a precocious matronliness that was as funny as it was charming. Her lady mother having succumbed to yellow fever shortly after the family’s arrival in Mobile, Daisy had functioned since as mistress of the house.
The fact that she served the town as schoolmistress only added to her general air of
I am in charge, so do not cross me
. Rafa kept expecting her to remind him to tuck in his shirttail and not to belch in public—which he wouldn’t have done in any case, as his own dear mama had drilled him endlessly on the
of a gentleman while he was still in short coats.
He was pleased to discover that the men and women did not separate in the parlor, as was customary in many places he had visited. Even the children gathered to play Spillikins in a quiet knot at their mother’s feet, while the adults conversed over their heads.
Rafa sat listening for a moment, taking in his surroundings with the eye to detail his father had taught him long ago. The Redmonds’ home was built in the French fashion, a square two-story construction elevated on stilts above the muddy ground, with a broad front porch facing Conception Street. Inside, it was two rooms across, with a breezeway between—one room for family living space, the other for dining. At the other end of the breezeway, he presumed, one would find the kitchen and another service room, with bedrooms upstairs. Judging by the softening wood and
wattle of the walls, the house was about four years old, comfortable without being overly fine.
Rafa shifted in the sturdy, ugly armchair to which he had been assigned; it was short of back, high of arm, hard and uncomfortable as only a stiff-rumped Englishman could conceive. He thought wistfully of his mama’s elegantly appointed parlor in New Orleans, with its rich jewel-toned rugs and curtains, plush upholstery, and tasteful artwork. She had taught him to appreciate fine architecture, good books, and the French love of cuisine, to complement his father’s head for commonsense military and business practices.
Fortunately, his own quirky sense of the ridiculous rescued him during these ever more frequent trips to barbarous outposts like Mobile and beyond. That, and a certain talent for extracting—and planting—pertinent information.
“Colonel Durnford,” he said, firing the opening salvo, “it is my hope that British ports along the Gulf Coast will not be closed to Spanish merchants such as myself—now that the crazy colonials in the northeast have elected to cut off the nose of their collective face. We Spaniards, of course, have no interest in making war with our best customer.”
Durnford’s mottled complexion darkened. “You heard about that, then?” He did not, Rafa noted, answer the question.
“’Tis news likely to spread at the rate of fleas in a kennel.” He spread his hands in a gesture copied from his Gallic friends in New Orleans. “This so-called
declaration of independence
, which is as stupid as it is appalling, is like to create shock waves in all manner of unexpected places.”
“It was indeed ill-advised.” Durnford exchanged glances with Redmond. “What do you know about it, Don Rafael?”
Rafa smiled and brushed an invisible speck of lint from his breeches. “That your King George is the grossest villain since Caligula. He has, they say, ‘obstructed the administration of jus
tice,’ making judges dependent on his will alone. That he and his minions subject colonial citizens to a ‘jurisdiction foreign to their Constitution and unacknowledged by their laws.’ That he has erected a multitude of new offices and sent ‘swarms of officers’ to harass people and to eat them out of house and home. That he levies taxes without the people’s consent. That he has, in short, fundamentally altered all aspects of British government.”
Rafa had kept his voice quiet, but by the time he finished, he was aware that a certain intensity colored the words. The women had abandoned the topic of fashion and turned to listen, Mademoiselle Lyse staring at him with wide golden eyes.
He would have given much for a window into her brain at that moment. Many French Americans resented British presence but were, for a variety of reasons, unable to leave their homes and businesses in order to start over elsewhere. Those who did remain were required to swear at least nominal loyalty to King George.
Before he could ascertain anything like truth, the heavy lashes fell, shielding her gaze.
Daisy Redmond sat forward, her small fists clenched. “How dare they make such absurd claims! King George is—is . . . Why, he’s the king! He has a perfect right to tax anyone he chooses! And how else could he pay for the military protection provided by my papa and his soldiers?” She glared at Rafa. “How