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Madam Tellier's Lover (Part One of Three)

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Madam Tellier’s Lover:

Part One of Three

By C.M. Blackwood

“We dance even if there’s no radio.

We drink at funerals.

We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large

And, frankly, we’re suspicious of others who don’t.”

– Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2016 C.M. Blackwood.

A title of LION & LAMB Publications.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter One: Monsieur DuPont’s Bed & Breakfast

Chapter Two: Beulah Landon

Chapter Three: The Making of Madam Tellier

Chapter Four: The Invitation

Chapter Five: Alphonse and Dora

Chapter Six: The Dinner Party

Chapter Seven: The Beach

Author’s Note

Chapter One:

Monsieur DuPont’s Bed & Breakfast

This is a story that began in New Orleans. The French Quarter, to be precise.

Maybe you didn’t know it, but for over a decade now, Madam Tellier’s house has been the pinnacle of the Quarter. After the devastating hurricane that swept through the city, but which was kinder to the Quarter than to other areas, she inherited the remains of an old bed and breakfast from a Frenchman with a handlebar mustache.

He telephoned her a few weeks after the storm, and informed her that he was a distant relation with business to discuss. She asked what sort of business it was, but he wouldn’t answer directly. He only said that it involved a certain matter at 145 Rue Frenchmen, and that she should meet him there. So, when the mayor re-opened the area a week later, she arrived to speak with the Frenchman.

On Frenchmen Street.

He was waiting for her on the sidewalk, standing with his face towards a building in the long street wall. The building fronts were like so many stained, uneven teeth in the mouth of an old woman who was particularly fond of black tea.

There was little prelude to the opening of their conversation. The Frenchman simply looked her up and down, and gave a little huff.

“I’ve lived in this damned sewer trap for almost fifty years now,” he told her, so agitated that he was practically shouting.

Adrienne Rivet (that was her name, at the time) looked at him carefully, but was obviously unperturbed. She was, after all, a woman who wasn’t easily ruffled.

She was thirty years old, and was of average height – but really, that was the only average thing about her. Her face was a fine Norman face, oval-shaped, strong yet feminine. Her skin was powder-white, even without the powder, and her cat-like eyes were the color of shining emeralds. She had her thick flaxen hair styled into a fashionable pixie cut, very full on the top and the sides, with a flawless front that ended just above her golden eyebrows.

She watched the old man for a long moment. He was a very old man, more than eighty. He wasn’t very tall to begin with, and his crooked back didn’t help matters much, being bent in the shape of a weakened tree after years of wind and rain. His skin resembled that of a sailor’s, wrinkled like leather from too much strong sun.

Which was strange – seeing as he’d hardly stepped out of the building in front of them, for the past fifty years.

But, since Adrienne Rivet was unacquainted with the nature of that particular building, she merely raised her eyebrows inquiringly, and stared at the old man.

Finally noticing how she was looking at him, the old man glanced at her, and began to laugh. “Ha!” he barked. “It’s obvious that you think I’m mad. No doubt you think this is a lovely little set-up?”

He gestured towards the place he’d been scrutinizing so intently when she came to meet him.

Adrienne looked to the tall, narrow building, and considered the question. Its front was practically untouched by the storm, except for one window at the upper right, which had been broken by a tree branch.

There was a thin, towering birch that grew in the middle of the sidewalk, in the center of a hole in the concrete, surrounded by cedar chips. It seemed that it had grown angry during the hurricane, and had lashed out with one of its scrawny arms to attack the upper window. Even now, the branch was sticking through the window, bent in the middle as if it had an elbow.

And then there was the roof, of course. Or, rather – there wasn’t a roof. It had been blown completely off.

Other than these two inconveniences, though, it was a pretty little building. The façade was fashioned of light-colored brick, with white stucco trimming around the windows. The steps were made of faux marble, and the railings were painted white. The entrance consisted of a pair of lacquered cherry doors, with bronze handles.

The building’s sign was very small, and was situated beside the right-hand door, with a little cast-iron lamp fixed just above it. The sign read “M. DuPont’s Bed & Breakfast.”

Adrienne looked at the old Frenchman, and asked, “Are you Monsieur DuPont?”

He laughed again: that same, harsh bark of mirthless laughter.

“Ah, no!” he exclaimed. “I am Monsieur Debussy. DuPont was my uncle.”

“But now you own the building?” Adrienne persisted, unimpressed with Debussy’s caustic manner.

“Yes,” Debussy answered, more quietly now. “I own the building, and the business that is run behind its closed doors, every evening of the week.” He glanced at the vacant, ghostly edifice, and then amended, “Or, which was run, before the storm – and for one hundred years before that. Fifty with me; and fifty with my Uncle Henri.”

Adrienne trained her eyes on the side of his drooping face, and said, “Is now the time I’m supposed to ask you what kind of business it was?”

“Ah – no!” Debussy repeated. “Not was, Madame. Not is, either – but will be. After the repairs are made, and the new owner arrives, business must resume just as usual.”

Adrienne looked at him sharply. She had played his game for a few minutes, wondering if there was anything to be gained by it. But now she was growing impatient.

“You’ll forgive me for pointing out, Monsieur,” she said, “that I have no idea what you’re talking about. You called me to tell me that you are a distant relation of mine, with some mysterious business that has, even more mysteriously, something to do with me.” She raised one eyebrow, and gave him a piercing look. Then she added, “I think it’s time for you to tell me exactly why you asked me here.”

The old man didn’t argue. He didn’t even make any disagreeable rejoinder. He just nodded seriously, and looked from Adrienne, to the building, and back again.

“It was my intention to give this place to you,” he said bluntly.

Adrienne couldn’t help the expression of shock that started over her face. Soon, though, her surprise turned to suspicion, and she narrowed her eyes at the Frenchman.

“Why would you want to do something like that?” she demanded.

Debussy refused to look at her. “I’ve been holed up in this place for half a century,” he muttered bitterly. “I’ve seen more blackness and sin than anyone has the right – or the responsibility – to see. I’m sick to death of it.”

He laughed quietly, and added, “But then – no doubt my death isn’t far off. This place has killed me. One foot’s in the grave already, and soon the other will follow after it.”

As he stared at the old building, with a strange combination of hatred and nostalgia in his watery eyes, Adrienne thought it best to be silent. She wanted to ask him again what he was talking about, but she didn’t think he’d answer her.

Finally, he shook himself, and turned to look at her. “It’s my belief,” he said, his voice having grown very loud again, as if he were making a very important declaration, “that I am your second cousin, twice removed. I am fairly certain, anyway. It could either be you, or a young lady who drank herself to death on the Rue Bourbon three years ago. But she’s dead, and you’re not, so I’ll settle for you.”

Adrienne hardly understood why she asked the question, but suddenly she felt the desire to inquire, “Did you ever meet the other woman? The one who died?”

“Once,” Debussy replied, with a grimace of disgust. “But she was far too slovenly to be the granddaughter of my own grandpapa’s brother’s son – so I quickly dismissed her. Cousin Edmond was an elegant man, very stylish and proper in all his ways.”

He examined Adrienne carefully, and nodded in what seemed to be an approving manner. “But the name of Edmond’s wife was unknown,” he went on. “It took years of digging on my part. I suppose I could have missed the truth entirely, and I could be talking to a complete stranger right now, who has nothing at all to do with me or my relatives. But I’ll take that chance.”

He looked desperate, all of a sudden. His eyes shone with a strange, weary light, and he reached to lay his hand on Adrienne’s arm. “I want to give the place to you,” he repeated. “Will you take it?”

That dubious look had re-entered Adrienne’s eyes, and she was looking at the old man now, clearly wondering if he actually was mad.

“What about the business?” she asked. “Will you explain what you meant?”

The Frenchman cleared his throat with a mighty hem-hem, and scratched the top of his head.

“It’s nothing out of the ordinary,” he said. “People come for certain services; they are satisfied; and then they go on their way.”

“And what might these services be?” Adrienne inquired, though she was already fairly sure that she knew. All in all, she suspected that the false advertisement of “bed and breakfast” might not be very far off. Well – excepting the breakfast, that was.

“The kind of services many gentlemen find that they require,” Debussy replied plainly. “And a handful of women, also.”

Adrienne looked him over with searching eyes. “I suppose this business is a thriving one?” she asked.

The old man nodded.

“It pays a handsome sum?”

Another nod.

“And you want to give it to me?”

A third and final nod.

At this point, Adrienne could have flooded the old man with a torrent of additional questions; but she merely pursed her lips, and looked back at the building. She wondered, of course, why on earth the old man would want to give the business away, when he could have sold it for enough money to live on for the rest of his life. He was very old, after all.

But why ask any questions that would hurt her own prospects? If he wanted to give her the place – why argue with him?

The truth was that she was in dire straits. She had never been much good at holding office positions (it seemed that she could never get on with either the supervisors or the employees), and she was just about at the end of her rope.

For a few years, she’d lived with a wealthy woman named Beulah Landon. But then the woman died of a heart attack, and that was the end of that.

Of course, there was nothing left for Adrienne in the will. It all went to Beulah’s demonic spawn, as Adrienne had known very well that it would.

Last year she’d become a barmaid on Bourbon Street, and somehow, she’d managed to hold on to the position. The hours suited her, and her employer was strangely lax in his expectations. If she allowed him the privilege of watching her undress in the women’s locker room every fortnight or so, he remained content with her poor performance.

She rented a room on a dark back alley, in a rundown tenement lorded over by a short, fat Italian with greasy shoulder-length hair. The rent was low, but the Italian had a bad habit of following her up to her room after her shifts at the bar. He had an even worse habit of trying to get into the room. She’d put a stop to it, by dropping a hammer on his foot – but the solution was only a temporary one.

In a word, then, Adrienne didn’t miss a beat, before extending her hand to the Frenchman, and announcing, “I’ll take it.”

His cold, hard manner suddenly evaporated, and he fell on Adrienne’s arm like an actual cousin who wanted to embrace her after a years’-long separation. It seemed, for a moment, like he might even drop to his knees in relief.

“Thank the Lord above,” he cried, wringing Adrienne’s hand. “Why He would choose to favor an old sinner like me, I have no idea. But I’ll take my blessings with a grateful heart.”

With these words, he pulled an old-fashioned iron key from his pocket. “This will open every door in the house,” he said. “Now it’s yours – and I wash my hands of it.”

He released Adrienne, and made a symbolic motion of cleaning his hands, one against the other. But then he paused, and looked at Adrienne with what seemed to be an embarrassed expression.

She frowned at him. “There’s something you haven’t told me,” she guessed.

“Well – there is a small thing,” the old man said in a faltering voice. “Just a trivial matter.”

“And what would it be?”

Debussy put a hand to the back of his neck, and furrowed his brows. “Some years ago,” he said, “I found myself in financial difficulties. I was forced to turn to a certain – er, gentleman – for assistance. He gave me money in return for a stake in the business. A one-third stake, to be precise. Not enough to control it, but enough so that I couldn’t sell it without his permission.”

He paused, scratched his head uncomfortably, and went on, “This man is not interested in selling. Since he came into the picture, business has more than doubled, and he wishes to continue on with it. I, however, want nothing more to do with it – so it leaves the question of the two-thirds stakeholder.”

“Me,” Adrienne said, filling in the blank for him.

“Yes,” the old man returned, still looking ill at ease.

“But there’s more,” Adrienne observed.

“Well – yes. This particular gentleman – my business partner – is not a handsome man. What’s more, his personality is rather beastly. He has never been able to find a wife.”

He paused again, swallowed thickly, and added, “He requested that I find a female to take my place. Rest assured, you will still be the primary owner of the business – but – well, you must marry him.”

Adrienne didn’t answer at first. She just looked at him, thinking carefully. Yet her face betrayed nothing.

“I won’t agree to anything yet,” she said. “I want to speak to the gentleman.”

Debussy nodded frantically. “Fine, fine,” he said. “I will arrange a meeting. Be here tomorrow at eight in the evening.”

He turned away abruptly, and began to shuffle off down the sidewalk.

“Will you be here?” Adrienne called after him.

“No,” he answered, without looking back.

Chapter Two:

Beulah Landon

When Adrienne was young, she’d dreamt about being in love. She’d watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the broken-down old black-and-white television in her parents’ living room on the bayou. She sat cross-legged in front of the television screen, so close that her eyes hurt a little. She’d sucked her breath in with a sharp feeling, almost like a knife, when Snow White’s true love woke her from the sleeping curse.

She wondered, if she could get someone to kiss her while she was sleeping, whether maybe she’d wake up in a different house? On another continent, maybe? She’d always been fascinated by British accents on re-runs of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Maybe she’d wake up in London.

But then there was the question of who she’d get to kiss her. She didn’t have any neighbors, and she didn’t go to school. Her mother said she didn’t need to.

As the years went on, the days seemed to grow longer, as if the nights were mingling with them, and she never really woke from her sleep. So she kept on searching for someone to wake her up.

The closest she came was Beulah Landon. She met her in a restaurant where she was doing a piss-poor job waiting tables. She dropped half a dozen trays every night, and she never went back to see if anyone wanted refills. She probably would have been fired within a week, if Beulah hadn’t shown up.

She was forty-six at the time. If Adrienne could have thought of one thing to say to describe her, she would’ve said she looked like Bette Davis. Her dark shoulder-length hair was permed, and it shone like obsidian under the restaurant lights. Her black eyes were large, soulful, and cruel. Her skin was white as milk, her lips red as strawberries.

She was no Princess Charming – but she was rich, and beautiful, and it was a nice set-up, at first. She treated Adrienne well, bought her lots of nice things, and kissed her passionately. She told her there was no reason why they couldn’t live together.

“My husband’s dead,” Beulah said, “and good riddance. My bed gets awfully lonely, you know. But then – it was lonely when he was in it, too. I would have much rather done without him, actually. But then, if I had, I’d be destitute. If you haven’t learned it yet, girl, you’ll find out soon enough. There’s a price for everything.”

Beulah lived in a big plantation house just south of New Orleans. It was surrounded by acres of unspoiled land, tall majestic trees, and marble balconies. When she asked Adrienne to come and live there, Adrienne felt like she’d died and gone to heaven.

But nothing on earth is very much like heaven.

Before they moved in together, Adrienne and Beulah met several times a week at a hotel in New Orleans. Beulah paid well for their time together. Somewhere along the way, though, the middle-aged woman seemed to grow attached to her twenty-something companion.

Adrienne hadn’t known about her children. There were four of them. Simone, the head viper, was the wife of a high-powered executive. She wore extremely tall high heels, wielded them with grace, and might have been a paid assassin in a previous life. Darren, her brother-in-arms, was a handsome gynecologist married to a meek socialite whom Adrienne was sure he abused. Rock – Simone and Darren’s lackey – was a bouncer at a nightclub. He had muscles worthy of his name, always dressed in black, and had a double-digit IQ.

Then there was Penny. She was a social worker in the city, she’d never had time to get married, and she spent more time thinking about other people than about herself. But she couldn’t make up for the other toxins that had been secreted from Beulah’s womb.

Simone and Darren hounded Adrienne relentlessly, and Rock trailed them around like a cocker spaniel. To them, she was the worst sort of gold-digger. To begin with, she was living off of their mother like a blood-sucking leech – and, to make matters worse, she’d turned her into an evil homosexual.

Adrienne voiced her complaints about Beulah’s children; but Beulah said, “What the hell do you want me to do about it? They’re my goddamn kids. It’s not like I can throw ‘em in a sack and drown ‘em.”

Beulah was often tired in the evenings, and she wasn’t one for nighttime romance – but she was an amorous morning lover. It was hardly ever six o’clock, and the rays of dawn hadn’t always come to shine against the wide glass bedroom doors, when she reached for Adrienne, and pulled her close.

“The day will start soon,” she said to Adrienne. “On the one hand, I have nothing to do – but on the other hand, there’s always too much to do.” She’d look deep into Adrienne’s eyes, as the sunlight began to pour into the room. “Will you make me forget about all of it?” she’d ask quietly.

It was a sweltering morning in early August, and they woke a little later than usual. It was Sunday, and they’d had too much to drink the night before. Beulah had attended a charity auction, and Adrienne had been on her arm the entire evening.

That was one thing about Beulah. She didn’t give a damn what people said about her. And people said some damned awful things about her.

“What does it matter to me?” she asked after the auction, while she was undressing in front of a full-length mirror in her bedroom. Adrienne was lounging on the California King behind her.

“No matter what they say or think,” Beulah went on, standing completely naked in front of the mirror, and examining a new freckle on her breast, “it doesn’t affect me any. None of their words detract a single red cent from my bank account. They’d like it if they could do that, oh yes they would – but it’s out of their reach.”

She glanced back at Adrienne with a promiscuous grin. “And so are you,” she added.

She strutted over to the bed, and threw herself down beside Adrienne. “That’s a big part of it, after all,” she said, reaching to play with a stray lock of Adrienne’s hair. She’d worn it a little longer in those days, so that she could pin it up, if she wanted to.

“They’re jealous of me,” Beulah said. “The rich men wouldn’t dare to bring their mistresses to dinner, because none of them look like you, anyway.”

“Is that why I live here?” Adrienne asked curiously, looking towards the dark glass panes of the bedroom doors. “Because I’m the prettiest hooker you could find?”

Beulah didn’t answer. She just kept playing with Adrienne’s hair.

“I wasn’t a hooker before I met you,” Adrienne said, feeling like she needed to make that clear.

“I guessed as much,” Beulah answered simply. “And you don’t have to call yourself a hooker. I have more than enough money – and I paid you to please me. It’s no great sin.”

She leaned forward, and wrapped her arms around Adrienne. “It’s been such a long night,” she murmured. “I’m very tired. I want to sleep – but let me kiss you first.”

She pressed her cheek to Adrienne’s, nuzzling against her gently. Up to that particular moment in her life, Adrienne couldn’t remember ever feeling a safer, more pleasant sensation than that of Beulah Landon’s smooth, alluring face so close to her own.

Beulah fixed her face in front of Adrienne’s, her mouth slightly open, breathing gently against Adrienne’s lips. “You want to know if I love you,” she said plainly. “But I don’t love anybody. I don’t even love my own damned children. Penny’s a good girl – but she got tired of me a long time ago. I couldn’t keep up with her. The rest of them are a pool of sludge.”

She looked into Adrienne’s eyes, her face hardly half an inch away, her left arm hooked around Adrienne’s back. “My heart’s an old, cold thing,” she went on, running her fingers through Adrienne’s hair. “It doesn’t know how to love. But then – if I knew what the word meant . . .”

She thrust herself forward, and kissed Adrienne hungrily. Adrienne held her tightly, with a dizzy feeling in her head, and an angry butterfly in her stomach. She ran her hand down Beulah’s back, pulling her closer, caressing her thigh.

“If I did know what love meant,” Beulah whispered, pressing her forehead against Adrienne’s – “I might say that it felt like you.”

That was the first time they made love at night. When they fell asleep, it was a long, drunken slumber – and when they woke on Sunday morning, they made love again. Adrienne didn’t understand the love part of it, and she was sure Beulah didn’t either, but she knew that she didn’t want anyone else’s hands against her skin.

Unfortunately, when they were about halfway into it, the bedroom door swung open. And Simone walked in.

“Jesus, Mama!” she cried. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’d thank you not to take the Lord’s name in vain,” Beulah said blandly. “Not under my roof, anyway. What you do outside of it is your own business.”

She fixed Simone with a cold glare, propped up on the mattress with one elbow, the white sheet draped over her breasts.

“You’re one to talk about God,” Simone said drily, throwing her dark hair over her shoulder, and sighing in a very martyr-like way.

“Why?” Beulah asked. “Because there’s a woman in my bed?”

Simone looked at her mother in disbelief. “What more reason do you need?” she asked.

Beulah sighed, and lay back against the pillows, drawing the sheet over her shoulders. “You’re ridiculous, Simone,” she said simply. “Your husband cheats on you every weeknight – weekends during Mardi Gras. He don’t think too much of you, baby girl. But you let him in your bed, night after night. Who knows what he’s bringing into it? It’s a mystery, my girl.”

Darren walked in, then, his hands in his trousers’ pockets, his black tie perfectly straight. The sight of him made Adrienne nauseous, for some reason.

He ran a hand through his well-oiled hair, and glanced at his sister with a nonchalant expression. “No need for Playboy this morning, I guess,” he said, grinning at Beulah and Adrienne.

“Stop being a pig,” Simone barked with a grimace. “We have to do something about this.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” he asked. “Throw Adrienne out the window? No doubt it’d be a lot of fun – but don’t you think someone would come asking questions?”

He looked at Adrienne, tucked up beside his mother beneath the sheet. “There would be a lot of blood,” he said simply. “On the sidewalk, I mean. People would ask questions.”

He glanced pointedly at Simone, and added, “I don’t like questions. Besides – she’s not worth it.”

Adrienne wasn’t stupid enough to think that returning his joust would do her any good. It would only amuse him. So she just stared at him coolly.

“Ah!” he said. “She’s a tough one, Mama, I’ll give you that. Probably one of the only whores who can hold her own with you.”

Beulah threw herself back on her pillow, and flung an arm over her eyes. “Good Lord Almighty,” she muttered, more to herself than to anyone else. “Why am I constantly tormented by these wicked children of mine? No doubt they’re more like me than I’d care to admit – but it still seems like an unfortunate cross to bear.”

“Stop being so melodramatic, Mama,” Simone said with an irritated sigh. “You should have been an actress, I swear.”

“There was no need for it,” Beulah returned wearily, with her arm still draped over her eyes. “I was rich enough.”

She dropped her arm, and propped herself up on her elbow again. “Speaking of which,” she said in a peremptory voice, “I’m sure you didn’t come waltzing in at the crack of dawn just to inquire after my health. If that were the case, you probably would have waited till breakfast, so you could at least get some free food out of it.”

She glared at her children, and demanded, “What do you want?”

They lost a little of their mettle, at that, and started to fidget. Simone ground the stiletto of her black high heel into the plush white carpet.

“We want to talk about the will,” she said, obviously trying to sound stern. “Every time we bring it up, you change the subject. We thought that if we came early enough –”

“You’d have a harder time changing the subject,” Darren interrupted with a crooked grin.

“Jesus, Darren, will you shut up?” Simone barked.

“Whatever you say, sis,” he returned lightly.

Simone looked back at Beulah. “Listen, Mama,” she said. “This is important. We’re not trying to make light of your situation –”

“My situation!” Beulah exclaimed, uttering a wild laugh. “Is that what you call it? I only told you about it two weeks ago – and now you’re swooping down like vultures, trying to pick the flesh off of my living bones.”

Adrienne looked at Beulah curiously, but Beulah didn’t return her gaze.

“If you don’t want to have nightmares about seeing your mother naked,” Beulah said to Darren, “then I suggest you turn around.”

He turned around obligingly, his hands in his pockets, whistling an old Bing Crosby song.

Beulah threw off the sheet, and got out of bed. Her scarlet robe was flung over the arm of a white chair by the bed, and she went to put it on. Then she picked up a pack of cigarettes on the nightstand, pulled one out, and placed it between her lips. She lit it quickly, and took a deep drag before turning around to face Simone.

“You can look now, boy,” she said to Darren.

Darren turned back to face her, still whistling.

“Shut up, Darren,” Simone said.

“Whatever you say, sis.”

“All right, then,” Beulah said, exhaling a cloud of smoke, and glaring at her children. “You want to talk about the will. What the hell is there to talk about? I’ve already left everything to the four of you. Nothing to charities – they’re not my style. You each get twenty-five percent of all there is. What more do you want? Do you want to throw in a clause that will leave my body to science? There’s no money in that, I assure you.” She sighed, and took another puff of her cigarette. “If there were,” she said in a faraway voice, “I would have given them your father’s.”

Simone sighed impatiently, and stamped her tiny foot. “We’ve already tried to tell you what we want. The most important thing is – well, it’s Penny. She’s already said she doesn’t want your money. She says Daddy only got it by exploiting coal miners till they died.”

“I can’t say that she’s wrong,” Beulah returned absently, grinding her cigarette into an ashtray on the nightstand, and crossing her shapely arms over her chest.

“That’s not the point,” Simone huffed, looking like she couldn’t care less about dead lignite miners from the past. “The point is – if you leave her a quarter of the money, who knows what she’ll do to it? She’ll probably leave it to some charity for coal miners in South America.”

“Yes – that’s more Penny’s style,” Beulah said, lighting another cigarette. “She’s better than all of us put together.”

Adrienne lay uncomfortably in the bed, her back propped up against the headboard, the sheet wrapped tightly around her chest. But she couldn’t see how to escape. Darren was staring at her with a malicious expression, and hatred was oozing from him like snake venom.

She looked around for something to cover herself with. She saw her silk nightgown lying on the floor by the bed, and she reached down to grab it.

Darren’s black loafer stomped down on the nightgown, narrowly missing her fingers. He grinned wickedly.

“Move,” Adrienne demanded in a cold voice.

“Make me,” he returned childishly, still wearing that evil smile.

“Damn it, Darren,” Beulah said with a sigh. “It’s no wonder I named you after your father. You’re just as bad and nasty as he was.”

“Don’t talk about Daddy that way,” Simone snapped.

“Oh, good heavens, girl,” Beulah said, frowning sadly. “Your daddy was a demon sent straight from hell.”

She swiveled her head towards her son, and barked, “Get your damned foot off of that.”

He stepped back reluctantly, and Adrienne snatched up the gown, sliding it on behind the sheet. Then she practically leapt out of the bed, making towards the door.

“Stay,” Beulah said imperiously. “You don’t have to go, just because they make you feel uncomfortable.”

Adrienne stopped in her tracks, not really wanting to stay, but not wanting to displease Beulah, either.

Simone glanced at Adrienne, and flipped her hair in a superior manner. “I don’t want to talk about this in front of her,” she said to her mother.

“What would you like me to do?” Beulah asked. “Send her into the garden to plant flowers? She’s not much of a gardener – and it’s a little late in the season, anyway.”

Simone looked as if she were about to have a fit. “You’re not taking this seriously, Mama,” she complained. “You never take anything I say seriously! Will you just listen to me?”

“I’m listening,” Beulah replied, adopting that absent tone again, and puffing on her cigarette.

“We think you should take Penny out of the will,” Simone said. “And we think you should let us handle Rock’s share. He’s an idiot – he’ll spend it all on cocaine within a year. Leave half to me, and half to Darren. We’ll give Rock what he needs.”

“Will you, now?” Beulah asked in an amused voice. “Well, that explains why your loyal hound dog of a brother isn’t here.”

“It’s not like that, Mama,” Simone whined. “We just think it’s the best way, is all.”

“Ah!” Beulah exclaimed, stubbing out her cigarette again. “I’m sure you do, my dear.”

The room was quiet for a few moments. But suddenly, Beulah’s casual expression changed, and she looked like she was in pain. She paced in front of the window, pushing the heel of her hand into her chest.

“Beulah?” Adrienne said quickly, rushing towards her from the opposite side of the room.

“Mama?” Simone cried.

Darren didn’t say anything. He just watched with a bored expression, and then glanced down at the shiny toe of his shoe. He took a handkerchief from his pocket, and bent down to rub at a spot on the black leather.

Adrienne took Beulah’s arm, and Beulah leaned against her gratefully. She wasn’t usually so gracious when it came to people helping her – so Adrienne knew that she must be feeling poorly.

“Get out of here,” Simone hollered at Adrienne. “We’ll take care of her.”

“She’s not going anywhere,” Beulah snarled. “If anyone’s leaving, it’s the two of you.”

“Is that an order, Mama?” Darren asked.

“Yes,” Beulah replied, speaking very quietly now, as if she were having trouble getting the words out.

“All right, then,” he said breezily, turning around on his heel, and strutting out the door. “Talk later,” he called from the corridor. “Kisses.”

“What a God-forsaken asshole,” Beulah muttered.

“Jesus, Mama!” Simone cried again.

“Watch your damned mouth,” Beulah said, more loudly now.

But the strain of these words seemed to be a little too much for her. She looked into Adrienne’s face for a brief moment, but then pushed her away, and collapsed to the floor.

“Everyone keep away from me,” she gasped. “And get the hell out of my house, Simone.”

“Call the doctor!” Simone cried, presumably hoping that Darren would hear her. “Mama’s dying!”

Adrienne always wondered how she’d felt when she said those words. Was she happy, because she was coming into her fortune – or was she disappointed, because Beulah hadn’t altered the will yet?

Despite Beulah’s command, Adrienne was about to try to go to her – but it was too late. Her head had rolled to the side, and her wide-open eyes were motionless and glassy. Her last breath had come and gone like a flash of lightning.

Feeling helpless, Adrienne looked to Simone, and asked, “What happened? What was the matter with her?”

Simone watched her coldly for a moment, but then shrugged, as if she didn’t care enough to put on a show of despising her anymore. She walked to the nightstand, took one of the cigarettes out of the pack, and lit it. She took a long drag, and said, “Something to do with her heart. It’s not all that surprising, though. It’s not like it ever had much going for it, anyway.”

She turned around, and walked out of the room on her black stilettos. Adrienne could hear them clicking all the way down the marble-tiled corridor.

Chapter Three:

The Making of Madam Tellier

The evening after her meeting with Debussy, Adrienne stopped in front of the door of the bed and breakfast, looking dubiously at the little light that burned over DuPont’s sign. She had no interest in meeting Debussy’s partner, and if there had been any way around it, she would have taken it. But she couldn’t see how to get out of it, so with a sour feeling in the pit of her stomach, she rang the building’s sharp-sounding buzzer.

The door was opened promptly. A tall man answered, dressed in a faded old suit, with a shirt that might have once been red, but was now almost colorless, and a tie that was hardly black anymore. His ginger-colored hair was longish, but suffered from a bald spot at the scalp. His patchy beard, through which large areas of sallow skin could be seen, looked as if it were afflicted with the Bubonic plague.

“You are Miss Rivet, I presume?” he said in a loud, rather haughty voice.

“Yes,” Adrienne said slowly.

“And you know who I am?”

“I have a general idea, but I don’t know your name.”

“I am Frederick Tellier,” he announced. He didn’t hold out his hand to greet her.

He stared at her for a long moment – very rudely, Adrienne thought – before motioning wordlessly for her to come in. Against every last lingering crumb of her better judgment, she stepped into the dim entryway, and he snapped the door shut behind her.

It was so dark, she could hardly see. “Could we have a little more light, do you think?” she asked pointedly, feeling very uncomfortable in her current position – alone with a strange (very strange) man, in a shadowy brothel on Frenchmen Street.

“When there are no customers,” he replied, “I make it a point to keep the lights down. There’s no point wasting electricity when there’s no one here to use it.”

Adrienne didn’t see any point in pretending to be shy. “If we’re going to be working together,” she said sharply, “I think you’ll find that some of your policies need changing.”

“Nothing will be changed,” he returned in an acrid tone. “It will all stay just as it is.”

“We’ll see about that,” Adrienne muttered.

He ignored her, and led her into a side parlor on the left-hand, which was lit by a single tall Tiffany lamp on a low coffee table. The walls were covered with pale blue paper, slightly stained with mildew. On the far wall that stretched the length of the room, there was a large mural of Peter Paul Rubens’s version of Leda and the Swan, the red paint having grown almost black over the years, and the white paint very dingy. The swan looked like a big grimy duck.

Frederick Tellier directed their steps to a narrow card table pushed up beneath a curtained window, and then sat down at one end, gesturing for Adrienne to take a seat at the other.

She frowned at him, and sat.

“We are here this evening,” he began, in the sort of slow, raised voice that one might use while trying to explain something to a child; “we are here so I can describe the details of the position you would adopt, if you were to sign the papers that I’ve had drawn up for you. Before you sign them, however, you must agree to all of my conditions. As I said before – nothing will be changed. It will all stay just as it is, and you’ll have to get used to it.”

He spoke with an almost wonderful air of self-confidence; and Adrienne found herself thinking, it was a pity he was so horribly ugly. It ruined the effect of his steady, unwavering voice, and just made him seem like a cold, hard bastard.

It was a pity.

“You’re a very disagreeable man,” she said plainly. “It seems you don’t intend to make any effort to be civil to me.”

He looked genuinely surprised, as he said, “I’m being entirely civil.”

“Your idea of the word is a strange one,” Adrienne observed. “I can see you’re used to telling women what to do – all of the women who work in this place – and now you expect to tell me what to do. But I’ll have you know, Mr. Tellier, that I’m not very good at taking orders. I have a long history of rebellion, which has been more to my detriment than my benefit, so it won’t do much good to threaten me. I’m used to losing, and I’m not afraid of it.”

She leaned forward in her chair, and planted her elbows on the scuffed tabletop. “The only difference, this time,” she said simply, “is that there’s no way for me to lose. Debussy has given me two-thirds of this business, and it doesn’t matter what papers I sign. If he were to die before they were signed, you know just as well as I do that you’d lose any stake you have in this place. Your stake depends on his. So you need someone to take over for him. That’s either going to be me, or no one. He’s said as much himself.”

She paused, took a barely perceptible breath, and smiled lightly, before going on to say: “It looks like a pretty sure thing, then, that we’re going into business together. I can’t get rid of you, if you don’t want to be gotten rid of – and it’s plain that you don’t. But you can’t get rid of me, either. So it’s obvious that we’re going to have to come to some sort of agreement. And my opinion is: why can’t it be a mutually beneficial one? You know more about this place than anyone, other than Debussy; and I’m sure you’ll be a helpful addition. But don’t expect to tell me to jump, Mr. Tellier, and then wait to see high how I go. You’ll be waiting a long time.”

As she concluded this little speech, Frederick Tellier was wearing an expression of complete, unmasked shock. It was a few long moments before he could regain his composure enough to clear his throat, and say a few words.

“Well,” he said, in an uncomfortable, rasping voice that belied his attempt to look calm; “you’re very different from what I was expecting. You must forgive me, I suppose. I’m used to dealing with the women here – and none of them are too bright, if you know what I mean.”

“I won’t comment on that,” Adrienne returned. “I haven’t met any of them yet. I think I’ll reserve my judgments for now – though, from past experience, I don’t expect to like a single one of them. I don’t like most people, and with good reason. At least – none of them have ever given me a reason to like them any better than I do.”

She paused a moment, and cocked her lovely head to the side. “You have a way about you,” she remarked. “If you tried to clean it up a little, you might seem less repulsive. You’re calm, self-assured – you could use that to your advantage, you know. The fact that you’re not handsome doesn’t have to matter. Shave your beard, cut your hair, and buy some clothes that don’t look like they belonged to Boris Karloff. Debussy told me that you’re rich enough to afford them.”

“I suppose some people might call me frugal,” he said defensively. “But that’s not a bad thing.”

“I didn’t say it was,” she returned politely. “But I’m sure a new suit wouldn’t bankrupt you.”

“As to the beard, though,” he said doubtfully, “I keep it because of my bad skin. The acne doesn’t allow the hair to grow properly – but still, it doesn’t look as bad as it does without the beard.”

“I can help you with all that,” she stated decisively. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll make an appointment with my beautician. She’ll know what to do with you.”

Tellier was quiet for a few moments, obviously thinking very hard about something. “Did Debussy tell you about the rest of my offer?” he finally asked.

“You want to marry me,” Adrienne said simply.

“Yes,” Tellier replied, with the majority of his confidence returning.

“If I don’t find some way to placate you,” Adrienne remarked thoughtfully, “there’s no doubt you could make trouble for me. You know all the people who come to this place; surely you have friends I’d rather not meet.” She paused for a beat, then said firmly, “But I won’t marry you.”

At these words, Tellier became extremely angry. He shot forward in his seat, and pounded his fist on the table, clearly about to launch into a torrent of abuse against Adrienne. But she held up a hand to silence him.

He fell back again, looking confused.

“I won’t marry you,” she repeated. “But I’ll pretend to be your wife. I’ll even sleep in your room – all funny business aside. I’ll put on a show for everyone who comes into this place. You can call me Mrs. Tellier, if you like.”

He didn’t look as though he’d been expecting an offer like that. He thought about it for a moment; and she could see the wheels turning behind his eyes.

“I’ll call you madam,” he said finally. “Madam Tellier. More suitable for the business, you know.”

He flushed bright pink, and grabbed uncomfortably at the tops of his ears.

“That’s fine,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with it.”

She rose up from her chair, and stood looking down at Frederick Tellier for a moment – not really meaning to wear a condescending expression, but still somehow managing to make him feel very small.

“Will you stand up,” she asked, “and shake my hand?”

He got up, with a slight tremble in his skinny legs, and stuck out his large hand. She took it politely, and shook it to seal their agreement. “All right, Mr. Tellier,” she said. “Where do we begin?”

“The roof,” he answered promptly. “We’ll need to fix the roof.”

“Well, I hope you have someone in mind,” she returned with a light smile. “I’m no great hand at carpentry.”

Frederick Tellier laughed, seemingly in spite of himself. Then he started off with a jerking movement, to introduce his new business partner to DuPont’s Bed & Breakfast.

***

Adrienne Rivet was born on a backwoods Louisiana bayou, to a father thwarted out of a fortune, and a mother made bitter on account of the thwarting. She’d never known her own father, and there was no hope of a fortune from that side, so no one was ever really very happy in the Rivet house.

Adrienne had one brother, two years older – and a younger sister who died in infancy. Her mother hadn’t treated her badly, before little Alice died. But afterwards, it seemed that she resented her for being the girl-child who survived, and she doted on her brother Alphonse.

Of course, Alphonse didn’t like that his sister was treated so poorly, but he was too small to do anything about it. Daniel Rivet was overworked, and he was very tired; and Nicole Rivet was fond of drink. Eventually, she forgot who she liked and who she didn’t, and she began to beat everybody, her husband included. But he was usually too weary to do anything about it. He just drank his beer, and watched the television, and thought of how his brother David had got the fortune that might have been his own.

Life’s a strange thing, after all. There are kisses, and beatings, and promises – and no one ever remembers anything but the money.

It’s very strange.

So far as money went, though, Adrienne Rivet (or perhaps we should call her Tellier, now) soon got used to having more of it than she’d ever had before. If Debussy’s enterprise had been profitable before she came into the picture, it was even more so now. Her presence was like the hand of Midas; the endeavor of the “bed and breakfast” became the envy of every brothel in the Quarter.

The business was booming; and Adrienne Tellier was pleased. She was even glad that she had agreed to pose as Frederick’s wife. It protected her from the advances of the clientele, who clamored after her relentlessly. She turned them all away with cold remarks, wanting them to understand that she wasn’t like the other girls in the house. She was their queen, if you will – not their comrade.

Soon, everyone began to know her as the steely, flint-eyed madam of Frenchmen Street. It suited her, though, because she didn’t have to pretend to be someone she wasn’t. Her personality was naturally cold – it had grown even colder since Beulah’s death – and she wasn’t in the mood to feign amiability.

But she had to admit, Frederick was a stalwart protector. He was like a loyal bulldog, snapping at the legs of those who annoyed her, and making it clear that she wasn’t for sale.

She went to bed with him every night – but he never touched her. She had worried about it for a while, and had thought about the best way to handle it, but it turned out that she needn’t have troubled herself over it. When they went into their room at night, they undressed quietly, and then lay down in the bed. Frederick nodded at her appreciatively; and then he turned out the light.

They only had five girls in the house, but it seemed that five was just the right number. No one was ever unoccupied in the evening, and sometimes there was even a small queue of gentlemen down in the parlor, each of them waiting for his turn with his favorite girl. There was no shortage of lady visitors, either.

Of the five girls at DuPont’s, Ferdinande was probably the most popular. She was your typical blonde bombshell, long legs up to the Milky Way, and enough makeup to choke a test-lab rabbit. She had a bad attitude, too. She could be sexy, when she wanted to be – but usually, she just wanted to be unpleasant. None of the customers seemed to mind, though. Some of them even enjoyed it.

The second-most-asked-for was Raphaelle – a young, beautiful woman from a Jewish family in France. But they were all dead, and Monsieur Debussy, she said, had been kind to her. Her black hair was always covered with sweet-smelling pomade, her high cheekbones painted with rouge. She liked to read, and men often walked into her room to find her devouring Maupassant. She’d always make them wait until she finished the paragraph she was reading. Then she’d stick a stub of paper in the book, and fling herself back on the bed.

This young woman had a strange relationship with Madam Tellier. The two had a sort of camaraderie, friendship at the least, perhaps more than that.

While Beulah Landon had fascinated Adrienne with her resemblance to Bette Davis, Raphaelle was smaller, thinner, and even darker. Adrienne thought she looked like Marion Cotillard. Maybe she watched too many movies.

Raphaelle was like a willow reed that blew in the breeze, not caring which way she bent, and usually wanting to be left alone. But, for some reason, she didn’t seem to mind being close to Adrienne. She shied away from everyone else – except for paying customers, of course – but with Adrienne, she seemed to feel a sort of familiarity, a kind of comfort that no one else provided for her. The two women spent many an early morning together, alone in the parlor, when the large room was still pure with the ghostly light of dawn.

A third girl was called Rosa the Jade. She was a little roll of fat, nearly all stomach, with very short legs. But her lack of physical beauty was more than made up for by her willingness to do things that the other girls wouldn’t. Everyone else had their limits – but it didn’t seem like Rosa had any. She was a dear little pastry puff, the men all said: soft as a cotton ball, and filled with fluff.

The last two girls worked together. From time to time, they could be found separately – but more often than not, where you found Louise, you also found Flora. They were specialists in the ménage à trois, and they brought in nearly half of the building’s revenue. They each had a particular costume, and they hardly ever altered it. Louise was dark-haired, and she dressed as an Egyptian goddess, with a dark sash, heavy eyeliner, and prolific gold jewelry. Flora was a redhead, and she arrayed herself in the attire of a Spanish gypsy, with a rainbow-colored linen shift, and a roll of coins that jangled in her curly hair.

No one knew whether these two were friends or lovers. Oftentimes, someone would walk into the parlor on a Sunday morning, and find them lying naked together on the red divan, reciting Shakespearean sonnets. But sometimes they didn’t speak for days.

It was odd.

Despite so many eccentricities under one roof, however, it all came together to make a profitable business. The girls took their jobs seriously, and Adrienne and Frederick made a strangely efficient team. Adrienne had never considered herself above cleaning – in fact, she’d spent a large part of her evenings sweeping and scrubbing that rathole in the alley, trying to make it feel just the smallest notch above rancid – and she kept the house in perfect order. Frederick had a head for figures, but Adrienne’s was even better, and she often went over the books when he wasn’t looking.

Aside from the suites upstairs, the liveliest room in the house was the parlor. Everyone gathered there to talk, smoke, drink, and play cards. Sometimes, the men even asked for a couple of the girls to come down to them there, and pay attention to them while they got drunk.

It was a particularly pleasant, serene evening in February, and the hosts of the house were sitting in the parlor with three especially loyal customers. Raphaelle and Rosa had come to join them; Rosa at the special request of Mr. Tourneau, who had a love for big-boned women, and who liked for her to sit on his lap while he played cards. It was a little hard to understand, since he only weighed one-hundred-and-fifteen pounds, had osteoporosis, and was arthritic. But he liked for the big girl to sit there, just the same. It made him gasp a little, when he talked, but he never stopped smiling.

Mr. Pushkin was fond of Raphaelle. He was a tall Russian gentleman, middle-aged, with dark hair and eyes. He looked like someone who’d know how to slit your throat without anybody noticing, if he was particularly in need of the contents of your wallet.

He sat with one of his long legs crossed over the other, and Raphaelle was perched on the arm of the chair in which he sat. She didn’t shirk in her duties of paying attention to Mr. Pushkin, but she glanced at Adrienne occasionally, and seemed to feed off of her soft smiles, as if they somehow made up for Mr. Pushkin’s greasy hand, which was lying flat against her back beneath her white T-shirt.

Their last guest was Mr. Valentine. He was a thoroughly American gentleman, with a light Southern accent – from Texas, Adrienne thought she remembered him saying.

It was no secret that he was in love with the lady of the house. He came almost every evening, just to sit in the parlor. He made the special request that Madam Tellier would come and talk with him – and that was all he asked. When he was offered half an hour’s diligent attention paid him by one of the girls, he politely declined. He just gestured for Madam Tellier to take a seat, and smiled in a very gentlemanly way. Then he went on to talk about politics, or books, or music, or any number of things. He was an intelligent man, and undeniably handsome. He was sort of like Cary Grant, minus the British accent.

On this particular night, there were these three guests in the parlor, and four others upstairs – one with Ferdinande, and three with Louise and Flora. Three women had come in asking for two of the house’s girls. They didn’t care which – but of course Madam Tellier thought it prudent to give them to the professionals.

Every now and then, strange sounds drifted down through the ceiling. The people in the parlor didn’t pay them much mind, but every now and then, an especially loud noise made them look up. In a business like that, one always had to keep an eye out. Pleasure could turn to violence in a surprisingly short space of time.

Frederick and Adrienne sat in armchairs side by side. Mr. Tellier was scrutinizing the daily newspaper, and Madam Tellier was reading a copy of Albert Camus’s Caligula. Rosa sat on old Philippe’s lap while he played solitaire. Every now and then, Mr. Tourneau sucked in a sharp breath, his respiration interrupted by the plump mass of woman that was seated on his knee.

Dmitri Pushkin was folded into his deep armchair, with Raphaelle still poised on its left arm, leaning down to kiss the long Russian every once in a while. Adrienne kept glancing at her from beneath her golden eyebrows, examining the expression on her face. It was a look caught between indifference and misery. At that moment, Adrienne would have liked to push everyone else out of the room, and just sit down next to Raphaelle on the couch beneath the windows, so that they could talk about something that had nothing to do with anything at all.

“What’s that you’re reading, Madam Tellier?” Mr. Valentine asked, sitting forward in his chair, and raising his black eyebrows.

“It’s Caligula,” Adrienne replied blandly.

“Do you like it?”

“Very much.” (She made this answer in the same absent tone.)

“You don’t sound like you do,” Mr. Valentine said with an uncertain smile.

“Ah,” Adrienne returned with a sigh. “That’s only because I never really seem to care for anything. That’s what everyone says about me, isn’t it?”

Everyone in the room looked mildly uncomfortable.

“Ah, well,” Adrienne said, sticking a piece of ripped paper between the pages for a bookmark. “It’s no matter. Life is very similar to literature, after all. Whatever your feelings about it may be – they don’t change the outcome any.”

The discomfort ebbed away, and everyone nodded in concession.

“Very true, Madam Tellier,” Mr. Tourneau said. “I used to think that my life would be a lot like Romeo’s – Romeo Montague, that is. I thought it would be very romantic, to find a girl I couldn’t be with, and then die alongside her for the sake of our forbidden love.” He sighed mournfully, and took a sip of his decaffeinated coffee. (Poor Mr. Tourneau couldn’t drink. His health wouldn’t permit it.)

“But it wasn’t to be,” he went on, in the same desolate voice. “Instead, I met someone who actually wanted to marry me. I didn’t love her, of course – she was like something out of a horror movie – but it wasn’t as though I had many options. Unlike dear Romeo, I wasn’t very handsome.”

“Ah,” Rosa exclaimed, in her high-pitched Latin accent, “don’t be silly, Señor Tourneau! You are very handsome. To me, you are the most handsome man in the world.”

She chucked his chin up with her chubby finger, and planted a wet kiss on his wrinkled mouth. He took hold of her with his thin, sinewy arms, and pulled her close to him. They got a little more excited, moment by moment – but everyone else just looked away, and paid no attention, when Rosa’s voluminous blouse flew away towards the dark fireplace.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pushkin was growing more amorous with Raphaelle. He was tugging at her T-shirt, and trying to mess with her skirt, though she’d told him that they’d need to go upstairs for all that. She was muttering to him, and trying to get him to calm down, when Mr. Valentine said to Adrienne: “Will you tell us more about Caligula?”

“Well, that depends,” Adrienne replied. “Have you ever read it?”

“In college, I suppose,” Jim Valentine said. “I don’t remember much about it, though.”

“When I first read it,” Adrienne said quietly, “I thought it was one of the greatest things ever written. I don’t know why.”

“No idea at all?” Jim Valentine asked playfully.

Frederick was looking from Adrienne to Valentine, seemingly disturbed by their conversation. It was no secret that he disliked Mr. Valentine; just as it was no secret that they were both fond of Madam Tellier. The only thing was, Frederick wasn’t sure what to do about it.

Adrienne looked up with a more purposeful countenance, and held the book upright in her lap. “Caligula had a desire for the impossible,” she said. “He wanted the moon. He didn’t really want the moon, of course – he just wanted what he couldn’t have. Everyone wants what they can’t have. He didn’t think he wanted love, but that’s just because love never panned out like he hoped it would. If it had – he would have been a different person. But it didn’t, so he was a mad tyrant.”

“Well,” Jim said, smiling thoughtfully, “I’m sure I’ve never heard it put quite like that before.”

“Probably not,” Adrienne returned in a disinterested tone. “What does it matter, though? It’s just a silly idea. When you think about it, that’s all life really is. A mess of silly ideas.”

“True,” Jim said. “I’m still interested in your opinions, though.”

“Caligula didn’t know what he wanted,” Adrienne said simply. “The basis of his misery was that men died: and that they were unhappy. But it seems as though there are any number of solutions to such a problem. God; or love. Maybe they’re the same thing. In any case, it’s probably never the right idea to go around killing everyone you meet. It’s hard to understand how that can make up for a loss of love.”

“That’s a good point,” Jim said. “You know, I haven’t read that play in a long time. I’d like to read it with you sometime, and have a little discussion about it.”

“You can talk to Madam Tellier about anything you like,” Frederick said suddenly, in a dry, flat voice. “As long as you pay her for it.”

Mr. Valentine met Frederick’s gaze, not seeming deterred in the least. He even looked amused.

“Of course,” he said simply. “I know better than anyone how valuable Madam Tellier’s time is.”

“Perhaps not better than anyone,” Frederick said quietly, glaring venomously at Jim.

It seemed as though things might start getting a little uncomfortable, when suddenly the silence was broken by Raphaelle’s shrill, raised voice.

“Stop it!” she screamed, leaping away from Pushkin’s chair, and standing alone in the middle of the room, tearing at her long, dark hair. “Won’t you just stop it?”

“What’s the matter with you?” Pushkin cried. “You’re acting like a lunatic! I’ve paid you well. Now you tell me I can’t touch you?”

Raphaelle had fallen to her knees on the carpet, and looked as if she were about to have a breakdown. Adrienne got up from her chair, and went over to her, kneeling down beside her, and holding her against her breast.

“Shhh,” she murmured. “Calm down, girl. It will be all right. Just calm down.”

Raphaelle leaned against her, and her madness seemed to abate. But still, her ragged breath was the only sound in the room.

“Please excuse us,” Madam Tellier said, dragging Raphaelle up with her off the floor. “It’s been a long night – and the poor thing is tired. Mr. Pushkin, if you’d like a refund, Frederick will be more than happy to oblige you.”

Despite her words, of course, Frederick didn’t look happy at all. He looked from Adrienne to Mr. Pushkin, frowning severely, and seeming to be in very dire need of a drink.

“It’s all right, Raphaelle,” Mr. Pushkin said smoothly, throwing himself back in his chair. “I’ll wait for you, my dear.”

Raphaelle burst into tears, and sank down against Madam Tellier, as the older woman led her from the room. It wasn’t much of a difference – Adrienne’s thirty years to Raphaelle’s twenty-five.

But in this world of ours, five years can make a world of difference. It can sharpen the line between cruelty and goodness; and it can blur the line between madness and reason.

Chapter Four:

The Invitation

The year after Adrienne arrived at DuPont’s, she received a letter from her brother. It contained an invitation to his wedding.

It was May, and the magnolias were in full bloom. The rotten city air was mildly sweet, and they had just turned on the air conditioning. The wedding was set for June.

Adrienne hadn’t spoken to her brother much, since leaving home. She’d gone away when she was fourteen. She knew that Alphonse was a lawyer, and that he had three houses: one in New Orleans, one on the ocean in Mexico, and one in the heart of Paris. He’d written to inquire after her several times, but she filled her return letters with lies, claiming that she was married to a rich man, and that she was utterly happy. Alphonse didn’t ask many questions, and his last letter had been more than four years ago.

He’d sent the wedding invitation to Beulah Landon’s address, which was where Adrienne had lived, the last time they’d corresponded. But Beulah’s daughter had taken pity on her, and had rescued the letter from the fireplace. She’d heard of the notoriety of Adrienne Tellier (née Rivet) of Frenchmen Street; and she delivered the letter in person.

It was a rainy day, when Penny Landon came. But she’d always been a kind sort of girl – she was the one exception in Beulah’s brood of otherwise horrible offspring – and she didn’t offer even a single judgmental remark. She just smiled uncomfortably, when Adrienne opened the door; handed the letter over quickly; and then ran away.

Raphaelle had followed Adrienne to the door, and they stood together, staring out into the downpour. Penny Landon quickly faded from their sight, like a desert mirage that may or may not have ever existed. Only the feel of the letter in Adrienne’s hand reminded her that it was real.

“What’s that?” Raphaelle asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” Adrienne answered. “Something that came for me at Beulah’s, I suppose.”

Raphaelle knew about Beulah. Of all the people in the house – including Frederick – she knew the most about Adrienne.

“Who’s it from?” she inquired.

Adrienne examined the return address, and replied, “It’s from my brother Alphonse.”

She took the letter up to her room, feeling slightly shaken. She wondered why her brother would be writing to her. It seemed even more ominous that the letter had recently lain on the nest of vipers that was Beulah Landon’s post-table. Beulah had been the kind of person you either loved or hated – and it seemed like more people had hated her than otherwise. The little table in the front entryway was usually covered with angry letters from old friends who didn’t feel like she paid enough attention to them; or, even more likely, from relatives who felt that they deserved a portion of her dead husband’s money.

Adrienne supposed, now that Beulah was gone, Simone was the new recipient of these nasty letters.

It served her right.

These thoughts distracted Adrienne from her anxiety, and she spent a few moments thinking about Beulah. She wasn’t an infrequent memory, but still, Adrienne hadn’t thought of her in weeks. She’d been thoroughly preoccupied with the business, and had actually been grateful to think about something other than the past.

Yet it seemed that the past had come back to her, anyway. She looked down at the envelope again, and finally opened it to take out the letter it contained. A very short letter. It didn’t say much. It merely asked after Adrienne’s health; the health, likewise, of her imaginary husband; and then Alphonse went on to say that he was rather happy, because he was going to be married. “See the enclosed invitation,” he wrote, “for particular details concerning time and venue.”

The wedding would take place at Alphonse’s Mexican villa. On the beach.

“Please R.S.V.P. immediately. Wouldn’t want to miss out on seeing you, dear sister – but will understand if other obligations prevent your attendance.”

Adrienne stared at these words for a long moment, feeling cold. She remembered the last time she’d seen sixteen-year-old Alphonse, in their father’s little clapboard shack, which was set on the mudbank of a water hole filled with alligators. That was why they’d never been allowed to have a dog. They’d had a hamster – but the alligators had gotten it, anyway.

Her brother had been a long, lean youth, dark-haired and handsome, with a strong jaw already shadowed with stubble. Clear blue eyes that had never seemed to lie to her. He’d often held her hand in the living room, after their mother had beaten her.

But all that had gone away after she left. They forgot anything particular about each other, and only remembered to ask whether everyone was still alive. He informed her, several years after she went away, that their parents were dead. Their mother drank herself to death, and their father shot himself. It wasn’t that surprising, but it was a strong blow, just the same. Especially Daniel.

He’d never gotten over the loss of his family fortune. His grandmother’s fortune, really. Passed down to her from a wealthy ancestor beheaded during the Reign of Terror, she’d hoarded it until she died, and then passed it down to her son – Daniel’s father. But he preferred Daniel’s brother, and left the money to him. He didn’t even offer to divide it.

It may have been that Nicole married Daniel in hopes of sharing the fortune. In any case, there was no fortune to be shared; and the couple’s end was a tragic one.

It’s a shame when there’s no romance in tragedy. At least, when there’s romance, it makes the tragedy seem almost worthwhile. But without it – there’s only blood and sadness.

***

When Adrienne told Frederick about the wedding, he was very understanding, and he gave her a week of freedom. She packed her suitcase, and took a cab to MSY, where she boarded a flight to Mexico.

A baby screamed in her ear for half of the journey, and she was just considering trying to find a way to throw it off the plane, when its mother took a Poland Spring water bottle out of her purse, and poured a little of its contents into the baby’s milk bottle.

“Not water, of course,” the mother said confidentially to Adrienne. She was haggard-looking – ravaged-looking, really. There were dark circles under her empty eyes, and her thin hair was unwashed. “I put the vodka in a water bottle to get it onto the plane. I’ve been trying to wean him off of it – it’s all my husband’s fault, he’s the one who started it, the stupid damned Russian.” She looked down into the baby’s chubby face, her expression half-amused, and half-disgusted. “It works, anyway,” she muttered, stuffing the nipple of the bottle into the baby’s small red mouth.

Five minutes later, the baby was asleep. It didn’t wake up again until they got to the Acapulco International Airport. Adrienne thought about saying something encouraging to the mother before debarking the plane – but then she thought better of it, and hurried away.

While she was looking for her bag in the airport, she was assaulted by the smell of sweat, fast-food tacos, and jacaranda blossoms. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant – you might say there was something exotic about it – but just the same, she made her way quickly out of the airport, and set about looking for the shuttle that her brother had recommended to her. Alphonse had offered to come and pick her up, but she’d declined, with the excuse that she was sure he’d be busy with the wedding preparations. But really, she was just nervous about seeing him again.

The little white van took a while to arrive, so she sat on her suitcase on the sidewalk, watching the passing traffic, and trying not to think about anything.

Hard as she tried not to think, though, she was preoccupied with the image of her brother’s young face, the last time she saw it. No doubt he’d look much different now. Maybe she wouldn’t even recognize him.

She was grateful when the van arrived, and a little Mexican man got out to help her with her bag. She let him pick it up for her, and nodded graciously, almost pleased by the warm smile he offered her. Nearly all of his small teeth were visible, when he smiled, stained brown with pipe tobacco. His wrinkled face wore an expression that wasn’t just friendly, but hospitable, as if he were willing to listen with an entirely open mind to anything you might have to say.

“Hola, señora,” he said kindly. “My name is Miguel. Where are you headed?”

“I don’t know if you’ll know where I mean,” Adrienne returned, “but I’m looking for a house on Sepulveda Boulevard.”

“Ah!” Miguel exclaimed. “Everyone knows where to find Señor Rivet’s house. We often drive his business people out to meet him.”

“How did you know who I meant?” Adrienne asked suspiciously.

“Because,” Miguel answered patiently, “Sepulveda Boulevard was put in, you know, just for Señor Rivet’s house. Señor’s house is the only house on Sepulveda Boulevard. Down on the south end of the bay, where all the newer things are.”

“How far is it?”

“Not far. Less than twenty miles.”

“Good,” Adrienne said with a sigh. “The flight was long enough.”

Miguel looked at her knowingly, squinting into her face with intelligent little black eyes. Her discomfort and anxiety didn’t escape him.

“You are a business associate of Señor Rivet’s?” he asked curiously.

“No,” Adrienne replied, in an almost regretful tone of voice. “He’s my brother. And he’s getting married.”

“Ah!” Miguel repeated. “Felicitaciones! Well – congratulations to him, I mean.”

He peered inquisitively at Adrienne, and asked, “Are you married, señora? Well – since I didn’t know, I suppose I should have called you señorita. But I had a hard time believing such a beautiful woman could be unmarried!”

Adrienne nodded, a little stiffly, and answered, “Yes. I’m married.”

“Ah! Excelente! I knew it.”

He stowed Adrienne’s bag in the back of the van, and asked, “Where would you like to sit? In the middle, or up front?”

“You let passengers sit up front?” she asked.

“Ah, yes,” he answered with a wink. “I do, señora, when they are as pretty as you.”

Adrienne smiled in spite of herself, and allowed Miguel to hold the passenger door open for her. Then she got into the van, and Miguel drove them out onto the freeway.

They were silent, for a few minutes. But little Miguel wasn’t a naturally quiet fellow. Soon, he started peeking towards Adrienne, and smiling in that understanding little way of his.

“You are afraid to go to your brother,” he said. “You have not seen him in a long time, I think.”

“I haven’t seen him since I was fourteen,” Adrienne answered quietly, gazing pensively out the window, and not quite understanding why she’d answered the man.

“Ah!” said Miguel. “Yes – a long time. But it will be all right, you know. A brother never forgets his sister.” He clapped a hand to his chest, and smiled honestly. “A brother loves his sister forever,” he went on, “just as God intended.”

Adrienne smiled back at him, feeling appreciative of his kindness.

“But you will miss your husband, yes?” Miguel inquired.

Adrienne looked away, and frowned slightly. “He’ll be fine without me,” she said. “We do just fine without each other.”

Miguel stared for so long at the side of her face, she began to worry that he would crash into something. She looked at him in alarm.

“You do not love your husband,” he announced in an important-sounding voice.

Adrienne held his eyes for a moment. They were like the eyes of a kindly snake-charmer, making her say what she didn’t want to say.

“No,” she answered. “I don’t love him. We’re friends, you might say. Our business threw us together.”

Miguel nodded in an understanding way, and looked back to the road. Adrienne let out a sigh of relief.

“Business is a funny thing,” he said. “It brings people together. My wife was a waitress in a restaurant, and I was a cook. I also made pottery. She encouraged me to show my work to my boss – and he asked me to glaze my creations, so that they could be used for decorative platters. I made a little splash with my platters. People wanted to buy them; they offered me a lot of money for them, but my boss always found a way to keep me from getting it. Eventually, I just went back to being a cook. But I married my wife! She’s always believed in me. I still make pottery – but I drive pretty people like you to make money.”

He winked at her, and she couldn’t help but smile.

“Your wife sounds like –” (she thought for a moment, wanting to find the right words) “– she sounds like a perfectly perfect person.”

“Ah!” he said. “She is perfect. I have never seen anything so perfect as my Mariana!”

He peered at her, and added, “I hope that someday you will find someone so perfect, señora.”

Adrienne laughed softly, and stretched back in her seat. “You wouldn’t think it was bad of me to divorce my husband, Miguel?”

He chuckled, looking thoughtfully out the windshield. “Ah,” he said, “no, señora. Not bad at all – if you find someone who is perfect.”

Adrienne watched his kind face for a moment, but then turned to look out the window, savoring the beautifully clear June sky. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen the sky this way. Sometimes, she looked at it in the morning, drawing her bedroom curtain aside to see if it was raining – but she had never noticed how blue it was.

It was perfect.

Chapter Five:

Alphonse and Dora

It wasn’t long before they arrived at Sepulveda Boulevard. Miguel got off the freeway, and steered them into the heart of Acapulco – a bustling little city set on a deep, semicircular bay. They drove past mountains of high-rise hotels, with the clear blue water sparkling out in the distance, winding peacefully around the wide roads until they came to their destination.

Alphonse’s house was almost as impressive as the hotels they’d passed. It had four stories, with windows that glittered in the sun, and more terraces than Adrienne could count in only a few seconds.

“Are you sure this is it?” she asked doubtfully.

“Like I said,” Miguel replied, “this is the only house on the boulevard. And besides – I know that Señor Rivet lives here. I’ve even met him.”

“Really?” Adrienne said curiously, looking into Miguel’s face, wondering if she’d see something there that gave her some clue as to who her brother was nowadays.

“Yes, señora,” Miguel said. “He is a nice man. Very busy, very overworked – but nice enough. He has a good face. And believe me – I know faces.”

He pulled into the wide U-shaped drive in front of the mansion, stopping just in front of the tall, white double doors that made up the entrance. They stood open to the warm afternoon breeze, and revealed an array of pale Oriental carpets, lying in all directions in the large parlor that opened right off the doors.

Adrienne got out of the van, and Miguel came around to get her suitcase. He placed it just inside the front doors, and then came back to bid Adrienne farewell. He looked into her face for a moment, smiling in a curious way.

“You are nervous, señora,” he said. “Don’t be! I feel that you will enjoy yourself, here in Mexico.”

“What makes you say so?” she asked him.

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s just a feeling I have. And besides – I feel that you deserve it.”

“Thank you, Miguel,” Adrienne said softly.

“You are most welcome, señora! But now – I must go.”

He leaned forward on his tip-toes, since he was so short, and gave Adrienne a kiss on the cheek. “Remember!” he said. “Enjoy yourself.”

“I’ll try,” Adrienne promised.

Miguel nodded happily, and started back to the van.

Just as that moment, though, someone came out of the front doors. It was a very tall man, thin but strong-looking, with dark hair and eyes. His skin was fair. He wore a pair of khakis and a light blue button-down shirt. He smiled like he was used to selling things – and looked, in fact, rather like a salesman on vacation. But then – he was a lawyer. That was almost the same thing.

Adrienne was mildly pleased to have recognized him. She’d been afraid, after all, that she wouldn’t.

His smile faltered when he saw Adrienne. He looked seriously into her face, and then showed a different smile – a more genuine smile.

“Adrienne?” he asked.

“It’s me,” she replied.

“Well,” he said, turning around in a circle. “Do I look any different?”

“A little,” Adrienne lied. Well – the truth was that his face was the same. But his eyes weren’t.

“Ah, well,” Alphonse said. “Seventeen years will do that to you.”

He glanced at Miguel, who had paused on his way to the van, obviously thinking it would be polite to greet Alphonse before he left.

“Ah!” Alphonse exclaimed, with that air of phoniness creeping back into his demeanor. “Hello, Miguel! You’re my favorite shuttle driver, you know. You’re the only one who actually knows how to drive.”

“Is that so, señor?” Miguel asked. “Well, I appreciate the compliment.”

“Never appreciate things you deserve,” Alphonse advised. “It makes it harder to get them.”

Miguel smiled softly, and nodded, as if he were speaking with a silly little child. But it was plain that he liked Alphonse.

“Thank you, Señor Rivet!” he said. “I’m sure you are right.”

He bowed to Alphonse, and smiled once more at Adrienne, before getting into his van, and driving away.

“Nice little gentleman,” Alphonse remarked, looking after the van for a moment. “It’s good when you meet one. Most of them aren’t like that. They’re always trying to sell you something. Umbrellas, massages – it’s very annoying. As if anyone would want a wrinkled old man massaging them. Ugh.”

He laughed lightly. Adrienne could tell that this was his usual laugh – maybe not his real laugh, but the one he used most often. He seemed to notice, though, that she wasn’t impressed by it. He frowned, and walked nearer to her.

“It’s been a long time, sister,” he murmured.

“It has,” she returned, smiling at the sincerity that tinged his voice.

He stared at her for a moment, and reached out to take her hand. But then he shook himself, and dropped her hand. “Well,” he said, turning to the house, “will you let me show you around?”

“Of course,” she answered, stepping towards her suitcase by the door.

“No, no,” he said politely. “Let me get it for you.”

He stepped into the house, and called out, “Carmen!”

A very slight young woman appeared from out of a back corridor. She wore a black maid’s outfit, complete with a spotless white apron.

“We don’t usually make them dress like that,” Alphonse explained. “But, what with the wedding and all – well, we just thought we’d make it look good.”

He turned to the young maid, and thrust the heavy suitcase out to her. She didn’t hesitate before taking it, but she staggered under it just the same. She was hardly bigger than a thirteen-year-old child, and the case looked as if it weighed half as much as she did.

“Wait a minute,” Adrienne protested. “You don’t have to take that. It’s too heavy.”

“It’s all right,” Alphonse said with a bright smile. “She’s stronger than she looks. She has six younger brothers, and she’s carried them all on her back. At the same time, I think.” He paused, and thought for a moment. “Was it all at the same time, Carmen?” he asked the maid. “I think that was what you said. When your house caught fire, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” the little maid answered, hefting the case with a good-natured grunt.

Adrienne was disgusted, but she tried not to acknowledge the fact. She didn’t want to admit, just yet, that she didn’t think she liked her brother very much.

“You can take that up to one of the guest rooms, Carmen,” Alphonse said to the maid, not unkindly, but rather absently, as if he could have been talking to a goldfish. “You got one ready for my sister, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Carmen grunted in reply.

“Good. The other guests won’t be here till tonight, so you have plenty of time to finish up with the others.”

“Already done, sir,” Carmen said breathlessly, stumbling away under the weight of the suitcase.

“Ah,” Alphonse said admiringly. “She’s a good nut, that one.”

Adrienne didn’t reply. She looked at the side of her brother’s face for a moment, wondering what to make of him. She was lost in a cloud of thoughts that weren’t entirely pleasant to her – when a door at the side of the parlor opened, and a woman walked in.

It looked like she was coming from the pool. She was wearing a black bikini, and every inch of her willowy, snow-white limbs was visible. Her long chestnut-colored hair was bound up behind her head, and a pair of dark sunglasses covered her eyes. She took them off when she came into the house, and tucked them up into her hair.

Adrienne was grateful to see that she wasn’t sickeningly young. Alphonse was thirty-three, after all. The dark-haired woman looked as if she were about thirty.

She looked towards the door, where Alphonse was standing with Adrienne, and flashed a friendly smile. Adrienne felt her breath catch.

“Oh my goodness,” she said loudly, her voice permeated with a warm Southern accent. “Is that your sister, Al?”

Alphonse grinned. “It’s her,” he answered.

The dark-haired woman walked over to them, beaming brightly. She was staring at Adrienne.

“I’ve been wondering what you’d look like,” she said. “I guess I thought you’d look more like Al. But you look – well, you look more like Kim Novak.” She smiled even more widely, and clapped her hands. “That’s it!” she exclaimed. “That’s exactly what you look like. You’re Kim Novak in Vertigo.”

Her smile didn’t falter, but it became twisted with a little nervousness, Adrienne thought. She kept staring at Adrienne, and went on, “You be Kim Novak – and I’ll be Jimmy Stewart. But then again, I’ll bet everybody says that to you!”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Alphonse said. “You’ll have to excuse my fiancée, though, Adrienne. She’s an incorrigible flirt. I’ve been worrying about what to do if she makes a pass at the priest tomorrow.”

“Oh, Al,” the dark-haired woman said with a sigh, looking patronizingly at Alphonse. “You say the stupidest things.”

“Most people actually say that I’m very eloquent,” Alphonse explained to Adrienne. “But then, that’s just a part of the job. If you don’t dazzle them, your client goes to the slammer. And then your fees go down.”

“Oh, Al,” his fiancée repeated, shaking her head as if she were annoyed.

Adrienne looked into the woman’s face, and felt her breath catch in her throat again. She coughed slightly, and said, “I don’t think Alphonse told me your name.”

The woman began to beam again. “My name’s Dora,” she said. “Dora Wakefield. Well – Dora Rivet, come tomorrow.”

“Where are you from?” Adrienne asked.

“Georgia,” Dora answered. “Good old Atlanta. Daddy’s a truck driver, and Mama knows how to keep busy while’s he’s away. I always missed him when he was gone – but the nights he left, I remember Mama gave us the biggest ice cream sundaes.”

She continued to smile, her eyes lingering on Adrienne’s face. But Adrienne felt herself beginning to blush, which wasn’t like her – so she cleared her throat again, and asked if she might have a glass of water.

“Oh, of course,” Alphonse answered hospitably. But then he looked towards the staircase, and shouted, “Carmen!”

Chapter Six:

The Dinner Party

Alphonse and Dora’s wedding was set to take place at ten o’clock the following morning. There would be hundreds of guests, but most of them would be staying in hotels. Only Adrienne herself, a few of Alphonse’s closest associates, and Dora’s parents and brother were staying in the house.

None of the other guests would arrive until eight-thirty in the morning, when there would be light refreshments served inside the house, until everyone was herded out onto the beach for the ceremony. Alphonse and Adrienne had been raised Catholic, and a priest would preside over the occasion. There would be a white, flowered arch that Dora had designed (it seemed that she was an interior decorator), set up in front of the rolling ocean. A multitude of ivory chairs would be set up behind it.

The night before the wedding, Alphonse had planned a supper to be shared by the people staying at the beach house. According to his plan, everyone filed downstairs at seven o’clock, and joined together in the dining room.

It was a magnificent room, obviously. It was semi-nautical, semi-rustic, filled with seashells and woodland motifs. Across the wide wall opposite the entrance, there was a large depiction on Winslow Homer’s The Fox Hunt. The orange fox crouched low in the snow, watching the approach of angry black crows.

Adrienne studied the painting for a brief moment, and shuddered. But she tried to hide her discomfort.

The long table was made of pale birch wood, with low wicker chairs set around it. The centerpiece was a compilation of conch shells and pinecones.

The party was made up of Alphonse, his fiancée Dora, her parents, Adrienne, and two of Alphonse’s colleagues. He jokingly called them friends, when he introduced them to Adrienne – but that was all she really suspected it was. An elaborate joke.

The two men examined everything in the house very thoroughly – in a very subtle way, of course – and seemed to laugh a little to themselves, before venturing into the dining room for supper. Then they smiled at Alphonse, and shook his hand heartily.

Alphonse escorted Adrienne into the dining room, while Dora walked in on her father’s arm.

“These are your friends, Alphonse?” Adrienne asked.

He fixed his dark eyes on the two middle-aged men stationed by the sideboard; and his gaze was almost fierce. But then he looked down at Adrienne, and smiled. “You could say that,” he said simply. “I help them – and they help me. Other than you and Dora, they’re all I have in the world.”

Adrienne was sad to hear that. But she showed no sign of it, and she smiled along with her brother, as they sashayed into the dining room.

“Everyone,” he pronounced clearly, with a noticeable measure of pride in his voice, “this is my sister, Adrienne. Adrienne – these are Dora’s parents, Frank and Deborah. You’ve already met Tom and Dick.”

Adrienne nodded curtly to the two gentlemen, and sat down when Alphonse pulled out her chair.

Tom Hardy walked over to Adrienne, smiling in a wolfish way that made her cringe. Dick Halloran hung back, sipping at his gin and tonic, and surveying the scene with half-drunken eyes.

“It’s hard to believe you’re Al’s sister,” Hardy said to Adrienne. “You’re so damned beautiful!”

Adrienne didn’t reply. She just took a sip of her rum and Coke, and glared up at him from under her eyelashes.

“Good Lord a’mighty!” Hardy exclaimed. “How’d you keep this little fireball hidden all this time, Al?”

Alphonse grinned, and squeezed Adrienne’s shoulder gently.

Tom and Dick were thoroughly unpleasant – and almost identical, by the way, with their pale doughy faces, and their thin, short hair that was obviously dyed (Dick’s may have even been a toupee) – but Dora’s family was a welcome reprieve.

Her father was a quiet, stern-looking man, but he had a warm smile, and Adrienne had never seen hands that looked so strong. Mrs. Wakefield was a short, stout woman, with wonderfully rosy cheeks, and a rolling laugh. Her hair was already white, and she looked like Mrs. Santa Claus.

Dora’s brother was a different sort of character. He was quiet like his father: not so much in a stalwart way, but in a reserved, introverted sort of way. He was handsome as his sister was beautiful, but Adrienne doubted whether he knew it. His name was Benjamin.

It was obvious that Benjamin was usually a reticent sort of person, but after watching him for a while, Adrienne wondered if he was especially unwilling to converse on this particular evening. He kept looking from Dora to Alphonse, and then he’d glance at his father, who sometimes returned his gaze, and sometimes didn’t. It was hard to read Mr. Wakefield’s expression, but Benjamin looked upset. He was going heavy on the bourbon.

A while after they’d finished eating, when the young man got up for the fifth or sixth time to refill his glass at the sideboard, Adrienne stood up quietly, and followed him. When she got to the sideboard, she glanced back at the table to see if anyone was watching them.

Hardy and Halloran were conducting a very rowdy business conversation with Alphonse – something about some client or other, who either did or didn’t owe Dick money for something that he should or shouldn’t have done; Mr. Wakefield was dozing with his chin in his hand; and Dora was talking quietly with her mother.

But, when Adrienne got up from the table, Dora looked to see where she was going. And she watched her now, while she stood at the sideboard beside her brother. Adrienne met her eyes for a brief moment, and then nodded slightly. Dora smiled softly in return, and turned back to her mother.

Adrienne set her glass on the sideboard, half-filled it with ice, and then splashed in some rum. She mixed it with diet Coke, and swilled it around with her straw before taking a sip, watching the side of Benjamin’s face. He was clearly distraught. His shapely chin was covered with dark stubble that he’d missed with the razor, and his eyes were a little red. His hands shook as he reached for the bourbon.

“Are you sure you should have another?” Adrienne asked in a quiet voice.

He looked at her in surprise, not having realized that she’d followed him. But then his face clouded over with anger, and he asked defensively, “What’s it to you?”

“I’m not trying to be judgmental,” Adrienne said simply, sipping calmly through her straw. “It’s only that I’m trying to keep you from making a fool of yourself. Because it’s no fun. Believe me.”

His face softened, and his hand fell away from the bourbon bottle. “What are you talking about?” he asked curiously.

Adrienne glanced back at the table again, and then nodded towards a pair of open doors in the adjoining sitting room, which led out to a wide terrace, looking out onto the bay. She led the way, and was grateful that Alphonse didn’t seem to notice. Dora and her mother watched them strangely, but when Mrs. Wakefield seemed about to ask Dora something, her daughter laid a hand on her arm, and whispered something to her. Mrs. Wakefield smiled, obviously comforted by whatever she’d said. Then she took another piece of cake.

When they stepped out onto the terrace, Adrienne shut the doors behind them, and walked across the dark red adobe floor to the cast-iron railing. She leaned against it, and looked out on the crashing waves, where the moon was shining brilliantly.

“I’ll tell you exactly what I’m talking about,” she said plainly. “It’s obvious that you don’t want your sister to marry my brother. It’s fortunate that he doesn’t seem to be very receptive to other people’s feelings, because almost anyone else would have noticed the way you’ve been acting. You’re drinking too much, and you can’t handle it. One more drink, and I was afraid you’d start a fight.”

Benjamin Wakefield hung his head, and traipsed across to the railing. The mild wind blew against his face, and seemed to sober him up a bit.

“I don’t mean to be an ass,” he said with a sigh. “It’s just – Dora’s always been my best friend. I’ve never had many friends. But she’s always been there.”

Adrienne looked at him, and felt sympathetic. It was a strange feeling. She hadn’t felt sympathy for anyone in what seemed like a very long time.

“It’s not that I don’t like Alphonse,” he went on. “I don’t even know him, to be honest. I just – I just think that Dora’s marrying him for the wrong reasons. We’ve never had much money, you know. We still don’t. Daddy’s a good man, and he’s always worked hard. Mama washed laundry to make ends meet. But suddenly, Dora’s going to marry Alphonse, and we’re living in a condo in Florida. I’m in law school. We don’t have the money to pay your brother back for any of this – and I’m just afraid – I’m afraid of what will happen if . . .”

“If it doesn’t work out,” Adrienne finished for him.

“Yes,” he breathed, looking incredibly grateful that she’d understood.

“You’ve been very honest,” Adrienne said to him. “So now I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know you, or your family. Hell, I don’t even know my own brother. But I can promise you – I’ll do all I can to make sure he honors the promises he’s made you. Don’t ask me how, because I don’t know the answer to that. I can only promise to try.”

“Why would you do that?” he asked, obviously trying to understand.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “For you, I suppose. You seem like a good man. I don’t know many good men.” She paused, and closed her eyes for a moment against the blinding moonlight on the waves.

She was surprised to see Dora Wakefield’s face flash behind her eyelids.

“And for Dora,” she said quietly. “She’s marrying my brother – and that will make her family. It will make all of you my family. I don’t have much family, by the way, so I suppose I should try to do right by you.”

Benjamin Wakefield smiled earnestly, the effect of the alcohol almost all gone from him now. Then he turned away from the railing, and gestured for Adrienne to go ahead of him.

She walked into the house, with the purposeful but subtle tread she had grown accustomed to using on Frenchmen Street. One had to show that one knew where one was going – but it shouldn’t be suspected that one was trying to attract attention. It was a difficult combination, but by no means an impossible one.

When he came back into the dining room, Benjamin poured himself a glass of water, and sat down at the table next to his mother. He laid a hand on her arm, and started talking to her, with a soft smile on his face.

Adrienne hovered by the sideboard, refilling her glass with rum and Coke. She felt eyes on her, and she looked to see Dora Wakefield, watching her intently.

Adrienne nodded once more. But this time, Dora rose up from her seat, and came to join her at the sideboard.

“You said something to make him feel better,” she said plainly, reaching for the vodka.

“I tried to be honest,” Adrienne returned, with a strange fluttering feeling in her chest. She watched Dora carefully, studying the movement of her lips as she took a drink from her glass. It mesmerized her, somehow.

“Whatever you said,” Dora said, practically draining her glass, “I can see that it helped him.” She set down the glass, and looked straight into Adrienne’s face.

Adrienne’s heart stopped dead in its tracks. Her breath flew away from her – and she wondered if it would come back. She was pleasantly surprised when she started breathing again.

“Thank you,” Dora said softly, reaching out to twine the fingers of her right hand with those of Adrienne’s left.

“You’re welcome,” Adrienne said, practically choking on the words. All she could feel was the smooth skin of Dora’s fingers, brushing against hers. There was a fire in her breast. She’d never felt anything like it – and she hoped she’d never feel it again. It was like being ill.

Chapter Seven:

The Beach

Eventually, Alphonse’s heated discussion with Tom and Dick died down, and they started to become aware of their surroundings again. They looked down the table to the place where Dora and her family were sitting with Adrienne, and they smiled very placatingly.

“Sorry, dear,” Alphonse said to Dora. “I hope I didn’t miss anything?”

“Nothing at all,” Dora replied with a faint smile.

Everyone decided, at that point, that they were very tired, and that they should make their way up to bed. Alphonse poured himself another drink, kissed Dora’s cheek, and said he’d see her shortly. Then he started up the staircase with Tom and Dick, talking very loudly again.

Dora hugged her brother, and kissed her mother and father goodnight. But she didn’t look at Adrienne. She just led the others up the staircase, while Adrienne stood down in the dining room, watching Dora’s bare calves disappear into the ceiling.

Adrienne had seen her room already. She’d gone up to dress for dinner. But now, she thought about the big, empty room, and she thought about lying down in the big, empty bed.

Usually, the idea would have been a tantalizing one. She was sick to death of sleeping next to Frederick. He wasn’t a bad man – but she wished more than anything that she could have slept alone. It was like having a big log next to you in bed: a wet, mossy log that you didn’t have any particular feelings about, and really, it would have been much nicer if it hadn’t been there. But, then again, the log had very good intentions, and it made you feel a little poorly to be so indifferent about it.

But that’s just the way it was.

She knew that she couldn’t go back up to that room, so she just sat down at the table, and stared at the wall. Every now and then, she looked at the clock. It seemed to be moving very slowly.

Once, she accidentally glanced at the painting of the fox and the crows. It made her even more anxious now than it had earlier. It was as if the fox were caught forever in purgatory – forced to watch the crows draw near to him, fearing pain and torment every moment, but never granted the gift of oblivion that death would bring.

She wished she could toss a sheet over the painting – or, even better, that she could go out and throw it into the bay.

Eventually, she got tired of sitting, and she went to the doors of the sitting room that opened onto the terrace. She looked out of them for a while, watching the rolling of the ocean, and wondering what exactly she was doing there.

She hadn’t seen her brother in almost two decades. She didn’t even know him anymore. She wondered if she ever really had. When you’re that young, after all – is it possible to truly know someone?

She pushed open one of the doors to the terrace, and stepped out into the gusty breeze, her hair whipping back over her head. She looked up at the moon, and sighed. She was seriously beginning to consider running away. They wouldn’t know she’d gone until the morning – and by then, they’d be so busy getting ready for the wedding, it wouldn’t matter much.

She was still pondering the moon, and still contemplating escape, when she suddenly realized that someone was standing behind her. She turned around in surprise, and found herself looking at Dora Wakefield.

She had changed out of her dinner dress, and was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of jogger pants. Her feet were bare. Her hair was thrown up into a messy ponytail, and she’d washed off her makeup.

The sight of her took Adrienne’s breath away.

“Hi,” she said, coming to lean against the rail beside Adrienne, who had made an effort to look back out at the bay. But she felt Dora’s eyes on the side of her face, and her cheeks were burning.

“I had a feeling you didn’t come upstairs,” Dora said. “Not feeling sleepy?”

“Not really,” Adrienne answered in a strained voice.

“Me neither.”

Dora sighed, and folded her elbows against the rail, leaning a little closer to Adrienne. “We didn’t get to talk much today,” she said. “I was disappointed.”

“Ah, well,” Adrienne said simply, trying to master her shaking voice. “After tomorrow, we probably won’t see each other again for years. Best not to get to know each other too well, probably.”

“Do you think so?” Dora asked in a thoughtful tone, scrutinizing the moonlit bay with her dark eyes.

“I do,” Adrienne said firmly, moving away from Dora.

“Where are you going?” Dora asked quickly. She seemed to be afraid that Adrienne would leave.

“I should go to bed,” Adrienne replied. “And so should you. Tomorrow’s a big day for you.” She paused for a beat, before she added: “Probably the biggest day of your life.”

She waited a moment, wondering whether Dora would say something about Alphonse, or her feelings for him; but she didn’t. She just looked back out at the bay, and said, “Of course I can’t keep you from going. And you’re right – we should both go to bed.”

But then she looked back at Adrienne, and smiled softly. Her face was bathed in soft white moonlight.

“I really wish you’d go for a walk with me,” she said.

Adrienne forgot herself for a moment, and asked, “Where?”

She regretted it instantly. But, at the same time – she was glad she’d said it.

“On the beach,” Dora answered. She moved down the terrace, and unlatched a narrow gate in the iron fencing. She held it open, and stood aside for Adrienne, smiling brightly.

Adrienne felt a little silly, walking out onto the beach in her dress. It was a dark green dress, almost the same color as her eyes, sleeveless, and made of silk. It flowed down to her ankles, and swished around them with every step.

Without hesitating, she kicked off her shoes, and stepped through the gate. Dora followed her, and shut the gate behind them.

They meandered down to the shore, where the waves were lapping gently against the sand. Adrienne had never walked beside the ocean before. She looked out at it for a while, marveling at the sight of it, as it stretched beneath the moonlight towards places she’d never see.

But then she shook herself, and looked back at Dora. The sight of the ocean hadn’t caused any physical sensation in her – but looking at Dora set her stomach fluttering, and started a strange fire in the place where she thought her heart lay.

She cursed herself silently. She wished she’d gone to bed.

She tried to come up with an excuse for going back to the house. She thought and thought, as the seconds stacked up against each other – but suddenly she realized that she didn’t care.

“Tell me something about you,” she said to Dora.

Dora looked at her in surprise, but then smiled faintly in the moonlight. “I’m not sure what to say,” she returned.

“I don’t care what you say,” Adrienne told her. “I just want to talk with you.”

“Well, all right,” Dora said, scratching at the back of her neck with her thin white fingers. “You already know about my mama and daddy. You’ve met Benjamin.”

She looked at Adrienne with a more serious expression, and said, “I hope you won’t think badly of him. He doesn’t usually act like that. He’s just – he’s just a little mixed up right now.”

“He already explained it.”

“Oh,” Dora said, caught a little off guard. She rubbed at the back of her neck again. It was obvious she was wondering what her brother had said.

“He loves you very much,” Adrienne told her. “He’s just concerned about you.”

“Everyone’s always concerned about everyone,” Dora said, a little bitterly. But then she looked quickly at Adrienne, and added, “Of course I don’t mean anything by that. My brother’s the best brother in the world. And nobody has better parents than me. But it’s not as though we could all go on belonging to each other for the rest of our lives, so I –”

She paused for a long moment, looking back towards the lights that were burning in the upper floors of Alphonse’s villa. “No one can ever really say whether they made the right choice,” she said softly. “I don’t even know if there’s any such thing. But I just – well –”

She slapped the back of her neck, and gazed into the distance, where faint lights were shining.

“This is the private part of the beach,” she said. “It belongs to Alphonse. But there’s a fence down there, with the public beach on the other side. They have bars all down the top of the sand, and people swim all night long.” She paused, and laughed. “I’ve always been scared to swim at night,” she confessed. “It’d be even harder to see the sharks coming for you.”

She looked at Adrienne, but she didn’t smile. Her face was blank for a moment, but then her eyes grew wide, and her mouth fell open a little.

“You look beautiful in that dress,” she said quietly. “I hope you don’t ruin it in the sand.”

“I don’t really care,” Adrienne returned honestly. “One dress is the same as another.”

Dora seemed to think about it for a moment, before she finally smiled. “You’re right,” she said. “Dresses don’t matter much. But I’ve always liked to think that people do.”

She fell silent, and looked towards the lights on the public beach.

“And who matters to you, Dora?” Adrienne asked curiously, drawing a little nearer to the dark-haired woman.

She examined her for a moment, trying to decide which actress she most resembled. But she was surprised to find that she didn’t look like anyone she’d ever seen before.

She just looked like Dora Wakefield. More beautiful than Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief; sexier than Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity; more innocent than little Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34^th^ Street.

“I love my mama and daddy,” Dora replied. “I love Benjamin very much, though he gets angry at me for what he calls ‘bad decisions.’ And I love my sister Mamie.”

She hesitated for a long moment, before going on to say, “Mamie said she wouldn’t come to the wedding. Said she was too busy with her flower business. But I know it’s because she thinks I’m a fool.”

“Why’s that?” Adrienne asked seriously.

“She knows what kind of man Alphonse is. Wealthy, successful. He could have any woman he wanted. She said to me, ‘Dora, what the hell do you think he wants you for? It’s just some weird phase men go through. He’ll get tired of you – and mark my words, you won’t get half of his ten-dollar lottery ticket.’”

Dora was quiet for a moment. It was plain that she was thinking furiously.

“Alphonse is a good man,” she said finally. “I think he’s better than Mamie says. But then – does anybody ever really know anyone?”

She looked desperately at Adrienne, and flew towards her, clutching her arm as they walked along down the beach.

“Do you think one person can ever really know somebody else?” she asked earnestly, gazing into Adrienne’s eyes.

Adrienne stopped walking, and looked back at her. “I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “I’d like to think that it’s possible. But then – I’d like to think that a lot of things are possible.”

Dora stared at her for a moment, but then pressed her arm gratefully. Then they started walking again.

“You said something earlier about interior design,” Adrienne said, pressing her shoulder to Dora’s. “You said you have your own business?”

Dora shrugged. “It was just a lot of nonsense, before Alphonse invested in it. I built my own website with one of those free platforms, and uploaded photos of rooms I’d decorated. I had a few clients – but that was nothing, until Alphonse put his name to it. He got me the publicity, and before I knew it, I was going to three houses a day. And they were paying me a hell of a lot more than they had before.”

She sighed mournfully, and looked up at the bright moon. “I’m grateful to him,” she said. “But then – I suppose if I married him, I wouldn’t have to work at all. I could just give the whole thing up, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.”

“If you married him,” Adrienne said slowly. “Don’t you mean – when you marry him? It’s tomorrow, after all.”

“Oh – of course,” Dora said, laughing nervously. “I hope you didn’t misunderstand me. He’s been very good to me. He’s been good to Mama and Daddy – and to Benjamin, too. Did you know Ben’s in law school now?”

When she asked this question, she looked so heartbreakingly proud, Adrienne couldn’t even think of saying anything other than, “Yes. He told me.”

Dora beamed brightly, and said. “Yes – yes, I know he’s going to be great. We always knew it, we just didn’t have the money to send him anywhere. But Alphonse –”

She stopped, her face painted with an expression of grief. Adrienne wished she knew what she was thinking.

“Alphonse is a good man,” she said finally. She cleared her throat, and looked away from Adrienne. “Your brother’s a good man,” she said, nodding fervently.

Adrienne wondered which of them she was trying to convince.

But suddenly, Dora looked up, and her face brightened like a lit-off firecracker. “We’re getting close to the public beach,” she said. She looked at Adrienne, and grinned. “Do you want a drink?” she asked.

“I could always use a drink,” Adrienne returned, following Dora up to the high wooden fence. Dora pushed open the gate, and said, “There’s no lock. But Alphonse doesn’t care all that much. Sometimes teenagers run screaming along the beach out behind the house, in the middle of the night – but he just laughs, and goes back to bed.”

She held the gate open for Adrienne, smiling in a strange way. Adrienne watched her face for a moment, almost afraid to go too close to her. But she had to go pretty close, to get through the gate – the front of her dress brushed up against Dora’s T-shirt – and she clenched her teeth tightly.

They stepped through the gate together, and sauntered out onto the public beach, gazing up at the lights that burned over the little wooden bars. Many of them were Tiki torches, and their flames flickered ominously against the black night behind them.

But nobody on the beach seemed very frightened. They ran this way and that, screaming loudly, stealing pieces of each other’s clothing, and running off into the black ocean.

“Gosh,” Dora said with a shiver. “I hate to think of the sharks.”

Adrienne moved up close to her, and took her hand. “Pretend there aren’t any,” she said. “Pretend there’s just the water. God made the water – didn’t He? Pretend He didn’t make the sharks. Just imagine a place to swim, and to sail, and to fish, where no one ever bothers you. That might make you feel better.”

Dora looked at her wonderingly. She stopped in her tracks, and looked seriously into Adrienne’s face. She was leaning a little closer – close enough to make Adrienne’s breathing difficult – when suddenly one of the barmen behind them started shouting about his Special of the Night.

“Long Island Iced Teas!” he cried. “Tasty and cold! Just as good here as in New York! Midnight special – one dollar apiece! Come and get ‘em before I run out of liquor!”

Dora looked at Adrienne, and grinned. “Ever had a Long Island Iced Tea?” she asked.

“Probably more than I should have,” Adrienne returned with a smile.

“Ah, well. How about another?”

Adrienne looked carefully into her eyes. She realized, then, that she had somehow come to be holding her hand again.

“Sure,” she murmured.

They walked slowly up to the little wooden bar, and greeted a man named Enrique, who had a parrot called Felipe.

“Two iced teas,” Dora announced, squeezing Adrienne’s fingers.

Enrique – a medium-sized bald man with a cancerous-looking tan and a tie-dyed tank top – took a couple of enormous glasses, and filled them with a variety of liquids. Then he pushed them across the counter, and grinned at his customers.

“Hold on,” Dora said. “I always keep a few dollars in the pocket of my sweatpants.”

“You’re not the only one,” Adrienne said, reaching down into her strapless bra, and coming up with a wad of fives.

Dora watched her with a strange expression – a hungry expression, Adrienne thought. But that may have just been what she wanted to think.

“No, no!” Enrique shouted. “I don’t want your evil money! All money is evil tonight – and all drinks are free!”

Apparently, he’d already forgotten that he said the drinks were supposed to be a dollar each. He was drinking pretty heavily himself, and he was even giving liquor to the parrot.

Adrienne frowned, and peered into the candlelit dimness of the bar. There was a little monkey – a real live monkey – dancing on the counter, and a bag of marijuana on a shelf behind the liquor.

Suddenly, the parrot made a sound that was an awful lot like a burp; and he fell off his perch.

Adrienne shrugged, took her drink, and threw a five down on the counter. Then she took Dora’s hand, and they walked off into the clamor on the beach.

***

There were a lot of different things taking place on that sand – from dancing, to volleyball, to lovemaking on towels and blankets.

Of course, Adrienne was used to seeing anything and everything at DuPont’s. But walking down the amorous beach, with Dora Wakefield at her side, was a strange experience. It was like passing through the open-air temple in Greece, with mattresses thrown beneath the olive trees, and a great monument set up beneath the moon to pay tribute to a cult image of Aphrodite.

“Hmmm,” Dora murmured thoughtfully, as they passed by a particularly passionate young couple. “Nice technique,” she added with a laugh.

She made this joke genially enough, but Adrienne sensed that she only said it because she was feeling uncomfortable. She was standing far away from Adrienne, and holding herself rigidly. She was drinking her iced tea very quickly.

“Are you all right?” Adrienne asked her.

“Oh, sure,” she answered quickly. “I’m fine.”

She downed the last of her drink, and then hurried back up the beach to get another. “I’ll race you!” she called back.

Adrienne went after her, as quickly as she could in her dress, and they refilled their drinks. Adrienne was used to drinking heavily, and the tea didn’t have as much effect on her, as it did on Dora.

But pretty soon, Dora was flying high. She was on her third tea (and they were fairly tall). She’d already jumped into the volleyball game, scored two points for one team, and then ran around to the other side to score three more.

“Hey, no fair!” a young man called, when she started on her way back to Adrienne. “Stay on our team! We hadn’t scored all night before you came.”

He flashed a grin at her, but she shook her head, and clung to Adrienne’s arm. “No, thanks,” she replied. “I want to be on her team.”

She looked pointedly at Adrienne, darted forward to kiss her cheek, and then sprinted back up the beach for her fourth iced tea. She ended up spilling most of it, though, when she took hold of Adrienne, and pulled her into the crowd that was dancing in front of the bar.

Salsa music was blaring, and people were writhing madly. The sweat ran down their bodies, and the heat of so many ardent dancers was almost overwhelming. But Dora held Adrienne close, and laid her chin on her shoulder.

After a few minutes, Adrienne thought that she was going to burst. The fire in her breast was blazing out of control, and she was sure that Dora could feel it. Dora’s chest was pressed up against hers, and their hearts thrummed so close to one another, the entire space between them was pulsating thickly. Adrienne could feel the steady beating, but she couldn’t tell which beat belonged to whom.

She couldn’t take it anymore. She placed her finger gently under Dora’s chin, and raised her face up to her own. She looked into her eyes for a long moment, and was surprised to see a tear trickling down her cheek.

Dora pulled away suddenly, wiping madly at the wet spot on her face. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, dashing away through the crowd.

Adrienne chased after her. But Dora was fast, and she didn’t catch her until they came to the gate that led to the private part of the beach. Dora reached to open the gate, and Adrienne snatched at her hand. She laid her own fingers over Dora’s, which were clutching fearfully at the gate.

Dora sank back against her for a moment, and buried her face in her neck. Adrienne could feel her lips against her throat – when suddenly, she let go of the gate, and began to run again.

“Dora!” she cried.

But the other woman didn’t stop, until she came to the water’s edge. It was lapping a little more roughly now, surging against Dora’s bare toes, and soaking the bottom of her pants. She looked out over the water, which was sparkling so brightly in the silver moonlight, it almost hurt your eyes to look at it. Then she glanced back at Adrienne, and smiled bitterly.

“I get so tired sometimes,” she said. “Don’t you, Annie?”

At the look of confusion of Adrienne’s face, she smiled more brightly, and added: “That’s what I think of, when I try to say your name. I try to say Adrienne – and all I can hear is Annie. Has anyone ever called you that?”

“No,” Adrienne whispered.

“I feel so tired,” Dora repeated. She looked back out at the water, and stood still for a long moment. Then she started taking off her clothes.

“I want to go for a swim,” she said. “Maybe it will wake me up. I’m usually too afraid of the sharks – but I think I’ve had enough alcohol to make me brave.”

Her sweatpants were lying on the sand. She pulled off her T-shirt, and tossed it aside.

Then she just stood there, in her panties and bra, looking seriously out at the water. Whether or not she was thinking about sharks, Adrienne couldn’t tell.

But suddenly she let out a loud shriek – it sounded like an Indian war-cry – and splashed into the waves. She dove down into them, and disappeared for a few long moments.

“Dora?” Adrienne called worriedly. “Dora!”

She stripped off her dress, and jumped into the water, calling Dora’s name. She was afraid she’d drown.

But then, Dora appeared, in a spot of dark water a few yards off to the left.

“Were you calling me?” she asked. “I couldn’t tell. I was trying to see the bottom.”

Adrienne let out a sigh of relief, and swam towards her. She stopped a few feet away from her, treading water.

“You look like a mermaid,” she told Dora, watching the way her dark hair clung to her shapely head, with a little bit of seaweed stuck above her right ear. Her neck and shoulders sparkled like alabaster.

“I don’t think I’d like to be one,” Dora replied. “Swimming’s nice, every once in a while – but can you imagine living your whole life with pruny fingers? It’d be like living with someone you didn’t love.”

She paused, drew a deep breath, and then dove back under the water. She was gone even longer, this time. Adrienne went down to try and feel for her, but was scared out of her wits when Dora took hold of her. They bobbed up to the surface, and Dora’s laughter was a wild sound that sailed over the tops of the waves.

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just playing. Sometimes I get stupid when I drink.”

She was still holding onto Adrienne’s arms. She gazed into her eyes for a long moment, her thoughts utterly indecipherable.

Then she darted forward, and kissed Adrienne hungrily. It was as though her mouth had a life of its own. It moved frantically over Adrienne’s, sweet-tasting from the iced tea.

But it tasted like something else, too. It was like emptiness that was filling up – like a cavern that was being pumped full of something heavy and warm. It had been empty for a long time, Adrienne could tell. Maybe since Dora was born.

Dora reached frantically behind Adrienne’s back, clasping her arms around her, and holding her tightly. She kissed her with force, but there was a softness about it, a longing that was tempered with astonishment. Then, she unclasped her fingers, and ran them across Adrienne’s skin beneath the water.

Adrienne shivered, and put her hand behind Dora’s head, to work her fingers beneath her hair.

“I’ll stop if you want me to,” she whispered, taking her lips away for a moment, then kissing Dora’s chin, and her throat.

Dora threw her head back, and sobbed. “I’d never forgive you,” she said.

They swam back to the shore, and flung themselves out across the sand. Adrienne lay on her back, and Dora lay on top of her, looking pleadingly down into her face.

Adrienne reached a hand around Dora’s back, and turned her over, to lie on the sand. The lights had all gone out in the villa behind them.

“We should stop,” Adrienne reminded Dora, though she couldn’t help leaning down to kiss her chest.

“I know,” Dora replied, still sobbing softly. “I wish I knew how.”

“I’m only thinking of your family,” Adrienne whispered, pressing her lips to Dora’s damp throat. “I don’t want them to lose –”

“Neither do I,” Dora cried wildly, throwing her head back against the sand. “God – do you think I want that? I want to give them everything – even if that means I have to lose. But I just – I just –”

“You just what?” Adrienne murmured, looking seriously into her face.

“You make me feel like – like I’m not dead,” Dora said hurriedly, as if saying it slowly might make her change her mind about saying it in the first place. “Nothing’s ever done that for me but bourbon. I just feel like – if we could stay right here, and nobody knew where we were –”

She rolled Adrienne back over, and started kissing her passionately, from her head to her waist, sighing mournfully.

“I’d give anything for that,” she murmured, sinking heavily against Adrienne, and working her hands around her.

“Then I’ll do it for you,” Adrienne whispered, pulling her close. “I’d do anything for you, I think.”

They moved against each other, with hands that forgot about manners, their hearts on fire, for maybe the first time in either of their lives. And even if was the only time – it didn’t seem to matter.

Author’s Note

Dear Reader,

I just want to take a moment to thank you for reading my story. So many people have so many stories – so many people dream so many dreams – it makes me feel very fortunate to think that another living person has dreamt this dream with me.

This is the first of three parts in the Madam Tellier series. Number Two will be arriving shortly. Keep an eye on my Twitter page for more info.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the first part of this saga for free. The second and third installments will be available for $0.99 on Shakespir.

Want to read my full-length mystery, Who Killed Edie Montgomery? It’s available to read for free if you participate in Kindle Unlimited. I have two editions available – the explicit version, and the clean version. If your sensibilities are more on the sensitive side, Click here. To check out the spicier version, Click here.

TO CONTACT THE AUTHOR:

Email: [email protected]

Twitter handle: @cm_blackwood

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Madam Tellier's Lover (Part One of Three)

Adrienne Tellier is the owner of a brothel in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Her brother Alphonse is a wealthy lawyer who’s married to a beautiful woman named Dora. Little does he know, however, that Dora and Adrienne have been in love since the first night they met – the eve of his and Dora’s wedding. “Madam Tellier’s Lover” is a serialized story divided into three novella-length installments. Part One focuses on Adrienne’s inheritance of the brothel, as well as on her estranged brother’s wedding, where she meets Dora Wakefield for the first time – and falls madly in love. This is a fictional continuation of the short story “Madame Tellier’s Excursion” by Guy de Maupassant.

  • ISBN: 9781370924547
  • Author: C.M. Blackwood
  • Published: 2016-12-21 21:35:11
  • Words: 21958
Madam Tellier's Lover (Part One of Three) Madam Tellier's Lover (Part One of Three)