| Love Be Mine |
By Shirlee Busbee
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"Merci! What do you mean, he is moving here? Surely you have misread the letter, Maman?"
Lisette Dupree sent her daughter a reproving look. "I assure you, petite, that I did not make a mistake. Hugh Lancaster states quite clearly that he is moving to the New Orleans area just as soon as he is able to put his business affairs in Natchez in order. Here, read the letter yourself."
Somewhat gingerly, almost as if she expected it to bite her, Micaela Dupree took the letter from her mother. She sighed heavily as she read the offending document. "It is true," she said gloomily. "He is moving here."
The two women were seated side by side on a delicate settee covered in a worn blue velvet in a small room at the rear of Dupree town house in New Orleans. It was midmorning on a cool, wet Monday in late February of 1804 and the two ladies had been enjoying a cup of chicory-laden coffee when the letter from Hugh Lancaster had been delivered. The arrival of a letter had been unusual enough to add some excitement to a dull day, but the news it brought had totally destroyed their pleasant mood as they sipped their coffee and chatted comfortably with each other.
Micaela's lovely dark eyes were troubled as she looked at her mother. "Francois," she said slowly, referring to her brother, a year younger than she, "is going to be most disturbed by this news."
Lisette nodded. "And your oncle Jean, too."
The two women sighed almost simultaneously. Their resemblance to each other was obvious. Only a few weeks away from her twenty-first birthday, Micaela was in the full power of her undeniable beauty, while Lisette, having turned thirty-eight just the previous month, was a fetchingly mature version of her only daughter. They did not look precisely alike; Micaela's nose was longer than her mother's charmingly retroussé affair, her brows thicker and more noticeably arched, and her mouth was more lavishly formed, with a decidedly saucy curve to it. Both women were small-boned, although Micaela, much to her chagrin, stood three inches taller than her petite mother. The shapes under their simple muslin gowns were curvaceous, with full bosoms, narrow waists, and generously rounded hips. The celebrated creamy matte complexion which each possessed contrasted enchantingly with their gleaming blue-black hair and long-lashed midnight black eyes. With lips as red as cherries, their proud Creole blood was very evident.
"What are we going to do?" Micaela asked as she handed the letter back to Lisette.
Lisette shrugged. "There is nothing that we can dothe Américain is coming to live in New Orleanswhether we like it or not."
Micaela stood up and took several agitated steps around the pleasantly shabby little room. Stopping to look out the window at the rain-splattered courtyard, she said moodily, "If only that arrogant creature Napoléon had not seen fit to sell us to the Américains like a shipload of fish! I still cannot believe that it is donethat we are now to call ourselves Américains. Unthinkable! We are French! Creoles!" Though it had been over seven months since the inhabitants of New Orleans had heard of the sale of the entire Louisiana Territory to the fledgling United States, the actual exchange had taken place barley two months before in the waning days of 1803.
It was not fair, Micaela thought unhappily, to be sold to those rude, overbearing Americans on the whim of an upstart Corsican general who now had the gall to name himself Emperor of the French!
The local population almost unanimously resented the presence of the new owners of the Territory, many unwilling to even speak to one of those cursed Américains, their wives often refusing to have them in their homes. Of course, the Americans reciprocated the feeling in full measure, convinced that the Creoles were lazy, vain, and frivolous. Each faction regarded the other with loathing, suspicion, and mistrust.
Micaela's mouth twisted. And Hugh Lancaster, one of those despised Américains, was going to make the Dupree family painfully aware of just how much had changed since the Territory had become American. Her brother and uncle were going to be livid.
"I wonder," Micaela said softly, "why Monsieur Lancaster wrote to you and not Oncle Jean? Should not mon oncle have been notified first?"
Lisette looked uncomfortable. "Your oncle has not been veryahpleasant to Monsieur Lancaster those times when he has come to the city on business. I assume he thought that I would view his intentions more kindly."
Micaela glanced at her mother. "Do you?" Lisette became extremely interested in the fabric of her gown. "Not exactlyÉ" A rosy hue blooming in her cheeks, she murmured, "III have never held the Americans is quite the aversion that everyone else does." Meeting her daughter's astonished gaze, she added firmly, "I actually liked young Hugh the few times I have met himhehe seems a personable young man."
"But Maman! He will ruin us! You know that he believes that someone is stealing from the company. You know that the last time he was here, he almost as good as accused mon oncle of outright thieveryFrançois, toodo not forget that!"
"I have not forgottenand he did not accuse JeanJean took offense and merely interpreted his questions that way. I think that Hugh is mistaken, however, in his belief that someone in the company is cleverly stealing from it, but I do not blame him for being concerned. Something is obviously amiss. The profits of Galland, Lancaster and Dupree have been falling for the past eighteen months, alarmingly so in recent months, and the report that we received in September, when Hugh was last here, makes it clear that something must be doneand soon! In all the years that we have been in partnership with Hugh's stepfather, John, we have never suffered a decline in profits like we have recently."
"You mean since Papa and grand-pýre died and Jean and François have been overseeing the family import-export business, do you not?" Micaela demanded.
"Your grandfather died over two years ago," Lisette gently reminded Micaela. "Your father has been dead for five, and Jean has been handling Renault's share of the business for you and François since that time. Do you suspect your oncle of doing something to harm his own fortune, as well as yours and François's?" She arched a brow and then went on calmly, "As for your brotherÉ" An indulgent smile crossed her face. "I know he is young, just turned twenty, and he is spoiled, I will not deny it. But he will grow up into a fine manhe only needs time. Do you really think that François would do anything to harm the firm his own father and grandfather founded? Do you truly think that he would steal from himself?"
Micaela made a face, trying to think of a tactful way to tell her mother that François was more than just spoiled. He was, Micaela thought unhappily, extremely spoiled. His father's only son and heir, and presently his uncle's heir, too, from birth François had been pampered and doted upon by everyone. Her charming, handsome brother was not selfish by nature, Micaela admitted fairlyhe could be quite generous and thoughtfulwhen the whim struck him. She sighed. Perhaps Maman was righthe was simply young and in time would be more responsible than he appeared to be now.
As if her thoughts had conjured him up, François strolled into the room with a merry smile upon his delicately handsome features. He was a slim, elegant young man, not more than an inch taller than his sister, and was fashionably garbed in a form-fitting jacket of Spanish Blue cloth with a striped Marseilles waistcoat above his nankeen breeches and boots. His black hair gleamed in the light of the candles, which had been lit because of the gray day, and his dark eyes were warm as they fell upon the two women. Approaching Lisette with his quick light stride, he bent down and exuberantly kissed her on both cheeks. "Ah, Maman! You grow lovelier every day. I am a fortunate son, to have such a beautiful and charming maman!"
Lisette smiled and caressed his cheek. "Such gallantry, so early in the morning, mon amour! I suspect that there is a fine new horse that you simply must haveor is it a new carriage?" The fondness of her expression took any sting out of the words.
François laughed without embarrassment. "Ah, Mamanyou know me too well! Which does not mean that I do not truly think you beautiful and charming."
Glancing across to Micaela, he said, "Bonjour, Caela, you are also looking extremely becoming today."
Micaela cocked a brow at his fulsome manner and wasn't the least surprised at the hint of color which leaped into his cheeks at her expression. Turning hurriedly back to Lisette, he sat down gracefully beside her and took one of her hands in his. He said in a coaxing voice, "Maman, there is a horsea most handsome animalI assure you, and the cost will not be too dear."
Involuntarily Micaela made a vexed sound. "Have you run through your allowance alreadygambled it away?" she asked quietly.
"It is none of your affair," he said haughtily. Then he spoiled the effect by demanding, "What difference is it to you? I am a man now, and my money is mine to spend as I see fit."
"Perhaps if you would spend it more wisely, you would not have to come begging to Maman to buy you a new horse!" Micaela snapped before she could stop herself.
A scowl marred François's handsome features, and a hot retort hovered on his lips.
"Children!" Lisette said hastily. "That is enough! The day is unpleasant enough without the two of you squabbling."
Micaela made a face and turned away to stare out the window once more. It was senseless to try to convince François that the Duprees were not as wealthy as they once had been. They were not poor. Merci, non! But they no longer commanded a fortune that was so large that it seemed endless. Her father's and her grandfather's gambling habits had seen to that.
Because of Christophe's gaming losses, a pair of outsiders, Jasper De Marco and Alain Husson, now possessed an interest in the family firm, although quite small, a mere three percent and two percent respectively. Unfortunately it appeared that François had inherited the fatal trait. It did not help that François hung on Husson's every word and deed and tried to emulate his much-admired older friend. Husson might be a family acquaintance of long standing, but there was no denying that he was also a reckless, inveterate gambler, with a handsome fortune to finance his vices.
Regrettably, François could not seem to be brought to understand that, unlike his friend, he could not game away a small fortune night after night and still be able to live in the grand manner in which they had in the past. And Maman, she thought, half-annoyed, half-tenderly, cannot seem to understand that it is doing François no good for her to continue to buy him whatever strikes his fancy as had been done since he was a child! Another horse! Why there must be a half dozen or so eating their heads off in the Dupree stables at this very momentand those were only the horses in the city!
Closing her ears to François's wheedling voice, Micaela stared unseeing down at the wet courtyard. She already knew how this little tête-à- tête was going to endFrançois would get his horse. A rueful smile suddenly curved her mouth. She did not know why she resented François's actions so very muchMaman would do the same for her if she expressed a yearning for a new gown, or even a new horse, no matter how outrageously expensive.
Telling herself that there was nothing she could do about François's spendthrift habits, she turned her thoughts to the disturbing letter announcing Hugh Lancaster's imminent arrival in the city. Lisette had met him a few times previously, but Micaela had notnot until this past September, when Jean had reluctantly invited Lancaster to dine and stay the night at Riverbend, the family plantation, which was some miles below New Orleans. Even now, several months later, she could still feel the powerful jolt of awareness that had gone through her when Hugh Lancaster, a tall, powerfully built man of thirty, had politely bent over her hand and brushed his lips across her suddenly sensitized flesh, his cool, gray-eyed glance moving quickly past her.
Micaela, though unmarried at an age when most Creole daughters were already wives and mothers of many years, was not used to personable, handsome men looking at her in a dismissing manner. Almost without fail, there was a glint of admiration in their eyes when they met her, and, without being vain, she had expected no less from Hugh Lancaster. That he had seemed utterly indifferent to her had been something of a shock, especially when she saw the charming manner with which he had greeted and conversed with Lisette. Of course, Lisette had been clearly pleased to see him, while the remainder of the family, including Micaela, had been stiff and icily polite.
Micaela had told herself repeatedly that it did not matter that Hugh Lancaster did not hold her in high esteemafter all, he was an Américain. What did she care for his opinion of her?
Only to herself would she admit that the tall, broad-shouldered Américain had, despite her will to the contrary, piqued her interest. He was very different from the Creole gentlemen whom she had known all her life, although, with his black hair and olive complexion, he had the look of the Creoleespecially those of Spanish blood. Whether it was his commanding height, for at six feet he towered over all of the Duprees, or the startling impact of those thickly lashed gray eyes in that dark face, or the cool, precise way he talked compared to the excited volubility of her relatives, she couldn't tell. But something about him awoke an odd feeling within hera feeling that none of her many Creole suitors had ever arousedand it frightened her. She scowled, suddenly angry at herself. Zut! She did not want to think about Hugh Lancaster!
Micaela had not been paying attention to the conversation between Lisette and François, but the moment she heard him exclaim, "Mon Dieu! You are not serious!" she knew Maman had told him of Hugh's plan to move to New Orleans.
Micaela swung around and watched his face as he finished reading the letter, all signs of his merry smile and light mood vanished. His face pale with outrage, he glanced toward Lisette. "Why did he write to you? Does the swine have no manners? It is to mon oncle that he should have imparted this news."
Seeing that her mother was groping for a tactful way to explain the probable reasons for Hugh's actions, Micaela said swiftly, "It does not matter to whom he has writtenall that matters is that he is determined to move to New Orleans within the next few months.
François jumped up from the settee. "I will not have that overbearing Américain snooping in our business! From the very beginning the Duprees and our grandfather Galland have always controlled this end of the partnershipwithout interference from the Lancasters. I will not have it! Sacrebleu! To have him looking over our shoulders all the time, prying and questioning everything we do. It is insupportable!"
Micaela said nothing, merely watching as her brother raged about the room, his handsome features tight with anger. She did not blame himthere was a certain amount of truth in what he said.
In the very early 1780's when Christophe Galland, John Lancaster, and Renault and Jean Dupree had formed the import-export firm of Galland, Lancaster and Dupree, it had been decided, as François had said, that the Galland and Dupree partners would handle all the affairs in New Orleans. This had been agreed upon simply because they were residents and could deal with the local officials, the overtly suspicious Spaniardssomething that John Lancaster, as an American, could not.
John Lancaster might have originally owned fifty-five percent of the new partnership, but without Christophe Galland and the Dupree brothers he would not have been able to do business freely in New Orleans, and so he had wisely given the Creole partners carte blanche there. But it was Lancaster, headquartered upriver in Natchez, who procured the majority of the raw products which were barged down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and which were loaded onto the ships for export. It was Lancaster, too, who dispersed most of the goods the firm imported from Europe to eager American buyers. For nearly twenty years, it had been a very profitable partnership and it had worked exceedingly well, because Lancaster astutely stayed in Natchez and, with scant interference, let the Creole faction fun the New Orleans end. But apparently that was about to change.
Three years ago John Lancaster, thinking to retire, had sold Hugh a forty-five percent interest in the partnership, retaining only a ten percent interest for himself. Hugh had acted as his stepfather's agent for a number of years prior to the sale and already had a keen understanding of the businessat least the Natchez end of things. But since then, with increasing frequency, he had been asking many pointed questions about the affairs of the New Orleans portion of the business. Considering that Hugh was now the largest single shareholder, his deepening interest was justified, but both Micaela's grandfather and uncle had been highly affronted by his actions. And while she had listened to them rail against what they claimed to be Hugh's unwarranted intervention in affairs none of his business, she had privately thought his visits and queries not exactly unreasonableannoying and irritating, perhaps, but not totally without justification.
Her grandfather's death, however, seemed to have engendered in Hugh Lancaster an acute concern about the future of the partnership. Micaela suspected that it was because of the ill-disguised hostility which existed between Hugh and Jean. Christophe Galland had acted as a buffer between the two younger men, but his death had forced the pair of them to deal directly with each other.
As his only child, Lisette had inherited Christophe's remaining shares. Not inclined toward business herself, she had asked her brother-in-law to handle her shares, just as he did his brother's for François and Micaela. John Lancaster preferred to let Hugh run things these days.
Since the shares owned by De Marco and Husson were nominal, and their dabbling in the business was perfunctory, Hugh and Jean, as the two active principals, were almost continually at odds. The situation between Hugh and Jean, however, was a most uncomfortable state of affairsespecially when coupled with the general animosity shared by most Creoles for Americans. An animosity that was now further exacerbated by the sale of the Louisiana Territory to those same despised Americans.
Growing weary of François's tiresome tirade against the American, she glanced at him and commented, "François, you are beginning to repeat yourself. I think that you have made your feelings about Monsieur Lancaster quite clear to both Maman and me. Obviously, you are not happy at the prospect of Monsieur Lancaster living in the area, but there is nothing that Maman and I can do about itI suggest that you take your views to Monsieur Lancaster."
"Bah! What good would that do? He will look down that long nose of his and ignore me! I tell you, Maman, there will be trouble once he starts his snooping and prying."
The two women exchanged glances, a faint frown marring Lisette's forehead. François looked from one woman to the other. He drew himself up stiffly. "You think that I would challenge Hugh Lancaster to a duel, oui?" Fierce pride glittering in his dark eyes, he spat, "You have nothing to fearI would not sully my hands fighting with an Américain!"
"That is very high-minded of you," Lisette said gently, "but if you do not wish to provoke a quarrel with him inadvertently, I would suggest that you, if not graciously, at least politely, accept the fact that he is moving to New Orleans." François grimaced. Sending a sheepish grin to both women, he muttered, "I have been acting rather a fool, have I not?"
Micaela smiled warmly back at him. François's mercurial moods were one of his charms. A teasing gleam in her eyes, she said lightly, "Since I do not intend to risk another display such as we have just seen, I shall not answer that question."
François laughed, and, bowing to first one and then the other, he said, "Forgive me! I let my vile temper rule me."
"There is nothing to forgive, mon fils," Lisette said fondly. "It is understandable that you would be upset by the news, but we must accept the fact that Hugh Lancaster will be living in the city and that he will, no doubt, be taking an even more active interest in the business."
François sat down once more by his mother. Shaking his head, he said wryly, "Well, if you think that I took the news badly, mon Dieu! I do not even want to consider how mon oncle will take it. We should be grateful that he is out of the city until tomorrow. At least we will not have to face his rage today."
It happened that the family had more of a respite than twenty-four hours before having to face Jean's expected displeasure at their news. He had been due back from Riverbend the next day, but that very afternoon a servant appeared with a note from him, informing François that it would be three days hence, on Thursday, before he returned. By tacit agreement no one sent a return message to him revealing Hugh Lancaster's intentions.
On Friday morning, they were still at breakfast, seated around a small table, considering how to break the news of Hugh's unsettling plans to Jean, when the door to the pleasant room was suddenly flung open. His dark eyes blazing, his normally even features twisted with outrage, Jean Dupree burst into the room. "Do you know," he demanded in savage accents, "who just walked up to me on Chartres Street? Hugh Lancaster!"
Excerpted from Love Be Mine , by Shirlee Busbee . Copyright (c) 1998 by Shirlee Busbee . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top