A five-million dollar Trust awaits Luc Deveraux on his thirtieth birthday. All he has to be is a settled family man by then. So he told a little lie and made up a wife and child and thought he'd found an easy way out. Now, however, his grandfather is ill and asking for his grandson to come homewith his family. A chance meeting with penniless widow Julie Richmond ends in a quick marriage, which will finish in an even quicker divorce when Luc gets his money. The only problem is Luc's falling in love with his pseudo-wife and her little daughter and wants to keep them in his life.
When Luc returns to his grandfather's Louisiana plantation, he doesn't expect Julie to be the catalyst, which will bring hidden hatred and desires into the open, and subject them all to danger. Waiting for them at San Souci is the younger brother with whom Luc's been feuding for eighteen years, and the one woman he's never been able to get out of his lifeClarice, a jilted ex-girlfriend who's determined to win him back, though she's now his brother's wife...she isn't going to let a little thing like a wife and child stop her from getting what she wants.
What They are Saying about...
In the manner of a true Southern Saga, Bargain with Lucifer is the sweeping story of Luc Deveraux's quest to secure his inheritance by manufacturing a ready made family to satisfy the terms of his father's will. Julie Richmond, is a young widow left destitute, makes a bargain with Lucifer to provide for her young daughter. Agreeing to Luc's proposal of a marriage of convenience, Julie finds herself thrown into the volatile world of Creole Louisiana, old money, old feuds and jealousies as she struggles to come to terms with her bargain with the devil. Sweeney's literary skill and true Southern roots are showcased in this story reminiscent of the work of Edna Feber and John Ball. A thoroughly satisfying read not to be missed!
Author of "Lady's Choice," winner of the Georgia romance Writers Maggie Award for
Dallas in February is like any other big Southern city in winterwet, windy, and coldbut not as cold as Montreal, where Luc Deveraux had been for the past six months and which he was now glad to abandon for the relative warmth of the bustling Texas city.
He'd only been in town one day, however, when he received the emergency call from his grandfather asking him to come home to Bayou Chaveau.
The old man had suffered another heart attack and with this sudden reminder of his mortality, wanted his errant grandson back home for an extended visit, along with his wife and child, and therein lay the problem, because Luc Deveraux had no wife and as far as he knew, no children either.
Oui, he'd lied. Lord, how he'd lied to the old man! It still astounded him that Gran'pere believed him. He was shocked even more that he'd been able to carry the deception for so long. Even knowing one day, he'd have to face up to the falsehoods he was telling, he hadn't hesitated.
Not once since the day he'd learned of the stipulations in his father's will and made the decision to dupe his grandfather into believing thatjust as Papa wanted his eldest son was now a settled family man, had he felt the least twinge of conscience, nor had he allowed himself to consider the eventual consequences. With supreme confidence, he put off thinking about it at all, believing that when the time came, a plausible excuse would present itself. After all, he always managed to tell the most credible lies and come up smelling like a rose.
But not this time. Now, Fate was calling his bluff, and so far, an answer eluded him. No light bulb suddenly switched on above his head with a solution printed around it.
His usual self-assurance bolted in fright and Luc was in a panic, which was why, on this particular February morningafter an exhaustingly sleepless nighthe found himself driving aimlessly through a section of town where he ordinarily wouldn't have thought about being.
Reaching past the open overcoat into the breast pocket of his suit jacket, he pulled out a cigarette pack, found it empty, and crumpled it into a wad of cellophane and paper, tossing it out the Jag's window.
Okay, I'm a litterbug, as well as a liar! So sue me!
Gran'pere would do more than sue him when he found out how he'd been hoodwinked. He'd be disinherited.
It was over. The End. Finis. Au 'voir, Charlieor rather, Luc.
There was a 7-Eleven on the corner and a parking spot in front. He guided the Jag into the space, pulled the keys out of the ignition, and wondered if the car would be there when he came out or if he'd find it stripped.
The little store was no different from any of the other convenience stores he'd ever been in, a little more run down, perhaps, but that was in keeping with the neighborhood. The only thing unusual was a small area near the cashier's counter. Two ice cream parlor-type tables with chairs sat next to a small bakery case. Inside, remarkably appetizing slices of pie and pastries were displayed.
On top of the case was a sign on which had been written in large black letters: Mom's Apple Pie! Best Ever! Another placard proclaimed, Best Coffee in Town! As he paid the cashier for the cigarettes, he gestured toward the bakery case.
"Is that sign for real?"
He put the pack into his overcoat pocket.
"Know Mom personally, do you?"
"Mister, I am Mom!" She smiled, revealing a mouthful of braces. "I get here every morning at four o'clock and bake those li'l darlin's and all those other goodies, too."
"What about the coffee?" He looked at the other sign.
"Truth in advertising. Good as it says."
"And do you select the beans yourself, ma petite?"
"Say, where you from?" She stifled a giggle.
"Are you one of them Cajuns?"
"Oui, I suppose I am."
He'd never considered himself Cajun. Luc had been born in France, hadn't learned a word of English until he was nearly twelve, when he and his brother came to live with Gran'pere. The French he spoke was different from the soft syllables of the bayous.
"I'll take one of each," he told her and she transferred a slice of pie to a paper saucer, and handed it to him along with a fork. A Styrofoam cup followed it to the counter. He stuck the fork into the crust.
It broke into soft sugar-dusted flakes and when he tasted it, he realized she told the truth. Mattie, his grandfather's cook, made pastries like this, and for an instant, he found himself achingly homesick.
He wondered if Gran'pere would ever let him return once he'd learned of his grandson's duplicity.
Probably not, and then Michelgood little Michelwould get it all!
There was a sound of running feet and the door opened. Luc glanced toward the entrance.
For a moment, he thought two children had entered the store. As they stood there, both panting slightly, he saw that the taller one, just a couple of inches over five feet, was an adult.
A man's sweatshirtoversized, and washed so many times its blue tint was fading to grayhung past her hips hiding the body inside, the legs of a pair of worn and faded jeans protruding below the knitted tail of the shirt.
She was wearing tennis shoes. Not Reeboks or Adidas but real honest-to-God tennis shoes! He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen a pair of those.
And no socks. Her ankles looked very pale and very cold.
Catching the child's hand, she started toward the cashier.
He couldn't see her face. Her head was down as if she were trying to keep from being noticed, a mass of blonde hair pulled back and held by a rubber band, wisps and curls escaping as if blown by the wind. No coat, no scarf.
Stopping at one of the little tables, she bent and lifted the child into a chair.
"Okay, Merry." Her voice was soft and Southern. "You sit here and wait for me."
"Can I have a doughnut, Mama?" The child swiveled and looked at the bakery case where the clerk still stood. Her voice held that teary whine Luc had heard before from kids in public places.
He recognized it as the forerunner of a refusal by the parent and a resultant temper tantrum.
"Merry" The soft voice raised itself in an echoing whine that was instantly replace by irritation. "No, you can't."
"But I'm hungwy!" the child complained.
Luc waited for the bawling to start.
Her mother took a deep breath before answering, as if forcing herself not to become angry, saying in a quieter tone, "I have to talk to Billy, sweetheart. Remember? Let me do that, a-and afterwardwell, we'll see."
"Yes'm." The child seemed satisfied with that answer, and leaned back in the chair, watching as her mother went toward the cashier.
Once there, she waited until the two customers paid and left the store. She was looking around so furtively Luc wondered if he was about to be witness to a robbery.
Behind the cash register, a boy had taken the little clerk's place. "Hello, Mrs. Richmond."
For a moment, Julie Richmond didn't answer. Why didn't I come to the store earlier, before anyone else showed up? It was bad enough that there was one other person present.
She stepped up to the counter, resting her fingers lightly against its edge. "I need to get some groceries, Billy."
The boy shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Richmond. I can't"
"Just a few things," she interrupted, forcing herself not to raise her voice. "For breakfast. For Merry."
Her fingers were gripping the counter's edge tightly.
"I'm sorry. Mr. Johnson says no more credit."
Behind her, Luc realized he was staring. A movement from the little girl turned his attention from the scene at the counter.
She was looking directly at him.
She was dressed almost like her mother. A sweatshirt with Miss Piggy on it, washed so many times the celebrated porker was nearly minus one eye and the wild ringlets were beginning to disappear. Her jeans had inexpertly mended patches on both knees, and the toes of the little tennis shoes were badly worn.
He was relieved to see faded blue socks under the edge of the jean hems, and that unexpected emotion surprised him. What does it matter to me if the kid's feet get cold?
"That pie sure looks good."
"It is," he answered, taking another bite, and feeling self-conscious, standing there eating while those big eyes watched him so steadily.
Gran'Pere's Old Southern etiquette about never eating in front of a person unless you intended to offer him some wriggled at the back of his mind. Luc was never comfortable with children, hadn't been around very many in his life. The women he usually socialized with didn't have kids. Besides, children were too unpredictable. You never could tell what they'd say or do.
Now, this one had decided she wanted to talk to him, but what she said next wasn't to him or to anyone, really, and it was said very low as if she didn't want anyone to hear.
She looked back at the bakery case, specifically at the top shelf where the pies rested.
"Wish I had a piece of pie."
He was surprised to see a single tear roll out of the corner of her eye and down her cheek and a pudgy hand just as quickly reach up and wipe it away. She blinked and bit her lip.
Luc placed the empty plate on the counter.
She sniffed, very audibly.
He couldn't stand it. "Do you like pie?"
Turning reluctantly from the pastries, she looked up at him. Her eyes were the clearest blue he'd ever seen. He wondered if her mother's eyes were that color, too.
Silently, she nodded, and sniffled again.
"How about if I buy you a slice?"The look of happiness on the little face made something inside him quiver. Nothing he'd said to anyone had ever earned him such a look of gratitude, but she shook her head.
"I'm sowwy, suh, but I can't accept gifts fwom stwangers." She said the sentence as if repeating something she had been taught.
"Did your Maman tell you to say that, cherie?"
She nodded and solemnly informed him, "Most stwangers are nice but some can be bewy naughty!"
While he approved that sentiment, he resented being lumped with predators and kidnappers, but he didn't argue. The kid's mother was right, of course.
The blue gaze strayed back to the pastries again.
"That's right, Merry, and so is Maman, but you see, she asked me to get you a piece of pie."
The little face turned toward him again, brightening. "But, she said"
"She forgot she asked me," he lied.
"She's weal wowwied," Merry nodded as if she understood.
"Oui. I could see that." He tapped the case with his forefinger. "Now, about that pie"
"Could I have a doughnut instead? One with chewwy jeddy in it?"
Telling the clerk what he wanted, he accepted a jelly doughnut with a napkin wrapped around it, handing it to the child. A small carton of milk followed. He had to open the milk for her, as well as the straw, placing it in the mouth of the little container. He felt awkward as he did it. He was more adept at opening a champagne bottle for a female than a carton of milk.
She bit into the doughnut and immediately deposited a glob of red jelly on Miss Piggy's face, gathered up the napkin and wiped it away. Miss Piggy's snout disappeared in a smear of red. Luc had a feeling Maman wasn't going to be very happy about that. Then she licked the jelly off the napkin before taking another bite.
Luc turned his attention back to the counter again.
It appeared the least of her mother's problems was a cherry smear on her daughter's shirt.
Another man, the manager, had joined the cashier. He asked, a little brusquely, "What's the problem, Billy?"
Without waiting for an answer, he turned to Julie and went on, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Richmond. We can't give you any more credit."
"But, Imy little girl needs some food!" There was a sudden break in her voice.
"This isn't a department store, Mrs. Richmond." The manager's voice dropped as if he didn't want to embarrass her. "Do you know what would happen if I gave all our customers credit? We'd go bankrupt within a month."
"The regional manager found out about my letting you charge those groceries," he interrupted. "My job's on the line now, Mrs. Richmond. You've got to get your bill here paid out before"
"I don't have the money."
"What about your husband's insurance money?"
"It went for William's funeral expenses, all of it." Her voice was a ragged whisper. Julie took another deep breath. The manager and Billie waited. "Look, my Unemployment check went to pay the rent, but in a few days, I'll be getting emergency Food Stamps. A hundred and twenty dollars worth." She looked up at him as if this solved everything. "Just give me a few groceries and when I get the stamps, I'll turn them over to you. You can apply them to my bill."
"You owe us five hundred dollars. A hundred and twenty would be a drop in the bucket. I'm sorry." He sounded as if he meant it.
"Yeah. Sure." Shoulders slumped, she turned away and started back to where the child sat, saw the half-eaten doughnut, and went rigid. "Merry! Where'd you get that?"
Merry froze in mid-bite, looking from her mother to Luc. You said it was okay and now she's mad at me, her eyes accused.
"Did you give her that?" She turned a furious gaze on the counter-girl.
Luc spoke up. "I bought it for her."
"You?" She turned back to face him.
Sapristi! She's beautiful! He was aware that the look on his face probably appeared as a leer when in reality, he was briefly dumbstruck.
He didn't want her angry at Merry, didn't want her mad at him, didn't want to see that beautiful face shadowed with the unhappiness presently on it.
"A doughnut and milkthat should be about a dollar ninety-seven."
One hand went to her back pocket and pulled out a very small, very worn change purse. As she opened the purse, Luc expected to see moths flutter out. Digging inside, she extracted something folded into a minute square. As she unfolded it, he saw that it was two one-dollar bills.
"Here." She held them out to him. They looked as threadbare as the purse and just as old.
"There's no need to"
"We don't accept gifts from strangers." She caught his hand and pressed the money into it. Taking the little girl's hand, she pulled her out of the chair and started to the door.
With the hand holding the doughnut, Merry looked back and waved to him.
The door opened and they were gone.
Luc finished the rest of his coffee. Through the window, he saw two little Hispanic kids loitering beside the Jag. Dropping the cup into a trash container, he hurried out.
"Hey, Mister! This your car?" the first kid asked as he approached.
"That's right." He hovered near it protectively.
The urchin squinted up at him. "Kinda old, ain't it?"
The Jag was, indeed, olda 1937 model, in fact, and had cost Luc a great deal of money to have it restored, plus fitting it with seat and shoulder harnesses, and installing a radio and CD player.
"It's a classic," he informed the child, "and cost me eighty thousand dollars on e-Bay." A liethe e-Bay partbut the kid didn't need to know that.
"Wow!" A grubby hand touched the fender, leaving a greasy smear of a palm-print.
Luc wanted to take out his handkerchief and polish it away.
They moved on and Luc looked past them down the street.
The young woman and the child were almost at the corner. They were moving very slowly and he could see that the slight shoulders beneath the heavy sweatshirt were slumped. Her head was down, the February wind whipping the blond hair wildly.
He thought he saw her shiver as she put one hand up to her face.
Is she brushing away tears?
She turned and looked back, and he was certain she was staring straight at him. Then, they went into the building on the corner, an old, brick apartment house.
Luc got into the Jag and sat there for a long time.
He could still see how she had lookedangry, desperate, and at the same time so very proud. It must be hard trying to take care of a kid when there's no money, he thought. Why wasn't there any? What had happened? She mentioned a funeral.
He wondered how his mother would've fared after his father died if Gran'pere hadn't been so kind. Jean-Luc Deveraux could have made it very unpleasant for her since legally she wasn't entitled to a cent of Papa's money. After all, a maitresse with two batards could be an embarrassment.
An adult can always fend for himself. There are ways to survive if you're alone, but someone with a child, what could she do? A young widow like that, with a child.
A young widow with a child...
The long-awaited light bulb flamed into brilliance, illuminating everything
and just as quickly, he doused the light. That's about the most idiotic scheme you've ever thought up, Luc Deveraux! Quelle idee! You really are crazy!
Ramming the key into the ignition, he started the engine, and swung the Jag away from the curb, heading back to the hotel...
...twenty minutes later, he was back, parking the car in front of the apartment building. He switched off the engine and sat there, staring up at the front of the building.
It looked even worse up close. Brick, weather-beaten and worn, an unadorned rectangle. Two-story, maybe eight apartments, definitely low-rent housing, very unattractive and very depressing.
Why am I here? Just what am I expecting to accomplish? Other than getting a tongue-lashing for interfering in a total stranger's life and reminding her of the humiliation she experienced in the store.
He couldn't get her face out of his mind or the way the little girl had looked at him. Or maybe he just wanted to see how her body looked when it wasn't wearing the all-encompassing sweatshirt.