Women of New Orlean, beware!
All his life, Michel Deveraux has been overshadowed by his brother Lucifer. They called him Michel the Angel, just as they called Luc Le Diable. Because of that, he was easy prey for Clarice Duncan, but now Clarice is dead and Michel is free to indulge his long-suppressed desires.
The Angel is falling fast and enjoying it every sin of the way!
It was a perfect day for a funeral.
As if to make up for the lack of tears being shed, the rain had started at six am that morning, drowning the day before it began.
On this Day of our Lord, November Eleven, Clarice Duncan Deveraux, wayward wife of Michel, was being laid to rest in the family mausoleum in the churchyard of Holy Savior Catholic Church in Bayou Chaveau, Louisiana, and with one exception there wasn't a wet eye in the congregation.
Not that the Deveraux clan, as well as a good portion of the towns of Metairie and Bayou Chaveau, wasn't well represented. After all, they had reputations to uphold, and snubbing the burial of one of their own, even if that kinship was only by marriage, just wouldn't do. Besides, most of them had known the deceased, in both the biblical and non-biblical sense of the word, all her life.
Clarice's body had lain in state at San Souci plantation, where she had lived with Michel for the length of their marriage. There had been no wake, but all were invited to view the body. The mahogany and bronze casket was placed in the foyer in front of the stairs leading to the bedrooms--those same stairs which had caused Clarice's demise--where one and all might view the corpse before the priest arrived to convey it to the church. It was said Michel had never entered by the front door since the coffin was placed there; he reached the room where he slept by the back verandah, exiting the same way, even going to the dining room through the kitchen. It had been his elder brother who had made all the arrangements, which was ironic since Luc hadn't been inside the little church since his commencement.
When the body was taken to the church, Michel had followed in the family limo but he hadn't spoken to anyone. To look at him, one would think he neither saw nor heard anything that went on.
The church ceremony had been lengthy--the Circle of Prayers, the Funeral Mass, Absolution--as if Michel was asking for anything and everything the Church could do to assure his wife's soul wouldn't suffer even a brief sojourn in purgatory for the sin she had committed. Briefly, as the coffin was lifted and carried from the church to the cemetery, he looked as if he might burst into tears. Then, he passed a hand across his eyes, his face became stony, and he recovered, walking stolidly with his brother and sister-in-law behind the other family members who acted as pallbearers.
As they stood at the damp and dismal graveside, many of the women were trying to be charitable, thinking how ironic it was that after a childless five years of marriage, Clarice should at last become pregnant only to die in a fall down a flight of stairs, leaving her prematurely-born son motherless. Quelle domage! But it was said with a rolling of eyes and a smirk. A great percentage of the men were truly mourning, especially those who had sampled Clarice's charms before her marriage or been tempted by her during it, reflecting that it was a damned shame such a fine piece of tail was being placed in a tomb where no man would ever get at it again.
Of course, they kept those thoughts unspoken, as well as many others surrounding Clarice and her short but controversial marriage with Michel Deveraux. They weren't so quiet about her equally scandal-ridden death, however, and more than one woman was heard to whisper to the one next to her, Is it true she was trying to push Luc down the stairs and that's why she fell? Have they decided which brother's the father of her bebe? What does Luc's wife say about all this?
The rain had slowed to an irritating drizzle and the immediate family sat protected by a thick canvas canopy with its discrete advertisement "Brent's Funeral Home, New Orleans, Louisiana, Caring in Bereavement". Blond, hazel-eyed Michel was as stony-faced as he'd been since the moment Young Dr. Mark had told him his wife was dead. In his black suit with the mourning armband encircling his left sleeve, he looked like a stricken angel.
Next to him sat his brother, Luc, in contrast, an angry demon.
Lucifer Deveraux closely resembled his younger brother, but if Michel was an angel, Luc was truly devil-born, and Bayou Chaveau was still reeling from the many episodes of his hellacious young adulthood. Un diable was Luc, especially with the women.
With salacious avidity, the gossips blamed him for turning Clarice into a Little Miss Roundheels, forgetting how her depredations among the male populace had started three years before his appearance in her life. They couldn't keep quiet, the whispers rising to such a point that the priest paused in the middle of the De Profundis to glance pointedly around.
That made the murmurs cease.
Luc saw Father Alain's gesture, had to have heard the whispers, but gave no indication, staring straight ahead, jaw set tightly. His wife wasn't so stoic. She reached out, placing a hand over his--either in comfort or to keep that tightly-held anger from erupting.
Eyes followed the movement. Most approved it. Surprisingly, no one had anything bad to say about Julie Deveraux. Many wondered what she had thought as the priest offered the Absolution. Had she thought it unfair that Clarice should suffer for what she'd tried to do to Luc? Or was she as forgiving as she appeared? And if Julie forgave, how could Michel not, for all the whispered infidelities Clarice was said to have committed against him?
Most of them were surprised that Father Alain hadn't choked on the eulogy. Surely the good priest had felt some guilt as he enumerated the deceased's redeeming qualities.
The only family member missing was patriarch Jean-Luc. He was still in New Orleans Medical Center's Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, recovering from the heart attack he had suffered six weeks before as a direct result of Clarice's machinations.
"I am the Resurrection and Life…" Father Alain began to intone the Antiphone. Everyone was silent as he continued with the Canticle Benedictus.
Making the sign of the Cross, the priest spoke the last words of the prayer, ending the ritual. He turned slightly toward where the family sat. There was a brief, awkward silence and then Luc nudged Michel. He whispered something and nodded toward the casket. For a moment, they seemed to argue, Michel shaking his head, Luc gesturing.
With an angry shrug, Luc stood, walked to the coffin, bent and picked up the little trowel protruding from a small hillock of dirt. Lifting the minute shovelful of soil, he tossed it onto the coffin with a sudden, vicious gesture and dropped the trowel back into the freshly-turned earth. The Deveraux clan was always buried above-ground, but this little ritual was still observed in spite of that.
Then, he returned to sit beside his brother, who was staring sightlessly at the sodden grass between his feet.
Officially, the service was over, and with this realization, a collective reaction of relief set in.
Everyone was looking forward to leaving this place and returning to San Souci, ostensibly to offer their condolences to the family; in reality to visit with relatives not seen except at funerals and weddings and to enjoy the food prepared by Mathilde, Jean-Luc's French cook, before going their separate ways and getting on with the precious task of living. A good many would heave a sigh of relief at being able once more to speak openly of the recent scandal surrounding Luc and his brother.
One by one they dutifully filed past Michel--murmuring standard phrases he scarcely heard--before escaping to their cars. Nearby, Luc stood talking to a third or fourth cousin, Julie beside him, and briefly, Michel was abandoned, staring at the carnation-blanketed casket.
Clarice, you stupid, jealous bitch! Why did you try to push Luc down those stairs? Now all I have is a kid I'm not even sure is mine! Damn it, Clarice--I loved you! He wanted to go to the coffin, fall to his knees beside it and embrace it; wanted to follow it into the darkness of the cold granite tomb. Instead, he didn't move, keeping his misery inside.
"Michel, I'm so sorry."
He looked toward the speaker, saw only a face blurred by his tears. Awkwardly, a hand touched his and she was gone.
Turning, Julie slipped her fingers around his arm, pulling him to his feet as Luc placed a hand on his shoulder.
Michel shrugged it away.
If anyone saw, they paid no attention. Everyone knew the brothers didn't get along, their animosity evident since their mother committed suicide when they were children. Pauvre les batards. Jean-Luc had been so generous, but everyone knew how the old man had doted on Etienne, and those two were all he had left of his only child.
"Come on, Michel." Tugging on his arm, Julie led him to the black limo parked at the curb. Luc trailed behind, dodging puddles gathering around the green tussocks of grass. Behind them, the funeral home's men watched impatiently, eager to roll the casket into the mausoleum, slide it into a vault, and get back to work.
Opening the back door of the car, James Carter, the Deveraux chauffer, stepped back to allow Michel and then Julie to enter. As soon as Luc was inside, James got into the driver's seat, started the engine and headed toward San Souci and the cathartic ordeal of the after-funeral reception. James hadn't spoken, but the way he peeled the car away from the curb with a slippery squeal of tires against blacktop said he couldn't get away from the place fast enough.
Once the last guest had been ushered out and Harrison, the butler, had locked the door, Michel headed for the drawing-room and its bar, Julie right behind him.
"Hold it! You aren't drinking that." She pulled the decanter out of his hand and set it on the counter.
"Quit being such a mother hen, Julie," Luc chided from the doorway. "Let l'enfant have a drink if he wants. One drink won't harm the diabetic."
"Thanks for that, if nothing else." Michel took back the bottle, opened it and sloppily splashed whiskey into a highball glass. "At least someone admits I won't die of alcohol poisoning from one drink."
"That's right, mon petit frere." Luc slid the crape band off his arm, dropping it on the bar. He picked up a bottle of seltzer water, spritzing generously into Michel's glass before his brother could argue.
"Sacre!" Raising the glass, Michel drank and grimaced. "Can't even taste the whiskey. Don't know why I bothered."
Luc poured half a glass of Bourbon, added nothing, and tossed it down without flinching, looking at Michel challengingly.
For a moment the two brothers glared at each other.
Though Luc's red hair was below shoulder-length and tied with a black ribbon and Michel's blond hair was much shorter, they resembled each other enough to be twins. The present hatred on each handsome face only intensified the likeness.
"Julie, why don't you check on the baby?" Luc didn't look at his wife as he spoke. "He probably misses his maman."
She didn't move, not wanting to leave them, afraid of what they might do to each other when alone.
"Yes, Julie." Michel echoed. He raised his glass again and drank, never taking his gaze from his brother's face. "Go on. Luc and I need to talk."
He turned to look at her.
"I… Don't be long." She went out.
Michel waited until the sound of her footsteps died away before he spoke again.
"You're lucky." He sat down. "At least you know who the father of your son is."
"Oh, come off it, Michel! The wronged husband act doesn't become you--and it's about five years too late. Hell, Clarice balled half the men in Orleans Parish."
Michel didn't answer, drawing in his breath in something that might have been a half-sob.
"Let me amend that." Luc relented slightly. "Clarice liked the thrill of the chase. Once she had a man, she usually didn't want him, but God knows, she chased plenty. Still, after she married you, I doubt she slept with any of them."
"Oh, merci! That's a great comfort. But frankly, I'm only interested in the one she did sleep with."
"Why pick on me?"
"I didn't see any of those other men making love to her, Luc, but I did see you!"
Luc looked away. "She wouldn't leave me alone."
"And you didn't know how to say non, did you?"
"I was drunk. I thought she was Julie."
"Then you must have been really drunk."
"Damn it, we've been over this! You know exactly what happened." Unconsciously, Luc's hands clenched into fists. "For God's sake, how many times did I tell her it was over? She wouldn't leave me alone and you know it! Your wife was a slut, Michel, and that's all there is to it." He looked down at his brother coldly. "Why can't you admit that?"
"You don't understand, do you?" Michel's voice sank to a whisper
"No. I guess I don't," Luc agreed. "I've never understood why you let Clarice treat you like she did, and I've tried to imagine how I'd react if I'd seen you and Julie." He shook his head, sending the tied-back hair swinging. "I know what I'd do, but you? All you've done is try to drink yourself into a coma and give me looks that ought to strike me dead."
"Would it do any good if I got violent?" Michel rolled the glass between his palms. It wobbled, spilling some of its contents, the only evidence of the emotion coiling inside him. "Want me to get one of Gran'pere's pistols and shoot you?"
"That would certainly be a more normal reaction, and frankly, it'd make me feel a hell of a lot better."
"Then pardon moi for not making you feel better."
With a gesture of surrender, Luc dropped onto the sofa beside his brother, grimacing as Michel slid away so they didn't touch.
"All I can do is say I'm sorry, and I know that's the most worthless phrase in the world right now. I didn't intend for it to happen. God knows, if I'd been in my right mind...maybe even a little less drunk...but it did, and now? Well, we're the ones who have to face what comes next."
"So what does come next?"
"Hell, I don't know. What do you want to happen?"
"I'd like to kill you." Setting down his drink, Michel got to his feet.
"Okay. Fine." Luc also put down his glass and stood up. "Shall we go outside and square off at forty paces with dueling pistols, or will it satisfy you if I simply stand here with bowed head while you drive a knife into my heart?"
"Can't you ever be serious? Why do you have to mock everything?" Michel leaned against the fireplace's high oak mantel. Forehead resting against the scrolled woodwork, he stood there for several moments before heaving a disgusted sigh and turning to look at Luc again. "Look, just forget all that. I don't mean it--it's the anger talking. And my grief. What I said to you before Clarice died...that was the truth, mon frere. I want to love you again, as I did when we were kids, before Papa and Maman died. Do you remember? We were happy then. We were friends!"
"Oui, we were." Luc's expression changed, all sarcasm gone from his voice. "And that's why I have to go away. If we're ever going to like each other again, I have to make some changes in myself, and I can't do it here."
"You're actually going back to Dallas and leave Julie?" Michel still found that difficult to believe.
"We've talked it out. She knows I have to do this alone. That I can't keep blaming other people for the way I am."
"You're unbelievable, you know that? My Brother, the Neurotic. Leaving his wife in a chastity belt of her own promises while he flies off to Dallas to play with Dr. Freud! Analysis can take years, you know. What am I supposed to be doing all that time?"
"Why, whatever you want, mon petit frere." Luc gestured vaguely with both hands. "Hell, you've got the plantation to run...horses to train...a son to raise. Seems to me you've plenty to keep you busy." He paused, giving his brother a suspicious stare. "That is what you meant, isn't it?"
"Don't sound as if you're being exiled to Siberia." Michel ignored the question. "You're still the Deveraux in Grant & Deveraux, and you'll be making onsite trips and going outside the country and--hell, for all we know, you'll be chasing women wherever you are. While Julie's here."
"I promised Julie that as long as we're married, I'll be faithful…what happened with Clarice notwithstanding!"
"We'll see. As for me…" Michel smiled a little sadly and picked up his glass again, downing the rest of its contents in one gulp. If only I had enough nerve to tell you. I love your wife, Luc. Have from the moment I saw her. Told her so in fact. And she let me know quick enough she wants only you." While you're gone, she may change her mind. What if she meets someone else who'll take her away from you? Me, for instance? A brother in the hand is worth one in Dallas. What would you say to that?"
"If you think you can do it, more power to you, mon frere." Luc covered his shock at Michel's statement with that old studied contempt, his usual method of dealing with anything his brother said.
"Are you actually saying…"
"I don't think you've got anything to offer her that will make her want you more than me." His interruption was so low Michel almost didn't hear. "Still, you're welcome to try."
The change in his voice made Michel frown at his brother. For a brief unnerving moment, he wasn't certain if Luc was serious. Luc further confused the issue by giving him a crooked smile.
"Julie promised she'd wait for me, but if she changes her mind because of you or anybody else, I'll let her go. We'll make the separation permanent and I'll give her a divorce. If she does wait for me, it'll be more than I deserve." As Michel continued to stare at him, Luc went on, "Look after her, will you?"
For a brief unnerving moment, the concern on his face was startling.
Don't trust me, Luc. This is one time I'm the one to watch out for. Nodding, Michel placed a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Don't worry, mon frere. I'll take good care of Julie."
Cigarette in hand, Luc lay on the bed watching Julie nurse little Gabriel. The baby was making loud slurping noises, tiny hand resting against the globe of his mother's breast.
"I'd like to make love to you, cherie. You know that."
"And you know we can't, Luc. Not for six weeks, Mark said."
"Six weeks? Hell, I won't be here in six weeks. I won't be here after tomorrow." He stubbed the cigarette viciously into the ashtray on the bedside table. "Mark's not going to be the one jerking off in the dark somewhere because his wife's not with him!"
Julie lifted the baby to her shoulder, patting his back. There was a soft burp. She cradled Gabriel against her breast again.
"Come on, ange. I just want something to remember you by. Something to get me through those long Texas nights."
Julie didn't answer. In recent months Luc had made a visible effort to be understanding, and generally he succeeded, but occasionally, that emotionally-spoiled-child cruelty still surfaced, leaving her asking herself how she could have fallen in love with this tormented man who could so quickly become a vicious stranger.
"Julie, please." He trailed a finger down her arm. She jerked away. It was the wrong thing to do, and she found herself caught in an iron grip and shaken. "Damn it, woman, don't turn away from me!"
The movement pulled her nipple from the baby's mouth, making Gabriel began a protest of his own. Luc released her.
"Shh, it's all right, darling." She began to rock the baby, whose cries softened into a few sobs and abruptly settled into sleep. Placing him in the bassinette, she tucked the blanket lightly around his little body and sat down on the bed, re-buttoning her gown. She didn't look at her husband as he rolled over and sat up. "Is that how you show Gabriel what a good father you are?"
"Julie, I'm sorry." Immediately, Luc began to backtrack, swallowing his anger. "I didn't mean to..."
This time, his touch was hesitant as if afraid she'd slap his hand away. She didn't know which was worse, his bullying or this ridiculous uncertainty. She didn't move.
He kissed her cheek, nuzzling against her neck, felt her lean against him and relax. One hand went to the neck of her gown, pulling it open again, cupping a full breast. As his fingers tightened, he felt milk trickling into his palm.
He released her, bringing his fingers to his mouth, licking away the white liquid on them. "Nourish me, Julie, as you do my son."
Julie pulled away.
It would be so easy to give in. Why don't I? Luc always gets his way. He always had. From their first night together, he'd gotten what he wanted from her. He needs to be told "no" and if I'm the one who has to say it…
Once again, she wondered if he was doing the right thing. Luc had decided this on his own, telling her his decision while she lay in the hospital after Gabriel's birth. I'm going to learn to control my temper--get professional help if I have to--and when I come back, I'm going to be the best damned husband a woman could want and the most loving father a child could wish for!
She'd argued, of course
If you're going through counseling... From all I've heard, you'll need your family. For encouragement.
Not this time. I've got to do this alone. You can see that, can't you? No one to fall back on with ready-made excuses. No one to blame but myself. It's my fight and I'm the one who's going to fight it.
At the moment, however, his small amount of self-control was crumbling.
"Damn it, Julie! I haven't had a good fuck since you got pregnant,"
"So you admit Clarice wasn't as good as she thought she was?" Hating herself for being so snide, she couldn't resist that little dig.
"That's low, Julie, especially for you! I thought we'd gotten past that. For God's sake! If it isn't Michel, it's you!" The anguish and shame burst from him. He didn't like being reminded of what a fool he'd been, what a stupid, drunken sex-crazed fool. "How much more self-flagellation do I have to go through? Damn it, I was drunk! I wanted you, and...when I saw Clarice...I thought she was you and she let me think it until it was too late. What do I have to do to make you see how sorry I am?"
Head bowed, hands twisted together at her face to keep the tears from coming, Julie turned away, and just as quickly, he was taking her in his arms, frantic to keep her from crying.
"I know I deserve the way you feel. Guess I should be glad this isn't a couple of hundred years ago when I could be jailed and flogged for committing adultery." He released her and returned to the bed. "Well, at least this time, I only reacted a little, but if this performance doesn't prove I need help, nothing does." One arm went over his eyes and he was silent a moment before saying, almost conversationally, "You know, I'm beginning to think it might be better if I copied pauvre Maman and took a header off the verandah."
"Don't say that." Julie spun around, catching his arm and shaking it. "Ever!"
"Wouldn't being a widow be preferable to being chained to a lunatic?"
"You're not a lunatic. You're just…"
"…a lost cause?"
As she looked into his eyes, Julie remembered the first time she had seen him, a tall red-haired stranger appearing in her life at a time when she was desperate, with an offer she didn't dare refuse. All she had to do was marry him, give him a wife and a family for the short time it would take for him to inherit a Trust set up by his father, and then she'd be free with a tidy divorce settlement. She had accepted his offer, and surprised herself by falling in love. And Luc, in an even greater surprise, had done the same.
"Don't be stupid! You want to get well, don't you?" He nodded. "In that case, part of the battle's already won."
"Hey. Suppose…" He bit his lower lip and smiled as if he were suggesting something completely absurd. "What if I get well and you don't like the normal me?"
"I guess that's a chance we'll both have to take, isn't it?"