A Sneak Peek at His Make-Believe Bride
It didn’t help Justin St. Briac’s mood when the gray sky began to spit cold raindrops at him. His knees ached, curse them, as he climbed the steep hillside path to his brother’s manor house. Shielding his face with one hand as the rain fell harder, he looked ahead with his good eye and saw Izzie’s painting cottage nearby, just as his brother Gabriel had imagined it a decade ago, on the eve of his wedding.
As that long ago night had worn on, the St. Briac brothers imbibed more and more cognac. Eventually, Gabriel had brought out a sheaf of sketches, enthusiastically describing his plans for a hilltop estate above Polperro, including a light-filled atelier where Izzie could paint. Justin had pretended to listen while silently scoffing at his brother’s dreams. Even now, seeing the handsome manor house come into view, framed in an archway of rhododendrons, he thought that appearances were usually deceiving.
“M’sieur, how fine home your brother has made,” remarked his manservant, Baptiste.
Justin was so deep in thought he’d nearly forgotten Baptiste was walking beside him. “Fine enough, I suppose.”
“But of course,” Baptiste amended quickly, “it pales beside your mansion in Saint-Malo.”
“Do not attempt to placate me as if I were an ill-tempered old man.”
“Certainly not, m’sieur.” The rail-thin Frenchman fell back into his habitual state of silence.
Built of mellow Cornish stone, the home Gabriel and Isabella called Elysium was simple yet handsome, lined with windows and fronted by neatly-trimmed boxwood hedges. Parkland and gardens spread as far as the eye could see. Justin found it odd to think of his younger brother as a prosperous landowner. Odder still was the notion of Gabriel as a contented husband and father who no longer cared for adventure.
It was Justin’s experience that people didn’t change. At least, not in ways that really mattered.
Reaching the house, they were greeted by a plump, ginger-haired housemaid who took Justin’s greatcoat and Baptiste’s hat. Unlike most servants who kept their eyes averted as if they weren’t permitted to be human, this girl gave them bright, welcoming smiles. She was even bold enough to announce that her name was Claire.
Justin saw that the entry hall was spacious, with a tile floor and walls paneled in carved walnut. Although the atmosphere was homey rather than impressive, he had to admit that the effect was not unpleasant. And there were tantalizing smells wafting toward them from a kitchen at the back of the house.
“Mon Dieu,” Justin said, inhaling appreciatively. “It smells like Bretagne.”
“Aye, sir,” said Claire. “That be Madame Kerjean’s fine onion tarte, made with onions brought from Roscoff.” She turned her friendly gaze to Baptiste. “I’ll ask that you wait here, please, while I take M’sieur St. Briac to my master. Then I shall see that you do get a large piece of Madame’s tart!”
Baptiste, who was used to discreetly running a very grand household, bit his lip but allowed Claire to put him in a chair before she led Justin to a door at the back of the house. At first, as she opened it, it seemed they were returning outside, but quickly he realized that he was in a sprawling, open room with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides and a high, vaulted ceiling. Seeing rows of dwarf citrus trees in pots, Justin realized this must be his brother’s conservatory.
“There you are!” called a familiar voice, and he turned to find his brother, standing at a long, rustic table with two little girls. All three of them wore long aprons, doeskin gloves, and were clearly in the midst of transplanting what appeared to be an exotic cactus.
“Are you Uncle Justin?” asked the younger child, pronouncing his name with a flawless French accent. She walked right over and extended a gloved hand. “My name is Camille St. Briac. Louise and I have been waiting for you for the longest time.”
Justin was instantly captivated. The child couldn’t have been more than four years of age. Blessed with huge eyes of Parisian blue and gleaming tawny ringlets, Camille was already a great beauty.
“Ma belle,” he said softly. “It is an honor to meet you.”
Gabriel had put down his trowel, removed his apron and gloves, and now he took the hand of Camille’s older sister. As they drew near, Justin saw that the other girl was a delicate, serious brunette, perhaps eight years of age, who wore spectacles like her mother. She regarded him with some uncertainty.
“How good it is to see you, mon frère,” said Gabriel. Releasing Louise’s hand, he embraced Justin, who tried not to stiffen. It had been a long time since anyone had touched him with genuine affection.
As greetings were exchanged and Louise bobbed a reserved curtsy, Justin observed that his brother was still fit and lean at forty-two, with only glints of silver in his chestnut hair.
“Grandmère says you are a wicked pirate,” Camille declared, staring at Justin with frank curiosity. “It must be true. You wear an eyepatch!”
Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Enough of that, ma poulette. It is midday and you two must be hungry.” He gestured to Claire. “Go and see Madame in the kitchen.”
Watching the girls leave the conservatory, Justin felt a momentary pang of regret that they didn’t know him.
“I’m sorry that it took Maman’s illness to bring you to our home at last,” Gabriel said, as if guessing his thoughts. “I trust your Channel crossing was uneventful. Did you hire a conveyance?”
“No. Baptiste and I walked up from the harbor.” The pain in his knee intensified as he spoke.
“Ah. I suppose I should have warned you about the steep lane leading up here from the village. Actually, there is a less precipitous drive that leads over to the main road, but no doubt my intrepid brother could doubtless climb a dozen hills like this one.”
Justin looked around for a chair. “What sort of conservatory is this, without any seating areas for guests?”
“I like to keep it just for myself and the plants. It’s much more convenient to be able to move in and out of the house, rather than working in one of the outdoor greenhouses. What’s wrong? Do you need to sit down after your exertions?”
Before Justin could make a sardonic reply, Gabriel took his arm and led him back into the house.
They soon came into a library filled with books of every size and color, ranged along the floor-to-ceiling shelves and precariously stacked on a worn desk near the window. A cheerful blaze beckoned from the fireplace, where a pair of worn leather wing chairs waited for them.
“You’d doubtless like a bit of fortification before going up to see Maman.” Gabriel said, pouring cognac into two crystal glasses. “Shall I order food?”
“No. Later, perhaps.” As Justin settled into one of the unfashionable chairs, he found that it was surprisingly comfortable compared to those in his own magnificent, immaculate library. He was beginning to relax when his brother spoke again.
“What has happened to your eye?”
Justin wanted to flinch, but managed instead to shrug lightly. “Ah, just a misstep during a duel. I never think of it now.” Deftly, he changed the subject. “Where is your beautiful wife? I would much rather see Izzie than our mother.”
He was gratified to see Gabriel’s body tense. “Isabella is in London for a few days. She’s gone to visit her friend Mouette Raveneau Brandreth. Perhaps you remember her from our wedding?”
“I believe I do.” To Justin’s surprise, a hot tide of memory swept over him at the mention of Lady Brandreth. He’d nearly forgotten her – until that very moment. “She is well?”
“Unfortunately, Mouette has fallen on hard times – but that’s another conversation.” Taking a drink of cognac, Gabriel added, “Isabella was happy that you were coming to see Maman and looks forward to seeing you when she returns.”
“Unfortunately, I will not be here. I must return to France as soon as possible.”
“You have just arrived but you are leaving?” Gabriel murmured dryly.
“Correct.” Unable to resist dangling a reminder of what his married brother was missing, Justin added, “A beautiful woman awaits my return, quite possibly in my bed.”
“Indeed?” Gabriel showed no sign of envy. “Is it Azelma Marchand?”
Justin blinked at the mention of the woman he had dallied with years ago. “Are you in jest? Azelma is far too old for my taste.”
“How fortunate that you alone, at forty-eight, have remained unmarked by age,” Gabriel said dryly. “In view of your crowded social calendar, we are grateful you could travel to Cornwall, even for the briefest of visits.”
Justin frowned. Was his brother mocking him? “If you imagine that I want to be with Maman any longer than necessary, you are mistaken.”
“I trust you don’t plan to tell her that.”
“Do you blame me for feeling manipulated to make this journey? I have a busy life, as you know, with a great many responsibilities.” Drinking the fine cognac, Justin was relieved to feel the pain ease in his knee. “I came because you informed me I must, but after I see our parents, Baptiste and I will return to sleep on Deux Frères and set sail for France with the morning tide.”
“I see.” Gabriel leaned back in his chair and nodded in a way that Justin found extremely annoying. “You feel nothing when you consider the prospect that Maman may soon pass from this world?”
Justin couldn’t suppress a harsh laugh. “Do you really expect me to believe that she is truly at death’s door? For God’s sake, since the moment of my birth, I have been forced to watch her play out her little dramas and call the tune while our father danced – and you and I foolishly joined in. I vowed long ago never to join in her games when I was old enough to have a choice in the matter.” Waiting in vain for his brother to agree with him, Justin reached for his snuffbox. “I will tell you plainly that I felt liberated when Maman and Papa decided to move their household to Cornwall after your marriage.”
“Indeed?” Gabriel’s tone suggested that he was unconvinced. “You could have come to visit. After you returned from your adventures with Surcouf in the Indian Ocean, our parents expected you to appear. Have you even seen their little home? It’s quite charming.”
“Leaving France was their choice. Can you blame me for feeling relieved that Maman would no longer be turning up on my doorstep, claiming to have run away from Papa?”
Gabriel’s tone was maddeningly calm. “No matter their faults, they are still our parents. And it does appear that Maman is desperately ill. Before Isabella left for London, she insisted that they come here to stay, so that we could look after them.”
“Maman is plotting something,” Justin insisted.
“Ah yes, plotting. Perhaps a pastime that you yourself learned at her knee?” came his wry response. “Can you not suspend your judgment until you assess how ill she appears to be?”
“You seem to have fallen under Maman’s spell, just like our father.” When Gabriel only shrugged in response, Justin marveled again at the change in his brother. Arching a dark brow, he murmured, “Are you really happy, confined here in this conventional existence? Can you possibly enjoy – what, raising plants? – as much as planning a dangerous smuggling venture?”
Finally, he saw Gabriel’s blue eyes flash. “You don’t understand the first thing about botany, or the challenge of growing something new.” He leaned forward. “As for this conventional existence, my days are filled with a treasure you have never known and could never gain through smuggling or any other reckless escapade.” With soft emphasis he added, “Love.”
Justin felt his nostrils flare. “Oh, please… spare me.”
Gabriel pushed gracefully to his feet without any sign of aching knees. “You are an expert on that subject. Shall we go upstairs to see Maman? Clearly you are in a hurry to be on your way.”
* * *
As Gabriel led the way down the wide upstairs corridor, Justin noticed the exquisite paintings that lined the walls and guessed they were the creations of his sister-in-law. One watercolor perfectly evoked his favorite view in Saint-Malo, of the isle of Petit Bé, as seen from the ramparts. A few were delightful portraits of his nieces, capturing them at the various ages he had missed.
“Isabella framed a likeness of you as well,” Gabriel said casually, inclining his head as they passed a framed sketch.
Justin paused before the informal portrait made so long ago. In it, he was lounging in an elegant Sheraton chair, impeccably dressed, his favorite agate snuffbox in one hand as he flicked it open with his thumb. Seeing the faintly predatory expression on his face, Justin felt a pang. Was that the way he’d appeared to Izzie? Perhaps he had rather tricked her into being alone with him, but he hadn’t truly meant any harm.
Gabriel, who had gone ahead, stopped before a paneled door and knocked. After a long moment, during which Justin came up beside him, the door opened a few inches to reveal their father’s face.
“By all the saints,” Xavier breathed, “it is you, Justin. You have come!”
It was a shock to see his father looking considerably older, his strong shoulders slightly bent, his weathered face careworn. Justin felt himself soften just a bit. “Of course I have come, Papa. What do you take me for, an ogre?”
Before Xavier could reply, his mother’s quavering voice arose from the bed. “Justin? Can it be?”
A wave of emotion engulfed Justin, catching him off-guard. For a moment, he felt physically ill. “Papa, will you swear to me that this is not a trick?” he demanded in a harsh whisper.
Xavier recoiled, eyes wide. “Truly, you shock me. Age and hard living have made you more cynical than ever!”
Was that an answer? Justin supposed it would have to do. His heart was in his throat as he went forward, so preoccupied with the scene in the bedchamber and his mother’s pale countenance that he forgot about his own quite drastically altered appearance.
“Oh, Justin, how I have dreamed of this moment,” Cerise St. Briac began, extending a shaky hand in his direction. “My first-born son. So magnificent – ”
As his mother spoke, she looked up at him, focusing in disbelief. Justin watched as the rest of the blood drained from her face. He looked past her, into a mirror on a stand near the bedside, and saw the reason for her shock.
No longer was he the daring, irresistible corsair who seemed only to grow more attractive with each passing year. No, the man who stared back at Justin in the mirror was dissipated from too much wild living, too many reckless brushes with death, and, a soft voice whispered inside him, too little love. His black hair was now streaked with silver, lines bracketed his hard mouth, and even his waist had thickened.
Worst of all, under the black eyepatch, his arresting face was now marred by a thin white scar that slashed down from his brow, continued through his left eye – or the place where it had once been – and came to a stop below his cheekbone. Even the duel that had cost him his eye now seemed a taunt that he was no longer invincible.
Justin’s heart pounded as he saw the questions in his mother’s eyes. Dying she might be, but she was as shrewd as ever, her gaze peeling back his defenses until he was utterly exposed.
“What have you done to yourself?” she asked in a ragged voice.
Reflexively, he raised a hand to touch his eyepatch. It was fashioned of black silk edged in the same dark plum as his waistcoat. As soon as the physician had told him that he could not save his eye, Justin had decided to turn it to his advantage. He would make every man in France want to wear a rakish patch over one eye.
“’Twas but a twist of fate, Maman,” he replied, adding more jauntily, “Do you not find me more dashing than ever?”
“Pray do not waste our time.” Cerise patted the bed. “Sit down beside me. Each moment is precious, for there may not be many left to us.”
Although Justin longed to resist, he obeyed, searching her face for signs of impending death. True, she was paler than usual, and appeared to be very tired, but if she only sat up, pinched her cheeks, and took some pains with her hair, wouldn’t that make a difference? “Maman, I think that you may only need a nice bath, some good food, and your maid to dress your hair properly. What about a glass of champagne? I have seen that raise your spirits more than once.”
She swatted at him weakly. “Pah. You are nonsensical, Justin. I am an old woman and my life is ebbing away as surely as the tide.”
“Get up and walk with me. I will help you.” He started to motion to his father and brother to join in his efforts, but Cerise gave him a sharp look.
“It is too late for that, don’t you see?”
“Maman…” he protested. “There must be something I can do.”
“You have come,” she whispered. “That is a… beginning.”
Justin was still absorbing her pronouncement when his father rushed over. Gently, Xavier lifted Cerise up from the pillow and held a crystal glass of water to her parched lips. Justin felt a sense of profound disbelief as he watched her attempt to sip the water, managing only a few drops before turning her face away. Good God, how could he have allowed a full decade to pass without visiting his parents? Was it possible that his vibrant, maddening mother might actually die before he could mend things between them?
“Show me,” she was saying now, watching him under her lids.
“What do you mean?” he asked warily.
“Show me your eye, mon fils.”
She was like a cat, he thought, seemingly somnolent yet fully capable of tormenting her prey. “I would rather not.”
“I am your mother. I washed your private parts long before you knew what to do with them, so I can certainly view your injured eye. You must show me now.”
This interview was excruciating. Better to get it over with! He leaned closer and slowly lifted his eyepatch so that she alone could see the wound – a wound that replaced an expressive black eye nearly identical to Cerise’s own.
Just when he thought this ordeal couldn’t get any worse, at the moment he was about to replace the covering and retreat to safety, his mother unexpectedly reached up and touched her fingertips to his scarred eyelid. To his further horror, she began to weep.
“Justin, do you not see that this is but a sign of your broken life? You are forty-eight years old, an age when other men have raised their children and are enjoying their homes and families.”
“I am not other men,” he growled. “My life is not broken! On the contrary, it is what every man dreams of.”
“You are speaking to your mother,” she said softly, staring at him in a way that made him feel like a child again. “I will not be fooled. It is time for you to put aside your games of adventure and take up the challenges of real manhood.”
“Maman! Are you delirious?” He felt his brother and father watching them with interest, but forced himself to ignore them.
“If you want me to die a happy woman, a fulfilled mother, you must grant my last wish.”
“Last wish?” What the devil was she talking about?
“You must take a wife – before it is too late, Justin! I cannot leave this world in peace unless I know you’ve taken a bride and are endeavoring to make a happy marriage.” Glancing over toward Gabriel, Cerise turned the knife as only she could, “As your brother has done so magnificently.”
For a moment, Justin couldn’t breathe. A black curtain closed around him, but he fought it off. He wasn’t about to let his mother of all people perceive how deeply he dreaded being trapped in the prison of marriage, without any avenue of escape.
Breathing slowly, he felt his head clear. His relationship with his mother had been disastrous over the years, Justin realized, and now it was nearly too late. If he could win bloody battles against pirates and the British Navy, could he not find a way to grant his own mother’s dying wish?
On his own terms, of course.
“Eh bien. If that is what you want, Maman,” Justin said in a low voice, reaching for her hand, “consider it done.”
She blinked. “Oh, mon fils, you love me after all! Will you divulge the identity of your future bride?”
“Patience, Maman, patience.”
Gabriel came up beside him and spoke to their mother. “You have had enough excitement for one day, Maman, and Justin must have food after his long journey.”
As they left the oppressively warm bedchamber and emerged into the corridor, Justin inhaled the fresh air of freedom.
“Thank God, you rescued me just now,” he said.
“For the moment,” his brother replied. “Come downstairs and have a large piece of Madame’s onion tart. I can’t wait to hear more about the stunning plans for your marriage.”
“Oh, I’m not really getting married.” Justin gave a derisory laugh, arching a brow as he added, “But what harm can it do to pretend to grant Maman’s wish? I shall fool her into believing that she alone had the power to make me take a wife, when in truth I shall remain as untethered as ever.”