Betrayed

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One

New Orleans, 1895

For the first time in their marriage, Nicole Rosseau Cuvier disobeyed her husband Jean. Though he told her never to come to his office in New Orleans without him, the news she had simply could not wait. And his office was just several hours by boat down the Mississippi River.

Yet her joy dimmed when she arrived at her husband's shipping company, and the clerk mysteriously informed her that Jean was ill and gave her his room number at the Chateau Hotel.

In the entire four years they'd been married, Jean Cuvier had never been ill.

Nicole burst into the hotel room, uncertain what she would find. Her gaze swept across the open room to a man dressed in a shabby suit in conversation with a refined lady with dark hair and smoky-gray eyes. "Where is he? Is he all right? They told me he was ill."

The man stepped between Nicole and an open door where she could see uniformed men standing around an unidentifiable body stretched out on the floor. Who could that be lying on the floor?

"Who are you?" the man asked, blocking her path.

"I'm Mrs. Cuvier," Nicole said anxiously. "I went by my husband's office and they sent me over here. Is the doctor with him?" she asked, trying to peer around the man to see into the other room.

"Good Lord, another one?" the man muttered, gazing back at the lady he'd been speaking with.

"Who did you say you were?" the woman inquired as she stared at Nicole, her gray eyes large and questioning.

Nicole didn't have time to chitchat with this woman, whoever she was. If Jean were ill, he needed her. "I'm Mrs. Nicole Cuvier, Jean's wife. Now where is my husband?"

The man in the shabby suit coat glanced at the other woman and then turned his gaze on Nicole. "Jean Cuvier is dead."

Nicole felt as if someone punched her in the stomach. With a trembling hand she clutched her throat, trying to hold back the scream that seemed to swell and lodge itself in her throat. The room swayed precariously as a dizzy spell overcame her, the words reverberating through her mind. Her beloved husband was dead.

"No. No," Nicole cried, tears rushing to her eyes, hysteria bubbling up, threatening to overwhelm her. "Dear God, no. He can't be! Let me see him. Please tell me this is a mistake. Where is he?"

"I'll take you to him," the man said, taking Nicole's arm and gently guiding her. "I'm Detective Dunegan, with the New Orleans police."

Nicole heard the words, but her mind didn't comprehend what he was saying. Police detective? What was a detective doing here with her husband? He led her into the bedroom where the same body she'd seen earlier lay sprawled on the floor, surrounded by people.

Please, God, that couldn't be Jean.

She caught a glimpse of dark hair tinted with silver, the color of Jean's hair. The man wore pajamas the same dark brown that Jean loved, a silk robe wrapped around his still form.

At the detective's motion, they moved aside and let her in close to see the man she loved, who lay twisted on the floor, his skin an odd pinkish hue that looked unnatural. She knelt beside him, her hand reaching out as her fingers touched his cold flesh. Quickly, she drew her hand back, the sensation confirming that her husband's lifeblood no longer flowed, his warm, loving touch now just a memory. A sob tore from her throat as she gazed at Jean, feeling as if this couldn't be real.

Gently the detective helped her up from the floor and led her back into the main room of the hotel suite. Nicole sobbed for her husband, who'd taught her so much about life. Their short time together had been filled with love and laughter, and even today she'd come bringing him such joyous news.

"I think we need to remain calm, sit down, and find out what happened," the officer said, his voice firm and reassuring.

Calm? How could she remain calm when she'd just found out her husband was dead? That no longer would he hold her in his arms or his smiles brighten her day.

"What—what. . . happened?" Nicole sobbed, tears streaking down her face. "How did he die?"

"Poisoning. We suspect that his wi—the woman we found him with poisoned him."

Nicole spun around and glared at the finely dressed woman through tear-streaked eyes. Could she be Jean's killer?

Her large gray eyes returned her gaze unflinchingly. "Not me. There's another woman."

"What do you mean, another woman?" Nicole asked, confused.

"You're not the only Mrs. Cuvier in this hotel suite," the woman advised her.

Another Mrs. Cuvier? What was she talking about? Nicole didn't understand. The only other Mrs. Cuvier was a distant relative of Jean's who lived hundreds of miles away. Why were they lying to her?

"I don't believe you," Nicole said, fear making her almost hysterical.

The detective took Nicole by the arm and m­tioned for the other woman to follow him. They walked into an adjoining room where a young woman sat staring off at the horizon, her dark eyes glazed and distant.

"Layla," the detective said, releasing Nicole. "Tell these women how the man you're suspected of killing was related to you."

She turned her oval-shaped face toward the door. Hair black as night was swept up off her neck in a coiffure that left wisps of curls swirling around her pale face. She turned dark, censorious eyes on the detective and raised her brows in a disdainful look that was both elegant and disapproving. "I told you I did not kill my husband."

Nicole moaned, the woman's words confirming her worst fears, yet she couldn't believe this was happening. There had to be a mistake. "What are you saying? No! You lie. You can't be married to Jean."

The girl glanced briefly at Nicole, not responding.

"Did you marry Jean Cuvier?" the distinguished woman asked her.

"Yes," the young girl said, her voice starting to tremble. Her bright red lips pouted.

"That can't be. He married me. He's my husband," Nicole said, her voice rising, the pain and hurt audible in her voice, unable to control the fear that raged through her.

"And mine," the woman said quietly as she sank down onto a nearby chair. "I'm Marian Cuvier. I married him twelve years ago at Saint Ann's Cathedral."

Nicole turned abruptly and stared at her in disbelief. "No. That's impossible." She paused, comprehension as fleeting as the wind. "No. We were married four years ago. I don't understand. He would never do something so horrible."

"And I married him a year ago," Layla whispered, her face turning ashen.

"Impossible. Jean loved me. That's . . . that's bigamy!" Nicole said, shaking her head from side to side. Jean would never hurt her this way. He loved her. He told her over and over how he loved her more than any other woman.

"Yes, it is bigamy. We're all married to the same man," Marian replied, her voice sounding uncaring and cold. "And now we're all Jean's widows. The Cuvier Widows."

Nicole sobbed. Dear God, she'd come to town to tell Jean that after four years she finally was expecting their baby. And instead she'd learned that the father of her child, the man she loved with all her heart, was a bigamist—and he'd been murdered.

***

Nicole stood in the attorney's office waiting, barely able to recall the previous days since Jean's death. Somehow she'd attended his funeral in disguise. In a crowd of people, she'd sat all alone through her husband's eulogy and finally his entombment. Tears streamed down her cheeks, her thoughts on the child she carried, who would never know his father.

Later she'd made her way back to her hotel room only to find a swarm of reporters waiting for her. Their questions were rude and the headlines the newspapers printed sensational. This morning's headline read, WHO IS THE REAL MRS. CUVIER?

Her reputation was in tatters and she knew the baby she carried, if known as Jean's child, would never live down the scandal his father had created.

How could the man she loved have done something so painful and wrong? How could he feel affection for her and marry other women? How could he hold her in his arms and tell her she made his life worthwhile, when everything was such a lie?

A door slammed, snapping her attention back to the present. Mr. Fournet, Jean's business partner, shut the door firmly behind Marian Cuvier, Jean's first wife. "I'm locking the door, Drew," he called. "The press knows we're here."

"Quick thinking, Louis," Drew Soulier, Jean's attorney, replied. He'd been kind enough to let Nicole and Layla, Jean's third wife, sit in on the reading of the will.

Dark and regal, the attorney looked like a serious lawyer, except for the twinkle in his green eyes he couldn't seem to hide. "Mrs. Cuvier, how are you?"

Nicole felt a twinge of envy. She was Mrs. Cuvier too, though the law didn't recognize her marriage. No one seemed concerned she'd lost her husband in more ways than she'd ever dreamed possible. How could the man she cherished have been the same person who married all three of them? It just didn't seem possible.

"I'm fine, Mr. Soulier," Marian said, and then glanced about the room, her gaze falling on Nicole and Layla.

Nicole stood off from everyone, facing the opposite direction from Layla. Neither of them had moved since they'd walked in the door. Their backs faced, trying not to notice one another, yet Nicole was very aware of her husband's third wife, just the same.

Drew whispered to the legal Mrs. Cuvier something that Nicole could not hear, his eyes fixed on them, and suddenly she felt certain they would be asked to leave.

"No," Marian said quickly. "Let us all hear Jean's wishes at the same time," she said, loud enough to make them aware of her decision.

"All right. As you wish," Drew replied, and turned toward the other women. "Ladies, tea and refreshments are in my office; please, go inside so we can get started."

He motioned for them to proceed ahead of him.

Marian entered first, and then Nicole and Layla followed into the dark paneled room.

Refusing to be cowed, Nicole entered the room with her head held high. She'd done nothing wrong, except to fall in love with a man who obviously didn't believe in monogamy. If she'd known Jean was married, she would never have accepted his proposal.

Layla entered her eyes downcast, refusing to look at anyone. Jean's death appeared to have stunned them all and Nicole couldn't help but wonder what would become of them. How could Jean bequeath them anything when Marian was the legal wife?

Drew closed the door, enclosing them all together. Tension seemed to emanate from the women filling the tiny room.

Nicole nodded her head in Marian's direction. "Mrs. Cuvier."

Marian returned her head bob, then turned her attention to Layla, who stood with her back straight, her eyes fixed on a distant object. She appeared so young and fragile, and somehow Nicole felt envious. Jean married Layla after he married Nicole. Why? What kind of charm or spell could Layla cast to entice her husband away from her?

"Mrs. C-Cuv ..." Layla stumbled over the name.

"I think it would be so much easier if we dropped the formalities and called each other by our given names," Marian said, glancing at each woman.

Layla nodded. "Please, I intend to assume my maiden name again."

"I think that's wise," Marian said curtly.

How could Nicole go back to her maiden name? Her baby would have no father, no name. She swallowed back the tears that threatened to flow from her eyes. She couldn't think about that now.

A tense silence seemed to hang suspended in the air. Marian walked around the desk until she faced the other wives.

"This is an extremely awkward situation we find ourselves in. The press is outside just waiting for us to succumb to arguing over whatever crumbs Jean has tossed our way." She sighed and stared at them. "Ladies, I have no desire to come to blows over a man who deceived me like my... our dead husband. I only wish to take care of my children and live in peace without them being tarnished by their father's scandal."

The sight of Jean's children at his funeral had left Nicole feeling wretched. How could he treat his children to such a scandal of this proportion? What of her own child?

Marian paused and gazed at each of the women, drawing Nicole back from her thoughts. "Keep in mind, I shall certainly do what I must to protect my babies."

Nicole couldn't blame her; she felt the same regarding her own unborn child.

Layla let out a long sigh. "I understand. But Jean lied to me as well."

Nicole removed her hat from her blonde hair that she had carefully coiffed that morning and laid the bonnet on a table nearby. "Excuse me, but I loved Jean very much. Though I can't help but wonder why he didn't tell me the truth." She took out her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. "It's so unfair that he died knowing all the reasons he did this but keeping them from us. Surely there's an explanation."

"I'm sure he could give you one, but why do you care? He lied to all of us. If he were alive, he wouldn't tell you the truth. He would just invent some new excuse to protect himself," Marian said.

No, no, Nicole wanted to shout, but the words seemed stuck in her throat. Her husband was an honorable man. He would never have lied to her this way. There had to be another explanation. Nicole shook her head in disagreement. "But I loved him."

"We all did at some time in our life," Marian said, her voice heavy with sarcasm.

"I hated him," Layla stated, her voice quivering with emotion.

The room became silent as they all stared at the prime suspect in Jean's murder, the last person to see him alive. The woman's hate seemed almost visible and Nicole wanted to dislike her, but suspected she was a victim of Jean's lies just like herself.

But did she hate Jean enough to kill him?

"Ladies, we need to get started," Drew said, standing beside the door, ending their impromptu confessions. "Why don't you all take a seat?"

The lawyer seated the three women in chairs placed strategically apart, while Louis Fournet stood at the back of the room, his arms folded across his chest Drew cleared his throat. "Before I read the will, I want to acknowledge some facts and let you all know why I invited Louis Fournet. He is co-owner of Cuvier Shipping and for that reason I requested his presence here today." He paused, looking at each of them. "I must clarify my position in this difficult situation. If I had known of Jean entering into any legal act of marriage with more than one woman, I would have advised against such an unlawful arrangement. I knew nothing of your supposed marriages."

Nicole felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. Jean had lied even to his lawyer.

Drew glanced down at the will he held in his hands, holding them all in suspense. "According to Louisiana law the only legal marriage the State recognizes is the first one to Marian Cuvier. I'm sorry to say, Nicole, that your marriage and Layla's are not binding and therefore, unless he names you specifically in the will, you will receive nothing."

Nicole gazed at Drew, her eyes widening. Somehow part of her had been holding on to hope that she would at least be entitled to part of Jean's estate.

"If you had been his mistress and he'd named you in the will, then you would inherit. But as an illegal spouse, you receive nothing unless you're named in the will."

He cleared his throat and turned to Layla. "Jean wrote this will four years ago." He paused and gazed sympathetically at the young woman. "I'm sorry, but the will was written before your marriage."

A gasp came from Layla as she opened her mouth, the words seeming to hang suspended before she finally managed to speak. "I have nothing?" she asked, perplexed. "What will I do? Where will I go?"

She stood, her eyes glazing over. "You don't understand! Jean bankrupted my father's business. My father made him marry me just so I would be taken care of. Our shipping company had been the family business for over three generations before it was taken over by Cuvier Shipping. I have no means of support I have nothing!"

Drew swallowed and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Layla. Legally, everything belongs to Jean's estate including the house and the business."

The girl swallowed and glanced around the room, her eyes wide with disbelief. "I have to leave my home?"

"Yes, it's in Jean's name."

Layla's eyes pooled with tears as she tried to absorb this startling revelation. Nicole felt so sorry for her, yet her own body grew cold with this information. Jean had bought the plantation for her. Could they take away the home she'd wanted for years?

"How long before I have to get out of the house?" Layla asked, visibly trembling.

"Jean appointed me executor of his will. I'll give you thirty days to find another residence. Is that all right, Marian?" the lawyer asked, his green eyes dark with worry.

"Yes, please give her all the time she needs to find another place to live," Marian said sympathetically.

"Thank you." Layla stood, her face completely ashen. "I have to leave ... I can't stay ... I have to think about what I'm going to do. I must get out of here."

Flinging open the door to Drew's office, she ran out into the entryway. A sob echoed in the hall as she fumbled with the lock and then yanked open the outside portal and disappeared as the door slammed.

"Someone should go after her," Marian said, her voice sounding stilted. "We can't just let her go like that!"

Drew stood up and walked to the door. He yelled a young man's name. The clerk came from the back of the building.

"Eric, go after that young woman and make sure she makes it back to the hotel safely."

"Yes, sir."

The lawyer shut his office door again, and returned to the chair behind his desk.

"This is dreadful," Marian said, and Nicole couldn't help but agree with her.

She couldn't stand it any longer.

"What about me?" Nicole asked. "The plantation is in my name," she said. Her voice broke and a sob escaped. She couldn't lose the house.

"If it's in your name, then your home is your own," Drew said, taking a deep breath. "Let's finish this."

Nicole felt a small sense of relief. At least she wouldn't lose Rosewood.

Drew proceeded to read Jean's last will and testament; Nicole sat waiting expectantly for the moment of revelation, when Jean would leave her some of his wealth. The moment when they found out they were wealthy widows.

After several minutes Drew paused and looked at Louis. "‘Regarding Cuvier Shipping ... I entrust the running of the business to my partner Louis Fournet until my son Philip Cuvier reaches the age of understanding. My son's guardian, his mother Marian Cuvier, will vote or act in my son's best interest until he reaches the age of eighteen.'"

Drew finished reading the will and laid it down on the desk. He'd not mentioned her name. A buzzing noise like hundreds of small bees started up in her brain. This couldn't be happening. How could she support Jean's child if he didn't leave her a small amount of money?

"That's it?" Nicole asked. "He left me nothing?"

"I'm sorry, Nicole," Drew said.

The buzzing noise increased. She was broke except for the money for the house expenses Jean had given her this past month.

"But...but I was married to him. I loved him. We were—" She jumped up, and like a lamp being turned down, the world around her receded into darkness. She crumpled to the floor in a dead faint

Several minutes later Nicole could hear voices around her, but she couldn't see them or understand what they were saying. All she could think about was that the baby would be fatherless, penniless, and illegitimate. Just like herself. God, she'd promised never to do this to her child and now history was repeating itself.

"Get some smelling salts!"

Nicole moaned. "No ammonia. I'm all right. Just give me a moment to clear my head. I must have stood too quickly."

She moved, trying to sit up, but Louis touched her shoulder. "Lie back and give yourself a few more minutes."

She gazed up at Marian, seeing the concern on Jean's wife's face. "He left me nothing? I didn't dream that part, did I?"

Marian looked away and swallowed. "No, he didn't"

Finally Nicole rose and dusted off her skirt. She felt shaken and defeated as she glanced around the room and sighed. "I'm going back to the hotel. I can't believe he did this to me. That bastard left me nothing."

"I'm sorry," Marian whispered.

For a brief moment, Nicole felt like Marian did understand. After all, he'd been her husband for many more years than he'd been Nicole's. She not only had to face the humiliation of Jean's scandal, her two children needed her protection. Two children who at least carried Jean's name, unlike Nicole's own unborn, fatherless child.

Nicole gazed at Marian, feeling the need to get as far away from this scandal as she could. "Mrs. Cuvier, this must be extremely difficult for you."

Marian nodded. "No more than it's been for you." The corners of Nicole's mouth turned up in a smile, though she knew the feeling didn't reach her saddened heart. "I must be going. Good-bye."

She walked out of Drew's office, her head held high, her back straight and her heart numb. Jean had left her with nothing but a plantation she couldn't afford to run and a baby growing in her womb.