Wronged

Read the Excerpt

One

New Orleans, 1895

Marian Cuvier for years thought her husband kept a mistress and that her marriage to Jean Cuvier wasn’t worth the paper their marriage license was printed on. Still, the sight of the man she had spent the last twelve years of her life with—borne two children and made a home for—lying dead on the floor of a bedroom in the Chateau Hotel ripped a sob of anguish from her throat

“What happened?” she cried, her mind reeling with thoughts of her fatherless children wrenching her heart.

Policemen stood around the body in small groups, ceased their low whispers and glanced her direction, their gazes stern, but curious.

A man half-bent over Jean’s body turned and gazed at her, his dark eyes intense. “Who are you, Madame?”

“I’m his wife, Marian Cuvier,” she said, starting to tremble from the shock of her husband’s death. His body lay twisted grotesquely on the floor, his skin an odd pinkish hue.

Oh God, no matter how much I hated him, I would never have wished him dead!

The man crouching over the body slowly rose to his full height, his brows drawn together in a frown. “His wife is sitting in the next room Madame.”

“What?” she asked, not sure she heard him correctly. “I’m Marian Cuvier. I’m his wife. Who are you?”

“I’m detective Dunegan.” He gave her a stern look and took her by the arm, leading her from the bedroom.

Unable to resist, she glanced back perhaps for the last time at the still form that long ago had been her lover, and of late an absent husband. She closed her eyes, the image of the handsome man she’d married twelve years ago foremost in her mind. When she opened her eyes she looked toward the detective, not at the corpse who’d never been a good husband.

“Madame, I will ask you again. Who are you? His wife is sitting in the next room.”

Confusion rippled through her and she pulled away from the man as they entered the parlor. “That must be his mistress. I am Mrs. Jean Cuvier, we’ve been married for twelve years.”

The hotel clerk, who earlier had summoned her from her house and brought her to the Chateau Hotel, cleared his throat to draw the detective’s attention. He leaned over and whispered something to the younger man who glanced again at Marian.

As if she were at a play, she watched from a distance as the scene unfolded before her, a sense of uneasiness holding her in its grip. The body lying on the floor of the bedroom looked like her husband, Jean, who was expected home today. She supposed the corpse littering the floor must be her cold-hearted husband, the man who had visited her bed fewer times than he had the church, which was almost never.

Detective Dunegan gazed at her, his expression one of bewilderment. “My apologies, Mrs. Cuvier. There seems to be some confusion. The hotel clerk confirmed you were indeed married to Mr. Cuvier. If you’re his wife, then, who is the woman who was with Mr. Cuvier?”

The detective watched her closely as if he feared she would be overcome by the news her husband had died in a hotel room with another woman. Clearly, the detective had no clue that her marriage existed only on paper. How could she explain that her husband no longer found her attractive? That Jean often sought the company of other women.

Impossible. So she said nothing about the state of her marriage. Let the police figure it out, maybe they could find the reasons why her husband no longer made love to her.

Marian lifted her chin and consciously pulled her shoulders back. Made of stronger fabric than most women, she would weather this storm, just like all the others Jean put her through. She ignored the way her insides began to quiver.

“Perhaps she is his mistress,” she acknowledged, her suspicions about Jean realized.

Damn him, did he never think of their children?

The door to the room burst open and a blonde woman dressed in an exquisite, embroidered crepe lisse flouncing with white India silk, hurried into the room. Her heart-shaped face and soft blue eyes looked distressed and her complexion pale. “Where is he? Is he all right? They told me he was ill.”

The detective put himself between the young woman and the door to the room where Jean’s body lay sprawled.

“Who are you?” Officer Dunegan asked, halting the stylish woman who looked almost like a young girl.

“I’m Mrs. Cuvier,” she replied, her face anxious. “I went by Jean’s office and they sent me over here. Is the doctor with him?”

“Good Lord, another one?” the detective muttered, gazing at both of them.

“Who did you say you were?” Marian questioned as she stared at this woman in disbelief.

The woman gave Marian a quick disdainful glance. “I’m Mrs. Nicole Cuvier, Jean’s wife. Now, where is my husband?”

Marian wondered if she’d heard her correctly. Did she say she was Jean’s wife?

The detective glanced at Marian and then at the other woman. “Jean Cuvier is dead.”

Marion watched the woman as her trembling hand clutched her delicate throat. Her eyes reflected horror, while her face tightened with shock and her body swayed. For a moment Marian thought the newcomer would faint and she wondered if this whole scene was a bad dream.

“No! No!” the blonde woman cried, tears rushing to her eyes. “Dear God, no. He can’t be! Let me see him. Please tell me this is a mistake. Where is he?”

The detective glanced at Marian who stood staring at the scene in front of her, shock freezing her at the woman’s outburst. Jean had likely never been faithful, but how many women could one man be involved with? And did he really marry them?

“I’ll take you to him,” the man said taking Nicole by the arm. “I’m Detective Dunegan, with the New Orleans police.”

He led the latest Mrs. Cuvier into the bedroom where the body lay sprawled on the floor. Marian stood in the center of the parlor, not knowing what to do, feeling like the ground had been ripped from beneath her feet.

Two other women claimed to be Jean’s wife! The latest wife was young, attractive, and certainly more appealing for Jean to bed than herself. Could the women be lying about their marital status? Yet the newest Mrs. Cuvier certainly appeared the grieving widow, more so than even Marian. If she were lying, she certainly played her part well.

Or could this be some ploy to cover his murder? Extort money? None of this felt real, but it didn’t feel like a lie either. Speculation, but possible.

When the detective and the young woman returned, Marian still stood in the same place, the policemen walking a wide path around her as she stood transfixed, staring, stunned by the day’s events.

The room filled with the sounds of the newest Mrs. Cuvier’s soft sobs, and Marian felt the most incredible urge to comfort her. To shield her from the hurt that Jean could so easily inflict. She shook herself. When Nicole learned of Marian’s identity, she would not accept Marian’s offer of solace.

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

Calm? Remaining composed seemed impossible when you suspect your husband had found you so inappetent that he kept not one but two women to stimulate his sexual desires, leaving you to wait for him to return to the home you shared.

“What—what ... happened,” Nicole sobbed, her face streaked with tears. “How did he die?”

Marian gazed with interest at the detective. What did it say about her relationship with Jean that she hadn’t even thought to ask that but rather just accepted the fact that Jean was dead.

“Poisoning. We suspect that his wi... the woman we found him with poisoned him.”

Nicole spun around and glared at Marian through her tears.

Marian gazed back at the angry and beautiful young woman, until she realized Nicole thought she had killed Jean. “Not me. There’s another woman.”

“What do you mean another woman?” Nicole asked.

“You’re not the only Mrs. Cuvier in this hotel suite.”

“I don’t believe you,” Nicole said almost hysterical.

Marian wanted to laugh, but thought it would be cruel and there was already more than enough pain in this hotel room. So instead she remained quiet, let the detective explain the situation.

The detective took Nicole by the arm and motioned for Marian to follow him. They walked into an adjoining room where a girl who looked like she should still be in school sat staring out the window 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 as black as night was swept up off her neck in a coiffure that left wisps of curls swirling around her pale face. She glanced at 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 knowledge seeming like a blow to her. “What are you saying? You lie. You can’t be married to Jean?”

The girl stared at Nicole, not responding.

“Did you marry Jean Cuvier?” Marian asked gently feeling more certain that Jean had married each one of them. If Jean had done what she suspected, she had a sudden premonition they were all going to need consoling in the next few minutes.

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

Marian squeezed her eyes shut, letting the waves of pain almost overwhelm her at Jean’s deception. How could he do this to her? To the others? To their children?

“That can’t be. He married me. He’s my husband,” Nicole said, her voice rising, the pain and hurt audible in her voice.

“And mine,” Marian said quietly, as she sank down onto a nearby chair. “I’m Marian Cuvier. I married him twelve years ago at St. Ann’s Cathedral.”

Nicole turned abruptly and looked at Marian in disbelief. “No. That’s impossible.” She paused, her face contorted in disbelief. “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.

“Yes it is bigamy. We’re all married to the same man,” Marian replied, her voice distant and hollow. Her insides were numb. Her mind slowed to a crawl, as she comprehended the situation. “And now we’re all Jean’s widows. The Cuvier Widows.”

***

Marian shut the wooden door of her house behind her and leaned against it, relieved to finally be home, to her children. For four hours the detective interrogated her before he concluded she had answered enough questions and released her. Now before she could rest, she must finalize the funeral arrangements, notify the family, and the children...God, she dreaded telling her babies.

Notwithstanding Jean’s bigamies, he would always be her children’s father and they loved him even if their parent’s marriage had been dead for many years.

Her sister, Claire, walked into the entry hall from the back of the house to greet her.

“Hello, I thought that might be you.” Her eyes darkened to an even deeper shade of green. “I wondered where you rushed off to. When I arrived the servants told me you’d gone out”

Claire rattled on, never pausing, her brows drawing together as she watched Marian. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling unwell?”

Marian shook her head and walked into Jean’s study. She went to the brandy bottle on the Pembroke table. With trembling hands she poured herself a little brandy from the crystal decanter into a glass. Her sister followed her, still prattling on about nothing.

“Good Lord, now I really am worried about you. What’s brought about you taking strong drink? You seldom touch alcohol.”

“Where are Philip and Renee?” Marian asked.

“They’re in their rooms. Philip is studying and Renee is playing with her dolls.”

“Close the door. I’m not ready to tell them just yet,” she said, her voice quivering.

Claire hurried over to the door of Jean’s study, her skirts swishing as she walked across the oriental carpet. When Marian heard the click of the door, she sank down into the leather armchair behind Jean’s French Provincial desk.

“What’s wrong, Marian? What’s Jean done now? Only he can make you this upset,” her sister said.

Marian shook her head. The news was still hard to believe. “Jean is dead.”

The other woman gasped. “Oh my God! How?”

“This morning a clerk from the Chateau Hotel knocked on the door and told me Jean needed me to come to the hotel.” Marian sipped the brandy, the alcohol warming its way down her throat, giving her a boost of strength.

“When I arrived the police were waiting for me and immediately took me to his room. In the suite Jean lay on the floor, dead.” She shuddered at the memory of his lifeless body. “A policemen told me he’d been poisoned. They suspect that someone killed him.”

“Somebody finally did him in.” Claire stood and placed her arm around Marian’s shoulder giving her comfort. “Do they suspect anyone?”

“That’s the worst part.” Marian laughed, but tears gathered in the comers of her eyes. “They suspect Mrs. Cuvier.”

“That’s ludicrous! You didn’t even know he was in town. Did you?” she asked, her eyes growing wide.

“He was due home today,” Marian said, and then dropped the social bomb that hung over their heads. “I’m not the Mrs. Cuvier they suspect.”

Her sister’s face contracted quizzically, clearly not understanding her. “I beg your pardon? What are you saying?”

“There was yet another woman there who claims she’s not his mistress. He married not one, but two women besides me.”

Confusion then dawning realization crossed her sister’s face as she grasped what Jean had done. “But...but how? That’s against the law. It’s...it’s bigamy!”

Marian laughed, her voice sounding strained in the dead man’s study. “Do you think Jean cared he was breaking the law?”

“But two women? Good Lord, how did the man do it and get away with so many wives without anyone knowing?”

“I don’t know. I doubt that we’ll ever understand Jean’s rationale and right now I don’t want to feel any sympathy for that man.” She took a deep breath. “I know I am the jilted wife, but the woman accused of poisoning him is so young! And neither woman had any idea about each other or me.”

She paused, glancing at the furnishings of her dead husband’s study. Once, many years ago, she had loved Jean. But something changed him, and in the end she’d only felt contempt for the man she’d married.

“Do you think this woman killed him?” Claire asked.

“I don’t know. Of the three, I may be the one who wanted him out of my life the most. Though I could never have divorced or killed the father of my children.” She drained the last of the brandy, patted her sister’s hand. “Now I have to tell the children. No matter how much of a bastard Jean could be, they loved him.”

For a brief moment Marian and her sister simply sat in the confines of Jean’s office, gazing around them at the man’s possessions, contemplating the change his death would bring.

Claire shook her head. “Bigamy. Even that’s more than I expected from Jean.” She stood and gazed down at her sister. “I’ll inform the servants that the house needs to be prepared for mourning. Have you contacted the undertaker?”

“Yes. On my way home Edward stopped and I made the arrangements. When the police release the body, he will prepare it and bring it to the house.”

Claire shuddered. “Do we have to bring that man back into this house? I’m afraid his ghost will somehow get trapped here and he’ll bother us in death more than he did when he lived.”

Marian shook her head. “He’s the children’s father. We’ll show him respect.”

“I will, but you and I both know this is a great day as far as I’m concerned,” she turned and walked out the door leaving Marian alone.

Claire had the courage to say the words Marian thought, but refused to acknowledge. Jean had been like a jailer. The marriage she once regarded as a prison sentence suddenly ended and like a prisoner released she was free. She closed her eyes savoring her newfound freedom as a widow. She couldn’t be happier.

***

Louis Fournet leaned against the wall in the home of his business partner and watched Jean’s widow speak with her guests. The real Mrs. Jean Cuvier wore a black gown that set off her dark hair making it glisten against her pale skin. She appeared the grieving widow, as she made her way through the throng of people, nodding at their condolences, dabbing at her eyes occasionally, and keeping her children close by her side.

Either the woman was an excellent actress or she had indeed loved Jean. The newspapers were full of stories of the two other Cuvier widows, yet wife number one had given old Jean quite a lavish send off.

The mansion on Josephine Street was brimming with guests as Louis glanced around wondering if any of the other “wives” were in attendance. He observed Marian Cuvier as she walked through the mourners, carrying herself in an almost aristocratic manner, her head held high. The scandal had leapt from the front page of the newspapers, shocking Louis with its implications for the business. How could a man do to his wife and children what Jean had done to Marian? Louis felt almost sorry for her.

However, that didn’t change his need to sell Cuvier Shipping and with Jean out of the way, selling the business should be an easy conclusion. He would find a buyer for the business, push the paperwork through quickly and then present the widow with the sale. Cuvier Shipping would make her a wealthy widow who could escape the damaging scandal of her husband’s death.

“Excuse me,” a young woman said, drawing his attention from the lovely Mrs. Cuvier.

“I do not believe we’ve met. Were you a friend of Jean’s?”

The dark-haired older woman gazed at him with questioning green eyes, and Louis was a little amazed at how forward she seemed.

Louis smiled. “I’m Louis Fournet, Jean’s business partner.”

“I am happy to meet you. Jean spent little time here. We never had the opportunity to meet his business associates.”

“Who did you say you were?” he questioned.

“Excuse me. I should have introduced myself. I’m Claire Bienvenu,” she said extending her hand. “Mrs. Cuvier’s sister.”

Louis nodded. “Nice to meet you. I intend to speak to Mrs. Cuvier before I leave. How is she?”

Claire smiled. “She’s holding up well. Marian’s life has centered around her children for many years.”

Louis noticed the two children at Mrs. Cuvier’s side. The boy looked to be about ten years old and the girl at least six. For a moment he felt sad as he realized his own son should have been close to the boy’s age by now.

He watched Marian reach down and pat her son on the arm in a comforting gesture.

“Those are nice-looking children.”

“They’re the only decent thing Jean did in his life,” she glanced at him quickly to check his reaction. “I’m sorry, I’m not very good at hiding my feelings for my dead brother-in-law.”

“That’s quite all right,” Louis said thinking maybe he should stand here with this woman a little longer. The more he learned about Marian Cuvier, the better he would understand her.

“So tell me, Mrs. Bienvenu, do you know your sister’s plans, now that Jean is gone? Has she said anything?” he asked.

She smiled. “You’ll have to ask her about that. I know she would want to meet you. Let me get her.”

Before he could respond, Claire walked toward Mrs. Cuvier. He watched the woman approach Marian Cuvier and whisper something in her ear. She glanced up, her eyes meeting his across the room. Smoke-gray eyes, the color of the moss that hung from the cypress trees, met and held his stare. He nodded in her direction. No one would ever have questioned Jean’s taste when it came to women.

Marian Cuvier represented the genteel woman who lived a life of privilege. She made a beautiful widow, stunning, in fact. Surely she would want to rid herself of Jean’s business. However, her husband’s infidelities seriously threatened her position in society and would keep her name in the paper in the months to come.

Most men kept mistresses, but Jean had played a dangerous game of marrying more than one woman at a time and eventually the conquests had cost him his life. Current gossip said one of the widows had killed Louis’s partner.

He watched Marian approach, both children clinging to her waist, their eyes large with grief. She turned her large gray eyes on him and he smiled. “Mr. Fournet, I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Mrs. Cuvier,” he said bowing over her outstretched hand. “I’m terribly sorry for your loss. Jean was a character that will be hard to replace.”

“Thank you, Mr. Fournet, I quite agree.”

He chuckled at the memory of the newspaper articles fresh in his mind. “Sometime in the next week I’d like to call on you to discuss the business.”

“What about the business, Mr. Fournet? Everything is well, I presume?” she said, her eyes narrowing.

“Everything’s fine. I just wanted to discuss some options we have.”

She raised her brow. “The reading of the will is tomorrow morning and I’m sure you’ll be present to hear Jean’s bequests.”

“Yes, I’ll be there. Perhaps when I call on you next week I could give you a brief report on the current status of Cuvier Shipping,” he said, not wanting to mention the fact he intended to sell the shipping company.

“That’s an excellent suggestion,” she said.

He noted with interest the way her cool gray eyes assessed him as if she were deciding if he was an adversary or a foe. But then again, right now perhaps she felt that any man was an enemy after Jean’s betrayal.

“Once again, let me offer my condolences to you and your children on the loss of your husband,” he said, with a polite nod.

“Then I will see you tomorrow,” she said, and walked on through the crowd of people.

He watched her move away, her back straight, her head held high, and the gentle swish of her skirts tempting. Somehow the quiet temperate woman he imagined beneath that widow’s garb appeared sharper than he anticipated. Yet she intrigued him as she moved about the room. A quiet sense of strength seemed to emanate from her.

Somehow he had expected a quiet mousy woman who could easily be convinced that selling would be in her best interest. Unless he’d misunderstood her, the widow was far more than just a pretty face who had been easily deceived by her husband.

Selling the business could take a little longer than he estimated, but he would be getting rid of Cuvier Shipping whether the lovely widow wanted to sell or not.