It’s been one of those weeks. Oh, I know it’s only Wednesday as I write this, but sometimes weeks can run from one major happening to another instead of by the calendar. Summer is still too much like Spring most days, although this week is supposed to give hot temps and humidity a shot at some resemblance to the Dog Days of Summer I remember from my childhood. Shorts, halter tops and flip flops…we called them thongs in my neck of the woods far before that word became part of the world of lingerie…’cannonballs’ into the local pool and trips to DQ or Prince Castle for their (now extinct) triple square dipped sherbet cones. By August we were already laying in school supplies and putting winter coats on layaway at the local department store. No worries about anything other than the number of lightning bugs we could catch in the evening.
The strangeness of the weather seems to carry over to emotions as well. We’ve been doing multiple events at my job, events geared toward not only driving some business but to give kids some new things to think about and old things to enjoy. We’ve done Pop Culture. Trivia contests, giveaways, drawings, dressed as our favorite characters from cartoons and movies, all without excitement from most of the people we’re trying to reach. The kids are excited of course, at least for the Marvel Comics characters and the day the Imperial Guard came to wander the store along with Darth Vader, but the adults? Meh. Our biggest event was Frozen Day. We had our own Anna and Elsa, take your picture with Olaf, TWO sing-along story times….who knew kids could belt out lyrics like professional singers? They loved it. The parents? “How come Olaf isn’t here? We expected the snowman.” At least they didn’t ‘expect’ the reindeer Sven…although we might have been able to find one in a neighboring city. And James Patterson Day? A cardboard standee was the best we could do. We did give away a gift card or two. And it should have been raining. Everyone was at the pool. Or on the golf course. Who can blame them? Oh…and we had our normal tasks to do as well. Internally we were exhausted. Externally? Well sometimes we were the most cheerful of the lot. It happens. No one wants summer to end, especially if it’s not really come to stay, just dropped in for a visit or two. Even then, wet sloppy tears of rain (and sometimes hail) signal its departure. And that rain comes in buckets. Floods the streets and underpasses, makes rivers rise and overflow their banks, and soaks every living thing fortunate or unfortunate to be outdoors. We don’t need a rain gauge…the depth of water on our street lets us know what we need to…that moisture came too fast and too furious. The ducks from the nearby lake have been known to swim in the pond. There’s more in the forecast…of course there is.
Maybe I should take a page from Elsa and “Let It Go”. Have faith that the creek behind our house won’t rise enough to kiss the edge of my back yard. Enjoy the fact I’m not always feeling the sweat or needing cold water to quench my thirst. Even better, think back to last winter when the snow fell fast and furious and covered everything for days on end. It was cold. Best yet, take each day and make it the best I can. Cross things off my to-do list and make time for my bucket list. Look for the good and do something to lessen the bad. And consider Summer a state of mind, not a season.
Mae is somewhere warm as well…sometimes warmer then here but never as cold. But things are heating up as she does double duty and tries to prevent a flood of bad fortune with only a few sandbags….
Sylvain’s description had not been based on simple brotherly pride. Celine Lionel Rodrigue was raven haired, dark eyed and ethereal in her looks. A perfect picture of Creole beauty. If it hadn’t been for the slight stumble in her step and the shadows under her eyes. No amount of make-up can truly hide those. I noticed that Cameron kept one hand over hers as it rested on his forearm, careful to match his steps to hers. Whether for appearances sake or out of true concern, the gesture was encouraging to me. That and the look in his eyes as he spoke to her. Benard had been right. Bad guys can love just as hard as good ones. It did compound the problem of her rescue though. I needed more information about Cameron’s involvement in all this. Benard and I had to find a way to talk, and soon.
“Miss Mae, please attend to the crudités on that side table.” Marie-Therese had as usual made no noise. The woman was like a ghost. “And Benard has asked me to send you for more ice. Ma don’t dawdle.”
“Of course, Madame.” All I needed was a moment to set up a meeting. I hurried back to the kitchen, removed a fresh tray of assorted vegetables and dipping sauces from the refrigerator and smiled at Lisa. “I’ll be back to help you serve in a few minutes, lass. I have to get more ice for the bar.” She nodded at me, her attention on the stove-top grill, heating for the filets.
“About time,” Benard growled as he grabbed the bag of crushed ice from me. “I could have done it faster myself.”
“And you didn’t, did you.” I affected a glare at him just in case the Madame was still around. “Just needed another chance to plague me.”
“All clear,” came the whisper. “I’ve been thinking…”
“Me too. And I need more information on Mr. Cameron before I make another move. Can we meet someplace after you’re done here?”
“Not your place. I played that card already.”
“Our Lady. On Rampart. I know the shelter is locked, but maybe we can find a place in the gardens. By the St. Jude shrine. Say midnight?”
“Tempting fate? Magic walks at night, Miss Mae. And so say some, does Marie Laveau.”
“As long as she doesn’t walk into the gardens, I’m fine. I need you to…”
“I’ll need more ice after dinner. Make sure you bring that and more lime juice.”
“As you wish, sir.” I turned away and found myself face to face with Cameron Rodrigue. “Sorry sir,” I mumbled as I did my best courtesy. He ignored my apology and spoke directly to Benard.
“Might I trouble you for some cool water and lime for Celine?” Then he looked at me. “And perhaps you might take it to her in the parlor. Please tell her I will be just a moment while I discuss a matter with Benard.”
“I will be glad to Mister Cameron,” I said as Benard prepared the drink. “May I take her something to eat as well?”
“No, merci. She is not hungry so she tells me. Her appetite…” he shook his head. “The drink will be fine.”
I took the tall glass filled with lime slices and water, a bit of ice at the bottom, and walked toward the parlor. At least I could get close enough to see whether Celine was ill or perhaps sedated.
“Miss Mae! Where are you going with that glass? You are not to take a rest until…”
“Ah, Madame Marie,” I smiled. “Mister Cameron instructed me to take this refreshment to his wife.” I nodded toward the parlor. “With your permission, of course.”
“Oh. Of course. But then you must hurry to help Lisa. We will be dining in ten minutes and it is important to serve our guests promptly.” She haughtily waved me on my way. Someone needed to tie a bell on her.
No one took notice of me as I entered the parlor, so I reached Celine without a problem.
“Your drink, madame,” I said as I placed it on the table next to where she sat. “My name is Mae should you need anything. Anything at all.”
“Ah, merci.” Her voice was a whisper. “But I only need my husband to return.” She fingered the locket around her neck. “He will…” she sighed. “Would you find him please? I think I …”
“Celine?” Damn these carpets. People snuck up on me and I didn’t like it. “Are you feeling worse? I was hoping we could have dinner together.” Cameron sounded genuinely worried. It occurred to me he might not know what was happening to his wife.
“Cam, I think I’d feel better lying down upstairs. I thought I would be all right but the lights and the conversation are making my head ache. Will you take me? To our room?”
“May I help you, Mister Cameron?” Best to put myself in the mix before the Madame could, I thought. “It might be easier if two of us…”
“No, I can manage. But would you ask Marie-Therese to bring up some of Lisa’s special broth and perhaps some unbuttered toast?” I watched as he offered both hands to his wife and helped her off the settee. “And tell Benard to inform my brother I will join the others as soon as I settle my wife in our room?” I nodded and hurried off to find my most recent partner in crime, this time with a valid reason for conversation.
“I don’t need ice, Mae,” Benard said as he saw me approach, looking over my shoulder to see who might be watching.
“No worries, Benard. I don’t have any. But I do have a message for you from Mister Cameron. Please tell his brother that Celine is feeling poorly and he will be in to dinner once he has her settled.” I saw by Benard’s face that he was as concerned as I was. “I have to get Marie-Therese to bring up some broth and toast.”
“She won’t like that one bit,” Benard muttered, keeping his voice low. “She is to dine at table with the guests tonight. This doesn’t happen often. But it might work to our benefit.”
“How?” And then I saw his point. I could offer to take Lisa’s dishes upstairs and possibly talk with Celine. “You know, that’s not bad on the spur of the moment.”
“I have my good days. Now get yourself to Marie-Therese and keep me posted. I’ll let the Mister know.”
As things turned out, I managed half of that errand. Marie-Therese was more than happy to let me play delivery person but insisted that she oversee the tray that was to go up. I tended the grill for the short time it took Lisa to heat the broth and brown the bread, so I almost missed what gave the game away. The Madame made some adjustments to the linen on the breakfast tray used to convey meals to those wanting to eat in their rooms. As she passed over the deep bowl of clear soup, I thought I saw something leave her hand and disappear into the hot liquid. Of course by the time the tray was given to me, all I could see was the bottom of the bowl through the broth. I would need to be the one to take the tray away if I wanted to get that bowl before it was washed. Or….
“Madame Marie, may I have a plain mug to take up as well?”
“Might I ask why?” The Madame raised her eyebrow at me. “We are only sending broth, not coffee or tea.”
“I was thinking perhaps Missus Cameron might find the warmth of the cup comforting in her hands, and I could keep the bowl covered so the broth does not cool as quickly.” We had done this at home when I was a child. No microwaves to re-warm liquids or food.
“One of your old customs, I assume?” Bright woman. What I wanted was a sample of the innocent looking soup. I could always pretend to have broken the mug. A few dollars out of my pocket to see if there were drugs about was a small price to pay.
“Oh, all right. Lisa?”
Lisa handed me a plain mug and smiled before she turned the filets with a practiced hand. “I will save you some of the pudding, Miss Mae. In case Missus Cameron would care for it.”
Negotiating the stairs to the second floor was no problem, although the tray was heavier than I wanted. I knew which was Cameron and Celine’s ‘official’ bedroom, so that is where I went. I was half expecting an empty bed, given that there was no sign of Celine ever actually occupying this room with her husband, but she was installed on the left side of the king sized bed, already tucked in and propped up with several pillows. Cameron sat next to her, his hand resting on her cheek.
“Excuse me sir, but I’ve brought the tray. Madame Marie is otherwise engaged.” I walked to the bed and placed the tray near Celine. “Will you be staying, sir?”
“Cameron? Will you stay? I don’t see you often since you’re so busy.” Celine put her hand over his.
“Oh cher, I would but this is an important dinner and you know my brother wants me there. I promise to come back as soon as I can. Once this deal is settled, you and I can return to Baton Rouge and our cottage. But tonight…”
“I understand, Cam. But there are times….”
“Mister Cameron, I am happy to stay with your wife if she wants company. I promise to find you if there’s a problem, but perhaps just having someone in the room while she has the broth will ease her worries.” And give me a chance to let her know Sylvain had sent me to help her if she needed it. And I wanted to find out what was in the broth.
“Celine? Would you like company?”
“I would prefer yours, but…” she smiled in my direction. “ Of course.”
“My name is Mae, Missus.” I settled the tray over her knees and used the ladle I’d brought from the kitchen to spoon some of the broth into the mug. “If you like, this will warm your hands while you sip it.”
“Yes. Mae, I’ll let Marie-Therese know you’ll be taking care of my wife. Please let Benard know when she is finished so I can come and say good night” Cameron kissed his wife on the forehead and left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.
“You come from Baton Rouge?” That was as good an opening as any, I figured. Just curious enough.
“Just in the last year, Mae. What family I had was in Belle Chasse. There is no one now but me, so I wanted to go away. I chose Baton Rouge. That is where I met Mr. Cameron.”
“No family? How sad for you. How sad for your brother too, since he is alive and well and in New Orleans.” I was rewarded for my candor by a sharp intake of breath followed by a coughing spell. I quickly took the mug from her hands and made her sip from the glass of lime and water she’d carried upstairs with her. She peered at me from over the lip of the glass as she managed to swallow some of the liquid, her eyes wary. “No fear, Celine. I am here at his request.” My charge visibly relaxed but said nothing. “More broth, ma’am?”
“No. I mean perhaps in a moment. Marie-Therese would be displeased if I sent the bowl back with any left. She is most insistent. But,” she set the water glass down and met my eyes with a curiosity I had not expected given her condition. “Tell me how you know about Antoine?” Smart girl despite everything.
“Sylvain, you mean,” I corrected her. “Antoine has a restaurant in the Quarter.” I smiled. And so did she. Sylvain was right. She had a radiance that came from inside. “He and I are friends. When he couldn’t find you in the Market after you called him, he was worried. He also knows you claim to be an orphan.” It was time for honesty. “And he fears for your safety with these…people. More so after you disappeared and never called him again. So, he asked me to make sure of your safety. Rescue you if I had to. No one really notices a servant so this was how I chose to act on his request.”
“I was frightened when I called that day, Mae. Then Cameron found me and everything seemed better. I should have called him back but there was no time really. And I have not been well. Cam and I hoped it was because I was pregnant but the family’s doctors say no. They don’t seem to know why I am…”
“So tired? With no appetite?”
“Yes.” Celine looked at me, suspicion in her eyes again. “I have had tests and the results…”
“According to the ‘family’ doctors,” I said. This was getting more complicated by the minute, and my Scots sense told me Celine was in more danger than she knew.
“Mae? What does my brother think is going on? Cameron would never lie to me. He loves me. I know that. I did not even meet his family until just before the wedding, and I…”
“I don’t want you to doubt your husband,” I assured her. I had seen his concern for her myself. It was the rest of the family I worried about. “But I would like you to trust me, at least for tonight.” I indicated the covered bowl of broth that sat front and center on the tray. “I think someone here wants you out of the way, and the broth is a way of doing that. I saw Madame Marie drop something into the liquid before I brought it up.”
“Please,” I lifted the cover off the bowl and poured in the contents of the mug. Then I pocketed the mug, empty except for a few drops at the bottom. Celine watched me in horror.
“What are you doing?”
“There’s enough in the mug to test for a sedative or other drug, lass. Now I’m going to empty the rest of the broth down the sink in your bathroom.” Celine started to protest again but I held up one hand. “If I’m wrong, nothing is lost. If I’m right…”
“If Sylvain truly did send you, this is something he would do as well,” Celine admitted. “He is overprotective but I think you are too.” She smiled at me. “Do what you need to do. I will try and eat some toast and then wait for Cameron. It will be nice to be awake for once when he comes up. He is away so often I do not like to stay here by myself. Marie-Therese suggested a small room upstairs near the back so I would not be disturbed and…” Her eyes widened. “I am to call her when I wake and she brings me a tray. Oh, Mae…are you right?” Panic settled on her face. “How can I…?”
It was time for me to be the caring sister I always was with Drum. Speak plain and calm and handle the demons. This time for Celine. Until I could get her…and probably Cameron as well…out of this mansion.
“Keep calm, lass. Until I know for sure whether the soup is tainted or not, it does no good to let yourself flutter like a moth against the windows. Sylvain only had a strong sense that something might be wrong, not a certainty.” A lie of course since Benard/Tenny had told us his side of the tale, but she didn’t need to know that…or that Benard was here to take the family down. “I will see him after I leave tonight and he can take the mug to test.” And now the hard part. “If there is evidence of drugs, he will want me to get you out of here. Before something worse happens. We would need to move quickly.”
Celine drew herself up in the bed, her eyes flashing. “Not without Cameron.” I feared that. So I lied again.
“Cameron too.” If he loves you enough. “One more thing,” I cautioned. “Without the drug in your system, you might feel sick for a little while…if you do, just remember it’s temporary. I’ll see if I can convince Madame to let me tend to you. Make sure that broth is healthy.” I gave her a smile. “Maybe some of Lisa’s pudding as well.”
“I will tell Cameron how well you tended me,” Celine said. “He will insist on it being you, no matter what Marie-Therese says.” She spoke with all the confidence of a woman in love. I hoped she was right. I took the broth and poured it down the drain in the sink, leaving just enough to convince Madame that Celine had tried her best to empty the bowl. I washed my hands and rinsed the porcelain sides to take care of any trace of broth before I went back to Celine.
“I’d better get meself down those stairs,” I said with a bit of Scots brogue. “The Madame will be looking for me to clear the table and Benard will need more ice.” I picked up the tray and gave her an encouraging smile. “I’ll tell Mister Cameron you’re waiting for him.”
Madame Marie was indeed looking for me, none too happy with me staying upstairs so long. It was at Mister Cameron’s request, I told her, knowing she would double check with him, and did she know where he was so I could tell him Missus Cameron wanted to see him before she fell asleep. She bustled off at that, leaving me to find Benard and check on the ice.
“Where did you get yourself to?” Some greeting.
“Tending to Missus Cameron,” I told him. His jaw dropped just enough to let me know he hadn’t expected that. “She knows about me.”
“Our Lady. At midnight.” He looked behind me. “Just one more bag for the evening, Miss Mae. If you can manage. May I be of service, Mister Cameron?” Celine’s husband headed toward us, his eyes questioning my presence.
“Just bringing more ice, sir. Did Madame Marie find you?”
“I haven’t seen her, Miss Mae. I wanted to thank you for offering to stay with Celine. Did she manage to eat something? I’m worried about her. Lately… In any case. Thank you for taking the time. My brother would never have understood.”
“I was glad to help, sir. She seemed to rally a bit and asked me to let you know she wanted to see you before she fell asleep. That was why the Madame was looking for you. If you’ll excuse me, I need to help Lisa with the clean-up.” I curtsied again and hurried out. The cup was burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted to get it to Sylvain as soon as I could. Before I met Benard at the church.
Clean-up was easy given the number of guests and dishes, but Lisa was smart enough to have soaked the dishes as they came back so we only had to load the heavy-duty dishwasher and cart the linens into the laundry area. On the way I managed to transfer the mug to my purse. Good thing since Madame Marie made me hand over the apron and change back into my regular clothes. So far, so good. Not for long though. The good always seems to show bad the way.