The Ducote Sisters from the best-selling "Southern Ladies" series by Miranda James
“I declare,” Miss An’gel Ducote said, “this dog is smarter than a lot of people I know. And he’s not even a year old yet.” She gave Peanut the labradoodle a fond pat on his head. Peanut responded with a happy bark. His tail thumped against the plush carpet by An’gel’s chair.
“Yes, he sees you do something one time, and he doesn’t forget it.” Miss Dickce Ducote, at eighty the younger sister by four years, beamed at the wriggling dog. “Benjy, you’ve done wonders with this dog’s training the past two months.”
Benjy Stephens smiled. “He’s not hard to train. Like Miss An’gel says, he’s really smart.”
Endora, an Abyssinian cat with a ruddy coat, surveyed the dog’s antics from her vantage point atop the back of Dickce’s chair. Her tail flicked in a languorous motion every few seconds close to Dickce’s right ear.
Benjy laughed and pointed at the cat. “Endora doesn’t look all that impressed.”
Peanut barked and picked up An’gel’s empty suitcase by its handle and carried it to the closet. He placed it inside, then with his right front paw swung shut the closet door. He turned to face his audience, and An’gel told him what a clever boy he was.
“Come sit, Peanut.” An’gel motioned for the labradoodle to approach her chair, and the dog obeyed instantly. An’gel turned to Benjy. “How is your room? Is it comfortable?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Benjy nodded. “These guest cottages are pretty awesome.”
“Cousin Mireille had them redone a couple of years ago, she said.” Dickce glanced around the living room of the two-bedroom cottage she was sharing with An’gel. While the furniture here was reproduction, it was in the style of the antiques in the main house. “I gather her bed-and-breakfast business does well.”
“St. Ignatiusville is a pretty town, I grant you.” An’gel shook her head. “But I fail to understand why it’s such a popular tourist destination.”
“There’s a lot of history here in Louisiana,” Benjy said. “I was reading the brochure in my room. Just like with Riverhill, I guess.”
Riverhill, the Ducote family home, was built in the early 1830s in Athena, Mississippi. Willowbank, ancestral home to the sisters’ cousin Mireille Champlain, dated to the late eighteenth century.
“I suppose so,” Dickce said. “Willowbank is larger, of course, with its third story and the galleries around the upper floors. There’s a smaller version in the Vieux Carré in New Orleans, but Mireille sold it years ago.”
An’gel checked her watch. “Now that we’ve unpacked, I suppose we should go over to the main house and check in with Mireille. No doubt there are things we can help her with.”
“Three days before her granddaughter’s wedding?” Dickce laughed. “I’m sure she can find something for us to do.” She cut a sideways glance at Benjy. “Sure you won’t change your mind and come with us? I bet Sondra will put on a show.”
Benjy grinned. “If she’s as spoiled as you say, I bet she will. Right now, though, I think it would be better if I stayed here with Peanut and Endora. There’s no telling what they might get up to. Peanut gets so excited when there’s new people to meet.”
“True,” An’gel said, “and Mireille’s front parlor is full of Meissen and Limoges – or at least it used to be.” She rose. “Good plan, Benjy. Come along, Sister.”
Peanut whined when the door opened, but at a command from Benjy he quieted and stayed where he was. Endora examined her front right paw and yawned.
The door closed behind them, An’gel and Dickce followed the path around an ornamental pond that separated the bed-and-breakfast cottages from Willowbank itself, about two hundred yards away. A mix of willows and live oaks bordered half the pond to the east, and over to the south, a grand procession of live oaks marked the circular drive that led up to the front door of the plantation house.
The sisters trod carefully around the pond, not eager to encounter anything reptilian, particularly snakes. The October afternoon was warm, but pleasant breezes kept the atmosphere temperate. The many trees cast a lot of shade, and An’gel paused in front of one bordering the drive for a moment and gazed at the house.
Willowbank was a magnificent structure in the Greek Revival style, larger than most of its period. Generations of the Champlain clan had lavished considerable money on its upkeep, and it survived as a reminder of the graciousness of certain aspects of the Southern planter class’s lifestyle. Mireille, a Champlain by birth, had married a third cousin who was also a Champlain. She was the last of the name to own the house.
“It’s spectacular,” An’gel murmured, “but I still prefer Riverhill.”
“Of course you do,” Dickce answered tartly. “So do I, because Riverhill is in our DNA. Just the way Willowbank and all it stands for is in Mireille’s. Lordy, you do get maudlin sometimes.”
An’gel graced her sister with a withering glance.
Unwithered, Dickce marched forward. “Come on, Mireille’s expecting us.” She stepped from the grass onto the gravel that formed the surface of the drive and headed toward the steps up to the veranda.
An’gel followed her, eager to see Mireille and find out about the wedding. She also looked forward to seeing Jacqueline, her god-daughter and mother of the bride. They kept in touch somewhat infrequently through email, but they hadn’t seen each other face-to-face in over five years.
A thin black man, wizened by age, opened the door to An’gel’s knock. “Good afternoon, Jackson. It’s wonderful to see you again.” She held out her hand.
Jackson, dressed in black tie and tails, smiled broadly as he clasped the proffered hand in both his own. “Miss An’gel, it sure has been way too long. And Miss Dickce too. Y’all are a happy sight for these old eyes. Welcome back to Willowbank.” He waved them inside.
An’gel knew Jackson was well over eighty, but he seemed fit enough despite his age. She also knew he was devoted to Mireille, and Mireille relied heavily on him. They had grown up together at Willowbank, where Jackson started as a stable boy when he was only seven. An’gel figured the house would have to fall in before Jackson would even think about retiring.
“Miss Mireille sure has been looking forward to seeing you,” the butler said over his shoulder as he ambled toward the front parlor. “She’s done near run ragged with all these wedding goings-on, and you know how Miss Sondra does like to fuss.”
An’gel and Dickce exchanged glances. They were not surprised the bride-to-be was up to her usual antics.
Jackson paused about three feet from the parlor door, and An’gel could hear a raised voice coming from inside the room. The butler cocked his head to one side. He shook his head and frowned. “Miss Sondra cuts up something terrible, and Miss Mireille, well, she don’t have the heart to say nothing. Nor Miss Jacqueline either.”
“I know how to handle Miss Sondra,” An’gel said.
Jackson’s lips split in a grin. “I reckon you do, Miss An’gel.” He stepped forward and opened the double parlor doors.
An’gel and Dickce followed him inside, and both winced immediately as the bride-to-be’s voice assaulted their ears.
“I won’t, I won’t, I won’t, Grand-mère, no matter what you say. I’m not wearing that hideous old-fashioned dress down the aisle. Lance would take one look at me and run away screaming. I won’t, no matter what, I won’t, I won’t.”
The pitch of the young woman’s voice seemed to rise on almost every syllable, until the final words came out at such a high pitch An’gel had to wonder how long it would take all the dogs in the vicinity to come running.
Sondra Delevan, in calmer circumstances, made men stop in their tracks and women want to push her off the nearest tall building. An’gel had rarely seen such perfect blonde beauty. Sondra’s lustrous hair, thick and almost to the waist, had the color of spun golden silk. Her lips were full and red, and her eyes a deep blue. Her face appeared perfectly sculpted.
At the moment, however, she resembled a middle-aged harpy in full flight instead of a young woman who would soon turn twenty-one. Her face was a blotchy red, and her eyes were wild. Her chest heaved from the force of her tantrum.
Her grandmother Mireille sat quietly on a sofa near the fireplace. “My grandmother and my mother wore that dress on their wedding days. I wore it, and so did your mother. I simply thought tradition might mean something to you.” She sighed heavily. “You might have mentioned this earlier since we’ve had the dress altered to fit you. Three days before your wedding is hardly the time to go looking for a suitable dress. Surely you understand how difficult that’s going to be.”
An’gel needed only one swift glance at her cousin to detect the strained expression, the weary set of her shoulders, and a general air of exhaustion. Though Mireille was eight years younger than An’gel, at the moment she appeared a decade older.
“I’m not going to wear dead women’s clothes on my wedding day, no matter what you say. I don’t care what I said before. I’ve changed my mind.” Sondra stamped her foot hard on the ancient Aubusson carpet. “Makes my skin crawl just to think about it. I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.” She kept repeating those two words over and over.
An’gel had had enough. Mireille might put up with this ridiculous behavior, but she wasn’t going to.
She spotted a vase filled with cut flowers on a table near her. She moved over, pulled out the flowers and placed them on the table. A check inside the vase assured her there was enough water for her purpose. She took a couple of steps closer to the still-ranting Sondra and dumped the water over the girl’s head.