When Strangers Marry
Click here for ordering information.
Philippe and Justin Vallerand wandered through the woods and down to the bayou, finding their way around mud holes, pines, and sycamore trees. The boys were tall for their age, lanky and thin, not yet having attained their father's heavily muscled build.
Their features were stamped with the inborn arrogance of all the Vallerands. Heavy black hair fell over their foreheads in untidy waves, and their blue eyes were framed with long dark lashes. Strangers were never able to tell them apart, but inwardly they were as different as it was possible for two boys to be. Philippe was gentle, compassionate, someone who followed rules even when he didn't fully understand the reasoning behind them. Justin, on the other hand, was ruthless, resentful of authority and proud of it.
"What are we going to do?" Philippe asked. "Should we take the pirogue and look for pirates downriver?"
Justin gave a scornful laugh. "You can do as you like. I Plan to visit Madeleine today."
Madeleine Scipion was the pretty black-haired daughter of a town merchant. Lately she had displayed more than a casual interest in Justin, although she was aware that Philippe was smitten with her. The girl seemed to delight in pitting one brother against the other.
Philippe's sensitive face revealed his envy. "Are you in love with her?"
Justin grinned and spat. "Love? Who cares about that? Did I tell you what Madeleine let me do to her the last time I saw her?"
"What?" Philippe demanded with rising jealousy.
Their eyes locked. Suddenly Justin cuffed him on the side of the head and laughed, fleeing through the trees as Philippe gave chase. "I'll make you tell me!" Philippe scooped up a glob of mud and threw it at Justin's back. "I'll make you -- "
They both stopped short as they saw a movement near the pirogue. A small boy dressed in ragged clothes and a floppy hat was fumbling with the craft. The tethering rope dropped from his hands as he realized he had been found out. Quickly he picked up a knotted bundle of cloth and fled.
"He's trying to steal it!" Justin said, and the twins ran after the vanishing thief with warlike yells, their quarrel with each other discarded.
"Head him off!" Justin ordered. Philippe swerved to the left, disappearing behind a cluster of cypress trees that trailed their moss down to the soft, muddy brown water. Within minutes he succeeded in cutting the boy off, coming face-to-face with him just beyond the cypress grove.
Seeing the boy's violent trembling, Philippe grinned triumphantly, drawing a forearm across his sweaty brow. "You'll be sorry you ever thought of touching our pirogue," he panted, advancing on his prey.
Breathing heavily, the thief turned in the opposite direction and ran into Justin, who caught him with one arm and held him dangling sideways. The boy dropped his bundle and gave a high-pitched scream, which caused the twins to laugh.
Philippe!" Justin cried, fending off the boy's feeble blows. "Look what I've caught! A little lutin with no respect for others' property! What should we do with him?"
Philippe regarded the hapless thief with the censuring stare of a judge. "You!" he barked, swaggering before the wriggling imp. "What's your name?"
"Let go of me! I've done nothing!"
"Only because we interrupted you," Justin said.
Philippe whistled as he saw the red welts and bleeding scratches that covered the boy's thin arms and neck. "You've been a feast for the mosquitoes, haven't you? How long have you been in the swamp?"
The flailing child managed to kick Justin in the knee.
"Ah, that hurt! -- Justin shook the black hair out of his eyes and glared at the boy. "Now I've lost my patience!"
"Let me go, you mongrel!"
Annoyed, Justin raised his hand to box his captive's ears. "I'll teach You manners, boy."
"Justin, wait," Philippe interrupted. It was impossible not to feel sympathy for the child caught so helplessly in his brother's grasp. "He's too small. Don't be a bully."
"How soft you are," Justin mocked, but his arm lowered. "How do you suggest we make him talk? Dunk him in the bayou?
"Maybe we shouldn't ... Philippe began, but his brother was already heading to the edge of the water, dragging the screaming child behind him.
"Are you aware there are snakes in here?" Justin said, swinging the boy up, preparing to throw him in. "Poisonous ones."
"And alligators, too, all waiting to snap up a little bite like ... " His voice trailed off into silence as theboy's floppy hat dropped into the bayou and drifted gently away. A long, frizzled red braid swung over the child's shoulder, her delicate features no longer concealed by the hat.
Their thief was a girl, a girl their age or perhaps a bit older. She threw her Slim arms around Justin's neck, clinging as if he held her over a pit of fire.
"Don't throw me in. le vous en prie. I can't swim."
Justin shifted her in his arms, staring down at the small, dirty face so close to his. She looked like an ordinary girl, pretty but not remarkably so, although it was difficult to tell beneath the mud and mosquito bites. "Well," Justin said slowly, "it seems we were mistaken, Philippe." He shook the protesting girl to quiet her. "Hush. I'm not going to throw you in. I think I can find a better use for you."
"Justin, give her to me," Philippe said.
Justin smiled darkly and turned away from his brother. "Go amuse yourself somewhere else. She's mine."
"She is just as much mine as yours!"
"I'm the one who caught her," Justin said matter-of-factly.
"With my help!" Philippe cried in outrage. "Besides, you have Madeleine!"
"You take Madeleine. I want this one."
Philippe scowled. "Let her choose!"
They stared at each other in challenge, and suddenly Justin chuckled. "So be it," he said, his fierceness mellowing to lazy good humor. He jostled the girl in his arms. "Well, which one of us do you want?"