When Reuben Tarz meets Marchioness Michelene Fonsard, known as Madame Mickey, he is a wounded American soldier desperate to escape the hell of the French trenches. Madame Mickey offers another option--for Reuben and his best friend, Daniel Bishop, to live at her lavish chateau, where she will help them heal in body and soul.
Madame Mickey's sophistication captivates the ambitious Reuben, and their affair is as tender as it is sensual. Then Mickey's young niece, Bebe Rosen, arrives from California, scattering chaos in her wake. Bebe is instantly smitten with Reuben--and what Bebe wants, she gets. But every wish has consequences, and every sin has its price. And amid a tangle of seduction and betrayal, each will find a love powerful enough to change a life--or to destroy it. . .
"Well-drawn characters. . .beautifully executed."--Affaire de Coeur
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About the Author
Hometown:Summerville, South Carolina
Place of Birth:Hastings, Pennsylvania
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Sins of Omission
By FERN MICHAELS
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 1989 Fern Michaels, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSoissons, France October 1918
Sleet pelted the tall windows of the hospital at Soissons, which sat upon a gentle rise of countryside about fifty kilometers from Paris. Reuben Tarz attempted to disguise his limp as he passed between the neat rows of cots, his watery gaze searching out number twenty-seven, his friend, Daniel. Reuben's heart gave a sickening lurch when he saw a strange man in Daniel's assigned bunk. Disoriented and fearful, he spun around, hardly recognizing the savagery of the sound that erupted from his throat. "Daniel."
"Can't get enough of this place, eh?" Daniel's even, steady voice came from somewhere behind him.
Reuben whirled at the familiar sound, forcing his eyes to focus on the row of hospital beds beneath the gallery windows. "How did you know it was me?" he asked curiously. "Why did they move you over here?" He tried to keep the anxiousness out of his voice.
Daniel made a sound deep in his throat, almost as though he were laughing. "Because they're supposed to take the bandages off my eyes tomorrow. The cast comes off my shoulder, too. I knew it was you because I heard you make the same sound when we were gassed. What are you doing here, Reuben? I figured once they'd patched up that leg of yours, you'd be long gone, back to the front, or to the States. I never expected to see you again."
"You aren't exactly seeing me," Reuben said wryly. "And why in hell would you think you'd never see me again? Do you think I saved your blasted life so I could take a powder? We're friends, we've been to hell and back. That means something, doesn't it? Besides, you're just a dumb kid and someone has to look out for you. I have a plan." Reuben dropped to his knees to whisper. "Or should I say Marchioness Michelene Fonsard has a plan?" He waited to see if Daniel's excitement would rise to the level of his own.
"Madame Mickey? The lady who brought me flowers from her own greenhouse?"
"The same. She's come up with a way for both of us to go to her château for some R and R. What that means is that we're out of this fucking war. We're going to get fresh eggs, good red meat, and lots of strong red wine. What d'you think?"
Daniel didn't answer for a long time, and when he did, Reuben had to bend over to hear him. "What if I'm blind, Reuben? We both came to Soissons at the same time, and you were as blind as me from the gas. You've been out for two weeks, but I'm still ... here. And what is it we have to give to get all this good country living?"
"You, my friend, don't have to give anything. I'll be doing the giving, or the taking, however the case may be." Reuben's grin broadened at Daniel's expression of awe.
"You mean ... she wants ... you'll do that? Jesus! One of the nurses told me about Madame Mickey. They say she's old, around forty. That's twice as old as you!" Daniel flushed a brilliant scarlet, which only added to Reuben's amusement.
Reuben changed positions to ease his injured leg. "I look at it this way. Madame Mickey has everything any other woman has, plus a heart as big as all outdoors. If she wants to be our benefactor, why not? We certainly have nothing to lose. You don't want to go back to the front, do you? I sure as hell don't. This war can't go on forever, and I intend to outlast it. I want the same for you. Madame Mickey has some influential friends in the War Office. Did you know that Captain Eddie Rickenbacker stayed at her house in Paris when he had leave?" Reuben watched Daniel's face at the mention of Rickenbacker, hoping the name would lend credibility to Madame Mickey's reputation. "And," he added for emphasis, "guess who's a personal friend of hers, one so famous he autographed a picture of himself for her, taken while he was in full uniform? 'My love for you endures,' it says. Signed J. J. 'Blackjack' Pershing himself!"
"That's all very fine, Reuben ... for you. But where do I fit in?"
"You'll be right beside me. Daniel, you have to learn how to be gracious when someone offers you something. Always accept. I'm accepting this for both of us. We'll mend, get our health back, have a little fun, and then head back to the States. I told you I'd take care of you, and I will. I made a promise to you and to myself. You're going to be 'the finest lawyer in the country,' to use your own words, and I'm going to be ... I don't know yet, but I do know I'll be wearing silk jackets, walking on thick carpets, serving the best caviar with chilled champagne. I'm going to have a mansion with a whole battalion of servants and money to burn. And if I get in trouble along the way, you'll be the hotshot lawyer who'll get me out of it. We made a deal, Daniel."
"What if I can't see when they take the bandages off? Then what? What if I'm blind? B-l-i-n-d! How will I go to law school then? Are you going to lead me around on a string?"
"Damn you, Daniel, shut up," Reuben growled. "You aren't going to be blind. I'm not. I couldn't see very well for a few days, but my eyesight is almost restored. I still have to have the treatments, so will you. And just for the record, yes, I would lead you around on a string. I'd find a way for you to get to law school if I had to go with you. You got that?"
The eighteen-year-old soldier sighed. There wasn't a whole lot left to believe in, but he did believe in Reuben. Reuben was the brother he never had, the uncle he'd always wished for, the father he would have died for. Reuben was his friend. Reuben had saved his life and was willing to believe in his dream of finishing his education and becoming a good lawyer. Reuben believed in him. And if it took the rest of his miserable life, he would repay the debt.
Reuben's gray eyes sparkled mischievously. "Madame Mickey tells me her cousin's daughter by marriage is expected shortly after Thanksgiving. Her name is Bebe and her father is a famous moviemaker in California. You'll have a pretty girl to pal around with. We'll never have to smell carbolic and dead sweat again. We'll be civilized, Daniel. Do you know what that means? This ... this hell we've lived through ... we've earned this!"
Daniel was silent, but his head dipped ever so slightly in agreement. Reuben always managed to make sense out of chaos. "I think I'll be out of here in another couple of days. I'm with you, pal. Tell Madame Mickey I'd be honored to accept her invitation. Did I tell you she brought me flowers from her greenhouse again yesterday?"
Reuben guffawed. "She calls it her hothouse. I can tell you-"
"Never mind," Daniel said hastily.
Reuben didn't know why he felt the need to stake out the boundaries of his commitment to Daniel. To take care of Daniel, to watch over him, somehow enabled him to make sense of his own life. Daniel was good, he was honest, and he was honorable, and if Reuben had anything to do with it, he would stay that way. He reached down to tousle Daniel's pale blond hair.
"When you're discharged, Madame Mickey will pick us up in her motorcar. She's promised to teach me to drive."
"How old is this Bebe?" Daniel asked. It grated on him at times that he'd never had a girlfriend, while he knew that Reuben had had scores and had been intimate with all of them. After all, Reuben was a virile man. Bebe was probably ten years old. Reuben still thought of Daniel as a boy. Christ, he'd gone through the war the same as Reuben had; that should qualify him as a man. He waited, holding his breath, for Reuben's reply. Think of me as a man, he pleaded silently, so I can think of myself the same way.
"Fifteen going on sixteen. Same way you're seventeen going on eighteen. I understand she's a beauty. If you can't think of anything else to do, you can talk her to death."
Daniel flushed again and changed the subject. "Does this country estate have a library?"
"Don't they all?" Reuben answered blithely. "I haven't been to the château yet, but Madame Mickey's told me a lot about it. When she'd make her rounds at the hospital we talked, sometimes for hours. The château has everything. We're going there to live again." Reuben's heavy voice conveyed the somberness of his memories. "The trenches are something we'll never have to see again. Shrapnel-seeded meadows, the jagged rubble heap of La Boiselle, the frostbite, the chilblains, jaundice-it's all behind us. No more cold nights with just each other for warmth. We won't have to carry a rifle and we won't ever have to kill anyone again. We can bury our savagery here, outside the doors of this hospital, the day you're discharged. We'll be Daniel and Reuben again, starting fresh."
Daniel felt Reuben's embarrassment at his outburst. He couldn't remember Reuben ever showing so much emotion, even when they were first getting to know each other those many months before in boot camp, when he talked of being a boy from Brooklyn, shunted around from one family member to another until he struck out on his own and never looked back.
"Well," Daniel began, clearing his throat, "so she's gonna teach you to drive, hey? I bet that's not all she's going to teach you." He grinned beneath his bandages.
This time, Reuben noticed, Daniel didn't blush at all.
"Hey, boy! Rest. I'll see you tomorrow." With a wave of his hand, he left his friend and found himself smiling as he threaded his way through the aisles of cots and wounded men to the great heavy doors that led to the street.
Daniel lay quietly for a long time after Reuben left. If Reuben said he would be able to see again, then he would see. If Reuben said his shoulder would knit, it would knit. He was alive, and Reuben had both their lives under control. All this misery would become a memory. His thoughts came to life as the moans and groans of the other men in the makeshift ward faded. Thank God for Reuben.
They'd been in boot camp together since day one, from the first he had recognized a kindred spirit in Reuben. Then they'd arrived in France and tasted the first bitter dregs of day-to-day combat. At night, groups of men had huddled together, speaking of their homes, their families, their sweethearts. They would ramble on and show pictures, and eyes would embarrassingly tear and voices break. Daniel would see Reuben's expression change, become vacant. Hardened. The tall, handsome man would walk from the group determinedly, and Daniel would join him. They would talk about their own childhoods, about their lack of any kind of home that could compare with what the other men had.
Daniel was an orphan, a fact he'd learned early on, scrambling in the orphanage for scraps of bread or fleeting attention. Reuben's mother had died giving birth to him, and then his father had died when he was six. After that he was passed from one relative to another, winding up with an aunt, a destitute woman who had made it clear that with six children of her own to care for, she had no time for Reuben. Wherever they lived, Reuben and Daniel had felt extraneous. They were outsiders. Neither of them could remember a cozy Thanksgiving dinner in the bosom of their family-parents, grandparents, sisters, or brothers.
The war had brought them together. In the trenches they became brothers to each other while the bitter realities of war embraced them in a cloak of death and destruction. Although there were times when it seemed life offered little more than a thousand ways to die, they'd survived by sharing rations and fears, past emotional traumas, and then almost identical physical pain-gassed and blinded in the same overwhelming moment.
Daniel shifted on his cot, where he lay bandaged and broken. The one question he tried to push far away, to the very back of his brain, whirled in his mind. Will I be blind? Forever? A recent night in the trenches flashed through his mind. He could smell it and feel it, and his skin began to crawl. Speechless and trembling as the world crashed around them, they sat ankle deep in the muck, waiting out an unusually fearful blitz. Then he remembered the body of that boy landing on him, bleeding, open and steaming at the same time, and the smell of gunpowder and burning flesh. When Reuben had pulled him out they had stared at each other and voiced the same overpowering fear: that they would die on strange soil with no one but each other to care about them. They'd shared their youth, their dreams, and their innocence over the next few hours, looking deep into each other's souls. When the sun came up, they shook hands in open acknowledgment of their brotherhood. Reuben had said, "We're in this together, and, by God, we'll get out of it together." He would never forget those words and the unbreakable bond they'd formed that night.
Daniel pushed his head deeper into the pillow on the hard cot. He had to believe in Reuben. Believe in Reuben ... He dreamed of fluffy white clouds, soft warm breezes, and the slow, joyful unfolding of Reuben's promises.
Reuben stood beneath the portico of Soissons Hospital, an abandoned ruin of a chalet before French forces had marched into the valley and commandeered the building for medical facilities. Before coming here he and Daniel had been treated behind the battle lines. Dealing with the sick and wounded was more difficult for the Americans than for the French because there were no American hospitals, and only those men who were permanently unfit for further service could be sent home. Reuben didn't know if Daniel realized they would surely see action again. It was this knowledge that made Madame Mickey's invitation so attractive. On their own, Reuben and Daniel were doomed to return to the front. If someone could pull a few strings for them, for whatever purpose, why not?
The cold made Reuben's leg ache and the biting wind burned his eyes. The past weeks he'd forced himself to ignore such pain. He was alive, that was all that mattered. Time would heal his wounds. He leaned against the wall and lit a cigarette, trying to shrug deeper into his khaki tunic. He was colder than a well digger's ass, but he wouldn't move toward the barracks that were his temporary home until Madam Mickey had all the paperwork in order.
Private Reuben Aaron Tarz, Co. D, 16th Infantry Regiment, a doughboy. On June 5, 1917, he'd been one of five million men registering for the draft, but he wasn't one of the ones who shouted "Kill the Kaiser!" He'd enlisted for two simple reasons: three square meals a day and a roof over his head. For his efforts he'd received his pay, killed the enemy, lain in his own body filth, been sprayed for cooties, been blinded and wounded. More than that, he'd stood at attention when the bugles blew at four A.M., the time when a lot of Americans stateside were just going to bed. He'd slogged through sleet and slush, seen every horror there was. Eventually he'd hardened himself to the sight of maggots feeding on dead flesh, of rats that infested the trenches in search of food, any kind of food, even human corpses and gangrenous flesh. If he lived to be a hundred, he would never forget walking up the line, his eyes alert for the Krauts and for Daniel. The hateful cacophony of bayonets clanking against steel helmets, the mountains of dead bodies, the madness, the absolute terror of it all. The nightly muck sweats, the fear of dying, the fear of surviving. They called it a world war, but to Reuben it was his war, very personal and very much his own. It was his fight to stay alive.
Reuben flicked his cigarette into a mound of slush. His feet were cold, his legs ached, and he had a terrible pounding in his head. Back at the barracks he would apply the drops to his eyes and gradually the headache would lessen. It was a hell of a price to pay for three meals that were more slop than food and for a cold roof of stars. But what choice had he? he reflected bitterly. All the ills of the world, all the wars, pestilence, and famine, were brought about by small men, small of stature and small of mind.
With a muttered oath, he pulled his cap over his curly dark hair and yanked it down over his ears. By the time he'd made it halfway down the road to the barracks, the hard, sluicing sleet had soaked him to the skin. His head was pounding as he limped through the half-frozen sludge. Looking up, he squinted through the rain in the direction of the barracks. Another few minutes and he'd be inside, where it was warm. Things were looking up-the way his luck was going, his dreams might even come true. He could almost touch them, and it scared him; he kept wanting to look over his shoulder. But he had guts, he had chutzpah, and that chutzpah would make all the difference. He was going to succeed in this world. In the trenches, he'd climbed over dead bodies literally-now he'd do it figuratively if need be.
Yes, he was Jewish, but only when it was convenient to be Jewish. During his year in the trenches he had passed for every nationality under the sun. Jews, he'd found out early, were not the most highly regarded of people. But when it came right down to it, he probably wasn't anything except Reuben Aaron Tarz from Brooklyn, New York.
Excerpted from Sins of Omission by FERN MICHAELS Copyright © 1989 by Fern Michaels, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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