Samuel Larkin started when he heard a knock at the door. At first he thought it might be Jeremy, but then realized how foolish it was to think that his son would knock. He laid the book down that he had been reading and rose wearily from his seat to answer the summons. He felt old this night – very old. Perhaps it had been seeing the young incarnation of his Jean whom he had known so briefly and loved – if the truth be told – all of his life.
Laying a hand to the latch he pulled it up and opened the door. And then fell back in stunned silence.
The beautiful dark-haired woman without smiled a charming smile and cocked her head to one side. “May I come in?” Jeanette Cheverell asked, her voice smooth as honey and just as pleasing to the ears as that golden syrup was to the tongue.
“Madame, this is most improper,” he managed to stammer. “I am alone.”
“Oui. But I do not fear you. You are a gentleman, are you not, Mayor Larkin?”
“Your reputation, Madame….”
She laughed. A clear, high bell-like sound. “Is already made, trust me. May I?”
Samuel nodded reluctantly and stepped out of her way. When he made a motion to leave the door open, she laid her hand on his and shut it. A shiver of electricity went through him at her touch.
“Madame LaCroix…” he managed as a weak protest.
The smile returned. More coy this time. “LaCroix is but my mentor and companion. And you will call me ‘Jean’. Please.”
A pale hand was laid alongside his white-whiskered cheek. “Oui, Samuel. I was flattered that you remembered me.”
“But how…. This isn’t possible! You are young!”
His protestation fell on deaf ears. The beauty smiled sweetly as she linked her arm through his and drew him closer to the dwindling fire. Jean took his arms and lowered him, without protest, into the chair that sat before it. “You but see me with the eyes of love, mon amour perdu. Tell me, what do you remember of that summer in England?” she asked softly, her crisp blue eyes never leaving his.
“Little. Only an old man’s fancies…” he answered.
“You will tell me,” Jean said, her tone quiet but firm. “Samuel Larkin, you will tell me what you remember about me…and those who traveled with me.”
“I was only a boy then, not yet Jeremy’s age,” he answered, his voice sounding strange in his own ears, as though it came to him through a fog. “I was assisting Master Grayson at the tavern. That was where we met. You were the loveliest thing I had ever seen – a dark beauty struck in moonlight. We walked and talked and fell in love. You traveled with two men then – one young, the other older. The young one was kind to me, though he often appeared amused. The older one,” Samuel shuddered with the memory, “he was evil….”
He felt Jean’s hand on his arm. “No, you are mistaken. That was my…father. He was only concerned for me.”
“Concerned, yes.” He laughed sadly accepting her explanation. “He chased me off that one day….”
“Oui. Near sunrise.”
“You left the next morning.” His weak and watering eyes settled on her. She was as he remembered – a dark, fiery temptress draped in fine cloth and smelling of pricey bergamot. “Why did you leave, Jean?”
Her smile was sad. “I had to. It was the only way to protect you.”
“You will forget that I said that,” she whispered close to his ear. “Forget.”
He nodded slowly. “I will forget.”
Jean glanced at the fire as though afraid it would rekindle without warning and then, with reluctance, took a seat on the chair Jeremy kept close by it. On her way there, she knocked the book from the table where he had placed it and left it lying on the floor. Once seated, she watched him for a moment and then asked unexpectedly.
“Where is your son?”
“Jeremy? Off on a lark somewhere.”
“A lark? With who?”
He shook his head. “Who knows? Some wench. A different one this night from the night before, and the night to come.”
“He is a reprobate then?” she asked.
Her tone was surprised which surprised him. “Yes.”
Jean shook her dark head. “I would not have expected that,” she remarked, almost to herself. With a frown she continued, “Your older son, Robert, he was one of these Patriots?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“But his younger brother does not follow in his footsteps?”
The laugh that answered her sounded as if it came from underwater. “No. Jeremy has a mind for only two things – women and wine.”
“A most pleasing combination by anyone’s account, mon amour perdu,” she answered with a smile. “So it seems LaCroix was wrong. He had a suspicion your son might be the man he is looking for, the one with that atrocious appellation – Capitaine Yankee Doodle.”
“Yankee Doodle?” Samuel was startled, so much so that it seemed the blood rushed back into his veins and innerved him. “My Jeremy!” he declared, awakening to his son’s danger.
“Shh! Peace,” Jean rose and came to him, laying her hand on his arm. At her touch the fog and fatigue returned. “Think of it no more. Think of nothing, Samuel. Nothing at all.” She pressed her lips to his forehead. “You will not remember that I have been here tonight. Nor will you remember ever having seen LaCroix or Nichola before. Do you understand, mon amour? Tell me you do.”
“You were never here. I have not seen these men….”
“Good.” He felt Jean’s hand on his face again. “I will do all I can do to protect you now, as I did then. You are a good man, Samuel. You were good to me when I did not deserve it.”
Samuel felt a sudden breeze and heard a man’s voice demand, “Janette!”
And then she was gone.
Samuel Larkin shook himself. He was sitting in the chair before the fire. The book he had held in his hand was on the floor. As he bent to retrieve it, he remembered he had been dreaming of Jean. It was almost as if he could feel the touch of her hand on his cheek.
Bent with age and weariness of heart, Samuel Larkin rose and headed up the stairs to his lonely bed.
Elizabeth took Jeremy’s hand and let him lead her inside the barn. She nodded, acknowledging Henry and Isak who occupied the same bale of hay near Betsy’s stall. Then she saw him. The stranger. He was a blond man of medium height. About thirty-five years old. With pale blue eyes and even paler skin.
A stranger she somehow seemed to know.
“Miss Coates,” the man said, bowing. “I am pleased to meet you. Henry has told me about you.”
She offered him her hand and shivered as he took it, not at his cold touch, but with a sudden deep and indescribable longing. “Sir,” she whispered, her voice robbed of strength, “I am equally pleased to meet you.”
“This is Nicholas Knighton, Elizabeth,” Henry offered as he rose and joined them. “A professor of mine from Harvard.”
“And a champion of our Cause!” Isak added heartily.
“Professor Knighton,” she repeated. “Do I…know you, sir?”
“Nicholas, please,” he answered, releasing her hand. “And no, you do not know me. This is my first visit to the Chester area.”
She blinked several times. “You seem somehow familiar….”
He smiled. “I seem to cause that reaction in many people. I suppose I must have a common sort of face.”
Hardly, Elizabeth thought. Nicholas Knighton was one of the most handsome men she had ever seen. “That must be it,” she agreed reluctantly.
Jeremy’s arm tightened on her waist as if he sensed her thoughts, and he quickly drew her away. “Shall we get to business then?” he asked as they walked. “Elizabeth, if you will be so kind as to sit with Isak.”
Turning back, Jeremy glanced at the stranger and then addressed the others. “Our concern is what to do about this General Lucien LaCroix. According to Nicholas, who knows him of long acquaintance, he is virtually unstoppable. We must find something that will draw LaCroix from Chester, and then deal with him.”
“That will not prove easy,” Nicholas offered quietly.
“Still, it is what we must do. We cannot permit him to continue to hunt down and destroy our leaders. We cannot afford to lose such men, nor can we accept the fear his rebel witch-hunt breeds in others who might aid our Cause.”
“Jeremy,” Elizabeth protested quietly, already knowing his mind, “you are not thinking of offering yourself?”
He met her frightened gaze with a nod. “It may well prove the only way. Captain Yankee Doodle is a prize LaCroix might well forsake all others for.”
Nicholas Knighton had been lingering in the shadows, away from the lantern’s light. Now he walked to Jeremy’s side and placed a pale hand on his shoulder. “You are very brave, my young friend. LaCroix may well be drawn out by such a sacrifice, but you must believe me – more than your life is in danger here. You must tread very carefully – all of you. This is nothing but a game to LaCroix. So long as the game pleases him, he will play it. But when LaCroix grows bored – he will sweep the board clean and begin again somewhere new.”
Jeremy was watching the other man closely. Elizabeth had a sense that her love had not yet decided which side Henry’s professor was on.
“You said this man is after you as well?” Jeremy asked.
Nicholas nodded. “I know what it is to be nothing but a slave to a harsh and uncaring master – just as America is to Great Britain. I am what I am because of LaCroix, and therefore, he believes he owns me.” He lifted his hand from Jeremy’s shoulder and bent his fingers to form a fist. “I say we both shall be free – or perish in the attempt!”
“You know how to stop him then?” Isak asked from close beside her.
Elizabeth thought Nicholas paled – if that was possible. “Yes. That is why you must take me with you. I alone can stop him.”
“A musket ball in the right spot can stop any man,” Jeremy countered quickly.
Nicholas Knighton shook his head. “I do not know what you believe, Jeremy. What faith you have or who it is in….” He turned and faced Henry, Isak and her. “Or the rest of you. But I can tell you that LaCroix is not like other men. He has made a pact with the Devil and is now one of his creatures.”
“Surely you jest, sir!” Jeremy protested.
Nicholas grew very sober as he turned toward him. “I only wish I did, Jeremy.”
“I do not believe in such things.”
“Then you are a fool!” Nicholas snarled.
“What of Oliver Cromwell, and John Ever? And others who have sold their souls for riches or eternal life? Deals are made and honored. You will find LaCroix stronger, faster, and more able than ten – nay, twenty ordinary men. And a hundred times more evil.” Nicholas Knighton paused. “Do I take it then, Jeremy Larkin, that you have no belief in God?”
“Nay, sir. In God I believe, but not – ”
“Not in the Devil? Or apparently in the Good Book? According to the Bible Lucifer Morningstar is no myth.”
Henry approached the pair. “Listen to Nicholas, Jeremy. It is the only way we can win. We must fight the Devil with God’s tools and not the tools of men.”
“What? Holy Water from the Catholics and garlic? Or salt thrown over our shoulder? You are a man of science, Henry. How can you support this errant nonsense?”
“There are more things in Heaven and earth, Jeremy, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Nicholas Knighton injected. Jeremy met his pale blue eyes. In them he read a kind of desperation.
“The professor’s knowledge is critical if we are to defeat this man,” Henry said softly, his voice containing a note of chagrin – as if he did not truly understand his own actions. “Look at it this way, my friend, if LaCroix believes this ‘errant nonsense’ then perhaps he believes that he can be stopped by it – whether we believe it or not.”
Jeremy turned to the stranger. “Are you a religious man, Nicholas?”
Knighton was silent for some time. At last he answered, “I believe in evil and its presence on this earth. And it would be wise if you began to believe in it too.”
“Elizabeth!” a strident voice called out, filtering through the dark night to their ears.
“That’s my uncle! He must have wakened and found me not yet returned.” Elizabeth rose and crossed to the door. “I will be there in a minute, Uncle John,” she answered. “I’m almost finished attending to Betsy.”
“Well, hurry, girl!” John Coates called back.
Jeremy followed. He took her hands and squeezed them between his own. “We must away. I know not when I will see you again. Know that I love you.”
She took one of his hands and pressed it against her cheek. “I know. Take care of yourself, Jeremy Larkin.” Then Elizabeth turned to Isak and Henry. “And you two, keep him from being too noble, you hear?”
As Henry assured her that they would, Nicholas Knighton grew suddenly alert. He cocked his head as if listening, and then his pale eyes grew wide. “Voices,” he said, “coming this way. Men. Hide! Now!”
Jeremy pressed her hand again and then left her standing in the center of the barn. Seconds later it appeared she was alone. As she picked up a bucket and headed for Betsy’s stall, the barn door opened and two men in uniform walked in.
Elizabeth turned and pulled her shawl close, pretending to shudder with the cold breeze that blew in behind them. In reality she was hiding the shiver of fear that ran through her.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Is this the Coates farm?” the taller of the two, an officer, demanded.
She nodded. “I am Elizabeth Coates. My uncle, John, is the owner.”
“We wish to talk to him.”
“He is abed, sir. Can this not wait until morning?”
The officer nodded to his compatriot. “Mackay, search the barn. And you, girl, take me to your uncle.”
“Aye, Major Banks. Sir!”
The soldier saluted and set off even as Elizabeth protested, “There is nothing here, sir!”
Major Banks grabbed her by the arm and thrust her toward the door even as Mackay headed for the stall where she knew the stranger to be hiding. A second later the soldier stiffened and halted.
“Mackay! What’s wrong with you?” the major called.
Mackay shook his head. “There’s nothing here, Major Banks. It’s a waste of our time.”
“General LaCroix didn’t seem to think so. Now just do…as you…were told….”
Elizabeth looked at the major. His eyes had become glazed. For several heartbeats Banks was silent and then he said, changing his mind, “Forget it. Come here, Mackay. And now, Miss, if you would take us to your uncle?”
She blinked at the sudden change of tone and intent. “Uncle John will not be happy,” she said.
Banks nodded absentmindedly. “I apologize. We just have a few questions. Someone we are seeking came this way yester morn. We need to see if your Uncle saw or spoke to him.”
With one last glance back to where the men were hiding, Elizabeth nodded. “Very well. Follow me.”
General Lafayette and Sergeant Daniel Boggs had paused on their way for a bite of food and a hot cup of coffee to warm them. Lafayette had been uncharacteristically quiet during their journey. Daniel stared at his comrade, general, and friend and worried for him. The young man wore his feelings on his sleeve. If Lafayette was happy, everyone knew it. If he was sad, it was no secret to those who loved him. Tonight he was neither –
Tonight he was scared.
And that surprised him. “Sir, what is it?”
Lafayette started and then glanced with guilt at him. “Nothing, Daniel.”
“You are not usually a liar, sir.”
The young man grimaced. “Oui,” he admitted softly.
“What bothers you? You seem….”
“Frightened?” Lafayette’s laugh was self-conscious. “Tonight, Daniel, you do not see the American General, or even the brave young Frenchman seeking adventure, before you – but the boy from Chavaniac who grew up in the wild wood amidst the weeds and old women’s tales.”
“I don’t understand.”
The laugh came again, softer this time. “How could you? You Americans are so – no nonsense. You have little room in your lives for superstitions.”
“We had our share. Don’t forget Salem.”
“Ah, but it is not a witch I think of this night. Nor even la Bete.”
His general had told Daniel about the wolf-creature that had plagued Auvergne when he was a boy, murdering and maiming locals by the hundreds. Lafayette had even set out to kill it one night. “Then what, sir?”
At first he shook his head. Then Lafayette began to speak slowly, as if the memory was a hard one to face – and to recall. “My grandmother told a tale beyond belief – of two men and a woman who came to our house one dawning morning, seeking shelter. One was an older man who might have been the father. The other two, a dark-haired woman and a man with flaxen hair who said he knew my father. All obviously noble by birth. They were exhausted and the younger man seemed injured, as if with burns. She had one of the servants prepare a room for the trio in one of the warmer sections of the manor. There were very few servants in service at the time, since the war was on and my father was gone. Grandmama said this was when I was about one year old.” His voice trailed off and he fell silent.
Daniel prompted him to continue. “And? What happened?”
Lafayette shook himself. “I should not be able to remember, but I seem to. I remember my mother screaming. Close by. There was a rush of cold air. Someone else was in the room. Then two male voices arguing. Then nothing.” He shuddered with the memory.
“Perhaps you only think you remember it. You said your grandmother told you….”
“Not ‘told’. It was something I overheard.” He looked at him. “When I was two, the blond man returned. He was the one who brought the news of my father’s death. I heard my grandmother speaking to my aunt after he had left the room with my mother on his arm. She said he had saved Mama’s life. That an unnatural creature had come into the room that night while I lay in my cradle, bent on taking her life.” Lafayette smiled, shyly, as though embarrassed for the older woman who had raised him. “Grandmama believed in the old ways – in witches and were-beasts, changelings and…the ‘vampiri’.”
Daniel laughed. “Vampires! Sir, no.”
Lafayette nodded. “Oui.”
Daniel was silent for a moment. His own people were of New England stock, such beliefs were not unknown to him, but seemed almost laughable in this dawning scientific age. “And you, sir?”
His general shrugged.
“Is this,” Daniel shifted and cleared his throat, “is that what frightens you tonight?”
“I did not remember at first. But on the journey here, it has come back to me.” He looked at his friend. “Do you know the name of the older man who came that night to Chavaniac?”
“How could I, sir? What was it?”
Lafayette stood up. He tossed the remainder of his coffee into the grass.
“His name means ‘the cross’. It was LaCroix.”