“And where would you be going, young man?”
Jeremy halted with his hand on the door latch. “To the tavern,” he lied, and then added a sprinkling of truth, “to meet with Henry.”
“That can wait. I need you here. Just for an hour or two.”
Jeremy frowned. He knew his father was expecting guests. Goodwife Stapleton, whom they sometimes hired to do domestic chores, had been in the attached kitchen cooking all day long. The table was set for six. Four guests and, apparently, his father and him.
“What has this to do with me?”
His father shook his head but said nothing.
“Jeremy, I am an old man and have witnessed many things in the long years I have walked upon this earth. In my youth I was not quite so callow as you, but I had my moments.” A wistful smile crinkled the edges of his father’s pale blue eyes. “When I was a young man, there was a woman….”
“A woman?” Jeremy asked with a smile. “You mean, mother?”
“Oh, no. Not your mother, God rest her soul. This woman was nothing like your mother. I met Jean one moonless night at a tavern while still in England. This must have been more than forty years ago. She was dark and beautiful. Mysterious.” His father glanced at him, chagrinned. “All of the things a young man wants who thinks foremost with parts other than his brain. We flirted with love for a few glorious weeks late one summer. A tryst was set….” His father paused and then finished with a shrug. “I kept the appointed hour, but she did not. As quickly as she had appeared, Jean was gone.”
“And what has this to do with tonight’s dinner party?” he asked.
His father appeared shaken. “Jeremy, I thought I saw her again today. On the arm of one of the officers.”
“She married an Englishman? Who is now here, in Chester?”
“No…. I mean…. I don’t know.” Jeremy watched his father as he walked to the hearth where he picked up his pipe and tapped the stem against his hand nervously. “Perhaps it is her daughter. The woman who comes tonight cannot be more than twenty-five. Jean du Charme would be nearer sixty.”
“Du Charme? She was French?”
His father nodded. “I am afraid seeing this young woman has…unnerved me for some reason. I would appreciate your company tonight, my son.”
Jeremy glanced out the window. The sun had just disappeared behind the houses that lined the opposite side of the street. The moon had not risen and it was not yet dark. Henry and Isak would wait a few hours before becoming concerned. And if they went on to the General’s camp, he could follow in his own time. His father did not often ask anything of him. And the older man seemed truly disturbed.
“Very well, Father.” Jeremy looked down at his soiled cuffs and breeches, and then started for the stair. “If we are to entertain a lady – let alone representatives of His Majesty’s Royal Army – I think I had best change.”
“The blue suit, I think,” his father said absently as he lit his pipe. “The one that belonged to Robert.”
Jeremy halted. It was an odd request. Robert had not been dead for many days. “The blue suit?”
Samuel Larkin nodded his head. He drew on his pipe and blew out a long puff of smoke. “Jean liked me in blue.”
Henry’s head came up from what he had been doing and he looked at the locked door of his apothecary shop. The work day had ended and he was making ready for the time they would spend away, packing medical supplies as well as several Latin texts and a few additional books for light reading. He panicked at first, fearing it was the British come to take him, but when he looked more closely, he could see the stranger who stood on his stoop appeared to be a Colonial. The man had a pleasant face framed by chin-length tousled blond hair the color of wheat. He was dressed in a dark cloak and wore a tricorn hat on his head set at a jaunty angle. The only thing that marked him as distinct from the majority of the inhabitants of Chester was the cut of his cloth and the elegant silver stickpin at his throat. The head of the pin appeared to be a ruby or garnet, and was very large and ostentatious.
Henry thought about making a pretense that he was not in, but a sense of urgency about the knock and his own pricked conscience would not allow it. Someone might be in desperate need. Fear for his own safety was hardly reason enough to turn his back and endanger the life of another.
Henry closed the valise that held his books and remedies. Leaving it on the counter, he crossed to the door. Opening it, he asked the stranger, “May I help you, sir?”
“You must let me in,” the man insisted, his voice pitched low.
“Is there an emergency?” he asked.
“No. No. But you must let me in.”
“I am afraid, sir, that unless this is an emergency the Apothecary Shop is closed.” He began to shut the door. The man stuck his hand in the opening to prevent it. Henry winced and began to apologize even as the heavy wooden door closed on the stranger’s flesh and bone. “Good Lord, sir! I did not mean – ”
Henry fell silent. With his other hand the stranger had pushed the door open and entered. The hand that should have been crushed, was whole and unharmed.
“Who are you?” he asked, falling back.
“A friend,” the blond man answered. Then he caught him by the sleeve and asked, “Your name is Henry?”
He nodded. “Yes. Henry Abington.”
“You are part of a secret society, along with a man named Jeremy, and another known as Isak?”
“Sir, I have no idea…what…you…are….”
Henry’s protest faded as he met the stranger’s intense stare. As he watched the man’s clear blue eyes seemed to change and grow a hideous yellow-green. There was a moment when the stranger’s gaze went to his throat and Henry became aware of the blood pounding through his own veins and of the steady, living rhythm of his heart. A moment when he grew afraid – very afraid – but it faded as the man began to speak quietly, calmly, easing his fear.
“You will tell me everything,” the stranger said, his voice gentle but firm. “Do not be afraid. I mean you no harm.”
“Who…are…you?” Henry asked.
“It doesn’t matter. Tell me who you and your friends are. And what connection you have to the Marquis de Lafayette.”
And so Henry told him. Everything. About the day they had formed the Society and forsworn family and friends for the Cause. About that afternoon on the Brandywine field when they had met the young major-general from France. About their alliance, and their many adventures since. He told him about Jeremy, about his secret identity of Captain Yankee Doodle – just as he had sworn he would never do – and felt no sense of betrayal in doing so.
The stranger fell silent for some time, as if mulling over his words. “You and your friends are very brave, my young friend,” he said at last, “but against the enemy that now assails you, bravery means nothing. Honor, duty – decency – these words mean nothing to LaCroix. Worse than that, they are a reason to kill.”
“La…LaCroix….” Henry stammered. “The…assassin?”
The stranger lifted his hand and passed it over Henry’s eyes, drawing down his lids. Then he spoke close to his ear, his voice pitched low, its tones silken and seductive. “Tonight Henry Abington, you were packing your things. There was a knock on the door.”
“A knock on the door,” Henry repeated.
“It was your old college professor, Nicholas Knighton, whom you have not seen for many years.”
“Professor Knighton is a champion of the Cause. At the school you attended – ” the man paused, waiting.
“Harvard. I went to Harvard.”
There was another pause. When the stranger continued, his tone was slightly impressed. “At Harvard it is well known that Professor Knighton is a patriot. In fact, in secret he has aided the Rebel cause. He is a rebel leader and, as such, is in danger from this man, LaCroix. The professor has come to you with news to aid you in defeating him, and needs your help as well, to remain free and alive.”
Henry nodded as the images formed in his mind – himself and the professor, their long discussions while walking on the green, the joy of debating in class, the friendly nights at the pub. “Yes….”
“And one thing more, Henry.”
“Professor Knighton is not a well man. He suffers from a rare disease which renders him unable to sustain long exposure to the sun. If he cannot remain indoors or in a shadowed place during the daylight hours, a severe bleeding occurs under his skin, as well as swelling, faintness, and an inability to breathe. These reactions are life-threatening.”
“Must stay…out of…the sun.”
“Yes. And now, Henry Abington, what is my name?”
Henry moved his head slowly. He looked at the blond man and blinked. Then a broad grin split his face. “Professor Knighton, it is good you have arrived!” He frowned as he glanced out the door. Night had fallen like an inky blanket. Clouds filled the sky, shutting out the moon and the light of the stars. “The others will be waiting. We must make haste.”
He had turned to pick up his valise. Now he looked back. “Yes, Professor?”
“You are no longer a school boy. It is Nicholas, please.”
His professor smiled. “Yes, you can. If we are to be comrades in the Cause, then we must be friends – not master and student. Agreed?”
Henry stared at the older man’s hand and then shook it. “Yes. Very well.” He lifted the valise from the counter and then pulled his key from his waistcoat pocket. “After you, sir…Nicholas.”
He remembered the professor’s smile. It was warming. The older man favored him with it as they stepped out into the night. “Now, Henry, you must tell me all about what you and your young friends have been up to. And about this young General….”
“Lafayette?” Henry nodded. “Indeed, Nicholas, he is the gift of divine Providence to the Cause….”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, come in,” Samuel Larkin said welcoming their guests, “Dear Lady. Come in. Come in.”
Jeremy watched his father closely as a pair of Redcoat officers and a slender dark-haired beauty with pallid skin, ripe red lips, and a lithe form wrapped in a golden silk gown crossed the threshold and entered their home. There were only three in the party. One was missing.
“This is my son, Jeremy Larkin,” his father said, introducing him as he stepped back to admit them. “And I am Samuel Larkin, the mayor of Chester.”
“Major Bartholomew Spebbington and Lieutenant-General Mereworth Crawley,” the first man announced. “And this is Janette Cheverell. Her companion sends his regrets for missing supper and says he will join us as soon as he has completed his business.”
“We could hold the meal,” his father offered as he helped the young woman remove her cloak.
Jeanette smiled prettily. “Lucien will have found his sustenance… elsewhere. There is no need.”
As she straightened her skirts and then removed her hat, Jeremy moved forward to take it. “Allow me, Madame.”
Jeanette frowned as his fingers touched the hat’s brim. She cocked her head and stared at him. “Do I know you?” she asked. “There is about you, something so familier.”
Her light French accent made her even more charming. “No, Madame. I am afraid not,” Jeremy answered as he moved to place the hat on one of the pegs by the door.
“Are you certain?”
Jeremy smiled. “Very. I am afraid I have never been farther from Chester than Philadelphia and you, Madame, I feel have seen much of the world.”
“Jeanette,” she purred.
Her dark eyes fixed him. She held his gaze a moment longer and then, as if tearing herself away from a sumptuous meal, pivoted and swept into the room. “Your house is charming, Messier Mayor. And where is your lovely wife?”
Samuel Larkin had watched her since she entered. Jeremy noted his father was unusually preoccupied. At her question he started and seemed to come back to himself. “My wife is dead, I fear.”
“Oh!” Jeanette’s gloved hand went to her perfect mouth. “Pardonnez moi! I sometimes speak before I think. Pray, will you forgive me?”
“I believe, Madame,” his father said coming to her side and taking her other hand, “that one could forgive an angel such as you anything.”
Jeremy’s brows arched toward the dark blond hair that brushed his forehead. He had thought the woman’s performance a bit trite. It seemed his father saw it otherwise. It was curious. Jeanette seemed to exert a powerful influence over all of the men in the room – except him. While he found her beautiful Jeremy felt that, under the veneer of that prepossessing beauty, lurked something…. Well….
Jeremy looked up to find Jeanette watching him with open curiosity. When their eyes met, she held out her hand again. “Mayor, may I ask your son to escort me to table?”
Jeremy’s gaze went to his father and he was surprised to find in the older man’s eyes an emotion he had never seen there before.
His father was jealous.
“Your wish is my command, dear lady,” his father agreed grudgingly. “Jeremy, take the lady Jeanette and show her to her seat. I will let Goodwife Stapleton know we are ready to be served.”
He nodded. “Yes, Father.”
Jeanette’s smile returned as he offered her his arm. “You look quite handsome, young sir,” she said. “And quite fashionable. This is a suit from a city tailor, no?”
“It was my brother Robert’s,” he admitted as he drew out her chair.
“And where is he?” she asked.
“Like my mother, I am sad to say, Robert is dead.”
The dark-haired beauty cocked her head again as seemed to be her fashion, and then wet her lips with the tip of her tongue.
“A pity, then, I did not arrive sooner.”
The meal ended with all satisfied, though Jeanette was more interested in the wine and only picked at her food. The two British officers ate heartily enough, and so Mrs. Stapleton did not consider it an insult worthy of note. Just as they finished there was a knock at the door. Jeremy started to rise but his father waved him back to his seat and went to answer it instead. His father had hardly said a word during supper, and seemed to be at war with himself. Jeremy had noticed Jeanette looking from one of them to the other during the meal, her brow wrinkled as though trying to recall something. At one point his father mentioned England and the woman he had known there who went by the name of ‘Jean’. The younger version of the woman Samuel Larkin had apparently loved and lost acknowledged his pain, but claimed no relation.
Jeremy turned his attention to the tall commanding figure in the British General’s uniform that had just entered their house and stood by the door speaking in soft tones to his father. The man wore a powdered white wig with a clubbed tail, the color of which was barely a shade lighter than his skin. His unusual pallor set off his eyes which were blue and keen as a predatory bird’s. The general had a thin cruel mouth that turned up at one end in an arrogant sneer, silently proclaiming his superiority over every person in the room.
Jeremy immediately disliked and distrusted him.
Jeanette rose to her feet and flew to greet the newcomer. “Lucien!” she declared, adding with a smile, “you have missed a most sumptuous repast. I trust your journey was worth it.”
“You know me, my dear,” the man replied, his words ringing hollow, “an old soldier like me prefers field rations.” Lucien lifted a finger and wiped the corner of his mouth. “The produce of your farms here in the Chester area, Mayor Larkin, is remarkably plump and delicious. Why should one go to the cities, when the bucolic charm of the region offers so many opportunities for feasting?”
Jeanette’s aspect changed. Jeremy thought she looked worried.
His father did not seem to notice. “Will you join us for a glass of port, then?” Samuel Larkin asked.
The man in the snow-white wig shook his head. “I am afraid not, sir. I most heartily regret that my companion and I must depart. Jeanette, get your cloak and hat.”
“Pourquoi? Is something amiss?” she asked.
“I have received…news of a missing companion of ours. It seems he has been seen in the area. We must make haste if we are to catch him.”
“Nichola?” she asked, her voice cracking. Jeremy sensed in the woman a true fear for their missing companion. He was not certain if it was because the man was missing – or because he had been found.
“Loose lips, my dear,” Lucien warned. “Loose lips. Now if you will excuse us.”
Jeanette took his father’s hand and allowed him to kiss hers. “Many thanks, Mayor Larkin, for your gracious hospitality.” She glanced at Jeremy and added, “I am certain you and I will see one another again.”
She dipped and then took Lucien’s arm, and the pair disappeared into the night.
Lieutenant-general Crowley rose to his feet and tossed his napkin on the table. “We should go as well, Larkin. Thank you for the meal. Tell your cook it was excellent.”
“Yes,” Major Spebbington agreed. “Two soldiers weary of war and the field rations General LaCroix appears to relish, thank you heartily.”
Jeremy caught up to the soldiers at the door. “Did you say, LaCroix, sir? Was that the general’s name?”
Crowley nodded. “Yes, ‘General Lucien LaCroix’. Here on special service for His Majesty.” He tipped his hat. “Now, goodnight, sirs. And thank you again.”
Jeremy’s father closed the door behind them. He hung his head and leaned against it as the latch caught.
“Father? Are you ill?”
Samuel Larkin shook his head. “I’m tired, boy. And off to bed.”
Jeremy watched him approach the steps, then called him again. “Father?”
The older man stopped. His back was bent and Jeremy thought it seemed he had aged twenty years in the last two hours. “What is it?” Samuel Larkin asked with a sigh.
“Are you…angry with me, sir? It seemed at times tonight – ”
“Jeremy, no. I can’t…. It is hard to put into words. Forgive me if I seemed so. It is just, she was so like my Jean.” His father shook his head. “I’m an old man, son. Full of foolishness.” He started up the steps. “Say ‘hello’ to Henry for me, and don’t be too late.”
Jeremy watched him until he disappeared, and then put on his short coat and hat and laid his hand to the latch. He lifted it and stepped outside and took a deep breath of the clean night air to clear his head.
Then he turned, not toward the tavern, but toward the trees and the rendezvous with his friends.
Two dark figures watched from the cloaking shadows, noting his departure and the path he took.
“Forget it, Janette. The boy is too conspicuous.” LaCroix caught her chin and turned her head toward him. “He would be missed.”
“Look who is preaching! What farm wench did you bleed dry tonight?” she snapped as she jerked away.
“A young girl is found in the woods. Her throat torn out by a wolf. A pity,” he smiled mercilessly, “but hardly suspect. Now the Mayor’s son, that is another matter entirely. What is this keen interest in the boy? There are many many other prime animals to choose from.”
“I find him handsome,” she answered with a shrug.
“Ah, well. Yes…. He does bear a certain resemblance to another young innocent you lusted after many centuries ago – your sainted ‘Nichola’. What is it with you and naïve blonds, my dear?”
She scowled at him. “Let it go, LaCroix.”
“No, I don’t think so. Larkin. Ah yes, Larkin. Samuel, wasn’t it? A summer dalliance, I seem to remember.” He caught her wrist and twisted it, turning her to face him. “Like the father, lust after the son, eh? You see what is in store for your precious Nichola if he wins back his humanity? All his youth and vitality will fade and wither until he becomes a wrinkled, white-haired husk fit, like Samuel Larkin, only for the worms and the grave!”
“I hate you!” she spat at him.
“I know you do, my dear! And it is so refreshing.” LaCroix sobered quickly. “Now what is it about the boy, tell me the truth!”
“I have,” she insisted.
“No. There is something more. Quickly. Tell me.” LaCroix’s baleful eyes bored into her. “You know you cannot resist me.”
Janette tried but failed as she had many times before. “It is just that,” she admitted, lowering her head, “the boy, Jeremy. I think he is a resistor.”
LaCroix laughed long and hard. “You mean he was not taken in by your charms?”
“I mean, he cannot be made to do what we want – or to forget.”
“Then we shall have to keep a very close eye on young Mr. Larkin, shall we not, my dear?” LaCroix took her hand and linked it through his arm, and then patted her pale flesh.
“You certainly know how to pick them.”