Love Has No Place in a World of Spies
by Roseanna M. White
1779—Winter Reeves is an aristocratic American Patriot forced to hide her heart amid the British Loyalists of the city of New York. She has learned to keep her ears open so she can pass information on British movements to Robbie Townsend, her childhood friend, and his spy ring. If she’s caught, she will be executed for espionage, but she prays the Lord’s protection will sustain her, and Robbie has taught her the tools of the trade—the wonders of invisible ink, secret drop locations and, most importantly, a good cover.
Bennet Lane returns to New York from his Yale professorship with one goal: to find General Washington’s spy hidden among the ranks of the city’s elite. Searching for a wife was supposed to be nothing more than a convenient cover story for his mission, but when he meets Winter, with her too-intelligent eyes in her too-blank face, he finds a mystery that can’t be ignored.
Both are determined to prevail at any cost…and each is committed to a separate cause. Will God lead them to a shared destiny or lives lived apart?
City of New York
et innocence be your mask.
Winter Reeves swished her ivory lace fan and gave Colonel Fairchild the same practiced smile she always did. She squelched the response that wanted to escape, forbade her eyes from so much as flashing. Perhaps her gaze wandered, but he would only think her bored.
He thought her very easily bored.
“A stroke of luck, do you not agree, my dear?”
Despite the racing of her heart at the pearl of information he had just let slip, she made her nod a half-second later than it ought to have been. As if she were inattentive, paying no heed to his endless prattle. Why, after all, would she care about such a boring matter as paper? In his eyes—in the eyes of everyone here—she was naught but the pretty, brainless granddaughter of the Hamptons.
Let your beauty hide your heart.
Winter’s gaze snagged on Robbie’s, though she looked past him quickly. A successful business owner and newspaperman for the Royal Gazette, Robert Townsend was deemed acceptable company on a day-to-day basis, but Grandmother had higher hopes for her. At social occasions, she was not permitted to speak to him.
She didn’t have to speak to him. A mere glance showed her his waistcoat tonight bore seven silver buttons. Seven—that meant he had slid a note into the bottom, middle drawer of the chest in the drawing room.
Feigning a yawn partially hidden behind her fan, Winter blinked. Slowly.
Colonel Fairchild interrupted his monologue with drawn brows. “Forgive me, my dear. You must be in need of refreshment by now. Allow me to fetch you a cup of spiced tea.”
“That would be lovely, thank you.” Winter injected her tone with relief and made her smile sheepish. “I shall just slip out for a moment while you get it, Colonel.”
Fairchild bowed, though he kept his head erect. No doubt to stop his new powdered wig, more heavily curled than his old one, from slipping.
Winter dipped a short curtsy and headed for the ballroom’s exit, her palms damp.
She forced pleasure into her face as she turned toward her grandmother. “Yes, ma’am? Can I get you anything?”
Grandmother narrowed her ice blue eyes. “Where are you going? The ball has barely started, and there is someone I want you to meet.”
Winter lowered her gaze. “I will only be a moment, Grandmother. I must attend to a personal need.”
The matron lifted her chin. No one would doubt Phillippa Hampton was the queen of this particular event. Her hair was an extravagant tower of whitened curls, ribbons, and gems. Her gown was a creation so exquisite, King George himself would have envied the craftsmanship.
Her glare could shrivel a thriving oak tree. “Return posthaste. Mr. Lane is awaiting an introduction.”
Let your enemies count you a friend.
She pasted on an obedient, docile smile. “I will be quick.”
“I should think so, knowing who awaits your return.” The snap of Grandmother’s fan of Spanish lace all but forced Winter’s eyes to the right.
She drew in a sharp breath when her gaze collided with the stranger’s. He stood beside her grandfather, his eyes locked on her. ’Twas nothing unusual, given the gilding her grandmother poured upon her. But the way he looked at her, the eyes that did the looking…
He was only passably handsome, if one examined his nose, his mouth, his jaw. Strong features, and sandy hair he hadn’t bothered to powder or cover in a wig. Pleasant, not exceptional. But those eyes—they seemed to pierce right through her facade, down to the heart she’d been forbidden to have.
Penetrating. Stirring. Tugging.
No. She couldn’t afford to let a man turn her head, and she certainly couldn’t let one see her heart. No matter that a single gaze from him made her yearn for someone who might understand her.
God of my end, help me to focus upon Your will for me. Winter tore her gaze free and curtsied to her grandmother. “I shall be glad to meet him in a moment, ma’am.”
Perhaps some other enterprising young lady would have laid claim to him by the time she returned. Eyes like that were far too dangerous.
Grandmother kept her a moment more. “You have heard of the recent fortune of the Manhattan Lanes, I presume.”
If one could call it fortune when one’s uncle’s son died and one’s father returned to England to learn to manage the family estates. Which Grandmother certainly did, being ever loyal to the Crown—no matter how hard the heel of His Majesty’s army crushed the city.
Her grandmother pursed her lips. “Go, child. But hurry back before Mrs. Parks snatches him and forces him to dance with Theodosia.”
To God’s ear. Somehow she suspected Mr. Lane’s gaze wouldn’t unnerve Dosia at all. Her friend had no secrets to be discovered.
Winter made her escape from the ballroom. Guests filled the hallway too, and they would be in and out of all the main rooms in her grandparents’ first floor. She followed a bewigged couple into the drawing room and traced a path along the chamber’s edge until she came to the polished maple of the high chest of drawers.
The bottom center drawer was open a bit. Not so much as to be noticeable to anyone not looking, but enough that Winter could catch her sleeve on the knob as she walked by and make a show of looking irritated before freeing it.
She folded the slip of paper she’d recovered into her fan, shut the drawer with a scowl, and then headed out of the room, inspecting her sleeve as if the lace had torn.
No one stopped her as she darted up the stairs and headed for her bedchamber. That didn’t keep a relieved breath from seeping out as she threw the bolt on the door.
Winter strode to the banked fire and stirred it enough to light a taper. She set the candle upon a table and pulled the slip of paper out. The message written upon it made her smile.
My dearest lady, flame of my heart,
How you make my day burn bright!
With the smallest turn of your reddest lips,
You are all that is beauty and light…
Winter snorted a laugh and checked the right top corner of the page. An “H” marked it. The real message, then, would appear with the application of heat.
Hands steady, Winter held the page close, then closer to the flame. Closer still until the smell of scorching paper filled her nostrils, until a faint sizzle reached her ears. Until the invisible ink filling the space between the lines of terrible poetry turned a golden brown.
Eleven o’clock tonight. The tulip tree behind the stable.
Eleven. She pulled the paper away from the flame and squinted to read the darkened face of the mantel clock. One hour more. Time enough to appease Grandmother, to bat her lashes and act the part of witless society lady for Mr. Lane. Then she could slip outside. She hoped Robbie would be there to meet her, and she could tell him what Fairchild had said. Though there remained the possibility that he had simply left another message for her.
This one could bring her trouble enough. If her grandparents saw it, they would place her under lock and key to keep her from eloping as Mother had.
Time nipped at the back of her throat, each tick of the clock telling her to hurry downstairs. But first she tossed the page into the fire. As the flames licked over the wisp of paper and then smoldered into glowing ash, Winter held her spot, watching the last ember die out. In her mind’s eye, she saw another letter, another fire.
Why had she burned it? Why? The last word she had from her father, the last thing her mother had given her before she passed away.
A cloud must have raced over the moon, for deeper shadows cloaked her room. Winter spun for the door. Best to lock away the memories of Oyster Bay, of life before the war. Best to remember who she was now. Best to push down the longing to go back, even for one day, to the life she once knew.
That life was gone. She had come to terms with that.
Better a life among enemies than a noose around her neck.
Bennet Lane buried his terror in a glass of cordial and silently recited some Latin to calm his nerves. How had he ended up once more in a ballroom lit with crystal chandeliers, surrounded by batting lashes and swishing fans?
George jabbed him with an elbow—not exactly subtly—and smirked. “You look like I felt when expected to recite the opening of Hippolytus.”
“Give me Euripides above this any day.” Ben forced a smile and stiff bow when a set of well-dressed young women glided by, simpering looks partially hidden by their fans.
His friend’s chuckle held no sympathy. “You garner admiring gazes from them all.”
“Because they all know my father just became the heir to considerable property. But the moment I try to talk to any of them… Women are baffling, George. Baffling. They complain if you treat them as pets but grow bored if you treat them as equals.”
Placing his empty glass on the tray of a passing servant, George snorted. “Your idea of an ‘equal’ is a fellow from Yale. They are lost and bored with your constant references to Latin and Greek, but that does not mean they have no brains at all. Well, most of them.”
Ben grunted a laugh and sent his gaze over the gathering. Young ladies abounded, all in imported silk and lace. Some had beauty to their faces that couldn’t be hidden by the mountain of curls atop their heads; others relied on the fuss to bolster what nature had withheld.
“I have spent too many years in Connecticut, with its boycotts and homespun. All this luxury is confounding.” He took another sip of his drink and let his gaze linger upon a young lady with pink powdered hair. She was pretty, but when they had been introduced, it had taken only a stuttered sentence from him for her eyes to glaze over. Perhaps she would be amenable to a suit, but he’d rather find a woman to court with whom he could have a full conversation every now and again.
George narrowed his gaze upon Ben’s hair, tied back but otherwise unadorned. “You had better get accustomed to fashion again quickly, old boy. Gentlemen of Hampton’s ilk expect you to dress appropriately when you come to their houses. Even I know that, and I would never have been invited if not for your request.”
“Hmm.” He hated powdered wigs—itchy and hot. But he would do what he must. Ben scanned the room again, looking for the angel in pale blue and gold he had seen leaving a quarter-hour earlier. Hampton’s granddaughter, and hence the highest-bred young lady here. With her on his arm, he could secure invitations to all the elite’s functions. His family’s heritage gave him the proper pedigree for them, but he had been too long away from New York to know from where the invitations would come.
Access was crucial. Somewhere in this ballroom, or another as exclusive, a spy might lurk. Someone undermining the British cause, feeding information to the rebel army that they could only have learned from high-ranking associations. Either an elite themselves, or one of the bottom-feeders who catered to them.
He would find that someone, eventually. He must. And he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to achieve it.
Even if that “whatever” meant attaching himself to one of these terrifying, lace-bedecked creatures.
Ben shook himself and grinned. “It is like chemistry, George. You know well that combining certain elements might explode in your face, but you cannot resist pouring them together on the chance they will create something spectacular.”
“’Tis talk like that which sends them running.” George clapped a hand to Ben’s shoulder and nodded toward the corner. “Now, look at that one—Miss Parks. She bears a striking resemblance to our old friend Charlie Mason, does she not?”
“Parks.” Ben frowned. “Are they not cousins to the Masons?”
“Probably. Hence the resemblance, I suppose. Irrelevant. My point is, you could always carry on a conversation with Charlie, who lacked your excellent education, without confusing him. Do the same with Dosia. Talk of the weather, of the latest news, of anything not straight from your laboratory at Yale. Pretend she is Charlie.”
Ben folded his arms over his chest and nodded decisively. “Charlie in a dress.” An excellent plan.
“Right,” George said on another snort of laughter. “Or, if you can wrest her from Colonel Fairchild, you might set your sights on Miss Reeves. She hasn’t a spare thought in her head anyway, so she is well used to giving an absent nod of assent. Well, from what I have seen. I’ve never been introduced, mind you.”
Bennet’s gaze followed George’s gesture toward the doorway, filled by the vision of beauty herself. Hampton’s granddaughter—Miss Reeves, apparently.
Empty headed? That dug a furrow into his brow. When he had caught her gaze a bit ago, she had struck him as many things, but thoughtless was not one of them. Hers were not eyes that covered an idle mind.
Were they? He was not the type to be so blinded by beauty as to attribute to a lovely face nonexistent qualities, was he?
Well, time would tell. Hampton was even now striding toward Bennet, undoubtedly to make the promised introduction since his ward had returned. Which George apparently took as his cue to leave with a mumble about another drink.
Miss Reeves held her place in the doorway for a moment more, looking out at the ballroom as if taking stock of everyone there. A princess surveying her kingdom? Perhaps. Certainly she put all the other young women to shame, from the details of her gown to the powdered tower of hair, to her face, exquisite in its detail.
His pulse hammered. She was too beautiful for him. His tongue would twist into knots if he dared to open his mouth in her company. She would dismiss him in a moment, as every other girl did. He’d do better to find a more approachable lady to court, one common enough that she wouldn’t actually distract him from his true motive for returning to New York.
Miss Reeves turned her head to her left and then moved toward Mrs. Hampton. Her every step was a dance, each gesture the epitome of grace.
Ben would be lucky to secure a minuet with her, much less any other sign of favor. And because he was not so superficial as to think a pretty face was all one needed, he certainly wouldn’t mourn the loss of what would never be.
She kept her gaze down as Mrs. Hampton ushered her forward. Seemingly demure, but there was something else in the tension of her neck. Something that spoke of anxiety, perhaps conflict.
Hampton stopped at Ben’s side and nodded at the approaching ladies. “My granddaughter has returned.”
“Excellent, sir.” He should have stayed home tonight. Settled in with a text. Montesquieu, perhaps. Montesquieu would be a fine companion for this blustery November night, far better than this present company—George excluded.
Hampton glared at the women when they arrived. “There you are.”
Miss Reeves curtsied, her gaze on her grandfather now, though his granite face didn’t soften in the slightest. “I trust you are enjoying your birthday celebration, Grandfather?”
“Quite.” He looked as though enjoying wasn’t a word in his vocabulary. “Allow me to introduce Mr. Bennet Lane, of the Manhattan Lanes. Mr. Lane, my granddaughter and ward, Miss Winter Reeves.”
Still, awareness coursed through him. She was even lovelier up close than from afar. A narrow bridge of a nose, lips of a perfect rose, brows that bespoke hair the color of his favorite mahogany chair—if one could see beneath the powder coating each lock, anyway.
He bowed over her hand. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Reeves.” Ah, not so much as a stutter. He would do his debate professor proud.
She drew in a breath too short, too sharp. And finally she lifted her eyes to his.
They were green. Deep as an emerald and not just in color. So many thoughts, so many needs seemed to swirl within those jewel-like irises for one fraction of a second—then it was as if a door slammed shut and they were only eyes. Pretty, empty eyes.
The strain was gone from her posture, and the turn of her lips looked half bored. “Likewise, Mr. Lane.”
He let her fingers go but couldn’t convince himself to look away from her perfect countenance. Not so much as a twitch revealed any thought at all, but he knew well he hadn’t imagined it.
Winter Reeves was more than the face she showed this crowded ballroom. Why did she feel she must hide it? And what, exactly, was it that she hid? Puzzling.
One corner of his mouth tugged up. Ben loved nothing so much as a puzzle. “Mr. Hampton, may I have the honor of dancing with your granddaughter when the next set begins?”
Hampton glowered. “She would be delighted.” Another word that seemed foreign to his frowning mouth.
Mrs. Hampton, however, beamed. As for Miss Reeves…if he weren’t mistaken, that look of ennui upon her face was designed specifically to put him off.
Well, they would see about that. Any philosopher, be he political or scientific or abstract, knew that sometimes one must revise one’s stated mission. His may have to become twofold.
Find the Patriot spy in New York.
And unravel the mystery that was Winter Reeves.
Ring of Secrets$9.99 – $15.99
obert Townsend leaned against the cold, damp bark of the tulip tree and folded his arms over his chest. Shrouded by darkness, he watched the glittering assembly through the window and let himself shake his head at it all. He made a good living by selling imported goods to families like the Hamptons. A respectable family and his work for the Royal Gazette guaranteed him entry to any gathering he could wish to attend.
But the secrets…much as he believed in his cause, much as he knew he did right by helping the Patriots, the secrets gnawed at him until his stomach was a constant, roiling ball of dread.
At least all this business brought him closer to Winter. He watched her slip out the rear door of her grandparents’ house and glide through the deep shadows at the side of the yard. Seeing her decked in such finery still gave him pause. In Oyster Bay she had been just another village girl. Pretty enough, in her simple way. Homespun dresses and a deep Congregational faith to do her Puritan ancestors proud.
Now he sighed each time he saw how little remained of sweet little Winter. What hadn’t been snuffed out by the strong arm of the British, by her father’s fleeing to take up the colors for the Patriot cause, by her mother’s sudden death had been pressed upon and crushed by her grandparents.
When she stole up beside him in the protective blackness of the tree’s broad trunk, Rob offered a lopsided smile. “So kind of you to slip away to keep tryst, fair lady. Seeing you in such glorious beauty has made my heart take wing—”
She interrupted him with a laugh, bright and free as it had been when they were children, if quieter. “Your poetry is atrocious, Robbie. But lucky for you, I shall forgive it. I have news.” She stepped closer and rubbed her gloved hands over her arms. The night was icy, but she hadn’t grabbed a wrap.
“Here.” He shrugged out of his cloak and draped it over her shoulders. “You will freeze in half a second dressed like that.”
“It would have looked strange for me to grab a cloak. And it hardly matters as this will only take a moment.” But she pulled the wool close. The moonlight caught her face and painted her in silver.
She wore silver well.
“Colonel Fairchild mentioned this evening that they are counterfeiting—”
“We already know that.” Any hope he’d felt deflated. He’d promised a correspondence to Woodhull—operating as Culper Senior to Rob’s Culper Junior—but he would have nothing of substance to put in it.
Winter pursed her lips. “Would you let me finish? I know well they have been counterfeiting congressional dollars for years, but there has always been a flaw—”
“Their paper is too thick. Yes, we all know that. It has still succeeded well in devaluing the dollar.”
“And it is about to succeed even better.” She straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. “Fairchild said they’ve managed to steal several reams of paper from the last emission in Philadelphia.”
Though Rob never traded in dollars in the British-held city, it still struck like a blow. “The very paper? Then there will be no telling them apart from the genuine articles, and the money will be totally without backing. And so—”
“Worthless.” Winter nodded. “You must let them know. Congress can perhaps withdraw the bills from circulation before it is too late.”
“Let us pray so.” For a moment he stared into the night, and then at the windows spilling golden light. Couples danced, moving about as if oblivious to the war. Clad in their silks and velvets, their lace and jewels.
“Well.” Winter took his cloak off again and held it out to him. “I have nothing else beyond the normal. We are swimming in luxuries and cannot get staples. Morale among the Tories wavers under the weight of the military’s heel, but they all still consider the Patriot cause a futile one and doubt Washington will be able to muster another campaign.”
“Unchanging.” Rob slipped the cloak back on. Even after so brief a time around her, it smelled of Winter. Lavender and violets. “There is one thing more. I had a letter from my father the other day, who had heard from yours. A brief note to assure anyone wondering that he is well.”
Moonbeams caught the tears that sprang to her eyes and turned them to diamonds. Lovelier by far than those dangling at her ears. “Thank you, Robbie. If your father writes him back, I would appreciate him including that I miss him—that he remains always in my prayers.”
“Of course.” He said no more, made no attempt to detain her when she spun back for the house. Even if the constriction of his chest insisted he was allowing her to return to a lion’s den. Perhaps so, but it was not his place to shut the lions’ mouths. The Lord Himself would have to do that.
Sighing, Rob turned toward the property’s back gate—and nearly shouted in alarm when a massive shadow blocked his path.
“Freeman.” Rob swiped at his brow and bade his pulse return to normal. “Did no one ever teach you not to lurk in shadows?”
Winter’s servant grinned, the whites of teeth and eyes the only thing visible in the darkness. “No, sir. They taught me to use them well instead. Mr. Townsend, I worry for her. I help her much as I can, but I worry, and I would be lying if I said otherwise. This game you two play—”
“’Tis no game, Freeman.” Pulling his cloak tight, Rob moved nearer to the man, and hence the gate. “’Tis the most serious matter in the world.”
“Exactly, sir. Her daddy made me swear on the grave of mine that I would take care of her, that I would make sure no harm came to her because of his loyalties. But if she gets caught helping you in this—”
“I would never let that happen. Never.” Rob craned his head up to look into the towering face of the son of a slave, the only other link Winter had to her family on Long Island. “No one will ever know how she helps me.”
Freeman stepped aside. “See that they don’t, sir. The Hamptons would toss her to the streets in a blizzard if they caught even a whiff of scandal. They hold her accountable for her mother’s decisions and made it pretty clear that if she fails to atone for Amelia’s ‘bad’ marriage with a brilliant one of her own, they will wash their hands of her.”
He couldn’t hold back the snort. “That may be the best thing for her. I hate seeing how they have stifled her spirit.”
But Freeman shook his head. “You don’t understand. The mister, he hates her. He hates her just for being, and he never would have let her step foot in his house if weren’t for the missus wanting to redeem her reputation through Winnie. I heard him threaten to drop her off in Holy Ground if she doesn’t behave herself. No good to come of that.”
“No.” Icy fear settled like lead in the pit of Rob’s stomach. Sweet Winter, tossed in with every disease-ridden harlot in New York? Nay, it was too evil to even ponder. “It shan’t come to that, Freeman. You have my word.”
The man nodded, the movement barely discernible in the darkness. “You take care too, Mr. Townsend. No good to come of you getting caught, neither.”
“Don’t I know it.” He slipped out of the gate, lifting a hand in farewell even though he doubted the older man would be able to see it.
The nausea churned, exacerbated somehow by the rows of mansions in this part of the city. True, many of them now housed British soldiers instead of wealthy families. The Hamptons had avoided that solely because of their connections with Governor Tryon and the favor they had incurred with Generals Howe and Clinton.
Rob’s Quaker roots nevertheless thrummed within him at this obvious display of mammon. He had grown up in a home too affluent to earn the approval of the Friends, but even Father’s taste for finery, even Rob’s own focus on successful business ventures, had nothing on this kind of excess.
Yet only a few miles away, evidence of the Great Fire lingered. Hundreds of buildings, a third of the city’s housing, still lay in ruins. Every month, it seemed, there was a new scare about the state of provisions. Would there be enough flour to last the winter? Enough firewood? Enough straw?
Would he live to see it even if there were? If he were caught…
Well, he mustn’t be. That was all there was to it.
The blustery fingers of the winter wind snuck into his cloak as he hurried home, but Rob ignored them. Soon enough he climbed the stairs to his apartment. He roused the fire, and its warmth chased away the chill. Bathed in its orange glow, he picked up his quill.
On the newest paper he could find, he penned a simple note. A letter seemingly about mercantile business, any names mentioned the coded ones they had agreed on. He was careful to leave ample space between all the lines.
While it dried, he moved over to the bookcase. He had added two new tomes to his shelves that afternoon, and the promise of evenings well spent in their company made him smile. Rather than pull them out now, though, he removed the entire line of books and then the piece of wood on which they sat.
There, in the few inches of space between shelf and floor, he kept his most important tools. Vials of what they called in their letters “medicine,” which the Misters Jay shipped to General Washington in crates marked as such.
He took out the ink and the special quill he used with it, and then moved back to his desk. He eased the cork from the glass bottle and then halted, squeezing his eyes shut.
What would this news he was about to impart mean to his country? How could a nation hope to survive with its currency diminished to nothing? With what were they funding their government? Their army? Never mind the expenses he and his colleagues incurred through travel and lodging.
“Dear Lord…” Not knowing what to pray, he settled for opening his spirit for a moment and submitting this business, yet again, into the hand of the Almighty. Then he opened his eyes and picked up his quill.
The substance dubbed “the sympathetic stain” by Washington was barely visible as he wrote with it, such a pale yellow, and it dried into nothingness. Only the sheen of candlelight on liquid showed him his letters and the dire message they formed. Careful to keep his quill strokes between the lines of regular ink so as not to cause any telltale runs, he penned the terrible news.
They think America will not be able to keep an army together for another campaign. Everyone reasons that the currency will be depreciated, and that there will not be enough provision to supply the Army. The concern for the currency I am afraid will prove true, as the British are tireless in increasing the quantity of it. Several reams of paper made for the last emission struck by Congress have been stolen from Philadelphia.
There. When next Roe was in the city, Rob would deliver this to him. Roe would take it to Woodhull, whom Rob had come to know when they both boarded in the same house until a few months ago. From Woodhull it would make its way via the sailor Caleb Brewster to Benjamin Tallmadge, and from Tallmadge to General Washington himself.
And from Washington…well, Rob hoped it would make it to whoever could salvage what was left of young America’s treasury.
He recorked the vial, put it and the quill away, and replaced the shelf. Then he stood for a long moment, leaning against the bookcase.
He must hope. Must hope and believe he could make a difference. Must trust that if one fought for the light, it could hold the darkness at bay.
Winter eased the door shut with nary a click. Warmth welcomed her, along with the muted din of many voices in the other rooms. In this back hallway, though, all was quiet.
Hand clutching her throat, Winter spun around with a gasp. Not that she had to turn to know who waited. When they were introduced an hour ago, Mr. Lane’s voice had soothed like her favorite spiced tea. She wouldn’t forget it anytime soon.
What was he doing back here, though? Had he followed her? Had he seen her with Robbie? Impossible. One couldn’t see from the house into the shadows of the tulip tree at this time of night.
She swallowed back anything but expected alarm and willed herself into her usual role. “Mr. Lane, shame on you. You startled me.”
That shrewd gaze of his narrowed, though his lips were turned up in a smile. “Does your given name lend you a predilection for such inhospitable weather as is to be found in your backyard right now?”
Though she wanted to grin, instead she blinked—as if confused but not wanting to admit it. The Winter known in these circles never would have been able to follow that question. “Pardon? No, I was not outside to predict the weather. I just needed a breath of fresh air.”
The gentleman arched a brow. “In that chill?”
“My mother once said she named me well, given how much I like the cold.”
Mr. Lane chuckled and straightened from where he leaned against the wall. “You are a clever one.”
“Clever?” She gave him a surprised smile, even while mentally scolding herself. She ought not to have added that last part. Colonel Fairchild might smile when her presumed stupidity seemed to stumble into correct understanding, but Mr. Lane didn’t know her mask well enough to make such assumptions yet. “Why, Mr. Lane, that is a most unequaled compliment. I shall have to tell everyone you called me clever.”
His smile faltered as his eyes widened a tad. He had probably already heard enough opinions on her to realize that if he called her witty, it would speak to the opposite in him.
She nearly sighed at the need to resort to such strange threats.
Mr. Lane edged closer, challenge gleaming in his eyes. “Clever indeed. Is it not exhausting?”
Now he really did confuse her. “Is what exhausting, sir?”
Alarm bells clanged in the depths of her mind. How in the world could someone have seen that within an hour of meeting, when those who supposedly knew her well thought her superficial at best?
Father in heaven, protect me.
She blasted him with her most brilliant smile and strode forward, leaving him little choice but to turn and fall in beside her. “What a charmer you are. Your family is all from New York, are they not? How is it you only now come to our fair city?”
The light dimmed in his eyes. “Fair? What I have seen of it since coming home two days ago bears little resemblance to the New York I knew before the war.”
“The current state of things has been hard on everyone, to be sure.” She studied the wallpaper as she spoke, as if merely parroting what she’d heard others say and not sharing her own observation. As if she, in this golden world, had remained untouched. Oblivious.
“I imagine so.” His voice was too soft, too understanding—but thankfully, he shook himself. “To answer your question, I have been at Yale. First as a student, and then I stayed on as faculty.”
“Yale.” Questions sprang up, but she covered them with her usual smile. “I know it, of course. Grandfather calls it ‘a hotbed of Whiggish sentiment.’ It sounds delightful. I should greatly like a wider selection of wigs, perhaps one of those with so many curls a servant must follow behind with a stick to hold it up.”
He laughed. No polite chuckle or a chortle that he thought to be at her expense, but a genuine laugh of delight. Of understanding.
Or perhaps she was too tired, overwrought with all this business, and seeing things that weren’t there. Surely that made more sense than a total stranger comprehending her so immediately.
His mirth quieted to a smile, and he proffered his arm. “Your grandfather has the right of it, to be sure. I found there were many opportunities for debate.”
Somewhere deep inside, a kernel of warmth took up residence within the block of ice in her chest. Had anyone ever continued to talk seriously to her after one of her “misunderstandings”? Winter tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “You often debate on the fashion of wigs, then? Most intriguing. How many rows of curls do you prefer? Do you favor the gray powder or the white?”
He sent her a wink that ought to have scandalized her. “A good Yale man can debate any topic, Miss Reeves. For my part, I prefer no wig at all, as you can see. And powder makes me sneeze.”
“’Tis a problem, I confess. Some enterprising chemist ought to devise a better recipe.”
“Or perhaps some enterprising lady of fashion ought to make wigs a thing of the past, for the sake of our sensitive noses.”
She made a show of debating that as they regained the ballroom. “I shall take it under consideration, to be sure. But I so enjoy the display.”
Mr. Lane opened his mouth to retort, but before any words could come forth, another young gentleman walked up. He had brows closer to red than brown, a face well-dusted with freckles, and a cheerful gleam in his eyes. She recognized him but had never been told his name. All she knew was that he was considered beneath her.
“Ah, George.” Mr. Lane grinned and slapped a friendly hand to the newcomer’s shoulder. “Miss Reeves, allow me to introduce to you Mr. George Knight. He and I are childhood chums.”
She held out her hand and measured her smile to the appropriate brightness, gauged according to what her grandmother would approve. “Mr. Knight. Are you one of the esteemed Staten Island Knights?”
“Ah.” He’d barely bent over her hand before releasing it. With a glance toward Mr. Lane, he shifted his feet and grimaced—he probably intended it for a smile. “No, miss. No relation that I know of. My family are gunsmiths.”
Those Knights? Far more interesting than the stuffy landowners her grandparents so admired. Not that she ought to be interested in such things, so she put on the patronizing smile that always felt so vile upon her mouth. “Oh.”
Mr. Knight pursed his lips and turned to Mr. Lane. “Excuse me, Ben. I only wanted to find you to let you know I’m off. Do stop by sometime in the next few days. We have years to catch up on.”
“Certainly I shall.”
They clasped wrists, and the gunsmith bowed curtly to her. “Good evening, Miss Reeves.”
“And to you, Mr. Knight.” Her usual, absent smile would cover the pang snubbing him caused her. This was the part of life in her new society she would never get used to, this expectation to dismiss decent people based on their income.
Up until a year ago, she would have been the one dismissed.
The scowl that creased Mr. Knight’s forehead as he turned away proved the success of her facade. How…excellent.
Exhaustion settled on her shoulders and sent her gaze toward the tall case clock in the corner of the room. Not yet eleven thirty. The celebration would continue at least until one.
Mr. Lane studied her again, his blue eyes like a torch seeking out an escaped convict. Thankfully Colonel Fairchild approached. She had already promised him another dance, which was surely about to begin. The perfect excuse to escape Bennet Lane. With a little luck, she would be able to avoid him the rest of the night.
With a little diligence, forever.
Ring of Secrets$9.99 – $15.99