By Roseanna M White
Fairchild’s Lady and A Hero’s Promise, the two novellas in the Culper Ring Series, are brought together in one volume.
In 1789 General Isaac Fairchild travels across the Channel on a very special assignment. After surviving the American Revolution, he is now gathering information on life at King Louis XVI’s court. But he must also locate a countess and her grown daughter and escort them back to England before revolution explodes in France. He knows danger is in the task set before him, but when he meets the beautiful Julienne, a new peril beckons him deeper into the intrigue of Versailles.
A Hero’s Promise
In January of 1835, twenty-year-old Julienne Lane eagerly awaits the return of her fiancé and naval officer, Jack Arnaud, but she has not been idle. She and her best friend, Freeda Payne, have been working hard to support the abolitionist movement. Their efforts have been clouded in secrecy, but when Freeda shows up in Julienne’s cellar with a runaway slave, the need for secrets becomes imperative. When Jack returns home, will Julienne threaten his career in the Navy by including him in their plans, or will she hide news of the slave from him and put his trust to the test? Moreover, why does her fiancé appear to be hiding a secret of his own? Despite a harrowing tour of duty in the North Atlantic, Jack’s hopes for rest and recuperation are put on hold. His wedding to Julienne is in two days, but a more pressing matter comes to his attention from his associates in the Culper Ring. Should he ask his beautiful fiancée to postpone the wedding for the third time in two years? How will he and the Culper Ring foil the malicious plans they have uncovered? And why does Julienne blush so brightly when he asks her about the cellar? The clock is ticking. Danger looms. Can justice prevail? Will their love survive?
A mask provided no anonymity. Not for her. Remi would know her by her eyes if she let him look into them, know her and hold her close to his side all evening. The way he did at every other dinner, every other ball.
But not tonight. The desperation she felt inside had been growing so long, and now it nearly choked her. She would escape, must escape, if only for an hour. Keep her eyes down and live behind layers of powder, feathers, and silks. Live, for once, behind the mask.
She glanced up only long enough to assure herself that Remi was on the other side of the room, engaged in a conversation with Grandpère. Then she spun the opposite way—directly into a solid chest. “Pardonnez-moi.”
Hands gripped her shoulders to steady her, warm and large, and a chuckle brought her gaze up. “Bien sûr, mademoiselle.”
The baritone voice sent a strange trill along her nerves. Pleasant…mostly. Her brow furrowed as her mind flitted through all the men she knew at Versailles, all the nobles she had met over the years. She tried in vain to light upon who stood so tall. Had shoulders so broad, a chin so strong. A smile so charming, with eyes such a lively brown behind his mask.
Coming up blank, all she could do was smile in response. “I am sorry. I was not watching where I was going.”
“I shall forgive it.” He released her shoulders and bowed as the orchestra struck up a new song. “For the price of a dance?”
Caution made her want to glance over her shoulder again, but she refused. She would take this one dance, this one ineffectual grasp at freedom. “Oui.”
The music she had heard a thousand times before. The dance she had performed too often to count. But these past years, only with Remi. Remi, with his possessive gaze. Remi, with his dangerous smile. Remi, with his crushing whispers. Demanding what she could not, would not give. Not until the shackles were firmly around her wrists.
“You say ‘oui,’ mademoiselle, yet your mind does not seem to be following your feet to the dance floor.”
That equaled a victory for Remi, too, did it not? That her every move, every thought must revolve around him. She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and gave the stranger her most charming smile. “I am here, monsieur.”
Again his chuckle thrummed over her. He lifted her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.
Never before had her knees gone weak at such a move as they did now. Her fingers felt so warm in his, so…safe.
As if safety were ever anything but an illusion. Like freedom.
The stranger’s eyes sparkled. “I hope you are. The evening suddenly looked so much brighter with the light of your gaze upon it.”
Flattery and charm—no strangers to anyone at Versailles. Yet the way he said it…she drew in a deep breath and let herself think, if only for a heartbeat, that he meant it.
He led her through the minuet, his every motion fluid grace. Every female gaze, it seemed, was upon him. But despite the beguiling grin that remained on his lips, his eyes were frank. Without deceit. Confident, seeking, inviting.
Was it possible?
For the first time in three years, she dared to want. A conversation, nothing more. A conversation with a man who didn’t try to devour her with every sweep of his gaze. And so, when the set ended and the tall stranger led her off the dance floor and cocked his head toward a door, she made no objection.
She left. Without a glance over her shoulder, without acknowledging that frisson of fear that clawed its way up her spine. She left. Left Mére, left Grandpère.
The feeling of safety next to the stranger was surely deception, the desire to tuck herself to his side pure madness. But with the moonlight shimmering its silver magic down upon the gardens, she couldn’t help but think that a sip of insanity might be exactly what she needed most.
Perhaps it would be enough to see her through the bleak forever before her.
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A Hero’s Promise
29 January 1835
Julienne “Lenna” Lane stared at the panicked runaway huddled in the dark corner of her cellar. “Not again.” Transferring her gaze to her dearest friend, she tried to summon the authority her father would have had. “Freeda.”
Her friend didn’t so much as look over her shoulder at the bedraggled, shivering figure—woman? girl?—huddled among Mama’s jams and canned vegetables. “What was I to do, Julienne? She needed help.”
Squeezing her eyes shut did nothing to erase the stranger’s image. Without question, she was a slave. Escaping her master, just like the others. Hiding in Lenna’s cellar. Putting the entire family in danger by her mere presence, however understandable her need to flee. “We were agreed. Instead of taking an active role, we rely on our wits and—”
“Wits help nothing here.” Freeda’s smoke-gray eyes flashed in the low light that seeped in from the open door. The shadows deepened the even brown of her skin, a clear reminder that in her eyes, that mysterious slave was kin in some ways. “Meaningful as your articles are, they can’t save this girl now.”
A slice, that terrible truth. But still, if they wanted to effect a change that would help all the slaves, not just the few that made it off their masters’ lands… “But—”
She froze with her mouth still open to argue, her pulse doubling at the faint but familiar voice. Jack. Finally!
“No.” Freeda grabbed Lenna by the shoulders. Panic sparked in her gaze as it had in the stranger’s when Lenna came down. “You have to lead him away from here. Jack can’t see her, he can’t know.”
“Freeda.” Lenna pulled away, even as her friend’s fright lit an echoing spark in her. Foolishness, that. “It is only Jack.” Only—as if such a word should ever be applied to him.
Freeda shoved away an escaped ebony curl and shook her head. “Jack, with his unending questions. Jack, who now answers to the government. He can’t see her here! Go distract him. Please.”
Oh, dash it all, this shouldn’t be! What had become of the days when they would all run about together, the world an adventure land open before them? Her brothers, Edward and Winfield, her and Freeda, with Jack always at the head. That was what life should have been.
Heavens. Her pulse redoubling yet again until her hands shook, she grabbed up the basket of apples from the shelf and turned for the cellar stairs. Freeda was wrong. They could trust Jack with this, she knew it. Knew it…yet she shook all the more. Her friend was right, in a way. Jack was a naval officer now. He answered to a higher authority than their fathers. If he was found abetting a runaway, it could spell disaster for his career. Once in the yard, she lowered the cellar door into place. For his own good, she mustn’t—
“There you are.”
She squealed and dropped the basket, sending apples rolling around her feet. Splaying a hand over her galloping heart, she spun.
Jack Arnaud stood a few paces away, his brows drawn in a scowl more often seen on his father’s face than his own. One that seemed suited, though, to the somber naval blue of his uniform with its shining gold epaulettes. And the hollows in his cheeks—never had she seen him so thin, or with such shadows under his eyes.
“Jack.” What must have passed these last months to make him so gaunt? She would hear it all, she was sure, and where better than in her embrace? Her feet readied themselves for the launch into his arms. She had always greeted him thus, since she was a tot, through the awkwardness of adolescence, and into these past long years when he came home but rarely. Always, because she was his and he was hers and that was the way it was.
But with her first step she nearly fell over an apple, and what with squealing again and windmilling her arms and lunging to regain her footing, she hadn’t the chance to embrace him in those first moments as she usually did.
At least his chuckle erased the frown. He steadied her, smiling down at her in that way of his—which nearly outshone the shadows—and then nodded toward the mess of bruised fruit. “I’ll help you with that, shall I? Why were you bringing up so many apples?”
That was the first thing he said to her after nine months apart? True, she had intended to bring up a smaller basket of them with her before she had spotted Freeda and the runaway in the cellar, but still. She planted her hands on her hips as he bent to toss the nearest apples back into the basket.
“I have been well, thank you for asking. Not at all anxious about whether your ship would ever make it back to port, nor about the lack of letters these last two months. I have certainly not worn my knees raw from praying for you and worrying I would have to postpone the wedding yet again.”
“Lenna.” He paused in his crouch and stared at the red fruit as if he had forgotten its name. And said hers in a way she hated. Wearily, regretfully, chiding.
“No. Jack, please, no.” Though she wished them away, tears burned the backs of her eyes. “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to greet you with frustration. I meant to bake your favorite pie, to assure you I had prayed for your safety every day, to say how sure I had felt that the Lord would deliver you home to me in time. Don’t delay the wedding again. Please.”
He expelled a breath as he stood and let the apple roll into the basket. “I had envisioned our reunion going differently.”
As had she. Her version had been absent the fugitive in the cellar, she hadn’t tripped on her way into his arms, and his lips had claimed hers in one of those kisses she hadn’t partaken of in nine long months, not since he last bade her farewell. Yet now her feet felt rooted in place between him and the secrets behind her. The whole world seemed to have shifted just a bit.
His smile too looked strained. He came near, wrapped his arms around her, pressed his lips to the top of her head…but then retreated again. “Why don’t we go inside? I haven’t been warm in months.”
A weight settled on her shoulders. She wrapped her arms around her middle and gazed up into his eyes. She knew their exact shade of brown, the way amber flecked them. She knew the way they lit with laughter so readily, and how they darkened when worry overtook him.
They were dark now, and his lips were set in that apologetic line that hinted at why he wanted to get her inside for a conversation.
He was going to do it again. He would postpone their wedding, pleading a thousand reasonable excuses—that he needed more than two days to prepare for their nuptials, but with his ship so late to port, having obviously come through considerable trials…couldn’t they move it back a week? After all, he would say, what was a week? Or a month or a year or two years? They had their whole lives ahead of them…
She didn’t know fury well. It was at best a passing acquaintance, one she avoided whenever she could. But in that moment, when wrathful flames exploded through her, she thought perhaps it had been growing inside far longer than she thought. She kicked at one of the apples he so loved and then, when he reached for her again, slapped his arm away. “Don’t even consider it, Jack Arnaud. If you cancel the wedding on Saturday, it will be for the last time. I’ll not wait for you forever.”
Once spoken, the words seemed to hang in the air between them, sharp and incendiary. Lenna sucked in a breath and pressed her lips together, wishing she could unspeak them. Such lies should have no place on her tongue. She would wait forever to be his wife. If he but offered one word of assurance, if he but reached for her one more time, she would leap into his arms as she always did.
Instead, his eyes snapped with an echo of her fury. “You will lay this all at my feet? Were you not the one who canceled the second time?”
Fire scorched her neck. “It is hardly my fault the trip from England took nine weeks that summer!”
“Nor mine that my ship left a month earlier than expected the first time.”
True, but they could have wed before he left. Why had they not? Perhaps she had not yet been eighteen, but what did that matter? Now she was a breath away from twenty and still waiting for that promised exchange of vows.
Jack folded his arms across his chest. “And will you hold the last time against me? Did we not both agree that we should focus on my father’s wedding instead?”
After so many years of mourning his first wife, how could they do anything but focus on Alain Arnaud and his Adèle, Lenna’s own distant cousin from France? The match, so unexpected, had filled them all with awed joy. And at the time, it had seemed no great thing to put off her wedding in favor of theirs.
But that was nearly a year ago. “The point remains that we are all here now, with nothing else vying for our attention. We are to wed in two days, Jack. You cannot postpone it again with no excuse!”
His movements jerky, he bent down once more and gathered the apples as if they were his ammunition, the basket his cannon…and she his target. “Why do you assume I want to postpone again? Of course I don’t. It is just that…you cannot know how terrible this trip was. I feel about to fall over, and that is not exactly the shape I wish to be in when we wed.”
As the anger seeped out, the cold seeped in. A gust of winter wind blustered through the garden, rattling a few stubborn brown leaves still clinging to their branches. Lenna sank down to a seat upon the sloped cellar door, skirts and petticoats whooshing around her. “Of course not. Do what you will.”
“Lenna.” That tone again. He dropped the last two apples into the basket and turned to her. “How big a pie were you planning on making?”
“I was…making several. You know how Win eats.” At fourteen, her youngest brother had entered that stage where they could scarcely keep him in food—or breeches that fit his gangly legs.
But Jack must have heard her hesitation. He narrowed his eyes and held fast to the basket. “Even so, you wouldn’t need the whole bushel.”
Perhaps her breath came out too exasperated, but what was she to do? “When I heard you call me, I grabbed the whole thing. Why is that worthy of question?”
“Why is it worthy of evasion?”
Freeda was right—Jack was far too inquisitive. “I wasn’t evading, I was…” In the face of his arched brow, her cheeks went hot. “Must you call me on being flustered at hearing you?”
One of his dimples flashed along with a crooked grin. “Yes, I must, so I can earn a blush. Though it is hardly a secret that you drop everything to greet me.”
No, more a tradition—one whose lack today still made her arms feel empty and strange. Her lips should be tingling now from his kiss, not dry and cold from the January wind. She should be pulling him into the house to see the wedding gifts that had arrived in his absence and let Rosie shove food at his too-slender self, not sitting here on the cellar door hoping neither Freeda nor her mysterious companion dared to sneeze.
“Come.” He held his hand out to help her up. “I’ll return these to the cellar for you and we’ll—”
“No!” She leapt up, biting her lip against the stupidity of her quick objection. This was why she should stick with wit, satire, and a nom de plume—she was terrible at actual intrigue.
Jack’s face turned to stone. “What are you hiding?” He sounded not only suspicious, but baffled. As if it were inconceivable that she could possibly have a secret she wouldn’t immediately blabber to him.
All right, so perhaps he had evidence to support that assumption. And she didn’t want to keep secrets from him. But this one was not hers to share.
The other was, though. She drew in a long breath and took a step toward him, away from the cellar. “You’re right, we ought to go inside. I wanted to show you something I’ve written—”
“Lenna, what is in the cellar?”
Her chin rose of its own volition. “Nothing to interest you, as all the apples are now out here. Please, Jack. This is important.”
Frowning his father’s frown again, he held her gaze for a long moment and then set the basket of apples down. “You’re hiding something from me.”
“Yes.” Did it sound as much a hiss as it felt? “And I’ll be glad to share what it is as soon as we go inside. It’s freezing out here, and you haven’t been warm in months.”
He didn’t so much as blink. Was this the face he wore on board his ship as he took commands from the captain or gave them to the noncommissioned sailors? If so, she was glad not to see it day in and day out, for it bore little resemblance to the Jack she had known all her life. He drew himself up to his full height. “I will be happy to read your latest essay later. Perhaps tomorrow. But right now we have other things to discuss.”
Why must he sound so cold as he said it? The frost in his tone seeped straight to her bones. If he knew, he wouldn’t put it off. But then, that seemed to be his normal response to her lately. Never mind the articles that had been lighting an inferno of debate in newspapers up and down the coast, why expect him to care for that when the idea of his own wedding seemed more burden than joy? “How long this time? Six more months? Another year?”
“I only ask a week to recuperate, Lenna. Just a week. Is that unreasonable?”
No. Not at all, except that it layered atop so much else. So many years now of waiting and hoping and being put off. So long to wonder if he had changed his mind, if he welcomed the space between them, if he had outgrown his childhood devotion.
So long to amass secrets. She dug her fingers into her sides, but the boning of her corset made her spine feel no more steeled. “Do you even want to marry me anymore?”
“How can you question that?” Irritation drew a weary-looking line in his forehead. He stepped nearer, but the arms he slid around her waist remained stiff. “I have loved you all of my life. You ought to know that. You ought to be secure in it. Of all the things in this world, that ought to be one we never doubt.”
Sliding her frigid hands up his arms, she wondered where the security was that she usually felt within them. “It’s just…you don’t seem eager to wed.”
“I?” And yet when he pulled away, too many emotions flashing through his eyes for her to read them, she felt all the more bereft. “You are the one not acting yourself, admitting to having kept something important from me.”
“And you won’t grant me the fifteen minutes required to explain it to you!”
The muscle in his jaw pulsed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had made him angry, the last time they had fought…and she couldn’t shake the feeling that it had all gone wrong because of her. Well, perhaps not all, but she had somehow started this argument by greeting him with defensiveness instead of affection.
He backed up another step, his officer’s mask in place again. “What’s in the cellar, Lenna?”
She had started it by hiding a runaway and not telling him outright. When she swallowed, it felt as though she tried to force down a stone. “Why can you not trust me, Jack?”
“A fine question from a woman who just admitted she didn’t trust me to keep my promise to wed her.”
Lenna clasped one hand onto the opposite arm in a vain attempt to anchor herself. Despite the warm wool of her cloak, the puff at the elbow of her sleeve, she felt nothing but ice. “Is that all it is? A promise to be kept?”
“All?” Something in his tone rang of disappointment. Something in his eyes flashed with the same. He shook his head and turned toward the drive. “Have it your way. Keep your secrets.”
“No. Jack!” He couldn’t leave like this. He couldn’t. They had never parted at odds, never in all her nearly twenty years. If they did now, when they ought to be knitting their futures together…
God of my end! She flew after him, though his long strides had him halfway to the corner before she grasped his arm. “Don’t be angry with me. Please. I don’t want to have secrets from you. It was only Freeda.”
He paused, lifting a brow.
How could she feel at once so flushed and so cold? She pressed a hand to her cheek. “And a friend. Please leave it at that.”
His lips stayed firmly pressed, but his eyes went thunderous.
She dropped her hand from his arm. “You act as though you have never kept a secret.” He must though. A navy man could hardly go about town blathering all he knew. Was the fight against oppression that she and Freeda had engaged in so much different from him fending off pirates?
Yet somehow she didn’t expect the flash of lightning that joined the thunder in his eyes. Lightning that spoke not of recognition but of…guilt.
She drew a step away. What could he possibly feel guilty for keeping from her? He knew well she wanted to know nothing of his work that was not suitable for the telling, nothing that did not concern her directly.
But there were parts of his life away from her that did concern her directly.
Did the wind increase, the temperature drop? Or did she just go weak in comparison? She clasped her cloak closed tighter. “What? What is it? Is there…is there someone else? Is that what you’ve kept from me?”
The storm in his eyes shifted, the guilt giving way to pure, lashing outrage. With only a single, angry shake of his head, he strode away.
Lenna stared after him until he’d disappeared, until she heard the creak of the cellar door, until Freeda’s fingers wove through hers, soft brown against freckled cream.
“What happened?” her friend asked in a strained whisper.
Lenna forced a swallow. “I don’t know. But I think I’m not getting married on Saturday.”
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