I Love Her…Can I Trust Her?
I Love Him…Is He Safe?
by Roseanna M. White
1814—England and America are again at war. Sudden and implacable treachery causes Gwyneth Fairchild’s world to crumble in a moment’s time. The daughter of a British general, she barely saves her life by fleeing London aboard a ship bound for America. Her goal is to find refuge with the Lane family in Maryland. Yet after meeting the Lanes’ son, Thaddeus, Gwyn wonders how safe she is. For she discovers that this family trades in a dangerous commodity—espionage.
Thad Lane is a prominent citizen in the city of Baltimore. He has the ear of everyone, and he is in a unique position to pass on to leaders of government exactly what he hears. Not long after the beautiful and British Gwyneth Fairchild finds safe haven in his community, he experiences the tug of love, though he fears it may blur lines of loyalty. With family playing the part of enemies and enemies proving themselves friends, a future with Gwyn is more than uncertain—it could be life threatening.
The servants hefting her trunks onto the carriage might as well have been loading her coffin. Gwyneth Fairchild pulled her pelisse close and gazed across Hanover Square with a sick feeling in her stomach. Surely she would awaken from this nightmare and walk down to the breakfast room to find Papa smiling at her. He would speak and say something that actually made sense.
Not like yesterday.
She shut her eyes against the image of all that was familiar, all that she might never see again. What if the Scribe went down? Was attacked by a renegade French ship or those dreadful American pirates? What if, assuming she made it to Annapolis, they killed her the moment she stepped ashore?
Annapolis. Had Papa not looked so sorrowful, so determined when he said that word yesterday, she would have thought he had gone mad.
His hand settled on her shoulder now, warm and large. Those hands had steadied her all her life. Capable, that was what General Isaac Fairchild had always been. Capable and steady and so very noble. All that was worthy of love and respect. So surely she could trust him now when logic and reason said she couldn’t.
“I know it makes little sense to you, dear heart.” He touched her chin, a silent bid for her to look at him. She found his eyes gleaming with moisture he would never shed. Not when anyone could see him, though she had heard his heartrending sobs when Mama died last fall. “I wish there were another way, but there is not.”
Another way for what? He hadn’t said, wouldn’t say. Gwyneth drew in a tremulous breath and tried to stand tall and proud, the way Mama had taught her, the way Papa himself had instilled. To convey with her posture that she was the great-granddaughter of a duke, the granddaughter of two earls, the daughter of a general.
A daughter sent into exile for no apparent reason. Separated from all those she loved, the only people left in the world who mattered. “Papa—”
“I know.” He leaned in and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I do. But I cannot entrust you to anyone but the Lanes.”
A light mist descended, heavier than fog but too tame to be called rain. At this moment, a thunderstorm would have better matched her confusion. “Please tell me what is happening. Why must you entrust me to anyone? And if you must, why not Aunt Poole or Aunt Gates?”
His jaw moved for a moment but no words came. Nay, he simply looked past her, his eyes searching for something unseen. Then he sighed. “The Lanes will welcome you and take care of you, Gwyn. I will follow as quickly as I can. A month at the outside. No more.”
Exactly what he said yesterday too. He would give no explanation as to why he was sending her to a nation with whom they were at war, across the Atlantic to a family she had met only once, when she was but a tot.
“Papa, your words hint at danger, but what could threaten me here more than the sea and its pirates? The French, the Americans?”
“The French ought to pose no threat now that we’ve subdued them.” He reached inside his coat of blazing red and pulled out an envelope. “In all likelihood your ship will reach harbor safely, but if by chance you do encounter American privateers, offer them this.”
She frowned as she took the envelope. It was too thin to contain anything but a single sheet of paper. “What—”
“Trust me. ’Twill suffice.” Chatter from the house grew louder, and Papa looked away again, to the nearing housekeeper and gardener. “There are the Wesleys. Time to go.”
A million arguments sprang to her tongue. She didn’t want to leave. Not her home, not him, not all she held dear. Not her first Season, the one that had been put off because of Mama’s illness last year. Not her friends.
And what about Sir Arthur? She hadn’t even spoken to him to tell him she was leaving, hadn’t dared send a note. “Papa, Sir Arthur…”
“It isn’t to be, Gwyn, not now. Perhaps when this has passed, when it is safe for you to return.”
Tears burned, begging to be set loose, but she clenched her teeth and blinked. How had it come to this? Promise had finally shone its light again. Shopping with Aunt Gates had made it feel as though Mama were with her still. Making the rounds with her friends had finally distracted her from the loss. Getting vouchers for Almack’s, and then Sir Arthur’s court—she had, at long last, looked forward to the future.
“Please don’t cry, dear heart.” Papa thumbed away a wily tear that escaped her blockade and kissed her forehead again. “Up with you, now. You must be at the docks soon.”
Instead, she surged forward and wrapped her arms around him. “I don’t want to leave you, Papa. I can’t. Don’t make me go. Or come with me.”
He held her close. “Would that I could. Would that I didn’t have to bid goodbye, yet again, to the one who matters most.” He gave her another squeeze, another kiss, and then he set her back. His eyes were rimmed with red. “I love you, Gwyneth. Go with God.”
He let her go and pivoted on his heel, all but charging back into the house. She almost wished she could resent him, but how could she, seeing his struggle? Whatever his reasons, they must be valid.
And whatever his reasons, they must be dire. A shiver coursed up her spine and made the mist seem colder. Isaac Fairchild was a respected general, a man loved by all. A man of considerable sway in London and beyond. If there were something frightening enough that he must send her away, was planning on leaving himself—
And for America, no less. Would he be going there to take command of troops? Possibly. Though why would he be secretive about it? But then, there was much about Papa’s work he could not discuss. Secrets, always secrets.
“All’s secure, Miss Fairchild,” the driver called down from the bench.
She slipped the envelope into her reticule and took a step toward the Wesleys. They, at least, would provide familiar faces for the journey. They would be an anchor on the foreign seas.
Quick hoofbeats snagged her attention. “Miss Fairchild!”
Her eyes went wide when she saw the dashing figure astride the horse. Sir Arthur reined to a halt beside the carriage and leaped down, fervor ablaze in his eyes.
“Miss Fairchild.” He gripped her hands as he searched her face with his gaze. He had the loveliest brown eyes, so warm and beckoning, the perfect fit to his straight nose and sculpted mouth. “Is it true, then? Broffield just told me that Miss Gregory said you were leaving Town.”
“I…” He was holding her hands. Sir Arthur Hart, Knight of the Order of Saint Patrick, presumed heir to a viscountcy, the most sought-after bachelor in England, grasped her fingers as if he never intended to let go. The mass of confusion inside twisted. “Yes, it is true. My father…”
He eased closer, his gaze so compelling she feared she might drown in it. “Something to do with military business, then? You will return soon?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think Papa knows.”
“Dear Miss Fairchild. Gwyneth.” His fingers tightened around hers, much like the band around her chest. Never before had he spoken her given name. Hearing it in his rich tenor, spoken with such affection, made her fear her tears would overcome her after all. “Why must you go with him? Can you not stay here with your aunt?”
Her attempt at swallowing got stuck in her throat. “I am all Papa has now since my mother passed away, and he is loath to be separated.” True, so true. Why, then, was he sending her an ocean away to a hostile land?
“But surely there is a way to convince him. What if…” He paused and then swallowed before using their joined hands to pull her closer. “What if you were betrothed?”
Her heart quickened inside her, beating a desperate tattoo against her ribs. Would that change anything? Could it? “I…don’t know.”
“Gwyneth.” Oh, he made her name into music. The breeze toyed with his honey-colored hair under the brim of his hat, making her itch to touch the curls. “My darling, I have such a love and admiration for you. If you would feel inclined toward accepting my hand, I will speak with your father this very moment.”
At first all she could think was He proposed! Then she drew in a quick breath and nodded with too much enthusiasm. “Of course I am inclined if he agrees. Only…” She drew away when he moved closer still, recalling Papa’s discomposure mere minutes before. “Let me speak with him first, as he was out of countenance.”
“Certainly. Yes. Anything.” He laughed and raised her hands to kiss her knuckles. As if surprised she had said yes. “I will take a turn through your garden to try to calm myself.”
“Perfect.” If only she could be sure Papa would agree. If only she could be sure that, if not, Sir Arthur would wait for her. She pulled away, but he snagged her hand again.
“Gwyneth. Darling.” He smiled, so bright and handsome it made her doubt trouble could exist. “I will make you very happy.”
A smile stole onto her lips. It melted away again in a moment, but he had turned toward the garden by then.
Mrs. Wesley snagged her attention with a shooing motion toward the door. “You had better hurry, love. If the general does not change his mind, we must hasten on our way.”
Gwyneth flew through the mist up the steps to the door and back into the house. For a moment she paused to breathe in home, but she hadn’t time to savor it. If her mission went well, she needn’t say good-bye to it at all.
Please, Lord. Please let him relent.
She sped down the hallway and around the corner toward Papa’s study. He always ended up there, either busy at work or staring at the picture of Mama she’d painted for him. A professional portrait hung in the drawing room, but he said she had done the better job. Praise which always made her heart expand.
The study door was before her by the time she realized voices spilled out. Two of them—though when had anyone else arrived? Surely no servant would dare speak over Papa like this.
“Isaac, listen to yourself!”
Gwyneth froze a step from the door. It was open a crack, letting her look in, though only the corner of the desk was visible, and just behind it, where Papa stood. But she recognized Uncle Gates’s voice.
“ ‘Isaac’ now, is it?” Papa’s laugh sounded dry. “Odd how you only remember our familial ties when we disagree. Otherwise it is always my rank to which you appeal.”
A loud bang made Gwyneth jump. Uncle’s fist connecting with wood, perhaps? “Blast it, Fairchild, it’s your rank you are abusing!”
“No! ’Tis my rank I honor. Someone, Gates, must do what is right. Someone must stand for justice rather than—”
“Hang all that noble rot.” A nasty curse spilled from Uncle Gates’s lips as glass shattered. Gwyneth recoiled, staring in horror at the sliver of room. What keepsake had he destroyed? The vase Mama had chosen two years ago? The small porcelain figure Gwyneth had given Papa for his birthday when she was fifteen? Something precious, for only the most special pieces gained a place of honor on Papa’s shelves.
And why? Why would Mama’s own brother do such a thing?
He sent something else toppling. “You are undermining years of careful work! The Home Office—”
“The Home Office, you say?” Papa leaned forward onto his desk, a look of deathly calm upon his face. “Nay. The Home Office has decent men in it yet. A few, at least, though you are not one of them. This evil must be stopped, Gates. You must be stopped.”
There came a shuffling sound, one Gwyneth couldn’t comprehend but which made Papa snap upright. Made him lift his hands, palms out, and make a placating motion. “Gates—”
“I am through reasoning with you, Fairchild. Tell me where they are. Now.”
One of Papa’s hands lowered toward his desk drawer, but another shuffle made him pause. “I am only—”
“You think me so great a fool? I already removed that, dear brother.” More curses exploded from Uncle Gates. Closer now, as though he were rounding the desk, just out of her view. “Tell me where they are!”
Papa’s sharp inhalation was clearly audible. “Gone.”
“Gone? Gone? What do you mean, gone?”
“Just that. Out of my hands and on their way to those who can put a stop to this before you destroy two nations in the name of avarice.”
A cry tore through the room, guttural and animalistic. Light flashed on something metallic as her uncle charged into view, the gleaming length held before him. Still, she had no idea what he wielded until she saw the silver stained red.
She pressed her hands to her mouth to hold back the scream, hold back the horror, but it didn’t help. Uncle still hissed words of hatred. Papa still staggered back, away from the blade. Then he crumpled and fell.
Gates followed him down, muttering, “You couldn’t have, not yet. You must have it.” His hands shoved into Papa’s jacket and searched.
Papa, fight back! But he didn’t. He gasped, seemed to struggle for a moment, and then went lax. No. No, no, no, no, no!
Did she bleed too? She must. She couldn’t move, couldn’t make a sound, couldn’t be. Not anymore.
When Papa’s head lolled to the side, he blinked and his gaze focused on her. There was life yet in those familiar depths, but it flickered. Sputtered. “Gwyneth.”
She didn’t hear it. She just saw the movement of his lips. But her uncle, tossing Papa’s case of calling cards into the wall, snarled. “Now you worry about your darling daughter? Oh, have no fear, Fairchild. Dear Uncle Gates will take care of our precious girl.”
Bile burned her throat.
Papa blinked again as he tried to pull in a breath that choked him. Again his gaze sharpened, caught hers. This time when his lips moved, he made no sound whatsoever. Run!
Then it was gone, all the light in his eyes. Extinguished like a flame left before an open window.
And she ran. She turned on silent slippers and fled back around the corner and down the hall. Out the doors and straight into the waiting carriage.
“Gwyneth? Miss Fairchild?”
All she noted of the voice was that it wasn’t Uncle Gates’s. Nothing else mattered. Seeing that the Wesleys were already seated, their eyes now wide, Gwyneth pulled the door shut herself. “Go!”
An eternal second later, the driver’s “Yah!” reached her ears, and the carriage jolted forward.
When she closed her eyes, all she could see was darkness yawning before her.
Whispers from the Shadows$4.99 – $15.99
10 May 1814
Thaddeus Lane watched as the teetering Johnson stood, sending a snarl at Smitty, seated across from him. Thad was glad he stood well out of range of the sure-to-be-foul exhalation of breath.
“Them British won’t waste their time in the Chesapeake.”
Smitty’s face mottled red. “They won’t, eh? What of the atrocity at Hampton?”
Johnson hiccupped. “Years ago. I say that…that…I say if Mr. President don’t care, why should we?” He turned in a slow, wobbling circle, confusion on his brow. “Where’d I put me hat?”
Thad pushed off from the wall and scooped up from the floor a filthy bit of felt. With a grin, he jammed it onto the man’s head. “There you are, Johnson.”
The inebriated sailor gave him a gap-toothed smile. “Bless you, young Lane. You’re a good one, you are.”
Smitty scowled and thunked his mug onto the table, sloshing ale. “Lane, tell him. Tell him we ought to take the threat seriously.”
“Yeah, Laney, tell him it’s nothin’.”
Thad grinned at one sot and the other. Sometimes he picked up a few gems of information from these ale-soaked tongues, and sometimes he just got caught in their foxed arguments.
The door swung open, and relief surged through him when his oldest friend stepped into the dank tavern. With brows raised, Thad moved his hand down in front of his torso, thumb up, then away from his body, palm out. Anything?
Alain Arnaud shook his head. Ah, well. Thad smiled and refocused on Smitty’s question. “I think if Arnaud’s dear Napoleon had taken care of the Redcoats as he ought to have, we wouldn’t have to worry about it at all.”
Arnaud scowled in that way that made it obvious, even more than his dark Bourbon looks, that he’d been born an aristocrat. “My Napoleon? I have not stepped foot in France since I was five, but he is my Napoleon?”
“See?” Smitty wiped a grubby sleeve over his mouth. “He be worried. And if Thaddeus Lane be worried…”
“He ain’t worried. And if Thaddeus Lane ain’t worried…”
Thad chuckled and clapped a hand to Arnaud’s shoulder to push him back out the door. “Let us leave them to their quarrel, shall we?”
Arnaud grunted, but his frown didn’t ease as Thad propelled him into the warm sunshine. “No one made it into port today. Did you learn anything?”
“Nothing we did not already know, though I had hoped news of Napoleon’s defeat would loosen a few tongues.” He glanced down the street, at the bay with its ships too long at anchor. His was there, the masts barely visible beyond his warehouse. Other than a few scouting trips up the Patapsco River, the Masquerade had scarcely pulled anchor since he slipped past the British blockade a year ago. It was enough to bring a man to tears. “We need to get back to the Caribbean to rendezvous with the privateers. Napoleon’s defeat will surely mean more British forces sent here.”
“I have already made the arrangements. The Demain will be easier to get to open waters than the Masquerade.”
His tone was matter-of-fact, unaffected—but the words pulled Thad to a halt and made his brows knit. “You cannot go.”
Arnaud had long ago perfected that look, the one that labeled Thad a dunce. “Of course I can. I gather my crew, we make our way to the estuary, meander back out to the bay, and voilà. Open water.”
Thad crossed his arms over his chest and glared. “And what of Jack? No. I will go and you will stay with your son.”
A string of low, blistering French slipped out. Arnaud shook his head and took off again, heading away from the bay’s gray waters.
Sometimes the man could be downright pigheaded. “Alain, you know I am right.”
“I know you think yourself the only man in America capable of doing what needs done, but you are wrong, mon ami.” Pivoting at the corner, Arnaud spared him a scathing glance. “Delegate.”
“But what? The Demain is the faster.”
And it never ceased to irritate him. “But—”
“You have the better contacts on land.”
Unfortunately, some did still view Arnaud with suspicion simply because he was born a European noble. “But—”
“But?” Quick as a flash, Arnaud went from scowling to laughing. “But you are jealous and want to get back to the sea.”
The mere mention was enough to make Thad yearn for salty wind and a pitching deck. He loosed an exaggerated sigh. “Oh, to take a few prizes. Sink a few British ships. Swash a few bucklers.”
“And if Congressman Tallmadge were not relying on you…but for now, you know well it is I who must go.”
Blast. He hated it when Arnaud was right. But he put on a smile and tipped his hat when a few pretty young ladies exited a shop. “Mrs. Caldwell, Miss Raines.”
“Captain Lane.” Miss Raines fluttered her fan and dimpled. “Are you still planning on attending my parents’ ball this Saturday?”
Unless he could find a way to make Arnaud keep his next appointment with Tallmadge and escape to the sea… “Certainly. Will you save me a dance?”
“Of course I will!”
Mrs. Caldwell offered her own smile, a bit flirtatious given her new marriage. “We look forward to seeing you there.”
Arnaud’s hands moved in a series of quick, muted motions. Too much, if you ask me. Thad had to work to keep his own smile neutral. Leave it to his friend to use the family’s language of signs, developed by his grandfather for the sake of the deaf Great-Grandmother Reeves, to be droll.
The young ladies, oblivious, giggled their way down the street and disappeared into another shop.
Arnaud rolled his eyes. “I am afraid I will have to miss the event, Miss Raines. My apologies. But thank you so much for inquiring.”
Chuckling, Thad gave him a friendly shove to get them moving again. “According to Philly, you are the most handsome man in Maryland—after her own husband, of course.”
His friend’s gaze went suspicious. “There is never any arguing with your sister. But I assume you have some less-flattering point?”
He tilted his head toward the shop into which the ladies had disappeared. “To get their attention, a little charm is more useful than a pretty face.”
“Pardonnez-moi?” Were it not for the outrage on his face, Thad might have thought Arnaud had lost his command of the English language. “I am not pretty.”
Taking in his friend’s slight, lithe frame, the dark curls tossed by the wind, and the chiseled features, Thad had to laugh. “Pretty as a picture, ye are,” he said, borrowing Johnson’s salt-laden speech. “All ye be needin’ is a ribbon for those bonny curls.”
“I ought to…” Arnaud pulled back his hand, but a grin bullied its way onto his mouth. “And though I prefer not to be ignored, I have no desire to charm anyone.”
Thad sighed and, after waiting for a wagon to rumble past, crossed the cobbled street. He had bitten his tongue for a good while now, but… “Alain, it is time. Jack needs a mother, and you—”
“Jacques does not need some silly young female. And why would I need another wife?” The look he sent Thad was as dark as a storm over the Atlantic and every bit as deadly. “So you can steal her if I am a week late to port?”
He would not engage. Not here, not now. Thad stomped onto the sidewalk. “What will you do with Jack when you leave? Mrs. George cannot keep him indefinitely, not with her rheumatism.”
Mischief eased back onto Arnaud’s countenance. “True. That is why I took him to your mother.”
Though he still had a list of errands he needed to run, Thad came to a stop again. “You could not have possibly made it to Annapolis and back since I saw you this morning.”
“And you have obviously not made it home.”
Not knowing whether to laugh with joy or shout with alarm, Thad bolted for the alleyway before him—the quickest way back to his house. “Is this a visit, or did they evacuate Annapolis?” he called over his shoulder.
Arnaud’s answer was a French something-or-another in which Thad caught only “questions” and “slow down.” Ignoring that, he concentrated on darting around the children playing tag, sidestepping the dubious stream of liquid being poured from a window, and skidding around the next corner.
Home lay one more block down, where shops and town houses gave way to the more stately Federal-style edifices. He had invested in one of those solely for times like these—when his family arrived unannounced.
He drew up when the wispy voice reached his ears. Though he hadn’t known old Mr. Matthews as a child, the gentleman had only to frown to make him feel like a recalcitrant schoolboy. “Good day, Mr. Matthews.”
His neighbor tottered a few steps, leaning heavily on his cane. “Your parents have arrived, I see.”
A blessing, yes, but what of Father’s classes? Had the college shut down? “So it would seem.”
As the old man drew nearer, his expression came into focus. Worry deepened each well-earned crease. “They plan on a long stay, from the looks of it. Has Annapolis been evacuated?”
Thad made sure his smile shone with confidence. “I will ask them if they know how your granddaughter fares.”
A measure of peace softened the man’s brow. “I do appreciate it, Thaddeus. And tell your father I would be delighted to share a pot of tea with him later.”
“I imagine he will be along as soon as they are settled.” Thad looked up when Arnaud huffed up to them. “Ah, you decided to join me.”
His friend, wheezing, punched him in the arm.
Mr. Matthews chuckled and turned back toward his house. “You had best go greet Mrs. Lane. She is no doubt wondering where you are.”
Ever curious, Winter Reeves Lane would indeed wonder and be eager for any tidbits of intelligence he had learned since they last spoke. Which was precious little of import. At least until he laid hands on that elusive key.
None of which was relevant to his neighbor, so Thad gave a quick bow, a warm, “Good day to you, Mr. Matthews,” and turned back down the street.
Arnaud sucked in a lungful of air. “How do you move so quickly at our age?”
He had little choice but to return the punch to the arm. “Your age, perhaps, old man, but I am a mere eight-and-twenty and in the prime of my youth.”
Arnaud snorted a laugh—he was, after all, only a few months older. “I feel eighty some days, trying to keep up with Jacques.” He dragged in another deep breath and then squinted, his gaze also on the corner. “Thunder, man, did your parents bring their whole house? When I came by earlier, only your mother in the carriage had arrived. Your father had not yet come with the wagon.”
Thad focused on one of the larger objects in the wagon and let out a groan. His long legs stretched, closing the distance between him and the tall figure supervising the line of men going to and from his house. “No, no, no! Father, you didn’t.”
Bennet Lane spun around, a smile of greeting blooming full and bright as his arms spread wide. “Thaddeus! We were wondering when you might be home.”
Even as he embraced his father, Thad kept his gaze upon the loaded-down wagon. “What did you do, bring your entire laboratory?”
“Well, of course. ’Tis impossible to conduct any worthwhile experiment without one’s equipment.”
Thad winced when Henry, his housekeeper’s son-in-law, nearly bobbled a large metal something or another. Who knew what might blow up if anything were dropped? He leveled a finger at his father’s chin. “There will be no experiments in my house.”
His eyes seeking the heavens, Father shook his head. “One minor accident fifteen years ago, and you never let me live it down.”
“It was an explosion.”
“Only a small one. A trifle, really.”
Thad folded his arms over his chest. “The repercussion destroyed half of Mother’s china—”
“Which was a dreadful pattern inherited from her grandmother and no great loss. Ah, good day, Alain.” Father reached out and clasped Arnaud’s wrist. “Have you been keeping this rapscallion in line?”
“If only it were possible.” Arnaud smiled, though his usual frown overtook his features a moment later when two neighborhood boys maneuvered a large wooden box off the wagon.
Father lunged forward. “Careful, boys! Those are beakers—glass, very fragile. They go to the library.”
His library? Thad scrubbed a hand over his face. “If so much as a thread of my favorite rug is bleached, burned, or otherwise irritated by your chemicals—”
“If you would prefer we stay with your sister, I can crate it all back up.” Father shot him an innocent smile.
Thad narrowed his eyes. “By all means. Stay with Philly.”
The innocence gave way to mischief. “We would, but then I would be fighting her for space in my own laboratory. Besides, your—Jack, careful!”
Thad and Arnaud turned in time to see the four-year-old barrel through the front door. He ran directly between the two young men and under the box of beakers and didn’t stop until he had tossed himself at Father, screaming all the while, “Grandpapa, Grandpapa!”
Father scooped him up with a laugh and set him atop his shoulders. “Jack, my boy, one of these days you will give me such a fright I shall simply keel over.”
Jack laughed with all the maniacal glee of any boy of four and slapped his hands to his would-be grandfather’s cheeks. “I missed you.”
“And I you, you little imp. Your grandmama tells me you will be staying with us while your papa goes to sea.”
“Yea!” Jack threw his arms up. And apparently tightened his legs around Father’s neck to compensate, given the shade of red his face turned. “We all get to stay at Uncle Thad’s house!”
“It will be a veritable holiday.” Thad tugged on the boy’s foot, well remembering how it felt to be atop Father’s shoulders. Now he had to climb a mast to get that same sensation.
If only he had an excuse to do so. He nudged Arnaud with his elbow. “You can stay and visit. I can take the Demain out for you.”
His friend shot him a glare.
Father laughed. “Your mother would…” His voice trailed off, his gaze on the street. A look of awkwardness took over his face, so that it was no surprise when he muttered out a low, “Ladies. Good day.”
Thad pivoted as the clip-clop of hooves penetrated his consciousness, and then he tipped his hat to the four ladies within the phaeton that rolled past. “Good day, Miss Rhodes, Miss Margaret, Miss Georgiana.” The stair-step sisters smiled at him, but his gaze went to their mother. When he had bought the house on this street, Mrs. Rhodes had been a bright woman, full of laughter and plots to pair him with one of her daughters, but in recent weeks her face had taken on lines of worry that deepened every time he saw her.
With a few long strides he matched pace with the slow-moving carriage. “Mrs. Rhodes, have you heard the latest stories from the sea? A British frigate was engaged in a most remarkable chase a fortnight ago and lost to one of Baltimore’s own privateers.”
The woman’s eyes lit up, and a few years fell from her face. “The Dragon, Captain Lane?”
“Without question. My friends do not use names lest the British intercept the missives, but the description was sure. Your husband and son are proving an invaluable menace.”
Mrs. Rhodes pressed a hand to her lips as her daughters erupted into a symphony of excited babbling. He kept his gaze on the matron, however, and lifted his hand to wave them beyond his lawn.
She lowered her hand enough to call out, “Bless you, Captain! Come by tomorrow. I shall have a pie for you!”
Arnaud snorted. “As I brought you that news, ’tis I who should get the pie.”
“Very well. You lay claim to the pie, and I shall lay claim to the sea.” He turned back around, his brows arched.
Arnaud made a show of debating and then grinned. “Enjoy your pastry, mon ami.”
They started back for the walkway, where Father stood shaking his head. Thad could hardly resist sending him a crooked smirk. “You can join me for the pie, Father. Enjoy an afternoon with Mrs. Rhodes and her daughters.”
Father narrowed his eyes. “How can you speak so easily to those baffling creatures? Sometimes I wonder from whence you came, Thaddeus.”
Laughter filled his throat and spilled out. “If you had not figured that out by the third child…”
His mother’s voice tugged him toward the door and made the smile stretch wider on his face. He jogged her way, arms wide.
Father followed, muttering, “Perhaps you are a changeling. Stolen at birth and replaced with an identical child, but one with a confounding bent toward society.”
Mother chuckled as she came into his arms. The scent of lavender and violets drifted to his nose. Why was it that his own house never made him feel as at home as did that one whiff of her perfume? She gave him a squeeze and then, as always, pulled back enough to study him. “As handsome as ever, just like your father. Who,” she added with a pointed look past Thad, “knows well from where that streak of charm came.”
“Knowledge which would be even more frightening than the idea of a changeling, had our boy not inherited our sense along with my brother’s affability.” Father winked and rubbed at his neck.
The gesture made Thad wonder when he had put Jack down and where the boy had gone. A happy squeal from the back of the house answered that question, so he focused on his parents again. “Mother, did he have to bring his entire laboratory?”
Her smile seemed never to change. Ever since he could remember, it had been that lovely, that faithful. “It seemed the wisest course, Thaddeus. One never knows when he might need to mix up a new batch of elixir.” By which, of course, she meant the invisible ink and the counter liquor to develop it. “And we certainly could not risk all his compounds falling into British hands, should they come to Annapolis.”
All inclination to jest dissolved on his tongue. He glanced over at Arnaud and then back to Mother. “Have you reason to think they will?”
“Nothing new.” Father urged them off the walk a step as Henry emerged again, set to grab the last of the wagon’s load. “But normal operations have all but ground to a halt. My students have either taken up arms or gone to protect their homes, so there was no reason to stay.”
Mother nodded. “Amelia and the children are safely ensconced on their plantation, so we thought we would come here, nearer to you and Philly.”
“Put us to work, son.”
Exchanging a look with Arnaud, Thad gave a slow nod. With Father’s arsenal of chemical agents and Mother’s history with codes, they could prove invaluable indeed. Perhaps between them, they could make sense of the missive that had been bewildering him for the last week. The one from too important a source to be as benign as it appeared.
He turned to the door and crooked a finger. “Come inside. I have a letter you may want to see from an old friend of yours. One Isaac Fairchild.”
Whispers from the Shadows$4.99 – $15.99