In 1863, a spoiled American heiress tangles with an arrogant British sea captain on a blockade run for the Confederacy.
Above is an illustration of The Denbigh, an actual blockade runner used during the Civil War to run into Southern ports. (Used here with the kind permission of illustrator Andy Hall, whose blog, http://www.deadconfederates.com, is a cracking great site for Civil War buffs.)
- (Historical romance, 381 pages; 84,000 words)
- Finalist, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Colorado Gold, 2011
April 1863, Faubourg Saint-Germain, Paris
Lillie Hitchcock chewed on her thumbnail and peered out the window of her small, hired hack. Where was Sarah Devereaux? The hardest parts of this blasted assignment were the waiting and the uncertainty.
Expatriate Southerners spilled from luxurious carriages onto the huge turnaround of the Devereaux mansion while footmen raced to quiet horses and move conveyances. Her friend had to be caught somewhere in the crush of guests eager for an evening of music.
Fueled by her mission, Lillie gave up on Sarah’s help and ran across the courtyard. She would have to find Captain Bulloch on her own.
Rough cobblestones cut into her flimsy evening slippers and made her long for riding boots and breeches. The real reason men made better spies had to be the clothing. She gathered in her heavy silk skirts, clutched her book to her side, and edged past the throng waiting to greet the Devereauxes. Scooting down the hallway, she stopped at a small salon on the first floor and slipped through the door.
The thought of the secret notes in a small cavity midway through the copy of Jane Eyre she carried made her fingers burn through all the pages and binding. However, that was nothing compared to the feel of the folded paper crammed into her petticoat pocket. Every time the small packet brushed against her knee, fear and curiosity warred within her. Curiosity was winning, hands down. She had to complete the handoff and then find a quiet corner to interpret the message for her eyes only.
She forced her mind to focus on the task at hand and swept the room with a glance. Sarah’s mother had gone a little over the top with the mirrors. Every bit of wall not covered in dark, crushed velvet had a full-length, gilt-framed mirror embellished with curlicues, angels and flowers. If Lillie were to drop over dead in there, she’d be sure to go straight to heaven.
Drat. No sign of the captain. Although the Confederate master spy was based in England, he made frequent trips to Paris. One night at a ball given by the Devereauxes he had asked her to dance and by the time the music ended, snared her into an elaborate game of passing decoded messages. Instructions for his blockade-runner enterprise were embedded in dispatches from the South she translated for the French Finance Ministry.
The door swung open behind her, and she froze as the voices of two men floated in from the hallway. As soon as she ducked behind a heavy, hand-painted screen in the corner, she berated herself for hiding. What on earth was there to be afraid of? Besides —
Good God, her side profile was reflected in one of the damned mirrors, and then over and over in all the others across four walls.
With a silent prayer, she inched as far as possible behind the screen. Gathering in her full skirts, she crouched low and crossed her fingers. Thankfully, she had chosen her dark burgundy silk for the musicale that night. Maybe she would blend in with the wall coverings.
One of the men closed the door, and they moved to a sofa across from her.
She silently repeated her favorite calming phrase — “I’m as good as any man, and I can do this to help the Confederacy.”
The two men spoke in low, guarded tones, and she strained to hear. One of them sounded like Captain Bulloch, but she couldn’t be sure. The second man had a distinct, English accent.
Suddenly, the tone changed to a more intense pitch, and she began to pick up snippets of conversation.
“I know you’re firmly behind the cause, but I tell you, sir, the South is in severe straits. I don’t know how much longer they can hold out. They just don’t have the resources.” The unknown voice paused then continued. “The people behind the lines seem to be losing the will to continue to fight.”
She leaned forward to grasp more of the thread of their exchange, and without warning, a hand seized her arm and dragged her into the center of the room. Her cheeks burned in mortification, and, for once in her life, speech deserted her.
The stranger was so tall he nearly lifted her off her feet as he plucked her from behind the screen. Angry, blazing blue eyes rudely assessed her, and she prayed Captain Bulloch would save her.
“Why, Lillie ... whatever possessed you to crouch behind that screen?” Her friend tilted his head, and a forelock of dark hair dipped across his face. He peered around the obnoxious man who had her imprisoned like a small cat. “Captain Roberts, please release her.”
Bullock paused for a moment when his companion refused to comply and raked his fingers through his hair. “She probably didn’t expect anyone to be in this room.” He stared at her, the question hanging between them. “Did you?”
“Then why did she hide?” the rude man interrupted. Instead of releasing her, he tightened his grip.
“Why, I...actually, I was searching for you, Captain Bulloch.” Despite the pain of a growing headache, she gathered her wits and jerked out of his hold. “I wanted to return this. So sorry to have intruded.” She thrust the book into Bulloch’s hands and wheeled toward the door only to be stopped short.
“How do we know she isn’t spying on us for information to take back to Yankee operatives?” Bulloch’s companion demanded while detaining her again with a painful grasp on her arm. Lillie turned and tried to wrench her arm free while giving the oaf her best scathing look.
That was a mistake.
His unblinking gaze radiated irritation from a deeply tanned face. Long, silver-blond hair tied neatly at the nape of his neck with a narrow black ribbon accentuated his rugged good looks and formal black evening attire. Her chest tightened, and she couldn’t breathe.
“Whoa. Let’s start over.” Bulloch stepped between them. “Miss Hitchcock, this is Captain Jack Roberts, a colleague of mine. And, Jack, this is Miss Lillie Hitchcock, the daughter of a friend. We’ve been exchanging books from our libraries for some time now.”
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Hitchcock,” Captain Roberts said, then released her arm and gave a curt nod of acknowledgement.
“I’m sorry if I gave you a false impression earlier,” Lillie said, “but I couldn’t help overhearing your comments on the situation in the South.” She softened her murderous glare under a warning glance from Bulloch. “Surely you must be mistaken,” she continued.
“Oh? So you’re one of those Confederate zealots waiting out the war in comfort here in Paris,” Roberts said.
“I can’t believe you said that.” Bulloch ground out.
“Trust me. If I were a man, I would be back in Dixie, teaching those Union bullies a lesson,” Lillie insisted.
“Pah!” Roberts shot back. “You would have to be a little more imposing than you are now to take on the Union Army.”
“I assure you, I can shoot, fight, and ride as good as any man.” Her chest pounded in irritation. She had to get away from this awful man. “Now, I’ll leave you two gentlemen to your business.”
“No need to hurry off.” Bulloch motioned toward a large brocade settee. “Please join us.”
“No, no — I’ve already intruded too long.” She moved toward the door, fixing a wary eye on Roberts.
“Please stay, Miss Hitchcock. Don’t let me frighten you off.” Roberts ducked his head in contrition. “It’s been a long time since I last wore formal clothes.” He pulled at his tight collar and grunted in discomfort. “I apologize for my rudeness. I’m not accustomed to being confined. Makes me claustrophobic.”
“And cantankerous,” Bulloch added, with a wink at Lillie.
She flushed and fought a sudden urge to reach out and help the prickly captain undo his top button. “Um, I think I’m going to leave you two to your meeting. Miss Devereaux is waiting for me, and patience is not one of her virtues.” She turned and fled the room as if the hounds of hell were on her tail.
Once she regained the coolness of the hallway, she leaned against the door and trembled. After a few moments, she straightened and moved toward the crowd in the front hall. She had to find Sarah.
“Sarah.” Lillie had to shout to be heard over the din of the guests milling in the great receiving hall off the Rue de Varenne. Sarah Devereaux returned her greeting and began to move toward her, stopping frequently to greet friends and acquaintances. Soon, a path parted like the waters in the Red Sea.
As her friend approached, Lillie glanced wistfully at Sarah’s simple, sleek twist of honey blonde hair. Her own unruly, dark tresses tended to spring into corkscrews as the night wore on.
Sarah moved toward her, linked arm-in-arm with Louis Mansard, Phillipe Devereaux’s secretary. The poor man tried to maintain a stoic front as he attended his employer’s daughter at events, but by the end of most evenings, Sarah and Lillie found a way to evade him and sneak off on one of their adventures.
Lillie actually felt sorry for the quiet young man. He had the dreamy, light gray eyes of a poet. Black hair curled softly around his ears and ended at the nape of his neck. Although he was devoted to Sarah, she treated him like an older brother.
Sarah and Lillie barely had time to exchange a few words before Martha Hitchcock, Lillie’s mother, glided up to them with a sly smile. There would be no peace or privacy now.
“Why, Sarah, you are absolutely glowing tonight. Is it true you have a new beau on your father’s staff?”
Louis blushed beet red.
“Mrs. Hitchcock, you give me credit for more than I could possibly accomplish. If I had as many beaus as your gossip columns suggest, Papa would have to hire extra staff just to chaperone me,” Sarah assured her.
“Louis . . .” Lillie rushed to fill the awkward silence. “Could you find us some punch? I’m parched.”
As he beat a hasty retreat in the direction of refreshments, Lillie turned on her mother. “Maman, you go too far. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“And where have you been?” her mother demanded. “I assumed you were behind me when I left the carriage.”
“Please don’t change the subject. You cannot hurt innocent people’s feelings just for the sake of another bit of gossip.”
“Well, he is a gorgeous young man.” Martha turned to Sarah for affirmation. Lillie’s friend just rolled her eyes.
“You owe both Sarah and Louis an apology, Maman,” Lillie insisted.
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, Sarah knows I mean well. I just want what’s best for you girls.”
“No, you don’t,” Lillie and Sarah replied in unison.
“You two will be sorry some day when you wake up and realize you’re just two withered spinsters without any prospects in life.” After her parting speech, Martha smiled and turned away in search of more snippets for her column.
Lillie tried to ignore her mother’s nagging but began second-guessing herself in spite of her best intentions. She supposed she should engage in more small flirtations, but how could she live frivolously while a war waged on without her a half a world away?
“A penny for your thoughts.” Sarah said.
In answer, Lillie smiled broadly and tapped the end of her nose. The secret signal began during their childhood days on neighboring Sea Island plantations off the coast of Georgia. She spent much of her early years there with her paternal grandparents while her father served as an Army surgeon and her mother followed him.
“So, what mischief are we up to tonight?” Sarah moved closer as Lillie’s mother disappeared into the crowd.
“You know you never use our secret sign unless something really good is afoot.”
“Sarah, swear to me you’ll never tell another soul.”
“Why, Lillie, you know I would never—”
Lillie cut her off. “We both know you are a veritable town crier.”
“Oh, all right, but it hurts to think you don’t trust me.” Sarah pouted for an instant.
“Well, today when I was interpreting dispatches, a strange message appeared for me alone.” Lillie ignored her friend’s theatrics and plunged into her tale. “I haven’t had a chance to pull out the information with the cipher wheel. First, Maman wouldn’t leave me alone before we left home, and then that awful man with Captain Bulloch delayed me until I thought I would have to shoot him.”
“Wait a minute. What awful man?” Sarah’s face took on the look of a small terrier on the trail of a mole. “And you don’t really have a gun with you tonight, do you?”
“No, I didn’t bring a pistol.” Lillie was about to burst if she couldn’t sort out the message chafing against her knee. “He’s some Englishman named Roberts,” she said, making a half-hearted pass at smoothing back the frizzes forming around her face. “He’s the tallest man I’ve ever met. I think he would tower over Papa.”
“Oh no, that has to be the mysterious Captain Roberts. Please don’t tell me you’ve developed feelings for him.”
“Feelings?” Lillie sputtered. “Have you even been listening to me? He was rude, nasty, and he accused me of being a spy.”
“Why, Lillie, I think you are smitten.” Sarah laughed out loud. “Finally, the woman warrior falls into the same throes of unfulfilled passion the rest of us suffer.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense.” Annoyance crept into Lillie’s voice as she ignored her friend’s accusations. “Who is this bothersome man?” she demanded.
“Well, I can tell you what I know. He suddenly appeared yesterday at dinner, and he and my father have been closeted in the study ever since. I’m surprised the two of them emerged to mingle with the rest of us this evening.” Sarah paused and eyed her reflection in one of the endless mirrors lining the walls.
“For pity’s sakes, stop preening and continue the story,” Lillie urged.
“Let’s see.” Sarah held up the fingers of one hand and ticked off what she knew. “Captain Roberts is just the name he uses for blockade-running. He’s actually a post captain on leave from the British Navy.
“Blockade-running?” Lillie’s pulse raced. “He actually runs the blockade?”
“Yes — Wilmington, Charleston — he’s one of the best. Papa said he’s never been caught.”