Standing in the open cottage door, Jacob Kerrigan raised his hand in farewell. Frost glistened in the oppressive darkness. Grit stung his eyes and fatigue hung heavy on his limbs. His leather suitcase dragged his arm to the ground. A yawn slurred his words. “Thank you, gentlemen, for the escort.”
Not that Jacob had a choice, but it was better than a jail cell.
A patrol of helmeted German soldiers fanned out in the front yard. Their exhales fogged the cold night air, and the two-piece flashlights shone brightly on the dark night. Skeletal branches reached for the waning moon nearing its zenith amid a blanket of twinkling stars.
By the light of his flashlight, the captain lit a cigarette. “Perhaps, I will look you up once I return to Chicago.”
“On your way to Chicago.” Jacob’s answer clouded the air. A repeat of many such answers during his six hour interrogation at the hands of the captain’s commander. “Hope’s Point is in Michigan, but many passenger ships stop there. It’s a great place to vacation.”
Jacob stressed the lack of industry in his hometown. The Germans hadn’t trusted him despite the piles of paperwork and passes from the Commission for Relief in Belgium. They knew he must have an ulterior motive for entering the occupied country. Apparently, the only acceptable meddling in another country’s business was war. Not an option for neutral America or Americans, but this… This meant he was helping in a small way.
The German captain rubbed his clean-shaven chin and flicked ash in the yard. “Perhaps I will vacation in your Hope’s Point this summer, when this…” He waved a gloved hand toward a pink glow on the horizon—flares marking the battlefield miles away. “This will be all over by then.”
Jacob bit back his sarcastic retort. Every German he’d met thought their country would triumph once fighting resumed in the spring. The head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Herbert Hoover, warned his delegates that hostilities could last for years. Some predicted a decade or more.
Scraping a hand down his face, Jacob sagged into the fatigue puddling at his feet. He had promised the CRB six months. He prayed he could replace the images of carnage and destruction in his head by then. Neutral. I promise to remain neutral.
The CRB depended upon him not to take a side. No matter the provocation.
“I’ve heard many state the war will be over by summer.” The same fools had predicted an end by Christmas. Jacob rubbed his numb nose on his wool muffler. “If it is, then come see me at the Ojibwa Inn. My folks run it, and I’d love to return the hospitality you’ve offered me.”
There was a cramped attic room with a bed small enough to allow the captain’s feet to hang off it. As an added bonus, the window was painted shut and the room sweltered during the Michigan summers. Yes, sir, Jacob would return his treatment in kind.
“I accept.” Bowing slightly, the German officer tossed his cigarette aside, clicked his heels together, then switched off the flashlight around his neck. His men snuffed out their cigarettes and fell back into formation—shoulders square, arms length between them, and fixed bayonets piercing the night sky. After they turned off their lights, the captain marched them away to the rhythmic thud of hob-nailed boots.
Obviously sarcasm was wasted on the Germans. Closing his eyes, Jacob rested his head against the jamb. If he never met another German, he could die a happy man. Unfortunately, he would have to meet them. Lots of them. He just hoped he wouldn’t see the destruction of Liège or the slaughter at Louvain and wonder where the captain had been during it.
Behind Jacob, fabric whispered. A boot scraped wood.
The hair on Jacob’s neck stood at attention. Had he escaped the Germans to fall prey to some brigand looking for food or money? His grip tightened on his suitcase handle. If he got clear of the doorway, he could swing the leather case at his assailant and run to the Germans. No. No, he couldn’t. The soldiers might execute someone who just wanted food.
“They have gone, then?” Dulcet words were smoke in the cold.
Sieving air through his teeth, Jacob fought the fire building in his gut. He must be exhausted for a woman’s words to affect him so. Opening his eyes, he turned slowly, holding his arms away from his sides so she could see he only carried a suitcase. “I’m sorry, mademoiselle. I had thought the house unoccupied.”
No one had answered his knock.
A woman stood in the aura of candlelight. The flame gilded the curls peeking out of the shawl surrounding her oval face. Pale green eyes sparkled behind round spectacles. Her lips were a Cupid’s bow of perfection, and the severe cut of her ankle-length coat emphasized her Rubenesque curves.
Jacob’s mouth dried. Oh, boy. The Germans might be safer company.
She blinked at him before tilting her head to the side. “The cottage is unoccupied, but will soon be full.”
Her broken English tugged at something deep inside him. Like most of the Belgians he’d met, she made an effort to put him at ease. He should return the favor. His mother had raised him better. Setting his suitcase on the wooden floor, Jacob wiped his damp glove on his coat. “Perhaps, I should introduce myself. Jacob Kerrigan, CRB.”
He thrust his hand toward her.
She stared at it for a moment before shifting the candlestick to the side. “Roselle Perrine.”
“Mademoiselle Perrine.” He savored the roll of her name on his tongue. It was rich, like the chocolates her country was famous for. He wrapped his hand around hers, holding it as if it were a hummingbird. “It is mademoiselle, yes?”
He fumbled with his French. He had discovered extreme differences in the native patois of Hope’s Point’s Gallic founders and the lyrical language of the French-speaking Europeans.
“Yes.” She peeked at him from under her lashes.
In the dim light, he detected a blush of color sweeping over her cheeks. Had he mangled his words and insulted her? There were many that sounded the same but meant something entirely different. Silence descended like a soggy blanket. He groped for something to say.
She tugged on her hand.
He released her then fisted his hand to erase the emptiness. “Oh. My apologies.” Her name connected with the small part of his brain that still functioned. “Perrine? Isn’t that the name of the cottage owner?”
“Yes.” Roselle stared at her gloved hand for a moment. Her lips pursed before she visibly shook herself and forced her hand to her side. “My papa owns the estate.”
Belgians were such hospitable people. And yet… Yet, it was very late, or early, depending. Even on his island home, daughters wouldn’t be allowed out unescorted at this time of night. He peered into the gloom over her shoulder.
“Is your father here?”
“No.” Her mouth opened and closed before she took a ragged breath.
Jacob’s stomach clenched. Something had happened to her father. The certainty filled his shoes with buckshot. Please, God, don’t let him be shot like so many others.
She swallowed audibly. “Papa was deported to Germany.”
She sniffed and studied the scuffed floor.
He stepped forward, wanting to comfort her, to tell her everything would be well. The faint scent of roses, lavender, and chamomile rose up between them. Neutral. I must remain neutral. His arms trembled at his sides. “I am sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
His teeth snapped at the last words, desperate to recall them. Mr. Hoover, the Chief, had warned him about becoming emotionally entangled with the Belgians. Any hint of partiality and the Germans or English could renege their permissions.
If the CRB couldn’t deliver the provisions, then nine million people would starve.
Comforting one woman wasn’t worth endangering so many. Was it?
“You are kind to offer.” She smoothed her gloves over the coat covering her lush hips. “But there is nothing to be done.”
His mouth dried at the movement. Her actions were innocent; his thoughts were not. He pulled his attention away and turned it to her face. She really was quite beautiful. By all the saints, she’s speaking about her imprisoned father and I’m being callous. It had to be the exhaustion effecting him. “I’m sorry for that.”
Nodding, she bit her lip.
He ran his thumb and index finger over his eyes. White spots played along his vision. Finally, he found a topic and latched onto it. “Would it be alright if I sleep here tonight? I’ll find a hotel in the morning.”
The bits of gold coin he had left drained from his pockets. He was hopeful they would buy him a night or two until he could leave for Antwerp or find other accommodations. Sleeping on the ground was out. The Germans didn’t like anyone out after dark. Their fear of francs-tireurs was still palpable.
“No. No.” She glanced over her shoulder at the darkened room. “There is no wood, and the window and door have not been fixed.”
“I can chop my own wood if you show me some logs. As for the window and door, this room seems pretty secure.” He’d slept in worse places. And this parlor had a better ambience than the jail cell he’d spent the previous evening in. Crossing the warped wooden floor, he crouched in front of the stone hearth. Not even a cinder remained in the blackened fireplace. “Once I get a fire going, I’ll be right as rain.”
She shook her head and a golden ringlet escaped her shawl to bounce on her shoulder. “No. No. You must not stay. You must not chop the wood. Or light the fire.”
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end, brushing his stiff collar. Was it the language difference, or was there something else going on here?
The candlestick shook in her hand, but she didn’t elaborate.
His stomach clenched in foreboding. I have to remain neutral. Retreating, he picked up his suitcase. “I see.” His leather gloves creaked as his fingers curled around the handle. “I think I’ll walk into town and present myself to the kommandantur. I’m sure he’ll find me a place to stay.”
Jacob just hope it didn’t involve another strip search. He’d had more than enough of those in the last three months.
“No. No!” She flashed her palm at him before batting the curl out of her eyes. “Mon Dieu, I am tired.”
He paused. Was it just fatigue? “I don’t understand.”
“Papa promised the Comité National that there would be a place while I—I offered it to an older couple that would help with the farm.” She ran her hand over her mouth. “Their house burned to the ground when…”
“Ah.” He knew first-hand of the difficulties facing Belgium. Communication was chief among them. He’d been dispatched here to inspect the condition of the canals and narrow gauge railroads because the CRB had no information. But that didn’t explain why he couldn’t stay here tonight.
“You must stay at the chateau. There is wood and coal for the fires, food, and a warm bed.” She shivered. “Yes, I will fix this, and still fulfill my promise to Papa and the Comité National.”
“Thank you.” Jacob squelched the twinge of disappointment. Naturally, she wouldn’t think about the promise made to him.
Blowing out the candle, she set the holder on the chunky wooden mantel. “We should go.”
He filled the doorway then stopped. A chill seeped into his marrow. “Do you have a pass to be out at night?”
With a gentle push, she forced him onto the packed dirt in front of the cottage. “This is my property. I have any number of reasons to travel it when I need to.”
Oh, boy. He squirmed at the hauteur infusing her words. She was an aristocrat. Landed gentry. When he’d heard farm, he’d assumed an earthy, grounded family like in America. But no. He stumbled forward. For a moment, Victoria Van Hylton’s face masked Roselle’s. Her sneer burned through him just as it had that day last summer when he’d discovered she’d used him for her own purposes. He tried to tamp it down to snuff out the memories. This was Belgium. Not every woman would use and mock his desire to help those in need.
The patina rusted his iron clad memory.
Roselle pulled the door shut behind her then swiped at the chalk on the dark planks. “Your staying at the chateau will be good. The Germans wouldn’t dare harass us with an independent observer there.”
Hooking her arm through his, she dragged him into the moonlight speckled path under the trees.
Vomit rose in Jacob’s mouth. At least, she was honest in her use of him. He engraved the words on his resolve. He would do his duty to the CRB and move on. He would not be snared or mocked by a pretty face again. Through the tree trunks, campfires dotted the flat plain near a forested patch of ground. Lights flashed at intermittent intervals, indicating the German patrols.
Hunching in his coat, Jacob followed her. She promised a warm bed. A toasty fire. Frost crunched and slush sucked at his shoes. Despite his thick wool socks, his toes were numb. Minutes ticked off as they walked along the windbreak between the fallow fields. Should he have insisted they stay behind?
Would she have listened?
Her kind rarely did. Privilege came with expectations. He doubted the war had crushed hers yet.
She jerked him to a stop at a dirt road. Lights blinked in the wooded area ahead.
“Oh, no!” Releasing him, she darted forward.
A patrol rounded the trees. The soldiers halted and stabbed their bayonets toward him. “Halt!”
She skidded to a stop under a sheltering pine tree.
Dropping his suitcase, Jacob raised his hands. He just hoped his passes protected them both. He didn’t want to start the day as a human pincushion.