Roselle’s knees knocked together under her long skirts and coat. She was about to be shot thanks to Michel Gaspard and his interference in farm matters. Worse, his orders had endangered an innocent. The poor American, Jacob Kerrigan, must rue the day he’d left his home country. Swallowing the wad of dread in her throat, she faced Captain Schiedel of the Kaiser’s Imperial Army staring at her from a bristling wall of fixed bayonets. Despite her brave words at the cottage, her papers didn’t authorize her to be out after curfew. She filled her lungs. At least, she could protect Jacob. She opened her mouth.
With his hands raised to shoulder height, Jacob shifted slightly, placing himself between her and the Boche officer. “Captain, I thought we’d agreed to meet again in America.”
She blinked, processing the English. The German captain and the delegate of the CRB knew each other in America? But America was neutral, wasn’t it? Extended out to her sides, her gloved hands formed fists.
“And I thought we had dropped you off at your proposed residence.” Captain Schiedel’s hand remained on the grip of the pistol on his hip.
“As did I.” Jacob inclined his head toward his suitcase. “Alas, it seems we were both mistaken.”
“The Kaiser’s Army doesn’t make mistakes.”
The soldiers’ attention darted from their captain to Jacob then to her. A few gazes lingered.
She clenched the coat at her throat and shifted a little behind Jacob.
The delegate squared his shoulders. The harsh light of the electric torches deepened the forest of stubble on his square chin and jaw. Red rimmed his bloodshot eyes. A bruise marred his right cheek and dirt smudged his high forehead. “Then, I was mistaken about the location of my new quarters.”
Roselle locked her knees to keep her legs from folding. To admit to deceiving the Germans was punishable by death. “Captain, I think I can—”
Captain Schiedel’s blue eyes locked on her. “Please allow me to finish my conversation with Mr. Kerrigan, mademoiselle. Then we will speak.”
His accented French differed from Jacob’s, and yet both contained similar phrasing.
“I—I understand.” Her tongue stuck to the roof of her dry mouth. Michel’s warnings flooded her brain, stilling her words. She must say as little as possible and reveal only what they already knew. But what did they know? Her attention cut to Jacob.
The left side of his mouth quirked before he stilled it. “It seems that the Comité National assigned me to one of Mrs. Perrine’s properties. And Mrs. Perrine rented out the same cottage to a tenant. She has graciously offered me a room at her house.”
“Ah.” The captain motioned for his dozen men to lower their bayonets, then whispered, “Communication is difficult at the moment.”
Jacob nodded. “That is why I’ve come. The CRB needs information on the state of the canals to deliver supplies to the area.”
Roselle nearly clapped. The rumors had been true. Antwerp was prepared to feed her village.
“So you’ve said.” Captain Schiedel shrugged. “Many times while you were entertained by the kommandantur.”
“He didn’t seem to believe me.” Jacob’s shoulders relaxed a little.
“That is because they don’t understand our need to help our neighbors, to do something instead of accepting our fate.” Clasping his hands behind his back, the officer left the safety of his men to meet Jacob. Side by side they walked along the road. “War is both a religion and a disease to my parents’ people.”
Roselle blinked. There it was—a confession that the Boche was an American. She had to warn the Comité National. The CRB could be just another form of invasion. And so many people viewed them as a symbol of hope. Was it a lie?
“Our? You’re an American?” After stopping to pick up his suitcase, Jacob cupped her elbow and guided her to his side. He placed his body between her and the officer’s.
“Illinois born. I was visiting my father’s people in Bavaria when war broke out.” Captain Schiedel glanced over his shoulder. “Since I was born of German parents, I was conscripted into the military along with my cousins.”
Setting their rifles on their shoulders, his men fell into neat ranks behind him.
Jacob turned along the hard-packed road when the captain directed. “Those are all your relatives?”
“Them and more. Some have already gone to the Somme. We’ll join them later.” The captain’s straight nose twitched. “I wasn’t supposed to say that.”
“I don’t think I heard you.” Jacob squeezed her arm.
She had. Her fingers itched to put it on paper. But that could wait. What else would the good captain say while he thought she didn’t understand any English?
“Good. It’s good.” Captain Schiedel slapped Jacob on the back. “I forgot how good it is to talk to another American.”
Jacob frowned. “So what brings you out?”
“So many questions can be dangerous. Not all appreciate curiosity, especially Germans.”
Roselle’s insides condensed as the captain pushed open the gates to the chateau. The ring of pines opened onto a frosted lawn where wooly sheep dozed. At the end of the gravel drive, the red brick chateau jutted four stories into the air. Conical towers bracketed the sides and dormers emerged from the steep sloping roof of the attics. Lights blazed from the main rooms on the ground and first floors. Thanks to the curtains thrown open due to the German orders, the windows revealed the frenzied pacing of the occupants.
Mon Dieu. Something has happened. But what? She had only been gone a few hours. She lurched forward.
Jacob’s grip tightened, holding her back. “Has something happened at the chateau?”
“I must see to my family.” Roselle jerked on her arm, but his hold remained tight.
“Ahh.” Captain Schiedel unclasped his hands and switched to French. “I had thought when I encountered you, mademoiselle, that an emergency had sent you out.”
Her ribs changed to bands of steel, trapping air in her lungs. Stick to the truth. Say as little as possible. “I had spent the evening at the cottage, waiting for Monsieur Kerrigan. I planned to wait only a little longer and must have fallen asleep.”
Captain Schiedel arched a golden brown eyebrow. “You were in the cottage and didn’t identify yourself?”
Jacob tugged her against the wall of his body. “She was obviously sleeping. If she’s anything like my sister, she had to take a moment to compose herself and make herself presentable. Do you have sisters, Captain?”
A muscle flexed in the officer’s jaw.
Roselle shivered. While Jacob attempted to explain her behavior, the Boche was determined to think the worst. Not all Americans were the same. “I awoke at the sound of your voices. By the time I had lit the candle to reveal myself and find my way out of the kitchen,” and illuminate the fact that she was unarmed. “Monsieur Kerrigan was alone.”
There. That sounds plausible, doesn’t it? Shifting ahead, she peeked under her lashes at the captain.
“You should have identified yourself before bothering with the other things.” Captain Schiedel glared at her. “There are standing orders to search every unoccupied dwelling on our patrols. If you had been discovered, you could have been treated as a franc-tireur.”
Death trailed a frigid hand down her spine. Muscle trembled in its wake. She could have been shot in her own cottage. Damn this war and the Boches who started it. At least with the little house occupied, the wounded soldiers she helped wouldn’t be discovered. She had been lucky, very lucky, and hadn’t known it. She knew it now. “I am sorry, Captain.”
The words were bitter on her tongue. Pride often had a foul taste. But better false words of contrition than death.
Remy, her butler, paused by the mullioned windows of the front parlor. His stately figure warmed her fear-chilled heart. Nothing too dire could be happening. A minute later, he retreated toward the door to the hall. She sighed. Remy would meet them at the front door.
“It won’t happen again.” Jacob eased his grip on her elbow. “When I report to Antwerp in a few days, I’ll let them know future delegates should seek accommodations at Mademoiselle Perrine’s chateau.”
She started at the mention of her name. “Pardon?”
Captain Schiedel motioned for his men to stop at the edge of the white gravel moat surrounding the chateau. “My commander noticed the lights burning in the windows and sent me to investigate. Do you have any idea as the the cause of the commotion, mademoiselle?”
“We shall find out.” Tugging free from Jacob’s grip, Roselle bounded across the last few meters.
The butler opened the door before she reached it. Dressed in his traditional black suit and white shirt, Remy stared down at her from his two-meter height. Close-set black eyes regarded her from a face better suited to a Pug. He had never looked better. “Mademoiselle, it is good to have you home.”
“I apologize for keeping you.” Roselle forced her arms to her side to prevent herself from hugging the man. He’d been a constant in her life since childhood. And with the war, she depended upon him more than ever. “My errand took longer than expected, but I was successful.”
“Yes, mademoiselle.” Remy’s black eyes glistened like polished buttons in the light. They darted to the soldiers behind her, the captain, and her before alighting on Jacob Kerrigan.
She practically heard the connections forming in the butler’s head.
Feet slapped the marble floor in the foyer, and a shadow stretched across the oriental rug. A moment later, her brother rounded the corner. The pink and white nightshirt flapped around his gangly frame. Elbows and knees tented the fabric in sharp points as his oversized hands beat the air to stop the rest of him from sliding into the receiving table. “Rosie! Rosie! You’re home.”
Pimples interspersed the wiry whiskers sprouting from his babyish face. He looked so much older than he was. Worse, his mind hadn’t even caught up with his age.
“I am here, Felix.” She held open her arms for her little brother.
He lurched forward then wrapped skeletal arms around her and curled his towering body over hers. Tremors rippled through him. “I was so scared, Rosie. You weren’t here.”
Captain Schiedel rested his hand on his weapon. “How old is the boy?”
Jacob released his breath slowly. “I’m certain he isn’t of fighting age.”
Remy pulled a packet of papers from his dark suit jacket. “I took the liberty of bringing everyone’s papers with me. Felix Perrine turned eleven on the Eleventh of September.”
She rubbed her brother’s back. In five years, the Germans would deport him. Despite their promises, they allowed few male Belgians of fighting age to remain.
The Boche officer snatched the papers from the butler’s hand and angled them toward the beam of his flashlight.
Jacob studied the gravel under his shoes. A vein throbbed at his temple.
Kissing her brother on the cheek, Roselle pried his arms from their stranglehold around her neck. His exposed skin was chilled. “Please warm yourself by the fire, Felix. I can’t have you catching cold.”
Scratching his nose, her brother rubbed the top of one foot with the bottom of the other. “You’re coming inside, too?”
“I’ll be right there.” She bussed his cheek before pushing him into the house.
Captain Schiedel compared the photograph on Felix’s papers to him. “He is very large for a child.”
Foreboding raised goosebumps on her arms. Her compatriots were being deported for the tiniest infractions. She couldn’t let them take her brother. She wouldn’t. “He is only eleven, Captain.”
Grunting, the officer returned the papers to the butler then gestured to the lights in the windows. “And what was the reason for all this?”
Drawing himself to his full height, Remy rearranged the papers and looked down his nose at the German. “Felix had a nightmare. When he found his sister’s bed empty, he first searched for her then cried that she had been deported.”
The captain blushed.
Jacob hid a smile behind his hand.
Roselle stilled her own lips. They could best the Boches only so far. Her butler was skirting the line. “Now that everything has been explained, perhaps we could retire for the evening. Or the rest of the morning.”
“A moment please, mademoiselle.” Captain Schiedel raised his hand. “Why didn’t your brother know where you were?”
“Because I didn’t tell him.” Smoothing her coat over her belly, she stepped back. Now, she just hoped she could count on the butler to back up her story. “Remy, please place Monsieur Kerrigan in the green room. He’ll be staying with us while he conducts his CRB business.”
“Very good, mademoiselle.” The butler glided forward and eased the suitcase handle from Jacob’s hold.
The delegate stood beside her. His sleeve brushing her arm. “I for one will be thankful to retire to a nice, warm bed.”
Captain Schiedel raised one finger. “And why wasn’t your brother informed?”
She sighed. She’d expected the question. Thankfully, the answer was the truth. “Felix imagines many things for events yet to happen and can work himself into a state. If presented with a deed already accomplished, he accepts it quickly and without undue fuss.”
“Very well.” The captain clicked off his flashlight. “Please present yourself to the kommandantur in the morning. He will have further questions.”
There were always questions. Roselle raked a hand through her hair and scraped off her shawl. The thin material crackled with cold as it swept by her ears. She trudged forward. She didn’t mind the trip into Brabionne, after all she had letters to deliver. But visiting the enemy’s headquarters was bound to cause talk.
She couldn’t afford talk, or the extra scrutiny that came with it. Someone might suspect her nocturnal activities.
Someone might turn her in to the Boches.