August 1780, Low Country, South Carolina
Dreadful screeching, like the cries of an enraged cat, tore through the muggy night and into Meriwether’s chamber. She sat bolt upright in bed. “Demented owl,” she muttered and pushed back the short lengths of hair clinging to her forehead. Her shift was also damp from tossing. An indefinable restlessness drove her as a ship before the wind.
The clock downstairs struck two.
Meriwether stiffened at the echo of hooves on the cobblestones in the yard beneath her window. What business could anyone possibly have to conduct at this unearthly hour? Perhaps it was a courier, and perhaps he’d come before. Images of phantom horses from past nights cantered through her mind. She had thought them dreams sprung from fever, but she was much better now and wide awake.
The sound of hooves stopped and the horse snorted.
She parted the muslin curtain around her canopied bed and slid her feet to the carpet. A great golden moon bathed the room in a pearly sheen. She crept to the partly open glass—gasping as the screech owl flew at her from the live oak outside the window. Round yellow eyes stared into hers for a split second before the bird veered off into the darkness.
Meriwether breathed in sharply. The sweetness of jasmine wafted from the trellised vine as she peered down through moss-draped branches. The milky light streamed over two men standing in the yard, their heads bent in conversation.
One man in a dark coat and black tricorn held the reins of a bay horse. Neither he nor his mount was familiar, but she knew the other gentleman well. Several inches taller than the stranger, he was simply dressed in a white shirt tucked into breeches that molded to his long legs and met his riding boots. Shadows hid his face and the chestnut hair pulled back at his neck, but there was no mistaking Jeremiah Jordan, master of Pleasant Grove and Meriwether’s guardian these past few months. Elegance cloaked him like a mantle.
Her heart quickened at the sight of Jeremiah, rarer and rarer these days. What wouldn’t she give to have him all to herself for even one single hour? That seemed as impossible as an end to this confounded war. Chest fluttering, she knelt at the window to better overhear their low voices.
“Men are gathering,” floated up to her from the stranger.
Her stomach knotted in tight twists. Was this nocturnal visit prearranged? Worse—had Jeremiah joined the Patriots? Her Loyalist sympathies recoiled at the awful possibility.
He’d never voiced any open fervor for the rebel cause. The neighbors thought him still too distraught over his wife Rachel’s death to take an active role in the war, but doubts gnawed at Meriwether. She had seen the flash of anger in Jeremiah’s blue eyes whenever British Lieutenant Major Tarleton’s name was mentioned. Perhaps it was just the effect Bloody Ban had on any decent person, but Meriwether suspected far more lay beneath Jeremiah’s outward reserve than he’d ever revealed.
Lacy white clouds feathered the moon as she leaned out the window for a better look at the two men. Jeremiah glanced around the yard then passed what looked like a leather pouch into the stranger’s hand. She glimpsed a flap in the center and a shoulder strap like the pouch that couriers used. “The usual place,” reached her straining ears.
Jeremiah lifted his head and stared up at Meriwether’s chamber. She sprang to her feet stumbling back. What would he say if he knew she spied on him? Her thoughts flew like quail flushed from cover. Were his frequent absences from home truly plantation business or far more dangerous errands?
With Charles Towne fallen to the British and the entire Southern Garrison captured, South Carolina was rapidly becoming a crown stronghold. If Jeremiah were mixed up in this rebellion, he courted disaster. Remaining in her chamber wouldn’t answer any questions. If she slipped down the back stairs and edged closer to the yard, she might learn more.
Eavesdropping on the man who’d graciously taken her in after her father’s death smacked of disloyalty, but how else was she to discover the truth? She hesitated only for an instant. She wasn’t Captain Steele’s daughter for nothing. Mettle accompanied the name.
Arms outstretched, she felt her way in the darkness around the clothes press and washstand and then opened the door and tiptoed from her room out into the hall. The eerie sensation of unseen eyes sent prickles down her spine as she stole along the dim corridor. Perhaps it was the portraits of Jeremiah’s ancestors watching from the walls or perhaps even someone else, someone gone, yet not gone. She’d had this uncanny feeling before. It made her want to run outside, away from this disturbing presence.
Meriwether sped past the room where Jeremiah’s elderly aunt, Miss Anna, slept—stubbing her bare foot on the low table crouched in the blackness like a jungle cat. “Ouch!” she cried softly and rubbed her throbbing toe, expecting footfalls on the steps.
No one came. Miss Anna could slumber through howling wolves. One clumsy young woman would not disturb her. Wishing she’d worn her shoes, Meriwether limped to the landing. Moonlight pouring through the recessed window at the top of the stairs lit the glassy gaze of the eight point buck mounted above her. She froze, her eyes riveted on the deer’s head. A snake—perhaps venomous—wound around the antlers. Meriwether was no coward, but she’d rather face a Legion dragoon with a bayonet than this serpent. It must have slithered in through the open window.
Strangling a cry, she bolted past the writhing mass and down the steps. Never mind that the boards creaked beneath her feet. She hit the ground floor at a run and flung open the door. She flew outside, nearly forgetting why she’d come in her haste. Breathing hard, she halted in the archway.
Calm yourself, she admonished, and quietly closed the door behind her.
Flattened against it, she ran her eyes over the yard. Both men were conspicuous only by their absence. Not surprising. She’d unwittingly given them warning. They might have ducked into the stable or carriage house, or melted away into the night, spiriting the horse with them.
Locusts droned and crickets chirped as she poised in the entryway. Horses nickered from the pasture. Nothing more.
What now? She couldn’t go back inside with that snake dangling there and had nowhere else to go except the kitchen, a short distance from the manor house.
Keith Daws, Jeremiah’s right hand man, and his family slept inside its stone walls.
Jeremiah and Keith Daws had been friends ever since she remembered, rare between an Englishman and a Negro. Meriwether didn’t want to risk waking any of the Daws. Keith’s oldest son, York, was a light sleeper and would be more than a little curious to discover her wandering shoeless in her nightdress. Better to remain as she was than to try and find her way to the front of the house in the dark.
She sank down in the doorway, knees drawn up, feet tucked under the linen hem. No serpent was sliding across her bare toes. It was childish, perhaps, but couldn’t be helped. She buried her head in her arms. What a farce she’d made of spying. “Ah, Papa,” she whispered, imagining his hearty chuckle and badly wishing he were still alive. He’d been her compass. She couldn’t find her way without him and her twin brother, Bobby, off fighting for the crown.
“Are you staying the night out here, Miss Steele?”
Meriwether jerked up her head, her heart in her throat. Jeremiah stood at the base of the brick steps that led up to her perch. “Mister Jordan! You move like a ghost.”
“You rather resemble one in that shift, dear heart.”
Moonbeams silvered his well-muscled figure in the full-sleeved shirt and thigh hugging breeches. She drank in every glorious inch. The magical light hinted at his penetrating eyes and aristocratic, almost haughty nose softened by his sensuous mouth. It could be a hard mouth when he was angry, which wasn’t often and never with her; at least, not yet.~