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From "Masque of Betrayal"<<P>Philadelphia, April 1794
The voices grew louder.
She stopped dead in her tracks.
The warm April night was cloudlessly clear...too clear, lit by a full, glittering moon. The footsteps became more distinct as the strangers approached, and her eyes widened with fear.
It was two men. She could see them...but they had yet to see her. Thus far she was safe, her drab attire blending in with the shadows. But in a moment escape would be impossible, all she had worked for lost.
The sounds of heated conversation drew alarmingly close, knotting her stomach with trepidation. Where could she hide?
She looked furtively toward the row of poplar trees that cloaked the cobblestone street. In desperation, she darted for their protective shelter. Perspiration beaded on her nape and trickled down her back, making the dark muslin gown cling to her slight figure. She willed her breathing to slow, praying she could make it to safety before she was spotted.
But it was already too late.
Jacqueline had been spotted...not by the two men she feared, but by another.
He was studying her through glowing emerald eyes. Instinct told him exactly where she hid. He could stalk her, hunt her down in an instant. But he had no interest in doing so...not yet.
With keen anticipation, he watched his quarry approach.
With taut apprehension, so did she.
"Damn, but you're restless tonight, Dane." The complaint came from the leaner of the two men, as he lengthened his strides to keep pace with his tall and powerfully built companion. "Are you upset over tonight's topic of conversation! Is it that blasted newspaper reporter again?"
Dane Westbrooke shrugged, pausing for the first time since leaving the City Tavern ten minutes earlier. Silently, he contemplated the whiskey in his bottle, then brought it to his lips for a deep, satisfying swallow. While he was troubled by the fervent political debates that had dominated the discussions of the prominent men who frequented the tavern, he didn't believe that they alone were the source of his growing unease. No, it was something far more deep rooted.
He shifted uneasily, unable to shake the ominous premonition, that had been with him all evening. It sounded a clear warning: Danger.
"Dane?" His friend studied him speculatively. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Dane lowered the bottle and turned, regarding Thomas Mills through eyes of pure, piercing silver. "I'm not certain. Yes, that reporter's scathing columns infuriate me. It's damned mysterious the way he seems to know everything that transpires within the inner circles of our government...and has a negative opinion on every Federalist stand." He hesitated. "But it's more. I can't put my finger on it exactly...." He broke off, unable to describe the heightened awareness that plagued him. He had long since learned to heed his intuition, for it was the manifestation of a sixth sense that was Dane's since birth and had served him well for two and thirty years. It had been instrumental in making him what...and who...he was today. A rich, powerful, respected shipping magnate. And incomparably independent.
Dane's penetrating stare searched the deserted street, the darkened line of trees and buildings. All was still. He could see nothing. And yet...someone was out there. Suddenly be tensed, grabbing Thomas's arm. "We're being watched."
Thomas stiffened. After five years of close friendship, he had seen the accuracy of Dane's uncanny instincts countless times. Too many times to dispute. He waited for Dane's direction.
So did the silent observer. He crouched, ready to strike.
Dane gestured for Thomas to follow. Cautiously, they continued down the road.
The assailant struck.
In one fluid motion, he sprang through the air, knocking Dane and Thomas off balance. Then he went for the kill
Furiously, he lapped up the contents of the broken bottle, purring victoriously while he drank. Quickly, before Dane and Thomas could retaliate, the kitten licked his lips and dashed off into the concealing trees...and straight into the face of the open-mouthed young woman who hid there, flat on her belly on the cold ground.
Nose to nose, female and feline gaped silently at one another.
As the irony of the situation sank in, it took all of Jacqui's willpower not to laugh aloud. She resisted, sobered by the fact that she was still very much at risk. Instead, she concentrated on listening to the continuation of the unexpected conversation she was overhearing.
She was not disappointed.
Thomas broke the silence with a hearty chuckle. "That was out fearsome adversary?" he managed, righting himself and brushing the dirt and droplets of whiskey from his waistcoat. "You must be losing your touch."
Dane cursed as he rose, dabbing at his damp shirt. "Apparently," he agreed. "What the hell was that?" A cat, Jacqueline Holt mouthed, as she stared into the black kitten's glazed green eyes. He looked equally startled, neither of them entirely sure of the other's intent. However, with the common goal of avoiding discovery, neither dared move.
Jacqui watched the kitten sway on his feet and instantly decided that he was far too sluggish to do much harm. That conclusion did little to ease her fear. For she sensed the real threat came from the deep-voiced predatory man named Dane...the man, she knew, who simply felt her presence. Just as she felt his. Acutely.
There was not a doubt in Jacqui's mind that it was she, and not the untimely kitten, who had actually triggered Dane's unerring suspicions. She couldn't begin to imagine what he would do if he actually found her...especially if he learned of her mission. Nor did she have any desire to find out. She licked her dry lips and flattened herself more firmly on the cold ground.
"That," she heard Thomas taunt, "was merely a very thirsty, very agile kitten." He sounded highly amused that his astute friend had been outmaneuvered by a scrap of an animal. "But don't worry, Dane...I think you are out of peril. Obviously, the little beggar got what he wanted."
Dane gave up on the soggy shirt and shot Thomas a look. "I'm pleased that you find this so humorous," he said dryly. "But I still think..." Abruptly he paused, his penetrating stare probing the narrow roadway, the still trees, searching for something he was not ready to dismiss.
Jacqui's heart began to race, though she was certain he hadn't spotted her. And yet, as he stood silhouetted in the night, rigid and unyielding in his perusal, it seemed his omniscient stare was fixed on her, exposing her to his blatant scrutiny. Relentlessly assailed by the pungent odor of earth, moss, and whiskey-drenched fur, Jacqui fought the reflex to gag, lest she give herself away. She lay totally motionless, her nails dug into the ground, her gaze riveted on her foes daunting form.
He was but a menacing shadow, looming dark and indistinct before her. Still, it did nothing to diminish the effect of his commanding physique and the primitive sort of power generated by his very presence. A power he would not hesitate to use. More than that, his instincts were obviously as well honed as her own, making him a formidable enemy. A tingle ran up her spine, one she recognized as a mixture of fear and exhilaration. She had to elude this man...and she would.
The next move was his. Jacqui held her breath, waiting.
"Dane, there is not a thing out there except the wind and your imagination," he complained. "I think you've been working too hard. It's time for a diversion...preferably a female one."
With a roguish grin, Dane relaxed. "You needn't worry on that score, Thomas," he assured his friend. "I've not been lacking in female companionship." He gave one final glance into the darkness. "But perhaps you're right about my being wrong. This time, at least. It is late and I am tired."
Thomas looked quickly down at his timepiece. "Speaking of women..." he began.
"Were we?" Dane baited. "Funny. I don't recall that we were speaking of women. But, evidently, you have one on your mind."
"I do. One I would rather not disappoint. And, if I don't hurry, I'm going to be late for our...visit."
Dane digested this piece of information thoughtfully. "Are you ever going to tell me who this mystery woman is?" he asked.
"No, thank you," Thomas declined, holding up his hand to ward off Dane's request. "I need no competition from you, my too-charming friend. This is one lady I plan to keep all to myself." His eyes twinkled. "Good night, Dane."
Good-naturedly, Dane accepted the evasion. "Yes, good night," he returned. "Although I'm certain you've already planned to have one."
"And what have you planned?"
Dane flexed his arms in front of him, stretching his powerful muscles. "I told Alexander I would stop in to see him by nine o'clock."
Thomas hesitated for a minute. "Fine. I won't repeat myself by telling you that you're working too hard. But you are." He gave Dane a mock salute. "Not I, however. Adieu." Whistling, he took his leave.
Whoever Thomas's lady was, Dane reflected with a chuckle, she was good for him. Dane hadn't seen his friend this happy in months...not since his textile-import company had begun to lose money, a situation that only promised to worsen as the months progressed. Especially if Hamilton prevailed in raising import duties to bolster America's fledgling industry. Then things would become even bleaker for poor Thomas.
Turbulent political issues confronted their country. America's government was, in many ways, like a new colt, on wobbly on its legs, its fiber being molded by the brilliant of its leaders. Tension with England was peaking again, badly needing to be diffused. The last thing the States could withstand was another war. It had to be prevented.
Purposefully, Dane strode toward his destination. The office of the Secretary of the Treasury.
Jacqui watched him go and released her breath on a sigh. Slowly, cautiously, she stood, waiting until Danes booted footsteps had faded down the cobblestone walk before she emerged from her hiding place. Then she crept out and peered after him. Thank goodness...he was gone.
A rustle from behind made her jump and spin about in alarm. A small, weaving ban of fur plunked down on the road beside her, the sound of the unceremonious plop magnified by both the night's absolute stillness and the frantic pounding of Jacqui's heart.
With a delicate lick of his whiskers, the inebriated kitten gazed up at her cross-eyed.
This time Jacqui relaxed into muffled laughter. She squatted down beside the small cat and gently stroked his wet fur.
"You are a terribly untidy and pathetic bandit, you know," she murmured, scratching his ears lightly. Greeted by the suffocating smell of liquor, Jacqui wrinkled her nose. "Not only did you practically give us both away, but you've managed to cover yourself with whiskey as well. Whatever will your owner say?"
The kitten did not answer, his eyes closed with ecstasy a he soaked up the attention he was receiving. Nearby, the branches of the trees whispered in the wind, and Jacqui's head shot up, her petite body tensing. It was always possible that a late-working merchant would still be about. Or worse...a menacing thief or a drunk. Hastily she stood, backing away from the kitten, who looked startled and bereft at his sudden abandonment
"I must go..." Jacqui muttered, smoothing her hands rapidly up and down the sides of her gown, while scanning the deserted street. The immediate danger might have passed, but she couldn't rest until she was where her father would expect her to be...at home, in bed.
She hurried off, her slippered feet moving soundlessly on the road, then through the rows of elm trees. She ducked down a narrow unpaved alleyway and bolted across the next street. She had but a few more blocks to go. Now only one. There, at last...home. She could see the graceful two-story brick house at the road's end. Her job was done...for tonight.
It was then she heard the noise.
Her face drained of color, she whirled, nearly tripping over a small black lump at her feet. The lump moved.
"You!" she hissed, staring at the kitten dumbfounded. "What are you doing here?"
The kitten merely gazed up at her with a haunted expression that tore at Jacqui's nearly impenetrable heart.
"Why don't you go home...where you belong?" she asked, with a sinking feeling in her stomach. "Home," she repeated, knowing full well that it was to no avail. Clearly, this poor creature was an orphan.
The kitten blinked its huge green eyes and answered with a sound that curiously resembled a hiccup, while rubbing itself insistently against Jacqui's gown. Then it opened its tiny pink mouth and let out a not-so-tiny meow that could have awakened the dead.
"Hush!" Jacqui looked about anxiously, convinced that at any moment the entire neighborhood would descend upon her, demanding an explanation for her unseemly conduct. And that would be the end of all her carefully laid plans.
No other recourse in sight, Jacqui scooped the forlorn little fellow into her arms, carrying him around to the side of her house, where she stopped. How shall I manage that old oak while I'm holding you?" she demanded, half to herself. "It was hard enough when I had only myself to hoist." She chewed her lip thoughtfully, then shrugged. There appeared to be no other choice but to attempt it...unless she was willing to concede defeat. And the word defeat was not in Jacqui's vocabulary.
Raising her gown and tucking it between her legs, she placed the kitten upon her shoulder. "Hold on," she instructed softly, praying that the animal would understand. She winced as he dug his claws into her gown...and her skin...for better traction. Then she proceeded to shimmy up the endless, winding oak tree that led to her bedroom.
Ever so quietly, she eased back the shutters, exposing the open window that was her gateway to safety.
With a surge of relief, Jacqui climbed inside and dropped onto the hardwood floor. Her gown was ripped in three places, she noted, wiping beads of perspiration from her brow. How was she going to explain that?
The answer climbed hesitantly down from her shoulder, shook out his whiskey-scented fur, and gave an unfocused blink at his new surroundings.
A smile tugged at Jacqiu's lips. "Yes, little whiskey thief, you just might be my savior after all," she acknowledged. She studied her rent gown closely, then nodded. The tears could certainly have been caused by a cat. She studied the gaping window. Cats could definitely climb trees. Her smile widened. Yes, it would work, all right. No one would doubt her.
Not when the explanation was right there for all to see.
And to smell.
Jacqui waved away the pungent fumes and stifled a cough. "Cat, you need a bath even more than I do." She fetched her washing basin and placed it on the floor, glancing at her reflection in the large oval mirror as she passed. Her thick, mahogany tresses lay in tangled disarray down her back and stuck in damp tendrils to her smudged forehead and neck. "Upon closer examination, I, retract that statement" she muttered, seeing the additional smears of dirt on her cheeks and arms She gathered up the porcelain pitcher by her basin. "So I shall heat water for us both. You wait here,"
Quietly, and with as little fuss as possible, Jacqui managed to heat a small amount of water, winch she carried back to her room. A trifle awkwardly, she cleansed the dirt from her face and body with a cloth and a bar of soap. She didn't dare drag the heavy tub up the stairs for fear of awakening the household. Tomorrow was soon enough for a real bath, for now, this would have to do.
After she had slipped into a clean nightrail, she proceeded to douse the squirming, protesting cat in soapy water. "It serves you right for smelling like a distillery," she scolded, avoiding his claws. She dried him off, her lips twitching at his wet spikes of fur, his scrawny appearance. "Whiskey, you we quite the thing," she praised. "And just as bold as I. Why, I do believe that we are going to be great companions"
The kitten, thereby christened "Whiskey," hiccuped his argeement. Then, with an exaggerated yawn, he leapt onto the beckoning softness of the bed, curled up on the plump feather pillow, and fell fast asleep.
"A wise decision," Jacqui concurred. The harrowing events of the night were taking their toll, and she was possessed of a sudden, ringing weariness. Yawning, she climbed into bed, snuggled beneath the bright patchwork quilt, lay her head next to Whiskey's, and closed her eyes.
Sleep did not come easily. Nor had she expected it would.
She always had trouble falling asleep after completing her weekly mission, for her mind was filled with the ramifications of her actions...and the importance of her cause. She therefore assumed that tonight would be the same.
But instead of her night's activities, all Jacqui could see was the dark, towering man that had come within a hair's-breadth of exposing her secret.
All was still at the corner of Third and Chestnut streets when Dane rounded the bend. Only a snatch of light came from beneath the solid door that led into the two-story brick office building. Dane gave a brief rap, then opened the door and strolled in.
The handsome man with the powdered auburn hair looked up from his desk, put down his quill pen, and acknowledged Danes presence with a faint smile. "So I see. Rather disheveled, are you not?" He indicated the whiskey stains on Dane's shirt and breeches.
Dane didn't smile back. "I had an unpleasant encounter with an inebriated cat," he answered shortly, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "It's late, Alexander," he began without preliminaries. "You should be home with Betsey, not here working until all hours of the night."
Alexander Hamilton leaned back in his chair. "Good evening to you, too, Dane."
Dane strode across the room with purposeful familiarity and lowered himself into a chair. "It has been mere months since you took ill...an illness you've scarce recovered from," he staunchly continued, assessing Hamilton's pallor and visible weakness. Dane couldn't forget how he had almost lost his friend to an epidemic of yellow fever that had spread like wildfire through Philadelphia last fall. "Have you so quickly forgotten your close call with death?"
Hamilton made a steeple with his fingers and rested his chin upon it. "I haven't forgotten. However, I have regained my health. And there is much I need to do before I retire from office."
Dane nodded his understanding. He knew how much Hamilton wanted to separate himself from the political upsets of the past few years, how much he wanted to go home to New York with his family and resume his law practice.
How much the country would lose with his departure.
"Thomas and I were at the Tavern tonight," Dane said at last. "The talk was of Laffey's latest column in the General Advertiser. He all but stated that war with England was imminent -- "
"President Washington has asked John Jay to go to England to negotiate for peace," Hamilton interrupted quietly.
Dane bolted to his feet. "Damn it, Alexander! You're the one who should be going, not Jay!"
Hamilton sighed deeply, his astute gaze holding his friend's molten silver one. "Despite our individual beliefs...or our passions," he added pointedly, "we must do what is best for the country. For me to serve as the American envoy right now would be foolhardy. We both know it, Dane."
"You told that to President Washington?" Dane persisted.
"What was his reaction?"
Hamilton did not hesitate. "He was greatly relieved."
Dane slammed his fist on the desk in frustration. Hamilton was right. There was too much controversy surrounding his handling of Treasury funds. It was a lot of nonsense, but it diminished his credibility nonetheless.
"I wanted to tell you first...before the information was made public," Hamilton was continuing.
"Or before Laffey makes it public."
Hamilton frowned. "Laffey...yes. He is a real thorn in the side of our government." He raked his hand through his neatly queued hair and stood, hands clasped behind his back. "We have enough to deal with, without his scathing columns. They incite too many people by prematurely revealing information that is better kept undisclosed."
"Not to mention his unique ability to obtain the information before it becomes public," Dane added. He shook his head angrily. "But the problem is, no one knows who he actually is."
"I can think of many people who would attack my philosophies," Hamilton returned dryly, staring at the floor but not seeing it. "Especially in the General Advertiser. But none of those people would dare go so far as Laffey has, particularly in light of the volatile situation with England. It is not only that Laffey labels me and the entire party as monarchical, but that the information he imparts could only have been obtained in closed social functions, and from men who are far too shrewd to publicly state opinions they realize should remain private."
"What are we going to do about it?" Dane demanded, recognizing the dawning, decisive light on Hamilton's face. The Secretary of the Treasury had an idea.
Hamilton grinned, a boyish grin that made his elegant good looks even more striking. "I'm going to host a small gathering of prominent politicians and businessmen in the Long Room. And you, my charming friend, are going to flit about, as you do so well, speak with all our guests..."
"....and see what I can learn," Dane finished, chuckling at Alexander's uncustomary, exaggerated praise.
"Done." Dane turned and headed for the door. He paused a moment, his expression one of stark determination. "By next Saturday you and I will know exactly who Jack Laffey really is."
Hamilton's jaw clenched. "And when we do, we will make certain that his pen is silenced for good."
Copyright ©1993 by Andrea Kane