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Near Abbeville, France, July 1795
The children. She was doing this for the children.
Brigitte Dubois surveyed the countryside. The brilliant blue sky where two birds twittered and flirted with each other, the lush green forest to her right filled with a host of insect sounds, and the rolling fields stretching beyond the farmstead ahead and into the golden horizon.
Serene. Peaceful. A pleasant change from the grimy streets of Calais.
She must have the wrong house.
She'd never before given much thought to the soldier who had dragged her husband away in the night to execute him for his crimes. Had never wondered where he lived, what he did, if he had a family. But farming?
She forced her feet up the curving lane, climbing the little knoll to the cottage. A man stood near the stable, stuffing vegetables into an old wagon.
Her husband's alleged killer?
Surely killers didn't farm the pristine countryside or load vegetable wagons on sunny afternoons. They skulked about in the dead of night, meting out death and destruction.
"Bonjour, Citizen." She neared the stable where the vegetables waited, stacked neatly in crates and sacks.
The man's forearms bulged as he hefted another crate, his shirt straining against wide shoulders and a torso thick as a tree trunk. He would tower over Alphonse's guards, and he was so thick of chest her hands wouldn't touch if she wrapped her arms around him.
Powerful enough to drag a man like Henri from his bed. Strong enough to beat her dead if he learned what she was about.
"If you're wishing to buy food, I sell it at the market, not here." The man didn't stop his work but reached for another sack.
"I'm not in want of food, but a post." Not that she wanted to work for a possible murderer, but truly, Alphonse had left her little choice.
He turned to her and paused, his hands gripping a crate filled with turnips. Harshness radiated from his being, with eyes so dark and ominous they were nearly black, and hair the color of the sky at midnight. His chin jutted hard and strong beneath a chiseled face, and an angry scar curled and bunched around his right eyebrow.
She wet her suddenly parched lips.
"I haven't a job to offer you. I only employ tenant farmers, and I've three men waiting for plots next year already." He slid the crate onto the wagon bed, then turned and hefted another. "Have you tried in town? The butcher might be hiring, and we can always use another laundress or seamstress."
Brigitte glanced down at her lye-scarred hands, unlikely to recover after sixteen months of taking in laundry and mending. Besides, Abbeville was a small town, not like the bustling port of Calais. The people here probably had a favorite widow they took their mending to. "What about working as laundress here? You said you have tenants."
"Aye, and several of them have wives. There're women aplenty for doing women's work and older men to laze about. It's young men we've naught of."
Yes, she knew. Perhaps the war with the Netherlands had been settled, but France still warred with the Austrians in the east, the Italians in the south, and the English on the sea. Which meant the country sorely lacked young men
Or rather, young, upstanding men. Her husband and the rest of Alphonse's smugglers had evaded enlistment.
As had the man before her.
That bore looking into. Why would a strong, healthy man be farming rather than serving his country?
Perhaps he'd gotten leave for some reason, or had already joined the army only to be injured and sent home.
But that still didn't explain how he had all his tenant positions filled and a waiting list of three farmers for next year.
And wondering these things would do little good unless she procured employment here and could seek answers. She forced her eyes back to the big brute of a man still loading the wagon. "What of you? Have you a wife to do your laundry and housework and cooking? I can bake bread and apple pies, cherry tarts and-"
"Non." The harsh word resonated through the air between them. "I've no wife, and no need of one."
Heat flooded her cheeks and she took a step back, even though the wagon already sat between them. "I wasn't asking for your hand, I was offering to hire my labor out."
She'd already tried to dig into his secrets from afar. She'd moved to Abbeville half a week ago, but talking to the townsfolk had gotten her nowhere. She had a meeting with Alphonse's man in three days' time, and nothing to report but the information Alphonse had already given her: officially, after Jean Paul Belanger's wife had died seven years ago, he'd gone to Paris and spent six years away from Abbeville, supposedly making furniture.
Furniture. In the middle of a revolution.
Did no one else think that odd?
Alphonse did. And Alphonse also thought Citizen Belanger the lead soldier that had found Henri and broken up a smuggling endeavor over a year ago, while going by a different surname. Now she was here to find proof and present it to Alphonse's man.
"Where did you say you were from?" The large man shoved another sack of grain onto the wagon and turned, his eyes studying her.
He frowned. "The port on the sea?"
"Oui. Have you been there? You can see England and its white cliffs from the shore. It's a beautiful city." Or it was if you lived in the proud stone houses set back from the sea and not in a shack near the harbor.
The man's eyes grew darker-which shouldn't have been possible, as they had started out the color of midnight.
He knew what she was about, he had to. She took an instinctive step back. If he flew at her-
"I've been there once, and it doesn't bear remembering."
Her breath puffed from her lips in shaky little bursts. It was as she'd told Alphonse, she'd be no good at this information gathering. If she couldn't look the man in the eye and ask him a simple question without giving herself away, how would she uncover his secrets?
If he had any secrets.
If he wasn't the wrong man entirely.
On the eve of Henri's capture, the sliver of moonlight trickling through the window had been so dim she could hardly make out her husband's form on the pallet beside her. But she'd felt his presence, the heat from his body, the tickle of his breath on her cheek. He was home, for once, not off on some smuggling errand for Alphonse, paying some strange woman for a place in her bed, or drinking himself through the wee hours until dawn. He'd eaten dinner with her and the children, kissed them and crawled into bed beside her as though they were a normal family.
Then the soldiers came. They didn't knock, just burst through the solid wooden door and shouted for Henri Dubois. One man yanked him from their bed. A big man, so broad of back and thick of chest his body eclipsed any light from the window.
Strange that she should recall that of all things, the way the soldier's body had been so large it obstructed the shadow of her husband's form being dragged to the door.
"Are you unwell?" Citizen Belanger watched her, his forehead wrinkling into deep furrows.
She shook her head, her throat too dry to speak.
"Citizen?" The farmer approached, stepping around the wagon and striding forward with a powerful gait.
"Non, I'm fine." She didn't want the hulking man beside her, innocent or not.
But he came, anyway, closer and closer until she stood in his shadow, those wide shoulders blocking the sun just as the soldier's body had blocked the light from the moon.
She pressed her eyes shut and ducked her head. What if this man had taken her husband? Would he drag her away to the guillotine, as well?
Her breaths grew quick and short, and the air squeezed from her lungs.
But nothing happened. She waited one moment, then two, before peeking an eyelid open. He stood beside her now, towering and strong, able to do anything he wished with those powerful hands and arms.
But concern cloaked his face rather than malice. "Are you ill? Need you sustenance?"
Sustenance? She wanted nothing from him-besides information, that was. She opened her mouth to proclaim herself well, except he stood so close she could only stare at his big, burly body.
"Here. Sit." He took her by the shoulder.
She lurched back, but his hands held her firm, leading her toward the house. Surely he didn't mean to take her inside, where 'twould be far more difficult for her to get away.
"Non." She planted her feet into the dirt. "I-I wish to stay in the sun."
He scowled, a look that had likely struck fear in many a heart. "Are you certain? Mayhap the sun's making you over warm. The house is cooler."
Her current state had nothing to do with the heat, but rather the opposite. Fear gripped her stomach and chest, an iciness that radiated from within and refused to release its hold. She'd felt it twice before. First when those soldiers had barged into their house and taken Henri away, and then the night Alphonse had given her this task.
Now she was in Abbeville, staring at the man she might well need to destroy and letting fear cripple her once again.
She's like Corinne. It was the only thing Jean Paul could think as he stared at the thin woman in his hold. She was tall yet slender, as his late wife had been, and had a quietly determined way about her. Unfortunately she also looked ready to faint.
He needed to get some food in her. He'd not have another woman starve in his hands, at least not when he had the means to prevent it.
"I should sit," she spoke quietly then slid from his grip, wilting against the stone and mud of the cottage wall before he could stop her.
"Are you unwell?" he asked again. A daft question, to be sure, with the way her face shone pale as stone.
She shook her head, a barely perceptible movement. "I simply need a moment."
She needed more than a moment. Judging by the dark smudges beneath her eyes and hollowness in her face she needed a night of rest and a fortnight of sumptuous feasts.
"Come inside and lie down." He hunkered down and reached for her, wrapping one arm around her back and slipping another beneath her legs.
"Non!" The bloodcurdling scream rang across the fields, so loud his tenants likely heard it. "Remove your hands at once."
Stubborn woman. "If you'd simply let me "
His voice trailed off as he met her eyes. They should have been clouded with pain, or mayhap in a temporary daze from nearly swooning. But fear raced through those deep brown orbs.
She was terrified.
Why? He shifted back, giving her space enough to run if she so desired. The woman's chest heaved and her eyes turned wild, the stark anguish of fright and horror etched across her features.
"Let me get you a bit of water and bread." He rose and moved into the quiet sanctuary of his home. The cool air inside the dank daub walls wrapped around him, the familiar scents of rising bread and cold soup tugging him farther inside. But the surroundings didn't banish the woman's look of terror from his mind, nor the sound of her scream.
How many times had he heard screams like that? A woman's panic-filled cry, a child's voice saturated with fear?
And how many times had he been the cause?