THE TALL WINDOWS of the governor’s mansion shone with candles, and the polished wide board floor reflected the glow. It was a splendid New York City ball carried off in high style, as if a war weren’t crouched somewhere close by like a filthy, murderous maniac. Officers paraded in red uniforms and crisp white wigs, while the ladies exhibited low-cut dresses, tightly laced waistlines and towering hairstyles. The glossy, spilling curls were sometimes their own--but, more likely, purchased.
Into this scene-as sophisticated as any in London strode Jack Carter. He was neither tall nor red-coated, being of medium height and wearing a black suit. Not only his attire, but the way he moved and stood separated him at once from the crowd. The other men beside the governor were fawning--or, at least, deferential.
Not this stranger. Even as he was ushered onto the dais to be introduced to the governor, he paused, allowing his eyes to sweep the room with all the serene and abstracted confidence of a prince.
“Who is that lordly fellow? The one dressed like a rich Quaker?” Angelica whispered the questions while hiding behind her fan. Her companion, Minerva Livingston, had recently married a British officer.
“Quaker?” The new Mrs. Colonel Bradford couldn’t quite smother the giggle. “Not by a long chalk, my dear. ’Tis said Jack Carter was an officer and in all sorts of wars. My William heard that he’s a gentleman of good breeding who has come to our colony to escape the consequences of a duel. ’Tis also said his family holds land up the Hudson, by Kingston. But, I must say, his timing’s marvelously bad.”
Angelica nodded. All the time her companion was speaking, her eyes had never left the strangely compelling Mr. Carter.
Suddenly, there was a shock, as tangible as a slap. The stranger’s restless search of the room had abruptly ended--at the instant his gaze collided with Angelica’s.
Tingling all over, she watched his expression change to one of pure, masculine delight. And, unaccountably--recognition!
It must be a trick of the light, she thought. Then, casually looking away, she permitted herself a thought. Perhaps, he likes what he sees as much as I do . . .
Minerva had missed the whole episode. “I met Mr. Carter yesterday,” she went on, “at Lady Tryon’s tea. When you get closer, you will see he’s had his handsome face spoiled.”
She leaned ever closer as she talked. When she was quite close to Angelica’s ear, she whispered, “Carter isn’t his real name, either, my William says.”
“And what does your William say his real name is?”
“No one is entirely sure,” Minerva answered, a flash of annoyance brightening her plump cheeks. “Although the governor must know. Some say he’s Mr. Church of Oxfordshire, others that he’s a Villiers from Somerset or one of the Devonshire Clarkes. He was charming at table, but what a way he has about him. Quite the cock of the walk.”
“Not at all. Poise isn’t the same as pride.” For some reason she didn’t understand, Angelica felt obliged to object.
“Well, Lord! Just look at him! You’d think he was the most important man on the dais.” Her friend boldly poked her fan in the direction of the subject of her gossip. “And you should see how polite the men are around him,” she continued. “He is supposed to be quite a dangerous fellow...to have killed his man. Over a woman, William says. Why,” she ended breathlessly, “he’s practically in exile.”
Even without Minerva’s stories, Angelica was intrigued. The man’s easy manner, his absolute self-confidence, made a sharp contrast with the obvious peacocking of the young officers. As for the rest, she knew Minerva embroidered every tale she heard.
And the look he’d sent! So admiring, so--so--possessive . . .
“Killed someone over a woman?” she asked. “Are you certain? That would be a terrible scandal, impossible to keep quiet.”
Although she could neither approve of dueling, (nor, these days, of British officers), Angelica found herself unable to keep her gaze from the mysterious Mr. Carter. When he passed close, dancing with one of the ladies of the governor’s circle, she saw he was older than she’d first thought--perhaps as old as thirty.
His only bow to fashion was a single row of white silk cross-stitchery along the lapels of the jacket. With a proud, athletic bearing that spoke of far more than adequate muscle beneath his coat, his fair, unpowdered head held high, this Jack Carter was in manhood’s full noontide glory.
Is this not the best-looking man I’ve seen in ages? Does he not carry himself like a lordly stag--out of place here, among these complacent--sheep?
“Here. Before I forget.” Minerva broke into her thoughts. Slipping a long, fair hand into a pocket, her friend removed a single, neatly pressed rectangle of printed calico.
“Oh! Just look!” Angelica exclaimed. The print--destined to be the center of a quilt she and her friends had planned to sew round robin--was a distraction. On an ivory background, a brilliant pair of bluebirds flew on either side of a brown nest containing a clutch of eggs. It was a triumph of the most modern method of textile printing, executed by a craftsman who had used a Dutch nature print for his inspiration.
“This is from a Philadelphia shop,” Minerva replied. “Even my William allows it is as handsomely done as any English piece he’s seen.”
“What a wonderful choice for our center! Such a sweet scene--and so many nice colors to work with!”
“Yes, I thought so, too. Will you have any difficulty matching the material?”
“Not a bit.” Carefully, Angelica refolded the square and tucked it into her own deep pocket. “In a few days, I shall carry what I’ve done to Caroline Beekman. The Livingston boys and I go there to dinner on Wednesday.”
“Will you sail to her?” Minerva asked. “In that awful little sailboat?”
“Yes, of course. There’s nothing to be afraid of. My cousins are wonderful sailors. As you can imagine, Aunt Laetitia must have her carriage at all times.”
Minerva shuddered. “I’m sure they’re very good, but I don’t see how you can trust yourself to boys--or to that tiny boat! The Hudson is as broad and deep as the ocean. Just the idea scares me to death.”
MR. CARTER, ACCOMPANIED by no less of a person than the governor’s wife, was introduced to Angelica. He had a scar, just as Minerva had said, but his face wasn’t ”spoiled.” There was simply a long, straight line that began on his right cheekbone and made a diagonal passage toward his mouth.
Angelica recognized the wound. It was the kind left by a close encounter with an expert, and very sharp, rapier. Mr. Carter was lucky, she mused, not to have lost one of his sparkling gray eyes.
“I thought--” Jack Carter smiled as he lifted his head from bowing over her hand. ”--that I certainly must make the acquaintance of a lady who has sufficient courage to flout not only fashion, but the frenzied urgings of a hairdresser.”
Quite an opening, she thought. The reference was to Angelica’s unpowdered golden curls piled into a shining, tumbling corona. A few renegade locks had been allowed to trail negligently over one creamy shoulder.
The gentleman’s own wavy hair was queued, but like hers was untouched by powder. The color was light, but the exact color was difficult to pin down. In another light, it might prove to be chestnut, blonde or ash.
“It may be presumptuous, Miss TenBroeck, but I have come to ask if there is a dance you might have free to take with me.”
His words were deferential, but his eyes were not. She was visited by a feeling that if all her dances had been filled, she would throw over someone--anyone--simply to please him.
“You may have the very next dance, sir,” Angelica replied. She found Jack Carter’s good looks amplified by closeness. “That is,” she continued with a nervous toss of her head, “if you are bold enough to tread a measure with a partisan of General Washington.”
One sandy brow lifted, but his beautiful eyes sparkled as if he loved nothing so much as a challenge. Those eyes were truly gray, so pale and clear that looking into them took her breath away. They were like gazing at the frozen face of the Hudson on a sunny January day.
“I am bold enough for anything, Miss TenBroeck,” he replied.