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February 1788, France
“Elle est morte!”
Lenobia’s world exploded with the sound of a scream and three small words.
“She is dead?” Jeanne, the scullery maid working beside her, paused in her kneading of the plump, fragrant bread dough.
“Oui, may the Holy Mother have mercy on Cecile’s soul.”
Lenobia looked up to see her mother standing in the arched doorway to the kitchen. Her pretty face was unusually pale and her hand clutched the worn rosary beads that were always looped around her neck.
Lenobia shook her head in disbelief. “But just days ago she was laughing and singing. I heard her. I saw her!”
“She was beautiful, but never strong, that poor girl,” Jeanne said, shaking her head sadly. “Always so pale. Half of the château caught that same ague, my sister and brother included. They recovered easily.”
“Death, he strikes quickly and terribly,” Lenobia’s mother said. “Lord or servant, he eventually comes for each of us.”
Forever after, the yeasty scent of fresh bread would remind Lenobia of death and sicken her stomach.
Jeanne shuddered and crossed herself with a flour-whitened hand, leaving a crescent-shaped spot in the middle of her forehead. “May the Mother protect us.”
Automatically, Lenobia genuflected, though her eyes never left her mother’s face.
“Come with me, Lenobia. I need your help more than Jeanne does.”
Lenobia would never forget the feeling of dread that engulfed her with her mother’s words.
“But there will be guests—mourners—we must have bread,” Lenobia stammered. Her mother’s gray eyes, so like her own, turned to storm clouds. “That was not a request,” she said, switching smoothly from French to English.
“When your mère speaks in the barbaric English, you know she must be obeyed.” Jeanne shrugged her round shoulders and got back to her dough kneading.
Lenobia wiped her hands on a linen towel and forced herself to hurry to her mother. Elizabeth Whitehall nodded at her daughter and then turned, motioning for Lenobia to follow her.
They made their way quickly through the wide, graceful halls of the Château de Navarre. There were nobles who had more money than the Baron of Bouillon—he was not one of King Louis’s confidants or courtiers, but he did have a family that could be traced back hundreds of years, and a country estate that was the envy of many lords who were richer, though not as well-bred.
Today the château’s halls were hushed and the curved, mullioned windows that usually allowed plentiful sunlight to spill against the clean marble floors were already being draped with heavy black velvet by a legion of silent servant girls. Lenobia thought that the house itself seemed muffled with grief and shock.
Then Lenobia realized they were hurrying away from the central part of the manor and toward one of the rear exits that would empty out near the stables.
“Maman, où allons-nous?”
“In English! You know I loathe the sound of French,” her mother snapped.
Lenobia suppressed a sigh of irritation and switched to her mother’s birth language. “Where are you going?”
Her mother glanced around them, then grabbed her daughter’s hand and, in a low, tight voice said, “You must trust me and do exactly as I say.”
“Of-of course I trust you, Mother,” Lenobia said, frightened by the wild look in her mother’s eyes.
Elizabeth’s expression softened and she touched her daughter’s cheek. “You are a good girl. You always have been. Your circumstances are my fault, my sin alone.”
Lenobia began to shake her head. “No, it wasn’t your sin! The Baron takes whomever he wants as a mistress. You were too beautiful not to catch his eye. That was not your fault.”
Elizabeth smiled, which allowed some of her past loveliness to surface. “Ah, but I was not beautiful enough to keep his eye, and because I was only the daughter of an English farmer, the Baron cast me aside, though I suppose I must eternally be grateful he found a place for me, and for you, in his household.”
Lenobia felt the old bitterness burn within her. “He took you from England—stole you from your family. And I am his daughter. He should find a place for me, and for my mother.”
“You are his bastard daughter,” Elizabeth corrected her. “And only one of many—though by far the prettiest. As pretty even as his legitimate daughter, the poor, dead Cecile.”
Lenobia looked away from her mother. It was an uncomfortable truth that she and her half sister did look very much alike, enough alike to have caused rumors and whispers as both girls began to bloom into young women. Over the past two years Lenobia had learned it was best to avoid her sister and the rest of the Baron’s family, who all seemed to detest the very sight of her. She had found it easier to escape to the stables—somewhere Cecile, the Baroness, and her three brothers rarely went. The thought crossed her mind that her life would either be much easier now that the sister who looked so much like her—but who would not acknowledge her—was dead, or the dark looks and the sharp words from the Baroness and her boys would get even worse.
“I am sorry Cecile is dead,” Lenobia said aloud, trying to reason through the jumble of her thoughts.
“I would not wish ill on the child, but if she was fated to die, I am grateful that it happened now, at this moment.” Elizabeth took her daughter’s chin and forced her to meet her gaze. “Cecile’s death will mean life for you.”
“Life? For me? But I already have a life.”
“Yes, the life of a bastard servant in a household that despises the fact that their lord scatters his seed aimlessly and then enjoys flaunting the fruits of his transgressions as if that proves his manhood over and over again. That is not the life I wish for my only child.”
“But, I do not under—”
“Come, and you will understand,” her mother interrupted, taking her hand again and pulling her along the hallway until they came to a small room near one of the rear doors of the château. Elizabeth opened the door and led Lenobia into the poorly lit room. She moved purposefully to a large basket like those used to carry the linens to wash. There was, indeed, a sheet draped over the top of it. Her mother pulled it away to expose a gown that shimmered with blue and ivory and gray, even in the dim light.
Lenobia stared as her mother began lifting the gown and the expensive undergarments from the basket, shaking them out, smoothing their wrinkles, brushing off the delicate velvet slippers. She glanced at her daughter. “You must hurry. If we are to be successful, we have very little time.”
“You are going to put on these clothes, and with them you will also put on the identity of another. Today you will become Cecile Marson de La Tour d’Auvergne, the legitimate daughter of the Baron of Bouillon.”
Lenobia wondered if her mother had gone utterly mad. “Mother, everyone knows Cecile is dead.”
“No, my child. Everyone at the Château de Navarre knows she is dead. No one on the coach that will be here within the hour to transport Cecile to the port of Le Havre, or on the ship awaiting her there, knows she is dead. Nor will they, because Cecile is going to meet that coach and take that ship to the New World, the new husband, and the new life that awaits her in New Orleans as a legitimate daughter of a French baron.”
Her mother dropped the gown and grasped both of her daughter’s hands, squeezing them so hard Lenobia would have flinched had she not been so shocked. “You must! Do you know what awaits you here? You are almost sixteen. You have been fully a woman for two summers. You hide in the stables—you hide in the kitchen—but you cannot hide forever. I saw how the Marquis looked at you last month, and then again last week.” Her mother shook her head, and Lenobia was shocked to realize she was fighting back tears as she continued to speak. “You and I have not spoken of it, but you must know that the true reason we have not attended Mass at Évreux these past weeks is not because my duties have overtired me.”
“I wondered … but I did not want to know!” Lenobia pressed her trembling lips together, afraid of what else she might say.
“You must face the truth.”
Lenobia drew a deep breath, yet still a shudder of fear moved through her body. “The Bishop of Évreux—I could almost feel the heat of his eyes when he stared at me.”
“I have heard he does much more than stare at young girls,” her mother said. “There is something unholy about that man—something more than the sin of his corporeal desires. Lenobia, Daughter, I cannot protect you from him or any other man because the Baron will not protect you. Becoming someone else and escaping the life sentence that it means to be a bastard is your only answer.”
Lenobia gripped her mother’s hands as if they were a lifeline and stared into the eyes so much like her own. My mother is right. I know she is right. “I have to be brave enough to do this.” Lenobia spoke her thought aloud.
“You are brave enough to do this. You have the blood of courageous Englishmen pounding through your veins. Remember that, and it will strengthen you.”
“I will remember.”
“Very well, then.” Her mother nodded resolutely. “Take those servant’s rags off and we will dress you anew.” She squeezed her daughter’s hands before releasing them and turning back to the pile of shimmering cloth.
When Lenobia’s trembling hands faltered, her mother’s took over, swiftly divesting her of the simple but familiar clothing. Elizabeth didn’t even leave Lenobia her homespun shift, and for a dizzying moment it seemed she was even shedding her old skin for new. She didn’t pause until her daughter was totally na**d. Then, in complete silence, Elizabeth dressed Lenobia carefully, layer upon layer: shift, pockets, panniers, under petticoat, over petticoat, stays, stomacher, and the lovely silk robe à la polonaise. It was only after she had helped her on with the slippers, fussed with her hair, and then swirled a fur-trimmed, hooded pelisse around her shoulders that she finally stepped back, curtseyed deeply, and said, “Bonjour, Mademoiselle Cecile, votre carrosse attend.”
“Maman, no! This plan—I understand why you must send me away, but how can you bear it?” Lenobia pressed her hand over her mouth, trying to silence the sob that was building there.
Elizabeth Whitehall simply rose, took her daughter’s shoulders, and said, “I can bear it because of the great love I bear for you.” Slowly, she turned Lenobia so that she could see her reflection in the large, cracked mirror that rested on the floor behind them, waiting to be replaced.
Lenobia gasped and reached toward the reflection, too startled to do anything except stare.
“Except for your eyes and the lightness of your hair, you are the image of her. Know it. Believe it. Become her.”
Lenobia’s gaze went from the mirror to her mother. “No! I cannot be her. God rest her soul, but Cecile was not a kind girl. Mother, you know she cursed me every time she saw me, even though we share the same blood. Please, Maman, do not make me do this. Do not make me become her.”
Elizabeth touched her daughter’s cheek. “My sweet, strong girl. You could never become like Cecile, and I would never ask it of you. Take only her name. Inside, in here.” Her touch went from Lenobia’s face to the spot on her breast under which her heart beat tremulously. “In here you will always be Lenobia Whitehall. Know that. Believe that. And in doing so you will become more than her.”
Lenobia swallowed the dryness in her throat and the terrible pounding of her heart. “I hear you. I believe you. I will take on her name but not become her.”
“Good. It is settled then.” Her mother reached behind the laundry basket and lifted a small, box-shaped case. “Here, take this. The rest of her trunks were sent to the port days ago.”
“La casquette de Cecile.” Lenobia took it hesitantly.
“Do not use the vulgar French word for it. They make it sound like a casket. It is a travel case. That is all. It is meant as the beginning of a new life—not the ending of an old one.”
“It has her jewelry in it. I heard Nicole and Anne talking.” The other servants had gossiped incessantly about how the Baron had ignored Cecile for sixteen years, but now that she was being sent away he lavished jewelry and attention on her as the Baroness wept about losing her only daughter. “Why did the Baron agree to send Cecile to the New World?”
Her mother snorted in disdain. “His latest mistress, that opera singer, has almost bankrupted him. The King is paying handsomely for titled, virtuous daughters willing to marry the nobility of New Orleans.”
“The Baron sold his daughter?”
“He did. His excess has purchased you a new life. Now, let us go so that you might claim it.” Her mother cracked the door and peered into the hallway. She turned back to Lenobia. “No one is about. Put your hood over your hair. Follow me. Quickly.”
“But the coach will be stopped by the liverymen. The drivers will be told about Cecile.”
“Yes, if the coach was allowed to enter the estate they would be told. That is why we shall meet it outside the grand gates. You will board it there.”
There was no time to argue with her mother. It was almost mid-morning, and there should have been servants and tradesmen and visitors coming and going from the busy estate. But today there was a pall over everything. Even the sun’s face was veiled as mist and low, murky clouds swirled over the château.