(You can find Jesslynn in the Amaranthine saga & Brothers of Darkness. Her story takes place on the Cotterill plantation in Virginia in January, 1820.)
Jesslynn peered through the window. Outside, the world was still and silent like an empty room. Snowflakes dropped from the sky and the dawn's feeble beams tried to slice through the mantle of clouds.
By contrast, morning was well under way inside. Warm smells drifted from the winter kitchen in the cellar. The slaves had already been at work for two hours. Breakfast would be ready soon and Jesslynn turned her thoughts to her family; or what was left of it.
A baby's wail broke through the house, shrill and unhealthy. The sound tore at her heart and she closed her eyes against despair. She could hear Nan's quick steps as she hurried to fetch the child and bring him down. Jesslynn straightened her spine and readied her face. The fruit of her womb might be weak, but she was strong.
A dark, wrinkled woman appeared with a squirming bundle in her arms. Without a word, Jesslynn took the baby and dismissed the slave. She turned dark eyes on her son and cooed to him softly. His small face was screwed up in misery but instead of bright red, his skin was pale like linen. Her chest tightened. She had seen that color before. It was the color of death.
Her eyes stole to the window and the family cemetery beyond. There were eight markers. The newest belonged to her mother-in-law, dead six months and good riddance. Next to her was Oren's father, Jesslynn's father-in-law. He'd been dead before she ever married into the family. It was the other stones that caused her heart to skip. They belonged to her children. Though she'd born eight, only two survived infancy; Alexander, who would be five in June, and Tristan, the baby in her arms. At six months, it was uncertain whether he would live to see his first birthday.
She looked from the stones to the naked vine that wound around the cemetery's fence; roses that her husband and their neighbor, Jorick Smit, had planted. When she thought of Jorick, she shivered. They'd planted those flowers in the dark. At first she'd thought it some old world superstition, but then she'd taken stock of him and paid attention. Her conclusion was drawn quickly; he was touched by demons. Demons that kept him from aging, growing weak, getting sick.
She looked down at the child in her arms and made up her mind.
Her husband stood in the snow, bundled up against the January wind. Strands of tawny blond hair escaped his ponytail to blow in his face. He stared at her. A mixture of horror and disbelief shown in his amber eyes.
"What you say is" he broke off and shook his head.
"Is what? A sin? I am tired of righteousness if the bones of our children is all it rewards us with."
"No. Impossible. I've told you before that it is your overwrought imagination. Jorick is not an agent of demons, nor a warlock, nor a wizard. He is as human as you or I."
"Have you ever seen him in the sunlight?"
"Perhaps. I don't remember."
She narrowed her eyes shrewdly. "No, you haven't, and neither have I. Neither have his slaves, or anyone else you could name. I've asked them, Oren. You must go now, before the sun can set, and catch him up. Reveal the truth of his secret deeds. The mark of the devil is on him. I feel in my heart that he is not human. You see that he does not age nor grow weak, nor sicken? He remains unchanged - not his hair, not his face, though it has been six years since he took the plantation from his uncle if uncle the man was to him!"
"There are others who don't sicken. Perhaps Jorick is blessed with a strong constitution?"
"No! You know as well as I! You have remarked on it before. You try always to pass it off as some casual observation, made in jest, though we know that is a falsehood, for you can sense the truth of the matter. It's in his eyes, in the way his skin seems to gleam, in the way he moves and the way he talks; how he never opens his mouth all the way, as if he is afraid some secret will leak out. Don't deny these proofs, my husband! You know them to be true!"
Oren's shoulders sagged. "Yes," he said softly. "You are right. There has always been something about him. But to suggest that he has a pact with the devil?" Oren closed his eyes against the idea. "If you are right and I catch him in some secret rite, then what?"
"You must demand he share the secret!" She broke off from adding "before it's too late", though it was on her face.
"What if he refuses?"
She caught Oren's hands and gazed hard into his eyes. "Then you must make him!"
"Must I think of everything?" She threw his hands away and turned her back on him to stare at the small, snowy cemetery. When she spoke again, her voice was calm, but not warm. "You owe this to your children and their future, Oren. You will find a way. You will make Jorick share this gift and you will bring it to us."
Though his words were what she wanted to hear, his uncomfortable tone was not. "You'd better." When he made no reply, she turned back to him. After glancing both ways to be sure they were unobserved, she brushed a quick kiss across his cheek. "Go now. The overseer can handle the slaves. Safe journey, my husband."
It was early afternoon when Oren left. By dinner he had not returned. Jesslynn hid her fears behind a mask of stern indifference, though she couldn't feign an appetite. Oren's sister Torina sat at the far end of the table. As she ate, she chattered about the plans for her new dress. When no one answered her, she eventually fell into a pouty silence.
Alexander finished his meal and folded his hands primly in his lap. "Mother, where has Father gone?"
She fought to keep the apprehension from her voice. "To call on Mr. Smit."
Torina cooed delightedly. "Will Mr. Smit be joining us this evening?"
Jesslynn cringed inside. Torina was as vapid and useless as her mother had been. "I can't say."
"I do hope so!" Torina patted her hair and bent to examine her reflection in a silver server. "I'm quite taken with him."
"I'm sure." The words were out before Jesslynn could stop them, but they made little difference. Torina had been in and out of six engagements. Perhaps Jorick Smit would be next. If they were lucky, Torina would actually make it to the altar this time.
Alexander looked at his empty plate. "May I be excused, Mother?"
"Yes. Go to your room and study your French lesson. You have yet to give me a sentence for the day."