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Authors: Kari Edgren

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BOOK: Goddess Born
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The Berkshire
had arrived yesterday afternoon.

“This can’t be!” But there was no denying the bold black ink.

The mantel clock read a quarter past ten. I jumped up for my hat and gloves, frantic to be off at once. Best case, Samuel would be staying at a guesthouse for a few days to make any necessary purchases before leaving the city. Worst case, he had left Philadelphia and was already halfway to Brighmor. My only hope was that he had not departed the ship without first informing Captain Harlow of his plans.

At least I had the presence of mind to get Ben on my way out of the inn. Mrs. Bradford would still be well put out once she got word of this outing, but there was no time to waste in finding the woman.

I refused to wait for the carriage, choosing instead to walk the three blocks to the river. The vast number of ships at anchor offered an impressive sight. Under normal circumstances I would have appreciated such evidence of our modern times if not for the great inconvenience they posed for finding
The Berkshire
and Captain Harlow. Luckily for me, Ben was not so easily discouraged. Taking my elbow, he led me through the bustling crowd. He stopped only twice to ask about
The Berkshire
and in no time had me in front of the right ship.

A group of men stood nearby, but I paid them no heed as I debated the best way to get a message to the captain. Deep in thought, I didn’t notice Ben had left until a minute later when he came back with a gentleman at his side. Although I hadn’t seen the man in years, his appearance was little altered and I recognized him at once.

Captain Harlow removed his hat and bowed gracefully. “Good Morning, Miss Kilbrid.” “Good morning, Captain Harlow,” I said, returning the greeting with a small curtsy. “I have come to enquire about my cousin, Mr. Samuel Kilbrid. Do you know if he took up residence in town or left straight away for Hopewell when you arrived yesterday?”

The captain looked nervously at Ben and then back to me. “I’m afraid neither, Miss Kilbrid.”

I blinked in confusion. “Well, then where is he? Did he remain on the ship?”

“No, miss, your cousin is no longer onboard,” the captain said, slowly shaking his head. “He was struck with the palsy and died at sea.”

Chapter Two

The Lesser of Two Evils

Captain Harlow began to waver and fade as darkness pushed in on all sides, threatening my field of vision. I must have stumbled forward since the next thing I knew Ben had one arm around my waist and the other at my elbow to keep me from falling to the ground. Guiding me to a nearby wooden crate, he helped me sit before kneeling down to have a good look at my face. Captain Harlow knelt beside him.

“She’ll be all right,” Ben said. “A little rest, and then I’ll see her back to the inn.”

“But she’s gone white as a sheet,” the captain said. “Should I send for a doctor?”

“No, no,” I protested, even though he wasn’t talking to me. “Just give me a minute, and I’ll be fine. Your news caught me unaware.” The fainting spell had passed, and with my vision restored there was little risk of tumbling from the crate.

“I fear your visit took me by surprise, Miss Kilbrid, and I handled the matter with little delicacy. Please accept my apologies.”

“There is no need, Captain Harlow,” I assured him.

“I felt horrible when the lad took sick under my watch, especially since he was a close relation to Jonathan Kilbrid.” The captain quickly glanced around. “Did your father send you alone to meet your cousin?”

A dull ache swelled in my chest. Last night I’d ignored Mrs. Bradford’s inquiries rather than give voice to the truth. But as my father had given me specific instructions in this case, I inhaled a deep breath through my nose and proceeded the best I could. “I’m sorry, Captain. He recently passed away.”

Ben’s shoulders slumped forward, and I cursed myself for not telling him sooner.

The captain’s face also fell. “This is terrible news. I knew your father for more than thirty years and can honestly say there was no better man.”

“Thank you, Captain.” I swallowed several times to force back the tears. I had already lost enough dignity for one day. The last thing I needed was to start blubbering in front of a dock full of strangers.

A neatly dressed man approached our pathetic little party to whisper something to Captain Harlow, who nodded and got to his feet.

“If you have no further need of my assistance, Miss Kilbrid, I must excuse myself.”

“Yes, of course. Ben will see me safely to the inn.”

“Your servant, miss.” The captain bowed again before returning the short distance to the group of waiting men.

“How are you feeling, Miss Kilbrid?” Ben asked once the captain was gone.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I’m really sorry I didn’t tell you earlier.”

“When did he pass?”

“Yesterday evening.”

Confusion briefly edged out the grief in Ben’s face. “Did word come from Brighmor this morning?”

“No,” I said in a hurry. “It’s just that the illness was so advanced, he couldn’t have survived more than another day.”

Ben nodded a subtle agreement. “You must be right.” Pushing to his feet, he moved several steps away to stare out over the water, leaving me alone to sort out this most recent disaster.

A chill settled inside me, and I shivered despite the hot sunlight. For two days my emotions had been a constant battle. Now, I felt only a great weariness. My first thought was to return post haste to the soft downy bed at Meredith House, but my legs could not yet be trusted to go the three blocks to the inn. Denied this means of escape, I remained seated on the dirty wooden crate and tried to sort out what to do next.

The hard reality of my situation stared me bleakly in the face—for the first time I was truly alone in the world, without a single known living relation. More than forty years ago my father had barely escaped from Ireland with a price on his head, leaving behind all of his family and connections in search of a new home. My maternal grandparents were the first on that side to emigrate, also fleeing Ireland for the New World, but they had passed away years before and my mother was their only child. One year after my mother died, my older brother Sean had a serious falling out with our father and left for the West Indies. Three years had passed without word from him when my world was shaken anew with rumors that he had been mortally wounded in a drunken brawl. Now even Samuel Kilbrid, my second cousin once removed, was dead, buried deep in the Atlantic Ocean.

So there I was, eighteen years old with no one to consult but myself. Under the circumstances, perhaps I should have been thankful for options so stark they were easily sorted through. I could return home and marry Nathan Crowley without delay to preserve my property and fortune, or I could return home, refuse to marry Nathan, have my life systematically ruined, and then be forced to marry him in order to save my good name and what remained of my estate. Either way, it would be necessary to suppress my birthright for risk of discovery, until only the memory of my former self remained.

I shuddered at the prospect of such a miserable life and began silently praying for a miracle when my thoughts were interrupted by an angry outburst of voices. To my right, about twenty feet away, I saw Captain Harlow seated on a crate similar to the one I sat upon, behind a makeshift desk constructed of barrels and wooden planks. More than a dozen men stood facing him. One man near the front of this group had started yelling, and only the sight of the many well-armed sailors seemed to stop him from further escalating the confrontation.

Though my heart began to race, Captain Harlow appeared entirely bored as he waited for the man to finish. Finding no further provocation, the man finally calmed down, at which time the captain said something beyond my hearing, to the amusement of those assembled. The man openly bristled at the jest, and I feared the dispute would start anew when he too laughed, thrusting out a hand for the captain to shake. This done, the man pulled a small leather moneybag from his coat pocket. He dropped it on the table, receiving a sheet of rolled parchment in return.

The exchange completed, Captain Harlow waved to a lad barely in his first whiskers, who had been standing nearby in another, more somber group of individuals. This boy walked over to the desk where he was introduced to the man with the parchment. They too shook hands and then walked off together away from the docks. Intrigued by the whole affair, I forgot my own problems for a moment.

“Do you wish to leave, Miss Kilbrid?” Ben asked, having returned to my side when the man first began his angry tirade.

I watched another man walk up to the desk to speak with the captain. “What are they doing over there?”

“They’re buying indentures,” Ben said.

Of course!
Indentured servants were common throughout the Colonies, especially in Pennsylvania where ready labor often ran short. My own father had relied upon this form of labor, having purchased at least a score of contracts over the years, but never before had I witnessed the actual proceedings.

The two groups could not have been more different in nature. The men clustered in front of the desk were loud and boisterous, unrestrained in showing their anger or mirth during the negotiations. The lot of men and boys standing behind Captain Harlow and his armed sailors looked ill at ease as they waited to learn their fate.

How very much like myself
. Except that many of these individuals had signed up, willing to trade four to seven years of labor for passage to the Colonies. Some, I had heard were criminals sent over from England, opting for transport over hanging on the gallows. As another boy walked off with his new master, I thought of sailing away to a place where I could start again without Nathan Crowley. Girls could sign up to serve in numerous occupations, such as maids and cooks, though this trade generally only went one way. Europe sent over its most impoverished and depraved, but needed none of our own in return.

While I mulled over my own miserable fate, I noticed one of the remaining indentures staring in my direction. Although he wore the same rough garb as his companions and looked equally disheveled after eight weeks at sea, he held himself altogether different, in a manner that bespoke of confidence, verging on arrogance. He stood a good head taller than the other men, and from the breadth of his shoulders, appeared to be powerfully built. His light brown hair was tied back into a tangled ponytail, revealing a strong jaw and straight nose.

In truth, I found his features most pleasing and thought how nice it would be if he were Samuel rather than an impoverished soul, waiting to be sold for labor. As I’d never met my cousin, it hardly took any effort to imagine the other man in his place, nor, in a moment of weakness, to allow the events to play out as they were supposed to before fate had so cruelly intervened.

We’d have done as my father instructed and gone straight to the magistrate to be married.
Unless
,
of course
,
Samuel had wanted a bath and shave at the inn first
...I looked more closely at the man behind Captain Harlow. His present roughness possessed a certain appeal, though I’d not have begrudged him the chance to freshen up for the ceremony...
Either way
,
Samuel and I would have been husband and wife no later than midday.
And come nightfall...

A sudden thrill teased my skin.
Then what?
Surely he’d not have demanded to share a bed until we were better acquainted...
I traced the strong lines of the man’s face, and found the telltale signs of intelligence and a natural authority, without the least bit of cruelty...
Though perhaps he would have been tempted to steal a kiss or two on our wedding night...

Leaning forward a fraction of an inch, my lips parted ever so slightly. The sun had grown noticeably warmer, and the previous chill vanished beneath the thin line of perspiration that now dotted my nape. For a moment everything seemed to slow. The chaos and din fell away, and I clung to his gaze as though it were a lifeboat in the middle of a tumultuous sea.

A minute or ten may have passed before the stranger offered the faintest smile and returned his attention to the captain. Sound and movement rushed in from every direction at once, yanking me back to the here and now. The spell of my vivid daydream broken, I hurriedly turned away, heat burning my cheeks.

Gracious heaven!
What is wrong with me?
Fanning myself the best I could with one hand, I cursed the state of mind that had allowed for such wild imaginings.

Samuel was dead, and no amount of wishful thinking would bring him back. This other man would soon be gone as well, indentured to a new master. Under the circumstances, all I could do was return home to salvage what remained of my former life, either as Nathan’s wife or a destitute outcast. The chill seeped back into my chest, and I stared gloomily at the rough gray cobbles at my feet.

Oh
,
if only that man were really my cousin.
If only—

The breath caught in my throat, and I griped the sides of the crate from the shock of so sudden an inspiration.
If only...
The cobbles blurred behind a cascade of thoughts that tumbled through my mind, one upon another. Convention, propriety, and even common sense disappeared under the growing pile, and I blinked in rapid succession as a very different future took shape before me. Whether from God or the Devil, I had just found my miracle.

Forcing myself to exhale, I looked back at the young man with an entirely altered perspective.
Outrageous
couldn’t begin to describe this scheme, but under the circumstances I wasn’t about to sit around being picky. My father had sent me to Philadelphia to get my cousin, and my cousin I would get—or at least
a
cousin. Excitement surged through me as the idea took hold. Who could dispute the relation all men held in common from our first great progenitors Adam and Eve? Really, I could have picked any man off the dock and called him family. This particular man just happened to be available.

Garnering my strength, I pushed up from the crate and walked toward the captain before I had a chance to reconsider. It was all I could do to appear calm when my insides were churning, threatening to give me away at any moment.

“This way, Miss Kilbrid,” Ben said, turning to guide me back to the inn.

Not trusting my voice, I remained silent while walking the last steps toward the group of men. Ben moved to my side without protest. Positioning myself at the end of the desk, I could easily hear the discussion between the captain and the next buyer.

“I tell you, Mr. Fletcher, I won’t let him go for a shilling less than twelve pounds,” the captain was saying. “The lad can write and figure and is worth more than a common laborer.”

“Come now, Captain Harlow,” Mr. Fletcher replied, keeping his voice as level as the captain’s. “Those skills have no favor with me. I need a strong boy capable of working the brick ovens.”

Bricks were in constant demand, and by the looks of it Mr. Fletcher had seen some success. His black breeches and coat were of decent quality, as were his white stockings and black leather shoes. Change the trimmings, though, and he would be a very different sort of man. Locks of greasy black hair hung to his shoulders, framing his pasty skin and cunning little eyes. One glance and I did not trust this man to be master of anything, least of all another human being.

“If you have no use for his education, then take that fellow instead.” Captain Harlow gestured to a large, solidly built man in his late twenties. “He would do well enough in the brickyard for a few years.”

“I’m not looking to buy an ox,” Mr. Fletcher smoothly countered. “Accidents are costly in my business.”

“And deadly, from what I hear,” Captain Harlow said.

Mr. Fletcher narrowed his eyes at the captain. “What happened to that boy was no fault of mine. He got drunk at work and stumbled into an oven. Now, if you don’t mind I would like to finish our negotiations. My offer is eleven pounds and as I don’t see any higher bidders, you can either sell me the lad or take him back to England.”

Tense silence filled the air between them. “Come here, Henry,” the captain finally said without taking his eyes from Mr. Fletcher.

BOOK: Goddess Born
9.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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